My school email can be a mixed bag. I'm not sure there's any other mode of communication that has such a pull on my emotions to both extremes. I've received countless parent "hate mails" over the years: accusing me of being everything from a terrible role model to a monster who ruins Santa Claus for small children (I teach 13-14-year-olds, and honestly never considered the Santa thing as something I had to worry about). But a random email from a student, former student, or colleague can also be the bright spot in a tough day. I save these in a "Happy Thoughts" folder (I have both a virtual and physical one to save notes from kids), but I rarely share them with others.
With Thanksgiving coming up, it's a good time to share some of the bright spots from my week. As a teacher, it's easy to lament when I feel under-appreciated (or downright attacked), but I'm guilty of keeping the good things to myself far too often. The fact is, a lot of truly amazing compliments, respect, and love are thrown my way every day by teenagers, and instead of tucking them away in a folder that only I will ever see, I need to make a habit of posting them here. I'll share five from this week that made a difference.
My last entry talked about the massive amounts of grading I tore through to get my response letters and grades back to students with as quick of a turnaround as possible. (For the record: 132 papers and letters in five days. Whew.) I'm not shy with my students about the amount of work I put in. (I'm not shy with them about anything.) I don't dwell on it, but I do tell them how many hours outside of school it takes me to get through their work, and how I hope they appreciate it. Yes, that's probably a guilt trip. No, I don't feel bad about it. Middle school-aged kids are at the height of self-centeredness, developmentally speaking. It's good for them to hear about the sacrifices other people make for them; it stops them from assuming that everyone is there to serve their needs immediately at any time.
Even though I wrote 132 letters this week, I only got a few "thank-you's." That's fine. In their minds, I'm doing my job, and the letters are part of that job. These emails from two of my seventh grade girls made it worth it. At least two of them appreciated the letters enough to say thank you in writing. Proof that I made a difference, right? Even if I only reach two kids for every year I teach, that will eventually be around 60 people in the world that I've had a lasting positive impact on. I can live with that.
This category of email is my favorite. An email from a former student, sent because some random part of his day reminded him of something he wrote for my class. The bonus on this one is that it's from a boy and it deals with writing poetry. Creating middle school boy poets is one of my teacher passions. It really doesn't matter to me if their poems are good by any standards other than their own. If they find the ability and desire to share the poetry in their souls, I'll encourage it. I've found that many boys struggle with expressing emotion in traditional prose writing, but poetry gives them freedom. This poem mattered to this student years later, and he still connects me with it. It's a short email, but of the best to receive.
Another short but sweet one, this time from my principal after coming in for a walk-through. I generally try to get him to stay in my room and participate in whatever we're doing, and I trapped him for a lesson on word choice. I wasn't doing anything different from my usual teaching style, but it's nice to have a quick email from him. Everyone loves being "caught" at their best once in a while.
Since I handed papers back to 7th graders on Monday, we spent the rest of the week using mini-lessons to tackle what I saw as the three most pressing global issues in their writing: lack of detail/emotion, run-on sentences, and word choice. "Show don't tell" is a lesson I use to practice detail. It's simple but effective. I give the kids a sentence (the "I was scared" mentioned above) and then they have to show being scared without using the word "scared" or the dreaded "I was..." with any other word. It turns into a game of who can show the best for each original sentence. This girl didn't want to share hers out loud, so she sent me an email to make up the participation points. An email like this is proof of what I can accomplish with my students in just one lesson on one day. First, she liked it, and that's always my goal: I want my kids to love writing as much as I do. Second, she wrote an awesome example. This is how writers grow, and it's nice to have the reminder in my email.
Reflecting back on these has me energized all over again. School was awesome this week, and I'm glad I took the time to appreciate it here.
It's funny how even though I always knew I wanted to be an English teacher, I never really thought about what all it entailed. I was so distracted by the awesomeness of being able to spend every day of my working life talking about reading and writing, and actually reading and writing with teenagers, that my pre-service mind seemed to blank on one pretty big detail: grading writing takes a $@*+load of time. Seems obvious, right? Maybe it's some kind of collective pre-amnesia that future English teachers take part in. I vaguely remember that even the first few rounds of grading (during student teaching) were fun, and I approached them with vigor as a rite of passage.
And then I grew up. And realized the paper load of grading is why English teachers are always the craziest ones (myself included).
I can (and have) written about grading and response (two different things, by the way) many times, and will continue to for as long as I teach. But today is different. Today I'm writing about grading, while in the midst of grading. Yes, this post is a blog from the trenches, folks. Can you feel the madness? My fingers are positively humming with it.
I always grade on our sun porch on the $12 Salvation Army couch I bought in college. It's comfy and bright, and the windows on all sides make me feel like I'm at least somewhat connected to the outside world.
The best way I've found to get through a massive pile of grading is to set up some kind of schedule or goal-based system. There are times when I set number goals for the amount of papers I will grade per day. This is good for weekday nights, when I'm so exhausted from school that I don't want to touch anything.
Since all of my students (132 at the moment) turned in Trimester Finals on Friday, I decided a schedule would be better than a number goal for this weekend. The schedule: two hours on, two hours off, with alarms set on my phone all weekend to keep me honest. During the two hours on, I'm in the Command Center, only taking breaks for bathroom and water. During the two hours off, I can eat, exercise, do laundry, read for fun, and watch tv. This way I'm staying balanced with a lot of work, but not completely cutting myself off from life.
The schedule worked well. I got through all my 7th grade papers and can give them back their grades and response letters tomorrow. One weekend for 76 papers is a pretty good turnaround, made possible by the fact that I have not left my house or interacted with anyone other than my husband and cats for the past 48 hours. (Well, I did go on two runs, so technically I left the house for those.)
I still have close to 60 papers left for all of my 8th graders, and they'll probably be cranky with me for tackling 7th grade first. There's a simple strategy behind that: the 7th graders have less experience as writers, and it's not fair for me to even try to look at their work objectively after reading 8th grade work. So seventh graders get me when I'm fresh, and eighth graders live up to a higher standard of scrutiny. I still have two hours of work time left this evening after dinner, and I'll start on my smallest class of 8th graders. Then I'll set number goals for the rest of the week. My goal is always to have a one-week turnaround from the time they turn in to the time they get them back. It's not always possible, and sometimes it half-kills me to do it, but I owe it to them to keep up my end of the deal.
I hope my students appreciate what it takes for me to give them the kind of response I do: detailed letters (half a page to each kid) rather than hastily scrawled marginal comments that are easy to throw away. Some probably do appreciate it. Most don't. They're teenagers, after all. They need us adults to sacrifice and work for them even if they don't understand what it truly means until much later in life, if ever.
And whenever any asshole tells me how great it must be to have summers off, I tally up my hours on this couch every single weekend and weeknight and tell them to &!@# off.
Even though I haven't written much as far as teacher blogging so far this year, I've been thinking about writing a lot, and banking ideas for when I finally have time. Well, Cross Country season is officially, completely over, so my excuses are done. Time to practice what I preach and start posting with some regularity again!
There's a boy student in 7th grade that I've wanted to write about since he sent me an email last month. As a 1-to-1 school (iPads), our students are always using email to communicate with teachers. Sometimes this is frustrating. I want kids to come talk to me in person, and there are many instances where I simply won't allow them to use email to communicate with me. But sometimes email allows my students to express things they might not want to say to my face. It's a form of writing that we often think of as quick, easy, but that doesn't mean it's disposable. In one simple, grammatically terrible sentence, a student can reaffirm everything about why I teach:
Hunter's original email sent a question asking if he was doing okay with our in-class writing. I told him he'd been doing an excellent job so far this year, something he might not hear often. This response melted my heart. He loves to write. He wants to make me proud. What more could I ask for? A simple email like this reminds me that I need to be worthy of the position I hold in young peoples' lives.
Flash forward to today in class. This same 7th-grade boy is a twin, and his sister Caylee is in the same class period. Caylee is quiet and self-conscious, the polar opposite of her rambunctious brother. I have my students choose peer response "allies" each trimester in my class. An ally is a person in class they can trust to be honest and respectful with any piece of writing that they bring to response days. While I often combine allies to make larger groups, they will always have at least that one person to be on their side. The twins chose each other; allies from the womb united for writer's workshop.
During peer response today, I noticed Caylee's eyes starting to water. I knew it was because of her topic. The twins lost their mother to cancer the summer before their 6th-grade year. They watched it rip her apart for most of their elementary school years, and at age eleven faced something most of us couldn't possibly imagine. She chose to write a personal narrative about her mom for her trimester final, and I could see the tears from across the room as she shared.
I was concerned for multiple reasons, to be honest. I wasn't sure how Hunter would react to his sister's topic, and he's not always sensitive with her. As I walked over, I prepared myself for the possibility that he had done something in peer response to elicit the tears. My first walk-by was simply to ask if she was okay and give her permission to leave the room if she needed. Caylee said she was fine, and Hunter didn't respond. I continued to check on other groups while glancing over occasionally.
I was on the other side of the room when I noticed brother and sister, foreheads together, locked in a shaking hug, their peer response group mates across the table from them staring silently, not knowing what to say. I worked my way back around to crouch behind the twins and they accepted me into their circle. I told them that I was sorry for their pain, but that I'm grateful they have writing to help them through it. That moments like this show us how powerful writing can be: it can reopen old wounds, but it can also help to heal them. Writing ensures that we are never alone, that no amount of suffering is trapped inside because it moves beyond thought and into something that can be shared. The burden is lessened in the sharing, even if it will never completely stop hurting.
I left them with a hug and continued to move through the groups, walking by only once again to hear their whispered, "I love you's" to each other before they moved on with the response activity.
These twins, through the email last month and the emotional response this morning, reminded me of the power in teaching writing. It's an amazing thing we English teachers get to do every day when we give our students the power to share their stories with others.
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.