Tag Archives: research

Kids These Days Are Amazing

I know this title is going to cause some teacher eye rolls because it is rough in education right now. Some of us are using every classroom management tool we can think of and still struggling with refusals to work or listen. I get it- I am there, too.

However, despite this year being even more difficult than last due to social-emotional needs we weren’t expecting, I still think kids these days are amazing. I don’t think I could show up to work everyday if I let this belief go.

I like to use this countercultural phrase because we often hear “kids these days don’t want to learn” or “kids these days don’t know how to make choices for themselves” or “kids these days just don’t care.” I wholeheartedly believe this is not true. Kids, like all human-beings, have an innate need to learn and make sense of the world. Right now, a global pandemic, a year of less connection, continued uncertainty, etc. has caused learning to end up on the backburner of needs. Am I saying this means teachers should just suck it up and deal with the environment of burnout we are experiencing? Absolutely not. We have also been through all of these draining circumstances, too, and we have to give ourselves grace and maybe even a break. The only thing I ask from you is to stop, look around, and see what’s going right. YOU are doing many things right.

I had my own moment of revelation as I sat in bed for days grading our most recent project while I am quarantined for COVID (my case is not bad, and I am doing okay). This quarter, our sophomore English students chose a nonfiction book on any topic they wanted that made them curious and they wanted to know more about. Students chose books like Lone Survivor and Stamped and I Have The Right To. They read about true crime, UFOs, wars, history, racism, assault, poverty, the justice system, psychology and on and on.

My inspiration when creating this project was from those ordinary moments we all experience: we are sitting on the coach watching a movie or reading a book and a question about what we are reading/watching pops in our heads. “Did that historical event actually happen?” “Did those actors break up?” Then, we find ourselves down a rabbit-hole of research from which we emerge half an hour later after reading about how asparagus might cure unwanted hair loss. Though I am making light of this common phenomenon, it demonstrates the yearning to know and understand in our real lives. I wanted to create that phenomenon as authentically as I could for my students while fostering independent reading.

Inquiry Project Details

As students read the nonfiction books they chose, they kept an inquiry log of questions that arose for them as they read their book; they took these questions into our research days to find out more information about a topic in their book. For example, multiple students read about sexual assault and wanted to know statistics about assault in America. At the end of our time reading, questioning, and researching, the students created either a podcast, a TED talk, or a website to present their learning to their peers. This project involved choice, authentic research, authentic product, digital literacy, and authentic publishing. The conversations, products, and learning that came from this project were superb. I had to take a few moments to just stop and bask in the goosebumps-producing joy that is kids being freed to learn what they want to learn.

Of course, there were lots of road bumps (or even total road closures) along the way. We had issues with students picking random books without a lot of consideration as to their interest in it to just get their reading check grade. We had students who didn’t or wouldn’t read. There were lots of absences and catching students up. And we also dealt with a total lack of knowledge in research because of the circumstances of their last two years of school.

For students who picked books they didn’t actually want to read, the remedy was pushing them hard to read in the first two weeks with the option of abandoning their book. Some kids still didn’t read enough within the two weeks to know if they enjoyed their book or not, so those students were stuck with their book and the lesson to choose more carefully next time. For students who had a hard time getting started in their reading (always the toughest, but most important time!), my colleague, Kristal All, created these awesome bookmark trackers so students could practice making checkpoints along the way for themselves. These led to some good conversations about goal-setting, following through, and the mess we make for ourselves when we don’t do the work early on. We also had reading conferences to check in on their progress, understanding, and enjoyment of the book as well as to check in on what kinds of questions students were asking about their books. They kept track of their questions on this document.

Many students started out asking questions that would later be answered in the book or questions about the author’s thoughts/feelings. As we continued in our reading, we steered students toward asking broader questions about the topics that arose in the book that would be better for outside research. We kept reminding them that if the question could be answered by the book, it wasn’t a research question. It took a little while to get them out of a compliance mode and into true curiosity, but the work was worth it for true learning.

Every two weeks, we had a research day. We would start with a mini-lesson such as using the benefits of using the databases, bias in sources, or reliable vs. unreliable sources. The students would then be released on their own to do their research. For my level students in particular, I highly encouraged them to stay on our school databases so they did not have to do the extra work of determining reliability/credibility and so their citations would be made for them. I plan to do some more lessons to open up their research to the whole web next quarter. Our first research day really helped students reframe their thinking about what kinds of questions they should be asking as they read their books.

We used these charts to have conversations about bias in media and when it’s appropriate to use certain sources. For this project, we encouraged them to stick to the center of the bias chart, if researching outside of the databases, since this was supposed to be purely informational.

At the end of the quarter, students chose what mode of media they wanted to present their project in- TED Talk, podcast or Google website. They were given this sheet of instructions, tutorials, and planning documents. The intention was for students to get a major grade for the project and a major grade for presenting. This was our rubric for the product they created. My getting COVID messed up presentations for my classes, but I think it still heightened the level of product I received from the students. For the TED Talk and podcast, students would simply play their media for the class and answer questions at the end. For websites, students would have to present in real-time in front of the class and answer questions. The podcast was a popular choice for students since they didn’t have to be on camera, they got to re-record as many times as needed, and they could potentially read off of their script without anyone knowing. It was also fantastic for my students who are learning English as a second (or third or fourth) language. They got to practice the very important skill of speaking, and I was so impressed with how hard they worked on these.

Student Products

I did this with both my level and my honors ELA II classes. This podcast was produced by a wonderful young lady in my honors class, Brooklyn Spikes (tw: it deals with the topic of sexual assault). She sounded like a podcasting professional, and I think everyone can feel the passion in her speaking. This podcast was created by a student in my level class, Enzo, and my favorite parts are the well-timed comedic pauses and asides.

I wish I could share the amazing websites students have done, but my district has publishing settings where only those inside the district can access the sites. Nevertheless, I will share that many students knocked it out of the part with their website design, flow, engaging details, etc. I have received no TED Talks, and I am still reflecting on why that option wasn’t chosen.

The Joy in it All

I chose to share this project because, at its core, it is a pretty simple idea from which I saw such a powerful effect. It wasn’t easy, as seen in all of our setbacks above, but I think the students were more engaged in their reading and more excited to learn than they have been for a couple of semesters. I know I felt immense joy every time I had a reading conference, and I got to see the light in my students’ eyes as they passionately explained their topic to me. That’s why I say kids these days are amazing. They are very much re-learning how to “do school,” but I think this proves that they are up to the task and that authenticity and choice lead to ultimate engagement. I will also add that this project could not have been as successful without the wide-ranging availability of books for students to choose from (with permission slips from their parents saying they will talk to their children about what they feel is appropriate for them to read). There are many counterarguments to book bans, but above is mine. I hope these resources are helpful to you in some way. Keep hanging in there, teacher. Your work is making a difference.

Rebecca Riggs is in her 5th year of teaching, but her first year at Conroe High School. She just finished reading The Cousins by Karen McManus and really enjoyed another thrilling mystery from the author. She would like to thank COVID for nothing except the little margin it afforded in which she was able to write this blog post. She is starting her Master of Education in curriculum and instruction at UT Tyler in January, but has no plans to leave the classroom soon. She does, however, wonder when she will find time to post on the blog. Her next read will be Somebody’s Daughter by Ashley C. Ford. You can find her on twitter @rebeccalriggs or on instragram @riggsreaders

“Give Jack he jacket”: Teaching Student Writers How & Why to Give Credit by Tosh McGaughy

Before a recent literacy conference in my state, an educator I follow, Lois Marshall Barker (@Lit_Bark), tweeted a popular phrase from Grenada, “Give Jack he jacket.” She was reminding everyone to cite their sources in presentations, and I fell in love with the phrase. Though ethical and academic standards for copyright, plagiarism, and citation have been a part of our literary world for centuries, the instantaneous access to seemingly infinite resources and information of the internet generation has changed the conversation. While formatting those citations in my youth required purchasing the latest edition of the required style guide, now students can easily use digital sites or add-ons to do the formatting in just a click. What have become the more crucial skills to teach are discerning the credibility of the sources that are being cited and avoiding plagiarizing the ideas of others.

Teachers and librarians are teaching critical inquiry lessons to help students learn to evaluate the deluge of information available to them in simple browser searches. A quick Google search will yield many excellent #fakenews lessons. Both Common Core and other state standards include evaluating sources, avoiding plagiarism, and citing properly. While many educators consider these to be College and Career Readiness standards, given the meteoric rise of social media as a news source, these standards actually deserve to be labeled “the most essential standards”.

As “the most essential standards”, the ideas of evaluating a source or author and then giving accurate credit (Give Jack he jacket) must be taught explicitly and modeled with every different piece of text that students are invited to interact with in the classroom. Teaching these standards only when students are doing a research project or paper isolates or compartmentalizes these fundamental skills when they are truly skills that all literate adults must master in order to navigate the inundation of digital information that is at our fingertips or in our feeds.  

With the open access to information that technology provides, plagiarism now can be a simple act of “cut and paste”, so understanding the ethical reasons for avoiding plagiarism and giving credit to authors must be an on-going, face-to-face, teacher-student conversation. Writing conferences provide teachers with many quick opportunities to check-in with students throughout the writing process, and these conversations can grow ethical student writers in deeper ways than simply paying for an expensive on-line plagiarism checker and rarely talking about or modeling how to avoid plagiarism. If only for this one reason, secondary language arts teachers have to find creative ways to make a routine of writing conferences.

As a parent of teens, I have had many conversations about “right and wrong” with my own children who have grown up in a very different world (technologically speaking) than I did just 25 years ago. Heated debates about finding and downloading “free” movies and books on-line has helped me understand how crucial (and frequent) these discussions must be in classrooms, too. The teen default response,“Everyone else does it”, really does seem to apply in this instance, but I firmly believe that teaching “right from wrong” does work when done repeatedly, systematically, and relevantly. And, I think these “most essential standards” must be taught by one writer to another writer and not simply relegated to a digital algorithm that “checks” for less-than-ethical choices. 

Please share (in the comments below) your best lessons and resources for teaching how and why to avoid plagiarism. 

A few resources:

Commonsense Media CultofPedagogy AMLElesson

PBS Learning Media NYTimes Anti-Fakenews Apps

Allsides.com The Flipside Snopes.com

An Intervention Change Up and a Plug for Summer Learning

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Photo by Brady Cook on Unsplash

I bet I am more ready for summer than you. No, really. I am SO ready.

It’s not that I don’t like my job. It’s not that I am not having tons of great learning experiences with my students — they are doing beautiful things. It’s not that all things testing come crushing in this time of year (TELPAS, STAAR, AP) and make me daydream of working at a spa folding towels. It’s really none of that. It’s not even that I need a vacation — although I do. Did we already have Spring Break? (Oh, yeah, we did.)

It’s this:  Last summer I had one of the most amazing, awe-inspiring experiences of my teaching life. And I get a do over this summer.

Last summer I got to work with a powerhouse group of ELAR teachers in Clear Creek ISD with my friend and collaborator, Billy Eastman. I met Coach Moore who now writes on this blog and many other true blue educators dedicated to doing the work of workshop instruction and determined to do right by their readers and writers.

I could go on and on and on. But I won’t because Billy and I already did.

We wrote about our planning and implementation of that summer learning in this article “An Intervention Change Up: Investing in Teacher Expertise to Transform Student Learning,” recently published in English Journal.

I hope you’ll read it. Think about the intervention routines on your campus. Are they good for all students? Will they increase confidence in the hearts and minds of your readers and writers? Will they help students gain skills — or reinforce their lack of them?

And what about teachers? What’s in that work for you?

I’d love to know your thoughts. And if we can help, please let us know that, too.

Amy Rasmussen teaches English IV and AP English Language and Composition at a large senior high school in North TX. She is grateful to the North Star of TX Writing Project and Penny Kittle for showing her the benefits of choice and challenge; otherwise, she would probably still be dragging students through Dickens’ novels and pulling her hair our over plagiarized essays. Thank God she learned a better way. Follow Amy @amyrass and @3TeachersTalk. And please join the Three Teachers Talk Facebook page if you haven’t already. Join the conversation and share the good news of your workshop classroom.

To the Woods: The Importance of Stopping to Reflect While on the Journey

In a recent twitter chat for AP Literature teachers hosted by Talks with Teachers Brian Sztabnik, he opened the chat with a prompt: identify a poem befitting of the weather conditions. Robert Frost’s “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening.” Too on the nose, my husband would say. Yet for me–given weather conditions and classroom conditions–it felt natural, not as a text to teach but as a text to prompt the kind of introspection I needed. As a teacher, I am at a stopping point, a midway point in the year where I gain new students (I teach on the block schedule). I have miles to go before I sleep (#Englishteacherlife). But before I try to fulfill those promises to my new students, I need to go to the dark places, to the woods of my mind. And stop. Stop moving from one thing to the next. My teacher life desperately needs this stillness. In the woods of my mind, I can truly reflect and determine how to keep moving forward on the miles ahead, discovering the ways I can uphold my responsibilities to my students and to myself.

As I paused, visiting my own woods, I reflected and wondered yet again: do my students have enough opportunities to go their dark places, their woods? I don’t mean social-emotional dark places. Instead, I mean the darkness and woods of their learning journey as writers where they must ponder thickets and brambles and branches–the very things that trip them and rip them up as writers. No, they don’t. As a teacher who regularly pushes students to reflect because of its impact on self-regulation skills, this year I’ve gotten buried under new content and new approaches. It seems I’ve let my commitment to reflection on not just product but also process get covered up by the deep snow of other stuff. Yes, my students reflected at the end of each essay, but what were my students missing by not pausing for more profound reflection in the midst of their journeys? What chances to directly impact their writing processes did I miss?

My students’ end-of-the-term portfolios, where they presented artifacts and reflected on their writing process journey, certainly carried me deeper into the woods–theirs and mine–and I learned about what we missed.

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These are the end-of-the-term reflection questions with which we asked students to engage.

Students not only narrated how their writing processes changed and what went well with their writing but also what could have gone better and what they would do differently if they could rewind and start over. Their reflections were lovely, dark, and deep. Here are a few samples.

Student A’s reflections: 

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Student B’s reflections:

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Student C’s reflections:Screen Shot 2018-02-04 at 9.59.26 PM

As I re-read their end of Term 1 reflections and then later really paused to consider their Term 2 reflections, I recognized why I need to force those pauses in the midst of the journey more often. Yes, many of my students, like Student A, pondered their processes overall and showed improvement in self-regulation. But, Students B and C are far more indicative of missed visits to the woods. I could have mentored Student B more to take calculated risks throughout the process, and both Students B and C could have benefitted from more coaching regarding peer collaboration. There are, it seems, so many more opportunities for learning if I create the conditions for true pauses during the process. Sharon Pianko’s “Reflection: A Critical Component of the Composing Process” from 1979 (when researching the relationship between composing and reflection was new) speaks to this:

It is reflection which stimulates the growth of consciousness in students about the numerous mental and linguistic strategies they command and about the many lexical, syntactical, and organizational choices they make–many of which occur simultaneously–during the act of composing. The ability to reflect on what is being written seems to be the essence of the difference between the able and not so able writers from their initial writing experience onward.

I have a responsibility to help my students become “able” writers. And, now I’m all too full of eagerness to move, bells of expectation ringing, full of purpose toward that responsibility.

This term my colleague and I intend to schedule deep reflection time–true pauses to reflect on process not product–on a regular basis. We must prioritize this. Sure, at first, my new students might think it strange to stop. And to stop where we do. They might even think it’s a mistake. But I know better now. I’m inviting them to the woods, empowering them first to reflect and then to find their way onward, ably, through the snow.

For resources on reflection, check out two of my recent “go-to’s”:

Angela Stockman’s Blog Post “Ten Reflective Questions to Ask at the End of Class”: I appreciate question 7: it’s all about the journey. Allison Marchetti and Rebekah O’Dell’s Writing with Mentors: their checkpoint questions provide a systematic approach to the kind of reflection we’re after.

 

Kristin Jeschke teaches College Prep English (senior English) and AP Language and Composition at Waukee High School in Waukee, Iowa. She doesn’t mind the snow, enjoys the woods, appreciates the poetry of Robert Frost, prizes reflection, and loves her students. Follow her @kajeschke.

So You Don’t Think Workshop Works? 5 Reasons You are Wrong

It doesn’t take much to fire me up.

Last month, I sat listening to Pernille Ripp speak at the TCTELA Conference in Galveston, TX. I’d just spent an hour walking along the beach and thinking about the presentation I would give in an hour. I’d subtitled it “Reimagining Literacy Through Secondary Readers-Writers Workshop.”

Pernille spoke as if our minds were fused. Her passion was my passion. Her beliefs were my beliefs. I haven’t read her books, but I quickly put them in my online cart.

She said some things I needed to remember to say, so I opened up my laptop and fell into an argument. A colleague had sent an email with a link to a neighboring high school’s online news article about my district’s new ELA curriculum, a curriculum that invites choice and challenge and allows teachers the freedom to plan instruction based on the individual needs of her students. It aligns with our state standards, which align with College and Career Readiness Standards. It does not require any specific texts be taught, but it does offer suggestions. Therein lies the rub.

While the student writers wrote a fine piece for high school journalists, they highlighted some erroneous conclusions about choice reading and the instructional rigor that it offers. They also seemed to side with those uninformed to the research and practical application of the workshop method of instruction. Those who just don’t get it.

I had a bit more moxie when I presented that day.

If you’ve heard me speak, or read this blog for any length of time, you know I’ve been on this journey a long while. Workshop instruction is not easy. And giving up control is only a slice of the hard part. But with talking, training, continual reading of research-based practices, and reflexive moves as a teacher, it works. It works to help students identify as readers and writers, and it works to prepare them for the work of college and the careers that will come after it.

In my presentation, I shared the why of workshop and needed more time to share the how. Later, it struck me:  The how can only happen when we fully understand the why, and the why only becomes clear when we are open to understanding it.

And there are probably a lot of teachers who are working hard to make choice work who need a lot more support and training to make it as successful as they know it can be.

A few days later, my colleague forwarded me her rebuttal to the students’ news article and asked for my feedback. I did not have anything to add to her remarks. They spoke to the need of fidelity to a choice model, specifically to the advantages of independent reading, and the importance of teachers being active celebrators of books and talking to students about their reading. But I did have a few thoughts related to a lot of other things regarding the subtext of the initial attack on our new curriculum. (Of course, I did.)

On SSR and Independent Reading. There is a difference, although the two are often misused synonymously. Both prove beneficial to students readers. SSR is usually choice without parameters and little accountability, except for celebrating books and teachers conferring with students about their reading lives in an attempt to get and keep them reading. Independent reading is a much more structured approach to choice. 

With independent reading, we teach using our books to study the strategies for becoming better readers and writers. We might suggest parameters like reading certain genres or books with specific themes. We might have students go into their books and find examples of characterization, how the writers move the plot forward, descriptions of setting, etc. — basically, we teach in mini-lesson format all the skills we might otherwise teach with whole class novels. Few teachers I know new to the idea of choice know this difference between SSR and the more complex approach to choice with Independent Reading. In my AP Language class, I do a combination of both.

On Research. The research is immense on the importance of experiential reading. I am sure you are familiar with Louise Rosenblatt’s work on Transactional Theory. Many other edu-researchers today build upon it, most recently Jeffrey Wilhelm, Kylene Beers, Bob Probst, and Penny Kittle. Today few high school English teachers I meet outside this blog circle understand this research. They teach the way they were taught, and many came to be English teachers because they love literature, not because they believe their job is to teach students to become readers and writers.

If we were to ask:  What is the theory that guides your practice? They would not be able to answer. I always refer to the research of Richard Allington and often quote an article he wrote with Rachel Gabrielle, Every Child Every Day. All students need the six things they mention, yet high school teachers often discount this research claiming:  That’s only for elementary. Of course, this is not true.

On Reading. Most teachers know the majority of their students do not read the required texts, and to hold students “accountable,” they give quizzes with questions “that cannot be found in Sparknotes or other online sources.” I have heard so many teachers say this! Instead of working to include students in the decisions important to their reading lives, they use punitive methods, disguised as grades, to turn students away from reading and into cheaters. Sure, there are some students who will read assigned texts, but if teachers would be vulnerable enough to actually ask their kids, so many would tell the truth:  they do not read. So not only do teachers enable dishonest behavior, they do not move their students as readers.

The only way to become a reader is to read. The same holds true for writing. If teachers give students choice in topic, form, etc, students are less likely to plagiarize, especially if the writing is done in the classroom with the teacher present to confer and coach students through the writing process. Plus, most teachers who rely on the whole class novel do not have time for authentic writing instruction. It just takes too long to work through whole class novels. Students write analytical essays over books again and again — the form of writing they are least likely to write in their careers and even in college, unless they become English majors (and if you didn’t know, the numbers of English majors continues to fall.)

On Engagement. Research shows that when students are engaged, they are more apt to learn. Many teachers confuse engagement and compliance. Many young people, especially those in schools and in classes where grades are the focus, are compliant. And we’ve trained students to reach for the grade instead of diving deep into the learning. In my experience with these students, they want to know how to make the A. They take few risks, and they get frustrated when I intentionally keep things ambiguous so they have to struggle with the learning. I get quite a lot of push back, which of course, ties in to growth mindset, another area rich in research. The systems we’ve created with grades and sit-and-get education have stagnated curiosity and the drive to learn for the sake of learning.

On Rigor. As Penny Kittle said, “It’s not rigor if they are not reading it.” Somehow, and I am guilty of this in the past, we think that complex texts equate to rigorous instruction. This simply is not true. The rigor is in what we have students DO with the text. How they think. How they interact. How they work through the process of learning.

I recently read Jeff Wilhelm’s article on interpretive complexity. He states:  “Interpretive complexity, or what the reader is doing with the text, should be the focus of our teaching. We don’t teach texts! We teach specific human beings—our students—to engage with texts.” For any teacher who wants the control of only “teaching” required texts, I have to ask:  So how are you teaching the “specific human beings” sitting in your class? Doesn’t specific imply some level of individuality?

Most teachers I know claim to hate the system of standardized tests, yet when we make all the choices in our classrooms, we are standardizing our instruction. This reeks of hypocrisy. On the contrary, instructional methods that involve choice invite students to own their learning. We talk so much of student-centered learning, yet when we hold hard to the harness, few students ever get the chance to take the reigns. If we are confident in our content, and we identify as readers and writers ourselves, we are more able to step out of the way and facilitate deeper learning that meets the needs of each individual.

I could probably go on, but those are the main reasons my ire is up at the moment. In all honesty, I know most teachers work hard, but some just do not want to change. They want to keep doing the same thing they’ve always done because it is safer. If they stick with the classics, parents probably won’t push back, and students will go with the flow —especially if they have never experienced anything other than the way English has always been taught.

If we want to reach and teach each child sitting in our classrooms each day, isn’t it about time we take a hard look at what methods we use and ask some serious questions? Are we limiting our students’ growth or fostering more of it? Do we hang on to control or hand it to our students? Does the research support or counter our methods?

Our students deserve the best education we can give them. Why put limitations on their learning?

Amy Rasmussen teaches English IV and AP English Language and Composition at a large senior high school in North TX. She is grateful to the North Star of TX Writing Project and Penny Kittle for showing her the benefits of choice and challenge; otherwise, she would probably still be dragging students through Dickens’ novels and pulling her hair our over plagiarized essays. Thank God she learned a better way. Follow Amy @amyrass and @3TeachersTalk. And please join the Three Teachers Talk Facebook page if you haven’t already. Join the conversation and share the good news of your workshop classroom.

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