(Ok, already this post sounds a little full of itself, but bear with me for these allusions.)
Hearing some of my teaching heroes like Lucy Calkins and Mary Ehrenworth recently and working under the expert guidance of Annie Taranto felt like a hero’s call to action. They showed me a quest to be undertaken on behalf of all children who yearn to read and write. And I set out on my journey back to my own school naively confident, brimming with good intentions and grand ideas of what we could accomplish. I shared brief teasers of the treasures I had glimpsed as though they were lavishly wrapped with personalized gift tags. One here to a fourth grade teacher, two there to second grade, and so on. Then I drew up a battle plan that sought to conquer the kingdom of perfect workshop teaching, to slay the dragon of implementation that wasn’t quite equal to the vision. Like all questing heroes I hit some roadblocks…it seemed my teachers were not interested in joining my quest. An all consuming new math program, looming conferences, unit transitions, impending code drills and on and on stood in the path. By Friday I was crestfallen. The wind had gone out of the sails of my expedition.
Luckily for me a mentor figure stopped into my room Friday afternoon with words of the wiser. This person whom I trust validated my desire to bring our practice forward. She made the very real strains and trials of our teachers clear. And she suggested I start again, smaller. We brainstormed and prioritized and I left feeling smaller but not quite defeated. Thank goodness for mentors (and weekends). Then this morning another mentor appeared unexpectedly in my Twitter feed. @MrsSokolowski posted about the power of teaching the way we deeply believe to be right and good.
I deeply believe strong workshops to be a gift to our children. And I believe we have a duty to provide the strongest, most empowering teaching possible to help children own their learning in ways that drive them to become everything that it is in them to become.
So here’s where I am now on the quest for amazing and powerful reading and writing workshop:
-Teachers are the heroes. (Thank you @LynMullalyHunt for that #fiat)
-Many heroes only reluctantly heed the call to action when they see the imperative need of their people (in this case young readers and writers) and believe deeply in the cause.
-The journey is perilous, full of dangers and impediments like evaluation, SLOs, the risk of finding out one isn’t flawless (or worse others thinking it), and in some cases back-breaking head-aching effort.
-Like all heroes, our teachers need us as allies and mentors,not to take over the quest, but to help traverse the challenges.
-Our hero teachers are the ones who must return home to the classroom transformed by the experience.
So I will continue to call them as questing teams when possible, and one by one when necessary. Every hero who returns triumphant may help another aspiring hero to accept the call to action. And if we’ve read Rick Riordan’s books, we know that heroes don’t just go on one quest in a lifetime. But the kinds of teachers who accept a quest will do so again and again…if they have loyal allies to share the journey and people depending on them.
I want to celebrate being brave this week. I was at the Teachers College Coaching Institute in New York City, and it was a series of challenges and risks from beginning to end. (Mostly) Not the kinds of risks that would upset my mom overly much, though she wouldn’t have liked me walking home from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the dark and alone. But I pushed myself out of my comfort zone repeatedly and intentionally. Instead of sitting alone in my hotel, I went out to the museum. And two other nights instead of eating alone in my room, I made friends with colleagues from across the country and proposed meeting up. I accepted an invitation to dinner with a colleague I’d been following on Twitter and finally met at Teachers College…and through her I met handfuls of other teachers, coaches, and leaders who had connected like this before.
As we sat around the table at the pub, we talked about our coaching sessions at PS 199 in Queens or the other schools we’d been working in. We shared plans for upcoming Nerd Camps and conferences. We book talked and even had an impromptu read aloud at the table. I was recounting a story from the week or sharing an idea for when I get back to my own school, I can’t even remember which, and I stopped mid-sentence. As I was speaking I heard my own voice emulating, imitating, our staff developer. “Whoa!” I exclaimed. “I was channeling my inner Annie!” We laughed together about how not just the language I chose but my intonation and attitude had taken on her persona. And we reflected that we catch ourselves doing this from time to time. Sometimes when I’m reading aloud or sharing certain strategies with teachers, I hear myself using Mary Ehrenworth’s voice and punctuation. Some of these ideas and experiences are near and dear to me, others I am approximating.
I worried aloud at the table that I had been so busy looking through my teacher lens or coach-of-one lens that I had missed out on thinking like a staff developer or leader of a whole lab site. It’s not likely my district can send me again (soon) to another Coaching Institute. I’m going to be trying out all that Annie shared with us and many other ideas from the amazing educators at TC. But I’m the only one from my district who was there. I announced to my new Twitter colleagues that I was going to rely on them to coach me from afar now that the week is ending. And I’ve got their Twitter handles (and I’m going to learn how to use Voxer!) so I know how to find them tomorrow and next week and in the spring.
As I listened to the various speakers in the sessions across the week I’d hear something profound (or profoundly simple) and immediately one or another of my teachers or our students would pop into my mind. It’s like new strategies and tools came with gift labels for a particular person. I already know that I’ll be looking for Joann first thing Monday morning to share the next step in our work with strong first grade readers. I’ll be looking for Katy to talk about parent workshops for advanced 3rd grade readers we share. And so on.
I was in one of the world’s biggest cities by myself this week. If I hadn’t reached out I might have spent many hours alone or daunted by the hugeness of it all. The work we have to do in our schools, with our teachers, for our students is huge.
It is monumental and it is critical.
We could sit alone with the enormity of it…or we could take the risk to reach out, to decide there’s more we need to learn, there’s something we could get stronger at, there’s more we’ll try to do. And when we’re the kind of person who chooses to reach out, we discover that we carry our support networks with us. Their voices are in our heads (and sometimes come out of our mouths). They are a phone call, a tweet, or whatever you call a Voxer message away. And they’ve got our backs. Like we’ve got the backs of those colleagues and kids who pop into our minds when we think of something special.
I’d never been brave enough before when I was in the same room with a Twitter-mate to say hello. I’m so glad I did this week. And from now on whenever I’m in the same place (room, conference, city, region) as someone who could potentially be part of my support network or PLN, I will take a risk again and introduce myself. And can I just tell you another thing I could do as a learner? When I’ve made great new contacts for my PLN, I can make that connection stronger by messaging them when I have a question to ask or an idea to offer. That will be important for leveraging the power of those connections.
Let me show you what that might look like. “Susan, it was great to meet you and collaborate this week. I’ll send you the information about our Family Book Battle like we talked about. Also you were talking about the kind of schedule you create for working with your teachers. I’m going to be in Maine early in June. Maybe I could shadow you for a day so I could learn more about it. And maybe before that I’ll be able to meet up with you at the ALA in Boston or one of the Nerd Camps.”
Do you hear it? I do. It’s the voice of other people’s experience and wisdom coming through me. I’m approximating with their help.
Now you try it. Off you go!
I was thinking this first blog was the first step on a new road, but really this is just a new morning, a new stage along the path that began long ago.
The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way,
Where many paths and errands meet.
My road has meandered from high school to middle school, from classroom to intervention closet, to the elementary reading office with forays back into the classroom and closets. My first steps on the path were confident and sure…until students showed me what I didn’t know. Eventually I built expertise and a healthy dose of humility. And now, when I know and understand and question and ponder more than I ever have, I sometimes feel a tiny bit like a fraud. I have moments of terror when I’m certain someone will figure out how much I don’t know about literacy.
At those moments I have a clearer understanding of what it might be like for some of my students who struggle, or some of my teachers who may be reluctant to ask for help because someone might see what they don’t know. I’m much kinder to those children and teachers than to myself, because I offer them the same advice that another reading consultant gave me when I began in this role of coach/leader/learner/teacher/cheerleader: Give yourself permission to start from where you are and grow from there.
We’ve all taken different roads to arrive at this moment. Some of us are just down from the door where we began, and others have traversed mountains or continents. It may be uncomfortable not to know that very important thing we feel we need to understand, but if we tell ourselves we don’t know it yet, then we give ourselves permission to chart a course for that next part of our journey to finding out.
The very important thing that makes me feel a little fraud-ish right now is coaching. So next week my road will take me to New York City where many paths and errands meet. I’ve enrolled in the Coaching Institute at Teachers College. I am so excited I’m sure I won’t sleep the night before. I know I can’t learn everything there is to being an effective coach in one week. But I also know now that there are many other people along this particular road, and many of them are happy to help a fellow traveler. So for now it’s off to the big city. And whither then? I cannot say.