The other day I had the opportunity to accompany five Wiley students to the 39th annual Urbana School District Young Authors Celebration. I have written quite a bit about the Young Authors program in the past and continue to feel a great deal of gratitude that I get to work in a district that so thoroughly supports this program for our students in grade K-8.
During the celebration, we got to listen to a professional storyteller, Mama Edie, who told students that we are all storytellers: any time we come home from doing something and start off with, “Guess what?!” we are preparing to tell a story. I love telling stories. It is often the way that I introduce new topics in my classroom, whether it is fractions (talking about the time I messed up a recipe because I didn’t double the ingredients correctly), or early American history (the story of the Revolutionary War), I am always telling stories.
I also love listening to stories. My students have wonderful experiences and they rarely shy from telling them, no matter how silly or how serious they may be. I listen to podcasts as I bike to work so I can listen to the stories of other school leaders, I watch documentaries, television shows, and movies to listen to the stories others have to tell, and I surround myself with music to embrace those stories, too.
So it should be no surprise that, when given the opportunity, I find ways to let my students tell stories through their writing. Inspired by an activity I used at the Young Authors celebration yesterday, I had my students today engage in collaborative storytelling using Rory’s Story Cubes to start the stories.
Students broke up into groups of four and spread out in the room. Each group was given a sheet of paper, a pencil, and four random story cubes. Then they were given five minutes to start telling their stories. Every five minutes, they would rotate papers, read what the previous group wrote, and continue the story, using the story cubes if needed or just picking up where they left off. This provided a great way for them to tell stories together, have fun, and work on writing, all at once.
As students read each others’ stories, they began revising and editing, making corrections and clarifying confusing points. They supported one another and engaged in the writing process in a way that they don’t often do. While I won’t be able to do a writing activity like this every day, it was a great way to kick off the return of Mr. Valencic teaching writing. (My student teacher is finished on Friday and so we decided to transition back some instructional control to me today, starting with writing so that he wouldn’t start a new unit and have me finish.)
How have you engaged in collaborative storytelling? Do you find it valuable?
[NOTE: The following is a review I wrote for MiddleWeb, an online organisation all about teaching and learning in the middle grades, which they define as grades 4-8. I have written four reviews for them previously, all of which can be found here. This review will likely be on their website in the next two or three weeks. In the meantime, you can read it now.]
Quick! Grab a pen or pencil or open up a new document on your computer. Ready? Good. Now, write down the name of every initiative you school or district has adopted since you started working there. Go ahead, I’ll wait. All finished? Okay. Now, circle all of the ones that you can prove are improving student learning and growth. How many initiatives did you list? Five? Ten? Twenty? More? How many did you circle? One? Two? Zero?
If there is anything that school leaders and policymakers are frustratingly good at doing, it is coming up with new initiatives for classrooms, schools, and districts. Whether the initiatives are focused on academics, behavior, instruction, culture, family engagement, teacher quality, or any number of possibilities, there is not a school in the nation that doesn’t have at least one new initiative put into place every year. But what do we do after we initiate the initiative? How do we know if it is actually making a difference? Are we even bothering to check? Or do we just start something new and keep doing it mechanically, thinking to ourselves that this, too, shall pass? Has the Shiny New Thing become so commonplace that we don’t even care if it works or not?
Dr. Nikki C. Woodson, an educational leader, and James W. Frakes, a business consultant who has spent much of his career working with the manufacturing industry, both believe that the problem with initiatives is not the initiatives themselves, but the lack of intentionality and monitoring. In their book, Is It Working in Your Middle School?, they provide a simple framework for identifying appropriate initiatives and monitoring them with consistency so that teachers, leaders, and other stakeholders can separate the wheat from the chaff and put into place programs, policies, and practices that will lead to meaningful, lasting changes in your school.
While focusing on middle schools, the authors are quick to note that their framework, based on proven quality assurance processes, can be used in any school setting and, indeed, in any organization that wants to know if what they are doing is actually making a difference. Their process will help anyone with an interest in improving their school to identify all of the current initiatives, or programs in place, eliminate the ones that have no discernible purpose, set S.M.A.R.T. goals, identifying quantifiable strategies, assess the efficacy of the strategies, monitor for success, and plan for next steps to the school improvement process truly continuous. To help the reader through the process, Woodson and Frakes provide templates for reflection, goal setting, planning, and monitoring which can be either copied from the book or downloaded for free through a website given. They also use a case study to model how their framework has been used to change a middle school’s approach to improvement plan goals.
Classrooms, schools, and districts are constantly adapting as they try to keep up with the latest research, best practices, and the ever-changing landscape of education in the 21st century. These adaptations are not, in and of themselves, a bad thing; they can push a school to grow and improvement. Growth and improvement will only happen, though, if teachers and leaders work together to monitor the changes and keep asking each other two simple questions: Is it working? How do we know? If you are concerned that the programs you are using in your classroom, school, and/or district are not making a difference in student achievement but are not sure how to prove it, or you are convinced that your programs are working but need evidence to justify continuing them, this is the book for you! You may not be able to stem the tide of Shiny New Things coming your way, but you will be able to show which ones are making a difference in the lives of your students and which ones are just passing fads.
I have a confession to make: the reason I haven’t been blogging nearly as much as I used doesn’t actually have all that much to do with time constraints, although graduate school definitely did contribute to the issue. I haven’t been in graduate classes in 11 months, and yet I still haven’t been blogging all that much.
No, the reason is much simpler: I have spent too much time staring at blank pages and simply walking away from the computer.
I have been blogging for over six years. I love talking about education. I love sharing what I do and why I do it. I have been fortunate to have so many amazing experiences over the years, whether it was attending conferences and workshops, presenting to colleagues, leading professional development, reading phenomenal books, collaborating with other teachers and, of course, simply teaching in the classroom every day.
And yet I’ve been in a slump all year long that I just don’t seem to be able to break out of. I feel like so many of the things that we are doing in my classroom are things I have already blogged about. I have a constant fear that my blog has become stale and uninteresting. After all this time, I still don’t know who actually reads these posts. I certainly don’t get that many views and I get even fewer comments.
Of course, I don’t blog for the page views or the comments. In fact, I blog for myself: to give myself an outlet for reflecting on my professional practice and to keep a record of positive events in the classroom. But somehow I find myself opening a new blog post page and then… nothing.
Just a blank page.
So what should I do? What do I write about when I have nothing to write about? What I have been doing is walking away, thinking I might have something else to write about later. But, clearly, that hasn’t been happening. That’s how it has been a couple of days since my last post.
So today I decided a new strategy. I was staring at a blank page for a few minutes and then I just started writing. I wasn’t worried about the topic, nor was I worried about what others might think about my stream-of-consciousness blogging. Instead, I just started typing.
And this is what happened. Four hundred words later and I haven’t really said anything about my classroom or my day, but I have written about what I do when I find myself staring at a blank page.
I feel like I have heard that advice before.
Oh, that’s right, I have.
When my students tell me they don’t know what to write about them, I tell them to not worry about it and just start writing. The most important audience we ever write for is ourselves. Then we eventually think that someone else might want to read what we wrote. I suppose it is time I start taking my own advice. Instead of thinking, “I have nothing to write about that others want to read,” I need to start thinking, “I need to just start writing and let the ideas flow together.”
The funny thing is that, about 200 words ago, I realised that there were things I could write about regarding my classroom and my day, but now that I have committed nearly 600 words to this topic of dealing with writer’s block, I feel like it would be silly to delete it all to write about something completely different. Instead, I will save the idea for Monday.
What do you do when you run into writer’s block?