What’s Really New: Last academic year, by remembering that I was teaching humans I was able to engineer a soft landing for myself and my students. I am taking all those lessons to heart as we kickoff a new semester and academic year. This year is all about creating a joyfully authentic community through the liberal use of class rituals and writing inspired by poetry. What are the survival tips you plan to deploy this year? How can you engineer a soft landing?
What’s New? As I prepare for the spring semester I am adding to the #AnnotatedSyllabus portion of my onboarding process (see Introducing) to collaborate with my students regarding the level of grace I offer my students as part of my writing studio methods. As I explained to my students, I believe in #ungrading and want to focus our efforts on their journey as writers and not keeping score or gatekeeping. This semester I am asking my students to help me define the terms of the grace period I offer students to complete work and the penalties for late work after the grace period. For my face-to-face students I will also ask them to create the attendance and participation policy for our community. What conversations do you want to have with your students about policy and procedure? Note: My students decided that a two-week grace period was more than enough which will make my end-of-semester so much less fraught. So glad we had this conversation because I do not feel any guilt as we decided on this class policy together.
Update: Two-thirds of the way through my current semester it appears that my students and I are content in our class community. Students have repeatedly appreciated the grace extended to them and I hope that I will not need similar grace, but I trust that it will be there if needed because we have built a community. Watching the class community we have created is one of my greatest pleasures whether we are sharing our writing or working in class. My class plan is also rewarded by the joy that so many of my students have (re)discovered in their writing because we are exploring topics of their choosing that matter to them and our low-stakes writing activities are playful and fun. I am happy to be in the classroom and I am enjoying my students and we are all growing as humans and writers. What is bringing you joy in your classroom?
Original: I started this post on the morning of my 56th birthday because I am a writer and reflective practitioner. Writing and reflecting is my jam (as those who know me are undoubtedly aware). This post is a bit of a mashup reflecting on my past year but also thinking about advice I want to offer the teachers in my life – especially those newly graduated teachers who will be heading into their first classroom in the fall. But let’s all be honest. As we wrap up our third spring and stare down our third fall of pandemic teaching we can all use some thoughtful reflection on how we can do more than survive. We have to learn how to live with this pandemic and we have to learn how to work within the terrible awful no good education system currently imploding all around us. And we need to do both of these things without sacrificing our health (mental and physical) or the future of our students. It is possible to do all these things although I also know results will vary upon local conditions because too many administrators are trying to kill us by ignoring the facts that the system was broken, harmful, and unsustainable before the pandemic and ignoring the ongoing pandemic allows no time or energy for the makeshift repairs that previously kept it barely functional.
Last summer I was in a bad place. I was exhausted and overwhelmed and just plain broken. I am entering this summer in a much better place because I made better choices throughout the 2021-2022 academic year than I did throughout 2020 and the spring of 2021 (so many bad choices combined with overall terribleness). But this post is not about those bad choices, but the good choices I made this year. Choices that sustained me and supported my students. Choices that allowed me to be a better writing project leader. I do hope that this renewed energy and excitement about my work did not overextend me this summer. There are a lot of plates spinning right now but the trick will be handing them off to others. While I am full of grace I am not a very graceful person so fingers crossed. The important thing is that we are moving forward and creating new programming that reflects our new reality. We have done this multiple times as a writing project site and I am excited about the promise of the future and the summer we have planned. So much better than the tears of last summer. Survival tip #1: The advice that comes out of this experience is to lead with grace. Be full of grace to yourself first and last and extend as much grace to your students and community as you can without cost to your well being.
Whenever someone on social media asks for tips for new teachers my go-to move is always to recommend a focus on building community. As I note in this blog post building community breaks two ways for teachers: building community in your classroom and in your profession. Teaching demands so much of us physically, mentally, and emotionally that we must find the people, the community, that helps us continue to grow and respond to changing and challenging circumstances while also reminding us of the boundaries necessary to survive this important work. Teaching is important work but should never come at the cost of our health, our family, or our future. The institution of education is inhumane and the structures that sustain it are monsters that will suck us dry and turn to the next victim. It is our duty to stand shoulder to shoulder with each other so no teacher sacrifices their well being to the machine. Survival tip #2: Finding your PLN is about finding the people who share your passion for this work but also remind you to protect yourself against abuse.
Focusing on class community is important for many reasons. As I wrote back in 2018, class community supports students, learning, and teachers. But during the pandemic it has become even more essential to center everything around community. As humans continuing to struggle to live and learn during a pandemic the connection of community is crucial to our survival. In my classes community connection includes offering a simple space where we can share our joys and frustrations and check in as humans every week. But it is also about providing space where we work together and share our journey with that work. Both spaces see student activity through finals week and right up until the end of the semester and both spaces receive a lot of love in students’ final reflections. Sharing and working together helps us all see the entirety of the humans in our community and support each other when we struggle. Sharing and working together also helps us see ourselves in others and to recognize that we are not alone. Survival tip #3: Build a supportive community with your students.
One piece of teaching advice that has long served me the best is this: Be the thing that you teach. I would take that one step further to emphasize the need to demonstrate your love of that thing and the joy you take in its practice. My students know that I am a writer who takes joy in writing. I write with them. I share my writing with them. I believe that joy is contagious. But I also create a space where my students can find joy in writing too through the creation of a writing studio, the embrace of ungrading, and the use of fun themes. I build a class that encourages play and experimentation using poetry and nonstandard texts and students tell me over and over in their reflections that experience has allowed them to recover or discover a love of writing. It is my job to support my students’ continued growth as writers but I strive to make that process as joyful as possible for all of us. Survival tip #4: Nurture joy in your work.
Last, but certainly not least, make the work that you do in your joyful community meaningful to the people doing the work. I use themes to inspire our work but challenge my students to ground all that work in their personal values. In the fall that work focused on telling the stories of our values. In the spring we harness the power of games culminating in a game jam and reflection that brings together the work of the semester. Students tell me again and again how much they appreciate the authentic writing that drives our work as they note that too much of their previous education has included disposable writing generated in response to assignments leading to writing no one wants to read. My students note that not only are they interested in their own projects but also the projects of their peers. I know that I am interested in their projects too. That is why I care about authentic writing. In addition, I continue to Marie Kondo my class so all the work that we do contributes to the final deliverables and there is no wasted effort. It is a work in progress but essential as this pandemic continues. Survival tip #5: Only do work that matters.
I strive to reflect at the end of every semester and have used a variety of reflection strategies, but this semester I have decided to focus on these simple survival tips as my reflection and evaluation. This year I focused on teaching the humans in my classes and guarding my own fragile humanity and we all managed to make it through while growing as writers, thinkers, and humans. What survival tips do you have for new and continuing teachers? As the number of rock star teachers that I know personally are leaving the profession these ideas are even more important than ever.
Note: Over the summer (right around contract renewal, coincidence?) our administration proposed raising the course caps by 3-5 students per writing section but did not act on the change (probably because our university was hacked over the summer which threw everything into disarray. This week we were told our course caps would go up by 4 students next semester. The administration argues that that this is not a big deal as many of our first year classes have attrition. Of course, while true, it is also a ridiculous argument as anyone who has ever taught first year students knows, but of course none of the people making this decision has ever taught first generation college students whose entire high school experience has been some version of pandemic education. Yesterday I had a student in tears because they are so overwhelmed by all the life challenges thrown at them during this already highly stressful transition period (from high school to college, from child to adult). This is a common occurrence in my classroom. I’ve always believed this is the most important class students take in college because it is so much more than just writing. Comprehensive literacy is about writing, reading, and thinking, but it is also about studying other humans and ourselves. This is not work that scales. This work requires a trusted community. I never forget that I am teaching humans and I hate being reminded that my administration doesn’t care.
No more than 20 students should be permitted in any writing class. Ideally, classes should be limited to 15. Remedial or developmental sections should be limited to a maximum of 15 students. No English faculty members should teach more than 60 writing students a term.Principles for the Postsecondary Teaching of Writing