Rethinking Grades (Part 2)

Last June, I wrote a blog post while in the middle of rethinking how I grade in my classroom. At the time, I was in learning mode. I knew what I wanted to change, and I thought my workshop classroom would fit my ideas quite well.

Last August, as I attempted (and often failed) to plan for a year of unknowns, I decided that I would look at the 2020-2021 school year as an opportunity.

An opportunity to try teaching strategies I was always too intimidated by.

An opportunity to focus on joy and autonomy.

An opportunity to lessen my students’ stress level (and mine) in an already stressful time.

Yes, this year was the perfect time to go gradeless.

Sure, my students were a bit confused at first. No number on an assignment but they still had to do it? As one student put it, “how will I know what’s important in this class?” One student even asked why he should do any work at all. These were important questions, I thought, so we spent the beginning of year discussing them. We couldn’t go gradeless if my students didn’t understand their role in the learning process.

To help my students organize their thinking, we got into our notebooks. Using a list of ten learning goals (I modeled mine after the ones Sarah M. Zerwin included in her book Point-Less), students created plans to meet two goals each marking period. We created tracking charts in their notebooks (see mine below), and each week they took time to record their progress. Along the way, I shared my own progress, as well as my setbacks. My struggles helped them realize that some weeks would be easier than others. By the end of the first marking period, they wrote letters sharing their stories of strengths and successes, where improvement was still needed, and then based on both, what grade they believe they deserved.

One of my planning charts, and two tracking charts. I keep track of my learning, just like my students.

Yes, going gradeless was terrifying at first. It was such a big change for us all. One aspect that many students struggled with was their “grade” in our online grading application. They still saw a number there, so wasn’t that their English grade? Not quite. I was still required to put numbers in a grade book, but what they saw were their “completion grades.” This was one of the many ways students received feedback, but in the form of a 0, 5, or 10. A 0 meant the assignment was missing, a 5 meant it was incomplete or completed incorrectly, and a 10 meant it was fully completed. At first, my students only looked at those numbers, so I had to change their thinking by giving them additional feedback on their assignments and in conferences. Students soon learned that receiving a 10 didn’t mean that an assignment was finished. I would share strengths I noticed, but also push for more revision. This way, no matter the ability of the student, I could always challenge them. Soon, I began to see more revision than I had ever seen before.

Now, as I write this post, my students are in the process of reflecting on their 3rd marking period of learning. As I read over their letters, I can see their obvious growth and honest reflection. This senior shared some honest thoughts about a tough marking period: “At times it was hard to find motivation and complete assignments on time. But for this class I believe I gave good effort and expressed myself in my writing. As far as reading goes, I’ve read more consistently this marking period and have put aside more time to read.” One of my other seniors found something he enjoys: “My strength in English is writing stories. It’s something that I could do all day if I could.” A ninth grader shared that she gained confidence in her reading from participating in a book club: “The book club helped me to improve my reading skills by sharing my ideas and my thoughts with my classmates in my group.”

Next week, we begin conferences where I will meet with each student to discuss the content of their letters and the grades they are asking for. I must say, so far their self-assessments have been pretty accurate! Some students are even too tough on themselves.

I still have more to learn about going gradeless, but I do know that this is the path I am meant to be on. My students are cognizant of their own learning now, so this gradeless journey is a welcomed one.

Sarah Krajewski teaches high school English and Journalism near Buffalo, New York.  She is currently in her 19th year of teaching, and is always looking for new, creative ways to encourage her students to read and write. At school, she is known for helping students become lifelong readers, and for being a devoted reader herself who “knows her books.” You can follow Sarah on Twitter @shkrajewski and her blog can be viewed at http://skrajewski.wordpress.com/.

Reading through Liberty

My two-year-old grandson is a master manipulator–or maybe he’s just brilliant.

Over the weekend, his mom and dad took a little anniversary trip, so Papa and I tended Indy and his baby brother. More than once, when we needed/wanted/pleaded with Indy to do a certain thing, he ran to the bookcase in our room, pulled out a book–or four or seven–and sat down to read. “Shh. Quiet,” he’d say, patting the space on the floor next to him in a commanding invitation to sit beside him.

What else is a grandparent to do but stop and read with the little man?

We all know the benefits of reading to young children. (Google gives “about 921,000,000 results” for the question.) We also know that somewhere along the way, many children, maybe especially adolescents, come to not like reading.

Most of us face two challenges:

How do I get students to read when they just don’t want to?

How do I get students to read when they just don’t seem good at it?

I used to think it was all about the books. You know, I’d pack the shelves in my classroom library with the most colorful, interesting, inclusive, newly published, award-winning books; I’d talk about these books A LOT, doing my best to match books with student interests. I’d do All The Things.

And, yeah, many students came to like our dedicated daily reading time. Some of them even came to like the books they read. Many of them claimed to have read more than they ever had before. I’m just not super sure how many students came to really like reading.

Maybe that’s okay.

The other day I saw this tweet by Sarah, a friend and contributor to this blog, and I quickly read the whole of the thread posted by Miah on April 4. It’s a beautifully constructed and compelling argument and well worth your time to read in full. Like Sarah, “I’ll be thinking about it for a long time.”

Today, I’m thinking about it here in relation to my tiny grandson and the reader he may be when he’s 10, 14, 17, or 37.

Miah lists reasons we teach reading: “We teach reading for. . .security. . .self-advocacy. . .freedom. . .economic security. . .social justice. . .evolution. . .social advancement. . .liberty in the highest sense of the word.”

and includes this sage advice–

I think we know what “the noise” is, even beyond how Miah describes it. There’s noise in so many aspects of our teaching lives. And sometimes, nay often, it is hard to ignore. Yet you and I both know we must.

And I think one way to do it is to position liberty: We teach reading for liberty, but we also teach reading through liberty.

If you’re nerdy like me, maybe you look up “liberty” in the dictionary. Merriam-Webster offers a whole list of definitions: “The quality or state of being free” and all the context descriptors–all but speak to the importance of student choice when it comes to reading in a high school English class. Thus, a robust classroom library and all the things.

Then, there’s this definition: “a right or immunity enjoyed by prescription or by grant PRIVILEGE

And there it is–the word privilege making me think again.

In context of my teaching practice, who has the liberty to talk, ask questions, move about the room, take risks, choose texts, shape plans, assess learning? What’s privileged, where, and when?

And, yes, I know–if you’ve read this blog for awhile now, I am most likely preaching to the choir.

But even if we “get it,” even if we try it, even if we’re tired of trying or tired of this pandemic, even if we cannot handle one more decibel of noise–if we believe in empowering students with the skills they need to capitalize on the liberty life affords them–or liberate themselves so they have more–we keep thinking and reflecting, and we keep doing the things that help young people have experiences with reading that make them want to read.

Try This “Conversation Starter” (I read it recently in the Morning Brew, an online newsletter I read pretty much every day.)

If your bookshelf could only have five books, what would they be?

You can learn a lot about an individual–positive, negative, and otherwise–depending on the books they choose, or if they don’t make any choices at all.

Amy Rasmussen is a lover of words, color, and living things–like plants, art frogs, and grandkids. She lives in North Texas and escapes for long periods of time on the country roads near her home. She writes (mostly in her notebook) to see and feel and think in new ways, and when it comes to publishing anything publicly, her phobia of heights doesn’t seem half bad. Amy has a book about authentic literacy practices she’s co-written with Billy Eastman due for publication this fall. She’s both excited and terrified. Follow her @amyrass –maybe she’ll get a little more active on social media.

Today’s a Good Day to Write a Poem–or anything really

Perhaps you’ve noticed. Posts here have been scant for quite a long time. Maybe the reasons are too complicated to explain, or maybe they only make sense in my head. I could probably figure out how to explain the gap year, but if you’re like most of my students you’d think there’s too much print on the page and skim or skip this post before it really says anything.

I’d rather just say “Hi! I hope you are well, sane, surviving–maybe even enjoying this crazy life we are living. I’m glad you are here, and I’m working on stiffening my spine and sharpening my skills for the 3TT Come Back Tour.”

Since today launches National Poetry Month, it only makes sense to think and write about poetry. A quick search reminded me I wrote something similar close to two years ago today– Can Poetry be Wrong? And Other Inspiration for #National Poetry Month. I still believe in what I wrote there. Maybe I believe it even more. I’m still stunned by the first comment: “Yes. In fact, most poems are wrong, the 99.99% of poems that do not survive the test of time.” What the what?!

Since I wrote that post in March of 2019, my life has changed in dramatic ways–some positive, some not-quite-so, and some tragic (these still leave me reeling.) And when I read poetry, even snippets of it on my IG feed, my moods and emotions get a boost, a validation of sorts. I am grateful for the wonder of it all: Someone somewhere said in a poem something I wanted/needed/hoped to say.

Today, I’m wondering how you will celebrate National Poetry Month — by yourself and with your students. There’s some great ideas at the previous link. Here’s a three more if you are still looking–

Join #verselove21. It’s a celebration–and a challenge–to read and write poetry, hosted by Dr. Donovan at the Ethical ELA blog. I’ve joined in several of her Open Writes and always find new ways to expand my craft–and ideas to use with student writers. Writing a poem a day for 30 days is hard for me, but I like to try. It’s also hard to share, but I do it anyway.

Check out some poets on Instagram. Raquel Franco and Amy Kay are two new favorites, and both have posted a list of prompts for the month.

Order the keepsake book of Amanda Gorman‘s poem “The Hill We Climb, an Inaugural Poem for the Country.” (I’m reading it slowly and playing with tiny illustrations on the pages.) Note: If you order through the link, 3TT will get a tiny something.

Use the photos on your phone for inspiration. For example, look at the last five photos and choose one for inspiration. Or, scroll through and notice colors; then choose an image with a color that speaks to you today. Or find an image of an object and write a poem that personifies it. There’s so much inspiration in our phones!

And if you just don’t have it in you to write poetry this month, (I get it. I really do.) I hope you will at least find some time to enjoy it. Whether you take a shallow dip or a deep dive, I hope you’ll find joy. And maybe you’ll find these words by another of the IG poets I follow worth noting–

how to understand the poem:

do not be afraid to feel it. (alison.malee)

Please share in the comments your best tips for leveraging National Poetry Month or leveraging poetry in any month.

Amy Rasmussen is a lover of words, color, and living things, like plants and grandkids. She lives in North Texas and escapes for long periods of time on the country roads near her home. She writes (mostly in her notebook) to see and feel and think in new ways, and when it comes to publishing anything publicly, her phobia of heights doesn’t seem half bad. Amy has a book about authentic literacy practices she’s co-written with Billy Eastman due for publication this fall. She’s both excited and terrified. Follow her @amyrass –maybe she’ll get a little more active on social media.

Having Layered Discussion Without Actually Talking

We have learned so much in the past year. Our extensions and bookmarks and padlets are brimming with new tools. 

But the other day I was reminded, for the 452nd time, that sometimes going back to the basics is powerful. In this case, the basics is Google Docs. 

In the “before” times I loved a good silent discussion (here’s a nice explanation of the strategy from NCTE). We’d gather around a piece of chart paper upon which I taped a poem or a snippet of text or an image. We’d all grab markers (remember when we shared markers!), and start writing and responding to one another.

Sometimes we’d pass around notebooks and write in each other’s spaces, scrawling words and thinking. Or we’d trade post-it notes, adding layers to the thinking.

But, as we all know, we’ve had to put on pause so many of those treasured strategies. But the need for rich, meaningful conversation is still there. And if your students are like the ones I see, they’re not actually doing a lot of talking right now. If you’re in person, masks are cumbersome. It’s exhausting to repeat yourself. Or they’re behind devices, likely staring at multiple screens.

While I worry that we’re turning our teenagers into zombies, leaning into existing technology can be beneficial when trying to recapture the energy of a silent discussion. We’ve tried discussion boards, padlet threads, and Nearpod collaboration boards. This is the time of year, though, when those routines start to feel a little stale. 

This week, during a professional learning session, our ELA teachers used the comment feature in a google doc to have a conversation about a text, and it was the richest and most meaningful discussion we’ve had all year! 

  1. We watched Rudy Francisco recite his poem “My Honest Poem” on Button Poetry (thanks to @Mr_Georgeclass for introducing and to @colleencourt for reintroducing).
  1. In our writers notebooks, we collected words and phrases during that first reading.
  1. We opened the google doc and read the text again. This time, we found the places where we liked the wording, or we thought about connections we’d like to make, or places where we want to talk back to the text. 
  1. After some time, I encouraged folks to go now and read each other’s comments and to extend the thinking in some way. With students I might give them some sentence stems like “I agree with this because…” Or “On the other hand…” 
  1. We came together and debriefed. Then we wrote our own “Honest” poems.
You can see here how folks were commenting on all sorts of lines. People were making personal connections, and also thinking about text structure.

Using this simple tool was great for so many reasons:

  • Everyone knew how to use it, so we didn’t have the lag of learning a new piece of technology, or signing up for an account.
  • Participants were able to talk directly to the text. They didn’t have to copy & paste anything and put it into a new spot. It was all right there, and that created an immediacy to the experience. 
  • Layers upon layers. Multiple people could comment on the same thing, and have different reactions. They could also comment to each other and it was all right there. They didn’t have to go back and read posts and then comment on those. They didn’t have to read through comments and post on at least two other people’s comments. It was there, happening in real time. 
  • Instant. Real time conversation. Yes we were all looking at our computers but we were active, not passive. We were creating connections and challenging ideas. 
This shows the layers of conversation and connections people were making even with just the last line.

During the debrief I asked “what are you noticing?” And once again everyone was silent. I used to think that the silence meant folks weren’t engaged. But the evidence of engagement was written all over the page. That pushed my thinking about what it means to be engaged.

Sometimes I worry that we’re looking for engagement in the wrong places. Are screens on? Are they talking? What if instead we thought about finding different ways to engage? Using google docs for a silent conversation reminded me that this can be a simple yet rich experience. 

What are some tools that are helping you build community and connections?

Angela Faulhaber is a literacy coach in the Cincinnati, OH area where she supports K-12 teachers. When not working, she’s been busy driving kids to sledding hills and dodging yellow snow with her dog. 

How to deal with missing & late-work: one teacher’s approach

Hey readers! It’s been a while since you’ve seen anything from us at Three Teachers Talk. We, like all of you, feel like we’ve been trudging through this year. Between the zooms, the Nearpods, the screencasts, the quarantines, the cleaning protocols, the bandwith issues…well, you get the picture. It’s been a lot.

Now we’re at the half-point of this year and so many are struggling with engagement. How do we “hold kids accountable” in the midst of all this? And what can we learn that might go beyond the crisis teaching we’re doing now? I’ve been loving following Tyler Rabin’s (@tylerrabin) journey around these issues and invited him to share his thinking with all of you.

We hope you’re safe. We hope you’re well. We hope this helps.

I’ve gone through this cycle more often than I’d like:

  1. Realize that grade penalties on late work are bad.
  2. Eliminate all grade penalties.
  3. Immediately get overwhelmed by late work and a lack of organization.
  4. Rush to reimpose late penalties.

I would argue that in most classrooms, grade penalties don’t exist because the teacher likes them; grade penalties exist because we don’t feel like we have an alternative.

On top of that, they work. For some things. The things they work for are the easily visible pieces. Do students hand more things in with grade penalties than without? Typically, yes. 

But, let’s also point out some of the things we know about how extrinsic motivators, especially punishments, impact student learning. This blog captures some of the key points from Daniel Pink’s work on motivation well, and the first point that we have to be aware of is that, while extrinsic motivation does increase short-term motivation, it actually hurts it long-term. This means that we can use it once or twice to convince someone to do something, but eventually that ends up no longer being motivating. Sound like any students you’ve had? 

The second piece is the more concerning piece. Extrinsic motivation increases someone’s drive to complete basic tasks, but it hinders their ability to engage in complex process. Correct me if I’m wrong here, but I believe learning falls under the latter category. While I wish I could put this softly, I don’t know a way around the harshness of this fact: an emphasis on late penalties values compliantly completing a task more than it does the student’s ability to learn. 

Now, here’s where we are stuck between a rock and a hard place. Late penalties are, in essence, a barrier to learning, but in most cases, there doesn’t appear to be a sustainable alternative for teachers. We don’t want to have to use grade penalties, but we are human. We need to have lives, and the constantly ebb and flow of late work is exhausting and time-consuming. 

This concept was weighing heavily on me a few months back. I too often criticize the act of using grade penalties without acknowledging the reality of our context or providing possible solutions. As I wrestled through this in an attempt to provide a solution, I recorded the most helpful info I could into the longest thread I’ve ever posted on Twitter. However, as it always goes on Twitter, it lacked the depth the conversation needs. 

As such, I’ve broken the thread into segments so that I can provide additional details about how to address the late work issue in meaningful ways without using grade penalties and without losing your sanity. 

Part 1: Organizing Assignments into Essential vs. Non-essential

Tweets:

This Tweet probably needs the most explanation. If you remove grade penalties and allow students to turn in ALL their work whenever they want, you will lose every ounce of free time you have. The key is to really identify the assignments that carry the most value. This isn’t to say that the non-essential assignments aren’t valuable, but the non-essential assignments should mean that their function is to allow students to practice specific skills and demonstrate their current level of understanding. They should have more than just that one opportunity to do that for each skill. But…I’m getting ahead of myself. 

Part 2: Non-essential Assignments – Multiple Attempts for Learning

Tweets:

The key with these assignments is that the student will have further opportunities to demonstrate their learning, but these missed assignments demonstrate a need for a different type of support, a support that grade penalties just frankly don’t offer. For your sake, don’t take late work that falls into this category. Tell the student that they missed this opportunity, but they will get another shot at it later. However, if you end there, kids will receive the message that every educator fears: deadlines and completing assignments aren’t important. 

This is why there must be a system or process set up to hold students accountable in a way that actually focuses on building those skills. Like I mentioned, my favorite is to have them stay after class and schedule their week with me. I can also put them on my list of students who receive my Remind messages about upcoming assignments. Somehow there has to be a clear next step for students who miss these assignments so that they know (a) you’re paying attention, (b) it’s important, and (c) you want them to get better at self-management and executive functioning. 

Part 3: Final Evaluation

Tweets:

All of this comes down to the fact that we should be averaging scores over time to determine a final score. Not only does that result in an inaccurate report of student learning, but it means that missing assignments will almost inevitably factor into the final grade (unless you drop scores, which I’m always a proponent of). 

At the end of a term, the goal is that you are doing a summative evaluation (preferably with the student) where you are looking through their data to determine their final scores. If this step isn’t happening, missing and late work usually ends up being a significant factor in a student’s grade. 

Now, I know a lot of people are thinking, “What about the student who doesn’t turn in ANY work?!” At some point, a lack of evidence is a lack of evidence, and that student hasn’t given you enough to demonstrate proficiency in the skill. I have found that this happens WAY less often than we think it does, though. 

Part 4: Authentic Consequences for Authentic Assessments

Tweets: 

While I probably don’t need to elaborate here, I want to make sure one word shines through: authentic. How are we creating experiences where students get to apply their learning in authentic ways so that the cost of not doing something is actually meaningful for the student? Is this a one-size-fits-all thing? Absolutely not. For a consequence to be meaningful, there must be an element of choice in it. The student has to have had some control and ability to bring in their full self – their passions, interests, goals, etc – to the project. That is when the consequences become powerful. 

Part 5: Final Thought

Tweet:

This is why I get so worked up about grade penalties. I know we do them because it feels like we don’t have an alternative, but so often these grade penalties are just kicking a horse who’s already down. These are students who often have already been told they’re bad at school, maybe not explicitly, but the message has been sent over and over. They don’t need another reminder that they can’t do it. We teach them nothing when we add penalties on top of self-doubt. What they need is someone who notices they are struggling, but instead of blaming the student and calling it good, that person goes, “Here’s how we’re going to do better next time. Let’s let this one go and move forward together.”

This is why we have to stop depending on grade penalties. They are a way of washing our hands of the responsibility of educating our kids, of helping them see their best selves. We can do better. It’s not easy, but we can do it, one small change at a time.

Bio:

Tyler Rablin is a current instructional coach and National Board certified high school language arts teacher in Sunnyside School District in Sunnyside, WA. On the side, he is a consultant with Shifting Schools, contributing writer for Edutopia, and a Google for Education certified trainer. His educational passion is focused on the ways that meaningful technology integration, modernized assessment strategies, and strong cultures of learning can allow us to provide meaningful, powerful, and personal learning experiences for each of our students. In his personal life, he enjoys reading, running, and spending time hiking and camping with his wife and two dogs.

Rethinking Grades

Distance learning is over, and I don’t know about you, but I’m finally able to take a deep breath and reflect on the most unique three months of my 18-year teaching career. Yes, it was tough, but I learned a lot.

In my previous post, I shared my thoughts about the right kind of feedback our students need in order to be successful students. The kind that leads to learning, not compliance.

Growth over numbers.

Over the past three months, it was my conversations with kids that fostered learning and growth, not any numerical grade I gave them. My students didn’t even see a numerical grade until they wrote me a letter in June to argue for their final average. When I looked back at my notes, I saw real, helpful data proving my students learned a lot about reading and writing, as well as themselves as learners. No number could have shown me, or them, that. I knew then that I couldn’t go back to a traditional grading method.

My notes while reading the end of Sarah M. Zerwin’s book.

So, I continued reading. Learning. I searched for proof that not only were points no longer needed, but my students were more successful without them. After finding and finishing Sarah M. Zerwin’s book, Point-less: An English Teacher’s Guide to More Meaningful Grading, I had all the information necessary to prove why this change was essential.

What does going pointless, or gradeless, actually look like? To me, it’s a student-centered, feedback-driven classroom. Students read, write, revise, and reflect often. They take risks, for a number is not attached. Teachers serve as a model and coach, not an authority figure. Conferences are a regular occurrence. Open communication is visible in the school grade book where teachers, parents, students, administrators, and counselors can see written feedback. In other words, it’s everything children need to learn and grow.

So, will a change like this be possible? I’m going to argue yes. It must. When it comes to education, our country has been obsessed with the wrong kind of data for far too long. Our country’s grading system is an archaic one of oppression that needs to go. Teachers, it’s time to speak up and change that. It’s time to obsess over learning and growth, and going pointless will allow for that.

For more information about going pointless, start by checking out these sources:

  • Point-less: An English Teacher’s Guide to More Meaningful Grading by Sarah M. Zerwin
  • Reimagining Writing Assessment and Rethinking Rubrics by Maja Wilson
  • The Schools Our Children Deserve and other books and essays by Alfie Kohn
  • Hacking Assessment: 10 Ways to Go Gradeless in a Traditional Grades School by Starr Sackstein

Sarah Krajewski teaches 9th and 12th grade English and Journalism near Buffalo, New York.  She just finished her 18th year of teaching, and hopes to get back to her classroom in September.  You can follow Sarah on Twitter @shkrajewski and her blog can be viewed at http://skrajewski.wordpress.com/.

“Why don’t they like us?”

My neighbor Crystal brought me to my knees. I am new to the neighborhood, and she’s been the most inviting.

Crystal is a Black woman, a strong, affable, beautiful mother of three elementary-age children.

We stood on the side of the porch, talking about plants, vacations to the beach, schooling at home, her trampoline and my crazy barking dogs. We talked about books and bonded over Victorian romance novels.

She told me her background–how her family doesn’t understand why she moved to the country “to live with the whites,” how she wants her children to have more than she ever had growing up, how she works from home, so she can “always be there for my kids.”

Crystal told me of the neighbor across the street and three doors down who called the cops on her son when he got in a scuffle with his friend, a little white girl who hit him first.

He was six.

Then she grinned and told me how she loves to walk by that house, and while the kids are “no longer friends,” her family smiles and waves as they walk by.

That “incident” was three years ago.

Crystal then got solemn. She looked over at her daughter, looked back at me and said, “I’m so glad to talk to you this way this morning. Last night we watched CNN–all that’s on the news–and my kids ask me: ‘Why don’t they like us?’ You talking to me is good. My kids need to see us talking.”

My, God.

Like you, I imagine, my thoughts and emotions are a mess. Nothing compared to my Black friends, I’m sure, but a mess nonetheless.

My family is interracial. My grandsons bleed Black blood. The injustice I see is personal. But even if it wasn’t, my soul would scream for an end to all the cruelty, the disparity, the inequity and inequality. The destruction of Black lives.

It has for the years I’ve spent in the classroom, teaching mostly children of color–learning about their lives, hopes, plans, and dreams–and hoping, somehow, I can help them achieve, what seems to be all too often, the impossible.

Therein lies the problem. Their Lives should always be possible.

Black Lives Matter.

And as an educator and as a white woman, I will keep listening and learning. I will keep advocating for authentic and humane teaching practices that honor the lives of the most vulnerable until they are not most vulnerable. I hope I see that day in my lifetime. Today would be good.

I know social media has been inundated with resources of late–many solid reading lists, much needed as white people work to educate ourselves. I offer three more:

This article lists Black owned bookstores. I ask that you support these enterprises. If you read this blog, you already know the power of books and reading. Please support these business owners and invest in this power.

This article includes an interview with Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative and author of the book Just Mercy. I read this book in 2014 when it was first published. It’s one of a handful of books that have challenged and changed my core.

Follow #31daysIBPOC on Twitter and read the posts by these brilliant, passionate, inspiring educators. They challenge, charge, and call for change. They have helped shape my thinking both professionally and personally, and I am grateful for their voices.

We cannot remain silent, sheltered, or shrug off the responsibility. We must be actively anti-tacist in thought, word, and deed. All the time.

Crystal and her children deserve more. And they deserve it every second of every day. Never should a Black child anywhere at any time ever feel “Why don’t they like us?” Ever.

In my heart, it’s as bad as “I can’t breathe.”

Positives in the Pandemic Part Two: Managing “Research” via Distance Learning

Argumentative research is a skill our freshman English team has always built up to and focused on at the end of the school year. We had planned to start this process in April and were thrown a curveball when COVID-19 arrived and shut everything down. Instead of throwing out all the work we have done, we regrouped and revised our approach to “research” at home. Here are the steps we took to make “research” manageable for our students.

Step One: Change the topic

We had originally planned to have the students research teen issues and argue which one has had the greatest impact on teen’s lives today, but with all the struggles our students are facing we didn’t want them to research that at home without the mental health supports that our counselors and social workers provide when needed. So we changed it around and had them research something more “positive.”

Our new topic: Positives in the Pandemic

Step Two: Narrow Their Topic Choices

Instead of giving students free rein, we gathered resources around four topics that continually popped up in the news and on social media and created DBQ style documents to help them manage the research they were expected to do on their own. While this scaffolding decreased the actual “research” our students had to do, we did challenge students to find a source on their own using the LibGuide created by our school librarian.

Step Three: Chunk and Keep the Process Manageable

After seeing our students struggle to manage big projects in other classes, we decided we needed to break down the process into even smaller manageable chunks that would hopefully be easier for students to follow: chunks by date and process step, video directions, models, and a lot of Google Meet options for students to get extra help.

It worked! The students spent the past three weeks synthesizing the documents and organizing all their ideas into their essays. This was the best work they have submitted all year and all done from home.

As I reflect on this final writing process piece, there is a lot I learned and will apply to the classroom next year. Whether we are in school or teaching remotely, making work more manageable, and providing additional sets of video directions (to review when they are away from the classroom) will be the new norm. As you think about these last few months of school, what ways did you make research or big projects more manageable? What will you continue to add to your teaching strategies next year?

Melissa Sethna lives and teaches with her husband in Mundelein, ILOn a regular school day, she is so busy coaching teachers and planning professional development (along with co-teaching her English class). Under this mandatory school closure time, when she isn’t helping her colleagues, she is catching up on her to-read list, binge-watching Veronica Mars, Northern Rescue, & Never Have I Ever, and making time to workout at a normal hour. You can follow her on Goodreads and Twitter @msethna23.

Shifting to a Lego mindset to teach writing during a remote learning pandemic

Since my kids have been home from school, they have reinvested themselves in their basement Lego worlds comprised of an embarrassing number of Lego sets. The kids disappear for an hour every now and then and build, and they don’t really need my help but sometimes appreciate my approval. That’s the kind of mindset that I’d love for my students to have as we think about writing in this online world. Dad’s not here–now I can finally build what I want to. 

Coates family basement Lego world

In the best of circumstances it is difficult to teach writing. To do it online for the past six weeks has felt at times impossible. But as I look back I can see how it’s forced a few shifts that have helped push me closer to a Lego mindset as we consider how to prepare for an uncertain fall.

More frequent, shorter tasks: In class we tend to focus on timed tasks or processed tasks. My favorites, though, tend to be the pieces that take a day or two. They’re often more polished and experimental than timed pieces and more lively and raw than processed pieces. As we moved online, my goal was for students to continue to read and write independently each week. Here is how I tried to manage the writing portion:

  • Week 1: Writing Challenge 1 (300 words)
  • Week 2: Writing Challenge 2 (300 words)
  • Week 3: book club discussion boards (2 posts+replies)
  • Week 4: poetry discussion Padlets (3 responses)
  • Week 5: Writing Challenge 3 (300 words)
  • Week 6: informal independent reading reflection (personal email)

I tried to find lengths and formats that allowed for a sustained, multi-paragraph thought but were still short enough to ensure weekly completion without overwhelming a student facing a list of tasks from seven different teachers. 

More choice: Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle recently published a terrific piece called “The curse of helicopter teaching” in ASCD. In it they argue, “When students haven’t been required to wrestle with difficult writing decisions–and when much of that decision making has been done by the teacher–they lose their sense of agency and their confidence as writers.” Teaching remotely definitely thwarts my helicopter tendencies. I’ve tried to take advantage of this in each of the writing challenges by giving a bigger variety of prompt options (in topic as well as in mode). In addition, I worked to bring in structural choices to push the thinking: based on the topic I chose, what structure makes sense? I think this lines up pretty well with what Angela Faulhaber said about focusing on content before form…what you say should drive how you say it but it’s hard to get there in class sometimes if we’re all writing an argument essay. Since the tasks were short, they were a little more willing to experiment. See a sample task here.

More challenges: This idea comes from John Warner (see his article “I’m never assigning an essay again”), though he calls them “writing problems.” The idea is to give some parameters that foster experimentation rather than a rubric that restricts choices. It’s a narrower focus for the writer, which I think works well remotely. For example, in the first task I challenged students to focus on the specificity in a reflective piece about their Covid-19 experience. For the second Writing Challenge they chose a specific structure to explore (deductive, inductive, anecdote, listicle). The idea is that by narrowing to one aspect of writing they’ll have more space to consider their decision-making. This also allows for more targeted feedback on my end. 

John Warner’s newest book has many writing challenges/problems to explore.

More personalized options: Each task I’ve given remotely has included an option that allows students to focus on their current personal experience. For some it’s clearly therapeutic. For others it’s a chance to document their experience. It’s an easier entry point if they’re home alone and stuck than if we used a traditional academic prompt. But they can still practice specificity and structure; they can still work on adding complexity to their observations. I’ve had to loosen up but it’s empowered them in positive ways. Examples we’ve tried:

  • from Writing Challenge 1: What was the moment that you knew things were not normal, that this was going to be different? How has your life been disrupted? What’s been good, bad, memorable?
  • from Writing Challenge 2: Describe something you’ve been learning about one (or more) of the following: yourself, your family, remote learning, politics, science, your faith, a new hobby or interest. This piece is more personal in nature, so you’ll likely tell a story as you did in the college essay.

More feedback, fewer grades: Instead of grades, then, the focus in our remote learning environment is on feedback (see Sarah Krajewski’s recent tips on feedback here). I try to articulate what they did well and what I noticed about their attempts toward meeting the challenge. Essentially, and I think this is true for in-class writing, too, it’s not about giving more grades but giving more ungraded opportunities to build and experiment. I was also really challenged by this feedback article from Harvard Business Review to reconsider what helps and what hurts, especially if the feedback I give is not face-to-face.

Online writing has got to be more like the end of the first Lego movie, when Will Ferrell realizes that if his son has some freedom about what he can build and is allowed to recombine and go beyond the direction packets, he finds more joy and ownership over the experience. Our feedback can help cultivate this kind of mindset in the writing process whether it’s online or live. 

Nathan Coates teaches junior English at Mason High School, a large suburban district near Cincinnati, Ohio. He has really grown a lot this year from being allowed to post some reflective pieces on Three Teachers Talk. His first Lego set was the classic 1980-Something Space Guy set. @MHSCoates

Free Digital Book Resources for Teens – Booktalking during a Pandemic

Independent reading always matters.

Student access and student choice are important now more than ever, so it’s time to share what is working!

Before our school went to distance learning, we could see it coming. We knew it wasn’t a matter of if, but of when, so the teachers in my department made extra space and time for our students to go to the school library during English classes to check out books. It was a good idea and I’m glad we did it, but those books are running out. Many students have read through their check outs and then some, and are looking for something new.

During regular school days, I always shared a new book in the form of a book talk. It’s hard to keep that up without our classroom library right at our fingertips, but it’s still important.

That’s where the online book talk comes into play.

I’ve been posting and talking up books every day of our online learning time. I have tried to find books that are free and relevant so that there aren’t any unnecessary barriers for students.

One resource that I’ve particularly loved is Epic! because they have so many graphic novels, and right now their content is free for teachers and students until June 30.

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They have more than just graphic novels, and their collection is very kid-friendly.

Another one I love is Simon Teen’s offerings of lots of current YA lit. They rotate their free offerings each month, and most of their content is the full read.

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I’ve definitely used these options for my virtual book talks. In fact, today I’m book talking Want.

Some of my students have discovered that listening to books is more appealing to them than traditional reading, so audio books are more and more popular in my classes. Audible has made their content free until the end of the school year, so it’s a great resource. They’ve got titles for all ages, from classics to teen lit all the way down to picture books for little ones.

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Some other good resources are

  1. the new Harry Potter World website.
  2. Time for Kids
  3. Project Gutenberg
  4. Bartleby.com
  5. Scribd

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Harry Potter

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Time for Kids

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Project Gutenberg

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Bartleby

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Scribd

This is certainly not a comprehensive list. There are many, many resources out there for our students and teachers. These are a few that I am familiar with and I like. I hope they are helpful for you and your students. Feel free to leave more ideas and resources in the comments below!

Julie has been teaching secondary language arts for more than twenty years, spending the first fifteen in rural Central Oregon, four in Amman, Jordan, and the most recent school years in Managua, Nicaragua. 

Follow her on twitter @SwinehartJulie

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