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!
Thank you for sharing your excellent ideas and resources. I also taught poetry this spring. I asked my colleagues to share poems them love (some even recording a reading), which I then curated into a collection for my students. Like you, I asked students to read and respond with their thoughts as well as create a list of examples of the poetry devices we had studied. I love studying poetry in April, but you have me contemplating starting sooner. I’m looking forward to starting over—again—year 18.
Thanks, Michelle! I’m entering year 15…and still every time, it feels like new!
I’d LOVE to see your collection, by the way. firstname.lastname@example.org
I was recently thinking something along the lines of what Crutcher said, hoping that this would prove to be a sort of reboot, that especially if things aren’t completely back to normal at the start of next year, it will be even more of an opportunity to continue reimagining what our classrooms look like. You’re right, though, that it isn’t just going to happen.
I would 100% encourage you to start next year with poetry. It’s something I’ve done for the last ten or so years, and I think it’s the perfect way to begin the year. At first, I’ll admit that I just did it because that’s what Nancie Atwell encouraged us to do, but after doing it for a while, I see the value in starting the year like this. It’s personal, it provides lots of freedom, and its length makes it feel manageable for students who haven’t written much before. Plus, as you mention in your post, it provides a great foundation for the rest of the year. Other than line and stanza breaks, every other technique and concept students learn during this study carries over to everything else they’ll write during the year.
I was also interested in the idea of putting together a collection of poems for each week to share with students. In the past, we always read a poem each day during this study, but this year for the first time I started to rethink that. There’s a lot of good that comes from reading one each day, but the problem is that it takes up a lot of time at the start of every single class, and because of that, I also feel like we have to rush through our conversation about the poem so that it doesn’t eat into the rest of class too much. Next year, I think I want to try setting aside a chunk of time one day each week (probably Monday) to read that week’s collection and really dive into the poems together that day. Then, during the rest of the week, we can refer back to those poems during mini-lessons, but we’ll save all the time we normally would’ve spent reading and talking about those pieces. I wonder if it might have the duel advantage of allowing deep discussions while also providing more time. We’ll see…
Noah, I’ve got your back if you start the year with poetry. I think it will be an excellent way to get to know students, whatever our teaching format looks like, and as you point out so well in your post, it give abundant opportunity for writing instruction that does not feel cumbersome. Here’s to the new discoveries these strange times bring us 🙂
Brett, thanks man! I was thinking about you when I wrote this thing. 😉
I began following movingwriters.org only a couple years back after reading Writing with Mentors. I became so impressed by the work being created/shared, but also the thoughts behind that work that I spent a summer retroactively reading all posts since the beginning. I’ve yet to respond to a post, but your words today created such a feeling of kinship that I couldn’t help but respond- the role of fear and courage that pushes our teaching forward, the dangers of “free” resources, and the potential that poetry holds for our students if they are willing to give it a chance. . .every sentence left me shaking my head yes in agreement.
I find this blog the antithesis of the Teachers Pay Teachers factory. My husband (an educator as well) and I, just this morning, were lamenting the use of sites like this by our own children’s current educators. They were using activities that had promise, but they fell so very short because they didn’t own what they were doing. There were hiccups at many turns simply because they pushed out something that merely looked cool, but had not been vetted for potential problems.
As I approached how to structure lessons in my own classroom in the last couple of months I leaned on the blog in significant ways. Our team dropped poetry a while back as we felt consumed by the required curriculum, but in recent years with the adoption of book clubs and independent reading units our time has freed us up enough that our PLC decided to add both poetry and editorials as ways to end the year and provide students more agency in their learning. Like so many others, I did not anticipate starting new units in this crazy alternative that became our classroom. My mini-unit with poetry failed in countless ways, but appeared to be the most successful and engaging when it was living and breathing the most. . .Spoken Word. Spoken Word that didn’t always rant, but that paid homage to those people and places and things that make us appreciative of the world around us. I try to imagine how much more impactful this unit might have been if we were all together in our classroom sharing these pieces. Your voices on this blog provided me with ideas to consider with my own students from structure to content.
As someone who sometimes struggles to find the sort of rigorous collaboration I would love to have with my colleagues, I am so appreciative of this blog and all of your voices that have pushed my teaching in the last few years in a way that makes me very proud. Thank you for all that you do to make your readers and the teachers that follow you better.
Jen, wow! Best comment ever–this could be its own post! What you describe matches up with what so many of us go through–when the rest of the department heads in a well-intentioned, but possibly negative direction, what’s a teacher to do?
One of my wise colleagues once said that trying to find great collaboration in this field can makes us feel like the protagonist in the old picture book, Are You My Mother?
It can be a discouraging and long journey, but I’m glad you’ve found a home base with us.