Oh, the Places You(r Writing)’ll Go

Several years ago I wrote an article for English Journal on disability and being a classroom teacher, “Doubly Vulnerable: The Paradox of Disability and Teaching.” (I’m not aware of a full text of the article freely accessible online, but I’m happy to share it, if you contact me.) Writing the article was itself an act of vulnerability, and I feel like I grew immensely from it. One of the really neat things about the article is that I continue to hear from others after having read it. Last week I heard from a teacher in Japan who had read and connected with the article. With his permission, I’m sharing his response below…

I’m emailing you after reading your article on English Journal titled “Doubly Vulnerable”. I’m very glad to know that a teacher who has a similar type of disability to mine is doing a great job in the US.

Thank you for sharing your experience and your honest feeling. I’m a graduate student of Naruto University of Education, Japan, researching teachers with disabilities in the master course. I’m going to teach English in a Senior high school from next April. I was engaged in another job for fourteen years and I’m not so young, but I’ll be a novice-teacher. Even though I have little teaching experience, but during the teaching practice, I found some students especially students who were perceived “difficult” were interested in my right hand. At that time, I felt like my right hand is a passport to get into their heart through the mental barrier which teenagers likely to have.

I am happy if we could share our experience as teachers with disability. You can find some of my video clips on youtube in which you may find how my right hand is. What I’m playing in the video is a Chinese musical instrument called erhu, which I learned in Beijing 18 years ago. 

I’m so grateful to be making these sorts of connections as a result of writing, both here on the blog and in print!

Leaving and Taking

As part of this morning’s improv activity, we were invited to think about what we would take away from the UNCC National Writing Project Summer Institute and what we would leave. I decided to use those categories for my reflection on SI.

What I’ll Leave

The feeling that if I don’t do it it won’t get done and that won’t be ok
The whole group video portfolio project feels like it’s consumed a big chunk of my thoughts over the past several days. It’s reminded me what an incredibly complex kind of text a video can be. Even a six minute video has required hours of work spread across a number of people. At some point, I started to feel responsible for the video and simultaneously frustrated that I didn’t feel like I had the right tech (in this case a Mac) to make it happen the way I’d hoped. In the past, I might have pushed through anyway, volunteering to finish the project anyway. Instead, I talked with other people who were working on the project and we figured out a way to share the load some. (Many props to Laura, who ended up pulling the final cut together.)

The feeling that I’ve somehow escaped “having” to teach writing because I teach history
Last year when I was teaching all history classes for the first time, I breathed a sigh of relief when I realized that I was no longer going to be a “writing teacher.” In some ways this was really freeing, but it also meant that I didn’t work as hard to find creative ways for my students to connect to the material through writing. Many of the demos over the course of SI have given me ideas for writing in different ways as a part of history class. Next year I get to teach writing as part of history class.

A sour taste in my mouth for tech
Over the past year, I’d been really wrestling with my use of digital tech in the classroom, or lack thereof. Tech had started to feel like just a shiny toy, rather than a useful tool. Being able to incorporate tech in useful ways in my demo at SI and seeing the use of tech in others’ demos reminded me of the joy that I used to find in using technology with students.

The sense that all writing has to be directed toward an end product
I’m a goal-orientated person who doesn’t like to feel like I’m wasting effort. I want my writing to be directed toward something- a blog post, an article, even a tweet. I sometimes feel that if writing doesn’t end up in some publishable or shareable form, it’s not worth doing. The sheer amount of writing that we’ve done over the course of the Institute means that there’s no way that it could all make it into a form that makes sense to share. It’s been freeing, though, to let those scraps be.

What I’ll Take Away

A reminder that good teaching requires careful planning to look effortless and create space for messiness
Prepping for my demo reminded me that really good lessons create space for the surprising to happen, but that space requires careful thought to ensure that things don’t get chaotic or seem haphazard. This will be the first year in my teaching career that I’ll be teaching the same classes as I taught the year before. (Yay!) I’m hoping that not having to be in “just one step ahead of the students” mood will allow me to spend some more time thinking about how I craft space for student learning and inquiry.

A reminder of how much I love learning
I’ve heard it said that some people become teachers because they don’t ever want to leave school. Guilty as charged. I don’t see this as a bad thing though. My love of school isn’t about being a sage on the stage or a power trip. It’s about getting to have the opportunity to learn alongside students, to curate sources to pique their curiosity, and to help them ask good questions. It was fun to get to be get to be a student in the formal sense again.

Gratitude for thoughtful, passionate teachers
Throughout the SI, I’ve been impressed by the skill and dedication, both of the Teacher Consultants facilitating the Institute and the other participants. In a country where the media and politicians sometimes portray teachers as lazy and ignorant, it’s been a privilege to work and learn with people who are the diametric opposite of that portrayal. It’s also been fun to have the opportunity to “talk shop” with people who care as deeply about issues of teaching and learning as I do. I’m deeply grateful for the experience and for those who encouraged me to pursue it.

Writing at Ikea

“I know we don’t need it, but it’s still pretty cool.” -IKEA shopper

I’m wondering about the reactions of the shoppers as we sit here in a living room set writing. Do they think we’re store employees? Paid actors? Squatters? Performance artists? I imagine writing in this space as a quiet protest against the necessity of purchasing things, at least for today.

I think one of the chief lures of IKEA is that it allows us to visualize how our lives might look, going so far as to set up entire (cute, space efficient) houses within the store. I do value that they consider efficiency and beauty and that does make me likely to purchase something here rather than elsewhere if I’d made the decision to buy something. Things are also really cheap at IKEA, at least in terms of dollars. There are hidden costs of things, though. The emotional costs of having to manage stuff, to put it away, to clean it, the energy to replace it.

Writing at IKEA during the UNCCWP Writing Marathon

I’ve been thinking about objects differently over the past several months. From getting rid of 75% of my clothes to parting with several large bags of books and household furnishings, I’ve been trying to donate or trash things I don’t find beautiful or useful, preferably both, rather than asking if I might need the thing one day.

I realize that purging can be a privilege. There are things I haven’t worried about donating because I know I can borrow one from a friend if I need them again. And I don’t have the experience of ever having lived in a situation where I didn’t easily have my basic needs met, which I’m sure affects the way that those who have lived this way relate to material belongings.

The purging can be challenging, but the not replacing is even harder. I’m finding that I often have the impulse to purchase things for reasons other than the thing itself. I want to buy stuff when I restless or tired or lonely. I want to buy stuff that will change the way I feel about my relationships or my job. In the past four months, I’ve bought four items of clothing (recent weight loss made that seem reasonable), a book, and a cake pan. Everything else that I’ve bought has been consumable (toilet paper, food, shampoo, etc.). It’s been an interesting (unintentional) experiment. I’ve been inspired along the way by friends who live significantly more simply than I do and by blogs like Zen Habits and Becoming Minimalist. A slightly strange effect of this is that I’ve found that I’m holding on to the things I do have more lightly. A friend’s friend’s friend, stranger to me, is staying in my house this week while I’m away.

I’m still wrestling with this idea of stuff. Wondering when, if ever, I’ll ever go back to something that looks like my old purchasing habits. For now, I’m resting in this slightly uncomfortable space.

Writing in History Class

Over the first days at the Summer Institute, I’ve been thinking about the differences between teaching Language Arts and History, specifically how teaching those different subjects has affected how I teach. In some ways I felt more freedom as a Language Arts teacher, because I felt like I wasn’t really sure what I was doing anyway, so I might as well experiment.

Even though our school doesn’t put a strong emphasis on content memorization and we’re not beholden to any state or federal testing, I think I feel a stronger impulse to content delivery in history. I also get the sense that students have come to expect that, especially by eighth grade. I’m also aware that is, for the most part, what is emphasized in the Upper School, and so I don’t want to leave them totally without the skills to learn from that style of teaching.

On Friday as we created the maps of the way that writing circulates in our classrooms, I realized that I felt pretty good about the opportunities I was creating for circulation in some classes, but not others. Because of the nature of my blended learning class (students meet two days a week in person and on other days research independently and write online), I think that writing circulates more widely and naturally. I’ve also built more opportunities for students to make personal connections in their writing to the topics that we study in that class.

Throughout the Institute, I want to continue thinking about how I can hone the ways in which I ask my students to write in my middle school history classes, beyond taking notes or writing essays. When I reflect on it, students do have some good opportunities for non-analytical writing, but I think there’s room to create additional opportunities and to vary instructional methods by using writing.

Writing Timeline

Today at the Summer Institute we made timelines to record significant events/relationships where writing played a role. Magazines to cut pictures out of were provided, but I decided to make paper cutouts. I got kinda into it and continued working on it during lunch to give it a title. I was kinda pleased with how it turned out 🙂

From left to right, the events are…

1. Keeping a journal as a early adolescent
2. Writing letters to my English teachers
3. Feeling the awful time crunch of writing my thesis and feeling ashamed of the final product
4. An article for English Journal that went through multiple drafts and of which I felt proud of the final product
5. Texting and emailing with friends that have moved away
6. Tweeting for personal connection and professional learning


In response to a recent post, a former colleague wrote the following. Rather than just respond via email, I thought I’d post his thoughts (with his permission) and my response here.

One line especially piqued my interest —

I’m not ready to argue for the elimination of discipline-specific teaching, but I do think that the “real world” doesn’t divide neatly down discipline-specific lines.

… I wonder what you see as the advantages to discipline-specific teaching… In my experience, whenever I tried bringing math into history class, I got the oddest reaction, as if students were saying “I don’t use that part of my brain in history class — what are you doing? No fair!”

It seems to me that — sticking with middle school here for a moment — if we are saying all students need to know math and science and English and history and a world language and arts and PE to graduate middle school, shouldn’t we require that all adults in the building (who have all presumably graduated middle school) be able to do the things that we require of all 8th graders?

This seems like an important question I need to think about — and I’m wondering why you see value in having the “social studies” teacher label, rather than the English teacher label. And when you teach about the environment, for example, aren’t you becoming a “science” teacher?

I get that your graduate work prepares you for teaching humanities more than it does for math/science, but if pressed, I’m betting you could learn about and teach any math or science lesson in middle school (in high school, I tend to agree with you — there’s more value in discipline specific knowledge).

I think that there is a difference between being able to do things and loving them. The value for me doesn’t come in the label of being a social studies teacher, but in loving and feeling confident in what I teach. Feeling confident doesn’t mean imagining myself the expert by any means, but it does mean having a framework of knowledge for a given topic above the level at which I teach.

I love teaching, period. But having had the experience of teaching third grade (math, language arts, social studies), fifth grade US History, sixth grade history and language arts, seventh grade World History, and eighth and eleventh grade US history, I believe that I am a more engaged, happy, challenging teacher when I love both the content and teaching. I could teach a lesson with heavy math or science content, but I’m less interested in that way of thinking about the world.

This all comes with the very strong caveat that I don’t believe that teachers should close their doors and should instead actively seek out opportunities to collaborate with their colleagues. Better to see teachers teaching what they love and working together.

I would push you to articulate why you think discipline-specific knowledge is more valuable at the upper school level. That seems to short-change middle school students. I would suggest that even at the lower school level students benefit from teachers who have the time and interest to be, not just competent, but scholars of what they teach. If anything, upper school strikes me as the very place for inquiry-based and interdisciplinary learning.

Evidence of Struggle

Yesterday, Jim Burke began his presentation at NCTE with this slide.

I thought- Thanks, Jim. That’s exactly what I need, more pressure when it comes to writing. If writing is a public performance of my intelligence, then what does it say for all the times that the page is filled with garbage, or even worse, blank? 

It didn’t matter that Jim then followed that slide with a hilarious story about burning his own poems in his backyard when he was in high school or acknowledging that we are always at risk of feeling stupid when we’re writing. I still had that first slide burned into my head.

But then Jim said, “If the page is blank, that’s evidence of struggle.”

Evidence of struggle. Not evidence of stupidity. Not evidence of failure. It was such a useful characterization for me. I’ve always heard the blank page characterized as a place possibility and opportunity. But the idea of the blank page as a place of struggle seems to helpfully reinforce the idea that the work of writing starts even before the pencil hits the page or the fingers hit the keys.

For the writing to happen, there do eventually have to be words on the page if the writer is to win the struggle, and so I was also grateful for Penny Kittle’s reminder of Tom Romano’s entreaty to, “Write in faith and fearlessness.”