3 Lessons from Blogging for More Authentic Literacy Teaching

I expected that this opportunity to blog regularly would bring benefits to my writing over time — if nothing else, at least train words to flow a little more easily as I typed more and more.

But I did not anticipate the powerful lessons about writing that would also come my way, lessons that I can and most certainly will apply when I return to the classroom. They all stem from a place of authentic, raw honesty about what it really means to be in that writing arena.

1 Writing elements and structure are not about ticking off a checklist; they are about making your writing more enjoyable to read. When I skip out on a conclusion on a post, I might have convinced myself at the time that the rest of the content was sufficient and that a conclusion would just be excess. But more often than not, I know that what it really came down to a “good enough” mentality.

When I return to the classroom and we’re breaking down those elements of good writing, we will search together for that sense of completeness. We will analyze how and why pieces do or do not feel quite right, and I will work to help them discover and seek out each of those elements for themselves.

2 “Write only what you alone can write” (Elie Wiesel) Most of us have probably heard some variation of this advice before. But it was only when I really started to take it to heart that I began to understand. If I stuck to writing just what I thought was supposed to go on an educational blog, or if I just wrote about those trending topics all the time, I knew my desire to write anything at all would dry up. The surest way of making writing feel like a burden is to deny it any sense of personal touch. After all, the entire point of writing is connection; if we never connect with what we write ourselves, how can we expect to find meaningful connection with our audience? 

I know that in the past, I have spent far too much time trying to help my students prepare for those state writing assessments or otherwise drilling template, soul-less writing. Even if those tests don’t go away, we can still prioritize the notion of identifying and conveying the messages within each unique individual.

Trust the authentic writing process. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could just follow one linear, well-defined process and produce good writing every time? The above-mentioned state writing assessments would have had me and my students thinking so (and we worked hard to meet all those requirements — 1 thesis statement, 3-4 reasons, 3-4 details per reason, x # of transition key words, and on and on).

The reality is, the authentic writing process requires a lot of trust. Trust that as we live our lives and engage in the things that matter most to each of us, inspiration (those stories only we can tell) will come. Sure, the viciously practical part of me might prefer to have the next 6 blog posts all neatly planned and ready on the assembly line. But if I am to truly discover the rich stories and powerful observations woven into the fabric of real life, then I must engage with real life, compartmentalizing less and engaging more.

I’m far from a perfect blogger or writer now. But I know I can hope for greater capacity and joy in the future as I work to live and write as authentically as possible.

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

Weighing the Pressures of Preparing for the “Next Level”

“They have no study skills.”

“They’re so unprepared for college studying, like organizing lecture notes.”

“Those high school teachers are letting my kids retake tests, and it’s making them lazy.”

These were a few sentiments I heard among a few other parents (one of whom was a college professor) while waiting to pick up our kids. That teachers just aren’t sufficiently preparing students for the next level.

This has had me asking myself tough questions ever since. A lot of them.

Like this one: Amid all my soap-box preaching about student ownership, what if, after all we do to teach our children to own their learning, they find that somewhere down the line, ownership is impossible?

When we try to focus more on powerful learning & less on “doing school,” are we doing our students a disservice for later expectations?

Where’s the line between building our kids up for what’s coming, and focusing on all their developmental needs now?

Or even, if I want my 1st grader to someday get into the university of her dreams, shouldn’t I do all I can to help her get “ahead of the curve” starting now? 

But then…

I see articles like this that suggest that kids who wait to start kindergarten for a year have fewer problems with ADHD & hyperactivity. Which makes me think (especially since kindergarten is the new first grade) that all this prep for the next level is perhaps taking its toll already.

And I see posts like Taryn Bond-Clegg’s sharing her dream of a system that supports rather than hinders a culture of student agency. Which makes me think that every action that focuses more on the here-&-now of our student’s needs helps us move closer toward a better system.

And then I see articles like this that remind us all that best practices are always the bottom line for the present:

We do not sacrifice good instruction because those in upper levels are not there yet. Instead, we employ what we know works, and we spend time mentoring those above us in what we do.

 

I still don’t have all the answers. But in the end, maybe college level study-skills can just — wait until college…

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

My #OneWord2017: Synthesis

Have you ever looked up the definition of compartmentalization? One Wikipedia it reads:

“Compartmentalization is an unconscious psychological defense mechanism used to avoid cognitive dissonance, or the mental discomfort and anxiety caused by a person’s having conflicting values, cognitions, emotions, beliefs, etc. within themselves.”

My translation: compartmentalization is driven by fear. And I’m done.

I recently came across a quote (and for the life of me, I can’t remember where it came from or who said it, so if you know, please share) that went something like this: “I’ve spent much of my life trying to compartmentalize it. I’m ready to try to synthesize instead.”

With each day since then, this notion has grown and swelled within my mind and my heart. And it makes my 2017 one-word goal an easy choice: synthesize.

The longer I reflect and write, the more I recognize the inter-connected nature of this world. I think this is the reason my favorite blogging days are my provocation and #TeacherMom posts.

For the former, I gather scraps of inspiring resources scattered across the digital world, weaving them into broader concepts. For the latter, I gather scraps of inspiring moments scattered across my days as a mom, weaving them into broader teaching principles.

Opportunities for learning and growth are everywhere. As I work to step back and mindfully embrace the ebb and flow of life — the diaper changes, the lunch boxes, the library trips, even the tantrums — it all starts to join into a larger tapestry.

As I synthesize instead of compartmentalize, the most precious principles in my life become more pronounced and accessible: authenticity, resilience, courage, compassion, kindness. Everything begins to work toward a greater, self-perpetuating whole, rather than getting piecemealed into an eternal, competing to-do list.

My word is synthesis. What’s yours?

Sharing PD Learning with Students

Professional development meetings are usually an aside, right? We often want to hurry and get them over with so we can get back to our classrooms and students.

But what if we deliberately embraced them as part of our learning process? And no, I don’t mean a general, feel-good, kiss-up-to-the-admin kind of embrace.

I mean, what if we identified one genuine learning moment, and then (here’s the important part) shared that learning with our class when we returned?

It was easy for me the first time I did this, simply because that particular professional development training had been a particularly engaging and enlightening session.

My students had always asked where I’d been when I returned from meetings. But this time, rather than my usual quick response of “meetings,” so we could get back into our learning, I opened up:

(them) “Mrs. Wade, where did you go?”

(me) “A meeting for teachers to learn about how to become better teachers. Did you know we do that? And guess what?! Do you know what I just learned about? Reading workshop! Want to try it?”

My enthusiasm was contagious, and they were instantly curious. I couldn’t have planned a more perfect opportunity to introduce the very concept we’d been encouraged to start implementing.

I continued sharing with them about how I’d learned that we could model reading workshop just like we do writer’s workshop; namely, a mini lesson, guided practice, and wrap up. I shared how I’d discovered that they can make connections during reading workshop that will help them strengthen their writing, and vice versa. And I shared how excited I was because discovering and practicing reading strategies in this way seemed much more interesting than reading comprehension worksheets.

When I asked them if they wanted to give it a shot, they were all-in. And when we actually started, we kept the open dialogue going. I would say things like, “What did you think? How did that compare to the way we used to do that? How could we improve this process?

There was an openness, an energy, and a collective commitment to make this work. And I believe this stemmed from trust. Because the truth was, I was a novice at reading workshop. I had just barely learned about how to implement it.  So I know that had I instead pretended to be the expert, rolling it out in a grand introduction of authority, we would have lost that precious element.

When we let our students see our authentic learning process, we build trust and respect and cooperation because they know we’re in this arena, too. And when we let them in on the vision (even if all the little pieces are not yet in place), they are more willing to bring it to life together.  Our students need our genuine, messy learning process more than they need a polished and perfect appearance of control.

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

Converting Frustration to Teaching Moments #TeacherMom

Last week, I asked my 6 year-old to get something from the car. I knew the item had fallen under the seats, so I added the instruction, “Make sure you look all over!”

She came back empty-handed, telling me it wasn’t there. Of course, with mom omnipotence (momnipotence?), I knew that item was indeed in the car and that she had simply not looked thoroughly enough.

Anyhow, I was ready to heave my usual sigh and go look for it myself when it occurred to me that “look all over” is a very vague and abstract concept for a 6 year-old. My mind jumped to an old-school Sesame Street episode featuring Grover we had recently watched:

I referenced Grover’s silly song about prepositions, telling her, “Try checking one more time, only this time, be sure to be like Grover and look ‘Around…over…under…and through’ all the seats.”

Though she did not end up finding the object during her second search either, she nevertheless took much longer and was clearly far more thorough (in the end I discovered it had fallen down into a remote and camouflaged corner).

As I reflected on that small teaching opportunity, I realized how often I take for granted what I think my kids ought to be able to do, yielding to frustration rather than teaching. In my classroom, I generally made it a point to help my students explicitly identify, “what does _____ look/sound/feel like” (ie, what does working respectfully in pairs look/sound/feel like?).

Yet there were still moments when I felt frustrated by shortcomings I felt my fifth graders should just know by now (penmanship, writing in complete sentences, group work skills). The reality was usually that they simply needed more modeling, more support, more patience.

I hope this #TeacherMom moment will help me better recognize those learning opportunities with my own children and my future students.

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

What Featured Images Taught Me About Creativity

Stock photos have always made me giggle a bit. I think that’s why I fell in love with My Imaginary Well-Dressed Toddler Quinoa (I’ve included an example below in case you are not yet familiar with Tiffany Beveridge’s Pinterest wit):

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Yet when I first started blogging, I found myself using them because, well, isn’t that what bloggers do?

Thankfully, that ended the day it finally dawned on me that, at best, they were doing nothing for the meaning I wanted to convey (and at worst, they were a possible detraction). This revelation had me ready to ditch featured images in general.

Fortunately, that was around the time I also discovered Death To The Stock Photo, a company committed to sharing high quality, artistic images.

I was immediately impressed. Though (because?) there were no shots of smiling students raising their hands, I sensed an opportunity.

My initial thought was that using these photos would enhance the general aesthetic of the blog. That certainly was an instant effect.

But over time, I realized that something more was happening. I had gone from thinking that posts about classrooms/students required images of classrooms/students, to realizing that when I featured an image that I found genuinely inspiring, it matters.

It matters because it makes me think about making connections that are less obvious (such as this image of a tool display to go along with my post on curation).

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It matters because it makes me wonder. Unlike stock photos, each of these images clearly tell a story, and I love imagining what those stories might be (like the image below that I used for a post on refugees).

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And it matters because it makes me feel. The photos are no longer filler. They have real soul and significance and authenticity (I really loved selecting this image from the “Tactile” photopack for my post on helping students discover more personal meaning).

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All of this makes me consider how we go about teaching and learning. 

Are there any practices we do arbitrarily?

Are there ways we can dig deeper to get away from practices that feel too obvious and spoon-fed?

Are there ways we can use passion and creativity to invite rather than push learning more often?

Can we turn more often to sources that make us think, wonder, and feel?

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

Meeting Your Students’ Authentic Reading Needs with Goodreads

I recently started reading Donalyn Miller’s The Book Whisperer. Two quotes stand out sharply to me. The first:

“I believe that this corporate machinery of scripted programs, comprehension worksheets (reproducibles, handouts, printables, whatever you want to call them), computer-based incentive packages, and test practice curriculum facilitates a solid bottom-line for the companies that sell them, and give schools proof they can point to that they are using every available resource to teach reading, but these efforts are doomed to fail a large number of students because they leave out the most important factor. When you take a forklift and shovel off the programs, underneath it all is a child reading a book.”

Amen!

“I am a reader, a flashlight-under-the-covers, carries-a-book-everywhere-I-go, don’t-look-at-my-Amazon-bill. I choose purses based on whether I can cram a paperback into them, and my books are the first items I pack into a suitcase. I am the person who family and friends call when they need a book recommendation or cannot remember who wrote Heidi. My identity as a person is so entwined with my love of reading and books that I cannot separate the two.”

The best literacy teachers I know of are these kinds of readers. And they do it without the “corporate machinery” of literacy instruction.

It’s obvious why, isn’t it? For one thing, they are able to give timely book recommendations tailored to students’ needs and interests; their kids don’t need those drill-and-kill comprehension worksheets when they are already talking excitedly about that book you helped them find! More importantly, these teachers have thoroughly shaken off the hypocrisy of teaching students to embrace something they themselves do not. They keep literary enthusiasm front and center, regarding books as familiar friends, rather than as benchmarks to “pass off.” They are the embodiment of those “not the filling…a pail, but the lighting…a fire” (William Butler Yeats). Our literacy teachers should be the best readers around.

Yet, for me personally, I admit that I have felt overwhelmed by these prodigious teacher-readers. I love reading, but I have limitations that make me worry that I wouldn’t be able to meet my students’ needs as well as they can.

For me, those limitations here boil down to problems: #1) I’m a slow reader. #2) I have a terrible memory for book titles.

Enter Goodreads. Though I’ve had an account for years, I’d always considered it to be too cumbersome to use regularly. But the two features below have at last shown me how my efforts there can be richly rewarded and magnified to meet my students’ and my own reading needs.

Problem #1: Slow reading 

I don’t read the volume of books that these teacher-readers that I admire do. Without that volume, it’s difficult to offer suggestions that sufficiently meet their needs and interests. But as I sort books that I have read into custom digital shelves on Goodreads (see below), it generates recommendations based on the genres/levels of those shelves. This allows me to leverage the reading/reviews of millions of other readers to help me get that perfect book in my students’ hands.

Problem #2: Memory for titles

For the still-many books I am able to read, the titles tend to swirl together over time, making it difficult to pull one out for a timely student recommendation. Goodreads solves this problem by allowing me to sort and “shelve” these books into a personalized library with custom categories.

To an outsider, my many shelves may seem like madness, but for me, I know they will help me pick out the trees in the forest, so to speak. Some of my current shelves include:

  • 5th grade: Friendship (titles like WonderFlora and UlyssesThe Inquisitor’s Tale: Or the Three Magical Children and their Holy Dog, Three Times Lucky…)
  • 5th grade: Other-Worldly-Whimsical (The Magician’s Elephant, The Boy Who Swam with Piranhas, The Wild Robot)
  • 5th grade: Overcoming Odds (Rules, Miss Spitfire: Reaching Helen Keller, Holes)
  • Picture books: Challenging Status Quo (“In Mary’s Garden,” “Rosie Revere, Engineer,” “Cinder Edna,” “Drum Dream Girl: How One Girl’s Courage Changed Music”)
  • Picture books: Loss and Emotion (“The Heart and the Bottle,” “Boats for Papa,” “Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgois”)
  • Picture books: Unexpected Endings & Humor (“Stuck,” “The Skunk,” “The Wolf’s Chicken Stew”)

Bonus feature: Integrate your search with your local library’s database!

Today, I added a button to my account that takes me from a book page on Goodreads directly to the book on my library’s online catalog. This allows me to check availability and to place a hold that much more easily! Here’s a link to help you learn how to add the button. If you run into any trouble, just contact Goodread’s customer support and they will add your library for you so you can select it from their list! 🙂

Whatever your strategy–whether through Goodreads or more regularly scheduled library visits–our students will reap the benefits when we choose to commit to move toward greater authenticity as readers ourselves.

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto