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The Power of Personal Writing--Do You Make Time for it In Your Classroom?


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                   *(I'll share below why I included this quote.)
     I wanted to take just a moment to write about the power of personal writing.  I don't see enough time for this type of writing being put aside in our classrooms K-12.  Yet, giving students this time to explore and figure out the power that personal writing might have in their lives can be truly life-changing.
     All good teachers think a lot about the life-changing experiences we share with our students.  We know the power of reading for both personal and academic reasons.  We know the power of academic writing and writing in general as students make their way into the world.  But, do we realize the power of personal writing and how impactful it can be?  Do we take "time out" of the traditional curriculum to allow students to explore their thoughts and feelings on paper?  I know, I know, we are all in a massive time crunch every day.  But, if we don't help students with their social and emotional growth; if they don't grow up to be successful adults in that realm, beyond the academic, what good has all of our teaching been? 
     We have an epidemic of anxiety and depression among our young people.  We have students taking their own lives.  I believe we ARE giving more time to mental health and to mindfulness in educational settings.  I wish we would include personal writing as a kind of meditation, as well. 
     I've been divorced multiple times.  I've had a lot of trauma that isn't fun to talk about.  I continue to struggle with my past, my present, the way the world is, hearing some of the sad stories of my students' lives, and even talking about any of this because there is so much more trauma, so much more disaster and ruin in the world.  I often think, what right do I have to share my struggle when others are struggling so much more?
     In the end, though, my struggle has led me to know the power of personal writing.  It was a junior high school teacher who really started me along the path.  She had us do what would be considered nowadays 'frivolous writing,' like writing down the lyrics to a song that was meaningful to us, composing stories just for fun and exploring free verse poetry.  We kept a portfolio of our work.  She responded so positively to what I'd shared--she responded to my content, to my thoughts and feelings.  I treasured that construction paper piece folded in half; that tattered  'writing portfolio.'  I treasured her comments.  I don't believe any of it was shared at parent conferences and yes, it may have been used for a grade--I simply don't remember.  I DO remember how she made me feel--like my thoughts and feelings mattered and that I was a writer with some skill.  I don't remember writing anything personal after that--I believe that occurred in 7th grade.  I DO remember writing essays and more essays.  All the essay writing certainly improved my ability to communicate and to write and to make my mark in the academic world.  However, it's the personal writing that has saved me all these years. 
     I think I mentioned in my last post that I've been writing poetry since my early 20s.  This all started due to a fledgling and quickly failing marriage.  I found if I sat down with a notebook, pencil in hand, and just waited quietly, my feelings would start to flood the page.  The feelings took the form of poetry.  After writing, I was tired, but satisfied.  My feelings were out--right there on the paper--concrete.  I could see them, touch them, revisit them, re-examine them, if I chose to do so.  My mind felt relief.  My spirit calmed down. 
     In times of severe trouble, I stopped writing.  Couldn't bring myself to get the notebook out and stare down at the empty page.  Yet, research shows that simple journal writing can help people who are feeling depressed or who have other mental health or emotional issues.  I knew this fact then.  Sometimes the place is too dark and the lights turn off on the writing, as well. 
     Funny I'm writing this because due to my last two years of chronic pain from a car accident (described in my last post,) I hadn't been writing much until recently.  Same story, different trauma.  So much pain, I turned away from the writing.  Suddenly, though, it all comes back to me every time, like a close friend who's been out of the country on extended leave.  I realize I'm doing myself (and my family) a disservice by NOT writing, and I pick up the pen again.  And, I'm always happy when I do.
     One of my school missions this year is to engage students in more informal writing across the curriculum.  That is, writing that is thinking on paper.  Just like engineers work out problems with pencil in hand, just like inventors do, scientists do, mathematicians do.  These thoughts conjure up images from the films 'Hidden Figures,' 'Apollo 13' and 'Good Will Hunting.'  These are the kinds of writings I'm referring to: when one struggles to find answers by puzzling things through on the page (or, in these cases, on the chalkboard).  Research shows our brains hyper-focus when we write.  This allows for the generative process to happen.  One thought leads to another, then another.  More questions and clarifications surface as we work ideas on paper.  There is HUGE power in this. When I engage in this form of writing, I always discover things I didn't know were there or answers to problems I'm struggling with.  This is another type of writing that is truly impactful.
Photo attribution: https://www.greensboro.com/blogs/allen-johnson-more-hidden-figures-connections-to-greensboro-revealed/article_1c705a4e-758b-5e8f-b576-f07e38f3a7e5.html  (Taraji P. Henson as Katherine Johnson in the movie Hidden Figures)




Photo attribution:  https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2017/01/hidden-figures-and-the-appeal-of-math-in-an-age-of-inequality/513434/   Hidden Figures, Twentieth Century Fox


Photo Attribution: https://infowetrust.com/hollywood-dataviz/  Movie:  Apollo 13


Photo attribution: HuffPost UK  Movie: Good Will Hunting

   

      But, I digress from my main focus here--personal writing--leaving the curriculum behind, honoring time for students to address their personal needs on paper.  I'm sure personal writing doesn't appeal to everyone, but in our classrooms, if we devote time to it then allow students time to share with us and/or their peers, if they choose, we will discover many students will find the process helpful and, indeed, therapeutic.  I have no doubt of that. 
     I had a second grade student way back near the beginning of my career that had a baby sister who was dying of cancer.  I gave my students time to write personal stories and poems and this little girl found huge relief in writing about her sister, the family trips to the hospital, the confusion, the not knowing.  She even wrote and published a non-fiction book she titled: "My Baby Sister Has Cancer." Though the baby received treatment, she died during that school year.  I will never forget how this child's parents came to me at the end of the year to thank me.  They said, "Chandra** is dealing better with this tragedy than anyone else in the family (they had five other children ranging in ages).  We know it's because of all the writing she's been doing.  We owe that to you."  That hit me hard, and it has stayed with me since, affecting how I've fashioned my classroom schedule in my thirty years of teaching.  The experience spoke to me on another personal level, because I was already struggling in my marriage and writing up a storm to find some relief. 
     I wish more writers, regular everyday people, would come forward with their personal stories of how writing has helped them cope throughout their lives.  I wish, too, more teachers would explore this use of time, for what could be more important than imparting skills to students to help them successfully navigate this tumultuous world?
   I'll end with a personal poem (this one is about 16 years old--I looked for something current, but I simply can't bring myself to post one of those here--still too hard--this type of vulnerability on my blog or in public anywhere is new to me).   Thanks for reading. 

*The Einstein quote--though this is not a true application of the quote, when I read it this morning, it reminded me of how I sit in silence with my notebook and all the thoughts come.  It's like taking that simple silent pause from our busy world to meditate--to come to new understandings and to find some peace.  Personal writing, silent, in my room--has the same affect.
**This is a pseudonym, of course.
------------------------------------------------
Your smile
carries me, cradles me
Your laugh
slays me
lays me flat.
I laugh beside you
like we used to.
Remembering,
I long for now.
You are in a better place,
so am I.
What holds you back?
Us, under the sparkling sky
with the moon just right?
What holds you back
from this raw
this rare
this bond we share?
What ties your lips,
your tongue,
your hands?
I want to understand.
Instead, you go numb
silence your tongue
get in your car
and drive away.
I’m withered,
weathered
and left with questions
I won’t voice.
Throat lumps.
Heart thumps.
You’re gone again.






Afire with Poetry

Hello friends!
I am so sorry for my absence.  I was rear-ended in September 2017, suffering major injuries to my back and neck.  It has been a long road to recovery, but I feel I am finally getting there.  

I hope to post more regularly again.  It all depends on my pain level.  As some of you know, I am also a single mom who teaches full-time, so I often come home from work without enough reserves to take care of my child in the manner I would like.  So, the blog and all the other social media have slipped into the background.

Lately, my brain has been afire with poetry.  I can't stop writing  poems down, they just keep spilling out.  I've been writing poetry since my early twenties due to some traumatic experiences in my life.  I found the writing was therapy.  I found I could put my pencil to the page and come up with astonishing things, some beautiful, some ugly, that I didn't even know were in my head.  When I finish, I am often surprised when I reread what I've written.  And, it is the BEST feeling--so hard to describe--like I'm letting my mind slowly (or furiously) unfold all kinds of intricate layers I didn't realize existed. It really is a feeling of freedom and of relaxation--once it's on the page, I can let go.  I am often quite exhausted afterwards, especially if I write several at a time. 

In my workshops, I always say, "writing is generative."  The above describes a bit of what I mean.  When we let students write, across the curriculum, in all subjects, and for personal reasons, we are inviting them to not only own new information in a personal way, but also to discover their questions, their inner thoughts that, for many, don't unveil themselves without putting the pen to paper.

I wrote a Facebook post the other day and ended it with this hashtag: #yourlifeliesinyournotebook.  I instantly loved it!  I truly believe in the power writing holds to change lives, to unveil our own lives to us.

I have many stories of how I've witnessed this with writers--even as young as first grade.  I shall take some time to write them down and share.  But, I'm in a rush to get to a school meeting.  I'm back to work full-time.

One last word, I rarely, rarely share my personal poems with anyone.  I have hundreds since I've been writing them for over 30 years.  They are scattered about my house, in this notebook and that notebook, in sealed boxes never again opened from moves across the country, inside closets, inside cupboards.  I was hoping to find time this summer to search some of these notebooks out, to record the poems on my computer so I'd have them rediscovered and actually together in a place I can find.  Haven't done that yet. ;)

Maybe I'll take a risk and share some poetry here.  If you know my work, you know I've already published books of poetry for children.  But, personal writing, writing that comes from the gut, has been safely locked away...for my eyes only.  

In fact, here's one I quickly wrote this morning (not personal, so easy to share).  Still in draft form.  Still needs work...


POEM!                                        8/1/19

I tell my head

No

No!

There is not another poem there

lurking

ready to spring


ready to strike


like a tiger


holding back all its instincts


waiting to jump

with all its tenacity


with all its force


waiting for the words


to explode


out of my head


and


onto the page.

No!

I don’t have another poem in my head.


Much love to you and for all you do for writers, including yourself!

All I Really Need Is...Ten Non-Negotiables To Guide My Literacy Instruction

   
All I Really Need Is...Ten Non-negotiables To Guide My Literacy Instruction a blog post by Janiel Wagstaff
  I can't believe I haven't posted here all summer, but...I've been in the middle of moving from my Title I school, the place I've been for 10 years, to my newly assigned school.  As you can see from the mayhem in the photo above, I have a lot of teacher STUFF.  I keep asking myself, why?  Why can't I just trust my own brain, and 30 years teaching experience, and leave some of the stuff behind? I'm not worried about moving the picture books (I have gazillions), chapter books, professional books and hands-on materials.  It's all the 'papers' that get me.  Papers, papers, papers!  Papers of every lesson I've ever concocted (since I like to think things out on paper), thoughts I've had about literacy, handouts from conferences and meetings, copies of journal articles and articles from the internet...this endless sea of tattered white sheets that should all be filed away neatly.  Oh, and the files!  I actively use many of them, and I don't have an issue with those, but it's the others that are bulging with the best strategies and lessons EVER that I haven't touched in 5 years.    
     I know people will say I should be more digital (I am of the age at which saving these 'essentials' on a device and needing paper copies still feels most comfortable), but here I am.  In the midst of it all, I ask myself, after 30 years of teaching and immersing myself in literacy instruction, why can't I trust that all I really need is in my head and I can confidently enter any school without all this clutter?  I can imagine how freeing to walk away with much less and walk in much lighter, ready to problem-solve with the teachers and students that are right in front of me at that moment.  
     As I've packed in the 90 degree heat (of course, no air conditioning in a public school in the summer), I've spent time thinking about this.  All I really need is...?  What?  What do I know that are the non-negotiable practices, the ones I absolutely believe in and know by heart?  The ones that will give my students the most success? What better way to soothe the anxious mind than to write them down.

I know:
  1) Students need to read, write, speak & converse, and listen across the curriculum.  Literacy is always on the menu.
  2) The work must be meaningful and relevant.  Why are my learners engaging in this process?  What does it buy them in their world? Work that is purposeful is automatically engaging.
  3) Students need choice and voice--lots of it!  Empower your learners and they will surprise you.
  4) The foundational skills of literacy must be explicitly taught and the majority of our time should be spent applying our learning in real reading and writing contexts.
   5) Gradual release of responsibility within a balanced literacy framework is key.  Students need my explicit modeling, and to learn from each other. (The more students lead the learning the better--their models capture the attention of their peers.)  We need to puzzle through a lot of the work together.  But, students also need plenty of time to read, write, and think independently.
  6) I am a co-learner in a collaborative, student-centered classroom.  Relationships are key.
  7) Supports and meaningful references in the classroom (like Word Walls and anchor charts) are helpful scaffolds if they are co-created with students and used consistently in modeled, shared, guided, interactive, and independent experiences.  
  8) Feedback is HUGE, both the feedback I give and get from students, along with the feedback they give each other.
  9) Formatively assess--all day, all the time, and guide instruction accordingly (hold small groups, meet with individuals, whatever is needed to make learning happen).
 10) Ongoing student self-assessment and goal setting makes learning more impactful.

     There are 10 things (the number was not planned, by the way)--10 non-negotiables--I'd hang my hat on any day.  I DO feel better now that I've written them down.  I can further examine and tweak my list.  I welcome your feedback to assist me as I refine.  I figure with this taped in the front of my teacher planner, I am headed in the right direction whether I have this resource or that one, whether I can find this file or that one, and whether or not I throw out reams of these papers I'm holding onto that are simply cluttering my space.  Oh yes, clarity is a good thing.  Wish me luck as I move!

Here's to a happy and successful 2018-2019 school year!

Sharing Writerly Thinking + Balance in All Things

Blog post on the power of peer models in writing teaching, students sharing their thinking, and balance in the writing classroom.
     Yes, this partially finished comic is by my son, Max.  When it left the house this morning, it was not a crumpled mess.  But, that is not the story here.  
      After breakfast, he excitedly whipped a notebook out of his backpack and showed me the beginning of a new comic.  "Look, Mom, you'll really like this new one."  (He likes to cover all the panels and reveal just one at a time, builds suspense (ha!), but really does show the pride he takes in his work and the enthusiasm he has for it.)  We briefly discussed the work.  Fast forward...
     After school today, as we walked in the front door, I asked him, "So, what did you decide to do next with your comic?"        
     "Oh, I haven't done anything yet.  I don't know where to go next.  You see, I've thought of three possibilities.  One: Derpy Dude and Mr. Dur punch each other so only one gets the cake.  Two: They both dive for the cake and go for it at the same time.  Three:  I go back to the showdown thing with the eyes."
     I don't know about you, but if I had this kid in my classroom, I'd have him show his work (yes, only partly finished) and share his thinking with the class.  This is a perfect example of how writers think ahead, plan their next moves, debate their options, and take their time to make decisions (possibly trying more than one idea--Hmmm, this is reminding me of the moves we see Stella make in her opinion piece and story for Oma).  I envision his classmates chiming in on where they think he might take the comic next.  I can feel the charge of energy between the writer and his writing cohorts.  It really can be this simple.  Using peer models is one powerful way teachers develop their communities of writers and how they build strategic knowledge and motivation.  If Max were in my class, I'd be sure to have him share his work and writerly thinking again as he moves forward.
     I think sometimes we make writing instruction harder than it needs to be.  Always remember balance in all things.  Relevant to this story:  students need balance between assigned topics and topic choice.  They need to have balance in their feedback; some from the teacher, much from their peers.  A balanced approach also allows time to learn from one another, not just from the 'sage on the stage' (which we know does not fit a 21st Century teaching model--something our students so desperately need us to adopt for the sake of their success).  You could even consider, in this case, a balance of opportunities to write--some in school, and encouragement and celebration of writing completed outside of school.  The more volume the better.  Writing volume matters as much as reading volume matters.  
     When I taught second grade, I constantly encouraged writing outside of class.  I did lessons with the target objective being, "My students will be motivated to write outside of class!  A lot!" We used our class's Author's Chair to establish a routine.  If students wrote outside of class, they could bring in their writing and place it on the chair, signaling me and their peers they had something they'd like to share.  We used extra minutes here and there as a class, and even small gatherings (with just two or three students), to give these writers some thoughtful listening and response.  Our writing classroom flourished with this being one reason why.
Blog post on the power of peer models in writing teaching, students sharing their thinking, and balance in the writing classroom.
(I found this old picture from one of my books (sadly, black and white) of our Author's Chair.  I purchased a plastic chair, spray painted it bright blue, then used cut-outs and stickers to decorate it, finishing with a coat of modge podge.  I still have it and will use it again someday when I have my own classroom again.)
     When I retrieved Max's comic from his backpack a few minutes ago to take the picture you see above, I was disappointed to see the matted mess of papers it was mangled within.  I pulled it out and smoothed it with my fingers.  What a joy it was this afternoon to hear his writerly thinking!  Yes, we celebrated, and now you, my friend, have this blog post to read.

As always, happy reading/writing/thinking!

Winners in the Stella Writes giveaway, May 13, 2018.
     Hello!  I'm happy to announce we have our winners in the Stella Writes Teacher Appreciation Giveaway.  Over two hundred entries came in from this blog, my Literacy Matters Facebook page, my Stella Writes Facebook page, and my Instagram account (@janielwagstaff)! My son, Max, wanted to do a good old-fashioned drawing from a hat, so that's just what we did.  You can see the one minute video of him drawing the names HERE.  
     The winners of are:  Kristen Cawley, Kemberle Brown-Jones, Maria Laccarino, Msbakerteach, and Tamara Oliver Westmoreland.  Congratulations!  Since the books come out in mid-June, you'll receive the set then.  Please email me at janielwag@hotmail.com for details.
     Thanks again to SDE for their initial publication of the Stella Writes series and now to Scholastic for taking the books forward.  I'll be doing an author signing and launch at the Scholastic booth at ILA in Austin in July (more details on that to come).  Thanks to everyone who entered and for all the support shown for these four wonderful books!
Happy reading/writing/thinking and Happy Mother's Day!


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