Staying Hungry: How Documentation Keeps Me Curious and Increases My Teacher Joy

Making our interests, expertise, and curiosities known in the WNY Young Writers’ Studio, 2008.

My interest in documentation began well over a decade ago, at the height of the standardized testing mess that so many teachers were talking about and in response to my own failures as a teacher of writing. At the time, numbers seemed to mean everything, and many of the people that I respected most in the field were suggesting that it didn’t have to be that way.

I remember when Jenn first asked the question, “Is it possible to quantify learning?”

This intrigued me.

And I remember when she suggested that we didn’t have to stop learning in order to assess it, either.

When I opened the WNY Young Writers’ Studio in the summer of 2008, I was pretty stoked to have teachers and kids in the same room at the same time with the same purpose. I didn’t intend to direct instruction or teach teachers how to teach.

Nope.

I wanted people to learn with and learn from. And the people who showed up rocked my world for over ten years.

This happened at a time when many of my friends were questioning their decision to teach and even leaving the field altogether. The honeymoon was over. They were seasoned teachers who had seen quite a bit in their first decade or more of teaching. Their eyes were wide open, they told me. Their hearts were a little bit broken.

And now, I’m watching this happen all over again with some of the graduate students I taught. That disillusionment is real, and it drives people out of the field.

All of this was also happening at the same time that the standards movement was shifting into high gear, as data warehouses were generating information about student performance on those standardized assessments, and as everyone was doing their best in that new reality, knowing very well that our best was by no means good enough just yet.

Public education is a toddler. We still have so much growing to do. I don’t know why anyone would pretend that we don’t.

I’m the first to admit that my first years in the classroom were a very rude awakening. I was completely unprepared for the tensions that exist inside of most systems, and when I began teaching, mentoring was not a common practice, let alone a mandate. I struggled to keep my head and my heart together as I maintained ridiculously high expectations for myself, my students, and many of my colleagues. I struggled with depression. Hard. Few people understood what that was or how to support anyone with it back then. People were insensitive. Some were downright cruel.

We’ve come a very long way, in so many ways.

I remember how frustrated I felt when my fledgling writing workshops and English Language Arts classes didn’t resemble anything that Nancie Atwell wrote about in In the Middle. The only advice that people had for me then was to stop reading all of those books and taking all of my professional development providers so seriously.

“They aren’t in the classroom,” a friend reminded me. “They’re all theory. They don’t really do what we do. They just tell us what to do.”

I appreciated the intention, but her response didn’t help me much…..then.

Now that I’m one of those professional development providers, those words come back to me often, now.

They keep me honest.

They also keep me hungry.

I began documenting the learning that was happening at the WNY Young Writers’ Studio because I wanted to make sure that when I went into classrooms to support teachers, I was sharing my own teaching stories. I wanted my ideas to be grounded in the real work of real kids in my very real writing workshop.

I wanted to understand those writers better. I wanted to understand writing teachers better, too.

This is why I document my learning as professional development provider, too. It’s messy, hard, and uncertain work. It’s also helped me make a boat load of unexpected discoveries that changed my thinking and learning and work in ways I would have never anticipated.

As some of you know, this is how Make Writing happened.

It’s how I’ve arrived at this place that I’m in right now too, which happens to be the most rewarding moment of my professional life. Why? Because right now, I’m connected to a small but mighty group of educators who love to learn from learners, just like me. They aren’t interested in telling people what to do, but rather, asking how others are doing it. They aren’t interested in delivering solutions but instead, helping people articulate their needs and being a part of finding great solutions.

Documentation is at the heart of most of their work.

Mine, too.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll share a few posts that make my purposes and processes for documenting learning as transparent as I can. I’ll also speak to the work of others who inspire me, including some of the teachers that I know and learn much from. I’ll also be mentioning some very specific practices along the way. A few of them are referenced in Protocols in the Classroom: Tools to Help Students Read, Write, Think, and Collaborate by Allen, Blythe, Dichter, and Lynch. Others come from Gamestorming by Dave Gray, Sunni Brown, and James Macanufo.

Here’s the thing: Documenting learning can make us better teachers and administrators. It can make your students better learners, too. It can help us move away from grading and evaluation and toward healthier kinds of assessment and meaning making. It can make us more reflective. It can make us better diagnosticians.

You might begin documenting learning for all of these reasons and more.

I feel that the greatest gift that documentation gives us is the desire to stay hungry as educators. I feel it is a tremendous tool for engaging and sustaining our joy as teachers. I think it can keep people in the game. I think it can keep us grounded in what matters most.

That’s my why, if you’re into that kind of thing.

I’ll share some how and what over the next stretch of posts.

Hope to see you there or on Facebook or Twitter. I’d love to hear your stories, too.

 

2 Comments

  1. Amanda says:

    I love this! Documenting helps us to share our story and goes beyond the impersonal data warehousing. The stories that we have document our learning and our students’ learning more than any number. Our shared experiences become the learning that can be written on the walls of our classrooms. Stories shared as a result of the people and a love of and for learning ❤️

    • Angela says:

      Yes. I think that this, more than anything else, is the highest purpose of documentation. Thanks for taking the time to validate that thinking, Amanda.

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