Practising Gratitude

Like everything good in life that’s worth learning, gratitude takes practise. It’s all well and good in theory, ‘yeah, yeah I’m grateful for my friends and family etcetera’, but when you actually want to feel a shift in your being; real meaningful change, that’s a different thing.

I’ve always been a pretty happy person and by that I mean, I love to laugh and make people laugh. But over the course of my life I found myself leaning further into the ‘this is all rubbish, why does the world hate me?’ camp. You know, deaths and divorces, moving homes and challenging jobs, awful world leaders hell bent on killing us all. These things take their toll.

All of a sudden I found myself feeling perpetually sorry for myself and wondering what I could do to change the situation. I’m still working on this of course, but I feel there are a few things that have certainly helped me begin to acknowledge and appreciate the joy in life.

The first, and the most important for me, has been to change the things that I can change to improve my situation. I needed time away from a stressful job and more time with my children. Done. I’ve taken a year off and I’ll do what I have to do to pay the rent. I once listened to Nelly Thomas speak about being a stand up comedian and she said this which I’ve never forgotten:

In order to do what you really want to in life, you have to understand what you’re willing to take on to make it happen. I decided that I’d clean houses to make up any shortfall in income I had from comedy.

Paraphrased from Nelly Thomas

For me, I’m willing to make up any shortfall I have from writing by doing relief teaching and consulting. Though I may not make as much as I did from my full time job, I will make what I need. This decision has allowed me to feel a much deeper sense of gratitude towards how I spend my days. I feel grateful to be able to read more with my kids. I feel grateful every time I sit at my desk and churn out another solid writing session. Last night as my kids ate their dinner on our back patio and my partner and I sat next to them, I looked out over our rented property and for the first time I did not feel sad that we weren’t in a home that we owned. Instead, I felt gratitude at the memories that our family has made in this house and the memories yet to come.

Another important learning curve I’m going through on the path to gratitude is from Tony Robbins, who I’ll admit I’ve steered clear of for a long time. I’m not sure why except to say that I thought he was a bit of a charlatan. Apologies to everyone who’s a fan. Anyway, someone pointed me in the direction of his discussion on blame. Imagine, if you will, you have a partner, or boss, or friend, or colleague, or parent and you feel deep resentment towards them for whatever reason. You blame them, to some degree, for the bad things that have happened to you. It can be all-consuming can’t it? Well Tony’s advice is this: if you’re going to blame them for all the bad stuff they’ve done to you, you’d better blame them for all the good stuff too.

For example, if your Mum was cruel to you and you blame her for that, you also need to blame her for the strength you now have to ensure no one else is treated that way. If you feel let down or injured by a friend and blame them for hurting you, you also need to blame them for showing you how to behave in a friendship. What it means to be a good friend. I had a boss who fired me once and I hated him for the longest time. Instead I could’ve been feeling gratitude towards him for teaching me exactly what a leader doesn’t look like. You get the idea.

I am very aware that this thinking has limitations in some spaces but for run-of-the-mill blame games it is quite liberating to be rid of that bitterness and instead be grateful for what that person has taught you.

Finally, I have found that taking time everyday to reflect, and write down what I’m grateful for, has helped me to be more aware of the little things in life we often miss. Lighting a beautifully scented candle, taking a walk alone, having time to make a green smoothie; these are all moments that disappear without a trace unless we take a moment to appreciate them.

I know many people who use gratitude journals and write in them daily. I was gifted one for Christmas that I’m learning to use every day. I also believe you could use your writer’s notebook for this purpose because to me, being grateful is just another way of noticing the world. Perhaps you could write down some moments or people you’re grateful for today?

Right now I’m eternally grateful for tea. And words. Until tomorrow xx

Poetry Arsenal

When I started teaching I was fortunate enough to meet two literacy consultants, Alan Wright and Vicki Froomes. They guided me, and a host of graduates, through our first, terrifying year of teaching, encouraging us in our use of writer’s notebooks, conferences, and book boxes. Alan shared his writer’s notebook often, and I’d regularly find him in the staffroom at lunch time, busily recording his thoughts in it.

He also introduced me to his poetry suitcase and it made such an impression on me I immediately bought an old case from the op shop, and began my poetry collection for school. I couldn’t remember reading much, if any, poetry at primary school. At home I was obsessed with Spike Milligan’s Silly Verse For Kids. My Dad would read his poems to me and I found them hilarious. But at school? I couldn’t even recall a poetry section in our little school library.

These days I am fully aware of the importance of poetry. As Ralph Fletcher explains in his book Poetry Matters, poetry is always what we turn to in important times. When we want to say something beautiful and succinct, at a wedding or funeral or birthday, we turn to poetry. We need our students to feel the importance of poetry too, and write it! We need them to experiment with rhythm and rhyme, alliteration, imagery. All the clever devices poets use to make their audience feel something.

I’ve observed that students find the technical freedom poetry presents as a key that unlocks their writing passion.

Whenever I’m at an op shop or a bookstore I am always on the hunt for poetry books to inspire our young writers. I have developed quite a collection that I’ll share parts of over the coming months. Today however, I think it’s poignant to show you this beautiful example. As you are aware Australia has been in the grips of a bushfire crisis and many of us have felt a sense of helplessness in the face of it. This magnificent book: I Am The Seed That Grew The Tree, has a beautiful environmental theme by offering a nature poem for every day of the year.

Selected by Fiona Waters. Illustrated by Frann Preston-Gannon

Imagine starting each day in the classroom with a nature-inspired poem? Poetry would become a regular fixture for your students, rather than just a topic you look at once and then move on. As I read through this book I found poem that I think would be perfect for the beginning of the school year. Forget the boring old ‘write a recount about what you did on the holidays’, read the kids this poem and see what they make of it. Then see what they write in a similar style.

Russel Hoban

So many interesting conversations to be had here about the way the poem is structured, how not all the lines rhyme and how that adds to the music of it. The details that the poet has included could be a fabulous launching pad about noticing the world around us. You can tell I love this poem!

I am excited to continue adding to my poetry suitcase and if you don’t feel as though you have enough poetry in your school or library (or life!) perhaps think about starting your own poetry suitcase. The students love them! All it takes is a trip to the op shop and an eagle eye.

Right. That’s all from me today. Cup of tea time then off to the land of nod. Until tomorrow xx

Getting out of the comfort zone

Yesterday I spoke about conferencing with students and how important a tool it is to know your students more deeply and understand them as writers. Today I’m continuing on with that thread and writing about how to give useful feedback to students in order to encourage them, as well as identifying areas they would benefit from focusing on.

Have you ever faced this situation? You’re conferencing with a student, you’ve noticed there are parts of the story that are less coherent; the audience would feel confused, and you discuss this with them. They look at you, listen, and repeat the words, ‘yep, yep, yep,’ to everything you say. You try to open the dialogue so it’s an actual conversation, you use all the open ended questions, but they still reply, ‘yep, yep, yep’. As though they already knew what you were telling them.

Sound familiar? It’s happened to me as well. For a while I beat myself up, thinking, ‘wow, I really mustn’t have given them enough opportunity to speak. Perhaps I was just ‘telling’ them what to change rather than discussing the passage with them’. But no, on reflection I had tried my utmost to make it a two-way conversation. Maybe then they just can’t take feedback? Perhaps they’re the kind of kid who always has to be right and gets their puss on even discussing the possibility that their writing has room for improvement? Again, no. They’re not like that in class usually, or out in the yard.

And then it dawned on me. Receiving feedback can be really hard. If you’ve put a lot of effort into a piece of writing and then hear there’s an area where the audience might be confused, that can seem quite confronting. Of course, it’s all in the way it’s delivered but it is also a skill that needs practicing. Learning to take feedback in the spirit in which it’s offered, is as important as many other areas of learning.

I wonder how often most teachers receive feedback on their own writing? Sometimes? Never? It can be tricky to navigate and if you don’t have a lot of experience in it yourself you can leave a student feeling wounded, or, equally as harmful, as though their writing is perfect.

I am a big believer in being willing and able to participate in the same learning as your students, and the writer’s notebook is an excellent way to begin. Keeping your own shows an authenticity to the students. If their teacher uses a writer’s notebook to keep ideas in then it must be important to do.

Another, less comfortable avenue to take is to do some writing yourself and ask for some feedback. Ask your students for feedback, ask your colleagues or another trusted adult for feedback. Focus on the conversation that is had about your hard work and how it makes you feel and why? This experience can only serve to help you converse more thoroughly with your students during conferences.

The NYC Midnight competition is fabulous fun for any teachers (or anybody) who would like to have a go at writing a short story and receive feedback on it. It’s prompt-based, which may not suit everyone, but again, all our students have to sit the prompt-based NAPLAN writing test, so why shouldn’t teachers have a go at how that feels? NYC Midnight gives you 8 whole days to write a short story and all entries receive feedback, which is unusual for a writing contest.

The first time I entered I was deadset nervous. Would the judges think it was rubbish? Did it make sense? Who knew? But when I received the comments from the panel I was able to identify where my piece needed additional information and which parts had left them laughing. It was an illuminating experience which helped me understand how some students may feel when they engage in a writing conference.

The NYC Midnight contest starts again today. I’ve entered, and I know some of my colleagues have too. Wish us luck! But the process is always more important than the outcome. Until tomorrow friends, tea and writing xx

To be or not to be…a great teacher

In his highly instructional and engaging book Everything I Know About Writing, John Marsden’s dedication page reads:

In my primary, secondary and tertiary schooling I had some terrible teachers, a lot of mediocre ones, and a few who were wonderful. Among this last group were: Mrs Marjorie Scott, Mr Tom Baddiley, Mr Robert Parker and Mr Nigel Krauth. This book is dedicated to them, with thanks for their encouragement, support and inspiration.

John Marsden

I would hazard a guess that most of us had a similar experience. I can remember the names of all my terrible teachers and how they made me feel, and I look back fondly on those very few teachers who treated me like a person, and saw something in me beyond a loud, but terrified teenager. All the mediocre teachers have seeped from my memory leaving barely an imprint.

As I wrote in the ‘About Me’ section of this blog – I remember two of my high school English teachers as being in the ‘wonderful’ group; Mrs Panayotis and Mrs Nikolades. I often think about what it was that elevated them into a truly special group of educators who helped me become me. I believe it was because they took the time to see beyond the facade that I, and no doubt countless other teenagers present at high school. They actually read my writing and saw some positives in it, even if there was technically more to work on than celebrate. Oh how I wish more teachers did this.

Now, as a teacher in the classroom, I realise how challenging it is to juggle the needs of 28 students and give them each enough of my time to make a difference.

Writing conferences are not a new idea but I know there are plenty of schools out there who haven’t yet adopted this critical practice. To create the time and space for a one on one discussion with a student about their writing and about them as writers, is just about the richest data you can obtain.

By creating a routine, where teacher and student can work together, with the aim of improving the writer, rather than a particular piece, everyone benefits. Teachers learn more about the writing habits of their students, their passions and challenges, and students have a golden opportunity to talk about themselves, without having to cut through the noise of 27 other kids. Together they can establish goals for the student to think about and work on, and at their next conference, reflect on how they’ve progressed.

Without writing conferences, I wouldn’t have begun to understand the needs of each individual student across the years. I may’ve missed the incredible poetry of A, because she was terrified of making spelling mistakes. I may’ve been blind to the dedicated revisions made by M, who was able to write coherent parallel storylines in year 4, or I may never have told L how her experimenting with structure lifted her piece from good to incredible. I was able to do these things though, and share in the triumphs of these young writers, because I made time.

I was fortunate enough to work in a school who valued the opportunity to conference. I can see how difficult it would be to implement in a school that did not. It does take time and organisation, but it is without question the richest source of information you can gather on your writers.

In another post I’ll examine the importance of being a teacher-writer in order to better help your students. I think it stands to reason though, that it would be challenging to have a meaningful conference about the effort and struggles of a student writer, if the teacher is unfamiliar with those struggles themselves.

Quite often teachers question whether or not they are, in fact, having a positive impact on their students, or if they might instead be one of those mediocre teachers John Marsden refers to. (The fact that you’re bothering to read a blog about writing automatically elevates you from the ‘terrible’ category 🙂

A few days ago I received a message from a parent that made me teary.

H loves writing, she loves it even more than reading now…She has you to thank for this, H was never a writer until she met you.

Parent

I’m nothing out of the ordinary as a teacher. I’m no John Keating from Dead Poets Society. But I do try to remember how those two great teachers made me feel about writing, and offer the same courtesy to my students. By conferencing with them regularly, listening to them, and reading their work, I am making time for them.

I hope you all have a few teachers that bring back fond memories for you? Why not write about them and what made them so special? Or the reverse and write about how those evil, swamp-dwelling teachers made your life a misery. Either way, write something, drink some tea, and enjoy. xx

Noticing the world

Two statements I’ve heard a lot in my time as a teacher is ‘I don’t know what to write about’ and ‘that student is a reluctant writer’. Both of these comments stem from the same issue – noticing the world, and deciding what interests us enough to explore it more deeply.

If someone sat in front of you and said ‘write a story about anything you want’, you may get straight down to it, or, like a lot of people you might sit there wondering where on earth to start. Equally if someone sat in front of you and said ‘write about your weekend’ you may have a great story to tell, or you may sit there thinking, ‘I don’t want to write about my weekend’.

‘Reluctant writers’ aren’t really reluctant. They’re just not yet practiced in knowing what interests them, or they’re not interested in being told what to write about. I understand that.

Here’s where the writer’s notebook comes in. Having a space where you keep all those beautiful little details you see when you’re out and about, or snippets of conversations you overhear, or information about an incredible gallery you visited, can truly help you to write about what you’re interested in. And if students have their own writer’s notebook to keep track of all their ideas – big and small, then they should always be able to find something to write about as well. Writing at school becomes less prescriptive and more autonomous and engaging. But what is it that we should be noticing?

Take this example; the other night I was out for dinner with four people. All clever and entertaining in their own way. At one particular moment during the evening I looked around the table and noticed that every single person there, bar me, had perfect teeth. Straight and white, like a Colgate commercial. As the thought passed through my brain it awoke a memory from many years ago. A friend of a friend told me that I shouldn’t open my mouth because my teeth would offend people. At the dinner table I instantly put my hand to my mouth to cover my giant laugh and heinous teeth.

Noticing this seemingly small detail at dinner set off a chain reaction in my mind that required me to write it down. Perhaps I’ll never use this tidbit in any writing I do in the future. But perhaps I will. Maybe I’ll create a character who is embarrassed of their teeth. Or maybe a pasty, little, nasty character who spends their time slinging insults at others. Or maybe it was just a reminder for me to go get that voodoo doll of my friend’s friend and twist one of those pins in a little harder?

Who knows? But what I do know is recording any and all of these tiny moments could generate any number of writing opportunities for you and students. The answer to the question then: what should we be noticing? is EVERYTHING.

Whatever catches your attention, takes your fancy, floats your boat. Anything that sets off a spark in you, no matter how small. Anything that makes you FEEL something. Write it down.

I’m going to put the kettle on and then I think I’ll write a poem titled The Man Who Hated My Teeth. Ha! Stay tuned xx