National Writing Project

Teachers Are the Center of Education: Profiles of Eight Teachers

Date: October 23, 2009

Summary: Seth Mitchell, Maine Writing Project teacher-consultant, is one of eight teachers profiled in Teachers Are the Center of Education. The publication highlights "the importance of teachers and the quality of their work."


Seth Mitchell is the type of teacher who is always looking for new and better ways to teach his high school students in Lisbon, Maine.

Through his work as a technology liaison with the Maine Writing Project, he's focused on teaching new technologies to teach writing—not because it's "cool," but because he believes that digital storytelling engages his students more effectively than having them respond with paper and pencil.

"I started incorporating digital storytelling, and I saw changes in my students," says Mitchell." I saw that they were thinking in new ways and writing in new ways and enjoying it. That is when it really started to blossom for me."

Many believe that the quality of a teacher is the most important element in student achievement. That's why the College Board and Phi Delta Kappa published profiles of Mitchell and seven other exemplary teachers. The profiles are an attempt to make visible the day-to-day lives and work of teachers, and the importance of their work to students, and indeed communities.

According to Gaston Caperton, president of the College Board, "If in reading the stories of these eight teachers, you are touched by their professionalism, humanity, and work effort, this report will have partly done its job . . . . We must now all band together to give teachers the support they need to build on their already great work."

For more, read the profile of Mitchell below or download Teachers Are the Center of Education: Profiles of Eight Teachers (PDF).

Profile of Seth Mitchell

Lisbon High School, in the town of Lisbon (population 9,077), Maine, is about an hour's drive from Portland and two hours from Boston. Seth Mitchell has taught English Language Arts at Lisbon for the past four years and spent four years teaching at another school.

The main building of Lisbon High School has weathered 60 Maine winters and is worn by any standard. Mitchell's class, however, is located in a portable classroom next to the school. It is a large classroom, with desks forming a U-shape facing the whiteboard. Mitchell has packed his classroom with books from the 10th-grade curriculum, including multiple copies of Old Man and the Sea, The Pearl, Animal Farm and Hamlet.

The classroom bulletin boards are dotted with aphorisms ("The most violent element in society is ignorance."), exhortations ("Read Maine Poets!") and quotes ("Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it's time to pause and reflect." — Mark Twain). Additionally, for those who believe that the language of Shakespeare does not speak to them, there is a poster titled, Shakespeare and the Art of Insults (e.g., "Go thou, and fill another room in hell." Richard II, Act V).

Mitchell's first class is a 10th-grade English course. Today's discussion focuses on the play 12 Angry Men, and Mitchell asks his students to identify the prejudices of the play's jurors.

"Recall the comments of juror number 10 who repeatedly uses pronouns such as 'them' and 'they' in referring to specific minority groups," Mitchell instructs. "What might we infer from his comments?"

The class breaks into small groups of twos and threes, and each group leader pulls a school laptop from a steel cabinet. The students use the laptop to write character profiles on a classroom Wiki (a website shared by their classmates). On a special Web page created for this assignment, Mitchell's students write their responses and reactions as part of an online discussion with students in his other classes who are also analyzing 12 Angry Men.

"Asking them to analyze text, [to] provide textual evidence and to consider subtext—there is nothing new about this," Mitchell says. "But giving them an authentic audience of their peers beyond this room . . . and providing them [with an] opportunity to create content—I think they are more engaged."

We now have the opportunity to move to unparalleled action for teachers, to take advantage of this extraordinary time in education.

Mitchell's use of technology in his classroom is a result of work with the National Writing Project (NWP), a professional development network, whose mission is "to improve student achievement by improving the teaching of writing." Mitchell has always loved writing and believes it is critical to learning in all subjects.

His work as a technology liaison in the National Writing Project focuses on integrating new technologies to teach writing. "What we are trying to do is find meaningful, purposeful ways to include technology in instruction and assessment because like it or not, that is the world we live in," he says.

Mitchell is adamant that adding technology because it is "cool" is not worth the effort. But he believes that digital storytelling engages his students more effectively than having them respond with paper and pencil.

"I started incorporating digital storytelling, and I saw changes in my students. I saw that they were thinking in new ways and writing in new ways and enjoying it. That is when it really started to blossom for me."

One student who is struggling with the character profile says she has "no clue" as to what Mitchell is asking her to do and complains that it is "hard to read a play."

Mitchell agrees: "That's the point of the assignment." He tries to answer her questions, which are attempts to ferret out answers, by advising her to make an attempt at analysis rather than waiting for him to reveal the answers.

"I would prefer that you take a risk and be wrong."

During Mitchell's second period class, a homeroom class for 10th-graders, announcements are made ("Baseball practice has been canceled due to rain"), and there is a short discussion about local events (the rock concert of the previous evening dominates the discussion in which one girl excitedly explains how she was in the front row and sweat from the lead singer fell on her).

He then instructs the class to begin their silent reading period.

At this time each day, everyone at Lisbon High stops what they're doing, picks up a book (any book) and reads. In Mitchell's class, Twilight is a popular selection, but a variety of Stephen King novels are also popular.

When asked who is responsible for devoting 25 minutes of daily instructional time to silent reading, Mitchell quips, "It was my fault."

"[Many students] say they hate to read," he explains. "But I believe that the right book hasn't found them yet. So, I started the sustained silent reading program in my classroom. When the school formed a literacy committee, which I was on, the administration implemented silent reading schoolwide."

Mitchell says that his students were ambivalent at first about the silent reading period. But several of the most vocal critics in his class—who professed that they would never read a novel—read several books this year.

Mitchell, a Maine native, did not start out wanting to be a teacher. He entered college to become an engineer but switched to English after two months. He has no regrets.

"I love my job. I care about the kids rather deeply as individuals."

Mitchell admits to a few on-the-job frustrations, like paperwork, unsupportive parents (those who most need to support their children are least likely to come to the school functions) and kids who refuse to live up to their potential.

"I can't pretend that I don't go home some days and wring my hands and say what have I done to my life, but that is not an everyday occurrence . . . just natural workforce pressure."

Mitchell would also like more opportunities to work collaboratively with his colleagues. For example, he would like to engage the Lisbon science faculty in developing a course on nonfiction and technical writing but appreciates that this is not possible given current workloads.

"We would have to spend a tremendous amount of time outside of class essentially designing a new curriculum and all of that is in addition to what we are already doing."

Mitchell recognized early in his career that the daily demands of being a teacher were greater than he anticipated. After working three jobs to support himself while he was in college, Mitchell says, "I was a bit alarmed when I found out I was working harder in my first year of teaching."

Mitchell laments the thinking of people who believe teachers have an easy ride because they get summers off. "I hear that all the time," he says. "I have never taken a summer off. I don't even know what [taking the summer off] looks like. I am taking courses or I am working for the Southern Maine Writing Project. I am involved professionally all summer and I am preparing for the next year."

At the moment, at least, Mitchell is content to remain a classroom teacher. He has no ambition to become a school administrator, although several colleagues have said he would make a good one.

"I can't imagine leaving my kids. I just can't."

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