This past Friday afternoon Callum, Melissa, and myself attended a wonderful professional development. As we left for the day they turned to me and asked, “So Trace, what will your blog be about this week?” I replied, “Not a clue!” And I was being honest. I had written 3 pieces, the first one – Melissa had already called, the second one – just stunk (it did, trust me) and the third one never got past the title. So as I drove away feeling rather panicked, I turned off the radio and began talking to myself. I began to think about what I teach my students to do when they don’t know what to write. I began to make a mental list of what I wanted to share with the world (a strategy I teach writers). As I developed a topic I tried to think about what I would say – like telling it across your fingers. The first topic did not make it past 1 finger (no, not that finger – insert laughter). The second topic was good but did not feel right. And just like Goldilocks’ and the Three Bears, the last one was a winner. The topic that I felt I needed to share with the whole world, was TEACHERS SHOULD PRACTICE WHAT THEY TEACH. I realized that if I wasn’t a writer, I would not have developed strategies to engage myself in writing. But because I am a writer, I have developed a toolbox of strategies to help with my writing and therefore, that allows me to transfer that over to my students. The same goes for reading. If I am not a reader, I am likely to forget the how and why of what readers do. So today, let’s talk about why it is important to practice what we do as teachers.
I’m a reader! I read a variety of genres, I read books I love, books that push me, and books that I’m told to read….but I read. I not only read for pleasure, but I read to grow as a teacher. I know that as a reader the number one thing I like to do when I read a book is talk to others. This realization helped me value the fact that my students need to talk about their reading. I need to complain when the book ended in a dreadful way, celebrate when the ending makes me smile, and yell when I think a particular character is stupid, as do my students! I also know that when I read historical fiction, I usually need to make notes about historical events I know nothing about, so that after I finish reading I can do some research to clarify my understand of the setting or events. I know that when I find a topic I enjoy, like I did in 7th grade about Marilyn Monroe, or last year when I decided I might take a trip to Europe, I sometimes develop a passion and have to read more and more books about that particular topic. These are just a few insightful realizations that have been transferred into my classroom and as a result have helped my students grow deeper comprehension. What I did as a reader became what I taught to my readers. Too many teachers will say, I don’t know what to teach. They have looked at data, read their resources – that is not the problem. The true problem is that they don’t have the schema as a reader to know what their readers’ needs are. I challenge all of you to make a list at your next planning meeting that is titled – what do we do as readers? Then have a conversation and decide which items on that list could you teach to your students? Better than that, if you assign reading homework, make it your own as well. Isn’t that fair? Then as you read, do the work you hope your students are doing in their reading. You see, when we empathize as a reader we not only know what to teach, but we understand what is important to teach.
I may have always been a reader, but I have not always been a writer. I was on my school’s yearbook staff, and I was a guest writer for my college newspaper, however it was not a regular habit in my life. Several years back I attended Teacher’s College for writing and Lester Laminack spoke. I hope that each one of you get to hear him speak just one time in your life because he changed my life as a writer. Lester is a story teller – engaging, amusing, daring and charming. During his presentation he discussed how if we are story tellers, we are writers. Well, those who know me, know I AM a storyteller indeed. It is definitely one of my verbal gifts. But I had never transferred that over to writing. I left that week and went home a new person. I began writing in a private journal, it was a safe place to start. Next, I began writing in front of my students. Although not as safe, I had the option of pre-writing, to help it feel safer. As I grew into my writer’s skin, I then began writing in front of my students on the spot. When I did, I found myself stumbling but regaining footage, struggling but winning, and loving every minute. My students watched me as I stumbled, struggled and passionately pushed forward and a bond formed. We not only discussed ways to elaborate, figure out how to spell a word, hook the reader a different way, we all began to realize that all writers struggle – those who publish and those who write for school. All of a sudden my students began to take risks. I know that writing does not come easy for most. However, we have to understand what our students go through when they write in the classroom. Many teachers will just say – go back to your desk and think of an idea to write about. But wouldn’t it be easier to help them figure out an idea by sharing what we do as writers? For example, when I can share with my writers a moment like what happened at the end of the day Friday, and explain how I resolved the problem – students will connect with you. They will then remember your experience and use it in their own writing struggles. So think about how you will develop your writing life. Will you create a journal for yourself, a weekly email for your campus with a purpose, shared writing with your students, etc? Once you have developed that writing life, then begin thinking about how you get from one part of your writing to the next. Once example for me is publishing. When I publish it takes several rereads – not one or two, more like 6 or 7. I HAVE to have someone else read my work and give me feedback. I need mentor text as a guideline for organization. I DON’T use prompts, or have someone tell me what to write. If I did, I probably would not attempt this blog. As students, our writers are forced to write. It is not an option, they have deadlines, requirements, restrictions – pressure. When I was writing in my journal I had none of that – my thoughts, my journal, and my timeline – no accountability. So, I stretched myself and joined this group of bloggers. My journey as a writer has just begun, but I have learned so much. The fear of publishing, the frustration of not knowing what to write about, fear of peer editing, insecurity about how I write. I am developing a new level of instruction in my mind. Think of some way that you can write. Little or big – do something to help yourself understand what your students are going through.
Our content area is an art – yes an art. It is not something concrete. As with any art, it must be practiced regularly, a technique found, and realization that it will never be perfect. However, the more we practice what we do, the more we realize how to do it. I hope I have inspired you just a little, like Lester did for me.