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Practicing What We Teach, One Letter at a Time – A Guest by Amy Menzel

I’m not always ready for Monday, but I was ready for this one. I had spent a lot of time reading Penny Kittle’s Book Love over the weekend and was anxious to get back into the classroom and spread my love of all things literary. Wouldn’t you know it…my seniors weren’t.

Now, it was “senior skip day,” and I knew that, so maybe I was less prepared than I thought. I thought, “Hey, I’ll be able to give more individual attention to students Screen Shot 2017-05-01 at 8.44.22 PMwho need it.” Meanwhile, they thought, “Hey.  I’m here.  What more do you want?”

It’s not so much that they thought this that bothered me, but that they said it. They actually said,  “You should just be happy we’re here.”  To my face. And they meant it.

A small part of me died right then and there. Likely from overheating because my blood was boiling. It took me a while (and eleventy-seven deep breaths) to calm down. Somehow I made it through the day without exploding, but barely.

That afternoon, I sat at my desk as the building got quiet. When only the sounds of the custodian’s sweeping and my continued deep breathing remained, I opened a new Google doc. “Dear Students,” I began, and channeled my frustrations and feelings through my fingertips.

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I made 140 copies, left them in a neat stack in the middle of my cluttered desk, closed my door, walked to my car, drove away, and hoped for a better day.

I felt better that I wrote about it (duh, say many researchers). And I felt better having calmly and clearly expressed my expectations. I also had a student voice echoing in my head from last semester: I’ve never had a teacher take the time to write to us before.”

Of course, we write to students all the time; we write our syllabi, our assignments, our writing prompts. But I do think there’s a difference when we address a note, a discussion to our students. It’s more personal. I forget about this.

It’s also a way to practice what we teach.

Back in April, Lisa talked about the importance of English teachers being readers. She closed her impassioned post, “We must be readers…otherwise, we are in the business of false advertising.” The same is true of our work as writing teachers.  We must write.

This is a lesson I learned (or finally appreciated) during my participation in the UWM Writing Project back in 2010. One of the core principles of the National Writing Project, the program of which the UWM Writing Project is an affiliate, is that, “Knowledge about the teaching of writing comes from many sources: theory and research, the analysis of practice, and the experience of writing. Effective professional development programs provide frequent and ongoing opportunities for teachers to write and to examine theory, research, and practice together systematically,” — emphasis mine.

I learned a lot that summer, but the most significant lesson I took away was the importance of practice. Each of us teacher consultants prepared and presented a teacher inquiry workshop and the number one rule for these presentations was to have your participants write early and often. It changed the way I teach. Still, I find that I need to remind myself to write more often.

Now, I know it’s the end of the year. So you may be thinking…

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But I’m all about embracing the constant reflect-and-revise nature of teaching. So allow me to publically commit to writing to my students more–early and often starting next school year.

Dear fellow teachers,

Are you with me?

Sincerely,
Amy Menzel

Amy Menzel teaches English at Waukesha West High School in Waukesha, Wisconsin. She hopes her unbridled enthusiasm for all things literary haunts her graduating seniors for decades to come. In the best possible way, of course.


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Care to join the conversation? We’d love to add your voice! Please email guest post ideas to Lisadennibaum@gmail.com.

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2 thoughts on “Practicing What We Teach, One Letter at a Time – A Guest by Amy Menzel

  1. Amy Rasmussen June 7, 2017 at 8:32 pm Reply

    Thank you for writing with us, Amy, and especially for writing this post. I often write hand-written notes to students. They are surprised to get a card from me, and many keep it in their notebooks. I failed to take the time to write to them this year. In retrospect, I think it may have made a difference to many. I regret I didn’t take the time to voice my appreciation and encouragement in this one-on-one and personal way. Thank you for the reminder!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Anonymous June 7, 2017 at 10:03 am Reply

    Amy-Thanks for the reminder that we must model for our students what we expect from them. “We are writers just like you are!” Nicely done!

    Like

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