Tag Archives: classroom community

Guest Post: A Houston Teacher’s Heart

What do you do when a hurricane slams you in the face after four days of school?Clear Creek ISD June 2017 (1)

This was the best first 4 days of school I’d ever had. Tuesday saw us independent reading with self-selected books for the first 10 minutes of class. A habit we will cherish through June. We were moving in and out of our notebooks by Wednesday. Groups were discussing and reporting their thoughts back to the whole class. A community was rising in all four of my senior English classes. My inclusion para-professional and I had worked through the mountain of paperwork and conferred about this student and that one. I had plans to video a class for a whole week to use for who knows what. Who could believe that senior English students could move so far so fast. Our potential was limitless.

My district sent out a message Thursday evening that school would be cancelled on Friday. Some coaches met up at school that evening to stow away hurdles, high jump mats, and benches. We lamented our missed football scrimmage and wondered when we would resume school.

The hurricane projections said it would hit hundreds of miles away and would only be a category 3. We knew the “dirty side” of a hurricane was not a fun place to live, but a few days of rain and maybe a little wind was all I mentally prepared for.

Friday, I went to school to grab my laptop and a couple of teacher books so I could finish my lesson plans, review the game plan for next week’s game against Pearland, and whatever else needed attention. Having been through hurricanes and heavy rain before, I thought maybe we would go back to school on Tuesday at the latest.

Our football staff has a group text that is mostly silly memes and rude jokes. Now it reads like a timeline of the storm.

As I look back on the text threads, there is a definite change in tone on Friday evening when the rain started. We went from making fun of each other to being seriously concerned for one another. The rain fell Friday night but none of us had water in our houses or were flooded in. I even got out of the house to drive around on Saturday. I went to the grocery store for eggs and drove around a bit to see what was what. We spent the day planning for our week one football game and watched the news as the storm worked its way closer.

Saturday night was when it started getting scary. A flood, a deluge of water fell on our city. My wife and I didn’t sleep. It was one of the scariest most nerve wracking nights of my life. 15 inches of rain fell in 3 hours and we were constantly up and down watching the water levels in the street rise and making sure our flooded pool wasn’t about to merge with our kitchen. The coaches’ group chat filled with pictures of rising water and reports from all over south and west Houston. I’m sure we are all too macho to admit it, but we felt that fear collectively and it was a relief for us to know that we weren’t alone in this storm.

When the sun rose on Sunday, my house was still dry and the electricity was on. Others weren’t so lucky. Neighborhoods within a quarter mile of my house were completely flooded out and many of our students don’t have a home to go back to anymore. I’m sure you saw reports on TV of water rescues happening in League City. Those are our kids. I see those families at parent night and sub varsity football games. We shop at the same grocery store and order pizza from the same place. My twitter feed filled with images from our community of families who were rescued in boats and won’t see their houses for weeks.flood

Despite the destruction we endured this weekend, I can’t help but think toward the future. It will take some time, but the flood waters will abate and the roads will clear. At some point, we will reopen our schools. We will ask the students and teachers to come back and the process of building will resume.

Even those whose houses didn’t flood will bear the scars of this terrifying natural disaster. And those whose houses did flood will be consumed by it.

Where will that process even begin? What will I say to them? What can I reasonably expect them to produce?

I have no idea how to answer most of these questions. All I know is that I’m going to tell them that I love them over and over. My classroom will be a refuge from the aftermath of the storms. We can be safe together. We can write about our pain and share our fears. My Student Council class will work to bring some normalcy back to people’s lives whether through food drives, donations, or lending a hand to those who need it. I’m going to give my linebackers the biggest hugs they’ve ever gotten and I’m going to tell those boys, who think they are men, that I love them.

Harvey’s footprint will always be seen on this school year for these students and teachers.

Maybe we can learn about survival and community and love. I think my classroom is the perfect place for those lessons. I hope I’m up to it.

Charles Moore is the senior English team lead at Clear Springs High School in League City, TX. He enjoys leisure swimming, reading, and coaching linebackers. Follow Charles on Twitter @ctcoach

Our Day One Writing: Personal User Manuals

I’ll be honest. I’ve started this post three times. At first bemoaning why I can’t believe summer is over. Then whining that I didn’t get enough done, and finally, justifying why I can’t seem to get in a writing groove. None of it matters. I started back to school yesterday. Kids come next Monday.

I will be ready. And I’ll love it.

I’ve spent hours working on my new room. It’s almost done (I’ll post photos soon), and I classroom culturefigure if I can get my room perfect, everything else will fall into place. Misplaced priorities? Maybe, but that’s how I roll. The aesthetics in my classroom matter to me, and if you’ve visited (and many teachers and admin from around TX did last year), you know what I mean. Book shelves just right. Colors and furnishings that invite. Places to chart skills taught and showcase students’ thinking. All of this matters to the culture I work hard to cultivate in my classroom.

And while I’ve worked, I’ve thought about the students whose names rest on my rosters. Who are they as readers and writers? Who are they as individuals with needs and wants and passions? How can I help them know of their potential and of the possibilities that await them not just this year but beyond?

I’m teaching seniors for the first time this fall. Since my school is on an accelerated block schedule, I will have these students for one semester. Just one. One semester at the end of their high school experience. One semester to create a community, build a culture, bridge gaps, shape literacy identities as individuals about to face the big wide world — hopefully as citizens unafraid to face their fears, and the frightening things in our society.

One semester to read and write and think — together. One semester with a dream for a lifetime.

I’ve read a lot about the importance of building community lately, and I’ve talked a lot about the first day of school in most of the pd I’ve facilitated. I used to think, especially with my AP Lang classes, I had to knock ’em dead with my syllabus the first day, list my expectations, explain my grading policy, discuss my plan for how and what they would learn. Scare them into understanding the complexities of my AP class. I blew a lot of opportunities over the years. That “my” got in the way a lot.

How can it be “our” learning community if I am the one laying out all the learning plans? If I am the only one talking about what the learning must look like?

I wrote this post Talking about the First Day of School in 2015. Funny because I’m in the same canoe this year, wondering about how I will welcome students on Day One. The last thing I want is to ignite the fear, flight, freeze response, which so often happens with that same ole same ole flood of student expectations. Students are already experiencing high levels of stress the first day of school. I do not want to accelerate it

I’ve thought about reading the poem “Possibilities” by Wislawa Szymorzska. I wrote about how my students and I used this poem to begin our understanding of rhetorical analysis last year. I’ll do that again, but it’s probably better as a week two activity.

TeacherAuthorBio

author bio, Linda Sanchez, Wylie ISD

I’ve thought about reading author bios and asking students to write their own. Lisa and I wrote about our successes with students writing author bios last year and even modeled writing author bios with our teacher friends during pd this summer. So many talented teacher writers! Author bios are a new favorite, but they’re probably not for day one.

I’ve thought about jumping right in and setting up our writer’s notebooks. I stocked up

composition notebooks

I bought 170. The cashier at Walmart scanned them one by one.

and have one for each student ready at the bell. Now, I’m wondering if setting the notebook up is as important as just writing down some thinking on the first day of school.

Susan Barber wrote about her First Day of Class activity, and the idea of beginning with reflection resonates with me. I just don’t know about a trek to the football field — our students graduate at the UNT Coliseum miles away, and TX weather means it’s still hot hot hot. I can already hear whining. I love Susan’s idea though and want to think about this more.

I keep coming back to community. And culture.

My instruction works because of the community we build as readers, writers, listeners, and speakers. Or is it a culture we create as readers, writers, listeners, and speakers? Is it possible to have one without the other?

When Lisa was in town, we sat in my car in a parking lot and talked about this very thing. Lisa shared her wisdom: “Community is the classroom. It’s more immediate.” Mentioning her teaching before her move to workshop, she said,  “I built community to help us get through the things students didn’t like — like Huck Finn.”

Interesting. So community is good — sharing likes, dislikes, working toward a common goal, getting along, respecting one another.

We talked about get-to-know you games, icebreakers, we’ve all used on the first day of school. Many of them good ideas for building community. Then Lisa asked: “Do we get-to-know for the get-to-know — or the value of learning who are students are as readers and writers?”

Ah, the beginnings of building a culture.

“Culture is more pervasive,” Lisa said, “A culture of learning in an English class values reading, writing, talking, and thinking that goes on — that has demands beyond the classroom.”

And now I’m wondering:  On the first day of school, how do I build a community that begins creating a culture, a culture that validates, shapes, and inspires my students’ identities as thinkers, readers, writers, citizens, and humans that goes beyond the classroom?

Not an easy feat. But maybe there’s an easy start.

I don’t know why I clicked on this headline, but I think I’ve found my first day of school: “Completing this 30 minutes exercise makes teams less anxious and more productive.”

I think we will write personal user manuals. It’s a task business leaders are using to help

user_guide

I’d like a better name than “user.” Any ideas?

their teams work better. Why not try it in the classroom?

The article states, “The user manual aims to help people learn to adapt to one another by offering an explicit description of one’s personal values and how one works best with others. This shortens the learning curve for new employees, and helps everyone avoid misunderstandings.” Since student talk and collaboration is central to my instruction, I think writing one-page user manuals about ourselves might put us on the fast track to better communication and the culture that fosters better learning.

Abby Falik, founder and CEO of Global Citizen Year, states: “My User Manual is one of the ways I practice leading out loud. It’s a living document that describes my innate wiring and my growing edge, while putting it out to the world that I know I am – and aim to always be — a work-in-progress.” And the article includes the structure Abby used to write her manual and a link to the manual itself. Mentor text, y’all!

Abby’s user manual centers around these six topics:

  1. My style
  2. What I value
  3. What I don’t have patience for
  4. How to best communicate with me
  5. How to help me
  6. What people misunderstand about me

I’m thinking of including prompts that probe other topics more specific to what I need to know about my students literacy histories — kind of like a reading/writing territory — and topics that can jump start connections and trust between students. Maybe things like:

Describe yourself as a reader.

What is your favorite book? Who is your favorite author?

Write a simile about your writing life. 

When it comes to English class, where do you feel you want to grow the most?

List ten things you like to do in your spare time.

Of all your memories, which three are the most indelible?

What five adjectives describe your disposition?

I also like these questions I read regarding building trust in Adolescents on the Edge by Jimmy Santiago Baca and ReLeah Cossett Lent, a book I just started and am already loving for content, stories, and ideas:

Have you experienced fair treatment, either by family or by the system?

How do you express appreciation? Do you often receive appreciation for your acts?

How important is it for promises to be kept, either those made to you or those you make to others?

Do you feel that you are a part of decision making that affects your life?

Are you dependable? Do you feel others are dependable?

How do you generally resolve conflicts?

How important is truthfulness to you?

Too much? Maybe. But students will have choice in what they answer — and how. And like any time we write like this, we will talk first. Talk matters in a writing classroom.

Of course, I will write my own user manual. If I get my act together, I’ll have it ready on Day One as a way to introduce myself to my students. Hopefully, I can write it in a way that lets them know that while I am intense, passionate, and purposeful in helping them grow as readers and writers, I am also pretty vulnerable, and an introvert on a stage cast in the role of extrovert.

I’m thinking we will use our user manuals a lot. I’ll include a copy of each students’ in my conferring notebook for easy access and review when I meet with them. We’ll share with our table mates. We’ll share in our book clubs and in our writing groups. We’ll share when we do group projects or collaborate on writing.

We will use our manuals like leaders in business do because “the ability to share your thoughts and ideas openly, honestly, and without fear of judgment—has been repeatedly proven the key to innovative, happy teams. Whether you’re a manager or young employee, writing and sharing a user manual has a clear business payoff. The better a team knows one other, the easier it will be for them to navigate conflict, empathize with one another, and feel comfortable sharing, critiquing, and building upon one another’s ideas.”

What do you think? How will you (or did you, if you’ve already gone back) start building your classroom culture?

 

Amy Rasmussen is the mother of six amazing young adults, grandmother of five smart and sassy little people, and wife to a brilliant marketer, sales exec, life coach, and dog lover. She teaches readers and writers in AP Language and English IV in North TX and facilitates professional development on the workshop model of instruction at every opportunity. She loves God, her family, the U.S.A., and all humans everywhere. Follow Amy on Twitter @amyrass

 

An Idea: Author Bios and Some Focus, Wit, & Polish

I stole this idea from Lisa. She said it was okay that I write about it first. Bless her.

I finally feel like I’m getting a little of my writing mojo back. If you’ve been following my posts lately, you know I’ve had a hard time. I loved my student teacher, but I missed my students and how they inspire me to want to write and share.

It hasn’t been easy taking back my classroom. I am much more intense than Mr. G, and this translates to mean for some of my students. It’s true I grade hard, expect a lot, teach bell to bell. It’s not that he didn’t — maybe it’s just that I’m 50+, and he’s close to half my age. Whatever the reason, reinvigorating relationships hasn’t been easy.

Kind of casually one day, Lisa suggested she wanted to write author bios with her students next year. She said she’d read a few she wanted to use as mentor texts, thinking this little writing task would be a way to help her students develop their identities as writers. What a fantastic idea!

So last week for our writer’s notebook time, we wrote author bios, short, little, quippy, quirky writing that states who we are and why we write. (We still need work on the why we write part.)

booksforauthorbiosI prepared first by reading the inside back covers of some of my hardback YA literature. I chose four bios with similar elements:  Andrew Smith, Winger; Julie Murphy, Dumplin‘; Heather Demetrios, I’ll Meet You There; and Jason Reynolds, All American Boys. {Bonus: four book talks, along with the author intros. Boom.]

I explained the task:  We’re going to read four short author bios and then write our own. Listen to each one carefully, so we can pull out the similarities within each one.

We charted the elements of the bios on the board and then drafted our own.

authorbio

We spent five minutes on the writing, two minutes on revision, and six minutes sharing with our peers. We laughed. We wondered if the authors wrote their own book cover bios. We discussed our writing process.

“It would have been easier writing about someone else,” one student said.

“I need more time to think of how to say things,” said another.

“This would be fun to do at the beginning of the year,”

“I don’t do anything!”

“I’ve never won anything!”

“I cannot write that I am interesting when I am not interesting.”

“Can we write about what we want to do in the future instead?”

Oh, yeah, we stirred the pot, and ideas bubbled out. Throughout their questioning, my response remained:  Be creative.

One of the best books I’ve read on writing is How to Write Short: Word Craft for Fast Times by Roy Peter Clark. I marked it up with lesson ideas:  “the whole chapter would make a great lead in rhetorical analysis” and “on annotating: read before starting 1st book club” and “use b/f narrative –teaches analysis with song lyrics” and “parallel structure & compound sentences!”

This paragraph from the introduction is a great reminder for all types of writing — and writing instruction:

How to Write Short

Focus, wit, and polish. My students and I talked about our identities as writers. We talked about the time it takes to develop our voice, our craft, our meaning.

As they read their author bios to one another, the cough of community clamored just a bit, and in a few minutes the whole classroom caught it.

MariaLauthorbio

MariaCSkyauthorbioMicaelaauthorbioTreyauthorbioI reminded students as they write over the next few days — finishing their multi-genre projects, their last major grade — to write with intention, to write in a way that shows the answer to the last question I’ll write on the board this year:  How have you grown as a reader and a writer?

In the fall, I will do this exercise again. We will write our author bios at the beginning of the year, on day one, maybe. We will spent a good deal more time on them, and we’ll return to them again and again as we practice the moves all writers make to produce effective, convincing, creative writing. We will publish our writing with our bios. Hopefully, this will help us keep our sights on Focus, Wit, and Polish in all aspects of our writing.

How might you use this author bio writing activity? What tasks do your writers do that help them take on the identities of writers? Please leave your ideas in the comments.

Amy Rasmussen lives in north Texas and teaches AP English Language and English 3 at Lewisville High School. She loves talking books, daughters’ weddings (two this year), and grandbabies. Facilitating PD for other teachers making the move into a workshop pedagogy delights her. Amy adheres to the words of Emerson: “We aim above the mark to hit the mark,” and Jesus: “Love one another.” Imagine a world if we all aim higher. Follow Amy on Twitter @amyrass.

Opening a Space to Help Others and the Spirit to “Lean in”

I sat at the Heinemann breakfast at NCTE listening to those who knew and learned from him honor the legacy of Donald Graves. Penny Kittle began. She spoke of Don’s ever mindful mission to “open the space to help others” and how he had a “lean in” spirit. Everyone he spoke to knew he listened, knew he truly cared about who they were as people as well as who they were as teachers. Penny said Don had a “settle the soul” effect on those he encountered, even strangers in an airport on the way to NCTE after 9/11. In a time of turmoil, Don publicly read poetry.

Every individual who spoke that morning shared a credo, rooted in the influence of Donald Graves.

We listened, enthralled in the passion and purpose that bound us together as educators — all attending a conference intent on improving our practices to better instruct the children we teach.

I have only felt this kind of community two other times in my career:  once at the University of New Hampshire (UNH) Literacy Institute, the other at the North Star of TX Writing Project Invitational Summer Institute in 2009.

In class this week, my students and I read a poem that lead to a discussion about indelible moments, not just the ones that mark us with memories we cannot shake, but the ones that infuse us with new found understanding, new purpose, new hope. They change us for the better.

My experience with North Star changed me for the better. I owe a lot to this writing project.

I had only been in the classroom three years, and I was newly assigned to teach AP English Language and Composition. I didn’t have much of a clue. That summer I met other educators, who like Don Graves, had that “lean in” spirit. They knew how to “settle the soul.”

Dr. Carol Wickstrom lead with wisdom and wit and listened as I expressed frustration about my lack of preparation to teach an advanced writing class. Kip Nettles demonstrated daily routines of writing workshop instruction and modeled how these moves could have lasting effects on writers.

I grew to love the other teachers who attended that ISI with me that summer. We wrote. We shared. We worked hard to learn the meaning of authenticity in writing instruction. We cried as we read our writing, and we cried as we listened to the heartfelt writing of one another.

Heather Cato showed me how to “play” with technology and taught me how to effectively use it for instruction. She became my dear friend, thinking partner, and first writing collaborator, and along with Molly Adams, we started the blog Three Teachers Talk.

Few people know the history of Three Teachers Talk, but I tell it when I lead professional development, which thanks to an ever growing move to Secondary Readers and Writers Workshop has been quite a lot.  In that history are the roots of what Don Graves modeled so ardently:  How do we open the space to help others?

We started writing at Three Teachers Talk as a way to share how we internalized what we learned through our National Writing Project (NWP) experience. We wanted to help others welcome authentic choice writing practices into their instruction. We wanted to stay connected as friends and collaborators.

Molly and Heather have since moved to other great spaces in their careers. I am sure they write other places now:  Molly at her high school and with NWP and Heather as a curriculum and instruction leader in her district. I follow (stalk) them and celebrate their successes. I will be forever grateful for their listening hearts and “lean in” attitudes, especially Heather who shouldered me along at a time when I wore heavy boots to work each day.

It’s belonging to a community that brings out the best in who we want to become. When we surround ourselves with those with the same passion to learn and grow and share, we learn and grow and share passionately — or at least we learn how to open the spaces to do so.

Another North Star TC Amanda Goss opened a space for me when she told me about the UNH Literacy Institute and that I could take a class from Penny Kittle. I did, and my world shifted. My teaching took on new meaning as did my writing, and I met the friends who now write with me at Three Teachers Talk.

So many North Star TC’s have opened spaces for me that have helped me grow as an educator and as a human:  Audrey Wilson-Youngblood, Carol Revelle, Dr. Leslie Patterson, Marla Robertson, Juanita Ramirez-Robertson, and Holly Genova, Whitney Kelley, and Amber Counts.

Thank you for “leaning in,” “settling my soul,” and walking with me on my journey to become who I want to become.

In the summer of 2013, I sat in a class at UNH and listened to Penny Kittle and Thomas Newkirk talk about the influence of Donald Graves on writing instruction. They co-edited the book Children Want to Write, compiling his writing, research videos, and presentations to teachers and spoke warmly of their mentor, Don. In chapter one, they write:

“We used to joke that after a talk, a line of teachers would wait to speak to Don. And each one would say some version of, “I thought that you were speaking just to me.” That was his gift, an uncanny sense of empathy and understanding for the situation of teachers…Before the advent of No Child Left Behind, he saw the negative effects of mass testing — testing is not teaching, as he claimed in one of his book titles.

“But more significantly, he could articulate, and even dramatize, the reasons we all went into teaching in the first place — the challenge of monitoring the progress of students; respect for the decision making and reflection (even improvisation) of thoughtful practice; the rock-solid belief that student learning is tied to teacher learning; the need for focus on the key goals of learning (cutting through the curricular clutter); and his belief that no system or program — even those drawn from his own work — could predetermine the decisions a teacher must make. He stood like a rock in the face of anything that diminished this form of learning. It is a message more critical now than when he was presenting three decades ago.”

Ten years into my teaching career now, I embrace Don Graves message. I thank those of you who have helped me get here. I can only hope I can emulate his “sense of empathy and understanding for the situation of teachers” and stand “like a rock” as I teach my own students through the lens of Don Graves teachings:

“Teaching…[is] a form of research; it [is] real intellectual work” (6).

“…create the “conditions” for writing to occur and for students to become invested in their work” (11).

“Children want to write” (15).

“People want to write” (20).

“…when students cannot write, they are robbed not only of a valuable tool for expression but of an important means of developing thinking and reading power as well” (20).

“A democracy relies heavily on each individual’s sense of voice, authority, and ability to communicate desires and information” (20).

“Good teaching does produce good writing” (21).

“Writing is most important not as etiquette, not even as a tool, but as a contribution to the development of a person, no matter what that person’s background and talents” (21).

“Writing contributes to intelligence” (21).

“Writing develops courage” (22).

“Inane and apathetic writing is often the writer’s only means of self-protection” (22).

“Writing also contributes to reading because writing is the making of reading” (22).

“Auditory, visual, and kinesthetic systems are all at work when the child writes, and all contribute to greater skill in reading” (23).

“The ability to revise writing for greater power and economy is one of the higher forms of reading” (23).

“Children want to write before they want to read” (23).

“Neglect of a child’s expression in writing limits the understanding the child gains from reading” (24).

“…if writing is taken seriously, three months should produce at least seventy-five pages of drafts by students in the high school years” (26).

“Seldom do people teach well what they do not practice themselves” (27).

“Children may see adults read and certainly hear them speak, but rarely do they see adults write” (27).

“A single completed paper may require six or more conferences of from one to five minutes each” (29).

“Without information a student has nothing to write about” (31).

“Writing is the basic stuff of education” (35).

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