We Do What We Can

Recently, I saw this quote on Facebook: “Nine times out of 10, the story behind the misbehavior won’t make you angry, it will break your heart.” Annette Breaux

As an administrator, an expected part of the job is dealing with discipline issues as they arise. When I was in that role, I saw it as my job to dig a little, to discover the why behind the behaviour. And as the quote above indicates, very often, the why is heartbreaking.

For many of these same students, the end of the school year brings with it anxiety. Some dread two months at home. For some, school is safety and stability.

As the school year comes to a close, consider what you might equip these students with to help them through the summer: a few extra words of encouragement, a good book or two, or even a journal (with a reassuring note and quote within).

One of my favourite quotes to share with students: “You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.” A. A. Milne

These gestures might not seem significant, but we just don’t know the impact they may have…

Writing Groups

Last week my mom and I exchanged our current manuscripts. The intent? To garner feedback which will ultimately improve our work. When we allow someone to read our work in progress, their fresh eyes notice different things and come to the writing with a different perspective.

To emulate this experience in my classroom, I establish writing groups with my students. What are they? Very simply, small groups of students (ideally four per group) who share their writing and provide feedback to each other. Students as young as grade one learn to comment on the craft of their fellow writers!

Although this concept of sharing effective feedback is difficult for students at first, once they learn how to provide (and receive) feedback, the literate conversations that occur can be somewhat surprising to teachers who have not witnessed them before.

How do we teach our students to give feedback? The mini-lessons we teach on specific skills become the basis for the conversations within the writing groups. It doesn’t matter if the mini-lesson is on word choice, dialogue, or a particular plot pattern, whatever it is, we teach our students to notice and comment on this skill or strategy within the writing.

Still skeptical? Watch this video of Austin’s Butterfly to witness the power of student feedback. The video may be about a scientific drawing, but the same premise applies!

Student Voice

Recently, I overheard a teacher talking about that elusive element of the rubric: voice. “I have no idea how to teach it.” I don’t think she’s alone in this sentiment.

In our classrooms, personalities shine through. Even when I’m guest teaching in a classroom for a short time, individual personalities begin to reveal themselves. The question then becomes, how do we get these personalities to shine through on paper?

If we watch a typical class of students write, they tend to write slowly, word by word, trying to make each word and idea perfect as they go. For most students, there is no room for creativity or personality within this process.

Voice tend to emerge when students do not worry about or overthink their writing. In the spirit of Peter Elbow, I remind students to shut off the critical thinking side of the brain during their initial writing time and let the creative part of the brain take over. The critical thinking brain might tell us that our words or thoughts are not good enough, or that we aren’t using perfect spelling or grammar. Therefore, during our initial writing time, the critical thinking part of our brain tends to get in the way, stifling creativity and preventing student voice from emerging.

But when we encourage our students to just write, freely, no concern for perfection, personalities have a way of weaselling their way into the writing. And of course, once they have words on paper, we can teach our students to turn their critical thinking brains back on to engage in the processes of revision and editing.

But, consider this, how do we tell students to go back and add ‘personality’ to their writing?

A perplexing prospect…

Great Expectations

As I move from school to school in my role as language arts consultant, I meet hundreds of students in dozens of classrooms. The dynamics within the classrooms are different; student experiences and family situations are different; school philosophies and focuses are sometimes different, too. And yet… all students – despite the circumstances – benefit from high expectations.

Now, I know this. It’s logical. I’ve witnessed it in my own classrooms time and time again. But this idea has been reinforced the more students that I meet.

I strive to be clear, reasonable, and sympathetic to student circumstance. But, ultimately, I expect students to engage in what we are doing and expend some energy. In a class with high expectations, we find rigour and students motivated to learn.

Great achievements are the result of great expectations.

A Learning Journey

Last week, a teacher sent me a ‘thank-you-for-taking-a-chance-on-me’ kind of message. It’s been five or six years since we’ve worked together and he commented on how much he has changed as a teacher since his first experiences in the classroom.

When I think back to my first years in this profession, I shudder. I wouldn’t say that I was ineffective but I was certainly not as effective as I am now. In many ways, the first few years of a teacher’s classroom life could be considered survival.

Teaching is complicated, challenging, and complex. We must learn how to interact with students, how to engage them, how to plan effectively, and bring that plan to life during instruction. We must learn to monitor and assess student understanding and provide effective feedback. We must learn how to accommodate the wide range of academic, social, and emotional needs in our classrooms. We must learn how to communicate with parents: parents of all backgrounds, perspectives, and temperaments. We must also learn to be supportive and sensitive to the many life experiences and challenging circumstances so many of our students face.

So yes, teaching is complex; it is also exhilarating, exciting, and wonderfully rewarding. We cannot expect anyone to walk into the classroom during their first years and immediately be able to juggle the many balls in the air trying new tricks all the while.

Teaching is a journey. The best teachers learn from those around them, take time to reflect, make adjustments to their practice, and understand that their own learning is never finished.

Taking a chance on a new teacher – necessary! We’ve all been there, after all.

Breaking Barriers

Last night we saw The Tempest at the Citadel Theatre. This was not a typical Shakespearean experience, however. In addition to the rain through much of the performance and the inclusion of lines from other plays, the dialogue was both signed and spoken by a combination of deaf and hearing actors. The play was not signed at the side of the stage as you may have seen in other circumstances. No, the American Sign Language was very much a part of the play itself.

Watching these actors break through barriers with each other and with the audience got me thinking about the students in our classrooms. Some don’t have full access to our teaching because of a language barrier, a disability, or even the challenges presented by the printed word.

How can we try to understand the limitations they feel and obstacles they face? What can we do to support them on their learning journeys?

Sometimes the accommodations are significant. But often, the changes aren’t complicated and the adjustments, fairly minor. And yet, what a difference for our students. When we are intentional about providing supports for our students who may fall outside the norm, all students benefit. Universal design at its best.

A Collision of Words

Sometimes the books I read back to back forge surprising connections. Each book may be enjoyable and profound on its own, but read one after the other they bring even more richness and unexpected insight.

Yesterday, in bed with the flu, I finished Forgiveness: A Gift from My Grandparents by Mark Sakamoto and then read Hope Nation: YA Authors Share Personal Moments of Inspiration edited by Rose Brock. Today, I let the voices of others demonstrate this awesome collision of words. In the spirit of a found poem, here is a found post… (To experience the newfound relationship between the words, I encourage you to read it the first time through without reading the sources. With the exception of the first quotation from Forgiveness, the others are all from Hope Nation.)

“My grandparents bore witness to the worst in humanity. Yet they also managed to illuminate the finest in humanity. ” Mark Sakamoto, p. 237

“Nothing forces people to confront the humanity of others like engaging with their stories.” Jeff Zentner, p. 92

“To know a person’s story is inevitably to understand their humanity and feel a loving kinship with them, no matter how different the two of you may seem at first.” David Levithan, p. 5, 6

“…I know that stories are like fire. They give us light. They give us warmth. They burn things down so that new, green things can grow up and replace them.” Jeff Zentner, p. 96

“…what fascinated me was the way certain sentences sounded together, the way they could be arranged into symphonies, the way they awoke emotions in me that I couldn’t rationalize.” Romina Garber, p. 195

“Within the pages of those books, many of us found solace. Empowerment. Courage to dream.” Nic Stone, p. 236

“We are not being silent, we are not sitting down, we are not allowing hatred to win.” Angie Thomas, p. 67

“Feel hope, my friend, whatever that means to you. Embrace it, devour it, foster it, make it grow.” James Dashner, p. 268

“You are not alone.” Libba Bray, p. 58

“You are great. You are magnificent. You are infinitely important to this world and to the people who come across your path. You are worthy of great things. You are capable of changing as many lives as you so choose, including your own, for the better.” James Dashner, p. 267

“Be the best individual you can be.” Aisha Saeed, p. 216

“You give me hope.” Angie Thomas, p. 67

“How profound is that?” Howard Bryant, p. 181

Small Moments of Happiness

One year ago on Yonge Street, a van plowed into unsuspecting pedestrians: killing ten and injuring many others. This act of violence altered the sense of security and safety on the streets of Toronto. The family of one of the victims is attempting to counter the emotion generated by this tragedy through the donation of a piano: to counter hate with love through spontaneous moments of music, of healing, of happiness.

The piano is not new, not in perfect condition, not even in tune. And yet, perhaps this is exactly what the situation calls for: an instrument with its own past and imperfections.

When I think about tragic circumstances, I become more keenly aware of the happiness within a moment. This weekend brought many moments of happiness. Church on Easter Sunday was especially joyful with my niece by my side leaning in and mimicking my every move. Easter dinner was a busy, bustling houseful of kids and adults, never a quiet moment. A scavenger hunt sent the kids – big and little – running around the house, up and down, in and out. The patio furniture out of storage, I sat on our deck for the first time this year, reading a book and enjoying the sun. A token left at the car wash, seemingly on purpose, made the satisfying task of washing a filthy car, even more satisfying.

There are small moments of happiness within each day… but really, their size doesn’t matter at all.

Writing as Thinking

I recently gave an inservice with a focus on writing as a form of thinking. Now this is nothing new. I often think through my words on a page and encourage my students to do the same. Sometimes I know what I’m going to write about when I begin but often my writing takes me to unexpected places. The same is true for students. On many occasions I have watched students read over their freewriting and then exclaim, “I didn’t know I thought that!”

The other day while writing in my journal, I found myself thinking about – writing about – my grandma. I didn’t realize she was on my mind and then there she was in my writing. I smiled as I wrote about her passion and strength, her stubbornness and sense of humour, her fierce love for family and her playful antics. Even since her death in June of 2016, her presence in my life continues to be strong. She grounds me.

I hadn’t expected to find her within the pages of my journal that day, but her appearance was a wonderful surprise.

A Desire to Learn

One of my goals when teaching is to generate both creative energy and intellectual rigour. And really, most of our students have a desire to learn: they want to be challenged and engaged.

Last week I watched as students from difficult circumstances, students dealing with the sometimes harsh realities of life, became excited at the challenges set before them. At the end of a lesson in another school, a student asked, “I want to start this on the bus on my way home!”

Mission accomplished: students excited to learn.