Born Again Teacher

blogger-image--2079890276Last Summer was a born again experience for me. My colleagues jokingly say its because I joined The Writing Project “cult.” But I think that any one who loves teaching has a sort of religious experience with it. Think about it–it’s a daily applied philosophy.  For those who love teaching, our educational world view and its applied methodology is something we do in our classes daily, reflect on in our drives home in the afternoon, improve through reading books by the gurus, plan lessons in the evenings at our dining room tables, and evaluate assessments over the weekend after we’ve tucked our kids into bed or spent some quality time with our spouses or loved ones–and for those who love teaching, this job, this life long decision to teach gives us meaning and purpose in our lives. And so when I say that this summer was like a born again experience for me, I mean it, all joking aside.

There are a few reasons why this summer was so impactful–one, because I learned so much through the lessons of my peers and the experts who had graduated from The Writing Project program. The other, because two personal experiences happened that summer, which only magnified all that I had learned. One, my husband started his chemotherapy for stage 3 thymoma, and two–a colleague of mine died unexpectedly, leaving behind hundreds of mourning teens who had been touched by her spirit and teaching over the years here at Chaparral High School, where we work.

So the first–supporting my husband through the trial of cancer and chemotherapy, ignited in me an extra fire for nurture and love. Life is precious. People are precious. And we all will experience trials that will test our character and define our priorities.

Then when my colleague Pamela Varnam died, I watched student after student mourn, so many coming forward at her funeral and memorial to share how she had been there for them during tough times, encouraged them, taught them, and mentored them. I looked back at the last few years of my own teaching and thought, if I died, would I have left the same legacy with my students. Sadly, I came to the decision that I wouldn’t have. Not the last few years. Over the last few years, I had lost that close connection with my kids. I had entered a valley in my love for teaching students. And I wanted so desperately to climb out.

There are numerous reasons why I had entered a valley, but none of that matters for this post. What matters is that this summer, I decided to change everything. This is the gyst of what changed:

1. Read less in quantity, but spend more time on each reading to boost the quality of analysis and understanding, incorporating more vocabulary, reading strategies, analysis of writing style and rhetoric, along with the message, and offering opportunities to mimic that writing style.

2. Keep literary analysis for the classroom and have homework time spent on activities they could do on their own with minimal guidance from me (Articles of the Week Readings and Responses, independent reading, studying root words and notes, and writing their passion blogs).

3. Add in a Passion Blog Project to my curriculum which offers prompts, mentor texts to model, drafting, peer evaluations, revision time, publication onto blogs, and final teacher evaluation. Additionally, best blog articles are voted on for publication as a guest column in the school newspaper (I set that up with our school newspaper ahead of time to make sure). Blog days were reserved for every Friday. The typical English 11 American Literature curriculum would be reserved for the other 4 days of the week.

4. Fun routines established for each day of the week’s bellwork– Monday is memorization preparation day where kids preview the weeks rootwords with peers and brainstorm example words they already know that include the roots.Then they make flash cards for homework and study them the rest of the week. Tuesday would be Tones of Poetry day, where they start the period by listening or reading a poem or viewing a spoken poem on Youtube–no analysis or discussion. Just appreciate. Wednesday would be Word of the Week Wednesdays–6 minutes of writing on the Word of the Week. Thursdays would be Throwback Thursdays–in which they did a warm up activity that reviewed terms, concepts, or skills learned earlier in the week or the week before. And finally, Flashy Friday–in which they “flashed” their partner with flash cards of the root words they made to see if they memorized those definitions over the week and were prepared for the quiz.

My goal this year was to do a few things–First, to foster in my kids a love for writing which I no longer had in my classroom as all writing had been confined to literary analysis or research. Second, to build a supportive and nurturing environment where I could connect with my kids and have them see me as a mentor and coach rather than an unapproachable hard ass as I felt I had become. And third–through the changes in quantity and quality of literary analysis, writing genre expansion, and classroom environment, I wanted to build skills in my students in such a way that they would actually show an increased proficiency of the standards than I had typically seen in previous years using my previous methodology.

Well guess what? It worked! This year has been an amazing year. One of the best in my entire experience teaching. My students passion blogs have lead me to learn so much about my students and connect with them. They see it as well because I actually respond to their blogs with specific and encouraging comments, much more than I have ever written for typical literary analysis and research writing. Their scores on the grade level common assessments are great–my students are scoring at a higher proficiency than previous years. Student grades have gone up. I have more A’s and B’s this year and less F’s than ever before.  The rubrics have not changed either. Same standards and expectations. Just different approach in getting there.

I have two Collab classes this year, which is our terminology for having a cluster of kids with IEP’s in the class, thus requiring a second special Ed teacher with whom to collaborate. Normally, my teaching methodology did not work well enough for those kids to grasp the concepts and skills I was asking of them. They struggled in my classes. This year, I have students in these clusters saying that for the first time in their life, they understand and like English class. And for the first time in their lives they are getting positive remarks about their writing. And its not inauthentic responses I am writing. Their passion blogs are good! It is amazing what happens when you have students apply skills and concepts from mentor texts to writing topics that they actually care about. I’ve got kids writing on bullying, dirt bike riding, travel, make up, fashion, mechanics, soccer, basketball, health and exercise, you name it. They are writing informational texts, persuasive, expressive, even satires. Next semester, our 11th grade common assessments are focused on fiction and poetry, so I will have my students write more narratives and poetry then.

My two collab teaching aides love what we are doing in our class and how they have seen their students blossom. The teachers in the other grade levels and in my own are asking questions about what we are doing in this classroom as the buzz around campus is spreading, especially when great writing is turning out in the guest column of our school newspaper and is labeled as a blog written in my class. What I like as well, is that I find the curriculum to be equally fulfilling for the students who have higher dreams don't workunless you doskills as well. Most of the Gate kids by 11th grade had moved on to AP Language, but I still have some high-skilled kids who are taking other AP classes and just didn’t take it for English. I find them to be engaged and enjoying the class as well.

I already have ideas on how I’m going to tweak and improve what I have started this semester for next year, so it goes even more smoothly and successfully. In the meantime, I want to stand on the mountain top and share with the world how much I love my students and my job, and how excited I am to be making a difference. And I want to help other teachers who may be in a valley in their own love for teaching and show them how to climb up to the top of not just a hill, but a mountain too.

Here are some of the books that have inspired me!


Life as a Speckled Bird: a powerful memoir about a woman’s quest for independence and love

Theresa Hemsath holds the copy of the memoir Life as a Speckled BirdI am so excited to announce that my very first client’s memoir is officially published! I started working with this wise woman last year, interviewing her about her life, in order to pull together the stories from hers. As an elderly woman approaching the end of her life, she is no doubt like many people in the world–looking back at her life and wanting to put in perspective, and determining its purpose in the big scheme of eternity.

I whole-heartedly love memoirs myself because they are real. Some of my favorites include Alcohol: A Love Story,  Hypocrite in a Poofy White Dress, and Running in the Family. These are real stories about real people. I have certainly learned from these memoirs and especially from interviewing this woman that we do not need fiction to have a good story.

the back cover of Life as a Speckled Bird is Intriguing! It took a few weeks of interviews to pull all her stories together, but let me tell you–I laughed and I cried, and I wept with this woman as I walked in her shoes during those one-hour interviews during the Fall of 2014. When it was all over, I thanked her for her wisdom and her desire to take the bitterness and pain in her life and use it for good–to teach and to warn others about how family dysfunction can affect people their entire lives. Her stories made me want to go home and cling to my children and to my husband and speak nothing but hope and love into their ears. It made me look at my childhood baggage and how I could use it for good.

While her book is not published for the public, but for her friends and family–the 50 people who will read this book and their own friends and family members will have difficult time putting it down.It will be an amazing record/imprint for her children, grandchildren, and their future generations.

If you are thinking about your own life and wanting to get it down, no matter what your age, I highly suggest writing your memoirs now while your memory is still good and the individual stories don’t fade or merge with others. I work for an awesome Memoir Writing company called The Sound of Your Voice Memoir which offers workshops on how to write your own memoir,  but also offers help in writing yours along with some amazing memoir packages, so you can have a numerous copies to give to your friends and family.

Do you write your memoirs? If you blog them, I’d love to read some. Share some of your blog links to memoirs you have written in the comments below as well as any questions about memoir writing. I’d be happy to give you some tips.  I myself have written a few memoirs from my life. Rather than putting it together as one long story, right now, my memoirs are smaller stories about different episodes of my life. I do hope and plan to one day thread them all together into one book.

If you are thinking about writing your own or want to improve your writing craft, I highly recommend this classic book that most writers will swear by–On Writing Well, 30th Anniversary Edition: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction.

This book has been monumental in my own craft as a writer. You will enjoy it too. The writer is entertaining as he is informative. I use an affiliate link here. So if you choose to buy it on Amazon with my link, you will not be paying extra. But Amazon shares with me some change from their profits to support my blog.

Teenagers These Days: rantings of a scribbling woman

I’ve got a stack of ninth grade English class essays in front of me that I just started reading. I’m down to the last five and am learning so much about my students. It’s perfect that we plan for this essay the first six weeks because for the kids who actually do the essay (an autobiographical narrative), it does teach me much about why they are the way they are.

But this year, I am especially sad by what I am reading. Sure, the bad grammar and elementary vocabulary is depressing, but more importantly, it’s the stories. I asked my students to write about a time in their life that was monumental or that signified a turning point for them, a moment which in some ways defined who they were or why they were who they were. This year, I’ve read some stories that make my heart break. Stories of drug addicted mothers, foster care, abusive fathers, and gang deaths. Stories of abandonment and a desperate need for love.

Sometimes I think I will have to read these essays over and over again when I want to get mad at my students for not being what I think they should be. Yes, they should try hard. Yes, they should keep getting back up when they fall and reach their goals. But lets face it, where are they going to learn that from? The home is the most important environment these kids have and most of them are broken. In the town I teach in, divorce is common; drug use, gang violence, poverty, alcoholism, child abuse, sexual activity, and illiteracy is a norm. And then to make that worse, they have all the radio stations and the movies teaching them that indulging in sex, drugs, violence, and greed for money is a normal and expected way to live and will fill their life with joy.

Meanwhile we have politicians, judges, and other American citizens pointing their fingers at the education system and screaming out that we are the ones who failed their children. Now I am not saying that our education system doesn’t need work. Believe me, this NCLB bologna is ridiculous and only leaving more kids behind but we could be amazing at what we do, and I still feel we’d have a problem. Why? Because how can I expect a 14-year-old teenager to pass his classes and his state exams at proficiency level when he lives in a home with 10 other people including his drunk father and his mother who works three jobs to support him and his best friend just died in a gang shooting, and he himself is being pressured by all the violence in his neighborhood to join a gang too so he can have protection and he can’t read very well because no one read to him when he was a child and meanwhile he wants money because all the music he listens to and movies he watches and commercials he zones in on tell him that money will give him everything he wants and right now school doesn’t seem like its going to work out for him, but selling drugs could give him some instant cash so…….

Do you understand what I am saying? No, not all of my kids are gang members, but many of them come from everything just short of that. I’ve got a 14 year old girl who is pregnant, another student who is living alone in a 1 bedroom room he rents while working 2 jobs and going to high school so he can live the American dream. I’ve got another student who is so proud right now because his mom has been clean from meth for 10 months and he thinks she finally kicked the habit so they can be a family again.

This is what our society has left for our grandchildren. I wasn’t here 50 years ago, but from what my parents tell me and my grandparents, this wasn’t the norm then. This wasn’t the problem with education then. So what is different?

I think greed and an overall indulging and condoning of immorality has corrupted this world in a way it hasn’t seen since Sodom and Gomorrah or the times of Noah.

So now what to do?

So many of my student’s writing is so poor despite my scaffolding, I will have to give them a D or an F on their essay, but what I really want to do is give them a big hug and tell them that despite what has happened to them, they are actually doing really well. And I will for many of them. I’ll give them their grade because I can’t fuel the system by just pushing these kids a long, but I will love them the whole time I set the standard high. And I will encourage and support them as they try to learn (or not) the skills I am instructed to teach them.

What else can I do?

It’s not just the education system that needs to be changed people. It is everything. Its turning off that song on the radio that glamorizes sex and drugs no matter how much we just like the beat because if we all did, the radio station would stop playing it and that would be that many fewer kids being indoctrinated to believe that way of life is normal and good. It’s about going to marriage counseling and being true to our vows to our husbands or wives even if we aren’t in love anymore because that is what marriage is about and that is what our kids need. It’s about teaching our kids to find joy in giving rather than just taking. It’s about going to the library if we can’t afford to buy books and checking out one bedtime book to read to our kids even if we really want to watch that lame reality TV show instead. It’s about teaching our kids that they can have some self-control and not have sex even if the world tells them they should. It’s about sacrificing our own selfish desires for the better of others. Can we do this? Honestly, I know of only one way we can all transform…..and you all know my stance on that. But it is a condition of the heart. And that condition is something I don’t think will change for better anytime soon.

So in the meantime, I will continue to love these kids. And hope and pray that we all survive the future that they will bring on this world when they become our next voters and leaders of this country.