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The States of Reading and Writing

Lately, I've been trying to share the works of my "teachers" with my students. From writing a quote about writing and reading on the board to having several students take home Thomas Newkirk's The School Essay Manifesto, I've been hoping to show them that I'm still learning and wrestling with writing and reading theory, and I want them to do the same. Just yesterday I introduced Peter Elbow's metaphor about itching and scratching, and my students haven't stopped giggling every time I mention it.

With that said, I've been thinking a lot about the state of reading and writing. How often do we invite students into the experience of reading and writing rather than the task? How do we get them to develop a reading or writing itch that needs to be scratched? They might seem like the same thing, but I've read enough of Thomas Newkirk's Minds Made for Stories lately that I'm really reconsidering what I've been asking students to do in my c…

Stop Slamming Stories

The theme for this year's National Council of Teachers of English's Annual Convention is Story as the Landscape of Knowing, and as an English teacher, I couldn't be happier. A national organization, one of the most trusted voices on literacy pedagogy, has chosen to place story at centerstage. Then why, in just my few short years as an English teacher, do I feel as if the power of stories has been repeatedly diminished and challenged, and that stories have been treated as if they are anything but complex?

Yesterday, Jim Burke referenced the work that we do in terms of an ongoing narrative when he said, "We are trying to help kids make their stories their own." Every day, I see hundreds of students, and they each have a unique story. As teachers, we are charged with the complex work of unraveling and learning about the histories of all our students, and we are also charged with the task of teaching them how to reclaim their narratives. Far too often, like my friend…

MCTE Musings

I always look forward to the last Friday in October. Since my junior year in college, I don't think I've missed a fall conference of the Michigan Council of Teachers of English--and I certainly don't plan on it any time soon. Just as I could feel the stress building this past week, I knew that MCTE, just like other quality days of professional development like summer institutes of the National Writing Project, would be a panacea for so many job-related frustrations and would provide answers for questions I've been wrestling with for months.

Like always, I left with my head spinning--and that's a sign of quality professional development. You leave knowing that there's so much more to be accomplished. Your work, despite all the long hours and years of practice, is really only beginning to unfold in front of you.

Yesterday, Penny Kittle spoke about how every student is on a personal learning journey, and I'm thinking about how my classroom reflects that. I'…

When Students Tell You #WeNeedDiverseBooks

Most of my sophomores were out yesterday, so I used the class period to get to know the students that were there better. We were hoping to go on a writing marathon, but the weather looked less than promising, so we compromised. We would have a reading marathon, tie up loose ends of Of Mice and Men, and have a class discussion about the book. With an extended time for reading, I was able to knock out many reading conferences that I'd waited too long to do. My goal was to meet with every student before the end of the marking period. I'm close!

During sixth hour, however, students wanted to take the class in a different direction. One student brought up her past experience in a charter school that encouraged her to switch to our school. Apparently a staff member there didn't see the value in appreciating diversity, and she didn't feel comfortable there.

In sharing her story, I asked her to tell me about how our school was different. First, she said that she felt comfortab…

Needed: Honest Conversations about Texts

Two former students visited me today to check out books. They met the same question I ask every former student: "What are you reading?" More often than not, students respond with the title of a whole-class novel. I then follow up with "What are you reading for you?" and I'm met with a completely different response. Sometimes students are able to mention a title; other times they aren't.

These students told me today that they didn't even bother reading their whole-class text. And these are avid readers. My jaw dropped. If our college-bound readers, the students who voraciously devour texts, aren't reading the whole-class texts we assign, then who actually is? As a teacher that uses a whole-class text nearly every marking period, I'm not sure I want to know the answer. As a teacher that genuinely cares about his students' reading habits, preferences, and growth, I feel compelled to do more research to find out. Is the text too difficult? Too h…

My Writing Tribe

For the third time of my life, I spent a weekend with teacher-writers in Lake Ann, Michigan. It was the much needed reprieve during the longest stretch of the year, the time when it starts to seem like no end is in sight. I'm feeling refreshed, full of ideas, and like I've accomplished so many things on my to-do list. 
Like the Nerdy Book Club, these teachers are my tribe. Though we are all from different summer institutes, we are all brought together as teacher consultants for the Eastern Michigan Writing Project. And trip after trip, I'm reminded that these people get me. I could wake up at 5:00 AM to read and write and not face judgment. I could share something I've written and only receive positive feedback if it was that early in the writing process. I could suddenly wander off alone and know that they would give me that writerly space. I could sit down in a bookstore and participate in a read aloud of William Shakespeare's Star Wars and laugh and celebrate som…

Please, let them (us) talk!

I spent Friday at the local intermediate school district, meeting with other teacher-leaders trained in Reading Apprenticeship. I long for these days of quality professional development that isn't scripted, is flexible, and meets my needs. The highlight of the day: getting to talk to other teachers.

The power of talk isn't a revolutionary idea. Talk, just like writing, is used for a variety of purposes: to communicate, express, reflect, defend, think, etc. But more often than not, I feel as if academic and collegial conversations are looked down upon in the field. "Talk" and "conversation" have taken on negative connotations to others in a similar way that "test" and "assessment" have with teachers.

More often than not, I've found professional development to limit talking. As a result, I imagine that limits the speaking and listening that needs to take place in our classrooms. If we can't trust our teachers to have meaningful con…

What Parents (and Students) Really Want

I haven't posted in a while because I've been in the process of tidying my classroom, preparing syllabi, and attending Reading Apprenticeship training--and that was before school started.  It's been an intense few weeks, but I am glad school is back in session. I missed my kids and the work that I get to do every day. The first week of school and open house really reminded me of how important my work--the real work that I get to do--really is.

This year's open house was my fastest one yet. An hour and a half flew by as I enjoyed seeing students I've had in the past and met fresh, new faces. I hope it served as testimony to the power of first impressions, as my quick response to every student was as follows: This year, we will read a lot, write a lot, think a lot, discuss a lot, and then repeat.

Now that open house and the first week are done, I've noticed that there are some commonalities between student and parent expectations for class. Some parents shared th…

Neighborhoods and Neighborhood Schools

I spent early Tuesday afternoon walking a neighborhood with other teachers from my district. We participated in an annual event where books, water, and art supplies were distributed via a red wagon and cowbell. Because this event happens weekly, children and parents know that the cowbell is the signal that the red wagon has arrived.

During one of the stops, a teacher asked a grandmother which school her grandsons attended. She replied that they attended a school that wasn't near them, and commented that life was easier when the neighborhood school was open nearby. I didn't comment, but as a school board member and teacher, I know how important it is to maintain a budget that's in the black. And that goal is compounded by Michigan's emphasis on "school choice," as if choice alone will improve student achievement. And at the same time of dealing with frequent student movement from district to district, districts must also analyze their expenditures on buildings…

What We Lose When We Ban Books

I hope by now you've read about the dilemma in Cape Henlopen regarding Emily M. Danforth's debut novel, The Miseducation of Cameron Post. If not, learn about it here.

First, I want to draw attention to the district's required summer reading. I think we all can agree that students need to read more, but you don't create motivated and lifelong readers when you demand anything. Students need to feel empowered. They also need to feel like it is their idea.

In a move to appease parents on both sides, the district has reverted to its previous summer reading assignment: college-bound students should read two books, and non-college bound students should read one. Further, I still can't understand why the expectations for non-college bound students are lower. I firmly believe that it is every educator's role to prepare students for possibilities and options. Every kid should be able to identify as a reader, and having higher expectations for kids that, in all honesty, w…

No Teacher Is an Island

I meet regularly with two of my friends, and I consider them to be dynamite teachers. We used to work together, and they truly helped me survive my first and second years of teaching. Before we discovered the #NerdyBookClub, we called ourselves the "nerd herd." Sometimes, I think my students know more about my friends than they do me.
On a local level, this community is so important. Like I've said, I would've quit long before if I hadn't had this support network to share my failures and successes. Just yesterday, we spent hours at a Panera to talk about what we are changing, removing, and implementing in our classrooms this fall. We all run similar classrooms in that we believe in the workshop model, independent reading and writing, and student choice. At the same time, we all work in different contexts that have unique visions, schedules, and other requirements, so we discuss ways that we can make others' ideas work in our settings. 
In fact, these two fri…

On Leadership, Discourse, and the Classroom

In addition to the National Writing Project's main tenets (teacher as writer, researcher, and consultant), this year the Eastern Michigan Writing Project focused on one additional thread: teacher as leader. For the longest time, I pictured teacher leaders in two ways: department chairs or principals. While those are certainly invaluable roles within buildings and departments, the EMWP helped me see a bigger picture of the leadership roles that teachers can take within their buildings. While the title, the recognition, and money would be nice, I'm starting to recognize that I can be a leader without all of those. As just a teacher, I am fully capable of effecting change.

I'm in the process of reading M.T. Anderson's Feed, and this line stuck out to me: "I was thinking of how sometimes, trying to say the right thing to people, it's like some kind of brain surgery, and you have to tweak exactly the right part of the lobe" (54). And I think that's one of …

Authentic Inquiry Leads to Better Research

Somewhere along the way, I learned to become an independent researcher. When I have questions, I seek out sources that will be helpful in answering that question, and I learned to discern and ignore unhelpful resources. And when I'm really into that question, I find myself losing track of time and immersed in information. This is part of my "problem" with inquiry into my professional practice. Before I know it, I've requested a dozen books from the Michigan Electronic Library or purchased them via Amazon. I know Amazon's evil, but two-day shipping is so attractive when you have a burning question that you just need answers to. (Before you scold me, know that I just placed an order with a local independent bookstore about a half-hour ago.)

This year, I learned a transformational lesson when asking students to research: They need to develop their own questions.

I only learned this through trial and error. During our second marking period, we use Elie Wiesel's N…

Reflecting on the Summer Institute: Round Two

When Bill Tucker (@EMWPBill), the director of the Eastern Michigan Writing Project, sent out an all call to teacher consultants about revisiting the EMWP this summer, my heart jumped for the opportunity. Having gone through the Summer Institute just last year, I knew it would be a three-week opportunity to learn from others, catch up with friends, and actually dedicate time to write. It's this kind of professional development that's structured enough to provide routine and flexible enough to allow the pursuit of my own passions and interests that I can't get enough of.

As an individual, the institute fed my passions. For three weeks, I could talk reading and writing with some of the best teachers in Michigan. We swapped book recommendations, learned about each others' lives, and established a support network that, like the last school year, I know I will call upon when times get tough. I learned last year that teachers affiliated with the National Writing Project just …

Teachers: Don't Kill MOCKINGBIRD

I just finished reading Paul Acampora's I Kill the Mockingbird. When I first picked this book up, I thought it would be a book for youth, but I'm starting to think this is a book for teachers.

The premise is simple: A beloved teacher dies, and soon-to-be freshmen Lucy, Elena, and Michael vow to keep his appreciation of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird alive in the face of a mandatory summer reading list, of which Lee's novel is one of many possible titles. They want to inspire others to love the book, so they develop a plan that basically follows the rule of supply and demand: if they make it seem as if fewer copies of Mockingbird are available, people will obviously seem interested in the book. (I learned this economics lesson growing up when I may or may not have wanted a Furby.)

In English class, I wish helping students see the beauty that is Lee's work was that easy. While I still search for ways to bring all students to the page (that was my nErDcampMI sessi…

Reading Glasses

"Let me guess... You teach English?" I've been asked the same question by nearly everyone when I reveal that I'm a teacher. I can thank my distant relatives for the name change to "English" from a Polish surname that we can only remember how to pronounce and never to spell.

I've noticed that revealing you're an English teacher elicits one of two reactions: 1) People either stop talking and are afraid that you will correct, critique, nitpick (<insert the pedantic verb of your choice>); or 2) People feel as if you are on their side and agree that something is taking place to the detriment of the wonderful, precious English language. And it was during my routine eye exam that my optometrist goaded me into the second camp.

He expected sympathy when he said, "I once had a secretary who would use 'seen' without the helping verb." And I responded with a quick, "Oh?', hoping to move the conversation away from the stereotypic…

CORE Beliefs

With the creation of a new blog, it feels right that the first post should be about my core beliefs as a teacher:

I believe in learning from others teachers and not from a canned program.
I believe in re-inventing the wheel and in innovation, even when others say not to.
I believe in ending sentences with prepositions, especially because others say not to.
I believe in making things better, even when they aren't broken. Life is a work in progress.

I believe in the power of choice and autonomy.
I believe in individual decision making and responsiveness.
I believe that teachers can be trusted to do their jobs.
I believe that nerds are the only people you should surround yourself with. They know and show what they are passionate about.

I believe that books can, and do, save lives.
I believe that classroom teachers are more important than computers. Robots are incapable of developing relationships like humans. No computer chip can detect and help lessen the burden of a chip on someone…