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Writing My Wrongs: How I’m Learning From My Mistakes

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A student caught sneaking his independent reading book into his lit circle novel…this is a first.

Every year I arrive at the second quarter with a new approach, idea, or plan.  This will be the solution! I think.  This will sustain momentum.  This will help us make it through the slump.  This will be the difference between dreading quarter two and praying for quarter three, but year after year, I am wrong.  For the past three years I’ve convinced myself it is the book—Lord of the Flies is too boring; they can’t appreciate Bradbury’s language in Fahrenheit 451.

The problem isn’t with my students though—it’s with me.  I am doing it wrong, and while I am ashamed to admit the honest truth, I realize now the error of my ways.

I “gave up” traditional teaching three years ago, when I transitioned to a workshop model of education.  I carved out time for reading, instated notebooks, poured over workshop guides, and asked countless questions of my mentors and colleagues.  The bare bones were in place, and I was convinced that I had the structure necessary to shift from a teacher-centered classroom to a student-centered classroom built on choice.  In many cases I did; every start of the school year began smoothly with excited readers and passionate writers.  We told stories, read poetry, shared quick writes, and analyzed craft, but I dreaded quarter two, the quarter when together, we would read our first of three required whole class novels.

Quarter two was when I lost their voices, their attention, and their passion.  With whole class novels, our focus shifted from “who are you and what are you thinking?” to “who is your author and what is he thinking?” 

Under the weight of scaffolding, curriculum standards, core competencies, and competency based rubrics, my mini-lessons focused on literary terminology instead of literary exploration.  To me, reading mini-lessons meant teaching the same terms I’d grown up with: symbolism, Freytag’s pyramid, direct and indirect characterization, round and flat characters, etc.  This meant my lessons shifted from writing-centered lessons that started with the question, “What do you notice about the author’s craft?” to terminology-centered lessons, that started with, “Apply your understanding of (fill in the blank) to the book.”  The latter produced significantly less empowering results.

So, I asked and probed my students.  I peppered them with questions during study halls and extra help; I snuck in questions with the straggling Writer’s Club members after meetings, gave out surveys, and chatted at lunch with colleagues.  And while I was convinced that it was because I was “forcing” them to read unrelatable classics, I couldn’t shake the fact that I was missing something bigger.

By the time I sat down with my living mentor Linda Rief at a coffee shop in Exeter, I realized I was doing it wrong in quarter two.  The pieces gradually added up—I knew the three reading options I had given them for literature circles weren’t choices at all.  I was hoping they would read the books in their entirety, but I knew that this year would lend itself to additional groans, frustration, and abandonment.  At the end of the day, I was a workshop teacher defaulting to a traditional methodology or worse, was I a traditional teacher pretending to run a workshop?

The two greatest pieces of advice came first via my special educator mother, who asked, “Why not just teach them good writing?  Isn’t that what classics are?” And second through Linda Rief, who pointblank asked me why I needed to teach plot triangles anyways.

Were there successes in my literature circle unit? Most definitely.  Sure, the vast majority didn’t fall in love with Golding, and it breaks my heart that they couldn’t revel in the beauty of Bradbury’s language, but in final surveys, nearly every student appreciated the time they had to discuss the novels in small groups.  They enjoyed talking about the stories with peers, and while not all of them loved the books, many pointed out that this was the first time they engaged in authentic conversations about literature without a teacher moderating the discussions.  They learned; they just didn’t learn the way I had hoped.

Part of me feels like I lost four weeks that we could have spent more effectively growing together as readers and writers while looking at the beauty of craft in book clubs centered on young adult lit of their choosing.  The other part of me feels like I failed my students in providing this idealized version of what I hoped our class would be and then slamming them back to reality with the same sort of stock analysis I question.

I am impatient when it comes to growth, particularly when it comes to my teaching.  While I understand my students’ needs as developing readers and writers, I am quick to judge my own struggles.  Even as an intern, one of my personal goals was “to be at the level of a second year teacher.”  I repeated this mantra knowing full well that the only way to be at the level of a second year teacher was to be a second year teacher.

All I can promise my students is that I will continue to reflect, move forward, and become the teacher they deserve.  But alas, growth takes time, trial, and error.  It requires me to unravel years of traditional education, analyze what works, what doesn’t, what I should carry with me, and what I can discard.  It will take time for me to unwind my own brain just as I ask my students to unwind theirs.  I am still learning to be a writer, a reader, a student, a teacher, and that takes time, time that sometimes feels all too precious when I only have one year with my kids.  Fortunately, teaching is like writing.  Every day, I begin the process of drafting a new story, and every year, I get the chance to revise my work.

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12 thoughts on “Writing My Wrongs: How I’m Learning From My Mistakes

  1. […] Yet another knock-it-out-of-the-park post on writing instruction from Three Teachers Talk, this one by Shana on the 5 Non-Negotiables When Designing Writing Instruction–an excellent reminder for righting your course and tweaking workshop starting in January. And if you need a little more encouragement to reflect and revise your practices, read Jackie’s Writing My Wrongs: How I’m Learning from My Mistakes. […]

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  2. […] Read:  We all do reflecting at the end of the semester.  I found this Three Teachers Talk post Writing my wrongs: How I’m learning from my mistakes to be beautifully honest and encouraging for us all, as we get ready to end one semester and begin […]

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  3. Pat Delzell December 11, 2015 at 9:03 pm Reply

    Also, I do not even want to HEAR about “To Set A Watchman”…let alone READ it! I prefer to keep the characters safe in my mind the way they are now.

    Liked by 1 person

    • jackiecatcher December 13, 2015 at 3:17 pm Reply

      I look at it as a first draft instead of a sequel. It’s rough and some spots are quite cryptic and poorly written. It’s a fascinating example of how stories can change. I agree with you though–I much prefer To Kill A Mockingbird in the end. 🙂

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  4. Pat Delzell December 11, 2015 at 9:00 pm Reply

    I love reading your posts! I also love Ray Bradbury, but not his novels. My favorite story of his is “The Screaming Woman” (it not readily available, but I could send you a copy.) It is one of the best examples of dragging out time!

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    • jackiecatcher December 13, 2015 at 3:16 pm Reply

      Yes Pat, please send me a copy! I would love that–you are not alone in not being a fan of his novels. I am in love with Fahrenheit 451, but my passion for it isn’t widely shared by my students. I get it though. I haven’t read “The Screaming Woman” though! Please send it to me–I am doing a fiction/narrative writing unit now and would love to integrate it.

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  5. cmadeleine0816 December 10, 2015 at 5:04 pm Reply

    This post came right when I needed it!!! My freshmen are getting their toes wet with To Kill a Mockingbird. I am sure I will step on someone’s toes here when I say I have a love/hate relationship with this book, but that’s a different topic for another day. I put my kids in small groups for discussion purposes. I had the expected span of some kids were just naturally good at talking with each other about what they had read and others just kind of stared into the headlights like a deer while they fumbled their way through a conversation. Even though there were some groups that struggled, I think they genuinely enjoyed talking about the book with their peers. For this first small group discussion, I experimented by saying to them that they should prepare by reading and annotating (which I had modeled for them and they practiced); beyond that, I gave no other instruction. I really wanted to see how they handled talking with other people. I don’t participate in their discussion unless they need me. Last year I found out that kids talked about stuff that I would have wanted to talk about anyway. So this time around with my freshmen, working under that premise, I sat quietly listening and taking notes. From there, I now have a bunch of info about where to go next with scaffolding for the next small group discussion. They need practice writing questions to get them thinking about how to find out what others think while they read! I’m excited to see how the next round of discussions go. Thank you again for your timely post.

    Liked by 2 people

    • jackiecatcher December 11, 2015 at 8:51 am Reply

      I am so happy! I always hope that there are others who can relate to my predicament, so it is wonderful to hear that you are trying on the same sort of discussion process as well. I am required to teach To Kill A Mockingbird at the end of the year, and I think I might use the small discussion model as well. I’m going to make some major changes to my quarter 2 approach though. I want them to look at the craft, discuss the themes, read excerpts from Go Set a Watchman, and connect to the present black lives matter movement, etc. I’m curious how it’ll work for you overall! Would love to swap notes. My e-mail is jackie.catcher@gmail.com if you’re interested as well!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Gary Anderson December 10, 2015 at 11:36 am Reply

    (I can feel my inner geezer warming up here.) This is my 36th year as a literacy educator, and one of the great joys of this work is how we never get to a perfectly-defined finish line. Some days, quarters, and years are better than others, sure, but today’s classrooms have so many moving parts that effective teaching requires constant reflection and “revision.” I’d go so far as to say if a teacher thinks he has everything wrapped up in a neat little package, he’s doing it wrong.

    What you say at the end there, Jackie, is oh so right. Literacy teachers are especially well-suited for this kind of journey-is-more-important-than-the-destination kind of thinking because our subject matter has the same orientation.

    “Every day I write the book.” — Elvis Costello

    Liked by 3 people

    • jackiecatcher December 11, 2015 at 8:46 am Reply

      Gary, I certainly look to mentors like you, mentors who live and breathe the value of workshopping, to help guide and shape my thinking. Thank you for the praise, feedback, and encouragement. I’ve always said that the minute I believe I am teaching perfectly is the minute I’ll retire. That being said, I’m not sure I’ll ever see perfection in myself as an educator, but I’ve most certainly seen perfection in the raw passion of my students’ work. I guess that’s all we can ask for too–I want my students to see that I am flawed yet working to become better. I want them to know that simply obtaining a career means nothing if you don’t passionately work to hone your craft.

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  7. steelmsl December 10, 2015 at 10:35 am Reply

    I love your honesty about dreading the “whole class novel” experience and the feeling that you are selling out – that the idealized workshop is somehow compromised in the process. But what I love most is your willingness to question your own practice. The students and their learning are at the very heart of your thinking and questioning: How do I challenge my students and still keep them at the center of their own learning? It’s tough, and there are no perfect answers. Whether you are in your second or forty-third year of teaching, keep your teaching and your learning pointed forward. Allow other voices to enter your journey, something that widens your own path. And keep moving, one step at a time.

    Liked by 3 people

    • jackiecatcher December 11, 2015 at 8:36 am Reply

      Thank you! I always tell my students that writing is scary, especially when you discuss your struggles, hardships, and frustrations with such a phenomenal group of teachers and writers. I have read your comment over and over–I love what you say at the end, that we must “allow other voices to enter your journey, something that widens your own path.” I have written that down in my writer’s notebook. The voices of so many mentors, colleagues, writers, and students keep my teaching fresh and alive. I appreciate you taking the time to comment, especially since this was an important piece of reflection for me.

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