Monday, April 7, 2014

Celebrating the Quiet Mentors: Books

Meeno Rami's Thrive: 5 Ways to (Re)Invigorate Your Teaching uses the term "quiet mentors" and she reminds us that mentors are everywhere in our lives.

In the text, Rami suggests looking for those who are passionate about their work, enjoy their job, whose students trust them, whose students are engaged, who is most willing to share, who is doing something which interests you but you 
know nothing about, who has a quality you would like to develop in yourself...and so on.

And I thought, my gosh, I know those people. To honor them, I having been blogging all this week about all of the quiet mentors in my life.

Quiet Mentor #3: Books
On the one hand, books have introduced me to quiet mentors.

For instance, they have introduced me to educator Penny Kittle.

On the other hand, the books themselves could be considered quiet mentors because I interact with them and not the individuals who wrote them: I post-it and highlight; I scrawl in their margins; and I write in my journal and in my blog about the things they say that lights a fire under my skin.

In either case, my quiet mentors make me think about who I am and about who I want to become.

While I never had the pleasure of shaking hands with most in my army of quiet mentors, their books add fuel to what has already been ignited within me: Don Murray, Don Graves, Ralph Fletcher, Carol Jago, Nanci Atwell, Kelly Gallagher, Penny Kittle, Katie Wood Ray, Tom Romano, Thomas Newkirk, Donalyn Miller, Michael Smith, Randy Bomer, Katherine Bomer, Troy Hicks, Jeremy Hyler, Meeno Rami, Jeff Anderson, Lynne Dorfman...all bear the torches that entered my life over the last five years since I became an active Fellow with the Pennsylvania Writing and Literature Project.

Penny Kittle and me!
My quiet mentors of literacy know each other and, through me, have often been in the same room together. I read their words. I reflect. I smother the teacher I have been, rekindle the teacher I am going to be, and defend the reflective teacher I have become.

Today a quiet mentor came to life for me. I had the good fortune to attend Penny Kittle’s Book Love presentation today in Philadelphia.

In a general sense, being in the same room--live and in color--with one of my quiet mentors made me reflect that books are indeed guiding my practice. As I wrote yesterday, something about each of my mentors is something I want to absorb into my bloodstream. I want the habits, practice, and sensibilities scorched into my bones. My quiet mentors showed me what the research says, opened their classrooms to me, and demonstrated that engaging students begins with our attitudes about reading and writing. It is why I go back to those books, go back to my post-its, go back to the highlights.

I have been slipping this year. I’ve let various elements distract me: the weather, the altered schedule, the standardized test blitz, and separate district discussions over grammar and technology. Some of my colleagues and I have noted that it has been so hard to get into any rhythm. And each distraction makes me doubt the value of what I do. I fear that my kids may not as engaged with reading and writing as some of my most recent years.

They don’t check out as many library books.

Their writer’s notebook isn't as full.

Kittle said, “Without engagement, change won’t take place. Compliance is not enough.”

So, I go back to my quiet mentors so that I can make positive changes and engage the kids in my room. My quiet mentors transform the intention of my teaching even as the dark horizons of self-doubt linger. This self-doubt permeates my skin and extinguishes what has been fueling some transformative experiences in the classroom...which leads to my second-guessing myself.

Sometimes I want to write that the stress of providing common classroom experiences, responsibilities to the Great God Testing, and the disconnected decisions made for the hope of an sanitized ideal of a student and not for the actual, flawed human beings we teach.

Penny Kittle delivered five words that cut me, “I teach kids, not curriculum.” Gosh, that one hurts to reflect on, because I don’t always teach kids. Admittedly, I teach curriculum. I teach curriculum a lot. And, as a staff. we talk about curriculum more than we talk about kids. Or kids as readers and writers.

And there is an enormous difference.

Yet, my quiet mentors remain steadfast. They convince me again and again that conferring is the single most significant change that came to my classroom five years ago. My quiet mentors convince me to read and write with my kids. They instruct me that immersing kids in great books and allowing kids to share in the choice of what they read matters.

Kittle added, “Everything we want to teach will start with how much they are reading.”

And that starts with me.

And my relationship with my quiet mentors.

Great workshop today, Penny. It was a pleasure to meet you!

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