Reflections on writing for the grade–and a request for help

writing for the grade

That was awesome! Amazing! Great work! Excellent! Super! High five! Great job, buddy! You rock! Woot!

As you well know, we work in very affirming contexts. Our students need encouragement from us. Right?

We have just earned six graduate credits, and we weren’t graded on any of our work. We were told in the beginning that we all had “A’s” in the course. And yet, for many of us, this was some of the most exacting work we’ve ever done in an academic setting.

During our read-aloud sessions, we would simply say “Thank you” to each writer who shared, and then we’d move on to the next piece. Occasionally there were gasps of connection or shared smiles across the table, but that was it.

After each person’s demo lesson, we just moved on with the day’s program.

Even in our personal “feedback” sessions after these presentations, we were left squirming in the chair as we were prodded, with no input one way or another from our experienced leaders, to identify publicly what had gone well. “You are not done,” they would smile gently. “Tell us more about what went well.” This was excruciating for some of us–is it still the case that owning strength as a girl is perceived as “bragging?

The second part of the demo lesson feedback was also on us: “what would you do differently next time?” We had to think out loud in front of others. There were a few constructive criticisms from our leaders, but most of the work of “evaluation” was ours to do for ourselves.

In our writing groups, we offered one another frank suggestions for clarity, but we didn’t praise. We worked individually on our craft and then offered up our work in progress for comments from our peers. We didn’t tell one another if we liked a piece one way or another. No stickers, no gold stars. Moreover, there was never a sense that the work of improving our writing was really done, either. No one ever said, “I think that’s fantastic just the way it is. Great job!” Comments, posted or in person, just hung there for each writer to weigh, and pursue or not. Indefinitely.

I don’t know about you, but I’d like very much right now to change a couple of things in pieces of mine that were printed in our anthology. They still aren’t quite right. Will writing always feel like this, or is it because I’m a novice?

On occasion, perhaps walking slowly in the heat to the parking lot at the end of the day, one of us would say how much they liked another’s demo lesson or contribution in class. And, of course, we had our little appreciation buckets which some of us used as directed, that is, one note of appreciation per person per week = 30 different compliments or thank you’s offered and received on the last day. Our comments to each other on blog posts were occasionally appreciative, as well.

But this was it: we had only what reassurance and positive feedback we gave to one another. None was forthcoming from our director or co-director, our mentors, our teachers.

Beyond the little encouragements we occasionally offered one another privately, it was totally up to us as individuals to find our drive for excellence. This is what 100% pure intrinsic motivation feels like. How did this experience of self-motivation feel to you? And, did it work in terms of making you a (better) writer?

Most of us found we did not want to disappoint our peers. Writing for an audience, be it a blog post or a writing group meeting, proved a powerful taskmaster. I would argue that we probably spent far more time crafting our work for an audience than we would have if we’d just “turned it in” for a grade. So that’s one thing we could try with our own students.

I think that most of us found, as well, that our Morning Pages practice ended up feeling like coming home. We came to appreciate the feel of discerning our own voices, of discerning ourselves. Even if we wrote, as I sometimes did, grocery lists, or just lists of what we were hearing or seeing in an effort to calm the imprint digital zapping in our heads–the act of slowing down for 30-odd minutes each morning was primarily a vehicle for locating our voices amidst the fray. These faint voices then became what we would affirm in our subsequent writing efforts. The practice of “just writing” every single day, too, we could emulate in our classes.

As a diligent student, I was always that girl who wanted to please my teachers and professors. It was interesting to be reminded of this this summer. It’s been a long time since I’ve been in the role of learner in a classroom. I’ll be honest: I wanted to hear from Sarah that she liked my work. It was strange and hard to have to generate my own approval. It was disorienting not to have some external marker of success on anything I produced. And yet, there is no question in my mind that it is precisely this, the quiet affirmation of intrinsic motivation, that is essential for growth in a creative field.

We were motivated adults embarking on new paths. Could the ISI approach of simply affirming individual challenges work as well with our younger students?

While I do think we could profitably eliminate the constant patter of effusive praise that our culture encourages (see Carol Dweck, “Mindset”), and I think that the two ISI practices I identified above (creating authentic audiences for our student work and developing writing rituals to help them find their writers’ voices) will help, I know that when my own daughter was asked to write self-evaluations of her work by well-intentioned teachers, she got really good at writing BS. Any navel gazing, it seemed, would satisfy her teachers, and she perfected the genre, growing cynical as she did so at how these teachers weren’t “teaching me anything.” Many of my strong high school students are the same. They are masters at figuring out what we want to hear and serving it up to us.

I would love your thoughts on how this might go otherwise.

The Ground and the Jump.

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The grass was good. Like, so good.

I kicked my shoes off as soon as it was suggested, tramped off to a corner and plopped myself down to get all meditative and stuff. Something I am particularly bad at most of the time. My head is too loud.

I was armed with a card that said, “Be joy.” And a rock on which I wrote, “My God’s love for me. My love for His people.”* My resilience.

While I sat in the grass, I got out my notebook and wiggled my toes. Ants immediately started to crawling on me. I quickly flicked off the first two, but then I remembered my patron, Saint Francis of Assisi, and I tried to talk to them like he used to talk to the animals: “Sister Ant, please don’t walk on me. I don’t like it.”

Sister Ant wasn’t a very good listener, but after sitting still and watching for a moment, I noticed every ant that crawled onto my leg, after exploring for a few seconds, would leave. I took this as a sign, and relaxed into the ground.

I started writing about how the older I got, the farther I got from the ground (and I’m not talking about just getting taller). When I was a kid, the outdoors and the ground were a significant portion of my life. I would play outside fiercely and fearlessly, almost every day. Nests for plastic dinosaurs and eggs, bug zoos in the sandbox, mud pies under the swing set, wigwams made of pine needles and dead branches in the “woods” which was really just a small bit of trees in the backyard. Even as a teenager, I would go outside with my books to read in the grass until I fell asleep while the breeze played with my hair.

I forgot how much I missed that.

NVWP has been a breath of summer wind. Reconnecting with the ground. Getting to be insecure and knowing that everyone around me was there for me anyway.

I know I didn’t share as often; that’s been my forever weakness. But I want you all to know that I’m already feeling better about it. I’m feeling like starting a blog and a writing group at school. I found that I actually liked reading my writing out loud! To an audience! Who was listening!

It was kind of like skydiving: it was really scary, it could have gone horribly wrong (or at least for some reason I believed it could), and it was amazing and I wanted to do it again. I really did!

This skydiving analogy is sort of coming from the fact that I’m going skydiving on Sunday. It’ll be my second time jumping. I highly recommend it.

I’m sorry. I’m rambling now.

I mean, thank you for indulging me.

Thank you for pushing me out of that plane. And being there for me to ground myself again.

thanks

I loved to read as a little girl. I’ve always loved books. And I’ve always wished that one day I would write one. But, I never had the confidence. I didn’t know if I could write, if I was able.
After ISI ’17, I know that I can write. I’ve played around with different genres and figured out the kind of writing I am most comfortable writing, what I enjoy writing!
I am so excited about going back to work and teaching students and teachers alike the joy of writing. After all the reading I did for my inquiry, I now have a plan for how I’m going to do just that.
And so I say thanks to the NVWP and all the ISI fellows (and new friends,) for making this a summer to remember!

Tension

Time to finish things up.
A class is complete,
a son has returned to campus.
Crisis in the midst of opportunity.
Trips cancelled,
no making plans or schedules.
Channeling peace in the midst of a storm.
Oh ye of little faith.
I rise up,
bare feet on weathered and rough boards,
dusty and calloused,
raise my arm and rebuke the storm.
The tempest ceases
a witness
of tenacity.

NVWP ISI

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Nifty nonfiction knowledge
Very valuable venture
Writing with wonderful women  
Producing publication pieces
Intriguing inquiry investigation
Superlative sample schoolwork
Included important introspection

Response to Inquiry Reading: Learning by Heart

In Learning by Heart: Teachings to Free the Creative Spirit, Jan Steward says about Corita Kent “She saw the finished work as a prelude to the next project.” p.10
and
“She taught us a way of working so true and basic that we could extract the essence of that process and apply it to the work before us whatever direction our lives took.” p.10

These are ideas I aspire to in my work with students and teachers. I want students to feel more than just that they are doing research for a grade, but they are learning processes that will allow them to understand what to do and how to approach the next assignment or any other problem or project, and in fact the questions, problems and projects of their lives outside school.

The demonstrations the group and guests have presented have given me so many ways to help students think about themselves as writers. They can develop authentic voice by being able to relax and begin where they are. Their own stories will become their writing. Restrictions can help guide creativity. Metaphor can open up new ways of thinking. They can have fun with their work. They can keep a notebook to collect all their writing for the time we are together. I hope that their writing will allow them to learn about themselves so they can fulfill the other purposes of education as well: civic responsibility, further education and financial stability.

In talking about her own teacher, Charles Eames, Corita Kent said: “He showed us how to develop principles rather than follow formulas.” p.41 This is what I want for my students: to establish principles that will guide their thinking and writing. The ISI has helped me develop new principles for myself that I hope to share with teachers and students.

I read Learning by Heart to help me think about my plan for a maker space in the library. It did more than that for me.

Wrap It Up

As we near the end of the ISI Southern I reflect on my experience as a facilitator this summer. Thinking about the eclectic group of fellows in the institute, I can truly say I’m honored to have met this dedicated group of educators. It’s difficult to explain to others the comraderie that develops among the teachers within the institute. I have always promoted the writing project by saying you have to experience it yourself. It’s a life-changing experience where not only do our writing skills develop but friendships as well. Thank you, ladies, for stepping out of your comfort zone and making the commitment to grow as a writer and retain the desire to include writing in your curriculum. I expect your enthusiasm for writing will spread among your students as you start this new school year.

Lesson #7 for those considering teaching as a career

I spend a lot of my time policing and regulating the grammar and vocabulary of my student’s writing. An enormous amount of energy. I have to evaluate multiple aspects when a student submits a piece of writing: does the writing have proper punctuation? Does it follow the proper form for a paper? Is the topic appropriate for school? Is the language used appropriate for school? As I edit, my corrections flow from just grammar, to the vocabulary choice, and then to the very concepts and ideas that the students have chosen to write about. Editing language then embodies not just editing the clinical aspects, such as the grammar or vocabulary choice, but also the very personal and intimate as well, such as the choice of what to write about or what concepts are safe to explore within the paper.

Does editing become internalized? As we practice editing the very words we write, do we begin to edit the words we think? Do we begin to edit our very experiences when we are busy editing the vocabulary we use or decide we should not use? How often do I myself think, “I shouldn’t think that, it’s not nice.” Why am I concerned about thinking nicely? Why would it be so terrible if I thought something that wasn’t pleasant, positive or kind? If I think something pleasant, positive, and kind, does that negate some less-than-nice action I’ve completed?

Lesson #7 for those considering teaching as a career:
Teaching English can lead to to philosophical arguments.

Dancing with Words by Judith Rowe Michaels

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In this book Ms. Michaels shares her experiences with her English students at the Princeton Day School and her love of language and words. I studied English decades ago and as a teacher taking the NVWP ISI as a cross-curricular venture, some of the authors and references that Ms. Michaels uses in her book were lost to me, but I was intrigued by her playful use of words and her desire to help her students find their voices. She writes, “…process of finding a language that lets you hear both your own voice and those of others. ” I was encouraged by her granting permission to her students to break the rules of usage and syntax in their writing. I believe her exercises with poetry, changing the fonts for different voices and reading in different accents and tones helps students learn to love the English language a little more. I am looking forward to sharing some of Ms. Michaels’ activities with my own students and watch their own voices sprout.

Teaching With Anxiety

Usually, the teaching nightmares start in August. My personal “favorite” recurring nightmare is starting an amazing lesson during the first week of school and all of the students simply standing up and leaving my classroom, without saying a word. I’m left sobbing in my desk chair.

Another frequent scenario that pops up in my dreams is walking into a strange classroom, with strange students, to teach a lesson I know nothing about. I have no materials prepped. I don’t know where the supplies are, and oh, I’m also being observed by my entire admin team. I put on a show, pretending like I know what I’m doing (isn’t that what adulthood is all about anyway?) for the full 47 minute period, and then walk into a brutal evaluation, sternly reprimanded for being unprepared for my lesson.

These things would never actually happen. I’m a relatively confident classroom manager, I’ve been doing this now for 9 years. I work in a school with amazing, well-behaved students (as middle schoolers go) and a supportive admin team who would most likely never walk in my classroom without some type of heads-up, and if they did and saw me deliver a lesson unprepared, would probably be more concerned about what went wrong and how they could better support me than berating me for unprofessionalism. So why do I have these dreams?

​Some people call me a worrier. Past therapists have called me “clinically anxious”. I say past, because most of the time, I keep my negative self-talk, circling thoughts, and panic attacks under control. I have a list of coping mechanisms that I turn to time and time again when things go wrong. I’ve gotten really good at talking myself down from anxious headspaces, and I know who to turn to for help when I can’t do it by myself.

A few weeks ago, one of my friends asked me, “How do you teach with anxiety?” Here are a few of my go-to coping strategies:
I think about what the worst thing is that could realistically happen in any given situation. (It’s usually not that bad.) For example, if a lesson tanks, the worst thing that can really happen is I have to re-teach the material. If I have a bad observation, maybe I need some coaching to make sure that my next lesson is stronger. If I put my foot in my mouth in a meeting, maybe I need to apologize, or do something to make it right. Usually these scenarios keep me from jumping to crazy, unrealistic terrible outcomes. These realistic worst-case scenarios also almost never happen.
I have a post-it note in my desk that says “I am the adult here.” Though this seems silly, it’s one of the only good pieces of advice that my first student teaching mentor gave me. Sometimes, you just need that reminder that you’re the one in control, not the squirrely kid crawling under his desk or the girl snapchatting selfies during your class.
I remind myself to focus on the things within my locus of control. When I start worrying about something that I have no power over, I try to shove that nasty thought out of my head. When I worry about something I can control, I try to prepare for or change that situation somehow, right at that moment!
I write in my notebook. I write out all the things that are bothering me, and then I re-read it. Usually after reading the words on paper, I can see how silly the things are that are bothering me and talk myself out of those thoughts. The ones that are valid concerns, I try to address.
I have a list of things that make me feel better taped to the front of my notebook. These things include: Walking my dog (or just talking a walk), eating something (healthy, if possible), drinking water, writing, taking 10 deep breaths, doing a yoga pose, calling a friend, watching a comedy, taking a shower, painting my nails… I add things as I think of them. I return to this list often.

Yesterday, my car broke down. I came out of my summer class into the parking lot at George Mason University, and it just wouldn’t start. This situation is one that could easily have triggered me into a full-blown panic attack. I could feel my breathing start to get shallow, my eyes started to burn, but I stopped, I used the coping skills that I have learned over the years and I kept myself from melting down. After I got home and was again alone with my thoughts, I felt the creeping thoughts returning. “I’m going to have to get a new car! All my savings are going out the window!” I stopped again, and instead of continuing to go down a path of doom, I went to my list of strategies, and then congratulated myself on continuing to make progress. I’ll battle anxiety forever, but I’m going to keep getting better at it. I’m going to survive, and thrive, and I won’t let my worries rule my life or my teaching.

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