Monthly Archives: February 2016

1st day: a letter to myself in 1987

Some quick context: In my awesome CO301D class this morning, we’re writing Morning Pages, and I’ve suggested a prompt to write a letter to your future self on your first day of teaching. (Full disclosure: Not my idea. I stole it from this Soul Pancake video.)

Since I’ve been teaching for a while now (ahem. since 1987), I’ve decided to write back to myself instead.

Dear Cindy,

This morning, you feel so scared and full of hope in equal parts. It’s almost like you sent an invitation to this really big part, and the people you invited actually showed up. Of course, they’re all 14, which is kind of weird, but they came, and so you get to welcome them to this, the first day of their high school career. Chances are they feel scared and full of hope, too, so you have this in common.

You’ve decided to start your first day the way you hope to always start your first day, that is, after the announcements and the Pledge of Allegiance over the intercom, by asking them to write.

It’s a brave thing to do, and probably not something they’d expect since most first days start out with reading the course syllabus and talking about your policies and the class rules. You’ll do that, too, later, but for now, you express (probably in a shaky voice) that you already see them as writers, and you’re confident that if they don’t see themselves like that already, they will by the end of the year. You provide a prompt, then ask them to take out their pencils and a notebook and start writing. You do the same. And when you glance up every now and then, most of them are writing, too.

At that moment, you’re thinking, “Wow, the day has come. I’m a real teacher.”

If I could be there, too, I’d say, “And you know what? Thirty years later, you’ll be a teacher, too. You’ll be writing Morning Pages with your students. Only now, the only sound you’ll hear in the room is them clicking away on laptops. You’re still writing with them. You still love this job. You’re still filled with hope and fear in almost equal parts, though ‘hope’ is at the front of that phrase now.”

I still love the sound of writing, and I’m still glad I’m here.




wisdom from the yet-to-be

So I know I keep starting these last few spots talking about my really awesome CO301D students, but they are awesome. Really. So I thought I’d take some time to prove it by sharing some excerpts from blogs and linking you to them. After all, they’re the future of profession, so we should pay attention.

The timing is especially right because they’re embarking on their “Unfamiliar Genre Projects,” the culminating project that will earn them their “Teacher as Writer” badge. I’ve adapted the project from an assignment originally created by Cathy Fleischer, Eastern Michigan professor and Eastern Michigan Writing Project Director, and Sarah Andrew-Vaughan, high school English teacher and EMWP teacher-consultant. Speaking of really awesome, their book Writing Outside Your Comfort Zone also falls decidedly into this category. Exactly as its title suggests, the assignment requires you to choose a genre you feel UNcomfortable writing in and just do it, create some resources for others who want to try it, then reflect on your own experiences as a writer in the process.

The twist in our class is that I’m asking students to explore some key themes that we’ve been considering together all semester long:

What are your touchstone beliefs in the purpose of public education over time and at this moment in our history? What can you do as a teacher to support your students in constructing an educated democracy–that is, a world that you, and your students, and all of us can thrive in?

So back to my students’ awesomeness. I’ve been reviewing their blogs today, and they’ve been exploring those questions already, even before they knew about the project. So without further adieu and in no particular order of awesomeness, here’s what they have to say. (Psst…you should read their blogs to hear the rest.)

BETH CAMPBELLMy voice is important. Your voice is important. I am writing to you, dear reader, to share my ideas and what I value most. The comments on this page will allow you to share your words with me. That is education. The mutual exchange of ideas in the spirit of learning and personal growth. This is the kind of education that can change the world. Not war. Not violence. Not swords. The pen. The blog. The post. The comment. The conversation. My passion is helping others realize the potential and the power behind education and all that it could be.

COLTON MYHREWhether it’s creative or academic, one of my main goals as a teacher is to help kids find their voice, and know that their opinions and ideas matter and are something to be said.

EMMA BURNSAs a future teacher I want to empower students to improve, challenge, and grow. From the struggling students to the over achievers–I want to create a classroom environment which never allows students to think they are incapable, dumb, or a failure.

HAILEY SPRATTEI do feel that it is important to have students recognize that failure is something that happens to all writers. Writers block happens to everyone. It is how you overcome that failure that will define you; not the failure.

KAITLYN PHILLIPS: [from a letter to herself on her first day of teaching] You want to make a difference. The biggest way to make the best impact is to teach; teach them empathy and what it’s like to take care of one and other; teach them the implications of their politics, of their beliefs and their words; teach them to think first with their hearts, and speak and act, always, from a place of kindness. Teach them what a wonderful thing it can be to help another person, and how even more wonderful it is to love and help themselves; teach them that they have the power to totally change their lives, and the lives of others. Remember that you started doing this because you wanted your students to know how capable they are, and how powerful kindness can be.

KRISSA NIXSONYour first priority is the education of the students, even above your desire for innovative methods to succeed.

HOLLY MAXWELLEverything we learn in high school has a certain value. Although we may not use it once we graduate, it helps develop our mind and often leads us to deciding what we value and what we want to study while pursuing a higher education if we choose to do so.

SAVANNAH YSLASI think the problem with school systems is not the fact that students are being told that they are failures, but rather that they are being told that their only worth, in the eyes of a school,  is a test score.

ANGELA GERARDII think being honest, and sincere, in our writing is in a way taking a risk. As a writer and as a potential future teacher, I think this skill would also be important when reflecting on what is working with a class, and what isn’t.  Sometimes it falls on our own reflections to make necessary changes, modifications rather than following through with a master plan or course of action.

LAUREN MCCRILLISMy students need to know that I am on their side. They need to know the classroom is a safe place; a place where everyone (including me) shares one common goal: to improve & truly learn. 

SARAH BRAGGAs a writer, student, and teacher I think that self-expression through writing is one of the greatest tools for self-learning, self-growth, and opening the mind to new opinions and ideas. Learning how to express yourself through writing teaches you how to understand and express yourself in your relationships and the everyday.

MIKAELA ORRI want to teach English to help people discover how to become world changers through their words while showing them the importance of letting other people’s words change them.

ANNA ARCURII think a lot of us in this class room right now may have experienced the short end of the stick with education that is primarily about testing and getting good scores. We should become the educators that make education something that it no longer is. We should no longer settle for teaching studies that our students will someday “used to know”.

ANASTASIA THIBODEAU: [from an open letter to her teachers] Thanks for all the days that you put up with my shenanigans, my questions, my endless questions, my failures, my successes, my tears, and my laughter. I have learned that it all comes with the job and no matter how tired you are at the end of the day you loved every second of watching me grow and learn just as you intended.


growth mindset, fixed mindset: some thoughts on carol dweck’s work

Today in my awesome CO301D class, we’re writing about our responses to a TED talk by Carol Dweck. Here are the prompts:

What’s the “power of not yet” for you as a writer-teacher? Think about the terms “growth mindset” and “fixed mindset” for you in your history as a writer. Also, was there anything you found to be problematic about her ideas? It’s okay to push back. Remember what Mike Rose says about “being skeptical of the big idea, the hot theory.”

Dweck’s ideas are pretty well-known and valuable, too. In the talk, she talks about her research with kids who see failure (mainly on tests) as a function of their personal make-up, as an indication that they’re not up to snuff, and nothing in their power can change that. They have a “fixed mindset.” There’s another group, though, the “growth mindset groups, that put themselves in the “not yet” (e.g., category, as in “I didn’t do so well on that particular task, but it’s only a matter of time until I can do better.”

Thinking about those ideas is powerful for me as a teacher, a parent, and a writer because it permits the possibility of growth and change and silences (at least for a while) all those “mean girl voices” in my head who might tempt me to think I or my students or my own children will ever get “there.”

What I find troubling in her particular talk, however, is how she defines growth because it conflates achievement with scores on a standardized test and then links these to more complex issues like race and class. It’s just more complicated than that. Just because a kid didn’t do well on a standardized measure doesn’t mean they believe they can’t grow or aren’t growing. Likewise, just because they do better on those same measures after being introduced to the Dweck’s ideas (or their teachers do) doesn’t mean that their sense of themselves has changed.

I need to think more about this, but time’s up for now.

dear cindy: a letter to myself as a writer

Today in my awesome CO301D class, we’re beginning to talk about the concept of pose, wobble, flow in relation to our roles as writers. I’ve asked students to think about the following prompt and to actually write themselves a letter, so I’m going to do that, too:

PROMPT: Write a letter to yourself as a writer. What’s one (or more) poses you’d like to take as a writer–some ways you’d really push yourself outside your comfort zone that would help you grow? Where do you anticipate that you might wobble in those poses? Give yourself some encouragement–what are some methods you might use to achieve flow in these areas?

Dear Cindy,

I know it still feels weird for you to say that “you’re a writer,” partially because that’s been a lifelong dream, but also because maybe sometimes (okay, a lot of times), you’ve felt a little like a fraud. (The thought process has gone something like this: “Shh, don’t tell–I know my primary role in my day job is that I’m a teacher, but also, there’s this little thing I do on the side, which is to think of myself as a writer.”) Yet you still want to take on that pose because chances are, you have some experiences to share that others haven’t had yet if they haven’t spent almost 30 years in the classroom.

Every time you try a new genre or take on a new project, it’s for sure still a wobble to think of yourself as a writer. By now, I know you’ve thought that you’d be over it, that you should be surer of yourself because you’ve published some stuff and people have even said to your face, “Hey, that made me think. Thanks for writing.).

Remind yourself of that from time to time. It helps you keep in touch with the faceless audience out there. How can you help them know how important the job of teaching (and, yes, writing) is to you? Remember how you wrote your first book with the picture of Emily in your head? That worked. Keep doing that. And probably the most important thing is to think about your writing as a conversation with someone else who you’ve established a relationship with in education–even when you’re writing in a more formal genre for a more critical audience. Keep the reader at the forefront of your mind and name and claim your identity as a teacher as writer.

– Cindy

what education in a democracy looks like the day after a snow day

touchstones pile

As I described in my previous post, last Thursday in my Writing in the Disciplines class, my students explored their touchstones as writers. I’ve written about my own touchstones elsewhere and have connected those to some broader contemporary contentions about writing instruction in the era of Common Core. But in the past week, it’s been snowing like nobody’s business, so we’re using this venue to begun a discussion via comments to this post.

We’ve been reading what Mike Rose has to say in Why School: Reclaiming Education for All of Us about the touchstones in the history of public education in our democracy. Students have been collecting what they see as the most compelling sentences in each chapter of his book. (They only get to choose one per chapter, and that’s a challenge because there are so many!)

So hey, CO301D gang,through your comments below, we’re going to build that discussion about the function of education in creating our democracy:

  1. Before you write anything, look back over all the sentences you’ve collected from the Introduction-Ch. 8 and all the passages you charted for your most recent homework for Chapters 10, 12, 13, and the Conclusion. (Remember, we skipped Chapters 9 & 11.) Try to identify some patterns or some key ideas in these sentences and passages that seem to hang together. 
  2. Then, in the Comments section, respond to these questions:
  • Take ONE sentence or a passage. What’s it nested in (i.e., what’s happening in the passage around it?)? → Where does the crux of his argument appear in the chapter in relation to the role of education in developing our democracy? What strikes you about the arc of his argument and the techniques he’s used to develop it? 
  • As you think back over all the sentences and passages you’ve collected from Why School?, what do they reveal about Rose’s view on our nation’s touchstone beliefs in the purpose of public education over time and in this moment in our history? What do you notice about HOW he builds his argument?
  • Now try to connect those touchstones to your own teaching. I know it can be a little odd to think about your day-to-day work in the classroom as playing a part in developing an educated citizenry, but students spend more of their waking hours in school than anywhere else. Given that fact, what will you DO as a teacher (as in, really specific things you will do with your students in your classroom on a moment-to-moment basis) to support them in constructing a world that you (and those that you matter in your life) can thrive in? As you write, try to do so using the kind of detail Rose uses to convey what teaching and learning look like/sound like/feel like in the classroom.

3. Once you’ve posted your comments to those questions, we’ll use them as catalysts to begin our discussion.