Archive

Author Archives: Ms. C

Sometimes I feel like the most absurdly simple teaching strategies are the ones that work the best. Today, I have one to share with all of you. It’s called writing on the board… with a twist!

At the beginning of this year, I had one section of students in particular that was filled with very, very bright students who did not want to contribute to class discussion. It’s often the story with young introverts with a rich inner world–they suffer the paradoxical situation of having rich insights to share but feeling unable to verbalize them on the spot. This group in particular tended that way, which was frustrating as a teacher trying to foster productive class discussion. They understood what they were reading. I knew this because I could see it in their writing. But ask for them to share their thoughts out loud? Deer in headlights.

Luckily for these young introverts, I am an older introvert who is savvy to their ways. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wished dearly that I could just write down a response in a conversation rather than blurt out some words that hopefully come out fully formed. Sadly for us, life is not thus. Even with some community building and time to adjust to one another, these students were just not budging, other than a couple brave souls who would try to carry the whole class with eyes that pled with me to help them out. So I did! I got them to talk. This is how. 

Everybody likes writing on the board in a classroom. It’s just a fact. It’s fun! There are markers! Come on teachers, you know you love writing on the board. And students do , too. This is something not to be underestimated. It’s a way to make introvert dreams come true–let them write their ideas down, but publicly. Then, the discussion part can happen much more fluidly. Here’s what I do:

1. Make sure you have plenty of nice, fresh dry-erase markers in multiple colors. Or SMARTBoard markers, or chalk if you’re truly old-school (I’m envious!)

2. Give discussion prompt. Since we’re currently starting to read Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony, I gave them a set of questions relating to that word–what is a ceremony? What does it need to go well? Why is it important? How does culture determine its workings? 

3. Have students discuss their ideas with a partner to get a bit of practice verbalizing. Encourage them to write down their best thoughts.

4. [Small class version] Invite every student to write a short phrase on the board that represents their most prominent/surprising/unique insight.

[Large class version] Have partners (or small groups if the class is HUGE) determine one group member who had the best insightful moment and send that representative up to the board to write a phrase that represents it. Remind them to write large and neat enough that their words will be legible.

5. Once the collection is complete, use it to guide discussion. It’s helpful as the instructor to have a laser pointer here, to guide the students to certain parts of this visual discussion. As the teacher navigates, each student gets a turn telling the class about why they wrote what they did, elaborating on it and potentially making connections to others’ thoughts in the process. 

Of course, this is not a substitute for a fully organic whole-class discussion, but it’s a way to work up to it. We did this exercise often at the beginning of the year in this class, and our traditional discussions have definitely expanded as a result. What I love most about this is that every student gets a voice, and there’s no hiding from the fact that they have ideas to add. After all, it’s all right there on the board, in their own handwriting.

Thanks for reading!

I’ve recently been working with my high school juniors on how to write a personal statement for educational or career-related opportunities. In the next year or so, they will all have to choose a path. That might entail college and scholarship applications. It might involve cover letters for career opportunities. It might mean joining another kind of program or apprenticeship. Regardless of a student’s aspirations, being able to write about one’s self is an important skill to open all kinds of doors. The stories that reveal the qualifications and experience that they bring into potential opportunities are stories they need to be able to tell. So we begin to practice now. And I start seeing a pattern that I often see whenever personal writing pops up in the classroom.

The confident students forge straight ahead, eager to envision their futures and tell the story of their potential. Many others approach with reticence, but slowly work their way through with the help of mentor texts, modeling, and one-on-one instruction. I’m not worried about those kids–they will all be fine. I worry about the ones who freeze–the ones who look at this assignment and refuse to put words to the page. These are the students who say things like, “I can’t do this. I can’t write.” Or “Nothing about my life is interesting.” Or the worst one (which I still get every year): “I really don’t have any positive traits. There’s nothing good about me.”

Moments like this touch something that a standardized test can never measure–the inextricable link between personal writing and self-concept. These are the students who, somewhere along the way, started believing that their stories don’t matter. Maybe it’s because of some aspect of who they are. Maybe it’s because of something they are struggling with. Maybe it’s because they don’t believe that anyone will listen to what they have to say. These students are often evasive or belligerent. But they are so important.

We cannot allow kids like this to give up. We need to show them that someone is listening. Every student’s story matters, and helping them learn to tell it, if you ask me, is possibly the most important aspect of my job as a teacher of writing.

So how do we do this? It’s a problem I’m still working on, one that I certainly haven’t completely solved. However, I’ve got a start, and as I’ve been applying this method this past week, I thought it might be helpful to share. Here are some things that I rely on to lift these students up and show them that their stories matter!

1. Double-check your teaching for culturally responsive practices. Culturally responsive pedagogy is too complex for me to explain in depth here, but it is something that every teacher should be familiar with. At the most basic level, remind yourself that the reason a student may be struggling may have something to do with a lack of inclusion or understanding related to their home culture, language, or socio-economic status. For teaching something like the personal statement, think about the various versions of success that can be presented in the written examples that you provide to them. Are all students presented with an example that they can relate to? Or does a homogenous definition of success end up excluding students of certain backgrounds, sending the message that this kind of writing doesn’t include people who look, speak, or live like they do?

2. Find something in common, and model from there. Talk to your students who won’t write. Divert the conversation away from the writing task and toward what they care about. What do they do with their spare time? Where have they lived? Where do they work? What are they most proud of? Who do they love? I talk with my students about these things, sometimes writing down brief notes on our conversations to hand back to them. Often, that organically provides a starting point–maybe a student suddenly realizes that she emulates her mother’s determination, or that she can really talk to lots of different types of people with ease… those are wonderful, marketable traits that are great to write about. Point that out! Help them see the good that you see. So much the better if you as the teacher can find something similar in your own life and say, “Hey, that’s kind of like me! So here’s how I would set this piece of writing up if I were doing it…” Show them how to put it down, and it quickly becomes less scary.

3. Minimize pressure — Just talk, then just write… Do everything you can in your classroom culture to emphasize that writing is messy, experimental play that can be twisted and flipped and cut and expanded at will. Even something as high stakes as a personal statement starts as a draft. Spend less time saying things that send the message of “You will fail in the future if you don’t do this well.” Spend more time saying, “Write a half of a notebook page about what’s most important in your life. Don’t think about making it good. It’s ok if it’s terrible. It just needs to be on the page.” Initial writing should be able to just blurt out onto a highly destructible piece of paper. Once there’s a draft, that polished essay is within sight. Then it’s time to teach revision!

…But that’s for another post. 🙂  Happy teaching!

P.s. An extra tip from my colleague Mrs. F.  For students who still get stuck on that first line, try giving them a sentence starter to get the pen moving. (Ex. “I feel good when I’m skateboarding because _____.” Sometimes that’s all they need.)

Next week, I will begin my tenth year of teaching. I am celebrating this milestone with great satisfaction and nostalgia.

I’m also thinking about this meeting that I had shortly before beginning my very first year as a teacher. There was a staff member who was sharing some information with me. I still remember her saying, “So, some of these resources will help you make it through the year and then we’ll see if you’re really cut out for teaching or if you run off and do something else with your life.” I looked her right in the eyes, little baby teacher that I was, and said, “I’m not going anywhere.” I’m proud to say that I made good on that promise. Teaching isn’t for everyone, but teaching is for me. That much I knew even back then.

Look, it’s not an easy job. I now know that every time you think you’ve got the hang of teaching, every time you start feeling like you’re really a pretty fantastic teaching professional, reality will happily intervene to humble you. There are still points in every year where I feel like a beginner all over again. Ask any teacher you know–no matter how experienced we are, there are always points in the year where we start to question something (or EVERYTHING) about how we do our jobs.

There is nothing I could write that could prepare someone for what this job is, and I am still learning myself how it all goes. However, there are some things that I’m very sure of after being in the classroom for this long. As a victory lap for my decade year, I’d like to share ten things that I now know after ten years of teaching. Especially if you are a new teacher, I hope you find this list hopeful, helpful, and steadying as we welcome the kids through the doors once again.

TEN THINGS I KNOW AFTER TEN YEARS OF TEACHING

    1. It helps to be positive and excited even when it seems like no one cares. It does matter. I am a person who is notorious for seeing the brighter side, and giving a peppy, enthusiastic greeting to my all of my kids as they walk through the hallways. It is hard to do this when you are tired, when you have a headache, and when the teenagers whom you are greeting with care and warmth stare through you as if you are actually invisible with hardly a grunt in response. At the end of the year, though, one of the most common points of feedback I get from my students is how welcomed I always made them feel, and how my excitement for what I’m teaching really helped them learn. Kids respond to good energy… they don’t always show it, but it is worth it to summon the effort to be their sunbeam, even when it seems like it’s not making a difference.

2. There are no bad kids. Are there students in my teaching past whose very names make me shudder as I remember the behavioral or academic difficulties I weathered with them? Of course. But even the most challenging, frustrating, inflammatory students are not bad kids. There is no such thing as a bad kid. There are kids with trauma, kids with illnesses, kids without support, angry kids, scared kids, kids who lack self-control. But they are all good kids. If you refuse to accept their reputation and spend the time to get to know them, to gently keep pushing even when they resist you, you will find the goodness. They may still be rude. They may still struggle. But they are still worth your time–sometimes you are the only person who is fighting for them.

3. Teachers are most effective when they embrace the nerd within. Students respond to passion. Everything young people perceive is through a lens of intense emotion. To compete with that, you need to gush and rave and freak out with joy about what you’re teaching. It may be dorky to start yelling about how utterly outrageously good The Crucible is because the unit is only a week away and you seriously count down the days every year until having the privilege of teaching it, but kids respond to that when it is genuine! If I present students with a bookshelf filled with books, there might be a couple of them who want to investigate it on their own. If I take a book off of that shelf and start talking about how it personally changed my dang life with its awesomeness, I will have a waiting list seven kids deep to check it out. Embrace the nerd within. You know you love your content area. Show them why.

4. Teachers do the wrong thing sometimes. There will be days where you will do something stupid. You will react to a student the wrong way in a bad moment and make a kid feel terrible. You will enter an assignment score in the online gradebook for Ashley F. that was actually the score for Ashley T., and somehow lose Ashley F.’s original score in the process. You will listen to a hateful comment from a student in class and want so badly to address it, but end up freezing, your face turning red with anger as you just say nothing. These mistakes will make you feel like garbage. But they happen because you are an imperfect human being. The best thing you can do to remedy this is to address it with an honest apology to the student that was affected–students understand and respect this. And don’t be too hard on yourself, because we all have bad moments.

5. Business hours are necessary for sanity. To not suffer burnout as a teacher, you need a system for keeping your work life and home life separate. You will be much happier if you are not “on call” 24 hours a day. Do yourself a favor and try to leave your work at work. When you walk out the school doors, there are no more emails, no more quizzes to grade, no more plans to plan until you return the next day. Keep your weekends open for yourself and your family as much as humanly possible. Listen: Even though you are a teacher, you are allowed to have a life. It will make you a better teacher. If you struggle with this, find someone who has it figured out, and learn their ways.

6. Clean slate club. This is one of those cliches that is actually true. If something doesn’t go well in one of your classes, it’s easy to get sucked into negative thinking: you’re doing everything all wrong, your class is never going to be well-behaved, and Bobby in the front row hates your guts for being a lousy teacher. But then, the next day, you try again, and everything is okay again! (In all likelihood, Bobby in the front row has already forgotten the thing you stayed up all night agonizing about.) Students and teachers both bounce back very easily. Bad days may occur, but as long as you approach it with kindness and a desire to understand, a new day is always a clean slate.

7. Teachers disagree with each other a lot, but they are incredibly caring. No matter where you work, you’ll encounter other educators who have different opinions from yours. They may have different ideas about adopting new strategies or keeping old ones. They may hold on to a certain classroom management philosophy with an iron fist. They may just think your fashion sense is whack or misunderstand you on a fundamental level. Decisions are not always unanimous and meetings are not always harmonious. However, all of that falls away when you look at what these people do for kids. Teachers are extraordinarily caring people. They show it in different ways, but they are all kind, self-sacrificing people who want to help others in their own way. If you can tap into that commonality, it’s a lot easier to mediate differences of opinion.

8. Build your legacy! One of the most enjoyable things about being a teacher is the legend that builds up around you. What goes into that legend is sometimes within your control, and other times up to the whims of fate. Seriously, though, it’s amazing to hear kids say “I always heard that this was a great class” or “My older sister had you as her teacher and I’m excited that it’s my turn now.” The more and the longer you invest in your school community, the larger your legacy reaches. You start to feel more admiration and trust from your students, which is really the best feeling in the whole world.

9. Describe behavioral expectations in physical terms. This is a super effective classroom management strategy that has been invaluable to me over the years. When you want students to redirect and do something other than what they are doing, be direct and literal in your requests for compliance–tell them what to do physically to achieve the desired outcome. Instead of telling them “Pay attention,” ask them to “Look at my eyes with your eyes.” Instead of saying “stop bothering her,” say, “I want you to move your desk three feet to the left and turn it to face the window.” Instead of saying “Does everybody get it?” say “Take your notebook out. Draw a big smiley face if you understand and a frown if you don’t. Hold up your notebooks.” Works like a charm–whatever management challenge your class throws at you, if you can think up a physical direction to counter it, better results will follow.

10. Teaching keeps you young. Maybe you’ve seen that funny meme around that says something like “Teaching? Stressful? I feel great, and I’m only 32!” along with a photograph of a woman who could easily be 90+. It gives me a good guffaw. However, I have to say, some of the most supernaturally young-looking people I know happen to be teachers, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence. Surrounded by all that youthful energy keeps us hopeful, as long as we’re doing it right. We can’t sit still very long without someone needing our attention, and we laugh constantly because kids are often fun and hilarious. Plus we’re usually up on the newest weird slang, music, and fashion trends. We might even feel some extra pressure to stay hydrated with all those teenage athletes walking around with their giant Nalgene water bottles. Sure, the teacher is the oldest person in the room. But if you’re a teacher who enjoys your job, odds are that you have a youthful soul.

 

I’d like to end this post with a thank you, to all the remarkable students and colleagues who have blessed my life along this ten-year journey.

Thank you, Milwaukee School of Languages.

Thank you, St. John’s Northwestern Military Academy.

Thank you, Sheboygan Falls High School.

Thank you, Port Washington High School. It’s been my privilege. I think I’ll keep going.

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

If your professional development doesn’t feel like this, you might be doing it wrong.

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.

For an at-a-glance version of the list in this post, scroll through the infographic below!   Download the PDF version here.

Sweet, sweet structure.

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,

STRUCTURE =

*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

  1.  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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

____/ 10 Clarity 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.

____/ 10 Use 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)

____/ 60 TOTAL

Scoring guide for each standard:

0   Not present / 3   Still emerging / 6   Beginner /

9 Proficient / 10  Exemplary

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 textA 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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!
  3. 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.