Tag Archives: PLC

Becoming a Writer — Guest Post by Austin Darrow

On a late summer night, as the new school year looms on the horizon, my wife and I re-watch Heath Ledger’s comedic masterpiece A Knight’s Tale for the umpteenth time. As Ledger’s character William makes the decision to bravely follow his true calling and stand as a knight, knowing he will be arrested, Roland proclaims the old adage, “Well boys, all good things must come to an end.”

As all teachers oft do, I took this as a metaphor. It’s time for summer to come to an end, to don my armor, pursue my calling, boldly face the new year. In response, my wife said to stop being so melodramatic and watch the movie.

With her reminder, I did put an end to these flairs. Sure, summer–with its days of sleeping in, its weeks to simply and blissfully read for hours, catch up with old friends, its endless possibilities–would have to make way for something more structured. But I also felt a change this time around. The nervousness, the butterflies, the back-to-school nightmares (mostly) gave way to a new feeling: excitement. This would be a great year.

You see, last year, my second year in this profession, was a furnace for me.

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The Image by zephylwer0 from Pixabay

Conditions were just right: the heat was cranked up by my peer Charles Moore, who constantly challenged me to grow through conversations, mentor text wars, an anchor chart “hall of fame”, and an endless pursuit of authenticity in our shared love of teaching literacy; a mold was given to me by my mentor, Helen Becker, who showed me concrete strategies to make these things work while always reminding me to read, write, and cut out all the extra “stuff” that could allow impurities to ruin my work; Megan Thompson was the hand that guided the hammer, refining the techniques I tried, inviting me into her classroom and her thoughts, and modeling an unconditional love for students that requires a strong will; lastly, the students were the anvil, always giving me a sturdy base on which I could hone my edges and continue growing and shaping.

Without “further gilding the lily” as Chaucer would say in A Knight’s Tale, I learned and grew so much in this forge through the strong students, mentors, peers, colleagues, and I daresay friends that were willing to walk the walk with me.

Our North star–our central focus–at the heart of this growth was always learning how to make the literacy experiences for our students more authentic.

As I continue to reflect on these experiences, I realize that our greatest growth was in writing instruction. As our students walked in the door for the first time last year, we quickly realized many had gaps in their writing instruction. But perhaps a more alarming assessment was that most students, even those “proficient” by any state standards, had no love or purpose for writing.

And so our work began.

We tried many things–increasing the amount of formative data we would look at in team meetings to help guide our planning; shifting what and how we assessed and graded with rubrics and scales that would be more authentic; changing the pacing and length of our mini-lessons to get out of the way of these young writers; and so much more. Each of our adjustments were tried, refined, and often ditched and replaced, and I believe that each warrants further reflection. But one adjustment stood above the rest: when we as teachers became writers too.

In Kelly Gallagher’s Write Like This, he proclaims: “Of all the strategies I have learned over the years, there is one that stands far above the rest when it comes to improving my students’ writing: the teacher should model by writing–and think out loud while writing–in front of the class” (15).

Nearly all teachers of writing have heard something along these lines at some point in their career. Many have been brave and vulnerable enough to try it.

But this past year, I learned that there is a difference between writing in front of your students and becoming a writer.

A writer is a person who keeps journals and notebooks and endless Word documents, filled with ideas and drafts and revisions in a smorgasbord of conditions. A writer is an artist who pursues and experiments with their craft to get it just right. A writer is a dreamer filled with goals and purpose that can only be met through careful, meticulous, arduous effort.

With this working definition, I quickly realized that I was not a writer. Are you? I also questioned myself:  How could I authentically ask my students to become the writers that I have qualified here if I hadn’t become a writer yet myself? How could I expect them to give what I was not willing to give myself?

So I set out to become a writer. At first, I wrote the same essays and assignments that I tasked my students with. Then I said yes to sponsoring our school’s Poetry Corner and shared my own work at our weekly meetings. I wrote letters to family and friends, and love notes to my (at the time) fiancé. I wrote reviews of products I had purchased and services I had received, application letters to conferences I wished to attend, thank-you cards to wedding guests, and much more.

As I climbed each of these mountains of literacy, I shared my writing experiences with students. I wrote many of these pieces with them, inviting their feedback and giving mine in return. I became a writer and watched as my students became writers, too.

In a recent conversation with the aforementioned colleagues and friends, we created an anchor chart of reasons why everybody–students and teachers alike–benefit when the teacher becomes a writer:

  • Foresight to specific struggles students might have
  • Better understanding of what skills to teach in mini-lessons
  • Concrete conferring questions to ask student writers
  • Empathy for students struggling with the writing process
  • Equity in creating assessment scales and rubrics
  • Modeling vulnerability, struggle, and craft for the students
  • Modeling authenticity and purpose as a writer

I’m certain there is more to unpack here, but with these benefits alone, I am convinced: the most essential “tool” of writing instruction is when the teacher becomes a writer, too.

So as I glimpse into the year ahead, the usual back-to-school nerves have been replaced with sheer excitement. I am excited to step into the classroom, share my writing territories with students, and coach them as they create their own. I am excited to write alongside them, receive their feedback, and watch as they grow. I am excited for our next Poetry Corner meeting, where old students and new are so electrified by their literacy that they have to come and share. I have so much to learn still about writing instruction, and I am excited to step back into the furnace.

Austin Darrow has now begun his third year as a teacher and self-proclaimed literacy advocate. He teaches English I, AP Lit, and coaches the Academic Decathlon at Clear Creek High School. He is trying to grow and refine his voice of advocacy, so follow him on Twitter @darrowatcreek.

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Q & A: How do I do this on my own without other colleagues teaching this way? #3TTWorkshop

Questions Answered (1)

Believe me when I say I understand. Completely. I think many other teachers who took off the old shoes of making all the choices in their English classes and tiptoed, stomped, or danced into workshop instruction understand, too. Sometimes we are the only one hearing the music.

This was me most of the time.

Of course, working with colleagues in highly functioning PLC’s is advantageous. If we’re lucky, we’ve been in a few grade level teams, or even full departments with colleagues who embrace the choice and challenge readers-writers workshop offers and collaborate well. Other times we have to stick with our knowledge of what works best for growing readers and writers and make our own instructional choices, based on what we know is best for the students relying us in our own classrooms. It’s always our own students who matter most.

So how do I do workshop on my own without other colleagues teaching this way?

Here’s the advice I got when I asked a similar question to someone with a whole lot more experience than me in all things authentic reading and writing instruction:   Nod your head a lot, and then close your door.

That’s pretty much what I did for the first eight years when I was figuring out how to manage a classroom library, give students choice in the books they read, hold them accountable in some way for their reading, get them writing more (and better), using mentor texts, conferring semi-regularly, and trying not to lose my mind when I’d go to team meetings and hear “I’m teaching ________ (insert title from the canon) and making students do study questions, along with these specific annotations. Do you want a copy of my test over the book?” Thanks by no thanks.

We teach readers, not books. And maybe it’s just me, but when I hear teachers say “I make my students do ____”, I kind of cringe. Study questions, annotations for all (done with a teacher’s specific rules for notes instead of the reader’s own rules), and tests over books:  Sandpaper on teeth.

When I shifted my instruction to include choice, student engagement soared. I was converted, and I hungered for more ways to fully move into workshop instruction. But at the time, I was the only convert on my campus. I was lonely there.

However, I had company outside my school. Everyone who determines to make this shift does. You may just have to find it.

First off, there’s this blog. I started it with two brilliant teachers, Heather and Molly, I met at a summer institute of the North Star of TX National Writing Project, a site of National Writing Project. We wanted a place to write about how we applied our learning from our institute with our students, and we wanted a space that helped us stay connected. I was teaching at a Title I high school in a district just north of Dallas; Molly had just moved to a high school with a focus on project-based learning in Longview; Heather taught middle school in a district east of Ft. Worth. (If you know north TX, you know we spanned a distance geographically.) I tell you this history for a few reasons:

The National Writing Project advocates for authentic writing instruction, and it is one of the best networks of educators, willing to collaborate and share, I know. If you can link to a site near you, you will never do this work alone.

Three Teachers Talk has grown as my learning about workshop instruction has. Heather and Molly moved in exciting career directions different than mine, and at times this blog has really been one teacher talking as I tried to figure things out. (Note: Writing helps us figure things out.) Then, when I attended the University of New Hampshire Literacy Institute and took a two week class taught by Penny Kittle, and learned with Shana, Erica, and Emily, a similar blog-writing collaboration happened.

We started writing regular posts here called Our Compass Shifts because we were all working to shift our thinking about instruction and apply the learning from Penny’s class with our own readers and writers. Our teaching souls clicked. The Modern PLC. Emily and Erica wrote with us for awhile, but like Heather and Molly they moved on to other good things. We remain friends, but Shana — Shana remains as Diana exclaims of Anne in Anne of Green Gables, my “bossom friend. A bosom friend—an intimate friend, you know—a really kindred spirit to whom I can confide my innermost soul.”

To continue improving, growing, striving to do right by our students, I think we all need at least one bossom friend. I’ve got two in Shana and Lisa, two of the other admins on this blog. (Angela, you’re up-and-coming.)

I had to find them though. I couldn’t keep my classroom door shut and not step in to learning opportunities that helped me grow. Growing takes action.

So how do I do workshop on my own without other colleagues teaching this way?

Seek out connections with others who are making workshop work. All of the contributors on this blog have been where you are. Read their posts. Leave comments. Ask questions. Email me directly if you can’t find answers amy@threeteacherstalk.com. Like everyone else in the teaching world, I’m busy, but I will do my best to help. (And your questions may turn into blog posts. That’s how I met the amazing Lisa Dennis.)

Join a network of passionate educators on Twitter. There’s chats for you. #TeachWrite #DistruptTexts #buildyourstack #3TTworkshop #titletalk #NerdyBookClub #APLitchat #teachlivingpoets all come to mind. So many teachers moving the work of choice and challenge — and equity — forward. If you are new to Twitter and don’t know who to follow, follow us @3TeachersTalk; then, check out who we follow — educators like you.

Read books by those who’ve built a movement, and join in on discussions. Some of our favorite teacher-writers are active on Twitter, and they share brilliant ideas regularly. Thomas Newkirk, Tom Romano, Penny Kittle, Kelly Gallagher, Linda Rief, Cornelius Minor to name a few.

Also, Shana put together a fabulous resource page here. It’s not exhaustive, but it’s a good start.

I know joining chats, reading books, and connecting online does not replace collaboration on a campus, but it does work to help us grow in our practice.

Just like my daughter has online friends who are in the #houseplantclub, and my sister has online friends who play Pokemon Go, teachers — eager to make workshop work for their students — can find the support they need to make this ever-important pedagogy of engaging students as they grow in their identity as readers and writers work.

Press on, my friends, we are here for you.

Amy Rasmussen calls herself a literacy evangelist –among other things. Wife to a lovely man, and blessed to be the mother of six and grandmother of seven (five of which are boys), she loves to read and teach and share ideas that just might make the world a little brighter — for everyone! Follow her @amyrass — and join the conversation around workshop instruction on the Three Teachers Talk Facebook page. Go here see other Q & A posts about Secondary Readers-Writers Workshop.

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

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