Book Review: Writing Redefined

I’ve long been exploring how we might expand notions of what writing is, and what composition is, for years, and so have many others, particularly those of us affiliated with the National Writing Project. More than ten years ago, a book I co-edited Teaching the New Writing centered on this topic.

Shawna Coppola and I have often interacted on Twitter, sometimes with our friend Troy Hicks as a connector thread, and so I was excited and interested to learn more about her new book Writing Redefined (Broadening Our Ideas on What It Means to Compose).

(Note of disclosure: Shawna sent me a copy of her book to review. I made and shared comics as I was reading her book).

In her book, as in her teaching practice, Shawna explores a lot of terrain, but in a thoughtful way that balances rigor and exploration, bringing her own experiences as a teacher and literacy coach into the mix, and the wealth of resource she shares via QR Code within the book is staggering, and sure to keep an interested teacher inspired. As I think about her book, I wonder even more than ever how we might use the moments of the Pandemic/stay home to bring more of these kinds of authentic writing ideas into our online spaces for students, to engage them in meaningful compositional strategies and projects.

Response Comic 2 (Writing Redefined)

Shawna effectively makes the case that by limiting “writing” to words on a page, as opposed to being part of a multi-modal multi-medium stew of visual, audio and more, we are limiting our students as writers, too. We’re asked to think about alphabetic forms of writing (essays, etc.) might form barriers to students who struggle with traditional writing, who might have language barriers, who might have cultural barriers (particularly those students from cultures with a focus on oral traditions), who have other strengths to bring into the writing classroom.

Comic Response 4 (Writing Redefined)

Each chapter digs deeper into topics, but I appreciated the last chapter, where she anticipates the many questions and concerns teachers might have about ‘redefining’ writing with a larger net. Shawna patiently counters six different concerns with thoughtful, helpful advice and considerations.

Comic Response 8 (Writing Redefined)

While she may not have broken new ground in her book, Shawna effectively frames the discussion on what it means to write in this modern, digital, visual and audio age, in a way that can reach classroom teachers knowing that the dichotomy for young people of “school writing” versus “non-school writing” is always evident, but not insurmountable. Shawna builds some bridges.

Response Comic 1 (Writing Redefined)

Peace (draw it sing it act it write it),

Teacher Reflections: What Worked/What Didn’t with Distance Learning

Distance Learning Pros Cons

I facilitated a workshop with colleagues the other day on using Google Classroom with students, but first, I brought us all into a collaborative document to write and reflect together on the previous three months of unanticipated Distance Learning. I was curious to know the pros and cons of our work now that we had a moment to take a breath together. The chart above gathers some main themes from what we wrote about, together. I suspect there might be some universal themes from teachers in other places.

Peace (gathering it together),

PS — And now this is all of us:

You Call This Summer?

Slice of Life: The Reverse Parade

One tradition at our elementary school on the last day of school is that the entire staff comes out to the front of the school and the buses with students drive around and around (and around) the bus loop so we can all wave goodbye and welcome everyone into summer.

Not this year, obviously.

But the principal wisely organized a Reverse Parade, in which we staff members lined up on both sides of the school parking area (with social distancing and masks on) as families drove cars with their kids to the school and slowly made their way across the grounds as we cheered and waved and shouted, “Have a good summer!” to each other.

There were more than 300 vehicles, I’d estimate (and maybe closer to 400) as the line stretched from the school parking lot way down the street. I guess we all need some closure to the school year, and for families, this was an “outing” and the “event” of the day, no doubt, as kids made elaborate signs to hold and car windows were painted with beautiful pictures and words.

I saw many of my sixth graders, maybe for the last time for a long time (as they move forward to the regional middle school). I felt a little sad, again, about not having proper closure with the class, as would normally happen. A wave through the window of a car is nice, but still lacked a finality to a school year.

Goodbye, School Year

Peace (rolling through slowly),

Slice of Life: Nearly Done Writing (for now)

A week from today, the school year for kids will be over (we teachers will still be doing a day of PD on remote learning to get ready for what’s likely coming next year). With wrap-up events happening this week as our students transition from our elementary school to the middle school, yesterday was our last day to meet with all of our sixth grade classes in Google Meet, for one final classroom session on the small screen.

I went over different things — a few scattered assignments still out and about to complete, where to bring borrowed novels and assigned textbooks to school, our upcoming Step Up Day ceremony, etc. — but I made sure I spoke of my deep and heartfelt appreciation for the writing they have done since we left school in mid-March, and how so many of them were able to persevere through hard work, and how they remained connected to us and to each other.

I encouraged them to find books they want to read this summer, and to take their eyeballs away from the screens. I reminded them of my regular urging as their writing teacher that they keep a writer’s journal of these times, for their own sake (to look back and remember) and for future generations, too. I talked of writing poems, of making games, of imagining stories, of organizing essays. I tried to cram a year’s worth of what writing was for us into a short video chat, and it was impossible.

I hope I left them with love.

When I asked how many were happy the year was finally ending, most raised their hands. When I asked how many were sad the year was ending, most raised their hands. Same here. Same here.

Peace (in transitions),

Drone Fly-By To Remember School By

Our school technology specialist (and all around geek) used his drone to make a short film of our elementary school — now vacant and quiet and empty — and the video he made is both intriguing for its view of the place but also sort of sad because of what it reminds us we’re missing as the school year is coming towards an ending (a week from Monday is our last day).

Peace (flying slowly over),

Slice of Life: I Can’t Read This Room

I took a breath before starting up my Monday series of video chats with my sixth graders. These are short sessions, with two offerings per week, for students to choose from. I’ve done some mini-lessons in the weeks at home with these video meets but mostly, I’ve used it as a check-in, pep talk, address questions kind-of-thing.

“If we were in the classroom, together, we would be talking about current events,” I tell my students, trying to read faces and body postures and feeling frustrated about how the video delays, spotty Internet connections, and small screens and faces-only visuals, not to mention the reluctance many still have of even engaging in conversation on the video, all stymied my approach.

I could have chosen to avoid this topic altogether. I could have but really, I could not. How can we?

“And there are events going on that you may have been following from Minneapolis and other cities,” I continue, noticing some nodding heads. One student quickly wrote “George Floyd” in the chat for everyone to see.  Another shared a sad emoji face. I pause, and acknowledge George Floyd’s name and then give an overview of what has been happening in cities across the country as a result, including nearby Boston (and later, I find, right in my small city, too, where the police station was the scene of a rally/protest and target of graffiti).

I connect what is happening now to our work earlier in the year in discussing race, civil rights, and systemic violence of the black community — particularly young black men — from our work with The Watsons Go to Birmingham 1963, and try to balance the news headlines of looting stores with the tenets of peaceful protest marches, as civic action against injustice being the heart and soul of our country. I avoid the president, despite the voice in my head, altogether, trying to keep the politics neutral.

Repeatedly, I open the floor up in the video for questions, and pose questions of inquiry. I receive some response, but mostly, not much. Just silence. Either they are reluctant to discuss difficult questions or engage in difficult dialogue via video, or they have not really been paying much attention to the news, or something else. (I refuse to believe it’s because they didn’t care). I could have (maybe should have) done some writing with them, but I wasn’t sure if they had enough context for that.

I could not read the room, despite my many years as a teacher, and this happened four different times with four different classes. I could not … read the room.

Yesterday, I disliked (hated, really, to be honest) this Distance Learning situation more than ever for the barriers it puts in front of me helping my students see the world through a larger lens, with context and compassion.

Seeing them there in little images, stuck inside my computer screen, isolated and maybe only seeing news through their social media applications, or if lucky, in discussions with parents, and here I was, a teacher they would often rely on to talk about these issues, feeling as inadequate as I have ever felt, trying to engage them in critically important issues, and seemingly failing in my efforts to do so.

Maybe they were thinking as they were listening, at least. Maybe that.

Peace (in frustration),

Adventures in AudioStory Creation: Risking It All For the King

Risking It All For the King

As my students were writing their own “Stuck Inside a Game” short stories over a few weeks time in our distance learning adventures, I was recording an audiobook of my own story: Risking It All For The King. I’d been sharing each episode as I recorded them but then gathered all SEVEN episodes in one place, in order from start to finish. It was fun to layer sound effects in with voice for an extended story. This was fairly new to me.

Peace (in story),

For Virtual Field Day: Making Stopmotion Movies

Our elementary school is taking a break from academics this week (we have three weeks to go until the end of the year) and doing all sorts of Wellness/Health/Arts activities. I think families, kids and teachers all needed a little mental health reprieve, a quick breather before the rush of the end of this strange school year is upon us.

Since we can’t have our usual Field Day of group activities throughout our school grounds, the specialist teachers designed a Virtual Field Day project, and invited classroom teachers to submit videos as inspiration to be active and creative for families. I decided to invite kids to make stop-motion movies, and made the video above as my way to introduce and invite movie making to happen.

Peace (frame by frame by frame),

Slice of Life: The End of Days

The title of this post is a little click bait-y. Sorry.

The other day, I received in the mail a copy of a new book by my writing project colleague, Michael Silverstone and his writing partner, Debbie Zacarian. It’s entitled Teaching to Empower.

Michael sent me a copy of the book because I was one of many teachers Debbie and Michael reached out for vignettes from the classroom, around the theme of student or teacher empowerment, and I had forgotten most of what I had written.

So, I thumbed through the book and found my piece. In it, I had focused on our video game design unit, and how I entered into the world of game design, as a way to help students engage with technology and writing, after overhearing so many discussions about gaming, at the end of the school days, while waiting for the bus.

In fact, I’ve written many small pieces over the years about that particular period of the school day, of just waiting around, of boredom being interrupted by some interesting question or thought, of aimless chatter, or of how a line of discussion that starts one place and ends in another — all as we waited for the dismissal announcements over the loudspeaker.

Of all the things I’m missing now in the Social Distancing era, this end-of-days bus-waiting time (See? I told you the phrase would makes sense) doesn’t quite rank at the top of my worries, yet it’s emblematic of a periodic realization: I don’t quite know my students anymore. We’re in our tenth week of learning and teaching from home.

Honesty, I don’t really know how they are doing, other than how they look for a stretch of time on the screen. I try to read eyes, and gestures, and smiles, but the screens interfere with those moments. The technology masks the humanity. I don’t really know what’s shaking up their lives or what’s the newest, best, most exciting thing happening to them.

I’m in touch, but I’ve lost touch.

My piece in Michael and Debbie’s book reminded of this because it was such a celebratory moment of how eavesdropping in on student conversations helped me rethink the way I was teaching, and then guided me into some curriculum changes that made a huge difference for so many students (particularly my struggling writers).

I end the vignette with the idea of standing there, in the classroom, waiting, listening back in, with the reminder that you never know what you’ll hear if you don’t take the chance to listen. That seems quaint now, and so out of touch with the times. So it goes.

Peace (what we hear),