Posted in Equity, Leadership, Personal, Policy, TEA

Systemic Change: Why Not Ask “Why”?

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.

Posted in Leadership, Professional Learning, Reading, Workshop, writing

#TCRWP: A Week at Columbia University

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.

Stood in line to get a photo with Lucy 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!

Posted in Equity, Leadership, Personal, Professional Learning

Moving from the Safe Space to the Brave Space

Selfie with Cornelius Minor at our literacy conference…an educator who inspires me so much!

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!