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Category Archives: Conferring

Coffee spoons and Google forms – Measuring a Year

Five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred minutes.

Five hundred twenty five thousand moments so dear.

five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred minutes.

How do you measure,

Measure a year?”

Ah.. the opening lines of “Season of Love.” Go on, take a minute, and listen to it here. (Hi, young, pre-Frozen Idina Menzel! You’re amazing!) These lines -especially the “spoons of coffee”- have become so cliche, so tired, so parodied. Yet, even knowing all of that, those opening chords still tug at my heart. And I still find a little (ok, a lottle) truth and joy in the question the song poses: how do we measure a year?

For a teacher, of course, the question of why we measure anything is obvious: we need to know where we are so we know how far we need to go, where we need to go. So, the why is easy – we want our students to leave our classrooms as better readers, writers and thinkers, comfortable “playing” with ideas and using their own voices. However, the question of how we measure a year is a powerful one and, maybe, a more difficult one. How do we measure our successes? How do we measure our students’ growth as learners? How do we know that we’re making progress? How do we know what steps to take next?

Feedback is a big, recurring topic on 3TT. Here are some of ways feedback has been tackled on this site before: from Amy Estersohn, from Amy Rasmussen, from Lisa Dennis.

For me, the answer came in combining some National Writing Project best practices ideas with my love of Google Forms/Sheets. The result? Each week students are asked to use Google Forms to answer three questions based on a modified version of the writing project model of bless, press, address (BPA).

Now, BPA was  originally meant to guide students in asking for and giving advice when reading their peers’ writing. So, directions for BPA would like this in class:

Do you want your piece BLESSED, ADDRESSED, or PRESSED?

        o Bless: If you want your piece blessed, you’re not ready to hear criticism yet (however constructive it might be). You want only to hear about what’s working so far.

         o Address: If you have chosen the address option, what one problem or concern do you want your readers/audience to address? Be as specific as possible.

         o Press: You’re ready to hear constructive criticism and give the readers/audience the freedom to respond in any fashion. This, of course, can include “Bless” and “Address.”

However, I thought the questions would work well as a weekly thermometer of where my classes are, So I modified them to look like this:

  1. What are your positives from this week? (Bless)
  2. What concerns do you have about the ideas/skills we covered this week? (Address)
  3. Is there anything else I need to know? (Press)

Here’s what this looks like in my class. Every Friday I ask students to fill out the form (see what it looks like here). Google Forms automatically collates the data into a spreadsheet, and then a code I created allows me to email all 116 students about their responses individually from the spreadsheet. Easy, peasy, right?

The way this simple give and take has changed my classroom has been astonishing.

For example, here’s a response from a shy student:

Positive Concern Anything Else? My Response
I greatly enjoyed discussing a modest proposal in class and learning and discussing satires. I don’t think there is anything specific I need help with. I really enjoy satires, considering I am very sarcastic in all aspects of my life. Awesome. Keep up the good work. I appreciate you volunteering multiple times in class; I know that’s been a struggle this year.

This feedback allowed me to compliment a student who wouldn’t contribute to class discussions at the beginning of the year for contributing multiple times this week. Our entire conversation about her participation nerves and my suggestions happened via email. And, honestly, that reinforcement might never have happened in our day to day interactions in class. We would have wasted time frustrated with each other: I would have been frustrated that she wasn’t participating, she would have been frustrated because she wanted to participate but didn’t know how, and neither of us would have grown or moved forward.

The form also helps me adapt lesson plans to students’ needs more thoroughly. For example, here’s some feedback from last week’s in class timed practice:

      I need more practice connecting my sources in a timed synthesis writing because my essay felt very choppy when moving between sources.

      Not necessarily with this. I just need to work on doing everything quickly. I’m always running out of time.

      I don’t think I need help with that, I just need to pay attention to the clock more.

      Even though we talked about framing our evidence with our own voice, I struggled including warrant to frame the evidence in the synthesis due to the time limit. I know the warrant and “so what” of a claim are typically the most important parts and I know how to include them but I just never have the time so I tend to just skim a topic and move on so I can address all my points. What other part of my paper would be the best to shorten to leave time for warrant?

This feedback tells me that I need to spend a little time next week emphasizing the value of brainstorming before a timed write.

And what do the students think of the process? Here are a few thoughts:

      It’s nice to have an easy way to regularly discuss the issues as well as the positives with a teacher. Not often to teachers inquire about the good things the class is doing for you and your successes. I also enjoy hearing back from a teacher and feeling like my opinions and concerns are heard 🙂

      Also, I think especially in an environment like Central, students (myself included) are nervous to say they don’t understand things in class because they don’t want to look stupid, but weekly feedback makes it easier to get help.

       Some weeks, it doesn’t seem all that helpful, but others it helps me keep track of all that we have done in that week and keep track of what I need to focus on. It isn’t hard.

        It’s an interesting system. I’m running for governor for this upcoming YIG conference, and we’ve discussed about implementing a system that is quite similar statewide to streamline teacher-student feedback in attempt to improve K-12 education so each individual teacher can cater to his/her classes’ specific needs. I think it works pretty good and there’s not really much of a negative from the student standpoint.

So, how do I measure a year? In emails, and google forms, and excel spreadsheets. My version isn’t quite as catchy as the RENT version, to be honest. But this weekly format works for me; it’s how I measure my year. I value the conversations it starts, the way it allows my classroom to extend beyond the school hours, the relationships it deepens, and how it informs my practice. What works for you?

 

Sarah Morris teaches AP Language & Composition and Film as Literature in Murfreesboro, Tn. Born with a reading list of books she’ll never finish, she tries to read new texts but often finds herself revisiting old favorites: Name of the Wind, The Stand, Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality. She tweets at @marahsorris_cms.

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Status of Class– How to Formatively Assess where your Students Are

You could hear the cliched pin drop in the room, even though we’re only a few weeks into independent reading. It’s one of my favorite moments in the classroom–heads tilted towards their choice books, eyes moving side to side across those beautiful words and sentences. It’s a moment that ultimately lasts until mid-October, where the shine begins to dull a little and students are either completing books faster than I can get them into their hands, or dropping books faster than I can keep up with (“What do you mean you want to drop Everything, Everything? You just started it yesterday!”).

In a perfect world–not always my 10th grade classroom at my regional vocation urban high school–students would be moving excitedly from one book to another, we would have brilliant classroom discussions about the various books we are reading, and there wouldn’t have to be accountability because everyone is completely engaged and on their way to becoming the bookworms they’re meant to be.

In reality, I’m putting out small fires here and there as the first term ends, trying to keep my head above water. Between helping a handful of students find a book because they either finished their first pick or were dropping their first pick and craving the need to circulate to eliminate any temptation of students, I needed something to hold students accountable (for my boss) but in addition, a way to formatively see where each student was in our inaugural journey into IR.

As I’m sure we all can agree, reading logs don’t work.  Shana summed up what I’ve been thinking for some time now.  All I can think of are my poor (now junior) students who had to endure a reading log entry every time they read with a sentence summary of what they read and a sentence reflection along with their starting page and ending page for those 10 minutes.

Every. Single. Time.

No wonder only my most studious students did it (fearing a bad grade, not because they wanted to or saw value in it). Not only that, but I dreaded grading them (or opening each one in Google Classroom and seeing them not filled out). A sea of zeros flooded my grade book.

Enter what I’ve been using: Status of the Class.

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Status of the Class is truly inspired by both my reading of Nancie Atwell’s amazing book In The Middle (which all teachers should read at some point in their career) and Donalyn Miller’s presentation at Write Now 2016 in North Conway, NH. Both ladies have taught me the beauty of organization in the workshop classroom and the value of short check-ins among the longer conferences I make with my students as they work on their independent reading.

It’s my way to formatively assess where my students are and the progress they are making in their independent reading book. As students are reading the first 10 minutes of class, I circulate the room and peer over shoulders so I can write down what page they are on (and for some students, the title of their new book). While not a traditional conference, this works well on the days (and sometimes it feels like the many days) where I need to do a quick check-in so I can help the handful of students who are either dropping books or finished their book and don’t know where to go next.

I also like using status of the class to keep a running tab of how things are progressing to use when I email parents or during progress meeting for my special education students. It’s also a great resource to use when I conference with Juana, who has dropped three books this month alone–the data doesn’t lie. It also helps me to see that although Paul has finished three graphic novels in a row over the last 6 weeks, it might be time to challenge him outside the genre and try something new.

An added benefit to the status of the class is the competitive nature it brings out in my students. One of my EL students, Marco, asks me for his progress every time I do a Status of the Class. The look of pride on his face when does the math and sees that his reading rate is improving, little by little, is priceless. For Stephanie, she finds the check-in reassuring. On more than one occasion, after a Status of the Class, Stephanie whispers to me, “Miss, I read more pages this week than I did last week.” Stephanie is rereading Room, because last year when I had her as a 9th grader, she fake read it and only made it halfway. This year, she can’t put it down.

I still haven’t figured out a way to make it more student-led in my short 43 minute classes. When we are in the middle of an Independent Reading unit this spring, after our Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System test is over and the constant test prep pressure is off, I’m thinking of making the Status of the Class a digital resource, asking students to input via Google Form and holding students more accountable to tracking their titles and progress. By doing so, more students like Paul, Marco, and Stephanie can actively engage in their progress and see how far they truly come this year.

How do you track and hold students accountable in their reading progress? What advice or tips could you offer to teachers with shorter class periods?

 

 

Accountability Through Conversation

In Shana’s post “Conversation is our Most Powerful Teaching Tool” she mentions an article by researcher John Goodland. He states that only 1% of instructional time is given to conversation…insert wide eyed emoji…what?!

That statistic has really stuck with me. I’m not sure if it was more than a subconscious thought until the power of conversation became very clear to me.

In a nutshell, I am a content coordinator who works to support (6th-12th grade ELAR) teachers as they hone their craft. Since I began working in this position, I’ve been trying to figure out what exactly teachers need to be and feel successful.

As a district team, we have agreed to implement independent choice reading into our daily routine, as a step toward implementing a workshop model. Teachers are on board and have done some AMAZING things with choice reading in their classrooms, but, regardless of what grade level I am with, or what campus I am on I keep hearing the same question, “how do we know that they’re reading?” We talked about logs, reading responses, summaries, notes, and we’ve shared resources and ideas, but there was still something missing…

Then I had it! A light bulb moment in its truest sense. In classrooms where students TALK about what they are reading, they are accountable. In Amy’s post about shifting control she talks about “find[ing] a space for conversations…” and that if her giving “up control makes space for that, I’ll take it every chance I get.”

lightbulb

For me, that answers the how do we know question. During some learning walks I saw three examples of conversation from three different rooms…

First example: In a 12th grade academic/on level classroom the students began their class period reading for 10 minutes in a book of their choice. Once the timer went off, the students were asked to talk to a partner (or two) about their book. The teacher specifically asked the students to “sell it”. Sell their book to their partner(s). The teacher roamed around the room while the students were talking and then let two volunteer share their “pitch” to the whole group. It was very clear that the teacher knew what their students were reading, IF they were reading, and how the felt about their books.

Second example: In a 7th grade PreAP class students began their class period by reading for 5 minutes, then when the timer went off they got a 1 minute break. Students were asked to talk to their elbow partner during their break about their book’s protagonist. The teacher provided a sentence stem to probe the conversation. Then after the minute was up, they read for 5 more minutes. The teacher roamed and jotted notes as a “status of the class” during that 11 minutes. The students have been talking about the structure and elements of fiction and how protagonists can shape a story. At the end of the minute, the teacher had a pretty good idea about what her students knew and didn’t know about protagonists, including how to pronounce, or mispronounce, the word. 😛

Third example: In an 11th grade AP class the students began their class period by reading for 15 minutes. While they were reading the teacher met with every student in the class. Her questions were simple; she asked, “what’s the title of your book?” and “what page are you on?” The teacher was able to meet with 26 students in 15 minutes. She was able to see who is meeting their reading goal, who is abandoning books, and who isn’t reading.

When students know they’re going to be held accountable to explain their book, connect it to what they’re learning through mini-lessons, or just track their progress to their teacher, they respond. It becomes the culture…

This isn’t anything new, and it’s been talked about before in multiple posts on Three Teachers Talk, but what was a game changer for me was seeing it in action. I was able to create a concrete model that I could then replicate. I learned three different strategies or approaches to talking with students/letting them talk to each other by watching someone else in action. Talk about self-embedded professional learning! I mean, can it get any better than that?!

When I visit campuses my first question to teachers is going to be: how are you getting students to talk? Then we shall see where our conversations lead us. 🙂

I’d love to hear from you! How do you get and promote your students to talk? Are you able to visit other teachers classrooms on your team/campus? If so, do you feel like it’s beneficial?

Conferring with Students Proves Difficult to Implement, Even for the Most Determined

My professional goal this year centered on conferring with students about their reading and writing on a more regular basis and keeping track of those conversations in order to track progress, pose questions, and offer valuable feedback. Based on a tip offered by Kelly Gallagher at the NTCTELA conference (2017), I created a notebook with a 2-page spread for each student in order to record notes from these conversations.

RWNotebookOn the left-hand side, I pasted in a notebook card that students filled out on the first day of class with information about their favorite genre(s) of books, their favorite book, their least favorite book, one writing strength, and an aspect of their writing which they wanted to improve. Below this card, I kept a record of reading conferences with the student. Here, I not only kept a list of what books students read, but I also jotted down notes during our conversations about the text.

The best method I have found for finding out how much my students actually read, understand, or like specific texts is to talk to them about their reading and ask thought-provoking follow-up questions. By recording notes about these conversations, I am better able to tailor instruction for all students – based on common observations or questions – and recommend books for future reading that I think they’ll enjoy and that will match the level of rigor they require.

On the right-hand side of the notebook, I recorded essay scores as well as some feedback about what students need to work on in their writing such as: use of passive voice, crafting a strong thesis statement, and providing evidence to support assertions. This allows me to track student progress toward improvement of writing skills. For instance, I love it when I can record additional comments such as “she successfully wrote in the literary present tense this time” or “his poetry shows insight and creativity.”

Conference and feedback notes also allow me to see when a student fails to make progress. How many times do teachers write the same feedback on successive essays, and where is the student’s incentive to change that practice unless they are one of the rare few who are intrinsically motivated? When we speak one-on-one with students and note the recurrence of these habits, they are more likely to address them.

So – I had a plan. I implemented that plan. But things did not exactly go according to plan.

I encountered several difficulties that prevented me – and more importantly, my students – from reaping all the benefits that our discussions and resulting data collection could offer. Below, I have listed some of the problems I encountered, their causes, and the potential solutions I plan to try this semester:

ConferringChart

Though these difficulties left me feeling extremely frustrated at times, I do still deeply believe in conferring with students. Our students need, desire, and deserve the individual attention and feedback that reading and writing conversations provide.

Please comment with suggestions about how you have successfully conferred with students and tracked important ideas from that discourse. Let’s help each other find new ways to build relationships with as students as they build confidence in their writing and a real love of reading that extends beyond our classrooms.

 

Amber Counts teaches AP English Literature & Composition and Academic Decathlon at Lewisville High School. She believes in the power of choice and promotes thinking at every opportunity. She is married to her high school sweetheart and knows love is what makes the world go around. Someday she will write her story. Follow Amber @mrscounts.

A Reading Conference with Tom Romano

I am fortunate to be on friendly-emailing terms with the great Tom Romano, from whom I’ve learned much about good writing instruction, multigenre, and student voice.

So when I received an email from him the other day, asking for book recommendations, I laughed aloud. My most excellent writing mentor, asking me what to read next?

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I admit, I balked a little at first. This was like having Tiger Woods ask you what golf club to try next. But then, I fell back on my tried-and-true reading conference strategies, which I’ve used countless times over the years with reluctant and prolific readers alike.

As with any student, I had much of what I needed in order to give a good recommendation between the request itself and my background knowledge of Romano. When students need help finding something to read, we’ll often meet at the bookshelf. As they stare blankly at the wall of books, one of the first questions I ask is:

“What are you in the mood to read?”

Often, students can give me a feeling–something fun, lighthearted, serious, or challenging–or a genre–romance, nonfiction, adventure. It’s even better when they can give me specific titles that relate to their preferences. I usually glean these titles by asking:

“What’s the last book you read that you loved?”

In his request, Romano gave me all the information I needed–he wanted something literary, something like The Nightingale (which I’d read after Lisa recommended it to me), Atonement, or All the Light We Cannot See. He’d also answered another question I usually ask readers:

“What’s your reading plan?”

Knowing where a student will be reading this book–at work in short spurts, at home in long stretches, or on a crowded bus on the way to an athletic event–impacts my recommendation as well. Here, Romano told me he’d be reading for long, uninterrupted stretches of time in airports, so I knew I could suggest something all-consuming.

So, I stuck with my usual formula:

I recommended three titles.

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Exit West is a title I’ve heard a great deal about and would love to read, but haven’t gotten to yet; The Secret History is an amazing hidden gem by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Donna Tartt that I read about 15 years ago; and A Man Called Ove is a new viral title that made me sob hard over Girl Scout cookies and coffee as I finished reading it. My three recommendations usually consist of something old, something new, and something I haven’t read yet.

I wrapped up my pitch as I always do, with a clincher:

A promise of what the book will do for the reader.

A week went by, and last night at 11 pm, I received another email from Romano:

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“Loved Ove.”

A successful end to a successful reading conference, if you ask me…but of course, like any other conversation about books, I couldn’t let it end there. I just had to throw in one more recommendation, which I always do for my students when they return a book:

“If you liked that book, you should try ______________.”

This quick exchange of emails, like so many off-the-cuff conversations we have with students, was packed full of powerful data about a reader’s interests and abilities; a teacher’s knowledge of texts and titles, and most importantly, the transaction between the two parties–a shared endeavor to find a just-right book at just the right time.

All our words are imbued with purpose and power when we are discussing literacy. Reading conferences don’t need to be formal, sit-down conversations all the time. They have just as much weight when they’re held standing at the bookshelf, passing in the hallway, or from afar via email. This reading conference with Tom Romano reminds me: never take any of our talk about books for granted.


Do you have a what-to-read conference “formula?” What other titles might you recommend to Tom and me? Please share in the comments!

Shana Karnes is eagerly awaiting the end of flu season so she can go back to work without worrying about her two tiny daughters getting sick…again. When her family is actually healthy, she teaches preservice educators at West Virginia University, goes for long runs while listening to even longer audiobooks, and tweets about reading, writing, and school at @litreader.

Moving My Desk to Move Readers and Writers

Happy New Year!!!

What an interesting time of year this is.  The Christmas break offers so much opportunity in the way of reflection, thinking, and development.

I think back on the Fall semester and wonder where it went so quickly.  It’s as if one day I stood with my Student Council kids staring up wonder of the eclipse, and the next day I sent them off for the holiday break.  I must have told them how much I loved them thousands of times.  So much happened this fall and I have so much to think about.

Somehow the stack of books I’m currently reading grew massive this fall.  I’m determined to finish so many that are half read.  The Last CastleA History of WolvesReady Player OneLincoln in the BardoThe Glass Castle are staring at me like unloved puppies.

Reading is important to my teaching life but my thinking is about my classroom as a learning space.  Specifically, I reflect on how I’ve arranged it in the past and how I think that arrangement is antiquated and isn’t optimal for how I want to teach.

An article written by Paul Viccica and Lois Goodell and published in the October 2017 issue of University Business clearly states, “Classrooms that activate experiential and project-based learning approaches reflect the modern workplace by providing social and quiet work spaces, by offering breakout seating, and by creating technical stations where students can collaborate, focus independently and work technically, as they would in an office setting.” This sounds to me like its promoting authenticity in the classroom; something of a mantra for me this year.

I wonder if there is evidence that shows any positive effects of the teacher cordoning off a section of the classroom to create a fortress of solitude into which no student shall venture.

I hate what my teacher desk has become.  I hate that it, like so many others, is a great wall covered in papers, writing utensils, binders, books, note pads, a computer screen, and all the flotsam and jetsam that builds up in a teacher’s daily existence.  I hate that I sometimes find myself sitting behind my desk when the kids are furiously writing or deep in a text.  I despise the disconnect that happens when I steal a minute to answer an email or take the attendance.

Why is the siren song of that momentary mental break so alluring?  How many times has a student looked up to find me sitting at my desk and swallowed their question because I looked too busy to be bothered? I’m confident the answers to the questions are “not often.”  I hardly step behind my desk during classes and that just solidifies my need to make a big change to start this new year.

I’ve written before about the constant conferring that needs to happen in our independent reading and we all know those habits are crucial in teaching writing as well.  There shouldn’t be an opportunity for me to disconnect from the students.  Reading, writing, discussing; those are all activities that I should be completely engaged in, even if my role is just as the listener.  So, I ask myself, when are they doing something that I can disconnect from?  The answer should be: NEVER!

I made the decision to shove my teacher desk against the wall; abandon it.  Like an anchor, its holding me back and I want it out of my way.  I don’t need it anymore, nor do I want it.  It’s a symbol of a bygone era.  It’s one of those things I cling to for my comfort at the expense of students.

 

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This is my big move to start 2018. I hope it makes my instruction more effective.  I need a change and so do the kids.

I think it’s important for teachers to encourage other teachers to innovate and throw away the practices or procedures that no longer reflect their teaching styles. Is anyone else making a big change in their teaching life?

New Year, New Classroom!!!


Charles Moore has succumbed to the creativity of his Student Council students and their aesthetic is now his. He can’t stop thinking about how to maximize his classroom space with design and decoration.  He recently lost to his 7-year-old daughter at Clue and catches up on reading in the parking lots of dimly lit soccer fields around League City, TX waiting for his son to finish practice. His almost daily musing can be found on his twitter page @ctcoach

Conversation is Our Most Powerful Teaching Tool

After two months of being cooped up in the house with two kids under the age of two, we finally went back to school yesterday.

Hallelujah!!

To open my class yesterday, I asked my students to get up and get talking with one another–about nothing in particular. Each student had written her name on a note card, and after thoroughly mixing and redistributing them, each student had to go find her card’s owner and get to know him or her. Once we got talking, the room was never silent, and after we were all seated again, I asked students what topics they used as conversational entrees.

“Well, I’ve been in a lot of classes with people in here before, but never knew their names, so it was helpful to just start with an introduction,” one student volunteered.

quote-negotiation-and-discussion-are-the-greatest-weapons-we-have-for-promoting-peace-and-nelson-mandela-81-33-16I was flabbergasted–how could these students not even know each other’s names?! What sorts of classes were being taught that didn’t allow for dialogue and collaboration at this most basic level!?

But then I realized that this was the norm, and often is for our high school students, too. This statistic was even highlighted in the first page of the article we were reading for class: “Less than 1 percent of instructional time is devoted to discussion that requires reasoning or an opinion from students, according to researcher John Goodland.”

I think we can all agree that reasoning and opinion should be at the forefront of student dialogue, and a central goal of any curriculum. But if we’re spending less than one percent of our time on these things, we’re nowhere near where we need to be.

After my students listed ways they began conversations with one another–clothing choices, majors, the weather, how was your break–I asked them how they planned to get to know their students.

“I’m going to give them an interest inventory,” one student said. “I’ll do a learning styles survey,” another claimed. Facepalm, I said.

 

No one said, “by starting a conversation just like we did today,” which is what I was hoping they’d jump to. Conferring is our most powerful instructional and assessment tool, and it’s the art of a conversation made critical. Not only is it important for teachers to get to know our students through simple talk–not with the barrier of a survey or paper between ourselves and students–but it’s important for students to practice the skill of conversation, first with us, then with one another.

Because perhaps less than 1 percent of instructional time is devoted to discussion not only because of how traditional classrooms are structured, but because of how little space in our culture there is for conversation these days. I’ve written about the value of talk before, but I’m coming to believe that there is more value in conversation. The exchange of ideas is much more valuable than the simple act of articulating one’s own, and needs to be our end goal.

The moves we make as teachers and thinkers will help our students reach this aim–first to help them read critically enough to develop their own nuanced opinions, then to help them write and talk to draft out their thinking, and finally to help them share and grow these ideas through conversation. Not to defend their own ideas, which remain only theirs, but to help their thinking evolve through discussion.

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Oprah Winfrey, in a speech that I hope will be close-read by millions of high school students as a mentor text this week, reminds us that “What I know for sure is that speaking your truth is the most powerful tool we all have,” and that our truths have power when someone “chooses to listen.”

Speaking and listening are much more than just standards for us to cover–they are the tools our students need to change themselves and the world for the better.

Shana Karnes is a mom of two daughters, a teacher of preservice educators, and a writer of hopes and dreams–in her notebook and here on Three Teachers Talk. She is delighted that winter break and maternity leave have ended and that she’s back in the classroom with her tribe. Find her on Twitter at @litreader.

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