Shining the Spotlight on Classroom Success

All too often, as the year comes to an end, our focus tends to be on reflecting about what we will change or tweak next year. With several different ways to evaluate teachers, analyzing student performance, and finalizing grades, does it ever occur to us that our focus should begin with what went well? If you are anything like me, the answer, most likely, is no. It can be difficult when our minds are caught up in how we can do more, did we do enough in the first place, and where can we go from here.

Improvement and growth are fantastic ways to ensure we don’t become complacent. However, sometimes it is equally, if not more important, to shine a spotlight on lessons that worked, and student growth and successes, no matter how large or small. Before we dive head first into rethinking next year, here are some key reflection questions to help us shift our focus, instead, to what made our classrooms successful this year. 

 

  • What all did my students do well this year? My students read, listened, collaborated, discussed, participated, created, researched, wrote, considered, but most of all, they learned. They learned about Shakespeare’s influence in literature and how to have accountability in their peer discussions. They learned about rhetorical strategies and about their personal stances on important, global issues. They analyzed speeches, made connections to their personal lives, made complex assertions, and practiced defending their opinions with support from a multitude of texts.

 

  • How did they show growth? My students showed growth in the risks they took in their writing. For some, it was that they came to class and participated at least 4 times a week. One student in particular increased engagement in class and asked constructive questions in order to facilitate her own learning. Every student is educated in growth mindset and has the tools (whether they choose to act or not) to take responsibility for his or her own contributions to their own learning.

 

  • What did I do to improve instruction this year? With 3 brand new preps, I focused on attending training that would directly benefit my classroom. I set goals and frequently monitored my progress in order to help me stay consistently motivated and accountable. On my campus, I utilized the expertise and creativity of my colleagues in order to keep students engaged and positively influence their learning.

 

  • How did I grow as a professional? I collaborated with my colleagues in my PLC, researched ways to target specific student needs, contributed to a pretty fabulous blog (if I do say so, myself!), and took risks by putting myself out there and consistently stepping out of my comfort zone. All of my experiences this year have contributed to my growth professionally in one way or another.

 

  • What was my most successful lesson or strategy? The lessons that impacted my students the most were the ones in which they had freedom and choice to demonstrate their learning. These ranged from anticipatory class discussions, creative writing pieces, and Socratic Seminars.

 

  • What was my most memorable moment this year? My most memorable moments were seeing my students receive their college acceptance letters, writing letters of recommendation, helping my kids sort through issues that had nothing (yet everything) to do with our classroom assignments. Specifically, all of the letters and cards I received for Teacher Appreciation Week that are hung on my bulletin board from past and present students, and some of whom I have never had, personally, but crossed my path in some way this year.

The answers to your own personal responses should fill you with pride, awe, and accomplishment. We are all human and no school year will ever mirror another. After all, that IS the beauty in this extraordinary opportunity to make a difference that we GET TO call a career. I encourage every educator to pause and consider all of the many things we have done this year that positively impacts kids. Keep those ideas in mind when planning and build upon that as you continue to grow professionally.

Please share your successes in the comments. Let’s end our school year recognizing all of the positive aspects of teaching! What were some examples of success in your classroom this year?

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Gena Mendoza teaches High School English in San Antonio, TX. All of the successes of students in her classroom have motivated her to keep striving for excellence and to further her own personal education by pursuing a Master’s Degree in Curriculum and Instruction. She invites you to connect and share your brilliance and expertise with her on Twitter at @Mrs_Mendoza3. 

Vindication of Choice in the AP Classroom

Every May, my panic that I have not taught my students enough for the AP® Literature exam, pride and concern as I send my “little ducklings” to fly alone into the exam room, and eager anticipation of the memes flooding Twitter from the East coast testers (which I never, ever re-tweet), is quickly followed by the nervous energy of my students as they visit my classroom after the test.

Of course, human nature dictates that they want to relive every moment and consult with their peers about how they answered different questions, but my duty to the College Board prompts me to remind them not to discuss specifics about the exam itself. Instead, I urge them to talk through their feelings and reflect on what they might feel good about, such as writing 3 complete essays. Each year offers its unique triumphs and hair-pulling challenges. “The Juggler” poem a couple years back stumped even my most adept analyzers, but they did have fun crafting juggling metaphors for the remainder of their senior year. Thus, I have come to anticipate the perplexed reactions to one or more of the essay prompts on the exam. A safe question I often ask to avoid specific test-discussion is: what book did you choose to write about for the Q3 essay?

While I’ve learned that it is difficult to gauge how students actually performed on the exam based on their immediate self-assessment, I know that over-confidence – “it was easy” – is almost as bad as total pessimism – “I only wrote 2 of the 3 essays and the multiple choice was killer.” But that one question about book choice tells me a lot. It tells me about their overall confidence level, sense of preparedness, and even what level of enjoyment they experienced during the test. Yes, enjoyment. As my course moved away from a model in which I assign specific texts (so we can experience them together) and toward choice (so students can shape their own experiences, with support), my students have increasingly come back talking excitedly about which book they wrote about on the exam.

This year, because my students brought friends from different, more traditional, AP® classes with them to eat lunch in my room after the exam, I could hear the difference in the way they spoke about the books they referenced on that Q3 essay. My students said things like: “I thought I was going to write about Wuthering Heights because it fits so many prompts, but when I read the prompt, it screamed The Handmaid’s Tale to me. I’m so psyched that I got to write about that!” Another student enthusiastically described how he wrote the “best essay [he’s] ever written, and it was about Frankenstein.” Students went on to discuss the variety of books they wrote about, from The Art of Racing in the Rain to Les Miserables. Students from the other class sullenly and universally explained how they wrote about Beowulf because it was the text they had “been taught” the most thoroughly and therefore “knew the best.”

And there it was. A vindication of choice in the AP classroom. Scores will not be made available for a couple of months, so maybe all those passionless (and I’m going to guess, formulaic) essays about Beowulf will be strongly written and score higher, but what about the passion for reading? My students chose to read those rich texts, and when push came to shove during the exam, they chose to write about them because they saw the value in the book – not because someone told them of the book’s value.

Choice continues to be a source of contention in many English departments, but I cannot understand why. Choice does not mean that students cannot read from the canon. In fact, my students always choose both canonical and contemporary works “with merit” through the course. Teachers can set parameters for choice by offering text sets that connect by literary era, theme, heroic journeys, archetypes, and so on. Choice can be applied to shorter text selections instead of novels. So much has been written on why choice works by bigger fish in the English sea than me, so I will just leave you with this: my students were joyous when they spoke about writing the 3rd essay on a mentally exhausting, hand-cramping exam, and it is because they chose what to read and experienced the autonomy of deciding which of their books they felt they could write their best essay on. Since my goal is to create readers and writers, I could not ask for better evidence that choice helps them toward this goal.

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Books instead of Bullets

SF StrongIn my short time here as a regular contributor to Three Teachers Talk, this was the latest I’d waited before composing a post.  Though, that’s not really true.  I had a post mostly written last week where I reflected on this year we had and looked forward to a new start next year at a new school.  It would have been similar to this recent and amazing post by Sarah Morris.

Then Friday happened- 10 lives gone and countless others changed forever.

I struggled this weekend with how this post was going to go.  I’m not looking for sympathy here because obviously the 10 families who lost loved ones or the kids who watched their classmates be gunned down in front of them are truly the ones deserving of our hearts.

Like so many not directly affected by this tragedy, though, I struggled.

I struggled to stay composed when a student quietly sat down next to me at 7:55 am and said, “Coach, did you see this?” His phone showed a social media post about students being shot a high school not too far from us.

FullSizeRI struggled because I realized how comfortable I am using the term “active shooter” in a text message to my wife at 8:11 Friday Morning. This was the text message I sent her after I pulled up a local news website to see if it was true or anther false alarm.

I struggled because when my student council president told me she was scared walking down the hall at 1:00 that afternoon, the only response I could muster was, “I am too, and I think its going to feel like this for a while.”

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I struggled remembering that I wore my #msdstrong t-shirt to visit the Sequoias at spring break hoping to send a little bit of support to those in Parkland, Florida who lived through this earlier in the semester.

(Side note: I was at exactly this point in writing my post when my student council president called and asked if we can sell t-shirts to help support Santa Fe High School.)

I struggled because when my babies, a 2nd grader and a 5th grader, got off the bus at 3:30, I felt obligated to sit them down and tell them that a boy at a local high school decided he needed to kill his classmates. I couldn’t hold back the tears and my daughter, in her innocence, asked if my school had had to go into a “lock down.” She’s very familiar with what that means.

I struggled early Friday evening when, sitting in a colleague’s living room, myself and several other teachers celebrated the retirement of a woman who gave 44 years of her life to this profession.  I looked at the teachers sharing stories and laughs, at the sleepy dog on the floor, and the nine month old baby that kept stealing everyone’s attention. I wondered how I could balance feeling thankful to have spent the last 11 years working with this amazing person and at the same time think about how thankful I was to be alive.  I felt thankful that my school wasn’t the one to lose lives that morning, and that made me feel horrible.

I struggled when, an hour and a half later I was sitting in a quiet backyard celebrating the upcoming graduation of two of the most amazing people I’ve ever known. They are twins and I got to be the boy’s position coach in football for four years and the girl is my previously mentioned student council president.  Their parents are amazing too and as I sat there visiting with them, I couldn’t wrap my head around how our society can produce these kids and also produce a mass killer less than 13 miles away.  He took the lives of  innocent kids, like these, that morning.  Kids who who had so much to look forward to and didn’t do anything to deserve death.

I struggled because, once again, I had to think about whether or not I would be able to protect my students if bullets flew at my school.  I asked my self the questions: Am I doing the best I can to stop this from happening again? Is there really anything I can do?  Is there anything anyone can do?

I struggled because I knew we can’t take up all the guns and I’m not sure, if asked, that I would give up mine.  We can’t eradicate mental health issues.  We can’t hold schools inside of solid-steel sealed boxes.

I didn’t just struggle. I also hoped.

I hoped that instead of turning inward, we can turn outward.  That maybe we can intervene in these students’ lives in ways that goes beyond dress codes, GPAs and graduation rates. Perhaps we can instill a sense of urgency in our young people, our future, that causes a change in them where instead of acting out their demons on one another, they look to each other for acceptance, love, or even just help. Maybe we can be more like the players and coaches of the Clear Springs Baseball Team who dedicated their game Friday night to Santa Fe.

I hope that even though I’m not sponsoring student council at my next school, I can help build on what we did this year.  I was lucky enough to be chosen to present at our district’s upcoming Character Conference on June 6th. I’m sure there will be presenters at Clear Lake High School that day who can help make change. I won’t technically be presenting, just facilitating what I think might be the only student presenters at the conference.   The student council officers of Clear Springs High School will share their stories of reaching out to our elementary feeder schools in an effort to build leadership and pass on the lessons they’ve learned to the next generation.  Maybe more students like them can make connections that help prevent massacres.

I hope more teachers and administrators realize that our students can do amazing things when we give them the space and the resources they need.  When we keep them free of the burden the adults choose to carry.  But the adults can help too.  I can’t think this would have happened if shooter had more access to books and less access to guns.  I can’t help but wonder if we treat our students with more gravitas then they just might tell us when they think something like this is going to happen and maybe we can have the chance to stop it.

I hope the teachers at my new school get used to a man (who’s been mistaken for a grizzly bear) telling other peoples’ babies that he loves them.  I hope I’m not the last person to tell them that.

Charles Moore is a teacher in League City, TX.  He is enjoys welcoming his kids off the bus with a smile and a hug every afternoon and making sure the dishes, laundry and other household needs are met before his wife gets home from work. The student council he sponsors will, hopefully, be selling t-shirts these next two weeks to support the Santa Fe community. Please email him if you are interested in helping and follow his twitter @ctcoach for more information.

 

 

Book Clubs: It’s All About the Book

It’s hard to keep up with reading teen and young adult books, and it’s hard to know how to prioritize the precious time we dedicate to reading the books that teens are reading.

 

My first priority for reading books that teens are reading is finding new books to offer for book clubs.  I focus my reading on possible book club books because:

 

  • I’ll be making an investment in 5-7 books at a time
  • Students who read the book in a book club will then recommend them to their friends, so peer referral power is multiplied in book club form if my book club choices are more careful
  • I feel less pressured to read the latest “hot” book and more freedom to explore what publishers call the “backlist” – books that have been around for a few years and aren’t front and center in bookstores anymore
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A sample of my book club backlist.  I picked these titles up for free at the Scholastic Warehouse Sale after I volunteered a shift.

And when I read these books, I’m not just reading for writing quality or story, I am reading for:

  • Rhythm of story.  Does the story take off?  Does it drag anywhere? How long are the chapters?  What are the page designs like? Will the reader get that satisfaction of flipping through pages?
  • Power of story.  On the most literal level, is the story engaging and absorbing?  Does it relate to the emotional age and emotional life of the readers I am giving it to?
  • Meaning of story.  What additional connections and meanings are going to emerge in a book club conversation?  Why is this book worth talking about or wrestling with?

 

My two favorite resources for book club scouting are seeing what’s on offer through Scholastic Book Clubs and looking at the Young Adult Choices reading lists from the International Literacy Association.  

 

Below are a few of some of my favorite book club books:

 

Piecing Me Together by Renee Watson

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Rhythm:  The first chapter on the first page is three sentences long.  Renee keeps her chapters crisp with the occasional foray into poetry, making the pages turn quickly.

Power: The story of Jade, a black scholarship student at a wealthy private school, resonates with my student readers who understand what it’s like to feel left out for one reason or another.

Meaning: Readers who slow down and discuss this story are rewarded by understandings of how gender, race, and class influence character choices, and how well-intentioned characters don’t always do the right thing.

 

Orbiting Jupiter by Gary Schmidt

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Rhythm: This book is slender and the margins and spacing in the text is generous.  Gary Schmidt is economical with his words

Power: Readers are introduced to Joseph, a teenager and foster child whose reputation precedes him as he moves into a new town.  Teachers and bus drivers avoid him. His foster family does their best to show him love.

Meaning: Most readers hang on to themes of reputation and prejudice easily.  Careful readers will be thinking about the meaning of the title and the events that contribute to the end of the story.

 

Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes

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Rhythm: With chapters and spaces separated into “alive,” and “dead,” this book goes backwards and forwards in time before Jerome was shot by police accidentally and after his death, when he is a ghost roaming around.

Power:  The parallels to  Trayvon Martin’s death and the Black Lives Matter campaign are made clear in the story.

Meaning: Careful readers will come away thinking about the purpose of Jerome’s ghost, who can see him, and why.  

 

What are some of your favorite book club choices? Why?

 

Amy Estersohn is an English teacher in New York.  She is also on YALSA’s Great Graphic Novels for Teens committee for this year and encourages readers to follow YALSA’S HUB for talk about new teen titles.

 

Fitting It All In: The Think-Aloud Book Talk Combo

One of the questions I often hear about the workshop model (and truth: that I have often had myself) is how do I fit it all in?

We are “supposed to do” quick writes, independent reading, notebook work, small group discussion, whole-class discussion, think-alouds, read-alouds, writing along with students, conferring, anchor charts, building writing stamina . . . the list goes on.

Oh, and we need to do that while mastering assessment literacy, fostering positive relationships with students, offering timely and relevant feedback, developing units beginning with the end in mind, finding time to do our personal reading and writing, participating in our PLNs, developing collegiality with our coworkers, and staying current with our own professional development and practices.

It’s overwhelming to look at the list of “musts” and think that teachers are expected to do it all. The good part is that we don’t have to do it all every day. However, there are two things I find non-negotiable on a daily basis.

One of the non-negotiables is time in class for independent reading.

We do this every class period after the book talk. It’s predictable to my students that I will say “If either of these books sound like something you’d like to read, put them on your next reads list.” And then they start their silent reading.

book talk lists

Every book talk title is written on poster paper so that students can look back at them later.

The above exchange between teacher and students implies that we always have book talks, and that is in fact the case. But I find that book talks take more time than I want to take when I do them justice . . . three to five minutes can go by fast. I tried to speed them up, but I felt less engagement from my students, and fewer books were being checked out. So then I decided that instead of speeding it up, I’d try to incorporate some other “musts” into the book talk time, thereby getting “more bang for my buck” when I spend important class time.

I decided to try doing a cold read-aloud/think aloud as a book talk, sharing my thinking, questions, connections, and wonderings as I read the inside flap, discussed the cover, and read the first paragraph or so aloud.

I started with statements like, “I picked up this book because the cover caught my eye, and I don’t know anything about this book.” Or, “I am wondering about this book because I know it’s written by an award-winning author, and I’d like to know more.” Then I would deconstruct the cover, noting any awards and/or endorsements it might mention on the front or back cover, along with graphics, pictures, and blurbs.

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1421 The Year China Discovered America by Gavin Menzies

Then I opened to the title page, checked the publication date, talked about the implications of the time during which it was published, mentioned any dedications, forwards, prologues, and prefaces.

1421 mapCharacter lists, timelines, family trees, and maps are also useful to talk to students about, and I would share my thinking as I went through these pages. (This is where the document camera is handy – projecting a larger image of some of these pages is quite helpful.)

 

 

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I read the first few paragraphs of Going After Cacciato by Tim O’Brian recently. I was able to explain to my students that while I know the author, I am not familiar with this particular text. I talked about what I know about the National Book Award since it is mentioned on the cover. I essentially just talked about what I can learn from the title, author, and cover before I even open the book.

My students liked the vulnerability I showed because I honestly didn’t know everything I should know about the book. But the exercise helped them to understand that they don’t need to know everything when picking out books, and that it’s okay to ask questions, be unsure, and to take risks.

Screen Shot 2018-05-02 at 6.17.12 PMAnother title I picked up was In the Long Run by Jim Axelrod. No one had picked it from the shelf all year, and it still sat there as a brand new book. I asked students what the cover could tell us, and we started to guess that it could be about marathons, cross-country running, or anything else. They didn’t realize that Axelrod is a journalist, but as we read the back cover together, we learned a lot. I had a student take it and read it that day.

Developing lesson plans has to be prioritized because the reality is that the kids will show up every day. When we prioritize book talks, we usually think we need to get ready for them, to prepare for them in advance. I assert that it’s not necessarily true each time we share books with our students.

It’s why I think the cold read-aloud/book talk combo is useful. Students have a window into the thinking of a “master reader” as we choose books and talk about them authentically.

***My one caution is that as teachers, we have to know a little bit about the book we are reading from (being careful not to learn too much in advance in order to stay authentic). But I will admit I recently had a small embarrassing mishap when reading the first few paragraphs of So Anyway . . . by John Cleese. Be forewarned.

Julie has been teaching secondary language arts for nineteen years, spending the first fifteen in rural Central Oregon, and the last four in Amman, Jordan. She’s thrilled to report that she and her family will be moving across the world to Managua, Nicaragua next year, where a new adventure will begin.

Follow her on twitter @SwinehartJulie

Where Do We Go From Here?: Rethinking Next Year

Today is my last day with my AP English Language students. They test tomorrow and then a variety of pre-senior activities keep them from my class for the rest of the week. For them, summer is right around the corner. One more day of class, a test, a few orientations and then freedom.

So, tomorrow, we will make the most of our time: reviewing any last minute questions, calming any overly stressed nerves, reminding them they’re prepared and ready, saying our goodbyes. In short, wrapping up this year. All in all, it’s been a good year, and I’m sad to see them go.

However, I’m almost a little happy to see them go as well. It would be weird if I wasn’t. Wednesday morning when they step into the gym to test, I’m going to step into my room and give myself three hours to just think about next year. Guys. I’m so excited to let loose all of my pent-up “this is how to make next year better than ever before” brainstorming energy.

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I’ve been feeding that desire bit by bit with my PLC (like a valve letting off steam to keep from exploding writers notebook ideas everywhere). We’ve been slowly working our way through Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle’s 180 Days, and it has already started to influence some ground-level changes in our curriculums for next year – namely, a big step away from whole-class novels and more fully embracing student choice not just in their writing but in their reading as well.

Honestly, I think even without the push from 180 Days, we would have landed in this direction eventually. We’re all a little burnt out on the whole class novel. Too often the works are shared only from one perspective, the students aren’t really invested in the readings beyond receiving a grade, and the literature we teach doesn’t line up with the goals of our course. And, by my count, I’ve read Gatsby at least once a year for the last decade. This may be blasphemous, but that’s too much Gatsby.

We’ve been hesitant to move away from whole class novels entirely. After all, can a student make it in the “real world” without having read The Scarlet Letter? Those thoughts about how ‘we’ve always taught this book, so, we should just keep teaching it’ have dogged our conversations for years. However, we recognize that some of those novels aren’t that representative of our students or their interests.

So, we’re going to make a change, take the leap, see what happens.

First, we decided we wanted our units to revolve around books of choice; so, instead of trudging through a whole class novel, students would be asked to choose from a list of genres throughout the year. Right now, we know we want them to choose a modern work of fiction, something nonfiction, and a podcast. We’ll flesh out the rest of the requirements over the summer. We also decided that we don’t really care when the student reads their work of fiction or listens to their podcast. I think this part of their choice is important too. It recognizes and validates that sometimes students are ready for some texts at different times or that their schedules can accommodate different texts at different times. At every point throughout this process we want our actions and our assignments and our practices to validate our students’ voices and choices.

Then, we decided to let essential questions drive our units instead of the novel. In the past, we would just pencil in Gatsby and something vague about economy, gender, the American Dream (that ‘the’ has always been problematic to me, but that’s another conversation for a different day), and then move on. Now, we have a list of fourteen possible questions we could feasibly spend time answering throughout the year. Student choice in reading is nothing new. Our twist has been to ask our rising juniors what they want to talk about for next year.

We collated the fourteen questions into a Google form; then, we gave the form to the rising juniors and watched the results roll in. Here’s what we found:

Essential Question Average ranked score Ranking My random thoughts
Education: to what extent do our schools serve the goals of a true education? 3.36 5th I can’t WAIT to have this conversation with my magnet school nerd herd.
Community: what is the relationship of the individual to the community? 2.89 12th
Economy: what is the role of the economy in our everyday lives? 2.79 13th So surprised this wasn’t dead last.
Gender: what is the impact of the gender roles that society creates and enforces? 3.19 9th
Sports: How do the values of sports affect the way we see ourselves? 2.57 14th Thank goodness! I was NOT looking forward to discussing my intense dislike of LeBron 😉
Language: how does the language we use reveal who we are? 3.82 2nd Really surprised this was second – I have so many amazing essays in mind for this topic already.
Popular culture: to what extent does pop culture reflect our society’s values? 3.92 1st If we don’t use Childish Gambino’s “This is America” here, I will just be flabbergasted
Environment: what is our responsibility to the natural environment? 2.95 10th
Politics: what is the relationship between the citizen and the state? 2.92 11th
Work: how does our work shape or influence our lives? 3.31 6th
Science and Technology: how are advances in science and technology affecting the way we define our humanity? 3.5 3rd Yep, should have seen this ranking coming from a math and science magnet school
Government, Politics, and Social Justice: How do we decide what is fair? 3.6 4th Hmmm….are there any current YA novels or any current events that we could talk about with this question?? Gosh… YESSS!!!
Race and Culture: To what extent do these fulfill or limit us? 3.3 7th Surprised this one hit the middle of the pack
Arts and Literature: Are these still important? 3.2 8th This one too….

More and more, we want our class to reflect how much we value our students’ voices and choices. This is their space as much as it ours, maybe more so.Using this information, we can begin to plan our year, confident that students aren’t only reading books of high interest and value to them, but that those books are being read in service to answering questions that are important to them.

Sarah Morris teaches AP Language & Composition and Film as Literature in Murfreesboro, Tn. She has been bingewatching Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the title of this post comes from the musical episode “Once More With Feeling.” It’s a great episode ina great season (don’t @ me) and you can listen to the song here. She tweets at @marahsorris_cms.

 

You Really Want to Add Statistics to That? Why we must write beside our students

My sophomore writers are working on their last writing assignment of the year: “spoken truth,” aka a speech on a topic of their choice, delivered to their classmates, using a variety of rhetorical appeals studied in class. For this fourth quarter piece, many students are writing about topics that matter to them personally and sharing the stories to show it. Kelly, a shy ELL student who has read the most books — in her second language, no less — than any other student in the class, decided to tell the story of losing her best friend to a drunk driving accident. Eli opened up about the importance of her cat’s companionship during a tumultuous time in her childhood, eliciting from a classmate who read it the very pathos that drove Eli to write it.

One of the strategies we’ve studied in mentor texts is parallel structure, especially in combination with the “rule of three,” a persuasive principle that three of anything — not two, not four — is the persuasive “sweet spot.” Before long, we were noticing the “rule of three” in everything we read. One student shared a passage from the introduction of So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo:

Screenshot-2018-5-13 So You Want to Talk About Race Ijeoma Oluo 9781580056779 Amazon com Books

Students quickly identified the parallel sentence structure (“These are very … times …”) and the repeated questions at the end of the paragraph: Both appear in sets of three. This is not to mention the power in the raw honesty of the content, underscored by the strategy. This beautifully crafted prose takes great toil, a critical reality of the writing process that I know many of my students still don’t accept. So, I decided to use my own work-in-progress as workshop guinea pig.

Many students were struggling with the requirement to illustrate all three rhetorical appeals: ethos, logos, pathos. Those whose talks were based largely in facts and data weren’t sure how to make it emotional; those who told personal stories wondered if cold facts would detract from its power. About my piece, I asked students the latter. Here it is:

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After I read the piece aloud, I explained my process for crafting the second half: I made a list of the specific harassing behaviors, those that would reiterate the point of the talk: I didn’t know at the time that it wasn’t ok. Another detail that I shared about my process was how long it took to go from the brainstorm to these 4 paragraph-lets: about an hour. Students were quiet for a few beats — one mumbled something about it definitely appealing to pathos — until Logan asked, “You really want to add statistics to that?”

What a fabulous question (and I’d like to think he knew it)! What followed was a brief but highly gratifying consideration of writerly choices. It was gratifying for me to witness these 10th-graders recognizing the craft of writing as a series of choices. More gratifying, though, was what I heard from two of my more reluctant writers: They both seemed to see, maybe for the first time, the difference between writing for a school assignment and writing to speak your truth. It may even have been the first time for one of them to recognize that the latter existed. And, for the first time, this student actually drafted words onto a page during class: a bulleted list of “bad results” for a young person who joins a gang.

Now, all of the above is dubious due to the questions that I know I would have if I were on the reading side of this transaction:

How did you find an hour to work on half a page of writing? I neglected two other tasks I had planned to complete and went to bed way too late. As a result, I was crabby when I told my periods 1 and 2 AP Lang & Comp classes that I needed another day to respond to their practice free-response essays. They weren’t happy, and neither was I.

Did magic really happen for that non-writer and his list? Magic, probably not. Maybe not even a completed assignment. But if that student comes away seeing how his own good writing might start out as a bulleted list or some other version of words on paper, and he put his words down, then he accomplished more than he had the day before.

There will never be enough time to do all we need to do with and for our students. And we will never reach every student to the degree that we wish. But I know that these practices are our best shot, and theirs.

 

 

 

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