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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Teens Can Change the World

I have to admit. I have been increasingly obsessed with watching the stats for my blog, mostly because they keep growing. If I look at a bar graph of my number of views each week since I started publishing again, the towers of blue are steadily increasing. And the more the little blue bars grow, the more motivated I feel to write. It’s weird, especially considering that sharing my writing with others used to be something that sent me into fits of anxiety.

And what’s even cooler is that people are talking with me about my blog and starting to share it with others. Bloggers that I don’t even know are liking my posts. And just yesterday, a principal tweeted that she was going to share my most recent post with her staff. And here I am sitting on my couch with a laptop (usually with a glass of wine) writing whatever comes to mind. It is one of the most empowering feelings I’ve ever had, and I also feel like I’m becoming part of this incredible community of readers, writers, and educators, especially since there are so many bloggers out there that I completely admire.

In thinking about my own excitement and empowerment, I began to reflect again about this idea of citizen journalism–something that my husband inspired me to write about because of the way he is harnessing its power to create his own charcuterie business. It’s this idea that anyone can be a published author–from YouTube creators to Yelp reviewers. Of course, because this blog is all about how we can start to inspire our high school students to be members of literacy communities by engaging them in authentic reading and writing work–the reading and writing work that is similar to what adults do in school, work, and life–an exploration of citizen journalism, and by extension, blogging, seems to be a natural fit here.

Then I started thinking about something. Blogging isn’t just something that teenagers could do. It’s something that they are already doing. In fact, there are some teen bloggers that are so successful that they are literally impacting popular culture. Take Tavi Gevinson, for example. This Style Rookie blogger started out blogging about fashion when she was 11. Eleven! Now she’s 16, and she’s appeared on shows like The Colbert Report and Jimmy Fallon and has even been profiled in The New York Times. Recently, she started her own magazine with Jane Pratt, the original founder of 90s-mag phenomenon, Sassy. Did I mention she’s 16?

I mean, this well-adjusted, wise-beyond-her-years adolescent even has her own TED talk. And it’s good. See?

Gevinson isn’t the only teen blogger out there. There’s also Spencer Tweedy. Yes, he’s the son of the front man for Wilco, but he’s still only a high school student. His blog, The Weblog of Spencer Tweedy, showcases everything from pictures of his pasta-making parties to videos he’s made for his biology class.

There’s also The First Lime, a blog by 14-year-old Monica, who writes about music, photography, and her own DIY projects. It’s actually pretty adorable.

But not quite as adorable as Know and Tell Crafts, a crafty blog written by a 13-year-old boy (yes, boy) who crochets. You go, kiddo.

These kids are writers. They are creating their own niches in literacy communities.

I wonder how they do in English.

Now imagine if we showed our high school students these blogs. Imagine that we used these as mentor texts and talked about the ways in which these teens thought about their task, purpose, and audience. If you look at the literacy skills of these young bloggers, they’re actually pretty impressive. They need to understand their audience (and how their language and topics can best engage their audience), they need to understand how to create visual images that echo the tone created by their verbal messages, and they need, in some cases, be willing to experiment with a variety of genres in their writing (all based on their task’s unique purpose) Take Ty’s most recent post that combines images of his latest project (a mock headboard created with electrical tape) with a list of tips to consider when using electrical tape. It goes beyond the simple and predictable “how to.”

In thinking about the Common Core, I turn to the expectations to grow digitally literate citizens. Look, for example, at Writing Standard 6 for grades 9-10: “Use technology, including the Internet, to produce, publish, and update individual or shared writing products, taking advantage of technology’s capacity to link to other information and to display information flexibly and dynamically.” If that doesn’t describe blogging, then I don’t know what does.

And in eleventh grade, that expectation ramps up: “Use technology, including the Internet, to produce, publish, and update individual or shared writing products in response to ongoing feedback, including new arguments or information.”

Think about these teen bloggers. Not only have they learned how to harness the power of digital media to project their voices, but they are also always making new decisions about content–based on what their audience wants and needs. These kids are the poster children for digital literacy.

How can we, too, use these writers as models to inspire all of our students to see writing as a way to speak up, to teach, to contribute?

Postscript

Possible Units

  • Social Media/Blogging
  • Argument Writing
  • Informational/Explanatory Writing
  • Narrative Writing
  • Research Skills

Possible Essential Questions

  • Why write?
  • What does it mean to teach and learn?
  • Where is my voice? How can I make it heard? What happens when I do?
  • What is the role of media in my life? What is the role of media in our lives?

Possible Common Core State Standards

  • Writing 1: Write arguments
  • Writing 2: Write informational/explanatory pieces
  • Writing 3: Write narratives
  • Writing 4: Produce writing taking into consideration task, purpose, and audience
  • Writing 6: Use technology to publish writing
  • Writing 7: Conduct short or sustained research projects, using an independently designed question