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!

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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.

Teachers Returning from Deep Dives

Today in our final faculty meeting of the year, one of my colleagues, Chris Greco, tossed an analogy out for us all as we prepared to leave the harried school year and enter summer vacation. He reflected that, as a teacher, entering summer break is a lot like a scuba diver surfacing from a deep dive. Both involve transitions from extreme, high-pressure environments to sunny, usually notably lower-pressure situations. But, as Chris succinctly pointed out, if a scuba diver ascends too quickly, “their head explodes.” Here is where his analogy hits practicality for me as an educator entering my summer months.

I love summer. I need summer. I need the rest and flexibility that it brings. But I do remember last summer being less than the idyllic dreamscape I imagined. I felt stressed, fidgety, and aimless. So often I hear my peers and myself saying things like, “I don’t do well in the summer. I get anxious. I miss the structure.” Summer is, for many educators, a time of nervous ennui or of daunting confrontation with our own selves.

Listening to Chris today, I began to wonder if at least part of what we were experiencing was our metaphorical heads exploding. Perhaps we had come up from our school year deep dives too quickly, without giving our heads and our hearts time to adjust to the gradual changes in pressure and environment. Perhaps there had been no adjustment period.

And so, as I enter this summer, I am preparing differently than I have in the past. I am coming up for air slowly and carefully, paying attention to myself and my surroundings as I do so. Instead of hurling myself headlong into a series of long afternoon naps (which I absolutely still plan to indulge in), I’m going to plan out my afternoons. I’m making my lists of tasks and goals and hopes for the summer, and I’m carefully arranging them in ways that leave wide sunny summer afternoons open for grass naps with dogs, but that also structure my time to maintain a new kind of productivity that is both gentle and ambitious. I am doing my best to swim slowly to the surface, adjusting and patting the waiting pups along the way.

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On Visiting the MFA and Reflecting on How Tricky/Important/Magnificent Reading Can Be

Today my husband and I visited the Boston Museum of Fine Arts for the first time in years. They offer free admission on Wednesday nights after 4pm, and I had been let out of school early for snow, so our timing was perfect. For two people who LOVE critiquing and debating the nuances and implications of films, books, plays, music, and articles, we have a borderline embarrassing lack of cool when it comes to 3-D art in physical spaces like museums or exhibit halls. It’s not our comfort zone, and we have essentially no experience with it. But, as a teacher of reading and writing who believes in her core in the value of multimodal composition and who teaches visual rhetoric, this seemed like an untenable position, so off to the MFA we went.

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As we ambled awkwardly into a nearby gallery room (we started with American art from the 1800s which was a questionable choice) and faced the first floor-to-ceiling oil painting looming in its gilded frame, I had a very odd, but also faintly familiar experience. I wasn’t entirely sure what to do. As I squinted at the complicated brush strokes and imposing oil-painting figures, I was at a bit of a loss. What does one do with paintings? Was I supposed to say how it made me feel? Was it supposed to mean something? How could I even tell if I LIKED it or not?

Immediately, and with a faint smile, I recognized the questions running through my mind. They’re the same questions my students ask when I show them something new. They’re the same questions I hear from and see in them when we tackle an unusual composition, an unfamiliar genre, or a whole new mode. When I ask students to rhetorically analyze sound compositions, their faces look like I felt as the larger-than-life oil painting version of George Washington stared down at me imposingly. I had to laugh.

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I had forgotten how disorienting and daunting it can be to attempt to read a composition in a mode outside our comfort zone. As my husband and I slowly moved from impressionist paintings to cubist paintings to sculptures and so on, I recalled how squaring off with an unfamiliar genre or mode can feel a little like getting pushed into the deep end of a swimming pool unexpectedly. But I also inhabited the importance of having flexible, complex reading skills that apply to any mode in any scenario.

And so, under oil painting George Washington’s watchful eye, I went back to what I know, because I DO know how to read. I read the paintings. I read each painting multiple times, like I would a poem. Once to understand, again to notice, again to analyze, and then again to reflect. I paid attention to my own responses, both emotional and intellectual. I carefully read accompanying plaques to construct small rhetorical analyses with which to understand authorial goals and contextual influences. I noticed features: colors, lines, framing, repetition, symbols etc. I compared them to other works they reminded me of. I considered different theoretical lenses. I asked myself questions, and then I discussed my answers with my husband, who was doing the same thing in his own mind. We READ the paintings.

And, guys, reading is TRULY magnificent! Paintings and sculptures that initially intimidated me or struck me as dull became rich, emotional works when I really read them and shared those readings with another person. I poked around in my own heart and mind with depth and dimension, feeling emotional responses and thoughtfully noticing them. As we wandered the museum, reading carefully, we were deeply and profoundly human. We sifted through the truths of existence that hang just below the surface of our conscious days. We felt and observed our differences as individuals, and we soaked ourselves in beauty and creation.

Ultimately, my husband and I spent upwards of 3 hours engrossed in the different galleries, floors, and exhibits. But we wouldn’t have been able to have that experience as individuals or together if we hadn’t leaned into the discomfort of reading in new genres and drawn from our tried and true strategies for reading texts. As an educator, this experience was an important reminder for me. I walked away renewed in my conviction that:

  • For reading to be real, living, and impactful in my students’ lives, it has to be multimodal, flexible, and diverse.
  • Reading, REALLY reading, new things is vulnerable, intimidating, and uncomfortable. But it’s the stuff truth and life are made of, and my students need to have the tools to do it bravely and well.

So, if you find yourself at the MFA on a Wednesday night, look around. There’s a good chance we’ll be there too.

 

Blogging with NCTE!

I have recently, along with some of my colleagues, been sharing some of my work and research on NCTE’s blog, which I have always found to be a deeply helpful and rich resource for collaboration and reflection in the field of teaching composition and reading. I wanted to briefly share that a post I published with NCTE earlier this year, “More Than a Grade: Cultivating Intellectual Play in Students,” made their list of “Top 10 Blogs from 2017“!

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As someone who is relatively new to the world of teaching and blogging about teaching, it is a massive honor to be listed alongside names like Jeff Wilhem and Arina Bokas. And so I wanted to take a minute to thank NCTE as well as to encourage any educators in the disciplines of reading and writing to consider contributing to NCTE’s blog so that we can continue to grow as we share and learn from one another as educators, readers, and writers!

Wakelet and the Twitterverse Save the Day (mostly)!

In my last post, I mourned the loss of the web-based social networking tool Storify AND fretted over how best to preserve the work I and my students had accumulated through Storify’s platform over the past few years. After tweeting that blog post out, I was able to bear witness to the magical power of social media firsthand. The Twitterverse and some site called Wakelet solved my problem for me.

My blog post had been up on my Twitter feed for about 10 minutes before I received this response from an unfamiliar account.

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Wakelet saw my post and was ready with their solution to the impending death of Storify. So, as my response suggested I would, I followed up.

Screen Shot 2018-01-27 at 12.04.21 PMMuch to my delight, Wakelet turned out to be awesome. Not only do they have an incredibly easy-to-use tool to import and maintain all my Storify content, they also have a fabulously user-friendly and appealing interface! It is essentially a polished up version of Storify, allowing users to organize and annotate online content from a variety of locations into a single, linear Story. Much like Storify, you can link to information from a site OR upload files directly from your computer, and, just like Storify, you can drag and drop items in the timeline to easily rearrange them.

Improving on Storify’s design, Wakelet offers a few more options on how to arrange content. You can choose from a traditional linear layout, a grid layout, or something resembling a table of contents, where each item has a space for text next to it. You can also easily add or remove contributors, which was something I remember struggling with in Storify.

The major drawback I see so far with Wakelet is that, when I import my stories from Storify, the embedded links don’t transfer. So the text elements import, but the links are gone. I can certainly just edit the document and replace the link, but it does mean that my initial impression was a little too good to be true. I’ve messaged the SUPER responsive Wakelet help team, and I’ll report back if they find a solution.

So, not only is all my Storify work safe and sound, I also have a shiny new platform for my students and I to play with! Needless to say, I’m a fan.

 

 

 

 

Resuscitating the Manifesto in 2018

This is objectively the longest I have gone in the past 2 years without posting on this blog. It feels weird. It is also a reflection of the fact that this school year has been a tricky one for me. Despite this being my second year at LCA and despite my meeting this year with an already-prepared and tested curriculum, I have found this year to be taxing and tiring in new and unexpected ways. I have found my energy levels and enthusiasm flagging. And I have consequently found myself battling guilt for my flagging energy levels and enthusiasm, which is objectively unhelpful.

Regardless of the reasons for and legitimacy of my fatigue, I’m realizing the necessity of reviving my Teaching Manifesto for this academic year. Things that seemed self-evident and inevitable as I gleefully typed them in the rosy dusk of summer vacation have unexpectedly become more challenging this year as temperatures and energy levels plummet.

And so I spent some time this afternoon reflecting on commitments I made to myself, my colleagues, and my students before this school year began. And I’ve compiled a list for myself to meditate on in the breathing room that Christmas vacation offers. I selected these items from my manifesto as the ones I have struggled with the most over this past academic year. These are the commitments that I can’t say I’ve truly succeeded in keeping. These are the commitments that I want to prayerfully and carefully resuscitate in this new calendar year.

I don’t believe in New Years Resolutions, although I like the idea of them. So, as far as resolutions for 2018 go, this is probably as close as I will get:

I will honor my students:

  • 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. (While I don’t often speak negatively of my students, I believe I have lapsed in my praise and affirmation of them and their work. My shortage of emotional energy has led me to skimp on the personalized and individualized positivity that should be raging like a wildfire in my classroom.)
  • 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. (My lack of enthusiasm has inadvertently resulted in a more teacher-centric classroom dynamic. Partially because of a lack of time, but partially because I am not putting out the energy required to create an invitational classroom, my students sometimes expect my to do the intellectual heavy lifting in our time together. And I have succumbed to that in the moment more often than I’d care to admit.)

I will honor my scholarship:

  • I will continue to reflect on my practice and connect with others in my field through my blog and Twitter account. (This seems self explanatory.)
  • 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 have lacked the motivation or energy to engage in or get excited about the things I am writing or reading outside of the classroom. I haven’t regularly extended my creativity and curiosity outside of myself to make something or interact with something in the world around me.)

I will honor myself:

  • 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 won’t even try to figure out if my challenges this year have been caused by or resulted in my shortage of time in prayer, worship, or rest in God. Perhaps there is no correlation at all. The point is that there is a shortage.)

The final line item in my 2017-2018 Manifesto will also be the final line item to this resuscitation of said manifesto.

I will push myself to be my best, but I will be kind to myself when I fall short.