Of Courage, Possibility, and Dwelling in Hope

Evan Robb
January 18, 2021

Evan Robb

Distinguished Principal, TEDx Speaker, Author, and Horace Mann Educator of The Year Recipient

By Travis Crowder

Exceptional writing teachers have taught me valuable lessons about how writers find ideas. Over time, writing has become a space for me to wrestle with my thinking, and I've accepted that when I finalize a blog or book, or essay, that piece of writing is only as good as my current understanding of the topic is. It is imperfect, but that's what makes it worthwhile. It's an invitation to continue grappling with an idea. It's in this space that I commune with the philosophy that defines my classroom. I write to discover things about teaching young people. Many times while writing into ideas about engaging readers and writers, I've forged new thinking. Generally speaking, I'm always excited to sit down with my notebook and a cup of coffee and just write. Beautiful things lurk at the edges of writing. I'm always amazed at the possibility of discovery.

It was in this spirit that I sat down to craft this blog post. So many experiences from the past year were, in my opinion, noteworthy things to write about. Because of the pandemic, I shifted from physical to digital notebooks. During hybrid and remote teaching, I learned a great deal about engaging readers and writers, even from a distance. I found the intersection of poetry and writing to be a meaningful place to explore ideas. And so did many students. But each time I sat down to craft any one of these ideas, I found my writing leaning elsewhere. Instead of writing about strategy and engagement in literacy, the ideas tilted toward my current teaching context. 

You see, this current year has been one of the hardest of my career. Not just because of the pandemic-- although it has definitely contributed-- but because of the continued, intensive push to standardize. Instead of decreasing, conversations about standardization have actually increased. During lesson planning periods, I've been asked repeatedly what standards I'm tying my lesson to and to explain the exact procedural plan for the lesson. Trying to argue that many standards are embedded in authentic reading and writing practices is futile. Explaining that identifying specific procedures for a plan is difficult when planning without students is a challenge, especially when traditional ideals plague any sort of PLC. I'm not against standards or having a specific lesson plan, but across time, I've learned that rigid alliances between classroom activities and standards and allegiance to a specific lesson plan suffocate opportunities for creativity. The expectation with lesson planning, it seems, is that every activity and assessment will be planned prior to walking into a room of students. Essential questions have to echo the swollen lexicon of the standards. I much prefer to ask engaging questions, but they have been critiqued by administrators who prefer cold, antiseptic questions instead of ones that genuinely excite inquiry. The language we use in our lessons or in essential questions may be academic, but, if it lacks relevance, it's useless. And if our procedures don't allow us to follow our students' inquiries, what good is the lesson? 

The disturbing contradiction I've witnessed reveals itself in actions. Lip service is paid to giving students space and time to complete tasks and receive extra practice in a skill area, but allegiances to pacing guides and year-long plans tell another story. Emphasis is placed on completing tasks quickly and moving on to another assignment. Recently, an instructional coach with very little literacy background said, in reference to a skill, Oh, that's easy to teach. I found an activity online students can use to learn that skill. Here it is. Let me know how it goes. It's as if a quick online search will meet the needs of every student I teach. Why spend time listening to them talk about their reading and writing lives if an online search will do all of the work?

In early December, while revisiting an anticipation guide after a novel study, several students explained that they realized how complex ideas are. They realized that gray areas exist. I can't quantify that or give that a grade. I can't plot their conversation (and just to be clear, they were facilitating the conversation, not me) on a graph and track progress toward a goal. And who would want to? The conversation took a turn while they were discussing, and it veered away from the main topic at hand. Yes, the conversation was different, but it was still relevant. I didn't herd them back into territory where the standards, essential question, and goals lived. I let their conversation roam freely. Because that's what conversation does. It's fluent and alive and it deepens as we move further and further into ideas. I couldn't have found a template for a conversation like this online. And I wouldn't want to. 

Again and again, though, I've watched instructional support staff offer worksheets and activities that were the result of an internet search. I'm more interested in moving with the flow of conversation and helping students make sense of ideas they land on, not prescribing documents I find online. Instead of these worksheets, students could be working on independent passion projects, writing about a book they've read and loved, or working with a partner to generate more ideas for their writing notebooks. At the end of class, students could share beautiful lines from their writing or powerful lines from their independent reading on a class Padlet, with a partner, or with the whole class. 

Honestly, PLCs have become places where I generate lessons that are difficult to use. The lessons aren't inherently bad, but I've rarely seen a lesson plan proceed as written when it greets a group of students. Instead of trying to create plans independently of students, we could spend our time interrogating our curriculum and ourselves and finding ways to center BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) authors. Instead of centering standards and goals, we could discuss ways to center students and questions of humanity, too. This means decentering the system, and when we decenter it, lesson planning has room to breathe. 

And so do we and our students. 

Every time I consider lessons or activities, I have to make students the core of my work. I don't consider their test scores or projected test scores or grades. I consider them-- their stories and humanity. I consider what they need, how current events influence them, and how I can sensitively handle issues that bombard them. It takes courage to think this way, though, and honestly, I'm still learning what it means to be courageous in the classroom. But we all need courage to deconstruct those imaginary boundaries that have been placed around our classrooms. These boundaries tell us what is "effective" and "necessary." But we can do better. I know I can. 

Nothing I do is perfect. There are many days that lessons fail, that students are unmotivated, and that I am not at the top of my game. There are days when students refuse to write, can't find the energy to read their independent reading books, or aren't interested in something I've planned, certain that it will engage them. But there are also many days filled with deep reading and conversations. There are many days where students can't wait to talk with me about a book they've read or want an air high-five (the COVID version of a high five) because they've read another book and last year they didn't even read one! There are other days when students write poems or responses that make me cry or cheer along with them. These are the days I am overwhelmed with joy. 

Last August, I started a doctorate in curriculum and instruction at UNC-Wilmington. Coursework has focused on curriculum studies and leadership, and since starting, I've learned a ton about what it means to think and to write into current iterations of curriculum. I've realized, yet again, that choices we are making in education are conscious choices, and while we know that they do not work, we continue to stand beside them. 

I still dwell in hope, though. 

I imagine an educational space where students write and read to find themselves, where they learn about their world and engage in the tough questions that have been part of the human experience for decades. I imagine a place where we attend PLCs to confront our biases and to engage in critical thought about what we teach and how we teach it. And we encourage change and refuse to shy away from conversations that are "too controversial."

This is what I imagine. 

As I move further into 2021, I want this flame of possibility to burn brighter. I want my reading life to move me to action and to encourage others to do the same. I know many are out there, and together, we are working for a better educational space. Sometimes I feel incredibly isolated, but I have to remember, as John Lennon said, "You may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one."

Follow Travis on Twitter @teachermantrav

Learn more about Travis!


The post Of Courage, Possibility, and Dwelling in Hope appeared first on The Robb Review Blog.

Evan Robb

Want Evan Robb for your next event?

Find out more information, including fees and availability.
Find Out More
Keep Reading
Is Every Student a Protagonist in Your Classroom Library?
Evan Robb
Evan Robb
January 16, 2022
By Laura Robb and Evan Robb Classroom libraries can be conduits for change, ...
Make Word Study (phonics, spelling, and vocabulary) a Game!
Evan Robb
Evan Robb
November 22, 2021
Timothy Rasinski, Ph.D. A few years ago, my four adult children were home for the ...
Keep Your Eye on The Child
Evan Robb
Evan Robb
October 16, 2021
Young Literacy Learners Take Center Stage By Mary Jo Fresch I began my teaching career as a third-grade teacher in ...
Is Every Student a Protagonist in Your Classroom Library?
By Laura Robb and Evan Robb Classroom libraries can be conduits for change, providing all children access to texts that affirm who they are, open possibilities for what they can become and help them to develop the habit of reading. Teachers have tremendous power to amass text collections that develop students' academic, emotional, and so...
Read More
Make Word Study (phonics, spelling, and vocabulary) a Game!
Timothy Rasinski, Ph.D. A few years ago, my four adult children were home for the holidays. Every evening after the dinner table was cleared and the dishes were done, we'd get out a board game and play for at least an hour. This was a great time to be together, to talk, to just have some shared fun. Once the kids had left and my wife...
Read More
Keep Your Eye on The Child
Young Literacy Learners Take Center Stage By Mary Jo Fresch I began my teaching career as a third-grade teacher in 1974. The district reading program was a synthetic phonics series. I regularly had students required to repeat the second-grade reader because they had failed to keep pace with their peers. These students needed c...
Read More
Teaching Reading- The Art and Science
Timothy Rasinski, Ph.D. Kent State University "It is the supreme art of the teacher to awaken joy in creative expression and knowledge." Albert Einstein "I would teach children music, physics, and philosophy; but most importantly music, for the patterns in music and all the arts are the keys to learning." Plato "Art has the means...
Read More
Six Intervention Shifts to Re-Envision an Intervention Design That Honors Our Children
Written by Mary Howard In 1972, I began a passionate professional journey in small town Missouri as a special education teacher. That year, and each year that followed, children became my teachers. Since my entry into education, understanding student-centered intervention approaches has continued to inspire my professional curiosity. When a...
Read More
Of Courage, Possibility, and Dwelling in Hope
By Travis Crowder Exceptional writing teachers have taught me valuable lessons about how writers find ideas. Over time, writing has become a space for me to wrestle with my thinking, and I've accepted that when I finalize a blog or book, or essay, that piece of writing is only as good as my current understanding of the topic is. It is imperf...
Read More
A Little Latin (and Greek), and a Whole Lot of English Building Vocabulary with Word Roots
By Timothy Rasinski, Nancy Padak, Evangeline Newton, Rick M. Newton What do the following words and phrases have in common? Tractor A protracted argument Abstract art Attraction Vanilla extract Retractable ink pen Traction Intractable Easily distractible Contractions Of course, it's easy to notice that all these words and p...
Read More
Thinking about Criticism and Critique
By: Lester Laminack We live on a twenty-two-acre portion of an old farm nestled in the mountains of western North Carolina. Our property has acres of woods and acres of open meadows where cows grazed, and hay was harvested. I keep those meadows mowed. It takes about six hours on a small tractor to mow all of them and I do that at least twice...
Read More
Improve Students' Fluency, Vocabulary, & Comprehension with Guided Practice
By Laura Robb "The kids who can't read the grade level text listen to it so they are on the same page as students who can read the text. That's the only way I can have every student experience the required text." This explanation illustrates how a sixth-grade teacher coped with a one-novel per semester curriculum in her classes. None of the ...
Read More
Why Poetry? Let Me Count the Ways
By Timothy Rasinski, Ph.D Anyone who has followed my work in the past knows that I am a huge advocate for the use of poetry (and song) in the literacy classroom for all students, but especially for younger readers and older readers who struggle.I'd like to share reasons why I think poetry should be an essential part of any literacy program. ...
Read More