Heather Wolpert-Gawron is an award-winning middle school teacher who also writes her popular education blog as Tweenteacher. She is a staff blogger for The George Lucas Educational Foundation’s Edutopia.org and a fellow of the National Writing Project.
She is the author of the recently released Writing Behind Every Door: Teaching Common Core Writing in the Content Areas as well as Tween Crayons and Curfews: Tips for Middle School Teachers, both written for Routledge Publishing. She has authored three series of workbooks: Internet Literacy for grades 3-8, Project Based Writing, grades 3-8, and Nonfiction Reading Strategies for the Common Core, grades 1-7.
She is wife to Royce, whom she met in 2nd grade, after karate-chopping him at recess. Additionally, she is mom to 7 year-old Benjamin and 3 year-old Samwise (yes, like the Hobbit) whom they call Sam. She lives with all her boys and their boxer/corgy mix, their laughter and chaos, in Los Angeles, CA.
Author of the Month Q&A
1) What inspired you to become an educator?
Actually, I didn’t find teaching until later in life. I was working in the publicity department at a television studio in Los Angeles, when I looked around and realized that I just wasn’t bitten by what I was doing. I was a clock-watcher, and that didn’t feel good. My inspiration, I guess you can say, was in my own reflection of what would make me happy. After all, if I was happy, than I’d be a harder worker, proud of my work, and that would fuel me to grow even more. I longed for that. So I examined where I was in life and got down to looking at myself pretty squarely in the eye.
I made three lists:
#1. What I wanted to spend my days doing. On that list were things like “debate about Shakespeare,” “think about science,” “learn something new on a daily basis,” “laugh a lot,” things like that.
#2. What I was good at doing. I was a pretty good talker and debater, writer and doodler. I was good with kids and adults. I could boil down complex topics into more comprehensible explanations.
#3. What I liked to wear. Seriously, I was never a high-heels-every-day-type-of-gal, and I wanted this next chapter of life to be one in which I fit. I liked to move around. I liked to be more active in my day. I wanted my profession to be able to see the best of me.
Debating, Sketching, Laughing, Writing, Analyzing, Learning, Wearing blazers with jeans. All signs, to me, pointed to teaching. I liked to talk to people about certain subjects. I loved writing and discussing and analyzing. I wanted to laugh every day and learn something new every day. Where else can one do those things but in education? I’d like to say I decided to become an educator because it was about my love of students or my desire to give back. But it was really more selfish than that. It was about what would make me happy because I knew that if I was happy, I’d be spreading that to those with whom I work. Certainly, it works that way conversely. If someone is unhappy, boy, do they tend let people know it. In the classroom, I believe that happiness is a trickle down theory. If the teacher loves the day, the students will more likely love it too. And a happy student produces better than an unhappy one.
2) What motivated you to write Writing Behind Every Door?
I feel there are certain key skills that students need to know to succeed in their future. Writing is one of them. I was frustrated at the compartmentalized quality that schools had adopted as if content specialization should be segregated somehow. I think that’s shortsighted. Sure, this teacher might have a greater understanding about Lincoln, and that one might have a greater knowledge about Statistics, but all subjects still need to encourage students to communicate that content, and that makes writing universal. Yet to encourage writing takes an understanding of how to write. All teachers must, in a foundational way, understand the writing that reflects the genres that exist in schools and outside of schools. Of all the skills to de-compartmentalize, of all the skills to relegate to only a small percentage of one’s day, writing can’t be one of them.
I also wanted to encourage writing teachers to dismantle their own assumptions of what they can have their students write about. Just as math teachers need to relate writing to their teachings, so do writing teachers need to embrace topics that aren’t just literature-based.
I teach Language Arts, but I prefer to call it The Art of Using Language. I try to find ways for students to write about the topics that they find interesting, the topics that we discover together, and the topics that are in the atmosphere at large. To me, applying what we are learning to the world outside school is one of the most important parts of our job. Writing is everywhere in every profession focusing on every topic. Just think about the richness of our students’ ability to communicate if there really was writing going on behind every door!
3) What is the most important thing you would like readers to take away from your book?
I want readers to enjoy learning. I think it’s really important to enjoy your own professional development. That’s the most successful kind. I want my book to be one that is academic and research-based, but also possessing the voice of a teacher still in the classroom herself. I want teachers to open the book and be entertained while learning. If we want people to embrace new ideas, we must brush off the dust from our academic writing voices and give teachers, those hard-working teachers, some respite from the dry voice that seems to be found in all textbooks. When they open the book, I hope that as teachers get deeper into it, they find themselves laughing or reflecting or saying to themselves, “Heck, I can do that!” I want this book to find homes in both teacher prep programs and on a towel on the beach. I want teachers to enjoy the learning as I much as I enjoy the teaching.That being said, the take away is Write. Don’t just assess writing; teach writing. And by teaching writing I also mean to write yourself. Flex those communication muscles. Discover your own ability to excite people about your content using the written word. Collaborate with your colleagues to get those kids communicating their passions. Without working together, student writing will not transfer. It won’t transfer from class to class, and it certainly won’t transfer beyond school’s walls.
4) If you had to choose 5 words to define your writing process, which would you choose?
I have two young kids, an insecure dog, a husband who works late, 210 middle schoolers, a blog, and I just got my masters degree in Instructional Design and Technology with an online learning emphasis. My 5 word writing process could be one of the following:
Fitting In Writing Whenever Possible
Pre-Dawn Hours Works For Me!
Someone Turn Down The Television!
Messy, Rough, Revised, Submitted, Sapporo
5) Describe your education philosophy in one sentence.
Model learning; model laughter.
Loving content is contagious; remember what sparked you about your subject and learn to communicate that passion in as many ways as possible.
6) What was the proudest moment of your education career so far?
Years ago, one of my first teaching jobs was as a 5th grade teacher in the Bay Area in California. It was 2001, the year that would forever be remembered for 9/11, and for those of us who had just been hired, we hadn’t been aware that the school was on the verge of closing. The kids were a motley crew. The school was underfunded by its district and there was police tape greeting us on the yard every Monday from some incident that had happened over the weekend. No textbooks. No supplies. Nothing. We bled and sweated to help those kids, and despite protests and tears from teachers, admin, and students, the doors closed at the end of the year. We all went our separate ways with great life lessons in our hearts.
Anyway, cut to 2012. I was on Facebook, and in my newsfeed, there was a picture of a door. I don’t normally follow many students, but sometime during the prior year a young man found me whom I had taught during that hard school year. He had come to the US from Nepal just weeks before and spoken very little English. Years later, this young man had returned to the classroom, which was now in a virtually abandoned building in Oakland, CA, and taken a picture of the door.
Underneath the picture, he had posted the following:
“Not just any door, this door was the beginning of my new life in America...I can never forget this room and the people that welcomed me as if I was one of them. This room is where learning started. Thank you guys, and my special thanks to Ms. Wolpert, because you treated us not as students, but as your own kids.”
The picture was followed by no less than 80 other comments, each a contribution by a past student who also had also shared that classroom with us during that fateful year. At some point, one of them mentioned an assignment that I’d designed that I still do in the spring with every class I’ve ever taught, (It’s the Courtesy Contract, a vow of kindness, that is featured in my book, ‘Tween Crayons and Curfews: Tips for Middle School Teachers.) The comment generated many other postings of “Yeah, I remember that!” and “Oh, I wish I remembered what I’d written.” That was when I chimed in. It was like The Tooth Fairy had walked into the room. They couldn’t believe I was there. I mentioned that I had kept every student’s contract, and these adults, so many of them still living in the neighborhood in which they’d grown, begged to see the promises they’d made as children. So I scanned the faded lined papers, each written in a 10 year-old’s hand, and mailed them off with my love and my hope that each of them is given the joy sometime in their lives that they had given me in that one moment.
Oh yeah. That kid from Nepal? He’s studying to become a teacher.
7) How do you like to unwind after a stressful day in the classroom?
I play video games with my husband and board games with my 7 year-old son. My husband and I are big online RPG players. Role Playing Games allow you to build characters and head out on an adventure, through a narrative, battling monsters and uncovering treasure. Of course, if we were in college, we’d probably play for hours, but as a teacher, a writer, and a mom, I really only play each night for a few minutes before I fall asleep with my iPad on my face. Somehow I wake up to find it plugged in again. Thanks honey!
8) What is your favorite online educational resource and why?
Gosh I know this sounds cheesy, but I use Facebook as a huge resource. My network, as is everyone’s, is made up of friends and family and colleagues. I use Facebook as my own personal crossroads between an RSS feed, Pinterest, and a Smartbrief. In any one sitting, I might come across a literary quote students can write to, a fact about science that was discovered this week, a YouTube video about grit, an interview with someone involved in educational policy, whatever. I feel richer after having read my feed than before I did. Shouldn’t that be the goal? Oh, yeah. That and finding out what teacher I am in Harry Potter. I’m Prof. Lupin, by the way.
Facebook is DIY Professional Development that I don’t plan on getting. It’s a surprise every time I check it out. I have files on my computer on different topics: Project Based Learning, Authentic Assessments, Gaming in the Classroom, Educational Policy, etc…and many of the articles and resources I have seeded into those files are those that were shared with me by my friends, family, and colleagues on Facebook.
9) What is your favorite thing to grab for a quick lunch from the school cafeteria?
I’m not a big school cafeteria fan. It’s just so processed, and I’m working on actually making my food these days, not just pulling back the film and heating it up. That’s hard to do when you’re running out the door, kids trying to grab some final kisses before school, but I’ve built some momentum these days with the morning routine. Nevertheless, on occasion, I will grab one of those funky bags of milk, the kind that you puncture with your straw and when you drink from it, it drains the bag flat. That’s just weird. Oh, and I must admit that the peanut butter and jell-o pocket sandwich, while clearly being disgusting on one level, is oh-so-good on another.
10) And finally, please tell us your favorite thing about education in one word.
I hope our educational system reorients itself.
I hope our gifted teachers stay in the trenches as long as they can.
I hope that we can stop referring to school as “trenches.”
I hope students know how innovative and creative they can be, because I deeply believe this generation of student holds many solutions to our world’s problems.
What I get to see every day in my students gives me that hope.