I was taking notes today in a professional development session, and I wrote down these three comments: 1) Help me understand where you are coming from; 2) Help me understand what your role is; and 3) Help me understand what is happening. They were not anything anyone else said, but they occurred to me as I was listening to my colleagues. We could understand so much better if we asked people to tell us one or all of these things.
I am attending a Critical Friends Group® training (National School Reform Faculty) at my school. The other people in my group are my colleagues. They are all either department chairs, department directors, or class/school deans—essentially middle management, if you want to think of it like that. We are learning protocols for Critical Friends Groups. As fussy as the word “protocols” sounds, it’s really helpful to have “structured processes and guidelines” in place to “promote meaningful, efficient communication, problem solving, and learning” (Critical Friends Group® Coaches Handbook, Michele Mattoon and Luci Englert McKean, eds.). Many of them, I am finding, can be used with colleagues or with students. I am getting lots of ideas for the classroom as well as department meetings.
I wrote down the three comments at some point when I was listening because it occurred to me that we often don’t know where others are coming from and why they are doing what they are doing until we ask, and we can be much more understanding and empathetic if we do. I thought they might be good questions to ask students, too. If a student is checking out and not being a part of a class, there is a reason for it. It might be they’re worried about something, or it could be that something happened which is preventing them from being present. I once took a phone away from a student, and a colleague later told me that her mother was in the hospital. I felt terrible. She wasn’t following the school rule, but she was doing it for a reason.
I also found out today that I have some wonderfully supportive colleagues, and because we hadn’t really worked together this way before, I didn’t realize I had that network. What an amazing and affirming discovery. I think we as teachers sometimes are so trapped in silos. It helps to hear others validate and support you. These kinds of groups can give us real tools we can use to support each other, which is so helpful. I’m really hoping we can continue to meet as a group through the year. I know we all do a lot. I am really involved in a lot of ways at my school, but as one of my colleagues said, a Critical Friends Group would help so much with a work/life balance.
Help me understand where you are coming from. Help me understand what your role is. Help me understand what is happening.
These three sentences are we should ask students and each other to gain more empathy with the students we teach and with our colleagues. We should also be telling people our own answers to these questions. We are all beginning or preparing to begin our new school year. It’s a good time to take care of everyone and ourselves.
As full as my summer has been (and I can’t do it again next summer), I have had some great professional learning opportunities this summer.
Years ago and early in my career, one of my schools was considering sending me to AP Language training, but I moved on to a different school before that happened. I don’t think my previous principal would ever have considered it for a variety of reasons. One of the reasons I finally did it was that our chief AP Literature teacher was overloaded, and I thought it would help him out.
I had a great week at Fitchburg State University in nearby Fitchburg at the training. The other teachers in my group were a great group of educators. Most of them were public school teachers, so I learned a lot about public schools in Massachusetts. Interesting stuff. Frankly, none of what I heard made me want to go back to public schools, though my own children have received a good education from our local public school system. The system just seems designed to frustrate teachers nowadays. It makes me sad. I am a little on the fence about whether or not to continue pursuing my Massachusetts teaching certificate. In some ways, it seems like such a hassle. I am tempted to go for National Board Certification, even though I know the amount of work involved, principally because I wouldn’t have to worry about the different certification rules for different places. (Is that accurate, those of you who are NBCT?) I have wanted to do it anyway.
As to the AP training, my instructor is a brilliant AP teacher. We got a lot of great tools and no-nonsense advice. I liked her a lot. She really helped me clear up why TPCASTT was not working as well for me as I wanted it to (I was, naturally, doing it a little bit wrong—not totally wrong, but wrong enough that the kids were not doing more than scratching the surface). I was dreading the poetry part, I am not going to lie. I know that teaching AP involves teaching a lot of poetry, and frankly, I was feeling like I wasn’t very good at that, but the tools that my instructor gave me have made me feel a lot more confident. I am really excited about the course and getting going now. I was, I admit, feeling a bit intimidated and not at all sure about AP in general. I still think it should be a bit more open than it is at my school, but I learned a great deal about how it functions at other schools. I also learned a lot about the AP rubric and how to grade. I was fairly consistently two points below what the instructor said the College Board graded several of the essays. I guess if you are going to have a grading issue, then grading a little lower is better than being too high because the students will possibly do better on the exam. By the end, though, I was figuring it out pretty well, and the last round of papers we evaluated, I hit the mark each time. The last few days, I’ve been working on reading the books I want to teach and the course audit syllabus. I am feeling pretty confident about the way the course is shaping up.
In other news, I received my new work computer today, and I backed up my old work computer to an external hard drive and restored EVERYTHING without any help. Woo! I was pretty happy with myself. I am going to work a little bit more on my AP materials before I put the computer to bed tonight. The new install went great. It took a little while (but probably less than two hours). I was nervous when the status bar said the time remaining was over 100 hours at one point, but it turns out that the status bar was lying.
What are you up to this fine Tuesday?
I spent June 27 to July 2 in Gambier, Ohio at Kenyon College as a participant in the Kenyon Writer’s Workshop for Teachers. Given how much writing I did while I was there, I had a difficult time figuring out how to begin talking about it here on my blog. I thought about it for a few days. I’m still not sure I’ll be able to put the experience into words, which is ironic given how I did rediscover a writing voice I thought I had lost.
I think one of the reasons I was nervous about going to Kenyon was that I didn’t necessarily consider myself a writer anymore. I don’t really want to characterize what I did as “giving up,” but I guess it was. I no longer did any of the things I told my students to do—to just dump out ideas, to write first and revise later, to write for themselves. I had this internal editor going all the time. Most of all, I just didn’t write. Not really. I mean, I wrote the occasional blog post. But I couldn’t have told you the last time I wrote a poem. I used to write poetry all the time. I always had a notebook for my poems, pretty much all through high school and college. I can’t even tell you when I stopped. I think one day I just thought maybe I wasn’t very good at writing poetry. I have written fiction off and on for a while, but it had even been a while since I had written fiction.
What this writing workshop did is crack me wide open. Now I have all these ideas and all this material to work with, and I feel like I found my voice again. I am a writer again. There was a time when writing was something I thought I would always do. I even started an application to study creative writing Emerson College in Boston (I abandoned it once I realized I would not be able to attend college out of state, and at that time, I lived in Georgia). My high school English teacher, Shelia Keener, encouraged me to write and has been telling me for years that I missed my calling. I do believe that I should be an English teacher, but Shelia is right that I should have kept up the writing.
I feel like I found my tribe at Kenyon. We had excellent instructors, for one thing. Real teachers who work with students in the classroom. My instructor, Emily Moore, is a gifted writing instructor. I am stealing simply everything she did with us. The participants were also writing teachers. I was struck not only by their dedication to the craft of writing but also to their dedication to their students. Many of them are practicing writers, and I admit to feeling a bit intimidated by them. They are really good writers. I was thrilled when one of our tribe, Joe Carriere, not only took on the task of creating a literary magazine out of our work, but also created a Facebook group for us. All of us wrote something to share at a reading, even our instructors. Each time we did a writing prompt, they wrote with us. In fact, Emily has a great technique of freewriting on the board with her students, making the messiness of freewriting public. It is freeing to see writers in process. I knew, as a writing teacher, that writing didn’t come fully formed and perfect from anyone’s pen, but for some reason, this inner critic inside me expected my writing to be different from every other writer. If I had to pick one moment when I realized what I had been doing, it might have been when we read the Robert Frost poem “Design.” Emily shared two versions: a rough draft and a final draft. It was like something clicked into place. Even Robert Frost wrote shitty drafts. Even Robert Frost!
Seeing that poem in draft form really helped me see that I am not a bad writer. I probably need to spend more time revising. Just like my students. And a writer’s workshop is extremely valuable. Given how much workshop I have done with my students the last two years, you’d think I’d have figured that out. Somehow I always separated what I did as a writer from what I did as a teacher.
The five days and change that I spent at Kenyon were transformative. I actually see myself as a writer again. I feel like I have been given a gift. The people I met were amazing. I think I have made new lifelong friends. I really do. The campus is gorgeous. The stained glass windows in the dining hall depict scenes from books! It truly is English teacher (or English major) heaven. In addition to giving me back my writing life and helping me make excellent friends, I also met two writers and had an opportunity to talk shop and now have a year’s subscription to The Kenyon Review. I actually read poetry on the plane back home. When was the last time I read so much poetry? I discovered Andrew Grace in the May/June 2015 issue and liked his poem so much I ordered a copy of his collection Shadeland. I really, really can’t remember the last time I read contemporary poetry.
At the workshop, I ran into Sam Bradford, a friend and former colleague from the Weber School, where I worked in Georgia.
Sam has been writing fiction for years and will be the department chair at Weber next year, so we will have a lot to talk about, and I am so grateful we are back in touch. Neither of us knew the other would be there. I was so excited to see him, but even more excited to see him connect with Charley Mull, a colleague from Worcester Academy and one of my favorite people. I made them both take a picture with me on the last day.
I am so glad they became friends. Charley and Sam were in the same group, which was not my group with Emily. We still had plenty of opportunities to interact.
Here is a picture Sam took of me doing my reading.
A photo of me with my new friend Whitney (and a photobomb with my new friend, Andy).
I learned some new techniques for teaching writing. I wrote some things I feel pretty good about. In fact, I am actually thinking about pursuing publication, which is something I haven’t thought about doing for many years (and that is one reason I haven’t shared anything I wrote at the workshop here). Honestly, I thought that ship had sailed a long time ago. I truly can’t remember the last time I thought about publication for myself.
You should go next summer.
Guess what today is? Ten years ago today, I wrote my first entry on this blog. I don’t know that I had a notion when I started this blog that I would keep it going this long. I didn’t think about it at all. I just did it.
I had just finished my first year teaching in a private school. I started reading education blogs. At that time, most of the education blogs were written by ed tech folks. Very few classroom teachers were blogging. I am really excited to see that is no longer the case at all. Teachers at all levels are now blogging about teaching, educational issues, their classroom, educational policy, and, yes, educational technology, and it is wonderful that they have that outlet so their voices are heard. Do you remember what it was like before we could hear from teachers like we can today? How many of us used to sit in our classrooms, feeling alone? I know I did, which is part of why I started blogging.
One of the things blogging has helped me do is be more reflective. I admit at first I started blogging so that I could connect with teachers like me. I was feeling pretty isolated, as I mentioned. Over time, it allowed me space to think about the craft of teaching, what I was reading, and what I was teaching in some seriously helpful ways. I can’t even tell you how many friends I have made through this blog. I don’t think I could honestly tally it up. It was such a wonderful feeling to meet up with these friends at conferences and know that I was no longer alone.
Once I started teaching at a school that was more in line with my educational philosophy, I admit that I didn’t write as much here, mainly because I was supported and encouraged at work. It makes such a big difference. But it meant that I didn’t really need to blog in order to connect to others who shared my thinking. One thing I have realized just recently, however, is that this blog is really about the conversation. Sharing ideas. Committing to reflect. I say it like that because getting lazy about reflection gets me into trouble. I need to have some time to think, and the best way I think is through writing.
When I was a relatively new teacher, I remember a teacher I worked with, a well-respected teacher whom everyone loved, spoke out when the superintendent visited our school. She let him know she disagreed with the fact that he was cutting PD and taking some of the management away from the schools. I still remember her saying, “In this county, we have a concept called site-based management.” I thought she was so brave. She wasn’t afraid she’d be fired on the spot, like I would have been if I had spoken. She didn’t care. It was worth speaking out because it was a problem, and he needed to hear about it. Even if he elected not to make changes, he would know he was not supported, and in that county at the school board was elected. I don’t remember that he actually stayed that long with us. In fact, I barely remember him at all. But I do remember my colleague standing up to him, and I have always wanted to be brave like her. She just recently retired after teaching the first grandchild of one of her students, which is quite an achievement.
Over the years, I have spoken out about some topics that concerned me, such as the way we teach writing, or the way we put students off books, or censorship, or standardized testing, or homework, or any one of a variety of educational issues over the last ten years. I have been pushing myself to write more. It’s important for me to sift through my ideas and feelings here. One of the things this blog has helped me do, actually, is to figure out how I feel about educational issues and speak out about them. I need to do more of that than I have done in the last few years.
Something I heard last week at a conference has resonated with me. I mentioned it before when I wrote about the conference, but now I’m seeing new applications. Rosetta Lee, one of the speakers at the conference, was speaking in the context of how we can be good allies. She said that when allies are silent, she can’t tell if they are silent because they agree with the comments or treatment that others received or if they disagree, but are afraid to say something. I have been thinking about that comment for a week now because it has so many applications. If we are silent about anything that is important to us, no one can tell what we are thinking. And sometimes that kind of thing is important to share. It might help someone. It might encourage someone. It might teach someone. But most importantly, it helps us because our voices are heard. Teachers need to continue to speak out about educational issues. I really do think it’s making a difference. Maybe not as quickly as we would like. But if we don’t speak out and share our ideas, how quickly would things change?
We have a voice. We have the opportunity. I know you’ve probably heard like I have that the blog is dead. I don’t believe that. It’s easier than ever to start. If you haven’t started a blog yet, I challenge you to do so. If you have one, but you haven’t written in a while, or you’ve abandoned it, or you feel like you don’t have a lot to say, so you just don’t post a lot, I challenge you to resurrect your blog. It’s not easy to start. At first, not many people are reading, and it can be frustrating to feel like you’re talking to an empty room. But people will start reading. In fact, leave a comment and link to your blog here, and we’ll support each other.
At the risk of sounding like a cheesy acceptance speech, I do want to thank a few people for their support of this blog. I want to thank Robert Talbert, who left the first ever comment on my blog and has supported me ever since. I think that comment may have disappeared when I had to migrate my blog from Movable Type to WordPress, as I can’t find it now, but I remember it. I also want to thank Glenda Funk, for pushing me to write and for commenting often. I am not as good as she is about supporting my friends. I want to thank Grant Wiggins for supporting the efforts of the UbD Educators in trying to create a wiki. It hasn’t really turned out like I wanted (which was no surprise to Grant, when I told him), but he didn’t have to support it. I appreciated that he did. I want to thank all the teachers near and far, who have come along over the years and supported this blog. I am afraid there are too many to list, and I am deathly afraid I’d leave someone out and hurt someone’s feelings, but it would be wrong of me not to mention several folks by name: Clix, who made so much effort to help me get the wiki off the ground; Nancy, who has been a long-time reader, commenter, and now a friend; Mike LoMonico, who brought me into the Folger fold; Bud Hunt, who gave me some personal attention when I changed fields (back in English again, though, Bud!); Peter B-G, who is now a more local friend and has supported me by coming to my sessions at conferences; Buffy Hamilton, BEST LIBRARIAN EVER; Megan Hayes-Golding, who made friends with me at the first ever EduBloggerCon (I forget what they are calling it now, but it was nice not to feel alone in that room full of super techy folks when I was a new blogger). There are a lot of people who contributed to making me feel like I was worth listening to, and I appreciate you all very much.
Image: René Schäfer.
I forgot to do my Slice of Life yesterday. I think I’m settling into a lazy summer groove. I haven’t read as much on my time off as I thought I would, but I did finish a couple of books this week (and I started a new audio book). I blog about books in a separate blog. I suppose I could have folded book reviews into this blog, but truthfully, that blog sort of came first, and it had a different audience that I wasn’t sure would be interested in teaching. Likewise, I wasn’t sure everyone who stopped by here would be interested in my book reviews (unless they concerned professional reading). I actually love blogs, and I really compartmentalize my interests in different blogs. None of the audiences for any of these blogs really overlap much from what I can tell based on comments. I don’t write in any one of them a great deal, though I suppose my book blog gets the most attention these days. I decided not to worry about it and just write when I felt moved to write, though I was looking for excuses to write more often.
This Saturday, I’m traveling to Kenyon College in Ohio for the Kenyon Writer’s Workshop for Teachers. I have a notebook ready to go, and I am looking forward to seeing what it will be about, though I admit I am sad I’m missing my children’s first full week of summer. I hope that when I get back, we can take the commuter rail into Boston and have a fun day exploring. Later in July, I’ll be going to AP Literature training. I’m offering a workshop on digital storytelling at my school. In fact, if you are in the New England area, check out our summer learning series.
Tomorrow is an important anniversary for this blog. Today’s post is a bit rambly, but tomorrow’s will be a bit more focused.