I am in a funk.
I have been in a funk for the past year.
I have run miles to escape the funk but it followed me.
I tried to bike away from my funk to add some distance, but it traveled on all the same roads and trails.
I backpacked through Europe this summer and the funk was waiting, holding a sign at the airport as soon as I hit US soil.
I thought the funk would end when I started my first day of work at the job I love, but it's been hiding in my backseat every morning, so we carpool to school together.
I thought the funk would fade once I got in the groove of teaching and coaching again, but instead I go home at night and stare into space and listen to funk whispering in my ear, telling me that I hate everyone and everything.
This low-simmering apathy has followed me around for far too long.
I have analyzed and pondered and journaled and talked about why I might feel this fog hanging over me right now, and the only thing I can come up with is that I have an energy imbalance. I tried to burn bright for others. I didn’t stop to notice that my own fire needed tending.
I am ready to do something about it.
I am rebuilding the fire. I am digging back into research, the place where I find solace and purpose and motivation. I am writing to get rejected as often as possible at the behest of an amazing friend.
I will conquer the funk and get it out of my freaking life and work and move on.
I require all of my students to have a writing conference for each piece of high-stakes writing (schedule-wise, every 6-8 weeks).
My writing conferences generally focus on either brainstorming, drafting organization, or revision. The most successful ones are the revision conferences, when the students have more stake in what they are writing. Once a draft is down, they have more to say, and the conference has more give and take balance of mutual communication.
I only hold editing conferences for students with IEPs or 504s. Just as I expect my writers to view capitalization and punctuation as a choice rather than a skill, I expect them to notice and account for those choices on their own. I comment on the issue and will conference as a follow up to a video or mini-lesson to make sure they understand the nature of the error and how to fix it, but I won't go through every issue in their drafts. I believe one of our common missteps in the teaching of writing is that teachers fulfill the editor role far too quickly. Our students need to develop the critical thinking to evaluate their own writing based on lessons and guided practice from class. If they never have the opportunity to develop this skill, they'll never take ownership for self-editing.
Writing conferences are something I implemented for years in my classroom, but without solid reasoning as to how or why to do them. My general feeling was that I should be conversing with students one-on-one about their writing when possible, but beyond that I was simply working on instinct.
A few years ago, during my time in the UNI MA:TESS program (Join the new cohort! Now!), part of my focus was on writing conferences. I knew I wasn't doing them well, and I needed help.
Everything I read helped to refine goals for conferencing as well as teacher-student roles in the conference. The common recurring theme I ran into was the issue of control in student writing.
Conferences can help students think about their writing, and teachers should provide a supportive and guiding influence, but the writing choices made after a conference should ultimately be left to the writer.
I know this. I know what the research says. And still, when I sit down with a student, I screw up.
More likely than not, my writing conferences involve me handing a Post-It note of “things you should do” to each student at the end of our conversation. A conversation where I'm usually the one doing most of the talking.
From Carl Anderson, I learned that I should be keeping extensive records on conference dates for each student, topic of each conference, things learned about each individual as a writer, and strategies taught during the conference.
I tried. I made spreadsheets and sometimes I even remembered to digitally log the information! But more often than not, my record-keeping turns into random symbols and scratches on my seating chart. I highlight names of those who have had conferences and barely remember to write down the genre and general topic they're working on.
Mostly, my conversations in an early-stage writing conference center around requirements and organization for the current piece. The students nod their heads as I write bullet points on their Post-Its, or offer them graphic organizers, and they leave with very little idea what we actually accomplished. These conferences are exhausting because I'm doing so much talking.
Donald Murray stressed the importance of teacher listening in a writing conference, and this is often the part where I feel the most failure. I can forgive my sloppy record-keeping as a by-product of my abysmal organizational skills. I have no defense for talking when I should be listening. Filling the space of a writing conference with my voice is the same mistake all teachers slip into at one time or another: it's uncomfortable to sit in silence. The students know they can hold out longer than we can. I have 140ish writing conferences to get through; I can't afford wait time when some students can't (or won't) make progress on their work without talking to me. If they won't answer my questions, I'll inevitably cave and do the talking for them.
If I'm so terrible at writing conferences, then why do I still require them for all of my students on a regular basis?
Because I get better each time, and so do the kids.
As our teacher-student relationship grows, the comfort of the writing conference allows for it become more of a conversation than a speech-for-audience-of-one. I remind myself to ask questions and actually listen to what they have to say. As they progress through a piece, their one required conference out of the way, they keep coming back for more, this time with specific direction and questions they want to discuss. They line up during study hall or sacrifice their recess to squeeze in some extra time. They email me from high school, no longer my students, asking if they can stop by after school and discuss a piece they're working on.
Even though I'm not living up to the writing conference ideal, I'm still giving students individualized time to think and talk about their writing with another person. It might not be the most effective conferencing method, but I have to settle with it being better than nothing while I work to improve.
Anderson, Carl. How’s it Going? A Practical Guide to Conferring with Student Writers. Portsmouth: Heinemann, 2000. Print.
Murray, Donald M. “Listening Eye: Reflections on the Writing Conference.” College English 41.1 (1979): 13-18. Education Index Retrospective: 1929-1983 (H.W. Wilson). Web. 12 Oct. 2013.
Generating ideas for writing is something I've grappled with throughout my career. Ideas are everywhere! is my default stance, and I encourage students to become observers to mine every aspect of their lives for writing topics. But my 7th graders are brainstorming ideas for their first round of "full workshop" this year, and they need help.
Confession: I hate writing prompts.
Okay, not all prompts, but I hate the standard variety prompts that typically find their way into elementary and middle-level classrooms that deal with students answering a random question, i.e. "If you could have any superpower, what would it be?!"
Confession #2: In my first few years of teaching, I used these types of prompts nearly every day for journal writing/quickwrites.
Why? Because I was terrified.
I was so worried that my students wouldn't have anything to write about, that I had to ease my own discomfort by forcing them to write to a prompt. In fact, if I had to name the number one issue in the teaching of writing, fear would be it. We cling to practices that don't work (*cough* grammar worksheets *cough*) and avoid proven practices that do work (voice and choice) because we are afraid that our students will fail at the insurmountable task of writing if we don't structure everything into a clean formula. It's awkward when students are not able to do what we want them to do; it makes both teachers and students feel like failures, and so much of writing makes us feel inadequate anyway.
My students come to me with a prompt-heavy background. Some of them truly believe that they don't know how to write unless a teacher gives them a prompt. (I could rant about the structures schools put in place that create learned helplessness and hinder critical thinking, but I'll try not to.) Aside from the dependence that prompts create between the teacher (giver of prompt) and student-writer (receiver/victim of prompt), it also makes for boring reading. I don't want to read 140 versions of the same answer to a question, thank you very much.
I used to throw my student-writers into the fire and say, "It's time to think for yourselves!" or something equally terrifying that was intended to be liberating, but I've changed. My writers needed balance between strict prompt and free-for-all.
It's not that prompts are terrible things, it's just the standard format for prompting has become so specified that many of them don't leave options for freedom or creativity.
I still maintain that topic choice is free: my students can write about whatever they want as long as they show variety with topics and genres. When we do brainstorming, they have to participate in the brainstorm rotations, but their ultimate topic choices can come from somewhere else. The structured brainstorm is specifically to get us thinking of new/different ideas to keep in our notebooks for whenever we might get stuck.
When my students are gearing up to do a major piece of writing for workshop (high-stakes as opposed to regular free writes or quickwrites from daily classwork), my go-to brainstorming is a two day rotation through stations.
Each station has a poster with broad topics. Underneath, there are questions or things to think about to help create a spark. I encourage students to use the rotations to quickwrite lists and ideas about anything and everything that pops into their brains during that time, whether it's related to the station topic or not.
I create six stations because this evenly divides most of my classes into groups of 3-5 people per station.
8 minutes per station: Five minutes to brainstorm silently in their notebooks; three minutes to share ideas and discuss with groupmates.
I originally thought ten minutes per station would be best, but the kids get antsy at certain stations. Anything less doesn't give them enough time to struggle through on their own or talk ideas out with others. Eight minutes seems to be the sweet spot for my middle school writers.
By the end of two class periods, they have rotated through all six stations. As they think of ideas, I have them put stars next to ones that stand out above others to begin the process of narrowing down.
At the end of the brainstorm, they look for their "stars" and see what genres they align with. The "Big Five" genres are always at the top of the brainstorm, but they have freedom to work in others if they choose.
I have them choose the top 2-3 genres they want to work with and to categorize their topics under those genres. This way, they always have a backup if they get stuck. This also provides options for discussion during our writing conferences; many young writers aren't yet aware of their strengths, so this helps me guide them to a good fit.
A full two-day brainstorm rotation like this only happens once per trimester in my classroom. I constantly remind students that these ideas are in their notebooks forever. Maybe something that didn't earn a "star" for this trimester would work better as a topic for a later free write.
Struggling writers might only have one or two things from each station, and that's okay. Six total ideas is still better than none. They get out what they put in, and I remind them frequently that all ideas are welcome in a brainstorm.
Sometimes the most difficult part of brainstorming is nudging writers past their own self-censorship. They aren't used to the freedom. It's scarier to come up with your own idea than it is to answer a structured prompt. It's healthy for writers to face that fear head-on in their notebooks.
Writing is, by nature, frustrating and difficult. It's our job as writing teachers to stop feeling like we have to rescue kids (and ourselves) from the discomfort of writing by telling them what to write about. We build their confidence and skill by helping them to discover the thoughts and ideas they already have instead of putting thoughts in their heads for them.
A few weeks ago, Jennifer Gonzalez reposted a few entries on single-point rubrics from her Cult of Pedagogy blog. I'm generally impressed or at least intrigued with anything she writes about, so I took a dive into single-point rubrics for the first time. (Links to her posts at the bottom .)
My relationship with rubrics and grading is not a love-hate relationship like many aspects of teaching tend to fall into. No, I solidly hate both rubrics and grading. I still have to use one to do the other in my current teaching environment.
As a workshop teacher, there's nothing that feels ickier than putting a grade or a number on a piece of writing. Most of the grades I put on writings are completion points for low-stakes weekly writings, using a holistic rubric. I am not advocating this as an exceptional (or even good) practice, but I am required to have grades in the gradebook each week and I refuse to turn low-stakes writing into something scary or punitive, so basic compliance it is.
For major writings (roughly one every six weeks), I use analytic rubrics based off of Carol Jago's examples in Papers, Papers, Papers. I adapt the basic template to fit most genres of writing my students choose to take through workshop into complete pieces. I only use these in-depth rubrics when the piece has gone through multiple drafts with my in-process feedback. Basic template:
I fill in the details on Content and Ideas and Organization based on features of each particular genre. For the most part, Style and G/U stay the same across genres.
While I do think it's important for high-stakes writing to be graded analytically, I didn't have an in-between rubric to turn to. It seems cruel to grade 7th graders writing their first formal analysis essay on this rubric, but an academic essay is more high-stakes than I wanted for my holistic 4-point rubric. I needed something that wouldn't be overly punitive and would provide quality feedback on a piece of writing that hasn't had in-process comments.
Enter the single-point rubric. I won't rehash the genius of Gonzalez's work in simplifying the rubric; I want to talk about the immediate differences it made in my grading practice for 7th grade Poetry Analysis Essays.
First, the rubric itself. Narrowing the criteria down to the four basic standards I wanted to see evidence of in my students' writing was illuminating. I wasn't looking for all of the things; I had to narrow down to what was most important based on what standards we've been working on.
Second, instead of nitpicking for various degrees of value, I had to make a clear choice on each standard. Having the option between "Concern" and "Advanced" forced me to think about their writing differently. I couldn't fudge it based on other factors: they either met the standard or they didn't. This made the grading process much faster than a more analytical rubric.
The most important factor was the decision I made to use this rubric in real time, during conferences with each student. They would know their grades immediately because we would sit with the essay between us while I talked them through the rubric and they showed me their evidence in the essay.
Having to look a kid in the eye and tell them why I was marking a certain side of the rubric over the other was revolutionary for me as an educator. It's easy to be overly critical when I'm sitting on my couch looking at a screen and bemoaning how little they listen to me and how many I have left to grade. It's a helluva lot harder to look a kid in the eye and explain why one slip up on one standard takes them down by full grade points. I had to think about what really mattered and how much it mattered, and I had to justify those choices to my students in person.
I wasn't the only one who cared more about the grade. I had more kids take advantage of rewrite opportunities on this essay than ever before. I always offer rewrites, so why was this different? Because they knew exactly when and where and why they messed up, and our conversation made the grade feel more flexible instead of being set in stone. Filling it out in front of them during a conversation took the mystery away. I always do writing conferences and I always offer rewrites, but I've never graded with my students before. Transparency mattered.
I don't think any one type of rubric will rule above others in my classroom, but the single-point is a welcome addition to my toolbox. I highly recommend using it face to face so students can be part of the process. Both sides might look at their writing differently after the experience.
Single-Point Rubric Resources:Gonzalez, Jennifer. “Your Rubric Is a Hot Mess; Here's How to Fix It.” Brilliant or Insane, 9 Oct. 2014, www.brilliant-insane.com/2014/10/single-point-rubric.html.
Gonzalez, Jennifer. “Know Your Terms: Holistic, Analytic, and Single-Point Rubrics.” Cult of Pedagogy, 1 May 2014, www.cultofpedagogy.com/holistic-analytic-single-point-rubrics/.
I'm not sure if my principal stole this phrase or not, but he has always referred to my expectations and as "nauseatingly clear." This starts with a solid routine.
For some people, even the word routine makes them shiver with threats of boredom or strictly-scripted lesson plans from a toolkit. But here's the deal: I don't think you can run a successful writer's workshop without a regular routine. Workshop is asking students to take risks as writers, and that's enough of a gamble for most of them. It can also be a risky mess for a teacher. Adhering to a routine makes the workshop less scary. It makes the facilitator (aka teacher-writer) more conscious of her place in the workshop. Routine keeps the balance between a free-for-all or a teacher-centered classroom.
A few thoughts on planning:
I don't plan beyond one week. Yes, when grading periods are looming I do have to look at reasonable cut-off dates, but I strongly advocate against planning anything beyond 3-4 days at a time.
Contrary to what teacher-ed programs might tell you, planning a full unit of study out in advance, down to the day, isn't good practice. A monthly lesson plan calendar doesn't take students into account at all. How do you know how quickly each group will grasp a concept? How can you tell in advance how much time they will need to write? Build the schedule around your observations and formative work in class. If it's worth doing, then it's worth taking the time necessary to do it well.
There are a few ways in which I view planning: class period level and week level, and genre study versus "full" workshop. These factors determine the routine. My school is on a trimester schedule, so I roughly divide the trimester into the first seven to nine weeks as time for genre experimentations and study, and the last three weeks as full writer's workshop. ("Full" in the sense that I am not dictating which genres students have to write in, and they have almost complete freedom in what they choose to take through workshop.)
Generic Class Period Routine (45-minute periods):
10-minute read aloud
10-15-minute teacher-directed mini-lesson or skill introduction
20-25 minutes for student work with skill while teacher continues modeling/circulates room/is available for writing conferences
Read aloud: This is purely for pleasure and to give students a break. A read aloud at the beginning of workshop eases even the most squirrelly middle schoolers into the zone.
Mini-lesson or skill introduction: Take strategy notes in our writer's notebooks, dig into mentor texts, learn about genre features, practice new approaches.
Independent work: In the early parts of the week, this is expanding on the mini-lesson by putting new skills to work in our writer's notebooks or in Google Classroom. During this time, I also post video lessons in Google Classroom so students can review the direct instruction of key strategies and mini-lessons.
Generic Weekly Routine:
Monday: Introduce new genre or focus area within a genre we are already working on. Take any notes related to characteristics or qualities of the genre. Discuss learning goals and "I can" statements related to standards. This is the day of the week when I do the most talking in front of the large group.
Tuesday: Read pieces from the genre in order to get to know the style of writing. Annotate for meaning, clarification, and to notice features from yesterday's introduction. Discuss how the piece(s) show us something about the genre.
Start to brainstorm our own possibilities for writing in this genre.
Wednesday: Notebook writing and experimentation with the new skills or genre. Share out golden lines at end of period. Students can begin to conference as need dictates.
Thursday: More writing in the genre. Time for peer response (sometimes highly structured; sometimes casual partnerships). Collaborative writing time. Conferencing continued. Students can look at mentors and experiment with imitating the skills and style in their own notebook work.
Friday: Most of the time, Fridays in my classroom are Free Write Friday. I do this so students can have freedom even when we are in genre work Monday-Thursday. Sometimes their progress on a skill or paper doesn't allow for it, and Friday's writing is a more formative assessment related to the week's work.
Here's what my weekly lesson plan looks like when I teach leads for personal narrative writing:
Weekly Routine During "Full" Workshop:
Monday and Tuesday: Brainstorming rotations. There are many different ways to brainstorm, but one of my favorites to pull out a few times each year is to borrow from the elementary classroom and use stations. I create six prompt stations on posters and place the posters throughout the room. We rotate in small groups with our notebooks and do quickwrites for 10 minutes at each station. By the end of the second day, students are expected to have at least the start of something they want to workshop. (They are not required to do something from the brainstorm: this is only if they have no ideas of their own.)
Wednesday-Friday: Drafting days and initial writing conferences. These writing conferences are to touch base on what they've chosen for topics. Most of our discussions involve help with brainstorming or organization. Some students prefer this early writing conference to happen before they begin drafting so we can organize what their piece might include. Some like to start, then ask for help on a more specific struggle.
After the first week: Once the initial drafts are written, writers in workshop tend to spread out. Some move ahead. Some get stuck. Some ask for a writing conference through every step of the way. Some attempt to avoid me at all costs.
I give 8th graders more freedom for choosing when they are ready to move into informal peer response, but still hold them accountable for formal peer response days when everyone participates in structured small groupings.
I post revision and editing video lessons in Google Classroom based on genres and common hang-ups so students can access them as necessary and so I can cover some individualized instruction in that manner. If I'm noticing recurring issues, I'll pull small genre groups together for mini-lessons in the back of the room.
Something I haven't mastered yet is my fast writers. (These are different from high achievers. Most high achieving writers take all the time they are given because they are obsessed with quality.) Beyond having fast finishers write more or experiment with different genres, it can get tricky to give them quality extension work if they finish a decent workshopped piece before others. I don't want to give them busywork, but I also don't want people to think that rushing through means that they can do whatever they want. They generally start another piece to workshop and grumble about it.
I've heard horror stories from teachers in other districts regarding the detailed lesson plans and 30-day calendars they are required to use in their language arts curriculums. While I'm sure someone at some point instituted those type of policies for accountability purposes, it makes me wonder what the true focus of the classroom is. A perfectly-crafted lesson plan that checks all the right boxes still can't account for everything that might happen. If we put more energy into building routines that work for us as teachers and our students as learners, the plans will adapt to actual needs instead of becoming another hoop to jump through.
Workshop can be a daunting venture for any teacher to launch. A solid routine helps take away some of the fear.
We are revising personal narratives in 8th grade. Now that we have bared our souls onto the empty page, we have to confront the seemingly-insurmountable task of making them better.
If you ask me, I'll tell you that revision is my favorite part of writing. It's the most important part, and the one most people skip over.
Brainstorming and composing are essential because there's no writing without them.
Editing gets most of the attention in school because people place too much value on correctness.
But revising is the throw away part; the step that is often thrown aside. Which is terrible, since it's where we truly grow as writers. I'm not sure I even know the point of most of my writings until I'm revising them, and this is especially true of narrative. Most of the time I don't realize what I'm learning about myself as a person or writer until I'm looking at the work with fresh eyes.
If you watch me, though, you will see that I am a hypocrite. Revising is punishing work. I'm done. I did the thing. It's not terrible. Why isn't it good enough for you? Take it or leave it. I don't want to revise.
Revising with my students is what holds me accountable. They have to revise, so I have to revise. I can cheat myself as a writer when I'm alone, but I can't cheat in front of my student-writers.
Kelly Gallager's STAR revision from Teaching Adolescent Writers is my go-to method for revision. The categories (Substitute, Take out, Add, Rearrange) give my middle school writers enough structure without being overwhelming or easy to forget.
I try to build a week (or at least 2-3 days) between drafting and revising. The purpose for this is two-fold:
1. It gives me time to comment on rough drafts. I align my in-process feedback to the STAR categories so that students will at least have a jumping off point. This also keeps me honest as a responder. Am I giving actionable feedback? Is it designed to improve the writing as opposed to simply relying on error correction?
2. It gives the writers a break. We can't expect them to look at a piece with fresh eyes if they are revising the day after they finished writing the draft. Try to make the break a self-contained mini-unit or project that is completely unrelated to the piece they are working on. (For this time of year, I time our drafting and revising around the yearly celebration of Banned Books Week.)
We revise on printed copies of our work. I know this isn't necessary from a technology and conservation perspective, but it's the one exception I make for using paper because it's not a waste. My revisions are never as good on the screen as they are in multi-colored scribbles on the physical document.
I model my revisions on the document camera while they work on theirs. This is the moment when I am most genuinely a writer and not a teacher in the classroom. I spend the first ten minutes talking them through why I'm making certain changes, or how I decide what to approach first, but then I'm just doing the work while they do it alongside me.
I don't plan out my revisions ahead of time, aside from stopping myself from making changes during drafting as much as possible. I want to leave the writing at its most untouched so they can see me go through the most growth.
My student-writers are shocked by how many revisions I start to make on my writing. I make sure to pick completely different topics and drafts for each class period so I don't get lazy or content to do "fake" revisions as the day goes on. When they see the best writer in the room pushing to improve, they tackle it with the same dedication. At times when I do not spend the time revising with my students, the result is always the same: they don't revise as deeply. They need to see that it's important to me in order for it to be important to them.
At the end of class the other day, a new student came up to me to show me her paper. She was concerned. She thought she had done revision "wrong" because there were so many additions and changes written down by the end of the class period. Her fear is typical. We have so many scared young writers because of the fear of over-correction and one-and-done high stakes writing assignments. Not every piece is worthy of revision, but every writer should know that they have the ability to look at their work again with fresh eyes.
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 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.