Photo Credit: John Sigmund

We had the absolute pleasure of meeting Janet Tan, a teacher at the Hong Kong International School (HKIS), in our office two weeks ago. Janet joined the High School Humanities team at HKIS in 2000, and our TAG (Teacher Advisory Group) Team this year. She conducts workshops for schools and at conferences, and consults in schools in Southeast Asia. For the past 25 years, Janet has co-directed the East Asia Writing Project with her colleague and friend Judith Pearce.

In the following interview, Janet talks about the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, and shares her experience and advice.

What subject do you teach? How many years have you been teaching?
I teach English, Broadcast Journalism, and an interdisciplinary Humanities class. I also facilitate our Humanities Center, where students come to work on their writing one-on-one with teachers and student assistants. We strive to create a climate that encourages students to take risks as writers. I’ve been teaching for about 40 years, and co-directing the East Asia Writing Project for about 25 years. I remember a student once asking me, “If you could start all over, would you still choose to be a teacher?” And I realized …yes I would.

How do you use the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards program in your classroom?
I think it’s so important for students to find an audience beyond their teachers, whether it’s through a school newspaper or some other avenue. The Alliance for Young Artists & Writers is facilitating this, and provides incentive. It is real; by looking at award-winning works from their peers, students recognize what kids their age are capable of. We have many students this year who want to submit their work to the Scholastic Awards. It is always the student’s choice, though, to do this.

Can you describe the impact the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards has had on some of your students, or yourself as an educator?
I learned about the Scholastic Awards two years ago at the National Writing Project’s annual conference in Florida, and immediately saw this as a great opportunity for our students. Yvonne Yu, a senior at the Hong Kong International School, had her short story featured in the Alliance’s The Best Teen Writing of 2009. Last year, two of our students (a sophomore and a junior) received Gold Key awards, and they are submitting more pieces this year. The students see it as a chance to get recognized and published, and they like the competitive opportunity that has nothing to do with grades.

Winning a Scholastic Award is far more attractive than, say, getting an “A” in an art or writing class, and the students get that! We work hard with struggling writers, but the Awards give strong writers a chance to push themselves beyond what for most of them is perfectly adequate performance for success in the classroom. I have had some of the best discussions – prompted by the writers – about small editing decisions, for example, that really matter to them once they have a goal and a purpose.

I don’t work with textbooks. We work with ‘real’ writing – in literature, the media, journals, newspapers, and the writing of young people in The Best Teen Writing anthology. We do a lot of emulation of literature, as a way into understanding what writers are doing.

Have your students changed over the course of your teaching, and if so, how?
Well, I think I have seen a growth in confidence in my students. I teach students how to seek the response they need, maintaining ownership of their writing, instead of asking someone else what they need to do to improve their work. When you have the confidence to take risks and understand your strengths, then you will continue to grow. It is a process though – and perhaps the most effective part of this process is conferencing with students – working together one-on-one.

Do you create your own work outside of the classroom, and if so, can you tell us a little bit about it?
Not as much as I would like to, yet. I think it is important as teachers to put ourselves on the line a bit, and write with our students to show that writing takes time and can be a messy, challenging process. We join teachers and students together as a writing community in our summer East Asia Writing Workshops – and that has been really refreshing for us all.

What’s the secret to your success?
I am not sure I would call it success in any personal way. Teaching is about collaborative engagement and relationship. It is about meeting students where they are, working with them, and building confidence. It is about working in teams with other teachers who have similar philosophical or pedagogical underpinnings. It is about helping students learn how to seek response, how to respond to meaning, identify specific strengths and build on these, and how to recognize what they are doing as they edit and strengthen their work.

It is important to reinforce what is honest and real in student writing, to help kids develop their voices, to say what they want to say, instead of writing what they think someone wants them to write. We don’t want phony writing, and they know I have a great crap detector!

What advice would you offer a new teacher?
You learn so much by teaching. And being new is hard. Go to good workshops. See yourself as a member of a team and always see yourself as a learner. Learn from and with other teachers, and always listen to and learn from your students.

What do you find to be the most challenging/most rewarding thing about teaching?
I think many of the challenges are often external to the teaching and learning that goes on in classrooms with students. We need to use our time to do what is of most value for kids, and I often think students spend too much time preparing for, and taking, traditional tests, and not enough time learning and demonstrating their understanding independently in a variety of ways. The pressure of external tests and exams creates stress for students and teachers, and that is not what learning should be about.

The rewards? Working every day with kids in different ways, seeing them make progress and gain confidence, working with teachers, being part of a team. I love that.

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