Josh and I attended college together at the University of Pennsylvania. In the funny way that life leads you down winding roads that cross over and intersect over and over again, Josh and I only recently re-connected and found that many of the interests that we shared in college led us to meet again today. At Penn, we had both been residents in a special dorm, the “Community Service Living and Learning Program” (affectionately known as “The Castle,” since it was housed in a former fraternity building in the center of campus built like its namesake). The Castle drew people who wanted to serve the community and engage in positive social change. We worked in West Philadelphia, mainly on education-related volunteer programs. Of course, as community service usually does, the work changed us likely more that we changed any particular aspect of the community. We all developed a life-long commitment to social justice and education in one way or another.
Josh’s passions are in history, literature, and the arts. He has the unique ability to make history and canonical texts come alive and connect with the lives of students today. His teaching methods not only provide authentic learning experiences for his students, but also serve the community at large. For example, his latest project is an oral history project of recent immigrants in collaboration with The Welcoming Center. He also models writing by being a writer; he is a blogger for Edutopia on collaborative and inquiry-based learning. Read more to learn about him and the amazing work that he has done.
Can you share a little background with us about your teaching career? For example, what brought you into teaching? What do you teach?
I teach students English and Social Studies at Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia. I come to teaching with a passion for working with young people and strong ideas about social justice, creativity, and the value of creation.
What motivates and sustains you as a teacher?
I strongly believe that my students and I should be doing work that matters in the world. I design curriculum around inquiry and projects that, whenever possible, have meaning to a larger audience. This can mean writing a Language Autobiography and then creating a digital story that are posted on a public blog, participating in a historic classroom trial in order to investigate primary sources and determine the influence of different historical factors and figures, or collaborating with a professional dance company in order for students to create performance pieces that are part of a larger, city-wide arts festival. Recently my students completed projects as Modern Day de Tocquevilles and helped create public art installations.
This type of work excites me because it is intellectually and artistically challenging for me and for my students.
I believe in the power and joy of creation and discovery. I want my students to be able to create work of their own as they examine and gain insight into themselves and the world. The work that my students do in these contexts is both poignant and powerful.
What do you think needs to change or happen in education/schools?
I appreciate small schools where students and teachers feel valued. I do believe that teaching is an art and that when teachers are given freedom to create curriculum in meaningful ways the results are powerful.
What is something that you are passionate about as a teacher/learner and how do you incorporate it into your teaching?
The wonderful poet Naomi Shihab Nye first introduced me to William Stafford’s idea that no one becomes a poet, it’s just that some of us stop being poets as we grow bigger. I think that this is also true for creativity in general. I am passionate about the importance of challenging ourselves in creative ways and trying out different identities for these reasons. During their time with me my students take on many different roles and don’t just learn about different topics from a distance. Throughout a school year my students become journalists, playwrights, essayists, historians, essayists, social scientists, artists, dancers, and actors, among other roles.
What groups, individuals, or networking contexts have supported you in your work? How?
I think it is very important to have a network. My network includes all different types of people whom I speak to about
curriculum design and teaching. I turn to my friends who are historians, artists, writers, poets, scholars, and, of course, other teachers for inspiration and ideas.
I have collaborated with Philadelphia Young Playwrights and the Leah Stein Dance Company for many years and think they are both wonderful organizations. I stay up to date on different books and performances that relate to content I teach and try to take full advantage of all the amazing resources, performances, and exhibits within Philadelphia.
I read voraciously both online and off. Sometimes my best teaching ideas and resources come from a trip to the library. Having a Twitter network is a wonderful way to access new ideas and publications like Rethinking Schools help to spark my thinking and creativity.
What advice can you share with new teachers just entering the field?
Teaching is really hard and exhausting! Make sure you find different ways to connect with and care for your students as you get support and mentoring, make connections (online and off), and allow yourself to teach in a way that is true to who you are.
Flikr Gallery of student public art projects: https://www.flickr.com/photos/89736991@N07/
To follow Joshua on Twitter: https://twitter.com/jhblock
To see some of his writing: http://mrjblock.com/
**About Transformative Teacher Profiles: TTPs are meant to “flip the script” and offer a counter-narrative to negative and dehumanizing stereotypes about teachers. Here you’ll read about truly transformative teaching, leadership, and inspiring work. The format is simple: I ask six questions of each teacher that I profile about their teaching and learning. If you know of amazing teachers that I should profile, please write me a comment below or send me a tweet about them!**