December has traditionally been my least favorite month of the school year. Something about it bogged me down, without fail, every winter–the dark, sunless days…the mountains of papers to grade…the looming specter of exams–to write, administer, and grade. I hated my job in December. From old journals, I know that I was consistently unhappy in the twelfth month of the year, and I wanted to quit teaching every time it rolled around.
This December, though, things couldn’t be more different. I am LOVING my job!! Last week, I found myself completely caught up on grading–something that literally hasn’t happened yet this school year. Somehow, I had plenty of time to plan great lessons, confer with students with no back-of-the-brain worries, AND reorganize my classroom library. I was a productivity machine–and it didn’t stop at school. At home, I found the energy to assemble Christmas cards, decorate my apartment, and make some holiday crafts. As I type this, my fingers are still sticky with powdered sugar from the big batch of cookies I baked this morning. What’s with the freakish perfection, you ask? One little, made-up, three-week-old, hashtag of a word: #nerdlution.
Teachers across the country made nerdy resolutions that would be kept for 50 days. They could be anything–write every day, exercise, a more robust reading life. A Thanksgiving day Twitter chat gave rise to that wonderful idea, which I hope will become an annual tradition. Still riding my NCTE13 high, I resolved (nerdsolved? nerdluted?) to spread professional ideas about English teaching any way that I could, every day.
I started by leading an epic two-hour workshop for my English department. We book-passed (a la Penny Kittle) the entire contents of my professional library, shared best practices in a “gift exchange” of ideas, and made our own heart books (a la Linda Rief) of things we wanted to try. Afterward, Kristine, a 20-year veteran with a reputation for pessimism, approached me. “I used to have your energy,” she said. “I don’t know what happened, but I haven’t had it…for years.” She teared up, then borrowed Blending Genre, Altering Voice by Tom Romano, a balm for her troubled teaching soul. Other books from my NCTE haul were checked out, too–Georgia Heard’s brand new Finding the Heart of Nonfiction was battled over by two first-year teachers, Penny Kittle’s incredibly dog-eared and highlighted Book Love and Write Beside Them were taken by veterans, and Tom Newkirk’s well-loved Holding On To Good Ideas in a Time of Bad Ones was checked out by our department head, who has held his position since 1972 (I’ll let you do the math on that one).
I was elated, and my colleagues’ willingness to try new ideas didn’t stop there. The next day, a friend came and talked through some ideas about having her students do mini multigenre projects on Greek gods. Enthused, I told her I couldn’t wait to see the results. The following morning, Kristine, the tired veteran who’d borrowed Tom Romano’s book, stopped me in the hall. “I came to school every day this week with a new attitude. I feel the spark again,” she told me. I nearly cried after we went our separate ways.
The following week, it all seemed to be coming together–our entire English department was on board for trying something new, especially the workshop model. They wanted to see it in action. In five days, I was observed eight times by fellow teachers, and they saw my students doing amazing things. With heads down and pens on paper, their extended narratives were growing to eight…twelve…twenty-six pages long. They were BEAUTIFULLY written, and on an incredible variety of topics–hunting, car crashes, detectives, breakups, death. One male student wrote a narrative about rape from a woman’s point of view after hearing me booktalk Speak.
As my colleagues listened in, my students conferred with me about their writing like the confident, thoughtful, reflective authors they are: “I want it to read like a Rick Riordan story,” Kenneth told me. “Do you think the pace is too slow?” Nora asked. “I just need to zoom in a little more on this,” Tevin realized. “I’ve resorted to writing in my vocab section because the rest of my notebook is full,” Adam admitted with a giggle. I ended every class with a smile and a feeling of pride threatening to burst out of my chest. My colleagues were stupefied. “How are you getting them to read so much? To write so much? To work on this stuff in study halls and for homework?” They were flabbergasted, but all I had to do was point them toward that professional bookshelf, full to bursting (but with more and more empty spaces!!) with the brainchildren of so many of my teaching heroes.
So, my #nerdlution, as well as this little workshop experiment that Emily, Erika, Amy, and I have been trying out, is going beautifully. The two are combining to bring me the most peace I’ve felt during the holiday hustle and bustle in a long time–and that, for me, is a Christmas miracle.