I’m grateful for summer break. Yes, one perk of being a teacher is a two-month vacation. But, it’s is also a chance to refresh, recharge, and rejuvenate. What other profession gets an annual ten-week sabbatical? I love my leisure time. But, I also embrace the opportunity to do professional development. I read. I plan. I workshop. I enjoy connecting with a professional community.
Then, my ideas stew.
A pinch of a new resource here. A teaspoon of a reworked lesson-plan there. A dash of an activity here. A tablespoon of a revised assessment there. All simmering to a boil within the stew of my classroom in the fall.
Think of my “stewing” like a Sichuan Hot Pot. I taught in Sichuan Province, China after I graduated college and Hot Pot was a staple in my diet. In fact, for the Sichuanese, it’s a staple of daily life. Think gumbo in New Orleans, or clam chowder in New England – a communal soup that’s marinated within the broth of the local culture.
Here’s how it works. A group of friends sits around a circular banquet table with a steel pot, on top of a gas stove, in the center. Inside the steel pot is a boiling broth that resembles a yellow and red Ying-Yang. The yellow side, or “White Hot Pot,” is full of a mild flavored chicken broth, while the red side, or “Red Hot Pot,” is full of a spicy scarlet broth, laden with chili peppers. Diners choose from a variety of raw meats and vegetables and place them on each side. Then, each person fishes out their morsel with a serrated spoon. Finally, it cools and is dipped in a pasty dipping sauce. When the morsel enters your mouth, you feel like contently sighing hao chi (delicious)!
Returning back to my summer PD stewing, each training I attended I see as an element of the Hot Pot experience. The AP Lang training I attended in June was like the White Hot Pot; it took a curriculum that works well, and helped refresh it to make it more intentional. The professional book group I participated in July was like the fiery spice of the Red Hot Pot; my discussions with my colleagues allowed me to revive staples of my instruction, and spice them up for my students. Finally, the writer’s workshop I attended in August, was like the Hot Pot dipping sauce; rejuvenating how and why I teach writing.
Refreshing White Hot Pot – AP Lang Training
I’ve taught AP Language and Composition for six years. I know my curriculum. I know how to prepare students to be successful on the exam. From the advice of a colleague, I registered for a refresher course. He suggested I should “add some grease to a well-oiled machine.”
I am glad I heeded his advice. I learned I have a solid tool box in my curriculum, but I need to refresh which tools I use, and when. Less inundating students with random rhetorical devices, more intentional focus on how rhetorical devices are used in writing. Not identifying parallelism in “The Gettysburg Address,” but considering why Lincoln uses parallelism and to what rhetorical affect. I put a heavy focus on teaching argumentative writing at the beginning of the course. But, realized I need to show my students good examples how writers do this, before I ask them do the same. Why does Jefferson put his thesis at the end of “The Declaration of Independence?” Good reading, leads to good writing. I’m also rethinking my approach for how students should tackle the challenging reading multiple-choice exam. I need to show them how the exam works, before I give them a practice test. Doing a deep analysis of the question stems before they take an exam, preps them for success.
The White Hot Pot takes an already delicious morsel and makes it tastier. This is the same with my AP Lang class. The training taught me that I need to reorganize my tool box and make my instruction more transparent, intentional, and purposeful.
Recharging Red Hot Pot – Professional Summer Book Group
I got coerced in June to join a group of English teachers who this had this crazy notion to read and discuss Linda Reif’s Read Write Teach over the summer. What transpired was some deep reflection on our teaching practice.
Three tips Reif suggested resonated with me.
The first is this idea of a “mentor text.” Reif assigns each student a supplemental novel as a “mentor” to teach each student a unique writing style to emulate. I have my AP Lang students read a supplemental text each quarter to gain background knowledge to prep for the AP exam. But, I never considered asking students to analyze the author’s diction, syntax, and craft of writing as a way to improve their own. This is something I will implement next school year. I have never done this before, but I’m excited about the prospects.
Secondly, Reif explains how she uses writing conferences as an opportunity to connect and give personal feedback to each of her students. She insists this must be done during the drafting process. Confession. I normally give writing feedback after grading my students’ final draft. Conferences are always something I have aspired to do, but felt I’ve never had time. The other members of my book group persuaded me it is imperative I make time. I’m eager to be a sounding board for my students, encouraging them to write as an exploration, rather than means to an end.
Finally, is Reif’s concept of her students’ reading and writing journal. She has her students jot down ideas, compose sketches, experiment with genres, and reflect on their reading in a journal as daily warm up activity in her classroom. Then, she has the students star entries they want her to look at and she comments. She calls it a “non-judgmental conversation with her students about writing.” I love this concept. I ask my students to complete a daily warm up activity, but usually it’s a formative assessment of their comprehension of last night’s reading, or a quick assessment of a concept we discussed in class the previous day. I’m fortunate to have block classes once a week at my school. I am going to give my students the gift of having “journal writing time” during our extended periods.
Like how the chili peppers in the Red Hot Pot adds zest to every morsel in the stew, mentor texts, writing conferences, and journal writing will spice up my English instruction in making my instruction and assignments more meaningful for my students.
Rejuvenating Dipping Sauce – Puget Sound Writing Institute
The dipping sauce is the end of the Hot Pot experience. After your selected morsel has been cooked and stewed with the other delicacies, its allowed to cool and bath in a delectable sauce before it enters your palate. This is what the Puget Sound Writing Institute ELA training has been for me. The course is centered on the maxim “the best teacher of writing is one who writes him or herself.” That’s what we did. We wrote. We shared. We revised. We read and mimicked. It was a joy. I love to write, but never seem to have time.
At the beginning of each session, we wrote for an hour. What to write about? We brainstormed a databank of writing morsels. Memories. Emotions. Experiences. Sensations. Then we jotted down notes how we could build upon our drafts. We selected one piece to revise in writing groups. But, without judgement. What did the revisers notice? What do they suggest? What is the writer hearing to improve on in their draft?
On peer revision days in my classes, I always hold my breath. I worry few students have drafts, and even fewer take revision seriously. They see it as a chore. Writing is arduous enough. Why revise if your peers are going to shoot down your ideas anyway? But what if revision is done without judgement? They’ll revise to support their peers, to create a community of writers.
One more takeaway. Our instructor’s mantra was “allow yourself time to write. Write with your students. Share with them your writing successes and failures.” When my students’ journal I usually do something on my “To do” list: answer an email, grade an assignment, plan for the next class. She’s right. I should write. To create an authentic writing community, I need to be a participant.
Hot Pot can take hours. It’s not about if everyone’s full, but if everyone’s complete. As the host of the Hot Pot likes to announce, “women chi hao le” (We’ve completed our meal). Everyone finishes their meal together. After cooking my summer stew, I hope to serve it to my students as a more complete learning experience.