Today on the podcast, we’re excited to bring you the third conversation in our Turn & Talk series, hosted by author Ellin Keene. If you missed the previous episode, you can listen to it here.
Turn & Talk is a celebration of Heinemann’s 40th anniversary, hosting conversations between authors who have written for Heinemann since its early years, and those who are newer authors, bringing their unique perspectives to the table. This series tackles issues facing educators today, like: how much autonomy do individual teachers really have; how can we ensure equity for all students, and what it’s like to launch your ideas through books and podcasts into the world of education. Patterned after the New York Times’ Table for Three column, host Ellin Keene poses questions to authors and engages them in a reflective conversation.
In this third Turn and Talk discussion, Ellin is joined by Linda Rief (most recently the author of The Quickwrite Handbook) and Sara Ahmed (author of Being the Change: lessons and strategies to teach social comprehension) as they share their stories of their teaching journeys, teacher autonomy, and student inquiry.
Below is a full transcript of the conversation...
Ellin: Linda is an 8th grade teacher at Oyster River Middle School in Durham, New Hampshire.
Linda: That's right, yeah.
Ellin: And Sara Ahmed is currently serving as a literacy coach in the elementary school at NIST International School in?
Ellin: Bangkok, Thailand. I feel really privileged to do this for Heinemann's 40th birthday, and really eager to hear what you two have to say about some of these ideas this morning. So the first one that has been sort of on my mind really revolves around the idea of teacher agency. So here we are at NCTE, and the theme of the conference is elevating student voice. We talk a lot about student agency and empowerment and raising student voice. And I think it's precisely the right conversation to be having at this point in the trajectory of education in our learning.
And I also wonder, when do we talk about our colleagues' agency, about teacher agency, and about how potent teachers feel in their positions right now or not? I worry and I wonder about people for whom curriculum's being written for them. They feel like they're confined to scripts or pacing guides. I worry a little bit about the sense of efficacy that young teachers feel, particularly, coming into the field. And literally, when jobs are on the line and they're feeling like, if I don't comply, that literally, their jobs are on the line. And yet, they understand even for very early career positions, that to comply is not necessarily to do the right thing on behalf of students. And that rub, that edge, that conflict really, is what I'd love to hear you talk about first. It feels to me, it's a time of compliance and of other people writing curriculum.
I wonder if it isn't time for a little disruption in pedagogy, and in the ways that we approach things, and the questions that we ask, the sort of ... I don't wanna say passivity, but the willingness that we have to just do that thing that we are told to do, even when we feel it may not be in kids' best interests.
It really brings me to this idea that I've cherished, we all ... I think Americans cherish, which is civil disobedience. Is it time, in American schooling, to foster, provoke a little civil disobedience, with respect to teachers getting to make the decisions that they are best equipped to make?
Linda: Well, I'm gonna jump in. I worry about that because I see so many young teachers, that they're afraid to not comply with things that have been given to them. And we've now moved tenure up to five years instead of three years, so there's even a longer time period where they're really nervous. They want to be doing what's best for kids. And we talk a good game of, I think, so often in administrative circles, that we're always doing what's best for kids. But I don't think it's what's best for kids if you're not with those kids day, after day, after day.
So I worry that we bring young teachers in who, we're trying to hire the best teachers we can find, and yet ... then we don't trust them enough by handing them somebody else's guide and tell them they must comply.
Ellin: Yeah, who can't know the children.
Ellin: Someone who's written this who can't, by definition, know the kids, right?
Sara: Yeah. It's often the people making decisions in education, right? Are not in the classroom with the kids, historical. But I think we mask compliance with the word fidelity. We sometimes say, I'm teaching this with fidelity, I'm using this boxed curriculum with fidelity, I'm doing all these things. And so then people take on that word, there's always some buzz term. And then administrators use that, I've heard it. "We're using this with fidelity, are you using this program with fidelity with your kids?" And that really means to me, when I hear it in the tone that it's used, is it's compliance.
Ellin: Say more about what you mean by that. By fidelity, are you following it?
Sara: Yeah, following it to the T. There's curriculums out there that are scripted and they want, "Is this right? And the scope and the sequence and the progression looks like this." And I have been in schools where everyone is on the same page, the same day, in the same grade, with 5 different classrooms of 32 different kids in all of those rooms, so how could you possibly [crosstalk]
Ellin: And pacing guides. This is another, yeah [crosstalk] ... And where do you know the kids?
Sara: So that's sort of what I'm thinking. But the teachers use that term with me, oh, they really use this with fidelity, they've been doing it for 5 years. I keep hearing it over and over again.
Ellin: I do as well, yeah.
Linda: You know, that's the other part that bothers me or worries me sometimes with teachers, that because you don't trust yourself, if I follow this script and it doesn't work, then it's not my fault. Somebody else gave this to me. So I worry there's a little bit of that, I'm not confident enough to design or figure out what I should be doing with the kids, so I'll do this, and then I don't have to worry about it because it was not my fault. Somebody made me do it. So I mean, that worries me too.
Ellin: And in that scenario, Linda, how does a colleague build a sense of agency and confidence when you're in that cycle where you feel you must, or you're compliant in doing so? How do we help teachers sort of get over that ridge of fidelity and compliance?
Linda: And I think that's where we, as teachers, have to begin to talk to each other. I know as language arts colleagues in our building, when we meet, which is only once a month, sometimes twice a month, which isn't enough at all. But at least in those meetings we're talking about, "How'd you get the kids to do that? How'd you get the kids to move that writing? How did you go about assessing or evaluating that? What're the books that you're using with the kids that we can build on?"
So those conversations, I think, are incredibly essential. But I also think administrators, somebody else buying materials for the classroom teacher doesn't trust the teacher. So who did you hire? Did you hire the best, or are you hiring people because you want them to be compliant?
Ellin: And if the administrator or whomever purchases the program doesn't trust the teacher, then I worry acutely that that passes down to a lack of trust for the kids. One of the things-
Ellin: ... upon which your work has always been based, mine as well, I hope, is the idea that we trust kids to make decisions around topic choice, around books that they want to read. And really about how they wanna show their thinking and how they wanna participate in the community of the classroom, and the community outside of the school. Those are choices that we feel comfortable giving kids. But if someone isn't trusting us, then does that lack of trust get pushed out into the classroom?
Sara: Well I wonder too if it's in, if you just sit back and kind of listen to the way meetings run, team meetings, school meetings, professional development meetings. Linda, the thing you just did was that you asked questions, "How did you get the kids there?" You hear a lot of questions which will grow a conversation. So if you listen in to schools and how their faculty collaborates or has meetings, I wonder if you listen for, are there more questions at the table. How can we get them there if we're looking at a central idea or essential question for the unit and people are saying, "Oh, how can we get the kids there? What would we like their learning experiences to be?" Then there's trust in the room, then there's some agency that's gonna happen that will trickle down to the kids.
Linda: And you're putting the materials and the script aside for a minute to start with that question and push into that as a team, rather than saying, "We're gonna be on page 43 tomorrow, we're gonna be page 44 on Wednesday."
Ellin: That boggles my mind. I don't know how any other teacher, even in my building, could be on the same page that I'm on. Things happen from day one, from the first 5 minutes, you have this plan but it goes awry. I mean, just reading your book, Sara. There are so many times where the kids come in with questions that, if you don't address them or you don't make it pertinent and relevant to what the kids are doing, you're not gonna move them forward because their lives depend on us saying we heard you.
Sara: Right, we see you.
Ellin: So we're going to build ... we see you. And we're gonna build on what we learn from you and what questions you have. It doesn't have to be this curriculum if somebody from the outside doesn't know those children at all.
Linda: Right, it's staggering. The question then is what to do, right? And I think this is a good start, we're sort of talking about questions and questions that start in a team level or a faculty level. And then questions that look at the sort of big ideas of a unit of study ahead of time, without necessarily having all of the steps in front of you.
And what I hear you saying, Sara, is that it's generative, that teachers talking together are generating, creating, and inventing, really, the kinds of experiences that they know their kids need, because they know their kids.
Sara: Yes, if you're gonna ideate with your team members and your colleagues, that's, I hope, going to also be what's being mirrored in the classroom. But teachers often, it's hard because everyone uses time. This is a global issue, time. You write a schedule [crosstalk]
Linda: [crosstalk]. It's no different in Bangkok.
Sara: It's everywhere, yeah. And so often times, you sit down to collaborate, which there are ... Some schools have really great collaboration times with their teams and some just don't have it at all.
Ellin: I also think there are decisions that we make individually when the classroom door closes. And I'm thinking about that a lot lately, because the number of decisions that we make in a day is staggeringly high. And if we are dependent on a preconceived curriculum, how do we, when the door closes, metaphorically, I hope, break out of that? How can we make individual, daily, little decisions of disruption? Little decisions that say, you know what? Nope, I'm not going to do it that way.
And from that, from the moment that we make one of those sort of courageous decisions to say, "That's not me, that's not my kids," even a little decision, you know? Then I think we start to build the confidence, Linda, that you're talking about and that can-
Linda: Well, I think even with scripted programs. I mean, I think back when I first started teaching, it was an anthology of literature that we were handed and I thought, "Oh, you mean we're supposed to go from chapter to chapter and piece to piece, questions at the end?" And immediately knew that wasn't right. That doesn't make sense to me because you don't know ... I mean, you could bring anybody in if you've got the questions at the end. Here's the list of kids in the classroom, you don't know anything about them. Now, I think the way that we start to change that, that closed door metaphorically, is you might use bits and pieces of it. But that does become your entire day.
Linda: And you have to say saying, "I'm sorry that's not where we had to go today." And you have to start to have the courage to say those things.
Sara: Yeah, you do, 'cause teachers are researchers in so many ways. You're researching on [crosstalk].
Sara: You're researching your classroom. If I'm reading both of your books, I'm researching the pieces that will work for my kids and I'm implementing those. on even your line where you just said like, "I'm gonna, close my door and like, I'm not gonna do it this way." Even just shifting to say, "We." Because we are not gonna do it this way. Us as classroom, as our our kids. Because then it's also then you're in trouble. You know you're saying like, "We as a community in this classroom are not gonna do this."
Ellin: We're gonna make this decision and I'm gonna take that step maybe small at first. But then it empowers me with questions to ask of decision-makers.
Linda: But that empowerment also comes from ... I mean, I'm thinking, here we are at NCTE and that empowerment comes, you have to have a professional community that supports you, lets you engage in those conversations that if you don't have them in your school, then you have to go out and find-
Ellin: You have to [crosstalk].
Linda: ... those communities. I mean that energizes me, even if I don't have those conversations right directly in the school, I certainly have them here and I'm confident to go back and say, "I know Ellin, I know Sara, I know people who really speak highly to what engages kids, and I'm gonna have that confidence and that energy to go back to the classroom and make some of those decisions."
Sara: One of the things that's helped us at our school recently is the idea of ... And this just comes from our work with Matt Glover, the projection over the plan. And just even that shift in-
Ellin: It's a hard process.
Sara: ... right? Like, "Here's my lesson plan. Here's our plan for the year. Here's our unit plan." And then all of a sudden we shifted to calling it just the progression and there's gonna be some sequence lessons that we all picked out. But it's just a projection. We're just projecting on how it might go.
Ellin: It might work.
Sara: It might work, and your writers may need three more days of the thing that my kids needed two of and however that works. And so I spent a lot of time trying to fine tune when teachers were like, "Oh, what lesson? Should I be done with all these 18 lessons by?" And I just say, "It's just a projection."
Ellin: That actually is one of the most brilliant pieces of work and curriculum that I have ever read, Matt and Perry's book. And I remember the line that I think is so relevant to your conversation here today from early in the book when Matt is quoting his little toddler when something would be found broken, or something had gone badly awry. And Matt would say, " Harrison, how did this happen?" And Harrison would say, "I can't know." Those three words, "I can't know." Is really everything that we're talking about, right? Because we can't know and nor can people who were providing this written curriculum that people are using with fidelity.
I think you're both right about the essence and sort of essential nature of having a learning community. And I think about places around this country where I've worked in rural areas where people really do feel quite isolated. And maybe, literally the only person in their school who has read your work, or is trying to do things in a student-centered way and is trying to watch and learn their students. In order to know what's next, the next day, and may be literally alone in those circumstances.
Sara, I remember you teaching me on the floor of the Heinemann booth one time how to do something. What was it? My computer ... my phone.
Sara: On importance about social media.
Ellin: Well, I think-
Ellin: ... you were teaching me how to get on Twitter.
Linda: Could she get any Tweets, I'm gonna tweet this.
Ellin: No, it was worse. Yeah, that was right. You're right. I was gonna tweet and Sara said, "No, no Ellin."
Linda: Maybe that's shorter than a tweet.
Ellin: It does remind me of people in all generations but particularly in yours Sara, where, the skill that people have now in connecting people who may be isolated, the skill that is there and the potential that's there to connect people for these conversations. And to help people find the courage of their convictions enough to go into the classroom, and say, "We as a community are not going to do this." The civil disobedience side of this." I think is extremely powerful and we've seen that happen through Twitter threads and through online conversations and online courses. I would love to hear more about your thoughts about civil disobedience in using that technology as a vehicle for doing that. Are we calling for civil disobedience in a small way?
Sara: I think so. I mean, I had a little bit of it in me just-
Ellin: As a kid.
Sara: Yeah, I needed to look at my first grade report cards to see where my civil disobedience started. But yeah, I think education in many ways is civil ... there's layers of civil disobedience in education. There's people that are disobedient in that they have underground schools that they have because they know there's so much power and literacy in education that they're hiding. Or that when there were slaves that taught people how to read and that was civil disobedience. So they understand the power of that. And so we talk about good trouble ... representative, this talks about good trouble. And you have to have some good trouble to make some moves and the March series, the graphical novel series March.I mean this is reading about good trouble.
Linda: I think, like you have to think ... it's divergent thinking in lot of ways too. We want teachers to be divergent in their thinking about how that we can take people places. 'Cause we need to be today. Otherwise, we do follow the ... Smokey says, "Where the clogs in the wheel, at the system."
Ellin: And that actually is a beautiful segue into the next question, which is ... I'd really love to hear your thoughts about something that I've been very interested into. Which is how children choose to engage themselves? I phrase that in a very particular way. So, when you and Smokey wrote up standards. I mean that ... I remember thinking that at it's core, this is really a book about engaging middle level learners. I mean what does it take? And can we think beyond the tasks that they have to do to the inquiry that they can make into the world. And just being so inspired by that? And Linda quickly, is a phenomenon now. And it's a way of saying to kids, "You can engage instantly, immediately, upon walking into the classroom in two to three minutes. But you choose." And I think that you choose.
Linda: You choose the matter.
Ellin: It really up-crosses all of your work. I hope it's evident in mine and it seems to me the pulse of engagement. But I'm curious and I wanna talk about this first in the spirit of our beloved Don Graves who said, "Learning must always be for us first." I'm curious about what engages you each outside of school or maybe in school, I don't know. But what are your ... I call them engagement stories and them somebody says, "Who's getting married?" But it isn't that kind of engagement story. It's the stories of your engagement in the world and what for you makes you feel like you're all in. Time goes by and you're not even aware. Do you know?
Ellin: That feeling of being all in. Because my hypothesis is that if we can describe that, we can describe it to kids, and kids can understand and feel and get their heads around, their hearts around what engagement feels like.
Linda: Well, I'm not sure that I'm totally disconnected from the classroom. I had no books growing up and so there was little reading or little writing in our house. Honestly, the reader's digest on the hamper was the most sophisticated reading that was available and I thought that's where everybody read. But once I started writing at all ... I mean the first time was with Don Graves. I took a course with him without knowing who he was.
Ellin: It's humble bragging.
Ellin: I'm so jealous.
Linda: I mean I had started in the classroom because we had been overseas for three years and we came home and built a house and I was doing a lot of the woodwork in the house. And said to my husband, "I have to go find something to do where I can see some other adults." And I got a job as an aid in our middle school and that was probably 40 years ago. But within two days, I was going into various classrooms because my major had been German and they had me going in to translate for a little girl who had come from Switzerland.
Because she only spoke French or German. And it was going into those various classrooms that I went, "This is unbelievably wonderful what is happening for these kids. This is awful what is happening for this group of kids. This shouldn't be." And within a couple of days, wanting to find out, "How will I become a teacher?"
Ellin: Because you were seeing so many different examples around the building.
Linda: I could see just the stunning differences of kids going from one classroom to the next. And the way they would be totally engaged in one and totally disengaged in another just startled me.
Ellin: It was just.
Linda: Well, it was unjust.
Ellin: Your experience as unjust.
Ellin: Yeah, which of course it is.
Linda: And then the principal said, "Well, let's set you up, let's get you certified. Let's get you a Master's degree." And the first course I went into was with this gentlemen, the only seat available. He had all the chairs in a circle, the only seat available was right next to him. It happened to be Don Graves. I had no idea who he was.
And he had us write. He just said, "Let's write." And we wrote, and then of course petrified as I was, he said, "So turn and read your writing to your partner." And I'm thinking, "I have to read this to the professor." Turned, read it to him, he laughed, he said, "Tell me more. And that honestly has been a mantra for me every time I kneel down next to a child, "Tell me more." He just made me in that moment feel like a writer. And that's the other thing I wanted to say on this, it's not just engagement. It's having somebody make you feel like you're heard, you're listened to, you're seen.
And so I know now, something has happened that in the world that I live in, even outside of the classroom, it still is connected to the classroom. Where can I draw something, where can I write something that means something to me, that I can go back and show the kids that this notebook is so important to me, I would be crushed if I lost this notebook.
Ellin: So rich and full of fodder for ... your notebook.
Linda: And meeting people like Sara, who I had never met before, but reading her writing, reading your mosaic of thought, there's something in the world ... I mean I love going to my grandson's soccer games, or to my granddaughter's performances. But there's something that's always connected to that outside the classroom that's still I'm always thinking, "How can I make it better in the classroom for kids by living in that world, meeting people, seeing who they are, seeing what they're reading, what they're doing, what they're thinking."
Sara: But you do that, and you take that. Because the first time I was ever in Linda's classroom was in Boothbay ... Was it two summers ago already?
Sara: Well that's actually a funny, but here I was, I had to talk first at night, which is like terrible planning. And I was like, "Oh, I'm in the presence of Linda Rief, so I'm gonna use the term quickwrite in my talk." And I'm talking to the group and I'm like-
Linda: You are different.
Sara: ... "Yeah, why don't you ... just since we're in the presence of Linda Rief. Why doesn't everyone just do a two-minute quickwrite on whatever they and I just said." And then I finished the talk and then Linda comes up next to talk and ... you do it in the book too, which I think is great.
I always think you're talking to me when you're correcting someone on what a quickwrite actually is. She's like, "You know, there are many ways people use the term quickwrite. It's not the way that I would use it," and you weren't talking directly to me, I know you weren't. But I was like calm and mortified. You know, "Quickwrite is actually a response, so like a short piece of text, and it's like a first draft of something." And I was like, "God, I've been hearing that word."
I mean here I am in front of Linda Rief, saying, "Let's do a quickwrite everybody randomly for two minutes," so anyways. But the point of that whole clip is that Linda in a room of people she did not know said, "Let the lion lead you." And everyone was instilled with Linda's trust. Off of nothing. I hadn't met you, I only just feeling a girl from afar. Your books are in our university and all of that, and just the things ... that was what happened. I wrote it down everywhere that week, but it was just, "Let the Lion lead you." Or you would say, "You choose and that comes up a lot in the book. But you didn't care, you didn't give us any extra direction. You just said, "Here it is." And then off you go, and that's empowering.
Ellin: So in a world of engagement, I mean it is that choice isn't that so much so I'm fascinated because I often answer this question the same way, Linda, that where I find myself most completely consumed and engaged is when I'm working with children and teachers too, but really when I am doing demonstration work in the classroom, I am all in 100%, fire alarms could go off. And I've often answered the question that way as well. And I'm also aware that what I speak to kids about is sort of engagement that happens for me outside of the classroom, and I'm obsessed with aviation, and I am still the person who likes to fly. I really I'm still the girl that sits at the window. And I am still the girls that reads all of ... I get tow aviation newsletters a week in the interest of disclosure.
Sara: Okay, you are.
Ellin: No. I am really. I'd never get tired of that thing [crosstalk 00:28:43] ever. Just I never get tired of it. So I will often bring into the classroom and kids just like, "Well, that's strange."
Sara: Looking to bring it in with you, it's who you are.
Ellin: But you bring it in. And you bring in who I think we are outside of the classroom. So you've traveled, I mean speaking of fly girls, you've traveled.
Ellin: Do you ever bring those stories of engagement? I remember the last summer you were traveling, and you were Facebook-posting in from South America, or-
Ellin: Instagraming. I mean that struck me as such a deep engagement in another culture. Do you ever bring those stories in to kids?
Sara: I do. But I probably bring them in by way of what I've taken away or learned in the process of trying to emerge myself as fully as I can in the situation more than ... I think when I was younger, and we had great opportunity to travel, not often. But because we have family in India, we would try and go when we could afford it once every couple of years. I only went a couple of times.
And then in my '20s, I tried to start travelling more to be more like my big sisters. And I think when I was young, I made the mistake of saying, "Oh, I went to this place, and I got to go travel here. And here's the privilege of me going to place." I was like telling the kids about it, but I wonder really what it was that I was bringing back. So now it's a little bit different for me because I don't go thinking like, "What I'm I gonna bring back from this place." I go in thinking like, "How I'm I gonna fully immerse myself in the place that I am in."
And a lot of times, people that know me knows about me, it's based around sports. And like wherever I am, if I'm in Guatemala and I just start playing soccer, if someone lets me with the kids on the street, or in the back of the school yard where we were walking. I bring a lot of that in.
I often say that coaching kids in sports is the best part of my day. And that's not to take away from the classroom, but that's because I see kids in a completely different way. And that engagement watching their engagement on the fields and me knowing myself as a kid-athlete, that brought so much more wealth to my teaching, 'cause I saw them in a different way. I knew I could coach them on the field in one way and bring that same coaching strategy into the classroom.
Ellin: Into the class room. I think that ... I wish I could just audio tape ... oh wait, we have. And just like take what you both just said back into your classrooms. Because I think kids are absolutely fascinated, not ... exactly as you said Sara, "Not about what you did, or in particular, where you went or what class you took or whatever. But about the process of finding yourself immersed."
And I wonder and I try to propose in engaging children that if they know the stories ... not all. I mean just here and there of others, not just teachers, but their own moments when they were so fully engaged that that is contagious, that that's a virus in the best term. That's [crosstalk] of the term. And that in this era, we always find ourselves saying, "In this era," and all that that implies, isn't it helpful in a way perhaps that it has meant for kids before to bring those stories?
Because engagement for kids outside of school may look very different than it did, Linda, when you and I first started teaching. And, you know, when there was play and there was talk around the dinner table and all of those kinds of things. I'm not privileging that or saying that that was a better way, but I do think there's an increased call for discussion in classrooms of what it is that happens ... that what are the conditions in which we find ourselves in that state of total immersion-
Linda: I was reading The Boys in the Boat, which I adore that book. I didn't think I would like it because I've never really been a reader, so I'm kind of a slow reader and that book is packed with information. But have either one of you read that-
Linda: Oh my gosh. It's just fabulous. But there's a portion of that book, there's just one little section about swing, where it's the crew that won the Olympic Gold medal in the 1930s when they were in Germany, and it's phenomenal. But there's a section that they talk about getting into the boat and there has to be this moment where swing means every single back is moving at the same time, every ore is dipping in it the exact same time. I mean to me, that's what I think Nancie Atwell talks about in the reading zone, you're so immersed in it. And I think about all the years that I've been teaching, that doesn't happen often enough. I mean there are times I can remember the day that all of a sudden I looked up and I saw 27 kids so immersed in the reading. They didn't even hear the bell, nobody moved.
Ellin: That's what's I'm talking about.
Sara: It's so powerful.
Linda: And that's the kind of thing that I'm always hoping will happen, but it doesn't happen that often and so you have to just ... I mean you go in there every day hoping that you can get the kids into swing, where all of you are so engaged-
Ellin: I love that swing.
Sara: Here's the title of your next book, Linda.
Ellin: It's real, really.
Linda: Well, that excerpt is just ... I read that to the kids and I said, "Where is it, is it on the soccer field, is it when you're playing the trumpet?"
Ellin: There you are, you're having the conversation.
Linda: Absolutely. "Where do you feel that swing that you know everybody around you is as engaged as you are, and you are making things happen. And I think that's what we don't get at in the classroom. I can't get at that with somebody else's curriculum, it has to come from me having a thorough understanding and feel rapport, that's the other thing. It's developing rapport with the kids. But I think also what you're talking about ... I'm talking way too much, is teachers reading and writing. Once we get into that for ourselves, we have such a broader, deeper understanding of what it is we're hoping will happen for kids.
Sara: We're uping the likelihood that they will be engaged state.
Ellin: And we said that to a group of pre-service teachers the other day. I said, "You have to be reading the books, you have to know yourself as a reader. And even if you don't have time to read books," what you hear. "I don't have time to read the books." Like, "Think about what your reading life just looks like on the whole, and how are you bringing that into kids." But Linda, you've wrote something in your book, "A person can read without writing, but cannot write without reading."
Linda: I thought I had said that. That, that was totally mine, but it actually goes back to Don Murray and Frank Smith and every other...
Sara: Well sure, I just want to talk and learn a little bit. Yeah, I just wanna learn a little bit more about it from you, if you wouldn't mind, just like speaking to [crosstalk].
Linda: I just think we ... I don't know, we were on this kick with reading be the be-all end-all and totally ignored writing for a couple of years over the last 10 years.
Ellin: I think were still there in many similar ways.
Linda: Oh, in many for sure. And I think when we get kids really write ... You cannot write without reading what you've written, and you're constantly doing what a good reader does. Did the writer say what they really needed to say to make make me believe this. So when you're reading your own writing, you're going back into that writing and saying, "Have I made myself really clear." One of the things that kids ... I'm noticing it even this year, the kids will say, "Just ask me the question and I thought that was there because it was in my head, but apparently it's not there in the writing. I need to re-read that and see what's missing."
So you are reading critically to see, "Have you said what you needed to say in the clearest, most succinct way that you can say it. Or the most engaging way you can say it." And that's what I mean by that.
Sara: And getting middle school kids there and getting into that spot where that becomes like a habit-
Ellin: Which is the next question, exactly.
Sara: I'm sorry [crosstalk] interview Ellin.
Ellin: No, no. No you've perfectly ... you've walked right into it. From what engages you, then I think we can really think about, especially in this context of middle school, but you're working with elementary kid's now.
I mean what are ... And I wrote about this in engaging children, what are the conditions that I see present when we see kids engaged in the way that you've described them, Linda? And I'm just curious what you see particularly for middle level learners. What are those conditions that really lead to the kind finances deep engagement that we see sometimes? But we don't want it to be happy accident, we want it to be more of the norm. Nobody can be engaged to that level all the time.
Ellin: We're cognitively not capable of it, but what do we do with middle level learners to increase the ... and I think you've already spoken to some of it, increase the percentage of time perhaps that they're deeply engaged? It's a big question.
Linda: I mean finding the books that they can relate to.
Ellin: Yeah definitely.
Linda: Not so much even just that they can relate to, but also seeing somebody else's world that they had no idea that this existed. We're reading Refugee right now as a whole class, and I'm constantly questioning myself, "How long is this going to take us to read it as a whole class, that it's worth the time?" But I see the kids bringing up questions that are worth them considering. "Wow, this is happening still in Aleppo, where is Aleppo?"
So they are asking questions that ... I know they need to read about things that they would never read about also. It's not just finding themselves and seeing themselves, it's seeing the world also. But also, I mean, it goes back to writing what matters to them. I mean, you've said this in Being the Change, "If we don't write what matters to us, they're not going to write what matters to them."
Sara: Absolutely, I know, yeah. And sometimes I think I used to pride myself on being with my eighth graders that we were engaged. Because I was hoping that it was coming from them, in many ways. I often asked myself like, "What am I doing, or about to do that's gonna completely disengage them from the thing that they're doing." You know you have to almost reverse.
Ellin: You do have to think there.
Sara: You to think like, "What are somethings that I'm doing to-"
Linda: Well and notice that moment, right?
Sara: Yeah. Like, "What did I just do to complete disengage you from that thing and how does that look and feel when that happens." So just watching that sometimes for me-
Ellin: Such a good point.
Sara: ... was important. The six graders, when we called it a soft start, Bishop's, at my school in California. That was really only just about the bell schedule. It's not a hard start.
Linda: Turn off the bells.
Sara: We turned off the bells, it's not a hard start, it's just a soft start. So with the kids, the deep engagement for them, being six graders walking around in that departmentalized setting brand new high school, but they're 11. It was the stress they carry, everything they carry with them trying to run across the campus. The book, it was the safest. The magazine, was the safest, right? And their engagement, you just could hear the hush and the weight off their shoulders and that engagement.
So, listening to that I mean, I'm totally guilty of this. I would try, and do it for about five minutes to eight minutes 'cause I thought I had to start teaching, or whatever. Either way you wanna look at it. But if once you hear that, "What will I do to stop this engagement?"
Ellin Oliver Keene has been a classroom teacher, staff developer, non-profit director, and adjunct professor of reading and writing. For sixteen years she directed staff development initiatives at the Denver-based Public Education & Business Coalition. She served as Deputy Director and Director of Literacy and Staff Development for the Cornerstone Project at the University of Pennsylvania for four years. Ellin works with schools and districts throughout the country and abroad with an emphasis on long-term, school-based professional development and strategic planning for literacy learning. She serves as senior advisor at Heinemann, overseeing the Heinemann Fellows initiative and is the editor of the Heinemann Professional Development Catalog-Journal.
Follow her on Twitter @EllinKeene
Sara K. Ahmed is currently a literacy coach at NIST International School in Bangkok, Thailand. She has taught in urban, suburban, public, independent, and international schools, where her classrooms were designed to help students consider their own identities and see the humanity in others. Sara is coauthor with Harvey "Smokey" Daniels of Upstanders: How to Engage Middle School Hearts and Minds with Inquiry. She has served on the teacher leadership team for Facing History and Ourselves, an international organization devoted to developing critical thinking and empathy for others. You can find her on Twitter @SaraKAhmed
Linda Rief teaches middle school in Durham, New Hampshire and is an instructor in the University of New Hampshire’s Summer Literacy Institute. A national and international presenter on issues of adolescent literacy, she is also a recipient of NCTE’s Edwin A. Hoey Award for Outstanding Middle School Educator in the English Language Arts.
Her newest book is The Quickwrite Handbook: 100 Mentor Texts to Jumpstart Your Students' Thinking and Writing. She is also the author or coeditor of many Heinemann titles, including Read Write Teach, Inside the Writer's-Reader's Notebook, The Writer's-Reader's Notebook, Adolescent Literacy, Vision and Voice, and Seeking Diversity.
Follow Linda on Twitter @LindaMRief