Category Archives: AP Language

No More American Dream Essays, Please.

Qualifier for this post: It is not about RWW per se. Through my own fault, my AP Language & Comp students rarely have any choice about what they read and write (next year. sigh.) But I think what I describe in this post could be adapted pretty easily for the RWW classroom.

I’m teaching The Great Gatsby for the 17th time. Over the years, I’ve gone the route of color imagery analysis, character analysis, stylistic analysis, and yes, the novel’s commentary on the American Dream. The latter option, this year, fills me with nothing but dread for political reasons I probably don’t have to explain to anyone reading this blog. But my dread is also based in an ongoing (and growing) sense of complex arguments becoming grossly oversimplified: We either “Like” something, or we “Unfollow” it. Ceither-or-fallacy-with-examplesharacters are either “normal” (Nick), or they are psychopaths (George Wilson). You’re either with us, or you’re with the terrorists. Me Tarzan, You Jane.

Most ideas or issues are more complicated than simply “either” one thing “or” another. Obv, right? My AP students are learning the importance of making complex meaning from what they read and expressing their understanding of an issue in complex ways by qualifying their own or their understanding of others’ arguments. To that end, I’d like to recommend the process of “iterative collaging,” which I learned about at NCTE last fall from a session given by Andrea Avery, Nishta Mehra, and Courtney Rath.

As we’re reading, we’re discussing themes of capitalism and class structure, freedom and collage_stage1oppression, and the omnipresent concept of the American Dream. We’ve examined images from media as well as the writing of Ta-Nehisi Coates surrounding these issues. Right now, ideas are plentiful and scattered. Ultimately, though, by arranging these images and passages in certain ways, students will compose a visual argument about the interaction of these issues in the America they know. But here’s the cool part — and the iterative part: Using some magic in the form of repositionable glue sticks (yes, those are a thing — see photo!), students can arrange and rearrange the items in their collage to explore the ways various juxtapositions can reveal new understandings.  AND — Maguire hopes — discover complex meanings beyond the reductive arguments that plague so much of our current discourse.

We’re in the early stages of this work — hence, the in-progress photo — but I will surely let you know how it goes. Has anyone out there ever used collage for argument (or, any other fun reason)?

Are You Doing Quick Writes in Your Classroom? Why You Should Be (Especially in an AP Language and Composition Class)

Grief is a house. We were using this quick write from Linda Reif’s The Quickwrite Handbook since in AP Language and Composition we were beginning an analogy essay (For this essay, students extend compare/contrast form and write an extended analogy.). As I wrote my quick write about how grief is like a black hole, I soon discovered that while I could produce words like point of no return, event horizon, gravitational pull, I wasn’t confident in my use of them. AHA. Impromptu mini lesson: after we “[rode] the wave of someone else’s words” (Ralph Fletcher wisdom at its finest) and experimented with analogy writing, shared our best line or idea with someone in the room, and revised some part of that quick write, I shared my writing and explained how I realized I needed to research my known (black hole) more if I was going to write about it accurately. Quickly, I directed students to share their topics at their table groups and ping pong ideas off each other until they had ideas for further research for improved development. Undoubtedly, this quick write was just-in-time for us as writers. In Linda Reif’s words, it gave my students “frames and ideas for their own writing”; it encouraged them “to take risks in a non-threatening, informal situation”; it offered “ongoing practice for writing in sensible, realistic, and meaningful ways on demand”; and it provided an example of “fine, compelling writing.”

From that moment, I began to reflect through the lens of my AP classroom on all the other ways my students benefited from quick writes this year. While quick writes serve so many of our novice writers (and less-so-novice writers like me!) well, they partner well with the aims of an AP Language and Composition course. Moreover, they serve many of the students with whom I work in this course, students who tend to be advanced learners (with labels like gifted, talented, twice exceptional, high achieving, college bound, etc.), students who tend to be highly self-critical, perfectionists .

Slaying the Beast That Is Perfectionism (or at least wounding it)

Some of my students in this course maintain a distorted or unrealistic perception of self, believing, as Sal Mendaglio writes in “Gifted Sensitivity to Criticism,” that  “knowing everything and doing everything right–perfectly–the first time” is actually realistic. Of course, it’s not. And, in a high intensity course like AP Language, where students must write, write, write, it’s important to address these perceptions of writing: writing doesn’t have to be perfect. It rarely is in general, let alone on a first stab.

Quick writes arm my students again and again with opportunities to slay this mindset. These short, ungraded bursts of writing get pen to the page–with urgency. There’s no time for second-guessing or trying to compose just-right language or–common with gifted and high achievers– avoidance. There is only writing. Quick writes have not completely destroyed this mindset, but they’ve poked holes in it, particularly useful when students later face the high pressure of the on-demand writing of the AP exam. I wonder: how many of my students who struggled to get words to the page or to finish an on demand writing might have been helped had I employed quick writes sooner? If thinking, on demand, and getting words to the page had been a routine?

Sky Diving But With Language

Within my population of gifted and talented learners and high achievers, there is the potential for their creativity to soar in their writing. But for many of them, unless I optimize conditions for jumping, keeping them safe while they take risks as a writer, they won’t. They won’t jump because it might mean a spiralling-out-of-control, fall-flat-on-your-face, splat kind of failure (to them), which is precisely what so many of my students want to avoid. They’ll cling tight to five paragraph essays and divided thesis statements. They’ll grasp on to worn topics and expressions. Why? Because they maintain image this way; they can’t look stupid or inferior.

But the quick writes give them parachutes–a controlled way to jump into the possibilities of language because they offer that “non-threatening, informal” and mostly private opportunity to jump into possibility. This semester in particular (teaching on a block schedule sure accelerates my learning as a teacher–this is my second lap through AP Language this year!), I see my students jumping, taking risks in form and expression.  I wonder: with so much beautiful, powerful meaning to explore in these micro bursts, why wasn’t I giving them this opportunity to dive before?

 

Paper, Paper, on My Desk, What Line Is Fairest of Them All? THIS ONE!

With the students I serve in this course, quick writes–in addition to serving as a way to dispel assumptions about writing and encourage risks–also help address tendencies toward self-criticism. For some of my learners in this course, self-criticism debilitates. It is not enough that the teacher or peers recognize writing that is good; the learner needs to as well. For the exceptional learner, this tiny shift in perspective may reflect in their self-talk.

Quick writes afford this, a glimpse at a time. Routinely, I ask students to highlight or underline an idea or a move they feel good about or they feel successful with. This trains them to look for what went well. We then affirm these successes by finding a partner to share with. And, as Penny Kittle would recommend, we try to share those ideas and words of beauty with the class. There’s affirmation from self and others, which is critical for ALL learners (even I need this when I  model writing in front of my students or in front of peers) but especially for those who expect so, so much of themselves. I wonder: how might quick writes–had I implemented them sooner–have improved the self-efficacy of my writers?

Sneaking Vegetables In–Mini Lesson in Disguise

Of course, one of the more known attributes of gifted learners (and often high achievers and definitely creative thinkers) is their propensity for learning, transferring their learning, and applying their learning.  

For my learners in this course, quick writes serve as a way to scaffold toward mini lessons, as Lisa writes about here (or for more on 3TT about quick writes, here; herehere ; here); however, I can also sneak in a mini lesson, serving up a particular skill I want to see them absorb and then apply into their own writing. The element of novelty, too, as Noah Waspe writes about here, nurtures these learners. Hungry, they consume the mentor texts used in these quick writes and find ways to fuel their writing, often benefiting them in wholly unanticipated ways. I wonder: if I had implemented quick writes sooner, would I have nourished my writers more?

The value of quick writes abound for my AP Language and Composition learners: finding topics (and themselves), practicing revision (another way to counteract perfectionism), further rhetorical analysis practice. And more. Linda Reif’s rationale lays it out beautifully (please purchase The Quickwrite Handbook if you have not yet!). I know: in the ever-expanding universe of workshop moves, quick writes, for me right now, have the greatest gravitational pull.

Kristin Jeschke teaches AP Language and Composition and College Prep English at Waukee High School in Waukee, Iowa. She knows the force of quick writes personally: they’ve helped her own writing and her own self-talk. She’s at a point of no return–no return to the days in AP without quick writes. Follow her on Twitter @kajeschke. 

“A Sea of Talk”

“Writing floats on a sea of talk.” – James Britton.

ocean waves

Photo by Artem Saranin on Pexels.com

If you’re an avid 3TT reader, I’m sure that’s not the first time you’ve read that phrase. In fact, Amy mentioned it here just a few short days ago, and we’ve definitely discussed how to get students to talk to each other on this website before. For me, I didn’t hear of James Britton or this idea of a “sea of talk” until I joined my local Writing Project. (As always, I can not speak highly enough of how the Middle Tennessee Writing Project changed the trajectory of my career and the practices within my classroom. If you aren’t involved with your local Writing Project, I wholeheartedly encourage you to seek out those groups and immerse yourself into that community.)

Shameless plug for WP over… I found myself for two weeks straight during my Writing Project ISI starting each day with a little bit of writing, then some variation of turn and talk before returning to our writing. That process – write, share, write some more, share some more, write some more – was presented to us in multiple ways over that two weeks but all of those activities at their core were some variation of that process. And it’s one I’ve taken to heart.

Of course, our ideas are stronger after we spend some time with them in conversation, after we hear feedback from our peers. Of course, just the simple act of speaking out loud is sometimes  enough to jumpstart an idea or solve a problem. In the programming world, this process is called Rubber-ducking. Of course, it would be ridiculous to assume that our students should only ever write in isolation when they have so much to say and share. So, it’s our responsibility to just get out of the way in the classroom and allow that “sea of talk” to rise and fall, ebb and flow. A former sage on the stage teacher, I had to realize that my voice alone wasn’t enough to create a “sea.”

The latest iteration of this rising and falling in my class literally involves rising. In doing some research on how to make argumentation a more natural and low-stakes part of the classroom, I stumbled upon Dave Stuart Jr.’s blog where he discusses Pop-up Debates. I fell into a deep rabbit hole of links upon links, occasionally shouting at the dog, “This is great!” and “Oh, man! This is going to be good.” B was just as enthused as I was. He’s supportive like that.

The Pop-up Debate works like this: Explain the concept of the pop-up shop and relate it to the pop-up debate. Encourage everyone to participate. Students command the floor by ‘popping-up’ at their desks and beginning to speak. If multiple people pop-up, students politely yield the floor. There are no declared winners because everyone wins when the conversation is lively and intelligent. Encourage students to debate all sides – nothing is so boring as a circle of agreement and repetition.

And that’s it. It’s a simple practice, highly adaptable and extremely engaging.

For our first pop-up, I asked students to respond to a question about honor codes that I pulled from an old AP Language synthesis prompt. They wrote on their own for about ten minutes before test-running their ideas with a partner. Then, they popped for about 17 minutes. I found it fascinating to hear how their conversation grew and moved and evolved as they examined new facets of the conversation. Students who are reluctant to raise their hands stepped up to discuss with no prompting from me at all. Students questioned their peers’ assumptions, asked clarifying questions, raised new points, offered counterarguments, moved from specific evidence to social implications, made their points passionately. In short, as a class, we practiced several of the skills required for good writing collectively in a very low-stakes environment.

Then, we turned back to our notebooks and wrote again before debriefing as a class about how the conversation changed or added to their thinking. Simple and powerful.

Pop-ups can easily be used as a means to practice all manner of writing skills while also working on speaking skills. For example, for our second pop-up, we discussed the extent to which the study of philosophy was useful in modern society. Here, we focused on using accountable talk at the beginning of statements to show relationships between ideas – a skill we’re practicing in other ways for the synthesis portion of the AP exam. This week, when we pop-up, students will track the flow of the conversation in their WNs, and we’ll use this to jumpstart mini-lessons on counterarguments.

I hope that this method is one that you can take to your classroom and use right away. I’m always interested in how others keep that “sea” churning in their classrooms. Please share in the comments or on Twitter.

Sarah Morris teaches AP Language & Composition and Film as Literature in Murfreesboro, Tn. She is reading Mary Oliver for the first time and considering what being a “bride married to amazement…[a] bridegroom, taking the world into my arms” will look like for herself. She tweets at @marahsorris_cms.

 

Groundhog Day and Writing Conferences

ask blackboard chalk board chalkboard

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.

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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