Monday, May 4, 2015

May Invitation to Write

At basketball coaching clinics, one mantra that I heard that has stuck with me is, “You get what you emphasize.” In a lecture on sermon delivery that I watched last year, the professor talked about the fact that your audience will not likely remember everything that you say, so you’ve got to have a clear understanding of what it is you absolutely want them to remember and plan for how to make it memorable. He also said that what most of his students remember from his lectures is what he is most passionate about.

For students in our classrooms, the same is true. They will not remember every text we teach, every writing strategy provided, every literary term used to shed light on meaning. However, they will remember certain things. When they walk out of your classroom this spring, they will remember what you have emphasized, what you have repeated, and what has raised your level of instructional intensity (for better or worse).

The final Invitation to Write for this school year asks you to reflect on this. What is it your students will remember from being in your classroom? What have you emphasized, through words and actions? What have you made a priority to teach them, whether about life or literary pursuits? What do you most hope that they learn?

This will be the final invitation to write for this school year. Let’s look to end strong. The danger this time of the year is to be too busy to reflect, or too busy to be purposeful. Take this invitation to write as an invitation to think, to share, and to inspire your peers. Submit your work via email to shannondykstra@gmail.com.

As always, thank you for your words.

Shannon Dykstra
ICTE Online Content Editor

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

I Am The Walrus

The clay walrus that sits on my desk is the most stunningly perfect work of art my hands have ever created. From the sad, half-crescent eyes to the matte gray paint sanded with hints of silver finish, this artifact earned its place on my desk because of the satisfaction it gives me every time I glance at it. It’s one of the most difficult tasks I’ve ever completed, from one of the worst times. It’s a testament to adolescent attitude and the nurturing power of the right teacher at the right time.

To say that eighth grade was a rough year for me is an understatement. I know now from nine years of teaching eighth grade that it’s a rough year for everyone, but the self-pitying magic of memory allows me the indulgence of still believing mine was extraordinary.

My social life was changing. My school was huge, and I never quite adjusted to feel as comfortable in middle school as I had at the smaller elementary in my neighborhood. I cycled through different groups of friends, never popular, but never quite anonymous enough to avoid embarrassment. Two years of feeling out of place led me to the classic outward expression of teen angst: I became one of the “bad” kids. Except I wasn’t really bad, I just hung out with them and became a sad replica of a young rebel. I wore baggy jeans and had questionable hygiene and reinvented myself as a neo-hippy. I listened to Pink Floyd on endless loops and bought my clothes at Goodwill and the Touch of India store in the mall. I spent sleepovers at friends’ houses drinking alcohol and succumbing to the pressure of early sexual activity, leaving me in a spiral of depression and self-loathing. I spent hours sleeping in my room to avoid interaction with my family, and had no true friends left that wanted anything to do with me. I contemplated suicide and even went so far as to pick out a date when I would end it: December 6th, 1996. I picked it because I thought that was Pearl Harbor Day, and that my own tragedy would go nicely with a historical one. I was too stupid to know that a) it was the wrong day, and b) the only thing causing my depression was my own actions.

All of these outside distractions contributed to my grades slipping from A’s and B’s to D’s and F’s. I was in the “gifted and talented” program at school thanks to years of outstanding test scores and a genuine love of learning, but none of that ability was on display in eighth grade. My parents drew the line at my failing Art grade. Arrangements were made: I would stay after school for an hour every day until I caught up on the clay project.

The project was to pick an animal from a National Geographic magazine and use the picture as inspiration for a lifelike work of clay. It couldn’t be that hard, right? Walruses are just fat lumps, not complex creatures that involve a lot of detail. Every day I would sit down with my lump of clay, using an X-acto-knife to attempt to draw the lines into the hide of the walrus’s body. Every day it would look like some maniac was hacking away at the poor beast. The art teacher watched my lack of progress with mounting frustration. We didn’t get along, and having me after school might have been more a punishment for him than me. I accomplished nothing, carving and smoothing over the same wrinkles for weeks, too stubborn to ask for help or receive advice.

One day, he had to leave after school. I was sent to the other art teacher’s room to put in my hours. I liked the other art teacher. He was a kind older man, and I’d had him in sixth and seventh grade. He remembered me from those years, not the person I’d allowed myself to become. He asked what I was working on and I explained the frustration with not being able to carve the wrinkly walrus skin right. He sat next to me at the table, glancing between the open magazine photo and the sad lump of clay.

“What if,” he said, “What if you make the wrinkles pop out instead of digging in?”

And he showed me that by rolling a small ball of clay into a coil I could cover the body in coils and blend them into the larger mass, making them look like raised skin folds. It was genius. I was so ecstatic over this breakthrough that I finished the entire walrus that night, adding the eyes, nose, tail, and flippers. The only things left before it was ready to fire were the tusks. I started to roll them, but they looked like tiny fangs. His eyes glinted and I could tell he had another idea.

“Maybe the tusks shouldn’t be clay,” he said. “What looks like ivory and is shaped like a tusk?” He held up a plastic fork, possibly left over from his lunch and winked.

I handed my former teacher the walrus that afternoon, ready for the kiln. Two days later, it was ready to paint. I used the dark gray and scratched on small spots of silver to add dimension to the body. As promised, he snapped of two plastic fork tines for me to super glue into the allotted spaces I’d made under the head. It was beautiful. My current art teacher wasn’t overly impressed, but he was happy that I’d no longer be ruining his afternoons. My former art teacher somehow had the grace to make me feel like an artist even though the great ideas came from him.

I don’t think I ever said thank you. I don’t think I ever spoke to him again, and I can’t even remember his name. It’s okay. I keep the walrus on my desk because it reminds me of so many things I need to keep in mind each day as a teacher. Eighth grade is a hard year, and I can add to my students’ misery or ease it in some small way. Hard work eventually pays off. Sometimes you need help, even when you are incapable of asking for it. I found success with the help of that teacher. I slowly made better friends and better decisions that didn’t make me hate my life. The Day Before Pearl Harbor Day passed and I no longer felt the hopelessness that led me to depression.

I survived eighth grade. Now I teach it.

Missy Springsteen-Haupt teaches 7th and 8th grade language arts in Clarion, Iowa. She hates filling out writing bios, even though she loves writing about herself. She blogs at themrshauptsteen.weebly.com.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

A New Year, A New Invitation

It is a new year, and we are looking for new writing submissions for our Teacher Writing Page. The fall submissions revealed great energy, reflection, compassion, and skill. If you haven't had the opportunity yet, go back and take a look at the many excellent posts our brave brethren have shared. We look forward to more of the same this year.

The January "Invitation to Write" is a simple one, but one that I believe can lead to great insight into ourselves as teachers and the environment we are trying to create. The writing prompt is this: Choose one physical aspect of your classroom, and describe what it reveals about you as an educator. This could include your room's arrangement, what's on your walls, objects or furniture, etc. What do you have in your classroom, or what have you decided not to have? For the most part, you get to choose what your room looks like and how it's set up; what do your choices say about you as a teacher? Reflect, and share.

It's a great time to step out and submit - start the year off by taking a risk, by practicing your craft, by collaborating with your peers, and by placing yourself exactly where you ask your students to sit - right there at the desk, with pen (or keyboard) in hand. Write a post, and invite someone to write along with you.

As always, follow the submission guidelines here or send your post via email to shannondykstra@gmail.com. The ICTE community looks forward to hearing from you.

Shannon Dykstra
ICTE Online Content Editor

Wednesday, November 19, 2014


I do my best thinking in the shower.

This fall it was in the shower that #WWWW was born.  My grandfather had just died, and I was thinking of family memories I would like to capture in writing.  (He had a way of saying, "Well, Kim!" that made me feel like the only person in the room.)  I was lamenting the fact that I rarely get time to write for myself while being a full-time teacher and a full-time mom.  Soon I realized that my students probably feel the same way.  While I provide lots of choice in terms of genre and topic, students rarely get complete freedom with their writing.  "Why not give it to them?" I thought.  They can still achieve academic objectives through this writing, and maybe, just maybe, they will learn to enjoy it a bit more.

So Write Whatcha Want Wednesday (#WWWW) was born.  This year in my dual-enrollment College Composition class, each student has created and designed his/her own blog.  Students are blogging about sports, music interests, and random teenage drama.  Some of them have created unique themes and worlds where fictional characters are created and random words generate engaging short stories.  One high school senior weekly adds a chapter to her own personal search for a biological aunt who was adopted as an infant.  They are truly writing what they want with an authentic audience in mind.  I’ve compiled all of their blogs on a shared Symbaloo, and I also tweet their posts, hoping to increase their audience.

Each Wednesday as students file into my room, they see #WWWW on the daily agenda.  Most Wednesdays there is a palpable buzz in the room when students remember they get to write for their blogs.  “Oh yes!  It’s Write Whatcha Want Wednesday!”  Some days students come with ideas in mind, ready to get started; other days they sit and think before they put finger to keyboard.  

Some of my students struggle with the complete freedom, something unknown to them in the academic world.  (The former grade-driven, tell-me-what-to-do high school student in me can relate.)  For them I provide lists of prompts and conference about a possible topic.  Still, they write.

And I write, too.  Inspired by my students, I started my teaching blog because I knew that I, too, needed to refine my voice and write for a specific audience.  I don’t post just on Wednesdays, but I am taking the conscious time to work on my own writing, to model that the process is never perfected.

From #WWWW blog writings I have been able to pull mentor sentences with voice and style.  I’ve learned more about my students’ personal interests and motivations.  I’ve seen their writing change and grow as they write for an authentic audience.  (Of course they frequently check their blog stats!)  And I realize that giving up my ownership as a teacher has been a small price to pay.  I selfishly hope that the fluency and freedom find their way into their assigned essays as well, that perhaps the excitement will spread from Wednesday to the days we work on research papers and This I Believe essays.  For that, time will be the tell.

We would love to grow our #WWWW network.  If other teachers have some spare time on Wednesdays, give your students freedom and share our hashtag.  You will be amazed at what they produce for Write Whatcha Want Wednesday!

Kimberly Witt weaves words and wrangles students at Okoboji High School. She loves tea, cardigans, early bedtimes, and other grandma-like interests. She is not, however, a grandma. She blogs at teachhappy.weebly.com.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

November Invitation to Write: "What's New?"

The November “Invitation to Write” is here!

This month the ICTE faithful want to know what you’ve tried new this year. What new activity, new classroom setup, new organizational strategy, new technology, or even new attitude or approach to students have you attempted so far? Did you bring something back from the ICTE Conference that you’ve used? Have you learned something new from a colleague? From a student? What have you altered in terms of your grading philosophy, the way you provide feedback, or how you handle the enormity of the paper load? What have you added to your routine? Perhaps more importantly, what have you removed? This can be changes you’ve made that directly affect students, or ways you’ve altered your approach to the profession and strategies you use to energize yourself. 

We want success stories, failures, reflection, and advice. Mostly, we want to hear your voice writing about your journey in your classroom.

As before, submit your piece through our submission form on the ICTE website or via email to shannondykstra@gmail.com. Suggested length is 400-600 words, though it is certainly a flexible framework. We look forward to sharing your work on our ICTE Teacher Page and publicizing it through our Facebook Group and Twitter account. Put together a piece this week, and invite one other person on your staff to do the same. Let’s all get better together.  

Shannon Dykstra
ICTE Online Content Editor

Monday, November 3, 2014

I Should Have Closed My Laptop

I should have closed my laptop. Why didn’t I? It’s not complicated. I had convinced myself that what I was doing was really important. I was Skyping with a group of teachers to show them how I use a digital tool to document school work. For them, it was possibly useful. For me -- a second-year teacher -- it made me feel self-important. Enough so that I missed a pretty big opportunity. I lost sight of what mattered.

But when a student from the previous year came in to say hi, I should have closed my laptop. I should have told the teachers on Skype that I needed a minute, or as long as my visitor wanted to chat, and closed my laptop.

But I didn’t. I gave Malorie a half-hearted wave and mouthed, “I’m on Skype. Sorry!” to her. I cringe every time I think about it.

The greatest thing that can happen for a teacher is to have a former student come back to see them. That is visual, tangible evidence that the teacher made an impact.

And I wasted that opportunity.

So, Malorie, feel free to stop by again sometime. Catch me up on where you’ve been and where you’re going.

I promise: this time, I’ll close my laptop.

Russ Goerend: Husband, dad, teacher, son, writer, reader. Having fun with all three. Some other stuff, too.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

A Reminder About Why We're Here: A Letter to My AP Students

To My AP Students:

Today I asked you to read a letter that my friend, Mrs. Paulsen, wrote to her students. I want to write to you now, and explain why we’ve gone away from the syllabus and the canon of classical literature here in AP class to read this letter.

Her letter is not to you, nor is to me. It is not about our classroom or about any poetry that we’ve read (until now). I believe it to be essential reading anyway. For in her words I see what is true, and I want to share that truth with you.

You don’t know what it’s like to lose a child you were expecting, but I do. You don’t know what it was like to be an adult and watch the Twin Towers fall, over and over again on TV, everywhere you went, hoping for a different ending every time; but I do. You don’t remember watching Bono at the Super Bowl, and you don’t still have some of the same chills every time you hear the song; I do. You don’t know what it’s like to be vulnerable in front of students, to walk that line between being a real person and being a bullet-proof god of academia, to share and to not share and to risk and to just pray that you won’t lose it, not today, even though a wound is bleeding more and more by the minute. Or what it’s like to be in Mrs. Paulsen’s classroom, to watch her with her students, to receive a glimpse of her heart in all that she does. You don’t know. But I do.

But there are other words in this piece that do resonate with you. I know there are, because it’s a great piece; it’s why I’m having you read it. For you know things that I don’t know. You’ve seen things that I haven’t seen. And you read her words, and you’re reminded of them all over again. They become real again. And that might crush you under the weight of emotion, make you jump for joy, warm your heart with the idea that you are not alone in this world, or simply make you turn up the corners of your mouth in a knowing smile. Or you will read it, widen your perspective, see me differently, and we’ll all be better.

The piece, when it was written, was not about you and me. But now it is. Now it’s in our hands. Now it enters through the eyes, worms its way around our brains, electrifying connections all over in times and places and emotions that we remember and even some that we don’t. If we let it, it keeps travelling all the way into our souls. It becomes ours. It speaks of something true that perhaps we knew but didn’t know we knew.

My class is better because of Mrs. Paulsen. And so I talk to my friends, my friends the English teachers, my friends the science teachers, my friends the accountants and the construction workers and the travelers and the parents and the jobless and the writers, because they are better than me. So much better than me. And if I can rub up against them, rub up against their life experiences and their lessons and take some of them back to you, then we all gain.

But that’s also why we do what we do in here. Yes, we are analyzing literature and finding meaning and breaking down authorial strategies in preparation for attempting to please the AP gods deciding your exam fate. But we are also helping you to live. For on some page, you will read about Elizabeth Bennett’s frustration or will or sass, and you will see your own. You will find your own goals and dreams and illusions of success in Gatsby and Death of a Salesman and hear about how they are a shiny, ghostly mess. You will read poems, new poems and old. They will speak to you about pain, about love, about how impossibly hopeless it feels to know that time and space cannot be manipulated, no matter how hard we try. You will find yourself somewhere in those poems. And while you don’t know it today, you will find the you that exists ten years from now, somewhere on that page. Some line, some phrase, some word will be yours. It will help you live. It will reinforce that you are alive right now.

And one day while we are writing in class, when I ask you to steal a sentence from another writer, make it your own, and see where your writing takes you, you will get it just right. Not the whole page. Not even the whole paragraph. But you will get one line or two just right, and you will share it with the person next to you. They won’t tell you this, but that line of writing will do for them on that day exactly what Mrs. Paulsen’s writing did for me.

We are in this class to live. Don’t ever forget that. In the middle of all the FRQ’s and the multiple choice practice and essays of analysis and the chapters of 18th Century literature that frustrate you, as you seek your “A” and the academic immortality of a high GPA, remember why we’re here. And I promise to work hard to remember that too.

- Dykstra           

Shannon Dykstra teaches American Lit and AP Lit and Comp at Mason City High School. A passionate UNI Panther and collector of various graduate degrees, Shannon also is an avid Steinbeck, C.S. Lewis, and all things Calvin and Hobbes disciple. You can read his meandering prose at his blog "Prone to Wander" or follow him on Twitter @Dykstra PTW.