How to be Present and Write with Your Students

I often find myself discussing why it is essential for us as educators to write alongside our students. For most English teachers, this is obvious, but that is usually not the group I am trying to persuade. And, for the purpose of this post, I want to target both teachers and administrators, regardless of what you currently teach or once taught. If we want students to think critically, then they need to write fluently, and we play a critical role in bringing that to fruition.

In a recent NCTE Twitter chat, Teacher as Writer, I had the great privilege to discuss the importance of educators taking the time to write. Finding time for writing is not easy. In a world that fights for our attention relentlessly, we are faced with an abundance of distractions: family, friends, children, spouse, Twitter, Facebook, TV (yes, it still exists), and a host of other media fighting to get your eyes and ears.

Still, this is something that people navigate, regardless of the distractions. During the chat, several suggestions were made on ways to find time to write, such as: writing early in the morning, writing late at night, scheduling time to write in your calendar, and simply honoring your writing  time and keeping it sacred.

So, with our ability to navigate social media, take care of family, our work obligations, and find time for fun, is time really the issue here? I would argue that it is less about time then it is about being present.

In order to write, to truly get your thoughts and ideas organized in a concise and comprehensive format, it takes a presence of mind. For that to happen, you must focus, turn off the notifications on your email, shut off your phone, and close all browser windows to those things that can distract you from the moment. It is our inability to stay present and focused that creates barriers to our creation process. This is true for our students as well, and it is exactly why I encourage educators, from teachers to administrators, to take the time and write with your students.

Our students are more socially connected than any generation before them. While this has both pros and cons, one fact remains, that their attention is split amongst several avenues. Yes, I see a bit of hypocrisy for placing the link there while I tell you to be present. I wonder how many people were able to continue reading without first checking out the link? Nevertheless, this makes being present for writing difficult. As educators, we must model what being present looks like. I can hear the laughter from some of you already. How do we model what we have difficulty doing ourselves, you ask? Great question. Think of this as an opportunity to become present, and at the same time become a role model for your students.

For those of you reading this who already take the time to write with your students, bravo! You are our models of excellence, and as such, it is your responsibility to make the circle wider. I suggest you reach out to a colleague, If you are an English teacher look to someone outside of your discipline. Invite your colleague to write with their students, or yours. Offer to help get them going. Invite your Principal or Assistant Principal to come in and write with your class. Tell them it is a great way to connect with kids, and is a great way to promote a community of writers.

If you are one of those educators who do not write with your students, make a conscious choice to do so this school year. I remember a Mathematics teacher who would have her students journal regularly about how they solved their equations. She told me that it gave her insight as to where they were going wrong, and why they made the moves they did. So don’t let your discipline slow you down, there is room for writing everywhere. If you teach a discipline that offers itself more easily to creating prose, then it is time you start. Maybe you can target just one class for next year, or one unit to get it going.

As for all you administrators, you’re not off the hook. Get into classrooms and write with your students. This is a tremendous opportunity that we often miss. Getting involved with a student’s education at the classroom level will help you create a deep connection with them. Also, you will provide even greater value to the lesson because, by allowing students to see that you are willing to struggle with an on demand prompt, you show you’re human. This display of vulnerability will create trust for teachers and students.

The NCTE Beliefs about the Teaching of Writing, states, “Everyone has the capacity to write, writing can be taught, and teachers can help students become better writers.” In order to build that capacity for your students and yourself, you have to not only dedicate the time that writing deserves, but you need to be present when you arrive. Writing alongside our students is a surefire way to practice being present, while building a positive culture around writing.

What do you do to remain present as a writer and in your daily life? Feel free to share your ideas in the comments below.

Six Ways to Create a Teaching Culture

In his recent book Creativity, INC. :Overcoming The Unseen Forces That Stand in The Way of True Inspiration, Pixar’s co-founder Ed Catmull discusses how leadership should promote a teaching culture. He states that “As Leaders we should think of ourselves as teachers and try to create companies in which teaching is seen as a valued way to contribute to the success of the whole” (Ch. 6). I see every stakeholder in the learning organization as a potential leader. Therefore, under such a premise, it is the responsibility of all the stakeholders in an organization to create a culture of teaching.

With that said, can you say that your learning organization supports a true teaching culture? Ask yourself the following questions: How often do your custodians visit classrooms to discuss with students how they troubleshoot maintenance issues? Do parents visit your school regularly to talk about their careers and help contextualize curriculum beyond the classroom? How about military personnel, firefighters, police, or town and state officials, are they a presence in your school, teaching students what they have learned through public service? Does staff have dedicated time to learn from one another, and teach each other their most valuable lessons and teaching techniques? Are students provided opportunities to learn from one another? If you answered no to any of the above questions, then there is a good chance you and your learning organization are missing out on an opportunity to create and foster a dynamic teaching culture.

Students’ success cannot rest solely on the backs of classroom teachers. Instead, it must rest on the learning organization as a whole. For this to happen, a culture of teaching must prevail. Ask yourself which “teachers” you and your learning organization take advantage of. I know as I read the questions above that neither my school, district, nor I take full advantage of all the possible opportunities.

I challenge you to identify opportunities that you can create for your students and yourself, then, make one of them happen. Here are a few suggestions to get your wheels turning:

  1. Send invitations to parents asking them to come in and speak to students about how your content is relevant in their careers. Have them Skype in and talk to the class if they can’t come to the class in person.
  2. Invite town officials for a panel discussion on public service. Ask them to discuss what skills they see as essential to public service in the future.
  3. Embed opportunities into the school schedule for students and staff to teach and share new ideas. If your schedule is fixed, try to make this happen once a month. The collaboration and learning that transpires will be worth the effort.
  4. Organize field trips to various worksites: construction, food service, laboratories, law firms, etc. Successful businesses want to talk to others about what they do. These are authentic teaching moments that students will not forget.
  5. Switch roles with a staff member. Let the physics teacher teach a music class and explain the physics behind beats. Bring a math teacher into a family and consumer science class create a budget for life after high school. Or, have an administrator take over your class for the day. The outcomes from these switches will not only help students create cross curricular connections, but will cultivate teaching amongst colleagues as well.
  6. Turn the classroom over to the students. Give them the tools to be successful, and then cut them loose to teach one another. Yes, there still needs to be a system of accountability, but this is less about us pouring knowledge into them, rather students doing the cognitive work required to get the knowledge they need to teach someone else.

Regardless of your position in education, investing in creating and fostering a teaching culture exponentially increases the learning opportunities for all stakeholders. We want our students to become independent learners, with the ability to navigate the learning landscape. In essence, they must be able to teach themselves. So what are you waiting for? Start that list, promote a teaching culture, and make teaching everyone’s responsibility.

Positive School Culture: Why Some Schools Have It and Some Schools Don’t

To describe culture is as elusive as asking someone to describe what a Yeti looks like. Depending on where you grew up, what stories you heard as a kid, or how many late night documentaries you watched, expect several different answers. All will be correct to the presenter, and rest to sure there will be similarities between each description.

The same is true when defining what a positive, successful school culture looks like, smells like, and sounds like. Depending on who is asked, and their experience, you can expect a myriad of explanations. Some good, some bad, but in the end, all representing the various shades of school culture. And, like our Yeti descriptions, there will be emerging common traits between them all.

I’ve had the pleasure, and some regret, to work in all types of school cultures. Schools where students were banging on the front doors at 6:30 AM, and still found in the building at 10:00 PM. Vibrant schools, those that once you stepped foot into the door you felt the energy, it was contagious, and you knew you were somewhere special. Student art and achievements plastered the walls, everyone greeted you with a smile and nod. Even the security guard made you feel welcomed. It’s like walking off of a soundproof subway car into grand central station. It is alive through its own fruition, and you want nothing more than to take it in and be a part of it.

On the other hand, there are the schools where five minutes before first period there is a flood of activity. Students meander in, find their way to class, sit down and reach for their phones in one full swoop. Teachers face the board, occasionally looking over their shoulders to great students. The walls are stark, institutional in appearance, just a different shade of any 1970’s government complex. There is an overwhelming sense that no one wants to be there, and you want nothing more than to get in, do what it is you have to do and get out. By 2:30 PM, the place is a ghost town.

So what contributes to one school feeling so welcoming and success driving, and the other feeling desperate and focused on the status quo? It is the people within them, their actions, or inactions, that set them apart. While there are always several factors at play that impact a school’s culture, I would argue that it is the choices made by the inhabitants of these schools, and the boundaries set and modeled by their leaders that define their culture.

This is the driving motivation behind this blog. To analyze and interpret the practices and behaviours that lead to positive, successful schools. I am excited to begin this journey, and I am eager to hear your voices along the way.