It happened again. This time 17 are dead, but they won’t be the last ones. They probably won’t even be the last victims this month. Every time it happens, I think surely this must be the breaking point. And then I shake my head because if there’s one thing that I’ve learned that’s absolutely true it’s that nothing will be done to stop the mass shootings that have turned our schools into graveyards.
I was a sophomore when Columbine happened. In some of my classes, teachers turned on TVs and we sat in stunned silence and watched the aftermath of the impossible. In English class, my favorite teacher gave us what we needed: time to talk. I remember the discussion that day, the heated debate that rang out of whether it was fair to single out the “trench coat kids” as our administration had done when the news hit. They had halted the tame midwestern wannabe goths as they came into school after lunch and asked them to remove their signature black trench coats in light of the breaking news from Colorado. A girl in my class, my neighbor and frequent annoyance, railed about that type of unfair profiling based on one event. If I had thought clearly, I probably would have agreed with her, but the only clear thing in my mind that afternoon was the repeated thought, a truth now exposed as a lie for the first time in my life: school is supposed to be a safe place.
On that day and for years after, I thought of it as a singular incident because that’s what it was. A couple of messed up kids who punished others because of their inability to deal with the same bullshit that every other teenager has to face. I was an angry teenager too; we all were. At least I kept my anger in my journal where it belonged instead of taking it out on my classmates. I was sullen and sarcastic and bitter, but that didn’t translate into physical violence. Why couldn’t those killers handle being a teenager like the rest of us, by slamming our doors and mouthing off and burning bridges?
Columbine faded into the distance and became like any other bad moment in history: horrifying, but dulled with the passage of time. The 9/11 attacks happened during my freshman year of college, and foreign terrorism took over as the top priority. Then I became a teacher, and school shootings flooded our news cycles.
A consultant, a former military dude who now makes his money scaring schools and police forces into creating active shooter plans visited our district. I gritted my teeth as he droned on about how unsafe we were and how scared we needed to be about terrorists and how he wasn’t going to be PC because he “calls it like it is.” His blatant racism made me want to scream, and my silence made me hate myself more than I hated him. I was scared, I am scared, but I’m not scared of people with different skin or religious beliefs, as he wanted me to be. He never mentioned the one demographic we should be scared of. I am scared of angry white teenage boys with guns because they have turned our schools into killing fields and no one does anything to stop them. I am scared of indifferent white men who hold too much power in our country and do nothing to stop this epidemic. I am scared of people who think that thoughts and prayers are the answer and use them to absolve themselves of guilt. We are all complicit in our lack of action. Great nations do not bathe in the blood of dead children.
My school, as I’m sure many others do, now has more lockdown drills per year than we do for fire or tornado drills. When we debrief after one of these drills, people often mention how well the kids handle it, how they know what to do. I understand that in terms of worst case scenarios, this is a good thing: that our kids will be as prepared as they could possibly be. In terms of humanity, my heart burns. Thirteen year olds should not have to plan for this type of violence. They’re too young to drive or vote or drink; they should also be too young to think about how to survive a gunman.
Teachers should not have to be heroes. We are already a profession that dances too close to martyrdom in our sacrifices for the children we spend our days with. It is one thing for me to sacrifice the time I do to provide what kids need from me. That is a choice I make. I should not also have to make the choice to die because our legislators won’t do anything to stop this from happening again.
I spent a week and a half navigating the wonderful world of influenza, resulting in a three day absence from school.
I have never used more than one sick day in any school year, let alone using three in the same week.
I didn't even experience the usual panic of what will they do without me? because I was too incapacitated to think of anything beyond sleeping, breathing, and hydrating.
Now I'm back, and I'm having a hard time erasing the scowl from my face.
My eighth graders were in the middle of drafting while I was gone. It was an ideal time to be sick (if such a thing exists) because I'd started them, the workshop routine is familiar at this point, and my absence gave them a few extra drafting days. But when I went to comment on their work over the weekend, too many times I clicked into blank documents. At least 20% of them had nothing. I boiled in rage, trying to bring it to a low simmer by the time I'd have them in class today. It wasn't enough time to cool down.
I told them I was disappointed, that I was stunned at the lack of progress. They're eighth graders, so no teacher comment goes un-retorted. The sub didn't know the answers to our questions! I needed a writing conference and you weren't here! None of those things should have stopped them from making progress, but they did.
In my third period class, shoulders slumped, I simply said, "You know that after May, you'll spend the rest of your lives writing without me, right? What are you going to do- stop writing?"
It was one of those teacher guilt trips, the wake up call and the reminder of our numbered days together all in one. Instead, it was a wake up call for me. Yes, some of them will stop writing without a teacher there to push them along. They will only wrestle with writing when they are forced to in an academic context. But this kind of writing? A workshopped piece that is completely determined by them? Some of them will never choose to write again because no one will provide them the time and the place to write for their own pleasure, and they won't consider it as an option on their own.
It's one of the thing that most bothers me in conversations with former students: when they say they miss writing about what they want to write about. They wish it could still be that way. And I swallow my frustration as I smile and say, "You know you can always write whatever you want, right? You can write whenever you want to about whatever you want." Then they laugh and tell me that there's no time for that anymore. They've already been sucked into the adult habit of thinking they're too busy being busy to do anything pleasurable with their time.
Too often at this time of year, I allow myself to slip into feelings of self-aggrandizement. The mid-year always makes me feel like I haven't accomplished enough, and instead of simply wanting to push for more, I twist it into life or death by writing accomplishment. If I can just get them to be successful with this, then... Then what? Will they even remember what they wrote about in a few months? Some. Maybe. Will it forever damage those 8th graders who blew off three days of workshop because their teacher was absent? Not likely.
In my absence, many of them chose not to write, just as many of them will choose not to write for the rest of their lives. Instead of taking it personally, I need to move on. I can provide the time, the invitation, and the skills to write within these four walls, but I can't be the writing police over every person who decides they don't feel like writing, especially when I'm not around.
My students will be fine without me. Their writing lives will grow and develop (or stagnate and disappear) without me someday, too. My goal is not and has never been to create writers who are dependent on a writing teacher, and their writerly choices must continue to remain their own, even if I don't agree with them.
I struggle with forcing my students to write formal essays. Not because I don't know how; teaching how to write a formal essay at the seventh grade level is a simple math equation of this + this + this = essay!
I struggle with teaching my kids to write formal essays because I don't think it's an important genre, or even a valid one for most situations. There are endless types of writing I'd rather read and explore with my students than formal essays.
But the standards are pretty clear that students need to use a formal essay style, so I have to teach and help my students through this form of writing that I genuinely despise.
I don't like it, but avoiding it would not only be negligence, it would also leave my students unprepared for a high school academic career where they will encounter at least an essay per week.
So in the first half of each trimester, my 7th and 8th graders have at least one formal essay assignment.
My ratio of student choice, workshop, and genre exploration writings heavily outweigh the essays in the grand scheme of things, but we still write them. I don't dedicate as much time to formal essays as a genre study because I don't feel they warrant the in-depth attention that other genres do. Formulaic writing doesn't deserve the attention level of things like fiction, poetry, or personal narrative because it doesn't include the same level of critical thinking and stylistic freedom.
My 7th graders are writing formal argument essays for the first time this week. When we do a any type of writing for the first time, I refer to it as "writing with training wheels." My students all understand the analogy of how riding a bike with training wheels can simulate the experience of cycling without quite being the real thing. Writing with training wheels is the same. It's not real writing yet. We are parroting moves and sentence frames in order to practice what the form might eventually develop into with time and experience.
With training wheels, I choose the sources we will all read together. We discuss and select facts, examples, and quotes together. I make sure those sources are varied enough that they include multiple topics for debate so students still have freedom to form their own thesis and focus for the essay. We use templates to introduce evidence and reasoning. (Blogger Dave Stuart Jr. has an awesome PDF resource that I sample from constantly. Good tools to add to writers' notebooks.)
We also mimic the moves that writers use by using our sources as mentors so they hit two birds with one stone. I use articles that include personal connections as a hook, showing my students how strong argument is grounded in stories from real life, and that first person has a valid place in formal writing.
(I'm very anti making blanket "no first person" mandates in most pieces of writing. Formal shouldn't by synonymous with antiseptic. Teachers should always subvert when and where they can.)
We always read informational sources with our thoughts and reactions in mind. If we are willing to devote the time and thought necessary to writing argument, then we better be an active part of that argument.
I'll evaluate training wheels argument essays with a simple single-point rubric that assesses whether or not they were able to meet the required standards. This is minimal grading that should give me an accurate view of whether I am able to take off the wheels next week and send them flying down the road to find their own topics and sources of interest for a more thorough delve into creating and supporting their own arguments.
I still don't like formal essays. I long for a day when English classrooms across the nation are released from ever having to adhere to this form of writing and the focus for standards can be on more authentic genres. But until that time comes, I have to hold myself accountable for the realization that teaching the subject I love doesn't mean that I can only teach the things I like.
I love starting over.
I love starting over so much that I celebrate resolutions any chance I get. New school year? Goals for improvement. New trimester? What am I going to do differently this time? New week? How am I going to change my relationship with that student I battled last week?
Whether it’s the first day of a new month, or a Monday morning, I love the chance to create a new beginning.
Of course, New Year’s is when everyone else celebrates turning over a new leaf, and I celebrate with relish, too. I’m putting my school resolutions out there in order to make them visible and to hold myself accountable. For the next year, I’ll be focusing on three main shifts in my behavior.
1. Show my colleagues the same version of myself that I show to my students.
I don’t know why I’ve always had trouble showing my authentic self to other adults. It’s not that I’m fake with them, but I’m definitely not as comfortable with them as I am with my students. Part of it is that I feel distant from the other adults in my building: their life experiences are so vastly different from the way I grew up that I feel like we don’t speak the same language. The things they prioritize and consider normal are things that often make me feel like an outsider or an interloper hiding in their midst. I have more in common with my at-risk students than I do with my colleagues, and while I’ve come to accept that, it doesn’t make my interaction with most adults any more comfortable. Because of this, I don’t have the patience for adults that I have for children, and I’m not good about hiding it. I need to cut other people slack and understand that I can’t hold other people accountable for the same standards I hold for myself. It’s not fair to them and it only leads to frustration for me.
2. Stop comparing.
There are so many different types of English teachers out there, and I am guilty of spending far too much of my time comparing myself to others, both good and bad. I need to stop feeling smug when something comes easy to me. It’s childish and it serves no one. I need to stop feeling inferior about the hundreds of things I don’t do well in a given week or year because I am doing my best at any given time. One of the things I love most about my teaching position is that I have complete autonomy. I wouldn’t want anyone to step in and tell me that I have to do things differently, so I need to stop myself from feeling that others need to change. I need to be easier on myself and others.
3. Focus inward.
Part of my struggle with dissatisfaction in the past two years has stemmed from my “teacher leadership” role in my district. I have been a leader in many aspects before ever stepping into this role in my district, but I thought the formal leadership was just the thing that would bring a new aspect of joy to my mid-career stage. It hasn’t. In fact, it’s only made me internalize problems in the system that aren’t my creation or responsibility, things that I have zero power over. I wanted to be an English teacher so that I could help kids find their voices and empower them through the act of writing. While I have never compromised that mission, teacher leadership has wormed other issues into my head that distract from the importance of what I do. I am not sure what this means for me as a “leader.” I would like to think that I am fully capable of leading others, but I have come to accept that I am not the leader people want me to be. I’m okay with that. It took a while to feel like I could say that without feeling like a quitter. I want the system to change; I want teachers to be empowered to make better choices for learning. But I also know that I can’t help make those changes happen within the current system. Instead of wasting more energy on this source of frustration, I need to put that energy back into my classroom. Things will change or they won’t, but I am ultimately most effective in my classroom, with my students. My leadership needs to be grounded there, as it always has been.
Three is enough for 2018, because they will each be difficult in their own way. The first two problems will never be completely solved for me as a person; they are only goals I can continue to chip away at for the rest of my career. They will take constant attention and redirection throughout my days, weeks, and years. The third should be an easier fix. I’ve always been good in the past about redirecting my energy toward what’s important, a point that many people find frustrating about me. I don't dwell. I don't fixate. When I make a decision that something is no longer worth my time and energy, I am ruthlessly efficient at weeding it out. By giving myself permission to no longer feel responsible for systemic issues, I can refocus where my responsibility actually belongs: my classroom.
Teaching gives us so many opportunities to reset and change direction: new semesters, new classes, new units and lessons, new years, new students. Kids are endlessly forgiving if we show them the same compassion we desire for ourselves and our mistakes. We have the perfect career for making things right if we don’t allow ourselves to feel stuck. Cheers to starting over and another opportunity to begin again.
One week later, and I'm still obsessed with how taking video of my teaching is steering reflection on my practice in new directions.
Every teacher, in every classroom needs to record themselves. I know there are some who might balk at this; I might have a few years ago, too. But I've spent the last week recording and then watching the recordings after school.
The original purpose for so many re-watchings is that I have to edit together teaching videos for my district's new lesson repository. This is a newly-launched initiative through our TLC program to share ideas, strategies, and lessons among the teachers in our district. Aside from the nerdy satisfaction I get from editing the videos together, it's also been eye-opening to have this view of my classroom and myself as a teacher.
Yesterday, my instructional coach spent a class period following me around as my personal camerawoman. My 7th graders were in stations, practicing summarizing, paraphrasing, and using direct quotes to avoid plagiarism. It's tough work for 7th graders since they really haven't had to cite sources until this year, and have definitely never had to use direct quotes.
I use stations a lot in my classroom, as I write about here. They work perfectly for a lot of reasons: they divide students into small groups, the tasks at each station keep groups engaged, and I have plenty of time to circulate and deliver small group instruction throughout the rotation process. Writing always requires multiple skills at use at the same time and stations provide the ability to have concentrated bursts (about 7 minutes per rotation) of practice at each skill.
Watching yourself isn't necessarily revolutionary, but it does reinforce and remind me of things that are easy to forget.
Whole-group instruction doesn't engage the majority of kids.
As I watched the beginning part of the lesson where we were reviewing a few main points as a large group, there were about eight kids who were actively discussing. I know this. All teachers know this. In a large group, a few kids will dominate and others will stay silent. What the video shows clearly is just how disengaged some of the silent kids are. There are many times where I have to teach to the whole group, especially when introducing new skills or concepts, but watching their disengagement on camera reminds me that it's not how I'm most effective as a teacher.
Kids learning from and with each other is just as important as what they learn from me.
Kids, especially middle school kids, learn better from their peers. They care what their peers think of them, and they want to interact as much as possible. Practicing skills to avoid plagiarism is no one's idea of fun, but students still enjoy it when they can struggle through it together. They'll have to write on their own later, but practice doesn't have to be isolated. There are so many times when my students work alone because the writing task has to be done on their own at that stage of the process. This video reminded me that making time for learning groups is just as important as individual learning.
Relationships happen in small groups.
Most of my relationships with students are built through feedback and conferences, but talking to my kids in small groups allows for those relationships to flourish in my classroom. We're doing hard work, but we also have to make time to laugh. I know my classroom feels good because I like being here and kids like being here, but there's something about watching it on video that reinforces the climate. The video captured a good day. I can't even imagine how much I would grow as a teacher if it captures a bad day and I force myself to watch that.
It's important to be at their level.
One of the things I enjoyed the most was watching my body language. As I would rotate among the different groups, I'd usually start by standing behind them with my arms crossed. After a few seconds, you can see the light click on in my head and I immediately reposition myself on their level (on the floor, in a chair) as much as possible. We're learning together, and that includes me. I shouldn't be hovering above them if I'm working with them.
It doesn't have to be impressive to be important.
I think what might probably scare people away from recording lessons is that they don't feel like what they're doing is enough. There are plenty of times when I've felt that way. Watching it puts things into perspective. Stations are simple, an elementary idea. They are also extremely effective for engagement and small group learning with a focus. I'm not the star of this video. The conversations and questions that my students have are the things that really shine.
My school district hasn't made our learning library public yet. I think that's a shame. I would love to share the actual video from my classroom yesterday, and the ones I'm sure I'll create in the future. I hope more teachers continue to take advantage of the opportunity to record themselves and watch what's actually happening in their classrooms.
I've been recording writing conferences this week.
I should do this every time I have a writing conference, so both the student and I have a record of what we learn together, but I rarely remember to do it.
This week, my instructional coach asked for some lessons that I'd be willing to video, and the first thing that came to my mind was writing conferences.
The conferences that I'm doing this week are mostly "rewrite" conferences. These happen when a student has already received a grade on a paper, but they didn't pass. They can schedule a rewrite conference where I'll reteach something major that they struggled with in that specific assignment.
I use a basic formula for this type of writing conference:
1. Determine the one major issue that prevented the student from having success. In the case of a failing paper, many issues contributed, but I won't torture my students by having them do a complete overhaul. It's my job to narrow down the single biggest issue that they can tackle.
2. Reteach using their actual writing and a mentor text. We find an example of the issue in their paper together, mostly by me asking them questions, step by step. We turn to the mentor text to see how it's done.
3. Fix at least one or two instances of the error together. The student does it in front of me, and we'll talk about it as we go. They ask clarifying questions as needed, and I'll ask questions to check for understanding.
4. I'll give them the task of making more changes or corrections with the same issue on their own, by a certain due date (usually by the end of the week). They need to experience the work without me next to them the entire time when it comes to growing as independent writers.
Watching myself in writing conferences is a learning experience.
I always scold myself on the first few, knowing that I've spent too much time talking, or that I've let them run too long.
I nitpick every last thing, from the unflattering angle on my double-chin, to the way my hands anxiously squirm and fold together as I try to stop myself from fixing errors for them to make it go faster.
There are things I love about watching them, too. Like when the camera can capture the exact moment when a seventh grade boy gets dialogue for the first time.
There are things I'll keep in mind for myself before tomorrow's conferences: watch the clock better to keep things under 5 minutes, talk less (always), do more asking instead of telling, and find a better angle for my laptop (because I'd be lying if I didn't include vanity in my self-reflection).
I will also remember to appreciate the things these videos show that I'm not always thinking about: that these kids schedule time before and after school to show up for extra writing instruction when they don't have to, that they come willing to sit down with someone who just graded their hard work as not good enough, and that they wouldn't be here if they didn't care, despite what might be easy to assume based on the failing grade.
Rewrite conferences are my favorite type of writing conferences because they wouldn't happen without hope from both sides. They give me hope that my writers care about growing and learning, that they don't accept failure. There is hope for my students when their teachers don't think failure is final.
It's easy to forget those things when I'm busy holding conferences. I'm glad I have the videos this week to remind me.
If you haven't seen the recent video recorded during a Forest City, Iowa basketball game that included racist comments about students from Eagle Grove, you should force yourself to.
(Here's a link so you can throw up in your mouth at your daily dose of blatant racism that has become our world in 2017: http://globegazette.com/news/local/racist-comments-caught-on-streaming-service-results-in-firing-of/article_efe6f08b-6417-5eca-a7e1-8eb2e824b31f.html )
In the video, two radio commentators from Forest City go on a racist tangent insulting students with "impossible" to pronounce names, and disparaging the community of Eagle Grove for accepting a company like Prestage Farms that will likely bring in a higher immigrant population to the area.
People are shocked, naturally. I mean, this is Iowa. We're so polite in the Midwest. We smile and say thank you and look people in the eye.
Yes, all of those things. And we are also racist as hell.
According to U.S. Census data, my state is 91% white. And the northern portion of the state that I live in, where Forest City and Eagle Grove also reside, is represented by unabashed racist Steve King. (I'm sure you've heard of him.)
In the twelve years since I've lived here, I've heard Steve King make a lot of horribly racist comments about the immigrant population that keeps his district alive. What I haven't heard is many people around here condemning his words, and that's the heart of Iowa racism. We might feel superior to the south and their history of segregation and slavery, but we won't make things uncomfortable in our small-town communities by calling out racism, or questioning our neighbors as to what exactly they find appealing about a person like Steve King and what he stands for. People will praise him for being a "straight shooter" when what they really mean is that they're thrilled to have him be racist for them so they don't have to do it themselves.
When I first moved to this part of the state as a 23-year-old (naive) teacher, I would defend my community. Not everyone here is a racist. Not everyone here supports Steve King. My defenses are weakening. It's disheartening to be surrounding by KING signs in the corn fields every time a new election cycle. It's demoralizing to grow hopeful when a new candidate pops up, only to have them lose in a landslide to someone who thinks it's an honor to be embraced by white supremacists. I used to think the problem was just King and the misguided people who voted for him, but that's too simple, and it's a copout.
It's growing impossible to deny what's been right in front of me all along: the state that I love, the rural community that feels like home, is also a breeding ground for racism.
I'm not going to pretend to have solutions on how to fix this cancer that's ripping our country apart. I'm not going to repeat the same reasons why this is happening in rural communities like mine, because we know why: white people feel like they're being replaced. Like any animal who perceives threat, racists are moving into fight or flight mode. Those who are scared but don't want to be vocal allow their elected officials to spew the venom for them; those who are emboldened are growing more vocally racist by the day, like the radio commentators who laughed their way through a barrage of hate speech against children.
The woman from the video, Holly Jand Kusserow-Smidt, is an elementary teacher in Forest City. Last I read, she's been put on administrative leave, but not fired because her comments weren't officially school-related. That shouldn't matter. She should be fired, and her teaching license should be revoked. Her comments have shown clear disregard for the ethical conduct Iowa teachers are supposed to adhere to. She didn't make a mistake or have a slip up; she very clearly does not have the ability to respect all learners under her care. We teach our students every day that actions have consequences. She doesn't get a free pass because she's not always vocally racist or whatever pathetic excuse people might try to defend her with. People with good hearts are not racists. There is no gray area there.
As much as rural racists might bluster about hating our growing immigrant population, there are a few things I know for sure:
1. My school district would not exist without our immigrant population. We would have long ago had to consolidate (even more) into county-wide schools instead of maintaining three separate school districts. The influx of new students keeps our schools alive, and schools keep rural communities alive. Without our immigrants, we die a slow and painful death.
2. Factory farms and meat processing facilities are major industry in rural Iowa. Guess who doesn't want to work in them? White people. Long hours, terrible conditions, and health risks make these jobs unspeakably difficult and dangerous. Many of my students and their families keep the local industry rolling because they are exploited in doing the work that others won't. Their work keeps money in our county, keeping us financial solvent.
3. Diverse heritage is supposed to be part of what makes this country great. If rural Iowa communities can celebrate Oktoberfest for their German ancestors, and hold tulip festivals for their Dutch founders, then we are only a stronger, more vibrant culture if we also celebrate our Latino immigrants as much as we celebrate the European ancestors of old. I am a better person and educator the more I listen to my students' stories of escapes from Guatemala and fond memories of Mexico. We don't get to knock back margaritas on Cinco de Mayo and enjoy Coco at the theater if we can't also appreciate the vibrant culture our immigrant populations are bringing to our small towns.
I hope the students of Eagle Grove, Forest City, and every other rural community like them know that they deserve better than this from the adults in their communities. We have a lot of work to do in Iowa, in the U.S. regarding how we treat minorities and immigrants. The first step is admitting we have a problem; now we have to do something about it.
One of my coworkers asked me the other day what was sacred to me as a teacher. He wanted me to name one non-negotiable that I wouldn't let go of under any circumstance.
For me, the answer is simple: I wouldn't let go of writing letters.
I started having my students write Dear Reader letters after encountering them again and again various books and articles. They all advocated in some way for students to write a letter to accompany graded writings, as a way to help narrow the focus for teacher response on high-stakes writing.
I have my students include four things in their Dear Hauptsteen letters on their final piece from each trimester.
First, they have to tell me their purpose for the piece of writing. This way, my focus as a grader-responder can be on how well they achieved their purpose, not on how "perfect" the writing is.
The research that was fundamental in reframing how I thought about purpose was “On Students’ Rights to Their Own Texts" by Brannon and Knoblauch. One of their main points was that most classroom situations go completely against the normal reader/writer contract of allowing the writer to have control. Instead, classrooms give control to the reader, allowing the reader (teacher) to tell the writer (student) that what the reader wants is more important than the writer’s actual purpose. By knowing our students' purposes ahead of time, we can better focus on what's actually important. Our feedback should help them to achieve their stated purpose, not give teachers control over how to make the piece of writing "perfect." By having students explicitly state their purposes in their Dear Reader letters, I am always reminded to keep their desires as writers at the forefront of my response.
The second thing I require in a Dear Reader letter is for the writer to point out their strengths in that particular piece of writing. It is unbelievably difficult for some of our student-writers to find anything worth praising themselves for. I set parameters that their strengths cannot be related to grammar, usage, or mechanics; I want them to look at their actual craft. Sometimes this is one sentence or paragraph, and that's okay. Sometimes it's just their original idea, and that's okay, too. Young writers are so used to thinking about what they're doing wrong that they need to focus on what they do well.
Conversely, I do make them share a major weakness from the particular piece. This should also not be related to grammar, usage, and mechanics. It should reflect on what they struggled with most during revision, and how their revisions attempted to address the issue.
Lastly, they tell me what feedback they want from me. Not only what particular parts of the piece they want feedback on, but also how they want it delivered. This reminds me of their individual needs as people and writers, and also gives them power in a situation that often leaves students feeling powerless.
While Dear Reader letters are a good start, they aren't the non-negotiable part of my teacher. Dear Writer letters are the thing I hold most sacred in my teaching practice.
I write back to all of my students when they write me a Dear Reader letter. That's what letter writing is, right? An exchange. There was something about the Dear Reader policies that I read about that always made me uncomfortable, and it's because none of them seemed to involve reciprocation.
If the idea of writing hundreds of letters freaks you out, take a deep breath.
I write Dear Writer letters in place of marginal comments on final drafts. Marginal comments mean very little to anyone after the writing process is done, so I don't bother with them after the stage of in-process feedback. The only thing my students get back on a final is my letter and a rubric.
My basic Dear Writer letter formula is simple: I start with a positive. This either agrees with what they pointed out as a strength, or points out something else that they didn't notice.
Starting with a positive not only reminds me to approach each paper looking for the good, but it also allows for a personal connection between me as a reader and my students as writers. Yes, there are some papers out there that make this extremely difficult, but even their original idea could be a positive if the writing doesn't provide any shining moments.
My other paragraph is something to work on. This is where I give them feedback on what they asked for help with, and usually give another suggestion regarding something I noticed. I pull sentences directly from their writing to show them a "fix" if it's something they need help with. This way, they can see the issue side by side with a way to fix it. I always think that this feels more personal than giving them a generic example.
I never had students care much about what I had to say when I gave them marginal comments, but every single one reads my letters.
I encourage all writing teachers to utilize Dear Reader letters in their classrooms, but even more importantly, to attempt Dear Writer letters, too. Marginal comments allow teachers to be callous in the rush to finish a stack of papers, but letters will always require more thoughtful consideration of the person receiving them.
Brannon, Lil, and C.H. Knoblauch. “On Students’ Rights to Their Own Texts: A Model of Teacher Response.” College Composition and Communication 33.2 (1982): 157-166. JSTOR. Web. 2 Oct. 2013.
I'll be processing the learning that took place at NCTE17 for months (and years) to come, but one moment from today already connected.
My first session on Friday was the panel on encouraging boys as readers and writers. Ralph Fletcher, Jason Reynolds, Jon Scieszka, and Dan Gemeinhart spoke truths about how to engage boys and get them excited about reading and writing, including the importance of not censoring their immature humor by making them feel like they couldn't be themselves in their writing.
Flash-forward to today during 6th period. Seventh graders are writing short fiction, and the following exchange occurs:
7th boy: Mrs. Hauptsteen, can I have something funny in my fiction story?
Me: Sure. Like what?
7th boy: Like the girl got scared and then she farted!
*Giggles from both of us*
Me: Yeah, you can put that in there.
The boy stayed after class to regale me with how it’s even funnier because the fart happens in a quiet library, so it's extra hilarious.
This boy usually hates writing. He doesn't usually do very well in my class. But because I resisted the urge to censor his immaturity, now he's excited.
The story will probably be terrible. Including the fart scene would probably be considered inappropriate by most teachers. Thanks to the Boy Writers panel at #NCTE17 for reminding me to allow this boy the freedom to find his voice anyway.
I am so lucky.
Last year, an amazing young English teacher accepted a position in my school district, and I immediately had a new friend and collaborator, right in my home turf.
Kristina and I met over the summer with one goal in mind: let's do something that can bring our classes together.
Thus, Poetry Pals was born.
One of my periods of 7th grade lined up with one of her periods of seniors, so it made sense to use those groups. Poetry is one of the first genre studies I take seventh graders through in workshop, so we settled on something related to poetry.
The introductions were good old-fashioned pen pal letters. My seventh graders introduced themselves along with some of their likes/dislikes.
Some were enthusiastic:
Some were... not:
Our senior pals wrote back to us to introduce themselves.
In our next exchange, we shared an original poem that was the favorite out of all we had created so far.
After exchanging letters over a few weeks, it was time to finally meet face to face.
Kristina and I decided that our Poetry Pals meeting should involve a collaborative poetry writing activity. I wanted it to be something the kids had never done before so that they would all be on equal footing.
While I'd always wanted to try poems for two voices, it's a form I've never taught. It also fit nicely with our goals for collaborative writing and performance. Since two different poets were coming together to write, a two voice poem would be a nice way to bring them together. The shared performance would also ease the nerves of speaking in front of the combined classes.
I did a quick 5-minute direct instruction using the popular Batman and Joker two-voice poem (there are a zillion lesson plans that use it). Kristina and I performed the example and talked about the comparison and contrast of the two voices working together. I gave them each a three column graphic organizer (bottom half of the second linked page).
Then, we set them loose.
We also had the beauty of four adults in the room: me, Kristina, our instructional coach (and videographer!), and the para who works with one of my students. With so many of us circulating, the kids had in-process feedback as soon as they needed it.
It was amazing. My seventh graders were so anxious in the moments leading up to their arrival that I was worried their nerves would turn our collaborative activity into awkward silence.
I should have had more faith in my kids.
And the seniors, these young men and women who haven't sat in these desks since they were my 8th graders all those years ago; they made me proud. The ones I worried might be callous or annoyed with my middle schoolers proved me wrong. There was not a single senior in that room who was anything less than kind and supportive for their young pals.
And in the last few minutes of class, every single group came up to perform their poems for us.
It meant so much to have one period on one day where I could come together with my friend and all of our students. My 7th graders had older kids to look up to and a new audience for their ideas, and her kids had the opportunity do something creative and silly that their high school academics don't always allow for. We all got to create that little spark of magic that happens when a bunch of writers come together to think on paper and share their thoughts with each other in a safe and supportive environment.
I got to have my friend, my coach, my current students, and my former kids all together under my roof for a small slice of time.
I am so lucky.
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.