The Voices We Listen To: Slice of Life 19/31 #sol17

slice of life

I knew it wasn’t working by the second week. I had problems I’ve never had before in a writing class. Glazed eyes. Silence I couldn’t actually outwait after I asked a question. Students on their phones, on their laptops. Missing assignments. Late work. And the absences. Sometimes half the class doesn’t show up.

It was an experiment, as my freshman comp classes usually are. But this time, it was an experiment that was far outside my comfort zone. And not just my comfort zone. My belief zone.

I don’t need to tell my readers what I believe when it comes to writing instruction, because all of you know. You have learned how to write and how to teach writing from the same teachers. You are steeped in the same beliefs, values, routines, and practices of writing workshop.

These are the voices we listen to, the touchstones we return to again and again to guide and push our thinking and our practices: Donald Graves, Don Murray, Penny Kittle, Nancie Atwell, Katie Wood Ray, Lucy Calkins, Ralph Fletcher.

I didn’t listen to any of them this semester.

Instead, I listened to colleagues who haven’t read these writers and teachers. I listened to the authors of textbooks about academic writing. I listened to professors who produce quantitative research about the needs of basic writers.

And I listened to my own internal doubting voice. The one who loves to whisper that I’m not doing it right. “You’re not teaching K-12 writing anymore,” she likes to point out. “You’re not doing these college students any favors if you let them write narratives and personal essays all semester. Their college professors don’t care how they feel, don’t care about their voices as writers. They just want them to be able to write a thesis statement and document their sources. Why aren’t you teaching them what they really need to know?”

And so I decided to experiment with teaching them what I’ve been told they really need to know. I even used a textbook for the first time in twenty years.

And I hate it. I really hate it.

I have one of the most interesting groups of students I’ve ever worked with, and I’m boring them—and myself—silly.

Have they learned something? Probably. Have they learned something of real value? Doubtful. They are doing assignments for me and for a grade. They are not writing, not as I define writing.

I had planned to see it through to the bitter end and chalk it up to experience. A failed experiment. We’ve pursued our study of academic writing for eleven weeks. Surely we can do it for another seven.

But this morning, I heard other voices.

Fran at Lit Bits and Pieces (thanks, Leigh Anne, for the link):

Having facilitated a writing workshop for teachers just the day before on “creating the magic” – writing about what matters to you, tapping into your heart, your dreams, your struggles, your memories, making your writing authentic so you can help students do the same – I watched the snow, remembering Narnia.

Writing is the closest thing to magic that there is. As teachers we create the atmosphere for our writers. It’s one of excited expectancy, of energy, when young writers discover the power within them, learning how to harness words to impact readers. Writing, after all, is meant to be shared – it’s the connecting of human minds and hearts.

My students haven’t had that magical experience even once this semester.

And then I found these lines from Fun with Reading and Writing:

Then Lucy told us to take a little of Kathleen with us today. Can you think of one thing you can do on Monday? Can you think of something transformational that you can do? DO IT!! What would you say if you only had one year left? What would you do?
If you had just 3 months left, what would you do? What would you teach?
Have the courage to see the unbelievable potential in your students and push them to do even more!

If I had three months left to teach, would I limit my students to the moves of academic writing?

And finally, I visited Brian Kissel’s blog and found this:

Planning doesn’t begin with the standards or programs or curriculum maps
that chart the course for learning,
without consideration for the human beings,
writing away in the classroom.
Plans emerge from writers.
The writers are the curriculum.
And we need to remember this if we’re going to make a difference
in their writing lives.

My writers have not been my curriculum this semester. My curriculum was designed before I ever met them. My work has not made a difference in their writing lives.

These voices reminded me of what I know about writing and the teaching of writing and how I know it. They reminded me of the trust—in ourselves, in our students, in writing itself—that is necessary if we’re going to teach writing well. And they reminded me of what our students need and deserve.

I don’t know what can be done in seven weeks. I don’t know how feasible it is to jettison a failed experiment more than halfway through. I worry that my students will be even more confused than they probably already are. There’s still that voice in my head telling me it’s easier to stay the course, ride it out. And maybe it would be easier. But it’s surely not better.






22 responses to “The Voices We Listen To: Slice of Life 19/31 #sol17”

  1. Katherine Sokolowski (@katsok) Avatar

    Love that you’re listening to these voices – and your heart. I completely believe it is worth it to switch now. You can even have the students weigh in on the pros/cons of each teaching philosophy. Wishing you the best.

  2. confessionsofarealteacher Avatar

    I like this. It is always important to reflect on our teaching and see what is and isn’t working. Writing is hard to teach.

  3. Shari Daniels Avatar

    Oh my heavens, Elisabeth, this is such a powerful post. An action research project I was going to tackle last year in one of my doc classes was to do just this. To use a prescribed writing curriculum with my kids as opposed to what I know and believe about what real writers do and compare the results. I convinced myself that I was too biased to be able to observe my results fairly, so I didn’t do it. But, I don’t know if I could’ve put myself and my students through it!

    Honestly though, the voices all around us tell us what the kids can’t do and what they need to be able to do. None of the standards say, “Students must love writing.” or “Students must believe they are writers.” The focus always becomes conventions and organization.

    Even though you have 7 weeks, you still have time. Throw out the textbook and bury yourselves in real writing. I would fess up to the students and tell them this story and then get down to business.

    From this experiment, you have learned so much ~ most importantly you have affirmed why you believe what you do.

  4. midwesternheartindixie Avatar

    It can be so hard to switch gears when you’re knee deep (or deeper) into something, but it can be SO worth it. Good luck with this group; I hope you can help them find the joy in writing. 🙂

  5. onathought Avatar

    This is so powerful – you tried, and now you are listening to yourself and the voices of those you trust – I bet you can change things around for the last part of the year!

  6. Ms. Pesta Avatar

    It takes us awhile to trust our gut and do what we know is right. You have strong voices to listen to and always trust your instincts!! By the way, thanks for the new voices!

  7. Sonja Schulz Avatar
    Sonja Schulz

    This slice was a beautiful reflection piece. It is so important to listen to your gut–but can be so difficult, especially in a new situation and when you seem to be the lone voice championing a different way. I’m proud of you and I know you’ll make these next 7 weeks real and authentic.

  8. Darin Johnston Avatar

    If you have been ready to switch gears, chances are, your students have been too. Be honest with them like you are with us: this isn’t working, let’s see if we can make it work for the last seven weeks. It may confuse them, it may confuse you, but in your heart, you know what’s best.

    Now, make it happen the best you can! 🙂

    Thank you for bearing your soul and your classroom in this slice!

  9. room311news Avatar

    This is very powerful! All teachers to take time to listen to the voice and trust their gut! It almost always is what’s best for kids!

  10. Alan j Wright Avatar

    You have journeyed to the dark side and returned it seems. Every time you enter the classroom take those wonderful mentors you mentioned with you. As Frank Smith wrote they are our ‘unwitting collaborators. They are whispering in our ears, gently and truthfully reminding us about what is truly important about writing. Trust them and trust your instincts about what makes writing truly magical. As Darin noted, be honest them and share your thoughts about what you believe can make it better for them and you in the time remaining. Never feel alone when you teach writing. Your heroes are sitting on your shoulder.
    For more support I humbly invite you to visit my blog where I have been trying to support fellow teachers and writers since 2008.

  11. jarhartz Avatar

    Oh man, do I know these moments of going down a path that doesn’t meet your beliefs. It is funny, I’ve heard the same refrain teaching elementary school students… “you aren’t doing them any favors by letting them write …. their middle school teachers….blah, blah.” Or better than that, “the test…blah, blah… the scores…” The reality is we do know what makes good writing but sometimes we have to go down that other path to be reminded of it.

  12. lindabaie Avatar

    A long while ago someone gave me Lucy Calkins’ Living Between the Lines. It was about Thanksgiving, and I went out and bought a writers notebook for all my students, devised a first mini-lesson, maybe with a poem about writing, and started. I’ve never looked back, but have read many other books since, like you have I’m sure. Go have fun writing with your students!

  13. vendija723 Avatar

    Wow. You are really challenging yourself with these questions and thoughts. It can feel so much easier to “do it their way.” I teach reading as a course that’s separate from language arts, specifically targeted at kids reading “below grade level.” Right there, I’m already dubious about the plan, but it’s how my school has it structured. This year, for my very lowest students, I’m using a phonics based program (in middle school!) that my principal expects me to be faithful to. I grimly rush us through that required piece so I can get to what I consider “real” teaching. But part of why I agreed to do this (other than the fact that I really need my paycheck to feed my family) is that I didn’t feel like I was making a difference with this population, although I felt reading workshop was working for the slightly-struggling readers.

    Lots of tough questions, and a dearth of easy answers. I am just glad to hear how other teachers work through these thoughts. Thanks for sharing.

  14. margaretsmn Avatar

    You are doing exactly what we all do or have done, questioned your own philosophy of teaching. It’s not too late. You can change the course. You can change these students. Just. do. it.

  15. cvarsalona Avatar

    Writing is such a beautiful part of life that it would be difficult not to have your students experience the pure joy of making magic on a page!

  16. shrontk Avatar

    Sounds like your students are lucky to have you as an instructor. One that recognizes when things are not working and are willing to change to make a difference. Good luck and I am sure the students will love it.

  17. The Logonauts (@thelogonauts) Avatar

    Thanks for being so open and honest here – both with yourself and with your students. They deserve YOUR very best, not anyone else’s!

  18. djvichos Avatar

    It just goes to show that you can learn powerful lessons in failed experiments. It takes courage to learn from them though. But this is one, I can tell, you won’t be forgetting any time soon. Your post spoke powerfully to me as I am the only teacher in my school who believes in and teaches workshop. I have lots of doubts, all the time. Thanks for thinking this through and being so honest. I know what I have to reflect on now. I hope you find your way forward. Best of luck.

  19. carwilc Avatar

    Phew! You are doing some big and important thinking! I have been helping teachers get ready for PARCC for the past few weeks, and there is this voice that just kind of rattles around in my head, “This is not real writing. Don and Jane and Tom Newkirk would be ashamed of you.” I hate teaching like this!

  20. carriegelson Avatar

    It amazes me that even in college you need to be concerned about what real “school” looks like. I believe you have some amazing instincts and this reflection proves exactly that. Trust yourself. I have full faith you will figure it out.

  21. Akilah Avatar

    My course last semester was awful. It just did not work. So I changed tacks midway through and it improved so much. I would encourage you to go with your gut on this one. The semester isn’t over until it’s over.

    1. Akilah Avatar

      Also, you know I want to know what your typical assignments are that you jettisoned this year. I am going back to an assignment that worked well for my students next semester that allows for personal experience AND expectations for other courses (proposal argument!). So, yeah, I feel you.

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