Reading

What’s the Next Step (as a teacher of writing)?

Screen Shot 2019-09-11 at 12.47.54 PMI recently read a book that I’ve been thinking about often and sharing with anyone who will listen to me: Why They Can’t Write by John Warner. I found myself shaking my head in agreement and laughing out loud sometimes as he spoke about writing issues – including the five-paragraph essay, grammar, technology, rigor, grades, and more. My book is filled with underlines, dog-eared pages, brackets, stars, “Yep!”, “Wow!”, “Hmmm…”, and even the occasional sad face.

My initial idea for this post was to be more of a book share than anything else. The problem is that many of the issues that Warner points out regarding writing instruction have come rushing at me in real life. One time was with my daughter who is a senior and who shared her Common App essay with me. And again with my older daughter who is in her second year of college, who shared an essay this past week for an ‘Intro to Diversity’ course. Both girls are struggling/have struggled with how to approach their writing requirements. I thought of them as I was reading the book and about the writing they’ve done in school. Honestly, I thought about my own experiences in middle and high school where I was taught to follow a structure and could write a five-paragraph essay like nobody else. The problem was that when I got to college, I didn’t know how to think or to write while conveying my own ideas.

There are many things in Why They Can’t Write that are important for writing educators today to think about. I’m struggling to come up with just a few nuggets to share, but based on my personal connections, I chose a few as some next steps that teachers could ponder (this is only in Chapter One called “Johnny Could Never Write”):

  • “Writing is hard” (11). I think I’ve said this three times to classes full of students this week and at least four times with my colleagues. It isn’t supposed to be easy. The growth and learning come as students struggle. When we over-scaffold or provide structures at every turn, will our writers ever have to work hard? Warner equates a structure – such as the five-paragraph essay – to training wheels on a bike. If we take the struggle out of writing by providing a structure, will our students learn how to write well and independently? 
  • “Writing is a skill, developed through deliberate practice” (12). I think teachers know this. I know that football coaches do and so do dance instructors and violists. Writing teachers know this too but there are things that keep us from giving students the practice they need: large class sizes (150 pieces of writing to look at), deliberate practice time set aside IN CLASS, and thoughtful, purposeful writing tasks that seem too difficult to model or plan for. How do we move forward and allow our students this practice time? I think teachers have to be mindful of feedback versus assessment and what is and what isn’t graded. There are ideas in this book but there are also giants in the ELA world that offer suggestions, like Kelly Gallagher, Penny Kittle, Lucy Calkins, and others. What can they offer that we can put into use in our English classrooms?
  • “We overestimate our own proficiency at writing” (13). I am almost 50 years old and don’t consider myself a good writer. (In fact, as I reread this, I noticed that I sometimes don’t make much sense.) I’m trying but I still send emails with mistakes – even if I’ve read it over and over again. What if teachers wrote beside their students all the time and were judged on the same standards we are judging students on? That makes me nervous just thinking about it.
  • “We overestimate our past proficiency at writing” (13). I imagine that at one point I thought I was a good writer – back when I was getting solid A’s in high school English. I was NOT a good writer which my college professors would attest to. But I am trying and I challenge all teachers of writing to try. How do we know what our learners are going to struggle with if we haven’t tried it ourselves?
  • “We hold students to wrong/unreasonable standards” (14). Correctness seems to be what many students – even middle school students – are most worried about. Is this spelled correctly? How many sentences does this have to be to get an A? Will I get all 4’s on the rubric with this narrative? I think we have to figure out, as educators, what our goals are for our writers and keep that in the forefront of our minds as we plan and invite our students to write. I think we also have to think about how we communicate the expectations to students and how we use our minilessons and our small group/individual instruction to teach students how to independently reach those standards.

Screen Shot 2019-09-11 at 8.44.57 PMIf you can’t tell, I enjoyed Why They Can’t Write. It brought up a lot of emotions for me. It has suggestions on how to think about writing in a classroom – even if you don’t teach College Comp in high school or college. It addresses grammar which is often “the elephant in the room”. It challenges the status quo of writing instruction. It is a book that will make you think.

The remainder of Warner’s quote from the picture at the beginning of this post is “…an act where we determine what we mean to say by attempting to say it” (16). This is exactly what I experienced as I created this reflection. I wrote in order to respond to my strong reaction to the book and to explore the feelings and teaching ideas that sprung from it. I figured out what I wanted to say as I wrote and revised and leaned on the expertise of my writing group to cut out what I didn’t need and to elaborate on what I did need. What an amazing exercise I’ve had as a writer! Hopefully, we can think about how we continue to allow our students this important opportunity.

 

Warner, John. Why They Can’t Write. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press. 2018.

Reading

Getting the Right Books in Students’ Hands

One of the perks of my job as a literacy coach is to have the opportunity to move between buildings and among classrooms during the first week of school. It is such an invigorating time as students get to know where their lockers are (and how to operate those darn locks), as teachers stand ready in the doorway to answer questions and to greet students warmly, and as reading and writing communities are being built “brick by brick”.

IMG_9850.JPGOne of thliteracy-building activities our students experienced within the first five days of school was the chance to hold books in their hands and to think about what they like to read and what to put on their “to read” list. There were book tastings, book passes, speed dating with books, book gallery walks, and books talks taking place all over! There were read alouds starting on day one and #classroombookaday routines starting from the get-go.I’m so proud that it is obvious that our teachers value reading and know that children need to find books that are right for them.

A goal for me this year is to challenge teachers to think about what books are on their IMG_9834.JPGbookshelves and are being shared with students in order to support ALL students finding books that are right for them. I was privileged to attend NerdcampMI this summer and to hear from so many authors, teachers, and librarians who were champions for children and for diverse and inclusive book titles in our school libraries and classrooms. I wish that I could channel Laurie Halse Anderson or Jason Reynolds or Jillian Heise or Kathy Burnette or Mr. Schu and rally support and enthusiasm for inclusive books.

I think that teachers are starting to think about what types of texts they surround students with. I think that Rudine Sims Bishop’s “Windows, Mirrors, and Sliding Glass Doors” message has been shared (and if you haven’t read her work, you should!). I think it is still a work in progress for some of us. I think we need all the support we can get which leads me to some suggestions for teachers and educators:

  • READ – as much as you can, as many different genres as you can
  • Find the support you need – share titles with colleagues and teammates, ask for recommendations, set a reading goal for yourself, turn off the TV and put down the phone (yep, I said it!)
  • Get into the Twitterverse – #weneeddiversebooks, #buildyourstack, #pb10for10, #DisruptTexts, #DiversityJedi, @jasonreynolds83, @halseanderson, @jarredamato, @angiecthomas, @SaraKAhmed, @Tolerance_org, @debreese, @MrSchureads and that’s just to name a few!
  • Ask yourself some tough questions and encourage others to do the same:
    • Do the books in my classroom library represent ALL of my students?
    • Are there any voices missing from my bookshelves or any voices that overpower all the others?
    • Are there any voices missing from the whole class texts that I teach? Are all the shared text voices the same?
    • How diverse is my own professional development?
    • Are the mentor texts I use for writing representative of many different voices?

Little of what I’ve shared is original thinking, but I feel like I could talk about the importance of getting books into students’ hands for hours including being sure that all students find books that speak to them or that will make a difference in their life one day. 

So, teachers, keep hosting book tastings and speed-dating and asking students to create “to-read” lists! But, also take a look at what books make it into those piles and onto those shelves – we owe it to our learners to do that.

Screen Shot 2019-08-21 at 8.47.19 AM.pngScreen Shot 2019-08-21 at 8.47.28 AM.pngScreen Shot 2019-08-21 at 8.47.12 AM.png

 

For more comprehensive thinking about diversity and inclusiveness in classroom libraries, please visit:

We Need Diverse Books

NCTE Build Your Stack

Jillian Heise’s website

Article from EdWeek

#31DaysIBPOC

**Thanks to Jen Hamilton (KMS) and Katie Estepp (DMS) for inviting me in to watch their students and take pictures. Also thanks to Stephanie Stinemetz for posting pics on Twitter of the book stacks in the 8th-grade classrooms at Davis!

 

 

Reading

Potholes on I-71: A Reflection

Screen Shot 2019-06-21 at 2.27.24 PM.pngI seem to be following a theme focused on I-71 lately. My last post was about speeding on the long stretch of highway, while this one is about potholes. We’re not talking run-of-the-mill potholes but tire-flattening, car-bouncing, bone-rattling potholes. It is a dangerous stretch of road – one which makes me question trips to Cincinnati.

As I was gripping the steering wheel tightly with both hands (and cursing the Ohio Department of Transportation), I was thinking about the potholes I’ve encountered recently and how I’ve dealt with those. Some potholes have been ones that felt like I was going to be swallowed whole with no chance of recovery and others were little blips on my radar. I negotiated each with different strategies and with differing success.

  • As a literacy coach, one of the “potholes” that I encounter has to do with school schedules and testing. When traveling between four buildings on a two-week schedule, I found myself working with teachers the week before winter break or spring break or the end of the year – not ideal coaching times. Unfortunately, the month of April in Ohio is testing frenzy so bell schedules are off and teacher anxiety is high. I am lucky to work with amazing people who were still kind and desirous to reflect or have conversations or invite me in to confer with students. My strategy for negotiating these issues was persistence and patience which paid off and kept me busy during those “interesting” times of the school year.
  • Another of my struggles came just yesterday as I was facilitating a minilesson during a summer PD. This was an “out-of-nowhere” pothole that I hit because I wasn’t paying attention – except I actually wasn’t prepared so it was totally on me. I had thought about my minilesson a lot and I knew my stuff and believed in what I was talking about; however, I didn’t think enough about how I was going to say what I wanted to say. I didn’t have notes or anything jotted down. I didn’t have a clear plan about where I was going and I hit a bump. Luckily, my colleagues who were sitting in the room didn’t need anything fancy or “new” and they smiled and nodded and were gracious. I got through that one because of them. I also spent time writing about my feelings and shortcomings and reflecting on what to change for next time.
  • Just like teachers who sometimes have students who are hard to reach (or who seem to be), as a coach, I have teachers who feel the same. This is a struggle for me because I want to be a support and a resource for everyone – it’s in my nature. It’s about building relationships and being there when and if someone needs me. The same goes for teachers in a classroom – every student needs something different and it’s our job to find out what it is. It may take seven months or seven years, but talking, listening, and simply being there may get us past the rough spots and into relationships.
  • A large jolt to my system came recently which caused me to reflect a lot, to take on some anxiety, and then to ultimately own what was mine and to let go of what wasn’t. I’m still learning how to have conversations with adults because they are different than students. I have found a few times this year that my “talk” with adults doesn’t quite come out the way I want it to or the way that it should. It’s an evolving skill as a coach to have conversations that ask people to be reflective or to question current practices or to think deeply about purpose. It’s one I am still working on and will continue to practice because it is all about our work with students and how to better help them flourish as readers and writers. I will continue to think about how I ask questions and share good practices in order to grow as a coach.

I probably could go on and on about big and small potholes – both on the highway and in my life. As I’ve been writing this, I’ve come to realize that my purpose isn’t to share all the struggles from this past year but to share how I’ve dealt with some issues and how important it is to reflect on them. Taking the time to process and realize what part of the problem is yours or something you can control will hopefully lead to smoother roads.

**I composed this piece at our Summer Writing Institute the last week of May. I’m unsure why I waited a few weeks to post this reflection – I hope you enjoy! Happy summer!

 

Reading

Driving 85 When the Speed Limit is 70

The life of a soccer mom has its ups and downs. (I am not complaining because that stage of my life is coming to a close and I will be sorry to see it end.) One perk is the times I get to spend with my daughter driving to Cincy or Indy or Huntington or Memphis or Louisville. Bailey and I love music and the tunes we prefer on road trips are from Broadway shows – specifically Hamilton, Rent, Wicked, Les Mis, and Dear Evan Hansen. We sing and bee-bop along for hours on end. This past weekend we traveled to Cincinnati for a night game and then drove home Sunday after an afternoon game in Northern Kentucky. I love our time together when I can look over and she’s belting out lyrics like “No day but today!” as loudly as she can.

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But like I said earlier, there are some “downs” to being a soccer mom and to trips like this. It is stressful to spend hours and hours in a car driving around your most precious cargo especially when you look down and notice you are driving 85 miles per hour and simply following a stream of cars who are hurtling down a highway. Don’t get me wrong – I am not a slow driver and I am usually 7-8 mph over the posted speed limit when I travel. 15-20 mph over is pushing it for me!

On Sunday, though, I found myself barreling down I-71 at an excessive speed. When I noticed what was happening, I slowed down, moved into the right lane, took a deep breath, and looked at Bailey. Why did I let myself get caught up in moving as fast as the line of cars in the left lane? Why hadn’t I paid attention to my speed and noticed that I was passing quite a few vehicles like they were standing still? Why was I hurrying instead of being thoughtful?

And then my mind wandered to thoughts about how situations like this remind me of teaching and of life in general.

As teachers, we are all trying to get everything “in” – before the test, before the end of the quarter, before semester exams, before the end of the year, before being evaluated. Here are some things I think we can learn from my experience on the highway:

  • Slow down and take a look at the students sitting in your classroom. Will adding another worksheet or fun word activity or project help them become better readers, writers, mathematicians, scientists or musicians? Does every second have to be filled with stuff? Could five minutes to process or practice or reflect benefit them instead of five minutes of rushing through another thing?
  • Don’t feel like you have to follow the crowd. Again, think about the students. You know them. You’ve talked to each one of them and have learned their strengths and struggles. Just because a colleague is moving onto the next book or the next writing does that mean that your students are ready to do that?
  • Enjoy the time you have as you are having it. As I looked over and saw my daughter singing at the top of her lungs with a big smile on her face, I realized that this was a precious moment. We get to spend a limited amount of time with students, so treasure it. (Even those moments when it is difficult and I know that it sometimes is.)

Someone may say “Well, I have to stay with my team” or “Won’t my kids (or myself) fall behind and not get everything done?” We are all professionals and we know what good practice looks like. We know how to talk to our students and how to see where they are and then determine where they need to go and how to get them there. Following the crowd or the “this is the way we’ve always done it” may not fit with what you know is good for the students sitting in your room at this time. Don’t be afraid to ease up on the gas pedal and move into the right lane.

As I look at these suggestions, I believe it applies to everyday life also. “Slow down”, “be yourself”, and “enjoy life” are mantras that I try to live by. There are many times that I have to remind myself though; it is so easy to get caught up in everything. But as I diligently and reverently tried to remember all the words to “Wait for It” while singing with Bailey and Leslie Odom, Jr., I realized that speeding home with the rest of traffic wasn’t the best thing for me and that I needed to put my beliefs into practice in order to arrive safely and with a peaceful piece of mind. Do I think I will never look down and see my speedometer nearing 85 mph again? Probably not. However, I am aware and feel I have some strategies for dealing with that both as a human and as a teacher.

 

 

Reading

Packing Up and Moving Out

The middle of February and March brings new opportunities to teachers around the country (or at least in my school district). In fact today we received an email with voluntary transfer information in it. There may be teachers who are contemplating a change to a new grade level or a new subject or a new school or a new district. I decided to share this post about leaving the classroom even though I originally labeled it as “probably won’t post”. Maybe it will make someone feel better as possible opportunities appear on the horizon.

This spring I decided to take a job as a middle school literacy coach in my school district. It was a tough choice and one I’ve written about previously. One of the things that wasn’t a blip on my radar as I was making the decision was the thought that I’d have to pack up my classroom and classroom library for a few years. Forgot about that😆

There are several things I’ve learned from packing up to leave a classroom:

I have a serious addiction to Amazon. Luckily, I have a husband who doesn’t complain about the amount of money I spend on my classroom or my classroom library. Screen Shot 2019-03-13 at 6.57.31 PM.pngI am active on social media and keep up with the publication of books on a regular basis, so I’ve tried hard to pay Jeff Bezos’s salary for the past ten years. I believe I packed 16 boxes of books that the Honeycutts have paid for. I’m pretty sure I left quite a few on the shelves that we bought too, but I want the new teacher to have a nice library for the start of school.

I am not a good purger…I’m not quite a hoarder either, but it’s close. How many overhead transparencies are too much to have in a filing cabinet in 2018? I think I probably found at least 50, along with lesson plans, copies, packets, and student work samples. I had discs with student projects about Greek gods and goddesses from 12 years ago. I attended one of the student’s weddings last summer and know that another one has a baby on the way. Too long since I’d gone through the filing cabinet? Probably. (Do people still use filing cabinets anyway? Thank goodness I got rid of my teacher desk years ago – heaven knows what might have been in there.)

Decisions as to what to keep and what to pitch are tough for me. I guess this goes back to the last bullet, except as I went through my closet, I was thinking about Sarah, the fantastic person taking my job, and what she might need. File folders? Paper clips? Construction paper? Magnets? Bulletin board letters or borders? I left most of it. I can’t carry it from school to school. I tried to err on the side of practicality as I went through the cabinets. I also gave Sarah full permission to toss anything that she didn’t think she’d want. I told her to not ask – just do it!

Leaving a school where you’ve been for 19 years is hard! The last few days of school were rough for me. I was an emotional mess due to leaving colleagues and friends that I respect so much (and my older daughter was graduating from high school which added another layer to my mess). I had several breakdowns and moments of panic as I walked through the halls. I’m ok now – I just remind myself that I didn’t move to the other side of the country and that I’ll be back every six weeks.

My family is fantastic! My lovely daughters and my ever-patient husband helped me make the decision to leave the classroom, so of course, I enlisted their help to move my stuff out. Thank goodness they are all fit people who like to lift heavy things. The boxes have moved from my old classroom to the backs of a car/truck and to the garage. Hopefully, by the time you read this, the boxes will be safely stowed in the basement.

Besides being a cathartic, reflective writing for me, I’d like to say that this could serve as advice for the reader; however, my advice isn’t to never buy books or to throw out everything from years past. My suggestions are to do anything you can to make your classroom what you want it to be – if that means buying books then buy books. If you save student work, then maybe someday you can hand it to the parent or to the sibling of the student as a keepsake/reminder of the time in your class. If it means to shed a few (or many) tears while leaving a building or hugging a colleague, then do that. Allowing all the emotions to flow is important. If it means to remind you of the important people in your life and how they support you, then that’s great. Don’t be afraid to take a new journey or to leave a comfortable place behind.

 

Uncategorized

Find Your Tribe. Love Them Hard.

     Screen Shot 2019-02-27 at 4.32.10 PM.pngI think I can safely say that everyone who attends the Dublin Literacy Conference walks away with new learning. It could be about diverse books or about word learning strategies or about helping students find their identity or about how to confer with readers and writers or about the power of words or about learning progressions or about how to get to know students as people or about…you get my drift.

But one of the most important parts of Lit Conference, to me, might be considered a bonus. It is the chance for teachers to spend time with colleagues and friends and to “fill their cup” with other like-minded individuals. I am always amazed as I see smiles, hugs, and waves from across a crowded room. Who doesn’t love to catch up with a former colleague or have time to check in with someone from across a school district or across several states?

I was lucky enough to present a session with Kara Belden, a friend and one of the people who makes me glad to work in the Dublin school district. Kara’s part of the presentation was about how teachers need to find their tribe and their “true north”. I loved sitting and watching Kara speak so passionately about how teachers can find their own voice and their person or group of people to sustain and support them.

Pam Allyn, the keynote speaker, asked us to think about someone from our past who inspired us as educators. We pictured the person and silently gave them our gratitude for helping us become the person we are, and then, we said the names aloud. I immediately thought of about 10 people but settled on my first principal when I taught in the Cincinnati Public Schools, Dorothy Battle. I was an idealistic, naive 22-year-old who walked into an unknown setting. Mrs. Battle was my champion and supported me through some tough situations. I said her name aloud along with hundreds of others; it was amazing to hear so many names lifted in gratitude. What a wonderful sound!

I was thinking about my tribe going all the way back to my first-grade teacher, Mrs.Snyder, who first showed me how to build relationships between a student and a teacher. Then came Ms. Thomas, Mr. Taylor, Dr. Lucas, Stephanie Davis, Dr. Fenner, Dr. Stewart, Jill Reinhart, the women of this blog, and countless others whose names would fill this page and the next. Some of my tribe simply inspire me to be a better teacher. Some of them make me laugh, while others help me process and grow as a learner. Some of them make me question my daily practices which sometimes is the most important for my growth and psyche. (And Dr. Lucas had a bottle of bourbon sitting on the table at each of my Senior Seminar classes in college as inspiration as we tackled William Faulkner – including a shot or two on the last day of class.)

Screen Shot 2019-02-27 at 4.34.22 PM.pngI’m so grateful for the Dublin Literacy Conference for the learning but more importantly, for the chance to hug, smile, and spend time with people who make up my tribe and renew my educational energy.

 

 

Leading · Teacher Leadership

Finding a New Place

Screen Shot 2019-01-18 at 10.04.46 AM.png“Is it my turn?!?”

“I haven’t been the ‘lucky duck’ yet…can it be me?”

“Who is the ‘lucky duck’ today? Who gets to sit in the chair?” That’s what I heard as I entered a sixth-grade language arts classroom this week.

I wondered what all the excitement was about when I glanced over and saw this pea green rocking chair sitting next to the #classroombookaday reading area. I smiled. It was my green, creaky, repaired-many-times rocking chair that had been a fixture in my classroom for the past 19 years.

Apparently the ‘lucky duck’ each day got the privilege to sit in the rocking chair during the picture book read aloud. The students were so excited to have the special seat, and I was so excited to see my rocking chair in use and being loved by students as it had been for almost two decades. The chair had found a new space in a different classroom – just like me.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I chose to leave the classroom this year to take on the role of a literacy coach for the four middle schools in my school district. It has been almost three months and I am still finding my groove and my place. But, I have been embraced – just like the rocking chair – by teachers in all four schools.

Taking on a new role was something that I challenged myself to do. I’m not a person who typically embraces change so there have been good days and not-so-good days. I’ve been reflecting on a daily basis about “finding my new place” so that’s a little of what I’m sharing.

There are definite things that I hadn’t thought of before moving to a new place(s):

  • Parking – some people are particular about their parking spot
  • Lunch – do most teachers eat in the teachers’ lounge? Am I taking someone’s spot OR limiting the conversations because of the ‘new’ person in the room?
  • A tribe – I sort of lost my tribe because I’m not at my former school every day. I’m only there every six weeks.
  • Keys/office space – so many keys and such different spaces
  • My back – lugging bags of professional books from building to building is fun:)
  • Momentum – two weeks is just enough time to start building momentum with teachers and students but then my coaching cycle is over and the momentum is lost/deferred

I am certainly not complaining. I really enjoy working with teachers. It is different than working with teenagers – it’s a good different. The amazing work that the teachers in the middle schools are doing every day make me proud and make me push my own thinking. What and how can I support teachers who are knowledgeable about the learners sitting in their classrooms and are thinking about how to best keep those learners reading and writing every day?

I’m thinking in a different way this year and I’m finding my way in this new role.  I feel like I’m the ‘lucky duck’ who is getting to know colleagues that I didn’t know and spending time with students in all three grade levels that I normally wouldn’t get to. I’m excited to wake up and go to work each day, and I’m challenged by the thinking and reflecting that I do with teachers. My new place is working out really well – just like the new place for that 50-year-old, much-loved rocking chair.

 

Leading · Teacher Leadership

To change or not to change…

Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek. – Barack Obama

The past few months have brought about a lot of change in my life. I’ve gotten through almost 48 years with not a lot of that. I think I could safely say (before April) that I was not a person who embraced change. Oh, every once in a while I change my hair color or I try a new radio station…but I couldn’t be characterized as a mover or a shaker. I’ve branched out to become a yoga teacher, but other than that, I taught at the same school for 19 years, been married to the same wonderful guy for 22 years, typically vacationed in the same three places, and have the layout of my Kroger burned into my memory.

Personally, my life is about to change as my older daughter heads off to college this fall. This spring brought a lot of “lasts” – last spring break as a whole family, last prom, last time walking through the doors of her school, and last hug as a high school student. I feel like I’ve handled these changes well – probably because my daughter is ready.  But still I’ve wondered what it will be like when she leaves. Will she miss us? Will college be everything that she wants and dreams of? Will this change be a positive one for her? I’ve tried to remain relatively calm as these “lasts” happened and as our lives as a family of four change.

Professionally, I am making a big change as well. I’ve packed all of my belongings from the school where I taught for 19 years. I’m embarking on a new path that will take me out of my classroom and into the classrooms of other language arts teachers across the district as a literacy coach.

If you would have told me that I would be on this path four months ago, I would have told you that you were crazy. I had a great gig teaching 8th grade language arts with three people that I enjoyed working with and had a fantastic professional learning partnership with. My classroom was a place that I was proud of and had worked hard to make into a positive learning environment. My principal is an enviable instructional leader that I was so happy to work for and with. One colleague said I was crazy to leave and that he didn’t understand what was going through my mind – my school is an idyllic teaching situation.

So why did I decide to make the change? I don’t think it was peer pressure. I don’t think it was flattery, I don’t think it was “I’m going to prove to people that I can change” (ok, maybe a little bit of this if we’re talking about my husband).

At some point, after making lists of positives and negatives and after sitting in silent reflection for long periods of time, I decided that it was time for me to try something new. I love working with teenagers, but I also love working with adults. I would visit other classrooms once a week if I were allowed. There are so many smart, reflective teachers around the district that I will get to learn from every day. Hopefully, I will be able to impact more than the 120 students I saw on a daily basis last year. My professional learning and personal reading will be different which is exciting and challenging. Finally, my daughters both were cheerleaders for this position and told me that this is what I’m supposed to be doing and to go for it.

Making the decision to change my career path for a few years felt like a weight was lifted from my shoulders once I accepted the job. Up until I said “yes”, I felt unsure but all the second-guessing was gone when I made the call. Honestly, it wasn’t what I thought I was going to do, and I rebelled against the idea for some time. However, I am ready to move forward and see what the next school year brings for me and for my family.

 

**I wrote this piece during the #SWI18 in June while surrounded by other Dublin teachers. I’ve started my journey as a coach now and I’m sure will share more about that soon.

 

Culture · Environment · Students · Writing Workshop

Slowing Down for Writing Success

It seems like everyone is in such a hurry these days – me included at times. This past week my older daughter was in a hurry to get to work. As she prepared to turn into her workplace, there was a car taking up most of her turn lane. She was going too fast to stop and allow the car to make its turn, so she ran up onto the curb HARD. The impact slashed a hole in her tire which was flat by the time she parked. (Luckily she was at her place of work and didn’t have to pull over on a road, and she was completely safe.) There were tears when she called and plenty of panic. Once we took some time to process what happened, our conversation consisted of “What could you have done?” and “Would things have been ok if you had slowed down and allowed the vehicle in your way to get out of the way?”

As I spent a few days processing this incident, I was reminded of the fact that even in my classroom I am often rushing to get to the end goal. Sometimes it is with reading a shared text or with a writing project. Teachers often ponder where to find more time and sometimes if it’s worth it to take the time.

My learners recently embarked on a narrative writing assignment from brainstorming to first draft to revising to a final draft. As a teaching team, we chose from the beginning to slow down and spend time before putting pencil to paper or fingers to a keyboard to begin the stories. Using “data” from the previous year’s students’ struggles, we knew that taking the time to fully research and to fully develop a character was important. That meant spending multiple days in class asking students to plan and get ready for writing.

Believe me, there were quite a few students who said, “Can’t we just write?” I explained that I had watched students struggle the previous year to fully develop characters and to write narratives that had a theme (which is required by Ohio’s standards for eighth grade writers). Students spent two days researching the time period for their historical narratives, three days working on who the characters were going to be, and another day on story arcs. Several lessons were modeled on Units of Study for Teaching Writing K-8.

The next week, the writers in my classes began to compose their first drafts. As they worked all they needed was time. Often they would walk into class itching to get to the Chromebooks. It was a slow process for some as they’d sit and stare at their computers or their notes. It was a quick process for others whose fingers would fly as they got into their writing. After about a week of drafting in class, most first drafts were complete. Others were finished quickly after.

Then we took a break. Just like my daughter, I asked my students to process and think about what had happened. This time away gave them a different perspective, and it also gave them ideas about what to do next and what to do the next time they looked at their drafts.

During the “break”, I read the historical narratives and gave feedback – the positives and the places where extra work was needed.

The third week of work brought us to our revising phase. There were many small group mini-lessons offered for both extension and refinement areas. Every day in class was offered as time to revise and edit. Again, we took our time.

I sometimes feel like taking “time” is undervalued in education. There’s so much to cover or we have to get to ____________ before the semester is over. I try to never let myself feel like this in my classroom. My students did good work this past week. There were many conversations between writing partners. I saw students going back to do more research on the time period. Quite a few students worked on elaborating with characters and theme. The use of dialogue was examined and questioned. Drafts were scrutinized and edited.

Slowing down is a good reminder for all of us – whether we’re driving in a car or working with students. I still have to remind myself of this in my classroom, but I firmly believe that my students are better writers because of the time we take working through the process.

 

Environment · Students · Teaching

Writing Partners in an ELA Classroom

This blog is a testament to the power of writing and working with a group or a partner. As Rita and I explained in the “About” page of the blog, writing can be a daunting task – for adults and certainly for students too. Some people find that writing rolls right off the fingertips and others find it difficult. As I sit on this Labor Day morning at a Starbucks near my house, I find it challenging. The atmosphere seems perfect – coffee, laptop, beautiful sunrise, no TV or kids, inspiring music; however, I’ve been sitting for a while trying to decide where and how to start. My students are embarking this week on their first writing which will serve as a diagnostic tool for me and then they will take the initial draft to a final copy. I envision that starting the writing will be difficult for them too. Luckily, I have a group of writers to support me and who will give me honest, needed feedback before I publish this post.

For the last few years, I have tried to provide my students with the support that I have received from my writing friends by allowing them to work with a writing partner. The idea comes from Units of Study – Writing for Teaching Writing K-8 by Lucy Calkins and her colleagues at the Teacher’s College. I love how this has worked in my classroom. Writing partners start working together from the brainstorming phase of the writing process all the way through to the final product. The students get to know their partner’s writing almost as well as their own. There is definitely power in that.

Writing partners are NOT editors. I honestly have found very few eighth graders who are qualified to correct the spelling, grammar, punctuation, or usage of their peers. Writing partners are question-askers and feedback-givers. Helping another person with writing is not something intuitive to most students/adults. We spend time in class learning about how to be a good writing partner. It is a process!

These are the main guidelines in my classroom for writing partners:

  • Read the writing carefully and think carefully about the goals for the piece
  • Offer constructive criticism – what MIGHT your partner change to make the writing better?
  • Give feedback on how to improve the writing – what can your partner do better?

With our first writing of the year, I introduced the concept of writing partners to the class. I modeled what working with a writing partner looks like by using this writing group. Along with discussion of how everyone (even J.K. Rowling) works through multiple versions and drafts of writing and how everyone elicits feedback from others, I showed students Screen Shot 2017-10-14 at 10.04.24 AM.pngmy draft of an earlier blog post. We talked about how my writing partners read my writing carefully, gave me suggestions on how to make the writing better, and also what they liked about the piece.

Getting writing partners started is definitely a process. It isn’t easy sometimes. You will have partners who gel immediately and have the most amazing conversations about their writing. And you will have partners who struggle and need one-on-one guidance from you. Students get more comfortable working with a writing partner as the year goes on and the discussions expand to lengthy conversations. I firmly believe in the power of using writing partners and work throughout the year to make the experience worthwhile for every student.

Some things to consider when and if you want to incorporate writing partners into your writing workshop:

  1. How do you want to put partners together? Do you want to assign partners or let students choose their partners?
  2. Will you allow students to team up more than once throughout the school year?
  3. How do you want students to share their writing? Google Docs? Pass Writer’s Notebooks back and forth?
  4. What strategies will you have at the ready if the partnership isn’t working well?

Student thoughts on writing partners:

“Writing partners are very helpful for me because I am very appreciative of getting many opinions on my writing so that it can be exactly how I want it to be when I turn it in.  It’s very helpful, also, because writing partners are a fresh pair of eyes that can catch small mistakes that you did not previously see.” -Olivia B

“I like the use of a writing partner because after awhile you get sick of reading your essay over and over again and it starts to make all of it the same. In the end, it was nice to have fresh eyes to read it and suggest anything to add to or take away from my writing to make it the best it can be.”  – Alyssa H.

“The good thing about our writing partners is that we had someone to ask a question whether it was about a word or if a sentence made any sense.  Also, they gave us some constructive criticism which helped make our essays better.” – Scott S.

I love reading student reflections at the end of a writing unit, and I always elicit feedback about writing partners. These responses help to validate the choice to incorporate partnerships into daily practice. I don’t know what I would do without my partners, and oftentimes, my students feel the same.