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The kind of teaching and learning we want for our children

*I originally published this post on nuestrasescuelas.wordpress.com

This week has been a big week for testing across the state of Texas–the home of high stakes testing. Many teachers feel pressure to teach to the test and, as Jay McTighe puts it, we must beware of the test prep trap.

But, as our Nuestras Escuelas, Nuestros Poderes Collaborative is increasingly aware, many of the teachers in our diverse AISD schools have been bravely ‘bewaring’ harmful test-prep in their classrooms all year. Let’s take a peek at what that kind of learning looks like.

Now on display at the Pleasant Hill Library are original informational books by Houston Elementary‘s and Ms. Barbara McKinnon’s 3rd graders.

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Ms. McKinnon guided her students as decision-makers and in self-management as they chose their own topics and crafted their writing with the support of their teacher and their peers. As the Pleasant Hill Librarian and I flipped through these glossy-covered books, preparing them for display, we read lines aloud to each other. Youthful voices arose from each page, making us smile and relate and leaving a lasting impression.

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Come read and leave encouraging feedback for the young authors this week or this Saturday for the Dia de los niños celebration at the Pleasant Hill Library. After display at the library, Ms. McKinnon plans to pass the 3rd graders’ books on to Mr. Juan Martínez-Esqueda so that his 8th graders at Mendez Middle School can leave their feedback and the 3rd graders can look to Mendez as the next stop in their educational career. Mr. Martínez-Esqueda’s 8th graders are currently working on a legacy project where they are writing and recording their memories of their middle school days at Mendez.

Meanwhile, at Fulmore Middle School, Ms. Bridget Farr’s students have created original, diverse superheroes. By taking a critical look at the inequities in representation in media, Ms. Farr’s students are practicing culturally responsive and sustaining learning. As they created their own superheroes who represent perspectives largely absent from mainstream media, Ms. Farr’s students are making change through production–not blind consumption–of media.

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Fulmore students’ superhero posters will be on display soon down the hallways of Dawson Elementary School where Dawson Dolphins will have the opportunity to read, respond, and dream of being at Fulmore one day where they will continue the kind of work that educators like Larry Frier, Dawson’s Instructional Coach, are doing with students. Mr. Frier has been working with a group of fourth graders at Dawson to craft original feature articles on current social issues. They chose the social issues that they are most passionate about and are using text, images, and other text features to create magazine-like pieces. They plan to share these pieces with their Fulmore counterparts and get feedback from their older peers.

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And just down the road, fourth grade students at Galindo Elementary and teachers like Ms. Jessica Kamphaus and Ms. Soledad Bautista are preparing for their final authors celebration of the year: Talking Back: A Celebration of Stories Untold and Student Voice. 

On Tuesday, May 22nd from 6:00-7:00pm, students and their families will gather to celebrate their unique experiences, beliefs, and identities through writing, art, and other literacies. Come join Galindo teachers, students, and families in reading and responding to students’ work! RSVP to lindsay.e.thomas@austinisd.org.

And it’s not just the big kids who are doing big things in our Travis Vertical Team schools! Dawson Elementary kindergartners have created Ellsworth Kelly-inspired art. Kindergarten parent, Marian Thompson, reached out to the Blanton museum and arranged for the young artists’ work to be published in the upcoming Blanton newsletter! Keep a look out!

As parents and teachers looking for the just right school to enrich our children’s education and our own professional careers, we look for the type of environment that motivates, engages, and inspires children in their learning. When we look to test scores as the primary output of schools, we may only see a number that is masking the type of test-prep we want to avoid. Instead, let’s work together to make test scores a mere by-product of great teaching. Let’s come together to unearth, celebrate, and spread the word about the great teaching that is going on in our schools and is supporting each individual student to grow and thrive.

The Antidote to the National Virus of Division

Lately, national conversations around education and educators have focused on struggle and conflict. So many posts and articles point fingers–at students, at teachers, at communities. Blame has gone viral and the divisions blame creates are contagious and weaken our ability to make change. To fight debilitating infection, we must build collective strength in our local networks and communities.
This morning, I’m filled with hope after the Integrity, Professionalism, and Leadership HTWP conference we put on at UT yesterday. The strengths we have built through connectivity and collaboration were evident through each session.

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I am still beaming with pride in the Bastrop teachers I’ve been working with this year. Our Choice and Voice #WeAreLRNG grant team presented their work to teachers from more than half-dozen Austin area districts. I got video clips of their conversations and their participants’ reactions. My worlds collided as my HTWP colleagues got to experience the work that the team and I have been steeped in out in Bastrop this past year.
Click here to access links to teachers’ digital documentation of their units of study.
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Sharing this work publicly highlighted the strengths of students and teachers and the power of going public.
Much of my work in Bastrop inspired me to start a collaborative of parents and teachers across the Travis HS Vertical Team. My daughter, Maya, will start kindergarten at Becker Elementary next year and Fritz, in another year or two. Becker is one of the elementary schools that feeds into Travis High School, making it one of about 8 schools that send students on up to Fulmore and Mendez Middle Schools that then feed into Travis High School. There are many strengths in these feeder schools that I hope to identify, celebrate, and highlight more in the community to increase the sense of solidarity and pride in our schools and to retain more of our students who, at times, choose to transfer out to charters or magnet schools after elementary.
This semester, teachers and parents from 7 campuses have met monthly in the Travis High School Library to connect and build our shared values and mission: to create connections and build solidarity between our Travis VT schools and with the community by identifying, celebrating, and amplifying our strengths. Yesterday, in another session at our HTWP conference, my HTWP colleague, Barbara McKinnon, represented our Nuestras Escuelas Collaborative in a session on how study groups can help teachers bring our work outside the walls of our classrooms. Read our Collaborative’s first blog post and learn more about our mission and how you can get involved!
Yesterday, in her opening, Corinna Green spoke about how we can reach our spheres of influence. Kerry Alexander closed the day with time for us to network–or work to build the net that supports us.
Today, I feel a sense of hope in where we are headed in our schools. And as long as we work to identify and amplify strength into our spheres of influence, our nets will continue to spring us into positive collective action.

Bringing Young Authors’ Writing to Local, National, & Digital Audiences

In the last few months of silence on this blog, I have been keeping up with Bastropisdwriters.wordpress.com, our LRNG grant blog, and supporting Bastrop ISD teachers in their implementation of writing workshop. On the Bastropisdwriters blog, you can read and view more about how teachers have connected their students’ writing with community partners.

In schools, I have guided teachers to design original Writing Workshop units of study that are responsive to their diverse students and local community. Teachers have connected their students with authentic audiences in their schools, local communities, and digitally.

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At home, as my Maya prepares to enter kindergarten at our neighborhood school, I am getting involved locally again. I have started a group called Nuestras Escuelas, Nuestros Poderes (Our Schools, Our Strengths) which brings parents and teachers from all of the schools that feed into my neighborhood high school together to:

  1. Brainstorm ways we can broadcast and share the strengths of our neighborhood schools and
  2. Connect students, teachers, and communities across school campuses

And so, it is both to honor the current work of Bastrop ISD teachers and to, hopefully, inspire future work in my neighborhood schools, that I share these links to teacher-created and student-centered units of study that have brought diverse student’s voices, interests, and passions out into the community and communities into their local schools.

I hope to see more and more of this teaching going on in my neighborhood schools. When teachers are given the professional development and the autonomy to create units that are catered to their local students and communities and share student work broadly, we can, collectively, resist the false narrative of our nation’s failing public schools and come together in solidarity to rally behind them.

Take a look and let us know what you think!

Authors Write Stories About Our Lives

Authors Write Imaginative Stories

Authors Write Varieties of Fiction

Authors Write Poetry

 

Claim Your Voice

If you’re reading this, you have probably read one of my posts before. And if you’ve read one of my posts before, then you may have noticed that I have been writing and thinking a lot about the power of student publication. And, if you are reading this, you are likely my friend or my mom 🙂 and so you may have heard me (many times–sorry :/ ) talking about my goal to write a book proposal around the topic of student publication.

So, I thought, because if you are reading this you may be interested, that I would share that on Friday, in St. Louis, MO, at NCTE I did something brave. Well, a few things that felt brave (which, basically, just means they felt really scary).

First, on Wednesday night, I saw Troy Hicks, author of several books that I have been reading more of to inform my own writing. I approached him and told him that I have been playing with some ideas and would he ever have a moment to listen and give advice? Sure, he said, he would be happy to grab a coffee or Skype and, by the way (since I had just given myself away for not having read the NCTE program yet), he said, I am doing a session on Friday afternoon to give advice to teachers who want to write books. I’ll be there, I thought, and, maybe coherently, blubbered.

On Friday I was there, my chair a bit out of the circle, my shoulders a bit rounded to squeeze between other aspiring authors so Troy could see (and maybe recognize?) my eager face and true-to-my-word presence.

After sharing a bunch of super helpful tips that we all scribbled down like (rightly so) our dreams depended on it, Troy threw out one more idea. “Or,” he said, “If you are feeling really brave, you could walk over to the Heinemann section after this session and say, ‘Is there an acquisition editor available?’ and then say, ‘I would like to know the process for submitting a proposal.'” As I later said in a thank-you email to Troy, I was feeling brave.

The acquisition editor wasn’t available but I was directed to a marketing manager. I tried not to read directly from my notes when I said, “I would like to know the process for submitting a proposal.”

In a less dramatic way than it plays out in my memory, he asked for my pitch. I gave it. He pulled out his card and said that when I get home from St. Louis, I should email him that summary and he would make sure an acquisiton editor got it.

Friday night, I couldn’t sleep. To not wake up my conference roomie, I sat in the bathroom and drafted my summary in my notebook. Saturday afternoon I saw the marketing editor in the lobby. I reintroduced myself, told him I had worked on my summary, and it would be in his inbox soon. And, thanks again.

Yesterday, I told Deb Kelt, my director, colleague, friend, and cheerleader, about this brave (or just stupid and naive, depending on who I tell, apparently), thing I did. When I told Deb, I told the right person.

I told her just as a session was starting and so she jotted her reaction on the back of a reused sticky note.

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I stuck it in my notebook, as a way of collecting the strength to keep doing scary things.

And she’s right. Whether or not I hear a positive response or just crickets, by doing scary things, I am claiming my voice.

A Healthy Dose of Writing

Authenticity and autonomy are at the heart of Writing Workshop classrooms. Writing Workshop teachers design classrooms, units of study, and lessons that support authentic writing experiences for students and provide guidance and support for student autonomy.

As decades of research supports, Writing Workshop classrooms prepare diverse students for success in reading and writing. Students in writing workshop classrooms engage in intellectual, challenging, and rewarding work. The benefits of the Workshop teaching do not stop at the highest end of the rubric or with the dotting of i’s and crossing of t’s.

The authenticity and autonomy of Writing Workshop classrooms affect much more than even the incredibly important skills of effective writing.

Writing Workshop work is also healthy work for teachers, students, and community.

Over the last year and a half, I have lead on-going professional development in the teaching of writing in Bastrop, which includes the Choice and Voice team in our LRNG grant-funded project. Day after day, through this work, I witness the range of benefits of Writing Workshop work.

Teachers

Developing the skills and practices of a Writing Workshop teacher is on-going, deep work that builds leadership capacity among teachers who strengthen their autonomy and professionalism, using their experience, knowledge of their students, and deep research to guide their teaching.

Bastrop teachers have engaged in book studies and in discussions around research articles about the teaching of writing. They have read vibrant children’s literature, been inspired by the craft and picked out pieces of texts to magnify for students’ study.

They have shared their students’ writing with each other, admired it, appreciated its brilliance and given and sought advice about where to go next with their teaching.

Students

When students engage in authentic writing experiences and build their autonomy as writers, they develop their social awareness and relationship skills as they engage in a writing community and take on the work of authors, crafting text for authentic audiences. Students in writing workshop classrooms grow their abilities to self-manage and make decisions as they choose topics about which to write and use the resources around them such as their teacher, their peers, and published texts, to support their work. These Social Emotional skills, current brain research tells us, are essential for learning.

Over the last 15+months, I have seen 2nd graders make the choice of which seat and space will best support their work habits. Kindergartners have leaned in to hear a friend’s story and examine the drawings and labels on the page. First graders have made books inspired by their favorite authors. Fourth graders have revised sentences, keeping both craft and conventions, purpose as well as audience, in mind. Third graders have read their poems aloud to eager ears in public spaces and reflected, “When I hear other students read their writing, I feel more confident about reading mine.”

 

Home Community

We know that strong home-school partnerships benefit students’ learning and future success in school. We also know, from research and experience, that some attempts at authentic home-school partnerships fall short of our goals to support students’ academic growth. Writing Workshop teachers who adopt an additive perspective of families provide students the opportunity to write about the topics that are closest to their hearts, cultures, languages, lives. When students publish their work for their peers and family, they build deep connections between home and school.

Bastrop students have written about feeling alone, BMX bikes, fishing, a father losing a job or a family gaining a member. Bastrop families have come to read their children’s writing, seen their faces in the drawings, and written messages to support continued motivation and craft.

Local Community

Community support for our public schools is as important today as ever. When school and community leaders come together, they find ways to support students and families through sharing resources and information about local events and organizations. They find ways to share the strengths of our schools and our teachers.

The Bastrop Library, Chamber of Commerce, Parks and Recreation, art museum and local businesses have invited students to display and share their writing in community spaces. They have given students access to a wider audience and, in turn, received new visitors, community members who were previously unaware of these spaces.

Global Community

Both inside and outside our schools, disparities in access to digital tools are growing. Authentic integration of digital technologies in the curriculum prepares students with skills for future opportunities. In addition, using digital technologies in safe spaces to connect students’ voices with broad audiences provides opportunities for students to become responsible digital citizens. Writing Workshop classrooms, where students are writing for audiences other than just the teacher, provide the space for authentic integration where students engage as producers, rather than mere consumers, of meaning.

Writing Workshop teachers in Bastrop are using digital tools to help students reach broader audiences. As a part of our Choice and Voice LRNG grant work, we will be using edu.buncee.com, a user-friendly, multi-media presentation tool to publish students’ work. Next week, Shirley Miller’s kindergartners from Bluebonnet Elementary will publish their drawings and writing at a local favorite, Berdoll Pecan Candy and Gift Company. Each piece will have it’s own QR code so that readers can hear students’ voices reading their words.

Writing Workshop teachers, schools, districts, and communities benefit intellectually, socially, and emotionally from the authenticity and autonomy these structures provide. But, just as in any instance of true change, Writing Workshop is not a crash diet or a quick fix. Creating and sustaining healthy habits takes dedication and commitment over time. Bastrop ISD is just beginning to see the fruits of their efforts. I look forward to seeing and sharing more instances of teachers, students, families, and community stretching their minds and building their strengths in the months ahead. Stay tuned for more in the weeks to come!

Resilient Writers!

In May, a team of 10 Bastrop ISD teachers and I were awarded a LRNG grant  through the National Writing Project.  Our team has met in July, August, and September and we’re gearing up for student publication celebrations in October, November, and December out in the Bastrop community! We have our own blog space, bastropisdwriters.wordpress.com where you can follow our work! I’ll also do some cross-posting here. Below is a little bit about how our work is going!

#WeAreLRNG

 

Our First Meeting

Bastrop ISD and Heart of Texas WP‘s LRNG Grant Choice and Voice Team has gotten off to a great start this school year. At the end of July we had our first meeting in the

Sanchez Building of the University of Texas at Austin.  It was some teachers’ first time on campus and, for others, it had been years since they had been back.

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We started with a webinar with Francesca Arturi from edu.buncee.com. She walked us through the multi-media presentation tool and got our minds’ reeling with ideas of how this platform will help us get students’ voices out to the world!

We got to know each other and set dates for the year, paged through our book club books, About the Authors and Study Driven by Katie Wood Ray, and geared up for our upcoming work creating units of study that end in student publication in the community and online.

A Strong Start Despite Strong Winds

This year, when Hurricane Harvey blew through Texas just as the school year was starting, it was impossible not to think about how the school year started in Bastrop ISD schools just six years ago. Bastrop hit national news in September of 2011 when the largest forest fire in Texas history torched more than 36,000 acres and more than 1,600 homes, including those of many teachers and students, just as the 2011-2012 school year was about to start.

The local economy and Bastrop schools experienced lasting effects of the fires that burned through their community.  According to the national census, in the decade before the fires, the poverty rate in Bastrop was stable at 11-12%.  However, in the years since the fires, the poverty rate his doubled to 23%.  Bastrop school communities were challenged with new student homelessness and the loss of teachers who were forced to leave Bastrop due to the loss of their homes. Today, many Bastrop residents still refer to life events in terms of “before or after the fires.”

Though Bastrop and nearby Austin were spared major flooding during Hurricane Harvey, we are all hurting as we watch our fellow Texans affected by another natural disaster.  Many of our friends and family have been affected. One of our team members was absent at our second meeting as she cared for family impacted by Harvey. The weight of this historic storm sits with us as we begin the school year.

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Choice and Voice team member, Meggie Smiley, teaches 3rd grade. Her students were just 2 years old when the fires came through Bastrop and now, as 8 year olds, Mrs. Smiley’s 3rd graders wrote cards for the Houston firemen to thank them for helping thousands of victims of Hurricane Harvey. Bastrop and Austin newspapers have highlighted their writing.

Bastrop students and teachers are no strangers to resilience and so, while the start to this school year was painful and unsettling in some ways, it also offered a reminder about the importance of community support and connectivity. Mrs. Smiley’s class used writing and audience to show support for fellow Texans.

Strengthening Community Across Geographically Distant Families

Bastrop, Texas is located 30 miles southeast of Austin, Texas. With a total of 14 schools, the Bastrop district boundary covers an area of nearly 450 square miles and includes the communities of Bastrop, Cedar Creek, Red Rock, Rockne, Paige and vast rural areas of Bastrop County.  As a point of comparison, the nearby urban Austin ISD has 130 schools and covers 172 square miles.

While the district boundaries contrast vastly with neighboring Austin ISD, the diversity in student demographics closely mirrors that of Austin’s urban school district.  Bastrop’s student demographics include a population of 64% Hispanic, 27% Anglo, 4% African American, and approximately 3% of students identify as multiple ethnicity, Asian, American Indian, or Hawaiian.

At our second meeting, we met with community leaders and had time to talk about how our project could help us bring together geographically and culturally diverse Bastrop populations.

Our Second Meeting

Building community despite such a wide geographic reach is one of our goals as a Choice and Voice team. We have partnered with Bastrop Library, Bastrop Parks and Recs, and We Believe in BISD to connect community and school spaces through the display of authentic student writing in community spaces. Our second meeting was held at the Bastrop Library and we welcomed Mickey DuVall and Bonnie Pierson who joined us and helped us brainstorm ways to bring BISD student work to the local library.

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It was moving just sitting down in the beautiful Bastrop Library, together as community stakeholders.  Even with all of the intentions and plans, it seems so rare that public librarians and school teachers have the opportunity to sit down together and talk about ways to unite in our support of local youth’s growth and academic engagement. We got brainstorming about events, displays, partnerships, and new outreach to parents and to multilingual families.  We thought of ways that the library can help BISD teachers and students meet goals and ways that BISD students and teachers can help the library meet their goal of reaching out to more community members.

Next week, at our third meeting, Victoria Herbrich, Recreation Coordinator for Bastrop Parks and Recreation, will join us to talk about ways we might publish student writing in other community spaces.

We’ll be sharing clips from our meetings here and on our new vimeo page soon!

 

 

 

Aligning Practices with Beliefs

This summer, in between road trips, camping, a visit home, and an upcoming wedding, I’ve been fitting in loads of writing and presenting.  It’s been a summer of unplugging in the Jemez mountains speckled with urgent runs to the closest internet connection at the country store to meet a deadline.20170628_182721

It’s been a summer of tree climbing and s’mores on one side of the country and, on the other, long walks from the Capitol building to the FDR memorial, contrasting today’s tweets with Roosevelt’s eloquence.

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Each moment for play has been followed by hours creating prezis and plans for PD that I hope inspires and promotes teacher’s professionalism.

I’ve thought so much about how much work there is to be done but also about how important it is to be present. I’ve thought of how we must always see ourselves as unfinished but also how important it is that we accept and love who we are today.

The hopping in and out of focused and relaxed modes this summer has helped me to also zoom in and out of thoughts of big picture ideas and the minute details.  Like we Heart of Texas Writing Project teachers do, I’ve thought about what I believe and how I can align my daily practices with my beliefs.

As a part of some work this summer, I had the fortune of co-presenting with my incredibly talented friend and colleague, Kerry Alexander. We created this video for a presentation in June.

Just today, I’ve updated the video for a presentation in Spanish later this month.

Whether in the classroom, or in a tent under the pines with my family, my goal is to keep aligning my practices with my  beliefs, letting history inform my present and possibility inspire my future.

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