Alchemy: A Teaching Playbook

by Lauren Heimlich Foley

What is a personal calling? It is God’s blessing, it is the path that God chose for you here on Earth. Whenever we do something that fills us with enthusiasm, we are following our legend.

Paulo Coelho

I sit above soft-tufted heads and shiny-beaded eyes. My voice flows from deep within my belly. I pause to showcase the pictures as I have seen—and been taught—by my teachers: Mrs. Kriesmer, Mrs. Marian, Mrs. Konzalmen, and Mom. “Yes, Mom,” I call, pausing this time for the night; her voice pulls me from my playtime reverie. I place Good Night Moon on my bed and smile down on my stuffed animals, forming a crescent around my feet. They will be waiting for me, but for now, dinner is ready, and I must stop pretending I am the teacher—at least for now.

Even as a second grader, I loved to read, write, and teach. Throughout my childhood and adolescent years, I devoured many series: Nancy Drew, The Wizard of Oz, Narnia, and Harry Potter. Revising on the couch, next to my mom, became a favorite activity—I loved to write and rewrite as early as fourth grade. With my dad, I created the most wonderful dioramas, posters, and social studies projects. Through my parents’ guidance and patience, I discovered a love of the creative process. As a high schooler, I worked at my town’s summer camp, teaching jump rope, assisting with arts and crafts, and learning how to work with children. As a high school senior, I directed the middle school art crew. And while I loved the arts, reading and writing remained a constant passion for me. Each of these moments helped shape my teaching journey. After working at Montclair State University’s Gifted and Talented Summer Camp Program as a college counselor and student teaching seventh graders, I knew middle school was where I wanted to spend my days—working with adolescents beginning to develop their secondary readerly and writerly lives.

Much has changed, time has passed by, but even as an ELA teacher with ten years of experience, I still channel the small child and adolescent I once was; I still embody the determination and excitement of my nine-year-old mind. The ability to connect with my past self—passionate about all things reading, writing, art, and learning—helps me to be the teacher I am today.

I title this booklist Alchemy after one of my favorite books, The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, because I find that where I started and where I am now are woven together like a tapestry: I am in much of the same place. I have returned to reading books that I enjoy, writing for fun, exploring my creative process, and sharing my love of literature. This booklist will appeal to YA enthusiasts—teens and adults alike—who seek powerful main characters and fantastical-sci-fi-realistic-historical adventures. Readers should prepare themselves for heartbreak and excitement because this booklist will keep you wanting more. And—I hope—it will guide you to ponder your journey as an educator. How can we follow our personal callings and live our legends?

The Giver by Lois Lowry

 “You need to make time for a Self-Selected Unit,” Susan, my cooperating teacher explained. Deep inside I knew she was right. I had devoured In the Middle by Nancie Atwell last year and believed that students needed choice. I cringed as I crossed out a weekend’s worth of planning, replacing memoir with two words: choice writing. Sitting at the student desk opposite Susan’s teacher desk, I returned to the planning board to make it happen, realizing I still had a lot to learn.

Listening to advice from a mentor can be difficult; acting upon it is even more difficult. I know Susan had the best interest of her students—and me—at heart when she made that suggestion more than a decade ago, but it was hard to swallow my pride and wasted time in order to modify my lesson plans. Change can be difficult as much as we want it and need it.

I am reminded of The Giver by Lois Lowry and how The Giver coaches Jonas, preparing him for a life-changing journey. The Giver explains, “Having you here with me over the past year has made me realize that things must change” (Lowry 155). Together Jonas and The Giver make the impossible happen and set out to distribute memories to their community. The Giver is significant because it fosters community and collaboration.

We must listen to those who know more than we do and in turn use this knowledge to help others.  In my life, Susan enabled me to witness the importance of Self-Selected Writing. Teaching the two-week unit as a student teacher enabled me to value choice and student-centered learning for the rest of my career. It also helped me to understand the writing process, the importance of conferences, and how necessary time within the classroom to write is. Furthermore, I understood what it meant to facilitate a writing workshop. My pre-service experiences refined my pedagogical approach within my classroom and has had a lasting effect on me as an educator. Now, I strive to share my knowledge of Self-Selected Writing to help guide colleagues and teacher-friends to value student-centered learning and have a similar transformative experience.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J. K. Rowling

Rose and I plopped our fatigued bodies into air-conditioned-cool chairs. July hurdled into view. I smiled; my first year of teaching completed. It was a year of success and triumphs along with the battle of a 7th period class: a class filled with multiple struggling readers and writers, two students heading to alternative school the following year, and an emotionally disturbed teen. Rose, a colleague of mine who had taught for many years at an inner city school, had never seen such a difficult class. We sat together the last day of school—the students dismissed for summer, our classrooms bare, and vacation bliss on our minds. I had just finished reflecting and sharing my plans for the following year, and she said, “I can’t believe after that 7th period class, you can even think about teaching let alone want to teach.” It was at that moment she knew I was a Teacher, with a capital T.

As trying as that last class period was in the final month of school, I grew as a person and teacher. How do you still help students learn, maintain a safe environment, and know when to seek help? I am a better educator today for not giving up nine Junes ago and for finding answers to questions I didn’t know about adolescent behavior and psychology. It was not easy; however, perseverance never felt so good. 

The notion of pushing forward takes me back to Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J. K. Rowling; I love that Harry never gives up because neither will I. Even when his peers believe he is petrifying students, Harry continues to pursue the snake voice behind Hogwart’s walls. He keeps going and eventually defeats Tom Riddle, Voldemort: “Harry seized the basilisk fang on the floor next to him and plunged it straight into the heart of [Tom Riddle’s diary]. . . . There was a long, dreadful, piercing scream . . . and then—[Riddle] had gone” (Rowling 322). I finished my first year of teaching like a warrior on the battle field, like Harry in the chamber. The struggle was real, but I pushed on. The following year, I returned to school renewed, believing in the good of my students and the power of reading and writing. We can make a difference in the lives of our most troubled and struggling students. Oftentimes, they are the ones that need us the most even if they have a hard time showing it. I have found that each year is a fresh start; we learn from our mistakes and can try new approaches. Giving up can never be in our equation.

The Bird and the Blade by Megan Bannen

I stood, nervous yet confident, in a classroom that I had come to know so well as a student. However, tonight, I was the teacher. Steadying my heartbeat, I surveyed the empty-soon-to-be-filled desks; breathed in slow, deep breaths; and thought It’s just like teaching twelve-year-olds. I had not returned to Bliss Hall at The College of New Jersey (TCNJ) since graduating from their English Secondary Education Program two springs ago. This evening, I was about to present a How to Teach Session on Electronic Portfolios. Dr. Emily Meixner, a professor at TCNJ and my teaching mentor, held these sessions to share best practices with pre-service teachers and colleagues already in the field. She asked if I would be willing to share my portfolio assignment—how could I say no. As people walked in, I greeted them as I would my students, reminding myself It’s just like teaching twelve-year-olds. When I started my presentation, a smile spread across my face—not only in welcome but also in realization. This moment marked the first time I was teaching teachers, and I liked it.

Presenting at and attending national and local conferences have helped me become the teacher I am today. I love to learn, and I love to share information. Life-long learning is in my blood. My Dad always says, “Nobody can take your knowledge away from you,” which is the truth. I realize, too, that the more I learn, the more I can offer my students and peers: new book titles, strategies for reading, grammar tips to enhance writing, workshop structures, and techniques to play with. My middle level students are talented and accomplished writers, and they entertain critical and creative conversations surrounding literature that always surprise me. I must continuously push myself in order to keep up with my most gifted students which in turn enables me to share new ideas with my colleagues. The Bird and the Blade by Megan Bannen stresses the importance of education and values being a literate person. One of the characters, Zhang, is a teacher to Princess Turandokht and remarks, the “‘gift’ is an extraordinarily apt student. . . . I have had to learn just to keep up with her. She has made me a better scholar” (Bannen 320). While I despise Zhang’s character, I agree with the message: continuing one’s own education is necessary.

Because I am driven to refine my classroom practices for the adolescent readers and writers I work with, I am also able to help teachers by sharing what I learn. I have come to realize that we are teachers within and outside our classroom walls. It is important to conduct informal, action research and to join the academic conversation through presentations and written communication. If it were not for my students always encouraging me to learn and be the best I can be, I would not have tapped into my ability to teacher other teachers.

Halfway Normal by Barbara Dee

Sitting in the auditorium three days before students arrived, I flipped through a prescribed units of study handed to me by a Teachers College consultant. It outlined formulaic, monthly genre studies. I felt the bile climbing up the back of my throat. I knew writing-reading workshop—and this was not it. I had experienced a Writing Methods class in college and knew this was not how workshop should be implemented across a school district. Around me, the chatter reached a deafening roar. Outrage. Some teachers recognized the disconnect between a student-centered workshop and what we had been handed. For others, they had never heard the term workshop and had no idea how this packet would translate into their classroom. 

It was my third year of teaching and by November I wanted to quit; I knew I needed to change. My current classroom was not what I had signed up for. The first two years teaching had been a dream come true: design your own writing-reading workshop with choice and student-centered learning at its core. Essentially, I had been hired to teach a writing elective, but after curriculum changes and block schedules instituted, the elective course vanished, and I found myself teaching English Language Arts with a mandated curriculum.  

Luckily, I attended NCTE that year and heard Penny Kittle speak for the first time. Everything she said and everything she stood for was exactly what I needed to hear and see. Her speech empowered teachers to make the changes necessary and to find ways to honor choice and workshop within the confines of public education requirements.

Determined, I returned to my classroom and the week after Thanksgiving started Self-Selected Fridays in which students developed their own writing pieces, choosing their topics, genres, audiences, and purposes. I have never looked back. Seven years later—and after much exploration, trial and error, and inquiry—I am still employing Self-Selected Writing in my class each Friday. Kittle’s words continue to echo in my mind the way Nora’s tutor’s words prompt her to return to school in Halfway Normal by Barbara Dee. Ayesha states, “I told myself: Look, you beat cancer, you can deal with high school. And I did” (Dee 198). In two days, Nora returns to school and helps others understand her experience. Sometimes it takes someone we look up to to help us realize what needs to be done, to inspire in us the action we need to take. We all face obstacles that we must overcome—I have found that the best way to beat them is to rise up and meet them.

Eldest by Christopher Paolini

I approached Corinne, the coordinator of my Pennsylvanian new teacher program. As a sixth year teacher, I had more experience than most in the class, but this one little piece of information rocked my world. My eyes were wide, each like the moon in a dark, cloudless night sky. Our new teacher meeting had just come to a close, and the biggest bomb of my life had been dropped about ten minutes ago. How had I not known that after 6 years of teaching in Pennsylvania, I needed to complete 24 graduate credits and secure a Level II Teaching Certificate if I wanted to continue teaching. I thought about all those years living in New Jersey, five minutes away from Montclair State University, and how easy it would have been to get my degree.

Corinne smiled as I explained my predicament. She thought for a moment, thinking about me, my passions, and suggested I look into the Pennsylvania Writing and Literature Project (PAWLP) and West Chester University. Little did I know that in addition to finding the graduate program I had longed for, I would find a professional organization to be a part of—something I had been missing since moving to Pennsylvania.

Since then, I have completed classes in the Writing, Teaching, and Criticism Track. My experiences have enabled me to develop my skills as a teacher and writer, likening me to Eragon’s training in Eldest by Christopher Paolini. In order to become the best Dragon Rider and defeat Galbatorix, Eragon studies under Oromis, one of the last living Dragon Riders. When Eragon meets Oromis, he thinks, “I’m not alone. . . . Awe and relief coursed through him. No more would he have to bear the responsibility of the Varden and of Galbatorix by himself” (Paolini 267). The Inheritance Cycle is my favorite series. Eldest is one of my favorite books because of the connection Eragon and Saphira have and their ability to grow stronger as a unit under the training of Oromis and his dragon, Glaedr.

My time at West Chester has further sculpted me into the educator I want to be and prepared me for what my future holds. Being a member of an organization that shares and supports my philosophy of education has also made me a stronger advocate for choice in the writing-reading workshop and enabled me to share best practices with my peers. I am so glad I did not rush my master’s degree at Montclair State, and I am thankful that Pennsylvania’s teaching policies forced me into a program at this point in my life. Had I waited to complete my masters, I would be missing out on the fun and growth I have experienced. I have enjoyed collaborating with like-minded peers, hearing wisdom from teacher researchers, and working with colleagues to ultimately better my students and the profession.

Everless by Sara Holland

Reaching for my mail, I catch a glimpse of a cream-colored envelop: it looks official. I snatch it from the pile’s bottom, holding my breath. Could it be? my mind whispers. Yes. There in typed font the return address reads:

Center for Teacher and Learning

119 Cross Point Road

Edgecomb, Maine 04556.

I gingerly open the letter, my breath catching in the back of my throat. This was the moment of truth. I closed my eyes for a brief pause before unfolding the matching cream-colored paper and reading the verdict: “I’m happy to inform you that the faculty has accepted your application for participation in the Center for Teaching and Learning [(CTL)] intern program. Congratulations.” Time froze. I would be visiting the school Nancie Atwell founded!

Ever since my Methods class as a junior at TCNJ, I dreamed of interning at CTL: I’ve read Atwell’s work, studied her teaching, and heard her speak, but I have always wanted to immerse myself in the school that posits the value of writing-reading workshop. After nine years of experimenting and implementing a workshop approach in my own classroom, I would be a fly on the wall in hers.

Once I returned from CTL, one of my goals became to carve out more time for Reading Workshop. Teaching has always seemed a balancing act of what I value within my classroom and what my district and state standards mandate. Although students read independently throughout the week for roughly fifteen minutes at the start of class, there had never been enough time to conference, write about their reading, or hold class discussions of their independent reading books.

In response to this reflection, Thursday class periods will be dedicated to Reading Workshop where students will read independently, confer during one-on-one student-teacher conferences, complete minilessons to elevate their work as readers and writers, write Literature Letter Essays and Discussion Board Posts, and participate in Roundtable Discussions. The finagling of time calls to mind Everless by Sara Holland. The main character, Jules, controls time and can control her fate. Holland describes Jules’ ability: “As sometimes happens—the world seems to slow. No, not seems. The branches really do stop whispering in the wind. Even the almost audible crackle of the snow melting on the ground stops, like the world is holding its breath” (3). Eventually, Jules’ ability threatens the status quo, and she is able to change the world she lives in.

I have always questioned and reflected upon my current teaching practices and structures; however, my internship led me to reflect even more deeply on the writing-reading workshop I employ in my classroom. As educators, it is important to question what we are doing in our classrooms and how we are managing the time we are given. How do we privilege what is most important for our students’ learning? For me, independent, daily reading and writing time improves students’ abilities and needs to be placed at the heart of every classroom. To accomplish this goal, I am playing with my schedule and the time I have to make Reading Workshop a central pillar within my class. 

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

Sarah smiles, proud and triumphantly. She finished Beeholding Bee by Kimberly Newton Fusco and loved the book. She will present it as her Book It Presentation, our seventh-grade core assessment, and she is feeling capable. Reading has not always come easy for Sarah, and the year has been a roller coaster of emotions. Early on she did not trust me or her own abilities. Little by little we chipped away at the ice block, little by little she found success. Independent reading books and daily independent reading time supported by conferences and one-on-one direct instruction melted Sarah’s insecurities and fostered her readerly and writerly life. Sarah exemplifies the power of the writing-reading workshop. Over the course of a year she transformed into the reader and writer she wanted to be. As a nine year veteran educator, she also transformed me as a reading and writing teacher.

Her story reminds me of Jacqueline Woodson’s words in Brown Girl Dreaming. Jacqueline struggles with reading; she feels badly about this and wishes to become a fluent, gifted reader like her sister. Woodson writes:

When I read, the words twist,

 twirl across the page. . . . 

 I want to catch words one day. I want to hold them

then blow gently,

watch them float

right out of my hands. (169)

Students want to succeed; they want to read and write. It is up to teachers to help those students find success in their own way and at their own time.

For me, teaching’s greatest joy is helping students triumph and become intrinsically motivated readers and writers. I work hard to make sure students are finding books they want to read and learning how to understand the words they see. I dedicate time for choice writing so students can tell their stories and write what matters most to them. Seeing my students grow makes me want to help other teachers understand the importance of a writing-reading workshop, choice, and student-centered instruction so that students, like Jacqueline and Sarah, have the opportunity to spread their wings and soar.

Mirage by Somaiya Daud

As I walked down the hall, the echo of my shoes stalked me, calling attention to the eerie, quietness of Holicong Middle School in August. I entered my classroom one last time. Everything of mine already removed from the four-walled, windowless room. Pulling open each drawer, I checked for a fragment of my teaching life: books, paper, notebooks, pencils, markers, and tap. Anything to still cement me to this empty place. Erased. Gone. Although saddened for a moment, I realized that my classroom was not the space that I inhabited. My classroom is the students, the learning, the teacher facilitating. Any space can be a classroom.

In my tenth year of teaching, I am working at a new school, traveling between three classrooms, and teaching three different courses. Juggling these changes offers an adventure that I can either run away from or rise up to meet. While some might shy away from change, I am embracing it. I am adapting to make the differences work—and actually enjoying myself.

This ability to be a chameleon connects to Mirage by Somaiya Daud, my favorite YA novel I read this past summer. Daud encourages her readers to always keep going, and I appreciate this for both my professional and personal life. The main character, Amani, must serve as the evil Princess Maram’s body double. Daud reveals Amani’s dire situation in the following conversation:

“You will train, and you will become Her Royal Highness. You will speak like her, walk like her. You will even breathe as she does,” [Nadine explained.]

“If I do not?” [Amani] asked, trying to keep hold of [her] disgust.

“You will,” Nadine said.

“Your very life depends on it,” Maram added with a chilling smile. (43)

Just as Amani adjusts to survive, teachers must adapt to what the teaching profession throws at them whether it be a mandated curriculum or a change of scenery.

Instead of sulking away, I am rising up to meet whatever this new school year brings: the challenges and the triumphs. I already love the fact that every classroom I am in has windows that overlook pretty, green courtyards—a daily reminder of Ralph Fletcher’s greenbelt concept. Two of the three classrooms have flexible seating, and I brought a rug from my old classroom for the third. Furthermore, my new colleagues seem great and my students are wonderful. With seizing this opportunity and having a positive outlook, I am able to already make the most of it and enjoy where the journey will lead me.

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

My booklist suggests three overarching takeaways: learn, be inspired, and adapt. These precepts have helped me and will help others sustain a healthy and passionate personal life and career path. Life-long learning, the greatest gift we can receive and bestow on others, will lead us to continuously try new things and improve ourselves. When inspiration courses through our veins, our intrinsic motivation guides our journey, enabling us to tap into our true calling. And lastly, adaptability will save us. As individuals, we can only control so much; living in a constant state of evolution fosters growth and prevents stagnation. I strive to always remember and live these guiding principles: I hope they will help you too. Be your own alchemist. Transform your life. “Believe yourself worthy of the thing you fought so hard to get” (Coelho viii) and do not let anyone take that gift away from you.