A few weeks back, I was on a flight home from Dallas to Milwaukee, my thumbs clicking away at my phone. Working to stifle my usual chatter in a effort to be a good fellow traveler to the woman I was sitting next to, I had been reflecting on the past few days of learning with fellow educators. However, it hadn’t taken me long to realize that I might be sitting next to an archetype wrapped in pink. My curiosity was piqued.
She was an older woman with white hair cut into a sassy pixie style, a pink shawl wrapped around her tanned shoulders and a pink Bible in her lap. I was Honey, Darlin’, and Sugar in the first 20 minutes I knew her, and she had even put her hand on my knee to ask me to reach up and adjust the air vent for her, replying to my action on her behalf with a long and drawn out, “Bless you.”
Her slow, sweet drawl suggested that she was the one on a trip North, not headed home as I was, and when we ended up chatting, she confirmed she was headed to Milwaukee to visit a friend she met on a cruise almost 30 years ago.
After awhile, my new friend reached over with a long, manicured finger (you guessed it, pink nails) and tapped the book on my lap.
“Now, isn’t that an intriguing cover. The Nest,” she said, emphasizing the E with a smile and turning the word to Nast. “Do you like it?”
I smiled back, “I haven’t had a chance to get very far yet. Do you like your book?” I took a chance at a small joke.
She chuckled. “Darlin, I’ve read this one several times. It’s a bit different each time. Never read it in pink before though.”
We laughed and I asked if she read often.
“Oh, yes, (I love how E’s are A’s in the south) always been. How about you? Are you a reader, Darlin?”
I smiled inwardly at the revelation that the North needs to use more pet names and told her a bit about workshop.
“Then you are a reader,” she said, leaning over a bit and pausing. With a dropped voice she whispered, “Go make a lot more of ’em.”
I smiled broadly at 40,000 feet. Yes, Darlin. I’m a reader.
An educational leader capable of professionally developing peers? Of that, I’m still not sure…
But a day earlier I had been in Dallas, sharing a two day workshop with Amy for about 40 educators. To say I was nervous would be a gross understatement. 3 years ago, I didn’t really know what workshop was. Now, I was walking into a library, full of expectant educators, to professionally develop them, like I had the necessary social capital (thanks for that new one, Amy!) to pull it off.
As the training got underway, I felt like it was the first day of school. Ever. The very first day of my very first year, when my smile didn’t quite reach my eyes because I was actively trying not to vomit. However, as I think back on my first professional development experience, from the other side (and vomit free), I feel blessed.
I’m blessed because I was afforded the opportunity to teach other teachers about something I am truly passionate about. I am blessed because their questions and concerns not only helped clarify my own beliefs, but strengthened them. I am blessed because I was able to teach beside one of my workshop mentors, Amy Rasmussen. I’m blessed because I got to see the excitement and possibility that light up the eyes of fellow educators when they see how empowering choice and talk can be in their classrooms.
Then, this past week, our fellow writer Jessica asked a few questions in our ongoing Three Teachers WhatsApp conversation that took me right back to McKinney:
How do we prove workshop to our colleagues? How do we prove that it works? That we are doing the right thing? How do we prove that it can help make all the difference for our students and their futures as readers and writers?
The short answer? We do it.
We jump in and try it. Just as Amy and I asked the teachers in McKinney to do, you try it. You hold on to the core values of workshop (choice, student talk, time to read, mini lessons, conferring, writing with mentors) and you begin. A comment made by a veteran teacher during our McKinney training sums up this ironically simple, and yet seismic, shift quite pointedly. This rather stoic, obviously brilliant, and totally skeptical educator, leaned back in his chair on our final day of training and said to the group, “What the hell have I been doing all this time?”
This gentleman’s astonishment at how limiting teaching English can be if we are trying to teach students to be English teachers, was moving. It does nothing to negate all of the amazing work he (all of us!) has done in his career to move students forward. The practices he implemented in good faith and with good reason were to benefit students. But now, he was seeing that something could be added to benefit the young people in front of him, not only as students, but as people. Something could shift. Something meaningful needed to change if his ultimate goal was now different too . No longer was the fight to make students read a particular text (or to read/write at all), but to build a support system to show students all of the opportunity, benefit, and enjoyment that come from reading and writing, and the lasting impact if can have on their lives.
It’s not easy. It will not be easy, but the right work rarely is. My move to workshop and my recent training work has reminded me that this is the good, hard work that I need to be doing. In order to do it, I need to remember the following:
- Be vulnerable. This is hard. No kidding. But it’s about effort to be real with your students. They need to know you are a human writer, not some enlightened literary god/goddess who is there with the right answers and a perfect draft each time you put pen to paper. Write with your students. Share your work. Share your revisions. As Shana suggested earlier this week, share your writer’s notebook. Also, keep in mind, that vulnerability doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Students don’t need to know every little detail about you in order for you to share. Not comfortable detailing the deep dark secrets you only share with your therapist and your murky, tortured soul? Good! Being vulnerable means sharing your writing about dogs, because you love them, not your poetry about the loss of your innocence. Open up a little and you’ll get back a lot.
- Be honest. There is little room in my classroom to connect with students on the level I need to in order to know them well enough to build them individually as readers and writers, if I am anything but myself. If we as teachers are not raw ambition, pure desire for student success, and the occasional humble failure, then we are not really what our need. Tell your students which books you’ve loved, which you’ve abandoned, and which classics you haven’t read. I keep Don Quixote, with 258 pages read, on my desk for that very reason. I thought I should read it. I struggled so long, I grew to dislike it. I moved on. I haven’t read all of the classics. Who has? And who determines the classics?! Share the pieces that mean something to you in an effort to help students find pieces that mean something to and move them.
- Be a reader and a writer (Darlin’). If we truly want to build readers and writers in our classrooms, we must be readers and writers ourselves. Listen, a few short years ago, I wasn’t a reader. I had always loved reading, but in the first few years of my career, I had allowed myself to read less, because I claimed to have no taste for it after reading so many student papers. This just can’t be. Of course we can share our love of books through the pieces that have touched us over a life of reading. But, how can we claim a life and love of reading, if we aren’t doing so voraciously now? The same with writing. It’s malpractice in my mind to promote reading and writing as transformative if we, the teachers, are not taking the chances and the time to transform ourselves in the same way. I want my doctor to love and practice medicine. I want my mentor to truly believe in the power of education and promote best practice through his own leadership. I want my students to know they can trust what I’m selling them, because I’ve bought in.
I’m a reader and a writer, Darlin’. Won’t you join me?
Lisa Dennis teaches English and leads a department of incredible English educators at Franklin High School near Milwaukee. As this summer rolls on, she looks forward to sharing more of the wonders of workshop next week with the awesome educators in Wiley, Texas. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum.