The significance of a man is not in what he attains but in what he longs to attain.
When I taught fifth grade, I used writing workshop time in the beginning of the year to ask students to name their areas of writing expertise. I didn’t ask them if they had an area of expertise; instead, I assumed everyone could name something they did well as a writer and could claim that talent.
After a group brainstorm to remind students about what makes a good writer, I asked everyone to fill in a chart with their name and writing strength. The chart was a permanent fixture throughout the school year, a resource for students who might need help, for instance, in titling a piece of writing (see Josh for that) or making paragraphs (Nicole could provide an assist there) or naming synonyms for said (Meg was great at that).
The funny thing was, this exercise yielded a surprising result. I realized that some kids claimed expertise in an area that was “in development,” rather than fully actualized in their writing. Nathan, for example, said he was great at writing characters out of sticky situations, but I had yet to see the kid write an ending to a story that didn’t involve waking up in the morning and realizing the experience had all been a dream! I theorized that those students who were less than expert in an area, but named it as their own anyway, recognized the value of that skill/strategy and wanted to become good at it. And interestingly, these writers did eventually become accomplished at the writing talent they named, if shakily, at the beginning of the year.
What Do I Want to Be Known For?
The practice of naming one’s expertise is valuable in several potential ways. First, when invited to explain what you do well in a particular area, you immediately think “glass half full” and seek out strengths, rather than focusing on deficiencies. From this vantage point, people are emboldened to make claims that may be obvious or that may be peeking around the corner, waiting for more experience before making a full appearance. In the latter case, naming an expertise may represent goal setting rather than goal mastery, and therefore students are invited to embrace motivations of their own design. Either way, asking students to name their expertise, whether the outcome is goal setting or goal mastery, has an observable effect on their thinking and actions.
These days, my colleague Jill Long and I work with teachers in professional study groups at schools in St. Paul, Minnesota. This fall, several teachers with whom we work hosted student teachers. Jill and I wanted to integrate this extra layer of interaction by involving the student teachers in our study group experiences. We knew that one outcome of the student teaching experience was a letter of recommendation written by both the student’s mentor and her college supervisor. These letters of recommendation became one of the most important pieces of an aspiring teacher’s job placement portfolio; a successful student teaching experience naturally led to a flattering letter of recommendation, which in turn strengthened a student’s application for future teaching positions.
Knowing that student teachers understood the significance of a positive letter of recommendation, Jill and I decided to capitalize on this “level of concern” by asking two student teachers, Amanda and Nikki, to write letters of recommendation for themselves, in the third person, before they started their student teaching experience. We explained that the content of the letters should describe the qualities they wanted to be known for as a teacher. “Think of it this way,” we clarified. “What would you like your cooperating teacher to be able to write about you at the end of your student teaching experience?”
Like the writing-strengths exercise that I did with my fifth graders, the letter-of-recommendation assignment asked student teachers to name areas of expertise they believed they already had or that they intended to master. This list of prompts accompanied the assignment:
- My biggest strengths are . . .
- If asked, I want my students to say this about me . . .
- If asked, I want my cooperating teacher to say this about me . . .
- My goal is to . . .
- When Suzy is visiting, I hope she notices . . .
- I want to be known for . . .
- As a teacher, I aspire to be . . .
- I will contribute to the school community in these ways . . .
We also encouraged these new teachers to get a feel for the genre by googling “letters of recommendation.”
We hoped that the letter-of-recommendation exercise would embolden these slightly nervous student teachers as they began their student teaching experience. Statements like these, written by Amanda and Nikki, in the third person about themselves, suggested that our theory of self-promotion was right. Nikki wrote, “Nikki is very organized and comes to school each day fully prepared to teach.” And from Amanda’s letter: “Amanda’s wide knowledge of children’s books is an asset when she is designing literacy-based lesson plans.” Time would tell, of course, if these statements were already true or were in development, but either way, our student teachers had stepped up to the plate, and they knew people were watching.
Can I Try, Too? A Springboard for Goal Setting
We shared the letters of recommendation with each student teacher’s mentor and college supervisor. We had a feeling both constituents would appreciate the built-in goal setting that the letters of recommendation encouraged, and we were right. One college supervisor explained that in the past she had asked her student teachers to write a list of effective teacher characteristics and used the list throughout a student teacher’s placement as a touchstone for development. The letter of recommendation, though, was more valuable because it made the idea of naming effective teacher traits more personal. She predicted student teachers would feel more accountable for making their letters of recommendation come true than they would validating a simple checklist.
Our two mentor teachers had the most unexpected reaction to the letter-of-recommendation exercise. Not surprisingly, they appreciated the insight into their student teachers’ understanding of what effective teachers know and do. At our first study group meeting of the year, however, during which we were mapping out our development plans for the year, one of the mentors said she thought it would be a useful exercise for her to write a letter of recommendation for herself. “I like the idea of claiming who I am as a teacher. What do I want to be known for? I think it would be interesting to sit down and create a letter I’d want someone to write about me as a teacher.”
The other mentor in our group agreed, saying that writing a letter of recommendation for herself might help her figure out her professional goals for the rest of the year. “I’ve been at this longer than the student teachers,” she said. “I’ll know which parts of my letter are true and which are a reach for me right now. I want to try this too.”
As a result of that first study group meeting, the two mentors wrote letters of recommendation for themselves, and then they met with their student teachers to share letters. Pam, who was hosting Amanda in her classroom, told Amanda that as a teacher you should never feel like you’ve “arrived,” that exercises like the letter-of-recommendation activity invited reflection that recognized strengths while naming practices and ways of thinking that were still a bit beyond reach. Kathy, who was Nikki’s mentor, added to Pam’s idea by telling Nikki that writing the letter of recommendation was only one step in the reflective process. “I’ve got to figure out what I’m going to do if I want to be known for my effective differentiation strategies. I need to find a conference, read a book, visit my peers’ classrooms. I’ve got to make a plan if I want my letter of recommendation to be real.”
Jill and I are now thinking about making this letter-of-recommendation exercise a regular part of our beginning-of-the-year planning with teachers. As we write this, it’s approaching January, another classic time to reflect and resolve to make desired changes. We figure it makes sense for us to write letters of recommendations ourselves in which we document what we want to be known for as literacy study group leaders. Maybe that’s how we’ll get energized after the holidays this year—with some pats on the back for what we’re doing well and some targets we’re aiming at hitting throughout the rest of the year.
There is nothing with which every man is so afraid as getting to know how enormously much he is capable of doing and becoming.