Category Archives: Guest Post

Book Talks, Choice Reading, and Fast Food Drive-Thrus by Amy Menzel

I can’t put my book down. I’m (finally) reading Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and I am loving it. I book talked it a week ago and I’m 75 or so pages from finishing. I’m not sure why I didn’t read it before! I’ve book talked it before, so I assume I was so engrossed in another title that this one had to wait. Anyway, I’m already anticipating a serious book hangover upon finishing.

As I crawled into bed and turned on my reading light last night, I had two lightbulb moments. In addition to the obvious one, there was the realization that I am not rereading a book for the eleventy-seventh time this year. In fact, I haven’t reread an entire book for the past two years. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But there may be something misguided about an English teacher focusing all her efforts on teaching the same few books year after year.

I spent nearly the first decade of my high school teaching career doing just that. I could still deliver a solid lesson on To Kill a Mockingbird, Fahrenheit 451, The Great Gatsby, or The Kite Runner at a moment’s notice. Give me an hour or so to prep and I could review layers upon layers of annotations in my personal copies of each and make a solid lesson a good one. But I’ve been there and done that. Sure, I found new insight with each reread, but I don’t think enough to warrant the time it took. I’m not convinced my lessons got that much better from year to year, despite my thoughtful (and time-consuming) planning and preparation. And, really, that shouldn’t surprise me.

Writer Haruki Murakami once tweeted, “If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.” And, there I was, only reading the books that I had read, and only thinking what I had thought. I mean, I added related readings to ever-expanding text sets and used new pedagogical practices, but I was basically the academic equivalent of a Taco Bell drive-thru. It was all the same stuff just packaged differently.

That’s no way to live. It’s no way to grow.

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I see my job as an English teacher much differently now than I did as an eager newbie. I’m still eager, alright, but I also have this sense of urgency. Part of it is that I teach seniors now. And second semester Senior English is basically the pressure cooker of secondary education.* I have 90 days to help students identify as readers. Let me tell you, it’s not going to happen with a traditional approach. At best, a traditional approach might convince them that reading is “not that bad” as they grind their way through a couple assigned books (or the SparkNotes of a couple assigned books) that they may or may not find all that engaging. I’m striving for more than that.

I don’t have a lot of time with these young scholars and there’s no time to waste. It’s time they find books that intrigue them, inspire them, and challenge them. It’s time they find books they actually want and will read. And it’s really important that we shift to students finding their own texts. “Real world” readers don’t read because some lady named Mrs. Menzel tells them they should. They read because they find books that speak to them. Of course, I’m here to help. I book talk a new title every single day. I make it my job to play nerdy cupid and match the right title with the right reader. It all takes a lot of time. But not more time. I’ve simply reallocated my time. I don’t spend hours rereading the same books and turning last year’s burritos into this year’s enchiladas. Instead, I read. For real. I read a lot. I read books I want to read and books recommended by librarians and students. I read novels and nonfiction and graphic memoirs and collections of poetry. I read magazine and newspaper articles and blog posts and lyrics and scripts and transcripts. And I share what I read. And I ask students to share what they read. And we talk about it and we write about it.

amy 2my book board, featuring all the title’s I’ve book talked this year so far

And I’m finally living a reading life I want my students to follow.

(And look at them follow!)


*I’m pretty certain this analogy checks out. It sounds good. Truth be told, I’m much more Taco Bell than I am pressure cooker kinda person in the nonliterary, culinary sense.


Amy Menzel finished Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close nearly seven books ago. She just got around to revising and submitting this guest post because teaching. She knows you understand. You might also understand why she’s contemplating spending $20 on this “SAVE THE WORD TACOS” t-shirt. She hopes you have a great end of year and a fantastic, restful summer filled with great reads.

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Guest Post by Bridget Kirby: On Calling Myself a Writer

For the third year in a row, I have been challenged (in the best possible way) by Amy Rasmussen to get out there and write. For the third year in a row, I have started this submission to the Three Teachers Talk Blog. Maybe this is the year I will be brave enough to submit.

In her sessions at TCTELA, she has challenged her attendees with this question, “How many of you consider yourselves writers?” That first year, I lowered my hand. She followed up with, “How can we truly appreciate the difficulty our students face when we don’t struggle through writing?” This was something I had been working on as a teacher.

Like many, during my first years as a teacher, I would go and pour over my own essay to show as a sample to the students on the following day. “See students, this is what it should look like.” Until—one day—Tre’ came to my desk and said some of the most difficult words I’d ever have to swallow as a teacher, “Sure, miss. You can write like that. It’s easy for you because you went to college for it. For me, it’s not so easy.” You see, I had robbed my students of the opportunity to watch me struggle through the writing. I robbed them of the very nature of writing—it’s not easy; it’s supposed to be hard. And writing, for me, was very hard.

So, I changed. I started writing in front of my students. I modeled the vulnerability I wanted to see in them. I let them watch as I failed (sometimes miserably) to pull the best words from my brain, to spell words correctly, to begin and end a piece of writing powerfully. I let them help me try and try and try again. In conjunction with this process, I began implementing Writers Workshop. I watched students as they began to blossom in their own writing. Through workshop, they began to raise their voice through writing. Through workshop, I became an English teacher.

Fast forward to TCTELA and that first session with Amy Rasmussen.

Despite my improvements through teaching with the workshop approach, I still lowered my hand when she asked that question, “How many of you consider yourselves writers?” I still had trouble calling myself a writer. Sure, I was an English teacher, but I wasn’t so sure I was a writer. As someone who was not brought up through a “workshop” learning environment, I still battle with the enormity of perfection, with the fact that an essay does not have to be five paragraphs to be great. That when writing well, writers break sentence rules and essay rules and society’s rules. As a writer, my focus is still very much on the product, not the process. The 5-paragraph essay from my youth has pigeon-holed my very identity as an adult writer—even while telling my kids that they are all writers.

For this reason—and for many others—workshop isn’t just one way to do it, it is the ONLY way to do it! I never want my students to feel the crippling fear of the blank page or the fear of raising their voices in front of their peers.

This year, Amy challenged us again. She asked, “How many of you have heard of Three Teachers Talk?” Of course I have! I use this blog’s words on a daily basis to inform my practice. She followed up with, “How many of you have written for Three Teachers Talk?” Once again, I had to lower my hand.

So, this is me. Stepping WAY out of my comfort zone. Ensuring that I never have to lower my hand again. Writing a final paragraph with fragments. Breaking the rules.   

Maybe this is the year I will hit “submit.”

Bridget Kirby is the Secondary ELAR Instructional Coordinator for Silsbee ISD, and she has Bridget Kirbybeen in love with all things literacy and education for as long as she can remember. She believes to share that love with students and teachers has been the greatest of honors. She says, “I am proof that literacy and education can change a person’s destiny in the best ways.” Along with being an instructional coach and teacher, Bridget is also the mother of one adorable book-loving little boy and the wife of one giant man-child. Her life goal is to love like Lizzy Bennet, fight like Harry Potter, and live like Atticus Finch.  Follow her on Twitter @beekay928

The Teacher, the Story-teller, the Writer: Guest Post by Milree Latimer

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by author-educator Milree Latimer

Teaching might be the greatest of the arts since the medium is the human mind and spirit.

John Steinbeck

To write fiction, one needs a whole series of inspirations about people in an actual environment, and then a whole lot of work on the basis of those inspirations.

Aldous Huxley

Some days when I reflect upon my years as teacher, then as an elementary school principal, a high school vice- principal, and a professor of education–I see a thread. As William Stafford writes in his poem The Way It Is “There’s a thread you follow. It goes among/things that change. But it doesn’t change…/While you hold it you can’t get lost…/You never let go of the thread.”

There has been a thread throughout my teaching days, one that has manifested itself in my life now as a writer and published author. It’s been there all the time. A long gaze back reveals how I have grounded myself, the children and the teachers with whom I’ve worked, in the flow of story. There is a natural quality in the life of teaching that feeds the story-teller.

The narratives and chronicles of the educator’s life fed my yearning to write.

•••••

“Come, tell me your stories.” I said. The children in my kindergarten class and I gathered on the carpet. We told stories to one another: made-up tales of adventure, show-and tell chronicles of the life of a five year old, once-upon-a-time boldness.  It was 1963.

“Whenever I’m asked what advice I have for young writers, I always say that the first thing is to read, and to read a lot. The second thing is to write. And the third thing, which I think is absolutely vital, is to tell stories and listen closely to the stories you’re being told.”

~John Green

••••

“Let’s find a story together, draw it, write it, tell it.” I said.  I set my over-sized journal on the classroom easel. One by one they talked about what their story might be that morning – there’d been a snowstorm, white drifts were accumulating at the windows. Together we thought aloud. “A weather report for school announcements!”  They wrote, they drew, they told their stories. It was 1967. It was first grade.

••••

“You had the ball in your hands, Mark with few seconds on the clock–Tell us what that was like” I said.  It was 1974. Mark was an eighth grader.

“Anyone who is going to be a writer knows enough at 15 to write several novels.”
~May Sarton

••••

“Tell me what you hope for. Tell me what happens in your classroom that astonishes you. Tell me how you came to this, to be a teacher. Begin your educator’s biography this morning, write the last chapter when you retire.” A class of soon-to-be teachers at a Faculty of Education. September 1990.

•••••

The Graduate class was entitled “Reflective Practice.” The assignment: “What do you do; why do you do it the way you do; what do you hope for? A philosophical and personal portrait.”

A student’s response moved me. He wrote from a deep place within himself.  His was a narrative revealing his journey, his was a reflective piece of writing that inspired.

What truly set the path to my personal exploration was a question asked of me in one of my first courses taken at the Master’s level. When asked ‘who are you,’ my immediate response was ‘a wandering soul searching for answers.’ That answer came from somewhere deep inside…. I realize that there are many aspects of my life that I need to connect…I have to reflect on what it is that I actually do and the reasons surrounding that. (Tyrone Perreira, June 2004)

••••41n7v0p5fxl

Four characters in my novel THOSE WE LEFT BEHIND, are a composite of graduate education students with whom I worked from 1996 till 2004.

I held the images of those students as I wrote the story of Casey MacMillan, Professor of Education. The conversations that wove throughout the chapters represented some I may have had with my Master of Education students.

Casey gave air and space to her words. She believed that spoken thoughts and responses needed time to establish their own significance rather than being run over by too-hasty support or worse, ill-considered questions.

 As the author of Casey’s story, I discovered my experiences engendered a quality of truth within the story.

Professor Casey, the main protagonist taught about love, loss and the human condition. Even though she locked away her emotions within her life, her teaching bore a wisdom that connected her with her students.

When I wrote Casey’s story there was a direct line between myself as teacher and myself as author. A conversation between Professor MacMillan and her doctoral student Rob exemplifies this link:

Rob opened his briefcase reached in and pulled out a manuscript–his thesis. Her hope for all her advisees and her grad students was that they discover their own energy of possibility.

“Here’s what I really want you to see.” Rob said. He leaned forward and slid a page across the smooth mahogany table.

When she finished reading the page, she placed it on the table slowly, carefully–Resting her chin on her hand she began: “It’s a radical approach to tell your own story as your thesis. Saying that, it’s not impossible…difficult yes. (P. 99 Those We Left Behind)

••••

“Capturing shards of memory, writing specific scenes, I began to discover…” (Floyd Skoot, 2008).

There is a thread that I hold. Writing is my inner life moving me into the open a passage to the page where I am exploring, imagining, and remembering. I connect to my experiences, I hold the thread, I never let go.

Writing is a coming home. Like Toko-pa Turner (2017), I remember myself home.

Resources:

Skoot, Floyd, (2017). The Wink of the Zenith. The Shaping of a Writer’s Life. University of Nebraska Press.

Turner, Toko-pa, ( 2017). Belonging. Remembering Ourselves Home.

Her Own Room Press. Salt Spring Island, British Columbia.

Milree Latimer is a writer who spent most of her life as an educator and professor. She has an undergraduate degree from McMaster University, a Masters of Education from The Ontario Institute For Studies In Education, and a Doctoral degree in Education from Penn State University. An expat Canadian, she lives among the mountains in the Pacific Northwest of the United States with her husband Jerry and their three cats. She is currently at work on her next novel.

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

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

 

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.

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.

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