Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Slice of Life Tuesday: A Musical Time Machine

Note: This post is for Slice of Life Tuesday on the Two Writing Teachers blog! 

I've been thinking a lot about music lately. My students have been recommending new tracks for our class Spotify playlist, and I've been rediscovering songs that I love in the process. I'm always amazed at how quickly a song can transport me back to a moment, and I can feel the emotions as if they were brand new all over again. As I clicked through my music this morning, I found myself listening to a soundtrack of my life in a way.

I click play, and I'm sitting in the car with Becca, my younger sister, and belting out "Chemicals React" by Aly & AJ, a sugary-sweet Disney channel duo who provided the background noise for our endless trips to Sonic in the year before I left for college. We had hand gestures for most songs, and I remember many nights hunched over my steering wheel, laughing so hard I could barely breathe because of our dramatic antics. I sing along, and I remember that music can be a bond, a shared experience, a memory.

The first notes of "Your Heart is an Empty Room" on Death Cab for Cutie's album "Plans" play, and just like that, I'm holding my hand out my crappy Dodge Neon with the sunroof that never quite opened up all the way, feeling that first hint of fall crispness in the air as I drove home from college for the first time. I had never heard the song before, but thanks to a kid who lived on my floor, I had the perfect soundtrack to how I was feeling: full of possibility, that I was where I was supposed to be. Each time I hear that song, I feel the potential of now and remember to look forward without forgetting the past.

Camper Van Beethoven's "All Her Favorite Fruit" sends me back to nights spent in front of a computer, trying to make a long-distance relationship work. Emails and music files winging back and forth above our heads were substitutes for face-to-face conversation, and I thought that they could be laid end to end and used to build a bridge between us. The plaintive strings of the song play, and I'm reminded that sometimes, you can't always have what you want, and your best efforts still end up failing. And that's okay.

Six, reverberating notes from a stand-up bass find me standing in a field of grass that is slowly dying from the heat of the dog days of summer. The humidity doesn't bother me. I'm rooted to the spot, mesmerized, and watching a live performance of "Julep" by The Punch Brothers. I let the simplicity of the music and the lyrics wash over me, and it feels right when it starts to rain gently on the crowd. None of us move. We all want to savor the moment, the beautiful blending of the fiddle, mandolin, banjo, guitar and bass. As I listen, I remember that it's okay to stand still and just focus on the now.

Music, like writing and reading, has always been a mirror--I see glimpses of myself, past and present, in the sounds and lyrics of a song. So when I just need to remember who and where I have been, all I have to do is scroll through my music library...and I'm back there again, reliving the moments that defined me, a beautiful soundtrack to my life.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Keepin' It Old School: In Defense of the Journal

I love technology. I can't imagine teaching without it. I don't think anyone would accuse me of being "old school" when it comes to my ELA classroom. It's a writer and reader's dream to have access to such a wide and authentic audience with which to share thoughts, and technology makes that a reality. It lets my students and I foster connections outside of our classroom walls that wouldn't otherwise be possible.

But there is one foundational aspect of my classroom that is decidedly low-tech, and I plan on keeping it that way.

Every year, I ask my students to bring in a journal just for their reading and writing. Just a plain old composition notebook, easily purchased for a quarter. The notebooks in and of themselves are nothing special: just lined pages bound by two cardboard covers.

It's what we put in them that makes them powerful.

This year, I started off by showing my students my journals. I lifted them up with what I would term a reverence--I wanted them to see how special they were to me. I flipped through the pages that I filled with my not-so-neat handwriting, scratched out phrases and misspellings on prominent display. I showed them my ever-growing book list, my ideas, my thinking. I talked about how sad I would be if I ever lost one of my journals.
My journals

Essentially, I showed them a piece of me. And then I invited them, as fellow readers and writers, to create a journal of their own.

The tape edges both sides of the page.
We divided our journals into two sections: one for reading, and one for writing. We used colorful washi tape (tape that is easily repositionable) to mark the edge of the page that we designated as the end of one section and beginning of the next. When the journal is closed, students can easily see right where the sections split.
Easy to see the two sections.

In our reading section: 

We added a list of books we've finished to the front cover. Some students preferred a spreadsheet-like list, while others created visual bookshelves of all types to reflect a bit of themselves and their creativity.

We included several "Coming Soon" pages--a space for students to record names and titles of books that they would like to read next. Book talks, book tastings, peer recommendations and library visits all help to grow this list.

We also took the time to think about our past experiences with reading and created a visual Reading Life, where students recorded memories they had surrounding reading.

In our writing section:

Our first page is devoted to "Beautiful Words," a space where students can record quotes, lyrics, ideas or phrases that they overhear or see in the world around them that inspire writing. I plan to have them keep an eye out for beautiful words while reading independently throughout the year.
The rest of this space will stay empty for now, waiting to be filled with our words. 

I gave my students time to decorate and personalize their journals. Sometimes, we don't leave room in our teaching to let our students really make their mark on their learning, and I wanted them to feel how important these journals would become to them. I wanted them to see these pages as a place for self-discovery and for risk-taking, so I felt it was important to give them time to really make these journals theirs. 

When we get our Chromebooks next week, I will be rejoicing alongside everyone else. And we will use our technology to write. We will blog, Tweet and use Google Docs to their fullest extent, because technology can lift the level of our writing.

But I won't be abandoning our journals in favor of online equivalents. I have experienced first-hand the power that a 25 cent notebook can have. I want my students to have the chance to feel the rush of putting their words and their thoughts in a space that is all theirs. 

So the journals will stay. They are very young right now. There are a lot of blank pages. They don't mean a lot to us yet. But I hope that they will grow with us this year. 

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Slice of Life Tuesday: My Classroom is a Mess

Note: I'm linking up with the Two Writing Teachers Blog for Slice of Life Tuesday for my post today!

My classroom is a mess.

The floor looks the aftermath of a New Year's Eve party: scraps of paper litter every inch of the carpet like confetti from those annoying little poppers everyone launches when the countdown ends.

My supply cart, which had once carefully housed color-coordinated cups of markers, scissors and gluesticks, is no longer Pinterest worthy. A lone pair of scissors hangs on for dear life. My glue sticks are rolling around somewhere. The green markers are with the blue. A Sharpie sits without its cap on, slowly drying out.

My tables that I had carefully wiped down this morning are now coated with a unique combination of eraser shavings, pencil marks, marker smears and the sticky residue glue sticks leave behind. The curly edgings torn from notebook pages are scattered about, acting as tiny monuments in tribute to the day's work.

My bookshelves are cluttered with leaning books, the titles barely visible on some because of their peeling spines. A speculative fiction thriller sits next to a cotton-candy sweet romance novel, and I cross my fingers that the empty genre buckets will be filled and organized by the end of the week to prevent such strange bedfellows in the future.

My classroom is a mess.

But today we didn't just make a mess.
We created.
We wrote.
We read.
We wondered.
We tried.
We listened.
We connected.

So I’ll take the mess any day, because it means that we did something.

Friday, August 19, 2016

A Chair of Our Own: Encouraging Students to Share Their Writing

"So long as you write what you wish to write, that is all that matters." 
--Virginia Woolf, "A Room of One's Own" 

Virginia Woolf required a room when it came to writing what she wished to write. In my ELA class, we've got the room part taken care of, but this year, I'm adding something else that I think is essential in encouraging my students to write their truth and to share their words: a chair.
This is not a fancy chair. It's plastic and cost me $15 (thanks, Target). 
I introduced our author's chair today for the first time. The concept is simple: when students share their writing, they get to sit in the author's chair to read their words to our class. Then, when they finish, students leave their mark--literally. I ask them to sign the chair. Some just add their name, but others went a step farther today and wrote a quote that inspires them and their writing.
12 years old and already has life figured out.
I mean, is there a better quote for writing? 

We finished up our first published piece today, so I knew today was the ideal time to break in the chair. Students had a few options for what to write: a six-word memoir, a play on "If I Were in Charge of the World" by Judith Viorst or their own version of "Whatif" by Shel Silverstein. These published pieces offered a little glimpse into my students' lives, and I was so excited to see the amount of creativity they put into their final products.

I was a little nervous about introducing the chair--sharing your writing (especially to a room of people you don't know very well yet!) is an act of bravery. I wondered whether I would be greeted with the proverbial crickets when I issued the invitation for the first time. Regardless of what happened, I knew I wouldn't force anyone to read their piece. Rather, I hoped to work to create a safe space where my students felt comfortable sharing their words eventually.

However, I was pleasantly surprised. I had kids lining up to take their turn in the chair! Part of the appeal was the chance to sign and leave their mark, but I also was thrilled that students felt comfortable enough to share their writing, especially given the personal nature of some of their pieces.

The chair in action! 

At the end of the year, I plan on giving the chair away. I've toyed around with a few ideas--a raffle or maybe giving it to the student who shares the most throughout the year, having the students vote to decide who deserves the chair the most--but I'm undecided as of right now.

I'm excited to use the author's chair this year to encourage my students to see themselves as writers. Every one of them has a story worth sharing, and I can't wait to hear it this year.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

The Power of Vulnerability in the Classroom

"Life always begins with one step outside of your comfort zone." --Shannon Adler

The other night, I decided that I was going to watch the Perseid meteor shower. I camped out on my deck and fashioned a makeshift viewing area by artfully arranging our patio furniture so that I could best see the sky without the distraction of the streetlights. I settled myself down on the patio cushions and stared up at the sky, determined to see a few meteors.

At first, it didn’t look like many stars were out that night, and I wondered if perhaps my quest was ill-fated. Sure, I saw the old standbys--the Big Dipper, Polaris--the ones everyone knows and expects to see when they crane their neck skywards. But as I lay there, my eyes began to adjust to the dark, and more stars began to appear, dotting the sky haphazardly like freckles on a face. These stars were smaller, more subtle, but just as beautiful. I began to mentally run through ways to describe what I was seeing, but the tired, old ways of describing the night sky were the only metaphors rattling around in my brain.

As I continued to ponder how to best capture what I was seeing, I saw my first meteor--a pencil-thin streak of light that I barely caught out of the corner of my eye. Buoyed by this, I continued to muse. There had to be a way to capture this moment in words. I let my mind spool away for awhile, and I thought about everything that was crowding the corners of my mind lately: school was starting next week, I was feeling tired already, and the familiar refrain that I believe bounces around in every good teacher’s head was echoing loudly: “Will I be enough for these kids?”

For me, perhaps this refrain is slightly more relevant: I am an introverted teacher.

When I tell people this, they are usually surprised, citing my ability to be “on” during my classes and socialize with ease. But they don’t see me after the performance: exhausted, mentally drained, in need of some time to be alone. To put it concisely, teaching stretches me thin. At times, I feel like a beloved blanket that’s been washed too many times, loved too much, drug through too many interesting scenarios to name. I feel like I am fraying at the edges and that the repeated wash cycles of school have begun to create holes in the very fabric of me. If held up to the light, I wonder, would my students see right through me in the spots where I’ve worn thin from the exhausting dance of being “on,” being there, listening, smiling, nodding and teaching?

Pushing these worries aside, I focused on the sky again, and I looked at those stars that I hadn’t seen at first, those tiny, pinpricks of light that pushed through the darkness. I thought about the year that stretched before me. And, like a meteor’s unscheduled appearance, I had my metaphor when I least expected it.

Maybe we can only see the stars because the fabric of the sky has worn thin in some spots, allowing the brilliance to shine through. Small yet powerful. And, for me, maybe the holes in my fabric are a good thing. Maybe they are where I am vulnerable, where I am allowing myself to be worn thin so that I can share myself with my students, the small bits of light that my introverted self sometimes wants to keep hidden. Maybe it’s where the best of me shines through.

Teaching pushes me. It pushes me outside of where I am comfortable, and yes, it wears me thin sometimes. But that’s when I am able to see the parts of myself that I nor anyone else would have ever seen otherwise.

This year, I hope I remember my time watching the stars when I feel overwhelmed, exhausted, and in need of a break. I’ll take time to breathe, but I’ll remember: there’s power in the vulnerability.