Author Archives: blogessor

standing in wait

I love my school and my campus and I don’t want to go anywhere else. But its lonely. This transition is so much harder in a way I never imagined. Theres not really anything to do about it–you’ve dreamed about this for years. You’ve wanted this your whole life. You’ve done everything you could to get here. Now what? When you realize this isn’t exactly what you imagined, what you had hoped for, and you don’t even know if you’ll get what you want anywhere else. I mean, I can’t do anything else except wait. Wait for the wind to change. Wait for the seasons to pass. Wait for something. – 

from “I’m In The Right Place But I Don’t Quite Belong Yet” by Maddi Burns

Like Maddi Burns, the CSU student who wrote the poignant passage above, I really thought I’d be over this feeling by now because I’m at the end of the academic road–graduated high school –> college –> graduate school –> got a professor job –> got promoted once –> got promoted again…yet here I am, still learning, still going to school, and waiting for –>

…teaching to get easier, to get it right once and for all! (though I’m glad that it continues to be interesting and frustrating and exhausting and fulfilling–all of those things that I expected it would be).

…my time to become “managed” and to stop comparing myself to everyone else who seems to have mastered this skill. I’m waiting to grasp that the narrative in my head is the only one I can control and that everyone else’s narrative only intersects with mine, yet is not the focus of theirs (to shed that narcissistic tendency that drives so many of humankind’s insecurities). I’m waiting not to wear this anxiety as some sort of a badge that legitimizes my professional work.

…the day when I can play and play and play the piano without a shred of guilt, to walk the dog, to bake an elaborate meal and spontaneously invite friends over to share it. I’m waiting to stop living by the clock and the calendar. (I’m waiting to be spontaneous). I’m waiting to accept the sacrifice that Mary Rose O’Reilley speaks of–the almost certain trade-off of academic prestige that comes from loving and living the ephemeral. I’m waiting to really start listening to my kids when they call every night instead of simultaneously filling out my to-do list and scanning CNN to catch up on the 24-hour news cycle that only leads me to the brink of despair in the end.

I’m waiting to stop waiting. To do. And to be okay with the inevitable trade-offs. I’m waiting for fullness. I’m waiting to begin.

 

faire et se taire

How do you “faire et se taire” as a writer, as Flaubert put it? (Also, that rhymes, just to say.) Author Helen Simpson translates: Shut up and get on with it. And that’s what we’re writing about today.

I’ll admit it. This is really hard for me. Mostly because my to-do list looks like this:

 

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(NOTE: My to-do list does NOT include pics of my students, because that would be way creepy. I just have my journal lying on top of my roll sheet.)

 

Sometimes I think that my to-do list it detailed enough to count as actual writing, but alas. If you look closely, however, you’ll see that there’s a “RESEARCH” sticky listed and that there are even times listed beside each bulleted item on the list. For me, RESEARCH = WRITING.

Actually putting times on the items on the list, then making sure I block them into my day is improving my efficiency this semester (I think). It’s hard to make sure the writing sticky doesn’t get crowded out by those other notes, but this strategy is helping. I’ve also found a sweet new (free) app for my phone that’s called 30/30. It keeps me honest in the blocks of time when my mind feels like the urgent has to supersede the important. You basically enter in task and assign times to those categories, then tap on them and forget the time until the app buzzes that it’s up. It looks like this:

 

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Yet even with all these strategies in place, there are still days when I just Don’t. Want. To. Write. because I feel as if I just Don’t. Have. Anything. To. Say. Well, that could be true at any give time, but I’m allowing the writing bar to scroll up to the top of my screen anyway because I know that almost inevitably, about 10 mins. in, I gain some momentum and don’t want to stop.

If you need more encouragement, Austin Kleon of Steal Like an Artist fame, has his own “faire et se taire” mantra that’s so darn loving, it’s hard to resist: “something small, every day.” (Plus, check out this post to see how Kleon repurposed a workplace safety scoreboard sign above his desk for extra incentive. It’s pretty great.)

I suppose you can woo yourself in French (faire et se taire) or take a roll-up-your-sleeves approach (shut up and get on with it), or coax yourself to your writing space (Here, kitty, kitty, kitty–do something small, every day). Whatever you do, the end result promises to be the same. Just show up and trust that something will happen. Then pick up your pencil or turn on your machine and write, and something will.

 

Dear Me — inspire yourself as a writer

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Today, we’re writing letters to ourselves as writers. We’ve all been there, and by “there,” I’m talking about that moment in writing when you feel like a big fraud. The “mean girl/boy” voices (or “little mousies,” as Anne Lamott calls them) can be pretty vicious in casting their aspersions. No matter how many times I forget it, I know those are the best times to remind yourself that you can push through. Here goes:

Dear Cindy,

So you’re winding up that prospectus right now. The end is in sight! (not “near” because that sounds pretty much like the doomsday clock is counting down even further). Rather, the time is the thing now. Wow, it’s easy to let the urgent crowd at the important, especially when it comes to writing, but think about how good you feel when you’ve gotten something down on the page.

Forget about all the times you write to erase, that is, those times when you use the backspace button more than you use move forward. (P.S.: I totally just did that.) Spelling is perhaps a legitimate reason to hit backspace, but you’re a good speller (plus, spell-check), so what would happen if you didn’t revise as you went for once, but just got your ideas down on the page? What if you wrote to the end of a single paragraph even, and then moved forward to another paragraph and another and another until you had generated a decent bit of content that you could spend 15 mins. editing at the end?

I predict it would feel pretty good. Why don’t you try that today?

Also, just for a minute, think about the stuff you’ve read that even upon re-reading seems pretty good, seems true and enduring, even though the circumstances that inspired the content may have passed. Think about the tweets you get like you got last week when someone read something from Pose, Wobble, Flow and felt inspired! The notification on your phone woke you up that morning, and there was a moment then before you drifted back to sleep that you thought, “Good, someone felt encouraged in their practice and they just might pay it forward as a teacher or a writer, and you had a small part in that.”

You might be able to write something today that will work in a similar fashion tomorrow.

Give it a try. Be surprised. No back-spacing. Write to the end of the paragraph.

Best,

Me

what’s your mindset on “mindset”?

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[IMAGE CREDIT: Edutopia]

One of the most common refrains I’ve heard from my students over the years is, “I’m just not creative.” When I taught high school, I heard and I asked my students to write in any genre beyond the five-paragraph essay (which is indeed a secondary school genre in that very few writers write in it past graduation, even English majors). In fact, if I dared suggest that my students write FOUR or FIVE+ paragraphs, oh the gasps that ensued! Oh the wringing of hands!

As determined as I was as a teacher to coax students out of their fixed mindsets as writers so that they could grow creatively, I have a confession to make: when I’m asked to move beyond a fixed mindset as a writer, I feel aghast sometimes, too.

I’ve been earning part of my living as a writer for “five-ever,” as my daughter would say, and though I definitely have my dark days, I’m pretty confident in claiming that identity once-and-for-all. In that respect, I’d say I have “fixed mindset” that yes, indeed, I am a writer. So that’s where my quibble with Dweck’s thinking about mindsets in dichotomous terms comes in. Rather, I see fixed and growth mindsets as related in potentially positive way.

When a fixed mindset is tied to an actionable identity, I believe it can be generative. That is, actually seeing myself as a writer is what propels me to engage in and grow through writing.

At the same time, when I dabble in varied genres and write for audiences beyond academia, I inevitably have to activate a growth mindset. I have to start over in a sense, but I can always come back to that anchor identity, that fixed mindset that I am a writer, just one who’s always stretching and growing. I ‘m not gonna lie, as with my high school students, there’s always some gasping and wringing of hands when I transition into a growth mindset, but it’s the fixed mindset that gets me through said grasping and wringing to the other side.

Thus I don’t see fixed and growth mindsets as either-or’s; I see them in potentially generative tension with one another.

I’m not the only one with a quibble about Dweck’s ideas. See, for instance, Alfie Kohn’s critique about buying the “mindset” mindset hook, line, and sinker, and then take a look at this critique of Kohn’s critique by whip-smart writer/gifted teacher/former student/luminous human being Jaime Wood. (Jaime’s piece is on a terrific site called Bark, which you’re going to want to start following right now, immediately. Just read this for starters.)

I think Jaime gets it right when she points out that an inordinate focus on the individual, which the notion of “mindset” (understood singularly) implies, ignores that the individual always exists in a sociocultural context of “family, teachers, economics, societal expectations, and a range of other factors beyond ourselves to contribute to our success.” In that case, “the notion that personal responsibility is the only condition that matters for success, or the most important one, is just plain false.”

Jaime’s conclusion: “growth mindset isn’t really the problem. The problem is that we have to understand the complex system in which this new strategy will take place and how other issues like forming positive relationships between students and teachers will have a substantial effect on whether a growth mindset will work.”

What she said.

in spite of / because of / on behalf of

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I made the mistake of checking CNN at lunch and spoiled my appetite. I’m not exaggerating when I say that my worst fears for public education were just confirmed today by Betsy’s DeVos’s confirmation. I’d be lying if I said I was shocked, but somewhere between disappointed and devastated sounds about right.

And for about the hundredth time in the past few weeks, I thought, “What now? What’s next?”

Ironically, I had another tab open on my laptop while I was reading the news. It was this blog post by Parker Palmer on Krista Tippett’s fantastic website On Being. Palmer was writing on an unrelated topic, but as usual, his words had profound relevance for the moment. Here’s what he had to say:

“…you may be asking the vexing question, ‘What can I do?’ For me, the answer begins within, then moves out into the world.

…Here’s where many of us get stuck, thinking of how little power we possess compared to the enormity of our nation’s problems. So let’s listen to the wisdom of writer and activist Wendell Berry who reminds us that, when it comes to big problems, there’s never been one big answer, only a million-million little ones.

If you believe that the little thing you’re doing can’t possibly make a big-picture difference, remember Berry’s words:

‘We don’t have a right to ask whether we’re going to succeed or not. The only question we have a right to ask is what’s the right thing to do?’”

Well, at the moment, I don’t really know what to do. So in the absence of that, I just invented a heuristic to ground my thinking. I’m calling it “IN SPITE OF / ON BEHALF OF / BECAUSE OF.”  Here’s how it worked for me:

IN SPITE OF Betsy Devos’s confirmation, I will keep working…

ON BEHALF OF public education…

BECAUSE OF my belief that the world will become more just and peaceful only if all children have an equal opportunity to thrive and grow.

At the moment, I still don’t know what to do exactly, but I’m hoping this statement can be a starting place that will allow me to follow Parker Palmer’s advice to “[begin] within, and then [move] out into the world.

If you try the heuristic for yourself, will you let me know how it worked for you? I’d love to hear your statements and feel inspired.

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weebles wobble, but they don’t fall down

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Okay, the truth is that Weebles actually do fall down, but the thing that Weebles do that other playthings don’t–the quality that is the essence of their Weeble-ness–is that they pop right back up again into their original pose. I bet you can see why a tagline like “Weebles wobble, then they fall down, but then they get back up again” didn’t make the cut.

I bet you can also guess there’s a metaphor at work here. You can take a look at this Morning Pages prompt for more details on what our community of writers is addressing today, but for now, it’s enough to know that we’re pose/wobble/flow-ing in relation to the pose of “Teacher as Writer,” that is of committing yourself to being a teacher who writes and a writer who teaches. (See this previous post for details on the pose/wobble/flow model and how it can support your growth as a teacher.)

When I think today about how and where I’m wobbling as a writer, it’s in the justdo-ing it part, in simply “engaging regularly in the practice of writing” (Garcia & O’Donnell-Allen, 2015, p. 76). I rarely suffer from writer’s blog, but there are so many demands on my time that writing on a daily basis often gets pushed to wayside. I’m talking about a certain kind of writing here because don’t get me wrong, I’m writing all day long (and doing so right now, in fact). But the kind of writing that dominates my day tends to fall into Scardamalia & Bereiter’s (1987)  “knowledge-telling” genre rather than the “knowledge-transforming” genre that feeds my soul. Writing grant proposals, lesson plans, letters of recommendation, and teaching observations does not feed my soul. Even though I acknowledge its necessity, duty-based, knowledge-telling writing plagues me because it tends to crowd the generative, knowledge-transforming writing right off the day’s agenda.

Herein, I wobble.

In Pose, Wobble, Flow, Antero and I cover strategies for dealing with wobble in more detail, but there are always challenges (did I mention the time thing already?), so this is a really good example of why it’s important to go back to the pose: I am a writer who teaches. I am a teacher who writes. So as a note to self, here’s what I know I can do to wobble toward flow:

  • I know I can set up writing as a non-negotiable “meeting” in my calendar.
  • I know that coffee is a must, as is a quiet place or a place where I can be quiet in myself in a crowded place like a coffee shop.
  • I know it helps to have a writing partner who holds me accountable.
  • I know that just 25 mins. of knowledge-transforming writing a day, five days a week,  quickly adds up to a couple of hours on even the busiest week. If I can knock out 1,500 words in 2 hours and write 43 weeks of the year (yes, that’s over 2 months off), I get to right at 65,000 words, and that’s a book, my friends! Yeah, yeah, I know that amount of time doesn’t take revision into account, but you get my drift here.

And yet…I wobble.

There. I said it.Coming clean with my students about wobbling is sometimes a risk because I run into the do-as-I-say-and-not-as-I-do syndrome, yet I hope it helps to know they’re not alone. (Psst! You’re not alone!) Remind me to be a good Weeble and check in this time next week to see if I stayed true to my Teacher as Writer pose.

In the meantime, let’s all of us let the throwaway tagline be our mantra:

Weebles wobble, then they fall down, but then they get back up again.

 

  • Bereiter, C., & Scardamalia, M. (1987). The psychology of written composition. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
  • IMAGE CREDIT: Community Blogs

 

 

see me see them

In this TED talk, the musician Amanda Palmer tells the story of her first job out of college, being a living statue (an 8-foot bride to be precise) and the profound experience it gave her with human connection. Since she couldn’t speak as a statue, her first task was to make eye contact and really see the person before her so that person could likewise see her.

As a teacher and literacy scholar, part of my life’s work hasn’t been so different from Palmer’s. Though I can’t add 8-ft.-bride to my CV (though that would be amazing, I’m not gonna lie), I’ve tried to use my writing as a way of establishing connections with readers so that they can move beyond the common abstraction of public schools as a failure or a “disaster.” By rendering moments of teaching and learning, I’ve tried to help readers understand in a profound way the hard and beautiful moments of teaching and learning.

I believe it’s more urgent than ever to help the general public see those up-close moments. Right now, for instance, the only sounds in my classroom this morning are the rush of air through the vents, the light but steady tapping of my students’ fingers on laptop keys, and the occasional brushing of pages as they thumb back through Why School? to see what Mike Rose has to say.

I love this hush, this sound of becoming.

In that liminal space between student and classroom teacher, these preservice teachers have the inside corner on what it means to teach and learn. They’re intent. They’re the future. And at this moment, I’m just honored to share the room.

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letter to the next president

Dear President Trump,

You’ve been understandably distracted by other issues since inauguration day, but I’m hoping you’ll soon move education to the top of the list since it’s relevant to every single citizen. (Plus, I notice that it’s been removed from the “issues” section of the White House website.) All of us have had experiences in our own schooling that inform our views about education today, but that was then and this is now. What’s the connection between those things? How do those experiences shape our hopes and expectations for the teachers and students who are busily typing away in the classroom I’m occupying right now?

Based on the Betsy Devos hearing last week, providing families with choices is at the center of your agenda. This seems like a no-brainer. Presumably, parents and caregivers want the best education for their children that is possible.  As a parent myself, I wanted my own children to have caring teachers, high expectations, rigorous curriculum, lots of enrichment opportunities, and connections to them as whole people, not just test scores on a page that would be used to judge their worth and their schools. I wanted them to have choices that opened up their lives now and in their futures. It mattered to me that they learn not only to be smarter, but to be kinder and more inquisitive. I wanted them to know that their voices were important in the world.

When I look around at my students right now, that hasn’t changed. I want the same things for them, and I suspect they would agree that they should have ACCESS to those opportunities.

What’s worrisome to me, however, is how “access” is getting defined in the discussions I heard last week. Equity and access are important to help students thrive, but vouchers–taking money AWAY from public education to siphon toward private and parochial schools and charters that often have profit margins uppermost in their missions–aren’t the answer. Diverting funds from public schools, who actually are not “flush with cash” as you described them in your inaugural speech, isn’t the answer either. Not holding charters, private, and parochial schools to the same standards or entrance requirements (this is especially true when it comes to students with special needs) isn’t equitable and isn’t providing choice. It’s just providing the illusion of it.

Public schools are the one public institution all of us share as a nation. I urge you to provide more support for them and for students and their teachers so that they will have equal access to the resources they need (books, technology, free and healthy breakfasts, challenging curriculum, fair assessments, and robust professional development for starters). These things cost money, but they also enable positive life chances for all of our future citizens and will keep America great (not just great again). The grand experiment that is our democracy depends on it.

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touchstone moments

 

In CO301D today, we’re thinking back to our touchstones–that is, those moments in our schooling that have stuck with us as writers/readers/thinkers/human beings. This video, “Some Study That I Used to Know,” makes it clear that touchstone moments for students and teachers don’t always intersect. But when they do, what are those moments like, and what conditions have to be in place to made them possible?

Although my memory has grown faultier with age, my memories of school remain fresh, way way back (like kindergarten back). I admit that these memories aren’t always positive, but many have been or I probably wouldn’t be sitting here today, trying to support my students in becoming teachers themselves.

I’ve written about several of those moments here and here, for instance, so I’ll just touch on a few here. (See what I did there? Touch on my touchstones?) I think especially about my Senior English teacher, Mr. Ford, whose class started with writing every day. I loved that silent, hallowed space where I could be alone with my thoughts and get them down on paper. I think about Mr. Hougardy, my middle school science teacher, who trusted me to walk down to the library by myself so that I could find more research on lichens for my science fair project. I think about presenting that at the state science fair and what it felt like to earn a ribbon for my thinking. I’ve never looked at lichens the same way, especially since even then in 7th grade, I started thinking about carbon emissions caused by our local energy plant and how those were affecting not just lichens, but our environment and what would happen as a result. (Mr. Hougardy was right about climate change.) I think about Dr. Flanagan’s class where I learned how to plan a unit and was surprised by the latest research on why grammar doesn’t make a positive difference in student writing. (Also still true.)

So what were the common denominators that led to those touchstones? Clearly, teachers who trusted me as a learner to be curious and thoughtful and surprised, who helped me persistent in pressing through questions I didn’t understand and to explore those on paper and through research–my own and other experts’.

I think about how they valued every students’ ideas, even the ones who didn’t speak up often, like Marlon Gabriel, the cowboy who wrote a beautiful poem about a spider’s web that still makes me look closely every time I see one. Those teachers encouraged us to share our writing and our ideas with our peers and with others outside the classroom. They took us seriously as writers, scientists, and future teachers.

And they made me want to do that for others. So here I am.

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takin’ it to the streets (aka bringing detail about education to the public sphere)

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IMAGE CREDIT: The Public Sphere, New Media and Politics

I’m so fortunate to be teaching another writing course this semester! As I said in so many words at this same time last year, the two acts of writing and supporting fellow writers–be they students or colleagues–have animated my work since I started this gig way back in 1987. (Am I old, or am I resilient? Draw your own conclusions.)

Having met my latest class on Tuesday, I’m eager to begin writing with them during Thursday’s class. In anticipation of our work together in CO301D: Teaching Writing in the Disciplines–a course that aims to deepen personal knowledge of the field of education in order to share that knowledge in the public sphere–we just started reading Mike’s Rose’s profound little book, Why School: Reclaiming Education for All of Us (2009/2014). In the Introduction, Rose makes the following claim:

The challenge in [writing about education] is how to bring the cognitive detail and intimacy into public view, how to render it, and how to apply it to broader social and political issues. The public sphere is where the detail belongs, for collecting it is a testament to who we are, a tribute to our intelligence as a people (p. 21).

In that same vein, the following excerpt from my CO301D syllabus describes what our work together will entail this semester. Speaking now directly to my students: 

I’ve designed this course to help you, as future English Language Arts teachers, develop expertise in current issues in the field of education (especially literacy education) that will inform your writing for public and practitioner audiences. That means you’ll read and analyze multiple texts written in print and multimodal genres (because that’s what writing looks like these days), you’ll construct and refine your own theories about education (because we all already have them, whether we’ve articulated them or not), and then you’ll write (A LOT) to make better sense of what you, your classmates, and other experts know so that you can communicate your views via public writing.

“But isn’t all writing public?” you may be wondering. Technically, perhaps, but in school, writing tends to move along a one-lane street connecting the student and the teacher only. This class aims to move the vehicle of your thought onto a multi-lane information super highway with lots of on-ramps and off-ramps so that others can traffic with your ideas, and you can traffic with others’. On that freeway, we’ll consider the following questions, among others:

  • If anyone can Google any information, “Why school?” as Mike Rose puts it. Assuming that there is a point (otherwise, you’re wasting a whole lot of money on tuition), what is it that every educated person in a democracy, including students and teachers, should be able to know and do as a result of her/his schooling? What role do you as a future teacher, as well as schools in general, have to play in expanding access to equity for all students? What does it mean to be ambitious on behalf of youth?
  • For that matter, why write? How do other educators communicate what they think in regard to the above questions? For whom do they write? How do they craft their messages, and for what purposes, so that their ideas can be heard? Where do educators’ voices fit in today’s political debates about education? How can they shape public conversation and educational policy instead of being pawns in it?
  • Which brings us to you. Why should you as a soon-to-be-teacher engage in public writing about literacy and education? Who needs to hear what you have to say and why? Since everyone has been to school, what can you tell them that they don’t already (think they) know about education today? How will you communicate your ideas for colleagues and others outside of the field of education, including students, colleagues, parents, and the general public?
  • And when you do write, what will that writing look like in our digital, multimodal age?

Driving down this information super highway is likely to be daunting indeed, but the good news is that we’re all on the bus together. I hope our road trip will be safe, but boisterous. I know our conversation will be unpredictable, but interesting. Let’s make it our goal to have some good stories to tell when we reach our destination.

Now buckle up and let’s go! To do so, choose one or more of the italicized questions above and respond in the comments section below. In other words, write in public. Right now. On purpose. Because I know you have something to say.

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