In a few weeks, our classrooms will be filled with nervous smiles and worried parents, all wondering what the new school year will bring. Some excited for their children to get started on a continued path of learning and growth, others a bit more worried. Sometimes we feel like it is our job to save each student, and the thought of maybe not reaching every single student affects us in more ways than one. The reality is that we can’t save every student in our classrooms in one single school year, but we can have great impact. Teachers are not superheroes, we are human.
As teachers, it is sometimes easy for us to dismiss the worries of a parent, becoming complacent to what’s important. We allow our every day “busy” take over who we should be for our students and families. Under the blanket of what feels like a thousand and one decisions and responsibilities we carry out each day, sometimes the start of a school year can feel like a category 6 hurricane, and it is easy to lose sight of why we became teachers. We sometimes forget the powerful impact we have on our students. We are not always careful with our words, our actions, and our purpose. This is a grave error.
Helping a child to learn and grow is probably one of the hardest jobs one human could have. And I don’t know about you, but I’m no superhero. Even though at times I feel like what happens in my classroom is magic, it’s not. Sometimes what I do can seem humanly impossible to accomplish, and it may look like the accomplishment of a superhero, but it is not. It is the daily responsibility of a teacher.
When parents come to me at the start of a school year, I work hard to make sure they know their child will be safe, taken care of, treated gently, and given the opportunity to thrive and grow. Parents, I could guess, want the best learning environment for their child. It is what I wanted as a parent.
I’m not sure if it’s due to the tragedy and loss in my own life, or because I’ve raised two sons to adulthood, but I completely understand the worry of a parent. This was my own worry, at the start of each school year. All that I wished for my sons was that they would be given a chance to learn in a positive environment, to experience being a part of a learning community, participate in discoveries without shame, unnecessary failure, or having failures pointed out to them as a part of their identities. I yearned for them to be accepted and welcomed into a learning environment every single day. Pulling my oldest from private school, into public school to begin 7th grade, I worried big time. I worried how he would be treated by other students; I worried about how he would be treated by his teachers.
Good Character Is an Expectation
In my process of learning to become a parent and a teacher, I quickly understood what I often shared with my class of last year… “the most important thing for us to have is good character… having straight A’s is good, but if I had to choose one, I’d rather my own kids have good character… to know that they are good humans above anything else means more to me than having straight A’s…” Our jails hold many bright, highly intelligent people, many having experienced great success in school at some point in their past. One thing missing from their repertoire of wins, good grades, and accomplishments seems to have been… good character.
If our students come to us with good character and can accomplish strong grades, well, our world would probably be a better place. I have had these students in my classroom, and it is a blast to watch them thrive and grow. But, if I had to choose one, I’d rather have a good human. “Be a good person” is a phrase I often used with my 4th grade students. It is an expectation I hold strong for my students each year, and an important part of building our ideal classroom community.
Consequences of Poor Character
Watching the news for just a few minutes can truly show us how the character of a person can impact our world. We have all heard the stories of young teens having thrown their new born baby in a trash bin, because maybe out of sight, out of mind, means freedom from responsibility. Or, the reports of young adults video-taping a fight, instead of calling for help, or the tragic stories of college students leaving a drunk friend to die after a fall, unfamiliar with making reasonable humane actions to help… much like a deer in headlights, they either stand disconnected, do nothing good, or make horrible choices.
It may be easier for us to say that maybe they were wired this way from the beginning; born this way, but that claim just doesn’t sound right. It is hard for me to believe that anyone could be born with that ability, prewired to commit such acts of inhumane actions or disconnect. Maybe somewhere along the line… their guides failed them, they failed, and then failure consumed their years like a black hole, making it impossible to escape. Failure is not a good thing, when we can’t look back and learn from it. Maybe, each adult who crossed their path, passed on the responsibility to the next, doing little to help or making it worse, and then letting go.
I think we all play a role, and yes, teachers… teachers are also a part of that “somewhere along the line” effect. We can and do have an opportunity to do more. Teachers don’t have to work harder, we simply need to remember that we are models of what we want our students to become, even if it seems our efforts go unnoticed. We are at times all they have, even if they do not approach us directly. Humans were not made to survive alone, yet that is exactly what many of our students are facing.
We need to teach children to perform well in life, not solely on tests. For our struggling, low-socio-economic students, we must keep the bar high, not drop it because we are blinded with the thought that maybe this student’s learning cannot or should not be pushed forward. These are the students that need us most to believe in them.
Our Generation-Z students have the world at their finger-tips now with every smart device at their disposal. They can learn whatever they choose, whenever they want. They need us now more than ever to help guide them. They need our wisdom and experience.
Impact Is No Superpower
Impact is no superpower, anyone can do it. Every human is capable of great impact. Teachers have more opportunity for impact than most people. The kind of impact we have depends on the choices we make for ourselves and for our students. If we look around our schools, we won’t see teachers wearing sagging pants, as a member of a gang, or flipping off another teacher down the hallway… well, that one may be for another post. However, if we look around at the adults in our schools, does what we see represent good character, honestly? I’m referring to us… parents, teachers, and experienced adults.
Are we models of what we expect of our students, our children? Do we speak ill of people, or are we kind? Are we gentle and honest, or harsh and direct? Are we respectful to all other humans around us, or can we care less about how we treat others? Do we practice patience, or do we blow up?
My 10th grade high school history teacher, who often cursed in the classroom, said to me once… “You’re just going to end up barefoot and pregnant in a kitchen somewhere.” Did that affect me? Ummm, yes? I mean, that was over 20 years ago, and I recall it as if it were yesterday. How it affected me is still in question. Maybe it pushed me, or maybe I simply pitied him. What confused me most was the fact that he thought it was okay to curse in the classroom. He often stated that “It’s not like you guys don’t hear these words anyway.” Well, now that I’ve had some time… a long time, to think about it, I don’t care if we did hear those curse words in the hallways of our high school. I expected more from the person leading the classroom. It was his job to be a good model. I expected my teacher to be a good person. He wasn’t.
I get it… I’ve heard it… “We’re not the parent, so now we have to raise them, in addition to teaching them?” No. We are not to raise our students. We are not their parents. What we are is an impact. We are obligated to lead them, guide them, and teach them to the best of our ability to make good decisions… obligated to show them how to be good humans. We can do this simply by modeling what we hope they will be in the future. And we will fail. We will fail many, because we are human, not magicians, superheroes, or other fantastic titles that attempt to describe what we do. Teaching is one of the hardest jobs on earth, in my opinion. Still, we are obligated to give students everything we can. We are professionals. This is what we do and who we are.
We will reach some. Those we do reach, may be impacted for a long, long time, if we’re lucky. We may live in their memories until they are old and grey, affecting them still. Our impact may even push them to pay it forward, impacting others, and making the world a better place. That’s my hope at least.
It’s funny how we naturally tend to remember the worst experiences though… I think that’s human too. However, our hearts are not made solely to keep negative experiences. I also remember the teachers who impacted my life in positive ways. These powerful impacts came from gentle teachers, giving their time, respect, and attention… unconditionally. Those teachers who step into a classroom, because for them, it is a calling. There are many more in my memories to pull strength from, than that of my 10th grade history teacher’s poor example of a human being. Some people are not worthy of the positions they hold.
Teaching Is a Calling
Teaching is a calling. It requires our lives, hearts, and souls. There’s just no way around that fact. I love what I do in the classroom. I wonder still if it is my calling. Sometimes I feel like a student alongside my own students, loving the learning and exploration as much as any other 9-year-old. Maybe not knowing for sure will help me to remain a life-long learner. What I do know is my purpose, and my purpose is to teach my students to love to read and write.
What I do each year is beyond challenging. I often reflect on my ability to reach my students. Building humans is a great responsibility, and difficult to accomplish. Humans require a lot more than the content we are obligated to teach each year. Reaching a student’s heart is not in our TEKS, but without it, we will have little life-long learning accomplished in our classrooms.
Our jobs require us to be superheroes, but we are only humans. So, I cut myself a break every now and then, when the hurricane calls on me to duck and cover, I do. I emerge again, each time, having learned to take a stronger grip than the time before.
The Impact of a Teacher
Teachers are not superheroes. We are, however, models of who we want our students to become… sometimes we are their only good models. It is not our job to raise the students in our classrooms, but it is our job to do what we were trained to do, to the best of our ability. We all have the ability to do great things, and even though we are not superheroes, the impact of a teacher can change a life. It did for me.
Impactful teachers are remembered, whether they are good or bad. We tend to forget the ones who made no impact at all. As we begin a new school year, we must hold tight our purpose, so we do not forget. We have great influence on the lives of each of our students, and with great influence, comes great responsibility.
Sometimes, our impact is so great, that for some students, we really are superheroes.
Last week I fell in love with writing again. I didn’t think it was possible. It had only been a couple of weeks since my return form UT Austin’s Heart of Texas Writing Project, and in my mind, nothing more could add to that experience. I was wrong.
The impact of the CSISD Writing Project was more than I expected. Coming home from Austin, and becoming a part of a team that has worked hard for years to bring writer’s workshop into the lives of the students in our district was… well, it was an honor.
It was my first time helping to present. I’d never presented to teachers before, and it was quite nerve wrecking, but I chose to do what I’ve been doing a lot lately, putting my fears away and taking on the challenge. I am determined to continue on this journey of growth of mine, purposely keeping an open mind and an open heart to push forward.
Visit http://afhogan.com/10-tips-student-blogging/ for this blog post.
“A writer’s work is made to be published.” -Deb Kelt
Our time here is over. We ended our experience together with a gallery walk. Each of us publishers of works that took us all a process of 3-4 weeks to accomplish. It was a unique experience. There were tears. It was impactful. My wish is to remember it all, but it feels like only bits and pieces of it remain in my mind. So, I blog. It helps me to remember. And I share because it is what Aaron said I should do, and even though he may not know it… he is one of my mentors. One of many now… now that I know what they look like, my list continues to grow.
Workshop is a unique and wonderfully empowering experience for us all, not only for those we call students. I know, because I’ve lived it a little. It is not magic, rainbows, unicorns, even “ninja moves,” although those are often the words that can easily be used to describe this deep intellectual work.
Workshop is… a place where students practice what they are learning; it is where students learn with their peers, from their peers, and from their own inquiries; it is a place where students are respected and treated as valuable humans; and where a student’s voice, work, ideas, and progress are valued; where a teacher’s task is to guide and assist in the act of learning, pushing students to learn beyond the walls of the classroom; where deep intellectual work is organic, and focused on the individual needs of students; it is place where the teacher is also a learner… and a place where worksheets & packets do not exist.
So, I imagine. I imagine the ideal classroom environment. I have witnessed bits and pieces of it in the past, so it’s not too difficult for me to imagine. More importantly, I know what the possibilities are, what the impact of having such a class would have on students, teachers, parents, and maybe even communities and beyond. It is a workshop learning environment.
The Ideal Classroom
As you walk down the hallway towards the class, you hear the noise. The sound is buzzing of movement, conversations, and the closer you get, pops of language being to emerge, “I found it!” “How did you do that?” “Why do you think…?” “I tried that, but it didn’t work…” and other marvelous comments that swallow the space. You turn and look in through the wide-open door from the hallway, it’s colorful in there, the colors are swirling about, some mixing, others repelling against each other, others creating new colors. I’m talking about the learning.
At first, you don’t quite know what is happening, and for a moment, you’re not quite sure if what you see is actual learning. It sounds like kids at play, they are having fun, but they are focused, so focused on doing whatever it is they are doing that it makes you wonder if they are actually learning. There are smiles and laughter. They are intensely engrossed in what they do, excited, engaged, and it makes you question if learning is supposed to be so much fun. Is it? It looks almost like a party, a celebration, but it’s not. It seems as if they are taking over the class without the presence of authority.
As you begin to walk around… you start to see what was not clear to you at first. You notice yourself being swallowed by the heartbeat, a feeling you’re not sure how to define. It’s exciting and your heart begins to beat faster as well, but you don’t know why. You don’t know why a smile has just forced itself onto your face. Things are happening in this place that cannot fully be explain in one short line... but if it could, it would be described as movement, growth, and learning. You see it because it’s happening before your eyes… feels like magic, but it is not magic, it seems impossible, but it is… it is very possible. You are witnessing a workshop.
Students are learning… they are learning on their own, they are asking each other for help, “Show me how you did that...” “I’ll show you the rest after school” “We need to finish by Friday, but I can do this part at home” “You got it!” Laughter ensues within a small group. And the teacher? What of the teacher? Where is she in all of this? You didn’t see the teacher as you walked in… but she is there. She is in deep within the class, sitting on the floor, helping to guide a group to problem solve a part of their work, a project... one they refuse to give up. She is one of them, there, guiding and growing equally within this environment. She is there asking “Do you need this part?” as they argue, then explain their goal, and reasons why this part of the project is important. They explain this not only to the teacher, but to each other. The teacher, “Well, looks like it’s going to be a challenge… It’s worth it though, right?” “Do you think you’ll be able to figure it out?” “Yes! We can do it.” They respond immediately. One calls out, “My sister knows how to do this… I’ll ask her to teach me, when I get home.” The teacher responds, “Let me know how it goes.” They are mentors for each other, and they know how to go out and find other mentors, because it is what the teacher has taught them to do… to figure things out on their own. The teacher responds with a confident smile, and a pat on the back for those closest to her, and moves on to another group. The group continues to work, making final plans to edit their work. They have purposefully discovered their own strengths to produce their best work, too many hidden strengths to be left solely for one teacher to discover on her own. Mining for "hidden gems" is the work for a village, not for one person. Each student carries so many gems. It would be a true impossible task for one teacher to attempt to discover them all.
The teacher stops, stands, and calls out “Writers…” then waits for a few seconds for the room’s eyes to turn their attention to her, she continues with the same phrase she used to launch the class into the workshop, “Remember… today and every day when you write…”
Give It a Go
No one expects the student or the teacher to be perfect. “The objective is to build habits of engagement and intention, to help students learn to control the spotlight of their own attention.” (Randy Bomer) We are all perfectly imperfect, and so I plan to give it a go with complete fidelity, making sure to keep in mind that this teaching model carries a strong philosophy. It is the philosophy that learning should be a student-sponsored process. When students are the makers... when they are allowed to create, experiment, learn in context, and make mistakes, they internalize... they remember. These are the places we remember for the rest of our lives. This is what real learning looks like, and it is completely amazing.
My students need “to be able to write on their own without me telling (them) what to do” (Deb Kelt). I could wrap myself in a quilt of these beautiful quotes that have impacted my life as a teacher, as a human being. I now know the importance of being a living breathing example of what we expect of our students, because “[t]eachers need to leave time for their own literate lives…” (Randy Bomer) as well. Living a literate life is “curricular gold” and “[b]eing a maker changes a person’s eyes.” (Randy Bomer) and so I chose to live a literacy filled life, on purpose, from this point forward.
Just a few other important and impactful quotes…
“In a globalized economy, workers had better get used to embracing language diversity and a softened sense of what is tolerable in communication. In an Internet-based literacy environment in which people read texts from across the world, a generous spirit of “correct enough” is the only appropriate lens.” (Randy Bomer)
“Literacy is participation, and the most important features of new literacies involve acting in response to and in concert to others within digital environments and the cultures they produce and foster. To become a more literate person involves extending oneself into ways of doing in particular environments, and in our era, literacy is most importantly expanding in online environments. That means that the forms of literacy we teach ought to make such participation available to increasing numbers of students.” (Randy Bomer)
A Special Quote for Dual Language Teachers
“many programs have traditionally been more defined by low-level drill-and-practice activities and a focus on basic grammatical forms excised from authentic contexts of language use. As one group of writers has put it, ‘ELLs’ lack of oral language proficiency has often hindered their opportunity to receive cognitively stimulating and content-level appropriate instruction in school’ (Carrasquillo et al. 2004, 30).” (Gibbons, Cummins, 2009, 1-2)
On Friday, July 7, 2017, I became a proud National Writing Project, Heart of Texas Writing Project, Teacher Consultant. The memories of places like this, experiences like these, never lose their meaning. The people, places, and things that, if we pay enough attention, change our lives… make us better. They can happen in a classroom, if we allow it, but they happen everywhere else too. We all come with our own literacies, whether we are 5 years of age or 47. That is where we need to take a strong hold and build from. These experiences impact us sometimes in ways we can easily see, and sometimes in ways we have yet to discover. It is more than learning. It is living a deep intellectual life… it is living as a life-long learner.
Our work, our learning, will remain unfinished, because learning, true learning is innately continuous. It is for each of us… a genius path.
So… this is hard work… but anything worth doing, is worth working hard for. I know that for sure. I am here, working harder than I have ever worked in the past 10 years as a teacher, and I don’t get paid for it… not in cash at least. What I get is much, much more.
“If you’re going to teach him how to write, first you have to love him. If you can convince him of that, there’s nothing you can’t teach him.” -AVI
It seems each week that I’m here, I not only learn more, but I end the week with more and more questions. Do all teachers love their students? Do all teachers love teaching? Questions that kind of make my blood boil now. I know the answer. And kids, well, they can smell fake and phony a mile away. I can too, or at least I’d like to think I’m pretty good at it. Without genuinely caring for students, there will be little life-long learning accomplished in the classroom. If you don’t care about me, respect me, treat me with dignity… I could care less about what you’re trying to teach me. I can easily claim these words, and I do. Young people probably feel that way too. I am still trying to figure out if it’s even possible for a teacher to accomplish using the workshop model, without truly caring for and loving students. Is it possible?
This week, I learned about the importance of conferring, and why workshop is the best test prep model one could have for students. We studied, in practice, the writing process… and learned that writing is a difficult and highly complicated process. It is not, absolutely not, a step by step brainstorm, plan, draft, correct, revise, and final draft process. It is a dirty, messy, bloody process. And it should be. It’s crucial to the writer that it is a bloody process. And most important… I bumped into another elephant in the room. How many elephants can one fit in a single room? I learned that teachers of writing… must be writers too. It makes total sense.
Approximations – Accept them. “Know what the child knows and can do, and what he or she might benefit from learning next.” Invented spelling, sentence structures, especially for second language learners… “I need to assume that every move that they make is a writerly move.” “We have to dream the dream a little for them, until they are able to dream it.” It was described to me like running along beside a child, while they’re trying to learn to ride a bike… and you’re there cheering, telling them what they’re doing right, how to do it better, and cheering some more when they are starting to do it, and getting better and better at it. You shout with joy “keep peddling!”
We need to remember to respond to our student’s writing like a human being. When our students write, they are responding as a human being, one human being communicating to another… communicating to me, in the classroom. When we read student writing… we are “one human being who has been trusted with the heart and soul of another human being.” Pushing their thinking to move them to the next thing… to show them how to “really make this piece shine.” We are teaching them how to communicate better. To take what kids already know, and then build from there. This is a curriculum tailored to the individual student. Where we don’t treat kids like numbers, reading levels, test scores, but use a more humanizing approach, instead of a dehumanizing one.
Learning happens when students are “actively engaged with reading and writing.” Teaching students how to be actively engaged on their own is a powerful tool for life, one that doesn’t end at the end of the week, or the end of the school year. We are teaching kids to do this on their own, and do it well. “For anything, there’s a lesson, and the more common sense and less formulaic you can make it, the better.”
Conferring is also an art. It is like a dance, a string of high level, sometimes invisible moves, movements of higher level complex strategies that take the student from where they are to higher places. To confer is to invite a student into conversation, like old friend, then strategically expect, no insisting, on moving them forward with laser beam precision to help them become stronger writers. This is individualized instruction… the best kind of instruction. Writer’s workshop is always an invitation to write, NOT a mandate. Conferring with a student within a writer’s workshop is using strategic precision that helps move the student forward, guiding them intentionally to become stronger writers… “Let me show you how to really make that shine.” These are deliberate precise moves that teach the writer… they are “ninja moves” and frankly… to do this with a student makes me feel sort of like a superhero. “You are teaching really complicated invisible practices.” (Kelt)
Be a “kid watcher” and develop formative assessment data for learning. Look beyond the text to the context of children’s development, consider where they are, how far they have come, and where they are going next. These again are skilled “ninja moves” that move fluidly in and out of view, but most of the time invisible. Those invisible moves are tailored to each student. We grow writers this way.
I’ll just come right out and say it… teaching kids writing to pass a test is wrong. We must “teach the writer, not the writing.” This really isn’t hard for anyone to see. Again, not rocket science. The only reason the state gives writing tests with prompts is because it is the best they can do to try to measure student progress for writing. They did not set up testing, so we could memorize a testing “formula” and have students practice a format to reach a master level outcome. They are simply trying to make sure students are learning to write. Here’s a great example that was used in an article called: Real-World Writing: Making Purpose and Audience Matter, where I learned that real writing, real learning of writing, should have purpose and an authentic audience:
“Mindless “test prep” by English teachers is thus an ironic error. If we really understood testing—its Purpose and Audience—we would not make this mistake and kill off good writing in the process. An outstanding writing program will be reflected in test scores in the same way that we do well on the physical exam if we live fit, nutritious, healthy lives day in and day out. Mere safe use of formulae in writing by teachers locally is thus akin to practicing all year for the doctor’s annual physical exam instead of working all year to be healthy.” (Wiggins)
Do you practice for a doctor’s exam or do you live a healthy life every day? Well, it makes sense that you would choose to live a healthier life, right? It’s the same with writing. If we begin our “littles” with using the strategies they need to live a healthy writer’s life, by the time they are faced with testing, they’ve got it covered, they’re good to go. The evidence is in the results… if you look over the highest scored compositions, you will find they are just so much fun to read. They do not follow formula, but instead scream “fresh and fearless.”
“The best writing—regardless of content—is always “fresh and fearless.” But such writing is only possible when we teach from the start that the Purpose is to touch real Audiences and create some alteration of the world…” (Wiggins) There’s no formula for teaching “fresh and fearless.” We all need to remember that.
The Writing Process
“There’s no birth without shit and blood.” The real writing process is again not formulaic in form. It does not take a rocket scientist to figure out that the world’s greatest artists, writers, composers, poets… do NOT follow a nice and tidy format or framework for the birth of great works of art. Art is a piece of the creator’s soul. “You can’t put it in a jar and sell it at Target.” The real writing process begins with writing. Just write. Every day. This is living the life of a writer. I’ve practiced living this life for the past two weeks, every day. After hours of reading research, I begin to write… and sometimes I’d wake up at 4:30am, last night 1:30am, because something in my memory was left unfinished, it wakes me, and I begin to write again. Taking time to write is the first crucial piece of the writing process.
The next phase of the process is noticing… notice your writing… Where is it leading you? Do you notice patterns? If you do, you pull from those patterns and write more, and watch where the writing leads you. And as you write, ideas begin to merge… you begin to make decisions about what you might want to write. You pick a possible topic and write about it… and write more. One of my favorite strategies was placing my topic in a museum. What an amazing way to develop a topic. Now chunk it! Pull out of it all the important chunks… those pieces you’re sure you want in your final piece. Place those chunks in the order you think you may want the final draft to unfold. You decide. Then, look at it all over again, everything. Check out all you’ve done, look over your museum, your ideas, your pages and pages of writing, your chunks… then turn away from it all. Put it all away, so you don’t see it… and write! Write fast! Write hard! Write messy… bloody write! This is the birth of a draft… a real draft, an artist’s draft. Yes, it will have lots and lots of errors, you may even forget stuff you wanted to include, so you leave spaces for it or “XXX” out spaces in its place. It will be ugly, it should be ugly. It is the birth of great work. It is terrifying to do this the first time, and then… it is completely liberating. The rest of the process is what we know well… the correcting, adding, fixing, and everything else you need to clean it up to have a finished product.
Why Teachers Must Write
“The only bad writing is the day you haven’t written.” Teachers of writing should be writers, because “Teaching writing without doing it ourselves is like trying to teach a four-year-old how to tie shoes when we have only worn flip-flops our entire life.” (K.Bomer) This was the moment that I realized why so many teachers I’ve met find writing difficult or uncomfortable to teach. It is because they themselves don’t take time to write. As a writer, you learn to become a better teacher of writing. “This is curricular gold.” By writing, by living as a writer, and learning what it takes to deliver this form of communication, you discover your own habits, ideas, and challenges. In order to teach this craft, you have to be able to experience this craft. “We’re making an argument for how to teach kids here.”
“Experience is the best teacher.” We must read and write every day, because if you don’t position yourself as a reader and a writer, it will be hard to teach it to your students. So, each day this week, the reading and writing filled my days, between 5-7 hours a day, outside of class. I am living a reader and writer’s life, fully immersed. It is both the most intense and beautiful experience. This complete immersion reminds me to stop and think about what I ask my students to do. Would I be comfortable doing what I ask my students to do? Is what I offer productive to life-long learning? Would this help me for the rest of my life, or is it a waste of my learning time? Are we asking kids to do what we are not willing to do ourselves? What a wonderful position to learn from, to be in the trenches, right there with your students… to be able to say, “you know… when that happens to me, what I do is…” This is truly curricular gold.
Fighting the Past
This reflection of my second week into the Heart of Texas Writing Project only mentions a tiny fragment of what I learned this past week. If I had to say it all, I’d would probably need to write several books. What I did share leaves me trying to fight off all the memories of mistakes made in the classroom with my students, correcting small spelling or grammar errors, instead of focusing on the “hidden gems” in their writing, allowing schedules and other activities to cut short or completely remove daily writing in my classroom… What was I thinking? How could I have allowed any of it to happen? I often stop and check my own practices. It is after all, what brought me here.
I learned and lived writing through the workshop model this week, again. “So, today and every day, when you write…” you practice becoming a better writer, a better teacher of writing. Again, the learning… it feels like it’s coming at me from all directions, from the hours and hours of daily reading… through the struggle to write my own piece, and then the collecting… the continuous collection of research is ground moving. This is the research for my own toolbox, so that I can pull it out when I need it. Again, I ask myself, why this and not the other? Because “I am not the employee, I am the boss.” Because it isn’t enough to hold one of the hardest jobs in the world, we must make tough decisions about our day to day work time. I struggle with the decisions made for my students, and whether they are what is best for them. Teaching is hard work from every angle.
I am firm in my convictions, but it is at times difficult to hold on to them… it feels like a fist fight sometimes. I am determined to become better than I was yesterday, because I want to change lives. Everything we do, if we live well, deserves purpose. There is purpose here, purpose to studying and practicing this deep intellectual work. We change lives.
Where do I begin… The first thing that comes to mind is how much. How could so much growth happen in just one week and a couple of Saturdays. Then I realized, oh… yea, they’re using the “workshop” model on us. This experience has moved me to my core. Inspiration would do little to describe what has begun to occur… it’s life changing.
This past week, I’ve had the opportunity to think back and acknowledge every moment of literacy in my life, as far back as my memory would allow. I remembered my sister reading to me those Disney books, especially her favorite... Cinderella; I remembered my brother John creating bedtime stories for me, impromptu, off the top of his head, with that same sweet character, Freddy. I wonder if he remembers. My memories scanned across my old house to the four shelves full of encyclopedias that came with the house we moved into when I was five… and my exploration of them as a child. Mozart, I remember Mozart and his genius in one of those books. His story fascinated me, even before I could read those enormous words. All of it came in and out of my memory like gushing, powerful tornados, moving in all directions. It was like I’d been given the chance to relive my life, my beginning, my middle, and now. There’s so much to reflect on… only now, after some sleep, can I focus on what jumps out of my memory.
I have gained a better understanding of what workshop truly is and what it is not. I am in the process of learning more… and I hope my process comes to no end. When should my process, or anyone else’s process of learning end? Never, I hope. The process of learning should continue indefinitely, much like the process of loving. If you think of it as loving… “When do you stop loving your children?” You don’t. It may grow and grow, but it won’t stop.
My thinking and reflection draws me back to my HTWP interview on March 6th. I remember telling a friend, when she asked what it was like… “it was great… talking in that group… I felt like I could breathe.” I could breathe. I felt a freedom that I had not felt before, and I didn’t want to leave. There is no nut shell for recounting what I’ve learned up to this point. First, the reading… the hours and hours of reading the research that is required is enough to earn a person a new degree I think, but it should be this way. We need to have this background. It is essential to our purpose, our mission. It solidifies what we practice and gives us the research to back our purpose for using this model. It is masterful to do this work. I feel blessed to know that this is something I love. How lucky is one to find what they love to do in life. I feel lucky.
I began my first class on my birthday, March 25th. Doesn’t that say the most. This was my gift. That’s how I see it. It began to unravel for me, like the most beautiful symphony. “A life well lived has writing in the center.” Writers evolve. Engaging one’s own life and learning what’s in the center of it, is where we should begin. How many of us teachers know this, or teach with this concept in mind? Shouldn’t every teacher know this? It feels unjust knowing that so many don’t.
Why should we focus on living a writer’s life? “We teach people how to pay attention to their lives, because their lives matter… we teach them to write, to show them their lives matter.” “Writing is a craft we work on, like an artist works on marble.”
I learned a crazy fact this past week. It was my great big fat bright purple-fuchsia elephant in the room… so big, so obvious, and yet, so hard for me to realize until now. Language arts… it’s an art. An art. Not a curriculum, or a tightly laid out, minute by minute meticulously organized lesson plan. That would be the work for robots. It is an art form taught by humans to allow other humans to grow into their greatest abilities. This is what learning is and should be for every child, every human.
This work is not unicorns and fairytales, and I feel for the students of those who so narrowly believe that it is. This work is deep intellectual work and it is not easy to deliver. In fact, it is the most difficult to deliver. To expect your students to engage in their learning, while holding them at the highest expectations, to guide them by example with respect and dignity, to invite them to learn, to have a curriculum tailored for them, to help build them and their identities, to birth in them a thirst for knowledge within a space of freedom, not a free for all, but a learning sanctuary… a learning community, where humans and their every work is celebrated, where learning is an invitation, not a mandate, where talk is welcomed and practiced every day, where they learn to be thinkers, instead of compliant followers, and where rituals for learning can continue for the rest of their lives... is not easy to accomplish. Workshop is a structured freedom to grow and learn. It is anti-formulaic in form. This is the genius path. Why this and not the other? Well, how much opportunity for genius can you really have by handing over a worksheet to a young child. There were moments I wanted to get up and scream… “Teachers! Be brave!… be masters of your space and guide your students to grow into their own, not into compliance!” But I don’t scream… it’s not professional, well... at least not at school I don’t.
I tried to explain this model to my husband last night. Explaining workshop to some, for me, is almost like trying to explain that unicorns exist. So, I gave him an example, because it’s what you do in a workshop model. I told him to imagine he attended a workshop given by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Then I asked him to imagine that Mozart would probably begin his teaching in tiny pieces, then expect that you would spend most of the time in practice, a lot of practice. He would guide you bit by bit, in small focused lessons, into the intricacies of the piano, talk to you, have you talk with others to sculpt the craft in practice, to discover how to work each note best, how to hold your hands over the keys, how to discover issues that may cause trouble, like your sitting position, which has nothing to do with the piano itself, but important, and only discovered through practice and observation. He wouldn’t teach you his genus of The Piano Sonata No 1, in one sitting or expect that your purpose is to memorize it, to reach genus. He would however, expect that you would develop into your own genus by allowing you the freedom to practice, to live it, feel it, and grow into it. Then I asked my husband, how much could you learn, say, if Mozart handed you a worksheet each day to learn this craft? Do you understand? He did.
My goal is to finish strong this intense learning opportunity that has been gifted to me. My plan is to lead, and teach with the passion of a master of a craft. I want to teach every year like it is the last year I’ll ever teach. We only get one shot to reach students each year. I don’t want to miss my opportunity to change lives.
“Knowledge unfits a child to be a slave.” -Fredrick Douglas.
Back in January of 2017, a small group of 9 of my 4th grade students and I met to talk about maybe starting a newspaper club or something that would impact our school in a positive way. After some discussion about going paperless to save the environment, I proposed blogging.
I’d never done it before, and I really wasn’t completely sure what it was, but I thought it would be a good learning opportunity to experiment with, to discover something new with my students. And I knew that at the very least, we would have fun learning together. I heard of this website for kids called Kidblog off of a post on Twitter, and after some research, I knew at least that it was safe for kids. It is a blogging website, specifically designed and created for students.
I decided to let my small group of students lead this adventure. We met during lunch in our classroom, and my only requirements were that everyone in the group participates and everyone is respectful to each other. That was it. They were going to be the leaders of this experiment, and they were more than excited about it. They worked through all of the brainstorming, planning, goal setting, problem solving, and experimenting. I was simply there to help them along the way. If it worked out okay, we would then introduce it to the rest of the class. Once we got started, it caught on like wildfire.
Something Fantastical (Really Good Things)
I really don’t know how or where to begin to explain how fantastical this experience has been for my students and myself, as a teacher. It was like the “teaching” baton that I carried for years had been handed over to my students, and they took and ran off with it. Things began to happen that I did not expect, and they were all good things… really good things. My students were given an opportunity to explore and experiment. They were given a freedom they never completely had before, the freedom to write what they wanted, using technology. It was not a teacher directed assignment. It was freedom from the confines of assignment.
They worked together to problem solve, to figure out how to do things. It was not easy. That was the cool part, because even though it wasn’t easy, they took it on with the most passionate and intentional focus. They were learning so much, so fast. It was like watching firework, after firework go off, and all I had to do was be there to watch them fly. After a short time, I noticed an amazing shift in the environment. My students began to teach me. I was there, now, working with them, like a partner. We were figuring things out together. We alternated teaching each other how to work the intricacies of the website. It was like we were all competing on who would figure it out first. That was fun.
Hour of Blog
We needed more time for this new writing adventure, so I began an after school program called, Hour of Blog. It launched us even further into this project. We met twice a week, without fail, for about three months. On those special days, I had between 14-18 of my students in my classroom after school, blogging until 4:30pm. Those who couldn’t come worked it in as much as possible during the day. Writers blossomed. Kids, who were never interested in writing, became intrigued by it all, mesmerized by the choice and possibilities.
Guiding Each Other
We guided each other through the process. They took ownership of it in a way I had never seen before in my 11 years of teaching. It felt like we tapped into something that I could only describe as stars exploding. We were all excited, and they used this new excitement for learning. They learned to help each other; they learned to be kind, thoughtful, and respectful to one another. They experienced firsthand and directly why those things were important. They began building a community within a class that had been together for years, but still divided in many ways. This brought them together. It empowered them. They shared their hearts, and some, their souls writing on this site. I learned more about them than I would have ever been able to, in a regular classroom environment. We became a part of each other.
They were now teaching each other things that they were learning in the classroom, things they were learning from each other, from the teacher, and completely on their own. They were integrating the things that they loved into this project. It was all so powerful. It was organic, but also organized, focused, and beautifully chaotic. This growth continuously engaged them in communication, collaboration, creativity, critical thinking, character building, and citizenship. They celebrated works of writing; they celebrated each other’s abilities and strengths. They were leading their own learning at full force.
The teaching came directly and indirectly, and sometimes simply by reflecting on things they noticed. Their goal was that every blog would include a message or a lesson, one that they learned or wanted others to learn. They began to push their learning outside the walls of the classroom. Learning became addictive. Some students blogged early in the morning, before school started, others during the school day, and some at home. On one occasion, a teacher mentioned to me that minutes after taking the STAAR Writing test, one of my students, who tested outside of my classroom, wanted to continue to write. She said that he worked hard that morning and was completely spent, yet he requested blank paper. He told her he needed to draft his next blog. The learning became an endless opportunity for growth, not only for them, but for me as well. And I didn’t only learn to become a better teacher, and they didn’t only learn to become better students. We were learning to be better people, better humans. This was a movement, not a project. It changed us, it changed me.
Bumps in the Road
My students have been blogging for about four months now. It is such a short period of time for all of this growth, I know. At times it felt like we were learning a hundred miles per hour. Our story sounds almost like we had no bumps in the road. We did. It took a while, but we did have to address issues, small ones, but it was important for me to make clear that our freedoms required responsibility to do the right thing. We needed to regroup a couple of times as a class, to review our goals, and remind ourselves that our writing on this site was not a personal diary. And there were maybe one or two kids who made some poor choices. This is where I took advantage of my ability to block people from the site… lessons learned for all of us.
End of Year
We close the year with everyone blogging, and that’s a really good thing. We have developed some powerful writers this year. As of today, my 36 students have written over 740 blogs. Our website is private, so even though they can access it online anywhere, it’s not public for all to see. My students are only 9 and 10 years old, and my job is to protect them, so it will remain a private website. As long as I keep my account open with Kidblog, my students will be able to continue to blog into the summer, even as they move on to 5th grade and beyond. My students, my bloggers, I discovered, are some amazing human beings. They are ready to take on the world, and they will.
My heart is filled with bittersweet memories of our journey into blogging. I’ve learned to blog myself in the process, and my goal is to blog more in the future. I think my students expect that of me now. Even if they don’t, it’s now a goal of mine. I’m novice to this world of blogging, and sometimes it’s quite terrifying, but as one of my students once wrote, “Fear is your enemy, so you must learn to fight it...” (Vogal, Ari. “Fear” Kidblog May 2017). Because of what I learned from her blog, I will practice more pushing my fears aside to take on new adventures. This experience has brought us closer than I have ever been with a group of students. It will be difficult to let them go. They will forever have a special place in my heart. We had a great adventure, together.
Check out my Kidblog.org webinar... Yes, I learned to do that too in this amazing process.
Just click on the link: http://bit.ly/2thQgEf
Listen in on some of my brave students reading some blogs "live" on our local radio station, KEOS 89.1 FM, on May 26th, 2017.
Click on the following link:
Author: Marina Rodriguez
Photo by Marina Rodriguez
You can't fail at what you don't try... you can't succeed either.
I've come to the realization that teaching today, may not really be teaching at all. Having the abilities and skills necessary to be good “teachers” for students in our modern world, may simply call on us to be guides instead.
The task of guiding and assisting the act of learning is much more powerful than what very well could be the outdated art of traditional teaching. Why do I think this? The simple answer is… there's no comparison between myself and the world they have at their fingertips, technology. I can't, I won't, and I’d rather not compete. I'd rather be their guide. I'd make a greater impact that way. Allowing students to seek their passions, explore creativity, collaborate, communicate well with others, and think critically, independently or with others is what's truly important anyway. Isn't that what we want as educators?... Independent, creative thinkers?... Students who just can't wait to learn?
How do you grow this type of student? I believe this is accomplished with the simple act of guiding. The way I see the job of Guide is one that is truly multi-tiered in depth. It should be a person who is a complex combination of listener, cheerleader, supporter, director, idea board, positive reinforcer, questioner, sounding board, co-learner, partner, and if you’re really good, life-changer, all while holistically taking into account each and every student as an individual. A Guide is a person who naturally pulls out mini lesson, after mini lesson taking those who push for more into deeper learning because they are ready, not because it's next week's lesson, so we hold back.
The classroom should be an organic movement of learning, constantly in motion. I have a picture of this in my mind; it's clear and exciting to imagine, but I'm not there... yet. I am an excited learner because I lead my own learning. Once I began to do this, I realized truly what the impact could be for my students, if they could lead their own learning as well. There are nights I cannot sleep, thinking about how and what we'd learn the next day or the next week, different than the way it was done the year prior. Sleep is now becoming a necessary, but annoying interruption, because there are nights I can't stop reading about things I want to learn. Could this behavior be contagious? Could I possibly “guide” my students to be leaders of their own learning? I stopped to notice my class the other day, holding that question in my mind… Are my students becoming as excited as I now am to learn? I discovered, yes.
The impact was powerful for Mariana, one of my students. She decided to change her person for a biography research project. She was so empowered by her learning, that she cut out the "teacher" and the idea of asking if she could, and instead simply filled me in that she would. It was fascinating to see that empowerment before my eyes. It was subtle, but I was deeply inspired by it. At that moment, I was not her teacher, I was her guide. The respect she held for me in treating me as a partner, instead of an authoritarian figure was beyond what I could express in words. I was proud. I was grateful. I was honored. She was now the leader of her own learning.
I have decided to no longer sit by the shoreline, waiting for the next PD to fill me in on discoveries of oftentimes outdated and mundane ideas of yesterday's classroom. Even those academic gems discovered in the short past, may already be months, even years, in the technological past... and in our world today, that's old news.
Learning has a heartbeat, and it's growing and changing every single minute. How then can we even fathom trying to control what students should and should not learn, because it's not listed on the "all encompassing" curriculum? We should instead devote ourselves to being guides for our students, allowing them “permission” to learn and allowing them the freedom to pursue what they love; to connect what they need to know with play, while guiding them to discover what’s worth learning. I have found they will outshine your high expectations each time. They will go beyond the limits of curricula. Giving students the freedom to learn without limits is powerful. I would rather be their guide for this reason. Guiding my students in the right direction, and the freedom to lead their own learning, has allowed me the freedom to grow as well.
My love for learning has grown throughout the years. The more time that I spend leading my own learning by seeking out what I want to learn, trying and failing, and then trying again, has impacted me in ways I cannot describe in words. I have found and created my own PLN, and I’m guiding my students to do the same. They are now excited learners.
Learning is never ending… every teacher knows that. I must be a true learner to hold the high title of being a Guide to my students. The impact on my students, as a Guide, is much more powerful than I could have ever imagined. It is, I have found, the highest title that I could have in a classroom of students.
Teaching is a gift. Guiding is life-changing. I’d rather be a guide than a teacher.
Marina Rodriguez is a California native, living and teaching in Texas, and a National Writing Project, Heart of Texas Writing Project, Teacher Consultant.