Writing Lessons

During the summer of 2015, I was writing what I had hoped might become a collection of short stories. One day  I took a break to write a letter to prospective students of the literary arts program where I teach.  As I wrote the letter,  I was struck by how differently I taught writing then as compared with the first half of my teaching career.

That might make a good book, I thought, and I jotted down about eight rough ideas for chapters.  The next day, I typed it up and did some research on publishing houses.  I contacted an education writer friend of mine for pointers.  Then I wrote out a more formal proposal, a fleshed out table of contents, coupled with a cover letter and shipped it all off.  That was June 30.  

On July 7, my cell phone rang. It was an acquisitions editor with Heinemann Press. They were interested in my book idea.  I was completely floored.  I thought I had just sold my first book.  

Not so.

During the next nine months, I rewrote that proposal six times.  My editor was interested in my idea, but I couldn’t frame the subject in a way that convinced the marketing department. Finally in March, I was offered a contract and started the process of writing.  

During the summer of 2016, I wrote daily,  and by the time  I was ready to go back to school in August, I had a 70,000-word draft finished. I revised that draft twice, and the final manuscript was delivered to Heinemann on January 3, 2017.  

Sometime in September, I will hold the finished book, Project-Based Writing: Teaching Writers to Manage Time and Clarify Purpose, in my hands, this book that happened while I was working on another book. This is the way life works, of course.  

I always thought my first book would be either a memoir or a collection of short stories. A teacher’s resource book just wasn’t sexy enough for my inaugural foray into the world of publishing, but here it is, and I’m so proud of it and stunned by the insights I’ve gained along the way. In no particular order, here are some of those observations:

Every teacher should write a book about her practice.  Like writing, the actual moves of teaching are enormously personal and idiosyncratic. My teaching strategies are mostly of the moment. Until I sat down to try to  articulate my practice, I had no idea what elemental steps figured into my methods. Even though I daily reflect on my teaching practice, it’s often done anecdotally with friends over BBQ nachos, and not as a serious reflective endeavor. Writing this book forced me to seriously look at what I do; some of it was nice, even fun, to look at. Some of it, I realized, didn’t work, but I got the opportunity to figure that out.  

I am a first draft disaster. I have never been a writer who thinks through a logical line or narrative arc,  then commits that to an outline. I just throw a bunch of sentences on a blank page and cry for several days.  I have to write bits and halves and parts before I recognize the whole. Once I’ve discovered that, I have to organize it in such a way that readers won’t want to toss it in the trash in disgust. Organization requires looking at big chunks of writing for patterns and commonalities, then arranging those chunks in a sequential way that helps a reader see the point. So I wish I’d learned how to outline earlier in life.   

Edu-speak makes me lazy.  There were so many times when I was writing this book I unconsciously lapsed into the convenient jargon of our ilk.  When I couldn’t find the right words to describe something real in my classroom, sentences like “Students benefit from innovative competency-based practices in a data-driven environment” were always hanging around like an old boyfriend– comfortable, willing, and only a keystroke away. Ugh.  Think about how much better those awful education classes would have been if the writers had just used regular words to describe learning. Why don’t we demand better writing from the books of our discipline?  

Keeping a source list is crucial.  In college, I hated compiling the works cited and consulted page after I finished a research paper; it just seemed so unnecessary.  I wasn’t vested in the writing I was doing and the stakes were low. (This is how, I imagine, most students feel about writing for teachers.)  But during the writing of this book, I realized the stakes were much higher.  People would be reading this book, I hoped, and I certainly didn’t want to unwittingly plagiarize someone else’s language. The problem I had was 1) I don’t typically write down the sources of cool things I find in books or online, and 2) there are books, essays, and stories I’ve read so many times, they’re ingrained in my mind to the point where I didn’t know where their words ended and my words began. Two weeks before the book was printed, I was horrified to discover I had not attributed a beautiful quote from a friend of mine.  Source list:  it’s a must.

No one really knows what you’re doing.  If I mentioned to friends I was working on a book, “that’s nice” or “how interesting” was the normal response, followed by silence.  The last thing anyone wants to ask is “what’s it about?” because then they’re on the hook to act interested while I nanner on for twenty minutes about some possibly esoteric topic.  So when you write a book, you are laboring completely alone.  You are working and creating and having bad days and good days and stonewalls and breakthroughs, yet no one knows you are doing anything at all. You might as well be lying on the couch watching SVU.  As is the case with all creative endeavors, I suppose.  As is the case with research scientists too. Only after the creation emerges can it be shared with others.

 

New Teacher Series/ Question 8: How does a teacher organize attendance and make-up work?

I’m the worst person in the world to ask about attendance because our attendance clerk calls my room daily, screaming, “POST YOUR ATTENDANCE NOW!!”

When the kidlets bumble into the room and the energy starts rolling, I want to grab hold of all that great boo-yah and channel it with a great activity or conversation, and I just forget to take attendance. However, taking attendance accurately and consistently is one of the most important systems you need to develop, so I attempt to keep myself organized.

There are dozens of Excel spreadsheets and templates for tracking attendance on TeachersPayTeachers, and Pinterest has over 1000 boards of trackers. There are also great lesson plan books, such as those at Erin Condren, that come with absentee logs, personalized quotes, and fru-fru designs, but these can be quite expensive, and I like to spend my money on swank shoes.

While your school will require you to post attendance and grades in Infinite Campus, which is the student information system used by Kentucky, I prefer to have a hard-copy for everything in case a rogue nation-state destroys our power grid, and I need to know who hasn’t turned in Chapter 11 vocab words.  I’m old school, and while I am gradually moving toward the paperless universe, I still have six actual paper management strategies I use:

Attendance: I keep attendance in a large three-ring binder with tabs for each class.  In each divided tab, I place weekly rosters for each class with the student names down the first column and the date and day of the week across the top row.  There are approximately 36 weeks in a school year, so each week has a separate roster followed by a blank page for notes.  I like making notes for the future fourth-block me when I’ve forgotten my own name or where I’ve parked. At my school, tardiness is tracked through our office with a system called Tardy Table, but if you don’t have that system where you teach, you can also use your attendance log to track tardies as well and then deal with habitual tardiness according to your classroom policy.

Make-Up Work:  At the end of the day (i.e. before I forget what actually happened that day) I fill out make-up slips for students who were absent and place it in their student folders (see below.)  These 3×5 yellow forms are very simple.  They say: Hey, we missed you on _________________ (date).  This is what you missed:___________________ (description of activity/lesson/quiz/etc).  This make-up work is due on __________________ (date). When you turn this in, please staple this form to the front of your make-up work and drop it in the MAKE UP WORK box on top of the black filing cabinet.

Some teachers create a make-up work file for each class somewhere in their room, and it is the student’s responsibility to consult the wall calendar to see what was missed and retrieved the missed assignments from the file. Other teachers post everything on their website, and it’s the student’s responsibility to retrieve and complete it in a timely manner. You will develop your own system, but it’s important to have a system because otherwise, you’ll be standing in front of your class with five kids pestering you for make-up work while you’re trying to begin the next day’s lesson.  And invariably one of them will utter the ridiculous question: “Did we do anything important yesterday?” to which you should devise an answer for right now. My top three are: 1) No, the world stops spinning when you’re not here, 2) We sacrificed a goat and the gods of chaos showed up, or 3) Everyone in class got a $1000 from Oprah, but you had to be present to win.  Sorry.

Bathroom Passes: To reduce the amount of rambling around in the halls during class time, our school policy states that each student has four bathroom passes per class per semester.  That means all students who are in four classes a day (we are on block scheduling) would have 16 bathroom passes or 32 passes for the year in addition to the time between classes and the time going to and from lunch.  If a student needs to go to the bathroom more than this for a medical reason, she is issued a special permit.   To keep track of these passes, I created another large three-ring binder with rosters per class with four columns titled “Pass1, Pass2, Pass3, Pass4” and position it next to the hook where I hang the physical hall pass.  The students are responsible for recording the date of their bathroom pass, and I initial it. I check this often for shenanigans.

Student Work Folders: If someone hooks you up on DonorsChoose.org/teachers and agrees to finance your organizational dreams, you might be able to purchase student drawers or cubbies or mailboxes to file student work, but I have found that a hanging file folder crate (one per class) at less than $10 is a great investment.  Each student has a file with his/her name, and in this file, you can organize return papers, make-up work, parent notes, or school/district forms that need to be filled out.  You should also purchase an expandable file folder for student work you need to take home and grade.

Homework Trays:  The art teacher at my former school hooked me up with some fab storage bins that I’ve been using faithfully as homework trays, (Thank you Becky Banks!) but you could easily use the lids of copy paper boxes.  Just mark them according to class, example: ENG I- A2, ENG II – A3, ENG I – A4, etc. and establish a procedure within the first weeks of school for students to submit all homework and/or seatwork in that box. Remember, the efficiency of this system is designed to free up time for learning, discovery, and general educational merriment.

Substitute Binder:  This is a necessity for all classroom teachers.  Keep your sub folder up-to-date in case your own child projectile vomits across the breakfast table, and you have to call a sub an hour before school starts.  Make sure you include class rosters, a bell schedule, an attendance log, a map of your school, instructions on what to do in the event of a fire/tornado/earthquake/active shooter drill, important phone numbers like the front office, a list of your daily duties, such as bus/hall/bathroom duties, plus a set of emergency lesson plans for every class, and a list of students in every class that are trusted helpers.

 

 

 

New Teacher Series/Question 1: What were your biggest mistakes as a new teacher?

I was 23 years old with a degree in English and a Kentucky teaching certificate.  Just legal enough to be dangerous. My first job was in a rural, independent school with grades K-12 in one building. The graduating class had 32 kids. I was given no syllabus, no curriculum, only a textbook, a student handbook, and a calendar from the Army recruiter who stopped by my room while I cleaned the four inches of chalk dust that had settled on everything in sight.

I started that first day with some games and journaling prompts with zero instructional value or connection. My college of ed professor had promised these would promote “a robust marketplace of ideas.” Those students indulged my lameness for exactly two days, then the honeymoon was over. For weeks, they defied me openly or ignored me and went to sleep.  When I tried to get control of the class, they were angry with me for not going along with the no- expectations contract I had unknowingly signed that first day.

As bad as that school year was for me, I’m sure it was even worse for my students.  I was immature, unprepared, and inexperienced. I didn’t feel like a real teacher, so I didn’t act like one.  I didn’t know what I was supposed to do. I didn’t understand the gravity of my role.  I didn’t even have appropriate clothes.  I didn’t understand how to communicate effectively, how to forge relationships, how to be empathetic while also being emphatic.

In no particular order, and leaving out about 200 more, here are my five biggest first-year mistakes, and my suggestions for avoiding them:

  • I had no idea how to actually teach anything. In college I studied literature and composition. I had exactly six education classes (one which taught us how to put a cassette in a tape player and push “on”) plus student teaching.  I knew how to write a lesson plan. I knew how to write a philosophy of education statement. I was a proficient reader and writer, but I had no idea how to take what I did intuitively and break it down in steps to help someone who was struggling.

Tip: Learning occurs at the intersection of desire and need, so get to know your students. Figure out what they need, what they want, and what they care about.  Tap into their prior knowledge and help them make connections.  Teach skills in the context of student interests and ask open-ended questions.  Learn how to break down a complex concept like reading or writing into its elemental components, and explain those components in clear, simple language, so a 17-year-old who reads on a second grade level can understand you and still maintain his dignity.

  • I did not set clear expectations for my classroom, my students, or myself. Setting clear and high expectations for academic success and helping your students meet those expectations is the cornerstone of education. Expectations are not rules; they are statements that set the bar and establish the culture of your classroom’s community.

Tip: Expectations should be both high and simple.  They should be posted and communicated to your students in positive language.   Don’t be a hypocrite; make sure you model those expectations every day by how you talk, dress, prepare lessons, and conduct business.

  • I did not establish classroom protocols. The organizational side of teaching with its hundred moving parts can murder, bury and say Mass over a new teacher.  I was cluttered, disorganized and frantic, which was exhausting and crazy-making.  Instead of establishing procedures that would have provided peace and stability, I made contradictory, from-the-hip decisions and was forced to put out the fires my inexperience had started.

Tip: Establish a simple procedure for every element of classroom business (how to deal with cell phones, make-up work, homework collection and return, tardiness, plagiarism, cheating, hall passes, attendance, tutoring, parent contacts, detention, etc.) Communicate these procedures also in positive language to students.  Once you’ve established simple, efficient protocols, maintain them from the first week onward.

  • I didn’t understand how to manage my time – either in class or in my private life. Transitions between activities took longer than I expected or an activity was finished in 15 minutes, and I had 30 minutes of dead air on my hands. I didn’t understand how to stall or accelerate an activity on the fly, and I didn’t yet have a compendium of exercises I could whip out to manage dead time. Also, that first year, I worked at least 80 hours a week. Every teaching day was a 14-hour day, and I would spend my weekends planning lessons and grading homework.

Tip: Do every activity you plan for your students and time yourself; figure out how much time students need to transition from one activity to the next.  In your private life, practice self-care. Indulge in a non-teaching hobby. The world will not stop spinning if you don’t finish grading that last set of essay questions. Get 8 hours of sleep.  Exercise, drink plenty of water, and go out with friends who make you laugh hysterically.   When you are with kids all day, sometimes it’s hard to remember what it’s like to be an adult.

  • I didn’t know how to connect with students. I took everything personally.  I fell into two speeds – either passive and avoidant so I could just get through the day or furious and volatile, exacting punishments on the whole classroom when only one kid was out of line. After the first semester when I cried once a week, the second semester I got bitter and mean. I hated those kids, and they hated me.

Tip:  See student outbursts for what they are:  frustrations at life, of which you are only a very, very small part. Do not get defensive. Be patient, kind, and slow to blame.  Be curious, not furious when a student acts out.  Set emotional and physical boundaries for yourself to avoid being sucked into student drama. Learn to disengage while practicing empathy and support.

New Teacher Blog Series: Some Questions

This morning I met a brand new teacher. She’s bright, bubbly, and energetic.  She just landed her first full-time teaching gig. She currently works at a local coffee shop and knew I was a teacher.

“I just want to pick your brain.”  She handed me a coffee-stained menu. On the back she had written fourteen questions, jotted down, I imagine, during her shift.

A multi-tasker.  I liked her already.  I gave up this simple gratitude:  Thank you for young, engaged, smart, caring, pro-active, ever-learning, ever-growing new teachers.

I skimmed down her list.

“When does your next shift start?”

“In 45 minutes,” she said.

“I don’t think we’ll be able to scratch the surface.”

Books can, have, and should continue to be written about these questions. The questions are important and critical, especially to a new teacher who wants to do the very best job for her students.

These would make great blog posts, I mused.  And that’s how, kids, this blog series was born.

Dear optimistic, new teacher, we have three weeks before school starts. Gird your loins. In the next 21 days, I’m going to offer you some tips (First lesson: There are no real answers, only tips; anyone who says he has the answers is a company representative looking to sell your district a costly curriculum package that will, one year later, collect dust in the bookroom.) on the 14 questions you asked (plus one I’m adding into the mix) via this blog.

Below are the questions/topics.  As I complete each blog, I will hyperlink the post to its topic.  Bookmark my blog, and let’s get started!

Blog 1: What were your biggest mistakes as a new teacher?

Blog 2: Should I create a website? If so, what kind?

Blog 3: What if I’m not given a scope and sequence? How will I know what to teach?

Blog 4: What system do you use for planning?

Blog 5: How do you gauge student learning and meeting their needs when you have 100 students?

Blog 6: How regimented should I be with rules and procedures during the first few days of school?

Blog 7: Should I create a classroom protocol list or go by school policy?

Blog 8: Keeping up with attendance and make-up work seem really time consuming with so many students.  How does a teacher organize this?

Blog 9: What are the best strategies for reading novels?

Blog 10: What are the best strategies for teaching vocabulary?

Blog 11: What are the best strategies for teaching grammar?

Blog 12: What are the best strategies for teaching writing? (You actually didn’t ask this one, but I’m suggesting a few tips anyway.)

Blog 13: Do you find bell ringers helpful?

Blog 14: How do you stay on top of grading?

Blog 15: What is the best way to involve parents?

Sweet Retreat: Writing Down a Saturday

In 1986, I took my first creative writing class with Gurney Norman at the University of Kentucky. At the end of a semester, Gurney wrote us a letter. “Writers work mostly alone, but sometimes they get together for a little while.  It means whatever it means.”   I still have that letter, and I think about his words often. Teachers are equally singular.  We go into our rooms and shut our doors, but sometimes it’s good to get together to connect with one another.

I’m grateful to the Morehead Writing Project for hosting two writing retreats each year that brings teachers and writers together for a day of community.  These single days, carved out in October and April, are grounding points in my year.

On Saturday, April 23,, twenty-five writers and teachers of writing met at the Gateway Arts Center, a converted Methodist church that has been painted lemon yellow on the corner of Wilson Alley and Main Street in Mt. Sterling, Kentucky.    We gathered around a long table in a narrow, upper room with hard wood floors and lots of natural light.  Fueled by coffee and donuts, we began.

Abby Thomas, the creative writing teacher at the local high school, started us off with Howard Nemerov’s poem, “Because You Asked about the Line Between Poetry and Prose,” and asked us to respond to the poem by describing the line between prose and poetry or to articulate the line between two other elements/concepts. We wrote for fifteen minutes and shared.

Carole Johnston, author of Manic Dawn and Journeys: Getting Lost, then led us in a 90-minute writing exercise on the tanka, a Japanese short form, traditionally written as thirty-one syllables in a single unbroken line. Similar to the haiku, there can be some syllable counting business, but Johnston discounted that as unnecessary.   Her advice was to pay attention to what is around you and put it down in mindful language.  Keeping the language concrete, writing tankas can be a daily spiritual practice which forces you to be present for the moment of observation.  She asked us to write about a moment from our childhood that was embedded in place.  We wrote for ten minutes or so. Then she asked us to circle the concrete nouns and verbs in the paragraph we had just written and arrange them in lines that followed a short/long/ short/long/long poetry arrangement.  We shared again and repeated the process two more times. Each time we converted experience into tanka, the writing became more concrete, visual, and compact.

Next up, Christopher McCurry, author of Nearly Perfect Photograph: Marriage Sonnets, editor of Accents Publishing, and co-founder of Workhorse, a literary collective in Lexington, also talked to us about forms, indicating that forms were merely starting placew for poetry.  Like taking a cat on a walk with a leash, poetry forms allow us to reign in our creativity, not for the purpose of squelching it but for clarifying the moment and the poet’s intent.

After reading several love poems in varying forms, McCurry invited us to create our own poetry form based on some organizing principle in our lives – draw a grid of your day, look at the pattern of your children, your pets, your collections,  the things you take care of, maybe how your cell phone apps are arranged, and create a poetry form based on this organizing principle in your life.  As the forms took shape, we made decisions about line length, rhythm, rhyme, and stanzas. Finally, we named our forms as well.  Here are a few of them:

Following lunch, we embarked on a writing walkabout, a Morehead Writing Project staple which basically looks like this: writers fall into groups of three or four and walk around a place until they happen upon a spot where they want to write –a park, a coffee shop, a creek bank, an abandoned store front, etc.  They settle into the spot and write for fifteen or twenty minutes. When time is called, they share what they’ve written.  No real criticism or feedback is given.  The space just absorbs the writing, and the group moves on to the next unplanned destination and repeats the process until the walkabout is finished.  In large cities, walkabouts can take an entire day. We had two solid afternoon hours to roam.

My group had three people in it, and we stopped at the old train depot,then we meandered up Bank Street to the unoccupied Traditional Bank drive thru alley, then ended up on the steps of the Montgomery County courthouse on Court Street.

At the end of the day, the large group reconvened on the front patio of the old Mt. Sterling High School which is now a senior residential apartment complex. We had a small reception and shared the fruit of their labors with an informal open mic.

The day was sweet with words and memories. It means whatever it means. Until next time.

Teacher As Nomad: Packing It Up Here, Boss

“Are you moving rooms next year?” Shannon, my colleague down-the-hall, asked me on Friday.  I’d been scurrying around before school that morning, packing boxes out to my car.

“Oh no.  Just getting ready for the end of the year,” I said.

“Why do you take down these posters every year if you just have to put them back up in August?” Jenna, my sophomore master of pragmatism, asked me later that day.

“Have I not taught you the value of ritual yet?” I said.

Jenna rolled her eyes.

Barring unforeseen circumstances, I will probably be holding forth in Room 303 at Lafayette high school for the rest of my teaching career. I love that room. From its roof top vantage point, I can see all the way to downtown Lexington. With three huge windows that look out over a little courtyard, sunrises from the east flood the room on dark winter mornings.

So why do I pack up every single May like I’m leaving the profession?

Because teachers should never, ever, ever settle.  Into a classroom. Into a curriculum. Into a rut. Into a single way of teaching.

Of course, teachers should adopt instructional practices and management strategies that are consistent, proven, and experience tested. But ongoing reflection demands ongoing revision.  We are tweakers, on the move, educational bedouins, sitting up provisional camps in all kinds of unlikely psychological territories.

During my first year of teaching, I heard my principal describe a teacher in my building as someone who “taught her first year twenty-seven years in a row.”  I vowed to never be that teacher. Conventional wisdom says it takes three years for a beginning teacher to hit her stride.  I think teaching is a science and a craft that takes at least ten years to figure out what you’re doing, then ten more years to become sufficiently accomplished. Then your gig is almost up.

For me, taking everything down at the end of the year signals this year is over.  I tried my best.  I failed with some students; I succeeded with others.  I knocked some lessons out of the park; I missed the ball completely with others, but I didn’t sit still. I grew, I learned. Packing up the room, boxing up books, taking down posters is an external ritual for an internal measurement.  The ritual signals the end of a cycle, which promises the beginning of another one.

I’m packing it in for this year because I’m moving on to different territory next year even though I’ll be in the same room.  That different territory will be new students, new chemistries, new dynamics, new lessons, newly-imagined delivery systems for the old conceptual verities.

When I walk back into this same classroom in August, the walls will be bare, the technology will be a tangled mess on my desk, all the chairs will be crammed against one wall, and I will take a deep breath and start assembling.  New year, new students, fresh start.  I will be thinking about every student who will sit in those chairs.  What’s the best arrangement this year? What’s the best book for that kid?  What’s the best way to illustrate this concept or that?  Every year is different. Every class is different.  Every kid, every day.

In this pleasant, creative, energetic environment that I have hopefully and expectantly created, I say Welcome.  Enter in, ye students o’ mine.  No year yet will be exactly like this one. I have made this new space just for you.

 

 

My Opening Day Lecture

Good morning. Welcome to SCAPA Literary Arts at Lafayette.

Get out your notebooks.   We are going to do some writing.  Put today’s date on the upper right hand margin.  Get in the habit of doing that when you write.  It grounds your thought in time. It answers that eternal question: when did I write this?

Before we do some writing, I want to say a few things. First, I want to welcome you to my class. I want you to know that I’m glad you are here.  My sole responsibility in this classroom is to help you become the writer you want to be.

In that vein, I expect you to write and read every day.  I expect you to struggle with ideas, words, and images.  I expect you to rejoice when you have a break through, and I expect you to persevere when you’re stuck.  I expect you to write before you think. I expect you to revise before you submit.

I encourage risk and failure. I disdain complacency and sloth. Through constant self-reflection, I want you to discover the lies you tell yourself, lies that most likely affect every part of your life.  Then being honest and devoted to love, find a way to squander that negativity.

I expect you to be respectful of others. And that means don’t touch or take anything that does not belong to you.   That also means that what is read and written in this class, stays in this class until the author sees fit to publish it to the world. That story is not yours to tell, to profit from socially, to use to hurt or exploit the owner of that story.

Even though becoming better writers is our only goal, you will achieve others along the way—you will be a better communicator and collaborator for having been a member of a community of writers. You will become a better reader of others’ writing, and because of that, you will become a better reader of your own writing.  You will discover new stories, authors, poems and poets, new writing forms.  And you will form a lasting trust and relationship with your growing self through reflection.

You will never master writing.  There will always be more to learn.  In this room, you are a part of something that is greater than yourself – a grand enterprise, the life-long pursuit of being a writer and a human.  You will learn how to do both better through constant effort.

Room 303 is a special place with a power that is built from within by you.  The degree to which you take this journey of a being a writer seriously will be the degree to which this room becomes a spark plug, a launching pad, and also a cloister, a refuge, a warm home.  I expect you to clean up every day, to put away your laptop, to rinse and put up your coffee mug if you drink coffee, and to look around your desk to make sure you haven’t left anything on your desk or on the floor around your desk at the end of class.

You are going to write more than you have ever written before, but you will be a better thinker, a better reader, and a better writer when you walk out of here next May. Writing well—both logically and beautifully— is our only goal.

Are you ready?

Okay.

What was your first memory?