Category Archives: Pedagogy

Four Things I Wish I’d Known When I Became an English Teacher

I’ve got a lot to learn. Even after decades of reading, writing, and learning to be a teacher, I often feel the sinking feeling of inadequate. Every spring she floats to the surface, and sends a garbled message that makes me question:  Did I do enough to help my students?

Help them with what?

When I first started teaching high school English, I thought it was all about the books. I loved literature. I wanted them to love literature. How can they love it if I don’t help them see the complex beauty of well-crafted sentences and heart-achingly human plot lines? I was that teacher:  I taught books instead of readers. (Many of you have heard me speak about my Dickens’ debacle. Believe me, it was the worst of times.) Like many new teachers, I taught like I had been taught. I did not focus on the learner and her needs. I did not focus on the reader and his interest, ability, or anything that matters to growing readers. My focus squared fully on what I thought a high school English class should be:  classic lit (chosen by me), study questions (written by me), analysis essays (prompts by me), and me helping my students “understand” what they had just read. (Not even considering that they may not have read the assigned pages at all.)

Last week I celebrated with family as my daughter and her husband graduated from

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Jenna and Ryan Anderson

Utah State University. We watched close to 2,000 graduates in two different college commencement ceremonies walk the stage and into the next part of their life’s journey. Many of those graduates intend to be teachers. It’s a beautiful thing, really. New blood, new energy, new passion in a very demanding career. I hope it doesn’t eat them alive.

It won’t — if they are better prepared than I was.

That’s what kept hopping through my head as I watched so many young people shake hands and clasp diploma covers — evidence of their academic accomplishment:  Has their education prepared them for the realities of teaching? Will those going into ELA classrooms teach books or teach readers? It’s a lot of years later, do they know more than I did? Of course, I know next to nothing about USU’s College of Education, although according to the Dean, they are highly ranked. That’s not the point.

So what is the point?

I’ve still got a lot to learn. But if I can help speed dial the learning for other English teachers, I’ll do it. Here’s four things I know for sure:

We must–

  1. be literacy teachers — not just literature teachers. (I first heard Kelly Gallagher say this at a conference years ago. This shift in perspective changed me. Readicide is still a go to resource.)
  2. be purposeful in developing readers and writers, and let that be our guide as we plan, prepare, and present lessons. (I thank God for Penny Kittle. Write Beside Them sparked my move into authentic writing instruction. It’s the only professional book I’ve read more than once. Also, Book Love.)
  3. be inclusive in all aspects of our teaching from the resources we choose to the attitudes we take and how we talk and act and advocate, and how we work to create relationships, break down barriers, fight injustice. (In the past couple of years, I’ve learned a lot from Cornelius Minor about having an inclusive mindset. His book We Got This would be a good gift for new teachers, for every teacher.)
  4. be reflective, yes, but more vital to meeting the needs of all learners, be responsive. (That’s the intricate simplicity of the workshop model of instruction:  We meet the needs of individual students in the moment of their struggles and their strengths.)

You and I both know there’s so much more. The whole teaching gig can be so overwhelming. (Thus, one reason I’ve relished in my gap year.) If nothing else, I hope all ELA teachers, new and not-so-new, will focus on themselves this summer: Read a lot. Write a lot. Think a lot. That’s really all it takes to master #1.)

 

Amy Rasmussen lives, writes, paints, and gardens in North Texas. She’s taught all levels of high school English, except AP Lit, and now she’s seriously thinking about middle school — or college. She facilitates readers-writers workshop training wherever she’s invited and loves to see ideas percolate and passions ignite as teachers sit in the seats as learners, internalizing the philosophies and routines of RWW. For more info on trainings, check out the 3TT PD page.

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In Favor of Fun

How many English classes have you been in during which students do not read or write?

Think back. Truly. How many of your own educational experiences, your own lesson plans, or classes you’ve observed contain a rich amount of student reading and writing? And…how many are filled with round robin reading, audiobooks, review games, vocab quizzes, grammatical dog-and-pony tricks?

Equally frustrating is when reading and writing is being taught in an English class, but it’s still the dog-and-pony variety: classics only. Whole-class texts only. Five-paragraph you-know-whats only. The teacher makes all the choices, and often, those choices were not made by the teacher, or he or she made them many years ago.

Day in and day out, I see these complacent practices in place–a classroom in which students see words but rarely read or write them independently; an autocratic, teacher-centered class in which students do some reading and writing but exercise no choice.

I have seen all of this in a wide variety of classrooms in just the last few weeks, as I’ve been doing some classroom-hopping in the form of substitute teaching. As I watch preservice teachers get their feet wet, as I read lesson plans left for a lowly, inept sub, as I talk to students who are unaccustomed to having the chance to speak during class, I keep returning to one question:

Where is the fun?!

Where is the talk, the chatter, the laughter, the rapport, the pure enjoyment of learning? It’s almost as though the culture of fear so common in traditional schools has permeated the student-teacher line, and made school and classroom leaders as afraid of fun as the learners are.

This, for me, is unconscionable. A deadened classroom brings no pleasure to the teacher or student, which makes for a learning environment that’s almost oxymoronic: little learning is occurring in an environment with no life.

At the end of a period in which I, the sub, have simply given students instructions to “listen to the audio” (and don’t fall asleep), “work on your online program for 20 minutes” (assuming the WiFi is working), or “complete the grammar warm-up” (that took half the class)…there is always free time. For a substitute, this is often a period of terror: untasked children, out of control. YIKES.

img_1994For me, though, this is an opportunity for some fun to finally happen. I ask questions. What do they want? What do they wish for? What would engage them?

In every instance, in every classroom–from elementary through high school seniors–students have surprised and delighted me with their creative replies to these questions. One class wrote a reading response to To Kill a Mockingbird entirely in hashtags. Another class chose to make a literary bucket list of things they wanted to do in English class before they went to high school. One group of 12th graders elected to craft a visual response to their writing prompt about what they wanted from the future.

Over and over, students proved to me that creativity, self-expression, and the desire to share their thoughts and feelings with the world was universally present. Despite their lack of recent practice, those skills were innate, and readily available. Their willingness to try was instant.

In their reflections on learning, students asked for the same things:

  • choice and challenge:  they requested to be able to choose some reading and writing topics independently, but also asked for things like “read a long book together as a class;” “do one really long writing where you help us the whole time.”
  • authenticity:  many, many requests to “be real with us,” “teach us stuff we will actually use in the future,” “teach us like you know what we’ve been through.”
  • respect:  students broke my hearts with their tales of ‘dumb-shaming,’ in which a teacher has mocked a student for not having an answer, a skill, a scholarly habit. They asked me, in so many words, to respect what students have been through and are going through, and to teach for what they will go through.

These words of wisdom–many of them from students in middle school, where I’ve spent most of my time subbing–are prescient and pressing. Engagement is universally appealing, to all students, of all ages, in all content areas. When given the chance to create, they seize it.

This indicates, to me, that if we teach in a way that prizes choice and creativity, there is little risk on the teacher’s part–we need not be afraid of students misbehaving or disengaging. It’s time to shove off the fear so many teachers have of taking a chance on a more creative curriculum.

There’s no need to be afraid of a little fun in learning.

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Shana Karnes is a “real teacher” in West Virginia, who has worked with secondary English students, preservice teachers, and practicing educators for 10 years. When she’s not in the classroom, she spends time reading, writing, and learning with her daughters, husband, and friends. Connect with Shana on Twitter at @litreader.

Using Scrum in the Classroom

As we shift many of our educational practices towards more inquiry focused learning, we must also shift the skills that we focus on in our classrooms. In many of my classes, I have students engage in long term learning experiences that emphasize important skills including communication and collaboration. One issue I have consistently come across, however, is that students often lack the project management skills required to be successful in this type of learning and that we often launch them into assignments that require planning both their task and their time without providing them with the tools the need to be successful. How many times have we given students “a work block” and set them free only to be frustrated by how poorly many of them use their time?

One of the classes I teach is AP Capstone Seminar. In this class, as part of their AP exam score, students are placed in teams where they have to collaboratively produce a problem/solution style research presentation. Because this is considered part of their assessment for their AP exam score, the CollegeBoard requires that I as their teacher am not allowed to provide them with assistance (similar to if they were writing a sit-down exam).  It quickly became apparent to me that for my students to be successful with this collaborative project in their live assessment, I would need to provide them with strategies to help structure their time and that is when I stumbled across Scrum.

Scrum is a technique that has been used in schools in the Netherlands and has been adopted by many schools world wide. It is a style of project management that originated in the computer design world and that has been adapted to help support students manage long term learning tasks.

When using Scrum with my class, I help guide them through the following process:

1.) Set the end term goal for the project – what is the final product you are trying to produce, or what is your final goal? What date must this be finished by?

2.) Break this final goal down into shorter goals that we call sprint goals – essentially what are the smaller tasks that first must be accomplished in order to succeed in the end goal? By what date must be finish the sprint goals in order to achieve our end goal?

3.) Once students have set their end goal and their sprint goals, they are then asked to create their “flap board”. This flap board is where they will break their sprint goals down into the individual tasks they need to complete to reach their sprint goals, they will assign that task to members of the group, and they will track the progress the group has made on the task.

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The flap board for one of my AP Capstone student groups on the first day.

A flap board can consist of many elements depending on the task, but I have simplified it into the following categories for my students:

1.) Task Backlog: This is where students brainstorm all of the tasks that must be completed in order for them to achieve their sprint goal. These tasks are always written on sticky notes so they can be moved. If a task is in the Backlog area, it has not yet been started. This helps students visualize the volume of work they need to complete.

2.)Week Column: Students divide this section into the number of weeks (or classes) they have to complete the task. This allows them to visualize the amount of time they have to complete their work.

3.) “To Do”, “In Progress”, “Done” columns: these columns are where students track their progress on a task. When they are ready to start on a task from the Task Backlog, they move it to the “To Do” Column and place a coloured sticky note on the task indicating which student will be responsible for the task. Once the student has actually started the task, the move it to the “In Progress” column and when they have completed it, they move it to the “Done” Column. We usually have to come to an agreement within the groups as to what they would constitute as “Done”.

4.) Impediment Backlog: This section of the flap board is for when students hit a roadblock that impedes their progress. For example, a common impediment in my AP Capstone class is that the student has started to research their topic and has realized there are few reliable sources on their topic. If this is the case, they move the task to the Impediment Backlog section.

The Scrum Process:

At the start of each class where students have a “work block”, each group meets with their flap board and takes stock of their tasks. We call this meeting a Scrum and a Scrum should take no more than 5-8 minutes. In this Scrum, students move any of their tasks that they have completed before the class into the “Done” column and then set their goals for the class period. This may involve moving tasks out of the Task Backlog into the “To Do” Column, or moving tasks from the “To Do Column” to the “In Progress” column. As well, if any tasks have been moved to the Task Impediment section, this is the time to address the problem and to come up with an action plan. In these five minutes, students are taking stock of their progress and setting goals for tasks to be completed during this class period. At the end of each work block class, students will hold another 5-8 minute Scrum where they take stock of the progress they made in class, move tasks to the appropriate column, and set their goals for the next class.

A class Scrum is an easy and quick process, but it has revolutionized the way my students accomplish collaborative tasks that require long term planning. When students take five minutes at the start of the class to set their goals for the block, they are more productive and when they take the time to chunk a larger task down into smaller pieces in a guided manner, they are learning how to manage projects, how to collaborate, and how to problem solve to achieve their goals.

For more information on using Scrum in the classroom watch this, video showing it in action.

For more ideas on how to teach the specific skills required for collaboration, check out this excellent post.

Pam McMartin is a Senior English Teacher, English Department Head, and Senior Teacher Librarian in Tsawwassen, British Columbia. She is always looking for ways to apply the project management techniques she tries to share with her student to her own life in order to help manage the chaos. So far, this has been a work in progress. Feel free to follow her on Twitter @psmcmartin.

Helping our Students Develop a Reader’s Identity through Reflection and Goal Setting

It’s the time of year when it’s important for students to reflect on their identities as readers. There is so much growth to celebrate – whether it be in disposition, habits, knowledge, fluency, or attitude.

Even though I see their growth, it’s important for our students to own it themselves, and to develop their own sense of identity instead of relying on my impression of who they are.

So we spent a little class time thinking and reflecting.

I asked them some questions to get them started. Who were we as readers when we started the year? How do we identify as readers now, and where do we want to be as readers at the end of the school year? What might that look like?

Now remember, I live in Nicaragua, the land of lakes and volcanoes.

We have lake and volcano views from our school. It’s stunning, and it’s part of our daily landscape. It’s what we know.

As we discussed what it means to have a reader’s identity, some of my seventh grade students struggled. They weren’t sure how to describe themselves, and they weren’t seeing their growth over the first half of the year.

Somehow (some moments in teaching defy description) we got to the idea of volcanoes. That we can all be a different type of volcano, and that it can describe who we are as readers.

We discussed four types of volcanoes: extinct, dormant, active, and exploding NOW. We soon decided to toss out the extinct volcano as a possibility, because there is no one in the class who never reads.

We described the three remaining possibilities, connecting reading identities to types of volcanoes:

  1. Dormant — Rarely reads, but lots of reading potential. Might remember what it was like to be active and erupt (in other words, be excited and enthusiastic about books and reading), but it might have been a long time ago…

  2. Active — Sometimes/often reads in spare time, enjoys reading, and has preferences about books, authors, genres, topics, forms, etc…

  3. Erupting NOW (we first used the word exploding, but switched to erupting because it’s more of a “volcano word”) — So excited about a topic, series, author, or genre… can’t get enough and won’t stop talking about it! We realized this category isn’t sustainable – we should actually move between the active and the erupting categories often.

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This illustration helped student visualize who they are and where they want to be as readers. They started to reflect and set goals, and realizing that they have identities as readers, and that those identities can improve and evolve.

Some of the initial reflections looked like this:img_2716-2.jpg

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I took our class ideas and created a simple reading volcano infographic that now hangs in our classroom library:

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Julie has been teaching secondary language arts for twenty years, spending the first fifteen in rural Central Oregon, and the last four in Amman, Jordan. She’s thrilled to report that she and her family have moved across the world to Managua, Nicaragua this year, where a new adventure has begun.

Follow her on twitter @SwinehartJulie

Keeping It Real As a Teacher of Writers

I have taken up watercolor. It’s been ages since I tried a new hobby, and I find the challenge pretty intense. Prone to put perfectionistic pressure on myself, my need to “get it right” limits my ability to play. This is problematic. And pretty stupid.

I will never get better if I do not take risks — with brushes or pigment or with the water.

For a long while now, I’ve followed my friend Laura’s work with watercolors. Her talent paints.jpgpiqued my desire to give painting a try, so I sent her a message asking advice on beginner supplies. She was gracious and encouraging in her response.

Then, I bought not three brushes but nine, not one medium-grade paint set but five, not one pad of paper but seven — in a variety of sizes. And I saved over 48 watercolor tutorials on Pinterest, plus, watercolor images of flowers, people, trees, waves, birds, landscapes, gardens. . .and pigs; and followed 18 watercolor artists on Instagram.

Because it seemed a lot easier to get ready to learn to paint than it did to try and fail.

Kind of like writing.

If you’ve read this blog awhile, you know I’ve been thinking about writing a book almost since starting 3TT. I’ve outlined three now. But I think and talk and read what others say about writing much more than I write. Like my hesitation about painting, this is problematic.

Of course it is.

And it reminds me of many of my student writers — the fear of getting it wrong or not making the grade, the vulnerability it takes to put ideas out there.

It’s real, and sometimes it’s stifling.

As I’ve worked to conquer my fear of learning to watercolor, practicing lessons on Skillshare (which has a plethora of lessons on multitudes of topics — check it out if you haven’t), trying new brushes and different washes and color combinations, and, finally, just relaxing into my art, I’ve discovered what I hope all young writers discover:

Writers must write for themselves. They write because they feel the tug of it, the need to express thoughts and ideas and meaning. Because they want to. Just as I paint for myself –the joy of it, the adventure in seeing if I can, the peace it brings me.

Recently, 3TT was asked this question on Twitter:  How often do you think MS and HS writers should publish? and I responded–

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I’ve thought about this exchange a lot since, and my thinking has led to more questions than answers:  How can we help our writers set personal goals for their writing? Which comes first:  the personal goal or the desire to write? If there’s no desire, can writers still write well? Does it matter if students write well?

Of course it does.

But just like every watercolorist finds her style, every writer must find his. All too often, school writing means prompts and formulaic structures, word counts and rubrics that restrict meaning-making more than they invite it.

So what can we do to open spaces that invite writers into the vulnerable places needed to grow? The best way I know is to keep it real.

Here’s a short list of what real means to me as I teach writers.

  1. Design Lessons based on what real writers do. For example, they don’t use standardized prompts — they come up with ideas they want to explore, creating their own prompts. Try quickwrites that inspire students to think about their lives and the world around them. Plan time for them to talk to their peers in ways that expands their thinking. Plan time for them to explore topics that interest them or challenge their thinking. Don’t just ask students to write about what they know. Ask them to write about what they notice.
  2. Make your writing life visible. Our writers need to see our thinking as we organize our thoughts into words on a page. They need to see us clarify, discover, and make meaning. They need to see that revision leads to improvement. Revision is not just a one-and-done step in the writing process. It’s not a strategy. Revision is a living breathing move writers make, and they make it often. Model all of the moves you do as a thinker, reader, and writer.
  3. Talk about everything related to writing and writers. “Writing floats on a sea of talk” (James Britton). Our writers need to share their ideas with one another — and with us as writing coaches in conferences. Often, we wait to invite writers to talk about their writing in peer feedback groups or in conferring sessions after they have penned their drafts. Real writers talk throughout their writing processes — from idea to draft into revision and on to redrafting. Talk leads to clarity and discovery, and in my experience, purposeful talk is the best resource teachers have for helping all students grow in confidence as writers.
  4. Immerse writers in beautiful language, clever word play, effective and powerful stories, essays, and poetry. Mentor texts that show students the impact of word choice, figurative language, and everything else from how an author creates believable characters to using dialogue to propel a plot forward are valuable teaching tools. Studying mentor texts helps students internalize what writers do. They come to recognize organizational patterns and structures they may choose to use in their own writing. Before I write pretty much anything of import, I study mentors. Don’t you?
  5. Make writing personal and purposeful. When we write about things we care about for readers we care about, we make deliberate choices as writers. Too often, and I am guilty of this myself, our writers only write for their teacher. Now, maybe your students differ from mine, but I’ve taught many a writer who didn’t care that I was her reader, and it showed. However, when I removed myself as my students’ primary audience and worked to build a community of writers where they wrote for one another, almost every student (sadly, there’s often a few hold outs) began to take greater care and ownership of their writing. They knew they had readers other than me. Of course, we can also help students determine outside-of-class purposes and audiences for their writing, and I encourage it; however, I’ve found that sharing our writing within our own classroom community is just as effective.

By no means do I claim to know it all when it comes to teaching writers. The puzzle working with adolescents is as real as my desire to help them grow as writers — and my newfound desire to learn to watercolor. I do know authenticity matters. When we make choices about literacy instruction, steeped in the authentic practices of what real readers and writers do as they read and write, more students engage in the tasks we ask of them. They take more risks. They more often than not rise to the occasion. And they shine as writers in their own right.

If you’ve made it to the end of this post with me, I appreciate you. And while I am not super confident in my watercolor abilities, and I have a ton to learn about the art of it all, I do have a stack of 20 bookmarks I’ve painted — mostly of birds because they make me smile. If you’d like one, share this post, follow me on Twitter @AmyRass (if you aren’t already), and send me a direct message with your name and address. (First 20 only. I’ve got a book to write.)

 

Amy Rasmussen has decided she loves teaching writers more than she loves to write, but she’s working on a balance of that as she attempts to discipline herself to “get ‘er done.” She has also decided that watercolor painting is harder than it looks. Amy’s currently on a “gap year” from the high school English class as she works on a book about authentic literacy instruction and facilitates professional development as an independent literacy consultant. She misses kids. A lot.

Adopting a Persona as We Move to Adopting Workshop

I am committed and inspired to move into true Reader’s Writer’s Workshop after NCTE and a near semester under my belt in a new school.  I left for the conference in Houston with a plan to read The Great Gatsby in December, and as much as I wanted to totally scrap it and start with a routine inspired by Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher in 180 Days,  I didn’t.  

I paused.  

Although every classroom minute is precious and developing readers is the most timely need, I wanted to give myself time to process this shift, to think through how my classroom would run, and brainstorm how to help my students, who from my inquiries have only experienced the full class novel, navigate texts with more autonomy and independence.

Going from trained text regurgitation to full choice would have been a huge, potentially disastrous, shift for my students.  Since August, they have looked to me to create meaning, to judge whether their writing is “right” or “good,” asking what I think about the text versus presenting their own original idea.  These students will grow immensely from workshop, which makes me so excited for January, but I felt they first need scaffolding up to meaning-making and trusting their interpretation and ideas.

I created a Book Club atmosphere with students for our reading of The Great Gatsby, having students meet in “Discussion Tables” with their peers to process the text with each other.  As 180 Days suggests, I asked students to come with one question and one comment to their discussion tables.  Students were also responsible for close reading and annotating/sketchnoting key scenes of the text, commenting on development and language.  Their annotations served as a launch point for continuing and deepening the conversation. A Book Club-style approach allowed for a more structured release of responsibility to students while maintaining the shared experience of full class novels my students are accustomed to.  I stood back as an observer, listening in to their conversations, witnessing students make meaning together versus wait to be guided to a single answer or idea.

As the unit was primarily based on discussion and conversation, so was their culminating assessment, the “Persona Discussion.”  Students were given a choice of what character they wanted to embody, from the core characters like Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan to more minor characters like Mr. Gatz or Meyer Wolfsheim, even “background” characters like the party goers were an option for students.  The core characters provided limited space for interpretation while added characters, like party goers, allowed for more creativity in the persona. Students signed up for a character and prepared by thinking through their characters in their journals.

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The discussion works like a Socratic Seminar, where students are the drivers of the discussion and can be adapted for both fiction and nonfiction.  I created this assignment for AP Language students who loved to debate and discuss in Chicago–they adopted the persona of Henrietta Lacks’ family, doctors, and author Rebecca Skloot after reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.  For Henrietta’s Persona Discussion, the central question of the discussion was a quote about medical ethics. 

Students felt that the smaller characters were given a voice, an idea we discussed earlier in the passage when examining the wealth and marginalization of “the other” characters in efforts to disrupt the traditional text.  

 

Maggie, who played Myrtle, said she liked feeling immersed in the book:  “At first, I felt like Myrtle would only ask questions to Tom or George, but as we all started being our characters, I thought about how Myrtle and Gatsby were actually more alike and could have been friends, and I wanted to ask Daisy about her marriage more.”  Jordyn said the discussion was better for understanding the web of deception because “…it was like seeing the book as a play or real life and it made our group discussions more real or, like, meaningful.”  After discussing the text as a reader so much, Riley, a reluctant reader who has learned, as he admitted, to “fake it,” said, “It was more fun to prepare to play someone than to think about the big ideas for a regular seminar.  It made me want to do well and really know Tom.”  

As we build into full workshop mode in January, students have a foundation for how to enter a text, methods for creating meaning, and more confidence in their thinking.  Students were engaged with this type of discussion and reflected about their enjoyment, so I am going to incorporate it into next semester, perhaps jigsawing the characters from students’ choice reading or book clubs together from different realms or as a way to review major characters and texts before the AP Literature exam.   We’ll see what other “personas” develop!

 

Maggie Lopez is enjoying Utah ski season while re-reading 180 Days as she preps for second semester, American Girls: The Secret Life of American Teenagers before bed, and The Poet X in class.  She wishes you a very merry, restful holiday season!

 

Conferring and My Wish for a Time Machine

I am as guilty as the next guy. When I first started teaching, I didn’t have any idea how to get students to read more, write more, do more in my English class. I didn’t even know I would have to work so hard. Although I was in the middle of raising my own teenagers (and they all turned out great), I had no idea how to inspire other people’s teens to give books a long enough look to want to read them or to take the time needed to write something they would want others to want to read. I was all about my content, my lesson plans, my choices, my control. I did most of the talking. I did very little listening.

I remember the first day of my first year teaching. Students sat in assigned seats, alphabetically by last name. I asked each student, seat by seat, row by row, to tell everyone their name and one thing they hoped to learn in their freshman English class. I have no idea what they said — except for one.

“My name is Susie, and I hate white people.”

I am a white woman.

I might have felt stunned, hurt, appalled. I do remember thinking, “The audacity!” and shouldering an internal huff. I tried not to let these words sink me before I ever got afloat, and for the most part, I think I succeeded. Susie and I learned to work together that year, and she did fine in my class.

But my idea of success is much different than it was back then:  I no longer think fine is ever good enough.

I think about those young people from my first few years of teaching, and if time machines were a real thing, I’d set the dial to 2008. I would do things differently because I am different. I know better. I learned to be better.

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Last week I facilitated a day-long training on implementing the routines of readers-writers workshop in secondary classrooms — a shift in pedagogy so students sit at the center and learn through authentic reading and writing practices. These teachers are eager, and their district leadership is providing support to make this happen. Yet they struggle.

In table-group conversations, two topics came up again and again:  Our students lack discipline. We need more tips on conferring.

What’s obvious to me now, that wasn’t back when I first started teaching, is a clear connection between the two. Students need to be heard. Now, I am not saying that implementing a workshop pedagogy will fix all disruptive behaviors, but I do believe these behaviors are often evidence of a lack of conferring. Students need to be seen and heard. (See more on why here.)

We talk a lot about creating a positive culture in schools and cultivating learning communities where relationships thrive. These take intention, effort, and time. In ELAR classes, these take intentionally designing instruction that utilizes every square meter as we practice authentic literacy skills with authentic texts and model the effort it takes to build our identities as readers and writers. To do all of this well, we must meet our students where they are in their learning, or in their apathy, or their attitudes, or whatever we want to call it. Conferring, those one-on-one little talks with kids, is where we do it.

As with anything that deals with humans, it has to start with listening. Listening jumpstarts relationships. Relationships build community. Community shapes culture.

8 Tips for Talking to Adolescents

If I could relive day one of my first year teaching and my interaction with Susie, I’d make sure she knew I heard her. I’d pull up a chair at the beginning of our next class, and I’d listen. That would be the start of Susie doing more than just fine in her freshman English class. I am pretty sure of it.

 

Amy Rasmussen loves her life in North TX. She’s currently reading We Got This by Cornelius Minor, Embarrassment by Thomas Newkirk, and Braving the Wilderness by Brene Brown. She may be a completely different person come 2019. Find her on Twitter @amyrass

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