Writing Redefined: Broadening Our Ideas of What it Means to Compose

by Mary Howard

We have really been looking forward to welcoming Shawna Coppola as our first-time chat guest host. #G2great is grounded in the belief that our professional understandings are in a perpetual state of growth –– a continuous flux of re-envisioning, revising and refining what we now know so that we can explore the possibility of what is as yet unknown. We love that Shawna beautifully captures the spirit of this deep-rooted belief in the title of her book: Writing, Redefined: Broadening Our Ideas of What it Means to Compose (2020, Stenhouse).  

Before I began this post, I paused to ponder what the key related words, redefine and broaden, mean to this ongoing process. The synonyms below felt deserving of a word cloud.

This image was created using https://www.wordclouds.com/

I’m struck by the placement of the two key words above sandwiched in the center since it happened by chance. It’s a perfect complement for a process of redefining according to Webster’s dictionary: to reformulate, reexamine or reevaluate especially with a view to change or transform. The combined meaning of these words with a focus on change or transform our thinking assumes action. This inspired me to read Shawna’s book in the hope that it would redefine and broaden my understandings about writing. I was not disappointed. 

Starting with the cover, Shawna invites us to redefine what should count as writing so that we may broaden our perspective. With transformation in mind, she poses a critical question in chapter 1: Why “Redefine” Writing? On page 2, I felt like I’d found the heart and soul of Writing Redefined that instantly became the WHY of this post: 

Of the students you have known over the years––both those you’ve taught and those you’ve learned alongside––who among them have been granted access into the “writing club”?

Shawna defines membership to the writing club as those who self-identify as writers or have been identified as writers by others. As someone who came to a sense of access to the writing club very late in life with lingering feelings of membership that still wavers now and then, I was captivated by this challenge. I am grateful for Shawna’s wisdom for the transformative thinking that can swing the door ever wider to welcome all children (and their teachers) into the writing club. Shawna’s response to the first of three questions seems like a good starting point to redefine and broaden our view from her wise eyes:

What motivated you to write this book? What impact did you hope that it would have in the professional world?

Seven or eight years ago I began to notice via my social media feeds how much more frequently my friends, family, colleagues, and acquaintances were using visual text to, in essence, share the stories of their lives. At the same time, while working as a literacy specialist in a K-6 school, it became so apparent to me how quickly the ways in which we encourage our student writers to compose visually “dropped off” the older they got and the further they moved through the grades. This seemed so out of touch with what was happening outside of school spaces! I began to dig into the decisions our younger students made as writers, even when they were composing visually (e.g., for a picture book), and I realized that almost all of the decisions we make as writers, with the exception of modal decisions, were the same regardless of the mode we used. For example, we make decisions around content, audience, genre, organization, even motor planning whether we are composing a literary essay or a wordless picture book. I was lucky enough to work with colleagues who were willing to co-teach writing alongside me in a way that broadened the forms and the modes of composition that have been traditionally privileged in schools. When I saw how both students and my colleagues responded to this, I could not help but want to bring what we had learned–what our students had taught us about composition–to a larger audience.

What strikes me about Shawna’s response is her commitment to use her noticings about writing happening outside of school and concern for the dwindling writing happening in schools as a call to action. This was the launching point for an exploration of the ideas that would BROADEN “the forms and the modes of composition traditionally privileged in schools.” Inspired by her own wonderings, she shares across the pages that follow the HOW and WHAT to accomplish her lofty but very achievable WHY.  

Shawna’s book quote further illustrates this idea of “access to the writing club.” My curiosity about why I did not feel early access when Shawna and others do, motivated me to contemplate how we can ensure that this is not the case for the children who enter our classrooms now and in the future. 

Turning to Twitter as a Lens for Writing Redefined

For the sake of this post and to satisfy my curiosity about this writing club access, I decided to turn to our #G2Great chat to peruse Shawna’s twitter style wisdom on this topic. Very early in the chat, Shawna shared the comic she wrote to summarize her book: 

Shawna’s tweets further illustrate a starting point to REDEFINE writing

With this wonderful advice guiding our way, I’d like to return to Shawna’s second question that adds insight to this invitational process:

What are your BIG takeaways from your book that you hope teachers will embrace in their teaching practices?

• That the compositional practices we have privileged in school spaces has been far too limiting for far too long (and many composition scholars have been arguing this for literally decades) 

• That when we limit what “counts” as writing in school spaces, far too many students are left out–and are left unengaged

• 3) opening our minds and hearts to a wider variety of forms and modes of composition––all of which exist outside of school spaces!––can make writing more authentic, more joyful, and more inclusive.

My Final Thoughts

As I look back to where I began this post, I once again return to the idea of granting all children access to the writing club so that no student is ‘left out or unengaged.’ I am struck by Shawna’s last words in the question above that should inspire us all to take next steps to redefine and broaden our view of writing:

“…opening our minds and hearts to a wider variety of forms and modes of composition––all of which exist outside of school spaces!––can make writing more authentic, more joyful, and more inclusive.”

We are grateful to Shawna Coppola for opening our minds and hearts through her book and generous sharing with our #G2Great family. She inspires and informs our efforts to redefine and subsequently broaden what it means to compose as we ensure that all children will have access to the opportunities that will welcome them as members of the writing club, not just in school but long after they leave our classrooms and venture out into the world where a much bigger writing club is awaiting them.

And so, I close with Shawna’s response to the final question followed by a quote from her book that brings my fascination with granting access to the writing club full circle:

What is a message from the heart you would like for every teacher to keep in mind?

That the best way to develop our pedagogical practice as teachers of student writers (but really, as teachers of anyone!) is to build a habit of noticing what kids CAN do. What can they do as writers, and what do they know, that will help us determine what they are “ready for” next? I promise folks that once you build this habit of using an asset lens to see the many gifts our student writers can offer, the more joyful and effective your practice as an educator will be.

And Shawna’s book wisdom:

Thank you for helping our #G2great family see those many gifts, Shawna!

SHAWNA COPPOLA LINKS

Preview and study guide for Writing, Redefined:

Voices from the Middle piece by Shawna Coppola: Writing, Redefined

MiddleWeb piece by Shawna Coppola: Our Students Need a New Definition of Writing

Infographic piece by Shawna Coppola Writing: Genre, Forms and Modes (Oh My!)

#TheEdCollabGathering presentation with Shawna Coppola and Dr. Tracey Flores: Somos Escritores: “Redefining” Writing for Great Inclusion, Authenticity and Engagement

Shawna Coppola’s website

Bridging the Gaps: Students, Teachers and Families

by Brent Gilson

To see how the discussion played out check out the Wakelet here.

I hope I am not the only one that at times does not know why they are included in things. What their purpose is. I am not an academic writer. I write from my experience, sometimes my anger (ok most of the time my anger) and I celebrate my students, my friends and our learning together. I think that is why I am here writing for Literacy Lenses and on the #g2great team but my goodness this current pandemic and what our teaching has become has really clouded my thinking. While looking at this topic I had a hard time coming up with a thread that would bring the thoughts shared on Thursday into a cohesive piece. But here goes.

My wife Julie and I go and walk the trail systems in our tiny under 3000 people town every night. The trails weave through the old irrigation canal system that our town was build around. There is wildlife and beauty all around. The old spill gates still stand with their rusted old gears and cracked cement. I still remember when I was a kid and we would come down to my now home town and visit family friends and we would travel the creek in old inner tubes launching off from this same spill gate area. The landscape around it has certainly changed but the old dam is still there. Last summer or the summer before they put in a new bridge. This humongous spanning bridge that sways a bit as you cross the dam from one side of the creek to another. I am grown and I pick up my pace a bit to get over the bridge as quickly as I can.

On Friday as we crossed the bridge a young family, a coworker of Julie’s and her young boy approached the bridge. The boy dismounted his bike to walk the long expanse of the shaky bridge. His mother told us that the boy, I will call him Hank, was terrified of heights but he was going to try and cross this bridge to continue their bike ride. She had a younger child with her and took them across as Hank started his journey. We cheered him on as he slowly crept across the bridge. At one point Julie yelled out, “Hank you are doing it you are being so brave” to which he replied, “Yup I am doing it but I am SO SCARED!”

This event kept coming back to me this morning as I was pondering this post. We are living in a time right now where people are so scared. The uncertainty of health and safety, jobs and access to education are huge sources of anxiety and concern for many. But as we look at this bridge and the fact we must cross it to continue our journey we can only do so by taking those shaky steps.

Step 1: Relationships

I know it is said a lot and coming from some it is a cliché. I think we all know relationships are important. In this current situation I think we need to lean on them but not exploit them. Our students and parents trust us and we trust them. This relationship is the first step in success because we know we can count on each other.

Step 2: Sound Pedagogy

As we approach the return to schools in whatever form that might be we need to be doing so on the shoulders of research based practices that honour our students. Our assessment game needs to be built on equity for all students, our assignments need to take into account that our students have so much more they are thinking about than they were last year. It is the half and half it again approach. For myself I am looking at the work of Sarah Zerwin who will be a future guest of #g2great and the focus on learning versus scoring points. How that shift makes for a more equitable student centred approach.

Step 3: Learn from this and act.

There are a lot of folks out here on the teacher social media that at the start of the COVID closures were talking about inequity in education like it was a new thing. Those folks are for the most part already back to their old ways hocking some quick fix and flashy smile and slogan. Let’s not fall for that because it is a trick. We need to see these inequities and if they are new to us we need to expand our circle. Find folks that have been doing this work a long time learn from them. Spoiler: they likely are not out here trying to get you to buy things from them or join their brand. They are too busy doing real work. You want names? I am happy to share them you know where to find me. Now is the time to do more than HOPE for change. Now is the time to make it happen.

Where to next?

3 steps to bridge the gap. None of this will be easy. We are all learning as we go. Borrowing the words of Hank,

“Yup, I am doing it but I am SO SCARED!”

It is ok to be scared, it is ok to move with a little less confidence because walking into a fog can be scary, looking down and worrying about falling is scary but we have the tools to succeed. Step carefully but keep taking those steps.

Finding our WHY Centers Ourselves and Our Instruction

Guest blog post by Nancy Akhavan 

On May 7, 2020, your #G2Great team turned the discussion to contemplating Our Instructional Blind Spot: The Blurry “WHY.” The events over the past several months with Covid-19 has literally changed the very face of our daily lives. This week, Nancy wrote an amazing guest post that beautifully reflects that changing face while offering wisdom and suggestions.

“Why is this happening to me? To us? To my students?” Her voice was wavering and filled with anguish. These three questions were asked by a teacher in April during a newly established virtual professional development session on Zoom.

My heart broke. We were at the beginning of a time in education, in our world, unlike anything we had ever experienced. In April, many of us were questioning the why.  

Today, as we have become more accustomed to distance teaching and encouraging distance learning, we are revisiting the “why”. However now, this is a why that goes beyond the “Why is this happening?” Now, as we adjust and become familiar with a routine of waking, brushing our teeth, drinking our coffee and shuffling off to sit in front of our computers, we may be asking ourselves, “What is our why today?

In essence, we are at a moment of reinventing ourselves as teachers. Reinventing ourselves isn’t entirely new to the profession of teaching. In a way, we reinvent ourselves each fall as our new students fill our classrooms and we dream of the possibilities of the new school year. Think about the new books we might read, or revisit beloved books and topics. However, this reinvention is of a new type, and it is testing our resolve. 

A Blurry Why Causes Our Hope to Waiver

Olivia is a teacher in a rural area, and her students don’t all have access to the internet. Because of this, they cannot use the tablet that the school gave them to connect with her during Google hangouts. It is during Google Hangouts that she has been teaching small group reading instruction, helping students read independently so they continue to grow their abilities as readers and nurture their love for reading. Olivia sees herself as a reading teacher, and her classroom at school is filled with books. Books line the tray at the bottom of the whiteboard, books fill a good-sized classroom library, and books overflow from baskets placed on students’ work areas. She normally meets regularly with students for small group instruction to bolster their abilities so they become stronger and stronger as readers. Olivia asked me, “Am I still a reading teacher even though I don’t have a classroom to hold space for my students? Am I still a reading teacher because I cannot sit side by side with a student and point to words as the student works through a text? Am I still a reading teacher even though I am mostly talking to a screen? I don’t feel that I am.” Olivia’s why, as in why am I doing what I am doing, is becoming muddy.

Andrew is a sixth-grade teacher. He has a particular love for social studies and his passion flows about his classroom. He has maps and diagrams posted on the walls. He has quotes from famous leaders peering out from posters that hang from the ceiling. At any given time during the year, his students are involved in investigations in collaborative groups researching big questions about history, or about current events. His classroom is alive with the verve of students exploring topics and debating issues. Andrew spoke up during a recent virtual professional development session, “I cannot figure out who I am as a distance-learning teacher.  I keep having to use district-mandated computer applications, I didn’t sign up for this! Why am I having to do this now? Andrew’s why, as in why don’t I have more choice in figuring out a solution to instruction, is fraught with frustration.

Selena teaches in an urban area. She works with youth who needed a lot of support, but the gains her students made in all areas are worth the effort and time she puts in. Her days in her classroom are long, she would stay in during break to help students who needed extra attention to their work; she runs an after-school homework club and some students show up just to hang out in the vibrant learning environment Selena created. Selena confessed during a coaching phone call that she was secretly glad that she has been staying at home recently. She said that while she loved her students and her classroom with fierce conviction, she had been feeling a little burned out in January and February. She had noticed that more students were seeking her help with their writing during break and after school and that she was having trouble keeping up conferring with the 120 students she saw per day. Selena’s why, as in why is my energy and interest waning, was touching upon burnout. 

A Blurry Why Limits Our Vision for Our Students, and Ourselves

We have to know who we are as teachers and why we are choosing to show up each day, and teach our hearts out. Because that is what is feels like, our hearts are as tired as our minds and bodies are at the end of the day. If we lose our why; our sense of purpose for the work we do each day, we are seriously at risk of burnout. Denise Carver-Thomas and Linda Darling-Hammond report that about 90% of the nationwide annual demand for teachers is created when teachers leave the profession, with two-thirds of teachers leaving for reasons other than retirement. In fact, math, science, special education, ELD teachers are more likely to leave their school or the profession than those in other fields. Also, turnover rates are 50% higher for teachers in Title I schools. There are a number of reasons for teacher turnover, from dissatisfaction with standardized testing environment, to and lack of administrator support; however, many teachers leave the field because they are dissatisfied with the profession. This dissatisfaction can grow when we lose our why. 

Many of us see teaching as our calling, and we have a strong dedication to our work. But, we are only human. Losing our why not only effects our personal and professional lives, it affects our students. When we lose our why we are less engaged in our work, and we have less energy and brain cells to give to our lessons and our students’ learning. Overall, we have less to give, so we support students less, not because we want to, but because we cannot give more than we have to give. 

Self-care Can Bring Understanding to Our Why

Self-care is important. If we take care of our health and our well-being, we are less likely to burn out and more likely to thrive. In these unusual times, we need to practice self-care and we need to give ourselves the time and space to adjust to our new teaching situation, and the uncertainty of the impact on education of social distancing expectations for the next few months

To practice self-care, we need to balance things we are doing for our health and nurture time we give ourselves to “play”. Maybe we can cook, or dance around the living room. Perhaps we can take up sketch notes, even if we are not very good at drawing. There are all sorts of ways we can relax in order to practice self-care.  You can also practice self-care by giving yourself grace. You don’t need to be the best distance-learning teacher. You just need to do the best you can with the tools you have at the moment. For those of you whose students are not logging on to do their work, remember, you cannot control that, but you can affect the type of work your students are engaged in. Make the learning engaging as well as purposeful. 

With Focus Our Lessons Lead to Learning

Engaging learning begins with having a singular focus in our instruction whether we are teaching face-to-face or in distance learning.  Focus in our instruction leads to greater student learning. When we teach with a single focus, and provide ample modeling to help students understand our thinking when we are reading text, or see our thinking during think-alouds when we are writing, we can help students with their reading and their writing by guiding them. It is possible to guide students through a lesson with a single objective whatever our teaching situation may be. While you may feel overwhelmed by the difficulties you face in your classrooms, or in your virtual teaching environments, you can find your why by thinking about what you can give your students through carefully constructed lessons that provide ample time for student exploration and practice. 

Jamika planned a minilesson on how to analyze characters. She carefully selected a text that portrayed the characters’ feelings based on what the characters did in the middle and the end of the text.  She just knew that her students would be able to feel the characters’ frustrations and victories as they progressed through the story. She taught a minilesson, modeling her thinking about what she noticed the characters in the story were doing at a central point, and how they might have felt. Then she invited students to give it a try on their own. Students worked through their own texts, writing thoughts about the characters on sticky notes. After the students worked for some time, she led a class discussion and each student shared their thoughts about the characters’ thoughts and feelings in the text that each had read. Her students responded with excitement as they shared ideas from their sticky notes. She had a single focus to the lesson, and her students succeeded.

Jamika new her focus. She knew her why to the lesson she was teaching. She didn’t waiver from her focus during her lesson, and she didn’t add in additional must do’s for the students. She kept the lesson focused and simple. You might think that Jamika’s taught this lesson face-to-face with her students, but she didn’t. She had recorded herself teaching the minilesson, and then met with students online and guided them with their sticky notes. The class discussion – well, that discussion occurred using a web-based application called Padlet. 

Clear instruction provides a space for students to explore the new strategy or skill we are teaching. Clear feedback while students practice or complete assignments, provides us a time to give pointers to our students about what they are doing that is helping them become strong readers and writers, and what they can do themselves to deepen their own learning. 

A Blurry Why Causes Our Lessons and Ourselves to Lose Direction

Overloaded lessons lead to a loss of direction in our instruction. When teaching through distance learning, think of lessons as small packages. Keep them focused to a single point or objective. Don’t give too many directions, or make it complicated. Keep the modeling aligned to what you want students to be able to do on their own, as they are going to be doing the work on their own. Right now, we cannot sit beside them and coach. Not understanding our true point, or our why, in a lesson makes it harder for students to learn when we are sitting with them. It is doubly difficult through distance teaching and learning. Identify the why of a lesson by thinking: What do I want students to be able to do for themselves at the end of the lesson? What is my objective? How will I model? What task will students be involved in after I model? (Remember that reading and reading a lot is an excellent focus for a task!)

Be kind to yourself if you have lost your why recently. With some self-care you can re-center yourself, and with self-reflection, you can center your lessons on what is most important.

Reference

Carver-Thomas, D. & Darling-Hammond, L. (2017). Teacher turnover: Why it matters and what we can do about it. Palo Alto, CA: Learning Policy Institute.

We are so grateful to Nancy Ackhvan for writing this remarkable post for our #G2great family. Nancy is a speaker, author, consultant and writer and you can learn more about her books and the important work she’s doing at http://nancyakhavan.com, follow her on Twitter @nancyakhavan and see her distance teaching support suggestions at nancyskhavansclassroom.com

Aeriale Johnson: COVID-19 Through the Eyes of a Teacher

by Valinda Kimmel

She aches for the familiar routines and rituals of her brick-and-mortar school day and how she knew every loose tooth, every hurt feeling, in her students’ lives. Shaw holds a weekly evening circle time on Zoom, but she can’t get the kind of connection she’s used to with each student. –Angie Shaw, first grade teacher

I’ve been staring at a computer for eight solid hours, my eyes are strained, my shoulders are tense, and I have to keep reminding myself, all this is new, and we are all learning, and it will get easier, I hope.” — Rana El Yousef, high school chemistry teacher

When I’m with them, I can see what’s really going on with them,” she said. “But digitally, they can hide it: their joy. Their depression. Anybody can put their game face on for an hour on Zoom.” –Theresa Bruce, middle school history teacher

These moments, teaching from a distance due to an international pandemic, are unprecedented. Teachers don’t have the luxury of searching the internet, poring over professional books, or contacting other educators to ask, “What did you do? How did you teach, connect, care for your students during months of separation?”

We are all in the onerous position of navigating days for which there are no precedent. We’re at a loss for what to do, how to plan and support our students, where to go for answers to a million concerns about the families and kids we love.

Aeriale Johnson, guest host, for our recent #g2great chat shared her very personal thoughts about the varying emotions she is experiencing during COVID-19 in a recent blog post. We are grateful for her candor and for her willingness to join our weekly Twitter chat to give educators a place to process their varied range of feelings about teaching in this unusual time.

Share any thoughts about your COVID-19 experiences:

We talk often of late how hard distance learning is for kids and their families. It’s also incredibly hard on teachers. Thank goodness for online communities where teachers can gain encouragement from (and give it out as well) their professional peers.

Aeriale exhibits eloquently in her blog post how the process of writing is healing for some.

How are you using writing as a healing force for yourself? For your children?:

Writing is cathartic. In the process of putting words to paper, writers often makes sense of experiences, ideas, thoughts. Once again, we owe gratitude to Aeriale for her openness in sharing the conflict of these unusual days we are all experiencing.

COVID-19’s Got Me Feeling Some Kind of Way

I’m angry.

I’m shamefully content.

I’m angry that I live in a country where science is not heeded by government officials.

I’m shamefully content that I probably won’t be the one to die because I am educated.

I’m angry that I live in a society that is so grossly inequitable that children who live on the margins of it have to worry about food security during a pandemic.

I’m shamefully content in the joy the unexpected opportunity to spend time cooking my favorite recipes has brought me.

You can view the archive of this chat hosted by Aeriale Johnson at the wakelet for April 30, 2020.