525 600 Minutes

I have been facing a difficult choice. Do I give up my contract with a school district where I’ve spent all of my career as a student and most of my career as a teacher? Do I give up the financial security, the comfort in what I know, the people I love working with, so I can work with teachers and students throughout the province and also pursue my writing career?

For months I’ve been considering the pros and cons. Then, not long ago, I listened to Seasons of Love from Rent. You know the one. “525 600 minutes: how do you measure a year? …in daylights, in sunsets, in midnights, in cups of coffee, in inches, in miles, in laughter, in strife…”

For whatever reason, hearing that song when I did confirmed my decision. 525 600 minutes. How is it that I want to spend that time? I know the answer.

I could measure what’s to come in numbers of a different sort: income. And yet, I know that those numbers are not the most important ones. Not for me anyway.

If I want to pursue this dream, if I want to fulfill my purpose, now is the time. No more minutes to waste.

On my desk, I have a fortune from a fortune cookie of many years ago: “Your most important work is yet to come.” I want to do what I love. I want to share what I love. I want to do my most important work.

So, my decision is made. I have resigned.

A friend of mine sent me this video saying that it reminded her of me… she might have a point!

Grateful for You

I spent the week with hundreds of young writers from kindergarten to grade nine. One of the things I love about my job is that students are so eager. They don’t know me and yet many of them are willing to voice their thinking and share their writing. I am humbled by their openness, sincerity, and enthusiasm.

But you know, I think their teachers are to thank for that.

To all of you — I am grateful. Thank you for taking the time to establish a climate of trust. Thank you for honouring the individual personalities and dispositions in your classroom. Thank you for forging connections especially with those who need it most. Thank you for being stability and security in their young lives. Thank you for getting up each day ready to give of yourselves.

Teaching is hard work. I know. But don’t forget… I appreciate you and so do your students.

All You Need is Less

While shopping before Christmas, I noticed a sign in a store: All You Need is Less. How true. Our lives seem to be so filled with stuff. And sometimes I wonder if all that stuff gets in the way of what’s important.

I was thinking about this in terms of our classrooms, too. Sometimes we try to do it all. When it comes down to it though, we should focus on the essentials and do them well. Right now, one of those essentials (always really, but especially now) is the mental and emotional wellbeing of ourselves and our students.

Tomorrow, Alberta teachers return to the classrooms with their students. There is a lot of emotion surrounding this reality given the fifth wave of the pandemic: excitement, apprehension, anxiety, uncertainty, among others I’m sure.

Take the time tomorrow to freewrite with your students. Use the simple prompt, “Today I feel…” As always, students have the choice to share all, some, or none of their writing, as do you. If the writing leads to a discussion, wonderful. If the writing remains a private coping strategy, that’s okay too. Remember Anne Frank’s words: “I can shake off everything as I write; my sorrows disappear, my courage is reborn.”

Take time for what matters. All you need is less.

The Power of Story

Yesterday we watched the Harry Potter 20th Anniversary special. Emma Watson said something that resonated: “Stories give us places we can go where we can rest and feel held.”

When I think of the Harry Potter series written by J.K. Rowling, I am grateful for the impact it has had on so many. At the beginning of my career, I watched my students (many who were not interested in reading previously) voraciously read each book and anxiously wait for the next.

Rowling gave children characters to connect with, an escape into another world, and ultimately a reason to read. For many, this was the first time they saw books in this way.

One of my favourite things about the Christmas season is that I inevitably end up with a stack of new books to read: places I can go to escape and rest from our world, characters I can connect with or learn from, a way to lose myself and find myself, too.

Some see a stack of books as a chore; I see them as adventure, opportunity, and solace.

As you reenter your classroom this new year, engage in a conversation about books with your students. Ask what they’ve read, tell them what you’ve read, ensure that they see reading as an acceptable and exciting way to spend their time. The power of story is more profound than we might think…

Calm Amid the Chaos

In schools, the weeks before Christmas can sometimes be, in a word, chaotic. Celebrations, concerts, parties… you know what I’m talking about! There will be a lot of energy and excitement to be sure.

At some point though, carve out some moments of calm. With your students, how? Share a favourite Christmas readaloud. Then with some music playing softly, students can engage in reader response writing. For this purpose, choose a more reflective book such as The Crippled Lamb, Twas the Night Before Christmas, Mr. Willowby’s Christmas Tree, I Got the Christmas Spirit, or Room for a Little One. These books and this writing may remind your students about the reason for the season. (Keep in mind the cultural background and religious beliefs of your school and district, of course.)

At the beginning or end of each day, also find some time for yourself. It’s never easy, in particular during these busy weeks. But, be intentional: find your calm. Fifteen minutes a day to read, take a bath or a walk, or indulge in your creative outlet, whatever it may be.

You’ve got this. Keep calm and carry on!

Wanted: Missing Punctuation

Do you have students who forget punctuation? Or those who use one period at the end of an entire piece of writing? If so, try this…

Ask the student to read the work out loud to you. (This is most effective if it occurs shortly after the piece was written.)

Surprisingly, the student will likely stop or pause at the end of the sentences (even with no punctuation present). After the student has read the writing through once (or part of the work for older students), say something like… “I noticed that something is missing in your writing. Do you know what it is?”

“You’re right! There is no punctuation. But I also noticed that you often know where it goes. As you read to me, your voice stopped in the right places. Start reading at the beginning again and let’s see if you can add punctuation.”

On the second read-through, support the student when he or she pauses at the end of a sentence by adding the appropriate punctuation together. (Capital letters may need to be added, too.) After working together for the first few sentences, challenge the student to continue reading the work quietly out loud and add punctuation for the rest of the writing.

Be sure to return a few minutes later to compliment the efforts or provide more support if needed.

Scaffold for Success

Last week, I had the pleasure of teaching a fantastic grade two class. The day before I was with them, their teacher read How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Then, I read The Invisible Boy giving them two jobs as I read: 1) pay close attention to the pictures in The Invisible Boy and 2) think about some similarities between the two books.

As we talked through the two stories afterwards, the students noticed that both stories involved a significant change in the main character and they easily grasped the concept of a transformation story.

After completing the transformation story graphic organizer about the Grinch, the students excitedly planned their own stories using the same graphic organizer. That was enough for day one!

Thankfully, I was welcomed back into their classroom the following day. To scaffold the writing of their stories, I used a three-page approach which directly correlates to the graphic organizer. On page one, I first encouraged the students to draw the opening scene of their stories clearly showing the situation and the emotion of the character at the beginning. I referred back to our mentor texts before they began writing and whenever necessary during their writing. Enough for day two!

The students completed the transforming event on page two, and the end of the story on page three, each on subsequent days, again referring back to the mentor texts as necessary.

Eventually, they’ll add a blank page to the front where they can draw the cover of their books and put their own names as author and illustrator: voila, their very only transformation stories.

When our instruction scaffolds the writing process in this way, all students find success. Perhaps most importantly, their confidence increases and they begin to believe in themselves as writers. Go slow to go far!

Always Learning

My year looks different than usual: less time in schools and more time writing.

As I am writing in different genres, I am taking opportunities to learn: from others and from the books on my shelves. I am a student once again. What I have realized is that these mentors and mentor texts are as important for me as they are for our students.

I have also noticed that what I read directly influences what I write. Each morning, before my fingers reunite with my keyboard, I spend fifteen or twenty minutes reading poetry or the words of writers I admire such Eudora Welty.

Regie Routman has said, “…riveting literature influences the quality of writing that students of all ages do, especially when we teach them to notice and apply what effective authors do…”.

She’s right: students of all ages. Myself included. The more I learn, the more effective my writing. The more I learn, the better equipped I am to teach students to write. Looking forward to being back in a classroom on Tuesday!

Leadership: A Step Above

Friday night in Edmonton, Kevin Lowe’s jersey was retired at Rogers Place. Many of the old Oiler greats spoke at the ceremony or on the Oiler broadcast. Besides the expected, deserving tributes to Kevin Lowe, I noticed something else: many alluded to the leadership of Glen Sather during the Oilers 80s dynasty.

Not only did Sather motivate the players to do their best on the ice each night, he inspired them to be better people. Off the ice. To treat each other like family. To be loyal and devoted. To think beyond themselves. To get involved in the community. To use their position, power, and privilege to help others.

It seems Sather was wise enough not to micromanage his players, to allow them to take risks and make mistakes, but he was even wiser in knowing when more direct leadership and guidance was needed.

When I think about outstanding teachers in the classroom, the same is true for their leadership. Yes, they teach the curriculum to their students. Yes, they support and motivate students to do their best academically. But more than that, they inspire their students to be better people.

Could we as teachers use the same philosophy that Glen Sather used with his players?

Yes, I’d say so.

Art Inspires Art

During my first years of teaching, I didn’t teach art. When I looked at the bulletin board after our art class, all of the students’ work was the same. Even the students couldn’t tell whose was whose! Eventually I realized that I was leading my students in making crafts instead of teaching art techniques and allowing imagination and innovation to inspire their creations. What a disservice to those students!

Last night we saw a play at our local theatre. I was swept up by the visuals and captivated by the language. At some point though, I realized that even as I was enjoying the performance, I was also thinking about my own current projects. Art inspiring art.

Why not inspire one form of art with another in our classrooms? What might be inspired by classical music… beautifully written mentor texts… paintings by the masters… spoken word poetry… short films… books on fashion or architecture…? What might your students write, draw, or create?