Category Archives: Maggie Lopez

Managing the Paperload with Essay Edit Rotations

IMPORTANT NOTE:  I went to a session about managing the paper load in AP courses at the convention in Las Vegas in 2013, and a presenter shared different strategies for having students write more, but grade less.  This session was packed, and rightfully so. We all left with a wealth of ideas, and I  wish I could find the handouts to provide proper credit–I believe they were safely stored in my AP school box that went missing between our Houston to Chicago move.  If this was your session, you are a goddess! (Also, please message me!).

Right about now, the stretch after spring break into AP exams, I find myself wanting to provide students with as much practice writing as they feel they need to be confident in transferring their skills to the exam in May, but not bog myself down with essays upon essays to review as the weather becomes warmer and the days are longer.

Enter “Essay Edit Rotations,” a way to include timed practice but not grade every piece.  There are two simple components to this instructional pacing. Part 1: Students write. Part 2:  Students learn more about how they write.  

Here is how the rotations work:  Set aside one day a week for a timed writing session.  Students come in and write, then those timed drafts are collected and reviewed for trends/misunderstandings, but not scored.  Repeat this over the course of four weeks, so students have four essays in total to edit. That is Part 1: students are practice writing without grades.

Part 2 involves editing those drafts from Part 1.  I provide students with the same number of options for how to study their writing as they have timed writings and typically set aside 3-4 class days to dig in.  Students select which edit to apply to each one of their essays, “rotating” through their pieces, with one of the timed writings is always revised and typed to be scored by me for a stand-alone AP grade.

You can tailor the prompts/essays to what your students need practice on, just as you can create as many different edits as you need and scaffold over the course of the year.

I have utilized a variety of editing strategies over the years, including:

  • Scored Second Draft:  Students edit, revise, and rewrite one essay to be submitted as a stand-alone AP  score, graded by me. I typically always ask students to complete this edit.
  • Peer Editing/Conferencing:  This unfolds so organically as students grow in their writing–they’re able to help their peers assess and improve their writing based on experience and mentor texts/exemplars
  • Reflective Annotating or Writing:  Students can utilize a rubric or create a +/delta chart based on their noticings. Often, I ask students to assign themselves a score based only off the adjectives used on the AP scoring (see below).

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  • Analyze the Components:  Students color code and highlight each element of their essay (i.e.: Claim, Evidence, Analysis, Transition) to understand how they are layering their ideas by reflecting on the visual structure, as well as the ratio of evidence to analysis.
  • Oral Editing with a Peer:  Have students pair up and read their essay, verbatim, to one another.  Students can hear what sounds inconsistent or where a thought trails off.  Students then revise these murky areas with
  • Grammarly:  Students can upload their essay (requires typing) and receive feedback.  I typically have students reflect over the commentary and identify trends and next steps for implementations.
  • Focused Revisions: I am pinpoint a specific area we have been playing with, such as varying our syntax for emphasis or upgrading our diction, and ask students to only revise those elements.

 

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Bella used one of her Book Club prompt responses to complete an edit focused on diction and syntax. Students are asked to highlight every other sentence, list the first word of each sentence to note repetition, count the number of words in each sentence, determine their evidence to commentary ratio, find transitions, and a myriad of other tasks to understand how they craft their responses.  While tedious, this edit creates discussion points for amazing conversations!

 

You can browse a wealth of recent Three Teachers Talk ideas around editing herehere, and here! Oh, and earlier this week, too!

Rounds of Essay Edit Rotations support the foundational ideas, practices, and benefits of a workshop-based classroom:

  • Low stakes writing practice:  Students practice in a timed environment, but know they will have a chance to review and edit their essays.  This workshop approach to the timed writings becomes about the edits and what students learn from their writing versus what is produced within 40 minutes.
  • Students are writing more than we are grading:  As only one of the essays will be graded by the teacher, after revision, students are benefitting from writing practice yet we are not grading each one (I do complete a quick review the essays after each writing period and provide feedback, usually in a +/delta format, before they write again).
  • Students understand themselves as writers:  Test writing is different from regular writing.  There is a rubric, yes, and a goal, but there is also pressure.  With the opportunity to edit, students can gain insight into their habits when they write for this purpose and make improvements accordingly.  Students also have the autonomy to select what edit to apply to their writing, curating their learning.
  • Builds skills for test transference:  Timing is often the most anxiety-inducing component of any standardized test.  Students can practice writing coherent, intriguing ideas within 40 minutes safely so they can find their rhythm before exam day.
  • Creates space for writing conversations and conferences:  I typically have students do their editing in class over 3-4 days so students can ask questions, work with their peers, and meet with me.  It feels like a true writer’s workshop with students tinkering away, shuffling through multiple colored pens, highlighting, adding post-it notes, and conversing with peers.

In the past, I have had students practice Part 1 with the same style of open response question, mixed up the questions, given students choice over what question they practice with each week, and have done a full exam using the three prompts over the weeks.  After that round, students assigned themselves a formative score to use as a conference conversation to set goals for moving forward. I have also implemented this during the fall when AP writing seems scary to students, in the middle of the year for review, and in the spring for low-stakes practices.

Every time, these Essay Edit Rotations work like a charm.

So thank you to the amazing writing teacher who presented in 2013.  You have saved me hours upon hours and fostered conversations around writing in my classrooms around the country.  Thank you.

 

Maggie Lopez is saying goodbye to ski season and hello to spring in Salt Lake City while keeping her juniors focused with choice reading, low stakes writing, and student-driven conversations as we build to the end of the year.  She just finished Everybody’s Son by Thirty Umrigar, an NCTE conference find, and began Tayari Jones’ Silver Sparrow yesterday.  You can find her on Twitter @meg_lopez0.

 

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No Accountability Book Clubs

Prior to starting a round of Book Clubs with my AP Lit students, I questioned what would be a “just right” accountability fit for my very different first and fourth periods.  Third quarter always hits juniors hard.  It is a reality check that changes are ahead.  It seems to be the time students are in full swing with clubs, theater, sports, and other projects.  My students are invested in their independent reading, with many switching between texts they can use on the exam and fun YA selections, and developing reading identities.  My students are also chatty and friendly–Book Clubs seemed like a perfect fit at this point in the year.

But how to keep students accountable in a non-punitive way when they’re already overbooked.  I thought about my goals for the Book Clubs, which extended far beyond adding another text of literary merit to their tool belts for question three.  I wanted them to read, to engage, to think.  For students to have fun meeting together to discuss books like adult readers do.

For some, a bit of accountability helps spur their reading and processing.  I have many students who like to document their thinking with annotations or dialectical journals and be rewarded for their visual thinking.  I understand that. For others, a bit of accountability becomes a chore that interferes with their engagement. Students have reflected that tasks associated with reading pull their focus away from the text and onto the assignment.  I get that, too.

I have been ruminating over my grading practices this year, taking notes on what is helpful and what can change next year as we progress, seeking practices which keep students accountable in non-intrusive, authentic ways.  Letter grades in the English classroom can be tricky. Our content lends to subjectivity when grading. Add in the pressure for college-acceptable GPAs and authentic learning can be lost in the quest for an “A.” It can be difficult to accurately measure understanding, as well as the more essential habits for success beyond our classrooms–effort, improvement, depth of thought and questioning–with five letters.  I am trying to shift from grades and points to accountability, effort, revision, second-laps, and reflection as tools for building skills and taking risks. I want anything I evaluate to have meaning and to be balanced by a lot of low stakes participation, effort, and reflection.

Book Clubs are like independent reading, just a bit more social.  Why grade it with check-listy parameters?  I wanted students to read, engage, and think with one another.  To come to the table with questions, thoughts, and connections, like a college student would.  To process challenging books together, like an adult book club would.

So I decided I would assign no accountability checks.  Nothing. I only asked students to be accountable to one another, as adults would be in a “real” book club each week, with the schedule they set.

Knowing they wouldn’t be receiving a tangible grade or reward, I was concerned students would see this as an invitation not to read deeply, or that some wouldn’t feel invested in the payoff. However, my hope that our months of community building and sharing in reading experiences as readers outweighed my tinges of fear.  Why not step aside and set them free?

I gave Thursday’s class period over to the Book Clubs and student-driven conversations with the ask that students use the class period to process together.

Students owned it.  

There wasn’t a lull in conversation on Thursdays.  Student groups chatted with each other while I circulated and enjoyed their voices and insights.  I wasn’t roaming the classroom with a clipboard or checking an assignment in while half listening. I was a floating member of each club (hence why there are no pictures accompanying this post!).

I noticed there were discussions about the gray areas of the books, like what is the Combine Chief Bromden references and what the heck happened to Nurse Ratched to make her the adult she is in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.  I noticed the crew reading Ceremony worked to make sense of the non-linear structure and researched the myths of the Laguna Pueblo people. Readers of Brave New World connected the text to Oryx and Crake, a summer read, as well as our world.  Readers of The Road hypothesized on the events before the book begins.  Many students annotated their books, kept a notecard of questions to ask one another, took notes during the meetings, and referenced the text throughout their discussions.

There was no need to dangle a carrot in front of their noses or keep track of data to issue a grade.  Students did the work because the elements were there:  choice, time, conversation.  They made meaning together, employing the habits developed throughout the year while practicing being adult readers–readers who read, engage, and think in a realm where there isn’t official accountability to turn in.

I’m not sure what my digital gradebook categories will look like next year, what practices and procedures I will put into place to promote authentic accountability, but I know I will challenge myself to step aside more often, to trust students will do the work if the environment is right.

 

Maggie Lopez is entering the fourth quarter in Salt Lake City upon returning from spring break.  She is currently reading Hitler’s Furies by Wendy Lower. You can find her at @meg_lopez0.

Enhancing Student Writing: Framing Editing as Choice

I am adding to the trend on the blog this week:  Editing!

I was inspired to re-read Everyday Editing and Mechanically Inclined by Jeff Anderson after Charles wrote about inviting students to notice, note, and imitate last month and earlier this week.  His philosophy influenced what I wanted my students to take away from crafting their final narrative piece–choice.  Anderson argues that telling students what or how to edit isn’t always helpful as it may not be internalized–students may seek a check-list for what to edit versus considering choices and playing with language as a writer. Anderson explains, “We want students to make choices and decisions that create meaning. Not because they’re afraid of making an error. Not because of crapshoot-fifty-fifty chances, but because they are thinking.  We want them to have ways to reason through what’s in front of them, what they see, what it sounds like looks like, means. A thought process” (10). All writing starts with merely getting your ideas out, but revision and editing happen when a writer begins to examine the choices they are or are not making. Choice is ownership in writing and far more rigorous than editing from a checklist.

In American Literature, we restarted our school year with a focus on narrative–we dug back into choice reading and ran through numerous laps of narrative writing, studying the choices authors made in mentor texts and our choice novels. Based on the narratives we had been studying together, students came up with a running list of moves we referenced as we wrote, revised, and conferenced. These core components, which students deemed essential moves of storytelling, formed what their final narrative would be assessed on:

  • Interesting Structure of Scenes within a Larger Story
  • Dialogue or Internal Thinking to Reveal Character
  • Dynamic Shift or Growth that Illustrates a “So What?”
  • Writer’s Craft Language that Shows vs. Tells
  • Variety of Sentence Structure and Word Variety

For me, one of the most challenging practices to get my students in the habit of is revisiting and re-crafting their writing. We live in an instant society which I believe programs students to complete tasks versus sit and whittle away or tinker with their thinking. Hence, “Enhancement Rotations” were born (I didn’t want to call the rotations “edits,” but I have yet to come up with a better name, suggestions?). I asked students to bring in what they thought was their final draft–little did they know they would be producing a “new” final draft! My goal was for students to notice the impactful choices they had already made, but to stretch themselves to make more. To not edit grammar errors, but to re-craft with intention.

In summary, Enhancement Rotations consist of student drafts circulating the classroom and their peer experts suggesting ways to re-craft the outlined aspects of the writing assignment or genre (we used the list above), while also complimenting the elements present in the draft already. Students decide what component they want to be an expert on from our list, then spend the time suggesting and complimenting that element only. Once the draft has visited a group of expert Enhancers, the draft rotates to the next group. Eventually, all selections rotate to different experts and gain not only suggestions and perspective but a holistic, paper-based conference.

Here are my suggested steps in more detail:

  1. After students have worked the writing process, have them print at least two copies of their piece.  Having more drafts than students allows the Enhancers to move through the drafts at their own pace because no one is waiting on them to finish to have a piece to edit. I prefer students have hard copies of their piece without names.
  2. Divide your “look fors,” essential elements, rubric, etc. into sections or chunks where students can be the peer experts–invite students to select what aspect they feel confident in providing advice and suggestions about. Organize one element at one station of desks or tables.  I suggest color coding each element, as it helps Enhancers know what draft has already been to their station. Asking students to narrow their focus helps them move through more of their peers’ drafts, thus seeing even more samples of writing and voice, especially of peers they did not conference with or may not often select as a partner.
  3. Let the editing begin!  Similar student experts sit together and use the same color marker or pen to suggest directly on their peers’ drafts (I do ask that students write their name and focus at the bottom of the draft for Step 4). Before starting, we reviewed each key move of storytelling and recalled mentor texts.
  4. Towards the end of class, students retrieve their drafts and silently reviewed the suggestions and considerations for a few minutes.  The final 10 minutes are for conferencing with one another about the feedback, further questions, and of course, compliments.  I then charge students with creating yet another draft!

Paola’s draft when from a removed retelling to showing, including a fake iMessage text feature from the suggestion of a peer.

Abbey expanding on her feelings and emotions, moving her draft from a retelling a common experience to one that was more personal, adding depth to the experience and purpose.

Inviting writers to notice and note the choices their peers are making serve to strengthen their writing, too, as we know more exposure leads to more thinking and understanding. My writers are beginning to notice the craft and creativity writing offers. Additionally, sharing writing and conferences continues to build the community of writers, and revisers, we are striving to become.

Maggie Lopez teaches American Literature and AP Literature in Salt Lake City, UT. She started reading Educated on her snow day last week, the first in 30 years, alongside Everyday Editing. You can find her on Twitter @meg_lopez0.

A Day in the Life: Re-Starting with Narratives

The start of the second semester has been refreshing–maybe it was the two-week break that felt indulgent and a shuffling of students, or the fresh snow that sweeps over the Wasatch mountains weekly, perhaps the feeling that it is “August” in room 104 and we creating a rhythm with new workshop routines.

After attempting a balanced approach in a new school, giving students only glimpses and tastes of workshop, I have fully shifted gears for the second semester now that I know this school wants the creation of readers and writers, not compliance or approval seekers.  This semester, I plan to take laps around narrative, informational, and multigenre writing, and although each genre study will be faster than ideal, it is better than sticking to the old ways. 

Starting with narrative in a new year, several quick writes and write besides in our notebooks invited students to notice the rich source of their own lives.  As a “first lap,” as Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher term craft study in 180 Days, with narrative, I asked students to craft or select a picture that symbolizes their lives as second-semester juniors. I asked, “What is your life like now?  Who are you today, a junior in 2019?” Students are at a transitional time in their lives– they are looking ahead to the next step, making choices about what direction to go and who to be. I want them to show, tell, explain, and reflect.

My students needed a change.  My logic, like so many of you exploring and diving into workshop, was this:

Discussions as Readers x Discussions as Writers / Mentor Texts = Authentic Writing

  • We need to get back into our notebooks.  As we explore narratives, taking “laps” around mentor texts and reading like writers, students will write beside these texts. Rooting into what students know, themselves, will offer an access point to workshop writing.

Years of traditional English classroom expectations + My misguided start to the first-semester x The 3 by 5 Paragraph Essay = Is this what you wanted?

  • My students need to be challenged with choices and the decision-making process.  Majority of students see writing as an English-only endeavor and are hesitant to break from “Is this what you want?” to “I made this decision here because ___,” putting their choices and ideas at the center.

Required Curriculum + Low Classroom Investment = Disengaged Environment

  • Asking students to select a picture that reflects who they are in this moment, their fears, challenges, what makes them feel successful and unique, is another way to connect to students, as well as create space for student voice and individuality. The task mirrors notebook writing “beside” or “around” a picture, poem, or mentor text, which we spent time doing sporadically last semester and daily this semester and challenges students to be the creator and curator, making editorial decisions as an artist, then explaining as a writer.

As we have drafted, revised, and share I have learned more about my students and they are finding a cathartic release.

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Abraham reflected on the importance of animals to his culture:  I also love farm animals and horses. These are important not only to me but also to my parents because they grew up with farm animals and they helped nourished them and their families. All these animals have become a major part of our culture, specifically the horse used for work or transportations and rodeos. Then we have other farm animals that shape our traditional dishes.

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Ronata’s picture showed the importance of art in her life: I like to think that justice is an art. A piece so beautiful and unique, it is impossible to recreate. I’ve been taught about justice all my life, that it’s about people being treated equally. BSU has helped me realize how unjust the world’s ways are, and what ways I can help people understand that everyone needs to be treated with the same respect. Everyone has the same rights, yet society makes it seem as though people of color’s rights have no meaning at all.

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Katherine is seeking balance: The presence of my phone indicates a contrast between stereotypical adolescent behavior and my reality. As many teenagers utilize their iPhones and Macs to pursue recreational avenues such as social media or Netflix, I spend the majority of my time enveloped in the educational bubble. Rather than Snapchat or Instagram, my school email is open. Each unopened tab represents something I have to do.  This chaotic nature is indicative of my own thoughts, in which I endeavor to maintain a semblance of control.

(portions of pictures used with permission)

 

So my life now? A desk full of post-it notes with mentor texts, a dog-earred copy of 180 Days that is being read for the umpteenth time, a continuously revised calendar, a check list of students I have conferenced with, all next to a coffee cup.  We are off to a great “re-start” with workshop.

Maggie Lopez is enjoying ski weekends in Utah while pretending it is August in her classroom.  She just finished Killers of the Flower Moon and is currently reading Beautiful Boy to convince a student that it will not be “boring” compared to Tweak. You can follow her at @meg_lopez0.

Adopting a Persona as We Move to Adopting Workshop

I am committed and inspired to move into true Reader’s Writer’s Workshop after NCTE and a near semester under my belt in a new school.  I left for the conference in Houston with a plan to read The Great Gatsby in December, and as much as I wanted to totally scrap it and start with a routine inspired by Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher in 180 Days,  I didn’t.  

I paused.  

Although every classroom minute is precious and developing readers is the most timely need, I wanted to give myself time to process this shift, to think through how my classroom would run, and brainstorm how to help my students, who from my inquiries have only experienced the full class novel, navigate texts with more autonomy and independence.

Going from trained text regurgitation to full choice would have been a huge, potentially disastrous, shift for my students.  Since August, they have looked to me to create meaning, to judge whether their writing is “right” or “good,” asking what I think about the text versus presenting their own original idea.  These students will grow immensely from workshop, which makes me so excited for January, but I felt they first need scaffolding up to meaning-making and trusting their interpretation and ideas.

I created a Book Club atmosphere with students for our reading of The Great Gatsby, having students meet in “Discussion Tables” with their peers to process the text with each other.  As 180 Days suggests, I asked students to come with one question and one comment to their discussion tables.  Students were also responsible for close reading and annotating/sketchnoting key scenes of the text, commenting on development and language.  Their annotations served as a launch point for continuing and deepening the conversation. A Book Club-style approach allowed for a more structured release of responsibility to students while maintaining the shared experience of full class novels my students are accustomed to.  I stood back as an observer, listening in to their conversations, witnessing students make meaning together versus wait to be guided to a single answer or idea.

As the unit was primarily based on discussion and conversation, so was their culminating assessment, the “Persona Discussion.”  Students were given a choice of what character they wanted to embody, from the core characters like Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan to more minor characters like Mr. Gatz or Meyer Wolfsheim, even “background” characters like the party goers were an option for students.  The core characters provided limited space for interpretation while added characters, like party goers, allowed for more creativity in the persona. Students signed up for a character and prepared by thinking through their characters in their journals.

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The discussion works like a Socratic Seminar, where students are the drivers of the discussion and can be adapted for both fiction and nonfiction.  I created this assignment for AP Language students who loved to debate and discuss in Chicago–they adopted the persona of Henrietta Lacks’ family, doctors, and author Rebecca Skloot after reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.  For Henrietta’s Persona Discussion, the central question of the discussion was a quote about medical ethics. 

Students felt that the smaller characters were given a voice, an idea we discussed earlier in the passage when examining the wealth and marginalization of “the other” characters in efforts to disrupt the traditional text.  

 

Maggie, who played Myrtle, said she liked feeling immersed in the book:  “At first, I felt like Myrtle would only ask questions to Tom or George, but as we all started being our characters, I thought about how Myrtle and Gatsby were actually more alike and could have been friends, and I wanted to ask Daisy about her marriage more.”  Jordyn said the discussion was better for understanding the web of deception because “…it was like seeing the book as a play or real life and it made our group discussions more real or, like, meaningful.”  After discussing the text as a reader so much, Riley, a reluctant reader who has learned, as he admitted, to “fake it,” said, “It was more fun to prepare to play someone than to think about the big ideas for a regular seminar.  It made me want to do well and really know Tom.”  

As we build into full workshop mode in January, students have a foundation for how to enter a text, methods for creating meaning, and more confidence in their thinking.  Students were engaged with this type of discussion and reflected about their enjoyment, so I am going to incorporate it into next semester, perhaps jigsawing the characters from students’ choice reading or book clubs together from different realms or as a way to review major characters and texts before the AP Literature exam.   We’ll see what other “personas” develop!

 

Maggie Lopez is enjoying Utah ski season while re-reading 180 Days as she preps for second semester, American Girls: The Secret Life of American Teenagers before bed, and The Poet X in class.  She wishes you a very merry, restful holiday season!

 

What are we going to do?

Attending any professional conference always leaves my brain buzzing with new ideas and a Christmas-morning-esqe excitement about delivering my learning to students.  NCTE was no different–it is a convention of crusaders that feels like the best (only?) staff meeting you never want to end.

And I needed it this year.

This year has been different, difficult at times, as I navigate a new school and new expectations, balancing between very traditional American Literature and AP Literature curriculums with the workshop work I know is impactful for students. Truth be told, I have been more of a good employee than an inspiring educator.  I have made choices that didn’t rock the boat and those choices often cut student voices. When I wrote about not being there, in retrospect, it is because I haven’t been fully committed to workshop this year.  Thus, students haven’t been fully committed to it either.

Chris Emdin, spoken word-educator-scientist,  asked, “Are you a good employee or an educator?

Penny Kittle, workshop Goddess, asked, “What are we going to do?

“Balance” won’t work any more. There is urgency to the work we are doing.  I have to make choices between what builds authentic literacy and what makes me a good employee.

My juniors are leaving for their post-secondary endeavors, majority of them to four years institutions, soon.  The end of their adolescent education is upon them and they face down daunting tasks. During her presentation, Penny shared a graphic featured in 180 Days: Two Teachers and the Quest to Engage and Empower Adolescents (Heinemann 2018) which showcases the urgency of student literacy.

From a survey of college syllabi for freshmen English done by reDesign (2014) shows first year students will encounter:

  • 5,000 pages of reading
  • 75 text-based discussions
  • 20 argumentative or research essays
  • And 90-100 polished essay pages

A semi-stunned “Wow” is what I thought to myself as the sweet sophomore teacher from Texas audibly gasped as the data was shown, then unpacked through Kittle’s high school to college transition.

What am I going to do in relation to how much students read and write in my classroom versus how much they need to read and write to be prepared for the rigors of post-secondary school?  Am I going to be a good employee and assign The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn before The Great Gatsby because that is what the curriculum guide says? Am I going to educate or follow?    

As Ms. Kittle discussed, we have to shift our thinking from one of victimization to one of urgent empowerment, from “Welp, what are we going to do?” to “What are we going to do?  What CAN we do?”

So much.

It is not too late to save the year.

I will say no (politely).  I will return to what works, listen to what students want, and make time for what kids need.  I will read with students and write alongside them.  I will use my voice and research to justify what many perceive as an “alternative path” to personalized literacy.  My duty is to get students on the road to being successful after K-12 by giving them the tools, stamina, and skills to navigate 5,000 pages of reading, text-based discussions, and various writing demands.

Chris Emdin defined teaching as being “the art of the remix.”  So come Monday, I am going to remix my approach and re-define literacy in my classroom, and be, first and foremost, an educator.

Maggie Lopez is currently hiking through the arches and right to the edge of cliffs in beautiful Moab, Utah while re-reading 180 Days. She is always grateful for the educators in her life, including the Three Teachers Talk community. You can find her @meg_lopez0.

Getting “There:” The Narrative Behind the Grade

Suddenly, there is snow on the mountain range that encircles Salt Lake City and the first quarter has come and gone.  Even after spending 11 weeks together, I confess that we, my students and I, aren’t “there.”

You know, there, that elusive place in education where students are investing, taking ownership, engaging, and enjoying thinking.

We have engaged in the elements of workshop, but our classroom feels like we are on a 10 mile per hour train to “there” that is frequently derailed.  Reading as a community was a high point, but the momentum has since stalled.  My old bag of tricks–student-created due dates, “go to” YA books that may shock or surprise, favorite mentor texts–aren’t reaching a far too large chunk of my people. 

Students are being compliant, but they’re not engaged.  

I am not okay with this.  It feels…I feel…mediocre.  

Was it me?  Is it me? The stress of junior year? Too much choice?  Not enough choice? Other teenage things I don’t know about? In an effort to figure out what was going on, what the story behind the data was, I asked students to write the narrative of the student behind the grade. 

I simply wanted to know:  Who is the student behind these grades?  Who is the human behind the numbers?  

Throughout my 100+ students, the reflections were consistent and their honesty certainly made the case for continuing to cultivate a workshop classroom.  Thankfully, we are heading there.  Summatively, these are the three take aways from their data-driven reflective narratives.

  • Stress and anxiety:  Junior year seems to unkindly smack students in the face.  I have seen it for eight years now. The ramped up, seemingly casual yet threatening chats about the looming college process sits heavy on their shoulders.  Increased course demands eat up time that used to be spent with friends or participating in activities without sacrificing academics. Aside from school stress, there are two-sport athletes, thespians, part-time workers, and family child care providers struggling to balance.

All the more case for carving out time to read for pleasure.  These students’ lives are just as busy as adults. Giving time to read, even 10 minutes at the start of class, can be “therapeutic” as Emily said: “This student found reading at the start of class each day to be therapeutic.  She is sad on odd days when the class doesn’t read.” Our students need time to pause. More importantly, they need to connect with characters, settings, and challenges that mirror their existence. They need to read that sometimes things work out, sometimes they don’t, but you will get through these tough years.

  • True choice is new:  While students now admit they really like being able to choose books, choice in August was scary.  I believe it was scary because they didn’t know themselves as real readers, just readers who were assigned chapters due on certain days.  Aria, who is reading through everything that is on Netflix or will soon be a movie, reflected: “This student, who read three books last quarter, loves being able to choose books without judgment.”  

All the more case for exposure to new titles.  While my school is a college prep school and many teachers, from theology to science, assign books to read outside of a textbook, it isn’t a culture of readers.  Students struggling with choice lack a knowledge of what genre or story they prefer versus what they don’t like. My developing readers need exposure via student recommendations, book talks, library displays, topic journals, or ANY other medium, so they can continue to curate a “To Read” list with meaningful titles.  

 

 

  • Writing voices are still developing:  Elliot wrote:  “This student has never been asked to write anything besides school stuff.  This student has a writing voice, but it is quiet and shy, only the notebook knows it now, but the voice is gaining courage.”  Wow. Check out that voice! Many times, I feel my students don’t trust their ideas or analysis as being “right,” just as they don’t yet trust themselves as writers, frequently asking “Is this what you want?” or “Is this good?”

All the more case for writing, writing, and writing more.  Writers need practice just like athletes. Aside from developing confidence in their ideas, students need to develop confidence in trying out elements of voice to develop the craft of writing by writing beside mentor texts, infusing craft into formal writings, journaling, and closely reading for craft in their choice books.  

Boiling it down:  students need time, exposure, confidence so we can get there.  

I will keep at it, as Lisa encouraged, because the work is not easy, but we know it is worthy. As some keep resisting, fake reading, or simply not reading at all, I will keep conferencing and book talking.  I will give reading time As students doodle instead of write, stare at the ceiling instead of revise, ask “Is this good?” instead of trust their skill, I will keep modeling writing and encouraging.  The culture I create this year will create momentum for next year, then into the following, speeding up the train to take us to that special place of learning.

The train may not be speeding ahead, but it’s chugging along.  At least I know we are on the track, heading in the right direction.

Maggie Lopez teaches American Literature and AP literature in Salt Lake City.  She is anxiously awaiting the start of ski season in Utah and NCTE in Houston next month, while reading Girl, Interrupted and scouring for flexible seating furniture on a budget. You can follow her on Twitter at @meg_lopez0

 

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