It's evening in late July, and an all-too-familiar panic is rising in my chest. A quick glance at the clock tells me that it's 8pm on a Sunday: the magic time for teacher panic during the school year, and a time I rarely ever notice during the summer. But it's late July. Late July means my brain starts to shift from "I'm going to accomplish these things this summer" to "I don't have time to accomplish what I want this summer!" I mean, I only have a few weeks left to keep plugging away at my 7th grade writer's workshop curriculum (that is nowhere near finished), read the book to prepare me for being a model teacher (how do I fit it in with the other three books I'm currently rotating?), plan out the Cross Country workouts for this season, and downsize/reorganize my closet (okay, not school related, but the summer project that's been on my list for ten years)?
The panic sets in because this is the time during summer when I have to admit to myself that, despite my best intentions, I am not going to do it all. I just can't. Not while still enjoying my time off. Not while maintaining sanity and peace. While the beginning of summer starts with goals and optimism, midsummer calls for practicality and prioritizing.
Priority #1: Curriculum...to a point
I've done a lot of thinking and planning on 7th grade writer's workshop this summer, but I'm nowhere near finished. Before school starts, I need to make sure I have it set through November. That will take me through the first trimester and will ensure that I won't be scrambling with lesson plans and cross country season at the same time. A three month cushion on the planning will be enough to stop me from abandoning the changes I so desperately want to make in favor of taking an easier route. I don't need to go into the school year with everything perfectly in place; I know enough to know that the best laid plans will change as soon as things get rolling, anyway.
Priority #2: Cross Country
I never put sports before school. I actively despise teachers who put coaching ahead of their classroom teaching duties. The pull of the season is hard to ignore, though. The great thing about a running sport is that the season is something you can map out in advance; I know when I want kids to build and strengthen and taper for peak performance. The difficult thing is that I always feel a twinge of guilt when I put work on a sport ahead of work for school. Sitting down to finalize XC season plans means that I have to take that time away from other work goals. The sooner I get to it, the sooner I can focus back on my classroom.
Priority #3: Life
I still need to have a summer. I still need to do my usual (pathetic) attempt to clean my closet. I need to put a lot of miles on my shoes and bike. I need to watch 30 hours of Bob's Burgers on Netflix. Enjoying the last few weeks of summer is just as important as cramming the work in. I don't want to start the year bitter because I was working when I should have been recharging. Teachers need summer, and I don't want to spend so much energy worrying that it's almost gone that I forget to enjoy it while it's still here.
I know writing these things down won't stop the panic from entering my mind in small bursts in the days leading up to school, but it's a start. Midsummer is the chance to refine and reprioritize goals. Keeping these tasks at the forefront will keep the full-on panic at bay until mid-August, where it belongs.
In addition to (slowly) revamping my writer's workshop curriculum this summer, I've also been spending most of my time pursuing another passion through my work with the Iowa Council of Teachers of English (ICTE).
In case you haven't noticed, I'm pretty vocal about the need for writing teachers to practice what they preach. I rant about it here on the blog every month or so, in some form or another. I'm not going to stop doing that anytime soon, but back in April at our face to face ICTE Board meeting, I decided it was time to pursue this passion with a more concrete action plan. (Kudos to Jen Paulsen and Erin Miller, presidents extraordinaire, for leading us to create individual plans with SMART goals for our work on the board.)
My role on the board technically deals with membership, but in the past few months, they've allowed me to veer from that direction in order to focus my energy on what I really care about: writing and recruiting more teacher-writers to share their experiences for our website.
I've been harassing, I mean recruiting, Iowa teacher-writers since May in order to build a stable of people from all over the state willing to write for our website. With an initial list of about twenty-five brave souls who responded to my form, I started to make individual contact with each prospect, knowing that filling out a form is a different level of commitment than doing the actual writing.
Cold-emailing people I've never met is not something on my list of favorite activities, but I wanted this initiative to thrive. Fear of being blown off kept me wondering if I'd ever receive any actual posts from people that I didn't already know in person. In order to feel like I could successfully launch this project, I wanted to have at least 5-10 posts lined up in advance to give myself and the writers a safety net. Last week, I received the tenth submission, right on track with my original goal of a mid-July launch date.
Yesterday, the first post from Cedar Rapids Kennedy teacher Stacy Haynes Moore went live.
It wasn't without struggle. I have never used WordPress, which is what we use for the ICTE website. In order to keep this initiative rolling, I had to ask Jen for a small crash course last weekend. While I picked up the basics, it's definitely something I'll still have to tinker with and ask for help with regularly. I'm also going to have to navigate the balance between bothering people and holding them accountable. I am doing this as a volunteer, so are the writers. Keeping this initiative alive while giving the writers the support and time they need to write (outside of their teaching duties) is something that will take a concentrated effort on all sides. Add in to the mix my writing and teaching (and coaching) schedules in addition to this new role as editor and publisher, and I've put a lot on my plate for the coming year.
As of right now, I have a tentative schedule of writings, rotating through different teachers, that will take us up until mid-September. Instead of my original plan of bi-weekly or monthly posts, I have enough to post a new writing every week, as long as people keep writing. I hope to hear from a few more teachers as summer winds down and they start to think in education mode once again. I also hope to hear from a variety of people who have a great idea or see one in action and send it my way. We desperately need to hear from culturally diverse teachers and young teachers; two populations who aren't represented enough nationally or in Iowa.
It's important for teachers to share ourselves with each other. It keeps us sharp as writers, which better helps us to provide support for our student writers. It also keeps us connected to the classroom experts right in our own backyard. I want the ICTE Teacher Writings page to be a place teachers can turn to for lesson ideas, thoughtful discussion of ELA topics, and community support. There are so many aspects of being a teacher that can make us feel alone or isolated even when we spend our days surrounded by people; I want this initiative to be one more way in which teachers know they have a place where they belong.
As I spend my summer tweaking lessons and units (and in the case of my seventh grade classes, completely revamping my entire curriculum) a few recurring thoughts run through my head as I check out each new website, blog, pin, book, and article:
1. There are so many great ideas out there. So many. I want to do all the things.
2. There are so many terrible ideas out there. So many. Please, can we all agree to stop doing these things?
3. So much of the material out there regarding writing is only about assigning writing rather than teaching writing.
It's the third thought that bothers me. I can handle thinking other ideas are terrible because maybe I just don't understand the context behind them, or maybe they aren't lessons that fit with my teaching style or my students. But number three is one of those things that gnaws away at the back of my mind, something I can't let go. Something that I consider unforgivable on my nit-picky list of English Teacher Commandments: Thou Shalt Teach Writing, Not Simply Assign It.
Assigning writing is what seems to happen more frequently in schools. This is not limited to English classrooms, and I would argue that most writing in content areas is assigned rather than explicitly taught (probably because content area teachers were never taught how to teach writing). Teachers come up with a writing assignment. This assignment can range anywhere from totally fun and creative (italics can stand in until we get a sarcasm font, right?) to complete drudgery. Assigned writing does a decent job of hitting standards and aligning to rubrics and learning goals. Assigned writing is introduced in one (maybe two) class periods where students are told: what they will write, what parts are required, and how it will be graded on a rubric. Students are most definitely shown an already-completed near-perfect example of the assignment before they begin. An ironclad due date is set in stone. Depending on the assigner (I mean, teacher) the students might then have some time in class to flounder around and try to write this paper by pulling it magically out of their butts, they might have some hoops to jump through like showing note cards as evidence of work along the way, or they might simply be told that writing is homework and it better be ready on the due date.
What part of that involved teaching?
Now, I agree that students need a variety of writing assignments and activities to grow as writers. And I get it that at the college level, students are expected to know how to write based on being given a topic and a due date. But this idea that in middle and high school writing instruction becomes more about assigning rather than teaching really bothers me. Our job is to get them ready for college and jobs where they'll be expected to know how to write. Our job is to show them how, not expect them to learn by forcing them into the exact situation they'll face later.
Teaching writing takes endless amounts of class time. The writing still aligns with standards and learning goals, but the writing itself is more fluid and involves choice for each student to make it his or her own. Teaching writing does not happen in one or two days; it happens every day, little by little. Each week can focus on a certain genre or skill within a larger genre. Maybe the first day starts with an introduction to the type of writing and a mentor example from a published source. The class can discuss what's successful with the writing and how it meets the goals of whatever standard is being discussed. They can pick out powerful parts of the writing that stick out to them, and interact with the piece as readers. The next day, with more mentor texts (sentences, paragraphs, pages; any length of writing can be a powerful mentor), the class works together to attempt the skill, whether it's constructing a strong argument, or using realistic dialogue in a narrative. This is mimicking; not quite their own yet. This can be in partners or groups, and should be shared informally during the class period so that the class as a whole can compare it to the mentors, to the learning goals, and reflect on where they are struggling. The teacher is writing with them. The teacher is sharing with them. The teacher is struggling with them. Once they've had some practice together, then the next day can be the first attempt on their own. The teacher is writing with them, displaying his or her work, talking them through potential difficulties. The teacher knows how frustrating the writing is because the teacher has to do it too, and in front of an audience, no less. This drafting can last for as many days as needed. Teachers and peers conference over the writing, giving suggestions and asking questions. The student reads his or her writing so many times over the next few days or weeks that soon they have parts of it memorized. The teacher comments on the writing. The writer reflects. This all happens in the classroom, during class time, because what is more important when teaching writing than actually providing the time it takes to write? The due date is set as the teacher gauges progress, but it is fluid and students who need extensions can receive them. And after all that, if the student fails to meet standards on that piece of writing, then he or she can rewrite. We don't force authors to publish bestsellers with only one chance, and we damn well better not expect more from teenagers than we do from professionals.
Teaching writing is so much more than coming up with a new, creative idea for an assignment. It's more than telling students what is required for a certain genre. It's more than telling them to add more of something, or take something out.
Teaching writing is more than giving an assignment, it's about showing the process by living the process in the classroom, each and every day.
Teaching writing can be infuriating and endless and frustrating, just like writing.
My husband reads The Economist religiously. I only picked it up because of the cover story on the June 11th-17th issue: How to Make a Good Teacher. A statement, not a question. While I wasn't overly impressed or offended by anything in the article, one paragraph stood out:
"The New Teacher Project suggest that after the burst of improvement at the start of their careers teachers rarely get a great deal better. This may, in part, be because they do not know they need to get better. Three out of five low-performing teachers in America think they are doing a great job." © The Economist Newspaper Ltd, London June 11th-17th, 2016
Ouch. I'm going to take their word for it that there's evidence to back up the "low-performing" teacher part (that isn't solely based on standardized test scores), but damn. Three-fifths of bad teachers think they are great? How? How does that even happen? What areas of education allow for teachers to become this unknowingly delusional? I think I know of at least a few contributing factors:
1. Hatred of Professional Development. Don't get me wrong; I've seen PD abused and misused many times in my 10-year teaching career. District-mandated PD has often left a sour taste in my mouth when it seems tone deaf or irrelevant to the needs of our staff and students. But I worry that the seemingly-universal hatred of PD makes teachers think they don't need professional learning beyond their original licensure. Maybe a disconnect between quality teachers and the ones who think they are is the willingness to seek out personal PD, and the ability to recognize the need for it. It's a harsh truth to look at yourself as a teacher and realize that you need help beyond what your school, Twitter feed, and Pinterest board can provide. The good teachers don't view professional development as a chore or a hoop to jump through to earn licensure credits; they do it because they know students benefit when they have teachers who are continual learners.
2. We are too isolated. This varies wildly depending on district and administration, but I think it's safe to say that many teachers can spend much of their day without supervision. My principal is excellent at doing random walk-throughs and regular in-depth observations, but that is his standard, not something he's forced to do. In my early years, when I wasn't a good teacher, it used to drive me nuts when the door opened and he walked in unannounced. I always did well during planned observations, but the walk-throughs made me panicked, like he was trying to find something wrong. What I didn't necessarily realize then was that the panic came from knowing deep down that I wasn't that great of a teacher. There was too much dead time in my class periods, there wasn't enough of a guiding purpose to my lessons, I wasn't living up to what I'm capable of when interacting with students; the list could go on. Now that I've put the time and effort into constant reflection and refinement of my teaching practice, I don't despise the walk-throughs anymore. I love them. I put my principal in the hot seat and try to get him to stay in my room as long as possible. Having more observations forces teachers to reflect on their practice even if they aren't inclined to do so of their own free will. My district will start its TLC program this year, which will increase our number of teacher-on-teacher observations (we currently only do this for new teachers). It's an exciting change, and one that probably has some people feeling uncomfortable. Good. Teachers grow when we are outside our comfort zones, not with the doors shut.
3. It's easier to blame the kids. This. This is the thing that kills me. How often have I been in conversation with teachers when everything comes back to how the students wouldn't/didn't/couldn't and it was all the kids' fault? This happens weekly in schools, if not daily. I am guilty of this. Every teacher, at some point, has probably been guilty of this mindset. And it is so wrong. If only three kids in a class of twenty-five understand something, which scenario is more likely: twenty-two kids intentionally chose not to learn, or one adult didn't do a good enough job of teaching the material? And to those who would argue and say that it's highly likely in their school, with their students, that twenty-two of them would choose not to learn: then what are you doing to change that as a teacher? Thinking that you are a great teacher when the glaring evidence of student performance is staring you in the face is educational malpractice. It's not always them; it's you. Do something about it.
What do these three areas have in common? The need for more reflection. The need for more honest to goodness soul searching as teachers. Maybe even something as simple as waking up every day and asking What can I do to be a better educator today? and then actually taking the steps required to make that happen. How many teachers do that on their own? I bet we'd find the quality teachers if we asked.
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.