Playing with My Friends

I’ve blogged before about how much joy I get out of playfully collaborating with my colleagues to create exciting and awesome new ideas and compositions. From presenting at conferences to reflectively exploring new areas of scholarship to writing this awesome piece on composing with sound for Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology, and Pedagogy, some of my best work has come from working alongside others to create something much greater and more complex than I could have come up with using just my mind alone.

Carrying on in this developing personal practice, I have teamed up with Kate Artz and Anne Mooney to publish our most recent piece with Kairos, “Transmodality in Action: A Manifesto.” It’s definitely my oddest, most experimental publication to date, but I love it passionately, largely because it was really really fun to make.

Don’t get me wrong; the scholarly value and complexity of my publications and research matters to me greatly. However, there is just no way around the fact that I like doing things that are a lot of fun with people that are fun to work with. Playing in this way inevitably leads me to create excellent work. And therein lies the heart of what I want to say in this post.

Here are some things that happen when I playfully explore my field alongside like minded colleagues:

  • I discover new facets and angles to issues that interest and excite me and that shape the way I think about my discipline.
  • I create high quality work that expresses my passion for my field and engages others to play with or dialogue over the ideas we are exploring.
  • I push myself to articulate my thoughts and observe how others understand and interact with them.
  • I find myself happily and willingly dedicating long hours of hard work to scholarly endeavors without excessive fatigue or frustration.
  • I develop habits of questioning, trying on multiple perspectives, and hunting for new ways to view things.
  • When a project draws to a close, I am eager and excited for new, bigger, and more elaborate projects.

I can say with certainty that my colleagues experience all these same benefits in their own ways. And if it’s true for us, it’s true for our students. Looking over this list, these are some of the core skills and experiences I want my students to have in my classroom. So while I am pouring over elaborate lesson plans and assessments, I resolve to make it a goal to carve out time to let my students and their friends play with composition and literature. Because that seems to be where the real magic happens.

 

My 2017-2018 Teaching Manifesto

The 2017-2018 academic year is right around the corner and, per the urging of fellow teacher/blogger Susan G. Barber, I have set aside some time to compose my manifesto. These are my commitments to myself, to my colleagues, and to my students for this academic year. My goal is to be intentional, focused, and public about my standards for this academic year. I want to be transparent and tenacious about this manifesto, and I hope to make a yearly ritual out of this process, regularly assessing and refocusing my attitudes, philosophies, and standards for myself and my classroom. So, for my 2017-2018 manifesto,

I will honor my students.

  • I will be careful with their time. I will not overload them with homework, but will instead be conscious of spacing assignments and deadlines. I will only ask them to do what I feel is most necessary for their success, and I will not intentionally ask them to sacrifice necessary sleep, extracurricular, or family time for my class.
  • I will place their personal and educational needs over my desires for how my classroom looks and unfolds. This may mean shifting deadlines, rearranging schedules, adjusting assignments, or repurposing my carefully planned class time. I will not cling to my own visions for my class out of vanity, selfishness, or personal goals.
  • When my students share reactions, emotions, or expectations, I will carefully listen, process what they say, and incorporate their feedback into our class time as much as I can.
  • I will build relationships with my students. I will attend games, performances, and awards ceremonies. When students stop by to talk, I will take time to stop what I am working on and have conversations with them. I will make an effort to stay aware of what is going on with them inside and outside of my classroom so that I can understand and pray for them as people as well as students.
  • I will work passionately and diligently to make sure that the lessons, assignments, and assessments I am providing my students with are high quality, well-researched, and deeply thought out. I will create opportunities for collaboration, real-world experience, experimentation, and exploration.
  • I will only speak with positivity and respect about my students, whether or not they are there to hear what I say. When my students can hear what I am saying, I will make a conscious effort to praise and affirm each one of them.
  • I will resist the temptation to rely on quick grading schemes, easy teacher-centric lessons, and passive teaching. I will continue to push myself to do the extra work required to promote student choice, empowerment, and involvement.
  • I will allow my students to be individuals, celebrating their differences and creating opportunities for them to engage with literature and composition in ways that interest and challenge each one of them. I will not ask for uniformity or standardization, and I will push myself to recognize unique gifts, interests, and abilities, explicitly affirming each student individually.
  • I will enjoy my students, laughing, learning, and playing with them. We will drink tea, eat snacks, and take breaks together in addition to working and learning alongside one another.

I will honor my colleagues.

  • I will seek out guidance and advice from my colleagues on questions I have in my classroom. I will ask for support and rely on their experience, even if I  feel am capable of resolving my concerns without their assistance.
  • I will cheerfully provide them with my encouragement and support whenever I possibly can, even if it detracts from my free time or cramps my schedule.
  • I will continue to build personal relationships with my colleagues, taking time to get to know them better, remembering interests that they have expressed, and responding with prayer and support when they share frustrations or struggles in their lives.
  • I will enjoy my colleagues, laughing, learning, and playing with them. We will drink tea, eat snacks, and take breaks together in addition to working and learning alongside one another.

I will honor my scholarship.

  • I will stay current in my field. I will continue to make time to research, write, and publish during the school year, resisting the urge to place my scholarship on the back burner. This may be as simple as continuing to read articles and books within my areas of research, or it may involve conference presentations or publications.
  • I will not guilt myself into dedicating time to scholarship just for the sake of continuing my research or achieving career status. I will only give my time to topics and opportunities that capture my interest and authentically spill over into my classroom practice.
  • I will continue to reflect on my practice and connect with others in my field through my blog and Twitter account.
  • I will make time to continue my own practices as a reader and a writer, creating space to read and write for a variety of personal and enjoyable reasons.

I will honor myself.

  • I will make time for my life outside of school. I will spend quality time with my family, cuddle my dogs, and allow myself to forget school work intermittently.
  • I will prioritize my physical well-being. I will do my best to keep myself reasonably well-fed, well-rested, and physically active.
  • I will maintain a healthy, guilt-free faith life, praying, worshipping, and resting in ways that bring me closer to God, enrich my daily life, and shape my pedagogy.
  • I will push myself to be my best, but I will be kind to myself when I fall short.

I am sure there are things I should add, but this, at least, is my manifesto for this next academic year! And I can’t wait to start.

 

Revisiting the Student Experience

It’s been quite some time since someone has marked up my writing with red pen or given me a homework assignment with a deadline that I was genuinely worried about meeting. I had almost forgotten that unpleasant feeling that settles in my stomach as an instructor starts writing rapidly and prolifically concerning something I have only a very vague understanding of.

But one of my goals for this summer is to dive headlong back into Arabic classes. Back when I was visiting my family in Syria each summer, I could read, write, and speak much more capably than I do now; however, as my knowledge falls into disuse, I feel my hard-earned conversational skills eroding. So, for the last 3 weeks, I’ve been driving into Boston to meet with a tutor 2 days a week for 2-hour Arabic classes.

I told her I wanted to move quickly. I told her not to go easy on me and to expect me to use my time in between classes ambitiously and effectively. And she really took that to heart. So, as I hurtle through the dusty archives of my Arabic language skills, I find myself once again seated in the place of one of my students, sitting in observant silence and wondering what in the world I have gotten myself into.

While I am excited about and grateful for the opportunity to brush up on my Arabic language skills, I am also finding an unexpected and deeply valuable treasure in revisiting the student experience. During the school year, I spend my days asking students to push themselves, develop trust in their own intellectual capacities, take risks, embrace failure, and ask questions fearlessly. With what is really only a little distance between myself and my time as a student, I am finding that I have already begun to forget the challenges and emotions surrounding these undertakings. Being a student is really really hard. And scary and overwhelming. When it goes well, it is also exhilarating and empowering. But there is no way around the need to operate outside our own comfort zones when sitting in the role of a student exploring some new skill, field, or idea. And if I’m going to ask my students to do this boldly, it is important that I be willing and able to do the same in my own life.

I can already feel the ways in which this experience will strengthen my ability to empathize and connect with my students as they grapple with some of the very challenges I am facing as a student this summer. My hope is that, as I intentionally observe my own responses and struggles in my own learning experience, I am able to more gently, insightfully, and effectively encourage my own students in their extremely complex and important roles.

I Believe 3 Things About Reading for Fun

Summer is here. My manic school year days are slowly decelerating into a warm, easy rhythm. Although my time still feels full with a myriad of small tasks required to get our somewhat derailed lives back on track, I am finally able to set aside the time to reach into my pile of “for fun” reading books. The stack has been accumulating since the end of last summer, which was the last time I could plausibly read for pleasure. But summer is back again in all its humid goodness, and I couldn’t be more ready to sink into the pages of a book that I chose simply because I thought it sounded good.

Over the years, I’ve gotten fairly good at reading for a variety of purposes OTHER than for fun. I am pretty good at reading to understand, to memorize, to meet a time crunch, to search for specific information, to check facts etc. I mean, I’m an English teacher now, so these tasks are kind of inherent in my daily life. I have even learned to enjoy reading for some of these end goals. But returning to my pleasure reading pile this summer has reminded me of 3 very important personal beliefs.

  1. There is no kind of reading like pleasure reading. I can sometimes forget the immersive sensation of losing touch with the world around me as my mind and emotions detach from reality and latch organically and enthusiastically to some novel or short story or poem that has captured my attention. It is a welcome and familiar thrill to find myself elaborately constructing my own, unique visions and interpretations of places, people, and situations in my mind, creating my own reading experience and building something that draws in both my own life story, imagination, and personality as well as the author’s carefully crafted composition. There is simply nothing quite like it.
  2. Teachers of reading and writing need to make time to read for pleasure. So does everyone, but especially teachers of reading and writing. If we want our students to be fascinated, intrigued, or consumed by the compositions they interact with, we need to model that. We need to have an intimate familiarity with the feeling of that magnetic connection to and investment in a story, idea, or image so we can explain it, recognize it, and work towards creating it in our students. I see in myself how easy it is to forget the joy and simple sense of play in reading just for the fun of it; as an educator, it is essential that I not forget.
  3. Teachers of reading and writing need to create time and opportunities to allow their students to read for pleasure. This is difficult; as with most things in life, you have to give something up to achieve this. In my classes last year, I sacrificed a few assignments I had planned in order to keep the pace at a place where students could enjoy what we were reading. I also did the extra leg work required to give students some choices in their reading, allowing them time and opportunity to recognize and choose what they gravitated towards. Student life hurtles by at a breakneck pace; even students who love to read won’t have time to read for fun unless their teachers give it to them. And if we don’t give it to them, how many kids will forget entirely what it feels like? Or never even get a chance to feel it? It’s our job to make the time for them.

I won’t make the claim that these are particularly complex or scholarly beliefs. Nevertheless, I find myself consistently forgetting them, sliding them into the back of my mind and letting them gather dust while I crash through my days in a frenzy of productivity.

Thankfully, there is quiet, warm summer to remind me of my dusty beliefs. Thankfully there are porch swings and glasses of lemonade and happy dogs all just waiting for me to pull up a good book and dive in. Thank goodness.

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Presenting at New England CCCCs 2017: Continuing my Career as a Teacher-Scholar

As I’ve blogged about extensively in the past, I have an enthusiastic love for academic conferences within my discipline. Even when the conference or the keynote speaker isn’t what I was expecting or hoping for, I always walk away from my conference experiences feeling enriched, motivated, and challenged. Now that I have completed my graduate degrees and am working full time in a high school classroom, conference participation and attendance don’t fall quite as readily into my work life routine as they have in the past; however, I find it more important now than ever that I continue pushing myself to remain actively engaged in current, ongoing scholarship within my field. It matters deeply to me both as a scholar and as an educator. To my pleasant surprise my supervisors, administrators, and colleagues at LCA support me in this wholeheartedly.

As a result of all these factors, this past May, I had the genuine pleasure of continuing my research and scholarship in teaching composition by working alongside my longtime research colleagues, Anne Mooney and Kate Artz, to organize a 60-minute panel at NCTE’s New England Summer Conference on College Composition & Communication (CCCCs): Sharing Best Practices at Boston University. And let me just say, my passion for academic conferences has not waned in the slightest.

Our session, entitled “Making Audio Accessible: Teaching Transcription as Composition” examined how teaching transcription of audio files as a rhetorical process empowers students to create purposeful and accessible texts of their own. Attendees of the session participated in an activity designed to help them better understand the experiences transcripts create for their readers. We also provided assignment materials for attendees to use in their own classrooms. It was a great turnout with truly fantastic and engaged participation from our attendees.

We were also fortuitously paired with Dartmouth College’s Mark Koch, who approached similar questions to the ones we explored in our panel, but through the rhetorical activity of composing maps. While his was a very visual mode and ours relied on the relationship between audio and text, both projects explored exciting and interesting ways to prompt students to grapple with complicated and difficult questions when composing. What information is included? What information is left out? What are my rhetorical goals, and how can I best achieve them? We felt very honored and lucky to have been so aptly paired with Dr. Koch.

As this was my first conference as an active teacher instead of a graduate student, I was definitely aware that my daily activities existed much father outside the realm of traditional research and scholarship than they have in the past; however, I became acutely conscious of the difference my role in the classroom made in the way I was able to process and engage with some of the theoretical ideas we were batting around. The immediacy with which I was able to envision the practical implementation of some of the principles and concepts we were exploring was pointed and fascinating to say the least. More than ever before I felt the importance of the balance between my identity as an educator and my identity as a scholar, and the energy and excitement of that recognition has not left me as I transition into my summer.

Ultimately, I was able to gather with motivated and experienced educators from across New England to share our research, discuss developments in our discipline, and provoke deeper, more complex thought on the issues shaping our field today. But I was able to do so while inhabiting the role of a teacher-scholar more fully than I ever have before. And I have a sense that the gravity of that has yet to entirely hit me, which excites me greatly.

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Reflecting with My 9th Graders

As a final assigned post on their freshmen blogs, I asked my 9th graders to reflect back on their rapidly dwindling academic year, answering (in at least 300 words) one or more of the following questions:

What has been the hardest thing about this past year?

-What is one thing from this past year that you are deeply proud of?

-What is something you have learned about life this year that you will remember going into 10th grade?

-What is something you have learned about yourself this year that you will remember going into 10th grade?

-If you could change one thing from this past year, what would it be?

As I was explaining the value in reflections such as these, I got to thinking that I might as well take my own advice and join my students in the exercise. And so, as my freshmen ponder their experiences over this past academic year, I am choosing to do so alongside them, looking back carefully at my first year here at LCA as I sit in my sunny spot on the school’s lawn.

-What has been the hardest thing about this past year? Grading. I don’t at all mind spending time at home reading student papers and giving comments. The harder part for me has been trying to assign meaningful numerical values to somewhat subjective, nebulous qualities like voice, flow, intensity, depth etc. I try to be objective while still considering my personal tendencies. I’ve also gotten to know my students very well, and I like to think that I have a sense for where each one is at. I know what they are working on in their writing, what is particularly difficult for them, and what aspects of assignments bring out their creativity and potential. I’m often aware of factors at home that absolutely must be impacting their scholarly work. I have struggled this year to assign numbers to work that students have done when I know each student personally and at least something about the process each one went through to create the thing sitting in front of me waiting for a number grade. I want my grading to be honest, ethical, and fair, but also supportive and safe; this has been difficult.

-What is one thing from this past year that you are deeply proud of? I actually predominantly teach 10th graders, whom I love so much it’s ridiculous, but the thing I am the most proud of this year is the writing quality of my 9th graders. They were a ragtag gang when we started the year, representing a remarkable range of ability levels and content knowledge. They will tell you this themselves; some of them were very far behind in skill and experience. We worked really really hard together this year, and I am so deeply proud of the ways in which their writing has developed and strengthened. Each student has made tremendous progress in their own ways.

-What is something you have learned about life this year that you will remember going into 10th grade your next year of teaching? My colleagues are a storehouse of support, wisdom, solidarity, and insight. They know me, they know the school, and they know their craft. Anytime I have reached outside of my discipline or my own grade level to get feedback from one of my fellow teachers here at LCA, I have been richly rewarded. They also humble me with the way they love their students. They are fiercely protective of their students, and they inspire me with their tenacity. This year I have learned how stunningly impressive my colleagues are and how willing they are to support me as I grow into my own as an educator. I’ll make sure to use that knowledge next year.

-What is something you have learned about yourself this year that you will remember going into 10th grade your next year of teaching? This was the year, to the best of my own knowledge and self-awareness, that I learned how much I love to teach. This was my first  year with a classroom that was entirely my own. It was my first year in a school that trusts me enough to give me autonomy over my curriculum and coursework. It was the first time I was responsible for the academic, emotional, mental, and spiritual wellbeing of a group of students for an entire academic year. It was the first time I designed every single lesson plan for every single text in every single class. And everything in me rang with just how right it is for me. I love digging deep into words, how they work, how we use them, and what they can do. I will never get tired of laughing, playing, and learning with groups of students who constantly humble me with their insight and capacity to cut right to the heart of complicated issues. I don’t foresee myself getting tired of hearing a student say, “OHHHH!!!!” as understanding dawns or “Mmmm, this is just like when we talked about _____________ last week,” making connections I didn’t see. I love teaching, and I think that this was the year I learned with certainty that I was made to teach.

-If you could change one thing from this past year, what would it be? Seeing as how I’ve met my own 300-word benchmark, I think I’ll answer both honestly and succinctly. I’m not saying it was a perfect year, but I don’t really think I’d change a thing. I’ve grown and learned so much this year, and I can honestly say I enjoyed each moment and phase. I am genuinely sad to see this year draw to a close.

So there you have it! My past academic year in at least 300 words. It’s been a beauty!