Today, I Was a Teacher

This morning I was dog tired and running on empty. I decided to “go back to the gym” last night after a spirited afternoon of planning, study, and writing. Since coffee and I are “on a break,” a mug of black tea was the only solace I found amidst a desk covered in papers. My English 9 class was full of the usual suspects caught between “I skipped breakfast to sleep” and “it’s too nice outside to be in school.” We were supposed to be working on peer reviews of some big papers, but there was a new student in class. I decided to change my game.

Improvisation is usually my strong suit in teaching, but it helps if you’re well-rested and not pumped full of antihistamines. I picked out a good quote from the introduction to Kelly Gallagher’s book, Readicide to start the day.

I never know what to expect with my daily quotes and metaphors. Sometimes they inspire, sometimes they flop. This morning, I was the only flop. I wrote with the kids in my own journal and sputtered out some half-thought-through questions about defining “thinking” and “learning.” In my own head, I was doing marvelous work. I was pontificating, lecturing, and sharing some real cultural capital. I crafted supporting metaphors on the fly to explain the ancient sage’s wisdom. I pushed kids to talk more about what they meant in their summary responses. I didn’t get very far this period though.

I stalled in part because I was tired and emptying my nose every ten minutes in a sandpapery cloth someone jokingly mislabeled a “tissue,” but there was more to it than that. On a deeper level, I was failing because I was making my class about Confucius and my understanding of his words. I wasn’t doing a very good job of making my students a part of the ideas. I wasn’t letting them in beyond the invitation of “You! Speak! Impress Me!”

After abandoning the idea of scratching the prompt altogether for the next hour, I allowed another natural mutation in my pedagogical meme to occur. First, I broke out a new package of dry erase markers—that always feels good. I decided the next class was going to go differently. I planned to focus on using student responses as the fuel for the lesson rather than the goal. What they gave to me, I’d give back to them in a new form. My questions about Confucius started to take root as the students saw their own words being published and discussed. It looked a little like this:

The connections started to grow with the responses, each spawning the other in a cycle of student-driven call and response. I became a spectator, a referee of sorts, in their learning process. As I stood back and let the words fly from their mouths to the board, I almost felt in the way. “Move Mr. Moore” Darilesha hollered at me with a gentle sideways wave of her hand. I was clearly blocking the board.

The picture doesn’t say it all, but it shows enough of what happened to give you an idea. My final period of the day was one of the best in weeks. I felt ready to respond to my students’ needs and they were on their game working independently. Seeing a classroom full of students all working at their own pace, helping each other, and requesting my advice when needed is affirming and encouraging. My excitement built with each individual conversation I tended to.

Today, I was a floating tutor who occasionally addressed the whole class and posed new questions, not a distributor and arbiter of knowledge.

Today, I learned with kids. Today, I saw kids find flow.

Today, I was a teacher.

Everything Must Go!

I’ve always believed that the ability to work with bad news is a test of character. When you’re dealt a situation not to your liking, the best thing to do is focus on solutions. This past weekend while I was on Capitol Hill talking with legislators on behalf of the National Writing Project, my character was given a #2 pencil and set at a desk alone. 

Meeting with the legislative aides and Congressmen was as exciting as it was frustrating. I feel as though the ears were open in DC, but the legs were unable to take related direction from the brains. I’m no professional lobbyist, but I felt I was missing some piece of truly vital information required to make full connection with the legislators. 

Should I need a JD or an MPA to feel like I can start a productive dialogue with my own representatives in Washington? Should I feel cheated by what someone assures me is a pragmatic approach to our problem? I don’t have an intimate knowledge of how policy–or sausage–is made, but I can attest to feeling somewhat shut out. 

I passed on letters from my students to Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, II of Kansas City’s Fifth District, imploring him to support schools focused on learning and care for each student. I spoke about how we can support the professionalization of teaching, cultivate talent of those within the force, and then keep dedicated teachers in hard-to-staff schools like my own. 

As an oddly-shaped political football, education is being kicked around by both parties, but neither seems to want to run it to the end zone. We kept saying, “we need a champion, that champion could be you,” but no one seemed to think it was their role. They’d say: 

We like what you’re doing. 

What you’re doing is vital to our students. 

You have strong data to back up your claims. 

You’re even inexpensive. 

Forget it, we’re not just “inexpensive” or “cost-effective,” the National Writing Project and many of the other earmarked and authorized programs cut by Congress last month are pieces of legislation sitting on the top of the bargain bin under flashing red “SALE!” lights. “EVERYTHING MUST GO!” must mean something different to this Congress. If you don’t support these programs, they will GO away. After they do, you’ll be scurrying around in a year or so asking “why isn’t there a nationwide effort to support the teaching of writing?”

We aren’t a cost, an expenditure, or a burden; we are an investment in infrastructure. We don’t ask for handouts in order to buy fish; we ask for the time and resources so we can teach others to fish and feed themselves, and we’ve done it well for decades while always encouraging innovation and growth.

Inervess Research even alluded to a certain literacy promoting professional organization as the most cost-effective of almost any federal program, not just in education, but ever

Cutting programs with such support, history, and results as the NWP is not just disheartening to teachers and their students, it is a physical blow to our democracy’s integrity. It shakes my confidence in our leadership at every level. If teachers, parents, and students can’t believe that the government will keep its promises to promote such rich and widespread investments which are accountable and autonomous, what on earth will they believe? 

I think this about sums it up.

A Place I’ve Never Been Before

This is a guest post by Scot Squires, an Instructional Coach at the Park Hill School District in Kansas City, Missouri and a Greater Kansas City Writing Project Teacher-Consultant.

In his song, Rocky Mountain High, John Denver writes, “He was born in the summer of his 27th year  – comin’ home to a place he’d never been before.”  I can personally relate to this concept of being born later in life because my professional life began in the 2010 Greater Kansas City Writing Project Summer Institute.  Little did I know that after ten years of teaching, walking through the doors of the GKCWP SI would signify my professional birth. 

It is more than a rejuvenation, it is more than a renewed interest. Joining the National Writing Project network truly represents the birth of my educational philosophy.   I have been both humbled and empowered by magnificent hearts, minds, and souls of the NWP.  The core principles of the NWP national program model have become the guiding light for both seeking and delivering professional development in the field of education.  I find myself highly motivated by opportunities for craft mastery, professional autonomy, and philanthropic purpose of the National Writing Project.  My professional birthplace is the Greater Kansas City Writing Project, my relatives and ancestors are the entire NWP network. 

Unfortunately, the organization that gave birth to my professional life is facing great challenges today.  Because of sweeping federal cuts, continued success of the NWP network is in grave danger.  Looking further into the connection to Rocky Mountain High, John Denver writes, “Now his life is full of wonder but his heart still knows some fear of a simple thing he cannot comprehend – why they try to tear the mountains down.” 

Like Mr. Denver’s feelings for the mountain range, I feel fear for the National Writing Project and fail to understand how one of America’s longest standing, most effective educational reform networks could lose federal support.  I’m deeply saddened by the recent federal funding cut to NWP. 

I must believe that through continued advocacy, stewardship, and championship of our good work, the NWP network will not only survive, but thrive.  We must find a way to continue the phenomenal work of the NWP, my professional birthplace.