Category Archives: Writers

#Disrupting Texts in our Senior English Classes

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Stories that mirror the lives of our students are an important part of our reading lives.

Last year, due to a colleague’s illness, I ended up teaching a section of English 10 part way through the year. It had been years since I had taught English 10 and years since I had taught the main novel that our Grade 10 students study – To Kill A Mockingbird. While I hadn’t taught To Kill A Mockingbird in some time, it had been the subject of much of my professional development reading lately as there is a shift happening towards questioning some of the traditional texts we teach in North American and whether they are the best texts to explore issues of race and other complex issues. In particular, I had been exploring the concept of disrupting the texts we traditionally study in high school as outlined in this excellent series by Kate Stolzfus in ASCD’s Education Update. When we look at disrupting the classic, largely Eurocentric texts traditionally taught in schools across the country, we start to explore how the classic cannon does not necessarily reflect the experiences of the students in our class. Children’s literature scholar Dr. Rudine Simmons first explored the idea that children need mirrors, windows, and sliding doors in the stories they encounter. While windows and sliding doors allow children to look into or enter into the world of people different than themselves, mirrors in literature – where children can see themselves reflected in what they read are equally as important. While Rudine Simmons was talking about children’s literature, this is just as important in the literature we study with our young adults in our high school classes. When we look to disrupt the texts we teach in class, we look for opportunities to provide “mirrors” for all of the students represented in our class, as well as “windows and sliding doors” into the lives of others.

Because I was starting the class midyear, I was not in a position where I could change the books for the course, so I would have to teach To Kill A Mockingbird, but I wasn’t necessarily comfortable with teaching it in some of the more traditional ways I have seen it handled. Like any teacher faced with a new class with only a short time to prepare, I headed to the internet to see what inspiration I could find. What I found has become a valuable resource not just for my Grade 10 English class, but also for my other classes – #Disrupttexts. The #Disrupttexts movement is a grassroots movement started by teachers to disrupt the traditional cannon and to provide resources to do so. The movement was initially a Twitter movement and if you search #Disrupttexts on Twitter, you will find many valuable resources. As well, there is a website where you will find suggestions, lessons and unit plans that suggest alternate titles to the traditional cannon, or texts to teach in conjunction with them in order to bring in other perspectives.

While it may not always be possible or necessary to replace the traditional canon in our English classrooms, by shifting the way we looking at these texts and by “disrupting” our thoughts on the literature we share with our students, we help our students access the powerful experience of seeing themselves reflected in the literature they read.

 

Pam McMartin in English Department Head, Senior English Teacher, and Middle Years and Senior Teacher Librarian at an independent school in Tsawwassen, BC, Canada. When she is not disrupting texts in her classes and her school library, she is spending her time reading reviews and building her to-be-read list from all of the exciting new books from diverse authors coming out. You can follow her on Twitter @psmcmartin. 

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A Life Full of Revision

I saw one in early August this year, winging its way over our Fine Line Buckthorns, past our Red Maple tree, through our verdant yard. Transfixed, I hoped it would land on one of our scarlet day lilies just like the first time I beheld one (back when I held Ingrid and held Jonas’ hand). But this Tiger Swallowtail–golden-winged and delicate–floated away, on its own journey of transformation. And while I once marveled at its beauty with my children, this year I marveled at the metamorphosis the butterfly endured in order to take flight. 

Even as that caterpillar egg (where, if you look closely, the caterpillar inside is visible) becomes a caterpillar; even as that caterpillar decimates leaves and sheds its skin several times to grow; even as that caterpillar forms a chrysalis and, as it begins its transformation, actually digests itself, using highly organized groups of cells to redirect its creation; even as there is seemingly destruction–something new emerges. And, after all this, the butterfly must hang upside down to allow its wings to harden before it takes flight. A butterfly in its colorful splendor is the culmination of a life full of revision.

Maya Angelou once noted that “We delight in the beauty of the of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty.” She’s right, of course. We reduce the complexity of the transformation in the same ways many of our students reduce the complexity of revision in writing. The beautiful butterfly doesn’t exist without significant change just as beautiful writing doesn’t suddenly and artfully emerge. So many of our students need to learn that once an idea is born into the world, this idea can and will transform–many times!–given the right conditions. This learning can transform the possibilities they see for themselves as writers, possibilities often limited by the misconception that some people are good writers while others are not. 

So, what do we do as teachers? How do we provide the right conditions, the ones that nurture (to help grow, develop, or succeed) destruction that leads to transformation? And, how can we help them look inside their work to see the special parts that hold the potential for splendor?

  1. The pitch: Have students pitch their ideas for writing projects to one another (Liz Prather’s Project Based Writing is an excellent resource for this). This lets ideas live, born into the world by sharing with peers, providing time and space for growth and development. And, sometimes, necessary destruction. 
  2. Feedback: Share this video with students about the nature of offering and receiving feedback. This may transform their understanding of the power of their responses to one another. 
  3. Modeling and practicing revision: Consistent practice in small ways in notebooks allows students to internalize the ways to direct their revision. Ask them to add, delete, rearrange, or substitute in their writing. Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle speak to the importance of this, especially with writing that is generative. More importantly, as teachers, we can and should model this, making it visible how and why we transform our writing. 
  4. Showing: Use the work of other students, snagging Google History screenshots to make visible the kinds of revision that occurs. Discuss these together. Show them our own, too. This is like looking inside the chrysalis! Whoa!
  5. Conferring: The questions we ask and the micro lessons we offer during this time can both trigger transformation and call attention to the parts already bright with meaning. Celebrating with students where a move works may prove a catalyst for more revision. 
  6. Destruction: Encourage students to print drafts and cut them apart. All the parts may be there, but they may need to be rearranged or to be developed further. 
  7. Letting students create their own analogy: Engage students in creating their own analogies about revision. They create meaning while we glimpse their thinking.
  8. Managing their creative process: This video from Tiffany Shlain helps writers think about their own processes. One of the most important aspects it focuses on is time. Writers need time to hang upside down with their ideas before they take flight. 

Of course, the limitation of comparing the nature of revision to metamorphosis is that it likens writing to a cycle. But writing is and must be recursive for our writers to successfully transform their writing. When our writers embrace this, then we can stand back with wonder and appreciation and watch them take flight.

Kristin Jeschke is an Instructional Coach for Waukee High School in Waukee, Iowa (where she spent time prior as an English teacher). She’s standing back, watching her colleagues write in their writer’s notebooks, wondering about the potential in each. What ideas will take flight? Follow her on Twitter @kajeschke. 

How Healthy is Your Practice?

It seems like self-care, wellness, mindfulness, and balance are all the buzz these days. Yet, too often, I see self-care employed as a marketing technique or a rationalization tool: buy this face mask! Do some mindfulness coloring! Treat yo’self to that $6 latte! Schedule a 6-night, 7-day spa retreat in Switzerland! IT’S FOR SELF-CARE!!

Yeah, no.

I admit, I bought into the hype a little bit and splurged at Target a few weeks ago in the “self-care” beauty section. But when I struggled mightily to successfully peel off the peel-off face mask that was supposed to “refresh” me, I didn’t feel refreshed. I just felt like a moron when I looked at my patchy, half-green face in the mirror. Instead of feeling satisfied, I felt, “wow, I can’t even PEEL OFF A FACE MASK.”

Not helpful, y’all.

Instead of having a teaching-life balance that somehow makes me think a peel-off face mask will help me feel less stressed (but instead makes me feel like a Halloween makeup artist), I need to have a teaching-life balance that is rejuvenative all on its own.

As a teacher, it’s a constant struggle not to get to the point in a school day where I don’t feel overwhelmed. When I think about the orientation courses in my inbox, the IEP feedback forms sitting in a folder on my desk, the messy disaster that is my classroom library, the toppling stack of writer’s notebooks students submit for feedback every other Friday…I don’t feel the need for some little moments of self-care. I feel the anxious, grasping need for escape to that spa in Switzerland, except I never really want to return from the spa to my real life.

We cannot let ourselves get to this point.

As teachers, we have to cultivate a practice that is more responsible, more sustainable, more respectful to the fact that we are HUMANS, and that we should feel ABLE to do our jobs, to do the work of teaching because we love it, and not because we’re suffering from some teacher-as-martyr delusions of grandeur and existential suffering.

A tweet about this very feeling from Dulce-Marie Flecha stuck with me–so much so that I still remember it, word for word, nearly five months later:

This sentiment struck me, forcefully, in mid-April: when tests were looming and assemblies were rampant and the science fair kept interrupting my carefully-crafted multigenre lesson schedule. I was so stressed out by the daily practice of teaching middle schoolers, on top of having two kids under the age of three and a life in general, that I really felt I could not do the work of teaching. I knew I had to make a lasting change that was more sustainable than trying to survive on coffee and weekend laundry marathons and naps.

Tami Forman writes in Forbes that self-care is actually kind of boring: it’s boundaries, it’s saying no to things we know we shouldn’t take on, it’s turning off the TV so we can actually get some sleep. It’s the little things, the simple habits that make our lives manageable.

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I’m reading Onward this year with a group of colleagues, which offers guidance for how to know yourself and your limits as an educator, so you can design a sustainable teaching practice more successfully.

And as an English teacher, it’s crafting a curriculum, a classroom, and a culture at school that don’t require me to give feedback on every single paper, to grade every single page a student reads, to be on every committee or lead every after-school activity.

We have to do what we can, the best we can.

If you’re spending too much time stressing out about your inadequacies as a teacher, consider how you might revise your teaching practice to be more sustainable, more balanced, more enjoyable. It’s more than just throwing that stack of papers you meant to grade in the recycling bin: it’s thinking carefully about how you might shift the cognitive load in your classroom toward student self-assessment, conferences, and peer feedback rather than just being all on you. It’s something that’s beneficial for teachers and students alike.

Ask yourself: how healthy is my teaching practice? And let us know in the comments how you’ve made shifts to keep your work and life in balance, so you have time to read all the latest and greatest YA, doodle in your own writer’s notebook, and daydream poetry.

Shana Karnes lives and works in Wisconsin alongside many smart, thoughtful, inspiring English teachers via the Greater Madison Writing Project. She enjoys reading, writing, and poem-ing in any spare time she gets when she’s not with her two baby girls and hardworking husband. Connect with Shana on Twitter at @litreader.

New Learning Territories and a Growth Mindset

I’ve mentioned before that I have two new “preps” to which I’m slowly adjusting. I’ve had a tendency to shoulder forward into new experiences with mixed results.  HulkSometimes enthusiasm and energy carry me through the learning part at the beginning. Other times, I’ve made mistakes caused by my straight-line approach that could have been avoided. Perhaps I’ve trended more towards the Hulk, when a more intentional, Bruce Banner style might have served me better.

Patience, I’ve learned in my old age, is truly a virtue.

Moving into the realm of an advanced class that focuses on rhetoric is a challenge all to itself. Couple that with a move to sophomore English where students have different literacy needs than the freshman I worked with last year, and I’ve gotten myself into a situation that demands open-mindedness, near constant reflection, and growth.

While these classes appear to diverge completely in content, I would argue that they have something important in common: an environment where workshop works.  In one class we learn about building narrative, in the other we explore the rhetorical situation. For me, success lies in the “invitation.” I can’t drag them towards a greater understanding of reading and writing anymore than I can make my daughter move faster when we are headed out the door in a hurry.

Examining the structure of a Rhetorical Precis recently, I took the risk of holding back the “notes” and letting the students tell me what they thought the elements of an effective rhetorical precis might be.  I had MY notes, of course, but the students built the anchor chart that we use. Unsurprisingly, each of the three classes noticed elements that the other classes didn’t, providing me valuable data and helping me understand the learners even better.

As I shared my writing with them, I had to be vulnerable. When they asked me about my writing decisions, I needed to have answers. This held true across both levels.

Our sophomores learned about creating effective characters, and it was their search through the mentor texts that informed their understanding, and those elements found their way into the writing.

We read self-selected books and utilize reader’s/writer’s notebooks in all my classes. They may diverge in content, but the importance in those connections remains paramount.

Conferring with readers and writers dominates the time before and after mini-lessons.  The effectiveness of one-on-one instruction doesn’t change because one student might read or write better than another.

One size does not fit all, and I know that teachers deserve autonomy.  The autonomy afforded me empowers our workshop to work in two totally different environments with totally different sets of students.  Their needs, however, are the same. They need to move forward in their literacy; be better tomorrow than they were today. The skills are different, but that’s where my work comes in.

This journey can not be survived alone.

I’ve learned, in a few short weeks, that the only path to success this year runs through a few very specific places: the office of our instructional coach, the room of my department head (from whom I’m learning how to teach rhetoric), and the room in which our sophomore team gathers as we plan our units and our lessons. It’s going to take a village to raise this learner.

I remain steadfastly committed to a workshop that centers on readers and writers, and the first five weeks of this school year have only strengthened that resolve.

Many of our readers at 3 Teachers Talk have brilliant ideas, and I hope to learn from our writers and our readers.  If you want to collaborate, email me at mooreliteracy1@gmail.com.


Charles Moore loves watching his son play football for the first time ever.  He loves to read, write, and learn along side readers and writers. Check out his twitter at @ctcoach.  If you headed to ILA, come see us at 11 on Saturday October 12th for our presentation on novels in verse. Our clothing will coordinate… I promise.

Hamilton or Burr?

If I hooked you with the Hamilton reference, YAY! But…there’s about four paragraphs before we get there, so here’s Weird Al performing a Hamilton medley.

We all know how important feedback is. And we all also know how much feedback we’re both getting and giving to students during every interaction: that sigh from the corner of the room, the eye roll at particularly bad puns, the way “That’s interesting” can be both a positive and negative for a student who volunteers in a class discussion, and the slump back into the seat as they try to figure out which one. We’re inundated in feedback, both coming to us and leaving us. Not to mention all the grading and conferencing and the feedback that comes with each of those. 

It’s a lot. 

So, to help make that feedback more focused for me and more reflective for my students, I ask them to complete a weekly feedback every Friday. Essentially, they answer the same three questions every week: what were your positives this week, what would you like more opportunities with, is there anything else I need to know. I particularly like the last question as it creates a place for students to show me a little of themselves as people and academics. 

My favorite response this week:  “In terms of my opinions, I am an Aaron Burr. (Don’t let them know what you’re against or what you’re for). I’d like to be at least a little bit more of a Hamilton, and I foresee your class providing an excellent opportunity for that growth.” 

Besides the Hamilton reference, I love the blunt honesty in this remark; she may already be more of a Hamilton than she knows. We often talk about current events and politics in our AP Lang class; of course, that could be uncomfortable for some for a variety of reasons. AP is at its core an argument class, so students are constantly asked to assume positions and defend them – sometimes with more zest and fervor than others. 

I appreciated the reminder that this practice/habit of argumentation can be scary or intimidating for some students or that they might not want to wade into the difficult or uncomfortable conversations in front of their peers, or right after that chem test, or in a place where their ideas may not stay inside the walls of the classroom or when they’re using the space to figure out what they actually think and why they think that way. So while this particular student might want to work to be a Hamilton – I’m betting I have a lot of Burrs sitting in my classroom. 

So what to do about it? 

I think it might be time to bring in an old favorite: Margaret Wheatley’s Willing to be Disturbed. Ultimately, a student’s comfort level with discussion and argumentation are directly related to classroom culture and that’s on me and my students to create. Maybe we can come to a place where we realize, as Wheatley says, “There is no need for us to be joined at the head. We are joined by our human hearts.” 

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Sarah Morris teaches AP English Language & Composition, AP Seminar,  and Film as Literature in Murfreesboro, Tn. She is currently watching the new Jack Ryan series and realizing it would be so much better if Krasinski and Pierce were just going through the plot of Jack Ryan but as their characters from The Office and The Wire respectively. She tweets at @marahsorris_cms. 

 

Mentor Texts: Lifting Lines and Elevating Self

When working with mentor texts in notebooks, lifting a line–pulling a line or phrase or sentence for its aesthetics and using it as a launching point to generate writing–remains such an important strategy, as Ralph Fletcher notes here. Of course, we want our writers to work with parts of a text that will help them learn to not just write their ideas but to craft.  But I think these lines, these (where appropriate writer-selected) lines, can also elevate the writer somehow. These lines just might move writers in ways where they’re compelled to study themselves just as closely as the craft.  These lines can tug writers into the stratosphere. 

I felt myself lifted as I read Sara K. Ahmed’s Being the Change this summer (This book about how to teach social comprehension offers numerous mentor texts.). One line in particular heightened my summer reflection: “Understand that everyone’s identity is at stake.” Whoa. 

The urgency of this challenged me to think and write and think and write and ultimately create; the best lines to lift should compel writers to create! In this case, my co-coach and I worked to plan professional development for our returning teachers. In Ahmed’s words, we wanted to “make way for the voices, emotions, and experiences of others,” so we centered our time on identity–individual and the staff’s, the students’, the building’s. And then, in our efforts to use story to promote digital literacy, we used America Ferrera’s Ted Talk My Identity Is a Superpower Not an Obstacle. As staff watched, we encouraged them to respond in their notebooks, ultimately suggesting that they choose a line and reflect on how they can carry it into the year with them. 

My hope is that as staff scans their notebooks during our next professional development, they will see this line. They will consider themselves and others, identities at stake. And this line will lift them toward possibility. 

Kristin Jeschke is an English teacher turned Instructional Coach in Waukee, Iowa. After nineteen years as an English teacher, she’s currently re-imagining her identity. But she’s excited for all that’s possible.  Follow her on twitter @kajeschke.

Keeping Students’ Emotional States in Mind as We Recommend Books

I came to respect The Great Gatsby as a work of literature only after rereading it in college, but prior to that time, the feelings I associated with it could best be described as loathing and resentment. I can imagine the gasps as I type this. Gatsby is, after all, a beloved American novel which almost every American student has read, or “read,” by the time they graduate high school. Someone who reads this post will want to tell me all about how it’s his or her favorite book and that maybe I just don’t understand it or realize the literary genius it represents. Some of you will fondly remember the teacher who thoughtfully guided you through the text. I can only assure you that I fully understand it, and I liked my junior English teacher well enough.

So why didn’t I like one of the greatest American novels of all time? It comes down to two reasons, and a lot of us are already doing our best to address the first:

  1. The book was assigned to me to read. I had no choice – at a time in my life when I craved I read it because I was supposed to, but I resented the time it took me away from the books I really wanted to read. This website is a testament to the work that we’re doing to provide students with at least some choice. For more information on how to provide choice in a variety of classroom settings, I encourage you to peruse the wonderful posts on this site as well as the publications of Penny Kittle and Donalyn Miller.
  2. Here’s the part that many of us are still developing: we talk with students and recommend books – often based on what they’ve enjoyed reading previously – and try to match students with their interests. We need to go further with our talks. Had my English III teacher spoken with me enough to understand even a little about my background, she would have known that being the poorest kid in the class and having another eviction notice on my apartment door made me reluctant (“angry” might be a better descriptor here) to spend my time hanging out with the likes of Daisy. I was surrounded by Daisies who worried about what seemed trivial to me. I worried about not eating; they worried about whether or not their nail polish would match their prom dress. I didn’t feel like maturely comparing my situation to the text; I wanted to escape via literature! I didn’t want or need to read a book at that point in time so fixated on money and superficiality. The assigned book caused me psychological distress that I still remember almost thirty years later. If this seems overly dramatic, imagine how texts were typically taught in the 1980s and still are in some classrooms today. We drudged through the book for at least a month, and I listened to conversations about wealth daily. Not cool.

Many of us get to know our students fairly well through book talks, conferences, class discussions, and casual conversations. A growing number of ELA teachers begin the course with writing assignments that shed light on a student’s favorites as well potential

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Mrs. Davenport’s class created picture frames that represent how they view the world.

emotional triggers, such as Mary Davenport’s frame activity, in which students decorate construction-paper “frames” and write brief, introspective pieces around the borders about the experiences that shape how they view the world. Davenport often gleans background information about her students that helps her recommend books to them, as social and emotional factors are every bit as important as reading (or dare I say it: Lexile) levels. Finding safe ways to learn about her students’ lives has allowed her to match readers with books they enjoy, and that is our mission: to expand our knowledge base about our students’ lives, without prying or making them feel vulnerable, so we can get the right books into their hands.

I would love to help teachers who are less experienced with conferring with students, and improve my own craft, so please share your strategies for getting to know your students’ emotional needs (as they relate to reading) in the comments.

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Amber Counts teaches AP English Literature & Composition, PSAT Team, English 4, and Academic Decathlon at Lewisville High School. She believes in the power of choice and promotes thinking at every opportunity. She wants her students to know that language is power – one that she hopes they will be able to wield for Good. Someday she will write her story. Follow Amber @mrscounts.

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