My district made a huge step this year in our dedication to staff development: we now have early outs for PD every Wednesday. I was a huge proponent of this calendar change for a couple of major reasons: I love learning and pushing myself to become a better educator, and I think consistency is key to actual growth as an educator. One life-changing conference once a year is great, but growth comes from habit.
Our new PD schedule also opened up an opportunity that we haven't explored much at my school: teacher-led PD. When my principal and some of my colleagues asked if I'd use one of our first afternoons to talk about writing across the curriculum, I jumped at the chance.
There is one indisputable truth that all educators know: teachers are the worst students.
Not that we were the worst students in school; many of us were probably high achievers in our own school days. People who like school tend to want to stay there forever, right?
But for a variety of reasons, teachers aren't always the best audience. We're used to being in charge, so sitting and listening to someone else can be a challenge. We are experts in our content areas and while some similar ideals led us toward this profession, we all have differing philosophies based on our personal teaching styles and backgrounds. We're wary of time, so we don't like feeling as if someone is wasting ours. We're generally chatty and using to being the center of attention. Oh, and we're surrounded by kids all day, so when we are in a room with a bunch of adults, it's a chance to actually talk to our peers.
I'm no stranger to speaking in front of adult learners. Over the past few years, I've presented at ICTE (register now!) and I've helped to facilitate a few workshops for teachers. I've co-presented information in front of my own staff, but I've never led an "official" PD session on my own.
I knew my research and strategies were solid: any Iowa Writing Project alum knows the importance of Writing to Learn across the content areas. For the week leading up to it, I collected articles and resources to create a folder for all content areas to use as reference if they wanted to incorporate more Writing to Learn strategies in their classrooms. I created a handout to keep things as simple and usable as possible, giving them ideas and connecting them back to the content area literacy standards. My principal met with me beforehand to go over what I'd planned and was fully supportive. I adore my building staff and knew they would be respectful and attentive.
So why was I so freaking nervous? I even blushed during my presentation! (I have a naturally rosy complexion and have battled my blushing since childhood, but did not expect it to happen in front of the entire staff.)
Maybe it's because asking people to incorporate more writing into their classes is a significant request. Writing is scary for students. Writing is scary for teachers. Writing is a craft that is immediately associated with skill and judgement, even in low-stakes situations. Maybe it's because I know their plates are already full with all of the changes we've made over the past few years, and I didn't want my passion for writing to become another we have to do this? thing for them. Maybe standing in front of them just made me feel young in a way I haven't felt in a long time. I've been teaching for twelve years now, but standing in front of so many people who have watched the progress of my career made me feel like a child.
I didn't need to be nervous. They were respectful, but more than that, they were responsive. They asked questions and shared ideas. They genuinely seemed to care about what I had to say, and thought about ways they could successfully incorporate more writing into their classrooms.
My principal and instructional coach were proud because I provided something meaningful for the staff. I get so used to sharing my expertise with my students, student teachers, or other English teachers through ICTE or IWP or this blog that I sometimes forget that I can be a force for change with my colleagues at home, too.
The best part? The day after I presented, I had four different content area teachers come to me to clarify or ask for help with writing for their classes. They weren't just a polite audience; they respected what I said enough to take it into their classrooms and immediately put it to use.
It has always felt safer for me to share myself with teaching colleagues outside of my own building. Being a PD leader at home can feel like exposing myself as a know-it-all or a suck up, or any other stereotypical hang up that my high-achieving students also feel in classroom situations. This experience reminded me that I work in an amazing place with amazing people. I shouldn't save the best of myself for everyone else when the people at home are just as deserving of being an active part of my professional growth.
The basic handout I shared with staff, in case anyone is framing their own discussion of content-area writing:
My summer reading right now is The Writing Workshop: Working through the Hard Parts (And They're All Hard Parts) by Katie Wood Ray. Granted, as someone who already uses workshop model in her classroom, reading this feels more like preaching to the choir than gathering new information, but it's beneficial to read research that supports what we already know and believe in addition to works that challenge our established beliefs. It's the blend of both that supports my growth as an educator each summer. Reading this book is allowing me to reflect on my use of workshop and how it aligns with the "ideal" model and where I fall short.
I get asked about workshop a lot by other English teachers. Usually, it boils down to two main questions:
1. How do you do it?
2. Where do I even begin?
And I always, always, feel completely inadequate when trying to answer these questions. The area in which I am probably closest to being an "expert" and I fail miserably to communicate my methods to those seeking advice.
I've thought a lot about why it's so hard for me to articulate how to launch and maintain a workshop, and the only thing I can come up with is this: it's something that you just have to do in order to understand. (I know that sounds like a cop out. Maybe it is.) You can talk about it, but most of it won't make sense until you're actually doing. You can plan for it, but workshop isn't a plan-heavy endeavor because it's based on individual needs.
In an effort to be less opaque and demystify workshop a little bit, I'll share a brief version of my journey and values when it comes to this method. I don't promise any quick fixes or magic bullets because they aren't there.
I tried workshop my first year to disastrous results. Too much chaos, no set routines, goals, or technology for taking writing beyond notebook drafting, and still too much of a push from well-meaning mentors to teach in a traditional (grammar-focused) way. Halfway through the year, I bailed on workshop and started to do what was expected, and did that for the first four years of my career. I was miserable, but I felt like I was becoming a better Teacher-with-a-capital-T because I was getting good at being in front of the classroom. Except that my students weren't learning how to write. How could they? They spent maybe ten minutes each day writing in my class. How good can you get if you're only willing to give it ten minutes a day?
I've said it before, but I'll say it again ad nauseam: the Iowa Writing Project saved my career and transformed the life of every student to walk through my classroom since I took my Level 1 Institute in 2011. After spending a summer reading so much professional literature and coming to terms with my own writer identity, there was no justifiable reason that I could think of to continue to ignore the benefits of workshop.
I did not go all-in to a full workshop at once, which is probably what saved my sanity in the long run. My first steps were to incorporate more of three basic principles into my classroom:
1. Individual writing conferences
2. More writing time
3. Writing with my students
These three things are still cornerstones of my workshop. Through trial and error, I have found the ways they work best for me and my students.
1. Writing conferences
I used to schedule the majority of conferences outside of class time. (IDIOT!) Students had to sign up ahead of time, before school, during study hall, after school, during lunch, during my planning period, etc. If you want to achieve burnout and be the crankiest conference partner ever, do this. Now, most of my writing conferences take place during class time while other students are writing or peer responding. I still make "private" conference times available for students who don't want the chance of others overhearing our conversation.
2. More writing time
There is nothing, nothing, more important in a writing classroom than providing time to write. Remember this every time you open your mouth to say something wise or funny or whatever. Remember this every time the schedule gets changed and you have to shift things around. Remember this every time you end up in a group of teachers complaining about how there is never enough time to accomplish what you all need to accomplish. There will never be enough time in our lives. We can't make more of it, we can't guarantee the right amount of it. We can agree as teachers to make time for writing in our rooms. If we aren't willing to give our classroom time for writing, then how can we ever expect our students to understand that making time for writing is one of the most important parts of being a writer? If you do nothing else, if you have no interest in creating a writer's workshop in your classroom, then at least give your students time during the day to write.
3. Writing with my students
Let go of the ego and write and share your writing with your students in real time. (This is different from only sharing your polished drafts.) Not in one class or occasionally, but in all your classes, every single week. You are asking them to be writers, and you need to be one, too. There are a million fears and insecurities that teachers have when it comes to writing and sharing their writing with others. Good. Now you know what it feels like to do the thing you are forcing your students to do. If I were a soldier, I would scoff at a leader who only talked about battle and fighting techniques and told me what was insufficient or wonderful about my own warrior skills. I would die for a commander who fought beside me. If you want writers who are all-in, then you have to be, too. No exceptions or excuses unless you are willing to accept them from your students. I know it's harsh, but I have no flexibility on this issue. "Those who can, do; those who can't, teach" is an idiom because we have too many people in our profession who make it true. Don't be one of them, especially in a workshop.
Even as I started to incorporate more of workshop into my room, with the full weight of research and best practices in my corner, I still had this irrational fear in the back of my mind that if people (principal, other teachers, parents, etc.) knew I was giving kids so much time to write and explore individual choice as writers, that I’d be in trouble. (Typing that seems absurd now.)
I was terrified that I wouldn't be enough of a Teacher if I wasn't constantly imparting wisdom and putting in enough time at the front of the room, if I wasn't thinking up fun, new assignments to engage kids in the act of writing. That feeling doesn't go away; it's just something I've learned to accept. The less I talk, the more my students learn to write. The less I dictate, the more they push beyond any fun, new ideas I could have come up with on my own. I wonder how much kids in all content areas would learn if the adults in their schools would learn to shut up and just let them do?
Necessities for Workshop
Every workshop has its own essentials. Ray lists her essentials as: choices about content, time for writing, teaching, talking, periods of focused study, publication rituals, high expectations and safety, and structured management (15). I agree with all of these, and they are all components of my workshop.
My advice for teachers wanting to create a workshop is a little more focused on what the teacher needs to do before he/she can allow these other things to flourish. Workshop is a student-centered environment, so I believe most teachers' hesitation stems from letting go of their issues more than it has anything to do with the kids and what they're doing.
My tips for launching workshop:
1. Get over yourself. Your insecurities, fears, your need to be the expert; none of these have place in the workshop unless they are topics for your writing. (I write a lot in my classroom about my teacher identity. The students love to look behind the curtain of a teacher's brain.) Be vulnerable. Experiment. Admit defeat. My students respect me more as a flawed workshop facilitator than they ever did as a dictator, no matter how funny or charismatic I was.
2. Time. There is nothing more important than providing writing time. Everything else is in support of the time it takes to be a good writer. The music teacher doesn't get in trouble when kids are playing music in class. The art teacher doesn't feel inadequate when they are making art. The shop teacher doesn't spend more time talking about building stuff than actually having students draft and build. Writing teachers need to view writing time the same way.
3. Routine. If you are providing time, but you don't create a supportive structure, then things will go wrong. Routine does not have to be boring. It takes time (weeks; months, sometimes) to establish the routine. Keep reinforcing.
4. Flexibility. Do not plan weeks in advance. If you are required to, or if you are a strict planner, then plan for flexibility. Writers write at different paces. They have different needs. The greatest mini-lesson doesn't work if it's not what the writers need when they need it. Talk to your writers often. They'll tell you what they need. Read their work often. It will show you what they need.
5. You are a writer, too. I said it before, but it bears repeating. No exceptions. If you are scared, you should be! Writing is a wonderfully terrifying thing, even for those of us who love it. You don't have to be a stellar writer to write with your students. In any given year, I have at least thirty 13-year-olds who are better poets than I am. Isn't that awesome? Here's the secret: it doesn't make them respect my authority or ability any less. It makes them respect me more because I'm willing to put my warts-and-all writer-self out there, and they see that they can help me grow, too. Give them the chance to help you. Give yourself a chance to fall in love with writing again. The more you write with them, the more you'll grow as a writer and the better you'll be able to help them in authentic ways. I don't need to sound important or impart wisdom at the front of my room because my students view me as a writer.
If you want to launch a workshop, jump in and do it. The doing is the key part of any workshop and it is a constantly evolving, refining process.
Ray, Katie Wood, and Lester L. Laminack. The Writing Workshop: Working through the Hard Parts (and They're All Hard Parts). Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 2001. Print.
I have not been writing.
That's not technically true. I write in my journal almost every day, but that's more of a goal setting and recording place. Not writing writing.
School is out and I have no schedule to keep aside from my daily attempts to stop myself from melting into the front porch couch during endless hours of reading. I've read four books in the past week but I haven't written anything.
I am consuming words but not producing them. It is consuming me.
I walk by my lonely laptop, sitting on the dining room table and burn with shame and guilt. I have only opened it to do random Google searches (best Des Moines tattoo artists, driving directions from Cancun to Tulum, underrated European cities) and to comment on students sending me summer writings. My students are writing and I am not.
I went to a family party for a dear friend of mine who will be moving to China soon. As the night wore on, she asked if I wanted her to do a totem animal reading for me. I said yes. In this driftless, purposeless transition into summer, maybe the cards would speak to me. I'm a sucker for symbolism and spirituality; sampling the buffet of life's mysteries without ever committing to any of it unless it bends to my will.
I won't pretend to remember all of the positions for the nine totems and what they mean. I know that at the center (within) I am the Blue Heron, the symbol of self-reflection. That fits, right? To write is to reflect, to teach well is to be in a state of constant reflection. I make the mistake of looking back as much as a look forward. It fits.
Four other important totems were Turkey, Skunk, Porcupine, and Raven. Turkey is giving and self-sacrifice. Skunk is reputation and confidence to stand your ground. Porcupine is the balance of trust. Raven is magic.
The Turkey, Skunk, and Raven cards for me were in contrary.
I am giving, but something is blocking that right now.
I am confident, but not enough right now.
I have lost my magic.
Porcupine and Blue Heron are intact.
I am still (always) self-reflective.
My quills are not trying to keep others out (for now).
The beauty of alternative medicine and spirituality is that I can allow myself to see what I want to see. The cards reaffirmed my current listlessness.
I feel like I cannot give because I have given too much to my students all year and now there is nothing left to give. I will refill my reserves. I will give to myself, too. Turkey will right itself.
My lack of purpose leads to self-doubt. I will establish goals. I will reassert my confidence by tackling new challenges. Skunk will stand its ground.
And how will I find my magic again?
I will write. And Raven will fly.
We have a group of young women in eighth grade right now who might be some of the strongest leaders we've had in the eleven years I've been teaching. Many are highly motivated, outspoken, and confident. I love it.
But I've heard time and again from many people that they worry about these girls not being nice enough, or that their confidence is often intimidating to others in class.
*Cue the dominant female version of a Hulk transformation when I hear the words "nice" and "intimidating" in reference to women.*
I admit that this freak out is 100% completely personal. I have been called a lot of things in life due to my strong personality and lack of desire to adhere to norms of social behavior.
Because, you see, I am a woman, and I am not nice.
I am frequently kind, caring, and nurturing. I am honest and opinionated and intelligent. I am confident, motivated, and competent. I am a million things to many different people, but I could probably count on one hand the number of times the word nice has been used as a way to describe me.
Not being nice is not the same as being mean. You can be a person who is not nice and not be a horrible human being, just like you can be a person who appears nice and actually be a monster. I prefer to set nice aside and allow people to see me for all of the things that I really am instead of easing them in with a pleasant facade. I don't think nice people are fake; I just wonder what part of themselves they are hiding.
So for all of these reasons and more, it bothers me when we have conversations about whether or not young women are nice enough.
I have never held a discussion with another teacher about concern over whether a boy was nice enough, or whether his confidence might be intimidating to others. With boys, our discussions tend to center around how to encourage them to show positive leadership. But with strong young women, time and again, it goes back to being nice.
This is not just an issue in one discussion, in one classroom, in one school. This is a societal issue. We don’t know what to do with women who don’t act nice. We don’t know what to do with women who by their very nature and personalities intimidate those with less confidence. We don’t know what to do with strong women, especially when they are first developing that strength. So to avoid the discomfort of encountering women who are not nice, when they are girls, we try to change them.
Be nice, so others aren’t intimidated by your strength and confidence. Others’ lack of confidence is your problem. It’s too hard for them to grow more, so you have to be less.
Be nice, so others won’t feel uncomfortable. Good women put others’ needs ahead of their own. Always.
Be nice, so people will like you. Being liked is necessary for women to be successful in a way that it isn’t for men.
Be nice, so other people don’t feel less than you. You can’t be too much for other people. You can’t be too strong. You can’t be too loud. You can’t be too confident.
Strong women do not need to be fixed.
I don’t want this to sound like the same argument as the “bossy” situation. I draw a clear distinction between showing leadership and being bossy. Just because someone is bossy and tells others what to do does not make that person a leader, and I think Sheryl Sandberg’s blanket crusade that girls shouldn’t be called “bossy” discounts that some people are just tyrants without showing any real leadership skills.
I do not want to ban the word nice or stop people from being nice. I just want us to stop thinking that women need to be forced to be nice. Niceness should be a personal choice, not a standard for all women and girls to adhere to. Choosing to be kind is a good thing. Telling someone they need to be nice is not.
We need to encourage all young people to find their voices and share them, regardless of gender. We need to make sure that the words we use to build confidence in young men are the same words we use with young women. We need to put more emphasis on being kind to one another than we do on simply going through the act of being agreeable. We need to make the same demands for both genders at all ages if we are ever going to approach gender equality.
For me, this starts with defending a young woman’s right to not be nice.
I zip in with one minute to spare, always perfectly on time. No awkward small talk or unnecessary waiting around to drag out an already too long evening. Baccalaureate is one of those events that I dread beforehand, feel miserable during, and then feel accomplished after it’s done.
For those who aren’t familiar, baccalaureate is our district’s awards night for seniors. It’s two hours of scholarships and recognition. All seniors have to attend, and it’s the only time I see them in their robes (since I don’t usually attend graduation).
It starts with a few short band and chorus performances, then moves on to a sermon given by one of the local religious figures from the CGD community. Then, the scholarships. Random adults from Clarion, Goldfield, and Dows each take their turn at the podium to call up the kids who have earned scholarships.
Our superintendent starts with the kids who win the bigger CGD prizes. Then it moves on to local organizations like the Rotary Club and 4H and the Masons and stuff like that. And I sit there, nervously twitching as they all give their short speeches, dreading when my time will come while also desperately wishing for it to happen.
Every year is the same in some ways. A handful of kids sweep most of the scholarships, while some never get called up for a single one. I always wonder if the ones left sitting are kids who aren’t going to college, or if they just didn’t apply for any scholarships. I wonder how they feel, being forced to sit and watch while their classmates receive hundreds, sometimes thousands of dollars in money for investment in their academic future.
Every year I also yell internally, scolding myself for not preparing a speech. You are a language arts teacher, for fkjsd’s sake! You are supposed to sound like a communications professional! Procrastination and avoidance of responsibility always rear their ugly heads, and I sit there in my seat rambling in my brain for something coherent to say that I won’t mess up.
Then, it’s time. After waiting for over an hour, I shakily step up to the stage. My voice always quivers in the microphone, and my hands shake. I speak in front of 140 people every day for a living, but there’s something about Baccalaureate that’s different. Maybe it’s because I’m the only person up there not representing an organization or a foundation. I’m just up there representing me.
Every year, I give away my own money. I created my own scholarship and I give away my own money. Some people think that’s crazy. Some people think it’s kind. I just think it was something I needed to do to make my corner of the world right.
I started the Latina Successful Future Scholarship four years ago. I was watching the news, and Steve King had (once again) said something racist about Latino immigrants. I was pissed. Every time the man is in the news, I'm ashamed.
I love Iowa. I love living where I do. But I despise the fact that an outspoken racist represents my section of the state because he in no way represents me. Since my voting alone isn't preventing his re-election each year, I knew I needed to do something more.
Instead of being angry, I decided I would combat his racism in my own small way: every year I would give $500 scholarship to a Latina from my district so she could go to college. This year, I couldn’t decide between two amazing young women who I adore, so I gave two. One thousand dollars out of my bank account and into theirs feels like a good trade to create a better future, right?
So each year I sit through Baccalaureate and remind myself why I'm doing it: to support young women from an underrepresented part of my community, to ensure more families have educated women to guide them through life, to put my money where my mouth is, and yes, to stick a middle finger at Steve King that he'll never see. It's worth every cent.
Make a list of things you like about yourself. -Haley Moehlis, friend, cheerleader, life coach, English teacher extraordinaire, after a particularly rough period of self-pity and doubt.
I would also like to know how you view yourself. You seem so confident that I almost get jealous. -7th grade girl in a Dear Reader letter to me, asking for feedback on her poetry collection about self-image.
Things I Like About Myself:
1. I am a storyteller, and have been for as long as I can remember. I love taking the small moments and blowing them up, stringing my audience along and guiding them to the exact reaction I desire. I love captivating a crowd and the silence that leads up to laughter at just the right moment.
2. My smile takes up my whole face until my eyes are slits and the skin around them crinkles, and my teeth are naturally straight without ever having braces.
3. I make people laugh. I don't tell jokes, but I still make people laugh. I make myself laugh, too, and I think that's just as important. Being funny is something that comes naturally to me.
4. I am able to appear confident even when I do not feel that way.
5. If I don't know something, I find a way to learn it and put it into action. I don't allow myself to be satisfied doing things that don't work for me.
6. I give freely. I share my life and resources and experiences with others.
7. Efficiency. I get things done. Instead of complaining about not having enough time, I use mine.
8. Aside from brutal allergies this time of year, I'm physically healthy. I rarely get sick.
9. My writing voice is my authentic voice. I may not be formal or technical or even proficient in many aspects of the craft I love, but my writing is real and it is 100% me.
10. I love my job and I am passionate about it. I'm not embarrassed or apologetic about my passion for teaching writing to middle schoolers.
11. I'm not boring. I might be a host of other negative things on my worst days, but boring is never one of them.
Eleven things. Over 24 hours, I thought of eleven things I like about myself. It wasn't easy, but it was necessary.
I could probably fill a list twice this long with things I dislike about myself, but I won't. Dwelling on the negative is something I've done far too much of this week (this entire school year, really). I'm ready to focus my energy on adding to this list instead.
My communications exploratory class just wrapped up for the year. I only teach it for the first half of each trimester, switching with a colleague to take over RTI time that period while he teaches his exploratory.
It's a nice break. Communications isn't my favorite class for many reasons, but most of it stems from the fact that it's teaching a non-graded class during the last period of the day to seventh graders. And let's face it, for most middle school kids, speeches, group discussions, projects, and speaking and listening skills just aren't in their comfort zone.
Once in a while though, a Communications project blows my mind.
I require one group project as the last assignment for the class. Basically, they can do anything that involves writing and speaking, as long as they have 4-6 members in the group and everyone contributes.
This time around, I had a group ask to create a spoof of a nature documentary. They wanted to be explorers hunting for me. I demanded script approval before agreeing to anything involving me. They delivered the next day.
Reading through it, my thoughts were that of any middle school teacher when a situation like this arises: this will either be the best or the worst thing I've ever seen. I approved.
It's amazing. All five play to their personalities and humor. The editing is something most adults couldn't do with an iPad in one week. I'm the worst actor in the entire thing.
If you have 10 minutes, enjoy "The Hauptsteen Expedition."
When I first saw the call for submissions last summer, I knew it was a perfect fit. The journal wanted to hear from teachers of writing who write with their students. I do that! I do it every day in my classroom. It wasn't something that came naturally, either. My path to growing comfortable enough to write authentically with my students was a journey through the first few years of my teaching career.
I wrote my butt off. I cited sources. I dug deep into my grad school notes and IWP reflections and the moments from my classroom that stood out, and I wrote.
I wasn't cocky enough to think I'd get published the first time I ever submitted something to an academic peer-reviewed journal. I was fairly sure I'd be rejected.
But they didn't reject me. Not at first. They gave me revisions. I revised.
They gave me a second round of revisions. I revised more.
I wrote about revising, and I revised, and I allowed myself to experience that most dangerous of all drugs: hope.
I stared at the screen and I contemplated when the line is crossed between a piece of writing not being yours anymore. When are you trying too hard to please the audience instead of yourself? Is it possible to write about authenticity as a writer while pandering to revision suggestions that you don't necessarily agree with? Are these obnoxious questions by an obnoxious writer who views all editors as creatively inferior because they'd rather judge than create? Am I really just a bitter child because a journal that I like didn't like me back quite enough?
I thought I was handling this well, until I started to write about it. Now I'm realizing that it stings more than I thought it did.
It's okay. It's okay to be sad and petulant because I didn't get the thing that I worked for. For now.
I'm also telling myself that it'll be okay to sneer, for just a moment, at the issue when it eventually comes out. It'll be okay to tell myself that my article was better than the ones that will ultimately be published, even if that flies in the face of all reason and evidence.
And then I'll get over it.
I have too many things to say, too many potential articles to write. Maybe every single one of them will get rejected. Maybe one won't, someday.
My school district doesn't have a Spring Break, but we have Good Friday and Easter Monday off, so I'm at the tail end of the last bit of down time I'll have before end of the year madness sets in. Aside from other goals, one of the things on my to-do list was to finish watching the Netflix version of 13 Reasons Why.
I haven't read the book, so my reaction is entirely based on the series. And, to be completely honest, I'm not sure that I would have picked up the book. I love YA lit, and I revel in the grittiness of books for teens that don't talk down to them. I know I've read the back cover of this book before, and I always moved on to something else for one major reason: the plot surrounds a young woman's suicide and the events that led up to her choice. It's an important topic, but I know exactly why I've never taken this book off the shelf.
Suicide hits uncomfortably close to home in my family. It's something I care deeply about, but it's not something I like to read about from a fictionalized standpoint because it brings up a swirl of emotions. I can read about it from a mandatory reporter viewpoint and I am always willing to have honest conversations with my students about it, but I don't like to read about suicide for pleasure.
To say this show is insanely popular right now might be an understatement. Most of my students are watching it; many are also picking up the book if they haven't read it. I've heard from quite a few fans of the book who are dismayed about the popularity of the show. Some have said the show opened their eyes in a lot of ways. Many are furious that it's taken a show like this being popular for teens to be more reflective about how they treat each other.
My thought is that any book or show for teens that can open up discussion about serious topics like rape, consent, bullying, and depression is important, especially if it becomes popular. That might sound superficial, but it matters. There are countless anti-bullying PSAs out there for kids to scoff at, no matter how well-intentioned their creators meant for them to be. Do any of them have the same impact as a Netflix phenomenon? You have to respect the power of something that teens can discover for themselves instead of having us force it on them.
And yes, I would love to have more kids pick up a book like this instead of watching it on tv, but I'm sure there are plenty (like me) who would simply never want to pick up this particular book. If the show is the only way for them to interact with a story that pushes their comfort levels about teen life and social interactions, then it's better than avoiding these discussions all together. I hope there are classrooms out there taking advantage of the current popularity of this story and it's themes to have honest, non-judgmental discussions with teenagers.
One of the hardest parts of watching (and the whole thing is hard to watch) was the role of adults. There were so many adults who cared, but were ultimately oblivious to what was going on in teens' lives. That stung. The truth always does. I read so much in my students' writings, and I am always encourage open dialogue about serious topics with them. I think I know a lot about them based on their writings, but the truth is that I only know what people are willing to tell me. Many teens (and adults) go through life never sharing their pain with others, so it's easier for most of us to stay oblivious.
The show was a beneficial reminder to me of the parallel worlds we live in as adults and teenagers. We are together, but not. We see glimpses into each other's lives, but not the full picture. Just as my students don't really know all of the intimate details of my life, I don't know theirs. We show each other what matters, and sometimes we hide the stuff that matters even more. It's the nature of growing up that we experience these stages of life in a staggered mess, never really knowing quite what is going on inside the people we spend every day with.
This week at the high school, a student wrote a paper for an English class and turned it in for peer response. The paper was pages-long rant about how all teachers are disgusting, evil, uncaring pieces of garbage. I know who wrote it and I know about the paper because at least ten people have wanted to talk to me about it since it happened. I haven’t had much to say until today.
As someone who reads student writing on a regular basis, I follow a few basic rules for myself when it comes to their work. First, I don’t talk about their writing unless they give me permission, or unless I need to report something illegal or dangerous. (I tell every single class on the first day of school that I am a mandatory reporter, so this shouldn’t be a surprise.) My other main rule for myself is to try my hardest not to judge when reading personal student writings, and to never judge a piece of writing that I haven’t personally read.
So I was upset to hear that one of my students wrote something that was supposedly so terrible and cruel, but I refused to comment about it because I hadn’t read it, and I’m not going to gossip about some kid’s writing without ever reading it. Except this morning, someone shared it with me. And it really is just as horrible as others said.
My first reaction was that undeniable mix of anger and hurt. I know it was a rant against “teachers” in general and not me in particular, but that doesn’t make it hurt any less. I taught that person for two years. I held her when she cried. I celebrated when she succeeded. I can remember distinct moments when I personally stood up for her against others. So it definitely feels like a slap in the face that she thinks all teachers are terrible human beings. It makes me regret every ounce of care and attention that I gave to her because that means I could have been giving my time to someone who actually appreciated it. I know that’s not how teaching works. I know that I have to (and will) care regardless of who appreciates it, but it’s hard to remember that during times like this.
I will not say that all her points were wrong. There are plenty of teachers in this world who don’t care or who are mean or bad in some way. But there’s also a monumental difference between not liking a teacher as a person and that person not being a good educator. You can think I’m a bitch all you want, but you can’t say I’m a bad teacher or that I don’t care about my job.
I know logically that I should not take this personally. It wasn’t written in my class, it wasn’t directed toward me, and it really has nothing much to do with me.
Except that, when it comes to teaching, for me everything is personal. I am not here just to do a job.
I am not here because I couldn’t think of anything better to do with my life. I am not here because I get some sick, twisted pleasure from forcing teenagers to do what I tell them to do. I am here because I love teaching. I love teaching more than almost anyone or anything else in my life. It is not just my job, it is my passion. I don’t teach writing because I want to create perfect writers; I teach writing because I want every person who enters my classroom to be able to find his or her personal voice. I want them to discover the power of words, and how, if you learn to write, then no one can ever take your voice away from you. People can silence you if you are speaking; they can’t silence a writer forever.
I don’t know what I will do next time I see the girl. I do know that I will never forget her words from this week. I helped her to find her voice and she used that voice to belittle and attack everything I have devoted my life to. I can’t hate her for having her opinion, but I’m not sure I can forgive her for the words she’ll never be able to take back. Maybe that’s the most dangerous thing about allowing people to find their voices; I can’t control what happens when I don’t like what I hear.
I teach 7th and 8th grade English in rural Iowa and hope to reflect, connect, and share with other English teachers. Iowa Council of Teachers of English Executive Board member. Iowa Writing Project superfan. UNI MA:TESS graduate.