She’s been a fellow of the WNY Young Writers’ Studio for three years now. Every August, she devotes a week of her life to the study of what learning communities are and how she’s grown as a result of her participation in ours. She comes back every other month throughout the school year. She visits our ning almost daily. She connects herself to those who can help her, and she reaches out to do the same. She writes about what she is learning. She publishes her discoveries. And people are paying attention.
She’s also sixteen years old.
Last year, she made perseverance a goal. She also began defining what she’s come to understand about herself and her work and the difference she might already be making. She’s becoming more than a writer. She’s becoming a teacher. She’s becoming a leader. I know this because she told me so, and this gave me great pause.
So, I asked her to share her stories with me.
“Well, I’ve learned so much about how to give and receive feedback on my writing and learning here,” she told me. “I’ve learned to advocate for myself with others, too.”
“What do you mean?” I asked with pleasant surprise.
“I mean that I asked my teacher to use the same protocols we use here in Studio,” she told me. “And that was really helpful.”
I began wondering how many other kids were taking similar steps to ask their teachers for what they needed, so I started asking a lot more questions. It turns out that this young lady wasn’t alone in her self-advocacy work or in her efforts to influence change.
I’m learning a lot about what can happen when we immerse kids in collaborative learning cultures that are guided by research-based and student-centered practices. I’ve been surprised to notice what can happen when we help young people develop a new context for what quality teaching and learning can look like. In my experience, it doesn’t take too long for them to start expecting and respectfully asking such things of their teachers.
They say that life is defined by a series of moments. Careers are as well. The conversation I detail above stopped me in my tracks. It made me realize that maybe I don’t need to work so hard to lead change. Three years ago, it dawned on me that if classrooms work best when the teacher leads quietly, perhaps facilitating shifts in school cultures could happen this way as well. I realized that I could do more than simply act on behalf of kids as a literacy coach and service provider. The time had come for me to work beside or even behind teachers as they offered young people experiences that would empower them to act in their own best interests. I wanted to pursue a different kind of leadership that would effect change in a different way at a different level within the system. I guess I didn’t think that any of this would begin happening for a very long time, though.
How rewarding it can be to simply listen.
So, while I’ve been absent from this space far too often, and while I can’t promise I’ll be able to keep up here as much as I’d like to in the new year, I’ve uncovered some exciting pathways to pursue, and I’m finding myself consumed by all that I’m learning in my travels. The support and services that I’m providing to schools has begun to change in response to this. Over the years, I’ve worked with administrators to design strategic plans and frameworks that leverage collegial learning and build internal leadership. The sort of staff development I’ve come to provide isn’t typically event-based. It’s long-term, job-embedded, and focused on professional learning that can be sustained. Much of this work happens inside of classrooms beside teachers and kids right here in Western New York. Studio complements that work. It provides added opportunities for learning and connection. It gives kids and teachers a place to realize how learning could happen inside of their schools and how they could be a part of making that a reality, even in the smallest way.
When I founded the WNY Young Writers’ Studio in 2008, I was eager to establish a sustainable learning community comprised of young people and educators who were eager to support one another and grow over time. I was excited to see what could happen if we created a thriving culture that existed outside of the school system and that positioned kids as teachers and teachers as learners. While I was (and always will be) working to facilitate that kind of shift inside of schools, I didn’t want to wait on the system either. In a big way, I wanted to see if accomplishing this would influence that shift in ways that I remain unable to as a teacher, a staff developer, a coach, or a consultant.
Over the last three years, over one hundred kids and forty teachers have had many stories to tell that suggest that this may in fact be the case, and as I face the new year, I’m looking forward to seeing what we accomplish together. I’ll be sharing some of what we are learning here and in other places too. So, happy new year to those of you who have kept up with me in this space and on the ground as well. Thank you for inspiring me to work harder, for challenging me to think and plan in clearer and more innovative ways, and for helping me keep my eyes focused in this new direction. It’s going to be a great year!