The last few days at Reading for the Love of It in Toronto (where I
met teachers from across the country), I was reminded that teachers are
teachers are teachers. Regardless of our geographical locations, we are
connected by a love of children, a passion for literature, and a desire to make
a difference in the world. Regardless of the communities in which we teach, we
are united by both the stories of our students and the stories on our
Stories help us learn about the world, about each other, about ourselves,
about our place in the world. Stories keep the past alive and implore us to
contemplate the future. Stories expand our perspectives and stir emotion. As Madeleine L’Engle once said, “Stories
make us more alive, more human, more courageous, more loving.”
I leave this conference
with new stories to tell, new connections to nurture, new books to read. (My
suitcase is quite literally weighed down by books… books that were not yet with
me when I ventured east.)
Most importantly though, I
leave inspired to continue my own story. To empower students with the skills of
reading and writing. To assist teachers in their endeavors to teach these
skills to their students. To teach. To write. To read for the love of it.
Are you a list person?
I am. I create a daily to-do list and take great pleasure in crossing things off. (I’ll admit: I’ve even gone so far as to put something on the list just so I can cross it off.) And if I can’t sleep because I’m thinking of what I need to accomplish the following day, I make a list to give myself peace of mind in hopes of slumber.
Last weekend we saw a play at The Citadel Theatre called Every Brilliant Thing: humorous, heartbreaking, and heartwarming all at once. A young boy begins a list to help his mom, suffering from depression, recognize the good in the world. As he gets older the list is abandoned and returned to a number of times.
The play inspired my own list of brilliant things, things that make life worth living. It’s already much longer than this, but here’s a sampling:
A houseful of family.
Snuggles with my pooch.
Card games with my brothers.
A book that makes me ugly cry.
Exchanging manuscripts with Mom.
Throwing the baseball around with Dad.
A day with limited back pain.
The universality of story.
The innocence, joy, and spontaneity of children.
Well, what about it? What would be at the top of your list?
Last Tuesday, the staff in our district had the pleasure of listening to David Wells. In the middle of a busy school year, it was an opportunity to reconnect and rejuvenate, pause and reflect. Turns out, David Wells wants us to do more of that. His advice?
“Stand back from the picture that is your work, your life.”
He suggests that perhaps we are consumed by the details, the trivialities, the never-ending to-do lists of our days. Sometimes even, at the expense of joy.
He’s right, in my case at least. It’s easy to fixate on the frustrations, the problems to be solved, the negativity of some. And yet, as educators, we are surrounded by the greatest joy of all: children.
When the pressures threaten to dishearten you, or crush your enthusiasm, stand back and appreciate the whole picture. Recognize the goodness and the beauty that is present within each day.
“Despite trials there is always beauty.” Stand back and have a look.
I have a confession to make. I have never taught my students to write a paragraph using the hamburger method. You know, the one with the topic sentence, three sentences each with supporting details, and then a closing sentence.
Never. Not once.
Do I teach my students to write in paragraphs? I do… but not in the way you might think.
Content dictates form.
When I teach narrative writing, I teach students to begin a new paragraph when a new character speaks. When we revise our freewriting, we find natural breaks in topic. When I teach students to write persuasively, we find an effective place to stop, using our paragraphing to add emphasis to our arguments.
Consider the paragraphing choices I made in this blog. Intentional? You bet! Hamburger style? Far from it.
Last week when I finished a lesson on writing in a grade five class, a student blurted, “I want to keep learning!”
I smiled in the moment and probably said something like, “I’m so glad.” But even now, five days later, his comment has stuck with me. As a teacher, perhaps there’s no better compliment than an exclamation like his.
So what was it that had him so engaged? What did I do on that particular day that motivated and excited him?
I think my use of mentor texts and the intentionality of the lesson contributed. I also think the students felt empowered as writers because I gave them specific tools to help them revise their work. That day, writing became manageable for those grade five students.
When do your students express the most excitement over their learning? How do you know that a lesson has been effective? What clues and cues do your students give you?
This week I was reminded of the realities of classroom life: indoor recesses, kids throwing up, nosebleeds, artists-in-residence, assessments, interruptions, more indoor recesses… oh, not to mention regular classroom instruction.
Teachers are amazing. They juggle all that is thrown at them day after day. And somehow, amidst all else, they manage to teach the curriculum and do so with enthusiasm.
This week I was also reminded that sometimes the most important lessons are outside of the curriculum. The hug and the “I’m so glad you’re here” to the student who perpetually arrives late. The impromptu classroom basketball game with a balled up piece of paper initiated by the teacher. The reassuring “I knew you could do it” to the student who needs to hear it most. The grace of the teacher casually continuing to teach even with a child’s breakfast on her shoe. The search for a missing student during a cold, winter evening. The sharing of a lunch to a student without.
There is no doubt: teaching is love in its purest form.
Have you ever noticed what students do when they finish writing?
Typically, they close their books, or hand in their papers, and announce, “I’m done.” Not only have they not revised their work, often they have not even read it!
Revision is a mindset. I teach students to get their ideas on paper first and then work to revise and improve their writing afterwards.
This mindset is not a one time lesson but an ongoing conversation throughout the year. I begin the conversation by showing them the early drafts of Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White included in the book Some Writer: The Story of E.B. White. We discuss the types of changes White made to his early drafts. Students have the opportunity to observe the revision process of an effective writer.
But that’s only lesson one and not enough to change the behaviour of most student writers. It’s simply the beginning of an eventual change in thinking.
Once, while I was teaching a grade five class about the process (and the power) of revision, a student said to me, “It’s like my Rubik’s Cube. I try something and if it doesn’t work, I try something else.”
Exactly, Lloyd. Exactly.
Those of you who know me, know I love to read. Last year I was challenged to read 52 books. The challenge made me more intentional in choosing to read when I could be doing something else.
I tracked my reading on Goodreads. Did I reach my goal? Sure did! 54 books in fact: some shorter, some longer. According to the Goodreads stats, I read 14 634 pages. (And no, that doesn’t include the countless picture books that I read in classrooms…)
Does this reading matter? Did these 54 books affect me?
Consider this: “Reading broadens the mind, heightens the senses, and enlivens the spirit.” (Richard Branson, A Velocity of Being)
And this: “Reading is for the brave among us. It teaches us how to love people we don’t know and will probably never meet. It teaches us that we too deserve that same sort of love.” (Thomas Page McBee, A Velocity of Being)
And this: “Reading startles you. Reading upsets you. Reading takes apart your world and expectations and rearranges them. Imagine the last few years without the books you have loved–it would be a much flatter, sadder experience of living.” (Naomi Wolf, A Velocity of Being)
I was both lost and found within the books I read last year. I relished in the sentences and stories crafted with beauty and care. I walked journeys with the disadvantaged and the privileged, with outcasts and with heroes. These journeys caused me to reevaluate and reconsider my place and purpose in our world. So, did this reading matter? Did these 54 books affect me? Most certainly.
This year my reading goal is 60 books. (Too ambitious? Time will tell…) Join me in setting a goal by creating a profile on Goodreads!
There are times when words escape me. Times when I witness selfish actions or hear cruel words and wonder why some people choose to do what they do or say what they say. Times when I shake my head and think, “Really?”
There are also times when I am moved by the kindness of the human spirit. Times when I witness quiet acts of generosity or moments of spontaneous tenderness. Times when I hear words of encouragement or words of incredible grace.
At this festive time of the year, I will counter the ignorance and cruelty of some, with as much compassion and generosity as I can muster. After all, Robert Ingersoll reminds us, “We rise by lifting others.”
Lift. Rise. Love.
I look forward to the holiday break for many reasons. Time with family. Great food. A mental break from work. And yet one of my favourite reasons is the extended opportunity to curl up with a good book.
Where did this inclination come from? My childhood, I’m sure.
Would finding the time to read have occurred to me if it wasn’t something my family modelled? Perhaps. But to be sure, watching those around me read, and receiving books as gifts, persuaded me as well.
Why not give a little encouragement this Christmas? Spend time in the light of the Christmas tree, reading. Give books as gifts.
Though they might not be the immediate favourite for some family members, they are sure to have lasting appeal.
“No matter where life takes you, you’re never alone with a book, which becomes a tutor, a wit, a mind-sharpener, a soulmate, a performer, a sage, a verbal bouquet for a loved one. Books are borrowed minds, and because they capture the soul of a people, they explore and celebrate all it means to be human. Long live their indelible magic.” (Diane Ackerman in A Velocity of Being)
Books. The best gift ever.
“Keep them within reach, always. They contain nothing less than the entire world. Opulent. Staggering. Rich beyond your imagining.” (Dani Shapiro in Velocity of Being)