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Category Archives: Inquiry-based Learning

Why We’ll Read More Than an Article of the Week in Senior English

I wish I were kidding. I am still laughing, but this is not funny.

Last week was my first week back to school. We had five days of shifting classes; schedule changes like shuffling cards with every student vying for their winning hand, or at least two out of four classes stacked with friends.

This is my first year to teach senior English (I still have one section of AP Lang), and I felt a mixture of excitement and dread all summer. Twelve years of reading, or not. Twelve years of playing the game of school, or not.

How do I get students to want to read, want to write, want to explore and question and challenge when it’s possible they just want to be done with school? I am pretty sure that’s how I felt senior year. Granted, that was a loooong time ago, but I do not remember any teachers’ names, any books I read for school, anything I learned the year before I graduated.

I wonder if that’s normal. Somehow I don’t think it should be.

But I do not want my seniors to remember me. I want them to remember learning something that adds value to their lives. I want them to remember learning something that adds value to my life as they vote beside me for elected officials, move into my neighborhood, become my doctor, or perhaps teach beside in the classroom next door.

I know the routines of a workshop pedagogy will help me do that, of this I am certain.

We’ll read and think and write and talk. We’ll share our thinking and our writing in small groups and as a class. We’ll talk about books and the themes that resonate and why that might be so. And we’ll write about the things that matter in our lives.

We started all of this in five short days.

I also got a little panicky.

If you are familiar with Kelly Gallagher’s work, you’ve probably heard him talk about why he started Article of the Week. He said he’d given his students, seniors, an article to read, and while circling the room and checking in with small groups, he asked a couple of kids how their reading was going. “Okay,” they said, “except we don’t know who this Al Quaeda guy is.”

Uh huh, seniors. Seniors who had no idea what was happening in their world.

I’m not too sure mine do either.

2017 Face Palm Experience #1:

We’d just looked at images of the destruction from Hurricane Harvey. We’d done some thinking in our notebooks about how these images made us feel and what we could do to help in the efforts to aide our fellow Texans. I walked the room, listening in as students read from their notebooks. Then, I heard this:

“Can a hurricane happen on a lake?” Student A said, “I mean like would a hurricane ever happen on Lake Lewisville?”

I stopped. Wouldn’t you?

Student B answered, “Uh, hurricanes happen on an ocean.”

“So what ocean is by Houston?” said Student A.

“That’s the Gulf of Mexico,” said Student B.

And Student A asks “So what ocean is that, the Pacific?” as she reaches for her cell phone.

I wish I were confident she planned on looking up information about hurricanes and oceans and weather patterns. Somehow I doubt it. I’ve asked her to put her phone away 47 times in five days. (So far phones have not been an issue except with this student.)

Now, I am left wondering:  Will whatever we do in room E111 be enough to prepare my students for the world beyond the halls of our high school? The responsibility is a lead weight on my shoulder.

I sure hope I can carry it.

 

Amy Rasmussen is the mother of six amazing young adults, grandmother of five smart and sassy little people, and wife to a brilliant marketer, sales exec, life coach, and dog lover. She teaches readers and writers in AP Language and English IV in North TX and facilitates professional development on the workshop model of instruction at every opportunity. She loves God, her family, the U.S.A., and all humans everywhere. Follow Amy on Twitter @amyrass

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Thinking Differently to Do More Thinking

I think most teachers would agree, no matter our content, our number one goal is to help students develop as critical thinkers. And in a world where technology rules much of their lives, impatience governs their actions, and emotions overcrowd the adolescent brain, this can be daunting.

We must keep trying.

Every day we see see headlines spouting fake news, and more and more we see headlines shouting “This news is fake.” We see sites on how to spot fake news, and analyze fake news. We have access to lessons on fake news — Google “lessons on fake news, and you’ll find 5,250,000 resources. We even see the hashtag #fakenews (a fabulous lesson on paradox btw).

A few months ago I read this article at Forbes. Then clicked through and read this one at BuzzFeed. I shared them with my students. We had an interesting discussion, but one comment left me thinking:  “So, basically, everyone’s making stuff up. How are we supposed to believe anything?”

If we are not helping our students find answers to this question, we are doing a disservice to our students — and by extension a disservice to ourselves. What kind of world will we grow old in if we do not help the students in our classrooms today, determine fact from fiction, identify bias, value diversity of thought, be open to new ideas, support their opinions, and seek to understand before passing judgment?

First, we have to be willing to step outside our comfort zones and seek to understand other perspectives. (If you haven’t seen Outside Your Bubble, it’s an interesting starting place.)

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Next, we must school ourselves on rhetoric. And then, we must weave it more overtly into all aspects of our instruction.

As English teachers, we have a prime opportunity:  let go of the nine weeks novel study where we focus on characters, conflict, plot, and theme. Bring in speeches and essays and news articles that invite discussion about the use of language. At the very least balance the study of both.

A few weeks ago a group of teachers from a neighboring district visited my classroom. They observed as my students and I read two blog posts about the Fearless Girl and the Raging Bull statues: Seriously, the guy has a point, and an opposing view, No, the Wall St. Bull Sculptor Doesn’t Have a Point. The discussion was rich. The thinking was richer.

At the end of the class, I chatted with these teachers. We talked about the routines in my workshop classroom, the book talks I conducted, the way I transitioned from one thing to the next. Then, the conversation turned to novels. One teacher asked how long I spend on novels. I don’t. I responded. My students read novels in book clubs where they facilitate the discussion. They talk of plot and themes and author’s craft. They bring meaning to the text, based on their experiences reading the books. (I am not opposed to novels. I am opposed to spending too much time on them.)

I hesitate to challenge anyone on what they do in their classrooms. I do not know their students. I do not know their routines or their motivations, the goals they hope to accomplish as they instruct their students, or the limitations put on them by mandated curriculum.

I do challenge the idea that studying a novel for “a long time” like this teacher told me, is a valuable use of the limited time we have with our students. Our students’ need to navigate the language of their world is too great to spend week after week with a book “they really like” that “I read to them.” We must put the focus on the needs of the reader and not the book.

What our students need right now — what our country needs right now — is critical thinking around a wide variety of texts. We need a focus on how language works to persuade and to manipulate and to cause outrage. Really, that’s our best, and maybe, our only hope.

As we go into summer (I’ve got three days left), I hope we will think about how we might shift our thinking about the needs of our learners. As we read by the pool, vacation with family, attend conferences and trainings, work our part-time jobs, I hope we will think about language and how it can either make or break the communication that is so vital to a society, a society that will thrive on diversity, respect individuality, and foster empathy and productivity.

Teacher friends, that is our job. And I think it’s our duty.

Amy Rasmussen lives in north Texas and teaches AP English Language and English 3. She loves talking books, daughters’ weddings (two this year), and grandbabies. Facilitating PD for other teachers making the move into a workshop pedagogy keeps her focused on her own learning. Amy adheres to the words of Emerson: “We aim above the mark to hit the mark,” and Jesus: “Love one another.” Imagine a world if we all aim higher. Follow Amy on Twitter @amyrass.

Learning from Other Teachers

5054c4145eaf8a4c41c3bbd1d1954cdd.jpgI have so much hope for our profession, our students, and our society.

In a pretty pessimistic world, want to know why I’m so optimistic?

Because I believe in our future teachers.  After an entire school year of working with preservice educators, I have seen so much energy, excitement, and engagement from every single one of my students.  Every challenge that comes their way–whether in the form of an assignment, a tough reading, or grappling with a seemingly unsolvable education issue–only reaffirms their desire to help their students.  They just careso much.

A fantastic conference I attended last week was a wonderful reminder of all of that hope I have for teachers and teaching and learners and learning.  We’re here because of love–love for who and what and how we teach.  Yesterday, I shared my learning from the morning sessions of that conference, and today I’d like to share the ideas, quotes, and joy I heard in my afternoon sessions.

Session Three:  On Teaching Writing & Knowing Our Students

This amazing session was led by three preservice teachers who interned in high school ELA classrooms in our community.  Each of them spoke about their struggles and successes with so much passion that I was left feeling proud to be a teacher by the end of their talks.

Idea:  Audio Recording Peer Feedback–I absolutely loved Katie N.’s idea of having students record their feedback to peers.  After a semester of struggling to get her students to view themselves and one another of being capable and worthy of giving authentic, valuable feedback, she hit upon the idea of having students read one another’s papers ahead of time, prepare some comments, and then record a few minutes of thoughts, responses, suggestions, and connections.  I can’t wait to have my students try this idea!

Quote:  “When I conferenced with my students, so many of them really surprised me!!”  Danielle focused on looking for patterns in her students’ extracurricular involvement and how it might connect to their engagement, motivation, and success in schools.  She had lots of preconceived notions about how her athletes, club members, or student body leaders might act in the classroom, and many of them were wrong.  She loved the experience of being surprised by her students when she took the time to confer with each of them multiple times.

Just Joy:  Katie P. was interested in taking a whole class novel study far beyond the book.  While reading A Separate Peace with her students, she encouraged her students to read the novel through a critical literacy lens, identify social issues they could connect to their own school community, and then take action to improve the state of those issues.  As a result of her teaching, the students in her class created a club focused on improving mental health by participating in mindfulness activities like meditation, yoga, and deep breathing.

As she spoke about this new awareness of mental health issues in a school that had been plagued by student suicides, Katie teared up–as did many of us in the room listening to her speak.  I was so impressed and inspired by the power this young teacher realized she had to change a school community.

Session Four: On Evaluating Ourselves

In this session, led by a mix of teachers and school leaders, speakers presented on ways in which they looked at their own teaching, their whole classroom, or their entire school community; identified a problem; and then attempted to fix their issue.  Many of their inquiries resulted in some amazingly ambitious goals–one principal wanted to find a way to improve her students’ poor attendance, which was often caused by factors stemming from a community plagued by poverty; a group of teachers formed a committee to implement more responsive, sensitive discipline into their elementary school; and an academic coach shared ways she’d aggressively procured free technology into her school for teachers and students to use to improve learning.

I loved all these school leaders’ ideas, but I found one presenter’s approach to strengthening pedagogy incredibly effective and easy to implement.  Josh Karr, a high school math teacher, simply emailed his colleagues and invited them to form an informal PLC to evaluate themselves.

Idea:  Record Your Teaching–Josh invited his whole faculty, via email, to video record one of their lessons, watch it alone, and then bring a small clip to share with a partner in their mini-PLC after school.  Thirteen teachers agreed to participate, and showed up, quite nervously, with their recordings.  They paired up, regardless of content area or grade level, and worked together to analyze their videos, give and get feedback, and talk through some questions they had.  I loved this super easy, low-stakes idea to self- and peer-evaluate our teaching in such a welcoming way.

Quote:  “We laughed at how many teachers didn’t even have students in their videos.”  Josh told a funny story about how several of the teachers’ video cameras had only been pointed at the teachers themselves, and how they didn’t realize this narrow-minded view until they started talking with colleagues.  It was a real revelation for many of these teachers to realize that, wow, their worldview wasn’t very student-centered.  I was so uplifted by hearing Josh speak about how this simple activity prompted these teachers to stop looking at themselves for evidence of good teaching, and to begin looking at their students instead.

Just Joy:  Josh talked about what an inspiring thing it was to be part of this tiny community of teachers within his school, which included teachers from all content areas, and even the band director.  He gave me such hope when he shared how the teachers’ video recordings had evolved over the weeks to include more students, more difficult class periods, and more and more vulnerable learning.

I loved hearing how teachers of all levels of experience and expertise were willing to open themselves up to their colleagues for the sake of improving their students’ learning opportunities.  It’s a hard thing, in this profession, to invite criticism of our teaching when our  work can sometimes be thankless.  I can’t wait to try this idea with my students and colleagues alike.


Check out Part I of this post from yesterday, and then please leave us a comment:  what strategies, ideas, or frames of mind might you try out in your classroom?  Will you share some fantastic lessons you’ve gleaned from good conferences in the comments?

Shana Karnes lives in West Virginia and teaches sophomore, junior, and senior preservice teachers at West Virginia University.  She finds joy in all things learning, love, and literature as she teaches, mothers, and sings her way through life.  Follow Shana on Twitter at @litreader.

Getting Invigorated by Good PD

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I love this accurate graphic about PD by Sylvia Duckworth.

Last Friday, I was fortunate enough to attend some of the best professional development I’ve been to in a while–and it was free!

At the end of the day, I left my 3TT friends a seven-minute WhatsApp message of out-of-breath enthusiasm, describing my day’s learning.  That’s how you know it’s been a good day.

The conference I attended is held annually to celebrate our Masters’ students’ impending graduation and entry into the field of teaching.  The all-day event features presentations by both preservice and practicing teachers, academic coaches, and principals.

Before the conference, speakers are invited to conduct an inquiry into one aspect of their practice, then present on their methods, findings, and insights.  I attended four absolutely wonderful sessions, and filled up six pages in my notebook with ideas and quotes and just joy–and I’d love to share them with you all.  Today I’ll share ideas gleaned from my morning session, and tomorrow I’ll share what I learned from the afternoon portion of events.

Session One:  On Independent Reading

In my head, I called this session “What you do after you’ve read Book Love,” because it was full of amazing ideas that I’m certain would be Penny Kittle-approved.  One presenter, Andy Patrick (@MrPatrickELA), absolutely blew my mind with the ways he’s clearly innovated independent reading.

Idea:  Reverse Reading Rates–Andy explained that when students chose a challenge book, they took a new reading rate and then used their findings to determine how long it would take them to finish the book.  The students could set a completion goal, Andy could touch on this goal in his conferences with them, and when the book was finished, students reflected on their reading process.  Since I’ve struggled with reading rates and accountability, I just loved this idea.

Quote:  “I never let them off the hook” when they tell me they don’t like reading.  Andy followed this fantastic one-liner up with his philosophy that they just weren’t reading the right books, and it was his job to help his students find them.

Just Joy:  I left this session absolutely impassioned thanks to Andy’s flurry of ideas.  He tossed out strategies like using quotes about the joy of reading as quickwrite prompts, his determination to get colleagues on board with teaching reading across the curriculum, and how great teachers of reading cannot excel unless they are real readers themselves.  YAAAAAAAASSSSSSS was the prevailing word in my notebook after that session!

Session Two:  Strategies for Reading, Writing, and Grammar

After leaving the first session, I had no idea how any other speakers could top that.  Luckily, I was just as inspired by three preservice teachers who’d done their internships in middle school ELA classrooms, and who shared their optimism for our profession in the form of their research.

Idea:  Say Something Journals–Sierra shared that many of her seventh graders weren’t engaged in reading independently or as a whole class, and she wanted a way to spark their interest in their texts.  She created journals, simply folded out of notebook paper, in which students could practice recording their internal reactions to something while reading during class.  When they were reading shared texts, she had students trade journals and giggle about the similarities and differences in their reactions.  The journals culminated in getting the reader to “say something” about the “something” they believed the writer was trying to “say.”  I loved Sierra’s emphasis on the transactional nature of reading, rather than a linear interpretation of a book’s message.

Quote:  “Why don’t they just capitalize their i’s?!” said Tori, who struggled with getting her 8th graders to use grammatical conventions in their writing, even after conferences and practice sessions in which students proved they knew what they were supposed to be doing.  Tori’s presentation was characterized by her sheer love of grammar and her bewilderment about why the heck kids could study mentor texts, send flawless text messages, and yet still refuse to obey the conventions of standard English.

One student’s response?  “Well, I just think capital I’s aren’t very cute.”

Just Joy:  Charity brought sophistication and high expectations to her 8th graders by teaching them about what critical literacy is and then working with them to practice it when reading nonfiction texts.  She focused on helping students develop discussion skills to practice thinking, reading, writing, and speaking within a critical literacy framework, all while reading place-based texts they helped her select.

I think my jaw was on the ground throughout the whole of this brilliant young teacher’s presentation–I want my daughter in her classroom someday, I kept thinking to myself.  What a treat to end my morning by feeling so hopeful about the new talent entering our profession!

Stay tuned for Part II of this post tomorrow, and please share with us in the comments–what have you learned from strong PD sessions you’ve attended?

Shana Karnes lives in West Virginia and teaches sophomore, junior, and senior preservice teachers at West Virginia University.  She finds joy in all things learning, love, and literature as she teaches, mothers, and sings her way through life.  Follow Shana on Twitter at @litreader.

 

Ask Your Students: What is Engagement?

Between the World and Me

A few weeks ago I ran into a brick wall with a project in my classroom.  I promised an update, but what I have for you is so much more.

I took Shana’s advice and asked my students, WHAT WILL ENGAGE YOU?!  However, as I thought about asking them that question, I found myself wondering if they would know what I meant.

All teachers aim for engagement, administrators search for engagement and attempt to quantify it, but how many students have been explicitly taught what it is we truly desire from them?

I set out to do just that last week.  I knew we would be working with three different concepts that I think are frequently muddled in the classroom.

Fun.  Compliance.  Engagement.

I also knew we needed a purpose/audience for the discussion, so I explained to the students that they would be assisting me in writing this blog post.

I never knew it would be necessary to define these words, but as I doled out a different word to each table group, I walked around to notice a lot of the same conversations happening at each table.

What would a fun classroom feel like?

It would feel like everyone doing what they want, being productive, and everyone would be happy.

What would a compliant classroom feel like?

A compliant classroom would feel how school is supposed to feel; come in, get your work done, leave. 

What would an engaged classroom feel like?

It would feel like students being able to choose their paths.  It would feel like happiness because the students would know the teacher and classmates cared about them.

These students have been taught to be compliant their entire educational career.  Sure, it is necessary to be compliant in terms of respect, but if you are ONLY EVER compliant, you’re being robbed of the best part of learning: Recognizing you can push your mind further than you ever imagined.

I want an engaged classroom.  You want an engaged classroom. Oprah wants an engaged classroom.  EVERYBODY WANTS AN ENGAGED CLASSROOM.

So if compliant and engaged classrooms both get work done, what’s the difference?

Engage: (v.) pledge or enter into a contract to do something; establish a meaningful connection with.

Did you catch that?

To engage means to commit and connect.  That doesn’t just change classrooms, it changes lives.

So why is it so hard? Commitment and connection don’t come through passivity or apathy, they require effort and exertion.  They require pushing past the point of comfort (for both students and teachers), and sitting in the pain–not because you want to, but because you committed to it.

As we discussed why a classroom should not be all fun, Andy had an enlightening thought.  He said, “I think the problem is, any time you take part in something, you’re sacrificing something else.  I think a lot of students are afraid to sacrifice their own comfort to make a connection with someone.  There’s always the risk, too, that you won’t connect, and then it’s like you lost twice.”

Sometimes I forget the amount of fear that exists in the classroom on a daily basis.  Commitment asks us to sacrifice the easy path.  Connection asks us to say goodbye to selfishness.  All of this has to take place before engaged learning can happen!

It takes a straight up ninja to pull that out of every student in every class period!

We ended this mini-unit with a Socratic Seminar.  I love me some good structured talk.

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2nd Period Preparing for Socratic Seminar/Live Tweeting

What is the purpose and direction of our learning?  How can we make our classroom a space of authentic dialogue and engagement? (Question credit goes to my emergency lesson-saver, Shana.)

Zoe said she never liked English until she had choice.  She also said she wanted to do more talking about books in a way that connected with her classmates and what they were reading.

Dee said she enjoys higher level thinking.  What might happen if _____ happened to someone you know?  Would you handle things the way this character did?  What would you change? (Her suggested questions.)

4th period agreed they would like to deal with real world issues, and have choice in how they present their findings (poetry, video, podcast, etc.).

2nd period explained it should be about the learning, not about the grades, but it’s been that way for so long that they don’t know how else to operate.

Grady said, “School gives you a chance to do something great with your life, but you have to DO SOMETHING to be great.”

Shahin said, “Compliance is a downfall because you just follow orders and don’t think for yourself.  It makes it to where you will always need a boss, or you won’t know how to operate.”

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Listening most often leads to learning, and I sure learned a LOT last week! Thanks for the ideas, #PaxThinkTank!!

Is your classroom one of compliance, engagement, fun, or a mixture?  How do you communicate with your students what you expect from them each day?

Jessica Paxson is an English IV and Creative Writing teacher in Arlington, TX.  She frequently feels as though someone made a mistake in allowing her to hold the futures of over 100 teenagers in her jittery, over-caffeinated hands for the past two years.  If you enjoy watching her make a fool of herself by being unbearably vulnerable, you can catch more of that over at www.jessicajordana.com. Follow her on Twitter or Instagram @jessjordana.

 

10 Things We Did That Invited Initiative — and Growth

It is 6:00 am. I stayed up all night playing with this blog and our Facebook page and Pinterest and Instagram and exploring this app and that extension and whatever else called on me to click on it. I didn’t even realize I’d blown the night up until my Fitbit buzzed telling me to get up and workout. Thank God it is a holiday!

I cannot help but think (besides about how tired I will be all day) about engagement. I remember a while ago I read Danial Pink’s book Drive and then watched the RSA Animate video on motivation. We really will spend time, lots of time, doing the things we want to do be it reading, writing, learning a new skill, climbing a mountain, or sinking into the social-media–abyss. We just have to want to.

So how do we get our students to WANT TO do the things we know will make a difference in their lives, namely, read more, write more, communicate better, think more critically?

We keep trying.

i just finished a semester with my students. I wish I could say that every child read more than he ever has in his life, wrote better than she ever has since she held a pencil, learned to speak with ‘proper’ English and clear eye contact, and thought like a rocket scientist trying to get a man to the moon.

Some did. Some did, and honestly, the first few days of school, I didn’t think they would. But I kept trying.

Here’s a list of the top 10 things I kept doing, even when I was tired, even when I thought they weren’t listening, even when we all wanted to hide behind dark curtains and ring a bell for a cup of tea. (That will be me later today.)

We read at the beginning of class every day (almost — we had about six days throughout the semester when something somehow got in the way of that, i.e., fire drills, assemblies, wonky bell schedules, my car dying on the way to school).

We talked about books A LOT. Book talks, reading challenges, reading goals, tweeting book selfies, and more.

We wrote about our books enough to practice writing about our books. Theme statements, mirroring sentences, analyzing characters and conflict and plot — just enough to keep our minds learning and practicing the art of noticing an author’s craft.

We wrote about topics we care about. With the exception of the first essay students wrote, which was all the junior English teachers committed to as a pre-assessment, students chose their own topics or wrote their own prompts. Donald Murray in Learning by Teaching says the hardest part of writing is deciding on what to write about, yet we so often take that hard thinking from our writers. The worst essays my students wrote was the only one in which I gave a prompt, and before you think it’s just because that was their first essay, nope, I asked them. They just didn’t care — and that is the worst way to start off the year in a writing class.

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We read mentor texts and learned comprehension skills and studied author’s craft. I chose highly engaging texts about current events in our society:  police shootings and being shot, taking a knee during the national anthem, race relations, our prison system, immigration issues — all topics that make us ask as many questions as the writers answer. Inquiry lived in our discussions.

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We talked one-on-one about our reading and our writing. I conferred more than I have in the past, taking notes so I wouldn’t forget as students told me about their reading lives and their writing woes. We spoke to one another as readers and writers. We grew to like each other as individuals with a variety of interests, backgrounds, ideas, and dreams.

We shared a bit of ourselves — mostly in our writing — than we ever thought we would. Abusive mothers, alcoholic fathers, hurtful and harrowing pasts and how we grow up out of them. We talked about respect within families and how we can hurt the people we love the best when we ignore their love because it’s masked in fear and strict parenting.

a slice of Daniel’s semester exam essay

We celebrated our writing by sharing what we wrote, by performing spoken word poems, reading our narratives, or reading our quickwrites. We left feedback on sticky notes and flooded our writers.

We grew in confidence and that showed in our work. I held students accountable with high expectations — and lots of mercy. Most rose to the challenge, even those in their first AP class and those far behind who needed to catch up. Most exceeded their own expectations.

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We joined communities of readers and writers on social media, building a positive digital footprint that shows we are scholars, students who care about their literacy and want to go to college. We wrote 140 character book reviews and explored Goodreads and shared covers of the books we were reading. #IMWAYR #readersunite #FridayREADS #FarmersREAD

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I will miss the juniors in my block class who are done with English for the year. They were a joy, although a challenge, pretty much every day. And my AP kiddos, they are ready for the kind of learning we will do to face down that exam come May.

We will keep doing what we do: Whatever it Takes to Grow as Readers and Writers (even if it means a lack of sleep.)

What do you do to motivate your learners? Please share your ideas in the comments.

 

Amy Rasmussen lives in north Texas and teaches AP English Language and English 3 to the Fighting Farmers at Lewisville High School. She adheres to the words of Emerson: “We aim above the mark to hit the mark,” and Jesus Christ: “Love one another.” Imagine a world if we all love more than we think we can. Follow Amy on Twitter @amyrass.

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#3TTWorkshop –Right Now Literacy

My 11th grade curriculum overview begins:  Unit I of English III invites students to explore multi-genre texts that reflect diverse perspectives through reading and writing. Students evaluate the credibility of different viewpoints and consider how the ideas of others strengthen their own voice.

I set out to design lessons that met these guidelines. I began introducing a variety of contemporary texts in a variety of forms — all about high interest, high profile topics. Good idea, I thought, for a never-an-empty-seat diverse class of sixteen year olds.

My plans quickly met resistance right there in the classroom, and I faced the terrifying conclusion:  My students are too biased to recognize bias, too emotionally attached to their own viewpoints, so they are blinded to the viewpoints of others.

Reminds me of a few of my “friends” on Facebook, a few of the people I follow on Twitter, a lot of the stories on pretty much any type of social media.

This fall as I’ve designed lessons, it’s been one puzzle piece after another as I’ve worked to meet the needs of all of my students in the limited amount of time they are with me. (Accelerated block means I have them only one semester.)

Then, the presidential election happened. The doublespeak, the false news, the protestors, the name calling, the ramifications, the incivility…on every side.

Obviously, my students are not the only ones who suffer from a suffocating bias that makes them blind.

And I am bothered. I know many of you are bothered, too.

So as educators, what do we do about it?

I wrote about this idea of Right Now Literacy in a post as I reflected on NCTE. I would love for the educators I trust most to help me think and expand this idea in a once a month post. The first Wednesday of each month, I’ll first get the ideas rolling and then ask questions to Shana and Lisa, and then we’ll run a post centered around my on-going investigation of right now literacy.

We invite you to join this conversation by voicing your own thinking in the comments. Here goes:

Amy:  We all attended some great sessions at NCTE, and we’ve all written posts with some of our reflections. One session that we attended together (thanks for saving me a seat) shines as a highlight for me:  The panel discussion called Expert to Expert: The Joy and Power of Reading with Kylene Beers, Pam Allyn, Ernest Morrell, and Kwame Alexander. (Lisa, I know you cried at least once. I would’ve slipped you a tissue if I had one.)

What was your biggest takeaway from that session?

Lisa: My biggest takeaway is that I should bring Kleenex to NCTE sessions. Rookie mistake. I had no idea how powerful this learning would be!

I wrote yesterday about Kwame Alexander’s insights that we must “be the manufacturers and purveyors of hope,” and that we must “help students become more human.” These ideas have propelled quite a bit of writing and reflecting in recent days as I reexamine my daily practice through the lens of developing my students as people as well as learners.

Early in my career, I was just getting my footing. I taught the way I had been taught and the way my collaborating teachers were teaching. It was pretty traditional. But about a decade ago, our department really started changing. More choice, more authentic assessments, more student voice. I learned to talk with my students instead of at them. Alexander’s quotes above reiterate this to me. Hope for the future flourishes when people take ownership of resolving problems with well reasoned and fair solutions. In this case, allowing students to take ownership of much of their learning fosters hope for their futures as critical thinkers and skilled communicators.

In that same vein, I’ve examined the resources I have made available to kids, because as Kylene Beers said in the same session, “If you don’t have kids falling in love with reading, take a look at the books in your room.”  All of these ideas together remind me that I need to consistently refine my role in the classroom to see learning through the eyes of my diverse students and their unique experiences. While my ideas, plans, and suggestions might guide our daily practice, it’s the students that fuel the inquiry and it’s their discoveries that we expand on to emulate in writing, debate as a class, and guide future reading selections.

Shana:  Pam Allyn is right up there with Penny Kittle and Tom Romano in terms of people who have impacted my teaching life profoundly.  She is brilliant and brave and I fell madly in love with her and her work at NCTE last year, when I sat next to her mother to listen to a similar session.  We got to turn and talk to our neighbors about a variety of topics, and at the time, I was pregnant with my daughter.  I’ll never forget Pam’s mother telling me about the books she’d read to Pam as a young child, and I think of that every time I read to Ruthie–look what a literary giant was borne of a simple indoctrination into a love of reading.

But, I digress.  Pam referred to the fact that the day she spoke was the anniversary of the Gettysburg address, a “hopeful story on a ground of despair.”  She mentioned this in the context of saying that “we’ve been enculturated to allow injustice to occur, especially in education.  We have to say when something isn’t working.

For me, that rang true.  I can’t sit back and listen to people discuss practices of blatant readicide, assuming someone else will speak up–they have been enculturated not to.  Instead of viewing this as a battle, though, I think standing up for what’s right is an act of hope.  As Kwame said, “Teachers, librarians, and parents are purveyors and manufacturers of hope.  We have to offer literature to kids to help them find, raise, and share their voices.”  That’s what I want literature to do for kids, and I have to speak up about it.

Amy:  When Ernest Morrell answered Kylene’s question about the kind of literature we should be reading now with the comment: “We are in a new classic movement in English Language Arts. It’s a need for right now literature.” I thought of a million reasons why a workshop pedagogy fits the immediate need of students today. It wasn’t seconds before my brain connected so many dots made bold by the election:  What we really need is Right Now Literacy, not just literature.

Here’s some of the thoughts percolating in my notebook (They may even work as chapter headings).

  • Story as an Equalizer — How do we give voice to every student’s story?
  • Audience Participation — How do we truly give voice if we are the only listener?
  • Communication as Compromise — How do we move speaking and listening skills to the forefront of instruction?
  • Reading as Literacy Presencing — How do we provide opportunities and encourage students to see themselves in the books they read?
  • Reading as a Bridge — How do we provide opportunities and encourage students to view multiple perspectives?
  • Critical Lenses — How do we teach bias, fallacies, multiple viewpoints, how to validate of sources, including a focus on digital literacy?
  • Design Thinking — How do we shift learning to designing? This is what employers want.

How do you define Right Now Literacy? What would you add or take away?

Shana:  Amy, you are so great at conceptualizing books as mirrors, windows, or doors.  I was thinking about this and realized that while I’ve heard those terms thrown around a lot at NCTE, I don’t know where they originated.  After some googling I discovered the work of Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop, who pioneered the idea of taking these terms from architecture and applying them to the reading of literature.  Here are her words:

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 and 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.

So, those concepts to me are central to what Right Now Literacy is:  in an era of homophily and a lack of cultural responsiveness, we need to teach kids how to see not just literature as windows, doors, or mirrors, but also the stories of other people’s lives.  I’ll draw on the Tom Newkirk lovefest when Tom’s editor read aloud the first line of his book, Minds Made for Stories:  “Our theories are really disguised autobiographies, often rooted in childhood.”  She advised us to get curious about the stories that lead people to their stances and belief.  I don’t think kids know how to do this, and for me it’s a big part of Right Now Literacy.

Lisa: I love what Shana shared about literature reflecting the “larger human experience,” and how we seek ourselves in books. In addition to these ideas, I think what Amy referred to as “suffocating bias” is at the top of my Right Now Literacy Focus.

Literacy instruction can be daunting enough when goal is to help students gain the necessary skills to first comprehend, then analyze, and evaluate what they read. This is, of course, in addition to the self-affirmation piece Sims references. But now, it’s become downright demoralizing that teaching literacy must not only mean standing guard against bias, but evaluating sources of “news” for outright lies.  

But while it’s difficult to stomach that teaching these additional skills has to be a part of Right Now Literacy, and that we need articles like NPR’s “Fake or Real? How to Self-Check the News and Get the Facts,” this is necessary work in our modern world. Students need to be able to sift through the information around them, tossing out the misleading and sometimes incendiary “news,” if we are to hope that they can synthesize the perspectives and get back to the enlightening work of finding that self-affirmation referenced above.

 

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photo by Jeremy Thomas   Longmont, United States

Amy:  Thanks for sharing your thoughts here, Lisa and Shana. Dear Readers, I hope you will join the conversation, too. What are your thoughts on a Right Now Literacy?

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