Tag Archives: authentic literacy

The Power of Authentic Literacy

Let me tell you about my fall, y’all. It’s been a doozy. 

Depending on which list of the top life stressors you look at, I’ve managed to hit two, maybe three, right on the head. And mine is spinning.

I moved last week. If you’ve ever packed and moved during the school year, you know how stupid I planned the timing. The Rockstars and Tylenol PM have kept me functioning. Some.

Sometimes life gets in the way. Sometimes life gets away from us.

new books in honor of my father

My English department surprised me with this gift of books in honor of my father — one of the sweetest things colleagues have ever done for me. My classroom library is growing!

My father passed away the first part of September. And while he was old, and his health had been fading for a while, his death hit me hard. I used to call him when I drove long distances alone to present workshops. I miss our talks. My dad was a quintessential optimist:  wise, encouraging, smart — and he believed in me.

We all need people who believe in us. 

Everyday I try to show my students I believe in them. They’ve been so great with all my spinning. Compassionate, kind, studious. Mostly.

I started at a new school this year, and I’ve remembered how much I love working with young people. I also remember how much I detest the distractions: the drills, the mandatory To-Do’s, the paperwork. But that’s a post for another day.

Most days I fake my way — I’ve yet to find a rhythm.

But that’s okay. I believe in the power of authentic literacy instruction. I know those who read and write and communicate well have a better chance at navigating life than those who don’t. 

So everyday we read. Everyday we write. Everyday we talk about our reading and writing. Every Friday we discuss important issues. I believe these things trump any other use of instructional time. The routines work. But for many students it is hard.

A few students fake their way — they’ve yet to find their reason.

That’s not okay. I will keep trying. Trying to get books in hands that spark joy in reading, trying to develop writers who believe in the power of words and the beauty of language, trying to get the quiet ones to share their thinking with their peers. They often have the greatest insights.

My evaluator visited my class last week. We were analyzing essays, discussing the writer’s craft –noticing the moves and their effect on meaning– and preparing to write our own Op-Eds. As the administrator left the room he whispered, “It’s hard to get them thinking.” 

Yesterday in our writing workshop, right after a little skills-based lesson on making intentional moves as writers, a young man said, “You mean everything I write has to mean something?”

What do you do with that?

I think we have a hard row to hoe, my friends. Gardener, or not, helping our students understand the role of critical thinking in their lives is what may save them. It may save us. It’s saved me for the past few months.

In a Forbes’ article published a year ago, titled “What Great Problem-solvers Do Differently,” we learn five skills that enable people to be great problem solvers:  deep technical expertise and experience; the ability to challenge, change, innovate, and push boundaries; a broad strategic focus rather than a narrow focus; drive/push; and excellent interpersonal skills.

I can’t help wondering how I can help students develop more of these skills while in my English class. I know it’s possible. Possibilities mentor hope.

This week a small group of my students — seniors who are eager yet terrified (their words not mine) to face the world after high school — and I chatted a bit about the responsibilities of adulting. I’m afraid I didn’t quell their fears. I might have quickened them. 

The stress that comes with independence sometimes sends us spinning. 

My students are my witnesses, and while I’d wish it otherwise, perhaps this fall is the most authentic I’ve ever been as a teacher.

 

Amy Rasmussen teaches senior English in a large suburban high school in North Texas. She tries to write beside her students and wrote this piece as a practice for their Op-Eds. She’s currently trying to unpack and get used to her new commute. Dallas traffic can be a doozy.

 

New Q & A Posts Starting: If you’ve got questions about readers-writers workshop, we may have answers #3TTWorkshop

Yesterday I had a little chat with my five-year-old granddaughter who had just got in Elletrouble with her mom and dad for running away instead of coming when they called her. She’d had a scuffle with her little brother and didn’t want to stop playing long enough to get a talking to. (I can’t say I blame her. No one likes thinking they are in trouble.) After a dose of parental guidance and a tad of time, I knelt beside Elle and asked if we could talk. She melted me.

Elle reminds me of her mother — so full of spunk it could be dangerous. She’s fire and ice and double-dog-daring. She has the memory of a growing elephant, and she asks THE best questions. She’s fearless and inquisitive dolled up in loud and loving chaos.

As I knelt on the pavement in the park yesterday, looking into sparkling brown eyes, I couldn’t help but send a plea:  Please, God, do not let life and school and standardization hurt this highly-spirited mighty wisp of a darling intelligent diva.

I know I share concern with most parents and grandparents. And as teachers, we feel well-deep concern for many of the children we work with every day year after year.

Peanuts tired tomorrow cartoonIt can be emotionally exhausting.

That’s where I was a year ago:  Flat on my back exhausted. Overwhelmed. Overcome. There were several factors that added to my distress. I won’t go into details, but let’s just say this about one last straw:  I’ve become wary of some assistant principals, especially those assigned to evaluate English departments when they have zero literacy experience, — and they do not believe in edu research and data-informed practice. Boy, howdy.

Thus, my gap year, which went by faster than my Elle running from her mother.

Have I missed it? You’d have to define it.

I’ve missed working with teens every day. I have not missed some of their parents. I have not missed the effects of some of their trauma.

I’ve missed working with insightful and forward-thinking colleagues. I have not missed others’ same-old-same-old attitudes or platitudes.

I’ve missed helping writers write and readers read — more — and better. I have not missed trying to break the habits of inauthentic and limiting literacy instruction (only writing to prompts, taking fill-in-the-blank tests, worksheets . . .)

I’ve missed the joy of sharing daily book talks — books I’ve loved, books that gave me pause, books I hope to read, books I-couldn’t-get-into-but-maybe-you-can. I have not missed grades or justifying independent reading without them.

I’ve missed exploring and discussing current events, lyrics, art, poetry, and good books; diving into inquiry, writing from the heart — adolescents have keen insight and so much talent! I have not missed anything test-prep related (test-proctoring included).

I’ve missed my students and the relationships we build around becoming better humans. I have not missed the late work or grading policies that kept me perpetually behind.

I know there’s more — the good, the bad, and the ugly that goes into this profession of teaching. When I first entered the classroom, I had no clue. (I’d bet this is most of the population.)

So what now?

I wish I knew.

Only kidding. Kinda. I know I need to find a job (financially, I don’t know how we’ve made it this far.) I just hope I am better at self care.

I must be better at self care. I must be a better advocate of my practice. For myself and for my students.

So what does this all have to do with my granddaughter?

Elle is every child I’ve ever taught and every child I may ever teach. She’s a handful of opportunity — worth every pinch of sass and poke of attitude — and she needs teachers, especially literacy teachers who give her choice in what she reads and what she may want to write, who talk to her about her needs as reader and as writer, who care more about her as a tiny human than as a data point. Elle needs teachers who feed her inquiry and focus her energy. She needs teachers, equally curious and energetic, who have lives outside of teaching.

Oscar Wilde quote

For the past year, I’ve collected questions teachers have generated at the workshop trainings I’ve facilitated (a gift of part-time consulting work).  I try to answer these questions in the short time we have together, but now I’m thinking I can use these questions here at 3TT, too. I can remind myself of what I love about teaching readers and writers, and perhaps you, dear readers, may benefit, too.

So this is a charge to myself made public — Important since I’ve been awful about keeping my writing commitments and posting regularly, although in the past year I’ve — taught myself to watercolor, read 17 books that are not YA, planted a killer container garden, tried being a vegetarian, binge-watched too much on Netflix, cuddled grandbabies, had a book proposal accepted, and logged miles on my new bike —  Each week I’ll write a Q & A-type post that answers a question about teaching high school readers and writers in a workshop classroom. I used to feel I was pretty good at it.

If you have a question, related to ELAR and/or workshop, please leave it in the comments. I’ll try to spotlight yours.

Questions Answered

Amy Rasmussen has taught all levels of high school English, except AP Lit (gen ed, Pre-AP,  G/T, AP Lang) at two (Title I) high schools in N Texas. She’s passionate about self-improvement but knows perfectionism can kill the soul. She’s become vocal about teacher self care and refuses to even think about grading essays on the weekend. She loves her work as a literacy consultant, especially that moment when teachers want to read and write more — just like we hope for all our students. Follow Amy @amyrass

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