When Every Day is Day One

Each day we seem to enter a story. The introduction starts when we wake up. What we think and do is a lead into a plot. Yet our goals are too often the same; get to work on time, do my job well, figure out dinner and how to spend quality time with the kids, find some quiet time to breathe, and go to sleep. Maybe read the next chapter in a book if we are lucky.

But a story demands more than a series of events. There needs to be conflict. A plot with an intriguing setting. Character change over time, complex and maybe unexpected. A resolution that does not solve the conflict as much as allow the characters in a story to resolve the conflict and find more peace within themselves. Above all, this story wants the reader (and ourselves) to “stay with it”, if I can quote Tom Newkirk’s book Minds Made for Stories.

Maybe that is why people experience hopelessness and end up turning to less healthy behaviors. They have no story. They aren’t struggling with a conflict that productively challenges them to achieve their inspiring goals. Maybe they have no goals. Instead, they just struggle. They lose more than they win. Defeat becomes the overwhelming setting and context.

Blaming outside factors for this malaise can only go so far. If there is a predisposition to mental health concerns, that certainly needs more outside support. For everyone else, maybe we forgot the importance and the enjoyment of a story. How might we place ourselves as the protagonist in our personal journeys? We need a goal that we desire to reach, an objective so important that we are willing to struggle through the struggles to achieve it.

Everyone wants to be inspired. We look to movies, to books, to other people’s lives for examples of who has overcome obstacles to realize their dreams. I have no problem with that. My concern is that if we only live vicariously through others’ experiences, their personal goals and journeys can become a substitute for our potential. Maybe we are susceptible to forget what we were passionate about… We need to start our own stories. Stories that other people will want to read about and be inspired by in their own personal journeys. Stories in which we are the protagonist, seeking success.

Think Time

I recently read aloud Meet the Dogs of Bedlam Farm by Jon Katz (an excellent nonfiction picture book) to 1st graders. After the story, we discussed possible writing ideas inspired by this text. One student raised his hand.

I called on him.

He thought.

I waited.

He thought some more.

I waited some more.

Finally, he shared an idea based on the book plus his own experience with pets. I wrote it down on a piece of paper and then showed everyone.

In the past, I would have likely told that student that we could come back to him later. After reading an article about think time, I have changed this practice. Here is one line from the article: “The students never disappoint. They trust that smart things will pop into their minds. And smart things always do—if we give them time to think.” Without reading, watching, and reflecting upon excellent instruction, I would never have grown.

 

Building a Literacy Culture – a @StenhousePub Blog Series #litessentials

 

When I am not blogging, it usually means I am on a tech sabbatical, on vacation (I wish!), or working on a writing project. Lately, I have been reading and enjoying Regie Routman’s new resource Literacy Essentials: Engagement, Excellence, and Equity for All LearnersLike Regie’s previous work, this book is a necessary text for any teacher of literacy (see: you).

As a way for me to connect with and reflect upon the ideas in Literacy Essentials, I have written three articles for Stenhouse’s blog. They describe the importance of building a literacy culture, addressing the elements of trust, communication, and relationships. You can read the first two posts by clicking here and here. Look for the third post on the Stenhouse blog in the near future.

Reading Literacy Essentials, it could almost be called “Life Essentials”. Regie mixes research and practice with personal stories as a wife, parent, grandparent, friend, and unique individual. She offers suggestions for becoming a better teacher and a more interesting person. Joy can be had in the classroom and in life; they are not mutually exclusive. This makes Regie’s new book essential reading for all educators.

Literacy Essentials

The Point of Reading Goals

At the turn of the new year, I took a look at my reading habits. I have participated in the  Goodreads Reading Challenge for the last five years. You set a goal for number of books read, and then document each book you read with a date finished, rating and maybe even a review. Here is how I have fared.

  • 2013: 12 books read out of a goal of 40
  • 2014: No challenge accepted
  • 2015: 56 books read out of a goal of 50
  • 2016: 55 books read out of a goal of 60
  • 2017: 49 books read out of a goal of 52

I saw some interesting patterns and trends here. First, I was very unsuccessful the first time I participated in the Reading Challenge, so much so that I failed to document a goal for 2014 (I’m sure I read). Second, the only year I met my goal was in 2015. That is a success rate of 20%, if you define success as meeting an arbitrary benchmark. Third, my average number of books read for the past three years is 53, or one book per week. Knowing that the top 1% of earners read at least one book a month on average, I am looking forward to my future financial wealth.

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Photo by Breather on Unsplash

This last point is my attempt at humor, but there is truth here as well. Habitual readers tend to find success in life, both personal and professional. They are typically more knowledgable about the world and have greater empathy for people in other cultures. The books I read vary in genre, author, length, etc., which broadens my perspective. Some books are for kids, such as the ones I read aloud to my children, but many are for me. Reading is a selfish act that also inspires selflessness and a desire to affect the greater good.

I keep track of my reading because it is important to me and the community of readers I know online and offline. I don’t set reading goals to hit a number or see how many more books I can read than others. My list of books read provides me with a literary history, a chronology of my reading life. If I don’t reach my goal, what’s the big deal? I’d rather know whether I have an imbalance of fiction and nonfiction. These are points worth stressing in our classrooms so our students don’t miss the forest for the trees.

 

 

What if we are heading in the wrong direction? #litleaders

“It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.”

– J.K. Rowling

This question recently cropped up from one of our faculty members. We are deep into exploring the connection between reading and writing, building a foundation for literacy instruction schoolwide. My response was off-the-cuff, sharing some general ideas, but maybe a little too vague and lacking coherence. The source of their concern was likely our high marks on our school report card. Here is what I wanted to say in my preferred mode of communication (writing).

When a school decides to pursue a literacy initiative as a whole faculty, they are already heading in the right direction. Anytime we can get everyone on the same page around reading and writing instruction, we build a common language and understanding for what will occur regularly in each classroom. Actually, the only wrong direction is by making no decision. By allowing everyone to have 100% autonomy in how reading and writing instruction will be delivered in classrooms, we create the conditions for student inequity.

A quality schoolwide literacy initiative should allow for some flexibility with teachers to personalize their approach. There should be enough room for teachers to have voice and choice in how instruction will be delivered. It’s the same thing we want for our students, right? We need to model this belief at every level.

For literacy initiatives that start to feel more closed in the level of autonomy for teachers as time progresses, be sure to check student assessment results. In my previous school, we felt like two years of writing training was possibly too scripted and squeezed some of the voice out of our students’ work. We facilitated a mid-year writing check. Sure enough: lots of structure but little style in students’ writing. As one teacher noted when we debriefed after the assessment, “Our kids will be able to nail a college essay, but do they love writing?” This information guided our decision to come back to a more holistic approach to teaching writing in the classroom.

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Photo by Jamie Templeton on Unsplash

This decision to pursue a more structured writing approach was not wrong; our intentions were good and were based on what we believed our students needed. The only wrong approach would have been to forge ahead with our current efforts, ignoring what our students’ writing was telling us. This is different than what a lot of schools do: jumping from one initiative to the next, year after year. We knew that our students needed consistently strong literacy instruction year after year. Hopping from rock to rock along a stream of new ideas wasn’t going to help our kids become literate individuals, as tempting as it might be.

That’s why decisions for pursuing a schoolwide literacy initiative should be a part of a long-term plan. Three years is probably a minimum. A long-term plan reduces the desire for rock hopping. It’s easier to say “no” to a new and exciting professional learning opportunity when you have a pathway already laid out. Part of this long-term plan should include multiple points of celebration. These opportunities to highlight school success have to be tangible and genuine. In our school, we re-examine our beliefs about literacy, owning new beliefs after a year of schoolwide professional development work. We also set aside the beginning of staff meetings for staff celebrations. Teachers can share quick wins and victories. I also make a point of taking pictures of teachers innovating in their classrooms as they try and apply new strategies. These images are shared and celebrated before we begin learning about a new literacy strategy. All of our celebrations build on where we have been and inspire us to learn more.

That might be the biggest point in a response to this question about heading in the wrong direction: If our intentions are based on students’ needs and teachers’ informed beliefs, and we were are willing to adjust course in light of the evidence, then we cannot make a poor decision. The constant pursuit of becoming better in our practice is always the right choice.

 

 

What I’m Reading: December 2017

Matt Renwick

At the end of every year, I take a tech sabbatical to recharge and reflect upon the year, as well as to be more present during our break. Part of my recharge process is to read! Here is what I have been reading during the second half of 2017.

See you in 2018. -Matt

Ghostly Echoes by William Ritter

I didn’t realize I was reading YA until this installment (and my wife telling me so). I guess that is a strong sign that good writing transcends age level or intended audience. In the 3rd book, we find out the backstory of Jenny’s murder, along with the reason why New Fiddleham experiences so many supernatural occurrences. It leaves the reader wanting to read #4 without feeling cheated out of a good story to be told now.

The Magician King by Lev Grossman

I listened to the audiobook version. Maybe that is…

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4th Grade Classroom Talk: Using Notebooks as a Writer

IMG_2616Today, I had the opportunity to share my writing process with 4th graders. Their teacher invited me to speak for a half hour on how I use notebooks. The students were just getting started in this practice as they delved into their next workshop cycle.

I started by asking them how they might use their notebooks. “Jot writing ideas down.” “Keep track of information.” “Write out a first draft of a small moment.” Every student had a unique response. This was a nice segue to the point I wanted to make for my visit: a writer’s notebook is what the writer wants it to be. The teacher can and should provide strategies and structures for how to use them. But the writer has to own them. The more a notebook belongs to the writer, the more they are willing to take risks in their work which leads to better writing.

Below are my notes that I spoke to with the class, which were also in handout form for the students’ writing folders. Click Using Notebooks as a Writer for a printable copy of what I shared. Also, please share your notebook ideas as a writer in the comments – I’ll be sure to share them with the 4th graders!

Using Notebooks as a Writer

Ideas from Mr. Renwick

  • About the writing process
    • Revision is about making changes to the writing and about subtraction. My writing gets smaller, clearer, and better when I reread my writing and revise.
    • When I write in a certain genre, I read a lot of books and articles within that genre. It helps me get a sense of the way authors write for that type of audience and purpose.
      • I still read fiction! I have one nonfiction, one fiction going at any one time.
    • I write what I am curious about and interested in. Through my writing and research I learn a lot about the topic. If the project is not interesting and meaningful, I get bored.
  • About using notebooks as a writer
    • Capture ideas with a pocket notebook.
    • Mess around, doodle and try out new writing ideas in any notebook. Bad ideas are how I get to the good ideas.
    • Research and interviews are documented in my notebooks to be a better listener.
    • Collect quotes in the notebooks for later drafts; collect quotes on the cover for epitaphs (quotes that might begin a chapter).
    • Organize bigger projects by chapters and sections, but may not use every page.
    • Outline sections I want to write to help me get the big picture of what I want to say.
      • Reverse outline to clean up a messy draft.
    • Write out first drafts if I am feeling the flow (which I rarely do).
    • Manage deadlines in my notebooks – I have editors to help keep me accountable.
      • Who keeps you accountable with your writing?
    • Manage related projects to the writing – workshops, courses, articles to publicize.
    • Personal tasks go in notebooks too, such as grocery lists, thank you’s, gifts.