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Moore 'constructs' communities of classrooms

John Noell MooreLaurels are nothing upon which to rest. John Noell Moore, associate professor of education, knows that to be the case even as he continues to earn teaching honors.

Last year, the Alumni Association recognized his ability by naming him a 2003 Teaching Fellow. This year, the Virginia Association of Colleges for Teacher Education gave him its 2004 Instructional Leadership Award.

Moore, who teaches curriculum and instruction to students preparing to become English teachers in high schools and middle schools, appreciates the acknowledgments of his peers. However, as he tells his students, "It's important to understand that we are always in the process of becoming teachers." There is no resting, indeed.

Moore, a 1969 graduate of William and Mary, taught high-school English until 1990, when he decided to work toward a doctorate ('95, Va. Tech). Along the way he earned a master's in music and served as an adjunct music professor at Roanoke College. He returned to his alma mater in 1999, 30 years after his graduation.

Concerning Moore's effectiveness, education dean Virginia McLaughlin said, "Highly demanding but responsive to his students, John's goal is to build a community of learners in his classroom."

Recently we spoke with Moore about teaching and communities and the kinds of things that can happen in a classroom. Following are some of his comments.

Q: What does it mean to be a teacher?
I am a teacher of teachers. What that means to me is that I get to help shape the future of teaching every time I send new teachers out. Our teachers go all over the place. We are producing teachers for Virginia but our students come from all across the country, and they often go back to teach in their home states. So I hope my students will take into their own classrooms my beliefs about what makes a good teacher and what makes learning exciting. We are connected. What we do here is connected to classrooms all over the country. That's a very exciting idea. One of those clichés is that in teaching you touch the future, but you also touch the present and draw on the past.

Q: How do you approach a class?
My way of teaching follows a contemporary approach—a constructivist approach—which is somewhat different from traditional models of teaching. In the more traditional system, essentially the teacher is the person who dispenses knowledge, who has the knowledge for other people to get. The teacher in a more contemporary model helps students construct knowledge that may not be new knowledge for teachers, but it will be new knowledge for students. Rather than just telling them, "Here are five ideas that come into play in this particular literary text," the contemporary teacher works to help students come up with those ideas themselves through processes of critical thinking and analyses—higher-order thinking skills.

I take this constructivist approach here at William and Mary. I teach my students in many ways by modeling what I want them to do in their own classrooms. Students in the traditional classroom are fairly passive—they are told what to do; they're told what to look for. In a more contemporary classroom, the goal is to get students actively engaged in processes that involve group work, individual work and whole-class work so they're constantly negotiating with each other about what they're learning. It's very heavily invested in prior knowledge. What have students brought to the class that conditions their learning, conditions their thinking, conditions their reading and writing?

You may be familiar with the teacher who assigns a paper and says the paper is due in a month, or the professor who hands out the syllabus and says there's a short paper due at the start and a long paper near the end and a final exam. The student writes those papers, hands them in; the teacher responds, and the student gets a grade. In my approach, the writing of a paper is an integrated process in which I as teacher and my students are actively engaged from beginning to end—exploring how you get ideas; how you shape those ideas into a framework; how you use the language to make those ideas precise and to elaborate upon them; how you edit them so that they follow the standards of conventional language. It's a workshop approach. Groups are important. Individuals are important.

Q: Are there common classroom failures?
I came through traditional classrooms, and I was a very good student, which means I loved to learn but I also learned what it took to make an A. It's quite possible to make a lot of As and not understand how you learn, and, I think, we do students a disservice when we make them think that everybody learns the same way, or that smarter people are smarter because they know something that you don't know. Very often, smarter people appear to be smarter, but they're harder workers, if you know what I mean.

The constructivist model believes that we should put everyone in touch with the way that they learn and how they think about knowledge. I want my students to be aware of what kind of thinking they are doing so that they are smarter thinkers and are better critical thinkers. If I have a student who is very creative and who excels in drama but feels that because in planning and thinking she writes crossways on a page, or upside down, or all over the page, and she doesn't organize her draft with Roman numerals, that she's wrong because her way is not the way everybody else does it, then I want to teach her that her approach is all right. In writing you can start any place you want to start, and in the initial writing processes you will discover your direction.

I'm uncomfortable when I see a teacher assigning a research paper and saying, "You need a thesis and five note cards by Friday." Nobody in the real world writes that way. Instead people get interested in the topic, they explore it, they write about it, they see what they're thinking when it comes out on the page, and then they decide what their brain really seems to be focusing on. It's a very complex process, and I often think that people who don't know very much about teaching and learning think that it's a very linear process—if you just get people to do steps one, two, three and four, they'll get to step five. But that's not how it works: It's a circular, recursive process, and it's always happening. Anne Bertoff, a writing teacher and theorist, says writing is a process of at-once-ness. We're working on many parts of the process, going back, revising, learning what we have to say as we work.

Q: Isn't your way of teaching exhausting?
For the instructor, it is physically and mentally exhausting, but for me it's the only way to make a class exciting. You want every student in your class to feel his or her work is important to you, and that it's important to other people. It is very taxing because you must give yourself to students; if you don't, they won't get to where you want them to be; or worse, they'll try to be a little version of you, which really doesn't work. It doesn't work, and I know that, because in my life as a student, I admired teachers. I wanted to be like them. I became a high school teacher because I loved what teachers were doing, but in the course of my public school teaching from 1969 to 1990, the world changed dramatically; thinking about teaching and learning changed dramatically, and I wanted to keep up with that, to be a part of new ways of thinking.

Q: Are you a crusader?
I remember as a student who loved to read every book that I could get my hands on sitting in my English class as a senior and sometimes doodling in the back of my notebook. I wasn't a crusader—not someone who said I'll never do that to my students—but I was a person who said a real life happens in books and that life can connect to my life and it can actually shape my life. I'd like to share that sense of what language, literature and ideas can mean to people.

Q: What do your students take to their own classrooms?
It's important to me that my students understand that we are always in the process of becoming teachers. I don't want them to think that there is one method that works and they'll use it for the rest of their lives. Actually what happens to my students is that they very often have been taught traditionally, but when they experience the constructivist approach, they think it's wonderful. Then, they go out into the schools and find that not a lot of teachers are constructivists, so they then become a teacher who is somewhat in the middle. They construct themselves—I use that word with them all the time. I tell them, "You must construct yourself as a teacher. You're in the process of becoming a teacher, and you need to decide what kind of teacher you can be right now, knowing full well that you will change."

I believe from the very first day the very first thing that you say in the class sets the tone for your class. If you want to build a community, you have to be a very inviting teacher who sets up a world in which people want to come and learn with you—not just learn from you but learn with you, and who believe that they can bring something to you that you don't know or haven't thought about. If you think of a classroom of 35 students from various backgrounds, imagine what they bring. Teachers should be excited by that. Think of what a classroom of 20 William and Mary seniors and graduate students bring. Tapping into that shared knowledge remains extremely exciting to me and continues to challeng me as I build new communities of teachers and learners each year.