We Write for Life

The more reflective you are, the more effective you are. — Pete Hall and Alisa Simeral

Photo by Hannah Olinger on Unsplash

Last year I read Sparks in the DarkLessons, Ideas, and Strategies to Illuminate the Reading and Writing Lives in All of Us by Travis Crowder and Todd Nesloney.

Wow. What a powerful and inspiring book.

If you’re passionate about literacy, about promoting the place and pleasure of effective reading and writing in your classroom, I strongly recommend this title.

I said “in your classroom,” but one of the things that comes across so powerfully in Sparks in the Dark is the fact that literacy must be a lifestyle.

To be genuine, to be vibrant, to be contagious — reading and writing must spill out of our personal lives.

And this goes for all teachers — not just those who teach English Language Arts. As educators, as thinkers, as lead learners, we must model a life of constant reading and writing.

Literacy is Breathing

If we say that communication, creativity, curiosity, and critical thinking are the core competencies at the foundation of today’s education, we must practice what we preach.

In an age of digital amusement and easy-everywhere distraction, we must show our learners what it looks like to mentally breathe. To stop, be still, and practice the acts of mental inhalation (reading) and exhalation (writing).

One of the most important reasons that we write is to know ourselves. As Don Murray says, “You write to discover what you want to say.

It sometimes feels like the act and art of self-reflection is a vanishing habit. But we must show our learners that these practices are essential aspects of living a healthy and productive life.

When Our Reading Lives Are Shallow, So is Our Teaching

Speaking especially to educators, Crowder and Nesloney write “We prioritize what we value, and when we do not value reading or learning, it shows. Our instruction is a mixture of what we have read, and when our reading lives are shallow, so is our teaching. It isn’t an insult; it’s the truth.”

We cannot be effective educators if we are not regularly reading and reflectively writing.

Becoming a Writer

To those who feel defeated by identity before they even start (“I’m not a writer”), James Clear describes his own evolution as a writer in his recent book, Atomic Habits.

You may not be a reader or writer today. But you can and will become one — one paragraph, one page, one article at a time.

So pick up a book. Grab a pen or sit down at the keyboard. Score some small wins, and begin the gradual process of redefining yourself.

Start breathing.

Because the more reflective you are, the more effective you are.

person writing on brown wooden table near white ceramic mug
Image Credit: Green Chameleon on Unsplash

Just Start: Get on the Track of Improvement

By settling for safety, we miss out on certain growth and learning.

Photo by NordWood Themes on Unsplash

“Fear is always triggered by creativity, because creativity asks you to enter into realms of uncertain outcome. This is nothing to be ashamed of. It is, however, something to be dealt with.” — Elizabeth Gilbert

At the outset of the new year, AJ Juliani issued a challenge to the education world: blog — or engage in blogging activities — for thirty days.

His call was a welcome one. Research has long been telling us that our students learn best when they are given the time, tools, and opportunity to reflect thoughtfully on their own learning journeys. In Leaders of Their Own Learning, Ron Berger calls this sort of metacognitive activity “writing to learn.”

The same principle applies for educators.

Writing to Learn and Learning to Write

The more we speak, write, tweet, vlog, and publish about our learning and professional practice, the more we will learn, grow, and develop as educators. And as we make our own learning visible, others benefit and grow as well.

John Hattie talks about the power of collective efficacy. Stephen Covey calls it win-win. Simply put, we’re better together.

Our professional growth isn’t just about reading and listening to the established voices in education. It’s also about sharing and contributing our own experiences.

So, as passionate educators, why don’t we participate in the global conversation more than we do?

It’s Not Really About Time

The typical response says we don’t have enough time in the week. But for most, that’s not actually the case. As Laura Vanderkam demonstrates convincingly in 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think, most of us actually do have the time.

When you get right down to it, most of us aren’t hitting ‘Publish’ for one reason: fear.

We fear embarrassment. Rejection. Crickets.

We assume that our voice doesn’t matter. That no one will pay attention. Or worse yet, that we’ll be exposed as an imposter.

As Elizabeth Gilbert points out, most of us don’t publish creatively because the outcome is uncertain. There’s just no guarantee of success — whatever success means.

So we take the safe option.

The Power of Practice

But people who aren’t publishing are overlooking an absolute guarantee: improvement.

That’s right, I said it. When you create content consistently over time, your growth and improvement is guaranteed. You can’t help but get better.

In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell makes the case that repetition is highly underrated. He tells story after story of individuals who simply put in the time on their craft to gradually become an expert in their space.

Marques Brownlee

Earlier this year, I listened to a podcast featuring YouTuber Marques Brownlee, a soft-spoken, thoughtful, and charismatic tech reviewer. He talked about how he began publishing YouTube videos back in high school simply because he loved the medium and enjoyed the process. As he describes it, his first 100 videos were viewed by audiences of around 100 people.

Today, Brownlee’s videos earn millions of views apiece. He has 7.7M subscribers.

It’s not all about growing an audience. That’s not really my point, although the size of his growing viewership does speak to the value of his work.

What I’m more interested in is those first 100 videos. Just think about the sort of headspace he was in to continue creating.

As he puts it, he created content simply because he enjoyed it. The views and reactions were secondary.

And because he stuck with it, he’s obviously eclipsed Gladwell’s 10,000 hours. He’s become a master at his craft.

The Teachers on Fire Podcast

In March of 2018, I realized a long-held dream by launching a podcast for educators, Teachers on Fire. I didn’t really know what I was doing, and I had questions about everything from applications to equipment to guests.

It took a lot of work to get started, and it definitely wasn’t easy. My sound quality was awful at the beginning, and I made a ton of unfortunate mistakes that made the process even more painful.

The interview for my very first episode took forever to complete because the recording app I was using crashed at least six times. It was a frustrating first experience.

Almost a year later, I still don’t have it all figured out. But I’m learning. I’m growing. I’m improving my craft. I’m miles and miles from where I started, and my conversations with education leaders are inspiring listeners around the world.

Consistent Content Creation is a Direct Line to Improvement

I don’t consider myself a skilled artist. But I have zero doubt in my mind that if I set aside three hours a weekend to learn and practice pencil drawing for 52 weeks, I would be a much better artist by year’s end.

Absolutely no doubt in my mind.

I’m convinced that the same holds true for any kind of creative publishing. Once we embark on the commitment of regular creation, improvement isn’t a question. It’s an absolute certainty.

And as we hone our creative skills, our contributions to the world around us become more valuable.

This is what I want my stepsons to know. My students to know. And you, fellow educator, to know.

We can lament our lack of creative skills. Or we can take action.

Just start.

Episode 49 – Colby Sharp

49 - Colby Sharp2.png

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 46 – Katelynn Giordano

46 - Katelynn Giordano.png

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!