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Writing Workshop for Teachers: Planning Personal Stories Part One of Two

This is going to be a fun couple of blog posts! I absolutely adore sharing writing workshop lessons with other teachers. After you go through this process, you might want to teach these lessons in your own classroom. If so, you can head to our Teachers Pay Teachers store to purchase a resource packet that you can use to lead your students – in any language – through this method of generating ideas for personal stories, selecting a “seed idea”, and planning using a story mountain.

Everything in the TpT store is included in Curriculum Club members’ subscription. Visit our online school to learn more.

Overview of Personal Stories:

How personal stories fit into the Stepping Stones Scope and Sequence and our Year of Free Curriculum: In Cycle Two, Narration, we move into stories. This cycle builds upon the work you did in Cycle One, Description, because stories contain description of the setting, the characters’ external traits, their internal traits, and their thoughts and feelings.

Phase One of Cycle Two is “Personal Stories.” The following three phases in this cycle move into other categories of narratives:

Cycle Two, Phase Two — Cultural Stories (for example, legends or folktales)
Cycle Two, Phase Three — Imaginative/Literary Stories (for example, creating an imaginative story with your class or telling a story from literature)
Cycle Two, Phase Four — Historical Stories (about real people in history or perhaps current events).

To download the phases from the Free Year of Curriculum, in multiple languages, please visit our Teachers Pay Teachers store.

Writing Workshop for Teachers — Generating ideas for personal stories and planning using a story mountain

This process is drawn from my experiences teaching English Language Arts using the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project (TCRWP) writing workshop approach.

In an ELA class, I would use similar anchor charts and modeling to demonstrate my own writing process, leading the students through a series of lessons, over about two or three weeks, to craft their own personal narratives.

If you teach students whose language proficiency is strong enough to tackle this kind of work, you might adapt this process and teach similar lessons in your language, or download the resource pack from our TpT store here.

For most teachers, this process will simply be a “teacher tool” that helps you generate ideas for meaningful stories from your life, select a “seed idea”, and develop it into a personal story to use in Cycle Two Phase One (Narrating Personal Stories).

I’m excited to share this process with you!

First, here is an anchor chart. Just like an anchor chart you would use in the classroom, this anchor chart is designed to hold a list of possible strategies or tools that writers can use to accomplish a certain task. In this case, the list will be various strategies to generate ideas for your personal story.

We are going to complete the entire process in one big go, because we are busy teachers. With actual students, each strategy on the anchor chart would probably be an entire lesson. However, nobody has time for all that, so we will complete the whole process in one sitting.

After each new strategy is added to the anchor chart, I will model my own process using stories from my own life. In an actual class for students who have enough proficiency to tackle writing workshop, you would most likely spend an entire lesson on each strategy. First, you would add the name of the new strategy to the anchor chart, then you would model your own writing, thinking aloud as if you were doing the work for the first time (but, in reality, you would most likely already have a good idea of what you would “work on” to model for the students), and then providing time for students to try out the strategy in their own notebook or portfolio.

The first strategy that I have found super-helpful in getting ideas for powerful stories from my life is to make a T-chart of people who are important to me, and then listing one or two small moments with them that I remember with crystal-clear clarity. I am looking for the kind of moments that are seared into my memory because they were so “big” to me when they were happening.

Life is not actually comprised of a ton of moments like this. So, if we remember a moment with “crystal-clear clarity” then it is most likely super-significant to us, and therefore it just might make an awesome seed for a personal story worth sharing with our students (or readers).

If I list out the most important people from my life, this is a possible T-chart I could make. Maire, my daughter, Nicki, my sister, and my parents.

If I were modeling for students, I would avoid adding my daughter. Even though she is – of course – pretty much the most important human on the planet in my book, my goal here is to generate stories of my YOUTH, so that my students, who are youths themselves, can relate to the stories I share. It is more difficult for most students to imagine what it is like to have a daughter, so I would avoid listing her, if my goal is to find stories that will be engaging and relatable for my students.

So, even though it pains me, I am crossing off my darling daughter since I am doing this work for my students.

My next step is to think of moments from the 80s and 90s, when I was a youth, that involve these people and that I remember with “crystal-clear clarity.”

Now, I need to make sure that the moments are NARROW. That means that they only really lasted about five to ten minutes in my actual life.

For example, my sister’s brain aneurysm and recovery lasted for years. But I want to just focus on the moment when Grandma took me home from the hospital where Nicki was in a coma, and we forgot the house keys in all the chaos, and I had to climb into the house through a window that happened to be Nicki’s room, and I saw her eighteen Cabbage Patch Kids (what can I say? It was 1988!) on her bed and the gravity of the situation sank in all at once, when I had the thought, “If Nicki doesn’t survive, those dolls will be orphans!”

Why do I want to tell such a narrow story? Because that will allow me to really go deep into my inner thinking and feelings, and show how come THIS moment was a significant turning point in my life.

You try it!

Maybe you have a ton of awesome stories from just this one strategy. If you do, then you might just skip to the next step, below. But maybe you want to try some other strategies to see if you can unearth an EVEN BETTER story. If so, I will show you examples of a few other strategies that have helped me and my students.

This is an important point about anchor charts. They are NOT a “list of the daily assignments.” They are more like a toolbelt that you gradually add more and more tools to, so that students can use the ones that work for them. Of course, on the very first day of a new anchor chart, the students have only seen you model one strategy, so they are pretty apt to just try that one out. However, the goal is “getting ideas for small moments,” NOT “make this specific T-chart,” so a student in a writing workshop class who knows other ways that work for them, or can modify the strategy you modeled that day, or can invent their own way to do this task, then that is totally fair game.

If you want to try out some other strategies, read on.

Some other options that are very much like the first one are to make other T-charts that list important PLACES or OBJECTS and follow the same process of thinking back and listing moments you remember super-clearly, and then narrowing those moments down to about five to ten minutes of the most important part of the whole experience.

I literally cannot stress enough how powerful these strategies are. Every single story that I use in writing workshop, and many of the personal stories that I share as Guided Oral Input in my World Language classes came from working through these strategies in TCRWP Summer Institutes or in my own classroom, teaching my ELA students.

Another strategy that I really love is listing strong emotions and then moments that I experienced them.

Here are some examples of strong emotions. With my students, I always liked to brainstorm this list together, and then model thinking back and retrieving my own stories, for some of the emotions. You can’t always find a personal experience for every single emotion, but two or three will probably jog your memory.

Here are some of my own personal stories from my own childhood and adolescent years, narrowed down to their “seed”:

Wow, some powerful stories there! The one about the note in the locker is a doozy. They’re all doozies, actually. Maybe one day I will write them all. What a treasure chest.

You might want to try using this strategy yourself. Go ahead, I’ll be here when you get back.

Here is the final strategy, and it can be a real tear-jerker. You think of the first time or the last time you did something, and work to recall a small moment from within that experience. This one taps into loss and growing up, so I have found it very effective in helping students find powerful stories.

Here are some of my own firsts and lasts from CHILDHOOD. Of course, as an adult, I have a lot more firsts and lasts. Last alcoholic drink is one that most folks who have given up the booze tend to enjoy sharing. But, again, I am doing this work for the purpose of teaching the youth, who (most of them, hopefully) would not relate to my Last Drink in Hawaii Story.

You can see here that I have generated the ideas and then narrowed them down further.

When your students (or you) have a nice collection of possible ideas, it is a good idea to work with the concept of a “seed” idea versus a “watermelon” idea. This is a very handy metaphor that my first writing workshop teacher, Maggie Beatty, shared with us at TCRWP Summer Institutes. I have used it in my own teaching every year since then. It is such a widespread metaphor, and so easy for students to grasp, that in schools where the students begin workshop in kindergarten, even the littles can explain what a “seed story” is and how we need to avoid trying to write a “whole watermelon.” Here is a short explanation.

Like all the slides, it is included in the resource packet on our TpT store.

The next step leads to another “bend in the path” of the writing process. We move away from generating ideas and into selecting the ideas that will make the most powerful personal narratives.

Here is a second anchor chart that I have found useful to teach and model how to select the “seed idea” that will lead to the finished piece.

Look over your ideas through this lens, and find a couple-three that fit the bill. These are the raw material that you will use to plan the stories you share in Cycle Two Phase One.

Here’s another chart that often comes in handy at this juncture to demonstrate with your own story how to make sure this is a “worthy” seed idea to develop into a full-on story. Let’s look at a possible seed idea from my own writer’s notebook: the story of the first time I saw Chinese writing. It literally blew my eight-year-old mind back in the pre-internet days of 1984.

Looks like a winner! It checks all the boxes, at least.

You might want to take a few to go look for your own seed idea. I suggest choosing two or even three, so you can develop them all when you need them later.

Once you have selected your story, you will be well-served by taking a few moments to ponder its significance, and maybe even doing a little bit of quick jotting to help you uncover its depths of meaning. The anchor chart below has some useful pointers.

Once you are done with this, you are ready to use a story mountain to plan the way you will tell the story. That’s the topic of the next blog post. See you then!

If you want to download these images in editable formats (Google Slides and Canva templates), please head over to our TpT store where you can get all the goods.

Tina

Rethinking Thanksgiving

Hi!

Yesterday I wrote a newsletter and a blog post with the intent of expressing gratitude, offering encouragement, and sharing my own perspective as a white woman trying to grapple with the long, long process of peeling back the onion layers of disinformation that whiteness has surrounded my consciousness with, throughout my whole life. My intent was, partially, to be open about my own journey specifically as a white woman, so that perhaps some white readers might resonate with it and draw some encourgement from it.

However, despite my intentions, the impact of what I wrote was, at least in one regard, harmful and damaging. I was extremely grateful to receive several responses from readers, and one in particular has spurred me to write to you again with an apology for my message.

This reader kindly challenged the perspective on Thanksgiving I shared yesterday. Upon reflecting and doing some reading, I want to apologize for my simplistic, unreflective, and limited portrayal of the holiday. I did not consider the Indigenous perspective and I want to address that now and address some of my unexamined assumptions about the meaning of this day.

Please accept my apology for my glib portrayal of Thanksgiving as a neutral, positive celebration. I am sorry for the harm my email caused, and grateful to have the chance to address these assumptions now.

For many people, especially Indigenous people, Thanksgiving is an annual “white victory lap” in the words of Simon Moya-Smith, a citizen of the Oglala Lakota Nation, and a journalist and activist, as quoted in the article “A Thanksgiving Message from Seven Amazing Native Americans“. Read more below.

Thanksgiving is nothing less an annual white victory lap. It’s a celebration of aggressive Christian domination and imperialism. Any other description is P.C.

The holiday, as presented, is an affront to inexorable truth and history as it occurred.

Indeed, the Thanksgiving narrative belies the rape and murder and genocide that was committed against this continent’s first peoples – men, women, and children.

Instead of a day of gluttony and excess, the day should be reserved to honor Native Americans; recognize that the U.S. committed incalculable atrocities against us because we weren’t white Christians.

Native Americans should be lauded for our continued resilience and fortitude.

To bury the truth behind what Thanksgiving means to Native Americans does nothing but set us back as a country.

It’s time this nation faces the facts about its actions, its crimes – the ones they’ve committed, and continue to commit.

In a similar vein, Terra Trevor, in the article With Thanksgiving: A Native American View, writes:

Many Native American people do not celebrate Thanksgiving Day as it is observed in America. For Native Peoples, thanksgiving comes not once a year, but always, for all the gifts of life.

I find it ironic and sad that Thanksgiving and Native American Heritage month have been braided together in the month of November. Thanksgiving, as it has come to be observed in America is a time of mourning for many Native People.

It serves as a reminder of how a gift of generosity was rewarded by theft of land and seed corn, extermination of many Native people from disease, and near total elimination of many more from forced assimilation and as a reminder of 500 years of betrayal.

[When youngsters ask about the meaning of Thanksgiving], I tell them about the Wampanoag people.

About this tribe of Southern Massachusetts and how their ancestors ensured the survival of the Pilgrims in New England, and how they lived to regret it, and that now the tribe is growing strong again.

I tell them Native people have a history largely untold and that gathering to give thanks for the harvest did not originate in America with the Pilgrims, it was always our way.

The reader who sent me the email that led me to learn more about Thanksgiving said that they use this time as an opportunity to rest, enjoy good food, and give thanks, and also to donate to the Native American Rights Fund. That seemed like a great idea to me!

If you are interested in learning more, you might want to check out the other six essays by Native writers on the website from which the passage above by Simon Moya-Smith was quoted, or the New York Times article Everything You Learned About Thanksgiving Is Wrong, or the Native advocacy network Cultural Survival’s page of resources, 8 Ways to Decolonize and Honor Native Peoples on Thanksgiving.

And to that reader who reached out to help me see what I was carrying around inside of me, and had never stopped to examine in the light of justice:

Thank you for helping me grow. Especially, thank you for sharing your own history as a white person and specifically your evolving perspective on Thanksgiving.

I was writing from a limited understanding and experience with the holiday, and conceptualizing it as a simple day of focusing on gratitude, without considering how my perspective is, like every aspect of my mind, rooted in the web of lies that whiteness tells, to excuse, justify, and perpetuate white supremacy.

Like so many aspects of the dominant white supremacy culture, formed as it was for the maintenance and defense of white privilege, Thanksgiving is a much more multivariate concept than I conveyed in my simplistic portrayal.

I was so focused on how the holiday seems to me, that I failed to incorporate into my conception its historical roots in the European theft, exploitation, and intentional genocide of the Indigenous people whose lands they invaded and stole, as well as the nature of gratitude and the role of generosity and sharing in many Indigenous cultures.

I would like to close by sharing a little more about myself, because I think it is a good illustration of how insidious white supremacy culture is, and how deeply it is buried within our unconscious minds, in the hope that other people, and especially my white readers, can see how even when we are consciously striving to outgrow our programming, it stubbornly persists if we aren’t asked to examine and rethink and learn and grow.

I consider myself pretty well aware of the history of European genocide and exploitation of people of Color worldwide and here in these stolen lands we call the USA. I have even taught many units on colonialism and guided students to understand the colonizers’ horrific genocide and theft. So, my conscious mind is well aware of the facts.

That does not mean that I am “over it” in the deeper, more invisible realm of my unconscious mind. Our unconscious minds have been poisoned by white supremacy culture. And the work of undoing that programming is much, much deeper, and more personal, and more challenging, and more painful than learning facts with our conscious minds.

I share this because I think it is important to come to terms with how much work we have to do, and how deep and hidden the white supremacy operating system is programmed into our minds, in a million ways, day in and day out, our whole lives long.

Showing Up for Racial Justice’s list of Characteristics of White Supremacy Culture is a good starting point to learn more about how normalized the assumptions of whiteness are in our lives, and certainly worth a read. The American Friends Service Committee’s list of 10 ways white supremacy wounds white people: A tale of mutuality is another valuable starting place. But again, reading and understanding with the conscious mind is the easy part, a good first step. It is the deeper work, the personal perspective-taking, and the deprogramming of our unconscious minds that is where the real work begins.

I will leave you with the words of Dana Brownlee, from the article “Dear White People: Here Are 5 Uncomfortable Truths Black Colleagues Need You To Know,” which advocate the kind of productive discomfort that is needed in acknowledging and dismantling the destructive, racist assumptions that undergird so many of our inherited assumptions and perpetuate systems of oppression.

The first step of problem solving is generally better understanding the problem and in this case that also means confronting uncomfortable truths.

In this pivotal Black Lives Matter moment, corporate leaders and ultimately everyday workplaces have an opportunity to do something different.

Instead of nibbling around the edges by pursuing the path of least resistance, we can push into territory that’s both uncomfortable and transformative – to truly dismantle systemic racism and transform organizational cultures in a way that invites everyone to show up at work as their authentic self.

Thank you for reading this far, and, again, I offer my sincere apologies for passing on my unexamined assumptions yesterday and, if you were hurt by my words, I am deeply sorry for for the hurt my words caused you. When we know better, we do better, and I have learned a lot thanks to the wonderful feedback from this sweet reader!

As always, I truly value your replies so please do not hesitate to reach out!

Please enjoy the holiday, rest, recharge, and connect with your loved ones!

Thankful for 2020

Happy Thanksgiving! This is a newsletter that I sent just now, and it just feels right to share someplace more permanent, too.

It’s my favorite holiday!

It’s simple, and nonsectarian, and there’s no gifts to give and no mountains of wrapping paper to toss away. And it’s a time for us to reflect on what we are thankful for, and the whole country, just for a day, practices gratitude. And even the air outside on Thanksgiving Day feels settled, and quiet, and holy, like early Sunday morning, but all day long.

So, 2020, huh? We’re in the home stretch of a year that, for pretty much everyone I know, has been a journey, a challenge, and a trial. I’m not inclined to blame the date on the calendar for the super-hardness of this year, but there’s no denying it has been a bumpy ride. Especially for teachers. For everyone. Sure. But especially for teachers.

Or maybe it’s just that teachers are the folx that I am hearing from. How they are breaking, how they are crying. How they work all day, every day, and half the night. Or all the night. How eight hours on a Saturday and eight hours on a Sunday is a “light weekend” now. How they miss the classroom. Or how they feel trapped in their classroom, behind a mask, behind their desk, behind a Zoom camera, and mostly, behind fear. And anger. And disbelief.

And we were ALREADY at the breaking point. We were ALREADY stretched so thin and taut that it was “take a deep breath in September and let it out in June.” I think often of how my teaching partner Becky once said that August finds us yoga’d, and meditation’d, and camping’d and rested and fresh and HUMAN, and then the maelstrom begins (usually like two minutes into the first little welcome-back speech from the principal in the first staff meeting of the year) and we are Back in the Soup.

Except this year, the soup is sort of spilled all over. Many of us never got out of the soup, all spring, all summer, every day, all day, and at night in our dreams, too, up till here we find ourselves at The First Thanksgiving.

Not the “first Thanksgiving” like your elementary school play…the First Thanksgiving Since the Pandemic. And it’s so different. And it also feels like a safe harbor, finally. It finally feels like a little pocket of repose. And I hope, more fervently than I have hoped almost anything for teachers – and I have hoped so much for so long for teachers – I hope that you can find some measure of inner peace, and take time to sit, and stare, and breathe, and rebuild yourself a little. I hope that so much for you.

Because it has been a doozy.

And I hope that you can take the time to look past the viciousness of 2020, because it has been vicious, and find what has been GOOD. Because even though it’s certainly not been EASY, it has certainly been transformative. And transformation, real transformation, is not easy, at least how I have experienced it, in my 44 years going round and round the star we call home.

So, it might not be a POPULAR point of view, but I am grateful for 2020, at least partially. It’s worth remembering, when we think of how we feel about our situation now, that the “good old days” weren’t necesarially SO good. And that the good that we took for granted was not equitably shared with everyone. And that many of us, especially those of us whom our unjust society granted a larger portion of privilege because of the “race” that our ancestors and we are percieved as, or the gender we are percieved as, or because we have faced fewer obstacles due to physical and/or mental disabilities, were going about with blinders on to one degree or another.

Growth often brings discomfort, “growing pains,” conflict, and inner turmoil. But we need to grow. We need to rethink, rebuild, revise, repair.

So, for the opportunity to rethink and repair, I am truly grateful. Despite the sleepless nights and the long long days and the sore backside from the hours, weeks, and months spent sitting in front ouf our computers that so many of us have endured. Despite the loss, the enormous losses, both among those we know and love personally, as well as the devastating toll it takes to have death so close, and so constant, and so hungry. Despite the exhausting sense of uncertainty and newness and not-quite-getting-it, and that feeling of slogging through chin-high molasses to get to a place that feels bearable, only to see the rules all change, or more loss come and make it unbearable, again. Despite the feeling, the sickening feeling, of watching the high tide of white America’s collective and general outrage slowly grow softer and lower. Despite our nation’s deep, pervasive, murderous, and reprehensible anti-Blackness and racism and the more-strident voices that defend it and apologize for it and seek to strengthen it. Despite the fires. Oh, the fires that have destroyed wide swaths of the West. Despite the hurricanes and the floods and the political campaigns and the peril and doom and danger.

So, how can I say this?

It’s worth remembering, when we think of how we feel about our situation now, that the “good old days” weren’t necesarially SO good. And that the good that we took for granted was not equitably shared with everyone. And that many of us, especially those of us whom our unjust society granted a larger portion of privilege because of the “race” that our ancestors and we are percieved as, or the gender we are percieved as, or because we have faced fewer obstacles due to physical and/or mental disabilities, were going about with blinders on to one degree or another.

It’s also worth thinking, especially in this time of Thanksgiving, that despite the significance of the losses that 2020 has wrought in our lives, that so many of us, I daresay the vast majority of you reading this, are so well-off, materially speaking, by global standards, that the 30% of the world’s population without running water, including 2 million people right here in the United States (in particular Indigenous people) would certainly find your material situation quite enviable.

Despite how much the year has hurt. Despite the stress, and the loss, and the grief, I know that all I have to do is go over to the faucet, turn it, and unless something really weird is happening, within 45 seconds I can have water as hot or cold as I like it. Among other comforts and necessities that are not equitably distributed in the world.

I’m not saying it’s not hard. It’s been hard. It’s been really hard.

So, why be grateful for this difficult, challenging, dangerous time? I’m grateful for the opportunity for growth.

Growth often brings discomfort, “growing pains,” conflict, and inner turmoil. But we need to grow. We need to rethink, rebuild, revise, repair.

So, for the opportunity to rethink and repair, I am truly grateful. Despite the sleepless nights and the long long days and the sore backside from the hours, weeks, and months spent sitting in front ouf our computers that so many of us have endured. Despite the loss, the enormous losses, both among those we know and love personally, as well as the devastating toll it takes to have death so close, and so constant, and so hungry. Despite the exhausting sense of uncertainty and newness and not-quite-getting-it, and that feeling of slogging through chin-high molasses to get to a place that feels bearable, only to see the rules all change, or more loss come and make it unbearable, again. Despite the feeling, the sickening feeling, of watching the high tide of white America’s collective and general outrage slowly grow softer and lower. Despite our nation’s deep, pervasive, murderous, and reprehensible anti-Blackness and racism and the more-strident voices that defend it and apologize for it and seek to strengthen it. Despite the fires. Oh, the fires that have destroyed wide swaths of the West. Despite the hurricanes and the floods and the political campaigns and the peril and doom and danger.

Despite all that, or maybe because of it, I am grateful for 2020. Because it has upended the old normal. Which every one of us knows needs to change. We might disagree on the why and the how and the details, and I don’t say that lightly, given our society’s enormous rifts and divisions and the deep pain that accompanies them. We might disagree on the details, and disagree mightily. But we all have something – or a lot of somethings – that we know needs to change. And deeply. Profoundly. And fast.

So, for that I am grateful. Because it feels like we have grown less-complacent in 2020. We have seen some of the illusions lift from our eyes. We have read, and listened, and we have observed and watched and learned.

It feels like this year has been ten years in one. It feels like everyone has shed their old skin, and then shed it again, and again. And, for many of us, it has only been through a screen that we have been able to see the changes in those we love and care about and serve and teach. So it has also been a lonely time, a time of introspection. A time of internal reckoning.

It’s a time of tearing down AND a time of building up. It’s a time of reaping AND sowing. It’s a time to be silent and a time to speak. It’s like all the times, all at the SAME time. And it’s exhausting.

It’s exhausting, on top of what we were already carrying. And teachers near and far were already carrying so very much, far too much. Teachers, the nobelest profession, the profession that creates all professions, living out our souls’ calling, are on the front lines of it all.

So, please take time to breathe, and please, I implore you, please go easy on yourself, and on your students, and on your loved ones. And please, if I may, address the white readers of this newsletter directly, and by white readers I also mean the white writer (myself) — If by chance you have felt the high tide of your commitment to fighting for Black lives and racial justice and for equity for all people, and you have felt yourself slip back – even a little – into complacency and the amnesia that your whiteness affords you, please, please get back in the struggle.

Let’s not let the enormous stresses and losses and pain and grief of 2020 be in vain. THAT would be the ultimate loss and tragedy. Here on the north side of the planet, we are turning towards the shortest day of the year, the darkness gathering and growing and the world growing sleepy and still. On December 21, the Solstice, we tirn the corner, towards rebirth and renewal, and then we turn to a new calendar year.

In this last cycle of the growing darkness, may we also turn to the darkness, and explore it, and allow it to teach us, and change us, to soften us and also to strengthen us, and strengthen our resolve.

It’s been a year. May it be, despite its greedy devouring claws, and its relentlessness and its pain, may it be the crucible of our transformation. I would wager that, if you manage to carve out some time this week of Thanksgiving and reflection, you will find much to be grateful for, in your own growth and in the deepening of your own humanity.

If you do find the time to do some reflecting, and you want to drop me a line to share, it would be a gift to me. And it might help you to firm up your resolve, to hit send and put it out there into the world. Plus I just love hearing from you.

Thank you for reading this far. May your holiday be restorative and delicious and may your sleeps be long and deep.

And may your teaching be as haphazard as it needs to be so that you can be well and safe and sane and whole.

Thank you. Truly and gratefully and with bone-deep, deeper than bones, soul-deep, awe and wonder that you are still going. After all this, and only you can know how hard “all this” was and is for you, after YOUR “all this”, YOU ARE STILL GOING.

Thank you and Happy Thanksgiving to us all.

Tina

Racism, Equity, Inclusion, Invitation, Representation, and Leadership

Recently I had a long exchange of messages with a concerned party about the Teacher Leader scholarships that we are offering for Summer Institutes. This person, who has a long track record of commitment to racial justice and anti-racist education and social action, and whose work I personally admire, expressed concern that an unintended consequence of the scholarship was to perpetuate a common, yet misguided and harmful practice among white people hoping to grow in their ability to be allies in the fight to dismantle systemic racism.

It is all too common for whites to ask or expect people of color to educate us about race, racism, white privilege, or any other topics we desire to learn about. This is, obviously, a very misguided and harmful practice, and it is indicative of the depth of the inherited racism that white people, even well-meaning ones, perpetuate. It, to me, indicates that the white person, regardless of their good intentions, is still assuming that they have the right to assume a stance of “power over”, of assuming that white people can simply extract labor and information from people of color, just by virtue of wanting to learn.

This exchange shook me deeply, and in the past two days, I have undertaken a lot of reflection and discussion. This was all happening against the tragic backdrop of the brutal murder of yet another Black American, George Floyd, and the widespread anguish, demonstrations, vigils, actions, and public displays of anger boiling over in the fiery streets of Minneapolis and across the nation and world.

Part of that reflection has been the difference between my life as an individual and my role as the leader of an organization.

As an individual, I have long been committed to anti-racist work. As a young girl, I attended an all-white private school and had very few personal interactions with anyone whose skin was not pretty much the same shade as mine, and so when race slowly dawned on me, it was an abstract concept. Fiction helped. Fiction has been shown to increase our empathy. Reading nonfiction and learning history helped. But since the history lessons at my all-white school transmitted a very, very white-centric, racist narrative, that part was slow going. There were not a lot of ways that I knew of to learn from other people.

My world, and the world for many kids of my generation (I was born in 1976) and in my social milieu (I was born in Macon, GA), was not designed for curious white girls to have many opportunities to interact with people who weren’t white, or to even have many opportunities to formally explore racism, or even to learn a non-white-supremacist version of history or explanations for current events. Those around me did not seem to share my perspective. I learned about reparations. I learned about affirmative action. These seemed like good ideas to me, and still do. But those around me, almost monolithically, vehemently opposed such ideas. I grew up feeling like an outsider in many ways, and my dawning , growing realization that racism is pervasive, that our entire society was built on a foundation of theft, murder, slavery, torture, and forced, exploited labor was a source of personal pain and wonderment, and loneliness. Deep loneliness.

My personal life has been a journey of climbing out of this social prison cell – in no way comparable to an actual prison cell, in which a disproportionate number of people of color, and especially Black Americans, are now confined due to the deep, pervasive systemic racism upon which our prison-industrial complex is built.

In no way will I ever congratulate myself for a “good job” or “getting there” or “being a good white person” because no matter what, I know I will never eradicate the nasty, seething, ugly programming that I picked up like breathing in air, from the shameful and horrific legacy that my fellow white supremacists laid down, of unspeakable suffering and loss for non-Europeans, and of unwarranted privilege and power for those who descended from European ancestry, rich and poor alike.

I have so far to go. I would dare say that all whites have so far to go. I would even dare say that we probably will never “get there.” The best we can do is DO NO HARM. The best we can do is STEP ASIDE. The best we can do is MAKE SPACE. And the space we can make would seem to be in direct proportion to the amount of power and influence we have to share.

Thus, for those white people who have more influence and more power, such as those who lead schools, departments, classrooms, conferences, Facebook groups, state organizations, national organizations…and cities, counties, school boards, nations…for whites like that, the work is especially urgent.

So, this work, for many of us whites, is taking on a new level of urgency in these times, as we see the effects of racism writ large in the death toll from the COVID-19 crisis, in the state-sanctioned brutality and murder and the deep suffering and pain it causes, and in the widening economic gaps that disproportionately affect communities of color.

Let us not forget that these communities began our neoliberal rush to enrich the super-wealthy at everyone else’s expense ALREADY way, way behind the starting line due to centuries of theft of land and life and labor, disenfranchisement, terrorism, and the policies that made these practices not just legal but part of the very fabric of the economy.

And in this ever more urgent work, those of us who hold power, influence, and economic resources must make a swift, decisive, and deeply-engineered course correction. We must step aside, even in our own organizations, and even in our own life’s work, to make space, to bring on new leaders, to build stronger teams. Lip service is not enough.

Pretty words are not enough. Surface-level changes are not enough. The deep, pervasive, life-threatening violence that whites have collectively visited upon our fellow human beings was not built on lip service, words, and surface-level policies. It is deep, it is the verey water we swim in, the very food we eat, the very land we walk on, the very air we breathe. It was built into us when the sperm and egg that made us met, and it has been replicated in every division since. I just replicated billions of cells infected by racism as I typed that last paragraph. You, white reader, replicated billions of your own as you read it. And you, dear reader of color, I would suspect that you know, tragically, and at great cost to you and your loved ones, how whites are replicating, replicating racism with every thought, every cell, every innocent-looking baby. I cannot know if that is how it feels. I can only imagine. It’s probably worse than I imagine, and that is why it is so urgent.

The reason for the scholarship program is to start a major course correction for the company I began, blithely, and without much thought to racial justice, in 2011. Perhaps there are better ways to do this course correction. I’m sure there are. If you have ideas, please share them. I’m all ears. In fact, the seed of this scholarship was planted by a commenter of color who, last year, made a comment on a post we sent out about the Institutes, saying that the price made it obvious that they were intended to exclude, not INCLUDE. I did not do a course correction then. It took me a little bit to internalize it.

My hope is to grow the company on the contributions and power of people of color, to construct a pathway for those who are interested in the work we are doing, and whose perspectives will help us to grow into, as Bernie Sanders says, a multi-generational, multi-racial coalition of empowered educators who are developing resources and trainings and leadership that is actively anti-racist.

For many scholarship recipients, attending Summer Institutes will be all they wish to do. That’s great! They will leave with resources, knowledge, and information. They will not be asked to participate “as a person of color” or to educate others about race. I am fiercely committed to making the experience about their learning and growth, NOT about the learning and growth of white participants. The scholarships are being awarded with no strings attached, to all who apply.

Why aren’t they free? I thought about making them free. But I chose to make then 75% off instead, because when people pay something, it creates a different dynamic. At least that’s how I see it. Maybe that’s my white perspective talking. If that’s how it seems to you, I would appreciate your sharing your perspective on that.

The proceeds of the scholarship tuition will fund the ability to bring on more collaborators of color to our team. We will be able to pay people to write texts, develop curriculum materials, offer professional development, and weigh in, in a substantive way, to the direction we navigate in this major course correction.It is my sincere desire to produce actively anti-racist materials, texts, and training opportunities, and to build a high-functioning leadership team that is a lot less white-centric than the one I have built so far.

So, yes, I suppose you could say that I am asking my colleagues and friends of color to help me. And maybe you see this differently, but I see that when an ORGANIZATION needs to make a SWIFT and SUBSTANTIVE course correction, by hiring, training, and collaborating with colleague of color, that is a different situation from Teacher Tina or Teacher Sally expecting others to do the work for them. This is Literacy Education Services, LLC, DBA CI Liftoff and DBA The World Language Proficiency Project, inviting leaders of color to do the work WITH us. To take on roles that only they can fill.

After two intense days of self-examination against a background of intense national anguish and pain, in an already-intense time of crisis and pain, this. is my thinking, as an individual person, as a businesswoman, and as an educator. I look forward to hearing others’ thoughts. Thank you for reading this far. Please leave a comment if you have thoughts to share.

Hang in There, Everybody! Part Four

I’m writing to you from my hospital bed.

I’m OK, but things have been better, let’s say.

I just had to write because yesterday, something happened that made me think of how important we teachers are, for everyone’s happiness, at the most vulnerable, scared, embarrassed, hurt moments, the messiest moments, the biggest transitions, literally life and death, how important we teachers are in how we help to raise up our future healthcare workers today (who are sitting in your classrooms right now).  I have been thinking, especially, how we show the difference that human kindness can make in an otherwise ruthlessly-efficient and impersonal environment like a school or a hospital.

So, yesterday, I was about to be put under for an endoscopy and as I was waiting for the anesthesiologist to arrive, I heard the two techs debating vigorously about Minecraft.

I was about to be shepherded through the fearsome waters of unconsciousness by two “kids” who knew enough about Minecraft to engage in a rousing debate about it.  I suddenly felt like I was about to be operated on by a seventh grader.

Which, if you have ever taught seventh grade, was sort of a, uh, sobering thought.  (Especially if you ever taught my seventh graders!)

Which they could have been when I began my career teaching, if they were particularly hard-working.

“I have always depended on the kindness of strangers,” says Blanche DuBois at the end of the play A Streetcar Named Desire, as she is being taken to the hospital.

I’m actually IN the hospital now, and I assure you that, ultimately, that is true for us all.  Ultimately, despite the ministrations of friends and family, if we avail ourselves of medical treatment, which we will increasingly do , the older we get, we will come to depend on the kindnesses of many strangers in scrubs.

And in this is a lesson for us teachers, to hang in there for the long haul, for everyone‘s sake.  To hang in there and teach those kids who will one day grow up to wear scrubs and be there for others in their darkest hours, with kindness and love.  With humanity and compassion and kindness and taking-a-moment within a huge, impersonal, florescent-lit, bar-coded, regimented system such as a hospital is.

We need to teach them to be human within systems that can feel overwhelming.  When they walk into our classes, we can show them that within a huge system such as School, there can be those people and places that build you up, take a moment for you, and treat you like a human, because of the person you are working with.  Teachers, that person, in school, tends to be us.  We are the person who sets the tone of the interaction.  We are the person who makes it more human within an impersonal system or less-so.

I came to the hospital in an ambulance, my first ride ever in an ambulance, when, on Saturday night, I was unable to stand up without falling down and fainting.  There were other symptoms, too, but they are a little gross to get into.  I’ll just let it suffice to say that I was moaning to my husband from the bathroom floor, alternatively, that I was going to die, or that I wished I had already done so.

When the EMT showed me an IV drip full of water, which I had not been able to keep down for two days, despite intense thirst, I cried.  Not because I am deathly afraid of needles (on a normal day, I am) but because I was so grateful that they were going to give me fluid.

When we arrived at the hospital, and four arms tattooed with full arm sleeves (it’s Portland through and through here at the hospital, down to the room-service lattes and espresso) were pumping all kinds of things into my already-chilled body, and I was shivering from head to toe, in a deep way I never knew was possible, a man brought me what I would come to know as “fresh warm blankets” and he made a little headcovering with them, and I cried again, grateful that someone noticed how convulsed with shivering I was.

When I was moved to my room upstairs, the transport technician took a selfie with me in the mirrored ceiling of the elevator, cause I was so tickled that I could see myself full-length in the bed.

A phlebotomist just came to draw blood, and she told me, “Put this pillow over your head because the overhead lights are bright,” and then she so gently stroked my arm to raise up a vein.

So many times, it’s been a technician, not a doctor or nurse, who has been there for me in those small moments of just raw human need.

Despite the fact that my dear husband is here with me, to the point that the nurses have all commented on his dedication to Team Tina, he is not the face that is the face of kindness in those little moments of fear, or hurt, or loneliness.  It’s been technicians with kind hearts who have made each step of this ordeal a little more human, and a little more tolerable.

Within the monstrous, huge hospital I am in, they shine.

Just like we do.  We are working in a monstrous, huge system.  It pokes, prods, weighs, measures, draws blood, knocks us unconscious.  All the things that a hospital does (just metaphorically, of course).

And some teachers just go with the flow, they measure, report the results, continue on.

And some, look in your face, see you are shivering, see your teeth chattering, and wrap a fresh warm blanket around your head.

Or they just explain why they are doing what they are doing.

Or they just say “I know it hurts, and I wish I could make it go away, but we have to do it.”

Which makes it better too.

Know, teachers, we are showing our very own future scrubs-wearing angels how to be human in a system that was not built for humans.  And please, hang in there.

I will do the same.

Hang in There, Everybody! Part Three

Keep hanging in there.  

I know it’s hard to be a teacher.

It’s especially hard to be one of “those teachers.”

Which, you might just well BE one of “those” teachers.

I know I am.

The kind that get onto their “latest obsession” and then spend days and days and weeks and weeks soaking up whatever they can find, reworking everything, or at least dreaming about it.  Planning for next year.  When things will be different.  Better.  

Once, in about 2009, I found “Power Teaching.”  Now it is called “Whole-Brain Teaching.”  I fell deep into it, and reorganized my whole Social Studies classroom around it, and obsessively watched videos and read blog posts and even drove from Nevada to California to attend a conference about it.  

Yeah, I’m “that kind of teacher.”

When I found CI in 2004, I cleaned out the shelf where Krashen’s books were in the library at Portland State University, and watched every video I could (there weren’t many back then), and immediately changed everything about my college courses, or as much as I could, with the section head breathing down my neck and the common assessments and constant evaluation and scrutiny we were under.

That kind.

That’s the kind of teacher you are too, I wager.  You’re the kind that is on Facebook on the weekend, reading teacher posts instead of looking at hilarious memes and funny cat videos.  

I bet you are “that kind of teacher” too.  

The kind that sort of believe, deep down somewhere, that there is some system, or method, or tool, or strategy that will reach into our school systems and grab us all by the scruff of the neck and shake us out of the torpor that oozes from the walls of classrooms and the halls of schools all across this planet.

The kinds who dream of an education that builds everyone up, makes everyone proud, makes people want to be in our classrooms.

An education that makes even US, the teachers, want to BE in our classrooms.  

An education that makes us fired up about our calling, our true calling.

Our true calling isn’t about languages.

Our true calling is about the soul.

Somehow, we were all called to take care of the soul of the next grownups to take over this planet.

Languages were just the shiny object that got us to wake up to our calling.  

We are not teaching languages, not really.  We are really teaching people.

And you are one of “those teachers.”  The kind that see that.  The kind that still, after all the indignities and all the disrespect and all the stress, and the trauma, and the name-calling, and the harsh reality, the kind that is still, still growing, still learning, looking, searching for a way to bring joy and connection and REALNESS to your classroom and your students’ lives and, thereby, to the future of our poor, beleagured, planet that is literally burning up in front of our eyes.

I know it’s not easy.

I know it takes a toll on your social life, your family life, your “me time.”

I know it’s a sacrifice.  An investment of your already-limited resources.  Your time, your energy, your attention, your finances.

I know what it is to be at your daughter’s swim lesson, and instead of cheering her on, or snapping pictures, to be reading a book or blog about your latest teaching obsession.

I know what it is to get super fired-up about a new idea or approach and to be shot down by colleagues and bosses who do not seem to even care.  I know what it is to have to fit your passion, and your creativity, and your excitement, and your vision, and your differentness, into the system.

And know that the system isn’t working for the people in it.

It’s frustrating.

It drives teachers, good teachers, the BEST ones, out of the profession.

It haunts us.

It makes our jobs many, many times harder.  It makes our innovation and passion COST us more.

Not only do we have to learn to teach, but then we all have to tinker with what we have learned, and chip away at it and modify it, and diminish it, to fit on the Procrustean bed of “fitting into the scope and sequence/common assessments/ textbook chapter/PBIS/Response to Intervention/Common Core/whatever our bosses, in their infinite wisdom are on about this year, or this semester, or this month.”

It’s hard.

And yet you come back to this group, back to other teacher groups.  And you still dream, still tinker, still do whatever you can, to elevate your teaching.

Because you’re that kind of teacher.

I’m sorry it’s so hard.  I’m sorry about the lost sleep.  I’m sorry the system doesn’t generally work for people, and people have to work for the system.   

But still, you persist.  You go on.  

Thank you.

Thank you for being That Kind of Teacher.

Hang in there.  Take it easy on yourself.  

Things are changing.

It’s slow, imperceptible, piecemeal, and haphazard.  But things ARE changing.

My hero is Lucy Calkins.   I have followed her work in literacy education for almost 20 years.  

She has transformed the landscape.  An army of dedicated literacy teachers, across the nation, across the planet, spread and reinforce her vision, equipped with her infectious passion, her fiery words, and with practical materials to implement it, and with evidence of its effectiveness, and with a common set of tools and ways to describe their practice.

That did not happen overnight.  But it was teachers like us, you and me, “those teachers,” who have made Lucy’s vision the “new normal” in school after school, district after district.  

It will happen.  And here we are, DOING THE WORK.

Thank you, hang in there, play the long game with me.

You are worth it.  Your career is worth it.  And, most of all, our students are worth it.

Mil gracias.  Merci mille fois.  

Je vous adore.  Continuons à lutter.  Continuons à jouer.

Continuons à aimer et a songer et à rêver et à travailler, à apprendre, à chercher.

Hang in There, Everybody! Part Two

Let’s all hang in there, even though nothing seems to be moving and we seem like we are stuck in endless dark and the sun will never come back, and we will always wake up in the dark, walk the dog in the dark, drive home in the dark.

We can’t tell by looking from one day to another, but the days are getting longer. 

Yesterday, in Portland, night was 11 hours and 22 minutes long.  TODAY, it’s 11 hours and 21 minutes long.

One minute.   FOR REAL?  One measly little MINUTE?  I lived a WHOLE DAY and all I got to show for it was ONE MORE MINUTE OF SUN?

We can’t tell from looking at it, but the Earth is round.

The little part we can see looks flat, though.

We can’t tell from what kids can do in January, what language is growing in their heads.  

But if we just keep at it, keep 

TEACHING IN THE LANGUAGE 

instead of teaching ABOUT the language,

then, just like January is imperceptibly shifting towards June, 

THE STUDENTS TOO will shift towards June.

Might not be THIS June.

Might be NEXT June.

Or next October.

Or next February.

But they WILL shift.

They aren’t all the Earth, though.  They’re not all the same planet.

They won’t all shift at the same rate.

Some are little Mercuries, and they go fast, learn fast, want speed, want to RUN into the language, and they will shift quick, cause they take the input you give them each day, and they repeat it to themselves, and they actually study those notes they insist on taking in your nice deskless classroom and they go go go in the language.

Some are Neptunes, slowly wending their way in the language, dreamily tuning in and tuning out in class, perhaps preoccupied by heavy things, maybe by things so heavy that it would break your heart to know them.

Maybe, if you let them be, and let them unfold, and build a supportive place where a kid on a timeline like that can feel successful and good and happy and loved and included and where they can see that they ARE growing, then they will slowly turn, not only toward the language, but toward YOU.  And they will unwrap the mystery of what it is that preoccupies them at such a young age.  

Maybe you will earn their trust.

Maybe you will start earning the trust of kids that don’t trust many grown-ups in the school, because you are the one who lets them be.

You are the one who lets them unfold at their rate.

And showed them that they were, in fact, making progress.

And celebrated that.

I urge you to go easy on yourself, and go easy on your students, and know that it’s HARD to trust natural processes, EVEN WHEN THEY ARE SCIENTIFICALLY-MEASURED AND PROVEN.

It’s hard to TRUST and KNOW and FEEL that January is moving and growing into summer.  

It JUST FEELS SO DARK AND COLD.

It’s hard to trust and know and FEEL like the Earth is round.

I mean, we don’t live on the space station.

Looks pretty flat to me from here.

So, if it’s hard to trust that these basic facts of science are true, on a day-to-day, here-and-now basis, then think how much harder it is to trust that this kid is making progress, and that one is too, and so is this other one, when there is no road map for that kid, and no one has proven that little Johnny in the third row will EVER not say “me llamo es.”

But, we WILL get to June.

Lord willin’ and the creek don’t rise.

One day, that day will come, like it does every year, when we go to the store on the way home, and we realize, walking the cart out to the parking lot afterwards, that it is STILL LIGHT IN THE SKY and we ran an errand after school, IN THE DAYLIGHT.  We will realize then, that all those minutes here and there added up, day after day, when night seemed to have taken over for good.

We WILL get to that day, and then we WILL get to June, which, here in Portland, it feels like all you see is sun, sun sun, cause we are so far north.

We WILL get there.

And little Johnny WILL make progress.

As long as you keep giving him the language.

Just turn on the language, and keep shining it, and hang in there.

Hang in There, Everybody! Part One

Let’s all just HANG IN THERE. 

It’s January freaking fifteenth.

It’s been dark FOREVER.

I’ve been cold for THREE DAYS.

Like, just cold, constantly.

I went to acupuncture today and told her, “Just don’t make me take any of my clothes off.”  

Like, ANY of them.  Not even my SCARF.

They said we would have lots of snow today, but what we got instead was just damp, damp, damp, damp cold.  

I don’t like Valentine’s Day that much, and other than that, what is there to look forward to in the next couple of months?

More rain?

90 seconds more of light each day?

It’s going to be a couple weeks yet before we start to notice that the long winter nights are budging at all.

Amy Mecher, HOW DO YOU DO IT, up there in Alaska?

I officially tendered my resignation to Portland Public Schools today.

My mixed feelings are over.  I cried about it enough, last January, and February, and March, and April, and then it finally stopped in summer cause I got so busy with everything else that I guess I kind of forgot to keep grieving.  And I kind of forgot to be excited.  And I just kind of forgot to do ANYTHING except work and write and work and write.

Some people have asked me, “If you quit teaching, then what does that say about your curriculum, or your training, or your ideas?”

“If you couldn’t hang in there, who can?”

Some people have said, “If you stop teaching, how will you stay relevant?  How will you keep your edge?  How will you maintain your street cred?”  

Here’s the truth.  Here’s why I tendered my resignation.

I LOVE TEACHING.

LOVED IT.

LOVE IT STILL.

I will always love it.

I was very, very happy teaching.

I had it down to such a science, and I had it so efficient, that I was literally prepping like ten minutes a day, and grading like an hour a month.

And yet my students were learning a lot.

They could read, write, understand, speak when they took a notion to it (or when we played speaking games in class).

I look at videos of myself in the classroom and what stands out is PURE JOY.

I ADORE the classroom.

I adore making a world out of nothing but desks, tape, paper, and a rinky-dink whiteboard made out of some white stuff screwed onto what looks to have been an old chalkboard.

I love that kind of stuff.

But I could not keep my big mouth shut, I guess.  I was so happy with what I had discovered, and learned, and developed, and I just could not help it.  I posted videos, I started a blog.  I wrote pages and pages.  I killed two computers;  I’m on my third computer since 2016.  or maybe fourth.  I don’t remember. 

It was like I HAD to share.  Because I wanted to help others see what I saw, and be happier too.  And the more I talked and wrote and posted videos about teaching, the busier I got, and the busier I got, the more I learned, from working with teachers in more and more places, getting busier and busier.

And the more I learned about what was plaguing them, what was hard for them, what burning questions they had, the more I learned, the more I thought, and tinkered, and worked, and wrote, and talked, and…

Somehow the outside work just got bigger and bigger.

It began to pull me away from my students more and more.

I was not really being the teacher I wanted to be.  The teacher I had always been.  

I tried to keep up with both, the outside work and the teaching, but the outside work demands so much of you, and teaching demands so much of you, and there is, at the end of the day, only so much of you to go around, and you get tired of robbing Peter to pay Paul.

But it’s not Peter.

And it’s not Paul.

It’s Tina robbing Tina.

So, something had to give.  And all along, I knew it would be my beloved classroom.

My dear students.  My colorful book boxes, and my beautiful classroom library, and my stickers, my boxes and boxes of this and that, stowed away Just in Case.

Just in case Michaels ever goes out of freakin business, I guess.

I don’t have too many teacher things left now.

I have the choicest teacher books, on the bookshelf I just built in my office.  The rest, I gave away.

I have about six student readers, to use as example Book Talks in workshops and Summer Institutes.  The rest, I gave away.

I have a big, overstuffed folder full of notes and cards and letters and drawings that I have never read, that I was saving for a day that I would want to leave the profession, cause that’s what Jeff told us in grad school, “Save those cards and stuff, cause one day you will come to a point where you want to leave the profession, and you will need to look at them and keep your heart in it.”

But, the thing is, I never once, ever, wanted to leave the profession.

I never even wanted to leave the classroom.

I just wanted to get into other people’s classrooms so bad that I had to step out of mine.  Maybe it’s just for a spell.  Hard to tell.  Maybe I will spend the rest of my days working with other people’s students.  That’s fun, too.  And it leaves me time to work on materials, and time to work on me, too.

Cause ALL teachers give and give, and give some more.

It’s like we should all have to take a required training called “How to Give to Yourself AND to Others, Too.”  Cause we FORGET.

All of us give and give.  And then there are the ones who sort of get Picked Up and Used.  Or at least that’s how it feels to me.  Like I got picked up and used, somehow, for some Muse somewhere to pour books of words through, to pour facebook posts, blog posts, video posts, teacher manuals, stories, workshop rants, through.

And so on my Almost One Year Anniversary of Leaving My Happy Place Behind (at least for a spell), I say to you:

IT’S WORTH IT.

It’s worth it to me, and not just in that “Giving to Others” way.

It’s worth it in the “Paying Tina” way, too.

Cause I LOVE LOVE LOVE LOVE working with teachers.  I love Stepping Stones.  I love the lessons, the cycles, the phases, the writing foci, the assessments, the rubrics, continua, the whole shebang. 

Sometimes I look at that book and it’s like it did not even come out of my brain.  I look at it in awe, and think, “Wow, WHERE did that come from?”

And I know that it will take me years and years to figure out how to unpack and unwrap and regift this huge body of work to other teachers.  

And I also know that it is so fun, so satisfying, and so rewarding to be unwrapping the goodies that sort of got dumped in my brain by some Santa Claus that brings early mornings and worn-out keyboards instead of candy and toys.

Except there is no candy, no toy, no CLASSROOM that is more of a gift in my life than the gift of having these materials and this vision to share with you guys.

HANG IN THERE everyone.  

And that goes double for you, Tina.  Yeah, talking to you, Self.

Albert Fernández’ Story

World Language Thought Leaders Share Their Story

Albert Fernández’ story speaks to the natural tendency of teachers to replicate the same methods that our own teachers used, especially when we are in “survival mode”, and just getting our teaching legs under us.

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Albert’s blog, Señor Fernie, shares his thoughts on CI teaching from a stance of “I’m trying this all out and sharing how it’s going for better and for worse…and if I can do it, anyone can do it.”  On his blog, Albert also shares stories that he and his students have written, and you can download them here.

I recently chatted with Albert about his session on the Spanish Teacher Success Academy online conference.  You can access that conference FREE through March here.

Here’s the 30-minute video on Albert’s session “Moving Away from Grammar-Based Teaching”.


Comment Contest!

Contest - World Language Thought Leaders Share Their Story

Each story in this series will offer an opportunity to share your story too, and enter for a chance to win prizes that will help build our collective capacity as a teaching community.  My goal in sharing these stories is to help people see the commonalities in the struggles that we all go through at one point or another in our journeys.

If Albert’s story speaks to you, please leave a comment below that shares part of YOUR teacher story.  Two comments will be randomly selected to win one of two prizes:

30 minutes of phone guidance time with Albert OR a guest post on Albert’s blog, to share your experiences trying out CI methods.

If you want to see more of Albert, check out his session at the FREE online conference, Spanish Teachers Success Academy, which runs March 10 through 15, 2019.  Be sure to block out some time on your calendar so that you can watch during that time, because the sessions are only available for free during that window, and you don’t want to miss them!  You can get your free ticket here.  And you can download the free playbook here, which has information from all the presentations!  You can purchase lifetime access to the conference or binge-watch as much as you can from March 10 through 15 — your choice!

Albert was a guest on the We Teach Languages podcast in fall of 2018, giving advice for new language teachers.  You can listen to the interview here.

Now, on to Albert’s story.


¡Hola a todos! My name is Albert Fernandez.

My CI journey started way before I knew about “CI” as we know it now. I went to graduate school for an MAT in foreign language education and I was familiar with the idea of comprehensible input (language that is comprehensible to the students that is necessary for them to acquire language). But in the 10 years since I graduated, the term “CI” has evolved to mean something much more than just a term used by linguists to describe the kind of language that learners need in order to acquire language 

“CI” is now a movement. It’s become a catch-all term for the methods and techniques used by teachers who have decided that after years of starting novices out by teaching them about the language rather than giving them comprehensible input, maybe it’s time for a change. As I see it, the “CI Umbrella” covers all kinds of activities and methodologies that focus on allowing students to acquire language in as natural a way as possible. I have fully embraced this idea. 

But how did I get here? 

My first job out of grad school (and the job I currently have) is teaching 1st – 8th Grade Spanish (and now I also teach Kindergarten). I applied, interviewed, and was hired in a whirlwind (all of it happened within 2 days). The principal who hired me, once I got into my room and started setting up said, “OK. Have fun.”

And then I was on my own.  

I didn’t have resources from the previous teacher, no order of instruction, no unit plans or lesson plans, no partner teacher to work with, just a set of books originally published in 1987 (this was in 2010, btw) and a classroom. If I left my teaching job now, with almost 10 years of elementary and middle school teaching under my belt, and had this level of freedom, it would be a dream come true. But as a baby teacher, with only a slip of paper saying I was a “Master” of foreign language education, it was terrifying; it was paralyzing. I knew what I should do, but I didn’t know how to go about doing it.

Needless to say, that first year was tough. I fell back on all the things that I knew from going through 12 years of Spanish classes in my life. I didn’t do anything like what I learned about doing in my Master’s program. I was fully in survival mode: Get information, any information, about the language into the kids’ heads, test them on it, and repeat. As the years went by, grew in confidence and competence in classroom management and teaching (well…teaching grammar) and by my 3rd year of teaching, I was able to control a classroom. The kids and I were able to enjoy Spanish class and have fun learning

But I still had this voice in the back of my head telling me that I still wasn’t living up to the expectation I had of myself as a Spanish teacher. I wasn’t able to put into action all the strategies and methods I had learned about in grad school. I didn’t have a community of teachers to guide me through. (At the time I called myself a “Lone Wolf” because I thought it sounded cool; the term for it now is “Department of One.”) I was all alone in the school and struggling to live up to the high expectations I felt I was being held to by admin, the legacy of incredible professors, and my own knowledge that teaching grammar rules doesn’t really help students communicate in the TL There was a gap between my goal for my students (that they move up the proficiency levels) and my instruction (grammar, discrete vocabulary memorization, forced output). 

As I went through the first few years of my career teaching grammar rules and having kids memorize hundreds of vocabulary words a quarter, I felt this gap get wider and wider. I felt more and more like I was doing them a disservice. I felt like no matter how well I taught them to fill in blanks, they weren’t learning the skills they would need to actually communicate to someone who isn’t their Spanish teacher. 

I have to stop myself here for a moment to point out that there is no correct way to teach language. A criticism of the CI movement is that there is snobbery or elitism and that we look down on teachers who use more traditional methods. I get it, and from the outside, that’s how it might seem, especially with the sort of passionate rhetoric about how much better “CI” is than traditional methods.

But that’s not been my experience. I believe that at the end of the day, it’s our job to do what we feel is best for the students. Every teacher and every class is different and what works for one may not be the best approach for another. Regardless of where you are on the CI spectrum, whether it’s a fully grammar-based curriculum on one end or a Non-Targeted CI curriculum based on students’ interests on the other or anywhere in between, there is no wrong way to teach. There are just ways that are better for us as individuals.

The 2013-14 school year is when the world opened up for me. This was the year that I stumbled upon The Comprehensible Classroom, Sra. Spanglish (now PBLintheTL) and Musicuentos. These are the blogs of Martina Bex, Laura Sexton, and Sara-Elizabeth Cottrell, respectively, and they opened my eyes to the world of “CI” as it is known now.

Suddenly, there was a whole world of ideas and approaches to teaching that had high efficacy and were based on the kinds of teaching methods I had learned about in graduate school Their blogs led me to TPRS and attending a TPRS workshop. This changed my career and it’s not an exaggeration to say that it has changed my entire life. Their blogs also led me to #langchat, a weekly (now bimonthly) twitter chat between language teachers to share ideas and advice about language teaching and to the CI Liftoff and iFLT/NTPRS/CI Teaching Facebook groups. And they inspired me to start my own blog sharing what I do in my classroom and my students’ work. This has only helped me with making more connections in the world of language teachers.

I encourage everyone I meet to start their own blog (I even wrote a blog post about it!) for reflection and connection with other teachers. Before the language teaching blogger community and before Langchat and Facebook, I was a lone wolf in a dark forest. No one in my school could understand that me doing a good job using outdated methods was not my idea of the best job I could be doing. But the world of CI teachers understood. They had gone through the same things as me! This community is filled with incredible teachers and content creators whose main goal is to help other teachers provide students with the skills to communicate effectively in a language that is not their own using the most modern research-based methods available. 

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Without the CI movement and TPRS, I would not be where I am today. I am not sure I would even still be teaching. I definitely would not have started blogging or presenting at regional and national conferences. CI has given me a voice in shaping how languages are taught. Come and join us and be part of the conversation. Let your voice be heard, too.

Comment below to share your thoughts and your own story!

A Strong, Flexible, Infinitely Repeatable Daily Lesson Sequence that Helps Us Maintain Our Energy

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In building acquired language competence, we really only need to do two things.
(1) Give them understandable messages.
(2) Make it interesting enough to pay attention to.
That’s it.

In building acquired language competence, we really only need to do two things.

(1) Give them understandable messages.

(2) Make it interesting enough to pay attention to.

That’s it.

There are a lot of ways to give them these messages. It’s not one size fits all.

We can tell stories, or create stories with the class.

We can do Card Talk and have a discussion of the class’s likes and dislikes, or their favorite and least favorite school subjects, or whatever else we ask them to sketch on their cards.

We can create characters using the One Word Image process, conduct Special Person Interviews, find fun Movie Talks, or do daily Small Talk about the calendar and weather.

We can teach them content like history and geography through Input Charts, bring them a series of pictures and do Picture Walks, and we can “angle” any of these activities to talk about content or to target a certain function of the verb.

And of course we can read.  We can do free-choice reading, shared reading, reading authentic resources, reading Scholastic magazines.  So much to read.

The list of strategies we can use to deliver those messages goes on and on.  It could very well be infinite.

So, there are lots of ways to create those messages.  However, what they all tend to have in common is that the teacher is leading a class activity, and providing the language for the class to engage in the activity, while “pitching” the language at a level that is a tiny bit challenging to understand, but not too challenging.

This can be an exhausting job, day after day!

That’s why I don’t do it much.

That is not to say that I do not give lots of input to my kids, on a daily basis, as much as I can.  I do.  Giving those understandable, interesting messages to my students is my number-one goal in class.  It means that I cannot be “on” all the time.

I am a 43-year-old woman.  I get tired.  I simply cannot spend all my time creating and leading class activities.  

I rely on a daily lesson sequence that begins with creating, but moves on to different modalities of teaching and learning after about 8 to 12 minutes of creating in the language together.

I call it the “daily dose of language” because it gives students a good dose of listening, reading, shared writing, and opportunities for interpersonal speaking and communication.

I really, really rely on this comfortable daily routine. It makes class lot less energy-consuming.

The school day is long, the school year is longer, and our careers, well, we want them to be long, so that we can impact as many kids as we can.

This daily sequence is a strong, flexible daily sequence of instruction and formative assessment that we can re-use every day, all year.

This sequence helps us to relax because every day we only spend about 8 to 12 minutes co-creating new content with our students’ ideas and input.  Sometimes the “create” phase is so fun that it goes longer, but this is average.

The amount of student input into the “create” phase varies, depending on the strategy we choose for that lesson, but the more student voice and personalization we can bring in as you create, the more engaging the lesson tends to be.

This sequence thus launches from a place of student voice and choice.  When we ground our instruction in students’ interests, engagement is higher than lessons that come fully-formed from the teacher’s mind.  But since the “create” phase is short, only 10 minutes or so, student voices do not overwhelm us.

We harness their ideas and creativity during this “create” phase and then lead them through a strong, reliable instructional sequence.  We can relax more and rely on this sequence to support us.

Reading Sets the Tone

I like to begin my classes, before the “create” phase, with reading time.  It helps us transition into class and usually has a calming effect on the students.  For me, the gold standard is free-choice reading.  I love seeing kids sprawled all over, with books they want to read.  I love helping kids who hate reading to find texts they can tolerate.  It feels like I am doing such powerful teaching during those first 10 minutes of class, but all I really have to do is sort of quietly and unobtrusively walk around and whisper to readers, perhaps bringing them different texts or reading with them if they are struggling with engagement.

Some of us prefer to do shared reading, either because we love sharing books with our students or we do not yet have a classroom library that supports free-choice reading.   Shared reading or even just reading aloud from one text in front of the whole class can be quite enjoyable too.

Reading is most enjoyable for me and my students when I hold them “lightly accountable” which is to say that I do not quiz them on the content of their books, or require them to read a certain number of books.  Instead, I grade them on their habits as readers during free-choice reading and their interpersonal communication skills during shared reading.

Create

It’s now time to “create” something with the class, using whatever strategy appeals to us or meets our curricular goals, for 10-12 min.

Sometimes we need to work with certain language features, so we might “angle” the “create” activity to elicit certain words or language forms or functions.  For example, to work with vocabulary about chores, and the verb devoir/deber/must, or the function of expressing necessity or obligation.

We might do Calendar Talk and ask students what chores they have to do, and write them on the calendar, and talk about who else has to do those chores, and what our feelings are about different household tasks.  Any “create” activity can be “angled” in this way.

The beauty of using this sequence of instruction if we are working within a framework of a required curriculum is that we do not have to rely on the “create” portion to “fully teach” those things.  This first part of class simply sets us up for more work with the language that was used to express the students’ ideas in this first phase of the lesson.

So, we can cool it on wanting to repeat and repeat and explain everything all at once, and get kids to output certain things correctly.  We can relax, spend about 10 minutes creating some real-world communication that uses this vocabulary and language feature in context, as many times as feels natural to accomplish the task of communicating our feelings and obligations with chores or narrating a few stories from kids’ kindergarten days, or whatever we are communicating about that day.

Keeping my “create” to a shorter time frame made it more doable. I used to not do a lot of stories because I used to let them go on so long and they were exhausting ! But it is not too much to just get through 10-12 minutes of actively creating language with the kids. Then, we COAST through the rest of the lesson using familiar, powerful instructional strategies that basically manage themselves. Into these strategies, we can put new ideas and creativity each day, but we can rely on this sequence of instructional strategies to carry us through the bulk of every day’s lesson.

After we “Create” for 10-12 minutes, or maybe 15-20 if things are taking off and everyone is feeling good, we move on through Review, Write, Read, and Extend.

There is probably an infinite number of excellent activities that you could plug into each of these parts of the lesson, but I have found that for me there are just a few go-to strategies that really serve me well.

Oral Review

To review orally, you can simply display student artwork and use it as a visual aid to review.  I try to have our student artists capture the “create” part in artwork each day.  You can simply have the artist draw in a class notebook and put it under your projector and point and talk about it.  Sometimes I like to have my artists work on a big piece of chart paper, as is often the case with One Word Images.

For more information on student artists and One Word Images, see the Bite-Size Book of Student Artists and the Bite-Size Book of One Word Images.

You can also simply ask the class review questions.  You could also have them listen to a retelling of what the class created and sketch to demonstrate their understanding.  You can give them a Quick Quiz and have them write the answers to turn in at the end of class, or have them listen and retell in L1 (English for most of my students) for a quick formative assessment.  You can add on more quiz questions at the end of class as a closure activity, or you can retell additional information at the end of class and ask them to sketch or write more in L1.

Shared Writing

My go-to for shared writing is Write and Discuss.  Write and Discuss can be free-flowing or it can be used as a tool to model ever-increasing complexity of the texts we produce together during this activity.

For example, we can first write simple sentences, then compound sentences, then connected sentences, then paragraphs, then paragraphs with topic sentences, then paragraphs with conclusion sentences.

During the Shared Writing part of our lessons, in later years of language study, we can begin asking students to write more independently, first with partners or in groups, and on their own with scaffolds such as graphic organizers or mentor texts, or even decks of word cards that help them to remember useful words (e.g. connector words like “Therefore” or “Because of that”) that the class has used in Write and Discuss.

Through lots and lots of guided shared writing and scaffolded partner work, students finally internalize a strong sense of the way more complex discourse tends to go, and they will gradually begin to produce it on their own, with less and less scaffolding, until one day they can stand on their own as academic writers in their new language.  Maybe this does not happen in the time they spend with us, for it is a long process.

Especially for students whose L1 literacy is weak, building literacy in L2 will take a long time.  It takes a lot of modeling, and a lot of input, and at first the input needs to be simple, and highly-comprehensible, and far from the academic discourse that is the long-term goal.  Furthermore, it is painful to rush students to produce academic writing, and involves force and memorization and stress and, sometimes, tears.  But just because it is a long journey, there is no reason to not get started.  And shared writing with Write and Discuss is, in my experience, one of the most powerful ways to launch students on that trajectory towards being able to produce rich, complex academic discourse.

During this shared writing time, we can also have students work with us to write pages for the class yearbook or fill in Process Grids or Cooperative Paragraphs or Sentence Patterning Charts (Strategies from Project GLAD) or partner writing, or any other written processing of the day’s content.

Write and Discuss is my bread and butter during this phase, though.  It is where the magic happens, because YOU, the teacher, are their proficient guide, modeling how to compose in the language, in an interactive, student-centered way.

Shared Reading

When we finish the text, having written about three to six sentences together, I first read what we have written aloud to them in L2, with intonation, expression, and phrasing, so that they can hear it as a whole.  Then we switch into English and Conscious Learning Mode. I have them do Choral Translation and Discussion of the Grammar, then I ask them to share their noticings and questions.  Doing this daily creates a sense of comfort for those students who feel like they will explode with curiosity if they do not get to talk about what their conscious minds are noticing about their new language.  It also builds confidence in their ability to notice features of the language.  This confidence will help them tackle any future formal language study we might do, or with more traditional teachers later down the road.

After this, we usually move back into Language Acquisition Mode, unless we are doing some conscious Language Study using the PACE model.  If we are moving into a Language Study Day, we sort of bail here, and work with a prepared text that provides an input flood using the feature of the language that I set up the “create” portion to elicit.  We add our explanations of how the language “works” to our Class Editing Checklist, which students can use when they write and peer edit.

Most days, I switch back into L2 and do some quick Reading from the Back of the Room and maybe some very basic Readers Theatre with no props, the actors seated on stools, and heavy on having the actors repeat the inner thinking (which is thought aloud) and dialogue that I feed to them. Because I have permanent class jobs, and actors I can rely on, and because I make the job of actor fun and rewarding as I can, I usually find Readers Theatre to be quite relaxing and fun. There are tons of other reading options, but these four are my workhorses. To learn more, you can download a comic I made of some go-to reading options, several of which I learned from Ben Slavic.

Student Application and Assessment

The very basic option here is a Quick Quiz, oral or written. You can have them do a retell in English as they hear the day’s language again, either from the text you wrote during Write and Discuss or from your oral retelling of the day’s information, perhaps using the visual aid that the student artists created to scaffold comprehension. Written dictation is also a good option here.  You can read a post that contains information on Dictées here.

Quick Quizzes, English retells, and Dictées are easy to collect and grade.  It is nice to end with some closure and get some grades to enter, if that is something you have to do.  And these three activities are simple, authentic uses of the language, and true formative performance assessments of listening and reading comprehension.

You can also play games or do something more fun like Running Dictation.  There are so many options for extension activities.  Martina Bex is the queen of creative ideas to re-use language to give students more interaction with the day’s content and the language used to create it.  Just looking at her “Games” category, you will find 50 posts on language games to play!

If your admin wants to see a gradual release of responsibility, or an “I Do, We Do, You Do” model, you can have the students freewrite and use their Editing Checklist, which means that they would apply the day’s learning to their own independent work.  They can also play the Question and Answer Game,, which means that they would be using some of the day’s language when speaking to their partner to answer your whole-class questions.

Thank you for reading my blog!

I truly appreciate your time and your commitment to the profession.  I love reading your comments, so if you have thoughts or questions, please post them below.  I hope that if you try this lesson sequence, and have feedback, that you will leave it here for me.  Thank you and please take good care of yourself so you can take good care of the kids.