Sticky Thinking

pexels-photo-209678.jpegI’m looking for ways for my seventh graders to create real world, authentic writing that they can also share with an authentic audience. Critical reviews are a great way to teach kids how to form a specific, focused opinion, how to evaluate the best evidence to effectively support this opinion, how to write in a lively, engaging way, how to persuade us that their opinion has merit and is worthy of consideration, and always, how to let their voices shine through. Lots of meaty skills all in one little package!

When I decided on reviews for our next unit, I originally debated; should I keep it simple and stick to Nancie Atwell’s book, movie, or TV review? But then I read Beyond Literary Analysis, which reexamines the definition of a text. It talks about cultivating both authority and passion to analyze texts on a deeper level. So many times, I’ve had kids write about a book, poem, or story they didn’t connect with. No passion. Very little authority. Or, I’ll give them tons of choice for an informational or persuasive essay. The research required to deeply explore the topic takes forever. By the end, more than two months later, we’re all desperately sick of the work, and I am grumpy. No one wants a grumpy English teacher, right?

After spinning ideas around in my already overcrowded teacher brain, I decided to open it up full throttle and let my kids fly. Students can choose to write a critical review about a video game, a book, a movie, a TV series, season or episode, a restaurant, a music album, song, artist, or concert, or they can analyze a sports-related topic-a team’s lineup, a game, a trade, a particular athlete.

Of course, when I ran all these varied options by my students, thinking, wow, this is a lot for me to grab on to, one chatty kid, a kid who fights independent reading time like it’s his job, a kid who has also finished three books this year, a new record for him, immediately raised his hand.

“Can I review skis?” I knew some of my students would ask about reviewing products, and then I’d be searching for yet more mentor texts. It would complicate matters. But this kid races. We talk about the snow conditions almost every day and look up the snow report. He knows skis. He loves skis. Skiing is his passion, and if he can write about his passion, his writing will be stronger. 

Another student loves all things mechanical: four-wheelers, trucks, and especially diesel engines.  This might be the only topic that lights him up, that he knows a ton about. Authority and passion. I said yes. Sold. After all, this year is all about the learning, the messiness, the process, and creating situations where my students can fly.

We started off brainstorming, thinking, talking, and writing. On Valentine’s Day, kids wrote down five non-human things they loved. Then they ranked them. Then they partnered up to explain why they ranked them that way. A few kids didn’t follow directions, imagine that, put family, pets, or friends on the list, and discovered that they kinda missed the point. 

My list was: books, running, mountain lakes, sushi, and nacho cheese Doritos. In that order. Many students ranked sleep first! I should have! Our classroom filled with lively discussion, pointing, and wild gestures. It’s a loud group. Sometimes they deceive me with their volume. I assume they’re way off the deep end, and then it turns out they’re arguing the finer points of J.D. Martinez moving from the Diamondbacks to the Red Sox. They finished off with a quickwrite where they wrote about any of their topics and explained the reasoning behind their rankings.

The next day, I wanted to encourage messy thinking. I’ve been reading about making the writing classroom into more of a makerspace. Every year, many of my kids are super kinesthetic. They’d much rather be fixing a four wheeler, racing down Slalom on Big Mountain at forty miles per hour, or building vacuum engines out of Legos than writing some essay thingie. Fair enough, but I still need to teach them to write effectively and powerfully.

I’m trying to figure out strategies to help writing be more hands-on. Angela Stockman’s book, Make Writing, had some killer ideas about tinkering, so I jumped on it.

Kids brainstormed three main topics they’re interested in, and I let them go wild here, not worrying too much about it. They got three different colors of sticky notes, fifteen total, and a big piece of construction paper. They had to come up with their “Top 5” for each topic and rank them. They could move the sticky notes around on the paper to rank them, which many hands on kids appreciated. Plus, what’s not to love about colorful sticky notes?

Okay, having kids hand out the sticky notes was a hot mess the first time around. I kept hearing, “I don’t have enough purple!” Then again, this particular group has come a long way. Nobody even stuck them on their foreheads!

Finally, we arranged ourselves in an inner and outer circle, partnered up, and had two minutes to explain some of their rankings.  We rotated through two or three more partners, and then, at the end of class, they used their thinking in a quickwrite.

This is getting us closer to topics. As I listened to their conversations, they were analyzing! Yes! Most kids already had a starting point. Of course, there are students who looked at me slightly panicked or way too blase, not knowing what to write about yet. I didn’t make a big deal out of finishing the sticky note posters-even if kids wrote five topics down, it’s getting them somewhere. But I also talked with one student who hasn’t loved the past few genre studies. He was telling me about Primus, the bass player from Primus, his influence on different Primus albums, and the guest drummer on some of their albums. Brilliant. I can already hear his thinking shifting and deepening. Another student, who does not love to read at this juncture, could talk about the changing characters, conflict, and how it affects the plot in Riverdale. Bingo! Sold again!

We are saving these posters. Each student has a folder, and we’re going to keep dropping all of our prewriting, drafts, writing off the page, checklists, and peer revisions into the folder as a holding tank. When we are ready to reflect, students will have one place to examine their thinking through this genre study. Half the battle for me this year is how best help students track their writing process in a meaningful way.

Now we’re riding the review highway, paved with sticky notes, conversation, and most likely some detours as we discover our passion, and authority, as we write again about what matters to us and why it matters, as I learn right along with my learners and watch them fly.

Here we go.

Note: This blog post was completely inspired by Beyond Literary Analysis by Allison Marchetti and Rebekah O’Dell. It’s a huge piece of the puzzle for me. I highly recommend reading it-full of great strategies and resources to give kids more room to think, learn, write, read, listen, and breathe.


More questions than answers

lava-diving-towersMany years ago, I lifeguarded at the neighborhood pool. We had a lot of down time on cloudy days, and we had many creative modes of entertainment. One of our favorite spots was the diving well. This was back when pools still had not only diving boards but diving platforms. I’d watch as my braver fellow lifeguards would climb the ladder to the diving platform twenty feet up and then flip, cascading gracefully way down into the deep end. When I climbed onto the platform, shaking, stomach in knots as I looked down at the turquoise square of chlorinated water far below me, I couldn’t stop thinking, I can’t do it. I can jump, but I can’t flip.

Then, one day, I climbed up on the platform and thought, “Well, I can do this.” I stopped looking all the way down. I stopped overthinking it. I reminded myself that I could do a front flip and a back flip off the low diving board, and the higher platform just gave me more time to complete the rotation. And I started to breathe.

Now I’m taking a similar plunge in my teaching career. After twenty years of teaching writing, and after twenty years of remaining simultaneously curious and terrified about writing workshops, I am transforming my class into a true writing workshop. Now my students choose  their topics. They choose which genre they are working on. They choose when a piece of writing is finished, and they choose what they will write next, not me. I am just providing structures, support, and coaching to guide them to their own discoveries and processes.

Here’s why, and my reasons are at the heart of my love of teaching.

I want my writers to be engaged rather than merely compliant. I want to help my writers, not their writing. I want them to become curious, independent, and empowered writers. I do not want to rob my middle school students of this rich opportunity to discover not only what matters in their lives but why it matters so much.

As a writer, I know my own writing process. I relish choosing whatever I read, and by the same token, I want to choose what, when, and how and why I write.

So why haven’t I handed my students this same great freedom? We don’t all write the same way using the same process. Giving students the freedom to choose and to discover their own process is paramount to their development as writers and as thinkers. So what has held me back for all of these years?

Fear. The same fear that kept me from initially taking the plunge off that diving platform over thirty years ago.

Is my classroom going to turn into chaos? Can I still address all the standards I am supposed to be teaching? Will my students feel prepared as they move into eighth grade and on to high school? How will this affect my writers who struggle and need more structure-will they still feel successful? And, the most important question of all-will my students like writing workshop? Will they grow as writers in the ways I fervently hope they will? Will they be engaged and motivated?

Fear is not holding me back any more.

I needed to put my fear to the side and educate myself rather than speculating and wondering.  Last spring, I read books by Penny Kittle and Linda Rief. I searched on the Internet and read articles about writing workshops. I watched videos. I spent all summer taking a 6 credit class based on Nancie Atwell’s In the Middle. Most importantly, I talked with my curriculum director, my principal, and my colleagues. And this knowledge and these conversations fed my belief that this was how I want to teach my writers.

In my defense, it’s no secret; middle school students are not easy. I love their energy, their optimism, and their ability to quickly forgive and forget. I also appreciate their questioning, their rebellion, and their sass, but they can be total nut jobs. We all were! Believe me, I’ve heard how tough they are from their parents, not to mention parenting my own pre-teens. Honestly, the thought of letting them loose, of giving up the little control I had, of relinquishing the always-fragile classroom management, terrified me. Even now. Even after years of guiding kids through the writing process. Middle school kids are distracted by their fingernails, by Sharpie markers, or by someone’s new braces, not to mention Picture Day or Halloween. And, some of my students, as a direct result of the trauma they’ve experienced, have an extremely difficult time self-regulating. For many years, I agonized. By giving my students freedom, would I lose control? Would they?

Our world is changing rapidly. I honestly do not know what particular skill sets my students will need ten years from now. I do know that they will always need to problem-solve, to think critically, to respond kindly and honestly to the opinions and words of others, to listen deeply. Choosing topics, choosing when a piece of writing is finished, choosing what to write next, and choosing how, when, and why they write will guide them towards greater self-reliance, confidence, and trust in their abilities to listen, read, write, and speak. Now I understand that my ‘loss of control’ is my students’ great gain as lifelong learners.

I will blog much more about the nuts and bolts as I stumble, make mistakes, and grow this year. I can already see how writing workshop is transforming my classroom and how my students perceive themselves as writers. I will also say that I have many more questions than answers, but I am embracing the challenge. We can jump and flip from high places together, and we will come up for breath. 


Middle schooler in the house!

Recently, my husband was eating Cracker Jacks and gave his prize, a Baltimore Orioles sticker, to our eleven year old son.

“Why’d you do THAT?!” I heard my husband cry from the living room.

“What’d you do?” I called from the kitchen.

“He stuck it to his cheek..” my husband responded exasperatedly.

I couldn’t resist. For probably the millionth time since school started, I said, “Welcome to my world.”

I teach middle school kids, and they are so bizarre. They love to stick objects to their heads. They ask for tape, and thirty seconds later, it’s on their cheeks or lips or even their hair.

Look, you can fight every battle, but sometimes, I’m like, “Sure. You can wear that scotch tape like it’s your job for the next two minutes if it makes you happy. Then it goes in the trash.”  And don’t even try to teach if it starts snowing, or if there is a tiny spider in the classroom, or if a loud airplane flies by. We all have to take a moment to freak out and honor the distraction, and then we can move on. One of my seventh graders ran up to me with a metaphor she wrote comparing seventh graders to toddlers, and I had to laugh and agree with her insight wholeheartedly. It’s true. Everything is a big deal. Everything is either hilarious or horrifyingly worthy of a full-body tantrum. Life is one big emotional roller coaster, and, by the way, you adults? You are JUST SO UNFAIR.

Every other minute, I remind my husband, “See why I am so worn out after teaching seventh graders all day? Picture twenty of our son in a classroom.” They all vibrate. Luckily, I think they’re funny, too, at least part of the time. Meanwhile, they do stupid things on a regular basis. They often make terrible choices. The logic chip is often missing. And we have all been there. We have all been idiotic, emotional preteens who think the world revolves around us.

I see it all beginning with my son..the silliness, the mood swings, the INCREDIBLY LOUD VOICE, the constant gross motor madness, the oblivious disinterest in the lives of others.  We recognize that he’s a great kid, and we also dread when one of his many sports seasons ends because this child needs to move. Movement helps everything settle.

For the first time, my son attends the school where I teach. I never see him after we part ways in the morning-the sixth graders are tucked away in their own pods with their own separate scheduled deals going on, and it’s a big school. It’s probably better for both of us. When we arrive at school together, he walks all the way to the bike racks with me and then veers quickly to the left. I have told him that I will stay out of his business unless there’s a reason for me to be in his business, and so far we have coexisted beautifully.

I am an expert as far as teaching middle schoolers, but parenting one middle schooler is very different from teaching large groups of them. I cannot tell you how many parents have almost fainted at conferences when I tell them how well-behaved and awesome their child is in class. It’s true-parents get the vast majority of the pouting, the drama, the attitudes. I always sing the praises of parents whose kids are respectful and kind at school, who are willing to be themselves amidst intense pressure to hide or act like everyone else. At this age, it’s hard to remain true to yourself when you’re not sure who you are.

Yesterday, when I was going over some last minute instructions before (FINALLY!) finishing our essays, two girls were balancing pencils on their noses. The rest of the class was listening intently or at least seemed to be. A part of me still becomes irritated, and a part of me realized that these pencil-balancing, snowflake-obsessed, spider-watching creatures are what keep me so engaged in my job every single day. You have to think they’re funny at least some of the time, or you will lose your mind.

Then you come home to your son singing the words from the newspaper out loud and poking his little sisters to yank their chains, and you think, now it’s time to laugh while my child is taken over by aliens. Pretty soon, the surliness will overcome him. And then, some day, he will return to us. This is what they tell me, anyways. I can hope.

Be kind. Be honest. You are moving mountains.

IMG_2170Last month, I wrote this entry for a blog contest. The topic was, “Things you wish you knew when you were first starting to teach.” My entry didn’t win, but it was a great process. This is not meant to be advice. It’s more like a snapshot of what I have learned over the years. There are all sorts of great things to do as a beginning teacher that I didn’t mention (like keeping your sense of humor, for example). In a nutshell, at this point in my teaching career, this is what I wish I would have known. It is always changing.

During my first year of teaching middle school, my principal said, in so many words, “You don’t have to sign your contract at the end of the year.”

He was not saying, “Yup, time to hang it up. You’re a failure as a teacher,“ even though I felt like a failure every day and fantasized about a simple job, like washing windows. A job where I didn’t have fourteen year olds glaring at me like I was the devil, flicking staples at each other, and sword-fighting with rulers. A job where I didn’t have to think or feel too much.

My principal was actually saying to me, “You are free to do as you choose.”

I stuck it out for three years, and then I quit. I moved far, far away, and I did not know if I would ever return to teaching.

Then, I returned, to the same school, and here I am, fifteen years later. I love my job. Every day, I learn something new.

Here’s what I wish I knew. It’s scary to make mistakes, especially if you teach teenagers.  You’re vulnerable. You feel like you should know everything, yet you actually know, deep down, that you know nothing. But those mistakes are the bedrock of your career. Those glaring mistakes, the ones that turn your day upside down? We’ve all made them, and it’s how you learn. Isn’t that what we want our students to do?

Don’t be too hard on yourself. During my first years of teaching, I second-guessed myself until I was blue in the face. Know that this is natural, and it will (mostly) pass. Reflection is necessary. Then you can rethink all those mistakes and figure out how you will do it better next time.

Expect enough. Back in my early days, I thought I’d kill my students’ self esteem by grading too easily. Making it too easy kills self esteem.

Meet your kids where they are, not where you think they should be or wish they were. Then, take them somewhere new. Move them forward.

Understand that teaching is a hard job, and there will be challenges you cannot overcome. I teach in a small blue collar Montana town. There is neglect, poverty, and abuse. You can be a bright light. Your light will shine somewhere.

Practice balance. Take care of yourself. It’s easy to burn out way too soon.

Learn your students’ names immediately. I don’t care if you have 150 students or are bad with names. Learn them. I do pushups whenever I screw up a kid’s name.

Don’t let kids raise their hands. My students write their names on index cards, and I call on them randomly. It’s magic, I tell you. They sit up taller. They pay more attention. They surprise me with their responses. And they know I believe in them.

You don’t have to be fun all day long to be a highly effective teacher. Engaging, yes. Better than television, video games, smart phones, no. Be true to yourself. Teaching is not a Hollywood movie.

Remember to shut up and listen. I have my best class discussions when I don’t have an agenda. The kids steer the discussion to where their interest lies. Often, they land in a better place than I ever could have anticipated, and it only happens when I shut up and listen.

Know that teaching is a great profession. Sure, there are politics and drama. Try to stay out of it, and maintain your own integrity. There are hard days where you want to come home from work and either assume the fetal position or drink a bottle of whiskey. Don’t do either. Learn from it and move on. You are moving mountains one stone at a time. Each of those stones matter.

Don’t underestimate your power to deeply affect the lives of others. Know that you are making a difference every single day, amidst mistakes, challenges, and worries. Know that your kind gestures are what your students will remember. Know that your clear boundaries will help them later, even though they push and resist.

The rewards are deep. You know you are not in it for the money. You are in it for the humanity. The reminder that we are all imperfect, fragile, loving, compassionate individuals. You are in it for the challenge of figuring out how to teach every single student who walks in your classroom. And, you will grow more than you ever could have imagined when you first started teaching. To help your students learn is one of the highest possible honors.

I could sum all of this up with the advice I give my students when they peer-revise each others’ writing.

Be kind. Be honest.

Do the same for your students, and you will move many stones.