Students Beware: Veteran Educator Feels Like a First Year Teacher
Every year we hear more accounts of teacher burnout, and at times, I’ve considered trying it, but the negative thoughts pass as I continue my exciting journey
lifetime sentence through the high school hallways. I traditionally teach 4-5 different English courses from semester to semester, with a maximum of one repeated class per day. So, realistically, I don’t have time to get bored. This also means I have had the pleasure of teaching all brands of high school students in seventeen years. I could not enjoy a year without Visions in Literature and Composition–a class of bright-eyed 9th graders, who possess a zest for learning and untapped potential, but can’t avoid being freshmen. I love guiding juniors through the most important year in their educational journey and respect the content of Perspectives in World Literature and Composition. I am fully invested in Foundations of College Writing, my paperless senior writing course, in which I have become an edtech pioneer (self-proclaimed) by navigating a district 21st Century initiative, utilizing the power of Google Apps in our writing lab. My favorite class to teach has always been Communications, a public speaking course for upperclassmen. Despite my constructivist philosophy, no other class is as student-centered, simply due to the nature of its content.
Just as I was getting comfortable with the adjustments I have made to improve each course, an unexpected opportunity presented itself. At the end of last school year I was approached with the possibility of teaching Creative Writing, a course made popular by its previous teacher, my colleague and friend, who was moving on to another district. I always warned her students I was going to join the class as a student and write with them. And now I am, but the students are mine. Although I feel the uncertain thrill of a first-year teacher, there is renewed energy in my school day, and my passion for writing is awake after years of neglect.
Where Do I Begin?
The emphasis of my professional development over the summer focused on writing, as I outlined a plan for teaching the extensive genres of Creative Writing. I sought the advice of two of my favorite experts–Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle–who reminded me to model more writing for students in each of my classes, not solely for Creative Writing. For teachers who have never read the works of Gallagher and Kittle, please find the time. They speak directly from the classroom with authentic voices and practical approaches for improved writing (and reading) instruction.
Despite the knowledge I gained through research, I struggled up to the final days of summer vacation, before finally sketching my plans for the course on the syllabus presented at the top of this post. Yes, that’s the syllabus I handed to students as they entered the classroom on opening day. I am not an artist, but I felt I had to be the first one in the class to take a chance. I was obligated to show–rather than tell–what to expect from the course they signed up for last year (actually, I felt obligated to warn them about what they were in for with me as their instructor). Although I was unsure of their initial reaction, I have since been rewarded with positive feedback from enthusiastic writers. Students respected my honesty, vulnerability, and energy, and as a result, now trust the guidance of a first-time Creative Writing instructor.
Where Do I Go From Here?
After gaining the support of students, I had to build a community of writers who encourage each other and feel secure sharing their work. The class is composed of twenty-two upperclassmen with varying interests, social circles, and writing backgrounds, so I anticipated a challenge. Our early activities (highlighted in my previous post), discussions, and sharing sessions broke down many barriers through laughter and storytelling. But I do not take much credit for the positive learning environment that has evolved; I work with great students–genuine, compassionate, young adults.
One early influential mission was to create six word memoirs as a means of getting to know each other. After a day spent introducing the assignment and brainstorming possibilities, I once again stepped out of my comfort zone and was first to share several final options. I projected three sentences on the smart board, mentioned what I intended to express, explained my conflicts, and asked for guidance.
Students provided constructive feedback in an intelligent conversation about the writer’s craft. Without teacher direction (I simply asked questions, clarified responses, and thanked contributors for their thoughts), students engaged in an unforced discussion of good writing, audience, purpose, effective punctuation, word choice, and the power of one sentence. Confident writers (several AP students who have been exposed to complex literary analysis) first expressed specific details about quality writing, but surprisingly, some tentative writers shared observations; other students listened and processed in silence. Their commentary was inspiring. The result… my life in six words:
Walking far beyond the pedestrian path.
The twenty minute dialogue not only impacted the rest of the semester for our sixth hour team, it provided another highlight in my teaching career. Two days later, we sat in a circle and all twenty-three shared a six word memoir. Each author left the audience craving the rest of the story (which is a logical transition to our next mission: the autobiographical narrative). After admiring everyone’s contribution, I presented one final challenge to the class. We needed to publish our words–allow the world to hear our voices. Several visionary artists took a lead role, and within a week–after having us choose between five songs to accompany our words–produced a class video. The video might not signify much to a general YouTube audience, but it forever unifies our class. It also gave me something more impressive than my artistic syllabus (which I handed out…) to showcase during Back-to-School Night. As the parents of my writers watched intently, waiting for the words of their son or daughter to flash across the screen, they were overcome with emotion (several to tears). The power of the written word, combined with the potential of our children’s minds, made a bold statement about the quality of our educational system. I am proud to share our video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EkymNjSz_OI with you. Enjoy.
I put considerable thought into planning my classes, but the best lessons result from the spontaneity of my students. While I take comfort in being organized for each hour, the random-abstract part of my brain cringes at the limitations of set routines in a cookie-cutter classroom. That would explain why I teach 4-5 different preps throughout the day–the variety keeps every day exciting and reminds me to experience school from a student’s perspective. I can empathize as the bell interrupts one thought process and insists on passage to another. However, for learners who need structure to alleviate anxiety, I use a simple strategy of establishing theme days at the outset of class. Class periods are 52 minute long (45 minutes on late start Wednesdays) so I dedicate the first 5-15 minutes, depending on the plan for the rest of the hour.
In Creative Writing (an elective English course for juniors and seniors), the theme days are as follows:
We need to make the most of fresh minds at the beginning of each week, so Metaphor Monday launches the critical thought process. I approach the prompt from the standpoint of thinking at two levels, emphasizing the figurative beyond the literal. We start with an intangible concept related to one of the week’s learning targets and make a direct comparison to something tangible. Of course, students must then provide the rationale for the connection. Our first example (to initiate a conversation about writing) is:
Good writing is a(n) __________________________, because…
The variety of thought processes is fascinating and worth noting how many writers want to turn metaphors into similes. They overuse like as a natural part of their language, and are totally unwilling to state anything with–like–conviction. Right? It also provides a first impression of my learners and how I should approach instruction.
On Tuesdays, I take advantage of my students’ obsession with social media. Adolescents are undaunted by the 140 character limit and attack this prompt. After composing the thought in their writer’s notebook, many students opt to publish via Twitter. The purpose is to get writers thinking before the day’s lesson, but teachable moments are plentiful (and may be habit-forming).
Please don’t tell my students they are learning to:
1. Write for an authentic audience
2. Increase self-reflection and social awareness
3. Leave a respectable digital footprint (possibly making up for careless social media posts they might someday regret)
4. Appreciate the potential and value of social media as a means of global communication
5. Write clearly and coherently, edit, and revise before publishing (including the importance of word choice, effects of punctuation, and beauty of a clever hashtag #creativewritingrocks)
Wednesday Wellness (not a writing prompt, but oh, so necessary)
By midweek, the creative process calls for celebration and a break from the writing workshop (in the computer lab). We move to my classroom–a field trip of sorts–where the desks are arranged in a semi-circle, inviting whole class conversation (see Clubhouse in Learning With a Purpose page). Writers use this time to celebrate, sharing their work within a circle of trust. When the sharing is complete, everyone reads independently selected books in silence (SSR!) for the remainder of the 45 minute period. Students exit the Clubhouse with a sense of pride (in their work), community (of mutual respect and support), and well-being (relaxed and appreciative of quality time with a good book). The teacher also deserves some guilt-free wellness time to recharge for the remainder of the week.
Deep Thought Thursday
On Thursday, we return to the writing workshop, but before the lesson of the day, we need time to contemplate life. For days when inspiration is lacking, I suggest writers start by asking themselves a question (possibly about something nagging just beneath the surface) or begin with “I wonder…” or “What if…” prompts. Hopefully, a thought is sparked. One unintentional result of the Deep Thought Thursday journal entry is the potential for a future research topic, argument paper, or premise of a story–all of which could become publishable works.
Free Write Friday
Alas, the end of the week arrives. What could possibly maintain our attention? Can anything be more important than getting the weekend party started? Should we shut it down–call it a week? Let’s be real–we need Free Write Fridays, our version of 20% time. Not everyone is going to appreciate each of the genres we cover throughout the semester (from creative nonfiction personal narratives to fictional poetry, short stories, and screenplays). Students signed up for Creative Writing with different intentions and strengths. Based on last year’s feedback to the previous Creative Writing teacher, students crave the freedom to experiment with and explore individual passions in writing beyond the established curriculum. How awesome will it be to someday hear their song on the radio, read their best seller, or watch their movie in the theater?
Whether the alliterative theme days are simply cheesy or possibly clever, they set an expectation and generate enthusiastic, memorable learning experiences at the outset of class. And for those with color-coded planners–ease that anxiety–there is structure within our creative chaos. Of course, I make no promises of what will take place for the remainder of each class period.