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 49 – Colby Sharp

49 - Colby Sharp

COLBY SHARP is a husband, father of five, fifth grade teacher, avid reader and book reviewer, runner, and self-proclaimed nerd. He is the author of The Creativity Project: An Awesometastic Story Collection and 2018’s Game Changer!: Book Access for All Kids.

In our conversation, Colby recalls the discouragement of a harsh professional evaluation and explains how he grew from the experience. He describes the heart and process of The Creativity Project, and explains how teachers can use this anthology to inspire creative expression in their English classrooms. He also shares about his passion for reading, putting books in the hands of kids, creativity, daily exercise, podcasts, Casey Neistat, and much more.

Follow Colby online here:

Find the highlights from our conversation at the timestamps below:

  • 0:49 – Colby teaches 5th grade at Parma Elementary School in Parma, MI.
  • 1:23 – He describes the experience of receiving fairly harsh reviews from his principal after his first year of teaching. Rather than throwing a pity party, he decided to learn from the experience, take steps to grow as a professional, and things improved quickly from there.
  • 3:24 – We talk about the mission and message of The Creativity Project: An Awesometastic Story Collection. Colby describes how authors were given a choice of two prompts to respond to creatively. The results were amazing, and the book offers exciting examples of where the creative process can take students as well.
  • 8:11 – Colby describes another passion he has for education today: teachers. Teachers today have incredible passion for kids and for learning. They’re in it for the right reasons. The new teachers he’s seeing come to the profession are inspiring.
  • 9:25 – Colby is also deeply passionate about improving access to books in schools, libraries, and communities – finding more ways to get books into the hands of children. Nerd Camp is an annual conference that connects young readers and authors. The last Nerd Camp was attended by 1500 educators, 1000 kids, and 50 authors. Every kid that attended left with at least one free author-signed book.
  • 10:55 – His productivity hack is daily exercise. He’s only missed about seven days so far in 2018, and he believes in it enough to spend his lunch breaks running.
  • 12:48 – On Twitter, Colby recommends that you give @SusanKHaney a follow.
  • 13:53 – One tried and true edtech tool in Colby’s classroom is Audible, which you can follow on Twitter @Audible_com.
  • 15:22 – A professional book that Colby thoroughly enjoyed and learned from this summer was 180 DAYS: Two Teachers and the Quest to Engage and Empower Adolescents by Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle. Follow these incredible authors on Twitter @KellyGToGo and @PennyKittle.
  • 17:13 – Colby’s top education podcast recommendation is Cult of Pedagogy by Jennifer Gonzales. Follow Jennifer @cultofpedagogy.
  • 19:55 – On Youtube, Colby recommends subscribing to master storyteller Casey Neistat.
  • 21:16 – A recent Netflix title that Colby gives both thumbs up to is To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, which embodies everything that’s good, fun, and wholesome about the teen romantic comedy genre.
  • 22:51 – We wrap up our conversation, and Colby shares the best ways to follow him online. See above for details and links!

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!

Episode 47 – Kimberly Snodgrass

47 - Kimberly Snodgrass

KIMBERLY SNODGRASS is a 7th grade ELA teacher. She advocates for creative thinking, BookSnaps, Sketchnotes, Edu GIFS, and other creative ways for students to represent their learning.

In our conversation, Kim recalls the challenge of beginning a high school teaching assignment with a lot of preparation required and next to no experience in education. She credits this period with allowing her to learn the art of teaching without preconceived ideas or the pressure of “textbook mentality.” Kim talks about the importance of staying hungry as an educator, cultivating creativity and critical thinking in the classroom, and engaging regularly with other education thinkers. She also passes on some solid recommendations for books to read, educators to follow on Twitter, edtech tools to try in the classroom, and much more.

Follow Kim online here:

Find the highlights from our conversation at the timestamps below:

  • 0:50 – Kim describes her current and past experiences as an educator. She currently teaches 7th grade ELA in a middle school in Nebraska, but she’s taught high school in the past as well.
  • 1:33 – She describes one of the most challenging points in her education career: starting a high school teaching assignment in a smaller school (which meant that she was prepping for a number of courses on a daily basis) with zero experience in the classroom.
  • 4:35 – Kim talks about the things that really excite her about education today: more focus on the soft skills in education: creativity, collaboration, and teamwork. 21st century education is finally acknowledging that simply focusing on the three Rs does not serve students well.
  • 7:29 – Outside of her classroom, Kim is busy pursuing another Master’s degree. She’s particularly fascinated by constructivist pedagogy and personalized learning models. But she’s also energized and inspired by the more practical education books from Dave Burgess Consulting, like Teach Like a Pirate.
  • 11:07 – A personal habit that Kim points to as a key to her personal success is the fact that she always remains hungry to learn more and engage with other lifelong learners. The thrill of learning never gets old.
  • 13:08 – On Twitter, Kim recommends following @BurgessDave and @HeckAwesome. She credits Dave Burgess with inspiring her to get more connected and contribute on Twitter in the first place.
  • 15:44 – Kim is all about helping students access creative technology tools that allow them to represent their learning in fun and unique ways. One such tool that she’s had a hand in perfecting and promoting is Edu GIFs. Find out how to make your own Edu GIFs at https://daveburgess.com/get-your-gif-on/.
  • 19:40 – We hear about three slamming book recommendations:  1) The Pepper Effect by Sean Gaillard (@SMGaillard), 2) The EduNinja Mindset: 11 Habits for Building a Stronger Mind and Body by Jennifer Burdis (@Jennifer_Burdis), and 3) Be REAL: Educate from the Heart by Tara Martin (@TaraMartinEDU).
  • 21:00 – Looking for another great education podcast to add to your commute this year? Kim recommends Well Played by Michael Matera (@MrMatera).
  • 25:06 – For a great YouTube channel to subscribe to, Kim’s going back to the same dude: Michael Matera, master of gamification and author of Explore Like a Pirate. Check out his channel. Another up-and-coming channel that provided her with some lesson inspiration lately is Stefanie Crawford’s channel. To find out more about Stefanie Crawford, follow her on Twitter as well at @MrsCFord_Tweets.
  • 26:32 – Kim is far too busy (and frankly too hungry to learn) to watch much Netflix, but the last show she binged on there was Fuller House, a modern sequel to the original Full House.
  • 27:40 – We sign off on the conversation, and Kim gives us the best ways to follow her online. On Twitter, you can find her @KimSnodgrass, and you can check out her class blog at https://kimsnodgrass.weebly.com/.

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

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 46 – Katelynn Giordano

46 - Katelynn Giordano

KATELYNN GIORDANO is a sixth grade language arts teacher in Sugar Grove, IL. You can find more of her insights on learning, reading, and writing at CurriculumCoffee.com – “a written shot of espresso for educators.”

In our conversation, Katelynn recalls the time early in her career when a veteran colleague told her not to speak during faculty meetings. Part of her recovery from that discouraging blow involved moving to a new middle school position, where she was fortunate to come under the wing of a mentor who was supportive in every way. It was the positive energy and encouragement gleaned in this environment that helped shape her into the talented and motivated educator she is today. Katelynn also explains why she’s passionate about education and describes the activities that fuel her personal fire outside of the classroom. She tells us about the daily routines that make her productive, and offers some awesome recommendations on Twitter, books, edtech tools, and more.

Follow Katelynn online here:

Find the highlights from our conversation at the timestamps below:

  • 0:52 – Katelynn describes her current context as a 6th grade English teacher at Kaneland Harter Middle School in Sugar Grove, IL, USA.
  • 1:12 – We go back to a time when a veteran colleague told Katelynn to be quiet and not speak during faculty meetings. It was a discouraging encounter to say the least, taking the wind out of her sails for considerable time. Later, Katelynn took an open position in a middle school and was fortunate to come under the wing of a mentor who was supportive in every way. In this case, the grass really was greener on the other side of the fence, and the two contrasting experiences have given her a passion for positive mentorship in education.
  • 6:11 – Katelynn’s passions for education today focus on student-directed and personalized learning, empowering learners to take initiative, giving learners voice and choice, and teaching writing in new and personalized and effective ways. Her perspectives will inspire you!
  • 12:46 – One area of personal learning outside of the classroom has been her rediscovery of the joys of writing. She blogs at CurriculumCoffee.com, and savours the therapeutic qualities of synthesizing ideas and presenting them in ways that others can access and learn from. She also dabbles in drawing, painting, and other artistic pursuits when time allows.
  • 16:14 – A personal habit that contributes to her success is working out each day. She talks about the value of getting away from the digital noise, alone with her thoughts and the positive rewards of exercise. She also enjoys reading children’s literature and using her reading experiences to engage in authentic conversations with students around their reading.
  • 18:26 – On Twitter, Katelynn recommends following @MisterMinor.
  • 19:17 – Her pick for edtech tools is the fabulous FlipGrid. Follow them on Twitter @FlipGrid.
  • 21:15 – Katelynn is a reader, so you know these two picks are good ones. For children’s literature, check out Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rodes. In education, you want Being the Change: Lessons and Strategies to Teach Social Comprehension by Sara K. Ahmed.
  • 22:44 – When she’s got no energy left for reading or writing, Katelynn is watching a Netflix favourite: The Office.
  • 23:51 – We sign off on the conversation, and Katelynn tells us the best places to find and follow her content online. See above for details!

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

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 43 – David McFarland

43 - David McFarland

DAVID McFARLAND is a high school IB humanities teacher at Pacific Academy in Surrey, BC, Canada. Follow him on Twitter @MrMcFTeaches.

In our conversation, David talks about how “We don’t even know you!” challenged him to rethink the importance of building relationships with his students. He describes some of his passions in education today: helping students navigate knowledge critically instead of merely absorbing content, using digital tools to customize learning experiences, and continuing to advocate for some reading on paper. David also shares some of his lifelong learning outside of the classroom, a daily ritual that builds relationships, and his top picks in books, Twitter, Youtube, and more.

Find the highlights from our conversation at the timestamps below:

  • 0:49 – David describes his current teaching situation as a high school humanities teacher at Pacific Academy in Surrey, BC, Canada.
  • 1:18 – Three or four classes into the school year at a new school, he recalls a student bursting out with “We don’t even know you!” That experience challenged him in a positive way and helped him think more deeply about the relational component of teaching. Today, he takes more time and makes more intentional investments in building relationships with his learners.
  • 6:05 – There’s a lot that gets David excited about education today: a new curriculum in BC, better options for course customization, helping students think critically and navigate knowledge instead of dumping content on them, interpreting content in a world that is becoming entirely digital, and still advocating for some reading on paper.
  • 11:25 – One area of learning for David outside of his teaching is the art of cooking. He’s had fun this summer playing around with different cuisines while working his way through the New York Times cooking app. It’s a hobby his family appreciates, because there is always a product everyone can enjoy at the end of every experiment!
  • 13:02 – A personal habit that contributes to his success is based on a fine taste for coffee. He explains how this can be a “ritual that is relational” – an activity that invites others into the creation and enjoyment of the teacher’s go-to beverage. Another habit that feeds him is regularly reading books while at school.
  • 15:53 – David recommends following high school social studies teacher Glen Thielman (@GThielmann).
  • 17:06 – The edtech tool that has made the biggest impression recently is Google Classroom.
  • 21:04 – David’s pick for books is You Are What You Love by James K. A. Smith (@James_KA_Smith).
  • 24:01 – A podcast to add to your podcast line-up is The Way of Improvement Leads Home by (@JohnFea1).
  • 25:40 – If you’re a Social Studies teacher, you need to subscribe to John Green’s Crash Course on YouTube. Follow @TheCrashCourse on Twitter as well.
  • 27:35 – When he’s got time in the summer to enjoy the pleasures of Netflix, David’s watching the The Office and Better Call Saul.
  • 28:42 – David reminds us of where to find him on Twitter @MrMcFTeaches.

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

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!