As I write this post, I am imagining many of you are either about to breathe a sigh of relief because…well, you have nearly made it to the end of this 2019-20 school year (this is my personal situation- yes, we are continuing to June 16th to “make up snow days”); or perhaps you already have breathed a sigh of relief (if that is you, congratulations). If I may, I would like to assert that this sigh of relief is well-deserved. This has been a year like no other. And it is now looking like it may turn out to be a summer break like no other.
Like all school districts right now, we, in my small Connecticut town, are working to craft a plan for reopening schools this coming fall. While an incredible amount of uncertainty remains, communities like ours are clamoring to learn how the fall might take shape, especially in light of what hard-won knowledge now exists about what does and does not matter when it comes to health and safety in the age of COVID-19.
Personally, as an educator, this moment in time has pushed me to examine my beliefs; my beliefs, for example, about kids, about teaching, and about learning. What do I believe about kids? About teaching? About learning? This question is important because beliefs, not necessarily values, guide intentional action. Some interesting research exists around this distinction can be found here.
Since currently it appears highly unlikely that school will re-open and operate in the traditional manner familiar to all of us this fall, it seems important to both distill our beliefs and ground ourselves in them. For our beliefs act as the rudder of our proverbial ships, guiding us through murky and uncharted waters.
According to the article, “Use Beliefs Instead of Values to Guide Behaviors”, author Gordon Dmytriw writes about the difference between “core values,” “beliefs,” and the subsequent effects on our actions. He writes (2015), “It is much easier to connect beliefs to actions – behaviors we can in turn model. After all, the whole point of developing these statements is to give one another clear language to support right-minded actions.” Although the author is not discussing education, this notion strikes me as quite applicable to educational settings. After all, if we come to be clear on the things we implicitly believe- about writing instruction, for example – we will likely connect and translate those beliefs into actions, no matter the form “school” takes next year.
The following is a short list of beliefs I hold personally when it comes to the teaching of writing. I offer them not as “beliefs you should hold, too,” but rather as a place to look, a place to begin. The point here is not to read this as a list of what you “should” believe, but rather an exercise to take on as a way to ground yourself in a way that your educational actions and decisions will be guided in the coming school year. I have limited this list to a few beliefs. It is likely not an exhaustive list. But, as I say, it is a place to start:
- Belief One: Learners need choice – Typically in writing workshop, choice tends to mean choice of topic. While I stand by this and still believe it, I have learned these past few months that this notion probably ought to be expanded to include choice in publication form, as well. With our writers working in highly variant home environments, allowing for publication that spans low to high tech options not only tends to create more engagement, but more equity as well. I worry about what we might cause by requiring all kids to use a certain technology platform or turn something in using a singular, uniform format. As teacher and author Cornelius Minor said recently in an interview, we ought to be thinking about all the different ways kids can “show up,” and about how all of those different ways can co-exist. “It doesn’t have to be this one-size-fits-all thing,” he states. But it requires, instead, an understanding of who our kids are, where they come from, what their capabilities are in these moments.
- Belief Two: Learners need time and multiple opportunities to practice- Writers need long stretches of protected time to write. This can be a difficult one, as the protection of writing time is no longer something we can provide if school is not in physical session. But I believe we get better at what we do. I believe writers need practice and lots of it. So if we hold this belief as core to our teaching, it is possible we can communicate it to our writers in a way that matters. Perhaps we help them develop a writing routine at home? Where will be their space to write? What time(s) work best for them for writing? When writers know we care about them, sometimes this type of supportive planning can go a long way.
- Belief Three: Learners need explicit instruction- In order to improve, writers need more than just assignments posted online or in Google Classroom. When virtual learning becomes merely a list of things we ask kids to do and turn in, we assume then, that they know how to do it. And if they already know how to do it, according to Dr. David Dockterman at Harvard University, then they are not really learning. So the question becomes how do we endeavor to ensure that our writers get stronger as time moves along? One way is to be sure we, either in an asynchronous or synchronous manner, endeavor to provide explicit instruction on the teaching of writing. I believe kids need explicit, expert instruction in order to become stronger writers. They need strategies, demonstrations, and explanations- not just assignments.
- Belief Four: Learning is social – Creating structures, routines, and contexts to create and leverage a culture of social learning is a goal for workshop teachers. We help create and foster partnerships, and we set up opportunities for writers to orally rehearse, exchange ideas, and provide feedback. I know the teachers I work with worked hard this year to create opportunities for kids to connect with each other. We know that social connections, especially in middle school, are so important. Leveraging these connections in learning contexts, then, just seems to make sense. I believe in the power of social learning.
- Belief Five: Learners need feedback- As I wrote about back in April, I continue to also believe in the power of feedback. According to Dr. Mary Ehrenworth, Deputy Director for Middle School at the Reading and Writing Project in New York City, learners need feedback from a mentor writer, i.e., the teacher. This is why it is crucial we continue to write alongside our students, providing a blend of the three types of feedback: appreciation, coaching, and evaluation. Furthermore, as mentioned before, feedback can also come from peers. But it is important to remember that peers will not naturally provide useful feedback without tools: this is why tools such as checklists, mentor texts, and exemplars- all tools that make explicit a concrete and visible path for improvement- must be part of how we support partnerships in both physical and virtual spaces. Finally, providing an audience for our writers remains significant. Recently, co-author Beth Moore posted ideas for distance learning writing celebrations. When we make a big deal of publishing, writers will often push themselves in a different way.
Right now, we really do not know how school will look in the coming year. Will it be virtual? Will it be physical? Will it be a hybrid model? Who knows? But if we agree that our beliefs are implicit, and that they guide our intentional actions, then perhaps not only reading this post but also examining and identifying your own will help you be the best you can be… whatever the circumstances you find yourself in next year.