Monday, July 31, 2017

New Beginnings

New Beginnings

In about a month I will begin my eighteenth year of teaching. How can this be possible? I cannot help but feel that I should still be one of the fresh, young teachers. Yet in reality, I have colleagues who were once my students!


This school year will bring countless changes for me. After spending the last four years as a district literacy coach, I will be back in the classroom teaching English Language Arts to seniors, sophomores, and freshmen. Not only will I need to learn the content for each course, but I will need to learn the culture of my building, how to effectively teach when traveling from classroom to classroom, and build positive relationships with students, families, and colleagues.


Without fail, each summer I go through an intense period of anxiety. I have stress dreams about school and teaching - being late for the first day of school, forgetting to take attendance, not being able to get my locker open (even though I won't actually have a locker to open), out-of-control students, and wearing two different shoes to school or simply not wearing shoes... And when I’m awake, I often think about what I want to do differently as a teacher next year so I can be a more effective teacher.


The first school stress dream was over a week ago.


My first impulse is to cram as much as I can in the next month by reading and rereading as many professional texts as possible (see my stack of treasures below). Yet I know that it isn't feasible to read this many professional books and think about them in the deep way that I want to. And perhaps more importantly, I know that teaching is never about cramming.




I haven't met my new students yet and to be a responsive teacher, I need to take the time to know each student before I am able to meet each student's needs. I will need to match their needs with what I know in order to be effective.


I believe that effective teaching is never just about what you read and what you know. Even if you read the very best resources. Even if you are well-versed in edu-speak. Even if you have taught for almost two decades. Those things definitely help, but I believe that effective teaching is about how your beliefs guide your practice with students.


One of the professional books I read last year was Debbie Miller's Reading With Meaning (2nd Edition) (Stenhouse, 2012).  In particular, I was struck by a piece where she articulates her beliefs about education and how her beliefs match her practice. Debbie Miller reminds me that, as educators, it is not simply enough to say (or write) what we believe. Our actions must match our beliefs. All day. Every day.


Using Debbie Miller's text as my model, I recently articulated my beliefs about education and how my practices will connect to my beliefs.  Here are a few of my belief statements:


  • Because I believe literacy is the great equalizer in our society...you will see me talk about all different kinds of texts and what reading, writing, and thinking looks like in different contexts and contents. You will see me encourage students to read and write for different purposes, including for enjoyment.
  • Because I believe reflection is key to growth…you will hear me engage deeply in conversations with students and watch me provide students with opportunities to talk and write about what they are learning every hour, each day. You will see me reflect about my own learning through modeling, conversation, and writing.
  • Because I believe in planning for student engagement…you will see me consider cognitive engagement, social engagement, and behavioral engagement using a Backwards Design framework to plan for units.
  • Because I believe that all learners need clarity in their tasks…you’ll see me plan and communicate long term and short term learning targets with my students. You’ll see me engage my students in thinking and talking about how they reach each learning target.
  • Because I believe that every learner needs targeted feedback to grow and that each learner deserves at least a year’s worth of growth…you’ll see me conferring in small groups and with individual students and providing feedback in writing. You will see me listening to students and planning mini lessons and whole group lessons based on what students show and tell me about their learning.
  • Because I believe that we get smarter together…you’ll see me provide students with opportunities to share their learning in each hour of every day. You’ll see me problem solve and strategically plan with colleagues in my Professional Learning Community.
  • Because I believe modeling is important for clarity...you’ll see me engaged in think alouds about my reading, writing and thinking. You’ll see me writing and reading in front of my students and colleagues and grappling with where I get stuck.
  • Because I believe that teachers who write are better teachers of writing…you’ll see me keep my own writer's notebook as a model of my writing to students and you’ll see me write for real purposes and for real audiences.  
Most likely, my anxiety won't go away until at I’m at least in the first week of school. In addition, I will probably have a lot in common with my freshman students, who will not know what to expect the first few days of high school. I am sure that I will get lost a few times and need a lot support from my colleagues just to get through the first week hour. However, I am secure in my beliefs about education and what I believe matters most for all students.


I don't need to cram for next year.


I don't need to let my anxiety take over in the next month.

Instead, I need to remind myself of my teaching beliefs and how they can connect with my classroom practice. How I can match what I know with what students need. Continuing to learn, read, and reflect will help me continue to grow in my practice and serve my students.

Scary, Scary, Scary

Scary, Scary, Scary

“An experience isn’t finished until it’s written.” Anne Morrow Lindbergh

For the last three years (okay, five) I have been entertaining the idea of blogging. After all, I read blogs all the time. Blogs are a steady part of my reading diet, especially blogs about education and anything that involves literacy. Yet each time I think about writing posts in a blog, I talk myself out of it. I come up with excuses - lack of time, feeling like I have nothing to write about, not understanding enough about technology to blog, etc.

Recently, I realized something - I haven’t started blogging yet because I am scared. Really scared. The act of writing isn’t what scares me; I am in a solid routine of daily writing. It is publicly sharing my writing that paralyzes me.

In Fear, one of Elizabeth Gilbert’s chapters from Big Magic: Creative Living Among Fear (Riverhead Books, 2016), she includes a list of common fears that she believes prevents people from living a creative life. A few of these fears include:
  • “You’re afraid you have no talent.”
  • “You’re afraid you’ll be rejected or criticized or ridiculed or misunderstood or - worst of all - ignored.”
  • “You’re afraid someone else already did it better.”
  • “You’re afraid of being exposed as a hack, a fool, or a dilettante, or a narcissist.”
  • “You’re afraid of what your peers and coworkers will say if you express your personal truths aloud.”  
When it comes to my writing, I face all of these fears. And more. Unfortunately, for the last few years, I have let this fear prevent me from sharing my writing except with a very small (and safe) group of people. Sadly, as an English teacher, I expect my students to write and share their writing in authentic and public ways. Yet, I have not done a very good job of modeling this for my students.

No more.

One of my core beliefs about writing instruction is that teachers who write are better teachers of writing. Therefore, my practices must match my beliefs. I need to write and publish like a teacher of writing. As Katie Wood Ray shares about the human side of writing in What You Know by Heart: How to Develop Curriculum for Your Writing Workshop (Heinemann, 2002), “...we ask our students to give so much of themselves when they write. We ask them to write about things that matter. We ask them to invest enormous amounts of time and energy to write about those things well. And then, the crowning request, we ask them to take their writing out into the world and give it to other people. We need to know how it feels to do what we are asking them to do. We need to understand the very human side of what we are teaching when we teach writing.” (Wow. It is as if Katie Wood Ray is speaking directly to me.)

I must do better this year.

And so, in fear and excitement, I begin this blog, not only to remember my human side as a teacher of writing, but in also sharing my experiences and beliefs in teaching.

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