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!

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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The Best Kind of Assignment

In my humble opinion, the best kind of assignment is no assignment at all. Allow me to explain myself.

The most valuable kind of work a student can do is work that is voluntary, self-motivated, and unassigned. This is the kind of thing a student thinks of and pursues independently, just because they think it’s cool. Despite the elusive and difficult-to-quantify nature of uncoerced student productivity, it is unquestionably the richest, most meaningful work of all. Students learn and retain more by exercising their own creative and independent ideas than they will ever completing our imposed tasks and assessments. This self-propelled work is often the best use of everyone’s time.

The logistics of creating space and opportunity for this kind of work in the classroom, however, are incredibly tricky. The very idea requires a lot of careful planning and trust in students on the part of the classroom educator. It involves trimming down compulsory classroom work to the bare necessities so we have time and energy for intellectual play. It requires me to strategically cultivate attitudes of exploration and curiosity over time so my students are increasingly predisposed to come up with, recognize, and act on creative compositional impulses. Relationships between the students and myself and between the students themselves must be mentored into bringing about the kind of collaborative environment that naturally erupts into spontaneous acts of creation. It’s actually kind of exhausting, but, in my experience, TOTALLY worth it.

The central, anxious questions haunting my dreams as I try to design a classroom environment that invites voluntary work always go something like…

  • What if students choose to do nothing with the space I create for voluntary exploration?
  • What if students apply what I’m teaching them incorrectly?
  • What if students are only interested in one avenue of exploration and neglect necessary skills, leaving them unprepared for future academic exploits?
  • How do I grade this madness?

This is an adapted list, as the complete one is approximately 30 times as long; however, I have found that there are pretty practical, simple answers to these questions.

  • What if students just choose to do nothing with the space I create for voluntary exploration? Some will. Others won’t. As time goes on, the number of students choosing to do nothing will dwindle as they observe their peers interested and engaged in really cool, individualized work. Some students choosing to do nothing with the space might actually just need space.
  • What if students apply what I’m teaching them incorrectly? What I often perceive as incorrect application of a skill or principle I’ve taught can, on closer inspection, just be a student’s very different take on what we are learning together. However, if the student genuinely struggled to understand what I was teaching, there is NO better learning opportunity than when underway in an applicable, interesting project. 
  • What if students are only interested in one avenue of exploration and neglect necessary skills, leaving them unprepared for future academic exploits? My answer to this has been balance. I do not recommend doing away altogether with compulsory work that encourages students to stretch in all directions. I am however preparing my students for a world in which creativity, individual motivation, and ability to self-direct will probably get them a lot farther than any discrete content I have to teach them, so my classroom design needs to account for that.
  • How do I grade this madness? I grade effort, progress, and reflection. Have I watched the student struggle and overcome? Has the project evolved into something significantly more complex than the first draft? Can the student insightfully converse with me or peers on their intellectual process? It’s not scientific, but I find students rarely disagree with my final grades.

What I’ve learned while experimenting with this idea of creating space for students to act independently and then stepping back is this: when you invest in teaching your kids real world skills that are flexible, applicable, and multipurposed, they start doing really cool things just because they can. Teaching students how to flex their creative, activist, or design muscles can trigger a number of students to authentically desire to play with their newly discovered skills. We can and SHOULD stay up late at night designing strategic, well-integrated, and thoughtful assignments, but we also need to face the facts that the only people who can really create understanding and productivity in our students is our students themselves. So let’s do what we can to back them up!

 

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.

 

Something No One Mentions About Teaching

Every year I have taught in my career thus far has been at a new and unfamiliar school system. I taught at Lawrence Public High School for one year before moving on. My student teaching at Newburyport High School was only meant to last a single semester. My first year teaching at Lexington Christian Academy was a dream. And now, for the 2017-2018 academic year, I am returning to a familiar school and faculty for the first time. And I am finding some things I didn’t expect!

While I am unequivocally and wholeheartedly thrilled to be back in Room 212 with my LCA family, I was not prepared for the sense of loss and heavy-heartedness that comes with a transition of this kind. Let me preface this by saying that I absolutely adore my new group of 10th graders. They are precocious, enthusiastic, hilarious, messy, and creative; I’m very lucky to have them in my classes. But they are also a change from last year. They don’t know me, and, despite the fact that we are a month into school, I don’t really know them. Yet.

Looking back through the rose-tinted glow of my first full-time year of teaching, I think I forgot how hard it is for students and teachers to learn one another in the first few weeks of a new school year. Before we can joke, take risks, go deep, and really work together, my students and I have to develop rapport, relationship, and trust. Last year my students and I labored alongside one another, sharing successes and hardships in their academic, social, personal, and spiritual lives. We grew together as individuals and as a small community of learners that was part of a larger community of learners. By the end of the year, we had built something unique and complex and wonderful. But, as I said, that was the END of the year. All of that work came to a kind of end with the final academic semester.

My students graduated from 10th grade. They are in 11th grade now, and their job is to build entirely new learning communities and relationships with new teachers. It’s important that they move on from the community we built together. It’s important that they move on from my classroom, and I find deep joy and beauty in the natural evolution and growth that reflects. But it is also somewhat naive to overlook the sense of sadness that accompanies this whole process. It is important that most, admittedly not all, of what we built together comes to an end.

At the same time, I am now responsible for starting over with an entirely new group of faces, lives, backgrounds, fears, passions, and dreams. I begin again with students who might not love the lessons that last year’s community loved or who might not be ready for the playful banter I so enjoyed with my group from last year. This group will have different strengths and unfamiliar or unexpected weaknesses. I have to learn them, and they have to learn me. We have to make mistakes together and create our own rituals and memories. It’s a daunting prospect.

I am so deeply honored and excited to be working with my current 10th graders. And I love them just as much as I loved my 10th graders from last year. But they are different and new. They mean something else has ended. And, while they are the best and most laughter-filled way to spend my days, they are a significant change from what I knew and loved last year. I have a firm sense of peace and certainty that my class and I will create our own sense of community and scholarship this year. But, especially as I ask around and find that so many of my coworkers exprience the same sadness, I do think it’s odd that no one really mentions how starting a new school year means ending an old one, which is both somber and stunning all at once.

 

 

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!

 

Teaching Composition as Activism in the Real World

My 10th graders and I just finished Elie Wiesel’s Holocaust memoir, Night. To say that we loved the experience of working through it together is not only minimizing, it doesn’t capture the heartache and heaviness that we shared as we grappled with the reality of human suffering. We were moved by it.

When designing the unit we would use together, my goals echoed what I understand Wiesel’s to be, which is to push everyone, students included, to understand the critical weight their voices hold in the age-old battle against those who would oppress, consume, and destroy humanity. Following the publication of Wiesel’s memoir, his countless books, speeches, and essays all seem to focus on one central theme: what can we do to stand with and for those who suffer? In his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, Wiesel states clearly,

“We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

For me, the design of this unit had to strengthen critical thinking and composition skills while also honoring Wiesel’s legacy by asking students to engage personally and practically with issues of human suffering in the world around them. As it turns out, these two goals complement each other in beautiful ways.

The unit itself was a truly meaningful one to share together; however, where my students blew me away most was in the final assignment. The assignment, based on this one which I found from a fellow teacher’s blog, asked students to choose a current instance of human suffering and pain and then to use their composition skills to create artifacts that enacted change in the world around them to benefit those in pain as a result of the issue they had chosen. See the assignment statement below for what I gave them to work from.

As you can see from the assignment, the constraints were few. They had no rubrics. They had a high degree of choice. They had total control over how they implemented and pursued the choices they made. I was nervous that they would go rogue or use this as an opportunity to avoid work. They were nervous that I wouldn’t like what they did or that they wouldn’t get a good grade. We pushed through it, and, per usual, they stunned me into silence.

My beautiful, kind, clever, empathetic, and motivated students made this project their own. They chose a wide array of issues ranging from the faraway, like the drought in Somalia and the Syrian refugee crisis, to the local, diving into homelessness and sex trafficking in Boston. They built blogs, pamphlets, videos, sculptures, audio pieces, children’s books, and maps that informed, implored, and supported. Their creations traveled extensively within their communities, with letters being sent to local government officials, funds being raised within churches, information being shared with friend groups, and resources being distributed in all of these. Students created complex, strategic compositions with specific rhetorical goals that we then set loose into the real world to see how they performed.

Returning to my two initial goals, which were to build composition skills while making an impact on human suffering, I can see in retrospect that they are meant to walk hand in hand. When you give students a real reason to compose, and then you assure them that their compositions can make an impact, they rise to the circumstances. Using real-world activism to teach and explore composition not only gives students real-world experience with how their compositions can work, it shows them why good composition matters and how it can change the world around them.

I’ve compiled some shots of samples from different projects so you can see the smart and creative things students ran with. The gallery below has a variety of the visual pieces.

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The digital creations were no less impressive.

Some students made informational sites like…
– this one on South Sudan
this one on the persecuted Yazidis in Iraq
this one about the Rohingya Crisis in Myanmar (complete with a Storify outlining the background of the conflict if you’re interested!).

Other students created videos like…
this one about working with children in rural Chinese schools
this one on the genocide in Darfur
this one on the persecuted Yazidis

Another student conducted first person interviews with individuals directly involved in combatting homelessness in Boston, two of which can be heard here and here.

Students made incredible use of social media, using Instagram to share artwork along with facts and links to organizations that can support those suffering OR using Twitter and Facebook to gather first hand accounts to compile into profiles. One student wanted to gauge the impact Planned Parenthood had had on those she was connected to, so she placed an open call for firsthand stories of experiences with and care received at Planned Parenthood. She received a wide variety of responses and was able to synthesize those into an audio/video presentation to her class.

I could go on, but I know I have gone on too long already. All I will say in conclusion is that correcting these projects has been one of the most wonderful and inspiring things I have ever done. Students used their developing composition skills to chip away at injustice, both in the world at large and in their own lives. In reflecting on this project, I take heart that the future of our world will be placed in pretty good hands.

All student work shared with permission.