Category Archives: thinking

On Slow Stylists and Teaching Writers

My hair and North Texas humidity are not friends. I can fix my hair in the morning, take one tiny step outside, and floop — it’s like the photo next to the word frizz in a picture dictionary.

I need help with my hair.

Not long ago, I had to find a new stylist. I’d seen my hair pro for going on 20 years — through short and kinda long and short again and kids’ friends and schools and graduations. I didn’t even know I had attachment issues until I called to make an appointment and learned Vivian had moved to another salon. They would not tell me where.

You may know how hard it is to find a new stylist. Overwhelming and risky come to mind. I just couldn’t deal with it — so I went cheap. I saw a random ad on line for “models” and took a chance on a “stylist-in-training”.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

And it was good.

Well, it got good. First, I waited 35 minutes just to get in the chair. I learned why as Emily tentatively combed and cut in tiny snips. She was S.L.O.W. but cheerful, eager, and excited to put the skills she learned through lecture and video into hands-on real-hair practice. Emily’s “expert mentor” stood to the side, giving tips and clarifying process the whole time. Then, when Emily thought she was done with my cut, the mentor picked up the comb and scissors, checked each section for wayward hairs, and reviewed the moves Emily had just made to create my style.

Of course, this all reminded me of teaching writers.

Awhile back I wrote about slowing down and planning time for students to think and talk and question before we demand they get to drafting. I think planning time applies to other aspects of teaching writers as well.

Here’s three things I’m wondering–

  1. How can we plan time for more talk? Writers write well when they have a solid base of information from which to build their ideas. Purposeful talk can help our writers grow in knowledge, recognize bias, and engage in conversation that pushes thinking. Listening and speaking often receive short shrift in ELA classes. We can change that. We can help students get their hands and heads into real-life practice as they talk about issues, news, and attitudes that fuel their writing.
  2. How can we plan time for more questions? When writing, questions often lead to answers. I teach asking questions as a revision strategy:  Students read their peers’ writing and can only respond with questions that prompt the writer to add more detail, include examples, develop thoughts more fully, etc. This takes practice, but it’s the best approach I’ve found so far in helping students question their own writing. (See Start with a Question for more on how questions aid writers.) We can give tips and clarify process — and help students work together to improve their writing — when we spend a little time helping them ask good questions.
  3. How can we plan time for more conferring? A few years ago, I asked my students how best they wanted me to help them improve as writers. These high school juniors overwhelmingly asked for more one-on-one. I was kind of surprised: Teens wanted to talk to me moreSeriously, they did. These writers understood they were all at different places with their language skills and writing abilities, and they knew the value of our conferences. Undivided attention, sometimes just noticing, even for a brief few moments, can make a world of difference to a writer. Sometimes we instruct. Sometimes review. Most often we just listen.

I left the salon that day 2.5 hours later — the longest I’ve ever spent in a salon. Time didn’t matter to Emily. She wanted to do well, truly practice her new skills, and create a cut she’d be proud of. I know we feel rushed and crushed in our English classes, but there’s a lesson here:  How can we slow down in order to maximize the time our students need to grow as writers?

In case you’re wondering, I like my cut, but I’m still battling Texas weather.

 

Amy Rasmussen loves working with student writers and their teachers. She thanks her family and friends for their time: generating ideas, reading drafts, proofing, editing, encouraging. And she thanks you for all you do for readers and writers everywhere. Follow Amy on Twitter @amyrass

Advertisements

Four Things I Wish I’d Known When I Became an English Teacher

I’ve got a lot to learn. Even after decades of reading, writing, and learning to be a teacher, I often feel the sinking feeling of inadequate. Every spring she floats to the surface, and sends a garbled message that makes me question:  Did I do enough to help my students?

Help them with what?

When I first started teaching high school English, I thought it was all about the books. I loved literature. I wanted them to love literature. How can they love it if I don’t help them see the complex beauty of well-crafted sentences and heart-achingly human plot lines? I was that teacher:  I taught books instead of readers. (Many of you have heard me speak about my Dickens’ debacle. Believe me, it was the worst of times.) Like many new teachers, I taught like I had been taught. I did not focus on the learner and her needs. I did not focus on the reader and his interest, ability, or anything that matters to growing readers. My focus squared fully on what I thought a high school English class should be:  classic lit (chosen by me), study questions (written by me), analysis essays (prompts by me), and me helping my students “understand” what they had just read. (Not even considering that they may not have read the assigned pages at all.)

Last week I celebrated with family as my daughter and her husband graduated from

Jennaand RyanUSUgraduates

Jenna and Ryan Anderson

Utah State University. We watched close to 2,000 graduates in two different college commencement ceremonies walk the stage and into the next part of their life’s journey. Many of those graduates intend to be teachers. It’s a beautiful thing, really. New blood, new energy, new passion in a very demanding career. I hope it doesn’t eat them alive.

It won’t — if they are better prepared than I was.

That’s what kept hopping through my head as I watched so many young people shake hands and clasp diploma covers — evidence of their academic accomplishment:  Has their education prepared them for the realities of teaching? Will those going into ELA classrooms teach books or teach readers? It’s a lot of years later, do they know more than I did? Of course, I know next to nothing about USU’s College of Education, although according to the Dean, they are highly ranked. That’s not the point.

So what is the point?

I’ve still got a lot to learn. But if I can help speed dial the learning for other English teachers, I’ll do it. Here’s four things I know for sure:

We must–

  1. be literacy teachers — not just literature teachers. (I first heard Kelly Gallagher say this at a conference years ago. This shift in perspective changed me. Readicide is still a go to resource.)
  2. be purposeful in developing readers and writers, and let that be our guide as we plan, prepare, and present lessons. (I thank God for Penny Kittle. Write Beside Them sparked my move into authentic writing instruction. It’s the only professional book I’ve read more than once. Also, Book Love.)
  3. be inclusive in all aspects of our teaching from the resources we choose to the attitudes we take and how we talk and act and advocate, and how we work to create relationships, break down barriers, fight injustice. (In the past couple of years, I’ve learned a lot from Cornelius Minor about having an inclusive mindset. His book We Got This would be a good gift for new teachers, for every teacher.)
  4. be reflective, yes, but more vital to meeting the needs of all learners, be responsive. (That’s the intricate simplicity of the workshop model of instruction:  We meet the needs of individual students in the moment of their struggles and their strengths.)

You and I both know there’s so much more. The whole teaching gig can be so overwhelming. (Thus, one reason I’ve relished in my gap year.) If nothing else, I hope all ELA teachers, new and not-so-new, will focus on themselves this summer: Read a lot. Write a lot. Think a lot. That’s really all it takes to master #1.)

 

Amy Rasmussen lives, writes, paints, and gardens in North Texas. She’s taught all levels of high school English, except AP Lit, and now she’s seriously thinking about middle school — or college. She facilitates readers-writers workshop training wherever she’s invited and loves to see ideas percolate and passions ignite as teachers sit in the seats as learners, internalizing the philosophies and routines of RWW. For more info on trainings, check out the 3TT PD page.

Planning Time for Thinking

One thing I know for sure:  Writing is hard. Lately, I’ve been reminded how hard as I’ve tried to keep up with Sarah Donovan’s challenge #verselove2019 to write a poem a day during the month of April.

It’s only day 9, and Oh, my!

It’s not even the poetry part I’m finding difficult, which is surprising. Deciding on an idea and then sticking to it has wrecked me for eight straight days. And now I’m wondering:

How often do I expect students to dive into drafting without giving them time to talk and question and change their minds about their ideas? Do they have enough time to play and mull and sit with their thoughts before they make a commitment–or before a draft is due?

I know what so many great writers say:  Just start writing; you’ll discover what you want to say. But what if that doesn’t work for everyone? Lately, it hasn’t worked for me.

So now I’m wondering:  How can I plan for enough time to give everyone the time they need to settle in to their ideas before I plan enough time for them to write?

Now, I’m not talking about timed writing — or state-mandated test writing. Those are different (and in my humble opinion) horrible inauthentic beasts. I’m talking about the process of thought. The thinking it takes to draft with intention.

I’m pretty sure I’ve rushed it.

And I want to slow it down.

#verselove2019

Amy Rasmussen lives and writes from her home in North Texas where the bluebonnets are blooming beautifully. She thinks about writing all the time and needs to get better at getting her thoughts on the page. Writing poetry, which is far out of her comfort zone, may help. You can follow her on Twitter @amyrass

%d bloggers like this: