The Privilege of Mentors

I worked as an adjunct instructor at Eastern Mennonite University for 13 years, and as an adjunct faculty member at Bridgewater College for five years. Prior to this employment, I attended graduate school at a small, liberal arts institution, while teaching high school English and Photojournalism. Now, in my third year as an assistant professor of education at Bridgewater College, in Shenandoah Valley, Virginia, I am going on my 21st year of being steeped in the culture of two different independent liberal arts colleges.

Over this time, I grew to privilege nurturing a sense of community on the campus where I serve, by focusing on the individuals in my midst at any given time. I strive to lift up the teachers in communities connected with Bridgewater College, by collaborating in an effort to advance teacher education. I care for individuals and the community and shoulder the responsibilities that come with participating in a democratic society that fiercely protects the “equity of access to knowledge,” because I have been mentored at these liberal arts institutions by some of the finest people I know.

In the last two paragraphs, I used the pronoun “I” 9 times, but to be candid, it’s not all about me. Dr. Mark Hogan mentored me through my graduate program at Eastern Mennonite University, and his mentoring went far beyond being my advisor. Following graduation from the masters in education program, he mentored me by writing with me to submit an article for publication, and he nominated me to serve as an alumni on the Committee for Teacher Education at EMU. Later, when he moved to Bridgewater College, he invited me to employment opportunities there, he suggested I pursue my Ph.D, he served on my dissertation committee, and both encouraged me and challenged me from the start to the finish of my defense. I’ll always remember how he drove from Nashville, TN to Blacksburg, VA for the sole purpose of  hooding me at graduation. Dr. Hogan hired me as co-director of the Shenandoah Valley Writing Academy at Bridgewater College, and he poised me to be in the position that I am in now. As I sit in his former office, typing at his former computer, I am overwhelmed with gratitude for the time he spent mentoring me.

Other fine folks have mentored me through the years, and I aspire to mimic their work ethic. Dr. Don Steiner at EMU invited me to serve as an adjunct, invited me to be inducted into Phi Delta Kappa, a local board on which I now serve, and challenged me with rigorous projects like taking a random sample of EMU’s Action Research Projects and reviewing them for writing quality based on the university’s rubric for writing standards. Dr. Cathy Smeltzer Erb trained me to serve as a university supervisor for student teaching by observing side by side with me in high school classrooms. She took the time to talk with me as my adjunct responsibilities increased to over half time, and I learned through her how to guide graduate students through action research, by attending to details, and providing feedback collaboratively with Cathy as I served as a teaching assistant in her Action Research class. Finally, Dr. Jean Hawk, who now serves as my department chair was once my graduate professor for multicultural literature. She shows me through her leadership how to work hard, think critically, and be aware of and sensitive to power differentials.

Parker Palmer (2007) echoed my feelings when he wrote in The Courage to Teach,

Looking back, I realize that I was blessed with mentors at every crucial stage of my young life, at every point where my identity needed to grow: in adolescence, in college, in graduate school, and early in my professional career. But a funny thing happened on the way to full adulthood: the mentors stopped coming. For several years I waited for the next one in vain, and for several years my own growth was on hold. Then I realized what was happening. I was no longer an apprentice, so I no longer needed mentors. It was my turn to become a mentor to someone else. I needed to turn around and look for the new life emerging behind me, to offer to younger people the gift that had been given to me when I was young. (pp. 25 – 26)

While these words resonate with me, what he says next is where I aspire to be each day,

Mentors and apprentices are partners in an ancient human dance, and one of teaching’s great rewards is the daily chance it gives us to get back on the dance floor. It is the dance of the spiraling generations, in which the old empower the young with their experience and the young empower the old with new life, reweaving the fabric of the human community as they touch and turn. (p. 26)

It is in this spirit that I strive to nurture future educators.

 

Shelfie

On Saturday, I attended an inaugural Kappa Delta Pi conference that was put on by students at James Madison University. I was curious to see how the students would pull off hosting a conference, and they did a stellar job: door prizes, coffee, breakfast, lunch, and four quality sessions. I also wanted the Bridgewater College students in the teacher education program to have the opportunity to experience this professional learning conference, and I was pleased when three freshmen and a senior attended.

At my first session, given by Pam Sullivan on “Helping Your Students Fall in Love with Literature,” I had the chance to take a Shelfie of three young adult books and share their importance in my life. My Shelfie used to be posted here (a photo of The River, Allegiant, and The Maze Runner), but I learned that if you delete  a photo from the cloud, then that photo is removed from your blog post as well!

In my first year of teaching, early 90’s, students seemed drawn to Paulsen’s, The River. The ninth graders enjoyed the survival aspect and small size of the book. I think it’s a timeless pick.

More recently, my son hooked my daughter and me on the Divergent series. My daughter is reading Allegiant, while I’m a step behind (which she loves) reading Divergent.

My son is now finishing up Dashner’s Maze Runner series. He asked his girlfriend to the middle school dance by putting post it notes throughout the book…WILL….YOU…GO…TO....THE ….DANCE….WITH….ME….? And loaned her the book. He got a YES.

 

 

Blacksburg Road

I’m now in my third year at Virginia Tech, but about a year into the program our family of five had reason to drive from Dayton, Virginia to Virginia Tech so that my oldest could attend a weekend softball camp. Instead of traveling the most direct route, my husband said, “I’m going to show you the way I used to go when I went to Tech.” Exiting off Interstate 81 at the Salem, New Castle exit, I was happy to watch him reminisce. The drive is an experience that I continue to enjoy each Monday, if the weather allows.

Today, with blinding snow icing the fields, but the macadam spotless enough to take the chance, I made the choice to exit I 81 Southbound, and enjoy Catawba mountain and Blacksburg Road. This trip, I missed spotting the two statues of angels that people have placed in different spots among nature’s towering rock walls. They’re easy enough to miss; so if you ever have the opportunity to cross Catawba, be on the lookout for them. One tall male angel stands high on the hill on your right at the peak of a rock, just before you turn at the stoplight that leads to Catawba mountain. The second little cherub sits, yes sits, on your left on the second wall of rocks, half-way up the rock wall on a ledge.

Here’s what I didn’t miss:

I didn’t miss three deer, looking surprised at me as I rounded a bend in the road. I stared with mutual wonder into one’s brown eyes as the white tail triggered two more to set sail. The strong, slim muscles bulged under the sleek brown as they bounded up the hill, then over the fence.

I didn’t miss the horses, carefully blanketed by their owners in the fields. And I didn’t miss how the evergreens and rocks demanded attention in the backdrop of a winter wonderland. Spotty patches of snow-covered ice helped me to be more cautious and see more than usual.

As I drove, I thought about teaching writing and how students need to have time to play with words in the digital arena that absorbs the majority of their free time. Beyond texts and snap chats, they need to develop digital fluency. Last weekend my husband composed handwritten responses for four hours, (his choice over typing) for a national truck exam. He said he chose to write because he was afraid he would lose his ideas between their emergence in his mind and the keyboard. The keyboard somehow is a distraction in the flow. He was more fluent with a pen, could get all those ideas down on paper.

This experience aligns with Gallagher’s Literacy Stampede; to advance in the workplace, one needs to be able to write and write well. As I rounded the bends and looked for more of Blacksburg Road’s surprises, I thought about the need for educators to create that sense of urgency for digital literacy within the classroom. Troy Hicks’ and Kristy Hawley Turner wrote about that need in English Journal in July: No Longer a Luxury:  Digital Literacy Can’t Wait. What we need is a metaphor like Gallagher used with his students and the “Literacy Stampede,” except we need to create urgency within ourselves in regards to exploring digital writing opportunities. As I thought about this need for a metaphor, a rock fell in front of a sign on the next bend in the road.

The option to compose with a pen, in writing on demand situations, is becoming obsolete.

 

 

An Orderly MESS

After spending the last week reading and being inspired by Murray, Kittle, and Gallagher, I think one of the aims of teaching writing and encouraging growth is to create an orderly MESS in the relationship between the writer and the responder:

Mine for the gold in writing, and talk about what makes it gold. Writing teachers often look for golden sentences, and the recognition of what is working in the writer’s craft comes with truly listening during writing conferences, and then taking the time to see if that desired communication is coming through in the piece of writing. Once the message is clearly conveyed, then the writer can further craft that communication to be effective and engaging.

Encourage growth in areas of strength. This growth can be nurtured by matching writing style with reputable authors. I will never forget when I shared my personal writing in front of a group of teachers during a Saturday seminar at the SVWA@bridgewater. The director of the writing academy said, “Jenny’s writing style reminds me of Willa Cather, in the way that she wraps the beginning back to the end.” This did a few things for me. First, I saw that what I had worked to achieve (coming full circle) did have an impact on the reader. Second, it made me want to read Willa Cather. Third, this type of focused feedback gave me confidence as a writer.

Serve others in the classroom via students’ writing strengths. Putting students in a leadership position that capitalizes on a writing strength is belief and trust in action. For example, if a student excels at using metaphors to connect with readers, then put that student in a position to give tips to others. Maybe this means sharing a couple pieces in front of the class and explaining the process. Maybe this means working one-on-one with another student to help them use metaphor in writing. Or maybe this means writing an article on using metaphors in writing and finding a place to publish this for an audience of peers.

Share your writing, not only with the class, but publicly. Most importantly, show the students each step of the work that it took to get you to that place of publication. This effort to show the many steps toward publication puts the emphasis on process over product.

How can we create this orderly mess? In 1993, I started with Rief’s guidance in Seeking Diversitybut Penny Kittle’s Write Beside Them provides concrete examples of how to create order without stifling creativity. Likewise, Gallagher’s guidance in Write Like This can serve as a springboard to help toward creating a community of writers that both nourish and encourage.

“Orchestrating from the Outside”

I have always wanted to write an I Am poem. In the past few years, I have seen successful lessons where teachers use this as a writing activity. Often, the I Am poem is coupled with Georgia Ella Lyon’s poem, Where I’m From. Students feel safe writing about what they know; they know who they are, and they want to write to learn to know more about who they are. Last Monday, in my first time co-teaching the evening class entitled Teaching Composition, I tried my hand at writing one of these formulaic, yet open poems, and then further experimented with sharing a Google document with the world. I AM learning with my students, and as Penny Kittle advises in Write Beside Them– You can’t just give teacher assignments “while you grade or take attendance. You’re either in the midst of composing with kids, or you’re trying to orchestrate from the outside.” She also adds that the first has been successful for her, but the latter, not so much.

 

Snow days and reflection

At the NCTE conference in Boston, Tom Romano said that he switched up his writing routine this past summer. He took Penny Kittle’s advice and wrote first thing. He rose, wrote, headed downstairs for coffee, returned to his writing spot and wrote some more. THEN he had breakfast and hit the gym with his wife. He testified that writing first thing worked well.

As the snow is falling and my home is quiet (all three children needed their sleep after a day of snow tubing yesterday!), I was reviewing the syllabus for Teaching Composition and thinking about what Romano said. To let my last blog post hold me accountable, I’ve done well on my first goal for increasing my digital literacy capacity, but I’ve failed at my second. I look forward to “turning that failure inside out” this semester with Teaching Comp. and dissertating, and I plan to heed Romano’s sound advice. Routine is key. As Anne Lamott shared in Help, Thanks, Wow, she built in writing time just like she did flossing time. It’s time for me to develop a writing routine.

21 More Days

The first day of school for my children is in 21 days. Our youngest will be a second grader, our middle son a middle school, seventh grader, and our oldest begins her first year in high school. One in each school. I will again travel to Virginia Tech for three days a week to work towards completing my Ph.D. in Curriculum & Instruction: English Education.

As I move into gearing up for the new school year, I am challenged by Troy Hicks and Kristen Hawley Turner’s July 2013 English Journal article entitled “No Longer a Luxury: Digital Literacy Can’t Wait.” The authors share what teachers are doing to kill digital literacy and then move to suggestions for increasing both our capacity and our students’ capacity in regards to digital literacy. One place to begin to increase our digital literacy skills is to read and respond to blogs, and a list of handy blogs for English educators is provided. I saved these to my “favorites” so that I could work on this area, and I will move the ones that speak to me the most to my Diigo account. This morning I read Will Richardson’s latest post and tweeted it out to my followers. His concern lies with assessment and electronic feedback, and based on Hicks’ and Turner’s challenge and Richardson’s concern, I aim to achieve two goals for this year regarding feedback and my own digital literacy.

1. I will strive to create meaningful, collaborative work environments where students can stretch themselves in the area of digital literacy. These environments will be structured in such a way that authentic, incremental, and formative feedback will be given among the group as well as from the instructor.

2. I will continue to blog monthly and will read others’ blog and share their posts or respond.

 

 

Passing it on…

In March I wrote about the possibility that shared Google folders may have for public schools, and this month I had the opportunity to share Dr. Warnick’s  organizational system that he used in our Digital Self class. I put the folder system in place while leading 10 teachers enrolled in  SVWA@bridgewater, a writing academy for teachers that is directed by Dr. Mark Hogan, co-directed by yours truly and Dr. Alice Trupe, and brought to life by Dee Grimm, a National Board Certified high school English Language Arts teacher. Using one shared folder, that could be accessed by everyone in the academy, we disseminated information that we wanted to share. Then, each teacher-participant had a folder that was shared only between that teacher and the academy instructors. Participants uploaded writing to their personal folder and we commented on their writing for the first time through the Google document. I want to talk a bit about how this changed participant submission and feedback.

What I liked:

  1. It was nice NOT to have to pass the papers around from instructor to instructor. In years past we each took several papers and then passed them amongst us until we had read and responded to all of the papers, which required a checklist to ensure that each instructor read each submission.
  2. Participants received feedback as soon as instructors gave the feedback. This immediate feedback meant that they received comments at three different times, and in some cases they revised in between instructors comments, making for a piece that was attended to closely.
  3. Comments were more specific and authentic than attached comments. I looked back at my responses in years past that were typed and attached to the participant’s paper (we did not want to write directly on the students’ paper), and while they were constructive and supportive, the comments on the Google document proved more direct and meaningful. I was able to highlight the exact location and select “comment.” This created a different response than reading a paper and then going back to think about what to say in response on a separate piece of paper.
  4.  Participants could respond back to comments and select “resolve” to remove the comment from their paper. No need to feel the need not to write on someone’s paper with this option.
  5.  Participants could turn in their writing at any time. Some people prefer to work ahead and get things turned in early because their schedule demands it. The shared folder allowed for participants to turn something in early, and we, in turn, could read it earlier.
  6.  We practiced the remediation of print. Enough said. Remediation of print is a pervasive need.

Dr. Warnick’s work flow system was effective in the Digital Self course he taught last semester, and I liked submitting work and receiving feedback through our shared folder. I’m passing it on to teachers who have not used the shared folder option and Drive, because Google documents are already in use in many schools, they work to remediate print, and teachers who use Drive model organizational skills that adolescents need to practice.

Affordances of Technology

We put the finishing touches on a group research effort today using Skype to touch base from time to time and collaborative writing in a Google document. It was nice to call and communicate via Skype if we had a question and write together to produce something that took months of preparation in our Qualitative research class. As we finished up, I was thankful for the affordances of the technology that allows me to be home with family yet still close to my classmates. When I refer to affordance what I mean is that the tool allows me to write or do something that I would not be able to do without the tool. These affordances of the emerging technologies also open my eyes to the potential for students to experience more than ever before in school.

There is another side to this experience of writing the paper while at another work site. I had the tendency to multitask and because the affordance of being able to be where I had other demands, it meant that I was not completely focused on the task of writing the paper. People needed me in the “other space” and before I even realized it I was checking an important Google chat that came in, setting up a student for a test, and then returning to my paper. In different forms this pattern continued. The paper received less of my attention than it should have, but then again, everything did. Multi-tasking is a myth. No one does it well. People only dilute the things that they do; something or someone suffers.

So what do we do about this dilemma? I think my answer would be to begin to draw boundaries better and talk about those lines.

Freedom to Engage

As I was in the Happy Valley watching my niece graduate yesterday, I did, in fact, feel happy for her. I thought about how she must be satisfied with the effort she’s put forth and excited for her future. As she sets off for a contracted five year assistantship at U.C.S.D. to work toward her doctorate and conduct cancer research, it’s good to know that her cousins will be able to keep in touch with her through social media. And while social media will connect her personal world, I believe her professional learning community will grow exponentially. Shirley Malcom, the commencement speaker, said she runs into PSU alumnae throughout the world as she travels with work and service. It is likely that my niece will likewise become more Networked on and offline over the next few years.

As a mother, sitting with my three children during the graduation ceremony, I was grateful for the portable technology and wifi. I had given my two youngest children my iPad and they moved quietly between taking pictures and video of the ceremony, to playing Flow, to sharing ear buds and watching Duck Dynasty (oi vay!). With little encouragement, they took pictures when their cousin’s name was called and captured her as she walked across the stage. The technology allowed them to document, share, and be entertained in ways that brought peace not only to them but also to the adults around them. I thought of Turkle’s Alone Together. There were times we were alone together and that was perfectly okay.