Friday, February 21, 2014

Patterns: Practice, Patience, and Passion (for those of us in transition)

When I start seeing patterns and themes in the everyday events in my life, I know there is a lesson I need to learn. It’s not to say that I think the patterns I see are a message from the universe, rather, I think my attention tends to turn toward what must be tended—I notice ideas related to what I need to know.

The past week has been one of turbulence: stormy skies, sporadic sunshine, and melting snow. This morning I got caught in a downpour, the whirling wind ripping the hood of my rainjacket off my head and turning my umbrella inside out twice. I arrived at my office with wild, witchy hair, wet pants, and soggy socks from leaking boots. Now, only a few hours later, I see students wearing shorts, crossing campus under a bright blue sky. 

The weather mimics my moods lately—swinging crazily between storms (ice, snow, rain) and spring-like sun. I’m in the midst of uncertainty, caught up in a job search, experiencing the excitement of interviews and campus visits and also the difficulties of rejection. My life is one in transition. Meanwhile, my students—about whom I care deeply—are finding their passions in classrooms, experiencing major life changes both joyful and tragic, and making critical decisions, in transition, too. Right now, everything feels in flux, and I am looking for any patterns I can find. 

Yesterday, a social media message arrived. A friend shared an article about choosing NOT to follow one’s passion, drawing from insights in a recent book about success. The article discusses some basic thoughts about how our passions, which are often unrelated to the work we do, can lead us to discontent rather than fulfillment when we follow them. Rather than chasing our passions and trying to combine them with our work, the author writes, it is better to practice, to focus on mastery and experience, to push through discomfort, and to be patient. When we do so, we find passion, as what we intentionally do becomes something we love.

When we practice, we cultivate care and meaning. I know this is true in my own experience. I did not set out to be a teacher. I became a teacher out of some time in the working world not related to my English diploma—it was a quick master’s program in a field I thought I might like, an opportunity to use my degree. There were teachers in my family, so I had models for teaching as an occupation, but I didn’t feel that teaching was my lifework until later. After much practice, career became calling. Patience and skill yielded passion over time, and now I can’t imagine doing anything else. A choice made of opportunity became my identity. My time in my current job, if nothing else, cemented my identity as a teacher. I know I am a good teacher, and I know I will continue teaching, even though the future is unclear.

Andreas, B. "Different Plans."

This morning, I received another message. I subscribe to artist Brian Andreas’s “Story of the Day” email; his “Story People” artworks combine text and image in surprising, silly, and sometimes profound ways. Today’s story spoke directly to my recent recent demeanor.

A reminder that I don’t always get to choose what I want, and that loss is inevitable, this story reminds me to be awake and alive at this crossroads, grateful for the open question of what is to come. In a few short months, I will have clearer answers—I will have a plan for the future, know whom I will be teaching and where we will be.

For now, though, I have turmoil, uncertainty, and mystery. But I have more than that, too. In the ever-changing present, in the shifting weather, I have practice and passion to guide me, and patience to help me stay steady, until the skies clear. 

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Creating Conditions--Beliefs about Teaching Writing

This week, my co-teacher, Jenny, and I asked the students in our Teaching Composition class to begin to envision themselves as teachers of writing, to establish their own “writing territories,” and to begin to formulate some thoughts about their future classrooms and the young writers who will grow there. 

We gave them this prompt: “On your blog: Post your own statement on what you think is important to the teaching of composition and how you foresee your own writing classroom.”

Of course, asking them to think about these things brought me back to my own notions of teaching writing. I often find myself referring to my experience as a teacher of high school English in order to help my students now, who are mostly pre-service teachers. Drawing from my awareness as a teacher and learner can provide insight and contextualize theory and research and can add an accessible voice to the conversations generated by the experts we read in class. My thinking about this prompt sent me into one of the many binders stowed away from my days in the high school classroom, and in it I found a version of a handout I gave to writing groups every year. The purpose of this handout was to introduce students to our classroom procedures for writing workshop, and, more importantly, it allowed me to articulate my beliefs about writing—in writing—for my students in a way that could frame instruction in my classroom.

 When I distributed this sheet to my classes (most recently in 2008) I believed—and I still believe:

Writing about a subject helps us learn and motivates us to learn
Writing about what we study has a practical payoff
Writing about what we study will develop all language skills
Writing about what we study will help us develop thought and educated opinions
You will be expected to write every day about a variety of relevant subjects
You will be given guidance and guidelines to follow
You will have helpful responses to your writing
You will be expected to provide helpful responses to others’ writing
You will have ample opportunities to share and publish your writing*

Looking backward and forward after having internalized years worth of research and reading (and having completed a dissertation about writing), I would add this:

Writing helps us know who we are and how we think
Writing gives us a way to find and articulate what we know
Writing cultivates a sense of awareness, observation, and wonder
Writing centers us deeply in the world

Calkins expresses that teachers in writing workshop create conditions for learning, and that “Writing can help those conditions by encouraging students to ask questions, to notice and wonder and connect and inspire,” and “to stay wide awake in life” (1986/1994, p. 484). The effective writing classroom, then, is a process space in which relationships grow, in which ideas grow, and which people grow together—and writing is a part of that growth process. Were I to go back to the high school classroom, these are the conditions I would hope to create, idealistic as they may be. For now, however, I will co-create them with other teachers, cultivating their growth and my own, writing and learning together.

*As a footnote, I should mention that these beliefs grew out of my own student experience in a teaching composition methods course taught by Dr. Gwen Rosenbluth sometime around 1999. Dr. Rosenbluth’s class changed fundamentally my understanding of myself as a writer and teacher of writing, and introduced me to the National Writing Project, which in turn shaped me more—from teacher to practicing writer and learner-leader.

Our students’ blogs, with their own writing statements, can be found on our motherblog.

Calkins, L. (1994). The art of teaching writing: New edition. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann. (Original work published 1986)