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Welcome Back to School!

A new school year brings new routines.  In this month’s blogs, many writers are sharing different routines they are implementing to bring order to both their classrooms and their professional lives.   Trish Renfro starts off by encouraging us “to say no. . . a lot” and using that as a way to shore up time for “just teaching” and self care.  Kristen Norton discusses  “teaching the art of reflective thinking” as a way to help her students build new thinking routines while Marci Haas addresses some possible new routines to help support students’ “emotions in the classroom.”  Caitlin Nii shares some “plug & play” routines she developed for synchronous classes that span grades K-12–no small feat.  Jesus Gonzalez Renteria takes a look at what we are in for this year and why the presence of routines and flexibility just may help safeguard us from “The Perfect Storm:  The 2021-22 School Year.” And Jackie Smith pulls it all together by sharing some personal experiences of “keeping watch”  from this school year that show how she is practicing her own routines in the face of The Perfect Storm.  

A Commitment to Myself to Say No…A Lot.

We haven’t finished the first month yet.  How are you doing? How are those healthy habits that you committed to at the beginning of the school year going? How is that work-life balance you promised yourself coming along? Yeah, same over here. So let’s do this together. Let’s start saying “no”. 

The past three years have meant a lot of changes for me personally and professionally. I have co-chaired a bargaining team for a new union contract;  I have applied to renew my National Board Certification; I have bought a house after finding myself divorced; and oh yeah, I learned how to teach digitally while surviving a global pandemic and raising my twin teenage boys. They say you eat a whale one bite at a time and over the past three years, I am pretty sure I have eaten at least 5 whales. I imagine that all of us have a similar laundry list of personal and professional accomplishments,  and I would also imagine that you are as burnt out as I am, and we have only just begun. We deserve to just do our jobs well this year, all of us do and so this year I am going to be spending this year practicing saying “no”  . . . a lot.

The best and worst part about teaching is that there is no shortage of worthy causes. There is more work than any one person can do, and I am so grateful for the work that I have done outside of my duty day. It has connected me with professional colleagues that have taken my practices to heights I never imagined, and it has brought me my very closest friends. For the past 16 years of teaching, I have said “yes!”. I have said “yes!” to lead teacher roles and department chair roles. I have joined the school site council and WASC committees. I have written pacing guides and been a part of pathways. If it didn’t involve coaching a sport,  I have done it.  And I have ended every school year a puddle of myself, spending so much of my vacation emotionally and physically recovering that there is little to no time to enjoy the time off. 

This year I am committing to myself and my classroom because I have to remember that “just teaching” is a full-time job. Because after all “just teaching” means: 

  • Creating a curriculum that aligns with standards that are correctly scaffolded to bridge from where I have assessed my students to be currently to where my students are required to read, write, listen, speak, and demonstrate content expertise levels.
  • Creating a curriculum that is reflective of the diverse racial, social, and economic make-up of my students so that they see themselves in my curriculum. 
  • Creating a relationship with each student so that I can ensure that I am helping them to meet their social-emotional needs.
  • Delivering my instruction with passion and awareness of students’ successes and challenges.
  • Holding the space so that students can have the required productive struggle to learn.
  • Being present and actively differentiating and supporting my special populations which are a majority of my students whether that is my students with special needs, foster youth, bilingual students.
  • Providing supports for my students that are struggling with the content.
  • Carefully reading their work while giving them feedback and adjusting my content to meeting their learning.
  • Authentically assessing my student’s writing, reading, speaking, and listening skills so I know where we are starting.
  • Communicating with family members and colleagues about the progress of students.
  • Juggling “just teaching” in the midst of  never-ending announcements, phone calls, emails, professional development meetings, rallies, and early sports dismissals. 

To take on new things means giving less to one or more of each of these things. So I am making some careful choices about where to spend my “extra” time this year. I am still going to continue with professional work that I passionately believe in which are: my union work to protect the professionalism of all my colleagues, my time with the San Joaquin Valley Writing Project to help promote writing and literacy in all content areas, and my support of teachers becoming Nationally Board Certified to promote student-centered teacher reflection. All of these things feed my strong belief in supporting teachers in their professional work. 

So what will saying no look like this year? That is going to be hard. So far it has meant telling a colleague a simple “no thank you” when they asked if I wanted to be the US history lead teacher. Because no is a complete sentence. It has also looked like preemptive conversations with people letting them know that I am not doing more this year. I hope that you will join me this year in trying to do a little bit less because it will mean doing things better or because it will mean that you have a little bit more left for yourself.

Trish Renfrom

Trish Renfro is a 16-year social science teaching veteran. She has been teaching AP Human Geography at Edison for the past 6 years. Trish went through the San Joaquin Valley Writing Project’s Invitational Summer Institute in 2014. She sits on the executive board for Fresno Teachers Association and has been a  Nationally Board Certified teacher since 2011.

Metacognition:  Teaching the Art of Reflective Thinking

The beginning of the school year always arrives with its shining possibilities.  As teachers, we are always  thinking of new tricks and strategies to try that might better support learning in our classrooms.  As we know, any effective writing, and in fact all effective learning, have their foundations in strong, clear thinking.  However, less clear to both me, and often even my students, is what is happening inside their minds as they are in my class.  So this year, I turned to metacognition as a way to help me, and my students, find meaningful answers to the question, “How are my students thinking as they engage in assignments in my class?”

Helping students access thinking routines that further their learning can be challenging, and as teachers we are often tempted to step in and do a lot of the work for them as a way to speed up the process.  This semester I have committed to getting to know what is going on behind the scenes of my students learning by giving them the space and support they need to develop these thinking routines for themselves. Thus, metacognition, or the awareness and understanding of one’s own thinking processes, has become a cornerstone of my teaching. 

When applying metacognition to the learning process, it helps to think about it in three stages:  planning, monitoring, and evaluating.  The planning questions help students focus on the task at hand. It points out that they will need to make choices about the amount of time they want to devote to the assignment and what learning environment will work best for them (this is particularly important if they will be doing the assignment outside of class). Planning questions also help students build their confidence by reminding them they have resources and strategies they can use to be successful. 

Monitoring questions occur as students are working on the assignment.  In posing questions such as “what am I confused about?” or “what is challenging?” students are reminded that these are expected parts of the learning process and not a reason to quit or give up. It also reminds them to make use of the resources and strategies they identified in the planning section. 

The evaluation questions in this series are geared toward annotations of a draft in preparation for a revision.  These questions should be asked after the first draft has been completed and had at least a day to sit unread so students can evaluate their own work from a fresh perspective.  

Here is a chart of some sample metacognitive questions students can use to to support them in the writing process:

What are the different parts of this assignment?How much time will I need to do this writing assignment?What is the best environment for me to work on this writing assignment?What resources will help me if I get stuck on this assignment?What have I learned in the past that will help me do this writing assignment?Am I following each part of the instructions?What am I confused or unclear about?  How can I address these confusions?What is challenging about this writing assignment?  How can I respond to these challenges with strategies I have learned?Do I need to change my approach to this writing assignment?Am I using my resources to help me when I get stuck?What is unclear in this paragraph?  How can I clarify it?What is unnecessary or repetitive in this paragraph that I can delete? What details could I add to help my audience better understand my thinking? Are the ideas in this paragraph presented in a clear and logical way?  How might I rearrange them for more clarity?In what ways does this paragraph serve my overall message?

To be sure, these new thinking routines have posed a challenge for many students, particularly those who have been taught to rely almost exclusively on feedback from others rather than learning to provide it for themselves. This new found freedom to trust their own knowledge and experience can often be scary, but I persevere, encouraging students to continue practicing and working their way towards the many benefits such thinking routines offer.  

Despite the challenges, there are three primary ways I see my students already benefiting from metacognitive thinking this semester.  The first big change I have seen is how they are more engaged in the learning process.  Teaching them to invest time in the planning of their learning allows them to control variables and also make connections between what I am teaching and what they are then expected to do with that information. They stay more engaged throughout the process because the monitoring questions serve as a strategy to help them move forward when things get hard or they feel stuck.  And the evaluation questions help them recognize for themselves what they like about their writing and what they want to change about it, all giving them new found power as both writers and students.  

This leads to the second positive outcome:  ownership of their learning.  My students are realizing that they are 100% responsible for making the most of what is being taught in class each day.  And at the end of each stage of the writing process they are starting to learn that whatever they have invested in the previous assignment will be what they have to work with in the next step. As they are routinely asked to make decisions about what they write, how they are using their resources, and what challenges they need help in overcoming, they are committing to the process in new ways that move beyond simply doing an assignment for a grade.  What they learn through the process becomes the focus, the goal, and the thing of value.

This carries students into a place where they learn to be accountable for their own success.  Instead of waiting to see what I want them to change or how I think they could do better, that accountability is returned to them, along with the expectation that as writers we could always be more clear and complete in the expression of our ideas to others. Having students put this as their definition of success, rather than a letter grade from me, has made all the difference so far, and I expect the rewards of this practice will continue to multiply as the semester progresses.  

What are your students thinking as they engage in assignments in your class?  With metacognition you might just get a chance to find out!

Kristen Norton

Kristen Norton currently teaches English at Fresno City College after spending more than 15 years in a high school classroom. She is the Associate Director for Youth Programs with SJVWP and has been reaping the rewards of being involved with the Writing Project for twelve years.

Emotions in the Classroom    

Three of the five competencies included in the CASEL framework mention emotions either directly or indirectly. ( CASEL Framework ) This indicates the importance of addressing and  teaching emotions in the classroom beginning at the earliest ages. Emotion is not something that is often talked about openly anywhere even in a classroom so,  how can teachers effectively develop the “emotional” vocabulary needed to support students in learning to recognize and regulate their emotions as well as empathize with others?

Many districts have provided SEL curriculum to support teachers in the development of the competencies. These curricula often  provide a 15-30 minute lesson to be completed once a week while others provide a daily lesson. These different resources are great supports as we work to meet the competencies in our classrooms BUT it should be noted that they are just that – resources. Using them as a “one and done” lesson to fulfill a requirement is not enough. SEL is “the intentional teaching of real life applications and mastery of essential SEL skills necessary for success in school and beyond” as stated in Hannigan and Hannigan’s SEL from a Distance ( p.1).This cannot be done in 15-30  minutes once a day.

How can  teachers build on the resources provided in these curriculum to meet the competencies?  A good start has been made by many who are using an “emotion” daily check-in using charts like those seen below.

      elementary emotion chart                              elementary emotion wheel  

But it shouldn’t stop there……after students’ check in by identifying how they feel -what should we do with this information?  Creating a strong foundation for SEL begins with increasing emotional vocabulary and building our knowledge.

We must find a way to include “emotional” vocabulary throughout our day and weave this vocabulary into our daily routines, the lessons we teach, and in our classroom management. Just as we do when teaching social studies, science, reading, writing and math we need to build SEL background knowledge and vocabulary to provide a common “language” to use with our students. A likely place to start is the emotion wheel.The emotion wheel provides a support or scaffold to help us begin to identify and talk about how we feel.  Beginning the day with an emotion check -in lays the foundation for communicating these feelings but if we end the conversation about emotion with just a check in  it  becomes the “one and done” when we could support much more social and emotional learning by extending our conversations to lead to the learning and understanding.

It is important that as we infuse the social emotional learning throughout our routines, they do not become rigid lessons but remain flexible and fluid allowing the time that is needed to explore and share. Teachers need to be willing to share openly – modeling  vulnerability. This will help our students find the courage to share as well. Modeling vulnerability and courage in talking about emotions will aid in creating an emotionally safe environment and a growth mindset that involves communication around emotions. Using the emotion wheel throughout the day is a simple way to begin this journey. Here are a few ways to begin:

  1. Post  an enlarged emotion wheel in your classroom as an anchor chart. As you discover other words that describe the emotions listed on the wheel, add them on the anchor chart.  It can be used as a reference for discussion and writing throughout the day.
  2.  As you read together with your class, think aloud, wondering how the specific character (historical figure) might be feeling. Exploring our own feelings if we were the character provides an opportunity for discussion and writing that could help us to understand our own feelings as well as the feelings of others.
  3. Choose a feeling/emotion to explore each week. During the week challenge students to look for the emotion of the week in their reading assignments and write about it in their journals.
  4. Create an environment where no emotion is “bad”. We all have a right to feel.
  5. Explore the Zones of Regulation.  These zones are coordinated with the colors on the emotion wheel.  This chart provides vocabulary to describe how you are feeling and strategies to cope/regulate.
  6. As you talk about the “hard” emotions that students don’t often want to talk about, provide strategies to cope with the emotion and help them self regulate.  
  7. Provide a place in the classroom that is equipped with materials that will be calming for students experiencing strong emotions. Writing materials, drawing materials, books, clay/playdough, calming jars and fidgets, calming music are all examples to have available.  The emotion wheel, charts of breathing exercises and simple yoga exercises can also be available.
  8. The inclusion of writing in Social Emotional Learning is an important element. There is much research indicating that writing helps us to heal, deal with stress and anxiety, and manage the many emotions we feel.  Daily journal writing, character analysis, summary writing, reading responses and short responses to questions in addition to stories and essays students write provide opportunities to express emotion and to analyze how characters/people we are exposed to express and deal with different emotions.  

Development of our Social Emotional vocabulary and knowledge is key in providing a safe environment in our classrooms and schools.The mental health of students and educators is necessary for student growth to happen. A shift in mindset, a willingness to be vulnerable and the courage to take the risk will support the Social Emotional Learning and the mental health of all in our schools.  What changes are you willing to  make today to provide the opportunity for social emotional growth for you and your students?

Other Resources:

More info on Zones of Regulation

How writing can heal

Emotion wheel to use with secondary students and adults

Marci Haas

Marci Haas  retired in June 2020 from Clovis Unified where she taught preschool through sixth graders for over 30 years. Her last 4 years were spent as an administrator overseeing behavior and academic intervention, EL and ASES programs, SEL development. and working with teachers doing coaching and professional development.  Marci is currently  Associate Director of Elementary for the SJVWP.

The Plug & Play Classroom

Last school year was a rollercoaster for education, to say the least. And while the ride isn’t over, most educators are beginning to gain back some semblance of what their pre-pandemic teaching lives were.

I, on the other hand, feel like I’m just stepping onto the rollercoaster.

I work at a homeschool charter, where every one of our students is on independent study. So, last year didn’t really look that different than usual. My meetings with coworkers, parents, and students were all virtual, but I never had to teach online as the rest of my educator colleagues did. But, over the summer, AB 130 made sure to change that.

Again, all of my students are on independent study., so when I signed into my first staff meeting of the year, I received the announcement that I would be responsible for organizing synchronous learning opportunities for all of my students, starting the first day of school.

With less than two weeks until the start of school, I didn’t feel like I had time to be shocked or panicked. I had to go straight into planning mode. And because I have serious defeatist tendencies, I started by staring down a list of the obstacles standing in my way:

  1. My roster consists of students from grades TK-12. 
  2. My students each have completely unique education plans and curriculum.
  3. Synchronous learning is optional.

So, I had to figure out what to teach over Zoom for 30 minutes daily to students from various grade levels, studying different things, without requiring continuity between meetings. Oh, and making it purposeful.

Okay, maybe there was a little time to panic. 

But now, I’m sitting three weeks into the school year, and the view isn’t so bad. I quickly adapted and learned one big lesson to keep me sane as I plunged into the seemingly impossible.

Keep it simple.

Coming from a high school teaching background, I partnered with an elementary teacher for this project. We’ve combined our classes and designed a simple routine that we follow daily with our TK-3 students. My favorite part is that it’s basically modular, in the sense that we can simply plug in various options from a bank of activity ideas that can be applied to any text or topic.

Here’s our 30 minute routine:

Our hello song is playing every morning as students log in to our Zoom room (and my amazing partner teacher is even teaching us some sign language to go along with it!). It’s upbeat and places us in the right mindset to start our morning together.

Next, we do a mindful breathing exercise. Some of our students have literally just rolled out of bed, so some movement and deep breaths get us ready to learn! Sometimes we make up our own breaths or pull from various sources, but for the most part I’ve been pulling examples from Alphabreaths: The ABCs of Mindful Breathing because I’m a sucker for an adorably illustrated picture book.

The morning calendar is a major staple of our routine. Every morning we add the date to the calendar, decide what the weather looks like today, and keep track of how many days we’ve been in school. Tucked into this piece of our routine are opportunities to determine patterns, recognize different ways to write the date, learn about place value, defend our opinions with reasoning, and so much more! Sometimes we also include a sight word scavenger hunt and carve in some work with word families.

The most variable portion of our routine is the daily activity. Because my partner teacher and I are both avid advocates of picture books as mentor texts, most of our activities center around a story. In our first week of doing this, often all we had time for was reading a book. Now that we and our students have settled into our routine a bit, we can often include an activity to accompany our story (either pre- or post-reading, or both). This is where curating a collection of activities that we can easily plug any text into has been useful. Just a few examples of activities we’ve used so far:

  • Discussion questions
  • Drawing a picture
  • Scavenger hunts
  • KWL charts

Again, we’re not trying to recreate the wheel here. This are tried and true simple activities, but our students love them. Any opportunity they have to share their thoughts on what we’ve read, they are all for it!

There’s also the secret part of our routine. The dreaded spare time after our activity went way faster than anticipated. So, in addition to building a repertoire of main activities, it’s also a good idea to gather some filler activities we can pull out when needed. It’s easy to pull out a stack of trivia cards or if you would rather, a stack of question cards.. If all else fails, we can have an impromptu Monday morning dance party to get moving or grab a super special bonus book to read.

Then, we wrap it up by singing our goodbye song. Done.

Written out, that kind of looks like a lot. But, sticking to the same format each day has made this quite simple. Lesson planning for the next week is as easy as glancing at my son’s bookshelf to pick a few titles. Sometimes we pick a theme for the week, like back to school books. Sometimes we just pick personal favorites. Other times we pick brand new releases to celebrate their book birthdays! Whatever it may be, it’s the simplest lesson planning I’ve ever done in my career, without feeling like I’m sacrificing quality content for our brief time together each morning. What I love most about following a routine is that it doesn’t matter if students show up every day or once a week, they know what to expect and can jump right in.

Oh, and in case you’re thinking “what about grades 4-12?” I’ve haven’t forgotten. We hold synchronous instruction time for our 4-12 students once a week for 30 minutes, and the routine is surprisingly similar. For this age group, we’ve forgon the songs and calendar time in favor of some writing into the day that relates to our main text.

So, there it is. Keep it simple. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes doing all the extra things is well worth the effort. But, being “extra” doesn’t need to be the norm for valuable learning to take place or to be a rockstar teacher.

Caitlin Racine

Caitlin Racine is a homeschool teacher with Yosemite Valley Charter School supporting TK-12 students on their individual educational journeys. She has been a SJVWP teacher leader since 2016 and currently serves as Associate Director of Secondary.

The Perfect Storm: The 2021/2022 School Year Is Upon Us

I am in the perfect storm as I am preparing to mentally wrap my mind around this 2021/2022 school year. A storm because there will definitely be tribulation as I try to sail my ship into the academic school year. There will always be elements and circumstances out of our control as well as obstacles that will make the passage difficult. For me, the pandemic not being over and people still dying and getting sick from COVID, is one of the main obstacles to endure as I start this school year. But I know my school has prepared extensively to get students back in the classroom and that admin, teachers, students, and the community need to be back in the classroom in person. 

I am not anxious or bitter, I am accepting to navigate this metaphorical storm in my 15th year of working in the HJUHSD, and my sixteenth year being an English teacher. The pandemic has taught me that the only certainty in my career is uncertainty and I’ve mastered the skill of true flexibility. I am calm because I have done the work to take care of my mental health. I have learned to have radical acceptance: Radical acceptance is when you stop fighting reality, stop responding with impulsive or destructive behaviors when things aren’t going the way you want them to, and let go of bitterness that may be keeping you trapped in a cycle of suffering. I have accepted that we are going back to the classroom, on a regular schedule, with masks indoors, while masks can come off outdoors.

During the lock down I felt disillusioned and scared not knowing what was coming my way. I had never been through a Pandemic, but neither had anyone else at my school site, or in my family or anyone in my life. We were really in this chaos together, not knowing what would happen and what would be the way this would end. Catching COVID-19 was one of my biggest fears, but I survived it when I did contract it and so did many of my friends and family members who also got it. In this storm many fell off their boats and ships, some people’s ships were destroyed and they had to make it back with someone else’s help,  on someone else’s ship. Sadly, many lost loved ones didn’t survive the storm and those who did survive it, have had their lives changed forever. No one’s lives will ever be the same, but it’s going to be alright, in the end.

The universe’s desire is that we endure this challenge, this storm in a way that will leave us a better, more united country, a more united world. There has been a fluttering of hope that whispers in our subconsciousness that everything will be alright sooner than we think. In the past I had a lingering voice telling me that this was the worst time of my life and that this would never end. Yet through self reflection, therapy, and by reaching out to loved ones, I have learned to silence that negative voice. I have chosen to let go of that negative voice, and move forward because I want to be a better partner, family member, colleague, teacher and human being. I am choosing to let go of the negative thoughts of how I wasn’t always the best teacher or that I wasn’t always giving my best effort. I did my best, with that I had and I know everyone around me was also giving it their best. Negative thoughts that students don’t care about their education or else they would do better in my class and all of their classes, I am letting go of that too. 

I want to start on a clean slate, and I want to give my school, administration, colleagues and students the opportunity to endure this new, perfect, uncertain storm with me so that we can get through it together. This is important for me because I know that students want to be back in the classroom. Far too many students did not feel successful last year because they did not do well in their classes and because they felt isolated and lost enduring distance learning. By not holding on to the mistakes that students made last year, I feel that we can move on together. For I feel that students are also needing to let go of how they felt they were not supported by the school system all of last year. The community wants to heal and feel that life is going back to a routine, that is as normal as possible. We will all never be the same because of everything that happened the last year and a half, but we can learn to move forward and be successful within the present school year. 

There are still plenty of uncertainties out there for sure. The Delta variant is a concern and the curve is going up, again. There are plenty of people that are anti vaccines and that will slow down the efforts of getting rid of COVID. But their choices to not get vaccinated is out of my control. I got vaccinated and so did many of my friends and family. But I still have friends and family, who will not get the vaccine and that is their right, to have that choice. I accept that, as they have accepted my choice to get vaccinated, and to still wear my mask more often than not. I am ready for this perfect storm and I am entering it with an open heart and an open mind. The beginning of the end has to start somewhere and I am here for the ride, however long or short it might be. Get on the ship with me, there is plenty of room and you’ll have more support than you ever thought possible. We got this.

Jesus Gonzalez Renteria

Jesus Gonzalez Renteria currently teaches ELD at Hanford West High School and serves as the English Intervention PLC Lead. He has been involved with the SJVWP since 2017 and currently serves as the Associate Director for Work With Emergent Bilingual Students.

 Keeping Watch

This week was just hard.

My husband has been ill. My friend’s dad passed away. My students are compliant but not engaged.  I’m still not all the way unpacked & set up in my new classroom. I’ve been working 10 hour days, only to still feel behind. Administrators are rolling out mandates without explanation or support for teachers who, of course, are required to implement those mandates.

By Wednesday, I was already “Friday tired”. By Friday fifth period, I was done with everything: wearing a mask, not being able to breathe because of the smoke, reply all emails, having students randomly added & dropped to every class. My students came in lit up and ready to party–we’d had a late start *and* a rally. Now, after lunch, they were full of energy, shooting cutting words toward one another. They even made up stuff to tattle on one another, trying to draw me into their energy. 

I was overwhelmed. 

I turned my back to them, took off one ear of my mask, closed my eyes, and took some deep breaths: I pictured ocean waves, going in and out, and breathed with those. I thought about why students might have this chaotic energy. I sat down at the front of the room so it would look like I was taking attendance.

I didn’t engage with the students trying to tattle. 

I didn’t engage with the students taking pictures of themselves.

I didn’t engage with the students singing along with their headphones.

I looked around the classroom and thought about how much I’ve learned about them in only a few days. 

I know that student in the corner is reading Caraval, and that fantasy is her favorite genre. She talked with me about it for fifteen minutes during lunch today. 

I know that student, who looks completely checked out of class & is on her phone, is probably reading or writing poetry for her Instagram account. She shared it with me a few days ago.

I know that student leaves school right away to go to work. He works two part time jobs. 

I thought about the beautiful thing I’d seen on my way to work that morning: the Canadian geese feeding in the football field, two keeping watch over the others.

So I kept watch. I let them laugh and talk while I walked around & chit chatted with the students I knew would be quiet during whole-class discussion. I hoped that the extra few minutes to relax into the class period would help them transition. 

Then I picked up our First Pages Friday read–Super Fake Love Song by David Woon–and, in my best teacher voice, said, “Who has ever fudged the truth in order to impress someone you thought was cute?”

It was a hard week. But it was also a good week.

Jackie Smith

Past Posts:

Summer 2021: Panda Fellows

This month’s blog features special SJVWP guest bloggers who were a part of the Panda Cares Fellowship Program.  Marci Haas,  SJVWP Associate Director and facilitator of this program, explains more about this great opportunity for local elementary teachers  in her post “A Year of Learning, Growth, and Connection.”  Five of the Panda Fellows then go on to share information about their experiences, the Family Literacy Nights they held, and the impact the program had on them, their students, and their students’ families. 

A Year of Learning, Growth, and Connection

During the past year I had the privilege of mentoring 5 new elementary teachers as part of the San Joaquin Valley Writing Project’s participation in the  Panda Cares Fellowship program sponsored by the National Writing Project. The mentoring of course took on a new look with the state of education during the pandemic. We met on Zoom until our very last meeting in June, 2021 where we finally met each other in person. 

The “Panda Fellows” journey began in June, 2020 as they participated in the SJVWP New Teachers Writing Collaborative. This gave them an introduction to the NWP and the SJVWP in addition to providing the beginning of their writing instruction foundation.  In August, I delivered a goodie bag to each of the Fellows that included professional reading that we would touch on as we worked together throughout the year. Jeff Anderson’s Ten Things Every Writer Should Know was our book study choice.  Other books were referenced or touched on throughout the year.

Our group met once or twice a month for 45-60 minutes. The highlight of our meetings was the check-in time. This was a time for each teacher to share what was going on, positives and negatives. It was rewarding  to learn and grow with each of these teachers as they supported each other with ideas, words and kindness. The Fellows also met once a month with the NWP group that was made up of participants across the country.  Here they received instruction, support and began to network with other teachers. 

Each teacher had to fulfill requirements of the grant. Planning a family literacy event at their school site and writing a blog for the NWP were two of the requirements. The teachers were allowed to work together if they were at the same school site.  These literacy events were funded by the Panda Cares Grant.  Each of the schools had very different types of events all creating safe places for families to interact with their children around literacy skills. As I attended the events (held over zoom)  I was moved and filled with hope.  I hope you will read each of their blogs below as they describe not only their journey this last year but also the family literacy events that they will continue to plan each year at their school sites. I am grateful to have grown alongside these amazing young teachers.

Marci Haas

Marci Haas retired from  elementary education a year ago after over 30 years working with preschool through sixth grades.  She now serves as the Associate Director of Elementary for the SJVWP. 

Writing is a Process


Last June (2020), Dr. Juliet Wahleithner reached out to me and asked if I would like to become part of the New Teacher Writing Collaborative.  This was an opportunity I did not want to miss because, as a new teacher, teaching and motivating students to write can become a very overwhelming and challenging task.  This writing project was made possible by California State University Fresno and was sponsored by the San Joaquin Writing Project (SJWP).

We met daily over a 2 week period.  During this time we met with two phenomenal teachers; Tania and Jackie.  Both of these teachers taught us several writing methods and strategies that were very creative and engaging.  Some of these strategies included websites and APPs that I have never used or even heard of.  Thanks to them,  I have been able to incorporate Jam Board and Flip Grid into my curriculum.  By doing so I have been able to assess students’ learning a lot more effectively and have been able to make lessons more engaging.

During our time together, we also worked on a family history project.  This project was inquiry based. We were required to investigate our family history and create a digital presentation.  This assignment was my inspiration for my Family Literacy Event.


Once our 2 week writing collaborative was complete, we began our monthly meetings with Marci Haas.  This extension to the writing collaborative project was extremely beneficial for two reasons.  The first benefit that I felt made an impact on my teaching were the different writing styles and strategies that Marci taught us.  She taught strategies that could be incorporated into both upper and lower grade levels.  Small writing tasks, such as writing prompts and free-writes from reading reflections.  These strategies were wonderful because they allow writers to learn to love writing because students are able to write freely without a rubric.  The second benefit was having Marci as our mentor.  She is truly amazing and inspiring.  Our sessions together were very enjoyable because Marcie made everyone of us feel comfortable and special.  She is very passionate about writing and I am definitely going to miss these sessions.


The National Writing Project were monthly sessions where we would meet with educators from different parts of the country.  During these sessions we would discuss different topics.  We were given specific topics to discuss in our breakout groups.  We maintained the same breakout groups throughout the project.  It was comforting being able to share frustrations and strategies with other educators.  


Our literacy event included grade levels kindergarten through sixth. Prior to the event we decided to come up with a theme that would incorporate the term “family”.  We decided to have students interview their parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles. etc. in hopes that they would learn a little more about their history and culture. Students at our school site often struggle with self-identity and oftentimes lack a basic understanding of their culture. When students don’t learn about their culture at a young age they often lose a sense of self authenticity that comes with being culturally responsive. Our goal was to highlight their culture by creating a book based on their interview(s). Students were expected to write, edit, illustrate, and publish a family story that they developed and created from family interviews. Each student received a questionnaire which they used to interview their family members. We modeled how to ask questions, how to document, and record their interview onto their iPads for future reference. We also provided participating families with resources on how to engage their child in the Q & A process.  These resources were provided in their home language.  We made sure to let both families and students know that it was okay to use their home language in their writing.  We encouraged this because we wanted to make sure that their book was as authentic as they are.


Students were given a schedule of daily and weekly deadlines. Students conducted their interviews at home and brought their interviews with them during our whole group collaboration sessions.  These sessions were twice a week.  During these sessions we focused on basic writing lessons, such as, grammar, capitalization, punctuation, etc.  During these mini lessons students were very engaged because they were writing about something that was very meaningful to them.  Oftentimes we would ZOOM with families to support students’ writing and to assist parents/families with any issues or questions that may have come up. Some students brought written notes, journals, and some even brought recorded audio.  We worked with these students to develop and write their first draft.  Once drafts were written students went home and worked with their families on the editing process.  This process took a week or so to complete because we worked on editing skills, such as, details, quotations, and point-of-view.  Once students completed the editing process they moved on to the publishing stage.  During this stage students 3rd grade and up typed out their stories while the rest of our students hand wrote them. Next, students took their final drafts home and worked with their families to get their book illustrated.  Some students drew and painted, while others included actual family photographs.  Once all of their pages were typed/rewritten and illustrated we sent their books to be bound. Each student received a bound hard copy of their book.


Prior to our literacy event we recorded each student introducing themselves and reading their book aloud.  At our literacy event we played the video montage that we created. We also sent each of our families their child’s QR code of their read aloud. Families logged on using Zoom to our Virtual Family Literacy Event. Our Family Literacy Event was an evening for parents to learn some ideas on how to promote writing and literacy at home.  Many parents know their children should write more but oftentimes lack the ability on how to incorporate it at home.  We provided parents with some ideas and strategies on how to incorporate writing into their child’s everyday life.  We went over the writing process step-by-step and displayed photographs of students working throughout the writing process.   We emphasized that writing is involved in every aspect of life, from reading to math and science.  The entire slideshow, along with links and resources were shared with our participating families.


Planning this event was a bit stressful because I knew that it was going to take a lot of work to execute. During the planning process I was able to connect and discuss my ideas with colleagues, including my principal.  They were all very excited and even offered to help.  They provided me with great resources and ideas. Reflecting on the event I can honestly say that it was very emotional for both myself and my parents.  Parents cried when they expressed their gratitude.  Parents expressed that they were so happy and proud that their child wanted to learn about their culture and heritage. One parent in particular said, “I have tried many times to get her to understand our culture and traditions but it is so challenging.  I want her to grow up to know that brown is beautiful.  That she is beautiful”.  It brought a tear to my eye because I want every one of my students to be proud of who they are and to love their family culture.  I am very grateful for having gone through this process with them.


Rudy Rabara

My name is Rodolfo Rabara, but most people call me Rudy.  I am a 5th grade teacher at Jefferson Elementary in Sanger, CA.  I am currently going into my 3rd year of teaching.

Writing Course Journey

My journey as a participant in the National Writing Project initially began by Dr. Juliet Wahliethner, asking if I would like to participate in The New Teacher Writing Collaborative (NTWC). Dr. Wahliethner was a previous professor from my credential program and spoke passionately about the San Joaquin Valley Writing Project (SJVWP). When given the opportunity to join The New Teacher Writing Collaborative, I couldn’t pass up a great opportunity. I definitely knew I would benefit from this program because writing is not my strongest subject. Without a hesitation I accepted to join and to my surprise there was a stipend of $2,000 and $500 for my school to host a family literacy event. While in the peak of the pandemic, I was unsure what the project would entail, all I knew was how eager I was to learn new strategies. 

It all started on June 15, 2020 over Zoom, my first experience as a student learning remotely. I was welcomed by two wonderful teachers Tania and Jackie who are actual teachers themselves, who led The New Teacher Writing Collaborative. These two weeks were the best experience I had during the pandemic. There were many takeaways from this experience from creating a technology app list, participating in social studies integrated with ELA lessons, collaborating with one another during those unprecedented times and creating our very own mini integrated unit. My favorite part of these two weeks was experimenting with all the different websites and apps because it allowed us to use them as students and learn how we could use them as educators. I found this part very beneficial because it was preparing us for the start of the new school year since we were going to teach remotely. Overall, this experience allowed me to grow as an educator and will forever be grateful for all the exposure of knowledge I learned. 

Once the 20-21 school year began, so did The National Writing Project /Panda Fellowship and The San Joaquin Valley Writing Project, they are intertwined. I was immediately placed with a wonderful mentor, Marci Haas who is also a part of NWP and SJVWP. Through the writing project we were provided a bag of books and supplies we would be using throughout the year when we have our monthly meetings. We met with Marci once a month virtually and we began with going over NWP criteria or updates. Then we went into a free-write about something that was related to the topic from our reading. In these readings I learned various writing techniques and how to integrate writing with reading. Marci was amazing, she provided us with practical ideas, listened to our frustrations during this uncertain school year, most of all she was understanding of our circumstances. Not only did we meet with Marci once a month, but we also met with the NWP virtually once a month. Those meetings consisted of everyone from the National Writing Project and it began with presenters covering different topics related to literacy or writing. Then we created different groups with people from different districts and some other states, and we collaborated on planning our family literacy night. As a result from these two monthly meetings they were rough to attend to after dealing with distance learning/hybrid learning, but they were a little escape from work.

Furthermore, I had the privilege of hosting Literacy Night on February 12, 2021 with Hannah Johnson who teaches 1st grade at my school site. Our theme for the event was, “Falling In Love With Reading and Writing”. We chose this theme because we wanted our students to learn to love reading and writing, just as we do. We believe that every child should have the opportunity to learn to love both. We felt that in the process of learning to love reading and writing, they need to feel supported to become successful. In addition, we understand that reading and writing can be daunting for young children. Literacy Night was put on in the hopes that it would support our student’s parents in supporting their early literacy, as well as supporting the students in their journey of balanced literacy. Our goal for this event was to connect with our families and our students. We wanted to lay down a path for them that would not only help the students, but help the families in supporting the students in their early Literacy as well. 

Literacy Night was offered for our Kindergarten, First and Second Grade students. It was held online and was the length of an hour. In preparation of the event, we sent home an informational flyer. Attached to the flyer was an RSVP slip for the parents to fill out and send back with their child. We received a total of twenty reservations. Once we knew how many students and parents were going to join us, we bought the necessary supplies. We chose to create a “swag bag” which would hold all of their important documents and items that they would need for the activities during our event. For our swag bag, we bought pencils, crayons, markers, sticky notes, note cards, whiteboard markers, journals, erasers, highlighters and much more. We also bought each student three books to put into their swag bag. In addition to these supplies and books, we put together and included a packet full of informational pages that pertained to early literacy and each grade specific level that was attending. In the packet, we included each grade level’s sight word list; as well as, our districts guided reading strategies for supporting reading at home.

We planned a variety of activities that we felt would help support our students’ learning needs, as well as the needs of our parents to best support their child. Our activities began at the Kindergarten level and progressed our activities to First Grade level; then lastly, Second Grade level. Phonemic Awareness was a huge skill that we covered and practiced. We had a variety of activites that included but is not limited too, rhyming, segmenting, blending, beginning sound discrimination, a read aloud, comprehension and writing. Our event began with going over ways to practice phonemic awareness and phonics at home. We played a few games with the families to show them how quick, easy and simple they are to do! In addition, we made sure to explain the importance of each skill as we were doing them. 

After this, we began a  read aloud of the book Bear Snores On. We had an English version that Hannah read and a Spanish version that Daniela read. Throughout the read aloud, we asked a variety of comprehension questions and showed parents things to do when reading to or with their child that would help encourage comprehension skills. Once our read aloud was finished, we went into our writing activity. We had the children write about their favorite part of the story. For the little ones, we provided a sentence frame and had them write one sentence. For the older kids, we had them write two to four sentences. After the children wrote about their favorite part and drew a picture to match, we had students share what they read. The kids did such a great job! We were so proud of them and they were so proud of themselves. Many of our students were eager to share, which was amazing to see because it proved that Literacy Night made an impact. After the students who wanted to share got to share, we ended our event with a raffle and many thank you’s. Each student received a prize. The smiles on their faces were priceless. Although we wish we could have hosted our Literacy Night in person, it was such an amazing experience. We were thrilled to see how involved our families and students became in our online event. It was also very rewarding to see the parents and children working together. After the event, we had staff members and parents tell us how much they enjoyed it. Overall, we believe that it was a great event and we were happy to be able to host it.

Definitely, being a part of the National Writing Project and San Joaquin Valley Writing Project was a once in a lifetime opportunity. I knew immediately last year when asked to join, it was something I wanted to be a part of. Although, at times it was difficult juggling this program along with teaching remotely and in-person. I knew at the end of the tunnel there was going to be a plethora of knowledge gained and resources that I would benefit from. In fact, from being in my NWP group I gained a friend from Oakland. All in all, it was a great experience and it took a lot of hard work, but now I feel welcomed by a community of lifelong learners.

Daniela Saavedra

My name is Daniela Saavedra.  I am a 6th grade teacher at Lincoln Elementary in Sanger, CA.  I am currently going into my 3rd year of teaching.

Writing Through 2020

Hello my name is Jennifer Sanchez, I am a second-year teacher teaching at Jefferson Elementary in second grade. I completed my Liberal Studies BA at Fresno State and did my student teaching residency in Sanger at Jefferson Elementary. 

My journey with the San Joaquin Valley writing project began in the summer of 2020. I truly enjoyed our summer class especially because of its relevance with culture and diversity. Our professors were extremely knowledgeable and very helpful. They helped us create a unit that was culturally relevant for our students. I decided to create a unit about the history of the San Joaquin Valley and how important farmworkers are to our economy and life here. I’m disappointed because I was not able to use my unit this year due to the circumstances of this year. 

Our monthly meetings with Marci have been a safe environment to seek help and vent a little bit. Marci has shown us the importance of taking time for ourselves so you are 100% there for your students. She gives us the opportunity to seek help and recommendations from each other. I appreciate Marci’s knowledge in primary books. She has helped me by recommending picture books that I can use as mentor texts for units in my class. 

I was lucky to have another Panda fellow at my school site. He’s a fifth grade teacher and I am a second grade teacher. We live in totally different worlds at work. The NWP has definitely brought us closer. We took a while to plan out our literacy night. We decided on a young authors theme. We usually plan and implement this event everywhere but because of our closure and COVID restrictions we did not plan to have it this year. Rudy and I decided to have the event. With our $500 we purchased coloring utensils, photo books for their stories, prizes such as board games and gift cards, and t-shirts to remember the event. We had such a great outcome, parents were very involved. Students wrote stories about their families, some wrote about their grandparents, parents, pets, and siblings. We created QR codes of each student reading their story that parents can scan and view. In order to complete their stories we met with students after school every Tuesday. During our Zoom event, we had many parents join. It was such an amazing event, parents became emotional and expressed how much they loved helping their child write and being a part of their education. There were tears and lots of smiles. Overall it was such a wonderful experience we hope to have it again next school year. 

In the future I hope to continue participating in the National Writing Project. I also hope to continue my growth and development as a teacher. I will do this by enrolling in courses through the University. I will also create new units that integrate social emotional learning, writing, and grade level subject matter.

Jennifer Sanchez

This year with no doubt has been a year of learning and experimenting. My school year just finished two weeks ago and now I feel like I need to take the next 2 months to recover and await what the upcoming school has in store for me. I am a third grade bilingual teacher in Sanger and this was my first year teaching. Crazy right? Especially during a pandemic year.  I knew this year would have its challenges but I was up for it.

As the school year started, I felt anxious, nervous, and excited.  Over the course of the summer, I participated in the San Joaquin Valley Writing Project (SJVWP) which is a writing project based within the Central Valley for teachers. We spent a total of about 2 weeks learning about writing and various other things that could be helpful in my journey as a teacher. As a commitment to participating in SJVWP, we were also part of the National Writing Project, which is the writing project that oversees all other state writing projects like SJVWP and the Panda Cares Foundation (Panda Fellows) which was the foundation that would support us this year as well. We had monthly meetings for SJVWP and the National Writing Project/Panda Fellows. I really enjoyed being part of them as I was able to make connections with colleagues from all over the country.

With the National Writing Project, we were able to listen to various speakers and continue our learning on writing. Again, we got the opportunity to talk to fellow teachers from across the country, collaborate,  and work together to design our biggest assignment, a family literacy night. The literacy night was an event we had to plan for our students at our school sites focused on reading and/or writing. Panda Express’s Panda Cares Foundation was our biggest sponsor this year by providing us money and other resources for our family literacy events.

As I planned my family literacy event, I wanted to focus on planning something fun for my students and their families. My school site has a large Latino population with some minorities and even though I had initial plans of a more Latino aimed family literacy event, I wanted to make sure that all my students could identify and be involved with the family literacy event’s readings and activities.  The family literacy event was virtual and only my school’s third graders and their families participated (about 40 students and parents). The activity involved us reading the book The Keeping Quilt by Patricia Polacco and then writing and creating something that represented their families.

As The Keeping Quilt is a book that shows a family and their traditions (in Russia), I wanted my students to create their own quilt that likewise represented their family. First, we read the book and discussed, worked on drawing symbols and pictures that represented their families on a piece of paper (which was going to ultimately be their quilt), and shared their quilts out loud. Unfortunately, the family literacy night was scheduled for only one hour and the goal was to also have the students write and then share their quilt. As the kids finished their quilts with their families, we were running short on time and were unable to have the students write. Yet, what I did want to make sure that I did was have all the students share their quilt and share what and why they drew those symbols or pictures. In a way, this part of the activity was what we were supposed to write and then share. All of the students, along with their families, shared their quilts and it was great to hear everyone sharing. 

All the quilts were great and the one I enjoyed the most was from one of my students who drew a mariachi hat (a typical Mexican music style), tacos, the Mexican flag, and other symbols that represented his Mexican culture. Likewise, all other students did an awesome job as they drew barbecue grills, books, and other pictures that again represented their culture. Overall, all of the students did an awesome job sharing and participating.

In conclusion, I was glad to have been able to provide an experience like this to my students as this year had many challenges. Throughout the year, we had many sudden changes that I am sure my students just like myself had to adapt to. Thus, this family literacy night with no doubt brought my students, their families, and myself closer. They really seemed to enjoy the family  literacy night and with the support of the National Writing Project, Panda Cares Foundation, and the San Joaquin Valley Writing Project, as they all provide me and other teacher participants with the resources to purchase books, pencils, color pencils, and any sort of material,  this family literacy night wouldn’t have been possible. I was especially glad to have been able to reward all my students who participated and share with gift cards to various restaurants so they could enjoy it with their families.

Not to forget mentioning that my school’s admin was very impressed with this family literacy night that my partner and I put together for our school’s third graders that it influenced  a bigger school wide family literacy event. About a month and a half later, my school organized a school wide family literacy night in celebration of Día de los niños/Día de los libros (Day of the Kids/ Day of the Books) celebrated on April 30th in many Latin American countries like Mexico to celebrate and honor the children. This family literacy night was also a success that aimed to continue bringing families, students, and the school closer and which we hope to make it a continuous yearly celebration. With no doubt, this has been an unforgettable year that I hope is the start of future family literacy night events. All I can say is that I am glad to have been a participant in the National Writing Project, San Joaquin Valley Writing Project, and the Panda Cares Foundations (Panda Fellows) which allowed me to experience new learning, make connections, and bringing me closer to my school and families thought the family literacy night.

Alma Perez

Unprecedented Times and Educators Making the Impossible, Possible

My name is Hannah Johnson. I teach in Sanger Unified School District at Lincoln Elementary School. I taught First Grade for the first two years and for the 2021-2022 school year I will be teaching Kindergarten. My journey with the National Writing Project and Panda Fellows Partnership began during the Summer of 2020. I was invited to join the Panda Fellows Partnership by a professor of mine, Dr. Juliet Wahleithner. When Dr. Wahleithner was my professor during my credential program, I always looked up to her vast knowledge and contagious love for writing. She would often speak of a “Writing Project” that she worked very closely with. Whenever she would mention this “Writing Project”, I was always very interested to hear more about it and learn about all of the things it offered. The more she talked about it, the more intriguing it became to me. As time went by, I finished my credential program and no longer had a class with Dr. Wahleithner. To my sweet surprise, I received an email from Dr. Wahleithner soon after graduating from the credential program. In this email, she invited myself, as well as some of my fellow classmates, to join in and become a part of the National Writing Project. Without any hesitation, I accepted her invitation! By accepting her invitation I agreed to apply and participate in the New Teacher Writing Collaborative, which was put on by the San Joaquin Writing Project for approximately two weeks. Once I completed the National Writing Project Summer Institute, I then became an NWP Teacher Consultant. Being a NWP Teacher Consultant meant I was a part of the Panda Fellowship. The panda fellowship consisted of one online class each month, as well as hosting my school’s Literacy night. I was so excited to be a part of and working with the Writing Project community! 

The New Teachers Writing Collaborative was a two week long experience that I absolutely enjoyed. I had two great teachers who guided our group through each class and online activities. The two amazing teachers who I had the pleasure of learning from were Tania Weinbrenner and Jackie Smith. I loved getting to know them and learning all the things that I did from them. One of my big takeaways from the two week New Teachers Writing Collaborative was the amount of apps we went over and practiced. We did this knowing that our 2021-2022 school year was going to start off like any other, online. I found this to be extremely helpful when starting the school year because I already had an idea of what apps I wanted to use with my students and how to use them to be effective in teaching writing and encouraging collaborative discussion. It was a great experience that I will forever remember and be grateful for the vast amount of knowledge that I gained from it. 

During the National Writing Project, one class was held online each month. Each class had a certain topic that it covered and had a new speaker each time. I loved logging in for class each month as I felt that I learned so much from the speakers and fellow teachers. My favorite speaker was Anne Whiteny, who discussed the importance of us being a teacher who writes. She explained that we are “Teacher-Writer’s”. I loved the way she gave us examples like writing with our students and writing for self-care. For me personally, writing is a form of expression and a release. I find that with our busy schedules, I never allow myself time to actually sit down and write. Anne was extremely inspiring and ignited my inner “Teacher-Writer”. Since her class, I have been more consistent in writing on my down time and continuing to do it as often as I can. 

In addition to the New Teachers Writing Collaborative and Panda Fellowship course, I had the opportunity to work alongside an amazing mentor, Marci Haas. Marci was with me throughout my entire journey of this Writing Project. Myself and the other members in the San Joaquin Valley Writing Project group were able to meet with Marci once a month to go over Fellowship items, participate in group readings, and of course writing activities! I felt that our meetings with Marci were extremely beneficial and helped me grow as a writer and teacher of writing. Whenever I had questions or needed help with anything, it was during these meetings when I was able to ask her questions and pick her extremely knowledgeable brain. I found it to also be very helpful to do book studies that went over various topics of teaching writing and teaching online in general. Overall, I feel extremely fortunate to have had Marci as my mentor and to have been a part of our monthly meetings together. 

During the 2020-2021 school year, I also had the opportunity of hosting my school’s Literacy Night. I had the pleasure of hosting it alongside a fellow colleague and Panda Partner of mine, Daniela Saavedra. Literacy Night was held on February 12, 2021. Our theme for the event was, “Falling In Love With Reading and Writing”. We chose this theme because we want our students to learn to love reading and writing, just as we do. We believe that every child should have the opportunity to learn to love both. We felt that in the process of learning to love reading and writing, they need to feel supported to become successful. In addition, we understand that reading and writing can be daunting for young children. Literacy Night was put on in the hopes that it would support our student’s parents in supporting their early literacy, as well as supporting the students in their journey of balanced literacy. Our goal for this event was to connect with our families and our students. We wanted to lay down a path for them that would not only help the students, but help the families in supporting the students in their early Literacy as well. 

Literacy Night was offered for our Kindergarten, First and Second Grade students. It was held online and was the length of an hour. In preparation of the event, we sent home an informational flyer. Attached to the flyer was an RSVP slip for the parents to fill out and send back with their child. We received a total of twenty reservations. Once we knew how many students and parents were going to join us, we bought the necessary supplies. We chose to create a “swag bag” which would hold all of their important documents and items that they would need for the activities during our event. For our swag bag, we bought pencils, crayons, markers, sticky notes, note cards, whiteboard markers, journals, erasers, highlighters and much more. We also bought each student three books to put into their swag bag. In addition to these supplies and books, we put together and included a packet full of informational pages that pertained to early literacy and each grade specific level that was attending. In the packet, we included each grade level’s sight word list; as well as, our districts guided reading strategies for supporting reading at home.

We planned a variety of activities that we felt would help support our students’ learning needs, as well as the needs of our parents to best support their child. Our activities began at the Kindergarten level and progressed our activities to First Grade level; then lastly, Second Grade level. Phonemic Awareness was a huge skill that we covered and practiced. We had a variety of activites that included but is not limited too, rhyming, segmenting, blending, beginning sound discrimination, a read aloud, comprehension and writing. Our event began with going over ways to practice phonemic awareness and phonics at home. We played a few games with the families to show them how quick, easy and simple they are to do! In addition, we made sure to explain the importance of each skill as we were doing them. After this, we went into our read aloud. We had an English version that Hannah read and a Spanish version that Daniela read. Throughout the read aloud, we asked a variety of comprehension questions and showed parents things to do when reading to or with their child that would help encourage comprehension skills. Once our read aloud was finished, we went into our writing activity. We had the children write about their favorite part of the story. For the little ones, we provided a sentence frame and had them write one sentence. For the older kids, we had them write two to four sentences. 

After the children wrote about their favorite part and drew a picture to match, we had students share what they read. The kids did such a great job! We were so proud of them and they were so proud of themselves. Many of our students wanted to share, which was amazing to see. After the students who wanted to share got to share, we ended our event with a raffle and many thank you’s. Each student received a prize. The smiles on their faces were priceless. Although we wish we could have hosted our Literacy Night in person, it was such an amazing experience. We were thrilled to see how involved our families and students became in our online event. It was also very rewarding to see the parents and children working together. After the event, we had staff members and parents tell us how much they enjoyed it. Overall, we believe that it was a great event and we were happy to be able to host it. 

Throughout my time with the National Writing Project, I have learned so much and gained so much knowledge. I feel that by being a part of this special Writing Project, it helped me become a better teacher, educator, writer, and teacher of writing to my students.

Hannah Johnson
June 2021 Posts

As the 2020-2021 school year comes to a close, the teachers from SJVWP Writes! share a range of thoughts and emotions. Caitlin Nii responds to the lack of control we have all felt over this last year by offering a list of 5 things we can control, even when it feels like we have “Lost It All”.   Jesus Gonzalez Renteria tells powerful personal stories about his own journey to becoming an educator and how he recovered  his “Passion and Spark for Teaching”.  Kristen Norton shares the inspiring words of her students that demonstrate all was not lost despite “Teaching in a Pandemic”.  As the blog wraps up and we head towards  a well-earned vacation, Jaclyn Smith makes use of an extended metaphor to reveal her “Flight Plan” for how to transition out of this school year and Karen Yelton-Curtis discusses her summer plans for how she will restore and re-energize herself on her way toward “Becoming Human Again.”  We hope you enjoy this year-end collection of writing.  Summer blog posts will include writing from new voices sharing their experiences with a variety of SJVWP programs including the New Teachers’ Writing Collaborative and the Invitational Summer Institute. To share your comments about our blog or for details on how to join our fall writing sessions, please email kristen.norton@rocketmail.com. 

As the 2020-2021 school year comes to a close, the teachers from SJVWP Writes! share a range of thoughts and emotions. Caitlin Nii responds to the lack of control we have all felt over this last year by offering a list of 5 things we can control, even when it feels like we have “Lost It All”.   Jesus Gonzalez Renteria tells powerful personal stories about his own journey to becoming an educator and how he recovered  his “Passion and Spark for Teaching”.  Kristen Norton shares the inspiring words of her students that demonstrate all was not lost despite “Teaching in a Pandemic”.  As the blog wraps up and we head towards  a well-earned vacation, Jaclyn Smith makes use of an extended metaphor to reveal her “Flight Plan” for how to transition out of this school year and Karen Yelton-Curtis discusses her summer plans for how she will restore and re-energize herself on her way toward “Becoming Human Again.”  We hope you enjoy this year-end collection of writing.  Summer blog posts will include writing from new voices sharing their experiences with a variety of SJVWP programs including the New Teachers’ Writing Collaborative and the Invitational Summer Institute. To share your comments about our blog or for details on how to join our fall writing sessions, please email kristen.norton@rocketmail.com. 

5 Things I Can Control When It Feels Like I’ve Lost It All

Raise your hand if you’ve ever felt completely out of control. Nothing is going as planned. Your efforts are simply futile. Yup. 

Raise your hand if you’ve ever felt completely out of control. Nothing is going as planned. Your efforts are simply futile. Yup. 

I can’t control if people will show up to scheduled meetings, if my students will turn in their assignments, or if my internet connection will be stable. I can’t control if my dogs will bark at the sound of a car door slamming three blocks away and wake up my (finally) napping toddler while I’m trying to have a Zoom conference with my boss. I really can’t control much of anything.

For the sake of my sanity, I had to figure out what I can control and learn how to let the rest go, because stressing over things I can’t change is pointless. Here are the five things I remind myself daily that I can control:

1. My Perspective

When I became a parent I shifted my mindset on a lot of things. Basically, I had to adopt a big picture perspective. Are my son’s teeth suddenly going to rot and fall out because he fell asleep before I brushed his teeth tonight? No. Will he starve because he only ate the peas from his lunch and threw everything else to the dogs? No. Will I even remember neglecting my laundry or dishes or vacuuming this week when I look back on his toddler years? Absolutely not. When I began considering how much stress I carried from my job, because I’m naturally the type of person who holds onto everything, I knew I needed to apply this lens in my work life as well. I worked on letting go of my frustration with overdue items on my students’ checklists by reminding myself that these were not a reflection on my personal work ethic. One missed meeting, or assignment, or tutoring session wasn’t going to make or break my students’ education. In fact, it’s probably better for them to make mistakes now and learn how to manage responsibilities while the stakes aren’t as high. Big picture. Education is a journey. Life is a journey. A couple speed bumps on the path mean nothing. 

2. My Tone

I decided early on that I never want to yell at my son. I think a part of me would die if I ever saw him look afraid of me. So when he does things like play with power outlets or stand on his rocking chair, he gets a firm but calm “no.” He stops immediately, shakes his head, and mutters “no no no” to himself as he moves on to something else. Now I catch him walking past things that are off limits and saying “no no” all on his own. So, when I work with homeschool parents and students, I adopt the same philosophy of keeping things positive. Any time the phone rings, if I’m in a grumpy mood or a little annoyed that they haven’t responded to my last 20 emails, I answer the call with a cheerful voice. That time I texted a parent and only got an angry face emoji in response, I brushed it off and greeted her with a smile during our next meeting. I find that keeping my tone positive keeps working relationships working, keeps lines of communication open, keeps others willing to follow through with what’s expected even when it’s not fun.

3. My Resilience

Sometimes my son is straight up bawling because I won’t let him play with the propane tank in the backyard. Sometimes a parent is frustrated with me for asking them to turn in missing attendance 10 days in a row. Sometimes I feel like giving up on being positive or thinking about the big picture. But, I am in control of my response here. I can give up or I can keep trying. I can assess what’s not working, pivot to a new strategy, and keep moving forward. The laws of mathematics don’t apply here, the product of two negatives is not positive, and when it feels like everyone else is serving up the negative I have to remind myself of this. As a mother, as a teacher, I am a leader. And when leaders give up, all hope is lost. 

4. My Productivity

The thing that makes me feel most out of control is feeling rushed. I hate the feeling of needing to leave my house in 5 minutes and still having to restock a diaper bag, get my child dressed, find my shoes and keys and cellphone, get everyone loaded in the car, and run back inside for whatever I inevitably forgot. I hate having 6 meetings stacked back to back and then staring at the monstrous list of follow up items I now need to complete by the end of the day. So when I do have time, I need to make it as productive as possible. That could mean putting on noise canceling headphones so I can filter out distractions, organizing my office so I can find everything easily, or scheduling myself to dedicated work time once my husband is home and can relieve the eye I have to keep on my son during most of my work day. I can plan time to do nothing, because that’s how I recharge best, and no one can be productive when they’re running on empty. I can’t control how much time I’ll get, but I can control whether or not I make use of it all in meaningful ways and set myself up to be as productive during these times as possible.

5. My Flexibility

A lot of my job requires me to rely on other people. I can’t format work samples if they aren’t turned in. I can’t hold required meetings with parents if they don’t schedule one. I can’t answer emails if my son decides he won’t nap unless I’m holding him (okay, I guess the beauty of cell phones is that this one I can still manage). And while I like clearing things off my to-do lists, I also need to make sure I am accommodating. Life happens. Emergencies come up. I have to be flexible when it comes to the needs of those I work with, but I can control that flexibility. Mostly, I can look at the bigger picture, decide if being flexible is okay, because most of the time it is. And when it’s not okay, I find having a history of being flexible actually lets people know how important something is to me when I decide to hold my ground.

So there are 5 things I can control. Do I wish I could control more? Yes. But this is where I can truly effect change. The best part is that instead of stress insomnia keeping me up at night, I can actually sleep. Well, until my toddler decides 4 am is the perfect time to be awake. But, hey, it’s something!

Caitlin Racine

Caitlin Racine is a homeschool teacher with Yosemite Valley Charter School supporting TK-12 students on their individual educational journeys. She has been a SJVWP teacher leader since 2016 and currently serves as Associate Director of Secondary.

Regaining My Passion and Spark For Teaching:  Why I Became a Teacher

As the 2020-2021 academic school year comes to an end I find myself with the need to reflect on why I got into teaching and what makes me want to continue to stay in this career. I am finishing my fourteenth year in the HJUHSD as an English teacher, previously completing one year of teaching in Fresno, and will be entering my sixteenth year of teaching. I’ve put a lot of my time and energy into this career, but in the last year and a half I have endured challenges that have shaken me. The Pandemic and the effects of Distance Learning have affected my teaching pedagogy. Student apathy and lack of effort have affected my mindset. But I want to regain the passion for teaching that I once had when I first started teaching. I know that as a high school teacher I can influence students to become the best version of themselves, and I want to be the best teacher that I can be for them.

The teachers that I had growing up always knew how to make me feel special when no one else in my life was doing that for me. They cheered me on when it came to pursuing my writing as well as brought me up when I felt pessimistic about the future. My Junior English teacher nicknamed me Eeyore because she said I was adorably pessimistic at times. But she was also the person who told me I should consider becoming an English teacher if I was going to major in English at Fresno State. I had had that thought go through my mind, but it felt unrealistic and overwhelming. However, if my nickname-giving teacher Mrs. Anderson could make such a bold statement, then it was best I adhere to her observations and recommendations. That lady did not mess around and did not suffer any fools!

High school lesson plans challenged me as a writer while helping me explore the world I lived in and the motives of human behavior. I saw the existence and challenges of life reflected in the works of Ayn Rand, Edgar A. Poe, Emily Dickenson, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Sandra Cisneros and so many other authors. I learned the cruelness of society when I read The Scarlet Letter. Sometimes I felt like an outcast amongst my peers at school. I learned that in a way we all wear some form of a scarlet letter at one point in our lives. We have to learn to be less judgmental and kinder to one another. I learned of human fear and hysteria when we read “The Crucible ”. The pandemic felt a little like a witch hunt and sometimes it was not easy to know when something was really happening or if it was heresy and “fake news”. I found myself fact-checking the information I read on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Everyone had something to say but a lot of opinions were being said in a way that made them sound like truth, and not merely someone’s personal opinion. Were there really witches out there in the Pandemic or were people making up lies to instill fear on everyone else?

I had always enjoyed my English classes because they would help me focus on the world inside my head and the mindsets of the society I lived in. I had chaos in my personal life and in my mind at times. I wrote a poem for English class describing my emotions as being in a constant feeling of “ emotional massacres”. Yet authors we read in my English classes resonated with me in a way that helped me live through an arduous high school life. I had endured a lot of trauma growing up in my homelife connected to gang activity my older brother was involved in and as well as with mental health concerns that were not addressed until years later. We had to move more than once because our home had been shot at. I was once writing an essay for Mrs. Anderson’s class and I had to jump on the floor because I heard gunshots. The police later told us that a bullet had hit my room and that I was lucky that it had not hit me. My mother and younger sister were in the other room and they too had jumped on the floor, saving themselves from the gunshots. My brother would eventually be in prison and forced to move back to Mexico, but the trauma my family endured because of his involvement in gangs and drugs was heavy. 

I wanted to go to college to escape a fate that was expected of a Latinx student who was undocumented. I had a fire inside me that wanted me to be successful, a spark that was not allowing me to give up on my life, a passion that would not let me settle for anything but my own personal best. I wanted to become a successful person, and I knew that an education and a college degree were the keys to opening this possibility of success in the rest of my complex life. I wanted a life that would let me have the power and option to become whoever I wanted to be, regardless of where I came from and how much or how little I had financially.

Present-day I find myself lacking motivation to give it my best effort when it comes to teaching a novel or reviewing lesson plans with students. This has been the case because living over a year in a pandemic has affected all of us. The pandemic has become very personal to me as many people around me got sick from COVID-19, and some did not survive the virus. Teaching remotely did not help teachers and students connect emotionally as we once had when being in person at school. I want to hear from my students but they, like me, are still dealing with the aftermath of the occurrences of a Global Pandemic. I find my students not always connecting to the literature in a way that can help lead them feel better about the present-day. I pick literature and work from Latinx or other people of color that I feel will help my students connect to the work in the way that I used to connect to the work. I desire for my students to feel represented in the content we go over and to be represented in the work we read. 

And yet I am reminded by the high school me, that it gets better! I survived the turmoil of high school when there were so many obstacles in my life. I can go on and I WILL go on. I want to and choose to continue to fight the good fight. I will be there for my students and help them learn the lesson plans while also hearing them out if, and when, they’re ready to talk about the past year. Currently, we are reading Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street and the novel helps open conversations with students in our google meets and with students who are  in-person, about identity, gender norms, gang violence, prejudice, mental health, immigration and domestic violence. I share parts of my upbringing and the fact that I have dealt with all those topics, as many of them have. I made it to where I am today, Sandra Cisneros is now a reclaimed Latinx author, and my students can reach their goals and dreams. I will not suffer any fools, and they are capable of doing better now and in the future. I believe in them and will not give up fighting to help them believe in themselves. 

Thus I plan on helping them get back into the daily routines of being in person in a classroom and the expectations that they are to meet to be successful in their classes. I will keep some of the lessons I learned on social-emotional learning and continue to check in on them on a daily basis. We will get through this shift together and continue our journeys as one. I will light the way through the dark as my past teachers once did for me because all it takes is for one person to believe in you to help you believe in yourself. We got this, I believe in them and the child inside of me still believes in my future as a teacher. I will continue this fight for the child I used to be and for the person I aspire to become.  

Jesus Gonzalez Renteria

Jesus Gonzalez Renteria currently teaches ELD at Hanford West High School and serves as the English Intervention PLC Lead. He has been involved with the SJVWP since 2017 and currently serves as the Associate Director for Work With Emergent Bilingual Students.

Finding Inspiration in Student Evaluations:  The Result of Equity-Minded Teaching During a Pandemic

After a seemingly endless set of trials and tribulations over the last nine months, it can be hard to even remember what our hopes and plans were for our students when we started this year.  As the spring semester ended at Fresno City College, I found myself wondering what my English 1A students’ experiences had been like, trying to learn as students new to college and new to college writing. I knew I had seen growth in each of them, but what exactly that might mean to them, in their own words, was something I was eager to discover, so I asked them to share with me how they had grown as readers, writers, and thinkers this semester.  What I found in their responses was a depth of understanding that mirrored the equity-minded tenets at the core of my teaching practice.

  1.  Provide students opportunities to read and examine rich texts by writers of color.
  • I’ve loved reading Heavy because I never knew people could write about coming from poverty, the ghetto and from a background so similar to what my family comes from and it still be considered a work of art in English literature.
  • I’m actually looking for more books that I can relate to, as I want to know what other people do that are almost in the same situation as me. 
  • I had never really been given a book that holds the idea that something is currently wrong with an American system, and that is awesome. 

The comments from these three students, in response to the assigned reading of Kiese Laymon’s memoir Heavy, emphasize a range of reasons why it is so important to teach texts written by contemporary writers of color who are responding to circumstances that are similar to what my students are facing. Since I first began teaching high school more than fifteen years ago, I have brought texts by writers of color into my classroom. As works by BIPOC authors have proliferated in recent years, it has opened up an increasingly wide range of voices to share with my students.  I have joined a variety of book studies and devoured the ideas presented in a range of recent publications, not only seeking to expand my own understanding but to identify which texts will particularly resonate with my students.

I selected Heavy as the required book for my English 1A students not only because of its accessibility, but because of its complexity. Laymon centers his educational experiences from childhood all the way through becoming a college professor in the midst of an intricately woven web of topics with which my students have their own lived experiences (i.e., love, sex, body image, racism, family, truth-telling).  It is such a rich text that students from all backgrounds, genders, and races have been able to connect with and make meaning from the life experience he shares. I knew it had a powerful impact on my students because I read the lengthy essays they produced after their work with self-chosen themes from his book.  However it was the ideas expressed by my students in this most recent round of evaluations that reminded me why teaching a text like Heavy is so crucial for my students in ways that stretch beyond my course expectations.  If I am to help my students see they belong in the realms of higher education, it is important to show them examples of other students of color, like them, who find their voice and put it out into the world, who encounter and overcome myriad barriers, who challenge the systems that do not serve them and advocate for necessary changes.  How else can I assure my students that the dreams they hold for themselves are possible?

  1. De-mystify the writing process and make it accessible for all students, regardless of their previous writing experience.
  • The biggest hurdle that has always plagued me has been “where do I start?” I see now that it was such a struggle because my writing process I started with was out of order.  Now I know that the perfect place to start is with ideas, then I can elaborate and make connections between them and figure out what’s relevant and what’s not. 
  • Once the final assignment on Heavy was due, most of the essay was basically already written. Taking each assignment step by step instead of just starting one big essay from scratch has been immensely helpful in this class. And no other class I’m taking is as thorough with each lesson. 
  • I like how we are taught to edit and think for ourselves rather than relying on the comments and editing done by the teacher, which has been my experience in previous classes. 
  • The important part that I will continue to use from here on out is how I can build trust with the audience through my examples. I’m not just some random person who decided to write about myself, I’m writing to provide a window into the soul of who I am as a person and what melded me to be this way. 

The comments from these students demonstrate a range of ways in which they have felt their voices as writers were encouraged and validated.  By de-mystifying the writing process through a series of carefully scaffolded assignments, students at all levels of writing are given access to the messy and inspiring process of putting their valuable ideas about themselves and meaningful texts on the page. By revealing writing as a step by step process that centers their own ideas, rather than simply assigning essays, my students are able to build their confidence as writers. Privileging  the act of revision throughout the semester helped my students understand that first drafts are always “shitty” (thank you Anne Lamott!) but also necessary as a starting point on which to build.  As we work through a rigorous revision process, students are able to develop a clearer understanding of their own ideas and actively engage in decisions about how best to express those ideas in draft after draft.  At the end of each writing unit, they can recognize and celebrate their own growth, and by the end of the semester they carry with them a solid set of writing strategies that can be used in all of their other classes.  Most importantly, though, my students leave with the confidence that their voice is an essential voice to be shared with others in their world. 

  1. Support students’ growth by creating strong support systems to achieve high expectations.
  • This last assignment we had in particular really helped me go easy on myself about school because I thought I was having a hard time because of myself and feeling like I just couldn’t do it. Realizing there is more that comes to play with my education really helped me see things in a different light and helped me gain patience and understanding within myself. 
  • I feel that since you put so much effort in making sure everyone understands the material, that no questions will seem silly to you, and that you would be devastated if someone putting in the effort fell behind.
  • You challenged me to grow, you helped nurture the feeling of belonging, opened my mind up to interpretation and deeper thinking to meaning as a whole. I feel like I learned other things like staying resilient when dealing with hardship, putting time aside to study/read and to accept accountability. 
  • None of my other classes had a method or formula to approach assignments like this one did, and that was very annoying, especially at the beginning of the semester when I was still new to school. 
  • Thank you for putting in the effort to teach us, being tough enough to break lackluster molds previously built by others who I felt let me down, asking that I put in effort where I previously thought I didn’t have to.

For more than fifteen years, I have taught students from poverty and students of color who come through educational systems where their current abilities are often mistaken for their potential. My students have spent years in classrooms where well-meaning teachers did not know how to reconcile students’ need for emotional support with students’ equal need for and right to academic rigor. Indeed, it is a tough balancing act, as it varies for each student, and the margin of error can often be very narrow, even more so during a pandemic. For this reason, I was more explicit than usual about helping students recognize my virtual class as a safe space to learn new academic skills and strategies they might never have encountered and to build on those skills they already possessed. This required building an academic community, albeit a virtual one, where students felt safe enough to make themselves vulnerable to the learning process, to ask questions about what they didn’t understand, and to become a part of a support network for their classmates. 

This sense of emotional safety was coupled with a sense of academic safety that resulted from presenting intentionally scaffolded reading and writing assignments that gave students at all academic levels opportunities to grow their skills, their confidence, and their voice.  As a result, students were able to develop in ways that most suited their needs whether it was extending patience and understanding to themselves, building resilience, or putting forth the effort necessary to achieve success.  These student-determined lessons demonstrate the variety of ways they were able to bridge the emotional and academic landscapes and gain insight into themselves that transcended the course content and expectations. 

Giving my students an opportunity to voice what most resonated for them throughout the semester proved not only informative about how they were impacted by these three equity-minded values I clung to throughout the troubled spring semester, but served as an inspirational gift at the end of a year where I felt emotionally drained.  As the year wraps up I encourage you to see what your students will be taking away from this challenging year. That this unexpected wealth of student growth was possible during the pandemic has given me enough light to find my way forward into next year.  Give your students a chance to shine some light on all the good you did for them this year.  It will no doubt be more than you could have hoped for.

Kristen Norton

Kristen Norton currently teaches English at Fresno City College after spending more than 15 years in a high school classroom.  She is the Associate Director for Youth Programs with SJVWP and has been reaping the rewards of being involved with the Writing Project for twelve years.

Flight Plans

In just a few weeks, my students & I will exit the plane–this plane we call the 2020-2021 school year, this plane that they didn’t choose & this plane they trusted to keep them in the air, traveling toward their educational destination. They trusted my expertise as the pilot, that I would use the best tools I know how to facilitate their learning, and the educational system, which built the plane, to protect them. According to Kristen Norton, community college instructor and SJVWP Teacher Leader, many of us, including students, “got onto the plane, not knowing where it was going”.  Now that I’ve arrived at June, how do I transition myself to the ground, keeping in mind I have a quick turnaround and that my next passengers are already queued, ready for flight?

As I prepare to “deplane” from this school year, I’m remembering the steps and rituals I go through when leaving an actual plane, hoping that the metaphor will help me think through my transition to summer. 

Gathering Travel Materials

Before I get off the plane, I make sure I have all my stuff–either with me, or placed in the trash. It’s tempting to write off this year as a garbage pile, but I’m wondering if there are structures and habits that I want to take with me. One habit that we developed in my junior English class is Daily Writing–literally, I put up a prompt and we all write for 5-10 minutes each day. Every 6 weeks or so they choose one, revise it, and submit it for “grading” (which is a joy). Many students have commented that they really enjoy the few minutes of writing (sometimes drawing) at the beginning of the period; this “souvenir” is a practice I’m going to incorporate next year. This summer I’ll spend time looking for writing inspiration that encourages reflection & introspection. 

I’m going to include students in this process of reflecting on our year, asking such questions as: What do you hope to keep from this year? What systems or structures did you develop that you find productive?


After I’ve deplaned, I look for my travel companions. In this metaphor: Who do I want to take with me? Books, podcasts, Twitter hashtags or discussions, the “moveable feast” that is the NWP Writing Marathon? I’ve already started my summer TBR list (which will inevitably grow too ambitious–part of the joy of such a list!): Jenny Lee’s Anna K and it’s sequel Anna K Away (An Anna Karenina retelling following ultra-rich New York teens doing ultra-rich new York teen stuff.), Newkirk’s Writing Unbound (Newkirk is an auto-buy for me; this book focuses on the place of creative writing in the classroom. Full disclosure: I was interviewed for this book.) and Marchetti & O’Dell’s A Teacher’s Guide to Mentor Texts (I already use mentor texts and want to hone my skills in this area.). 

Pit Stops

Now that I have my travel companions, my first pit stop is physical. As someone who holds my stress in my shoulders and neck, my body regularly tells me to take a break–and I ignore it for the sake of whatever I’m doing at the moment. This is taking a toll, especially as I have been sitting–literally sitting–for hours during my day. My body has found all of the uncomfortable places that, previous to this year, I didn’t know, because teaching is active. How can I show my body that I have moved (literally) from the teacher chair into the summer? Walking, being in nature (whatever that looks like), or creating–reconnecting to our physical selves may look very different from person to person, but is essential for closing the stress burnout loop. 

Even with supportive administration and working with an incredible team of teachers I’m feeling emotionally exhausted, inefficient, and generally overwhelmed–and I know I’m not alone. The doctors and sisters Emily and Amelia Nagoski teach that though there are many ways to complete the stress cycle physically (like doing jumping jacks or walking), there are other ways as well.  Breathing, positive social interaction, affection, laughter, and creative expression are several ways to complete the stress cycle; even petting a dog can lower stress. 

My next pit stop is mental/psychological and spiritual: music, reading poetry, writing, creation, engaging in change (gardening, painting the house, building something). Some people are grounded by rituals; some by spontaneity. A mental pit stop is necessary because we need our emotions to catch up with us: many of us have been going nearly 24 hours a day (I’m sure I’m not the only one getting messages from students at 2:00AM) and we are exhausted. Taking a mental pause acknowledges the heavy load that our subconscious has been carrying this year.

Pit stops look very different for each person, and they are essential for teachers to engage in, at least if we want to avoid burnout, especially in a year such as this one, where our coping mechanisms were under regular stress.

As I write this, it’s near the end of May. I’m already considering what I want to pack for my next flight, and how to decide what from this trip to hold lightly, cling tightly, and release. Some details about the fall are clear (returning five days a week); some are still hazy. To abate familiar mental stress loops, I’m going to make a list of what I felt were takeaways from this year, and leave it until I know more details of the year to come. I’m going to remind myself that I can’t solve for every unknown, but I can trust my experience to help me figure my way through a challenging situation. To start to prepare for my next adventure, I’ll be nourishing myself physically and mentally: taking long walks, having long chats with friends, and enjoying good meals.

Jackie Smith

Jackie Smith is an English teacher with 20 years of high school experience. She has been an SJVWP teacher leader since 2010 and currently serves as Co-Director of the San Joaquin Valley Writing Project.

Turning Off the Tech and Becoming Human Again

May has departed and June is upon us. I have never been one to count down the closing weeks of school; however, I am making an exception for the COVID-19-driven calendar. Students and I are functioning on fumes, but we are finishing with classes largely intact. Students’ perseverance and resilience will remain a lasting memory from a year we hope to never repeat.

At times, my school laptop has nearly throbbed with overuse – the constant attempts to build curriculum from the spare parts allotted me during a compromised school schedule. Once the school year ends (the last essay is read and grades are finalized), I plan to give my computer a much-deserved rest in the dark environs of my rolling briefcase and the headset a home in a classroom cabinet. These gestures will release me from the robo-teacher persona I have been forced to adopt since March of 2020 and allow me to reclaim my humanity.

Books are calling my name.

Books are lurking atop furniture, inside shelves, in orderly and not-so-neat stacks around my house – desirable objects shunted aside to accommodate extraordinary hours of pandemic-year lesson planning, digital platform negotiating, and online grading.A stack of books

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I will turn to books – poetry collections, novels, history, biographies,  lavishly illustrated coffee-table sized art catalogs. I will step into writers’ shoes and live their lives. I will walk through the doors of fictional worlds and dwell there for days. I will admire brushstrokes, contours, light, and shadow and think about the hours artists invested in each of their works. 

The first-to-be-read titles include An American Sunrise, U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo’s most recent collection, a new release by former Poet Laureate Billy Collins,  and the YA novels Dry and Ground Zero. A more challenging title is White Rage, which examines the underpinnings of Caucasian hostility in American history. Also in the stack is the second book detailing the history of Highclere Castle (the setting for PBS’s “Downtown Abbey”); a biography of actor/comic Robin Williams; a catalog of Jacob Lawrence’s The American Struggle paintings and a collection of students’ written responses to his art works. I am looking forward to slowly paging through Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese, which showcases the work of competing painters in Renaissance Italy, and lingering in Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends, an exhibition catalog featuring the talents of John Singer Sargent. I find moving from one genre to another a welcome workout for my brain.

A sketchpad is reaching out to me.

    The blank pages are beckoning to be filled with representations of objects and people. Last summer, as the pandemic kept people in their homes, I was drawn to California Audubon’s bird sketching series with Bay Area artist John Muir Laws. In the fall of 2020 and spring of this year, I happily spent late-afternoon hours in the Fresno Art Museum’s online classes where participants revisited the fundamentals of drawing and practiced portraiture. During the past year I felt a desperate need to engage in old-fashioned creation. Scratching a pencil across paper reminded me that I was flesh, blood, and bone in a year when many aspects of public-school teaching were dehumanizing. This summer, I will sit with a set of pencils and draw – not with the goal of achieving the skill sets of the masters but with the objective of improving, one pad sheet at a time. 

    My inner poet yearns to write.

    For nine weeks last summer I “traveled” across the United States and drafted poetry through the National Writing Project’s Write Across America virtual writing marathon. Each stop attracted hundreds of participants – most, but not all, teachers – who explored a story map highlighting the host city, found inspiration to write, and then shared their writing in small groups. By summer’s end, I had led several breakout rooms, created a collection of poems, and reawakened a hibernating aspect of my writing personality.  Two of the poems are being published in the spring edition of the Louisiana Literature Journal & Press.

Having registered for this summer’s marathon, I am looking forward to visiting Michigan, Mississippi, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, Idaho, Montana, and Texas. I will again focus on writing poetry but with the goal of making bold choices with style and form. I hope to see familiar faces from the summer of 2020 and look forward to meeting new participants who, like me, know that effective teaching of writing correlates to being a teacher who writes.

    I do not know if seven weeks will be enough to heal the psychological and emotional wounds inflicted by online teaching. But I anticipate that a creative summer will be a balm for this teacher’s mind and soul, that it will help me to feel like a hungry student, and ultimately, remind me of the reasons why I became an educator. I am looking forward to sharing my passions with next year’s students; my grade-level partner and I have roughed out the first month’s plans, which include an art project, a range of reading, and the writing of personal narrative. I hope this hands-on and personalized curriculum will create a gentle, welcoming entry to the new year and help students regain their humanity, too.

Karen Yelton-Curtis

Karen Yelton-Curtis teaches 11th grade English in the International Baccalaureate program at Fresno High School. Since joining the San Joaquin Valley Writing Project in 2005, she has led the Summer Invitational Institute and study groups and presented a range of workshops on the topic of academic writing.

May 2021 Posts
May 2021

As schools have recently started allowing students to attend class in person, teachers and students have had to adjust to a new way of learning. This month the members of  SJVWP Writes! joined forces to reflect on the journey we are all enduring when it comes to returning to face-to-face instruction in our classrooms. As we talked and shared our writing, we found parallels in our stories that helped us feel less frustrated and isolated, and we realized many of us were having similar challenges, but also some similar benefits. Karen Yelton-Curtis compares the formality of watching the funeral service for England’s Prince Phillip to the formality of coming back to teaching in person. Her reflection is insightful and conveys a range of adjustments she has made in order to help her students succeed in the now unfamiliar territory of the classroom. Trish Renfro compares her return to the classroom to her experiences having just given birth to twins. (There are more similarities than one might have expected!)  Marci Haas contrasts distance learning with in-person hybrid and shares her understanding of the struggle from more than one angle. Jesus Gonzalez Renteria reflects on his experience of starting back in person and expresses his frustration of his students and himself being silenced literally and metaphorically by the Pandemic. We hope this month’s blog posts resonate with you in ways large and small, and we invite you to join us for future SJVWP Writes! sessions.  To share your comments about our blog or for details on how to join our next writing session, email kristen.norton@rocketmail.com.

The Final “Pivot”: Taking it One Day at at Time

Watching the funeral service for England’s Prince Phillip, who died April 9 at age 99, I could relate to the circumstances of the occasion:

  • The guest list was limited to 30 family members at St. George’s Chapel, which accommodates 800 people. Masks guarded attendees’ faces.
  • The choir had become a quartet.
  • The widow, Queen Elizabeth II, sat several seats away from her third son, Prince Andrew and across the aisle from her heir, Prince Charles. All guests were socially distanced.

There was no lingering afterward, no time-consuming emptying of the rows, no waiting at the doors to extend condolences. It was, as funerals go, a business-like event – one that tradition mandated but whose format was dictated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Live TV coverage brought the funeral to the masses. Still, it was a sign that familiar rites are returning.

Similarly, the reopening of school has felt like a hibernating engine sputtering back to life. Wide-eyed freshmen have wandered the halls, peering closely at room numbers to pinpoint their destinations; seniors have popped their heads in the door just to say hello. Classrooms are at one-third of capacity and adults and students are masked. At lunchtime, teenagers dot the grassy and shaded areas of campus to eat their meals.

When asked how it felt to return to school, students responded with mixed feelings. “I’m glad to be back so I can get more attention.” “It feels so different.” “I don’t like it but it’s what we have to live with.” My Thursday group in Period 5 is a lively bunch; on their first day in class, they were game to compete with their online peers in a synonym challenge. In contrast, Tuesday’s Period 1 contingent was quiet and sat stiffly in their chairs as if one false move might prompt a reprimand. I have learned that some students scheduled to return in person have opted to stay online; others who have come to campus are back to learning through a screen – the in-person experience did not live up to their expectations. 

I struggle to adjust to wearing a headset, which requires toggling between muting and unmuting depending upon which group of students, or individual, I need to address in the moment. I am grateful to look up and see faces and relieved to get out of the desk chair and circulate in the room, while reminding myself to keep a respectful (and safe) distance. I can stand at the classroom door and greet students as they enter while reassuring those online that I hear them logging in. I have tinkered with the webcam and marked spots on the floor where the tripod can be positioned to show whiteboard activity. Already, students have been willing to step up, grab an Expo marker, and take charge at the front of the room. (Used markers are dropped into the “Items to be sanitized” basket.) I reverted to scrawling whiteboard notes one day when the lesson plan made it convenient to do so; my in-room students helpfully monitored the camera position and let me know when it needed adjustment. In this modified environment, it is best to proceed one day at a time and allow all of us to adapt to a version of what we have known.

Our district has indicated a return to full-week instruction when the new year begins in August. I wonder if students who have succeeded online will want to continue in that venue and whether the hybrid-classroom arrangement will extend into 2021-2022, or if there will be exclusive online classes and a return to “pure” in-person instruction for those of us who are itching to break open the cabinets and pull out the hands-on tools and resources that easily engage students. I understand the value of technology in the classroom – I expect to retain some practices and resources gained this year – but I am not someone who relishes teaching through a screen full time. 

In the meantime, there is a school year to finish. I must strategize curriculum planning around multiple class periods of SBAC testing to support preparation for the unit essay. Students are talking about their COVID vaccination appointments, making plans for summer, and setting goals to raise grades before the end of the semester. Some who had logged into class but barely participated are revealing a different side of themselves now that they are in the classroom. For many, the return to campus has lifted the pandemic gloom that enshrouded them for months. Sadly, others in the online cohort appear to be done for the year; they are consistently absent and do not respond to offers of assistance. I worry about how they will fare with a summer credit-recovery program that is strictly online.

My goal is to manage the aspects under my control. I can still provide students focused feedback, support their reading of the unit novel, take the energy I have at this point in the year and use it to “game up” some pieces of the unit. I can encourage my students with creative writing, I can devise homework that gets students offscreen during the weeks of online testing. I can continue to coach students to stay the course, make the effort, do the best that they can. I tell myself to aim for best effort, because truthfully, I cannot conjure anything more at this point.

Karen Yelton-Curtis

Karen Yelton-Curtis teaches 11th-grade English in the International Baccalaureate Program at Fresno High School. She has been a teacher consultant with the San Joaquin Valley Writing Project since 2005.

An Ode to a Year of Distance Learning

When I had my twins by C-section in 2006 it was a couple of hours before they brought them into the room. They finally brought the boys to me and let me spend just a few minutes getting to meet my babies that I had spent 38 weeks falling in love with. After a few moments, they came in to take my blood pressure and get my vitals. Then left us again. A few minutes later someone came in to get a blood sample from the babies. And thus began the longest 72 hours of my life. Every hour or two someone would come in to take vitals, or to try to teach me to breastfeed, or try to get me to buy hospital pictures of my babies, or to weigh the babies and tell me I needed to feed them formula, or to take blood samples, or to give vaccines, or to fill up the air mattress that was my bed on the second night. Finally on the third day of no sleep when the doctor came in for their 30-second conversation during rounds,  I asked if I could go home. He responded, “Are you sure you are ready to leave all this support?” I didn’t know whether to punch him or cry. Support?  For whom? Not me and my babies that was for sure. 

The “support” that comes with childbirth is no different than the “support” that comes with education. It is data collection disguised as support so that those people not in the room can see what is happening in the room. It is all well-meaning and the data collected can absolutely give insight into what is happening. But data collection is not support. The relief that I felt when I left that hospital room and finally got to go home and just be with my babies with the real support that was my family, both newly created and extended, was the same relief that I felt during the first three quarters of the 2020 – 2021 school year. Finally, a break from all of the well-intended roadblocks that prevent me from doing the one and only thing I want to do:  teach. 

It might seem odd to say but the first three quarters of the 2020 – 2021 school year have been some of my favorite teaching I have ever done, and the purest. For 75 minutes a day, I got to have 100% of the time for me and my students. For the first time in my 16 years of teaching my teaching time was protected. Sure there were interruptions in the form of technology fails and wifi drops. But there weren’t:

  •  Phone calls from the office telling me to take roll
  • Student aides coming in to hand me slips for students to leave class to meet with support staff
  • Rally schedules
  • Student-athletes leaving my 1:00 class to catch the bus across town for a 5:30 pm game
  • Days taken off from instruction for school-wide PSATs and SAT testing
  • Students asking to leave my class to go pick up their PE clothes, instruments, or McDonald’s that had been delivered to the office for them just as we got class going
  • Sub days so that I could go and learn how to more efficiently teach my students
  • Lawn mowers roaring four feet outside my classroom in the middle of fourth period
  • Fire drills or lockdown drills
  • District pre tests followed by more time of instruction missed for post-assessments. 

And when the administration came into my class, they were truly invisible for the first time.   They didn’t distract my students by asking them what they were doing or taking pictures of work over the students’ shoulders. We just read, and discussed, and analyzed, and wrote, and learned.  

For 75 minutes each day, we got to unpack our AP Human Geography content and skills. Students got to be present on their terms for the first time. Cameras off, because who at 14 wanted to be seen by anyone most days? Because none of us knew what we were doing, we got to create it together from the ground up and it felt so organic. And while I did become a convert on some technology that I had been resistant to, I became much more of a convert to the uninterrupted instructional time that I got. 

I am not going to lie, re-entry was tough. In the first 30 minutes I taught hybrid on my first day in front of students there was a support staff who came to visit during instruction just to “see how it was going”, a lawnmower, a leaf blower, and a fighter jet overhead. Teaching is performative and the vibe in the room is hard to steer and it is susceptible to the slightest changes.  I am slowly getting my feet under me teaching 70% of my class online and 30% of my class in person and we are figuring out what works and what doesn’t. I am so grateful for the routines that I created last semester. But if you ask me what was the golden age of teaching for me, I would be tempted to say the first part of this year when it was just my students, my curriculum, and me.

Trish Renfro

Trish Renfro is a 16-year social science teaching veteran. She has been teaching AP Human Geography at Edison for the past 6 years. Trish went through the San Joaquin Valley Writing Project’s Invitational Summer Institute in 2014. She sits on the executive board for Fresno Teachers Association and has been a Nationally Board Certified teacher since 2011.

Peeking In: A Comparison of Distance Learning and Hybrid Learning
from an “Outsider”

Standing, jumping, wiggling boys in front of computer screens. The tapping of fingers on a keyboard, a small voice saying the pledge of allegiance, a toddler babbling, kindergartners singing a color song, a preschooler asking when it will be her turn.  A parent moving from learning station to learning station set up in the large living area of the house ensuring everyone was where they were supposed to be while another parent was working through Zoom. This was the view of an “outsider” peeking in on distance learning in the Fall of 2020. 

I spent the final three months (March – June, 2020) of my time in public education not “peeking” in, but in the midst of  the pandemic as an administrator.  Working in the middle of the unknown I saw administrators supporting teachers and families. We dealt  with the constant “pivoting” as plans changed constantly per the latest directives from the state, county and district.  Time was spent encouraging and equipping teachers to do what they do best in a less than best scenario.  In addition the admin teams worked endlessly to locate and deliver updated computers to families and figure out wifi access. Learning packets were copied and collated, readied for parent pick up to ensure learning would continue for ALL of our students. Then, in June, I retired — a decision that had been made pre-pandemic.

During the summer of 2020 I was able to work with SJVWP, co-leading the Invitational Summer Institute and working with a team to develop workshops to address the increasing Social Emotional Learning needs we were seeing as a result of the pandemic.  I  also enjoyed time being Grandma to five,  ranging in age from 1 to 10.  As August drew near, I did what I could to support and encourage their family in preparing for whatever challenges the 20/21 school year might hold.

As the 20/21 school year began, the home struggle was real. I saw parents I knew doing their best to keep younger siblings quiet during distance learning, set up learning areas in the home that met each child’s needs, and monitor the youngest ones who needed individual help maneuvering through the technology and finding all the needed materials to participate, all while trying to meet the demands of working from home themselves.

My spare bedroom became a preschool as my four year old  granddaughter got on the “Nana” bus each day so I could assist  her as she participated in an hour of preschool Zoom and then completed asynchronous work on the computer at my house.  I also helped out with the others from time to time.  What I saw on the computer screens were teachers rising to the occasion, doing their very best to keep their students engaged. They were  experimenting with different technology and programs available to find the ones that best worked to keep their students learning.  I saw kindergarten teachers dancing and singing on Zoom.  I saw teachers at every grade level doing social emotional check-ins.  I saw Zoom dance parties on Fridays with teachers joining the fun. I saw teachers trying to make it work.  I saw librarians introducing students to new books hoping that the students would visit the library in person one day soon. I saw music teachers doing their best to teach students to play instruments over a computer screen. I saw empathy and grace at work in a difficult situation.

In November some schools began bringing some students back. My time as Teacher Nana with my preschool granddaughter came to an end as she went to her classroom four days a week for instruction with a small cohort of other students and the teachers she only knew through Zoom.  The others did not return to the school site until February 2021. The return to the classroom came with positives and negatives for the school, teachers, and staff, but they each have stepped up to make the 2-3.5 hours that students are on campus meaningful and filled with the social interaction and face to face instruction they had been missing.

And what about the kids?  What did I see them doing?  How did I see their behavior change when they went back to the school site?   I saw students who had difficulty staying focused during distance learning able to focus better, even during asynchronous learning times. I heard how teachers were better able to hold their students accountable (maybe because they were face to face?).  I saw some student  frustration decrease when doing independent work and teachers I know report it occurs less frequently in the classroom than it had been during distance learning.

As their children returned to the classroom I saw parents maneuvering throughout their own work schedules to transport their different age students to school at two or three different drop off and pick up times throughout the day.  The “new” school day  was only 2 to 3.5 hours per day as compared  to the traditional 3.5 to 7 hours of the pre-pandemic school day. I saw the  smiling faces of the children going to school replace the look of frustration on those same children as they struggled to remain focused and engaged during “Zoom”.  Social interaction returned and even though recess has been replaced by “mask breaks” children get to be together outside the four walls of their homes.

As an educated “outsider peeking in“ during the last tumultuous year, I believe that much has been learned.  Most families and teachers worked long hours and continued to do the best they could do for every child.  Teachers were forced to learn new ways to teach through the computer.  I believe that some of what was learned will continue to grace the classrooms of our schools making the learning environment that much more accessible to all students.  And the importance and value of face to face interaction and instruction was affirmed as we experienced the decline in the mental health of many around us.

Did learning happen for our students?  I believe it did. I have witnessed the reading of my grandchildren progress. I saw critical math skills mastered  and  writing happen. What was lost was the social emotional  growth and the relationship building. Learning to interact with those in authority (teachers, etc.) other than parents was not the same through a screen. Making new friends, playing games, cafeteria conversations, and the celebrations of successes, birthdays and holidays  were not plentiful during the last year resulting in much loss. Social emotional health has been a struggle for us all.  

Families were forced into situations where they were more involved in their children’s education – will this remain the norm?  I hope that it will. Many families found ways to cope with the pandemic lock down.  I spent several evenings on my Alexa device reading books to my grandkids at the beginning when we were in complete lockdown mode.  I still get a call once in a while to read them a story or sing a song with them and it has become a new way to create memories. Neighborhoods often became “the bubble” for families as parents came together to supervise “recess” times from Zoom school, provide some fun activities and became a place where parents could gain support from one another while “socially distant”. The neighborhoods became their “bubble” of existence. Kindness, a need for new learning, grace and service to others  became the norm for many of us during this very long time of uncertainties.  Will we take it with us into the future and strive to make our schools, our neighborhoods, and our communities better places for ALL?  Will we be more prepared in the future for the uncertainty that is our world today?

We have before us an opportunity.  An opportunity to create a “a new world” in education.  I believe the school site can be a place of change for all. Relationships have become even more important to us during this pandemic. The encouragement, support and learning that has been so prevalent can  continue. Our schools can be  places where not just the students, but the families and teachers, are valued as essential. Together we can create a new normalcy.  One of positivity and learning for all.

Marci Haas

Marci Haas currently works with the SJVWP supporting and encouraging teachers after spending 30 plus years in education. She retired from Clovis Unified after working for 23 years teaching K-6 grades and ending those 23 years by working in administration as a Senior Resource Teacher.

Returning to In-Person Learning: Losing and Gaining Back our Voices

What has your experience been straddling these two groups of students?  

We started having small cohorts once a week for our ELD and Special Ed. students at the end of September 2020. This was surprising and alarming for those of us who taught these populations because COVID -19 infection rates were still high at this point. Scientists were predicting that we would have a significant rise in cases by the end of November and it would continue from there on out. Therefore coming back so early made me anxious. I felt like my worries and concerns were being silenced and ignored. As a matter of fact , ELD and/or Special education teachers at my school site were experiencing frustrations with how poorly our students were performing on Distance Learning. Many of my students were not showing up to our google meets or completing their work. In general, my ELD students struggle in person when I am able to assist them. Now we were working remotely and even though I was following their IEP plans and accommodations as best as I could, they were still not being successful in my classes, or most of their other classes. 

All teachers in my district were ordered to come back in person on November 8th, with a schedule that had Cohort A, Cohort B, and Cohort C. Cohort A would be in school in person on Monday and Tuesday, while Cohort B would be in school Thursday and Friday. Wednesday students are allowed to attend their ELD or Special Ed Cohorts, but it is voluntary. We followed the schedule above.

 We are teaching our class Synchronous, so when a student is at home, they are in google meets with the students who are in person, going over assignment directions in real-time. My in person classes were tiny at first, with sometimes a period being one student or none. The biggest class I had was five students. 

The advantage that students in person could have is that they can directly talk to their teacher. We use the GoGuardian Program to see students’ screens and as another means to communicate with students, whether students are at home or in person. Some students still preferred to communicate with me in person using GoGuardian, more comfortable that I keep a distance from them while in the same room. It was as if they truly had lost their voices. Their chromebooks were now their way to communicate with me even if they were right in front of me. 

After spring break my district has combined Cohort A and B, so students come to school four or five times a week, unless they are on Cohort C, they will continue to work remotely full time. Class populations increased because of this. My classes went from being four students to eight, from being five students to twelve. This makes me nervous because students and teachers are to follow COVID protocol in their classes. But it gets harder to social distance in classes when you have more students in your classrooms.  The masks I wear started to feel suffocating physically and emotionally. Was I to stay a prisoner of the COVID-19 aftermath, and for how long? It was getting harder to breathe in the literal and emotional  sense. 

What have been some successes you have had?  

For some students who have been struggling, I have seen an improvement. But this is not enough so that I feel it is justifiable that we started in-person Hybrid classes so early. Many teachers fought to have students begin hybrid classes after Spring Break, without success. We sent long detailed letters to our superintendent and our school board members, asking for them to reconsider starting school so soon. This caused moral issues but we pushed through. We were fighting to be heard even when we felt that our mouths were not only covered by our masks, but covered by an invisible force that was keeping us from the freedom to feel safe at work.

Students who are in person have said that they enjoy leaving their homes and that they feel like things are somewhat normal. This has helped their mental health and overall their well-being. For this I am thankful, but getting them to talk in class and to participate continues to be a huge issue. They are not talking to me or one another. They have gotten used to being silenced and prefer a classroom of no sound than one where they have to verbally interact with one another and with their teachers. 

What are some of the biggest challenges you are facing?

Unfortunately, there are still many students who are still not being successful in completing their classwork. They are showing up to school but still not completing their assignments. Some of my students have failed their first semester of school and are also failing their second semester. 

I am frustrated because the payoff for having my students in class, in person at the risk of their health and mine has not felt worth it at this point. I have attended a high volume of IEPs, SSTs, and parent meetings to try and help my students. But I have seen students who don’t want to do their work whether they are working from home or in person at school.

It feels as if students are having trouble getting their mindset back to being in the classroom. They have not overcome the disruption that the COVID-19 Pandemic has caused in their daily lives. It feels like some of them gave up on themselves and in their education. How can we get them to get their voices back, even while wearing a mask or if they are working from home?

What has it been like being back together with students?  

It has been nice to connect with students in person. I missed having small conversations with students while they work in class. It feels a little closer to being a normal school year when I see kids in their seats and working. I can also have small one-on-one conversations with students who I want to reach and communicate my concerns with. Yet, it still feels like what it is, a Pandemic. We are all wearing masks in classes and out of classes, all day long. I am wiping down their desks between classes and they are sitting three or more feet apart in their desks. They try to talk to me and others out loud when we are having class discussions, but their voices are muffled. They have to keep their masks on at all times as do I. Everyone’s voices are literally and metaphorically being taken away from them. Teachers are left wondering if this is happening only at their school site, their district, or everywhere? Is this going to be our new norm for the rest of the school year? Will the 2021/2022 school year be any less strange than this? Are our student’s and teachers voices coming back to us?

How are students responding to being back in the classroom?

Some students are happy to be in class, but nervous about their safety and they find the long block classes exhausting. They can’t get out of their desks unless they go to the bathroom, so some of them feel like their day is boring and long. Most of my students are in class in person because they were forced to come back by parents and administration because they are failing most, if not all of their classes. Therefore some are in class upset, and still not producing work. There are also some that are grateful to be out of their homes. They enjoy feeling like life is going to someday be what it used to be like, and they are waiting in anticipation!

What are some of the social-emotional components of this shift in learning for you and your students?

My mindset and student’s mindsets are slowly shifting, but we all have quite a ways to go. Getting back to being a teacher in a classroom and a student in a classroom pre-pandemic is not going to happen overnight. Many of us have had COVID-19 and we know that even with vaccines, we still have to be vigilant and follow protocols to be safe. There is still a palpable anxiousness and uncomfortableness in the air in my classes. Most of my students lack the drive to work most of the time and I am trying hard to do my best and accept that as being all I can do at this point. I am trying to help my students gain their voices back. I want them to be confident again in speaking to others, in a classroom. 

We all need to be okay with not always being okay. Students can talk to parents, teachers, school social workers and school therapists if they need extra support. I have SEL assignments and activities to check in with my students. I have had to call fewer parents or refer fewer students to our school social worker these last two months, compared to having to do it quite often for multiple students, at the beginning of the school year in August. 

Is this…permanent? 

I believe life will be back to normal over time but it’s going to happen in parts, not all at once. Are we ready to coexist after we all endured the pandemic? Will our mental health stay at the forefront of life or will we simply carry on, business as usual? What will it take to get our voices back? Are we going to have to fight for them to be ours again, or will the discovery come willingly and naturally? Will all that we learned about BLM and other social issues continue to be looked into or will we forget and move on? Only time will tell, but I am doing my best to stay optimistic, I am honing my voice as it’s coming back to me again.

Jesus Renteria

Jesus Renteria currently teaches ELD at Hanford West High School and serves as the English Intervention PLC Lead. He has been involved with the SJVWP since 2017 and currently serves as the Associate Director for Work With Emergent Bilingual Students.

April 2021 Posts

A Brief Introduction

Welcome to the first monthly installment of the SJVWP Blog. During the month of March, six SJVWP Teacher Leaders came together to practice what they preach and to commit to the page some of the lessons they learned while teaching in a year like no other.  Karen Yelton-Curtis offers her musings about how she is preparing for the return of students to the physical classroom while Kristen Norton considers how to adapt a love for online writing technologies upon returning to a face-to-face class. Jaclyn Smith explores how this past year has given her the chance to redefine her pedagogical values to life in her teaching practice while Jesus Renteria takes his readers on a journey through the past year doing a series of now and then comparisons addressing topics such as mental health, social dilemmas, and isolation.  Marci Haas follows that up with her examination of the traumas teachers have faced over the last year and how they can address their own social-emotional health needs even as they are modeling that for their students. And Caitlin Nii closes out this month’s blog posts with a letter that will resonate for anyone who has ever wrestled with all that it truly means to be a teacher.  We hope you enjoy this inaugural edition, and we invite you to join us for our next SJVWP Writes! sessions.

Returning to the Room

If I have learned anything through teaching my 11th-grade classes at a distance, it is valuing the physical classroom: a space for quiet contemplation, affirmation of original thinking, humming conversation, and opportunities for physical movement – all of which help develop a community. In August, I was denied the opportunity to prepare my room at Fresno High for incoming juniors. There would be no table groups, no classroom library within easy reach, no tidy filing systems for students’ assignments. As the months rolled on, I reminisced about colorful displays of unit artifacts on the walls. A digital bulletin board does not have the same cache.

I typically begin the year by treating my classroom as a blank canvas that students will decorate with their thinking. Now that I know some of my juniors will return to campus the week of April 13, I am wondering how to reintroduce the refuge students will rely on to help them transition back to a version of “normal”. They will need silence and socialization as well as movement and time for meditation. They will need comforting words as well as critical appraisals of their work. They will need to use their hands but also require opportunities to hone the digital skills they have acquired.

I know that table groups are still on the back burner – social-distancing requirements will prevent physical proximity that helps one student bond with others. Masks will be mandatory for all and I wonder how they will affect plans to promote oral discussion. In distance learning, students have been reluctant to speak aloud but not necessarily because of shyness. Those who are willing to share verbally are often interrupted by background noises, which range from crying toddlers to the crash-boom-bang of dropped objects to the occasional parent yelling at the person trying to learn through a screen. I hope that students yearn for old-fashioned conversation with peers, even if it is conducted through a cloth barrier and at a six-foot length.

I wonder if students will want to handle objects such as index cards, mini-whiteboards, highlighters, and other resources housed in my room – or if they will prefer the technological tool that has been their portal to school for the past eight months. I wonder if students will want to participate in socially distanced gallery walks or if they will feel less anxious anchored to a table and chair. I wonder if hands will reach for the books on shelves or if students will be reluctant to touch volumes their classmates have perused. I wonder about and ponder just how much of the familiar routine I can reintroduce to those who come to campus two days each week.

I think about preparing for this next phase. Norms must be established for those present and those learning at home. Lesson plans that include social-emotional components will be even more critical to support students. Simultaneous learning will be a juggling act to ensure equity of instruction for all. New tech tools – a wireless headset and a wide-angle web cam – pose logistical challenges. Training – multiple sessions, I envision – is on the horizon. It is another wave of changes in a year when I constantly reinvent what I do again, and again, and again. Sometimes I wonder if I have enough energy to pivot in another direction.

But here is what I know: I am looking forward to driving to school, to toting the rolling briefcase, to walking across the quad and up the stairs to my sunny classroom. Students who elected to attend classes in person have expressed excitement about their return. I have cheerfully unpacked the book bins and sorted the contents by genre. I will distribute notebooks and annotation tools to my classes, courtesy of donorschoose.org and my school principal. I will celebrate seeing my colleagues in person, even if it is from the nose on up. Despite my wonderings, I know we are moving forward, step by cautious step.

As you prepare for the final phase of the school year, what are your hopes, concerns, and questions?

Karen Yelton-Curtis teaches 11th grade English in the International Baccalaureate program at Fresno High School. Since joining the San Joaquin Valley Writing Project in 2005, she has led the Summer Invitational Institute and study groups and presented a range of workshops on the topic of academic writing.

Teaching Writing Online:  Better or Worse?

When I think back to the days before the pandemic, I remember my classroom crowded with desks, students, backpacks, snacks, and drinks.  I remember trying to navigate around the cramped space to look over a student’s shoulder at what they were writing or answer a “private”  question, trying to make sure I made it around the whole room, and always coming up short.  I remember standing in front of the class writing on the white board and waiting for the few willing and eager students to politely raise their hands before contributing to a “class discussion”. I remember walking out of class loaded down with piles of papers to grade so everyone could get feedback and know how they were doing.  

A year later, after making the required switch to teaching synchronously online, I marvel at how archaic those practices seem now.  As I began to reflect on those face to face classes so many of us are nostalgic for, I suddenly realized what I had thought were best practices that I had been so sad to lose during the initial transition to online learning, were actually full of limitations that privileged a few students over the many.

Limitations of class discussions during face to face (f2f) learning:   

  • Only one student can speak at time
  • Students don’t like to raise their hands or have other students look at them as they talk
  • Students don’t feel like they have anything important to say after the first person has spoken
  • Students may forget the idea they had while listening to the person speaking
  • Students don’t always speak loud enough for other students or even the teacher to hear them
  • Students listen but don’t transfer what  they hear into their notes to refer to later

Although I had been vaguely aware of these obstacles to effective student participation in class discussions, I had never spent much time thinking of how to make changes to adjust for them.  Until online learning.   

Risks and Rewards of Online Apps for Writing

As I tried out different apps and experimented with different uses of them, I arrived at increasingly more opportunities for students to express themselves in writing during the course of a synchronous class period. When I think about how much writing my students did in my f2f  classes compared to how much they do now, I can’t help but realize how much more practice they are getting in this new virtual world.

This opportunity for growth started by establishing a class culture built around writing as a primary means of communication. I open every class with a chat in which all students are encouraged to participate by myself and by their peers.  The chat continues throughout the session, as I pose thought-provoking questions related to the day’s content and wait for the class to respond with a flurry of responses in the chat. Best of all, when students have spontaneous moments of brilliance during these online conversations, their words are recorded for them and others to refer back to later when they are working on related assignments. 

Another app that I frequently use is jamboards where students can anonymously participate in the building of a class understanding of a certain concept rather than viewing a pre-made PowerPoint covering the ideas I want them to know. Students eagerly participate and take risks in posting ideas because they know they will get feedback, but their identity remains confidential.  As students post their ideas, I organize and curate their posts  to help students see patterns and ensure that correct information is being identified. This process allows me to get a thorough understanding of where the class is and correct their misconceptions. It gives students an active role in constructing the knowledge with their peers that will help them move forward on the next assignment, and a link to the jamboard is always included in assignments so these class notes are available for all students to use.  

The final app I  frequently use is shared Google Docs. This app creates a bridge between our interactive class work and their asynchronous assignments. By having students start their assignments in these shared documents they are able to get past the initial struggles that inevitably accompany challenging writing assignments. I am able to see and provide feedback in real time and guide struggling students to look at how other students are approaching the assignment.  Students then copy and paste the work from the shared Google Docs into their own documents for completion and submission.

Benefits that Address f2f Limits with Student Participation

  • Students all write at the same time so no one is privileged to be “first” and have their ideas dominate
  • All students have equal access to being heard and no one has to raise their hand
  • Students share their ideas as they occur to them rather than having to wait until someone else has finished speaking
  • Students can complete their ideas and then scroll through and read a variety of other ideas without having them influence their own ideas
  • Students who have lots of ideas can post as often as they want without interfering with other students opportunities to contribute or voice different ideas

Benefits that Address f2f Limits with Student Feedback

  • Students can receive immediate feedback on their ideas from the instructor and their peers
  • Students who are too shy to speak in front of others can start to build confidence in their ideas by sharing them in writing and receiving positive feedback from the instructor and their peers
  • Students can reference the written feedback provided myself and their peers in comments rather than having to take in verbal feedback that I used to give during f2f instruction
  • Students can see the feedback I leave for other students which gives them additional opportunities to see what works and what doesn’t
  • Students can view the work of their peers to see how others are responding to the assignment to help them self-correct or confirm they are on the right track


Although it’s true that I am not likely to recognize a single student by their face, as most of them opt to keep their cameras off, I have grown very good at identifying them by their “voice” on the screen.  In a climate where students are reluctant to show their faces or speak, I have established routines and expectations that help students to emerge through their written voice–a goal I have had for years with my face to face students.  With just a sentence or two of writing, I can often tell exactly who wrote it. Which is to say, I have gotten to know them deeply in an academic sense, as writers expressing meaningful ideas to me and their classmates.  

A year ago, when we first switched to online learning, this was not something I ever expected would come as a result of that immediate and dramatic shift to a virtual relationship with students.  At the time, I felt like teaching on Zoom was a daunting task that I was more than a little unprepared to take on.  However, a year later, with the promise of schools returning to face-to-face instruction, I have found that my students and I have grown dependent on many of these tech tools, and I am wondering how I will be able to integrate these expanded opportunities for writing and sharing of ideas in a face-to-face learning environment. It is a problem I did not expect to face, and one I am still working on solving.  

What are some strategies you have learned to value during online instruction and how might you be able to implement them once we return to face-to-face instruction?

Kristen Norton currently teaches English at Fresno City College after spending more than 15 years in a high school classroom.  She is the Associate Director for Youth Programs with SJVWP and has been reaping the rewards of being involved with the Writing Project for twelve years.

Pedagogy as Values in Action

As I think about how my role as a teacher has changed over the past year, I keep coming back to the recognition that, though I have cut curriculum “down to the bone”, in doing so I’ve revealed my values: the curriculum my students are studying is my values in action. In the Fall of 2020 I moved to a public comprehensive high school after teaching at a local public charter school for five years, and changed grade levels from sophomores to juniors and seniors. The district, school, and curriculum changes allowed me to re-evaluate and re-apply my values, both professional and personal.

Know what’s non-negotiable

Of course, applying my values happens within a system of non-negotiables.

At the District and/or School Level, I needed to know what is required. In my district, it’s a shared cumulative unit assignment within a broader adopted curriculum. Though we are strongly encouraged to use the adopted curriculum, how we “get there” with students is up to us. I take advantage of this professional leeway to ask students in our biweekly survey to rate their understanding of concepts and skills, a feedback method I learned from Candace Cano, a SJVWP Teacher Leader and middle school teacher. This allows me to quickly note both class and individual trends to identify where I need to reteach or reinforce.

In my class, one of my non-negotiables is that students must see themselves in the curriculum and the instruction. This not only means that students read texts by authors that share their culture, heritage, race, or ethnicity, but also that I take a communal stance to teaching and learning: not only sitting in (virtual or physical) groups but also in discussing work (their own as well as professional models), sharing resources, and how they came to a specific conclusion/reasoning. These are ways I attempt to eliminate what I describe as individual students’ “hoarding” of information, where they figure out a response to the prompt but refuse to share with the group. I value working together over one person having the correct answer, and my instruction and assignments both reflect this.

Some questions to consider while thinking about District and/or School level standards:

  • What’s non-negotiable (curriculum/programs, assessments, ways of instructing)?
  • What professional space can I occupy?

I also consider the State Standards, especially the nuances for my particular grade level. In understanding that the difference between grades 9/10 and 11/12 Writing standard 1.b is “values and possible biases”, I can focus instruction on those complexities. We can focus on doing the challenging work together, with mini-lesson small group instruction focused on particular recursive skills needing reinforcement.

Some questions to consider while thinking about State standards:

  • What are the nuances for my particular grade level(s)? 
  • How can I creatively teach these, while staying aligned with other non-negotiables and my values?

I think carefully about my professional standards. What do I think “every junior” should be able to do? They should be able to write a multi-paragraph response to something they’ve read, using their own reasoning to explain a logical response, reflect on themself and their life experiences, and create artifacts of their learning. “Every senior” should be able to engage with the world around them, using writing and creating in other mediums to donate back to the global community. Professional standards might be shared–for example, in the junior year students create a resume, because teachers know it will help them as they apply for jobs and scholarships. 

Some questions to consider while thinking about professional standards:

  • Do I find myself drawn to certain types of assignments? Why might that be? 
  • What do I tend to ‘take’ with me when I move grade levels or subject areas? 
  • What deep reasoning do I have around the “work” I ask students to produce?

How I approach curriculum & instruction–my pedagogy–can also be a non-negotiable element. Pedagogy is sometimes described as solely what happens when teachers are in front of students, but I think about pedagogy as all-encompassing: my stance (mental), attitude (emotional), language used, assignment layout & descriptions, assessment, classroom ‘management’ techniques and, yes, curricular & instructional decisions. To me, pedagogy is values in action, and as I keep reflecting on how to teach my students well, I bring my values more clearly in focus.

I work from a strengths-based stance. Every student comes with a wide range of knowledge, skills, and abilities. It is my responsibility as the teacher to look for what they know about writing and reinforce that, celebrating their full talents, abilities, and languages as we work together to continue to strengthen their literacies. For example, when I give feedback, I use phrases such as, “I see that you have [insert what they have used/done]. This made the reading experience powerful because…”. Coupled with what Carl Rogers called unconditional positive regard, when students need more time on assignments, or don’t understand a concept, I assume they need the help and work to support them. Shame has no place in my classroom: when a student has missed three classes in a row, I send them a quick message (something like: “Hi, I haven’t seen you in a little while! How are you doing? I hope to see you next class period!”). I send a follow-up if they miss again. This has led to connections with students that would not have happened otherwise, and opens the door for students to tell their own story if they choose.  

We think & write every day. Full stop. Students engage in Peter Elbow’s four writing modes: private writing, writing that is read aloud but receives no responses (now we use Padlet or Flipgrid), writing with responses that are non-judgemental, and writing that will be evaluated. We use writing to process, to think through, to wrestle with, to question, to argue. 

Some questions to consider while thinking about pedagogy:

  • Do I find myself drawn to certain ways of doing things? For example, do I tend to assign group or individual work? 
  • What types of group work do I assign? Do I give individual or group grades? 
  • In what areas do my students tend to be “strong”? 
  • What do other teachers comment that my students know well?

How do I figure out what’s non negotiable to me?

You may not fully & consciously realize what’s non-negotiable to you, but your values are your pedagogical DNA: they are evident whether you have articulated them or not.

They might come out in discussions with colleagues (between classes, over Twitter) or in what you emphasize. Do you find yourself having the same types of conversations? If so, what’s the common thematic thread?

Look for patterns in your teaching. Do you spend time talking about social justice issues? Or the gender inequities in stories? Or helping your students tell their counter narratives? If you tend to return to specific texts, what are their themes?

And, of course, ask your students, in surveys or exit tickets (If you could talk with incoming students, what would you say is important to me? What is important for doing well in my class?”). In my first teaching job one of my students told me, “This is more like a social justice class than an English class. You keep talking about how we’re going to change the world”. 

This year of change has helped me crystalize how my values in action determine not only my students’ experience, but my own. By bringing my full self into the classroom, it is a more vibrant learning community for everyone.

What are some of your non-negotiables?

Jackie Smith

The Impending 2021-2022 School Year

The Beginning


When the pandemic started many of us were ready to quarantine and stay home; Safety for our families, friends, students and ourselves was a priority at this point. There were so many unknowns when it came to COVID-19 that staying in the classroom made no sense. I felt the stress of the “ New Normal” and a strange comfort in the acceptance of uncertainty. The positive for me and my colleagues was that teachers felt heard and protected in our district; we couldn’t always say this was the case. Schools were going into Distance Learning while life changed due to mandated quarantining and new rules and regulations. No one had ever expected schools across the nation, the world in fact, to close in the way that they did in March of 2020. I was gobsmacked that this was real life, I was living through history in the making!


Life has been hard for me and everyone in the world. I saw friends, family, colleagues, and students suffer from contracting of COVID-19. We all took precaution to not get sick and yet, many of us still got sick with the virus. For some, it was a flu like illness that lasted a week or days. But for others it lasted months and was more traumatic. We are still living with the after effects of contracting COVID-19. I have tired of being at home, and I have not traveled out of the Central Valley in over a year a half. I have had the blessing of getting vaccinated and so has my partner, as well as many other friends and colleagues. I plan on starting to travel more soon. It is time to try to enjoy traveling again, while adhering to protocols of wearing a mask and social distancing. My district, Hanford Jt. Union High School District had teachers who taught special education and Emerging Bilinguals come back in person, at the end of September, once a week for small cohorts. By November 8,  2020 all teachers in our district were to come back to the classroom teaching Hybrid. Our work schedule is that we have Cohort A, Cohort B, and Cohort C. Cohort A comes to school Monday and Tuesday, while Cohort B stays home online, synchronized learning. Wednesday is distance learning for all students, except for when our ELD Cohorts come that day in person for extra help, but all teachers must be in their school classrooms. Cohort B would come in person Thursday and Friday, while Cohort A is at home. Cohort C is at home, all week long.

Mental Health Concerns


Social emotional education made a huge appearance at the beginning of school shutdowns. Teachers, administrators, parents and the general public began worrying about how students would deal with mental health issues that a pandemic brings. Soon teachers were creating lesson plans that would address how to deal with depression, anxiety, agoraphobia, suicides etc. Some educators had attempted S.E.L. re-pandemic with mixed success. Now many saw how essential it was to focus on how to get our students’ mental health, as well as our own, in a better place. Some students responded to it well, while other students felt bombarded by it. It was a challenging time for teachers. We wanted to support our students’ mental well being,  but some students were not wanting S.E.L. They felt like that was all they were being exposed to when they already felt overwhelmed living this new reality. Always talking about their emotions made some students feel weird. I found myself pushing my students to feel their feelings and that did not work for all students. I had to find a balance in how I taught S.E.L. and I also had to be conscious of what students needed it more than others. I constantly communicated with my students and I always let them know I was open to talking to them if they needed it, while I referred more severe needs to the school social worker or psychologist. 


Social Emotional Learning is not going anywhere, any time soon. Students are still being impacted by the pandemic and getting back to a social normal is going to take time and care. I’m glad that so many of us tried our best to connect with our students not only academically but also socially to make sure that their mental health was a priority. I know I did my best to be there for students and I will continue to be there for them in the months to come. Mental health has always been important to me and now it makes sense to continue to put mental health at the forefront of my lesson plans and my teacher pedagogy. 

                                                Living Through Social Dilemmas 


Many stayed home at all cost, ordering groceries and other essential items through apps. Some chose to go out to the world and complete shopping for basic necessities. The anxiety that was in the air of stores felt like a wall of bricks that was waiting to fall on everyone. I started wearing a mask right away when outside, but I still saw many who were not. Suddenly many of us saw the beginning of a silent war of pro-maskers and anti-maskers. The world turned upside down since so many were questioning science and common sense logic. It was infuriating and made me question my friendships and loyalties to many people in my life.  


Anxieties about the pandemic are lowering and I can finally see a light at the end of the tunnel. How far it is to the end of that tunnel, I am not fully sure yet. There are still anti-maskers and individuals who feel it is their right to go anywhere, any time, without needing to adhere to COVID protocols. But it feels like I see less and less of this in general as restrictions are being lifted from business and restaurants. Those of us who were constantly at war with individuals who question science are slowly learning to let people live in their own choices and mindsets. 

Embracing Isolation


Many now found themselves at home for a longer time than they had ever expected. Rumors were that this virus would be gone in a month or so, but no one was certain. Suddenly everyone was posting on social media about things to do at home to endure this time of uncertainty. Home improvement projects, growing plants, reading books, catching up on shows, learning a new skill, creating a home gym to stay fit, were some of the several tasks that millions chose to attempt. For some of us, we felt pressure to do many different projects because it felt like we had so much time on our hands. Maybe this really would be the moment to change our lives and learn a new language, publish a book, or become an online celebrity?!


Society at large is ready to move away from isolation. Many are going to restaurants and other outdoor events because they have been in quarantine and isolation for a whole year. I understand people wanting to be social, but I am frustrated that many are not being more careful when they are out in public. Some have been attending bars and clubs for the last month or longer, not being mindful that the pandemic is not completely over. I don’t feel that it is time to get complacent because many are being vaccinated. I would like to enjoy my summer and with so many being too careless about following COVID protocols, I am afraid that my summer may still not be “normal.

Student Participation


Students’ lack of participation in class and not completing work became a huge issue. Getting students to show up to their classes online became a constant battle. Even if they showed up, students didn’t always participate or do any work, leaving teachers feeling alone and frustrated. Teachers found themselves staring at their computer screens, hoping that students were listening and learning. Teachers across the globe had participated in online training and workshops on how to engage our students remotely. Yet students were not participating and many students performed poorly, drastically falling behind academically. 


The problem of student apathy is still an issue. At the high school I work at counselors are having hundreds of SSTs to re-engage students. After school tutoring for students is being provided. Summer school will be large and the expectation is that more students will attend this summer than in previous summers. Students who chose to be on Cohort C, are being encouraged to attend school in person. After Spring Break my district will combine Cohort A and B, so students will be coming to in-person classes four or five times a week! Struggling students who are failing more than one class are the ones being targeted. Only time will tell if all these strategies are going to help students who have struggled to pass their classes all year long. Thus teachers continue to fight the good fight, hoping for a future that will soon find us living a “New Normal” that we can thrive in as the impending 2021-2022 school year gets nearer. 

Jesus Renteria currently teaches ELD at Hanford West High School and serves as the English Intervention PLC Lead. He has been involved with the SJVWP since 2017 and currently serves as the Associate Director for Work With Emergent Bilingual Students.

Are You Feeling Safe?

During the past year the school’s focus has changed from the seen physical forces (weather, intruders, etc) to the unseen, silent danger of COVID 19.

Schools have prepared for many years now to keep students (and staff) physically safe on school campuses. Teachers have been trained on the  correct procedures to use in case of natural disaster (earthquake, weather, etc) , man made disaster (gas leaks, fire) or the occurrence of intruders on campus.  Throughout the year, time is spent in staff meetings visiting scenarios  to help teachers think through even the worst possible event happening on their campuses.

The focus on physical safety is certainly supported.  Going back to our basic needs as indicated by Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, physiological and safety needs are the two largest and most  important to be met. (See diagram below.)  These needs must be met to allow an individual to learn, to achieve and to reach self-actualization. 

Schools across the nation have worked hard to develop safety guidelines to provide physical safety so staff and students can return safely to school in person amidst the current pandemic. Now the question is: what has been done to insure felt (emotional) safety for not only students but teachers and staff?

Social Emotional Health

During the last 5 -10 years, the social emotional health of students has become a focus in many schools.  ACES, trauma informed, trauma sensitive and SEL have become common vocabulary on most school sites.  83% of states report that Social Emotional Learning has increased in priority since the pandemic began. 

Social Emotional Learning is defined as the modeling and teaching of an interrelated set of cognitive, affective and behavioral competencies that underscore our capacity to learn, develop, and maintain mutually supportive relationships and be both physically and psychologically healthy.  (CASEL)

Implementation of Social Emotional Learning in our classrooms results in the physical and psychological safety of our students. Social Emotional Learning addresses the two tiers of Maslow’s Hierarchy that are needed for individuals to work towards self actualization and to be available for learning.

BUT have teachers received adequate training to model and teach the competencies that  are required?

Let’s focus on the word model in this definition. Are teachers fully equipped to model the affective and behavioral competencies required?  Can they truly model without first having the opportunity to focus and reflect on their own social emotional health?  Are they  equipped with coping strategies that will allow them to take care of their own health so can fully care for the social emotional health of their students? Can they  create an environment of “felt safety” or emotional safety if they do not feel safe?

Felt Safety (or Emotional Safety)

Felt or emotional safety is defined as an experience  “in which one feels safe to express emotions, security, and confidence to take risks and feel challenged and excited to try something new.” (National Center on Safe Supportive Learning Environments)

Teachers (as well as students) have experienced much trauma throughout this pandemic:

  • Teaching from home through technology platforms with family members often  all in the same room  All while helping their children to maneuver their own distance learning. 
  • Fears of  or actually becoming ill with the virus or a family  member contracting the illness. 
  • Receiving negative feedback from parents and the community sometimes on a daily basis (directly or indirectly through news and social media).
  • Putting every ounce of energy available into creating engaging lessons while learning to navigate the technology that had not been used in the classroom setting.

This trauma has and will continue to affect our teaching.  It has increased the number of teachers experiencing burnout and compassion fatigue leading to a lack of felt safety among our teachers.

Teacher Social Emotional Health-Where to Begin?

Good intentioned directives from others (admin, family, friends) have been given reminding teachers to engage in self-care.  Many schools have even provided workshops on the topic.  As a teacher, I was awful at self-care in the best of times.  If self-care was hard to achieve in “normal” times it became even more difficult in the midst of the endless “pivoting” being asked of teachers and staff. And as we approach returning to the classroom more change is imminent.

Teachers must “own” their  own social emotional health. Social emotional health is one thing that individuals can control during the crises we encounter. The challenge is to find ways to include meeting our social emotional needs without feeling like one more thing has been added to our already overflowing day.

Is it possible to find ways to incorporate small moments throughout the day that will provide time to focus on personal emotional health as well as provide the opportunity to model the strategies to the students in our classrooms?

Below are a few ideas that might be helpful to at least allow teachers to begin the journey of caring for their own social emotional health. Most teachers are including the following SEL strategies within their daily classroom routines.  Teachers can simultaneously address their own social emotional health while modeling these strategies by completing them with their students.  A few suggestions for implementation of each strategy are listed below.

Daily  Emotion Check-InTake time to complete your own emotional check-in as your students complete theirs.  
Reflective Journal Writing

Reflect on your emotion.  Teachers can write along with students about what they are feeling to start and end the day.                                                                              
Grounding StrategiesPractice throughout the day:-Breathingexercises-Meditation -Calming Music: play during independent work times and transitions-Drink water!  Make sure you are taking water breaks throughout the day.
Take a BreakJInclude physical activity when possible -During mask breaks/lunch breaks  take a walk.  Even if you are on duty you can move around maintaining social distancing.-Spend a few minutes completing a quiet calming or meditation exercise.
Create a MantraPractice positive self talk.  With your students create a positive message to yourself.  Read it to begin each day.
Practice GratitudeTake time at the end of each day to reflect on the positive in the day in a journal and/or in a  share out with the class.

What can you do to ensure felt (emotional) safety for you and your students as you return to your classroom this spring? 

Marci Haas  retired in June 2020 from Clovis Unified where she taught preschool through sixth graders for over 30 years. Her last 4 years were spent as an administrator overseeing behavior and academic intervention, EL and ASES programs, SEL development. and working with teachers doing coaching and professional development.  Marci is currently  Associate Director of Elementary for the SJVWP.

Dear ambiguous definer of teaching,

English Teacher

Homeschool Teacher


Educator Adjacent


My backspacing became increasingly more aggressive until I finally froze. I just stared at my computer screen, the cursor of my Google Doc blinking at me as if to punctuate its mocking laughter as I slowly sank deeper deeper deeper into existential crisis. Who knew signing a letter could blindside you like that.

In recent years I switched schools, left the classroom altogether, and started a job as a homeschool teacher which predominantly involves supporting homeschooling parents. My decreasing work with students made me feel like an imposter and the space between my fingertips and my keyboard swelled with one big question:

What on earth does it mean to be a teacher?

According to Merriam-Webster a teacher is “one that teaches.” Thanks, Merriam. Real informative. At least she follows with “especially : one whose occupation is to instruct.” But, following a year of teachers separated from students, a smorgasbord of virtual and hybrid instruction models, and parents hastily deciding to take on homeschooling, I have to question Merriam’s overly simplified perspective on teaching. The direct act of instructing is just one piece of the puzzle—but like a corner piece: yeah, you need it, but it’s the easiest piece to put into place.

Sometimes, us teachers run into non-educators who only see the entire picture and don’t understand that the puzzle of teaching is actually composed of a thousand tiny pieces that must all work in conjunction with one another to see results. Because of this, I find myself perpetually navigating encounters not unlike these:

“That’s a lot of work.”

I was on the phone with a brand new homeschool parent. She was feeling overwhelmed organizing curriculum for four different grade levels, understandably. In an effort to help streamline some of the responsibilities, I suggested leaning into one of the benefits of homeschooling: family-style learning. I offered an ELA example, the whole family reading the same book together so the majority of the lesson is shared, then differentiating expectations with the elements that are student generated. For instance, I may expect a 5th grader to give more detail in their analytical reasoning than a 3rd grader, but they can both still work on the same core assignment. “What are your thoughts?” I closed my example. Ambient static filled my ear, then, “That’s a lot of work.”

I responded, sans sugar coating, “Yes. It is.” It meant combing through and modifying existing curriculum, or tossing it completely and rebuilding from the ground up. Both daunting, time-consuming undertakings. The groundwork needed to be completed upfront before any benefits could be garnered, and learning couldn’t stop in the meantime. Indeed, a lot of work, but not futile. It is the work we do so our students can grow. We give up our evenings, weekends, vacations so our students can grow. Insanity or selflessness, whatever you call it, it’s teaching. I’m watching this new homeschool parent thrive, because she saw how much work it was and kept trudging forward for the sake of her children. She is a teacher.

“Just give them all A’s.”

A group of us sat in a restaurant for lunch. Our meal long finished, the conversation raucously carried on. The waiter eyed the table with that “you better tip me well if you’re going to be my only table this entire shift” look. Someone suggested we move our party over to a nearby coffee house, met by a course of agreements and mumbles that people had nowhere else to be. Except me. I chimed in, “I have to head home. I still have 2 classes of essays to grade,” the resident party-pooper. A flippant hand dismissed my claim with, “Just give them all A’s.”

Um, thanks but no thanks, Marie Antoinette. As a teacher, I ask my students to do real work. I expect them to navigate both the familiar and unfamiliar. I encourage them to persevere when they encounter roadblocks. I do not disrespect them by doing any less than giving the products they have worked tirelessly to produce my full attention. Every student deserves real eyes on their work to provide real feedback that recognizes their strengths and guides them to where they may want to focus their attention for future improvement. Providing authentic, purposeful feedback to students, is important. Essential. It is teaching.

“They should be embarrassed to get an F.”

I learned a nifty growth mindset snippet that I wanted to share with another teacher: X amount of cake is a lot of cake. So there I was, launching into an example of a student feeling unaccomplished because they only scored 40% on a quiz, but instead spinning it. “If you told me you ate 40% of a cake, that’s a lot of cake!” I exclaimed to my fictional student, forgetting that I was getting a little too pedagogically heavy amongst mixed company. A non-educator sort of gave me a confused look and said, “But, they should be embarrassed to get an F.”

I get it. I do. I mean, I am precisely the type of individual who when presented failure immediately launches into cyclical reattempts until I find success. I am embarrassed by low scores because I know I can do better, so I do better. I failed math facts in sixth grade, asked my teacher for a fat stack of extra copies, went home, and drilled myself until I could finally beat that timer. Heck, I replay levels of Candy Crush until I get all three of those little golden stars before I move to the next level. It’s my innate wiring. But what if it wasn’t? What if I didn’t have the objective ability to perceive failure as an opportunity to improve? What if failure crushed me and made me give up?

As teachers, we can not allow students to halt at the first, second, third-hundredth brush with failure. We do not simply dole out assessment results as if they are the final say on someone’s academic worth. When our students don’t have the skills to utilize failure to their advantage we are tasked with teaching them how. At the very least, we must use our reverse-psychology prowess to jump start them on the idea.

And this is what Merriam’s definition of teaching doesn’t take into account. The job of teaching is more than simply assigning work. Teachers build the bridges between students and the content they are learning. Not a one-size fits all bridge, but one specifically designed bridge for every learner sitting before us. We cross those bridges back and forth with them a hundred and eighty times, each trip showing them one more new thing, until the day they are ready to cross that bridge on their own. Until the day they realize, “Hey! I can build my own bridge.”

This work, the work of a teacher, has never been contained by the four walls of a classroom.

I may no longer directly instruct 150+ students each day, but that doesn’t make me any less a teacher in the work I do. And just because some of my colleagues have been leading their classes from a computer while rocking fuzzy bunny slippers doesn’t mean they aren’t the same powerhouse teachers they are face-to-face.


Caitlin Racine

Life Coach, Comedian, Therapist, Personal Assistant, Nurse, Cheerleader, Housekeeper, Bodyguard, Project Manager, Psychic, Tech Support, Copy Editor, Engineer, Gatekeeper of the Good Stapler … Teacher

In addition to the above roles, Caitlin Racine is a homeschool teacher with Yosemite Valley Charter School supporting TK-12 students on their individual educational journeys. She has been an SJVWP teacher leader since 2016 and currently serves as Associate Director of Secondary.

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