2019 was a tough year for me both personally and professionally, but what a year for blogging! Personally my sandwich generation status drove me to the breaking point. My parents moved to Kentucky (from my hometown in Upstate New York) a few years ago for help with my father’s Parkinsons. We had a plan for that disease, but were unprepared for the horrific combination of Parkinsons and dementia. This trauma overlaid everything that should have been fun and joyous in the other half of the sandwich as my son enjoyed a triumphant senior year in high school and then moved on to the excitement and challenge of college. And the need to cope with the many demands of the trauma made it so much harder for me to cope with our suddenly empty nest and what sometimes felt like losing the only good thing in my life. While my personal life was a mess, I am fortunate in that I love my work and 2019 was a really good year in the classroom. I made several changes (more to come on that!) that made things so much more fun and rewarding plus the Morehead Writing Project had a really great year of programming. The work and the people involved in both aspects of my professional life allowed me to escape the trauma as did writing about that work in blog and my life in verse. While some aspects of my professional life are awesome there are others that worry me. I worry about the future of the Kentucky Writing Project because that work is important in general and critical to me personally. Much of the fall semester has seen my professional home embroiled in debates that will directly impact my happiness in the classroom and let’s not forget the state of higher education in general (and in Kentucky in particular) and I dread more of the same for months to come.
I apologize for unloading all of that emotional baggage, but I wanted to set the table for this year in review post, so you can better appreciate the solace I have found from sharing my joy in the classroom through this blog. Whether you are new to my blog or have been along for the journey I appreciate your support and encouragement along the way. Here’s hoping that our 2020 will be better and brighter. In 2019 I wrote 36 blog posts about my journey as a writer and mentor for other writers and teachers and here are a few themes that I noticed in my work this past year.
Opening The Grade Conversation
The biggest change I made in my teaching this year was switching to conference grading. The process of making the switch to grade conferences has not been smooth or easy (for me or my students) but it is a pedagogical move that I highly recommend to other teachers — especially teachers of writing. It is still a work in progress, but I can see the impact it has had on the ways that my students think and talk about their writing as well as supported the overall tone of the class by giving us all more opportunities to think about and study our writing. Grade conferences helped us support a writing workshop and especially peer review in our classroom. Shifting the responsibility for assessing student writing helped open our conversations about writing and how to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of a particular deliverable. Are you interested in opening up conversations about writing in your classroom to support reflection, feedback, and evaluation? I can promise the rewards far outweigh the cost.
Another major theme in my 2019 classes was going all in on themes for my composition classes. In the past I had used themes to guide some units, but in 2019 both my Writing II and Writing I classes were built entirely around themes. The most risky theme was focusing my Writing II classes around games. I knew that games offered a lot of opportunity to inspire exploration of rhetoric as well as building community and making learning fun. However, I was excited to find that we learned even more about writing and life and the world than I expected.
After the success of my game-themed class and inspired by some work with the National Writing Project’s Writing Our Future: American Creed work in 2018, I decided to focus my Writing I classes around an American Literacy theme. I found many reasons to teach with American Creed and according to my students’ final reflections they also found the journey worthwhile. Our class activities supported our writing development as well as taught us lessons about our country and ourselves. I was drawn to this work early on because it offered students an authentic rhetorical experience but along the way I learned that our American Literacy journey gave us so much more.
Tips For Teaching Writing
While I am super enthusiastic about my new grading plan and my class themes, I also love sharing a handy tip or tool for teaching writing (or just general comprehensive literacy). I have been fortunate, through my exposure to the National Writing Project and the further inspired by my amazing Professional Learning Network, to assemble a very deep teaching toolbox. One of my favorite new tools is the Snap (or snapshot) that is so flexible and offers so many benefits. Snaps get a lot of love when my students reflect about their work. StoryCorps interviews was another great classroom tool inspired by my PLN. I love a tool that is so flexible and fun. My PLN has also helped me develop a long list of icebreakers, such as infographic icebreakers, and helped me develop strategies for crafting my own. Last, but certainly not least, one of my favorite PLN-inspired tools is slam poetry. I love using it for stress relief and a creative outlet, but also for teaching arguments.
I also hope that other teachers can benefit from my decades of teaching experience and the mistakes I have made. One of those key lessons is the simple idea that less is more. We don’t need to pack so much into a lesson or class. We don’t need to be constantly overwhelmed. Another important lesson is to not waste the precious first impression and energy of that first class on something like class procedures and rules. This year I shared my three rules for kicking off the new year write as well as a description of my activity for exploring personal values. One final lesson that I hope to share from my experience has been the move to make my composition classes textbook free. I should have made this move long ago so please learn from my mistakes!
Metawriting and Metateaching
While I know many of my readers and PLN members prefer my practical tips, perhaps one of my favorite parts of blogging is when I have the time to get meta. I love writing about writing and teaching writing. I do enjoy the nuts and bolts of a great teaching strategy, but I also love really digging in and thinking deeply about the topic as well. In fact, that is where my blogging began this year with the philosophical blog post First, Do No Harm which I still believe is a great teaching philosophy and it is the biggest category of the four I (admittedly arbitrarily) divided this year’s posts. Although, I know at heart that the core of my actual teaching philosophy is the writer is the goal. Perhaps because I was working with student teachers in my classroom that semester, I blogged often about my theory of teaching writing in the spring. Or perhaps it was simply that I kept having to explain to people why I was using games to teach writing but my philosophical posts also included gaming the system and my secret ingredient for teaching success. I also love reflecting on my strategy for teaching specific classes such as hybrid courses and professional writing. Sometimes I am unsure if a post is more philosophical or more practical, such is the case with my post about ways to challenge how students think about writing, so I will let you decide if it is more practical or more reflective. I will wrap up this philosophical journey with a theory I arrived at this fall about how we should think about our writing classrooms as ecosystems which is still an idea that interests me. The only thing I love more than writing about my philosophy of teaching writing is talking about it with my PLN.
And that wraps up my year in blogging which has been quite an adventure for me. I hope you enjoyed my journey through games and American literacy as well as gained some valuable tips and strategies to help you on your own teaching journey. But most of all I hope that I have inspired your own metateaching. Looking forward to a great 2020 in teaching.