Category Archives: Writers

Dream Poetry

I don’t know about you, but I have struggled to write since Covid-19 hit. While my lack of productive writing has been noticeable, the presence of vivid dreams has been increasingly notable. Sometimes, we can recall dreams in great detail and convey them like stories. More often, we remember fragments, images, feelings. Thus, dream recollection lends itself to poetry. 

The idea of keeping a dream journal is nothing new; I have even tried to remember to do this before. However, the pressure of writing about a dream in a linear, prose style proved difficult and even cumbersome. Thus, I have started recording my dreams as poems. There is no pressure to make sense. I am free to incorporate snapshots. I don’t need to provide context. 

Always the lesson-planner, I began to think about how I could adapt this for students. While I won’t require my students to keep a dream journal, it could be an interesting activity to explore poetry structure, imagery, and so many other topics based on the course. Ultimately, I decided on a few basic goals for introducing this to students:

  • Modeling is key, so I will introduce this with a mentor text that I’ve written and that is appropriate for the class. I will talk through how I translated the memories/images/feelings into words. Even better, I will recall a dream and craft the poem in front of the class!
  • I will urge the students to simply write, reminding them that they do not need to craft in full sentences, add punctuation, etc. unless it feels right.
  • When they finish, I will ask that they look back over their writing and see if they can substitute any more specific words, if they want to add or remove line breaks, and think about how they have arranged the words on the lines. I show them my revisions and edits in my writer’s notebook.
  • Once students have their final drafts, I will ask them to reflect on why they made the choices they did. Why, for instance, did they add breaks between stanzas (or not). Did they add punctuation or not, and why? In this way, we will talk about the writing craft, and they will more readily make connections between other writers and their craft choices.

I hope some of you try this out – please let me know in the comments. I am filling up my notebooks with poetry once again, and it feels wonderful!  After writing the poems in my journal, I put them in Canva so I could add graphics. Here are a couple of poems from recent dreams:

Dream 1/30/22-a by Amber Counts
Dream 2/1/22 by Amber Counts

Amber Counts is an AP Literature teacher, graduate English student, and lover of the humanities. She’s enjoying life as a grandmother while trying to stay young at heart. She wants every student to know the power of their voice.

Fostering Structured Discussions: Coffee Talk

Students in classroom Multi-ethnic group of students in classroom, working together on a project. middle school discussion stock pictures, royalty-free photos & images

This school year has been one of simplification for me. I’ve really been trying to embrace doing more with less. Can I reuse this mentor text? Are there ways to better scaffold this concept? I’m constantly having to evaluate my lesson plans. Trying to find the tenuous balance between student engagement, skills practice, and bridging gaps has been difficult.

You know what? That’s ok. I tell my students all the time that growth happens when we are pushed outside of our comfort zones. So this year, my teaching practice is growing and changing. Reading this post definitely encouraged me to be reflective about my goals and practice.   

Here was my issue: 

I’d give my students a speaking prompt in response to something we’d read, journaled, etc. Sure, they’d chat about non-academic topics with their friends, but when it came to something related to class- crickets. My simple side-bar turn and talk activities were falling flat. 

Logically, I know this often comes down to students lacking confidence in their own ability to discuss the topic well. But I also know how necessary it is for them to break through that.

As teachers of writing, we know that if our kids can talk about something, they can write about it. I repeat this ad nauseam for my students. Making space in our classrooms for our students to discuss ideas is imperative to their growth as writers, but what do we do when they won’t?

Here was my solution:

This, my friends, is where we employ structured speaking opportunities in our lessons. In true teacher fashion, I went digging through archives of activities to see what popped out. I like to use an activity called Coffee Talk. Why I forget to use it from year to year? I’ll never know. It was something used in a professional development I attended ages ago and genuinely enjoyed because I, too, am often one to avoid jumping into a conversation if I feel a little unsure about how my ideas might be received. 

In the way a Socratic Seminar is like an essay, Coffee Talk is kind of like pre-writing. It embraces unfiltered, messy thoughts and protects the speaking time of every person in the group while still providing structure to help move the conversation along. 

Coffee Talk is a discussion in three rounds, designed for small groups of 3-6, and is easily adjusted to your purpose. It goes like this:

Round 1: 90 seconds per person is set aside to discuss the topic, text, etc. Whatever is in their brain about it is fine. Stream of consciousness-type thoughts abound. They may repeat something they heard- totally fine. This is NOT an open discussion.

Round 2: 60 seconds per person is set aside to continue their previous train of thought, expand on something they heard, and so on. This is STILL not an open discussion. Students should be more clearly developing their ideas as this round progresses.

Round 3: 5 minutes is set aside for the entire group to discuss. This is the moment they’ve all been waiting for- NOW it’s an open discussion. Encourage your kids to ask questions, respond to one another, and dig deeper into the topic. 

The fully detailed instructions I use with students can be found here

The beauty of this protocol is that every person is guaranteed a chance to speak, it’s easy to customize, and the entire class participates. 

What are some of your favorite ways to foster structured discussions in your classroom?

Samantha is a wife, mom to three tiny humans, high school English teacher, perpetual student, Texas transplant, and lover of beautiful stories. She spends her days seeking levity in the chaos, sharing her passion for writing and storytelling with students, and searching for her constantly misplaced cup of reheated coffee. You can follow Samantha on Twitter @SimplySivils and on her blog http://simplySivils.wordpress.com/.

Taking stock at the midway point

As we launch into the second semester I imagine everyone is facing a different scenario when it comes to returning to the classroom or establishing what’s “normal” again. Regardless of the tumult, it’s a pretty natural time to pause and look backward, to take stock of where we’ve been and to look ahead at where we’ll go next in the classroom. 

I wanted to think about three ways of looking back and offer a couple of tools and resources that I’ve found helpful with my junior English classes.

3 ways to reflect

Below is just an attempt to break down some different ways we tend to ask students to think about their work and their learning journey. Clarifying this helps me to fine-tune the reflection questions or task. I think each has its place, but lately I’ve really been thinking about how to add more space for self-discovery to units. Without the self-discovery component, I find that my students can lack direction when given choice or feel more disconnected from a unit and its focus. I find that having some time for this at the beginning of units is really important– a chance to bring their passions and curiosities into focus.

Hattie link; Zmuda and Kallick link

A couple of reflection resources

These are a few quick things I’ve tried or found useful at junctures like this:

  • BuzzFeed quiz generator:  BuzzFeed has their own quiz generator, but I like the free version of Opinion Stage. This is a quiz I gave my students in December about their “reading diet” that tried to help them think about their tendencies over the course of the semester. Then I simply asked them to reflect on the quiz results and to think about next steps. It generates some interesting aggregate pictures for me, too. Below is the composite response to the question, “Which best describes your reading volume?”
  • “Burning the Old Year”, a poem by Naomi Shihab Nye: I love using this poem in January because it asks us to look backward and think about three things from the previous year: the things that are “flammable” (disposable, temporary), the things that are “stone” (permanent, lasting), and “the things that I didn’t do” (the unfinished). These can be framed as academic or as personal questions. We use it to launch into some brainstorming for personal narratives. The poem also asks us to think forward, to consider how we will start again in a new year and fill our days with what will last. So we set a few goals for 2022, some academic, some personal. 
  • Something/Nothing passage from Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer (108-111): This is a powerful passage that can stand on its own, but it’s the narrator’s grandfather writing to his son, the narrator’s father. He describes how he and his wife tried to set up rules and live by them, including taping off sections of their apartment and labeling them as “something” or “nothing” spaces. It’s a wonderful metaphor made visual and the students usually find it interesting. But it lets us ask the question, what is “something” or “nothing” for you? We can apply it backwards to what we did in the previous unit/semester or use it to think about writing territories. This passage leads to other good conversations about communication and the power of language, too. 

Some other professional resources for self-reflection:

  • Sarah Zerwin’s end of semester letters: You can read about Sarah Krajewski’s experience with end of semester reflection letters here. Chapter 7 of Point-less describes this process as well.
  • Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle from 180 Days: p.126  has their end of year reading/writing reflection, which asks students to take stock and includes the wonderful question: “Which piece would you like to burn?”
  • Maja Wilson from Reimagining Writing Assessment: She has several wonderful pages that focus on self-reflection, specifically p.75-6 and p.137. What I like is the direction of her questions, which she insists should focus on the student’s “decision-making and intent”, or why they did what they did in a writing piece. Here are a few more of her questions:

I don’t think there’s a wrong way to reflect other than omitting the step because of the “fierce urgency of now.” One of my goals this year is to carve out more time for self-discovery and to allow students space to think more about who they are in the midst of the chaotic world they find themselves in right now. It’s a January aspiration.

Nathan Coates teaches junior English at Mason High School, a large suburban district near Cincinnati, Ohio. He’s still celebrating the unlikely success of the Cincinnati Bengals, Joe Burrow, and Jamar Chase.

Kids These Days Are Amazing

I know this title is going to cause some teacher eye rolls because it is rough in education right now. Some of us are using every classroom management tool we can think of and still struggling with refusals to work or listen. I get it- I am there, too.

However, despite this year being even more difficult than last due to social-emotional needs we weren’t expecting, I still think kids these days are amazing. I don’t think I could show up to work everyday if I let this belief go.

I like to use this countercultural phrase because we often hear “kids these days don’t want to learn” or “kids these days don’t know how to make choices for themselves” or “kids these days just don’t care.” I wholeheartedly believe this is not true. Kids, like all human-beings, have an innate need to learn and make sense of the world. Right now, a global pandemic, a year of less connection, continued uncertainty, etc. has caused learning to end up on the backburner of needs. Am I saying this means teachers should just suck it up and deal with the environment of burnout we are experiencing? Absolutely not. We have also been through all of these draining circumstances, too, and we have to give ourselves grace and maybe even a break. The only thing I ask from you is to stop, look around, and see what’s going right. YOU are doing many things right.

I had my own moment of revelation as I sat in bed for days grading our most recent project while I am quarantined for COVID (my case is not bad, and I am doing okay). This quarter, our sophomore English students chose a nonfiction book on any topic they wanted that made them curious and they wanted to know more about. Students chose books like Lone Survivor and Stamped and I Have The Right To. They read about true crime, UFOs, wars, history, racism, assault, poverty, the justice system, psychology and on and on.

My inspiration when creating this project was from those ordinary moments we all experience: we are sitting on the coach watching a movie or reading a book and a question about what we are reading/watching pops in our heads. “Did that historical event actually happen?” “Did those actors break up?” Then, we find ourselves down a rabbit-hole of research from which we emerge half an hour later after reading about how asparagus might cure unwanted hair loss. Though I am making light of this common phenomenon, it demonstrates the yearning to know and understand in our real lives. I wanted to create that phenomenon as authentically as I could for my students while fostering independent reading.

Inquiry Project Details

As students read the nonfiction books they chose, they kept an inquiry log of questions that arose for them as they read their book; they took these questions into our research days to find out more information about a topic in their book. For example, multiple students read about sexual assault and wanted to know statistics about assault in America. At the end of our time reading, questioning, and researching, the students created either a podcast, a TED talk, or a website to present their learning to their peers. This project involved choice, authentic research, authentic product, digital literacy, and authentic publishing. The conversations, products, and learning that came from this project were superb. I had to take a few moments to just stop and bask in the goosebumps-producing joy that is kids being freed to learn what they want to learn.

Of course, there were lots of road bumps (or even total road closures) along the way. We had issues with students picking random books without a lot of consideration as to their interest in it to just get their reading check grade. We had students who didn’t or wouldn’t read. There were lots of absences and catching students up. And we also dealt with a total lack of knowledge in research because of the circumstances of their last two years of school.

For students who picked books they didn’t actually want to read, the remedy was pushing them hard to read in the first two weeks with the option of abandoning their book. Some kids still didn’t read enough within the two weeks to know if they enjoyed their book or not, so those students were stuck with their book and the lesson to choose more carefully next time. For students who had a hard time getting started in their reading (always the toughest, but most important time!), my colleague, Kristal All, created these awesome bookmark trackers so students could practice making checkpoints along the way for themselves. These led to some good conversations about goal-setting, following through, and the mess we make for ourselves when we don’t do the work early on. We also had reading conferences to check in on their progress, understanding, and enjoyment of the book as well as to check in on what kinds of questions students were asking about their books. They kept track of their questions on this document.

Many students started out asking questions that would later be answered in the book or questions about the author’s thoughts/feelings. As we continued in our reading, we steered students toward asking broader questions about the topics that arose in the book that would be better for outside research. We kept reminding them that if the question could be answered by the book, it wasn’t a research question. It took a little while to get them out of a compliance mode and into true curiosity, but the work was worth it for true learning.

Every two weeks, we had a research day. We would start with a mini-lesson such as using the benefits of using the databases, bias in sources, or reliable vs. unreliable sources. The students would then be released on their own to do their research. For my level students in particular, I highly encouraged them to stay on our school databases so they did not have to do the extra work of determining reliability/credibility and so their citations would be made for them. I plan to do some more lessons to open up their research to the whole web next quarter. Our first research day really helped students reframe their thinking about what kinds of questions they should be asking as they read their books.

We used these charts to have conversations about bias in media and when it’s appropriate to use certain sources. For this project, we encouraged them to stick to the center of the bias chart, if researching outside of the databases, since this was supposed to be purely informational.

At the end of the quarter, students chose what mode of media they wanted to present their project in- TED Talk, podcast or Google website. They were given this sheet of instructions, tutorials, and planning documents. The intention was for students to get a major grade for the project and a major grade for presenting. This was our rubric for the product they created. My getting COVID messed up presentations for my classes, but I think it still heightened the level of product I received from the students. For the TED Talk and podcast, students would simply play their media for the class and answer questions at the end. For websites, students would have to present in real-time in front of the class and answer questions. The podcast was a popular choice for students since they didn’t have to be on camera, they got to re-record as many times as needed, and they could potentially read off of their script without anyone knowing. It was also fantastic for my students who are learning English as a second (or third or fourth) language. They got to practice the very important skill of speaking, and I was so impressed with how hard they worked on these.

Student Products

I did this with both my level and my honors ELA II classes. This podcast was produced by a wonderful young lady in my honors class, Brooklyn Spikes (tw: it deals with the topic of sexual assault). She sounded like a podcasting professional, and I think everyone can feel the passion in her speaking. This podcast was created by a student in my level class, Enzo, and my favorite parts are the well-timed comedic pauses and asides.

I wish I could share the amazing websites students have done, but my district has publishing settings where only those inside the district can access the sites. Nevertheless, I will share that many students knocked it out of the part with their website design, flow, engaging details, etc. I have received no TED Talks, and I am still reflecting on why that option wasn’t chosen.

The Joy in it All

I chose to share this project because, at its core, it is a pretty simple idea from which I saw such a powerful effect. It wasn’t easy, as seen in all of our setbacks above, but I think the students were more engaged in their reading and more excited to learn than they have been for a couple of semesters. I know I felt immense joy every time I had a reading conference, and I got to see the light in my students’ eyes as they passionately explained their topic to me. That’s why I say kids these days are amazing. They are very much re-learning how to “do school,” but I think this proves that they are up to the task and that authenticity and choice lead to ultimate engagement. I will also add that this project could not have been as successful without the wide-ranging availability of books for students to choose from (with permission slips from their parents saying they will talk to their children about what they feel is appropriate for them to read). There are many counterarguments to book bans, but above is mine. I hope these resources are helpful to you in some way. Keep hanging in there, teacher. Your work is making a difference.

Rebecca Riggs is in her 5th year of teaching, but her first year at Conroe High School. She just finished reading The Cousins by Karen McManus and really enjoyed another thrilling mystery from the author. She would like to thank COVID for nothing except the little margin it afforded in which she was able to write this blog post. She is starting her Master of Education in curriculum and instruction at UT Tyler in January, but has no plans to leave the classroom soon. She does, however, wonder when she will find time to post on the blog. Her next read will be Somebody’s Daughter by Ashley C. Ford. You can find her on twitter @rebeccalriggs or on instragram @riggsreaders

Leaning into the recent school board book debates

It’s a scary time to be a teacher. States that are zealous to combat Critical Race Theory (CRT) are intruding into the classroom, even offering $500 bounties for proof of teachers pushing “divisive concepts”. Other states have sought to tackle unwanted ideas (like CRT or LGBTQ issues) by examining the reading lists in curriculums and libraries, with one VA school board member advocating for burning unwanted titles while a Kansas school district built a list of 29 books to ban. This, of course, is on top of teaching during a global pandemic with all of the curveballs and landmines it presents to supporting students.

It has made me think twice about what book lists I put in my students’ hands and how they might be perceived by parents, even though my district and community have traditionally been very supportive and inclusive in their approach.

But when Beloved became a swing issue in Virginia’s election for governor, I began to feel a little bit of hope, too, that literature is still relevant, still a disrupting force in a culture adrift in social media sludge. I think the recent school board debates offer some great ways to lean into literature, the power of stories, and the responsive climate the workshop model offers.

An opportunity for research and inquiry

When we begin semester 2, we usually shift from argument to analysis in our approach to writing in English III. As we do that, I’m going to share a Deep Dive opportunity (see the full version here) with my students so they can get a handle on what’s happening in the world. It works like the intro to this piece, trying to give them some context with links to keep learning more about the root issues and perspectives driving the stories.

The Deep Dive is also a model we’ll use to think about how to write about a controversial topic in a neutral way and how to utilize and synthesize hyperlinks to enhance the presentation or sharing of our research. But there are so many other great inquiry questions this event can spark:

  • Why are some school districts building lists of books they don’t want you to read?
  • How does your school district decide which books can or should be read?
  • What is the role of a classroom within a community?

An opportunity to discuss the value of literary analysis and interpretation

At the heart of the school board discussions is how we interpret and arrive at meaning in a text. So it’s fair to ask: are these good interpretations of texts that parents and schools boards are making? What makes an interpretation good? Are some interpretations better than others?

The news hook gives these potentially stale academic questions some context and urgency. It also opens doors to explore some good analysis mentor texts. These are two analysis texts we will spend time with, one I’ve used before and one I intend to use next semester:

These are some of the guiding questions we’ll use during our analysis work of their independent reading:

  • What is the relevance of the books we read to the MHS student experience?  In what ways are the books windows or mirrors into those experiences?
  • Do the books we read reinforce or challenge old stereotypes? Are they meant to be emulated or are they criticisms of what to avoid?
  • Do the books address social issues in a constructive, inclusive way or in more confrontational, divisive ways? Are they too political? Are they literary enough?

An opportunity to make the argument for literature

Some potential argument topics have been alluded to above, but a few more flow from thinking about what literature is:

  • What is literature? Who should get to decide?
  • What books should schools require to be read? Should books be able to be required?
  • Which books would you be willing to fight for? (which leads into some analysis and interpretation moves)
  • Should parents or schools have more say in the learning curriculum?

This leads to some great opportunities for conversations about the power of stories to transform minds and hearts and why storytellers have often been met with resistance by the powers-that-be in other times and in other places. Right now you can also find many mentor texts arguing for or against what each state or school board is doing in response to parental complaints or challenges. 

This satirical take is a fun way to think about argument and Petri is a consistently fun writer to revisit: “Take all the books off the shelf. They’re just too dangerous” by Alexandra Petri (The Washington Post 11/26/21).

To wrap up, the value of the workshop model in facilitating these moves and discussions is central. If I was only teaching one book to all students with the same pacing, it would be much more difficult to maneuver the discussion to respond to current events. When students are at the center of the learning experience in the way that workshop intends, their story and responses drive the learning rather than my agenda. They’re empowered by literature to take on a world that is in scary need of timeless truth.

Nathan Coates teaches junior English at Mason High School, a large suburban district near Cincinnati, Ohio.

Creating space for failure

In the twitterverse I feel like I often hear that the path to growth is through failure. While I always liked the sentiment because it fit with how I tend to learn things in the “real world,” it never quite squared with my experience in the classroom. There really isn’t that much room to fail–a bad grade on a summative assessment wrecks a grade. Especially with the recent trend to not grade formative work. 

This post is just an attempt to reflect on how the ideas of Sarah Zerwin and Maja Wilson, whose books I got to read with a cohort of my department members, helped create space for failure, specifically in our writing work. 

Point-Less: shifting self-reflection into the summative role 

When I read Point-Less by Sarah Zerwin I started to see that shifting what the summative assessment was could open up the room needed to experiment, take risks, and sometimes fail. (Side note: Sarah Krajewski reviewed here in June 2020, and revisited her attempts at implementing Zerwin’s ideas here this spring; I highly recommend checking out her posts for more context.)

Zerwin utilizes grading category weights to emphasize an end of semester self-reflection letter where students make the case for their grade. I haven’t made that full of a shift yet, but I decided to try that within a writing cycle. In the past I would collect three pieces, score and average them. This year I gave feedback on all three, focusing on our 4 writing goals (specificity, complexity, structure, style), but no grade. Then students had a chance to find the best examples of their work toward each goal in a reflection document (or evidence collection). 

This allowed them to share their best work and to do some self-evaluation about where their writing is in relationship to the goal (or standard–Hattie kind of calls this “self-reported grading”).

An evidence collection de-emphasizes the one writing piece that they bombed or the prompt they just couldn’t get into. In my old systems the C or D would harm their average and chance to earn an A. Now, they can reflect on what went poorly and demonstrate their understanding and growth into the next task.

This basically boils down to a shift in what evidence I’m looking for–from mastery of the specific standard (which is often kind of deficit-based) to showing how you are growing in relation to the goal (more asset-based). 

Now, the pressure to make each piece perfect is replaced by noble attempts to experiment with structure or evidence types, whatever the focus might be for the writing challenge. I think they know that they have room to try something and that taking a risk won’t harm their grade. I hope that it’s one more point for the good guys in the lifelong battle against boring writing. 

This is my feeble attempt to show how reflections can add layer of space that encourages risk-taking.

Reimagining Writing Assessment: shifting growth into the grade book 

The other challenge I always faced in finding ways to fail is that a letter grade like a C or D, which might accurately reflect your writing skill, does not always allow for or reflect your growth as a writer. 

In Maja Wilson’s book, Reimagining Writing Assessment, she explores the value of moving beyond standards and mastery to focus on the writing choices that students make. This is hard when you’ve lived with scales and rubrics and the need to accurately sort student essays (norming and scoring). And while that may have value in some settings, if the goal is to help our students grow as writers she makes a good case that a non-standardized approach is needed. 

I tried this in our first writing cycle. Instead of giving students a letter grade (or an AP number, or a Standards-Based descriptor like Sophisticated), I noted in the gradebook that it was complete. Then I added feedback about their work (strengths and goals that surface from the choices they made). 

What this did more than anything was help the students see that I cared about their thinking and their voices. It gave us freedom to talk about their writing outside of the context of a grade.

In the reflection doc, I’m not looking for mastery of each goal. I’m looking for good evidence of growth toward each goal. So an A no longer means that each writer has reached a certain level. An A means that each writer who earns one has demonstrated good evidence of their work toward each goal. There is room for us to discuss the quality of the evidence, but that occurs in my feedback throughout the writing challenges as well.

Takeaways

  • It’s possible to allow the kind of failure that encourages risk-taking and experimentation if I shift the focus of my summative assessments from performance to reflection.
  • It’s possible to create space for opportunities to fail if I shift from using on grades as a way to sort achievement level and move to seeing grades as a way to reflect individual growth.
  • Students are willing to focus on learning instead of gathering points if I reorganize the incentives (grades, points, rules, focus). 
  • When I find ways to take a more asset-based approach (v. deducting points or labeling them with an achievement level) to my students’ writing, it builds their confidence and willingness to grow.

Nathan Coates teaches junior English at Mason High School, a large suburban district near Cincinnati, Ohio. He’s embarking upon teaching his second teenager how to drive, so thoughts and prayers.

Wiki-poems

Inspired by Brian Bilston’s creative poetic structures, such as his Google auto-fill poem, I thought about additional ways to inspire students to construct a form of non-threatening “found” poems. Based on my own quirky practice of researching documentaries and historical films that I view to determine their historical accuracy, and the fact that I often start with Wikipedia as a beginning point of reference (there are great resources cited at the bottom of the pages), I decided to experiment with a “wiki-poem.” Wikipedia pages are already sorted into categories, so if a student takes one line from each section, a poem will naturally progress through a sequence of ideas. This works well for both biographies, historical events, works of art and literature, and other high-interest subjects.

For example, here is a table that shows the organizational chart for Mary Shelley:

Setting parameters that make sense for a specific assignment, you could have students choose words, phrases, or sentences from a certain number of sections to craft their poems. If you’re working on specific literary or rhetorical devices, structure, or other elements of craft, you could require those.

Giving myself the guidelines of writing a poem constructed from at least one phrase from each of the sections from “life and career” through “reputation,” here is a found wiki-poem on Mary Shelley:

Works Cited: “Mary Shelley.” Wikipedia, 4 Sept. 2021. Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Mary_Shelley&oldid=1042316021.

Amber Counts is a frazzled grad student studying English literature while teaching a variety of courses to high school juniors and seniors. Excited to start teaching a 9-week creative writing course today, she spent most of the recent 3-day weekend lesson-planning anywhere inspiration struck. She’s still getting back into the writing groove after a Covid dry spell.

Writing sparks from Bewilderment by Richard Powers

I just finished reading Richard Powers’ new book, Bewilderment, and I was culling through some of the lines that really stood out to me to see if they might be potential writing sparks for my juniors. I found some of them especially relevant for English teachers, so I’m going to share those here with some reflections about why I liked them and a few ideas for how they could turn into prompts or mentor texts. 

Passage 1: “My boy was a pocket universe I could never hope to fathom” (5).

This line really resonated with my parent and teacher heart–I often feel my kids are hard to fathom. Fathom is such a great word. I think it used to be a way to measure depth in water. It’s as though Powers is saying that our kids have these depths and worlds inside them that we may never tap into. And he pairs that with this great metaphor: “pocket universe.” Kids are an entire universe in a small package. The sentence is short but conveys such a sense of wonder and awe. It’s that kind of awe that can be hard to muster in October, when the new school year honeymoon is over and first quarter grades are in and self-destructive patterns of behavior have emerged in certain students and I’ve given the same warning so many times. But it’s true anyway: our kids and our students are pocket universes with rich stories and untold possibilities. It was a worthy reminder for me that helps check the cynicism I know I find myself battling. 

  • Possible prompt: What are some things you could “never hope to fathom?” Build a good list, then zero in on one. Use a metaphor to say what that thing was: ________ was a ___________.

Passage 2: “She held her small frame like an athlete before the starting gun: she was everywhere. She felt like a prediction, a thing on its way here” (49).

I think it’s the simile that draws me–”she felt like a prediction.” I love encountering unexpected comparisons like this. He’s thinking of her physicality and uses a completely abstract noun to convey that. It’s perfect.

  • Possible prompt: Choose a family member or close friend to describe. Think of their posture, their bearing, their energy. Make a comparison of their demeanor to an abstract noun, action noun, or -tion word. The bigger the gap in the comparison the better.

Passage 3: “In the auditorium, I felt the pleasure of competence and the warmth that only comes from sharing ideas. It always baffles me when my colleagues complain about teaching. Teaching is like photosynthesis: making food from air and light. It tilts the prospects for life a little. For me, the best class sessions are right up there with lying in the sun, listening to bluegrass, or swimming in a mountain stream” (66).

“Teaching is like photosynthesis.” This is such a gift of a thought–that our work is like something that takes light (ideas) and creates food (intellectual sustenance). That and the word “tilts.” I know I often leave work for the day a little discouraged by a lesson that went awry or by my perception of resistance or distraction on the students’ part. But Powers reminds us that we’re creating something that might tilt those students’ futures a little. Teaching, like photosynthesis, is subtle and unseen but vital and powerful. I need this reminder.

  • Possible prompt: Choose a scientific process that describes or explains a passion of yours. What is rowing like? What is hiking like? What is playing piano like? Use the colon like Powers does to set up a short reason or extension of the simile.
  • Possible prompt #2: Look at Powers’ last sentence. Choose one of your passions and then tell us what it’s “right up there with” using a list of three items. Aim for the same level of specificity he uses. 

You can hear the way nature permeates the language choices that Powers makes. When he reaches for comparisons, he comes up with pocket universe, prediction, photosynthesis. These passages give a good flavor of the wistful, hopeful tone of the conversations between an astrobiologist and his son who is on the spectrum and battling some complicated mental health issues. Maybe their conversations will help tilt our writers into deeper fathoms. 

Nathan Coates teaches junior English at Mason High School, a large suburban district near Cincinnati, Ohio. After Bewilderment he has moved on to read A Key to Treehouse Living by Elliot Reed.

Embracing Silliness in Skills Practice

As teachers of writing, it can be tempting to jump straight into a big, meaty composition or class discussion to get a feel for where our students’ skill levels are at the beginning of the year. High expectations, planned scaffolds, but somewhere it takes a left turn in a very different direction because the students do not feel confident enough to fully participate. 

When I was a brand new baby teacher, I had no idea there was another way to gauge my students’ skills. So we jumped in the deep end, feet-first, and had a collective sink or swim moment. They sank. I sank. Life preservers all around.

In a previous post, I wrote about ways to address perfectionism in student writing. We write daily in my classroom because quantity leads to quality. Sometimes the prompts are in response to quotes. Other times, I have my students respond to something completely bonkers. Oftentimes, these prompts are used to prime a lesson that builds the skills they need for something bigger. 

One of the best ways to build skills and confidence in the classroom is to embrace silliness. Here are some tips and perks.

1. Plan Backward

This isn’t new and I’m sure we’ve all heard this at some point, but the reminder doesn’t hurt. Work backward from your end goal as you plan.  

My seniors have been working on social commentary and I knew that I wanted them to craft an original piece of social commentary in addition to being able to engage in academic discussions about their topics. 

By the end of their time with me, they will have one of my catch-phrases permanently embedded in their brains- if you can talk about it, you can write about it. Unfortunately, they weren’t ready to talk about such intense and heavy topics in a way that was constructive. 

2. Back to Basics

Don’t get me wrong. I love a good, well-crafted student composition. But I like to walk it back and work on the skills needed to complete that task so students have the confidence to actually begin. By “walk it back”, I mean waaaaay back. Sometimes, taking baby steps early in the year means major leaps and bounds later. 

This is where you ditch the worksheets and other skills practice that robs the joy from your practice. Gamify it. Be ridiculous. Have no fear. 

For my purposes, a silly writing prompt. 

Students came in at the beginning of the unit to the following prompt: Is a hotdog a sandwich? Craft an argument to convince someone else. 

They gave me All. The. Side-Eye. They wrote. They giggled. But they wrote. 

It took me a little while to come around to the understanding that extremely low-stakes practice is often the best way to reinforce old skills and to introduce new skills. If we make it fun and create a positive association, that skill is going to stick. 

3. Chunk It 

When fully embracing silliness in skills practice, be prepared for a slow release. The goal is for content mastery, not speed. You can adjust your pacing to your students’ needs. 

My aim is to find that balance between skill-building in a low-stakes environment and making it a positive experience. Laughter is a bonus. 

The path from silly writing prompt to final class discussions and original social commentary took several class periods, but oh my stars was it worth every additional, hysterical second.

4. Facilitates Easy Modeling

If the practice is goofy but engaging, it gives you the opportunity to model the skills or behaviors you are attempting to have students master. In my case, it was academic discussion and reinforcing the use of evidence to support a viewpoint. 

I gave my students a set of sentence stems to help foster civil discourse in an academic discussion. So far, so good. Then, I paired them up and tasked them with using the stems to discuss their responses. Easy peasy. I simply had to float around the room while these awesome humans carried out their discussions. 

When I tell you that I did not expect the levels of investment from students over a discussion about hotdogs, I am not kidding. Did you know that the US Department of Agriculture has an official definition of a sandwich? I didn’t either, but I do now. 

5. Tie It All Together

As with any new skill, we want our kiddos to own it and use it well. This is the moment we’ve been coaching them for. This is where you shift from low-stakes practice to linking the skills back to your end goal. 

My kids researched and wrote and crafted some fabulous original pieces of social commentary. Then, they engaged in discussions in groups of 8 to 10 students. I was absolutely blown away with how well, even the most timid, students were able to share their thoughts about some pretty heavy topics. 

These kids were able to disagree, ask clarifying questions, and offer different opinions better than many adults I’ve seen. No raised voices. No tears. No ad hominem fallacies. 

**BONUS TIP**

In the spirit of adding a little laughter and some extra eye-rolling to break up the seriousness that is a group of high school students in English class, consider a silly song for a transition or brain break. A personal favorite is “It’s Raining Tacos” by Parry Gripp. 

Dance parties are highly encouraged.

How can you bring some silliness into your skills practice?

Samantha is a wife, mom to three tiny humans, high school English teacher, perpetual student, Texas transplant, and lover of beautiful stories. She spends her days seeking levity in the chaos, sharing her passion for writing and storytelling with students, and searching for her constantly misplaced cup of reheated coffee. You can follow Samantha on Instagram and Twitter @SimplySivils or on her terribly neglected blog http://simplySivils.wordpress.com/.

Things I Learned in August

One of my favorite podcasters/writers/self-help gurus is Emily P. Freeman. She has such a soothing voice and some really great advice. Her podcast is “The Next Right Thing,” and she also has a book by that title. The podcast has everything to do with decision-making, reflecting, and taking the next right step. It helped me a great deal during the 2021-2022 school year when I couldn’t look past the next day without having a total breakdown.

One of her reflective practices is to write what you have learned “within a season.” She encourages you to define “season” however that feels right to you. For me, back to school, a.k.a. August, is a whole season in itself. Here are the things I learned in August:

  • What a panic attack feels like
  • That taking the summer off, really off, probably kept me in this career field
  • That changing schools is hard and uncomfortable, but also challenging in the best way
  • That it’s very difficult to keep up with your blog responsibilities when you are working 10+ hour days and collapsing once you get home (sorry!)
  • What PTSE is and how it makes so much sense
  • To use “good readers…” and “good writers…” when developing objectives/teaching points

For today’s post, I am going to pull out one of those learnings to expound on in hopes it helps you the way it has helped me.

PTSE

In August, I started reading Tarana Burke’s and Brene Brown’s new anthology You Are Your Best Thing: Vulnerability, Shame, and the Black Experience. In one of the pieces, “The Blues of Vulnerability: Love and Healing Black Youth” by Shawn A Ginwright, he writes about the term PTSD being “inadequate to capture the depth, scope, and frequency of trauma” in the environments of Black youth. Instead, he proposes the term “persistent traumatic stress environments,” or PTSE’s, to demonstrate the constant fear, trauma, or sadness that comes with food insecurity, lack of housing, and more. These are not things that live in the past and haunt our present; they are current stressors that affect these kids everyday.

After reading this piece, I had many epiphanies about my students’ experiences and some of the roadblocks they may have to learning. There is an urgency in front of us to both rid communities of these constant stressors by building better living conditions and also to meet students’ mental health needs now. We have to always stay in front of it because it is present, not past.

I also had a realization about my own experience. I have been grappling to find the words to describe how I feel to my husband, my parents and all the other non-educators around me. I am not feeling PTSD from last year. I am also not sure I am feeling burnt out because I took a true break over the summer and have felt that it really helped me recover. I think I am living in a persistent traumatic stress environment. Now, please hear me clearly when I say that I am a middle-class, white, cisgender, heterosexual female and I in no way think my experience is equal to the youth that Ginwright speaks of. However, he did give me some new language to clarify how I am feeling. I am so happy to not be teaching hybrid and to be able to be more interactive with my students this year. But I am also feeling extreme amounts of stress that I haven’t experienced before (see “learning what a panic attack feels like” above). I am feeling pressure to “get things back to how they were before” and to “close learning gaps.” I am also feeling pressure to keep my students safe because my state has done nothing to do so, and we have a massive amount of cases. My mind is always going, I am always feeling like I can’t possibly get it all done, and I am always aware that we are not doing enough for what these kids need. These feelings came as a major disappointment to me because I was expecting this year to be better for a lot of reasons. It was confusing and upsetting that I was still feeling the 100-pound weight of stress digging into my chest everyday.

With this new clarity around my feelings with PTSE’s, I have been able to offer myself some grace. I understand now that I won’t just be rid of the stress after I just get past this hurdle or that deadline. I will still have to think about how best to set up my room/do activities to keep kids as safe from COVID as possible. I will still have to find every avenue of creativity to help these students get back on track. With this knowledge, I made the decision to work some longer days than normal but to also create a work-home boundary to prioritize real rest in the evenings and on the weekends. There may be no end to this PTSE in sight, but with understanding of the problem and some strategies I can handle it better than I was when I was just trying to make it to a new day expecting it to be better. Because I have put on my own oxygen mask, as they say, and done the work to take care of myself, I am better equipped to help my kids through this extremely stressful time.

For example, I understand that many of my students are also living in these environments- because of mental health situations, race, economic status, living as a teenager in a pandemic, etc. I can use this knowledge to help them also find similar boundaries and grace for themselves, too. I really enjoyed the advice in the reflective piece “Two Weeks In…” and think these are great ways to get students through their own PTSE’s.

Rebecca Riggs is in her 5th year of teaching. She has moved to a different school in the Houston, TX area and is teaching ELA II. She is surviving these times by throwing caution to the wind and eating/drinking all the Fall things even though it’s still 90 degrees and not technically Fall yet. She is reading You Are Your Best Thing and The Tattooist of Auschwitz. She and her husband will celebrate 10 years together this month, which makes her giggle because they met when she was her students’ age.

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