Seated around the breakfast table with our kids this morning, it was hard to not get wistful for a moment. To take a moment to appreciate the last decade, the wonder of the ten years that have passed, a decade that brought us three more kids through the miracles of medicine. A decade that started with me in my second year of teaching, ready to give up on it all but instead beginning a blog, which led to a book and then three more books, and then to travels around the world trying to be a part of the solution rather than the problem. A decade shaped by new friendships but also lost ones. Of more love, of new wrinkles, of back problems and first world privilege. And a year that was for the most part uneventful in the best of ways, a year that came in quietly and leaves us in a flurry. As the kids made funny jokes, threw mini tantrums, and we celebrated Thea’s 11th birthday, we asked what they loved the most about the last year. What stood out?
A few things were crowd favorites; travels to Costa Rica , Taiwan, and New York, going to school and starting new classes (phew), getting Piglet, our hedgehog after many months of research. All extraordinary events that shaped our year. Events out of the ordinary. Events that we counted down to, saved up for, commemorated in our albums of pictures. And yet, it was in the moments after that my thoughts gathered. The little moments that make our years, the routine and ordinary. The life lived in the mundane that truly shaped this year.
Taking long walks with Brandon as we contemplated our lives and tried to figure out the everyday trials and triumphs of parenting.
Reading books in small moments, whenever the opportunity presented itself.
Text messages received from family and friends. Emails, phone calls, and letters.
A fresh cup of tea awaiting in the kitchen when I came home.
A car with heated seats, finally.
Friday movie nights ensuring us that our love of Star Wars was dutifully passed on.
Pool time naps.
Quiet work time before the students show up.
Thea trying out a new sense of humor.
Ida discovering her dyslexia super strength.
Oskar making sure to say I love you.
Augustine deciding that school is fun even it is work.
Saying thank you. Saying please. Saying yes.
This is when we lived. These are the moments that have shaped us. That will continue to shape us. All of the everyday decisions and breaths that we take that make up our entirety.
And while 2020 will carry many extraordinary events into our lives; Brandon’s graduation with a degree as a tech ed teacher (need a teacher in your school?), my 40th birthday, travels to Iceland and Puerto Rico, Thea starting middle school, it will be in the mundane that we live. In the moments for small contemplations. In the moments of quiet. Of loud. Of sameness, routine, and commitment. Of embarking on a year of yes and more. Of stretching ourselves to the fullest when we can and retracting when we want to. Of looking up, as Joanna Gaines, reminds me to do, of soaking it all in, of shutting down and tuning in. Commitments to a life best lived not in the magnificent margins but in the everyday extraordinaires.
I am so grateful for 2019, for a life lived in the daily. Perhaps our paths will cross?
Chocolate calendar opened. Candles burning bright. Christmas tree up and presents are starting to appear below it as we think back on the year that was and the look forward to the year that will be. To the year I turn 40, to the 10th year of this blog.
For the past year, I said no a lot, focusing on my family as my husband enters his final year of his education degree – I cannot wait for him to graduate in a year! As my kids settled into new routines, as we worked through another diagnosis for one of the children. No to anything extra that would take my focus away from my family, away from my classroom. And I loved it, mostly, it was wonderful to have time to breathe and time to re-prioritize. But…and there’s always a but. I missed out on great opportunities to learn. On meeting new people. On exploring new facest of my life that I otherwise would have grown from.
So with the blessing of my husband, I am embarking on a year of “yes.” On saying yes to as much as I can manage, on saying yes to new collaborations, to new adventures, to new learning. On saying yes when it feels like a great fit either personally or professionally. On saying “yes” when it feels as if I can help in some way.
While it will not be yes to everything, after all, I am only human and do not want to work all of the time, it will be a lot more yes than no, a lot more let’s try than no thanks. A time to perhaps write another book, to blog when I can, to learn as much as I can.
So this is my invitation to the world; whether it’s for collaboration, working with other teachers or speaking at a conference, whether it is trying a new idea, meeting new people, doing interviews or reflecting through something, whether it’s for friendship or some other thing, send your idea my way. Reach out, send an email, come say hi if our paths cross.
Welcome to the year of yes, I cannot wait to see what happens.
I have been thinking a lot about writing, about all of the emotions tied in with what we write, with the bravado and the behavior that sometimes plays out when we ask kids, and at times even adults, to write. The armor. The resistance. The change. The hope. But only for a moment.
I have been thinking a lot about writing because it is something I discuss often with other adults when we share the things we wish we would have known a long time ago, the things we are just discovering. The things we wish we could figure out.
I have been thinking a lot about how despite having spent nearly seven weeks with these new students, I still feel I don’t know them well. I know snippets, small moments, glimpses of their story, but not enough, not now, not yet. How when we discuss their writing they sometimes don’t have the words to express what they need, or the trust. How we have all of these conversations about their writing but what they really are about is their identity, how they see themselves in the world. How they want the world to view them.
And I want to remember it all but I can’t. And I want to remember it all but I won’t, despite trying. Because while I am 100% focused in the moment, I often forget the details after they walk away because in front of me is a new person who needs my undivided attention, who deserves all of me.
So in order to help me remember, inspired by the discussions I am having with other adults and the kids themselves, I created a writing conference sheet. A simple sheet that perhaps will help me center my work a little more in order to be able to pick up the thread the next time we discuss their writing. A simple sheet that will allow me to gather some of the many thoughts kids share with me as I get to know them and help me consider how I can help them grow. Perhaps you would like to use it as well?
A simple explanation of the first few boxes follows…
The top box is for the first time I meet with them after they have filled in their writing survey.
Writing + = What do they like about writing
Writing – = What do they not like
Goal = The goal they are currently working on as a writer
Why = What made them set this goal
Last year = What was their experience last year with writing and how did they feel about writing?
You as a writer = How do they view themselves as a writer
Hard about writing = What do they still find hard about writing
The second box is for each time we confer after that about their writing and so it allows me to record what we discussed – I always ask students to lead the conversation – as well as what their challenge and progress has been. Then I wanted space to reflect on what I see as their strengths and goals areas for the current piece, as well as writing overall.
I am starting to use it this week and I cannot wait to see how it will deepen the conversations we have about their writing and how it will help me be a better teacher of writing for them. Isn’t that what so much of teaching is really about?
I think of the many hard lessons I have learned through the years.
About feeling valued.
About feeling seen.
About what I needed to change not just as the teacher, but also as the adult in charge of the learning experience we create, day in, day out.
So many learned not because I finally realized something, but instead because the kids I have taught had a way to teach me. Had a way to speak up when they needed to. Had a way to feel heard, even when their words meant I needed to change. How it takes such little time to provide kids with the tools they need to speak up, to be heard, to be a full member of the community we are building. It takes a few questions, an open mind and only a few minutes.
In fact, if I ever had to re-name this blog anything, it would be the lessons the children taught me. The many things they have shared throughout their years as we have strived for a better way of learning, of reading, of being a community of people who already are impacting the world beyodn the walls of school.
And so this week, i will once again ask a few simple yet large questions.
Do you feel respected in this room?
Do you respect others in this room?
What can I do more for you?
What should I do less of?
What do you wish I would notice?
And I will remind them all, once again, that this is their chance to influence how I teach and how we learn. That I have thick skin but to also offer up ideas when they can, not just criticism, however, that criticism is also welcomed because I can’t fix anything I don’t know isn’t working. That this stays between us unless I have their permission to share. That I am grateful for their truths so that I can grow. So that we can grow.
And that this is the first reflection of many to come. That this is only the beginning, because for some I haven’t earned their trust, for some they are not ready to tell me how they really feel, and I respect that as well. But I will still ask because even just asking is a step toward a stronger learning experience. A step toward a more solid us.
We are about six weeks into the year, and it is time for me to learn more lessons.
One of the ideas mentioned in the book briefly was the idea of using writing circles, think lit circles but for writing, with students in order for them to gain a more long-term writing community, as well as a more developed relationship to their own role as writers. I loved the idea immediately and wanted to make it work for our kids., as having my own writing circle of trusted peers has helped me tremendously whenever I write books.
To start us off for the year, we discussed positive and negative aspects of writing by brainstorming. The question was based off of the work we have done with reading and followed the same format, rather than post-its, though, they did it in their writer’s notebook on a t-chart and then created a group response at their table. We then discussed as a class and created our writing rights together. These now hang in our room as a reminder of the type of writing experiences we would like to have.
Then I wanted to introduce the concept of writing circles to students using something I knew they were familiar with; lit cirlces. How are writing circles like literature circles? I showed my students this side-by-side comparison to help them get thinking about the potential process and benefits waiting for them.
So first, what are the components of our writing circles?
Students choose peers to be in their writing circle – 3 to 4 people through an interview.
They write together, physically, as well as at times, actually in the same project.
They can write on the same topic but in different formats.
They share their work, discuss and encourage each other.
They serve as editors for each other providing critical and constructive feedback.
They serve as long-term writing partners and will, hopefully, develop further skills from each other, as well as develop a more natural writing relationship.
They build accountability toward the group and the group is an immediate circle to turn to for help.
The first step toward establishing their writing circles was to reflect on their own writing identity once more – see the screenshot below. This was a continuation of the discussions we have had where they have reflected on how writing intersect with them as human beings, that started with their writing survey for the year.
After they had reflected, they then interviewed seven other people in order to hear more about their writing identity. This was on the same sheet and looked like this – very similar on purpose. To see the full survey, go here.
Why seven? I wanted them go beyond their friend zone and knew that for some that would take a few people. Once they had interviewed seven people, I then asked them to reflect on the following questions.
Looking at other people’s habits, who may strengthen your skills as a writer? Note, these are people who have DIFFERENT strengths than you.
Looking at other people’s habits, who may not be a good fit for you because you share the same areas of growth or skills.
Looking at other people’s habits, who may you help grow as a writer? Compare your marked areas of strength to theirs.
Choose only three peers who you think may be a good fit and who will help you grow as a writer. Go outside of your comfort zone if it will help you grow.
If you want, you can add peers who you do not think will be a good fit, this is only for strong reasons, not to list all of the people you don’t want to be with.
Once they had reflected, they handed the surveys in to me and the puzzle began. I told them I would try my best to have at least one “wished for” peer in their group but also knew that some kids may benefit from other peers than the ones they selected.
The following day, their writing circles were revealed. We told them it would be a test run to see how they did with each other and that we would reassess as needed. While almost all groups worked out beautifully right away, a few needed minor tweaks which we handled within a day or two.
After the reveal, we asked them to find a designated spot that would always be their meeting spot. While many chose great spots, a few didn’t, and after a few days we did create new spots for some groups that allowed them to work better together. The main culprit was having space to speak to one another and space to have their materials and with 29 sudents it can get a bit tricky. Then inspired by Tricia Ebarvia’s Jenga games to start off the year, we had them play Jenga with each other in order to get to know each other. Here are her original questions, here are the questions we ended up using, some new, many of them hers. I had bought 5 Jenga games and split them into 9 games with 30 tiles each and it worked out perfectly. not only did it allow us to see how the circles would function as a group, but they also got a chance to get to know each other more. Thank you so much, Tricia for sharing all of your work around this!
Then, it was time to actually write something. And so we have been. We have been doing small prompts that they have shared with each other, they have read personal essays and memoirs and discussed them, they have written 6 word memoir, and most importantly they have shared their beginning writing with each other. As the students just submitted their first draft of a memoir or a personal essay, upcoming usage of their writing circle will be:
Navigate the feedback we have left – what does it really mean? Where do they need to start?
Be peer editors – we will be working on specific revision skills in order to help them edit each other’s work better as this is not a skill they are ready to just take on. As I model my own revisions, they will be doing the revision work on each other’s.
Search for “simple” mistakes such as conventions of writing that their own eyes may miss because it is too familiar with the writing.
Challenge them in their writing, hold them accountable to create better writing than what they started with.
Assess each other’s writing using the rubric and comparing it to their own self-assessment.
On Monday, as we start a wonky week where the only academic day we have together is Monday, they will write a group story as we have been discussing components of great stories. They will then act it out. So far, having this built in writing community has benefitted us in a few way:
They already know who to be with when they are writing and since they are mostly peers they have chosen there is a more natural collaboration happening.
They have each other to ask when they are stuck, when they are fleshing out ideas, as well as when they think they are done but need someone else to look at it.
They don’t have to wait for the teachers to look at their writing, they can go to each other first and then when their time is for a conference with me, they can come right up rather than waste time.
The students really seem to like it, no groans or moans when we ask them to get with their writing circles.
There is a lot more talk surrounding their writing, which was the main goal. We wanted to work on the social aspect of writing and to offer the kids a way to know that they are not alone when they feel burdened by writing.
I will continue to share the work of these writing circles as they will be a year-long endeavor, but wanted to share this for now. If you have any questions, please ask, I am just learning myself.
We continue to get to know each other slowly. Dancing around each other in this forced community which we hope to make our own. Feeling each other out as we wonder where in each other’s legacies we will fit. Will we matter or will we be a forgotten chapter? Simply a footnote in a story that spans a lifetime.
Four weeks into a new school year and I keep thinking how I am already a much better teacher than I was when I started because of the truths these kids, my new students, are offering up. How though they barely know me, and yet in their stories enable us to start havinge these moments together that become our narrative as we weave our pasts together in order to create our future. At least for a little bit.
And I remind myself to slow down.
And I remind myself to pay attention.
And I remind myself to pick up my pen and take notice.
To start the conversations.
To listen fully.
To continue to search for connections, for the stories that pass easily in order to get to know them more.
To give hugs freely and feedback carefully.
To take a breath.
To take a moment.
To feel the power that the adult in the room inevitably holds even when we think we don’t.
And I am reminded of how writing identity carries so many emotions when a child bursts into tears in front of me not sure how to take my words surrounding their writing. Because we don’t know each other that well, not yet.
And I am reminded of how quiet it can be when a child tells me a part of themselves that they weren’t quite ready to share but shared it anyway and I hope I earned their trust a little more. Because they don’t know what I will do with the stories of their life, not yet.
And I am reminded of how much our students notice when they ask if I will do that thing for them that I did for that other kid, and was that a tradition and if not, it should be. That they don’t know that I will pretty much go along with most new traditions because that’s just who I am, not yet.
And I am reminded of the bonds we created the year before when the big 8th graders shout “Hey, Mrs. Ripp!” as they pass my room and sometimes sneak in for a hug or a book. And I wonder if any of the ones I get to teach now will even say hello next year.
Because these moments, the small moments that we take, the ones that we make through our conferring, through our greetings, through our questions and our listening. Through our shared read alouds, through our discussion, through our music playlists, through our stories. Those moments become the foundation for the trust that I hope these kids will place in me as I try to guide them down a path of learning.
Because what I am reminded of tonight as our daughter tells me that her day was great, as usual, but that there were not enough hugs, is that we have only just begun. That there should always be time for the hugs. For the moments. For the connections. And yet the pressure to cover the content, to get through the material, to offer up all of the opportunities to learn urges us on at a breakneck pace but that the only thing we will accomplish from caving to the pressure is relationships left behind.
So I pause once more. Plan accordingly and search for the moments that will tie us all together.