On Back to School Night, as well as by email, I invited parents to participate in my podcast on reading and writing. There is no coaching, no pre-conference, no review of questions ahead of time. Parents show up on a designated date and sit down with me for thirty minutes.
We talk. The Voice Recorder app runs.
In each case, conversations have run over thirty minutes. We discover that we do have a lot to share with one another about reading and writing. I tell the parents that we will just keep talking but that I will extract an eight to twelve minute segment to reflect upon.
What strikes me immediately (in all of my podcasting with the parents) is how closely the parents' experiences and beliefs mirror much of the research on reading and writing that I have read. I find myself thinking about Donald Graves, Janet Emig, George Hillocks, Mina Shaughnessy, Tom Newkirk, Lucy Calkins, Nanci Atwell, Katie Wood Ray, Katherine Bomer, et al.
I am wondering how can parents' words and actions so closely mirror what the research has been telling us for decades, yet the actions regarding writing in education continues to drift further and further away even though we know better?
One of the most powerful moments in this conversation is when Amy exclaims, "Ohh! Don't be so afraid!" She is imagining a conversation she has had with her children again and again. Amy sees adolescents stymied by rubrics. They aren't helpful. At least, they aren't as helpful as we'd like to believe.
I keep coming back to the idea that what inside of schools resembles little of what happens outside of schools. And it makes me question the validity of how we spend our time inside of the classroom in addition to the validity of how we assess writing in particular.
In this excerpt, two parents (Doris and Amy) share how their personal experiences as readers and writings inform how they help their own children as readers and writers.
I'm struck that Doris and Amy acknowledge physical activity stimulates the brain to focus.
I'm struck that each sees the counterproductive results of adolescents dependent upon rubrics.
Not only am I struck that these adults write, but also I am struck that they can name the specific processes in their everyday lives that the research names as effective and authentic. Doris thinks about an idea for weeks--often while driving. Amy talks to friends about a subject, reads widely, and thinks about while jogging.
Since each of these parents knows that writing is an active process over an extended period of time--and each encourages their children to see writing similarly--perhaps more do as well. While we take our cue from the policy makers from above, we (the collective education community) may want to continue to reach out to have informal conversations with parents about reading and writing. We each have advocates and mentors within reach. We may not get 100% participation, but some parents will and some community members will if asked.
Perhaps we can extend more invitations to parents to be engage us in conversations so that we might advocate for our community together.
Every few episodes I will continue to insert excerpts from my conversations with parents about reading and writing. Enjoy the first with Doris and Amy!
Meet Logan. Logan likes to read. He even likes to write his own stories. However, as a writer, Logan hits a fork in the path. Soon into a new idea, he doesn't know what to write next. The story sits incomplete. Like a hiker who neither goes left or right at the fork, but returns to his point of origin, Logan abandons his writing.
In some respects, Logan (like many adolescents) is being taught to abandon his writing.
This is significant because we are training generations of adolescents to write to someone else's agenda. Adolescents learn to depend on us not only for the idea but also where to take it. Significant evidence emerges on daily basis that we cheat our kids' ability to think for themselves.
In this episode of the podcast (a quick conferring session during class), Logan reminds me, "I do write sometimes, but I never finish anything....I know everything I'm supposed to write about then there is this pause and I just stop and think, 'what am I supposed to write about now?'"
On the positive side, Logan has set up the conditions of a reading and writing life for himself outside of school. He even recognizes the importance of support and encouragement. He talks to his friends about his writing. He remembers comments written to him on shared documents online.
And then something really curious (and telling occurs), Logan exhales.
It is the deep exhale we have all felt the moment we are about to say something honest and raw. Logan says he wrote something a few years ago but "its gone now."
A teacher had control of the student writing and deleted it.
Couple Logan's deep exhale with the symbolic act of an adult deleting an adolescent's writing. I think of Jo's pain at learning Amy tossed her manuscript into the roaring fireplace. Likewise, I couldn't fathom giving any of you control over my writing--to incinerate it at will.
I would sigh deeply too.
My recent thinking has latched onto the idea of writers collaborating. In the real world, these are supportive communities. Writers reach out to others they trust. Often, a relationship is in place--but not always. Sometimes just the common desire to have a partner draws like-minded people to writers' groups and classes.
Having someone to talk and share with consistently draws the best out of us as writers.
When I had my 8th grade students collaborate on a piece of writing together, I asked Elsa to podcast her experience with me. Even when a choice of collaboration is offered, Elsa has been someone to remain independent--most of my students choose to write by themselves.
This makes sense. Some have been disappoint by group efforts on projects of the past. We know the scenario. One person does most of the work. The partner cruises and receives the same grade at the end.
What did they learn other than you can't get good help nowadays?
But I pushed for collaboration this time. It wasn't a choice. You had to write something together.
Elsa said, "I enjoyed it...I felt like I had somebody to rely on...they were right there to say 'Alright, you work on the conclusion, and I'll try to work this out and we can switch again and make changes..."
Elsa kept repeated that she really liked that idea. There was something supportive in the process of writing small sections and then evaluating it together before moving forward. Elsa said, "It was nice to ask questions." They talked about writing the entire time except when they wrote.
When I listening to them collaborate, I often caught them talking about word choice and sentences--how would a reader interpret this wording, this structure, the basics of this idea. Do we need more? Is it clear? Should we move this sentence?
Elsa confirmed what I saw, "Usually, when I write by myself, I right what i think sounds right and looks right. [The writing partner] really helped me see a different way of looking at the sentence and how the reader is going to read it."
The process of asking students to write together opened up the possibilities for those who could not see it on their own. While there are still elements of adolescents being reactive writers (because it is writing for a school assignment) the act of writing and talking simultaneously with somebody to rely on moves adolescents closer to also being reflective writers throughout the process.
And learning to be a reflective writer in the process is a skill that writers can carry with them throughout their lives.
The teacher I am supposed to be is a listener, a mentor, a reader, and a writer.
On Monday evening, I participated in a panel in front of pre-service teachers. They asked questions about student teaching and what might be expected from their mentors.
On Thursday evening, I presented to a group of elementary, middle, and high school teachers about the advantages of leveraging digital tools in our conferring.
Yesterday, from 9am - 1pm, I met with colleagues in the Pennsylvania Writing and Literature Project. We wrote. We shared writing. We discussed advocacy. We reported out about upcoming conferences as well as what we learned from recent conferences. We asked questions. We shared ideas.
That is about 7 hours of talking about teaching, reading, and writing. I loved every minute of it. Yet, no matter how rich my personal professional development may be, the most rewarding moments of any week always arise from conversations with students about their reading and writing.
The more I listen, the more deeply I understand the privilege and responsibility of encouraging young writers and the teacher I am supposed to be.
In the conference captured in the podcast below, Ellie, an 8th grader, begins by telling me about her reading life. She is reading Thirteen Reasons Why for pleasure, and Riot for school. She participates in the Reading Olympics and set a personal goal to read every book on the list--not just those assigned to her.
Yet, for as helpful as this information is for me, the conference turns on a dime when I ask a simple question: do you ever get ideas for writing from your reading?
What astonishes me is not what Ellie tells me--I am no longer astonished by the constant stream of students who tell me that they write on their own--rather, I am astonished that so many teachers miss out on this kind of exchange. Making time for conferring is a luxury in many classrooms...and some young, preservice teachers indicate that they do not think much about conferring.
Why do we believe what we believe about being the teachers we are supposed to be?
Just this week, I met teachers surprised at how well some of my students spoke about reading and writing. I heard others, genuinely absorbed, by the idea that a teacher could confer this much, this well, even when we are "supposed to be teaching."
The common theme I heard from teachers and pre-service teachers this week is that conferring and reading for pleasure (choice) is an extra consideration detached from any goals within a curriculum. Pre-service and veterans alike appear to be...frightened? frozen? standing still? because of our collective American disconnect regarding curriculum.
Too often, teachers are shackled by "things" in a curriculum. Sadly, this neurotic curricular freeze-up blinds us to the significance of the moves our adolescents make as readers and writers.
Consider Ellie's life outside of school.
Recently, Ellie's friend invited her to a family vacation home. While walking in the woods, her friend shared an idea for a story. Soon, Ellie and her friend started to write together on a Google Doc.
Collaborating on a Google Doc with friends was not a new move for Ellie. Previously, she created digital folders for each of her friends back home, shared them online, and encouraged her friends to share their writing. Some of these friends collaborated on a play together. Some worked on individual pieces of writing.
Ellie discovered collaborating through Google Docs on her own. As a matter of fact, Ellie shared the advantage of using Google Docs with her mother--who happens to be writing a book.
Ellie and her mom each share their writing with one another.
Mom and daughter mentor one another just as Ellie and her friends mentor one another.
Our students write and read as mentors. They tell me this fact. Every. Single. Time. I ask.
Mentoring writing is the teaching we are supposed to be doing. One big part of mentoring is being alongside our young writers as they talk and share.
I take my cue regarding the teacher I am supposed to be from the conversations with my students. Conferring tells us more about reading and writing more than any curriculum document yet written.