My Happy Place

For at least three decades I have been a member of a non-profit professional organization that I am today calling My Happy Place.  This past Saturday, I drove 45 minutes to a community college campus which has housed this group throughout its four-decade history to attend a workshop on using digital technology to empower learners.  The workshop was being presented by a younger teacher friend I’d made several years ago when attending a workshop. Her topic was of interest to me as I am devoting some time to cultivating community connections to provide “authentic” opportunities for learning for students.

Flattening the School Walls & Empowering Students to Learn Anytime, Anywhere!

Gone are the days when students only completed assignments for their teacher and the learning would come to a halt when school was closed. With digital tools, students can share their ideas with the world and learn and create all the time! Spend a Saturday morning with the Long Island Writing Project on February 3rd and hear how third grade teacher and LIWP Co-Director Kathleen Neagle Sokolowski has been working to flatten the walls of the classroom and inspire students to be curious learners, readers, writers, and creators through every season. Share your ideas on ways you inspire students to keep the learning going!

As I strode across the parking lot toward the building where today’s  gathering was taking place, the silence and emptiness of the campus on a Saturday morning allowed me to reflect upon my personal experiences with this group over this long stretch of time. The organization to which I am referring is the Long Island Writing Project, located on the campus of Nassau Community College on Long Island.  It is a  local offshoot of the National Writing Project which began in 1974 at  the Graduate School of Education in Berkeley, California and is one of 200 plus local  sites spread throughout the 50 states.  The simplicity of its mission is the foundation of its success: Practice what you preach.

The National Writing Project focuses the knowledge, expertise, and leadership of our nation’s educators on sustained efforts to improve writing and learning for all learners.

Writing in its many forms is the signature means of communication in the 21st century. The NWP envisions a future where every person is an accomplished writer, engaged learner, and active participant in a digital, interconnected world.

I  have learned more about teaching and writing through participation in this group than through any other professional development I’ve been privy to during my 25-year teaching career. Most of the PD programs in which I participated over the years, some by choice, others required by my school district, never adequately addressed my particular pedagogical interests.  As an elementary ESL teacher and as an adjunct in the English Department at Suffolk Community College with a high minority student enrollment,  I was perpetually seeking ways to improve or refine my teaching practice, while addressing the specific needs of my limited English-speaking students at both the elementary and college levels.

Although most of the PD offered through the LIWP did not specifically address the academic needs of English Language Learners,  here was a place where teachers are considered lifelong learners and where the conversation is always teacher directed and student focused. Teacher practices and opinions are highly respected and exchanges between teachers are encouraged; in fact, they are at the heart of every workshop I’ve ever attended.  Although each workshop has a specific purpose, the model for every workshop is a presentation by a practicing teacher; several pauses during the presentation to allow for quick writing responses to the topic being presented; a followup discussion of the topic with all the participants sharing their “takes” on the topic.

Teachers love these workshops because they are supportive, reflective, imaginative, practical and they offer a sheltered place where teachers can honestly share their own practices and concerns in a nonjudgmental way, while learning ways to augment or enhance their teaching and writing skills.

I retired from teaching three years ago, yet I still choose to attend these workshops because I continue to  benefit from them; they help me continue to thrive as a life-long learner and educator.  The conversation goes on…over the weeks, months years and everyone is always welcome to join in.  I have seen many young teachers launched into amazing careers thanks to the support they are given and the confidence they gain through participation in this organization. Its grassroots, no-frills, low-budget, democratic model seems to really appeal to those of us who have been lucky enough to discover the LIWP and participate as members and participants over the years. The three women who are codirectors of the organization receive very little compensation, yet they  devote much of their precious free time to keeping it alive and current despite their own full-time careers and family responsibilities.  They are there because of their commitment to writing, teachers and students.

There have been periods of my professional life when I have been very active in the LIWP and other periods when I may not have attended for a year or two due to other obligations, but I have always felt welcome and comforted by the fact that the LIWP exists: It is My Happy Place.

Collaborative Professional Development: A Workshop on Teaching Revision

This past week routine things were canceled again due to another significant snowfall, but there was an event looming on the horizon offered by the Long Island Writing Project that I was able to attend.  It was a workshop on how to teach revision in writing to one’s students. Recently retired, I nonetheless like to keep up with new developments and trends. Revision is by no means a new topic, but I was curious to see how other teachers handle it with their students in the new era of the Common Core.

The workshop was led by a very wise and experienced teacher who works with college-age students and female prisoners.  However, her older students exhibit many of the same issues that students in high-school and even lower grades do when it comes to writing coherently and with depth. Her approach to starting the discussion was to throw out a question and ask the group to write a short response that would then be shared with the group.  This made me appreciate the Writing Project all over again, since their model of shared inquiry is so refreshing compared with the usual stuff that is passed off to teachers as Professional Development.

In the interest of full disclosure here is where my own revision begins. When I first wrote this post several days ago, I gave a summary of the conversations that transpired through the two-hour workshop as we arrived at an understanding of the purpose of revision and how we could best communicate to our students the joy of revising as a piece gets ever closer to what we really meant to say.

This evening, however, I had an epiphany as I was taking a shower; one that caused me to change the focus of this piece. I realized that although covering the details of the discussion was important, what was more important to me was the feeling of overall satisfaction and happiness I experienced while collaborating with a dozen other teachers.

I am always fascinated by what teachers have to say; after all, aren’t they the ones walking the walk, not just talking the talk, every day? And since these are all teachers who are passionate about writing (since they are attending a LIWP workshop on a Saturday morning), they did have a lot of good ideas to share.

The first hour was devoted to how we present revision in our teaching lives compared with how we deal with it in our personal writing. The second part of the morning was spent talking about how we would handle reading a set of widely diverse papers on the weekend in need of revision and getting back to the class on Monday with a strategy for teaching revision. Almost everyone agreed that the revision challenges within a paper and moreover a set of papers could not be tackled at once; that the students needed time to reflect on their writing before they could improve it. As one of the participants stated, they needed to “ache with the desire” to revise their own words.

Everyone was on board with the ideas being shared, but then the workshop leader said (I paraphrase here): “I do this with the students until the final couple of weeks in the semester and then I switch gears to teach them how to pass the writing test they will take for their final.” The air went out of the room.

Several teachers had already referred to how the Common Core demands had made it impossible to have Writing Workshop in their K-12 classrooms. How creative writing had gone out the window and been replaced by more formulaic writing such as: How would you take this document and compare it with the ideas in another given document? This kind of writing may be necessary in the adult world, but we all agreed it is not the kind of writing that elicits passion and commitment from young or developing writers. Nor does it help them to find their voice or tell their stories, all of which are essential steps in becoming a reflective, passionate writers.

At the conclusion of the workshop, we were asked to write one sentence, a takeaway, about what we had learned in the workshop. The consensus was that the student writing must drive the lesson on revision. The teacher reading the set of papers must assess where the students are as writers and teach the next class based on their needs, not his/her agenda or the specific demands of the Common Core.

Though I was proud of our hard work at grasping the significance of revision and how to convey this to our students, I was even more proud of our collaboration. My takeaway was that this was a workshop which allowed participants to really listen to each other’s ideas, respond to the ideas presented and eventually reach a consensus that allowed for individual differences. This was real professional development; the kind teachers are rarely offered but the kind we really need to improve our own writing as well as that of our students.

“Houston, we’ve got a problem!”