What I Learned from Poetry

“…But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.” -from Toni Morrison’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech, December 7, 1993

At the beginning of the pandemic, I felt largely paralyzed. Information from district leaders came quickly, but when stirred into the confusing, uncertain swell of things erupting on the news and social media, it became like the sound and fury that signify nothing. Because I felt so immobilized, I leaned in to administrative conversations about how school would go on via remote learning, and the imperatives to communicate with children and families to know they were safe. However, I couldn’t wrap my mind around everything that was happening. For the most part, I stayed in my classroom during that first week, trying to remain calm while wading through the massive amount of messages and directives and expectations. No one knew what they were doing and the locus of control had been removed. I was as though everything stayed locked inside me and I had forgotten how to exhale.

My inbox flooded with resources and ideas from various organizations, offering extraordinary resources for extraordinary times. One organization, whose income is based on standardization and progress monitoring, promised ease and celebration with their product, as though students would joyfully answer multiple choice questions about texts and word meanings. The email was punctuated with jubilant exclamation points, but the thought of students working at home on something that really didn’t matter sickened me. The email’s sentiment, I’m sure, was built on hopefulness, but I didn’t feel it. Still, no exhale. 

The universe must have sensed my emotional detachment. During the first week of remote instruction, an email from poets.org caught my attention. The “Teach this Poem” feature on the website is remarkable, and many times, while trying to find the right poem to share with students, the “right one” would serendipitously land in my email. Early in my teaching life, I presented poems to students as containers of hidden meanings, figurative language, and extensions of the writer’s biography. What I egregiously missed was the essence of the poem— the microcosm of the world it represented, the push beyond the ostensible it gave. The poet had gathered words in reverence of an idea, and nudged us, the readers, to dig beneath the surface of it. 

Several years ago, I spoke with my close friend and writing mentor Julie about my interpretation of a poem. She listened to my lengthy explanations, and after I finished, she smiled and leaned over her desk toward me. “Spend several hours with this poem, Travis,” she said. “You’ll know more then than you know now.” 

So I did. 

I spent time lingering over passages, writing lines in my notebook and letting them lead my thinking, and re-reading poems multiple times in one sitting to hear the pauses, stresses, and word meanings. I listened to the writing and noticed something remarkable. With hand outstretched, the poet was offering an amalgam of ideas, hoping I would lend an ear. 

When I understood this idea more clearly, I adjusted the way I approached poetry in my classroom. I didn’t teach poems to students anymore; instead, they taught us. When questions came up in class or we, as a community, needed to explore an issue further, we turned to poetry to guide our thinking. We sought to unpack what poems taught us about people and the world we live in. We spent time thinking beside words— gathering them, discussing multiple meanings, exploring big ideas, and connecting those big ideas to the other books, poems, and essays we had read. It was in this spirit of reading, thinking, and feeling that my students and I had parted ways in mid-March, and it was on my mind when I opened the email from poets.org.

Richard Blanco’s “Election Year” unfolded on the screen. I was familiar with his work. In 2013, I attended Barack Obama’s second inauguration, and toward the end of the ceremony, amidst the icy air, Blanco’s resonant voice spliced the cold and effected a blessing of hope and warmth. In “Election Year,” I recognized his gentle voice again. Using images of gardens, he immersed me in a world of colors and blossoms. The poem’s speaker, a worrier it seems, lies awake at night, distraught over vines and weeds that choke his beautiful arrangements. But, Blanco writes, is it really the flowers and vines that create the worry, or is it something deeper, something below the surface that the garden is only a mask for? 

As we waded further into the shutdown, every conversation, directive, list of expectations, either given in person or sent through email, felt like a garden of worry. The gardener couldn’t control surrounding circumstances, but the flowers and weeds were within his locus of control. Administratively, it felt as though we were doing the same thing. We couldn’t control what was happening to our world, but we could obsess over minutiae, over what clothes to wear during Zoom classes, what meetings we had to attend, what constituted “work,” and when our work day would begin and end. The more I read Blanco’s poem, the more I recognized my own struggle with control, and how now, amidst an uncontrollable situation, I was learning to recognize the substitutions I made for things I could no longer control. I stared at Blanco’s poem for what felt like hours, and resolutely, after reading the lines again and again, I understood that now was the time for poetry. And I finally felt the edges of an exhale. 

When we resumed “class” via remote teaching and learning, I asked if they felt studying poetry was acceptable. So many of them had found solace in poetry. When we gathered in the sacred circle— our meeting place for mini-lessons and class meetings— we consistently read and discussed poetry. Could we spend time beside poetry during this time? They agreed, or, they were willing to try, at least.  

After reading and discussing Quincey Troupe’s “Flying Kites,” we borrowed the opening phrases from the two stanzas of the poem to structure our writing, an idea I saw from Carol Jago.  Using “we used to…” and “now we…”, we wrote something that used to happen and how that contrasts with what we now do. We gathered our finished poems on a Padlet. If they didn’t want to share with the class, they were welcome to submit their work privately, but most of them were eager to post on the Padlet. In their writing, I could hear them wrestling with the complexity of our times. Some of them wrote about the change from face-to-face to remote learning; others wrote about changes in their friendships and family. This did, however, give us a space to share thinking. We couldn’t be together to share our words, but we could share them in a small, virtual space. 

Next, we talked about odes. We read Pablo Neruda’s “Ode to a Large Tuna in the Market” and discussed “the point.” I talked with them about how ordinary things have beauty, and how, as my friend Christina Nosek told me, they have the power to connect us to other people. When we write odes, we are celebrating an object, an idea, or on occasion, another human being. I challenged them to write about something ordinary, using Neruda’s text and my personal example as mentors. When they turned in their pieces, I read of special blankets, stuffed animals, action figures, photographs, musicians, and nature. When he submitted his work, Aiden explained how writing about an ordinary thing— his football helmet—  made him appreciate it even more. Could this be another way to exhale?  

I never ceased to be amazed at my students’ writing. We read poems from Rudy Francisco, Maya Angelou, and Frank X. Walker. One week, we spent time beside Francisco Alarcón’s poem “Words are Birds” to discuss metaphor. I told them they could use the phrase “words are…” as a starter for their poem, and I gave them options just to get them thinking. If they wanted to create a completely different metaphor, that was acceptable. Students wrote how words are football games, flowers, blades of grass, and songs, just to name a few. These would be some of the poems I would carry with me as mentor texts as I worked with students during independent writing time. Their gorgeous words moved me. 

As I sit beside these ideas, I’ll be honest: I haven’t fully exhaled yet. Like others, I still worry and question. But poetry continues to offer comfort and beauty. I save poems, print them, paste them in my notebook, and write to find deeper meaning— in the poem and in myself. Every time I share a poem with students or read one they write, I lift another layer of poetry’s resilient skin and see something new. Not long ago, my dear friend Jennifer LaGarde sent me a link to Marie Howe’s “What the Living Do.” I must have read that poem over twenty times in one sitting, reading and re-reading, and seeing something different each time. That, I suppose, is what poetry really did teach me. It’s not, necessarily, that poems have multiple meanings or can be interpreted differently. It’s that these small vehicles of ideas are charged with exceptionality, that in being ordinary they become extraordinary. It may be about a blanket or stuffed animal, but the more you read it, the more you connect to it. Ordinary things have extraordinary power. They can ground us when the world feels turbulent and out of control. 

When thinking about Morrison’s quote from her Nobel Prize acceptance speech, I am left wondering: How does one do language? Write? Speak? Read? Interpret? I’d say yes. And I’m courageous enough to believe that poetry is one of the most beautiful ways to do language. Because while we read it, write it, speak it, and seek to interpret it, we are examining the very essence of who we are, what we know, and what we value. 

Poetry has helped me reconnect with the ordinary and see it for the extraordinary it is. It’s also helped me begin to feel, to connect again. As I’ve listened to others speak about their feelings and uncertainties, I’ve recognized the same reverence of words, and, in many cases, of poetry. Wisdom lingers inside of poems, reaching out, beckoning, singing to us in songs and rhythms that nudge us, compel us. By doing language, we become part of the fabric of humanity. 

Poetry gives and gives. But you know what? 

It’s always willing to give more.

 

Whole-Class Novels: An Incredible Journey

In the introduction to Seeking Diversity (1991), Linda Rief wrote: 

“I am not the same person who started teaching ten years ago.  My classroom this year is very different from the way it was last year. I expect that—I want that. Several things have changed my thinking about what teaching and learning are all about” (1). 

When I read this professional text for the first time, I was at a point in my teaching life where I was seeking diversity— different instructional moves and texts that would move students to read, write, and think. Up until that point, I had taught a very traditional English curriculum. 

We read the same texts at the same time. 

I administered writing tasks. 

Then students responded. 

With literary essays, I provided choice, but it was within an incredibly narrow scope. When we studied texts, I provided essay options, but outside of those analytical essays, no other opportunities for writing existed. Motivation to read and to write came from my gradebook. Even students who demonstrated a desire to perform well lost their drive. When they wrote about literature, their writing lacked voice and passion. When I called on them to answer questions, they told me they weren’t paying attention because the story we were reading was of no interest to them. It hurt, but by the end of each school year, I was bored, too. As we trudged across literary landscapes, meaning and purpose abandoned us. 

After eight years of teaching this way, I was hungry for change. Adjustments were necessary, but I couldn’t change reading and writing instruction at the same time. So, I decided to start with the reading piece. 

Independent reading and the development of a reading identity were elements that I had denied my students. While I toiled away at unpacking texts for them (not with them, mind you), their reading lives were languishing because of my ill practice. I turned to professional texts, such as Book Love, Teaching Reading in Middle School, and The Book Whisperer, and after reading tons of research about the power of independent reading, I decided to focus my energy on helping students build reading lives— or develop the reading lives they already had. 

The following year, I relinquished my control of the classwide canon and invited kids to find the reading that mattered to them. Across that year I witnessed a transformation— they were reading because they had skill and drive, and all of that research I had read was actually, well, accurate. I read books aloud to them, book talked tons of intriguing titles, and with the help of my dear friend, Jennifer LaGarde, I built a diverse classroom library, one that is still growing. Book love flourished in my classroom. 

For several years thereafter, I avoided whole-class novel studies. Sure, we read things together, like poems and articles and essays, but I kept novels at a distance, remembering the sludge of class conversation and the slow, painful move through books. But then, after several years of free-choice independent reading, something strange happened. I can’t pinpoint the exact moment, but I realized how much I missed reading books with my kids. 

The ideas we generated about poems and short fiction made me reminisce about the daily connections we made to longer works of literature. I loved meeting with my kids during independent reading and listening to them talk about their books. They were reading and enjoying and talking and listening and writing. And it was all related to their books. Kids craved independent reading time. They begged for it. When I had to cut the time short to catch up on an activity, they savored the final seconds of their books before begrudgingly sliding their bookmarks into place and moving forward with me. On standardized assessments, students excelled. Daily reading time, a sustained attention on one text, and the selection of increasingly complex texts deepened their comprehension. The love of literacy was almost palpable in my class. So what exactly did I miss? 

Around this time, I read Kate Roberts’s A Novel Approach. I suppose I could blame the whole thing on her. Her book, a gorgeous text filled with ways to teach and to engage students with whole-class novels, intersected with my own wistfulness. My journey felt much like hers. I, too, missed the touchstone that shared books created across the year. Students used “Stay gold…” in poem responses, essays, and even yearbook inscriptions. Several students dubbed one young man “Demetrius” because of his vociferous adoration of another student in our class. These references were our inside jokes, and they were moments that bound us together as a community of learners. 

I also missed, as Kelly Gallagher mentioned in Deeper Reading, the many minds that add to conversation when we read a book together. Independent reading is non-negotiable in my classroom, but they are interpreting the book independently. Book clubs are beautiful additions to any classroom, but even then, the group is smaller. Larger groups have more options for interpretation, and while it too has its limitations, there is great power in the collective thinking generated during class discussion. 

So I decided to try whole-class novels again. 

Several professional voices were my muses. Kate’s book was my solid foundation. She suggested that teachers identify a focus for the reading, such as studying craft moves or theme, and not, as Billy Collins wrote, tying the book to chair and beating a confession out of it. She also advised that stretching the book study across too many weeks drains the study of its power. By that point, students would give up or lose interest. I know I did when I was in school. Studying the book across just a few weeks and handing some of the reading responsibility over to them is a much better option. Coming together to read certain chapters, especially ones that may have complex structure, unfamiliar syntax, or challenging vocabulary, helps students further unpack meaning.

I also heard my dear friend Kylene Beers’s warm voice. It may have been a Facebook post or something she said to me in conversation, but ultimately it was this: Different people have different needs when it comes to whole-class reading. Some people prefer to take their time and read across several days or weeks, while others would prefer to read it in one sitting. Awareness of these preferences is essential when planning to read a whole-class book. With these structures in mind, I stepped out in faith and committed to a whole-class book study. 

With my 7th graders, I decided to read Linda Sue Park’s A Long Walk to Water. Since we were studying craft moves in nonfiction writing, I felt this would be a good lens through which to read the book. It’s difficult not to read a book and discuss big ideas, people, and the things we learn from reading it, but with our book study, I worked hard not to “English teacher” the story. I created an organizer for them to collect craft moves they noticed and briefly explain how they affected the text, i.e. what they helped them do or see or experience as a reader. Some of the chapters they read independently; some of them we read together. My close mentor, Laura Robb, suggested asking students to choose a sentence or two that stood out to them. I periodically gave them time to comb back through chapters and find those sentences, write them in their notebooks, and reflect about why they chose those sentences. Following Carol Jago’s example in Classics in the Classroom, I used higher-level vocabulary to explore character and problem in the text. I gave them the words dispossessed, noble, humane, and despondent, and every so often, we used those words to write about the people we encountered in the book. I loved hearing students use these words when they discussed craft moves, such as descriptions or analogies. After two weeks, we finished reading and are now analyzing the craft moves we collected— what we notice and how might we move Park’s craft into our own writing. I’m loving the conversations we’re having. 

But here’s the rub: I’m still not settled about using whole-class texts because, in my opinion, complexity surrounds the choice to use them. Using them because we’ve always used them is never a good reason, but avoiding them for fear of ruining them may not be wise either. I’m beginning to feel that wrestling with the question of using or not using whole-class novels is where the real power is. Arriving at that intersection and posing that question to ourselves helps us begin to unpack our own reasons for reading books beside students. And that’s the place I want to stay. 

Linda Rief’s words, mentioned in the quote at the beginning of this piece, have stuck with me all these years. I do not want to be the same teacher year after year. I want, no, I need to keep wrestling with questions about reading instruction. I abandoned using whole-class novels for fear I would ruin good literature for kids. But I believe that with the right structure, kids can read and engage with all types of books. Showing them strategies, such as think-alouds, that will help them understand complex texts allows them to become intrepid readers, ones who are not discouraged by challenging reading. In the end, that’s the most important thing. 

Them. 

The students. 

As I write this final paragraph, questions about the efficacy of whole-class texts are still swirling in my mind. I don’t know what your journey has been like, but mine has been worthwhile. Incredible, even. As I look forward to the rest of this school year, I see the possibility of another whole-class novel study, and if the experience moves me, I may write about it, too. Who knows what the experience will bring? I do know this, however: I will still wrestle with the question of efficacy, and I am certain that doing so will benefit all of us in my classroom. 

And it will help me understand the best ways to engage students in thinking and reflecting about reading. 

 

References

Gallagher, K. (2002). Deeper Reading: Comprehending Challenging

Texts, 4-12. Stenhouse. 

Jago, C. (2004). Classics in the Classroom: Designing Accessible Literature Lessons.

Heinemann.

Kittle, Penny. (2012). Book Love: Developing Depth, Stamina, and Passion in 

Adolescent Readers. Heinemann. 

Miller, Donalyn. (2009). The Book Whisperer: Awakening the Inner Reader in Every 

Child. Jossey-Bass.  

Rief, Linda. (1991). Seeking Diversity: Language Arts with Adolescents. Heinemann. 

Robb, Laura. (2000). Teaching Reading in Middle School: A Strategic Approach to 

Teaching Reading that Improves Comprehension and Thinking. Scholastic.

Roberts, Kate. (2018). A Novel Approach: Whole-Class Novels, Student-Centered 

Teaching, and Choice. Heinemann.

 

Want to read more of my work? My book, Reflective Readers: The Power of Reader’s Notebooks is now available on Amazon! Interested in my earlier collaborative writing? Check out Sparks in the Dark, available on Amazon as well!

The Pull of What You Love

“Let yourself be silently drawn by the strange pull of what you really love. It will not lead you astray.” ~Rumi 

Until this school year, I had never tried to implement a true writer’s workshop. When I think of a writing workshop, I imagine an environment where students are writing about self-selected topics in a genre they feel is most appropriate. Audience and vision add contour to the writing, giving shape and purpose to the craft. Students in my class did choose their own writing topics, but they were limited by the type of writing we were studying at the time. When we studied narrative, I asked them to write narratives. When we studied argument, I asked them to write arguments. Relinquishing the control I had over their writing lives frightened me, and although writing workshop philosophy compelled me, I struggled to piece it together in my mind. 

Reading workshop seemed to flow naturally in my classroom. The remarkable shifts in students’ attitudes toward reading were enough to convince me that free choice independent reading was powerful. Choice reading moved kids into more challenging reading and deeper reflection. Prior to reading workshop, we read several whole-class texts together and students wrote a research paper in response to one of those texts, but I never emphasized the development of a reading and writing life. The workshop approach galvanized my teaching—now, I felt like I was accomplishing something. Students were reading. They knew books. They understood genre. And instead of trudging through books, we were exploring story, poetry, and ideas. 

With writing workshop, though, I treaded lightly. Free choice independent reading worked well, but free choice independent writing gave me anxiety. Around this time, I was re-reading Nancie Atwell’s In the Middle, and digging back into Linda Rief’s Read Write Teach. Lucy Calkins’s The Art of Teaching Writing and Lessons from a Child remained on my office desk, and every time I sat down to write, a deadline looming over me, I wound up reading one of these books instead of writing. In their books, I read about students crafting story, studying mentor texts, and belonging to a community of writers. The student samples included in these professional texts were complex and engaging—these students weren’t just writing to fulfill an assignment; they were writing because a story was thumping inside their hearts, and they wanted to let it spill onto the page. They not only chose their own topics, but they also chose the genre in which they wrote. While one student wrote an essay, another student might be writing a poem. And because they were choosing their own genre, a different sort of light emanated from their writing. I imagined a classroom where students wrote from experience and crafted purposefully in a variety of genres and for specific audiences, drawn by the pull of what they love. These professional voices proved that such a classroom could exist. This was what I wanted. But how?

One of the most important lessons I’ve learned from listening to leaders in my field is this: If I want to move students as readers and writers, I have to unpack my reading and writing process to help them generate ideas about their own. This past summer, I started writing about my hopes for student writers, but each time I sat down with my notebook, worry crept to the edges of my thinking and made me question my intentions. Where would students get their ideas? What if they couldn’t find something to write about? What if I couldn’t handle the volume of pieces they submitted and provide enough feedback to each student? These questions were still on my mind when I started school in late August. Several days into the school year, I launched the writing workshop with the intention of teaching it in the spirit of those pioneers who realized that students would write, if we let them. 

It wasn’t always easy. Things were a bit wobbly at first. Many students were used to being told what to write. When they were responsible for generating the writing, the task became more challenging. They weren’t writing in response to a prompt; instead, they were writing in response to their thinking. There were days when some kids stared at blank notebook pages and could not find the words to write. Pulling up a chair beside them, I’d ask them to tell me what they were thinking. What ideas were moving in their hearts and minds? Sometimes I had to transcribe for them as they thought aloud; other times, I would say, “You know all that stuff that just flooded to the front of your mind? Jot it down. Let it lead your thinking. I’ll be back in several minutes to check on you.” This is how I’ve taught writing all year.  And since then, I’ve fallen head over heels in love with teaching it. 

Right now, I’m watching Mason work through a poem about shooting his first deer. Ayden is writing a piece of fiction inspired by the poem “Abandoned Farmhouse” by Ted Kooser. Ella-Grace is working through a book review. And Tyeana is trying to develop a character in a ghost story. Each day, these writers bring their individual pieces to class, and we spend time writing, talking, and moving forward. Their craft builds each day, not necessarily because they write more, but because they are learning more of what it means to write. And most days, that means we try something new, delete a sentence, or start over completely. At first, students didn’t know what to think of this process. But when they saw their writing change and grow into something more beautiful, they leaned into more. Honestly, so did I. 

Patience is a critical factor in a writer’s development. So is feedback, but only if it nurtures the ideas in the writing. When students were striving to write into an idea, I saw it as a valuable opportunity and together, we discussed ways they could find writing. I suggested they freewrite about the topic to find more ideas. Sometimes they sketched. There were days I ended class frustrated at the lack of writing, and days when I rejoiced that certain students had found at least one idea they could write about. Seeds had been planted.    

I’ve gotten much better at teaching writing. It’s just what Lucy Calkins called it: an art. The mini-lessons I teach are more effective because they are built around what students need as writers, not prescriptive lessons that may or may not be relevant for my kids. Feedback is specific and tailored to individual students. When I meet with students for writing conferences, I hear their about their work and concerns. I’ve taught them how to identify their own problem areas so I can give them the help they genuinely need. In front of the class, I will think through a piece of writing I am struggling to revise. Most of the time, it’s a poem. I’ll talk with them about changes to the opening, the deletion of unimportant words, and the challenges that an ending always poses. I’m still learning, and I have a long way to go, but this work is essential because for the first time, I feel like I’m moving writers.

Standing at this point in the school year, I always become reflective, thinking back across the months I have worked alongside my kids. We’ve all come such a long way. We are all much stronger writers than we were in August. They’ve helped me develop a much better process, both as a writer and a teacher of writers, which might very well be the same thing. The things I do with writers are things I do to extend my thinking and enrich my craft. I am by no means a master teacher of writing, but I’m willing to learn. At this moment, I’m studying Matt Glover’s Craft and Process Studies: Units that Provide Writers with Choice of Genre. My work with writers is a never-ending learning process: I have to know this art of teaching writing. To keep learning, I have to read, and I must write. I’m drawn by the pull of writing, and when I lean into what I know works for writers, we all grow.

Swimming Upstream

I am no stranger to going upstream. During the summer, my family goes camping in the mountains of North Carolina. We choose a spot beside the creek, returning to the same space year after year, and unpack our tents, canopies, chairs, clothing, and sleeping bags. A desolate site is quickly transformed into place that feels like home. Once we settle into a rhythm and routine at the campsite, which usually takes very little time, my brother and I start to journey upstream, moving against the current, exploring life in and around the creek. We travel in the midst of ripples, keeping company with the trees that line the water’s edge, hopping from rock to rock if we can, and often slipping into the water when we lose our balance. In some places, the creek swirls in a fluid dance around moss-covered rocks, branches, and embankments. In others, a roaring rush greets our ears before it greets our eyes. We have been known to dive headfirst into deeper parts, rotating with the water but refusing to relinquish our energy as the current tugs at our limbs. Once we’ve explored enough, our adventurous spirits sated, we wade to the shore and take the road back. 

A recent discussion with a co-worker sent me back to those moments in the mountains, a sacred place where I feel a drive to wander and explore. Those feelings return quickly. “You know,” she said, “with the way you teach, you are swimming upstream, against the current. Your classroom is different. But in a good way. Look around—this isn’t considered normal in this building. And I think that’s a good thing.” When I returned to my room, I closed the door and started class. The phrase swimming upstream stayed with me, and the more I thought about it, the more curious I became. Perhaps curious is the wrong word. Troubled? Thoughtful? Inquisitive? I’m don’t think identifying the correct adjective is important, but I do know that her commentary of my classroom made an impact. And honestly, I’m not really sure why. I do my best to honor the children who fill my room. This is our space, not mine, and if we are to learn together, it has to belong to all of us. I renounce a strict allegiance to standardized measures of learning, preferring the purer forms of data I collect by listening and observing. I believe that to learn is to engage. Maybe that is what is so radical about my classroom? And perhaps that is why it struck me? But what does it really mean? And why is it that my teaching is so against the grain?  

Each day in my classroom begins with a meeting in the sacred circle, in the center of the room, where students gather to hear and to ask questions about the day’s schedule. Usually, while still in the circle, we read a text together, most often a poem because I believe that poetry is the one genre that touches all others. And studying it together helps us lean into a blend of idea and language alongside an author. Sometimes I ask them to mark the most important or most descriptive sentences; other times, we quickwrite together, borrowing lines or finding ideas to lead our thinking in our notebooks (head nod to Linda Rief). I always give them an option to share. 

From here, we move into independent reading, and I use this time to check-in with them. “So tell me about your book,” I’ll say. I gauge their interest as I make my way around the room, sometimes stopping to chat with them, other times just watching. Are they reading? Are they engaged? Are they happy? The kids are the arbiters of their reading lives. If they feel they need to abandon a book, they drop it on the coffee table and choose another. If they need help, I look at their to-read list with them. “Try this,” I’ll say, handing them a book they want to sample. “If it isn’t right for you, we can look for something else.” They walk back to their reading space, get settled, and enter the story. 

When we’re finished reading, we may spend time responding in our notebooks. We may turn and talk. But I often give them a chance to engage in thinking about what they’ve read once they’ve finished. Sketches, responses, and reflections have brought students’ notebooks to life. When I collect these and look through their responses, I’m amazed at what they are connecting to and how they are interpreting the literature they read. 

Somewhere in this mix is a mini-lesson. Right now, I’m learning that students are becoming much better readers when they write, so many of my mini-lessons are related to writing. I’m noticing that they understand textual structure more, especially when they return to a mentor text to unpack how an author ends a poem or how another author uses repetition to create rhythm and theme. From the mini-lesson, we move into writing workshop. And we write. And talk. And revise. During the last few minutes of class, we share our work. I know that students need a literary environment to grow as readers and writers, so I move heaven and earth to provide this structure for them. 

So, why is this type of teaching so different? Why is it an anomaly among most classrooms? When I work in my classroom with kids, I feel as though I am learning with them, not teaching them. When I’m learning with them, I feel engaged and alive. I feel as though what we’re doing really matters because they are writing, reading, and thinking, and they are growing into more capable and confident readers and writers. Perhaps my co-worker’s statement struck a chord because I have seen how kids change when they are given the space and time necessary for engaging in literacy. I’ve taught the parts of paragraphs and grammar lessons and the elements of a research paper and so on. But I’ve seen the most phenomenal writing come from kids when they select their own topics, determine their own audiences, and write into an idea because it mesmerizes them. I’ve witnessed a commitment to revision when students own their work and have a multitude of texts to help them see the endless possibilities in structure, word choice, and topic. I’ve seen kids energetically grab their notebooks and craft meaningful poems, essays, and stories. Ultimately, I’ve witnessed the creation of literature. 

It’s even a possibility that my co-worker’s comment resonated because of the amount of work I do as a workshop teacher to create an atmosphere conducive to a study of reading and writing. Again, I move heaven and earth to put books into the hands of students that will engage their hearts and minds. I take them inside my notebook and show them how I craft, how I choose topics, and how I revise my writing. I give them copies of my own writing— memoirs, poems, and short stories— and show them the writing at different stages of revision. I study them, much like a researcher, and watch their moves, gauge their interest, and find things that will capture them. We explore current events, stories from the past, and seek answers to the questions they have. To be a writer and a reader means to be present in our world. I don’t shy away from controversial topics. We discuss racism, homophobia, identity, and bias. I bring literature to the circle that will challenge them while giving them powerful things to think about. I ask them to write into their questions and use reading as a way to explore these questions. “Read for pleasure,” I tell them, “but don’t forget that reading is one of the ways we find answers to the questions we carry with us.” I write constantly. I read voraciously. And I use my experiences to guide the children I work with. 

If this is swimming upstream, against the current, I’m happy to continue. It’s my desire to create a space for students to thrive as readers and writers. My classroom is vastly different from the place it was five years ago. And in five more years, I hope it has changed to meet the needs of the kids I encounter. It may not be in the arrangement of tables, chairs, sofas, and rugs, but it may be in the arrangement of lessons and texts. I realize that several times in this post I’ve returned to the words sometimes, if, and often again and again. For me, teaching is responsive and it requires flexibility. I just believe in meeting my kids where they are. No one knows them like I do. There isn’t a set of data points, a test, a standard, or a mandate that can truly dictate what I do with students. In the end, they belong to me, and I belong to them. I don’t go in each morning determined to follow a lesson plan. I go in each morning determined to follow my students. 

I am still not sure why my co-worker’s comment struck me as it did. But I do know this— I love exploring reading and writing with my students in the same way I love journeying with my brother, seeing a different kind of beauty because we travel upstream. I’ve seen what happens when I focus on engaging students’ hearts and minds instead of pouring energy into following standardized measures. I’m responsible for these children and I love learning from them each time I step into the classroom. They encourage me to continue swimming upstream, taking them with me, and experiencing all of the joy that reading, writing, and thinking have to offer.  And If anything, this is what I’ve come to: keep swimming as hard as I can.

 

An Open Letter to Toni Morrison

Dear Ms. Morrison,

I fell in love with your writing almost a year ago. It was the opening paragraphs of Beloved, probably one of the most profound openings to a novel I have ever read, that captured my attention, begging me to wade further into the ocean of your thoughts. I still remember the chill of the October evening and the fabric of the sweater I wore when I serendipitously pulled Beloved from the shelf, a place it had occupied for almost five years. I had purchased this copy from a used bookstore, storing it on a shelf, knowing that my reading life had taken me to other places, but for some reason, that evening, I was compelled to read it. Sometimes books and authors beckon to us. 

I don’t remember much from the three days I read the book except for the total immersion I felt in story. I carried the book with me to school, kept it on my desk, talked with students about it , and returned home only to plunge into the breathtaking narrative again. When I finished, I was speechless— and I’m certain that was not an accident. I suggested it immediately to a fellow bibliophile, and once he read it, he insisted that we meet to discuss it. Our conversation lasted almost four hours— and we still weren’t done. I reread Beloved. Then I read it again. Your command of language, exploration of heartache, memory, consciousness, and the intellectual incision it made in the fictional world mesmerized me. I had to read more. And so I began a journey through your canon. 

I started writing you a letter, somewhere between Jazz and Song of Solomon. The possibility of your reading my words thrilled me—but it also terrified me. Fear builds walls, though, and I knew that through this process, even if the letter never reached you, I would learn something—about myself and writing. I wrote past the barrier of fear, crafting what I felt would give you a glimpse into the human being—teacher, writer, and learner—I am. I finally found a place to mail the letter, but on the day I had planned to mail it, I saw the news. This letter would never reach you. I wanted to share, regardless. Here is what I wrote— 

 

July 12, 2019

Dear Ms. Morrison,

I am Travis Crowder, a 7th grade English teacher in Hiddenite, NC. I have taught middle school for 11 years. Several years ago, I drastically altered my approach to literacy instruction. Prior to that paradigm shift, I used a predictable series of texts, mostly those that had been taught to me when I was in school, to guide students through conversations about plot development, character development, and themes. The radical change came when I realized that students were not leaving my classroom as readers. My focus was on the reading, not the reader. And so I made changes to my teaching. 

I began focusing on the development of a reading identity, helping students— through one-on-one personal conversations—to navigate texts independently of a teacher and to make sense of their thinking through writing. Additionally, I gave my students the gift of choice. With my own resources, I began filling my classroom library with a wide variety of reading materials, building a collection of books I believed would resonate with kids. Students’ reading lives began to flourish. Each day I set time aside to talk with students about a book, one that intersected with the interests of children in the classroom, then provided time for them to read a book of their choice. In their reading notebooks, students would capture words, phrases, and sentences that captured their attention. I shared pieces of my reading life with them, listened to them share from theirs, and beside each other, we grew as readers and thinkers. They kept me on my toes. To nudge them further as readers, I would search online and in bookstores to find the books that would speak to these particular students. I brought them home, read them, then passed them on. When we came together to read a whole-class text or broke into small groups for book clubs, I lingered at the edges of their conversations and fell in love with literacy all over again, just because of their journey. Because of this change in my teaching, my reading life evolved and exploded. I broke free of my reading comfort zone and inhaled a variety of texts, loosening the restrictions I had placed on myself and ultimately growing because of a diversified reading diet. Last year, my reading life changed remarkably. I decided to read Beloved, the first book from your body of work I had ever read, during one of the darkest years of my life. 

After a hurtful breakup, I buried my emotions deep inside and refused to let them surface. Several months after the end of my relationship, I began pulling myself from the depths of depression by reading, but not just casually reading. I was reading to heal, knowing that I needed some form of tomorrow, whatever that form was. My reading life had taken me into some Appalachian literature, and naturally, some of it centered around the Civil War. One afternoon, after finishing a book and composing responses and reflections in my notebook to be shared with students, I spied Beloved on my shelf, beckoning me. It had sat there for several years, but for some reason, at that moment, I was compelled to pick it up and enter the story. I walked into the first chapter slowly. As I read on, moving into the second and third sections, I wept, smiled, celebrated, and in the end, craved more. So upon finishing, I went back to the beginning and read through a second time. There were passages I copied into my notebook, ones I shared with students, and ones I wrote beside as my understanding of characters, of humanity grew. As I continued to heal, I leaned more into your writing, listening to you as you spoke of wisdom and courage through novels, essays, and speeches. These were words for me. And I swallowed them like water.

Gorgeous essays have been written about your brilliance, and book reviews, full of exquisite prose, have been published to share your work with the world. I am an ill match for any of those beautifully-rendered pieces. I  write to offer my gratitude for the books you have gifted to our world. I am still reading your writing, and with each book or essay, I continue to fall helplessly in love with your work. Even as I write this, I am moved to tears. Without even knowing me, you have given me a beautiful gift. And it continues to bless me each time I look back through my notebook, reread pieces of your books, or begin a new one. I can’t imagine my reading life without the stories of your imagination echoing in my mind. 

As I continue to work with young people, I will return to your writing again and again. Thank you for your passion, for being part of my healing process, and for inspiring me to read, think, and write. I recently finished crafting a book for educators entitled Reflective Readers: The Power of Readers Notebooks. In it, I share a conversation I had with students about Beloved, and how I used it in a lesson with students about unpacking the opening of a novel. In future books, I know I will reference you. I’m honored to know you through story and learning. 

Much love and all the best,

Travis Crowder

 

I’m heartbroken that I will never have the chance to mail this to you. It’s hard to imagine this world without you. But you’re still here. Your words live among us. And your legacy continues to resonate inexorably in the American heart, influencing the writers and dreamers . Now is our chance— my chance— to grieve. But soon, we will go back to work. We will write. Sing. Speak. Paint. Create. We will be humankind’s necessity, striving to nudge the world forward one book, poem, essay, song, and sentence at a time. I know that your influence will continue to beat inside my heart, and the work I do as an educator will forever be seasoned with the elegance and vibrancy of your work. 

Ms. Morrison, you are my some kind of tomorrow. And I will need your words to blend with my imagination and give flight to the ideas and stories that await there. Thank you for being here. And thank you for gifting the world with your incredible talent. We will never be the same because of you. 

Till we meet again. 

A Reader’s Soul

For me, reading is an intimate act, a near-spiritual contract, penned in sentences of emotion and forged among the heart, mind, and text. In ways, it could be defined as an entrance, a gateway, and when I enter a story, I am voluntarily removing myself from reality and joining an imaginative world that soon becomes real as I traverse chapters beside the characters who inhabit them. Story, like an ocean rushing up to meet a shore, engulfs and surrounds, hypnotic in its own linguistic beauty, yet transcendent in its rhythm and music. For me, reading means blending into a world that is not my own, but at the same time, is. Thought of in these terms, the act of reading becomes personal and joyful, lacking the technical aspects that accompany reading in a world obsessed with standards and lexiles, rubrics and grades.  

I have been a reader for most of my life, swallowing words like water, immersing myself in poetry and prose. Words have always carried magnificent weight to me, and as an ardent bibliophile and blossoming writer, I value precision, even when I don’t employ it. Like many friends whose reading lives are healthy and varied, I sometimes struggle to find a book I want to read, even though I am surrounded by books of all kinds. When I hit a slump, I write, and usually, as I write how the muse of reading has abandoned me, she returns, gliding into my heart, and sets my reading soul aflame once again. I know I am not alone in this experience. 

One of my genres of choice is historical fiction, and last summer, after reading several reviews that venerated Kate Quinn’s The Alice Network, I was compelled to read it. It wound up being one of my favorite books of last year. This spring, while ambling through shelves at a local bookstore, I noticed The Huntress, Kate Quinn’s most recent novel. After the mesmerizing narrative of The Alice Network, and intrigued by the premise of The Huntress, I was eager to begin her newest work. Beginning this novel, however, happened at a curious time. Goodreads, my reading life management system (I say with sarcasm), is the place where I rate and share books that have resonated with me. I set a reading goal each year (100 books) and do everything I can to reach that goal. I started reading The Huntress, and a week later, I visited the Goodreads site to check the status of my reading goal. “4 books behind schedule,” the website affirmed, almost with an evil smile and a nefarious chuckle. I was over 100 pages into the story and it had gripped me; however, I felt as though I had defaulted on my personal reading goal. There were other books to be devoured and Quinn’s novel, a startling 500 plus pages, was slowing me down. So I picked up my reading pace, galloping through the remaining pages of the story. And in the end, I put it aside, realizing I had not connected with it at all. 

Standing back and surveying my experience from a different vantage point—writing about my reading in my notebook—helped me gain perspective. As I reflected, I realized what had happened: I had allowed my reading goal to control me instead of using it as a guide, as a personal challenge. While the intimacy of reading was strong in the beginning, I opted for a more myopic view of my reading life and as a result, I did not develop that beautiful relationship with a text that deep reading affords. Who knows…perhaps Quinn’s novel wasn’t as strong as the previous one. Perhaps slowing down and engaging with the characters in a less harried way would have moved me differently. But that isn’t the point. The point is that I recognized what had happened and immediately began thinking of my teaching. 

As many of my readers know, my teaching life changed dramatically about five years ago. I became concerned about the teaching of reading in my classroom, and my concerns arose because of my own reading experiences—a fusion of heart and mind. When I enter a story, there are several requisite demands I make. First, I need to be captivated in some way, compelled by language, character, and story. Second, I need a reason to read, something to nudge me into successive paragraphs, chapters, and parts. Third, I need to experience a reaction, connecting with the heart of the story, seeing myself, seeing others, grappling with questions, moving towards a deeper understanding of my world. Because I am a seasoned reader, I may press forward in books that have not wholly entranced me, but most of the time, I lay them aside, knowing that another book, a promise of delight, awaits. These were missing pieces in my classroom— those pieces that would help bring to life students’ reading souls. I was not helping kids develop this type of readerly behavior; in fact, many of them were just playing along, knowing that eventually, the story would end, the questions would cease, and they would have a momentary reprieve until the next text was presented to them. And the cycle continued. 

After finishing The Huntress, I spent some time writing, pressing toward the heart of the issue— why had I not connected with this novel? I realized that my obsession with reaching a certain number of books before December had limited my reading, narrowing the field of thinking and imagination that reading offers. The goal controlled. It did not guide. I couldn’t do that again. In a way, at that moment, my reading life began anew. I decided to avoid Goodreads and my self-imposed reading goal for a while and focus on entering a story with curiosity as well as a slower pace. Several days ago, I began A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles, and instead of whisking through the chapters as I normally would, I slowed down and dwelled among the characters and the story at the sentence level. I slowed down, plunged beneath the linguistic terrain, and spent time lingering in passages and descriptions. Now, I am over halfway through, but I have taken my time, and I refuse to gallop. For now, I want to marinate in story. And it’s beautiful— both story and experience. I feel as though I’ve found my reader’s soul again. 

The idea of a reader’s soul is critical. We want students to become lifelong readers and learners, but if we don’t give them space and time to connect with the words, the characters, the stories, their reading souls will never ignite. When we venerate any goal above the human being in front of us, we admit our own obsession. In the past, I have been guilty of teaching the reading, not the reader. I have shown my obsession with literary terminology, classic literature, vocabulary, and grammar, preferring to exalt them above the children who sat before me. But there is another way. What if, instead of inundating kids with the lexicon of text analysis as an entry into literature, we presented literature to them as a soul experience? What if we taught literary terminology, such as metaphor, personification, and alliteration, in response to the things we read with students or helped students build conversation around such words because of their reading choices? And what if, instead of pushing kids to meet a particular goal, we inspire them with gorgeous books, ones that answer the questions they have, and questions they may not know they have…yet? 

I think of Donalyn Miller’s 40 Book Challenge, a noble idea, but one that has been reiterated as a requirement instead of a way to help students set goals and challenge themselves as readers across a school year. I also think of Ellin Keene and Susan Zimmerman, whose work with text-to-self, text-to-text, and text-to-world connections have been turned into rubrics with unwavering expectations as opposed to a way to explore, talk, and write about how we connect to the texts we read. Come to think of it, based on the way these ideas have been misused, I’m sure Kylene Beers’ and Bob Probst’s Book-Head-Heart framework has or will soon suffer the same fate. 

We owe this to our students. In the classroom I create with kids, I want them to fall in love with reading. I want them to linger in passages of a story, write how books make them feel, and think of the goals they set for themselves as guides, not as rigid expectations. When kids read, I want their hearts and minds to pulse with wonder as opposed to worrying if they’re close enough to their goal, whatever it may be. I just want them to read and to nurture their reading selves. I want them to know what it means to have the soul of a reader.

Teaching & Learning Without Grades

As we move into the middle of May, I’m finding myself more and more inspired by the group of students I have been honored to learn beside this school year. Recently, I asked students to create a five-piece writing collection connected by a common theme, giving them time to search through their notebooks to find the big ideas and concepts that arose from quickwrites, notebook time pieces, and reading responses. Naveah chose to focus her writing on her connection to the natural world, while Marcus decided to write a series of poems about different adventures—reading, hunting, and exploring. Students’ reading-writing notebooks, like Marcus’s and Naveah’s, have evolved into artifacts of learning as they have responded to their reading, captured thinking during quickwrites, and expanded pieces into full drafts of writing. When I conference with students during independent reading, I hear stories of book love, of personal challenge, of the migration from non-reader to reader, with an allegiance to different genres and authors. They have worked hard and have been moved by their own interests, finding books and writing topics that nudged them as readers, writers, and thinkers. But there’s one more thing you should know— they have done this in a gradeless classroom.

Several years ago, I approached my principal about changes I wanted to make in my instruction. Recent conversations had led me to question my methodology, as well as the ways I graded my students. Our principal had quite a few questions, most of them related to complying with local grading requirements and communicating changes to parents, but my desire to disrupt a traditional practice and to focus on engagement moved her to say yes. While I wanted to help students develop authentic reading and writing identities, I was perplexed by grading systems. Every system I had put in place, and even the ones I had discussed with colleagues, had major flaws, primarily in the treatment of the learning process. In most cases, the learning process was what was graded, not the learning outcome. Across a grading period, students may master a skill, but if the grades along the way— homework, quizzes, and activities— tend to be lower grades, their overall grade will not portray that they have mastered the skill. Additionally, students grow when they have feedback, not numbers. Feedback, whether from a teacher or a peer, gives them thinking to lean on. Learning tends to stop when kids see a number, assuming that the number is a non-negotiable, and often, kids see it as an end to the learning process. Convicted by my participation in this process, I began looking for ways to more accurately portray what students know and can do.

Not long ago, I was nudged by my friend, Jennifer LaGarde, to share my gradeless practices on my blog. At first, I was horrified— not at Jennifer, but at the prospect of sharing such controversial thinking. That first year of gradeless teaching and learning stretched into a second year, then another one, and now, I am looking at five years of cultivating my understanding of feedback, engagement, and authentic experiences. Since then, I’ve migrated away from grading and have moved to deeper thinking about learning. I’ve tried to determine how I can motivate students to learn and to create without using grades as a bribe or punishment. In the beginning of this process, I was uncertain, and my initial reaction was to abandon what I believed would provide a clearer picture of their abilities and pick up old practices, ones that seemed easier and familiar. I kept moving forward, though. Over time and, as I read about grading and teaching and wrote beside these ideas in my notebook, my philosophies began to take shape, and I noticed trends in the words and phrases I was using. I also noticed a consistent schedule of ideas and questions that would come up when I spoke with a new administrator, a new group of parents, a new group of students, or curious colleagues. Clarity is important in this work; communication is essential. People were striving to understand my methods, and honestly, at the onset, I failed to implement a meaningful gradeless classroom. Even now, I struggle to do so, but my understanding is deeper. And each year, my kids teach more about sparking a desire to read, to create, and to learn.

Part of the challenge of teaching is finding a way to engage kids in the act of learning. When I used a traditional grading method, I recognized that students were performing because of the number grade they would receive. Fear of failure or of “not passing” kept most students working, but when asked about things that moved them, that encouraged them to be continual learners, answers were unrelated to school, the place they spent eight hours of their day. And most of them defined their success at school as “having finished all their work.” I began to question the number of worksheets, quizzes, and tests I was giving and started asking some hard questions about their utility— were they working, were they meaningful, and were students better readers, writers, and thinkers because of them. Ultimately, the answer was no. So I made a few changes to my practice.

  1. I do my best to focus on engagement over compliance. Instead of holding students accountable with grades, I try to encourage them to read and to write about the things that are meaningful to them. Together we study mentor texts and passages that inform different types of writing and interpretation, but students are responsible for keeping up with an independent reading life and responding inside their notebooks. We study different genres and write in response to a variety of texts— poems, articles, videos, and images. I spend a good portion of the beginning of each year helping students tap into their interests— with heart maps, poems, and interest inventories— and give them space and time across the rest of the year to explore those interests. When kids are engaged by their interests, they will work to perfect a piece of writing, a project, or a reading response. They will search out books and articles to inform their understanding of a topic. When they are driven by passion, numbers are of little interest to them.
  2. Everything in my classroom is based on feedback. When students craft a piece of writing or are responding to a book, poem, or informational text, feedback drives the learning process. The reader’s-writer’s notebook is a means of communication with students because it gives me a place to see their thinking, respond to it (feedback), and nudge them to deeper thinking. Time is given in class to provide peer feedback, and we discuss how to provide meaningful feedback. A fishbowl demonstration helps start the conversation about meaningful feedback.
  3. Reflection is a necessary, navigational tool. Students reflect on their reading lives each Friday, noting the things they discovered in their reading and identifying the behaviors and trends they noticed about themselves as readers during that week. They also set reading goals. In regard to writing, students reflect on the origin of their ideas and their process for writing— what helps them write and how does that process shift depending on the type of writing they are doing and the mentor texts they are using? After several reflections, students look back through their thinking and identify the things they notice. What are they thinking, how are they thinking, and what do they need to do as a result of both?   
  4. Grade conferences help remove any biases I may have and give students a voice in their own learning. Toward the end of each grading period, students start thinking about the grade they feel they have earned. Because a final grade is required, I have to find a way to translate their learning to a number, but I refuse to do it by myself. I want their grade to be a reflection of what they’ve accomplished and the progress they’ve made as readers, writers, and thinkers. Together, we set requirements for A, B, and C work (I avoid going below a C), and students use their evidence from their reading and writing lives to argue the grade they feel they’ve earned. I look forward to these conferences because they give me another window into the minds of my students.
  5. Communication with families establishes connections early in the school year and creates alliances beyond the classroom. I send home a letter at the beginning of every school year that explains my grading practices with students’ families. I want them to know that at the core of my instructional practices is a desire to engage students’ hearts and minds. I write narratives of students’ progress and make these available to parents on grade conference forms.

While this system works for me and has helped me nudge my students as readers, writers, and thinkers, I’ve had frustrated educators tell me my methods are too soft; that I’m not preparing students for the real world. I’ve had teachers brag to me about the number of individual grades they’ve given in a single grading period (some of them upwards of 50!). In some cases, conversations about gradeless classrooms have turned hostile. In these moments, teachers feel challenged by the idea of gradeless teaching, as though someone is telling them their method is wrong and the method I’ve adopted is the right one. I don’t believe that. Like all things in education, grading (or in my case, not grading) is a process that must be revisited each year, and if revision is necessary, we have to be willing to modify the systems that aren’t working or pledge to change a system that isn’t enriching an experience.

The gradeless initiative in my classroom has seen multiple revisions. From standards-based, mastery grading to reflection to a blend of both, I’ve watched the system I implement change based on my current understanding, the research I read, and the students I teach. I start with empathy— what do my students need and what will help them the best? I seek to understand them first. We move forward from there.

Of one thing I am certain–learning is messy. It is not the linear process we so often want to make it. I’ll admit my own failures in trying to make the learning process clean and logical, but I always realize the complexity of the human mind. Any attempt to make learning general and diagnostic never shows what students truly know. Helping them find the things that are meaningful to them is a strong start, though. A gradeless classroom does have its challenges, especially when students must grow accustomed to an environment based on feedback and reading and writing choices. And honestly, there are some students who are unmotivated by a classroom such as mine. I still sit beside them, though, and I try to learn from them. I do my best to help them identify the things that are meaningful to them. And I nudge them. Because I believe that the energy for learning rests inside them, and if I can do anything to help them access that special place in their hearts, I can move them to lifelong learning.

I am inviting you to think beside me, believing that together we can move young people to fall in love with learning. I do not believe for a moment that I have all of the correct answers, but I do know that when we start with empathy, our methods have the ability to touch hearts and to change lives. The changes I have made in my grading practices have been full of growing pains— for me and students— but every year, I watch students dig deep inside themselves to find the things that matter to them. And when they identify those things, I watch the read, write, and think with fervor.

T
**My thinking about gradeless teaching and learning has been enhanced by conversations with colleagues and professional reading. Punished by Rewards by Alfie Kohn, Fair Isn’t Always Equal by Rick Wormeli, Teaching Reading in Middle School by Laura Robb have provided a deeper understanding of this work. Also, I want to thank Cristi Julsrud for nudging me to start thinking about different grading practices. Over time, our thinking has changed together, and although our grading methods are quite different, our philosophies remain the same. Thank you, friend. You have helped me see things from a different perspective ever since we met.

A Year of Healing, Part 2: Writing

“Reading is like breathing in, writing is like breathing out.” -Pam Allyn

“There are cracks in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” -Leonard Cohen

When I wrote the first part of this blog post, published in late November, I found ideas that I could not shake from my conscious mind. I composed my healing process in terms of books, but I could not speak fully to the experience of healing without mentioning the writing piece—my notebook. Reading was my saving grace during this past year, but my writing notebook became my safe space, the place where I could spill my emotions with impunity. As I devoured books, I collected my thinking in my notebook through reflection, character analysis, conversations with the authors, letters, and drawings. I established a healthy writing routine, too. Early in the mornings, as I sat listening to the whispers of a new day, I wrote and wrote. My reading life, fueled by a fervent visceral drive, needed a place to land. And it landed inside my notebook.

Over the course of the year, I watched as the landscape of my notebook changed. Because of my emotional trauma, my senses awakened more deeply—I noticed the poetry of sights, of sounds, of smells. I lingered in passages, in shades of meaning, in images and phrases; books gave me the language I needed to express myself when I felt that anguish had silenced them. Responses to language intensified and words transformed into sustenance. Writers seemed, through their poetry and prose, to extend their hands, full of lively language, and say, “Here. These are for you. Use them.” And I did. I filled my notebook with poems, quickwrites, and passages from books, something I had done before, but this time, I was crafting inside my notebook with a fervent purpose. When something in my reading life moved me, I photocopied it and affixed it to a page, underlining the pieces that spoke to me and writing my thinking beside those lines. I truly learned what it meant to write beside something, illustrating in a vibrant new way Penny Kittle’s concept of writing beside a text, which I thought I understood before, but now more truly grasp.  

My notebook was no longer just a reaction to my reading. It became an existential reflection of me because I wasn’t just reading to fall in love with a book; I was reading to heal and understand myself. My writing became braver as I took risks with the art, the form, and the ideas I was willing to think about and craft. When thoughts exist in our minds, we can suppress them; however, writing them forces us to confront them. I was writing, but honestly, the words were writing me. As I composed, they lifted from the page and pulled the fragments of my heart together. 

I first noticed changes in the artistry of my notebook this past summer. I read like a fiend, but the remarkable changes took time to notice. Writing always takes time. When we launched writing workshop in my classes this school year, I talked with students about patience. “We will write everyday,” I told them, “but it may not always be beautiful writing. You will struggle, you will procrastinate and possibly stare at the blankness of your screen and notebook, but writing each day will nourish your fledgling writing lives. You will craft plenty of things you are not comfortable sharing, but your confidence will grow as you continue to write. Sentences will be clunky, stories will be predictable, and you will wrestle with ideas and words. But this is part of the process and I need you to trust it and participate in it.” I could speak these words with a deeper confidence and conviction because I had watched my writing process evolve, strengthen, and move because I nourished it with daily writing and fueled it with heavy reading.

Word Imagery 1

This word imagery spread was one of the first I created at the beginning of last year inside my writing notebook. I decided to abandon the stream-of-consciousness writing, which was the dominant form inside my notebook, and deconstruct a passage from The Inexplicable Logic of My Life by Benjamin Alire Saenz. I saw myself as the tree, nearly dead and losing the brightness that once resided there. This was a risk because it was a sharp contrast to the form I most often crafted in. Emotional pain had pulled me from the comfortable space I inhabited, and as a result, I wrote and crafted in a more abstract form.

Betrayal 1st Draft

I abandoned poetry several years ago, believing that my muse was dead and I had no reason to ever exhume such practice. After reading The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson, and re-examining The Art of Description by Mark Doty, I decided to enter the world of poetry again. Here rests my thinking about betrayal, an idea I began wrestling with because of my own personal experience with the sharp pain of betrayal. Writing about my feelings gave me a front-row seat to the moment of betrayal, and although excruciating, I was able to step outside of the moment and view it as an observer. A different stance helped me heal because I could see it clearly through the lens of poetry. I’m not sure I understand why, but one day, I know I might.

Book by Billy Collins

Billy Collins’s poem “Books” was one of my favorites. It is a cerebral poem, one that begs re-reading. I am still not certain I understand his idea fully, but what I do know is that he captures so much about books and the act of reading. I was compelled by his poem to think about my own reading life and how reading moves me. A love of reading was often mocked and misunderstood in my past relationships. This poem helped me reconnect with the many reasons why books matter so much to me, even in the interim when I forgot how much I loved reading. I turned to art to express my thinking. When I collect student notebooks, I see they have taken me up on my offer to draw their thinking. And so often, like I do, they write beside their drawings.

The Whispers 2 page spread

I left this mortal plane to live in the fictive world of The Whispers. Written by Greg Howard, this gorgeous book transported me to the distant past and gave me the healing balm I needed to push through the last bits of emotional pain. His rich poetry and ideas are everything. And the story is exquisite. Words eluded me, but I could think through color. Language became art. When juxtaposed with the word imagery piece, my journey and willingness to create are apparent. The palette of color, the absence of white space, and the absence of words show my growth and experience. This is me, knowing I am stronger.  

I wanted you to step inside my notebook with me. I wanted to give you a brief tour of the pieces that were a result of intense reading and daily writing. I wanted you to see that with time and patience, a writing notebook becomes a repository of thinking. And students need this. We get so caught up in the idea that writing has to be graded or evaluated by a rubric. But it’s the process of writing that helps us figure out what we have to say and how we can unpack our own thinking and feelings. Our kids are victimized by unfair writing instruction, and they believe that writing is only a form of assessment. What they don’t know and what we so often miss is that writing is thinking and heart work. Without that element of understanding, writing becomes another standard of learning, a useless measure of proficiency that will satisfy a checklist but not burst with life and passion inside our hearts. I gained a stronger understanding of what writing does because I wrote, not because of evaluation. Students—and adults—need to experience the same thing.

I share this deeply personal space with you because I am confident in the healing properties that writing and crafting afford. The more we write, the more we understand ourselves, and our journey is catalogued in the sentences and creations that fill the blank pages of a notebook. In the midst of heartache and pain, writing was my saving grace. Reading helped me heal, but I needed a place to exhale the wisdom, beauty, and hope I found in books. My notebook was that place. This past year was bitter and traumatic, but putting pen to paper each day breathed new life into my work as a teacher, writer, and human being. Writing helps us process emotion and trauma. It helps us learn, unpack, and explore our own interiority. Writing gives us a way to make meaning. That’s what it did for me, and I want students to know that the same process that helped me heal can help them. Life is so often unpredictable, and heartache has a way of metastasizing into an unbearable presence. Reading was my oxygen. Writing helped me learn to breathe again.

When I speak with students now about the writing process, I often put my writing notebook under the document camera and share with students my own writing, the raw and real, explaining to them where I started and how I wrote through the experience to heal and to understand. I ask them to embark on a similar journey of self-discovery through writing. I am speaking from the evolution of my writing notebook. I want students to know that writing is a way of knowing, a way of healing.  And as they write, growing beside their thinking, I want them to see writing as a relevant method of excavating their own interior landscape, discovering the passageways out of seemingly insurmountable darkness. I want them to experience the freedom writing can bring.

So I ask you to pick up your pen, grab your notebook, start writing, and share your process with your students. There are cracks in the surfaces of our lives, but that’s part of the beauty of living. We read, breathing in story and borrowed sentences. Light shines, pressing into the broken parts.  And we exhale with words and renewed ideas and the page before us illuminates.

T

A Year of Healing, Part I

A year ago, someone I loved severed every cord of trust that existed between the two of us. Heartbroken and devastated, I retreated into a gray haze of living, numb and fractured, yet determined to keep moving forward. Responsibilities—teaching, contributing to my professional community, and finalizing a manuscript—tethered me to reality, and while I yearned to distance myself from everything, I remained loyal to my work. Many mornings, I left my feelings and emotions inside my apartment—tear-stained pillows, empty tissue boxes, remnants of depression—and entered my workplace with a veneer of happiness, prepared for a day of working alongside students and fellow teachers. One thing remained consistent throughout this time, though: books were my haven, and I was and still am thankful for the comfort they provided throughout the pain of the betrayal I felt.

My very being, my existence, is rooted in my love of books and reading, of words and meanings, of writing and crafting. Ask the people who know me and they will tell you that every fiber of my being is saturated with book love. For me, to live is to exist in the world of books; to heal is, ultimately, to read. As days turned to weeks and weeks amassed into months, my reading life intersected with texts that I needed. I realize this now. Subconsciously, I was reaching for books that would provide balance to my internal dissonance. So much of living exists beneath the placid surface of consciousness; somehow my psyche knew I needed these books, and I indulged the inclination. I’m glad I did, because in the end, I fed and nurtured my reading life, and in turn, without my realizing it, my reading life fed and nurtured my soul.

I did not recognize the healing balm of my reading life at the time because I was intensely focused on not hurting. We all want to be loved, but betrayal forces us to retreat and protect our hearts. And I saw this thread run through these books and many of the others I devoured.In retrospect, it all makes sense. Hunger by Roxane Gay, The Velvet Rage by Alan Downs, and Social Intercourse by Greg Howard were books that gave me a sense of understanding and healing, even as I read the painful, searing, and heartrending passages that reminded me of my own fractured self. Words and sentences sutured the wounds in my heart; I no longer felt alone.

When I found Marilynne Robinson’s gorgeous writing, especially Housekeeping and Gilead, I found myself engaging in conversations and themes of memory and consciousness, where characters found themselves reflecting on the past to interpret the present. I took my cue from them. Suppression and repression are how I’ve dealt with difficult experiences in the past, but with these books, I found myself confronting them. John Ames, the protagonist in Gilead, provided a history of his family, exhuming memories from long ago to help me make sense of life, love, and faith. I walked with him across the terrain of remembrance, and in a way, I carried his thoughts with me as I recollected the anguish of this past year. I needed his wisdom. And the wisdom of the myriad characters from my reading life.

As with many things in my personal reading life, I always consider the links to my classroom. From my dear friend, Laura Robb, I learned to value the way books make us feel. Most often, when students say they’ve finished a book, I ask them, “How did this book make you feel?” I want them to consider the heart connection because making meaning of texts begins with a transaction, something Louise Rosenblatt would insist is the most important aspect of reading. The way I felt when I read books such as Clay’s Quilt and Southernmost by Silas House and Beloved by Toni Morrison was not bound by hefty analysis; instead, I roamed through life and experience with the characters and made sense of my own circumstances through theirs. These books nurtured me and provided clarity as I trudged through time; they mended the fragments and offered another way to see the world. I’m glad I nurtured my reading life because it nurtured me. And this is the same thing I want for my students. I want them to read and read and read some more because eventually, their reading lives will provide the healing balm they need as they continue to grow and learn and experience.

For the past few years, I have worked to remove the barriers that have separated my teaching life from my personal life. I am by no means open with kids about everything in my personal world, but I am more transparent than I have ever been. Teaching students means being true to myself, as Dr. Gravity Goldberg would say, and to teach this way as an English teacher means to merge the narrative of my reading habits with the expectations and hopes I have for my students. This past year of reading and healing connected me more intimately to my classroom because I began focusing more on how students related to texts, not on how much they were analyzing them. Together we spent time responding authentically to books, allowing our reactions and feelings to lead us into interpretation. The atmosphere of my classroom changed and as a result, many students developed a love of reading.

Books give us a chance to know ourselves. I have spoken countless times about the need for choice-based initiatives in the classroom. I have worked alongside teachers and kids in developing an understanding of this work we do as readers. Thinking beside adults and children is a passion of mine, and I always link my reading life to love and joy. But I have never thought about the nourishment a reading life provides. I certainly wasn’t prepared for the way my reading life would care for me. It sounds crazy, but that’s exactly what it did. It nudged me. I want students to become intrepid readers, ready to open a book or enter a text without fear. I want them to grow into capable readers, striving for challenge. But most of all, I want them to fall in love with books because stories are full of dreams and magic and hope. They show us the world and the people, either heroic or ignoble. They help us live our lives. And they help us see our self-worth.

Just last week, Brandon told me how much he loved Prisoner B-3087 by Alan Gratz. Before this year, he was a self-proclaimed non-reader and he wore that label proudly. Just last week, he finished his eleventh novel of the year. I think of students like Brandon who have never loved books, but are entering young adulthood, an overwhelming and turbulent time when life feels unbalanced. I hope the books he has read this year will linger in his heart and give him the equilibrium he needs to sustain himself throughout his adolescence and adult years. I believe they will. Who knows, Brandon may be faced with a heartbreaking experience and think back on his reading life. And perhaps one of those books will give him the strength and grace he needs to withstand hurt and pain and anguish. That’s the power of a reading life.

That brings me to you, dear reader. If you are reading this, you either support my efforts as a writer and teacher, or you’ve landed here because of a Google search. Whatever brought you to this article, I thank you for reading to this point. I may not know you, but I do know that we are in this important work together, guiding students to developing a love of books and a passion for story. I ask that you work alongside me this year to engender a love of reading in your students, because the book they read in your classroom next week might offer the forbearance, grace, and hope they need later in their lives. This past year of healing was not what I expected, and at this point last year, I was wading in a sea of despair. Books lifted my spirits, and I am confident that books can provide the same for all readers, especially the younger ones among us. Let’s lead our students to develop reading lives that will nurture them now and in the years to come.

I look forward to hearing your story.

You Can’t Hurry Love

“Students will read, if we let them.” -from Sparks in the Dark

“You can’t hurry love / You’ll just have to wait…” -Holland-Dozier-Holland

Last Friday marked the end of the tenth week of school. We’ve been in session for a little over a grading period, and in that time, I’ve learned so much about the new students I am blessed to learn alongside this year. The first day of school was filled with an almost palpable excitement for students—connecting with old friends, describing events of the summer, guessing at the culture of a classroom where books are everywhere and the teacher is pulling books off the shelves and placing them on tables and countertops. Interest inventories, book talks, and book selection constitute my interactions with students and they become touchstones as we flex our writing muscles and develop our reading lenses. On the first day, I asked students to answer two questions in their notebooks: (1) What is a book you’ve read and loved, and (2) How would you describe yourself as a reader? As the weeks pass and students grow into their developing reading identities, I ask them to return to these statements about their reading lives and reflect on the changes they’ve noticed. Are they still nonreaders? Have they developed a love for a particular genre or author? What caused their feelings about reading to change? We write these answers in our notebooks to make our thinking visible. This first day, of book-talking, writing, and book selection, is critical in my work with young readers. It’s the foundation of everything else I do.

I was still reeling from summer travels, a book release, conversations with other educators, interviews, and conferences, and upon returning to the classroom, I was eager to implement the ideas and strategies that grew from my summer of professional learning. I handed out the interest inventories with plenty of excitement, and much like I expected, many students found it difficult to list a single book that had resonated with them in their pasts. On top of that, several students were brutally honest—they hated to read. The irony is that I told them I wanted them to be honest, but it was their honesty that wounded me. As much as I’d like to say I don’t take this personally, the truth is that I do.

I find myself in this dilemma each year—I want students to find a love of reading quickly because I know the happiness books bring. In the microcosm of a narrative, we travel and think and learn alongside the characters we encounter.  We may witness a cavalier heroine battling a malignant force in a kingdom. A heart-rending search for a missing family. The brutal aftermath of a town ravaged by war. The crippling effects of drug abuse. The foe who is vanquished. And the hero who returns. Books allow us to read the world, to examine the qualities that make us human, to explore possibilities to the problems we encounter. Good stories captivate us, and by default, we proceed intrepidly into the imaginative terrain. I know what this feeling is like, and when I am introduced to students who have never experienced book love, I want them to enter the plane of books quickly. Rushing students never works, though. They have to come to love reading in their own time.

My reading instruction has grown considerably over the past three years as I have opted for more student-centric classroom. Changes in my pedagogy have affected me as much as my students’ attitudes and achievement. This change in my teaching practice has taken time; I wasn’t always attuned to the need for self-selected reading, and now that I am aware of its potency, I can hardly imagine returning to my old ways. I’ve learned that students cannot be rushed. They have to find a love of books on their own and their own time. I can’t short-circuit their journey.

At the beginning of second period on Friday, Anthony burst through the classroom door and announced, “I finished my book, Mr. C! I stayed up late last night to finish it. It was so good!” At the end of class, Jake walked up to me and explained that he had pushed through the slow part of his book, and now he was entranced by the story, excited to finish as soon as he could. Grace gave me her book and asked, “Can I check something else out? This one isn’t speaking to me.” She swapped her book for All Rise for the Honorable Perry T. Cook and slipped quickly into the prose. Brad, a student who had loudly proclaimed his non reading stance on the first day of school, finished his third book yesterday and said, “I need another great one, Mr. C. I think I like this author.” He settled into a place on the floor and was soon captivated by the beautiful poetry of Kwame Alexander. You can’t hurry love. You just have to wait.

There are still students in my classes whose love for reading has not yet ignited, bursting into a gorgeous flame that will grow brighter and stronger with each book they read and love. I have to have faith in them, though, and I have to put trust in this process. That’s the difficult part—the waiting. I find myself in this dilemma each year. I want them to find that love of reading quickly because I know the happiness and joy the right book will bring to them. But I have to remind myself that it takes time.  Once they find the right book, it will light a spark within them and kindle a fire that will fuel their passion for reading. You can’t hurry love. You just have to wait.

I also must remind myself that this process is, in many cases, incredibly new to them. Just as I wrestled with questions and concerns when I initiated a reading-writing workshop, I have to remind myself that my students are wrestling with questions and concerns of their own. A classroom built on free-choice reading and conversations is novel to students whose experiences with reading may have been limited to multiple-choice questions and test preparation. This is not reading; this is anti-literacy at its finest. In a time when reading has turned into a standardized measure and textual analysis and close reading have severed the transaction between story and heart, I am even more confident that students need time to fall in love with stories. My understanding of this profession and of my work with readers is constantly evolving. Every reader teaches me something different. But one lesson is the same—I can’t hurry their book love. I just have to wait.

And wait I shall.  

 

**I want to give a special shout-out to Penny Kittle, an educator and writer whose thinking has influenced my teaching incredibly. Her session at Tyrolia Institute started with the song “You Can’t Hurry Love,” and as I swayed to the irresistible beat, I understood her deliberate use of this song. Not hurrying love, especially book love, is something that takes time for English teachers. I’m still learning to be patient, but Penny’s words and magnanimity have afforded me a much different teaching stance in my classroom. Thank you, my friend. Your impact is boundless.