It’s been a year of growing this idea and a process of constantly coming undone. What a privilege to come to this place of unlearning. Of coming to know how little I know. I began this post weeks away from the end of the school year and am now putting the finishing touches on it weeks into launching into a new year.
I’ll try to focus my thoughts on Wild Wednesday and its evolution alone even though my thoughts keep trying to run away on me.
Wild Wednesdays was an evolution of the story work we began last year. This year, I had the opportunity to undertake a learning on the land series as a professional, which, in our school grew into “Wild Wednesday and Fresh Air Tuesday (it was going to be Fresh Air Friday but the schedule didn’t work…)” Our staff undertook story work with Saa’kokoto and Jeff Stockton and explored ways in which oral language supports developing literacy.
The project was to get outside for meaningful learning experiences as a regular part of our work. Not in spite of the weather. But together with the weather.
“Nature is alive and talking to us. This is not a metaphor.”
This powerful statement drove so much of our work outside.
“Really?!” People asked. “You go outside when it’s cold?”
“Yes,” I answer. “Even when it’s cold. Maybe especially when it’s cold.” I am not an outdoor die-hard… I am young in learning to learn outside work. But I have come to realize that I especially love moments outside where nature allows us to really feel nature. We always took care that students were adequately dressed for the weather: A regular schedule helped. Sticking to the promise of Wild Wednesdays helped. Kids always knew we were headed out… no matter the weather.
I laughed with my team a lot this year because every time we planned to take students walking to the park (a 20-25 minute walk from the school) it snowed. Like… out-of-season, ridiculous, heavy snowed… but we adventured outside with students anyway.
So… What did we do outside?
We learned to follow the emergent curriculum and allowed students to develop questions from their observations. As teachers, too, we watched students watching and questioned our teaching practices. We watched students become more engaged by being outside and watched students who might find engaging inside the traditional classroom engage in the work while outside. We found that we didn’t need to be experts of all the things… a deep knowledge of our curriculums allowed us to follow student curiosity.
We sat in circle and told stories in places where they live. Stories about rose hips while sitting next to rose hips.
Stories about Raven and the north wind where the wind ruffled our hair.
In addition to taking students outside and undertaking story work, we as teachers had the opportunity to engage in learning on the land and to taking up conversations about pedagogy that lead to beautiful questions.
At the end of the year we celebrated “moving camp” where students had the opportunity to engage in teachings with Saa’kokoto and to sit again with Jeff Stockton, our storytelling artist in residence. Jeff asked, “What’s one thing you were most excited about this year?” The kids answered, “Wild Wednesdays” and “definitely my reading.”
My answer: watching students develop as storytellers and watching them come to know the beings in this place and how their growth as storytellers had supported their growth in reading and writing.
One of my families relayed a story at the end of the year about retelling the story of Thunder. How just as they they finished retelling the story thunder had rolled before a spring storm and how perfectly magical it was to connect story to place. How confident that child was in the story.
I’m not sure I have entirely answered my own question for inquiry: How might oral storytelling support raising student literacy? How do you know?
But… I know that learners and teachers connected to the work and developed an affinity for the stories and the spaces in which they live. I listened to learners affectionately call, “Thunder!” one morning as we moved furniture to make space to circle and one of the kids bumped a table, causing it to scrape the floor.
Stories live in places and with people. Wild Wednesdays provided the opportunity to see that grow in our community.
Always the question: How do you know your work has an impact? Documenting the impact of the work is an ever evolving project. I guess for me the answer came anecdotally two weeks ago… In conversation with Saa’kokoto, he relayed how moved he had been to have a student from my community of learners greet him in Blackfoot at Writing on Stone park over the summer.
I know these learners carry the teachings in their hearts and carry them forward into their families and their communities.
I expected to write this post as a period at the end of a long paragraph… instead it turned out that paragraph is only the end of the introduction. The body of the work is yet to come…
I am grateful for the opportunity to add my effort to the beautiful work already being done and am excited to see what comes next.
Deciding to guide students in becoming podcasters and sharing their work is, in my mind, an easy extension of what happens naturally in our language classrooms. The purpose of language is communication. We become better communicators through practice, repetition, and feedback. Podcasting formalizes lots of those natural dialogues.
When I started working with my students at Niitsitapi, we needed a way to record and share the stories so they lived beyond the walls of our classroom and into every classroom in our building and podcasting seemed like a natural place for this work to happen.
What does it mean to be a story teller? What are the elements of a good story?
Podcasting is storytelling. No matter what topic you choose with your students, you are asking them to find a way to make stories matter for the audience. The only way a listener is hooked beyond the initial opening is storytelling. Contextualize math, science, social studies and suddenly you have yourselves a story. And once you have a story it begs to be told…
For the purposes of the first foray into podcasting, there was some freedom for students in knowing that honouring traditional stories meant not making changes or additions to the story. Telling was retelling. And becoming familiar with the elements of a good story gave students confidence to write their own stories and plus the work later.
As the work passed into the second year, it grew from retelling traditional stories to plussing them with many sides. A multi-sided story that includes both science eyes and traditional perspectives. Kids were hooked. We brainstormed all of the many sides that might be important to telling our story.
Once you have the why down, the how is pretty easy.
Finding recording space in busy, noisy schools can be challenging. I found that a quiet corner in the classroom works just fine and, in the end, we adapted our puppet theatre to be the large “box” and insulated it with blankets. I left the upright pipes unchanged, mostly because I didn’t want to buy new joints. If I were designing from scratch I would likely make a few modifications but sometimes design constraints are a good thing. Mostly successfully recording is about teaching students to respect one another in the classroom; if one group is recording the others need to be next to silent. Milk crates stuffed with soft materials was an excellent exploration of a science unit in hearing and sound and make darn good mini studios.
Listen to podcasts and determine elements of a good podcast using kid-friendly podcasts as “mentor texts”. We looked at the types of podcasts and most decided on one or two voices in a conversation, retelling the stories learned.
The amazing team over at Tumble Podcast accepted a Skype session with my students and discussed what makes up a good podcast and offered support on technical elements of recording. One of the tips we liked best: record in a place with lots of “stuffy soft things”.
I had students use this format to organize their thinking for the introduction and this to write the script. Some of my work in another lifetime is in writing for film and television, so I was kind of winging it here with how to write an official podcast script. I showed students examples of my scripts and we discussed the elements that made them “good”. We looked at samples of scripts including this. Finally, I made up my own version of what I wanted it to look like to help organize their work.
The class divided into teams and each took on 1-2 elements of the topic. They researched and brainstormed using a concept web, which they turned into a rough draft. The final draft is a colour-coded script where each student has highlighted their lines with a different colour.
I used the Blue Yeti mic to record my work as a part of my masters in educational technology, so I figured that if it was good enough for that work it was good enough for the classroom. We paired it with garage band on the macbook pros at school. Even this much is not necessary, though… there is absolutely nothing wrong with the production quality you’ll get out of an iPad or iPod in a room with decent acoustics.
Postproduction and publication
After recording, it’s time to edit the audio. I like Garageband for putting things together but find that it’s tricky for young students to do without one-to-one support. If you have time available for it then I’d say go for it and make it fancy… if not, there is nothing wrong with a simple voice recorder on your smart device and hitting pause and record as needed. If you choose to add music be sure to use podcast friendly music and credit the creators. Good habits are important to instill in our students.
We chose to publish our podcast to Soundcloud and place a link to it on our classroom Website and Twitter feed rather than creating an RSS feed and publishing to iTunes, which, I guess means we’re not an official podcast, but with a budget of zero dollars and when this gives us access to everything we needed as school-based podcasters, this fit the bill.
The love of being an author and storyteller is a delicate plant that needs to be nurtured for kiddos. A little praise, a little space for taking risks, a little nudge towards improving the next draft. They’re enjoying the work for now and I can’t wait to share the next iterations.
So here is story of coming to know how my story goes, if only briefly, sitting by the river wrapped in a blanket and perched on a rock while the magpies beak at me.
In which I rise each morning and note the value of the light through my bedroom window: blue in winter amber in spring. Priceless in both cases. Where the magpies greet me in my yard – bossy things – on my way to errands or disappearing into a long run.
In which I decide life is short…
Buy the expensive journal and fill it with perfectly quotidian thoughts. Paint a series of birds for no purpose other than to make a beautiful thing and store it away. Write the story that lives in my heart and takes up space in my head. Count time by the way the light changes. Embrace both blue light and orange. Trust the art will beg to be made when it can’t not be made.
Long for the thing just out of reach, but embrace the things beside me. Take the leap even though it’s risky…
*Sometimes I make things that defy my categories… so I write a meditation on my teacher blog and justify it because teachers who write are better teachers of writing. That’s what I tell myself this morning, anyway, about why this belongs here… I might change my mind later…
Better to leave blank with possibility than full of certain ruin.
I love pretty notebooks. Every one of them a possibility that this will be the one: the notebook that is finally filled perfectly with lovely poems, and stories, and perfect hand writing. So you know what I like to do?
I like to crack them open and ruin them a little bit. I write something imperfect in the middle: my grocery list, a “to do” list, a brainstorm for a paper I’m thinking about writing. Once the imperfect first page is out of the way I get to be over the feeling that this notebook needs to be full of only perfect things.
Students, too, need support in getting over the need for perfection. Better to not start, so many demonstrate, and retain the possibility of perfection, than to begin imperfectly and have the world see we don’t actually know it all just yet. So lately I have tried to actually make visible some of the editing I do while writing to share with my young writers. A published novel, after all, is a final draft, and demonstrating for students that drafting can be messy, mentally taxing, and sometimes physically exhausting is so often invisible work.
How do we get students drafting and get them off the idea that the draft needs to be perfect? Presented in imperfect order, my thoughts as a teacher/ writer/ teacher of writing (because TPCK is a thousand percent applicable to teaching writing, too).
You’re gonna have to get uncomfortable for this one. You know the “I do, we do, you do” mantra? Yeah… you’re gonna have to actually draft in front of students (I actually pre-draft ’cause it’s darn hard to make up on the spot) but when I’m demonstrating drafting and thinking about drafting I sure am verbalizing the doubting, messy, back-and-forth mental gymnastics of putting words on paper. If students are to take a risk then we should, to. Students need to see the struggle.
2. Ditch the pencil
Teach young kids to write in pen. Too often they erase and get stuck making a perfect draft by erasing, but I think more powerful is teaching students the power of a single stroke to take off a wrong word while drafting and keep writing! Momentum is a powerful writing tool!
3. Use a pencil
Teachers love coloured pens, don’t we? Sometimes a new pack of fine-tipped sharpies makes me so happy. So silly. But an interesting thing happened when I stopped marking in pen. Students responded to pencil because they can remove my marks if they still want their perfect draft. In the end the notes and scribbles are for the student not for me or for the parent. If the child takes the note and improves the draft then we have met our goal. Learning notes go in the learner profile not in the notebook.
As a writer, too, I love my pencil because it takes away the permanency. If I need to erase I can and the work can be “perfect” if I want it to be.
4. Use an organizer
Planning for writing is hard even when you’re a master of standard spelling and a pretty good placer of commas. My outlines are usually pencil scribbles of ideas I want to hit in each paragraph or story maps with scribbled notes. Kids need more structure… copy a planner… (there are many fab planners out there… cult of pedagogy has many) or teach a child to draw one in their sketch journal if you can’t find what you want. My students love coffee-lid tracers, which we label with story elements. They love the graphic novel tracer templates that hang by the phone. Take away one executive task by planning for writing and writing in separate writing sessions.
But… Ever tried planning for writing using that writing planner you just copied? No? (No guilt trip here, man… I’ve done it… copied the planner, handed it out, checked the box on the list… “planner provided”) But, sometimes those planners are really unwieldy as a writing tool. So I’ve learned if I want students to use it I better trial it first. What writing experience will the learner actually have while using it? If you don’t try it you won’t know.
5. Don’t use an organizer
Sometimes a beautiful draft just spills onto the page. Make space for imperfect lovely drafts to spill out.
6. Drafting is a physical act: use stickies or a bulletin board
I like my bulletin board. In my own drafting there is always a place where the work becomes too unwieldy to hold in my head and I need index cards to map it out. This is my next goal with students: writing folders with sticky notes to move and map. (I’ll let you know how it goes)
7. Imperfect first drafts
Don’t fix it… hit enter and keep typing. Turn the page and keep going.
When drafting and it’s not going the way I want it to I turn the page. That way there is a possibility of a perfect page. Don’t erase! Drafting is NOT editing or revising! (Well… sometimes it is… but let’s make space for the visceral experience of drafting without the inner editor on our shoulders.)
8. Provide an audience
Most kids I know loooove to read their work aloud. This takes off the pressure of perfect spelling and grammar. A piece read aloud is full of the writer’s voice even when the writer benefits from continued support in developing the tools to wrangle that voice down onto paper.
9. Grey space
Ever try to conjure a poem out of the air? The good stuff rarely comes when we call it. The truth, for me anyway, is that the good stuff comes when otherwise engaged. Walking, washing dishes, soaking in the tub… they don’t look like writing, but will more often lead to desperately seeking a pencil than trying to bid a poem come.
10. Mentor texts, mentor texts, mentor texts
Good writers are readers. Demonstrate voice by sharing story. Read it once for story sense. Read it again to pick apart the writer’s tool box… notice that beautiful turn of phrase? How did the author create suspense? What does the writer assume the reader already knows?
So here’s to more grey space, more productive wandering, more noticing beautiful words and unexpected combinations. Here’s to more creative risk taking for students and teachers alike.
* This post is a messy schmoz of teacher-writer advice and personal notes to self. If it’s useful to you then leave a note. I’d love to know you’re there. If you have other ideas I’d LOVE to hear them!
Rising off my sleeping bag in the cold September air, I can’t help but think to myself how lucky I am. I can afford gear and food that allows me to be outside and active even when the cold has told so many people to stay inside. I have the support of family to take on new adventures. I have the gift of teachers willing to support my learning.
The light inside this tent, faintly blue through tent walls in the rising sun behind clouds, the sound of a bird dust-bathing outside, drips with possibility. Stories live on the rock walls, in the plants that line the trails, among the people I am lucky to be here with.
I am lucky to have a job that allows me to work so meta cognitively; I get to deeply explore the contexts in which my work lives. Math lives in places. Stories live in places. There is danger in separating learning from its contexts
I got to thinking about awe related to learning because I gave up a spot at a writing about awe workshop in order to be outdoors; to experience awe rather than to concentrate on writing about it. What I learned is that the experience of awe slows our experience of events so that we actually remember more of the event. Could it be that awe is the factor that allows learners to widen the aperture on the learning and take in more light? If we can spend fifty minutes with paper and pencil or fifty minutes knee deep in snow and asking questions the awe-inspiring experience has to win every time.
Why is the world beautiful? What if the answer lies in science, and math, and stories waiting for us to trip over them while we lay in the snow and look up at the sky and watch the flakes drift down? Yes practice and fluency with facts matter. Yes. But only if we uncover a need for them first.
Experience. Then wonder. Then share. Story as a noun. Story as a verb. Uncover a need for knowing… then uncover the knowing.