The Language of Flowers: Characters in Bloom

by Elizabeth Oosterheert

Image courtesy of Posterspy.com

In an unparalleled school year…

One of the books that spoke profoundly to my students was Patrick Ness’ award winning story of love and loss, A Monster Calls. If you’ve never read it, this book would be an excellent addition to your summer reading list. I promise you’ll be moved by the story’s symmetry, truth, and Jim Kay’s breathtaking illustrations. In addition, the book is framed around four tales of life and death that are anything but average, all available on YouTube as short videos excerpted from the feature film starring Louis MacDougall, Liam Neeson and Felicity Jones.

One of the main characters in A Monster Calls is an ancient monster formed from a yew tree who comes to bring truth through stories and healing. Since much of the narrative is framed around a massive tree, it was natural to invite my students to analyze characters using the language of flowers or “floriography,” the Victorian era’s version of sending a snap or a text message. Thanks to Michael W. Smith & Jeffrey D. Wilhelm’s Fresh Takes on Teaching Literary Elements for introducing me to this approach!

In Victorian society, one could express admiration or disdain for another person by sending a particular floral arrangement. Each flower had its own meaning, and in the context of our classrooms, this transfers seamlessly to literary studies. The beauty of this kind of response is that it works with any book study in which one of our goals is to challenge students to cultivate their knowledge of characterization and metaphorical thinking.

As Kate Roberts wisely suggests in her book A Novel Approach, one of the best things we can do as teachers of English language arts is give our students the books they need, and then use those books to teach them skills that can be applied to multiple texts, rather than teaching one book for weeks on end, plowing through every line and extracting all of the joy from the novel in the process.

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

Floriography is a creative way to invite students into analysis and inference. It begins by giving students access to charts (readily available online from a variety of sites) that link flowers with different meanings. For example, heliotrope means devotion, while a yellow carnation represents rejection. I use different charts to give students a guide for creating character “bouquets” composed of flowers that represent traits (both qualities and flaws) of principal or supporting characters in a whole class text, or a novel that a student has chosen to read independently or as part of a book club.

Usually, I will ask students to choose three flowers for a character, and then provide rationales for each of their choices. Often, students will end up choosing more than three flowers once they get into the “rhythm” of this type of response. Floriography also works well as a way of inviting students to compare and contrast characters.

While I was skeptical the first time I tried this approach, I learned that students appreciated having the tangible floral “frame” to explore metaphor and construct meaning. Soon, when we read together, they were asking if they could create character bouquets as a way of expressing important elements they noticed such as character motivation and relationships. 

A copy of the job sheet that I shared with students the first time we tried character bouquets with A Monster Calls is linked here.  Students enjoy creating character bouquets collaboratively as well as individually. My students Chloe and Josie wrote character bouquets linked here.

Character bouquets are also an excellent way to analyze character development in short stories when there is a particular character who changes dramatically in a short time, such as in Shirley Jackson’s “Louisa, Please Come Home,” a thriller that my eighth graders enjoy reading when we study Jackson’s iconic works.

What are your favorite ways to invite students into deeper thinking about story and characters?

Share your ideas in the comments, or email me at oosterheerte@pellachristian.net.

Elizabeth Oosterheert is a middle school language arts teacher and theatre troupe director in central Iowa. She loves writing, and sharing the stage with seventh and eighth graders. Her favorite stories are Peter Pan, The Outsiders, & Our Town. She is currently writing an adaptation of Arabian Nights for performance in November 2021.

The Yearning to Learn Carries On

Just like Nathan Coates in his post last week, I have been thinking about the conversation surrounding Critical Race Theory in schools. From what I have seen in my area, fear is playing a huge role: fear of the unknown, fear of discomfort, fear of hard conversations. Now, I firmly believe that many of the things coming up for CRT are misguided. Too many terms are becoming synonymous that aren’t- “anti-racism” is equated with “white fragility” is equated with “race-baiting” is equated with “critical race theory.” It seems to go on and on, but each of these things is so different from the next.

As I took my first vacation with my husband alone since our honeymoon four years ago to Atlanta, Georgia last week, I had an epiphany. I mentioned in a post a few weeks ago that nature is where I come up with my best writing ideas. While exploring Georgia, specifically Sweetwater Creek State Park, I took a moment to sit on a big swath of metamorphic rock (I originally wrote “granite,” but my geologist husband corrected me) lodged into the hill on the riverside to watch the whitewater flow. Lots of things came up for me: this water kept flowing amidst a worldwide pandemic, this water kept ceaselessly eroding away the rock beneath it while we struggled to figure out what school looked like this year and what was best for students, and this water kept finding the path of least resistance while fear was being brandished after racial reckoning, insurrection, and the fallout. I got emotional as I realized that our kids kept going, too. It was different from all the years before, but they still had an obvious ache inside of them for learning. Just like that water, their natural human tendency to want knowledge and want to understand kept flowing. I think I forgot that at times this year.

If you ever go to the state park, this can be seen on the red trail.

While I was stuck in my mindset about how learning has looked for decades and how that was so different this year, I missed some amazing moments that I am just realizing right now. Together, my students and I processed a pandemic, the politics that raged around that pandemic, the racial reckoning, the history-making insurrection, and the movement toward a more “normal” return to life. They created powerful “America to Me” videos to start off the year so we could see our country through their eyes (using this video as a mentor text). They taught me new things about how to look at texts during their book clubs. They took on big topics that they felt passionate about and researched them to create a website for publishing (adapted from an idea from Kelly Gallagher using this site as a mentor text). We may have read less texts and written less formal essays than in years past, but these kids learned. Not because of me, but because of their instinctive will as human-beings to make meaning. No one could have stopped their learning no matter how hard they tried.

With this epiphany and the war against CRT gnawing at the back of my mind, I realized that the kids are going to be alright. I am hoping for some more nuanced conversations between politicians and adults about what CRT actually is and what free speech/true inquiry in the classroom should look like, but even if all those adults let these kids down by not having those tough but necessary conversations, I know my kids will keep talking about it. They will keep asking questions and not stopping until they get an answer. They have a deep yearning to learn that can’t be thwarted by misguided laws, just like that body of water won’t be stopped by rocks or trees. My hope lies in the fact that the kids will always find a way to make meaning, no matter what we do or don’t do. However, our job is to remove the obstacles to learning to make it flow easier, not add more resistance to their path.

*Many of our curriculum ideas mentioned here were created in large part due to my colleague, Deanna Hinnant’s, amazing mind. You can find her at @DAHinnant on Twitter.

Rebecca is moving into her 5th year of teaching at a new school, Conroe High School. She is looking forward to a fresh start and all the ways this move is getting her out of her comfort zone. In the meantime before school starts up again, she is resting hard by bingeing TV, reading tons of books, and relaxing in the pool. She is currently reading Sanctuary by Paola Mendoza and Abby Sher. You can find Rebecca @riggsreaders on Instagram or @rebeccalriggs on Twitter.

Friday Night Quickwrite 7/2

Happy July!

With this being a holiday weekend, I have family in town, and time is short. However, I still wanted to get a prompt out.

Over on Instagram, I saw a post by Austin Kleon. He says July 2nd is the 50% mark of the year! (I know, it’s hard to beieve!) He also had a sticky note with this question:

Is the year half empty or half full?

That is what I am writing about in my notebook and hope you find some inspriation in his post, too. If you do, I hope you come back share it with me. I would love to hear your thoughts.

Leigh Anne is looking forward to spending time with family this July 4th weekend. You can follow her on Twitter @Teachr4 or on her blog, A Day in the Life.

Literacy, Inquiry, and Critical Race Theory

The ongoing debate this summer about the teaching of Critical Race Theory in schools and how states have responded has been unsettling. The debate raises questions about free speech, about scholarship and academia, about the role of politicians in the classroom, and about community values. You can find plenty of opinions out there that likely support your own.

My goal in this short post is not to examine the pros and cons of CRT or whether or not politicians should legislate its presence in classrooms, but rather to think a little bit about what the debate has exposed about the teacher’s role within the classroom, specifically the English teacher’s role, when it comes to tackling controversial current event topics.

2 postures toward controversial topics

Some legislators apparently fear my superpowers–that I will somehow brainwash a generation of young adults into adopting a critical lens that prizes race. I like that they grant me these powers, but anyone who has spent a week in the classroom understands the absurdity of this premise. These fears of indoctrination are based on a pretty flawed assumption about what a teacher is and does. For example, I don’t know anyone who teaches (or who has time to teach) CRT. It’s not even on most teachers’ radars if I had to guess. And while I teach with some wonderful people who explored social justice this year in response to the racial unrest of the summer of 2020, their posture is worth noting. Their goal was not to indoctrinate, but to open up avenues of inquiry. I think this is what literacy is really all about and what the secondary English classroom approach should be when it comes to charged topics like CRT.

LiteracyIndoctrination
creator, researcherstudent’s rolepassive consumer
empower students
co-learner
teacher’s roleshape perspective
expert
students are self-empowered to find and
interpret information
outcomesstudents can repeat or recite information
avenues of inquiry
personalized
processone path
one-size-fits-all

inquiry driven by neutral essential questions

I assume most secondary English teachers would agree. It gets trickier in the application, though, starting with how essential questions get framed. Note the subtle difference in these two questions:

  • What is Critical Race Theory and why is there so much debate on it?
  • Why should schools continue to reach Critical Race Theory amid the current debate?

The first one is simple, but it promotes inquiry. It puts responses in students’ hands and asks them to become more literate. There is no presupposed answer or bent to their pursuit of knowledge. There is room for discussion and dialogue about what people think and why. I used the following three questions as part of a unit on anti-racism in semester 2 last year:

  • What is systemic racism?
  • Is systemic racism present in the literature that most schools read?
  • In what ways do schools perpetuate or combat systemic racism?

Notice how the first two are the most open because they are the most neutral. The third is built on the assumption that systemic racism is present, which narrows it a bit. But the posture of opening avenues of inquiry is hopefully what’s central here rather than students feeling like I am trying to indoctrinate them. The first two invite us all to participate as co-learners.

inquiry driven by vocabulary exploration

This is, like so much of literacy, really about vocabulary. In this case, some additional guiding questions can be really illuminating:

  • What do people mean when they say “Critical Race Theory”? 
  • What are the connotations of CRT? What do Republicans mean when they say this? What do Democrats mean when they say this? What do academics like professors mean?

These are vocabulary questions. How does this word/phrase work and function in different rhetorical situations? What gives it the power to elicit such reactions? How can there be such differing views about what it is?

There is a genuine academic interest in answering questions like this. It adds to our body of knowledge and understanding about the world around us, making us better citizens, and it also equips us to ask the same kind of questions about the next hot-button issue that lights up social media. I’ve used CRT as an example, but really any politically-charged topic can be effectively handled through inquiry that is driven by neutral essential questions and vocabulary exploration.

I do not want my children to be indoctrinated at their schools. I want them to be given the space to explore and learn to think for themselves. To become literate. I do not want to indoctrinate anybody else’s children. I want to pass on the values of literacy–of critical thinking that leads to empathy and understanding. Secondary English teachers are uniquely situated to create those kinds of learning experiences. 

Nathan Coates teaches junior English at Mason High School, a large suburban district near Cincinnati, Ohio. He serves on his building’s equity team and is ready for his family’s annual summer pilgrimage to Lake Michigan.

5 Tips for Writer’s Notebook Setup

In the early days of my teaching practice, I struggled with wanting my students to keep a portfolio that would house writing practice, quick writes, pre-writing, formal writings, and even some interactive notes. All the things! I went down a rabbit hole of research and found binder organization or the typical “interactive notebooks” which were a bit too elementary for my high school classroom needs. They had some great qualities I wanted to incorporate, but didn’t quite check all of the boxes. In the process, I stumbled onto a more grown up Writer’s Notebook. 

When researching Writer’s Notebooks and seeing the innovative ways teachers were using them in their classrooms, I found wonderful ideas for activities to put in them, but wasn’t finding guidance that would help me shift from a hodgepodge notebook of miscellaneous writings and notes that students don’t revisit easily to the tool I was imagining for my students. Over the course of several years (and tons of trial and error), I honed in on a few basic “rules” for notebook setup in my classroom. 

If you are new to using Writer’s Notebooks and desperately seeking some guidance on where to begin or an experienced notebook Rock Star just looking for some new ideas, here are my setup basics: 

  1.  Use a Table of Contents

Anyone who knows me will tell you I’m a big fan of the bullet journal. I absolutely love the flexibility it provides me as a “pen and paper” type of person who loves to keep different types of lists, but doesn’t want to keep multiple planners or notebooks. As long as I utilize the Table of Contents, everything is easily found. 

This seems like such an obvious thing to incorporate, but none of the online resources I viewed talked about using one. After all, I wanted my students to use their notebooks as a writing tool, to revisit resources we’ve glued in, review previous writings, annotate short texts, etc. It’s so much easier when the kids can flip straight to the page they are looking for instead of making ostentatiously dramatic page turns to locate something. (If you know, you know). 

Because I couldn’t find an example of what I wanted to use, I pulled from my bullet journal and added some additional information I wanted students to have to create my own print out. On Day 1 of notebook setup, each student receives two copies to glue into their notebooks (front and back) on the first page. It has space for them to include the date, page number, name of the entry, and even a space to enter grades. 

Click here if you’d like to make a copy of the Table of Contents I created. You can customize it to your needs. 

This is an example of my teacher notebook’s Table of Contents.

Pro-Tip for printed notebook resources: Knock down the sizing of any full page copies to 85% and they will fit perfectly on the pages of a composition notebook.

  1. Number ALL Pages

Again, this may seem obvious, but I make my students number the pages of their notebooks after they’ve glued in their table of contents. Every. Single. Page. I used to let students number as they go, but my experience has proven that, more often than not, kiddos will forget. When their pages aren’t numbered, that information doesn’t make it to the table of contents, and then the whole logic of having the organization starts to crumble. I promise it’ll only take about 5 extra minutes during your setup, but the payoff is priceless. 

  1. Everything Is Written in Ink

I love a freshly sharpened Dixon Ticonderoga pencil as much as the next teacher, but follow me around the room on this one. How many times have you seen a student take a pencil and begin to write only to pause, panic, and frantically erase whatever they’ve just written? Write. Erase. Write. Erase. Eventually, that student has erased a hole straight through their paper. 

My students hear my spiel every year: Write with conviction. Mistakes will happen. Writing is a process. Put a line through it and keep going. 

I know it may seem odd and I’m not saying that this is the hill I’m going to die on if a kiddo starts writing in pencil, but it does serve a purpose in writing instruction. It may take some time and some cajoling, but even my most tentative kiddos eventually come around to writing confidently in ink. After a week or so, I don’t even have to remind my kids to use a pen. This leads to my next guideline.  

  1. Whiteout or Removing Pages is Outlawed

The explanation for this links to the guideline above- writing is a process and mistakes will happen. We all know that as we draft, we change bits and pieces along the way. It helps me coach students when I can see the evolution of their writing. Part of my practice is to teach students to review their own pre-writing and “ugly” drafts to look for parts that may work better during a later revision. Being able to see where they’ve been can help them figure out where they’re going more times than not. If a kiddo has erased, used whiteout, or torn out pages, we no longer have that roadmap. 

The end result of not allowing erasures or removals of student writing from their notebooks means that it becomes a living timeline of their growth as writers.  

  1. Decorate and Make it Yours! 

This is not so much a hard and fast “rule” as it is a solid nudge for students to really take ownership of their notebooks. I give students permission to decorate the outside (and interior) of their notebooks with anything that sparks joy for them. Enjoy the creativity they bring to their notebook decorations! I have so much fun decorating my notebook alongside my students and it gives me a chance to get to know them in those early days together. Win-win! 

When students take the time to fully complete their notebook setup, it’s unlikely they will lose it because they don’t want to repeat the process and attempt to recreate all of their hard work. BONUS! 

At the heart of it, a Writer’s Notebook is intended to be a space for students to build fluency, play with language, explore the writing process, and own their voice as a writer. The beauty of this basic setup is that you can build in space for as much or as little structure as your students need. 

What are your best tips for setting up Writer’s Notebooks in your classroom? Share in the comments


Samantha is a wife, mom to three tiny humans, high school English teacher, perpetual student, Texas transplant, and lover of beautiful stories. She spends her days seeking levity in the chaos, sharing her passion for writing and storytelling with students, and searching for her constantly misplaced cup of reheated coffee. You can follow Samantha on Twitter @SimplySivils and on her blog http://simplySivils.wordpress.com/.

Friday Night Quickwrite 6/25

It is hard to believe this is the last Friday in June. This coming week marks the halfway point of my summer vacation, and there are still so many things I want to do before I turn my thinking back to school. I hope you are taking some time to explore and enjoy your summer…and maybe even find some time to write.

This week I spent some time rereading parts of Tom Romano’s book, Write What Matters. This book is an invitation. An invitation to seek advice about creating a writing habit, to find ways to build your confidence as a writer, and to find your voice through writing activites and examples.

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I want to share a few thoughts from the chapter “Seek Surpise.” Tom suggests to “take note of surprise in your daily living.” He encourages us to “be alert to surprises, however subtle. Life, relationships, work, and writing itself increase in pleasure and purpose when we take note of surprises.”

Isn’t summer the perfect time to seek surprise? Maybe it is sitting on a porch or patio and watching nature. Maybe it is lauging at the antics of a young child or an elderly person. Maybe it the surprise in our thinking as we put words down on the page.

In the book, Tom states that his notebook has a place to record the surprises he encounters. I decided to create a similar space using some “creative journaling.”

What are you thinking about surprises? What surprises have you had today or in your own life? I hope this leads you to some writing this week, and I hope you come back to share. I look forward to hearing from you.

Leigh Anne lives in hot and humid southern Indiana and teaches 6th grade language arts. She is looking forward to some beach time, and maybe…just maybe she will find a few surprises along the way.

In Memoriam: Celebrating Memories in Writing Workshop

By Elizabeth Oosterheert: Contributing Writer

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Last week…

I attended a conference in my district for language arts teachers. One of the themes was the importance of sharing stories that tell the truth. I also have the privilege of working on a postgraduate study in adolescent literature this summer with a professor who has mentored me throughout my teaching career. I’ve had time and space to write and reflect, and to reconsider how vital it is to share true stories (including our own) with students in the context of our reading and writing workshops.

Come with me, and I will invite you into stories I’ve been reading that tell the truth, and collaborative, creative writing experiences for our students based on a variety of mentor texts.

Daniel Nayeri’s Everything Sad is Untrue


Daniel Nayeri’s Printz Honor winning memoir Everything Sad is Untrue, defies classification. While it includes true tales from Nayeri’s youth in Iran and in refugee camps before his family finds asylum in Oklahoma, it is also a fictional nod to Scheherezade, the famed storyteller from Arabian Nights who uses story to preserve life. The writing is so riveting and arrestingly poetic that I often found myself moved to tears, folding pages and highlighting passages as I read so that I could quickly return to them later. The true hero of the story is Nayeri’s mother, whom he describes as a relentless force.

Nayeri writes, “I don’t know how my mom was so unstoppable…Maybe it’s anticipation. Hope. The anticipation that the God who listens in love will one day speak justice. The hope that some final fantasy will come to pass that will make everything sad untrue…Unpainful”(Nayeri 346). 

Photo Courtesy of Red Samurai on Zazzle

Paul Fleischman’s Whirligig

Fleischman, who is renowned for his Newbery medal winning book Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices, also wrote Whirligig, the story of one teen’s transformation from a murderer riddled with guilt, to a prince of tides. 

After accidentally causing the death of Lea Zamora while attempting his own suicide, Brent Bishop’s penance, assigned by his victim’s family, is to create whirligigs and place them in each corner of the United States in their daughter’s memory. Though Brent doesn’t feel worthy of forgiveness, he considers that perhaps the decisions he made that led to Lea’s death don’t make him irredeemable. It’s possible that he is a beautiful mess just like everyone else. He also reflects on the longevity of the whirligigs he’s created, and the legacy he’s left behind.  “Maine summers, like dawn colors, were brief. Darkness and winter predominated…but his memorial would give off sound and color all year, holding back the tide of death…Lea would not be swallowed up”(Fleischman 125). Brent has morphed from a prisoner of his past to a prince of tides, free to roam and create a new life for himself from the ashes of his old one.

 Thornton Wilder’s Pullman Car Hiawatha, The Angel That Troubled the Waters, and the World War I Poets…

I’ve written previously for Three Teachers Talk about how much I enjoy sharing Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize winner, Our Town with students, but Wilder also wrote a plethora of shorter plays beginning when he was a teenager longing for distraction from the monotony of algebra. He composed a variety of what he called Three Minute Plays for Three Persons, and one-act plays including Pullman Car Hiawatha, a play that was in many ways a prototype for Our Town, and playlets like The Angel That Troubled the Waters. 

What’s fascinating about these plays is the way that they mirror human life by illustrating the miraculous in the mundane. They invite us to recall that even when we might feel like we’re in the gutter after an exhausting year of teaching, the stars are still shining. We only have to look up to see them. 

Reading Wilder’s plays, famous World War I poetry, and letters written by a relative of mine who died in the Battle of the Argonne inspired me to write my own short play recently (an excerpt is linked here).  

This year, during our study of stage and page poems, I would like to invite students to use a combination of World War I poetry and several of the poems that we read by living poets, to write their own scripts. This will give students an opportunity to write collaboratively from mentor texts, and to blend narrative, poetry, and maybe even pieces of their own life stories that might otherwise be lost to history and imagination.

World War I Poet Rupert Brooke

Poetry Foundation has excellent resources for delving into the work of World War I poets such as Rupert Brooke, whose movie star looks

 and ability to capture public sentiment in the early days of the war, gave him mythical status during his brief lifetime. Other poets whose work has endured include Edward Thomas, and Wilfred Owen. One of Owen’s most famous poems, “Dulce et Decorum Est,” has many different recordings on YouTube that are fantastic for classroom use. My favorite is this version performed by British actor Ben Wishaw. 

I hope that your summer is filled with opportunities for relaxation, and also with reading of stories and poetry that move you with their beauty and honesty, and will in turn move your students in their reading and writing journeys.

Elizabeth Oosterheert is a middle school language arts teacher and theatre troupe director in central Iowa. She loves writing, and sharing the stage with seventh and eighth graders. Her favorite stories are Peter Pan, The Outsiders, & Our Town. She is currently writing an adaptation of Arabian Nights for performance in November 2021.

Friday Night Quickwrite 6/18

Welcome to another Friday Night Quickwrite. As the days are heating up (at least here in Indiana!), I hope you take some time to grab a pen, a notebook, and a refreshing drink and write with me.

I stumbled upon a blog I want to share with you. Tales of the old forest faeries is simply beautiful! The photos are stunning, and the poetry is inspirational.

Tonight I share with you a poem titled “She Danced.”

And, that very night
She danced,
Like
She had never danced before
Like she knew
She would never
Dance
Like that, again

Poem written by Athey Thompson

After reading this poem several times, I began to see a metaphor for life. When were the times I “danced” in my life? (Metaphorically because I don’t dance!) Danced like I had never danced before? Like I knew I never would?

This poem took me to how my parents divorce affected me and how my husband was a gift because marrying him was when I truly learned to dance again. The poem led to the notebook page, which led to the blog post – The BIG Dance.

Where does this poem, or any of the poems from the blog, take you? I would love for you to write with me any time this week and share your thoughts or your process. Happy Writing!

Leigh Anne teaches 6th grade ELA in southern Indiana and is trying to beat the heat by spending time in the pool and sipping sweet iced tea! You can find her on Twitter @Teachr4 or on her blog, A Day in the Life.

Guest Post by Sandi Adair

On my way home from school on the last day, I made a side-track to drop off a book for a student. As I left the book on the porch with a post-it note attached, I jumped into my car and drove off excited for her to get this surprise. We had just spoken on ZOOM in the chat extensively about this book, and how I thought she should add it to her summer reading list. This is a student who I have only met in person once this year, but created and maintained our connection via messaging back and forth during class. I knew what books she had read, and some of her interests, so I had the perfect book for her to read next.

Early on, I set an expectation of daily independent reading to start class, and while I could easily monitor and conference with my face-to-face students, the virtual realm is where it got trickly. My in-class kids liked to tell me that the virtual kids weren’t really reading, and the ones that returned were quick to come clean about that fact. Nonetheless, I didn’t give up, and found my readers, nurtured those that needed suggestions and created a dialogue of honesty and frankness about reading habits. Some read the news all year; others listened to podcasts. Through it all, they had a choice. And the ten minutes of solitary silence also did something for our collective mental health. That I know for sure, because students told me weekly that they enjoyed that time to read and regroup. The act of focusing on the words on the page, getting caught up in a story, or hearing the familiar voice of the narrator was calming, something we needed so much this year.

Photo by Alexandra on Unsplash

The gift of words can come in many forms. Sharing these words together, sharing these experiences, sharing these situations–that is what I choose to continue. I am not naive to the fact that my students on the other side of the screen may not have actually been reading, but when I played an audio, or read aloud to everyone (yes even in 10th grade), those were always the best days. Sharing words, sharing stories, sharing experiences together – that is the silver lining of the year.

Time and time again, my students told me that they enjoyed reading our one class novel that we did together this year, and they asked for more. That was the one thing they asked for, to read more books together. Due to the nature of the school year, we actually read and listened to our class novel. The conversations that ensued were like water in a desert. Talking about ideas, themes, characters and more was a shared experience that brought us together. 

Sharing books together is the biggest joy of being an English teacher for me, and always has been. We have the important duty of sharing what we love, welcoming new perspectives and ideas, and creating readers of all ages. Kids want to be challenged to think, discuss, be engaged, enlightened, listened to. Getting virtual students and in-person students to talk together as one class was the single most important and rewarding aspect of this year. I knew that if we were reading something that day, it would be a good day. 

Sandi Adair has been an English teacher for 23 years. She was a Dallas Morning News Teacher Voice Outstanding Columnist in 2014. Currently, she teaches high school in McKinney, Texas.

You Tell Me You Know What It’s Like To Be A Teacher In A Pandemic

You tell me you know

what it’s like to be

a teacher in a pandemic.

Yes, you’ve had zoom meetings, too!

You worked from home as well, juggling

kids, work, health, social isolation.

You were also scared, but somehow

somewhat relieved because of the freedom

from hectic schedules.

You, too, weathered the pandemic.

But were you forced back

to in-person work while the government

officials declared that you were essential

not for educating children, but to get the economy

back “up and running”?

Were you forced to do your job twice over

in-person and online at the same time?

Were you also given new duties of nurse,

custodian, and therapist for the inevitable trauma?

Were you constantly gaslit, told to “smile,

the kids need to see that everything is okay,”

yet you went home and often cried because

no one was assuring you?

Were you then told that despite

your hard work and grueling year,

“the students are behind” and

you must find a way to “catch them up”?

You tell me you know

what it’s like to be

a teacher in a pandemic,

and you may have lived through

this historical event at the same time

as us, but

you will never truly understand

what it has been like

to be an educator in this time.

Find the artist on Twitter @alabbazia

One of my favorite Quick Write lessons of all time was when I showed my students this video of Darius Simpson and Scout Bostley performing “Lost Voices,” and then we responded with our own poems, starting with the line “You tell me you know what it’s like to be…” From there, students could choose any identity they had that they felt people often acted like they understood or could relate with, but it was too deeply a personal experience that those outside of that identity could never understand. This idea came from Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher’s 180 Days in the Narrative section where they provided all sorts of mentor texts for “swimming in memoirs” to encourage students to address their own story from lots of angles.

When I did this lesson with my students in my second year, they soared. I got quick writes that started with “You tell me you know what it’s like to be autistic,” “You tell me you know what it’s like to be an assault victim,” and “You tell me you know what it’s like to be an immigrant.” Each story, each window into those students’ lives were so powerful. I often did not know what it was like to be what my students were writing about, but their willingness to be vulnerable in their writing helped me see from their eyes and understand just a little more.

As I recover from this year of teaching in a pandemic, my mind wandered back to that activity, and I began writing the beginnings of the poem above. As I mentioned in my previous post, I struggle with finding time/space/ideas/willingness to write. I keep having to learn that it often only takes a strong mentor text and I am off to scribble in a notebook. This remembering will play a huge role in my teaching this coming year. I am also having to constantly re-learn/remind myself how powerful a tool writing is for processing things. It has been an almost impossible year for many teachers, including me. It is only the beginning of summer, but I have had all sorts of reflections and emotions surface. I hope, if you want to get into more writing as well, that you will take time to soak in the words of these poets and write your own “You tell me you know what it’s like to be” poem. Maybe it’ll help you process the emotions and experiences of your year, too.

If you do write using these ideas, please share in the comments or tweet it tagging @3TeachersTalk.

Rebecca Riggs is a writer (or tricking herself into being one the same way she does her students- by just declaring it so). She is currently reading The Girl Who Smiled Beads: A Story of War and What Comes After by Clemantine Wamariya and Elizabeth Weil. Her current obsession is trying out new cookie recipes and working hard to not fill up her entire schedule so she can actually rest this summer. You can connect with her on Twitter @rebeccalriggs or Instagram @riggsreaders.

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