Tag Archives: learning

Conferring and My Wish for a Time Machine

I am as guilty as the next guy. When I first started teaching, I didn’t have any idea how to get students to read more, write more, do more in my English class. I didn’t even know I would have to work so hard. Although I was in the middle of raising my own teenagers (and they all turned out great), I had no idea how to inspire other people’s teens to give books a long enough look to want to read them or to take the time needed to write something they would want others to want to read. I was all about my content, my lesson plans, my choices, my control. I did most of the talking. I did very little listening.

I remember the first day of my first year teaching. Students sat in assigned seats, alphabetically by last name. I asked each student, seat by seat, row by row, to tell everyone their name and one thing they hoped to learn in their freshman English class. I have no idea what they said — except for one.

“My name is Susie, and I hate white people.”

I am a white woman.

I might have felt stunned, hurt, appalled. I do remember thinking, “The audacity!” and shouldering an internal huff. I tried not to let these words sink me before I ever got afloat, and for the most part, I think I succeeded. Susie and I learned to work together that year, and she did fine in my class.

But my idea of success is much different than it was back then:  I no longer think fine is ever good enough.

I think about those young people from my first few years of teaching, and if time machines were a real thing, I’d set the dial to 2008. I would do things differently because I am different. I know better. I learned to be better.

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Last week I facilitated a day-long training on implementing the routines of readers-writers workshop in secondary classrooms — a shift in pedagogy so students sit at the center and learn through authentic reading and writing practices. These teachers are eager, and their district leadership is providing support to make this happen. Yet they struggle.

In table-group conversations, two topics came up again and again:  Our students lack discipline. We need more tips on conferring.

What’s obvious to me now, that wasn’t back when I first started teaching, is a clear connection between the two. Students need to be heard. Now, I am not saying that implementing a workshop pedagogy will fix all disruptive behaviors, but I do believe these behaviors are often evidence of a lack of conferring. Students need to be seen and heard. (See more on why here.)

We talk a lot about creating a positive culture in schools and cultivating learning communities where relationships thrive. These take intention, effort, and time. In ELAR classes, these take intentionally designing instruction that utilizes every square meter as we practice authentic literacy skills with authentic texts and model the effort it takes to build our identities as readers and writers. To do all of this well, we must meet our students where they are in their learning, or in their apathy, or their attitudes, or whatever we want to call it. Conferring, those one-on-one little talks with kids, is where we do it.

As with anything that deals with humans, it has to start with listening. Listening jumpstarts relationships. Relationships build community. Community shapes culture.

8 Tips for Talking to Adolescents

If I could relive day one of my first year teaching and my interaction with Susie, I’d make sure she knew I heard her. I’d pull up a chair at the beginning of our next class, and I’d listen. That would be the start of Susie doing more than just fine in her freshman English class. I am pretty sure of it.

 

Amy Rasmussen loves her life in North TX. She’s currently reading We Got This by Cornelius Minor, Embarrassment by Thomas Newkirk, and Braving the Wilderness by Brene Brown. She may be a completely different person come 2019. Find her on Twitter @amyrass

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#NCTE18 We’ve Got Some Action Plans to Talk About

It’s cold. Not to be a whiner, but . . . We moved into a new house during the hot Texas summer. The air conditioner worked. We thought we were good. Then, this month, finally, cool weather. Cooler and cooler. The temperature drops, drops, drops. “Guess what?” he says, “Uh, about the heater. We never turned the gas on.”

I sit here with my hot herbal tea steaming beside me and the electric blanket warming my feet as a portable space heater I found in the garage radiates from across the room. One call and the heater will toast up the house in no time.

I know others aren’t so lucky. So fortunate. So blessed. Shall we say — so privileged?

Perhaps that’s simplifying it. I know.

I’ve spent my career teaching in Title 1 schools. A warm place to write is often not even on my students’ lists of worries. I’ve thought about my privilege, a white woman educator, helping children of color grow as readers and writers. I’ve rewritten and revised countless lessons all with the earnest desire to give my students what I have always taken for granted.

I know that is not enough. Not enough if I want systemic change for all children everywhere. The more I learn the more I learn how little I know.

This tweet was pivotal to my understanding:

privilege intersections

What does this mean for me as an educator? What does this mean for the approach I take to selecting texts, to engaging readers, to fostering writers, to facilitating classroom discussion, to advocating for students in my realm of influence?

At NCTE this year, some of us on this blog team will present on how we are Raising Student Voice: Speaking Out for Equity and Justice.

NCTE 2018- shared slides

I am still working on my 10 minutes. (I know. I know! NCTE starts on Thursday!) But here’s what I am thinking —

For those of us who advocate for choice independent reading, we often quote Rudine Sims Bishop’s thoughts on books being mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors. (I quote her in this post I wrote last week.) I wonder how often we think about our students’ writing with a similar lens.

Do we empower writers the same way we hope choice empowers them as readers?

We should. We can.

I think I have a little of it figured out. If you will be at NCTE, I hope you will come join the conversation.

 

Amy Rasmussen loves her work with teachers and teenagers. She binge watches a lot of Netflix originals with her best-friend husband and reads a lot of YA lit. Her recent reading favorites: The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo, The Doubt Factory by Paolo Bacilagupi, and Swing by Kwame Alexander. And the teaching book she’s most excited to dig into if it ever comes in the mail:  We Got This by Cornelius Minor. (We are honored to have Mr. Minor chair our session!)

 

On Writers’ Testimonies & Why We Need Them

If I want to call myself a writer, I better start writing. Seems simple enough, right? I’ve read tons of quotes from writers who say the best way to begin is just sit down and bleed on the page. But I struggle.

As I was trying to write this post, with my dogs barking incessantly at an invisible squirrel in the backyard, and The Walking Dead booming from the bedroom tv where my husband languished with flu-like blahs, I thought of all the tweets last week for the National Day on Writing (fantastic inspiration and ideas there).

tweet#whyIwrite

I thought of why I write:  to think, to feel, to clarify, to play with language, to vent and heal and commit to change. All the reasons that everyone else writes. I am not unique.

Or am I?

Recently, I’ve been reading and re-reading the writing of Donald Murray. (Learning by Teaching: Selected Articles on Writing and Teaching is my bible as a writing teacher. Huge thanks to my friend Penny K. for the recommendation!) But I’ve also delved into Murray’s Shoptalk: Learning to Write with WritersIt’s a collection on quote on writers about their craft. Murray states in the preface that he began collecting quotes on writing when in junior high, filling twenty-four three-inch-think notebooks with at least eight thousand quotations. His motivation? He just wanted to know how writers wrote. Murray explains the importance of writers’ testimony:

     Many people have the romantic notion, encouraged by those writers who feel comfortable in the magician’s robes, that writing is an instinctive matter of talent, an art, not a craft, and therefore cannot be explained.

     But writing is not an unintelligent act. Writing is a craft before it is an art, and writers can and do discuss their craft in terms we can understand. There are good reasons teachers and students of writing should hear what writers say about their craft.

     . . . I bring writers into my classroom through their written testimony. As writers of today and yesterday–female and male, young and old, poets and novelists and playwrights and nonfiction writers–talk about their feelings and their problems while writing, my students discover that their natural responses to writing are often the same as experienced writers.

     This is vital. Students facing a writing problem will often find they have to solve it by starting over and will fell they have failed. When they read the testimony of experienced writers, however, they discover that they too act like writers and this increases their confidence in designing their own solutions to their own writing problems. School often teaches unnatural, non-writerly attitudes toward writing–know what you want to say before you say it–and students need to see that their own instincts are the instincts of published writers.

     Students also need to see that writers are not looking back at a finished text but are in the act of confronting the blank page–or looking at the world before their is a page; trying to get started; trying to keep a text on tract or following it off track; working to make a text clear to themselves and to a reader. Writer’s counsel isn’t distant, detached from the act of making; it is immediate, speaking to the writer in the middle of making, a master sharing the tricks of craft with an apprentice at a common workbench.

I need these reminders–for myself and those I hope to take on the identity of writer, other teachers and students alike. Murray explains:

Too often we defend writing as a skill, saying writing should be taught so that students can fill our a job application or write a better letter asking someone to buy a cemetery lot. Writing is a skill on that level, but it also a craft and an art; it satisfies an essential need of the human animal.

So how do I share more writers’ testimonies? How do I help satisfy the essential need of the humans in my care daily?

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Here’s some ideas:

  • Share some quotes on writing by writers. There’s lots of insights in that link and even some nice images like the one above.
  • Share Poets & Writers and follow on Twitter, too. I love their weekly update.
  • Read and share articles from NY Times Writers on Writing. This one by Amy Tan is a favorite and makes a fantastic mentor text to write beside.
  • Think, write, model, talk, share, and repeat with writers every single day. Let them know they are not alone in their pursuit of putting meaning on the page.

When I brought the barking dogs in, and before the tv went off and the zombies faded out in the bedroom, I heard a line that gave me pause. It went something like this: “This place is a canvas, and we are the paint. We were sent here to create. We did.”

I don’t know about you, but I think that relates to writing. I write to paint my world in the swirl of language, to create images and goals and imaginings, to figure out what I feel and think and know. I write because it feeds my need. I am human, so I write.

Amy Rasmussen writes most often sitting at her newest DIY project, a desk she repurposed from a vanity her paternal grandfather made for her grandmother over 70 years ago. She lights a candle and listens to Michael Bluble radio on Pandora. And when she gets stuck in her head or on the page, she reads. Follow her @amyrass

Writing Conferences: Stories, Schemes, and Strategies

Conferring is hard brain work. When do I listen? How do I listen? When do I talk? How much? How do I anticipate what a student needs? When do I step back and let them problem solve? Am I even conferring right? (Maybe not. So put your Judge-y McJudgers pants away while you read this.). As Shana explained in this post back in January, there’s so much value in talk, in engaging our students in conversation, in encouraging them–as Amy framed here— to tell the story of how their writing is going.

Because (as Tom Newkirk suggests) we have minds made for stories, over the years I’ve begun to recognize some common schemes while conferring. Recognizing these patterns frees me to listen and to respond. Perhaps you’ll recognize the stories of your own students in the stories I share. Perhaps you’ll pick up a strategy or two. 

The What-Did-I-Do-to-Myself Conference

This conference may typically begin from a position of fear–mine because my student’s eyes have suddenly become two daggers, piercing my helpful, loving heart. This occurred in a recent conference, where my student who chose ice cream as her multi genre research project topic hurled at me these words: “I don’t know how I’m supposed to write an argument about ice cream.” Was she complaining about lack of direction? Instruction? I took a deep breath to let go of any defensiveness I felt. Then I reflected on her question. Oh. Oh! The fear was not mine to have.

My student needed:

  1. to hear that to write about this is, indeed, possible.
  2. to understand the possibilities for executing the writing.

Conference next steps:

  1. I confirmed the correctness of my reflection by paraphrasing (So, what I think you’re saying is that you’re feeling pretty uncertain if you can, and if you can, what it looks like?).
  2. Once confirmed, I chose another seemingly tiny and narrow topic like tacos and verbally processed some options for how I could craft an argument for an audience on tacos. I did not do any written modeling or reach for any mentors at this point. My role in this early phase conference was to dispel fear, to affirm possibility, and to confirm faith in my student’s ability.

Student next steps:

Following this verbal modeling, my student disarmed with affirmation and a smile, she continued working in her notebook, mapping her argument and the rest of the multi genre.

The I-Need-to-Change-My-Topic Conference

This conference may typically begin from a declarative statement: “Just so you know, I’m changing my topic.” I’m being put on notice here.  But I delight in these William Carlos Williams “this is just to say” moments almost as much as ripe-n-ready plums. So, curious now, I say, “Tell me about why you abandoned the old topic” (I’m always thinking we can learn something from discarding topics) and “Tell me about the new topic.” That’s when my student in this case explains that the topic is music but that’s all he has. Hmm.

My student needed:

  1. To narrow his topic by sinking his teeth into the best tidbits of it.
  2. To get moving. And fast. IMG_2711.JPG

Conference next steps:

  1. With the topic so broad, I asked the student to tell me a story that shows his relationship with music.
  2. Once the student shared his story–one that involved him writing his own music and performing several songs at a local concert venue (Our students do amazing things!)–we mapped out a plan for the different parts of his multi genre text.

Student next steps:

With a story in his head (and probably a song) and a general plan mapped out, this student left for the day, ready to focus on more specific planning.

The So-Can-I? Conference

This conference may typically begin and end within a very short burst of time; a meteor shower during the Perseids, this conference starts with a short burst of light from the student, a recognition of how to apply a resource. In a recent case, the student examined a resource on possible argument structures I shared with the class, and ingenuity bursting forth, queried, “So, I can use the pro/con structure? And, can I make this modification to it?”

My student needed:

  1. To know that he has more freedom than he’s using.
  2. To have the affirmation necessary to keep burning bright.

Conference next steps:

  1. I replied,” Tell me a little more about that” and followed that with paraphrasing, “So, what you want to do is . . .?”
  2. Then I simply said, “Yes.” 

Student next steps:

Following this all-of-sixty-seconds-conference, the student returned to mapping out writing, synthesizing his own ideas with the resource. And, I spent five minutes with the next person instead of three.

The I-Know-I-Need-to ______ , But . . . Conference

This conference may typically begin with candor from the student. Like the first sip of lemonade on a hot summer’s day, it’s so refreshing to hear in response to my opening questions (How’s the writing going? What roadblocks are you running into?), “I know I need to _______, but I’m having a little trouble.” Ah. This can become an opportunity to model for the student or offer a micro-lesson; sometimes–like in a recent conference where my student wanted to build a more humorous tone–I help the student find or use mentors. **Note to self–I should probably start asking my students to tell me about mentor texts they’ve turned to when they’re tackling challenges. 

My student needed:

  1. To resolve gaps in skill level (impressively, one’s the student recognized).
  2. To access additional resources  for strategies.

Conference next steps:

  1. For this student working on narrative writing, I pulled David Sedaris’ “Let It Snow” and a couple of others.
  2. Then we talked through typical strategies a writer uses to develop humor.

Student next steps:  

Time well-spent, smiling now, my student worked on reading and studying the mentors.

 
The I’m-Avoiding-Letting-You-Read-My-Writing Conference. May also sometimes appear as the I-Don’t Have-Any-Writing-to-Show-You-Yet Conference

This conference may typically begin, well, haltingly–like a first time driver slowly circling around the empty high school parking lot. I’ll ask, “How is the writing going? What roadblocks are you hitting?” “Doin’ fine. No roadblocks.” Okay. Next approach. “Why don’t we look at a section together? Show me a section you feel really good about. Let’s celebrate what’s working!” Sometimes that gets us turned in the right direction (a smile and an oh, sure and we’re underway); sometimes we skid (uh, so, um, I don’t really have much yet. Uh-oh.). When I most recently tried this approach, my student offered, “Well, I really like this paragraph; but I’m not sure about how to develop it more.” 

My student needed:

  1. to feel safe enough–safe enough to embrace the opportunity or safe enough to admit to lack of progress.
  2. to have re-direction for what conferring might look and sound like. Sometimes they just don’t have the mechanisms down.

Conference next steps:

  1. In the first situation, I generally point out the parts that are really working in the section the student chose to share. I thank them. Then I ask if there’s anything else they want to share or questions they have. And, sometimes I get to look at more writing. I did in this particular case. And, had I not pressed gently, I don’t think I would have (I was kind of impressed that it actually worked!).
  2. In the second situation, I paraphrase what they might be feeling. I might say, “I imagine you might be feeling ___________ (stressed for not having more done; frustrated by how to begin; confused about the direction of your writing; etc.). They typically correct me if I’m wrong and we work together to plan next steps, even if it’s breaking down the process further.

Student next steps:

In the first situation, the student began applying feedback; in situation two, the student typically articulates what’s getting in the way and what resources are needed and then begins tackling a small goal (drafting a paragraph versus drafting the whole thing).

When I’m conferring, I’m listening, paraphrasing, questioning, re-teaching, modeling, affirming, finding resources, building possibility, and showing my students that what they write matters. No wonder my brain hurts.

Kristin Jeschke remembers with fondness the many teachers that encouraged her writing but especially Greg Leitner who always listened more than talked. And who always inspired her to keep writing. Now as an AP Language and Composition teacher and senior English teacher, Kristin appreciates the gift of moments spent conferring. Follow Kristin on Twitter @kajeschke.  

 

 

Takeaways from Tyrolia: Four Days with Kylene Beers, Penny Kittle, Bob Probst, and Linda Rief by @KarryDornak

Tyrolia Ranch
I still haven’t mentally returned from my time at Tyrolia, Kylene Beers’ ranch, in Waco, TX. My mind still thinks I am sitting at her dining room table, painting a watercolor picture while overlooking a pond banked with Cypress trees. Or nestled on one of her incredibly-comfortable couches talking about a podcast with a newfound friend. Or riding a Mule (the all-terrain vehicle, not the animal) with Penny Kittle and five other people who were just as giddy as I was. Or sitting around her living room chatting and laughing with Bob Probst and Linda Rief while the aroma of the evening’s dinner tempted our senses.

Scenic Tyrolia RanchIt’s amazing that a place of scenic tranquility and beauty could rouse such feelings of rebellion and determination.

But you can’t talk about rebellion without first talking about power, so let’s start with the power of literacy.

For the first time in history, power is no longer based solely on wealth. Power is a Tweet. A YouTube video. A social media post. Kylene gave a fascinating talk about the “ugly roots of literacy in America.” In Colonial America, “literacy” primarily meant one’s ability to sign a document or contract. Who held the power there? Those who could sign the document, or those who could write the document? During the Revolutionary and Civil War times, penmanship was valued as literacy. But who had the leisure to practice their penmanship? Those with wealth, privilege, and power. From the Civil War to World War I, literacy meant one’s ability to recite poems, monologues, and stories. But who had the leisure to practice memorization? Those with wealth, privilege, and power. Then we get to the Industrial Revolution, where the assembly line was born. And then our schools began modeling the assembly line design (can’t you just picture kids on a conveyor belt being carried from class to class?). From the 1950s to 1980s (and even in the present), literacy meant analyzing the meaning of what we are reading. But still, someone else held the power (it was the teacher — or CliffsNotes —  who determined if a student’s analysis was correct or not).

The point is, the definition of literacy shifts to reflect what is happening in the country and world. Presently, businesses see the value in synthesizing information and identifying potential problems rather than just solving existing problems. So what does this mean for our classrooms?

It means we abdicate the power we as teachers have held on to for decades and give it to our students. If we are only teaching them analytical literacy, we are preparing them for 1980. For this century, students need the same literacy skills they’ve always needed: to summarize, to retell, to articulate, to evaluate. But more importantly, they also need a willingness to see another perspective, the chance to take a risk, the ability to sustain their focus, an acceptance of ambiguity, and the self-confidence that allows them to identify as readers and writers. Because that’s power, right?

But the chances are, if you’re reading this, you already believe this. Chances are, if you’re visiting Three Teachers Talk, you are already subscribed to the belief that education has not caught up to the 21st century. And chances are, you sometimes feel alone in this belief. Or isolated. Like you are fighting a losing battle. Like you have found a great discovery, only to feel that no one else believes you.

That’s where Penny Kittle’s words ring true  — that courage is more important than caution. I understand not wanting to “rock the boat” or damage friendships with your colleagues, but at what cost? The risk of sending our students into the world illiterate by 21st century standards and powerless?

Kylene told us that to start [educational, metaphorical] fires, we must start with our best kindling. So find your tribe. Find your people. Those who value courage over caution. They may not be in your hallway. Perhaps they’re across campuses, across districts, across states, across international borders. That’s who I found at Tyrolia. I found my tribe.

And persist. Penny said that it is often the changemakers who take the lumps. And I don’t know about you, but I have definitely felt it. But our kids are worth it. Linda echoed this sentiment when she said that even if you just change one teacher, that is one group of kids who are benefitting. To add to the conversation, Bob suggested we focus on the 5%: the 5% of teachers who are ready and willing to make a change, or the 5% of our teaching that we are dedicated to improving. So ask: “What’s one thing we can change this year?”

For me, I am vowing to write more. Penny encouraged us to start the habit of writing for fifteen minutes a day. You know what I said to her? I’ve tried to keep notebooks and journals, but I always lose interest because I feel like what I’m writing doesn’t matter.

Dwell on that sentiment: My words don’t matter.

You know many of our students feel the same way. How can I show my kids that their words and voices matter when I don’t even feel that my own do?

But she told me that my words did matter. And then four days later, she retweeted this, and I can’t help but think it was for me:

PK notebook tweet

The truth is, words matter.  Everyone’s: mine, yours, our students’. The words we read shape our thoughts. So immerse yourself in the words of Kylene Beers, Penny Kittle, Bob Probst, and Linda Rief. Their words are life-changing.

Immerse your students in words of both the past and the present, so that they understand how we got to now, and how we can change the future. And the words we write matter. They help us reflect, learn, process, and discover.

I’m slowly wakening from the dream that was Tyrolia, but I hope that we all remain:

Determined to write.

Unafraid to rebel.

Revolutionaries for 21st century literacy.

On a mission to find our tribes.

The 5%.

As of today’s publication, Karry Dornak has continued to write, rebel, revolutionize, and seek out her fellow 5%. She is balancing life in Spring, TX, as an instructional specialist, teacher, wife, mom, and Pumpkin Spice Latte enthusiast. Follow Karry on Twitter @karrydornak

 

Guest Post by Austin Darrow: A Summer Party

I’ve always stressed to my students the importance of titles: “It’s the FIRST thing your reader will see! Make it exciting! Take a risk!”

Clearly, Billy, our district ELA coordinator, had internalized these ideas when he, the Friday before our summer Reader/Writer Workshop Institute began, sent out an inter-district email titled “Welcome to the Summer Party!” His email began, “Friends, I’m very excited to spend the next few weeks with you at our summer Workshop Institute! This is basically going to be just like summer camp, but for nerdy people who love to read, write, teach, and learn. 😊”

As both a millennial (who loves emojis) and a long-time self-identifying super nerd (who loves all the aforementioned activities), this introduction made the proceeding dozen bullet points of logistical details and harrowing announcement of a 30-minute daily BYO working lunch much easier to digest.

So here I was on a Friday afternoon, just a stones-throw away from college and having just finished my first year of teaching that day, actually excited to go back to school! What happened to the days of skipping morning university classes? I pinched myself, checked my pulse, and drank a third cup of coffee, wondering what this year had done with the old Austin.

Day one began. I observed a few things as we got started: most teachers, myself included, sat with others from their own high school (I promised myself to remember this next time I asked my students to sit with somebody they didn’t know); there was a mixed aura of both excitement and uncertainty in the air; there were stacks of intriguing books and composition notebooks all around. But the most significant observation I made was about my internal expectations. Having just finished a year of implementing R/W workshop, I was excited to hone that craft. I knew I had significant room to grow in helping students become writers. I was fully expecting to love the time spent with colleagues each morning. But—I was also expecting to enjoy my time spent with students less—students who were there because they had failed the English STAAR test. Students who had likely been beat down by the system the majority of their lives. Students who probably lacked motivation or engagement. I was prepping myself to “push through” each afternoon. Boy, was I wrong.

Our daily schedule for context:

  • 9:00-11:30—Billy and Amy lead us through model workshop lessons mixed with reading, writing, and discussing best practices as teachers
  • 11:30-12:00—An exciting working lunch where 30 teachers competed for two microwaves
  • 12:00-2:00—Separate into pairs and adapt the morning’s lessons/prepare to teach
  • 2:00-5:00—Co-teach 20 students

Our days were jam-packed. Our brains had to be ON, the wheels turning from 9-5 every day. Though we learned and planned and ate and laughed as a professional (most of the time) community for the majority of each day, I quickly discovered that the true heart of this institute was the three hours we got to spend with our students each afternoon. This was not a mandatory or graded institute, yet rain or shine, most of the class I shared with Angie showed up day after day. Contrary to my initial deficit thinking, most students put their skin and bones into the game, trusting us to help them pass if they just did the crazy, seemingly unrelated to the STAAR test tasks, we asked of them. Contrary to my low expectations, these kids poured their hearts out to me and to each other and gave it their all. I did not internalize this all at once, but through a series of powerful moments, which are so numerous I don’t know what to do but list them:

  • Zubia and Ana teaching me about their faith, how they were celebrating Eid, and what the beautiful and intricate Henna tattoos that covered their hands meant
  • Our entire class helping me work through my essay about my brother’s drug addiction and how it was hurting our family, empathizing with me and giving me ideas that I incorporated into the piece
  • Orion checking in with me to make sure I was okay after I read my piece to them
  • Having a heated debate on cell phones
  • Matthew asking me to write down a list of books he should read and him buying and finishing three of them in the three weeks we spent together
  • Looking up during our sacred reading time and seeing every student entranced, realizing it was so quiet I could hear my heart beating
  • ______ sharing his written piece with me about him struggling with his sexual identity in a family that would consider it out of the question to be gay
  • Reading Lester’s experiences with racism toward Hispanic people; Ana’s desire for her older siblings to want to hang out with her; Orion’s extended metaphor of a volcano (his family) exploding and him getting burned by the lava, even though he would shut the door to block it out; Zubia’s story of Pakistan and its people and cultures, and her desire to show people a new perspective; Syed’s story on how strong his mother is, and how we live in a seemingly fatherless society; Raelynn’s essay on why girls should stop competing and pushing each other down and should instead lift each other up; Ethan’s argument on why enjoying one’s education is so vital, yet so rare; and so many other pieces of these kids’ hearts.

Summer PartyAs I reflect on these moments, I ask myself whether these moments would have occurred if we had done STAAR test packets and STAAR test prep. I ask myself whether the students would have continued to show up day after day. I ask myself if I would have grown as a writer myself through the help of these kids. But I already know the answers.

These experiences were made possible because of workshop, because we engaged in real reading and real writing. These experiences were made possible because I loved and trusted students enough to be vulnerable to them.

I can hardly wait for the next summer party.

Among other things, Austin Darrow was an English major in college, and so he knows that he’s supposed to write things like, “Austin Darrow is <fill in the blank>.” Except he hates writing about myself like he’s not in the room. He also knows he’s not supposed to plagiarize, so he credits that intro to Ilsa J. Bick. Here’s the need to know: Austin Darrow is currently planning his summer school curriculum, next year, his wedding in December, his honeymoon, and his grocery list. And he loves it.

Read the essay Austin wrote at the Clear Creek ISD Summer Readers-Writers Institute here.

To the Woods: The Importance of Stopping to Reflect While on the Journey

In a recent twitter chat for AP Literature teachers hosted by Talks with Teachers Brian Sztabnik, he opened the chat with a prompt: identify a poem befitting of the weather conditions. Robert Frost’s “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening.” Too on the nose, my husband would say. Yet for me–given weather conditions and classroom conditions–it felt natural, not as a text to teach but as a text to prompt the kind of introspection I needed. As a teacher, I am at a stopping point, a midway point in the year where I gain new students (I teach on the block schedule). I have miles to go before I sleep (#Englishteacherlife). But before I try to fulfill those promises to my new students, I need to go to the dark places, to the woods of my mind. And stop. Stop moving from one thing to the next. My teacher life desperately needs this stillness. In the woods of my mind, I can truly reflect and determine how to keep moving forward on the miles ahead, discovering the ways I can uphold my responsibilities to my students and to myself.

As I paused, visiting my own woods, I reflected and wondered yet again: do my students have enough opportunities to go their dark places, their woods? I don’t mean social-emotional dark places. Instead, I mean the darkness and woods of their learning journey as writers where they must ponder thickets and brambles and branches–the very things that trip them and rip them up as writers. No, they don’t. As a teacher who regularly pushes students to reflect because of its impact on self-regulation skills, this year I’ve gotten buried under new content and new approaches. It seems I’ve let my commitment to reflection on not just product but also process get covered up by the deep snow of other stuff. Yes, my students reflected at the end of each essay, but what were my students missing by not pausing for more profound reflection in the midst of their journeys? What chances to directly impact their writing processes did I miss?

My students’ end-of-the-term portfolios, where they presented artifacts and reflected on their writing process journey, certainly carried me deeper into the woods–theirs and mine–and I learned about what we missed.

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These are the end-of-the-term reflection questions with which we asked students to engage.

Students not only narrated how their writing processes changed and what went well with their writing but also what could have gone better and what they would do differently if they could rewind and start over. Their reflections were lovely, dark, and deep. Here are a few samples.

Student A’s reflections: 

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Student B’s reflections:

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Student C’s reflections:Screen Shot 2018-02-04 at 9.59.26 PM

As I re-read their end of Term 1 reflections and then later really paused to consider their Term 2 reflections, I recognized why I need to force those pauses in the midst of the journey more often. Yes, many of my students, like Student A, pondered their processes overall and showed improvement in self-regulation. But, Students B and C are far more indicative of missed visits to the woods. I could have mentored Student B more to take calculated risks throughout the process, and both Students B and C could have benefitted from more coaching regarding peer collaboration. There are, it seems, so many more opportunities for learning if I create the conditions for true pauses during the process. Sharon Pianko’s “Reflection: A Critical Component of the Composing Process” from 1979 (when researching the relationship between composing and reflection was new) speaks to this:

It is reflection which stimulates the growth of consciousness in students about the numerous mental and linguistic strategies they command and about the many lexical, syntactical, and organizational choices they make–many of which occur simultaneously–during the act of composing. The ability to reflect on what is being written seems to be the essence of the difference between the able and not so able writers from their initial writing experience onward.

I have a responsibility to help my students become “able” writers. And, now I’m all too full of eagerness to move, bells of expectation ringing, full of purpose toward that responsibility.

This term my colleague and I intend to schedule deep reflection time–true pauses to reflect on process not product–on a regular basis. We must prioritize this. Sure, at first, my new students might think it strange to stop. And to stop where we do. They might even think it’s a mistake. But I know better now. I’m inviting them to the woods, empowering them first to reflect and then to find their way onward, ably, through the snow.

For resources on reflection, check out two of my recent “go-to’s”:

Angela Stockman’s Blog Post “Ten Reflective Questions to Ask at the End of Class”: I appreciate question 7: it’s all about the journey. Allison Marchetti and Rebekah O’Dell’s Writing with Mentors: their checkpoint questions provide a systematic approach to the kind of reflection we’re after.

 

Kristin Jeschke teaches College Prep English (senior English) and AP Language and Composition at Waukee High School in Waukee, Iowa. She doesn’t mind the snow, enjoys the woods, appreciates the poetry of Robert Frost, prizes reflection, and loves her students. Follow her @kajeschke.

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