Category Archives: Talk

Why Conferring Matters

Conferring is the interaction missing from many of our students lives.

Consider this:  the current generation thrives on one-on-one attention. They do not remember a time before social media, and many live much of their lives online via their smartphones. They turn to instantaneous interactions that have a direct impact on how they feel about themselves:  Snapchat, Vine, and Instagram over Facebook, which they are abandoning in droves because “it’s for old people.”

Our students crave immediate feedback. They seek personal communication — and they need it.

Think of the implications of this virtual-reality world on long-term relationships and problem-solving. We have already seen how it impacts our students in the classroom: short attention spans, skimming versus sustained reading to name a couple, not to mention the addiction to notifications.

Our students need to experience and understand the importance of eye contact, facial expressions, and body language, and how these physical features create non-verbal communication. They need to interpret and explicate tone.

The students in our classrooms today are different from Millenials. Anyone born after 1995 earns the new title of Generation Z, also called iGen, Centennials, Founders, and my favorite title: Gen Edgers.

As a whole, these students use technology as their primary source of communication — to validate, and to feel validated.

They also value genuine relationships, loyalty, and honesty and are increasingly more careful than the previous generation with the friendships they form online. They want to know their voices matter and that they are okay just being themselves instead of being the perfectly-phrased word count they must craft online.

Our students need opportunities to share thoughts, feelings, ideas, and knowledge in non-threatening situations through real face-to-face conversations.

Conferring opens opportunities to meet the needs of our students at the core of their longing.

When we invite students to talk and affective filters lower. Students relax. They respond.

When teachers confer with genuine interest in the well-being of the child, we grant students permission to be their genuine selves. Research on the brain shows that “positive comments and positive conversations cause a chemical “high,”” and with less pretense and stress, students experience more learning.

Conferring gives students the chance to share their stories; and besides creating trusting relationships, conferring allows us to meet them where they are and help them advance in knowledge and skills from there.

On-going regular conferences ensure that every student receives the one-on-one interaction and instruction they deserve. Peter Johnston reminds us that every student has a personal history that affects our ability to help them advance in their literacy skills.

Through conferring we learn the cultural and personal backgrounds that shape our learners, along with the experiences that shaped them in the past as readers. Both are important factors. By asking questions that invite students to recall their learning histories, we initiate future learning.

Conferring also sparks critical thinking, creativity, and curiosity.

No matter the teaching style — be it an English class where the teacher makes the choices about books and writing topics, or a workshop inspired classroom where students choose what they read and write, or even a classroom of another content area — when conferring becomes a norm, students proactively engage in learning, which results in more growth, independence, and mastery of content and concepts.

Our students learn to ask questions, ponder responses, and seek for interesting ways to show they are learning. Differentiation happens naturally.

Imagine the opportunities students may create and the innovative energy they will have in the future if they experience this kind of learning in their secondary schools.

The children in our classrooms are part of the fastest growing force in the workplace and the marketplace. Their influence is changing companies, marketing styles, and consumer habits.

This generation wants to make a difference in the world. They are pragmatic, self-aware, goal-oriented, and self-taught via YouTube. They’ve grown up “dealing with too much vs. too little information their entire lives.”

They will soon become our peers standing in voting lines, our colleagues standing near the copy machines, maybe even our bosses, or perhaps the officials that govern our cities and our states.

As adults we must provide each child with the education that prepares them for the future they are moving into.

We cannot keep teaching the way we have always taught with one-size-fits-all lesson plans and instructional models. We cannot keep making all the choices about books and reading or essay topics.

We must talk to our students one-on-one about what matters to them personally. Our future, and theirs, depends on it.

And for the teacher who worries about time, conferring provides a means of easy and accurate formative assessment, which saves valuable time spent grading:  time teachers may spend planning effective lessons or conferring with more students.

When done with fidelity, conferring improves the effectiveness of our teaching. I don’t know one teacher who doesn’t want that.

Please share your thoughts on conferring in the comments. What are your conferring routines?

Amy Rasmussen lives in north Texas and teaches AP English Language and English 3 to the Fighting Farmers at Lewisville High School. She adheres to the words of Emerson: “We aim above the mark to hit the mark,” and Jesus Christ: “Love one another.” Imagine a world if we were to all aim higher to love our fellow man. Follow Amy on Twitter @amyrass.

Advertisements

2 Ways to Prioritize Student Talk in the Classroom

Workshop affords so many opportunities to explore with the students in front of me as opposed to present a set curriculum to whomever happens to be seated in my classroom. It’s teaching through interaction, and in this case, it’s teaching straight from the kids themselves.

We see it in workshop all the time. Students given the tools to explore the world as readers and writers, and encouraged through personalized learning, quite often take their learning to places our old lesson plan books didn’t always accommodate.

One of the best opportunities for this classroom growth is having students do more and more of the talking. With the right modeling and specific expectations around that student talk, the classroom becomes a place students lead through inquiry, as opposed to follow through completion of teacher set tasks.

discussion-2

Morgan quotes Judy Brady’s “I Want a Wife” to analyze how the repetition supports the sarcastic tone and proves the point that since they do SO much, everyone should want a wife. LOL!

It happened yesterday morning, in fact. My AP students were participating in small group graded discussions. Just reading the last sentence makes me cringe (yes we use a rubric, no, the conversations don’t have to be formulaic as a result), but with choice in which readings from our unit they wanted to discuss and some guiding questions throughout the discussion, our conversation about gender and the implications of historical stereotypes on a modern world (their direction for the discussion, not mine) took an interesting turn.

“Mrs. Dennis…you’re smiling weird. What did I say?”

I stop furiously typing comments and look up. “I’m sorry?”

“You had a look. Did I say something wrong?”

“Sarah, you said nothing wrong,” I smile and glance around the table. Seven intrigued faces look back at me. “In the last few minutes this group has, largely unprompted, connected several essays through the lens of analysis, used terminology we’ve not discussed since September, Trinity uttered the words, ‘I don’t believe gender pronouns are even really necessary anymore,’ and then supported her opinion with specific text evidence, and several of you actually just murmured sentiments of excitement to shift the discussion to Judy Brady’s satirical 1971 piece ‘I Want a Wife.’ I’m smiling because I was just thinking about how I used to give short answer reading comprehension quizzes on these pieces.”

“Oh,” said Sarah, “This is way better.”

Yup.  This was a discussion they wanted to have. This was a discussion I wanted to hear. They took the lead, in fact one of our rubric bands demands that, and they came to the

discussion

Part of a small group discussing racial stereotyping colliding with gender stereotyping in the Brent Staples piece “Just Walk On By”

discussion prepared to drive conversation from the perspectives of authors like Brent Staples, Deborah Tannen, John and Abigail Adams, and Judith Ortiz. Perspectives that regard gender through stereotype, race, satire, narrative, an exchange of letters almost 250 years ago, and visual texts.

Did I just sit back and let them talk, free-for-all style? No. This conversation took practice, feedback, and correction over the past few months. Today, it took redirection on some occasions and additionally it took specific intervention for those students reluctant to participate. Additionally, had it been a lower-level class, I would have been a bit more actively involved to start. But as you well know, students at any level are capable of, and actually far more likely, to get actively involved if their efforts for comprehension are supported and their exploration of the text is encouraged. We work specifically on ways to communicate both agreement and polite disagreement, so students can help clarify the text as well as analyze it.

Like any solid workshop component, it involves careful teacher planning and modeling, but equal parts careful student leading as we gradually release them to own their own education. 

We assess students on their preparation for the discussion with visible notes and use of specific text to support their points and their leadership within the group. That leadership can be exhibited through meaningfully involving others to bring them into the discussion with a question, synthesizing ideas they have heard so far, and/or including insights from additional research on a particular topic to extend discussion beyond the reading.

I spend a whole class period for discussions, breaking the class into groups of 7-10 students so all voices have more opportunity to be heard. Students not in the discussion have specific work to complete, sometimes by the end of the hour. For feedback, I type comments and insights while the students are speaking, so I can quickly copy/paste them into the comment section of my feedback form (A Google form emailed directly to students with 2 Common Core based rubric bands as dropdown tabs so I can just click the score for each band, include specific typed feedback, and often get that feedback out to kids the same day).

Another opportunity for seriously impactful student talk, is handing over the daily book talk to the class.

One of the many benefits of this scenario is that I can tap into growing student enthusiasm about books and have my kids spread the book love directly with each other. Don’t get me wrong, my book talks are something to behold. Part forensics piece, part reader’s theater, and part screentest for the literary loony bin, I sell books much like I would envision the traveling vacuum salesmen of yore putting food on the table with a pitch of salvation not just for the home, but the soul. It’s not just going to clean your carpets, it’s going to change you life, Ma’am. Your life. 

But, let’s be real. Though I sprinkle my classroom with good will, good cheer, and good books, I’m not the best salesperson in the room. If you’re going to sell the vacuum with radial root cyclone technology (I Googled that), or the book with 389 scary looking pages on dystopian fantasy rooted in a chromed society, you need to know your audience. You need to relate to your audience. You need to be one with your audience.

There are plenty of reasons to get kids doing your book book talks, not the least of which is I can’t read fast enough these days to keep up with the need for the type of really passionate and informed book talks that come from having read the whole text (Books do sell themselves sometimes, just by reading the back cover and a page or two at the start, but I love to hook kids with a section from the middle to show the impact of the rising action or depth of character development).

book-talk

Priyanka book talking Stitches, a graphic novel by David Small, under the document camera.

  • Students trust one another’s opinions. Yes, often more than mine. I sell hard, but at the end of the day, I’m usually still the biggest book nerd in the room, and therefore I think I am occasionally regarded in much the same way  as the Dancing Grannies in a holiday parade: Enthusiastically adorkable, but a bit of an anomaly to be trusted only at a distance.
  • They find titles, authors, and series that aren’t yet on my radar. Despite my best efforts, I can’t read fast enough or comb enough best of lists to meet the recommendation needs of over 120 kids. But when the classroom experiences a new student perspective on reading each class, additional book talks at their tables after reading, speed dating with books,  and an invitation to help grow our classroom library with tax free, gluten free, guilt free donations of gently used books, everyone wins and the depth of our classroom repertoire grows.
  • Their enthusiasm is relatable and often focused on books that don’t speak to my own bibliophilic tendencies, but can ignite the reading sensibilities of their adolescent peers. For example, I took several YA Lit books home at the start of last summer. Two days in, I was already struggling with the voice. It grated on me (no offense scholars) after hearing it all day in person for 180 days. So when a student book talks The New Guy (and Other Senior Year Distractions) by Amy Spalding, and two sophomores in my class (who have struggled to meet reading goals week after week) add it to their “I Want to Read List”s, that’s another win, because we can’t push kids to deepen their reading if they aren’t reading. First hook them, then book them with more challenging pieces.
  • I offer up the option to produce their book talks digitally and for some students, this is what makes the entire experience meaningful. Students sell their books through book trailers, compilations of related imagery and voice over to meet the same requirements of a live book talk. I’ve had kids include clips of author interviews, live action fight scenes with voiced over dialogue directly from the text, and this year, I have a student who wants to read over the top of a mannequin challenge he plans to shoot to represent some of the major action in the text.

What results is growing book lists, renewed enthusiasm as students go back to books they’ve read and revisit their love for the text, and involving each and every single student as a valued reader in our classroom community.

We’d love to hear from you! What tips and tricks for student talk make their way into your daily workshop practice? Please comment below! 

What is Your Teaching Everest?

I’m standing on my desk.

It’s dangerous, but exhilarating, and I probably look like a loon, but I don’t care. (Please see my post where I embrace my dorkdom in an effort to really get to know my students and move on happily with passionate living and teaching.)

oh-captain

High heels kicked off, channeling the spirit of Mr. John Keating and brazen pigeons everywhere, I’m perched on the edge of my desk during prep, looking around the room to try and gain gain a different perspective.

Oh, Captain, my Captain…Somebody call security. She’s lost it.

No, no. I’m all right. (Well, you know – Relatively speaking. Dear colleagues, if you hear a thud, please investigate.)

So, what caused this poetic exploration of my abandoned classroom? I was thinking about a quote I heard at NCTE 2016:

What is your Everest this year as a teacher?

No, my desk isn’t my Everest. I’m not that far gone. But, per Shana’s inspiration to start with a question, I was thinking about what needs my attention the most right now. With 86 minutes to plan, grade, create, and locate necessary motivation to do all of the roomaforementioned tasks, what should I start with?

There’s certainly a lot to chose from: stacks of papers, countless books to read, share, and sort, a department in need of collaborative time to plan, students flying under the radar.

Everything in front of me is important. I need to grade the narratives my sophomores wrote, to put some ending punctuation on that adventure. When She Woke by Hillary Jordan is calling to me too. That book is Hester Prynne meets Offred meets futuristic criminal justice system that injects offenders with a skin altering virus based on their crimes – I need several extra hours in the day to read. Truth be told, I should have started this post sooner too. Procrastination and exhaustion mix into a delightful little cocktail called Crippled Motivation. Bartender, I’ll take another when you have a minute.  

In all seriousness though, I return to my question (Yes, I’m off my desk, Mom), because answering it means I can get something done. I’m weird that way. Could I pick up a stack of papers and just start? Of course. But I have to mentally work up to it, know my plan, have a reward of some sort (read five papers, read When She Woke for five minutes). This time, the question, the task, the implication is much bigger.

What’s most important right now? When I could do a thousand things, what needs to be done right now because it will mean the most?  I know the answer. And not only because I was just standing on my desk :

My Everest this year is feedback.

Consistent, responsive, quick feedback that first encourages, and then focuses in on promoting growth. Remember the old saying about catching more flies with honey than vinegar? That’s the stuff right there.

I want to move my students forward. We all do. But now, more than ever,  I believe the way to do it is through sincere investment in the original thoughts and explorations of my students. Personal connections that, yes, take some time, but build relationships that have helped me to better recommend texts, suggest style moves students may need to make in their more formal writing, and encourage additional critical thinking beyond the classroom.

I used to stress about “finding something good” to include in my comments to my students. And I hate to say this, but it’s downright hard in some instances, isn’t it?

I really like what you did with the title there. 
Interesting transitional choice. 
Wow. So many words in that sentence.
Nice…font selection.

But now,  I’m thinking about feedback in new ways and delivering it in new ways too. To reach my Everest, I’m going to have to get creative and intentional. So, here’s what I did this afternoon:

  • Read through a section of one pager submissions from my AP students. Check them in with the quick rubric for a formative score, and email five students per class with reactions. Not corrections, but reactions. Students are encouraged to explore in these writings and the best means of moving them forward in this case is to share additional insights, question, and encourage. I highlighted the students’ names in my gradebook to know I’ve contacted them and I’ll do the same with several more students next week. Writing feedback…check.

fran

  • I made a plan for conferring during reading later this week. Without a plan, it’s feeling random and I’m not doing it enough (the thousand things on my desk keep capturing my attention). So, I have a list. I know who I want to talk with based on quick writes students did today. They reflected on their progress toward their weekly reading goals and some students are struggling. Just by having them take a quick photo with their phones and email me the page, I got a literal snapshot of how each and every one of my students is doing with their independent reading, and I didn’t have to collect notebooks. Now, I’ve emailed a few students congratulations and made this plan. In the picture below, Alexis refers to her current read as “a beautiful romance of adventure.” Love! Reading feedback…check. 

    img_1012

  • Students will self-assess their latest practice AP argument essays. Feedback does not need to come from me to be beneficial. Using the AP rubric to help justify scores, students will take a sheet of paper, put a score and justification on the top, fold it over and hand it to the person next to them. Scoring will proceed in the same way around the table until everyone has his/her paper back. The table will then need to calibrate/norm and agree on a score. Self assessment and peer assessment…check
  • I am going to question and listen more. Long ago, I gave up on the idea that my imparting knowledge on others was the best way for them to learn. Everyone learns best when the are motivated to do so through personal connection to the work, interest in the material, and an understanding of how to improve. Workshop sets this up in a classroom, it’s now my job to remember to listen more and jump in less. During conferences, during book clubs, during discussion. Listen first, respond, encourage, and redirect/suggest later. This certainly doesn’t mean my presence in the room diminishes. It means I remember that my presence in the room is to guide my students, not steamroll them.

Gaining a new perspective feels like hitting the reset button to me. It provides clarity of mind and purpose. Skill development is my professional responsibility. Human development is my personal responsibility. They work hand in and hand and they are the Everest I will climb all year, every year, as I talk with, respond to, and gain insights alongside my students.

What is your teaching Everest this year? We’d love to hear from you! Please add your insights to the comments below! 

Try it Tuesday: Partnering Up for Reading Conferences

Sometimes inspiration strikes at the most opportune times.

One day last week I had the honor of hosting two small groups of teachers from a different high school as they observed my classroom, one class period in the morning and another in the afternoon. Many of the teachers on their campus have been exploring and practicing with the workshop model for a while now, and they wanted to see my workshop classroom in action.

After each lesson, we met to debrief and hold a kind of question and answer session. Talk about an awesome experience (except for the voice in my head that kept saying “When did you become the expert on workshop? Yikes.)

I think one of the best things we can do as teachers is invite others into our rooms to watch us teach. Talk about keeping on the A Game. That’s a Try it Tuesday suggestion all in itself.

Here’s another one:

During one of those debriefs, one teacher asked about the conferences I conducted as my students read for the first 15 minutes of class. “What questions did you ask?

I explained that it depends on the student.

If I go with “How’s it going?”

My students answer, “Fine.”

If I go with “What are you thinking?”

My students answer, “Nothing.”

So I usually lead with “Tell me a little something about …will ya?” And then I listen to see what direction the conference might take.

That’s pretty much the genesis of every conference with my readers.

Another teacher mentioned that she and a colleague had been thinking about asking students to bring a question, thought, or problem to their reading conferences. You know, kind of like we ask students to do when we meet with them about writing. I’d never thought about it for a quick reading conference though. She wanted to know if I thought it was a good idea.

The image of this book came into my head. I found this copy of The Fault in Our Stars at a thrift store. It looked just like this:  plastered with sticky notes that reflect the student’s thinking. Now, I have no idea why this book is tattooed with notes, but I can imagine a not-so-great idea.

tfiosmarkup2tfiosmarkup

I hope a teacher didn’t assign this book and ask students to bring ideas to a reading conference. If that happened, I doubt this student got into reading flow. I doubt this student enjoyed this lovely, heart-wrenching book. I doubt she felt the beauty of the language and felt the loss of a beloved character. Maybe all that happened, but it wouldn’t have happened for me.

I want my students to love to read. I think we have to be careful with what we ask them to do with their independent reading books besides fall in love with the story and the language. Sure, they may recognize craft, they may recognize characterization. But the important thing is that they recognize that they are liking to read. That is so important to so many of my readers. They have to realize they like reading.

I do believe we can, and should, ask students to revisit passages — and maybe even the whole of a book — from time to time, even quite often. We can teach many important reading and writing skills that way, but we have to temper our desire to teach a book to death, even the books students choose to read themselves.

What I told my inquiring friend:  What if before independent reading time, on any given day, we ask students to read for a specific purpose.

Read to find interesting figurative language. Read to notice clever imagery. Read to discover how the writer shares an insight about a character. Read to find a beautiful or startling sentence. Or maybe a sentence that’s not really a sentence.

fabian

Fabian before class sharing his awe at the writing style of Jonathan Safron Foer in Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

Isn’t this what readers do? I do. When I read a passage that strikes me in some way I want to share it. And let me tell you:  When my students start to do this on their own? That’s celebration time.

“What about the student who cannot find anything to share?” you might ask.

Well, that’s important information, isn’t it? I don’t know, maybe like the kind we might discover in a one-on-one reading conference.

Right?

I’d love to know your thoughts on this. What ideas do you have that work for your reading conferences? Please share in the comments.

Big thanks and shout out to @Sean_G_Hood and @mrs_friend and the inspiring teachers at Hebron High School!

 

Why We Should Challenge Our Students–And Ourselves

I’ve recently found myself in a learning situation I’ve rarely experienced before–a classroom where I am the slowest, lowest, and neediest learner.  The one whose work is nowhere near the level of everyone else’s.  The one who asks the dumbest questions.  The one who is silent and stricken after asking the dumb question.

IMG_9356

My own messy attempt at a poetry exercise

Those of us who grow up to become English teachers are skilled readers and writers, for the most part, and we were generally successful in educational settings.  We loved reading, we enjoyed writing papers, we received positive feedback from our teachers about our work, and we got good grades.  This is eminently true of my own educational experience, so I’ve never been able to truly empathize with how my struggling students might feel about our class time together.

The work of learning is tough in general, but standing out as the worst learner is a pretty unsettling feeling, I’m finding out.

The poetry workshop I’m involved in, which has shattered my confidence as a writer (while simultaneously strengthening my writing skills) is taught by award-winning poet Mary Ann Samyn.  This Bolton Professor for Teaching and Mentoring is the leader of our little band of misfit poets, and has been “poem-ing it up” for decades.

Mary Ann’s resulting ease with the language of writing and teaching poetry is obvious to witness.  She has clearly internalized and automatized much of the vocabulary of poetry–she tosses out phrases about meter and iambs and syllables and line breaks with such grace that I can tell she’s been thinking and talking about poetry for years.  “A line of poetry is a unit of measure,” she said.  I hastened to write down that line, marveling at its simple wisdom.

IMG_9355

My classmate, an MFA student, scrawls her own messy poem

It occurred to me, as I jotted down that poetic utterance of Mary Ann’s, that this is how I must sound to some of my students–as though I’m speaking another language.

As I sit in the workshop on Thursdays, surrounded by MFA students who have years of experience as real writers of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, as well as teacher-poets who have published their own verse, I feel so lost.  I am in a world I don’t feel I belong to–I do not yet identify as a poet, but I feel surrounded by them, trying to do the work of writing poetry and reading poetry and thinking about teaching poetry.  I wonder if I’ll ever get to their level as they gently question me about my writing, trying to make sense of my meaning, and give me suggestions about my work.

Regardless of how I view myself in the group, one thing is clear during the workshop–I am part of the community of poets, for 90 minutes every other Thursday.  I give and receive feedback in the same way the other writers do.  I participate in the exercises everyone else does.  I write poetry within the same time constraints as the others.  I am treated as a poet, even if I don’t think I am one.

Being part of a writing community with such rigor is hard, but it’s valuable.  I would never use the word “fun” to describe my time in the Bolton workshop, but I would argue that perhaps the best learning is not fun.  I find myself determined to write poetry alongside those real poets, even as I dread reading my words aloud to them moments later.  In Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Daniel Pink argues that my drive to do this is innate to all learners:

“We have three innate psychological needs—competence, autonomy, and relatedness. When those needs are satisfied, we’re motivated, productive, and happy.”

I make an effort to improve as a poet because I need to feel competent, much like our students work to improve as readers and writers because they desire competence, too.  In all educational situations, learners perform not because of the dangling promise of a grade, the threat of failure, or the pressure to comply with a controlling teacher.  They perform because they want to prove competence to themselves.

I asked a few students about this topic.  This summer, Shailyn read the Pulitzer-winning All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr.  She said the vocabulary was difficult, the book was long, and the writing style was strange–it was one of the toughest books she’s read.  “Why did you have the confidence you could read it?” I asked her.  “When you encountered those challenges, what made you say, ‘I don’t care.  I’m gonna read this anyway.’?”

“Because I have goals.  I like to feel challenged, and when I finally figured out how [the protagonists’] stories came together, I felt satisfied.  And I felt like I learned a lot from that book when I finished it,” she said.  Shailyn wanted to know that she was a competent reader–comprehending that book showed her she was.

Hunter, too, recently finished a book that challenged him.  “I hate this book,” he told me in the midst of Lone Survivor.  “You can abandon it,” I reminded him.  “No!” he said, forcefully.  “I’ve gotten two-thirds of the way through it.  I’m not giving up now.”  Hunter finished the book of his own accord, exercising his autonomy.

Lakynn agreed that learning is intrinsically motivated.  “You feel better about yourself when you’re more educated about a topic,” she told me.  “If you’re not knowledgeable about something, you can’t relate to someone more educated.  You want to learn about things so you can have those conversations with people about them,” she explained.  The social aspect of a learning community is evident and powerful here–Lakynn sought information about the Republican presidential candidates to fulfill her relatedness needs.

The more I talked with students, the more I discovered that what I thought was frustration with my difficult learning experience was actually profound satisfaction.  Yes, my confidence was crushed–I thought I was a good writer.  But knowing that I had so much room to grow created a hunger for more knowledge–I needed to learn, to belong, to feel competent again.  And so, I leave the Bolton workshop energized, confused, and with my mental wheels turning, every time.  The rigor of that learning–the toughness of it–is what makes it so satisfying.  I’ll remember that the next time I sit down beside the accomplished poets in my class, and every day I design lessons for my students.

Our students flourish when we create an authentic, rigorous learning community for them to be part of.  Difficult books, intimidating writing pieces, and high expectations combine to create an ideal situation in which autonomous learning can occur.  The beauty–and the learning–lie in the challenge.

I’ll leave you with a gem from one of Mary Ann Samyn’s collections of poetry, Beauty Breaks In:

Beauty breaks in everywhere.
Welcome to the wind-powered poem.
Like the ocean or the woodcut of the ocean.
I heard the hardest thing and listened.
Syntax says, you first. Shimmer half-scolds.
I said, I am loved. Sometimes a correction happens.
Fear made it one full week. A human action.
I stopped making it worse than it was.

A Yearlong Community

The sense of camaraderie and fellowship in our workshop classroom has ebbed and flowed this year.  Some days, I watch with pride as the readers and writers in the room help guide each other to a higher level of understanding, appreciation, or excitement.  Other days, I see disengaged students annoyed with one another’s antics.

Getting this community established at the beginning of the year takes time, but once the foundation is laid, it’s easy to keep it in place.

…Until you have 15 snow days in a row.

Or a student teacher.

Or a six-day block of testing.

Or 75-degree weather with sunshine, just out the window.

All of those common interruptions can derail a classroom community.  This year, though, I feel as close to my students as ever, and they are as tight-knit a group as can be.  Here are four reasons why.

Passion.  I’ve written before about how fangirling helps create a community of readers.  But it’s not just being excited about books that helps a classroom community develop–it’s passion about the work we do here as a whole.

Jordan, a student who joined our class in September, told me yesterday, “I still remember the first time I came to this school.  Yours was the first class I came into.  You were yelling and all excited and stuff.  I thought, ‘Wow, is this how this school is?’  Then I went to the rest of my classes and I was like, awww, where’s the excitement at?”

The passion I brought to teaching stuck with Jordan for nine months, especially when he contrasted it to his other teachers’. Communicating our genuine excitement to our students models for them the lasting value of our content.  Without that enthusiasm, a classroom community may not seem worth building.  With it, students come to class ready to learn, which creates the first condition for a strong community.

Vulnerability.  Around my birthday in early September of each year, I share with my students a song my friend Joey wrote and recorded for me.  About a month after he gave it to me, he passed away.  I play the song for the students and we write, then, the soundtrack of our lives–which song it would be and why.  I write about Joey, my guilt and sadness over his suicide, how I slept with the lights on for months after his death.

Chelsea recently told me that at first, she wasn’t quite sure about me.  “Then you wrote that piece with us about your friend Joey, and that’s when I started to think differently about you.”  Modeling my vulnerability with my students encouraged them to do the same–they began to write about topics they once considered very private, and to share their writing in small groups, which I rotate monthly.

Sharing this story with my students, crafting and refining it alongside them, modeled for them not just vulnerability, but the writing process when it relates to a difficult subject.  I became, in their eyes, not just a model writer–but a model thinker, with emotions and difficult memories just like them.  Shifting from not just an English geek to a real human is the second condition for a strong community.

Guts.  This spring, I had a student teacher for eight weeks.  When she left, state testing began almost immediately.  After those two lengthy periods of disruption to our established routine, my students were sluggish and disinterested–frequently unprepared for class, slacking off on their reading, unenthused about their final multigenre projects.

Then, I shared with them my own multigenre piece for this year, about the miscarriage I suffered on Mother’s Day.  As I showed them my writing, the classroom became eerily quiet.  The stillness and silence was deafening.  After lots of hugging and passing around of tissues, the students worked with energy and reverence on their own writing once again.  Their enthusiasm was back.

“I thought it was cool that you would put that out there for the students to know,” Madison told me the next morning. “I was shocked that you wrote about it.”  The fact that I not only shared such a tough subject with them, but had the guts to write about it, was powerful.  This gave many students the boost of confidence they needed to confront a difficult issue and create beautiful writing about it–the third condition for keeping that sense of community strong right up to June.

DSC_7929

Two of my funniest students, Troy and Logan, smirk at me over lunch.

Humor.  We’re not morose all the time–we have lots of fun.  Whether it’s a humorous booktalk, a funny poem, or just a celebration of a student’s silliness, there is lots of laughter in our classroom.

A small whiteboard on one wall of our classroom is full of quotes that have made us laugh.  A word like “clementime” can crack us all up, remembering when Troy bemoaned the book Columbine‘s length but accidentally said, “Oh boy, Clementine, here we go.”  Or “overalls,” which calls to mind Kristen’s claim that “I woke up, put on my overalls, and everything just got really weird.”  These simple one-word phrases memorialized on the whiteboard can bring a smile to our faces when we need a lift, and remind me that my students aren’t just learners–they’re people, and pretty darn cool ones, too.

Talk.  Talk is such a foundation of workshop, but it’s important to talk outside of conferences, small groups, or minilessons.  Isaac, a student who has struggled with academic success in the past, has been sitting in my room during his lunch period all this month, working on his multigenre paper.  He chats at me as he writes, asking whatever questions come to mind, writing-related or not.  As a result, he is soaring.

“This is probably the first project in school I’ve ever worked this hard on,” Isaac keeps telling me. “This project is so awesome.”  I told our principal how hard he’d been working lately, and he complimented Isaac when he saw him in the hall.

“Oh my god, I can’t believe teachers talk about students outside of class!” Isaac exclaimed later.  I could tell by his little smile that he was secretly pleased that we had said nice things about him.  Talk has an impact far beyond its transient initial utterance.

Passion, vulnerability, guts, humor, and talk–all year long–make for a beautiful classroom community I’ll enjoy ending this year with.  What do you do to keep your learners unified?

What I Didn’t Teach This Year

The end of the year is upon us (finally!), and I’ve been reflecting as I always do.  This year, though, I’m thinking about something I’ve rarely considered before–not just what I taught, what worked, or what I want to do next year.  I’m thinking about all the things I didn’t teach this year.

There are 180 precious days in a school year, and the way my school is structured means I spend 90 days with each set of students.  That seems so fast.  There was no time to waste, so here’s what I didn’t fill that time with:

FullSizeRender

As Sabra stepped up for her reading ladder picture, she said, “This is pretty good for someone who didn’t finish a book until your class!”

Whole class novels.  This was a controversial choice for me, given that I love so many authors of American literature–Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, Nathaniel Hawthorne, etc.  But, no matter what novels I’ve chosen in the past, there’s always a student that book isn’t right for.  Fahrenheit 451, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian, The Glass Castle, Maus–none of them is a perfect match for every child.  I’ve used a wide variety of strategies to get students to be able to read those books, and every ounce of passion I can muster to get them to want to read those books, but still–students have been conditioned to not read, to just get on SparkNotes, or ask an older sibling, or use Wikipedia.  When the stacks of matching novels come out, groans abound and engagement tangibly disappears.  I’ve seen this.  I’ve battled it.  No more.

So, I scratched whole class novels altogether.  Students worked in book club groups twice, and engaged in independent reading challenges two other times.  We read tons of short stories, articles, essays, and middle-length writings together.  But we didn’t read a single whole-class novel, and my readers still thrived.

IMG_8294

“I found myself as a reader this year,” Jordan writes.

Did my students grow as readers this year?  Yes.  I watched students who hated reading come to love it.  I watched students who couldn’t read well at all increase their stamina, passion, and skills related to reading.  I watched students who were good readers but bored with books fall in love with nonfiction, poetry, graphic novels, or award winners as they discovered new genres.  I watched students who loved to read flourish and challenge themselves with complex texts and childhood favorites alike.  Most of all, I watched a community of real readers spring up in my classroom–students recommending books to one another, self-selecting books and keeping long to-read lists, telling me all about their finds at Barnes & Noble.  These readers have become truly independent.  “Now,” Taylor writes, “I think I can read anything that’s put in front of me…and enjoy it.”

FullSizeRender

Isaac performs a poem for Nathan on poem-in-your-pocket day.

A movie.  As I’ve walked the halls this last week or so, I hear the unmistakeable sounds of cinema from behind closed classroom doors and darkened rooms.  I have no doubt that students are watching relevant films–movie adaptations of Romeo and Juliet in English, Forrest Gump in History, etc.  But this year, I felt I had absolutely no extra time…there was SO MUCH I wanted to do!  I used to love showing O Brother Where Art Thou with The Odyssey, and my students really delved into the symbolism of both texts.  But this year, my SmartBoard was full of YouTube videos, slam poets, or the still, quiet images of a document camera showing some writing.

I didn’t have time to show a movie, but I also wasn’t pressured by the crush of hours of grading that usually prompted me to show films in the past.  I’ve taken Kelly Gallagher’s rule about student work to heart–students should be doing four times as much reading and writing as we could ever grade.  So, I’ve read and responded to about a quarter of my students’ work, and let self-evaluations, peer conferences, and notebook passes do the rest.

Most of what I taught last year.  Last year was great, don’t get me wrong–but this year, my students were a new batch.  They’re different kids than last year’s group, so the same things won’t work for them.  After seven years in teaching, I know that.  I didn’t waste time trying to figure that out…I just started fresh.  I know I’ll do the same thing next year…out with the old, and in with the new.

IMG_0054

Shailyn read almost all of my YA fiction, and wrote reviews about nearly every book for our school newspaper.

Tests or formal essays.  Tom Romano likes to call the typical English essay a “five-paragraph you-know-what,” and it truly is a dirty little assignment.  At an NWP workshop I attended, each teacher was asked to bring some samples of student writing.  All around me emerged typed, double-spaced, Times New Roman, size 12, thesis-at-the-end-of-the-first-paragraph essays.  From my own bag came photocopies of messy scrawls in notebooks, multimedia This I Believes, strongly-voiced commentaries, poetic musings developed from quickwrites, and lengthy, involved, multigenre research papers.  No two pieces looked alike, and they certainly looked nothing like most other teachers’ samples.

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel a faint nostalgia for my own high school days, when I took pride in being able to punch out a perfectly formatted five paragraph essay in just under an hour, and which made absolutely no sense but looked great, and which constantly netted me As.  But I listened to my neighbors rant about poorly integrated in-text citations and incoherent thesis statements, I dismissed that nostalgia and read my own students’ work for what truly matters–good writing, heart and soul on a page, and authenticity at work.  As my husband said when he saw me dwarfed behind a pile of multigenre papers to grade, “I could read some of those for you.” “You wouldn’t know what to look for,” I said.

“Good writing is just good writing,” he replied, and he is right.  As the year ends, my students are good writers and good readers–not all of them are great, and there are kids I feel I could’ve pushed harder, but all are certainly better than they were when the year began.  I’ll look forward to our last day of class, when I’ll gift them each a new composition notebook and a pile of classroom library books to read over summer…and to months beyond, when I get to hear their stories of summer literacy in the fall.

Heinemann

Mentors with Insights, Ideas, and Resources for Secondary Readers & Writers Workshop

Literacy & NCTE

The official blog of the National Council of Teachers of English

kelly's blog - Kelly Gallagher

Mentors with Insights, Ideas, and Resources for Secondary Readers & Writers Workshop

Moving Writers

Move the writing. Move the writer.

Blog | The Educator Collaborative Community

Voices of Educators Making a Difference

The Paper Graders

Teachers thinking about teaching, education, technology and anything else that bugs us.

Ethical ELA

conversations on the ethics of teaching English

the dirigible plum

A Blog about Learning, Teaching, Writing, and Reading

%d bloggers like this: