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how do I shut up? how do I get on with it? (and what is “it,” by the way?)

Well, some in my family might say I never do (entirely “shut up,” that is). Actually, that’s not so true. I like to watch and think about what others have said a good deal of the time, and then I like to “not shut-up” for a while. But I’m sure that’s not quite what Helen Simpson had in mind.

When I was working on my dissertation and on any giant writing project since, those voices, those evil little voices, pop into my head and say something along the lines of “Who do you think you are in your big britches, thinking you have something to say?”

The other big impediment is the allure of the library. I often think I have to read EVERYTHING before I’m entitled to say anything (see first paragraph–it’s basically the same syndrome).

So how do I ever shut up and get on with it? I sometimes set a word quota for the day (though this can trigger the evil voice, so I have to be careful here).

I sometimes set a timer. Often, once it goes off, my muscles are flexed, and I want to keep going.

Sometimes I try to have a writing partner who I can be accountable to and commiserate with as we try to just get on with it.

It’s not that the act of writing is hard, per se, just like working out isn’t really hard either. It’s the gearing up that makes the wobble and makes me forget I know how to flow.

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Dear Me

Even though the prompt says that we should speak to ourselves as if we might comfort a writer friend who’s struggling right now, I must confess that the first thoughts that spring to mind are decidedly critical, so I’m going to try to talk to Cindy like I might talk to Cam.

Cindy, you know, you may not be writing in one very important particular genre right now, but you are showing up, and you’re writing this very minute. That’s a small thing, but it’s something. You know those Morning Pages posts that you keep writing with your students? Yeah, it’s probably time to the lead writer-wobbler in CO301D and get them out there. Is anybody reading? Anybody? Anybody? Well, maybe not, but you’ll have cast some ideas into the great void anyway. That’s a small thing, but it’s something.

And what about the theory-building you’ve been doing with the incredible teachers in the Institute for Sustainable Teaching? Write about our work that you’ve already started.

Also, your unfamiliar genre was intended to be flipping, right? You have ideas. Just write them down, whatever form that writing takes. You could be the guinea pig for open genre work if you wanted.

And what about that list of all those lovely words you’ve been collecting for a while now. Write your way into those a la David Whyte, or take the challenge of incorporating them in your work for that day.

The point is, it’s not that you’re at a loss for what to write. Sometimes that’s the most difficult thing. You’ve made some progress. Just trust it.

You can do this.

Love,

Me

Where’s Waldo?

In the Preface to Why School, Mike Rose characterizes his timeless book as a “series of appeals for bighearted social policy and an embrace of the ideals of democratic education–from the way we define and structure opportunity to the way we respond to a child adding a column of numbers.” Why has Rose written such a book? Because according to him, “we have lost our way” (p. ix).

It’s 2017, and we’re reading the 2014 second edition of Why School?, which was originally published in 2009. In the years since, however, Rose’s original assertion hasn’t changed: “…we have lost our way” in recognizing and doggedly pursuing the ideals of education in a public democracy and providing equity and access to all students in reaching them.

It’s as if we’re playing a giant game of “Where’s Waldo?,” and no one can find the guy in the striped shirt and the blue hat who’s sitting right there in the middle of the picture.

Why is that the case? Have we lost our way in education? And what can you as an American citizen, who is studying to become a teacher, do about it?

In your response to my post here, share the lines you recorded from Why School? and respond to them in light of the questions in the previous paragraph. Share YOUR voice so all of us can hear it. Then maybe, just maybe, we can find Waldo together.

 

#whyIteach

Students are writing the Morning Pages prompts from here on out in CO301D. Here’s a good one:

What is something from either this class, another class you’ve taken this semester, or something happening outside of school that you have learned this semester that you will consider adding to your teacher philosophy statement?

This year I’m on the five-year cycle for my post-tenure evaluation (which I have finally referred to as the PTSD eval), and I had to write a teaching philosophy for the first time in years (or maybe never?). Teaching is so in my bones that I hope it’s somewhat self-evident to my students, but this was a good exercise for me. I got an entire paragraph to do it in. Geez, it was harder than I thought. Here are the results:

My teaching is informed by both current and time-honored theory and research and is framed by a social justice perspective that stresses the use of literacies as instruments of creative expression, academic argument, and cultural critique. Teachers are understandably preoccupied with “what works” in the classroom, and I do my best to support my students in learning to plan lessons and develop engaging, authentic curriculum. At the same time, however, I also encourage them to unpack what it means to say that a certain literacy practice “works.” Why does it work? In what context? For whom? And what work does the practice itself do on students, teachers, and schools?  By posing these questions, I hope to help students articulate and interrogate their unspoken principles for teaching and to measure these against current theory and research, their own schooling experiences, and most of all, their students’ needs in their particular classroom contexts. In sum, I strive to equip my students with research-based, theoretically sound teaching methods geared to help their own students construct meaning and, to paraphrase Paolo Freire, to read and compose words in order to read and compose the world.

 

#hopeful

Today marks the first day that CO301D students are providing Morning Pages prompts, and you can see from the one below that they’re already off to a good start:

“I was asked to share my story, my concerns, and my beliefs about education. No one outside my family had ever asked me about my outlook on education. I realized I had a voice – an authentic, small but strong voice with a valuable perspective on students’ needs. Somehow I understood how to paint a picture with words, a picture that pulls people into my world with students.” (Crabtree). Both the Ally and Advocate badges inspire different reactions within each of us, but we all have a unique voice to share these reactions. How can you act as a leader within your current community? Your future community/schooling system? Think of the ways you can use your voice to share your thoughts and inspire change within all aspects of life as well as the education system. What will you do?

Today, maybe the best part of my day will be sitting here in this room writing with these human beings who have become dear to me in the course of this semester. As we’ve been working on their digital badges and they’ve made a couple of presentations to push out their learning, I’ve been inspired by their courage and candor. They’ve made me feel hopeful about the future of our profession, and I’ve gotta admit that in light of external demands on the national level (and even the local level), it’s been hard to feel hopeful.

But you know what, they have embraced teaching as a vocation, not just a 9-5 job (which actually is way longer than that for English teachers.) The word “vocation” comes from the Latin verb “vocare,” which means “to call forth.” Most days, they’re feeling called forth into this difficult, beautiful profession because they had teachers who were as well.

I’m working on another book right now that’s focused on vulnerable learning and teaching. The chapter at hand is one on mindfulness, and yesterday, I wrote about setting your “stubborn intention,” the one that will serve as a lodestar to guide your work with teachers and colleagues, the one that you will come back to when it just doesn’t seem worth the labor anymore.

And it will feel that way. I can promise you that. But I still can’t give up the idea of my stubborn intention that I, as a literacy teacher can teach in ways that will make the world better and that will help my students do the same.

Part of that is not “empowering” them to share their voices, but helping them to recognize that they already have the agency to do so. They can use their literacy tools to critique inequitable structures so that the “moral arc of the universe will bend toward justice,” as Martin Luther King, Jr., said on multiple occasions.

I’ve seen very young school-aged students share their voices. My university students who are answering their calling can do so as well. I have no doubt that they can. I have no doubt that they have something that I, that all of us, need to hear. #feelinghopeful #inspiteofeverything #co301d

 

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

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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figuring out what to do when you don’t (aka teaching on any given day)

Today’s Morning Pages prompt in #CO301D comes to you courtesy of Sarah and Ana. The proposition that all teachers in all content areas be literacy teachers is a tough and long-standing challenge that’s still relevant.

Despite being enormously unpopular, the Common Core standards are still the rule of the land in many states, at least for the time being. The recently passed ESSA (Every Student Succeeds Act) can change that–and probably will since states are required to have academic standards to receive federal funding, but they don’t have to be the Common Core. Right now, though, the ELA standards don’t just pertain to English teachers and elementary teachers, but to teachers in all subjects, who are charged to teach literacy in disciplinarily appropriate ways.

What’s glossed at best, however, is how to actually enact content-area literacy standards  with students whose first language isn’t English or with students who have special needs. There’s a total of 5 or so pages (only FIVE!) that covers both of those student populations in the ancillary materials to the Common Core, and these pages are pretty vague. Plus, who reads ancillary materials? This despite the fact that the number of diverse students in our classes is growing exponentially and that, by law, many students with disabilities are mainstreamed into classrooms.

Closer to home in the CSU English Ed. program, I’m also aware that we don’t spend sufficient time addressing how to teach ELA effectively to these student groups, and we work with ELA teachers! Through about 2005, a standalone class existed in the teacher licensure program that was required for all teachers called something like “Teaching Special Populations,” but when the state required that degree plans have no more than 120 credits, that class went away.  The curriculum was supposed to be folded into other courses, but those courses had different focuses, so ensuring the coverage of this content has been at best uneven. In my own classes, I devote some time to teaching ELLs and less on working with students with disabilities in the context of the course, but I’m painfully aware that it’s not enough. After they get jobs, our students say so.

The same was true many years ago in my own teacher preparation. When I became a teacher, what I learned at HKHS (Hard Knocks High School, aka my job) was that I had to seek out the specialists on staff in my school to support me in learning how to accommodate those learners’ needs so I could support them. I had to read all I could about methods to use. I had to help the students themselves know that they were the best experts on their own learning, so I needed for them to teach me about what they needed, to the extent that this was possible. I needed to inquire into their backgrounds and their skills, talk with their prior and current teachers and counselors, and their parents if I could. Because students were in high school, I interacted with the latter group more frequently. At the time, Oklahoma was way ahead of the game than Colorado so most special education students, except those with severe needs, were mainstreamed into the classroom. Though my student population was also more diverse, including a much higher percentage of African American and Native American students, I worked less with ELLs because immigration patterns were just beginning to shift at the time I left the classroom.

For the last eight years of my high school teaching, I was very, very fortunate to work adjacent to a special education teacher, and my case load was assigned to her. This meant that students’ classtime was very fluid in that they could shuttle between rooms as their needs demanded. On most days, especially when I taught in a block schedule, I also structured my class to include small-group work or a workshop format (e.g., whole-class instruction followed by individual work time). These configurations gave me regular opportunities to circulate through the classroom to interact with students more directly than I would have if whole-class instruction was the norm.

The school schedule also had built-in advisory time that bumped up next to the lunch hour called “overtime,” which sounds super inviting, right? Um…. I re-named it “Overtime Club” because then it was a club! That sounds fun, right? Um… Actually, it worked mostly because I required it for students who needed extra support and built in an incentive that added small-change points to their grade just for showing up. During this time, they worked on homework or conferenced with me so that I could give them more individualized attention. This was especially important with writing.

In terms of my literature curriculum, I taught thematically, which meant that I was able to integrate more multicultural literature than was common at our school. Toward the end of my teaching, I experimented with embedding vocab. exploration into students’ reading journals. That is, when we were reading whole-class texts, the vocabulary “instruction” was tied directly to the literature. I didn’t give tests. Rather, students’ vocab lists were short (6-8 words) and were a combo of self-selected words and words I’d chosen that were key to understanding the text. The latter were words I thought many students would find challenging and/or that were tied to major concepts in the work.

In sum, I learned how to use my resources, including a phenomenal special ed. staff, who were especially good at teaching their students to advocate for themselves as learners. I learned to learn from my students and strived to create assignments that emphasized student expression (like memoir units, reader response journals, and creative writing tasks) that would emphasize students’ assets instead of positioning them as “lesser-thans.” I tried to become a better listener and to build in opportunities for listening through the classroom structures I employed. I got better at designing instruction and implementing strategies that supported students’ needs and that I hope, especially with adaptation of our mostly canonical literature curriculum, also broadened their view of the world.

I should be clear that these approaches weren’t magic bullets. Peter Smagorinsky and I have written several publications about my attempts to incorporate multimodal approaches to learning over the course of a year in one of my regular-track British Literature classes. Read almost any of them, and you’ll find that some students still got off-task. I missed interactions between students that weren’t always positive. I didn’t connect with every student, and they didn’t always connect to the content or the entire enterprise of reading, writing, and learning about language and the often non-traditional ways I tried to teach it. Sometimes, I simply didn’t know what to do–how to modify an instructional task or provide basic-level instruction for some students while pushing forward with others who needed to move at a faster pace. I undoubtedly left some students behind. There are always cracks. I always wished I could do more. (Still do.)

At CSU, the “Teaching Special Populations” class may have gone away, but guess what? The students haven’t. So the advice I want to give to beginning teachers is this: try something, anything that will give you the sensation of moving forward. Reflect on how it went. Sometimes, formalize that process through teacher inquiry. Listen to your students. Locate resources (conferences, journals, books on teaching, blogs) and people (colleagues both in your school and in professional organizations like NWP and NCTE) who want to get better at meeting students’ needs and will support you in doing that, too.

And, as we’ve been discussing all semester in CO301D, know that you’re going to fail. A lot. But let it be forward.