Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Slice of Life Tuesday: A Wintry Tableau

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

Over the long weekend, the ice came to St. Louis. Though it kept me cooped up for a few days, I found some inspiration while looking outside of my window. I'll preface this piece by saying that poetry isn't my strong suit, but I'm trying to push myself to attempt to branch out with my writing. After doing some sensory observations, this is what I came up with:

When the ice comes,
Everything holds
Its breath
As frozen fingers trail
Down the spine of today,
Leaving behind
A garland of crystals,
A smoothing of rough edges,
A quiet beauty.

When the ice comes,
Everything holds
Its place
As gray mist gathers
Around the edges of today,
Leaving behind
A shroud of silence,
A hush felt deep inside,
A wintry tableau.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Story is Story: Helping Writers See the Story in Personal Narrative Writing

One of my goals as a teacher of writing is to help my students see how they are growing as writers. An easy way to accomplish this is to ask my writers to produce an on-demand writing piece at the beginning and the end of each unit of study. When putting the two pieces side-by-side, it is easy for writers to see how they have grown.

For our narrative unit, the on-demand prompt simply asks students to write the best true story from their life, AKA a personal narrative. Though we write realistic fiction stories in this unit, I explain to students that we write true stories for these on-demand writes (which have a time constraint of one class period) simply because these stories have already happened; we just need to write them, unlike fiction stories which require a lot more time to plan and create.

As we neared the end of our unit, I reminded my writers of their upcoming writing piece. As soon as the words “personal narrative” exited my mouth, the mood in the room changed almost instantaneously. Personal narratives? Ugh, we’ve been writing these every year since third grade. Hang on, let me rack my brain for something boring to write about…

I knew I had made a mistake by using the phrase “personal narrative.” I’ve found that, by 7th grade, students are burnt out on the genre, equating it with stale essays that have little life or meaning to them. On Twitter, I mused about why this is with my PLN of English teachers. We discussed how some students believe their lives aren’t interesting enough to write about. Some find it difficult to write about their own lives, preferring to escape into fiction.

I wondered how to best help my writers see that personal narratives don’t have to be boring. I knew they all had cultivated some real skills as writers of stories throughout the unit. The evidence was in front of me: 90 published stories that had realistic characters, tension and showed off the voice of each writer. I needed to help them see that these same skills could be used when writing the true stories from their own lives.


That was what I needed to help my writers see. They were writing stories. Story is story, regardless of whether it is true or not. The elements that make a story good are the same across the narrative genre.

So I stopped using the word ‘personal narrative.’ Instead, the next day, I invited them to read a true story written by an 8th grader, one with well-drawn characters, tension and emotion. I asked them, “What makes this a story worth reading?” As they read, they jotted down their thoughts in their thinkbooks.

When we came back together and shared. As I jotted down what they had noticed on the board, I smiled, because I knew that they were touching on the skills we had just used in our realistic fiction stories.

When we finished, I pointed to the anchor charts lining the bulletin board on the side of the room.

“You know what makes a story good. And every single one of you is a storyteller.” Here, I gestured to the stack of their published stories. “You’ve already shown me. And now, I’m asking you to show off all of those skills you’ve developed over these past six weeks, this time with a true story from your life.”

We discussed how the words “personal narrative” sometimes equate to summarizing an event, resulting in a stagnant plot arc. Much like a flat-lining heart rate monitor, these pieces of writing don’t have “life.” I reminded them of what they know as writers, which is that good stories have plot arcs that go up and down, just like a heart rate monitor attached to someone who was alive.

With this fresh, new perspective, I sent my writers off to plan by asking, “How will you tell the best true story that you can tell?” Just based on the conversation in the room, I could tell that they were now thinking in terms of story.

Because at the end of the day, story is paramount to what I want my writers to take away from my class. I want my writers to see the universality of the skills they are cultivating as writers of stories, not as writers of boring, “for school” personal narratives. I want them to see that story is everywhere they look, from retelling moments from their lives to the music that they love.

So, on Friday, we wrote stories. True ones from our lives. I hope that my students didn’t feel like they were writing “just another personal narrative for school” but instead saw that they were writing a story.

Because that’s how I want my writers to take away from this experience: stories are powerful. Stories shape our lives. Stories are everywhere. And they, too, have the skills to be the storyteller of their own life.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Slice of Life Tuesday: Writing to Create the Chain That Binds

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

I spotted the above quote from Charles Dickens in a book I read over winter break (A Wife of Noble Character by Yvonne Georgina Puig, which is a retelling of Wharton’s House of Mirth). Normally, I give quotes at the beginning of chapters a cursory glance at best, but for some reason, this one stuck with me. I think it was the simplicity and the truthfulness of it.

So I wrote it down, thinking that would be the end of it. A nice quote that would take up a page in my journal. Not much else.

But as the days passed, I found myself repeatedly thinking about Dickens’s words and the chains I have forged over the years. Many times in my life, seemingly inconsequential actions proved to be moments that would redefine my life, moments that I would look back at and think, “That’s where it all began.” Moments where a beautiful chain that connects me to someone or something else originated.

When this happens, it always seems like nothing at first. It is only time that lets me truly see the impact, the links of gold or thorns that fit neatly into the next to create the memories that cannot be erased or broken, no matter how painful they might be. The parts are what make the whole so stunning and, in some cases, mind-boggling in its power and importance.

Writing is like that for me. When I write, I add a new link to the chain I will never stop forging with my words, the chain that tethers me to the stories that I need to tell.

And in the moment, my words often feel like nothing of importance. Writing is hard. I doubt myself. When I look down at a day’s work, at times, I scoff at it, sure that it is inconsequential. Nothing memorable. A chain, perhaps, but a flimsy one riddled with thorns.

But I write anyway, because I know that, sometimes, what's hardest is starting.

I write because I know that the beauty is in the process, and that stories are built by link after link of words chained together to create something that will bind and connect.

I write because I know that, despite my doubts, someday, I will be able to stand back and trace the chains of my words back to that first time I pressed my pen to paper, to that now-unforgettable moment where my story first began.

Monday, January 2, 2017

The #OneWord2017 eduTwitter Needs

If you pick a word for 2017 and don’t blog about it, did you really choose a word?

As I was driving back from Minnesota to St. Louis on January 1st, I was passing the time in the passenger seat by scrolling through my Twitter feed on my phone. Since I use Twitter predominantly for interacting with fellow educators, it wasn’t surprising exactly to see tweet after tweet about choosing one word to focus on for 2017.

While I don’t mind the sentiment of committing to something publicly, truthfully, I dislike New Year’s resolutions. I believe you can reinvent yourself on any old day of the year if you truly want to. Aspirations don’t always neatly line up with a Gregorian calendar in my opinion, but I understand that the new year is often a time for people to start fresh. I can appreciate that.

Despite my reticence to make a New Year’s resolution, seeing so many “one word” posts (coupled with the fact that I was stuck in a car for the next six hours) got me wondering what my word would be. I glanced back at my Twitter feed, and I started thinking about the role it has played in my educational growth over the past year.

This is my 7th year of teaching, but it’s the first school year that I’ve really started using Twitter professionally. After blowing the dust off of my long-latent teacher account at the end of the 2015-2016 school year, I dove headfirst into the eduTwitter world. I participated in chats, followed the “literacy rockstars” whose books I kept behind my desk, started a blog and even made some very real friendships. Twitter was the place I could go when I wanted to find someone else who “got it.”

Indeed, part of what makes Twitter so great for those in education is that you’re surrounded by like-minded people. If you’re a teacher on Twitter, you’re probably someone who cares a lot about kids and about getting better at your craft. But at the same time, this poses a problem: if educators aren’t mindful about the content that they post and promote, eduTwitter will become an echo chamber full of teachers retweeting the same frothy quote about being there for kids overlaid on a peaceful forest scene over and over again.

Is there anything inherently wrong with this? No. But is this what pushes us forward as educators? No.

2016 was the year where "fake news" became a real concern. People believed articles from The Onion were in earnest and used Facebook as their “news source” of choice. As I considered my one word, I thought of this “fake news” phenomenon and what I see every day in my Twitter feed. I couldn’t help but wonder if we are starting to see somewhat of the same problem in education, albeit on a less dramatic level--people spreading news that isn’t really news...or even worse, sharing information just based on the amount of likes and retweets it has received, without being mindful of whether it is helping you grow as an educator.

It’s understandable why this is happening. I’m guilty of it too. It’s easy to click the retweet button on a cool graphic with a catchy quote that makes you nod your head and say, “Yes! This person gets it!” It’s easy to mindlessly retweet posts from someone who has thousands of followers and uses the right buzzwords without clicking through to read the attached article (if it has PBL in it, it must be good, right?). It’s REALLY easy to write clickbait tweets that are just a few words away from claiming to show you “that one weird trick that will change your teaching practice” just so people will press the ‘like’ button. When a tweet that says “retweet if you believe all students can achieve!” (um, who doesn’t believe that?) gets more interaction than a thoughtful blog post with actionable takeaways, we’ve got a problem.

I know what you might be thinking. “Katie, just follow better people!” And sure, that might be part of my issue, but it still has me wondering: are our online interactions with our fellow professionals becoming more about the social and less about the media? Are we mindlessly pressing the retweet button in hopes of winning the social media game? Will eduTwitter just become one endless feed of Bitmojis advertising blog posts that no one actually clicks on to read but everyone retweets? What’s the point, then?

I’ve heard Twitter described numerous times as the “best free PD for teachers.” To keep it that way, educators need to keep pushing each other forward. How? Participate in chats that are filled with actionable ideas and conversation. Connect with people in your content area and go beyond the tweets to actually do something that translates to “in real life” education. Blog about your thoughts and ideas without applying the “will this track well on Twitter?” filter to what you write. Retweet that quote you really love, but follow it up with real conversation.

So, my word for 2017? Question.

I’m going to be on the lookout for the “fake news” on eduTwitter and do my best to keep it real and actionable on my end. I’m going to seek out those who have a vision that isn’t driven by retweets and likes. In my experience, the social media affirmation naturally comes with the territory of having something worth saying. I’m going to click through, think critically about what I read and ask myself what I think before sharing. I’m not going to assume something is automatically true and right for me as a teacher just based on popularity.

Am I a skeptic? You bet I am. But I believe it’s healthy to question things, even things as seemingly innocuous as my Twitter feed. As George Jean Nathan said, “the path of sound credence is through the thick forest of skepticism.”

Now that’s a quote overlaid on a peaceful forest scene that I can get behind.