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write now

It’s 12:15 PM on November 10th. Do you know where your NaNoMo novel is? Yeah, about that. Good intentions aside, I have done everything but just sit and type. I made a video. Updated grades. Reheated a bowl of chili mac (that will come back to haunt me), and read a few Tweets.

But two things grabbed my brain this morning:

  1. The epiphany that teachers enjoy creating lessons for themselves and having agency, just like students. This has nothing to do with the rest of the post directly, just needed to remember this.
  2. We must flip reading around to writing, or balance it much better.

For some time now, my professional opinion held the research of the National Writing Project that writing helps us become better readers. Reading helps us become better writers, too, but somehow that message got lost in translation.

Summaries, Claim, Evidence and Reasoning paragraphs, Short Answer Responses, etc. are not ‘writing instruction.’ They are a form of writing, of course, living in the Land of Explanatory, formulaic, structured texts, but alas, really do not help or support writing instruction.

And, as one who prides herself on good writing instruction, it’s hard. It’s really hard.

Until it’s not.

Do you know why middle school students give up on their writing lives? Well, wouldn’t you if no one really cared to hear what you had to say? If you didn’t get the answer “right” or scrambled madly for text evidence just to get the dang assignment done? (I asked my students this week if they ever just grab text evidence randomly and every one giggled and confessed yes.) This is not any teachers’ fault –not at all. I am recommending that we teach them how to find their OWN “text evidence” first. Their own stories, insights, moments, etc.

From The Real Reasons So Many Young People Can’t Write Well Today–An English Teacher

“A 2010 study by the Carnegie Corporation called Writing to Read found ample evidence that writing can dramatically improve reading ability. The authors discovered that combining reading and writing instruction by having students write about what they read, explicitly teaching them the skills and processes that go into creating text, and increasing the amount of writing they do results in increased reading comprehension as well as improved writing skill.”

I know this so well. This message is inscribed in my heart. I passed along Writing to Read to past administrators, who’ve come and gone, and I am not sure current ones want or need it. I’ll ask. In the meantime, I’ll take a look at works and reformulate them to fit the digital instruction:

The current test focuses so much on reading, it’s true, but not all of it. Here is the brief write portion of the test, just in case anyone wants it, (even new teachers).

Here is a lesson on memoir writing:

And the parallel writing structure:

Now I’d better go write my own story.

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Heart-shaped box. (Or The Giving Tree reimagined.)

Are there two kinds of people in this world? Those who X or those who Y? Or maybe that is the paradox, thinking we can be this or that. But if I was the kind of person who asks if there are two kinds of people, (which I’m not) I would ask if you like The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein.

You know the book– the story begins with a boy and a tree, and the tree, or Tree, ends up giving the boy everything and ends up being a stump for the boy, now an old man, to sit on and rest.

“Once there was a tree…and she loved a little boy.”

How do you feel about The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein?

The Giving Tree

Do you ever feel tapped out by the financial and emotional demands of teaching? I sure do. This week alone there were tens of broken pencils on the ground. Stolen candy. Requests to buy T-shirts for ourselves for the school fundraiser. Requests to pitch in for the staff morale committee (12 years x $20 = $240, of which I’ve never received a card, birthday cake, or any acknowledgment or benefit. I’ve been in the hospital, my husband had surgery, and yeah); also, requests to pitch in more money for a friend’s birthday present (I have the misfortune of having a birthday during the midwinter break). I pledged $40 to the fundraiser already. Good thing it was payday yesterday…oops, and it’s gone.

Over the summer I thought ahead and made sure I would have  Lord of the Flies books, spending my time and goodwill with friends and family, begging them to donate the books I thought I would be using this fall. Like the Little Red Hen, I planned ahead, spending hours over the summer creating and curating important resources, building on research, professional judgment, and knowledge. And this week I planned lessons, shared knowledge, gave away books, bought a new teacher a $30 gift card for Amazon so she would be able to get a few books, got a request for books for a teacher returning to her classroom, and let’s not forget the four current natural disasters (although one could argue the ferocity of the Level 5 Hurricanes is man-made). There are teachers in Texas and Florida trying to rebuild their classrooms and schools.

So the teachers who are teaching 8th grade ELA this year asked me for the Lord books, and I handed over the box and then went to my room and cried. Those were my brand-new books with really cool book cover illustrations. They didn’t even have my name on them yet. I wanted to write my name. I have black Sharpies. They’re mine.

For me.

New.

Mine.

Later, I asked them both if we could please compromise, and they’re great colleagues, and I’m sure they will. But it wasn’t easy for me to speak up.

It’s so hard for people, and I could make a strong case for women especially (see The Giving Tree reference if you’re confused) to say no. Women have different sins than men. The sin of selfishness. The sin of owning things. The sin of hard work and time not being for everyone else’s benefit but their own.

My family takes emotional energy, in the best of ways, but in hard ways, too. Jobs, health, dreams, goals: mothers/wives circle around the members making sure everyone has what they need, and if she doesn’t, is thought of as toxic or dysfunctional. My own brilliant husband told me the other day he thought I planned stuff because I liked it. After 25 years he still has some things to learn about me. Because I am good at something doesn’t mean I like to do it. 

So here to permission for us all to say No, or I can’t make it. Perhaps another time. Or just back to “no?”

I’ll share a secret, too. Teaching ELA is the best teaching gig ever. Books, stories, creativity, imagination…and oh, did I mention the books?!

In Computer Essentials I answered the same repetitive, mind-numbing questions because students wouldn’t read a sentence or two of instructions. They don’t know how to talk to each other, no matter how many strategies I scaffolded.

But as far as not knowing, yet, how to do and collaborate, I don’t blame them: they have a pass with me. They’re wonderful, and they’re trying. And when they get something, they thank me, and I get a smile in return.

It may not be a coffee mug, but those smiles keep me going.

 

 

 

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Fluff the Knickers.

“There’s truth in every story told.” –Neil Gaiman

Last spring, when I made a commitment to my administration that I would create, develop and lead curriculum and classes for the critical and important vision of bringing technology instruction for our students; however, I wasn’t quite ready to give up ELA. I hoped to be able to continue my work in ELA and at least have one class. But it wasn’t meant to be, and I even knew it last year. Some instinct whispered to me, but I ignored it. Something didn’t sit right, but it wouldn’t have mattered anyway. My premonitions are usually accurate: it’s my lack of ability to stop or mend potential events where I struggle. English/Language Arts pumps my teaching heart with blood and purpose for the past eleven years: curriculum leader for five years, collaborative teams, professional development, hours of my own blogging, writing, research: every time a test changed or standards flowed in, I took it as a personal challenge to grow and adapt, all in order to help my students grow and adapt. I am not an outwardly competitive person (which I think confuses competitive people: I am my harshest critic), but my internalized coach is demanding. I have not found a teaching problem that can’t be solved with discussion, reading, trying: isolation is its kryptonite, however. Teaching is breathing: no oxygen = death.

If you take the time to read the thread above when I found out a week into the school year I wouldn’t be able to keep the ELA class, that hit me hard. The repercussions of this meant I wouldn’t be able to meet with beloved colleagues during PLCs and continue the work we’ve created in any formal way. The thousands of dollars of books, the Lord of the Flies unit, the planning, the money, the time, the curriculum –hours of the years, and the summer–stopped. Continuity and conversations: muted.

So when I process and grieve that due to numbers, budgets, and hard decisions that may or may not be in the process behind the scenes for over a year and I lost my one ELA class, please understand that need to reflect and process, but I will remain strong. And — full disclosure: the computer technology work I’ve been doing parallel these past eleven years, too, is also my heart. This is going to be very powerful indeed. I have my friend John Spencer in our decade-long digital friendship and discussion, my colleagues who know me, I share willingly and listen with open ears. My curiosity is a gift.

As I write this, pour a cup of coffee, I realize I am lucky, maybe even blessed, not cursed: our district is in big financial trouble. Being a building union representative, I’ve monitored this issue for some time now. We teachers and our building administration are justifiably scared. With fear comes an outward display of anger. From the information we’ve listened to in horror at union meetings, a few dozen teachers were forced to move to positions they didn’t want, or have the necessary credentials for. Trust me: if the district moved me to a calculus classroom parents could sue for educational malpractice. There isn’t enough Khan Academy in the world to catch me up in that content area.

But as my friend and mentor said, good teaching is good teaching. I am fortunate that my style and approach has never been concrete-content driven, but big picture learning. We create scientists, mathematicians, historians, journalist, writers, readers, and thinkers. I’m looking forward to continuing this work.

The Great Handshake started a series on teacher hacks. While the word ‘hack’ connotes a modern sense of coolness and ingenuity, it doesn’t really serve the powerful message of the posts. “Conferences that work” artfully and subtly underscores how data has gone wrong in a few powerful sentences: (typos are the writer’s: pay not attention)

“My principal and I have started to call these meetings “data chats.” At first, I thought that was a great name. But then, as is often the case, adults started to ruin the word “data.” People start to think that we are turning kids into numbers and charts, and forgetting the humanity that makes teaching and learning so challenging and meaningful.

But this kind of data is full of humanity. In fact, on countless occasions, students have cried about challenging years while recounting why certain times in their school experience were harder than others. Teachers have to be prepared to hear about pain that students should never have to endure, and reasons why they failed all of their classes a given year. At other times, students laugh as they remember middle school, goofing off, and all of that pre-pubescent confusion. During these conferences teachers morph from planners of individual instruction, to listeners and amatuer councelors, to friends, to mentors, to motivators and to all the other roles wedged in between those.”

Read some of his comments and noticings for the student. If I were her, there is no way I would leave that conversation without finding my dignity, integrity and moreover, power again. She is a lucky student.

But it shouldn’t take “luck.” Conferencing, relationships, conversations and heartfelt, sincerity supports all of us, teachers and students alike.Our building is fortunate to have strong leadership now. However, if we don’t have a role model or leader who promotes warmth and fairness amongst the staff, we must steal it for ourselves in order to have the strength to have the loving, difficult conversations with students. To reframe and refocus: “Yes, you are more than a test score. And here is why.

What I research, read, think about, write about: all of that may not mean anything to the district, administration, or leaders. They have their own purposes and to-do lists. So, I’ll continue to grow back my tails, fluff my knickers, and carry on.

I have important work to do:

No Longer a Luxury: Digital Literacy Can’t Wait

https://docs.google.com/document/d/1srYlGLpB-Xck57Uj8P4DDjh1wSSqVcFA6m8FTMsYUTk/edit?usp=sharing

 

 

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Saving Summer: Amygdala and The Brain

Teaching is stressful, there is no doubt or debate. And it’s also joyous, satisfying, and filled with discovery and success.

But let’s get back to the stress for a moment so we can move forward with more moments of joy, satisfaction, and discovery.

My buddy Sharon and her Brainiacs are developing a PD session for SEL/Teachers/Students. Tangentially, I’m developing the digital curriculum, along with her and other colleague’s input. When we talk about preparing students for their futures, not our pasts, we must have a deep understanding or exploration of what is happening to our brains in the digital world. We must share this knowledge, so students can adequately reflect, practice mindfulness, and know when to take on that “big view.” Elena Aquilar’s post, “5 Simple Lessons for Social and Emotional Learning for Adults” was a deja-vu moment–my husband was just advising me of these ideas yesterday while we had street tacos at the local lunch truck. Take the big view:

“Lesson 4: Observe Your Emotions”

We are not our emotions. If we can practice observing them — seeing ourselves experience emotions from 10,000 feet above earth — we are more likely to make decisions that don’t emerge from them. We might notice that sometimes they’re powerful and gripping, and sometimes they’re lighter and less sticky. It helps to practice non-attachment to emotions. They’re just emotional states and they come and go — and remember that we have some control over these states. Sometimes I visualize my emotions as weather patterns: There are storms and calm skies, heavy rain, and light winds. They always change. I visualize myself as a tree experiencing these emotions that come and go.

An article posted in the New York Time’s by Lisa Feldman Barrett, “When Is Speech Violence?” walks through the key points of amygdala hijacking and the effects of chronic stress.

“What’s bad for your nervous system, in contrast, are long stretches of simmering stress. If you spend a lot of time in a harsh environment worrying about your safety, that’s the kind of stress that brings on illness and remodels your brain. That’s also true of a political climate in which groups of people endlessly hurl hateful words at one another, and of rampant bullying in school or on social media. A culture of constant, casual brutality is toxic to the body, and we suffer for it.”

A school year is a long stretch of ‘simmering stress.’ Whose job is it to maintain the physical and emotional safety of a building? In truth, everyone is a stakeholder. Building trust and relationships that can find strength in discourse and dialogue, strong respect and cordial working relationships are the desired culture of any building. And as the Stoics believed, it is not what happens to us that affect us, but how we view and control our thinking about events. What if we all pledged to think about the school stress as a means to practice our own care and mindfulness?

In the meantime, I’m reading a book my husband recommended to me a few months back, The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker, first published in 1973. Yeah, not exactly a little light summer reading, but it’s what I need right now: hefty intellectual grips by which to grab onto the rocky surface, and climb up. Getting a new perspective or two is a great way to get that higher view.

And though I can’t control others behaviors, I will strive to speak the truth, ask questions, seek answers and common ground.

 

 

 

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Summer Series of Saves: S.O.S.

I am going on my twelfth year at the same Title I middle school. That is not said as a martyred projection or badge of honor, but a statement of fact, circumstances, decision making, and choices. Every teacher I know has had a rough time this past decade. Some have gone to “easier” schools, or districts, where they found a comfortable home. Some have expressed to me survivor’s guilt, and some have ‘ghosted’ our friendships, probably because working at a school like mine is hard, and it takes an emotional toll, causing me to leak out stress. Occasionally those leaks become straight-up tsunamis. I don’t blame them for not wanting to be around me: I don’t want to be around myself sometimes.

This video got to me. She maintained her composure while rubbing her hands, refocusing on her paper, and staying the course, to its climatic ending of her resignation. Her paper may well have been a white flag, and her hands in surrender. When my husband watched it, he commented how he knew I had felt this same level of pain.

No one is to blame for this: administrators do their best, district-level personnel want and desire excellence. However,  in the championed cause of “students come first” the heads of teachers become the stepping stones across this mighty gulf. Teachers are sometimes not considered the human connection between student and world, but merely the middle management, with no real authority. And some teachers do not deserve respect. I would wager, though, that any social-emotional well-being for teachers is considered superfluous. Teachers should just ‘have it.’ If you’re a parent, you know that the hardest job in the world is given to amateurs, (as my dad likes to say), and so is teaching. We make mistakes: but dang, so do our students. So how do all of us learn to do better?

We are never to take anything personally, always build relationships, and create safe places. And we do. Or we try to. But being human, we have amygdalas, too: keeping in control of our frontal cortexes in the moment is challenging. The smatterings of misogynistic, sexist, ageist, and disrespectful things said to me by a small group of students is nothing compared to the national stage of police violence, political decrepitude, and social media bruising. But I am still charged with teaching ‘soft skills’ in a world so racist and vile it hardly seems to matter.

We were all feeling something this year. No matter who you voted for, or if you didn’t vote at all, something shifted, violently and without justice.

Maybe it’s time we’re honest with one another. If we reach out for help. platitudes and trope quotes won’t help. Prayers and thoughts are sweet, but not helpful. Listen. Truly listen. Good advice: click the link.

One of my favorite episodes –not so much hope, but we are all of us in this together:

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