Category Archives: Pedagogy

In Pursuit of Something New

 

photograph of a pathway in forest

For the first 11 years of my career, I coached high school volleyball. This is my first year not coaching, and, well, there are mixed feelings. I love the increase in time at the beginning of the year; I miss the girls.

Coaching was never one of my life goals. While I enjoyed playing and loved the game (regardless of what game I happened to be playing), I never wanted to coach. After all, I spent four years accruing debt while training to become an English teacher, not a coach. So even though I thought I was prepared to teach,  I wasn’t prepared for the realities of the job market. I was offered a job in my first interview – a job that was conditional upon my agreement to coach volleyball. I hesitated in the interview long enough that the principal repeated himself, thinking I hadn’t heard him make the offer. 

In retrospect, I’m so thankful for that condition; I fell in love with the profession, with the competitiveness, with the players. Volleyball became a refuge during that challenging first year of teaching. I would leave the classroom, wondering if anyone had learned anything, feeling as if I was just tossing spitballs at the wall and praying something stuck. But then I walked into practice. In practice, I could offer advice for hitting harder, watch the player take that advice, and see immediate improvement. It took me, embarrassingly, four years to see that the two professions weren’t mutually exclusive. Once I began to apply some of my instructional best practices to the game, I became a much stronger, more effective coach. Getting there was a struggle, though.

Even though I’m no longer coaching, I still find myself thinking like a coach in my classroom at times. Of late, I’m reminded of one of MY high school coach’s favorite sayings: don’t lose what we have in pursuit of something new. Her point was that when students or players or even people are learning something new, sometimes they start to falter with a skill that they already possess. Essentially, the already learned skill gets put on the back burner as the brain processes a new skill and finds room for both in their new “map” of their brain. (I linked to a blog series there by Eliezer Yudkowsky – it’s a deep dive, but worth it.)

Teaching a jump serve often meant being patient with a flat-footed serve getting a little wonky.

Teaching a new kind of genre of writing (like rhetorical analysis) often means being patient with students conflating genre conventions. 

So what to do? Well, I’m still pulling from my bag of coaching/teaching tricks – so much of strong teaching is predicated on timely, accurate, accessible feedback. 

Here’s what not to do: When I first started coaching, I found, for good or ill, my first team was motivated by high expectations and immediate negative feedback. I became quite accomplished at breaking down incorrect movements and offering players extensive negative feedback (don’t hold your arms like that, feet together, faster, slower, higher) but not so adept at offering positive feedback (good job, nice hands, did everyone just see how she hustled after that ball? wow!). My positive feedback tended to be vague and repetitive. Shouts of “Yes!”  and “Way to go!” peppered our practices. Completely ineffective. The players knew explicitly where their struggles were (I had made that public knowledge for the entire team), but their successes weren’t being praised, and their growth both as players and as people was stymied. Even though we had four successful seasons together – three trips to the state tournament, lots of hardware and local recognition – I failed to create players who thought of themselves individually as successful. We would all agree that the team was successful, but I doubt their inner monologues were encouraging, and I know the way in which they spoke to each other wasn’t always positive – their constructive criticism skills left something to be desired, a trait they acquired from their coach. In this gym, I was the sage on the stage – not the best example for my girls. However, I was blessed enough to work with a group of girls who managed to flourish even when given such weak soil from their coach.

How does this transfer to the classroom? Modeling and conferencing and workshop, oh my. 

We look at multiple samples to remind ourselves of what we should be doing. We conference together focusing on finding positives and one trend to work on for the next round of writing. We workshop multiple smaller versions of the final larger piece, focusing on higher order concerns and lower order concerns in low stakes settings. Knowing that good teaching is often recursive teaching, we revisit previously learned knowledge in mini-lessons and in class discussions so that the new knowledge and the old knowledge can be held in tandem in the brain.

None of this is a ground-breaking, panacea for some of the hiccups inherent in teaching new skills, particularly new writing skills. It’s just solid teaching, and for me, a reminder that learning is a complex process and that I have to plan effectively for students so that we don’t lose what we have in pursuit of something new. 

Sarah Morris teaches AP English Language & Composition, AP Seminar,  and Film as Literature in Murfreesboro, Tn. She is currently contemplating a re-read of The Name of the Wind – reading this book is like those conversations with friends who you might not speak to every day but pick back up with as easily as if you did. She tweets at @marahsorris_cms. 

 

 

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Disturbing My Beliefs

Okay, reader, I have a challenge for you before you read this blog. If you were to read a student’s IEP and learned that he had been diagnosed with all of the following, what would be your first thoughts?

  • Chronic anxiety
  • Obsessive compulsive thinking
  • Tourette’s syndrome
  • Asperger’s syndrome
  • Depression

 Really, don’t read any further until you’ve thought about teaching this student. How would you plan for him? If you were to predict his future, what would your prediction be?

Now read on.


I’m not sure when I ran across Peter Smagorinsky’s work, but I’m guessing it was sometime in the 80s while studying writing pedagogy, and for literally decades his writing has influenced me. So it was quite a shock when I encountered an article by him in Maureen Downey’s Get Schooled column. Writing about the “mentally ill,” he explains:

In fact, I am among them, as are several people in my family. Various people in my gene pool have been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, Tourette’s syndrome, chronic anxiety, depression, obsessive compulsive thinking, oppositional-defiance, and other conditions. I suspect that many readers can say the same.

Reading this sent me into the research mode. From his vita, I discovered that he has Screen Shot 2019-10-02 at 11.55.53 AMwritten or co-written over 15 books and a ridiculous number of articles for professional journals, has been honored with numerous awards, and currently holds the title of Distinguished Research Professor of English Education.

Have you ever had one of those moments when you knew you needed to rethink an assumption that you didn’t even know you held? An assumption that carries serious implications for a sound readers/writers workshop? That’s what happened to me. All too clearly I recall in the past saying something like, “For a special ed kiddo, he’s doing okay.” Or – I confess this with great embarrassment – “I’ll cut him some slack. After all, he is in special ed.” And as a consultant, I don’t know how many times I nodded in empathy with a teacher when she talked about low test scores and all of “those” students or I indicated my understanding when the teacher said, “Oh, she has an IEP. Of course, she’s struggling.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about beliefs lately, and Peter’s story has stirred up beliefs that lay dormant, beliefs that I hadn’t examined. My discomfort reminded me of what Margaret Wheatley describes in her essay “Willing to be Disturbed.”

DisturbedLately, I’ve been listening for what surprises me. What did I just hear that startled me? This isn’t easy-I’m accustomed to sitting there nodding my head to those saying things I agree with. But when I notice what surprises me, I’m able to see my own views more clearly, including my beliefs and assumptions.

And Peter’s column dredged up assumptions that I would have denied. For years, I’ve argued for thinking of kids from an asset perspective, but buried deep within me reigned a deficit orientation.

As I kept reading more of Peter’s writing, I encountered his push for neurodiversity in which teachers recognize that there is a range of neurological orientations and, therefore, it’s important to “foreground potential, not disorder.” Peter argues:

Rather, I think that I follow a different order, like many who share my classifications. In fact, it’s quite ordered. There probably is no more ordered way of being than to live on the autism spectrum. It’s a life of pattern, ritual, and clarity of purpose. The problem is that those purposes can seem odd to those who believe that having a narrow or unusual way of being in the world is a problem to be fixed, a sickness to be cured.

Looking at more of his writing, some in blogs and some in academic essays, I found provocative gems such as these:

  • “My ability to complete work quickly and efficiently is, I believe, a consequence of having Asperger’s in conjunction with OCD.”
  • “As part of my rebellion against … stereotype, I have begun referring to my Asperger’s Advantage, especially when Asperger’s is bundled with my anxiety and obsessive-compulsive thinking.”

In one essay, he credits Tourette’s for his prodigious writing career, explaining that when he reads, he picks at his nails and goes into endless tapping routines, but writing channels his nervous tics into productive and satisfying work.

What if I had viewed my students with “special” needs – just think of the condescending tone of that phrase – as seeing the world differently and my job was to figure out their strengths and ways I could build from those strengths? My buried beliefs were madly disconnected from my espoused beliefs.

Yes, Peter disturbed me, surfaced my beliefs, and challenged my assumptions. And the troubling question is: what other negative beliefs are tucked away, needing to be disturbed?

For over 25 years, Stevi Quate taught middle and high school English in Colorado. Even though she no longer has her own classroom, she is in classrooms throughout the US and internationally. Currently, she consults in international schools and with Public Education and Business Coalition. When she’s home, she’s playing with her dogs, reading in her backyard, and realigning her beliefs. Follow her: @steviq

 

 

 

 

Listening & Speaking More and Better

Sometimes in the blur of teaching readers to read and write more — and better — we forget the importance of teaching them to listen and speak more effectively. At least I do. This is one of the reasons I love the workshop approach in my English class. Talk is a intregal part.

No doubt, I am an idealist. I tend to think if my students can orally communicate their speech-bubbles-303206_1280thinking and truly listen to one another, our society, and our country, have a chance. The bellowing from every side wears me down, and I think the classroom can be a tiny little microcosm of what communication in the world could be if we were all a little more well-versed in listening and speaking skills. Call me hopeful.

For this reason, my seniors and I are focusing on more talk than ever before. I am trying to remember to teach specific speaking and listening skills — not just telling my students to talk about issues. We worked up a list of norms for our discussions, and as a class, we are working to hold one another accountable. It’s becoming a group effort. It’s hard. And it’s challenging.

Every day we still talk about our reading. Right now, we are in our first round of book clubs. Most days we still talk about our writing. We just finished college application essays. Some days we talk about texts that help us be better at talking, listening, and having better conversations. There’s some interesting TED Talks here and here.

Every Friday we engage in whole class discussions around particularly “hot” topics, all with a focus on using the text to support and expand our thinking. So far, we’ve discussed racism, hacking, and the benefits, or not, of marijuana.

Soon, my students will be the ones choosing the texts and facilitating the discussions. They’ve already talked about issues that concern them, make them wonder, and ones they want to explore together. Here’s a few:  climate change, mental illness, vaping, teens and sleep schedules, cultural appropriation vs cultural appreciation, artificial intelligence and the workforce, biases in Hollywood, investing in the stock market, sex trafficking in the U.S., college and the expense of it, memes and what they say about the people who make them, four-day work weeks, Area 51, will Amazon control the world?

Young people are curious. I am curious. And I certainly do not want to do all the work in choosing texts and inviting students to talk about them. I just needed to get them started and model how to choose rich texts, how to write open-ended questions, and how to facilitate an engaging discussion. Now I just have to trust that they can do it.

I believe they can.

If you know of some interesting articles that would spark great discussions, I’d love it if you shared them in the comments. My students will be doing some flash research this week to locate texts for their turn leading our Friday discussions. We’d all appreciate the kick start.

Amy Rasmussen teaches senior English at a large suburban high school in North Texas. She’s excited to be back in the classroom after a year on hiatus. She thinks young people today are just the greatest. Follow Amy @amyrass

How Healthy is Your Practice?

It seems like self-care, wellness, mindfulness, and balance are all the buzz these days. Yet, too often, I see self-care employed as a marketing technique or a rationalization tool: buy this face mask! Do some mindfulness coloring! Treat yo’self to that $6 latte! Schedule a 6-night, 7-day spa retreat in Switzerland! IT’S FOR SELF-CARE!!

Yeah, no.

I admit, I bought into the hype a little bit and splurged at Target a few weeks ago in the “self-care” beauty section. But when I struggled mightily to successfully peel off the peel-off face mask that was supposed to “refresh” me, I didn’t feel refreshed. I just felt like a moron when I looked at my patchy, half-green face in the mirror. Instead of feeling satisfied, I felt, “wow, I can’t even PEEL OFF A FACE MASK.”

Not helpful, y’all.

Instead of having a teaching-life balance that somehow makes me think a peel-off face mask will help me feel less stressed (but instead makes me feel like a Halloween makeup artist), I need to have a teaching-life balance that is rejuvenative all on its own.

As a teacher, it’s a constant struggle not to get to the point in a school day where I don’t feel overwhelmed. When I think about the orientation courses in my inbox, the IEP feedback forms sitting in a folder on my desk, the messy disaster that is my classroom library, the toppling stack of writer’s notebooks students submit for feedback every other Friday…I don’t feel the need for some little moments of self-care. I feel the anxious, grasping need for escape to that spa in Switzerland, except I never really want to return from the spa to my real life.

We cannot let ourselves get to this point.

As teachers, we have to cultivate a practice that is more responsible, more sustainable, more respectful to the fact that we are HUMANS, and that we should feel ABLE to do our jobs, to do the work of teaching because we love it, and not because we’re suffering from some teacher-as-martyr delusions of grandeur and existential suffering.

A tweet about this very feeling from Dulce-Marie Flecha stuck with me–so much so that I still remember it, word for word, nearly five months later:

This sentiment struck me, forcefully, in mid-April: when tests were looming and assemblies were rampant and the science fair kept interrupting my carefully-crafted multigenre lesson schedule. I was so stressed out by the daily practice of teaching middle schoolers, on top of having two kids under the age of three and a life in general, that I really felt I could not do the work of teaching. I knew I had to make a lasting change that was more sustainable than trying to survive on coffee and weekend laundry marathons and naps.

Tami Forman writes in Forbes that self-care is actually kind of boring: it’s boundaries, it’s saying no to things we know we shouldn’t take on, it’s turning off the TV so we can actually get some sleep. It’s the little things, the simple habits that make our lives manageable.

Image result for onward elena aguilar
I’m reading Onward this year with a group of colleagues, which offers guidance for how to know yourself and your limits as an educator, so you can design a sustainable teaching practice more successfully.

And as an English teacher, it’s crafting a curriculum, a classroom, and a culture at school that don’t require me to give feedback on every single paper, to grade every single page a student reads, to be on every committee or lead every after-school activity.

We have to do what we can, the best we can.

If you’re spending too much time stressing out about your inadequacies as a teacher, consider how you might revise your teaching practice to be more sustainable, more balanced, more enjoyable. It’s more than just throwing that stack of papers you meant to grade in the recycling bin: it’s thinking carefully about how you might shift the cognitive load in your classroom toward student self-assessment, conferences, and peer feedback rather than just being all on you. It’s something that’s beneficial for teachers and students alike.

Ask yourself: how healthy is my teaching practice? And let us know in the comments how you’ve made shifts to keep your work and life in balance, so you have time to read all the latest and greatest YA, doodle in your own writer’s notebook, and daydream poetry.

Shana Karnes lives and works in Wisconsin alongside many smart, thoughtful, inspiring English teachers via the Greater Madison Writing Project. She enjoys reading, writing, and poem-ing in any spare time she gets when she’s not with her two baby girls and hardworking husband. Connect with Shana on Twitter at @litreader.

Your Students Deserve a Reflective Teacher – 10 Reflective Questions to Guide Each Day

Back in the day (before teaching, marriaging, and parenting), I loved the Indie Rock flavored reflection of an afternoon spent at the coffee shop. Pen, journal, and intellectually stimulating text at the ready, I’d dream away the hours in self reflective bliss. Fueled by sips of chai and youthfulness, I’d take the time to try and grow through the art of reflecting on the great mysteries of life as viewed by a college student. It was probably 2002.

Fast forward to 2019. I now reflect on life in the car on the way to and from work, in the shower, while my daughter flips across the floor at gymnastics class, and in the 37 seconds it takes me to fall asleep each night (if I haven’t already passed out from exhaustion on the couch).

There are thoughts of how I could have better handled my daughter’s overtired meltdown. There are moments of longing for my Dad, who I lost in March, and reflection helps to sustain me in my grief. Professionally, there are the moments when I ask students to write about their chosen texts, talk over with an elbow partner how they felt their latest speaking opportunity went, and consider how their experiences in school have helped (or hindered) their journey to this moment in their learning. Reflection happens in our lives intentionally and involuntarily all the time, though personally it happens now in much shorter snippets.

Back as a recent college graduate, with that twenty three year old glow, I floundered in the daily chaos and reveled in the fresh newness of the profession. This led to reflection on my teaching for a few moments each and every day in my journal. Nothing extensive, just a few lines about what really impacted me that day and what I wanted to do better.

That’s the beauty of reflection – its forward thinking, endlessly hopeful, blissfully enthusiastic bedfellow is goal setting. We grow forward when we look back. If we take the time.

In the ebb and flow of life as an educator, however, I’ve not kept up this practice over the years…which is a shame. Of course, there are endless reflective practices that we take on and use purposefully as educators every day, without having to write down a word, but in the quest to continually refine my practice, I consider reminders to reflect to be a hugely valuable add to my day to day. This type of professional reflection can help us overcome debilitating challenges, foster relationships, and reduce stress.

With the start of a new school year, the impulse to look forward is far stronger for me than to look back, but my dear colleague Anita Sundstrom, who has a blackbelt in reflective practice and who often knows what I need before I have a chance to figure it out, shared an article with me this week that got me thinking…and thinking and thinking.

Consider taking the time for yourself, at great benefit to your professional satisfaction, positive impact, and accumulated stress level, to read this piece from Wabisabi Learning, “10 Reflective Questions for Teachers to Use Everyday.”

I’ve created a set of notecards with one of the ten questions on each. I’m going try to flip through them once a day, select one at random, and just think, because what I value enough to take the time to do today, can make all the difference for both today and tomorrow.

How do you use reflection to positively impact your professional outlook? Your students? Yourself? Leave a comment below and share your beautiful mind with us!

Lisa Dennis spends her school days teaching AP Language and English 9, 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

Mentor Texts: Lifting Lines and Elevating Self

When working with mentor texts in notebooks, lifting a line–pulling a line or phrase or sentence for its aesthetics and using it as a launching point to generate writing–remains such an important strategy, as Ralph Fletcher notes here. Of course, we want our writers to work with parts of a text that will help them learn to not just write their ideas but to craft.  But I think these lines, these (where appropriate writer-selected) lines, can also elevate the writer somehow. These lines just might move writers in ways where they’re compelled to study themselves just as closely as the craft.  These lines can tug writers into the stratosphere. 

I felt myself lifted as I read Sara K. Ahmed’s Being the Change this summer (This book about how to teach social comprehension offers numerous mentor texts.). One line in particular heightened my summer reflection: “Understand that everyone’s identity is at stake.” Whoa. 

The urgency of this challenged me to think and write and think and write and ultimately create; the best lines to lift should compel writers to create! In this case, my co-coach and I worked to plan professional development for our returning teachers. In Ahmed’s words, we wanted to “make way for the voices, emotions, and experiences of others,” so we centered our time on identity–individual and the staff’s, the students’, the building’s. And then, in our efforts to use story to promote digital literacy, we used America Ferrera’s Ted Talk My Identity Is a Superpower Not an Obstacle. As staff watched, we encouraged them to respond in their notebooks, ultimately suggesting that they choose a line and reflect on how they can carry it into the year with them. 

My hope is that as staff scans their notebooks during our next professional development, they will see this line. They will consider themselves and others, identities at stake. And this line will lift them toward possibility. 

Kristin Jeschke is an English teacher turned Instructional Coach in Waukee, Iowa. After nineteen years as an English teacher, she’s currently re-imagining her identity. But she’s excited for all that’s possible.  Follow her on twitter @kajeschke.

My Antiracist Reading List

Many years ago in my teaching career, I acknowledged a gaping hole in my pedagogical knowledge that’s rooted in an unchangeable part of my teacher identity: being a white woman.

The implications of this were both large and small. I realized that the students in my classroom who were most successful were the white females. I realized that the students I had the most trouble suggesting books for were the students who were not white females. I realized that my family phone call log was full of communication with male students and students of color.

I knew I needed to make a change. And I realized that the one and only variable of my classroom that I could ever control or change was myself.

It was then that I began to look critically at the systems and norms and institutions I had in place or held in place. I examined my curriculum critically and saw a slew of white authors. I found a canon of classics that were long and uninteresting and irrelevant to my students. I found a syllabus, a classroom contract, and a school handbook of rules that privileged a definition of behavior and compliance defined by white people.

So, I did what I considered an extension of my education program: I read theory, reflected, put it into practice, reflected some more; read more theory, reflected, practiced, repeat.

And I got better. My curriculum became more diverse (adios, dead white guys; hello, @diversebooks), my methods became more student-centered (goodbye, long tests; hello, conferring), my critical reflection became more astute (sayonara, mindless grading; hello, assessment for learning). And my students experienced more successes in reading and writing because I was addressing some of the inequities and inadequacies in my teaching.

Here we are, ten years after that realization, and I’m optimistically hoping antiracist teaching has become an educational aspiration that is normative. And, three states and four schools later, I’m still working to grow and improve.

So this summer, thanks to #cleartheair, #educolor, #disrupttexts, and #thebookchat friends on Twitter, my TBR list has been filled with books about antiracist, equity, and inclusive teaching. It’s been hard to find those books alone, and it’s been especially difficult to find voices of color in books specifically tailored to secondary English pedagogies and methods:

After that conversation, I was left with two things: an impressively wide to-read list filled with BIPOC authors discussing equity, and a distressingly narrow slice of books by BIPOC authors who were writing about literacy methods in high school classrooms. Here’s a short list of titles:

  • Not Light, But Fire by Matthew R. Kay
  • Fearless Voices by Alfred Tatum
  • Writing Instruction in the Culturally Relevant Classroom by Maisha T. Winn and Latrise Johnson
  • Total Literacy Techniques by Persida Himmele
  • The Write Thing by Kwame Alexander
  • Linking Literacy and Popular Culture by Ernest Morrell

I wondered why there weren’t more books like this out there, so I did some broader reading, too: Paolo Freire, bell hooks, Gloria Ladson-Billings, James Baldwin. At Cornelius Minor’s suggestion, I read Baldwin’s “A Talk to Teachers.” At my entire Twitter timeline’s suggestion, I read Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility, and ordered Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be An Antiracist.

These readings stirred my thinking in hundreds of ways, but it really boiled down to one change I wanted to make: elevating voices that have historically been silenced.

I specifically want to find and read texts by authors whose perspectives have been marginalized, to amplify those voices and others’ whose have been oppressed, and to help students tell stories they’ve not been able to tell before (but that’s another blog post). This cycle, to me, involves considerable struggle, but it is worth it to help change the narrative of who and what matters in classrooms. This is our tireless work, and my goal this year is to keep at it unflaggingly, with boundless energy, because it matters.

I hope you, too, have dug deep this summer into the changes you hope to make in your students, your teaching, and yourself. I wish you strength this school year as you internalize Baldwin’s words in his talk to teachers: “The obligation of anyone who thinks of himself as responsible is to examine society and try to change it and to fight it.”


Please share your thinking in the comments: who might you add to this reading list? What changes are you hoping to make this school year? Please also consider joining our writing team!

Shana Karnes lives, learns, and teaches in Madison, Wisconsin, with her husband and babies. This year she’s working with the Greater Madison Writing Project at the University of Wisconsin. Connect with Shana on Twitter at @litreader.

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