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Advocating Positively

This morning, Bill Tucker, director of the Eastern Michigan Writing Project, challenged us to write about a positive moment in our teaching lives and then to identify the values that this particular moment reveals. Stemming from Cathy Fleischer's teacher advocacy work, Bill shared that these positive stories can help inform others about what teachers really do. 

My best teaching moment of the 2015-2016 school year came after the year ended.

Unfortunately, I didn’t feel as if my students lived the writing process this school year. From events in my personal life (buying a house and planning for our wedding) and a mid-year job change, it seemed like there was so much going on, so many changes taking place, that I didn’t have time to focus on teaching, planning, and learning as much as I had in the past, let alone on helping students produce quality writing to the caliber I wanted.

Two times a year, our mentoring program sponsors an awards banquet where we honor student achievement toward an academic goal. The goals range from increases in GPAs to participating in community service projects. It feels a lot like an honor roll for everyone, as students are truly competing against their past selves.

Every banquet features students speakers, and I knew that Sean, my boss, and I were taking a risk in asking one particular student to speak. She didn’t like to talk much in class, despite being a 4.0 average student. In fact, when I would often call on her, she’d respond with something along the lines of, “What?”

She was reluctant to speak. She didn’t think that her story mattered.

Throughout the entire school year, I had thought of her as competitive and assertive. She was direct and one of the most focused students that I’d ever met. She would set her eyes on a goal and work relentlessly toward it. By working with her on her speech, however, I learned that she was compassionate and caring, driven but not overzealous.

Working in a Google Doc, we brainstormed. We drafted. We suggested. We revised. We read aloud her writing. I showed her how to look at the revision history. She color coded sections of her writing that she thought belonged together. And we had honest conversations about voice and how to maintain hers while I suggested places for her to consider revision. We did all of this and then some--all of which was rarely present in the classroom that she was in. We seemed to have plenty of time compared to the school year, where it seemed like there was never enough.

Through authentic student writing and conferences, we learn so much. We learn students’ stories. We learn their fears. We learn about where they need to head next in their writing.

Like when it came to reading during the school year, she remained focused on drafting her speech. We ended each lunch session with a plan of action for our next meeting, and she remained devoted to her work, promising to return the next afternoon with a fresh draft.

When I think about characteristics of ideal students, I want them to have the willingness to remain committed even when things are boring, tough, and sometimes just unappealing. This was her. During the school year, she didn’t plow through Catcher in the Rye, a book I suggested for her, but she steadily chugged along, despite my frequent taunting and calling her a “phony.”

I wrote in her yearbook that she challenged my assumptions about high achieving students. I assumed that they all loved to read because that must have been how they were “smart.” She taught me to not assume that. She taught me to not lump students together into stereotypes or groups without first asking more, without discovering who they really are as readers and writers.

When we finished her speech, she told me that this was the “hardest piece” she had written all year, but I can also tell that this is also the piece she was most proud of.

I want this experience for all of my students in the fall. I want them to have time for the individual conferences with me and the time to read aloud their writing to a peer group. Her friends would often join us, and one of them even commented on the Google document in ways that I want other students to be able to.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to be there when she gave her speech. It was the night of my rehearsal dinner for my wedding, but another student recorded it and shared it with me. She was phenomenal, and it was the first time she has ever spoken in front of a crowd of over 300 people.

Afterward, she sent me an email thanking her. Completely unexpected, it made my day and gave me a vision, a goal, that I could enact in the fall, for every student to have an individually enriching writing experience.


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