We all navigate paths to intended life goals. Feet often clearly embedded in the first steps, and often seeing a bit of fog down the road ahead. Sometimes the road bends and we reel from the turn. Other times, Frost’s fork in the road appears and we contemplate. Other times, the road is straight, though perhaps narrow. No matter the age, we all take journeys. The “journey” is a great invitation to a writing piece for middle graders (or you!).  A major journey for me was the decision to undertake the grueling PhD program. What began as hope ended as a greater understanding of Self. The journey made me a better person. Journeys that challenge us tend to do this. Here are some quick thoughts on my journey to the PhD. I encourage you to take on the concept of “journey” writing with your students!
So many memories stirred as I think back on starting (and continuing along) the path to the  PhD. Initial feelings of panic [what am I doing here with all these smart folks?] slowly morphing into mentally “joining the club,” knowing you belong on your chosen path, and feelings of actually enjoying the workload.  Am I qualified to do this? Can I balance it with the rest of my crazy life? I was a classroom teacher for 21 years when I began my doctoral studies. 50 years young. My sixteen year old granddaughter was two years old when I began writing my dissertation. I hesitated (reflected might be the better word) for several years before I took the plunge and applied to the doctoral program. Perhaps because I was “old,”  I relished in the coursework. Having worked as a middle school teacher for two decades, along with active memberships in professional teacher organizations, I felt comfortably informed and knew my focus. My activity in the National Writing Project naturally led me to know that my dissertation would focus on writing instruction. My kids were out of the house, and my husband my strongest supporter. I thrived on the challenges. The timing, as it turned out, could not have been more perfect. When coursework ended I experienced withdrawal. I missed the intensity of banter and discussion with fellow doctoral students. Withdrawal soon faded with the writing of my dissertation. My dissertation defense was much more of a thrill than actually being hooded. I knew, loved, and had a passion for my topic, and this was possible due to my years spent in the field, more journeys!,  gathering experiences that would play a huge part in my doctoral work. My capacities, unknown to me at the start of my journey, astounded me. My journey was a maze of possibilities, all of which led me on a path to self-discovery that continues today. No matter the journey, or the traveler, we share common experiences along our individual paths.

Reaching and Teaching Middle Schoolers…

IMG_0971The image on the left was created by me (using Noteography). It sums up what I know and believe from nearly 20 years of teaching middle schoolers. I just call them the characteristics of middle schoolers and it’s one of the first things I share with my undergrad preservice teachers each semester. The sharing of/discussion of what these characteristics mean launch our semester and are revisited many times over throughout our semester-long classes. The image on the right I quickly sketched (using Paper 53). (The image that combines each of these lists was created with Inkflow). These are the “essential” attributes of a middle school education for young adolescents as developed by the National Middle School Association. Never having seen these four essentials prior to generating my list, the similarity serves to confirm what I believe–what I know to be true. So, how do I interpret the NMSA listed essentials?

Developmentally responsive means that you need to know what makes adolescents tick. You need to consider their social, emotional, cognitive growth just as seriously as you would consider developmentally responsive education for the kids in primary grades. Many of the ills of chaotic discipline originate from not understanding that adolescents are very unsure of themselves. They need to find ways to find confidence–to not fail, They need social outlets–all the livelong day. They are social creatures, first and foremost. They are at their best when they feel a creative spirit and can turn loose imaginations. They don’t do well, in fact, they wither and retreat when set in rows and asked to be quiet, work alone, and listen while the teacher lectures for a grueling 50 minutes or more.

Challenging means just that! They love to puzzle something out. Notice how much they love digital games?? It’s the challenge. They want and need project learning where they can start almost from nowhere and with some basic tools and skeletal outline of instructions they can produce amazing things. Reading the textbook and answering the questions is not a challenge–it’s boring and they will have no problem in telling you so.

Empowering means giving them the flexibility to discover. Trust them to be powerful thinkers. Give them the tools with which to build, to author, to fix, to puzzle it out.

Equitable means to really put into practice the jargon-like statement all teachers say–“They all can learn.” Begin with where every learner is and provide them a path within their grasp to follow. Reach and teach them all.

So…when I set my beliefs alongside the beliefs of a national professional organization, I am affirmed and hopeful that through the voice of a powerful organization such as NMSA, these beliefs are out there and hopefully in practice.

(I had another purpose here: to highlight three of my favorite sketch note tools: Noteography, Paper 53, and Inkflow–all tools students would LOVE).

Left Brain/Right Brain Speak…


Left Brain:

Hey! You know me…I’m the guy who helps you analyze stuff. I devour facts. Just the facts M’am. Not big into imagining–if I can see it, I might believe it…if it makes sense, that is. I’m your planner extraordinaire! I help you write all those lists and we check them off twice. I thrive on order and familiarity. Change? Okay if not chaotic–has to fit, make sense. Things need organizing? I’m your guy. Control! Neatness! Order! Logic! That’s ME!

Right Brain:

Hey! You know passionate, emotional ME! I’m the guy who leads you to that art museum to dwell on all that beauty. I urge you to pick up that paint brush, to fill that notebook with sketches, to take that woods walk just to feel the crunch of the twigs beneath your feet, to wiggle your toes in the sand of that beach and think of nothing beyond how great it feels. I’m your creative SELF–I’m all the colors of the Earth just waiting to be discovered by you. Intuitive, Imaginative, Boundless, Emotional ME!!

Teachers—do you balance your teaching styles? Are you a left and right brain teacher? Do you encourage the creative spirits as well as demand the logical-mathematical responses from your students? Do you allow for many avenues along which students can show you what they know? (Thanks Ashley–for the L/R Brain image!)

..just thoughts

As my classes leave the Unknowntext today we focus on the final of the seven strategies–Synthesis. I confess, as a former middle school teacher, that I really do not like the concept of “main idea,” and here is why….I find the following to be true:

…In the search for ONE big thing–ONE main idea, many important ideas are dismissed along the way…. I know we call them “details,” but why can they not also be main things?

…Looking for the main idea seems a “school thing” to kids–something they do for the teacher and not something they do when they plow into a self-selected book they love

I think we can ask kids to reveal meanings created from text, supported with text evidence. I would rather pose the questions: What’s Interesting/What’s Important? and What meaning did you create from this text? rather than What is the Main Idea….?

I like the quote below…and can relate it to comprehension…

No idea is isolated, but is only what it is among all ideas.  (Friedrich Von Schlegel)

I know students will meet “main idea” questions on standardized tests, but if they experience many opportunities to have good and targeted conversations about texts, if they read closely and deeply, I feel confident they will be able to choose ONE main idea of a passage presented on any standardized test.

Teach strategically and they will surprise you…just saying

If you are a writing teacher….

IF you are a writing teacher...How did you start your journey? Are you a hostage–you HAVE to teach writing? Or, are you a cheerleader for all who write? Do you write yourself, or “just teach it?” If you were given the choice tomorrow, would you gladly hand off the job of writing teacher to another “unlucky” faculty member, or would you shout, “No way am I giving this up!!” Do you (as author Gary Paulsen says) “read like a wolf eats,” because your muse is fed by reading good books, good writing? And, why are these questions important, anyway?? I guess I’m curious because I know the buy-in to writing that is necessary for the passion-driven tenacity to happen in students. I’ve seen fabulous writing teachers in K-12 schools who inspired students to take risks and write, who listened closely, encouraged their words, and took risks to share their own words. I’ve also seen teachers who shouldn’t have been there. If you are reading this blog, found this site through intentional or random searching, you are probably a writing teacher a middle grades student needs. Hoping so.

How are you literate…?

Yesterday I had coffee with a colleague and we got to talking about the challenges of teaching literacy to content area teachers. Last night as I reflected on that discussion I thought back to a workshop I held many years ago for teachers of all subject areas. The workshop was one of many varied sessions in a summer Arts in Education week-long conference held in a beautiful and expansive natural area in Birmingham, AL.

To engage the teachers in thinking of literacy outside of just English Language Arts and inside of their specific content areas, we trekked to a pond area surrounded by woods and paths. They each took a clipboard and pencils, markers, and some even took watercolor paints. They had 2 hours to linger and accomplish the task at hand. Here was the task–I may not word it exactly as I am drawing solely on memory:

Go to the targeted area. When you get there, look around, explore, and find a place to sit and ponder how you view this place as an expert in your content area. Come back to our session with something to show your thinking–maybe words, maybe images.

If your content area is Math—how do you view this place as a Mathematician?  How are you “literate” mathematically as you experience this place?

If your content area is Social Studies/History, how do you see this place? What questions come to mind? How do you “think like an historian” as you sit here awhile, as you explore? How are you literate as an historian in this place?

If your content area is PE, how are you “literate” here? How are you “comprehending” this place–imagining it as a place to teach your area? How are you using “words” to describe it? Are you “listening” to sounds for which you might have your students create movements?

If your content area is Physics…what are you thinking here?? How might this natural setting help you to “show” or “explain” some laws of physics?


…you get the idea.  I can tell you the results blew me away. Math teachers even came back to session with artifacts—parts of plants that illustrated Fibonacci numbers! Others left the plants intact but sketched and labeled specimens. Some History teachers wrote imagined scenarios of how this place evolved into what it is today. Other History teachers, knowing a lot about the Civil War, imagined (and recorded in words) what may have taken place during that time in those very woods.  ELA teachers wrote poetry, stories, vocab lists….I cannot recall all, nor is it necessary that I do so here. But, just leaving you with the thought that literacy is every which way we view and experience our worlds. Content teachers often think literacy is just reading and writing. How do you know what you know???–no matter the content area—however you answer that question is likely in the broad realm of “literacy.”