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A Yearlong Community

The sense of camaraderie and fellowship in our workshop classroom has ebbed and flowed this year.  Some days, I watch with pride as the readers and writers in the room help guide each other to a higher level of understanding, appreciation, or excitement.  Other days, I see disengaged students annoyed with one another’s antics.

Getting this community established at the beginning of the year takes time, but once the foundation is laid, it’s easy to keep it in place.

…Until you have 15 snow days in a row.

Or a student teacher.

Or a six-day block of testing.

Or 75-degree weather with sunshine, just out the window.

All of those common interruptions can derail a classroom community.  This year, though, I feel as close to my students as ever, and they are as tight-knit a group as can be.  Here are four reasons why.

Passion.  I’ve written before about how fangirling helps create a community of readers.  But it’s not just being excited about books that helps a classroom community develop–it’s passion about the work we do here as a whole.

Jordan, a student who joined our class in September, told me yesterday, “I still remember the first time I came to this school.  Yours was the first class I came into.  You were yelling and all excited and stuff.  I thought, ‘Wow, is this how this school is?’  Then I went to the rest of my classes and I was like, awww, where’s the excitement at?”

The passion I brought to teaching stuck with Jordan for nine months, especially when he contrasted it to his other teachers’. Communicating our genuine excitement to our students models for them the lasting value of our content.  Without that enthusiasm, a classroom community may not seem worth building.  With it, students come to class ready to learn, which creates the first condition for a strong community.

Vulnerability.  Around my birthday in early September of each year, I share with my students a song my friend Joey wrote and recorded for me.  About a month after he gave it to me, he passed away.  I play the song for the students and we write, then, the soundtrack of our lives–which song it would be and why.  I write about Joey, my guilt and sadness over his suicide, how I slept with the lights on for months after his death.

Chelsea recently told me that at first, she wasn’t quite sure about me.  “Then you wrote that piece with us about your friend Joey, and that’s when I started to think differently about you.”  Modeling my vulnerability with my students encouraged them to do the same–they began to write about topics they once considered very private, and to share their writing in small groups, which I rotate monthly.

Sharing this story with my students, crafting and refining it alongside them, modeled for them not just vulnerability, but the writing process when it relates to a difficult subject.  I became, in their eyes, not just a model writer–but a model thinker, with emotions and difficult memories just like them.  Shifting from not just an English geek to a real human is the second condition for a strong community.

Guts.  This spring, I had a student teacher for eight weeks.  When she left, state testing began almost immediately.  After those two lengthy periods of disruption to our established routine, my students were sluggish and disinterested–frequently unprepared for class, slacking off on their reading, unenthused about their final multigenre projects.

Then, I shared with them my own multigenre piece for this year, about the miscarriage I suffered on Mother’s Day.  As I showed them my writing, the classroom became eerily quiet.  The stillness and silence was deafening.  After lots of hugging and passing around of tissues, the students worked with energy and reverence on their own writing once again.  Their enthusiasm was back.

“I thought it was cool that you would put that out there for the students to know,” Madison told me the next morning. “I was shocked that you wrote about it.”  The fact that I not only shared such a tough subject with them, but had the guts to write about it, was powerful.  This gave many students the boost of confidence they needed to confront a difficult issue and create beautiful writing about it–the third condition for keeping that sense of community strong right up to June.


Two of my funniest students, Troy and Logan, smirk at me over lunch.

Humor.  We’re not morose all the time–we have lots of fun.  Whether it’s a humorous booktalk, a funny poem, or just a celebration of a student’s silliness, there is lots of laughter in our classroom.

A small whiteboard on one wall of our classroom is full of quotes that have made us laugh.  A word like “clementime” can crack us all up, remembering when Troy bemoaned the book Columbine‘s length but accidentally said, “Oh boy, Clementine, here we go.”  Or “overalls,” which calls to mind Kristen’s claim that “I woke up, put on my overalls, and everything just got really weird.”  These simple one-word phrases memorialized on the whiteboard can bring a smile to our faces when we need a lift, and remind me that my students aren’t just learners–they’re people, and pretty darn cool ones, too.

Talk.  Talk is such a foundation of workshop, but it’s important to talk outside of conferences, small groups, or minilessons.  Isaac, a student who has struggled with academic success in the past, has been sitting in my room during his lunch period all this month, working on his multigenre paper.  He chats at me as he writes, asking whatever questions come to mind, writing-related or not.  As a result, he is soaring.

“This is probably the first project in school I’ve ever worked this hard on,” Isaac keeps telling me. “This project is so awesome.”  I told our principal how hard he’d been working lately, and he complimented Isaac when he saw him in the hall.

“Oh my god, I can’t believe teachers talk about students outside of class!” Isaac exclaimed later.  I could tell by his little smile that he was secretly pleased that we had said nice things about him.  Talk has an impact far beyond its transient initial utterance.

Passion, vulnerability, guts, humor, and talk–all year long–make for a beautiful classroom community I’ll enjoy ending this year with.  What do you do to keep your learners unified?


Sitting on the Hogwarts Express

“You must be a first year,” he asked the girl sitting across from me. Her brown bangs framed her eyesphoto 3-7 as she looked up at him, holding her mother’s hand. Her mother chuckled in the seat beside her. “And you two must be fourth or fifth years?” he continued, miming in the direction of my sister and I. I blushed at the thought of this man implying we were around 15 years old, the same age as my actual students. But I let him indulge.

“We are alumni, friends of Dumbledore.” And for a moment, I could see it—his hands perched on the head of his cane as he motioned towards his wife who sat wedged into the corner seat beside him. She nodded in affirmation, giggling at her husband’s show. I was on the train to Hogwarts at Universal Studios, a mecca for Harry Potter nerds like myself who never grew tired of the magic, the story, the wonder.

This was the first time that I truly gave into the commercialism of my favorite book. I had grown up alongside Harry; I was the same age as him when the series began and each new release marked my own maturation as well. Yet I was a selfish reader. I wanted the world between the book covers for myself. While some children indulged in sharing books with their friends, I loved the escapism of reading. Books made me feel special, unique, like somehow the author’s imagination was for me alone. I so desperately loved these worlds that I had come to indulge in that I refused to believe others could feel or even revel in the same universe I had come to know and appreciate.

As I entered the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, I let go of the resentment and anger I had as a child—the feeling that somehow the world of magic had been poisoned. For the first time, the books my mind had lived in came alive around mphoto 1-11e. Throngs of readers surrounded me as I walked the streets of Diagon Alley, weaving my way through shops I had only dreamt of as a child. Flowing black robes enveloped children waving their wands and watching scenes awaken before their eyes as parents looked on sipping foamy pints of butterbeer. A stone dragon teetered atop Gringott’s bank, breathing fire towards patrons below.

Had I known when I was eleven that I would become an English teacher who presses students for their thoughts and opinions on what they’re reading, I would have to sought to share my relationship with books instead of internalizing it. Sitting on the Hogwarts Express that day with four generations of readers proved the unifying power of literature as I chatted with complete strangers from across the country about the intricacies of the series. We had each discovered these stories at different times in our lives and we had each read ourselves into the books, deriving different meanings from our separate readings.

I see this power every day in the turnover of my classroom library and the popularity of certain books. While the stories stay the same from year to year, my students do not. They ride the climaxes and lulls of common stories as groups, suggesting certain books to each other based on their own personal experiences. They laugh aloud in the middle of reading time and they cry quietly curled around their books in their bedrooms. They engage in the terror of The Maze Runner series then quietly lend the books to their friends only to excitedly discuss their individual experiences during down time. Books elicit reactions; they cause people to feel, and because of that, students pass on their suggestions to friends. The transformative power of common stories never ceases to amaze me—how such books can help define the path of one individual or bring together multiple. I spent years of my childhood believing that sharing my passion somehow devalued it, but I have learned that the uniqueness of reading lies in the fact that no two people ever read the same book. In the end, we can hold our individual experiences close, while still sharing the magic of common worlds.

Poetry at The Frost Place: Don’t Stop Believing

The Frost Conference on Poetry and Teaching is over. Those who didn’t leave yesterday left today after the Teachers as Writers workshops. The hugs good-bye were those of life-long friends, sad to part, but a little eager to get on the way. The small community grew so quickly. Sharing a love of language will do that to people.

I pull into the Kinsman Inn where I have shared a roof and a home-sized breakfast every day this week with, as Margaret said, “The kindest people I have ever met;” and the gravel lot is full with the cars of total strangers. I walk inside and even Sue the innkeeper says it is not the same. We feel it. The magic of the week is over.

I never cared for poetry. Looking back I know that attitude stems from the way I was taught. I never experienced the simplicity of words that I’ve experienced here. Even when I’ve taught poetry in class, especially those two years with my G/T students, I tortured them with bad teaching. I’m embarrassed to say I gave them a packet, and we read through the poems ‘analyzing’ as we went, never stopping to just listen. Listening is the secret I learned this week, but the secret was never meant to be locked a way so no English teacher could find it. It’s not even a secret really. Poetry is art; art has to be experienced. A packet doesn’t offer that to anyone. I’ll argue no matter the content, but that is an topic for another day.

Imagine this scenario:  Each morning you walk into the small Frost barn. You pull out your pen and wait

At the evening poetry readings at Frost's barn, the audience is invited to turn around and appreciate the view. Inspirational.

At the evening poetry readings at Frost’s barn, the audience is invited to turn around and appreciate the view. Inspirational.

for the morning’s dictation. Alyssa slowly reads a poem in her soft con-alto, stopping every so often to state a word that is capitalized or where to place a comma or period. You listen, and you write. You focus on the voice, the words, the phrases — the silence created by the pauses. You fill the page with this focused thinking.

After everyone arrives, you welcome the morning, and Teresa opens Robert Frost’s notebook and shares a significant line. “I don’t change my watch every time I see a watch it differs from.” We talk about living in the discipline — not in the product. Dave with a voice to rival God himself finally speaks out:  “We do not live in a culture that embraces silences.” We all nod.

We talk about poetry and teaching and teaching poetry. Then we share presentations filled with classroom practice or philosophy. Again we discuss — “civil engagement,” as Dawn coined it. Our notebooks filled with ideas we can use to give our students similar experiences.

The most impressive thing? We talk to each other like poets.

And that is what needs to happen in the classroom. So often we teach poetry and reading and writing when we should be teaching poets and readers and writers. Of everything I’ve absorbed this week, and this is saying a lot, I believe this simple thing will make the most change in mine, and anyone’s, classroom. 

Today several of us sat around in a circle and shared original poems that we’d composed yesterday. The only instruction for feedback:  What are the possibilities? No critiques. No corrections. Just suggestions on how the poet could play with words.

“If you do not play, you will never know,” Dawn reminds us. Isn’t that the best revision strategy ever? Just play with words, phrases, stanzas, rhythm, structure.

I want my students to play. I want them to have a tiny bit of the silence I’ve experienced this week. I will have them practice dictation — a sure way to quiet the mind and prepare for inspiration. I will continue to allow choice in reading and writing topics, and we will play.

Nicholas told me he never read a book on his own until college, but now he has an MFA and a knack for words. I can’t help but wonder if his gift might have come quicker — not the long sidetrack he took to get here — if in all his English classes he had been spoken to like the poet he is. That is worth a thought. Or two.

Today when I left The Frost Place for the last time, I turned the opposite direction on the road. I’d not gone this way all week. The lane was longer, but the view quite the same. But God must have been the one to turn the wheel because as I came to the T in the road, there stood the stop sign telling me “Don’t STOP believing.”

Don’t STOP believing. Can it be any clearer?

I won’t. I found the seat of my soul, and it is steeped in poetry.

Here’s my poem from the writing time today. I imitated the structure of Hayden Carruth’s poem “Twilight Comes.”

Twilight comes to the busy town

As season’s start. The tree tops

brown with leaves, which colored

And began falling during the heat,

Are moving again, and crack

under the wind’s breath. The buildings

from their place across the highway

crowd close again, as if for a

threatening glare, and with malice

An exposition as the sun slips

low. It is my fiftieth year. Horns

blare out one by one with a clashing

dullness, like the unfelt prayer

in church. I hear the dogs barking

pushing their noises into my peace —

I touch — and clearly — I am quite certain —

tightening muscles; perhaps hot iron

on the right side under my shoulder

or unusable rope on a sea-stuck ship.

It’s true. My man is on the phone,

there inside the living room. Clients

will close soon. I crack my paining neck

And bow my eyes to study the dead

root-bound pot on the patio

in the shadows. I sigh. Then

sigh again, just because it’s true.

I am going to be old. Too soon.

The Importance of Being Reflective (as well as Earnest)

ocsI’m going to be honest…I’m feeling pretty bummed as I sit here to write this post. I have had my first “wish-I-could-do-over” teaching days of the school year.  I haven’t felt this icky about a teaching day since…2005.  Oh Amy, you would have flipped out to see my utter lack of zen today.

It’s all too easy for me to focus on what I’ve not been doing well this year, how I have been falling oh-so-very short.  But I’m going to view this opportunity to reflect on my practice as a way to reset and to return to the core of my teaching soul for the coming week.

One bright spot in all of my classes this year has been a small change I’ve made in how I talk about books. One thing Penny Kittle emphasized this past summer (love to #UNHLit13) was the importance of book talks as part of her class every day.  I’ve always gushed about books I’m reading (see Shana’s post “Fangirling About Books”, which may as well have been my post! Kindred spirits!), and I’ve always prided myself on being able to match students with books that resonate with them.  But I decided to make book talks a regular part of each day, right after starting class with independent reading.

This Monday I’ll talk about books #51 (Invisibility by Andrea Cremer and David Levithan) and #52 (Dash & Lily’s Book of Dares by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan).  My students like finding the connection between the two books, though the connection between these is kind of obvious!

There are myriad benefits to having these daily book talks.  Some of the great books I read from and talk about are new to my students, and sometimes there are some who have read them already.  This has created community and conversation around books, as students share opinions, do their own spontaneous plugs for the books, ask questions, and start fighting about who gets to read them first!  Students started a Book Wait List on the white board.

It has surprised me how much the students enjoy the book talks.  One day a couple weeks ago, I forgot to book talk (it’s a verb now!), and Stephanie, who doesn’t ever say anything in class raised her hand and asked, “Are you not going to talk about a book today?”  When a new student joined our class, I had Noe help her get oriented, setting up her notebook and so forth.  I overheard her say, “After we read, she introduces a couple of books. It’s one of my favorite parts of class, no joke.  There’s a lot of cool books she shows us.”  The other day, students pointed out that I neglected to update the titles for book talks on the agenda.

All of the energy around books has helped create a culture of reading in our classroom so that even the most reluctant readers are giving books a try. The books have become a bridge between me and some of the students who are typically “hard to reach.”  It’s still a challenge to be sure, and there are days some students are fake reading, but for the most part, students are realizing the books are here to stay!

For me, it’s always easier to dwell on the negative, but when I stop to think about it, there are quite a few things going well. It’s a process, and I’m growing and figuring out how to make my class an authentic reading and writing workshop. It is a source of strength to know there are people in my PLN all over the country striving to do the same!

(Coming up next month: How to respond to the question, “How do you assess that?!”)

“Going There”…and Hopefully Bringing Others Along With Me!

Our Compass Shifts 2-1

I thought for sure my first post would be about my classroom library and books.  My library, which takes up my entire classroom, is my pride and joy.  I’ve worked hard to make it my place of zen (to borrow from Amy).  But it is also my comfort zone; helping students find books they can connect to is one of the few things I know I do well.

In the first two weeks of school, I’ve experienced the familiar joy and success of matching students with books. I’ve connected with students who are devouring books at breakneck speed. I’ve also gladly and eagerly taken on the challenge to find that perfect book for the stubborn “I don’t read” holdouts.  This challenge energizes me like no other!  But I have taken on another challenge, and that is what I want to share about today.

Given I am part of the “Our Compass Shifts” project, you all know that this summer I took a class with Penny Kittle at #UNHLit13. [I will save my fangirl post for another time!] That class totally CML* (Changed My Life). I received affirmation, direction, and practical ideas on how to shift my class to a reading and writing workshop model. But the most important experience from the class was becoming reacquainted with the struggle and vulnerability involved in authentic writing.

Our final project was a non-fiction narrative piece incorporating information or research. I chose to write about my grandfather’s suicide five years ago. I knew it was the story I needed to get out, but as my friends can testify, my writing process was mildly torturous, fraught with resistance, paralysis, and self-doubt. In the end, I “went there” (in the words of Erika, aka “Brooklyn”). I poured much of my own self into the piece, and crying through the read-aloud to my newfound friends and Professional Learning Community took a lot out of me emotionally. It was cathartic, to be sure, and in some ways the beginning of needed processing and healing, but I realized that if I want my students to write the stories they need to get out, I am going to have to commit to “going there” with them all year through writing beside them. I wasn’t sure if I was ready for it!

DaringGreatly_coverRight before school started, I began reading a book called Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead by Brene Brown. [Aside: If you haven’t seen her amazing TED Talk: “The Power of Vulnerability“, you simply must!] Right away, I knew this was a book I needed to read. I started highlighting like crazy, typing out quote after quote.

Brown defines vulnerability as “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure” (34). What’s more vulnerable than “going there” in my writing, and then sharing it with others? This summer I learned that I need to model process, not product. That means tons of vulnerability before my students.

My first opportunity came the fifth day of school, as we were writing in response to the poem “Days” by Billy Collins. I chose a particularly happy day from my junior year of high school. As I talked through my own writing process, I showed my students that as I wrote, I remembered more details. My goal was to show my students how you can start out writing one thing, but find kernels of other stories during the process of revision. Through the process of rereading, I noticed a particular detail was much more significant than I had thought initially. In fact it was ominous foreshadowing of the tragic loss of my dearest friend to suicide a year later. But as I explained this, I ended up choking up and crying in not just one, but all five of my classes that day.

Initially I felt embarrassed and really…vulnerable.  I was most definitely emotionally exposed before 150+ young people I had basically just met.  People I had been entrusted with the responsibility of teaching this year.

But later that day I came across a particularly timely gem in Daring Greatly.  Brene Brown’s vulnerability prayer is “Give me the courage to show up and let myself be seen” (42).  I was able to push out the feeling of embarrassment and worry that my students perceived my display of emotion as weakness, and instead recognize it took courage to let myself be seen by them that day.  I didn’t only model for them my writing process, but I took the risk to be the first one to “go there,” and modeled placing trust in the safe space of the community we were beginning to build together.

photo-1Taking that first step has made it easier for me to continue writing authentically with my students. This summer, I circled around the topic of my parents moving away, the difficulty of my relationship with my father, and the “grief” of saying goodbye to my childhood home. I wasn’t ready to write about it then, but I began to today. I’ve experienced personally how courage begets courage, increasing connection and building community. Accepting the challenge to write through my vulnerability, rather than resist it, has signaled to my students that it is safe for them to go there as well. And though I haven’t won over everyone yet, there are definitely some who are beginning to take the risks to tell the stories that matter to them.  The stories only they can tell.

*You will get used to some of my go-to initialisms! 

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