I’ve learned and changed tremendously since the events of 2020-2021, you might even call what’s happened an identity crisis…I want to share this story here to make sense of everything for myself but also because I know there are many teachers out there that can relate.
I’ve always been a very passionate person. My enthusiasm for learning, taking what I learn, and putting it into action immediately, can be invigorating, inspiring and incredibly productive. But, over the years I’ve come to understand that this way of being can also cause harm. Diving head first into something because I believed wholeheartedly in it, has taken a toll on my health and has caused me to make many, potentially avoidable, mistakes.
About 13 years ago I learned about reading workshop and soon after, writing workshop. First, I read Nancie Atwell’s In the Middle, then I proceeded to read Lucy Calkins’ The Art of Teaching Reading as well as The Art of Teaching Writing. Soon after, I was hired at a charter school that required using Calkins’ Units of Study. While many teachers were complaining about the wordiness of The Units of Study, I was obsessed and read them cover to cover. I even went as far as reading The Units of Study from other grade levels that I didn’t even teach!
I was captivated by the workshop approach because I desperately wanted my students to feel that what we were doing in our classroom mattered, that it was preparing them for life. Of all the methods I’ve learned for how to teach reading and writing, workshop came closest to meeting this desperate need to make things relevant for my students.
When I first began implementing workshop, it was very challenging and complex. The biggest problem was that I didn’t know how to support 30 students at so many different levels in their reading and writing skills. When I sent students off to read/write after my mini-lessons, chaos seemed to ensue (this went on for years). As time went on, I developed noise levels, choice boards and charts labeled, “No Ideas?!”, “Done!?!” and “When You Think You’re Done, You’ve Just Begun!”. Still, I struggled to maintain productivity during the independent portion of workshop and I struggled to conference with every student during a unit. I felt like a failure when it seemed impossible to follow up with students in second conferences.
I also felt like a failure in terms of supporting struggling readers and writers. No matter what I did, they still seemed to struggle even by the end of the year. I’ve written extensively about this topic in order to organize the methods I had in my toolbox.
One day, I was scouring one of the Units of Study books for help when I came across a section at the end where Lucy and colleagues advocated for teachers developing their own mini-lessons and units. This was a huge ah-ha moment for me and a turning point in my life. I remember laughing out loud and feeling a sense of pure joy at the thought that I could write my own mini lessons and units.
The years following this epiphany I wrote and wrote and wrote some more. My classroom became a place of experimentation and inspiration for the creation of these mini lessons and units. This continued for years. I started my own Teachers Pay Teachers store in 2013 and I started my blog a year later. It’s hard to believe this blog has been around for 7 years now! Here are some of the units I’ve created…
Workshop seemed like the answer to so many of my teaching problems. It gave me a path forward for planning my own engaging reading and writing units and increasing student motivation. And the workshop method did make the work we were doing in our classroom more meaningful, more real world.
I’ve been writing pretty consistently about reading and writing workshop since then…Until the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement picked up incredible momentum after the murder of George Floyd.
These events caused me to realize how fragile we all are. More importantly, it made me realize the ways in which our unconscious biases permeate day to day life and moment to moment decisions. I now understand biases develop throughout lifetimes due to the influences of family, culture and history. We are all heavily influenced by these three elements of life. I’ve severely underestimated the impact family, culture and history has on who I am and the decisions I’ve made up to this point. As the world sheltered in place and mourned the unjust deaths of so many black and brown people, I turned to books about equity, social justice and race in the classroom.
During this time I ended up making the decision to take the 2019-2020 school year off. There are a multitude of factors that went into this decision including my daughter’s needs, my distaste for distance learning and my fear of getting COVID-19. I read numerous books about culturally responsive teaching while also facilitating distance learning for my daughter. I shared what I was learning from these books in the summer of 2021 during my Summer Reading Series Event, where I outlined my main takeaways for 8 professional development books about equity in education.
Since then, I got a job teaching 6th grade English and Social Studies at my old school. I also stopped writing blog posts, emailing my subscribers and posting on social media.
This wasn’t intentional, it just happened. The reason? Now comes the identity crisis part…
I’m currently questioning everything I’ve ever written down, including the curriculum I sell, the courses I’ve created and the things I’ve taught in the past. The version of myself before the pandemic and George Flloyd’s murder, does not exist anymore and I’m not sure what new version of myself will replace the old…yet.
All I know is that everything I do from here forward is for the purpose of promoting social justice in schools. There is so much that can be done and that I’ve already begun doing, including experimenting with equitable grading practices, getting student input more regularly and diversifying the texts I expose to students. But, everything needs to be done thoughtfully, no more diving in without thinking, questioning and critically examining the teaching methods I use. Student input has helped tremendously with this.
These new ways of teaching are exciting but one thing continues to nag me…everything I’ve written and created without an equity lens is still living on my podcast, blog, Teachers Pay Teachers store and in the lessons that paying members are still using in their classrooms to this day. This means I must assess all that I’ve created (which includes hundreds of pages, maybe even thousands).
I need to go back and evaluate from my new, very uncertain, point of view. I also want to share the ways in which I’ve been experimenting with equitable teaching practices in my classroom, not as an authority on the subject, but as a fellow teacher who cares deeply about changing the ways in which we approach educating our students so that they feel heard, seen and valued.
If you are a teacher (you probably are if you are listening to this) or a teacher author who cares deeply about social justice issues then you are in the right place. The episodes and blog posts going forward will be thoughtfully created with a focus on teaching reading and writing with an equity lens. I realize this work is not easy and will be messy and that my identity crisis will continue as I constantly question my beliefs, worldview and what is best for kids.
I’ve spent years searching for the most impactful ways to teach effectively and in that search I found strategies I fell in love with (like workshop), I ran with, convinced they would solve my problems and often they did, temporarily. What was really happening was that I was setting the tone in my classroom. I was enthusiastic, so many of my students were too. The truth is, there are no clear answers, there is no one right way to teach and a lack of clear answers and uncertainty causes discomfort. So, I continue to seek answers, to ease this discomfort. I continue to seek out and try new ways of teaching because I care.
The baffling question is this: how can it be that in all the years of the existence of public education, we still don’t have clear answers as to how best to educate ALL our students (no matter their background) and prepare them for happy, healthy lives? I think there are many reasons for why, one of them being that our world has changed so quickly and so drastically and public education has pretty much stayed the same since its creation. There are so many changes that need to happen.
That brings me to the next baffling question: what can a teacher do under these confusing and chaotic circumstances? All I know is what I plan to do: keep learning, keep an open mind and keep searching for and thoughtfully implementing teaching practices that empower students. I also plan to carefully sift through all that I’ve published in the past and rewrite anything that needs reworking with promoting social justice as my top priority. I hope you’ll stick with me through these very necessary and messy growing pains.
If you are interested in sifting through the curricula I’ve written with an equity lens, I’m offering full access to everything I’ve created in exchange for your feedback, help and time. Please contact me at email@example.com if you are interested!