Category Archives: Pedagogy

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. 

Using design challenges to bring rhetoric to life

In Gumption Nick Offerman [aka Ron Swanson] includes an anecdote about author George Saunders seeking to impress his community college guitar teacher with a song he had learned. Unimpressed, the teacher told him, “If you don’t change your life, you’re going to be a very unhappy young man.” Offerman follows it up with this description: “What he then explained to George was that, sure, he had mechanically nailed going through the motions of the song, but without paying any attention to how it sounded.” Essentially, it had no heart.

One of the challenges of teaching something like rhetoric is that it can get reduced to terms and concepts that become mechanical. I can teach students to identify pathos or label the audience of a piece, but it somehow feels separate from the real work of analysis or writing that is covered so well here. It can become academic. One of my goals this year was to commit to finding more authentic applications that would allow us to think about rhetoric in less academic ways. As our school district worked with Allison Zmuda to immerse ourselves in personalized learning (more on this here), one of the models we spent time with was the Stanford Design School approach to design thinking, and it opened up some good ideas about how to explore rhetoric through design challenges. This visual captures the heart of the design thinking process:

Design thinking process from the Stanford Design School

What it is

A design challenge essentially lays out a problem for a team solve–they must design a solution using a process–followed by a presentation of their design where it is compared with other teams’ designs. We began to use this process by doing a series of rhetoric challenges throughout the semester. Each asked a team (5-7 students) to focus on a specific, practical rhetorical situation and to design something that forced them to make rhetorical choices based on the audience and purpose. I saw these as formative tasks that allowed students to explore some new argumentation techniques that would get immediate feedback from other teams (we do this kind of game-show/reality TV style) when presented. 

The questions I kept asking myself: what could they build that would show their understanding of rhetoric? What would challenge them to see the value and importance of their rhetorical choices for specific audiences?

What we tried

In Unit 2 (Friday Night Lights: the culture of high school sports), students had considered a range of issues from concussions and CTE to payment of college athletes and competition’s consequences on mental health. For the design challenge (see the full doc here) students had to create a 10-second ad (designed for phones) that repaired the ethos of the NFL or NCAA by pairing the organization with a cause and a spokesperson. They had to wrestle with the rhetorical situation and rhetorical appeals in really interesting ways to make this happen. Other examples of tasks we tried:

  • Unit 3: on solving school shootings (problem-solution structure): “As a team, design a solution to limit or end school shootings in America between 2020-2050 and persuade a specific audience to implement the policy.”
  • Unit 4 perfectionism clip sharing (types of evidence): “Make a problem/solution argument using a variety of types of evidence to capture what it’s like to battle perfectionism and how one can find balance.”
  • Unit 4 t-shirt design: “Design a T-shirt that encourages MHS students to flip the narrative when it comes to their inner critic and negative self-talk.”

Each team would present and go through a round of on-the-spot feedback. I cold-call people from other teams (think Shark Tank)  and ask questions about the content and the presentation method:

  • What was the strength of how that group presented?
  • Did their choice of spokesperson really help the ethos?
  • Between the last two groups, which did a better job of reaching the specified audience?
  • Was their solution stronger than your group’s?
  • If you could change one thing about yours after seeing theirs, what would it be?
  • Which group did the best job of engaging the audience about their ideas? How did they do it?
Bell 4 students give feedback on t-shirt designs in a gallery walk.

What I liked

By the end of each design challenge we had spent rich time in collaboration, had meaningful discussions about the functions of our rhetorical choices, and delved more deeply into our content in authentic ways. A few other positives I saw:

  • Making thinking visible through the products/presentations
  • Getting on-the-spot feedback about the value of your rhetorical choices and the social construction of our understanding of rhetoric 
  • Using the design thinking model to talk about the parallels to the writing process

The end goal is to understand the heart of rhetoric better and at a more practical level, and to then make some of the same moves in our writing that we make in the design challenges. To notice more about how it sounds and not just play the right notes. 

Nathan Coates teaches junior English at Mason High School, a large suburban district near Cincinnati, Ohio. He tweets about English-y stuff when he can remember to from @MHSCoates.  

When Your Teaching Life Throws You a Curve…

Hit a home run.

Or at least make contact, get on base, and rely on your teammates and experience to get you across home plate.

This new year, the new decade, reminds me that teachers often face new challenges and situations. Think about that student who transfers into your school nine days before the semester ends or the joy and then horror that flashes through your mind when you see that new copiers have been installed.

Sometimes though, we face new adventures that even vast swaths of experience cannot prepare us to handle the way we parry and deflect most of what’s throw at us. For me, a move away from athletics pushed me toward new classes that revealed just how comfortable I had become in my almost decade working with seniors. Last year freshman English and freshman Pre-AP English classes taught me about patience and pacing. This year sophomores and AP juniors force me to flex muscles I never knew I had and push me to explore the boundaries of my workshop pedagogy.

For those of us who face the anxiety of teaching a totally new class, a new unit of study, or even a new lesson, consider this advice:

  1. Lean on the pillars of experience around you.
  2. Trust the reading and writing workshop process.
  3. Build a team.
  4. Explore your literacy.

I’ve been blessed to leap into these last two years, and the change they promised, with groups of teachers who had been there before and knew what to expect.  Their knowledge and willingness to support me allowed for less time learning new content and more time planning effective lesson delivery.  While I have many questions, they seem to always have an answer that guides me back on the pathway to success.

Lean into the workshop that supports reading and writing because it invites literacy learners to feel safe within the routines and community that literacy learners need. New learning happens much easier then the teacher and the students feel comfortable and safe with each other.

Growing your support system beyond your teaching team is important. Living on front street with your students about your inexperience can be a scary proposition, but it can also invite them into the type of relationship where they understand that you will all grow together and that they are not the only ones being asked to shoulder a growth mindset. As for the adults in the building, instructional coaches are there to help you and support you, looking for clues to the type of help you need, listening when you struggle, celebrating your successes because they own a piece of your potential. Lastly, but no less importantly, build relationships with your administration. Extend the invitation for them to be in your room and learn about the students that pass through your life on a daily basis.  Admin isn’t there solely to handle disruptions or crisis. Rather, they, like every other educator in the building, have a vested interest in the success of your students and deserve the opportunity to experience your greatness.

Never forget the value of reading and writing beside your students. When you aren’t sure how to fairly and authentically assess the writing tasks you ask your students to perform, write your own response.  When you ask them to revise their writing, invite them into your process to help you explore your ideas.  They will jump at the chance to support your writing the way you support theirs. Share your reading life too.  Your reading life will engage them just as deeply, and as they learn more about what you like to read, they will learn more about you and, perhaps, about their own compassion.

Most importantly, trust the process. Believe in yourself in the face of new experiences. You owe it to the students and to yourself.


Charles Moore recently returned from a 2025 mile road trip vacation where he learned about new people and places and loved every minute of it. He encourages everyone to try to visit the Martin Luther King Jr. Historical Park and The King Center. Bring some tissues just in case a high school band spontaneously shows up to play for Dr. King.

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. 

 

 

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

%d bloggers like this: