A huge shout-out of gratitude to Angela Stockman: read this first:
Ah, the synergy and serendipity of collaboration and conversation.
I’m sitting in my writing shed, something I wanted forever, am very grateful to have, and am still paying off. And the barn-style door does not stay propped open on its own (does anything?). Returning from a walk, I go back to the shed to see what kinds of inspiration can be gleaned from a sunny, anxious depressing, cortisol-filled day. Now, mind you, the garden statuary of the squirrel has a long story, and not sure I’m going to write it right this minute. But I use this statue to prop open the door, and it came to me that this statue is symbolic of a guardian, a talisman, of mine. Quick snapshot, and onto my IG post of the day. Today is the 218/366 (it’s a Leap Year).
And then I thought–whew– wouldn’t this be a good writing prompt idea for my students? I know we all live in different spaces, sometimes sharing an apartment with extended family. But if they could imagine and fantasize about legendary guardians and protectors, what fantasy objects could their “loose parts” help them create?
I’ve often said being an art major informed my teaching. I use writing territories and many low-risk writing strategies. The trick is I’m not going to be ‘there,’ but merely a hologram. Stockman’s Loose Parts reminds me of writing territories but more refined and functional. When I’ve used writing territories in the recent past, some students are confused and don’t grab onto their own stories. The three timeline writing works, but even that can be traumatic. Allow writers to choose from their own writing territories, or collection of loose parts.
It may be wrong or naive of me to hope that the state standardized testing is gone, at least in its current form. The writing has morphed into solely writing to respond. It’s an autopsy of reading, too, and makes little or no connection to the symbiotic act of reading and writing.
Christina Torres is an excellent writer. And like all excellent writers, know when she gets stuck, and seeks advice on how to get unstuck:
Any tips for how to get my brain back in order to write? Mind feels foggy, keep mistyping, struggling to focus. Trying not to run/bike bc it historically doesn’t help and I’m really sore/physically burnt out.
Would also take how to induce panic attack so this finally stops 🤣
One of the dispiriting aspects about the quarantine for me personally, and this is coming from a place of privilege. My husband and I could continue working from home, and have young adult sons that are self-reliant. I have no excuses hindering me from writing, creating, drawing, etc. Global pandemic, U.S. sliding into fascism, concerns about the end of things…but sure…
And because of the voluminous deluge of people who believe and spout the most ridiculous of notions, I flipped it around to try to have some creative fun, and it was!
1/ So, #writing. This tweet made me think about a few things. What anatomy would be good to have, equipped out of the box, so to speak? What anatomy is useless? Keep it appropriate, please. pic.twitter.com/Sw9xhrMpv7
My self derision is constant because here I am, with time, shelter, food, and purpose, and I could not write what I thought I would write if all these things came together. I guess I thought I would open Scrivener files and finish “that novel.” The one I’ve thought about for eight years, and can’t seem to just type it. I’ve done everything ‘around’ the writing but actually write.
But I wrote something this past week, and my COVID19 brain fog was pretty intense. I made a huge mistake in the draft I sent Larry Ferlazzo, and thankfully I asked my husband about it, and he immediately understood and clarified what I did wrong. However, aside from my poor internal editing skills, writing and contributing to this article helped me frame my plans for remote teaching and learning this upcoming year:
And here’s the thing: writing without a partner or group isn’t fun. Yes, I realize hundreds of novels were written in cloistered turrets, but writing in my own spinning head gets me no where fast. I just want to say thank you to my virtual writing group — the folks on Twitter and other spaces who keep me inspired and writing.
One more thing: reading has been challenging, too, but finally broke through with Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia and now I’m reading The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern.
I’m tired of ignorance being elevated to an art form. Of trolls and fascists, and fascist trolls, gaining ground in my mind and soul. But this ignorance is killing us. It’s not funny, it’s not cute. But I can take a cue from other artists, with sublime poise and precision, take down the dotards and dullards, the unimaginative and aggressively boring. And even if I can’t seem to write my novel(s) now, there are goddess and gods who are, do, and can. There is still magnificent prose to read, air to breath, and sun to warm us.
PS and watch someone in another field besides teaching discuss their profession:
I am a huge fan of John Warren’s writing, Why They Can’t Write: I believe it should be required reading and professional development by every high school English and History teacher (and Science, Math, PE, Orchestra, Art, etc.) for one important reason: he provides a road map to where our students are headed. If the five-paragraph essay is the only path and scaffold to instruct students on organization, we have lost our why. So, this is not a hit on the five-paragraph essay structure as much as it is a call to look closely at the why of explaining organization. Continuing the curation of mentor texts and redefining what an essay looks like is of utmost important to me. I am constantly striving to reconsider, rethink, and reflect on the practice of teaching and learning about writing.
Some of the best educators on Twitter weighed in with their advice and insight, so if you’re on Twitter, I highly recommend reading some of the comments. And since this is my blog and personal pensieve, I choose to explore this a bit further.
Rebecca is correct: the five of the six traits are skill-based, concrete and easily translated into learning targets and success criteria, and Voice stands out as an gossamer butterfly – hard to capture. Her metaphor is better. My apologies for a weak attempt.
My suggestion was to use mentor texts from a variety of sources. A #pairedtexts approach is useful. Thinking of speeches by recent Presidents and other leaders, both great and ignominious, would also provide rich conversations about voice. Ultimately, the goal is to help guide student writers to define, defend, and develop their own voices.
Craft and Structure:
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.4 Interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text, including determining technical, connotative, and figurative meanings, and analyze how specific word choices shape meaning or tone.
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.5 Analyze the structure of texts, including how specific sentences, paragraphs, and larger portions of the text (e.g., a section, chapter, scene, or stanza) relate to each other and the whole.
– June 16, 2015 – In the same speech announcing his candidacy, Donald Trump said, “I will build a great wall—and nobody builds walls better than me, believe me—and I’ll build them very inexpensively. I will build a great, great wall on our southern border, and I will make Mexico pay for that wall. Mark my words.” Trump’s belief that Mexico should finance construction for the wall led Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto to cancel a meeting with Trump in June 2017, and again in February 2018. Peña Nieto has repeatedly said that Mexico will not fund the border wall.
Maybe voice is difficult to ‘teach’ to adolescents because their voices are still developing; however this does not mean their voices should be marginalized or misjudged. Adolescent voices are often brilliant. Perhaps whenever we have young authors in our care we must remind them, and ourselves, often and kindly, that their voice matters, is growing, and writing is a way to hold onto and reflect on one’s growth. Writing is the best way to provide our own histories with personal primary documents. (I’m going to find those sixth grade journals someday, I swear.) Voice evolves, strengthens, breaks, and regenerates. Consider whose voices to we tune-out, and whose voices do we ache to hear?
PS I’ve been writing this blog for over a decade and want to thank those who read my voice. In truth I’d probably continue to talk to myself, but it’s nice to know you’re out there, too.
One of my decades-long dreams has become a reality. (One that is going to be tough to pay for, but whatever.) After almost twenty-five years, I have a space to create and write that’s my own. It’s warm, well-lit and already cluttered with magical goobobs and whatsitz. And now I’m faced with the glaring mental blank page of fear. I have to do this. Whatever “this” is.
But–I’m fat, and need to go for a walk. The dog needs brushing. And the floors swept. The laundry room is filthy. The toilets need scrubbing. The thank you notes written. Are my sons okay? Are they happy? Is my husband okay? Does he want to watch a movie? Is he bored? Do I need to solve that? Am I bored? Are my students doing okay? The clothes hung. Underwear and sock drawer sorted. The fridge scrubbed out. Shelves dusted. Budget rectified. Bills paid. Balance checked (red). Lesson plans completed. Playlists made. Creditors called. Check in on parents. On neighbors. On friends. Check social media. Engage. Disengage. Take a shower. Brush teeth. Take meds. Fill the dogs’ water bowls. Feed them. Oh, I really should take one for a walk. Make a schedule, a plan. Break dates. Plan a party. Cancel a party. Check bank balance. Husband has small meltdown about healthcare (justified).
For all my bluster and show about loving to write, it’s been scribbles and stickies. I have bits and threads all over the damn place, and not a cohesive, completed work. I use Scrivener, Evernote, and notebooks. Probably should up my Freedom account again so I don’t stray over to other tabs.
And now: I have time. Time to make a writing plan, and just get to it. Giving myself grace and permission: if it turns out I have nothing worth saying, who’ve I harmed? No one, not even myself. Writing is a natural, zesty enterprise (in the words of Maude Lebowski). My Capricorn husband does tend to look at time/creativity in monetary terms, and I don’t blame him really. We both tend to suffer from a scarcity mindset, and thinking of ways to monetize our time is somewhat of an obsession. It’s our hustle. Oh, well.
Thinking of the generations of women who did find the time, the quill and the ink to write. In spite of having all of the domestic duties and patriarchy weighing them down. But then I think about Herman Melville, who my friend Holly told me had an attic space and he forbade any of the women of the house to disturb him in any way. And this is published on PBS:
In the midst of his initial years as a profitable author, Melville married Elizabeth Shaw, daughter of the chief justice of Massachusetts and a close family friend. The chief justice, Lemuel Shaw, would later support Melville in the late 1850s during his financial struggles. With his new bride, Melville moved to New York City to live with his younger brother, mother, and four sisters in late 1847. Despite these crowded quarters, Melville was able to continue writing, and he finished two more novels within two years.
So…wait…in a “crowded house” that his father-in-law provided the women hung out and did every other domestic chore? The hell, Melville. Go downstairs and wash a dish or two and clear your head so you don’t confuse whales with fish.
This is leading me to another blog post, one which examines women authors from backgrounds, races, time periods and voices. How did they do it? And also – the next generation of authors: what forms and genres will they create, have created, that will take us further?
I am not sure how or why, but am completely starstruck: Larry Ferlazzo asked me to be on one of his BAM! podcasts, and that was so cool! The panel consisted of me, Katherine Schultan @KSchulten and Tatiana Esteban @tmce0419, and it was a pleasure to hear their advice and insight on our topic, authentic writing.
The TL:DR version: be explicit when you tell students they are not writing just ‘for the teacher.’ Their audience is secondary to their voice, passions, burning questions, and their own author’s purpose. Use mentor texts and make the invisible visible. Frame what ‘writers do’ and they are writers, too.
And now that I have the podcasting bug, we shall see!
This summer I read Why They Can’t Write by John Warner and attended a Hugo House event called Write-O-Rama. Often the most valuable professional development include those we do for ourselves, not necessarily as teachers but for our identities and passions that sustain us outside of the classroom, too.
The worst of those training wheels is the five-paragraph essay. If you do not know the form, ask the closest school-aged child or, indeed, anyone who has been through school in the past twenty or so years:
Paragraph of introduction ending in a thesis statement that previews the body paragraphs.
2–4. Body paragraphs of evidence supporting the thesis.
Conclusion that restates the thesis, almost always starting with, “In conclusion.” Warner, John. Why They Can’t Write (Kindle Locations 121-127). Johns Hopkins University Press. Kindle Edition.
I’ll share what others offered during the Write-O-Rama. There are so many great ideas provided by Hugo House: if you have a resource like this in your area, I strongly recommend attending some sessions. We all want to be better teachers of writing, and oftentimes we’re overwhelmed and don’t know where to start. We feel inadequate about our own writing, and writing is, a lot. A lot a lot.
I attended these five:
Plotting with Index Cards
Write Your Novel Now
I took notes on each class using Evernote. Just re-reading them, in this moment, my note-taking skills need to improve. But I’ll attempt to give the gist of each session:
Character Development: study characters in mentor texts and describe what makes them memorable, and keep them centered in the plot.
Dialogue Tricks: no exposition in dialogue: “when writing dialogue keep in mind to have the the conflict sustained quickly” – in other words, no adverbs in dialogue
Plotting with Index Cards: use index cards to storyboard a piece of writing. Each card is an atom.
Better sentences: challenge students to craft sentences and share on a large space. This session was magical and highly engaging.
If you want to brainstorm or think of applications of these ideas in your classroom please do not hesitate to contact me. These have direct writing instruction for ourselves and our students of writing. We can go far beyond the five-paragraph essay.
I have a new gig, one I’m excited about. My feelings and response to the next phase are filled with gratitude. Closure, however, is healthy. Some of the things that happened this past year act as a wedge, preventing the door from fully closing.
The year began so positively:
What went wrong? (and what can go right)
Evaluation biases: Someday I may obtain my administration credentials. Not sure if I want to be a building principal; however, when a colleague who’s older and mostly certainly wiser than I told me she saw me in that role, and how good I would be, I took notice. She said I had a way of understanding how to support teachers and students alike. Maybe I am couching this next bit, or hesitating to sound too critical versus a critique, and there is a tinge of fraudulent intent in this next piece: my evaluator this year struggled with the evaluation process and her own newness in administration. Her understanding of the process came from last year’s work where, in her opinion, many teachers in the building received inflated “Distinguished” ratings, and she could not justify Proficient or Distinguished ratings when the school’s test scores were (and remain) low. And though I provided ample evidence and coding about practice, we never spoke to those artifacts or evidence in our discussions. At one point, we union representatives invited an HR representative to our building to discuss, with transparency and objectivity, how the evaluation systems are to be handled. I have yet to get a definitive answer why this didn’t happen, and we were sent an email instead. There is that old joke about meetings that would be better in an email, but this wasn’t one of them. The staff needed to hear directly from him how the evaluation system works. It is very similar to how my previous district handled it (the protocols) and yet in practice, in the building, became a professional boondoggle. For next year: over the summer, one area of practice is to create a means for my own style of work that combines the evaluation system and solid pedagogy. I’ll share. The current evaluation system and how it can be mishandled and weaponized is a hill I will die on. I believe it we can do better to create better teachers and learning.
Note to self: keep track of lessons and artifacts for the TPEP evaluation for next year. Keep a journal of practice, and strive for personal objectivity and reflection.
Building: The space is old. Decrepit, even. I didn’t realize how much that would affect me. The previous building was also old, but had been remodeled and updated. Now I understand how children around the country feel about the crumbling infrastructure of the schools they attend. The carpet is filthy. There is no central air in most of the buildings. The bathrooms have no ventilation. The ceiling rains dust (asbestos?) The staff bathroom comprised of three stalls, one for disabilities, so the other two are so narrow a larger woman such as myself can’t turn around in them. The staff bathrooms are by the front office, so a quick trip to relieve oneself is impossible (we had two minute passing times). But this isn’t about my comfort or convenience. It’s about how students must feel, day in and day out, and how no matter the bulletin boards, posters, etc., they feel disrespected and marginalized every single day: the destruction of what others create is relentless. No bulletin board stays unripped. Well–okay –except for the HOPE(squared) one–interesting when students put up work there is less of a chance it’s destroyed.
If a building is old, make sure the students are given as much opportunity as possible to create cleaner, better, improved spaces. Work alongside them to create the space. The goal is space for them, their work, their ideas.
Guaranteed Viable Curriculum (GVC): I’m not going to spend too much time on this one because I might go insane. The district adopted the EL Education curriculum. The idea was to keep everyone within a two-week schedule, four novel studies per year. Lessons that require full week(s) would be scheduled for one or two days. Learning was rushed. Students in a constant state of confusion. I longed for the simple framework curriculum of my previous district and feel embarrassed for having any issues with it. A huge ‘be careful what you wish for’ moment. Academic freedom trampled, and no in-depth learning happening. The woeful lack of writing instruction is academic malpractice. But due to the GVC standing as a behemoth between me and my students, the reading and writing workshops suffered grave harm.
Make a curriculum framework for next year, and then continue to work with colleagues and district leaders for the best, most equitable access for all. (Since I’ll be teaching high school ELL, be patient with self, and enjoy this new challenge!)
Reading: Never having taught a whole-class novel before, and knowing the GVC included 4 (we got through 2), I immediately purchased A Novel Approach by Kate Roberts (which I highly recommend whether you teach whole novels or not). The best success I had once when I went rogue and used The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas paired with the mandated text, To Kill a Mockingbird. My schedule included two ELA classes, and three History/IRLA classes. We were given 1/2 hour for US History and 1/2 mandated IRLA time, to be used for silent reading, conferencing, and tracking students’ reading progress. There are a lot of positives about IRLA, but “leveled books” translates to “leveled readers” in the minds of students. Breaking down that concept that books are meant for burning questions and purpose, not for levels, was next to impossible. All of the time and energy spent reading Donalyn Miller,Pernille Ripp, (and more than I can name right now) felt put on hold.
However: I am not giving up. The cataloging of great reading resources is a passion project for me. #ProjectLit,#disrupttexts, #educolor, #decolonizeED, #NCTE, #IBPOC #writingproject are top search tags for powerful conversations about equity, anti-racist. Follow each woman who began Disrupt Texts. Follow @mrpranpatel. Follow @larryferlazzo. Follow @TheJLV And for love and inspiration, follow @MrsHallScholars (!) (I am following almost 3K on Twitter, so a shortcut to these and other amazing educators @mrskellylove)
Keep following those who help with curating excellent books!
Advice: start your own blog and keep these resources handy. Twitter and other social media sites become tangled and distorted.
Writing: There is little or no writing in the curriculum. No space. No time. Misunderstood. Things that worked in my “studio” space of creativity (workshop) withered on the vine this year. I am distraught. That’s all I can about this now.
Make a plan. A REAL plan for writing instruction. Guard it. Protect it. Fight for it. (And keep writing that book. There is space for it.) For me: keep writing and replenish and return to my writing life.
Sherri Spelnic @edifiedlistener is a wonderful writer and educator, and her poem is beautiful. On Tuesday, I shared it with students and my own shameful experience from several years ago, around 2009. There was a strict rule, and I mean STRICT – no hats, scarves, bandanas, even headbands. We teachers were in charge of policing the hallways for any hoodie, hat, cap, beanie, toque, etc. Hijabs, of course, were fine. I say “of course” but I am certain in some American schools they are misunderstood and targeted. One young Black girl came to class a few days in a row with a red bandana. I told her that the school rule was that type of head covering was against dress code. After three days of her wearing it, I called for support from the office. One of the best admins I’ve ever had, Lavonta Howard, who was an AP at the time, quietly told me to let it go, because her mother had cut her hair in an alcoholic rage, and the relationship between hair and a Black girl is unique. I don’t remember his exact words, but I got it immediately. I was angry at her mother for the pain she caused her daughter, angry at the ridiculous “rules” that put me in a position not to be compassionate, and mostly at myself for not understanding what was at stake. The psychology of cruel authority took over my better judgment, and from that day forward I never let a ‘rule’ interfere with my humanity or deny others the dignity of theirs. I am forever grateful for Lavonta to provide me with grade and understanding.
When I shared that with my current students, they also offered me grace. We walked through our own process of thinking about our physical selves:
I modeled that I would take about some things, but didn’t feel like I wanted to talk about my weight. I took that risk and tried to show vulnerability, that we don’t always want to share what we think about ourselves. We don’t want to be mocked.
This process didn’t work for every child in the room — but it allowed a place for many. And for those who shared, and those who didn’t, we all came to a better place of empathy. Some people often make fun of teenagers and selfies, but I get it. I loved self-portraits and looked at myself in the mirror, more than I’d like to admit, as if I would see my identity form and shape in front of my eyes. In a way it did.
From one of my students from Tanzania: “My mom used to say I was a King.”
Thank you to Ms. Spelnic, for your grace. My students needed this–right words, right time.