It seemed like fate. Or divine intervention. Or whatever teachers call it when it seems like the stars are aligning and a unit will start at exactly the right time. It was mid-November – just one week after The Election (yes, extra emphasis is intended), and our school’s second term was just starting, so I would meet a fresh, new class of students. No matter how small-scale it was, any chance for some kind of do-over seemed like a plus. Plus, the focus of my first hour class is nonfiction reading and writing. Usually, I start with informational text and move on to argumentative writing. But, we were fresh off The Election. Just about everyone I knew had a passionate stance one way or the other, so flipping the units seemed like the natural thing to do. Surely these kids will come in as a mix of emotions, so doing some argumentative writing will be cathartic, I thought. This will be perfect, wont it? Like I said, I thought the stars were aligning.
Less than a week into the unit, though, I couldn’t help but wonder how I’d screwed up so badly. In my units, I always try to give as much autonomy and choice to my students as possible; I try to let them choose their own topics as often as I can. So, after a brief overview of what it means to argue an issue, I started the brainstorming process with my students. I wanted them to air their worries, their opinions, their passions. That’s where the unit came to a screeching halt. Most brainstorming pages were blank. A few had a lonely issue or two hesitantly suggested.
What was the problem? These are teenagers, I thought. Aren’t teenagers supposed to be some of the most opinionated people on the planet? Where were their opinions? Did they just not know what was going on in the world? In the age of social media and constant, in-your-face news, that just couldn’t be it. At least not entirely. For some, it was almost as if they’d been taught that it was not polite to discuss issues. That needed to change.
So, I decided to back up. I went back to the roots of workshop and realized that I had neglected the immersion stage. I needed to immerse my students in reading and learning about issues and argumentative writing before I could ask them what they thought about it. First, we studied this mentor text to jump start our brainstorming. The seven-year-old’s “I believe” statements are precocious, perhaps, but broad enough to engender connections from any political standpoint. Then, we dove further into NPR’s This I Believe archive to examine what it means to act on our beliefs, and we explored why we hold our own beliefs during notebook time.
I always try to take part in notebook time alongside my students. I get my own drafts going and work through them with my students, but oftentimes they get abandoned before any sort of publication because I inevitably shift focus to conferring with students about their drafts. This time, though, my notebook ideas kept rattling around in my head as I drove to and from school, as I got my kids ready in the morning, and again after they were in bed. There have been a lot of moments in the past year where I’ve felt helpless and defeated, and this work with beliefs seemed decidedly hopeful and important.
So, here it is: my list. Well, the beginning of it, anyway. It is by no means complete, but it’s been a good start at re-centering me on why I do what I do every day.
1. I believe in the power of reading and writing. I’ll admit it: part of why I became an English teacher was because I love literature. My favorite moments in my own education have been when I was studying Shakespeare or writing an essay on Jane Eyre. There’s something decidedly satisfying to my nerdy soul to get into a great discussion about a book. I know that this is part of what drove me to declare my major as an undergrad. It’s not what keeps me going, though. Kelly Gallagher has done a lot of work exploring reasons for reading and writing. These reasons speak deeply to me because they aren’t about appreciating any one particular book; they are about building thoughtful, compassionate, and successful young adults. And isn’t that our primary job as teachers?
Lately I’ve been reading a bit about how reading can affect empathy. I don’t have all of the answers as to why or how this happens, but I do know that it’s important. If I’ve learned nothing else in my experiences as a teacher, it’s that it’s so critical to teach students that “you never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view …until you climb into his skin and walk around in it” as Atticus Finch would say. Author James Patterson extends this concept to current events and critical thinking in his essay The Literacy of Long-Form Thinking. There’s plenty to argue, here, but doesn’t it get to the heart of what Kelly Gallagher affirms with his reading and writing reasons? That we read and write to be thoughtful, compassionate, and successful? While I love reading for the sheer nerdy pleasure of it, these attributes are powerful ones – ones that I am proud to stand behind when I start my lesson planning.
2. I believe that all students can. I’ve worked in a wide range of schools and settings: urban, suburban, Advanced Placement, and intervention. In all of these, there has always been the common tendency to shoot low. To make excuses for why our students can’t achieve or soar. You’ve heard it:
That sounds great for those students, but you don’t know my students.
I’d love to teach x, but they don’t even know y yet!
I’d love to do x, but at the end of the day, I can’t control the y situation.
I try, but you don’t understand; some of my kids can’t even x!
Of course there will always be limitations and roadblocks. Nobody teaches in a perfect environment with the perfect combination of skilled students, supportive communities, or plentiful resources. We will always have some students in our class that need more support than others, but I’ve also learned that, with that support, when those students find success, it can provide some of the most rewarding moments in our year. Even though it can be tempting to slow down or lower expectations to meet the needs of our deepest struggles, I’ve realized that it is so much more powerful to keep aiming high and offering directed support at different levels so that no matter where our students are, they can find success.
This is part of what’s been powerful about trying a mentor text approach with workshop: It lends itself so well to differentiated interventions. We may all be working on a persuasive writing project, but with plenty of time for conferring, many mentor texts at different levels and interests, and lots of choice and autonomy, all students have a way in and support for how to get there.
3. I believe that teachers should always, always see themselves as learners. The day you hear the words come out of my mouth, “I know how to do this; I’ve been teaching for x number of years,” please kindly (or maybe not so kindly) tell me that it’s time to explore other careers. I can attribute my biggest successes as a teacher to great mentors who challenged my thinking, times when people asked me questions I didn’t immediately know the answer to, and to situations that stood in opposition to the thinking I already held. I know that I can learn whether I’m in class with my students, talking with a colleague, taking a graduate class, presenting professional learning at a conference, or participating in a Twitter chat. The common denominator isn’t where the learning takes place; it’s the mindset that I enter with. If I accept that I am not always the expert in the room, I know that I am open to learning, and that can only benefit my students.
My students taught me a lot about the need to balance autonomy and support. My class wasn’t ready to jump into their own argumentative topics, but it’s not because they couldn’t. I needed to open myself up to ask why, and learn how to do something differently. After exploring – and sharing – our beliefs in our notebooks, we used resources from The New York Times Room For Debate to connect our beliefs to current issues. And now my students’ brainstorm lists are spanning more than one page. Now they’re choosing topics that are deeply important to them: immigration reform, racism and the Black Lives Matter movement, clean energy and the environment, the refugee crisis, early school start times, and the need for reform regarding school suspension and expulsion policies.
When I’m tempted to feel defeated or hopeless, I’ve learned that it’s important to refocus on the beliefs that drive me every day. To be able to do that may be one of the most important lessons I can pass along to my students.
What beliefs shape you as an educator? What have you done to launch your argumentative units? Join in the conversation by commenting below or finding me on Twitter @MeganKortlandt.