Tuesday, November 24, 2009
My mother (a 5th grade teacher and reading specialist, bless her heart!) saved all of my elementary school and high school writing. So when I first entered the classroom, two decades ago, I thought I'd have a wonderful time sharing my writing -- my authentic teenage-self writing -- with my students.
What a bitter disappointment that turned out to be! I tried it three years in a row, with three different groups of students, and then gave up. I read my pieces aloud. Made overheads out of them. Xeroxed them and handed them out.
Most of them were handwritten -- the dot over the "i" in "Cheri" was even a heart -- how much more authentic could you ask for?!?
But still, my students' response was flat. Nada. Nothing.
Thanks to Write Beside Them and the NCTE Convention, I understand why my approach with my "authentic writing" was all wrong. I also realize some vital things about myself as a young writer and the well-meaning teachers who thought they were helping me.
1) Pretty much every paper had an "A+" on the top, along with the words "Another great paper, Cheri!" This taught me NOTHING. All it did was notch up my anxiety about the next paper! Not knowing what made this paper "another great paper," how could I ensure the same results next time? (Forget about process . . . as a perfectionist and overachiever, I was all about product!)
2) I was constantly rewarded for turning in first drafts, usually composed quickly, close to the deadline. My favorite piece, with a fabulous twist ending, was hammered out (quite literally!) on a manual typewriter during 4th period Business Ed and handed in at the beginning of 5th period English II. I didn't learn how to revise my writing until I taught college Freshman Comp as a graduate student and stumbled upon Richard Lanham's Revising Prose (Which is probably terribly out of vogue, now, but it gave me some practical principles that work for me!)
3) My high school writing was impressive but not good. If I'd been able to look past my initial disappointment, those first three years as a new teacher, and ask my students WHY they didn't respond to my writing, they could have told me: The sentences were way too long. Too many polysyllabic words. Simple, interesting ideas got blown up until they were confusing and dull. (Hmmm . . . perhaps this isn't all past tense?!)
I made the mistake of using my "authentic writing" as a product model for my students . . . a product model they could not mimic, didn't want to mimic, and should not mimic!
What I should have done -- and am learning to do -- was use my "authentic writing" as fodder for discussion of the writing process. What had I done well as a young writer? What did I still need to work on? How could they help me revise and improve each piece? I could have modeled the process of revision, contemplation, and collaboration; the process all writers go through.
Bless my kids' hearts for staying silent all those years ago. They knew it was my writing, that I was emotionally attached to it, so they chose not to hurt my feelings by bluntly pointing out all the flaws. How often do my students take better care of me than I do of them?
As I model the process of writing, may I follow their model of caring!
I went to the NCTE Convention in Philadelphia alone -- didn't know a soul! I went because I knew that if I kept hitting my head against the wall all by myself, I'd eventually cause brain damage. (Of course, if you ask my students, there's no "eventually" to it!)
I am SO thankful for all I learned and experienced at NCTE! SO many "light bulb" moments illuminating dark places in my teaching and inner wrestlings. So many missing puzzle pieces showing up saying, "I go right HERE!" and filling a maddening gap.
My first major take-away was a collection of "ah-HA!" moments about why things that haven't been working, well, haven't been working!
And then scores of fabulous ideas for what will work -- oh my! The presenters' generosity with handouts and PowerPoints and lesson plans is mind-boggling. But far more important than the printed materials -- I have bookshelves LINED with books and lesson planning ideas -- was the step-by-step coaching, the modeling, the demonstrating of artifacts. Now that I've met the presenters, heard them life-and-in-person, seen them in action -- now the handouts and packets and PowerPoints have long-term practical meaning.
I read about 1/2 of Alan Sitomer's Teaching Teens & Reaping Results in a Wi-Fi, Hip-Hop, Where-Has-All-the-Sanity-Gone World during my interminable (but safe!) trip home yesterday. Chapter 3 gives a powerful -- and sobering -- challenge: Quoting Dr. Haim Ginott, "I've come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom. It's my daily mood that makes the weather," Alan extrapolates, "ultimately I, as the teacher in my classroom, was the weather. Not like the weather; I was the weather. The deeper I looked at this idea, the more I became aware of its tremendous power."
At NCTE, after a particularly superb presentation by several top-notch, renowned presenters, I over heard a small cluster of newbie teachers complaining, "I knew all of that already. They didn't say anything new I can use." I barely restrained myself from marching over to these junior-high student look-alikes (anyone under 40 looks intensely young to me these days!) to give them a piece of my mind (and hope they'd choke on it!) In another session, the woman next to me spent the entire time bemoaning all the reasons she couldn't do any of the actions suggested or use any of the information shared. I wanted to dash into a chemistry lab safety shower, lest her attitude cling and corrode.
And yet, as I read Alan's words and experience, I realize that for all the information, ideas, and materials I gained at NCTE, my own attitude is the determining factor. For me and, most crucially, for my kids. My "bad tude" doesn't look or sound like the "other teachers" I saw thru the easy eyes of condescension.
What does my own bad attitude look like? I have a few suspicions (sarcasm perhaps? pas moi!) but after two decades in the trenches, turning the forgiving, blind eyes of excuses and circumstances (on myself, only, of course) has become a comfortable habit. (Maybe we need an AA group: Attitudes Anonymous!?)
This wasn't what I intended to write when I sat down, but it's what came out. And that was one of the most powerful, practical take-aways from NCTE for me: Writing isn't something I can finally allow myself to do when my lesson plans are done, my grading is up-to date, and my room is clean dealt with. It's not even that I "need" to write for my students. I GET to write daily, with my students! I get to start writing with one idea in mind, see where it leads me, and then talk through my process with a bunch of my favorite people!
I know it's going to be messy and one student is going to let loose with his own sarcastic bAAAAAAd attitude and another student will sigh and put her head on her desk. But I've handled them before, so I can handle them again. Perhaps, in the mix, he will offer an insightful comment; maybe she will get hit with a new idea of her own!
I went to NCTE alone. But I came home feeling very much part of an amazing community, and the English Companion Ning will sustain that sense of camaraderie in the months to come.
Now my goals are (1) to become rigorously self-reflective about my own attitude and (2) to be actively transparent with my own writing process.
And my hope is to foster a greater sense of belonging for each student in each class.