Sunday, October 29, 2017

#DWHabit: Grin

This morning I felt stuck in my writing. Typically, when I find myself in a writing funk, I read poems or compelling fiction in search of a line I can lift. Yet today I couldn't find anything that struck my fancy, and I found myself on Twitter instead, mindlessly scrolling through Tweets.

Twitter (or any other social media platform) is usually a guarantee that I will not spend my time writing (or doing whatever task worthy of my time). For me, social media typically makes me incredibly unproductive. But today, I lingered on this Tweet from I love the premise of growing your writing habit by writing about a word. (And it was a great solution to get out of this morning’s writing funk.) So today I decided to write about the word grin in the form of a double haiku:

A mound of yellow,
Orange, red, brown leaves invites small
Feet plunging with glee.

Mama rakes again:
Swish. Swish. Crunch. Swish. Swish. Crunch. "I
need another plunge!"
My daughter's glee in plunging into leaf piles this afternoon. 

Friday, October 27, 2017

Unexpected Gifts

Last Saturday I was caught off guard. It had been a day that I was not feeling very good about myself (as a person, a parent, a teacher, a writer), and then I saw notifications waiting in my Gmail Inbox. I admit, I am a sheepish in sharing this, but I am amazed when I realize that anyone takes the time to read my writing. Yet, I found myself absolutely floored to realize that several people had left comments in response from the last blog post I published. They took the time to open my blog post, read my writing, and then shared with me what parts of my writing resonated with them. A few of them encouraged me to join them through different writing forums as well. What an amazing gift.

A few days later, as I wrote in my journal about how reading these comments made me feel, I realized that publicly sharing my thoughts through writing has helped me connect with others in a way I didn't expect.

My dear friend and colleague, Lisa, also responds frequently to my blog posts through face-to-face conversations at school or via text messages or emails. After I posted this post, Lisa wrote me a Haiku in response. Another time, after reading this post, Lisa shared how her reading identity was significantly altered after she suffered a severe concussion, helping her better understand how reading was a different experience when it was hard, allowing her to provide more empathy to her students. Listening to her experience helped me realize that I had not yet taken the time to share with my students how I struggled as a reader and how it impacted my mindset as a learner. As a result, I made some changes in how I was instructing my students and decided that I needed to share more of my experience as a struggling reader. Although Lisa might not realize it, her responses have affected me as a teacher, as a person, and as a writer - another unexpected gift.

It is no secret that I am an avid reader. One reason that I devour books and poems and articles and blog posts is for connection. When I can relate to someone else’s experience or can linger over a line, I often feel a deep connection with that author, just through his or her words. It is as if I somehow know the author because of his or her writing.

Truth be told, before I began writing this blog, I never really saw myself as someone who had the ability to create connection through my words.

Connection is a gift, whether it be through writing or face-to-face conversations. I am humbled to realize that I have found connections with others through my writing. 

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Why I Write

Since I began the 2017-2018 academic school year, I am happy to report that I haven’t missed one day of writing. As I mentioned in this post, I began writing Morning Pages last summer. Often my Morning Pages are written just before I retire to bed, and they are often a reflection of my day of teaching or thinking about what I want students to make (through writing, thinking, or reading) the following day or in a long term project. I have altered my plans so many times after I have spent some time writing. Therefore, I am convinced that the act of writing has already made me a better teacher, more responsive to my students’ needs. I cannot help but wish that I had made more of an effort to make writing a daily practice years ago. This is just one of the reasons #WhyIWrite.

In honor of tomorrow’s celebration (National Day on Writing), I decided to share a poem I wrote in the summer of 2016, based on my writing beliefs. This poem hangs in my office at school - a daily reminder of what kind of a teacher of writers I aspire to be:

Writing Manifesto
You don’t get better at writing (or anything)
Without starting from a blank sheet.
Be prepared to mess up. Big.
Take risks. Especially when it’s uncomfortable and scary.
We all need that push.
Keep writing.
Keep a notebook nearby-in the car, next to your bed, tucked in your bag.
Record conversations that linger, the thoughts that refuse to leave.
Collect quotes. Make lists. Sketch. Lift lines.
Reread your work. Revise. Repeat.
Fifteen minutes a day can be all it takes -
Will you write one line?
Keep writing.
Find out about yourself - where have you been? What’s next?
Create a record of your existence. (Yes, you matter!)
Notice your ordinary, yet
Capture the pivotal moments and
What doesn’t make sense.
Keep writing.
Steal like an artist-
Emulate from your favorite paperback mentors
Since the best mentors are often people you never meet in the flesh
Only through their words.
They can guide you
If you let them.
Study their craft.
Keep writing.
Reread your writing. To yourself. Out loud.
Listen to your own voice.
One word. One line.

Keep writing.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

#Me Too

I opened Facebook tonight for the first time in several days and was flooded with a stream of posts including this message, personal stories of sexual harassment and assault, and #MeToo. Apparently, many of my friends and acquaintances share the experience of being sexually harassed or assaulted. (Seriously, I had no idea how many. It gives me a sense of how big and serious this problem is, especially when I think that these are all people whom I know in real life.) Although it made me sad to read so many stories and statements about sexual harassment and assault, I was proud of my brave friends who shared, and it compelled me to share a bit of my story.

Below is one part of my #MeToo story, written in a 50 word story format. Many 50 word stories that I’ve written before are fiction. This one is true:

She's seventeen: still trying to match the uneven seams of her childhood into adulthood.

He saunters in-drunk again. He paws her wrist, presses her close and shares explicit sexual desires. Nothing new.

She wilts.

“What an asshole - your boss.”
He’s suspended-two weeks sans pay. Yet, it is she who apologizes.  

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Revealing My Reading Identity Through Writing

A few weeks ago I wrote a post about what reading means to me. If you read my post or glanced at my Goodreads page, or even if you listened to me emphatically talk about books or reading with my students, colleagues, or friends, you may have thought that I have always been a strong reader or that I was a kid who found reading always to be easy and enjoyable. Although my parents were avid readers and read to me all throughout my childhood, I had a rough start in reading. I am certain that if Response to Intervention (RtI) had been a framework implemented in the early 1980s, I would have probably been identified as a student in need of a reading intervention.

The truth is that I was a struggling reader for most of elementary school and part of middle school. Learning, especially in reading (and don't get me started on math), did not come easily to me. I spent a lot of time feeling stupid and slow. Even now, as a middle-aged adult and seasoned teacher, these toxic feelings still surface, especially when I encounter a challenging text.

In an effort to model how to write an effective Personal Statement for college admission with my high school seniors (and in an attempt to share with my students that I have struggled with reading like many of them) and to provide my students with a better idea of how writers think, I wrote this piece with and in front of my students using a document camera and later as a Google Document. Based on reading an article from Johns Hopkins University called “Essays that Worked,” I emulated a piece of student writing called “20 Questions” to serve as my mentor text. Below is my best draft (so far) of an essay I named “Report Card Comments”:

Prompt: What is a life experience that has shaped who you are today?

Lacks basic literacy skills.
I began first grade behind most of my peers in basic reading skills. While most of my classmates were pouring into books, some of them boasting how they could read long chapter books, I couldn’t read basic sight words. I was an expert at pretending to read. I used pictures to retell a story, but when it came to decoding most words, I was lost. I didn’t make meaning to what I read either. Therefore, it is not surprising that I was placed into one of the lowest reading groups, marked by a white sticker and allowed only to read from the corresponding basal. This struggle would later reveal my level of resiliency as a learner.   

Needs to improve reading comprehension.
By fourth grade, I was proficient in decoding words. In addition, I could usually identify the topic of a paragraph. However, as I lurked in the hallway during Parent Teacher Conferences, I overheard hushed comments such as, “some kids are slow at reading” or “Trina needs to try harder.” I felt stupid. Slow.  Embarrassed. Although my teachers were cautious to never reveal who the struggling readers were, I knew I was one of them.

Needs to use class time wisely.  
As a seventh grader, I began reading The Outsiders. As instructed, I read the daily required reading, but I had no idea what The Outsiders was about. My mind wandered as I read, and I couldn’t follow the plot. After I failed the third multiple choice quiz, I requested to meet with my teacher. He told me that I just needed to do the reading in order to pass the quizzes. He didn’t understand that I was reading it, but I just didn’t get it. Shortly after, I began rereading The Outsiders in a different way. I read a page and then closed the book, writing in my notebook what I remembered and understood. If I couldn’t make sense of a page, I reread it or focused on one paragraph at a time. For over a week I spent hours each night reading this way. When I received results from the next quiz, my teacher remarked, “see what happens when you simply take the time to read?” If only he knew what it took for me to read The Outsiders. For me, it wasn’t as simple as just reading it. Unbeknownst to me, I taught myself how to monitor my reading. It would be a strategy that would carry me through middle and high school.

Displays talent in reading and writing.
By the end of ninth grade, I asked teachers for assistance when I didn’t understand something, even when I felt stupid for asking. Now I was able to monitor my reading and recognize when I didn’t understand a concept. In fact, Mr. Poss, my English teacher, recommended me to take Advanced English as a sophomore, a course I never thought that I could be considered for. I was elated when he told me I had talent as a writer and was a strong reader. It was the first time I felt successful as a student.

Is an excellent student.
Improving my reading was no easy task and was time consuming. There were many times that I wanted to give up, especially since it was easier to pretend that I didn’t care instead of doing it. Reading always took me a bit longer than my peers, but I figured out strategies that worked for me and asked for help when I couldn’t make meaning on my own. This changed my identity as a reader and learner. More importantly, I found a way to make something so challenging become manageable.
As I began writing this piece in front of my students, an interesting thing occurred. At least five brave students shared with me how they still struggle as readers and writers, including a student who gave me the most “attitude” in the first few weeks of school. I am happy to report that he is now respectful to me and his classmates and is participating more and more in small groups. Another student privately asked me if I would show her how I became a better reader because she feels that she never understands what she is reading. I felt honored that she shared this painful truth with me. She and I plan to set up a schedule soon, using RMA, before or school.

Writing in front of students (or anyone!) is not always easy. A few weeks ago I was writing a Quick Write using the document camera and mixed up a make of car that I remembered from high school. One of my students realized my error right away and yelled out, "Chevy never made an Altima! That was a Nissan!" Duh - I knew that. It was embarrassing and my first impulse was to stop writing in front of them. However, I gently reminded myself (and my students) that Quick Writes are not about perfection - they are often about gathering your thoughts and working through what you remember or think about a topic. I kept on writing in front of my students.

When I first began teaching, I would have not been comfortable writing in front of my students in fear that I would make glaring mistakes as a writer (like I did in my Quick Write). In addition, I was afraid to share that I struggled as a reader or as a learner. In fact, I was scared that revealing this would mean losing my credibility with my colleagues or parents or students as an English teacher. Little did I know that sharing a piece of myself like this could help other students (and teachers) take more risks as learners. I also did not understand the power of explaining your thinking to another person. Now I realize that students learn more effectively when a teacher models and talks through their learning.

Although I need to make many adjustments for how I teach students to write a Personal Statement for next year (including how to encourage better cognitive engagement from my students, especially those who don’t see themselves as college bound), I realized how important it was to share my human side with my students. It is important for me to let my students know that I was not always as successful in reading or writing or confident in my learning as I am now. As I have been reading through my students' Personal Statements, many students wrote about heavy and incredibly personal things, such as the effect of a parents' divorce or coping with a mental illness or experiencing an intense struggle of some kind. They were vulnerable with their peers and with me. Of course I am grateful to know more about my students through their writing.

In my return to the classroom this year, I continue to circle back to my beliefs as an educator, like I wrote about in this post. As I thought about writing this post, I have especially considered these two beliefs:
  • Because I believe modeling is important for’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.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

The Energy to Teach

Confession: the last two weeks of teaching have not been my finest. One of the worst days was when one of senior high school students was disrespectful to his classmates and me. When I tried to gently address this with him, he announced yelled to the whole class, “I hate this class! I wanted Ms. ________ and instead I got you! This sucks!” He walked out of my classroom before I could say much more. Meanwhile, I heard another student say under her breath, “Senior year is supposed to be fun. Can’t she loosen up?” Defeated, I observed the rest of my students. Prior to his outburst, I had been individually conferring with students on a piece of writing. As I scanned the room, I noticed that many of my students were doing anything but working on writing - they were on their cell phones (not as an academic resource, as I had requested, but probably Snapchatting or texting), and one student was intensely applying her make up instead of writing. That morning I left class feeling so frustrated, wondering, why did I leave my position as a literacy coach for this?

These student comments and my observations hung heavy on my heart all day.

That night, as I wrote in my notebook, listing as much as I could remember, especially about that class hour. Although writing about a challenging event often makes me feel better and provides me with a better perspective, this time I felt worse, my inner critic loud and harsh. In an effort to try to focus on what's been positive in my teaching, I made a list of what I felt like I have been doing right in this classroom so far, and it looked a little like this:
  • I’ve been writing with and in front of my students every day.
  • I’ve been providing them time each day for independent reading and time for writing.
  • Students have choice in what they are reading and writing.
  • I have been individually conferring with students in both reading and writing.
  • Most days I have provided a daily agenda and specific learning targets.
  • I’m giving and getting feedback from my students each day.
  • Students have many opportunities to talk with each other in partnerships and in small groups.
  • I encourage students to write about what is meaningful to them.

I knew that I was applying best practices in teaching, all that could be backed by research, but I couldn’t help but wonder, what was I doing wrong? So many of my seniors acted like they just didn’t care about learning anything. True, I wasn’t the beloved teacher that many of them wanted for their teacher, but I couldn’t change that. They couldn’t do much about it either.  

As I wrote, I thought back to a teacher (I'll call her Ms. Smith) whom I had been working with in a coaching capacity a few years earlier. Just like me, Ms. Smith was frustrated with her students after a challenging lesson. She didn’t know what to do next or how she could possibly teach them. My first impulse was to give Ms. Smith a long list of things that she could try with her students, but I knew that listing off what I knew probably wouldn't help her grow, or worse, it could backfire. In fear of saying the wrong thing to Ms. Smith (and risk ruining the coaching relationship that I had worked so hard to establish), I reached out via email to respected instructional coach and staff developer, Samantha Bennett, who I had recently seen speak at our state’s annual reading convention. Sam quickly responded to my dilemma and shared what she learned from Don Graves, particularly from his book The Energy to Teach (Heinemann, 2001). Sam wondered what the outcome would be if we approached that day as an inquiry and created a chart focusing on a few students and answering these questions:
  1. What do you know about this student as a person?
  2. What do you know about this student as a learner?
  3. What does this student know you know?
  4. Knowing this, what are your next steps?

Since I had (and still have) such a high level of professional respect for Sam, of course I dove into her query. As I worked with Ms. Smith the following day, we created and completed a chart answering these questions. As she and I filled out this chart together, it filled me with empathy for many of her students. In addition, it reminded us both how students often act when they feel threatened (and don’t want to look stupid). Later, Ms. Smith reported that she changed her approach in how she spoke with students and her interactions with them. This change made a huge difference for Ms. Smith and her students, not just the next day or week, but for the rest of the year.

In thinking about how I coached (and learned) with Ms. Smith I realized that perhaps I could benefit from participating in the same inquiry. So I created a chart in my notebook, focusing on the students who seemed to be the most outspoken and resistant to learning in my class. As I was filling out my chart, it hit me. Although I knew some things about my students, it was not enough. I could respond better to their needs if I knew more about each of them as people and as learners.

I pondered my next steps and decided that I could invite students to tell me more about themselves as learners and individuals, so I created a survey using Google Forms. Although I knew it would be probably be better to ask each student in person, this survey would at least be a starting point. A few of the questions I asked students are listed below, including what do you want me to know about you as a person and what do you want me to know about you as a learner:

A screenshot from part of my survey

Many of my students' answers surprised me. I learned more about my students than I thought I would from this survey (and most of their responses were things that I couldn’t tell from looking at their past grades or standardized scores). A few of their responses included:
  • “I have never been a good writer.”
  • “I have a lot of anxiety about school, and I wish more teachers were more understanding about my mental health.”
  • “I struggle to keep my focus.”
  • “I work two jobs and don’t get home until 11 on most nights.”
  • “English is my hardest class. I’ve never been a good reader.”
  • “My parents just got divorced, and it’s hard. I’m sorry if I am sometimes moody.”
  • “I need more examples of what to do because I don’t know what you want.”
  • "I'm worried I won't graduate if I don't pass this class."

The next two days I spent following up with students whose comments I didn’t understand or wanted to comprehend better. One of my students wrote, “I wish I knew what your adjective was.” I was so perplexed when I read her comment, but as I spoke with her, I quickly realized that she meant objective, not adjective. And of course, many of the conversations I had with students were hard. One student asked me if I could just hand out a packet of work (like he was used to in other classes). Another student told me that she was afraid that I was going to teach one thing and expect another when it came to grades (ah, the “gotcha” grade). In response to using an assigned seating chart, a few students inquired why I didn’t treat them more like adults and let them sit where they want. A different student told me that he didn’t understand why I needed to meet with students so much because he didn’t feel that he needed to work on his writing - finishing the draft was enough. Finally, a few of my students told me that they didn't care that they could read or write well because they weren't planning to go to college. They just wanted to graduate from high school.


Overall, I am glad that I made the time for students to provide me with more feedback. I learned more about many of them and I realized that I could tweak a few things in my instruction. In listening and talking with my students, it became apparent that I need to write my learning targets in a more student-friendly manner and involve my students more often in identifying how they are meeting each learning target. I also need to continue to make time to listen to my students, even if some of the feedback is uncomfortable to read and hear.

Each day I am humbled at the complexity of teaching and all that I still need to learn in order to serve my students more effectively.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

What does reading mean to you?

“Everything I learned from reading I learned from kids.” Ken Goodman

I’ve been preparing to begin a cycle of Retrospective Miscue Analysis (RMA) with a handful of my high school students to use as a reading intervention. I was first introduced to RMA over a year ago by distinguished professor Dr. Cathy Compton-Lilly at a program called Literacy by the Lakes, organized by the faculty of UW - Madison in Literacy Education. Ever since then I have been intrigued, wondering what kind of positive changes RMA could mean for high school readers and how a teacher could effectively utilize RMA in a classroom setting. Since then, I have been studying and reading resources about RMA, including The Essential RMA: A Window into Readers’ Thinking and Reading Conversations: Retrospective Miscue Analysis with Struggling Readers, Grades 4-12.

RMA invites readers, in a strength-based manner, to think and talk about their reading through a series of conversations between an experienced reader and a novice reader. In addition, RMA encourages the novice reader to reflect on how he or she makes meaning from reading the text.

One of the first steps in RMA is to conduct the Burke Reading Interview with the student. This interview is often used to help a teacher better understand a student’s beliefs about reading. I used the modified version from Reading Conversations (Heinemann, 2005) with my students, which includes the addition of two questions:

  • What makes someone a good reader?
  • What does reading mean to you?    

As I conducted interviews, I was particularly interested in how my students responded to the question, “what does reading mean to you?” Below are a few replies from my 9th and 10th grade students:

  • “It doesn’t mean that much to me.”
  • “I don’t read that often. If I have to I will, but I won’t do it over my free time.”
  • “I don’t know. A book.”
  • “It’s important because you need it for your everyday life, but it’s boring.”
  • “Nothing.”
  • “Not a lot. I don’t read a lot.”
  • “I like it, but it doesn’t mean very much to me.”

Based on conferring with students and studying their data from past standardized tests, I knew that many of my students (but not all) have struggled in reading, so I wasn’t surprised how my freshman and sophomores responded to the Burke Reading Interview questions. After all, these students are considered “at risk” and many of them have already expressed how much they don’t like hate to read. Therefore, as their teacher, I feel that I must do all I can to help increase their agency in literacy in order to help them succeed in all of their classes (and most importantly, to achieve success beyond high school).

Administering these surveys with students compelled me to reflect on my own reading, especially how I would answer interview questions such as, what does reading mean to you? Here is how I might have answered this question:

Reading is something I cannot live without. I crave reading books like I need water and food and warmth to survive. I dog ear pages when I am moved by a passage, love to talk with friends about what books they are reading, and one of my favorite parts of being a teacher is connecting students with the right book. Buying too many books is one of my biggest weaknesses (and why my credit card bill is too high), as my husband can attest to. I could not imagine living in a house without an abundance of books.

When someone I respect recommends a book to me, I cannot resist from buying it (or checking out the title from our public library, if it is available). In fact, I have been known to write my thoughts (in essay form!) about the recommended book to whomever recommended it to me. (Seriously, could I get anymore bookish or nerdy?)

One of my favorite things about a good book is when story lives within me. That is, when I continue to think about characters or events or a particular scene long after I finish reading it. In the past year and a half, these books (see photo below) have been the stories that I have thought about the most, prompting me to reflect on my own life and how I view the world. Each title has changed me in some way, and I think of these books as dear friends, always ready and waiting for me to reach for them.

A few of my cherished titles

As a white, privileged working class white woman from the Midwest, reading has helped me consider different viewpoints, gain empathy, and knowledge. Reading has given me a sense of comfort when I have felt desperately alone.
It has been an entry point for conversation with countless students and colleagues. Reading has been a way that I have connected with others, people of all different ages and backgrounds who I would have thought that I had nothing in common with. Overall, I am convinced that reading has made me a better human.

Slice of Life Challenge #21 Day 31: Easter Preparations

For the month of March, each day I am writing and posting  a slice of my life , hosted by Two Writing Teachers.  Slice of Life Challenge #21...