Making Writing Real

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School is coming! I love the first day of school, as I’ve said in the past, but this year feels especially exciting. For one thing, this will be my second year at a school I really love, and that’s so different than being at a school where I love my colleagues or (as always) my students. Feeling attached to a school and its mission and vision is so much more rewarding and invigorating, and I honestly can’t wait to be back in it. Even better, after such an enriching summer, I know I’m going in strong. Between the Invitational Summer Institute with NYCWP in July, building up my PLN on Twitter, and my awesome week with Facing History and Ourselves, I’ve been immersed in deep reflection about my practice, connected to so many inspiring and dedicated educator minds. I don’t think I’ve ever looked forward to the first day like this.

I owe a special thank you to Penny Kittle, for the wonderful book, Write Beside Them: Risk, Voice, and Clarity in High School Writing. I had been neglecting my professional reading lately, and this thoughtful, beautifully written, honest look into Mrs. Kittle’s writing workshop classroom was a perfect reintroduction to the value of reading “teacher books” – if you’ve been wary of implementing writer’s workshop in your classroom, or if you are looking to breathe some life into it, or if you need some commiseration and celebration of the struggles and joys of writing with students, do yourself a favor and check out this book. The print version comes with a DVD of scenes from Mrs. Kittle’s classroom (I’ve been reading the digital version). I want to give Write Beside Them a more detailed review in the near future, but I’ll mention that one of the gifts of this book is that, while Mrs. Kittle is clearly a great teacher, she is also a very real teacher. I haven’t been reading this book thinking, “Ok, that’s great that you can do these wonderful things, but I could never do that because…” Kittle’s honesty and straightforwardness have helped me approach the book with an attitude of, “What would this look like in my school?,” far more helpful and productive.

As I prepare for this upcoming year, I’m thinking about what classroom resources could further benefit my students. I made sure last year that new furniture was on the way, to get my students out of the molded desk-chair units that drive me crazy – incredibly uncomfortable and they make flexible seating (moving in and out of groups and pairs) a major pain. Someone recently told me about Bouncy Bands, and I’m already planning the pitch to my principal to get some of those in our school. Most importantly, I’ve posted a Donors Choose project for an ELMO document camera, a tool I plane to use to make the writing process more visible and less scary for my students. Check out our Donors Choose project – donate if you can, and please share! Remember, the promo code INSPIRE will double your donation.

What are you doing to make this new year great? Share in the comments!

For Ferguson, History Matters

In general, I and everything I write, create, think, and say, all of it, is a work-in-progress. Regarding the horrific events in Ferguson, MO, I am far from finished. I spent the first two weeks of August far, far away, the Internet a distant dream. When the plane touched down in New York, I switched my Facebook back on, and unleashed the nightmare of the killing of Michael Brown, the terror of militarized police, the hateful words slung back and forth. It was like being in the ocean, trying to keep my head above the waves and find land on the horizon, and the water swallowing me under again and again.

The next day, I began a week-long seminar with Facing History and Ourselves, and I had something to hold onto. A lot of people -teachers, parents, community leaders, students – are having the important conversations about how they should/can/will teach about what is happening in Ferguson, and for me, the route is through our nation’s history.

After two intense days delving into the history of race and eugenics in the United States, our group of 30 educators were asked to fill in a blank: I feel _____ when talking about race with students. We shared in a whip, each person filling in the blank before the next person spoke one single word. The range was impressive; we felt anxious, eager, under qualified, excited, responsible, comfortable, uncomfortable, ready, hesitant. Overwhelmed, in my blank, and then some.

Talking about race in our country is painful. There are so many days – moments – when I think, “How can this be happening? How can nothing have changed?” And it is difficult, and scary, and uncomfortable, and overwhelming to bring painful things to my students.

This week with FHAO did so much for me. It showed me the inadequacies of my own education – in “good” schools, among the children of the dominant culture, our US history curriculum was shamefully incomplete. It revealed perspectives rarely considered when discussing slavery, Jim Crow, and the Civil Rights Movement. It placed in my hands a treasure trove of primary source documents and strategies to help the critical reading of them. And it reminded me that, overwhelmed or not, I cannot afford not to talk about race and rights with my students. This is the world they live in, the world they have to navigate, survive, and change. If I don’t allow them to examine that world, and see the patterns and connections in our nation’s past and present, I have failed.

Nancie Atwell says that if teachers don’t make time for reading during the school day, then it won’t happen for many of their students. Penny Kittle says the same about independent writing. “If we value something enough, we’ll make time for it,” Kittle says. What do I value more than my students’ lives? More than their safety? More than giving them opportunities to make the best choices for themselves and their community?

This responsibility is still overwhelming, I know. If you are looking for some starting places, or flotation devices, I can’t recommend enough a Facing History and Ourselves workshop (around the US and online). I also greatly appreciated Mary Hendra’s post on creating a reflective classroom to help students process Michael Brown’s killing and the historical context of race in the US. Katherine Schulten, a wonderful, thoughtful educator and editor of the NY Times Learning Network blog, invites teachers to share their thoughts and ideas in preparation for a collection of planning ideas to be published on September 2nd. This NPR blog post offers words of encouragement and a link back to a teacher-created syllabus around the killing of Jordan Davis. And, as I’ve written in the past, Twitter is my favorite source of PD, so check out #FergusonSyllabus to see what other educators are thinking of bringing into the classroom. If you are looking to give, please consider this list and Michael Brown’s family.

Above all, please, make time for this.

 

How are you planning to talk about Ferguson in your classroom? How were events like this discussed in your school or community? Which blog posts, articles, or ideas are inspiring you? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!

Dragonish Tendencies: Community and Collaboration

I had every intention of posting during July, I promise, but I found myself in the unusual position of writing too much. July marked the 35th New York City Writing Project Invitational Summer Institute, and in addition to celebrating that and my 5th year anniversary being involved with NYCWP, it was also my first summer as co-facilitator of the ISI. I feel so honored, grateful, and just plain lucky to be a part of such an invigorating community, and this summer was even more amazing than I’ve come to expect of the ISI. We spent an intense and wonderful month writing and sharing and writing and writing, and even though I was making lists and nurturing seeds in my notebook all month, I never got around to blogging. Boyfriend and I headed straight to Mexico the day after the ISI wrapped (I highly recommend immediate vacations to stave off the post-ISI blues; much harder to wake up bummed that I won’t see my WP peoples when I’m waking up in freakin’ Mexico) so I actually have some time to post. Don’t worry, I’m still enjoying my vacation!

Way back in the beginning of July, one of our brilliant summer fellows said that she used to think of teachers as dragons: isolated, guarding their classroom caves. I turned this image over in my brain for days, thinking about teacher-creatures curled protectively around their hoarded treasure of knowledge, and I am glad that this is not a picture that matches me as an educator. I love the idea of being a dragon because of wings and firebreath and general awesomeness, but I am not a jealous hoarder of knowledge. I always want to share my classroom, discuss books or theory, or talk about new ways I could approach routine practices. I relate almost every topic of conversation, current event, or environmental observation to teaching and education, which I’m sure makes me a fascinating dinner guest. Often, I force myself to take a break from my enthusiastic activity on the NYC Writing Project Listserv, an email group that connects me to hundreds of NYCWP educators. Reclusive cave-dweller, guarding my treasure? Not so much.

But, maybe a little. While I share eagerly and comfortably in my own outside communities, I can’t say I do the same within my school. I have been a teacher in 3 different high schools in the Bronx, and outside of a small group of teachers in the first 2 of those schools, I haven’t really shared what I do and why I do it.

Mostly, I haven’t felt safe. As a teacher, I invest time throughout the year in making our classrooms safe spaces for sharing, because we can be mean to each other. Even when it’s not our intention, our reactions to the opinions and words of others can shut people down, embarrass them, incite their anger. If I don’t make time for us to know and trust each other, we won’t consider how our words will affect out community. The building and strengthening of classroom community isn’t a time-filler or a detraction from our curriculum; it is a vital piece of that curriculum, embedded in everything we do. But teacher and staff meetings – “professional development,” allegedly – have not, for me, felt like a place to discuss this practice. I have sat through too many meetings about data and standards and realigning performance tasks, in which teachers and administrators become defensive and judgmental, to risk revealing the priceless gems I’m sitting on.

I understand why we are defensive. There’s a lot of finger-pointing in education, a lot of blame. I’ve written about it before, as have many, many others. More will come, be sure. I think teachers often (rightly) feel the need to justify what happens in their classrooms, assure themselves and any potential doubters that they are not the reasons for undesirable data or whatever we are being blamed for at the moment – world hunger, global warming, bad haircuts, etc. I want to be grateful for having the time to meet with my coworkers, especially as it is now a protected and required piece of time in our workday. Collaboration and sharing resources should be easier than ever before. We should be helping each other thrive. But, for so many of the teachers I talk to, these team times range from venting sessions to time spent counting minutes and trying not to lash out at colleagues. Our dragonish tendencies rear up; we put on our thickest skin and hunker down on our piles of gold, sending up smoke signals that say,” Keep back. Dragon.”

The problem of dragonish tendencies is that isolation and defensiveness make us worse teachers. Most of us don’t challenge our held notions by ourselves. Without conversation and sharing to expose us to new ideas, we stay cozy in our caves. Those walls come to contain the world, and venturing beyond goes from unnecessary to unthinkable. My teacher communities, which are comprised of my friends from grad school, NYCWP, fellow attendees of NCTE, and teachers I have met in line while shopping, help me develop as a teacher. They push me, they challenge me, they give me new ideas. They also help me acknowledge and celebrate my own practice; I don’t need to justify my own work by belittling someone else’s, because I have a community that shows me how to appreciate what I do.

I speak to so many teachers who do not engage in their own professional development, because their idea of PD has been sullied by the mandated, administrator-led meetings that demand data review, dissection of standards, or readings of lists off of Power Point sllides. This is not PD. Professional development is not the round-robin reading of a handout. Professional development should do all of those things described above – connect you to a community that helps you appreciate and interrogate your practice, expose you to new ways of seeing and thinking, and create a space for you to imagine, discuss, and plan how to do things you haven’t done before. Fortunately, even if your administration is not professionally developing you, you are not bound to their PD.

Taking charge of your own professional development is easy, really. Here are three simple things you can try, today.

1. Start a teacher book club. That might sound intense, but all you need is one other teacher and a book you have been wanting to read. You can set your own deadlines and expectations, you decide what to discuss and when to check in, you can even help each other plan how/when/where you’re going to read before your discussions.

2. Get on Twitter. I know, you don’t understand all that “@” and “#” business, and you’re never going to keep track of another password, and what you have to say goes well beyond 140 characters and texting language. I know it can just be scary and weird and you don’t think you have time to spend setting it all up and figuring it all out. The good news is, Twitter doesn’t want a lot of your time. It wants a few minutes, while you wait in line at the grocery. It will invite you to spend an hour hanging out, whenever is convenient for you. You don’t even have to tweet anything. Just come see what’s happening. Set up your account, and choose one or two brilliant people to follow: @KyleneBeers for all your literacy needs, @NCTE or another organization that supports your content area, @EdTech for information around using technology in the classroom. Or, check out a blogger or colleague that you like: you can follow me @priscillawhocan and see the inspirational, thoughtful pedagogues I’ve built my PLN (personal learning network) around. In addition to regular Twitter activity, educational minds will engage in Tweet Chats, fun but fast-paced group conversations around given issues. You can find out more about Tweet Chats (and Twitter in general) at CybraryMan‘s page, and by looking through this Storify record of NYCWP’s first Tweet Chat this past July.

3. Find a teacher community. If you’re craving face to face interaction with some like-minded teachers, or new-to-you minds, seek out an existing community. Meetup.com and Facebook are often used to arrange events, and you can find educator get-togethers with some light searching (you can even start with Google). Of course, nothing beats looking up your local NWP site and reaching out. Most sites offer conferences, workshops, and gatherings, as well as providing an online community through Google+ or a listserv.

I know there is never enough time, as Peter Greene of Curmudgucation says more beautifully than I ever could. Thinking about incorporating time for PD into your life seems impossible, because what can you give up? Nothing. Don’t give up time that you value. Don’t think of including meaningful, professional dialogue in your routine as something that requires you to sacrifice. Taking charge of your own professional development is a gift to yourself and your practice. Knowing that you have a PLN or community to turn to makes those mandated afternoon meetings all the more bearable; it can even help you find the voice to push those meetings in a more useful direction. Dragons have a lot going for them – built-in weaponry, tons of treasure, virtually no enemies aside from knights hoping to prove themselves – but you know it’s lonely in those damp caves. So get out in the air, find your flock, and terrorize the countryside of Useless PD!

Who or what is your PLN? How do you keep developing as a teacher? Share in the comments! As always, I love to hear from you. 

The Myth of Whiny Teachers

As we get closer to summer, writing about teachers seems to be everywhere. For every thoughtful or thought-provoking post on the end of the school year, there is a counterpoint, or a host of comments that complain about the whining of teachers. “Teaching: the only job where you work half the year and complain about it full-time,” read one top rated comment on a blog post describing the end of year paperwork and conferences expected of teachers. “You’re not doctors,” another told me. “You’re not cops in dangerous cities. You’re not first responders. These are tough jobs. You play with kids until 3.” In response to the observation that these jobs require teachers, because they require school & training, a clever commentator challenged: “So, should we revere chocolatiers because most doctors have had chocolate before?” (The answer, of course, is no; we should revere chocolatiers because of chocolate.)

Without trying to address the misconceptions and fallacies represented in these opinions (half the year…?), I think the important thing to point out is that teachers aren’t whiny.

There are people who are teachers who whine. And there are people who are teachers who complain, but so are there doctors, police officers in tough neighborhoods, and unlikely as it seems, chocolatiers. But the perception that there is a public platform for teachers to stamp their feet and demand more respect for their jobs is simply false.

This misunderstanding implies that teachers have taken to the internet to list and detail the hardships of their jobs with no impetus. We looked around at 3 pm when we were done playing with our students all day and thought, hmm…I think I’ll complain on the internet for awhile, because my job is done! The idea that teachers are just whining for more attention ignores the fact that these articles, blog posts, and memes are not happening in a vacuum: these are responses to attacks. Teachers are constantly called upon to defend themselves, their jobs, and their students, and that call is most often rhetorical. Articles and blog posts that detail the realities of working in education represent the voices of those who refuse to be silenced, not the petulant dissatisfaction of the over privileged. That so many consider it whiny and unnecessary is evidence that the smear campaign against teachers has, in some ways, succeeded.

The aspects of education jobs that teachers complain about – or, rather, the realities that teachers seek to expose – mostly stem from the increased interference of policy in classrooms. Overcrowding, excessive paperwork, beyond excessive testing – the toll these and other atrocities take on students, teachers, and education is obscured by painting educators as lazy and overly demanding. When teachers write about these things, or address the lies told about them and their jobs, they are not whining. They are standing up for themselves, their colleagues, and their students. They are not crying for more money or trying to justify their worth to you. They are telling you are being lied to; like teachers, they are encouraging you to use your brains, consider multiple perspectives, and interrogate what you have been told. Like teachers, we invite you to think.

And some of us write these stories to remind each other that we are not alone. So to my fellow teachers: keep speaking up. People will misunderstand you, call you a whiner, tell you to quit, call you a liar (#hatersgonhate). But other people will thank you, and some people will think about what you have shown them and see differently. Like teaching, the effects will be varied and we may not see them firsthand. Continue to honor your students and yourself; you teach students to question, to think critically, to express themselves, to speak up when they are bullied, to search for truth. And as we well know, that job is never done.

Untested: Growth That Tests Can’t Measure

Favi called me over to her desk one recent afternoon, leaning forward over her notebook urgently. “I have to thank you,” she said. “You remember how you told Raymond that writing is a way to deal with being upset? Well, I took that advice, too. But I don’t wait to be upset. Every day, I write about a quote. & I really have to thank you. It makes me feel…lighter, if that makes sense. I just feel better every time I do it.”

New York’s school year is ending, & tests are bursting into bloom around us. MOSLs, field tests, the NYSESLAT, all sinister roots winding their way to the towering trunk of Regents exams. It’s a tough time of year, to put it very, very lightly.

Times like this, when my students are emotionally manic balls of stress that ricochet through outbursts & mood swings, when all of their self-esteem & confidence plummets & they find themselves forgetting the most routine of behaviors, when they are bleary & cranky from lack of sleep, or surly & defensive, or on the verge of tears after the slightest frustration, it is easy to feel like I have taught them nothing. They certainly feel as though they’ve forgotten everything. During an after school session, a student working on an essay for another class told me he didn’t want to work with that other teacher, because asking questions was embarrassing there. He knew he would be reprimanded & told, “You should know how to do this! I already taught you this!”

“I know I should know,” my student told me. “I just forget or maybe I’m not sure. Sometimes I ask the question even if I have the right answer, just to check. I don’t want to get it wrong.”

That feeling of I’m not sure & I don’t want to be wrong so I have to ask while I still can seems a direct result of excessive testing. It’s an intense anxiety, one that even self-confident students will suffer through as exam after exam crashes upon them, like so many waves.

But there’s so much more than the test. Tests. The growth & gains my students have made this year can’t always be measured by one test, or even four, or even more. I need to make space to celebrate those moments, so my students can join me in recognizing that increased confidence, stepping outside of their comfort zones, playing teacher, asking questions, & writing independently are huge accomplishments.

Like Favi’s discovery of the healing of journal writing, many of my students have achieved in ways these tests can’t & won’t measure.

There’s Ivy, who began the year so fearful of writing that she did not trust herself to put down more than a  sentence before asking me to read it and tell her if it was “right.” How many hours a week she sat in our classroom after school, tears threatening her eyeliner as I reminded her to write down what she was thinking. “It isn’t going to be perfect, but that’s good. Nothing is perfect.” I can’t pin down Ivy’s exact turning point, but somewhere this year, her anxiety eased up a little. She took risks writing down her thoughts without triple checking her ideas against her classmates’ opinions. She wrote whole paragraphs before asking me to look, & didn’t crumple when I asked a question about her work. & after a reading response activity of drafting coming to America poems, Ivy returned after school to proudly present me with a second poem, one she had simply felt inspired to write. I was so proud I wanted to shout, especially when she handed the poem to me & said, “it’s not perfect, but I like it.”

This school year has held so many of these moments, demonstrations of learning & development that will not be assessed by a formulaic written response to a standardized test prompt. Students reading aloud for the first time, finishing a book independently for the first time, writing in English for the first time after months to years of anxiety & fear. These huge accomplishments do not mean that they will pass their exams, though, & in the end, they will be made to feel like none of these achievements matter.

I’m left with two areas of tension, knots I need to work at as I prepare for next year (next week, next day). One: how do I honor & value students’ growth throughout the year in a way that allows them to honor it, too? Beyond reflective writing & portfolio building, beyond conferences, beyond inspirational speeches; how does the recognition & celebration of improvement become a core piece of our classroom? Two: How do I continue to build a classroom environment that helps my students do the things they have never before done, and extend that safe, productive feeling beyond our walls? It is invaluable, the work I put into creating a classroom that encourages students to take risks & push themselves, but that needs to continue happening when we are apart. How do we create a class environment that allows students space to achieve great things both inside the classroom & out?

This is my favorite place to be as a teacher: holding the tensions in my hand, learning their shapes & textures, feeling for a starting point. What do you think? How do you honor students’ growth, & encourage them to keep growing independently? 

Make ‘Em Say, “Huh?”: The Value of Confusion

“Confusion is a state of understanding.” – Sheridan Blau

I only recently discovered Vicki Vinton’s wonderful blog, To Make A Prairie, and my life is already better! I came across this post on confusion, and my heart sang out. I had just come from a coffee date with a friend, M, and I was still reeling from the tales she had told me.

At M’s school, no student is supposed to be confused, ever. Teachers are expected to “assess student understanding” every 15 minutes, and if students are “not getting it,” teachers are expected to teach the same information again the next lesson. I imagine that this seems like a beautiful vision to many people (probably few of them teachers) – a utopian classroom where everyone understands everything and no students ever feel out of their depth.

Of course, if you know your dystopia (and you should), you know that 1984 and Brave New World and The Hunger Games all feature nightmares of society that came to pass because of similar attempts at perfection. And if you allow yourself some speculative fiction and ask yourself, “If this goes on…” you will likely come to the conclusion that eliminating confusion from the learning process is not only impossible, but a terrible idea.

Confusion gets a bad rap. We think of “I don’t know,” as dirty words, a forbidden admission. We hate to say it, and we hate to hear it. And as teacher evaluation systems attempt to link a teacher’s effectiveness to test-based measures of student progress, “I don’t know” starts to sound like, “You failed.”

I think part of the problem is that people like to think of learning as a linear process that looks something like this:

learning

In a linear process like this, confusion is equal to failure. If a learner cannot progress to, “Now I know!” after being taught a lesson, then the teacher has failed the learner, and the learner has failed himself. The linear model does not account for what happens in between the lesson and “successful” learning. Thinking linearly, we can’t appreciate that learners are touching down on “I think I know,” or “I know this much.” A straight line like this does not account for the learner connecting new information to existing understandings, wondering how these fit together, and experimenting with revised ideas. Neither does it acknowledge that learners are likely to return to “I don’t know,” during a moment of anxiety, like when they are questioned in class or given a test. Learning on a straight line, there’s no appreciation for the deepening of thought, or the reality that understanding is layered; it changes as the learner changes, evolves as she reflects and revisits.

The truth of learning, though, is that it is a recursive, ongoing process. Philosophers debated the concepts of knowledge and learning for a reason: because it is messy and twisty, and very much not a straight line. It probably looks more like this:

confusion-2

Moving from “I don’t know,” to “Now I know,” isn’t going to happen in a neat series of steps. Great minds are always quoted saying something along these lines: learning comes from failure, mistakes create knowledge, grit means not quitting when things are tough. Ad campaigns infect us with slogans derived from these beliefs: impossible is nothing, says Nike. Such advertising works for a reason.

The idea that learning is a shapelier process than a 1-2-3 sequence may seem off-putting to those who seek to evaluate it. And for those who hope to dictate how teachers should teach, acknowledging that learning is not uniform or straightforward is probably pretty scary (at least annoying). It would certainly take more work. The checklist systems many evaluators favor would not be as useful in an environment that welcomed confusion. But one could argue that those checklist systems are already failing, because they can award high marks to lessons that do not encourage students to grapple with their learning, work through their confusion, even learn to understand that confusion is not failure, but progress.

Last week, during my after-school class, some of my students sat by the wall where I display the quotes we have discussed in class, rereading past quotes and remarking on their favorites. Mohamadou turned to me. “My favorite is, ‘Do not spoil what you have by wishing for what you have not.'” he paused, turning over the remaining words in his mind. “‘Remember that what you have today…was once…what you only hoped for.’ Something like that. That’s a good one.” I smiled at that, remembering the day they came in to find the Epicurus quote on the board (right before Thanksgiving, of course). I remember their crumpled faces, their lips moving silently as they reread and reread. Had I snapped a photo, it would have been the very picture of confusion. But they worked. Hard. They waded into their uncertainty and sloshed through the mire, and they found a way through. I was so proud of them, and I knew I was doing something right, because they were so proud of themselves. They had faced that confusion, and they didn’t turn back. And Mohamadou sits in my classroom months later, reciting (almost perfectly) these words that presented such a puzzle, required such a feat.

If we teach students to fear or avoid confusion, then what are we teaching? What are they learning? If students learn that they can’t ever be confused, then almost anything will become too big a challenge to attempt.

What role does confusion play in your classroom? Share your thoughts in the comments!

 

The Value of Dreams

Overheard in NY, one teacher to another: “These kids just have no basis in reality. They’re just dreaming.”

Lifting me, unwilling, out of my book, the complaints from those teachers flooded the subway car we shared. Everyone wants to be a baseball star, or a rapper. Even the kids who want to be lawyers and doctors “just don’t get it.” This girl won’t study for math because she wants to be a model. That kid wants to be a stand-up comic because he likes Kevin Hart – but he’s not even funny! The outrage was bottomless, and I felt myself sinking through it, discouraged by the despair of these teachers.

I hear these complaints more often than I’d like. Since I’ve been working in the Bronx, I’ve been told about how out of touch our students are, how unrealistic their goals, how foolish their dreams. Reality is going to slap them in the face, their teachers have assured me. They’re in for a rude awakening when they fail.

I want to ask: what dreams are not foolish? And I want to argue: no one who can dream can fail.

I became a teacher instead of becoming a writer. I majored in English in college, and I went to college because it was just what you were supposed to do after high school. So I devoted my college years to stories, reading them and writing them. And I told everyone who assumed I would be a teacher that there were plenty of other things one could do with a BA in English (that song from Avenue Q was fun when it came out junior year), all the while guarding my secret dream of being a writer.

I didn’t even know what it meant, to “be” a writer. I couldn’t answer any of the important career questions: where would I work? and how much money would I make? and where would I live? It was a dream. It was wholly impractical, no basis in reality. When I pictured myself as a writer, I was always taller and my stubborn Hermione-hair had relaxed into the effortless, beachy waves that no amount of product or brand of gadget will ever give me. And I usually lived on the beach, in an old mansion, with a whimsical dog that could, like, howl out a Talking Heads song. Or I lived in a warehouse-cum-apartment building like a character from RENT, expect not addicted to heroin. Becoming a writer wasn’t a plan I was executing, or a goal I was carefully progressing towards. It was a dream, a dream that I knew would become a reality.

It didn’t. I became a teacher, not a writer. And I have not once regretted this. Not because teaching is a stable job, or because I can pay my rent; nothing boring like that. Teaching is satisfying and fulfilling and challenging and exciting and all of the things I felt being a writer would be, and I never would have made it to this job if I hadn’t held on to that dream. By most people’s standards, I failed. In truth, the dream has been the secret to my success.

On paper, I had a good upbringing. My family was not poor. I went to school every day, got into a reputable college. I am well-mannered and I know how to cook. The reality of my home life was in discordant contrast to the projected image, and though I am now voluntarily estranged from my abusive-in-every-sense-of-the-word family, when I was living that reality, my dream was all I had. It was the only thing keeping me afloat. It was the reason I got out.

When I hear teachers and parents complain about dreaming children, I want to scream. I want to wrap my arms around their kids and turn myself into something impenetrable and protective. I want to protect these dreams, because I believe in their power. I believe that dreams can lift us when we fall and sustain us when we are starving. I know that we need reality, too. I know that we can’t tell people that dreams are enough to make a life happen. We need the real, and the boring. But we also need the dreams, and some of us more than others.

Something I try to show my students (high school through graduate school) is that we never quite know what’s going on in someone else’s life. We make assumptions, but even when we think we see and hear everything, so much can be (often is) happening in between people’s lines. On paper isn’t reality, either. But we believe it and treat it as fact, and try to sever children from their dreams because we think it’s our duty as adults.

Once in a workshop, an elementary teacher marveled at the high school teachers in the room. “I just don’t know how you can do it!” she said. “Those high school kids are tough!” As the other teachers mused over what it is, exactly, that makes high school so difficult, one voice seized a brief lull to state, “It’s because they don’t imagine anymore.”  There were only about 15 of us, and it paused us all for a moment. I thought about how hard it can be to motivate my students, how defeated many have become. So many that have resigned themselves to not understanding, not being a “good student,” not being seen. I smiled, thinking about how wonderful it is when the walls start to come down and my students lose themselves in play and wonder, but the truth of that teacher’s statement made me so sad.

It’s not that I think you should let the student who has stopped coming to class slide because he’s dreaming that he’ll be a rockstar. But I think that telling that kid he’ll never be a rockstar, or pointing out that he’s not even in a band, will just push him away from you. You become just another hater, just someone else who doesn’t believe in him. My friend Molly likes to talk to kids about “the plan.” You want that? Ok, let’s figure out how you’re going to get it. What an awesome research project could come out of this (I’m sure has come out of this). Maybe instead of bursting bubbles or telling students how impractical their dreams are, we could acknowledge their dreams, validate them, engage them in the study and exploration of them. Give students a chance to figure out what that dream could look like in reality, and open the opportunity to discover new dreams.

Dreams are important, is all. I mean, they were good enough for Einstein.

How do you encourage your students to dream? Let me know in the comments!