Why I Write with My Students

To celebrate the National Day on Writing and the upcoming month of NaNoWriMo, we invited Vicki Meigs-Kahlenberg, author of The Author’s Apprentice, to share why she writes WITH her students, instead of just assigning writing TO them. Her response is powerful.

Why I Write with My Students
By Vicki Meigs-Kahlenberg

Let’s start here: #WhyIWrite.

I am a writer at heart. I grew up writing stories and poems. As a teenager, I wrote to escape things that were going on in my life—or to celebrate them (or that cute upperclassman in my German class who finally noticed me!). I often wrote it out to make sense of the world and my place in it. I wrote of social justice in my community, and educational equity for the kids who were in lower-level classes than I. Sometimes, though, I simply wrote what was on my heart.

No wonder I became an English teacher.

When I ask my students at the beginning of the year why they write, I generally get one of two responses:
• The high-achieving, teacher-pleasers will comment that it is a necessary form of civilized communication, yada…yada…
• The honest ones answer: “Because the teacher makes me.”

Vicki
For most of my students, writing is not their first love (or their second, or anywhere near the top ten). Although all are fantastically savvy and creative with their memes and eighty-character-or-less “Insta-Snaps,” (my pet name for all of those social media outlets), very few would consider themselves writers. Even if they do send several hundred Snaps a day.

Any published author will tell you that writing–the actual act of pen-to-paper, fingers-to-keyboard writing—is terribly lonely. And that is coming from professional folks who presumably love to write. I can’t fathom how incredibly lonely each independent writing assignment must feel for a student who has never had success in this content area… the one who struggles to get his ideas straight in his head before he can write a single word… the one whose inner editor has already told her that whatever she writes will never be good enough.

I’ve witnessed firsthand, students sitting there, sweating, watching their classmates plow ahead while they continue to get left behind. I am sure that all of you can identify these struggling writers in your own classrooms.

Writing is scary and overwhelming for students who have never had a positive writing experience. They view the teacher as judge and jury, and their classmates as competition.

An African proverb says, “It takes a village to raise a child.” In this age of assessment, have we forgotten that it also takes a community to develop a writer?

That’s #WhyIWriteWithMyStudents.

As of the day I wrote this post, I found that the above is not an actual trending hashtag. (Although, I think it should be.) Of course, #WhyIWrite is the hashtag that accompanies the National Day on Writing on October 20 (NDOW). What if we used this day to commit to developing our young writers by writing with them, as opposed to assigning writing to them?

The beautiful thing about the timing of NDOW is that with a bit of preparation, it can serve as the perfect springboard from a day on writing to a month of writing, together.

I am talking about National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). If you have not done NaNoWriMo with a class yet, you are missing out on an incredible opportunity to build your own fierce, “I’ve-got-your-back” community of writers for November and beyond. I have yet to discover anything as powerful for helping all students rise with the tide, and build English class camaraderie. Sharing this common writing experience by participating in NaNoWriMo’s Young Writer’s Program (www.ywp.nanowrimo.org) is a life-changing, writing-affirming experience for students and teachers alike. Taking the time on October 20th to introduce your class to this epic challenge is a perfect way to honor our students and National Day on Writing.

Throughout the month of November, we join together in word-sprints to build fluency of thought and writing. We share our favorite written lines or passages each week, to show how our inner muses are naturally incorporating the grammar, writer’s crafts and figures of speech that we learned in class. We show our vulnerability and encourage each other in the classroom and online at the end of week two, when we all struggle with writer’s block because none of our characters wants to cooperate with the story arcs we had in mind. We celebrate word-count milestones and offer support and suggestions for those who have petered out.

Doing this together makes us all stronger—as writers, and as a genuine community of learners.

While a specific word count is a personal goal, we strive as a class to meet milestones. Whether a student’s ten percent milestone is 500 or 5,000 words, students of all ability levels celebrate these accomplishments together. For this month, all writers are encouraged to “turn off their inner editors” and write unapologetically without fear of red correction marks. By simply sharing a common space and writing together, all students develop confidence and fluency in writing and thought that transfers seamlessly into future assignments and other content areas.

It is already mid-October, but it is not too late. Here are two options for helping you develop that prized writing community this fall:
Option 1 (the Writing Rebel’s approach): Abandon your curriculum for the month, and dive head first into this community of writers thing! The Young Writer’s Program of National Novel Writing Month has done a fantastic job putting together comprehensive workbooks that students can print or complete online. They have listed all of the Common Core connections, so you can easily justify this madness to your supervisors.

Option 2 (the Sensible Writing-Teacher-Who-Has-A-Ton-of-Material-to-Cover approach): Look at your curriculum. Then, take a look at the NaNoWriMo Workbook for your grade level. Think about places where the two naturally align. Are you planning to, or have you already studied characterization, conflict or plot structure? NaNoWriMo made it easy to bridge your curriculum with their well-designed lesson plans. When you are studying mood and tone, denotation and connotation, and even irony and symbolism, or imagery and figures of speech, it is more impactful when your reading and analysis lessons are incorporated into their writing. (For more explicit lessons for intertwining your existing curricula with National Novel Writing Month, check out The Author’s Apprentice.)

All students deserve to have a positive experience before they move on to the next grade. Every child needs to know what it feels like to write through something with their classmates, so that they can appreciate what it feels like to be on the other side of it, together. When we intentionally design our curriculum based on common experiences, rather than common assessments, everyone succeeds.

The top ten reasons #WhyIWriteWithMyStudents:
10. to show vulnerability
9. to share a bit of myself
8. to share my passion
7. to show that it is healthy, normal, & part of the process to make mistakes
6. to learn about my students, their process and their world
5. to show how much I value my students and the assignments I ask them to complete
4. because 30 brains are better than one
3. because writing can be lonely if you are alone
2. to build a true community of writers
1. to build a community of learners who help each other succeed in all things

Who’s ready to accept the challenge? Let’s get this hashtag trending: #WhyIWriteWithMyStudents

Add comment October 17th, 2017

Reading like a writer

Ruth Culham, author of Dream Wakers and The Writing Thief, dropped by our office recently and she took the time to teach a lesson on reading like a writer (featuring Maybe Something Beautiful by Isabel Campoy), followed by strategies to practice student writing in varied modes, such as narrative, informational, and opinion.

 

Add comment October 2nd, 2017

A praise, a ponder, and a polish

Lynne Dorfman and Diane Dougherty’s new book, A Closer Look: Learning More About Our Writers with Formative Assessment arrived in our warehouse today. We thought we’d give you a quick peek inside the book and in this guest blog post Lynne and Diane talk about how they are using videos with A Closer Look and specifically how one video highlights the important role students play in their own assessment.

A praise, a ponder, and a polish
By Lynne R. Dorfman & Diane Esolen Dougherty

When we imagined our new book, A Closer Look: Learning More About Our Writers with Formative Assessment, with our editor, Bill Varner, we all agreed that it should be practical, useful, and easy to read. After all, assessment is a difficult topic to tackle, even if we focused on everyday, ongoing assessments.  Then we had an idea that changed everything: What if we could include more than a dozen short video clips that teachers could view in school, at home, or sitting on the beach?  Bill liked the idea, and with permissions from four different schools, our classroom snapshots came to life!

Goal Setting ChartWe share peer conferences, one-on-one conferences, small group, and whole group conferences in our book through descriptions in the running text and in QR codes. The one we would like to share with you today is a goal-setting conference that occurred in Kolleen Bell’s kindergarten classroom in early spring. Kolleen had spent several months looking through her students’ writing journals and taking notes about skills and strategies she felt they needed and could accomplish with some instruction and gentle nudges.  Every month or so, Kolleen would suggest three possible goals, post them on an easel, and ask her kindergarten students to write their names on sticky notes and place them next to the goal they wanted to work on for the next week or so.  We were amazed that kindergarteners knew exactly what they needed. They didn’t look to see where their best friend had placed his sticky note, they made a decision based on their own writing (See Figure 1 Goal Setting Chart).

In Harper’s conference, Kolleen offered a praise, a ponder, and a polish. Harper had written about her mom’s interview at the Intermediate School. First, Kolleen asked Harper what goal she wanted to work on and then checked for understanding. Did Harper know what adding more details to her writing really meant? She asked Harper to explain in her own words. We thought that was a great beginning.

Harper read her piece to Kolleen, and then Kolleen summarized Harper’s story after she read it aloud. Here is a chance for the student writer to say that something important was omitted or that the reader (listener) misunderstood something.  Harper did not challenge Kolleen, so Kolleen proceeded to praise Harper for her use of an exclamation mark to show excitement and then asked a question that Harper readily answered.  Harper added more details to her writing to clear up the confusion. Sometimes, the ponder really does become the polish.

Kolleen knew that Harper was an exceptional writer for her age and stage, so she offered a polish that became Harper’s new goal. Sometimes, a writer ends a piece of writing with what he (the writer) or the main character in the story is thinking and feeling. Harper added a sentence to reveal her excitement as a way to close her story. In future writing workshop sessions, Kolleen checked in with Harper to see if she could apply a sense of ending through the strategy of offering the character’s final thinking or emotion.

Goal setting conferences are a solid way to involve each student in the assessment process and differentiate instruction. It calls for the development of a writer’s identity – that is, where the student writer reflects on what he needs to do to move forward as a writer. If our students can begin to do this in kindergarten, imagine what they will be able to do by the time they are in fifth grade!

 

Add comment September 22nd, 2017

The power of using student writing as mentor texts

“Nothing motivates like peer models,” says Janiel Wagstaff, author of the recent book We Can Do This! Student Mentor Texts That Teach and Inspire. In this guest post she shares one example of how a peer model influenced other writers in the classroom.

The Power of Using Student Writing as Peer Mentor Texts for Teaching:  One Story
by Janiel Wagstaff

A funny thing happened one day in a first grade classroom.  The students were writing opinions about somethin g they would like to see changed in the school, in their classroom, at home, or anywhere they felt change was needed.  As I was circulating, checking in with writers, acknowledging the positive aspects of their writing, Colby’s conclusion caught my eye.

MentorText_pg 126

I asked all writers to stop and give me their attention as I read Colby’s short piece aloud.  When I came to the ending, I read it once, then twice.  “Writers, what do you think of this conclusion?”  Many students starting laughing, then talking about whether or not they like milk with their lunch.  “See, writers, these few words, ‘Who’s with me?’ catch your attention and get you to think about whether or not you agree with Colby’s opinion.  Seems like a good way to end an opinion piece, after all when we write opinions, we want to share them to see what people think.”

Within two minutes, Brenna had borrowed Colby’s language and ended her piece very similarly.

MentorText_pg 127

I read Brenna’s work aloud, as well.  “Writers, this is fascinating!  One writer comes up with something that works, we share and talk about it, and other writers are inspired to do the same or something similar in their pieces.  Let’s talk about Brenna’s opinion.  Who is with her or against the idea expressed in her opinion?”

After a brief discussion, again within just moments of resuming writing, Kiana’s conclusion showed the mark of also being highly influenced by Colby’s model.  She ended her piece with, “Isn’t that funny?;”  a short three-word sentence begging response from the reader or listener.

What occurred among these first grade writers within these few minutes?  The power of peer models had once again done its magical work.  There is no denying the effect peer models have; there is just something special about a peer’s work that immediately catches students’ attention and propels them to try similar moves in their writing.  I think of it as the, “Well, I can do that, too!” mindset.  The subconscious thinking might be, “If someone like me can do it, this is within my reach.”  Given such affirmation, students confidently take more risks in their writing.

Opportunities abound for using the writing we have right at our fingertips; that is, the writing of our own students, for explicit instruction about skills, strategies, writing elements, and craft moves.  Indeed, the following day, I more formally revisited Colby and Brenna’s pieces, pointing out under the document camera how conclusions should have purpose.  We started a poster to collect examples of purposeful endings, reminding students to ‘read like writers,’ (Calkins, 1994) with eyes wide open to find the gems within the texts we read.

Having perused all the students’ opinion writing, I noticed there was one more teaching point that had immediate relevance.  Many students’ pieces could be improved if they elaborated on the reason for their opinions.  I asked Kiana if we could use her piece under the document camera and work on it cooperatively to explore a question about her reason.  She eagerly agreed, as I find students almost always do, and another teaching point was born of student writing.  When we read her piece aloud, I asked, “Writers, what question do we naturally want to ask Kiana?”  A sea of hands shot up.  Calvin answered, “Why?  Why don’t you like your seat?”  His classmates shook their heads, “Yes, why?”  I jumped in, “We naturally want to know more about her reason, ‘I don’t like where I sit.’  ‘Well, why don’t you?’  If you and Kiana were having a conversation, you would ask her that.  So, let’s ask her, since ultimately we want to know and knowing this will make Kiana’s opinion clearer and stronger.”

Kiana sample 1

When Kiana replied, ‘Taller kids sit in front of me,’ we worked to find a logical place in her writing where she could add this elaboration.  I reminded students how to use a carat, Kiana worked her piece right in front of them, then I invited them to go back and reread their piece to a partner to see if there were opportunities to make this kind of addition.  Naturally, I circulated, celebrated on the spot, and the next day, we used another peer’s writing to more formally point out how the process of rereading to a partner and asking questions helped the writer improve his piece.  All the students had invested; all were interested and engaged.

Kiana sample 2 copy

Using peer models for instruction creates a palpable sense of excitement within the classroom writing community.  Highlighting students’ pieces in this way helps them feel valued and celebrated, like their voices and their processes matter.  This boosts student-confidence and energy levels.  “When students see others like themselves taking risks in their writing, persevering, problem-solving, crafting and succeeding, they become empowered.  The models reassure them that they, too, are writers with important ideas to share and the ability to write well.  They, too, can do this.” (Wagstaff, 2017)

Let’s take one last look at these first graders’ texts.  Are they perfect?  No.  Do they meet the standards for first grade opinion writing?  Yes, the elements of opinion writing had been introduced prior and we even pushed beyond them where it was logical to do so (elaborating on our reasons).  More importantly though, they are the students’ owned expressions and they served to stimulate conversation about their thinking and writing processes.  When we use students’ pieces as mentors, we’re not looking for perfection, we’re looking to simply learn from one another, while celebrating approximation.

In the end, a “funny thing” really didn’t happen in this first grade classroom.  I’ve been using students’ writing as mentor texts for years.  It is one of my primary “go-to” strategies for writing instruction because of its many benefits.  The increased engagement along with the students’ empowerment not only boost learning and growth in writing, but drive the purposefulness and genuine caring in the writing community.  This is a place where students want to be.  This is a place where students grow stronger together spurred on by the magic of one another’s words on the page.

 

We Can DoThisLearn much more about using students’ writing as peer mentor texts in Janiel’s book: We Can Do This: Student Mentor Texts That Teach and Inspire, K-2.  It contains the work of student writers across genres, with over 70 critical teaching points that commonly occur in K-2 writing classrooms.  Janiel also shares keen insight into how to use your own students’ work as mentor texts along with pointers from her career-long work with young writers.

References:  Calkins, L.M. (1994).  The art of teaching writing.  Portsmouth, NH:  Heinemann.

Wagstaff, J.M. 92017).  We can do this! Student mentor texts that teach and inspire.  Portland, ME: Stenhouse.

Add comment August 31st, 2017

Resources for teaching empathy and tolerance

Many Stenhouse titles focus on building tolerant, accepting communities inside and outside the classroom, helping students see beyond themselves and the immediate world around them. Preview these titles online to find the one that best fits your students:

Black AntsIf you were inspired to become a teacher because you wanted to change the world, and instead find yourself limited by teach-to-the-test pressures, Black Ants and Buddhists by Mary Cowhey will make you think hard about how you spend your time with students. It offers no easy answers, just a wealth of insight into the challenges of helping students think critically about the world, and starting points for conversations about diversity and controversy in your classroom, as well as in the larger community.

 

Sharing the Blue CrayonSocial and emotional learning is at the heart of good teaching, but as standards and testing requirements consume classroom time and divert teachers’ focus, these critical skills often get sidelined. In Sharing the Blue Crayon, Mary Anne Buckley shows teachers how to incorporate social and emotional learning into a busy day and then extend these skills to literacy lessons for young children. Through simple activities such as read-alouds, sing-alongs, murals, and performances, students learn how to get along in a group, empathize with others, develop self-control, and give and receive feedback, all while becoming confident readers and writers.

 

Many Texts, Many VoicesAs Mary Shorey and coauthor Penny Silvers write in Many Texts, Many Voices, “Critical literacy requires that the reader/consumer examine multiple perspectives and ask, ‘Whose interests are being served?’ and ‘Whose voice is heard—or silenced?’…Rather than an addition to a lesson or curriculum, critical literacy is a way of thinking, communicating, analyzing, and living a literate life. Critical literacy also implies the possibility of taking some kind of social action in order to support a belief, make a difference, or simply help during a time of need.”

 

DreamWakersWe dream of a time when all students will be confident, capable readers and writers. When we teach students to read as writers using mentor texts, we awaken that dream and make it real. Imagine the power of providing students with books that show them their faces, their culture, their lives on every page. And imagine how every classroom’s collection of mentor texts can grow by adding books that celebrate diversity. In Dream Wakers: Mentor Texts That Celebrate Latino Culture, Ruth Culham focuses her love of children’s literature—and her decades of work developing the traits of writing—on books that celebrate Latino life and culture. She provides a wide variety of ideas to teach writing using some of the richest and most beautiful children’s books available.

Caring Hearts & Critical MindsImagine if going to school meant more than preparing kids for a test, teaching a canned curriculum, and training students for their future as workers. What if school were also about cultivating students to be caring, community-involved citizens and critical, creative thinkers who love to read? In Caring Hearts & Critical Minds, teacher-author Steven Wolk shows teachers how to help students become better readers as well as better people. “I want [my students] to be thinkers and have rich conversations regarding critical issues in the text and be able to formulate opinions regarding these issues,” says Leslie Rector, a sixth-grade teacher who collaborated with Wolk on some of the units featured in this book.

Teaching GloballyIn today’s globally connected world, it is essential for students to have an understanding of multiple cultures and perspectives. In this edited collection, Kathy Short, Deanna Day, and Jean Schroeder bring together fourteen educators who use global children’s literature to help students explore their own cultural identities. Teaching Globally lays out why this kind of global curriculum is important and how to make space for it within district and state mandates.

Creating Caring ClassroomsCreating Caring Classrooms is committed to building respectful relationships among students, teachers, and the school community. Through active, engaging, imaginative, and open-ended activities, students will be encouraged to explore events, ideas, themes, texts, stories, and relationships from different perspectives and then represent those new understandings in innovative and creative ways. Teachers will learn how to establish inclusive classrooms, initiate and maintain respectful dialogue, promote collaboration over competition, and confront difficult issues such as bullying and exclusion.

Teaching Fairly in an Unfair WorldTeaching Fairly in an Unfair World helps teachers redefine an inclusive curriculum by questioning what is taught, how it is taught, to whom, and under what conditions. It offers teachers a wealth of challenging, open-ended pursuits that give students “voice” and help them better understand their world. It explores opportunities for students to connect with social justice issues in the real world through imagined experiences found in short stories, novels, plays, picture books, graphic novels, and primary source documents, such as letters.

Add comment August 17th, 2017

Now Online: Powerful Book Introductions

PowerfulBookIntroductionsNo matter what level of experience you have with book introductions, your knowledge will spiral upwards as you read this text.
—Pat Johnson

In Powerful Book Introductions, literacy leaders Kathleen Fay, Chrisie Moritz, and Suzanne Whaley take a close look at purposefully planning for effective book introductions that set the stage for young readers to navigate texts independently and successfully.

Through relatable classroom examples and the wisdom of their shared teaching experiences, the authors show you how to select texts, amplify meaning making, and introduce visual and structural information as a way to support your readers.

No matter where you are in your understanding of guided reading, Powerful Book Introductions will help you as you to craft student-centered, meaning-driven book introductions that prepare your readers for success.

Preorder now; copies will start shipping in late-August. Preview the entire book online!

Add comment August 7th, 2017

Blogstitute 2017: Which Comes First in the Fall–Norms or Tasks?

In this last post of our Summer Blogstitute series, Tracy Zager, author of Becoming the Math the Teacher You Wish You’d Had, shares her ideas for kicking off the school year in your math classroom ready to notice, imagine, ask, connect, argue, prove, and play.

Which Comes First in the Fall–Norms or Tasks?
Tracy Johnston Zager

I periodically hear discussion about whether it’s better to start the new school year by establishing norms for math class or to dive right into a rich mathematical task. I’m opinionated, and I’m not shy about my opinions, but in this case, I’m not joining one team or another. They’re both right.

The first few weeks of math class are crucial. You have a chance to unearth and influence students’ entrenched beliefs—beliefs about mathematics, learning, and themselves. You get to set the tone for the year and show what you’ll value. Speed? Curiosity? Mastery? Risk-taking? Sense-making? Growth? Ranking? Collaboration? You get to teach students how mathematics will feel, look, and sound this year. How will we talk with one another? Listen to our peers? Revise our thinking? React when we don’t know?

In Becoming the Math Teacher You Wish You’d Had, I wrote about a mini-unit Deborah Nichols and I created together. We called it, “What Do Mathematicians Do?” and we launched her primary class with it in the fall. We read select picture-book biographies of mathematicians, watched videos of mathematicians at work, and talked about what mathematics is, as an academic discipline. We kept an evolving anchor chart, and you can see how students’ later answers (red) showed considerably more nuance and understanding than students’ early answers (dark green). [Figure 2.1]

Figure 2.1

Throughout, we focused on the verbs that came up. What are the actions that mathematicians take? How do they think? What do they actually do?

In the book, I argued that this mini-unit is a great way to start the year if and only if students’ experiences doing mathematics involve the same verbs. It makes no sense to develop a rich definition of mathematics if students aren’t going to experience that richness for themselves. If professional mathematicians notice, imagine, ask, connect, argue, prove, and play, then our young mathematicians should also notice, imagine, ask, connect, argue, prove, and play—all year long.

In June, I saw this fantastic tweet in my timeline.

It caught my eye because Sarah’s anchor charts reminded me of Debbie’s anchor chart, but Sarah had pulled these actions out of a task, rather than a study of the discipline. I love this approach and am eager to try it in concert with the mini-unit. The order doesn’t matter to me.

We could (1) start with a study of the discipline, (2) gather verbs, (3) dig into a great task, and (4) examine our list of mathematicians’ verbs to see what we did. Or, we could (1) start the year with a super task, (2) record what we did, (3) study the discipline of mathematics, and (4) compare the two, adding new verbs to our list as needed. In either case, I’d be eager for the discussion to follow, the discussion in which we could ask students, “When we did our first math investigation, how were we being mathematicians?”

Whether we choose to start the year by jumping into a rich task on the first day, or by engaging in a reflective study about what it means to do mathematics, or by undertaking group challenges and conversations to develop norms for discourse and debate, we must be thoughtful about our students’ annual re-introduction to the discipline of mathematics.

How do you want this year to go? How can you invite your students into a safe, challenging, authentic mathematical year? How will you start?

1 comment August 1st, 2017

Blogstitute 2017: What Do They Remember?

As you think about starting the new school year, hold tight to this message from Jennifer Allen, author of Becoming a Literacy Leader: “as teachers, as literacy leaders, we have the power to make difference through our interactions and interest in others.” Who knows what your students will remember you for?

Jen Allen - 2016What Do They Remember? How Do We Make Them Feel?
Jennifer Allen

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
– Maya Angelou

Hello, 

I was one of your third grade students many, many years ago. I am currently a grad student at the University of San Francisco, studying Education for Social Justice. We’re doing a project on an inspirational teacher, and I’m doing mine about you. It inspired me to reach out to you. Sally

This is the message I found in my inbox this summer.  As soon as I saw Sally’s name, I found myself smiling. The image of Sally, an eight-year-old girl with blond curls, freckles, and an infectious smile, filled my head. I had not seen or heard from Sally for more than twenty years.

After a few e -mail exchanges this summer,  Sally sent another e-mail, this time with a link to the video project that she had created around her inspirational teacher—me.  I wondered what I could have possibly said or done to be remembered as an inspiration.  I clicked the link and watched Sally talk about me on camera.  I watched, holding my breath.  I was relieved that I made her feel special. I didn’t remember the specifics of the black dress that she spoke of on camera. It made me realize that as teachers we often don’t know what sticks to one’s heart.

We spend so much time these days in schools focusing in on curriculum, assessments, and professional development that at times it’s easy to lose sight of that what’s most important—the people in the buildings, the students, and the adults that we interact with each day.  What will really be remembered at the end of the day, school year, or even years later?  What is it that we keep and why? I remember listening to a keynote presentation years ago from educator Jonathon Kozal. What I remember from that presentation was a statement that he made regarding standards—that no student is ever going to remember that on Tuesday they learned standard number 3, just because it was written on the board. His words were a reminder that our students are more than a standard charted on a board.

Susan Scott writes in her book Fierce Conversations, “Our emotional wake determines the story that is told about each of us in the organization. It’s the story that’s told when we’re not in the room. It’s the story that will be told about us after we’re gone.” My e-mail exchanges with Sally remind me of the importance of my interactions with students and adults on a daily basis. The video is a reminder that I don’t really know what one holds on to or keeps over time.  But what I do know is that as teachers, as literacy leaders, we have the power to make difference through our interactions and interest in others. We have a responsibility to be present, to listen, and be aware of how our words may or may not make others feel. So as we start a new year with new students and staff, what power will your words hold, what stories will they feed.

 

2 comments July 27th, 2017

Blogstitute 2017: Writing that matters

In today’s Blogstitute post, Vicki Meigs-Kahlenbert, author of The Author’s Apprentice, argues for writing instruction and writing assignments that really matter, that make students remember the high of getting published, of having their voice out in the world. They will not remember a grade, but they will remember setting a high goal and being encouraged to attain it. 

Enough Muck Shuckin’; Let’s Make It Matter
Vicki Meigs-Kahlenberg

I spent the past week of my life with five teenagers and an amazing co-leader named Bill, shoveling muck and debris and pumping out black water from under the subfloor in a tired, old home in Appalachia. And each day that it rained, it felt like Groundhog Day all over again, removing more muck and water one five-gallon bucket at a time.

This year, instead of escaping to the beach the week after school was out, my family and I decided to go on a mission trip. My two high school–aged children, my husband, and I teamed up with the Appalachia Service Project (ASP) to help rebuild the homes and lives of those living in poverty in the Appalachian Mountains.

Our mission site took us only three-and-a-half hours west of our home (near Raleigh, North Carolina), but Johnson County, Tennessee, felt worlds away.  Nestled deep in the beautiful Appalachian Mountains are hundreds of families living in poverty—many with homes that lack proper bathrooms and plumbing, most in desperate need of serious repair to simply make them safe to live in. Our job was to come in to make these homes livable again and ready to withstand the brutal mountain winter.

This experience was both rewarding and humbling in so many ways. It made me think a lot about human nature and motivation both in the classroom and out in the world.

The Author's ApprenticeWhen my crew arrived to our work site, we could see that the entire rear of the house was “sinking.” There had been several additions built on to the back throughout the years by the homeowners, and all the eaves from all the different rooflines converged at one low point in the very middle of the rear of the house. (I can’t help thinking that middle school is a lot like that for some kids—years of lessons not learned, expectations not met, all converging in this one place in time, making them feel like they are falling further behind.)

My Dream Team of teenagers was super-pumped to get in the back room with sledgehammers and Sawzalls to start the demolition. It took a while to get through the layers of flooring, but once that first piece of subfloor came out, the world stopped.

Each one of us choked in a breath as the fumes emerged. Bravely, we covered our mouths and noses and peeked in for a closer look. The cinderblock foundation was filled with water. And it was black. Upon closer inspection, we could see that it filled the crawl space the entire length of the house. And those beams that we were planning to “sister” for safety and support were so rotted that they crumbled in our hands—many no longer attached to the foundation at all.

Maybe it was the naïveté of the youth who were with us that made us act, but these kids knew we had to do something. They all knew that their actions at that moment mattered, and they acted on that instinct. Period.

I know many of these teens from my own kids’ youth group. Although they are all fantastic teenage specimens—smart, funny, well-intentioned, I’m not sure that any of them under normal circumstances would agree to standing in sewage for days on end. They all balk at chores around the house, and roll their eyes and sigh when they are asked to do things they’d rather not do. But last week they powered on through the rain and stench because what they were doing mattered to this family, and it ultimately mattered to them.

They weren’t being evaluated on the quality of their work, yet it was excellent. They weren’t being rated on their attitudes or tone, yet they were always positive. These kids were an inspiration to me, to Bill, and to the family whose home we repaired. The work they did last week made a difference out in the world.  It’s an experience that we will all carry with us for a long time to come.

Out in the world and in our classrooms, when kids have the opportunity to do something that matters to them beyond a test score or an evaluation, they will rise up and not only meet your expectation; they will exceed it.

It is our job to figure out how to make that happen in our classrooms each year.

Every morning last week, we got up, rain or shine. We’d begin with an inspirational morning huddle, and then pile into the work van with Bring Em Out, by T. I., thumping through the speakers and smiles on our faces. It wasn’t because we were excited to be shoveling that muck; it was because what we were doing served a greater purpose. We only had one week, but in that one week, our goal was to strengthen another family’s foundation from the inside out.

It occurred to me that we should think of our teaching the same way. The work that we do with our students at any level is foundational. In order to make the greatest impact in the one year that we have with our students, we need to show them that the work they are doing matters. We need to prove to our students that they matter by raising the bar and setting high expectations—for all students, not just the advanced learners. We need to push them to stretch just beyond what they believe is possible.

Publication can do this for our students in the language arts classroom. Many of my students have struggled in this content area in the younger grades, so writing to be published seems like the craziest idea ever. It is incredible what they can do when they put their minds to it.

For years, I have required all of my students, whether they are labeled, average, academically gifted, or learning support, to submit a minimum of two pieces of their school writing for authentic, real-world publication. In their written assignments, I encourage them to focus on the things that matter to them in their own lives—their own stories and memories and the issues that they are passionate about. This has made a huge impact on every student across the board in terms of their effort, their motivation, and the quality of all their writing assignments throughout the year.

Real-world, editor-reviewed and -selected publication gives students the opportunity to get their voices out in the world. It provides motivation that goes beyond a grade, giving them an authentic reason to read and to write. It levels the playing field for writers of all abilities, and it offers all students the opportunity to give back to the writing world—to be part of it—to continue the cycle so that future writers can find inspiration for their own writing. That confidence never goes away.

Over the years, I have discovered that there is a place to publish nearly every kind of writing that I already do in my classroom. I do a lot of freewriting with my students, but even when we are working on what I consider “school writing,” such as book reviews, personal narratives, poetry, arguments, and essays, my students always have opportunities to share their work outside the classroom. Writing with the prospect of publication raises the bar on the quality of work for every assignment.

Some of my favorite publication opportunities include A Celebration of Poets, NPR’s This I Believe Essay Contest, Teen Ink, and our local newspaper.

Truth is, none of my students remembers their test scores from their seventh- or eighth-grade years, or any of the rest of the muck we trudged through together as a class, but every one of them remembers seeing their words in print for the first time, and the pride that came with authentic publication.

[For more information about the Appalachia Service Project, please visit www.asphome.org]

6 comments July 25th, 2017

Blogstitute 2017: Teaching globally to make a difference in the world

 In our rapidly changing world, it’s important for students to be aware of their own cultural backgrounds, as well as those around them. In this post in our Summer Blogstitute series, Kathy Short explores what that means for teachers–how they can engage their students with global literature, how they can give their students opportunities to go beyond surface-level information about cultures. Kathy is the coeditor of Teaching Globally: Reading the World Through Literature.

Teaching Globally to Make a Difference in the World
Kathy G. Short

Kathy Short 2016Several times a day, I click on news headlines from around the world, dreading reports of bombings, kidnappings, diplomatic breakdowns, and deportations. These constant reminders of global instability and intolerance are discouraging and frightening. Sometimes it’s hard to retain hope in the future, given the current state of affairs. Yet teaching is all about hope and the possibility of changing the future by being present in children’s lives in significant ways. This desire for hope has challenged me to focus my work on how teaching can make a difference in children’s views of the world.

Teaching globally makes sense, given constant demonstrations of the consequences of close-mindedness toward those whose cultures differ from our own.  We can no longer close our classroom doors to the world because the world surrounds children on a daily basis through the interconnectedness of technology and global mobility. The world is no longer far away but integrated into every aspect of our everyday lives, affecting both our personal and professional well-being.

So what does that mean for us as teachers? I am part of a professional community, Worlds of Words, in which we are exploring curricular changes to open classrooms to the world.  We focus on engagements that invite children to develop intercultural understandings through interactions with global literature. Literature set in global cultures provides an opportunity for children to go beyond a tourist perspective—gaining only surface-level information about another culture. Literature expands children’s life spaces as they travel outside the boundaries of their lives to other places, times, and ways of living. They immerse themselves in story worlds and gain insights about how people in global communities live, feel, and think, developing empathy as well as knowledge.

Expanding our Classroom Libraries

A first step is to integrate more global books into our classrooms, but in order to do that we have to find the books. Although the number of books set in global cultures is increasing, they are still only a small portion of what is published for children. The Cooperative Children’s Book Center found that only 21 percent of the books published in 2016 featured a character of color. Although that amount is up from four years ago when the number was only 7 percent, it is problematic, given that 49 percent of the total population in U.S. schools is children of color and that the 21 percent are primarily multicultural books set in the United States rather than globally. Unless we search for those global books and bring them into our classrooms, the world in our books will remain white and American.

So, my challenge to you is to read global literature this summer and add new books to the old favorites you share every year. These resources can help you locate summer reading:

  • Award lists such as the Outstanding International Books from USBBY and Notable Books for a Global Society from the Children’s Literature and Reading SIG at ILA.
  • Book reviews in WOW Review on culturally authentic literature.

Be sure to note the cultural backgrounds of authors and illustrators to share when you read aloud or give a book talk. Children assume that books are authored by Americans as their default unless we tell them something about the author using information from the book jacket or located online.

Engaging Students with Global Literature

In addition to finding great new titles to add to your classroom, you also need engagements to invite students to thoughtfully interact with these books. Global books often focus on ways of living that seem far removed from children’s life experiences and contain unfamiliar stylistic features and names. One danger is that students will view this literature as “exotic” or “weird” and fail to connect in significant ways. The use of global literature can actually establish stereotypes and misunderstandings and lead to feelings of pity or superiority.

In Teaching Globally: Reading the World Through Literature, we provide multiple examples from classrooms of how teachers have engaged students and integrated global literature into their curriculum through four curricular components. These curricular components encourage students to develop conceptual understandings of culture, perspective, and action through a critical stance that supports the development of intercultural understanding.

Intercultural Framework

Intercultural framework

Understanding Our Own Cultural Identities

It’s hard to value or understand why culture matters in the lives of people around the world if we don’t first recognize that we have cultural identities shaping our thinking and actions.  Without that realization, we tend to see our culture as the “norm” and everyone else as “others” who are “different.”

Most of us start the school year with “Who am I?” activities for children to get to know more about each other. This year consider ways to go beyond favorites and interests to engage students in examining why these exist in their lives. One engagement we often use is cultural X-rays, an outline of a body shape with a large heart inside. Students label the outside of their bodies with visible aspects of their culture, such as language, age, ethnicity, gender, and religion, and the inside with the values and beliefs they hold in their hearts.

Other engagements include:

  • Collect artifacts significant to understanding who they are and set up museum displays.
  • Create neighborhood memory maps, drawing their neighborhood and labeling stories that are memories of events in this space and then reflecting on why these stories are important.
  • Mapping their life journeys using a range of formats to reflect changes over time.
  • Collect and share “remember when” stories often told at family reunions.

These engagements can be supported by sharing children’s books in which the characters reflect on their identities or tell stories from their lives, such as I Love Saturdays y domingos (Ada 2002).

Engaging in Cross-Cultural Studies

In-depth inquiry into a specific global culture can broaden students’ perspectives and help them realize that their own worldview is only one of many ways to live in the world.  A cross-cultural study needs to go beyond superficial aspects, such as the five Fs: food, fashion, folklore, festivals, and famous people. Students need opportunities to examine the complexity and diversity of a cultural community and the reasons why a particular food or tradition is significant. Without an in-depth study of a culture, students remain on the surface, never understanding that culture’s values and beliefs.

Consider whether you can change a unit in your curriculum to an in-depth inquiry into a particular cultural community that is unfamiliar to students or where you have access to resources.  Or you may be able to take an existing unit; for example, on the rainforest or water, and examine that topic within the context of a specific culture, like Brazil or Sudan. Gather fiction and nonfiction to support this inquiry and locate a novel, such as A Long Walk to Water, as a read-aloud.

Integrating Multiple Global Perspectives

Although an occasional cross-cultural study is important, literature reflecting a wide range of global perspectives should be woven into every classroom unit, no matter what the topic or curriculum area. Whether the classroom focus is family, conflict, the moon, or fractions, look for books that reflect a range of global perspectives. Otherwise, interculturalism becomes a special unit instead of an orientation that pervades the curriculum.

Pull out your curriculum maps and units for the coming year and search for several global books to add to each unit. Or select one or two units that have the most potential for globalizing their content and introducing global books, such as adding Families Around the World, A New Year’s Reunion, and Hot, Hot Roti for Dada-ji to a first-grade unit on family. Use the search feature for books on Worlds of Words (wowlit.org) or check the extensive annotated bibliographies in Reading the World’s Stories.

Inquiring into Global Issues

Difficult social, political, and environmental issues, such as human rights, pollution, hunger, poverty, refugees, and language loss, provide an opportunity for students to understand the local and global complexity of the world’s problems and to consider ways of taking action. These inquiries have the most potential to take students beyond talk into accepting responsibility as global citizens and taking action to create a better and more just world. Literature can play a critical role in helping students understand the root causes of these global issues so they can take action in more thoughtful ways. For example, reading Iqbal supports a deeper understanding of why families are forced into child labor that can be combined with nonfiction sources such as Stolen Dreams.

Go back to your curriculum map and units to see if there is a unit that has the potential to provide an in-depth study of a global issue that could lead children to action. Search for fiction and nonfiction global books that could help students understand the causes and act out of empathy rather than pity.

Taking a Critical Stance

Teaching globally should be framed within a critical reading of the world and the word.  Paulo Freire argues that we need to question “what is” and “who benefits” from things remaining the same as well as consider “what if” and new possibilities before moving to action. Students need to struggle with these ideas and issues, not just take a superficial tour of culture, picking up isolated pieces of information. It’s not enough for students to learn more about global cultures; they need to question power relationships and the status quo in order to make real change in how they think about and relate to people in their world, both locally and globally. A curriculum and literature that are truly intercultural offer both us and our students the possibility of transforming our lives and world.

 

Ada, A. F. 2002. I Love Saturdays y domingos. Illus. E. Savadier. New York: Simon & Schuster.

D’Adamo, F. 2003.  Iqbal.  New York: Atheneum.

Freire, P. 1970.  Pedagogy of the Oppressed.  South Hadley, MA: Bergin & Garvey.

Goldsmith, A., T. Heras,and S. Corapi. 2016. Reading the World’s Stories: An Annotated Bibliography of International Youth Literature. New York: Rowan and Littlefield.

Li-Qiong, Y. 2013.  A New Year’s Reunion.  Illus. Z. Cheng-Liang.  Somerset, MA: Candlewick.

Park, L. S. 2011. A Long Walk to Water.  New York: Clarion.

Parker, D. 1997. Stolen Dreams: Portraits of Working Children. Minneapolis: Lerner.

Ruirs, M. 2017.  Families Around the World. Illus. J. Gordon. Toronto: Kids Can Press.

Zia, F.  (2011).  Hot, Hot Roti for Dada-ji.  Illus. K. Min. New York: Lee and Low.

 

 

 

1 comment July 20th, 2017

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