Room for grace

It’s been way too long since I’ve written a blog post. Truth be told, I haven’t done much writing at all, aside from some quick writes with my sophomores and a sample FRQ for my AP Spanish Lit students. The thing is, I’ve been struggling to stay afloat; most days it feels like my nose is slipping beneath the surface, and I have to fight just to sneak a breath before sinking again.

My days are stuffed to the point of overflowing, and something, or many somethings, has to give. One of those things has been writing. I know that’s not good, because sharing my ideas and successes and worries here has been so good for me as I reflect on my practice. It’s also not good because I feel like I’m letting myself down by not keeping my commitment to writing.

But today I realized something really important. I was advising a new teacher to be creative in finding ways to lighten her load so she doesn’t burn out, and said something about giving yourself some grace in these first years. And it hit me: you don’t need to be a new teacher to afford yourself the same grace you afford to your students and colleagues and family and friends. In the same way that I try to recognize and honor the challenges my students face, the obstacles to attendance and engagement, the distractions and disruptions, I need to be patient and kind and flexible with myself.

Especially as I embark down this path of new learning, I have to be willing to let some things go. I must recognize that I am one person being pulled in many directions. I cannot do everything, I cannot fix everything, I cannot be everything to everyone.

So I’m making room for grace. I’m formulating a plan to take care of myself. I might not write every day, and that’s okay. I might not answer every email or make all the parent calls or stay on top of all the grading. But I will do my best every day to put as much light as I can back out into the world, while also focusing some of that light inward.

Be kind. Show grace. Breathe. Simple reminders for myself as I brace for another jam-packed weekend, followed by another crazy week.

My next post will be about what’s been going on in my workshop world over the past few weeks. I promise. I have lots of updates to share, and I know that’s what you come here for. But I needed this reminder so much today that I thought maybe you needed it, too. ❤

This made me laugh out loud, because, honestly, I tell myself all the time “next week will be better/easier/less busy.” But the thing is, I’m the one who needs to make sure that’s true.

When Magic DOESN’T Happen

Things were off to a great start in my heritage Spanish classes. Students were reading and writing, and talking about reading and writing. They wrote beautiful letters and many finished reading their first complete book in Spanish, ever! And then, sometime in week 3, we seemed to hit a rut. The magic faded. Students started pushing back about reading in class, many were clearly not doing ANY reading outside of class (and that is their only homework for my class), and So. Many. Students were wasting their writing workshop time, even when they knew they had an impending deadline.

At the same time, I was feeling pretty overwhelmed with planning, grading, my AP Spanish Lit class, my own kids’ busy schedules, and so many other pieces of my busy day-to-day life. I knew I needed to plan the next writing unit, but I couldn’t decide where I wanted to go next. I had planned to have students write their own author bios, but they just finished doing that in English class, so I decided that would probably feel redundant and not be well-received. However, since I had already started those plans, I was really short on time, and that made me feel even more overwhelmed.

Monday was the due date for the final draft of their name stories. We used “Mi nombre” from Sandra Cisneros’ La casa en Mango Street as our mentor text. We spent all of last week working on using similes, metaphors and imagery in our stories. Then on Monday (which, apparently, was yesterday; why does it feel so far away?), we sat in a circle and each student read their story aloud. While many students struggled to incorporate the rhetorical devices that we had practiced, they did a good job with their first attempt at sharing a story. And although I was disappointed that several students did not complete the assignment, others blew me away with their beautiful imagery, excellent metaphors, and overall well-written, creative pieces.

The name story read-aloud gave me a bit of a boost, but I still had no idea what I was going to teach the next day, and Monday night was parent night. I got home, beyond exhausted, at 8:00, just in time to start the nightly battle that is getting three school-aged kids to bed. When that finally happened, I decided I was too tired to think, and just got myself ready for bed.

With my anxiety growing (about everything: lesson plans, a million upcoming kid appointments, AP work, the 100 name stories I now have to grade…), I made some decisions on a whim. First, I deleted Facebook and Twitter from my phone. I need a break from the bad news and distractions of my digital life. Second, I decided I also needed a break from writing workshop. I’m not giving up (I AM NOT GIVING UP!), but I am giving myself the space to pause, reflect, and yes, fall back to lessons that are already planned from last year, so I can have a small mental and emotional break.

So today, during our daily reading time, I sat down and read instead of conferring with students. We did a quick write that was already ready to go, and then I introduced some pre-listening questions that I created last year for a Radio Ambulante episode that fits nicely with our essential question for this quarter.

I’m giving myself 2 easy days of reading, quick writes, and listening to a podcast. Last week, my students showed signs of needing to slow down and regroup, even before I realized that was exactly what I needed. Next week, we’ll jump back in with renewed energy and focus, and we will love the crap out of our workshop classroom!

When Magic Happens

I’m back, and I want to tell you about what’s been happening in my new workshop world. We’re two weeks into the school year, I’ve learned all of their names (okay, I know 100% of their names about 97% of the time in my classroom. Out in the “wild” of hallways and lunch duty, it gets a bit sketchy.), and I’ve collected and graded their first writing assignment.

First, some background on the assignment. As I’ve mentioned probably too many times before, I wrote a letter to my students and read it to them on the first day of school. This assignment grew out of that letter: after spending some time looking at and writing about my letter, I asked students to write their own letter. In the spirit of choice, they got to pick who the letter was to and what it was about. Together, using my letter as their mentor text, we settled on some parameters:

  • Their letter should have a saludo and a despedida.
  • Their letter should include some kind of introduction explaining why they were writing it.
  • Their letter should have, at minimum, 3-5 points (bullet points or a numbered list were fine)
  • We agreed that grammar and spelling are important, but since I haven’t taught them any grammar or spelling, they would not be graded on those things. (I added that part, because many students suggested that “good grammar” be required, but I know that most have had no formal education in Spanish.

I was worried that this assignment might be too open-ended for students who are used to a lot more structure and used to responding to very specific writing prompts in their other classes. Certainly there were many students who needed some time to get started. I simply told them “Think of someone you have something you want to say to, and write to them.” Through lots of idea sharing and examples, everyone eventually came up with an idea and got started writing.

So let’s talk about the magic that happened last week. Students asked a lot of questions that started with “¿Puedo…?” and I said yes to everything. Can I write a letter to my mom? Yes. Can I write a letter to the freshmen? Yes. Can I write a letter to myself? Absolutely! What about a letter to you, Miss? Yep, I’d love that! I only said no once, when the student asked if he could write a letter to his dead dog. (It seemed like a thinly veiled excuse to write “Querida perra” in his letter.) Everyone else was surprised that the answer to all of their queries was an excited yes.

A few days ago, a quiet student stayed after class to ask if she could write her letter as fiction. I asked her to explain what she meant. “Well,” she gushed, “I created a fictional character and then wrote the letter from her point of view, of what she wanted to tell someone.” What do you even say to that? All I came up with was, “That sounds really great. I can’t wait to read it!”

I don’t want to give the impression that every single student wrote something amazing. Of course they didn’t. Not everyone is ready to open up, not everyone is drawn to this type of writing, not everyone is completely bought in. But EVERY. SINGLE. STUDENT. turned in the assignment, on time, and that in and of itself is pretty remarkable.

So what did they write about that was so magical? One common theme was letters of agradecimiento to parents, especially mothers, but also many to fathers. These were so heartfelt and honest that many brought tears to this mother’s eyes (yes, I know, I’m a total sap.) Another was letters of advice and encouragement to younger siblings. Many students wrote letters to me, often because they couldn’t think of anyone else to write to, or just weren’t ready to get very personal. Those letters were still very revealing, both in what they shared and what they chose not to share. Finally, many students wrote really amazing letters to themselves, where they gave their future selves advice or reminded them of who they are and what they want to achieve. They were heartwarming and really helped me get to know my students better.

Some of their letters were so incredible that I wish I could share them with you here. Unfortunately, in my rush to grade them and return them to students, I didn’t have time to take pictures of them. Here are a few that I’d like to highlight:

  • A student wrote a letter to her dad, who had abandoned her family years ago. In it, she not only spoke to the hurt and anger she still feels, but also detailed her hope that her father does not do the same thing to his new family. “Ya no sigas lastimando a gente inocente.”
  • A student wrote a letter to her foster mom who died of cancer before she started high school. This is the second time in our two weeks together that she has written about her mom, so I know that this is important to her and something she seems to be ready to talk, or at least write, about. She mentioned on day one that she could relate to my experience of losing my mom, another example of how powerful my letter to students was in setting the tone and letting my students get to know me.
  • A student wrote a letter to herself, talking about her sexuality and other things that are important to her right now. In the letter she made some comments that raised concerns about her safety and well-being, so I have referred her to social work. This is another important aspect to giving students choice: sometimes they may send a cry for help. Make sure you are listening and know how to respond appropriately.

In a team meeting last Thursday, as our social workers talked about several students who are going through difficult situations, and our dean detailed IEPs and 504 plans, I came to a beautiful realization: I *knew* something, beyond the name, about every student they talked about. I don’t think I could ever have said that less than two weeks into the school year before.

I should probably write a post about all the mistakes I made during this unit, all the things I learned, and all the questions I still have. That would likely be more useful to help me reflect on my practice and improve the process going forward. But right now, coming off the high of reading, and really enjoying, my students’ letters, I wanted to share the end result. For now, it feels really good to have a successful first foray into writing workshop.

To All The Students I’ve Taught Before…

I had a revelation this week. In reading over the letters my students wrote, due on just our 7th day of class together, I was floored by how good they were. How honest and heartfelt and creative. And it hit me: Think of all the students who I have held back all these years with graphic organizers and scripted essays and extremely limiting guidelines and, you know, NOT really working on writing at all.

This post was supposed to be all about the power of writing workshop, of giving students choice and voice in their reading and writing life. And I *will* get to that. Soon. But first, I just wanted to say, to all the heritage students I’ve taught before…

… I’m sorry. I did the best I knew how at the time, and I know you learned some things. I hope you felt welcome and cared for. I hope you felt heard. But I know now that it could have been so much better. That I could have been so much better. For you. And for that I am so, so sorry. “I didn’t know” isn’t a very good excuse, but at least this time, it’s true: I had no idea that there was a better way.

Actually, that’s not entirely true. I always believed there was a better way to teach your class, and I know that every year I did do a little bit better (shout out to my first Heritage class back in 2011-2012 – I know I *really* sucked that year), but it took me too long to start to figure this out. I’m sorry for that.

So, now that I got that off my chest, I think I can get started working on that post about the magic that’s happening in my classroom. I can’t wait to tell you all about it!

My former students are out in the world doing big things, even though my class wasn’t as good as I hoped it would be. That’s a bit of consolation, I suppose.

What I learned in my very first week of workshop

Hello again, virtual friends! I’m fresh off of week one of this brand new school year, and it was somehow a crazy whirlwind and one hundred days long all at once. By the end of day one, everything hurt. By the end of day two, it felt like surely it must be Friday. At the same time, my classes flew by, and before I knew it, it was 4pm on Friday and my first week was done. Before I start week two, I wanted to take the time to reflect on the first week. I know this will be good to look back on before I start school next year. Hopefully it is useful for you, too!

So here are some things that I learned in my first week as a teacher of reading and writing workshop in Spanish Heritage 1:

  • Class time *flies* by. By the time we read for 10 minutes and go through the Quick Write process, half of the 50-minute class period is gone. That leaves 25 minutes for a mini-lesson and then giving students some actual writing time. I know I will have to make some adjustments. I will also probably get used to it. Right now, each class feels like a sprint, and I feel kind of rushed and panicky the whole time. I know independent reading and quick writes are incredibly valuable. I also know that if students are ever going to make progress on their writing products, they need time. So that’s something I will keep working on.
  • Class time *flies* by. I know I said this before, but I want to focus on the positive part of this. When I ask students to wrap up their writing and complete the exit ticket, they look around in surprise and ask, “Is class over already?” Time is not just moving quickly for me; my students also feel like our time together is really short. I think this can be attributed to starting with independent reading and moving through several very short processes after that, all of which force kids to be engaged. When they are engaged, they don’t have time to get bored. And if they don’t have time to get bored, they don’t feel like class is never going to end.
  • Starting the first day without going over rules and procedures and expectations and grading scales is totally fine. No one is dying to sit through an explanation of these things. In fact, a whole week has gone by, and not one student has asked how they are being graded.
  • Setting the tone on day one with what class is actually going to be like is engaging and effective. My students were engaged in my letter, they did a great job with their first exposure to the quick write process, and they really seemed to appreciate that I was open with them right from the start. I am so glad that I started class this way this year.
  • Kind of a side note: This year, for the do now on day 1, I asked students to write their full name, preferred name, preferred pronoun, and something they wanted me to know about them. Most were pretty unremarkable, but one student whose records say female wrote that their preferred pronoun is “él.” This simple task took students less than 2 minutes, but allowed me to learn something super important that hopefully makes that student feel more welcome and comfortable in my class. Please, take the time to ask. It is so worth it!

Just because I had a positive week overall, doesn’t mean that I have it all figured out. There are a lot of things that I’m still feeling unsure about. Here are a few of the biggest ones on my mind:

  • Making it cohesive: I feel like I have managed to implement all of the pieces of workshop so far, and they are going fairly well. I have choice reading and quick writes and mini-lessons and writing workshop time. What I don’t have is a theme or idea that is tying each piece to the next. Honestly, my students don’t seem to notice or care, but it makes *me* feel like something is lacking. I want to make sure that my quick writes are not only an opportunity to practice writing quickly about what you think, but also a way to come up with ideas that you might use in a future writing piece. Right now, that’s not really happening. So I need to think about how I can tie everything together better.
  • Grading: So far, I have not graded anything. I haven’t even remembered to take attendance most days – yikes! I have come up with a plan to grade the different pieces of our workshop that fits with our school’s prescribed grading categories. I’m just not sure how it will all work. When will I collect notebooks and actually have time to look at them? I have 100+ sophomores in my 4 Heritage classes, plus 20 more in AP Spanish Lit. How do I handle students who don’t complete their (graded) writing products?
  • Seating: For the first time ever, I started the year without a seating chart. For three of my four classes, it went pretty well. For my last class of the day, it was kind of disastrous for some students. Overall, I’m pretty happy with this little experiment. I will be letting students in those first 3 classes continue to choose their seats. For the last group, I am making a seating chart today. I hope, however, that with time they will mature enough to handle choosing their own seats in the future. I liked allowing them to choose at the start, because they were less uncomfortable sharing their writing with a friend than with a stranger.

At the end of the day on Friday, I texted my friend and ELA colleague. She is also new to workshop this year, and I’m so lucky to have someone with more experience teaching reading and writing to talk to and plan and process this crazy journey with. I think my message to her sums up my first week perfectly:

I also shared this with a friend and teacher-educator who has been an amazing resource and mentor to me for the last three years:

She was writing to invite me to possibly lead an online professional development on using language arts methods in the heritage language classroom. Stay tuned to see if that pans out!

If you are a new or experienced workshop teacher, I’d love to hear what you do in your classes. If not, I’d still like to know what language arts activities work well in your classes. Good luck as you start another school year! I hope it is AMAZING!

Day 1 Recap: Can the whole year be like this?

School started yesterday, and it was so unexpectedly wonderful, I don’t know if I can even adequately describe it. I was amazed, class after class, by how my students responded to my letter.

I started by explaining that I wrote them a letter. Instead of starting with a bunch of basic information about the class and a list of rules, I pulled them into the rhythm of the class right from the start. Students were so relieved to see that we were doing something different than what they expected to start the year.

I began reading my letter aloud. It felt a lot more awkward than I had anticipated, reading my words in front of a bunch of teens I didn’t know. And although they were quiet, I wasn’t sure if they were just listening because they had to or because they actually enjoyed it. So I was completely caught off guard when I finished reading and some of my students started clapping. Clapping! Imagine it: 15-year-olds clapping about a letter their teacher wrote to them. Being the introvert that I am, I felt so awkward and I’m sure I turned a bright shade of red. But it was really sweet.

Then I explained our Quick Write process:

• Step 1: Write a response to the text (video, audio, print media, etc.) in Spanish. The only rule is Do Not Summarize. I already know what it’s about. I want to know what you *think* about it. I gave some examples of responses that show your thinking and crossed my fingers. I’m new to this and so are they, so I wasn’t sure what would happen.

• Step 2: Read what you wrote and revise it using a different color pen. I explained how we ask students to revise essays before turning them in, but typically don’t practice that skill at any other time. Real writers revise – a lot! They have 2 minutes for this step.

• Step 3: Share your writing. Just like the Quick Write response, when we share, we Do Not Summarize. We read our responses word for word. I explained that this helps us learn from each other’s writing, hear how our own writing sounds, and find more parts to revise. I talked about 3 sharing formats: partners, small groups, and whole class. This time we just shared with a partner. This step takes about 3 minutes.

After reading the letter and going through the Quick Write process, we had about 10 minutes left in each class. Not enough time to dive into exploring my library, but enough time to explain independent reading and give a quick overview of the types of books on each shelf throughout my room. On their way out the door, they received a Home Language Survey to complete for homework.

Students seemed pretty engaged while I read my letter to them (did I mention that some of them clapped?!), and as I walked around and listened in on them sharing their writing with a partner, I heard some great snippets of insight and conversation. A great start to the year, right?

I was feeling pretty good with how my day was going, but when I finally got a chance to sit down and start reading through their Quick Writes, I was floored. They were so good. I realized that they really *got* it: they understood the message and intent behind my letter, not just the words. Below are some examples of their thinking about this text. It was really hard to choose; honestly, I could share 50 notecards that were beautifully thought out, that reached past the words to the meaning, that touched my heart. I learned things about students that I never would have known after just one day (now if only I could just learn their names!).

Is workshop going to be this magical every day? Probably not. But for one day, it was the best day one ever!

I don’t think I could have explained it this way, but it’s exactly what I meant.
I don’t know the whole story, but I did know that this student was adopted by a family that does not speak Spanish. On the first day of school, she felt comfortable telling me about how she, too, lost her mom.
I love this student’s enthusiasm! I’m excited, too.
I’m thrilled that so many students are excited for this new experience.
Wow, just wow. So insightful. I wish more people thought like this 15-year-old.
I can’t describe how wonderful it feels to read that this student knows that I believe in him after only 50 minutes in class together. This letter had a powerful impact on my students, much more than I even hoped for.
These last two go together, and are another example of how I was blown away by the impact of this one letter to my students. From day 1, she feels like she can trust me and come to me for help. ❤

(I Must) Write Every Day

Greetings from school! I’m (officially) back at work this week, enjoying lots of meetings, professional development, and, of course, getting ready for the first day of school on Monday. While I’ve been in the building more than a few times this summer, it was a harsh reality to wake up at 6 a.m. and start wearing ‘professional attire’ again!

As I wrote about back in my very first blog post, I am writing here to help me get in the habit of writing. I know that to teach writing, I must write. I’ve made a commitment to writing every day, and it is a really hard commitment to keep. Not only am I back at work full time, but my kids just started fall sports, so I’m constantly running and I’m tired by the end of the day. Last night, I needed to get to bed early as my body adjusts to my new schedule. I skipped writing before bed, and now I feel like I need to renew my commitment to this process.

So today, I’m sharing some of the pages I’ve written over the past week or so. I do so not because I really want you to read them, but because I want to remind myself that this writing business is messy, and hard, and I really do want to stick with it, even when life is busy and I am tired (which, let’s face it, is always).

Some of my daily writing pieces are things I am working on for class, like this piece:

I was working on this piece for our first unit on our name stories. I’m honestly not happy with it, and might scrap it altogether and start over. However, at least I have a start.

Other times, I’m writing about things that are going on in my life and the world around me. I’ve found that this writing has really helped me process situations and events that are weighing heavily on me.

The recent string of mass shootings along with an act of gun violence in my family left me feeling really unsettled. I am glad that I took the time to put these thoughts down on paper, even though they are messy. This is a piece I’d like to revisit. Once finished, I might even share it with my students.
Another difficult situation right now involves my husband’s brother. He was recently diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and is struggling to receive good, timely medical care in Mexico. It is really hard being so far away and unable to really help. I chose to write this in the form of a letter, as if I were talking directly to my brother-in-law, because it allowed me to try out a different style of writing.

My notebook is also filled with lots of lists. When there is too much going on in my head, I sometimes find it hard to put together a string of coherent, related sentences. Being able to recognize that in my own writing life is a great insight into a struggle some of my students may face in my class.

Below are two examples of days when I have spent my writing time creating lists and schedules to kind of make room in my brain for other things.

Today I was able to cross some things off my to-do list – yay!
Literally just a bunch of mostly unrelated notes to myself, followed by my actually planning time each day after meetings and PD. So much to do!

And finally, two nights ago, I decided to try out writing a poem. This is something that’s really new to me, or at least, sharing it is. Over the years I may have tried to express myself in verse, but I usually felt too foolish, or perhaps too vulnerable, to share it. So here I am, being brave and sharing my poem with a few dozen people who might stumble upon it. I don’t think I could use this particular poem in class, because I would probably sob the way I did while I was writing it. Still, it was worth the process of practicing that type of writing. Maybe next time I won’t choose a topic that is quite so personal and painful for me.

If you’ve made it this far, and took the time to read through some of my photos of my little writing notebook, thank you. I know they are hard to read and not super polished, but I hope that even if you can’t read them, you have an idea of the many ways I’m using my notebook and trying to keep my daily commitment to writing. I’ve really enjoyed all of the discussion and feedback that has come out of these posts, and hope to hear from you soon!

I also hope you are squeezing as much joy as you can out of what’s left of the summer, and feel ready to dive into the new school year.

Do you have a great way to hold yourself accountable to writing (or reading, or exercising, or…) every day? Please share them with me! And know that for today, I’m counting this post towards my daily writing commitment.

Teaching Heritage Spanish using reading and writing workshop

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