Making space for teaching and writing, writing and teaching

I had one of those trail runs today.

It was a run where my mind got totally lost and I started writing some paragraphs in my head. Didn’t even notice that my dog was straggling waaaaaaaay behind me.

See this is one reason why I run. While out there on the trail, there’s not much to do besides place one foot in front of the other, repeat. I can do that pretty much on autopilot most of the time (depending on how rocky the trail is), so my mind can work on other things.

This afternoon, my mind focused on my doctoral dissertation, which remains yet unpublished, sitting here on the shelf beside me here in my office at home.

It’s been a tad over three years since I finished it.

In those three years, I’ve taught around 500 high school students. No wonder I’ve not had time to do much with it.

Well, the big problem (aside from finding the time to write) is that I struggle with what I want my dissertation to become. A book I think. But I’m not sure who should be my primary audience. Teachers? Policy makers? The general public? Not knowing this makes it difficult to proceed.

I have done a few things with the dissertation. I haven’t totally ignored it. I’ve published a few articles from it. I’ve presented it at the American Education Research Association conference and I will be presenting it again this year at NCTE. And I’ve sent out four book proposals:

  1. (sent it to X) “Doesn’t really fit our catalogue right now. Maybe try Y.”
  2. (sent it to Y) “Doesn’t really fit our catalogue right now. Maybe try X.”
  3. (sent it to Z) “We aren’t accepting unsolicited book proposals right now due to the economic downturn.”
  4. (sent it to one more place) “If you rewrote the proposal to show how you would include really practical tips for teachers, we would look at it again.”

And THAT is what I’ve been stewing over since I got the response from the 4th publisher. I’m not sure if I want it to be a book just for teachers.

And part of me wonders if I need to just move forward and leave it on the shelf. Maybe its worth is the experience it gave me–the way it showed me how to write about my classroom with rigor, the way it made me a better teacher in so many ways, the way it constantly reminds me what I can accomplish (even while teaching full time) if I work at it.

But my mind picked it up again today, the dissertation. As I hopped over rocks, weaving on the trail through the woods, smiling at my dog as she found one stick and than another to chew up, my mind went here:

There are obstacles to real change in classrooms. On a macro level, change gets placed upon teachers through mandates. If things in education seem broken, well just test the students and hold the teachers accountable for their students’ scores. That ought to change things.

And it does. (Enter here a quick review of some of the horrible things that high-stakes testing have inspired).

But the changes that this approach achieves are not the kinds of changes that will serve our students best toward their future in a complex world that we can only imagine from where we sit now. They will need to be more than test takers. They need to be information sorters, idea synthesizers, question askers, critical thinkers, and communicators able to work cross-culturally.

There are teachers out there working diligently to enact this kind of change. They work to help their students master current and evolving communication technology so that they can do more with Web 2.0 applications than use Facebook to make their plans for the weekend or make their friends laugh in 140 Twitter characters or less. There are teachers out there working to help their students become careful and thoughtful consumers of the landslide of information coming at them from everywhere, able to critically question arguments meant to persuade them, able to see the ways some use sophisticated rhetoric to manipulate. There are teachers out there imploring students to remember their humanity and their connections with those around them.

I am one of these teachers.

I am constantly bent on reform in my classroom. I constantly seek to understand what skills my students need to read their world and write their future. Each year I revise my approach depending on the students who people my classroom and their unique sets of needs as learners and human beings.

But meaningful change is difficult to enact. There are obstacles.

For one school year, I looked for those obstacles. When I found the obstacles, I sought to understand them. I wanted to see where they were coming from and just exactly HOW they were keeping the day-to-day reality of the classroom from living out the theorized vision I had for it.

My work looks at one classroom on a micro level. But the story of this classroom can teach us a lot about the ways macro-level mandates play out and why they sometimes lead to the kind of change that we really actually don’t want for our students in our schools.

Wide-sweeping mandates play out differently in the unique cultures of individual classrooms. There are all kinds of obstacles there that teachers sometimes can’t see clearly even though they drive teachers’ work. Reform must be nuanced and flexible and intentional. Reform must anticipate classroom obstacles and be ready for them, able to respond to them in ways that will keep forward momentum.

It’s much easier to just make wide-sweeping mandates. Let’s have every classroom on the same page on the same day with the teachers saying the same words. Let’s have every student take the same test every year so that test scores can ignore that they compare apples to oranges but yet compare apples to oranges anyway (because without quantifiable numbers, no one really knows how well our students are doing, right?). Let’s standardize and test and attach high stakes to the results so schools have no choice but to do it our way.

Yes, that approach is easier than what real, meaningful reform takes.

Still wondering why? Come spend a year with me in my classroom to see what I mean…

So that’s generally what my mind was writing as I put one foot in front of the other on the trail this afternoon. And I still wonder–who am I writing for? Teachers? Policy makers? The general public? Need to keep thinking…

Which brings me to the other Big Thought I had on my run today.

I follow rules that I set for myself. For example, I exercise six days a week. Period. I do not eat french fries. I go to work every day because I like my job. I engage with the epic battle with my alarm clock every school day so I can go to work. I do not leave the school on any day without my lesson plans ready to go for the next day, posted on my website so students know what to expect. Every Thursday, I plan out what the next week will look like for my students.

And there are things that I do regularly because of external rules that I follow. For example, I go to work at a certain time each day because there is a bell schedule.

Because of these rules, I’m able to accomplish a lot of stuff in every crazy week.

Except for the writing I would like to do.

So I’m thinking I need to make it a rule. I need to plan out when I will write every week and I need to protect that time. One huge thing I learned while writing a doctoral dissertation and teaching full time is that ANY forward movement on my doctoral work was still work in the right direction. So if all I could squeeze in on any given day was a few sentences added to the 350 page document, it was still movement in the right direction.

I think that’s how I need to look at this, at my hope to create space for writing.

So maybe it will be Tuesday evenings. As of the average Tuesday, I’m already well into the school week but my brain is not toast yet (you should see The Paper Graders on a typical Friday. We basically make fun of each other and laugh a lot.) And Tuesdays are rarely taken up by my book club that meets once a month. Tuesdays are just Tuesdays. They might become a bit more glamourous if I chose to make them my writing days.

And the rule would be that I would write something. Maybe a blog post. Maybe a few sentences toward the next book proposal I send out on my dissertation. Maybe a draft of an article I’m working on. Maybe a haiku?

The point is that it doesn’t matter just as long as I write something. And if I know myself well, once I create the space and I begin to trust that it will be there, my mind will work on things to fill it.

And maybe, just maybe, if I give myself this space each week to ponder and string words together, maybe it will help me to hold on to more optimism and positive energy when things get dark and overwhelming and I have a million and two research papers to grade.

If I can find time to exercise for an hour or so six days a week, surely I can reserve a bit of time on Tuesday evenings to write?

Oh, and I want to sleep more too. So with that I’ll sign off.


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One Response to Making space for teaching and writing, writing and teaching

  1. Pingback: Down the Rabbit Hole (other wise known as YouTube clips from "The Principal's Office") | The Paper Graders

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