New Perspective for an Old(ish) Teacher

Before laying down an opening for this year’s first post, I found myself browsing around the Moving Writers site and checking out some of the lovely work my colleagues are already producing.  Hattie found a way to recharge from last year in the form of an outstanding education book that inspired her.  David found similar inspiration in the form of a book that added a new (and enormously fun!) wrinkle to his classroom practice.  

I’m in a different headspace this year though.  A good one, I think, but in that sort of thrilling way where some uncertainty keeps you balanced right at the edge of excitement and panic.  You know that fun feeling, right?

As I enter my 21st year of teaching (twenty! one!), this fall I’ll be teaching a brand new course: AP Language.   Not that I’ve ever been complacent–I’m forever trying out new things in class…but for years I’ve tried them within the safe haven of a course that I co-created and have worked hard to perfect for almost a decade.

After getting some training in early August, I started getting my hands dirty planning and exploring the Lang material already in place thanks to my excellent PLC.  And the more I explored and started to make things my own…the more I started to think about a lot of my instructional practices.

Think for a moment about all of the things that are assumed of a student who has elected an AP class:  They must be highly motivated, probably college bound, up for a challenge, open to feedback, etc, etc, etc.  All of these generalized assumptions added to the accelerated nature of the material result in a very different experience for these learners than for students who elect other classes (at my building, English 11 or 12).  And a big part of that is because we assume a less impressive set of traits among those learning populations:  Some aren’t very skilled or confident readers or writers yet, some aren’t interested, some will need massive support systems to succeed.  We’ve got tons of positive assumptions we make too, but think about how often your teacher brain is drawn towards “What CAN my kids do/handle?” versus “How should I engage with them as WRITERS and READERS?”  

While we certainly can’t neglect or ignore the fact that some of our students are coming from places where their motivations and abilities will differ in ways that require special attention and remediation, I find myself wondering this year how often we inadvertently let that define how we think they feel about all things English.

How will instruction land differently when it’s pedagogically designed and delivered from a perception that all of our students are inspirable and excitable and capable of learning and doing awesome stuff?  

This week, to pick an immediate example, I found myself modifying my approach to notebook writing with my English 11 students after rolling out notebooks to my AP kids one day earlier.  My directions for both classes are identical (see below), but my approach to the notebooks got better for English 11 when I realized how ambitious I had asked my AP writers to be.  

The guidelines for ALL of my notebook writers–from AP through English 11!

Notebooks in my classes are always low stakes and designed as a playground or sandbox for writers and thinkers.  After their first notebook entry–an effort to imitate a lovely Clint Smith poem–I asked my AP kids to share what the experience of trying out some of his writerly moves felt like.  

What was easy?  What was hard?  Did you like playing with any of his writing moves in particular?

And after they said just the loveliest most interesting things I found myself thinking, Why haven’t you ever asked all your other classes that question about a notebook?  The writing task was different for English 11, but ultimately the question would be equally valid:  I gave you space to try out some new writing, so what did that feel like?

So I asked them.  

Turns out they also volunteered some lovely things.  Some of them didn’t have much to say about the experience–shyness maybe, or indifference–but many eagerly volunteered their thoughts just as I’d hoped!  One thing they certainly revealed was a vulnerability about their writing skills that’s probably a bit more raw than that of my AP writers (though they aren’t without vulnerability too!).  But they also revealed that they kind of had fun with some of it…and that when I asked them to wrestle past their first writer’s block and keep typing they discovered they actually COULD do that…and some of them even started asking if they could do some of the stuff they saw Chuck Klosterman doing in a piece we read today.  

The answer was yes, as it always has been in English 11.  Except now I know that it doesn’t take an AP writer to have a real nice talk about that kind of stuff.  And I’m suddenly on a mission to rewrite everything in English 11 into writerly ambition…and to stop unintentionally rhyming the final lines of my blog posts.

–Mike

What do you do in class to help your students see themselves as writers? Let us know on the Moving Writers page on Facebook or let me know what you think on Twitter @ZigThinks !

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