Saturday, July 7, 2012

Exploring New Paths and the Importance of Seeking Them

I want to start by saying that this blog addresses practices within my middle school classroom and what informs those practices.  Today I want to focus on that second part because what informs and shapes those practices has become my second (or third) life and has changed how I enter my middle school classroom each day.

My mom said I was reading cereal boxes in kindergarten.  I remember that.  I even had my own alarm clock that my grandmother gave me for Christmas and felt really grown up to fix my own cereal each morning.  It occurred to me recently that the reason I was so self-sufficient is that my younger brother was born that February of my kindergarten year and Mom needed me to be, but that is for another day.  What I don't remember is learning how to read, just the constant desire to always be occupied in some way with words.  My young elementary years were filled with Nancy Drew.  Later came Judy Blume (I still remember the cover of Tiger Eyes) and S.E. Hinton.  My grandmother introduced me to the mysteries of Victoria Holt, and I worked my way down that library shelf one summer.  I am definitely not as well-read as my colleagues since there have been many years in which I didn't bother to read quite so much.  But I will always remember questioning my stepson one spring about the book he kept rereading.  It was some book about magic called Harry Potter.

When I read the first book, I knew I needed the next and the next.  It had been a very long time since I had enjoyed travelling to another world, an adolescent world, and a magical one at that.  On a hand-me-down couch (from my grandmother, again) in the quiet living room of our near-suburban house, I recaptured my childhood.  I rekindled a book-loving passion and made a new connection with my stepson that we still have now--a desire for books and the need to discuss them.  After reading the first four and sharing them with my husband, we impatiently waited for the arrival of number five.  We celebrated that release date as a family by going to the local bookstore and participating in activities such as face painting, wand making, and scavenger hunt(ing?).  When they finally called our number for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, we joyously retrieved our copy (actually I think we bought two so there was less wait time for our three readers).  This midnight adventure made an impact on us as a family.  We were surrounded by passionate readers that night...a passion that we shared as well.  Our younger children have since grown up to embrace that same excitement for books, and who's to say it didn't start that night?

My husband warned me when I started teaching middle school that the students there were not all going to be like me.  I love the smell of crayons and new notebooks.  I struggle with selecting the right pens and how to organize my materials.  My students won't like school like I did and still do, he told me.  He was right, mostly.  And I wondered for a long time how I was going to teach students who didn't want to be there, who were just there because it was the law.  In those first years I just did the best I could and encouraged students in my "teacher" way--"do your best" "try this book" "do the assignment"--without much success at motivating them.  They learned the content; they did well; but they still didn't care like I wished they would.

It was when I was given the opportunity to design a new literacy class that I was able to shake things up and try new approaches.  That summer I read Carol Booth Olson's The Reading/Writing Connection.  It helped me prepare for this new semester class, but at the same time it showed me how much I needed to learn.  That feeling grew stronger as my students and I worked through those two semesters writing and reading and thinking.  We learned a lot...together.  My students learned that they didn't mind reading and writing so much, perhaps even liked it.  I learned that I was being called in a new direction.  I wanted to have this experience again.  I wanted to learn how to design literacy programs on a larger scale.

For a year now I have been a doctoral student at the University of Louisville in the College of Education and Human Development.  The end goal is a PhD in Curriculum and Instruction with a focus on literacy education.  My first experience as a doctoral student was the Louisville Writing Project, no doubt the most life-changing professional experience of my teaching career.  I've written about LWP before.  Let me assure you that you don't have to be a doctoral student (or even enrolled as a college student) to be a part of the Project.  Teachers and literacy coaches and other education professionals attend the Summer Institute to learn best classroom practices and to have the opportunity to write their own pieces. It helped me to see several pieces of my writing go through the writing process, including several revisions.  Yet, the bigger growth for me was in preparing professional presentations, including three LWP mini-conferences and the KCTE/LA state conference.

The more classes I attend, the more I see others present, and the more I present my own presentations, the clearer the goal becomes.  Kids need to hold onto that excitement of first making sense of words and of language, and we need to help them.  Students need to understand how to make sense of different content areas and those specific literacy needs.  Families need to love books together, or at least appreciate them as a means of maintaining communication with one another.  Schools need to, well, schools need to encourage reading and writing in every content area, but not just by using passages out of the textbooks.  Silent doesn't mean learning is not happening during silent sustained reading.  I guarantee that if kids are given the opportunity to read and then the opportunity to talk about books, then learning is happening; there are about twelve Common Core standards in reading, writing, and speaking and listening that can be addressed when that kind of reading and discussion happens.

As I begin year two of my doctoral program, I am beginning to get a sense of my long-term research goals.  I want to see how school-wide content area literacy practices affect students' motivation to read.  My gut is telling me that motivation, even for a middle school student, will improve with the development of a deeper thinking questioning model and more intentional reading and writing practices in every classroom.  It may be difficult to prove, however, because it takes investment and buy-in.  So for now I resume my college studies, learn from the best, and try to become the best I can be for my students.  As I do that, I encourage you to explore the National Writing Project site and get involved in any programs your local Writing Projects are sponsoring.  You will not be disappointed.  In fact, you may be finding yourself exploring your own new path.  Good luck.