Coronavirus, a collage in words

What have I even been doing every day?

Today makes a week since we were told to stop going to school. I can remember the week ramping up to the announcement; we were anxious, worried, disinfecting our classrooms every morning, hoping to get the call so we could focus on the social distancing that experts were calling for.

But ever since, I’ve felt unmoored.


Today is the Friday before spring break. Usually it’s a day mixed with exhaustion and excitement. Everyone is just trying to make it through the day to launch a week of whatever they have planned to do before the last mad dash to the end of the school year. But instead of being at school with my antsy ready-for-spring-break students and exasperated ready-for-spring-break colleagues, I woke to a quiet house, had a slow breakfast, walked up to school (for the hour window my department had to pick up what we needed from our offices and classrooms to start online instruction after spring break), had a few short conversations with a handful of colleagues across the at least 6 foot chasm required of us right now, and spent the afternoon dealing with email and what feels like a thousand other little work-related things. But looking back, I’m not sure what exactly I accomplished.


I’ve had a few successful Zoom experiences this week (a department meeting and interviews for the editor-in-chief positions for yearbook and newspaper for next year). I watched a very helpful Zoom tutorial. I figured out what to do about a newspaper class fundraiser we do each year in the spring since it won’t work per usual this year. I have gotten some things accomplished. But still, by the time dinner time rolls around each day, I’m looking at the books I didn’t read and the online curriculum plans I didn’t do that I thought would be done by now.


Here’s what I’m thinking about for online APLit:

  1. Read Beloved together and have some deep conversation about it. This is the most important book we read each year, and all the work we’ve done up until now has prepared them for it. I can’t wait to get started.
  2. Keep working on their major literary arguments that they started writing in January. This task is all about making meaning out of complexity, and if that is not life prep, I’m not sure what is.
  3. Prepare for the AP Lit exam. From what the College Board folks put out today, it appears the exam will be quite different this year. I’m anxious to see what info we get about what kinds of questions to expect on the exam.
  4. Stay connected. We’re isolated. We need to remember we are in each other’s lives.


There’s a stack of AP timed essays sitting on my kitchen island. Three classes’ worth of two essays per student. The last block period before we were told to go home and stay there, my students and I wrote two timed essays. One poetry analysis essay and one literary argument essay. Writing two essays in 85 minutes is excellent practice for the AP Exam where they write three essays in 120 minutes. I wrote with them to remember how difficult it is, what it feels like, how my hand hurts, how you have to just push through it even if you’re not totally happy about what you’re writing about. We all survived it. The next day in class, they were going to read their essays and work with the new AP essay rubrics and think about what score they might get, just like we’ve done with every other timed essay in class this year. But that next day in class didn’t happen.

And now that the AP exam’s format is changing for this year, do we still need to work on that exact writing task? What do I do with the huge stack of essays? I have to be honest–I don’t think I have it in me right now to read and score them all by myself. There are 170 of them or so. I won’t take the time to scan them and figure out how to structure an online peer evaluation session with them unless it’s clear that doing that work would help my students for the exam.

Still, the stack of essays is staring me down from across the room as I type.


Here’s what I’m thinking for my online Senior Literature, Composition, and Communication class:

  1. Write. They have papers we were finishing up from our last shared text, Jordan Peele’s Get Out. We also read some of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me and used that to help contextualize Peele’s film. The chose some meaningful writing to do inspired by our conversation about both texts. Task one will be finalizing those pieces of writing. Task two, writing another piece to close out the year.
  2. Read. I want them to continue the choice books they have and also read widely about what’s going on in our world right now. I want to emphasize reading skills that they will use every day for the rest of their lives. I want the writing they do to capture the thinking they’re doing as they read.
  3. Reflect. I will invite them to look over what we’ve done all year and make some sense of it. What have they learned together as a group? What have they learned as individuals? What will they take forward with them?
  4. Connect. Again, we’re isolated, but we still have some shared space to do some meaningful work together. This is the time of year with seniors that I start to feel nostalgic and sad. I’m excited for my impending graduates and all the adventures ahead for them, but I’m sad that my time with them is waning. Spending that time looking at my students through a computer screen rather than actually being in a classroom with them is going to be strange.


One of my first thoughts when school was called, and I knew that we wouldn’t have to start online instruction quite yet, was that I could get some books read. Instead I’ve been scrolling scrolling scrolling through Twitter. Reading the news. Scrolling some more. Seeking connections beyond my house, I guess. But it isn’t helping my mental state as much as reading books would. And yet I can’t seem to focus on anything deeply right now.


The most important things right now are these: keeping people safe and healthy, making sure people in my community have what they need, staying healthy myself so I can deliver groceries to my mom every week, identifying needs my students have and passing them on to the support systems in my school district so they can get the support they need, doing what I can to support local businesses that are trying to stay afloat (our pandemic dinner plan for now includes two nights of delivery/takeout per week) (we are grateful to have paychecks that will keep coming and are taking opportunities to support others who don’t have that certainty right now), planning an online learning experience for my students that is meaningful and manageable and flexible and not onerous.

It’s important to live in this uncertain disruption for as long as it takes. I’m grateful my family and friends are healthy for now.

But I’m sad about the little things, too: the newly purchased prom dress hanging in my high school junior’s closet. I’m not sure she’ll get to use it this year, and I hope she still likes it next year. The speech two of my seniors recently auditioned for graduation. I’m not sure we’ll even have a graduation ceremony where they could deliver it. The too much TV I’m watching. But honestly, it feels like survival right now. Teaching Beloved through a computer screen to humans I’d rather be sitting in class with. Not being able to hang out in my office at school with my colleagues, laughing about words and poetry and books and films in ways only English Language Arts teachers can. The long-planned dinner party with friends we’ll have to cancel this weekend. The spring break trip to California we cancelled–we were going to visit colleges with our daughter and visit my aunties. The upcoming funeral for an uncle in Grand Rapids I won’t be able to fly to. My daughter’s end-of-year choir concerts. Her track season. Getting pedicures on mother’s day with my mom and my kid. And I really need a haircut right now.


I struggled to find a thread to hold this piece together when I first started writing it. Over dinner this evening, I stared out across the room thinking about it, how to weave this together. My kid asked, “Mom, are you okay?” “Yes, yes,” as I turned back to my dinner. I had just figured out that maybe this post could resemble in form how life has felt for the last week–disrupted, uncertain. Not on solid ground. No clear thesis. Just muddling through, day by day, moment by moment, trying to adjust to this new reality, trying NOT to dwell in worst case scenario projections because I’m not sure I can hold it together if I do.


Our governor announced a few days ago that all schools are closed until April 17. I would love to believe that we’ll actually go back to school then, but I just can’t imagine it based on seeing what has happened with this virus in other countries who struggled with it before we did. Will we get to go back in May? Even for a week or two before school would be out for the summer? Will the start of next year see disruption too? What will all of this mean for my community, my students, our country, our economy, our planet? How will this change us, and what will we learn?


It feels like grief. I know this because every morning for the last few days, upon waking, I forget for a few moments what is going on in our world. And then the realization comes to me, crushing and heavy. The last time I had mornings like that was in the weeks after my dad died in 2016.

Posted in AP Lit, balancing, community, kindness, life and death, muddling through, reflections, teaching, teaching literature, teaching reading, teaching writing | 6 Comments

Why I’m Not Answering My Students’ Questions about Faulkner

My AP Lit students and I are wrapping up our adventure together with William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. (You can read more about how this text fits into the year’s curriculum here if you’re interested.)

This is the most challenging text they’ve read so far this year. Beloved is still coming in April… so I’m hoping they will be able to approach Morrison’s novel with a bit of confidence after surviving Faulkner.

If this is my goal, why then did I tell them on our first day with this tough text that I was not going to answer their questions about it? Why wouldn’t I guide them through it to make sure they understood all of it?

Enter Sheridan Blau:

“I realized in the midst of my own teaching one day that as long as I was the one who had the responsibility of preparing for my teaching prior to each class by solving the most difficult interpretive and conceptual problems that might trouble my students as readers of the texts I had assigned, then I was the one who was doing most of the learning in my English class.”

From The Literature Workshop by Sheridan Blau, p. 55

Exactly. If I’m the one who’s constantly explaining, unpacking. translating difficult language for students, if I’m the one planning how to guide them through a difficult text by figuring out for them what’s going to be difficult or tricky, then I’m the one who is learning and my students are just watching me learn. There can be some value to that kind of observation as learning, but unless my students actually practice making sense of a difficult text themselves without me telling them how to do it, they won’t build the skills they’ll need to make sense of their lives beyond school. Blau explains:

“If my job was to ensure that my students were learning as much as possible, then I had to find ways to switch roles with them, to have them take the kind of responsibility for such tasks as making sense of texts and figuring out textual and conceptual problems that I regularly undertook in my role as the teacher. I undertook these tasks in order to help my students learn the texts I was teaching them. But as long as I was engaged in the task of teaching them what my efforts to construct meaning had yielded for me, all I could do was show them what I had learned. What they would know, therefore, was that I had learned it, and their notes would record some of what I had learned. But the experience of learning was mine, not theirs. They were to a very large extent merely witnesses to it.”

From The Literature Workshop by Sheridan Blau, p. 2

I hope to come off as a helpful teacher to my students, so the day I told them that I wasn’t going to answer their questions about this text, I think a few of them didn’t quite know what to make of it. And instead of addressing that right away, I threw them right into the first chapter.

Following a process outlined in Blau’s book in chapter two–a “workshop” he calls it that he uses to develop autonomous, disciplined readers–I read the first chapter aloud to the students, asked them to pay attention to what they noticed, and at the end, rate their understanding of the text from 0 to 10. Then I read it aloud again–same process (pay attention to what you notice and rate your understanding from 0 to 10). Then I had them read it silently a third time, this time pausing on any parts they wanted to ponder. After that, they rated their understanding again. Then I had them write a short account of their experience as a reader through the three readings focusing on how their understanding changed from reading to reading.

They were ready to talk. I invited them to share their reading journeys with their table group and also share the questions they had about that first chapter. After a few minutes, I brought them back together and asked for students to raise hands if their understanding of the text improved from reading to reading to discussion with each other and to reflect for a moment why it improved if it did.

My students indicated that their understanding improved for these reasons:

  • Rereading gave them the opportunity to revisit the text again and again to solidify understanding and to focus in on the parts they needed to think about more to make sense of them.
  • Talking with other readers was a good opportunity to check understanding and share ideas.

And these were exactly the things I was hoping they would see from this activity. I told them that they possessed, with those two ideas, everything they needed to make sense of a difficult text. They did not need Spark or Cliff or Shmoop. They could do it on their own. And to prove it–I invited each group to share out one question they had or one thing they were wondering about that first chapter.

I did not answer any questions they put out there. Instead, I pointed to the careful reading they were doing to even have the questions to begin with, and I asked the rest of the class if anyone had any ideas about answers. I encouraged them to continually go back to the text to reread for insight. I said things like, “maybe keep that question present in your thinking as you continue to read–I bet you’ll figure it out.”

Then I gave them this, which I asked them to tape into their writer’s notebooks:

Credit for “WTFaulkner” goes to NCTE. Of course I also proudly wore that day my WTFaulkner t-shirt that I picked up from the NCTE annual conference in St. Louis a couple of years ago.

I talked through the document as they taped it down, making an argument to them about why they should feel okay to sit with their confusion with this text, why they should persevere to interpret it on their own, why it matters to them as humans to put in the work to understand something complicated. Then I invited them to make a few notes on the document themselves to capture what they wanted to remember.

And then we dove back into the text. I read the next chapter aloud, they talked for a few moments with their table groups, they shared thoughts out to the whole class, and we talked. I framed this conversation by asking them what they were wondering about and what the second chapter helped them figure out that the first chapter left them wondering about.

And that is it, very simply, my entire approach to this text. Read. Pay attention to what you notice. Talk about it with your table group. Share your ideas out. Tell us what you’re wondering. Tell us what you’ve figured out that you were wondering before. Point back to the text to show us how you figured it out.

With this, we were following the three principles that Blau suggests should underpin literary study in classrooms:

1. Reading is a process of constructing meaning or composing a text, exactly like writing. The reading of any difficult text will entail drafting and revision (largely in the reader’s head) […]. Just as writing may be defined as rewriting, so is any reading worth doing essentially a process of rereading.

From The Literature Workshop by Sheridan Blau, p. 53

Yes, I could see the drafting and revision happening every single day in my students’ thinking about the book. For example, I told them nothing at the start about the characters, the setting, the situation the family is in. All they got was Darl and what he talked about, and then Cora and what she talked about. They thought there might be a coffin being built and someone maybe dying? They slowly started piecing together who these people were and how they connected to each other.

I could have given them from the start details about the family but instead, as they read they had to write and rewrite in their minds how they understood everyone to fit together. They made character charts. They pointed out text details that helped them figure out who all the Bundren children were, for example. They were grateful for Addie’s chapter because finally she explains the birth order of her five children–by that point they had pretty much figured it out, but they used her chapter to confirm their understanding.

2. Reading is, and needs to be in classrooms, a social process, completed in conversation. Students will learn literature best and find many of their best opportunities for learning to become more competent, more intellectually productive, and more autonomous readers of literature through frequent work in groups with peers.

From The Literature Workshop by Sheridan Blau, p. 54

We read 15 to 20 pages per day with 10 minutes in class and the rest read outside of class. After the silent reading time (vital to make sure everyone sank back into the book after whatever they were doing before they walked into class), we would talk. Small group talk. Whole-class talk. For the first week or so (we spent four weeks total making our way through the book together), I designed a simple discussion protocol to structure our conversation. I collected these, and then I turned conversation facilitation over to table groups, one per day. They would use the silent reading time to talk in the hall about how they wanted to guide their classmates’ conversation for that day, using a page listing the discussion protocols I had already used with them to give them ideas for how to structure it. I sat each day with a different group of students, participating as just another voice in the room. And I watched them work together to make sense of the book. They posed questions, they wondered, they pointed back to the text. We stumbled through it all together.

The simple discussion protocols I designed and modeled for my students. When groups facilitated conversation, they used one of these or came up with something similar on their own.

3. Literary reading and literary study, as they are ordinarily sponsored in rigorously conducted English classes, teach students an intellectual discipline that defines critical thinking in every field and fosters academic success in every subject of study.

From The Literature Workshop by Sheridan Blau, p. 57

I love this principle. We have to keep reminding our students of this. We aren’t just teaching them how to think literary thoughts about literary texts–we’re teaching them vital critical thinking skills that have relevance beyond our ELA classrooms and beyond the walls of our school buildings.

I tell my students frequently that the most complex text they’ll ever have to read is their own life. Studying literature gives us practice in that. If I’m always answering their questions for them about literature, then they’re not practicing how to navigate a difficult text to find meaningful answers to their questions on their own. This is reading. This is literacy. This is the foundation for ownership of one’s own life story and agency in one’s own life journey.

Tomorrow is the day I’ve asked my students to read the last 20 pages of the book. A few finished it early, and they’ve been having hushed conversations with me to run through their ideas about the final actions of Anse Bundren. One student told me she read the last sentence and thought that surely couldn’t be all there was, and she dropped the book in frustration upon discovering there was no more. We’ll have so much to talk about in class. Though I anticipate that more–maybe even most–of my students will have a similar exasperated response to the ending, they built the understanding that enables them to have such a response. They own it. It’s theirs. They constructed it slowly on their own and together. They asked questions, talked it out, reread and reread and reread, they got somewhere interesting.

And they honed skills that translate to navigating the complexity of a human life.

Posted in #WorkshopWorksForAP, AP Lit, engagement, literacy, teaching literature, teaching reading | Leave a comment

Research Tidbit for Busy Teachers: Inoue’s Anti-Racist Writing Assessment Ecologies

Note: I’m starting a new feature in the blog. I’ll share some bits from research that I come across that I think are worth pondering. We’re all busy–it’s hard to find time to keep up with the research in our field. So let’s help each other out!

Antiracist Writing Assessment Ecologies: Teaching and Assessing Writing for a Socially Just Future by Asao B. Inoue, 2015, Parlor Press

I was so glad to come across this book when I was finishing up my manuscript over the summer. (Look for Point-Less: An English Teacher’s Guide to More Meaningful Grading from Heinemann, available March 31!)

Inoue’s book starts:

How does a college writing instructor investigate racism in his classroom writing assessment practices, then design writing assessments so that racism is not only avoided but antiracism is promoted? What I mean is how does a teacher not only do no harm through is writing assessments, but promote social justice and equality?

Inoue, page 3

Though written by a college writing instructor, this book has giving me much to think about for my high school classroom, and this blog post reviews in particular what most resonates for me.

The problem as Inoue outlines it:

White students uniformly and historically do better on most if not all writing assessments, large-scale or classroom. It may not be intentional, but it is racism, and it is a product of the writing assessment ecologies we create. Do not get me wrong. I do not blame white students or teachers. I blame writing assessments.

Inoue, page 24

It is race that functions in daily classroom writing assessment practices, hiding behind power relationships set up by the judgement of student writing by teachers who use a dominant discourse. To put this another way, power is hidden more effectively because a set of white racial dispositions are already hidden in the assessment in various places, assumed as the standard.

Inoue, page 28

To illustrate how this plays out for students, Inoue shares an exemplar provided by a college writing entrance assessment used to place students into writing classes. The exemplar is an example of a low scoring response according to the assessment officials, but Inoue analyzes it to show how the rubric–firmly ensconced in a dominant discourse made up of “white racial dispositions”–fails to see clearly the sophisticated thinking and writing the student actually did. Inoue does say that he has no way to know for sure that the exemplar comes from a student who may speak and write in a non-dominant discourse, but the response itself certainly eschews some sentence patterns and overall organizational patterns that are typically found in formal academic discourse (couched in the “white racial dispositions” “assumed as the standard”). It’s a convincing illustration of how writing assessment norms marginalize students. The student who wrote the exemplar that earned a low score on the assessment likely got placed into a lower track writing course, possibly even remedial, thus starting off college behind already.

In short, the rubrics we use to assess writing swim in a white racial way of looking at writing, and thus they fail to see all of our students clearly. What are we to do, then? Here’s more from Inoue:

I think our best strategy as antiracist educators is to change the way we understand and do writing assessment, while simultaneously building arguments and movements to change the larger structural racism in our society and schools. But this antiracist project begins in our classrooms because it is the only place we, as writing teachers, can begin.

Inoue, page 29

So we need to push back at the larger structural racism intentionally. That feels overwhelming and daunting, at least to me–I have my moments where I think, I’m only one teacher. What can I do against the whole system? I can work in my classroom, within the circle of influence I have access to every day. But Inoue reminds us to begin with this in mind:

If the dominant discourse of the academy is taught almost exclusively by white, middle class teachers, then is it possible that such conditions will affect the discourse valued in writing assessments? Is it possible that those who achieve such positions, such credentials, might have achieved them because they can use and favor the dominant discourse? If so, it is no wonder that dominant discourses in schools are closely associated with the white body and whiteness, which makes them associated with race.

Inoue, page 30-31

I love what Inoue offers as a strategy to push back at the white racialized discourses that dominate writing assessment. You’ll see me citing him in my upcoming book because he helps me to be okay with my move toward not evaluating my students’ writing, to using semester grades that are less about mastery and evaluation and more about capturing the work students have done. I’ve seen how powerful this shift has been for my students, but guilt nags at me that I’m somehow falling down on the job. I’ve been focusing my grading on the work my students engage in and the growth they can describe as they see it themselves, but I know the system expects me to make some kind of a definitive statement (with a grade) on the quality of my students’ reading/writing/thinking.

Inoue helps me with this because for final grades in his course, he focuses entirely on what he calls labor, meaning what the actual work of writing looks like. How much time to spend, how many words to write, what steps to follow, how to engage with classmates around each other’s writing–not meaning formulas for writing, but actually spelling out concretely what it looks like to do the work of writing. In my book, I talk about having to re-train students to do the work of learning rather than point collecting. Many of the strategies our students employ to collect points do not lead to learning. I spend a lot of time undoing those behaviors to get my students to the point where they can focus on learning instead. Inoue explains:

My assumption was that if students focused mostly on what they had to do in any given week, how long they had to do it, and why they were doing it, then the parts (the artifacts) would improve, as would their reading and writing behaviors, the real ecological products we were aiming for. Aditionally, by focusing mostly on processes (labor), students could slowly build over the semester more effective, intense, and productive labor by reflecting upon that labor in labor journals and weekly reflections. This would, I thought, translate to better writers, but not necessarily […] better documents.

Inoue, page 214

Yes. I love the last sentence–that teaching students how to do the work of writing leads to better writers and not necessarily better individual pieces of writing. Some of those pieces of writing we learn the most from as writers are messy and possibly unsuccessful. It’s the distinction between teaching the writer instead of teaching the writing. Emphasizing the messy process rather than perfect final products.

Inoue anchors his class on a labor contract. You can see the entire contract in his book, but in short it’s this: he presents a list of work (tasks/assignments) students must complete to get a B in the course. For an A, he invites students to make a few of the tasks longer pieces of writing. That’s it. So simple. So liberating for students AND teachers. Students need not worry about losing points on rubrics so they can just focus on writing and taking the risks necessary to grow. Teachers need not worry about having to constantly evaluate and provide comments that justify the points they may have taken off. They can just focus on helping their students improve as writers.

He helps his students to understand the labor contract and what it is asking of them with some intentional norming conversations intended to also establish the norms of their writing community:

The contract was a place of norming, only not to a local dominant discourse or a local SEAE, or a white racial habitus, but to a negotiated set of practices and discourses about assessment and labor.

This norming in the place of the contract was not a one-way, hierarchical norming, but was a norming that students negotiated and had more control over than in typical academic places of norming and racing. In class discussions, I began by asking them: what responsibility do you have to your colleagues in our class and in your writing groups? What responsibilities do you expect of your colleagues around you? How does that responsibility translate into your own behaviors and labor in this class? What happens when someone doesn’t meet his or her responsibilities to others in this class? These discussions, because they implicitly built a rationale for our writing assessment ecology, especially the places of writing groups, which originates in the ecological part and place of the contract, were crucial to my students’ acceptance of the grading contract and to their abilities to do the labor required.

Inoue, page 187

Can you imagine how these kinds of conversations would produce a classroom community that focuses together on the actual work of writing?

Here are the big ideas I take away from Inoue:

  1. The rubrics we use to assess writing are couched in a write racial understanding of discourse and they get in the way of us seeing ALL of our students clearly. This marginalizes many students, and we need to work intentionally against it.
  2. Respond to writers with feedback that helps them grow rather than evaluating them on rubrics that may not be able to see their thinking and discourse fully.
  3. If we teach students how to do the work of writing and emphasize that work with our grading (rather than grading based on the quality of the documents they produce), students will become better writers.
  4. Think about classrooms as ecologies, where individuals interact with their environment. Cultivate anti-racist classroom spaces that take into account how the environment might best support writers and encourage them to work together.

Back to school Monday after a restful winter break. I wish everyone well in the new year!

Posted in #DisruptGrading, #Point-Less, #StopGrading, assessment, feedback, grading, not grading, research, teaching writing | 1 Comment

Looking back at #NCTE19 (from Tuesday in Colorado in 23 inches of snow)

“Process all you heard today and set your intentions from here on out.”

–Sara Ahmed

I intended to write this post on the plane on the way home, but the internet wasn’t working. I reviewed my notes in my writer’s notebook instead to figure out what I would write about.

I intended to write this post yesterday, but all I could muster after four packed NCTE/travel days was yoga class, and making pizza dough, and Scrabble with my family.

I hope to get this post done today, but the sun is already setting and my body is buzzing from the snow shoveling that sucked up a good portion of the afternoon (we got 23 inches of snow in the last 24 hours). And I’m getting hungry–almost time to make some dinner.

So in no particular order, here are my takeaways from NCTE in Baltimore:

1 shea martin’s selfie pedagogy. They defined this as “culturally responsive pedagogy that is not student centered. It’s often filtered by educator’s experience, interests, and trauma.” This is when we have the best of intentions to respond to who our students are and what they need, but we’re standing in the way ourselves, making it impossible to see our students clearly. More nuggets from shea: “The Road to liberation is paved by good intentions.” And “Be okay with letting students drive sometimes.” And “In order to be truly liberatory, we have to make our culturally responsive pedagogy unfiltered and student-centered.”

If you didn’t see shea’s important thread about how not having their pronouns on their nametag affected their experience at NCTE, take a look here.

2 The importance of “troubling” our own beliefs about education once in a while. This comes from Kate Roberts. What she meant by this is that we must make sure that our classroom practices line up with our beliefs, and we have to examine carefully for any mismatch frequently. She asked, “what practices are working for my kids? and which are not? is there a practice that is not doing what is intended for it to do?” I really appreciate this reminder as I’m heading into the end of the first semester here, meaning that I get a fresh start in just a few weeks. I’ll want to make that fresh start standing firmly in what I’m pretty sure is working for my students, free of what doesn’t seem to be. I’ll seek their feedback as part of the final exam stuff we do, and I’ll listen carefully when I read their semester grade letter/stories for indications of what’s working and what’s not. Kate also reminded us: “If we don’t listen to what’s relevant to our kids, we’re going to lose them.”

3 Tricia Ebarvia: “Our goal is to let students become who they are” and “in what ways can writing be an act of liberation?” Yes. And we do so much sometimes that gets in the way of this. “Does your teaching lead to deep understanding about writing?” Tricia asked. I want it to. I want my students to have a deep understanding about what writing can do for them. I love that Tricia said she never collects writer’s notebooks, that they are “conversation students have with themselves.” I don’t collect them either, but I harbor some guilt about this. Students take photos of individual pages on occasion to turn in to me, but I never collect and read the actual notebooks. I, too, consider those notebooks my students’ personal space for their own thinking. I have no business there, and it was great to hear another educator I respect say the same. Tricia asked, “what are the values and assumptions we perpetuate when we ‘correct’ forms of writing?” Yes, I worry about this. I’m using the college board’s new AP Lit rubrics to score (not for a grade of course) my students’ writing so they’ll know what’s expected of them for exam writing. But I want to make sure my students know those rubrics are not about some kind of “correct” approach to writing what they think about a book. It’s just one way–there are many others. How is my class making space for those other ways?

4 #DisruptTexts. The session I attended last year by these smart teachers was a packed conference room, and this year, it was a packed ballroom. I am so grateful to Tricia Ebarvia, Lorena Germán, Dr. Kim Parker, and Julia Torres for the important work they have been doing to drive this conversation. As I’ve written about before, they’ve really challenged me to reexamine AP Lit. Their mission includes “creating an equitable and inclusive curriculum by repairing the damage of a white-centered pedagogy.”

Julia asked, “how are we rewarding conformity and punishing resistance?” She reminded us that we must “recognize the ways we are all complicit in perpetuating systemic oppression, and consequently, we are responsible for dismantling it.”

Lorena reminded us that the traditional canon is “for white people, by white people, and about white people” and reminded us that we must look for and include the stories at the margins of this. Because “race continues to be the largest determinant of inequity across all areas of life,” we must bring it into the classroom deliberately and “challenge the problematic, violent, and incorrect dominant narratives that exist in books.” Lorena added that this is literally an issue of life and death for some of our students, and she wondered what it would mean to “design a class focused on counter narratives.” I would love to go there with AP Lit–we’re definitely heading in that direction.

When Tricia took the stage, she shared a tidbit from Chad Everett, who said that there are no “diverse” texts. That term suggests some kind of a norm to begin with, leaving the ones that don’t fit it as “diverse.” Definitely problematic, and a term I can happily set aside. This take on the term diverse isn’t visible without a critical perspective, and Tricia asked us to “intentionally support the development of a critical consciousness in our students.” She showed us how to get students to think about what is seen and known in a text and what is invisible and not seen to start them thinking about dominant vs. counter narratives and offered examples of how we can infuse typical literary analysis conversations with a critical lens. An example she gave was to ask which characters in a book have the privilege to be major instead of minor characters, or round characters rather than flat ones.

Dr. Parker asked us, “to whom are you accountable” for doing the work as anti-racist educators. She asked us to work in community with each other, especially with Black and Indigenous educators and other educators of color, lifting up their efforts and voices, honoring their knowledge production, and working toward liberation as co-conspirators. She reminded us that we each have a circle of what we can control and what we can influence, and we need to remember that there’s plenty outside of that we can neither control nor influence. We can focus our efforts in the places we can have impact.

I loved that the session included hearing from some authors themselves, authors to consider as we make choices for texts in our classrooms. I loved the energy in the session, the free books, the awesome book marks, the conversation at my table. I loved that there were so many people in the room.

5 Day three started VERY early with the third Don Graves Legacy Breakfast hosted by Heinemann. The theme this time was orthodoxy, the orthodoxies that creep into our teaching and make us ineffective. Graves’ solution (as Tom Newkirk reminded us) was to intentionally pay attention to students, who they are, what they’re saying, what they need. This lines up with some conversations my SLCC teammates and I have been having. Though we’re all using the same general paper cycle (repeated every six weeks or so, inspired by this), our classes look pretty different. We’re each following our students’ interests and inviting them to focus on what matters to them as they make choices about what they read and write.

What followed Newkirk’s introduction was inspiring and important–I feel lucky to have been in the room. Here are some tidbits:

“The outgrowth of using politeness, kindness, and civility as veils to avoid the most important work in our classrooms is racist tweeting, police brutality, the inhumane treatment of immigrants, etc. We must examine the role our classrooms have and do play.”

–Lorena Germán

“Identify the racists by the outcomes their actions produce continually.”

–Cornelius Minor

“Stories, the pen, can keep the stories of people alive even when the world says other.”

–Tiana Silvas

“We must write–the number one condition of being a writing teacher.”

–Penny Kittle

“Graves is speaking to those of us inside, not outside, of our profession to work on orthodoxies. […] But putting students at the center does not mean we should neglect ourselves. […] Can’t get to the kid if you can’t first get to yourself.”

–Chad Everett

And the work Andria Cole is doing with A Revolutionary Summer in Maryland shows us so clearly the interplay between literacy, literature, and self-love. Talk about liberation. We need more of this kind of work.

6 The highlight of the whole conference for me was Tommy Orange. NCTE Vice President Alfredo Celedón Luján introduced Orange with this: “Real stories are hard to read. Not because they’re hard, but because they’re real.” From the moment Tommy Orange hit the stage, he was one collection of words after another I wanted to remember and scribbled madly into my notebook. “The more specific you get in your writing, the more universal it is,” he said, rather than helicoptering over your life and writing generalizations. One I want to share with my students: “I wish I had become a reader earlier. I wasted a lot of time.” And “For us,” he said of the depiction of native people, “to only be historically depicted means we’re already gone.”

Tommy Orange speaking at the Saturday general session.

7 Next year: ¡Confluencia! Songs of Ourselves. This is the conference theme for NCTE 2020 in Denver. And I have to say I love it. Alfredo Celedón Luján writes of discovering the theme in the call for proposals and explains that a confluence, literally, is a coming together of two rivers, and figuratively, we can think of it as “the joining and/or reunion of ideas, genres, philosophies, songs, genders, cultures, heritage, ethnicities, regions, terrains, wafts, teachers and students of English, pedagogies.” I love that the theme uses the Spanish version of the word, which for me speaks to the rich Latinx heritage of the Denver area. I love that there is literally a confluence of two rivers within walking distance of the Colorado Convention Center. I’m excited that the conference will be just down the road for me, requiring a bus ride down US 36 to get there rather than a flight across the country.

“Leave NCTE with a blessed unrest in your belly.”

–Chad Everett

Yes. I have more in my notebook that I could share with you–like the project based writing session (Liz Prather et al) that gave me some great ideas I can use next week. But what I’ve shared here is the stuff that has created that blessed unrest in me. An unrest to keep working toward equity, keep engaging the conversation with my colleagues, keep finding ways to infuse it in my classroom, keep finding ways to step aside so I can see my students clearly as they are so I can build a classroom that sees them fully.

Those are my intentions from here on out.

Posted in #NCTE19, AP Lit, equity, gratitude, life and death, literacy, making change, on the road again, professional development, reflections, teaching literature, teaching reading, teaching writing, the system, things made of awesome, writer's notebooks | Leave a comment

Original Thinking and Rambling Thoughts: Book Clubs in AP Lit

In my last post about #DisruptingTexts in AP Lit, I outlined my plan for my students to make their way through some book clubs rather than having the whole class read the same books together for the entire year. We are reading three books together, but students will read five more in book clubs.

I’ve planned for each book club cycle to last four weeks, and we just wrapped up the first book club cycle and will be heading into the next this upcoming week. I’m thrilled with how it’s going. The bookish talk that is happening among students in small groups in my classroom makes me smile. They’re doing some meaningful work.

Along with this has been a heavy emphasis on the importance of having your own ideas. Our essential question for the year is this:

There’s meaning everywhere. How will you find it, how will you make it, and how will you share it? There’s meaning everywhere. How will you find it, how will you make it, and how will you share it?

Here are the five tools I’ve taught my students for them to navigate books together in book clubs:

Read here for a fuller description of each. Today I want to talk about items 2 and 3.

In June, I wrote about step 2:

Students will use sticky notes to record thoughts as they read and leave them on the pages where they thoughts occurred. I’ll use Pryle’s categories for reading responses based on original thoughts students have about the book to guide this work. Hopefully the concept map work will give them some ideas about what they can focus on as they read.

How it actually turned out: At some point in the summer, a colleague alerted me to the updated AP Lit curriculum from the College Board. I wondered how I could weave that into what my students were doing in their book clubs. Rather than using Pryle’s categories for reading responses, I used the AP Lit skills for interpretive reading as the categories. Here are the skills on one page for my students:

You can see in my instructions for their annotations that I refer to that list of skills in step #2:

My students are in the process of filling out a google form with their feedback on our first time through the book club cycle. Their response is due to me by noon tomorrow. But already over a third of them have completed the form. Here’s what they have had to say so far about how helpful the sticky note original thought annotations were:

A healthy majority of my students so far say the original thought annotations have been helpful.

In June, I wrote about the next step of the process:

Once per week, students will select a few of their sticky note responses and move them into their writer’s notebooks and then write one page to pull together what they’re thinking (this is all Kate Roberts, btw).

How it actually turned out: I had initially decided to call these things “one-pagers” in their writer’s notebook. Boring name. Yes. But then I remembered what I discovered last year about the power of asking my students to ramble without worrying about conventions really at all (spoiler alert: I got some of their best writing of the year). So we re-branded them as “Rambling Thoughts” instead. Here are my instructions:

The link on “Rambling” takes students to a youtube video of Steve Martin singing “A Rambling Man” on The Muppet Show, link courtesy of one of my clever students.

Here’s what my students have had to say so far about the rambling thoughts:

The red bar means “moderately helpful.”

We’ve rambled every other Friday, alternating Fridays with timed writing off of old AP test prompts. Seems they mostly find the strategy helpful, and we’ll keep doing it.

I have a few rambling thoughts to show you from my students’ work with our summer reading book, Salvage the Bones. We spent the first four weeks together working on this shared text. I used that space to train them on how to use the five book study tools students would use for book clubs for the rest of the year. Thank you to my two students who agreed to let me include their work. Check out how the students used their sticky note annotations to get to two totally different lines of thought about the same book. Big ideas based on their own original thinking about the text:

Both of these students did exactly what I had hoped. They used the rambling thoughts to make connections across the sticky note annotations that they chose. The first student wrote about ways that the text revealed the influence of the past on the lives of the characters. And the second student noticed the sticky notes are moments of foreshadowing. I had some students who simply wrote more about each individual sticky note separately without writing to connect them. So I’ve had to remind them each time what the point of the task is.

A few practical details: I don’t collect writer’s notebooks, ever. But they take photos of their work frequently and turn those photos in via Google Classroom. That’s how I got the two photos I shared with you here. I review their work by clicking through the photos there to get a sense of how things are going for my students with the work. Since the Rambling Thoughts include some sticky note annotations, too, I can use this one task to get a sense of how the annotating is going while I’m reviewing their rambling thoughts. I do have to ask students to make sure the photos are right-side up when they upload them to Classroom as there’s no way for me to rotate the photos in the Classroom system, and it takes extra time for me to move the files out to a place where I can rotate them to be able to read them without having to look at the screen sideways.

In short, these tools seem to be working so far. Students are using the annotations to collect their own, original thinking as they read, and the rambling thoughts are giving them space to build meaning out of that original thinking.

Posted in #WorkshopWorksForAP, AP Lit, teaching literature, writer's notebooks | Leave a comment

Attempting to #DisruptTexts in AP Lit

As I’ve articulated already in this blog, our most important conversation about education right now focuses on equity.

I’ve embarked on a bit of a listening tour recently for this topic. I’ve submitted no conference presentation proposals this year, but I’m going to those conferences to focus on listening instead. I’m listening to conversations among educators in Twitter (and retweeting to amplify other voices, too). I’m also reading what I can to learn more–books about teaching, about race in America, books written from marginalized voices.

In my listening tour, I’m grateful for the educators who have launched #DisruptTexts (Tricia Ebarvia, Lorena Germán, Dr. Kimberly N. Parker, and Julia E. Torres–read about them here). I was lucky to get to hear them present at NCTE in Houston, and I’ve definitely lurked at some of their chats on Twitter. They are driving important conversation that has definitely inspired me to think carefully about the texts I put in front of my students.

Disrupt is an important term to pause on here. It’s an active term. When we disrupt something, we do so with intention. This matters because–as Cornelius Minor explained in a talk at CEL in 2017 in St. Louis–we will go along with the current if we don’t actively work not to. It’s easy to just keep doing what we’ve always done, teaching the same books we always have. With intention, we can do something different that accomplishes two important goals: 1) enabling our students of color to see themselves in the texts we invite them to read and 2) breaking up systems in our society that continue to oppress and marginalize people.

From the #DisruptTexts website, here is their current mission statement (though there’s a note there that they are working on an updated mission statement and principles):

Disrupt Texts is a crowdsourced, grass roots effort by teachers for teachers to challenge the traditional canon in order to create a more inclusive, representative, and equitable language arts curriculum that our students deserve. It is part of our mission to aid and develop teachers committed to anti-racist/anti-bias teaching pedagogy and practices.

Ebarvia, Germán, Parker, and Torres

My teaching context…

Okay, so a bit about where I teach. I wrote much more about it here, but the short of it is this: in this mountain west college town with a healthy tech industry, mostly I teach the privileged. Our school’s non-white population is growing and school demographics look different than they did twelve years ago when I started teaching there. My district is actively working with our Latinx parent community to better support students, and my school is integrating more supports as well. But we definitely need to keep learning and looking for places where we can dismantle oppression embedded in our school and system.

The #DisruptTexts conversation shows me a place where I can focus my efforts in this critical work. Last year in AP Lit, students read six books all together, chosen by the three AP Lit teachers who taught the six total sections of the course. We started with The Great Gatsby (which we asked students to read over the summer), then moved onto One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and then finished first semester with Frankenstein. We started second semester with Twelfth Night, then The House of the Spirits, and finally, Beloved. We had a decent balance between male and female authors (half and half). We had two authors of color. I put this framework in front of my students as an entry point for conversation on our texts (it made for particularly interesting conversation about The Great Gatsby).

But one issue I struggled with was that my students couldn’t make choices about what they read. And though we did have some diverse voices in the list of texts, I thought there could be more. If I was serious about inviting my students to move forward using their privilege to dismantle oppression intentionally rather than unintentionally perpetuating it, and if I was serious about making sure ALL of my students could see their lives reflected in our official curriculum, changes were necessary.

My colleagues and I ended up with this: three whole-class texts (at the start, middle, and end of the year) and five four-week book group units where students will have choices about what they read within a few parameters that I’ll explain below.

Here’s the general plan for the year in terms of timing:

weeks 1-4Salvage the Bones
week 5College Application Essays
weeks 6-9Book club 1: pre-1900 works
weeks 10-13Book club 2: 1900-birth of postmodernism works
weeks 14-17Book club 3: 1970s-present works
week 18semester-ending stuff
weeks 19-22As I Lay Dying
weeks 23-26Book club 4: Shakespeare plays
weeks 27-30Book club 5: free choice (from huge list)
weeks 31-34Beloved
weeks 35-36end-of-year stuff

Our whole-class texts

Our three whole-class texts all have a southern US connection, a world that is very different from our students’ day-to-day reality: Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones (summer reading text and the focus of our first four weeks together), William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying (mid year), and Toni Morrison’s Beloved (end of the year). Students are also reading an essay by Morrison for their summer reading, from her recent collection of essays, The Source of Self-Regard.

The essay is “Unspeakable Things Unspoken: The Afro-American Presence in American Literature.” It provides a framework for the three whole-class texts. The first part of Morrison’s essay is a discussion of the canon, the absence of Black authors in the traditional canon, and the ways that is changing. The second part is an analysis of Moby Dick that illustrates her argument that the stories, lives, and experiences of Black people in America ARE present in the seminal works of American Literature, even if academics and critics have refused to account for them. She calls these the “unspeakable things unspoken,” “the ways in which the presence of Afro-Americans has shaped the choices, the language, the structure–the meaning of so much American literature” (172).

We chose this essay for a couple of reasons. For one, it shows students what literary analysis looks like. Yes, Morrison’s analysis is at an extremely high level that our high school students likely will not approximate, but it models the creative thinking that underpins the most successful and interesting analysis. We want our students to have their own original ideas about the texts, to avoid running to Google for help, to trust their hunches and questions about literature and explore them the way Morrison does in her analysis of Moby Dick. Literary analysis can be fun and an opportunity for students to practice developing thoughts that they own and love. Rather than “right” answers about what texts mean, I want to challenge students to find their answers and pursue them with energy. That is certainly what Morrison does in her analysis of Moby Dick.

The other reason we chose this essay is for its discussion of the canon and canon building. Morrison writes:

Canon building is empire building. Canon defense is national defense. Canon debate, whatever the terrain, nature, and range […] is the clash of cultures. And all the interests are vested.


I want to start the school year with this. I want my students to question what “the canon” is. We will present Ward and Faulkner and Morrison as equals, three voices from three different times writing about three different moments in the history of the American South. And I am anxious to read Faulkner looking intentionally for how the experiences of Blacks in America at the time of its writing impacted the text. My students and I will wonder about what the text reveals about Faulkner’s understanding of race in America. We won’t be the first to wonder this, of course, but placing his text alongside Ward’s and Morrison’s and challenging students to draw connections between them will make a focus on the experience of Blacks at the time of Faulkner’s text impossible to ignore.

Book club reading

The rest of the reading we do will be in book groups. We’ve got a huge list of texts for students to choose from, a list we cobbled together using the College Board’s recommended list of authors, the #DisruptTexts book list, a list of titles that have actually shown up as suggested texts to use on the open question of the AP Exam since its beginning, and some other lists I’ve collected over the years. After we wrote the list, we ventured into all the nooks and crannies in our building (the architecture is weird–there are lots of odd nooks and crannies) where our department stores our books to see which titles we actually had copies of and if there were any additional titles we could add to the list.

We organized the list into three columns, pre-1900, 1900-1968 (the birth of post modernism), 1970s to present. You’ll see on the doc our thinking about the three columns (as spilled out of my colleague Jaime’s head during a planning session–he’s has several years of graduate study in literature in his past). There’s also a key–we’ve identified authors who are not American or British with * and works in translation with **. In yellow, we’ve highlighted the texts we have copies of in the department collection.

We were able to schedule all six of the AP Lit sections for next year into one classroom, something that is not always possible. We have 17 ELA teachers and 10 classrooms–depending on the needs of the schedule, we teach in different rooms from year to year and each have multiple classrooms that we teach in. All of this makes building and maintaining classroom libraries difficult. But at least for next year, we can grab copies of the book club book choices and build a library in one classroom particularly for AP Lit student book clubs.

We’ve also done some thinking about what we’ll actually do during the book clubs. Both Kate Roberts’s A Novel Approach and Marilyn Pryle’s Reading with Presence have helped. Liz Prather’s Project-Based Writing has shifted my thinking about the other ELA class I teach that is not AP Lit, but it has inspired a question in my thinking for AP Lit: what would project-based READING look like? With those inspirations, I’m planning the following for each book club cycle:

  1. Each book club cycle will start with a healthy chunk of silent reading, 35 to 40 minutes.
  2. Then book groups will start building a concept map about the book based on what they’ve read so far.
  3. Students will use sticky notes to record thoughts as they read and leave them on the pages where they thoughts occurred. I’ll use Pryle’s categories for reading responses based on original thoughts students have about the book to guide this work. Hopefully the concept map work will give them some ideas about what they can focus on as they read.
  4. Once per week, students will select a few of their sticky note responses and move them into their writer’s notebooks and then write one page to pull together what they’re thinking (this is all Kate Roberts, btw).
  5. For the one-page writer’s notebook pieces, I’ll provide some thinking from Tom Newkirk’s book Embarrassment where he talks about the ways we teach argument. He suggests using these questions to show students how to develop argument (pgs. 143-4):
    * What is this about?
    * What happens next?
    * What does it look like, feel like, smell like?
    * How can I restate that?
    * What’s my reaction to that?
    * What example or experience can I call up to illustrate that?
    * What parts of my prior reading can I bring to bear on that?
    * What comparison can I make that makes that clearer?
    * Why does that matter?
    * What do I mean by that?
    * Who else would agree with that? Disagree?
    * How can I qualify that statement? What are the exceptions?
    * How does that fit into larger debates or controversies?
  6. Groups will continue adding to their concept maps as we proceed through the four weeks. I think I’ll have them do these in Google Draw so they are shared documents each group member can access at anytime, like if inspiration hits while at home and they don’t have to wait until they get to school to add to the concept map.
  7. I’ll conference with each group once per week. We’ll use their concept maps, their sticky note responses, and their one-page writer’s notebook pages as fodder for our conversations.
  8. To provide time for these conferences, students will have about two full days per week to read in class. If I’m serious about students building reading practices, they need this time.
  9. I’ll block out book group meeting time for discussion at certain times each week, but I’m hoping that the sticky note responses, one-page writer’s notebook writings, and the concept maps will be ongoing work that inspires ongoing conversation.
  10. About halfway through, each student will choose what they think is an important passage from the book and do some close text analysis writing about it, in the style of a prose analysis question from the AP Lit exam.
  11. Toward the end of the book group cycle, each group will select one to two pages of text from their book that they think connects to the most important argument the book makes about living a human life. I’ll put all of these together into a packet that the class will use as a text for a Socratic Seminar that cuts across all of the book club books.
  12. After the Socratic Seminar, the whole class will do a timed essay in the style of the open question on the AP Lit exam. I’ll provide a few past exam prompts to choose from, and students will write about the books they’ve just read.

We’ll practice all of this together with Salvage the Bones to lay the ground work for the work they’ll do with books in book clubs. And like Kittle and Gallagher describe 180 Days, maybe by that last book club cycle, I’ll remove some of these routines and ask groups to use what they’ve learned to make their way through a book and talk about it with each other without as much of my direction.

I feel pretty good about these routines as I’m looking at them now from my home in the first weeks of summer break. But I’m sure I’ll tweak things once we get into it.

What I’m still wondering about

A few weeks, and finally I’m writing that blog post.
  • The huge list of books includes books I’ve not read yet. I’m thinking I don’t want my book groups to read anything I’ve not read due to the level of instruction I plan to be doing in the group conferences. Maybe it won’t matter in the end if I’ve read the book or not, but I’m planning on deleting from the list the books I’ve not yet read. To cut back on the number of texts I will have to delete, I brought home a stack of books for my own summer reading and am doing my best to make my way through. I’ve already read the top three books (several times in the case of the top two)–need to review over the summer since they are the whole-class reads. The Kite Runner went very quickly… Wuthering Heights is taking a bit more focus and effort for my summer break brain. You’ll notice this stack is heavy in the pre-1900 column. Out of the pre-1900 texts we have in our department collection, I had only read two of them: Frankenstein and Oedipus the King. Hence the Brontës and Wilde and more Sophocles…
  • The 1970s-present column on the big list of books is wonderfully diverse. And considerably longer than the lists in the other two columns. I want to make those other two lists longer and more diverse. The collection of books in our department on the whole needs to be more diverse. We do have some texts written by marginalized voices, but we need more. My AP Lit colleagues and I will need to work actively with our department in the time ahead to achieve more diversity in our book collection. Students are accustomed to purchasing their own books for our advanced ELA classes (and we do have funds to purchase sets of texts for students who need the financial help), so I can certainly expect students may choose to buy their own copies of books they want to read that I don’t already have copies of. But I still want to grow our department’s collection, and I want to literally surround my students with texts that call into question the notions of the traditional canon.
  • I worry that book clubs (rather than complete independent choice) is still a bit too much structure… maybe once we get into it, it will seem like it would work to have students reading more independently. I’ll be on the lookout for that and will make changes if it seems needed.
  • I wonder if just Shakespeare is enough pre-1900 reading for students? If we didn’t require another work of that era, it would open up more opportunity for the contemporary works that I’m guessing students will find most engaging. They will confront pre-1900 text on the AP Exam for sure, so they need to work with some. Have they read enough over their previous three years that we can focus on more contemporary works almost entirely?
  • We need to figure out where to weave in poetry. Maybe I’ll add something to the book club routines for this–they could certainly hunt down, analyze, and write about poems that connect to their book club books.
  • As already indicated, we’re planning to focus the first three book club cycles, one on each column/time period. The idea is that this would provide opportunity for conversation about the different literary movements that influenced each time period. I do worry, though, that this might be too much constraint. I wrote a piece for my local NCTE Affiliate journal this spring about how a really loose writing assignment opened up important new writing space for my students, and I’ve been pondering ever since how I can stop putting too much curricular restraint in front of my students. Should each book club cycle be more open choice, providing students are sure to read at least one book from each column?
  • Another shift that’s happening is with the whole-class texts. Ever since my very first years of teaching AP Lit, I have had my students read the books in their entirety before we discussed them in class. They will do this with Salvage the Bones since it’s a summer reading text. But I’m planning on teaching along the way as they read As I Lay Dying and Beloved. Kate Roberts’s strategies (from A Novel Approach) for whole-class books have really helped me think about this, but it will be a different challenge for me. As my students and I discussed Beloved in April and May this year, I actually found myself wishing that we had worked through it together rather than had them read it on their own before we discussed it in class. It’s a hard book–well worth their time, but a difficult read. I look forward to helping them with it.
  • I might decide to swap the last book group cycle with our whole-class work with Beloved. The testing schedule at our school really messes with the last few weeks of school anyhow–might be better for students to be working on something in small groups rather than all of us together as a class. AND they could use their skills gained by conquering Beloved together on one last book that they take on more independently.
  • I’ve blocked out a couple of weeks at the end of the year for end-of-year activities. I’m not sure what those will be yet. I will want to come back to where we started, with the notion of canon building, and have students see what they’ve learned somehow. I’ll let this percolate in my thinking…

If you’re still with me, you see we’ve ended up in the weeds here. But I’ve always used this blog to think through my planning and reflect on how things turn out. So thanks for sticking with me.

Coming back to where we started

Let’s remember the mission of #DisruptTexts. It has two prongs: 1) Challenge the traditional canon to make it more inclusive and 2) anti-racist/anti-bias teaching practices. I hope that our list of texts (required and choice) is moving toward more inclusivity, and we will keep pushing in that direction. I also hope that the increased choice in the structure of the class will make for more inclusive instruction. I’ll keep reading and listening and learning, talking with my colleagues, questioning my own stance and biases, and looking for places to be better. This is ongoing work, a long-term commitment. And I’m in.

And with that, I’d love to hear any ideas, suggestions, experiences you’ve had–anything else I should be thinking about? What have you learned along the way as you’ve worked to #DisruptTexts in your classroom?

Posted in AP Lit, collaboration, conferring, cultivating real learning, engagement, equity, literacy, making change, planning, teaching literature, teaching reading, workshop teaching, writer's notebooks | 3 Comments

Weekends without school work? Is it actually possible?

Yes! It IS possible to have weekends without school work.

We’re several weeks into second semester, and somehow I’ve succeeded in not having to do any school work on the weekends.

(Except for reading the books I teach. That I have still been doing on the weekends as needed. But I really don’t consider that work so much…)

This is revolutionary for me. I can’t remember a time where I didn’t have the shadow of papers to read invading every single school-year weekend.

Yes, my students are still writing and I’m still reading their writing and responding. No, things aren’t piling up. I’m keeping up with the work.

This all came about as a matter of necessity. I have a book deadline coming up, and I need to make progress week by week. I need huge chunks of time to write, and I have those blocks of the time only on the weekends.

So I had to find some way to free up my weekends for that work.

This is my 22nd year teaching. Funny how I’m still learning things that I should have figured out years ago.

Here’s what I’ve figured out:

ONE: I’m in control of when my students turn work in.

If I’m slammed with a bunch of work at once, it’s MY fault. I know that I get overwhelmed when I have more than one class worth of papers to review at any given moment, so now I work to keep this from happening.

For years, when I’ve voiced exasperation to my brother (a truth teller in my life as a sibling often is) about how much student work I have to get through, he has said, “well, who gave them the work?” HA! I would think. My students need to write and there’s no way around that.

That is true. But I ALSO have way more control over what I collect from them and when I collect it than I realized. I can control the flow of work I need to look at if I am more intentional about it.

Here’s another thing I’ve recently figured out: if I know my evening time will be compromised (like as it was last week for two nights in a row of parent/teacher conferences), I can plan to NOT collect anything from my students on those days. I’m trying to avoid the work stacking up.

If I won’t have my usual time to read and respond to their work, then I won’t collect it.

This means maybe students will take a week off from the normal routine, and they’ll appreciate that. This means maybe students will still do the work, but I won’t look at it. This is okay at times too! This means maybe students will do the work, but they’ll share it with each other instead of turning it in to me.

TWO: I can set due dates that are not only reasonable for me, but reasonable for my students.

I do not set due dates over a weekend. I won’t look at the work anyhow, so why collect it then? Whenever possible, I avoid Monday-at-school due dates too and stick to Monday evenings through Thursdays as due dates for my students to turn work in.

I also avoid 11:59pm as a deadline–why on earth would I want to encourage my students to be up working on stuff for my class at midnight? Sure, they can turn it in earlier, but remember what it was like being a teenager? Were you more likely to leave it until the last minute or turn it in early?

I can encourage healthier study habits by giving my students reasonable deadlines that don’t encourage them to be working when they should be sleeping (or weekending–they need time away from school too!).

I didn’t see a lot of this until my own kid hit high school. I have found myself annoyed when she has to turn something in by 6pm on Sunday, for instance. We might be in the middle of a Sunday evening family dinner and she dashes off to get something done. Of course she could have turned it in ahead of time, but the deadline could have been at a different time as well so that it didn’t even suggest the possibility that she might have to duck out of a family dinner to do school work.

THREE: I have narrowed down what it is that I actually look at and respond to.

My students need to write far more than I’m able to handle on my own.

It’s okay if much of the work my students do gets a quick glance from me and that’s all.

I spend my thorough feedback energy where it matters most–on the work my students will revise and keep working on so I know my feedback efforts aren’t wasted.

FOUR: I can stagger when students turn things in.

This year, I teach two sections of AP Lit, two sections of our non-AP/IB senior language arts class, and one section of journalism (I advise the school newspaper).

My senior LA students turn in a draft every week. I used to schedule their weekly drafts due on Fridays, leaving me two stacks of drafts to get through over the weekend.

Now I collect the weekly drafts on Wednesdays and Thursdays. Due to our modified block schedule, I see one of these classes on Wednesday, and the other one on Thursday. I can easily get through one class worth of weekly drafts in about an hour. So what I collect on Wednesday afternoons, I return on Wednesday evenings. What I collect on Thursday afternoons, I return on Thursday evenings. Students get their work back from me quickly, and I roll into the weekend with no weekly drafts to look at.

More staggering: my AP Lit students do timed writes every other week along with peer feedback. I make notes in the gradebook about what comes up in the peer feedback and glance over their timed writes to get a sense of how things are going, but I don’t do feedback on these.

My students do choose one timed write to revise with me, back and forth, until we decide they’ve learned what they can with it. These take me a while. When I collect two classes worth of these at once, I feel like I will never get them done.

So this semester, I made a schedule where I collected these from a third of each class last week. Another third of each class next week. And the last third of each class two weeks after that. On the days I’m collecting these, I get no more than six total (three from each class). I can handle six of these in an evening. Easy.

So far, I’m returning these to students usually the day they turn them in (or the next day). They’re getting immediate feedback. But the best thing is that I don’t feel overwhelmed.

I also advise newspaper. I use the off period I have before that class meets to read and respond to anything I need to for that particular day.

FIVE: I block out time each week for ongoing curriculum planning.

Due to our modified block schedule, I have the longest chunks of time for prep on Wednesdays–so I reserve my off-periods on Wednesdays for planning all of my curriculum for the following week.

I make my plan for the the week and post it to my Google Classroom pages. I pull together/create all the materials necessary too. This keeps me always planned ahead of time, always thinking ahead, always ready to go. And NOT having to do my lesson planning every single day–just once per week. Of course I make adjustments as I go, but this takes only bits of time. I get the bulk of the planning done once per week.

SIX: I set rules for myself and honor them. 

Curriculum planning always gets done on Wednesdays at school. If for some reason I don’t finish it at school, I must finish it that evening.

In the evenings, I respond to all student work that came in that day (now that I’ve staggered when it comes in, I can almost always accomplish this!).

I don’t collect anything on Fridays so I don’t have any work staring me down over the weekend.

I don’t do school work on Sunday evenings. My lessons for the week are already planned. I can catch up on any student work that comes in over the weekend on Monday.

SEVEN: I get serious about off-periods at school.

I aim to use my off periods as efficiently as possible.

A screenshot of the google keep note that is my on-going to do list.

A few moments of goal setting while I’m eating my breakfast helps. A running to-do list on a Google Keep note helps. I love that I can access my Google Keep notes on my phone or my computer. Daily goals about what I want to accomplish help me to keep focused, and that makes me much better at using my off-periods at school effectively.

And if what I need to do on an off period is work through a stack of student papers, it’s okay for me to hide out somewhere in the school where people can’t find me to get this work done. I love the people I work with, and I love talking to them. Usually I can work with them nearby and get my tasks completed on my off periods.

But sometimes I need no distractions, no conversation, no on-the-fly collaboration discussions because I just have to get through some student writing. I’ll take my computer and hide out in a corner of the school library and get the work done.

EIGHT: I quit social media.

Okay, not totally. But I did delete my Facebook account last year. I deleted my Snapchat account over the holidays. And I haven’t looked at Instagram for several weeks (and I will be deleting that account soon, too).

All I have left is Twitter, which I value for the professional connections it makes possible. But I control the time I spend there.

The time I’ve gotten back because I’m not endlessly scrolling through social media feeds has helped me to keep on top of my school work during the week.

I did add the NYTimes crossword app to my life, and I enjoy distracting myself with that every day for a bit. But this is so much better for my brain than the endless scrolling that I used to find myself doing on social media.

NINE: Exercise and sleep.

I get some sort of exercise 6 days per week. Walking, running, hiking, or yoga. I plan ahead and work my plan. Exercise helps my mood and my thinking. I’m a better human when I make the time to exercise.

I’m a night owl and love staying up into the wee hours but it doesn’t work well with how early I have to get up on school days. So I need to get myself to bed sometime between 10 and 11.

This means there are times I don’t get all the student writing read and responded to, but that’s when I get super focused on my off periods the next day to get the work done.

A typical Mon-Thurs afternoon/evening for me is home by 4ish, exercise and dinner done by 6/7ish, family homework time by 7ish (my husband is also a teacher and, as indicated earlier, my daughter is in high school. We all have homework pretty much every day).

If my school work is done before I need to go to bed, I’ll read a book–or write something. Without being able to waste time on social media because I’m not on social media anymore, I’ve found I actually have more pockets of such time on my week night evenings. I mean look at me, I’m writing a blog post on a Wednesday!) (and I’ve already read 12 books for 2019…)

TEN: Be kind to myself when things don’t go as planned.

Things come up. Life feels out of my control. Time slips away that I thought I was going to have. I just have to make a new plan and stay focused on getting it done.

ELEVEN: Be kind to my students when things don’t go as planned for them as well.

I work with students when life comes up and they need more time. I frequently negotiate extended due dates with individuals as needed.

I want students to feel like they have the time to do their best work. I want to help them think ahead and manage their time responsibly. I want to offer them a bit of grace when life throws curve balls at them (just as I’ve appreciated this kind of grace from others in my life).

Yes, there are times when the due date is really important for some bigger reason, but most of the time, I can be flexible.

I’m honest with my students about why and how it helps ME to manage my time and workload and life when they hit my due dates, and most of them do hit my due dates most of the time.

When they see me working hard to get their writing back to them in a timely manner, they work hard to get it to me on time (and talk to me when they can’t).

It also helps to work with colleagues who are good at setting boundaries around their school lives. Jay, for instance, is working on his second album as a singer-songwriter. He has very healthy boundaries around his school work so he has time to do that other important work. For years he’s been encouraging me to not do so much work at home–I mean they don’t actually pay us for the work we do on the weekends, right?

With some careful planning and setting some clear rules about my school work this semester, I’ve managed to (so far) leave school at school on the weekends. I’m hoping I can keep this up.

What are your tricks to manage your school work so it doesn’t take over your life?

Posted in #StopGrading, AP Lit, balancing, feedback, gratitude, making change, muddling through, not grading, planning, reflections, teaching, teaching writing, time | 2 Comments

Our Most Important Conversation: Equity

This post has been percolating for a while now, ever since I left NCTE in Houston.

Until now, all I’ve been able to cobble together so far are a few disconnected notes in my writer’s notebook:

  • I need to sit with my discomfort.
  • I’m a teacher with privilege OF privileged
  • What can I do?
  • What does it mean to be a good ally?
  • I can’t be so terrified that I’ll mess something up that I don’t even start.
  • When I don’t actively disrupt, I perpetuate.
  • I thought I got it, that I understood the issues. But I have so much to learn.

That last one is the one that’s been nagging at me most.

See, I’m writing a book right now. I’ve been working on it–with the care of a very patient, supportive, and insightful editor–for about 3 and a half years. It’s about grading practices that support readers and writers better than the typical percentage/points-based approach.

I’m writing the book to share what I’ve learned on my classroom journey over the last few years as I’ve worked to circumvent the negative impact that traditional grading was having on my students. I want to place the book meaningfully in the most important conversation we are having right now about education: equity.

My thinking about why the book matters really started coming together after seeing Cornelius Minor talk at CEL in 2017. I had this a-ha moment: grading practices are one of the many places oppression hides in schools. If we don’t actively change our grading practices, we perpetuate the grades-for-compliance exchange that organizes schooling by forcing students to work for grades, and it hurts our students. All of them.

Some students buy in to what they get in the grades-for-compliance exchange. Instead of focusing on learning, they focus on point collecting to get what they want out of the exchange–grades they can cash in for college admissions or car insurance discounts or scholarships.

Other students don’t buy in to what they get in the grades-for-compliance exchange (or the tricks of point collecting are a mystery to them). They end up with constant reminders that school is not for them because they remain, perpetually, on the bad end of the grade scale.

In neither case are students actually focusing on the important learning they need to do.

Last weekend, I finally read Chris Emdin’s For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood. I’ve had it since NCTE. In the chaos of the end of the semester I just didn’t get to it until now. I read it within about 36 hours in between the various tasks that filled up my last weekend of the semester break. It’s powerful pedagogy. I love his call–through what he terms “reality pedagogy”–to teach in ways that work for the kids who are sitting in front of us. He challenges us to actively seek to understand who they are and how they think and what matters to them, bringing into the classroom their culture in ways that show them that who they are matters. He offers concrete methods for doing this, and the stories from his classroom and the classrooms he’s worked with are inspiring portraits of what’s possible in classrooms across this country.

Here’s where I need to wrestle with my privilege. I’m white. I teach (and live) in a college town in Colorado with a healthy tech industry. It’s a safe place to live. I have miles of hiking trails about a ten-minute walk from my front door.

The school where I teach is also a ten-minute walk from my front door. Though Colorado’s school funding is abysmal, things are better here thanks to high property values and voters who nearly always say yes when the school district asks for funding. My district has one of the highest salary schedules in the state, which draws really strong candidates anytime we need to hire for a position.

My school is one of the best public schools in Colorado (based on test scores, high #s of national merit finalists, low #s of our students who need remedial courses in college, continual success of athletics and fine arts, and a vibrant set of extra-curricular activities). We have the books and supplies we need in general. You should see the million-dollar mountain view out of the nearly floor-to-ceiling school library windows–the heart of the school. As teachers, we have a lot of freedom from a stable administration that supports innovation. My job is pretty secure. My life is pretty secure.

This post, by Tricia Ebarvia, has helped me to identify the thinking I need to do. I’m grateful for her honest and insightful writing on this topic. She articulates things I didn’t even really realize I needed to be thinking about. Because here’s the thing: I thought I got it.

I grew up in an urban neighborhood in Denver. I went to schools with classrooms full of kids of all colors and varying socio-economic status. My family decided to move to the suburbs right before my 9th grade year, so my high school experience was in a less diverse school. By the time I was finishing up college and looking to do my student teaching semester, I chose to go back to my roots, to an urban high school, where I would be surrounded by the diversity my life had lacked since my family chose to leave the city eight years before. After that, my first three years of teaching were in a high school just outside of Seattle in a district more diverse than the schools where I’ve taught since. Even so, due to my early years of growing up in a city surrounded by diversity, I thought I got it.

But what I was missing was this: my slice of the city life during my childhood was a privileged one.

I have always been grateful that my childhood was stable, my home life secure, that I had everything I needed. My parents struggled to pay for college, but it is a privilege that I had parents who even could pay for college.

I got out of college with zero debt and the title to the car I had been driving for the previous few years. I didn’t have much money, but I was steeped in the wide-open possibilities that someone of privilege takes for granted. Yes, the idea that I could move wherever I wanted, find a place to live, and get a job was a certainty that I didn’t question.

So I took off to launch my adult life. The journey I started just a few weeks after I finished college led me through three states, two school districts, one master’s degree, and almost nine years before I made my way back home with a husband and daughter collected along the way. Rather than settling in Denver, or in the suburbs where my parents were still living, we chose the college town, and here we’ve been ever since.

I know this is an excellent place to raise a kid (strong schools, safe neighborhoods, healthy activities, easy access to healthy food), and I do not regret that this is where my daughter’s childhood memories reside. But in choosing to be HERE, throwing our money into the local economy, weaving our way into this community and fitting in to what it is, we perpetuate what it is.

I live in a mostly white community that considers itself progressive but is largely clueless about actual diversity because we don’t see much of it as we move through our lives from day to day. As such, we contribute to social stratification based on race, even within our own community.

So while I thought I got it, what I was missing was this: I have so much to learn.

I have, over the years, found myself defending my school and community from people who write both off because of the privilege people assume is there. The privilege IS there, yes. But we also have some of the challenges that more diverse communities have. In the 13 years I’ve taught in my school, our population of students of color has grown from around 15% to around 25%. Our free and reduced lunch students have grown from around 4% to around 10%. We’re adding resources we didn’t have before to support students we didn’t have before.

The changes in our student demographics are notable, but mostly, I do teach the privileged. I can keep doing what we have always done because it’s easier and it works (if our test scores are the indicator), but then I have to own the ways I’m perpetuating a system that will produce citizens who will go on to perpetuate social structures that oppress humans. As Cornelius Minor explained in his 2017 CEL keynote address, systems are like machines that keep operating until someone actively turns them off. If I don’t actively work to disrupt the way the systems of our society run, they will keep on running, and I will be complicit in that.

Back to my notes in my writer’s notebook–what can I do?

  • Educate myself. It is not the job of the people of color in my life to teach me about diversity or the need to decolonize schools or how to examine my own privilege and bias. I must do this work myself. I’m reading about it. I’m following conversations in Twitter about it. I’m attending conference presentations about it. I’m writing about it.
  • Listen. When I do find myself with an opportunity to hear from a human typically marginalized by our world about their experiences within it, I shut up and listen, even if what they say challenges the way I’ve always understood this world to be. ESPECIALLY when what they say challenges me.
  • Seek stories of others. In 2019, I will read books written by marginalized voices wherever possible. If I hope to create a classroom that disrupts the way my students move in our world so they can disrupt oppressive systems, I have to break apart/ disrupt/ problematize the understandings of our world I carry with me, one story at a time.
  • Speak up. This is the one that I know will challenge me the most. But I must, despite how terrified I am that I’ll mess something up. (There’s my privilege again–if I choose to stay silent, my life goes on as it has, safe and secure with plenty of opportunity for me and my family. Many don’t have the privilege to stay silent.) I must speak up, wherever I can, both in and out of my classroom. I love this call to be a co-conspirator rather than an ally:

Being a co-conspirator—forget “ally”—means thinking about the areas in which you have power and privilege and then actively, consistently using your voice to advocate in those areas you have power and privilege to make visible those who are marginalized. (Thread)— Tricia Ebarvia (@triciaebarvia) November 20, 2018

Friends, lives are at stake here.

Our country’s heart and soul are at stake here.

Yes, there are a lot of conversations in education that are important, but THIS one trumps all of them. I really see no point in doing any work right now as an educator that does not help us down the road toward equity in our schools as intentional work toward equity in our world.

I need to create classrooms that show my marginalized students that their voices matter. I need to create students who will use their voices to speak up for the marginalized in our world. I know that grading practices sit at the center of this because what we emphasize with our grading is what we are showing our students is most important. Competing for points to cash in for grades at any cost? Or using grades to get students focused on the literacy skills they need to hone to be full agents of their own futures?

I need to keep examining my own biases, privileges, blind spots, and misunderstandings of human experience. I need to actively seek the places where I am complicit with structures that oppress and marginalize so I know where I can resist. I need to invite my students to do this work too.

I want to close this post by pointing you to some of the resources that have been useful for me beyond what I’ve already mentioned in this post (and please send me yours in the comments):

  • The teachers behind #DisruptTexts are inviting important conversations about the texts we choose to teach. And they are four teachers heavily involved in equity work beyond the #DisrtuptTexts work. If you’re not already following them in Twitter so you can read their threads and blog posts and see the resources they share, you should be (that’s Tricia Ebarvia, Lorena Germán, Dr. Kimberly N. Parker, and Julia Torres.
  • I lurk in Twitter more than I tweet. Aside from the #DisruptTexts Twitter gold on the issue of equity and decolonization, there’s also the conversations happening around the #ClearTheAir hashtag. I’ve found several folks there that have been important for my thinking, like Val Brown and Christie Nold.
  • Maja Wilson’s book, Reimagining Writing Assessment from Scales to Stories, breaks down the damage of any grade scale that we might use in the classroom. They’re all nothing more than a good/bad binary, and we can’t divorce them from their insidious roots in the birth of the educational measurement movement. Wilson shows that around the beginning of the 20th century, with the influx of immigrants from eastern and southern Europe, very early efforts of educational measurement used scales to justify social stratification for the benefit of keeping some in the higher ranks of society and others in the lower ranks. The ranking we do in schools via grades (or any other scale we use on a rubric, for example) continues to do this. I’m hoping my book will help teachers figure out ways to avoid continuing this damage.
  • I love the powerful optimism and practical strategies for making change in Cornelius Minor‘s We Got This. I have already given it to the teacher I’m mentoring at school and will be talking about it with a group of colleagues later this week.
  • And everything I’ve got here, on a Pinterest board. I’m collecting Twitter posts/threads and articles I come across that help me think about equity.

How are you doing this work? How can we work together on it?

As always, thanks for reading.

Posted in #StopGrading, assessment, equity, grading, literacy, making change, not grading, reflections, teaching, the system | 5 Comments

#NCTE18 Write More, Grade Less Presentation Materials

We had a great conversation today with the folks who came to our session. Thank you!

Keep doing the great work you’re doing to get your students to write more, relieved of the stress and pressure of an ever-present grade. Keep finding ways to make YOUR responding work more manageable and joyful.

Keep in touch–hope to see you next year!

Click on the link below to access our slides. I added a slide at the end with links to the resources you asked for in the presentation.


And click here for Sarah’s blog series on grading for even more details.

Posted in #NCTE18, gratitude, making change, on the road again, presenting, professional development | 3 Comments

#NCTE18 Saturday: “Do your work.”


That’s what today created for me. A strong sense of urgency to change how we are doing things, collectively, for the benefit of every single one of our students. This urgency has been building from the other sessions I’ve attended (#DisruptTexts, I’m looking at you), but Dr. Christopher Emdin’s key note address today stoked it exponentially.

I’m going to write tonight to figure out a few things that I really want to have straight in my head by working to explain them here to you. Help me out if I am missing something or get one of the pieces wrong.

After the general session this morning, Jay and I stood on the edge of a hall outside of the auditorium with our heads spinning, thoughts reeling, processing what we had just witnessed in Emdin’s key note that was part church, part challenge, part pep talk, part academic argument, part appeal to his fellow teachers who care intensely for the kids who people our classrooms.

I’m one of “the rest of y’all too” that the title refers to. I ordered his book immediately and paid extra so that it will arrive on my doorstep in time for me to take it with me on my family’s road trip to Iowa next week for Thanksgiving.

I’ll start with this–my students’ response a few years ago to the name of a character in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Nurse Ratched. I had never heard the term ratchet before, but they explained it to me as something like this:  

In the section of Emdin’s talk about this, he gave an excellent example to help us understand this term. He talked of someone he knows who said, “I get it! I have a friend who is ‘golf ratchet.’ He can play fine, but his form is kind of messed up, so I never bring him around my actual golf friends.” So Ratchet = anyone who’s form is outside of what is expected–meaning appearance, or behavior, or mannerisms. And often someone who is “ratchet” is assumed to not be particularly intellectual or academic.

He explained how sometimes schools expect only one way really for students to be academic and intellectual. It’s the way of the dominant culture, and it squeezes out students of color and tells them that their ways of interacting with ideas and the world are less than.

But like the “golf ratchet” example, they can play fine even though their form might be different.

We must make space for all “forms” of our students, all ways to BE a student, to interact with ideas, to move through a classroom. This is what Emdin asked of us today. And it’s about more than just our students–the norms and expectations that school expects simply mirror the norms and expectations of society. We see those norms and expectations asserting themselves in moments like when a Starbucks employee called 911 last spring on two humans who had been there for only two minutes without ordering a drink (they were waiting for a business meeting). Or we see them at play when a police officer shot a security guard a few days ago after he subdued a gunman in a bar. That security guard is dead now. He had a 9-month old child and another one on the way.

Lives are at stake. We must shift people’s perceptions. We must do this work in our classrooms to lift up our students to do this work in the world. Their voices have impact; we need only to use our classrooms and the literacy skills we teach to amplify them.

There’s more. Emdin pointed out that the term ratchet has been around for a while:

This is where the science teacher that Emdin is did a very ELA teacher thing–he took this process and used it as a metaphor to help us understand something about schooling. If we just keep doing what we’ve always done (i.e. asexual reproduction, the same teaching methods showing up again and again, generation after generation of teachers) the system will mutate harmfully and irreversibly. It will get worse and worse. It will harm students more and more.

But we can stop this. Emdin asked us to think about what in each of us is ratchet–what about us goes against what is expected? THAT, he said, is what we each need to find and lead from. It’s how we will push back at damaging societal notions of who is smart and who is worthy and who is intellectual and who is not.

This is how we shift perceptions. Starting with our own.

He left us chanting together–inspired by one of my heroes, Toni Morrison–that we will refuse to be consumed by or concerned by the gaze of the other. I.e., we must be strong to do what is right by our students, even if it goes against what others expect of us. Unapologetically.

Let’s do this.

“So get into your classroom on Monday and do your work.” –Christopher Emdin

Posted in #NCTE18, making change, on the road again, professional development, the system | 2 Comments