Saturday, October 19, 2013

What I Have to Say Matters

I recently wrote my first #25WordStory.
Anne Barnhart, an amazing English teacher in my Writing Project cohort, first introduced me to the concept of the #25WordStory. The #25WordStory challenge, pioneered by the great Kevin Hodgson, is to write a story in exactly 25 words--no cheating--and then share it on Twitter.

The actual writing of the story was a lot of fun (even if I did miscount and create a #24WordStory which I embarrassingly shared with the world). The word limit forced me to be more deliberate with with my diction and creative with my syntax--two places that I can get lazy when writing longer prose. Keeping my story within the bounds of the 25 word limit was tricky enough but couple that restriction with Twitter's 140 character limit and now you've got a real challenge.  Goodbye empty modifiers!  I can afford you no longer.

Now the sharing of my piece was another story altogether. Up until this point I had used Twitter primarily as a means to find and share professional resources.  I had yet to take the next step of creating original content. I felt vulnerable putting my work on display for strangers.  And yet there is something exhilarating about a person who you have never met liking your stuff.  It's different than the feedback you get from trusted peers/colleagues.  This person who chanced upon your work does not owe you their attention, they are not obligated to validate your work because familial, social, or business ties.  Thus when they favorite or share your material, it is a encouraging reminder that what you have to say matters (at least to the two people who retweeted your stuff).

And so I took a risk, shared my story, and loved it. When my time at the Writing Project came to the close, I didn't want to squander the creative energy I'd built up. I wanted to immediately set to work on my blog, to create lessons based on the incredible stuff we'd just done. Yet on our last day, I headed to the Cape for a week long family vacation. On our way there, sitting in an endless sea of traffic, I came up with an idea to keep up the energy flowing. . .#25WordPostcards!

I quickly put out an offer to my Writing Project peeps and Twitter friends to send them a postcard from the Cape.  To my excitement several people took me up on the offer.  Off to the gift shops I went in search of funky postcards to use (FYI: The National Seashore Visitor Center in Eastham, MA had the best ones).  I decided at the start to use our real life vacation exploits as inspiration for the #25WordPostcards.  I also wanted to make each one unique (no repeats).  Boiling down our outings at the Cape to 25 words gave them a sort of magical quality.  Little things like reading the information board at Coast Guard Beach morphed into dramatic scenes of joy, wonder, disappointment, even conflict.

Below is a photo of my son Malcolm getting ready to turn in for his first night of camping and on the right is the postcard inspired by this adventure:

He did really make it to 11 p.m. and he did suddenly stop crying when he noticed the stars.  It was a special moment that may have only lived in my memory if not for the #25WordPostcard.

So what does this all mean for teaching?  
Since participating in the Rhode Island Writing Project: Summer Institute, I've been more committed than ever to daily writing. The #25WordStory is a clever alternative to the free write. It's word limit forces the writer to think more carefully about his/her word choice and syntax. And unlike longer pieces we can be daunting to revise, the pithiness of the #25WordStory encourages multiple attempts at perfection.

This school year, my co-teacher and I have instituted Free Write Fridays.  We challenged our sophomores to create and share a #25WordStory every week.  Our students were intrigued.  So much so, that before I could finish explaining the concept of the #25WordStory, my student, Patrick, interrupted me to inquire when I'd be done talking because he had a great idea for a story and he wanted to write it down before he forgot. Here was a student who had barely passed English his freshman year, clamoring for a chance to write.

Inspired by his love of the Walking Dead, Patrick wrote the following story:

The end- 
I woke up at 12 pm and everyone was dead. 
All I could see was walkers everywhere so it was time to kill!!     

It's not quite Shakespeare but it is beautiful.  It represents a "in" for a young man who for so much of his school career has been on the outs. You should have seen him when I asked for his permission to share his work on our class website and in my blog.  He was at first flabbergasted then bashfully proud.  By asking to share his piece, I was validating his work, his voice like those wonderful strangers on Twitter had validated my own work.  And just like me, Patrick got a boost of confidence in his ability to create meaningful pieces of writing.

Now don't get me wrong.  I'm not saying that the #25WordStory changed Patrick's life.  Honestly Patrick continues to struggle to find the meaning/purpose in school.  But regardless of how the rest of the week has played out for him, every Friday without fail, Patrick is the first to write his #25WordStory.

No Excuses

We must hold our students to high standards. Unfortunately in my experience this sometimes translates into a "no excuses" approach to education.  

It's not about giving Jimmy a pass because his home life is a wreck.  But we often contextualize situations through our own experiences, our own stories.  Most teachers at my school are middle-class Caucasians like myself.  And while I cannot speak for my colleagues, I know that my own childhood was idyllic when compared to those of some of my students.  I could never have imagined the kids of things my students have gone through--homelessness, abuse, foster care, rape, etc.  And this ignorance, this reliance on an incomplete story, has dangerous consequences in the classroom. 

When we hold kids to high standards without doing the hard work of building appropriate scaffolds to help them live up to those expectations, we send the message that our curriculum is more important than they are.  It's lazy teaching disguised as rigor.  We can be both mindful of our students stories AND support them in accessing the skills they need to be successful.  But to do so, we must first be willing to listen.