Category Archives: Nathan Coates

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.

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.

Expanding the writing workshop feedback loop

In my previous post one of the questions that was guiding my thinking about writing instruction this year was how to personalize it more, how to open up more choice during workshop time in similar ways that we have with reading. One of the things I’m hoping to experiment more with this year is pacing. All students doing the same paper (even if they choices of prompts) at the same time with the same deadline is efficient for the process but not for the feedback. Especially this year as it’s the first time I’ve ever had one prep–6 sections of English III, 169 students. Collecting anything sounds and feels overwhelming, let alone a longer piece of writing that I can get meaningful feedback on in a timely manner. 

My longer term vision is that students would have individual writing goals and plans that they work on that include a variety types of pieces in varied numbers with genuinely staggered deadlines within the class. I’m not nearly there yet and may not get there this year. But my first step has been a good one so far. I’ve set up a feedback rotation system for our first three “laps” (as Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher call them in 180 days) so that on one lap students self-assess, on one lap they get peer feedback, and on one lap they get my feedback. This enables me to closely read two sets of papers on each lap instead of 6, still getting to each class by the final lap. I will still give a quick read to the other four sets to look for any significant issues (partial completion, red flags in structure or minimum basics) or significant praises (amazing efforts, great sentences, or surprise improvements). I will also do some reading and feedback during class and amid the writing process (as we always do) via conferencing.

my ugly plan

In all three scenarios the feedback is framed with essentially the same questions:

  • What’s one strength of the piece? (or, for those doing self-reflection: What’s one thing you’re proud of in this piece?)
  • What’s one idea for the piece? It could be an improvement that’s needed or an addition to make.

I have students and peers make these comments on the bottom of the doc they submit, and my gradebook allows me to include (via copy/paste) those comments/feedback. So a student’s “grade” in writing from each bell set looks like this right now:

Eventually students will see each type of feedback for their writing feedback in my gradebook. This makes a more narrative-based grade and helps tell a more accurate story of the writer’s progress.

The next step will be some reflection on those first three pieces where students will identify some of their best work toward our 4 writing targets (specificity, complexity, structure, style) and do some inventory of their strengths and weaknesses, which the feedback should prime them to consider. That will enable us to set some more targeted, personalized goals for the next round of writing.

The main challenge I had to confront to take this baby step is guilt. I feel guilty not interacting more on every doc they submit, so it has taken a lot for me to turn over some of the responsibility for feedback. But hopefully this will enable us to write more, to acknowledge the value of other readers, and empower more self-assessment.

Nathan Coates teaches junior English at Mason High School, a large suburban district near Cincinnati, Ohio. He’s excited to finally have some meaningful Reds baseball in September.

Some thoughts on bringing more choice to writing

When I read Readicide I was, like many English teachers, really affected by the argument Kelly Gallagher made about how reading instruction was destroying the love of reading in our classrooms. It helped spark myself and many I know to adopt a workshop approach that placed greater value on independent reading than our curriculum had allowed for in the past. 

Going into the 2021-22 school year, I’ve decided to focus on doing something similar with writing. Like most English teachers I know, I use a derivative of the writing workshop model and offer choice in the prompts I give. But I haven’t felt like the writing we do is truly personalized yet, or that students see it as vital. For many students I encounter writing is something they do to answer school questions. So in this post I’m going to try to organize the questions I’ve been mulling and offer some ideas for offering a more personalized approach to writing instruction.

This year’s vision: 

I always start with the big, overly idealistic picture of what I’d love to see in my classroom. Then I try to wrap my mind around what steps might enable it. So when I think about my students as writers, what I really want to foster within them is the academic independence and agility to make choices. Choices about genre, structure, word choice, syntax, etc. that befit their audiences and purposes. I’m not interested in teaching them how to write an argumentative essay, having them practice that, and then submitting one to be scored. I’m interested in finding ways for them to be always writing, always exploring, always engaging with a form that suits their content. Like I said, overly idealistic but it helps me know which way to move. 

Some guiding questions for me this year:

  • How can I provide more choice but still make sure each student covers the needed skills?
  • Can more choice lead to more staggered deadlines and a more manageable paper load (which facilitates more writing)? How would that work?
  • Are units a help or hindrance to writing instruction, writing volume, and learning to be a good writer? Do units help facilitate meaningful writing experiences?
  • Which writing skills transcend genre and stock assignments?

Some first steps:

Work to co-create student writing goals. I’m hoping that the goal-setting and progress-monitoring model that Sarah Zerwin outlines in Point-Less will help me tackle guiding question 1. Sarah Krajewski wrote two excellent posts (part 1 ; part 2) about Zerwin’s approach if you’d like more context. Zerwin has several resources posted at the Heinemann site you can explore as well. These co-created goals form the backbone of the accountability in a more personalized setup. This will mean more conferencing and feedback during workshop time, which is the real work of building writers.

Begin with some menus before advancing to fully student-driven tasks. Here I envision offering a couple of writing options during first semester. For example, during the early weeks of the semester we do an activity about the ship of Theseus. I’ve tentatively set up the following prompts for a short writing response:

  • Argue: Does A = B? Prove it using interesting examples.
  • Tell a Story: Have you changed since you started HS (or JH)? In what ways are you the same, different?
  • Analyze: Critique the argument you heard in class that was least convincing. What made it un-persuasive?

I envision giving students feedback based on which approach they chose, then working them to track what they tend to write and which types they tend to avoid. Since students may choose different modes, this will prevent me from slapping an “argument rubric” on it and force me (and hopefully them!) to think more about the traits that make an argument or an analysis good writing. For example: specificity and complexity.

Let some content topics, questions, and articles dictate topics, then allow them to explore forms and structures and approaches. This is my attempt to break free from units. Instead of blocking off four weeks to focus on argument while we discuss school shootings, for example, I want to bring a new or different mentor text that is responding to current events and move forward from there. 

I feel good about the general direction and basic first steps to get the ball rolling. Figuring out if it’s working will be an ongoing struggle. It’s the question we always have no matter the method: are my students become better writers?

Nathan Coates teaches junior English at Mason High School, a large suburban district near Cincinnati, Ohio. He highly recommends checking out John Green’s The Anthropocene Reviewed for a great collection of mentor texts.

Literacy, Inquiry, and Critical Race Theory

The ongoing debate this summer about the teaching of Critical Race Theory in schools and how states have responded has been unsettling. The debate raises questions about free speech, about scholarship and academia, about the role of politicians in the classroom, and about community values. You can find plenty of opinions out there that likely support your own.

My goal in this short post is not to examine the pros and cons of CRT or whether or not politicians should legislate its presence in classrooms, but rather to think a little bit about what the debate has exposed about the teacher’s role within the classroom, specifically the English teacher’s role, when it comes to tackling controversial current event topics.

2 postures toward controversial topics

Some legislators apparently fear my superpowers–that I will somehow brainwash a generation of young adults into adopting a critical lens that prizes race. I like that they grant me these powers, but anyone who has spent a week in the classroom understands the absurdity of this premise. These fears of indoctrination are based on a pretty flawed assumption about what a teacher is and does. For example, I don’t know anyone who teaches (or who has time to teach) CRT. It’s not even on most teachers’ radars if I had to guess. And while I teach with some wonderful people who explored social justice this year in response to the racial unrest of the summer of 2020, their posture is worth noting. Their goal was not to indoctrinate, but to open up avenues of inquiry. I think this is what literacy is really all about and what the secondary English classroom approach should be when it comes to charged topics like CRT.

LiteracyIndoctrination
creator, researcherstudent’s rolepassive consumer
empower students
co-learner
teacher’s roleshape perspective
expert
students are self-empowered to find and
interpret information
outcomesstudents can repeat or recite information
avenues of inquiry
personalized
processone path
one-size-fits-all

inquiry driven by neutral essential questions

I assume most secondary English teachers would agree. It gets trickier in the application, though, starting with how essential questions get framed. Note the subtle difference in these two questions:

  • What is Critical Race Theory and why is there so much debate on it?
  • Why should schools continue to reach Critical Race Theory amid the current debate?

The first one is simple, but it promotes inquiry. It puts responses in students’ hands and asks them to become more literate. There is no presupposed answer or bent to their pursuit of knowledge. There is room for discussion and dialogue about what people think and why. I used the following three questions as part of a unit on anti-racism in semester 2 last year:

  • What is systemic racism?
  • Is systemic racism present in the literature that most schools read?
  • In what ways do schools perpetuate or combat systemic racism?

Notice how the first two are the most open because they are the most neutral. The third is built on the assumption that systemic racism is present, which narrows it a bit. But the posture of opening avenues of inquiry is hopefully what’s central here rather than students feeling like I am trying to indoctrinate them. The first two invite us all to participate as co-learners.

inquiry driven by vocabulary exploration

This is, like so much of literacy, really about vocabulary. In this case, some additional guiding questions can be really illuminating:

  • What do people mean when they say “Critical Race Theory”? 
  • What are the connotations of CRT? What do Republicans mean when they say this? What do Democrats mean when they say this? What do academics like professors mean?

These are vocabulary questions. How does this word/phrase work and function in different rhetorical situations? What gives it the power to elicit such reactions? How can there be such differing views about what it is?

There is a genuine academic interest in answering questions like this. It adds to our body of knowledge and understanding about the world around us, making us better citizens, and it also equips us to ask the same kind of questions about the next hot-button issue that lights up social media. I’ve used CRT as an example, but really any politically-charged topic can be effectively handled through inquiry that is driven by neutral essential questions and vocabulary exploration.

I do not want my children to be indoctrinated at their schools. I want them to be given the space to explore and learn to think for themselves. To become literate. I do not want to indoctrinate anybody else’s children. I want to pass on the values of literacy–of critical thinking that leads to empathy and understanding. Secondary English teachers are uniquely situated to create those kinds of learning experiences. 

Nathan Coates teaches junior English at Mason High School, a large suburban district near Cincinnati, Ohio. He serves on his building’s equity team and is ready for his family’s annual summer pilgrimage to Lake Michigan.

Researching conspiracy thinking

I’ve never felt super-confident about teaching research. I often feel like it’s a made-up genre, that research manifests itself in so many different ways that teaching it in isolation is a little bit like eating the ingredients of a cookie without mixing them. But when I read a book like On Immunity by Eula Biss that beautifully blends genres as she researches vaccinations, or when I read Eating Animals and follow along as Jonathan Safran Foer breaks into a chicken farm, I’m enthralled. They don’t seem to care about synthesizing sources or MLA formatting, though they do both things. Their content is king, and their structures are malleable. They seem to live and move in the spaces that overlap between narrative, exposition, argument, and analysis. They write with heart and voice and objectivity that creates clarity even while including subjective experiences that add authenticity. So we set about to try some authentic research during second semester, and though our products may not measure up to Biss or Foer, we made steps in their direction. There is nothing new about the topic or process below. I’m just sharing how the puzzle pieces came together this year (we were fully in class from the beginning) because it might spark an idea for your classroom. 

A framework: truthiness v. factfulness

We started the unit by thinking about what Stephen Colbert called “Truthiness” in 2005 (see the original clip from his show or a good article about it), which was his way of describing the kind of information problem that arose when the internet and cable news usurped traditional media. Those issues have only been exacerbated by the rise of social media since then, so we set out to define the difference between truthiness and factfulness (using some of Hans Osling’s Gapminder resources). This gave us a pretty simple lens to use to evaluate sources (is it truthy?), and it gave us a way to talk about what kind of information we’re consuming. 

We used the following essential questions to guide our work:

  • In what ways does “truthiness” interfere with our culture?
  • In what spaces would “factfulness” improve our culture?
  • Are we living in a “post-truth” culture? Do facts matter?

Students did a small team task where they found examples of truthiness in their social media feeds and we discussed the relationship of misinformation, disinformation, and propaganda. It felt like a pretty organic way to begin thinking about research, and it gave me some language to use as they began doing some writing.

Some examples that a group from 4th bell used to illustrate the prevalence of truthiness in their feeds.

I also had them take an argument essay they had written during first semester, choose one body paragraph, and make it more factful. It was fun to see them recognize the truthiness in their own writing, which set up some expectations for our writing later. You can see an example of a student from my 4th bell below:

An angle: conspiracy theories

One of the other challenges about research writing is the topic generation process. I see value in letting students choose a topic. I’ve also seen the frustration of a kid who genuinely doesn’t know what to do and has options paralysis. So I chose conspiracy theories for the class because it’s a place where truthiness and factfulness intersect. I envisioned students reading what conspiracists think and say, and then reading the evaluations and rebuttals of those conspiracies. It’s a natural way to explore several perspectives.

An individual task: choosing a research path

We did a series of Deep Dives to start the research, one that focused on conspiracy theories broadly (why people buy in, what some common and obscure ones are–some sources we used), then students chose one conspiracy to dig deeper into. We never really called it research, which I think made us all feel better. We were just learning about chemtrails and the Denver International Airport. Students built a 2-3 page paper that used the sources to help us understand the conspiracy. We used a section from Eula Biss as a mentor text, then I gave them some structure options, basically a really loose outline, hoping to help us think more like Biss and Foer, more like writers making choices. Some took risks, some played it safe. But our goal was to let what we had found in the deep dives dictate the structure. Topics ranged from celebrity deaths (Michael Jackson, Princess Diana) to QAnon, from assassinations (MLK and JFK) to animals (birds aren’t real).

A team task: defend a conspiracy theory

The final piece was to share out because the topics were so interesting. Each student shared an overview of their research with their table teams, then the teams each picked one and were tasked with convincing the rest of the class that the conspiracy was true. This forced them to think a little bit differently, to do some additional research, and to help us have a little bit of fun before the deluge of spring standardized testing hit us. 

Takeaways

  1. De-emphasizing the research aspects and emphasizing the content questions enabled us to actually do better work on the research aspects. By not frontloading information about MLA format, embedding quotes and citations, or other general research expectations, we were able to better discuss those elements as they more naturally arose and students felt a need for them.
  2. Me choosing a topic is okay if there are still opportunities to personalize the pathways. Student ownership over the subtopic and paper structure seemed enough to keep interest and ownership high. 
  3. Conspiracy theories are a rich opportunity to think about the misinformation epidemic. While some are political, my students veered away from those. With that little bit of distance we could talk about the challenges of navigating our feeds, of considering sources and modes, of being more conscious citizens. They found it to be a topic worthy of researching.

Check out some good posts from TTT on research to kickstart some more ideas:

Nathan Coates teaches junior English at Mason High School, a large suburban district near Cincinnati, Ohio. His favorite conspiracies are sports ones, like the NBA suspending Michael Jordan for gambling or fixing the draft for the Knicks to get Ewing.

Using sorts to shake up the routine and move toward student-generated talk

So much of what happens in English class is internal. Students read and think, they think and write, and we work to help them make their thinking visible. When we aren’t reading and writing we’re often talking, which can still feel internal (or less hands-on) as we process what others say and ponder how to respond. Sometimes, especially at the end of the year, I feel the weight of this routine and want to shake things up so we can better enter into into those reading, thinking, and writing times.

One small strategy I’ve been relying on this year to add some hands-on moments in my junior English classes is a simple sort. Basically I gave each group a pile of examples (short texts, images, quotes, etc.), asked them to sort the examples on their tables, and asked them to defend their arrangements. The task is quick, collaborative, somewhat tactile, and it gives me a chance to engage each group with some on-the-spot feedback as groups tend to stand around their tables (you can see this in the second picture below) and try different sorting patterns. We often did this as a bell-ringer to review the previous lesson or as an extension activity. It can be as quick as five minutes or drawn out to fifteen if the discussion is rich and I spend time with each group. This year my room was organized in 7 groups of 4 and we tried the following types of sorts:

  • Spectrum sort: Students sorted these sources on a spectrum between “truthiness” and “factfulness” (our research unit focus was conspiracy theories) and then had to defend the placement. This gave me a chance to ask groups and individuals really specific sourcing questions: “Why is the Flat Earth tweet more factful than the Taylor Swift tweet? Why does your group have the article with a quote closer to truthiness than the NASA piece?” You could easily substitute any two traits on a spectrum to reframe the evaluation of examples.
  • Quadrant sort: Students map pictures of the characters (I usually do this with Of Mice and Men or Gatsby) into four quadrants using two traits like empathy and likability. For example, Curley’s wife may not be likable but we empathize with her. Tables can compare the four quadrants easily since it’s visual which extends the discussion. It also leads to great thinking about the two axis traits (for example, what do you notice about who we tend to empathize with? How does the Fitzgerald render Tom unlikable? Is likability or our ability to empathize with a character more important?). Students could easily re-map using two different traits. And really, after the sort and discussion they’re ready to write about these characters.  
  • Pattern sort: For this I usually tell students: “Choose a way to organize the examples you have.” I’ve used quotes, books, and editorial cartoons (I pull 5-6 from the current week). They usually struggle to think of how to do this, figure something out, explain their logic, and then I tell them, “Great. Now do it a different way.” It forces them to think about the relationships between the texts or ideas in different ways as they generate their own spectrums or quadrants. I like to do this after independent reading when people have a variety of books because the discussion becomes rich as they consider character, plot, structure, setting, and symbols without realizing that’s what they’re doing. When sorting quotes, it’s a good segway into thinking about the structure of an essay (considering the quotes like different examples you might organize).

This is a pre-Covid example of a pattern sort my students did with their summer reading novels.

  • Classification sort: This is a more straight-forward formative check. I can quickly tell if students have the right mode for this collection of short visual texts and coach them on-the-spot.

This is not a magical or earth-shattering strategy, but it’s easily adaptable and I like how it enables opportunities for me to shift from teacher-generated discussion to co-creation and student-generated discussion (see Kallack and Zmuda for more on this).

Teacher Generated

I specify the type of sort and the parameters

ex: create a quadrant sort for these Gatsby characters based on their likability and empathy

Teacher and Student Co-Created

I specify the type of sort and they set the parameter

ex: create a quadrant sort for these Gatsby characters by choosing two traits

Student Generated

Students specify the type of sort they will use and articulate their own parameters

ex: take these examples and organize them in some fashion; be ready to defend how and why they’re organized that way

The liveliness of the discussion makes me keep coming back to this simple strategy. Because it’s hands-on and visual students willingly engage and it adds energy to the room.  I’m able to talk more with students (instead of at them) as they work. By catching each group I can directly question or follow-up with nearly every student during a sort. This lets the lesson start with a conflict or problem to solve so it gives us momentum. Then we’re ready to dive into the next reading, thinking, or writing task, a little more awake, a little more ready to take on the world.

Nathan Coates teaches junior English at Mason High School, a large suburban district near Cincinnati, Ohio. He’d love to hear what books you’re excited about reading or adding to your class reading lists next year: coatesn@masonohioschools.com

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