Wednesday, March 8, 2017

The Day My Students Became Writers

August: "Write a body paragraph with a topic sentence, supporting evidence and an analysis of the evidence."
These students need more help-- did they forget everything over the summer?
Conference, feedback.
September: "Here is a topic sentence. Let's select evidence together. Now, let's analyze the evidence."
More papers, more grading, more hoping, more helping.
Conference, feedback.
October: "Let's write a thesis, then write multiple body paragraphs to support the thesis using different topic sentences, and analyze evidence about our topic to be credible to our reader."
There is not enough coffee in the world for this.
Conference, feedback.
November: "Your writing is getting stronger. Let's switch from explanatory to argument writing."
We make claims, counterclaims, and argue our views based on evidence.
Conference, feedback.
December: "Now, let's write narratives. Yes, like fiction."
We write three different genres of fictional narratives and imagine and wonder and create.
Conference, feedback.
January: "Nonfiction writing can be funny and creative, too. Write an explanatory monologue."
We laugh, we cringe, we celebrate the genre.
Conference, feedback.
February: "What's the difference between argument writing and explanatory writing? Let's write one example of each."
We explore and wonder and master the genres.
Conference, feedback.
March: "Research a topic and write an informational article for an audience of teenagers."
We consider our audience, we read, we write.
Except this time, they write.
I pause. I survey the room and realize that somewhere between explanatory, narrative, and argument writing, my students became writers.
They are lost in the process and the focus in the classroom is energizing.
There is the student in the back who could barely write a paragraph in August; now, his outline is so long he has to cut sections out to make the writing more logical.
There is the student by the bookcase who put her head down every day and refused to write; now, her fingers fly across the keyboard as she tries to make her hands catch up with her brain.
Conference, feedback:
"I'm so proud of you and the writing happening in this room," I say, and mean it.

Monday, February 20, 2017

We Start Again

Wake up before the sun rises. Scramble to get ready, eat breakfast, and arrive at school on time. Five minutes of quiet review and last-minute double check of the previous day's setup. The silence of the morning is broken as students pour down the halls and into my classroom. It's another day at school.

Bell rings. Take attendance. Read announcements. Say the pledge. Pass out paperwork, answer questions. Bell rings. Hallway duty.

Five minutes straight of rapid-fire questions:
"My locker is jammed, what should I do?"
"Can I take this note to the office?"
"Can I borrow a pencil?"
"Can I fill my water bottle?"
"Can I go to the bathroom?"
"Can I take this to my coach?"
"Do you have a bandaid?"
"I was absent yesterday, did I miss anything?"
"I was absent last week, how should I catch up?"
"My Chromebook trackpad isn't working, can I go to the Media Center?"
"I won't be here next Tuesday through Thursday, do you want me to do anything?"
"Is it okay if I finished my book before I needed to?"
"Did I leave my water bottle in here?"
"Have you seen a white binder?"
"Can I leave my instrument under your counter?"

Bell rings. I take a deep breath and close my classroom door. Students take their seats and we begin our learning. I share with the class our day's focus and goal. We read, we write, we talk. We laugh and we try our best. We work in groups, we work as a class, we work independently. I answer phone calls and field emails in between instruction and student interventions. I make demonstration notebook pages for students who need more support. I redirect students to our classroom anchor charts and digital tools available in our shared Drive folder. I challenge students with extensions to maximize learning. I know what each student needs and I have pre-planned how these students' needs will be met. I walk around and around my classroom, checking in on students and supporting their work, answering questions, offering praise and constructive feedback. Before we know it, our collective thinking is interrupted by the bell, signaling the end of class and the departure of 30 students, along with the subsequent arrival of 30 different students. The bell rings, and we start again.

Repeat the above six times, for 50 minutes, with four minutes of intense, frantic questioning in between.

Why do teachers do this?

We are addicted to the process of learning. As teachers, we love to be needed, we love to plan, we love to see the student growth. We love to predict student needs and to develop tools and lessons to meet those needs. We love when the figurative lightbulb clicks on over a student's head and we can see it and bask in the light together.

We never stop planning, innovating, and trying. We love the process.

When the students leave for the day, I plan for the next day. I set up for tomorrow and before I flip the lights off in my classroom, I turn around and stand in perfect stillness for a moment. Tomorrow, the seats will again be filled with students, opportunities for learning will be presented and attempted, and growth will occur.

We start again tomorrow.

The Best Stories

I am an English teacher. I teach reading, writing, and speaking. I teach these subjects logically and in linear fashion. Most days, I teach with as much passion as I can muster about writing analytical paragraphs. What I notice most when reading my students’ writing is that their love for story does not match mine. Students fall short of analyzing why it matters that the protagonist’s life changed, or how the minor characters are impacted by the changes within the protagonist. Students struggle with this not because they fail to analyze, but because they have not been taught to care.

This caring falls on my shoulders. It is my job to make my students care. So, the real failure here, the real reason my students cannot analyze, is because they do not yet realize the power of story.

The frightening aspect of this is that at one point, students cared. Students cared when the Lorax spoke for the trees; students recall this story with wide eyes as they explain how the Lorax stood up for climate change when he insisted that the trees mattered, even when everyone else said they did not. Students cared when the Giving Tree gave the boy every last resource it could until it no longer existed for itself, but instead existed selflessly, so that the boy, in turn, could live selflessly with those around him. Students cared about these stories because these stories are trees in their own lives, sowing seeds of compassion, growing kindness, tolerance, and empathy that are rooted into their very souls and branch out into their relationships with others and the world.

When, then, did my students lose the power of story that had been planted in them from an early age?

Perhaps this is a question I need to aim at my students. I admit, asking this question scares me, because certainly part of their answer could be them placing blame on me. “The story doesn’t mean as much to me when I have to analyze the theme,” they’ll say. “I want to enjoy the story without writing about why it mattered.”

What students need to understand is, the best stories make us want to write about them, to discuss them with people we care about long after we have finished reading, watching, or listening to them. When we close the book after reading the last page, the best stories force us to stare at the wall or the sky or the ceiling and question our very existence. When the screen shows the credits and the music plays, the best stories force a longing upon us as we return to our own world after being lost in another. When our friend or family member finishes telling a story and we laugh or cry with them, the best stories create a desire for connection within us that compels us to tell a story of our own in return, or leaves us speechless, sitting and feeling the emotions the person has invoked in ourselves. The best stories keep us thinking about our place in the world and compel us to make those around us challenge themselves as much as we dare challenge ourselves.

The best stories lend themselves to us. They allow themselves to be shattered so that we can all carry a piece of them with us in our quest to become an individual. Naturally, this means that those who read, analyze, and create stories more often will foster a stronger sense of self.

Before we teach them to write, we must teach them to care. Before we teach them to  analyze, we must teach them to empathize. Before we teach them our curriculum, we must teach them our hearts.

It is only when we teach their hearts that we will teach them how to write.