My Story

Teach writing? Then you’d better BE writing.

I told my husband that he needed to come with me for an evening canoe ride. We were vacationing at our cabin, and although I was working very hard at not working, I was also working on a piece of writing that had to get done. And I needed to bounce some ideas off of him.

We paddled up the lake a bit, the late sun bright and low, the water calm and clear. My mind was racing with an idea that had come to me in the middle of a sleepless night, and I thought it might work but I needed to verbalize it first, needed to hear it aloud before I could be sure.

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Fortunately my husband is used to this, as I often ask him to just listen while I try out an idea on him; sometimes it’s my writing, often it’s an idea for a lesson for my students. We reached the end of the lake and he listened while I ran through my idea. Saying it aloud not only helped me get clear on what I was thinking; it also gave me the opportunity to get feedback from someone else. And by the time we tied up the canoe at our dock, I was confident and ready to get these new ideas on paper.

I’ve been doing a lot of writing this summer, far more than usual, and it has reminded me (again and again) how important it is that, as a writing teacher, I am also writing. It seems so obvious: how can I really understand and teach the writing process if I am not experiencing it myself? But for many years I taught writing without actually writing myself. I gave students assignments; I gave them graphic organizers; I gave them feedback on their drafts; and I gave them grades. But what I didn’t give them was honest writing practice based on my own writing struggles. And, yes, writing is a struggle. Every time we put pen to paper (or, let’s be honest, fingers to keyboard), it is a struggle. It is making something out of nothing. It is creating something new. It is an art and a science and a production.

So when I tell my husband, “I’m going for a walk. I need to get away from my writing in order to find my writing again,” it’s only fair that I make a mental note: how can I let my students “go for a walk” so they can find their writing again, too?

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The writing classroom needs to be quiet, of that I’m sure. Writing is hard work, it requires concentration, and when writers are interrupted by noise, it takes a Herculean effort to find the writing again. So during writing time, I insist on a quiet writing classroom. So how can I give my students opportunities like I needed to go for a canoe ride or a walk, or to talk out their ideas with someone? Here are a few ways I try to support their writing needs:

  • in our flexible seating classroom, students are able to get up and move when they need to. They know that they need to be quiet, but they also know the value of movement as part of the creative process. Our furniture is on wheels, which allows them to move even as they write, but they are also free to get up and move, to walk around, even go outside (weather permitting) to walk a little.
  • we use Google Docs for most of our writing, so my students are able to bounce ideas off their friends via comments on their Docs. I also jump into their Docs during writing time so I can give them feedback as they work, rather than waiting until an entire draft is written and turned in.
  • homework: debate rages over whether or not homework is beneficial or even necessary for our students, but I am certain that writing for homework is critical, if only because it allows my students to figure out how they write (work) best. During NaNoWriMo, I have my students reflect on what they are learning about their own writing preferences; their answers help them see how they can work best on any assignment. They discover if they work best with music, with quiet, with snacks, and what time of day is ideal. These are discoveries that will help them now and in future work endeavors.

I may not be able to send my students out in canoes when they need a writing break, but I can learn from my own writing needs so that I can help my students find theirs. How about you? What have you learned about writing from your own writing experiences?

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#NaNoWriMo: ask the experts

I’ve never published a novel of my own, so it’s intimidating to ask my students to write a novel under my tutelage. But since the answer to just about every question can now be found online, I decided this year to ask my students to search the web for writing advice from those most qualified to give it: published writers.

Much of the wisdom they found echoes what I will be teaching them in the next few weeks. Maybe my lessons will carry a bit more weight since the experts said it first!

  • Don’t give up. Trust your journey.

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  • Editing matters. Write truth.

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  • Your story matters.

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  • Make it real; make it scary; and … cliffhangers.

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  • Make it human (but don’t let your mom read it).

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  • Also good: tension and snap.

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  • When you get discouraged, remember: the world needs your novel!

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What advice do YOU have for my #WriMos?

 

Always a learner; also a teacher.

Screen shot 2014-10-04 at 1.29.05 PMGreetings! I am a veteran middle school teacher with nearly 30 years experience teaching English language arts. In 2012 I added Digital Design and Broadcast Media to my schedule, and discovered the joys and power that an internet-connected 1:1 classroom can bring to my students. Revising my curriculum to take advantage of 21st century tools while also developing our digital media programs have kept me engaged and excited to be in the classroom every day. In addition to teaching, I also present workshops for teachers on Google Apps, project-based learning, and writing; plus I work as a community facilitator for Edutopia and write for KQED Learning and Edutopia. I love to connect with other educators, so please enjoy this site, check out my how-to NaNoWriMo site, see my students’ novels for sale on Amazon, and contact me here or via Twitter @LAMBRADLEY.

Thank you (so much) and I’m so (very) sorry.

I know I’m not the only teacher who struggles to meet the needs of all her students, but after 25 years, I am still surprised by the wide range of responses I get from my students and their parents. The following comments come from parents of students (and students, too) who have been in the same class period with me this year:

“Thank you so much! I think you are such an amazing teacher, and my son says you are the best teacher he has ever had. Thank you!”

“My son thinks you don’t like him, and I agree. And that’s why he isn’t doing well in your class.”

from Megan Harris

“My daughter is so much more confident now about her writing! Thank you so much for pushing her and challenging her. She struggled a lot in your class, but she says she has learned so much.”

“She has no desire to learn because of the way you teach. You need to teach so that she will want to do the work.”

“Thank you for all that you’ve done for my son. He really likes English now and thinks the world of you as his English teacher. I know you’ll be one of those teachers he looks back on in years to come as the one who taught him how to read and understand books.

“I think I’m going to pull him out of your class. This whole experience is hurting his personality.”

from Maya Shern

“She said she actually likes to read now! I am thrilled, she hasn’t liked to read since pre-school!”

These students have been in the same classroom, with the same teacher, doing the same assignments, and they have had such different experiences. As the year comes to an end and my students move on to high school, I would like to say:

I am so very sorry for failing to reach you. For all you students who struggled in my class, who didn’t love the books we read, who couldn’t find good books to read, who didn’t get the help you needed, I am truly sorry. I wish we could have a do-over, go back to August and start over again, so I could see you in a new light; so I could see what you needed as a reader and writer; so I could try again to find the right books to get you hooked on reading; so I could offer the right suggestions for you to find your voice in writing. I am so very sorry.

Thank you so much, all you parents, for reading to your kids, bringing your kids to the library, reading books yourselves, and talking about the value of reading. When your kids came to my classroom already identifying themselves as readers, they were one step ahead of the game. Their literacy skills were already above grade level, so they were prepared to tackle the reading and writing of 8th grade. They were ready to analyze writing, to pick apart figurative language, because they could easily move through comprehension and up into a richer, more complex appreciation of literature.

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Thank you so much, all you parents, who supported your kids in their school work. I have never met a parent who said, “I don’t think school is important,” but I have met plenty who didn’t know how to make school important for their kids. Thank you for asking your kids about their homework, for holding them accountable for completing their work, for checking the online gradebook for how your child is doing, for contacting me when you had questions or concerns, for supporting me in my role as teacher. Thank you for doing your part in making me a good teacher.

Thank you so much, all you students, who came to class with a thirst for knowledge. Thank you for asking questions, for seeking answers, for coming in at lunch to get help on your work. Your desire to learn and efforts to improve are a significant factor in why you have succeeded this year. You didn’t watch the clock, counting down the minutes until you could leave. You focused on the work, which made the work more interesting to you, which made you a better student. You call me a great teacher, but maybe it is your great desire to learn that makes me look good.

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Photograph 022 by Katie Purnell found on minimography.com

I have heard from enough students and parents over the years to be confident that my work impacts my students. But I also know that there are many other factors that impact my students, factors that can improve their learning experiences and those that can impede them. And that’s what makes me say “I’m sorry” as the year comes to a close and I know that, once again, I have not been successful with some of my students.

To all my students, thank you for teaching me more about how to be a good teacher. I learn from you every year, and every year I hope that I can take what you teach me and bring it to my next class in the fall.

Have a great summer and keep on reading those good books!

Loving the homestretch: meaningful work and active engagement

Oh, these crazy days of May! As sure as the weather gets warmer, our students get antsy, lose their focus and challenge our well established rules and expectations. Attention spans wither and distractions bloom. But thanks to the engaging nature of PBL and student choice, I love my classroom in May.

Although my students know the year is almost over, they are (for the most part) fully engaged in meaningful work. They have invested weeks (even months) into final projects, and they know that due dates are right around the corner. They are proud of the work they have done and eager to see it all come to fruition in a completed, published form.

So instead of battling distracted students and misbehavior in May, I have the pleasure of circulating as they work, answering questions, admiring their progress, and enjoying the beauty of students blushing with pride as they show off their best work.

My 8th grade English students are putting the final touches on their magazines, a project that allows them to pursue a topic of interest to them, while also building their skills in essay writing, graphic design, media, advertising, target audience, and long-term project completion.

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Overlapping with the publication of their magazines is the completion of their digital portfolios, where they reflect on the work they have done this year, highlight their best pieces, and add symbolic images. Students spend the final class days presenting their portfolios to the class.

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My favorite part of their portfolios is the final piece: a gratitude slide, where students represent their journey with one final symbolic image and thank an adult on campus for their impact on their lives. Middle schoolers can be a bit self-absorbed, but with just a little prompting, they can see and appreciate how the adults in their lives have affected them. And it is through these final slides that we see not just the appreciation of teachers, but also counselors, administrators, campus supervisors, coaches, office and cafeteria staff. My students are fortunate to have so many inspirational role models across our campus:

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How do you keep your students engaged in meaningful work during these final, crazy days of May?

Brainstorm backwards, then look ahead

The first time I read Billy Collins’ poem “On Turning Ten,” I thought it would be wonderful if my 8th graders wrote poems about the nostalgia of childhood and the uncertainty of growing up, since they were kind of in the middle: finished with elementary school and looking forward to high school. We watched a video of Collins reciting the poem, and I distributed it on paper so we could dig in to the imagery that made the poem so powerful. We talked about the value of specific details (“I could make myself invisible by drinking a glass of milk a certain way,” “my bicycle never leaned against the garage as it does today, all the dark blue speed drained out of it”), and then they started working on their own poems.

Bicycle at Venice Beach, by Michael, flickr.com

Bicycle at Venice Beach, by Michael, flickr.com

But before long, they started complaining. They didn’t know what to write. They didn’t understand why Collins would compare growing up to “a kind of measles of the spirit, a mumps of the psyche, a disfiguring chicken pox of the soul.” They didn’t get the nostalgia at all. One student helped me see why the assignment that I thought would be so sweet was falling flat: “Mrs. Bradley, we aren’t sad about growing up! We can’t wait to get to high school, to learn to drive, to get a job!”

Ah ha. Now I got it. They were a little young to be feeling nostalgic about childhood; in fact, they were still in it. Collins, after all, didn’t write “On Turning Ten” when he was nine going on ten. He waited until he was an adult and could appreciate those years.

But I wasn’t ready to give up. I knew my students would experience rollercoaster emotions as they hurtled toward the end of 8th grade and began to anticipate moving on to high school. It may not be cool to fear growing up, but many of them were feeling just what Collins did; they just didn’t know how to identify and express it.

boys being boys, by Mighty mighty bigmac, flickr.com

So we worked backwards. They took out their notebooks for some brainstorming. We started with kindergarten, 1st grade, 2nd grade: what clothes do you remember wearing? What TV shows did you watch? What did you do at recess? What did you eat for lunch? Who were your teachers? Your friends?

Thinking of my now-grown children, I tossed out some memories of my own: “Did you wear those light-up shoes?” The room exploded! “I had those!” “Those were soooo cool!” “I had the rolling ones!” And then I asked, “Did you watch Blue’s Clues or Sponge Bob?”

The room was filled with happy remembering. Now it was my turn to be quiet while they got lost in the details of their childhoods. They brainstormed with their friends, bouncing memories off each other until the room swirled with sweet nostalgia, these just-turned-teens so worried about being cool, laughing as they remembered their worn out superhero costume that they insisted on wearing everywhere, including the grocery store.

Anders Ruff superhero party by Becca Bond Photography

Anders Ruff superhero party by Becca Bond Photography, flickr.com

Now I know that we need to start this assignment with backwards brainstorming, giving them time to fall into nostalgia on their own, to appreciate their innocent little selves before they think about growing up. And then when we read “On Turning Ten,” they get it. They sigh at the closing lines:

“But now when I fall upon the sidewalks of life,                                                                                    I skin my knees. I bleed.”

They understand those sidewalks now, and when they write their own poems, they are so sweetly nostalgic they make me cry, every time:

Now it’s time to hang up my invisibility cloak.                                                                                               Now you see me                                                                                                                                                       Exposed to pain and responsibilities.  ~Humberto

I was the crazy little girl who jumped off her bed                                                                                                 thinking I would dive into the ocean                                                                                                                       but instead ended up with a sprained arm.  ~Dulce

Math Facts, book reports, mission project, and cursive writing                                                                     These things troubled me about turning 10                                                                                                            I was worried about big changes.  ~Lucas

I won’t cry out of sadness                                                                                                                                              I refuse to give in to my fear                                                                                                                                         I can’t let go of the warm rays of sun on my skin                                                                                                 I’ll never let go of my imagination.  ~Brenna

Even if the images were in the past they stay with me forever,                                                                         all I have to do is open my mouth and tell my story with a smile.  ~Amelie

Sometimes a lesson has to go wrong before we can get it right. Right?