Category Archives: Talk

Back to Basics: The FUNdamentals of Teaching High School English

“Mrs. Mendoza, you should write a book!”

One of my more enthusiastic students suggested this to me upon completion of our anticipatory class discussion prior to reading Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. During this particularly intense conversation, I warned my students that my job was to help them truly THINK about their opinions versus simply letting them share them without having to explain their perspective. They needed to be prepared for me to push them out of their comfort zones and to explain the WHY behind their position.

I quickly replied, “About what? How To Argue With Teenagers?” 

Throughout the discussion, I made sure EVERY student voiced their opinions and ensured that they knew that these were not set in stone. They were allowed to move freely around the room if their thoughts changed based on their peers’ perspectives, but they had to be ready to discuss their choices and why they made them.  

My student countered, “About anything! I would love to know what YOU really think about…just life in general-in all its forms.”

imagesWhile I admit it, his comment hit me right in the warm, fuzzy teacher-feels; I was more focused on the fact that I felt like my students not only enjoyed class that day, but they left also feeling like it was meaningful. Making meaningful connections to Shakespeare BEFORE we even read it? Why yes, yes they did. #teachergoals

One of the best ways I have found that readers and writers workshop works in my class is when all students experience the chance to speak, listen, read, write, and interact. Usually, it doesn’t take hours of preparation, 953 copies, or even a super cool tech device, app ,or tool. [Although, those strategies/tools work well, too!] Sometimes, it requires nothing but time and a little FUN…damentals.

A while back, Amy Rasmussen wrote about her 7 Moves in My Workshop Schedule which helped me envision my own teaching non-negotiables in my classroom. She referred back to it here when other teachers inquired about the question that plagues several teachers everywhere; “How can we do it all?” Simple. We go back to the basics.

During that week, I admit I was pressed for time due to the end of the grading period, room displacements, etc. I needed to plan something that would require very little of me in regards to preparation but would serve as a strong springboard to launch into our study of Julius Caesar. I researched and found an anticipation guide with 5 controversial statements I knew would make for an incredible discussion. Levels of Agreement

Around the room, levels of agreement signs were posted in which students traveled to based on their perspective of the statement. Here’s a brief rundown of how the lesson flowed in our class;

  1. Upon discussion of agenda for the day, we read each statement individually first. Then, they listened as I read them aloud again.
  2. Students were asked to rank their levels of agreement and write about whether they agreed, disagreed, or were undecided. Students were given time to work through each statement prior to discussion.
  3. We went through each statement individually. Students were able to share their perspectives, interact with each other whole class and within each new group, and revise their thoughts if they heard something they didn’t consider or were undecided to begin with. They SAW this live as we were talking through it and verbally explained reasons for the changes they made to their original responses.
  4. After we went through each statement, students had the opportunity to choose which statement they wanted to reflect about and had time in class to write about it. If students needed clarification or assistance, it gave me an opportunity to confer with them individually.

So many of my students were eager to provide positive feedback once we debriefed the discussion prior to reading the play. They appreciated the diversity in their opinions and the ability to express themselves in a safe space. EVERYONE had an opinion to share. We were able to agree to disagree and keep the conversations objective and focused throughout the discussion.  Even though it felt like we didn’t “DO” a lot, we read, wrote, discussed, revised, reflected, explained, conferred when necessary, and supported our thinking. Bonus: We had FUN, too!

I am still learning and working on how to consistently implement these practices daily in my lessons. I am not there, yet. However, as long as I have these non-negotiables in mind, I know the rest will come.

What are your non-negotiables when it comes to the basics? How have you been able to successfully implement them? What challenges have you come across, too? I would love to learn from all of the ideas, strategies, and routines you have in your classrooms, so please share!

Gena Mendoza teaches High School English in San Antonio, Texas. Her recent non-negotiables in life have become a fully stocked candy stash in her desk drawer, Blue Bell’s Chocolate Peanut Butter Cookie Dough Ice Cream, Starbucks’ mobile ordering app, and finishing All American Boys by Jason Reynolds. She invites you to connect with her on Twitter at @Mrs_Mendoza3.

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What Teachers Really Need To Hear

I have been working on a post about how to teach students to write purposeful conclusions. I’ll still write that. But as I’ve spent the last few weeks working with teachers, creating plans for the weeks before testing, I realized there’s something else I need to say. 

Dear Teachers,

I see you.

I see you on the picket lines, demanding more for students, for yourselves, for our world. I see you in your classroom in the late afternoon light, fine-tuning tomorrow’s lesson. I see you on the last day of spring break, bringing your own son to school, working for hours in your classroom to get ready for the week. At your daughter’s soccer practice, grading papers between goals. At the beach, reading books your kids might like. At the library, scouring shelves for the just-right books about mullets for that one kid.

You. Are. Amazing.

I see you now, as testing season blooms, these weeks that have been looming finally here. I see you cheerleading and boosting and nudging. I see you creating review games, engaging kids and building their confidence. Behind that, though, I see the stress, the wonderings, the worry.

Will they try?

Are they ready?

Did I do enough?

The answers: Probably. Yes! Absolutely!

The truth is, we’ve done everything we can. We are at the doors of the big game, and what’s left is to cheer. And to remember that despite what it feels like, the test is a slice of a year full of wonder and growth and success. 

The tests feels huge — they are huge. But these tests are not the sum of you as a teacher. Just as you remind your students that they are more than a score, you are more than a growth measure or a value added or a designation on an evaluation. You are their teacher. 

I’m reminded too that after testing season passes, we still have several weeks of instruction left this school year. What a gift! We still have time to introduce students to new characters, to immerse them in new genres of writing, to push them to stretch.

Dear Teachers, I see you. You are beautiful and strong. Thank you.

This letter is inspired by the piece What Students Really Need to Hear by Chase Mielke (a great mentor text for students!). 

Angela Faulhaber works as a literacy coach in Cincinnati, OH, and teaches pre-service teachers at Miami University. She is in awe every day of the passion she sees in teachers and loves planning with and supporting them so they can do their best work.

 

Why It Matters

An enormous part of my teaching philosophy is centered around teaching students to question the “why” of what we learn. Not necessarily why are we learning, but why does what we learn matter? How does what we do in our classroom apply to their lives? I sincerely believe that if students cannot walk away from my class each day able to answer those questions, then I need regroup and question the purpose of my lessons.

 

 

pasted image 0Kelly Gallagher, a high school teacher in California, is an advocate for getting students to think critically, read deeper into various texts, and along with several other educational rockstars, structures his classroom according to the workshop model.

In his book, Deeper Reading, he discusses the “Say/Mean/Matter” chart as a way to make any text relevant to students in addition to helping them become critical readers and thinkers.

 I regularly use this strategy in several ways in my classroom which consistently provides me with opportunities to keep my lessons meaningful to my students. What I love most about using it is that it provides students with an opportunity to focus on what they are learning and why/how it matters. This also shows them that EVERYTHING we read, write, discuss, etc., has a purpose.

 

I recently completed novel studies with my students and was able to implement the “Say/Mean/Matter” concept with all 3 of my grade levels. In my experience,  I learned that I needed to provide more scaffolding for my younger students versus my Juniors who were more equipped to take the concept and run with it. It seems like the older they get, the more eager they are to share their opinions and challenge what they read.

For my Freshmen

Earlier this school year, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to attend a professional development session that centered around Kelly Gallagher’s Say/Mean/Matter strategy. I was able to scaffold this lesson by targeting specific pieces of the novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, a few at a time in order for students to focus on examples of social injustice. Over a series of impromptu class discussions and informal reading/writing responses to various texts about inequity, I broke each section of Say/Mean/Matter down so that students were familiar with applying this idea to various forms of literature. Once we reached the pivotal point in the novel, we completed this with partners they chose (and some they didn’t), using sticky notes to frame discussion.

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From there, we completed our graphic organizer together using our stickies from the day before. Students were asked to expand on the ideas they came up with together. After modeling my discussion notes and conferencing with students, their responses clearly showed that these examples of social injustice meant something to them. It became more than just an assignment to them, it was a chance for them to safely explore, discuss, and write about opinions that mattered to them.

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Eventually, this led to a Socratic Seminar that took us 2 full class periods to complete. Every student was engaged and ready to share their ideas and ask questions because it was relevant to them. Not only was this a chance for their voices to be heard, but they truly cared about what each student had to say and remained open-minded throughout the process.

A Small Snapshot

This was just one of the incalculable ways to foster relevance and meaning to students that perfectly aligns with the benefits of teaching through the workshop model. Now more than ever, what we do as educators is of the utmost importance. By building these moments of discovery into our lessons, we allow students to create and develop meaning for themselves. The students are our purpose. Our profession centers around helping them develop and unleash their potential. Once students realize what we teach has applicability and value, there is no limit to what they can accomplish.

I would love to know other ways you make your lessons meaningful and relevant to students in your classroom in the comments!

Gena Mendoza currently teaches Freshmen, Sophomore PreAP, and Junior English in Texas. She is passionate about teaching her students to use their powers for good and not evil in her classroom. When not pouring over any written or spoken word by Jason Reynolds, or preparing her family for their next Disney adventure, you can catch her Tweeting/Retweeting at @Mrs_Mendoza3 on Twitter. 

Everyday Activism: Enacting Change in Your Classroom

I’ve waged a war between sadness and hope this week in my teaching life. Sadness that yet again, another mass shooter took the lives of students and teachers. Hope that this time, the response would be different.

This is the first mass shooting I’ve followed news coverage of since becoming a mother, and accordingly, my sadness is magnified a thousandfold. I cannot imagine losing one of my precious children; I could imagine it even less before I had them.

But, my hope is greater after this tragedy, too. I’ve been so warmed by stories of students who survived the shooting mobilizing to enact change, like this one from NPR. “This kind of activism feels really different, compared with past mass shootings,” says journalist Brian Mann.

These passionate students-turned-survivors have spurred me toward activism, too. I don’t think there’s a simple solution to this complex, multilayered problem–and I don’t think our national conversation should attempt to polarize the issues of gun control and mental illness. I don’t know the right way to deal with either of those issues, but I do know a place where we, as teachers, can begin to enact change.

That place is in our classrooms, where students like Nikolas Cruz can sometimes go unseen for so long that they transform from lonely teenagers to angry gunmen before our eyes.

Our classrooms, where so often we have students so busy working toward meeting standards that they barely have time to meet our eyes, or one another’s.

Our classrooms, where, yes, great learning happens–but where teen realities like bullying, rejection, and failure happen, too.

Are you seeing these layers to your students’ identities? Seeing beyond who they are as readers and writers, and into who they are as friends, sons, daughters, boyfriends, and girlfriends? Who they are as social beings outside our classrooms?

We must see our students this way. We must make every effort to foster conditions of inclusivity, to teach in culturally responsive ways, to, simply, see our students as people and not just learners. When we do, we transform from spectators to activists.

Desiring to build community is no longer just a nice goal to have in addition to covering content standards. The ramifications of leaving students alienated are becoming more and more significant.

Inclusivity is no longer just a buzzword–it has become a matter of life and death.

Our teens are unhappier than ever, bombarded by apps that promise connection but in reality deliver isolation. They feel so lonely that they are spurred toward violence–toward themselves or others–in alarmingly increasing numbers. Nikolas Cruz is just the most visible product of this horrific trend.

There is so much we can do to see our students, to help them feel seen. Glennon Doyle writes here about a way her son’s teacher thoughtfully fosters inclusivity and interaction in her classroom by “breaking the codes of disconnection” she unravels when she really sees her students.

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I must have felt that message keenly when I planned my classes this week, since I packed in as many small-group or partner talk- and feedback-filled activities I could. My students wrote to one another–about having patience with and faith in our students–in their notebooks. They got into groups to talk about ways to individualize curriculum, and created anchor charts with their takeaways. They formed different groups to devise a list of creative alternatives to traditional tests, so every student could feel successful, on a Google doc.

My students also wrote their autobiographies this week, and workshopped them with a partner they don’t usually talk to. As I scanned through their comments on one another’s work, I was filled with joy:

“This makes my heart happy!” one student wrote in her response to a classmate’s heartfelt description of his fiancee.

“I feel sorry for anyone who will be Alex’s colleague–in a good way! She’ll be one of the best teachers at her school and will push her colleagues to be the best that they can be.”

“I’d love to work with a teacher like you.”

I watched my students read their peers’ comments, and little smiles stole over their faces.

A huge, happy grin stole over mine.

In response to violence, I drew my students closer–to one another, to our subject, to me. I wanted them to have the chance to see one another, to feel seen, and for me to see them more clearly as people and not just students. Workshops like these bring students together. They work, and if you’re skeptical, here are five reasons you’re wrong. When we teach into our students’ needs–both academic and personal–we make a difference. We enact change–every day.

And maybe, we save lives.

Please comment and share ways you help your students see one another and feel seen. We’d love to know how you do this important work.

Shana Karnes loves her work with preservice teachers at West Virginia University, with practicing teachers through the National Writing Project at WVU, and with her amazing thinking partners here at Three Teachers Talk. She is hopeful that this generation of students and teachers will be better, kinder, more open–and she will never stop trying to make that hope a reality. Connect with Shana on Twitter at @litreader.

The Upside Down of SparkNotes

My ninth period class sometimes feels like the Upside Down, you know, the terrifying parallel universe kids get sucked into in the Netflix series Stranger Things. They seem to keepcalm_shutupfunction in perpetual chaos. Every day I whack-a-mole them into their current book, notebook work, mentor text, draft, or just away from their phones.

In another teaching universe, I might anticipate 9th period with fear and loathing. But I don’t. Despite the daily ruckus, there is no malice in their behavior. In the universe of RWW, we can muddle through these chaotic moments together, (mostly) with humor and (mostly) without the rank-pulling that commands student compliance. And sometimes, these moments even provide a portal to the universe of important conversations.

This class has a number of self-proclaimed non-readers. Luke considers reading a “hobby” that some people enjoy and others don’t (and shouldn’t have to do). Lani regularly describes herself as “not much of a reader.” Miles’s stance is more ambivalent. He wants to know stuff, but sees reading as inefficient for doing so. I ask, “What ruined reading for you?” He answers without hesitation: “SparkNotes.” He elaborates, “It’s just a faster way to get the information.” Classmates nod their heads in agreement.

INFORMATION?!? I recoil.

By “information,” they mean what they will be held accountable, by quiz or discussion. When I remind them that we don’t do that in RWW, they explain — gently, mercifully — that now it’s just a habit. They look genuinely sorry for me, as if they just told me there is no Santa Claus. Or that SparkNotes is Santa Claus. Which maybe it is: the Santa Claus of the Upside Down, that parallel universe where reading resides for many of our students.

In their practice-revolutionizing book Disrupting ThinkingKylene Beers and Robert Probst distinguish between “aesthetic” and “efferent” reading. The former is about how a text affects our thoughts and emotions and the latter about the information we can extract from it. In classrooms where the efferent is favored over the aesthetic, SparkNotes is a useful substitute. Miles and his classmates have learned to reside here, to the extent that efferent reading is their natural stance in their English classrooms.

Beers and Probst do not discount efferent reading out of hand. It certainly has its place when information or efficiency is the goal. SparkNotes is a means to this kind of extrinsic end that drives so much of how we measure “success.” Can we blame our students for using a resource to reach that end more efficiently?

Aesthetic reading doesn’t lend itself to extrinsic reward, making it incompatible as a means to the end of racking up points toward the reward of an A. But here is the very reason why we must stand by its importance: the aesthetic stance is what invites the emotion and empathy that brings qualitative value to students’ reading experience, that honors the power and the beauty of the written word, that opens a window into the lives of others. And, which encourages the “compassionate thinking” that Beers and Probst define as so critical to our students’ reading lives.

My 10th-grade RWW students were given the option of book circles. In planning for rolling out their choices, I tried constructing elaborate lessons to reveal the beauty of a text so that students would have to admit to its aesthetic power. What I should have realized sooner is that a lesson like this was beside the point.

SparkNotes_F451_screenshotThat day, the SparkNotes summary of the first chapter of Fahrenheit 451° (one book circle choice) was their writing prompt. There was some confusion: Were they supposed to write about whether they were going to choose that book? Or to predict what the book might be about? This prompt is like any other daily writing, I told them. Just write what it brings to mind.

I’m not creative enough to make a lesson into a mystery. When students finished writing to this (rather uninspiring) prompt, I told them straight up: Now, here’s the source text for this SparkNotes summary. Please, just listen.

And I read aloud the beginning of Fahrenheit 451°. 

It was a pleasure to burn. 

By the time I reached the description of Guy Montag as a “conductor” of the symphony of flames that silenced the voices of the books he burns, there was also silence in the room. More students than I expected opted for the book circle, reading Fahrenheit 451°. I don’t know whether these choices resulted from an aesthetic reading of the book’s opening, but isn’t it pretty to think so?

Kathleen Maguire teaches Sophomore English, Senior Advanced Writing, and AP Language & Composition in Evanston, a suburb just north of Chicago. When she’s not grading papers or reading books to recommend to students, she tries to keep up with her yoga and her 10-year-old son, Jude (not in that order). She tweets at @maguireteach.

 

Accountability Through Conversation

In Shana’s post “Conversation is our Most Powerful Teaching Tool” she mentions an article by researcher John Goodland. He states that only 1% of instructional time is given to conversation…insert wide eyed emoji…what?!

That statistic has really stuck with me. I’m not sure if it was more than a subconscious thought until the power of conversation became very clear to me.

In a nutshell, I am a content coordinator who works to support (6th-12th grade ELAR) teachers as they hone their craft. Since I began working in this position, I’ve been trying to figure out what exactly teachers need to be and feel successful.

As a district team, we have agreed to implement independent choice reading into our daily routine, as a step toward implementing a workshop model. Teachers are on board and have done some AMAZING things with choice reading in their classrooms, but, regardless of what grade level I am with, or what campus I am on I keep hearing the same question, “how do we know that they’re reading?” We talked about logs, reading responses, summaries, notes, and we’ve shared resources and ideas, but there was still something missing…

Then I had it! A light bulb moment in its truest sense. In classrooms where students TALK about what they are reading, they are accountable. In Amy’s post about shifting control she talks about “find[ing] a space for conversations…” and that if her giving “up control makes space for that, I’ll take it every chance I get.”

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For me, that answers the how do we know question. During some learning walks I saw three examples of conversation from three different rooms…

First example: In a 12th grade academic/on level classroom the students began their class period reading for 10 minutes in a book of their choice. Once the timer went off, the students were asked to talk to a partner (or two) about their book. The teacher specifically asked the students to “sell it”. Sell their book to their partner(s). The teacher roamed around the room while the students were talking and then let two volunteer share their “pitch” to the whole group. It was very clear that the teacher knew what their students were reading, IF they were reading, and how the felt about their books.

Second example: In a 7th grade PreAP class students began their class period by reading for 5 minutes, then when the timer went off they got a 1 minute break. Students were asked to talk to their elbow partner during their break about their book’s protagonist. The teacher provided a sentence stem to probe the conversation. Then after the minute was up, they read for 5 more minutes. The teacher roamed and jotted notes as a “status of the class” during that 11 minutes. The students have been talking about the structure and elements of fiction and how protagonists can shape a story. At the end of the minute, the teacher had a pretty good idea about what her students knew and didn’t know about protagonists, including how to pronounce, or mispronounce, the word. 😛

Third example: In an 11th grade AP class the students began their class period by reading for 15 minutes. While they were reading the teacher met with every student in the class. Her questions were simple; she asked, “what’s the title of your book?” and “what page are you on?” The teacher was able to meet with 26 students in 15 minutes. She was able to see who is meeting their reading goal, who is abandoning books, and who isn’t reading.

When students know they’re going to be held accountable to explain their book, connect it to what they’re learning through mini-lessons, or just track their progress to their teacher, they respond. It becomes the culture…

This isn’t anything new, and it’s been talked about before in multiple posts on Three Teachers Talk, but what was a game changer for me was seeing it in action. I was able to create a concrete model that I could then replicate. I learned three different strategies or approaches to talking with students/letting them talk to each other by watching someone else in action. Talk about self-embedded professional learning! I mean, can it get any better than that?!

When I visit campuses my first question to teachers is going to be: how are you getting students to talk? Then we shall see where our conversations lead us. 🙂

I’d love to hear from you! How do you get and promote your students to talk? Are you able to visit other teachers classrooms on your team/campus? If so, do you feel like it’s beneficial?

Conversation is Our Most Powerful Teaching Tool

After two months of being cooped up in the house with two kids under the age of two, we finally went back to school yesterday.

Hallelujah!!

To open my class yesterday, I asked my students to get up and get talking with one another–about nothing in particular. Each student had written her name on a note card, and after thoroughly mixing and redistributing them, each student had to go find her card’s owner and get to know him or her. Once we got talking, the room was never silent, and after we were all seated again, I asked students what topics they used as conversational entrees.

“Well, I’ve been in a lot of classes with people in here before, but never knew their names, so it was helpful to just start with an introduction,” one student volunteered.

quote-negotiation-and-discussion-are-the-greatest-weapons-we-have-for-promoting-peace-and-nelson-mandela-81-33-16I was flabbergasted–how could these students not even know each other’s names?! What sorts of classes were being taught that didn’t allow for dialogue and collaboration at this most basic level!?

But then I realized that this was the norm, and often is for our high school students, too. This statistic was even highlighted in the first page of the article we were reading for class: “Less than 1 percent of instructional time is devoted to discussion that requires reasoning or an opinion from students, according to researcher John Goodland.”

I think we can all agree that reasoning and opinion should be at the forefront of student dialogue, and a central goal of any curriculum. But if we’re spending less than one percent of our time on these things, we’re nowhere near where we need to be.

After my students listed ways they began conversations with one another–clothing choices, majors, the weather, how was your break–I asked them how they planned to get to know their students.

“I’m going to give them an interest inventory,” one student said. “I’ll do a learning styles survey,” another claimed. Facepalm, I said.

 

No one said, “by starting a conversation just like we did today,” which is what I was hoping they’d jump to. Conferring is our most powerful instructional and assessment tool, and it’s the art of a conversation made critical. Not only is it important for teachers to get to know our students through simple talk–not with the barrier of a survey or paper between ourselves and students–but it’s important for students to practice the skill of conversation, first with us, then with one another.

Because perhaps less than 1 percent of instructional time is devoted to discussion not only because of how traditional classrooms are structured, but because of how little space in our culture there is for conversation these days. I’ve written about the value of talk before, but I’m coming to believe that there is more value in conversation. The exchange of ideas is much more valuable than the simple act of articulating one’s own, and needs to be our end goal.

The moves we make as teachers and thinkers will help our students reach this aim–first to help them read critically enough to develop their own nuanced opinions, then to help them write and talk to draft out their thinking, and finally to help them share and grow these ideas through conversation. Not to defend their own ideas, which remain only theirs, but to help their thinking evolve through discussion.

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Oprah Winfrey, in a speech that I hope will be close-read by millions of high school students as a mentor text this week, reminds us that “What I know for sure is that speaking your truth is the most powerful tool we all have,” and that our truths have power when someone “chooses to listen.”

Speaking and listening are much more than just standards for us to cover–they are the tools our students need to change themselves and the world for the better.

Shana Karnes is a mom of two daughters, a teacher of preservice educators, and a writer of hopes and dreams–in her notebook and here on Three Teachers Talk. She is delighted that winter break and maternity leave have ended and that she’s back in the classroom with her tribe. Find her on Twitter at @litreader.

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