When Teaching Narrative, Go Realistic Instead of Personal

Personal narratives are a staple of the secondary English curriculum. I love writing about myself, so why shouldn’t my students? Typically I would push the kids to mine their past for meaningful moments. Students understood this to mean write about something painful. I even had the audacity to get upset anytime students pushed back. This is what writing’s about! I would thunder. It’s not really, though. Or at least it doesn’t have to be. It certainly shouldn’t be for every student.

This year I switched from personal to realistic narratives. I decided it was inappropriate to continue to enact a pedagogy of disclosure. Pedagogies of disclosure require students to relive potentially traumatic experiences AND hold them up for critical feedback from teacher and peer. I had to take a step back, remind myself that I’m an English teacher, and that stories are about windows and mirrors. Vehicles through which we find out we’re not alone and that our lives carry significance.

Realistic narratives can do all that. We brainstormed various protagonists, motivations, obstacles, and settings. We used stage directions and acted out dialogue. There was feedback, revision, and editing. All the typical personal narrative skills without any of the icky required disclosure stuff.

My favorite part was tinkering with made-up details that served the piece without setting off the reader’s BS alarm. I told students that realistic narratives allowed writers to shape their past into whatever they wanted. There was capital T Truth (your airtight memory), little t truth (a detail that might not have been exactly right but served the same purpose), and fabrication.

This genre-bending challenged most of my students, and understandably so. Molding raw experience and trenchant observation into purposeful prose takes decades to master.

As always, I wrote alongside them. I chose one of my few middle school memories: an 8th grade party. I delighted in asking them to guess which parts of my narrative were fictional. I included my realistic narrative below. It’s pretty melodramatic, and it’s obviously the work of an amateur. I wasn’t even able to “finish” it. But that’s part of the challenge (and elation) of writing alongside your students. It knocks you off of your pedestal and humbles you before the power of the word, the story, and the audience.

I can’t wait to try this again next year, this time with an emphasis on fabricating and borrowing details. The unit was a success and students reported a high level of enjoyment. Next time you reach for your memoir or personal narrative lessons, consider shifting towards realistic.

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Title: Only in Dreams

Colorful holiday lights hung from the ceiling, casting a warm glow over the room. Red, pink, green, and blue reflected off of our faces as my friends and I alternated between talking in groups, chugging soda, and chomping on chips and pizza. We were all in Cheryl’s basement. She lived in a giant house in the country club hills neighborhood of Arlington. Her parents popped downstairs every 30 minutes or so to check in on us and make sure everything was going well.

I had been dying to ask Alicia to dance the entire night. It was the party for our 8th grade graduation, and this would be my last chance. She stood across the room disappearing in and out of a group of her closest friends. Alicia was about my height. She had an athletic frame from years of playing travel soccer. She was everything I was not. Sarcastic, quick witted, responsible, and decisive. Her ability to talk trash was legendary. No one dared to try and roast her.  I would catch flashes of her dirty blonde hair as she laughed and danced with her friends.

It was one of those moments when you’re trying not to stare at someone, but that somehow makes you stare at them even more. And everytime our eyes locked, my palms itched and my scalp tingled and my heart threatened to jump out of my throat. Every time I tried to approach her, something would happen. A rock song would come on and my buddy Jeff would tackle me. Or two kids would start roasting each other and everyone would crowd around them to watch.

Time was running out. The party ended at 9, and it was already 8:35. Cheryl’s mom had come downstairs and recruited people to move to start picking up. At 8:40 the main basement lights came back on, killing the vibe. I didn’t know what to do.

Peter: (Moping on the floor, sounding rejected) It’s almost over and I still haven’t asked her to dance!

Jeff: (Punching Peter on the shoulder. Speaking with confidence) Just get up and do it. She’s right over there. Come on, man!

Peter: (Stuttering his words) It’s not that easy for me. Girls love you. I’m, well, me.

Jeff: (laughing) Yea. Not gonna lie; that’s true.

Peter: (whispering quickly) Dude she’s coming over!

Jeff: Go on, get up! (Trying to push Peter up)

Alicia: (Walks over confidently. Sticks out her hand) Okay. Come on.

Peter: (face flushing, looking at Jeff who suddenly jumps up and leaves to get some soda) Wait, what? I mean… what?

Alicia: (Sighing) Don’t you want to dance? (Looking over at her friends) Everyone told me you did.

Peter: (Looks over at Jeff by the drink table)

Jeff: (Nods enthusiastically)

Peter: (Nervously) Okay (takes her hand)

I looked back at Jeff as she dragged me into the middle of the room with surprising force. The opening bass riff from Weezer’s “Only In Dreams” started to ooze out of the speakers.  

I didn’t know exactly what to do, and neither did she. She rested her hands on my shoulders and the two of us started to rock awkwardly back and forth. My palms heated up like I was holding onto an exploding star. Strawberry perfume floated up as I felt her place her cheek on my shoulder. Jeff snuck around behind her and started making faces to try and get me to laugh. It worked. Alicia whipped her head up and stared at me. “Jeff’s doing something dumb, isn’t he?” She said.

“Yup!” I replied.

“You guys are idiots,” she smiled. “So where are you going to high school?”

“Yorktown,” I said. “Aren’t you going to some private school in Georgetown, or something?” I knew exactly where she was going, but this would keep her talking.

“Yea. Sidwell Friends. I’m actually pretty excited. They have an awesome girls soccer team.”

“Thanks for asking me to dance,” I whispered.

She tucked a strand of her behind her ear and smiled. “I’m glad we got to do this,” she said.

For the next two and a half minutes, the only thing that mattered was the two of us swaying gently in time to the music. She kept her head on my shoulder and I kept myself from stepping on her toes.

Before the song could end, Cheryl’s mom hollered down into basement that my mom was there to pick me up. I said goodbye to Alicia, Jeff, and my other friends before bolting up the stairs. On Monday at school, Alicia and I said “hi” a few times, but that was it. It was almost like the dance had never happened. A few days later we went our separate ways to different high schools. We ran in different crowds and I never saw or heard about her again.

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Try Writing with Your Students

Teaching students how to write is really hard. Students need direct instruction, engaging “real world” models, time to write and revise, an audience they care about, and assignments that appeal to them. Even on the best of days when we’ve somehow managed to tick off all of these boxes, we still have to wrangle with the morass of hormones and developmentally appropriate inattention that is the hallmark of a middle schooler.

Like most teachers, I’m constantly swapping out new (and old) writing pedagogies in search of anything that will get my students excited about their writing. But no matter what instructional methods I’m trying out, one tool remains consistent: writing alongside my students. I don’t mean cobbling something together to offer as a finished product to emulate, but actually getting down into the trenches sweating it out word for word with them on every assignment.

This does a few things.  It helps me treat writing seriously and unseriously. Both perspectives are necessary for a writer.  It’s also a quick way to find out whether or not an assignment sucks. Working on a piece of writing alongside my students helps me see the nuts and bolts of the assignment. The more I do it, the better I become at predicting where the sticking points will be. Which areas I can gloss over and which skills will require a deep dive. It gives me a chance to demystify the writing process and show students just show much work goes into crafting something even semi-coherent.

When I write with my students, I send the message that what we’re doing in the classroom is worthy of serious time and effort. And that we’re in it together. The feedback goes both ways.

The call for teachers to write with their students is nothing new. A debate about the efficacy of writing alongside students raged across the pages of NCTE’s English Journal in the nineties when high school teacher Karen Jost argued that the time it takes for teachers to write is better spent conferring with students. Teachers already have too much to do, she explained. The demand that teachers of writing now themselves should be writing smacked as yet another example of teachers being told what to do by supposed thought leaders who hadn’t stepped foot in an average classroom in years.

In many ways Jost wasn’t wrong. There is no time. It’s impossible for me to do everything I’m supposed to do. Every day is a series of cost/benefit decisions. I get one 45 minute planning period unmolested by meetings a day. Do I spend it in an IEP meeting that will surely go into my lunch break? Or do I use that time to provide written feedback on student writing? But if I do either of those, I won’t be able to finally meet with that student who has been writing about how bad his depression has gotten. I also need to check in with the counselor about a student’s math placement and think ahead to tomorrow’s lesson. Few of my options deal directly with classroom instruction and the Herculean task of growing readers and writers. So I understand why asking teachers to begin writing with their students seems like just another task.

But that the decision to write alongside our students isn’t a binary choice. It’s more of a stance we take towards curriculum, instruction, and our place inbetween. A teacher as writer stance connects us with the art and science of writing in a way that no rubric or exemplar ever could. It’s the best way to learn that a piece of writing’s center of gravity changes multiple times throughout the writing process. Or that no matter how hard an author wrestles with a piece, sometimes it just doesn’t work out.

To get started, consider one place you can write with your students. A brainstorming session for an upcoming essay or poem, for instance. The good thing about students not being used to their teachers writing is that they won’t call you out if you don’t follow through on it.

Writing alongside your students will fundamentally alter your relationship with what you teach, how you teach it, and how you relate to students. And as this relationship begins to shift, so will your relationship to the writing instruction that’s going on around you. You will (re)connect with the transformative potential of literacy and the power of words to bind us together. It’s a way to come home to a profession that seems so bent on throwing up hurdles between what we do and why we do it.

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.