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Monthly Archives: May 2014

I got very excited a couple days ago when I saw this brand new book arrive in my mailbox. It’s called Teaching with Heart: Poetry that Speaks to the Courage to Teach (S.M. Intrator and M. Scribner, editors. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2014).

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I had known it would be coming for quite a while–about a year and a half ago, I submitted a contribution to the editors because I was inspired by the mission of the book, which is to pair poetry with real teacher anecdotes, reflecting important ideas about the life and work of teachers. I was lucky enough to become a contributor. (In fact, my anecdote is the one that closes the collection–you’ll have to turn to page 198 to find it!)

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As I paged through Teaching with Heart, I was touched by the power of the voices gathered here. There are contributors with big names that many teachers will recognize–Parker J. Palmer, Taylor Mali, and Sarah Brown Wessling. But there are also stories from nearly a hundred different teachers from across the country woven into this collection, which is as rich with a variety of emotions and perspectives as is the act of teaching itself. Paired with poetry that has stood the test of time, the reflections of these educators remind me of the sheer volume of good people–strong people–that share this profession. In an era where teachers are sometimes devalued by society, it is important to let these strong voices anchor us, to help us refuse to be swept away by a current of negativity. This book does that. It’s an anchor, and a beautiful one at that.

The best way, I think, to read a book like this is in small doses, here and there, when inspiration is needed; and then reading a little, a lot, chronological, or not. I’m going to share my copy of Teaching with Heart with my department colleagues. The book will live in our office, to be opened and contemplated whenever it’s needed. I’ll start you off here, with a small selection from my own anecdote about the poem “The Real Work” by Wendell Berry. May it inspire you to head over to Amazon and check out the other voices in this fiery, courageous compilation.

 “The Real Work” brings with it a simple, ringing truth that echoes my experience: hardship inspires innovation, honesty, and a desire to persevere enough to fight through. It is when we reach a dead end that multitudes of previously unseen paths open up to meet us. Thinking back on my own teaching paths, I realize that I am my career’s cartographer, drafting a map rich with color and experience.

The poem also makes me think of my students, many who shoulder unthinkable burdens, yet still manage to employ their minds and spirit in the journey of learning. Students show bravery every time they put their own voice to a page, despite the uncertainty that can come from all directions without and within.

So much of teaching is doing the work of standing back up—knowing with profound certainty that our “baffled minds” are meant to do this “real work” of journeying together, to teach our students and ourselves that the struggles we overcome help strengthen the voice of our song.

 Consider picking up a copy for your favorite teacher friend, mentor, or mentee. Royalties from Teaching with Heart support the Center for Courage & Renewal, a resource network dedicated to renewing and sustaining those in the career areas of education, health care, ministry, and other positions that positively impact communities.

I have had the privilege of working with many brilliant educators as coworkers, collaborators, and friends throughout my career, and this year is no exception to that trend. I love it when another teacher has a beautiful, ingenious teaching idea that inspires my work in my own classroom. Sometimes the creativity and innovation of other teachers is so utterly cool that I want to shout it from the rooftops, and that’s what I’m going to do digitally here. Without further ado, listen and learn from the words of my colleague, sometimes movie star, and today’s guest writer, Joe Belknap.

This American Life

Okay. So here’s the deal. I have two confessions. Ready?

Confession #1: I am a writing teacher who is still very much trying to understand what it means to be an effective writing teacher.

Confession #2: I kind of want to be Ira Glass, host of This American Life.

Whew! You know what? Confession is cathartic. I. Feel. Good. Let’s examine these revelations more closely, beginning with what we know about effective writing instruction.

We know that writing instruction is most effective when it’s taught as a process, when powerful mentor texts are examined in such a way that help students understand and emulate the moves a writer makes. Writers make choices, and we want to empower students to understand the purpose and power behind those choices so that they, too, can make effective choices in their own writing in order to discover or create meaning and to be heard.

“Text,” traditionally, is defined as words on the page, but this definition is too simplistic, too confined. I prefer Ms. Amy Harter’s definition, which is, in short, somethingthat can be read, pondered or interpreted.

Finally, if you’re a fan of Ira Glass, then you’re already familiar with the storytelling power of his radio show, This American Life. If you’re not familiar (And you really should be. Seriously. Stop reading this, go to their website, and binge listen to as many episodes as possible.), it’s a program that connects disparate stories–true stories of everyday people, usually, but short fiction and spoken word find their way into episodes also–to a single theme, all of which illuminate some truth about the human experience. As host, Ira Glass is so very attentive and insightful and sincere.

So here’s where my confessions intersected last year when putting together curriculum for my Creative Writing class: why not use This American Life as a mentor text? 

Using This American Life as a mentor text in my Creative Writing classes has been popular with my students. They deserve to laugh, love, learn, and be moved by the collected stories that have been compiled into episodes over the years. While listening to the episodes, my students have kept one central question in mind: What moves are the This American Life journalists, interviewers, authors, and sound engineers making in order to construct effective, memorable episodes?

As a final project, then, my students act as writers, field journalists, and engineers to create and combine their own stories in the style of This American Life. In the process they can’t help but learn about themselves and the world around them. They use digital voice recorders to collect interviews, natural sounds, and narration. They use Audacity, a free audio editing software program, to upload audio and edit their episodes. They work collaboratively to discover connections and meaning in their episodes and, I hope, in their lives.

Before embarking on this project, I created my own one act episode as a model for my students. It’s entitled “High School Relationships,” and it’s a story of awkward encounters in high school dating. You can listen to it here.

My students are currently finishing their episodes, and the work they’ve done is just so impressive. One girl elected to dedicate her entire episode to “What Happens in the Hallways,” which has proven to be both hilarious and interesting. One young man, a senior, is chronicling the amount of change that occurs over the four years spent in high school. “Who were you then, and who are you know?” he asks his peers and, inadvertently, himself.

Which leads me to one final confession: this is the best part of teaching. When student engagement, choice, and creativity collide, students construct amazing pieces of work. I become a facilitator, answering questions, offering guidance, but I also get to step back and witness them create.

Write on!

Joe Belknap 

P.s. Love this idea as much as I do? Questions or Comments for Joe can be left in the comments here, or you can find him at Joe.Belknap@pwssd.k12.wi.us

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Being a reflective practitioner is an important part of being an educator–we are trained to think, talk, and write about how our teaching is changing, growing, and working. Sometimes, in order to get a real beat on what’s happening in our classrooms, we need to ask our students to reflect along with us. This is something that helps us know “how we’re doing” from the truest source. It also help imbue the importance of reflection with our students, letting them track their own realizations from the process of academic study.

In short, reflection is an extremely valuable practice for both students and teachers. But here’s the catch–it has to be genuine. And if you’ve ever asked your students to write a self-reflection, you know that genuine is not always what we get.

Some students are great at looking inward and contextualizing learning experiences in the context of what was struggled for and gained. But most students, at least that I’ve seen, write down a bunch of malarkey when they are asked to reflect. For some, this is because the genre of personal, introspective writing simply isn’t in their wheelhouse. For others, they are afraid to be honest. They waste time parroting what they believe the teacher wants to hear: Ex. “I really learned a lot from this very interesting unit and became a better writer.” Reading things like that (while the student might predict it to be pleasant) gets very frustrating very quickly. It doesn’t give me anything to build on in my next teaching experience. Call it a symptom of a culture obsessed with empty praise, call it laziness, call it an innocent desire to please… Whatever you call it, this kind of response actually sabotages the entire point of reflection.

So how do we bypass that cardboard cutout student response and get to the reflective truth? Last year, I found myself thinking about this idea and the concept of art therapy crossed my mind. I remembered how sometimes, especially for children, the truth of one’s inner state could be more truthfully accessed through drawing and painting. So, I decided to assign a reflection at the end of a research writing unit that was doodle-only. The directions were a simple few lines at the top of the page: “Make a drawing that shows your experience, feelings, and learning throughout the process of the research writing unit from beginning to end. You may create your picture in whatever way you choose–you will be graded on the completeness of your drawing, not your artistic skill!” As it turned out, the results were wonderfully varied, honest, and detailed. I could see instantly where students had felt comfortable, where they had struggled, what they had learned, where confusion persisted, and how they felt about their end product. Mystifyingly simple. As soon as doodle replaced formal prose, the honesty came out. Fireworks, angry eyebrows, scribbles, lightbulbs, prison cells, clocks, trophies, grids, sunshine, hearts. Success.

This year, I’ve returned to the strategy a couple times, including at the end of the first semester with my AP Literature and Composition class. I’ve attached some of their reflective responses here, so you can see the kind of variety that is possible with this kind of reflection assignment. Click here to see some real doodle reflections from my students: Doodle Reflections .

This is an idea that I plan to continue using, probably almost every time I ask my students to reflect. The very act of drawing is contemplative–our mind is free to process while our hands are occupied making shapes. It opens up a bigger space to feel and share.