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!

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.

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!

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.

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.

2014 Summer Institute in the Valley – Week 1

Teachers taking time out of an already shortened summer to learn how to get better at teaching. Sounds like it should be a headline, doesn’t it? Every year thousands of teachers from all levels, content areas, and backgrounds come together in the National Writing Project’s Summer Institute.  Sites across the country seek nominations of worthy applicants, hold interviews, and select the very best of our profession to become Fellows for the summer. Last week was the beginning for our group and what a week it was.

We start off every day by writing for half an hour.  What a gift to be able to sit and write unencumbered by lesson plans, small children, or buzzing cell phones.  Our start coincided with the writing camp for teachers started by Kate Messner called Teachers Write http://www.katemessner.com/blog/ so some of us use that as our starting point. As I look around the room I see some writing furiously, anxious to get the words down before they are lost.  Others are gazing, thinking, wondering.  All are quiet, gathering thoughts and words.

Each of the Fellows must give a presentation of a lesson that worked for them that might be adapted for other teachers to use.  They are very nervous in front of their peers, though all are exemplary teachers. It’s different with kids they’ll tell you and these teachers want so much to be good, to have the others gains some knowledge or skills from their sharing. So far, they’ve been wonderful. We’ve learned about creating visual journals, making online magazines (e-zines), and using mentor texts to extend our students’ writing. Each presentation has added to our tool kit for the fall. We are getting ready.

Some afternoons we meet in Writing Groups so we know what it feels like to share our work with others and receive feedback.  Gradually, we learn to trust each other and to be honest yet kind.  Our goal is to make the writing better.  Through our discussions, we do. We are learning to write about what matters, to write about the thing we need to write about, to write the stories only we can tell.  We laugh, we cry, we learn what community feels like.  It feels really, really good.  We want our kids to feel this, too.  We want to learn how to make this happen in our classrooms.

We read articles about reading and writing and discuss them like grownups.  We agree, we disagree, and through our discussions, we determine what kind of teachers we are and what kind of teachers we want to become.  We love teaching, every one of us.  We are willing and ready to do the work it takes to become the kind of teachers our students deserve.

It’s an honor to be part of this process.  That sounds like a headline, too.

What the Politicians Don’t Tell You

I am headed into Day 4 of ‘Camp’. No, it’s not bug juice and swimming lessons but professional development for teachers of reading and writing provided by our English supervisor. It’s been wonderful.  We get presents like colorful pens and sketchbooks, time to collaborate with other like-minded souls (our table group calls them peeps), and the opportunity to think deeply about what we teach and why and…how to do it better next year.  There are 24 participants and there was a waiting list.  This is the summer.  We are officially ‘off’ but we are here instead. The politicians that bash teachers’ easy schedules don’t tell you this.

I’ve noticed over the week how deftly the facilitators model for us what they want us to do with our students.  They teach us a new strategy or technique. Then they make sure we understand it by talking to one another about it and asking clarifying questions.  Then they let us go ‘play’ with whatever it is we just learned.  Eventually we apply what we’ve learned to an actual lesson, one we might (and probably will) really use next year.  We are working hard to hone our craft to make learning better for our students.  The politicians that moan about teachers’ incompetency don’t tell you this.

All professional development for teachers should follow this model.  The National Writing Project uses it as well.  Teachers teaching teachers. There is nothing more motivating than being in the presence of people who are passionate about kids and learning.  We lift each other up with our ideas, strategies, and experiences. We become better by sharing what we know works with real kids. We become better by reflecting on why something worked or why it did not.  We become better by being given information and resources that help us connect better to our students, our curriculum and to each other.  We become better when given the opportunity to discuss our teaching with others who ‘get it’. The politicians who complain that teachers are lazy don’t tell you this.

In a few weeks, the National Writing Project’s Summer Institute will begin.  Four intensive weeks of teachers teaching teachers. There are three groups coming together in Northern Virginia, and hundreds more across the country.  Teachers dedicated to helping students be successful learners, so dedicated they give up vacations and time with their families to improve their craft and elevate their art.  The politicians don’t tell you about any of this, but know that it happens anyway.

Our Heart

Matt is the heart of our Block 8 class.  He is the head cheerleader, the trailblazer, the first one with the high five. He has been this way almost from the first week of school.  Somewhere along the way he decided he was going to love our co-taught class and he didn’t hesitate to tell us so. It was very affirming, I must admit.  Where one student might say, ‘This room looks like a kindergarten!” because of the colors, lighting, and comfy spots, Matt would walk in and say, ‘I just love this class. I feel like I can be myself in here.” Teresa and I would smile at each other and say, almost simultaneously, ‘That’s what we were going for!”

His goodwill is not reserved only for teachers, however.  When we read our writing aloud and someone is feeling shy, Matt will yell, ‘C’mon {insert name here} – you GOT this!’  When giving feedback, he always has a positive comment, even when Teresa and I are hard-pressed to think of one. He is also willing to put himself and his feelings front and center, thus allowing everyone else permission to do the same.  I think I can safely say he has had a positive influence on everyone in our classroom, include his teachers.

Yesterday we had our 2nd Annual Poetry Slam.  It was amazing. The poems were moving, funny, thought-provoking, and, in some cases, disturbing (in other words, exactly what poetry should be). The audiences were wildly enthusiastic, the judges impressed, and the teachers grateful that it went off without a hiccup. In order to be eligible for the ‘Grand Slam’ which involved all the other 7th grade English classes, students had to compete in a classroom slam. They read their poems and then a panel of 5 judges from within the class scored them on a score of 0 to 10.  Top and bottom scores are dropped, and the middle three added together to determine 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place.

Matt was one of the winners for Block 8.  Along with him were two boys, Adam and Jax, with powerful poems of their own. In fact, when Matt heard the boys’ poems in practice, he threw out his original poem because he didn’t think it was as good as theirs was.  He spent days revising, tweaking, adding to his poem. He wanted Adam and Jax to see him as an equal. All three of them won the classroom round. On the day of the Grand Slam, they sat together in the auditorium, encouraging each other, teasing each other, and cheering each other (and the other poets) on. They were the only poets in any of the 7 blocks who cheered for poets who were not in their class.  They didn’t see it as a competition as much as a celebration.

Matt was more nervous than I have ever seen him.  He has begun to consider himself a writer which means the stakes for him are higher. What people think of his work really matters to him because it has become part of who he is as a person.  He performed well although he went a little too fast and I was afraid the judges might have missed some of the words.  Jax listened to the feedback from the class and read his poem perfectly, pacing exactly right and expression at the end when the poem demanded it.  Adam’s poem was brilliant – about life being a series of doors with choices all along the way – a metaphor with depth and beauty.  He read a little too fast as well, but the words were clear and strong. Teresa and I were so very proud.

Matt won first place. Sometimes the good guys win.