A Year in the Life of a Writing Teacher

Reflections on Teaching and Writing from a National Writing Project Teacher Consultant

Final Lessons

I’m like every other teacher who tries really hard to teach to that final bell on the very last day of school.  But it’s hard, really hard, especially when the high stakes tests are over and the students think school is, too. This year I tried something I haven’t done for several years, having the students teach some final lessons.  I should have done it every year!

Students met with their table groups and a copy of our standards of learning.  They had to choose a skill they thought we needed to review, a lesson we should have had but never received, or a new take on a needed strategy.  It could be a reading or writing lesson, or both, and they had to have a hook, a learning target, a connection, and a part for all the players.  We used Dr. Ed Ellis’ mantra of I do (teaching), We do (small group or partner practice) and You do (independent practice) to pace the lesson and I cautioned them to not do anything longer than 20 minutes or they would lose their audience.

They’ve been fine-tuning their lessons and their planners for the last two weeks.  Yesterday the teaching began. In the first block, the team had each person write a prompt on a colored index card.  Then everyone in the class got a card from another group and had to write for 10 minutes about what was on his/her card. It was totally silent, except for the pencils scratching across the papers.  At the end of the time, each person at the table  read their writing.  I sat with the red group and their stories were amazing. One wrote a sarcastic piece about why 7th graders don’t like to write it was hilarious). One boy who NEVER writes, except under extreme threat of failing, wrote a fairy tale that was spellbinding.  After everyone read, the teaching crew said the groups had to choose the best story of their group. Then they flashed a sign ‘PLOT TWIST’ on the board.  The table groups now had to ‘perform’ the story for the rest of the class.  It was fun, engaging, creative, and very clever. I told them I am totally stealing everything they did for next year!

One block had costumes:


Since they were reviewing THIEVES (an acronym for external text structures like title, headings, etc.) they dressed the part.

After a quick review (letters in picture above) to make sure everyone knew the parts, the ‘teachers’ sent the students off in groups of 3 for a scavenger hunt. Each clue led them to a different area and a different letter. First student to get all of the letters of THIEVES, won. The clues were priceless; Go to the place where writing starts...(Writer’s Notebook cubby) and Where does Hatchet live? (Realistic fiction part of our class library) but all of the groups got all of the answers. I don’t think any of those students will ever forget THIEVES again!

Today one block did a review of nouns, adjectives, and verbs.  (You might think they know those already but the kids had it right – they still struggle with parts of speech!) Did we do a worksheet? No! Did we skill and drill? No! We went outside and played ‘Noun, Adjective, Verb’! It goes like this:

The teaching team stands at the top of the hill outside our school.

The players line up at the bottom of the hill, shoulder to shoulder, in a straight line.

One of the ‘teachers’ calls out a word.  If it’s a noun, the students stop. If it’s an adjective, the students run. If it’s a verb, the students walk.  If the students miss, they go back to the starting line.

We could hear them calling to each other, ‘Which one is the person, place or thing?’ ‘Is red an adjective?’ ‘I think I know the verbs – stick with me!’ It was a wonderful sight.

When I started this venture, I had my doubts.  I should have learned by now to never underestimate my students.

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Genius Hour = 21st Century Schoolhouse

As  our schoolyear winds down (3 weeks left and counting), my students are gearing up.  In two weeks they are presenting their Genius Hour* projects.  This is a culmination of a year long of study on…anything they want. Taking the Google model of ‘20% time’ (20% of the workweek devoted to a topic or invention of choice) we have given every Friday for the last year to self-selected topics for study or interest.  It may be the best instruction I’ve never done.

Last week the first part of the student presentations were due. This included their ‘burning question(s), their sources (even those that didn’t work so well) and a few paragraphs about their journey with Genius Hour throughout the year.  I was amazed. Some of their questions changed completely during the course of the year; Billy started out wanting to know about tax codes but he ended  teaching himself Welsh. Others had a natural evolution as the research led the students into more personal paths; Grace wanted to know about world hunger.  She found statistics about the number of hungry children and the amount of food wasted each day by the United States.  This led her to strong desire to ‘really make a difference’.  She is challenging the entire 7th grade to participate in freerice.com/#/english-vocabulary/1411  She estimates it will result in a donation of 60,000 grains of rice, service learning at it’s finest!

Lawson began by wanting to know what makes a rapper successful.  After numerous raps created over lunchtime, he decided he was ready.  His friend, Kyle, will supply the beat in their professional debut video.  Christina wanted to know how other countries celebrate holidays. Her final project will be a Christmas tree with 30 other holiday traditions as decoration.  Some students will be teaching us tumbling, how to lace a lacrosse stick, and how to draw.  They are excited to share their projects with another middle school close to us, to skype with another 7th grade class in the midwest, and to enter the Genius Hour Fair (which allows voting for videos of Genius Hour projects online).

Research has taken on a whole new meaning for them.  Rivka wanted to study the D Day invasion.  Here’s what she said in her reflection: ‘I had a little bit of trouble at first, finding real life stories of soldiers, but I finally found some really good sources.  I am really interested by these stories, because they are so real.  I was also surprised to see real thoughts that were in soldiers’ heads instead of stuff you would read in a book, and how different they were.’ Since writing this, she has interviewed a D Day medic at her church.  She intends to make a model of the beach at Normandy as part of her final project.

Nathan originally wanted to build his own soccer ball.  He was frustrated by the online videos and how complicated the process was.  He was almost ready to switch to another topic when he found a site that changed his mind…and his world view. ‘Send A Cow is a web page all about the struggles people in Africa face in everyday life.  The page I stumbled across is their love for the game of soccer.  The fact that they make their own soccer balls of common everyday objects that we would think of as trash like plastic bags and old socks inspired me to try and create my own.  I gathered my supplies and built the plastic bag base of the soccer ball thanks to a video I found on the Send A Cow webpage.  I was supposed to use string to tie the whole ball together but I couldn’t clearly see the the certain knot they were using.  I was stuck until I looked for support from my friend and he gave me the idea of using rubber bands as an alternative which worked perfectly.’ Nathan is going to compare his original soccer ball and his African soccer ball in his final project.

I have been continually impressed by the students’ willingness to persevere.  Even when their burning questions weren’t being answered, or they hit dead ends in their research, they continually cheered each other on and encouraged one another to find another way.  Hayley, who wanted to find out how to help abused animals said this, ‘When I first started out, I found some facts, but they weren’t the facts I was looking for. I got mad/discouraged and thought that there wasn’t a lot for my topic. So I added the question about the animal stats and that helped me along a little bit. But then the next time I went to work on it, I tried searching for some new things and a lot of new things popped up that I hadn’t looked at. That also helped me find some new facts and answer my first question more.’ Sounds like research to me!

The bonus, of course, is that I get to learn all this cool stuff right along with them.  Sophia reminded me of how much I loved the Greek gods and goddesses.  She’s making a coloring book to help us remember them all.  Zach is teaching himself Italian with the goal of surprising his father and grandfather with some phrases for Father’s Day.  Owen is teaching himself programming.  I’m not sure I understand even his reflection, ‘First I wanted to make and program a  robot, but I realized that was too hard and went to programming Python, then I felt like I should be different from my brothers, so I went to JavaScript.  After I found Codecademy I started to quickly learn JS, and after a while I was able to make a “choose your own adventure game”. I also found code school, but got confused after a while. I kept going with Codecademy and now I am learning functions and returns, if I ever get confused I go to JSlint (a JavaScript checker) with an easy to understand explanation.’ Whew! Go, Owen! :)

This was, by far, the favorite project of my students going back over 30 years.  They were engaged, persistent, collaborative, and passionate about this work.  Everything I love about teaching and learning came true during Genius Hour. Grace may have said it best, ‘Even though this hasn’t been the easiest project, it was the most fun.’ 


* Special thanks to Joy Kirr for her inspiration and her push.




High Costs for High Stakes

This week marks the start of high stakes testing at my school.  The students have been at DEFCON 2, probably as a result of their teachers exhibiting high anxiety levels. This is the most stressful time of year for my students.  They are worried about everything; whether they will pass, what it will mean if they don’t, will it impact their grades, if they fail, will they be retained? and on and on the list of stressors goes.  Keep in mind, these students have been taking these high stakes tests since 3rd grade and the answers to their questions have never changed.

This year, we get an added bonus – expedited retakes.  Our state has decided that if a student fails within a certain range, they will be immediately remediated and retested, in the hopes they will pass the second time.  Here is the problem: the tests do not reflect how real readers read and real writers write. My students choose their own books to read and for the most part, the topics they write about. Yes, I teach skills, strategies, and grammar but it takes place within the context of authentic texts, and for writing, from their own pieces.  This is considered best practice for English instruction in middle schools. The tests could not be further removed from that practice.  Instead they are an endurance test – how many boring passages can we cram into one test with questions designed not to find if you are a thoughtful reader, but whether you are a clever test-taker?

We tell our students that they are not to worry about the test but to do their best.  Each September, though, one of the first things we do is to check if they passed the test in the previous grade.  As long as the success of students (and their teachers) rests on the results of the tests, they will remain high stakes but I don’t want Pearson to determine the success of my students. That success is a conversation between each of my students, their parents, and me. That success is looking at their portfolios and documenting all the excellent decisions they made in 7th grade that resulted in a powerful writing piece, or a book they adored.  That success is seeing them dance and sing with the students in the self-contained class who join us for brain break every Friday. That success is seeing them stomp and cheer for one another in our annual Poetry Slam. That success is seeing them conduct their student led conferences with their parents, where they articulate exactly what success means to them, with evidence to prove it.

As part of our testing review this year, we had the students write poems entitled, ‘I Am Not the Test’ to help them remember where their worth truly lies.  Here are some samples:

I am not the test 

but I am joyful, athletic, and

musical. I am

outgoing, kind and comedic,

I am not the test, 

but I am intelligent, happy, 

and theatrical.

I am not the test.



I’m not the test.

I’m awesome and funny.

I’m smart and cool.

I’m not stupid or

boring. I have lots

of friends.

I’m not a loser.

I’m a winner.



I am not the test…

I am the basketball player,

The guy who’s 6 feet tall, 196.9 pounds,

And can jump 23.7 inches.

I am the trumpet player,

Who can say no to too many concerts.

I am the helpful, smart, kind boy

Who knows determination, who can work hard,

Who you can rely on.

I am the guy who can touch the 9’ rim.

I am the 140 pound weight lifter.

I am NOT the test.



I am not the test.

You can test failure,

You can test soil,

But you can’t test me.

I am strong.

Sometimes I’m wrong.

But you can’t test me.



I am not the test,

You cannot test emotions.

You cannot test sports.

You can test boring math but

All you get is a number.

Good grades mean more than a bad SOL grade.

Good is such a strong word,

But bad is stronger.

Calling someone bad

Just because of your grade on a test

Is not fair because

I am not the test.



I am not the test.

I am an independent person.

I take care of those around me.

I have the ability to pick you up if you fall.

I am not the test.

I am not a number.

I am not an item with a label.

I am not one to judge.

I am not the test.

I am the crazy laugher, the over-thinker.

I am the one always taking pictures.

I am one to love nature.

I am not the test.



I am not the test…

But I am smart.

I always challenge myself

To reach for the moon,

And, someday, I’ll land on it.


I can play the piano,

When I play the notes and

Sing along, beautiful harmonies

Float from my fingers like leaves

Caught in the wind of song.


I can act.

When I was Alice

I looked in every rabbit hole,

And I stepped into her shoes.

I was in Wonderland, singing with the Tweedles.


I always stay true to myself

I can’t let other people

Tell me who I am

I will always be me,

I am not a test.


What will be the cost for Megan, or Billy, or Logan if they happen not to pass the test? Will they look back and say, ‘That was the year I failed.”?  After a year of hard work, moments of brilliance, perseverance, and creative writing, will they be able to remember that they are NOT the test?  High stakes, indeed.

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What’s wrong with a clean desk?

deskThis is a picture of my desk at the start of the last quarter of the school year.  It will never look like this again; clean and organized, detritus free.  When students return, it will be covered with messages, writings, notes, plans, letters, and ideas.  Things to remember and things I will surely, based on past experience, forget.  The live of my students are written on the papers filling my desk.  I am at my last chance to make a difference to them.  I know I will fall short with some of them and that nags at me.

Also on my desk is my mantra for the year.  I tried harder this year than any other of the last 31 to make it true:

‘My job is to help create readers and writers, nothing else!’

I know I have helped some of them along that path.  Yesterday the applications to be our first Writing Center Tutors next year were made available and several of my students fairly exploded with the announcement. These particular young people consider themselves real writers, with real voice, and the confidence to help others become real writers, too.  It fills my heart to see this self belief. (When I was 12, I was a mass of corrupting hormones, with self-doubt vying with shyness for supremacy!) I admire these young people so very much.  I know they will make a difference to struggling writers next year because I have seen them do just that in our classroom nearly every day.

But there is a girl in one of my classes, who always seems an eyelash length away from tears, and has yet to find a way to write herself out of the sadness.  I only have a few weeks left to find a way in, to find a place where she will trust me, and then herself, enough to let go, and perhaps heal that dark hurt just a bit.   I want her to know that writing can help in ways nothing else can, that it can help her find and mend the broken places even if she doesn’t know what those are yet.  I want her to feel the release that writing can provide, the clarity it can bring, and the way it can bridge your life to the other side of sadness.  I haven’t found our opening yet and I’m running out of time.

A boy in another block on another day may be the grumpiest 12 year old I’ve ever met. Constantly complaining, always challenging, repeating, ‘I’m bored!’ with such regularity it feels like background noise now, and having to get it right to get the ‘A’ without any real concern for content or quality. If I don’t show him the difference between the two goals this last quarter, will someone else do it?  I hope so, but I’m not completely sure because he’s smart and motivated and many teachers might think he is the model student.  But underneath all that accomplishment is a scared little boy so unsure of his gifts that he requires the ‘right’ path be delineated precisely before he makes a single step. But his brilliance would be so beautiful if it was set free! Just once, I want him to find success on his own, through trial and error. I know he could do it but I haven’t convinced him through 3 quarters of trying. If I miss this chance, will he never fill the billowing pride of self satisfaction for a job well done? Or will he chase an ‘A’ for the rest of his life, get an ulcer in college, and be dead of a heart attack at 43?  This is the stuff that keeps me up at night.

One of my favorite things about teaching is the fresh start we get each year.  Clean slate, do overs with the chance to do better. The flip side is that we only get one year to impact our students.  The only thing I can control is my year with them, so the responsibility of helping them become readers and writers weighs heavily, especially with the end so near, and my desk so clear.

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Voice and Choice

The further I stray from giving my students choice, the worse their products become. Conversely, the more choice I give them, the better their contributions become.  You would think I would remember that but I don’t. We recently completed a research unit, a unit that is always met with a resounding, ‘Oh, no!” from all but a few of my 7th graders.  (I have a few who would do a research product for every free choice writing all year but that’s a posting for another day.) For them; Research = Boring.

This year, we decided to tie in college and career readiness with our research.  Which college or career are you considering? Make that choice the focus of your research.  Our counselor had just completed a career survey with every 7th grader so that was a great starting point. We added a college match search and we were ready to launch.

The twist came with who they were doing this project for, in other words, audience.  It wasn’t going to be me or their parents, it was going to be each other! They got extra points for creativity so we had long discussions about what that looked like.  They also had to ‘engage the audience’ which prompted a long discourse from them on every teacher who doesn’t do that…! The final presentation would be a Gallery Walk. Students would set up their projects and their classmates would visit and leave a sticky note compliment. Here are some examples of their final products:

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It’s amazing what a little voice and choice can do!

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The Big Brave

You can be amazing
You can turn a phrase into a weapon or a drug
You can be the outcast
Or be the backlash of somebody’s lack of love
Or you can start speaking up…

from ‘Brave’ by Sara Bareilles

I have this song posted in our classroom. I love the message and the song and especially the video. Then I remember being 13 in 7th grade when I was anything BUT brave.  I was a rule follower, a people pleaser, an only child who felt the weight (justified or not) of my parents’ expectations. I was and am also an introvert (unless I’m teaching or with a small group of people I feel very, very comfortable with).  My brave was words on paper, usually just for me.  So when I ask our students to write about ‘what matters’ to them, I know how hard that can be. I also know how important it can be for kids who are introspective and shy – it may be their only release, as it was for me for most of my schooling.

 We just finished the first quarter of the school year.  The kids have written two pieces all the way through; a free choice writing and a memoir piece.  They have also started writing their novels for NANOWRIMO (National Novel Writing Month) so it seemed like it might be a good time to do a ReadAround.  The kids choose a piece to share with everyone, we sit in a big circle, and celebrate as writers.  We haven’t done one this early in the year as we always wanted to give the kids more time to get to know one another and form the community of writers. With Google Classroom, I am able to see everyone’s writing and I know what amazing work they have done.  It was time for everyone, not just their writing partners, to hear this excellent work.

The rules are:

  • You choose which writing to share.
  • You can share 1-2 pages.
  • Try not to be nervous.  We are with you.
  • When you are done reading, we will all clap enthusiastically.
  • You may choose 3 people to give you specific compliments.
  • I will record the compliments, add my own, and you get to keep the paper!

Here’s what happened:

Alexis wrote about the first day of kindergarten. Every couple of sentences she would say, ‘Click’ which was her parents taking a picture of every single move she made from the time she got up until she got on the bus. The other students howled in joyful recollection.  The air was filled with, ‘Oh my gosh! I forgot about that! My Dad did that, too!” “I know! It was SO embarrassing!”  Alexis nodded and smiled.

Tommy wrote about the day he met his best friend. They started off as rivals until they found their mutual love of drawing.  They’ve been best friends every since. The best part of his writing was how much it sounded like him.  The students picked up on it right away, “Tommy, that was HILARIOUS!” “I would have known who wrote that without the name!” Tommy beamed.

Miles read an excerpt from his novel about an Native American legend told by a storyteller. Jaws dropped. It was that good.  No one would have expected this kind of story from Miles.  He gave them shock and awe.  Although soundly pink from the compliments, it’s the biggest grin I’ve ever seen him have.

Grace wrote about the day a gunman came into her neighborhood and she couldn’t get ahold of her parents. We were terrified for her.  When she stopped at the end of the second page, everyone screamed, ‘You CAN”T stop NOW!!!” Grace smiled and said, ‘You can read the rest during reading time if you want.”  They had to form a signup list to see who would get it first.  Grace had not wanted to share her writing when she came in.  “Do we HAVE to?”  When I smiled and said she did, she huffed in that way 7th graders are experts at, and flopped into her seat. I’m pretty sure next time she’ll go first.

Dylann wrote about the day her grandmother died.  She couldn’t get through it.  Courtney asked if she could read it for her, stood up, and read it holding Dylann’s hand the entire time while Dylann sobbed quietly.  There was not a sound in the room except Courtney’s voice and Dylann’s sniffling. It felt like church; such a focused silence. Soon there were other sniffles around the room.  By the end of Courtney’s read, many, both boys and girls, had tears running down their cheeks.  Billy said, “I haven’t lost any of my grandparents yet, but I’m calling them tonight when I get home.”  Dylann finally smiled.

Then came Virginia.  She wrote about the day her father died in an ATV accident.  I could see her paper shaking from across the room.  But she did it.  When she’d finished, the kids erupted in applause and fought over who was going to give her the first compliment.  They all talked about how brave she was and how proud he must be of her and thanked her for sharing it with us.  I could see the relief on her face, partly because it was over, but also because her writing had been so well received.

Say what you wanna say
And let the words fall out

Let your words be anything but empty
Why don’t you tell them the truth?

Our time together will be different now.  I’ve seen it happen before.  Once one person lets out that ‘big brave’ it gives everyone else permission to do the same.  They were amazed yesterday by the power of words to make us feel what someone else is feeling, to see what someone else has seen, to remember the way things used to be. Every recitation built a new set of connections between and among us, connections that I don’t believe can be forged in any other way than this.  Writing matters.  ‘Show me how big your brave is’ indeed.

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Your Tax Dollars at Work

Part 1: 

Last year the board of supervisors in the county where I teach voted against a real estate increase (the wealthiest county in the United States). That meant that the school board had to cut $38 million dollars from it’s already reduced budget.  The cuts were so severe that every teacher received a ‘Reduction in Force’ notice in the event positions would be cut. How’s that for a summer send-off?  The cuts were far-reaching and worrisome.  It wasn’t until this fall that I realized those cuts were personal.

Last year I had 119 7th graders.  I had 5 classes of English and 1 class of Communications (an elective class).  My largest class had 21 students and most of my classes had less than 18.  This year, because of the loss of 1 teacher at our grade level, I teach 147. I teach 3 Honors classes with 25-28 students and 3 co-taught classes with 19-25 students.  We aren’t even halfway through the first quarter and I can feel the difference.  I cannot conference with my students within a week’s time.  Grading is an all weekend event.  We cannot move from the front of the class to the back or vice versa easily because there are so many desks, chairs, and bodies to contend with.  I will try my best but I will not be as good a teacher this year as I was last year.  Class size matters and anyone who tells you differently has never spent time in a classroom.  Readers need time to develop literary habits and time to talk to others about what moves them and draws them in.  Writers need a community that builds trust so they are willing to share parts of themselves in their stories, so they can write about what really matters.  Both of those are really hard to create with large groups of adolescents.  I don’t know if I can continue to teach in a way that I know is not what my students deserve.  I can do it for this year but I’m not sure about more than that.

We also lost House Deans – administrators that would follow, in tandem with the guidance counselors, 6th graders up to 7th and then to 8th grade.  They knew the kids, the families, the struggles and the triumphs of each and every child in their grade. They knew what made those kids tick and could hit the ground running at the start of each new year, letting the new crop of teachers know what each child needed to learn best.  Because extremely wealthy people did not want to increase their tax burden by a few pennies, we now have 1 dean for nearly 1100 students.  That should work just fine, don’t you think?

Part 2:

Last spring my co-teacher and I applied for a grant.  We received $5000 for technology for our co-taught students.  The money was to be given to our school and we were instructed to collaborate with our building principal to decide on the best use of the funds.  We agreed on the purchase of 25 Chromebooks that would allow us to write every day, unconcerned about laptop or computer lab access.  Additionally, we would be able to assist students with revision from home. We felt sure this would engage our students more in the writing process and allow events like NANOWRIMO and our Poetry Slam to be even more exciting.  When the letter came from the state office about the grant, our bookkeeper wasn’t sure about all the ins and outs of a grant so we sent it on to our administration office to facilitate the purchases. We had to spend the money by 9/30.  On September 18, we received an e-mail from one of the district bookkeepers that we would be getting 18 Chromebooks and what would we like to do with the remaining $231.00?

We were stunned.  No one had asked us how many Chromebooks we needed (25) or what kind we wanted (Consumer Reports recommended Acer 720’s). I e-mailed back and asked what happened to the 25 we had sufficient funds for in August?  The reply was that it had to undergo the bid process per school board policy and this was as many as could be purchased. I asked what we should tell the 7 kids in our Block 6 class who would not have access?  She offered to send me the relevant School Board Policy section. I declined. We went from discouraged to angry to distraught to enraged.  “This wasn’t even their grant!” we railed! “Should we even get them when we’re short so many?” we wondered.  The kicker is that we had 25 Chromebooks all lined up, tax exempt, free shipping, for $4975.  No one had bothered to ask us, though.

So, we can talk about numbers and fiscal responsibility but I want everyone to know this fight just got very, very personal. This is my life’s work we’re talking about.  Our kids deserve better.  I deserve better.  The teachers I work with and admire deserve better.  These are not beans we are counting here, they are lives and successes and baby steps and perseverance and risks. It’s turning failures into lessons and defeat into triumphs and reticence into confidence. We are talking about our children here, people!!! They deserve to learn in an environment that allows them to be who they are and to grow into the very best version of who that turns out to be. They deserve the support of people who know and love them and have their backs, even when they mess up, which they will.  They each deserve the Chromebook their teachers worked so hard to get for them.  They each deserve whatever we can do and give and provide so they can get the best education we can devise for them. We are talking about our children.

Let’s all make this personal because really, it already is.


Post Script:

On Friday, our wonderful principal came to the door of our room and held up 7 fingers.  He’d worked tirelessly to find a way to get the missing Chromebooks and our director of special education had agreed to fund them.  We promptly burst into tears but they were happy, grateful, relieved tears this time.

Post Post Script:

I’m still mad!

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How I Spent My Summer Vacation (SI in the Valley – Week 4)

This final week was hard. Nearly every one of us was caught off guard by tears at some point as we realized we only had 4 days…3 days…1 day left. Although it is difficult to describe the experience to someone not in the room with us, I think it all comes down to community.  That is a buzzword nowadays but for the Writing Project it has always been foundational. Even in the late 70’s, before that word was used to describe what writers need to thrive, it was an essential piece of the NWP puzzle.  What amazes me is how quickly that community can form when the participants are committed, passionate, and eager to improve their practice.

We need to engage in the big ideas of teaching, argue about what matters, listen closely to an opposing view, and thus form our opinions with evidence and reflection.  Hmmm – sounds like something our students should be doing too, right?  That is the part of the Summer Institute I love most; the idea that until you experience what your students go through, you cannot really teach them.  The ‘I’ becomes a ‘we’ and that changes everything. Now you are on a journey of inquiry together, both learning as you go.

Diversity matters, too.  Our lone non-English teacher, Julie, is an art teacher at an alternative school.  Our cheerleader, she brought us joy every day with her boundless enthusiasm and deep compassion.  She helped us not to fear the blank page, not to fear art, and ultimately, how to be brave. Sometimes our students need us to be brave for them and with them. Thank you, Julie.

Margaret was our rib-splitting, non sequiter spilling, hilarious release valve.  From her innocent use of ‘Hit it & quit it” to “How’s your eyeball?” she helped us laugh every single day.  She is also a gifted writer whose voice is strong enough to identify her writing within the first paragraph. What a gift she must be to her students. What a gift she was to us. Thank you, Margaret.

Amy, a 4th grade teacher, was our deep well.  Quietly, she took everything in, then released it back in gorgeous poems or prose. We would nod our heads and think, ‘Oh, now I get it…” She helped us feel not only what she was feeling, but what we needed to remember.  She got to the heart of the matter every time and added depth to our experience.  Thank you, Amy.

So willing to share her journey, Meghann gave all of us encouragement to share our own.  She was the open door through which we traveled to new learning.  Her total commitment to her students reminded us of the standard we should be setting for ourselves.  Always open to new ideas and strategies, she was the role model for listening. She heard each of us and we knew it.  Thank you, Meghann.

Spicy Julie added to our experience by the wealth of her own. From stalking James Taylor to hosting our first social afternoon, she always provided interest to our days. A fountain of resources, she shared willingly and her lively manner captivated all of us.  I know her students cannot wait to come to her class because we couldn’t wait for her to come into ours.  Thank you, Julie.

Our warrior was Nicole, an AP English teacher who shared her strength in fierce, powerful, eloquent poems and prose. She made us think more deeply…about everything. She was intent on making meaning from her students from every presentation and every experience during the summer.  Her focus centered us. She is a force for reckoning and we all benefited from knowing her.  Thank you, Nicole.

Responding to the needs of her high school students, especially those reluctant boys, Mallory taught us about responsive teaching.  She reminded us that the only ones who really matter are the students sitting in front of us and our only responsibility is to reach each of them, whatever it takes. Her coaching mentality was infectious and hilarious, a winning combination. Thank you, Mallory.

Jennifer amazed me in her presentation with her ability to reference every other participant, either by their presentation or personality.  Such care she took in noticing our uniqueness and showcasing it for all to see!  I’ll bet she does that with her students, too. Our connector, she was rightly chosen as our continuity contact, the one who will keep us in touch in the months and years to come. Thank you, Jennifer.

We were lucky enough to have a resident poet, Rhonda, as well. She synthesized our learning into lyrical phrases whether through a response to beautiful words or a dedication in our anthology. She captured the essence of each and elevated all of us in the process.  A veteran of 40 years in education, she continues striving to better meet the needs of her students. What an inspiration she is. Thank you, Rhonda.

Our founding mother for our SI site, Mary Tedrow, shared a statistic with me recently; 98% of teachers who participate in the National Writing Project remain in education throughout their careers. Spend a summer with educators like those described above and you will understand why. They just don’t come any better.


SI in the Valley – Week 3

We are running out of time.  This experience that seemed like it might go on forever will end next week.  We’re not ready.  The community that has sprung out of our passion for teaching and learning feels too necessary to not continue. Really, what will we do without each other? I know I will be a better teacher because of my time with these amazing women.  I know they feel the same way.

This week we traveled to George Mason University to meet another Summer Institute group and share a presentation on revision.  Mark Farrington, writer extraordinaire, returned to the NVWP this summer to lend a hand (hurray!) and taught us how to revise our own writing.  Time spent with other teachers and writers cemented the value of this summer work for all of us.

Later in the week, Mallory taught us how to build voice by using actual shoes! (How clever is that?) Julie walked us through many strategies to help our struggling writers (boys) build fluency and confidence.  Meghann taught us how to step out of our students’ way and let them write to a real audience and create real books through NANOWRIMO http://ywp.nanowrimo.org/ . We participated in a Socratic Circle with Jennifer’s guidance and it worked! We were abuzz with possibilities by the end of the morning.

Transformative experiences can be hard to articulate.  This is a problem.  The professional development experience at the Writing Project is not like any other. Our teachers tell us repeatedly, year after year, summer after summer, that it is the most powerful professional experience of their lives.  Even though it’s difficult to describe, we need to find a way to do it.  We have explain to administrators and superintendents and politicians that what we are doing here matters. Ultimately, of course, the beneficiaries are our students. They will return to classrooms where their teachers are on fire about the year ahead. Don’t you want your child to have that teacher?

The Fellows worked hard this week preparing for the Slice of the Summer Institute; a chance to share their experience with some important stakeholders such as principals, superintendents, and department heads as well as teachers they know who they want to entice into participation next summer. It was exciting to listen to them planning and collaborating, trying so very hard to bring their excitement for the SI to  life for people who were not in the room with us.  I know they will do it brilliantly because that’s just who they are.

How lucky your child will be to have these teachers in the fall.

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Summer Institute in the Valley – Week 2

Sometimes we need to be in a room with other people who love what they do, too.

This week we shared a Writing Marathon day with two other National Writing Project sites. Over 40 teachers  met in the morning on the pedestrian mall in the historic part of our city.  After some brief introductions, the distribution of maps and visitor guides, and the formations of smaller groups, the writers ventured forth.  They visited the independent book store, the library, the Civil War museum, and as they meandered, they wrote. Some wrote phrases, others returned to work already in their journals, and more wrote new pieces as inspiration struck. Many groups ate lunch together and extended their discussion of writing and teaching, finding common ground across grade levels and disciplines. The day culminated with a readaround at our local high school.  As the writing spirit moved them, writers would stand and share their newly created or freshly revised pieces.   A sonnet and found poems delighted us. A narrative about the kindness of strangers and a passionate spoken word poem about teaching children in poverty moved us to grab tissues. We laughed a lot, too, feeling the special camaraderie that comes with people who understand how important our work is and how crucial it is that we keep ourselves up to the task.

We also heard two wonderful presentations this week about how to help teenagers understand poetry and how to help all our young writers remember to play with words.  These teachers, one from fourth grade and one from AP English 12, showed how much we have to learn from one another.  Both gifted educators, they revised and tweaked and worried over their presentations, wanting so much for it to be just right, and for each of the audience members to get useful information that we could adapt to our own teaching situations.  They succeeded brilliantly.  Their humor and humanity shone through. Such lucky children to have these wonderful teachers.

Writing groups met twice over the week and we are growing in trust and honesty, trying to help each other make our writing better but still supporting the writer as we do.  It’s a delicate balance but as we struggle with it, we are learning how to do the same thing with our students; how to be careful and truthful, how to focus on the writing but still understand the emotions behind it, how to ask questions that might lead to insights, how to gauge the writer’s strengths and build on them, how to illuminate places where the writer to reader connection is broken.  This is complicated work, make no mistake.

The fellows (teachers) are hard at work planning a ‘Slice of the Summer Institute’ for the last week.  Administrators, principals, and other decision makers are invited to come and witness the hard work of the fellows over the summer. The fellows are focused on making these powerful ‘higher-ups’ see the magic that happens every summer in SI’s across the country.  Teachers teaching teachers, growing a community from the ground up in a few short weeks, a community that will make a difference in kids’ lives for years to come.

Sometimes we need to be in a room with other people who love what they do, too.

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