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 43 – David McFarland

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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!

Episode 39 – CJ Reynolds

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CJ REYNOLDS is better known by his YouTube channel, Real Rap with Reynolds, where he talks teaching, relationships, and life. As a passionate educator and creator, his two truths in teaching are: #1 relationships are king, and #2 it’s only ever about the students.

In our conversation, CJ recalls the tremendous fatigue he faced as a rookie teacher, and discusses the importance of learning to say no to some things. He talks about how a project with his son turned into a YouTube presence with over 13,000 subscribers, and the tremendous opportunities that the internet allows teachers and students today in terms of global connections and collaboration. He shares about personal passions outside of the classroom, his morning routine, and his recommendations for books, Twitter, edtech tools, and more.

Check out Real Rap with Reynolds on YouTube HERE: https://bit.ly/2vm711T.

Follow CJ!

Find the highlights from our conversation at the timestamps below:

  • 1:11 – CJ describes his teaching context: teaching 9th grade literature and a course called The History of Hip Hop in Philadelphia.
  • 2:07 – He recalls the tremendous fatigue he felt as a rookie teacher, some days unable to do nothing in the evening but sleep. Part of working his way through and out of that fatigue was perfecting ‘The Art of Saying No.’
  • 4:21 – We hear the story the Real Rap with Reynolds YouTube channel, from his son’s interest to his personal passion.
  • 8:04 – CJ explains what really excites him about education today: the new opportunities for connection, engagement, and authentic learning around the globe that the internet gives us.
  • 10:43 – His personal passions outside of the classroom include gardening and training for a triathlon.
  • 13:21 – “I’m a routine monster.” – CJ likes to wake up at 5, exercise, swim, or run, and spend some time in meditation at the beginning of each day.
  • 15:16 – Accounts worth following on Twitter: @RandyRibay, author of After the Shot Drops.
  • 17:07 – CJ suggests we try https://storybird.com/ in our English classes, another tool that allows students to create multifaceted representations and stories.
  • 20:34 – His book recommendations include After the Shot Drops by Randy Ribay and Tattoos on the Heart by @FrGregBoyle.
  • 24:45 – Two of the podcasts CJ has been listening to lately include The Tim Ferriss Show by Tim Ferriss and the Rich Roll Podcast by Rich Roll.
  • 26:02 – An accomplished YouTuber himself, CJ looks for inspiration to channels like Casey Neistat, Gary Vaynerchuk, and Mac Premo.
  • 28:06 – When he has no energy left for anything else productive, CJ’s watching Shooter and Better Call Saul on Netflix.

Subscribe to the 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!