By Brent Gilson
I am writing this post less than 48 hours before I return to the classroom for what will be my 12th year of teaching. Every summer, I spend time reading, reflecting, and planning. I look back on the previous year and the successes along with the struggles. The last few years have provided me with many struggles. Professional stumbling blocks partners with a global pandemic have impacted my self-confidence as an educator. That weed that is imposter syndrome has had the perfect growing conditions and grow it did. Like the vines that have overtaken my wife’s garden, I can push it back for a time, but without removing the roots, we are bound to end right back where we started. So I look at the 2021/2022 school year this year as a chance to pull the weeds. To do as Dr. Gholdy Muhammad recently reminded me and focus on GENIUS and JOY.
Last spring, as a Grade 12 valedictorian was giving his closing remarks, he thanked a teacher for helping him develop a love for reading. Unfortunately, he targeted another for ruining his love for reading. The cause of that breakdown? Mandatory journaling. I love Notebooks for myself, and I love having students use them as thought collectors. I often struggle to remember moments of books, even the key ones when they happen early in a text. A notebook has always served as a record keeper of sorts. That said, I have learned that, like all things, when we take away autonomy, so many things become tasks of compliance rather than tools for success. I pondered those words a lot this summer. How often has the work I champion seen as a task to the students I learn with?
This pondering has led me to explore my practice, the 20 minutes of Independent Reading, the organized periods of writing and reading time, the whole class novels, the poetry unit. I think we all are familiar with these structures. They “work”. But what about the kids they don’t work for?
Covid-19 and its impact on our year were widespread. Now we have countless snake oil salesmen monetizing the interruptions and roadblocks with an imagined term to draw on the insecurities and fears of decision-makers. “Learning Loss” has been used to market solutions, but very little will be done to address issues. So, as I reflect, I am also considering this, “ What am I doing to help my students showcase their GENIUS, facilitate JOY, carry ourselves with EXCELLENCE and ignore the noise of those who are looking to profit off a pandemic.
I see many people mention the time pre covid as the before time. When I consider the changes that I will be instituting this year, the “before time” practice of dedicated independent reading is first in my mind. I often wielded it as a must because I was worried that kids wouldn’t take the time to read if I didn’t. Last year during the pandemic, I kid watched a lot more. What did their reading habits look like? What did mine? Was I sitting down and reading every day? Were the distractions and stresses of Covid impacting my students’ ability to read and focus as much as they were mine? We started making room for other Literacy related tasks. Students began exploring poetry and multimodal representation. They were writing more, writing music, writing comics, and creating.
I wondered about how I could make room for this every day. We have a limited amount of time and, unfortunately, a mandated year-end test. I decided that it was time to loosen the expectation of mandatory 20 minutes of reading. Now before you saw, I have lost it let me explain. Students will, of course, have time protected to read if they choose it. But, they will also have those same minutes to create, share, write, and explore. I have settled on calling it Studio time. A still protected everyday portion of time that students can pursue the literacy goals and interests they have.
Reading will also be a class venture with a whole text, shared experience with book clubs, and responsibilities to independently complete and share reading of their choice. We are not removing the reading requirement, but I am extending the respect to my students that I believe they are responsible enough to do this work, alongside me, without me telling them when and how to do so. We will be responding to the questions around theme and conflict, character reflections, and discussions around the text in multiple ways. We will, of course, write essays, but we will also explore multimodal representation. We will showcase our thinking in ways that work best for the citizens of room 157 while also preparing to achieve excellence in more “traditional” forms.
We are writing with beautiful mentor texts as our anchors. Essays and articles by incredible writers as we study their craft, follow their lead, and then create our unique writing voices. I often make connections to my hobby of weightlifting when I talk to my students, I am successful, but I become better with a coach. My trainer has video tutorials. These are the mentor texts of weightlifting, and these beautiful pieces of writing we will explore will provide us with that same example of excellence. We will also write in new ways: digital compositions, photo essays, poetry anthologies, picture books, films. Text creation needs not be limited to the strokes of a keyboard just because we are comfortable with it. We will arm ourselves with our notebooks and a pencil or pen; we will storyboard, draft, and erase… a lot. But we will practice the craft we are studying. Rather than just working through practice exams as they have in the past, we will become authentic writers; then, no exam will serve as a roadblock.
As I sit here putting some ideas down on a page, I am reminded of how much I love the process of weeding my professional garden. Taking out the things that no longer work, that choke out the creativity and joy. What do we intend to plant in our classrooms this year? What changes will help our garden thrive? These are the questions I hope we all ponder before they blow the dust off our filing cabinets, change the dates from 2020/2021 to 2021.2022 and continue to let the weeds take over.
Brent Gilson teaches in a junior high setting in Canada. He enjoys reading MS and YA literature so he can share it with his students. Brent’s teaching life was changed after attending professional development with Kylene Beers and he continues to strive to improve his practice and student access to texts of all forms. Follow him on Twitter @mrbgilson and read his blog ThingsMrGSays.
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