Tuesday, January 30, 2018

A rising tide

Tuesdays at Two Writing Teachers!
"I get it! Now I'll leave comments! I read the comments they left me and I just..." With sparkling eyes, A. looks up from her blog and presses her hands over her heart.

"Seeeee? I tried to tell you!" I nudge her shoulder with my elbow. "But I know... it's hard to understand how powerful comments can be until you get a really meaningful comment, right? And it just gives you this incredible feeling... that's exactly what happened to me with my teacher blogging friends! This is what I've wanted for you guys!"

This little moment with A. is the culmination of several days of having my heart soar as I scrolled through the comment moderation feed on my class blog. Every year, I try to teach my students the power of commenting on others' writing. Every year, I dream of recreating for them the uplifting community of writers I experience every Tuesday through slicing. Every year, a few students buy in and craft some encouraging, thoughtful comments for others. But every year, the experience has fallen flat for most of them. Until this year.

A few weeks ago, I'd once again given a mini-lesson about how to construct a thoughtful comment. It was a darn good mini-lesson, complete with us working together as a class to craft a meaningful comment on one of the TWT author's OLW posts. Once again, I put up a chart on the SMARTboard of the components of a quality comment, with sentence starters, as I sent my students off to their Chromebooks. Once again, not enough kids put in enough effort to create a truly meaningful connection. Once again, their sighs and glazed eyes revealed that most of them viewed it as just another task to complete, and a rather onerous one at that. Once again, many of them scrolled through their classmates' OLW posts without commenting at all or left short, generic, superficial comments.

My muscles tensed as I circulated though the room with my laptop, approving the mostly-mediocre incoming comments and hurling gentle reminders over shoulders. "Remember to leave a thoughtful, 2-part comment!" "Don't forget to try out some of the sentence starters on the board!" "'I liked your writing. It was good.' is not a quality comment!" There was probably steam coming out of my ears by the end of that afternoon.

After class, I flopped into my desk chair, put my chin on my arms, and fumed. Why don't they ever get this?! It could be so awesome! Suddenly, I remembered a takeaway one of my colleagues had shared from Urban Meyer's book on coaching & leadership: "In the old days he got furious. Now, he gets curious: where did the breakdown occur?"

My mind cleared. Curious, not furious... Ok. This is a leadership breakdown. Ever since this particular colleague has brought Focus-3's R-Factor leadership training (the culture / leadership system OSU football uses) into our building, I've shifted to a new vision of my responsibilities as classroom leader. I knew I'd given them the skills they needed to write effective comments. They just weren't doing it. Ok. This is not a skill gap. This is a clarity-of-purpose gap. They weren't seeing the value, even though I'd tried to explain and model the power of commenting. Time to regroup.

The next day, I pulled my class into the meeting area with a blank page on the SMARTboard. With more than a little fire, asked them, "Why do you think I ask you to leave comments for other writers?" After 10 solid minutes of popcorn responses so fast I could barely scrawl them on the board, they'd hit everything I could have possibly wanted to lecture them on: Reading like writers to learn new writing strategies. Practicing good writing in their responses. Getting to know each other better. Building confidence and pride in their writing. Reflecting on the components of good writing... Everything. And they were ready to go.

I felt like we shouldn't have needed that conversation. We shouldn't have had to "waste time" backtracking to talk about why to leave comments when we'd done it several times this year. They should have known. But whether you "should have to" do something is another mindset shift my colleague has had me reflecting on. Regardless of what I thought should happen, there was some kind of disconnect between my vision and theirs, and that discussion transformed it. Maybe it was the days of foundation after break we'd just spent reflecting on first semester and setting goals, maybe they could see I was fired up, but I think the biggest difference was that they felt invested in creating the reasons themselves. 

And that day, enough of them got on board to turn the tide.
The next day, I pulled up some of the best comments and we analyzed them together, noticing the words and strategies that made them so powerful. My group leaders (more posts coming on that!) started really pushing themselves to make a difference in their comments to their group members. More momentum. 
Since then, it has been pure delight to scroll through that feed, clicking "approve" and getting goosebumps. Almost every comment has been crafted with specific, intentional thoughts to lift the writer and build a meaningful connection. 

And the more meaningful connections, the more reluctant writers like A. will see their power and RISE, wanting to pass that feeling on to others. Enough ripples make a wave. But the ripples start with me: curious, not furious.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Flying free

Tuesdays at Two Writing Teachers!
"Ok, climb on.. oof!" I shift the hard wood to keep it from digging into my legs as little hands and knees start pummeling my back. Dead weight on my neck shoves my head forward, and I have to laugh. "Wait, you're too far forward! Scoot back!!!" Wriggly limbs squirm to a more comfortable position above me, and I tighten my grip around the bar in my hands.

"Ready?! Hold on tight! Hug Mommy really big!" Precious arms squeeze my shoulders, and I shove my boots against the ground.

"FAST!" M&M squeals as my feet scramble to get us to the edge of the hill.

and we're flying!

Wind rushing in our ears,
clear air tickling our rosy cheeks,
Giggling, shrieking, gliding, flying!


We careen to a jarring halt,
frigid snow bits clumping in our eyelashes, biting our faces, clinging to our pigtails.

We tumble off the sled, and I can't remember lesson plans, emails, or a to-do list. I can't remember anything but our twinkling blue eyes, our toothy grins, her little arms hugging my neck, and that flying feeling. Purely, joyfully free.

Whatever I used to do on snow days, it wasn't nearly as sweet as this.

Monday, January 1, 2018

I will rise (OLW 2018)

Ever since I found my first "one little word" in 2012, I've spent December days seeking out my next word. Sometimes, a word finds me, jumping out, lighting up, or slamming into my brain. Those years, I just know I've found my word, or rather, that it has found me. Other years, I let a few words bounce around in my head, turning them over, letting them roll through my mind, trying them out to see if they fit. And a few years, I go actively seeking them, scrolling through favorite quotes or contemplating symbolic images.

Regardless, I've always managed to choose 6 words that have filled my life perfectly for the past 6 years: guiding me, pushing me, and encouraging me through sometimes unimaginable changes. It's incredible to realize that when I chose that first word, I was a young middle-school Spanish teacher on a cart who had only been blogging for a few months. Now, as I savor my seventh word, I'm an experienced high school ELL teacher and mom of an amazing toddler. Those words have taken me so far: 2012: connect --> 2013: delight --> 2014: spark --> 2015: love --> 2016: strong --> 2017: anyway

Usually, I like to reflect on the previous year, but I'm so ready to leave 2017 behind. Let's just say that I couldn't have possibly imagined how much I'd really need the word "anyway". In fact, I probably should have clung to it even more than I remembered to, but it got me through, nonetheless. Here I am, ready to choose another word.

This year, my word definitely found me, as surely as if it had appeared in the sky with shimmering lights. In 2018, I will RISE.
I love making my word with Drawing Desk & Font Candy!
I will RISE to continually improve my instruction.
I will RISE to provide feedback that enables a focus on learning.
I will RISE to show more love and grace to every student.
I will RISE to build a stronger classroom culture with more student ownership.
I will RISE to hold the line high every moment, every day.

I will RISE to "brave the wilderness" and work with authenticity. 
I will RISE to stand firm in doing what is best for students.
I will RISE to center myself in trust, kindness, and hope.
I will RISE to seek out and strengthen colleagues who work with purpose, integrity, and joy.
I will RISE to create widening ripples of positive change.

I will RISE to cherish small moments.
I will RISE to bring my best self home.
I will RISE to be careful with the feelings I create in those who matter most.
I will RISE to love with patience and presence.

I will RISE to keep my body healthy and my mind & heart strong.
I will RISE to choose courage over fear and gratitude over pain.
I will RISE to remember how far I've come, not just how far I have to go.
I will RISE to be gentle with myself.

"Just like hopes springing high, / still I'll rise." -- Maya Angelou