Category Archives: AP English

“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.

 

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Keeping It Real As a Teacher of Writers

I have taken up watercolor. It’s been ages since I tried a new hobby, and I find the challenge pretty intense. Prone to put perfectionistic pressure on myself, my need to “get it right” limits my ability to play. This is problematic. And pretty stupid.

I will never get better if I do not take risks — with brushes or pigment or with the water.

For a long while now, I’ve followed my friend Laura’s work with watercolors. Her talent paints.jpgpiqued my desire to give painting a try, so I sent her a message asking advice on beginner supplies. She was gracious and encouraging in her response.

Then, I bought not three brushes but nine, not one medium-grade paint set but five, not one pad of paper but seven — in a variety of sizes. And I saved over 48 watercolor tutorials on Pinterest, plus, watercolor images of flowers, people, trees, waves, birds, landscapes, gardens. . .and pigs; and followed 18 watercolor artists on Instagram.

Because it seemed a lot easier to get ready to learn to paint than it did to try and fail.

Kind of like writing.

If you’ve read this blog awhile, you know I’ve been thinking about writing a book almost since starting 3TT. I’ve outlined three now. But I think and talk and read what others say about writing much more than I write. Like my hesitation about painting, this is problematic.

Of course it is.

And it reminds me of many of my student writers — the fear of getting it wrong or not making the grade, the vulnerability it takes to put ideas out there.

It’s real, and sometimes it’s stifling.

As I’ve worked to conquer my fear of learning to watercolor, practicing lessons on Skillshare (which has a plethora of lessons on multitudes of topics — check it out if you haven’t), trying new brushes and different washes and color combinations, and, finally, just relaxing into my art, I’ve discovered what I hope all young writers discover:

Writers must write for themselves. They write because they feel the tug of it, the need to express thoughts and ideas and meaning. Because they want to. Just as I paint for myself –the joy of it, the adventure in seeing if I can, the peace it brings me.

Recently, 3TT was asked this question on Twitter:  How often do you think MS and HS writers should publish? and I responded–

3tt tweet

I’ve thought about this exchange a lot since, and my thinking has led to more questions than answers:  How can we help our writers set personal goals for their writing? Which comes first:  the personal goal or the desire to write? If there’s no desire, can writers still write well? Does it matter if students write well?

Of course it does.

But just like every watercolorist finds her style, every writer must find his. All too often, school writing means prompts and formulaic structures, word counts and rubrics that restrict meaning-making more than they invite it.

So what can we do to open spaces that invite writers into the vulnerable places needed to grow? The best way I know is to keep it real.

Here’s a short list of what real means to me as I teach writers.

  1. Design Lessons based on what real writers do. For example, they don’t use standardized prompts — they come up with ideas they want to explore, creating their own prompts. Try quickwrites that inspire students to think about their lives and the world around them. Plan time for them to talk to their peers in ways that expands their thinking. Plan time for them to explore topics that interest them or challenge their thinking. Don’t just ask students to write about what they know. Ask them to write about what they notice.
  2. Make your writing life visible. Our writers need to see our thinking as we organize our thoughts into words on a page. They need to see us clarify, discover, and make meaning. They need to see that revision leads to improvement. Revision is not just a one-and-done step in the writing process. It’s not a strategy. Revision is a living breathing move writers make, and they make it often. Model all of the moves you do as a thinker, reader, and writer.
  3. Talk about everything related to writing and writers. “Writing floats on a sea of talk” (James Britton). Our writers need to share their ideas with one another — and with us as writing coaches in conferences. Often, we wait to invite writers to talk about their writing in peer feedback groups or in conferring sessions after they have penned their drafts. Real writers talk throughout their writing processes — from idea to draft into revision and on to redrafting. Talk leads to clarity and discovery, and in my experience, purposeful talk is the best resource teachers have for helping all students grow in confidence as writers.
  4. Immerse writers in beautiful language, clever word play, effective and powerful stories, essays, and poetry. Mentor texts that show students the impact of word choice, figurative language, and everything else from how an author creates believable characters to using dialogue to propel a plot forward are valuable teaching tools. Studying mentor texts helps students internalize what writers do. They come to recognize organizational patterns and structures they may choose to use in their own writing. Before I write pretty much anything of import, I study mentors. Don’t you?
  5. Make writing personal and purposeful. When we write about things we care about for readers we care about, we make deliberate choices as writers. Too often, and I am guilty of this myself, our writers only write for their teacher. Now, maybe your students differ from mine, but I’ve taught many a writer who didn’t care that I was her reader, and it showed. However, when I removed myself as my students’ primary audience and worked to build a community of writers where they wrote for one another, almost every student (sadly, there’s often a few hold outs) began to take greater care and ownership of their writing. They knew they had readers other than me. Of course, we can also help students determine outside-of-class purposes and audiences for their writing, and I encourage it; however, I’ve found that sharing our writing within our own classroom community is just as effective.

By no means do I claim to know it all when it comes to teaching writers. The puzzle working with adolescents is as real as my desire to help them grow as writers — and my newfound desire to learn to watercolor. I do know authenticity matters. When we make choices about literacy instruction, steeped in the authentic practices of what real readers and writers do as they read and write, more students engage in the tasks we ask of them. They take more risks. They more often than not rise to the occasion. And they shine as writers in their own right.

If you’ve made it to the end of this post with me, I appreciate you. And while I am not super confident in my watercolor abilities, and I have a ton to learn about the art of it all, I do have a stack of 20 bookmarks I’ve painted — mostly of birds because they make me smile. If you’d like one, share this post, follow me on Twitter @AmyRass (if you aren’t already), and send me a direct message with your name and address. (First 20 only. I’ve got a book to write.)

 

Amy Rasmussen has decided she loves teaching writers more than she loves to write, but she’s working on a balance of that as she attempts to discipline herself to “get ‘er done.” She has also decided that watercolor painting is harder than it looks. Amy’s currently on a “gap year” from the high school English class as she works on a book about authentic literacy instruction and facilitates professional development as an independent literacy consultant. She misses kids. A lot.

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.

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. 

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