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finals week

Today, another group of students has provided this timely prompt:

As finals week is coming upon us, we all know that stress is a huge component that takes over our bodies during this time. Writing from a teacher’s perspective, knowing what you what you know being a student, what are some resources, guides, tips, and activities that you wish you would have seen in your own experience that you want to implement as a teacher for your students?

So, I am the teacher, turns out, and as should be clear over the last few posts, I’ve managed to work in information on the theory of sustainable teaching as much as possible. It’s not just because this is my research focus right not or that I’ve been spent the past two years developing the working theory with a group of super-smart teachers or that the CSU Writing Project is pushing the work out in a big way this summer with a regional conference or that I’ve co-written and co-presented slices of the work for a premier journal and several conferences.

It’s because this work has changed the way I move through the world as a teacher and a human being. I’ve learned to stop and breathe. I’ve learned to meditate. I’ve given myself permission to actually make things again, to read poetry, to light a candle before we sit down for dinner, to turn my phone to airplane mode so that I can devote an uninterrupted chunk of time for writing. I’ve learned to pause and breathe and look around.

This all sounds romantic, right? Like life should be love, light, and sunshine?

Well, not so much. These have been hard years for me and my students, too, but these resources have helped and are helping us continue down the path. They were curated by the teachers from the last two Institute for Sustainable Teaching. I’ve used them, I’ve passed them on to colleagues and students, and now to you. Dip your toe in. You’ve won’t regret it.


dear future cindy

…your future self on your first day of teaching. What do you really value as an English teacher? Get that down on paper so that you won’t forget. What are one or two small ways that you can imagine living out the work you’re doing on your current badge on your very first day? What challenges can you imagine? What are some ways you can make it through those challenges to be the really great teacher you have the potential to be? 

Dear Cindy,

Officially, this isn’t your first day of teaching, but you are waaaayyy far into it, too far to back out now because you still deep down love it. What you’ve learned is that every day is a first day. Before every class you get the familiar little jitter that comes from doing something you care deeply about. That’s why failures hurt and successes matter, and so does every flat day in between.

Every so often, you need to go back to your old plan books. You kept almost everyone, and you can see yourself there, trying to connect to students, trying to figure out who you were as a person, seeing teaching as an act of creativity that felt (feels) so grand as you imagine how the class will unfold, then so unpredictable once it actually does.

Don’t lose the first-day feeling, but keep working on trusting yourself to be vulnerable, to be who you are because students know when you’re faking it, and you do, too. Those are the worst days of teaching.

That vulnerability can’t be gratuitous; it has to be relevant and authentic, but it also has to be there if anything of any worth is to happen. You’re a person in the classroom, too, and you want to keep learning while you teach.

You can do this!



no vulnerability, no learning


In her video “Daring Classrooms,” Brené Brown uses the phrase “no vulnerability, no learning.” Think about at least one space that has allowed you to thrive as a learner (and this doesn’t have to be a classroom). What conditions were in place that allowed you and others to take positive risks for learning? What did those spaces look like and sound like? What did it feel like to be a learner in that space? If it’s not too much of a stretch, write about any connections you see between the ideas you’re writing about and the badge you’re currently pursuing.

This past Monday, I had a long conversation with one of the very best teachers I know; I’ll call her Liz. I’m conducting a study on “sustainable learning,” what the language, tools, and practices are around that, and Liz talked about how her participation in the CSU Writing Project Institute for Sustainable Teaching a couple of summers ago allowed her to be an intellectual again. It was the space that drew her there. As she explained it, she knew that she could take risks—both emotional and intellectual–in this space, that she could share her vulnerability with the other participants because these spaces had been the norm for her in her work with the National Writing Project over the years.

When I asked her a version of the question, “What do those spaces look/feel/sound like, she actually talked about the physical space itself–the table and chair set-up that allowed folks to look one another in the eye and really listen; the light in the room which made it less institutional; the opportunity to learn with one group then move on to learn with another.

But she spent more time talking about the empathy piece. Hearing the experiences of other teachers who were enduring the strain of the profession and knowing that they can risk “not-knowing” with one another so that they could get to a place where they knew more than they could have known as individuals before made the space “hospitable.” I want to write more about this later, but time is up for today.

Pose, Wobble, Flow: Redux


For homework you already wrote about the badge you’ve selected and why you chose it. You can think of these reflections as your pose. → Now that you’ve actually started working on your badge, how are you wobbling with the ideas and the activities of the badge and/or the identity the badge is helping you grow into? → Based on your completion of your last badge, what strategies can you use to work your way toward flow?

…so I’m not working on badge, officially, but I sure feel like I just completed one by writing a proposal of the kind I’ve never written before and in so doing, taking on the pose of “senior scholar.” Whoa. That makes me sound super old, but I digress.

I guess you could call my next pose is “Teacher as Regional Conference Organizer.” Never done this one either, but I have a very clear vision of what I hope we–the conference leadership team and I–will accomplish. We want to learn in community with others who are interested in the concept of “sustainable teaching,” a theory of change that is focused on keeping people in the profession for the long haul despite the challenges and because we still love the job deep down.

At the moment, I am wobbling big time, just with the logistics, which are time-sensitive along with basically every other aspect of my life. How do I write a conference call for proposals? How do we market this? How do we set up proposal reviewers and build a schedule? How do we find rooms and plan catering and set up PayPal and, and, and.


So my strategies for flow are to ASK FOR HELP! To surround myself with people who have complementary skill sets and to give them a job they’re good at and get out of the way. I know for sure big-time that I won’t make it if I don’t have a plan with mini-deadlines and then dedicate time every stinking day toward meeting them. With others who are smart and dedicated and committed to really, really meaningful work.

Dear Vincent

This quotation by Vincent Van Gogh inspired me today: “I long so much to make beautiful things. But beautiful things require effort and disappointment and perseverance.” 

Here’s the Afternoon Pages prompt it inspired:


Dear Vincent

Write an open letter to Vincent Van Gogh, describing your experiences in writing your UGP. Tell him about your efforts and your disappointments. Ask him for advice on how to persevere. As a fellow artist, conclude your letter by proclaiming the step you will take next, right now today, to progress toward making your UGP into a “beautiful thing.”


As if often the case, I’ve written a prompt that I need to respond to myself. I’m writing a UGP of my own it turns out, in the form of a proposal for an award that I really, really would love to get, but that’s highly competitive. So the stakes are high and the chance of a reward is low.

I’ve decided to go for it anyway, and I’ve made efforts toward doing the research that will help me write the proposal. I’ve gotten 3 references to agree to speak up for me, I’ve talked to experts in the field that will inform the proposal, I’ve inquired more about the format, but beyond making a bulleted list to make it through the first round, I haven’t done much actual writing.

(Wait! That’s not true. At a workshop last week, I wrote for 10 whole minutes. 10.)

And I’ve done a whole lot of thinking and hoping and doubting (lots of doubting) that the proposal itself–much less the project–will ever come to be.

Dear Vincent, how can I persevere without losing an ear in the process? What did you do? Earn nothing but keep painting anyway because you needed to answer the call of your longing. What can I learn from you? Maybe just to follow the call of proposing work that matters and is in some ways the next step in the trajectory of work that I’ve tried to do since I became a teacher.

Next step: E-mail former recipients and write for 25 mins. without stopping. Lofty goals indeed!


don’t write, gallop

play by your own rules

What are your rules for working toward flow as a writer? How will you enact them right now, today, as you work on your Teacher As Writer badge? How do you help yourself just “shut up and get on with it”?

You know how you teach what you most need to learn? Well, sometimes you write Afternoon Pages prompts so that you can address them yourself. Ah, the joys of being a teacher.

This one is perfect for today, though, because I have SOOOOOOO many writing projects on the burners that I’ve run out of burners to put them on. Although it seems like this is the perfect recipe for having lots of spaces to start, it can actually lead to overwhelm.

Yesterday, though, I went to a CSU Writes workshop on “Writing for Speed,” and I heard one of Virginia Woolf’s rules that I immediately took to heart, which is to “write a gallop.”

There’s a long story behind this advice, which she apparently delivered in a speech called “Professions for Women,” but the gist of it is that to move forward on any piece, you have to write at a gallop in order to outrun your inner critic. This doesn’t necessarily mean you’re full-on sprinting at all times because horses actually gallop at different speeds, but it does mean you’re out then eir on the track, “unhinging drafting from editing,” as the workshop facilitator Kristina Quynn explained.

Then Kristina made us do it. Just sit and write for 5 mins. without stopping. She even suggested that we put a paper over our screen as necessary if we found the urge to edit.

Then we edited for 5 mins. later.

It was generative. I’m going to do it again. So should you.

There’s a cool little coffee shop near campus called Mugs, and Tuesday morning, I saw this sign over their cash register:


Thus I of course thought of the following Afternoon Pages prompt:

If a coffee shop has a motto and “words they like,” so should we. We’ve thought a lot about why it’s worth it to teach now. What should our class motto be in this regard? What are the words we like–as in, the words that should ground our thinking as we proceed throughout the semester? 

I can’t make a class motto myself, of course. That’s for these wonderful young educators to do, but I can speak to “words I like,” or one word, to be more precise.

We just read an interview with Paolo Freire from 1985 issue of Language Arts, and one of his words is “love.” He explains that we must “love students, in spite of everything. I don’t mean a kind of soft or sweet love, but on the contrary a very affirmative love, a love which accepts, a love for students which pushes us to go beyond, which makes us more and more responsible for our task.”

I recognize that it’s unfashionable to talk about love when the terms “education” and “global competition” are bedfellows in almost every political conversation, and yet, we must, mustn’t we? We aren’t reluctant to talk about our love of literature or writing or teaching in general, but we teach people, too. Shouldn’t we love them? It’s the only way, really, to push through the hard work we have to do.

On a related note, yesterday, I was listening to a podcast interview between Krista Tippett and neurologist Richard Davidson, where Davidson unequivocally states, “I’m not afraid to speak about love. I think that the way I think about it is that love is a quality which obliterates certain kinds of boundaries.”

What got left out of that cognitivist movement in education, according to Davidson, is attention to the parts of our brain that connect to our emotions and our capacity for empathy, kindness, and yes, love. He explains,

the brain does not honor the kind of anachronistic distinction between thought and feeling. Thought and feeling are absolutely intermingled in the brain, and so there are no areas of the brain that are exclusively dedicated to one and not the other.

So in the end, hard science agrees that Freire is right.

As per Davidson, “Cultivating the qualities which will promote resilience — yes, in some sense it’s soft, but in another sense, you couldn’t get much harder in terms of what really matters.”

So “love.” Perhaps I have a motto after all.


Afternoon Pages: The Song That Gets Me Through.

….and we’re back. Almost every semester for the past couple of years, I’ve asked my students to write in response to this prompt (after I introduce them to fabulous Chaka Khan, who THEY DON’T KNOW THEY KNOW ABOUT–and she’s just someone you have to know about):

What is your personal theme song/fight song/or get-you-through-the-hard-times song–the one that you play on repeat when you’re feeling most vulnerable? Why is that song the ​song? How does it tap into your strongly held convictions about what it means to be a whole human being? Write about the song’s significance to you personally; then if you can, write about any connections you can make to your own teaching.

Mine changes every so often, and then I hear Chaka, and I remember, really, is there any other choice?

Well, yes, some semesters there has been, and since I already knew this was coming, I’ve been thinking about where I am now, compared to where I was this time last year, and I’ve gotta say, that this time, it’s the fabulous Elton John, singing the fabulous, “I’m Still Standin’.” (Find lyrics here.) What a year, what a song, what a chorus:

Don’t you know I’m still standing better than I ever did
Looking like a true survivor, feeling like a little kid
I’m still standing after all this time
Picking up the pieces of my life without you on my mind
I’m still standing yeah yeah yeah
I’m still standing yeah yeah yeah
Over the past year, I’ve heard, and I’ve told myself that if we let bad experiences define us, those who instigated the bad experiences move on, and we only wind up giving them our power. They win.
Well, guess what? Not this time.



Why am I teaching now?

Today’s Afternoon Pages entry addresses this very question in homage to Sonia Nieto, who edited the book Why We Teach Now. That book is an incredible testament to why teachers at all levels of experience have decided to enter and stay in the classroom for their entire professional life spans. Read it. Grab a box of tissues first.

I’m still here, too, though there were definitely a few times (and every year, a few days) when I wasn’t sure I would be. I’ve journaled off and on since high school, and a recently I found an old journal where I wrote about how just wasn’t sure how much longer I could do this job. It took me straight back. I was teaching Senior English at the time, and you know the score: if you don’t pass, you don’t walk in graduation. Every year, some students didn’t; no matter how much I cajoled, came in before school to provide extra support, met with them in one-on-one conferences, they just didn’t do the work. And even though, progress reports went out every six weeks, some parents were inevitably “surprised” at the end that their little darlings would not pass.

One year, the parents complained to everybody and god that I was unfairly treating their son, thus the dreaded conference with them, the principal, the counselor, the ass’t principal and me where we were laying everything out on the table and I was making my case.

Let’s just say I left in tears… (TO BE CONTINUED).

afternoon pages: “What do you, too, believe?”

And we’re off! This marks the first Afternoon Pages entry for the Spring 19 section of CO301D where we read, write, and learning about the profession of teaching. We’ll start almost every class period this way, so if you’re reading this and you aren’t in our class, you’re going to get a firsthand view into what soon-to-be teachers are thinking. As a bonus, if you’re so inclined, you can follow along with our prompts for the semester here on our class website.

As I told the students on Tuesday, no one else in the profession can speak from their position at this moment in time, so as usual, I’m eager to hear what they have to say.

Today’s prompt is this:

In “The Careful Cultivation of Belief,” English teacher Sherri Medwin challenges readers to consider that the core beliefs that guide our work need “careful cultivation…, rich soil and ample space to extend to extend [their] young shoots,” and a “network of roots to sustain [them] through inclement weather.” What are your core beliefs in regard to teaching and education? How do you anticipate that these ideals will guide your work with students when you have your own classroom?

One of my core beliefs, actually is embedded in the seemingly straightforward lines preceding this prompt, and that is that preservice teachers DO have something to say about the current state and the future direction of education; in fact, they are uniquely positioned to do so. They’ve most recently been in the classroom, they think they want to go back in a different role as teachers themselves, and we should all be curious about why that is the case.

Learning from them every semester is my privilege, and this one is no exception. If we can “listen someone’s way into existence,” as Mary Rose O’Reilley says, I’m eager to have that chance once again.