Category Archives: Jessica Paxson

How to Confer Like a Ninja


We all know it is the true Special Sauce in the workshop classroom.  Without conferring, it’s just Silent Sustained Reading, which ironically does little-to-nothing to actually SUSTAIN READERS.

However, we also all know #teacherlife.  When we get into the thick of things, it’s easy to lose our groove when it comes to consistently and effectively conferring with students about their reading lives. (Writing lives matter, too, but that’s another post.)

So, enter my new tutorial, How to Confer Like a Ninja.  I know many of you are imagining me in something resembling an all-black suit and stealthily skulking around whispering, “What are you reading? Why’d you abandon that book?”  I hate to disappoint you, but my students know I’m anything but graceful.  I regularly trip over Chad’s backpack with his tennis racket sticking out the top.  That thing is a weapon of mass destruction.

Instead of the stealthiness of a ninja in terms of moving about the room, I’m going to teach you how to ask questions that students would NEVER even know are conferring questions!!

For all other ninja-moves, please see Coach Moore, or maybe Lisa, or Shana’s daughter Ruthie.  They seem–stealthy.


Here are my four favorite questions for conferring like a ninja:

  1. How’s it Going?  I could write an entire book on this question alone.  Lucky for me–and you–Carl Andersen already did.  This is a completely low-stakes question that leaves room for the student understanding that you respect them as a reader–even if they are a struggling one–rather than feeling like they’re in the middle of a spotlight and interrogation room situation.  Ninjas are nice.  Ninjas are welcoming.  Ninjas just want students to become readers.  (Okay, so my analogy is breaking down a bit, but stay with me.)
  2. What’d you think?  This one I usually pull out in the hallway when a student runs to me in between classes to tell me they finished a book.  I usually get one of three responses: 1) “I’ll have to tell you later, I don’t have enough time!” 2) “Eh, it was okay.” 3) “Ugh!  Mrs. Paxson, I’m so mad!!” All three of these are great because it gives you an entrance–like a ninja–into a larger conversation.  Yes, even the “eh” response is perfect ground for finding them their next great read.
  3. Would you recommend this to a friend?  The answer to this question tells a lot about the journey of a reader.  If they would recommend it to a friend, that means they really do like it and they would risk being ridiculed by said friend if they thought it was boring, weird, etc.  Students don’t often risk that for just anything.  Also, if you can get a student to recommend a great book to one of your holdouts, they are scientifically about 83% more likely to actually read that book.  Yep.  That’s right.  I said SCIENTIFICALLY.
  4. Would you read it again?  Okay, be careful with this one.  I can feel you getting a little eager over there, and you can’t just pull it out of nowhere.  This is the perfect question to test the true level of a book in a reader’s mind.  But, THAT’S the ticket.  This question is for readers.  I would not pull this question out at the beginning of the year, or with one of my reading holdouts.  If I asked one of those students this question, they would stare at me, appalled that I would suggest such a thing.  However, real readers re-read.  It’s a true test of love for a book.  So use this one sparingly, but it will allow you to examine if a reader liked a book, or truly developed an undying love and will miss the characters long after the fact.  Our biggest nemesis in workshop teaching is time, and everything else that is competing for it in our students’ lives.  If they volunteer the information that they would be willing to spend MORE time reading something they’ve ALREADY READ, that means we’ve got ’em.  Take that, cat videos on YouTube.

All of these questions are part of my favorite aspect of a workshop classroom–the in-between.  Its difficult to quantify the leaps and bounds made within any given reading and writing workshop, but don’t let that distract you from the magic of the inconspicuous–or some people call it “normal”–conversation.  Getting to know our students, their reading tendencies, and their journey is part of what shows them that we are different.  We care about teaching them how to learn instead of just what to learn, and we are willing to support them on that journey as often as we can.  Even in the hallways, in transition time, and everywhere in between.

Happy teaching!

Jessica Paxson teaches English IV, AP Lang, and Creative Writing in Arlington, TX.  She runs on coffee and exaggeration, a deadly combination at 7 in the morning. Her students frequently describe her as “an annoyingly cheerful person who thinks all her students can change the world.”  Yep, pretty much. 


Promoting Community in the Workshop Classroom–and Out!

IMG_6878-COLLAGEThere were about two weeks of school when we came back that I wondered if I was doing something wrong.  It seemed like I had WAY too much time on my hands, and I wasn’t quite sure if I was just forgetting about responsibilities, and therefore shirking them in some way, or if I actually was managing my time better.

(Scoffs) Of course, it wasn’t the latter.  I simply FORGOT that I was in grad school.  This past week, as grad school classes started up again, I thought, “Ohhhh yeahhhh, that’s what was missing.”

I have questioned my life choices many times throughout this graduate student plus full-time (and then some) teacher season.  However, it is increasingly amazing to me the fact that teaching is more a study in behavioral psychology than it really is in any content.  The questions we ask ourselves are never just, What should I teach next?  Rather, they are loaded questions like, What can I teach next that will engage students, help them reach their potential, and provide a learning experience that will last beyond my classroom?

For this reason, my current class–focusing on social and emotional components of learning–is rocking my world.  The ore I read, the more I realize that it is my job not only to encourage healthy social and emotional characteristics in individual students, but also with each other.

So as my students are gain their reading strides this year, I’m pushing them to talk to each other about it more than ever before.  Here are some way I’m promoting community in my classroom, even among different class periods.

The Reader Hall of Fame:  This was my colleague’s idea, so I cannot take credit at all.  She started taking pictures of her students with their first finished book, and then she adds a small strip of paper with each new title they finish.  It looks AWESOME, and it really allows a constant brag-on-the-students feel to the classroom.  Students love coming in and seeing the new developments of their friends, the titles they’re reading, and the PAGE COUNT.  Yes.  They compare page counts like nobody’s business.

Book Clubs: This semester I am doing my first round of book clubs with my AP group.  Last semester, the students begged for book clubs.  They wanted to be able to read with their friends, which I think is a totally worthy desire that I do not mind milking for all it’s worth.  My goal is to come up with discussion questions along with the students that will promote discussion about life and the world, as well as education (our thematic topic for this unit).

Whole Class Reading Challenge:  Daniel Pink is haunting me in my sleep for this one–re: extrinsic motivation is not sustainable.  I know. However, when it comes to high school seniors, you sometimes have to pull out all the stops.  I follow Brian Kelley on Twitter (@briank) and he so graciously shared this reading challenge bingo with me.  I told my seniors each time they complete seven squares as a class–each square completed by a new student–they could bring to class.  When we complete three cycles, they can have a movie day.  I’m a sucker.  Feel free to troll me on Twitter.

Red Thread Notebooks, Technology Style:  This semester, my colleague and I are trying to get our seniors communicating across class periods, and even between our two classes.  In order to do this, we are going to take Shana’s Red Thread Notebooks, and take them to FlipGrid and possible Canvas discussion boards.  I hope to have different boards for big topics like LOVE, DEATH, FAITH, FREEDOM, on FlipGrid and allow time in class for students to respond to those boards and each other, referencing their current reading.

#bookstagram:  I love this hashtag on Instagram, and it provides a great way to connect to students in their own world.  I want to show a few photos from the hashtag to students in support of my book talks, and then offer an opportunity for students to #bookstagram their own book, or search the hashtag for their next read.

“Why I Read” Wall:  I’m a sentimental freak when it comes to second semester seniors.  They roll their eyes constantly as I say, “Do you REMEMBER when you said you would never read?!  Look at you now!”  Last week, tears streamed down my face–single ones, thank you–as I told them I believed in them and I’m so glad they’re here.  Beyond the sentimentality simply being my personality, it is also a teaching tactic that requires teenagers to reflect.  This is a skill I never thought would be so difficult to teach, but it is!  I want students to think of reasons why they read, and create a little notecard to hang in the hallway.  We could even steal their pictures from the Reader Hall of Fame and put them out there.  This would provide an amazing message for all the students who come into my classroom’s corner of the world that reading is more than just assignment.

And that’s the dream right there, folks.

So how do you promote community across classrooms through reading?

Jessica Paxson teaches English IV, AP Lang, and Creative Writing in Arlington, TX.  She runs on coffee and exaggeration, a deadly combination at 7 in the morning. Her students frequently describe her as “an annoyingly cheerful person who thinks all her students can change the world.”  Yep, pretty much. 

Who Are They When You’re Not Around?

Former SsFormer Ss 2

“Integrity is who you are when no one is watching.”

I tell my students this until they gripe and groan at the sound of the first word, because they know the rest by heart.  I value integrity and honesty with such fervor, likely because I’ve seen the cancer dishonesty can become, spreading to affect many more lives than just the withholder or fabricator of information.  My students know this very early on, but I haven’t been entirely sure that the lesson was sticking with them.

Last Friday, I had a gaggle of former students come visit me.  They were on Christmas break from their various universities, and decided they had to come pay me a visit.  Honored and surprised, they quickly reverted back to laughing at me–never with me–as I jumped and squealed at the sight of them at my door.  I’m so glad my current students were occupied with food and reviews so I could grill these young men about their new lives.

I asked them questions about their classes, the various sports they played, and of course nosier questions like, What about a girlfriend?  Wait, what happened to your old girlfriend?  Are you happy with your life?  What do you eat?  Are you eating?  I’m going to send you some food.

After a series of questions, Carl said, “Mrs. Paxson, you know, you were right.”  I replied, “Of course I was!  About what?”

He explained, “You see, I thought I knew what it was to focus–that you’re on task when someone comes over to check on you.  But in college, nobody does that.  So it’s like focus is what you do when no one is around, just like integrity.”

They proceeded to laugh AT me, again, as tears welled up in my eyes.  I wish I were kidding.

As a teacher, this question often plagues my mind: Who are you when I’m not around?  

And the natural questions that follow:

How can I strengthen THAT person, and not just the one you present to me?

How can I provide a space where you can be the person you are when I’m not around, when I’m actually around?

Or, like Amy’s–Have I really taught you anything?

Just as integrity is what you do when no one is watching, I would argue that true growth and commitment to learning can be judged by the same criteria.

With this in mind, I’ve presented my students with some reading challenge ideas, to keep them engrossed in words over the break.  Here are a few ideas from my colleagues.  We ran out of time to make our own reading challenges this semester, but we will in the Spring.

I’ve also written down Carl, Enrique, Kobe and Tomi’s words in my notebook to look back when I’m feeling ineffective and voiceless.  What we do matters, and it matters everyday–even the days that they’re no longer in our presence.

Jessica Paxson teaches English IV, AP Lang, and Creative Writing in Arlington, TX.  She runs on coffee and exaggeration, and is a victim of OCD–Obsessive Christmas Disorder. You can probably find her humming Christmas tunes over the sounds of her students’ pained groans, and sporting a gift bow in her hair for the last week of school.  Her students frequently describe her as “an annoyingly cheerful person who thinks all her students can change the world.”  Yep, pretty much.  

Letting Go: An Experiment


Please ignore my sad, disorganized bookcase.  Trust me.  I KNOW.

So, I guess I went gradeless this semester, but it was an accident.

I’m the luckiest teacher in our school because I get to be Yoda to the young-jedi-creative-writers of James Bowie High School.

Wait, let me re-write that, The luckiest teacher I am because Yoda I get to be… okay, I tried.

We have one section of Creative Writing at our school, and it’s my baby.  Don’t worry.  It’s not weird.

This semester was my third semester teaching this class, and I decided to go full-choice as an experiment.  You see, in prior semesters, my units were centered around modes of writing.  We worked on character development and dove into short stories, we focused on powerful connotation and tone and dove into spoken word poetry, we wrote personal stories that exposed our souls, shared them and became a family.  I watched as they supported each other, got to know each other, and tried to hide my excitement and shock when we could go from laughing to crying to intense work and focus.

However, the only thing missing was buy-in for every single mode of writing.  Even with choice of topic within the mode, it was inevitable that some students gravitated more intensely toward poetry, fiction, real-life writing, humor, etc.

At the beginning of the semester as I got to know my students, I asked them if they would rather our sections of writing be organized by mode or thematic topic.  Unanimously, they voted for topical organization.

Then, we brainstormed broad topics that would allow for a myriad of interpretations and modes of writing.  They came up with the following list:

  • Power
  • Turmoil
  • Control
  • Kindness
  • Grudges
  • Beauty
  • Music
  • Addiction
  • Open-mindedness
  • Fear

Within these topics, we found stimuli and mentor texts along the lines of the idea, talked, wrote, wrote, and talked.  I put together mini-lessons quite similar to those from my modes of writing approach.  What I found can be described in one sentence.

Free students result in free writing, and free writing is what will change our world.

This is along the lines of what Cornelius Minor said in the Heinemann Fellows session at NCTE: In order to have free students, we must have free teachers.

At first glance, freedom seems easy.  Of course we want to be free, who wouldn’t want to be free?!  But what I’ve learned is that freedom doesn’t mean the work, stress, and weight of it all goes away.  Actually, quite the opposite.  As a free teacher, I find myself still up at night because of the weight of it all.  If free writing will change our world, what’s the next step for me in supporting my writers in their freedom?

Here are a few of the amazing writings that resulted from this experience:

  • Students wrote about addiction, and surprised me at their jarring use of sensory imagery that described addiction from every angle.  They wrote about addiction to a substance, addiction to a person, addiction to a feeling or a conception of oneself, but they were all rooted in that visceral, physical experience of being tied to something with such fervor.  They also decided that for read-arounds, we all needed to speak in a British accent.
  • Alexis wrote about a blind person’s experience with beauty.  Here is a line from her piece:
  • Maddie has written about 20,000 words over the course of our class, and is in the process of world-building for a future novel.
  • Jerrell wrote a mega-creepy horror piece describing the relationship between a stalker and his victim through the mode of letters, social media, and other correspondence.
  • Mecca draws with everything she writes.
  • Terrianna finally worked up the courage to write her brother’s story, but more on that later.

I realized last week that my class was essentially gradeless.  Ironically, it was not a conscious decision, but simply a natural result of being so entrenched in the writing process that I forgot to grade!  There was also really no need.  This semester I’ve been in constant writing conferences, teaming up partners with strengths to match weaknesses, asking students to help me with my own writing struggles, etc.  To me, this is what an entirely engaged classroom looks like, and it also resulted in better writing.

Now, as I mentioned in my last post, all of my classes do not look like this, completely.

Here’s why letting go sometimes sounds easier than it actually is:

  • Sometimes you don’t have all the answers.
  • Sometimes things fail. (But shouldn’t we be showing our kids HOW to fail?)
  • Sometimes students have not been conditioned to invest in learning as a process rather than a way to check boxes.  (But, I mean, that HAS to change, right?!)

Sometimes images are better than words:

letting go

Creative Writing gives me grounds and hope for experimentation, and helps me to be brave and think outside the box in my other preps as well.  I hope that more time, talk, and investment in the real work of allowing students to be seen translates more intensely to my other classes in the Spring!

Have you ever happened upon a Happy Accident in your classroom?  Tell us about it in the comments!

P.S. For more about going gradeless, talk to Amy, or visit The Paper Graders’ blog!  I will be visiting in the next few days, and would love to chat about it with anyone!

Jessica Paxson teaches English IV, AP Lang, and Creative Writing in Arlington, TX.  She runs on coffee and exaggeration, and is overjoyed to be in a graduate program because that means she has access to a better library. Also, you can probably find her humming Christmas tunes over the sounds of her students’ pained groans.  They frequently describe her as “an annoyingly cheerful person who thinks all her students can change the world.”  Yep, pretty much.  

NCTE: A First-Timer’s Reflection


I feel like I overuse the word “mind-blown” in my everyday life, and people who know me well are unphased when I hand gesture and raise the volume of my voice to describe whatever happened that elicited such a response.

But trust me when I say, this time IT IS NOT A DRILL.

My first-ever experience with NCTE can only be described in one–though overused by me–word.  You guessed it.

MIND.  BLOWN.  Okay, wait.  Two words, with necessary periodic addition for dramatic effect.

In order to fully communicate this mind-blown state, I should tell you that my NCTE experience began with sitting in the airport and seeing Jason Reynolds walk right in front of me as I froze like a teenage girl.


Then, I redeemed myself by attending a panel with Jason Reynolds and getting a picture.  I also awkwardly told him, “Hey, I saw you yesterday, but I tripped on my way over to you and got embarrassed and then sat down.” Good story, Jess.  He said, “Oh, you should’ve said something!” He’s probably used to crazies.

Anyway, aside from my intense awkwardness and wondering whether or not I should walk up to people I know from Twitter and say “hello”–like the friends I feel we are–, attending NCTE for the first time was an invaluable experience for a few reasons.

First, it helped validate that I’m–we’re–fighting the good fight.  To be honest, our profession is so steeped in what Carol Jago calls “literacy activities,” I sometimes wonder if I’m the only teacher just letting her kids read and providing space for them to write.  Anyone else?  Feeling like The Lone Ranger can also cause me to question: If this is different than the way almost everyone is doing it, is there a chance I’m wrong?  That insecurity causes many issues, one of which results in the frequent depletion of my chocolate stash.  However, NCTE took all that wondering away, and reaffirmed the Workshop Crusade during every session:

Kelly Gallagher said, “I am a teacher of literaCY, not literaTURE.”

Jimmy Santiago Baca, “In working with students who hate education, we need to make it look a lot less like education.”

He also said, “Make your classroom as individual as you can to affirm your own spirit.”  And I would argue, we need to do so in order to affirm the spirits of our kids, as well.

Second, as a result of an amazing session led by Tricia Ebarvia (who is my bestie, but doesn’t know it yet), Anna Osborn (who I want to be when I grow up), and Kate Flowers (who is not afraid to tell the truth of data), I obtained a litmus test that will challenge me for the rest of my teaching career.

Kate Flowers’ Rule of Assessment: Do no harm.

As I really let this three-word, doozy of a sentence sink in, I started running a list of what I would deem “assessments” from the past three months.  I teach three very different classes: On-level Seniors, AP Lang Juniors, and All-level Creative Writing.  I can honestly say the only class I can say I’ve “done no harm” in terms of assessment is Creative Writing.  Do I know where they are?  Absolutely.  Do I know their strengths?  Interests?  What they had for breakfast this morning?  What they dream about for their futures?  Absolutely.  Do they love and support each other as classmates?  To a fault.

So, the tough question is, why do I run my other classes any differently?  Truth: Because of assessments.  Because of administrative checkpoints.  Because I feel as though I have to justify community-building and students being seen to align with state and district standards.  Finally, because I have not completely let go of control.

Kate asked, “Is this about your need to control?  Or are you serving your students’ need to grow?”

This question also made me think: How many times do our educational practices do more to breed liars than learners?

Those questions should keep me busy for awhile.

Do no harm.

Finally, NCTE made me even more angry at the conversations that permeate the teacher work rooms, the hallways, the classrooms with doors closed and hands thrown up in the air.

I constantly hear, “My kids can’t do this, and they can’t do that.  Why have they not been taught this before?”


Cornelius Minor said, “Your lack of understanding is not a symptom of something wrong.  It just means you’re in the right place.”

I am a teacher.  I’m not an assigner.  I’m not an assessor.  I don’t throw something against a wall, hope it sticks, and then blame the wall for not having been told to grab onto it because it will be useful in the future.

As I said in my portion of our Three Teachers’ talk, maybe kids have been told, but they haven’t been taught.


So, my current plight is trudging through the constant overwhelm of asking people to be open to change, trying something new, doing things differently.  My volleyball coach ALWAYS reminded us of the definition of insanity–but he called it “stupid,” instead.  Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.  So I will continue to toss up the idea that we should let students show us who they are, and then plan a learning experience around that.  We might even set some learning in place that might help them discover a piece of themselves they didn’t know existed, or a person they were blind to before they knew their struggles were the same.

I remember what Tom Newkirk said, “Story is compelled by trouble.”  So maybe this is part of my story, maybe this is my trouble.  Maybe I was meant to push through the difficulty and the seemingly impossible–at least without a steady stream of caffeine and sarcasm–to get to what truly might save our world, beautiful words and the connections they fuse when we encounter them.

Jessica Paxson teaches English IV, AP Lang, and Creative Writing in Arlington, TX.  She runs on coffee and exaggeration, and is overjoyed to be in a graduate program because that means she has access to a better library.  She is currently twiddling her thumbs as she waits for the next books from Sabaa Tahir, Sandhya Menon, and Jason Reynolds.  Also, you can probably find her humming Christmas tunes over the sounds of her students’ pained groans.

Learning Matters When Students Matter

Reclaiming Narrative and Amplifying Our Voices_ Using Story to Invite Fearless Inquiry and Intellectual Challenge for Our Students and Ourselves

It’s 8 months later, and I still think about Amy’s post regarding mirrors, windows, and doors.  In fact, it permeates most of my conversations about education with colleagues, in graduate school, at the coffee shop–okay, kind of kidding on that last one.

But it’s the question at the end of her post that gets me:

How are we making learning matter to our students?

Learning doesn’t matter until students see themselves in the process.  The process of learning is transactional, much like the process of making meaning in general, according to Jerome Bruner.  This concept of transaction means that students need to be involved.  They have to act, rather than simply absorb.

Oscar Wilde

Students must have choice.  They must see themselves in other people’s stories.  They must tell their own stories, not only for the sake of the “personal narrative,” but because good story is woven through all great writing.

We are heading to NCTE tomorrow.  What?!  Tomorrow?!  While it seems like it’s been the quickest semester on the face of the planet, I’m so glad our presentation regarding narrative has been in the back of my mind.  It has made me a better teacher, and caused me to consider how I’m allowing students to tell their stories, or craft a new one, in just about everything we do.

People often say, “For it is in giving that we receive.”  I find this to be increasingly true in writing for Three Teachers Talk.  It challenges my practice and encourages me to think of my classroom in a way that the progress we make can be transferred to other teachers’ classrooms and communities.

My story for this week includes a whole lot of writing, crossing out, scribbling, Googling, then writing again.  In my third year of teaching, I thought I would have fewer firsts.  But, alas, in this month alone, it is my first time speaking in front of non-teenagers, first time meeting my literacy idols, first time going to a conference that will hopefully change my life and my practice–or at least bolster the ideals I already hold.  I am beyond excited to learn alongside the community of literacy advocates whom I have grown to love over the past year.  Will we see you there?!

Three Teachers Talk at #NCTE17, session C.26, Friday at 12:30, room 274.

I’ll be wearing a blue dress, and probably a flushed face accompanied by some armpit stains.  Don’t worry, I’ll cover them up with a blazer.

Jessica Paxson teaches English IV, AP Lang, and Creative Writing in Arlington, TX.  She runs on coffee and exaggeration.  Her husband keeps her sane with his good looks and even-keeled  nature.  She is currently coming off the high that is the Ember in the Ashes series, writing about real life and all it’s messiness (Jessica Jordana), and attempting to inspire students to be the best version of themselves.  You can find her on Twitter and Instagram at @jessjordana to follow along with her many adventures!

Without Contact, There Can Be No Impact


“I had gone off to be a teacher, asking myself from time to time if I could teach English in such a way that people would stop killing each other.” -Mary Rose O’Reilley

As soon as I came across this quote in Peter H. Johnston’s book, Choice Words, I immediately related to it, which then caused me to feel alienated.  You see, this book had been assigned as a school-wide PLC read.  Aside from being one of the few that would complain about having to READ A BOOK (English teachers, anyone?), I also knew that the next day we would have to discuss this reading.  I knew I would bring up this quote.  I knew commotion would stir as everyone discussed what a preposterous notion this was.

OF COURSE we can’t stop murder.  OF COURSE we can’t change the whole world.  OF COURSE we can’t save them all.

Does the fact that we can’t change reality mean we shouldn’t still try?  Does the possibility of not reaching one hundred percent success prevent you from setting a goal in the first place?

I read all of that before it seemed real–the “killing” part, at least.  It was before everything changed.

I saw his name flash by on another student’s Facebook status closely followed by words like too soon, I love you, rest easy, etc.  I quickly went over to check his page as I found myself whispering to myself, “No, no, no, no, no.”  When I found his page, my worst fear was confirmed.  My former student had been shot and killed the night before.

As I stared at his picture, my mind ventured back to almost everyday after school last year, my first year teaching, when this student was in my classroom.

The news story that soon followed confirmed that the altercation occurred to settle a debt of $70.  He went to defend his friend, and as the other kids refused to fight, he walked away and was shot in the back.


Since that moment, just a few months ago, this quote crosses my mind almost daily.  I find myself thinking, What if we talked more about violence in the classroom?  If he had gone to college, would he have been in this same situation?  If he was not afraid to ask questions, maybe he would have asked someone for the money or helped his friend earn it rather than attempting to settle the debt in another way.  If this… if that…if only.

I know it is not healthy to think of all the things I should have done, but the truth is that I do.  I believe teaching can change lives not because we know things, but because we know kids.  Students want to be known, even if they don’t let on that it’s true.

I don’t only think of what I should have done, but I let it propel me into, What more can I do this time, today, this class period, for this student?

In a conversation with my 3TT friends, we were discussing “worksheet teaching.”  In a very long and broad conversation, I told them another story that happened that week, and then I thought:

You have to get really close to have an impact, but getting close makes things really difficult sometimes.  No wonder teachers sit at desks.  There’s less skin in the game that way.

Honestly, that’s how it feels some days–like I’m scraping off tiny pieces of myself to try and fill what these kids need.

So I write to patch the scrapes, air out the wounds, and find the light breaking through the cracks.

Today I’m not writing to lament about teaching, to share war stories or anything of that nature, but just to heal.

Teachers need to write because it pieces us back together.  We need to write, because others need to see our hurts to know they’re not alone.  

Like Brene Brown says, “Maybe stories are just data with a soul.” Despite the pushes for test scores, data, and measurable growth, we teach souls every single day.  Those stories need to be told.

What do you do to heal from the inevitable trials of teaching souls?  Do you think teachers can “stop the killing,” or should teachers refrain from distracting themselves with such lofty aspirations?  Let’s start a conversation in the comments.

Jessica Paxson is an English IV and Creative Writing teacher in Arlington, TX.  She usually takes on major life events all at once rather than bit by bit, such as starting graduate school, buying a house, going to Europe, and preparing for two new classes next year.  If you enjoy watching her make a fool of herself by being unbearably vulnerable, you can catch more of that over at Follow her on Twitter or Instagram @jessjordana.


3 Types of Talk to Boost Confidence and Community

the hate u give

My first day of teaching was going to be great, because I WAS PREPARED.

I wrote a speech, long hand, about 5 pages.  It was going to communicate what students could expect from the class and what they should know about me.  It was going to INSPIRE them.  They would hang on my every word.

Forget all of the appalling things I just mentioned–you haven’t even heard the best part.

After I gave my approximate 35 minute speech, and students were drooling as a result of my awesomeness, we would have A DISCUSSION.

Drop the mic.  Best teacher ever.  My students will have a voice!

Needless to say, having never been in the classroom before, my first day was a shock.  Most students did not want to hear a single word I had to say, much less ABOUT MYSELF.  My voice was gone by the end of the day and I was in tears because I had no idea how to go back and do it for another round of classes the next day.

I had no idea discussions needed planning and structuring.  I thought they just HAPPENED.

Oh–sweet, naive, extremely troubled Baby Mrs. Paxson.

Almost two years later, we never have a discussion without some sort of structure.  The structure can be minor, or it can be massive.  It can simply be planning on my part, planning on the students’ parts, or it can be structure that I pull out of my back pocket to maximize of a discussion that materializes out of thin air.  It can mean a different configuration of desks, or a script to which students can refer if they get stuck.

When we teach literacy, we can’t just command students to “talk.” We have to give them tools and materials and practices so that they are building their houses of reading, writing, speaking, and listening on a solid foundation, rather than a shaky one (insert your chosen Three Little Pigs invocation here).

Here are a few of my favorite ways to structure talk in the classroom, that can really work for ANYTHING from talking about books, to talking about real world issues, to reviewing pieces of writing, to students encouraging each other in passions and endeavors.

AVID Strategy, 30 Second Expert:

I learned this strategy through AVID, and it is so stinking versatile, it kills me.  I’ve adapted it many times to fit what we need, but the underlying concept is in the script.  I used this last during our Life at 40 Unit in which students were exploring desired careers and imagining/researching a possible life path.  In order to get students thinking and talking about career paths, after we did a little bit of preliminary research and decision-making, I posted two sentence stems on the board.

I’m an expert about (desired career) because I found out that __________________________.

I will be an expert at (desired career) because I am (character trait), (character trait), and (character trait).

Now, after they fill out these sentence stems, here is where the magic happens.  Students are required to pair up and repeat this script to a partner.  Their partner must actively listen and repeat what this student said in their own words.

Here are some conversations I got to hear that day:

  • “I will be an expert at physical therapy because I look on the bright side of things and I don’t give up on people.”
  • “I will be an expert at cardiology because I have discovered that I can learn anything, and will work harder than anyone sitting next to me.” (Positive self talk, anyone?)
  • (Repeating back to their partner) “I think you will be a great teacher because every time I talk to you in class, I feel heard and understood.  You stated you were a good listener, and I have experienced that from you.”

This is just a small glimpse into the conversations that can happen with 30 second expert.  Students feel silly at first, and they joke A LOT with these scripts, but even so, if you change your thoughts you can change your world.  Sometimes changing thoughts means changing the way you talk about yourself to others.  This allows students to phrase things they’ve just learned or mastered in a way that helps them realize they have added to their learner toolbox.


We are major speed daters over here at 3TT.  We speed date books ALL THE TIME.  I’ve also found that the speed dating format is golden for a lot of things such as when students bring in their own news articles for an assignment, giving post-it blessings, reviewing and revising writing, trying different mentor sentences and sharing, or really any situation in which you would like to allow students to have face-to-face time with many different ideas and possibilities.  You could also do 30 second expert in a speed-dating format!Structured Talk


Socratic Seminar:

I am by no means an expert on Socratic Seminar, but many different educators have different ways to get students talking about higher level questioning in a group setting.  B’s Book Love has some of my favorites.  In 822, we’ve tried fishbowl, whole class circle, passing stickies, and inner/outer circle with a live Twitter Chat.  They’re all great.  When my kids hear Socratic Seminar, they know I mean serious business, so this usually elicits slightly more academic talk.

Ultimately, structured talk promotes confidence and community in the classroom because it not only communicates high expectations, but it gives students the building blocks to reach those expectations and with skills they will carry into the real world!

How do you structure talk in your classroom?  Have you learned any tricks along the way?  Share them with us below!

Jessica Paxson is an English IV and Creative Writing teacher in Arlington, TX.  She usually takes on major life events all at once rather than bit by bit, such as starting graduate school, buying a house, going to Europe, and preparing for two new classes next year.  If you enjoy watching her make a fool of herself by being unbearably vulnerable, you can catch more of that over at Follow her on Twitter or Instagram @jessjordana.


The Savior Complex

The Savior Complex

The lesson was going great. Discussions were facilitating deep thinking, work was getting done, kids were talking about their reading without my prompting.  Then I saw him: Head down, possible drool pool hiding beneath the pillow he constructed out of his arms.  As I went to gently shake him awake, I thought, Shoot–how did I miss that?  I had been furiously conferencing with other students and must have been turned the other way.  Almost simultaneously, I heard a student–who generally favors the hyperbolic statement–say, It is so freezing in here.  I HATE THIS CLASS.  

And then it started to go.

Matthew Quick’s character, Bartholomew Neal, would call it the angry man in his stomach.

Oskar Schell would claim he was getting heavy boots again, and might pinch himself for his shortcomings.

Julia Cameron dismisses it as the Inner Critic.

The Bible would call them lies spun by the enemy.

Either way, the moment I hear a negative comment, see a student who has slipped through the cracks for five minutes, or stare at all the red in my grade book for hopeful graduating seniors, I can’t seem to quiet that voice–whatever you choose to call IT–no matter how many times I attempt to smother or extinguish the flame.

IT says: You’re the worst teacher on the planet.

What makes you think you can change the world, or even one class period, one student?

They say you’re doing a great job, but what does anyone really know?  Don’t they just see what you present to them?

And worst of all, God didn’t place you here, He probably just forgot for awhile, and this is where you ended up.

Amateur.  Inadequate.  Soft.  Never Enough.

Forget the fact that I know all these thoughts are false.  They plague my mind daily, hourly, sometimes even by the minute.  So what is it that allows me to take the few negatives as failures, even when juxtaposed with many more positives?

In response to one of my messages one day, my friend and trusted mentor, Amy, called it The Savior Complex.  We want to save all the students–ALL OF THEM.  And by save, I mean engage, facilitate growth in life and learning, help them to feel loved and valued, encourage their ambitions and challenge them each and every day.

Seems doable.  (Not that I set lofty goals or anything.)

It’s my goal in these last few weeks to focus on the positive and deal with the negative.  I don’t want one to replace the other.  I don’t want to only see the positive, because that would take away the growth.  I just want to give each one its due in contributing to what I speak to myself each day.

Just like I tell my students:  Don’t say anything to yourself that you wouldn’t dream of saying to someone else.

How do you deal with that Angry Man in your stomach or the Inner Critic?  Let me know in the comments!

P.S. (Can 11 weeks qualify as “a few?”)

Note: This post was originally published on Jessica Jordana.

Jessica Paxson is an English IV and Creative Writing teacher in Arlington, TX.  She frequently feels as though someone made a mistake in allowing her to hold the futures of over 100 teenagers in her jittery, over-caffeinated hands for the past two years.  If you enjoy watching her make a fool of herself by being unbearably vulnerable, you can catch more of that over at Follow her on Twitter or Instagram @jessjordana.

Letting Go in the Name of Book Love

letting go

I am a super fan of Pro/Con lists, although the true reflection of these lists never seem to govern my life as much as the making of them does.  Let me explain.

I can always think of a million reasons not to do something, but if I’ve already decided I want to do it, the Pros generally outweigh the Cons because of just that–weight.  Sometimes the reasons TO do something are fewer, but are so weighty that they can’t be ignored.

Workshop was that for me.

pro con

This is a real picture of my real notebook.  Please don’t judge the fact that I give myself pep talks within my P/C Lists.


Here are a few Cons of workshop from my list at the beginning of this year:

  • I’ll be on my own, pretty much.
  • I’m young, and everyone will think I’m just trying to rock the boat.
  • Once I get those books, likely via my own dwindling bank account, how will I keep track of the books?  I already go broke on borrowed pencils–and those cost…well… can anyone break a penny?
  • What if I haven’t read enough to recommend enough?

Sure, all of these were true then, and are still true now.  However, I think the weight of the Pros on this list were hard to ignore:

  • I could truly build something that would become a lifelong skill that carries students through the rest of their lives as learners.
  • Great readers have the potential to be great writers.  You can’t do what you’ve never seen (at least not well).
  • Reading in builds empathy.  Reading far and wide builds empathy far and wide.

To be honest, the biggest fear on that list of Cons was the idea of losing books.  We teachers, just as Lisa pointed out yesterday, are notorious for going broke for the cause.

I started workshop anyway.  As soon as I met 3rd Period this year, Terri-Rose quickly became the actualization of my worst nightmare.  On the first day when we checked out books, she insisted on taking three home to peruse because she couldn’t make a decision.  My first endeavor into workshop, I wasn’t quite sure if that was a thing.  I gritted my teeth and slowly expelled a perfectionistic breath, attempting to inhale a free spirit (something which usually doesn’t hover near me much less inhabit my own body).  She held three of my shiny new bestsellers bought with my own money after the small grant I obtained already ran out.  I told her she could do that as long as she signed them out and brought two of them back to me the next time.  I glanced over my shoulder to my then-meager amount of books after the first checkout.  Who knew 300 books could go so quickly?  I might never see them again.  

But, you know what, I did.  Most of them.  Terri-Rose still hasn’t learned to make a decision.  Whenever she finishes one book, she takes two more.  She’ll get halfway through one, and then give it back to me.

I’ll ask, “You didn’t like this one?”

She’ll say, “I do, but I want someone else to be able to read it while I finish this other one.” We developed a system with her book marks.  She likes to use candy wrappers (always pristine) to mark her place, so she’ll hand me the candy wrapper, and I’ll put a sticky note on it with the book title and page number to hand back to her when she’s ready for that book again.  It’s a nice system.

The other day, she came into class raving about a book.  It’s a normal occurrence.  She’s never quiet about something she loves–a quality I’m hoping to channel more in the future.  She wanted to barrel her way through Everything, Everything because the movie is slated to release in May.

Then came the request.

“Mrs. Paxson, I have this pen pal in Weatherford and we’ve started talking about books.  I told her about Everything, Everything, and the movie coming out and now she really wants to read it.  Would it be okay if I mailed it to her to read and then she mails it back before school is over?  I can even ask her to write a review for it before she sends it back!”

The exhale and inhale was quicker this time, mostly because I was leaping for joy inside at the desire to share the Book Love.  I agreed to the terms of her proposal, and I can’t wait to get the book back with a long distance review.

All of those Cons, like I said before, still stand true.  I’ve lost some books this year–probably five or six.  But the weight of the Pros have grown heavier with success and small triumphs–more than I ever thought they might.

As I think of Terri-Rose, unable to make a decision, reading books halfway through and two at a time, always sharing with friends before she’s even close to done, I’m reminded of my own reading life.  It’s a real one, not one for a grade or to check a box.

Then I think: Holy crap–it works.

What moments have surprised you with sharing #BookLove and watching it grow?

Jessica Paxson is an English IV and Creative Writing teacher in Arlington, TX.  She frequently feels as though someone made a mistake in allowing her to hold the futures of over 100 teenagers in her jittery, over-caffeinated hands for the past two years.  If you enjoy watching her make a fool of herself by being unbearably vulnerable, you can catch more of that over at Follow her on Twitter or Instagram @jessjordana.


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