I, Thou, It – THOU

This is the third in a series on frameworks. The introduction to I-Thou-It is here. The post on IT is here.

“Without a Thou, there is no I evolving. Without an It there is no context, no figure and no heat, but only an affair of mirrors confronting each other.” David Hawkins http://hawkinscenters.org/exhibitmu/i-thou-it

Me  Myself   I, You  You guys  ThouThe Syllabus  The Material  It

I wonder if Hawkins did some preliminary brainstorming to figure out just the right combination of words for his I-Thou-It concept. Did he think about the connotations of each word before putting them together? I would be very surprised if he didn’t.

One reason that I like “I, Thou, It” is because Hawkins chose to use the word “Thou.” Unless we’re singing hymns in church or watching a Shakespeare play, we don’t really come across “Thou” very often these days. For me it is a word that has some important connotations for teachers.

Thou = respect

“Thou” is a word that implies that you view the other person with dignity and respect. The teacher does not look down on any student, but respects each student for who he or she is. Every student is a human being with a unique combination of skills, abilities, and the potential to learn.

Thou = unconditional positive regard

“Thou” implies an attitude of accepting the students where they are on their language learning journeys and supporting them as they work to reach their goals. They are doing the best they can and if they need second or third or fourth chances, then that’s all right.

Thou = love

Is it too risky to use this word? Love in this sense is a verb. It’s when the teacher is always working for the good of the students in his class. It’s when he meets the students where they are at and helps them make connections between what they already know and what they need to learn. It’s when he works to create a secure environment where mistakes are not failures, but “portals of discovery”.*

Thou is a wonderful word that represents a much healthier way to think of the teacher – student relationship than one that seems all too common – Us vs. Them.


* “portals of discovery” is a cool way to think of mistakes. I discovered it in Peter Buffett’s book Life is What You Make It.

Poem – Dust of Snow, pt. 2


Here’s the picture that I wanted to add to my post yesterday but I needed to ask the artist for permission first. Many thanks to dosankodebbie of http://etegamibydosankodebbie.blogspot.ca/ !

This one-of-a-kind illustration is the size of a regular postcard. It’s actually an etegami [definition from the blog: Etegami (e= “picture”; tegami= “letter/message”) are simple drawings accompanied by a few apt words.]

You can find the story behind this particular etegami from dosankodebbie’s blog here: http://etegamibydosankodebbie.blogspot.ca/2011/01/dust-of-snow.html

Maybe I should’ve mentioned yesterday that I remembered this poem because this etegami is framed and hanging on my wall? 🙂

Poem — Dust of Snow

This afternoon I was reading through Teaching with Fire: Poetry that Sustains the Courage to Teach looking for a poem to write about today. (In the future I probably won’t be posting everyday, but for November I’m going to stick to the challenge that I set for myself). The book has a lot of great poems, but none of them really spoke to me and they aren’t ones that I used myself. Then I remembered my favourite Robert Frost poem (not just because it’s short and I can recite it…) It’s called Dust of Snow:

The way a crow

Shook down on me

The dust of snow

From a hemlock tree


Has given my heart

A change of mood

And saved some part

Of a day I had rued.

As I reread it here again I have to admit that this poem doesn’t really have a lot to do with teaching. It’s not particularly inspirational or life changing. But Dust of Snow has a lot to do with attitude and how we respond to the things that we can’t control in life.

I’ve mentioned in an earlier post, (here’s a link), that the only thing we can control is our attitude or response to what happens in life. Basically, we can think of the things that we don’t expect as either nuisances or gifts. In the poem the crow and the hemlock tree could be seen as signs of foreboding and perhaps even danger and, of course, the snow is cold. Yet the poet’s attitude towards what has happened actually changes his mood and turns a bad day into a happier one. The quick, light rhythm of the poem further emphasizes its positive feeling.

When teachers make lesson plans we tend to try to control everything to make sure that the class stays on track. Five minutes for warm up, ten minutes to present the topic, ten minutes to practice and so on. It’s understandable. There’s usually a lot of material to cover and limited class time to cover it all.

But there are so many things going on inside and between the students in each class. We can’t really control everything that’s going to happen. When something does take us off course, how will we react?

When a student’s interesting, yet slightly off topic remark leads us away from the lesson plan, is it a nuisance or a gift?

Be open to the unplanned, to the things that you don’t expect in a lesson. They really are gifts that can help us understand our students more deeply.



The other side of obvious

This afternoon I spent some time browsing in an antiques store of the “we buy junk and sell antiques” variety. The shop had (still has, actually) an old manual typewriter priced at $65.00.

Old typewriters are cool. Even when they look kind of rusted and are covered in dust, they are cool. When I see a typewriter I think, writing. When I look at my laptop (on which I’m writing this post) I think Facebook. It’s obvious that a manual typewriter is a machine for purposeful writing.

Doesn’t it also seem obvious that whatever was written on a typewriter must have been deep and thoughtful? Think of the effort involved in typing even one page – striking the keys, making sure that you hit them in the proper order (no autocorrect!) and then watching your words at the end of the line (no auto-return) so that you can hit the carriage return at the right time. The effort involved proves that the thoughts and ideas captured on paper were important.

Since I don’t have a typewriter, I can’t always tell if I’ve written something really insightful and deep (I’d settle for relatively insightful and not too shallow) or if I’m just stating the glaringly obvious.

Maybe you first have to state the obvious before you can get past it to see what’s on the other side?

What’s the obvious?

It’s the simplistic explanation for what’s happening in the classroom: If the students didn’t learn the material they must be lazy or unmotivated.

It’s the first answer you think of when you’re reflecting on a lesson: If the students aren’t motivated it’s because they don’t care.

Is it possible that what’s “obvious” is not necessarily true? Is it possible that what’s obvious is rarely true?

What’s on the other side of obvious?

It’s those ideas about teaching and learning that you can’t really put a finger on or identify. Then you read a book or an article or a blog post and you think, of course, that makes sense to me. Even though you’ve never thought of it that way before.

It’s the bunny trails you follow to see if they lead you to an understanding that makes sense.

It’s when the novel you’re reading helps you to solve a puzzle in your teaching practice.

The other side of obvious is where the questions you’re asking lead you to insights that you wouldn’t have found if you didn’t ask the question.

You can’t get to the other side of obvious without a question.

A good one to start with is “what if?” Another one is “why?” And “what else is possible?” And “what’s another explanation?”

Sometimes when I’m writing I feel like I’m really onto something interesting and insightful. Other times I think that what I come up with is breathtakingly obvious.

Time will tell, I suppose. Time spent writing and thinking. And teaching and reflecting. And asking lots and lots of questions.


What’s obvious to you now that wasn’t so obvious when you started teaching? How did that shift in thinking take place?




I, Thou, It — IT

This is the second in a series on frameworks. The introduction to I-Thou-It is here.

I, Thou, and It – a three-way relationship in which “I and Thou” are the people (often a teacher and child, though not always) and “It” is the content that compels both.     http://hawkinscenters.org/exhibitmu/i-thou-it

A lot of what I’m doing in this blog is thinking through beliefs that I’ve held for a long time and ideas that I may not have challenged for awhile, if ever. This process of clarification means that I might write something this week that contradicts what I posted last week (or will post some time in the future). I don’t have all the answers but I will be honest about what I believe and think.

A couple of things struck me as I read about David Hawkins’ philosophy on the Hawkins Centers of Learning website linked above. I used to think of the “It” as simply the subject matter that the teacher and students come together to focus on. In that case the subject in the model could easily be switched with any other subject. But I-Thou-It isn’t a model for the efficient delivery of content. Instead it is a framework that sees education as exploring a common interest or passion. The last part of the quote above says, “…”It” is the content that compels them both.”

So the content is something that is compelling to both students and the teacher. In such wonderful classes the teachers have a keen interest in their subject and the students are intrinsically motivated to learn that subject.

At this point some teachers might be thinking that this framework has nothing to offer them because their students are unmotivated or their curriculum is prescribed and not compelling to either them or their students.

It seems that most models for teaching describe the ideal situation – in this case teachers and students who come together to study something that’s compelling and that they love. Not all of us teach in those ideal circumstances. No matter the circumstances, I believe it is the teacher’s responsibility to help students make connections between their own lives and interests and the content of the course. It is the teacher’s responsibility to help their students overcome less than ideal situations. But that doesn’t have to mean that the teacher doesn’t have the opportunity to be a reflective teacher.

Carol Rodgers offers an expanded way to think of the “It” from the teacher’s point of view.

Whatever the circumstances, with motivated or unmotivated students, with prescribed curriculum or lessons based on dogme principles, there is always something for the teacher to do. We need to thoroughly know the content we are teaching, understand how the learners are learning that content, and observe how our teaching is affecting their learning.

It seems that I-Thou-It provides a framework for the reflective work necessary to deeply understand all that is going on between the these elements in the classroom.


Rodgers, C. (2002) Defining reflection: Another look at John Dewey and reflective thinking, Teachers College Record. Vol. 4, Number 4, pp. 842-866.



Framework, noun; the basic structure of something : a set of ideas or facts that provide support for something (From: http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/framework)

Frameworks are useful tools for organizing our ideas and beliefs about teaching and learning. Without a framework for reference, we can find ourselves with a random collection of beliefs that don’t seem all that connected with each other. A framework provides a system for organizing and testing our beliefs. It can also serve as a way to share with others what you’re thinking and doing.

One of the basic frameworks that I’ve used since being introduced to it in my master’s program is David Hawkins’ “I-Thou-It.” This framework focuses on the three main elements in the classroom: “I” is the teacher, “Thou” are the students, and the subject matter is “It.”

“I, Thou, and It – a three-way relationship in which “I and Thou” are the people (often a teacher and child, though not always) and “It” is the content that compels both.” 

“Without a Thou, there is no I evolving. Without an It there is no context, no figure and no heat, but only an affair of mirrors confronting each other.”

Both quotes by David Hawkins and found at: http://hawkinscenters.org/exhibitmu/i-thou-it

One of the reasons why this simple framework is so important for me is that Hawkins envisioned it as a way to show that each element needs the other in order for learning to occur. The teacher needs her students to evolve and grow as a teacher. The students need the teacher to help them learn and both sides need an It, the subject matter, to provide the context for the learning. It is simple, but not simplistic.

One way this framework has been helpful for me has been as a graphic representation of different methods or styles of teaching. For example, the following could represent a teacher-centered class where all access to the subject matter is controlled by the teacher.

Thou ————– I ————– It

Maybe this could represent a student-centered classroom?

I ————– Thou ————– It

For me these models (and the teaching theories they represent) are limited because they cannot contain all of the learning that is happening in the classroom.

The following illustration reflects my belief that all of the learning that occurs in the classroom, in the interactions between the teacher, students, and material, is of primary importance.


Graphic organizer

When I wrote out my teaching philosophy recently, I used a mind map based on the “I-Thou-It” frame to brainstorm my ideas about teaching and learning.

The first section is “I”, or the teacher, not because it’s the most important, but because the teacher must know and understand herself before she can truly deal with the other two.

When brainstorming I focused on questions like these. Who is the “I” that teaches? Who are my students (my “Thou”) that I’m working with? What is the “It” that we’ve gathered to focus on?

phil mindmap pic

 After my brainstorming I didn’t edit the mind map but simply used it to explore the ideas and topics that had been generated. Even now, two months later, there are things that I’d probably add or change if I was to do this again. But it’s useful to have this mind map as a refection of my thinking when I was working on my assignment.

This is the first in a series of posts on frameworks. In future posts I will examine each aspect of the I-Thou-It framework more closely.


What does your model of I-Thou-It look like?

What would you include in a graphic organizer about your teaching philosophy based on this framework?

Teaching philosophy, part 3 – exploring quotes

“Students aren’t interested in your teaching philosophy, but whether they can trust you with their noviceness in English.” Deryn Verity

Deryn said this at a JALT (Japan Association of Language Teaching) Executive Board Meeting a number of years ago. At least I’m pretty sure she said it because I wrote it down in my notes from that meeting. Afterwards in an email I asked her whether she did say this and she replied:

Well, actually, I have no idea, but this sounds like something I would say, and I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone else say it. This is how I conceive of Vygotskyan theory within my own teaching practice–how can I use theory to make sense of what happens in my classroom, without getting too theoretical?

…so I guess I’ll take credit for saying it…

I’ve kept this sentence in my teaching journal since then and usually pause and think about it whenever I come across it.


What in the quote speaks to you? What do you see as the essential truth captured in the quote? (present)

What is a teaching philosophy for but to guide you in your day-to-day classroom practice? It’s a kind of road map with the ultimate destination of guiding students to reach their goals. Student learning and improvement is always the goal. But this is from the teacher’s perspective.

From the students’ perspective things look quite different. When we study a language we put ourselves in a vulnerable position. As with learning anything new, we can’t improve our skills without making mistakes. Of course this is true with any new skill that we learn, but language is for communication and self-expression. It’s challenging to give a true account of our thoughts and feelings when we’re communicating in a new language.

How does it confirm what you know to be true about teaching and learning? What is one experience you can point to in your teaching that this quote helps to explain or shed light on? (past)

One of the most important things in my classes has been establishing security for my students. When they feel secure they know that they will not be judged when they make errors. They also know that their contributions will be accepted and valued, and the knowledge and ability of the others in the classroom shouldn’t be seen as threatening to them. They will be treated with absolute positive regard.

How can this quote inform your future teaching experiences? (future)

I will continue to revise and develop my teaching philosophy as I reflect on my teaching and teacher training experiences. I can do this by balancing a self-confident attitude with the knowledge that I am also a learner.

As teachers we can have confidence in our abilities and know that we can do a good job and help our students reach their goals. We are doing the best we can with the knowledge and skills that we have right now. But that doesn’t mean that we have nothing left to learn about teaching. Reflective teachers are continually learning  – about the subject matter, about our students, and about ourselves as teachers.


What inspires me?

Recently the participants on a teacher training course that was finishing up asked my co-trainers and I to share  our ideas for resources that sustain our energy and enthusiasm. In lieu of original content today (since nothing that has been simmering on the back burner seemed quite ready yet) I decided to repurpose what I wrote  for the teachers on our course.

One of the concepts that served us quite well on the course is talking about our different roles and identities as hats that we wear. The basic one is our human hat, but at different times we wear other hats, like our teacher hat and our supervisor, or trainer, hat. The resources are organized by those categories.


Wilma’s resources and inspiration

Human hat

Desert Island discs podcastshttp://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/features/desert-island-discs (You can listen online or download the podcasts through iTunes.)

Guests chose eight songs that they would take to a desert island and are interviewed about their lives and careers. I really love listening to these interviews and learning about people from so many different walks of life.

Stationery stores – new notebooks, pens, post-it notes. For example, finding post-its in the shape of leafs (the day before our 2nd F2F started) directly led to thinking about and planning the wrap up session on the last day.

Teaching with Fire: Poetry that Sustains the Courage to Teach  A wonderful book that combines two things I love – literature and teaching!

Movies about teaching – sometimes when you’re feeling discouraged about teaching and wondering if it’s time to try a different profession, an inspirational teacher movie can provide just the encouragement that you need. For me it’s more about realizing again that teaching is a worthwhile and important job, not in realizing that I’m such an inspirational teacher.

Dead Poet’s Society – a classic for many reasons.

Mr. Holland’s Opus – I love the message of how a teacher can have an impact on students’ lives without realizing it.

Finding Forrester – It’s mostly about writing but there are aspects connected to teaching as well.

Akeelah and the Bee – It’s about a girl who works/studies hard to become a champion in spelling bees. Great scenes between her and her coach.


Teacher hat

My own teaching journals – I like reading them again after several years. What’s still important to me? How have I changed or grown? What have I forgotten? What do I want to do differently this year?

Songs for listening lessons – Using music in the classroom (both background music & using songs as the focus of listening lessons) is something that’s important to me. Choosing songs with positive messages for the Ss also helped me (because I would have to listen to the songs over and over again!)

All of the youtube links below are to versions that include the lyrics.

Ordinary Miracle, by Sarah McLachlan. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rweU-FFE6Ww One of my favourites. It has a great message about the things we often take for granted.

Three Little Birds, by Bob Marley http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LanCLS_hIo4 The song that I’ve used the most and keep coming back to.

Don’t Worry, Be Happy, by Bobby McFerrin http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ou8hdqyCRBE This is a good song to start the semester with. I got tired of this song for a while and then started using it again.

The Rain Don’t Last, by Hope http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sL1zNDsq984 Kind of an obscure song, but it’s more contemporary and it also has a great message for students (along with some great idioms).

I Can See Clearly Now, by Johnny Nash http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vjJHkuabRYw This is another positive message song. Other singers have covered this song and might have versions that are clearer and easier to understand.

The Courage to Teach by Parker Palmer. I can’t say enough about how this book has influenced me and how it gets to the heart of teaching and learning. It helped me to understand the connection between our beliefs about teaching and our classroom practice.

Working with Teaching Methods: What’s at Stake?  (a reworking of his classic “Teaching Languages: A Way and Ways”) by Earl Stevick

Earl Stevick’s ideas have influenced me quite a lot. This quote encapsulates what has become one of my most fundamental principles of teaching and training, “… success depends less on materials, techniques or linguistic analysis, and more on what goes on inside and between the people in the classroom. … the most important aspect of “what goes on” is the presence or absence of harmony:  it is the parts working with, or against, one another.”

JALT (The Japan Association of Language Teaching)

When I lived in Japan I was quite involved in the Hokkaido chapter of this professional organization and helped with organizing monthly meetings and conferences. I also gave presentations and workshops both locally and at several national conferences.

I’ve taken online courses from various sources including ed2go.com. “Teaching ESL/EFL Reading” was quite useful and comprehensive. (But I just noticed that course prices have more than tripled since I took that course in 2006).

Onestopenglish.com This is a great resource for teaching ideas as well as discussions about teaching. A lot of the resources are available for free but there is much more available if you subscribe.

Conversations with other teachers – in the staff room before and after classes.


Trainer hat

Participatory Workshops: A Sourcebook of 21 Sets of Ideas and Activities. by Robert Chambers. A really practical collection of ideas, for example “21 Ways of Forming Groups” and “21 Energizers.”

Teaching Language Teachers: Scaffolding Professional Learning, by Gabriel Diaz Maggioli. A useful combination of theory and practical ideas.

Articles by Carol Rodgers who writes about various aspects of reflective practice and teacher identity. Here’s a list of links to a number of her articles.

Conversations with other trainers – face to face and online. I’ve learned so much from the trainers that I’ve worked with over the years!

My training journals – yes, I have those too! I collect session ideas, quotes, notes on previous courses, notes on other trainers’ sessions, ideas for new sessions, good teaching/training practices. When I’m in need of inspiration or ideas it’s the first thing I go to. In the back of my journal I have a section with the names and/or pictures of all the teachers that I’ve worked with on courses over the years.

Teaching philosophy, part 2

 This is the second in a multi-part series (or maybe it will become a regular thread) about our teaching philosophy.

Why do you need a teaching philosophy?

Does the idea of a “teaching philosophy” feel a little pretentious or vague? (It does to me, actually.) Another way to think of our philosophy is that it is our beliefs about teaching and learning languages.

No matter whether you call it a philosophy or a collection of beliefs, what you think about teaching and learning languages informs your decisions about what to do in the classroom.

If you believe that students need to have fun and relax in order to improve their spoken English, then you will probably choose to play a lot of games and other fun activities.

If you believe that students can’t learn a language in one or two hours of class time each week, you might try to assign homework.

Two good reasons to be aware of your teaching philosophy:

  1. To provide guidance for making decisions in the classroom

Our teaching philosophy provides a touchstone for the many decisions that we as teachers have to make in each lesson. It is something to refer to during the entire cycle of lesson planning, teaching, looking back on the lesson, analyzing what went well and what didn’t go so well, and then deciding what to do next.

Although, for much of my career, I wasn’t always all that aware of what my teaching beliefs were, I did have reasons for planning my lessons the way that I did.

When I had students who were not all that motivated I usually switched activities more often so I could keep the students’ interest and attention.

In classes with more motivated students, we could spend more time on one activity and also use activities that relied on the students having done their homework (e.g. sharing vocabulary words that they had chosen to learn).

  1. To back up your decisions when someone questions what you’re doing in the classroom

Another reason why we need a teaching philosophy is so we can refer to it when our decisions are challenged.

If your principal or director of studies observed your teaching and criticized your lesson, what would you do? Would you be able to back up your choices with well-thought out reasons for making them? How about if a colleague asked you why you don’t use the textbook the way other teachers in your school use it? Would you be able to give a clear explanation for your methods?

Being able to explain your choices shows that you are a thoughtful and professional teacher.

A caveat

I think we need to hold our beliefs more loosely when we reflect on a lesson then when we’re planning a lesson. Every lesson is another experience and gives us more evidence to analyze. Holding on too tightly to our teaching beliefs can blind us to evidence that might disprove one or more of them.

Because of this, perhaps using the word “beliefs” is a good idea as it feels more flexible and less set in stone. Revising or replacing a teaching belief doesn’t mean that you have to dismantle your entire teaching philosophy. You can simply revise your belief about how many games to play in class or how much homework to assign.

I would think that every teacher who has more than a few years of experience does things differently than they did when they first started teaching.

Here are some basic questions to think about to get started on clarifying your teaching philosophy / beliefs.


What is the role or responsibility of the teacher? What can or should I do for my students that they can’t do?


What is the students’ role or responsibility? What can or should they do that I can’t do for them?


What have we come together to study? What is the most effective way for the students to study / learn it? What aspect of the material should we focus on?




Have you ever…?

          Tell me, what is it you plan to do

          with your one wild and precious life?

How’s this for a “have you ever..?” question – one that’s much too specific to be used on any questionnaire practicing the present perfect.

Have you ever really loved a quote and written it down and read it often and thought about it and then one day you saw it in its original context and realized that you’d misunderstood it all along? If so, this post is for you.

One of the gifts of this blogging project is how it’s given me the opportunity to look through my teaching journals and notes on reflective practice. I have been thinking over what I’ve written in the past and seeing connections that I hadn’t recognized before. And so my understanding of reflective practice is deepening.

As a lover of quotes I’ve seen and written out the following couplet by Mary Oliver numerous times.

          Tell me, what is it you plan to do

          with your one wild and precious life?

It’s a beautiful, compelling line that somehow always made me think of goal-setting, action plans, and bucket lists.

Time is short! Don’t waste it! Get stuff done! Write that book that you keep talking about! Get busy and change the world!

It’s a beautiful, compelling line that always stressed me out.

And then I reread the poem that the couplet comes from.

You can read it here: The Summer Day Take your time.

Better yet, listen to it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=16CL6bKVbJQ


As you can see, it turns out my interpretation was completely wrong.

Mary Oliver wasn’t talking about all the things she’d gotten done or how she’d changed the world or the exciting experiences that she’d had.

She was writing about paying attention. Paying attention. She is using her one wild and precious life to pay attention.

As I reread the poem I was struck by how what seems to be a rhetorical question, “Who made the grasshopper?” becomes so specific in the next line. “This grasshopper, I mean—” followed by a rich, detailed description of the insect on her hand. As she walked through the grass and spent her day in the field she paid attention to what she found there.

Language teaching has a lot of questions that are difficult to answer. How do students learn languages? How will they gain fluency? What’s the best way to teach English?

These kinds of questions can be paralyzing, until we turn to the specific. How does this student learn – the one sitting in the front row trying to answer all the questions? How about that guy in the back row who never does his homework? How about these two in the middle who are always chatting?

If you saw a woman kneeling in the grass feeding sugar to a grasshopper on her outstretched palm, would you say she was making good use of her wild and precious life?

If you saw a teacher watching and taking notes as her students hesitatingly talked about what they did on the weekend, would you say she was making good use of her wild and precious life?

I think they both are, if they’re truly paying attention.