Fridays are Free Write Fridays in my room, unless students are working on a high-stakes piece of writing that's due soon. Regardless of the type of writing, this year I've made Fridays sacred for writing in my classroom. I don't think it's something I'll ever go away from.
Free write Fridays were born from two separate ideas:
1. Kids need more informal practice writing, so I wanted them to turn in one piece of writing each week. Any topic, any genre, as long as they show variety on both and use it to try new things. These writings are graded on completion only. I also have to respond to every weekly writing and have those back to students by the beginning of the next week.
2. If writing is important (which it is), then these writings shouldn't be homework. I show how important these are by giving students the time within class to complete them each week.
Sometimes I take over FWF and give a mini lesson on a new genre or skill, and then students use their writing time to try to put it to work. When a trimester final is due, Fridays are time to work on that and their weekly writing is suspended until the major assignments are due. Yesterday was the first day back to completely "free" Friday for my 7th graders after weeks of Tri 2 writing. They were ready for it. So was I.
As a writing teacher, one of the most important things you can do is write with your students. Not just display examples; write with them in real time. I've read this in pretty much every text on writing I've ever encountered, and yet I'm amazed at how little it happens in schools. Why? I think because writing makes you vulnerable, and most teachers are scared of showing students that vulnerability. It's easier to judge and tell students what they're doing wrong (or right) as writers then to show yourself struggling through the process.
I don't always have time to write with my students, but on Free Write Fridays, I try. I type on my iPad in Google Docs since it's the exact same tool they have to use. I display it on AirPlay on the screen in front of the room. I do not plan my topics ahead of time so they can see my thinking process of deciding on what I want to write about. I write about a new topic in each class period so no group is short-changed (and so that I'm not a fraud). Sometimes these writings suck, and I tell students I'm not satisfied with them. Sometimes they're the beginning of something I'll come back to later. But the most important part is that my students see me as a writer. For every teacher who gets riled about about the phrase Those who can't do, teach, consider this: when was the last time you did what you teach in front of your students? Do they know you can? Do they know your skill and not just your knowledge? If so, what are you going to do about it?
These are the links to my writings from yesterday, in case you're interested. I also love the opportunity for relationships that come from writing with students. When they get stuck, they stop and read what I'm typing up on the screen and giggle or look back at me or realize that maybe we have something in common. They get to know me better as a person, and I get to show them that I'm probably more like them in some ways. It also allows them to share more with me in their writings. It's give and take. These are also unedited. Weekly writings aren't about perfection, they're about practice, so I hold myself to the same standards.
Letter to Google
In which I write a fake letter to Google complaining about some of my pet peeves with their Apps for Education features. (No offense, Google. I use you every day, but there are some bones to pick with your iPad apps.) This one probably showed my strongest writing for my students since I used a blend of humor to really show my voice. I'm a morning person, so it makes sense that my best writings usually happen earlier in the day.
Me at Fifteen
This was prompted by something I saw on Twitter the other night: Would the fifteen-year-old version of you like you as a teacher? It's a fascinating thought, and this essay doesn't do it justice yet. It's something I will definitely come back to in a future blog post, but this is the rough beginning. Also, more tailored to my teenage audience than what I'd post here for a teacher/adult audience.
This one is also dissatisfying because I didn't plum the emotional depth that I want to yet. My closest coworker and friend is leaving after this school year (marriage and a move). It's a tough topic for me because it impacts so much of my life, both personally and professionally. I know I'll write about it again, so much like Period 4's writing, I'm still unsatisfied with this beginning.
So what does this show my students? Out of the three pieces I wrote, I'm only content with one. It also shows them the variety of topics I can come up with based on situations and inspiration from my everyday life. It shows them that I'm not forcing them to do things that I'm not willing to do myself. And it shows them that teachers are people who can do the things we're teaching.
My students turned in their Trimester 2 Finals on Friday. Yes, the trimester doesn't end until March 3rd, but I allow (and encourage!) rewrites on papers if students are not satisfied with their grades, so I schedule due dates a few weeks in advance. Also, less pressure when the grade cutoff for teachers isn't for a three more weeks. That doesn't mean I'm taking it easy. This time around, in an effort to be as timely and accountable as possible, I set goals for how many papers I'll get through each day. (I blame it on the Self.com Time Makeover I did a few weeks ago. Let's manage that terminal procrastination!)
Papers were due on Friday the 13th (mwahahaha) and my ultimate goal is to have them back in students' hands with response letters on Friday the 20th. Luckily, we have Wednesday off due to our wrestling team making it to State. I've set my goal for 70 papers on that day to keep my counts manageable on weeknights.
Day one got off to a pretty decent start: two more than my original goal of ten. I'm freaking awesome! Did I mention how much it helps to have a student teacher? Now that she's taking over 75% of my teaching load, I can get so much done during the day. Why don't English teachers automatically get an extra period for grading anyway? Don't give me those side eyes, math people. Providing quality response to writing takes a TON of time. I deserve more built into my regular day. I'm sure my district will get right on that after they cap my class sizes and provide me with PD of my choice, too.
And then day two happened. Saturday. See what I did there? I binge-watched Season Two of Orange is the New Black, ate Valentine's chocolate from my mother-in-law, and ignored those papers. Oh, how I ignored them. And I started off so strong!
Bam! I made up for it on Sunday. Sunday might be the sabbath for Christians, but I'm pretty sure it's the weekly "Get Sh*t Done Day" for English teachers. Someone, quick: get me some stats on what percentage of paper-grading is accomplished on Sundays! I thought about working ahead, but I stopped at exactly twenty. This weekend was simply not the time to be an over-achiever.
However, today, this fine Monday, was the perfect day to knock it out of the park. With my student teacher handling the classes like a pro, I decided to actually leave the room (gradual release of responsibility, folks) and hole up in the conference room. I finished all of my 7th graders' papers and response letters! I tripled my goal for the day!
I am so excited I can hardly contain it. I am headed home tonight with no homework! Yes, I still have roughly 75 papers to go (those pesky 8th graders), but I am way ahead of schedule. It is so rare that I put myself in a position to feel this smug about achieving my grading goals, so I'm reveling in it.
The sad part is that it's so unrealistic. This perfect storm of productivity will likely never happen again. When will I ever have a random day off and a student teacher at the same time in order to provide all of the extra free time needed to read and respond to my students without sacrificing my life? Never. This one, glorious week will probably be one of the only times in my life as an English teacher where I can do the most significant part of my job while I'm actually on the job instead of at home.
Teachers always complain about not having enough time. Look at what we could do if we had it.
I firmly believe that all teachers should have education gurus in their content area. Young teachers especially should be encouraged to read professional literature and find those reliable resources to provide ideas and promote reflective practice. I think a lot of teachers don't do much professional reading beyond college or renewal classes. I'm not sure if it's because they don't know the variety and quality of resources out there, or if they're just apathetic. I assume it's a combination of both. A lot has been thrown around lately about mentorship and how to keep young teachers in the profession. While I think a face to face mentor is important, it's also important to connect new teachers with content area professional development books. I envision a kind of "Welcome to Teaching" swag bag of goodies and books. One author that I'd put in every English teacher's swag bag is Kelly Gallagher.
I first encountered Kelly Gallagher's book Teaching Adolescent Writers in the Iowa Writing Project library. Five years into teaching (and screwing up a lot of young writers during those five years) and BOOM, here's the guy and the guide that should have been with me from the start. I think I was overwhelmed at first. I wanted to steal everything and put it to work right away, but I wasn't ready yet. I had the pleasure of seeing Mr. Gallagher present at the Iowa Council of Teachers of English Fall Conference in 2012. He was everything I'd hoped for based on what I knew from his books.
Last week we had Iowa Assessments. In order to distract myself during the endless days of administering tests, I came back to Teaching Adolescent Writers. This time, I had labels and a highlighter and a plan for attack.
All of my students are busy working on their Trimester 2 Finals. This is supposed to be the best possible writing they are capable of at this point in time. They have freedom to choose genre and topic, as long as they show variety from past writings. They'd already been through rough drafts, one round of peer response (PQP: Praise, Question, Polish format), and writing conferences with me. I wanted a different type of peer response groups for this round.
I think one of the main things that discourages some teachers from using peer response is the management factor. How much guidance do students need in order to create successful response? Too much freedom with middle school students can lead to a management nightmare, and too much regimented structure can turn group work into hoop-jumping instead of authentic collaborative learning. It's a balance thing. I love turning to writers like Kelly Gallagher in a situation like this. I don't need to reinvent the peer response wheel; I want something that works and that I can put to use right away.
I chose Gallagher's Read-Around-Groups format (Teaching Adolescent Writers p86-87). I printed copies of all student papers and blacked out their names. To further ensure anonymity, I switched class periods' papers so no students would encounter papers from their class period during the activity. I also extended reading time on each paper to two minutes (Gallagher suggests one). I kept students in groups of three to four so they would only have three to four papers to read. I also required them to comment on drafts. I try not to have students comment on editing issues. Peer response is revision, not editing, and I reminded them to react and comment as readers, not editors. Asking questions and drawing attention to confusion are the main ways I encourage students to respond.
This was a great activity that worked successfully in my classroom. The most difficult part was printing paper copies since I wanted them to have the physical copies in front of them. Students were able to see their peers' work and comment with the safety of anonymity. They also had to evaluate the qualities of "good" writing, and defend their choices in groups. The time limit kept them on schedule and didn't allow for much goof off time. After each group chose their "star" paper, I read the first paragraph, stanza, or line from each paper to the class. We came back as a large group to highlight the qualities of good writing. I was also able to add my opinions and reactions to the chosen papers. It created a safe space for students to talk about and interact with writing, while also seeing how they compared to their peers.
This is a peer response activity that I will add to my "go-to" list. I continue to be impressed with Gallagher's work and his easy, instantly usable activities that engage student writers. His books should be in any first-year English teacher survival kit.
P.S. The technology fairy visited my room last night...desktop iMacs! This will greatly help students who have problems with their iPads.
I should know not to take things so personally. After eight and a half years of teaching, I should know by now that it's ridiculous to be personally offended by student actions that are outside my control. Yes, I have a lot of influence over students and I'm responsible for them in many ways, but plagiarism is something that still blindsides me once in a while. Maybe it's because it doesn't happen very often in my class anymore. Since I've slowly evolved to put freedom in my student writers' hands, most of them are so excited to be able to write about what they want that any plagiarism is usually small and unintended, more of a teachable moment than a cheating issue. We learn about plagiarism and integrity with writing from the very beginning of the year, and I rarely have to do much beyond that. So yes, I was surprised yesterday to find two separate instances of blatant plagiarism in one class period of 8th grade trimester finals. (Both plagiarized poems, weirdly enough.)
I can't explain why it hurts so much. It shouldn't. Plagiarism exists at every level, and is always a possibility when dealing with writing. I did not cause this plagiarism. I did not tell my students that it was okay to copy and paste another person's work into their writing. I didn't ignore the topic of plagiarism and fail to have lessons about it and why it's a problem. They did not do this to personally hurt me. They did it because they were underprepared, or overwhelmed, or just plain lazy. But they did not do it to cause harm.
Then why am I so hurt? Why do I feel slighted?
Maybe it's because they robbed themselves of one opportunity for creativity. I give my students so much freedom with what they can write, and it hurts to see them waste that in order to follow the path that leads farthest away from creative expression. Maybe it's because some part of my low self-esteem whispers in my ear and says, They think you are stupid or uncaring and that you will not notice. Maybe I'm so upset because plagiarism means they don't understand how much I value my student writers. It means they don't know that I love reading their work and talking about it with them, and that plagiarism robs us of that opportunity and connection. Or maybe it hurts because plagiarism reminds me that some kids just really despise writing and will do anything to avoid it. My life's work is the object of someone else's disdain.
Whatever their reasons for plagiarism, whatever my reasons for hurt feelings over it, instances of plagiarism are always a teachable moment, for me and students. Other than the hurt, my other major feeling was relief. I am so glad I comment on student drafts multiple times before the finals are due. I am so glad I am no longer a "gotcha" English teacher who only reads papers after the damage is done. I can nip this plagiarism while my writers are still writing, and before it has any impact on their grades. I can take care of the wound before it becomes fatal. Plagiarism becomes part of the learning and writing process instead of a punishable offense at the end.
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.