Free-falling/Free-writing

Free-writing with students terrifies me. 

 Every time! I always think at some point the fear of the first free-write will subside, and instead of inwardly panicking while my students gape at me in horror – You’re asking us to write? By ourselves? Are you crazy? – I’ll remember that I’ve done this before and no one died. But no, I can’t convince myself of that on Day One; even as I reassure my students that they can do this, my inner freakout perfectly mirrors their outer. What am I going to write about?! they cry, and I smile serenely while a voice in my head shrieks WHAT ARE THEY GOING TO WRITE ABOUT?! 

 There’s a lot to be said for faith. Often, I forge ahead with what I know will benefit my students even when the risk of failure threatens, and I’m only able to do so because I’ve done it before. It’s a small comfort, but it’s real and when I clutch it in my nervous hand, I find I have enough in me to keep smiling, encouraging, nudging. 

 “Miss, I don’t know where to start,” G. said on Day One. The class around us was completely ignoring the independent volume I’d requested (aka shhhh) as they traded topics across tables. 

 “Me either. Actually, that’s how I started,” I replied, tapping my pen against my mostly blank page. 

 G. narrowed his eyes a little, which is sort of his pre-smile, and jutted his chin at my notebook. “You’re writing, too?” Suspicious, slightly smirking. 

 I nodded and glanced down as I read him my first line, “‘I don’t know where to start.’ Yep.” 

 “Let me see.” G. wasn’t even trying to hide his doubt this time.

I could’t help smiling as I folded the notebook over and flipped it around, pointing at the scant 3 lines of writing. 

“I’m a little stuck, but I got some words on the page.” 

 G. raised his eyebrows and nodded, stoic teenage boy for, “Ok, cool.” His pen touched down and I let out a breath I didn’t know I was holding. Words on the page.

That’s what I’d told them: Just get some words on the page. You can do it.

Most of them didn’t believe me. I could tell by looking. 

And by them telling me, “I don’t believe you.” 

 Some didn’t get a word on the page. “It happens,” I told them. “Sometimes, the words aren’t ready to come out of our brains yet. It’s ok.” And then I repeated that to myself all day.  It’s ok, it’s ok. Reminding myself that this practice is important, vital, in developing writing voice, that this is how we become independent and thoughtful writers – we write.

This constant justification is a big part of my teaching life now. Where I used to feel confident in my choices because I had seen their effects, I feel uncertain even in the most tried and true routines, under the ever-more looming shadow of evaluation. Frankly, I feel like a marked woman; my days in this job feel numbered as I approach the inevitable Ineffective. But even though I’ve made up my mind to teach the best I can for as long as I can, I’m not immune to a freak out here and there.

But one of the greatest things about this job is that, while I’m often playing the long game and not seeing the results of some moves for years to come, there’s some amount of instant gratification. It comes in the form of students who press their notebooks into my hands at the end of class and say, “Please read.” And students who say across the table to the classmate with the blank page before them, “I’m writing about this, you should try it. Don’t worry. You can do it.” And looking around the classroom to see almost every pen moving, and students thanking me for giving them this space and time, and just one of my most troubled and disruptive students telling me that writing really helps, and he feels ready now. And when I ask, ready for what, he tells me, ready to learn. And when I say, I think you’re learning right now, he laughs and says I’m right.

One of my colleagues, before he retired after 35 years in NYC public schools, once told me that teaching was never easy, but recognizing good teaching was very easy.  He said good teachers figure out what their students need, and they figure out how to help them get it. And that’s the best answer to the why, to the what if, to the should we. They need this, and my job is to help them get it. 

Beyond the T-Chart

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“I’m going to give you a little dude,” I announced, holding up a handful of paper rectangles. On each is the empty outline of a cartoonish body.

“Now, be kind to this little dude. Don’t draw on his face, or crumple him up, or poke him with your pencil.” In every class, this gets a chuckle.

“This little dude is Junior. He’s going to live in your notebook.”

Handing out everyone’s little dudes there were a few jokes – fake rips, little dude fights between tablemates – but all of my students were taking care of their outlines. They placed them in the center of their notebook pages, quickly taking the two pieces of tape I tore off before moving on to the next student. Some students adjusted the orientation a few times, looking for the best spot before committing to the tape.

“Does everyone’s Junior have a home?” I asked. Most of each class chorused, “Yes,” with some notebooks flipped to show me their secured little dudes. Some students were still labeling him; “Junior,” they wrote, then waited, not drawing on his face.

“What are we focusing on today? Remind me?”

“Internalexternalconflict!” someone called out, every class.

Junior’s internal conflicts – his personal struggles, the problems he carries around inside him throughout this novel – we wrote inside of the outline. External conflicts we arranged around him, drawing arrows that press into him from all sides. Students offered conflicts and suggested where they belong, then defended their positions. There were great (multi-lingual) arguments happening, more like negotiations:

“Poverty is internal because it makes him feel so bad about himself.”

“But I think it’s external, because he was born into this poor family and this culture, so it comes from outside of him.”

“Yeah, so his low self-esteem is internal, but poverty is external.”

“Can we put them next to each other?”

In most classes, I did little more than write. I placed my “marker” on the SmartBoard and said, “Ok, here? What am I writing here? Do we all agree? Where else could it go?” My most energetic class had me dragging chunks of text around the figure on the board, pulling out his insides and swapping them around until we created a Junior they could recognize.

I had them 2nd period, usually their most zombie-like time slot, and their raised hands punched the air with enthusiasm that made me nervous for possible concussions.

My coworker’s son is in 3rd grade. He just made a mobile for his book report. My coworker smiled when he recounted his son’s excitement over making the mobile. Just a coat-hanger, some paper, some string and tape, he told me. So much better than a book report.

What we really had to do on Little Dude Day was review. For a lot of reasons, we didn’t end where I had hoped we would before the winter break, and we were coming back in the beginning of the middle of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Before we jumped back in, we needed to recap. I’ve been trying to decompartmentalize literary elements with my students, who come to me with the idea that plot goes here and characterization here and never the twain shall meet. I want to help them see the connectedness of all those pieces, the overlap and interdependence.

They showed me some beginning understanding of that as we wrote in and around our Juniors – “This conflict is why he is like the way he is,” one student said, after the poverty and low self-esteem connection was established.

“Tell me more about that,” I responded, because it is my mission to make everyone roll his or her eyes at me.

Eye-roll, sigh. “He draws the cartoons and says really crazy stuff because he’s not really happy, right?” I will spare you my torturous replies, though this student was not so lucky.

My number one advice for teaching high school English has become, “Be corny.” Sometimes, I say I don’t know what it is about corny, but I do know; corny is fun. So much of high school is not fun, increasingly so these days. I have seen many teachers do a similar lesson on internal and external conflict, using a T-chart. T-charts are the wrong kind of corny. It should go without saying that fun is effective, even in small doses. It is more memorable, more meaningful. And it is easy. It added about 6 minutes to my prep to print out enough little dudes for my four classes. (I had a student cut the pages in half. In my more efficient classes, they managed the tape without me.) The room was alive, as tired as we all felt coming off a week-plus vacation. Their noise was productive and sparkling, their silences thoughtful.

In one class, a student said the bullying Junior faces (external, they decided) makes him feel very lonely.
“Is lonely a conflict for him? Where should it go?”

They paused, some waiting, some thinking. One of my students was looking down at her little Junior, frowning. She mouthed, “Lonely,” and put her hand over her chest before looking up to tell me, “Internal. Inside.”

“Yeah, inside,” said the student next to her, touching her own sternum. “Right there.”

Just Keep Swimming

I’m having one of those years.

I haven’t slept through the night for months, and the same anxiety that’s jolting me out of my sleep each night is wreaking havoc on my appetite. The combination of skipped meals and exhaustion has me eating junk food almost exclusively; last weekend, I cooked for myself for the first time in far too long and just that simple act of self-care had me welling up.

Sometimes, I sit down and make lists of things I need to do for myself: cook, work out, go to bed by ___. The listing itself overwhelms me and I panic (there isn’t any time!) before turning the page in my notebook, before making a new list of all the work I need to get done.

I won’t vent here, because I have outlets for that very necessary stress relief already. But one thing I will do is remind myself that I get to write. Even during one of these years, when there is nowhere near enough time and anxiety is ever at my heels, I get to write.

Submit: 3 Reasons Why Teachers Should Form Writing Groups

I’ve been fortunate enough to be involved with the NYCWP Invitational Summer Institute for the past five years, and exceptionally lucky in taking on the role of co-facilitator this past July. Without fail, as out wonderful month of writing, reflecting, and pot-lucking draws to a close, several participants ask me how they can maintain some of that summer magic once back in the real world of teaching and grading, with no time to devote to writing and sharing. A few years ago, I had heard from a handful of summer participants who had continued to meet as a writing group, and while I thought this was an adorable and brilliant idea, which I recommended to participants from then on, I never pursued a writing group of my own. Until this year. For the past few months, I have been participating in a cozy writing group with two other Writing Project alum, and though it is consistently challenging, it is also one of the best things I have done for myself as a writer and as a teacher. The reasons are innumerable, so here I’ll focus on just three.

1. Deadlines are the best/worst.
Unless you have gone back to graduate school since becoming a teacher (or finishing your master’s during your first two years, holla fellows!), most of your deadlines have been self-imposed for awhile now. I say “most” because there are curriculum maps and evaluation reflections and other administrator- or district-mandated deadlines, but in terms of writing, non-students generally only need answer to themselves. Writing group reintroduced writing deadlines, which come with this familiar soreness that I really did not miss but I know is good for me.
Worst first: deadlines are miserable. When we agree to them, they always feel manageable. A week, sometimes two, is plenty of time. Sometimes I tell myself I’ll put in a bit of time each day to rough out a draft or polish the corners of a revision; sometimes, I plan to set aside an evening at a coffee shop (/my living room with a mason jar of wine). More often than not, the plan falls apart. Either the time I think I have gets redistributed to cover other responsibilities, or I glower at blank pages or solid walls of first drafts and make zero progress. Occasionally, I am too exhausted to do more than feebly push open my laptop and stare at my email before falling asleep on the keyboard. Stress, doubt, cursing the clock, procrastination – all the major food groups of my productivity in college come back to me now.
Best next: I forgot all of this. I forgot the way it feels to have someone expecting a piece of writing by a certain date, regardless of my other obligations or distractions. I forgot the paralysis a deadline brings to my writing process. When my students are assigned writing, either in our class or another, I’m more equipped to support them. I understand that deadlines should be close enough to feel urgent but far enough away to allow for time management. I build in checkpoints and conferences that make space for all that freaking out that I know they’re doing.
Bonus perk: I think I’m getting better! Our most recent submission date does not evidence this, but in general, I’ve found it easier to work with our deadlines. A little bit. Sometimes. Progress?

2. Meaningful feedback must be meaningful to the writer.
Providing feedback for writers is hard, because there are so many different kinds of feedback you can offer. Most of the ELA teachers I know have gone through similar, repetitive cycles around feedback: we begin by crossing out and circling and making notes in the margins around every error, then we try to work a little smarter and focus only on a few types of errors. We make checklists, incorporate peer editing, some of us stop writing on the student work all together and use sticky notes instead. We try retelling, asking questions only, referring students back to class readings with our fingers crossed. Few teachers I know settle on one method, and I think the biggest challenge around providing feedback is that different writers want different feedback. Some writers want a draft dripping in red (or whatever color your chosen grading ink), while others respond best to retelling and questioning. Participating in a writing group is helping me realize the importance of thinking about the kind of feedback I need. Submitting a piece with the hopes that I’ll get ideas on building up tension or expanding a character, but receiving only feedback on the word choice, is beyond discouraging. It’s distracting and frustrating, and leaves me less likely to look at that piece again. But the regular process of engaging in a group has encouraged me to think about and articulate the kind of feedback I need, and to think about how I can help students have more voice in the responses I give.

3. “Finished” is a relative term.
Sometimes, I’m just done. I’ve taken a piece as far as I can possibly take it, changed perspectives, rerouted the opening scene twice, polished every line, vetted every word. Sometimes, I’ve done half that, but all the same, it’s enough. I can’t bear to look at that piece ever again, regardless of the thoughtful feedback and encouraging words I’ve received. As a writer, I now have choices: I can force myself to slog through a revision, or I can put the piece to rest and move on to something else. And as a writer, having those choices keeps me writing. If I decide not to push a revision, I open myself to more writing opportunities, and I often find myself returning to that exhausted piece after a break, a fresh take having come to me in its absence. As a student, I rarely had these choices. Doneness was decided by my teachers, for the most part, and it was based on their needs – the grades needed to be in, or they needed me to demonstrate mastery of the unit skills. As a teacher, I want these choices to be clear and accessible to my students. Penny Kittle writes beautifully on the challenges and importance of creating space for student choice in the vital Write Beside Them, and participating in a writing group has only clarified the need for my students to have more control over their writing process in the classroom. Like me, they need the freedom and the language to say, “I’m done with this for now,” if I have any hopes of them building an authentic writing life.

I know you don’t have time. I know you have nothing to write about. I know there are deadlines and meetings and grading, and that you have a family, and that you are tired. But giving yourself time to write, just a few minutes each day, is infinitely rewarding. You’ll do some of your best learning through writing. I believe this. I see it in my students, in the NYCWP summer participants, in myself. Combining that with a writing group, and giving myself accountability and structure and a community of support, is informing my teaching in hands-on, real ways. And if nothing else, it’s a great excuse for some monthly me-time!

Have you tried participating in a writing group? What challenges have you faced, or do you foresee? What have been the payouts? Share in the comments!

On Violence

I was running errands after work today, nodding off as I stood in line. At the register, the cashier slid my receipt across the counter to be signed. Smoothly, I scribbled my signature in a blank space in the middle of the receipt, probably six inches above the clearly labeled “SIGN HERE” dotted line. We both laughed.
“It’s been a long day,” I sighed.
“Girl, mine’s not even half-started. I’m here until 10!”
And I let her win, because there are things I just can’t say, horrors that become the realities of the job. You don’t get to say, Well, I did see a kid get stabbed today, so I’m pretty beat.

Sometimes, I think there might be something in the air in October. It’s a morbid thought, but most of my Octobers as a teacher have brought moments of disturbing violence. Last year was the worst, the one that keeps me up odd nights and catches me tearing up during The Mindy Project. But, no, not the worst, because I don’t know that I can scale any of it. They are all the worst; they all haunt me.

The noise on the street this afternoon, it was the sound that crowds of kids make in movies when the main character gets to sing onstage with her pop star heroes and everyone loves her. Like that, but all wrong. The screaming and surging, laughter like breaking glass – Fight! Fight! Oh, shit – he’s bleeding! We came out of the building into an afternoon that felt like summer, blotting out the early morning’s bite of winter. I was standing in a square of sunlight, smiling as I chatted with a colleague, and the sidewalk exploded.

After security directed me away from the crowds, I sat on the train feeling hollow and let the urge to detach -check Facebook, double-tap things on Instagram, reread Harry Potter on Kindle – wash over me. Every time it faded, the memory of the boy’s shoulder, smeared in thick, bright red, came back sharply. And I just got so tired.

I’ve never wanted to teach somewhere else. I don’t think longingly of the suburban schools I attended; I don’t want to experience the education systems in other countries. Since I started teaching in the Bronx, it has been the Bronx. But every now and then, I wonder what it would be like to teach far away from this kind of violence. Thinking of my own high school experience, the violence was different – quiet and familial, behind closed doors. There is an impulse to push these current events into the silence, old habits and such.

Teaching about violence when incidences of violence in the community are immediate and real, is hard. And scary, and daunting. Everything is too big and too close. It is the difference between dangerous things happening somewhere, and dangerous things happening in front of you, to people you know, to you. There is a healing that comes with the planning, reading, writing, and sharing, but it’s that resetting-the-bone kind of healing. Only slower. And harder, and scarier. I want to be brave. I want to help my students interrogate the world they live in, help them process tragedies instead of brushing them off or accepting them as the way of things.

But if I’m honest, despite everything I want to be, I am. I am tired, my limbs are leaden; just keeping my head up is the greatest effort. Tomorrow, we’ll talk about today, and if I hadn’t survived this many Octobers so far, I would wonder how I will have the strength.

Making Writing Real

Help support my students and our classroom by donating to and sharing our Donors Choose project! Use the promo code INSPIRE to have your donation matched and doubled. Thank you for your support!

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!