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Always Getting Better and Thinking Differently: Q&A With Teacher Mark Miazga


I've long felt that experienced, effective teachers don't play a big enough role in public conversations on the present and future of America's schools. This week, I'm posting the first of what will be a semi-regular feature in which I'll interview phenomenal educators to get their take on issues of instruction and policy. In this post I'm really excited to be asking questions to Mark Miazga, an incredible teacher from Baltimore City. Mark has been a National Board-certified teacher in the Baltimore City district for 14 years, and was recently honored with the Milken Educator Award. His thoughts on a range of issues reveal both his commitment to his students and his acuity in the classroom. He blogs about teaching at Epiphany in Baltimore.  

Mark teaches at Baltimore's City College High School, which recently celebrated its 175th Anniversary. Mark teaches 9th and 12th grade IB English. Ninety-five percent of his students pass the IB English exam, and for the last three years, his students' scores on IB Exams have surpassed world averages. I began by asking him to reflect on his classroom.

Can you think about one practice you love that's relatively new to your classroom?  Why do you love it, and how did you discover it?

I'm trying to work as much performance into my classroom as I can, moving beyond drama but also trying to have kids work through moments in a longer novel on their feet as a formative assessment. Additionally, text-dependent questions by themselves aren't very exciting, but as a way to embed students in the language and to help them work through a difficult text, they have really been a really helpful strategy. Lastly, I'm excited that my curriculum continues to change every year. Two years ago, neither John Steinbeck nor Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie were in my curriculum, but now their texts are central to both my 9th grade and 12th grade curriculums.

What excites you about common core?  What aspects of common core, or other government policies make you nervous for the next few years?

The writing standards of the common core excite me. Students developing an argument and choosing strong evidence to support it emphasizes aspects of writing that I've always taught, so this is exciting to me. The reading standards concern me a little bit, partially because some administrators overstate the "informational texts" piece at the expense of literature (though I don't think the common core de-emphasizes fiction necessarily), and partially because I don't see much valued in common core about reading full works of literature. I'm worried that eventually we could be only looking at excerpts. I also have some concerns that the different high-stakes assessments we prepare kids for—the SAT, IB exams, AP examsaren't as well-aligned as I would like, and with the SAT changing and the PARCC being created, it's natural to feel nervous about the transition period.

Coaching is a huge part of your life. Can you briefly describe its challenges and rewards?  

Coaching is incredible ... and hard. I spend longer writing my coaching practice plans than my lesson plans, since a class lasts 45 minutes and a practice lasts over 2 hours. I think about where each of my roughly 25 kids will be at each moment of the practice, what skills we will work on that day and for how long, what kids or volunteer coaches (if I have them at that point in the season) may run a certain drill. This is all done on a city field that, after a rain, holds lake-size puddles for a week and grows mid-shin high grass before the city gets around to mow it. After practices, I wait for all players to change and make sure each kids has a ride home, sometimes dropping a handful of kids off at bus connections or front porches on my own way home. It's worth it; the relationships you form with the kids are invaluable and stress kind of melts away while hitting some baseballs and yelling out plays on the field. I stay in touch with kids I coached a decade ago, and, at any given practice or game, I might turn around and see one of them. I do my best to use coaching as an academic incentive, and often have teachers of my student-athletes email me about concerns or rewards that I can use the sport to address. I think it's important to be well-balanced, for students and for teachers, and coaching helps me do that.

It seems like learning outside of the classroom is a big part of your professional life. Can you talk about why you think these experiences are worthwhile?

Teaching is a job where, once you've been doing it a few years, it could be easy to coast. If we have a good relationship with students, and decent pedagogical knowledge, it's easy to just do what we've always done in the classroom, which can become stagnant. I want to be a constantly evolving lifetime educator, always trying to get better and think differently. With this in mind, I've done the two National Endowment for the Humanities summer seminars, one on Shakespeare and one on Steinbeck. There are some downsides to giving up much of a summer in favor of intense study, but I've found that good professional development, particularly during the summer, works as a mirror for one's own teaching practice, encouraging reflection and growth. Both the Steinbeck and Shakespeare seminars did what English teachers are rarely asked to do—study literature and talk about it with scholars, something I hadn't done since an undergrad—and since I ask my students this nearly every day, it's important not to be separated from the process. I draw from these experiences all the time.

You've gotten a number of accolades over the years (Baltimore City Schools' Model Teacher, finalist for City Teacher of the Year, the Milken Award, NBPTS). Which one has meant the most to you, and why?

The surprise and shock of the Milken Award is something I'll remember for the rest of my life. Because I work with a lot of excellent teachers and know there are plenty of excellent teachers around the state, this one feels like a symbolic prize, one that appreciates all good teachers by recognizing one. I'm still not sure how my name was submitted to the Milken Award folks, but I'm very thankful, of course. Getting National Board certification felt the most challenging and the one that compelled me to the type of reflection that continues to drive my classroom practice, so this one means a lot to me as well.

Mark, now that you have been in this 15 years, what keeps you going?

A lot of things keep me going: Teaching is an ever-changing, ever-exciting profession. Every day brings me the chance to be a master teacher delivering a lesson plan where everything works, or a teacher who tries an experiment that fails and has to be reconsidered and adjusted as it's delivered. Every year brings a new batch of students with their subsequent unique personalities, skill sets, and worldviews. Every year brings new books to teach and discuss with students, new material to uncover, new teaching methods and grading philosophies to explore.

As a teacher in an urban school, the skills of critical literacy and clear communication seems even more important; getting students who will be first-generation college students ready for a wider world is vital for our democracy to work.There is no sameness to this profession, except the most important constant: that as a teacher, you're given the crucial task of building the future, even if that is an ever-changing future.

Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that 95 percent of Miazga's students receive International Baccalaureate diplomas. As the post states now, 95 percent of his students pass the IB English exam.

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