Category Archives: AP English

Whole Class Struggle (Novel)

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I could tell something was wrong.  I stood up from my seat like somehow that fruitless movement would clarify the mystery.  I could see my son, across the arena, furiously working the controller, yelling something to his team mates, feeling the frustration rise in him.

Three months, hundreds of hours, dozens of late nights, early Saturday morning stops at Shipley’s and his one chance to truly measure himself against the best robot drivers in the state, overwhelmingly high school students, the non-human factor reared its ugly head.

Later, as he told my wife and me the story and filled us in on the narrative, I realized how important this whole process had been. In the moment, when all that effort and energy drifted away, Colton (11 years old) reached back to the lessons he’d learned about keeping his cool from his robotics mentors, the thirty-two other students in that program, and the experiences along the way.

The interesting part for me was that, instead of being disappointing or feeling like he let his team down, he glowed with the confidence that he did all he could do to make the best of that situation and scored several hundred points with a broken robot.  This is the type of lesson I hope he learns from experiences like this one.

He knew, no matter the circumstance, that his peers and coaches would be there for him and that knowledge empowered his confidence, filled his spirit, and kept him grounded in the moment, grinding for the team.

img_4947This is the type of lesson we can teach when we bring whole class novels into our classrooms.  The “shared experience” of reading a text is a phrase that I’ve heard from and seen written by the smartest people I know.  It’s the same lesson that my son and his peers experienced with their robotics team this year.

Our students will need these lessons and, certainly, we can teach them through targeted mentor texts and the skills we ask them to explore.  At some point, though, a somewhat more difficult, shared, experience might be effective.

This is a lesson you can’t possibly learn in a “worksheet” class; one filled with blanks, multiple choices, and compliance.

That’s the idea that I started our whole class novel unit with last week.  The team I have the pleasure of learning from this year knows it all too well.  They know to start with the end in mind.  They showed me the importance of planning for “the struggle.”

I used to know how to “teach a novel” and every time I tried in the past, I failed. This failure, as I’ve learned, was due to me teaching the “novel” and not teaching kids. This team of teachers is showing me how to take those lessons students learn from being on teams, and move that into my classroom.

I’m still growing. And most importantly, so are my students.

It will be hard, on them, and on me.  We will all need preparedness and grit, but the growth goal is paramount.

Teachers, I want you to know how important your work is.  You hold the future in your hands.  Please listen to the brilliant teachers around you. Let yourself be the student and then take those lessons back to your classroom.

Charles Moore is excited to continue his work with freshmen, although their excitement might be harder to quantify.  He loves watching his son compete against his own inner expectations and he loves watching his daughter dance (compete) against her own inner expectations.  He hopes to his students can learn to dance and judge themselves against their own expectations.  He hopes those expectations are high, because his students are beautiful and brilliant.

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Groundhog Day and Writing Conferences

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3TT writers have shed a lot of (digital) ink about the benefits of conferencing with students about their writing – you can read about here and here. We love the conference.  And, I imagine that if you’re reading this, you love the conference too – or at least, you’re starting to love conferencing… or at the very least, you’re starting to love the idea of loving conferencing.

This is my first year really making the conference a centerpiece of my instruction, and I’m really starting to see the benefit in letting those conferences drive instruction. In the past, I would teach an essay and already know what follow-up instruction I would offer after the essay was over. I had November planned in June and felt so proud of myself for being so prepared. And I was, in a limited kind of way. I was prepared to talk about what I wanted to talk about, not prepared to meet my students where they were.

With conferencing, though, I find that I need to be prepared in a completely different way. I need to be able  to deliver all kinds of writing and craft instruction at the drop of a hat; I need a series of quick mini-lessons and questions that I can go to again and again . Some days, I find myself giving the same kind of feedback like I’m stuck in some Groundhog Day style purgatory. Others, I have to go deep into the well and pull out information I haven’t had occasion to use in years. Other-other days, I just have to admit that I need a night or two to think of a response to a question and agree to meet again later that week.

I take that Groundhog Day style feedback to heart – sure, it’s maddening in the moment to explain an idea again and again to a new student with a new piece of writing, but I VERY easily recognize what I need to reteach. This last week has been one of those weeks. I’m realizing that a majority of my students could all use more time and practice with adding warrant to their body paragraphs. Here are four methods I use to teach warrant:

  1. Slip or Trip – This clever little cartoon and accompanying activity created by George Hillocks is great for understanding the assumption/values part of warrant. I’ve seen it work in 8th grade classrooms and with juniors. I’ve seen it work with juniors who remembered working with it from their 8th grade years. It’s powerful in its simplicity. The premise is just to determine whether Queenie’s husband Arthur fell down the stairs or was pushed down the stairs. The instruction comes in helping students explain why their evidence supports their claims, in explaining the assumptions they are making.
  2. Toddlers and Teenagers – This is more of an analogy to help students understand the two parts of warrant
    1. The toddler – warrant addresses the question WHY – Why does this evidence prove this claim? Why did I chose this evidence? – Students ask WHY until they run out of answers – like little toddlers who just learned the magic of asking why.
    2. The teenager – warrant also address the question SO WHAT or what’s the IMPACT of this argument – So like an eighth grader decked out in blue eyeshadow and posted up by the Claire’s in a local mall, students ask the SO WHAT question for each of their WHY answers until they can’t think of any more responses. For some students, the SO WHAT question is enough. Others need the guidance of two more questions to really land the SO WHAT: Who is harmed and who is benefitted? Why should we care? What are the effects of this harm? You can further specify this harm/benefit question set to emotional/physical/economic/social/moral harm/benefit to help the students who still need a nudge in the right direction.
  3. The IF/THEN strategy – Full confession: I stole this idea from a blog post or a class website somewhere on the internet. So, unfortunately,  I can’t give appropriate attribution, but this teacher is an English goddess. She encourages her students to create IF/THEN statements working backwards from the warrant to the claim using a fill in the blank sentence. Here’s that sentence: If we assume (general rule, idea, belief, stance, assumption – WARRANT) and this matters because (IMPACT/SO WHAT), then [EVIDENCE] proves that [CLAIM]. Simple, quick, to the point. A clear way to look at a complex idea.
  4. 5 whys – Another full confession, I’m not sure why I call this the 5 whys, and the name is a little misleading for students – they don’t actually have to create 5 whys; 2-3 works just fine. (I think the name was actually a really bad joke: something about 5 Whys for 5 Guys, Cheeseburgers and Fries. Sometimes weird things just happen in the classroom.) This is an argument structure that helps students evaluate claims and allow their body paragraphs to be reason/warrant focused NOT evidence focused. So students start with a claim – their thesis- and ask why. The answer for that first why question becomes the topic sentence for the first body paragraph. From that first answer, students again ask why creating a second answer which becomes the topic sentence for their next body paragraph. This movement of asking why and answering creates an outline of reasons that often moves from a pretty specific start to a philosophical ending, allowing students to move away from the five paragraph essay which just repeats the same idea ad nauseum. Another benefit to the structure is that the questioning of their claims allows them to see when/where their claims are weak and they can revise accordingly.
    1. Here’s an example for a prompt about the value of civil disobedience
  • Thesis: Disobedience is necessary to advance society
    • Why? Because →  society tends to resist change,
      • it’s a large machine that is slow to stop and slow to start *so* we have to start it, nudge it, guide it
      • “Civil disobedience”
      • Objects in motion tend to stay in motion
    • Why? Because →  change is hard work – it can be violent or long or messy or complicated – *but* we have to keep working at it anyways
      • Length of struggles – I might trace the history of several different movements using disobedience as a motivating factor
        • American Revolution
        • Women’s Suffrage Movement
        • Civil Rights Movement
        • Black Lives Matter
    • Why? Because → humans as a species are discontent with being content – we crave betterment
      • Where do we see ourselves craving betterment?
      • WHY do we crave betterment?
      • Can I trace this historically or chronologically?
    • Therefore….conclusion stuff

Conferencing has made my students better writers individually through one conference at a time. However, it’s also improved my whole class instruction as well – allowing me to provide better guidance for my students as they need it. What insights are you gaining in your classroom through your conferencing practice?

Sarah Morris teaches AP Language & Composition and Film as Literature in Murfreesboro, Tn. She is rewatching Brooklyn Nine-Nine for about the third time. Nine! Nine! She tweets at @marahsorris_cms.

 

The Role of Play: Discovering a Structure for Writing

Having grown up in the home of a preschool teacher who has always taught in a play-centered classroom, I’ve witnessed the importance of play in the physical, social, emotional, and cognitive development of a young person. Mom and I speak frequently about our concern for the lack of play at all levels of education. Kenneth Ginsburg, in an article for Pediatrics, reinforces that highly-scheduled children (which so many of our students are!) have had less time for free, creative play and therefore have built fewer coping mechanisms for managing the effects of pressure and stress. Of course, I can not wholly mitigate this; but I can help students harness (thanks Amber!) their creative potential to not only foster cognitive growth but also social-emotional well-being. I can help them use play as a means for creation.

Compelled to prioritize play as a creative force, inspired by Angela Stockman’s Make Writing, driven to help students find intuitive ways to structure their argument research writing, I use this lesson to help students move beyond the perceived rigidity of the research paper.

Objectives:

  1. Understand the roles of tools and of play in the act of creating;
  2. Discover a possible structure for the argument research paper that serves both purpose and audience;
  3. Inspire confidence in students’ own decision-making skills as writers.

Lesson:

Step 1: For my AP Language and Composition students, many of whom are used to the highly analytical, “academic” environment (indeed, the one I–along with others–foster), I begin by positioning the learning opportunity. I show them pictures of my own children: in one, they play with cardboard boxes, making their own spaceships, dressed in costume for the occasion; in the other, swirling words and designs into shaving cream, using fingers and forks and Duplos. This is critical! These pictures evoke memories of their own childhood, priming my students’ imaginations. Then I share words from Kenneth Ginsburg: “play helps children develop new competencies that lead to enhanced confidence and the resiliency they will need to face future challenges. …When play is allowed to be child driven, children practice decision-making skills, move at their own pace, discover their own areas of interest, and ultimately engage fully in the passions they wish to pursue.”

Step 2: Purpose articulated, I give the a tour of the “Play Stations”:

    1. Imagineering: Disney Imagineers cut out a collection of images they find interesting and then they start to arrange them to see if they can blend ideas. At this station, students find old books and magazines, paper, scissors, and glue so they can imagine away.
    2. LEGOS and Duplos: At this station, students find these toys for building; considering the size, shape, and color of the LEGOS/Duplos, students experiment with the structure of their piece.
    3. Pipe Cleaners and Beads: At this station, students are encouraged to consider the size, shape, and color of the beads and to talk through their ideas as they string the beads. When they finish, they look for patterns.
    4. Comic Book Templates, Receipt Roll Paper, and Craft Paper: At this station, students use the comic book templates provided to craft the “story” of their argument. They may also choose some receipt roll paper to work with the “story” in more linear ways or craft roll paper to make “cave drawings” or other illustrations of their ideas.
    5. Painting:  At this station, students use watercolor paints or paint pens along with paper plates (this offers a different constraint) or paper to paint their arguments.
    6. Play dough: At this station, students use play dough (homemade is the best) to mold and shape their argument. Sometimes I encourage multiple buildings since the joy of play dough is how easy it is to build, destroy, re-build.

Step 3: Before freeing my students to play, I ask them to consider this question: “What can you build that will meet the needs of your audience and purpose?”. I also direct them to review their work plan, their issue, claim, and a list of topics they’ll address in their papers.

Step 4: Play. “Confer” (I ask students to tell me about what they are making. I offer observations about their creations. I exclaim over the cool things they invent.).

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Step 5: Reflect. On post-its, students describe what they made, what they discovered, and what they may do as a result.

Follow-Up:

Following this lesson, I share other ways to arrange or format an argument paper, including Persuasive, Rogerian, Pro Con, Problem Solution, Problem-Cause-Solution, Top 5, Monroe’s Motivated Sequence, and others. When my students ask if it’s okay if they use the structure they invented or if it’s okay to combine what they invented with one of these structures or even if they can combine these new structures, I see the value of play. I see my students combining, adapting, modifying, synthesizing, and harnessing their own potential to discover–for themselves!–how to shape their writing.  

Kristin Jeschke helps her students–in AP Language and Composition and College Prep English at Waukee High School–harness their intuition through play. She doesn’t even mind the chaos and inevitable mess that follows (as long as it leads to creation). She thanks her parents for free time to play in the dirt and the sand. Follow her on Twitter @kajeschke. 

NCTE: Sparking Hope, Equity, and Voice

Like so many educators who attended the 2018 NCTE conference, I am still reeling from the wealth of information and inspiration provided by some of the brightest and most compassionate people in the world. I listened with awe and determination as strong speakers like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Elizabeth Acevedo stressed the importance of what we do as ELA teachers, and I carry with me a renewed sense of urgency about literacy instruction that empowers all students. No – not “empowers” – even that word has been transformed, as I now understand that it’s not my place to give them power; rather, it is my job to help students recognize and harness the power they already possess.1

The universal message of the conference did not so much present new ideas as it did combine them and clarify that we cannot wait any longer to act. We must reach each of our students where they are, provide them with the representation they need and deserve, and encourage them to add their own voices to the world. We have embraced diversity, equity, and representation in a variety of ways, but the time for the best practices to coalesce into purposeful change across schools is at hand.

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My book haul from NCTE 2018 – I can’t wait for my students to read these!

As I walked through the exhibit hall, admittedly searching for free books to take back to my students, I heard two main ideas – to quote Kylene Beers and Bob Probst – “again and again.” By absorbing the voices around me over the four days of the conference, I was able to discern what teachers, who attended a wide variety of sessions, thought. One of the most common ideas expressed was that NCTE presenters were “preaching to the choir.” Of course, this is true to a great extent. Teachers who love learning, who support choice, who engage their students in meaningful instruction, who believe in the power of writing workshop: these are the teachers most likely to attend the conference, and, more specifically, the sessions that explore these ideas. Teachers who believe in the humanities love the young humans we teach, and we will always seek to improve for their benefit and the benefits to society. This is no way diminishes the power of these workshops or their presenters, for they offer the keenest insight and carefully collected research to support best practices in teaching, and though I admittedly enter sessions predisposed to agree with much of what I hear, I always leave with new ideas scrawled in the margins of my notes. Like many others, I always leave feeling renewed, reinvigorated, and inspired, and I wish every ELA teacher could feel this way.

This brings us to the second most common idea expressed throughout the exhibit hall lines: how do we take these ideas back to our schools and inspire those who weren’t at the conference? I heard several teachers – both in sessions and while milling about – who said things like “I wish [so-and-so] from our department could hear this.” The truth is: we all know teachers who need to hear the messages from the conference, and the difficulty lies in how to offer the essence of what we have gleaned in a palatable manner. Some ideas are not well-received by teachers entrenched in established practices, and we must balance the urgency with which shifts need to occur with the tact and professionalism that our well-meaning colleagues deserve. I had the opportunity to speak with Amy Rasmussen about The College Board’s stance on shifting away from a focus on the canon to include more contemporary and diverse texts, and she offered an analogy that I wish all could hear: we don’t expect doctors to ignore research in favor of the practices they personally prefer, and when one of their primary research-based organizations like the American Medical Association or the New England Journal of Medicine offers guidelines, those are adopted as best practices. Can you imagine if they didn’t? We’d still have doctors bleeding us for pneumonia.

So, as I continue to synthesize all I learned at the conference and develop my own lines of inquiry, I leave you with these questions: why don’t we expect all ELA teachers to follow the research and vision of NCTE? Why can’t we confidently return to our campuses as ambassadors of ELA and NCTE and share what we’ve learned with our peers? Will we let the established system and soft bigotry continue to deny true equity to our students, or will we carry the spark of progress back to our campuses? I, for one, plan to stoke the fire.

1 I would love to offer due credit to the speaker who discussed the problematic idea of “empowerment,” but I cannot find the connection in my notes. If you can offer proper attribution, please add it in the comments.

Amber Counts teaches AP English Literature & Composition and Academic Decathlon at Lewisville High School. She believes in the power of choice and promotes thinking at every opportunity. She is married to her high school sweetheart and knows love is what makes the world go around. Someday she will write her story. Follow Amber @mrscounts.

It’s a Good Day to Talk about Talk

Many of us are on edge. You may feel it, too.

I woke today thinking about something I heard in the first professional development session I attended as a new teacher:  We read literature to learn what it means to be human. It provokes a seemingly simple question, and one that’s prompted rich discussion with my students:  What does it mean to be human?

Maybe we don’t talk about our shared humanity enough. Maybe we should do that a little more.

For those of us who embrace choice reading, we often refer to the words of Rudine Sims Bishop:

Books are sometimes windows, offering views of worlds that may be real or imagined, familiar or strange. These windows are also sliding glass doors, and readers have only to walk through in imagination to become part of whatever world has been created or recreated by the author. When lighting conditions are just right, however, a window can also be a mirror. Literature transforms human experience and reflects it back to us, and in that reflection we can see our own lives and experiences as part of the larger human experience. Reading, then, becomes a means of self-affirmation, and readers often seek their mirrors in books.

Let’s think about this line:  “When lighting conditions are just right, however, a window can also be a mirror.” Shared humanity.

Last year at NCTE, Lisa, Jessica, and I had the chance to sit down and chat with Cornelius Minor. We were three white women educators working to listen and learn and do more to advocate for equity and social justice in our classrooms. We knew Cornelius could help. He did.

“We start by focusing on what we have in common. Our humanity,” Mr. Minor told us. Then he highlighted the difference between diversity and inclusivity:  Diversity is everyone sitting at the table. Inclusivity is everyone sharing equal power at the table.

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Photo by Daiga Ellaby on Unsplash

So what does this mean for me as a teacher, a facilitator of professional development, a writer, a mother, and a grandmother — someone who desperately cares about not just my family, but others’ families, about my country and the interactions we have with one another, about the future and all that entails?

What does it mean for you?

Sure, getting students reading and talking about books is a great starting place. But we also have to open spaces for talk. Cultivating risk-rich safe spaces where readers and writers can share their ideas, struggles, and successes about topics and issues that matter to them is vital to cultivating a civil society. I’ve long thought that our classrooms represent a microcosm of our society. If we can facilitate critical conversations where students respect and truly listen to one another, maybe we have a chance at changing conversations on the street or in courtrooms or press conferences or Congress.

Idealistic? Sure. But that’s the nature of hope.

In her article “Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors,” Bishop concludes with these lines:

Those of us who are children’s literature enthusiasts tend to be somewhat idealistic, believing that some book, some story, some poem can speak to each individual child, and that if we have the time and resources, we can find that book and help to change that child’s life, if only for a brief time, and only for a tiny bit. One the other hand, we are realistic enough to know that literature, no matter how powerful, has its limits. It won’t take the homeless off our streets; it won’t feed the starving of the world; it won’t stop people from attacking each other because of our racial differences; it won’t stamp out the scourge of drugs. It could, however, help us to understand each other better by helping to change our attitudes towards difference. When there are enough books available that can act as both mirrors and windows for all our children, they will see that we can celebrate both our differences and our similarities, because together they are what makes us all human.

We come to understand each other better, yes, through wide reading, curating libraries with diverse, vibrant, engaging titles by authors of diverse heritage and backgrounds. Reading more matters. Couple Bishop’s thoughts with these by Lois Bridges:

Reading engagement is nothing short of miraculous—engaged readers spend 500% more time reading than do their peers who aren’t turned on by books—and all those extra hours inside books they love gives them a leg up in everything that leads to a happy, productive life:  deep conceptual understanding about a wide range of topics, expanded vocabulary, strategic reading ability, critical literacy skills, and engagement with the world that’s more likely to make them dynamic citizens drawn into full civic participation.

Yes, wide voluminous reading matters. A lot.

But so does talk.

I believe it’s through talking about their books, discussing their similarities and differences, their characters, conflicts, and resolutions; talking about their writing, helping each other see angles they might not have seen, validating ideas and challenging others — all in safe spaces of shared respect — that we fast track students’ abilities to engage with each other and with their world. Our world.

So on this election day, I would ask you, dear reader, one favor:  Between now and the next election, can we all do a little more to open spaces in our instruction to facilitate more meaningful discussions? Let’s amplify our shared humanity.

 

Amy Rasmussen has no middle name, but if she did, it would be “Idealist”. She believes everyone is a child of God and should be loved as such. She’s excited to attend NCTE this month and hopes you will attend her session at 4:15 on Saturday as this blog team presents “Accomplice”-ing Great Things: An Action Plan for Equity, Inclusivity, and Allied Partnerships in ELA Classrooms. 

Humans of League City

I work with a team of freshman teachers who are experienced, passionate, knowledgeable and, luckily for me, functional.  We collaborate in the creation of lesson plans, lesson cycles, the unending search for mentor texts, and grade calibration. Our collaboration doesn’t just benefit the teaching team; the students are the true beneficiaries of our functionality.

Consider the following:

Our goal was to take the hard work and struggle that our kids overcame as they learned about expository writing and literary analysis and have them turn that lens back onto themselves.

We spent the last forever working on pulling issues, claims, and evidence from the writing of others, how could we do turn that around and invest it in ourselves?

Enter: Humans of New York, an idea brought up by colleague, Austin,  at our team planning day. The idea was that we would work through the exploration of expository writing by having students interview and then write about a human in their life.

Lesson Cycle 1

Lesson Focus: I want you to know that writers use specifically selected issues to support their claim.

  1. Reading
  2. Dear World Video
  3. Respond to the video- Write for three minutes. I wanted them to get the emotional response out and onto the page because it’s important, but not the focus of our lesson.
  4. Question 1 – Why do issues matter?
    • Take one lap around your group sharing your response.
    • Write for three minutes, sharing your response.
  5. Question 2 – Why is it important that we identify issues important to us?
    • Take one lap around your group sharing your response.
    • Write for three minutes, sharing your response.
  6. Seed writing: Tell me about issue you care about enough to write on your skin. This is an extending time for writing, something in which I strongly believe.

Lesson Cycle 2

Lesson Focus: I want you to know that writers use craft to strengthen their expository argument.

  1. Reading
  2. Poet moment, I wanted to get their minds set.
  3. Read two HONY examples, look for issues, claims, and evidence and think about how those the author expresses those ideas.
  4. Seed Writing – Tell me about a human you know along the same lines as what you saw in the Humans of New York mentor texts.

Lesson Cycle 3

Lesson Focus: I want you to know that writers use stories to advocate.

  1. Reading
  2. Euripides Excerpt (7 minutes total)
    • Read and show your thinking.
    • Respond using the sentence stem: This piece is really about…
  3. Read two more HONY examples, look for issues, claims, and evidence.
  4. Seed Writing – Tell me about: A different human than yesterday, a different story about the same human as yesterday, or yourself.

Honestly, these lessons look a lot like most of the lessons that find their way into my classroom.  These are the structures with which my students have become accustomed.  If you look closely, in three days, the kids wrote for over an hour, experienced five mentor texts (and a video) and talked… a lot!

Oh, and throughout these three days, I hardly sat down.  I made it around to every student at least once and worked beside them through the process.

This doesn’t just happen “sometimes” in my classroom.  Truthfully, the functionality of the team I get to be a part of promotes this level of complexity because none of us are going at this alone.  We work together, and as a result, the kids win.  I love watching kids win.

Charles Moore likes learning about humans, even if they don’t love the Dallas Cowboys.  He loves moving students through moves that unveil their literacy. He’s pretty worn out from the multiple Robotics practices he helps supervise, but he’s learned exactly how much work he can complete in three hours. He’s excited to co-present at NCTE and to receive his first solo invitation to present at TCTELA in 2019.

80/20

photograph of a lighted ferris wheel

I’d like to take this post and, in honor of Halloween, share something really spooky with you. Well, maybe not spooky, but terrifying. Maybe not terrifying, but scary…

It’s the fear that creeps in every time I try something new in the classroom: a little fear I like to call The Questioning. And that’s what it is – just a series of questions that like, any good Halloween monster, waits until I’m lulled into complacency to rear its ugly head. Questions like is this best practice? Does the research support it? Are you doing enough? Are you doing too much? Are there better ways to support your kiddos? What are the unforeseen consequences of this action.

You see, my PLC partners and I are trying a lot of new ideas this year in our AP classrooms. We are organizing our units around essential questions, including a lot of choice reading in classes where choice reading has never really been an option for us, and slowing our instruction down in an attempt to go a mile deep and an inch wide instead of an inch deep and a mile wide.

I feel almost like a new teacher again – high on the possibilities of all the new ideas but brought low by the realization that I’m creating new content again while also surrendering a lot of the direction in the classroom to my students. Now, granted, they are rising to the occasion, and their conversations and writings are truly interesting, interesting in the ways that I’m not sure they would have been without these new procedures. But, it’s been a little bit of a roller coaster of a year – a crazy, scary rollercoaster.

I find that I’m spending a lot of my time thinking through new activities and new approaches, trying to predict the possible benefits and consequences of these changes while also teaching and grading and making time for reflection. I don’t feel like I am ever wholy in one part of the teaching cycle, but instead just this Go Go Gadget-person vacillating between all of the points on that spectrum at any given moment. It’s stressful.

In times like these when I can’t get my brain to settle, I remember a little tidbit of wisdom dropped by Penn State’s Russ Rose at a volleyball clinic several years ago. He argued that limiting your drill set to a few key areas and the finding variations on those drills to keep them fresh was the key to his success.

He called it the 80/20 rule.

The idea goes back to an Italian economist in the 1800s who found that 80% of the wealth in Italy was held by 20% of the population. Oddly enough, he also found that 80% of the peas in his garden were produced by 20% of the plants. Essentially, Pareto‘s rule could be boiled down to this: 80% of the effects are the product of 20% of the causes.

Whenever my class seems frantic or I’m nervous about my practice, I think of Pareto. If 20% of my effort produces 80% of my results, where should I spend my time? How should my students spend their time? I’m becoming more and more conscious of the demands placed on our students. I grapple with what I should expect of them outside of school as many take two or more AP classes, play sports, work jobs, and still need to be, you know, people with a consistent work-life balance. I want to make sure that I make intentional choices that meet the demands and rigor of my subject while honoring my students’ time.

Pareto’s Principle reminds me to consider what has the most immediate and lasting effects on my students. It reminds me to channel my energies into productive avenues by limiting my focus to just a few key ideas. For me, those ideas always come back to Socratic Seminars – it’s important that we talk through our ideas in controlled and questioning places. It comes back to writing – it’s important that we write every day (a goal I’m refocusing on) And, it’s important that we marry those ideas in conferences – safe places where we talk about our writing. Consistently, these have been my 20%. What are yours?

Sarah Morris teaches AP Language & Composition and Film as Literature in Murfreesboro, Tn. She is rediscovering her love of bullet journaling and PaperMate InkJoy Gel Pens.  She tweets at @marahsorris_cms.

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