Category Archives: Shana

Learning from Other Teachers

5054c4145eaf8a4c41c3bbd1d1954cdd.jpgI have so much hope for our profession, our students, and our society.

In a pretty pessimistic world, want to know why I’m so optimistic?

Because I believe in our future teachers.  After an entire school year of working with preservice educators, I have seen so much energy, excitement, and engagement from every single one of my students.  Every challenge that comes their way–whether in the form of an assignment, a tough reading, or grappling with a seemingly unsolvable education issue–only reaffirms their desire to help their students.  They just careso much.

A fantastic conference I attended last week was a wonderful reminder of all of that hope I have for teachers and teaching and learners and learning.  We’re here because of love–love for who and what and how we teach.  Yesterday, I shared my learning from the morning sessions of that conference, and today I’d like to share the ideas, quotes, and joy I heard in my afternoon sessions.

Session Three:  On Teaching Writing & Knowing Our Students

This amazing session was led by three preservice teachers who interned in high school ELA classrooms in our community.  Each of them spoke about their struggles and successes with so much passion that I was left feeling proud to be a teacher by the end of their talks.

Idea:  Audio Recording Peer Feedback–I absolutely loved Katie N.’s idea of having students record their feedback to peers.  After a semester of struggling to get her students to view themselves and one another of being capable and worthy of giving authentic, valuable feedback, she hit upon the idea of having students read one another’s papers ahead of time, prepare some comments, and then record a few minutes of thoughts, responses, suggestions, and connections.  I can’t wait to have my students try this idea!

Quote:  “When I conferenced with my students, so many of them really surprised me!!”  Danielle focused on looking for patterns in her students’ extracurricular involvement and how it might connect to their engagement, motivation, and success in schools.  She had lots of preconceived notions about how her athletes, club members, or student body leaders might act in the classroom, and many of them were wrong.  She loved the experience of being surprised by her students when she took the time to confer with each of them multiple times.

Just Joy:  Katie P. was interested in taking a whole class novel study far beyond the book.  While reading A Separate Peace with her students, she encouraged her students to read the novel through a critical literacy lens, identify social issues they could connect to their own school community, and then take action to improve the state of those issues.  As a result of her teaching, the students in her class created a club focused on improving mental health by participating in mindfulness activities like meditation, yoga, and deep breathing.

As she spoke about this new awareness of mental health issues in a school that had been plagued by student suicides, Katie teared up–as did many of us in the room listening to her speak.  I was so impressed and inspired by the power this young teacher realized she had to change a school community.

Session Four: On Evaluating Ourselves

In this session, led by a mix of teachers and school leaders, speakers presented on ways in which they looked at their own teaching, their whole classroom, or their entire school community; identified a problem; and then attempted to fix their issue.  Many of their inquiries resulted in some amazingly ambitious goals–one principal wanted to find a way to improve her students’ poor attendance, which was often caused by factors stemming from a community plagued by poverty; a group of teachers formed a committee to implement more responsive, sensitive discipline into their elementary school; and an academic coach shared ways she’d aggressively procured free technology into her school for teachers and students to use to improve learning.

I loved all these school leaders’ ideas, but I found one presenter’s approach to strengthening pedagogy incredibly effective and easy to implement.  Josh Karr, a high school math teacher, simply emailed his colleagues and invited them to form an informal PLC to evaluate themselves.

Idea:  Record Your Teaching–Josh invited his whole faculty, via email, to video record one of their lessons, watch it alone, and then bring a small clip to share with a partner in their mini-PLC after school.  Thirteen teachers agreed to participate, and showed up, quite nervously, with their recordings.  They paired up, regardless of content area or grade level, and worked together to analyze their videos, give and get feedback, and talk through some questions they had.  I loved this super easy, low-stakes idea to self- and peer-evaluate our teaching in such a welcoming way.

Quote:  “We laughed at how many teachers didn’t even have students in their videos.”  Josh told a funny story about how several of the teachers’ video cameras had only been pointed at the teachers themselves, and how they didn’t realize this narrow-minded view until they started talking with colleagues.  It was a real revelation for many of these teachers to realize that, wow, their worldview wasn’t very student-centered.  I was so uplifted by hearing Josh speak about how this simple activity prompted these teachers to stop looking at themselves for evidence of good teaching, and to begin looking at their students instead.

Just Joy:  Josh talked about what an inspiring thing it was to be part of this tiny community of teachers within his school, which included teachers from all content areas, and even the band director.  He gave me such hope when he shared how the teachers’ video recordings had evolved over the weeks to include more students, more difficult class periods, and more and more vulnerable learning.

I loved hearing how teachers of all levels of experience and expertise were willing to open themselves up to their colleagues for the sake of improving their students’ learning opportunities.  It’s a hard thing, in this profession, to invite criticism of our teaching when our  work can sometimes be thankless.  I can’t wait to try this idea with my students and colleagues alike.


Check out Part I of this post from yesterday, and then please leave us a comment:  what strategies, ideas, or frames of mind might you try out in your classroom?  Will you share some fantastic lessons you’ve gleaned from good conferences in the comments?

Shana Karnes lives in West Virginia and teaches sophomore, junior, and senior preservice teachers at West Virginia University.  She finds joy in all things learning, love, and literature as she teaches, mothers, and sings her way through life.  Follow Shana on Twitter at @litreader.

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Getting Invigorated by Good PD

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I love this accurate graphic about PD by Sylvia Duckworth.

Last Friday, I was fortunate enough to attend some of the best professional development I’ve been to in a while–and it was free!

At the end of the day, I left my 3TT friends a seven-minute WhatsApp message of out-of-breath enthusiasm, describing my day’s learning.  That’s how you know it’s been a good day.

The conference I attended is held annually to celebrate our Masters’ students’ impending graduation and entry into the field of teaching.  The all-day event features presentations by both preservice and practicing teachers, academic coaches, and principals.

Before the conference, speakers are invited to conduct an inquiry into one aspect of their practice, then present on their methods, findings, and insights.  I attended four absolutely wonderful sessions, and filled up six pages in my notebook with ideas and quotes and just joy–and I’d love to share them with you all.  Today I’ll share ideas gleaned from my morning session, and tomorrow I’ll share what I learned from the afternoon portion of events.

Session One:  On Independent Reading

In my head, I called this session “What you do after you’ve read Book Love,” because it was full of amazing ideas that I’m certain would be Penny Kittle-approved.  One presenter, Andy Patrick (@MrPatrickELA), absolutely blew my mind with the ways he’s clearly innovated independent reading.

Idea:  Reverse Reading Rates–Andy explained that when students chose a challenge book, they took a new reading rate and then used their findings to determine how long it would take them to finish the book.  The students could set a completion goal, Andy could touch on this goal in his conferences with them, and when the book was finished, students reflected on their reading process.  Since I’ve struggled with reading rates and accountability, I just loved this idea.

Quote:  “I never let them off the hook” when they tell me they don’t like reading.  Andy followed this fantastic one-liner up with his philosophy that they just weren’t reading the right books, and it was his job to help his students find them.

Just Joy:  I left this session absolutely impassioned thanks to Andy’s flurry of ideas.  He tossed out strategies like using quotes about the joy of reading as quickwrite prompts, his determination to get colleagues on board with teaching reading across the curriculum, and how great teachers of reading cannot excel unless they are real readers themselves.  YAAAAAAAASSSSSSS was the prevailing word in my notebook after that session!

Session Two:  Strategies for Reading, Writing, and Grammar

After leaving the first session, I had no idea how any other speakers could top that.  Luckily, I was just as inspired by three preservice teachers who’d done their internships in middle school ELA classrooms, and who shared their optimism for our profession in the form of their research.

Idea:  Say Something Journals–Sierra shared that many of her seventh graders weren’t engaged in reading independently or as a whole class, and she wanted a way to spark their interest in their texts.  She created journals, simply folded out of notebook paper, in which students could practice recording their internal reactions to something while reading during class.  When they were reading shared texts, she had students trade journals and giggle about the similarities and differences in their reactions.  The journals culminated in getting the reader to “say something” about the “something” they believed the writer was trying to “say.”  I loved Sierra’s emphasis on the transactional nature of reading, rather than a linear interpretation of a book’s message.

Quote:  “Why don’t they just capitalize their i’s?!” said Tori, who struggled with getting her 8th graders to use grammatical conventions in their writing, even after conferences and practice sessions in which students proved they knew what they were supposed to be doing.  Tori’s presentation was characterized by her sheer love of grammar and her bewilderment about why the heck kids could study mentor texts, send flawless text messages, and yet still refuse to obey the conventions of standard English.

One student’s response?  “Well, I just think capital I’s aren’t very cute.”

Just Joy:  Charity brought sophistication and high expectations to her 8th graders by teaching them about what critical literacy is and then working with them to practice it when reading nonfiction texts.  She focused on helping students develop discussion skills to practice thinking, reading, writing, and speaking within a critical literacy framework, all while reading place-based texts they helped her select.

I think my jaw was on the ground throughout the whole of this brilliant young teacher’s presentation–I want my daughter in her classroom someday, I kept thinking to myself.  What a treat to end my morning by feeling so hopeful about the new talent entering our profession!

Stay tuned for Part II of this post tomorrow, and please share with us in the comments–what have you learned from strong PD sessions you’ve attended?

Shana Karnes lives in West Virginia and teaches sophomore, junior, and senior preservice teachers at West Virginia University.  She finds joy in all things learning, love, and literature as she teaches, mothers, and sings her way through life.  Follow Shana on Twitter at @litreader.

 

Writers Workshop at the College Level

I have had so much fun reading student work this week.

There. I said it. I actually ENJOYED grading…for once!

Like Amy, I learned about the world, my students, and their funds of knowledge.  Grading has been going well for me this week.

Well, I wasn’t really grading so much as giving students feedback on their final papers, which are due on Monday.  We’ve been engaging in a virtual writing workshop, in which I start a dialogue with students about their writing via comments on their Google Docs, and they reply, revise, and we re-read.

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I taught a mini-lesson via email on what I noticed the whole class might need to know (shorter paragraphs, most recently, as well as the power of the single-sentence paragraph).

In class, I’ve taught mini-lessons on seamlessly weaving in references to outside texts, developing a writing voice, and crafting an “I believe” credo statement.  We’ve read each other’s writing, as well as our course readings, not just for content but for craft.

Students had choice in their topic, genre, and process.  They described their teaching philosophies, educational experiences, and literacy histories through cartoons, lists, stories, essays, pictures, and poems.

We worked for about six weeks this semester on this writing, all of which was ungraded.  It will eventually constitute 10% of their course grade, and when I calculate that number, I’ll factor in student growth, effort, and style–not just the final product.

With great success, my students engaged in writers workshop–at the college level.

I knew that this was a new experience for them for several reasons.  Many students emailed me to ask if they could send me extra drafts, or began their pleas with an apology for being a bother, or panicked when they first saw the sheer volume of my comments.

But when they realized my feedback was a balance of suggestions, praise, or exclamations of delight, they relaxed.

When they realized that I would read as many drafts of their writing as they wanted, and that we had built-in class time for peer review, they relaxed.

When they realized that questions were welcome, and not an indication of ignorance or a lack of preparedness, they relaxed.

They relaxed into becoming teacher-writers, which is something we all believe every teacher should make a part of her practice.

imgresWriting–at every level, from kindergarten to college and beyond–should be therapeutic, pleasurable, engaging, challenging, and every bit of the art form that it is.

Writing should not be painful, terrifying, or crippling.  It should serve as a way for our students to continue their learning, rather than as an end measure of what they know.

By keeping these values at the heart of my teaching, I’ve felt like I was back in my high school English classroom for the past few weeks.  There was fun, noise, creativity, debate, and even dance parties and craft supplies when we assembled portfolios, in my college classroom.  In addition to being enjoyable for everyone, this workshop mentality helped produce some outstanding writing that I’ll be so proud for my students to showcase in their final admission portfolios.

Shana Karnes lives in West Virginia and teaches sophomore, junior, and senior preservice teachers at West Virginia University.  She finds joy in all things learning, love, and literature as she teaches, mothers, and sings her way through life.  Follow Shana on Twitter at @litreader.

What We Teach vs. How We Teach

We all struggle constantly to find balance in our classroom.  The demands of our students, our workplaces, our curricula, our standards, our colleagues, and ourselves are all but impossible to manage.

Generally, as a teacher, when I struggled with that balancing act, it looked something like this:

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Yeah.  It wasn’t pretty.

Although I’ll probably never manage the perfect balance, I think I’ve edged a little closer to some sort of evenness through the process of tweaking, refining, revising, and rethinking how and what I teach.

I primarily do this by considering all things through the lens, first, of who I teach.

But I don’t think it’s enough to just say, hey, I know my students really well through lots of conferring and they know my expectations really well through lots of modeling and boom! learning occurs!

I think it’s really important to consider how and what we teach, too.

As a new teacher, I spent AGES pondering what I’d teach.  I was manic about designing thematic units, creating a complicated web I’d fill in before I introduced each central text, whether read or written.  I’d make sure I had some contemporary stuff and some old stuff, some poetry and some music, some fiction and some nonfiction.

My units were full of variety, that was for sure, but they all centered on classic books and pretty classic compositions, too–The Catcher in the Rye, a literary analysis; A Separate Peace, an argument essay.  I didn’t understand why students weren’t engaging with what I was teaching.  I mean, it was awesome!

Then I happened upon Alfie Kohn’s excellent article in Education Week, It’s Not What We Teach, It’s What They Learn.  I felt a little stupid, as I often do when I read Kohn’s matter-of-fact words–I picture him saying, duh, Shana. What you’re teaching doesn’t matter. You have to change how you teach it.

So, I threw myself into a focus on my methods.  How were students supposed to thrive if everything we did was so high-stakes?  How were they supposed to feel any agency or empowerment if they didn’t have as much choice as I did in their curriculum?

41v68aRP5UL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgI did a lot of reading about the importance of how we do things.  Penny Kittle mentioned Dov Seidman’s How at NCTE, and I jotted the title down, thinking it was one my husband would enjoy.  I bought it for him, but ended up devouring it myself.  Thomas Friedmann applied Seidman’s principles to the economy; why couldn’t I apply it to teaching, too?

That was when I committed to full-on workshop teaching, and that was the year I experimentally abandoned teaching whole-class novels, too.  I liked a lot of the changes I saw in my students, but with my focus on how I was teaching, I felt that my curriculum began to weaken.  Units felt disjointed since I wasn’t spending as much time obsessing about what to teach.  Something intangible felt lacking.

I had to move back toward strengthening my curriculum, while maintaining the benefits of an added focus on my methods, in a new kind of classroom.

I realized that I needed to combine all three of those things to get closer to achieving a good balance:  knowing who I taught, thoughtfully considering how I taught, and carefully selecting what I taught.

It wasn’t enough to teach with a pedagogy of engagement if what I was teaching didn’t match who I was teaching.  Similarly, it wasn’t enough to design layered, high-interest units of study that featured reading and writing and talk and practice and joy if the things we read and wrote and talked about and practiced didn’t match what my students cared about.

With every lesson and unit I design, I struggle to find the sweet spot that balances who and what and how I teach.  Like all teaching, it will always be a great deal of work to find that balance–but being aware of the necessity of all three of those factors has without a doubt improved my practice.

Shana Karnes lives in West Virginia and teaches sophomore, junior, and senior preservice teachers at West Virginia University.  She finds joy in all things learning, love, and literature as she teaches, mothers, and sings her way through life.  Follow Shana on Twitter at @litreader or join her for the Slice of Life Writing Challenge here.

Reframing Independent Reading: We Can Start By Not Grading It

imgres-1.jpgAll week, I’ve been thinking about Pernille Ripp’s exasperated plea, “Can we please stop grading independent reading?”  (I imagine that she initially had an exclamation point at the end of that post, like, COME ON, people, but then deleted it to be nice.)

Still, I am one of those people she is exasperated with.  Or I was while in the high school classroom, dedicatedly printing log sheets and grading reading every week for three years, using a complicated system of reading rates and conferences to give a number grade that reflected reading growth and sustained progress.

One year, I abandoned this system in the third quarter, just to see what would happen–would kids stop reading if I removed the accountability of a weekly reading grade?

Yes, yes they would–and they did.  So I re-instituted weekly grades, which, combined with a quarterly assessment, combined to 20% of my students’ total grade.  I was happy that this much of my course grade was dedicated to independent reading, but I didn’t realize that the grades I was mandating weren’t really creating independent readers at all.  (In hindsight, I should have begun the year without reading grades and created an authentic community of readers who weren’t motivated by reading logs.)

imgres.jpgAfter I read Pernille’s post, while thinking about this idea (read: beating myself up for slaughtering kids’ love of reading), I pulled out one of the most memorable texts I read while in college–Janice Pilgreen’s The SSR Handbook.  In the foreword, Stephen Krashen writes:

Free voluntary reading means reading what you want to read, with no book reports, no questions at the end of the chapter, and not having to finish the book if you don’t want to.  Sustained silent reading provides children with an opportunity to do free voluntary reading in school.  Is this a good idea?  Yes.

Pilgreen lists eight components of a successful SSR practice:

  1. Access – to many reading materials (books, newspaper, magazines, comics)
  2. Appeal – the materials are interesting and appropriate for the students
  3. Conducive Environment – the space in which students may read is comfortable and welcoming
  4. Encouragement – teachers and peers encourage students to read through discussions, modeling, and more
  5. Staff Training – teachers should have practical approaches in place for helping kids become readers
  6. Non-Accountability – no records, no monitoring, no “task-oriented” attitudes toward reading
  7. Follow-Up Activities – thoughtful, creative, interactive ways in which students discuss their reading lives authentically
  8. Distributed Time to Read – a volume of time that consistently occurs during which students read freely in school

When I think now about these eight simple factors, I see them clearly through the lens of workshop teaching.  To me, the components translated to my real-world readers workshop classroom look like this:

  • a classroom library brimming with high-interest books;
  • a reader-friendly community built not only into a welcoming physical space, but one in which daily reading, talk, conferring, and encouragement happen;
  • a teacher-leader who is the best reader in the room, who can model fluent reading and recommend a wide volume of books to students;
  • a lack of graded formative assessment and an emphasis on summative assessments for learning, not of learning.

This means no reading levels, no required number of books per year, no structured programs in place, no minimum number of minutes of reading done per week.  This means relinquishing control.  This means a lot of modeling, conferring, and progress monitoring to encourage student growth and lifelong learning.

This means thinking about independent reading as truly independent–independent of grades and of accountability.  This means reframing independent reading in school as an authentic, student-centered activity in which the readers take the lead and teachers merely help provide coaching and guidance.

If these ideologies are in place, teachers will know if kids aren’t reading (by simple observation and conferring).  We can adjust our instructional practices from there, without the damaging effects of punitive grades.  We can still give a grade for summative student self-assessments of independent reading growth (student-led is the key, here) to satisfy those mandatory gradebook updates, but if students are to become real readers we, as teachers, cannot be the ones holding them accountable for their progress.

There are many other kinds of reading that happen in language arts classrooms in addition to independent reading:  whole-class study of texts; small-group book clubs; close reading studies of poetry, articles, essays; explorations of mentor texts; analyses and syntheses of plays and novels and writing of all sorts.  This is where the work of learning to become a better reader can come in (which can be very enjoyable!), which lends itself to skills-based reading assessments.

In contrast, independent reading and all its many joys and struggles and spaces for success and failure are not, as Pernille says, “gradeable skills but instead a child practicing habits to figure out how to get better at reading.”  If we want to nurture this practice, we cannot keep grading it–and that’s the first step to reframing our thinking about independent reading.

Shana Karnes lives in West Virginia and teaches sophomore, junior, and senior preservice teachers at West Virginia University.  She finds joy in all things learning, love, and literature as she teaches, mothers, and sings her way through life.  Follow Shana on Twitter at @litreader or join her for the Slice of Life Writing Challenge here.

 

Beyond Hillbilly Elegy: Books for Country Boys

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Bull with a few of his favorite books

I’ve been thinking about one of my former students recently, wondering how he’s doing.  His name was Logan, but everyone–his family included–called him Bull.

I’ve been thinking about him because I had him in class for two years, and it took me a long time to realize I’d been recommending all the wrong books for him.

With the recent popularity of a book like Hillbilly Elegy (which has caused quite a stir here in Appalachia) I’m reflecting on how it’s a book I probably would’ve recommended to Bull.  Like the many other “country” books I’d offered him, figuring the text had a character he could actually relate to, I think Bull would’ve hated it, as many of my friends here in West Virginia have.  I haven’t had a chance to read it, but my peers and students alike who have say it’s too much of a stereotype of Appalachian culture, that it paints Appalachia much too negatively, and that it in no way captures the beauty of our mountains, music, or lifestyle.

I had a hard time getting Bull interested in reading, but boy, he’d write.  He wrote beautifully about the country he lived in, the simplicity of his family life (he showed me videos of teaching his barefooted three-year-old brother how to operate a push plow on their farm), and his love of hunting.

I think no book can capture the kind of love that a kid like Bull has for his own heritage, and I didn’t realize that when I offered him book after book that I thought had a “similar” kind of character for a protagonist.

But, in his reading life, Bull was a different kid last year.  He was a senior, about to enter the real world and acutely aware of his need to be prepared for it.

When I talked to him at the end of last school year, he described his junior year reading life as “shitty.”  I asked him why, and he said, “cuz I was lazy.”  He read two books all year, and when I talked to him about this, he laughed sheepishly.

Last year, he’d read 13 books and was in the midst of his 14th–Monuments Men by Robert Edsel–when I went on maternity leave.  I think he read 17 books by the end of the school year.  Before I left, I talked with Bull about his reading life.  We’d discovered his love of war books with American Sniper.  “My great grand-pap was in Vietnam, and I want to read about what he went through,” Bull explained, gesturing to his stack of books.

I also asked him how he felt about reading.  “It calms me,” he told me.  “It gives me something to do.”

It calms me.  I still remember him saying that to me, sitting in my classroom with the back door open, where a spring breeze wafted in and the sounds of kids eating lunch outside could’ve been a huge distraction.  But as Bull reflected on what reading did to him, the act of thinking about books took him away from our classroom and into a place of relaxation.

I loved watching reading transform Bull.

From war biographies, Bull moved to war fiction, then to books in verse, then to graphic novels, then to a variety of nonfiction titles.  He eschewed books about country life, popular fiction, and YA novels all year.

I’m thinking about Bull now as I reflect on the mirrors, windows, and doors we ask students to walk through in their reading lives.  I’m thinking about him as I reflect on Pernille Ripp’s plea for us to stop grading independent reading.  I’m thinking about how I approached Bull first with books I thought of as mirrors, but he was craving windows and doorways all along.  I’m thinking about how his whole junior year, he got 2/10s on reading logs, and I’m thinking about what a colossal mistake that was on my part.

So, last spring, I asked Bull to compile a list of his favorite books, and the draft has been sitting in my WordPress sidebar ever since.  I share it with you now to remind you that this list, a list for “any country boy,” in Bull’s words, is a list of books set far beyond the mountains of Appalachia–and represents a story that can never be told with an independent reading grade.

  1. Lone Survivor by Marcus Luttrell – “This was an amazing book.  It was a true story of a Navy SEAL, and his whole team got attacked in an ambush and he was the only one that lived.  Just the things that he gives you is like standing in war–it’s just amazing how something can give you so much detail that it seems to be real.”
  2. Article 5 by Kristen Simmons – “It was the end of the world basically, and there are a few kids running away from the people who were going to kill them.  It was also a really detailed book so I could imagine what the new world looked like.  I liked that book a lot.”
  3. Perfect by Ellen Hopkins – “This book was all about everything people give up to be perfect.  The whole time I was reading it, I just thought, nobody’s perfect–what is wrong with these people?  But it made me understand everybody else better.”
  4. The Auschwitz Escape by Joel Rosenberg – “Hitler ruled this book.  It was about war from a prisoner’s point of view, and it gave lots of detail about what he went through and what Hitler forced him into.  I would never have wanted to be part of World War II as a soldier or a prisoner.  That was some crazy shit.”
  5. Symphony for the City of the Dead by M.T. Anderson – “This one was really hard to understand compared to the other WWII books I read.  I picked it for my challenge book, and it was about what happened in Russia during World War II.  It taught me more about writing than about war, honestly.”
  6. Watchmen by Alan Moore – “This was my first graphic novel and I liked that it was and was not about war, at the same time. It was kind of about the cold war, but through the fighters’ eyes and not the politicians or the history books.”
  7. The Blind Side by Michael Lewis – “Well this book was nothing like the movie, but I wanted to read the book after I saw the movie.  It’s about a football player that came right out of the Bronx, basically had no mom, and he just went from clear down to about nothing to making millions of dollars a year playing in the NFL.  I got inspired by him how you can come from nothing to the NFL and you can do anything you put your mind to.”

Bull now works for the water company here in West Virginia, still lives on a farm…and still reads.  And the song of his reading life is so much broader than a hillbilly elegy.

Shana Karnes lives in West Virginia and teaches sophomore, junior, and senior preservice teachers at West Virginia University.  She finds joy in all things learning, love, and literature as she teaches, mothers, and sings her way through life.  Follow Shana on Twitter at @litreader or join her for the Slice of Life Writing Challenge here.

Why I Returned to Hard-Copy Grading

tumblr_maccshmi241rvog5q.gifGrading, grading, grading.

Sigh.

As the kids say, I literally cannot even.

Where do I begin?

Grading, to me, is one of the necessary evils of education–along with mandatory monthly fire drills, whole-building staff meetings, and standardized tests.  I have disliked it for the duration of my teaching career, as I have disliked all of those things, but I still have not found a way to avoid it.

When I left the high school classroom last May, one of the things I was happiest to let go was grading.  (That and those damned fire drills.)

But I didn’t expect to come to loathe grading even more when I began teaching college students.

There were a few reasons I disliked grading in my new job:  first, I found that, by dint of the course designs I inherited, that the only “grades” given were at the very end of the semester.  This meant that what little formative feedback was built into the course wasn’t seen as valuable–by the students nor the other instructors I was working with.  I sat in meetings where a colleague complained about “having to do all that reading and write all those comments for nothing” (“nothing” being no grade).  I thought to myself, wow, you’re missing the whole point of formative feedback.

Another thing I loathed was that most everything was electronic.  Any assignment due was expected to be turned in via email/eCampus/Google Drive two days prior to the class meeting, and the instructor was to give feedback and a grade before class began on Friday.  This meant that the only feedback about a student’s work was always only given by the instructor, and that students never saw one another’s work.

So, as the semester moved along, I began to make some changes to the course design:  more formative feedback, more frequent turn-in checkpoints for large assignments, lots of ungraded, low-stakes drafting of ideas in class.  We all hobbled to the end, adjusting assignments and expectations as we went.

But over the winter break, as I reflected and gathered the many post-its of ideas I’d stuck here and there, seeking to refine our syllabus and clarify our goals, I thought of one major change I could make that would solve a lot of my problems with the course.

Return to paper.

img_7291Good, old-fashioned, print-it-out-and-bring-it-to-class-and-turn-it-in assignment submission.

This practice has had a few key benefits for me so far this semester.  First, I am seeing much more clarity of thought in my students’ talk in class–I suspect because they’re treating their weekly one-pagers as first drafts of their thinking, and then re-reading them, as evidenced by their frequent typo corrections or asides to me in the margins.

Second, the issue of opacity between students’ assignment submissions is gone.  Each class meeting, I try to build in a time to share our writing, whether by trading papers, using our papers as an artifact to support some talk, or asking students to comment on one another’s work.  I ask students to read not just for content, to glean multiple perspectives, but also to read for structure, to see how other writers think through the issues we’re grappling with.  As a result, I’ve seen a great deal of growth in how students structure their writing, as well as a transformation in the confidence of their writing voices as they engage with (and often question) the ideas in the texts we read.

Third, we’ve been reading Visible Learners this semester, which encourages the practice of documentation for the purpose of reflection.  By having concrete documentation of our thinking in the form of hard-copy papers, as well as hard-copy documentation of responsive thinking in the form of my comments or their peers’ in the margins, it is much easier to trace patterns and progress in our thinking.

Fourth, I’ve found that removing laptops or tablets from the equation when students share work actually improves the quality of their conversation.  I’ve been reading widely about how detrimental our devices can be to our talk, so I’ve made a conscious effort to reduce our screen time in class.  Fewer devices lead to more robust dialogue, which leads to better thinking and writing and time together overall.

Finally, my students are now accustomed to receiving frequent formative feedback and have come to expect and welcome it.  Initially, the students were a little wary when they saw my scribbles, assuming they were all corrections, but then were delighted when they actually read the feedback a peer or I had left.  Now, they hunger for the moments when a friend hands them back their paper with a handwritten note, or I return assignments the next class.

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Switching to hard-copy grading has improved a great deal of my work with my students, and although I still haven’t come to love grading, I am enjoying it a lot more this semester.

Now to tackle that huge stack of one-pagers that’s been staring at me all morning…!

Shana Karnes lives in West Virginia and teaches sophomore, junior, and senior preservice teachers at West Virginia University.  She finds joy in all things learning, love, and literature as she teaches, mothers, and sings her way through life.  Follow Shana on Twitter at @litreader or join her for the Slice of Life Writing Challenge here.

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