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Category Archives: Talk

News You Can Use

I find most of what’s reported on the news today to be either deeply disturbing, horribly demoralizing, or downright exhausting. It almost feels like the past few months have been less of an end to summer/start of fall and more of an obstacle course of the absurd, obscene, and disappointing.

However, in the unending quest to inform our future electorate, we forge on. Articles of the week, hot topic debates, impassioned student speeches on the criminality of injustice, and an endless stream of quick writes to vent some of the hot, hurt feelings.  Then there are the daily discussions on the struggles we face, the struggles of those we need to know more about, and the struggles to balance it all when sometimes we just want things to feel whatever definition of “better” might help us through.

In the face of all of this, here is a recent success I had that championed choice and voice (coupled with a bit of creative reflection) around some of the news that might get overlooked in the whirlwind of our current news cycle.

News You Can Use

  1. Students selected an article from several that I had re-tweeted in recent weeks with our class hashtag –#fhslanglife. Topics varied widely and I simply went through and briefly highlighted the focus of each article in an effort to pique interest. Here are a few I included. Student response was awesome. We could have easily talked about these articles for the full 86 minute class period:

Are my students reading pieces on the economy, info-graphics, and authors (even authors they love) on their own? Not often. Are they talking with gusto about the relativity of these pieces, sharing insights on author craft, and talking about topics that impact them in the here and now when they are offered up as choice? You bet.

  1. Then, inspired by the Three Teachers Talk Twitter chat earlier this week with Tom Newkirk (#3ttchat), I stole a quick idea (the very foundation of Twitter chats,yes?). I love the quick and dirty nature of professional educators hurling greatness at one another in rapid succession and a maximum of 140 characters. For this week, I was immediately able to implement the single line, or as I told my students, “THAT line. You know the one” craft analysis. Based on the awesome insights of my fellow chatmates, I asked my students to do their reading and zero in on THE sentence that made the piece.

  2. Students read for 10-15 minutes, jotting down reflections and searching for “the one.” Once they were finished, I challenged them to respond in their notebooks in a creative approach they didn’t usually use. A dialogue, letter, poem, etc.

  3. After sitting silently for roughly 30 minutes, I had students get up and connect with someone from the other side of the room. Get the blood flowing a bit. They were to connect with someone who read the same piece and debrief. Ideas flew around the room.

  4. We then came together to share and here is a sampling of what I heard throughout the day:

  • From Ward’s piece on raising her son, Kaitlin pulled out: ” I hope I love him enough in the time I have with him, that while he can be a child, I give him the gifts of a childhood: that I bake chocolate chip cookies and whisper stories to him at bedtime and let him jump in muddy puddles after heavy rains, so he can know what it is to burst with joy. “
  • The info-graphics brought Nhan’s attention to: “We can trace the US story through stereotypes.”
  • After looking over the maps detailing climate change, Karan wrote a dialogue between President Trump and an environmentalist.
  • Several students brought up questions about college vs. career after reading about the jobs of their future.
  • Jerry Khang (who told me to publish his last name so you all know who he is even before he’s famous) read the John Green piece and wrote the following poem in about 4 minutes flat:

Books are a closer look into a person’s soul. 
We find ourselves deteriorating, gloomy, and so dull. 
But when we are able to read, to relate, to medicate our minds, 
We’re temporarily fixated on happiness in a short burst of time. 


When we provide students with relevant, yet challenging reading material, choice, time to write, time to think, and time to talk, 30 seemingly innocent minutes reading an article and writing about it can be beautifully rich, engaging, and rewarding.

And beautiful is something I think we could all desperately use right now.

Lisa Dennis teaches English and leads a department of incredible English educators at Franklin High School near Milwaukee. Her social media scrolling is driven largely by searching for class related articles and pumpkin soup recipes. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum 

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Shouldn’t Students Know How to Assess Their Independent Reading?

I have a love/hate relationship with the word authentic.

A few years ago when I participated in the North Star of TX National Writing Project, I wrote my action research goal to align with North Star’s definition of authenticity: “authenticity is connecting student learning with significant audiences, tasks, and purposes.” Of course, I still believe in this definition; I just struggle with redefining it for the individual students in my classroom.

Let’s take self-selected, independent reading for example. How do we ‘authentically’ assess this reading? Shana’s written about this topic lately in posts about too much measurement and alternatives to reading logs. She even started this google doc, a resource for assessing independent reading sans reading logs. There are some great ideas there.

I’m still not satisfied.

A few weeks ago I wrote about shifting control to invite more learning in which I write about shifting the finding to my students, giving them the opportunity to find mentor texts and create text sets we will study in class. I know this empowers students — they want to feel some element of control.

I decided to take the same idea of shifting and apply it to how I might assess student choice reading. Quite simply, I asked students to help me figure it out.

First, I reminded my readers why I am so adamant about independent reading and determined to hold them accountable. Then, I invited students to talk about how I might actually do it and asked that they write down their ideas. They seemed eager to help me figure it out. I listened in — grabbing my camera just in time — to capture some pretty rich conversation.

These are the ideas my class generated.

  • have reading partners that check each other
  • write a summary of what we’e read once a week (Me: “You really want to write more? Them: “No.”)
  • talk about our books for a minute or two*
  • record ourselves reading aloud (I asked:  “The whole book?” They said smiling: “Why not?”)
  • read together
  • summarize in a Google Classroom Q & A
  • pick a line from the page and write about how you feel about the line*
  • write about first impressions when we start a book
  • set reading goals then determine if we meet them by our reading rates*
  • write small summaries (Me: “You really want to write more? Them: “No.”)
  • talk about our books*
  • check for annotations
  • find our reading style
  • do book talks*
  • read novels in groups (Me: “We already do Book Clubs six times a year.” Them: “Oh, yeah.”)
  • write a blog post every week — what page we’re on and something we learned, not a summary because we can find those online
  • require us to finish at least one book every two weeks
  • book talks with our table — explain it to them*
  • write book summaries (Me: “What’s with the summaries?”)
  • check annotations
  • expand on quotes*
  • keep a reading log
  • write a one page summary every week (Me: “For real? a summary?”)
  • keep a reading log
  • create a sticky note system where we mark each hour, a start and end for that day
  • provide an incentive — candy? (Me:  “This will never happen.”)
  • give us due dates, but some will find this stressful
  • give grades to persuade and motivate (Me: “Exactly what I don’t want to do.” and under my breath: Can we give grades a rest already?)
  • write summaries? (Me, sighing: “At least you questioned it.”)
  • show progression through a book rather than setting a due date

And then these two responses:

  • The only way to actually PROVE someone is reading is if they read aloud.
  • You can’t really force [reading] upon someone; people need motivation.

Honestly, I was hoping for more. Something more — shall I say — authentic.

See? Students don’t really know how to assess pleasure reading either. Maybe that’s the whole point.

On that list above, the ideas with the asterisks? — those are things we already do. Plus, more. We study craft in our choice books:  sentences and passages. We pull ideas for expository and argumentative writing from our books. We review literary terms and analyze ways writers use them to enhance and craft meaning. We even occasionally swoon over a particular passage (well, I usually model swooning. It’s hard to get 17 year olds to swoon.)

I still do not know how to “grade” choice reading, and I’ve decided that it’s okay. Maybe I’ll take participation grades when I see students moving through their books at a fairly decent pace or after I confer with them and check for understanding. Maybe I’ll just keep listening in as my readers talk about their reading and lean over shoulders reading as they update their book lists in their notebooks.

I do know this:  The more I make everyday a reading day, a day we celebrate our lives as readers, the more students want to identify as readers.

And somedays they surprise us with their enthusiasm:

Michael came to class on Monday raving about his book. I pretty much shouted “Stop talking until I get my phone and can record you!”

How’s this for authentic reading assessment?

Please share your thoughts on assessing readers in the comments. Have you shifted yet?

Amy Rasmussen loves to read, and she loves her readers. The first book she remembers falling in love with was Anne of Green Gables, but her first memories of recall vaguely  The Boxcar Children. Amy models her reading life with her senior English and AP Language students by reading about books, talking about books, writing about books, and spending money on books for her readers to explore and enjoy. She firmly believes:  “It takes just one right book to make a reader. It’s just that every reader probably needs a different just right book.” Follow Amy on Twitter @amyrass and @3TeachersTalk

 

5 Lists of Books and More Space for Talk

I am a collector. I collect bookmarks I don’t use and tweets with headlines I think I’ll read later. I collect cute little pots I think I’ll eventually make home to plants, and notebooks I’m afraid to mess up with a pen (from my pen collection, of course.)

I also collect lists. Doesn’t everyone?

I collect lists of books thinking this will keep me from buying more books. Sometimes it works. Not often.

We’ve shared several lists of books on this blog:  Coach Moore’s list of books he read this summer, Shana’s Summer Reads to Stay Up Late With, Amy E’s Refresh the Recommended Reading List, and Lisa’s Going Broke List just to name a few.

I like reading lists about books. This helps me stay current on what my students might find interesting or useful. Often, I find titles that help me find the just right book for that one students who confuses “reading is boring” with “I don’t read well,” or “I don’t know what I like to read.”

With one heartbreaking event after another in our country lately, I keep thinking about the importance of reading to help our young people grow into compassionate citizens who more easily understand their world. Did you see the results of yet another study? Reading makes you feel more empathy for others, researchers discover.

Of course, we don’t need another study to tell us this. Many of us see it in our students.

I see it in my students. My students who enjoy reading also enjoy talking about their

Bookclubdiscussion

My students chose from nine different books for their book clubs. Once they chose, we had five different book clubs happening in one class. At the end of our second discussion day, I had students combine groups and talk with one another about the major themes, make connections, and share a bit about their author’s style.

reading. They relate to one another more naturally as they talk about their books, the characters, the connections. They welcome conversations that allow them to express their opinions, likes and dislikes. They learn much more than reading skills through these conversations.

My AP Language students recently finished their first book club books. I left them largely without a structured approach to talking about their reading. My only challenge on their first discussion day was to stay on topic:  keep the conversation about the book for 30 minutes. They did. I wandered the room, listening in as I checked the reading progress of each student.

On the final discussion day (three total), I reviewed question types and used ideas from Margaret Lopez’ guest post Saying Something, Not Just Anything, and asked students to write two of each question types:  factual, inductive, analytical prior to their book club discussions. This led to even richer conversations around their reading.

I remember reading a long while ago about how conversations about poetry could invite opportunities for solving big problems. I don’t know if this is the article I read, but the poet interviewed in this article asserts it, too:

I think we know the world needs changing. Things are going awry left and right. I firmly believe that in our very practical, technological, and scientific age, the values of all the arts, but of poetry in particular, are necessary for moving the world forward. I’m talking about things like compassion, empathy, permeability, interconnection, and the recognition of how important it is to allow uncertainty in our lives.

. . .Poetry is about the clarities that you find when you don’t simplify. They’re about complexity, nuance, subtlety. Poems also create larger fields of possibilities. The imagination is limitless, so even when a person is confronted with an unchangeable outer circumstance, one thing poems give you is there is always a changeability, a malleability, of inner circumstance. That’s the beginning of freedom.

When we invite our students to read, and then open spaces for them to talk about their

bookclubdiscussion2

This group had hearty discussions around Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance. It’s Western Days. They don’t always wear hats and plaid and boots, even in Texas.

reading, we provide the same opportunities that discussions around poetry do. Maybe not on the micro scale of ambiguity and nuance, but most certainly on the macro scale of possibilities. Our students are social creatures, and we must give them spaces to talk.

So I collect lists of books I think my students may like to read, with the hope of engaging them in conversations — with me and with one another — around books. (A couple of years ago, Shana and I had students create book lists as part of their midterm.)

Here’s five of the book lists I’ve read lately. Maybe you will find them useful as you curate your classroom libraries and work to find the right books for the right students, so they can have the conversations that help them grow in the empathy and understanding we need in our future leaders, right or left.

6 YA Books that are Great for Adults

50 Books from the Past 50 Years Everyone Should Read at Least Once

The Bluford Series — Audiobooks

20 Books for Older Teen Reluctant Readers

43 Books to Read Before They are Movies

Oh, and if you haven’t read Lisa’s 10 Things Worth Sharing Right Now post in a while, now, that’s an awesome list!!

Amy Rasmussen loves to read, watch movies with her husband, and tickle her five grandchildren. She’s in the market for a lake house and likes to shop thrift stores for books and bargain furniture. Someday she’ll be disciplined enough to write a book about teaching. For now, she teaches senior English and AP Lang and Comp at her favorite high school in North TX. Follow Amy on Twitter @amyrass, and, please, go ahead and follow this blog.

Saying Something, Not Just Anything: Student Talk – A Guest Post by Margaret Lopez

Written in the spring of 2017, Margaret Lopez reflects on the value of purposeful communication and strategies to get kids to create questions that get at the heart of a topic and generate meaningful discussions. 

All year, my juniors and I have been workshopping writing and reading different texts for a range of purposes, pairing fiction and nonfiction for some whole class studies (Death of a Salesman and Outliers–a hit!  1984 and current events surrounding fake news and government–loved it!).  I realized a skill I hadn’t closely instructed, we had just “done,” was intentional classroom discussions.  As my juniors prepare to be seniors, Screen Shot 2017-05-01 at 8.44.22 PMcollege students, and individuals in the workplace, they need to speak purposefully and ask intentional questions.  I want them to be able to say something, not just anything  From this reflection, and students’ interest in recent protest movements and community issues in Chicago, a social justice unit based mainly on speaking and listening with low stakes writing was born.

I selected three books for students to chose from, and those choices became their lit circle groups.  Students could chose from Half the Sky which discusses female discrimination across the world, Ghettoside which examines policing in a predominately African American community outside of LA told by a reporter who spent years reporting on crimes in the area, or Hillbilly Elegy, a memoir about growing up in Appalachia.

Throughout the unit, we have followed the same routine:  

Mondays are for lit circles, Tuesdays are for extension activities with nonfiction, and on Wednesdays, we discuss all three texts together in a Socratic Seminar.  My goal was a lot of low stakes writing and fruitful discussion.

I think there is a reason that discussion is a central component of the English classroom, as it builds community, facilitates deeper or new thinking on a topic resulting from other perspectives, and is a college and job skill we have the duty to foster and refine in our students.  However, students need to speak, listen, and ask purposefully.  My students know how to talk–at my small school, where classes can be between 6 and 16 students, class stalls if they don’t have anything to say.  The awkward silence lingers.  Then someone says any random thought they have just to break the silence.  But there is difference between saying anything and saying something.  To elevate students to say something about the injustices across the texts, not just anything so that awkward silence doesn’t linger too long, I began with questioning skills.

Magnifying Glass - Questions

It is challenging students to take the idea they’re wondering about and want their peers to contemplate and thinking about it backwards, writing a question that doesn’t give away their opinion, lead peers right to the answer, or simply confuse others.  

We began by running through the list of essential questions from this school year and reviewing their quick writes on the topics from throughout the year.  I asked students what they noticed about the questions, many came to the conclusion that the questions are BIG, meaning they have more than one answer, but those answers aren’t definitive or “right.”  From there, we looked at a list of plot-based questions I made about the first chunk of their reading to compare the lists of questions.  They easily noticed these questions were the opposite of essential questions, meaning they had a limited scope of what response could be correct or on the right track.

Great, they can notice the difference.  Now to teach them to apply this to their own questions. Thank the teaching gods and goddesses for Jim Burke’s What’s the Big Idea?.  I used his entry points into teaching questioning around three types of questions:  Factual, Inductive, and Analytical, having students label their own questions as one of the three types.  Then, we worked on revising after I modeled some examples.   I challenged students to move beyond the factual so we could get to the big ideas and scale up Bloom’s Taxonomy.

Jacely revised her questions to get to the heart of her concern, which was why law enforcement doesn’t seem to care about women that are in trouble:

  • Factual:  On the very first page of chapter 2, what does Nick ask the Officer about regarding trafficked girls?  
  • Inductive:  Kristoff asks an Officer about what exactly they look for and then mentions if they look out for trafficked girls and the officer mentions there isn’t much to do about them. Why do you think these officers seem to not care about this huge issue?   
  • Analytical:  What implications does this have on the community?  Women’s futures?  Are there issues with law enforcement in the communities in your books?

Mishawn revised to include more perspective and connection:

  • Factual: Why is the crime rate so high in Watts?
  • Inductive:  What allure do gangs have for the young people in the community?  How does this create a cycle of violence and crime?
  • Analytical:  What factors, both historically and recently, have lead Watts to become a breeding ground for criminal activity?  In your opinion, which factor is/has been the most detrimental?

I also provided students with question stems as a guide and encouraged students to use these until they felt comfortable framing their questions.  By the end of the unit, student questions were synthesizing the three texts and major ideas.  I noticed students would lead with a question geared more towards their text, then extended the question to the other two text, thus inviting in more conversation and fluidly moving between inductive and analytical questioning.  The discussions moved from inner to outer, from focused on one book to all three books.

Jordan:  How does Leovy expect the reader to believe in the good homicide detectives while at the same time giving examples of racist and uncaring detectives?  What contradictions exist in your book’s community?  Do these lead to an imbalance of power or other injustices?

Ben: Isolation is discussed by Vance as one reason leading to a disconnected, stalled hillbilly society.  How are the people in your text isolated, whether by location, proximity, cultural norms, or otherwise?  Does this perpetuate the problem or is it a solution that hasn’t been capitalized on?

To springboard Wednesday’s seminars, we often pre-thought through the big ideas for that chunk of reading as a way to anchor thinking and create a common entry point into the seminar, and also, so students had something to say.

  • Google Doc Quick Collaboration:  I posted some initial questions on the google doc to get students thinking, then watched the entire class collaborate on 1 document–so cool!  I limited this pre-thinking to about 3 minutes so students didn’t type all of their discussion points.  I also left this projected during the seminar, serving as an anchor chart and inspiration for more questions.  So easy. Minimal prep.  Great results!
  • Discussion Tables:  I made three table tents at three different tables in my classroom, each with a common idea and thread that occurred during that chunk of reading.  I gave students two minutes to discuss how each topic related to their book.  After two minutes, they moved to a new table and could shuffle up their group.  Again, minimal prep and 6 quality minutes of pre-thinking.
  • Essay Highlights:  Students wrote for 20 minutes about the central injustice in their novel, justifying why that, out of all the intersected issues, is the most pressing for the community in the book.  I then typed the major argument from each student’s essay and used it as an entry point into a Wednesday seminar.  Students were able to see the something their peers had to say, understand how perspective and perception shade one’s reading, and make connections across the three texts.
  • Pass Around:  I asked students to write a line from their book that really just hit them in the gut and explain why.  Then, students passed them around the room, spending a few seconds reading what their peer had been most impacted by and why.  I actually couldn’t stop students from talking. Across the table, students were making “OMG” eyes at each other, whether it was a connection with their lit circle peer or shock over what a peer had written about from another text, the conversation was immediately started.

As I have listened to each small group discuss the same texts, it was amazing to hear how the conversation differs from class to class.  I wanted students to experience that, to give them a chance to expand each others’ thinking.  I assigned two digital seminars using our school’s digital platform, and while this is nothing crazy innovative, students posted and responded, I noted many benefits from this type of “discussion”:

  • Students experienced new perspectives and interpretations of the text from their peers in other classes, and I found more students sharing personal anecdotes–students were sharing their personal experiences with discrimination and inequalities.
  • Shy students or those that need more process time were the space to contemplate, revise their thinking, or deepen their response by not having to think on the spot as they would during an oral discussion.  I have many exchange students from around the world (China, Spain, Thailand, and Italy), who have the extra task of interpreting, decoding, and thinking in two languages  By writing, students had more time to think and contribute at their pace.
  • Students were more thoughtful in their responses and more likely to use text evidence to support their argument or open their classmates’ eyes because they aren’t so “on the spot.”  Students used evidence from the book, as well as other articles we had read, thus adding rich context to the discussion.
  • Students had another opportunity to practice practical writing for college.  Many college courses require blog post or digital contributions, and the reality is that most of my students will take an online course at some point in their academic or professional lives, too.  
  • Students received real time feedback on their questions.  If no one responded, maybe the question was unclear, too narrow, or too broad.  Student-led formative assessment–a new trend?
  • Students had a time and space to learn about digital etiquette and practice, something very important as Snapchat and Twitter become accepted means of communication.  As students move into their post-secondary endeavors, they may be communicating with bosses or professors via email and must communicate clearly, without a misinterpreted tone.  We discussed how to politely disagree and how to ask a follow up question instead of answering with bias, as well as the time and place for proper mechanics.
  • I made time to write beside them, contributing to the discussions, too.

Although these strategies were successful in moving my students beyond saying anything at all to fill the void, the best part was how moved my students were by the injustices that exist in our world.  They spoke with such compassion and concern for those suffering they no longer seemed to be kids, but young adults.


Maggie Lopez has six years of teaching experience at large public high schools in Louisville, Houston, and now Chicago.  A graduate of Miami University, she had the pleasure of learning from the workshop masters and is on a continual quest to challenge, inspire, and learn from her hilariously compassionate juniors and seniors. 


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Care to join the conversation? We’d love to add your voice! Please email guest post ideas to Lisadennibaum@gmail.com.

Building Community Through Tough Conversations

We need to invite conversation into our classrooms, and sometimes that means having controversial conversations. Provocative topics will get anyone talking–we’ve all seen evidence of this in our Facebook feeds–but teens, especially, need to flex their opinion muscles often.

Like any other developmental milestone, kids need a safe place to practice and fail at these skills before they master them. Talk, argument, the subtle art of making claims, supporting them with evidence, and persuading listeners with ethos, pathos, and logos, are developmental milestones. As such, it is our job as educators to provide the safe space needed for that practice.

But as we know, you can’t just leap into the tough conversations a few weeks into the school year–you have to build community, and trust, and a sense of values first.

img_2578Right?

I happen to think that having those tough conversations is the way to build community.

We have to read, think, and write what matters in classrooms. So last Friday, my preservice teachers and I unpacked a tough topic: institutional racism in education. We didn’t just leap in and invite uninformed debate–instead, we did lots of work before our conversation to help us navigate the waters we were about to enter.

First, we read.  Our assigned reading for the week was Peggy McIntosh’s “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” A women’s studies scholar, McIntosh coined the term “privilege” in the late 80s, when this article was published. It’s a thoughtful read, strengthened by its narrative of McIntosh’s discovery about her previously-unseen privilege.

We drafted our thinking in pairs. After reading, students wrote one-pagers about their thinking and submitted them to our class Google Drive. Each student has a critical friend this semester, so they receive feedback on their thinking from both me and a peer. These low-stakes spaces for thinking help students get their initial reactions down on paper

Screen Shot 2017-09-25 at 8.27.30 AM.png

We talked. To open our conversation, I asked students to speak generally about what surprised or interested them about McIntosh’s writing. Many students volunteered ways in which they agreed with McIntosh, but a brave few spoke about how they weren’t so sure about her claims. One student even prefaced his comments with, “I feel like kind of a douchebag for even thinking this, but I’m going to say it.” I thanked him for his willingness to be honest, and that opened the floodgates for other students to share more readily.

We extended and re-drafted our thinking. After several minutes of back-and-forth, I presented students with a variety of other points of view on this same topic in the form of quotes about institutional racism and white privilege. I asked students to read and respond to one quote anonymously via Post-its.

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They did this, then passed their Post-it laden quote to the next table, who read both the quotes and comments and added their thinking.

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We continued in this vein, then talked in small groups about what the post-its said, negotiating agreement or disagreement with each writer, then conversing about the ways our own opinions had evolved.

We left the conversation unfinished. Because how can you really ever arrive at a definitive understanding of any topic so complex? Our thinking must keep evolving. I have several next steps in mind.

I’m going to send my kids Peggy McIntosh’s fantastic TED Talk on how studying privilege systems strengthens compassion. They’ll respond to their critical friend’s comments. In their notebooks, they’ll write a bit more about how they see evidence of institutional racism in the schools in which they observe. Next class, we’ll discuss ways to enact actionable change in classrooms, using this topic as a starting point for something we may want to reform in education.

In just our third class meeting, our conversation was a good start to the kinds of deep thinking and grappling with issues I want students doing in the course of our two years of seminars together. By offering plenty of opportunities to draft and revise thinking in small-group and low-stakes ways, students got comfortable enough with their thinking to share it with the class thoughtfully and respectfully.

We’ll continue to dialogue about this topic and other difficult ones, revising our thinking through the lenses of our learning and experiences, and discuss why discussing these topics matters. In just this one class meeting, my students and I learned more about one another than we had in our previous weeks of just writing and talking about safer topics. Through reasonable risk-taking, vulnerability, and honesty, we grew not only as individual thinkers and teachers, but as a community of reflective practitioners as well.

How do you help your students have controversial conversations? Please share in the comments!

Shana Karnes is mom to 1.5 spunky little girls and wife to a hardworking surgical resident.  She teaches practicing and preservice English teachers at West Virginia University and is fueled by coffee, tortilla chips (this week), and a real obsession with all things reading and writing.  Follow Shana on Twitter at @litreader and read more of her writing on the WVCTE Best Practices blog.

Inviting Controversy, and Often

“If you could, keep any type of content that has to do with race and gender possibly politics out of any classroom discussion, videos, papersor anything of that sort. Its very controversial. . . It’s very debatable , especially when we have different values/ethics on subjects .”

If you can look past all the errors, perhaps you can see why this student’s message cut into my brain a bit. I invite open dialogue, so that a student felt comfortable emailing me with such a request took some of the edge off. Some. Of. It.

But really?!

Once my heart slowed a bit, and I got over the audacity of this child (Can you even imagine telling a teacher what is and is not appropriate to discuss in class?) I realized one important thing:  I am right on target.

Hard TopicsIf we do not discuss the hard topics in our classes, where will students ever learn to discuss the hard topics? Sure, we can hope they debate social, economic, and political issues in their homes, but we know many families do not have meals together much less conversations. And it’s the conversations, varied and diverse, that can help us view the world in a different light — sometimes a cleaner, clearer, more empathetic and compassionate light. I think we need more of this light.

Here’s part of my response:

I appreciate your concern about controversial topics; however, English is a humanities class, and as such, we should learn about the humanities. That means all the messy topics that make us human. We should invite controversial topics into the classroom. The classroom becomes a microcosm of the world outside of school. If we cannot learn to discuss and debate in polite conversation here, how can we expect to ever discuss and debate politely as adults?

I see it as my job to be sure we think and feel and share as individuals with diverse backgrounds, cultures, and interests. I will continue to use texts, including poems, that give us voice to our lives and thinking.

Side note:  The poems in question were ones I shared as quickwrite prompts to spark thinking for the college application essays students would soon begin writing, “Raised by Women” by Kelly Norman Ellis and “Facts about Myself” by Tucker Bryant. I still don’t see the controversy.

Yesterday I saw a post on a Facebook group I follow where ELA teachers often ask for help. One person posted:  “One of my students challenged me today to include more literature that is relevant to what they are seeing in the world right now. . . What should I include?”

I refrained from responding:  EVERYTHING in my Twitter feed.

We all know the importance of helping students see the relevance in the texts we study, and I don’t know the context of that student’s request, but I wonder if sometimes students believe relevance means:  reflects what I already believe and feel, instead of: often challenges what I already think and feel.

Maybe we need to do a better job of explaining why we must challenge our own beliefs, get out of our echo chambers, and at least acknowledge the opinions of those who differ from our own.

Maybe I failed my student because I didn’t explain enough at the get go.

Today he got his schedule changed. Right after I found this infographic, an argument for the humanities.

We’ll study it in class real soon — after we discuss Jared Kushner’s Harvard Admissions Essay and finish writing our own. (See what I did there?) Then we’ll brainstorm the most debatable topics we can think of — DACA, Black Lives Matter, Confederate monuments, everything A Handmaid’s Tale, gender rights, gay rights, women’s rights, and more rights– and engage in the critical, and oh, so vital discussions that help us understand what it means to be human.

How do you invite these critical conversations into your classroom instruction? Please share in the comments.

Amy Rasmussen is a trouble-maker. Tell her not to do something, and she will do it — especially if it leads to expanding the minds and improving the learning experiences of today’s youth. She teaches Humanities/AP Language and Composition and senior English at a large, diverse, and truly wonderful high school in North TX. Her hobbies are searching for controversial topics that spark debate, reading and sharing banned books, and challenging the status quo. And she loves the readers of this blog. Follow Amy on Twitter @amyrass and @3TeachersTalk; and please join the conversation over on Facebook at Three Teachers Talk.

4 Ways to Get Kids Talking…To Each Other

af115350d91f58bfb8c402b3b6159935--changes-in-life-quotes-change-your-life-quotes.jpgToday is a day worth talking about.

For one, it’s been 16 years since the Twin Towers fell. Sixteen years.

For two, much of Florida is waking up to the terror of Hurricane Irma, probably in the dark, without power–but not without hope. And Texas is still recovering from Harvey’s rage. But they’re Texas, so they’re tough.

Days like today should never become routine. And these are the things we should be talking about in our English classrooms. But to have the heavy talks, of course, we need to be able to listen.

“English teachers have rare opportunities to get to the deep, real work of an education,” Mitch Nobis writes. Yes, we do.

We have a multitude of opportunities for important, valuable, world-changing talk to happen in our schools. Before these kinds of conversations can happen, we need to be comfortable being vulnerable, truly listening to one another, and confidently articulating our thoughts–and then revising them.

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We make time for talk in my college classroom every day

Reasons like these are why I make talk a priority in my classroom every day. In such a digital world, it’s not as easy to get kids making noise as it used to be. Where early in my teaching career I had to work to settle down a chatty room, now I have to exhort myself to hear the sweet sounds of uncertain arguments and not the click of a quickly-locked iPhone.

Like all other skills we want our students to master, thoughtful speaking and listening is something we must teach. Rather than being frustrated by our students’ silence, we need strategies for helping kids close their apps and open their hearts and minds to one another. Here are four of the most effective I’ve used this year:

img_2223.pngQuickwrites that make us vulnerable – Getting to the heart of our wonders and fears and hopes and dreams in our writer’s notebooks builds community, sets a precedent for the type of writing we’ll be doing, and gets down on paper what’s really important: who we are, and how hard it can be to say that definitively. Strong mentor texts that invite this vulnerability are essential–imitating Mari Andrew’s illustrations is a great place to start. Writing about our scars is another favorite early-year activity. These first pages in notebooks don’t often get shared, but they get kids to do the early scaffolding work of honest thinking that leads to honest talk.

Turn and talk and LISTEN – The “turn and talk” directive is a common one in ELA classrooms, I hope, but I kind of want to change it to “look at your partner and LISTEN.” I tell students before a turn and talk that we’ll be sharing what we hear, so the purpose shifts from drafting their thinking through talk to expanding their understanding through listening. After the chatter has subsided, I ask students, “Who heard something great? Share with us what you learned from your partner.” This is a subtle shift, but one that cues students to turn their ears away from their own voices and toward their peers’.

On the record strategyWritten feedback is amazing, but if I’ve learned anything from doing a million reading and writing conferences over the years, it’s that the power of talking with someone about your thinking is incredible. For this reason, when I ask students to conduct peer writing conferences, I ask them to record themselves. Using apps on their phones, kids begin this practice by simply talking about the student’s writing they’re reading, but gradually progress to leaving one another specific, recorded feedback to be replayed at home. While “on the record,” I find that students become much more deliberate, thoughtful, and thorough in their feedback by simply slowing down their thinking.

Silent discussion – An early mentor of mine used this strategy to scaffold his students up to sophisticated Socratic seminars, and I still love using it. Students bring in a written response to a question, or a draft of a piece we’re working on, or a favorite quote from their independent reading book they want to mine. We hang these nameless papers all around the classroom, then kids get their earbuds, a stack of post-its, and a pen and progress into a silent discussion. The classroom is magically quiet–almost sacred. This is my favorite part.

First, they circle the classroom, writing lengthy responses to their peers’ thinking on large post-its. Each student receives two responses this way. Then, we do a counter-clockwise circle with small post-its where more feedback is offered in the form of short remarks or questions. Each paper receives three additional comments in this round. The following day, I redistribute the papers to their original writers and watch students drink up the feedback, which is made all the more valuable because it didn’t come from me.


I hope these four strategies for student talk make your classroom a little more conversation-friendly this week. Please share with us how you get your teens talking in the comments, on Facebook, or via Twitter!

Shana Karnes is mom to 1.5 spunky little girls and wife to a sleepy surgical resident.  She teaches practicing and preservice English teachers at West Virginia University and is fueled by coffee, no-bake cocoa oatmeal cookies (this week), and a real obsession with all things reading and writing.  Follow Shana on Twitter at @litreader or read more of her writing on the WVCTE Best Practices blog.

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