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Finding Teaching Inspiration in the Dark of Winter

I love to spend big chunks of my summer planning ways to revise and improve my practice.  The season is always so full of hope, with opportunities to reframe my thinking and help my students be more successful.

But when the school year actually begins, it can be overwhelming to attempt anything from a major overhaul of your teaching to a few key shifts in practice.  Every year, I read books, take classes, and obsessively jot ideas that never see the light of day when I’m faced with the reality of a fall full of fresh faces, administrative initiatives, and new courses to teach.

And now, in the dead of winter, I’m exhausted. It feels like I have no ideas. I’m looking for inspiration in my teaching, my reading, and my writing–inspiration I never seem to be able to come up with on my own. So I’m going back into my notebook and re-reading my summer entries, where I was full of ideas and energy.

This summer, I worked with a group of amazing teachers in Pipestem, WV during a National Writing Project summer institute.  As we read and wrote and thought and planned about argument writing, I jotted down two things in my notebook I could do that would withstand the crush of the reality of our profession and inspire me all year long.

Embrace the Wobble

Ounnamed_origne of our central texts for the institute was Pose, Wobble, Flow by Antero Garcia and Cindy O’Donnell-Allen.  This text makes lots of wonderful arguments for teachers to inhabit “poses” as more thoughtful, authentic practitioners through the metaphor of yoga.  The idea is that when we try new things as teachers, we are trying to get into a pose.  We inevitably wobble as we try to master this new stance, but eventually attain the flow characterized by doing this pose without thinking.

GODA (as one of our teachers refers to Garcia and O’Donnell-Allen)’s key argument is that the wobble part of this process is not only a necessary part of becoming a better teacher, but a desirable one–we must live in the gray area, a zone of proximal development, disequilibrium, or whatever else we might call it.  “The P/W/F model is not about an endpoint,” GODA vehemently asserts; “it is a framework to help acknowledge how one’s practice changes over time and requires constant adaptation” (4).  It’s only by being uncomfortable, by trying new things day or week or year in and out, that we can improve as teachers.

What this looked like in terms of our theme of teaching argument writing was revising the way we think about the writing process to start from an inquiry-based place of research, then claim development, then argument articulation.  This new mindset required all of us to “wobble” as we tried to conceive of it, and we wobbled in even our understandings of its many moving parts–what revision is, or what an argument can look like, or how we can use argument as a genre for developing our opinionated writing voices.  As we were flooded with unconventional ideas, mentor texts, thought processes, and assessment measures, we all wobbled with the confidence we’d eventually reach flow.

This semester, as I wrestle with finding energy and inspiration in the wake of having two small children, the new pose I’m trying out is going gradeless. It’s reshaping the way my students and I dialogue about their work, but it’s still an uphill battle to wrestle them away from the temptation to wonder what their grade is…or my own inclination to compulsively give my opinion on their work in the form of a letter or number. I’m definitely in the midst of the wobble, but I’m hopeful that by the end of the semester, I’ll get closer and closer to the state of flow.

But whenever things do start to (finally) go smoothly, I’ll need to yank myself out of my newly-found comfort zone and get into a new pose, embracing the wobble of new learning once more.

This constant revision of our teaching is a simple way we can always strive to be better teachers–just embrace the wobble of continuous improvement.

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Become a Writer

Garcia and O’Donnell-Allen strongly advocate for the many student-centered benefits of writing beside our learners, but there are so many benefits beyond the classroom that become possible when we simply write.

Outside the classroom, GODA suggest that teachers might become more engaged in improvement by:

  • Sharing articles with colleagues
  • Commenting on education blogs
  • Participating in Twitter chats about educational issues
  • Joining organizations like the National Council of Teachers of English
  • Participating in local workshops

Taking one or more of these eminently doable steps can help teachers “enact agency and make an impact on the profession” (27).  These simple activities will not only expose you to ideas to keep you in the “wobble,” but they’ll let you meet and engage with like-minded colleagues as interested in improvement as you.

Within your classroom, becoming a writer is equally valuable.  If you read nothing else of Pose Wobble Flow, I encourage you to read the chapter on “Embracing Your Inner Writer:  What It Means to Teach as a Writer.”  These pages are chock full of suggestions for not only reasons to write, but ways to do it.  From a survey designed to help you find your identity as a writer, to practical methods for joining writing communities on Twitter, Facebook, and even NaNoWriMo, to the ways the act of writing beside our students changes our teaching, this chapter is awesome:

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Because “the changes that come about within our classrooms and with our students start with ourselves,” (80), writing is a necessary first step to becoming a better teacher.  It is a fight, with two kids under two plus a job and a household to keep up with, to find time to write, to read, to engage. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve missed a Twitter chat or skipped notebook time to tend to a crying child, fold some laundry, or cook a meal. But I find that whenever I can eke out 10 minutes of writing time, meaningful Twitter conversation, or professional reading, I feel better. I feel inspired.

I hope, like me, you’ll make an effort to keep a writer’s notebook, blog regularly, and write beside your students every time you see them in class.  Beginning to inhabit the pose of a writer–although I experience wobble within this identity almost daily–is doubtless the most helpful thing I’ve done to improve my practice as a teacher.

As you find yourself wondering, in the dark of winter, how to get excited and inspired once again, try these two things: wobble and write. Here’s hoping for a speedy end to winter and all the joy and optimism the spring always brings…as we work to become better teachers every day.

Shana Karnes teaches in the College of Education at West Virginia University, writes in her notebook whenever she can squeeze in the time, mothers two daughters under the age of two, and reads voraciously at the oddest moments–at the gym, during middle-of-the-night feedings, and at stoplights. Find Shana on Twitter at @litreader, or read more of her writing at the WVCTE Best Practices Blog, where a version of this post originally appeared.

 

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5 thoughts on “Finding Teaching Inspiration in the Dark of Winter

  1. Margaret Egler February 7, 2018 at 6:45 pm Reply

    I shared your post with my fellow humanities teachers at my school. You’re spreading light in the middle of winter across the country — keep up the good work!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Shana Karnes February 7, 2018 at 7:25 pm Reply

      Awww, thank you, Margaret!! I hope you and your colleagues will be wobbling and writing together soon! 🙂

      Like

  2. jennifermicheletti February 7, 2018 at 2:55 pm Reply

    Shana, your words were exactly what I needed today. I’ve taught writing at the middle school level for twenty years but am just now embracing writing workshop as well as going gradeless. Some days are better than others. Sometimes I feel pretty alone in the wilderness as I try to figure it out. It helps so much knowing other teachers are right there with me. Your blog inspired my blog post today. Thank you for your vulnerability and your clarity.
    https://middleschoolwritingmt.wordpress.com/2018/02/07/with-just-a-little-more-grace/

    Liked by 1 person

    • Shana Karnes February 7, 2018 at 7:29 pm Reply

      Jennifer, I am so delighted to have discovered your blog! I’m following you now. I love your writing–I especially love that we agree that discomfort leads to growth. It’s certainly not much fun to be in the midst of that discomfort, uncertainty, and wobble, but it’s definitely preferable to just being stagnant, I think! Glad we are on the same page and the same team. Cheers to it being hump day! 🙂

      Like

      • Anonymous February 8, 2018 at 6:42 pm Reply

        Thank you for taking the time to read my blog and for your kind words! Wobble on!

        Liked by 1 person

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