By Tricia Baldes and Andrea Hayden
Sitting on a plane on the way home from Houston after attending the NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English) annual convention, we have so many voices in our heads, so many ideas to experiment with, and so much inspiration to bring back to our classrooms—not to mention books, tons of books!
One voice in particular is a little louder and a little more persistent than the rest— the voice of Donna Santman, a long-time coach/mentor/colleague. Presenting in a session titled “Talking. Silence. Voice. Who Owns Student Voices and Who Is Really Listening?” on Saturday afternoon, Donna led her segment by posing these questions:
- How should children spend their days in the classroom?
- Why do we shy away from this question?
She demanded that we imagine building a curriculum of what we really want to see kids doing and making every day in our classrooms.
We co-presented a session at the conference the day before: “The Magic of Writing Novels in a Month: Tips for Taking on the NaNoWriMo Challenge with Students.” The conference was in November, and our eighth-graders were in the throes of National Novel Writing Month. They were committed to writing a novel in one month, having set word-count goals for themselves at the start of the November and were working tirelessly to meet them.
This is the third November our eighth-graders have taken on the NaNoWriMo Challenge, and we can say with conviction that this is a project well worth spending our days on—all 30 of those days—even more if we are being honest. We begin by brainstorming and planning with students in October and carry through into December with revision, editing and publishing of excerpts and lots of time to celebrate and share. Inspired by our co-presenter and fast friend, Laura Bradley, we intend to begin even earlier, starting NaNoWriMo planning with reading work at the start of the school year. We are also excited to get additional NaNoWriMo inspiration from The Author’s Apprentice, authored by another kindred spirit co-presenter at the conference, Vicki Meigs-Kahlenberg.
How do we know that this work is worthy of the limited and precious time we have with our students each day? Because they tell us it is. Not just with words, but with their actions. We see how much this work matters every day in the process.
Initially our students are dumbfounded (and delighted) by the notion that they have complete creative control to write their stories, their way. Many students start the year already having ideas for their novels, and although we do not start the work in earnest until late October, our students are all buzzing about it—talking with friends, with family and with us—in anticipation and excitement of writing their novels.
Once we start, kids come into our rooms chatting about how many words they wrote the night before, about how they figured out a new plot twist, about how that flipped classroom lesson on showing instead of telling really did help them up their word count and write a really awesome scene. They naturally form writing partners and groups who give honest and constructive feedback. They remain after the bell has rung, in an effort to finish a scene or make it to their next word-count milestone.
They are writing fantasy, romance, historical fiction, dystopia, mystery, realistic fiction and thrillers. Their main characters are rock stars, spies, dragons, survivors of disasters, and middle school students just like them.
Students who were once terrified of writing, seeing it as their weakness, reframe their writing identities as they accomplish goals they could never before imagine. Students with learning differences who have historically struggled with their writing, are performing at the same level as their grade-level peers. Apathetic students who typically opt out of schoolwork entirely are hovered over their keyboards typing at lightning speed, or sitting in the hallway dictating their novels into a device.
This work matters to kids. They are interested, invested and committed. And it shows in their writing—which is hands down some of the best they do all year. And it shows in the way they respond to the work of their peers—with awe and admiration. So, yes, when we think about Donna’s aforementioned questions, this is how kids should be spending their days.
But what about the rest of the year? How do you spend those days? We can imagine Donna asking, pushing us to think more, do better and be better for the kids in our care. Seeing what can be—and what we believe should be—for our students, we will take Donna’s questions to heart as we work on our own curricular revisions. And we encourage you, kindred spirits, to consider these questions of Donna’s as you look at the individual students you share your classroom with every day.
Much love from somewhere between Texas and New York!
P.S. We were awestruck and delighted to look out into the participants at our session and see Tom Newkirk there. Tom is the author of so many books in our professional libraries, and his work, most especially Holding On to Good Ideas in a Time of Bad Ones: Six Literacy Principles Worth Fighting For and Minds Made of Stories: How We Really Read and Write Informational and Persuasive Texts, serve as further reminders of why making time and space in our curriculum for this kind of expressive and creative narrative writing is essential and standards based!
Tricia Baldes earned a master’s in English from Lehman College and has been a middle level educator since 2001. Her passion for human rights education has led to her writing curriculum and consulting with nonprofit organizations like Creative Visions, Speak Truth to Power and KidsRights. She co-authored the Rock Your World curriculum and currently works with the team as a program coordinator. In addition to presenting at national conferences for NCTE and ACSD, Tricia has led various teacher trainings and programs for students. She teaches eighth-grade English in Westchester County, N.Y.
Andrea Hayden earned a bachelor's degree in elementary and special education at the State University of New York at Geneseo. She earned a master’s in curriculum and instruction from Boston College and has been teaching middle school since 2002. Over the course of her time in education, Andrea has developed a passion for inclusive education. She believes that given the right supports, all children can learn in the general education environment. Andrea presented this year at her first NCTE conference and is currently helping lead her district’s inclusivity initiative through committee membership and facilitating co-teaching in-service courses. She co-teaches eighth-grade English as the special educator in Westchester County, N.Y.