In this work, it often seems like we are given reasons why something cannot or will not happen when change is pursued. Whether it’s teachers wanting to add a specific book title to a classroom library or book club, or an ELAR coordinator wanting to dismantle leveled libraries on a campus/in their district…the roadblocks feel so similar. We hear things like “change is slow here” or “our community isn’t ready”…or even a downright “No.” When I hear these things, only one word comes to mind…why?
Let me be more specific. I’m not asking for the specific rationale behind the response. I know why many teachers still level their libraries, or why certain titles make parents or administrators uncomfortable. I guess I’m asking for the “why behind the why”….why does it have to be that way? Who makes the rules?
Last summer at the Teachers College in NYC, Lucy Calkins discussed at length the origin of American education systems. She talked about the origin of the U.S. education system, a system that was not meant to educate all, but a select few. Challenging us to reflect, we questioned how much has truly changed about classroom instruction from this original model? Not a whole lot, from my perspective. But everything else has changed. The WORLD has changed…people has changed…what is considered “literacy” has changed. Text is everywhere, thanks to the digital age. The amount of information available online doubles every twelve hours. No longer are we teachers the gatekeepers of the knowledge, dispensing it upon those we deem worthy. Rather, we are tasked with helping students pilfer through the information, finding information that is interesting and useful, teaching them how to examine information through a critical lens, and how to use it in meaningful ways.
When I walk into campuses and still see archaic beliefs and practices, I don’t lay blame on teachers who are working hard to do the best they can with what they know and understand. I don’t necessarily “blame” anyone. The higher up the chain I go, I observe so many stresses and pressures that I can empathize with and see motive behind certain choices. However, in my gut, I cannot let go of the fact that, if we are ever going to truly be a part of transformative educational practices that truly empower all students, we have to start questioning our practices, and the people in power have to set the example.
Superintendents, Directors, Coordinators, Administrators—I beg you to examine the systems in place in your prospective districts/campuses, and simply ask “Why?” Why does the dress code include/not include certain things? Why did we choose this specific discipline policy? Why is there an imbalance in who gets office referrals in our schools? Why do students seem apathetic toward learning? Why are teachers seemingly exhausted/unhappy? We must also do this with the understanding that, when we uncover uncomfortable issues, a 6 hour professional development will not fix them. Neither will one more new initiative, or a book study. We must be vulnerable, and we must be brave. Change takes time, and teachers are waiting/begging for brave leaders who are willing to invest the time to lock arms with them long-term to make systemic changes for the benefit of kids, leaders who will get in the uncomfortable dirt of change without panicking and searching for the nearest cleaning station.
What happens next? Teachers will join you in this work. (Consider this your own personal “If you build it, they will come” situation) You will start to see teachers more willing to ask themselves why DO they have those libraries leveled, or those seating charts in rows. They will be brave, because you have given them permission to do so…but they can’t do it alone. They need an example. Consider yourself a living, breathing mentor text.
A little over a week ago, I was settling into a hotel room in Frisco, TX prepping for a weekend of being “on.” The Texas Council of Teachers of English Language Arts hosted their annual conference at the Frisco Convention Center, and I have the privilege of being a part of leadership this year (I am the Teacher Development Section Chair). This was my third TCTELA conference to attend, but my first to attend as a “leader” of sorts. I joined the board in September, so I wasn’t really sure what to expect.
Before I start reflecting on this year’s experiences, I’d like to take a second and talk about what TCTELA has done for me as a whole, in both my career and my person. About 4 years ago, I began to gain a sense of restlessness in my work. I was a high school teacher who LOVED students but wanted an opportunity to stretch my legs and grow. I’d seen TCTELA mentioned in a tweet or two, and saw a link for proposals. I took a shot in the dark and submitted a proposal for a session on digital writing tools, and was approved for a roundtable. My principal paid for my registration to attend the conference that year (Galveston 2018) as long as I paid for my travel, food and hotel. My family came with me and we got an Air BNB to make a weekend of it. I knew approximately ZERO people there. However, the overall electric buzz that filled the halls, rooms, and sessions gave me the sense that I was not just Caty Dearing, English teacher, one of many within my district. It was my first sense of the larger community of ELAR professionals across the state and even the nation, and that my school district was but a small cog in the larger wheel of this work. I started following the organizational leadership on Twitter and came back to my classroom inspired and re-energized to teach and teach well.
That summer I left teaching to serve at one of the 20 regional service centers in Texas as a secondary literacy content coach/consultant. Talk about a huge leap—and feeling like a fish out of water! I shifted my Twitter account to be mostly educational (goodbye, Bachelor recap posts!) and started gaining the confidence to dialogue with the literacy leaders I so admired. By the time TCTELA 2019 arrived, I’d been accepted to another roundtable and had developed Twitter relationships with several of the attendees and board members. I had the courage to introduce myself to several of these people, and ask to get plugged in. Again, each session felt like chugging a Gatorade in the desert; I returned to my cubicle with a sense of purpose and a few new connections in the work.
In September, I had the opportunity to dive into the behind-the-scenes work of TCTELA. As a section chair, I have the privilege to facilitate discussions across the state with coordinators, coaches, principals, professors, all seeking ways to support other teacher developers. I knew it would be a great opportunity to develop more leadership skills, but after reflecting on TCTELA 2020, it has become so much more than that…which leads me to my top five takeaways from this weekend.
5. Getting my professional cup filled by incredible, dynamic speakers.
If you follow me on Twitter, you may have noticed that I’ve taken a bit of a break from the edu-conversations. I’m extremely passionate about a lot of things, things that are hard, things that hurt, things that feel big and heavy and immovable. Sometimes (and this speaks to my privilege) it just feels like too much, and I have to step back. Laurie Halse Anderson spoke about rape culture and consent with such boldness, and Clint Smith talked about the single story narrative of history we often experience, and how to challenge and question this. By the end of the weekend, I really felt more energized and focused to dive back into those difficult conversations as an active participant, not a bystander.
4. An invigorated sense of purpose and interest in the Teacher Development section
Coming on in September, the few active members of the section and I decided to start from scratch. We consistently had about 5-6 people that would show up on our monthly Zooms, contribute ideas, and share their expertise. I remember the feeling of pride we felt when we released that first newsletter in December!
At the conference, we each had tables for our sections. Every time I passed our table, I saw a section member talking to others and handing out buttons. We had a full table at our Sunday “Coffee and Conversations,” everyone excitedly talking about all of the ways we can address leader burnout and other heavy issues. I’m pumped to take that enthusiasm into the new year, and I think that by TCTELA 2021 our section will have created/shared a wealth of new resources! It was truly so much fun and warmed my heart to share space with so many COOL people.
3. Rebekah O’Dell’s session on teachers as writers
This session gets its own bullet point, because it tapped into a part of myself that’s been dormant for a really long time. In my last post, I talked a lot about the crippling fear I’ve been experiencing every time I try to write. Rebekah approached this idea of teacher-writers from a different angle, providing ideas and options to just start the process. I found myself excited about several ideas, where before I’d found myself drowning in a sea of “I have nothing new to offer here.” I’ve been able to set aside time to write/journal in small chunks. Hey, this blog post is proof of that! I’m excited to see what I’ve written by 2021, even if it’s all writing that’s just for me.
2. Friendships, friendships, friendships
As I said at the beginning of this post, my entrance into the TCTELA world was one of a stranger in a sea of strangers that had developed into professional connections, mostly via Twitter. This weekend I was able to spend actual face-to-face time with the teachers, coaches, coordinators, and professors that I’ve only ever Zoomed and tweeted with. We spend each night down in the lobby, laughing and brainstorming over wine and hummus. It’s amazing how this conference brings people together, and I’m entering the 2020 year with a cadre of people who care very deeply about this work, and about me, and that feels pretty cool.
A newfound sense of confidence in myself as a literacy leader (bye bye imposter syndrome)
Something unlocked in me this weekend. I’ve lived most of my adult life fearing the concept of leadership, and considered myself more of a follower. Every time I encountered a promotion or an opportunity to lead, I chalked it up to “right place right time” or a really great interview. Over the past few months, I’ve been feeling a sense of pride in the work that I’m doing at the service center and a desire for MORE. I’m fairly certain that the other four takeaways listed contributed to this, but I truly had a “come-to-Jesus” moment with myself. I am a literacy leader, and that has nothing to do with a board position or a job.
I have contributions to make to this work.
I can confidently introduce myself to people in the field that I look up to without worrying if I’m good enough, smart enough, etc.
I can write things that might help other people.
I can confidently volunteer my thoughts, ideas, and concerns without apologizing first.
What I hope other conference attendees gained from this past weekend is a similar understanding. Cornelius Minor said in a presentation I attended last year (and this is paraphrased based on my memory), “If you’re waiting for someone to give you permission to lead this work, you will always be waiting.”
Your voice matters. You have something to contribute to this community. You are valuable to the ELAR collective, not because of position or job, but because you dedicate your time and heart to students, and that is important, and people need to hear what you have to say. I’m dedicating myself to this mantra, and would love to support you as well!
There’s nothing like great professional development that returns me to this space. For the past six months, I have grappled and struggled through the reality of “educator as writer” in the digital spaces I navigate daily. I began this blog as an attempt to practice what I preach, and yet—time after time, writing is the thing that always gets pushed to the side.
Time. There never seems to be enough time. I’m constantly pushing writing aside for the other more seemingly urgent needs of my family, my colleagues, the teachers I support…pretty much any and every need except for that of myself.
But when I really consider my time, I don’t think that it’s the scheduling that really keeps me from opening up the browser and tapping key after key…I still struggle with that ridiculous demon of imposter syndrome, consistently feeling as though what I have to say is nothing new to the conversation, that someone has already written something more articulate and better-researched about whatever topic I’d like to approach.
I put a lot of pressure on myself to deliver “academic discourse.” As an educator, the personal of digital “edu-celebrity” is real. We see leaders in the field leading Twitter chats, each set of 280 characters full of insight, pushing the thinking of others in the field with each like and retweet. Each blog is full of hyperlinks, citations, current research in the field, student samples…and so much pressure on the educators like me who want to be a part of the conversation but feel just so inadequate to do so.
This post isn’t a solution to imposter syndrome by any means. It’s also not a criticism of the people who do such incredible work to write and inform on Twitter, blogs, etc. It’s more of a self-affirmation that I don’t have to be edu-famous, and that is okay.
I’m giving myself permission to write about things that I’m thinking, regardless of how long the conversations and research have been happening in the field of education or other.
I’m giving myself permission to write about non-education related things, to explore topics and ideas that are important to me not just as an educator, but as a human being.
I’m giving myself permission to write imperfectly, messy, redundantly.
Finally, I’m giving myself permission to write for myself, not for others. My top writing goal for 2020 is not to become published, acquire x amount of followers, subscribers, etc. My goal is to connect with my writerly identity: who is Caty Dearing, writer? What does she care about? What topics bring her joy, peace, satisfaction through the writing process?
If you’re like me and you need someone to give you permission, I invite you to join me. Let’s shift back to writing as an exploration of identity and thought together, casting off the pressures of the digital edusphere and see where writing for joy takes us.
I just got back home to Texas from the best professional development week of my career. I attended the Grades 6-8 Summer Writing Institute at the Teacher’s College Reading & Writing Project, at Columbia University. TCRWP is manned by Lucy Calkins, the mother of workshop model and creator of the Units of Study. As a secondary literacy coach for 70+ districts, I have been doing my best to support teachers as they voice a need for more time, for help understanding how to give students choice, what “self-sustained reading” and “reflective writing” look like in their classrooms, and for ideas on how to build capacity in their below-level readers and writers. I have been a proponent of writing workshop for years, workshop being the single most joyful time I spent in my classroom, and the structure within which students saw the most growth. I arrived in New York on Sunday, eager to explore the city and learn as much as I possibly could.
The first morning, I arrived 20 minutes before registration to an already lengthy line. I was given a tote bag with a notebook, a binder of materials, a book on writing workshop, a book full of mentor texts, and other various goodies. We were ushered into Riverside Church, a beautiful architecture that took my breath away. Over 1,200 educators, grades 3-8, filed into the church, all eager for the first keynote, given by none other than Lucy Calkins herself.
Though small in stature, Lucy’s words had large impact on myself and those around me. She challenged us to see the value of writing as it helps us cope with trauma, as it gives us voice and power, and as it helps us to access new information. She reminded us that this work, teaching writing, is ultimately about “I see you.” Writing is vulnerable…it is revelatory of the people we are, the people we pray we don’t become, and the people we want to be. “I want us to be brave rebels…dancing for a writing workshop that invites students to be open, vulnerable, passionate…let us dance for a writing workshop that helps us truly see our kids, where they truly see each other,” Lucy stated. I couldn’t write fast enough, my hands cramping from notetaking within an hour on Monday morning.
This feeling of finger fatigue was a common theme throughout the week. Each day, we would meet with a small group specific to 7th & 8th grade instructors. My group was led by Cheney Munson, who was an absolute delight. Have you ever been around a teacher who made you think to yourself, “I would have LOVED to have been in his class!” ? That is Cheney. The way in which he spoke to us constantly felt like a friendly invitation rather than a rigid command; as a result, I wrote more (as a student) in his small group than I have in years. Small group time consisted of the “nuts and bolts” of writing workshop. Cheney would teach us about a structure, then would model pieces in which we became students. We learned about mini lessons, gathering spaces, conferencing, small group instruction, sharing and celebrating, and gained specific tools to help students generate ideas and be intentional with talk. We learned about partnerships and strategic coaching. And we wrote. We wrote daily, and often. By the end of the week, we had developed a closely-knit writing community with our group.
I also went to a large group session each day for 6th-8th grade educators led by none other than Mary Ehrenworth! Mary was so clever and funny, and clearly so passionate about working with adolescents. Mary would approach the work we did each day in small group through a larger lens. She would give context to the theory behind the work and would provide other methods and ideas to help students gain access into the work. Each day, Mary would make fun “NYC” recommendations and would model various strategies for us, regaling us with stories from her adolescence that left us audibly reacting (ask me about the stapler story)!
After large group, we were dismissed for lunch, then returned for choice workshops. I gained more resources for offering representation in texts, went to a session on management and structure within workshop, and went to two graphic novel/cartoon workshops that were so enjoyable!
At the end of each day, we had a collective keynote. Two of my favorite keynotes were Gene Luen Yang and Cornelius Minor. Gene Luen Yang, author and illustrator, used comics to tell his own story as well as giving insight into how comics bring stories to life. I had never known the history of Superman as an opposition to the Klan and am so excited for Yang’s issue of Superman coming out this October! Cornelius Minor had come to our literacy conference as a keynote speaker in July, and I really enjoyed chatting with him then. We’ve since become Twitter friends, and he truly inspired me to continue pursuing leadership and refusing to sit silently, waiting for others to make change happen in the world.
If you follow me on Twitter, you know that there is an entire other level of PD happening online! I so enjoyed sharing my thoughts and hearing the thoughts of others during the week using the #tcrwp hashtag. I even recorded some Periscope recaps on the first 3 days!
Ultimately, this week was the best professional development I’ve ever attended, hands down! Being around likeminded educators in an environment that focuses on the heart of students and our belief in students definitely recharged my batteries. I can only imagine how incredible the reading institute will be next week, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t sad to miss it.
Stay tuned for more blog posts focused on specific reading and writing topics, strategies, and tools! I can’t wait to share my learning with all of you!
Last week, we hosted a literacy conference at work. Incredible educators such as Cornelius Minor, Lester Laminack, Pam Allyn and Dr. Lindsey Moses were all there sharing their work with 450+ teachers in Texas. Every time I get a chance to learn from the “best” in the field, I simultaneously feel inspired/full and slightly insecure. You see, one of my lofty goals in life is to be a writer. I’m a researcher and a voracious reader, and I can play school like no one’s business. However, when it comes to actually putting pen to paper, I withdraw.
One of my colleagues put a term to this passivity last week. In a moment of inspiration/word vomit, I shared how I was feeling about my own inadequacies. “Oh, you have imposter syndrome,” she said. She later explained that imposter syndrome is this feeling of inadequacy, the instinct that there is someone better/smarter/more well-equipped than you to accomplish a thing. When I go to write, or collect my thoughts, I often think about the incredible scholars publishing text and speaking all over the world on the subjects I’m passionate about, and I withdraw my voice every time. Why would I write about text access when Donalyn Miller already does it so beautifully? Why engage in written conversation around LGBTQ+ literature and student support when I’m straight, and there are queer educators already elbows deep into the work? Why write my queries about privilege and race when, as a white woman, I’m almost certain to make a misstep? I constantly try to convince myself that my voice isn’t a necessary part of the conversation, although this sentiment is the polar opposite of what I would teach my students. I recognize this “imposter syndrome” as an unhealthy thought/insecurity. But what next?
Earlier in the day, I’d been chatting with a group of literary educators and we’d been talking about the terror of using our voice and putting our thoughts out there for the world. “We just need a safe space,” I’d stated. Brian, a work friend who was working in close proximity to us, whirled his chair around. “You gotta get out of your safe space,” he said to us. I was confused–don’t we all need a safe space to test the more risky thoughts in our heads? “You have to move from the safe space to the brave space, or you’ll never accomplish change,” he stated.
This phrase has been running on repeat in my head all week. What does it mean to move towards the “brave space”? When I truly reflect on my research and teaching, I find that I indeed tend to play it safe. In my attempts to address my privilege and biases, I often discuss these with close friends that I know will correct me out of love if I am wrong or misinformed. When attempting to establish myself as an ally to the LGBTQ+ community, I hold back from having conversations with specific audiences because I don’t want to deal with the conservative backlash. My heart demands radical thoughts and radical change, but I’ve been paralyzed, self-imposing voicelessness onto the words in my brain and heart.
This blog is proof of it. I started this page in October to battle the hypocrisy I noticed in my practiced. Here would be an online space to use my voice, to explore new ideas, to speak my truth! The last time I’ve written anything? October.
One thing is for sure…the brave space is a space where I want to live. What does this mean for me? I’m going to, as Brene Brown says, “rumble with vulnerability.” I am going to be my authentic self, and I am going to write about my thoughts and wonderings even if I am the only one who sees them. I’m going to take risks. I’m going to start brainstorming projects and seeing them through. I’m going to work on/through getting in my own way, because ultimately, I care about students and I care about my fellow educators. I’m proud to do the work that I do, and I believe in the future of education.
Raise a glass to living in the brave space. Deep breaths, everyone!
It’s an experiment, a dumping ground, one big question, a million different answers.
On Saturday, October 20, NCTE encouraged teachers and students everywhere to share why we write. There were videos, lesson plans, all sorts of great resources shared. I reflected on the writing life of my students and shared many of my beliefs on writing.
What I soon realized was that I should have been using the hashtag #whyIshouldwrite.
It’s so easy to get caught up in the work of learning about literacy that I forget to foster my own craft. I’m going to do my very best to use this space as a place to curate, create, and contemplate all things literacy…and maybe a little bit of life also.
One of my students used to say often, “I never know what I think until I write about it.” My hope is that through writing, I will be able to truly extend my understanding of literacy, of voice, and of people.