Slice of Life: When Just Opening the Door is Hard

It’s time for Slice of Life with Two Writing Teachers!  Read a few more  or join us with a slice of your own and add it to the comments here11454297503_e27946e4ff_hIt’s summer and time is stretched out.  Teachers are vacationing with family, lazing by the pool. But based on the blogs I read, summertime is also cherished learning time. Some are packing up and taking off for  teaching institutes, spending days away from their families with other passionate learners.  These opportunities give tangible examples of how to teach, but also the experience of being the student. To sit in that chair, to be engaged, to feel times of struggle, to be unsure of your answer, to misunderstand directions, to loose focus.

I certainly had all of these feelings last week at TCRWP’s summer reading institute.  I was energized and engaged. But I had moments when I struggled, when I wasn’t all I wanted to be. I was less than.  I couldn’t help but start to process things through the eyes of struggle.

It was Tuesday morning.  I had planned to run before class, and I knew I had to be out the door running at 6:00 am. This meant I had to get out of bed by 5:45. It was painful.  That morning my “no think, just do it” brain got me out of bed. Sometimes when I struggle, I get through by just doing, without thinking. I trust or believe that things will get better. That it will be worth it, at some point.

I search my purse for the hotel key card. I find my Metro card, my ATM, but no hotel card. I dump my purse’s contents out on the bed. A message pops up on my phone. I check it out. Hit the link. Minutes go by.  I reorganize my purse. More time eaten away. Eventually I find the hotel card, on the bedside table. When I’m fighting with the whole idea of running, getting out the door can be the hardest part. Something, anything can distract me. A phone message, an email, the smell of coffee, a newspaper, something I notice on the way to my keys. All of a sudden time has slipped by and I’m still not running.

Some of you might  applaud my efforts, saying, hey some exercise is better than none. And I can say that; pat myself on the back. But are we setting the bar a bit low?  Would you be thinking the same thing about a student who was starting a book with the same not thinking, just doing attitude, going through the motions so to speak.  How is my struggle any different?

Enter my classroom a few months ago and picture “Andy”  His ripped book baggie is on his desk, and he’s digging deep into his backpack looking for his book, his post its, his notebook, his pen. Book and pen discovered, they land on his desk. He continues to dig for the post its. After a bit, he looks up, looks around, spots the box of post its  on the shelf, and off he goes to retrieve some. Meanwhile his pen has rolled to the floor. Back at  his seat, minutes pass as he looks for that pen. The book is closed. He gets up, walks to where pens are stored in the writing center. Finally back at his desk, the book opens. He’s doing what looks like he’s suppose to do but the lack of desire, the lack of purpose, the just-go-through-the-motions attitude is apparent. Reading is  a painful struggle for him.

I’m thinking you recognize this reader. Do you recognize the process of struggle in yourself? Maybe not as a reader, but in some other place in your life?

When we have to do something that involves struggle, we’d rather do anything else. Not that we don’t want to be great runners or readers, eventually. Just right now, we’re tired.  It hurts.  But we have to do this. So we open the door. We open the book. And go through the motions.

Clearly something is better than nothing, but how much longer will this work continue. Improvement? Not much.  And it just isn’t good enough.

So as I enter my classroom next year, I know that struggle is the norm and overcoming it with purpose, passion and a plan is the goal.  I want to process my students through my own lens of struggle. Remembering how hard it can be and looking for what keeps us getting up and going out the door. Because I believe if we meet our struggles with purpose, passion and a plan we will find moments when we shine.





Slice of Life: Getting Un-Stuck

One of my colleagues asked me if you had to be invited to join in the Slice of Life. That made me realize, once again, what a gift this community is. No invitations, just show up on the page with others who are willing to put it out there.  Gifts abound here at Two Writing Teachers Slice of Life Tuesdays. One of the newest gifts is the juicy, sunny Slice of Life button. Check it out and join in the slicing.

11454297503_e27946e4ff_hHere’s a slice of parenting mixed up in a slice of teaching. Where one begins and the other ends is sometimes a murky thing. People get stuck, and we don’t know how to get out. We feel like we don’t fit or we can’t do it. When this happens to our children we try to help, to impart our hard-earned knowledge. But our advice seems float out and away, while they struggle through. Are they paying attention?  We talk, they listen, and then we worry when we say good bye.

I see kids stuck every day, not knowing how to get unstuck.  As teachers I work to get them to the next step. Growing takes time and it is uncomfortable at the very least. …we try to help…they struggle through. Are they paying attention?  We talk, they listen, and then we worry… We ask questions. Students sit and shrug their shoulders. They don’t know. They just know they don’t fit in this space at this point. We push. We prod. We try another angle. Maybe this will work. And they struggle. We struggle alongside them.

I have a new student. He is a writer. He is a reader. You’d think he’d fit beautifully into our reading and writing classroom. But he doesn’t yet. He is a truly wild reader and writer: reading and writing to his own drummer. He loves fantasy and he is writing his own. Pages and pages. At home. And no one can look at it. He is hugely creative. He is infinitely private.

His writing inventory reveals he DOES NOT LIKE writing memoir. He DOES NOT LIKE reading historical fiction or realistic fiction for that matter. He wants adventure, fantasy and can consume it in vast quantities. There is no way I can keep him in books. When we confer he mostly shrugs his shoulders. Any work I ask him to do he does as quickly as possible in order to get back to HIS book..

We talk about school and how it is a place where we have to fit in to a degree. And sometimes it does us good to try. To fit in. To read something a little different. To expand our horizons, to see the world a little differently. He sits and shrugs in his parent conference. And puts his head down, A hint of a tear is there.

It seems wrong to make this creative soul conform. To fit. He’ll just go through the motions because he is compliant. But then I move to the inventory’s questions on work habits, and I see one thing thing he wants:

I‘d like you to teach me how to talk. I don’t know what to say. I get confused and it doesn’t make sense.

Eureka! To talk. I know what to teach. For most of my students, talking is the easier part. For this student, who is quite frankly lightyears ahead of the others in reading and writing abilities — the job is different. It won’t be easy. Success may be partial, but I know what to teach and he as the learner knows his job. The relationship is clear.

For our own children, while we were their first teacher, our ability to influence seems to recede as they reach out to adulthood. That’s their job I suppose to seek independence.  So we sit and wait for them to get un-stuck.

Today I Questioned What Matters: Conventions, Really?

Professional development sometimes upsets my focus. Tuesday’s PD was on the conventions portion of the language standards. I looked at them all split up. A puzzle to solve. Which standard went in which grade level was the challenge.

Confession: I have not focused on the conventions portion of the language standard this year. Reading, writing and speaking and listening and vocabulary standards felt like quite enough.

Confession: I really like teaching reading and writing, speaking, listening and vocabulary.

Confession: Not a fan of conventions.

Justification: Teaching when to use the future perfect tense seems quite pointless if my students are still trying to get subject verb agreement. Teaching proper use of “whom” when we are still struggling with me versus I. Please!

Me thinking: Attempting these “grade level” standards would be an exercise in frustration and a waste of time, students’ time.

So today I questioned

How am I using my time?   Rephrase, their time.

Is it adding up? For them.

Is it making a difference?  In their learning.

What makes real learning? That sticks.

What will matter for this student? Now.

Working Answer/Philosophy: I must trust in what matters for this student now. The rest will come in time. Maybe not in my time, but in their time. I must believe in the process of learners owning their learning with an eye toward a goal that is visible, to them. The path might not be clear. Things might get in the way. Detours and adjustments are my job. My time with this student is limited, but their time learning is not.

IMG_0730Learning moments that will build to more learning matter. That’s all.

Me still troubled:  I look at the conventions standards in Appendix C and find this,

“Grammar and usage development in children and adults rarely follows a linear path. Native speakers and language learners often begin making new errors and seem to lose their mastery of particular grammatical structures or print conventions as they learn new, more complex grammatical structures or new usages of English…These errors are often signs of language development as learners synthesize new…knowledge…students often need to return to the same grammar topic …as they move through k-12 schooling.”

This and the accompanying table that shows a progression of when basic skills need to be retaught starts to fit with my thinking of how learning goes, the need to be re taught and for teachers to meet students where they are. These things take time to master and the growth that may feel like a step backward is a step forward.

This thinking and writing is due nerdlution-button-tiny-01-1to the #nerdlution challenge.  Thanks be to #nerdlution.

Thanksgiving Lessons

celebrate link up

The best part of my  Thanksgiving celebration was listening to siblings and cousins, aged 15 to 20, talking about what they had in common, the focus of their lives, school.  They are what the world would consider successful students. Good grades, ya da, ya da. I just listened and learned.

I got in trouble. I was always talking back. Don’t know why I did that.  It wasn’t what she said, it was how she said it.

This comment was from my son. Now he never got any real trouble in school. Never a trip to the principal’s office. Teachers consistently put that comment on his report cards, “Pleasure to have in class.” Yet what stuck out for him was how he got in trouble in kindergarten. I know for a fact that the majority of kindergarten was a good experience. But what this 19-year old held on to was how he got in trouble.

Wow. A tiny bit of negative is so powerful. Powerful and kinda scary.  I don’t blame the teacher at all. He probably did something wrong and needed to be held accountable.

Thinking about the second part of his comment is interesting. Don’t know why I did that. He wasn’t sure why he kept talking back. Students aren’t always aware or mindful of their actions we are holding them accountable for.

This brings me to the third part. It wasn’t what she said, it was how she said it.  Ah, there is the crafty part. How we say it. The outcome can seem to be the same, yet the means to getting there so very different. How we get there may matter more than what we get our students to do.

This brings me to another bit of conversation about a teacher:

She shared the perfect amount of stories and she’d listen to our stories.  I learned a lot in that class, but I didn’t really appreciate it till later.   

Wow. Stories matter, what we share and how we listen matter. And  sometimes that learning isn’t realized till later.

My children and nieces are those successful students. They didn’t give up or as “get off the bus as @teachkate and @MaggieBRoberts share in their blog. But what about those fragile, for whatever reason, students that look like they are on the edge, how we say it, how we get there matters. That may just keep them on that bus. We are not “just teachers.” We have a tremendous responsibility to keep students present and engaged in their process.

Here are some lessons I’m taking away from my 2013 Thanksgiving table:

The process creates outcomes.

Stories help us along our path.

Outcomes are not always apparent.

Most of all, listening matters.2013-11-28 14.58.10

Who’s the Learner?

sols_6I face this very blank screen and very large pile of student papers. Am I stressing? Yes, but no. Some how this writing, my commitment to me, is a comfort. This is a space for me to sift though the tangled mess of my own making.

I’m trying to balance what I teach directly to students and students’ active learning work.  Sounds good but difficult to do.

Real learning comes from actively doing, discovering of your process, and believing that you can do it. This is how I’ve learned. No one ever told me anything that I didn’t have to do first, to truly “get.” So my job is to facilitate that process — to push the thinking and doing switch to active, not passive. It is messy and difficult to monitor. How much struggle is too much/not enough? Frustration for students needs to be regulated with a good measure of success so they keep going. Different lines need to be drawn for different students. Some degree of floundering is required. But time is limited.

As the holidays get closer my patience is tested. I worry about their growth.  I only have these students for about six more months. When accountability measures don’t show what I expect, my frustrations start to show and that bottom line is toxic.

The students are great, their attitudes tremendous. But Friday’s results–not good. I was disappointed in myself. What am I doing to help each one?  Where are they? Where do they need to be?  How much time do I have?  By the end of the weekend, I had a map of a kind, a re-organization of student needs to help find our way though the mess.

Plans made. Organization re-designed –  new purple and red composition books and lots of post its. (I love office supplies!)

Today was good. Student work created; awaiting me to sift through, looking for strengths and next steps.  I’m struggling, but I know I can do this. Makes me wonder, who’s the learner?

Making a Safe Place for Risky Thinking

I was a quiet and cautious kid.  I did not take risks. Share my ideas, not likely. i’d much rather play it safe.  I was the last kid in  swim class to jump off the high dive. To this day I remember the paralyzing fear. I was hanging in space alone, on a bouncy board, the pool so far away. Why did I jump? There was no other way out. I couldn’t turn back. I’d be lying if I told you I loved it. I didn’t. I still hate that hanging in space feeling. I was forced to do this. It was a requirement of the class.

Image –

Over time, my risk-taking quotient increased. This year in teaching I’ve taken the biggest risks, made the biggest changes. So much of this change has been because of the network of teacher/learners on twitter, their blogs and their always supportive stance.  

It’s scary…

I regularly see the tweets: How to Get Teachers Over the Fear of Tweeting. I “get” that fear. At first I lurked, unseen no one would know. Then my big mouth got the better of my fear and I finally tweeted. Pushing the tweet button was a jump. For days I worried about tweet I’d made. I survived and unlike the high dive, no one made me. I did it on my own. Then I got support. I was retweeted. Oh my gosh, someone agrees! Maybe I’m worthy?

Once someone followed me, I was hooked. I belong! Now tweeting is as easy as breathing and as gratifying as eating ice cream.  I rush home to get to chats, and I’m extremely upset if I miss them. I was on a mission to get others at my school involved. A few adventurous souls do. They tell me they enjoy what I tweet, and I retweet them. I figure if I can get a few to put their toe in the water, maybe they will jump in.  As each one gets support, starts to belong,  they will spread the word to at least one other person. 

Responding to blogs was the next scary thing. Again I worried about what I said. But the responses I got back from the bloggers made it not only ok, but welcome. After all these are teachers, of course they were encouraging. 

With success, all of a sudden you crave it

So with all this encouragement, how about a blog? From the kid who wouldn’t raise her hand in class. Why? In large part because of the generous and supportive spirit of the twitter teacher community. While it was scary,  I felt safe, safe enough to try. 

My most recent jump, direct messaging. That may sound strange as another step, but it is personal. A reaching out to one person, no hiding. I worried: am I being presumptuous? Asking too much?  I was really concerned about something in my classroom and one person jumped into my mind. One person who would take the time and have the resources to help. So I direct messaged  Fran McVeigh. What followed was a long conversation about my writer’s workshop. Strategies were developed. My next steps clear, and a reminder to stay calm, take a breath. Thank you Fran, you’ve never met me but you know me!

Bringing my personal learning back to the classroom space

It’s week three and lots of parent questionnaires are rolling in. Another first this year, thank you Pernille Ripp for the generous sharing of your questionnaire. The responses are beautiful. I immediately felt that tremendous love and concern parents have for their kids. I felt honored to be let into their lives and obligated to foster these fragile beings. Amy Smith’s eloquent blog sends a message we all need to keep in our forethoughts when we invite our students in to class. All have their strengths and their fears.

They are me. Afraid to jump, share, speak, be. So what does it take to feel safe enough to  jump, to take risks with ideas, to put your thoughts in the air, on paper, on a blog? Here are some things I learned about risk taking and learning during my summer of lurking, tweeting, commenting and blogging. I think it applies very nicely to our classroom spaces.

Requirements for a Safe Place for Fragile Thoughts and Almost There Ideas

Where Risk Taking to Learn is Encouraged

1. There must be free will. It is not forced. There is a choice.

2. You are allowed to watch, to lurk.

3. There are baby steps that are supported: I agree!

4. There is a cheering section: Thank you, your thoughts matter.

5. There is a chance to lead other learners: You are the expert, show us.

6. There are experts to lean on, to help us through our tough moments:

Who can help me?

7. There are open spaces without judgement to express and discover

who you are,  and what you believe.

 As always, feel free to share your thoughts.