Conferring with Writers

Whenever I plan for writing conferences, my mind conjures up images of a Nancy Atwellian wonderland. Students laugh as we share humorous anecdotes about writing and life. Kids lounge on lush carpeting, lost in the pleasure of working on their pieces as they patiently wait their turn. Every student is smiling and every pencil is writing.

In reality, conferring with students about their writing is one of the most challenging things I do as an educator. My overstuffed classroom is filled with kids who scrape out two sentences a week jostling elbows with future Jason Reynoldses and J.K. Rowlingses. Also, the recursive nature of writing is at odds with the linear logic of most unit planning, so managing conference time within an at least semi-coherent sequence of planning, drafting, and revising. And any time I feel like I’m getting into the flow of it, a picture day/assembly/drill/band concert barges in.

On top of this, most kids come to the classroom convinced that writing is boring. That it’s a useless regurgitation of opinions and stories long calcified in their brains. Where’s the rubric? How many pages do I have to write? How can I get an A? I don’t fault them for this. It’s a logical response and it’s how you play the game of school.

When I do manage to make writing conferences work, it’s glorious. My approach to writing conferences aims for a middle ground blending a contemporary skills based approach with classic expressivism.

Peter Elbow’s 1973 classic Writing Without Teachers argues that when it comes to responding to student writing, traditional teachers are the worst. Elbow says that students need feedback that comes from readers, not teachers. Readers approach a text for pleasure and meaning. What effect do the words have on them? What do they wish the author did more or less of? What questions does the text leave them with?

He contrasts this to the traditional teacher, someone who experiences the text through the fragmented lens of assessing discrete skills and hunting for errors. Does the story effectively use dialogue not at all, some of the time, or most of the time? Do the student’s word choices nearly meet, meet, or exceed the expectations?

I begin a conference by reading a student’s piece quietly out loud to them. I make sure to display genuine engagement with and wonder about each piece. This takes practice. It’s been essential to my pedagogical spirit to retrain myself to see student writing as something to be enjoyed versus something to be fixed. I interject anytime I see something that works. A funny piece of dialogue, and suspenseful ending, a strong vocabulary word. Anything that would be useful for the student to do more of. I look specifically for craft moves. Using figurative language, intentional organization, etc.

This is where I try to respond to the piece as a reader. I ask what’s gonna happen next. I tell them what I’m curious about as a reader. What questions I have and what the piece makes me think about and feel.

Then I leave the student with one specific thing to do. Sometimes it’s as simple as “keep writing!” Other times it’s more targeted. “It looks like you’re ready to turn those stage directions into punctuated dialogue! Why don’t you review the dialogue punctuation handout I gave you on Monday?” This is where the direct object of teaching comes in. I’m teaching the students to do something besides just increasing their composition fluency.

On the best of days I can meet with around five kids per 42 minute class. After class I write down what I saw in each kid’s draft and what I told them to do. I’ve tried various documentation methods and this is what works best for me. The process of documenting a conference as it’s happening slows me down too much and breaks up the flow.

Students tell me that conferences help them improve as writers more than anything else we do in class. I never get to meet with every student during each assignment, but I do my best. Just like teaching, conferences are a messy dialogue between teacher and student, a challenging process that requires time, engagement, and reflection. But the juice is always worth the squeeze.


Beyond Work

“You just wait until that baby comes! Then we’ll see what happens to that routine you love so much!” 

When folks at my school found out my wife was pregnant, they had a lot to say. I was continuously befuddled by the amount of joy folks appeared to take in telling me how hard I would struggle. They know I need routine and structure to keep my life manageable. They also know I used to spend most of my free time tweaking lesson plans and spitballing different classroom activities.

The process of detaching myself from my workaholic identity has been progressing with predictable slowness. I use the term “workaholic” seriously. I’m addicted to the predictable rhythms of spending the majority of every day engrossed in the familiar world of lesson plans and education. Fridays used to be my favorite day of the week because it guaranteed hours of work at my computer unfettered by distractions. There’s also the perfectionist aspect. My brain remains convinced that the harder it works the fewer mistakes it’ll make.

My transition into a life defined by something more than work has three stages. Stage one is the initial uncoupling. This stage began when Joelle was born. Stage two is the replacement of what used to be work with new, family oriented activities. This is where I am now. This weekend, for example, I helped my wife look up activities that would accommodate a four month old infant who likes to eat and two adults who love to eat. I’m also trying to spend less time on work when I’m at home.

Stage two is the hardest stage for me to manage. Habits calcified over my lifetime will require more than a few weekend outings to break.

The final stage of my transformation will be the ability to gain physical, emotional, and spiritual sustenance from family oriented activities. To embrace the nourishment that my family provides. This is an almost impossible rewiring of my circuity because the life of a perfectionist revolves around outrunning failure, not pursuing joy. But every second I spend with baby and wife are incredible. This child is everything.

My desire to keep my child from inheriting this toxic work obsession is almost overwhelming. I will do everything in my power to make sure they won’t need their own three point plan for embracing themselves and those around them.

I’ve never wanted a work/life balance because work has been my life. It’s been the most important part of who I am and how I want others to see me. I just don’t possess the imaginative capacity to envision a life where work is anything other than everything yet. But it’s happening.

Back to School Night

My back to school night dread begins in August. The ecstatic joy that is the first few days of the school year is always tempered by the dismal knowledge that in a few weeks I’ll be staying at work until well past my octogenarian approved bedtime.

Rationally I know back to school night isn’t a big deal. It just comes at such a rotten time. It’s always crammed into the third week of school when teacher morale is in the dumpster. The euphoric mixture of adrenaline and dopamine characterizing the first ten days of school has been replaced by the sobering realities of overstuffed classrooms, soul crushing bureaucratic demands, and germs. So many germs. Luckily September’s cocktail of choice, a noxious mixture of convenience store coffee and generic Dayquil, keeps me wired enough to get through the gauntlet that hits the third thursday of every September.

The actual night itself is a blast. I love talking to families. Old students come by and stalk the halls like they own the place. Every now and then a student who I haven’t seen in years will pop their near unrecognizable head (the changes from puberty are no joke) into my room and chat for a few minutes. This year’s pop-in was especially memorable.

Many years ago, I taught a student who was fascinated with drawing, thinking about, and talking about animals. They would stop by to show off their most recent artistic creations. A hippo with the head of a capybara. Some multisyllabic dinosaur combined with the spots of a giraffe. And accompanying each image, of which there were many, would be an intensely detailed description of the animal’s biome, mutations, and evolutionary stages.

I was never particularly interested in animal science. It was the kid’s joy that kept me engaged. They were just so infatuated with this stuff that I couldn’t help but grin and follow along with every obscure detail. I don’t think it mattered too much what I said or did, just that I was there. They would plop down at a desk, open up their notebook, and let it rip.

And then they were gone. They graduated and that was it. Until last week when they stopped by to visit me before back to school night began.

It was a joyous reunion. Nothing had changed. We had barely finished shaking hands before they brandished their latest notebook and guided me through their most recent illustrations. They’d even brought some of their original drawings to show me how their artistry had evolved. They told me about a blog they’d been keeping where they chronicled many of their creations. And about the friends they’d made who shared their interests.

They could only stay for a few minutes, but that’s all we needed. The muscles in my cheeks ached from smiling. Every cell in my body was grinning. Theirs were too, I think. It was the perfect way to begin an evening of confronting the high stakes privilege that is teaching language arts to the hearts and minds of young people.

A few moments families began flowing into the room, jostling each other to find space in a room built to accommodate the physical proportions of 7th graders. I did my best to reveal who I was as a teacher. What I hoped to accomplish with their children and how I was going to do my best to help them grow.

The next morning, as I sipped my coffee and chugged my Dayquil, an email from that student appeared in my inbox asking if I could read and provide feedback for something they had written. It’s a story about a group of humans who hunt dragons with futuristic technology on a harsh planet. I can’t wait.

This is how you’re able to look your students in the eye and tell them you’re a writer.

This is how you begin. Anxiety wakes you up at 430 every morning. You sit in the darkness, paralyzed by the knowledge that any sound above a whisper is likely to alert the twelve week old baby in the bassinet next to the bed. Waking the baby tacks on at least fifteen minutes to your morning, meaning you won’t have time to meditate in your car.

This is how you get to work. Sometimes you listen to music, and sometimes talk radio keeps you company, but most of the time you just want quiet. The muscles surrounding your rib cage tighten. You forgot to add in sentence starters to the warm-up. You also forgot to read Alex’s story. You’ve had it open on your internet browser since the first day of school when he eagerly asked if you wanted to read it. I’ll do it this week! You’ll tell him. You said the same thing last week. You’ll turn away before seeing whether or not he looks disappointed.

Outside in the parking lot, you track your breathing in and out as a calming voice tells you to lean into your anxiety and observe it. You watch it bloom inside your chest and radiate out through your central nervous system. Your fingertips tingle.

It takes you fifteen minutes to unlock your door, micromanage the placement of your desks, and unload the small banquet you bring with you every day.

This is how you start off the school year. In these first weeks, you need to:
-introduce students to the myriad routines and structures employed in your class
-introduce students to each other and to you
-learn their names
-set the groundwork for a safe and democratic learning space
-manage conflicts that have remained from last year and spilled over from last summer
-manage students who are suffering from unseen trauma
-induce students to begin (or hopefully continue) a passionate love affair with literacy
-run students through the multiple tests required of them by the state/county
-keep students engaged because school can be incredibly boring and draining
-attend a stupefying amount of meetings

This level of planning takes time. So this is how you try to keep your ADHD in check to maximize your efficiency during the day. The sign posted over your classroom door requests that colleagues keep pop-ins to a minimum. You do this because keeping your mind focused is like fishing a broken egg shell out of a cooking mix. Your thoughts squirm around under your finger. The harder you press, the harder they are to grasp. And once you finally manage to dig them out, you can’t help but feel it wasn’t worth the effort.

Colleagues come in anyway. You don’t hold this against them. To teach is to operate in a state of continuous distraction. There are always forms to fill out, signatures to get, questions to answer, assignments to respond to, behaviors to redirect, counselors to badger, meetings to attend, and lessons to plan. Many of these tasks require other teachers, teachers who are being similarly drawn and quartered by bureaucratic errands.

This is how you play roulette with the tabs of your internet browser, spending a few minutes on whichever tab you land on.

Anxiety has a way of keeping every moment vital and alive. This is how you teach the same lesson five times a day.

This is how you decompress on the ride home from work. You try to lean into your anxiety without engaging it. Tomorrow is another chance.

This is how you compose your blog post. You scrawl jagged notes on every available surface throughout the day, forgetting to bring them home after work. You mentally compose paragraphs and draft framing devices, trying to figure out something to say as you sweat through one of the three exercise videos you try to complete every day after school.

You cut off your exercise video as soon as your wife leaves on a walk with the baby. Your work laptop boots on. You tab over to your email. Already a screen’s worth of messages from parents, facilities managers, education publishers, and colleagues. You’ll get to them first thing tomorrow morning.

You’re too sweaty for the furniture, and you’re too tired to get a towel. The floor suits you just fine. You crumple onto the rug, cradling your laptop on your sweat soaked knees. You have fifteen minutes.

This is how you continue to tell your students that you are a writer.


* This was inspired by Matt De La Pena’s How to Transform an Everyday, Ordinary Hoop Court into a Place of Higher Learning and You at the Podium

An Introduction to Teaching for Liberation

“If schools are ever to be truly “safe spaces,” we will need to build our capacity to defend each other. Whether from police, white supremacists, ICE agents, or climate disaster, this will require social justice work inside and outside the classroom. As we return to our schools this fall, we need to rededicate ourselves to building an education system and a society that values Black lives.” –editors of Rethinking Schools

This is the year I commit to becoming a social justice educator. Up until now, I’ve limited critical pedagogy in my middle school ELA classroom to two main approaches: (1) asking students to examine privilege and bias and (2) incorporating texts written by authors of color. Both of these approaches can be problematic.

While asking someone to examine their privilege is important, it can send the message that anti-racism work starts and stops at the inter-personal level. That if we think hard enough about our unearned advantages, our society will somehow rewrite itself into a more equitable form. Exposing students to marginalized authors and perspectives is also important. However it ignores the form and function of school. Asking students to read more authors of color doesn’t necessarily build spaces for students to critique and change the white supremacist nature of society.

So this year I’ll be going all in on a social justice curriculum. Social justice pedagogy is rooted in community, and relationships are key. I put together the following presentation to share this work to my colleagues and administrators. The ultimate purpose of the presentation is to solidify a shared commitment to liberation and vulnerable teaching. I lay out some of the basics underlying a social justice curriculum. Then I link it with the mission and value statements of my school and public school system. Lastly I provide some specific examples for a middle grades ELA classroom along with links to where those resources can be found.

Dear Joelle: Everything Will be Alright

I’ve posted the story of your birth. This is part 4. The first part can be found here, the second part here, and the third part here.

As far as I knew, being a new father meant parading down the hospital hallway flanked by friends and loaded with expensive cigars. It meant slaps on the back and shots of whiskey. My final moments in the hospital were far more stressful.

By noon, we had met with everyone and made all of the requisite pediatric appointments. All that was left was to get you into the car. All newborns are required to leave the hospital in a functional car seat. A wonderful coworker of mine helped me install the car seat, but I had forgotten to figure out how to actually use it. Bleary eyed and trembling from 48 hours of adrenaline and caffeine, I huddled over the seat, trying to figure out which parts to tug on, which parts to connect, and which parts needed to be threaded through which slots. Sweat sluiced down my face. I knew I had let Andrea down. Mercifully, a kind nurse offered to look up the manufacturer’s instructions online. Grateful for the break, I busied myself by transferring all of our stuff (which seemed to have multiplied) to the car.

A nurse slipped us a pacifier on the way down the hall and whispered conspiratorially that even though they weren’t recommended for newborns, the nurses typically let it slide for the inaugural trip to the car. Newborns don’t especially like being in car seats, she said, and pacifiers helped keep them (and us) calm for the ride home.

It was a typical hot and humid June in Arlington. The atmosphere was a soaked sponge. I don’t think I’ve ever driven as slow as I did that during that first ride home. Mommy sat in the back next to you while I cranked the AC and turned off the radio. By the time we got home, your mom and I were nothing more than sacks of raw nerve. She collapsed on the couch to cry while I took you on a tour of your new home. I showed you your bassinet, the kitchen, and my study. I broke down telling you how you would go to school and how you would wear a little backpack filled with pencils, notebooks, and crayons. I dropped to my knees and wept, your impossible lightness cradled against my shoulder.

Luckily for us, Gramps and Nana lived five minutes away. I’m not sure how we would have survived that first day home without their support. Gramps had been a nurse, so he knew exactly what to do. And Nana was an indefatigable source of kindness. They let us nap. They let us cry. Most importantly they let us know that everything was going to be okay.

The rest of that afternoon exists only as a fever dream. Your mother sobbing as you tried to latch while I sputtered words of encouragement from the sidelines. Me sprinting down the street to Rite Aid for medications and bottles and wipes. Neither of us ate supper that night. (By the time you read this I’m sure you’ll understand how big a deal this was)

Your mother and I were determined to get you accustomed to a nightly routine as quickly as possible. At 8:00 PM we turned off the lights, turned on the sound machine, and swaddled you for your dinner. I reached for a book to read to you while you fed. It was Every Little Thing, a children’s retelling of the classic Bob Marley song. Andrea and I alternated pages. The sound of the two of us I singing every page will be forever seared into my heart. No jokes about being off key. No worries about following the beat. Just the two of us reassuring each other (and you, of course) that everything was going to be alright. Maybe not that night, and maybe not for a while. But we loved you and were devoted to you. The three of us were going to be okay.

Post Script

This letter was written three weeks after your birth. Some things have gotten a little easier. You’ve tolerated your first bath, slept through your first restaurant, and barfed on pretty much every article of clothing we own. You’re learning to follow faces and wiggle from side to side. It’s amazing.

I’m telling you about all of this because it’s a chance to understand your parents and the family you were born into. I want you to know that anxiety is a part of our family’s constellation. So is humor, determination, and compassion. You will have your own struggles and we will be here for you every step of the way. I love you, Joelle, as does your mother and all of our friends and family. We can’t wait to see who you become.

Dear Joelle: Plummeting Back to Earth

Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be posting the story of your birth. This is part 3. The first part can be found here the second part here and the final part here.

With you now out in the world, I was positive that nothing would be the same. I quickly realized however that certain things never change. Seconds after your birth, my anxiety lacerated my euphoria, plummeting me back to the familiar world of worry. Your wails shredded my nervous system, keeping me on permanent edge.

This has nothing to do with you, by the way. The sound of an unexpected door opening  causes the same reaction. I’ve always been anxious and hyper-sensitive. This is something you will learn about your father before you even know the words to name it.

Nurses wheeled us into the Mother and Baby ward, an area of the hospital devoted exclusively to newborns. Exhausted parents in crumpled gowns and faded pajamas mingled with ecstatic grandparents. Your Nana, Gramps, and Auntie E. burst into the room to meet you. It was a new beginning for all of us. I wanted you to be the catalyst for an extended family centered around shared love and communal strength. Your mother and I would need every ounce of strength we could get.

The first night was relatively easy. You drifted in and out of sleep for pretty much the entire day. Your frequent wakings gave us ample opportunity to practice feeding you. For some reason, you struggled to latch onto your mother. We asked multiple nurses and lactation specialists to spend time with us teaching us how to hold, express, and burp you. You might have slurped down a few drops of colostrum, but for the most part you weren’t getting much. And you let us know by filling the room with your painful howls.

The ceaseless flow of tears coating your mom’s cheeks spoke to how traumatic this was for her. She felt like she was letting you down. That your struggle to latch was an indictment against who she was and who she would be as a new mother. Anxiety had long overtook elation as the dominant feeling in the room.

A revolving door of nurses checked your vitals on the hour, took your mom’s temperature, and ran us through the basics of diaper changing and swaddling. Every time they checked your temperature, you began crying, pushing me further into distress.

Up until now, we seemed to have been operating on an unspoken agreement to keep a brave face anytime someone was in the room. But as the evening rolled around, we could no longer keep our tears locked down. Every nurse who came in that night ended up soothing the two of us more than you. Although we didn’t want to admit it, we were afraid of you.

The nurses told us to wake you up every 2-3 hours for feeding, so I set up a sequence of alarms on my phone. By 11 PM I had disabled them. You seemed to cry every twenty minutes. Every time you cried, your mother and I shuffled over to your bassinet to fumble through your diapers and swaddles. Then Andrea would spend the next fifteen minutes attempting to feed you. We avoided eye contact because we were both felt so isolated in our shame. I finally gave up and asked a nurse to wheel you out of our room and into the nursery so we could get a few hours of sleep.

I woke up early the next morning. I didn’t know when the nurses would bring you back in, and I didn’t want to ask. I snuck downstairs to get some breakfast. The cafeteria was the only place to escape the paternal inadequacy haunting the hospital room. Wasn’t this supposed to be one of the happiest moments of my life? Shouldn’t I be awash in endorphins, distrustful of anyone and anything getting between me and my baby? Instead I cowered in the empty food court, counting down the time until my absence would have become conspicuous.

Luckily you slept throughout much of the second day.

You were wide awake for your first bath in the nursery, though. The area was filled with infant activity. We watched in wonder from behind glass as babies were shuttled back and forth between various washing, drying, and vaccination stations. I was thankful for the sound proofing provided by the windows. Your mother and I pressed our shoulders together and cooed at you as your tiny body was washed and dried with care. The nurses even added a makeshift bow to your standard hospital newborn cap.

You spent most of that final night crying, and we spent most of it trying to get you to latch. Your mother and I felt like failures. In the fluorescent night of the hospital room, we whispered in hushed tones whether or not we had just made a grave mistake. Our tears flowed together as we held each other. I ended up asking the nurses to take you to the nursery for a few hours again.

Tomorrow we would be heading home. We were barely surviving with the help of a fully staffed hospital. How would we make this work on our own?