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Category Archives: Writers

The Upside Down of SparkNotes

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

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

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

INFORMATION?!? I recoil.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I read aloud the beginning of Fahrenheit 451°. 

It was a pleasure to burn. 

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

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

 

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Hope is the Thing with Feathers – Teaching in a Time of Overwhelming Tragedy

How does one process news like that of the school shooting in Broward County yesterday? What do we do when the classroom bell rings for us today, but a school just like ours will instead be dealing with the loss, hurt, pain, fear, emptiness, and uncertainty of another mass shooting? What can we say to adolescents whose educational experiences are littered with pox far beyond even the terribly usual trials young people can and must endure?

Painfully, we’ve all had more than enough practice at wrestling with such questions, but attempting to digest the senseless slaughter of innocent school children within the walls of our professional workplaces is never easy. Blessedly, it feels far from normalized. Horrifically, by the sheer number of circumstances we’ve been presented with over the past few years, it does, in fact, become almost routine.

Basically, the haunting normalcy of these events leaves in its wake a sense of utter helplessness, despair, and at times, hopelessness.

As a teacher, as a mother, as a wife, as a daughter, as an educator who teaches next door to her very best friend and works with people she considers family, I am close to lost. The what if of such a scenario playing out at yet another school, let alone my own, is something beyond terrifying. It rips into the realm of disorienting, numbing, paralyzing.

My own daughter starts kindergarten next year. While a completely idealized reflection of my personal experience would only be partially true, I know for certain my teachers and parents did not need to explain to me what I should do, at the tender age of five (or ten, or eighteen), if someone should enter our place of learning, intent on carrying out an act of chaos that would put my life in danger.

That I might not come home from school because of the actions of someone with a gun, was not my reality.

It is now the reality of our students, our colleagues, and our own children.

To say I am disappointed by inaction is an understatement. Pointedly, I’m terrified to imagine the scale of an event it will take for change to occur. I’m disheartened by the unending cycle of condolences, followed by outrage, followed by a seemingly patient and quiet resignation to our circumstances as we wait for the next special report to interrupt our regularly scheduled hand-wringing and begin the cycle all over again.

Our students, sadly,  have little choice but to see these events as a part of their education. While the events at Columbine, an event we could not know and would shutter to imagine as a prelude to so many more school shootings, were a deeply disturbing occurrence in only the last two months of my own high school experience, our students already count this most recent tragedy as one among many.

As educators, we have little choice but to wish fervently, speak passionately, and push daily against such vile intrusion into our schools, all the while preparing solemnly for the possibility that our communities could see just such a tragedy.

So what do we do today?

The normalcy of routine can be reassuring to some. I could go about my way of logical fallacy presentations and book club discussions on modern nonfiction texts today. And most likely we will. But I feel like we all might need something more.

In reading Tricia Ebarvia’s post on Moving Writers this morning, I felt her searching in much the same way I am. Her initial list of possibilities is recognizable to many of us and a place to start:  “hug your kids a little tighter, tell them they’re valued, be a little kinder, read to them, remind them that they’re safe but to look out for one another, urge them to reach out to adults, and so on.”

Her beautiful post goes on to suggest a variety of approaches from classroom discussion, to the analysis of political cartoons, to reflecting on the words of our nation’s leaders in the wake of yesterday’s events.

A few months back, in the days after another mass shooting, this time in a church, Shana reflected on Kylene Beers’ piece “Once Again,” suggesting we really consider the purpose for which we teach in order to best move ourselves and our students forward with purpose and passion. I love Shana’s heart in this piece and her wrestling with the raw emotion of such events by asking teachers to reflect on whether making meaning or making life meaningful should be our goal. 

So with a lot of options, I think today, I am going to write with my students. The thrust of Ebarvia’s post today is the avenue we can take that will most likely feel familiar, as both embedded workshop practice and proven activity to handle stress. I am going to give my students space to write.

A few minutes. An extended session. Whatever the class needs.

The writing can be open response. It can be prompt related if we think our students need it. It can also be response to beautiful words. Poetry saves souls, I am convinced, and Ebarvia must have been thinking along the same lines. Several of the poems Tricia shares are powerful reminders of the depth of the human spirit, how we cope with tragedy, and what it means to be human. Student reflection on these will bring wondering, questions, hope, fear, pain, and maybe unexpected release.

I’ll humbly add the following piece. I think this is what my classes will reflect on today : hope2

We are going to use our writer’s notebooks to pour out some emotion and let it linger on the page. Coping and healing can begin in our classrooms. We need not be counselors, but we can do what we’ve always done…provide the safest emotional space possible for all of us to deal with the increasing lack of safety that surrounds us.

As educators, we share common challenges, but thankfully we also share a common purpose. Together we can move our students and thereby the world to a better place. I’m glad to be wrestling with all that it means to be human with you.

Be well today, friends.


Lisa Dennis teaches English and leads a department of incredible English educators at Franklin High School near Milwaukee. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum. 

Status of Class– How to Formatively Assess where your Students Are

You could hear the cliched pin drop in the room, even though we’re only a few weeks into independent reading. It’s one of my favorite moments in the classroom–heads tilted towards their choice books, eyes moving side to side across those beautiful words and sentences. It’s a moment that ultimately lasts until mid-October, where the shine begins to dull a little and students are either completing books faster than I can get them into their hands, or dropping books faster than I can keep up with (“What do you mean you want to drop Everything, Everything? You just started it yesterday!”).

In a perfect world–not always my 10th grade classroom at my regional vocation urban high school–students would be moving excitedly from one book to another, we would have brilliant classroom discussions about the various books we are reading, and there wouldn’t have to be accountability because everyone is completely engaged and on their way to becoming the bookworms they’re meant to be.

In reality, I’m putting out small fires here and there as the first term ends, trying to keep my head above water. Between helping a handful of students find a book because they either finished their first pick or were dropping their first pick and craving the need to circulate to eliminate any temptation of students, I needed something to hold students accountable (for my boss) but in addition, a way to formatively see where each student was in our inaugural journey into IR.

As I’m sure we all can agree, reading logs don’t work.  Shana summed up what I’ve been thinking for some time now.  All I can think of are my poor (now junior) students who had to endure a reading log entry every time they read with a sentence summary of what they read and a sentence reflection along with their starting page and ending page for those 10 minutes.

Every. Single. Time.

No wonder only my most studious students did it (fearing a bad grade, not because they wanted to or saw value in it). Not only that, but I dreaded grading them (or opening each one in Google Classroom and seeing them not filled out). A sea of zeros flooded my grade book.

Enter what I’ve been using: Status of the Class.

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Status of the Class is truly inspired by both my reading of Nancie Atwell’s amazing book In The Middle (which all teachers should read at some point in their career) and Donalyn Miller’s presentation at Write Now 2016 in North Conway, NH. Both ladies have taught me the beauty of organization in the workshop classroom and the value of short check-ins among the longer conferences I make with my students as they work on their independent reading.

It’s my way to formatively assess where my students are and the progress they are making in their independent reading book. As students are reading the first 10 minutes of class, I circulate the room and peer over shoulders so I can write down what page they are on (and for some students, the title of their new book). While not a traditional conference, this works well on the days (and sometimes it feels like the many days) where I need to do a quick check-in so I can help the handful of students who are either dropping books or finished their book and don’t know where to go next.

I also like using status of the class to keep a running tab of how things are progressing to use when I email parents or during progress meeting for my special education students. It’s also a great resource to use when I conference with Juana, who has dropped three books this month alone–the data doesn’t lie. It also helps me to see that although Paul has finished three graphic novels in a row over the last 6 weeks, it might be time to challenge him outside the genre and try something new.

An added benefit to the status of the class is the competitive nature it brings out in my students. One of my EL students, Marco, asks me for his progress every time I do a Status of the Class. The look of pride on his face when does the math and sees that his reading rate is improving, little by little, is priceless. For Stephanie, she finds the check-in reassuring. On more than one occasion, after a Status of the Class, Stephanie whispers to me, “Miss, I read more pages this week than I did last week.” Stephanie is rereading Room, because last year when I had her as a 9th grader, she fake read it and only made it halfway. This year, she can’t put it down.

I still haven’t figured out a way to make it more student-led in my short 43 minute classes. When we are in the middle of an Independent Reading unit this spring, after our Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System test is over and the constant test prep pressure is off, I’m thinking of making the Status of the Class a digital resource, asking students to input via Google Form and holding students more accountable to tracking their titles and progress. By doing so, more students like Paul, Marco, and Stephanie can actively engage in their progress and see how far they truly come this year.

How do you track and hold students accountable in their reading progress? What advice or tips could you offer to teachers with shorter class periods?

 

 

So You Don’t Think Workshop Works? 5 Reasons You are Wrong

It doesn’t take much to fire me up.

Last month, I sat listening to Pernille Ripp speak at the TCTELA Conference in Galveston, TX. I’d just spent an hour walking along the beach and thinking about the presentation I would give in an hour. I’d subtitled it “Reimagining Literacy Through Secondary Readers-Writers Workshop.”

Pernille spoke as if our minds were fused. Her passion was my passion. Her beliefs were my beliefs. I haven’t read her books, but I quickly put them in my online cart.

She said some things I needed to remember to say, so I opened up my laptop and fell into an argument. A colleague had sent an email with a link to a neighboring high school’s online news article about my district’s new ELA curriculum, a curriculum that invites choice and challenge and allows teachers the freedom to plan instruction based on the individual needs of her students. It aligns with our state standards, which align with College and Career Readiness Standards. It does not require any specific texts be taught, but it does offer suggestions. Therein lies the rub.

While the student writers wrote a fine piece for high school journalists, they highlighted some erroneous conclusions about choice reading and the instructional rigor that it offers. They also seemed to side with those uninformed to the research and practical application of the workshop method of instruction. Those who just don’t get it.

I had a bit more moxie when I presented that day.

If you’ve heard me speak, or read this blog for any length of time, you know I’ve been on this journey a long while. Workshop instruction is not easy. And giving up control is only a slice of the hard part. But with talking, training, continual reading of research-based practices, and reflexive moves as a teacher, it works. It works to help students identify as readers and writers, and it works to prepare them for the work of college and the careers that will come after it.

In my presentation, I shared the why of workshop and needed more time to share the how. Later, it struck me:  The how can only happen when we fully understand the why, and the why only becomes clear when we are open to understanding it.

And there are probably a lot of teachers who are working hard to make choice work who need a lot more support and training to make it as successful as they know it can be.

A few days later, my colleague forwarded me her rebuttal to the students’ news article and asked for my feedback. I did not have anything to add to her remarks. They spoke to the need of fidelity to a choice model, specifically to the advantages of independent reading, and the importance of teachers being active celebrators of books and talking to students about their reading. But I did have a few thoughts related to a lot of other things regarding the subtext of the initial attack on our new curriculum. (Of course, I did.)

On SSR and Independent Reading. There is a difference, although the two are often misused synonymously. Both prove beneficial to students readers. SSR is usually choice without parameters and little accountability, except for celebrating books and teachers conferring with students about their reading lives in an attempt to get and keep them reading. Independent reading is a much more structured approach to choice. 

With independent reading, we teach using our books to study the strategies for becoming better readers and writers. We might suggest parameters like reading certain genres or books with specific themes. We might have students go into their books and find examples of characterization, how the writers move the plot forward, descriptions of setting, etc. — basically, we teach in mini-lesson format all the skills we might otherwise teach with whole class novels. Few teachers I know new to the idea of choice know this difference between SSR and the more complex approach to choice with Independent Reading. In my AP Language class, I do a combination of both.

On Research. The research is immense on the importance of experiential reading. I am sure you are familiar with Louise Rosenblatt’s work on Transactional Theory. Many other edu-researchers today build upon it, most recently Jeffrey Wilhelm, Kylene Beers, Bob Probst, and Penny Kittle. Today few high school English teachers I meet outside this blog circle understand this research. They teach the way they were taught, and many came to be English teachers because they love literature, not because they believe their job is to teach students to become readers and writers.

If we were to ask:  What is the theory that guides your practice? They would not be able to answer. I always refer to the research of Richard Allington and often quote an article he wrote with Rachel Gabrielle, Every Child Every Day. All students need the six things they mention, yet high school teachers often discount this research claiming:  That’s only for elementary. Of course, this is not true.

On Reading. Most teachers know the majority of their students do not read the required texts, and to hold students “accountable,” they give quizzes with questions “that cannot be found in Sparknotes or other online sources.” I have heard so many teachers say this! Instead of working to include students in the decisions important to their reading lives, they use punitive methods, disguised as grades, to turn students away from reading and into cheaters. Sure, there are some students who will read assigned texts, but if teachers would be vulnerable enough to actually ask their kids, so many would tell the truth:  they do not read. So not only do teachers enable dishonest behavior, they do not move their students as readers.

The only way to become a reader is to read. The same holds true for writing. If teachers give students choice in topic, form, etc, students are less likely to plagiarize, especially if the writing is done in the classroom with the teacher present to confer and coach students through the writing process. Plus, most teachers who rely on the whole class novel do not have time for authentic writing instruction. It just takes too long to work through whole class novels. Students write analytical essays over books again and again — the form of writing they are least likely to write in their careers and even in college, unless they become English majors (and if you didn’t know, the numbers of English majors continues to fall.)

On Engagement. Research shows that when students are engaged, they are more apt to learn. Many teachers confuse engagement and compliance. Many young people, especially those in schools and in classes where grades are the focus, are compliant. And we’ve trained students to reach for the grade instead of diving deep into the learning. In my experience with these students, they want to know how to make the A. They take few risks, and they get frustrated when I intentionally keep things ambiguous so they have to struggle with the learning. I get quite a lot of push back, which of course, ties in to growth mindset, another area rich in research. The systems we’ve created with grades and sit-and-get education have stagnated curiosity and the drive to learn for the sake of learning.

On Rigor. As Penny Kittle said, “It’s not rigor if they are not reading it.” Somehow, and I am guilty of this in the past, we think that complex texts equate to rigorous instruction. This simply is not true. The rigor is in what we have students DO with the text. How they think. How they interact. How they work through the process of learning.

I recently read Jeff Wilhelm’s article on interpretive complexity. He states:  “Interpretive complexity, or what the reader is doing with the text, should be the focus of our teaching. We don’t teach texts! We teach specific human beings—our students—to engage with texts.” For any teacher who wants the control of only “teaching” required texts, I have to ask:  So how are you teaching the “specific human beings” sitting in your class? Doesn’t specific imply some level of individuality?

Most teachers I know claim to hate the system of standardized tests, yet when we make all the choices in our classrooms, we are standardizing our instruction. This reeks of hypocrisy. On the contrary, instructional methods that involve choice invite students to own their learning. We talk so much of student-centered learning, yet when we hold hard to the harness, few students ever get the chance to take the reigns. If we are confident in our content, and we identify as readers and writers ourselves, we are more able to step out of the way and facilitate deeper learning that meets the needs of each individual.

I could probably go on, but those are the main reasons my ire is up at the moment. In all honesty, I know most teachers work hard, but some just do not want to change. They want to keep doing the same thing they’ve always done because it is safer. If they stick with the classics, parents probably won’t push back, and students will go with the flow —especially if they have never experienced anything other than the way English has always been taught.

If we want to reach and teach each child sitting in our classrooms each day, isn’t it about time we take a hard look at what methods we use and ask some serious questions? Are we limiting our students’ growth or fostering more of it? Do we hang on to control or hand it to our students? Does the research support or counter our methods?

Our students deserve the best education we can give them. Why put limitations on their learning?

Amy Rasmussen teaches English IV and AP English Language and Composition at a large senior high school in North TX. She is grateful to the North Star of TX Writing Project and Penny Kittle for showing her the benefits of choice and challenge; otherwise, she would probably still be dragging students through Dickens’ novels and pulling her hair our over plagiarized essays. Thank God she learned a better way. Follow Amy @amyrass and @3TeachersTalk. And please join the Three Teachers Talk Facebook page if you haven’t already. Join the conversation and share the good news of your workshop classroom.

Research in These Times

We all love those days when everything goes perfectly.  I’m not talking about getting your grading done and entered, sending all the emails you meant to send, or making sure you’ve made the requisite parent contacts.

I’m talking about days where your lesson planning paid off and the students engaged in a meaningful learning opportunity. Think about those days where the kids work bell to bell and it feels like all you did was confer with as many writers as possible (Amy wrote about the importance of conferences here). I’m slowing building toward a place where this happens more and more and it’s both exciting and rewarding.

Teacher Book Talk:

Maja Wilson’s book,  Reimagining Writing Assessment: From Scales to Stories, is introducing me the ideas of John Dewey, someone who’s thinking I need to know more about. Its also a well-written book with some amazing insight.

When talking about Dewey’s phrase, “growth in the right direction,” Maja suggests, “I have to be transparent about my primary aim: the healthy and sustainable growth of young writers within an inclusive and equal democracy.”

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….Um, wow.

 

Growing young writers….within an inclusive and equal…democracy.

 Lesson Talk:

Our English IV classes are investigating research through several modes this year.  We’ve read, talked about, and written: Letters to the Editor, Op Eds, Infographics, and now we are looking at TED Talks.

I wanted this exploration to be as pure to the workshop pedagogy as possible.  Instead of giving them an anchor chart or watching a TED Talk as a whole class, I asked them what they already knew about the medium and invited them to create a list of traits they looked for when consuming media.  Each class period was slightly different in what appealed to them and what they wanted to see in a TED Talk. Of course I guided them through this process of discovery, but one way I formatively assess them is by noticing what they already know and planning my lessons around filling in the blanks or extending their experience.

We laid the ground work of noticing by accessing our schema and I set them loose to seek out TED talks that appealed to their thinking.  The students engaged themselves in media that appealed to them.  They wrote about what they saw in their self-selected TED Talks that engaged the media as learners. I gave up control and gave them choice.

Of course, our forward looking thoughts aren’t just towards making us more savvy consumers of digital media.  Our thoughts should guide us toward being savvy producers of media as well.

 Growing young writers….within an inclusive and equal…democracy.

By late February, the seniors at my campus will produce a research project.  The fun part is that they will have choice in how they publish it.

I think the choices that we made as teachers are facilitating the, “sustainable growth of young writers within an inclusive and equal democracy.”  I’m proud of this work.  I’m also thankful for the teachers I have the pleasure of working with every single day.

How have others set free their students to explore their place in our democracy? What are other modes within which we can explore the research process?  Please share your successes; they are powerful.

Charles Moore has now totally lost control over his book spending habits. So much so that the cashiers at Barnes and Nobles don’t even ask for his teacher discount card and Amazon chose his house for their newest headquarters.  He loves the sound of a classroom full of readers and he likes to imagine word counts ticking higher as they hover above the students’ heads during reading time. His sometimes humourous musing can be viewed on his twitter page @ctcoach and his embarrasing short form poetry and, eventually, book recommendations are on instagram @mooreliteracy1

Creating Conversations That Move

In my work as a literacy coach, I have the privilege of working with teachers as they implement elements of reading and writing workshop into their classrooms. Right now I’m working with a team of 7th grade ELA teachers in book clubs centered around social issues.

You know that feeling you have when you unleash your students into the world of small group discussions? You’re excited because you know they’re smart and they’ve actually been reading the book. But you’re nervous because, well, they’re kids. And you’re not in control and that’s always a little nerve-wracking.

That’s how we felt on the first day of book club discussions last week. Students were engaged in their book club texts, reading with vigor. As a class, they had discussed the ways how books can be windows, mirrors and doors. Students had learned about point of view and perspective. On this day, they were to talk in small groups about what they’d read so far.

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We provided students with a stack of questions from the Table Topics cards I learned about in a tweet from Tricia Ebarvia and we stepped back to watch the magic. Soon we noticed that, well, there wasn’t a lot of magic.

To be fair, it was magic-ish. Students were eager to share. With some nudging from teachers, students used the vocabulary from the perspective mini-lesson. But these normally talkative kids just didn’t have much to say beyond “I really like this” or “It’s interesting.” Before we resorted back to teacher-driven “discussion,” we took a deep breath and went back to our roots, to the core of what we know works in a workshop classroom: Choice. Time. Explicit teaching.

We were on the right track: Students made choices about the texts they were reading. We had carved out time for their reading to “float on a sea of talk” (Britton, 1983) . But, we’d forgotten about the teaching! Sometimes we teachers get so busy setting up the conditions for success, we forget the key to it.Screen Shot 2018-02-07 at 11.31.07 AM

Armed with this realization, we developed a plan. We needed to explicitly teach students the art of conversation. So this week when we get back (after snow days and sick days!), we’re going to try a new approach.

Models: We know that when students are learning something new, they need a model to begin to envision how success might look. We are going to watch a video of 4th grade students having a book club discussion. Together we’ll create an anchor chart in our reading notebooks titled What We Notice About Good Book Club Discussions. I know, though, that having this list of traits isn’t going to be enough for the thinking to transfer to action.

Naming the Moves: We know from Katie Wood Ray that naming things gives them power and makes the moves accessible. So as students think about the kinds of moves they notice the students from the video making, we will go back and name them. Inspired by the moves Joseph Harris outlines in his book Rewriting: How to Do Things With Text, we decided we want students to be able to:

  • Agree & Explain
  • Connect & Explain
  • Counter & Explain
  • Ask Clarifying Questions

The first three are moves we’d like to introduce in the next writing unit when we focus on using evidence in their own writing (modeled after the super smart work happening in the National Writing Project C3 Writers Program). We decided to bring these moves into the discussions as a way to front-load. As students discuss what they notice, we’ll be intentional about using this language to name those noticings. 

Nurturing: We know that as students first try out these moves, they’ll need support. We don’t want to develop an over-reliance on thinking stems, but we want to help bridge theory into action. We will invite students to paste the sentence stems handout into their Writer’s Notebooks and to keep it handy as they talk. We are reminded that when you first learn something, it’s okay to feel a little clumsy, but the only way to get better is to keep practicing.

I’m excited to spend time talking with students tomorrow, to dig into texts, and to teach them how to uncover their thinking.

Angela Faulhaber works as a literacy coach in the Cincinnati, OH, area. She loves connecting with other educators, including on Twitter @angelafaulhaber. Her perfect day includes snuggling with her three kids, talking about school with her math teacher husband, and eating nachos with her girlfriends. 

 

 

Finding Teaching Inspiration in the Dark of Winter

I love to spend big chunks of my summer planning ways to revise and improve my practice.  The season is always so full of hope, with opportunities to reframe my thinking and help my students be more successful.

But when the school year actually begins, it can be overwhelming to attempt anything from a major overhaul of your teaching to a few key shifts in practice.  Every year, I read books, take classes, and obsessively jot ideas that never see the light of day when I’m faced with the reality of a fall full of fresh faces, administrative initiatives, and new courses to teach.

And now, in the dead of winter, I’m exhausted. It feels like I have no ideas. I’m looking for inspiration in my teaching, my reading, and my writing–inspiration I never seem to be able to come up with on my own. So I’m going back into my notebook and re-reading my summer entries, where I was full of ideas and energy.

This summer, I worked with a group of amazing teachers in Pipestem, WV during a National Writing Project summer institute.  As we read and wrote and thought and planned about argument writing, I jotted down two things in my notebook I could do that would withstand the crush of the reality of our profession and inspire me all year long.

Embrace the Wobble

Ounnamed_origne of our central texts for the institute was Pose, Wobble, Flow by Antero Garcia and Cindy O’Donnell-Allen.  This text makes lots of wonderful arguments for teachers to inhabit “poses” as more thoughtful, authentic practitioners through the metaphor of yoga.  The idea is that when we try new things as teachers, we are trying to get into a pose.  We inevitably wobble as we try to master this new stance, but eventually attain the flow characterized by doing this pose without thinking.

GODA (as one of our teachers refers to Garcia and O’Donnell-Allen)’s key argument is that the wobble part of this process is not only a necessary part of becoming a better teacher, but a desirable one–we must live in the gray area, a zone of proximal development, disequilibrium, or whatever else we might call it.  “The P/W/F model is not about an endpoint,” GODA vehemently asserts; “it is a framework to help acknowledge how one’s practice changes over time and requires constant adaptation” (4).  It’s only by being uncomfortable, by trying new things day or week or year in and out, that we can improve as teachers.

What this looked like in terms of our theme of teaching argument writing was revising the way we think about the writing process to start from an inquiry-based place of research, then claim development, then argument articulation.  This new mindset required all of us to “wobble” as we tried to conceive of it, and we wobbled in even our understandings of its many moving parts–what revision is, or what an argument can look like, or how we can use argument as a genre for developing our opinionated writing voices.  As we were flooded with unconventional ideas, mentor texts, thought processes, and assessment measures, we all wobbled with the confidence we’d eventually reach flow.

This semester, as I wrestle with finding energy and inspiration in the wake of having two small children, the new pose I’m trying out is going gradeless. It’s reshaping the way my students and I dialogue about their work, but it’s still an uphill battle to wrestle them away from the temptation to wonder what their grade is…or my own inclination to compulsively give my opinion on their work in the form of a letter or number. I’m definitely in the midst of the wobble, but I’m hopeful that by the end of the semester, I’ll get closer and closer to the state of flow.

But whenever things do start to (finally) go smoothly, I’ll need to yank myself out of my newly-found comfort zone and get into a new pose, embracing the wobble of new learning once more.

This constant revision of our teaching is a simple way we can always strive to be better teachers–just embrace the wobble of continuous improvement.

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Become a Writer

Garcia and O’Donnell-Allen strongly advocate for the many student-centered benefits of writing beside our learners, but there are so many benefits beyond the classroom that become possible when we simply write.

Outside the classroom, GODA suggest that teachers might become more engaged in improvement by:

  • Sharing articles with colleagues
  • Commenting on education blogs
  • Participating in Twitter chats about educational issues
  • Joining organizations like the National Council of Teachers of English
  • Participating in local workshops

Taking one or more of these eminently doable steps can help teachers “enact agency and make an impact on the profession” (27).  These simple activities will not only expose you to ideas to keep you in the “wobble,” but they’ll let you meet and engage with like-minded colleagues as interested in improvement as you.

Within your classroom, becoming a writer is equally valuable.  If you read nothing else of Pose Wobble Flow, I encourage you to read the chapter on “Embracing Your Inner Writer:  What It Means to Teach as a Writer.”  These pages are chock full of suggestions for not only reasons to write, but ways to do it.  From a survey designed to help you find your identity as a writer, to practical methods for joining writing communities on Twitter, Facebook, and even NaNoWriMo, to the ways the act of writing beside our students changes our teaching, this chapter is awesome:

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Because “the changes that come about within our classrooms and with our students start with ourselves,” (80), writing is a necessary first step to becoming a better teacher.  It is a fight, with two kids under two plus a job and a household to keep up with, to find time to write, to read, to engage. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve missed a Twitter chat or skipped notebook time to tend to a crying child, fold some laundry, or cook a meal. But I find that whenever I can eke out 10 minutes of writing time, meaningful Twitter conversation, or professional reading, I feel better. I feel inspired.

I hope, like me, you’ll make an effort to keep a writer’s notebook, blog regularly, and write beside your students every time you see them in class.  Beginning to inhabit the pose of a writer–although I experience wobble within this identity almost daily–is doubtless the most helpful thing I’ve done to improve my practice as a teacher.

As you find yourself wondering, in the dark of winter, how to get excited and inspired once again, try these two things: wobble and write. Here’s hoping for a speedy end to winter and all the joy and optimism the spring always brings…as we work to become better teachers every day.

Shana Karnes teaches in the College of Education at West Virginia University, writes in her notebook whenever she can squeeze in the time, mothers two daughters under the age of two, and reads voraciously at the oddest moments–at the gym, during middle-of-the-night feedings, and at stoplights. Find Shana on Twitter at @litreader, or read more of her writing at the WVCTE Best Practices Blog, where a version of this post originally appeared.

 

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