Category Archives: Readers Writers Workshop

Persisting in the Face of Criticism

I have a confession to make…my AP scores were not what I was hoping they would be–wait, let me rephrase that: my students’ AP scores were not what I was hoping they would be. That’s the temptation; to take on the blame when the test scores aren’t what you hoped. I notice that most of us don’t take credit when the students do well, though. Interesting…

At any rate, back to my confession. This was our 2nd year of AP Lang at my school. Last year, my students scored fairly well–pretty similar to the national average–and I was pleased. This year, they had more 4s than they had last year but there were also more 1s. The average score dropped by .1. That doesn’t sound like a big deal, does it? In this age of high stakes testing, though, it is. There is always pressure to do better and better, to demonstrate that you are effective and that you’re doing the “right” things. I’m largely removed from that pressure because I teach in a private school, but the pressure comes from other places in that situation. Instead of pressure coming from admin or a central board, there’s pressure (real or perceived) from parents. I can make all of the arguments–different set of kids, 2nd year of AP (supposedly it takes 5 to really know the AP material and get “good” at it), etc. The arguments don’t matter, though; I want to give my kids the best opportunities that they can get, so it’s reflection time.

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As I look forward to next year, I have to think about what worked and what didn’t, and already the pressure to drop my independent reading has begun, at least for my AP kids. Here are some of those questions and my responses to them:

  • How can you sacrifice 10 min of instructional time every day in an AP class?
    How can I not? My AP kids especially are so overloaded with classwork (plus athletics and extracurriculars–at my school, it tends to be the AP kids who do or join everything)–that they have precious little time at home to read. These kids see reading as a chore that has to be accomplished, something to mark off before they move on to the “real work” of AP Calc or AP Bio. They’re reading in a grind but not at all for pleasure. How can I not carve out a little time every day (from my 53 minute class periods) to help them reconnect with that love of reading just for the joy of reading?
  • What about more multiple choice practice? You could do that in the 10 minute reading time!
    I could, but I feel that building the reading lives of my students will pay off dividends, even on those multiple choice sections. After all, there’s a degree of that that’s based on reading comprehension, so I think reading is a pretty essential skill for them to work on. Sure, I probably do need to build in more m/c practice, but I’m not doing it at the expense of my independent reading time.
  • If you’re going to let them read, shouldn’t you make them read on-level AP-worthy books?
    First of all, what exactly is an AP-worthy book? On the AP Language exam, students are expected to make connections in their writing and to use evidence from their reading, among other things, to support their connections and observations. Nowhere in the instructions or scoring guidelines does it say that only “worthy” texts can be utilized. A student can make an insightful connection between a prompt on civil disobedience and Nic Stone’s Dear Martin or Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy (one a YA novel, one a contemporary non-fiction) just as easily as he might refer to Henry David Thoreau. One more argue that the connection to the newer pieces could be even more effective because they may not be used as frequently as Thoreau’s essay. In addition, there is much research to suggest that adding choice to a reading program (check out Donalyn Miller’s post “I’ve got research. Yes I do. How about you?” for more on this) does more to promote an increase in reading skill and reading volume than anything else. My kids are Juniors, which means they’ll be going off to college in 2 years. These kids who have largely fake read to survive their work load (yes, even the honors and AP kids fake read) will be expected to read 200-500 pages a week when they’re in college, and too many of them are NOT ready. One of our 2018 graduates is taking a couple of classes of summer school before the full academic year starts, and she was shocked that the material on her sociology test came from the textbook chapters that she was assigned and not from the class notes that she studied meticulously. Yep. Welcome to college.
  • Well, don’t you at least have to test them or monitor them? How do you KNOW they are reading?
    This one gets me because it’s such evidence of the educational climate right now. I KNOW that they are reading because I’m talking to them. I talk to them every day about what they’re reading and the connections they’re making and about what they’re going to read next. They stop me in the hall to tell me that they’re mad at this character or that I’ve got to read this new book they just discovered. I have them write about their reading, using whatever they’re reading as support for their points. And I see the growth in their reading–it’s a pretty powerful thing to watch a student who states that she’s never done more than skim or fake read a book since elementary school dive into a new series and then, when she’s done, ask me for a suggestion because she feels like she wants to challenge herself and read something with more bite.

So while I am thinking about what tweaks and changes I’ll make for next year, I know for certain that independent and choice reading will continue to be an important part of my classroom plan.

What about you? What challenges do you face in your reading program? How would you answer these questions? If you’re looking for more support for your reading choices, check out these posts by Amber Counts here and here. And these by Amy Rasmussen here and here.

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Guest Post by Austin Darrow: A Summer Party

I’ve always stressed to my students the importance of titles: “It’s the FIRST thing your reader will see! Make it exciting! Take a risk!”

Clearly, Billy, our district ELA coordinator, had internalized these ideas when he, the Friday before our summer Reader/Writer Workshop Institute began, sent out an inter-district email titled “Welcome to the Summer Party!” His email began, “Friends, I’m very excited to spend the next few weeks with you at our summer Workshop Institute! This is basically going to be just like summer camp, but for nerdy people who love to read, write, teach, and learn. 😊”

As both a millennial (who loves emojis) and a long-time self-identifying super nerd (who loves all the aforementioned activities), this introduction made the proceeding dozen bullet points of logistical details and harrowing announcement of a 30-minute daily BYO working lunch much easier to digest.

So here I was on a Friday afternoon, just a stones-throw away from college and having just finished my first year of teaching that day, actually excited to go back to school! What happened to the days of skipping morning university classes? I pinched myself, checked my pulse, and drank a third cup of coffee, wondering what this year had done with the old Austin.

Day one began. I observed a few things as we got started: most teachers, myself included, sat with others from their own high school (I promised myself to remember this next time I asked my students to sit with somebody they didn’t know); there was a mixed aura of both excitement and uncertainty in the air; there were stacks of intriguing books and composition notebooks all around. But the most significant observation I made was about my internal expectations. Having just finished a year of implementing R/W workshop, I was excited to hone that craft. I knew I had significant room to grow in helping students become writers. I was fully expecting to love the time spent with colleagues each morning. But—I was also expecting to enjoy my time spent with students less—students who were there because they had failed the English STAAR test. Students who had likely been beat down by the system the majority of their lives. Students who probably lacked motivation or engagement. I was prepping myself to “push through” each afternoon. Boy, was I wrong.

Our daily schedule for context:

  • 9:00-11:30—Billy and Amy lead us through model workshop lessons mixed with reading, writing, and discussing best practices as teachers
  • 11:30-12:00—An exciting working lunch where 30 teachers competed for two microwaves
  • 12:00-2:00—Separate into pairs and adapt the morning’s lessons/prepare to teach
  • 2:00-5:00—Co-teach 20 students

Our days were jam-packed. Our brains had to be ON, the wheels turning from 9-5 every day. Though we learned and planned and ate and laughed as a professional (most of the time) community for the majority of each day, I quickly discovered that the true heart of this institute was the three hours we got to spend with our students each afternoon. This was not a mandatory or graded institute, yet rain or shine, most of the class I shared with Angie showed up day after day. Contrary to my initial deficit thinking, most students put their skin and bones into the game, trusting us to help them pass if they just did the crazy, seemingly unrelated to the STAAR test tasks, we asked of them. Contrary to my low expectations, these kids poured their hearts out to me and to each other and gave it their all. I did not internalize this all at once, but through a series of powerful moments, which are so numerous I don’t know what to do but list them:

  • Zubia and Ana teaching me about their faith, how they were celebrating Eid, and what the beautiful and intricate Henna tattoos that covered their hands meant
  • Our entire class helping me work through my essay about my brother’s drug addiction and how it was hurting our family, empathizing with me and giving me ideas that I incorporated into the piece
  • Orion checking in with me to make sure I was okay after I read my piece to them
  • Having a heated debate on cell phones
  • Matthew asking me to write down a list of books he should read and him buying and finishing three of them in the three weeks we spent together
  • Looking up during our sacred reading time and seeing every student entranced, realizing it was so quiet I could hear my heart beating
  • ______ sharing his written piece with me about him struggling with his sexual identity in a family that would consider it out of the question to be gay
  • Reading Lester’s experiences with racism toward Hispanic people; Ana’s desire for her older siblings to want to hang out with her; Orion’s extended metaphor of a volcano (his family) exploding and him getting burned by the lava, even though he would shut the door to block it out; Zubia’s story of Pakistan and its people and cultures, and her desire to show people a new perspective; Syed’s story on how strong his mother is, and how we live in a seemingly fatherless society; Raelynn’s essay on why girls should stop competing and pushing each other down and should instead lift each other up; Ethan’s argument on why enjoying one’s education is so vital, yet so rare; and so many other pieces of these kids’ hearts.

Summer PartyAs I reflect on these moments, I ask myself whether these moments would have occurred if we had done STAAR test packets and STAAR test prep. I ask myself whether the students would have continued to show up day after day. I ask myself if I would have grown as a writer myself through the help of these kids. But I already know the answers.

These experiences were made possible because of workshop, because we engaged in real reading and real writing. These experiences were made possible because I loved and trusted students enough to be vulnerable to them.

I can hardly wait for the next summer party.

Among other things, Austin Darrow was an English major in college, and so he knows that he’s supposed to write things like, “Austin Darrow is <fill in the blank>.” Except he hates writing about myself like he’s not in the room. He also knows he’s not supposed to plagiarize, so he credits that intro to Ilsa J. Bick. Here’s the need to know: Austin Darrow is currently planning his summer school curriculum, next year, his wedding in December, his honeymoon, and his grocery list. And he loves it.

Read the essay Austin wrote at the Clear Creek ISD Summer Readers-Writers Institute here.

Guest Post: The Authentic Writing Process

Writing is one of the biggest struggles among the students who visit my classroom each year, much like many classrooms across America. The traditional, sterile way students are taught to write stifles the authenticity of what writing is naturally. The writing process is often the most confusing because the students are told they can only write one way through a certain formulaic expectation. Instead of teaching a formula and using a one-size-fits-all graphic organizer, we need to teach students how to write authentically; teach them the process of writing, not the product. By teaching a student how to master the process of writing we teach them how to overcome the struggle that so many of our students experience.

This summer I excitedly attended the Summer Institute with some of my fellow Clear Creek ISD English teachers and was able to really absorb and practice the writing process through Reader Writer Workshop.

The writing process began when the class was tasked with mimicking a mentor text. Students need to see the moves that writers are making in their own pieces and use what they have seen and learned to inspire their own writing craft. Using mentor texts is a great way to help students improve their writing through reading. We read a few texts, responded with writing about those texts and then briefly discussed in our groups what we had written, then moved on to our writing task. We were given about 8 minutes and told to respond in writing to a piece we felt a connection with, to not worry about the way we began, but just to write. I chose to write alongside The Poem Mami Will Never Read from The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo. Something about the way she wrote the poem for someone who, for one reason or another, would never read it, really spoke to me. For the last two years I have been dealing with grief over the death of one of my best friends, so I decided to write a poem to him that he would never read.

I began by mimicking the line from the poem, “You will never read this poem that…” and took it from there. I poured my heart onto this page in my notebook revealing all the pent-up emotions I have been pushing to the back of my mind and ignoring in my heart for two years. Quite possibly, it could just be that it took this long for my heart and mind to process the shock and grief that came with his death. I wrote about a page and a half before the class moved on and I was able to come up for air and let the poem be. Having permission through the process to just write without a formula is what gave my piece the ability to become something great.

The next class day we were given time to draft more on our piece. I began by reading back through what I had written and began adding to it. At the end of the writing period we were encouraged to share with a peer at our table what we had written so far. Fear surged through me, I could feel my heart begin to beat so quickly I was sure everyone at my table cold hear it or see my shirt move up and down with each beat. I reminded myself that as a teacher, I will ask my students to do this. How can I ask my students to share their vulnerable hearts with me, if I do not do the same. At the beginning of Summer Institute, I vowed to dive in 100% with the Workshop process and way of teaching, so I shared my piece with a partner at my table. I immediately felt fear but also a feeling I didn’t expect; liberation. Handing him my notebook, with my heart on the page, was like handing the emotions over and validating that they are real; my first step to find healing within myself, and my first big leap in the writing process.

I remember feeling anxiety begin to pour into every crevice in my body as I watched him read every word on the page and begin to make notes about my writing, my feelings, my emotions. I remember being scared as he handed back my notebook with a look I could not discern on his face. As I read through the notes I began to feel empowered, my writing was validated by my partner and friend as a touching and creative. He pushed me to write more specifically and pour more of myself into this piece. Sharing became a significant and empowering tool in my writing process. By seeing what others thought and how readers read my writing, I was able to revise and edit my piece in a way that ensures my readers hear what I am wanting them to hear and learn what I want them to learn.

I intentionally took a day away from my piece after sharing and revising for a bit. I think this is one of the most important things I did in the process. It allowed me to step back and process my feelings and thoughts and let the piece breath for a bit before I dove back in. I felt refreshed and was able to refocus when I came back to the piece. I worked on this piece for another three or four days before sharing again to learn more about what was lacking in my piece for my reader and continuing in the process of writing.

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During my revision of my third draft, I heard the terrifying words, “Let’s all share with our groups our best lines.” I had to remind myself that I committed to fully experience this process; what I ask my students to do each day in my classroom. I shared. I cried. I kept writing. My face flushed with heat and my voice shook as the words were spoken aloud for the first time, in front of other people. It felt as if the world stopped and all eyes were peeking into my soul. I hated it. But loved it at the same time. I loved it because I saw the process working. I didn’t stop writing, in fact, I wrote six more pages. Six. More. Pages. Imagine if we model with our students with as much vulnerability and dedication as we ask them to share. Imagine if we give ourselves over to this process, as scary as it might be for some. Change is never easy but almost always, in my experience, worth it.

On the last day I was to present my piece. When it was my turn in the circle I pulled on my memory of the last three weeks and the process I took to get to get this “final” piece. I channeled the empowerment I felt through sharing and after about 60 seconds of steady tears and intentional calm breathing, I read my whole piece aloud for the first time.

I sobbed as I read, remembering how death stole from me. I shook at the overwhelming feeling of grief’s grasp on my heart. I breathed through the memories of never getting to say goodbye to someone I loved so dearly for more than 16 years. Each exhale taking with it another line from the poem, another piece of my shattered heart. I painted a picture with words of my precious best friend’s soul, smile and life that I never thought I would be able to. At the end, when I was done, the room was silent for a many long seconds and I remember feeling the weight and shackles of grief release in the slightest bit. A start to more healing; therapy through writing.

My experience this summer was messy, beautiful, difficult, liberating, scary, healing and most of all empowering. Reader Writer Workshop allowed me to experience the writing process in a way that renewed my love of writing and freed my creative mind previously bound by the limits of traditional, templated writing curriculum. The whole writing process gave me so much confidence in myself and my writing and I can’t wait to instill this same confidence in my students next year.

A few things I took away from my time as a Workshop student about the writing process:

  1. The writing process needs to be authentic and organic. It is different for each writer.

  2. Being a reader is so important. Reading as a writer is what helps the writer find their voice and authentic process of their own writing.

  3. The writing process is not a one size fits all formula. It is far from that, so throw away your essay outline template and let your students follow your lead on becoming a true writer. The writing process is something that happens naturally, authentically, differently, for each writer.

  4. Authentic writing is not a formula. I have found that I don’t really “brainstorm” or “pre-write” or make webs and charts… I just write. Whatever it is I feel, whatever it is I want to say – or sometimes what I don’t want to say.

  5. My first draft is often messy and there is so much beauty in that mess. It is often unorganized, drowning in imperfect sentences and awful cheesy metaphors, and that is okay. Our students need to know this as well, that as writers, we are never going to get it on the first try. That is why this is called the Writing PROCESS. There are many steps to writing an essay, a story, anything at all, and if we are to do it well we need to be 100% committed to the Workshop Process.

  6. Sharing is necessary. This was the most difficult part for me and my writing piece this summer. Letting others read my scorched and broken heart on a page was not something I was immediately ready to let happen, but without it, I would not have gone through the writing process and created my piece with the depth I did. The piece I wrote is raw and full of anguish. It was, and still is, terrifying to share but more therapeutic than I could have imagined. Hearing what my friends and peers had to say was encouraging and gave me confidence that what I was writing and what I was writing about was important to more than just my healing, but others’ as well. Knowing this is what made the tear stained pages a little easier to share.

  7. Revision is a balance. Knowing when to resurface before diving back into the emotions and write more, write with deeper purpose and meaning is essential to a successful writing process.

  8. Writing is never really done. I read my “final” piece aloud in our read around on the last day of this class and I still find myself wanting, needing to dive back in a make it more than it was.

Although a piece may never feel “finished”, knowing when to leave well enough alone is important.

  1. The writing process gave me power and bravery to keep writing. I feel like more of my heart is ready to pour out into this one piece, but maybe that means there is another piece lying within me. This is the beauty of this process, seeing clearly what the purpose is of each piece and moving on to another when you need to.

  2. Our students need to experience this each and every day in our classrooms.

This next year I will continue my growth as a writer alongside my students in the Reader Writer Workshop classroom by modeling what true writers do. I will be sharing my experience with the writing process and encouraging my students daily to find their voice through this beautiful, necessary process. Yes, it is less conventional, but so are our students. I hope to free them from the traditional approach to writing and watch them create and find empowerment in their creations. It is up to us, their teachers, to model and write alongside them vulnerably and intentionally, showing them what real writers and readers do. They deserve the chance to learn in a way that will empower them for the rest of their life. Imagine the writing we can experience from our students if we let them find their writing process.

Sarah Roy is a mother to three amazing, energetic, creative little boys and wife to a Marine turned Texas State Trooper who is braver and more selfless than anyone she has ever known. She is a Disney addict and is excited to surprise her sweet boys with a trip to Disney World in 10 days. Her passion for reading and writing overflows into her students each year and she loves watching them grow on their journey to be readers and writers.

Reading and Writing about TV

You’ve read before on TTT about how summer is that time for necessary rejuvenation, even if it comes with guilt.  

Summer is also the time for our best ideas to grow.  I just came back from the inspiring NCTE Summer Institute, where I made teacher friends from around the world and I maxed out my library holds in about twenty minutes of talking to fellow teachers.   And if that’s not enough to remind you that summers are important, I’ll remind you that Hamilton wouldn’t be a musical if it weren’t for summer.

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One of the ways I am taking time for myself is by watching television.  Lots and lots and lots of television. And I’m not talking thoughtful, high-quality, content-rich TV: I’m talking vote-em-out reality shows where portmanteaus like “showmance” are frequently used.

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Chris (Swaggy C) and Bayleigh found each other inside the Big Brother House this summer.   Will “Swaleigh” last or is one of them going home?  

I am not going to try to convince you that you should waste your time like me watch these TV shows.  However, I have noticed that I spend about as much time reading about TV shows and writing about TV shows as I actually spend watching the show.

Using myself as an example, I have some thoughts on how to bring this television into our classrooms for reading and writing.

 

Reading about TV — research and mentor texts:

  1. People, Entertainment Weekly, and Rolling Stone all have solid and consistent coverage of television shows with articles and interviews that are sufficiently detailed and not too sensational.
  2. For reality TV in particular: The New Yorker has this wild story about a failed reality TV concept.  Reality Blurred covers the underbelly of the TV shows and provides a glimpse into casting, productions, and trends.  My fellow Survivor friends would be disappointed if I didn’t include a link to Rob Has a Podcast.
  3. Medium is a good medium (ha!) between social media discussions about TV shows and something more professional.  You can do a search for specific shows or do a search by topic.

 

Writing about TV: prompts to get writers started in notebooks.

  1. What are five TV shows that other students/people should watch?  Why?
  2. If you’re a fan of a specific TV show, what’s the best/worst season?  Why?
  3. You are a producer of your favorite TV show.  What would you change/fix/add?
  4. What TV show was a big disappointment for you?  Why were you looking forward to it? Why didn’t it meet your expectations?
  5. How does where the TV show takes place influence what happens in an episode?
  6. What episodes do you rewatch?  Why?
  7. Who are some of your favorite characters?  Why?
  8. What’s a funny TV show for you?  What makes it so funny?
  9. How does this TV show portray race, class, gender, and relationships?  Does that portrayal line up with how you see your life?
  10. Reality television is often distorted by “the edit” – the snips and clips that make the final cut and represent a fraction of a percent of what a contestant does.  How might the edit differ from the real story?  Why?

 

Now that I’ve laid bare some of my passions — what are you up to this summer?  Do you think it will influence how you teach next year?

 

Amy Estersohn is an English teacher in New York. Her favorite season of Survivor for entertainment value, strong characterization, and sociological discussion is Marquesas (Season 4). 

 

Make Sure We Are Momma Bears for Our Students by Lindsey Cary

I had a momma bear moment this weekend.
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You probably know what I mean.  This bear came out at the baseball diamond, mid-day, in 90-degree weather and a blazing sun.  It was the kind of day where I had to eat my popsicle from the concession stand in three bites or I’d be wearing it.

Despite the heat, my six-year-old finally had a hit (yea!), but unfortunately, he saw the throw to first hit the baseman’s glove, so he turned to run back to the dugout thinking he was out. However, the first baseman dropped the ball.  If my son had kept running and ran through first as he was taught to, he would have been safe. Most fans were encouraging albeit disappointed in his rookie move. But, one older gentleman, decided to yell and bark his feelings about the mistake and then about how he could correct it.

According to my sister, I was a subdued Momma Bear.  I gave my mean look, which if we are being honest still looks fairly nice, and I quietly responded from a safe distance that “He is six.  This is not the Majors.” I don’t think there was any damage done…at least my non-confrontational self hopes there wasn’t!

Although it is summer break, my teacher mind is still churning, and this episode caused me to think about how we give students feedback.  I came to the realization that I need to be more of a Momma Bear for my students. I think I generally orchestrate feedback fairly well, but there is always room for improvement.  Here are some guidelines or some points to ponder for being a “Momma Bear” for our students.

  1. Constructive Feedback Doesn’t Need to be Public

Whether I’m redirecting a behavior or providing a student with writing feedback, I DO NOT need to broadcast this to the whole field…err, I mean classroom.  This is probably a no-brainer, but we’ve all had that student at some point when gentle nudges and private hallway or after class chats don’t seem to be working.  We are frustrated and just want to do our jobs. As our temperatures rise and our patience levels fall, we slip up. Little good will come from this. And just think, how would this student’s momma bear handle hearing your feedback broadcasted from across the classroom?  Let’s keep exploring other avenues other than public embarrassment to redirect our students’ behavior or to provide writing feedback (see number 4 below).

  1.  Feedback Overload Doesn’t Work

The gentleman from the baseball game had all the best intentions I’m sure just as we, as teachers, do.  He wanted to help my kid understand, make him a better player, and win a close game. In his mind, barking out five different suggestions to my guy seemed like a helpful and sensible idea.  However, there was no way my son was going to process all that! He just learned you can run through first base this year!

I’m guilty as a teacher of what this man did.  I want to help my students so much, so I’m often tempted to point out mistakes and improvement suggestions all over their papers.  But, we need to put ourselves in our “players'” and “Momma Bear” shoes. My son was not going to remember all five things he yelled at him; he was only going to head back to the dugout discouraged and confused.  We need to purposefully provide a reasonable amount of constructive feedback that focuses on improvement and growth. A student can tackle a few changes at a time. Then, we can add new skills to work on once they reach mastery.

  1.  Praise Goes a Long Way

I knew I would need to talk to my son about the incident in the game, but I tried to approach the topic in a kind and nurturing manner as any Momma Bear would.  After the game as we walked back to the car, we stopped and looked down first base line. I shared with my son how proud I was of his hits during the game and how he scored his first run on a close play.  As we reminisced, I brought up how cool it is that he can run through first base in baseball so that he doesn’t have to lose any of his speed. We discussed what he should have done instead when he was out at first, and I made sure he understood.  He walked away from the game laughing and happy but determined to do better next time.

Isn’t this what we want for our students?  When giving feedback to our students, we have to look for the positives.  Our brains aren’t always trained for this; I know that my default setting is correction mode.  Maybe this is because that is the way many of us were taught by most of our language arts teachers, or maybe it is because of the stress we all feel from above to raise student standardized test scores.  Regardless, we need to take a breath and consider the awesome writerly moves our kids are making.  

Ralph Fletcher wrote, “Even with a “bad” piece of writing, a good teacher will reach into the chaos, find a place where the writing works, pull it from the wreckage, name it, and make the writer aware of his or her emerging skill with words.”  With a growth mindset philosophy, no writing is “bad” as students work toward improving their craft. Furthermore, we can’t just say “good job,” but we need to give specific praise. When we honor what our students are doing well, they are more receptive to what we want them to improve.  We need to retrain our brains to look for the positives. Maybe we make ourselves a cheat sheet of different writing moves we can praise, maybe we look for the most recent mini-lesson skills we’ve worked on and appreciate how the student attempted to incorporate them, or maybe we notice the effort our student put into a new piece.

  1.  Relationships, Relationships, Relationships!

My son didn’t know this older man.  All he knew was that he was someone’s grandpa and came to most of our games.  Momma Bear brain was screaming, “Let his coach explain it to him. He doesn’t even know you!”  

The same goes for our students.  We can’t be that well-meaning, grumpy old man on the sidelines to them.  If we want them to take our feedback to heart and mind, we have to be someone to them.  In Write Beside Them, Penny Kittle describes a time she received feedback on a piece of writing from a stranger and how upsetting it was because that person didn’t even know her.  She later reflects on this incident, “You just can’t develop a relationship with a writer by trying to fix everything.”  

We have to build that trust and show students that we care about them and their writing from day one in our classrooms, and we have to foster these relationships every day all year long.  Students have to know that once they step foot in our classrooms we have taken on Momma Bear responsibility and will do whatever we can to make them a better person and learner!


Are these four reminders earth-shattering? Probably not.  But do we all fail at these from time to time? I know I do.  Come August I plan to arrive at school ready to be a protector, a guide, a cheerleader, and a full-out Momma Bear for my students.

Lindsey Cary is an ELA teacher of 12 years, a graduate of the Indiana Writing Program Summer Institute, and an Apple Teacher working to make reading and writing relevant for all learners. Connect with Lindsey on Twitter at @lindseyacary.

In Re: Summer State of Mind

Sounds like the title of a catchy pop song, right? It might actually be one, but if it is, my guess is that its tone would contrast to my own summer state of mind so far. Last year kicked my teaching a**: two sections of AP Lang, two sections of a brand new sophomore curriculum implementing a workshop model, and one section of a senior elective titled Advanced (read: “creative”) Writing. Like anyone reading this blog, I loved (or grew to love) every student,  I loved (almost) every teaching minute, I (usually) loved the planning. I had so much love that there weren’t enough minutes in the day to express it. Literally. We express our teaching love through individualized attention, nurturing encouragement, and meaningful feedback, right? So, literally not enough minutes.

My own personal summer state of mind consisted of my mind grinding to a halt. For almost the whole first two weeks after school let out, Chicago spat a chill rain and my bones ached with mental exhaustion. And my brain hurt. I checked out of my teaching self so deeply that I put out of sight the stack of books I had planned to devour starting on day one. And I unwittingly missed two blog posts, for which I sincerely apologize. Guilt over that professional lapse drove me further into the delinquency of binge-watching season 2 of Marcella. Although I did drag my attitude out of the mire to see Roxane Gay speak about her memoir and her new anthology, about rape culture and politics, about writing and (of course) Queen Bey. I went with my friendIMG_4221 and teaching partner Mariana, with whose pen I scrawled pieces of Gay’s wisdom on a cocktail napkin. Ms. Gay was inspiring (although Mariana and I shamefully confessed to each other that it had been tempting to just put on pajamas per usual at 6:30 pm, but tickets had been purchased).

Has anyone been there, in that “summer state of mind”? I suspect you have. Despite the temporary comfort of a British-TV-mystery binge, between the exhaustion and the guilt, it’s not fun. When I got home from the Roxane Gay event, I tucked the cocktail napkin into my copy of 180 Days without even looking at it. Shana wrote of not being able to turn off her teaching self, but I was wallowing in the avoidance of mine and in the guilt of doing so. This couldn’t go on.

mic_dropA few days later, I followed through with plans to meet with a few beloved colleagues, two of whom will be new to our sophomore workshop curriculum next year, to do some planning. These are smart, passionate, devoted teachers–not to mention funny, lovely people. But even among these dynamos, my own energy still waned. So now I had something new to feel guilty about: not bringing my best professional self to that coffee shop and to my colleagues. But lo and behold, that very same day, Shana had posted this. And that brief paragraph at the end, so straightforward and honest, but more complex than anyone in another profession could know: “I think it just contributes to that overall feeling of exhaustion I have, so maybe I just need to pick it up when I’m a little more rested.”

Boom. Mic drop.

We’ve all read and written about how much we deserve our summer break, and even its accompanying anxiety. But we’ve also all heard the haters. Is it their rhetoric that brings 1301BlamingTeachers-Art.pngabout the guilt? Is it seeing our loved ones go off to their year-round jobs while we are still sipping coffee in jammies? Is it because I was raised Catholic? (I have to admit, the moment of reading that paragraph in Shana’s post felt to me like I had just prayed the Rosary).

This post doesn’t offer anything new, but I guess I wrote it just in case anyone is still struggling with a “summer state of mind” that isn’t what that phrase connotes. As for our better teaching selves, “maybe we just need to pick them up when we are a little more rested.”

Guest Post: Why I Want My Classroom To Run Like Zappos

I like shoes. Like many 20 something teachers, I want some variety in what I wear to 9d67eecb760e5f2da5199c53ffd5e85awork (heels, flats, boots, hand-painted Tom’s with Shakespeare’s quotes…) which means I’ve spent a lot of time perusing, purchasing, and inevitably returning some of those online shoe purchases. Hands down, their company is one of the easiest to return or exchange those shoes that don’t quite match that new blazer, I also bought online. All that aside, that isn’t why I want my classroom to run like their company.

For the last few years, Zappos has consistently shown up on the best places to work list. But why? This company has recently touted movement toward a “holacracy.”  This term, initially dubbed by the political writer, Arthur Koestler, focuses on the importance of individual autonomy and self-governance. Zappos prides itself on letting their employees be their own boss. Who hasn’t at one point or another dreamed of being their own boss?

Zappos’ move toward a holacracy is one that we’ve been slogging toward in the academic world for years. Author of multiple New York Times best-sellers and Ted-Talk Famous, Daniel Pink’s research on behavioral science, especially that on motivation, has verified what we as teachers have known for years; when we let the students be the boss, the quality of work often shows a shocking improvement in both output and originality.

Jumping on the Genius Hour bandwagon, with guidance from peers, I integrated this concept into my 12th grade English course. Once a week for twelve weeks, students researched and created a project that was their choice. In our district, people more powerful than me pushed for this concept to be a “real” part of our 12th-grade curriculum: the capstone of their high school experience. Through new curriculum development and alignment, this new course came to fruition. Relying heavily on Pink’s tenets for motivation, I’ve found that the level of work submitted to my “College Prep” English 12 classes often surpasses that of their Advanced Placement counterparts. Students have dazzled me by turning their ideas of starting a nonprofit organization into reality. Students who’ve written business plans for an online venture they want to begin in college.  Students who’ve created and launched their own drop-shipping companies and websites. Students who mastered specific aspects of Leonardo Da Vinci’s drawing style. Students who analyzed the psychology of repetition changing the neuroplasticity of brains. Students who completed a statistical analysis of data where they collected and disaggregated data on whether standardized test scores are representative of student GPA. Students who have designed and coded games of their own creation.

Students who don’t consider themselves “lovers of English” find success in this class. Students with special needs find success in this class. Why? Because, for once, they are their own boss.

Screen Shot 2018-07-01 at 10.53.17 AMWe start the trimester by exploring Pink’s research using excerpts from Drive and Dan Ariely’s book Payoff while also viewing Pink’s RSA Animate video. While my favorite part might be the Back the Future references, what we actually discuss are the ideas of companies like Skype, Wikipedia, and Atlassian. As a class, we dissect how each of these companies fulfills the concepts of purpose, autonomy, and mastery.

The conversation inevitably leads to the question: How are we going to do that in a class? From those big ideas (no, I don’t expect you to start a fully functional company), we scale back. What can students realistically complete in twelve weeks?

After brainstorming and project tuning, I become more of an instructor on educational pedagogy than the traditional English teacher. Each student is responsible for creating their individual learning plan and personal curriculum. Some days I slip on my curriculum boots and help kids write their own essential and guiding questions, explore (and explain) the Common Core State Standards, climb up Bloom’s Taxonomy and wade through Webb’s Depths of Knowledge. Students know these educational researchers and can articulate how their research and projects are fulfilling these expectations for curriculum. On other days, I tie on my English teacher tennis shoes and help students improve their research skills, encourage networking for action research, and determine the structure for research writing, revising, and editing.

Encouraged by the holacracy of their working environment, Zappos team members might set the record for longest and friendliest customer service calls. They might send you flowers when they make a mistake on your order. These employees go the extra mile not because they must, but because they want to.

In my classroom, I want students to go that extra mile: give an hour-long expert presentation on their learning, start a nonprofit, paint a mural in an impoverished community, teach their peers self-defense, create, design and 3-D print a new product. What does that mean for me as a teacher?

I compare it to watching my niece learning to tie her shoes. Even though it would be so much faster for me to tie her shoes for her, it is essential to explore the process and allow her to move at her own pace. Sometimes you’ve got to let her figure out if bunny ears or loop-swoop-and pull works best.

I want the same experience for my high school seniors. No matter the age, people learn best when they can be their own boss. Though it is easier said than done, we need to think about our identity as educators in an ever-shifting perspective. We need to continue to revise what it means to be a teacher. There are moments when you are needed to be the expert in English, literature, language and writing, but in a class that thrives on Genius Hour organization, you also have to accept that you are not the expert in every single avenue of research your students will take. As the teacher, you do your best to learn alongside your students and model what it means to be inquisitive and passionate about learning.  It takes time and a willingness on our part as educators to take a step back from being the “sage on the stage” and allow students to explore and engage in new content in a way that is meaningful to them.

Hayley McKinney is an English teacher in Birmingham Public Schools where she primarily teaches 10th and 12th grade English as well as public speaking classes.  She coaches forensic and debate in her spare time. She recently completed a Masters of Arts in Educational Leadership.

 

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