Linking our Learning – Reflections of a Teacher Composer

When first absorbing the blogging assignment where we were to become composers I thought to myself – isn’t that what we are doing all the time – writing? Little did I know that I would be embarking on a journey of humility, exploration, deep reflection and empowerment.

While tentative at first, our early readings helped me understand the method behind our instructor’s madness. Leigh & Cramer’s (2011) plea to teachers struck me, “Young writers look to us for opportunities to write their way into this world. Write with them,” (p. 88). Around the same time I was reading the opening chapters of Nancie Atwell’s In the Middle (1989) where she also expresses the importance of writing with our students. While I was beginning to understand its value, particularly in transforming our writing instruction, I was still left with a fear of putting myself out on the line as a writer in a public forum for my colleagues. I felt like the teachers in Teresa Grainger’s (2005) study with, “[a] fear of failure and possible exposure” (p.78). Furthermore, I could relate as, “they still found it difficult to share their personal writing,” (p. 78) despite having a collegial and supportive relationship with their peers. I soon realized the irony of my fear. I ask my students to do this daily – to write, to share, to post to a bulletin board. Of course some (or many) of them share the feeling of fear and exposure that I was grappling with. This challenge also made me consider the learning environment of my classroom. While typically positive and supportive, I realized that I needed to put additional thought into structuring lessons, assessment and classroom communication to create an especially safe space to share our writing.

My initial piece of writing was a free verse poem about the best part of me. This was a writing assignment my students were about to begin and I knew it would come with some challenges and vulnerabilities as it isn’t easy for an adolescent to write about their own physical features in a positive light. I took the advice of Atwell, Leigh and Cramer and exposed myself as a writer to my students. From blank paper to finished product they watched as I planned, crafted, revised, made word choices and used resources to create my poem. Not only did I feel vulnerable writing about myself I was quite nervous (although well hidden) to write in front of a crowd. However, when it came time to conference I found, as Atwell did, that my students valued my advice and feedback as they viewed me as a writer and I felt better equipped offering support having been in their shoes. As Atwell states, “I can only become their mentor…because I know writing from the inside, and I’ve shown them I do” (p. 26).

My reliance on the writing process became very apparent to me throughout my blogging experience. Partly due to the public venue, partly due to personal circumstance and partly due to my own writing style I found that time was essential. Thompson(2013) shares that, “the key to progress in writing lies in the importance of conferencing, allowing time to write and the importance of the writer finding a voice” (p.250). For my voice, which was imprinted in my writing,(p. 250) to emerge I need time to ruminate, read, explore, start over or walk away. I found this with most of my entries, but especially with my two voice poem and my letter to my granny. When our students have, “sufficient time to consider and reconsider what they’ve written, they’re more likely to achieve the clarity, logic, voice, conventionality, and grace of good writing” (Atwell, p. 91). Like them, time was very important to me, but I often felt under the gun as we usually are as students with deadlines. At times I felt my writing suffered, and sympathized with my students who feel the pressure to hand in a piece of work before they think it’s finished.

Time played a different role in my digital writing experience however. I appreciated that time allowed for revisiting, revising and reviewing my online compositions. I liked that I could go back to my blog, Learnist board, or Twitter feed and add information, as I did when I finally figured out how to use html text and embed my Learnist board on a blog post. This made me realize the impact of continually being able to construct, re-construct and represent information will have on our students. They will now be able to demonstrate their understanding over a longer period, edit and revise to include or remove ideas and blend new media as they continue to explore. While faced with some similar struggles as the pre-service teachers in Set in Stone or Set in Motion? (Hundley & Holbrook, 2013) such as finding images to convey a message, I generally found creating multimodal blog posts and web tools engaging and fun. As Jason Ohler (2009)shares, “Being literate also means being able to integrate emerging new media forms into a single narrative or ‘media collage’ such as a Web page, blog or digital story” (p. 9). Through my adventures embedding, blogging, tweeting, and online collaborating through social bookmarking I have felt like an active creator of online information and media. This experience has allowed me to develop a “digital insider perspective” (Roach & Beck, 2012 p. 244) which I can bring to my own class to support my students. And, like the teachers in Susi Bostock’s (2012)research, I found that I , “came to appreciate that these digital literacies were, in fact, a new and important language, a language that deserves recognition in the classroom curriculum as a significant form of communication” (p. 229).

Roach & Beck ask, “have we connected our outside school knowledge to our inside school pedagogy?” (p. 244). After this blogging experience I feel comfortable answering yes.

*Atwell, N. (1998). In the middle: Reading, writing and learning with adolescents (2nd ed.). Upper Montclair, NJ: Boynton Cook Publishers.

Bostock, S. (2012). Thirdspace: A perspective on professional development. Language Arts, 89(4). 222-231.

Grainger, T. (2005). Teachers as writers: Learning together. English in Education 39(1)

*Hundley, M., Holbrook, M. (2013). Set in stone or set in motion? Multimodal and digital writing with preservice English teachers. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 56(6) 500-509.

*Leigh, R., & Cramer, R. (2011). Two voice poem: A conversation with writers on writing. English Journal,100(5) 82-89.

Ohler, J. (2009). Orchestrating the media collage. Educational Leadership. 66(6) 8-13.

Roach, A. & Beck, J., (2012). Before Coffee, Facebook: New literacy learning for 21st century teachers. Language Arts, 89(4) 244-255.

*Thompson, I. (2013). The mediation of Learning in the zone of proximal development through co-constructed writing activity. Research in the Teaching of English, 47(3) 247 – 276.


If You Were Still Here

If you were still here I would tell you…

I would tell you about the memories that stay with me from when I was a little girl.

When you and Grandpa moved to Montreal I wanted to visit you every week end. On one such visit I remember pouring over a drawing and trying to write a story. I was only 3 at the time. I walked into the living room and asked you and Grandpa how to spell yellow. I sat and watched as you spoke to each other in French and tried to sound out yellow in English.

You both worked so hard and I knew you wanted to figure it out for me.

I wouldn’t have known the difference if you told me something wrong. Maybe you did. But I skipped back to the room repeating the letters in my mind that you had both pieced together. I wish I still had that paper.

I remember waking up in your home in Gaspé and smelling the delicious scent of your homemade bread tempting me out of bed. And when I got a little older I earned the privilege of having coffee with my bread, putting as much Carnation milk in as I could when you weren’t looking.

When I was a teenager, in that same kitchen, I asked you to show me how to make bread. You made me scrub my hands before you let me touch anything. Then you set off speedily pouring flour, pinching salt, proofing yeast…all by sight and memory. No recipe card or book by your side. I tried to keep up to you, continually asking how much is that? What would that be in cups? tablespoons?

You couldn’t answer. Just abouts, and handfuls and half a bowl.

I never mastered your bread which made it all the more delicious and treasured each time I ate it.

I did manage to recreate your tourtière.

When I moved to BC and began my own family I missed you all so much at Christmas. Memories of the whole family together at your home on Christmas Eve sharing laughs and stories and of course your tourtière made the distance between us real.

Despite knowing that I was going to have to interpret your ingrained measurement system, I called you one Christmas determined to create a similar Dee family experience for my little family. I remember how pleased you were that I was going to make the pies.

I worked for a whole day making dough, boiling and shredding meat, mashing potatoes and thinking of you the whole time. I thought of how many times you had spent your days cooking and baking. Everything from memory and everything homemade. All to feed your ten children and whoever happened to stop by that night because your door was always open.

You will be with us every holiday season as we enjoy your tourtière and share times with friends and family on Christmas Eve.

I would tell you what it meant to me that you gave me your wedding ring. At the time I was too speechless. It will forever be by my bedside; too small to fit my fingers.

I would make sure you knew that I loved the stories you told me about my dad every time I talked to you on our Sunday phone calls. I knew you wanted me to have them to remember him by. It meant so much to me that even though he was your son in law, you embraced him like he was your own. Even in the hard times.

I would share how sweet I thought you were when we were last together this summer. Sitting on the side of your hospital bed, you looking so frail, I told you how much I look up to you and that I have always wanted to be as strong as you. I told you that your were my hero. And your reply?

“Oh ya?”

Like you couldn’t believe that someone would look up to you.

How could we not?

You lit up every room you were in with your humour. You took care of everyone around you because you genuinely cared about them. You amazed us with your strength and determination. You were loved by everyone that met you.

I have heard you called so many names over the years…Mrs. Dee, Mrs. Raymond, Odina, Diana, all depending on who was talking to you and their relationship to you.

But, you are Granny to me.

In loving memory of my beautiful Grandmother, Odina Dee. July 1915 – October 1913

Two Voices

The following is a two voice poem with the voices of my students on the left and my voice on the right. Our voices combine to share our thoughts on how we see ourselves as writers.
(sorry mobile users – the formatting gets messy. check it out on your pc)
We need to Write?                                                                                            
I feel irritated
I find writing really hard
What’s that?
It’s really hard
I can relate – writing scares me
I don’t like being forced
Writing for an audience is scarier than
writing for myself
When I’m in the mood I write for myself
I love writing in my journal
It’s something I’m excited about
I have most of my life down on paper
I don’t see myself as a REAL author
Does writing emails make me a writer?
One day I could be an author
An author of emails?
Writing is annoying and boring and I don’t
like it.

It’s Moody                                                                                                                          

I like to write when I’m upset or bored
It helps me clear my head
It seems to help me up when I am down
I write more when I’m sad or angry
I just love to write – but only when I’m happy
Seldom when I’m feeling good
I can express my feelings
It pulls it all together.

                                                                                                                Time to start

I hop on my computer
and start typing out ideas
It takes forever to get going
My stories aren’t planned – I just write
My ideas are maps
Staying on topic is hard
Walk away, come back, walk away
I take short walks or look out my window
Come back again
My imagination is huge.
There’s Purpose                                                                                                
To be a writer is to think about
the things you like
Thinking about learning
At school but not at home
I write to learn
I can create a different world
It’s for an audience
Poetry for friends and family
Better for me than others
Writing music to help escape the real world
A journey to build confidence
It’s a supply and demand kind of thing.


Goldie Eyes

It started with an inspiration. The Best Part of Me by Wendy Ewald  After reading this book I knew I wanted to do a similar activity with my class…two years later I finally had my chance. I set out to model the writing process with my students.

link to

I started here as a pre-write

I needed to think of who I was writing for, why I was writing and what were some of the big ideas I would use to discuss my eyes.

Pre-write continued…

I thought of some specific examples to fit with each of my big ideas. I explained that I wasn’t going into detail here, but I would be in my draft. This was to act as a reminder or an inspiration board to help me later.

It was time to piece it together in the writing phase
More challenging than expected (it’s not easy doing this in front of a crowd!), I pulled the ideas together making sure to share how I was organizing my thoughts.
Almost there – edit and revise
I read and re-read the poem aloud. I omitted phrases, added words, and reorganized sentences to help the flow or change the impact.  I left out a few words because they just wouldn’t come to me. I trusted that they eventually would.
Publish time…
my eyes are the best part of me
from peeking open in the morning 
drooping closed at night
they bring me gifts
my children’s SMILES
their tussled hair
sullen pouts
first soccer goals
dimpled cheeks and dirty knees
Without them I would never see
the fiery glow of the morning light on my favourite oak tree
the delight of a student’s “A- HA!” moment
the soothing words of my novel as it eases me to sleep
they are
flecked with gold and shades of green
odd and mismatched
almond shaped with eyelashes that pop when coated black
a memory of my father
the best part of me