Jen Munnerlyn is a teacher, literacy coach, and international educator. Her family has been working in international education for 30 years beginning with her parents first overseas teaching assignment in American Samoa in 1980. She is married to a man she met in 8th grade at International School of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and has her own “Third-Culture Kid*,” named Sydney. Together this family currently works and lives in Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates.
Improving, refining, and developing a culture of collaboration around the teaching of literacy in international schools is Jen’s current passion. Following that, she is an advocate for Third-Culture Kid education, beginning in the elementary grades. Jen wrote a children’s book about being a TCK, The Adventure Begins, and has another on the way… someday.
*TCKs grow up in a culture which isn’t their parents’ home culture. For example, Jen’s daughter is an American who has grown up in China and the Middle East.
On June 29th, as I listened to Lucy Calkins’s keynote in the beautiful cathedral inside Riverside Church, with 1,000 of my professional colleagues from around the United States and the world, I realized what it meant to be part of something BIG. Going to Columbia University as a first-time attendee of the Summer Writing Institute was an important step for me as a writer, a teacher, and a coach. Beyond that, I believe the ever-growing presence of international educators at the TCRWP, of which I am a part, means writing and reading workshops are finally making a worldwide impact.
As the institute wound down, my head was spinning with next steps, new ideas, points to remember, and strategies I don’t want to forget. Condensing my experience into something I can refer back to at the start of school, I’ve made the following list. With it, I hope to “find fun in the hard work,” as Lucy recommended in her closing on July 3rd.
The five big ideas I took away from my time at the Writing Institute:
- This work is fun. I was ready to work hard. I was ready to have my brain ache, my temples pounding throughout the institute. What I wasn’t ready for was the laughing. I was part of Lucy’s 3-5 large group sessions where she made us laugh every day. We watched Lucy conference with invisible students, feigning interest in such a realistic way… it was funny! We laughed as Lucy wrote-in-the-air, stories about her sons, her dogs, and her worries about the dreaded “empty nest.” The humor pervading all of the sessions I attended gave this important work a human element. We are all learning; trying to do the best we can for the students we are entrusted.
- Improving the process never ends. I met teachers from New York City who have had TC project leaders working in their schools for years. There were other teachers from around the United States whose schools and states were just embarking on this journey. Finding my place among these groups was easy, because there was such diversity in experiences. For international teachers, I think the most important thing we can do is to remember how this work is stretched out before us. It is a long, long road, and that is a beautiful thing. Coming to the institute is one step. Implementing units might be next. Analyzing the work as we try it; then modifying our practice could be another step. It will take time and commitment. International schools should plan to give their teachers and their students the gift of time. Time to do this well. Time to travel this exciting road. Time to become better, before we are proficient.
- Conferring is key, yea, yea, yea! I am so very fond of Carl Anderson. (He was received at the institute like the Beatles he loves!) I’ve read both his books and learned so much from his conferring DVDs. His teaching makes me believe I can do this work. Returning to my school, I think our emphasis needs to be on learning to confer well. After all, it is in the conference that direct, explicit, targeted teaching takes place. If we can learn to use conferences to deeply listen and to craft responses, if we can learn to keep records and use that data to move each child forward while we refine minilessons, we will improve our students’ writing. The possibilities are endless and exciting.
- Practice is essential. There are two important ways we can ensure writing workshop pays off at our school. First of all, teachers must practice these teaching techniques. In one of my sessions, we were reminded that researchers like Malcolm Gladwell believe mastery requires 10,000 hours of practice. 10,000 hours! As a teacher, I need to practice the following over and over: stating my teaching point, clearly demonstrating, linking my teaching topic, conferencing with students, and assessing their needs. Similarly, our students deserve the opportunity to practice within a spiral. When we set up our vertical curriculums so students can practice within a unit of study again and again, they will more likely reach mastery of the skills and strategies we are working on. They will more likely approach that 10,000-hour mark.
- Love them. On the third day of the institute Katherine Bomer, author of Hidden Gems, addressed the participants. Her keynote was simply an inspiration. It made me remember why I am doing this work: the kids. When you teach instead of assign, listen instead of speak, and reach deep inside yourself instead of hide, learning will happen. Katherine told us above all and at every point along the way, to love the kids. Just love them. As a coach, what I took from her speech was a simple call to also love the teachers. Just love them. Taking this work on isn’t easy. Love can go a long way.
Attending the institute has been a something I’ve wanted to do for years. Now, I understand why people return year after year. Being part of this community is going to give me the energy I need to be the teacher I am. On August 10th, teachers at my school will return halfway across the world to begin another year. I will greet them, seeming like the same coach, teacher, writer they left. What they won’t see right away is the strength I’m feeling now that I know, what fun this hard work can be.
It is going to be a great year.