Tag Archives: learning community

Syllaboom or Syllabust


Giant conversational Jenga for a first day ice breaker.

The air of an empty classroom vibrates with excitement the days before the first bell rings. Polished floors gleam, new composition notebooks sit stacked evenly, crisp bulletin boards stand brightly against cinderblock walls. The energy feeds over into the freshmen who see my classroom for the first time. This is one of the things I love most about this job—the cyclical process of reinvention, the ability to start fresh and new for both us as teachers and them as students.

I do not start my class with reading the syllabus for this exact reason—syllabi, oftentimes stuffy and long, don’t nurture the charge of possibility. Too often they stifle it. No matter how many times I condense, rewrite, and inject personality into them, between the required plagiarism description and the cell phone policy, I am afraid I come off as a jail warden.

Because of this, I wait until the second day of school to review the syllabus and instead fill my first day with low stakes, community-building activities. Last year I felt pressure to kick off the year with a summative assessment to assess the baseline writing skills of my students. I felt pressure to keep up with my colleagues, so I’d bumped up my plans and jumped straight in the first week. Instead of spending time fostering exploration and growth, I focused on individual final products, forgetting the organic process of building up an environment that praised the formative process.

I focused less on establishing their writer’s notebooks and more on ensuring students had three polished pieces within the first quarter. Number-wise it felt like a success—I could back my curriculum and process with hard numbers; my assessments aligned with many of my colleagues, but my classroom atmosphere lacked the supportive community we had worked so hard to establish the year before.

The classroom is ready for our first day of school!

The classroom is ready for our first day of school!

This year I’m returning to my “old” ways—focusing on the need for consistent quickwrites, notebook work, and small group and whole class sharing to promote trusting relationships among my students. Based on Carol Dweck’s research on the growth mindset, I’d rather give my students the time and space to make mistakes and struggle through their writing.  This year, our first day won’t involve immediately reviewing our new standards-based grading policy. It won’t require students to write their first paper by Friday. Instead, our first day will be full of giant conversational Jenga where students simply talk to one another. We’ll learn each other’s names in methods that DO NOT involve finding an adjective that rhymes with our first name. We’ll have workshop time to establish the individuality of our notebooks with collages of paint, pictures, tape, and stickers. We’ll share our favorite reads, listen to spoken word poetry like “What You Will Need in Class Today” by Matthew Foley, write, and speed date with books.

Instead of focusing on the rules, the assessments, the end, we’ll praise the process, the journey, the beginning.


3 Creative Resources to Ignite a Writer’s Notebook

As I mentioned in Contagious Creative Concentration: A Week in Reflection on Tuesday, there is so much to gain when we infuse creative outlets and ample time for students to stretch their minds during the learning process.  Amy’s posted comment, “I imagine I am guilty like many others of thinking: “If I only had the time.” Seems time is the enemy of creativity, or at least it is if we let her rule our lives. Thank you for this reminder about inviting creativity into the classroom. Coloring on the edges. I like that,” relates the learnings from the week at UNH’s Literacy Institute to the significance of infusing the Readers Writers Workshop model into our learning communities.

Jackie’s post from yesterday 3 Ways to Jump-Start Reluctant Writers also provides three concrete ways to joggle ideas for our student learners.  And to conclude our weeklong focus on the Writer’s Notebook, tomorrow Shana will be discussing more ideas on how to make them a (creative) staple in all of our classrooms.

So, as the four of us here at Three Teachers Talk continue to write and think and process through the importance of the Writer’s Notebook and our excitement towards implementing them on Day 1 of our new school year…we invite you to do the same.  Here are some resources to spark and intrigue learners of all ages and to support them in embracing their inner originality and individuality:

Lynda Barry’s works are phenomenal.  I suggest you hop onto her website to take a look at her thinking, pedagogy, and resources…and to also enjoy an interactive look inside her books. (Some pictured here.)


What it isPicture This









Mindful Coloring


The Mindfulness Coloring Book is a coloring book that provides page after page of innovative visuals to be colored however the user so wishes.IMG_20150727_211908 While doing so, one’s stress decreases and focus increases.  Here’s a peek at how I utilized it while taking a graduate course this summer – in an attempt to balance the workload with an element of zen.





The Art of Zentangle explores the artistry and creativity for those looking for a bit of a challenge – as so many of our students are, yet it is incredibly accessible for doodlers of all levels.  There are a plethora of tutorials on youtube.com for you to start your hand at zentangling while also sharing the process with students.




I hope these resources have inspired you to think about lessening stress levels; providing students an outlet that ultimately drives their focus and concentration; and how to organically and authentically let students explore their inner-most thinking through the art of creating.  And, if you happen to find (or already know of) resources that students are thoroughly enjoying, please leave the titles and anecdotes in the comment section below.  The list of creative resources truly does go on and on!

There are years of innovation and then there are years of transformation


Emma was sunshine personified. She was salty hair and smiles and surfing. She was the student who sat in the front row, the one who showed up early to class just to chat. Emma died this past September in a car accident, one day after I revised her college essay, one day after she told me “one more concussion and I’ll be dead,” one day after she laughed off my nervous, “Be careful!”

When I first hear the news, I had been given the wrong students’ name, and I am ashamed to admit that for a moment I selfishly breathed a sigh of relief. But then her picture loaded, the pixelated image appeared line by line on my smartphone, her sandy blonde hair and smile, flashing section by section and I fell apart alone in my living room at 6:30am.

That was only the beginning.

Quickly students began unraveling. I am a second year teacher, a relative novice in the education world, yet I feel like I have lived a thousand lives. Had you asked me to reflect on my world after my first year, I would have peppered you with stories of passionate readers and personal successes, comedic performances of Macbeth, and classes that became family.

This year was different.

The questions weren’t the same, and while my first year had its own challenges, my second year was consumed with worst case scenarios. How was I supposed to deal with my seventeen-year-old students’ funeral? Where should I go when my student has an anxiety-induced nervous breakdown in the middle of class? How do I respond when my entire class just watched their classmate carried out in handcuffs? Or punched in the face in the middle of class? Or attacked by another student with psychiatric disorders and no impulse control? What do I do when my student disappears after being threatened with gang violence? Or because they attempted suicide? And these were only a handful of questions that I dealt with.

I have learned that there are years of innovation and then there are years of transformation. This was my year of transformation. No workshop or course could have prepared me to deal with the needs of my students this year. From them, I have learned unconditional commitment as a teacher. I have defended the rights of my students to remain in my classroom despite their disabilities. I have learned the value of opening my classroom as a safe space for those who have no place to go, whether that is at 7:00am or 4:30pm, to chat or just to read silently away from the prying eyes of peers. I have learned the value of openly modeling enthusiasm and empathy, of thanking them for filling my days with humor and love. I have learned the value of showing them that their words matter—that I will get their friend help immediately, that I will notice their change in disposition and book them an appointment with the school case worker, that I will sit with them in silence if that’s what they need.

I have a week-and-a-half left with my students, and while this year has saturated every ounce of my being, I will enter summer both as a stronger teacher and individual. As always, the end of our journey together is bittersweet, maybe even more so this year after the amount of time and personal energy I have invested into my students’ well being and success. This summer, I will delve into new novels and make lists of new lesson plans. I’ll attend multiple courses and collaborate on curriculum development, but I won’t forget that at the heart of my job is compassion. I can only hope that my students learn as much from me as I learn from them.

Our Year-In-Review

As we round out the 2014-2015 academic school year, I would like share our Year-In-Review from us here at TTT and dedicate it to all of our loyal and contributing teacher friends who share in our experiences throughout the year.  Playing with the Reading Writing Workshop model is always exhilarating and fresh and exciting and freeing and thought-provoking.  It’s always propelling us, as educators, to break through barriers and teach with our most authentic teaching souls.

So, to capture the essence of how we have all explored the model this school year; here are highlights that allow us to celebrate the risks, the questions, the stumbles, the ‘ah-ha’s, the setbacks, and of course…the successes.  As we are all still progressing through this last month of our current school year, we hope that resurfacing some of our favorite moments will ignite the fire that keeps us all educating with fierce passion, deep inquiry, and continual evolution.

The calm zen of the RWW in Texas.

The calm zen of the RWW in TX.

First up: The lovely Amy Rasmussen who never ceases to amaze all of us with her wit, wisdom, and wildly insightful thinking.  Here is a woman who has taken the RWW by storm and has not looked back; the only time she does is to pick up, dust off, and gently guide those who are trying to find their way through the process.  She is an excellent mentor and extraordinary educator who ensures that her Advanced Placement students are gifted the wonders of the RWW. Here is a collection of how Amy has guided us through the intricacies of customizing the RWW for our own learners:

A Feedback Protocol for Revision Workshop

5 Reasons Why Reading Conferences Matter — Especially in High School English

5 Ways to Enjoy the Last Month of School


A reminder of student movement and achievement.

A reminder of student movement and achievement in NH.

Next: Jackie Catcher’s name could not be more appropriate.  We know the catcher’s responsibility on the field is to guide the team to strategic success; Jackie does the same infield – in her classroom. She moves her students with her unyielding dedication through continual infused literacy by craftily customizing projects and lessons that engage students. She is a powerhouse who, through all the struggles and obstacles of a second year educator, never ceases to find innovative ways to educate and inspire.  Most importantly, she is always a learner first and shares her inquiry with others to not only think collectively, but to create success-driven solutions.  Here is some of her story:

Building My Library Around My Students

Unraveling the Mystery of Poetry

The Question That Changes My Students’ Writing


A bright and energetic learning environment in WV.

A bright and energetic learning environment in WV.

Thirdly: The always-invigorating Shana Karnes. Shana is a shining light to her students, yet her light shines brightly for the world of evolving educators as well.  She is open to sharing her passion, her innovative thinking, and the way she creatively customizes the RWW for her students in the throws of West Virginia.  Shana never loses sight of how vital piles and piles of literature are for the growth of her young readers and emerging writers.  She knows how to roll up her sleeves and do the work right beside her scholars.  It is through the sheer joy of all things literacy, that Shana explores the world of the RWW:

We Learn Facts from Fiction

Teach Readers, Not Books: A Case for Choice Reading in ALL Classes

The Value of Talk


The shelves where our identities are qualified, our ideas solidified, and our passion realized.

The shelves where our identities are qualified, our ideas solidified, and our passions realized in NY.

Rounding it out: Erika Bogdany.  Through the RWW I have challenged my students, and they in turn, have challenged me.  They push me continually with their own inquiries and want to be more fluid writers.  They challenge my writing by offering suggestions and insight that I have bestowed upon them; the gift of creating a safe community for all learners to read, write, risk, and share.  It is through the RWW that students find pride in their work, volume in their voice, crafted secrets in their writing, and beauty in themselves.  It is with passion and grace that students flutter and flop; yet learn how to fly:

All it Takes is a Tutu and Some Focus

Beyond These Four Walls

Today We Draw


We hope that our moment of reflection and celebration continues to provide you ideas and inspiration throughout the remaining time you have with your unique readers and writers this year.  We’d love to continue hearing your voices, feedback, and generous insight while we round out this school year…and look forward to the year ahead!

Everywhere You Turn

Over the last three years, our Francis Gittens Memorial Lending Library has grown literally by thousands of books.  And, it’s a beautiful sight.  One in which provides comfort, challenge, and dialogue among students and educators.  It propels interest in reading and provides options and choice; students sometimes pull up a chair and use the edge of any given shelf to rest their Writer’s Notebook while they write and find inspiration.  It’s our staple here in room 382.

But, as more and more donations come through the door, I panic: Where will they all go?!  We are currently wall-to-wall with bookshelves (many that tower over us) and the remaining space is either wall-to-wall windows or full of technology.  So, I started to utilize every open surface: our computer cart, window sills, filing cabinets, my own desk.  Now, literally everywhere you turn, your gaze lands upon books…stacks and stacks of books.

Initially I felt overwhelmed by having books everywhere; I thought it felt chaotic.  But, the perceived chaos actually provides students even more choice and an innate awareness of their surroundings. Students have started to become even more in-tune with their reading journeys and have been feeling more compelled to explore.  For more reluctant readers they have access to books without it feeling as though there is the need for any sort of grandiose gesture; trekking across the room to the wildly overwhelming library.  It’s subtle yet powerful beyond measure.  Everything is within their reach.


Books resting on technology…

Everything.  Even our mobile technology cart full of laptops. The books on top are stacked in four piles; they are our newest additions.  Because the cart find its way across the room, near different seats, and at various different spots depending on the day; it’s equivalent to an ice cream truck making its rounds – no one is to be missed.  These piles change as the new additions continue to stream through the door.  Many students, as they are accessing the cart for a computer, find themselves pausing for a moment because a book title…or cover…or piece they realized was on their next-to-read list…has caught their attention.  I love the irony that’s often captured here when a student is simply going to return their computer, hears the bell ring, and runs to their Writer’s Notebook to jot the title down; yet forgets to put the computer back!


Here is one of three window sills adorned with literature – and some added nature.  During the winter months in room 382 the heat tends to be unbearable (hence the cactus) which is quite unfortunate.  Yet fortunately, students like to get a breath of fresh air.  So, while doing so they find themselves multi-tasking – breathing in the fresh city air while perusing through the new titles that greet them at the window.  Many times, a lesson or writing workshop will be interrupted with, “Miss Bogdany, I found another book about XXX!”

Books decorating ugly steel surfaces...

Books decorating ugly steel surfaces…

Many students have just recently begun to proudly embrace their love for graphic novels. Typically,they believe that they’re for ‘young kids’ because of ‘all the pictures and stuff’.  I whole-heartedly disagree.  So, in the vein of supporting students’ interest in visual literacy, many are found atop an industrial filing cabinet adding color, texture, and accessibility.  Because this surface is also used for additional supplies, students access it often.  Every time they are wanting to find their zen (see butterfly book box on the top left) they happen upon literature that excites them.  Many times, the zen garden and a new book escorts them back to their seat.     


Exhibiting my literary interests. The left stack is comprised of pieces I want to read. The ones on the right are my absolute favorites. And, the ones in the middle are a fantastic mix of professional resources, gifts, and tools.

I know students will not produce work if they are not comfortable; both physically and in feeling safe within a community.  I create a visually stimulating space at my desk because it’s what fuels my passion for all things literacy. I also know, when a student needs their own unique space, they tend to gravitate toward wherever it is that I’ve set up shop.  It has been labeled ‘their corner office’ – and yes, they get right down to business!

There are other times when I conduct 1:1 conferences and ask a student to engage in dialogue in our bright back corner.  I watch their eyes drift from their writing to the options resting atop my wooden workspace.  Students will reach across the desk to pick up a piece they have never seen there before and while I try to get their attention refocused on our conference, sometimes the book they’ve chosen is much more convincing than whatever it is I’m trying to do.  I also think some of the intrigue is that students know that what they find there are pieces I can really talk about because I’m passionate about them.

So, as the year starts coming to an end and we start thinking strategically about how we are going to start minimizing our inventory and organizing it for our summer packing; please don’t!  Keep moving things around and keeping it fresh.  Put books in places you haven’t before – students will find them trust me.  Play around with what you have displayed in your area and invite students to engage in conversation wrapped around them.  But, most importantly, enjoy these remaining few months with our inquisitive and dedicated readers as they continue to look around our learning environments and find exactly what they didn’t even know they were looking for.

Where do you keep literature aside from your library shelves?  What successes have students found when they happen upon a book in the most unlikely of places?


Today We Draw

A Five Day Checklist:

Chancellor visit. (Check!)

Superintendent visit. (Check!)

A posse of outside principals observing. (Check!)

Our CBO (community based organization) pulled out = no counseling…or any other services…for students.  Teachers are now ALL of that. (Continual check!)

End of the Cycle (think semester) and the accompanied wildness. (Checking…all week long!)

*THIS WEEK.  Yes, in one week.  And, it’s Wednesday only.


The above is an email I composed to Amy, Jackie, and Shana in one of our most recent communications. In response, Amy wrote:  You’ve got the world on your shoulders this week, E!  And, it wasn’t until I was greeted with this affirmation that I realized it most definitely felt that way.  I was too busy moving through it to take a moment’s pause and acknowledge the intensity of it all.   The. Weight. Of. The. World.

It got me thinking.  If I felt this way, I couldn’t imagine how students were feeling as they were the reason for all of the visits.  They were the ones ‘on display’.  I just kept it business as usual with our Readers Writers Workshop flow; rigorous expectations, Writer’s Notebooks being utilized, Independent Reading occurring, questions being raised; chuckles here and there.  Yet, it felt off.  As I looked around the room, it occurred to me that students have taken on the weight of the world too.

They’ve been trying to articulate their thoughts wrapped around their chosen literature when the Chancellor asked them about their favorite books.  They’ve tried to be loyal to our collective work and answer the Superintendent’s question about rubrics (aside from the thought provoking work they’ve been creating) knowing that we are currently exploring with our pens and ideas sans a rubric.  They have tried to find comfort in their movement over the last six months, but these pressures have made them second guess themselves.  And the reason I know?  They’ve told me.

Yet, their resilience astounds me.  So, I dug deep.

We needed a collective breath.  With all of the tension and uncertainty swirling about Room 382, we needed a class period full of calming zen.  I channelled my extraordinary experience at #UNHLIT13, as I was guided by Penny Kittle in sketching an already created piece of art.  Aside from my internal voices loudly telling me that there was no way I was going to be successful at this; I tried.  And regardless of how my sketch came out I knew the most important lesson is that I didn’t give up.

Calmly, yet intensely, sketching.

Calmly, yet intensely, sketching.

So, today we draw.

The weight lifted immediately and you could feel the energetic life seeping back into 382.  Students were riddled with questions: Wait.  We’re just going to draw today?  You mean, no writing?  We can do that?!  

And, while some questions made me laugh and others prompted me to reflect, students were back.  So, everyone grabbed their newly sharpened pencils, chose the drawing that spoke to them most, and got to it.  I mean, really got to it.

Hoodies up.  Concentration in full effect.

Hoodies up. Concentration in full effect.






It was important for me to voice my intention: Folks as we partake in this together, I need you to know that I am wildly uncomfortable with all things drawing!  For the last six months I have asked you to find strength and courage in reading and writing that has challenged you to the core.  Today, I do the same.  (Deep breath)  Here I go…

While students zoned in, I followed their lead.  I sketched under the document camera so students could watch me struggle…and I mean struggle.  Yet, while drawing/sketching isn’t my forte, I needed students to watch me play with a level of discomfort they are not used to observing.  Students engaged in non-literacy conversation (as Shana brilliantly suggests here) while honing in on their focus.  Students approached me to lend their expertise on how to curve lines or align measurements or see the artist’s sketch with a different perspective.  It was exhilarating being the student!

Some of our masterpieces!  My attempt at creating a balcony.

Some of our masterpieces! My attempt at creating a balcony.

All said and done, here’s what I know.  The RWW is about so much more than always reading and writing; it allows the space to explore, mess up, build community, redefine rigor, and just enjoy.  On this given day, the latter is my favorite.

How do you find ways to calm the tension within your learning environment using the Readers Writers Workshop model?



The Modern PLC

Sometimes things stay with you. In December I got this message:

I have been working with three teachers this fall who have transformed their classrooms (all ranging from freshman level to AP Lit and AP Lang) from the traditional class to a readers/writers workshop approach.  Your blog posts always show up in my email box at the exact right time when they are in need of inspiration to keep going and figure out what to do in their classes.  They realized very quickly how fast they were able to get through “old curriculum” when they dropped the class novel approach and were then scrambling to find new and exciting mentor texts, books to share, and additional writing ideas. Their students have read thousands of pages and enormous amounts of books which never happened in their classes before.  Students were writing them thank you letters for inspiring them to become true readers and writers.  Penny Kittle’s books got them started on this path, but your real life teacher posts have helped them validate what they are doing.  So… thank you and keep those posts coming.  They are making a difference in our classrooms.

I could write a book about the value in that feedback (Probably will). Feedback should make writers want to write more. That is exactly what Melissa Sethna’s kind words did for me and my friends here at TTT.

Her simple thanks also made us want to follow her work, support her even more, watch how she helps other teachers. We’ve become colleagues with a united purpose. We’ve become friends.

And that is the beauty of the modern PLC.

A literacy specialist in Mundelein, IL sends a thank you to a teacher/blogger in Lewisville, TX, which makes the teacher/blogger want to become a better teacher so she becomes a better writer so she writes more inspiring and instructional blog posts for other teachers and so on.

Teachers supporting one another as we do our best to do right by the children that we teach. As ELA teachers the best way we know how to do that is through balanced literacy practices in readers and writers workshop.

That’s the foundation for the Three Teachers Talk blog, which started as three friends committing to stay in touch by sharing our work through our writing. We are four teachers now — writing, sharing, and growing. And participating in a Professional Learning Community that’s been redefined, refocused, and restructured by connected educators around the globe who are just like us.

Thank you, readers, for being part of the best PLC on the planet.


Note: Melissa Sethna posts as a guest blogger here tomorrow. Her work inspires us.

©Amy Rasmussen, 2011 – 2015

Cliché No More

Yes, I’m going there.  I’m making it wildly obvious and apparent that we have made it to the end of yet another year.  Cliché, I know.

cli·ché – klēˈSHā/ noun –a phrase or opinion that is overused and betrays a lack of original thought.

As if we haven’t been counting down the days for sometime now or looking forward to a fresh start as 2015 rolls around in less than 24 hours; this is a time when we allow ourselves the luxury to think about everything we’d like to leave in the past (and slip into the belief that we actually can leave whatever it is we don’t want anymore in 2014 – simply because the clock strikes twelve).  We’ve been detailing and tweaking our New Year’s resolutions to complete and utter perfection (because in these euphoric (some would argue – desperate) moments we believe perfection actually exists).  We’re ready for a change.

But, should we be?

I’ll be the first to admit that my 2014 was as tumultuous as tumultuous can be.  No, really.  Room 382 has been turned up, shifted around, marked, bruised, taken advantage of, and sadly (at moments) not utilized to its fullest potential.  Yet, every morning with the heat blasting (awaiting student complaint) there’s an essence that is viscerally undeniable.  I walk into a space, a quiet and waiting space, that invites risk, mistakes, setbacks, and quite frankly – the undeniable ugly.  Yet, there is no judgement, discerning undertone, nor slight anticipation that today there will be no progress.

Why would I want to leave all of that in 2014?!

I want these feelings, these realities, these quiet moments of hope to stay tightly tucked in my pocket as I make the invisible leap into 2015.  I don’t want to leave the struggle, nor the beauty, behind – it has become a part of who I am (as an educator, woman, thinker, problem solver, learner…).

can’t forget those moments when students found their way through pieces of literature that sparked their love for reading.  And I’m talking: “we’re-so-thirsty-we-can’t-get-enough”esque love of reading!

won’t allow myself to pretend none of this happened – because it did.  I know it.  Students know it.  It’s been what we’ve all held onto when it seemed there wasn’t anything else to keep us grounded, or stable, or…moving forward.

But, we have moved forward, right into the New Year.IMG_20141223_083315

And, while we are half way through our 2014-2015 winter break, I hold tightly to this: Our Reading Plan for Winter Break.

Students have committed, willingly, to really think through which books they want to explore during our hiatus.  Every student’s list is vastly different than the next, yet their pride in taking on this challenge (an hour of reading per day) is evident.  They are playing with genres; being honest about time constraints and the length of specific books; some wildly ambitious, others playing it safe.  Regardless, this is the tangible that will be welcoming us all into the New Year.

This will be the first thing we talk about upon re-entering room 382 and our time together on January 5, 2015.  We will be exploring all we learned about reading in 2014 and see how we all (myself included) challenged ourselves independently.  How did we fly?  When did we feel our wings getting clipped? What did we learn?  What do we want to share?  And so on and so on.

So, as the New Year always brings new promise and a sense of intrigue, I challenge us all to not lose sight of the beauty of the year past.  Bring with you the moments that challenged you the most. Capture, in vivid detail, the time you (and students) felt alive and connected.  Take a moment to massage the inner strength you know has become dormant sitting right below the surface and embrace it.

We owe it to ourselves and our students to relish in the relaxation, adventure, and exploration that this break offers, yet continue to embrace the challenges of late and invite the unforeseen new ones in.  This year, I am shouting loudly and proudly,”Cliché No More!” because with every year comes a newness balanced with a familiarity of knowing.

Here’s to a happy and healthy to you and yours!

The Gift From One Teacher to Another

33cef1aI had one minute to complete the “holey card,” a card riddled with rows of holes in which I filled in the answers to multiplication facts. One minute. And then time was up. Only half of my card was completed; I had failed. The embarrassment and discouragement welled in my eyes and for the first time in my elementary school career, I cried in front of the entire class. That’s when it all began.

Fast forward through high school geometry and calculus, extra help sessions with teachers, and math team meets so I could simply accrue extra credit. I never did poorly in my classes but I always felt like I just got by without fully understanding the concepts, scraping out As and Bs in a subject I knew so little about.

Needless to say, my math education has culminated in my hating, loathing, despising numbers. So when I enrolled in a graduate level statistics course last semester, I had high anxiety and low expectations. I could do this, I told myself; I was no longer an intimidated high schooler or struggling college student. Until two weeks into the course when the textbook and my professor began speaking a foreign language.

In my frantic search for help, I found Kevin, a baseball coach and AP Statistics teacher who worked at the opposite end of the high school. On that first day Kevin assuaged my fears, told me he could help me easily and opened his schedule to meet with me after school. I am not crier, but in that moment, I almost shed tears over math for the second time in my life. Kevin gave me hope that somehow I would make it through statistics, somehow I, the queen of number avoidance, would do well.

Kevin made me feel valued. When I first arrived in his classroom I was overwhelmed and uncomfortable. I felt bad asking for extra help from a teacher who already had a full course load and plenty of students to attend to, but Kevin never made me feel like a nuisance. He welcomed me into his classroom and told me I was helping him prepare for his future units of study. These afternoon minilessons, he told me, were helping him develop his second semester lessons. I’m not sure whether or not that was true, but he convinced me that somehow my presence was valuable.

Kevin made himself available. Every day Kevin would stay after school to help his students on their math. I remember one time distinctly when I arrived fifteen minutes after school to find him excitedly reviewing concepts with two of his students. I sat at the back of the room and waited my turn in line. There were no time restrictions and Kevin always cast aside whatever he was working on to pull up a chair alongside me. One week he spent two hours sitting with me on a Friday afternoon, long after the janitor swept circles around our desk.

Kevin made me feel like an equal. Walking into his classroom for the first time felt exposing; I was acknowledging to another teacher just how much math baffled me. Yet Kevin openly admitted his perplexity with English. He told me how mentors and friends had helped him throughout his life in areas he had struggled with, and that because of their guidance, he was able to succeed. I told him that I would edit or write anything he needed—I’d pay him back with my pen. Somehow this trading of trades made me feel less weak and more empowered as both an educator and student.

Finally, Kevin acknowledged my hard work and determination. Too often we grade based on whether an answer is right or wrong. I got my fair share of answers wrong, but Kevin praised my work. He actually saw the countless hours I committed to my assignments and study instead of discrediting me for being slow. He praised the fact that I was balancing a job and class; he was understanding of my determination to succeed both as a teacher and a student.

Ultimately, Kevin’s compassion and kindness brought me to reflect on my own classroom and the students who arrived at my door, terrified of reading, loathing writing, shutting down simply because they too had a scarring moment or incidence that defined their disgust for my subject. I learned more than math from Kevin this semester. I learned that to lead students into our subject, we must make them feel valued within our community. We must work to acknowledge their strengths and show them that we are all equals when it comes to developing as readers and writers. We must praise their hard work and determination far more than their failures, and we must make ourselves available both in and outside of class to have meaningful conversations and connections. In the end, we are never too old to change our outlook and education. After all, one teacher can make the difference.

Landscape of Workshop: We have arrived!

Nine years in. I know what certain murmuring really means. We all do. The murmuring of students when they are conferring about their writing. The kind that surfaces when boredom is creeping into our classrooms. The murmuring of confusion and frustration. The one that starts to get louder and louder as passion starts taking shape. Today, is that kind of murmuring day.

Christian: Why? No, really. Why? Why is it that all we do is read and write in here allllll day, Ms. Bogdany? Ev-er-y-day. (Yes, with that level of emphasis.)

Swallowing my smirk, I calmly start explaining the reasons, rationales, and importance again to Christian. Yes, we’ve had this conversation many–a-time. And clearly others’ patience with this subject has become depleted.

Norris: Man, why are you even asking that? We’re in English! It’s what we do!

Christian: No, but I mean seriously. It’s all we do. In my previous high school we used to watch movies and relax. This is crazy.

Norris: That’s why you’re not there anymore! You chose to be educated here. We’re at a transfer school. Here it’s more focused and we’re learning.

Deja: Oh, listen to you, Norris. Telling Christian all about what’s right…you always think you’re better than everyone!  We breathe the same air you breathe!

Hakeem: Norris, you haven’t walked in my shoes! You don’t know! Last period, you were the one that lied and got caught! Now you’re acting like Christian’s father.

Here, in my Writer's Notebook, I capture voices speaking their truth.

Here, in my Writer’s Notebook, I capture voices speaking their truth.

Here is where I sit back and start listening; very intently. I am becoming quieter and quieter as the room gets more and more animated. (I was hoping to become invisible, truth be told.) Because, this is what happens when students are invested. They challenge each other. They hold each other accountable. They start discussing their level of comfort or lack there of.   They express their inner feelings. They question motives. And yes, sometimes their word choices can be a bit crass, but isn’t that authenticity at its best?

They give me exactly what I need as their educator.

I need to understand who they are, what fuels their fire, how they feel about injustice. How safe are they feeling in our learning community? Well, I can’t always answer all of the questions swirling around in my mind, but today I was able to answer this one confidently: students are feeling wildly comfortable in our shared space. Because when students are brave enough to confront their peers (those that are their roughest critics) I know we’ve arrived. We’ve arrived as an evolving community of learners; as a team not willing to silence our voices when they need to be heard; and we are most definitely letting our guards down as we are emerging ourselves even more deeply in the work of the Reading Writing Workshop (RWW).

I also know that while Christian is literally shifting around in his seat, stretching all of his 5 feet 9 inches; he is moving – physically and as a writer. He doesn’t necessarily see or appreciate it just yet, but it’s there. I see it. I know. And, just like the murmuring that propelled this dialogue in room 382, Christian is pushing boundaries and uncomfortable. Yet, I believe Christian is more resilient than he even recognizes. And that resiliency pushes me to continually find ways to engage Christian in this work. Even, if it means having the same conversation again — because it will resurface.

As I head down to the nation’s capitol to be reunited with my PLN – my nationwide pedagogical lifeline – I take this experience with me. Regardless of how much traffic I may encounter on the trip from Brooklyn, this tipping point (as Malcolm Gladwell would argue) is buckled tightly in my back seat and promising to remind me what I am bringing with me to #NCTE14 – the moments that the RWW affords us when we listen to our learners, their needs, and previously dormant desires.

I cannot wait to further this conversation on Saturday at J.44 starting at 2:45pm. I hope you join us for an hour full of deep thinking, classroom anecdotals, and the energy that attendees from across the country bring to the conversation. See you there!

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