The Writing on Learning Exchange: A Project to Get us All Writing

It’s clear that I’m in over my head this semester.  I continually wish I had time to come over here to Classroom as Microcosm, ruminate at length about something going on in my classroom, and chat with all of you.  Instead, when I’m not teaching or planning or grading, I want to think about something else entirely.

Mostly, I’ve been in the basement tending my seedlings.

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Tomatoes!

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Onions!

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Poblanos!

When I read these days, I read about gardening.  My favourite gardening books are written by Gayla Trail, who also keeps the excellent gardening blog YouGrowGirl.  Last week, she introduced a new project: the Grow Write Guild, an online creative writing club for gardeners.  The guidelines for the Grow Write Guild are as follows:

Every two weeks I will post a writing prompt…You can choose to follow along and write a response that is made public on your own blog or kept completely private. Should you choose to make it public, come back to this site and share it in the comments by posting a link to the work. Even if you don’t make it public, I’d love it if you came back to share how the prompt worked out for you.

In response to Gayla’s first prompt – “What was your first plant?” – I had a lot of fun writing a meandering personal essay on garden vs. wilderness, violas vs. wild strawberries, and childhood adventuring vs. adult home ownership.  (I published this post on my homemaking blog, if you’d like to read it.)  I’ve also had a lot of fun reading and  commenting on the posts that other writer-gardeners have produced in answer to this prompt.

And then I thought, “Hey, this is a great idea.”

So it occurred to me that this might be a fun thing to do here on CaM; to share writings in response to specific prompts around teaching and learning.  This would be a way to get juices flowing and to reflect more personally on why certain issues are important to us, whether we are teachers, learners, parents or just citizens who care about the growth and development of other citizens.

Here’s what I’m thinking:

  • Every week or two between now and the end of May, I will publish a question or set of questions, about teaching and learning, meant to inspire a personal response.  (“What was your first plant?” is the sort of question I’m thinking of, although the questions will clearly be less planty.)
  • You could write a post on your own blog, in which case I hope you will link back to the prompt post, and also leave a link to your response in the prompt post’s comments.  (This is a great way to find some more readers – or maybe it will be the impetus you need to finally start that blog you’ve been sitting on?)
  • You could just leave a comment responding to the prompt.
  • Or you could write about the subject privately, for your own edification – if you do that, I hope you’ll at least leave a comment saying that you wrote about it, and telling us how the writing went.
  • I hope you will do your best to read and comment on the responses of others – this has been one of the most enjoyable parts of the exercise for me.  However, if you just want to write a response and move on, or just use the prompt as a basis for your personal internal reflection, that is totally fine.

I’ve been racking my brains trying to come up with a clever name for such an undertaking (“Grow Write Guild” is awesome, but I don’t want to be too derivative.)  I’ve been muddling around with words like “fellowship,” “tutelage,” “league” and “microcosm.”  For now, I’m going with “The Writing on Learning Exchange.”  If anyone has any better ideas…

Let me know what you think of this project, either by leaving a comment below or contacting me directly.  If even a few people show an interest, I will post up a prompt later this week.

Classroom Blogging

nIMK48mI’m having my students keep blogs again.  I’m both excited and wary.

Student blogs are a lot more fun to read than papers, but they’re also more difficult to evaluate.  The setup process has gone fairly smoothly so far, but it’s still been a lot of work.  Reading a ton of blog posts every week can be really inspiring, but can also be draining.

The setup for my class is this: Each student will keep a blog.  They’ve been assigned to “blog teams” and are required to comment on others’ blogs as well.  There are minimum requirements they must meet to pass, but if they want to do well, they will have to post more regularly and engage more actively in their blog networks.

I’ve done a few things to ease the burden of reading, commenting on and grading 82 student blogs.

  • I’m requiring students to post only 3 times a month.  However, this is a MINIMUM requirement; a student who wants 100% on this assignment will need to do more than that.
  • I’ve created very detailed written guidelines on possible blog topics, protocols for commenting, and evaluation criteria.  Some students seem overwhelmed by this flood of information at the moment, but I hope they will find it useful as they get into the blogs.
  • Rather than receiving a grade for each post (impossible!) or a single grade at the end of the term (as I did last time; totally overwhelming), students will receive a grade for February (and a face-to-face meeting for feedback), a grade for March, and a grade for April.
  • I’ve decided to set aside a few minutes at the beginning of each class for blog concerns.  Today we’ll go over the mechanics of putting up their first post and making their first comments; next week we will talk about the ins and outs of using images (including copyright issues.)

Their first posts are due on Friday.  Do you have any advice?  I love student blogs, but last time I used them, I thought the workload might put me in an early grave.  What tips do you have for streamlining, responding, tackling problems, and otherwise making this assignment as effective as possible?

Image by charcoal

Top 10 Posts of 2012

njpcdISIt’s time again for Classroom as Microcosm’s yearly top 10 roundup!

These are the posts that got the most hits this year. It’s not always clear WHY a given post on this list got so much traffic, but the fact that a lot of people looked at and/or read these posts suggests maybe they have something to offer.  If you’re new to the blog, or haven’t been able to keep up, they give you a sense of what’s been happening here for the last twelve months.

Please note that this list is comprised solely of posts that were written this year.  It does not include “reprises” of past posts, even if those posts were substantially edited or rewritten.

If you like what you discover, please subscribe!  Look to your right.  See the button that says “Sign Me Up!”?  Click it, and away you go.

1. What’s a Teacher to Do? Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed

I expect this review was popular because the book was popular, and deservedly so.  I’ll be using it as a primary text in my English for Child Studies course next year, and I expect to reread it periodically to remind myself of all the things that teachers need to aim to teach: not how to identify a theme or correctly form the passive voice, but how to be resilient, curious, tenacious, etc.  This book made my list of top 10 books of 2012.  It’s great.  Go read it.

This post was also honoured as a WordPress “Freshly Pressed” pick, and thus garnered me some new readers, for whom I am very thankful.

2. Plagiarism: What Do Students Think?

In this post, I asked students to tell us why they plagiarize, or, if they never have, why they think others do.  The comments section is full of enlightening responses to this question.

3. Essay Writing: The Cake Analogy

I hope this post was popular because it was useful.  It links to an analogy that explains how and why to structure an essay properly.  A number of teachers have reported that this description of an essay as a layer cake has been very clarifying for their students.

4. Bad Teacher

Maybe this post got a lot of hits because it shares its title with a popular movie.  Nonetheless, rereading it amused me.  It tells the story of a nasty house-hunting experience, in which the bad guy turns out to be a teacher.  The question: can you be a bad person and still be a good teacher?

5. Demoralization vs. Burnout

Being “burnt out” is not the same as being “demoralized.”  Knowing the difference can help you decide what to do.

6. Methinks the Lady Doth Explain Too Much

I hesitated to write about Shayla in 2011, when the email exchange documented here transpired.  At the end of the Winter 2012 semester, I figured enough time had passed that I could write about Shayla with some perspective.  Little did I know that Shayla would turn up in my class again this past semester.  Sometimes I wondered whether I was the one behaving badly.  In those moments, I returned to this post to remind myself that no, I was doing the best I could with a baffling and infuriating student.

7. Things They Should Teach In School

My husband and I bought a house this year.  (I’m keeping track of my home ownership adventures on this new blog.)  In the process of buying a house, we discovered that we know NOTHING about a lot of very important things.  In the comments section of this post, readers suggest topics that really deserve time and attention in school, because we will grow up and need to know how to negotiate a mortgage or repair a bicycle, and most of us won’t know where to begin.

8. “I Do Not Take Off Points.  You Earn Them.”

What do you do with a student who thinks her academic problems are all her teacher’s fault?

9. What’s In a Name?

I can’t seem to make my students learn my name – or any of their teachers’ names, for that matter.  Does it really make a difference if they just call everyone “Miss” and “Sir”?

10. Penny Gives Up

I am happy to report that Penny’s story had a happy ending, but in this post, I consider the lowest point in our relationship.  She’d worked very, very hard and had still failed, and saw little reason to try again.

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Did you read a post this year that you liked, but that didn’t make this list?  I’d love it if you’d let me know; I am considering compiling a list of “commenters’ favourites.”

If you’ve been visiting the blog for a while, please tell me what you think of the new look!

A very, very happy 2013 to you all.  Thank you so much for visiting my blog, for reading my posts, and for leaving your comments or sending me messages.  As always, if you would like me to tackle a topic this year that’s been on your mind, please let me know!  I hope that your year is full interesting challenges with happy outcomes, and that you will continue to visit me and share your stories.

Image by Dez Pain

What’s That When It’s At Home?

DSC_0742Dear Readers:

I will be back in a few weeks with my yearly “Best Books” and “Top Posts” lists, but otherwise, Classroom as Microcosm will be on hiatus from now until the end of January.  I hope you’ll consider, in the interim, subscribing to my personal/homestyle/living blog, What’s That When It’s At Home?

This new blog is in its infancy.  I originally took a stab at it as a Tumblr blog, but Tumblr is not working out so well for me, so I’ve migrated it back here to WordPress.  My plan is to post a few times a week over the winter in order to get things up and running, and to launch it fully next spring.

The blog will treat subjects related to being at home – cooking, cleaning, home improvement, taking care of plants and pets, etc. – as well as reading, television, knitting, exercising and other things I love to do in and around my house.

The driving question of the blog is similar to that of Classroom as Microcosm: what does it mean to be committed?  At what point can one safely say one is ready to commit?  Classroom as Microcosm has explored my commitment to my job; WTWIAH will explore my journey, over the next few years, toward committing or not committing to my house, and to home ownership in general.

You will find a brief resume of the blog’s intention here.

So please come by and subscribe!  And in the meantime, have a great holiday, and stay tuned here for seasonal updates and a return to twice-a-week posting when the new semester begins.

New Adventures in Social Media

Dear readers:

I’m trying to expand my social media horizons because, well, I live in the 21st century, and all that jazz.  So I’m polishing up some old accounts and experimenting with some new ones, and it’s turning out to be a lot of fun, so I just might keep it up, especially if you encourage me.

1. Twitter:

I created a Twitter account long ago and have mostly used it as a default distributor for blog posts.  Last week I signed in and updated my account for the first time in ages, and have since found myself a bit obsessed with reading, replying, re-tweeting, and linking.  I have made a new commitment to tweeting lots of cool stuff I find around the web, whether education-related or not.  I would love it if you followed me there: @siobhancurious

2. Tumblr:

Here on Classroom as Microcosm, I write about teaching and its relatives (books, work, self-preservation…).  I’ve been thinking of keeping a more personal blog that focuses largely on my new home and my domestic pursuits therein.  I’ve finally done it.  The blog is called “Who’s She When She’s At Home?” (one of my favourite Irish turns of phrase) and it will be a grab-bag of posts, links, photos and re-blogs concerning my life outside the classroom (although the classroom will of course never entirely disappear).  I know a lot of smart and interesting people who post about a lot of smart and interesting stuff, so I think it’s going to be cool.  If you have a Tumblr blog, you know what to do; if you don’t, you can always follow through your feed reader or through my Twitter stream.

3. Alltop:

My blog has been added to the Education directory on Alltop.com.  You can go to yesterday’s post for more info.

4. Facebook:

As always, you can like my page on Facebook, and I hope you will.  Tweets and Tumblr posts will sometimes stream there (I’m still trying to optimize that, and am experimenting with selective streaming – would love your feedback on whether the Twitter/Tumblr/Facebook mix is annoying).  Posts from right here on CAM will always appear on my Facebook page.

I hope you’ll also continue share CAM posts you like on your own social networks, because I love watching the interesting discussions that blossom when more and more people are dropping by and adding their thoughts.  What’s more, I hope you’ll give me some recommendations.  Where do you love to hang out online to read, chat, link and think?  Why should I go hang out there too?

I feel lucky to have you all following me – thank you for your continued readership!

Image by Marja Flick-Buijs

Now on Alltop

Dear readers: Classroom as Microcosm has been added to Alltop, a syndicator that I hope will bring new readers and so further enhance the thoughtful discussion that you all carry on in these pages.  If you subscribe to Alltop, please add Classroom as Microcosm to your MyAlltop page!  Just search for it, or go to the topic “Education;” CAS is currently the last blog listed on the topic page.  If you don’t use Alltop, you might want to check it out – it’s a good place to find interesting blogs on any and all topics.

Up and At ‘Em

It’s almost that time again.

I hope you’ve all had a great summer.  Mine has been thrilling, terrifying and exhausting, all on a small domestic scale.  You will hear about some of it in the coming weeks.  The upshot: school begins on Monday, and I am neither refreshed nor enthusiastic, but I am nothing if not dogged, so I am lacing up my boots and printing up my course outlines.

I AM looking forward to communicating with you all again, so, beginning Monday, I will return to regular posting!  Once again, I will post on Mondays and Thursdays, but I am going to shake things up a bit.

Mondays will bring a current post on the events in Siobhan’s teaching life and/or the thoughts in Siobhan’s teaching brain.  On Thursdays, I will dig into the archives and re-publish a post I love that has disappeared from view, possibly with small edits and additions.

Look for the following new posts in the coming weeks:

  • Things I Learned From Buying a House
  • A commentary on Paul Tough’s new book, How Children Succeed (a previous post, “Fail Better,” explored an excerpt published last year)
  • Thoughts on introversion, and on Susan Cain’s book on the subject
  • More advice, solicited and non-, from Auntie Siobhan (send me your questions!)
  • …and of course, much much more.

As ever, I welcome your suggestions of topics.  Post them in the comments here, or visit this page to contact me.  And happy new school year!  See you on Monday.

Image by Dave Dyet

What I Will Do For My Summer Vacation

Dear cherished readers:

My semester is wrapping up, and as much as I want to post and discuss throughout the summer, I think it is time to take a break.

As those who have been reading regularly will know, my husband and I have just bought a new home.  The next few months will be consumed by packing, moving, hiring contractors, painting, and so forth.  I could probably fit some blogging in around that, but I’ve decided not to, for a couple of reasons.

The first is that, as I discovered the summer we were planning our wedding, big projects are a lot less stressful if they are the whole focus of your life.  If the ONLY thing you have to do is settle into your new home, then settling into your new home will probably be pretty fun, regardless of the frustrations it brings with it.

Also, I am going to try an experiment.  Since I was old enough to use language, I have invested an awful lot of time and energy in my brain, and not nearly enough in my body.  This summer will require me to use my body to move, paint, build, walk around a new neighbourhood, and maybe even garden.  So I’m thinking I’d like to give my brain a break.  Read  a few mystery novels, sure.  Have long conversations with friends.  Otherwise, I’m going to lift and stretch and run and dig and jump, and let my brain take long naps.

I hope by giving myself this break, I will return to you in August refreshed, full of new ideas, and ready to reply more reliably to your comments.  And you never know: I may poke my head up time to time during the summer months if something inspires or outrages me.

Thank you all for your insightful, dedicated, articulate responses to post after post.  I love keeping this blog because I love your contributions.  I will be back in early August, if not before, and will be looking forward to hearing about your summer adventures and your plans for the coming year!  In the meantime, I hope that you will browse the archives when you are feeling the need for teacherly conversation, and I will certainly respond to your comments on old posts whenever I can.

Have a wonderful summer!  Good luck, good health, and keep in touch.

How I Saved My Teaching Career: Step 7: Write a Blog

ImageThis is the final post in a series on how to overcome burnout and love teaching again.   See the end of this post for previous entries.

In the summer of 2007, my burnout reached its peak.  I’d taken some steps to deal with it (and you can check out the links below to read about some of them) but I’d also spent the summer recovering from my most stressful teaching year yet, and I was dreading returning to the classroom.  I knew I needed to do something more.

In addition, I’d been working on a novel for eight years, and it was going nowhere.  I’d once again spent the summer trying to find a structure for it, and was becoming more and more frustrated.  I was no longer sure that I wanted to continue writing fiction.  It wasn’t making me any money, and no one but me really cared if I finished this manuscript.  Why was I doing it?

One day that August, I had coffee with my friend Vila H., who writes the delightful blog The Smoking Section.  She said, not for the first time, “I’m telling you, you need to start blogging.”

As it turned out, she was right.

My blog began as a place to publish some of the work I was doing for my M.Ed. courses (the first post was an early version of my teaching philosophy statement.)  As time went on, however, the blog evolved into an online diary, including ruminations on my classroom experiences and commentary on other education blogs.  It became the place I turned to immediately when things went wrong or when I was struggling to choose a course of action with a student.  It became a hub for my discussions with teachers all over the world.

It also fulfilled a need I didn’t know I had.  My writing life and teaching life had been strictly compartmentalized – I taught during the semester and wrote fiction during my holidays.  Now, my life felt more unified.  My teaching was material for my writing, and my writing made me a more effective teacher.

I’d recommend blogging to all teachers who want to make sense of their teaching experiences.  A blog can be public or private.  Even if you write only for yourself, or allow access only to close friends, it provides perspective, much like a diary does: writing about a problem makes it more manageable.  If you make your blog public, it can also provide help: if you put some effort into reading others’ blogs and responding to their posts, they will do the same for you.

If you do decide to write a public blog, there are a couple of potential issues to keep in mind.

1.  Protecting the privacy of your students and colleagues. 

I blog under a pseudonym, I never reveal the name of my school, and I change the names of any students or teachers I mention.  Some of my colleagues know that I’m the blog author, but our college is a large one and it’s unlikely they’d recognize any of the students I write about, even if they have those students in their classes.  I take special pains not to expose my blog to my students, because I don’t want them recognizing one another in its pages.  They’re not likely to be terribly interested in a blog about education, but if they Google my real name and my blog comes up, this could lead to problems.  I avoid leaving online clues connecting my real name to the blog.

2.  Dealing with negative responses. 

For the first couple of years, comments on my blog were usually constructive and respectful.  As my blog gained more exposure, however, a couple of posts attracted a lot of attention, and some of this attention was, let us say, impolite.

One post, written in a moment of hair-tearing essay-marking frustration, was entitled “10 Reasons I Hate Grading Your Assignment.”  It went moderately viral on StumbleUpon, and the vitriol began pouring in.  About a year later, I wrote a guest post for the education blog at Change.org.  This post, about how to control the use of cell phones in the classroom, made some people very, very angry, and their comments were pretty aggressive.

In both these cases, I came away from the discussions with new things to think about (for example, I no longer ban the use of cellphones in my classes, given some interesting arguments that were raised in response to the latter post.)  Nevertheless, both posts gave me a string of sleepless nights, and I now find myself hesitating to hit “Publish” whenever a post veers into provocative territory.

Password-protecting your blog, so that you choose your readers, is one solution.  The cost is that you lose out on connections you can make with educators all over the globe.  I wasn’t ready to give up those connections, so I accepted that writing for the online public requires a thick skin.  I also avoided arguing with rude commenters, while taking pains to identify anything valuable in their perspectives.  If things got really out of hand, I deleted comments or shut down the comments section altogether.

The advantages of keeping a blog about teaching far outweigh the costs.  When I feel overwhelmed by a teaching dilemma, I write about it.  This gives me some distance, and often leads to helpful feedback.  In my darkest classroom moments, I remind myself, “This is all material.”  And it’s not just material for writing.  Through the blog, I both document and create my own learning.  And when I need to be reminded of what I’ve learned, the blog is always there, like a good set of classroom notes.

If you’re interested in keeping a blog, you might want to visit a host site like WordPress.com or Blogger.com to check out how it all works.

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Do you keep a blog?  If so, how does it help you?  If not, would you consider doing so?

Thanks so much for following this series!  Please tell me what you’ve thought.  Has anything in these posts been helpful?  Would you take issue with any of my actions or conclusions?  I’d love to know your reactions.

 Previous posts in this series:

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The series “How I Saved My Teaching Career” was originally published on the TimesOnline’s education blog, School Gate, in 2009.  Thanks to School Gate’s editor, Sarah Ebner, for her permission to repost.

Image by Marja Flick-Buijs

How I Saved My Teaching Career: Reprise

Dear readers:

I’ve received some comments and missives recently from discouraged teachers who have stumbled upon my blog and have found it helpful.  This makes me very happy.  However, there’s a place I want to send them, and I can’t.  So I’m going to try to fix this problem.

A few years ago, I published a series of posts called “How I Saved My Teaching Career” in the TimesOnline’s education blog, School Gate.  Those posts have long since disappeared behind a paywall, and so I am no longer able to link you to them, or to send teachers to consult them in hopes of alleviating their burnout hell.

Sarah Ebner, the lovely and generous editor of School Gate (which is still alive and kicking if you have a Times subscription), has given me permission to repost “How I Saved My Teaching Career” here on Classroom as Microcosm.  Accordingly, over the next four weeks or so, I will present you with a revised version of that 8-part series, in which I outline my journey: miserable teacher on the brink of quitting to rejuvenated teacher full of inspiration and hope.  (That’s what the movie trailer would look like, anyhow.)

Monday will bring you a brief introduction, and will be followed by posts on curing burnout in seven not-so-easy steps.

  • STEP 1:  Take stock.  Is it worth it to stay?
  • STEP 2:  Take time off.
  • STEP 3:  Find and appreciate your (educational and other) community.
  • STEP 4:  Face your fears.
  • STEP 5:  Keep learning: get more training.
  • STEP 6:  Take up meditation (or another contemplative practice).
  • STEP 7:  Start a blog.

I hope that those who haven’t read these will find some solace and support in them somewhere.  And if you were around in 2009 when they were first launched, I hope revisiting them in their updated form will remind you of some of the things that I find I often need reminding of!

In the meantime, I would love to hear from any of you, either now or along the way, about moments you’ve felt that teaching was too hard to be worth it.  What did you do to get past that feeling?  Or did you decide that teaching was no longer for you?  I’d love to hear your stories.

Image by John Boyer