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Everyday Advocacy 2017

Last year I finished my 25th year as a teacher — all 25 in the same high school. It feels like a landmark and brings with it no small amount of reflection over what I have learned as a career educator. In my early years of teaching, I was not very savvy about the politics of public education. But in my two and a half decades in education, I have learned how to work within the system to support students and families, how to fight for them and give them the tools to fight for themselves. I know how to help students get the academic help they need, how to help them apply to college, how to assist them in identifying scholarships and securing funding, and I can even help them to advocate for their mental health needs. Beyond advocating for students, 25 years in, I know how to advocate for our department as we present our needs to the administration, and, from my involvement in our professional association, I’ve even learned to advocate for our teachers as a bargaining group and for individual teachers in contract matters.

Still, the last few years have proved challenging. The political landscape for teachers has not been friendly, especially in my state. So, I took up political and legislative advocacy — calling my representatives, joining political action groups in my community, and attending town hall meetings. But, quite frankly, this advocacy work has been frustrating. It’s very hard to feel that my voice matters or that anyone is listening on a state or national level. I know I am not alone in feeling this way, and one bright spot of the political advocacy groups I’ve joined is the connection with other like-minded citizens.

It was the combination of my frustration with my own advocacy efforts and my feeling of isolation in that work that led me to search for opportunities to grow as an advocate. I decided I wanted to learn to advocate more effectively for the things that matter in education and, in particular, for the effective teaching of reading and writing. Luckily for me, just as I was ready to hear the message, NWP Radio aired an episode called “NWP Social Practices Part 1 of 6: Advocacy” — clearly, this was a nudge from the universe!

Authentic Research, Authentic Writing

My Chippewa River Writing Project colleague, Sharon Murchie, and I are presenting this weekend in the 4T Virtual Conference on Digital Writing (#4TDW). We wrote this piece together as a preview of our session and a brief explanation of our journey toward more authentic research and writing in the classroom.


We met in 2015 at the Chippewa River Writing Project’s Summer Institute. Janet was a returning CRWP Teacher Consultant and Sharon was a Red Cedar Writing Project Teacher Consultant joining the CRWP for the summer.  When given the opportunity in the institute to fashion our own inquiry project on writing, we both identified the research process as an area that intrigued us. As teachers we have always loved research — even back to the days of card catalogs, index cards, and microfiche.

Yeah, we’re geeks like that.

In all seriousness, though, the process by which students select topics of interest to them, dig deep into sources, fashion their own opinions through their critical reading, and then synthesize their thinking and sources into an original piece is one of the most cognitively complex processes we undertake in the English Language Arts curriculum.  Yet it is also one that hasn’t experienced widespread change to match the connected world in which our students live. That summer, we found ourselves researching the research process, asking such questions as, How do we authentically teach students to be discerning researchers? and How do they write about what they have learned in a way that will have implications and applications long after they graduate from high school?

We learned that we had been taking parallel routes in our high schools in exploring ideas like blogging, website creation, wikis, and Genius Hour to encourage broader audiences for our young writers. We were pretty sure we were not alone in thinking that it was past time for the research process and product to undergo a significant revision, and our conversations with our colleagues that summer — and our larger conversations since then — have confirmed that for us.

Teaching students how to be critical researchers has to be more than just an assignment or a unit. There has to be a shift in how we teach and in how students approach “doing research.”

Vulnerable Learning

Reposted from the Three Teachers Talk blog.

My Writing Project colleague, Sharon Murchie, wrote about taking a risk in sharing her writing with her students on the CRWP Teachers as Writers Blog. Her post got me thinking about how I do the same in my own classroom.

I am feeling nervous, insecure, and uncertain as my ninth graders start to file into class today. We just started the new trimester a week ago, and about half of my students are still new to me — having come from a different English teacher first term. I remind myself that I am the adult; I am the teacher. Nothing to worry about, right? What’s the worst that can happen?

You see, I am about to give a book talk and admit to my students that I have no clue what the book I am reading is about. Truly. I just don’t get it. The book is a title I was eager to read — The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro — but I am 30 pages from the end of the novel and I don’t know what the real story is. In fact, all I really know is that an elderly couple, Axl and Beatrice, have undertaken a journey to reunite with their son. As Axl and Beatrice travel across the countryside, they meet knights, Saxons, river boatmen, and frightened citizens, but all have one thing in common: they cannot seem to remember much. Axl and Beatrice worry that the loss of their memories will be their undoing: “But then again I wonder if what we feel in our hearts today isn’t like these raindrops still falling on us from the soaked leaves above, even though the sky itself long stopped raining. I’m wondering if, without our memories, there’s nothing for it but our love to fade and die.” The mist of this memory loss has the effect on me as a reader of clouding the truth in the story. In short, I find myself uncertain about what is real for the characters and what is fantasy.

I am about to reveal to these students that I don’t understand this book.

I don’t have the answers.

I don’t have a profound interpretation.

I am lost.

How will they respond?

The room settles in as I grab the book from my desk and turn to face them.

“I want to tell you about this book I’m reading…” 

Reflecting on Reading in the High School Classroom

You know that feeling when you keep hearing the same message from every corner of the universe? That’s been my experience lately, and the message has been about reading.

I knew some reflection would be in order – as it always is at the end of a school year – and that this year my reflections would center on the way I changed my reading instruction and practices after our department participated in intensive professional development last summer through the Reading Apprenticeship Improving Secondary Education (RAISE) program.  What I had not counted on, however, was the degree to which the conversation about reading and best practices has amped up in the past couple of months. My favorite bloggers, my favorite authors, my colleagues, and even my students are all talking about reading, which means I have the opportunity to reflect on my own practices with the research-backed, innovative practices of my favorite people.  Here are pieces of the conversation that have resonated most with me as I reflect on my own year.

Grant Wiggins has been really digging into the research behind literacy, asking the question, “What does the research on literacy really tell us about how kids learn to read and comprehend?”  His initial post outlines what we know and what we don’t know about comprehension:

What we know... What we don’t know…
Students who comprehend well use metacognitive strategies. How do students internalize the skills and strategies to be  good comprehenders?
Students who do not comprehend well make fewer inferences. What unique learning capacities and challenges do middle and high school readers face?
Readers at the secondary level identify their struggles at the sentence or paragraph level rather than the word level. How does direct instruction in comprehension strategies affect older students?
Slowing down reading as material becomes more challenging predicts better comprehension. What is the impact of these strategies over the long term?
Instructional frameworks such as questioning, reciprocal teaching, and collaborative strategic teaching show great promise for improving reading comprehension. Why is there not more current and longitudinal research of the impact of strategy instruction at the secondary level?
Key concepts like gradual release of learning and transfer of learning are central to solid intentional teaching of reading comprehension strategies. Does strategy instruction transfer to new class, texts, and experiences?

to be continued…

First Post!

Finally!  This is School in a Small Town World!  And the views here are my own.

Though I have had many websites over the years, I am now joining the blogosphere.  I’ve always used writing as a means of figuring things out: in my teaching, in my life, and in my thinking.  Now more than ever, the world has gotten smaller; technology gives us the opportunity to share with and learn from others across the globe.  I look forward to sharing what I am writing, what I am reading, and what I am thinking.  Stay tuned…