“As a profession, we are gripped by fear.” Those are the opening words from Lucy Calkins in her forward to The Unstoppable Writing teacher by Colleen Cruz. As Lucy prepares the reader for Colleen’s words, she goes on to write:
“(Fear) is a cage that traps us, alone, into our worst selves. Into a space with demons only we can see. We become the person we dread being.”
In The Unstoppable Writing Teacher, Colleen Cruz tells us to name that fear. As a self-declared positive pessimist, Colleen guides us through building a better toolbox and helps us identify what stops us in writing instruction. Colleen’s honesty is on full display throughout The Unstoppable Writing Teacher. We began our conversation on those anxieties and why it was important to include them in the book.
See below for a full transcript:
Colleen: One of the things I learned pretty early on in life, I think probably from my mother, was that when you make things public, when you bring things into the light, they're less scary. The proverbial pile of laundry in the corner of your bedroom that you think is a monster, when you turn on the lights, you say, oh, that's really a pile of laundry, or it is, in fact, a monster. Either way, it's easier to fight that monster when you can actually see it. I think a lot of times we get ourselves into deeper trouble when we try to pretend something doesn't really exist, when we try to look the other way, even things like in our own personal lives, like feeling doubts about a relationship with somebody or concerns about a parenting decision.
I think when we keep those a secret and we try to put just our best face, I think we set ourselves up for actual failure. I think you're, or at least I know I am, less likely to feel like a failure when I put my problems out there. I feel like communities step up when you put those things out there. I'm more likely to get help and assistance for problems when I say them, and I also think there's a stigma around having struggles and challenges that I feel we should get rid of. I do strongly believe that challenges and struggles are what make life interesting, it's why we read stories. When we look at the end of a day, it's the fact that we overcame a struggle or a challenge that makes us feel like our lives are worth living. That's why I think it's really important to keep talking about those things.
Brett: One of the things that you talk about in the book is we confuse the writing and the writer. Why do we do that?
Colleen: The first time I heard that was Lucy Calkins, gosh, it was like 1995, I think, the first time I heard her do a keynote. She said something about teaching the writer, not the writing. It felt like I'd gotten hit by a lightning bolt because I had realized that's exactly what I do as a teacher. I think often what we do is we focus on what we see in front of us and when we look at student writing, we literally look at the concrete evidence in front of us and we want to make that concrete piece of evidence in front of us better or stronger. It's a lot harder to look at a child and see what he or she could do, his or her potential, what's not there, and try to make it happen.
It is challenging for us to teach almost into a void, into possibility, into absence of something, often. Sometimes there's some signs that the child could go this way. Because the difference is teaching to something that's concrete versus something that's imagined, I think that's part of what we do. I also think that many of us are judged on what's hanging on our bulletin boards or what goes home in folders. I've heard teachers say when my superintendent comes or my principals come or my parents come for a visit, they're not going to necessarily see Johnny made huge amounts of growth. They're going to see Johnny's piece doesn't look like the rest of the class's. Could I just sort of do a little this and that to make Johnny make a passable piece? That's understandable, too. That's a pressure that I think a lot of teachers feel, I think a lot of us feel.
If you've ever had a party, how many of us pretend to clean the house and then shove everything into one closet, when really we should use that opportunity to clean the house? I think that, as teachers, the challenge is completely understandable. I also think it's short-sighted, and I think if we want to have a legacy to the work that we do, if we want kids to remember us in 20, 30 years or to go to college thinking fondly of us, it's not just that one piece about their aunt and the chocolate bar, it's got to be about their year with you and the trajectory of the body of work the child did with you.
Brett: One challenge you write about in the book, you welcomed a young man named [Samir 00:04:17], who came into your classroom from Yemen. When his father brought him in, he announced that he didn't know any English, and you immediately, in your writing, give us a glimpse into your internal panic on how to teach him without knowing his language. What did you learn from that experience?
Colleen: I learned many, many things from that experience. One is my own false conception of if I have this, then I can do that. I'd had students in my class who spoke Spanish in the past, and I felt really comfortable working with them. I'd had students who spoke French and, even though I wasn't fluent in French, I felt like I knew a couple of words or I knew something about the culture. With this particular student, I didn't know his alphabet, I didn't know the sounds, I didn't feel like I particularly knew the culture. What I failed to realize is probably some of the things I'd been doing in the past, which is when I worked with a child who spoke Spanish, that the knowledge of Spanish that I had didn't necessarily affect my knowledge of ability to teach English to an English language learner, sort of masked my own lack of knowledge in strategy and skill for teaching those students.
Samir taught me to learn how to teach somebody who was learning English. He taught me how to ask for help, because it was such a clear thing for me to find out that this student, with all the things that he was dealing with, with his new home, with being separated from his mother and some of his siblings, he taught me a lot about the whole package of a student. Communicating with the family, I had to communicate with the family because they were the only people who spoke his language that I knew of, so I learned something of that.
Basically embracing my ignorance as an opportunity to become smarter about something, to study something, that I think ended up being beneficial for my whole class. Anything that I did for Samir or with Samir ended up being something that was beneficial to everybody, including my students learning a lot about Yemen and Arabic language and him bringing his Yemen dictionary to school, and kids seeing some of his picture books that he had read at home. I think there was beauty in that if I had thought I knew all that, I would have lost.
Brett: Throughout the book, you go back and forth between two thoughts, what stops us and seeing opportunities. Why was that important?
Colleen: I think it's good when we look at something that's trouble, to name exactly why it's trouble. I can't remember when it happened to me but, at one point, I remember, I think I was going into a class and I had stepped in a puddle and I had complained. A friend of mine said, "Why are you complaining?" I was like, "I stepped in a puddle," and why is that a problem? I think sometimes we say something's a problem because it's just an assumption that it's got to be a problem. I think when we're looking at challenges as teachers, it's really easy, because teaching is so hard, to get on a litany of all the things that are challenging. There are things that are challenging that happen every day that don't really stop our teaching, lining up, the bells ringing. I taught in New York City, so the heater was always banging.
There's endless things that didn't stop me, so I think some challenges are challenges but they don't get in your way. Some do, and I think it's important to stop and name what gets in the way. Sometimes when we name the things that get in our way, we actually see the solutions. Sometimes we realize that challenge isn't that important, then going from that to then seeing the possibilities. I have pretty much, every single time I've had a challenge, there has always been something positive that comes out of it. I don't mean it like in a take lemons and make lemonade kind of way, although I guess it could be interpreted that way. I think challenges are how we grow and growing is painful. I think when we look at a challenge and see why it's a challenge but then look at what we can gain from it, it makes it more worth the effort to go forward and do all the hard work we need to do.
Brett: On that note, you are a self-proclaimed positive pessimist. I love that line, and you write, "it comes with seeing opportunities. Among those opportunities," you write, it is to value diversity of student assets and growth." What are you referring to here?
Colleen: If we were to just go with thoughtless teacher banter when we're talking to our spouses at home or with friends at a cocktail party, and we talk about this a great student to have in your class, I think there's a picture that pops into most people's heads of what that great student to have in your class looks like, feels like, sounds like. What I've come to learn is that every child, and not in a like we are the world, kumbaya way, but in an actually truthful way, that every kid who comes to your class has something about them that's going to make the class a better place, is going to make you a better teacher, the way that they learn or their life experiences or their personality or their emotionality or the interests.
I think when we look at that and look at just all of the different ways that humans present themselves, especially in a learning environment, and we welcome the diversity of that, I think that that can be beautiful. I do think, when I talked about the diversity of growth, I think growth looks different. I think, especially right now, there's a way that we like hard metrics and data and standardized testing and things like that, to say this is how we measure growth. Not every child grows in that trajectory, not every child in those analytics will show. I think when I'm intentionally looking for evidence of growth, it makes me a better observer, it makes me a better teacher, it definitely makes me a better human. Terrible example, but in thinking about the corpse flower, if you've heard of the corpse flower ?
Colleen: The corpse flower only blooms like once every, like over a decade, it blooms. When it blooms, it smells like a dead rotting body, but if you're looking at it for those years where it doesn't bloom, it doesn't look like anything's happening. It's all internal. Corpse flowers are kind of rare, in fact, because people don't see them as anything valuable. They've been chopped down because they just look like twigs, kind of greenish, thick pieces of grass in the ground if you don't recognize them.
I think some of our students are like that, too. There's growth going on, but it's going to take a while and we might not see it if we're just measuring the standard way.
Brett: You mentioned interests a moment ago. I've seen you talk about the power of bringing pop culture into the classroom a couple of times. I love your talk on this. Some teachers are hesitant or they don't know how to begin. How do you approach bringing pop culture into the classroom and what is your advice?
Colleen: I think when it comes to pop culture in the classroom, one of the first things that I usually suggest to people is to realize that pop culture is only pop culture because of time. We never know what culture's going to be considered fine art at some point. Charles Dickens was sort of like the Danielle Steele of his day. At some point, Mozart was the Justin Bieber of his day. I think we can't judge, necessarily, what's going to end up being classic in a little while.
The other thing is that I think all of us, as teachers, have grown up thinking about valuing students' culture, like their ethnicity, their religion, their family of origin, all of these different things, and we sometimes forget that popular culture is also part of their culture. For some kids, that might be their predominant culture, television, movies, music, video games. Just because one child maybe takes hard shoe dancing on the weekends, that doesn't make it less valid than a child who plays video games on the weekends. These are cultural decisions and I think if we look at it like that, it's a great opportunity to get to know our kids, get to know their experiences.
It's also a great way to connect with them because even if students aren't fans of pop culture or not fans of the particular pop culture that you picked to look at with your kids, they do - well, they like to hate-watch - they know who these people are and they have opinions on those people, and so there's that. It's always engaging, even if the engagement is feeling superior. I do think that pop culture gives us so much opportunity for teaching really hard concepts because it's deceptive. It feels accessible, it feels easy when, in fact, it can have some complications. It's just the lens that goes on it.
Our Thanks to Colleen Cruz for her time. You can join Colleen for a special three-part webinar series called Unstoppable Teaching: Tackling Some of Our Toughest Writing Instruction Challenges. It’s based on Colleen’s book The Unstoppable Writing Teacher. Participants will have an opportunity to explore various media options, learn specific strategies for teaching difficult skills and concepts, and take away tips for finding and mining their own engaging kid culture materials for transformative writing instruction. Even if you’ve not yet read The Unstoppable Writing Teacher, fear not, you can still learn a great deal from spending time with Colleen. You can register and learn more about on the webinar series here.