remembering for him: a tribute to my Daddy

I lost my Dad almost a decade ago.

But really I lost him long before that… to that terrible thief Alzheimer’s.

And so today, on Father’s Day, I want to take some time and do the thing that he was robbed of: remembering.

My Daddy loved the water. Every time we visited West Virginia, he made sure to take me canoeing at Babcock State Park. In all our family travels, there wasn’t a hotel pool that we didn’t enjoy together. I remember in the beginning stages of his sickness when he confided in me: “I feel something special when I’m moving through water; I can’t explain it.” He was shy to say it, thinking it was one more confusing curse of his disease. But I got it. I get it. I share this with him always.

My Daddy loved being outside. He climbed rocks and played with abandon. He always pointed weeping willows out to me. He toyed with snakes while my Mom screamed in the background. I remember taking walks with him around our neighborhood. Every time we were visited by a cardinal, we stopped and he called to it. I still do that.

My Daddy loved music. I remember dancing with him in the living room. We would twirl and then he would shoot me through his legs and rocket me up in the air; it was magical. He had this special whistle melody that he sang wherever he went; to this day I kick myself for not recording it. During the holiday seasons, we would play Christmas tunes in the car and we would sing and whistle along. He loved Frank Sinatra and Yanni. Even near the end of his decaying mind, he would sit on the couch and put in his CDs and close his eyes and tip his head back and disappear into the sounds; music was one thing he could remember. And now music reminds me of him.

My Daddy loved being active. He taught me how to catch, putting in hours with me tossing around baseballs with our tried and true gloves. I remember how much he loved golf, and how much he loved it even more when his family was involved. When I was a child, he would tip a cup over on the shag carpet and we would lie on our bellies and pool-shoot the golf ball into it. Later in life, I’ll never forget that one time I chipped in for a birdie… both of us were surprised and overjoyed. My athleticism reminds me of him.

My Daddy loved being adventurous. He loved traveling and road trips. As I look back at pictures, I have so many with him all around the country. I remember a white water rafting trip that bumped him out of the boat into the rapids. I was paranoid but we just got him back in and moved on downstream. Horses were my Mom’s and my thing. But, despite not being interested and slightly afraid, he did it anyways on one of our yearly trips to Kentucky. I’ll never forget when his horse neared home and took off and galloped down the hill and my Dad was sprawled-eagle with arms and legs flailing in the wind and reins everywhere but in his hands and then he was on the ground. We laughed at that story for years. I live a life of adventure now, too.

My Daddy was selfless. When I was a teenager, despite him not really supporting my religious fervor, he drove me back and forth from Oak Park several times a week for various meetings. He had this mocking way of saying “Oakkkkkk Parrrrrrk” when I would ask, because it was so common and so ridiculous. But he still did it. He always asked me true questions about how I was doing and what was going on. (I still have regrets for not answering him when I could. Maybe this is why my love language is questions.) He was selfless even in his sickness. I was so scared he would be too far gone to walk me down the aisle. But he did it, even though he didn’t fully understand what was happening…and I’m sure he was afraid.

My Daddy LOVED my Mom. When we would fight, all he ever said was: “don’t talk to your Mother like that.” It was never about him, but about her. When they weren’t doing well, he would talk to me about it and what was wrong and how it could change and why was it like that; he was petrified of losing her. In his sickness, the conversations revolved around us taking care of her when he was gone. This shaped my pursuit of a husband, and I am blessed to have found someone that evokes this strength of my Dad.

I love you Daddy.

I remember you Daddy.

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authenticiKEY

Wanted: the OG Mrs. Davenport.

Have you seen her?

Sadly, I don’t think I have in a while either.

I knew moving away from urban education would have reverberations. Some I predicted; some were unpredictable yet unsurprising.

But I fear in some ways I’ve lost myself in the transition.

A question I am holding at the center of everything lately is:

What does it mean for me to be authentic as a teacher?

It is different from this chameleonizing.

It is different from this acquiescing.

It is different from this flatlining.

It is different from this.

At the end of the year, I administered a survey to my students. While the results were overwhelmingly positive, I of course do that thing where I focus on the not so positive. And one of the results that sticks in my gut the most is in response to the prompt I feel connected to Mrs. Davenport. This was one of my lowest scores! This used to be my forte! This used to be my everything!

Oh my teacher heart hurts.

I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting on that data point lately. (I’m grateful for some soulfull colleagues who helped me through this process: thank you Nikki & Andrew!) Both of them brought me to authenticity. What that means? For me? How have I held true to who I really am as a teacher? And where have I compromised? What is the state of my teacher heart?

So far, I’ve come up with the following authenticikeys (see what I did there?!):

  1. Play to my strengths & successes. I know I can move students academically with Socratic seminars. I know the value of a shared reading experience. I know how to engage students with a course rooted in the content and not just the skills. I know stories matter. I know a class is much more about energy than anything else. I need to believe in and do what I know works.
  2. Honor growth over regime, process over product. I have been a little duped by the standards movement, I admit it. I have bought in line and sinker. But in some ways, I fear the more I’ve adhered to that philosophy, the less I’ve seen students actually grow. When it becomes about one finish line, no differentiated paths are celebrated. A student’s comment on a survey echoes in my mind as I type this: “I didn’t grow in my writing. I grew in her version of writing.” Ouch. I need to honor the process, the little victories. I need to be creative and innovative so that each student feels shiney. I need to be more holistic in my approach. I need to reclaim what “assessment” means to me and my students.
  3. Channel my fierce mother & believe in myself. I don’t like conflict, so I give in. I have used alignment as a security blanket. I worry about being questioned, being doubted, being challenged. I need to practice what I preach: the trite feedback I too often give my students of “take risks.”
  4. Let go. Be playful. I have a drastically different relationship with my upperclassmen than my underclassmen. And in some ways, this is intentional. But, in some ways, it is damaging. I don’t feel like myself in my grade 9 classroom. I don’t think they know me. I don’t really know them deeply. And as the survey said, they don’t feel connected. So… it’s not working. I need to soften with them, with my approach.

I recognize there a lot of ways this post could be misconstrued. I recognize that I am riding a swinging pendulum back from the following-sheep side. I do not think the other side of rogue-independence is healthy either. There has to be growth; there has to be balance–always.

But I have to be me. I need to be me. For my efficacy. For my teacher heart.

For my students. For whom I want the freedom to be themselves.

Authenticity permits authenticity.

Authenticity inspires authenticity.

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to the class of 2020

 

unnamed (1)I first knew you as 10th graders.

And I loved you then.

Some of you were artsy. Some of you were authors. Some of you were athletes. Some of you were leaders. Some of you were gamers. Some of you were musicians. Some of you rarely spoke. Some of you made me laugh.

But you were all teachers.

My teachers.

You taught me how to approach teaching in an international school. You taught me how offer more clarity. You taught me about talent.

You taught me about the appreciation for education. I’ll never forget the first week, how so many of you stopped on your way out the door to say “Thanks Miss!” I have been blessed with so many great moments throughout my teaching career, but the regularity of students thanking me on their way out the door was completely new. Completely foreign.

“Thanks Miss!”

Wow.

Well, now, I thank you.

I thank you for your gratitude, for those pauses at the door. I thank you for welcoming me into your hearts. I thank you for your brutal honesty that pushed me as an educator. I thank you for your gifts that made my experience at Graded so rich.

I thank you for our discussions about what we were reading. I thank you for your questions.

But most of all, I thank you for how you have handled this pandemic.

You have been mature in the midst of grief. Loving in the losses. Reflective in this unreal reality. Present in the pain. Authentic in the awfulness. Brave in the brutality.

And you have been grateful, even now, even with all this, against all the odds.

And the odds are not in your favor.

2020 sucks.

It is a thief that has stolen your special moments. It is a sickness that has choked the final breaths of your high school experience. It is a train that has derailed your carefully constructed tracks. It is a closed door that has separated you from your precious peers. It is the party pooper that crashed your graduation ceremony. It is a sledgehammer that has smashed normal.

And now those bits, those pieces, those fragments are scattered all over with no broom in sight.

The questions overwhelm, don’t they? The normal questions that all seniors have had through the course of history: who am I? will I belong? what do I even want? will I make it? will I make friends? will my family be ok? how will I pay for it? what if I fail? how will I manage my time?

Now those old, historical questions are confounded with new, historic questions of a pandemic: will my grandparents be safe? how will I stay healthy? what will online college look like? can I travel? what about the borders closing? will the economy collapse? how do I say goodbye to my teachers & friends & teammates? how do I find closure?

I am sorry the weight of the unknown has been doubled.

I am sorry you don’t get a proper goodbye.

I am sorry you were robbed of so many memories.

I am sorry I can’t give you a big, congratulatory, bear hug.

I am sorry.

But, also, I am not sorry. Because I believe in you.

In this unprecedented moment that is a crossroad, an AHA, a pivot, an influencer…I believe in you, class of 2020.

I believe in your soul to feel all the feels and create space for the complex and contradictory emotions of the human experience–and to be better for it.

I believe in your ability to pause and evaluate what is most important, what “normal” should be–and to live from that conviction.

I believe in your potential to create policy and systems that save the world–and to save your children’s world.

I believe in your privilege, in your right to use the distinguished education you have EARNED (thank God you’re done with IB–Iamright?!) to affect positive change in society–and to lift up the least.

I believe in your hearts, in the hope that you will slow down the pace of our world so we can breath and be, instead of just rushing and doing.

I believe in your voice to garner and inspire changemakers–and to defy the odds.

So no, in this year of a global pandemic that has shut down the world as we know it, the odds are not in your favor.

But you are powerful rebels and can give them a big “so what, odds, so what?”

You are what we need right now.

I believe in you, class of 2020.

And now, as you walk out that door, albeit virtually, allow me to say:

Thank YOU!

I love you.

Congratulations class of 2020!!!

Old Way vs New Way

I believe in you class of 2020!

 

 

 

 

that’s what she (would’ve) said

Today my mother would have turned 80 years old.

Now, I just see her in my face, looking back at me looking at her. Now that I’ve cut my hair short, the strong curve of the cheekbones, set of the eyes and prominent arc of the nose remind me even more of her.

And this is good. Because, as much as I hate to admit it, grief turns into vague recollection, which eventually fades into forgetting, which always ends in gut-sinking guilt.

The days when I could barely breath because the loss was sitting on my chest are almost nonexistent. Some days I don’t even think about her.

Isn’t that terrible?

I don’t know. Maybe it’s a crime against the mother-daughter bond. Maybe it’s natural. (Maybe it’s Maybelline, which was her eyebrow pencil of choice, burnt with a cigarette lighter of course.)

Maybe I’m too busy becoming her. More and more I’m finding my voice, not rolling over and taking it. More and more, I’m thinking about the art of storytelling, which was her specialty. But in a way that her stories are now becoming my own stories. (Isn’t that weird and beautiful, the way a narrative blurs time and people and place? In stories, we are all one.) More and more, I find myself making her food. (Though, sorry Mom, I have perfected your deviled eggs with the secret ingredient of pickle juice! You would have loved them.)

On this day, or during this month, we would have celebrated by going to the casino, all the sisters and her.

I miss that.

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Mom’s last trip to the casino

So today I’m going to do my own betting, if you will.

Here are 5 things I bet my Mom would have said, between long draws of Salems, were she alive during this crazy and historical pandemic.

  1. How’s the weather?
  2. Do you have enough groceries? Aldi had butter on sale and so I stocked up. I had to drive all the way to the one in Indiana, but it was worth it because the gas was so cheap. So I filled up. Yes suree.
  3. Have you seen the news?
  4. Don’t you leave your house now, you hear me?
  5. CAN YOU BELIEVE THE GAS PRICES? <insert Southern-twang-gasp>

love & learning in the time of coronavirus

*Thanks to my coworker Nikki for inspiring this post’s title.*

I’m a mess.

Let’s just start there.

But I’m kinda grateful…I haven’t been inspired to write in a while, yet here I am, brought to the keys by grief, once again. (Albeit on my old blog; the new one just got too expensive to maintain. I’ve still got to import & organize all my content. But from now on, I’ll be writing here again. It feels like coming home.)

Like many others have done recently across the world, our school closed physically. Yesterday and today have been two grueling days of “getting ready” to take our classrooms online.

My heart sighs. I am heavy wondering if this is permanent: was today a goodbye to my colleagues? What about saying goodbye to my students? That is not my kind of closure. My eyes hurt. So. much. screentime. My spirit is exhausted. The cynicism and criticism seems inexhaustible. When will it ever be good enough? My teacher soul is scared. I didn’t sign up for a virtual learning environment. I thrive on good vibes and quality connection. How will I meaningfully create that online?

And this is just all in my tiny little insignificant world. What about all the seniors worldwide who were robbed of their culminating experiences? What about the elderly parents who are achingly-lonely and isolated for fear of disease? What about students who are already so far behind academically and can’t go home to their own computer and internet service? What about health care workers who are relentless and spent with no end in sight? What about those without insurance? What about all the children who won’t eat regularly, who now will spend all day quarantined in a prison of neglect–at best and abuse–at worst? What about those who have jobs that just ended? No sick days. No pay. No safety net.

I. just. can’t. even. breath. #irony

And yet, even in all this, maybe because of it, I am so grateful.

I am so impressed with how my school has handled this shit show. Communication has been steady and intentional. Encouragement has been overflowing. (Today we even got personal bottles of our drink of choice for our virtual happy hour tomorrow! I mean, who does that? People are losing their jobs, and I’m getting free drinks!) We have been assured our school’s hourly employees will still be taken care of. We have advocates in our human resources, our parents, our bosses. These past two “emergency” PD days, I had substantial hours on both days to plan. I have great insurance and we’re close to a great hospital. Our campus is open-aired and still accessible.

Beyond my job, I am grateful for our apartment, that is expansive and inviting and a good place to quarantine. I am grateful for easy and quick access to the beach (that we are taking advantage of this weekend!) I am grateful for Dave who has pumpkin seeds, wine and homemade meals ready for me because he knows how tough it is. I am grateful our families are healthy. I am grateful for my strong body that swam 2k this morning. And for f***’s sake, I’m grateful we have plenty of toilet paper.

Through all of this, I can’t help but think of metta practice–lovingkindness meditation.

For me. For you. For the vulnerable populations. For those infected. For those recovering. For those traveling. For those scared. For those unemployed. For the politicians I disagree with. For the world.

May we be well.

May we be whole.

May we be happy.

May we be healthy.

May we be free from inner and outer harm.

May we live in peace and with ease.

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what in the hell does “transformation” even mean?

And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect. ~NASB Romans 12: 2

I have spent most of my life fighting a transformation battle. 

As a preteen, in a Baptist church you could find in any suburban neighborhood, I met my first ultimatum film: choose Jesus or choose hell. A carful of teenagers, after a fatal accident, were being lowered down to the sinner’s inferno on–of all places–a freight elevator encapsulated by steel bars. As they descended, their ghostly faces were obscured by the rails, but not the harrowing screams and leaping flames engulfing them. 

After that, and not surprisingly, most of my youth—my formidable years–was marked by a paralyzing fear of the judgment of God. I had regular dreams of the second coming of Jesus. One recurring dream still sticks with me: I was looking out the window from my teenage bedroom, my hands tilted toward the sky as it churned like a gray, stormy sea and softened into a blurry and muted End. When the full moon dripped blood-red in the sky–for scientific reasons that I now know–I was reduced to a crying puddle of terror. Sometimes, when looking out from my dorm, the clouds hung low and the lights glowed warm and the air grew still, I whimpered into my folded knees. 

All of this despite being a dedicated and disciplined Christian! I was in the right church. I was pure in my romantic relationship. I was a reputable leader in the youth group. I was an active recruiter of non-believers. I did not party. I did not cheat. I did not lie. I confessed my wrongdoings and expressed my gratitude. I sought counsel and always followed the advice of my leaders. I rebuked the sin in others. I withheld my voice and strength so as not to overshadow men. I worked hard to be good, damnit.

I knew the will of God, in all its good and acceptable perfection, but what hovered in mind was this nagging question: how come I wasn’t transformed?

Eventually what I used to label as the absence of the fruits of the Spirit, like peace, joy and faithfulness, the doctors diagnosed as anxiety. One winter, while living in a ski town, we were the first responders on a flipped car. A few weeks later, we drove by a car that had slid upside down into the icy river. These scenes–much like the ultimatum movie–became a part of both my narrative and my anatomy: I was near crippled with the inability to be out on winter roads. 

Not so long after this, I raced to my dying father’s bedside; Alzheimer’s would finally cease to exist in his body as his memories had years before. As time behaves, this blurs together with receiving the call that my Mom had breast cancer. And then lung cancer. And then fatal cancer. And then I was holding her still hands, wet with my tears, in a hospital bed. Now, the winter roads that had paralyzed me became the blood coursing through my veins: cancer was inevitable; death was mine to have at any moment. At every moment.

Despite my best spiritual, therapeutic, and pharmaceutical strivings, I could not escape these weights. I could not transform. Like one of those cunning and scratchy finger traps, in my chasing of it, transformation eluded me. It was exhausting. It was depressing. 

But, unbeknownst to me, something within me was sprouting.

I found myself equally repelled by and drawn to being alone with my soul. I would spend weekends at the Sacred Heart Jesuit Retreat House in the beige foothills of Colorado, my first experience with Noble Silence. There I channelled the vacillating and extreme emotions of David the Psalmist. There I grieved the death of my parents. There I bathed in nature. Back home in my day to day life, I found peace in yoga: the communal breathing introduced me to presence. Yoga for me was also an introduction to meditation.

But, when I arrived at a 5 night silent meditation retreat at Vallecitos Mountain Retreat Center in New Mexico, I had no idea what I was getting into. 

As any similar retreat goes, we spent the entire day meditating: sitting uncomfortably on cushions, walking like Zombies in a field, chopping vegetables in the kitchen, and bringing fork to mouth during meals. Everything was slow. Everything was silent. Everything was smudged. The first few days, I was going absolutely crazy. I could not, for the life of me, get my mind to stop wandering. And then I would berate myself for not doing it right. And then I would be so discouraged at how unkind I was to myself. And then I would seek escape. 

But, alas, there was nowhere to go. Session in and session out, I met my mind on yet another battlefield of transformation. 

I began to see how this harsh treatment of myself paralleled the patterns of my life. In an effort to be better, or holy, or peaceful, I beat myself into submission. 

But just like with fear, with hypochondria…it did not work. 

My unremitting striving became my very own hell.

And so, slowly and tentatively, days three and four and five brought with them a new kind of mantra: You, too, are welcome here. Instead of condemning myself for failure, I welcomed failure. You, too, are welcome here. Instead of berating myself for distraction, I welcomed distraction. You, too, are welcome here. Instead of fearing fear, I welcomed fear. You, too, are welcome here. Like Rumi’s “The Guest House,” I began to open the door for my visitors–all of them.

Since then, I have pursued a deeper commitment to meditation. More retreats. Daily practice. Professional development so I can also lead mindfulness in my school. 

And, without even seeing it, and most definitely without even trying to make it happen, I changed from the inside out. Winter roads and scary diagnosis do not derail me anymore. I have moved overseas to Brazil, where I do not speak the language and everything is new–a feat I would never have dreamed of in my old state.

I still am anxious. 

But I also am peaceful. And I am brave. And I gracious with myself. And I now see how I misread Romans 12:2. First comes the renewing of the mind, THEN comes the transformation. 

I am grateful to God that my mind has been renewed. I have been transformed. 

The Right Foot: How to Create a Solid Foundation at the Beginning of the Year

The post that appears below is the original, unedited draft I submitted to Edutopia, an amazing website of all things education! (To all my readers working in schools, it is highly valuable and worth following.) 

In my twelve years of teaching, I have come to realize that how the end of the year goes has everything to do with how I start the year with my students. I have lived it, and I have seen it: a strong start to the year makes everything else easier, but a weak start to the year is, well, nearly impossible to amend. 

With this in mind, there are some foundational approaches that have served me–and my students–well. 

Let’s start with those pesky first impressions. Lots of research indicates that people need just seconds to form ideas about someone they are just meeting. How can we as teachers maximize those first seconds? First, presence

As much as I am annoyed at the weight of Haim Ginott’s comments that the teacher is “the deciding element” of the climate in the classroom, I have witnessed its veracity over and over. Here are some suggestions to be meaningfully present the first day of school: Welcome students at the door with a warm greeting. Make it clear where they need to sit. Dress professionally. Be intentional with your body placement and posture, eye movements as well as vocal approach, because at every moment students are reading you, consciously and unconsciously responding to (what I’ve always called) your vibe (but psychologists call “emotional contagion”). 

Next, space and place

Though teachers don’t need to be experts in Marie Kondo or feng shui, I have found it helpful to be mindful of the physical space my students are entering on the first day as it is ultimately an extension of how I feel about them. This includes having a tidy and aromatic room prepared with resources (tissues go a long way), a thoughtful desk arrangement with smart traffic flow, objectives/agendas posted in spaces clearly marked for specific classes, personal touches that reveal I am also a human while also generating conversation, background music, and a balance of posted content and free wall space for future student contributions. In addition to the space, a good way to make a positive first impression is making sure everything has a place. Disheveled paperwork, inaccessible resources or haphazard chaos not only communicate to students a lack of organization, it also comes back to haunt me (and them) later in the year.

Though presence, space and place are important, in some ways they are also just the window dressing. The real work of the start of the school year is about intention. As a teacher, what is true north that will guide everything you do all year long? For me, this is two-fold: relationships and clarity. 

Everything that happens during the first week or two of school is designed to build relationships. This starts with a proper introduction. One of my first day activities is always a get-to-know-you survey. Some of the best questions are: Who is a teacher who had a positive impact on you and what did they do specifically? What are your pet peeves as a learner? Are there any conflicts (with people or arrangement) in this room I need to be aware of?

While students are completing this survey, I make a point to walk around the room, introduce myself with a firm handshake and eye contact, request the names they want to be called and then make sure I can correctly pronounce it. 

Next comes those activities everyone loves to hate: icebreakers. 

As a language arts teacher who values storytelling and relationships, I tend toward writing and sharing activities as ice breakers. Here are some ideas:

  • Find and share about a _____(children’s book, quote, song, poem, cartoon, found object) that tells us something important about who you are.
  • Students imitate a mentor text and share theirs. Some good ideas are “I Am From” by George Ella Lyon and “My Name” and “Those Who Don’t” from The House on Mango Street. 
  • Write and share a piece like “If You Really Knew Me” (from Challenge Day) or “This I Believe” from NPR. 
  • Write and share a 6 word memoir

One caveat here: it is important for the teacher to engage in this process just as the students do.

In addition to a storytelling icebreaker of some sort, I also start the year with circles. This is a great way to share the work students have written, build connections, establish norms, as well as identify and address individual or community needs. 

Another important element of relationship building is modeling for students authentic reflection. I do this in a couple of ways. One, I read the surveys they completed and compile lists of their needs/pet peeves. Then I publicly share a bit about how I will leverage my strengths and improve my weaknesses to honor student preferences. I also share survey data from last year’s students to let them know what I do well and what I’ll be working on this year. 

Of course, all of this relationship building takes vulnerability, which leads to my second priority: clarity. 

Before any student ever shares, establish non-negotiable actionables that elicit respectful attention. And then constantly revisit them. This is pivotal not only for a strong community, but also for the risk that rigorous learning will later require. 

I establish other norms through student collaboration as well. A great prompt thread that I often use in circles is: What is your goal for this class this year? In order to reach that goal, what do you need from yourself? From me? From your peers? Without them even knowing it, they are generating classroom dos and don’ts that I can then post to reinforce. 

Day two or three of the first week, I will share the syllabus. Sharing the syllabus after we’ve built some connections demonstrates two important principles: that relationships are most important and second, that clarity matters in this class. Through previewing the syllabus, they are exposed to the regulations required by school, the class’s content and objectives, and an overview of what they can expect from my discipline and pedagogical style.

It may seem odd that there is no direct content instruction the first few days. But ultimately, the more solid of a foundation I can build at the beginning of the year, the more deeper learning with fewer management issues can thrive throughout the year. And that is a trade I am willing to make.

Transferring Ownership of Writing to Students

The post that appears below is the original, unedited draft I submitted to Edutopia, an amazing website of all things education! (To all my readers working in schools, it is highly valuable and worth following.)

Their Own Writes: Transferring Ownership to Students

Control a student’s writing, and you have a good paper. 

Transfer ownership to a student, and you have a good writer. 

Thought not exactly about fish anymore, this adage is something I am constantly striving for in my high school English classroom. The more I can set up conditions that allow students to be in control of their writing, the better. In this way, they will not just score well in my class; more importantly, they will foster the skills necessary across curriculum and throughout their lifetime to be effective communicators. Here are some steps I’ve applied over the years to transfer writing ownership to students.

Open the Gate.

One of the biggest pitfalls I see in my teaching is when students become reliant on me to be the gatekeeper of good writing. Some surefire signs that this is happening: they rely on weasel words such as “good” and “bad” that don’t really describe anything helpful; they don’t know how to use a rubric; I hear these questions: “Miss, is this good?” or “Miss, can you read this?”

I have found using models regularly in the classroom to be the best way to cede my role as gatekeeper. We can write collaboratively as a whole class to feel good writing form. I write models for students, either in front of them or often beforehand, and then we deconstruct it together, usually with color coding and annotations. Something I did this year that worked well was a station activity with student examples. Students previously wrote a paragraph and I selected some based on relevant skills. Then in groups, they traveled to each of the stations, discussing strengths and comparisons to their own paragraphs, and finally they independently reflected on a graphic organizer. However, the single most important strategy to stepping down as gatekeeper is the collaborative scoring of student samples. For this process, I pair students up with a rubric. They have to read samples, then come to a consensus for each criteria. After this process is complete, we moderate as a whole class. 

Provide a Mirror.

Once students become the gatekeepers, a critical next step is metacognition.

I build in lots of opportunities for students to reflect on their writing throughout the entire process. Recently, students were assigned to show up to class with half a draft. Their first task in class was a reflection form. I then used that to guide writing conferences, only zeroing in on their self-identified areas of feedback. Often, after writing mini-lessons and/or workshopping, I ask students to email me a plan as an exit slip outlining what they noticed in their writing and what are their specific next steps. 

Pass the Gavel.

Now that students know what constitutes good writing, reflect on it in relationship to themselves, it is time for evaluation. Any humanities teacher will gladly tell you about the time-intensive work of grading papers. But…if we can transfer ownership to the students, evaluation can be independent, thus ongoing and formative!

Very rarely do I have students submit an essay without self-scoring. If it is the final, I have them do it directly on the rubric. One of my favorite pieces of feedback to give is “I 100% agree with your self-reflection!” This puts the student in the driver’s seat of his/her own learning. If it is a draft, I like Google forms for this task. I also almost always build in time during class for peer feedback and evaluation of a completed draft. My favorite way to do this is with a graphic organizer broken down by rubric criterion (like this one [without scoring] or this one [with scoring]). The first task is for students to write down what area they are worried about and seeking feedback in (sometimes this is embedded on the graphic organizer; sometimes I have them write it on a post-it). Then students pass the graphic organizer along with printed essay for peer feedback and/or scoring rounds. 

Please Apply.

All of this sets up the premise that students can be in charge of their writing. However, what really matters is the space to apply the feedback. So often–just as it is in teaching–there is so much data without meaningful time to address it. Building in time for application is the final step in transferring ownership to students. 

I like to do this throughout the writing process with small chunks. For example, I often have students write, evaluate, rewrite and reflect on their thesis or topic sentences, or analysis, using a Google form. I also find giving whole class feedback on patterns and then having students revise one in their writing works well. Sometimes I anonymously take one student’s paper and we rework it as a whole class. Then, students need to rework their own piece applying what they just learned.  

I recognize all of this requires more time. But, ultimately, depth over breadth is another way we transfer writing ownership to students. 

Do you have resources or strategies to help students own their writing? I’d love to hear about them!

using circle practice in the classroom

The post that appears below is the original draft I submitted to Edutopia, an amazing website of all things education! (To all my readers working in schools, it is highly valuable and worth following.) 

Using Circles in the Classroom

When I think about my style as a teacher, two words come to mind: community and communication. First, I want my classroom to be a place students want to be, a place they feel safe and loved and valued; I want them to believe their stories matter. Second, I want my classroom to be filled with the presence and merit of student voice; I want them to tell their stories. These two qualities are inextricably linked. When students belong, they open up; when students open up, they belong. 

I have found an effective and meaningful path to both community and communication in my classroom is circle practice–or council as called by my training program–inspired by Restorative Justice (RJ). Though originating in criminal contexts, RJ has become quite popular in schools as of late. Many educators approach Restorative Approaches as an upgrade to traditional discipline approaches (moving away from mere consequences toward real responsibility based on relationship), but at its core, RJ is not meant to be a reactive program but rather a proactive program. This can be achieved most impressively through circle practice. Based on the ancient practices of indigenous peoples, circles are designed as spaces where everyone is equal, valid, present, and involved. 

I have used circle practice to serve academic, social-emotional, reflective, and restorative purposes in my classroom with students, as well as with my colleagues. Here’s how. 

Set Up

First, set up the physical space. After years of practice, I have a routine. On my centerpiece–a beautiful knitted round blanket I received from a colleague–are laid various “talking pieces”: rocks, crystals, stuffed animals, toys, etc that act as the physical signifier to indicate whose voice we are listening to at any time. Around that are enough chairs for all participants; these chairs must be in close proximity to foster the intimacy. Of course, this usually occurs in a classroom, so all this placement occurs after the requisite moving of desks. If you are just beginning though, a circle and one talking piece will suffice. 

Next, set up the purpose and expectations. If it is the first circle with a group, I have this overview printed as a handy guide. I explain the overarching purpose of circle: to form a community with open lines of communication–so important to taking intellectual risks. I set up the norms: 1, speak from the heart (only with the talking piece, authentic contributions); 2, listen from the heart (without judgment, with compassion, circle is the one place in society where we have the complete focus of people without distractions); 3, speak spontaneously (spend time listening, not thinking about what you’re going to say); 4 speak leanly (especially important with big groups); and 5, what is shared in the circle stays in the circle (I stress this fiercely). Because I always do this thoroughly early in the year, it sets up circle culture for the rest of the year. After this general set up, refine the intention for the current circle. Is it to build relationships? Is it to explore an academic topic? Is it to rectify a wrong? Is it to explore an issue of concern? Is it for reflection?

Structure

With the physical space and expectations established, it is time to set up the structure of circle. Three basic components comprise a circle routine: opening, prompts, and closing. 

The Opening

The opening consists of the norming (as already discussed); directions (after the prompt is posed, pick a talking piece that speaks to you, share, then pass to the left as the sun moves across the sky); the name round (if participants do not know each other); and an ice breaker question (a light, easy question that invites everyone’s voice into space without threat, such as what is your favorite music, ice cream flavor, season, etc). I also lead a moment of mindfulness to begin. 

The Prompts

After the opening comes the prompts: the best part about circle! It is so flexible and the prompt rounds can serve a number of purposes. This is where the magic happens.

Circles are effective at the beginning of the year as a means to start identifying and planning for students’ individual needs. The following questions serve this purpose: What kind of learner are you? Who is a teacher who has influenced you greatly and why? What do you need from your peers to be successful? What are your learning pet peeves? How do you feel about reading, writing and/or speaking? 

Circles are also great to close the year. The intention of these prompts are celebration and reflection with questions like: How have you grown this year? What do you wish you would have done differently? How has this course prepared you for next year? What is a favorite memory from this year? 

Circles build relationships. I print out a bunch of get to know you questions, lay them around the centerpiece, and students pick which questions to use for the prompt rounds. Or students craft questions to ask each other. 

Circles can be used for a restorative approach as well. One time when I was absent for PD, the sub reported disrespect and damage to the room. The questions that time were RJ based: What happened? Why did it happen? Who was affected and how? How do we repair the wrongs? Following the circle, the students cleaned the room and wrote apologies–per their conclusion.

Circles serve academic purposes as well. For example, before beginning Ceremony, I printed many articles with information about issues affecting Native Americans. I laid them all out around the circle centerpiece with baskets of pens/pencils/post-its. I then give directions (pick an article that attracts you, read and annotate, be prepared to share). Then I asked questions such as: What predictions do you have about the novel based on these articles? What is something that stood out to you and why? What comparisons can you make between these texts and others we have read? 

Circles are spaces to care for students in their moments of stress or trauma. One day in my IB class, things felt deeply off. Instead of a lesson, we meet in circle to discuss: How are you? What’s overwhelming you? How do you self-care? Who lifts you up when you are down? How can we support one another? After a heartbreaking flare up of gang violence in one school’s neighborhood, we wept together in circle, answering questions like: What makes you feel afraid? What makes you feel safe? What do you need? How can we move the community forward? 

Circles can also be meaningful for staff as well. Circles are a great way to establish collaborative norms: What do you need from your colleagues? What are you collaboration pet peeves? How do you best handle difficult conversations? How do we want our group to be defined? Circles are great openers for staff at the beginning of the year: What are you most looking forward to this year? What are you apprehensive about? If your colleagues needed to know one thing about you, what is it? Circles are great protocols for staff to reflect on their practice: What’s going well? What are you working on? What’s been a successful/ineffective lesson you’ve taught and what made it so? Circles are a safe place for staff to respond to their own trauma/stress. During the same period of gang violence mentioned above, we had a circle for staff to cope and process as well: What is worrying you? What is your wish for our community? How can we move forward? What do you need from your peers? What do you want for our students? I hosted a circle for interested colleagues after the most recent presidential election: How does this affect you? How does it affect our students? How can we move forward? What do you need? What resources can we provide our students. 

Circles can serve any purpose. All you need are meaningful prompts. 

The Closing

Because circles can be so powerful, they necesitate closure. There are a couple ways to do this. You can keep it light with a group high five or a silly coordination game. You can do a witness round in which participants share one word on their mind. You can end with a sentence starter prompt such as “I was… but now I am…” The closing offers an opportunity for participants to transition in a healthy way. It is also critical to remind participants of the norm that what was shared in the circle stays in the circle. 

Some of my most memorable moments in the classroom have been inside of a circle, and they are always treasured moments of community and communication. 

I think my students would say the same. 

simplicity and significance: a reflection from the AASSA conference

It’s been a good semester of professional learning and reflection.

First, the Learning and the Brain conference in San Francisco which I wrote about here. Then the week before last I attended the 2019 AASSA Conference in Santiago, Chile. This year’s theme was all about transforming partnership, but really, the whole thing kinda of blew up what I thought of education and my role in education.

Ya know, no biggie.

I learned lots of stuff about visible thinking and co-teaching and international mindedness and how exciting it is to find a PF Changs and Chilis in a foreign land.

I really learned a lot from Diane Sweeney. She was both a keynote and a workshop leader. Her sessions inspired me to incorporate more choice and DEEP learning in my classrooms. On a philosophic level that I haven’t quite figured out yet, I came away from her session with the deep (and painful) conviction that I overscaffold for my students and rob them of important opportunities to wrestle with the discomfort and messiness of not knowing. She addressed the idea of The Learning Pit…but, ouch, I am so. good. at. building. bridges. over that pit. Still chewing on that…

On a practical level, her sessions also helped to crystallize something I always struggle with… objectives and success criteria in the English classroom. I always feel like reducing the ART of language–which is what I teach, right?–into success criteria is… well…just that: reduction. I mean, come on, that’s easy for math and science, but humanities??? But her session helped me to approach it from a different way: where are concrete gaps my students struggle with, and how can I use those gaps as an entry point into this new approach? One of those gaps I see over and over is vague and generalized “analysis” of the effects of features in text. English teachers knowwwhat-I’mmm-saying: “It gets the reader’s attention..” or “It paints an image in the reader’s mind.” Ugh.

But honestly, my teaching world was rocked with two sessions. I still can’t stop thinking about them.

The first was a preconference I attended with Kevin Bartlett: From Cultures of Compliance to Cultures of Cocreation. I knew I was in the right session when he started with “culture work is identity work” and a deep focus on authenticity and storytelling. If you’ve read my blog, you know I’m all about culture: in my classroom and among adults where I work. It is the. everything.

Two echoes from his session still resonate with me: simplicity and significance. Reduce what we’re doing to focus only on what matters most.

At one point, he asked us in table groups to discuss: “what would you fight to teach?”

Not once did English, or Science, or Math, or History come up.

Instead we talked about wellness, sustainability, communication, patterns.

Yes please. Although, admittedly, this feels much larger than me in terms of systemic application, I can move to concept-based teaching within my class.

This session paired really well with the highlight of the conference for me: Mike Johnston’s sessions about design systems for sustainable education. What’s system thinking? That was my question exactly when walking into the session. It’s all the rage these days, isn’t it? Design thinking. Systems thinking.

But man, I now get it.

And honestly, what made it click for me was this opening question:

What do you want the world to be like in 50 years?

Of course, everyone joked, nervously, by saying: existing. But we also said peaceful, loving, and all those other pipe dream responses. And at once, almost like all of our collective cynicism embodiment spoke, someone commented that we’ve always wanted that, but it’s not happened yet.

His response: we don’t design schools for that.

Mike (Johnston) drop. Ha (insert snort-smirk here).

I’m guilty. When I prepare my lessons, I am mostly thinking about two things: IB and college. And yes, while that is future-thinking, it is so. very. narrow. And ultimately, in 50 years, I don’t care if my students remember what a simile is or if they finished Othello. I care that they know how to manage their time. That they know how to read texts the world as a reflection or criticism of themselves…and respond appropriately. That they see patterns and capitalize on them accordingly. I care that they are good people. That they see beyond themselves to a larger community. That they make a difference in the world. That they love wholly and forgive fiercely and laugh beautifully and breath fully.

I care that they have meaningful strategies to protect their hearts and the hearts of those they love from a sucky world.

How do I teach like that.

Which takes me back to systems thinking. Teaching like that is more than just fixing a problem. First, I have to see the problems fully. I need to examine the causes and effects of the issue with a nature, economic, societal AND well-being lens.

Whoa. That’s a lot.

True statement. But…I am excited at the serendipity in the universe though. Just this week, unrelated to AASSA, the school I serve participated in a Think Tank to reflect on what we’re doing and make changes to do it better. More information is still coming on the results of that, but most participants I’ve talked to have summed it up through these words: time, depth not breadth, people. That sounds like it aligns to my reflection, doesn’t it?

But again, I go back to what’s in my control. My classroom. My instruction. My world of students.

And for them, I’ll fight for simplicity and significance.

I’ll fight for what matters.

*Featured image from http://the-seekers-corner.blogspot.com/2012/01/mirror-of-heart.html

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