The Power of Authentic Writing

Some incredible things happened in my 8th grade English classroom today.

Photo Credit: Brad Neathery

I’ve been slowly making my way through Sparks in the Dark on my Kindle this year, and every time I return to this book I’m inspired to facilitate more authentic writing in my middle school classroom.

I mean, my students write every day. But how much of that writing is meaningful, passionate, or authentic? How much of it do they personally care about? I know I need to create more space for this kind of expression.

Last week, I asked my students to respond to lyrics from any song that held personal meaning or significance for them. Our learning target was “I can think critically, creatively, and reflectively to explore ideas within, between, and beyond texts.” Today, I asked for volunteers to share their pieces with the class.

Two boys accepted the challenge.

Boys. In 8th grade. In a gradeless classroom, with zero extrinsic motivation.

Sometimes we need to rethink our beliefs around middle school boys. But that’s a thought for another post. I digress.

One of the boys read a reflection about Natural, by Imagine Dragons. The other read a reflection on a song called Reluctant Heroesby Hiroyuki Sawano.

These boys spoke passionately about the human experience: the hardships we face, the expectations we bear, our families and the relationships that matter most.

And get this. As he read a closing paragraph about his family, one reader broke down into tears. If that wasn’t enough, both boys quietly sang all or most of their selected songs.

Their unfiltered emotions were on full display. They were powerfully vulnerable. Their classmates gave each of them standing ovations. I could have cried myself.

I mourn all the moments like these that I’ve missed in my 17 years of teaching, but today’s experience only deepens my resolve to do more authentic writing in the years ahead.

Because this was awesome.

“When you teach someone how to read or how to express themselves using the written word, you change a life. You introduce them to magical worlds, teach them how to access the voice within, and empower them to affect that same change in the lives of others.” – from Sparks in the Dark: Lessons, Ideas, and Strategies to Illuminate the Reading and Writing Lives in All of Us by Travis Crowder (@TeacherManTrav) & Todd Nesloney (@TechNinjaTodd)


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Episode 60 – AJ Bianco

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Subscribe to the podcast on your mobile device HERE: iTunes | Google Podcasts | Anchor | Spotify | YouTube

AJ BIANCO is a husband, father of two boys, aspiring leader, and middle school teacher at Harrington Park School in Bergen County, NJ. A fan of the flipped classroom and blended learning, AJ is also a co-host of another great education podcast called Podcast PD.

Follow AJ online here:

Episode Summary

AJ is currently a 7th-8th grade Social Studies teacher at Harrington Park School in Bergen County, New Jersey. His classroom is student-centered, flipped, blended, personalized, and he enjoys making the learning experiences as authentic as possible.

In general, AJ says that the lowest moments in his professional journey boil down to rejection. One example of this comes from his first five years of teaching, when his district repeatedly moved him due to budget cuts. After being split between two different high schools in year five, he was almost ready to quit the profession completely. One of the things that he credits for restoring his hope and faith in the education career was the PLN that he found on Twitter. Once he started connecting with other passionate educators, he was inspired to reimagine his practice and redefine his trajectory.

AJ recalls the beginnings of #PodcastPD, the podcast he co-hosts with Stacey Lindes and Chris Nesi. Stacey had been using the hashtag on Twitter for some time when Chris Nesi suggested they use the name as a title for a podcast show. The three co-hosts are all about “Anytime, anywhere professional development.” The show keeps it real, and the hosts include a good mix of humor, pop culture, and real life in the show content.

When he looks around at education today, AJ gets excited about the ways that educators are sharing their voices, ideas, and experiences authentically with others. Teachers aren’t afraid anymore — instead, they’re taking more risks and their practice is more inspired. Today’s classroom has come so far from the passive compliance of the classrooms we grew up in.

When asked about a current professional goal, AJ talks about his commitment to learning more about what leadership looks like in education. He’s reading, watching, and listening to whatever he can on the subject.

AJ’s primary passion outside of the classroom is his boys. He currently has two with a third on the way, and it’s a thrill to be involved in their development and play a part in their learning. Second to his boys, AJ is also a big sports fan and superhero aficionado.

AJ’s productivity stems from his competitive nature. Wherever he applies himself, he wants his work to be the best.

He’s got two Twitter recommendations, and they’re both amazing educators hailing from the New Jersey area. The first is @RichHayzler and the second is @Kevin_Carroll_.

Two edtech tools that AJ recommends trying out are Adobe Spark Video and Adobe Spark Post. Follow these apps on Twitter @AdobeSpark and @AdobePost.

AJ’s book recommendation is The Energy Bus: 10 Rules to Fuel Your Life, Work, and Team with Positive Energy by Jon Gordon. Follow the author at @JonGordon11.

If you’re looking to add another great education podcast to your commute, check out The Leader of Learning Podcast by @DKreiness.

On YouTube, AJ suggests subscribing to How it Should Have Ended, a fun channel that reimagines the endings to popular movies.

When he’s got no energy left for anything else productive, AJ’s watching Daredevil on Netflix.

We sign off on our conversation, and AJ tells us the best places to find him and follow his content online. Find AJ on Twitter @AJBianco and on Instagram @AJBianco.

For more from AJ Bianco, follow him online here:

Subscribe to the Teachers on Fire podcast on your mobile device: iTunes | Google Podcasts | YouTube | Spotify

On social media, follow the podcast on Twitter @TeachersOnFire and on Instagram @TeachersOnFire.

Song Track Credits

  • Intro: Relax (by Simon More)
  • Outtro: Starley – Call on Me Remix (by DJ Zhorik)

Listen to this episode on YouTube and subscribe for more episodes!

Episode 52 – Paul Stevens-Fulbrook

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Subscribe to the podcast on your mobile device HERE: iTunes | Google Podcasts | Anchor | Spotify | YouTube

You might know Paul Stevens-Fulbrook better on Twitter or Instagram as @TeacherofSci. Paul is a father of five and head of Year 7 and 8 Science at his school in the UK. He writes at teacherofsci.com with the mission of “supporting teachers’ lives through strategy, wellbeing and extra income.”

In our conversation here, Paul explains why it’s critical for teachers to remain true to who they really are, even when they’re in the classroom. He tells us the most exciting opportunity that edtech tools offer: improved student engagement. He shares about some of his other loves outside of the classroom: running, cooking, and spending quality time with his family. He also offers us his picks on Twitter, in books, on YouTube, and more.

Follow Paul online here:

Find the highlights from our conversation at the timestamps below:

  • 1:07 – Paul describes his current context in education: high school science teacher and department head at Steyning Grammar School in the United Kingdom.
  • 2:28 – “Be careful where you get your advice.” At the outset of his teaching career, veteran teachers warned him to be stern, not to smile, and not to be too friendly in the classroom. Predictably, he didn’t bond with his students, and his stern exterior seemed to only make relationships more difficult. Then, other teachers told him to be the same person in the classroom that he was in the staffroom: funny, silly, relaxed, and genuine. Students embraced his authenticity and things went much better after that.
  • 5:01 – The mission of teacherofsci.com is to support teachers’ lives through teaching strategies, wellbeing, and income. Most teachers struggle a little bit in the areas of finance, health, and balance – how to fit all of our priorities into the day. Teacher of Sci is here to help!
  • 7:41 – Paul’s main passion in the classroom today is edtech – particularly the ways that technology can engage every student.
  • 9:33 – Outside of the classroom, Paul is committed to building his blog, running, cooking, and spending quality time with the family. “One thing I’ve learned is that you’ve got to take time for yourself. It can’t be about teaching, teaching, teaching. You’ve got to get away from the books at some point.”
  • 11:52 – “Seek education from cradle to grave.” This ancient Arabic proverb is Paul’s mantra – he tries to learn every day and from everything.
  • 12:32 – On Twitter, Paul recommends following @ICT_MrP.
  • 13:28 – An edtech tool that Paul is just getting into with great early success is Classcraft. Follow @Classcraftgame on Twitter to find out more about this platform.
  • 14:48 – Paul’s pick for books is Unlocking Excellence: A Guide to Becoming an Extraordinary Educator by Jarrod Dumas. Follow Jarrod on Twitter @Xtraordinary247.
  • 16:12 – Looking for an interesting podcast to add to your commute? Check out No Such Thing as a Fish. Follow them on Twitter @NoSuchThing.
  • 17:24 – On Youtube, Paul points us to two channels: SciShow and For Teachers. Follow these great shows on Twitter @SciShow and @_ForTeachers.
  • 19:37 – When he’s out of energy to do anything productive and unencumbered by his wife’s inclinations, Paul likes to watch survivalist shows like Man vs. Food on Netflix.
  • 21:15 – We sign off on the interview, and Paul tells us the best ways to follow him online. See above for details!

Subscribe to the Teachers on Fire podcast on your mobile device: iTunes | Google Podcasts | YouTube | Spotify

Follow the podcast on Twitter @TeachersOnFire and on Instagram @TeachersOnFire.

Song Track Credits

  • Intro: Relax (by Simon More)
  • Outtro: Starley – Call on Me Remix (by DJ Zhorik)

Listen to this episode on YouTube and subscribe for more episodes!