Category Archives: Pedagogy

#3TTalks Shop — It’s about Time

Quick Conversations on the Topics That Matter to You!

“To the true teacher, time’s hourglass should still run gold dust.” ~Douglas William Jerrold

“These are the times that try men’s [teachers’] souls.” ~Thomas Paine

Conversation Starter:  With all the demands on teachers beyond the classroom (extra duties, campus committees, new initiatives, etc) how do we capitalize on the time we have and keep our focus on our learners?

Amy:  I am lousy at self-care, yet I know that is an important part (maybe the most important part) of time management. It is hard to take care of ourselves, physically,

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Photo by Aron on Unsplash

mentally, emotionally, and spiritually when all require at least a little of our time–usually alone time–and others put demands on us we have little control over. My trouble starts within the school day and bleeds over into home time: excessive meetings where little get accomplished or co-opted conference periods or new accountability systems or school initiatives that do little to promote academics, especially literacy, are the biggest time swamps to the workday. New things so often trump what actually needs to happen regularly in classrooms. Every good teacher I know takes work home, and this is the work that usually requires the most mental capacity and relates directly to student learning. I think administrators forget that all too often.

Lisa: I spent some time in a school improvement meeting today, during which I wrestled with this very notion. How do we continue to work eight, nine, twelve hours a day without burning out? How do we face the fact that “hour number twenty-five” is never going to come to the rescue of our ever-expanding task lists? How do we devote ourselves daily to the exhausting pursuit of teaching, and have anything left over for family, friends, or even the pet goldfish? (I marvel at Doc’s resilience as the often neglected Dennis Family goldfish)  

Most importantly, how do we make sure the precious few hours we have with our students in class, best reflect all the work we do outside of class on their behalf?

Amy: That’s where the routines of workshop keep me sane. No matter what anyone else demands of me, when I keep my focus on student engagement via reading, writing, listening, talking, and thinking together about issues they care about, utilizing our classroom library and writer’s notebooks, we accomplished something good that day. I

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Photo by Kunj Parekh on Unsplash

remind myself to step back, slow down, and focus on what really matters in growing confident and accomplished readers and writers:  choice, access, volume, time, and my expertise as literacy instructor and discussion facilitator.

Lisa: Yes! I find that when I’m spinning out of control with all the “other,” my solace lies on the shelves of books that guide my work with kids. My refined definition of what it means to be a good English teacher includes taking time to lose myself in books, with the express purpose of bringing the mirror, window, or door back to my students through book recommendations, excerpts for mentor texts, and even just the calmer, happier teacher that reading makes me and that they deserve.

Now, as for overcoming all of the additional demands the job places on us these days, I am slowly coming to terms with (very slowly, as my mental health is still a bit tenuous in this regard) the fact that only I can create the personal boundaries around how much work comes home with me both literally and figuratively, and I absolutely must make it a priority to limit the extent to which this job becomes my entire life. This happens when I let go of what I think I should be doing, and focus instead on what’s most important. 

Amy:  Personal boundaries! Yes, yes, yes. I am pretty lousy at those, too. I am working on it though. One thing that’s helping me set myself up for success (and cope with everything else) is a combination of two time management techniques. It works like this: 

  1. List 3 big (urgent, important, make-everything-else-easier-when-this-gets-done) tasks
  2. List 2 other important, but not so pressing, things
  3. Then, do #1 on the big list in sprints of the longest time chunk I can manage. Within the school day, this might be 15 minutes. Unplug, shut the door, and keenly focus.

Imagine the possibilities if we had the time to keenly focus on our students all the time?

Lisa: It’s so true. There’s always a ton to bring home. However, having a kindergartner at home has really put into perspective for me how much time I should be putting in at home when it now feels like it’s not only at the expense of my mental health but the well-being of my child. I limit the amount of work I do at night these days because spending time with my family and then trying to get a reasonable amount of rest before my alarm goes off at 5:00 a.m. may be the only thing between me and burnout right now.

I’ve taken the practice of one of our district administrators to heart this year and I’ve worked to keep my “school hours” to a twelve-hour window. I do not check my email before 6:00 a.m and I do not check it after 6:00 p.m. I am more than connected to colleagues and school happenings in other ways, so should there be an emergency or change of plans big enough to impact the following day, I’d still know about it. Beyond that, the homework “emergencies” of my students can be addressed the following day. I can follow up with a parent or colleague when I get into work. In this way, I can be more present at home when I’m there, and at least attempt to draw that line between my work and my life so that my time is better spent in both places. Now weekends…that’s another story. I’ve got some reevaluation of time management to do there, for sure, not to mention guilt around working AND not working. 

Amy:  Smart, Lisa! Your twelve-hour window is generous, and you are so right:  That kindergartener of yours–and Doc the goldfish–need you! Everything else can wait.

Do you have topic ideas you would like us to discuss? Please leave your requests here.

 

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Getting on the Boat: a New Teacher’s Swim into Secondary Readers-Writers Workshop

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If you are an educator, navigating workshop, please consider sharing your story. Email amyprasmussen@yahoo.com

The metaphor of the last school year at Klein Cain High School seemed to be, “We’re all in the same boat.” However, I did not feel that way. Though we were all experiencing opening a new school together, navigating through unplanned and unexpected events (think Harvey, sharing our high school with an elementary school that flooded, and snow days), we were not experiencing it in the same way. Last year, I had the alienated feeling that all the veteran teachers were indeed in same boat, but I was treading water next to the boat, sometimes practically drowning, choking on water, struggling to breathe. I think many first-year teachers, new school or not, would agree with me.

It was a trying year to say the least, but I had many life preservers thrown my way. The summer before my first year, I had the pleasure of attending a two day professional development session about reader’s-writer’s workshop that built on the philosophies I had seen and heard in my student teaching. I was very encouraged to see that my district valued such practices. This knowledge became the lifejacket I held on to many times.

Because of that PD session, I became a disciple of Penny Kittle’s. I bought her books, studied them and implemented her strategies (though I butchered many of them). From her books, I learned about the Book Love Grant; I put a reminder in my phone for January, applied and actually received one of the 60 $2,000 grants! The books I have had the honor of adding to my classroom have been my life-raft, holding me afloat and helping me make it to my colleagues’ boat.

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Photo by Alexander Sinn on Unsplash

Even though I had these things to hold on to, I struggled to truly implement workshop until this year. Instead of last year’s survival mode, this year I feel like I am in the lifeboat that is just next to the one all my colleagues are on. I’m close, but just not quite there yet. I have had many experiences that have brought me closer.

This year, I have co-teach sections, so I have a greater amount of students with autism and other special needs. At first, I was worried about trying out workshop with these kids, but, luckily, my co-teacher Mallory encouraged me to teach like I would with any other class. I am so glad she led me to that decision because we have had some true gems arise. During one of our quick writes, we watched the poem “Lost Voices” and started our writing with the sentence stem “You tell me you know what it’s like to be…” One of our students finished that sentence with “autism” and wrote a beautiful quick write detailing the difficulties from his point of view.

I have also seen self-declared non-readers with their noses still stuck in a book as they slowly make their way back to their seats during a transition from reading time; they just don’t want to put their books down. We have conferred, figured out book preferences, written more than I thought possible at the beginning of the year and we are making our laps (as Kittle and Gallagher write about in my teaching bible- 180 Days) toward better writing.

Since I have decided to follow my instincts and implement workshop in my classes, I feel closer to being on that main boat with the rest of the teachers at my school. I’m not in survival mode anymore. I’m not just filling time instead of I’m making all my lessons very intentional. Like Lisa Dennis in this last post, I got to participate in Amy’s professional development this summer and it rejuvenated me and encouraged me to truly immerse my classroom in workshop. This blog has been the most constant life preserver in my reach this year and last. This community keeps me going strong, so thank you for encouraging me constantly to keep working toward being on the main boat.

Rebecca Riggs is a second year teacher at Klein Cain High School in Houston, TX. She prides herself in being a wife, dog mom and professional development fanatic. Rebecca is just now learning to call herself a writer. She is living her best life because she gets to live out her passion everyday- learning from students she loves. Follow Rebecca on Twitter @RebeccaLRiggs

Good books — and a teacher’s expertise in using them — can do it all

On Sunday, my friend and extraordinary literacy-leader, Billy Eastman, and I got to giveBookTweet away books. We presented at the Coalition of Reading and English Supervisors of Texas (CREST) fall conference, and Follett Learning gave us 30 books, six signed by the authors, to raffle off to our audience. It was kind of an Oprah moment: “You get a book, and you get a book.” Oh, the thrill of book giving.

But giving books is just part of the thrill. We know this. We ‘give’ books to readers and students we hope will become readers often. We model our reading lives. We read aloud. We line whiteboard rails with new titles. We do book tastings and speed dating with books. We celebrate our readers and exhaust our arsenal of book-loving ideas.

And some would-be readers still don’t read. What’s a teacher to do?

Here’s three ideas that have worked for me:

1. Never give up. When we set high expectations, when our students know we are serious about Book Love, when we practice keep-on-keeping-on with all the things I listed above– and we relentlessly share our joy, passion, and commitment to their reading lives– even if we never get a student, or a handful of them, to read a book, we have succeeded.

2. Believe in #1. Often we focus on the one student who just won’t budge. She chooses books, flips a few pages, fakes reading a chapter, bluffs her way through a conference, and we get discouraged. Keep trying — but do not let her be a black hole. So often we find ourselves gravitating to the one over and over again when we need the energy to keep encouraging, moving, and celebrating the many.

3. Make it okay to not read novels (yet). Anthologies are awesome. Sometimes

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“… this anthology empowers the nation’s youth to listen, learn, and build a better tomorrow.”

students who don’t like reading just need to enjoy a good piece of writing. Many will then want to read more by a particular author. One title many of my students dabbled in, and often read in its entirety, is Flying Lessons & Other Stories with authors Kwame Alexander, Jacqueline Woodson, Matt de la Pena, and more. I’ve recently purchased Fresh Ink, which is similar and looks equally engaging. It’s got authors Nicola Yoon, Jason Reynolds, and more! And I just read about this one this morning:  We Rise, We Resist, We Raise Our Voices. It’s now in my shopping cart.


In our session at CREST, Billy and I discussed implementing the new ELAR standards for Texas (We both served on the teacher committee that wrote them), and we shared the transformative role investing in teacher expertise and authentic resources has made in his district (We wrote about some of it in this English Journal article.). Access to engaging books like the ones we gave away in our session is just part of it. Knowing how to use them to teach thinking, reading, writing, speaking, and listening skills is the other.

Good books — and a teacher’s expertise in using them — can do it all.

Billy Eastman at CREST

We know the real thrill isn’t in getting a new book but in the knowledge, the empathy, or the know-how that books gives to us. This is the thrill we want for our readers. It’s the reason we do what we do.

 

Amy Rasmussen is a mother, grandmother, reader, writer, and wannabe sleeper. She spends a lot of nights thinking about growing readers, encouraging writers, and talking to her writer’s block. She’s back to working on that book she started five years ago, so if you’ve got any extra luck hanging around, please send it her way. Follow Amy on Twitter @amyrass 

Takeaways from Tyrolia: Four Days with Kylene Beers, Penny Kittle, Bob Probst, and Linda Rief by @KarryDornak

Tyrolia Ranch
I still haven’t mentally returned from my time at Tyrolia, Kylene Beers’ ranch, in Waco, TX. My mind still thinks I am sitting at her dining room table, painting a watercolor picture while overlooking a pond banked with Cypress trees. Or nestled on one of her incredibly-comfortable couches talking about a podcast with a newfound friend. Or riding a Mule (the all-terrain vehicle, not the animal) with Penny Kittle and five other people who were just as giddy as I was. Or sitting around her living room chatting and laughing with Bob Probst and Linda Rief while the aroma of the evening’s dinner tempted our senses.

Scenic Tyrolia RanchIt’s amazing that a place of scenic tranquility and beauty could rouse such feelings of rebellion and determination.

But you can’t talk about rebellion without first talking about power, so let’s start with the power of literacy.

For the first time in history, power is no longer based solely on wealth. Power is a Tweet. A YouTube video. A social media post. Kylene gave a fascinating talk about the “ugly roots of literacy in America.” In Colonial America, “literacy” primarily meant one’s ability to sign a document or contract. Who held the power there? Those who could sign the document, or those who could write the document? During the Revolutionary and Civil War times, penmanship was valued as literacy. But who had the leisure to practice their penmanship? Those with wealth, privilege, and power. From the Civil War to World War I, literacy meant one’s ability to recite poems, monologues, and stories. But who had the leisure to practice memorization? Those with wealth, privilege, and power. Then we get to the Industrial Revolution, where the assembly line was born. And then our schools began modeling the assembly line design (can’t you just picture kids on a conveyor belt being carried from class to class?). From the 1950s to 1980s (and even in the present), literacy meant analyzing the meaning of what we are reading. But still, someone else held the power (it was the teacher — or CliffsNotes —  who determined if a student’s analysis was correct or not).

The point is, the definition of literacy shifts to reflect what is happening in the country and world. Presently, businesses see the value in synthesizing information and identifying potential problems rather than just solving existing problems. So what does this mean for our classrooms?

It means we abdicate the power we as teachers have held on to for decades and give it to our students. If we are only teaching them analytical literacy, we are preparing them for 1980. For this century, students need the same literacy skills they’ve always needed: to summarize, to retell, to articulate, to evaluate. But more importantly, they also need a willingness to see another perspective, the chance to take a risk, the ability to sustain their focus, an acceptance of ambiguity, and the self-confidence that allows them to identify as readers and writers. Because that’s power, right?

But the chances are, if you’re reading this, you already believe this. Chances are, if you’re visiting Three Teachers Talk, you are already subscribed to the belief that education has not caught up to the 21st century. And chances are, you sometimes feel alone in this belief. Or isolated. Like you are fighting a losing battle. Like you have found a great discovery, only to feel that no one else believes you.

That’s where Penny Kittle’s words ring true  — that courage is more important than caution. I understand not wanting to “rock the boat” or damage friendships with your colleagues, but at what cost? The risk of sending our students into the world illiterate by 21st century standards and powerless?

Kylene told us that to start [educational, metaphorical] fires, we must start with our best kindling. So find your tribe. Find your people. Those who value courage over caution. They may not be in your hallway. Perhaps they’re across campuses, across districts, across states, across international borders. That’s who I found at Tyrolia. I found my tribe.

And persist. Penny said that it is often the changemakers who take the lumps. And I don’t know about you, but I have definitely felt it. But our kids are worth it. Linda echoed this sentiment when she said that even if you just change one teacher, that is one group of kids who are benefitting. To add to the conversation, Bob suggested we focus on the 5%: the 5% of teachers who are ready and willing to make a change, or the 5% of our teaching that we are dedicated to improving. So ask: “What’s one thing we can change this year?”

For me, I am vowing to write more. Penny encouraged us to start the habit of writing for fifteen minutes a day. You know what I said to her? I’ve tried to keep notebooks and journals, but I always lose interest because I feel like what I’m writing doesn’t matter.

Dwell on that sentiment: My words don’t matter.

You know many of our students feel the same way. How can I show my kids that their words and voices matter when I don’t even feel that my own do?

But she told me that my words did matter. And then four days later, she retweeted this, and I can’t help but think it was for me:

PK notebook tweet

The truth is, words matter.  Everyone’s: mine, yours, our students’. The words we read shape our thoughts. So immerse yourself in the words of Kylene Beers, Penny Kittle, Bob Probst, and Linda Rief. Their words are life-changing.

Immerse your students in words of both the past and the present, so that they understand how we got to now, and how we can change the future. And the words we write matter. They help us reflect, learn, process, and discover.

I’m slowly wakening from the dream that was Tyrolia, but I hope that we all remain:

Determined to write.

Unafraid to rebel.

Revolutionaries for 21st century literacy.

On a mission to find our tribes.

The 5%.

As of today’s publication, Karry Dornak has continued to write, rebel, revolutionize, and seek out her fellow 5%. She is balancing life in Spring, TX, as an instructional specialist, teacher, wife, mom, and Pumpkin Spice Latte enthusiast. Follow Karry on Twitter @karrydornak

 

How We Built our First 3 Weeks of Workshop

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Look at Sarah’s room!

A classroom built around flexible seating is amazing for kids building their literacy.  Comfy chairs, tall stools, and bean bags take a student out of a “classroom” mindset and into a creative work space that encourages ideas to flow across boundaries that might have been impermeable with rows and rows of sterile desks.

It works just as well for teachers building a workshop from thin air. You can imagine how comfortable that tan couch felt on the last Friday morning before the start of school.

Sitting in that room for this much anticipated planning session felt as comfortable as if I’d been there for a decade.  Five teachers with a singular focus gathered their resources and experience to put together a plan that was student focused and built on the foundation of workshop.   I got to know this group well at the Literacy Institute but I’m still trying to learn the full extent of their individual and collective power.

It is important, on our team, to be intentional and explicit with our lesson design.  The kids should know exactly what we are doing and why we are doing it.  They should recognize the moves their teachers make and take comfort that those moves were selected specifically for them. There is no reason to keep the “why” and the “how” a secret.

On this team, we typically build lessons with an eye towards a learning focus that starts with something like: I want you to know that readers/writers ….. do something. (Thanks Amy, Billy, and the Lit Institute.)

For the first three weeks, though, we talked about using: I want you to know that members of a Reader/Writer Workshop….do…one of the six pillars.  You get it.

Our curriculum documents, designed by teachers, contain a section devoted to the six routines of workshop instruction and the following are the routines around which we built lessons:

The Reader’s/Writer’s Notebook

Lesson Focus: I want you to know that members of this Reader’s/Writer’s workshop use a notebook to explore thier literacy.

Our “notebooks” look very different teacher-to-teacher.  Some of our classes will use traditional composition notebooks and some will use Microsoft OneNote in our explorations.  Either way, the point of having a safe and personal place to plan, draft, revise, reflect, etc. remains consistent across our classes.  Its not enough for us to ask the kids to have a notebook, they need to know the importance of having it.  Some of the kids struggled with following my set-up instructions because they were intentionally vague.

Student: “Mr. Moore, what categories do you want us to use to track our reading this year?”

Me: “That’s up to you.  Its your notebook.”

Self-Selected Independent Reading:

Lesson Focus: I want you to know that members of this Reader’s/Writer’s workshop take ownership of their reading and writing experiences.

I remember back to last year, and how much the kids struggled genuinely connecting to a book. Maybe it was the hurricane sitting out in the Gulf or that they really only had one year of workshop leading up to their senior year.  What ever it was, we worked hard to take ownership of our reading, so much so that I wrote about it here and here. (Looking back at those words is like seeing the words of a different writer, but I digress…)

Mentor Texts:

Lesson Focus: I want you to know that members of this Reader’s/Writer’s workshop use mentor texts to guide their learning.

We use mentor texts to teach kids how to read and write like a writer. The students need to know that we looking at the writing of others with specific intentions in mind. Its important to delineate the separate lenses of craft and content and constantly reinforce the importance and interconnection of both.

We planned for ways to write beside them.  When I write in front of my students it invites them to connect to a writer from their community.  This connection is between a student and a person that shakes their hand every day and smiles when they make eye contact. That’s an incredibly deep connection and one that I’ll leverage every chance I get.

Mini-Lessons:

Lesson Focus: I want you to know that members of this Reader’s/Writer’s workshop look at specific skills that we want to learn and then apply those skills to their reading and writing.

The skills we choose to highlight are intentional and our students need to understand that they aren’t chosen at random.  Not only that, but we aren’t going to spend more than a few minutes in our mini-lessons before we move back into reading and writing, with an emphasis on those specific skills.

Collaboration:

Lesson Focus: I want you to know that members of this Reader’s/Writer’s workshop listen to others share and provide feedback that supports their growth.

I can’t teach all 30 of them all the time and maintain any level of effectiveness.  We have to build a supportive community that  allows me to widen the feedback cycle from one, typically confident student, to 30 who are confident to share with their confidants. They need to know that the days of me asking a question and calling on one person for the answer are far behind us.  We practice the routine over and over. Ask a question, discuss in group.  Ask a question, practice their thinking through written response. Rinse/Repeat.

Oh, and they have to be trained not to shoot up their hands or shout out an answer when they are asked to notice something.  Instead, they will learn to sit in the silence and let their thinking wash over them in waves. Or maybe the metaphor is to peel back the layers of their thinking like an onion. Whichever you prefer.

Conferring:

Lesson Focus: I want you to know that members of this Reader’s/Writer’s workshop take advantage of opportunities to talk one-on-one with the expert in the room.

The importance of regular one-on-one conferences can not be understated. I’m not just “checking-in” on them while they read and write.  I’m digging into their thinking for places I can provide support.  We will explain to our students how important it is for them to be honest and open when we confer.  They can’t hold back due to nervousness or fear. Like Jerry Maquire said, “Help me, help you!!!” with that typically creepy look on his face.

 

Based on our planning sessions, impromptu secret meetings, and the genuine happiness in which we approach each other, I know this year will be my best ever and it is because of the work this team will do together to move our freshman class forward in their literacy.

Now, in all seriousness, lets cross our fingers and hope nature and fate don’t hit us with the same intensity as last year.  We all need time to heal a little more.  Let’s do it together.

Charles Moore had a quiet Friday night and went to all four of his son’s soccer games this weekend.  He passed El Deafo by Cece Miller back and forth with his daughter this weekend.  He put more than two thousand words to the page this weekend between his grad classes and this blog post; a new record.  He can’t wait to get back into the classroom Monday morning and learn alongside the students.  And he wishes you the same happiness he’s enjoying right now. Visit him on twitter or instagram.

 

 

ILA 2018 Conference Run-down!!! (and an epiphany!)

Am I the only person who feels super awkward meeting new people?

So I’m standing in the “New to ILA!!!” section of the Austin Convention Center early Saturday morning.  Several well spoken women and men address the throng of newbies and supply us with important information about the conference.  Remarks concluded and we are encouraged to visit with those around us, meet new people, and hang out.

I’m there by myself waiting for Gretchen Meyer, my fellow literacy advocate, to arrive. She shared this conference experience with me and I couldn’t ask for a better guide.

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Can you imagine a more awkwardly handsome face?

So I’m scanning the crowd looking for familiar faces, assuming there won’t be one.  I’m an award winning people-watcher and for those of you who aren’t, teachers can be incredibly fun to observe.  Anyways, Marcie, an incredibly nice women with a bright smile introduced herself to me and we talked about the conference and how excited we were to listen to the speakers at the General Meeting that was to begin shortly.

Both of us, my new ILA friend and I, massively underestimated the level of brilliance that was about to wash over me.  I listened to Adan Gonzalez talk about his success in the face of poverty and bigotry and how he works to fight those demons today.  Nadia Lopez blew the crowd away with the statement, “I opened a school to close a prison.”  So…um…wow.  If that wasn’t enough, we got to experience the passion of Cornelius Minor and his charge to consider, “How can we not stand for our children…when the traumas of the world weigh them down in our classrooms?”

I had to pinch myself.  Was the rest of the conference going to be this amazing? (It was.) Was this euphoria and uplifting feeling of being re-energized going to fade as I left this hall and moved on to the other presentations? (It didn’t.) Was I ever going to see my new friend, Marcie, again? (I did, on the big screen, at the end of the general meeting.)

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Meet Marcie Post, the Executive Director of the ILA.

Even now, back in League City, I can’t stop reflecting on the lessons I soaked in at ILA.  Maybe the biggest realization I came to, and there were many, wasn’t about books or kids or literacy.  This realization encompassed all those ideas, but was really about me.

I realized that above all else, I’m a “culture” guy.

I’ve identified myself by so many labels over the years: Football guy, Coach that can teach, Book Lover, Literacy Advocate, Student First Teacher… all those things. But, when its all said and done, after 16 years in the classroom, culture means everything to me. The culture in my classroom is, obviously, important. Just as important, perhaps, and, for the most part out of my control, is the culture of the people around me.  I want to be around teachers that are happy people.  I want to feel like we are all in this together and that the kids will be the big winners in this world.

I think this seed might have been planted by this blog post by Lauren Ambeau, an intermediate school principal in my school district that posts on her own blog. Or it might reach all the way back to my first two principals, Marlene Skiba and Deanna Daws; two women that made me feel confident and valued in my teaching role.

I think, also, the people I learned from at my most recent, and longest, stay had a lot to do with it.  I have the honor of presenting with the brilliant Jenna Zucha next week and this woman took time out of her summer, twice actually, to visit with me about our upcoming opportunity to present about writing to the leaders and stake-holders of our district.  She guest posted on this blog back in May.  What’s funny about our second meeting, is that one of my best friends happened to be at the very same Starbucks. He’s a genius, and famous.  You might have heard of him… Ashton Kutcher thinks he’s cool.

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This summer’s Literacy Institute, our own sort of ILA, comes to mind as well.  Billy Eastman and Amy Rasmussen build a culture of respect, trust, and love that I try to recreate in my classroom.  The huge win came from spending three weeks with the beautiful souls whose teaching team I’m so looking forward to joining.   We laughed enough to get stares from the other groups and cried buckets on the last day as we bared our souls through our writing.  Sarah Roy guest posted about that process just two weeks ago and then Austin Darrow guest posted for Amy the next day!!!  Amanda Penny is one of the most fun loving people I’ve ever met. Looks like the culture I’m joining at my new place is strong, and, having gotten the opportunity to interact with the instructional leaders there, I know this is by design.

Kylene Beers, Sunday afternoon, said, “Our democracy requires that we hold onto our own literacy and not turn it over to a few pundits on this network or that one.”  This statement reminded me that I posted about this very same idea back in February.  Thus I’m reminded further that this blog, this digital workshop, is a culturally supportive space for teachers like me.

There is so much more to write about.  I plan to sprinkle those tidbits through my posts this year.

Understand this: I’ll fight for culture.  I’ll seek out good people and happy teachers for the rest of my teaching career.  The kids deserve it.

Charles Moore has his pool looking as clear as crystal.  He’s done a horrible job being a reader this summer. His kids spend most nights sleeping in a blanket fort in the boy’s room (thick as thieves, those two.)  He’s looking forward to sharing the experience of discovering a new school with the incoming 9th graders at Clear Creek High School.

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.

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