Category Archives: Community

The Yearning to Learn Carries On

Just like Nathan Coates in his post last week, I have been thinking about the conversation surrounding Critical Race Theory in schools. From what I have seen in my area, fear is playing a huge role: fear of the unknown, fear of discomfort, fear of hard conversations. Now, I firmly believe that many of the things coming up for CRT are misguided. Too many terms are becoming synonymous that aren’t- “anti-racism” is equated with “white fragility” is equated with “race-baiting” is equated with “critical race theory.” It seems to go on and on, but each of these things is so different from the next.

As I took my first vacation with my husband alone since our honeymoon four years ago to Atlanta, Georgia last week, I had an epiphany. I mentioned in a post a few weeks ago that nature is where I come up with my best writing ideas. While exploring Georgia, specifically Sweetwater Creek State Park, I took a moment to sit on a big swath of metamorphic rock (I originally wrote “granite,” but my geologist husband corrected me) lodged into the hill on the riverside to watch the whitewater flow. Lots of things came up for me: this water kept flowing amidst a worldwide pandemic, this water kept ceaselessly eroding away the rock beneath it while we struggled to figure out what school looked like this year and what was best for students, and this water kept finding the path of least resistance while fear was being brandished after racial reckoning, insurrection, and the fallout. I got emotional as I realized that our kids kept going, too. It was different from all the years before, but they still had an obvious ache inside of them for learning. Just like that water, their natural human tendency to want knowledge and want to understand kept flowing. I think I forgot that at times this year.

If you ever go to the state park, this can be seen on the red trail.

While I was stuck in my mindset about how learning has looked for decades and how that was so different this year, I missed some amazing moments that I am just realizing right now. Together, my students and I processed a pandemic, the politics that raged around that pandemic, the racial reckoning, the history-making insurrection, and the movement toward a more “normal” return to life. They created powerful “America to Me” videos to start off the year so we could see our country through their eyes (using this video as a mentor text). They taught me new things about how to look at texts during their book clubs. They took on big topics that they felt passionate about and researched them to create a website for publishing (adapted from an idea from Kelly Gallagher using this site as a mentor text). We may have read less texts and written less formal essays than in years past, but these kids learned. Not because of me, but because of their instinctive will as human-beings to make meaning. No one could have stopped their learning no matter how hard they tried.

With this epiphany and the war against CRT gnawing at the back of my mind, I realized that the kids are going to be alright. I am hoping for some more nuanced conversations between politicians and adults about what CRT actually is and what free speech/true inquiry in the classroom should look like, but even if all those adults let these kids down by not having those tough but necessary conversations, I know my kids will keep talking about it. They will keep asking questions and not stopping until they get an answer. They have a deep yearning to learn that can’t be thwarted by misguided laws, just like that body of water won’t be stopped by rocks or trees. My hope lies in the fact that the kids will always find a way to make meaning, no matter what we do or don’t do. However, our job is to remove the obstacles to learning to make it flow easier, not add more resistance to their path.

*Many of our curriculum ideas mentioned here were created in large part due to my colleague, Deanna Hinnant’s, amazing mind. You can find her at @DAHinnant on Twitter.

Rebecca is moving into her 5th year of teaching at a new school, Conroe High School. She is looking forward to a fresh start and all the ways this move is getting her out of her comfort zone. In the meantime before school starts up again, she is resting hard by bingeing TV, reading tons of books, and relaxing in the pool. She is currently reading Sanctuary by Paola Mendoza and Abby Sher. You can find Rebecca @riggsreaders on Instagram or @rebeccalriggs on Twitter.

Micro-writing for the Win

Sometimes it takes a lot of patience. That was my first thought when I read Sarah’s post last month The Hits Will Come. She shares how baseball and writing have a lot in common–both require a lot of practice. And sometimes the “hits” come quickly for student writers. Sometimes they don’t. Sometimes we have to help students want to even try to write a hit.

My thoughts turned to a student I taught last year. I’ll call him Dan. The very first day of class as I made the rounds, trying to speak to each students individually for just a moment, Dan said to me, “Miss, I know you just said we were gonna write a lot in this class, but I gotta tell you, I can’t write. I mean, really, not even a decent sentence.”

theofficeofficequotes.com

Of course, I appreciated the honesty, and that Dan thought enough about how I started the class to tell me straight up how he felt, but inside I was thinking, “Dude, you are a senior about to graduate high school in a couple of months, what do you mean you can’t write a sentence?” Of course, I didn’t say that. Instead I asked him why he thought he couldn’t write. His answer still makes me angry.

“My teacher last year told me,” he said. “I failed every essay. I just couldn’t seem to write what she wanted me to write.”

So many thoughts.

Over the course of the first several days of class, I made sure to find the time to talk with Dan. I learned that he had plans to go into the military as soon as he graduated. I learned that the only book he’d read all the way through in his 11 years of school was American Sniper by Chris Kyle.

And during the next few weeks, I learned that Dan could write–when he chose what he wanted to write about, and when his peers and I gave him feedback that made him feel like he was a writer. This took a lot of time and patience.

First, Dan had to want to write. He had to know that I wasn’t going to judge whatever he put on the page. He had to trust that I was sincere in 1) wanting to know what he thought, 2) helping him string sentences together so they said what he wanted them to say.

Reading helped. Since Dan liked Chris Kyle’s book, I helped him find other books written by those who had served in the Armed Forces. Lone Survivor by Marcus Luttrell and No Easy Day by Mark Owen were ones my own soldier son had read. Then, I found the list “Best Modern Military Accounts” on Goodreads.com and the article The 13 Best Books the Military Wants Its Leaders to Read. Dan didn’t read any of these books (not for my lack of trying to get him to choose a book), but during independent reading time, he did read about them–and this was enough to give me talking points to help him understand why growing in his confidence as a writer might be in his best interest– and topics for him to write about that semester.

Relationships helped. Since Dan had been so forthright with me about his experience with writing, I asked if he’d share his thoughts about writing with the peers who shared his table. He was all too eager! I’m pretty sure he thought his peers would share his writing woes. But like a miracle from heaven, Dan happened to have chosen to sit with two confident and capable writers. These students did not know one another before my class, but they grew to trust each other as we followed the daily routines of self-selected independent reading, talking about our reading, writing about our reading (or something else personal or thematically related to the lesson), and sharing our writing with our table groups.

Prior to independent notebook writing time, sometimes I’d say, “Today as you share your writing in your groups, let’s listen for just one phrase or sentence that you think holds a punch. Talk about why you like what they wrote.” This instruction gave students a heads up. Oh, I need to be sure to write at least one pretty good sentence.

One pretty good sentence was a good starting place for Dan. This micro writing gave Dan his first “hits.” And once he started to gain some confidence, he started to write more. Once Dan started to write more, he started asking for help to make his writing better. I think that is what it means to be a writer–wanting to improve your writing.

I think sometimes we get rushed. We expect more than some students are able to give. When I first started teaching, I assigned writing instead of teaching writers. Thank God I learned a better way. I would have missed out on a lot of joy in my teaching career.

I don’t know that Dan will ever have to write in his career in the military. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that he can write, and he knows he can. Even if it’s just a pretty good sentence and another and another.

Amy Rasmussen lives in a small but about to burst small town in North Texas with her husband of 35 years, her poison dart frogs Napoleon and Lafayette, her Shelties Des and Mac, and her extensive and time-consuming rare tropical plant collection. She believes educators should Do Nothing all summer. (Affiliate link, so you buy, 3TT gets a little something.) You can find Amy on Twitter @amyrass, although she rarely tweets anymore, or on IG @amyleigh_arts1, where she posts about grandkids and grand plants.

Tried and (Still) True: An Architectural Approach to Writing

Helen Becker

If you know me, you know that I am a Brene’ Brown fan. No, take that back. I’m a huge Brene’ Brown fan. Brown helps me make my life make sense, both personally and professionally. Brown’s work as an ethnographic researcher influenced my research in educational best practices. As I began my doctoral research in self-efficacy and perceptions of college and career readiness among high school students, I gravitated to Brown’s experiences in grounded theory. Grounded theory, she writes, evolves from people’s lived experiences rather than from experimentation to prove or disprove theories.

Brown adds, “In grounded theory, we don’t start with a problem or a hypothesis or a literature review, we start with a topic. We let the participants define the problem or their main concern about the topic, we develop a theory, and then we see how it fits in the literature.”

Reflecting on these statements, I had an “A ha!” moment: much the same happens in the writing process when a teacher allows students to authentically express their thoughts and ideas. We create opportunities for our students to start with a topic – maybe a person, place, or a moment – and see where the writing takes them. Then we add layers and layers of instruction to shape the first draft into new drafts and eventually, maybe, into various writing products. A poem? Perhaps. An essay? Form follows function.

We teach writers how to bend their writing into new and different forms rather than generating prompt after prompt after prompt for students to write in circles of nothingness.

So how does Brene’ Brown fit into this blog post? Brown’s May 4th Dare to Lead podcast features author and leadership expert, Douglas Conant, and his new book (with Amy Federman) The Blueprint: 6 Practical Steps to Lift Your Leadership to New Heights. Conant’s book, like many featured by Brown, has high priority on my “To Read Next” list. In the podcast, Conant discusses the importance of a strong foundation to guide us through times of uncertainty. Times like now. Our experiences, Conant states, are a blueprint for our future.

Brown and Conant’s discussion intersected my own thinking as I pondered the next installment of “Tried and (Still) True” for Three Teachers Talk. What came to mind? Blueprinting.

Blueprint writing from an equity stance means considering spaces other than the “traditional” blueprint layout.

Tried and (Still) True – June 2021

This month, I’m sharing The Blueprint, modified from a lesson learned by many Abydos teachers, with credit for the original lesson going to Dr. Joyce Armstrong Carroll in the first edition of Acts of Teaching and Peter Stillman in Families Writing. While the original lesson described in Acts of Teaching calls for a house-esque foldable, over the years, I modified the lesson to have students think about any dwelling space (a home, a basketball arena, a car) where they could envision a blueprint. Modifying the lesson in this way meets the needs of students who may not have a place to call home but rather a place where they feel at home.

Here’s a rough sketch of The Blueprint lesson cycle:

We begin with the concept of a blueprint: what is a blueprint, who uses it, what it communicates, and why it is important? We look at sample blueprints and engage in some inferential thinking based on what the blueprint communicates between and beyond the architect’s blue lines.

Then I invite students to think about a space that is important to them. We might draw on previous pre-writing activities such as “People, Places, Moments” or an A to Z list. I encourage students to think about spaces other than a house: one student drew the dashboard of his beloved vintage (beatup) Camaro while another chose the principal’s office because he spent a lot of time there. Before students land on a place to sketch, I model how I sketched the blueprint of my grandmother’s house in Longview, Texas. I tell them how the details you can’t remember don’t matter. What matters is what you remember. I also remind them this isn’t Art class. I’m not grading the accuracy of the drawing.

Once students get their own blueprint generated, I have them focus on one aspect of the blueprint where they can add more detail: what is on the walls? Is there furniture? Plants or trees? Photos? This line of inquiry generates more details to add to the blueprint.

For example, some student-writers feel more comfortable on the basketball court or soccer field.

Then I invite students to write about the connections they feel to this space or to one aspect of the space they just drew. These connections may turn into a narrative or an informative piece or a poem. Form follows function.

One year, a student blueprinted my classroom. He wrote, “In Mrs. Becker’s classroom, I can be myself. I can walk in the door, sit in my desk, look at the pictures of her family, and I feel like I am part of her family too.”

Carroll says in Acts of Teaching, blueprinting “allows students to recreate places that hold memories worth writing about” (18). It is in these memories that stories come back to life from the perspective of the writer, now a few years older and hopefully wiser. Collecting these stories on paper, what Brene’ Brown calls “storycatching,” becomes a means to understand our past and use our memories, both positive and negative, to guide our writing and shape our future selves.

About the author:

One time I blueprinted my Moscow kitchen and wrote about scorching quinoa and testing the bounds of international relations.

Dr. Helen Becker has used blueprint writing as a pre-writing vehicle in nearly every high school ELA course she has ever taught, accounting for roughly 16 years of her own blueprint stories! She has blueprinted about life in her tiny Moscow apartment (pictured here) with her husband as well as the layout of the #8 hole – her nemesis – at Leland Country Club. In her current role as a Research Data Analyst for Clear Creek ISD in the Houston, Texas, area, she is more likely to blueprint her two-screen Excel spreadsheet dashboard than the dashboard of her car.  Her newest blueprint story though? Designing the guest room of her new home to welcome her first grandson for a visit at the end of June. The library of children’s books continues to grow by the day.

Using sorts to shake up the routine and move toward student-generated talk

So much of what happens in English class is internal. Students read and think, they think and write, and we work to help them make their thinking visible. When we aren’t reading and writing we’re often talking, which can still feel internal (or less hands-on) as we process what others say and ponder how to respond. Sometimes, especially at the end of the year, I feel the weight of this routine and want to shake things up so we can better enter into into those reading, thinking, and writing times.

One small strategy I’ve been relying on this year to add some hands-on moments in my junior English classes is a simple sort. Basically I gave each group a pile of examples (short texts, images, quotes, etc.), asked them to sort the examples on their tables, and asked them to defend their arrangements. The task is quick, collaborative, somewhat tactile, and it gives me a chance to engage each group with some on-the-spot feedback as groups tend to stand around their tables (you can see this in the second picture below) and try different sorting patterns. We often did this as a bell-ringer to review the previous lesson or as an extension activity. It can be as quick as five minutes or drawn out to fifteen if the discussion is rich and I spend time with each group. This year my room was organized in 7 groups of 4 and we tried the following types of sorts:

  • Spectrum sort: Students sorted these sources on a spectrum between “truthiness” and “factfulness” (our research unit focus was conspiracy theories) and then had to defend the placement. This gave me a chance to ask groups and individuals really specific sourcing questions: “Why is the Flat Earth tweet more factful than the Taylor Swift tweet? Why does your group have the article with a quote closer to truthiness than the NASA piece?” You could easily substitute any two traits on a spectrum to reframe the evaluation of examples.
  • Quadrant sort: Students map pictures of the characters (I usually do this with Of Mice and Men or Gatsby) into four quadrants using two traits like empathy and likability. For example, Curley’s wife may not be likable but we empathize with her. Tables can compare the four quadrants easily since it’s visual which extends the discussion. It also leads to great thinking about the two axis traits (for example, what do you notice about who we tend to empathize with? How does the Fitzgerald render Tom unlikable? Is likability or our ability to empathize with a character more important?). Students could easily re-map using two different traits. And really, after the sort and discussion they’re ready to write about these characters.  
  • Pattern sort: For this I usually tell students: “Choose a way to organize the examples you have.” I’ve used quotes, books, and editorial cartoons (I pull 5-6 from the current week). They usually struggle to think of how to do this, figure something out, explain their logic, and then I tell them, “Great. Now do it a different way.” It forces them to think about the relationships between the texts or ideas in different ways as they generate their own spectrums or quadrants. I like to do this after independent reading when people have a variety of books because the discussion becomes rich as they consider character, plot, structure, setting, and symbols without realizing that’s what they’re doing. When sorting quotes, it’s a good segway into thinking about the structure of an essay (considering the quotes like different examples you might organize).

This is a pre-Covid example of a pattern sort my students did with their summer reading novels.

  • Classification sort: This is a more straight-forward formative check. I can quickly tell if students have the right mode for this collection of short visual texts and coach them on-the-spot.

This is not a magical or earth-shattering strategy, but it’s easily adaptable and I like how it enables opportunities for me to shift from teacher-generated discussion to co-creation and student-generated discussion (see Kallack and Zmuda for more on this).

Teacher Generated

I specify the type of sort and the parameters

ex: create a quadrant sort for these Gatsby characters based on their likability and empathy

Teacher and Student Co-Created

I specify the type of sort and they set the parameter

ex: create a quadrant sort for these Gatsby characters by choosing two traits

Student Generated

Students specify the type of sort they will use and articulate their own parameters

ex: take these examples and organize them in some fashion; be ready to defend how and why they’re organized that way

The liveliness of the discussion makes me keep coming back to this simple strategy. Because it’s hands-on and visual students willingly engage and it adds energy to the room.  I’m able to talk more with students (instead of at them) as they work. By catching each group I can directly question or follow-up with nearly every student during a sort. This lets the lesson start with a conflict or problem to solve so it gives us momentum. Then we’re ready to dive into the next reading, thinking, or writing task, a little more awake, a little more ready to take on the world.

Nathan Coates teaches junior English at Mason High School, a large suburban district near Cincinnati, Ohio. He’d love to hear what books you’re excited about reading or adding to your class reading lists next year: coatesn@masonohioschools.com

Returning to the Classroom – A Masked Year in Uncertain Times

When I found out late last summer that I’d be returning to the classroom in person, full time for the 2020/2021 school year, I was equal parts elated and terrified. Having basically not left my house in months, I couldn’t fathom how we’d manage to move back into the classroom with any sense of normalcy or how I’d keep myself, my family, my colleagues, and my students safe simultaneously. Pandemic teaching sounded to me like a mashup of dystopian proportions.

At the same time, teaching from home all last spring brought with it challenges I didn’t relish either (My husband and seven year old daughter were home working alongside me and there were times we were each/all ready to pack a bag and go…who knows where. Mostly elsewhere). I once again considered returning to my roots as a barista or possibly trying to sleep through the coming school year. Healthy, yes?

As news trickled in about navigating our return, it was clear we were building an airplane thirty-two thousand feet off the ground. A noble effort to be sure, but harrowing, dangerous, frightening, and quite possibly deadly. As educators have been time and again, we were being shoved to the front lines. Not as well-equipped or even trained first responders, but instead, as the humble servants who apparently swore oaths to serve and protect no matter the circumstances or cost. I was to be handed a mask and optional face shield, told to keep distance from the thirty students in my room, and do the job I had signed up to do. It did not sit well.

I raged – How could they ________ ?
(Fill in the above blank with four million questions about how it would all possibly work)

I feared for my safety – If I get sick what will happen to ________?
(Fill in the above blank with anyone I love and had been working so hard to protect in the previous months by staying home, masking, not hugging my own mother, etc.)

I cried – But what if _______?
(Fill in the above blank with an equal number of less rational and more emotionally charged wonders)

And while I’m not here to tell you it’s all gone perfectly, or that all of my initial concerns were or even could be addressed before we jumped in, or that the same will be true for you if you’ve yet to return – we have in fact done it. For eight months, I’ve taught in person and virtually at the same time (during the same class hour, in fact). 30 kids in my classroom. Masks all the day through. Suspicious eyes cast on every cough, sneeze, and inadvertently exposed nose.

We’ve shut down just once for two weeks last fall, but otherwise through a revolving door of exclusions for both students and teachers, staff turnover, extended class periods to allow time for cleaning each hour, and nervous moments spent supervising hundreds of unmasked students during lunch…we’ve supported one another through the uncertainty.

In some ways, things are no different than they ever were. My students read at the start of each period, write about what matters to them, and challenge themselves to discuss the weighty issues of our times both intelligently and diplomatically. The room looks much as it always has, but beneath the masks we wear each day, are fears and questions and uncertainties and trauma I could not have imagined last spring when I walked to my room in a haze on March 13th after a brief staff meeting suggesting our spring break would be extended by a week, gathered a few items to teach from home, and looked around at my empty classroom with a growing sense of dread.

Over a year later and as a mirror to live outside of my classroom, it all seems surreal. The longest school year of my life and the quickest. The most stressful, to be sure, but also the most challenging in ways that have caused me to grow in resilience, patience, and compassion.

A few days ago, Melissa asked if we were okay. My answer is yes, and no, and sort of, and I don’t even know. The layers of exhaustion wrought by worry, extra duties, student exclusions, positive Covid cases in my room, and teaching as I never have before (basically tethered to my desk so students at home can hear me while students in the room likely wonder whether my ankles are twisted or I’ve just grown lazy) are just too much. And yet, having kids in my classroom (and even teaching Virtual Film as Literature to 34 black Google Meet boxes), is the light in this dark time. Their curiosities and triumphs push me forward.

So, if you are staring down a return in fall, I cannot be the one to hug you (for obvious reasons) and say everything will be alright. But I can assure you through my example, that you are not alone in your fears, but likewise not alone in the overwhelming sense of joy you’ll feel by seeing your students in person and stretching in a thousand ways to inch back toward a new normal.

What I have learned in this past year (not related to making your own cleaning products, conserving toilet paper, or managing familial relations in close quarters for weeks on end) will forever change my teaching, but also solidify that nothing can shake the core principles that existed well before this pandemic …

  • Students and teachers are resilient, but still human:
    • If there was ever a circumstance to put patience and understanding at the forefront of our work, this pandemic is certainly a contender. It adds an ever present layer of uncertainty that is equal parts traumatic and debilitating. We’ve all experienced loss and change and fear and stress in ways we’ve collectively never experienced before. As ever, students need structure and support as they school in new and sometimes scary ways. Listen more/talk less. Write more/grade less. Read more/test less. Be there for your students, but also for yourself.
  • Reading and writing offer timeless benefits we know well, but choice is more important that ever:
    • I recall last spring, the push to have students write about their experiences in quarantine. And then the push back with the consideration that many students couldn’t/didn’t want to try and process this fresh trauma. It’s been my guide this year in offering students far more opportunities to process through SEL grounded prompts, but there’s always choice. Some students have written all year about the pandemic and what it’s meant to them, done to/for them, taken from them. Some students want to write about anything but. In the weeks and months ahead, our students will be on different timelines with their experiences and per the usual, it will be our job to be equal parts support system and challenger to process the world in which we live. Fall back always on choice – it provides for our students what our limiting circumstances often cannot.
  • Toxic positivity is not the answer, but active engagement in seeking positivity can be:
    • We cannot know how deep the cuts from our recent experiences truly are. We don’t know for ourselves or our students. Personally, the opportunity for deep and meaningful change that seems to have passed us by in hitting the pause button on traditional schooling is a deep cut. The standardized test slog is still in place (don’t get me started on the calls to measure “learning loss” with tests, tests, and more tests…though there are some reasonable voices out there), our hours/schedules/calendars are largely unchanged despite unprecedented additions of responsibilities and stress, and most importantly, to my mind, the opportunity to restructure in a meaningful way to address unconscionable achievement gaps often resulting from inequitable systems and misinformed priorities across education. This year has reminded me that I must continue to use my voice to advocate change in our work, but the moment to moment with kids demands that I give them as much positivity as I can muster. And when my store of smiles is low, I give myself the grace to take a step back, take a deep breath, and take time for myself, because in this circumstance we need to take a little to have anything left to give.

Above all, do what you need to do to balance the unending demands so that you and your family come first every single time. We are only as good for our students as we can be to ourselves, and we can be better each day when we prioritize our health, our loved ones, and our own sanity.

Lisa Dennis spends her school days teaching AP Language, English 9, and Virtual Film as Literature while also leading the fearless English Department at Franklin High School, just outside Milwaukee, Wisconsin where she lives with her husband Nick, daughter Ellie, and beagle Scout.  She now tries to live life based on the last pieces of advice her dad gave her –
Be kind. Read good books. Feed the birds. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum

Are You Doing Okay?

This has been a year.

The last time I wrote a post for Three Teachers Talk was last May when I was in the midst of trying to get my students to finish a research paper on the the “Positives of the Pandemic.” At the time I would never have thought that we would be teaching all school year in a pandemic and I would be trying again to teach a new research paper to students remotely (and to those in person) at the same time.

Last year I thought that teaching was hard. This year, teaching remotely and then concurrently to students in person and at home at the same time nearly broke me. I ask if you are doing okay, because it is okay if you aren’t okay. I wasn’t okay for much of this year. What we have been asked to do during this ongoing pandemic takes teaching to a new level. I thought I was a techie before (HAHA!), but boy was I wrong. I have learned so much (Canvas, Zoom, Remind, Google Hangouts, Padlet, Nearpod, Google Jamboard, Google Sites, EdPuzzle, etc.) and yet still feel like a failure everytime I am teaching my class.

This week I led a training for our 1st and 2nd year teachers focusing on the topic of our mental health and work/life balance. We read the article, A New Way to Think About Work-Life Balance, which resonated with me because until this fall I did not know what work/life balance really meant to me. I spent the first six months of the pandemic working all hours of the day and night, answering text messages and phone calls, spending hours on Zoom with administration, and by August I was burnt out and exhausted. I was not mentally in a place where I was excited to start the school year with students. In all 23 years of my teaching career, I have never felt this way before. I thought I needed work/life balance. I was not okay.

In A New Way to Think About Work-Life Balance, elementary school principal, Joe Mullikin, offers a new perspective. In reality there is no such thing as work/life balance. The key word being balance. It is impossible to “balance” lesson planning, grading, observations, family, me time, coaching, etc. all at one time, so instead we need to learn how to juggle, and know that it is OKAY to drop some “plastic balls” (responsibilities) from time to time as long as we don’t drop the “glass cups” (the things that make us who we are or are most important to us). Problems arise when we confuse “ghosts” (self-imposed, deep-seated, but nonessential expectations) with “glass cups”. Ghosts are not real and we need to be reminded to let them go.

As I started to prioritize the “glass cups”, my family and my health, and realized it was okay to juggle school responsibilities and drop some plastic balls each day, I started to feel better. Saying “no” to gave me more time for what I needed to prioritize in my life and keeping my family and my health at the center of every decision I make has made my life happier and less stressful. I also have more energy to handle the things like lesson planning and student feedback that I dreaded when I was so burnt out this fall.

As you begin take time to reflect on the 2020-2021 school year, I ask you to think about the “glass cups” in your life. Were you able to prioritize those this year? If not, what were the plastic balls and ghosts that kept you from investing in yourself? What will you do this summer to recharge and take care of yourself? What will you change for next year?

In the beginning of my post, I asked if you are okay? Please know that your mental and physical health are just as important as the care your have for the students you teach everyday. #YouMatter

Melissa Sethna lives and teaches with her husband in Mundelein, ILIn a normal school year, she is so busy coaching teachers and planning professional development (along with co-teaching her English class)This year she fell in love with Brene Brown podcasts, Studio Sweat on Demand spin workouts, coaching high school diving, and watching her own sons swim and play high school waterpolo. You can follow her on Goodreads and Twitter @msethna23.

The Culture Code and Writing Conferences: Part 1

I’m a sponge

“I love taking in so much new information that it just oozes out of me at the slightest provocation.” A friend recently described herself this way and, gross imagery aside, I get it. The feeling of having just read or heard or watched something new and being so INTO the idea that you can’t help but bring everything in every conversation back to that idea. We call this sponging. We’re very original.

She sponges…a lot. I sponge…less.

So when I do sponge, I stop and take notice. Last week I finished Daniel Coyle’s The Culture Code*,  which outlines ways to build effective, productive cultures by examining everything from the San Antonio Spurs to Zappos to a call center in India while sprinkling in a healthy amount of research to support his claims. I soaked it all up, finishing the book in a day – and then began oozing ideas about culture and long-term flourishing all over everyone and everything.

See, the book rests upon the idea that humans are constantly (consciously and unconsciously) asking themselves questions as they interact with others:  

  1. Are we connected? 
  2. Do we share a future? 
  3. Am I safe? 

If we can find ways to answer these questions for members in our groups, we can create robust cultures. Confronted with the powerful notion that our brains are trying to answer these three questions all the time even when we’re unaware, I couldn’t help but think of the implicit ways our writing conferences answer these questions and then began to think of ways to make the implicit explicit. So, over my next few blog posts, I’d like to discuss those three questions and how they relate to writing conferences, looking at strategies and routines we could implement to get more from this common practice.

Unpacking the Questions

Question 1: Are we connected? 

Coyle quotes MIT Professor Alex Pentland: “Modern society is an incredibly recent phenomenon. For hundreds of thousands of years, we needed ways to develop cohesion because we depended so much on each other. We used signals long before we used language, and our brains are incredibly attuned to certain types of behaviors.” In short, our brains are constantly and UNCONSCIOUSLY looking for clues that we are connecting to other individuals. It’s why we pay so much attention to facial expressions, why we maintain eye contact, why we turn our bodies to face the people we’re interested in. We’re looking to see that the energy we’re bringing to any given conversation is being matched, that we’re being treated as unique individuals. These often non-verbal cues speak loudly and help answer the second question humans are constantly (and again unconsciously) asking of each other. Part 2 of this series will look at the physical set up of writing conferences and routines I’ve built to answer the “are we connected” strategy. One such routine is my system of weekly feedbacks. You can read about them here

Question 2: Do we share a future?

The non-verbal cues from question one signal that the relationship will continue into the foreseeable future, letting us know that we are connected to others and, thus, are safe. In our social engagements, we have some choice about the kinds of relationships we engage in and the level to which we feel safe. For example, this question makes me think of a volleyball team I play on. With the end of the season nearing and none of us quite sure we want to continue to play together next season, that “do we share a future” question looms large. This uncertainty leads to awkwardness and doubt amongst the teammates, which, unsurprisingly, translates to the way we play on the court. We need a better culture. However, in the classroom, we can’t choose which kids sit in front of us day in and day out. So we might amend that question to “do we share a mutually respectful and productive future?” This safety question becomes even more important because those interactions are created non-voluntarily. Essentially, in our classrooms, our students might consistently be asking themselves (consciously or unconsciously), about the state of their relationship to us, checking in to see where we stand with each other. Answering that question often can put the brain at rest, prepping it to learn and grow more efficiently. Part 3 of this series will look at how we can answer this question through feedback routines and quick check ins with students AFTER the writing conference is over. 

Question 3: Am I safe? 

Maslow had it right – humans just want to know that they’re safe in any given situation. Granted, we’ve developed past the “is that a tiger in the bush” phase in our evolutionary cycle, so we’re less worried about getting actually eaten and more worried about getting metaphorically eaten. The combination of the physical cues (Q1)  that tell a student they belong and that we share a future together (Q2)  work to assure a student that she is safe in our room- safe to learn, to take risks, to grow.  Coyle writes, “They [the cues] seek to notify our ever-vigilant brains that they can stop worrying about dangers and shift into connection mode, a condition called psychological safety.” Part 4 of this series will look at how the one on one attention provided  by conferences allows students to calm the worrying part of their brain and focus more comfortably on the task at hand. I’ll also talk here about how I use writing conferences to navigate the move to a gradeless classroom inspired by Sarah Zerwin. You can read about fellow contributor Sarah Krajewski’s work in the gradeless classroom here

Where do we go from here?

As we begin to answer these questions for students we can work towards communicating our actual message: I care about you as a person and a student. I want you to learn and grow. From here, we can begin to say to students as Coyle writes: “You are part of this group. This group is special; we have high standards here. I believe you can reach those standards.”

*Affiliate link: If you purchase through this link, 3TT gets a little something.

Sarah Morris teaches AP English Language & Composition, AP Seminar  in Murfreesboro, Tn. She is currently rewatching The Good Place. She can’t help it. There’s something about this line from Chidi in Season 2 that gets her every time: “I argue that we choose to be good because of our bonds with other people and our innate desire to treat them with dignity. Simply put, we are not in this alone.” She tweets at @marahsorris_cms. 

Reading through Liberty

My two-year-old grandson is a master manipulator–or maybe he’s just brilliant.

Over the weekend, his mom and dad took a little anniversary trip, so Papa and I tended Indy and his baby brother. More than once, when we needed/wanted/pleaded with Indy to do a certain thing, he ran to the bookcase in our room, pulled out a book–or four or seven–and sat down to read. “Shh. Quiet,” he’d say, patting the space on the floor next to him in a commanding invitation to sit beside him.

What else is a grandparent to do but stop and read with the little man?

We all know the benefits of reading to young children. (Google gives “about 921,000,000 results” for the question.) We also know that somewhere along the way, many children, maybe especially adolescents, come to not like reading.

Most of us face two challenges:

How do I get students to read when they just don’t want to?

How do I get students to read when they just don’t seem good at it?

I used to think it was all about the books. You know, I’d pack the shelves in my classroom library with the most colorful, interesting, inclusive, newly published, award-winning books; I’d talk about these books A LOT, doing my best to match books with student interests. I’d do All The Things.

And, yeah, many students came to like our dedicated daily reading time. Some of them even came to like the books they read. Many of them claimed to have read more than they ever had before. I’m just not super sure how many students came to really like reading.

Maybe that’s okay.

The other day I saw this tweet by Sarah, a friend and contributor to this blog, and I quickly read the whole of the thread posted by Miah on April 4. It’s a beautifully constructed and compelling argument and well worth your time to read in full. Like Sarah, “I’ll be thinking about it for a long time.”

Today, I’m thinking about it here in relation to my tiny grandson and the reader he may be when he’s 10, 14, 17, or 37.

Miah lists reasons we teach reading: “We teach reading for. . .security. . .self-advocacy. . .freedom. . .economic security. . .social justice. . .evolution. . .social advancement. . .liberty in the highest sense of the word.”

and includes this sage advice–

I think we know what “the noise” is, even beyond how Miah describes it. There’s noise in so many aspects of our teaching lives. And sometimes, nay often, it is hard to ignore. Yet you and I both know we must.

And I think one way to do it is to position liberty: We teach reading for liberty, but we also teach reading through liberty.

If you’re nerdy like me, maybe you look up “liberty” in the dictionary. Merriam-Webster offers a whole list of definitions: “The quality or state of being free” and all the context descriptors–all but speak to the importance of student choice when it comes to reading in a high school English class. Thus, a robust classroom library and all the things.

Then, there’s this definition: “a right or immunity enjoyed by prescription or by grant PRIVILEGE

And there it is–the word privilege making me think again.

In context of my teaching practice, who has the liberty to talk, ask questions, move about the room, take risks, choose texts, shape plans, assess learning? What’s privileged, where, and when?

And, yes, I know–if you’ve read this blog for awhile now, I am most likely preaching to the choir.

But even if we “get it,” even if we try it, even if we’re tired of trying or tired of this pandemic, even if we cannot handle one more decibel of noise–if we believe in empowering students with the skills they need to capitalize on the liberty life affords them–or liberate themselves so they have more–we keep thinking and reflecting, and we keep doing the things that help young people have experiences with reading that make them want to read.

Try This “Conversation Starter” (I read it recently in the Morning Brew, an online newsletter I read pretty much every day.)

If your bookshelf could only have five books, what would they be?

You can learn a lot about an individual–positive, negative, and otherwise–depending on the books they choose, or if they don’t make any choices at all.

Amy Rasmussen is a lover of words, color, and living things–like plants, art frogs, and grandkids. She lives in North Texas and escapes for long periods of time on the country roads near her home. She writes (mostly in her notebook) to see and feel and think in new ways, and when it comes to publishing anything publicly, her phobia of heights doesn’t seem half bad. Amy has a book about authentic literacy practices she’s co-written with Billy Eastman due for publication this fall. She’s both excited and terrified. Follow her @amyrass –maybe she’ll get a little more active on social media.

Free Digital Book Resources for Teens – Booktalking during a Pandemic

Independent reading always matters.

Student access and student choice are important now more than ever, so it’s time to share what is working!

Before our school went to distance learning, we could see it coming. We knew it wasn’t a matter of if, but of when, so the teachers in my department made extra space and time for our students to go to the school library during English classes to check out books. It was a good idea and I’m glad we did it, but those books are running out. Many students have read through their check outs and then some, and are looking for something new.

During regular school days, I always shared a new book in the form of a book talk. It’s hard to keep that up without our classroom library right at our fingertips, but it’s still important.

That’s where the online book talk comes into play.

I’ve been posting and talking up books every day of our online learning time. I have tried to find books that are free and relevant so that there aren’t any unnecessary barriers for students.

One resource that I’ve particularly loved is Epic! because they have so many graphic novels, and right now their content is free for teachers and students until June 30.

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They have more than just graphic novels, and their collection is very kid-friendly.

Another one I love is Simon Teen’s offerings of lots of current YA lit. They rotate their free offerings each month, and most of their content is the full read.

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I’ve definitely used these options for my virtual book talks. In fact, today I’m book talking Want.

Some of my students have discovered that listening to books is more appealing to them than traditional reading, so audio books are more and more popular in my classes. Audible has made their content free until the end of the school year, so it’s a great resource. They’ve got titles for all ages, from classics to teen lit all the way down to picture books for little ones.

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Some other good resources are

  1. the new Harry Potter World website.
  2. Time for Kids
  3. Project Gutenberg
  4. Bartleby.com
  5. Scribd

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Harry Potter

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Time for Kids

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Project Gutenberg

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Bartleby

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Scribd

This is certainly not a comprehensive list. There are many, many resources out there for our students and teachers. These are a few that I am familiar with and I like. I hope they are helpful for you and your students. Feel free to leave more ideas and resources in the comments below!

Julie has been teaching secondary language arts for more than twenty years, spending the first fifteen in rural Central Oregon, four in Amman, Jordan, and the most recent school years in Managua, Nicaragua. 

Follow her on twitter @SwinehartJulie

Walk and Confer: Another Way Back

The eleven year old (11 yo) and I–and sometimes the 8 yo–have been going on a lot of walks. Usually initiated by me, he readily (and sometimes the 8 yo but usually if we scooter) accepts. On these walks, I mostly listen. I’ve learned much about Star Wars, the Percy Jackson series, the Harry Potter series, LEGOS, Minecraft, the history of baseball, birds… and whatever else he’s been reading and viewing and creating. As we walk, shoulder to shoulder (he’s getting taller!), looking at the trees and for birds, we connect. But I’ve also discovered that I can ask questions. Yesterday 11 yo offered his opinion that books are really preferable to movies because the movies always leave out or change key details (yep, full on book nerds in this house). So I asked him why he thought the movie makers would choose to leave out details. He launched into an animated explanation involving the Harry Potter books versus the movies. Our walking and talking, at times it seems, has been connecting and conferring. We’ve been moving together toward shared meaning. 

This kind of meaningful movement may be just what we need when school resumes. When my 8 yo learned about her first class meeting over Google Meet, she was delighted to learn that she too would get to be the little box on the screen. I laughed, but it’s heart-wrenching. We’ve all become little boxes on the screen. And the limited dimensionality of that is an effect of this shared trauma. When school resumes, then, how do we move together toward shared meaning with the now larger than life persons gathered between our four walls?

We move. We listen. We talk. We engage our learners in the walking reading or writing conference. Instead of pulling up the stool alongside the desk or sitting across the table from one another, business-as-usual acts that might now evoke anxiety and fear after months of social distancing, we walk. Walking will allow us to fall into rapport (body mirroring), to find an easiness with our body language that will make it easier to talk and to connect. Feeling scared or anxious can make it difficult to look someone in the eye, and walking removes that pressure. And knowing that learners will not only need to re-learn how to share a physical space with our bodies and with our words, everyone in the room can walk with a partner as we walk and confer with individual students or pairs of students. We can use questions or prompts (on cards to flip through) or post around the building; here and here are a few resources around walking and talking. Our typical conferring prompts remain valuable, too. Moving and conferring is another way back. Not just to each other. But to meaning and creativity and possibility and hope.

In my head, I keep hearing the words of Virginia Wolff: “Better than these walks…”. These walks with my 11 yo and 8 yo may be what I remember most about this time in quarantine. Better than these walks as learners will be when we can be shoulder to shoulder, connecting, moving together toward renewal. 

Kristin Jeschke likes to move (unless her nose is in a book). She serves an active and caring staff as an instructional coach at Waukee High School in Waukee, Iowa. Follow her on Twitter @kajeschke. 

 

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