Tag Archives: Teaching writing

Be Kind to Yourself

Teachers: We are exhausted, we are excited, we are fearful. Welcome to the 2016 testing season!!

Today was the first day of standardized testing at the elementary school where I work.  Teachers arrived early to check out testing supplies.  Parents crowded the car rider lines, dropping students off a good 15 minutes before their arrival time.  All campus faculty and staff were smiling as they greeted each other in the hallway.  Everything was looking optimistic…until it wasn’t.


Image courtesy education.com.

I want you to understand that I have a love/hate relationship with this time of the year.  You see, I am competitive. And I like to get evaluations on how well my students master learning objectives.  So test taking for me, is sort of exciting  please do not judge me too harshly—there is a big but coming.)  BUT, I am here to tell you that I am exhausted. And I bet you are too.  My excitement and fear are coexisting in a very tiny place.  I have faith that I have done everything in my educational power to push the students toward success, but fear is creeping in on me. And like every year at this, I am beginning to doubt myself.  Fear is a much darker friend than optimism.  I don’t like fear.  It makes me weak and indecisive.  Fear makes my stomach hurt, and my head hurt too. And to tell you the truth, now I want to cry.  But, I don’t cry because I can handle this. I am the teacher, and teachers don’t cry. Period. But sometimes, the kids do.

And so cry some kids did today, before their tests were being passed out to them, before they arrived at school, even before they went to bed last night.  You know students like this. They over obsess about failure instead of nurturing their confidence.   You see them in your classes each day succeeding, learning, growing.  But today is the day of the big test. And  you can hardly recognize these students today. They act like a totally different, terrified kid that you didn’t know before yesterday. And for these reasons, I really hate standardized testing. And I bet you do too.

Last week I was in a bookstore, and I happened upon a book written by the Vietnamese Buddhist Zen master, Thich Nhat Hanh.  I am not a Buddhist, but I love the idea of Zen.  The book was about facing fears.  I read the book today after school because I saw a lot of fear and anxiety on campus today.  Guess what? I feel better now. So much so that I thought I would share what I learned today.

View of the rain

I learned that it is better to acknowledge anxieties, and replace them with emotions that are kinder to our souls.  I was re-taught that positive and negative emotions coexist inside all of us.  Hanh wrote that being in the moment and not worrying about the future, or grieving about past events, will allow our thoughts to be focussed on the tasks at hand.  You have probably read these thoughts before. I mean they are pretty common mindsets.  After my reading today, I was thinking that yes, I know how to self-soothe. But have we taught these survival skills to our students? Or have we assumed they were already equipped with these skills? Or do we not even see these skills as part of our curriculum?

I don’t want to sound too idealistic and “out-there.” And I say these things with respect and with all seriousness. Maybe something as simple as thinking positively and replacing our negative self-descriptions with positive thoughts, would be an effective way to retrain our students to be kind to themselves.  Practicing self-kindness could be revolutionary in situations that are high stress—for us and for our kids.

What if we teachers modeled this type of self-reflection for our families, students, and coworkers?  Our environments can be more peaceful, and potentially more productive.  

We know that testing is not going away any time soon.  I also know that tomorrow, round two of testing will bring more tears and anxious stomachs.  We say that we believe in ourselves, and we can do it (whatever the “it” might be). But how do we cast off the negative emotions and doubts?  Tomorrow I will be taking deep breaths with the student testers.  I will be modeling how to take an internal dialogue of doubt, and replace the unkind with gentler self-descriptors.  When it’s time to do something difficult, test or other, maybe they will be able to choose to be kind to themselves, just like their teacher has taught them.


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All you need is love

O’ How I Love The Book, brown girl dreaming…

I LOVED the book brown girl dreaming. The book was written from the perspective of a young lady in 1960s to 1970s America, who is searching for her place to belong, and looking for her voice, which she finds by the way, using the written word.

I read through the book and dog-eared a couple of memorable pages.  I thought it might be interesting to record some of the stand out moments that made me fall in love with this author and her lovely mind.    I thought that I might share some of those moments with you, if I may.  I will surely use these quotes to incite imaginative learning/thinking with my middle school students, maybe you will too.


“Somewhere in my brain
each laugh, tear and lullaby
becomes memory.” page 20

“We all have the same dream, my grandmother says.  To live equal in a country that’s supposed to be the land of the free.

She lets out a long breath,
deep remembering.” page 89

“When Daddy’s garden is ready
it is filled with words that make me laugh
when I say them-
pole beans and tomatoes, okra and corn
sweet peas and sugar snaps
lettuce and squash.” page 97

“and stars
and tears
and hope.” page 106

“But our hearts aren’t bigger than that.
Our hearts are tiny and mad.
If our hearts were hands, they’d hit.
If our hearts were feet, they’d surely kick somebody!” page 128

“The first time I write my full name
Jacqueline Amanda Woodson
without anyone’s help
on a clean white paper in my composition notebook,
I know
if I wanted to
I could write anything.” page 156

“I am not gifted.  When I read, the words twist
twirl across the page.
When they settle, it is too late.
The class has already moved on.

I want to catch words one day.  I want to hold them
then blow gently
watch them float
right out of my hands.” page 169

“And in the darkened auditorium, the light
is only on Hope
and it’s hard to believe he has such a magic
singing voice
and even harder to believe his donkey is going to come running.” page 233

“I want to write this down, that the revolution is like
a merry-go-round, history always being made
somewhere.  And maybe for a short time,
we’re a part of that history.  And then the ride stops
and our turn is over.” page 309

“Write down what I think I know.  The knowing will come.
Just keep listening…” page 310

“I believe in one day and someday and this
perfect moment called Now.” page 318

“When there are many worlds
you can choose the one
you walk into each day.” page 319

“Jackie and Jacqueline-
gather into one world
called You
where You decide
what each world
and each story
and each ending
will finally be.” page 320

This book is written in free verse, the words poetically dance themselves across the pages.  The characters in the novel are a part of my memory now, forever, the author Jacqueline Woodson, even includes a family tree and includes photographs from her personal albums, allowing readers to bridge their invented imaginations of the family, with actual snapshots of real family members.

I would suggest using this novel to model the writing process for students.  Woodson writes about the processes of how we observe, think and record personal narratives, with a graceful, and pure voice.  By writing this novel, Jacqueline Woodson offers herself as a role model for young ladies, especially African-American young ladies, encouraging these ladies to follow their dreams, just like she did.

I LOVE the novel, brown girl dreaming.

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Student writing with chalk on library floor

How Do You Teach a Student to Write?

It’s that time of the year when fourth grade teachers across the state of Texas are looking through student compositions and are worried, they wonder how their students are going to fare on the STARR test.  They sigh and ask themselves, “How do I teach my students to write?” I know those teachers, I was one of them for 17 years, now I get to look at the situation from the outside, and I have a different perspective about how to teach writing… just write, and write often.
I get questioned all the time about how to teach students to write, and not only just to write, but how to get them to write well.  I secretly smile when asked those questions, all educators know what to do…put the pencil to the paper and let words take over.  Just do it.  Simply stated, students and teachers alike need to be just brave enough to start writing a thought.  Thoughts, will lead to feelings, feelings will translate in to sentences, and pretty soon, you will have paragraphs.
Today in a writing class, I explained to the students that I do not like to always write and I do not always share my writing with others, I am super-critical of myself.  When I write I double, and triple check my spelling searching for errors, I question whether or not my writing is interesting enough for someone to read?  (I am doing this now as I type.)  Students share the same fears that us adults have, it’s hard to put yourself out there to be potentially judged by others.
Remember that the power of the pen is mighty.  As a teacher, I am very cautious about editing and revising student compositions.  I try not to make too many corrections, or suggestions, I want students to understand that I am their teacher, not their judge and jury.  Students are still learning their writing craft.  Children want to share, they talk all the time, as educators, we need to get them to use another form of communication…written communication.
I write these sentiments to offer a “shout out” to my writing friends and colleagues that may be worried about writing and exams, and perfecting the craft.  Writing doesn’t have to be perfect.  The intent of writing is to be expressive.  How do you develop strong writers?  Strong writers are created when they are nurtured, confident, and practiced.  You want to know how to get those students to write well…get those kids to put the pencil to the paper, they will make you proud!
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Students learning about agriculture at the fairgrounds

Teach Me, Don’t Tell Me

Teach me, don’t tell me what I need to know.  Show me how to do something with interactions and examples, and I will be glad to prove to you how I have grown.
There are many things I do not know how to do. For example,  I cannot change the oil in my car, I cannot solve multi-stepped algebraic equations without assistance, and I cannot make a pot of rice without it burning or sticking to the pot.  With direction, and good instruction, my thought is that I would be able to successfully complete those tasks (well maybe all but successfully cooking rice–that will never happen).  When I do not know how to do something, I could watch YouTube videos that would show me how to change my oil. I could read written instructions that I had printed out about solving math problems, or possibly, I could have someone show me how to problem solve in person.  BUT, what if I didn’t know how to find help?  What if I did not know what options were available for me?  What if I was a kid in a classroom, and was waiting for someone to mentor me… someone to show me instead of telling me what to do?  I would be in trouble.
So often teachers are busy with the lesson/end game/product, that the essential instruction is left out, or the teaching is not sufficient to guide students through the lessons.  Learning becomes less meaningful, or lost.  I have been guilty of providing bad instruction to my students. I hate to make mistakes, and I hate even more to admit that I have made mistakes.  Our kids do not know what bad instruction looks like (it’s the only instruction they know) but our students can feel what bad instruction looks like.  Students who are confused or lost will shut down during poor instruction.  Sometimes kids become disruptive when they do not understand why the day’s lesson is valuable.
Today I am thinking about good teaching practices. I have to remind myself that lessons taught within classrooms must be:  meaningful, insightful, goal-oriented, carefully cultivated, and purposeful.  If I can say yes to all of these adjectives, it is likely that whatever lesson I am trying to teach my students will stick with them.  If I do not know the purpose of my lesson, or if I am unable to explain to my children what my intentions for the day might be, I am also teaching them something…how to be ill-prepared, unsuccessful, and educationally inadequate.
Today’s reminder, “Teach me, don’t tell me what I need to know.  Show me how to do something with interactions and examples, and I will be glad to prove to you how I have grown.”
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