One of my colleagues was deep-cleaning her room this summer, and left this gem in my mailbox:
It’s a two-page article from 1982, written by the late James Dickey–you may know him as the guy who wrote Deliverance. At the time that this article was printed, he was also the poet-in-residence at the University of South Carolina. While I’m sure that Mrs. F’s motivation for sharing this piece of paper with me was partially the humor of the quaint title and the very pensive portrait of Dickey even so far pre-Instagram, I did take the time to read it seriously, and it is seriously so good!
In the world of Internet everything, sometimes it feels like we’re trying to re-invent all of our material and approaches all the time, but reading “How to Enjoy Poetry” made me remember that such things are not always necessary. Poetry is as eternal as the human experience, and Dickey’s way of explaining it is incredibly accessible and accurate. Before you throw all your paper-based binders away, make sure to mine them for gold!
I’m definitely going to use this piece with my classes this year, and I’ve scanned it into a digital copy so that you can too. I’ll put a link to the .pdf at the end of the post. But first, I want to share some of my favorite moments from the article.
“The sun of poetry is new every day, too, because it is seen in different ways by different people who have lived under it, lived with it, responded to it. Their lives are different from yours, but by means of the special spell that poetry brings to the fact of the sun–everybody’s sun; yours, too–you can come into possession of many suns: as many as men and women have ever been able to imagine. Poetry makes possible the deepest kind of personal possession of the world.”
Find and fall in love with the full article here, and enjoy your own pursuit of the path! How to Enjoy Poetry
For the past two weeks, I’ve had the honor of working as a facilitator for the UW-Milwaukee Writing Project at their Invitational Summer Institute. I love working with the Writing Project, because it is absolutely outstanding professional development. If I didn’t know any better, I’d call it magic.
It also makes me wonder whether or not this magic is replicable, because (as all teachers know) professional development can be both the best thing or the worst thing about being an educator, depending on what, where, how, and through whom it happens.
What if professional development could always be good? What should districts look for in their pursuit of quality professional development for teachers–workshops that leave staff feeling inspired and legitimately empowered to change their practices for the better?
As a teacher who has actively pursued (and facilitated) professional development to enhance my teaching practice over the last decade, I’ve noticed some patterns in what good teacher PD really means, which I’ll share here in list form. It’s my hope that this list will be helpful to professional development committees and administrators when considering PD offerings for teachers. I’m focusing specifically on aspects that will leave teacher participants feeling empowered, because that’s a key in creating positive change in schools. It’s not an all-encompassing list, but it’s enough to start some important conversations.
Recommendations for Professional Development that Empowers Teachers
#1 Presenters of professional development for teachers should also be current teachers themselves. I understand that there are people out there who have well-researched and innovative ideas about what teachers should be doing. However, if those people are not current teachers themselves in some capacity, their ability to truly understand the day-to-day classroom implications of their findings is compromised. A presenter must be able to answer the question “How does this work in your classroom?” in order to get complete buy-in from an audience of practicing teachers.
#2 The topic of professional development should directly correlate with an area of need identified by the participating teachers. Teachers have a lot to do. They also want to learn. But if they are sacrificing their time, they want to learn about what’s important to their own practice right now. The best professional development addresses the specific needs of its audience. All teachers have questions about certain strategies or situations within their classrooms. Professional development topics should ideally correlate with those questions to make the process authentic. This is best accomplished when the presenters have a working knowledge of the participants’ context–what is it like to teach in this school? Who are the students? To what level have the participants already implemented the strategy in question? What kinds of expertise are the participants bringing in with them? A presenter must know what his or her audience truly needs most, to make sure the offerings are valuable.
#3 Participants should be assisted in creating or adapting resources for their classrooms during the professional development. Teachers don’t want to be given something and simply told to use it–they are creative, ingenious people. Professional development that assists teachers in creating something tailor-made for their own classes and students taps into this immense potential. Students benefit immediately from new resources being applied by the experts who created them–their teachers! Hands-on, active learning is the kind of meaning-making that we know works well in education at all levels. Teachers, like students, should be provided opportunities to apply and experiment with their growing knowledge to create new applications.
# 4 Participants should be given the support they need to become future leaders by sharing and building knowledge in their professional communities. The goal of teacher professional development should not be to “bring in the experts.” Teachers are the experts when it comes to teaching (see #1). Districts gain more value when they invest in professional development that in turn makes teacher-leaders out of participants, who can then present their developing knowledge to others in their district. This shows a trust and investment in teachers as professionals. It also builds a school culture where teachers grow their own learning by sharing expertise with colleagues–a sure way to strengthen community and foster leadership among staff.
#5 Participants should have the chance to build supportive relationships and connect as human beings. Teaching is primarily about working with people. Teachers will participate more enthusiastically, feel more valued, have more fun, work far harder, and respond far more positively when they are able to connect meaningfully with each other during their time together. Sharing stories and feelings around what they are teaching, the joys and heartbreaks and frustrations… these opportunities to connect, relate, vent, joke, and collaborate are crucial. Giving teachers time to discuss what is most important in their own lives may seem like it’s a distraction from the purpose of professional development, but it is not. Rather, it’s a catalyst. Caring about people fuels teachers. When they care about each other, they can do incredible things as a team.
Any one of these five criteria can make professional development more empowering for teachers. It may not always be possible to hit all five at once, but when it is–that’s when the magic will happen.
Of course, I can speak only from my own personal experience. But as someone who just can’t stay away from the National Writing Project after eight years, I’m currently looking at another summer institute with new colleagues who have become family that I don’t want to say goodbye to. I’m feeling a propulsive momentum for learning about my profession that I don’t want to end. I’m feeling like a leader who wants to work hard. If all professional development felt like that, well… I can only imagine the resulting magic.
When we talk about writing, it’s easy to think of it in terms of what we’re saying. That’s the most exciting part, right? The stories of our lives, the new discoveries we make in research, the opinions we’re burning to assert… Those are our reasons for writing in the first place. But what about the craft of writing? What about making sure that those messages we so dearly want to get across are actually heard? There’s an answer for this, and it comes from a component of writing that is rarely prioritized in the high school classroom, but I’m going to try to prove here that teaching it well needs to be a bigger deal.
Structure! It’s a word that we don’t typically hear kids use when they talk about their writing, but it’s my new favorite writing focus with my teenage students.
Before I get into telling you all the great things about teaching student writers about structure, let me clarify what I mean when I use the term, just in case it’s different than the way others may think about it. For me,
*order of information (There should be reasons why certain pieces are ordered first, before/after other things, or last.)
*overall organizational vision (What sections does this project have? Is it moving in a linear or nonlinear way?)
*where breaks and white space occur (Where are the shifts in topic, tone, or time? What lines or sections need emphasis?)
I started looking more closely at structure this year when I noticed that my students increasingly tend to write in big unorganized blobs of text–no paragraphs, no headings, no discernible order… just one big blob. The case of the missing paragraphs sent me out to teach structure directly, and it resulted in a slew of unintended positive side effects! So in case you’re not convinced yet, read on…
Five Reasons to Focus More on Teaching Structure in the Writing Classroom
Better close reading skills. When I teach writing, we work with mentor texts quite a bit. The idea is to understand a professional writer’s “moves” so that we might imitate them. But whereas strong imagery or repetition are things that students notice easily, they sometimes need prompting to find structural choices. When intentionally bringing attention to things like paragraph breaks, reasons for segmenting/sectioning writing, and watching for shifts in topic, tone, or time, students get a better sense of the specific impact that structural choices can have on readers. It also makes them more effective analyzers of text overall–they start noticing these moves in other reading contexts, too.
More rigor in creative tasks. I love the freedom of poetry and narrative as much as my students do, but sometimes it leads students to believe that anything creative that they write on the page is beyond evaluation just by virtue of the fact that it’s creative. I recently had a conversation with an advanced student who is working on a poetry collection. She asked, “Since my poems are kind of all just my personal thoughts, is there really any way to tell if they’re good or not?” “Yes,” I told her, because while nobody can tell anyone what to write, there definitely is such a thing as good and bad creative writing. Part of my solution for this student was to examine her structure, because strong creative work uses it very intentionally. I advised her to think about her stanzas–why were they in that order? Why did she shift to a new stanza or a new verse when she did? Why did the stanzas have five lines each? Even young writers who do implement structural moves in their writing sometimes don’t have any actual reasons for them. Working with structure is a great way to challenge students to gain greater control and nuance in their creative writing.
Huge impact on revision quality. Writing in any form can be completely transformed when it is purposefully reordered or even just when paragraph breaks are used well with intention. I try to help my students learn that paragraphs are units of meaning, not length–I still sometimes get students who wonder “how many sentences should be in a paragraph?” Of course, they should be evaluating that themselves, paragraph by paragraph. This is a great time to teach how and why we use breaks to help our audience understand that we are moving–maybe we’re changing the topic. Maybe we’re moving from a present narrative to a past memory that’s connected to that narrative. Maybe we’re isolating a one-line paragraph with white space because that line is really, really important. A structural revision can really transform a draft for the better.
The “organization” category in standardized writing scores. I won’t spend too much time on this one other than to say that the ACT Writing Rubric allots 25% of its scoring to the organization category. Blob writers cannot score well, even if everything else about their writing is on point.
More effective arguments. It’s a pretty simple premise that when you’re trying to convince someone of something, you need a very strong opening point to gain the audience’s consideration, and the strongest possible closing point to seal the deal. Yet, I have many students who organize their argumentative writing simply in the order that they thought of it initially or in the order of the sources that they discovered, with no real thought to why certain pieces are placed where they are. Working with students to strategize about the most convincing order of ideas can be a game changer in the impact of their argumentative writing. It ends up feeling far less like an endless stream of “And you know what else?!” and far more like a cohesive, crafted persuasive piece.
The school year is almost done! Maybe for some of you lucky ducks out there, it’s already done. However, if you’re a writing teacher, take some advice from me and jot the word “STRUCTURE” somewhere in the early September days of your 2018-2019 planner. I think you’ll find that it will make your students’ writing click into place in new, exciting ways.
Have you ever picked up a bag that was far heavier than you thought it would be? Maybe it’s a purse, or a suitcase, or possibly a backpack. There’s that moment of surprise, then you make a closer inspection of the object: What’s in here, bricks?! There’s a physical readjustment. Oh yeah, we think, lift with your legs. And we hoist it up, managing as best as we can.
Teaching is kind of like that sometimes. A lot of our students are carrying heavy things around. Some of those things they put in our arms, and we end up carrying them, too.
Certain privileges land in our laps as educators, and one of them is being witness to the stories of young people. Especially as English teachers, who encourage our students to learn the power of writing about their lives, there are things that come across our desks that can accumulate quickly in emotional weight. Kids might write about trouble with friends, family issues, self-esteem problems, bad memories, mental illness… We forget this, but everything that touches the adult world touches children, too. Young people aren’t too young to have pain, and while most assignments are intentionally skewed to accommodate positive memories, sometimes stories about wounds, whether old or new, need somewhere to go.
It is both a blessing and a burden to be trusted with such stories. On the one hand, you feel grateful that the student would trust you enough to share a difficult memory. On the other hand, the little moments where you say to yourself “I can’t believe a kid had to go through this” can add up quickly and silently. Professionalism demands that we keep these stories confidential (barring, of course, any support that we notify in situations where mandatory reporting or guidance interventions are required). We understand and honor this. We just lay these stories on top of our own.
We might also hear about something that a student has gone through after the fact, getting looped in to a confidential notification so that we can best support and accommodate the student. Especially when such things happen to students that we’ve worked with closely for a long time, knowing that they are hurting can be crushing. We can’t talk about these stories either, because students deserve our confidentiality and discretion. We keep a professional distance and try to keep it about the learning, while trying not to worry too much. But we don’t forget that stuff. We just carry it. Some years give us a lot to carry.
It’s a tough situation to be in. Of course, as teachers, we are more removed from student situations than families are, and sometimes I wonder to myself how much I really have the right to worry or not worry over a particular kid. My professional responsibility is to make sure that students have the environment and tools to learn as best they can. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t lie awake some nights hoping things are going to be ok for one of my students.
Teaching is a career about people, and I wish there was more concrete emotional support–for pre-service teachers all the way up to veterans–for the caretakers themselves. There are plenty of feel-good messages out there, of course, that encourage us to think of the difference that we’re making and to stay positive and grateful. There’s nothing wrong with that, but when it comes to practicing real skills surrounding self-care and managing anxiety, I think people who work in caring professions tend to have deficits. We don’t always understand the extent of the weight we carry, until we find ourselves sick or down in a way that takes a while to come back from. And we don’t always know what techniques work best for us to keep our (emotional and physical) selves healthy enough to keep going. I count myself among this number–I am still learning how to identify how much weight is in my backpack, so to speak, and how I need to tend to myself to make sure I can keep carrying it.
Self care fuels emotional strength! As I’ve found out personally, it also may spur an addiction to bath bombs, so watch out for that one. If you or your students need a little more information about aspects of self-care to help make your backpacks lighter, check out this beginner guide that I created for my homeroom kids (and for me): Self Care. Use/distribute however you like!
At the end of this Teacher Appreciation Week, I have two messages to send:
To students, never doubt that your teachers care about you and worry over you, even if they don’t seem to express it outright.
To teachers, never feel bad about practicing self-care or reaching out for support of your own. Just because your soul can provide for others doesn’t mean it can go forever without being renewed and fed.
If you teach at the high school level, then you know that teaching synthesis writing is an important part of our jobs right now. Undoubtedly, some of that is motivated by the writing section on the ACT, which is essentially a truncated, 0n-demand synthesis essay. But synthesis writing also represents a skill that should be in every well-educated student’s back pocket. It requires writers to not only present information or have an opinion, but rather to analyze the varied perspectives on an issue, organizing and evaluating them to create a complex argument.
In other words, good synthesis writing involves the kind of rhetoric that we wish most adults out on the internet had at their disposal. Therein lies one of the difficulties of teaching this kind of writing–today’s students really struggle to write about multifaceted topics without oversimplifying. Some simply present their opinion as the only reasonable way to think about something. Others get a little more sophisticated by acknowledging two sides–an extreme pro and an extreme con. But that’s not reality, nor is it good writing. How do we get students to explore sources and really present a whole spectrum ideas about an issue?
I’ve been working to solve this problem for several years now, and each year I add something new to my teaching strategies for synthesis. This year, I was really happy with the results, and wanted to share a couple things I made to help my students learn the smaller skills that are needed to be successful with synthesis–just a couple extra puzzle pieces that can help boost some skills.
SCAFFOLDING TIP #1: Before asking them to write critically, make sure they can read critically.
The presentation below guided some of my pre-teaching about recognizing perspectives within texts–I pulled some articles on current events and we used them to work through the question set on the last slide… first together, then individually. This crucial first step really helped my students start thinking about each of their sources as representing a particular viewpoint, rather than simply viewing all sources as “information.” This lesson also helped equip my students with vocabulary meant for recognizing multiple ways of looking at an issue: “opposing perspective,” “overlapping perspective”, “additional perspective,” etc. Coming to class already having these kinds of reading and thinking skills are not a guarantee, even for upper level high school students. Pre-teaching them (or re-teaching them) made a big difference in the sophistication of my students’ thinking over the whole unit.
SCAFFOLDING TIP #2: After modeling how to find sources on a topic, have students draw a spectrum of viewpoints and locate their own.
Once students start getting into their research, I have them create a numbered list of sources they could potentially use in their writing. Then, I show them how to draw a spectrum of views and locate different viewpoints within that continuum. This process really helped them visualize the full conversation surrounding their topics. (And, in some cases where students did not draw anything in the middle, it was an immediate indicator that I needed to provide more remediation before they began writing.) I conferenced with each student on his or her perspective map, and the conversations led naturally into their writing. Below is my example and some student examples.
SCAFFOLDING TIP #3: Focus on assessing writing skills, not quantifying checklists of writing tasks.
As far as grading goes, I created a new rubric to focus on the skills I wanted to see students demonstrate. This scoring guide was helpful to my students while drafting and revising, because it was based on my learning standards for the unit. Instead of superficial conversations like “How long should it be?” or “How many sources should I have?”, the new rubric led to discussions about how to make a position strong or what successful organization looks like. Feel free to modify my rubric (below) for your own classroom!
Communications 3: Synthesis Unit Essay Rubric
____/ 10 Complexity of thought: Writer is able to describe various viewpoints on a topic that extend beyond a mere binary pro/con relationship. The spectrum of views, including mid-point or partially supportive ones, is explored. Writer identifies elements of the topic that make it a complicated one.
____/ 10Clarity and strength of position: Writer holds a specific, clear viewpoint on the topic, which is well-supported with reasoning. Writer’s convictions are immediately observable and presented with a strong voice.
____/ 10 Perspective-taking ability: Perspectives are presented in an objective way, then reasonably considered and evaluated. Description of opposing viewpoints is measured, with academically appropriate acknowledgement of the influences that create different points of view.
____/ 10 Organization and transitions: Paragraphs are used to signal shift in topic or tone. Overall order of paragraphs follows a logical flow. Successful transitions are used to create a link between ideas as a new paragraph begins. Introduction sets up successful context and thesis statement. Conclusion offers strong, compelling final points.
____/ 10 Working with sources: Sources are introduced effectively, put in context for the reader, and used to provide evidence for various perspectives on the topic. The use of direct quotes and citations is grammatically sound. If bias is present in a source, it is identified. A complete “Works Cited” page accurately records sources used in in the paper.
____/ 10Use of language: Mechanics, grammar, spelling, capitalization, punctuation are correct. Academic voice is engaging and formal enough to be appropriate for an academic context. (You/your do not appear)
It’s hard to teach (and write about teaching) in this moment in history where unthinkable violence can reach children at school. There’s a lot of noise out here, and I just can’t lift my voice right now, so I’ll simply post an image this month. So much love to all of you.
Here in Wisconsin, the January weather can be pretty brutal. We all cope in our own ways, but my preferred way is daydreaming about summer as hard as I possibly can! It was in one of these reveries that I found myself thinking back to the day I spent with the UW-Milwaukee Writing Project summer institute, working with the facilitators and teacher consultants in the beautiful setting of the Lynden Sculpture Garden. One of the writing activities we discussed (and tried!) that morning stuck with me and my colleague, Mr. B. We knew we wanted to try it with our high school juniors as an entry approach to a difficult text. A special thank you goes out to Jenny Hussa of the UWMWP 2017 ISI for sharing this found poetry teaching idea with us! Here’s how it went.
The approach is very simple, with several possible variations. The most pared-down version includes these steps:
Tell students that you’ll be reading a text to them, and that you want them to listen for words that seem important, sound distinctive, or just strike them in some way. As you read aloud, the students should jot down a bulleted list of those words and phrases in their notebooks.
In small groups, the students compare their lists. Working together to identify the best (10-ish) words/phrases from their communal pile, they then write these winning words on paper strips. *Teacher note: don’t forget to make these ahead of time!
Still working together, students then organize the words to create a poem that reflects the essence of the text’s message. (We let our students add words where needed.) Then, they make it official by gluing the poem to a sturdy sheet, ready for classroom display.
Since we’re working with high school students, we used our whole class text of The Crucible as the starting point. Miller’s introduction–which provides commentary on the socio-historical context of the play–describes 1692 Puritan culture in Salem, Massachusetts. The nuances of this society are difficult for students to understand, because the norms and beliefs are so radically different from our contemporary America. On top of that, Miller’s words are dense and challenging. It’s prime “tune out” territory, which is the kiss of death when you’re just starting a whole class book and trying to convince teenagers that it’s going to be cool. Found poetry to the rescue!
When working with a text where comprehension is a challenge, it’s important to get students identifying key details and subsequently figuring out the relationships between those details in the author’s argument. This activity achieved both of those things in a way that was creative, collaborative, and engaging.
Check out some of their poems! They use Miller’s language in new ways, all while clearly showing an emerging understanding of the novel’s historic setting through the author’s eyes.
Happy holiday season! Santa, if you’re listening, I’d like to explain one thing that I know is on a lot of teachers’ Christmas lists–an oversized box of passion, with the batteries included. Here’s what I mean.
Schools are always trying something new. As someone who is committed to research-driven teaching methods, I do like to push myself to dive into new theories, recommendations, and strategies. But as long as schools exist, there will always be someone new coming to town to tout the Next Big Thing that will revolutionize education. And sometimes a back-to-basics approach can remind us of what’s most important.
I think we sometimes forget that the true core of teaching, the best thing about teaching, can’t ever be summed up with a buzzword or sold for a price-per-student fee, because it’s just too personal. And for content-area teachers in high schools, a big part of that is our love for our subjects. If I were to define the concept of “high school teacher” to an alien, this is what I would say: A high school teacher is a person who loves a certain discipline or skill so much that they spend their life helping young people to learn it. Good teachers know that our passion for what we teach, why we teach, and who we teach will always come first.
Am I just being sentimental here? Maybe we should look at some data. Would a study that synthesizes findings from 1,400 meta-analyses of 80,000 studies involving 300 million students be convincing enough? In the recently published Visible Learning research (Hattie, 2016) about the individual impacts of over 250 elements in education, “Teacher Credibility” was named as one of the top ten positive influences on student learning, with 0.90 effect size. That is MASSIVE! What is this magical element of teaching that can impact students so strongly for the better? Visible Learning for Literacy(Fisher, Hattie, and Frey, 2016) defines it as such: “a constellation of characteristics, including trust, competence, dynamism and immediacy.” In other words, caring teachers who know their content, demonstrate a dynamic excitement about it, and create a sense of urgency to learn it will have a profound impact on their students. If we ever doubted that, the numbers are here to remind us that good teaching relies on a personal energy that cannot be bought, nor can it be faked. It can only come from that irreplaceable, exciting feeling of passion that brings many teachers to the career. People, maybe, like me, who find themselves floored with wonder over the power of words to create beautiful moments within a flawed world. Or people who relish the truths hidden deep within the structure of mathematics, with its unwavering consistency and elegant logic. Or people who have an uncommonly deep respect for history, who understand the figures of our past as if they were intimate acquaintances.
This kind of dynamic, contagious, urgent excitement for a particular type of knowledge is what inspires students to learn. And that makes sense, right? Do you remember a teacher who loved a certain book so much that it made you read it and love it? Or maybe a science teacher who was so gosh darn excited about each and every lab that it made you curious about science in a new way? Or a social studies teacher who made you care about the events in the world because he was always sharing relevant news articles constantly? Maybe you were lucky enough to be a part of something–a discussion, a performance, a debate, or a project that was so engaging that it set you on the path to the life you now lead as an adult?
Those milestone learning experiences are part of the magic of education, and they are propelled by the incredible force within teachers who love what they teach. But that force does not always flow freely–it can get damaged when teachers are overwhelmed, when staff morale is suffering, when time is not available to tap into that passion. Depending on where we are in our lives, personal struggles with mental health or home concerns can also dim the light of the most passionate teacher. In these times of lower ebb, support from others can help. It might be a kind email from a colleague, a chance to connect with other experts in the content area, or just a genuine comment from a student or parent that says, “Hey, I see what you do, and I value it.” There is no educator resource more powerful then a simple vote of confidence to cultivate that shared excitement for learning which powers good teaching. When members of our community get excited about the same things that teachers are excited about, it creates this huge, good energy that makes our school days bright and productive.
So here’s my Christmas wish: I wish that school communities everywhere might recognize the very real (quantifiable, even!) positive impact that individual teacher passion has on student learning. Help us notice it, support it, and fuel it however we can… because an excited teacher is not only an effective one, but a happy one, too.
At the beginning of this school year, I set up some growth mindset self-talk phrases on my bulletin board. I had seen many great examples of elementary boards that encourage students down this kind of mental path, and I adapted what I saw online to suit my purposes, rephrasing when necessary to fit my high school clientele. While these are things that I hope my students will eventually be able to internalize, it takes modeling from me to show them how to adopt a mindset where they are at an emotionally healthy and academically ready place for learning. I’d like to share the statements that I use and a couple of ways that they pop up in real student interactions.
One of the biggest indicators to me that a student is going to grow in their skills and succeed in a class is their ability to problem-solve and self-advocate. In my classroom, that often means extra one-on-one help from me. If you know any high school students, you know that asking for help isn’t always their strong suit. I get around this by introducing non-optional, one-on-one conferencing with my students often, especially early in the year. We conference on their reading, their writing, their ideas for projects… and yes, it does take up a good chunk of class time. But it’s so valuable, because it builds a routine and a comfort with approaching me one-on-one. It simply becomes part of the daily workings of class. During a conference, I will speak problem-solving thinking processes aloud that could benefit them–things like, “Hey, since you’re having trouble finding a book, let’s go through how to look up titles on the library catalog by subject or author. I bet that would be a good tool to use” or “You know, it seems like you really had trouble with your conclusion of your last essay. Should we plan ahead for that this time by talking about how to write a successful conclusion?” It doesn’t take long before they start approaching me and adopting that kind of language on their own. In turn, I try to always make myself easily available and approachable for students who need support.
After nine years of teaching, I’ve cultivated some great standard responses for common questions or complaints from students. One of my favorites is set up with the cry of, “This is really hard! I don’t get it at all!” In response, I crack a huge smile and enthusiastically say, “Well, that’s a relief. If you thought it was easy and didn’t need any help figuring it out, I wouldn’t have a job! That’s why I’m here: to help you learn.” I often remind students that physical tasks, like riding a bike, take a lot of practice to learn and perfect. Why would a mental task be any different? Learning is a gradual process that doesn’t yield perfect results the first time. That’s a very freeing thing to realize. Early learning attempts should be free of pressure and judgement. Another classic comeback I have is this: “It’s ok that you’re struggling. That’s normal at first. You wouldn’t make fun of a baby for not being able to talk very well, would you? You’re still a beginner, but you will get better the more we practice.” It may seem obvious, but it can help a student snap out of the (incorrect) assumption that certain academic skills are just inherent to our personalities–instead, they arrive through exposure, study, and experience. Just like in the weight room, the more we train, the more challenge we can handle!
Laziness and apathy are the enemies of discovery. It’s important to me that students learn how to challenge themselves. Too often the focus is on “What do I need to do in order to be done as quickly as possible?” I’m sure this is in some way a symptom of our hurried, hectic modern lives, but most students default to being impatient, sloppy, and rushed…especially in their writing. For students who work at a high skill level, they often get by on “good enough” without actually challenging themselves. I try to show students the value of slow consideration and revision through modeling my own writing as it takes shape. I also attempt to relentlessly push students forward in my feedback. Even an “A” paper will get revision suggestions from me in the comments–I’m sure that’s initially frustrating to my students, but I explain that one of the reasons I love writing so much is that the difficulty level is unlimited! We are always growing, and there’s always a way to revise and improve. I intentionally talk about how hard writing is. Even for someone who thinks, teaches, and does writing for a living, writing presents a challenge. “If you’re not working hard or feeling challenged, you’re not doing it right”: another axiom that I hold my kids to. The struggle should be welcomed–it’s an indication that you’re working at an appropriate level of difficulty. I want to teach all my students to savor challenge. Still figuring that one out.
For kids who felt chronically helpless, giving up is the easiest way out. By the time they’ve reached the teenage years, many of them have mastered disengaging at a profound enough level to frustrate their teachers into leaving them alone to stagnate. My approach with these kids is a broken record question: “What is the first, small thing we can do to move forward?” I keep asking this. I may go away and come back. The question is always the same. I’ve come to learn that often, students are stuck on taking a step because the step feels too big. Writing an essay seems impossible. So instead, I cut it up into more digestible pieces. Depending on the student, he or she may need very small pieces. [ 1. Get out notebook. 2. Find a pen. 3. Write your name at the top of the page. 4. Write the title of the assignment. 5. Tell me about your ideas. 6. Let’s make a list of some of the ideas you just talked about. 7. Our first sentence should introduce the topic. What could you say? 8. Write that down. We can change it later….] Is it spoon-feeding? Yeah. But here’s the thing: kids eventually get sick of being spoon fed. When they rehearse the smaller steps enough times, they start to do it themselves. Small progress is still progress, and creates momentum to carry them through the task over time.
Some people feel that jealousy and comparison to others are good motivators when used correctly. I am not one of those people. I believe that one of the greatest keys to happiness in one’s life is to view the successes of others as sources of admiration and potential collaboration opportunities. This is a pretty big mind shift to ask for in our culture of individualism and competition, but I really try to foster it. So many times, I’ve heard someone say of a person who does well at something “I hate her” or “I hate him.” Hate? Really? A lot of the time, this hatred comes from the jealousy of how “easily” a certain skill seems to come to an individual. But this overlooks the work behind the scenes. Success comes from diligent work, so if I call out a student as a positive example in class, I focus on the process, not the product. I hope that this teaches students that they can imitate one another’s strategies for success, rather than believing that “good” students are just somehow magically good. I call attention to writing that has gone through several drafts, a student’s copious practice sessions before a speech, a meticulous set of index cards that indicates devoted studying. I give examples of people that I admire and imitate–even if my imitation is not as good as their example, it still makes me better! We all have strengths and weaknesses, and there’s much to celebrate together.
If you’re not an English teacher, you may not realize that we had a holiday recently: October 20th, which is The National Day on Writing.The celebration, created by the National Council of Teachers of English, is designed to promote writing not just as a literacy component, but as part of life’s essential story-sharing force. In case you missed it, you can catch up quickly just glancing around social media at the #whyiwrite hashtag, now nine years strong.
This year, I spent National Day on Writing Eve in the best possible way: with a colleague and a classroom full of young people who showed up to the inaugural meeting of our sparkly new writing club, The Young Authors. We wanted to create a very simple group for high school students, to honor that work of secret solo writing that so many engage in. What if, we asked, there was a meeting place for all those kids with stories burning inside them? What would happen if we simply provided a place to write together?As it turns out, (and as usual:) if you build it, they will come. In our first and second meeting, we introduced ourselves just by sharing what we typically write in our free time. Out it spilled: “I write poetry…. I’m working on a novel… I’ve been writing songs for the past couple years… I write dark and disturbing fantasy short stories… I don’t know what I write, but I know that I want to!” These kids are authors already, and now that they’ve been assembled together, I can’t wait to see their collective power grow. There’s a unique, quiet magic to a room full of people all scribbling and tapping away, bringing their inner worlds to life while working side by side. It makes me smile to see the people walking down the hallway past our room, peeking in curiously at a whole bunch of teenagers with focused expressions, silently immersed in creative work, while the late afternoon sun streams in and music seeps from the computer speakers. Sometimes I wave at them. They’ll know who we are soon enough.
This is the spirit of the National Day on Writing: the knowledge that more writing–and more support for it–is always a good thing. We are so excited about this new student group for lots of reasons. There are many plans down the road for things like attending writing conferences, creating commemorative mugs (!), and pursuing publication opportunities for these young writers. We want them to know that we are here to value and champion the words that they want to share with the world.
At the first and second meetings, we asked these students to submit a #whyiwrite response, and reading these really sums up everything about why fostering a love for writing in young people is so important. I leave you with a selection of them here.
I write because I am in control of what I create. There are no boundaries and no one can tell me what to write.
I write because it calms me down.
I write because I love playing with words.
I write because it helps me express myself artistically.
I write because it helps me cope with my depression. Writing is escape.
I write because it lets my thoughts and feelings play out on paper.
I write because I love creating new worlds out of nothing but my imagination.
These voices tell us that writing is so much more than whatever happens on a worksheet. Writing helps us connect with our whole selves when we do it right, and helping students get to that point is part of our cause as teachers.
I write because the fins of ideas are not meant to batter against the glass of a sealed jar.