Category Archives: Sarah Morris

We Contain Multitudes

animal antenna biology butterfly

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About two months ago, I found myself crying in the maternity section of Target mere hours before a flight on Sunday to the AP Reading in Tampa. My bags were unpacked, the clock was ticking, and I was sobbing under the harsh fluorescent lighting, lost in a part of the store – a whole genre of clothing – I knew nothing about. 

See, about three months pregnant, I’d finally run up against the inevitable clothing wall. Nothing I owned was comfortable any more; I was hoping to squeeze (literally) a few more weeks out of my clothes before I had to shop for new ones. After realizing that I still hadn’t packed at nine and then realizing that everything was awful and miserable around ten, I found myself an hour later in the clearance section of Target trying to find something cheap that could last me for a few weeks. 

Extra smalls as far as the eye could see. Not what I needed. 

I asked the worker on duty for help; she suggested I shop in the maternity section “even though you’re obviously not pregnant.” That comment broke me. I’m not a crier or one for public displays of any emotion beyond the Snoopy Dance, but there I was. Crying. In. A. Target. 

Over clothes. 

I bought my maternity pants and went home, determined to put the whole night behind me.

But I couldn’t. Days later, I realized what bothered me so much about the interaction: I was pregnant. I was, AM, lucky enough to experience a part of life that not every one else can. I was so thankful and excited about this journey that very few people knew about at that point. And I wanted people to know, to recognize and acknowledge that something really, really neat was going on – completely on its own, seemingly separate from my conscious self. 

In short, I wanted all that was going on inside of me to be made manifest to the outside world; I wanted my inside self to be obviously reflected in my outside self. In the moment – right or wrong – I felt robbed of understanding, or acknowledgement, of something that had become essential to my sense of self. Big feelings for what, ultimately, was such a small moment.  

I’ve been waiting to write this blog post since then.

This experience has stayed with me all summer as I planned for the school year; as with almost everything in my life I tried to apply this thinking to my classroom and found a fresh reminder that often so much happens under the surface or behind the scenes for my students that I may not see or know about. I wonder how many students have sat in my class, struggling because they know what they want to say, but can’t quite figure out how to say it. Maybe they wished they could just write an idea out instead of vocalizing it. I wonder how many times what’s going on inside of them longs to be made unmistakably apparent to the outside world. I wonder if in those moments they feel as frustrated or overwhelmed or alone as I did in Target.

I hope not, but I’m betting some do.

“What is your why?” This simple question is one the blog has posed before, and I love finding a why for my year every August. In addition to my why for this year, I want to remember in my instruction, my grading, my conversations, my interactions with students that they, like Whitman said, “are large … and contain multitudes” even when, especially when, those multitudes aren’t readily visible.

Sarah Morris teaches AP English Language & Composition, AP Seminar,  and Film as Literature in Murfreesboro, Tn. She is currently reading The Shallows and suggests you read it too. Annoy (err…I mean, share joyfully with) all of your friends the interesting ways the internet is changing our society, whether they want to hear it or not! She tweets at @marahsorris_cms. 

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What’s My Non-negotiable? Conferencing.

photo of yellow light bulb

Yesterday, my amazing English department met to discuss Why They Can’t Write. (If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it.) We spent the morning discussing and questioning the text, our practices and ourselves as teachers before breaking up to think about how the ideas from our morning conversations could be applied in our classrooms. It. Was. Amazing. PD.

See, I crave these conversations in my professional life; I’m constantly having them with myself in my head – especially when I’m driving by myself – and I’m lucky enough to have a fabulous PLC who are willing to indulge in these wide-ranging deep dives into our practices almost at the drop of a hat. However, the more I have, the more I want. So to be able to have such a thoughtful conversation with such intentional educators was so inspiring. I left with so much to think about, so much to question; in fact, one of our final takeaways inspired me to change the content of this blog post. I was planning on writing about using station rotations in large classrooms. However, after we asked ourselves to use the last few weeks of summer to think about our non-negotiables when it came to the instruction we offer and the relationship-building we crave, I wanted to reexamine my non-negotiables.

After some reflection, I realized the biggest sacrosanct practice is conferencing with students. A few weeks ago, we reposted an excellent piece by Angela Faulhaber; she included an image that quoted Carl Anderson: Conferring is not the icing on the cake; it IS the cake. And, man, does that hit the nail on the head.

Regular conferencing improves student performances and my relationships with my students and, honestly, their relationships with each other unlike any other practice I’ve ever tried. After trying conferencing for a year, I can’t see myself ever teaching without it. It’s a staple of the 3TT world as well: we’ve written about it here and here and here.

Even with all of the value that I find in conferencing, I have to admit that the first conferences last year went… well… poorly. They were super awkward and sometimes stilted. The kids hadn’t bought in yet, and, really, I probably just seemed like a weird lady who wanted to know about their reading habits a little too intensely. I’m also an extreme introvert, so I’m always worried that the conferencing – which doesn’t come naturally to me – is made more uncomfortable for everyone because those early one on one conversations are so out of my wheelhouse. It takes a while to draw reluctant students out of their shells and for both of us to become more comfortable with each other, but the end results are so worth any early awkwardness.

Here’s how this first conference runs: 

  • I created a Signup Genius form, and students chose a time that works for them. I scheduled ten minutes per conference. I set a timer and tried really hard to stay within the ten minute time frame; I wanted to be respectful of their time. 
    • This year, I think I might extend the sessions to 12 minutes. 
  • Students prepared answers to a series of questions before they came to the conference, so no one was put on the spot. I wrote about those questions and their results last year
  • This year, I’m revamping those questions just a little. Last year, students responded to each question. I think this year, I might allow them to choose two or three questions to respond to, hopefully allowing us to get to the ‘meat’ of the conversation a little faster.
    • Instead of asking what students have read lately, I want to draw a distinction between reading for pleasure and reading for class. So I am asking students to discuss one on one with me their aha/agree/disagree moments from their summer reading selections, and then I’ll follow up with a question about how they see themselves as a reader/what they read for pleasure. I thought some of them seemed guilty or ashamed when they said they didn’t read for pleasure last year. I want to try to avoid that feeling for them. 
    • Instead of just asking them to talk about themselves as writers, I’m toying with the idea of asking them to bring a piece of writing that showcases how they feel about themselves as a writer. Last year, I realized that students didn’t really view themselves as writers really – but they had very firm impressions of themselves as a ‘good’ writer or a ‘weak’ writer, but they couldn’t really articulate WHY they felt that way. Hopefully, changing this question will lead to more celebrations of what they already are or have accomplished.
      • I do think it will be interesting to see who goes the reader route and who goes the writer route and try to tease out why they chose that particular question in the conference. 
    • I’m getting rid of the how do you learn best question entirely; that’s right out. We ended up spending a lot of time on this question, but I didn’t use it to change my instruction that dramatically. I just need to remember to vary my instruction for different learner types throughout the year.
    • I’m also getting rid of the homework question from last year. It’s ok if I don’t know that they turned in homework on time or turned in homework late when they were sophomores. In reality, I actually ended up using this question to discuss their current schedule, trying to suss out how much they had on their plates. I can just run a report in our grade book to figure this out.
    • I’m keeping the last question, which is designed for students to ask questions or bring up concerns, unchanged. This one led to some very rich, necessary conversations and allowed me to calm nerves, change seating charts, and offer strategies BEFORE they were needed. I’m hoping that I’ll have more time for this question after revising the other questions.

I’m excited to see what these changes will bring to my new set of students. Last year, I noticed an immediate uptick in class participation, discussion and a willingness to ask questions and seek out help and understanding after students had their conference. I’m hoping for more of the same this year as well. 

If you offer introduction conferences, what do you do that works for you?

Sarah Morris teaches AP English Language & Composition, AP Seminar,  and Film as Literature in Murfreesboro, Tn. She is currently wondering if Steve Harrington’s name was chosen before or after the casting team saw Joe Keery’s impressive head of hair. (It’s summer, and these are summer thoughts!) She tweets at @marahsorris_cms. 

Rethinking Summer Assignments

black and blue plastic pen non top of black covered notebook

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Ahh…Summer reading…

For some of us, summer reading means lounging by the pool reading something that isn’t school related. Maybe we’re soaking in the rays and the books that, if you’re like me, have been piling up on our dressers all year long while we reread Gatsby for the 100th time. (If you’re looking for a great summer pleasure read, I have to suggest Daisy Jones and the Six. It was fantastic. Definitely listen to some Fleetwood in the background while you read the novel.)

For others of us, summer reading means sitting down with our arsenal of sticky notes and highlighters and InkJoy Gel Pens to catch up on some professional reading because, you know, we spent the year rereading Gatsby for the 100th time. Gotta love that green light and the bae across the bay plotline! (If you’re looking for a solid professional summer read, I highly suggest Why They Can’t Write. It’s prompted some interesting conversations and some thoughtful reflections for me.)

I plan on partaking in both kinds of summer reading – the more traditional for pleasure books and the I can’t stop thinking about teaching for pleasure books.

For our students, however, I wonder how many of them look forward to their summer reading. I wonder how many of them find value in their summer assignments besides the assignment just being a hoop to jump through.

I do think there’s value in summer reading assignments. Summer slide is real, and I like my classes to come in to the first day with something more to discuss than the syllabus. I also teach at a highly competitive magnet school, and summer work is one of those unstated expectations for AP classes.

So all of these ideas were running through my mind when thinking about my summer assignment for AP Seminar – a new course we’re offering for the first time next year. I knew that the students were expected to complete something over the summer. I knew that I wanted their assignment to have some choice involved. I knew that I didn’t want the assignment to take all summer, but that it should be meaty enough that we could start discussions at the beginning of the year. A lot of boxes to check. The brilliant Hattie McGuire came to the rescue. She posted her ideas of offering a summer writing invitation instead of a summer reading assignment. After talking with her, I tweaked some of her ideas to fit my environment.

Here’s the assignment:

I wanted my students to continue to think critically and inquisitive about the world around them, to take stock of their surroundings and experiences and to try to push their thinking further by asking themselves, “I wonder…” until they couldn’t wonder (or in some cases, wander) anymore.

So in an attempt to spend part of the summer writing and to cultivate a researcher’s mindset, each student will create 42 entries in a “Curiosity Journal.” Each entry will catalogue an observation/problem/question about their day and an attempt to take that observation/problem/question as far into “I wonder territory” as possible. We’re calling this part “further implications.”

A sample entry might look like this:

I observed that the extremism of Marie Kondo’s method of cleaning was very cathartic for me personally, and the house does feel less cluttered, but I wonder what good I’m truly doing by donating all of my unwanted junk to Goodwill.

My further implications for this observation might be: In participating in this behavior and in giving my stuff to Goodwill, I’m making the assumption that other people want my junk. I wonder if I’m doing good with my leftovers. This makes me think of disaster relief efforts and how often we send out crappy sloppy seconds to people who are truly in need. We do offer our stuff because doing so makes us  feel better, makes us feel useful, but I wonder if it’s actually useful for those people in need. I also wonder if it’s better to just throw all of this stuff away in a landfill. I wonder if there are other, better options for donation besides Goodwill. I find that the trend of minimalism goes against the consumerism of American society – it’s counterculture but it’s also pop culture, which is interesting. We’re overwhelmed by our stuff, which should make us question why we have all of this stuff to begin with in the first place. I also wonder how long I can keep up this minimalism streak until I’m back in Target buying another throw pillow. I also notice that there’s a lot of privilege present in even being able to KonMari my home. I wonder what the implications and effects of this privilege are?

So after a run of seven observations, students will choose one problem or question to pursue a little bit further by finding one external source that deepens their understanding of the issue, offers another perspective, or adds to their further implications. They’ll write about this new piece as well.

We’ll begin our first day of class discussing our favorite observations and, hopefully, the rabbit holes our observations led us down, maybe sparking a conversation about research and questioning. I’m hoping to find trends in the kinds of problems/questions/observations my students noticed that could begin to facilitate a conversation about what all of this says about who we are as people or how society works. I plan on using their Curiosity Notebook as a jumping off place for our individual introduction conferences that will happen during the first two weeks of school.

Mostly, I’m hoping that this assignment will keep students writing and reading and thinking over the summer about ideas that they’re interested in.  I’ve linked the assignment here if you’re interested.

Happy reading – whatever you’re reading, I hope it’s good!

Sarah Morris teaches AP English Language, AP Seminar and Film as Lit in Middle Tennessee. She’s currently enjoying her first summer as a married woman, spending her time travelling with her husband. You can follow her @marahsorris_cms.

 

“A Sea of Talk”

“Writing floats on a sea of talk.” – James Britton.

ocean waves

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If you’re an avid 3TT reader, I’m sure that’s not the first time you’ve read that phrase. In fact, Amy mentioned it here just a few short days ago, and we’ve definitely discussed how to get students to talk to each other on this website before. For me, I didn’t hear of James Britton or this idea of a “sea of talk” until I joined my local Writing Project. (As always, I can not speak highly enough of how the Middle Tennessee Writing Project changed the trajectory of my career and the practices within my classroom. If you aren’t involved with your local Writing Project, I wholeheartedly encourage you to seek out those groups and immerse yourself into that community.)

Shameless plug for WP over… I found myself for two weeks straight during my Writing Project ISI starting each day with a little bit of writing, then some variation of turn and talk before returning to our writing. That process – write, share, write some more, share some more, write some more – was presented to us in multiple ways over that two weeks but all of those activities at their core were some variation of that process. And it’s one I’ve taken to heart.

Of course, our ideas are stronger after we spend some time with them in conversation, after we hear feedback from our peers. Of course, just the simple act of speaking out loud is sometimes  enough to jumpstart an idea or solve a problem. In the programming world, this process is called Rubber-ducking. Of course, it would be ridiculous to assume that our students should only ever write in isolation when they have so much to say and share. So, it’s our responsibility to just get out of the way in the classroom and allow that “sea of talk” to rise and fall, ebb and flow. A former sage on the stage teacher, I had to realize that my voice alone wasn’t enough to create a “sea.”

The latest iteration of this rising and falling in my class literally involves rising. In doing some research on how to make argumentation a more natural and low-stakes part of the classroom, I stumbled upon Dave Stuart Jr.’s blog where he discusses Pop-up Debates. I fell into a deep rabbit hole of links upon links, occasionally shouting at the dog, “This is great!” and “Oh, man! This is going to be good.” B was just as enthused as I was. He’s supportive like that.

The Pop-up Debate works like this: Explain the concept of the pop-up shop and relate it to the pop-up debate. Encourage everyone to participate. Students command the floor by ‘popping-up’ at their desks and beginning to speak. If multiple people pop-up, students politely yield the floor. There are no declared winners because everyone wins when the conversation is lively and intelligent. Encourage students to debate all sides – nothing is so boring as a circle of agreement and repetition.

And that’s it. It’s a simple practice, highly adaptable and extremely engaging.

For our first pop-up, I asked students to respond to a question about honor codes that I pulled from an old AP Language synthesis prompt. They wrote on their own for about ten minutes before test-running their ideas with a partner. Then, they popped for about 17 minutes. I found it fascinating to hear how their conversation grew and moved and evolved as they examined new facets of the conversation. Students who are reluctant to raise their hands stepped up to discuss with no prompting from me at all. Students questioned their peers’ assumptions, asked clarifying questions, raised new points, offered counterarguments, moved from specific evidence to social implications, made their points passionately. In short, as a class, we practiced several of the skills required for good writing collectively in a very low-stakes environment.

Then, we turned back to our notebooks and wrote again before debriefing as a class about how the conversation changed or added to their thinking. Simple and powerful.

Pop-ups can easily be used as a means to practice all manner of writing skills while also working on speaking skills. For example, for our second pop-up, we discussed the extent to which the study of philosophy was useful in modern society. Here, we focused on using accountable talk at the beginning of statements to show relationships between ideas – a skill we’re practicing in other ways for the synthesis portion of the AP exam. This week, when we pop-up, students will track the flow of the conversation in their WNs, and we’ll use this to jumpstart mini-lessons on counterarguments.

I hope that this method is one that you can take to your classroom and use right away. I’m always interested in how others keep that “sea” churning in their classrooms. Please share in the comments or on Twitter.

Sarah Morris teaches AP Language & Composition and Film as Literature in Murfreesboro, Tn. She is reading Mary Oliver for the first time and considering what being a “bride married to amazement…[a] bridegroom, taking the world into my arms” will look like for herself. She tweets at @marahsorris_cms.

 

Groundhog Day and Writing Conferences

ask blackboard chalk board chalkboard

3TT writers have shed a lot of (digital) ink about the benefits of conferencing with students about their writing – you can read about here and here. We love the conference.  And, I imagine that if you’re reading this, you love the conference too – or at least, you’re starting to love conferencing… or at the very least, you’re starting to love the idea of loving conferencing.

This is my first year really making the conference a centerpiece of my instruction, and I’m really starting to see the benefit in letting those conferences drive instruction. In the past, I would teach an essay and already know what follow-up instruction I would offer after the essay was over. I had November planned in June and felt so proud of myself for being so prepared. And I was, in a limited kind of way. I was prepared to talk about what I wanted to talk about, not prepared to meet my students where they were.

With conferencing, though, I find that I need to be prepared in a completely different way. I need to be able  to deliver all kinds of writing and craft instruction at the drop of a hat; I need a series of quick mini-lessons and questions that I can go to again and again . Some days, I find myself giving the same kind of feedback like I’m stuck in some Groundhog Day style purgatory. Others, I have to go deep into the well and pull out information I haven’t had occasion to use in years. Other-other days, I just have to admit that I need a night or two to think of a response to a question and agree to meet again later that week.

I take that Groundhog Day style feedback to heart – sure, it’s maddening in the moment to explain an idea again and again to a new student with a new piece of writing, but I VERY easily recognize what I need to reteach. This last week has been one of those weeks. I’m realizing that a majority of my students could all use more time and practice with adding warrant to their body paragraphs. Here are four methods I use to teach warrant:

  1. Slip or Trip – This clever little cartoon and accompanying activity created by George Hillocks is great for understanding the assumption/values part of warrant. I’ve seen it work in 8th grade classrooms and with juniors. I’ve seen it work with juniors who remembered working with it from their 8th grade years. It’s powerful in its simplicity. The premise is just to determine whether Queenie’s husband Arthur fell down the stairs or was pushed down the stairs. The instruction comes in helping students explain why their evidence supports their claims, in explaining the assumptions they are making.
  2. Toddlers and Teenagers – This is more of an analogy to help students understand the two parts of warrant
    1. The toddler – warrant addresses the question WHY – Why does this evidence prove this claim? Why did I chose this evidence? – Students ask WHY until they run out of answers – like little toddlers who just learned the magic of asking why.
    2. The teenager – warrant also address the question SO WHAT or what’s the IMPACT of this argument – So like an eighth grader decked out in blue eyeshadow and posted up by the Claire’s in a local mall, students ask the SO WHAT question for each of their WHY answers until they can’t think of any more responses. For some students, the SO WHAT question is enough. Others need the guidance of two more questions to really land the SO WHAT: Who is harmed and who is benefitted? Why should we care? What are the effects of this harm? You can further specify this harm/benefit question set to emotional/physical/economic/social/moral harm/benefit to help the students who still need a nudge in the right direction.
  3. The IF/THEN strategy – Full confession: I stole this idea from a blog post or a class website somewhere on the internet. So, unfortunately,  I can’t give appropriate attribution, but this teacher is an English goddess. She encourages her students to create IF/THEN statements working backwards from the warrant to the claim using a fill in the blank sentence. Here’s that sentence: If we assume (general rule, idea, belief, stance, assumption – WARRANT) and this matters because (IMPACT/SO WHAT), then [EVIDENCE] proves that [CLAIM]. Simple, quick, to the point. A clear way to look at a complex idea.
  4. 5 whys – Another full confession, I’m not sure why I call this the 5 whys, and the name is a little misleading for students – they don’t actually have to create 5 whys; 2-3 works just fine. (I think the name was actually a really bad joke: something about 5 Whys for 5 Guys, Cheeseburgers and Fries. Sometimes weird things just happen in the classroom.) This is an argument structure that helps students evaluate claims and allow their body paragraphs to be reason/warrant focused NOT evidence focused. So students start with a claim – their thesis- and ask why. The answer for that first why question becomes the topic sentence for the first body paragraph. From that first answer, students again ask why creating a second answer which becomes the topic sentence for their next body paragraph. This movement of asking why and answering creates an outline of reasons that often moves from a pretty specific start to a philosophical ending, allowing students to move away from the five paragraph essay which just repeats the same idea ad nauseum. Another benefit to the structure is that the questioning of their claims allows them to see when/where their claims are weak and they can revise accordingly.
    1. Here’s an example for a prompt about the value of civil disobedience
  • Thesis: Disobedience is necessary to advance society
    • Why? Because →  society tends to resist change,
      • it’s a large machine that is slow to stop and slow to start *so* we have to start it, nudge it, guide it
      • “Civil disobedience”
      • Objects in motion tend to stay in motion
    • Why? Because →  change is hard work – it can be violent or long or messy or complicated – *but* we have to keep working at it anyways
      • Length of struggles – I might trace the history of several different movements using disobedience as a motivating factor
        • American Revolution
        • Women’s Suffrage Movement
        • Civil Rights Movement
        • Black Lives Matter
    • Why? Because → humans as a species are discontent with being content – we crave betterment
      • Where do we see ourselves craving betterment?
      • WHY do we crave betterment?
      • Can I trace this historically or chronologically?
    • Therefore….conclusion stuff

Conferencing has made my students better writers individually through one conference at a time. However, it’s also improved my whole class instruction as well – allowing me to provide better guidance for my students as they need it. What insights are you gaining in your classroom through your conferencing practice?

Sarah Morris teaches AP Language & Composition and Film as Literature in Murfreesboro, Tn. She is rewatching Brooklyn Nine-Nine for about the third time. Nine! Nine! She tweets at @marahsorris_cms.

 

80/20

photograph of a lighted ferris wheel

I’d like to take this post and, in honor of Halloween, share something really spooky with you. Well, maybe not spooky, but terrifying. Maybe not terrifying, but scary…

It’s the fear that creeps in every time I try something new in the classroom: a little fear I like to call The Questioning. And that’s what it is – just a series of questions that like, any good Halloween monster, waits until I’m lulled into complacency to rear its ugly head. Questions like is this best practice? Does the research support it? Are you doing enough? Are you doing too much? Are there better ways to support your kiddos? What are the unforeseen consequences of this action.

You see, my PLC partners and I are trying a lot of new ideas this year in our AP classrooms. We are organizing our units around essential questions, including a lot of choice reading in classes where choice reading has never really been an option for us, and slowing our instruction down in an attempt to go a mile deep and an inch wide instead of an inch deep and a mile wide.

I feel almost like a new teacher again – high on the possibilities of all the new ideas but brought low by the realization that I’m creating new content again while also surrendering a lot of the direction in the classroom to my students. Now, granted, they are rising to the occasion, and their conversations and writings are truly interesting, interesting in the ways that I’m not sure they would have been without these new procedures. But, it’s been a little bit of a roller coaster of a year – a crazy, scary rollercoaster.

I find that I’m spending a lot of my time thinking through new activities and new approaches, trying to predict the possible benefits and consequences of these changes while also teaching and grading and making time for reflection. I don’t feel like I am ever wholy in one part of the teaching cycle, but instead just this Go Go Gadget-person vacillating between all of the points on that spectrum at any given moment. It’s stressful.

In times like these when I can’t get my brain to settle, I remember a little tidbit of wisdom dropped by Penn State’s Russ Rose at a volleyball clinic several years ago. He argued that limiting your drill set to a few key areas and the finding variations on those drills to keep them fresh was the key to his success.

He called it the 80/20 rule.

The idea goes back to an Italian economist in the 1800s who found that 80% of the wealth in Italy was held by 20% of the population. Oddly enough, he also found that 80% of the peas in his garden were produced by 20% of the plants. Essentially, Pareto‘s rule could be boiled down to this: 80% of the effects are the product of 20% of the causes.

Whenever my class seems frantic or I’m nervous about my practice, I think of Pareto. If 20% of my effort produces 80% of my results, where should I spend my time? How should my students spend their time? I’m becoming more and more conscious of the demands placed on our students. I grapple with what I should expect of them outside of school as many take two or more AP classes, play sports, work jobs, and still need to be, you know, people with a consistent work-life balance. I want to make sure that I make intentional choices that meet the demands and rigor of my subject while honoring my students’ time.

Pareto’s Principle reminds me to consider what has the most immediate and lasting effects on my students. It reminds me to channel my energies into productive avenues by limiting my focus to just a few key ideas. For me, those ideas always come back to Socratic Seminars – it’s important that we talk through our ideas in controlled and questioning places. It comes back to writing – it’s important that we write every day (a goal I’m refocusing on) And, it’s important that we marry those ideas in conferences – safe places where we talk about our writing. Consistently, these have been my 20%. What are yours?

Sarah Morris teaches AP Language & Composition and Film as Literature in Murfreesboro, Tn. She is rediscovering her love of bullet journaling and PaperMate InkJoy Gel Pens.  She tweets at @marahsorris_cms.

Elvis had it wrong: a little MORE conversation

End-of-the-school-year-Sarah is so hopeful, so starry-eyed, so confident that this will be the summer that it all gets done. See, at the end of every school year, I make a giant list of all of the ways I want to improve for next year. I go through all of my chicken scratch post-it notes on old lesson plans, through the emails I’ve sent myself throughout the year (often-times labeled “this” as if that’s helpful or useful), and the articles I’ve saved to my feedly account. I shove all of this nonsense into a google doc and then start working my way through this mess of things that briefly inspired me last year but was marked as not important enough to look at or implement in the moment.

I wade through the torrent of ideas throughout June. I keep some of it. I toss a lot of it. I look for trends.

This year I noticed that a lot of my ‘save for laters’ focused on feedback and building community – so many of my post-its from past-Sarah (who really over-estimated present-Sarah’s with-it-ness) focused on how community improves feedback and how both of these are built through conferencing. Feedback, building community, conferencing: these aren’t new topics for this blog. I’m just looking to add on to the wealth of information you can already find here from these fine people, like here, and here, and here.

I’ve approached conferencing in two distinct ways this year.

First, introduction conferences. We’ve been in school for three weeks, and in this time, I’ve conferenced with 95 of my 96 students for about ten minutes. Our conferences were simple. Students came prepared to answer five questions I gave them in advance, and I came prepared to listen/pepper them with lots of questions. Here’s a quick run down of those questions.

Question Follow-ups Intentions Realizations
How would you describe yourself as a reader? What have you read lately? What did you read for your summer reading book of choice?

Oh, you like this (genre/book)? Have you read ___? I hated/loved that book, what did you like/hate about it?

This is a softball question – it’s a simple yes or no but there’s a lot of room for impromptu discussions. For some of my students, we spent almost our whole conversation talking about our shared love/frustration with The Kingkiller Chronicles. I liked the opportunity to low-key assess who had already finished their summer reading. Some of their insights also prompted interesting conversations as well. I also liked that this first question highlights one of the most important parts of our class: reading. A lot of my students labeled themselves as “avid middle school readers.” They were big readers until the time demands of high school forced them to make some tough decisions. This conference, honestly, reinforced for my why choice is so important for high school students.
How would you describe yourself as a writer? Have you written anything lately? What does it feel like when you write? What about in-class writing? Or writing for fun? What did you write last year that you were proud of? When you sit down to write do you have a lot of ideas but it’s hard to get them out or…? I teach AP English Language so the majority of our class is writing focused. This allowed me to see who already thought of themselves as writers. We also had interesting conversations about idea generation which wasn’t intentional but it was useful information. Students’ perceptions of themselves as writers are deeply ingrained. Their definitions of what a “writer” is are also often limited. It will be fun to change some of those perceptions as the year goes on.
How do you learn best? What kind of learner are you? (For example, I’m a visual learner.) Not very many follow-ups here. This is a quick question. I want to group them by kind of learner homogeneously and heterogeneously throughout the year. LOTS of visual learners and, oddly enough, a lot who go home and rewrite their notes.
Last year, typically, how much time did you spend on homework? Why that amount of time? What other demands do you have on your time? What does your schedule look like this year? Honestly, I wanted to see what all these kids have on their plates. Some were very full:4 or 5 AP classes, jobs, sports, clubs. Some were less full. This also opened the conversation to talk about their interests as well. I teach at a Magnet school, and while I know that it can be a demanding school, sometimes I forget how demanding it can be. This reminded me to check with the APUSH and APCHEM teachers and make sure that we’re not doubling up or tripling up major assignments with students.
Do you have any questions or concerns or anything else that you’d like to share? No follow ups- just tried to ease some anxieties. My class has a reputation for being “worth it, but difficult.” I wanted to get ahead of any anxieties or nerves. This was so helpful. One, it allowed me to talk over strategies with kids BEFORE the strategies were needed. Two, it allowed me to walk through several accommodations with students BEFORE their IEP/504 meetings.

 

This was a highly time consuming endeavor, but I’ll never go back to not having these conferences in person. They were investments that have already started paying off – students are more willing to ask questions, to participate, to follow-up on assignments.

Secondly, I’m changing the way I grade in-class essays. Previously, students would write, we would workshop, I would grade, they would revise and then we’d all move on with our lives. Inspired by Catlin Tucker’s discussions of station work, I’m differentiating between grading (with feedback) and scoring (just the grade) this year. Students will write two AP English Language prompts in a six week period in class. For the first prompt, students will sign up for conferencing times during station time or before or after school, and I’ll grade the essay in front of the student, verbalizing my thinking, offering suggestions, answering questions. I’ll hold off on the grade (which goes into the grade book as a formative grade) until they have their conference with me. This will be a lot of time – ten minutes give or take for 96 students. BUT, I won’t take home a single essay. Then, after everyone conferences and I reteach as needed, students will write a second in class essay which I will only score (summative grade). Just scoring without the feedback will make grading these essays faster, but I’m also hoping that sitting down one on one will mean that we’re doing more with less, that more of the feedback will transfer to the student, that growth happens sooner.

Good teaching is about good relationships, and conferencing definitely helps to build relationships. What have you tried that’s worked for you?

Sarah Morris teaches AP English Language & Composition and Film as Literature in Murfreesboro, Tn. She has recently fallen down the rabbit-hole of Fallout 4, and she tweets at @marahsorris_cms.

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