By: Rachel Pavey, Caroline Walton, and James Anderson
The following interview takes a look at Ike Thompson, recipient of the Georgia Council of Teachers of English award in 2011. Ike received the award due to his use of literature circles in the classroom and his personal teaching strategies, which are described by friend and colleague Amy P. Fouse as “always looking for meaningful and engaging ways to help make the course content relevant to his students.” Mr. Thompson has a B.A. in English from Western Michigan University and an M.A. from Chatham University in Pittsburgh, PA. This interview is part of a class project that Dr. Chris Goering initiated at the University of Arkansas to both feature and learn from the 2011 NCTE High School Teachers of Excellence.
How long have you been teaching? And what made you want to be a teacher in the first place?
I was a troublemaker. I had one English teacher who really reached me and kept me engaged. I loved to write and wanted to be a teacher. Right after graduating from college in 2004, I moved from Missouri to Georgia to find a teaching job and have been teaching for 8 years now.
When you sit down to plan a year-long curriculum, what do you do? Year to year? Week to week?
Oh, I definitely do not have it together enough to plan an entire year at a time. Instead, I like to sit down and first plan what my goals are for my students at the start of a semester. Once I’ve done that, I’ll determine the major works I want to hit throughout the term. I’ll then decide on the writing assignments for the term (my students typically collaborate on all writing, so I try to give them the topics and dates well in advance). After that, honestly, it is a week-to-week plan.
What are the characteristics of a great English teacher?
I believe the love for the subject comes first and foremost. A good English teacher has to love her or his subject and share that love with her or his students. My students know how passionate I am—sure, they may call me a dork for it, but they certainly know not to disrespect it. I also believe you have to be willing to recognize what you did last year won't necessarily work for the coming year. I all-too-often witness teachers, when preparing for a new unit, pull out the file they used for the past five years. This in turn tells me these teachers have no will to improve their craft. To be “good,” you have to acknowledge you're “bad.” For example, I’m currently teaching the Harlem Renaissance unit. Last year was my first year as an American Literature teacher, so when I taught the HR unit I relied on what I’ve done for similar units—read information from a PowerPoint, students took notes, then discussed the works. It worked…kind of. But in all honesty, where was the “discovery” in that? This year I’ve trashed that and instead built centers which the students go to each day and discuss a different aspect of the time period—art is one center, music another, photography, paired-texts, primary sources, etc. Students look through and discuss the material based on the task cards I have provided. So, in the end, students still get the necessary background information but discover it on their own rather than listening to a teacher ramble on. Lastly, I have come to realize good teachers are sponges. Recognize your need for growth and grab anything and everything you can from those around you. I tweak nearly everything I take from anybody else to fit my style, but, I must admit, I rarely come up with an innovative lesson all on my own. If you can’t or are unwilling to collaborate and sponge up what you can, there will be little opportunity for growth and betterment of yourself as an English teacher.
So, it seems that you incorporate a lot of collaborative group work into your lessons.
Oh yes, I sure do. That is how you get them to love learning. I talk, then they talk, and then they turn to one another. Each week they will be in writing groups. They brainstorm ideas together. We, as teachers, need to train them to be ready for the real world, and when do we not collaborate in the real world? I got this award because of my use of literature circles with my class. So, I am a huge believer in collaboration.
If you had some emergency, and you were unprepared, what would be your go-to lesson?
Argumentative writing is my go-to. If a student can argue and support her or his stance, that student will be prepared to enter nearly any field. I feel my students cannot get enough practice with argumentative writing. In the rarity I have nothing planned, they write a timed argumentative essay.
Do you give them a prompt for an argumentative essay?
Yes, such as “Convince a group of teachers to go somewhere and tell them why.”
How do you develop positive collegial relationships?
Teachers, let’s face it, love to be the center of attention—that’s why we have our own classrooms, where we get to be the star. Knowing this, I tend to treat those around me as stars. I actively ask for advice, willingly give up anything I have, and seek out opportunities for collaboration. In the end, we aren’t much different than students in the fact teachers don’t care what you know until they know you care.
Which novels work well as read-aloud books, whole-class novels, and lit-circle novels?
Tough to answer. I rarely allow students to read anything aloud. In fact, research proves that reading aloud in the classroom does nothing to improve a student’s ability to read. With that said, there are a ton of classics that have value in the classroom for discussion. I do believe in student-choice reading. I have witnessed many students, who are reluctant readers, read because they have chosen the title themselves. I love the concept of literature circles and employ it within my classroom. I have over 2000 titles (with multiple copies) available to students now through means of grant writing and donations. The title doesn’t matter, so long as the student is reading.
What kind of experiences did you have with a difficult student that you managed to reach?
You’ve got to find a way to connect with the student. For example, I have a young man in my class right now that for the first few weeks of school did nothing. I figured out he liked professional basketball, so now every morning I watch a few minutes of SportsCenter to catch up on the scores. I then spend a few minutes of class each day talking sports (of course, I don’t hate this by any means), so that student has that connection with me. It has done wonders in motivating that student to do his best in my course. He will undoubtedly receive credit for the course now. Students don’t have to like the teacher to be successful in the class, but if they do, there is so much more you’ll be able to do with those students.
What is the most challenging obstacle that you think new teachers are facing as we enter into the teaching field?
One final question for you: What literary character do you identify with from a novel?
I think one obstacle has to be keeping up with the ever-changing pace of technology. Take the PowerPoint presentation for example—it was innovative and flashy as I entered the field of teaching; however, now if you don’t know how to create a Prezi, you’re in the stone-age. Good teachers are those who have a thirst to learn how to use and manipulate technology, not just for the benefit of their teaching, but for the betterment of their students.
So Ike, do you have any other advice for a new teacher?
I like this quote: “In every classroom there is going to be an alpha-dog, make sure it is you.” You have to start off more strict because otherwise the students will walk all over you. I am mentoring a teacher right now that didn’t start off with boundaries and her kids are eating her up. Don’t warm up too much at first. You know, they will naturally like you. The rapport will come! Be firm at first.
She’s a girl, but Katniss. I live to hunt, fish, and like to think I tend to make my decisions based out of concern for others. If you haven’t read The Hunger Games yet, leave right now and go buy a copy.