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.

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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.

Composing with Sound, Post 4: Tools for Mixing Sounds

In my series on using sound composition in the English Language Arts classroom, my last post focused on how to go about collecting the sounds students need to create careful and intentional compositions. The next step after this is, of course, to put those sounds together in meaningful ways. For this, we need sound editing software. Luckily there are lots of excellent, FREE options available to us.

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The 3 best (and again, totally free) options I know of and have had success with are:

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Garage Band | A proprietary software put out by Apple for use with Apple products.

Pros:

  • It works smoothly with no bugs. I’ve never heard of a problem with Garage Band crashing.
  • The user interface is intuitive and easy-to-learn. It won’t take new users long to get comfortable.
  • It comes bundled with lots of pre-recorded material such as sound effects and music for students to use as they work. I personally don’t like this because I prefer to have my students go through the process of choosing and finding specific sounds, but the pre-loaded material definitely makes composing with sound a bit easier.

Cons:

  • This is made by and for Apple. It only works on Macs, so this can be limiting depending on what your students are using.
  • Sound editing options such as effects and processing options are more limited in Garage Band than in a more complex program like Audacity.

 

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Beautiful Audio Editor | An experimental web-based audio editor for desktop and mobile.

Pros:

  • Beautiful Audio Editor is SUPER easy to use. The interface is simple and intuitive. You can show a student how to drive it in 10 minutes, and they’ll have what they need to complete basic tasks.
  • The program is web-based, do you don’t have to download anything. You can download the app if you’d like, or you can just visit the site and work from there.

Cons:

  • It’s still in the beta phase, so it is buggy, particularly on projects that exceed 300MB or around 45 minutes in length.
  • It only works with Google Chrome or Mozilla Firefox.
  • The simplicity of Beautiful Audio Editor comes at a cost; it is a little limited in what it can do.

 

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Audacity | A free, open-source sound editing software that works on any operating system.

Pros:

  • Audacity has been around since 2000, so it’s not buggy. It’s dependable, and there are LOTS of tutorials out there, as people have been using it successfully for years.
  • It is very powerful and can do basically everything. A student who is nervous and hesitant will be able to create basic compositions, but a student with some background in sound editing can really have some fun.
  • Audacity is cross-platform. You can use it on any operating system. It will work on Windows, Mac, or Linux, so students can use whatever devices they have available to them without limitation.

Cons:

  • Audacity can be complicated to use. It has a lot of functionality for a free software, but that means that it can be overwhelming to users of all ages who are new to composing with sound. This also means that, in a classroom setting, you have to budget some significant time for training students on how to use it well and confidently.
  • Audacity does not come with any pre-recorded material like Garage Band does. So newbies who are looking to play around have to gather all their materials.
  • I have read some accounts of Audacity crashing on users, but I personally have never had this happen.

All of these options allow multiple tracks, which helps students play with layering and sound interaction. All of them are free and very reasonable to teach students to use. There are also always new options emerging, so it’s a good idea to pay attention to the tech blogs and top 10 lists out there.

In my opinion, the choice of which software to use comes down to complexity of the project and confidence of the teacher. Beautiful Audio Editor is the simplest, most basic of these options, but it is also the most limited and unreliable. Audacity is the most complicated, but it is also the most powerful. Garage Band seems to strike a balance between the options and may be a good starting place for classrooms that have adequate access to Mac devices.

Ultimately, the absolute best way to make the choice on which editor option is the best for you is to mess around with them! Create some smaller compositions of your own and see which editor makes the most sense to you and most closely meets your assignment needs.

Composing with Sound, Post 3: How to Acquire Sounds

As I work through this series of posts on composing with sound, I’ve touched on some of the reasons why sound is an important and often undervalued tool in the composition classroom. For this post, I’d like to focus briefly on some of the options our students have for acquiring the sounds they want to compose with.

The process of deciding what sounds students will use is a complicated network of strategic rhetorical choices. As the webtext I collaborated on for publication in Kairos outlines, there are 5 general categories of sound for composers to choose from:

  1. Music
  2. Sound Effects
  3. Voice
  4. Silence
  5. The interaction between these sounds

Our students have to acquire these sounds in order to make something out of them. Of course consideration has to be given to copyright laws and legality; however, the options for gathering sound assets are almost as limitless as the sounds themselves.

There are 2 basic options here.

  1. The most straightforward way to get the sounds your students need is often to have them create and record the sounds themselves. This might mean they write and perform a song or record sounds or voices from their daily lives, but they are the ones creating usable recordings from the sounds they hear. There are many different ways to do this well.
    • Most phones come equipped with simple recording capabilities. As an iPhone user, I love the Voice Memo app. This comes pre-loaded onto any iPhone and is wildly easy to use. You can name, export, and email recordings straight to your email where you can upload them for use in a sound composition. Below is a screenshot from my phone as I record using Voice Memo.
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    • There are lots of affordable microphones available for purchase ranging from $15 to a few hundred dollars.
      • I use an Excelvan Studio Condenser Microphone, which I got on Amazon for around $15. This baby plugs easily into my computer’s audio jack where I can record the sounds in any recording software I like.
      • A step up that is very well-reviewed is the Blue Snowball microphone which goes for around $50. This is nice because it’s a high-quality recording device that just plugs right into your USB outlet.
      • The gold standard for an easy-to-use recording device is also put out by Blue Designs: the Yeti. Also USB-equipped, this buddy costs around $130.
      • If your school has a MakerSpace, it’s worth checking to see if that space includes any recording equipment or if they’d be willing to purchase some for school use.
  2. The other option available to your students is to locate pre-recorded, already existing sounds that they are free to use. There are loads of these for free on the internet; however, this is where you need to caution your students to be careful to only use materials that they have permission and legal right to use and remix. Ethically using someone else’s creations adds a layer of complexity to the process.
    • For music, Soundcloud and ccMixster have a variety of options available for free use.
    • For sound effects, Freesound has a library of free-use choices.
    • For voices, students and peers of mine have in the past solicited help from online actors. Posting a request with an explanation of the project on social media or Reddit can often result in a voluntary actor recording themselves and sending your students the material they need for free! Just make sure your students make their plans for the recordings very clear to any participants.
    • One of the biggest resources for pre-recorded sound assets is to search through the Creative Commons search function; this way you can be sure that the materials your students are finding are free for use in their compositions.

Once the sounds have been chosen and acquired, the process of creating a composition out of them becomes the main focus. This involves layering, arranging, and editing to create the desired effects. Tools to help educators with this next step of the process will be the focus of my next post as I keep plugging along in sharing some of the options out there for using sound in the classroom!

Composing with Sound In the Classroom, Post 2: Why Bother with Sound?

Before I get too deep into some of the logistics in my discussion on using sound composition in the high school classroom, I’d like to generally explain why I think more teachers of writing should be capitalizing on this gold mine of a mode.

As teachers, we only have our students in our rooms for a precious little amount of time, and the expanse of skills and knowledge we want to impart to them is truly bottomless. The process of paring down our lessons and units to no more than what is absolutely necessary and no less than what is irresistibly engaging for our students is the impossible task given to every educator. With this conundrum at hand, what makes sound composition worthy of our valuable and fleeting time together?

In response to this question, I have compiled the following list which is certainly only introductory; however, my hope is that it will serve as an entry point for educators considering incorporating sound into their curriculum.

  • I have blogged before about the importance of composing in a variety of modes. Equipping our students to be fluent, creative, and explorative in whatever modes are available to them is an integral piece of developing them into literate scholars in our current world. Sound is one of those modes!
  • Sound saturates our students’ lives. Music, podcasts, speeches, radio, and our own classroom instructions are all strategically constructed sound compositions designed to accomplish specific rhetorical goals in a targeted audience. It is important that we not miss opportunities to help our students become more aware of some of the genres and rhetoric swirling around them in these compositions by teaching them how sound works as a tool for making meaning.
  • Sound as a mode in the classroom is unusual and unexpected, which means it automatically places students outside their comfort zones. This is where they can most easily escape convention and imitation in order to find creativity and unique voice. This also promotes genre awareness as students work in a mode that invites the use of fixed, established genres as well as genre-invention.
  • Inclusive classrooms are authentically accessible for a wide range of students of different physical, cognitive, and linguistic ability levels. Using sound composition diversifies the accessibility of your classroom, creating more points of access into your material for more students.
  • Students often come to sound composition with a pre-established and somewhat instinctive understanding of how sound works. Based on their experience using and experiencing sound compositions, they will find themselves prepared to use sound strategies in ways that prompt real reflection on audience awareness, rhetorical goals, and genre decisions.

Traditionally, classrooms that explore non-alphabetic modes of composition employ the use of imagery, physical movement, video, or sculpture. While all of these modes are essential, I rarely find sound among them. This is exciting to me as an educator because it means we have this massive, untapped resource at our fingertips! My goal for the next few blog post is to offer some easy, free, and practical tools to help educators bring sound composition work into their classrooms.