It's summer, and I'm already falling behind on my summer reading tasks! I just finished Penny Kittle's Write Beside Them (2008), and it was a great way to start the summer. So many good ideas for next year!
I have been to Penny's school in New Hampshire, so that experience, combined with her stories of real students and authentic classroom challenges, really helped me imagine her teaching situation.
She explains that to be a good writing teacher, you have to write. This idea seems obvious, but I needed to hear it. Many of us (myself very much included) are guilty of assigning writing, not teaching or modeling it. She writes that in her teaching past, "My teaching was all tell, no show" (7). One day this past school year, I did a draft in front of my students, and I offered watching me as a station (kids could select their task based on where they were in the process). I was fumbling and stammering, and kids were spellbound—fully engaged. Because they saw my struggle, they had more confidence. They shouted out tips.
One of the qualities she features in her room is choice: "Choice has to be taught: I needed to learn how to help students discover their topics" (33). Later, she describes how, without choice, "students become topic dependent. Students who write their way through high school from one book to another forget that their entire lives are topics. They sit and wait to be told what to write" (157). I have been telling myself that I don't have time for personal, “touchy feely” writing, but I need my students to do more of it. How can I sacrifice engagement? I need to take advantage of my kids' experiences. I can do Common Core rigor and let students pick their own topics and write personal narratives; these two priorities are not exclusive.
The book includes details on how Penny's instructional routines. One key idea on revision is that students need to learn how to revise in their own time—they need feedback from a reader, not corrections from the grader. Penny explains that sometimes we "kidnap the first draft" (213). I laughed out loud when I read that because I am guilty of it. I'm doing the hard work of writing, while kids sit there, waiting for me to tell them what to do next. That’s not an authentic process. As Sharon Taberski says, "The brain that does the work is the brain that learns."
All in all, Write Beside Them is a great read, with lots of ideas for lessons and a philosophical framework. I can definitely build on some of the concepts here.
I'd also like to give a shout out to Meenoo Rami’s new book Thrive. She gives an apt survey of the profession right now and why it's such a struggle for teachers trying to do their best. Then she identifies five ways to "(re)invigorate" teaching: finding mentors, building networks of teachers who inspire you, finding new challenging work, using your intuition, and empowering students to lead in the classroom. She features stories of real teachers and real assignments to illustrate her ideas.
Thrive is a short book, under 100 pages and an easy read, but it really hit me. It was the perfect time for me to read this book. I have twelve years in education under my belt, but while many aspects have gotten easier, some old challenges are still there. This book identified many of my feelings and gave me confidence to keep growing.