With a Little Help from My Friends: Getting Unstuck When Life Sucks

Today, I think I’m going to depart a little from my usual high school literacy focus to reflect on my own recent experiences as a reader and a writer. It might seem a little bit strange, but it’s authentic. Because one thing I’ve learned over the past six weeks or so that sometimes being a reader and writer means that you aren’t.

I’m going to be very honest. The past six months have been the most difficult personal and professional months I have had in a very long time–maybe ever. At work, I have been absolutely pushed to the limit at times, and while I have probably learned the most I’ve ever learned, it simply hasn’t been an easy road. In the background of all that, I have been struggling with some very deep personal hurt that just isn’t going away. All of this has been intensifying over the past six weeks or so, and it all came to a head on Thursday.

I’m not sharing this information so that you’ll feel sorry for me. Not at all. I’m sharing this because these moments in our lives are a reality for all of us, and they’re a reality for the kids that we see each day.

And I’m going to be honest right now. Being in this funk made me completely uninspired, which has resulted in the following:

1. Lots of tears (and I’m not a crier)

2. Moody behavior (sorry, Jeff)

3. The desire to watch the entire seasons of Sister Wives and Millionaire Matchmaker on my DVR in my free time instead of reading or writing a word of text.

And I’ve felt completely ashamed. I mean, how could I talk to teachers about the importance of living as readers and writers when I wasn’t?

Over the past couple of days, though, I realized that, in a way, I was. I mean, I knew that my gloomy mood was keeping me from being inspired to read or write. I knew the darkness was choking me. I can’t tell you how many times I have tried to write a blog post in the past few weeks and just couldn’t force out more than a few lines.

So what changed? Certainly, the pain really hasn’t gone away–and it probably won’t for a while. It actually took one of my teacher colleagues looking at me straight in the eye, sitting down at the conference table in our office, and saying, “Nicole, I’m really worried about you. Will you please tell me what’s going on?” And I did. I told her the general idea of what had been happening for the past several months, and I sobbed with the door shut. She listened without judgement and let me cry. Then she said, “Maybe you need to write about it.”

Of course, she didn’t mean blog for the whole world to see, but why shouldn’t I?

The thing about living as a writer is that this life is inextricably linked to every other daily experience I have. I gather inspiration for my writing from everything that happens to me. Sometimes, my ideas are sparked by conversations with my colleagues, sometimes by a Tweet, sometimes by a book I’ve read, sometimes by a video or picture someone posts on Facebook or e-mails me. But while living in a dark place, I haven’t been able to escape my head long enough to form a coherent thought about anything else.

What my teacher colleague reminded me, though, is that writing is sometimes the only way out.

And maybe without even realizing it, she also reminded me that teaching can be a lonely profession if we let it–and we shouldn’t let it. I had allowed myself to become lonely, and it took her persistence to encourage me to connect with the world again.

So when doing the hard and complex work of teaching kids, maybe we need to remember these things:

Writing and reading vaccums happen. They are a natural part of the process when writing and reading are deep in the marrow. It doesn’t mean that the writers or readers are lazy or unmotivated (though I have felt both lazy and unmotivated lately). It may mean that they need someone to say just the right words.

Teaching can be intensely isolating. Resist the urge to be lonely. Find your network, and let them support you when things get hard. I am lucky to share an office every day with three thoughtful, kind teachers and to have an even larger extended community of educators that pull me out of the most complicated days with their dedication, their humor, and their friendship.

But above all, it is important to remember that there is no greater freedom in the world than being able to put pen to paper and untrap your thoughts.

Thank you, L, for this reminder.

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Real Talk

My Area 3 Writing Project colleague, Joe, challenged me to share some of my bumps in the road as I experiment with the Common Core in my summer school class. He (very rightfully) said that the bumps are what people want to hear about–because they want to know how other people are navigating them. While I wasn’t in a place to do that yesterday, I am feeling much more up to the task today.

Because I’m not gonna lie. Yesterday sucked.

As I’ve been structuring my summer school class, I have decided to focus on building two major areas of my students’ skills: reading and writing (with perhaps a bit more emphasis on the writing).  Over the next three weeks, my plan is to focus on two major text types: narrative and argument. All of the reading we do is also in those types so that students can start to see the link between what we read and what we write.

For students that say they hate writing, they are surprisingly enthusiastic about it (more about that on a different day). However, yesterday, when it came to reading, I had a huge problem on my hands. We were reading a narrative and working through some tasks to help students collaboratively analyze its structure. This was after we read the piece to understand the gist of it and to extract significant moments from it. I thought the kids would be okay. They definitely were not, and they rebelled.

After what felt like an hour (but wasn’t) of not accomplishing anything, I finally hit the reset button. I stopped all of them, named the fact that something clearly wasn’t working, and then asked for their feedback. Their responses were not surprising, given what I had learned from them the previous day: “We don’t like to read.” “Why do we have to think so hard about this?” “Can’t we do grammar worksheets?” That last question sealed the deal for me. Because when I discover that a fifteen-year-old boy would rather do grammar worksheets than what I’m asking him to do, I know I’m in deep trouble. Very deep.

I managed to survive the rest of the day and left school feeling pretty discouraged and beat up. I needed to figure out exactly what went wrong so that I could fix it. In a hurry.

As I thought about my failings last night (over two glasses of Cupcake Red Velvet), I started to develop a theory. What if I didn’t include enough scaffolding? What if my release wasn’t gradual enough? Could that have been the cause of the rebellion? Had I gone too fast?

So I did what we do as teachers: I re-vamped all of our reading work for the next two days. I shifted our reading block to the morning when the kids (and I) are fresher. Then I thought about the way the Common Core Standards are organized. One thing that is so elegant about them is the way that they are horizontally aligned (in the document) so that one grade level builds on the next.

But what we don’t always talk about is how they are so intentionally vertically aligned on paper so that each standard sort of builds on the next one. The first person who made me realize this was Lucy Calkins in her book Pathways to the Common Core, co-authored by Mary Ehrenworth and Chris Lehman. It made so much sense that I couldn’t believe I had never noticed it before (that’s probably why she’s Lucy Calkins, and I’m not).

Take the reading standards, for example. This is the general progression of the first section, “Key Ideas and Details” (in my words):

  • RI.9-10.1: Pull out details/evidence from a text; articulate explicit and implicit points in a text
  • RI.9-10.2: Gather those details and inferences and determine how they equate to a central idea in the text; write about this central idea
  • RI.9-10.3: Analyze the order of points and details in the text and how they are introduced, developed, and connected to each other.

As students progress through these standards, their understanding of a text can really become more sophisticated. That’s where my problem was.

I didn’t spend enough time with the first two and jumped right to the third one. My kids didn’t know what to do, and it was totally my fault.

When I started thinking about how I would change things for today, I realized that I needed to spend way more time on numbers 1 and 2 and not worry so much about number 3, not yet anyway. After all, what I am trying to do is make sure that my students have some really concrete tools to take with them into next year so that they don’t end up in summer school again.

So that’s exactly what we did. And I scaffolded the heck out of it too. We read the piece in small chunks and wrote paraphrases of each paragraph, including what the narrator was learning about herself. And then, when I finally did release them for independent work, I gave them small, manageable chunks to complete in a very short amount of time (10 minutes or so) and constantly had them share their thinking. For my students, who have demonstrated that they don’t have a whole lot of stamina, this worked.

And when they transitioned to writing about the central idea in the text (after I modeled very explicitly how I take my notes about something and transfer it to a written piece), they were successful.

And as I conferenced with them about their writing, they were listening to the feedback, trying on the suggestions, and sitting up a little taller each time I complemented something they were doing well. Even the kid who hated my guts yesterday and Monday was totally on my side after I recognized how good he is at making inferences about the narrator’s feelings.

So yeah.

It was a good day.

It’s about the Writing

I am passionate about the teaching of writing. But I have to admit. I wasn’t always. I guess it’s because I didn’t really understand how to do it very well. I thought if I did a two-day PowerPoint about the features of a particular genre (“Here’s how you write a personal narrative, kids.”), guided them through the writing process (in a very linear way), and then showed them a couple of student-written examples, I’d be good to go. The kids would produce amazing writing, and all would be right with the world.

Not surprisingly, it never quite worked out how I imagined it in my mind.

Over the past few years as I’ve started learning more about the teaching of writing, however, I’ve learned how much better I could have been at the beginning of my career. And when I became a part of an amazing community of writers and writing teachers–the Area 3 Writing Project–my understanding of the teaching of writing deepened as much as my passion did. This is mostly because, as part of the Area 3 Writing Project (or any Writing Project site, really), I had to actually become a writer myself.

Why is this important? Obviously, for lots of reasons.

However, as I realize how the expectations for writing change with the shift to Common Core, this idea of teacher-as-writer seems to take on new meaning.

Here’s why:

Let’s start by talking about Writing Standards #5: The revision standard. The anchor standard states the following expectation for students: “Develop and strengthen writing as needed by planning, revising, editing, rewriting, or trying a new approach.”What is most striking to me is this new view of the writing process as, well, an actual process. In the current standard (I live in California), the stages of the writing process are presented as isolated events. For example, Writing Strategies 1.9 in the California ELA 9/10 Content Standards states this: “Revise writing to improve the logic and coherence of the organization and controlling perspective, the precision of word choice, and the tone by taking into consideration the audience, purpose, and formality of the context.”

This, by the way, is the only time that the actual writing process is mentioned in the ELA standards for grades 9 and 10.

The way that the standard is written seems to make the following assumptions:

  • Revision can be isolated from the rest of the writing process
  • Revision is the most important part of the writing process (since it’s the only part mentioned)
  • When we revise, we revise only for certain finite things (like organization or word choice)

In contrast, the Common Core State Standards presents the process for what it is–a connected, non-linear cycle that students should be able to manage independently.

Take the phrase as needed, for example. This implies that students use elements of the writing process in the ways that best serve the needs of their writing. The writing process, then, is not a series of steps to follow in a certain order.

The Common Core also values the idea of independence, so not only should students be able to use the elements of the writing process in a non-linear way, they eventually need to be able to do so independently.

Finally, the Common Core Standards also expect that students are able to try “a new approach.” In order to do this, they need to have a deep understanding of task, purpose, and audience (so that they know when to try a new approach), and they will need to have a deep understanding of the writing process (so that they will know how to try a new approach). And again, they should be independent.

With me so far?

So what does this mean for my summer school class? And where does my involvement with the Writing Project factor in here?

First of all, my summer school students struggle with the very act of writing. Most of them (approximately 80%) have told me they “hate” it. Many of them tell me they think it is a “waste of time” and do not see how it relates to their lives. Of course, when the majority of the writing they do in school is writing that does not speak to them, can we blame them?

Second, my summer school students, for the most part, do not see writing as a process. They think revision means that they should add a couple of words here and there, add two or three sentences, fix the spelling, or even make their piece shorter. I know this because I watched them revise some writing yesterday. These students are not yet using the writing process “as needed” or “trying a new approach.”

Therefore, one thing I’m learning about the Common Core is that we must immerse our students in the process of writing. They need to see all the different ways they can engage in it and use the process the way that real writers do. And when teachers see themselves as writers and are able to to model for students how they use the writing process in authentic ways, it makes a huge difference.

This is where my work with the Writing Project comes in. A few years ago, I would never have been able to tell when a student was or wasn’t authentically using the writing process. As long as they went through the motions of completing the graphic organizers I spent hours creating, I was satisfied. As long as they turned in a rough draft with their final copy, I was convinced I had done my job teaching revision.

Now I know there’s much more to it. Students need to spend time collecting ideas–and they need to be shown how by a teacher who writes. Students need to gather details for their piece, draft, revise, edit, and share their writing with others, and who is a better coach and guide in this process than the teacher who writes?

As I’ve been teaching my summer school class, I have shown my students entries in my writer’s notebook and talked with them about my process as a writer. I am talking with one student about his interest in writing graphic novels and another about his voice as a writer. I would not have been able to have these conversations had I not known what it was like to feel the power of writing in my bones.

And though my day wasn’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination, today my students told me that they liked it.

But This is Summer School!

I’m a huge believer in mutual respect in the classroom. Coming from a Title I school where I spent the first ten years of my career, I learned pretty quickly that students don’t grant respect simply because you’re the only adult in the room. Respect must be earned, and I chose to do this in my high school classroom by getting to know my kids.

So of course, as I thought about how I would begin my summer school class, I knew that I would need to start by listening to my students.

As teachers, I think we spend so much time telling students what we expect from them that we may forget at times to ask them what they expect from us. So that’s what I did.

Not surprisingly, one of my students, a lively fifteen-year-old boy with flashing mischievous eyes, said instantly, “Fun assignments!”

When I pressed him for more information–what exactly did he mean by fun?–he said, “Oh you know, like word searches and crossword puzzles!”

Huh?

After I gently explained that my plan was to engage them differently–with interesting reading and writing assignments that challenged them to think–a chorus of voices simultaneously responded, “But this is summer school! We’re here because we couldn’t do all that stuff!”

In that moment, I was deflated–not because I was upset with the kids for wanting this type of work, but because I was unbelievably disappointed that it seemed to be a symptom of a larger issue–years and years of low expectations placed on those kids. The ones who don’t play school. The ones who are engaged differently. The ones who don’t want or need the threat of a bad grade hanging over them to comply with the system’s demands.

Then, when I think about the demands of the Common Core, I worry even more. I worry because these standards are so much more ambitious than what we have. They expect all students to have access to tasks that push them to think, that respect them as intellectual human beings, that develop their academic identities.

As I learn about what it will take to transition to these standards well and to truly embrace the spirit of what they represent, I think that, first and foremost, we have to honestly face the students we have in front of us–all of them–and, as challenging as this is, relentlessly push each and every one of them forward from where they are now, not where they should be and not where we wish they would be.

Our kids deserve nothing less.

Summer Vacay = Common Core

Those of you who know me well will understand why, instead of sitting by my pool, reading trashy Janet Evanovich novels (or 50 Shades of Grey–oh wait.), or sleeping in until 9 a.m., I have chosen to teach summer school.

Some of my teacher friends think I’m crazy. After all, I haven’t done this since 2001 when I had just graduated with my teaching credential and was completely broke.

So why now?

I guess the story starts last August when I chose to leave my high school ELA classroom for a position at our district’s central office as a Teacher on Special Assignment.

You might be wondering what that even means. While I’d like to let you believe I’m lurking around schools in a Ninja costume (I guess in writing that sounds creepier than it did in my head), it’s not quite that exciting. Instead of being the educational equivalent of a Secret Service Agent, I work with middle and high school teachers in infusing literacy practices into their classrooms.

And I obsess about Common Core.

This is because this year, admist my coaching responsibilities, I became immersed in our district’s transition to these new standards. So much so that my six-year-old has started asking me questions about them (apparently, they come up a lot at our house). And I know that next year, as I continue to try to figure out a way to finally convince my boss to let me wear that Ninja outfit to work, I will be obsessing even more about the Common Core.

Here’s why:

I really do think that they are good for kids. Not only do they require our students to think much more deeply about what they’re learning, but they also expect all students to be thoughtful, literate citizens with a variety of choices spread before them when they graduate, like a giant Vegas-sized life opportunity buffet. This excites me more than anything else.

All kids. Doesn’t that have a great ring to it?

I know some people think I’m idealistic. I am. And I will continue to be.

So back to why I’m teaching summer school.

As I was thinking about my responsibilities for next year (including continuing to deepen my work with Common Core), I thought to myself, “The best way to have real street cred, Nicole, is to give these things a whirl.”

I know that in order to really understand these standards, I’m going to have to teach with them. I’m going to need to look at the quality of work my students produce. I’m going to need to understand what it feels like to shift to a brand new set of standards that are so much more complex than our old ones. If I don’t, then these Common Core State Standards remain in my head–in mere theory. In order to really get them, I need to get my hands dirty.

So there you have it. I’m teaching summer school so that I can play with the Common Core (I promise I really do have a social life). And while I realize that summer school is only twelve days (twelve six-hour days with 51 students currently on my roll sheet) and that the conditions of summer school in no way measure up to what my colleagues in classrooms will begin to do during the year, it’s the best option I have.

And I’m going to make the most of it.