This one goes out to the Teaching Tribes

It’s September 1st, and I’m reviving more than just my activity on this blog. I’m digging out my multicolored folders, setting up my classroom reading corner, and dusting off my impressive array of Expo markers. Over the past week, I returned to LCA to reunite with old colleagues and meet new ones, preparing for the waves of students about to arrive on our shores. And, much like every year, I am reminded of one of my most favorite and most important aspects of my teaching career: my Teaching Tribe.

I’m not the first to say it, and I certainly won’t be the last, but teaching is a team activity in basically every sense of the phrase. For good teachers to be and do their best, we need to be surrounded by a full and active support squad. That means friends and family willing to help lug school materials around, administrators that are excited about our new lesson ideas, colleagues who genuinely want to brainstorm classroom arrangements with you, parents looking to partner and work together, and school staff willing to wrestle the logistics to make the magic happen. No teacher is an island, and a teacher is often only as good as their Teaching Tribe.

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Nothing to see here. Just a really supportive life partner stringing up lights in my classroom after a full day of work at his own job.

Everyone’s Teaching Tribe looks different, and there’s no wrong way to find your tribe. But find them we must! Personally, as I enter year 4 with a team of winners backing me up in ways I don’t really deserve, I can safely say that they are a BIG part of the reason that I’m excited to come back in the fall. They’re also a big part of the reason I am able to do my job well.

So this post goes out to you, Teaching Tribes around the world! From the spouses making the early morning coffee to the teacher friends armed with hugs and spare pens to the librarians ordering extra copies of the books you need to the facilities directors helping us get our window screens back on, you deserve your own appreciation day because you guys are the real MVPs!

Lessons from Podcasting with High Schoolers

This past year, my school let me do a cool thing. Every year in March, LCA takes a week to offer courses outside of the traditional academic curriculum; they call it Academics in Action. The week is intended to help students transition back into academic life from our 2-week Spring break, explore the applications of some of the academic disciplines about which they are passionate, and essentially to play with their scholarship a bit.

It’s a great week, and most, if not all, of the courses are pretty cool. We partner with outside medical facilities so students can get experience in industry labs; we have a Krav Maga instructor come and teach students basics; van loads of students visit local museums and international restaurants; students build their own electric guitars in our Maker Space. It’s fun.

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LCA’s Student Podcasting Setup

This year, the March Academics in Action week fell somewhat in line with NPR’s first ever Student Podcast Challenge. The deadline for the podcast challenge was the end of March, a week after our course would end, which should give students who wanted it time to polish their compositions before submitting. Also, our school’s Maker Space has a pretty sweet podcasting room with a variety of microphones, sound equipment, and mixing options.

As I’ve blogged about extensively in the past, sound composition is my area of passion. The mode is relevant, powerful, and absolutely riddled with effective and engaging attributes for teaching young writers how to create meaning using the tools available to them. This made the fortuitous timing of LCA’s Academics in Action week and NPR’s blogging competition irresistible to me, so I proposed the course. Once it was approved, I spent time excitedly designing ideas, running these ideas by colleagues, changing said ideas.

Being that it is now late June, I am able to report back on what went down when I took these ideas for a test drive. As with most things, particularly a first try at most things, there were major pros and cons.

Things that could have gone better:

  • Most of the students who signed up for my class were students who had taken my class(es) before, so many of them had a foundational understanding of the benefits and power of multimodal composition, the many ways you could interpret the words text or writing, and the creative writing process. However, that wasn’t true for all students. Students who had never been in class with me were at a disadvantage, as they did not know my mentality, vocabulary, or practice when composing with sound. In the future, requiring that students who enroll in the podcasting classes also be my current or prior students would cut down on this.
  • Everyone told me this. I knew this. Denial is a fickle mistress. A week is objectively not enough to teach students to compose in a new genre in a relatively unfamiliar mode. The timing of the course presented problems in 2 different areas.
    • There wasn’t enough of it. The courses are structured so that I saw my group of students for 3 hours a day, all 5 days of the week. The genre analysis alone, which a student would need to undergo thoroughly to understand podcasts, is easily a 3-hour process. Then, in order to really dig into sound composition, you need time to experiment and play with sound strategies: silence, music, voice, sound effects etc. It’s too much content for 15 hours.
    • There wasn’t enough space between the 15 hours. While 15 hours sounds like a lot, the hours are too close together. 3 hour stints on consecutive days. Students need time to think, process, and play. In order to power through the necessary content require to construct a podcast, we needed all 15 of those hours, so I wasn’t able to dedicate too many of them to play and experimentation, let alone percolating and processing.

 

Things that were awesome:

  • My grading for the course was extremely low stakes, so students felt free to play with their production. One group, although they did not actually end up creating anything that was admissible according to NPR’s guidelines, had a wildly good time recording a comedic ASMR composition. It was absolutely unusable, but they collaborated and experimented with some of the ways sound can impact an audience and interact with other sounds. It was low pressure and valuable.
  • Individual students made HUGE connections in their understandings of the writing process. One student of mine, who has really been struggling with her acceptance of the (albeit occasionally vague) rhetorical purpose of argumentative literary essays, had a major break through when arranging the content in her podcast. She made the connection that an informative podcast with its introduction, informational evidence, analysis, and then conclusion, mirrored the structures and strategies of an academic essay. This impacted both her sound writing and her alphabetic writing. Several students understood more traditional, academic genres in different ways through their experience with the sound composition exercises.
  • Multimodality breeds more multimodality. When composing their podcasts, students got creative with their writing processes, color coding scripts and creating visual conversation flowcharts to guide interviews. One student even preferred to knit while considering the layout of her podcast because she said she felt she could visualize the layout the same way she visualized a 2-D piece she knitted.
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Knitting and color coding podcast scripts.

  • The NPR competition site compiled a bunch of amazing resources to help teachers teach podcasting and students learn the process. These resources are partially uniquely created by NPR for this process and partially a collection of incredible resources from already existing organizations. While I put together my own course layout, I heavily supplemented with their materials and will return to their resources again in the future.

Did we win anything? Absolutely not. Did we have an amazing time exploring and playing with composition in a new mode? Absolutely. And some of the final versions of some podcasts were truly excellent. One student’s independent podcast on the complexities of race in the classical ballet world featured sound effects, interviews, music, recorded ambient noise, and narration, all intricately woven together. It was thoughtful and beautiful, and we all spent class time listening to and evaluating each others’ compositions which was another valuable component to our time together.

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As always happens whenever I push myself to integrate sound composition into my coursework, I am only further convicted of its power and importance as a relevant and influential mode for our 21st century students. While there are many things I will do differently when running courses like this in the future, this experience has been motivating and eye opening for me as a writer and an educator.

Teaching: A Career with Seasons

As I’ve alluded to in prior posts, this academic year has been a difficult one for many different reasons. So as this academic year draws to a close, and I enter final grades and tie up loose ends, I find myself breathing a sigh of relief from the bottom of my gut that I am entering a season of lower intensity. Summer: a significant season in the cyclical patterns of a teacher’s life. A much needed seasonal rest.

Among the many things I love about my job, one of the things I value most is the seasonal “reset” button that summer vacation offers. I’ve written before about some of the difficulties inherent in a career marked by cyclical, seasonal resets, adjustments, and changes, but, after sleeping in until 9am this morning, I am choosing to savor some of the huge benefits of the seasonal nature of this career path.

I am a creature of habit. As much as the idea of being someone who likes change appeals to me, I, like most of us I suspect, enjoy familiarity and pattern. Without prompting, I tend to repeat my tried and true routes, particularly when they’ve served me well in the past. Mercifully, teaching does not tolerate this habit or tendency. Every few months, the teacher’s cyclical calendar requires some shift of me; sometimes it is a shift in work ethic, attitude, activity pattern, or area of research, but there is no room for redundancy or stagnancy in education, and the academic seasons support and prompt necessary evolutions of self and curriculum.

Fortunately for my own mental health at the moment, I am entering the season of teacher’s rest. While my summer is preemptively packed with classes, reading lists, curriculum design work, recommendation writing, and inevitable work emails, my life will still proceed at a slightly slower pace for a few months. My days will be warmer, greener, and quieter for a season. It is this quiet space that allows me to reset and recharge, preparing to enter a new academic year with a clean slate and an open mind.

I am grateful for the gentle prompting to engage new ideas, pastimes, and people at regular intervals. I love the changing seasons of my career, and I plan to do my best to be entirely present in each new season, experiencing the struggles and joys of each fully and wholeheartedly. Blessedly, for now, that means time to sleep, read, run, think, and be with family. For now.

Reminders from Teaching While Grieving

This past year of my life has been marked by an unusually high degree of loss and death. My life is profoundly good, and I am thankful that even in this season I have been well cared for and safe, so I don’t mean to stress any excessive tragedy in my story. The reality is simply that, for me, this season has involved much more grief than other seasons in my recent life. This has resulted in a year of teaching that is very different from other years I have experienced thus far.

I love my job. Like, a lot. Being a teacher has never been a chore for me, and I have never struggled to feel a sense of excitement bubbling up in me as I enter my classroom in the morning. Until this year. This year, for reasons entirely outside of my control, the most common things to organically rise up in me each morning have been tears, anger, and pain. And one of my usual points of stability in my life, my teaching, has no longer been able to sustain me. I have been unable to sustain it. It’s not that my enthusiasm for my craft has waned; it’s that my sadness has sometimes been too large for my joy in teaching to coexist with it.

This has been and is frustrating and difficult for me. It has made it harder for me to orchestrate my time with my students in ways I have in the past and in ways that I envision being the most effective. But, as usually happens during times when things aren’t quite what we would hope, I’ve been remembering a mantra that has perhaps slipped from the forefront of my mind. It’s a mantra that seems to have a tendency to do just that: slip.

I am not the center of my classroom.

This mantra is in my teaching statement, at the center of my pedagogy, and imprinted on my heart, and yet it often falls out of focus as I instinctively move to exert control over my classroom. I am not the center of my classroom; my students are. This has meant many different things to me throughout the years, but, this year, I am learning that it means that, as a teacher, I have to trust that I am not the only ingredient contributing to my classroom and my students’ success. I am often not even the most important one.

I spent the first few months of this difficult year driving myself into the ground in an attempt to artificially maintain my classroom’s cheery, energetic ethos; I felt it was my duty to do so. This, predictably, was unsuccessful and did not bring wholeness or goodness to my teaching or to my students. As a result, I had to explore a new version of myself and my classroom. I had to, on occasion, step back in exhaustion or sadness, and, remarkably, that has been fine. It has even been good. Because I am not the center of my classroom.

If I am not at my best, most exuberant self, exactly as I envision that, it doesn’t mean that authentic, engaged, and dynamic learning becomes impossible. I can place real trust in my students, but also in the material we are working on, in my fellow teachers, and in a God that I believe quietly presides over my classwork. All these elements move in harmony to create explorative, meaningful learning, and it is well-meaning hubris on my end to despair at the idea that, because I am not performing or behaving or feeling exactly the way I’d like to, all in my classroom is lost.

I am important, and I need to be diligent, reflective, collaborative, and creative in my work and scholarship, but it is OK if I am in a season in which my soul is sad, quiet, or tired. It is OK if my year doesn’t look exactly like prior ones. It is OK if my vision for my interactions with students doesn’t play out exactly as I’d like. I can trust the other elements of the classroom. I can inhabit my role as a vitally important component of the living organism that is my classroom, resting in the assurance that my carefully contrived vision for that classroom is not necessarily the best or only one. The classroom organism can and will move freely, achieving things beyond what I plan or expect. I must work hard and with honesty, but I am not the center.

Honoring Students: Challenge Level Extreme

When I started teaching, I compiled a few central resolutions that I wanted to base my pedagogy on. While my ideas have evolved over time, one of the primary guiding tenets has always been honoring students. Respect them, be gentle with them, and honor them where they are. It’s a big component of my teaching manifesto, which I carefully reflect on at the start of each new school year. Always honor students.

Nothing used to get under my skin more than when I’d be in the teacher’s lounge or walking to my car, and a colleague would vent about how lazy, incompetent, incapable, or unteachable they feel their students were. I wholeheartedly understand and indulge in the need to process frustrations and problem solve with fellow teachers, but I think, as educators, we all know the difference between doing that in a way that honors students versus doing it in ways that do not honor students. My personal philosophy generally (with exceptions of course) is, if I wouldn’t say it TO a student, I shouldn’t say it ABOUT a student. And I’m usually pretty faithful about this personal resolution.

Or am I?

This year is my third year of consecutive full-time teaching in the same institution. I have taught the same curriculum with somewhat similar groups of students three times over now. Recently I’ve noticed that I’m starting to have these out-of-body experiences where I observe myself doing the things I used to vehemently judge my veteran colleagues for.

  • Blaming students for not understanding a lesson.
  • Leaning away from giving students the benefit of the doubt.
  • Experiencing frustration when I have to explain things multiple times in multiple ways.
  • Allowing the identities I construct for my students to shape the way I interact with them instead of helping them construct their own identities.

Grad school theory and research imbued me with a dewy, organic, and effortless patience for students of all walks of life and ability levels. Now, three years in, when student performance and behavior very practically impacts my quality of daily life, that new graduate sheen is dulling. And I am not proud of it.

This, clearly, is unacceptable. This is not how students learn, so it cannot be how I teach, and I love my job too much to let this unhealthiness seep into it. But what’s the game plan here? How does one combat this sort of thing? I observe the tendency almost universally in even the best of the long-term educators I know, so I don’t think this phenomenon is unique to me, but that doesn’t really change the reality of the need to kill it dead.

As a preliminary measure, I’ve been taking some practical steps to combat this in my own life, but I consider this blog post an initial venture into tracking and observing my process. For now, here are a few of my personal goals to aim for.

  1. Rest. Frustration with students often starts for me with feeling overworked and tired. Cancel assignments if I have to. If I’m overwhelmed with comments and feedback, they’re probably overwhelmed with responding to those same things. Take time in class and out of class to do things that decompress both myself and students.
  2. Make classwork something I personally engage in with enthusiasm. I LOVE my curriculum, but this is my third straight without major changes. It’s becoming rote, which means that I’m experiencing the work very differently than my students, who are wrestling with these texts for the first time. I’m getting bored, and it shows.
  3. Spend time praying for students. Invest emotionally in wanting the best for each individual student, and dedicate time to thinking about what that means for them.
  4. Create better boundaries. My classroom is always open. I allow infinite revisions. I accept things late. Students love this, and it builds relationships, but this means that my workload is constant and chaotic, and it means that my room is never quiet for me to work in. This creates a slow build of frustration and resentment that flares up unexpectedly. It is not inappropriate or unkind to tell students to leave, to be quiet, or to face the consequences of not finishing their draft early enough for a round of comments. It is my job to tell them when they are being too demanding.
  5. Listen. If they are overwhelmed, confused, or frustrated, that may not be my fault, but it is my responsibility. What worked with one class will not automatically work with another, and I will only be aware of the disconnect if I am listening carefully to them.

I don’t know if or how these changes will work. I don’t know how difficult it will be for me to implement them. But nothing is gained when nothing is ventured, and nothing is learned when students aren’t being honored. So I will report back as I re-prioritize my ideas about what the actual needs of the students in my classroom are.

Reflections on Podcasting as a Writing Teacher

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Logo by Amy Chaney.

This year, my colleagues in the English department at Lexington Christian Academy and I have been clumsily, curiously, and excitedly putting out a weekly podcast: Prose and Context. This is a first foray into podcasting for all of us, and we’re definitely learning as we go. Our episodes explore a wide variety of topics all falling under the general category of pedagogy. We began with an introduction episode featuring our whole department, and, since then, we’ve taken turns hosting individual episodes. We’re currently on our 12th episode, and I’ve got number 13 locked and loaded for next week’s release date!

It has, as I said, been a huge learning experience for us all in different ways, and I won’t necessarily say that this podcast will be winning any awards, but I wanted to dedicate this post in particular to outlining some of the ways that I personally, as a teacher of writing, have found this to be a meaningful experience that has significant value for my classroom.

  1. Podcasting is writing. Teachers of writing should write themselves frequently and for real, personal purposes. We should be able to talk to our students about what we’re working on while they press on in their work so that they can experience learning and loving to write as a collaborative process that we are undertaking together. They should see that learning to write is not a destination; it continues throughout life. Podcasting is a new, fun way for me to demonstrate and share my identity as a writer with my students.
  2. Podcasting is writing in an unfamiliar mode for an unfamiliar genre. We ask our students to navigate unfamiliar writing situations all the time. It’s important to remember what it is like to be unsure of a genre or mode, to wrestle with the basics of a new kind of composition, and to inhabit the frustration and success of personal growth in our writing. When my students grapple with their work, my time spent on this podcast helps me relate. We should never forget the sensation of feeling lost in our first attempts to write in unfamiliar territory.
  3. Podcasting is public. Prose and Context is accessible via iTunes, our website, and our school’s online app. Students, parents, and basically anyone can find it anytime they want. It’s a very vulnerable feeling! But this is what writing SHOULD be! And it’s what our students should see it being. Our department does our best to create something professional and interesting and useful, and then we share it with our intended audience. The nervousness we feel when releasing episodes isn’t any more than the pressure a student feels turning in a paper, sharing a blog post, or contributing to a discussion. We need to remember and experience that vulnerability because it’s an inherent part of writing for any audience.
  4. This podcast in particular is collaborative. Group work. Does anyone love it? My students hate it. I myself was once a student who hated group work. I’ve come around to it now, though, and I currently have a profound appreciation and love for the ways in which real collaboration can produce something more complex, beautiful, and effective than any one team member could have ever accomplished alone. But it took me a long time to feel that way about collaboration, and I am still learning how to best incorporate that concept into my classroom. Navigating the creation of a podcast with 5 other adults of differing personalities, expertise, experience level, and rhetorical goals is a real challenge, but it’s also what gives our podcast depth, interest, and flexibility. For me to even begin to convince my students that collaboration matters or that there is a way to do it well, I have to live that truth, and working on this podcast has given me a wealth of experience and credibility to draw from.
  5. Podcasting creates opportunities to honor and engage student voices. One of the central goals of our podcast is to share ideas, theories, and experiences around what makes for strong, effective, and excellent pedagogy; we aim to share this with our primary intended audience: other teachers. Our department faculty has been extremely proactive about incorporating student voices into our podcast. That means inviting them to share their experiences, talk about their work, and offer recommendations. I think nothing mentors young, developing writers more than inviting them to write with you and compose something alongside you, and this podcast has allowed me to do that publicly with some of my students.

I could go on, but these are the major positives that I have taken away from my experience with the production of this podcast. While podcasting may not be the mode or genre for every writing teacher, my strong encouragement to composition teachers everywhere would be to consistently push yourself to write for real purposes, publicly, and in ways your students can access and perhaps even participate in. Try to write outside your comfort zone in a category or mode that is new for you. Teachers of writing, if we’re going to talk the talk, we’d better walk the walk.

And check out Prose and Context on iTunes if you want to see some teachers of reading and writing giving that whole “walk the walk” thing a go!

When you lose a colleague

When you lose a colleague (and not just any colleague) when you lose a colleague that helped make you the educator you are and who inspired you to be better and who encouraged you when you weren’t your best and who noticed when you overcame even small challenges, when you lose a colleague that loved students more than herself and justice more than comfort, when you lose a colleague who was a friend and a guide, but also a fighter and a force, that’s when you realize how lucky you were all along to have worked beside the kind of teacher who turned everything she touched into goodness. That’s when you realize that the emptiness her absence leaves will last many lifetimes, but the goodness, wisdom, passion, and kindness that exists because she fiercely and carefully fostered it will persist in the people that she loved. And there is no lifespan to that.

Proud to have been a colleague and friend of Lori VanderKlay Johnson.