Welcome to Feature Friday! Where we showcase a new teacher each week in an interview. For past Feature Friday interviews, go here.
Today’s Feature Friday is highlighting Monte Syrie, a high school English Language Arts teacher in Cheney, Washington. Monte has started a personal project called Project 180 and explains more of what it is at the end of this post. Read through to see the cool, innovative way he decided to start teaching!
What is your favorite part of teaching in a high school setting?
“I love high school because kids are standing at the important threshold of self-discovery as they transition between the worlds of adolescence and adulthood. And I am lucky enough to play a small part in supporting their journey. It’s incredibly inspiring and richly rewarding.”
What drove you to choose a career in education? And more specifically, teaching ELA?
“I had a less-than-ideal childhood, and as such, school became a space of comfort and support. I never wanted to leave, so I became a teacher, and I am committed to making sure that school is that same space for kids who need what I needed.”
“Why LA? In 8th grade, I had an LA teacher who supported and inspired us by treating us like humans with needs rather than children with faults. I wanted to do the same, so I decided then and there to follow in his footsteps. And here I am.”
If you could recommend one children’s book, what would it be and why?
“Mr. Brown Can Moo, Can You? by Dr. Seuss. I read this to my sophomores each year to add some simple novelty to our journey into their discovering and using their own unique voices. Of all that I do with them, supporting them in this is perhaps the most important thing I do. It really is a fun read. The kids love it, and it resonates with them.”
How do you use student voice in your classroom and what outcomes have you seen from it?
“Though I try to make student voice a central consideration in all of our shared experiences, the one thing that I do that is perhaps the most voice-centered is an activity I call Smiles and Frowns. It is how we begin our day, every day—no matter what. Basically, we go around the room and each has an opportunity to share a smile and/or frown with our classroom community. Importantly, kids may pass. I don’t believe in forcing voice. Kids have the right to decide. We have to honor that voice, too.”
“Using Smiles and Frowns is the single best choice I have made in my 25 years of teaching. It invites the human voice into our space. I believe each person is a story and part of that belief in the classroom is giving them an opportunity to share their story, which is the key idea expressed in our intro song that we sing together each time we do Smiles and Frowns.”
“It’s a beautiful day for smiles and frowns.
Won’t you share your ups and downs?
Won’t you share?
We all care.
Won’t you share your story?”
What is one of your favorite units you have taught to your students?
“My most recent favorite unit is a writing unit we did last yeast called “The Wisdom Writers Diary.” Kids captured a life experience from which they gained wisdom about themselves and/or the human experience. We compiled and published a classroom diary for each period. The kids wrote and shared wonderfully wise words. It was a beautiful moment in our year. Beautiful.”
What do you wish someone would have told you in your first year teaching?
“I wish someone had told me my charge was to teach kids with English, not to teach English to kids. I—we—teach kids. Our subject matter simply provides a context. Of course, I gradually came to learn this, but I wish someone had imparted this wisdom to me earlier. Consequently, it is something I share with young teachers whenever I get the chance. We teach kids. Once we accept that, the dynamic in the classroom changes for the better—for all.”
How have you seen education change in the years you’ve taught?
“I started at the outset of the current “standardized age,” so I have seen the evolution of what I believe has become a mad obsession with the standardization of education, in particular our absurd reliance on standardized testing data as “the” measure. It’s not. But we have come to accept it so faithfully as the gold standard I fear we will never steer clear of it. And that’s unfortunate, for the more we standardize the less we humanize, and now, perhaps more than ever, we need to humanize education.”
What is one of your favorite ways to utilize technology in the classroom?
“Not a huge tech guy. Oh, I use it, but I only use it as a tool. I have never bought into the notion that tech is “the” answer. It can be a great help, but in the end, it is only a tool. That said, in light of the distance-learning reality we face, I have enjoyed playing around with Screencastify. I have found it a useful tool for delivering instruction and providing help to my kiddos.”
What is Project 180 and how did it start?
“I started Project 180 in the fall of 2016. It was my first big step into my self-assigned journey to “change education” as the name of my website, Let’s Change Education, suggests. So, to that end, I took a big, bold step by tackling what I believed to be the biggest obstacle in bringing about significant change: grading. I decided to give all my kids an “A” for the year.”
“On day one, as they entered the room, I handed each a wooden “A” that I had made that summer. And then as class began, I explained to them that I was taking grading off the table by giving them an “A” for the year, so we could focus on learning. I then blogged about our experience each day. It was an amazing year—maybe the most authentic year I have ever spent with students as we turned our focus to learning for the sake of learning, not for the sake of producing a grade.”
“I learned a lot that first year of “turning education upside down,” giving rise to my trademark, Project 180 mantra, “Do. Reflect. Do Better.” And now as I set to begin my fifth year of Project 180, I am still rotating 180 degrees at a time, turning things upside down, seeking better.”
“I have moved on from giving all kids A’s, but the focus on learning remains as I now provide a “feedback-only” experience for my kids. Lots of doing, reflecting, and doing better to capture as we journey into this next school year.”
You can connect with Monte on twitter at @MonteSyrie
Thanks for all of your insight Monte! You are a great teacher doing great work for students everywhere!