Monday, November 8, 2010

Day by Day... A pre-NCTE interview with Ruth Ayres and Stacey Shubitz

I have been waiting for Day by Day - Refining Writing Workshop Through 180 Days of Reflective Practice by Ruth Ayres and Stacey Shubitz for the longest time.  I have been a reader of their blog Two Writing Teachers for some time and when I heard they were writing, I couldn't wait!  And Day by Day is well worth the anticipation!  As soon as I heard it was out, I couldn't wait to interview them for my blog.  
     Ruth's and Stacey's motto on their blog is "Write:  It's good for you!"  And, now they can add, "Read this book:  It's good for you too!"  In the forward to the book, Carl Anderson says, "This is a book that asks readers to take an active stance toward their learning, a stance that will reward them with new knowledge, new teaching points, and new techniques that become part of their teaching repertoire."  
     It is a time in our profession where pundits and programs are slowly slipping into our writing workshops with promises of higher test scores, ridiculously complicated rubrics, formulaic writing, traps and targets, and misconceptions of what it means to be a writer.  Ruth and Stacey take an active stance in their writing and invite us to create writer's workshops where students are writing for authenticity.  Mem Fox said years ago, "I wish we could change the world by creating powerful writers for forever instead of just indifferent writers for school!"  It is colleagues like Ruth and Stacey that help keep that dream alive!
     I asked them to respond to a few "brief" questions.  Here are their thoughts... enjoy!
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Patrick:  Your book is organized in such a thoughtful, purposeful manner.  The book is both practical and reflective… and offers such choice for the reader and his/her teaching.  As you were writing, how did you decide on the organizational structure?

Ruth:  Thank you! The structure of the book was important to us. We knew teachers were drawn to our blog, so we wanted a book that tapped into the short nature of our blog posts. As we looked back at the topics we blogged about, we soon found almost any post could be categorized in one of seven topics: routines, minilessons, choice, mentors, conferring, assessment, and celebration. As we thought more around the idea of pillars of writing workshop, we realized celebration is woven into the other six areas. Voila, the structure of the book was born.

The idea of a daily guide for writing teachers led us to create cycles for each of the six pillars. We met in person for these brainstorming sessions and developed the main topic for each of the three cycles and then the ten discussion topics within each cycle.

Stacey:  We mapped out the chapters and the cycles for the book in advance of writing it.  The only cycles that changed from our original plans were the ones contained in the mini-lessons section.  Originally we had the mini-lessons chapter broken out very differently (e.g., cycle one was going to be about connections, demonstrations and active involvements; cycle two was going to deal with narrative, non-narrative, and poetry mini-lessons; cycle three was going to deal with process, craft and conventions), but we realized our original plan was very messy.  We took a step back and asked ourselves what would be most meaningful to readers of the book.    “Teaching Conventions in Mini-Lessons” is a course of study designed to help teachers embed instruction about conventions into mini-lessons.  Finally, “Making Our Teaching Stick” is designed to make our teaching last in our students’ minds for years to come.

Patrick:  Throughout the book, the cycles you include are rich in skill and strategy.  Is there one cycle that you find more challenging than the rest?  Which cycle is your favorite?

Stacey:  I think the “Peer Conferring” cycle is very challenging because it is about relinquishing control, which is very hard for many educators to do.  With a little faith in the process and trust in your students, this cycle should yield some glorious results.  

My favorite cycle is “Teachers as Mentors.”  I think this cycle is one of the most important cycles in the book since being a teacher-writer allows one to relate better to the young writers they teach daily.

Ruth:  Stacey and I were talking about the book a few weeks ago and one thing I noticed in our discussion is how each of the six pillars is woven around one another – each depends on another for growth.

So when I think about a cycle that is most challenging, it is hands-down assessment. Really, will we ever master assessment? But so much of assessment is woven around conferring, which is one of my favorite parts of writing workshop. I can use my understanding and strength in conferring to improve in assessment.

This year my focus as a writing teacher is to understand the writing process more deeply, which is an element of choice. As I offer more choices to students, my conferring becomes richer, and my understanding of assessment is influenced.

They all wrap around one another. I think this is a comfort to us as writing teachers because whatever area is most challenging it is only a step away from an area we claim as a favorite. Just like we encourage our students to do, we can use our strengths as a stepping stone to growth.

Patrick:  As you were writing Day by Day, what was your greatest new learning?  Tell us about the part of the book that you’re most proud of as a writer yourself.

Ruth:  The part I’m most proud of? Well, it’s done. . . we wrote an entire book cover to cover. I’ve learned writing is about tenacity. I must sit down with my laptop and put words on the page – even when I don’t want to, especially when I don’t want to. It’s about making a choice to write for at least fifteen minutes a day instead of doing something else.

Within the book, my favorite parts are the Closing Thoughts and Dedications.
What surprised me the most in writing Day by Day was the way my ideas developed as I wrote. Now this is something I’ve taught in writing workshop for years; however, writing Day by Day solidified my belief. I love the way new learning can happen simply by putting words on the page.

The other crucial realization for me is how very different Stacey’s and my processes are. In fact, we are almost opposites. However, we are both successful writers. It makes me more determined to help students find an individualized process for themselves.

Stacey:  I had a lot of trepidation about the assessment chapter of the book.  I wasn’t sure how much I had to say on the topic.  While I assessed my students constantly when I taught full-time and understood what meaningful assessments should look like, I was still nervous about writing this chapter since I knew that it would probably be the one most people turned to first (even though it was going to appear last in the text).
As the weeks went on when we were writing assessment, I think my confidence about this topic got stronger.  I realized I knew more than I gave myself credit for when it came to assessment and therefore, I’m quite proud of the work we did in this chapter.

Patrick:  The “challenges” and “reflective practice” you suggest throughout offer both depth and inquiry for those of us who work with writers on a daily basis.  How important is it for teachers take a reflective stance in their teaching?  How might you nudge a teacher to be more reflective?

Stacey:  When I was in graduate school obtaining my first master’s degree I heard many professors tell us that we should keep a reflective journal.  I scoffed at the idea because I thought it was a waste of time.  When I started working on my second masters, it was required that we do reflective writing about our teaching.  It was only then, when it was mandated, that I began to recognize the power of reflecting daily on my teaching.  I found it made me more aware of my impact as an educator.  Additionally, it allowed me to take a step back and look at my teaching practice in a more critical way, which enabled me to make better decisions that affected my students’ learning.

I think the best way to nudge someone towards becoming a reflective practitioner is to set them up with a blog.  Blogging allows you to reflect on your own teaching in writing, but it also gives you the power to share your reflections with a larger group of people who can push your thinking (i.e., when they leave comments on a blog post) even further than you could do on your own.

Ruth:  Reflection is the key to evolving as a teacher. It is the difference between being mediocre and great. I believe this is true for any profession, not just education. Those who become great are those who engage in reflective practice.

Reflection comes in a variety of forms. For some it is talking to a friend after school, others it is thinking on the drive home, and for many it is writing in a journal or on a blog. The secret is to slow down and notice the details. Then ask Why and consider many different answers, beginning with Maybe . . . or What if . . .  For extra inspiration, I recommend spending some time with a preschooler in order to develop the panache of noticing details and asking Why.

Patrick:  I love the idea of charting my learning as I read the book and I can't wait to get started.  Reflection is an important part of learning.  I'm always trying to refine my own instruction.  When it comes to your learning process (about young writers, your own inquiry, etc.), what do you "chart" your new discoveries and wonderings?  How do you fit reflection into an already jam-packed schedule? 

Ruth:  I believe reflection is a state of mind and it fills in the gaps of my life. I engage in reflection when I walk through the hall or am driving to or from school. I jot myself notes after a lesson and send an email to a colleague in order to refine my instruction.  

However, I am also intentional about carving out a time for reflection. When I was a classroom teacher, I used the first 15 minutes of my prep to write in a journal I kept solely for reflective practice. Now I blog. Stacey and I are committed to posting daily on Two Writing Teachers, so even when I don’t feel like taking the time to reflect, I have to in order to write a blog post.

Patrick:  Of course, I love chapter three, the conferring chapter.  Knowing children on an individual basis is so important.  What similarities do you see between reading and writing conferences?  Differences?

Stacey:  There are so many similarities between reading and writing conferences. 
The largest difference is that reading conferences usually about trying to make the invisible work of the reader visible to the teacher.  With a writing conference, you usually have a better sense of what’s happening with the writer from the second you sit down beside them since they have some writing in-hand.  However, since writing conferences must always be about “teaching the writer, not the writing,” I believe it’s imperative to ask every writer lots of open-ended questions to learn about their process and intentions so we don’t rely on the writing to tell us what to teach the child. 

Ruth:  It is important in both reading and writing conferences to be an active listener and see the intent behind the student’s work. I love looking for what students’ are attempting as readers and writers and then helping them to do it better. Another similarity I see is in focusing on the student – teaching the student as opposed to the text.

For me, reading conferences seem so much harder. One reason for this is because I’ve had a lot more experience in writing conferences. I’m fortunate to be in a district that has both a writing coach (me) and a reading coach. It just proves the more we confer the easier it becomes. 

Patrick:  Who are your writing mentors?  If you could suggest one professional text about writer’s workshop that’s impacted your thinking, which would you choose?  Why? 

Stacey:  There are many teacher-authors whose writing I looked to while we were engaged in writing this book.  A few, whose books I referred to again and again, were: Dan Feigelson, Ralph Fletcher, Georgia Heard, and Katie Wood Ray.
Aimee Buckner’s book, Notebook Know-How, changed the way I used writer’s notebooks when I was a classroom teacher.  She gave me the courage to make the notebook a tool that writers could use to improve their skills while still finding a way to make it a place to collect meaningful writing.  I hope to meet her sometime in the future since her work really had a huge impact on my teaching.

Ruth: For Day by Day, my writing mentors were Penny Kittle and Katie Wood Ray – I love the lyrical nature of their writing style.  Often I read a portion of one of their texts before I wrote so I could have the sound of their voices in my head.

One text about writing workshop, are you serious? You realize that on any given day I may suggest a different title, right?  So today I choose Public Teaching: One Kid at a Time by Penny Kittle because it is an example of reflective practice in its most elegant form – through noticing ordinary stories that happen every day in classrooms and realizing how they impact us as teachers.

Patrick:  I asked both Ralph Fletcher and Katie Wood Ray this question recently, “What are some of the practices you see being implemented in classrooms in the name of ‘writer’s workshop’ that send shivers down your spine?” 

Ruth:  There are so many resources touting the guise of writing workshop, which teachers can follow the “curriculum” laid out without ever taking the time to reflect on the needs of the students in their classrooms. What sends shivers down my spine (and back up again) is the ease of lock stepping through a pre-determined order of minilessons without ever considering student need.

I’m also concerned with the pressure teachers put on students to write to a specific prompt or assignment for writing workshop. This places the focus on the product and conferring becomes about the product produced, instead of the writer. With the emphasis to perform, some writing workshops have unfortunately become places to produce things perfectly for the teacher’s grade book.
Reflective practice and knowledge of best practices in writing is how we will keep our writing workshops pure. It is important we continue to build our understanding of how students learn to write by reading professionally and then reflecting on our understandings and practices.

Stacey:  Practices that diminish choice send shivers down my spine.  For example, I walked into a school earlier this year that had a beautiful display of fourth graders’ writing.  It was colorful and visually appealing.  However, when I got close enough to read the writing I noticed all of the kids had written about rain.  Apparently, their teacher tasked them to write about rain and took them through the entire writing process (i.e., over the course of a few weeks) writing about rain.  If any of the kids were like me, and weren’t fond of the rain, then I could imagine them being frustrated by this since the writing probably lacked meaning or value for them since it was written for the teacher, not for them. 

Patrick:  What’s your greatest hope for the readers of Day by Day?

Stacey:  I hope educators who read this book will find other like-minded colleagues who will use this book alongside them as a springboard to ongoing reflective practice in their professional lives for years to come.

Ruth: That they teach writing workshop with joy and purpose.

Patrick:  What project is next for you? 

Stacey:  I’m working on a fiction picture book that deals with present-day immigration issues.

Ruth: Two Writing Teachers continues to be a primary writing project and I look forward to seeing how it evolves as more teachers join our community. However, the writing habit I developed while working on Day by Day took hold and won’t let go. I’m playing with all sorts of projects.

Last April, when the manuscript was finished for Day by Day I found myself wondering what to do with the extra time (although sleeping should have been the first choice!). Instead, I set a goal to read and study 100 YA books so I could have a better understanding of the genre. Then at the end of July, around book number 57, a good friend of mine died unexpectedly. He was 20 and made me stare the fragility of life straight in the eyes. My husband and I spoke at his funeral and when we came home, I found myself needing to put words on the page.  

There were so many new emotions and questions inside of me, and I realized the only way I could discover the answers was through writing. On the day of the funeral I began writing and what is emerging (every day, usually at 4:40 am) is a YA novel. I don’t have any plans for it, except to write the entire story and discover the truths I need to learn.

Then I’d like to write another book for teachers of writing. I’ve been collecting ideas on note cards for this project.

And, as always, I collect bits and pieces of my wonderful ordinary life through pictures and words in scrapbooks. Christmas is my favorite season, so throughout December I’m planning to document the holiday each day. This will be my priority, so my other writing projects will slip to the back burner.

Isn’t this the nature of being a writer? The energy for different projects ebbs and flows and it is our job to ride the waves as they come.

Patrick:  Thank you both for taking the time to "chat"... Energy, indeed!  I can't wait to hear more about Day by Day on your Official Blog TourDay by Day should be on every writing teacher's must-have list.  

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