Learning How To Embrace The Ambiguity by Shelby Scoffield

My first teaching job was at a brand new high school in California. Not only was I trying to figure out how to teach, I was trying to figure out how a high school actually functioned.

Because we were the first high school in our district, basic rules and procedures were not set in stone. Because of this, there were so many questions about absolutely everything. 

When my principal was asked a question that he didn’t know the answer to, he would just respond with: “Embrace the ambiguity!”

If I had a dollar for every time I heard that phrase. 

Despite the frustration that answer often caused, that phrase was one of the many things that transformed my teaching style. That year, I learned what it really meant to “roll with the punches” and to “go with the flow.” Most importantly, I learned to be okay with not knowing the answers. 

With thousands of schools facing unchartered waters next week,  I think the phrase “embrace the ambiguity” couldn’t be more relevant. As I go into my own experience with distance learning, here is what I am keeping in mind:

I need to be ready for chaos. I think it is safe to assume that the upcoming weeks will be a little bonkers. But then again, teaching is a gloriously bonkers profession. I got this. 

I need to help my students understand what is happening in the world. Before my school was temporarily closed, I made sure to have conversations with my students about the coronavirus. We read and annotated articles and I gave them a safe space to express their opinions. Because of the constantly dynamic situation the world is in, I am preparing to continue these conversations with my students online. 

–I am going to have to experiment and be prepared for some failures.  A couple of weeks ago I went to a craft store called Board and Brush. It is a three hour workshop where you make your own wooden design. During the lesson, I screeched because I messed up with the paint. I seriously thought my sixty eight dollars was down the toilet. But one of the employees came over, calmed me down, and fixed it for me. That is exactly what I plan on doing for my own students in the next couple of weeks.

— I am going to have to keep it simple. I don’t have to reinvent the wheel. I plan on using the tools I know and am familiar with to keep my students virtually engaged.

— I am going to be encouraging my students to read and write.  I plan on scrapping some old assignments and making room for reading and writing about current events. This is a significant time in history and students need to write down what they are experiencing. 

— I am going to make sure I am taking care of myself. It is a scary time friends. But let’s remember that we are not going to be able to take care of our students if we don’t take care of ourselves.

So let’s embrace the ambiguity folks because…..

Shelby Scoffield is a high school English teacher at Mountain House High School in Mountain House, CA. She would love to hear how you are “embracing the ambiguity” at your own school sites this week!

It’s Okay to Not Know What to Do Next

Today feels weird. 

Weirder than a normal Friday the 13th, full moon, week after time change. 

If you live in Ohio like Angela, you might feel like the world is burning. If you live in WI like Shana, you might feel like, what is happening?

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No matter where you live, we want to remind you that it’s okay not to know the answers today. It’s okay to take a deep breath, close your eyes, and wait a while until you begin to try to figure out next steps. 

It’s okay to give kids an (air) hug and send them on their way with excitement in your voice. That’s what they need. 

It’s okay to keep up your usual lunchtime rant sessions alongside colleagues instead of maintaining “social distance.” It’s okay to worry about where we might send our own children if their districts close and ours remain open. It’s okay to continue to allow large gatherings of students to gather in our classrooms for lunch. Normalcy isn’t necessarily a bad thing right now.

I’m in a school today and hear teachers saying, “Have a great spring break!” And as soon as the kids leave, teachers are gathering work, finding chromebooks to send home, and collaborating on next steps, preparing for the worst.

Maybe we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Maybe it’s okay to wait until Monday to see what unfolds. 

We want to create space as a community of teachers here at Three Teachers Talk to support each other. How might we figure out ways to eventually deliver instruction to kids remotely? It’s not enough to just assign StoryWorks, or send links home, or hope our kids have access to Schoology or Flipgrid. How can we continue to create space for our student communities to support each other? How can we make those experiences meaningful…ish? 

But that’s a post for later. 

Today we just want to join together in a collective hug deep breath gesture of support that doesn’t involve droplet transmission of any kind. 

Because we’re teachers. And we got this. 

Angela Faulhaber is a literacy coach in Cincinnati, Ohio, and Shana Karnes teaches in Madison, Wisconsin. Together, they support one another’s practice, reassure each other about political, social, and healthcare upheavals, and keep each other motivated to write through the use of witty text messages and snarky GIFs. May you find an equally like-minded teacher friend to help you survive and succeed in these trying times. Connect with us on Twitter at @wordnerd and @litreader, respectively.

Experimenting with reading portfolios

Fake reading and readicide have been well documented as the enemies of English teachers everywhere. The workshop model does a nice job of thwarting each by offering students choice and ownership over their reading lives. In a previous post Shana suggested that if the reading is authentic and student-centered that it can even be independent from grades. Finding the balance of autonomy and accountability is still a challenge, though–how do we turn students loose to explore books while still gathering evidence of their mastery of the reading standards?

This year I resolved to rely less on quizzes or study guides that are averaged into a grade as a way to solve this dilemma. The last few years I’ve been moving more toward a combination of one-on-one conferencing and informal reading check-ins that gave students space to respond to what they’re reading while also demonstrating some skill mastery. This year I decided that I would experiment with reading portfolios in my junior English classes and ask students to gather evidence of their reading in one place that would comprise a quarterly reading grade. It is a more holistic approach to considering their reading work. This is the rough progression we’ve followed:

Goalsetting

At the top of our collection doc I asked students to consider their reading lives and to set a goal for that quarter. You can see a quick example here:

A student’s reading goals from Bell 1
A student’s reading goals from Bell 1

Delineate the types of reading

  • Volume (independent reading, pleasure reading) skill focus: development of ideas and themes
  • Speed (for ACT-type scenarios) skill focus: comprehension
  • Depth (close reading, annotations, classroom discussions, etc.) skill focus: comprehension, style analysis

Each type of reading requires something different from readers. The task was to find good evidence of each type from each unit. This allowed students to choose our reading check-ins, pieces we annotated or discussed together, or to build other ways to interact with their independent reading. The goal was to learn what strategies make sense for each type of reading that we do and to develop strategies for annotating short works versus tracking information in longer works versus reading to find test answers. 

Gather artifacts and experiences

Once we understood the different types, I was able to better organize classtime to meet those goals. Our reading workshop time was mainly spent on volume, but occasionally we’d do a check-in that asked students to reflect on their books that they could use as evidence of depth. 

For speed we would periodically test our comprehension using ACT or AP Comp/AP Lit practice passages. We simulated the pressure of time and discussed test-taking strategies, test-making strategies, and what it means to read a short text with rigor. I never counted these as actual scores, only as experiences they needed to complete. This took some pressure off and enabled them to engage with learning how to learn.

Finally, when we read poems, articles, or other short texts together as a class I always point out that if they choose to annotate or reflect on the piece that they can use it as a piece of evidence for depth. Most will take me up on it. This gives some choice and ownership over the annotation tasks instead of me requiring post-it notes on every chapter of Gatsby. In reality I can tell from one or two artifacts whether or not a student is actively engaging the text in effective ways. You can see a few images below of how one student collected the artifacts:

Discuss quality of the artifacts

Because I didn’t want the portfolio to simply be a completion grade we tried to attach some traits to strong reading responses, specifically for depth. I essentially trusted what I saw in daily reading workshop times and some informal check-ins for volume, counted the practice tests as completion for speed, and then used depth as the category to focus on assessing. I used an informal rubric that focused on the specificity and complexity of their interactions since those are the two words/skills we’d been focusing on, but you could adapt to the specific traits you’re hoping to capture in their reading work.

The end products are not pretty (Student example from Q1; Student example from Q2)–I’m sure there are better technology solutions to explore–but they do offer me a decent picture of what each individual student is up to as a reader in a way that I wasn’t able to see when I collected and averaged quizzes and study guide questions. It’s improved the vocabulary of our discussion about tasks. And ultimately it has helped continue the shift of ownership over their reading life from me to them, which is the end goal of workshop. 

Nathan Coates teaches junior English at Mason High School, a large suburban district near Cincinnati, Ohio. He is excited to start reading the final installment of the Wolf Hall trilogy.

AP Lang Students Read a Variety of Texts: Student Voice and Student Choice Increase Both Volume and Love of Reading

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The Firm; Congo; The Tipping Point; Under the Banner of Heaven; A Deadly Wandering; Crazy Rich Asians; All the Missing Girls; Blackberry Winter; Memoirs of a Geisha; The Omnivore’s Dilemma; Unbroken; In the Time of the Butterflies; The Power of One; The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks; Inventing Human Rights; Where the Crawdads Sing; The Time Traveler’s Wife; Blink; The DaVinci Code; How to Stop Time; Thinking Fast and Slow; Girls and Sex; One Hundred Years of Solitude; There is No Me Without You; Dark Money; Deception Point

I recently asked my eleventh grade AP Language and Composition students to share with each other their “favorite” books from the school year. I explained to them that they didn’t have to choose just one, and they didn’t have to pick the top book of the year if they couldn’t decide. They just had to list some favorites. They were happy to oblige!

The variety of topics and genres was a lot of fun to see on the list.

Some of the nonfiction that was popular wasn’t necessarily a surprise. I’ve loved some of these titles, too.

I read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks last summer and loved it so much that I bought four copies for my classroom library. I thought it was a great book for many reasons – it appeals to students who love science, history, ethics, and great writing. Several of my students have read it this year, and it made the list of favorite books.

One of my students read Inventing Human Rights during the first half of the year, and she’s still not over it. She went on to read A World Made New: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights because she was feeling inspired.

Another one of the titles that I have heard several students talk about this school year is Peggy Orenstein’s Girls and Sex.

 

Because of their interest and thoughtful conversation about this book, I ordered a copy of Orenstein’s new book, Boys and Sex for next year’s new classroom library books.

 

AP Lang titles

The Firm; Congo; The Tipping Point; Under the Banner of Heaven; A Deadly Wandering; Crazy Rich Asians; All the Missing Girls; Blackberry Winter; Memoirs of a Geisha; The Omnivore’s Dilemma; Unbroken; In the Time of the Butterflies; The Power of One; The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks; Inventing Human Rights

My students aren’t just reading nonfiction, even though that is the primary focus of AP Lang.

Congo and The Firm are some classic thrillers that some students have nearly inhaled, they’ve read them so quickly. All the Missing Girls is a more current well-loved title, and it’s not just a thriller; it’s written so the timeline is backwards, which makes it a bit more complicated to follow, and I love that my students are tackling this kind of challenge.

Another work of fiction that doesn’t ever seem to be on my shelf – it’s always checked out – is Crazy Rich Asians. I made sure to order another copy as well as the rest of the trilogy, so next year I’ll have some happy students.

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There are quite a few titles that have made the list of favorites, and most of them are from my classroom library rather than our main school library. I truly believe that the immediacy of availability along with the daily book talks are what have made these books interesting and intriguing enough to my students that they try them out, take them home, and declare them as favorites.

Immediacy of availability along with awareness of their existence, plus the expectation and option of student choice become a powerful combination. Authentic readers like wildly different texts sometimes, and other times love the same titles, but are ready for them at different times. The poster with the titles is helpful for this because students can find recommendations as they are ready for them, and can choose their own timing.

The fact that sixteen and seventeen-year-old students have favorite titles makes me happy. The fact that these titles are smart, thoughtful, and challenging is even better.

Julie has been teaching secondary language arts for more than twenty years, spending the first fifteen in rural Central Oregon, four in Amman, Jordan, and the most recent school years in Managua, Nicaragua. 

Follow her on twitter @SwinehartJulie

Pairing Poetry & Nonfiction

One of my favorite literary pairings is that of a nonfiction piece and a poem. Opinion columns, argumentative essays, editorials, and biographies strike me so much more strongly when I connect them to a short, sweet, descriptive text like a poem.

Maybe it’s because I feel like the prose of Leonard Pitts, Jr. reads more like poetry. Maybe it’s because when I read Ta-Nehisi Coates I feel like I’m listening to a song. Maybe it’s because when I read Mary Karr or Tina Fey or Roxane Gay or Elizabeth Gilbert or Joan Didion I feel like I’m enjoying a piece of performance art rather than just reading “nonfiction.”

So, connecting nonfiction and poetry seems natural to me, which is perhaps why I so loved “Black Like Me” by Renee Watson. Watson, a prolific YA author who’s also an educator, reimagines John Howard Griffin’s original book into a combination essay/poem that feels like a cohesive narrative rather than two separate genres. I loved reading it alongside students this week and discussing how relevant this piece still is, although it’s describing a time fifty years in the past.

The pairing of a poem with an essay was a powerful one with which our students practiced intertextuality and close reading. I urge you to take a look at this text with your students, or try out the poem-nonfiction pairing of your choice…and consider sharing those pairings with us in the comments!

Shana Karnes works in Madison, Wisconsin alongside fabulous students, colleagues, and a professional learning community second to none. She works with teachers in the Greater Madison Writing Project and 9th through 12th graders in all content areas. Connect with Shana on Twitter at @litreader.

The Power of Multimodal Composition

By Sarah Krajewski

Writing, Redefined by Shawna Coppola

I’m always looking for new ways to change things up in my classroom, and this year my plan was to revise my research units. Both my 9th and 12th graders have to incorporate research, and in the past, that always meant writing a paper. Recently, however, I read Shawna Coppola’s latest, and highly recommended book, Writing Redefined: Broadening Our Ideas of What It Means to Compose. This book made me rethink what my research units could look like.

Why go multimodal?

Coppola makes the case for incorporating “multimodal compositions,” which incorporate more than one mode instead of just the traditional alphabetical form. Instead of leaving these other modalities behind in early elementary school, students of all ages can (and should) incorporate illustrations like sketches and maps, or digital components like infographics, photos, and audio. The more modalities, the more decisions our students are making. Talk about rigor!

So, how could one go multimodal? Though my seniors and I are still in the early stages, here’s what we’ve done so far:

Begin by Taking an Inquiry Stance – As Coppola says, taking an “inquiry stance” allows students to “coconstruct and better retain knowledge” (23). Start by assessing what students already know, and then immerse them in that multimodal text. For my 12th grade research unit, we immersed ourselves in various multimodal mentor texts (like this one) in order to study how to put our own together. After sharing our noticings, I looked for patterns to create mini-lessons my students would find helpful.

Work with Your School’s Tech Integrator – I don’t know if all schools have one, but my tech integrator is fabulous! After explaining how I wanted to incorporate multimodal compositions into my curriculum, she introduced my students and me to Google Sites (see my sample below). Our interests were peaked! We are now in the application stage, so my students are in the midst of creating their own Google Site. As we move along, I often direct them back to our mentor texts so they can further explore.

My Google Site
Ways to go multimodal

You May Already Incorporate Multimodal Compositions – After reading Coppola’s book, I realized that I already incorporate multimodal compositions quite often. I do, however, plan to add more. With my upcoming 9th grade research unit, we will create infographics and work in audio. My students will still learn all the necessary research skills, but they will present their findings in more than just the alphabetical form. Afterward, I look forward to exploring many other modes of learning, for there are endless possibilities.

After writing my last post about my desire to add more joy into my classroom, I have found that multimodal compositions do just that. I see that creative spark in my seniors’ eyes as they venture beyond the typical research paper to create their Google Sites. They are making myriad decisions than the typical research paper would allow for. They feel empowered as they prepare themselves for the digital world they will soon go into on their own. Our students need more opportunities like this.

Sarah Krajewski teaches 9th and 12th grade English and Journalism at Cleveland Hill High School near Buffalo, New York.  She is currently in her 18th year of teaching, and is always looking for new, creative ways to help her students enjoy learning, reading, and writing. You can follow Sarah on Twitter @shkrajewski and her blog can be viewed at http://skrajewski.wordpress.com/.

Three Reasons We Should Stop Teaching the 5-Paragraph Essay (and what we can do instead)

Wait! Before you get ticked off, hear me out.

I had never heard of a “5-Paragraph Essay” when I was a student. We wrote essays. Sometimes stories, sometimes research, sometimes about the books we read. In college, my professors wanted me to have a strong thesis, but never did they talk to me about how many paragraphs I should have.

When I became a teacher, though, I was inundated with this new (to me) way of thinking about writing. I had no clue how to teach kids how to write. I was just good at it, I thought. Therefore, this formulaic approach to writing clicked with me. I liked the directness, the accessibility. And frankly, I liked how it made it just a little easier for me to assess writing. “It’s like training wheels,” I told myself.

Here’s the thing, though. We never took the training wheels off. Kids were going to college, or into life, without knowing how to ride the bike.

So, why do I think we should abandon this idea of the “5-Paragraph-You-Know-What” (a term coined by my favorite writing teacher, Tom Romano)?

This writing doesn’t exist in the real world

I can’t remember the last time I clicked on a blog, or read a newspaper or a smart analysis of a film, and counted the paragraphs. I read to find the idea, to see how the writer leads me through their thinking. There are no editors anywhere telling writers, “Okay, this is a good start, but you don’t have five paragraphs.”

Because I want to develop students who see themselves as writers beyond my classroom, I have to ask myself why I continue to privilege a genre that seems to only live in school (if your answer is the test, keep reading). Can high quality writing be five paragraphs long? Sure! Does it have to be? Nope.

This writing privileges form over content

Screen Shot 2020-03-02 at 2.02.28 PMWhen students are overly concerned with how long their writing is, they lose sight of the important stuff, like content. They fill paragraphs with half-plagiarized evidence, or sprinkle in cumbersome transition words. They’re more concerned with adornment than substance.

Conversely, for many students, focusing on the number of paragraphs shuts them down. They see it as insurmountable, so they don’t even try. And before anyone accuses me of saying kids don’t have to know how to organize their writing, let’s just stop right there. Writers organize their writing. What writers don’t do, though, is say “This has to be a body paragraph with 5-7 sentences, and evidence.” No, instead writers focus on WHAT they want to say and then they figure out HOW to say it.

This writing doesn’t grow writers

About four years into teaching, I had an epiphany. Students weren’t getting better at writing 5-paragraph essays. Many of the kids I’d taught as 9th graders still needed the support when I had them again as juniors. Often kids ended up filling in a graphic organizer I created just so they had something to write about (and by graphic organizer, I mean fill-in-the-blanks dressed up like an outline. Cringe.)

I realized that this kind of writing wasn’t helping them to become better at thinking, at teasing out a train of thought, and developing it across a piece of writing. And if the thing I kept doing wasn’t working, than maybe… I should think about doing something else.

So what do we do instead?

  • Read Like Writers: I have a total teacher crush on The New York Times Writing Curriculum. When I read through one of the winner’s of last year’s Student Editorial Contest “Nothing Comes Between Me and My Sushi...Except Plastic” I notice a few things:Screen Shot 2020-03-02 at 1.27.53 PM When I model for my writers what it looks like to read like a writer, we start to notice thing we can do in our own writing, and more importantly, we can start to think about HOW we can do them in our own writing.

 

  • Focus on Content Before Form: When I look further into this piece of writing, I notice how the writer develops an idea. She’s doing all the things I hope for my own writers. In addition to what’s above (a thesis, a hook, incorporating research), she also anticipates the counter argument AND pushes back. She’s not dropping this counter-argument in because it’s what she has to do. She’s doing it because it makes sense. She has been building up to it.Screen Shot 2020-03-02 at 1.26.24 PM

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  • Teach test-writing… and LOTS of other kinds of writing too: If you feel you absolutely have to teach the 5-Paragraph Essay because they’ll need it on The Test, then I encourage you to spend most of the year immersed in the study of the craft of writing (start checking out The AV Club, Players Tribune. Follow #wildwriting or #beyondanalysis). Teach students about the moves writers make in writing. We still talk about transition words, thesis statements, adding reasoning, and writing effective conclusions. But now, it is within the context of the craft of writing. Then, a few weeks before the test, teach students how to transfer all those skills to the test. Remember that nowhere in our standards does it mention that students have to write five paragraphs. They have to write multi-paragraphs, sure. But that could be three, or seven, or five. Nowhere in the rubrics from the state (if you’re using Common Core or something like it) does it talk about how many paragraphs students should have. Instead, it looks at content development, ideas flowing. 

Still not convinced? That’s okay. I encourage you to read John Warner’s book Why They Can’t Write: Killing the 5-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities. Screen Shot 2020-03-02 at 2.02.12 PMIn here, Warner, who’s a college professor, talks about how limiting this kind of writing is, and explores other ways of teaching. For ways of thinking about literary analysis, check out Rebekah O’Dell and Allison Marchetti’s book Beyond Literary Analysis. And Kim Campbell and Kristi Latimer’s book Beyond the 5-Paragraph Essay is a great resource. Sign up for a class at your local National Writing Project site.

Whatever your next step is, I encourage you to help kids take the training wheels off, to ride the bike on their own. They might crash, and that’s okay. That’s when the learning is happening!

Angela Faulhaber is a literacy coach in Cincinnati, OH. She is blogging this month as part of the Slice of Life challenge at Two Writing Teachers, and thus, is seeing every interaction as a potential writing piece. Join her!

 

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