Category Archives: Pedagogy

Literacy, Inquiry, and Critical Race Theory

The ongoing debate this summer about the teaching of Critical Race Theory in schools and how states have responded has been unsettling. The debate raises questions about free speech, about scholarship and academia, about the role of politicians in the classroom, and about community values. You can find plenty of opinions out there that likely support your own.

My goal in this short post is not to examine the pros and cons of CRT or whether or not politicians should legislate its presence in classrooms, but rather to think a little bit about what the debate has exposed about the teacher’s role within the classroom, specifically the English teacher’s role, when it comes to tackling controversial current event topics.

2 postures toward controversial topics

Some legislators apparently fear my superpowers–that I will somehow brainwash a generation of young adults into adopting a critical lens that prizes race. I like that they grant me these powers, but anyone who has spent a week in the classroom understands the absurdity of this premise. These fears of indoctrination are based on a pretty flawed assumption about what a teacher is and does. For example, I don’t know anyone who teaches (or who has time to teach) CRT. It’s not even on most teachers’ radars if I had to guess. And while I teach with some wonderful people who explored social justice this year in response to the racial unrest of the summer of 2020, their posture is worth noting. Their goal was not to indoctrinate, but to open up avenues of inquiry. I think this is what literacy is really all about and what the secondary English classroom approach should be when it comes to charged topics like CRT.

LiteracyIndoctrination
creator, researcherstudent’s rolepassive consumer
empower students
co-learner
teacher’s roleshape perspective
expert
students are self-empowered to find and
interpret information
outcomesstudents can repeat or recite information
avenues of inquiry
personalized
processone path
one-size-fits-all

inquiry driven by neutral essential questions

I assume most secondary English teachers would agree. It gets trickier in the application, though, starting with how essential questions get framed. Note the subtle difference in these two questions:

  • What is Critical Race Theory and why is there so much debate on it?
  • Why should schools continue to reach Critical Race Theory amid the current debate?

The first one is simple, but it promotes inquiry. It puts responses in students’ hands and asks them to become more literate. There is no presupposed answer or bent to their pursuit of knowledge. There is room for discussion and dialogue about what people think and why. I used the following three questions as part of a unit on anti-racism in semester 2 last year:

  • What is systemic racism?
  • Is systemic racism present in the literature that most schools read?
  • In what ways do schools perpetuate or combat systemic racism?

Notice how the first two are the most open because they are the most neutral. The third is built on the assumption that systemic racism is present, which narrows it a bit. But the posture of opening avenues of inquiry is hopefully what’s central here rather than students feeling like I am trying to indoctrinate them. The first two invite us all to participate as co-learners.

inquiry driven by vocabulary exploration

This is, like so much of literacy, really about vocabulary. In this case, some additional guiding questions can be really illuminating:

  • What do people mean when they say “Critical Race Theory”? 
  • What are the connotations of CRT? What do Republicans mean when they say this? What do Democrats mean when they say this? What do academics like professors mean?

These are vocabulary questions. How does this word/phrase work and function in different rhetorical situations? What gives it the power to elicit such reactions? How can there be such differing views about what it is?

There is a genuine academic interest in answering questions like this. It adds to our body of knowledge and understanding about the world around us, making us better citizens, and it also equips us to ask the same kind of questions about the next hot-button issue that lights up social media. I’ve used CRT as an example, but really any politically-charged topic can be effectively handled through inquiry that is driven by neutral essential questions and vocabulary exploration.

I do not want my children to be indoctrinated at their schools. I want them to be given the space to explore and learn to think for themselves. To become literate. I do not want to indoctrinate anybody else’s children. I want to pass on the values of literacy–of critical thinking that leads to empathy and understanding. Secondary English teachers are uniquely situated to create those kinds of learning experiences. 

Nathan Coates teaches junior English at Mason High School, a large suburban district near Cincinnati, Ohio. He serves on his building’s equity team and is ready for his family’s annual summer pilgrimage to Lake Michigan.

You Tell Me You Know What It’s Like To Be A Teacher In A Pandemic

You tell me you know

what it’s like to be

a teacher in a pandemic.

Yes, you’ve had zoom meetings, too!

You worked from home as well, juggling

kids, work, health, social isolation.

You were also scared, but somehow

somewhat relieved because of the freedom

from hectic schedules.

You, too, weathered the pandemic.

But were you forced back

to in-person work while the government

officials declared that you were essential

not for educating children, but to get the economy

back “up and running”?

Were you forced to do your job twice over

in-person and online at the same time?

Were you also given new duties of nurse,

custodian, and therapist for the inevitable trauma?

Were you constantly gaslit, told to “smile,

the kids need to see that everything is okay,”

yet you went home and often cried because

no one was assuring you?

Were you then told that despite

your hard work and grueling year,

“the students are behind” and

you must find a way to “catch them up”?

You tell me you know

what it’s like to be

a teacher in a pandemic,

and you may have lived through

this historical event at the same time

as us, but

you will never truly understand

what it has been like

to be an educator in this time.

Find the artist on Twitter @alabbazia

One of my favorite Quick Write lessons of all time was when I showed my students this video of Darius Simpson and Scout Bostley performing “Lost Voices,” and then we responded with our own poems, starting with the line “You tell me you know what it’s like to be…” From there, students could choose any identity they had that they felt people often acted like they understood or could relate with, but it was too deeply a personal experience that those outside of that identity could never understand. This idea came from Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher’s 180 Days in the Narrative section where they provided all sorts of mentor texts for “swimming in memoirs” to encourage students to address their own story from lots of angles.

When I did this lesson with my students in my second year, they soared. I got quick writes that started with “You tell me you know what it’s like to be autistic,” “You tell me you know what it’s like to be an assault victim,” and “You tell me you know what it’s like to be an immigrant.” Each story, each window into those students’ lives were so powerful. I often did not know what it was like to be what my students were writing about, but their willingness to be vulnerable in their writing helped me see from their eyes and understand just a little more.

As I recover from this year of teaching in a pandemic, my mind wandered back to that activity, and I began writing the beginnings of the poem above. As I mentioned in my previous post, I struggle with finding time/space/ideas/willingness to write. I keep having to learn that it often only takes a strong mentor text and I am off to scribble in a notebook. This remembering will play a huge role in my teaching this coming year. I am also having to constantly re-learn/remind myself how powerful a tool writing is for processing things. It has been an almost impossible year for many teachers, including me. It is only the beginning of summer, but I have had all sorts of reflections and emotions surface. I hope, if you want to get into more writing as well, that you will take time to soak in the words of these poets and write your own “You tell me you know what it’s like to be” poem. Maybe it’ll help you process the emotions and experiences of your year, too.

If you do write using these ideas, please share in the comments or tweet it tagging @3TeachersTalk.

Rebecca Riggs is a writer (or tricking herself into being one the same way she does her students- by just declaring it so). She is currently reading The Girl Who Smiled Beads: A Story of War and What Comes After by Clemantine Wamariya and Elizabeth Weil. Her current obsession is trying out new cookie recipes and working hard to not fill up her entire schedule so she can actually rest this summer. You can connect with her on Twitter @rebeccalriggs or Instagram @riggsreaders.

Researching conspiracy thinking

I’ve never felt super-confident about teaching research. I often feel like it’s a made-up genre, that research manifests itself in so many different ways that teaching it in isolation is a little bit like eating the ingredients of a cookie without mixing them. But when I read a book like On Immunity by Eula Biss that beautifully blends genres as she researches vaccinations, or when I read Eating Animals and follow along as Jonathan Safran Foer breaks into a chicken farm, I’m enthralled. They don’t seem to care about synthesizing sources or MLA formatting, though they do both things. Their content is king, and their structures are malleable. They seem to live and move in the spaces that overlap between narrative, exposition, argument, and analysis. They write with heart and voice and objectivity that creates clarity even while including subjective experiences that add authenticity. So we set about to try some authentic research during second semester, and though our products may not measure up to Biss or Foer, we made steps in their direction. There is nothing new about the topic or process below. I’m just sharing how the puzzle pieces came together this year (we were fully in class from the beginning) because it might spark an idea for your classroom. 

A framework: truthiness v. factfulness

We started the unit by thinking about what Stephen Colbert called “Truthiness” in 2005 (see the original clip from his show or a good article about it), which was his way of describing the kind of information problem that arose when the internet and cable news usurped traditional media. Those issues have only been exacerbated by the rise of social media since then, so we set out to define the difference between truthiness and factfulness (using some of Hans Osling’s Gapminder resources). This gave us a pretty simple lens to use to evaluate sources (is it truthy?), and it gave us a way to talk about what kind of information we’re consuming. 

We used the following essential questions to guide our work:

  • In what ways does “truthiness” interfere with our culture?
  • In what spaces would “factfulness” improve our culture?
  • Are we living in a “post-truth” culture? Do facts matter?

Students did a small team task where they found examples of truthiness in their social media feeds and we discussed the relationship of misinformation, disinformation, and propaganda. It felt like a pretty organic way to begin thinking about research, and it gave me some language to use as they began doing some writing.

Some examples that a group from 4th bell used to illustrate the prevalence of truthiness in their feeds.

I also had them take an argument essay they had written during first semester, choose one body paragraph, and make it more factful. It was fun to see them recognize the truthiness in their own writing, which set up some expectations for our writing later. You can see an example of a student from my 4th bell below:

An angle: conspiracy theories

One of the other challenges about research writing is the topic generation process. I see value in letting students choose a topic. I’ve also seen the frustration of a kid who genuinely doesn’t know what to do and has options paralysis. So I chose conspiracy theories for the class because it’s a place where truthiness and factfulness intersect. I envisioned students reading what conspiracists think and say, and then reading the evaluations and rebuttals of those conspiracies. It’s a natural way to explore several perspectives.

An individual task: choosing a research path

We did a series of Deep Dives to start the research, one that focused on conspiracy theories broadly (why people buy in, what some common and obscure ones are–some sources we used), then students chose one conspiracy to dig deeper into. We never really called it research, which I think made us all feel better. We were just learning about chemtrails and the Denver International Airport. Students built a 2-3 page paper that used the sources to help us understand the conspiracy. We used a section from Eula Biss as a mentor text, then I gave them some structure options, basically a really loose outline, hoping to help us think more like Biss and Foer, more like writers making choices. Some took risks, some played it safe. But our goal was to let what we had found in the deep dives dictate the structure. Topics ranged from celebrity deaths (Michael Jackson, Princess Diana) to QAnon, from assassinations (MLK and JFK) to animals (birds aren’t real).

A team task: defend a conspiracy theory

The final piece was to share out because the topics were so interesting. Each student shared an overview of their research with their table teams, then the teams each picked one and were tasked with convincing the rest of the class that the conspiracy was true. This forced them to think a little bit differently, to do some additional research, and to help us have a little bit of fun before the deluge of spring standardized testing hit us. 

Takeaways

  1. De-emphasizing the research aspects and emphasizing the content questions enabled us to actually do better work on the research aspects. By not frontloading information about MLA format, embedding quotes and citations, or other general research expectations, we were able to better discuss those elements as they more naturally arose and students felt a need for them.
  2. Me choosing a topic is okay if there are still opportunities to personalize the pathways. Student ownership over the subtopic and paper structure seemed enough to keep interest and ownership high. 
  3. Conspiracy theories are a rich opportunity to think about the misinformation epidemic. While some are political, my students veered away from those. With that little bit of distance we could talk about the challenges of navigating our feeds, of considering sources and modes, of being more conscious citizens. They found it to be a topic worthy of researching.

Check out some good posts from TTT on research to kickstart some more ideas:

Nathan Coates teaches junior English at Mason High School, a large suburban district near Cincinnati, Ohio. His favorite conspiracies are sports ones, like the NBA suspending Michael Jordan for gambling or fixing the draft for the Knicks to get Ewing.

Getting Uncomfortable and ‘Writing Beside Them’

When we were starting our Transcendentalist unit this year, we did a “nature walk” to try to get our students to experience some of the tenets of the concept. We were inspired by this teacher’s blog. My whole team took our students outside (and told online students to set a timer for about 15 minutes and sit outside as well). We left all electronics in the classroom and simply took in the nature outside of our school with all five of our senses. It wasn’t perfect since we were right by a traffic-filled main road and the students really wanted to talk instead of being quiet, but a lot of students got the hang of it by the end. One student reflected that they had not spent any quiet time outside to just take it in in years, if ever. Many were inspired to write like I am at the beach- more on that later.

The 2020-2021 school year has been one of tremendous growth for us all, whether we wanted to grow or not. I spent my year learning how to be even more flexible than ever before, becoming more clear on what is a priority and what can be left for later, and finding myself in a team leadership position when I was the only certified teacher present on my team for over two weeks. However, I do not feel I have grown in my teaching practice as much as I have in my character growth. For that reason, I am seeking situations to put myself in where I am uncomfortable to grow in that area; becoming a contributing writer on this blog is one of them. I am terrified!

Through my four years of teaching, I have mostly mastered the art of independent reading in class and using that to help students master/demonstrate mastery on most essential standards. I have become a pro at book talks and first chapter Fridays and reading conferences and recommending books. Now that I feel like I have my feet firmly planted underneath me with reading, it is time to become a better writing teacher. Writing is not usually a practice I partake in myself outside of school as I do reading. To be honest, it scares me! Will I have interesting things to say? Am I using a diverse enough vocabulary? Am I creative enough? I prefer my comfortable, familiar cocoon of reading, but I am forcing myself to Write Beside Them like Penny Kittle encourages. I will be re-reading that book over the summer as I make that the focus of my growth for the year.

Two people on the beach watching stars above the sea | Flickr

When thinking about improving the writing part of my teaching practice, I reflected on where I felt most inspired to write. Without a doubt, it is when I am in nature like my students above. My friends will tell you that I wax poetic and create all sorts of metaphors when we are at the beach. For example, there is nothing like staring up at a starry sky while laying in the cooling sand of the beach and hearing the salty water lapping up. The more you look up at the sky, the longer you take it all in, the more stars appear. It gets more beautiful, more bright the longer you take the time to look at it. That always stands as a metaphor for many things in life for me. When we slow down and just stay present, the more beauty we see. 

Taking both my experiences in nature and my students’ experiences, I have made a commitment to spend my summer outdoors with my notebook and pen in hand as much as possible to just be present and write as I feel led. How will you get uncomfortable this summer/next school year to grow?

Rebecca Riggs is a reluctant writer like many of her students, but she is working on it. She is in her 4th year of teaching at Klein Cain High School. She is looking forward to a summer of snoballs and walks at her favorite park. She is currently reading Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys and highly recommends it! You can find her on Twitter @rebeccalriggs or on Instagram @riggsreaders

Getting Smarter about Informative Texts

I’ve been thinking about how we use informational texts in our classrooms–if we use them and how often–since Tosh wrote about this topic about a month ago. Her statement is so me:

“I, like many other language arts teachers, overvalued and overemphasized the genres of fiction in the lessons I taught, and now I’m on a mission (crusade?) to help teachers connect students with interesting and complex informational texts that can broaden their knowledge of the world around them as well as model the writing they will have to do in that world.”

Like Tosh, I have my own 20/20 hindsight. And while I never taught my own children in an ELAR class, I did facilitate years of workshops where students “wrote prolifically in their journals and experimented with different writing styles. . . [and] a lot of poetry writing and narratives and imaginative stories” and little focus on reading “more complex informational texts.” Like Tosh, I felt “by focusing on the beauty of language and expression, I neglected the power and practicality of strong informational reading and writing skills.”

And then I got smarter.

It wasn’t that I needed to do away with the the reading and writing practices I had been doing. This kind of reading and writing works magic in developing relationships and beginning the habits of mind of authentic readers and writers–engagement soars when students feel the emotional tug of a beautifully written story or poem, and we invite them to write beside it and then share their writing with their peers. What I needed to do was use these practices as a springboard into an exploration of the more complex informational texts I knew my students needed.

I also knew that to keep students engaged, the spring in my board needed just a little bounce not a 10 foot one. Instead of a sharp shift from one type of reading and writing into another, we took a slow curve. We started mining our own expressive writing for topics we could research, read, and write about in other forms.

For example, since our first major writing piece was narrative, we’d packed our writer’s notebooks with multiple quick writes that sparked reflections about personal events in our lives. Imbedded in these events were topics–topics that could lead to a search for information.

Take my student Jordan (name has been changed for privacy) as an example. He wrote a touching narrative about his first memory after arriving in the United States from Mexico with his parents. He was five. A few of the topics Jordan identified in his piece included: immigration, parent/child relationships, parental responsibilities, financial hardships, mental health, physical health, citizenship both in home and new country. Jordan had a lot of ideas to work with as he chose a topic for our next major writing piece, an informative essay.

Topic mining like this can take time. Many students had a difficult time putting a name to the topics they had written about in their narratives. They also had difficulty in narrowing down those topics. But this is the beauty of talk in a workshop classroom–students talked about their writing. They reflected on it more. They shared their ideas–and they gave one another, writer to writer, authentic feedback.

Photo by Bruna Fiscuk on Unsplash. Narrowing topics is often like this quarry: stair step it down until the topic is small enough yet rich enough to write enough. Photo by Bruna Fiscuk on Unsplash.

Of course, as my writers moved into thinking about their informational writing, I started sharing informational texts we used as mentors. This is when we challenged ourselves with text complexity. We read and studied structure and language use. We discussed objective and subjective views and determined if we read any bias. We delved into how writers use data and statistics or why they might choose not to. And more.

And the bounce from narrative into informational writing worked. And it worked again later as we moved from informative writing into argument and later into spoken-word poetry.

Topic mining like this saves time. More often than not, students stuck with the same topic throughout the school year they wrote about during the first three weeks of school. And with each deep dive into form, students practiced layering skills, be it a variety of sentence structures, precise diction, or good grammar. (Skills all learned and practiced via mini-lessons.)

Informational reading and writing is vital to the success of our students beyond high school. We know this. (Think contracts, lease agreements, college textbooks.) I think we also know that some informational texts are downright boring (contracts, lease agreements, college textbooks.) And if your students are like mine, any text over one page–no matter what the writing style–is not likely to get much more than a quick skim without some pretty intense pleading.

When students choose their topics, our chances of engagement–pivotal for learning–grow exponentially. And the student who chooses to write a narrative about her family getting evicted after her father’s illness just might end up being the adult who writes that complex lease agreement.

While not your typical complex informational texts, here’s two I’ve used with high school students with great success: Joyas Voladores and How to Change a Diaper both by Brian Doyle. (P.S. If you are not familiar with The American Scholar, it’s a gold mine of fine writing.)

I’d love to know your favorite informational texts you use to teach your readers and writers. Please list them in the comments.

Amy Rasmussen reads voraciously, writes daily, and chooses texts to use with students wisely. She’s an advocate for student choice in every teaching practice. She lives and works in N. Texas. You can find her on Twitter @amyrass, although these days she’s mostly a lurker.

Ode to Moving

The Beckers are on the move again, which means boxes. Lots of boxes.

I’m no stranger to moving boxes, having packed and unpacked thousands of them over my lifetime. I’ll never forget moving to Seattle, Washington, shortly after my college graduation. Seventeen boxes shipped via Greyhound Bus – yes, leave the driving to us Greyhound Bus – full of blazers with shoulder pads, photo albums, stuffed animals, and books. Lots of books.

It’s hard to believe now that my life fit into 17 boxes then. I’ve added a few more boxes of memories since that first big move to Seattle when boxy blazers were in. Very in.

According to my memory and Mapquest ®, the latter certainly more reliable than the former, I’ve made ten significant relocations, adding up to 20,083 miles moved. With each move comes the sober reminder that while our possessions can be put in boxes to arrive, hopefully unscathed, at our next destination, our memories fade over time, the photograph of what we left behind becoming a little less clear with each passing day, week, and year.

That’s where my writing finds me today – possessions in boxes and memories of the last 20,083 miles of my life still (thankfully) vivid and poignant.

Not calculated in my frequent mover statistics are the eleven miles I moved in Summer 2019 from Clear Creek to Clear Brook High School, and then a few months later, the seven miles I moved from high school teaching to an administrative position in the Learner Support Center of Clear Creek ISD.

When I left the classroom, I gave away most of my teaching books. But there’s a box labeled “Not ready to get rid of yet” still lurking in my garage, wondering if it will ever go back to a school, wondering why its owner can’t bear to get rid of the contents

Enter the brilliant, sweet, encouraging Amy Rasmussen.

When Amy Rasmussen approached me about writing regularly for Three Teachers Talk, I voiced some concern as to my relevancy, especially since I’m not in the classroom anymore. “Amy,” I emphasized, “I’m in the Assessment Office now.” As if that retort meant I wasn’t qualified to write about writing anymore. But that’s when I zeroed in on the boxes of my teaching life, the years and years of lessons that, even in a new paradigm of pandemic-era teaching, are tried and still true.

So that’s what I’m calling my segment: Tried and (Still) True. The first Monday of each month, I will recap a lesson from my teaching past that still has impact today, a timeless lesson available for teachers to adapt and make their own, much as I did many years ago with my own lessons.

Tried, and (Still) True, Monday, May 3, 2021

“When I Read, I Feel…” List Poem adapted from the brilliant mind of another mentor of mine, the late Shelly Childers.

When I taught Junior English at Deer Park High School – South Campus, many of my students rediscovered their love for reading. Some actually realized for the first time that they liked reading after dreading it throughout previous years of school. And, well, some still hated reading no matter how hard I tried. Regardless, at the end of the school year, instead of having students write a benign reflection paragraph, I had students compose a poem based off a list of adjectives describing their reading lives. Here’s a rough idea of how I paced the lesson:

I began by inviting students to list three (3) adjectives describing how they felt when they read. Of course, I modeled a few words of my own, but since we had previously done some writing with Ruth Gendler’s Book of Qualities, students already had a descriptive vocabulary. After waiting and conferring with students as they thought and wrote, I then invited students to think about the first word they recorded (we called it Word A) and then write three (3) statements that said more (I always referred to that step as say “s’more”) proving the range of their emotions, comparing their feelings to something else, and of course, modeling with my own example. I repeated the instruction for Word B and Word C. I next modeled how to take what we had just written and express it in poetic fashion. When I nudged students to do this next step on their own, the magic happened. Students had words to describe their feelings, and in the end, I got an honest, perhaps too honest, self-assessment of each student’s reading identity.

Teacher note: In most cases, students could generate some surface-level emotions for the first two describing words, Word A and Word B. It was when I asked students to come up with a third word, Word C, to describe their feelings for reading that I hit a core of emotions reflecting a student’s authentic experiences.

Teachers can easily adapt the “When I read, I feel _____” invitation to different tasks: reading, writing, researching,…even moving! Here’s my opening stanza from a work-in-progress:

When I move, I feel free.

I ride the bus in a foreign country,

            my new home,

            making new friends with my kind eyes and a smile.

            No language skills, just an open mind

            and open heart.

            Open to new adventures.

I bet you’d like to see some student samples, wouldn’t you? I have a few, but guess where I’ve kept them all these years?

You guessed it. They are in the box of things I just can’t bear to get rid of yet. If ever.

About the author, Dr. Helen Becker

Helen Becker currently serves the education community as a Research Data Analyst for Clear Creek ISD in the Houston, Texas area. Prior to being a numbers and stats girl, Dr. Becker taught all levels of high school English for Deer Park and Clear Creek ISDs. Maybe you’ve attended a workshop facilitated by Dr. Becker, or perhaps you’ve been in her Reading/Writing workshop sessions. Or maybe she was your high school English teacher. Regardless of your relationship, you probably know that Dr. Becker wants nothing more than for you to take her ideas, make them your own, and bring powerfully authentic writing experiences to your own classroom. If you want more information on this Tried and (Still) True lesson cycle, feel free to e-mail her at beckerhelenc@gmail.com. She hasn’t packed her computer yet, so it’s all good.

By the way, Dr. Becker really is on the move, this time to a house down the street more fitting for new grandparents!

If you enjoyed this post, read this one from Shana Karnes entitled Mini-Lesson Monday:  Imitating Poetry: https://threeteacherstalk.com/2015/10/26/mini-lesson-monday-imitating-poetry/

Addressing Perfectionism in Student Writing

A few weeks ago I was scrolling through social media and I read an excerpt from Fear and Art by David Bayles and Ted Orland that resonated with me and made me reflect on my teaching practices. In the section titled “Perfection”, Bayles writes:

The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pounds of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot — albeit a perfect one — to get an “A”. Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work-and learning from their mistakes — the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.”

― David Bayles, Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking

So often we are taught that we should focus on quality over quantity making it easy to overlook the simple fact that, sometimes, we need quantity to get to quality. It makes complete sense to shift away from the idea of perfection and just start making things- or in the case of our ELA classrooms, writing things. The skill will grow with practice. Unfortunately, it isn’t always so easy to convince our students. 

The fear of a blank page can be crippling for any writer. It stares back at the best of us with a terrifying mix of expectation and possibility. I see it in my students all the time- that quest for a flawless piece of work. They want reassurance that their writing is “good” or “perfect” before submitting it for a grade. Others become so stressed about failing, they never even start. 

How do we help our students work through their perfectionism and just start writing? Enter the Writer’s Notebook.

I’ve always been on a bit of a mission to find ways for my students to create a sort of writing portfolio, but I also wanted them to have a place to keep quick writes, notes, and other short pieces of writing. A few years ago, I started utilizing Writer’s Notebooks in my class and noticed how easy it was for students to flip around to different pieces they’ve written. 

My students have the space to make multiple attempts at writing in a low stakes manner. They explore their voices as writers, play with language, journal, finish pieces, scrap pieces, start over, revisit previous pieces to examine and evaluate their progress. I absolutely love this tool in my classroom. 

My goal for Writer’s Notebooks with my students, in addition to helping them keep up with notes, handouts, and their writing, was to help my students gain confidence in their ability.

I was in the middle of transitioning my students into more choice reading and the idea struck me- if my students are self-selecting texts to read, why can’t they also choose the writing that I grade? So, I flipped the script a bit and opted to let my students select which of their writings I would grade. 

Oh. My. Stars. 

When I say that this was a total game-changer in my teaching practice, I am not exaggerating. It eliminates so much of the emotional roller coaster that is grading. It gives students agency to choose the best example of their work which provides the opportunity for focused feedback on areas of improvement instead of feeling like I need to help them correct basic errors. 

I observed this simple change help many of my struggling writers ask specific questions as they were working or in our writing conferences. Once they knew they’d be able to select the piece I’d be grading, their fear of writing badly lessened enough that they’d actually begin. I definitely count that as a win.

What does this look like in the classroom?

Limit the choices to showcase a skill and not a specific prompt without making it overwhelming. This will vary depending on the lessons and skills, but I always make sure to build in multiple opportunities for a student to practice so their choice comes down to piece A, B, or C. 

How will you help address perfectionism in your students and get them writing?

Samantha is a wife, mom to three tiny humans, high school English teacher, perpetual student, Texas transplant, and lover of beautiful stories. She spends her days seeking levity in the chaos, sharing her passion for writing and storytelling with students, and searching for her constantly misplaced cup of reheated coffee. You can follow Samantha on Twitter @SimplySivils and on her blog http://simplySivils.wordpress.com/.

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.

Shifting to a Lego mindset to teach writing during a remote learning pandemic

Since my kids have been home from school, they have reinvested themselves in their basement Lego worlds comprised of an embarrassing number of Lego sets. The kids disappear for an hour every now and then and build, and they don’t really need my help but sometimes appreciate my approval. That’s the kind of mindset that I’d love for my students to have as we think about writing in this online world. Dad’s not here–now I can finally build what I want to. 

Coates family basement Lego world

In the best of circumstances it is difficult to teach writing. To do it online for the past six weeks has felt at times impossible. But as I look back I can see how it’s forced a few shifts that have helped push me closer to a Lego mindset as we consider how to prepare for an uncertain fall.

More frequent, shorter tasks: In class we tend to focus on timed tasks or processed tasks. My favorites, though, tend to be the pieces that take a day or two. They’re often more polished and experimental than timed pieces and more lively and raw than processed pieces. As we moved online, my goal was for students to continue to read and write independently each week. Here is how I tried to manage the writing portion:

  • Week 1: Writing Challenge 1 (300 words)
  • Week 2: Writing Challenge 2 (300 words)
  • Week 3: book club discussion boards (2 posts+replies)
  • Week 4: poetry discussion Padlets (3 responses)
  • Week 5: Writing Challenge 3 (300 words)
  • Week 6: informal independent reading reflection (personal email)

I tried to find lengths and formats that allowed for a sustained, multi-paragraph thought but were still short enough to ensure weekly completion without overwhelming a student facing a list of tasks from seven different teachers. 

More choice: Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle recently published a terrific piece called “The curse of helicopter teaching” in ASCD. In it they argue, “When students haven’t been required to wrestle with difficult writing decisions–and when much of that decision making has been done by the teacher–they lose their sense of agency and their confidence as writers.” Teaching remotely definitely thwarts my helicopter tendencies. I’ve tried to take advantage of this in each of the writing challenges by giving a bigger variety of prompt options (in topic as well as in mode). In addition, I worked to bring in structural choices to push the thinking: based on the topic I chose, what structure makes sense? I think this lines up pretty well with what Angela Faulhaber said about focusing on content before form…what you say should drive how you say it but it’s hard to get there in class sometimes if we’re all writing an argument essay. Since the tasks were short, they were a little more willing to experiment. See a sample task here.

More challenges: This idea comes from John Warner (see his article “I’m never assigning an essay again”), though he calls them “writing problems.” The idea is to give some parameters that foster experimentation rather than a rubric that restricts choices. It’s a narrower focus for the writer, which I think works well remotely. For example, in the first task I challenged students to focus on the specificity in a reflective piece about their Covid-19 experience. For the second Writing Challenge they chose a specific structure to explore (deductive, inductive, anecdote, listicle). The idea is that by narrowing to one aspect of writing they’ll have more space to consider their decision-making. This also allows for more targeted feedback on my end. 

John Warner’s newest book has many writing challenges/problems to explore.

More personalized options: Each task I’ve given remotely has included an option that allows students to focus on their current personal experience. For some it’s clearly therapeutic. For others it’s a chance to document their experience. It’s an easier entry point if they’re home alone and stuck than if we used a traditional academic prompt. But they can still practice specificity and structure; they can still work on adding complexity to their observations. I’ve had to loosen up but it’s empowered them in positive ways. Examples we’ve tried:

  • from Writing Challenge 1: What was the moment that you knew things were not normal, that this was going to be different? How has your life been disrupted? What’s been good, bad, memorable?
  • from Writing Challenge 2: Describe something you’ve been learning about one (or more) of the following: yourself, your family, remote learning, politics, science, your faith, a new hobby or interest. This piece is more personal in nature, so you’ll likely tell a story as you did in the college essay.

More feedback, fewer grades: Instead of grades, then, the focus in our remote learning environment is on feedback (see Sarah Krajewski’s recent tips on feedback here). I try to articulate what they did well and what I noticed about their attempts toward meeting the challenge. Essentially, and I think this is true for in-class writing, too, it’s not about giving more grades but giving more ungraded opportunities to build and experiment. I was also really challenged by this feedback article from Harvard Business Review to reconsider what helps and what hurts, especially if the feedback I give is not face-to-face.

Online writing has got to be more like the end of the first Lego movie, when Will Ferrell realizes that if his son has some freedom about what he can build and is allowed to recombine and go beyond the direction packets, he finds more joy and ownership over the experience. Our feedback can help cultivate this kind of mindset in the writing process whether it’s online or live. 

Nathan Coates teaches junior English at Mason High School, a large suburban district near Cincinnati, Ohio. He has really grown a lot this year from being allowed to post some reflective pieces on Three Teachers Talk. His first Lego set was the classic 1980-Something Space Guy set. @MHSCoates

5 Takeaways from #TCTELA20

Last Monday I made my way up to school fearing the worst. Missing one day of school is stressful for most of us, but missing two days meant that I needed to prepare myself to return to a classroom that needed to be reassembled. I imagined paper strewn floors, piles of books randomly placed around the room, and desks askew if not overturned.  I must have had the two best substitute teachers of all time. The room looked immaculate, the work I’d left for the students sat neatly stacked on my desk.  Both notes reported students who worked hard and followed instructions.  I can’t say enough about how much returning to a well run classroom helps me feel better about missing work to attend a conference.

The 2020 TCTELA Conference left me feeling empowered and excited to return to my classroom stronger than I left it.

Oh, and I got to meet Rebekah O’dell.img_6255

Several of us on the board agreed that we would answer Rebekah’s call to share our voices through our writing.

 

Thus, these are the top five takeaways from the 2020 TCTELA Conference

  1. Clarity

    One of my goals for this conference was to visit as many sessions as possible. I bounced in and out of the morning workshops and the concurrent sessions, and almost every speaker talked about or touched on the idea of clarity.  This subject, one I’m learning more and more about each week, is emerging as an area of interest for many of us. Research tells us that teacher clarity has a huge effect size, and I’m excited to see this shift in focus moving forward. The clearer we are in our interactions with our students, the greater our chances of helping them grow in their literacy.

  2. Collective Efficacy

    Saturday morning, sitting at the High School section meet-up area, I kept noticing teachers filtering past with the same maroon t-shirts. Later that morning, I saw them sitting a few rows behind me at the general session. As evening approached, I saw this group presenting at the round table sessions. Their presentation shared their experience with FlipGrid, and it just about floored me. I sat in awe of how many amazing ideas they brought to their session and how they made this technology work for them at every level of high school English.  The most impressive part of their presentation wasn’t their understanding of this teaching tool, rather, it was the mutual commitment to their shared goals. The collective efficacy that they brought to the conference impressed me so much that my instructional coach team and I waited only 3 days before meeting with them online to talk about how I could bring their experience into my classroom.  No offense to all my friends out there, but the English department at Silsbee High School is my second favorite.

  3. Practices based in Research

    Over and over again presenters reached beyond their own experience to support their claims.  Our understanding of research continues to grow in importance, and our capacity to fold that understanding into instructional practices must grow as well. The research piece can be daunting for teachers because we have limited time and energy beyond those factors that immediately affect our students. However, the shift to incorporate research based practices into our instructional methodology will affect the learning of our students as much as anything else.

  4. Service over Self

    My role at this conference differed greatly from conferences in the past.  Typically, I’ve focused on presenting with or learning from others, but this time my position as high school section chair meant that more would be required of me. I talked to so many people on Friday morning that my voice failed me by lunch. I handed out buttons and invited people to join the various sections for meet-ups. I visited with presenters to make sure they had what they needed. I shook more hands than ever before.  One of my goals for the conference was to help our attendees feel like they had a connection to the organization, and I did my best to make those connections happen.  This idea is one that we often preach to our students, and it felt so rewarding to live that message.

  1. Choice

    Choice remains at the top of the list of discussion topics.  Besides being a keyword in the title of the conference, every presentation that I saw touched on the importance of choice. I hope this concept continues to spread to classrooms across out state and empower all students to find themselves as readers and writers.  My first adventure into the world of AP Lang has only strengthened my resolve to advocate for student choice and I know that the support for that commitment continues to grow.


Charles Moore looks forward to his new role as VP-Elect for TCTELA. Every day he looks forward to bringing his very best to his students and his school. He’s excited to finish up graduate school and continue to build his professional learning network one conversation at a time. 

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