Teaching is Relentless; Be Extra

Last year I took four of my high school students to a nearby middle school to talk about writing. We had a great time, and on the way home, they started talking about new teachers in our school.

“It’s always an interesting social experiment when you get a brand-new teacher,” said Michael. “You can just see them wear out before your eyes.”

“Yes, yes!” they all chimed in.

I laughed.  “Oh surely not. They’re young. They have boundless energy.”

“No, it’s not like that. They’re enthusiastic up to a point in the semester—” Katrin said.

“—and then they just give up,” David said.

“Do you mean the kids are mean to them?” I asked.

“No, it’s not even that,” Jenna said. “They just give up.”

“They literally break down by degrees,” said Katrin.

As I return for my 24thyear, I think about all the new teachers who will be entering the classroom for the first time.  Lots of optimism, nervous anticipation, maybe a little dread. You’ve prepared your plans, you’ve arranged your room. What is waiting for you, however, is something you cannot possibly plan for, arrange, or anticipate. The first year of teaching is like the first crush, the first heartache, the first roller coaster, the first house fire all wrapped up into one.

Managing a classroom of teenagers for the first time is a difficult thing; managing a class of teenagers in order for them to learn something for the first time is on the dismantling-a-bomb-blindfolded-with-one-hand level of difficulty. You don’t learn how to do this well your first year. Or even your second year. To be honest, I’m still learning.

Many people who aren’t teachers don’t know what it takes to motivate a mob of disaffected fourteen-year-olds. Most people might think we just stand up and deliver some kind of Remember the Titans speech and everyone falls out on the floor and starts learning. When, in fact, it’s more like preparing, then delivering six 50-minute interactive sales presentations back-to-back with 30 + clients in each session, some openly hostile and disruptive.  And you have to convince them to trust you, follow you, to buy what you’re selling. That’s only the first day of the first week. You’ve got 174 more. It’s an unscripted, non-stop, relentless performance of exaggerated proportions.

But here’s what veteran teachers know:  teaching is overwhelming and can, if you let it, overwhelm you. It can bury you. And your students can watch as you collapse.

Or you can be extra.

Extra is one of those words that’s been around the teen smack vernacular for some time now, but doesn’t seem to have abated in usefulness. On Urban Dictionary, my favorite definition (as posted by Performingfartist ) is “Doing the absolute damn most. For no reason.”

I like this definition very much.

When you look at veteran teachers, you have to think: what’s their secret? How have they hung on so long? And I think the answer is in their ability to be mind-bendingly, odds-defyingly EXTRA.

Good teachers are the absolute damn most.  All the time. In your face. Good teachers are sold out to knowledge. They are stoked about the path. They love to learn, and they want their students to love to learn as well.

Can’t understand a concept the first time it’s explained? Extra breaks it down, uses a different approach. Maybe a third or fourth time. With hand puppets. Extra reads a new book over the weekend and can’t wait to tell her students about it. Extra high fives the struggling. Extra learns how to pronounce all the names correctly. Extra knows your mom has chemotherapy this week. Extra collaborates with other teachers, reads professional books, always strives to get better at teaching.

I’m not saying new teachers should do extra things, like stay at school until midnight or spend all weekend lesson planning. That’s madness. I’m saying whatever dream led you to chase this profession, major on that. Social change, writing, reading, community, empowerment, whatever – be that thing.

Extra is a sense of humor, a deep, abiding love for students, a clear-eyed sincerity and earnestness that builds trust. Extra uses tech or gaming or poetry or music. Extra is any means necessary. Extra is every child, every day.

When I think about my colleagues, especially the veterans who have thrived and survived in this profession, it’s because they have fun at their job. They are #ALLIN. My veteran colleagues at Lafayette (Exhibit A: Our science department) break out in song in the middle of class, bring their guitar to class, wear funny hats, make up crazy mnemonics to help students remember content.

In Teachers (1984) my favorite teacher movie, (and by favorite, I mean, most ridiculous), the best teacher in the whole school is a mental patient who is mistaken for the history teacher substitute and spends the whole movie pretending to be George Washington.  How much would you learn about the Revolutionary War if you were being taught by someone who literally believed he was George Washington?

So here’s my Remember The Titans speech for new teachers:   You will get through it.  This, too, shall pass. But don’t give up. Don’t dissolve, wilt, or crumble. Go out with other teachers. Find a tightly-knit, sacred support group where you feel safe.  Wail and scream over iced coffee or buckets of beer if that’s your thing, then get up the next morning, brush your teeth and get after it. Get crazy after it. Get so extra after it that you become the teacher who is the absolute most.

For the best reason ever.

 

 

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To See Each of My Students

Within the next few weeks, most of America’s teachers will return to their classrooms and attempt to do this increasingly difficult job of teaching young people to think. Right now, many of us are printing our rosters and figuring out what non-lame opening day activity will welcome everyone to step inside.

As I’ve been thinking about returning to school, a post by one of my former students showed up in my Facebook memories. Several years ago, she had thanked me and two other teachers who she said “believed in me when I was being self destructive and was not at all doing what was best for me.”  She said we had encouraged her until she “started to make a future for myself.” It was–as my friend Elizabeth phrases it–a  teacher paycheck. I love getting those.

Her post reminded me that one of our jobs as high school teachers is to not just see the teenager sitting (sulking, beaming, pouting, bouncing, slouching) in my classroom. We also must see an adult in the process of becoming. If we have the eyes to see it, we can envision that future for all our students.

The ability to see the successful adult inside the petulant teen is not something they teach you in teacher college. Perhaps they teach that in seminary. Some days are harder than others to love the kid who is spitting in your face. In most cases, parents can do this with ease – wipe the spit off and love their children over the top of insolence, but they’ve got DNA and familial fuzzies on their side.  Teachers? Not as much.  In my teaching career, I feel like I have not done a great job with this, even though I know that each year this is my number one goal:  to see each of my students as an individual. Really, really see them. Not just as a mass of faces, as a teen stereotype, as a data point, but as a real living, breathing, hoping, fearing human.

Here are a few ways I can do that:

  • Do the inner work necessary to be a calm, non-reactive presence in the classroom. Despite what the inspirational Pinterest posters might have you believe, we teachers are mere mortals with petty egos, who experience fear, shame, and pride just like our students. When a student lashes out at us, our first instinct might be to lash right back. Or to belittle them. Or to silence and exclude them. But all of these responses come from our ego, from our fears. If I feel targeted, triggered, angered to the point of lashing out, I need to ask myself where this reaction is coming from. We must be the adult in the room, not by virtue of our chronological age, but by maturity and equanimity, the one that responds with a calm, kind word formed in love and grace.
  • Carve out a distinctive, personal connection with every kid on your roster. This is difficult when you see 150 kids a day, but it is so important to know our kids beyond the beginning of the year interest inventory. Ask questions about their lives, their families, their neighborhoods. Tap into their passions, get curious about their delights, their past times. Challenge yourself to curate one or two positive facts about every student on your roster and then capitalize on those. Be genuine in this practice as students know when a teacher fakes concern for self-interest. If your life-work balance permits, go see your students on the stage, on the court, on the field. If your daily schedule permits, pop into their math class where they are a whiz-kid and watch them shine. See them in different environments to know them completely.
  • Create an inclusive classroom that celebrates each student’s gifts, community, heritage, diversity. This practice too is about seeing the student, not as a little cog in the big wheel of your classroom, but as a unique person contributing with other unique people to form a community of learning. This will feel impossible on a Friday before a holiday, but if you prioritize learning and its power, plus the equal access that all students have to this power, the community will happen.
  • Believe in your students so much, they begin to believe in themselves. See their potential so clearly that they can see it too. My students are already thinkers, readers and writers, but they are not yet the kinds of thinkers, readers, writers that they can become. As Anne Lamott says, “We begin to find and become ourselves when we notice how we are already found, already truly, entirely, wildly, messily, marvelously who we were born to be.” (Oprah Magazine, 2012)
  • Practice compassion. I find it helpful to remember those who showed me grace when I was a squirrelly, self-absorbed little flibber-di-jibbet teen. I remember my teachers, my band directors, my older female neighbors, my Aunt Tilly and Auntie Adele indulging me when I jabbered on self-importantly about this or that. When I sulked, I remember they encouraged me with their laughter, their interest, their genuine questions. When I am compassionate toward my students, through the legacy lens of the gifts my elders have given me, I can see them, not just as they really are, but who they are meant to be as well.

Right now, I’ve just had a leisurely second cup of coffee, sitting on the back porch, listening to the birds chirp and the bees buzz. I’m as chill and as magnanimous as I will ever be. But that’s because I slept until 9 am. And the lunch-nap potential of my day is promising. In ten days, all that will change. I’ll be getting up at 5 am and I’ll be “on” from 7 am until around 4pm, then I’ll drive home and work another hour or two after dinner on school things. Teachers become harried and stressed, strung out and taxed by myriad burdens.

I want to remember this: my number one goal is to treat each student in my classroom with humanity, with dignity, with respect, no matter how hectic the year becomes. To see them, as they are now, and as they will be in their most successful future. And be satisfied when I go home at night that I had a small part in that success.

 

 

A Deer Killing Story: Moving from Experience to Narrative

Over two decades of teaching writing, I’ve discovered most student writers (and most adult writers) have trouble distinguishing what details matter and what details are extraneous during a first draft.  They may not know what details matter because they don’t even know why the story they’re telling matters.  Figuring out the significance of a memory is one of the initial steps in crafting a successful narrative about that memory.

Including everything they experienced without interpretation keeps the memory or story at the level of an anecdote.  It’s a yarn untouched by the powerful tools of narrative; it’s an un-interpreted experience.  How did this happen?  Yes, we need to know that, but “why did this happen?” is the most critical question a student can ask of herself. When students interpret their experience and recognize its significance and meaning, they begin to shape the narrative in a way that creates a greater degree of both personal and public use.

Here’s an example:  A boy decides to write a personal narrative about killing his first deer. So what? For the record, as a teacher in rural Kentucky for 15 years, I have read approximately 12,893 deer killing stories. Everybody has a “I shot a deer” story. But it’s the student who writes the “I shot a deer and here’s how it changed me, or here’s what I learned, or here’s why it was an important memory” that raises the experience to the level of a narrative through interpretation and witness.

When I worked as site coordinator for Rural Voices Radio, a National Public Radio program featuring students writing about place, I received hundreds of these hunting essays as we put together the program that would ultimately become, Sweet Home Kentucky.  The representative deer hunting story we chose for the recording was one that perfectly rose above the “then this happened, then this happened” story to become a beautiful narrative about loss.

In “POW!” by tenth grader Travis Dixon, he and his cousin, Jack, go deer hunting on a nearby farm. During the drive, Dixon says he is a “nervous wreck” and is glad when a Kid Rock song comes on the radio, so he can take his mind off of what he is about to do. They arrive at the farm and hunker down behind some hay bales to await their prey.  Unfortunately, they have no luck.  As it grows dark, they decide to go home.

As they drive away, however, Dixon spots a “big beautiful doe with a small fawn” standing in the creek below them.  Dixon commands Jack to stop the truck.  “My heart was racing with fear and guilt for what I was about to do.” He sticks his gun out the truck window (“illegal” he says) and shoots the doe, aiming high to avoid shooting the baby.  “You got her,” his cousin says. “Good shot.”  The deer runs about 500 yards and then drops in a briar patch.  The fawn, however, “just stood there in shock.”  Dixon and his cousin follow the blood trail and find the deer, “still alive and bleeding profusely from the bullet wound.”  Then Dixon comes to a critical point in his narrative. “My cousin did something that will stay in my mind forever. He cut her throat, and she died.  I just about cried for what I had done. I had taken this fawn’s mommy.”

It’s on this last sentence that the story turns. There’s no indication the speaker has made some revelation to put down his gun, become an animal rights activist and eat vegan for the rest of his life. In fact, if the essay had included those details, I would have been disappointed that this beautiful story had trivialized itself into a sermon.

No, actually, something more powerful happens. It’s evidence of a personal epiphany – that he recognizes the magnitude of what he has done and the emotional and personal weight of killing an animal. And with that last sentence, Dixon pulls together the narrative elements that move this story from being merely a retelling of chronological events and shapes it into a narrative.  By layering in the details of his fear, the long day of waiting for the prize, the illegal shot taken out the truck window, the quick and decisive moment of his cousin slicing the throat of the doe, and the vision of the baby fawn transfixed in fear, Dixon frames the story into a narrative that evokes the experience for the reader, moving us to feel the same loss and guilt. In fact, we experience the moment because Dixon sifted and selected the details guaranteed to move us to his inescapable purpose.

 

A Renga for Room 303

From our window looking out onto the world

Last year, our poetry unit focused on imagery and language.  This year, we focused on form and function and looked at some different forms like sestinas and pantoums.  Most of my students had some experience with the haiku as a form, but only two had heard of the traditional Japanese form of linked verse called a renga (pronounced“reng-guh”).This form encourages collaboration:  one student writes a traditional haiku of three lines of five, seven, and five syllables, then gives it to another student who writes a “waki,” a response of two seven-syllable lines. Traditional themes for rengas are often about nature and love, but we were inspired by “Renga for Obama,” a collaboration of 200 poets curated by poet Major Jackson and published by the Harvard Review, as a way to celebrate, elegize, commemorate, and memorialize something we all shared: our classroom.

(If you want to inspire your students, I suggest you watch the doc-u-reading of  Crossing State Lines: An American Renga, a collaboration of 54 American poets in a “poetic relay race”of ten lines each about America. It’s a marvel.)

For this activity, we used long strips of paper and spent the last twenty minutes of class, writing haikus and passing them around the room to someone who would respond with a waki. There were lots of giggles and threats not to “ruin” their haikus with a wacky wakis. Also, lots of syllable counting on fingers

That afternoon, I sat down to read them. Clear patterns and themes emerged. There were a lot of inside jokes, allusions to shared experiences, and references to a suspected ghost that haunts our room (referred to currently as Toast Ghost Malone). They referenced our third-floor perch with the birds, our view high above Lafayette, and the fairy lighting I have strung around the room. But also the theme of safety, warmth, coffee, creativity, frustration, and beauty materialized.  Here are a few of their rough drafts:

 

Scribbles of pencil                                                                  

Minds crowded with ideas

Angrily erase

 The birds outside chirp on roofs

listening to compositions

  

Small, oblivious

the way we wish we could be

safe in the bright sun

 Underneath the fairy light

the sound of writing pencils

 

Here is a safe place

hidden in coffee heaven

robins and donuts

 Tucked away from the outside

creative machine working

 

Walker cracks a joke

Sarah loves Luke Bryan and trucks

Sarah Grace wants tape

 Here we speak with Welsh accents

‘Welcome to Alabama’

 

The smell of coffee

Hypnotizes us to think

This may be a cult

 Chanting, heaving, laughing sounds

Passer by-ers squint and frown

 

Toast Ghost Malone is

A sister, a father, and

Caregiver to all

 He knocked over the desk laughing

Then stood over our heads, pecking

 

Where is my pencil?

Who took my pink princess pen?

Oh, Toast Ghost, not again

The ghost continues to haunt

The gentle end of March wind

 

All journals worn, torn

Pencils break with ambition

Coffee and tea stains

 Wire bird cages, plastic

Autumn leaves in Christmas lights

 

Surrounded by books

A whiteboard full of wise words

Coffee mugs and art

 Laughing through our deepest fear

Ideal conditions now

 

The bull inside my head

Open the gate, watch it run

Stampede, let it roar

 Watch the crowd erupt with joy

Their screams are heard from miles

 

We are a safe space

On the third floor, oh the stairs  

Free from harsh judgement

Laughing through our deepest fear

Of the mad poets in here

 

People think we’re crazy

They hear us screaming through doors

I bet they’re jealous

 Of our own personal ghost

And kick-ass coffee machine

 

Blank, but untethered

Safely confused until some

Startling explosion

 The caw of a careless crow

Perched outside our large windows

 

That great creative

Spark, in the form of a bird

Like a phoenix

 A birth and rebirth in tandem

When every mind comes alive

 

Yellow world outside

Sat on a muddied rainbox

Stones now falling from our tongues

Each of us speaking our mind

Words full from colorful lands

 

Refuge from the world

Why I want to come to school

The ghost is pretty cool

 Toast Ghost Post Malone stealing

Pencils and also fridges

 

The table thing was an

Accident I swear you guys

Stop mentioning it

 I just wanna hang with you:

The cool kids, coffee, and toast

 

Toast ghost feel welcome

To our sweater vest abode

Please, bring disco pants.

 Feel free to bring your own mug

We have plenty of coffee

 

But you gotta pay

Like twenty dollars, man, you know,

Pay rent or get out

 Ah, not  the rent thing, again

McDonalds won’t hire ghosts

 

We are safe in here

Wearing vibrant reds and blues

Refuge from the grey

 The windows are frozen still

Please don’t come in here, we’re shy

 

Safety in numbers

Spilling community tea

Secrets always safe

 Underneath the twinkle lights

The trees know all our sins

 

Soft orbs shedding light

On each other, igniting

Pens and crisp paper

 Fire and lightning, knowledge

Truthful clichés, warm coffee

 

The warmth of being

Accepted by your peers and

Smiles fill the air here

 There is only truth and joy

Comfort to be found in here

The Theory of Omission

In his essay “Writing by Omission,” John McPhee (2015) quotes Ernest Hemingway who, in his 1932 nonfiction book Death in the Afternoon, describes his theory of omission : “If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.”

In a 1966 interview with George Plimpton in the New York Times Book Review, Truman Capote also endorses this theory, while reflecting on his non-fiction masterpiece, In Cold Blood. “I suppose if I used just 20 percent of all the material I put together over those years of interviewing, I’d still have a book two thousand pages long! I’d say 80 percent of the research I did I have never used.”

When I assign a non-fiction text,  I like to challenge students to infer, from what they read in an essay, what the author didn’t use. Inferring what a writer left out is a great exercise to illuminate the power of a writer’s choices. This exercise is also a great way to start a discussion about choice:  how do you know what to cut out and what to leave in?

In this exercise, I want students to examine and make a guess about the part of the iceberg that isn’t visible. Make some guesses about the 80 % that never made it into the essay.  What was left out? Why do you think it was left out? What facts, research, stories, or studies must have been known by the author but doesn’t appear on the page?

I use an essay like Tom Philpott’s “How Factory Farms Play Chicken with Antibiotics,” about the use of antibiotics in the poultry industry.  In its original form, published in Mother Jones magazine, the essay is accompanied by 10 pictures, 4 bold-faced blurbs, three infographics and one video clip. There are 54 paragraphs and around 4700 words.

Philpott introduces Bruce Stewart-Brown, Perdue’s vice president for food safety, who serves as sort of an informational guide for the whole essay. Speaking in first person, Philpott starts us in a scene: “The massive metal double doors open and I’m hit with a whoosh of warm air. Inside the hatchery, enormous racks are stacked floor to ceiling with brown eggs.”

As students read, I ask them to keep a running list of ideas, information, facts, figures, studies, research, etc., that the writer must have known, but has clearly left out. Students demonstrate what they think was left out through collecting textual evidence, and they make some guesses about why the author omitted it.

In this essay, Philpott breezily moves back and forth between narrative, information, and argumentation.   Students immediately notice that he has omitted the USDA guidelines for poultry production, much of the history of poultry farming, and the relationship Philpott has with Stewart-Brown.

The next conversation we have is why. Why does he leave these elements out?

“He doesn’t need it,” Leslie said. “He’s paring it down to the essentials.”

“The essentials of what? The story?” I ask.

“He doesn’t need it for the story he’s telling,” she said. “He’s only putting in stuff for his reasons.”

“His reasons?”

“His purpose, what he’s trying to tell the reader about,” she concluded.

This activity goes a long way to show students that not every ingredient they’ve laid out on the kitchen table of their research has to go into the soup of their argument; only those ingredients that’s going to make the dish delicious and nutritious, only those elements that support purpose.

This activity has two benefits:  it illustrates the power of choice and it also illustrates Hemingway’s theory of omission.  The most powerful essays are the ones that feature the dignity of the iceberg.

Generating Questions That Lead to Claims: 24 Hours with a Camera Crew

My students don’t remember an entertainment landscape that didn’t include around-the-clock reality shows.  More than 750 reality shows aired on cable television in 2015, 350 of which were brand new. From talent contests to quirky families to dating hopefuls, reality shows appear to be scripted, but in fact, they aren’t written until all the footage has been shot. During the editing process, the director and editors look for patterns, storylines, opportunities for tension and arcs as they create the narrative.  All scenes that don’t support the narrative end up being cut away, which is one way I often explain writing revision to students.

For the purpose of generating writing ideas, last week I asked students to pretend they had a camera crew following them around for 24 hours. Students recorded everything they did for the previous 24 hour days by jotting down a word, a clause or a phrase.  Instead of writing just “work” or “school” or “homework,” I asked that students write a short description of what they were actually doing as if a camera crew was shooting footage.  What was the scene? Who was in the scene? What were they doing?  

The key to this activity is to ask students to look at their own life as if it were a reality show, looking for questions, patterns, significant moments, and meaning.   Watching as an audience or an outside observer allowed students to create distance and objectivity. I also asked students to use a third person pronoun to refer to themselves instead of using “I” and always write “the subject, ” as in “the subject made a tuna fish sandwich.”  Once students compiled this list, we pretended to be producers looking at 24-hours of footage for a controlling question or a claim that could be proven or challenged by the reality of this footage. 

In the documentary film “Sherman’s March,” filmmaker Ross McElwee’s burning question at the beginning of his quest was:   how did Union General William Tecumseh Sherman’s military approach during the final months of the Civil War effect the South today?  But right before McElwee embarked on a road trip to follow Sherman’s footsteps, his girlfriend dumped him, and the march took on a very different pursuit, namely as Vincent Canby’s 1986 New York Times review states:   “Is romantic love possible in an age of supermarkets, fast food, nuclear arms and the sort of lightweight camera and sound equipment that allows anybody to film his own life?”

In Elizabeth Barrett’s 2000 Appalshop documentary “Stranger with a Camera,” she states her controlling questions in a voice over throughout the story of Kentuckian Hobert Ison and filmmaker Hugh O’Connor: How is a camera like a gun? Can filmmakers show poverty without shaming the people they portray? What are the responsibilities of any of us who take images of other people and put them to our own uses? What is the difference between how people see their own place and how others represent it?

After students recorded their 24-hour camera footage, I asked them to look over their scenes and extract a broad controlling question. This question could render a multitude of great starting points for informational and argumentative texts.  Wording their claim or counter claim in the form of a question helps students see the subject from various angles.  A question requires students to assume a pursuant stance in order to answer it. Documentary film makers often call this a controlling question.  It’s the question that clarifies and focuses the shooting, production, and arrangement of the film. Here are some of the questions my students extracted from their 24-hours of “footage.”

How does one’s differing forms of entertainment influence their completion of everyday tasks? Can reading and music have a positive effect on procrastination and completion of school work? Do certain daily activities affect the quality of sleep?
How sleep deprived are high school students? Does high school wear down students? Is there really a life outside school for students?
Can being antisocial be crippling?

 

How does one balance dreams and reality and what is the price of trying? Does engaging with passion breed discontent for other things?
Are teens not reading books anymore? Are teens depressed? Are students riddled with anxiety?
Does a church community benefit a student’s overall day? Does politics have to lack good humor across party lines? Are messy people good at anything?
Why do we sometimes avoid things that make us happy? Can someone be social, yet not? Why is fiction such a great escape?
When does obsessive become too obsessive?

 

Can a person have a relationship with God without being religious? Can someone talk like a prick and walk like a good friend?
Is sloth bad? How does participating in a sport affect a high schooler’s life? Are stereotypes about teenagers accurate?
How can you balance school with everything else you want to do? Can a busy high school student still be content and relaxed? How does one withstand the mind-numbing grind that is high school?
Are teens too attracted to technology and their phones? Are we expecting too much from students? Why do some try to replace human interactions with non-living things?

Notice there’s a disproportionate number of questions dealing with fatigue, expectations, procrastination, technology, introversion, and social anxiety, all topics that weigh heavily on teens today.  I did this activity on the first day back from Winter Break, so we were all dying a little inside which explains the dark undertones of these questions. However, these questions make great starting places for both argumentative and informational texts, writing that is pulled directly from their lives.

Training TAs: The Art of Empathetic Inquiry

This morning I met with a group of students and two teachers to launch a mobile writing lab at Lafayette High School.  This writing lab pilot is the brainchild of the Lafayette writing committee, chaired by our writing resource teacher, Holly.

We don’t have the physical space for the kind of writing center you might see on a university campus where students make appointments with a tutor to discuss writing assignments. We also don’t have the staff to supervise such a venture.   Also, a before-school or after-school writing center wouldn’t be able to serve students who have no reliable transportation.  

Many of our students need one-on-one or small group assistance with their writing. Our writing committee also wanted to support our large faculty, who assign writing tasks, but need help with the time-intensive process of brainstorming, drafting, revising, and editing necessary for quality writing.

This program allows teachers to “check out” writing teaching assistants (TAs). Similar to reserving a computer lab or a tech cart of laptops, teachers can reserve one or two tutors through an online app. The TAs will email the reserving teacher an intake form which allows teachers to describe the writing aid they need. TAs will then attend the class and provide the requested assistance.

In November, the English department recommended students whose writing, speaking, listening, and leadership abilities positioned them as naturals for this role.  From these recommendations, Holly invited fifteen students to participate in the pilot and attend the training this morning.

After Holly discussed the nuts-and-bolts of reserving a TA (in a future blog, I will hyperlink examples of how we set up our teacher intake form, our teacher feedback form, and our running record of TA work) she asked students to introduce themselves and tell a story about a writing assignment that had been difficult for them.

Sharing writing war stories was a great place to start the conversation about writing tutoring.  One must come to the table with respect for the difficult task of writing, and empathy and understanding are the cornerstones of any good teaching foundation.

After we reviewed our writing TA manual (a Google folder full of brainstorming strategies, graphic organizers, research resources, plus a bell and lunch schedule and a list of our faculty, their rooms, and planning periods) I asked TAs to test their tutoring chops by role playing with one another, using anonymous student samples. One sample was an argumentative essay about the most important word in Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech.

“What might you say to this student?” I asked.

“I might ask her if she thought she took a long time to get to her point,” Kris said.

“Okay. Pretend I’m the student who has written this essay. What might your opening question be?”

“Do you think you took too long to get to your point?” Kris said.

“No, I don’t.  I think it’s good,” I said in the role of the student and pushed the essay back across the table toward Kris, who laughed, immediately realizing he had backed himself into a tutoring corner by asking a yes or no question instead of an open-ended question.

“A student will give you a yes-or-no answer if you ask a yes-or-no question, and the conversation comes to a grinding halt, right?” I said.  The group shook their heads, yes.

“I would say to the student, in your introduction you make a lot of good points, but you need to get to the point sooner,”   Kenna said.

“So yes, that’s clearly what needs to happen in this introduction, but what kind of question can you ask this writer that will allow her to arrive at that same conclusion?” I said.

“Let me try,” Leslie said. “I would say, I like how you have a lot of good points, but where is the main point that you want to make? Can you underline your main point?  And what other points come before the main point?”

Leslie had it. She was leading the student to make an independent discovery about the writing instead of fixing it herself. She was using inquiry to move the student writer toward a solution. 

“Think of the adage, give a man a fish, he eats for the day; teach a man to fish and he can feed himself for life. You can fix a peer’s writing today, but that only helps him once.  Or you can show him how to think through his writing independently and become self sufficient. ”

As the training continued, I was so impressed with how empathetic our TAs were and how they were using inquiry to assess student needs. This on-the-spot diagnostic inquiry requires a TA to 1) access the student’s need, while 2) figuring out the best way to help the student meet that need, while 3) forming a question that will lead that student to discover the answer to his own problem.  This kind of formative assessment is a skill many actual teachers struggle with, but it’s the key to meeting students where they are.

So, our TAs have been trained and are ready to be checked out Monday morning. Holly and I are excited about tracking the data and feedback we get from students and teachers on the efficacy of this model.  Stay tuned to hear more about this process!