Monday, October 15, 2012

Penny Kittle's Write Beside Them

I’ve been quiet on the writing front for the past week or so –my “It’s Monday! What are you reading?” posts were written, but little else. I’ve been reading, reading, and reading. Trying to get a jump-start on the Cybils list, read through my “to read” stack, get grades done, etc. But what I’ve noticed about starting a blog and actually writing is that ideas begin to percolate in my brain. I hear something, read something else, and blog posts begin to form. I can follow the thread of the idea, tie from one inspiration to another, and suddenly there is something I am wanting to sit down and write about.

The thread that began this blog occurred last week. I had an institute day in my district. I spent the morning learning about Debbie Diller’s Math Stations. The afternoon was spent learning more about Danielson’s Framework for Teaching. At the end of the day I was left with one tie between the two sessions – engagement. I wondered, when my mom began teaching so many years ago, were we focused so much on student engagement? I know that I had some teachers that thought about it, I’m sure, but so many felt that they were there to distribute the information and we needed to ensure we learned it. If we didn’t, it was our fault.

Thinking over those sessions I kept coming back to this thought. Today in education we need to work to make certain that our students are not only learning the material but also are engaged, that they want to continue learning for the sake of learning. I thought about this a lot that night. What helps kids to want to learn? Relevant lessons, ownership, choice. That last one is huge for me, choice.

It’s no secret here, or in my district; I’m a huge advocate for choice in reading and writing. I’m a firm believer that by allowing my students to choose what they read and what they write, they are more invested in our classroom. This is also why I advocate for the workshop model in our classrooms. And while I know a lot of classrooms at my grade level and below that also embrace the workshop model, I didn’t know many above 5th grade that use it. Enter Penny Kittle’s amazing book, Write Beside Them.

Penny teaches high school writing. Specifically, this book centers around an elective Penny teaches in her district. Seniors can choose to take her writing course and boy, did I wish I was a senior in her district. (I had a wonderful fantasy about uprooting my family, moving across the country, and enrolling as a 38-year-old senior in her class. I’m sure no one would notice.)

I won’t even bother to type out all of the amazing lines from this book. Mine looks like it has been through a war – post its, dog-eared corners, highlighted lines. I actually took about three weeks to read this book because I didn’t want to be done, I wanted to savor it.

What made Penny’s book stand out to me was that you could tell how much she connects with her students. Many of you know that I just finished up my second master’s degree in administration. The topic I came back to again and again in my papers was relationships. I firmly believe that when we connect with our students, when we know where they are and what they are dealing with, we have a stronger classroom. If kids know how much you care about them, they will work at a different level than if they think you don’t know them or care about them. Penny is a teacher that gets this. There are a million passages I could pull out of her book that exemplifies this idea, but I am settling with this one:

You know this: The single most efficient path toward success as a teacher lies in knowing your students in important ways. Not if they complete their homework, but how and why they do. Not if they arrive to class on time, but what they’re thinking as they move through the halls. Not if they have a sister, but the relationship between them. I will need to have honest conversations with each of my students about their writing or their behavior or their plans for college; I need to know them in order to do that well. I need them to trust me, so we can get to the important work of learning.
(p. 102)

 I’ll end this pseudo-review with this. I don’t know many professional development books that I cry as I read. Only a beautiful handful of PD books have touched me enough that I was moved to tears. This is not a book for high school teachers only; this is a book for us all.

Penny’s book inspired me. It made me wish I taught seniors, and that’s saying a lot. It made me wish she was in my district so that I could watch her. It made me want to be a better teacher myself. And the biggest compliment I can pay someone, it made me want her to teach my sons. I highly recommend this book for all professional development libraries. I had promised many teachers they could borrow mine but I think they will need to get their own; mine needs to stay right beside me. To remind me of the type of teacher I aspire to be.