Category Archives: Nathan Coates

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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