Wednesday, September 28, 2016

No Easy Answers by Julie Johnson

(Julie is an intervention teacher and literacy coach with Hilliard City Schools. In this blog she writes about an experience in her fifth grade classroom.)

The boys are huddled together, working on some kind of project.  From the outside, they look like upstanding citizens of our elementary school. Their clothes are clean, their hair, containing some kind of product is neatly combed.   They are confident in their social standing, sticking together wherever they go, whatever they do.  They are the cool boys.  Their group is the one that everyone else wants to join.  They hold the power deciding who’s in and who’s not.

Caleb teeters on the outside.  He wants to be one of the crowd, but sits on the edge.  His mismatched clothes and often dirty hands, blue eyes darting back and forth, don’t fit the requirements to be invited into the circle.  The wall seems impenetrable until his words find a weak spot.  

“I think Michael is gay.  When I stayed at his house, we slept in his bed together and he didn’t wear pajamas.  He sleeps in his underwear.”

It worked.  The crowd parted and invited Caleb in.  

Like gossiping old ladies, the boys wanted to know more.  Their zeal encouraged Caleb to go on.

“Yeah.  He never sleeps in his pajamas.  Whenever I go to his house he says he gets hot, so he just wears underwear.  It’s so gross.”

The boys titter, their laughter ripples through their tight-knit group until some decide it’s time to spread the news.  The circle parts while a few venture out to whisper this new information to others, issuing an invitation into the circle, even if it’s only temporary.   Some jump at the invitation, eager to share the scandal to the person sitting next to them.   Some stand by with a nervous smile or quiet laughter, not sure what to do.

Not one person tries to stop it.

When I hear about this latest incident, I despair because I am reminded once again that what I perceive to be true, isn’t necessarily so.  I want to believe that our classroom is a safe, supportive environment where the members are caring and respectful of each other, because from the core of my being, I believe that we all need a space where we feel safe to think, ask questions, and take risks.  Each move I make in the first months of school are based on deliberate decisions I’ve made to build a trusting environment.  

In fact, when you walk into our classroom, it would appear that you have walked into a welcoming space where children have a voice. Taped to the walls,  you notice hand drawn posters made by 10 year olds with quotes they’ve chosen to motivate, inspire and empower each other.  The letters are crooked, the crayoned pictures crudely drawn, but the words are straightforward and powerful.

“Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.”  ~Oscar Wilde

“Anything is possible. Anything can be.”  ~Shel Silverstein  

What you don’t see, but is still there, are the multiple conversations we’ve had while sitting together in a circle, a circle meant to give everyone the opportunity to be heard, where everyone is equal.   We’ve done the things we’re supposed to do according to the experts.  We’ve been up front about bullying and name it for what it is:  any act of taking away power from someone else.   We’ve read. We’ve written. We’ve role played.  Together, we’ve agreed on the rules we want to follow in our classroom that are supposed to create an environment of mutual respect among all of us.

And, yet, we still have words like “he’s gay” floating through the air, leaving their hurtful sting.

I am frustrated.
I am angry.
I am disappointed.

What have I missed?  A flurry of questions torment me as they ricochet back and forth in my head.  

Why doesn’t Caleb see himself as a bully who is pushing Michael even further out of the circle with his destructive words?   They’re supposed to be best friends.   Do the boys who stand by and laugh realize that they are only perpetuating the situation?  What is it about the boys who appear to be safely enclosed in the circle?  Are they afraid?  Do they worry that their inclusion is as tentative as Caleb’s?  Do any of them think about how their words, actions and lack of action might affect Michael or whoever the victim du jour is?  How do I help each of them  reconcile their need to belong?  How do I help them see the big picture?  In most circumstances, these are nice kids.  What is going on?  This tug-of-war of wanting to belong and not knowing how to do it without hurting someone has me stymied.  I’m not sure what else to do.

Because I can’t give up, we gather once again.  We talk once again.  We specifically call it out once again.   “Gossiping, spreading rumors, purposely leaving someone out of the group, standing by and watching are all different ways to bully. Think about the role you’ve played each time you’ve heard rumors about someone else.  Do you want to be known as someone who perpetuates bullying or someone who stops it?”  I begin barely concealing my anger.  Eyes are cast down as I look out into the room.  

Evan, new to our room this year and one who’s been on the receiving end of his share of rude comments, tentatively says, “I’ve never felt like I belong here.”  

And Michael speaks up, “Me either.”  

And then Tommy, “There are lots of times I don’t get included in things.”

These words of truth zero in on the harsh reality and an uncomfortable hush falls over our group.  Silence wiggles in and sits right next to us, giving the boys space to consider the consequences of what they’ve done or not done.  

“I know I’ve left people out before,” came a quiet voice from the back.  Those words gave courage to others to admit their own past transgressions and soon it sounds like a group confessional in our room.  Incredulously, I watch as the mood switches from one of despair to one of optimism.  I overhear invitations to play soccer at the next recess and watch boys reach out to others they’ve never reached out to before. Just like that, it seems like past hurts are forgiven.  For the time being, the circle opens wider than it’s ever opened before.

I am cautiously hopeful, but my guard is up.  I’m not confident they truly understand.  I still have questions.  Will words like “he’s gay,” or others meant to be just as hurtful ever stop poisoning our classroom?  Will these boys ever grasp the seriousness of their actions?   I don’t know the answers.  

What I do know is that we can’t ignore it.
We can’t allow it to go on.  
And most importantly, we can’t be silent.

The Secret by Stephanie Duwve

(Stephanie is a pre-service teacher working in a preschool classroom. The inspiration for this piece came from the many times in the dramatic play center when she has hear children telling each other they can't wear a certain outfit because of their gender.) 

Come close and listen, for I have a secret.
I don’t think you've heard it before;
but if you have, you should hear it again.
It’s the best way you can learn more.

Come close and listen, for I have a secret.
It shouldn’t be kept quiet though.
I encourage you to yell and let the whole world hear it,
because it is one that will help our nation grow.

Come close and listen, for I have a secret,
and I want to share my knowledge with you.
It’s okay that you don’t know this yet,
because I just recently found out too.

Come close and listen for I have a secret,
that should matter to both, Republican and Democrats.
A boy CAN wear a pink dress
just as a girl CAN wear construction hats.

Come close and listen, for I have a secret,
this is what I stand for.
You have a CHOICE to be a boy or a girl
with no pain, no shame and no war.

Come close and listen, for I have a secret;
just know, not everyone agrees with me.
It’s okay to be “different”, although different is not so different.
It’s up to us to help the world see.


Update on Educational Musings...

Over the next several months we feature the writing of teacher consultants from this year's 2016 Summer Institute. They write eloquently about their experiences; some showing their readers the complexity, ambiguity, contradiction, and unknowable in classrooms and others speaking to the challenges and joys of writing.

Alongside the work of the teacher consultants we also feature some short pieces of writing by pre-service teachers who, working from their inquiry journals during field placements in preschool classrooms, created short pieces about their experiences.

We hope you will enjoy this writing that is grounded in classroom life and all the real events and daily struggles that happen in classrooms.

Monday, May 26, 2014

The CAWP Summer Institute Retreat

As you drive to Kenyon College on Wednesday, you may begin (or continue) to wonder what you have gotten yourself into by signing up for the CAWP Summer Institute. Why are you driving off into the wilds of Ohio to spend 3 days and 2 nights with total strangers? Will you have a roommate? Will your roommate snore? How (un)comfortable are the beds? If this isn’t camping, why do you need to bring sheets, towels and soap? Why do we need to go away anyway? What is going to happen during the Retreat?

The answer to all those questions is that many wonderful things will happen during our Retreat from Wednesday, June 11 (beginning with check in at 12:15 pm) until Friday, June 13 (ending at about 11:30 am).

Community will happen…

 We will get to know each other through our archeological digs. There is time to set these up in our meeting space in Peirce Hall on the day we arrive; but then, on our second day, we will spend time looking through them with post-it notes in hand so that we can ask questions of each other, commenting and connecting with others’ journeys and lives.

We will get to know each other through our writing. At times throughout each day there will be time to share some of your writing with the whole group. Not everyone will share—some of you will feel too shy, a little unsure still of the reception your writing will receive. But many of you will share your writing and be rewarded with the laugh, the sigh, the tear wiped away as your words connect with others.

Enjoying a meal at Peirce Dining Hall
We will also get to know each other by rooming together. Although everyone will have their own room, within each apartments there are four or five separate bedrooms. So you will be seeing each other passing in the halls, visiting with each other in the evenings in the common area, sharing the bathrooms. You will also get to know each other through our shared meals in Peirce Dining Hall, drinks at the pub, and a trip to the campus books store.

Writing will happen…

Our very first activity on Wednesday after we settle into our meeting space at Peirce Hall is a getting to know each other scavenger hunt. After telling each other stories we will spend some time writing about the stories we have told and heard. Later that same day we will do some brainstorming and writing about our Summer Institute theme—Talk, Texts and Thought: Teachers as Intellectuals and Agents of Change.

Reading archeological digs
On Thursday we will spend time a large chunk of time writing short notes to each other as we look at archaeological digs. The digs will remain up for the rest of the Retreat so that you can return to them or visit ones you missed initially. At the end of the Retreat, everyone will pack up their digs and take them home, perhaps spending some time during the weekend looking through the questions and comments of your fellows.

Later that same Thursday, we will send you out to walk around campus, seeking inspiring and interesting places to soak up. This is a restful time for walking, reflecting and, if you’re not too tired out, perhaps a little writing.

Finally, on Friday, we will do some responding and writing to our readings as well as some final writing as we reflect on the Retreat in the form of cardboard testimonials. There is also a surprise treat that you may spend some time with, both reading and writing.

Clarification will happen…

Much of our day on Wednesday is about getting to know each other and thinking about our theme; likewise, on Friday, much of our time is spent reflecting on our theme and our experiences so far. Thursday, however, is a day of clarification. On Thursday we sign up for writing groups and rehashes; we explore what feedback to writers might look like in our writing groups and discuss what a rehash is. We take a close look at the critical teaching project and determine our topics. We also review the writing that is expected by the end of the Summer Institute including the multigenre/modal project, the anthology writing and opportunities to post writing with e-anthology and with our own CAWP blog.

Magic will happen this summer as it does every summer…

Richard Wright from Liberal Arts
posing with CAWPers
Kenyon is a magical place that is full of stories. The night the lights went out and Kevin lost his room….The day they were filming the movie, Liberal Arts, in our meeting space and we had to be silent while they recorded dialogue….The summer of the tornadoes and thunderstorms when many huddled in their basements or lower floor bathrooms waiting for the sirens to end…Sitting on Charlie’s front porch watching the butterflies winking on and off on a warm June evening….



What magical story will we tell of your Retreat?

Sunday, March 2, 2014

The Summer Institute--What to expect

Here is the schedule for a typical day at the CAWP Summer Institute: 

8:00-8:30 Business and Daily Rehash
8:30-9:30 Writing Prompt
9:30-11:30 Writing/Writing Groups
11:30-12:30 Lunch
12:30-1:00 Ten minutes of theory/research to enjoy
1:00-3:00 Collaborative inquiry/lessons
3:00-3:30 Read Around
3:30-4:00 Ink Shed—reflecting on the day

 It looks like a standard workshop day—ordinary, unexciting, business as usual. However, don’t let that orderly schedule mislead you. These days are packed with experimenting, risk-taking, talking, wondering, laughing, crying….So, perhaps the schedule should look like this: 


8-11:30 A morning filled with teachers writing to find their voices: risking in new genres, writing deeply about their passions, reflecting and revisiting what has been written, listening to the writing of others.


An hour for lunch on your own—a time to feed the body

and network with new friends.




12:30-4 An afternoon for teachers of writing to explore ways to support and enable their students to find their voices through writing: to make a difference in the world, to speak out for themselves, to find passion in the act of writing.

“What better way to while away the summer - reading, writing and breathing (and sharing a few lies that you don't have to defend),” says Jen (2011).

Not reflected in the daily schedule is how the Summer Institute begins with The Retreat at Kenyon College. For three days and two nights you experience the beautiful campus of Kenyon, becoming acquainted with your new community, visiting the pub and the bookstore, and, of course, writing. You will stay in the North Campus housing, new apartment-like dorms where each person has a separate bedroom; you will eat in the Pierce Hall dining room which will remind you of a Harry Potter set; and you will be inspired by the places and people surrounding you.

What will you have at the end of the Summer Institute? Because this is a graduate level course, there are some expectations for what will be produced. Firstly, at the Retreat, you will publicly share an Archeological Literacy Dig so we all come to know each other as writers.

Once we return to OSU, you and a partner will be responsible for one Rehash (a useful instructional tool that reviews the work of the day before) that will be presented to the whole group. The other projects that you will be expected to complete are a lesson, series of lessons or unit that will be shared with the community as part of an Instructional Portfolio, and a final written multigenre project based on the idea of community which is also presented to the whole group during our last days together. Further we will put together an anthology with some of your favorite pieces that you have written during the Summer Institute.

Finally, when the Summer Institute is over, we will be connected with the larger network of the National Writing Project as well as your local writing project. Gretchen (2008) comments on this on-going connection:
“CAWP's Summer Institute has connected me with so many wonderful and inspiring teachers. I have yet to meet a Writing Project person who wasn't a kindred spirit!” 

So….are you ready?

To risk?

To find your voice?

To make new friends?

To write?
To have some fun?

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

What are you going to do this summer?

In 2004 the Columbus Area Writing Project held its first Invitational Summer Institute. I had just finished my 27th year of teaching and was advanced enough in my career to be beginning to think about what I was going to do in my next life. I didn't really need any education courses because I had a permanent certificate and had completed my Masters degree some years before. However, my kids were in high school and college and didn't really need me to be at home during the summer; truth be told, they were happier when I wasn't home because then I wasn't nagging them about getting out of bed, doing chores, getting some exercise, eating right, etc.

So, when my friend Edna, who was one of the CAWP co-directors that summer, told me about the Summer Institute I was intrigued. Granted, I had never heard of the Columbus Area Writing Project or the National Writing Project; and what was an Invitational Summer Institute anyway? But I had gotten into a lot of good messes with Edna over the years so I listened when she insisted, "The people are wonderful; you'll be inspired by them and your fellow teachers in the class. Do it, Melissa! You'll love it!"

I took her advice and filled out an application for the 2004 CAWP Invitational Summer Institute and was invited to an interview. In 2004 the interviewing was done in a group of three or four applicants. We all sat around a small table with several of the co-directors and answered different questions, one at a time. I have no recollection of who was in the interview with me or what questions were asked; I only remember being extremely nervous.

However, several weeks later I was accepted as a fellow for the first CAWP Summer Institute which took place during four weeks across June and July beginning every day at 8 am and ending in the afternoon at 1 or 1:30 (depending on how long you stayed and talked to your friends). And although it's been ten years since my first Summer Institute, I still have vivid memories of that time. I remember reading about the wedding Susan was planning for her daughter later that summer--a big fat Greek wedding extravaganza that occurred long before the movie ever came out. I remember holding my friend Gerrie's hand as she cried her way through reading her story of being profiled getting on a plane because, although her African-American husband was not travelling with her on the trip, her association with him made her suspect. I remember discovering my own voice as a writer; I remember stimulating conversations with fellow professionals from many school districts.

Edna was so right! I loved my Summer Institute. It was refreshing. The four weeks flew by. I made new friends and discovered new things about myself. It was the best professional development experience I had been part of in all my years of teaching.

I offer this story as a challenge to all of you. If you are a teacher, consider applying to a Summer Institute near you (for more information on the CAWP Summer Institute visit our website at If you have already been through a Summer Institute, go talk to your friends. Tell them about your experience. Encourage them to apply. They'll thank you for your advice. And you know they'll love it!