July 20th, 2015
This is the last week of our 2015 Summer Blogstitute and I am excited to bring you this post from Mark Overmeyer (Let’s Talk), who has some wise words to share as you reflect on the past school year and prepare for the next. We have one more post coming to you on Wednesday, so this is your last week to look back on previous posts and leave a comment for a chance to win 12 free Stenhouse books. Follow us on Twitter using #blogstitute15.
Reflections on another school year
By Mark Overmeyer
Teachers often create goals for the summer: they plan to work in their gardens, finish house projects, and try to get to those books they set aside earlier in the year. I am the same way, but I also spend the early part of my summer reflecting on what I learned in the previous school year.
Perhaps because I have lived my life in school years since the age of five—moving from school to college to teaching to graduate school to consulting—I tend to reflect more in the summer than in January, the traditional time for resolutions and reflection.
Here are three lessons I learned during this school year that have helped me reflect on how I facilitate writing workshops:
- Conferences are important, but writing time is more important. Conferring plays such an important role in our work with readers and writers. The opportunity to talk with a student one-on-one is priceless. However, what if a student needs time to write more than he or she needs the chance to talk with you? I ask this question because of my many interactions with primary students in writing workshops this school year. On at least three separate occasions this year, when I began a conference with the question “What are you working on as a writer today?,” the response was “I am working on my writing. I don’t need help.” One kindergarten writer told me, “I need to get my writing done. I need to work alone.” Most of the students who tell me they need more time to write are under the age of seven. As writing teachers, we have so much to learn about independence and agency from our youngest writers. Because of so many students asking for more time, I often start a conference now with something like this: “I would love to have the chance to talk with you about your writing. Can you talk now, or do you need to get some more work done before we talk?”
- Love the resisters. We have all taught resisters. They might sit passively during the first few days of writing time, hoping you don’t notice how little they produce. Or they may actively resist writing early in the year, saying something like “You aren’t going to make us write a lot this year, are you?” These resisters are so good at what they do: they avoid, they wander around the room during writing time, they keep saying they don’t know what to write about, or they just sit. Instead of being frustrated with resisters, I learned this year to find them fascinating—and to love the resistance. Fourth-grade teacher Sandy Mulligan in Colorado Springs has helped me to see resistant writers in a different light. Sandy actively decides to love her resisters. When she meets a fourth grader who hates to write, she doesn’t worry at first about why. She just says, “I am so glad you are in my class! This is your year! We are going to figure it out together. You are going to LOVE writing with me. I promise.” And she is right. It takes a while with some of her students, but when I have visited her classroom in May the past two years, I have asked students what they think about writing, and they love it. All of them. I merely ask “What do you think about writing?,” and they spontaneously yell out “We LOVE IT!” Sandy has students just like yours: Some come to her classroom with struggles in life and struggles in learning. Some come to her classroom ready for whatever life brings them. Sandy is relentlessly positive about writing, and her workshop is filled with joyful work. It is not a place filled with chaos, or with the message that everything written is wonderful. She has high expectations, and she provides scaffolds and safety nets when needed. From what I have witnessed, in classrooms where the writing workshop has meaningful purpose and is filled with joy, resisters stop resisting. Not always at first, but I have learned to never give up. I have learned from Sandy—and Elizabeth and Keith and Cheryl and Shelly and Monique and so many other teachers like them—that if you love your resisters, slowly the walls of resistance will break down and writing will happen. And happen. And happen. At some point, you won’t be able to stop them from writing, which brings us to my next lesson . . .
- In effective classrooms, writing is its own reward. I have felt this way for more than twenty years, but I was reminded of how rewarding writing can be in so many schools this year. I witnessed students clapping in at least ten classrooms when writing workshop was about to begin. I heard many students groaning when writing time had to end, begging for more time to write. Anne Lamott would be proud of the teachers in these classrooms. My favorite quote about writing is from her classic book Bird by Bird (Pantheon, 1994):
Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises. That thing you had to force yourself to do—the actual act of writing—turns out to be the best part. It’s like discovering that while you thought you needed the tea ceremony for the caffeine, what you really needed was the tea ceremony. The act of writing turns out to be its own reward. (xxvi)
One of my teaching goals every year is to hear students ask for more time to write. Sometimes I intentionally go past our writing block to see if anyone notices. When students are lost in writing, whether they are five or fifteen years old, they don’t want to stop. In the most effective workshops I visit, students are not rewarded for writing more, and they are not punished if they are not quite ready to write on any particular day. Teachers in these classrooms set up rituals and routines the first day of school that allow and expect writing to happen. If we avoid writing early in the year by setting up notebooks for a week, or if we skip writing a few times a month because of assembly schedules, students may think of writing as difficult, boring, or unimportant.
As teachers, our feedback comes not just during conferences but throughout each day. The longer we wait to start writing workshop, or the more quickly we end it before the school year is over, the more likely some unintended feedback might sneak in—the message that, somehow, writing is inherently unpleasant and should be avoided. Why not start Day One, Minute One? What better way to get to know your students than to start with, “I am so excited to meet you! We aren’t starting with rules. We aren’t starting with putting away supplies just yet. Let’s get to know each other a bit. I can’t wait. I am going to share something I wrote so you can learn about me, and then I am going to invite you to think, talk, and write a bit so I can get to know you. This is going to be a great year.” When we start with rules and supplies, our message is “School is a place filled with rules and school supplies, and these are of primary importance.” When I start with writing, my message is “I want to hear from you. I care about you. I want to know what you think. This is a place where we will learn from each other through writing.”
I wish you all a summer filled with relaxation, rejuvenation, and reflection.
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