Out of the Classroom and Into the World: Workshop by Katherine Schulten

Katherine Schulten kicking off the LIWP Saturday Series.

In my last post, Finding Your Voice, Telling Your Story, I wrote about my feelings, fears and the process of writing a keynote speech. Part of the speech centered around my experience with the Long Island Writing Project, which I joined after my first year of teaching. The Invitational Summer Institute, a staple of the National Writing Project, was a pivotal experience in my teaching life. Here is what I wrote in my keynote speech, after describing a difficult first year of teaching:

What was I to do when my whole life, I knew in my heart I would be a teacher, I worked towards it for years, and then, after the first year, I wasn’t sure anymore that it was the right job for me? How could I continue teaching- a job that required so much from me and broke my heart again and again? A job I didn’t think I was very good at- despite the years of practicing and playing school? I knew I needed help if I were to continue teaching.

I had learned about the Long Island Writing Project from my student teaching experience. I applied to the Long Island Writing Project Summer Institute- an 18 day commitment to read, write, present lessons and work on my craft. Thankfully, I was accepted.

It was there, on the campus of Nassau Community College, on the top floor of the Tower building, that I slowly began to exhale. It was the Long Island Writing Project that saved my teaching life and healed my soul from that first horrendous year of teaching. The group was made up of teachers from all ages and stages in their career. As different as we were from each other, there was a passion that we shared- a love of literacy. Each day began with breakfast and informal conversations. Then, one person from the group read to the group- it could be a poem, a picture book, a news article, an excerpt from a book- any type of text. We would all listen, and then when the person stopped reading, we would write. We would write whatever we connected to or the part of the text that resonated for us. Then, we would go around the circle and share some or all of what we wrote. I was amazed at how one text could elicit so many different responses.

After the shared reading, writing, and reflections, participants would take turns presenting lessons related to writing. There was also time to work on your own writing projects and meet in writing groups to share your work and get feedback. Everything we did ourselves as writers we also thought about as teachers of writing- how would our students feel doing this activity? How is it to share your personal writing with others? We went through the process and we also stood outside the process, as teachers, to better understand what our students think and feel when it’s time to write.

What I experienced that summer was transformational in my life. I was surrounded by teachers who were inspired and curious. I felt rejuvenated by the lessons I observed and the possibilities of what I could bring back to my classroom. I felt heard and validated. I believed what I thought and said about teaching mattered.

The Long Island Writing Project remains, in a sense, my teaching North Star. It helps me find my way back when I get lost in the mandates, the “to-do’s”, and all the challenging aspects that come with being a teacher. Such was the case on September 29th when I participated in the LIWP Saturday Series workshop, facilitated by the editor of the New York Times Learning Network, Katherine Schulten. The LIWP organizes a Saturday Series of workshops connected around a theme throughout the school year. This year, we envisioned the workshops with a focus on “Writing for Change.” We were honored that Katherine Schulten could kick-off our Saturday Series of workshops, focused on teachers finding their voice through writing.

As the day of the workshop neared, I was feeling completely overwhelmed with life. The start of a school year is often exhausting but this year seemed especially daunting. Was it the high temperatures in a classroom without air conditioning? Or could it be my updated classroom, outfitted with all new furniture for flexible seating, which was exciting but required a lot more thinking, planning, and revising of my teaching in this environment? Maybe it was that my own two children were both in elementary school now? I had to help them adjust to their routines and schedule, homework each day and multiple after school activities. All of this left me feeling like there was not enough hours in the day to accomplish all that had to be done. As a friend put it, September “came in like a wrecking ball.”  Sharing my words and ideas about teaching started to feel like the last thing on a long to-do list that I simply couldn’t accomplish.

Katherine began the workshop by saying how she really created it as a “pep talk to myself” about the need for educators to share their voices. There were about 13 of us participating in the workshop- a mix of retired teachers, teachers on maternity leave, professors, new teachers, substitute teachers and mid-career teachers (like myself). Katherine spoke about how student voice and teacher voice are intimately intertwined, but teachers often feel reluctant to share their thoughts and ideas about the profession in a public way. There is a risk that comes with sharing publicly. Many times, we ask ourselves “Do I have the authority to say this?”, doubting our own expertise.

During the workshop, Katherine had us answer questions in writing about the professional issues that are calling to us. Teachers put their ideas on post-its and we covered a wall with all the ideas, questions, and topics that captured our interest. As a group, we stood back and looked at the wall of post-its, coming up with connections and themes we noticed. Katherine shared about the different ways teachers can publicize their ideas- blogging, Twitter chats, photo essays, sketchnotes, cartoons, and submitting to publications that feature educational issues.

I walked away from this workshop with a renewed passion and commitment to telling my teaching story, bit by bit, as it unfolds. It’s not always pretty. I don’t always have answers. Some days are harder than others. It was all these ideas that originally inspired me to name my personal blog “Courage Doesn’t Always Roar: A Teacher’s Quest to Be Better Each Day.” Mary Ann Radmacher’s quote, “Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day that says I will try again tomorrow” spoke to my teaching heart back then and it still does now. Katherine Schulten made me remember that it is a good and honorable thing to give voice to the teaching experience. Each one of us has a unique perspective on what it means to be an educator. Our stories are needed.

What are the educational issues calling your name? How can you use writing to share about your teaching experiences?

LIWP Co-Director Heidi Atlas, LIWP Director Darshna Katwala, New York Times Learning Network Editor Katherine Schulten, and me, Kathleen Sokolowski (Co-Director of the LIWP)