Tools of the Trade — A Guest Blog Post by Vicki Meigs-Kahlenberg
As I watched Oprah’s acceptance of the Cecil B. deMille, Golden Globe Lifetime Achievement Award, these words, above all, resonated with me:
As educators, we need to remember we have a voice and a duty to help our students discover and develop theirs. I know that can be challenging with packed curriculums and tight testing schedules. With the dawn of a new semester on the horizon, it’s the perfect time to carve out intentional space for writing, sharing, and publishing—all of which empower our students to speak their truths out in the world.
The first semester of this year was filled with a tangible air of uncertainty. Sure, there were the normal, first-semester-of-a-new-school-year adjustments we all have to make, getting to know new kids, new curriculum expectations, new goals and assessments, and in some cases, new administrators and co-teachers. But, this year, as we all carried the weight of our regular classroom business on our shoulders, there was a storm thundering right outside our windows and in our news feeds.
All at once, hurricanes ravaged the islands and the East Coast, massive floods raged down south through Texas, unprecedented forest fires devoured the Pacific Northwest and California, tragic shootings claimed lives in Las Vegas, sexual predators were dethroned in Hollywood and New York, terrorists drove trucks into crowds all around the world, and political unrest engulfed the spaces between.
The unyielding 24/7 media coverage brought it all to life, one soundbite or film clip at a time—and they just keep coming.
Whether we chose to address these events and issues in our classrooms or not, our kids are feeling the impact of them.
Now, more than ever, children, adolescents, and teachers, need a place where they can “write it out.” They need a true writing workshop where they are free to gather their thoughts, express their feelings, articulate their concerns, and celebrate their hopes in their own words. They need an author’s chair and peer conferring space that is free from criticism, yet open to feedback — a safe space in which to share words, feelings, and struggles. The classroom needs to be that setting where students can receive validation to know they are not alone, where they can hear alternative viewpoints to develop a deeper understanding, where they can openly question and wonder out loud together as they build relationships, and problem-solving skills.
Our students deserve a place where they are free to speak their truths and make sense of their world.
Giving students a voice through authentic writing, sharing, and publication experiences is never time wasted. It is necessary in order to grow our students into empathetic, compassionate individuals who are equipped to speak out for themselves and others.
I know we all have a lot of content to cover, and the pressures for moving our students to the next level of success are greater than ever. However, as educators, we need to be reminded that none of us truly got into this profession to teach a curriculum. Most of us became teachers because of our love of children and adolescents, and our passion to make a meaningful impact in their lives. What distinguishes us now as Master Teachers is our wisdom to choose the right instructional tools at the right time.
The tool is writing. The time is now.
I recognize that much writing is accomplished in school and I am excited that it is happening more frequently in all content areas. In the middle and upper grades, much of that writing is content-specific, writing that is done in response to text, research, lessons, and literature. For teachers, there is a huge emphasis on instructing proper procedures and forms and “correctness” in content and conventions. And, from that instruction, our students are expected to create meaning from content that someone else deemed worthy of their time, generally, without regard for what is happening in the moment, in the world, in the lives of our students.
Don’t misunderstand, learning “the writing ropes” is meaningful and necessary work. But let’s not lose sight of the bigger picture, the reason we are here: our students.
On any given day, our students are confronted with the regular struggles of childhood and adolescence: striving for top grades; facing unfamiliar material; pleasing parents; navigating friendships and sexuality; attempting to control acne; vying for popularity in life and on social media; competing for positions on elite sports teams, for chairs in music, and for roles in theater. Many of our students have also had their worlds rocked because someone they know has committed suicide, is battling addiction, is dealing with mental health issues, is dying from cancer or struggling with recovery. All of this is on top of the anxiety of grappling with our societal issues.
That’s a lot for these young minds to bear. They need to know we’re in this together.
We need to stand strong and speak our truths as educators by valuing our students and making the time and space in our classrooms and curricula for more of the things that will truly make a difference in the lives of our students. Through writing, we can share our vulnerabilities and create a true community of caring.
Only God knows what 2018 will bring. We can’t control what happens next in our news feeds or in the lives of our students. By making intentional time in our curriculum for writing, sharing and publishing, we can equip our students with the most powerful tools we have available to develop and strengthen their voices within our classrooms and create a confidence within to speak their truths out in the world.
Vicki Meigs-Kahlenberg is an experienced teacher, writer, and consultant who is fascinated by the adolescent mind and thrives on inspiring students to think critically by connecting their studies to the world around them.
In her two decades of middle school teaching, she has guided hundreds of students on their journeys to becoming published authors. Vicki is inspired by the students and teachers she meets, and she enjoys speaking at conferences and providing workshops for teachers, writing groups, and classrooms. Becoming a PAWLP Fellow in 2000 changed her life forever. Check out her book, The Author’s Apprentice, and follow her on Twitter @VMeigsK.