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Category Archives: Assessment

Assessment Graffitti – Guest Post by Margaret Lopez

After a largely discussion and low stakes writing-based unit on Social Justice with three texts (Half the Sky, Hillbilly Elegy, and Ghettoside), I was contemplating a final activity to assess their understanding.  I wanted evidence of their thinking.  I wanted my students to show me, in any format, they “got” the unit–that they understood what injustices exist in the world, how they’re connected to privilege and access, and what solutions are necessary to equalize the playing field.  

But I didn’t want to have another seminar.

I didn’t want to give them time to write.

I didn’t want to read another article.

And, full disclosure, I certainly didn’t want cumbersome grading as we are in the final stretch and up to our necks in their year-long inquiry project.

I wanted something new, something we hadn’t done all year.  So, I decided to let my students do something forbidden–I equipped them with Expo markers and let them draw on the furniture.

Disclaimer:  I checked before to see that Expo markers washed off my classroom tables with a little elbow grease and Clorox wipes.  Please do so before!

I simply gave my students these instructions:

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Then, I stepped aside.  Students had about 30 minutes to complete their visual and were immediately engaged (likely because they were drawing on school property).  

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Dev and Lisa collaborating on a cause and effect analysis of Appalachia according to Hillbilly Elegy. 

As they were collaborating, students were discussing the issues we had examined throughout the weeks, Students talked about the values of the oppressors compared with those who are oppressed, and how those intersect with community values.  Students connected historical roots with the current issues discussed in their books, structures of power and privilege that exist, and what solutions should be invested in.  Their purposeful talk around the assessment proved they had read deeply, thought critically, and synthesized multiple issues.

The products were great–original and insightful.  Students gained more listening to their peers explain their group’s visual at the end of class because the conversation was extended and connected, again synthesizing ideas between the texts and our world.

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A live tree and dead tree representing opportunity and access for males versus females in Half the Sky.

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Graham explains his group’s problem-solution web for the violent community discussed in Ghettoside. 

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Emma explains the culture of have and have-nots that exist in other countries between males and females, emphasizing the barriers to equality.

While I ushered students out of the classroom, I heard the ultimate combination of compliments:

  • I feel like that actually assessed my thinking.
  • This unit was great, you should do it next year.
  • That was fun!

Mission accomplished.


Maggie Lopez has six years of teaching experience at large public high schools in Louisville, Houston, and now Chicago.  A graduate of Miami University, she had the pleasure of learning from the workshop masters and is on a continual quest to challenge, inspire, and learn from her hilariously compassionate juniors and seniors. 


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Care to join the conversation? We’d love to add your voice! Please email guest post ideas to Lisadennibaum@gmail.com.

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Remembering How Good Readers Read – Guest Post by Brandon Wasemiller

Happy New Year, Three Teachers Talk! We hope your new year is off to a magnificent start. Hot off the presses from Franklin High School, my colleague Brandon Wasemiller writes about challenging our toughest students to value their voices and embrace the opportunities that reading can hold in their lives and their academic experiences with participation in The Global Read Aloud. 


We often talk about sparking the love of reading in our students. It is our daily, yearly, and career-defining struggle. Over the past few weeks, I tried something new because I was really struggling with a Tier II Intervention class (A class I have taught in the past but was reassigned to this year). I was giving book talks, getting to know the students, helping them with their books, teaching them how to be readers; but nothing was sticking. Most of them didn’t even try.   

It wasn’t until the second week of class that I came to a realization through a reading engagement survey, a pre-assessment, and a set of conferences. It was an idea that slapped me across the face and helped me guide the class. They’ve been nonreaders for so long that they have forgotten what it is to BE a reader.I have to re-teach these kids how to read.

And with that, I was off.

A fellow teacher, collaborator, and 3TT All-Star told me about a great project–The Global Read Aloud. A way for teachers and students in different classrooms (and most of the time different states) to collaborate and talk about the same book at the same time. So what was the chosen book? A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness.

(Listen, quick aside here,  but if you haven’t read A Monster Calls yet, what are you even doing?)

And so we began reading A Monster Calls. I tried to think of as many ways as possible to teach this book and make it fun and interesting. I started teaching them about active reading and about thinking while reading. I modeled for them how I read, and I had them track questions and comments throughout, but honestly, I felt like I was spinning my tires.

Then, one day, I pulled out the good ole Audible app and I played the audiobook. The chapters (The Wildness of Stories”, “The First Tale”, and “The Rest of the First Tale”) all feature two distinct characters. Conor, a young boy who is suffering through his mother’s battle with cancer, and a gigantic Yew Tree that turns into a monster at 12:07 to tell Conor stories. At the end of listening to all three chapters, we had a discussion as a class. To my sheer amazement, every single student discussed what happened and had amazingly in-depth responses to my questions.

So what was different? Why did the audiobook reach them better than some of my other activities?

And it hit me.

They are listening and experiencing a real and authentic reading experience.

They are actively engaged and plotting along with a READER who is emphasizing words, speaking in different voices for multiple characters, and emphasizing italicized and stylized words, all helping us as readers paint a picture of the novel in our heads. These are the qualities that good readers do independently. These are the qualities my students needed to re-learn.


I have a memory that I don’t think I will ever forget. I was probably six or seven, and I was at my grandma’s house. Every day, after nap time, my grandma would have story time and she would read from this book of Disney short stories. She would read us a few and she always did the voices. My grandma was Br’re Rabbit and talked in a thick southern accent, she was Mickey and squeaked her voice. My brother, sister and I were her captive audience. Our favorite story, however, was the Tale of the Headless Horseman.

One dark, rainy afternoon (I’m being serious, it really was dark and stormy) my grandma stepped out of the bathroom and her head was tucked inside a jacket and the jacket was zipped all the way up. The effect was that she seemed to have no head. She sat down to read the tale of The Headless Horseman as the Headless Horseman. She performed the tale of Ichabod Crane and his race to get across the bridge before losing his head.

That was not story time, that was an experience. I was there on the bridge racing to save my life, I was looking at the evil horseman careening towards me as I begged the horse to ride faster, I was there as the Horseman drew his sword and prepared to strike….

The idea for this unit came to me as I remembered that sometimes enjoyment in reading is lost because we lose what it is that makes us readers.

When you’re a kid, your parents read to you in different voices. When you read out loud to your parents or to teachers at a young age, they encourage you to read like they do. They help you sound out words, understand what a comma does in a sentence, what it sounds like to read a sentence as a question or exclamation; and then at some point–after the training wheels are off–we no longer read out loud.

So we have students who hate reading because it has been force fed to them for so many years. We get them into Workshop and spark the passion of reading, but they have forgotten how to read. My hope for this unit is that it will help those students.

And so, with this new realization, I decided to have my students tell a tale of their own using A Monster Calls as my mentor text.


Prep: Find chapters that will challenge the students to be readers.

I decided to use chapters featuring two distinct characters. Conor and the monster. Students had to create two distinctly different voices (yes, having a monster voice was a requirement) and they had to deal with sarcasm, anger, frustration, and other emotions throughout the chapter. brandon1

There were three chapters all about seven to eight pages long, so I made three groups of seven to eight students per group. Each group was responsible for a chapter, BUT each individual student had to read–out loud–one page. (Huge selling point here, I just kept telling them “It’s only one page!”)

Mini Lesson – Active Reader Annotating

I told my students that the goal for our first class was to focus on how characters speak throughout the chapter. However, for me, this was an opportunity to teach them how to be an active reader and note taker. I did the first page myself under the document cam.

brandon2I annotated after each line of dialogue for how the character spoke. “What emotions are being expressed here?”  I also told them that we needed to pay attention to italicized words and what they are there for.

We looked at the line “‘He’s been very good, Ma,’ Conor’s mum said winking at him from behind his grandma, her favorite blue scarf tied around his head” (41).

“So why is the word VERY italicized?” I asked. The class then talked about sarcasm and how his mom says it that way as an “inside joke” between her and Conor. “It’s so that Conor’s mom shows him that she gets that this is hard for Conor to handle. She wants him to know she is on his side” one student amazingly pointed out. These are the kinds of things I want them to notice. Not so much content, but style and sentence fluency.

Then they set off on their own! It was time for them to work in their small groups and annotate their chapter–together. I knew that I wanted them to collaborate together so I printed out each chapter on extra large (11×17 to be exact) paper, and set them up in areas that they could circle up and all work together. I gave them the space to work it out and let them discuss the dialogue. If they couldn’t get it, I encouraged them to read it aloud to each other and discuss.

I was amazed at how well they did in their chapter prep work. Often there are students who will push back because they are scared to read out loud, but I found that having only one page, and six other students doing the same thing helped them through their stage fright.

The last step of that day: I let them chose the page they will be reading aloud for the audiobook chapter.

 

Practice (Group and Individual)

I opened the next class by reading a chapter to them. I did my deep intimidating monster voice, I did my frustrated Conor voice, and I did my mean grandmother voice. I put myself out there and it made the kids smile (and yes laugh) but that is the point. Model for them what you are looking for, voices and all.

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I told them that they need to practice and become comfortable with their reading of the page and now is the time to do that. Armed with Screencastify (an easily downloadable Chromebook extension for most computers) and a copy of their individual page with annotations, I send them out to record themselves. After they turn the recording into me, I listen and give feedback. I did my best to coach them away from monotone reading, whispering, reading too fast, or too slow, or most importantly, NOT doing a monster voice.

Clearance and Final Recording

The students were set to go.  As one final step, I called each group into the hallway and had them rehearse the whole chapter, as a full group, for me. I gave them my last bits of feedback and sent them back into the room to do a final recording.


I am already looking forward to revising this unit–make it even better. I feel that it can work in any and all classrooms. So much can be learned by understanding how a book is meant to be read and it is our jobs to help the students learn that.

What do you think of reading aloud and making group chapters come to life? Do you see your students struggling to be authentic readers? How have you encouraged students to have authentic reading experiences in your classroom?


Brandon Wasemiller has been teaching a Franklin High School for the past four years. He graduated from the University of Milwaukee-Wisconsin where he majored in Secondary English Education. When he is not teaching, Brandon coaches multiple sports (Girls XC and Baseball) and enjoys listening to audiobooks while at the gym.

 

What It Means to Be an American – Student Poetry Can Change the World

Student voice is at the center of impactful, inclusive, and inspirational education. And sometimes, we are lucky enough to teach a student who embraces the power his or her voice holds. img_8361

In the case of Rameen and Isabella, I am blessed this year with two strong, passionate, driven, and now poetic, young women in my AP Language class. When they were asked what it means to be an American in their Government class, they were soon sharing and revising a poem with several members of our English department. And when I heard the final version, I knew I needed to share it with you.

Raising Student Voice is the focus of NCTE’s call for proposals for the 2018 convention in Houston. In it, Program Chair Franki Sibberson says, “Our students’ voices matter. Their voices matter in our schools, our communities, and beyond. As teachers, we want our students to discover their own voices. We want them to know the power of their voices. We want them to know the power of others’ voices, and we want them to know the power of their collective voices. Most important, we want to help them discover how their voices might impact our world and to be empowered to use their voices to speak out for equity and justice.”

 

Isabella and Rameen are prime examples of what beautiful thoughts, words, and actions can come from students raising their voices for right in this world. The fact that Isabella left class the other day saying she’s writing poetry on her own now, warms my heart beyond measure.

Please enjoy the incredible words of these two gifted young ladies. I could not be more proud of their efforts, their sentiments, or their ever-growing understanding of the power their words can have on the world they are already helping to positively change.

They speak from experience. They speak from the heart. They speak their own educated, inclusive, and compassionate truth.

What could be more valuable to promote both within, and beyond, the walls of our classrooms?


 

Isabella: Well, what does it really mean to be an American? Rameen and I decided to tackle the subject when asked this question in Mr. Belan’s government class. We both come from cultural backgrounds that are considered minority groups in the United States (I am half Mexican) and as Rameen said, it isn’t uncommon for a minority’s American-ness to be questioned. We decided to write a poem discussing the subjects of what it really means to be an American.

Being an American isn’t all about being born and raised in the U.S. but there is so much more that makes this country what it is and it’s people who they are. We often forget the history of this country. As amazing as this country is, we forget that it was built on the backs of slaves. Forget that our founding fathers included immigrants. Forget that we are a nation that worked our way up when other superpowers at the time laughed and were certain we would fail. But our success story thus far has only been with the help of every single inhabitant, no matter how big or small their role.

Rameen and I felt that we needed to remind people of our true American values and beliefs. The values and beliefs of what it means to be an American.

Rameen: Growing up, I heard questions such as “Hey Rameen, where are you from? No, no…where are you really from?” or “Hey, what are you?” more often than I care to remember. I very well know that people are intending to ask about my cultural and ethnic background, but the manner in which the question has always been asked is incorrect. I was never offended, but I wanted to educate people about the true meaning of their statements.

Asking me, where I’m from is asking where I’m born or where I’ve lived, which is and always has been the United States. I am a natural American citizen, born in Cleveland, OH. But what most people intend to ask is, “Where are your parents or your family from?” or “What’s your ethnic background?” Now this question, I would respond to with “My parents are from Pakistan,” but I always made sure to follow this with, “but they’re American citizens” because somehow my parents being born in a different country, questions my American-ness.

I, in a way, feel obligated to prove that my family and I are just as American as someone whose family has been born and raised in the States for generations. Despite my entire family being American citizens, we were often faced with the challenge of subconsciously feeling the need to prove to others that we were deserving of that label. We were always extremely cautious of what we would say and how it could be interpreted as being a brown person living in the United States. We were always careful of where we spoke Urdu, the national language of Pakistan.

Being a minority in America often feels as though there are more eyes watching what you’re doing.


Without further ado, we present to you, “What it Means to be an American”

What it Means to be an American
By Rameen Awan & Isabella Barnard

We live in a world where success equates survival.
Where every man, brother, sister, and child becomes your rival.
This is a nation propelled by our wealth.
A place where working for your family is more important than one’s health.
They say that we are a nation of dreamers.
That people flock to our borders in hopes of earning the support of the believers.

We live in an era categorized by numbers on a screen.
Where narcissists are obsessed, wanting their every move to be seen.
Crafting the perfect one-forty characters is everything they strive for,
Forgetting that when it comes to life, there is oh, so much more.
They forget the knowledge that can come from simple conversation,
And will speak with their neighbors with fierce hesitation.  

We live in a country where we are to believe that we’re protected by our rights.
But after hundreds of years, many are still fighting those same fights.
Many fail to realize the true struggles that some endure,
And how becoming united as a nation is our only hope for a cure.

We live in a nation with members still supporting the Confederacy.
Supporting the ideals and beliefs of the current U.S. presidency.
It’s as though our slow and steady progress is being completely reversed
It’s as though the change we’ve tried to make is under an inescapable curse.

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We live in a land where many claim that the man in office is “not their president”
However, those that concur proclaim, “He is if you’re an American resident.”
But what is one to do if we believe that statement untrue,
If we believe that “America is a place for everyone,” except for me, you, and you?

We live in minds that expand the definition of innovate
Minds that test the boundaries of what man can create
We even sent the first man to the moon so he could gravitate
Other nations try but just can’t seem to replicate

We live in bodies that have the power to shape the future
With precise hands that perform the most intricate suture
With each generation growing when valued is the teacher
With souls that are not afraid of any sort of venture

We live in a society of the best and the brightest
Are we perfect? No. Not in the slightest
But with a military named the strongest
And people that constantly work their hardest
Being an American means having the option of going on your own conquest

It means exploring things to see in which you yourself should invest
It means having the right of choosing if and how you want to be blessed
It means enduring the most in order to find success
It means no restrictions on your mind or your word when in distress

If what it means to be an American is what you are attempting to define
Go back and carefully reread and consider each and every line
You are entitled to your own thoughts but here you’ve heard mine
If you want to better America, do it. Just don’t run out of time.

Shouldn’t Students Know How to Assess Their Independent Reading?

I have a love/hate relationship with the word authentic.

A few years ago when I participated in the North Star of TX National Writing Project, I wrote my action research goal to align with North Star’s definition of authenticity: “authenticity is connecting student learning with significant audiences, tasks, and purposes.” Of course, I still believe in this definition; I just struggle with redefining it for the individual students in my classroom.

Let’s take self-selected, independent reading for example. How do we ‘authentically’ assess this reading? Shana’s written about this topic lately in posts about too much measurement and alternatives to reading logs. She even started this google doc, a resource for assessing independent reading sans reading logs. There are some great ideas there.

I’m still not satisfied.

A few weeks ago I wrote about shifting control to invite more learning in which I write about shifting the finding to my students, giving them the opportunity to find mentor texts and create text sets we will study in class. I know this empowers students — they want to feel some element of control.

I decided to take the same idea of shifting and apply it to how I might assess student choice reading. Quite simply, I asked students to help me figure it out.

First, I reminded my readers why I am so adamant about independent reading and determined to hold them accountable. Then, I invited students to talk about how I might actually do it and asked that they write down their ideas. They seemed eager to help me figure it out. I listened in — grabbing my camera just in time — to capture some pretty rich conversation.

These are the ideas my class generated.

  • have reading partners that check each other
  • write a summary of what we’e read once a week (Me: “You really want to write more? Them: “No.”)
  • talk about our books for a minute or two*
  • record ourselves reading aloud (I asked:  “The whole book?” They said smiling: “Why not?”)
  • read together
  • summarize in a Google Classroom Q & A
  • pick a line from the page and write about how you feel about the line*
  • write about first impressions when we start a book
  • set reading goals then determine if we meet them by our reading rates*
  • write small summaries (Me: “You really want to write more? Them: “No.”)
  • talk about our books*
  • check for annotations
  • find our reading style
  • do book talks*
  • read novels in groups (Me: “We already do Book Clubs six times a year.” Them: “Oh, yeah.”)
  • write a blog post every week — what page we’re on and something we learned, not a summary because we can find those online
  • require us to finish at least one book every two weeks
  • book talks with our table — explain it to them*
  • write book summaries (Me: “What’s with the summaries?”)
  • check annotations
  • expand on quotes*
  • keep a reading log
  • write a one page summary every week (Me: “For real? a summary?”)
  • keep a reading log
  • create a sticky note system where we mark each hour, a start and end for that day
  • provide an incentive — candy? (Me:  “This will never happen.”)
  • give us due dates, but some will find this stressful
  • give grades to persuade and motivate (Me: “Exactly what I don’t want to do.” and under my breath: Can we give grades a rest already?)
  • write summaries? (Me, sighing: “At least you questioned it.”)
  • show progression through a book rather than setting a due date

And then these two responses:

  • The only way to actually PROVE someone is reading is if they read aloud.
  • You can’t really force [reading] upon someone; people need motivation.

Honestly, I was hoping for more. Something more — shall I say — authentic.

See? Students don’t really know how to assess pleasure reading either. Maybe that’s the whole point.

On that list above, the ideas with the asterisks? — those are things we already do. Plus, more. We study craft in our choice books:  sentences and passages. We pull ideas for expository and argumentative writing from our books. We review literary terms and analyze ways writers use them to enhance and craft meaning. We even occasionally swoon over a particular passage (well, I usually model swooning. It’s hard to get 17 year olds to swoon.)

I still do not know how to “grade” choice reading, and I’ve decided that it’s okay. Maybe I’ll take participation grades when I see students moving through their books at a fairly decent pace or after I confer with them and check for understanding. Maybe I’ll just keep listening in as my readers talk about their reading and lean over shoulders reading as they update their book lists in their notebooks.

I do know this:  The more I make everyday a reading day, a day we celebrate our lives as readers, the more students want to identify as readers.

And somedays they surprise us with their enthusiasm:

Michael came to class on Monday raving about his book. I pretty much shouted “Stop talking until I get my phone and can record you!”

How’s this for authentic reading assessment?

Please share your thoughts on assessing readers in the comments. Have you shifted yet?

Amy Rasmussen loves to read, and she loves her readers. The first book she remembers falling in love with was Anne of Green Gables, but her first memories of recall vaguely  The Boxcar Children. Amy models her reading life with her senior English and AP Language students by reading about books, talking about books, writing about books, and spending money on books for her readers to explore and enjoy. She firmly believes:  “It takes just one right book to make a reader. It’s just that every reader probably needs a different just right book.” Follow Amy on Twitter @amyrass and @3TeachersTalk

 

Too Much Measurement Is Destroying Our Students’ Potential for Growth

“How many pages does our vignette have to be?”

“Wait, how many lesson plans do we have to turn in?”

“When you say one-pager, what exactly do you mean by one page?”

QUOTE_MEASURING-TEAMS.pngMy students cannot seem to get away from quantifying their thinking, this year and every year. To some extent, I understand this compulsion: despite living in a highly individualized culture, our education system prizes standardization when it comes to measuring student achievement. My kids have been indoctrinated into a culture of numerical evaluation for many years.

This has always bothered me, and my answers to these questions have varied: “However long it takes you to make your argument.” “Just write until you feel like you’ve said all you want to say, and then we’ll revise.” “Sixteen lesson plans, Joe. One per week. Good grief.” “One page. Single-spaced. Don’t be weird with your margins.”

Lately, I’ve honed in on how often we seem to want to measure the independent reading our students are doing, perhaps to prove the rigor of this practice or perhaps because we just can’t get away from quantification. If our goal is to build fluency and have students reading authentically and for pleasure, we can’t keep grading or measuring or tracking our students’ reading lives so meticulously.

A 2012 study, summarized nicely here, showed that the very act of requiring students to track their reading made them likely to read less than they would have to begin with. In contrast, students who were offered “voluntary reading logs” were actually more likely to enjoy reading, and read more often. It seems that choice is imperative.

Similarly, this article details a 2016 study which found that “the more you quantify something that’s rewarding for its own sake, the less likely you are to enjoy it—and the less likely you are, too, to do more of it.” Reading, for me, has always been rewarding for its own sake. This is what I want for my students, too, and perhaps the very reading logs and booklists I asked them to keep prevented me from helping them get there.

We’ve been thinking about alternatives to reading logs for some time, brainstorming ways to read the room between conferences, and our readers have offered this great list of possibilities, which includes:

  • Student-to-teacher booktalks
  • Padlet reading responses
  • “Status of the class” check-ins
  • Reading “focus discussions”
  • Student-created rubrics for self-assessment

If measuring makes us enjoy things less, but we are bound by the rules of school and have to grade things, it follows that we should do lots of qualitative, formative assessment like the methods listed above. And not just in reading–across the curriculum, in writing and speaking and listening, too. We need to move away from measurement and toward a less quantifiable, test-heavy classroom culture.

In this video (which I could just watch on repeat, because she is such a great combination of brilliant and adorable), Nancie Atwell explains how she “doesn’t believe in tests and quizzes,” and rather evaluates students daily through portfolios, discussions, and one-on-one conferences:

We may not all have an entire school of our own like Atwell does, but we do have classrooms of our own, where we can strive to create communities of individualized achievement and assessment. The goals we have for our students–to be impassioned, informed, lifelong readers and writers–are not goals that can be measured easily. Let’s get away from an obsession with quantification and work to move our students toward the immeasurable joys of becoming real readers and writers.

Please share with us how you and your students assess growth in reading, writing, and thinking! Leave a comment or share on Facebook or Twitter.

Shana Karnes is so over being pregnant, and looking forward to welcoming her second daughter into the world within the month.  She teaches practicing and preservice English teachers at West Virginia University and is fueled by coffee, sour gummy worms (this week), and a real obsession with all things reading and writing.  Follow Shana on Twitter at @litreader and read more of her writing on the WVCTE Best Practices Blog.

 

Shifting Control to Invite More Learning

569059I admit to liking control. I won’t go far as to say I’m a control freak, but I am freakishly close. As I age I realize I like more and more things in neat little rows, even my To-Do lists must be lined up perfectly, so I can make tiny check marks with my Precision pen.

I am ridiculous.

The hardest part of teaching for me is letting go. It’s also been the best thing for my teaching.

To be an effective workshop teacher, we step aside so our students can step in. They want to know their opinions, ideas, and choices matter. They’re hungry for it. We’ve written a lot about choice reading on this blog, and I know many of us advocate for self-selected independent reading, protecting sacred reading time like an O line protecting our quarterbacks.

I wonder what other choices we offer our students. How else do we invite them to own their learning?

Recently, I read this post “The Inspiration in Front of Your Eyes” by George Couros. He begins:

Often when working with educators, I try to give relevant examples of ideas that can be implemented into learning but get very specific to either a class or grade level.  My focus is not adding something to the plate of an educator but replacing something they currently do with something new and better than what they may have been doing before.  For example, instead of a teacher spending hours searching a video to explain a concept in math, or even creating it themselves, why not have the students find the concept and say why it is powerful, or having the students create some form of multimedia to explain the concept themselves? The flip is putting the learning into the student’s hands, which can lessen the work for the educator.

Deeper learning for the student, less work for the teacher.  Sounds good to me!

Couros goes on to explain the importance of being observant and connecting ideas we find in the world, and reshaping them to facilitate deeper learning for our students. Of course, this resonated. This is how we find mentor texts like author bios and user manuals. But Mr. Couros got me thinking about shifting the finding to my students.

Then before school a week ago Monday, I saw Kristen Ziemke‘s Padlet, Take a Knee. And I got another spark to shift my instruction.

I’d never used Padlet before, so while my students shuffled in to first period, I quickly made an account and created a board. I put one thing on it:  Kwame Alexander’s poem, Take a Knee, which I knew was the perfect quickwrite for the day after so many NFL players knelt in protest.

After we wrote and shared and talked in small groups and as a class about the issue. One student said, “I just don’t know enough about it to know what I believe.”

The perfect intro!

I suggested we make a text set that could help us understand the why’s and who’s and what’s of this hotbed of a topic, and I issued the challenge:  As a class of individuals with a wide variety of beliefs and backgrounds, we’d search for articles that would address all sides. We’d use Padlet as our storage space. Then we’d use the text set we build together for our learning in class.

With their phones and iPads, students went to work, and in the 10 minutes I gave them in class, they talked. Students talked about where to find information that “wasn’t biased,” “would tell them the truth,” “will help me want to know more.”

I leaned in to these conversations, teaching terms, suggesting sites, encouraging objectivity — and why it is important for our understanding of human needs and desires.

Our Padlet What’s the Argument is not complete. We haven’t had a chance to return to it yet, but we will. Maybe we’ll use it as we learn to ask better questions in preparation for whole class discussions. Maybe we’ll use it as we learn to synthesize information from a variety of sources. Maybe we’ll use it to spark ideas for the arguments we’ll post on our blogs. It doesn’t matter.

When we return to our Padlet, or even create another one that coincides with whatever peace-cannot-be-kept-by-force-it-can-only-be-achieved-by-understandinghotbed topic fires up the nation (sadly, there are so many), my students will know I value their input. They’ll know that helping them make sense of our world is as important to me as helping them love books and become good writers.

And maybe they’ll remember to look at all sides of the issues, to see into the hearts and minds of those we may disagree with so we can find a space for conversations.

If my giving up control makes space for that, I’ll take it every chance I get.

What ideas to do have to flip the learning into students’ hands, let go of control, and invite deeper learning? Please share in the comments.

Amy Rasmussen is a neat freak in her classroom but not her bedroom closet. She loves sharing books with student readers and reading students’ writing. She is the mother of six, grandmother to five, and wife to one very patient man. She teaches senior English and AP English Language at a huge and lovely senior high school in North Texas. Follow her on Twitter @amyrass

Saying Something, Not Just Anything: Student Talk – A Guest Post by Margaret Lopez

Written in the spring of 2017, Margaret Lopez reflects on the value of purposeful communication and strategies to get kids to create questions that get at the heart of a topic and generate meaningful discussions. 

All year, my juniors and I have been workshopping writing and reading different texts for a range of purposes, pairing fiction and nonfiction for some whole class studies (Death of a Salesman and Outliers–a hit!  1984 and current events surrounding fake news and government–loved it!).  I realized a skill I hadn’t closely instructed, we had just “done,” was intentional classroom discussions.  As my juniors prepare to be seniors, Screen Shot 2017-05-01 at 8.44.22 PMcollege students, and individuals in the workplace, they need to speak purposefully and ask intentional questions.  I want them to be able to say something, not just anything  From this reflection, and students’ interest in recent protest movements and community issues in Chicago, a social justice unit based mainly on speaking and listening with low stakes writing was born.

I selected three books for students to chose from, and those choices became their lit circle groups.  Students could chose from Half the Sky which discusses female discrimination across the world, Ghettoside which examines policing in a predominately African American community outside of LA told by a reporter who spent years reporting on crimes in the area, or Hillbilly Elegy, a memoir about growing up in Appalachia.

Throughout the unit, we have followed the same routine:  

Mondays are for lit circles, Tuesdays are for extension activities with nonfiction, and on Wednesdays, we discuss all three texts together in a Socratic Seminar.  My goal was a lot of low stakes writing and fruitful discussion.

I think there is a reason that discussion is a central component of the English classroom, as it builds community, facilitates deeper or new thinking on a topic resulting from other perspectives, and is a college and job skill we have the duty to foster and refine in our students.  However, students need to speak, listen, and ask purposefully.  My students know how to talk–at my small school, where classes can be between 6 and 16 students, class stalls if they don’t have anything to say.  The awkward silence lingers.  Then someone says any random thought they have just to break the silence.  But there is difference between saying anything and saying something.  To elevate students to say something about the injustices across the texts, not just anything so that awkward silence doesn’t linger too long, I began with questioning skills.

Magnifying Glass - Questions

It is challenging students to take the idea they’re wondering about and want their peers to contemplate and thinking about it backwards, writing a question that doesn’t give away their opinion, lead peers right to the answer, or simply confuse others.  

We began by running through the list of essential questions from this school year and reviewing their quick writes on the topics from throughout the year.  I asked students what they noticed about the questions, many came to the conclusion that the questions are BIG, meaning they have more than one answer, but those answers aren’t definitive or “right.”  From there, we looked at a list of plot-based questions I made about the first chunk of their reading to compare the lists of questions.  They easily noticed these questions were the opposite of essential questions, meaning they had a limited scope of what response could be correct or on the right track.

Great, they can notice the difference.  Now to teach them to apply this to their own questions. Thank the teaching gods and goddesses for Jim Burke’s What’s the Big Idea?.  I used his entry points into teaching questioning around three types of questions:  Factual, Inductive, and Analytical, having students label their own questions as one of the three types.  Then, we worked on revising after I modeled some examples.   I challenged students to move beyond the factual so we could get to the big ideas and scale up Bloom’s Taxonomy.

Jacely revised her questions to get to the heart of her concern, which was why law enforcement doesn’t seem to care about women that are in trouble:

  • Factual:  On the very first page of chapter 2, what does Nick ask the Officer about regarding trafficked girls?  
  • Inductive:  Kristoff asks an Officer about what exactly they look for and then mentions if they look out for trafficked girls and the officer mentions there isn’t much to do about them. Why do you think these officers seem to not care about this huge issue?   
  • Analytical:  What implications does this have on the community?  Women’s futures?  Are there issues with law enforcement in the communities in your books?

Mishawn revised to include more perspective and connection:

  • Factual: Why is the crime rate so high in Watts?
  • Inductive:  What allure do gangs have for the young people in the community?  How does this create a cycle of violence and crime?
  • Analytical:  What factors, both historically and recently, have lead Watts to become a breeding ground for criminal activity?  In your opinion, which factor is/has been the most detrimental?

I also provided students with question stems as a guide and encouraged students to use these until they felt comfortable framing their questions.  By the end of the unit, student questions were synthesizing the three texts and major ideas.  I noticed students would lead with a question geared more towards their text, then extended the question to the other two text, thus inviting in more conversation and fluidly moving between inductive and analytical questioning.  The discussions moved from inner to outer, from focused on one book to all three books.

Jordan:  How does Leovy expect the reader to believe in the good homicide detectives while at the same time giving examples of racist and uncaring detectives?  What contradictions exist in your book’s community?  Do these lead to an imbalance of power or other injustices?

Ben: Isolation is discussed by Vance as one reason leading to a disconnected, stalled hillbilly society.  How are the people in your text isolated, whether by location, proximity, cultural norms, or otherwise?  Does this perpetuate the problem or is it a solution that hasn’t been capitalized on?

To springboard Wednesday’s seminars, we often pre-thought through the big ideas for that chunk of reading as a way to anchor thinking and create a common entry point into the seminar, and also, so students had something to say.

  • Google Doc Quick Collaboration:  I posted some initial questions on the google doc to get students thinking, then watched the entire class collaborate on 1 document–so cool!  I limited this pre-thinking to about 3 minutes so students didn’t type all of their discussion points.  I also left this projected during the seminar, serving as an anchor chart and inspiration for more questions.  So easy. Minimal prep.  Great results!
  • Discussion Tables:  I made three table tents at three different tables in my classroom, each with a common idea and thread that occurred during that chunk of reading.  I gave students two minutes to discuss how each topic related to their book.  After two minutes, they moved to a new table and could shuffle up their group.  Again, minimal prep and 6 quality minutes of pre-thinking.
  • Essay Highlights:  Students wrote for 20 minutes about the central injustice in their novel, justifying why that, out of all the intersected issues, is the most pressing for the community in the book.  I then typed the major argument from each student’s essay and used it as an entry point into a Wednesday seminar.  Students were able to see the something their peers had to say, understand how perspective and perception shade one’s reading, and make connections across the three texts.
  • Pass Around:  I asked students to write a line from their book that really just hit them in the gut and explain why.  Then, students passed them around the room, spending a few seconds reading what their peer had been most impacted by and why.  I actually couldn’t stop students from talking. Across the table, students were making “OMG” eyes at each other, whether it was a connection with their lit circle peer or shock over what a peer had written about from another text, the conversation was immediately started.

As I have listened to each small group discuss the same texts, it was amazing to hear how the conversation differs from class to class.  I wanted students to experience that, to give them a chance to expand each others’ thinking.  I assigned two digital seminars using our school’s digital platform, and while this is nothing crazy innovative, students posted and responded, I noted many benefits from this type of “discussion”:

  • Students experienced new perspectives and interpretations of the text from their peers in other classes, and I found more students sharing personal anecdotes–students were sharing their personal experiences with discrimination and inequalities.
  • Shy students or those that need more process time were the space to contemplate, revise their thinking, or deepen their response by not having to think on the spot as they would during an oral discussion.  I have many exchange students from around the world (China, Spain, Thailand, and Italy), who have the extra task of interpreting, decoding, and thinking in two languages  By writing, students had more time to think and contribute at their pace.
  • Students were more thoughtful in their responses and more likely to use text evidence to support their argument or open their classmates’ eyes because they aren’t so “on the spot.”  Students used evidence from the book, as well as other articles we had read, thus adding rich context to the discussion.
  • Students had another opportunity to practice practical writing for college.  Many college courses require blog post or digital contributions, and the reality is that most of my students will take an online course at some point in their academic or professional lives, too.  
  • Students received real time feedback on their questions.  If no one responded, maybe the question was unclear, too narrow, or too broad.  Student-led formative assessment–a new trend?
  • Students had a time and space to learn about digital etiquette and practice, something very important as Snapchat and Twitter become accepted means of communication.  As students move into their post-secondary endeavors, they may be communicating with bosses or professors via email and must communicate clearly, without a misinterpreted tone.  We discussed how to politely disagree and how to ask a follow up question instead of answering with bias, as well as the time and place for proper mechanics.
  • I made time to write beside them, contributing to the discussions, too.

Although these strategies were successful in moving my students beyond saying anything at all to fill the void, the best part was how moved my students were by the injustices that exist in our world.  They spoke with such compassion and concern for those suffering they no longer seemed to be kids, but young adults.


Maggie Lopez has six years of teaching experience at large public high schools in Louisville, Houston, and now Chicago.  A graduate of Miami University, she had the pleasure of learning from the workshop masters and is on a continual quest to challenge, inspire, and learn from her hilariously compassionate juniors and seniors. 


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Care to join the conversation? We’d love to add your voice! Please email guest post ideas to Lisadennibaum@gmail.com.

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