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

60 - AJ Bianco

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 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 45 – Jarrod Dumas

45 - Jarrod Dumas

JARROD DUMAS is an assistant principal at Oak Hill Middle School in Sabattus, Maine. He recently published Unlocking Excellence: A Guide to Becoming an Extraordinary Educator.

In our conversation, Jarrod recalls a great story about how his own sarcasm once cost him in the classroom. He shares about the heart and message of his book, and discusses the sources of his excitement in education today. We also get into Carl Jung’s archetypes, fitness, educators to follow on Twitter, Sherlock Holmes, and more! See below for more details and timestamps from our conversation.

Follow Jarrod online here:

Find the highlights from our conversation at the timestamps below:

  • 0:55 – Jarrod describes his current position and responsibilities as Assistant Principal at Oak Hill Middle School in Sabattus, ME.
  • 2:26 – “Well, if you would get off your ass and teach us something … I wouldn’t be playing these games now, would I?” Jarrod recalls a time that sarcasm cost him in the classroom and explains how being authentic with students can build relationships and buy credibility.
  • 8:13 – We talk about the heart and message for educators in Unlocking Excellence: A Guide to Becoming an Extraordinary Educator. In the book, Jarrod shares practical advice and relevant examples that help educators improve their mindset and become the best that they can be.
  • 12:01 – There’s a lot that excites Jarrod about education today: the opportunity to shift the paradigm in education, the promise of technology and the ability to bring the outside world into the classroom, and more. There’s nothing we can’t sort out if every part of the learning community contributes and pulls together, he says.
  • 13:39 – An area of personal learning that has been fascinating Jarrod outside of education lately is Carl Jung’s work on archetypes, which can give us a fresh lens through which to view and understand ourselves and our potential.
  • 17:07 – A personal habit that contributes to his success is fitness: exercising regularly, eating right, walking, and practicing self-care. As educators, we need to remember to put on the oxygen mask first.
  • 19:37 – On Twitter, Jarrod points us toward @TeacherofSci1, who offers great content on Instagram and has a large following on other platforms but is relatively new to Twitter.
  • 20:43 – Looking to classroom practice, Jarrod recommends any edtech tools that increase student engagement. In particular, he mentions Socrative and Kahoot. Get to know those two platforms on Twitter @Socrative and @GetKahoot.
  • 20:43 – Jarrod gives us two great book recommendations. The first is King, Warrior, Magician, Lover by Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette. The second is Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Novels and Stories Vol. 1 by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
  • 23:26 – If you’re looking for some hard-hitting motivation for your creative and entrepreneurial dreams, look no further than The Gary Vee Audio Experience by @GaryVee.
  • 24:36 – A YouTube channel that never fails to deliver motivation in the mornings for Jarrod is Motivation Guru. He recommends subscribing!
  • 25:30 – When he’s got no energy for anything productive, Jarrod is watching Peaky Blinders on Netflix.
  • 26:23 – We sign off on the conversation and Jarrod shares the best ways and places 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

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!