Category Archives: Reflection

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

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

 

 

 

 

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.

Binge Learning: New Episodes Available Now –Guest Post by Karry Dornak

Summer me, 1995: No cable. Has four local channels: 6, 10, 25, and 44. Watches classic TV shows (The Addams Family, The Beverly Hillbillies) because it’s either that or soap operas. Also sits patiently through commercials.

Summer me, 2019: Highly annoyed that I can’t binge The Handmaid’s Tale because Hulu only releases new episodes weekly. Too impatient to sit through sixty-second ads; considers paying double the amount for the ad-free subscription.

Screen Shot 2019-06-13 at 1.58.44 PM

Wait, how did I go from watching thirty-year-old sitcom reruns complete with low-budget commercials for personal injury attorneys to feeling entitled to an entire season of a just-released show with absolutely no ads (and why are they no longer called commercials)?

Because on-demand access to content is a given in today’s world. Except, sometimes, in classrooms.

So I’ve been thinking, how can we make the content in our classrooms (the lessons, the skills, the texts, even the assessments) less Summer ‘95 and more Summer ‘19?

  1. We have to be okay with handing control and ownership of learning over to our students. Teachers are no longer the keepers of knowledge like they were in 1995. What if we thought of our lessons as “episodes” and our units as “series?” Could we release an entire season at once to allow our students to “binge” and work through the material faster than if we release one lesson at a time? Check out Kelly Gallagher’s blog post on building volume in your classes. Even though he and I approach the topic differently, I think we share the same goal.
  2. What if we could create a simple algorithm (check out how the Netflix algorithm works here) to personalize learning for our students? I’m thinking it would need to be two parts: an interest/genre survey plus an ongoing standards-based assessment checklist. The genre survey would ensure that I am equipped to recommend texts based on a student’s interests, and the current standards-based assessments would help create specific and personalized learning paths for each student to follow with their text.
  3. How can we remove “ads” from our learning experiences? In other words, interruptions to the real learning? These may be masquerading as “activities” that seem fun and purposeful to us, but the students may just be wanting to fast-forward through them to get it over with.

The bottom line is, we have to remember how our students are used to accessing content and information. It may not be how we grew up, but we do share some of their same expectations for instantaneity and personalization. While we may not have all of the answers for how to make this happen in our classrooms, I think it would be fun to try.

The results just might surprise us.

Karry Dornak is waiting: for next week’s episode, for the third book in the Scythe trilogy, for education as a whole to catch up to the 21st century. She would love to hear your ideas about making this a reality! Connect with her on Twitter @karrydornak.

Assessing Conferences Part 2: What We Can Learn When Teachers and Students Assess Writing Conferences

Wanting to affirm for myself that conferring really is a strength, wanting to determine ways I could continue growing this strength (that Harvard Business Review article “The Feedback Fallacy” keeps me thinking!!!), I decided to act on one of my steps from my last post about assessing conferences with student writers. 

Knowing that my AP students would be meeting with me for extended one-on-one conferences (it felt less disruptive to film since these occur outside of class time), I selected four on which to focus. When selecting the four, I chose two students with whom I felt confidence in the relationship (these two, in fact, typically sought extra time to confer over their writing) and two students with whom I felt less connected. I wondered: in what ways would my conferring look different?

Before filming, my instructional coach and I determined that I would examine number of questions asked and/or how questions were used, where I took steps to affirm or maintain that “love first” approach, and where I offered strategies. I chose these three lenses with the guidance of my instructional coach: I was worried about questioning my students to death, whether or not  I truly lived up to my love-first value, and the usefulness of the conference. 

Technical Aspects 

In terms of technical aspects, I filmed on my phone (I know, high-tech, right?! This means you can do it, too.). After each conference, my student scored it and I scored it; then I watched and transcribed it (imperfectly since it was mostly for me). Upon collecting each of the four videos, I shared them with my instructional coach so we could confer (ALL learners need conferring!!), and then I color- coded the transcript so I could look for patterns and other A-Ha’s (green for questions, pink for love-first/affirmation, orange for strategies). Of course, this is a limited data set; but it provided a manageable, pragmatic entry point.

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My Noticing’s

  • With each of my students, I maintained the love-first affirmation (phew!). With my student with whom I perceive having the weakest connection, affirmation proved the dominant strategy. Interactions with that student, in particular, seemed to suggest that she left with heightened confidence, ready to continue revising.
  • With my students with whom the relationship is more connected, questions dominated.
  • Strategies tended to arise from the student or me near the end of the conference.

Instructional Coach Noticing’s/Suggestions

  • He reinforced with me that conferring is a powerful way that teachers connect with students through content.
  • Beyond the areas I examined, he noted appropriate pause time during the conferring, suggesting that students had space to think and to ask questions.
  • He observed that ending the conferences with the rating of it positioned it more around how the student felt at the end of the conference rather than the last moment being about the “to-do list.”
  • He suggested that when I confer with students during class time that I audio record and skip the video; this is a simple shift to make it seem less distracting or intrusive.

Learning and Further Wondering

  1. Awareness of the level of connectedness with a student should help steer the conference. Wonder: What’s a quick question I can use to prompt myself toward this each time I sit with a student? How can I use body language to help infer level of connectedness and comfort?
  2. Understanding the student’s level of self-efficacy should also impact the moves I make while conferring. Wonder: Would student tracking of this be beneficial?
  3. With students whom I feel confident in our relationship, I can challenge more. I can ask more questions and prompt them to determine solutions or next steps. Wonder: How can I accelerate the level of connectedness and/or student self-efficacy so that more of my students arrive at this point sooner as writers? What do I need to do more deliberately here? (Note to self: study the giants–Kittle, Gallagher, Murray, Graves, Elbow, etc.)
  4. With those same students, they may also–because that confidence in problem-solving is there–initiate their own solutions. Wonder: What are ways to keep track of where students generate their own solutions versus when they use those offered through mini lessons and mentors? After all, this is what I want my writers to be able to do for themselves. 
  5. Individual conferences–no surprise here–are an effective way to redirect students to mini lesson strategies. Wonder: Do I need to more directly prompt my students to consider what strategy might work?

What’s Next?

With more time, I’d act on the suggestion of my instructional coach to audio record some of my in class conferring (those three minute regular conferences). I’m curious to see what patterns emerge with a greater constraint of time.  This experience also has me pondering what else I should be recording…mini lessons? 

Reflecting on conferring confirms the power of it in the classroom (see Amy’s #3). Reflection emphasizes that conferring truly is the best differentiation. That conferring promotes problem-solving.That conferring grows confidence. That conferring shows the ultimate flexibility, allowing for responsiveness to each learner’s needs.

Kristin Jeschke supports awesome learners at Waukee High School in Waukee, Iowa. Though nervous about directing and starring in these short films, she discovered that they were not all that painful. Follow her on Twitter @kajeschke.

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.

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