Trigger Warning: this post opens with a possibly offensive rant. If you feel the need to skip said rant, I have inserted a subheading to indicate where it is safe to begin reading.
When I first started this beat about starting over and about being more intentional with which practices we keep and which ones we throw away, I had no idea that partway into the Spring, we’d all be in this position of having to start over.
And now, as I make my final post of the school year, I feel the need to give you a little tough love. As I stare down this tunnel, looking for the light, I find myself rather frustrated, not by the profession itself, but by some of my fellow practitioners (Not you, of course. Someone else, you know, who doesn’t follow this blog).
Before I get to my low key rage–a brief preamble:
The path to good teaching is riddled with failure. This is probably true about anything, but I really want you to meditate on how this aphorism applies to teaching. How often do we EVER 100% nail anything that’s new to us? Think of the first time you tried student-led book clubs, reading or writing workshop, any kind of inquiry work. I’m betting that a large chunk of students struggled–and that they passed these struggles directly on to you, but you didn’t quit, right? There were just enough bright spots for you to see the potential. So, you tweaked and fine-tuned, and it’s probably still not perfect, but you’re getting there!
Growth so often requires that we persevere and learn from failure–and this is all to say that fear of failure, this reluctance to engage in the pain that leads to gain, is what keeps so many from trying new and innovative practices. I’m talking to you, Teachers Pay Teachers. I’m talking to some of you, Pinterest. I’m definitely talking to you, any site that offers FREE WORKSHEETS!
Here’s the rub: for most of us, the bogeyman of state testing was eliminated this year. I’m also betting that you didn’t have principals observing you as you taught–at least not in the same way as before.
What I’m saying is: many of us had less oversight and accountability we have ever had. Basically, everyone got what they’ve been asking for…for decades~
Those barriers to trying out a new and interesting practice–the fear of student revolt, of bad test scores, of a principal walking in on the chaos…were all but eradicated this spring.
So, I have to ask, what did you try out? And if you didn’t, what in the heck are you waiting for? That teacher you want to be, if you didn’t go for it this Spring, when that window was wide open, well…
Now, I know. A teacher who spends time reading an blog all about the teaching of writing is probably a choir, and I am definitely preaching.
Chris Crutcher recently talked about how this moment in time “…could be a reboot that blows up all the bad stuff in education.” I certainly agree with this sentiment, but I would only argue that this “reboot” will only work if we push ourselves–and our colleagues past our fears in order to really go for it.
Things are uncertain for how things will look this fall, but we know for certain that things will be different.
I ask you this: will you get lost in the new-ness and strangeness of this experience, or will you look for the opportunity that presents itself to you?
Next year, when I start over yet again, I’m going to rethink a lot, but right now, I’m really processing what my first few weeks of instruction could become. I usually jump into personal narrative work because…I guess that’s just how I’ve always done it. I mean, sure there are some merits, like…it’s a great way to get to know students right out of the gate, and everyone always encourages us to write what we know…
The thing is, I’ve never really examined whether this is really the best way to start out.
I think a lot of us may also start personal narrative work because maybe it isn’t tested as heavily, so let’s do the tested stuff closer to the testing date when it will be more fresh in students’ minds. On the other hand, as I reexamine the way I structure, not just a unit, but an entire school year, I have to ask, are the skills students learn through this work the foundation upon which we want to build upon for the rest of the school year?
Maybe. Maybe not.
Start Here if You Can’t Handle the Rant.
This spring, I experimented with poetry and portfolios. Some things went well, and some things, you guessed it, were massive failures. Above all, I learned a most valuable lesson about how I might approach teaching in the fall.
Here’s the elevator pitch for what I tried: at the beginning of any given week, students would read poetry that featured certain devices (simile, metaphor, personification, imagery, etc). I would post a video lesson each day, explaining how to do the work and any key ideas.
After reading through that week’s poetry collection, students would curate their favorite examples of certain poetic device(s) into a collection, and they’d write about why each made the cut. Then, they’d flip these poems into mentor texts, and they’d write their own poetry.
At the end of the week, students turned in their 2-3 best pieces of work, and wrote a reflection on what they were learning. Then, I’d provide feedback, using an adaptation of my writing conference approach, and one of their assignments the following week was to respond to my feedback and set goals.
[I could go on, but I promised that it would be an elevator pitch. If you want to see the nitty-gritty details of it all, I’ve open sourced all of my content here.]
As I read students’ poetry and reflections, I was blown away time and time again. With slight guidance, great mentor texts, time to experiment, and the freedom that only submitting 2-3 of their best pieces provided, kids were writing some seriously deep and vivid poetry. Moreover, they were also really thinking about how they used different writer moves, and they were putting more thought than ever into word choice!
I also got the impression that, with this chance to do poetry deep dives, students really felt like they were trying on the clothes of an artist. This part is probably not new to you if you are already using mentor texts…but they were really experimenting, and, the kicker was that many students kept trying out–and kept refining–techniques that they’d learned in previous weeks because of their feedback and learning goals.
This all brings me to my point. What if I started next year with something like this unit? Personal narratives are great. They might even be a great way to start a school year, but I keep getting this nagging feeling that maybe poetry might be better? If I introduce these poetic techniques and devices in the first few weeks of school, students who don’t know them will be able to use them in future pieces. Students who do know them will have a chance to refine their craft.
Hey, who knows, maybe the success of this unit was a fluke. Maybe it will all blow up in my face when I try it next year, but we can only grow if we dare to take these kinds of risks, and I can’t think of a better time than now…to dare.
How do you use poetry outside the month of April? What are you doing to capitalize on the opportunities this moment has afforded? Leave me a comment below, or hit me up on Twitter @MrWteach. And don’t forget about https://www.facebook.com/movingwriters!