Choosing Joy in 2018

 I've been thinking a lot about joy in the classroom this break. Right now education feels like we're not supposed to have joy in our classrooms, and if we do, we're probably not being rigorous enough.  It's funny, but when I'm happy as a teacher, I do my best teaching.  When I feel trusted and free and like I have enough time to think, I love being a teacher.  And when I really know my students and can do what I feel is best for them at that time, there's a lot of joy in the classroom.

One particularly joyous day last semester jumps out.  It was a Tuesday morning in November, a few weeks after my class's obsession with Nic Stone's Dear Martin started.  The day before, I had put the final touches on a surprise Skype conversation with Nic, and now I was nervous that we'd have technical difficulties, or some of her biggest fans would be absent that day, or that we wouldn't have enough to talk about and Nic would think it was a waste of time. 

My class came into the room quizzically eyeing all the chairs I had pulled up front near our Smart Board.  I told them we were going to do a conference call with a friend of mine to help them write their final papers. They unenthusiastically accept this and found seats.  Finally, they all were there.

Danny, my A #1 smarty pants and Nic Stone fan, said, "What? You got Nic Stone on Skype or something?" He laughed.

I gave him my best "Yeah, right" face, and said, "Like I could arrange that." 

"Right," he agreed and sat down in the front row.  

So, the look on Danny's face when Ryan, our tech guy, turned on the screen and Nic Stone said, "Ms. Hagen's class!" was the best thing I've seen in a long time.  He flew out of his chair in disbelief, hands covering his huge smile, shouting, "No way!" all the way to the door.  In fact, through the whole interview, the smile didn't fade, but his stunned face was pretty much hidden, and he didn't utter a word.  When we finally said good-bye to Nic, all Danny could say was, "Oh, my God!  I can't believe you did that!" And then a few minutes later, head in hands, he muttered, "Why didn't I say anything?" 

Danny's grin and the energy buzz of the rest of the class lasted the whole period. The Skype call had made the kids feel special and like they mattered. It had infused a lot of joy into our class-- just what we needed before the push towards final exams and the end of the semester.

This joy has been swirling in my head all break.  In my classes, students choose all their own books to read, and this Skype visit was driven by them.  They loved and were talking about Dear Martin constantly, and so it made sense to have a conversation with Nic Stone. If they hadn't loved the book, or I had chosen an author for them, the effect would not have been the same.  Joy has a lot to do with choice.

As I began thinking about how to get my students writing more this semester, I had to think first of joy.  How could I develop the same atmosphere with writing that I have developed with reading?  If you read my last post, then you know that I decided that we need more independent writing.  But, just like with reading at the beginning of the semester, I knew I needed to think carefully about the structure and how I would ease kids in.  What did I mean by "independent writing"?

A Writer's Notebook is the obvious first choice.  My students have notebooks already, although last semester, they were a catch-all for any time I wanted kids to write.  Key word there being I.  Kids didn't choose what went in their notebooks; I did.  Sometimes it was a free write based on a prompt.  Sometimes it was a response to what they were reading. And sometimes it was even notes.  Why I called it a Writer's Notebook, I'm not sure; it was just a notebook.

So, this semester, in order to make it truly about writing, I needed to think about what to do.  My first thoughts went back to Nancie Atwell (Did I tell you all that I met her at NCTE!?  It was the biggest honor ever.  I mean, NANCIE ATWELL!).  I thought about writing territories lists, and what I could do to get the kids to think about topics they wanted to write about. (Read more about territories here.)  I also thought about Georgia Heard and creating heart maps (Here is a handout, or you can check out her book, Heart Maps here).  Kids love the freedom of these maps as a way to think about what is meaningful to them.  Penny Kittle also has an idea where kids trace their hands and write off the spoken word poem "Hands" by Sarah Kay. This also generates a lot of writing ideas for students. (See more here.)

In addition to mining for writing ideas, I also want to draw kids' attention to the craft of writing-- helping them to read as writers and notice the moves other writers make.  I turned to Writing With Mentors by Allison Marchetti and Rebekah O'Dell for some ideas.  Their chapter, "Mentors Show Students How to Play" was exactly what I was looking for.  As I read, "In order to grow as writers, students need safe places to play with writing--places that aren't assessed or evaluated or given a grade" (86).  Yes!  

Allison and Rebekah talk about four main sources for prompts in their notebooks:  sentences, poems, raw data, and images.  They also have a lot of great information about scaffolding writing and about how to get started at the beginning of the year (or semester, if you're me).  

After reading this chapter I felt empowered and safe.  I had a lot of concrete ways to get students writing and a lot of prompt and idea suggestions to get us started.  I almost just stopped and pulled out my lesson plan book.

But something in me was afraid that I wasn't making enough space for student choice. I read Joy Kirr's book Shift This this summer and loved the ways she handed decision-making over to students. And after the successes I've had with independent reading, I wanted to make sure that I didn't always structure the kids' time.  I also recently read Tom Newkirk's book Embarrassment:  And the Emotional Underlife of Learners. Tom talks about giving kids opportunities "to dwell in subjects of interest, what might be called "identity themes" (46).  I feel strongly that my kids' interests and passions need to be honored -- not only for free writing topics, but possibly for projects they want to pursue.

Enter my favorite Writer's Notebook guy, Ralph Fletcher.  If I had my copies of Live Writing and A Writer's Notebook at home right now I'd take pictures and show you.  But it's like -10 million degrees (or so) outside right now, and I also don't go into my big, scary high school by myself because I am a huge wimp (and who would be at school on New Years Eve?), so you'll just have to trust me on this.  These books are dog-earred, tea-stained, post-it noted, and well-loved.  If you've never seen these gems, oooh!  You are missing out!  (And, if I knew all that good stuff, why wasn't I using it already, you might well ask. I teach a READING intervention class, remember? Huh, I might have to write another post on why independent writing needs to be in reading intervention class. Well, that's going to have to wait.)

Anyway!  At home, I had Ralph's book Joy Write.  I don't know if it's his newest book (he has a lot so I often lose track), but oh, it's SO good.  It's like Ralph Fletcher was thinking, "Hmmm, what does Lynn Hagen need to make her class better right now?  I know, a book called Joy Write."  Like really, it's so perfect.  

Except I think a lot of high school teachers miss out on Ralph Fletcher's books because his target audience is elementary kids.  He's wrong, of course.  This stuff works in high school too!  Our big kids need more creativity and joy in their writing lives, for sure.

My main take away from Joy Write is the concept of Greenbelt Writing, which is "writing that is raw, unmanicured, uncurated" (39).  This is writing that is:
  • personal
  • passionate
  • joyful
  • whimsical
  • playful
  • infused with choice, humor, and voice
  • reflective of the quirkiness of childhood
And, I would just add add a little phrase to that last line "and adolescence" - I mean really.  If you teach high school, you know the quirkiness I'm talking about.

So, yes!  This is what I want in my reading intervention classroom.  My kids need space to write, not rigid 5 paragraph essays or only pieces in response to text.  They need to mine their minds for topics they want to explore, to learn to look at other texts for ways to strengthen the craft moves they know and use, and they need wide open greenbelt writing to run wild with their passions and ideas.  I can't wait to get started.

*     *     *

I have to tell you that this post was difficult to write.  I had a line from Embarrassment running through my head.  Donald Murray used to ask Tom Newkirk, "What is this about?" and I couldn't stop thinking that I wasn't sure what this post was about.  I knew I wanted to write about joy, but I also wanted to write about writing, but I was struggling with what I wanted  to create in our classroom.  

But then I remembered that this worry is exactly why I need a flood of joy surrounding writing. It's easy to get caught up in the feelings of unworthiness that invade all writers, and to end up scrapping everything you write.  If students are going to become writers, to get their voices out into the world, they have to be kind and generous with themselves.  So, I went ahead and tried it out myself.  I flicked that darn critic off my shoulder (again), sat my butt in the chair, and I wrote.

Thank you to all the wonderful mentors I mentioned in this post.  You all are amazing!

Happy New Year Everyone!


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