Tobie Sanders' Teaching Practices

This is an expansion of remarks I (Carolyn Osborne) made at her memorial service held at Capital University.

I would like to share about the legacy of Tobie’s work and our work together.

Tobie came of age as a teacher in a world in which standardized testing was a minor blip on the surface of education, occasionally used the way a doctor might check a person’s cholesterol every couple of years. It was a world in which there were significant utopic explorations into what teaching and learning could look like. Of course, there were very many traditional schools who were still seeing Spot run, to quote a basal reader of the time, but there were teachers who felt free to allow their students to influence the curriculum when the students were not actually writing the curriculum.

I don’t want to idealize this world because there were struggles, too. Utopic plans easily go awry and it’s a hard balance to strike to give students choices and also to help them to be accountable for those choices. Nevertheless, it was with our feet firmly planted in this ground that some years ago we began to teach Education 214, Integrating the Arts in the Elementary Classroom. We were bringing the best of education in the 1960s to the No Child Left Behind generation through an arts class.

As we were working on Education 214, the university was beginning to have a discussion about rigor, because of the federal government’s definition of a credit hour released in 2010. The for-profit “universities” had misused federal funding which meant that all of us now had to contend with a problematic operationalized version of a credit hour having to do with the number of hours of homework in relation to the number of hours a student’s rear end was in a classroom chair.

One problem with rigor, which we wrote about here: __, is the word itself. It implies difficulty or hardship. Now, learning can be difficult, but our job as teachers is not to make it difficult for the sake of difficulty or to fulfill someone’s concept of what college should be like. Our job is not to “weed out” students or to make sure we assign a requisite percentage of bad grades in our classes. Our job is not to create homework for the sake of homework or to assign lengthy readings so that our syllabi would be filled with the right stuff according to our peers in the university who judge these documents.

Our job is to scaffold people so that they can learn new things and succeed in new ways. Tobie and I strove to make it possible, for example, for all students to do a stellar job on the What Difference Does Instruction Make project, a major teacher-as-researcher project which we assigned in our pedagogy classes that involved collecting and analyzing data and drawing reasonable conclusions. We created scaffolds, we went over the project with the group and with individuals, we consulted with students as they wrote their projects, and we celebrated success. We considered ourselves to be doing a good job when we could give high grades on this project to all people in the class because all people fulfilled the requirements of the assignment.

Of course, Tobie and I thought deeply about how rigor could be defined in Education 214.
In answer to all of this, we employed values which are, I believe, Tobie’s legacy to me and to all teachers whom she influenced.

The joy of teaching lies in the opportunity to get to know each student. This meant not just getting to know each person’s likes and dislikes but also each person’s circumstances, dreams, hopes, desires, uniquenesses, and struggles. As a result, Tobie’s teaching is characterized by compassion and love. We took joy in being able to find ways to help students succeed through figuring out what kind of support they needed and providing it. We are proud of Joel Schallhorn, one of many students we could cite. He was having a hard time being successful in a university setting. In Education 214, we discovered his passion for flatland BMX biking, which could be described as ballet on a bike, and helped him connect that passion to his goal of becoming a teacher.

A second value we share is the need for intrinsic motivation. We often have said that if students are not learning, then we are not teaching. In all this outside-the-classroom determination of what should be going on inside the classroom, one major factor has been glossed over: students ultimately control learning because they are the ones who choose whether or not to do it.

Not only did we nurture intrinsic motivation in our students towards them becoming lifelong learners, we also set the example. A couple of years ago, we got enamored with Deb Roy’s TED talk called “The Birth of a Word.” Roy extracted from hours of data of his son’s language learning a sequence of his child’s learning to say “water” beginning with “gaa-gaa” all the way through to the conventional pronunciation, “water.” Roy’s point was about big data, but our famously associational thinking along with our dear colleague Hoyun Cho led us to the concept of epiphanies or lightbulb moments, and how they happen in the math classroom. Tobie and I found ourselves becoming math teachers and researchers, especially in our work with Linda Slocum and Letting Kids Succeed. I started using Khan Academy to brush up on math. She took a Massive Online Open Course (MOOC) on mathematical thinking.

Another aspect of intrinsic motivation is the motivation to teach. Three years ago, I was assigned the Foundations of the Education Profession course. Tobie was not assigned the course, but we team taught it anyway because she volunteered to do so. We developed the idea of having students do what we call “Ed (if I…) cation” talks, modeled on TED talks and focused on education-related topics the students were passionate about. Despite the size of the challenge, or maybe because of it, they were motivated to create the talks and we were gratified at the quality.

True rigor, we found, therefore, is based on intrinsic motivation and big challenges, which are supported by compassion and love.

To close, I would like to quote what Joel Schallhorn wrote on Facebook about Tobie. At the time of this writing, Joel was a stuntman in Tianjin, China.

Tobie Sanders has been one of the most influential people in my life. She was more than my advisor, more than the best teacher I've ever had, she was an inspiration. Her love for teaching and learning was apparent with every interaction, She was the definition, the pinnacle of what a teacher should strive to be. She had a way of connecting to students, supporting and motivating them in a way like nothing I have ever seen. Throughout field experiences and beyond whenever I was in the classroom of my own I tried to emulate her passion.

What I loved about her most of all though was her compassion, and how much time she invested in me. She saw something in me, from day one, and took me under her wing to see me grow. No matter what wild idea I came up with, she was always supportive and went beyond brainstorming to make the ideas better. She loved that I was passionate about riding and always wanted to see me succeed.

A few weeks ago she commented on a photo of mine telling me my life was inspiring. That was one of the greatest compliments I have ever received. She inspired me more than she will ever know and it delights me that I could give that feeling back in a small way.

Thank you Tobie for everything you've done for me. You will always be remembered.

Tobie in Pictures

Tobie Sanders was the co-creator of this wiki and added so much to it. If you knew her, you will hear her voice in some of the writings here. Tobie was the consummate educator. She had enthusiasm about learning and also about being a part of students learning. She cared deeply for all people but especially her students. She recognized that all people have an inner fragility and she did everything she could to speak gently to that fragility. The following pictures capture just a tiny bit of a warm, wonderful, fun, caring human being in the classroom she was so much a part of creating.

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Square dancing with Mr. Hagerty

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Doing bluegrass in the classroom with Glenn Rinehart.

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One of our classes and their dream flags.

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Tobie talking with a student for a commercial Capital University made, in our classroom.