Monday, May 18, 2015

First, we wrote.

First, we wrote. Then we talked. Then we wrote some more, talked even more, and from this: great ideas were hatched and explored. This past weekend, I attended a leadership meeting for the North Star of Texas Writing Project. If you aren’t familiar with North Star, please take a moment to check out their website here: . Having previously attended writing workshop professional development, I had no idea what I was getting into last summer at the invitational institute, or how it would continue to change my life – even in the course of a brief Saturday-morning meeting.

What sets NSTWP apart from any other writing workshop PD I’ve participated in is the fact that once in the company of Dr. Wickstrom, Dr. Revelle, Dr. Robertson, and other leaders and Teacher Consultants, I felt empowered. One teacher remarked on Saturday that the program “met each of us where we were at” – whether student-teacher or veteran teacher – and valued what we had to share. This is true. Though the summer days were long and intense, I felt refreshed after my month in the summer institute due to the camaraderie, mutual respect, atmosphere of idea-sharing and learning, and the fact that each person is valued for what he or she has to contribute. My confidence as a writer soared, and more importantly – my ability to build my students’ confidence in their own writing increased dramatically. This year, I write beside them, we revise together, we thank each other for sharing our thoughts and feelings, and we support each other as writers. I have finally accepted that I was a pretty good teacher from the start, but I will never go back to the way I taught pre-North Star.

The fact that I was even at a leadership meeting on Saturday is telling. After working through the summer institute, members become Teacher Consultants who are valued for their expertise. As a TC, I was one of many teachers and professionals invited to take an active role for planning North Star’s future activities. Just as in the institute, we sat together as intellectual equals – each with value – despite differences in our career paths and educational levels. As I previously stated, we wrote before we launched into discussion because we believe it is important to “walk the walk” as writing-instruction educators to not only see the importance in writing, but also to practice writing regularly. Writing and thinking go hand-in-hand, and being surrounded by others who share that belief was inspiring. I only knew a handful of people at the start of the meeting, but knowing that we all share similar beliefs and a thirst for life-long learning allows us to quickly build new friendships. It was so refreshing, renewing, and reaffirming. Why does this feel so rare? Isn’t that what the educational field should be like on every campus, in every district, for every teacher?

Just a side-note:  I’m not a huge fan of rhetorical questions in my own writing, but I do wonder about these questions VERY often. How is it that I’ve never experienced this level of satisfying planning and mutual respect at work? Why do teachers I’ve spoken to from a variety of schools and districts feel more drained than inspired after planning with colleagues? Most importantly: how do we fix this problem and ensure that we build teachers up rather than wear them down? Well, that last question might be way too complex to tackle here, but let’s think about the others...

Ideally, every teacher would attend a North Star summer institute. So my first advice is that if you’re ever invited – Run there! Yes, you’ll give up a chunk of summer, but you’ll gain so much more. That’s not immediately realistic for a few reasons, so what can each of us do on our campuses to capture this feeling? Here are some ideas, and I invite readers to leave more in the “comments.” After all, we think better as we think, write, and reflect together.

  • Always remember that every teacher has something of value to share, even if he or she is new, having trouble in a particular area, or insecure. Help each person feel welcome, create a safe atmosphere for him or her to share ideas, and avoid artificial hierarchies. Isn’t this all stuff we’re doing for our students already?
  • My best music teachers continued to practice their instruments; my best art teachers crafted their own pieces; those math teachers who made me feel confident in math worked through problems with their students. It stands to reason that writing teachers should continue to read and write. I am always flabbergasted when I encounter ELA teachers who “don’t like” or “don’t have time” to read or write. How can we teach what we do not do? Not only do these practices make us better teachers and allow us to hone our craft, but we also gain credibility as reading and writing professionals.
  • Provide all teachers with a voice and a chance to lead. This is aimed more at those in leadership roles, but important for each of us to expect from our leaders as well as ourselves. Some campuses are great about this, while at others – it seems that the same few people lead everything. We all have different strengths, passions, and ideas. Let’s remember that just as we want to be heard when we feel strongly about an idea or program, it’s also important to listen to others and foster new leadership whenever possible. Isn’t this also something we’re already doing for our students?

I desperately want everyone to feel the same support and inspiration that I have felt since joining the North Star of Texas Writing Project, and I want to hold on to that feeling throughout the school-year. I know there are other programs out there, and I hope that everyone finds one that offers that support. Meanwhile, let’s do what we can on our own campuses.