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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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.