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.

(169)

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 | Leave a comment

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 | Leave a comment

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.

SLIDES

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.”

Urgency.

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

NCTE 2018- The thing that made the problem won’t fix the problem.

Ah NCTE. Apparently I didn’t know how much I needed you.

I’m blogging this morning because I went out and had fun last night. Houston, as it turns out, is a pretty good town to run a conference in. So I have my coffee, and the thump of Margo Price’s band has somewhat subsided. Jeff Wilhelm and Jim Burke’s session was packed to the gills, so I’m out here collecting my thoughts.

I saw some great presentations yesterday. Kyleen Beers, Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher talking about creating communities of readers. That was terrific.

Kate Flowers and Anna Osborn discussing assessing independent reading (a bear I am wrestling with right now).


Jen Mitchell and Karla Scornavacco showing us how to use digital storytelling to engage kids in some really deep thinking about narrative and storytelling in amazing ways. (yay Colorado- way to represent).

And Mitch Nobis and Andrea Zellner taking apart graphic novels and showing what a rich complex experience they are and how they are meaningfully different from traditional text only narratives.


Whoa. That was a lot. It got me all fired up. Then we went out to dinner with some Colorado folks and had a great conversation. I could write a thousand words on each one of those sessions and just have scratched the surface. And nobody’s got the energy for that.

So what’s the theme? Z dropped a post last night about ‘what surprised her.’ You should read it. It’s good. She used one of Penny Kittle’s favorite questions about reading.

What’s rattling around in my head is something that comes out of our preparation for our session tomorrow (M.49 Write, More Grade Less). It seems to underlie a lot of what I’m responding to in both reading and writing workshop right now.


If what we did from kindergarten through eighth grade didn’t make them readers and writers, doing more of that in high school won’t make them readers and writers. Kids won’t want to read and write all of a sudden. They will want to read and write when they have something they want to read and write about, and the space in which to find their voice and the right to say what they want to say. If that is startling to you, start with Kelly Gallagher’s Readicide.

Penny Kittle said yesterday,

If what they learned so far is that reading and writing is not for them, then running your class like a college lit course  probably isn’t going to change that. They have to be invited in to reading and writing, not ordered. And if your work structure and assessment structure isn’t inviting, if it reinforces the message that reading and writing is not for them, then, to be blunt, you are hurting the children. Because, and I think we can all agree on this, we really can’t afford to have more people in the world who think reading and writing (and the deep rich reflective thinking that goes with it) are not for them.

If you want to see some of our thinking about how to change up what you are doing, come to our session tomorrow morning. We don’t have all the answers, by any means. But we think we have some ideas.

By the way, the music scene in Houston is awesome.

 

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@missmargoprice rockin Houston last night. #texas #livemusic

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Posted in #NCTE18, cultivating real learning, making change, workshop teaching | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

#NCTE18 Friday: What Surprised Me

“What surprised you?”

Kylene Beers said this morning in her session with Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher that If you take nothing else from her talk, take this simple question as an awesome invitation to get students to talk with each other about what they read.

Yes. I love this question. In fact, I’ll use it to reflect over today’s text, the sessions I got to attend.

What surprised me?

ONE: The eloquence, wisdom, poise, and confidence of the morning key note speakers. It was a “heartbeep moment” (Olivia Van Ledjte–a moment that changes the way you see humanity). Jordyn Zimmerman’s talk brought me to tears: she was “desperately tired of being silenced” by schools who saw her as less than due to her differently-abled brain. I loved her advice: “greet students in the hallway, even if you don’t know them, even if they don’t respond.” I will remember this. Zephyrus Todd reminded us that our LGBTQ students want to be treated with normalcy, for us to “love them just like they’re any other person because they are.” Xiuhtezcatl Martinez affirmed what I have been telling my students: “putting power into the hands of the youth is what the world needs more than anything right how.” He’s so right–watching my students talk and listen to each other about our world gives me so much hope. I just want to hand it over to them already. And Marley Dias for president, right? I loved her charge to us, to awaken our students to the experiences of others because “most people are asleep to the problems of others.” This IS my charge, but sometimes the landscape of the day to day eclipses it–the bells keep ringing and all those little things I need to do to keep my classroom running never seem to go away… but I want to stay laser-focused on this work. I’ll keep Marley’s words in mind. (I missed the remaining students–had to leave a few minutes early.)

TWO: Actually, the eloquence, wisdom, poise, and confidence of the morning key note speakers did not really surprise me. Young people are all of those things when we get the heck out of their way. The students reminded me that I need to continually work on not impeding what is possible for my students to accomplish and become in my classroom and in our world. We need them to be fully present change agents right now. We need them desperately. I want to play backup. I want to listen, support, think through with them, help them problem solve, show them how to use literacy skills to impact their world, to be activists, as Liv said, because they are thinking beyond their own lives and experiences.

THREE: This sobering moment from the session with Kylene Beers, Penny Kittle, and Kelly Gallagher: One of Penny’s college students, when speaking about his high school writing experience said, “it wasn’t like the teacher wanted to have a conversation with you about your writing. You could go see her if you wanted to.” Ouch. Do my students ever think that about me? I hope not; I actively check in with them every week as they write in my classroom. But am I showing them that I really do want to have conversations with them about their writing? When I make sure I sit down for that conversation with each of them, I do. When I even schedule the conversations in advance (as I’ve been doing the last three weeks as they’ve made their way through three drafts of a major piece of writing), I show them that I’m planning time and space with each of them. This matters. I will do more of this.

FOUR: Jay and I realized during this same session (Kylene, Penny, and Kelly) that because we literally teach NEXT DOOR to each other one class period of the day, my seniors should be having conversations with his freshmen. That particular class of my seniors is the quietest, most perplexing group of students I have ever taught. There is a majority of naturally “quiet kids” in that class (confirmed by having had them in my class as freshmen too), but I don’t want to just leave it at that. I want to help them talk more, to use talk to learn, to use talk to connect. How might it change the dynamic if they have to talk to a 9th grader as part of what we’re doing in class? Lots to think about here. I loved Kelly’s suggestions for how to teach kids how to have good conversations–firstly, have good conversations with them. And I loved the flipgrid videos–I’ve been wanting to use this tool. Might finally take the leap.

FIVE: Kate Flowers took us through a mini reading ladder activity. She asked us to write down the last three books we’ve read and then rank order them from least to most difficult. Then we were to write one sentence about how we defined difficulty as we ranked the books. Then we talked to each other, and a few people shared their lists and thinking out. I defined difficulty based on how much work it took me to keep my eyes on the page and my mind focused. But that was not how other teachers defined it. I was struck by how much thinking about our individual reading process came out of this. As I listened to teacher after teacher talk through their rank-ordered lists, I knew I had to throw this task at my AP Lit students. It was incredibly meaningful even just for considering a few books and writing one sentence… My focus in my AP Lit class is building readers, and I love what the task will tease out for them about the reading journeys they have been on. Thank you, Kate, for making me actually try out a mini reading ladder. Of course I had read about the approach through Penny’s work, and I knew it would be powerful from reading the examples she provides, but I had never sat down and actually tried it myself.

(and then I left in the middle of that session–and missed Anna Osborn’s entirely–so I could catch at least some of the conversation Kylene Beers moderated between Ernest Morrell, Pam Allyn, and Kwame Alexander.)

SIX: When I walked in the room halfway through the session, Beers, Morrell, Allyn, and Alexander were in the middle of a conversation about the books our students need: books that represent them more diversely, books that provoke their thinking, books that reflect our world authentically. Kwame repeated a few times that the books will do the work–meaning the right books will help our students to know and think about the ways our world marginalizes and oppresses; we need only to give students the space to talk about them. I love this. So much. And Ernest gave me the question I need to launch the second semester with my senior lit class: If you could change your community and/or our world, what would you change? I can’t wait to get my students started on this work. AND I have always felt incredibly guilty as an ELA teacher who really doesn’t like Hemingway. I discovered I have a friend in Pam Allyn in this. Thank you, Pam. I will stop apologizing for this Hemingway issue.

SEVEN: Kwame Alexander answered the final question from Kylene with a poem. And it was perfect. She asked, “How do we respond to that person who wants to silence us?” His answer? This.

EIGHT: Sometimes the best way to do the conference is to skip out on a round of sessions and go outside on a gorgeous day and walk a bit to get some local food for lunch. It was Jay’s idea. I’m grateful.

NINE: The knowledge was flowing SO FURIOUSLY in the #DisruptTexts session with Tricia Ebarvia, Lorena Germán, and fellow Coloradan Julia Torres that I couldn’t keep up in my notes and had to resort to photos of their slides to capture what I wanted to hang on to and come back to and reflect on (which was everything). This is such an important conversation, and I was lucky to have as my insightful shoulder buddy for turn and talks during this session Amy Rasmussen of Three Teachers Talk. Between this session and the one with Beers, Morrell, Allyn, and Alexander, what I really want to do with my AP Lit class is make it nothing but texts that disrupt the canon–both for whole-class reads and book groups. Contemporary. Voices that write about what we’re dealing with NOW. Marginalized voices. Counter narratives. Including stories that don’t perpetuate a damage-centered narrative (Tuck 2009) about people of color. LOVED Julia’s framework for addressing resistance to work to disrupt the texts we typically put in front of students:

  • When you feel defensive, ask: what are you protecting?
  • When you don’t want to change, ask: what are you maintaining?
  • When you make choices for students rather than making space for their choices, what’s the message you’re sending?

I love that Tricia, Lorena, and Julia asked us to step up. They did not mince words. They did not sugar coat anything. This is the work we need to be doing. All of us. Now.

And Kate Flowers has the best possible counter to anyone who says they can’t make change or that they have to keep doing things that don’t help kids because they’re told to: “That’s not good enough.”

We have voice and agency over what our students experience in our classrooms every day. Let’s make it the best we possibly can to honor their individual journeys as humans and to make our world kinder and safer and more inclusive.

THAT was a full, empowering, exhausting, 14-pages-of-notes-in-my-writer’s-notebook day. See y’all tomorrow.

p.s. Come think with us about getting students to write more and us to grade less, Sunday morning, 9am, 372F. M.49. Please help us to spread the word that even though the program has our session tagged as elementary, it’s intended for a secondary audience. We’ve put in a request to get this changed in the app and online, but the change hasn’t gone through yet.

Posted in #NCTE18, AP Lit, making change, on the road again, professional development, surprises, teaching literature, teaching reading | 1 Comment

Write More, Grade Less. Come see us at #NCTE18 (M.49)

With Monday off for Veterans’ Day, we’re looking at two more days of teaching before we are Houston-bound! Can’t wait to catch up, NCTE peeps, and to meet new folks too.

Join us for this important conversation–bring your ideas so we can learn from you.

Posted in #DisruptGrading, #NCTE18, #StopGrading, motivating students, not grading, on the road again, presenting, teaching writing, workshop teaching, writing | Leave a comment

Where I Want to Improve my AP Lit Reading/Writing Workshop #WorkshopWorksForAP

I walked away from my first year back to AP Lit this year in many feeling a sense of accomplishment. Students seemed engaged. I loved hanging out with them every day. They learned some things. They worked hard. We laughed some. I miss them!

But there are some key areas where I want to get better. Teaching is hard. Teaching reading and writing is hard. AP Lit teaching is hard. WORKSHOP teaching is hard.

I have been actively working toward a workshop classroom since I first did the Colorado Writing Project summer workshop in 2009. Every year I get closer. But I’m still trying to get there.

Here are the places where I want to get better:

 

1) Book Groups. I really want my students to develop reading practices that last for life. Book groups are things that humans sometimes do–I’ve been a part of several and they keep me reading. My favorite book group started this past January, though. Three of my AP students asked me and a colleague if we would be a part of their “third hour book club,” which we all had as an off period. I cannot tell you how awesome it was to meet with them on a Friday during third hour every few weeks or so to listen to them push and challenge each other about the books they had chosen to read. We read five. Five challenging books on top of their heavy course loads and busy lives. Every time I sat there with them talking about these books in a discussion space they had created themselves, I thought about how to replicate the same for my classes.

From my experience, it seems successful book groups need a few things: people who share some interest in talking about books, some commitment to the group, and time reserved just for the book group to discuss a book they all read together. I think I can cultivate conditions for these things to happen in my classroom. I already have an independent reading component to my classes–I can add the book group as a path toward the independent reading goals of 2-3 hours of reading per week. Maybe I’ll ask each student to read at least one book per semester in a book group and I’ll block out a book group day in class. We’ll make it somewhat celebratory, but serious, student-directed conversation will happen about their books. I have some more ideas rumbling around in my head about this–maybe I’ll chat it out with third hour book club when we meet in a couple of weeks on book #6. (The students were very clear that graduating from high school did not mean the automatic end of this book group!)

 

2) Independent reading. As I said above, there’s already an independent reading component to the course. I ask for 2-3 hours of reading per week with 30 minutes provided in class on Mondays. Their priorities for the reading are first, the books we’re reading for class, second, any book of equal literary merit, and third, any book they want to read. The choice is incredibly important, but I want to put more options in front of them for the choice bit. A colleague and I are working on a list of contemporary authors who are writing complex and wonderful and brave and important works of literature. I’m talking Jesmyn Ward, Paul Beatty, George Saunders, Mohsin Hamid (to name a few). (The Man Booker award winners and shortlist nominees has become a go-to for me in my own personal reading of late). These are books that show students that literature can make powerful statements on our current world.

You may be thinking that a decent classroom library is what I need for this. And you’re right. But there’s a critical problem with this in our school: 17 language arts teachers share 10 classrooms. We cannot count on the same classroom from year to year, and we cannot count on teaching all of our classes in one classroom in a given year. Last year I had all of my academic classes in the same space. Next year, they’ll be spread between three classrooms. This makes the logistics of building a classroom library over time difficult. But we do have a fantastic library in our school with a great fiction collection. The librarian is always happy to order more books for us too.

I will remain anchored on choice for the independent reading requirement in my classroom, but I will put some options in front of students that will show them the powerful literature being written in our world right now for that reading priority #2, books of literary merit equal to the books required for the course.

 

3) Disruption. If you’ve not had a chance to check out any of the #DisruptTexts conversation on Twitter, head over there right now to see the recent conversation on The Great Gatsby. I sent the conversation to my two colleagues who also teach AP Lit and had some conversation about it at our planning meeting a couple of weeks ago. I think that the conversation surrounding disrupting texts is so critically important. Gatsby is on my syllabus. But I want my students to interrogate it (and all of our books) so much more.

The more I thought about it (and explained what I was thinking to my teaching colleagues), the more I realized that I wanted to use disruption as a frame for the entire year anchored on these three big questions:

My writer’s notebook notes on our recent AP Lit team planning meeting, thinking about next year. I wrote this down after I explained to my colleagues how I wanted to use disruption as a framework to organize my entire class next year.

The first one: How were authors working to disrupt their world? Here are the additional questions I’ll throw at my students: What problem might the author have been addressing with the book? How do you know? How successful was the text as a disruptor? Where did it fall short?

The second one: How can we as readers disrupt the text? I already give my students a list of questions from different critical perspectives. But I think that working under the frame of disruption will encourage students to draw on some of the questions more meaningfully. A feminist reading of Gatsby is important, for example. And I will ask my students to disrupt the list of questions too–which questions aren’t there that should be? In short, I want to cultivate more critical readers. I want them to be looking carefully at humans are portrayed in texts, whose stories are missing, how that affects the success of the work.

The third one: What about our world you do you want to disrupt? And how will you accomplish this through words? My class ended on the Semester Long Piece of Writing this year, which was essentially a multi-genre paper using our books to answer the question, “What Does it Mean to be Human?” (more about this in my post in this series about sharing the feedback load). I think I’ll use the multigenre paper again but this time using a different question, one about disruption. This would put students in the role of author looking to use words imaginatively and artistically to disrupt the way society deals with something in our world, and the books and poetry they read for the course will be their mentor texts. I can’t wait to see what they do with this.

 

4) More flexible groups. This past year, students essentially sat in the same groups for entire semesters. There were benefits to this–some groups gelled significantly and really got to know each other’s work. They became mini communities within my classroom community that students turned to for feedback on writing, for discussion about the reading, for helping each other with the class. But I would love the ability to have a few different groups for each student–a writing group, a reading group, a class discussion group…

It’s been a furniture problem in the past. The student desks are so difficult to move around–heavy, awkward. It’s just easier to set them up and leave them as they are.

But behold the classroom where my AP Lit classes will meet next year:

Under construction.

Our entire school district is in the middle of a multi-year bond construction project, and construction just started this spring at my school. The language arts department is being relocated in the school, including six brand new classrooms in what up until now has been the school’s cafeteria.

I took the photo during finals week. I was wearing a hard hat because it’s a construction zone. The windows are more exciting than you can realize–as I’ve not taught in a room with windows for several years now. But what also comes with this new classroom is some flexible, easy-to-move furniture that should facilitate the flexible grouping I imagine.

 

5) More poetry. We had some great poetry weeks this past year, and I want to make more space for it. I invited groups of students to bring three poems (thematically related) to the class for some reading, discussion, and analysis. Two poems had to come from the list of poets recommended by the College Board and the third could be anything they thought was worthy of our time. We looked at Kendrick Lamar. We looked at Father John Misty. We looked at some powerful spoken word poets. I just want to do more of this. And I want them to write some poetry too–maybe that can be my first semester final task. An original poem that works to deliberately disrupt something about society. They could read it to the class or we could make an anthology. Then they could use the poem in their multigenre paper for second semester’s final task. All I know is that at AP training last summer, our instructor told us that the poetry free response question on the AP exam is always the one students struggle with the most. More practice (reading AND writing poetry) will only help.

 

6) More conferences. In my classroom workshop, this is probably what I struggle with most. Making time for them. Figuring out the best way to collect my notes on them. Making conferences a key component of the course.

In my other senior language arts course that I teach, I’m much more consistent with writing conferences. Students have about two class periods to write each week, and while they do this, I circulate and have conference conversations with them. In AP Lit, most of the in-class writing time is filled with the timed writes that we all do together. If I’m writing with them, there’s no time for conferences on those days.

And reading conferences: I am still figuring this out in both of my language arts classes. I know I need to get more systematic and intentional about them, and I need to be more consistent in recording my notes in a way that is most useful for planning instruction. If you’ve got ideas for this, I’m listening!

 

Where do you want to improve your AP Lit class? What ideas do you have for me on any of the areas I want to make better?


This post is part of a blog series on teaching AP Lit with readers/writers workshop. Click here to see the entire series. 

Posted in #WorkshopWorksForAP, AP Lit, blog series, conferring, making change, planning, reflections, summer 2018 blog series, teaching literature, teaching reading, teaching writing, workshop teaching | Leave a comment

Writer’s Notebooks in AP Lit #WorkshopWorksForAP

The writer’s notebook is a key piece to a workshop classroom.

Whatever you call it–response notebook, reader’s/writer’s notebook–the idea is that it becomes an extension of a student’s brain, the place to work out ideas, reflect, plan, wonder, ponder, keep track of, etc.

I’m still learning as a writer’s notebook user myself. I’m filling them more quickly than I used to, which makes me happy, but I’m constantly discovering how to use the tool best for my own growth as a reader, writer, and thinker. It has helped this year to do some thinking alongside Stevi Quate, one of my personal teacher mentors (she was my secondary English methods professor back in 1995 and is now my colleague in the Colorado Writing Project–see her post about launching the writer’s notebook). I am definitely still learning as a writer’s notebook user.

And I am definitely still learning about how to invite my students to use them most meaningfully. Here’s what I did this past year in AP Lit to invite my students to develop extensions of their brain in the form of a composition notebook.

 

1) Make access easy.

Every August, I hit the local Target when they have just stocked school supplies and I purchase 50 composition notebooks at the cost of 50 cents each. I offer these to my students–they can have them and throw 50 cents at me if they wish. One of my very first assignments in my class is to show up with a writer’s notebook in-hand. Having them right there for students makes this super easy.

 

2) Make writer’s notebooks a central focus.

I have a set of learning objectives for each of my classes, but there’s always one goal about writer’s notebooks. My students choose three focus objectives for themselves each semester. They track their growth toward their chosen objectives. Making one of these a goal about writer’s notebooks shows students that they matter, that they’re important, that they will be a central component of the course.

I never walk into class without my own writer’s notebook. I want students to see it as an appendage of their teacher. I use it constantly–I make lists, keep track of things, take notes on class discussion, make plans–I tell my students what’s going on in my writer’s notebook and even show them sometimes. If it’s important enough that I’m asking them to get serious about a writer’s notebook, then I should be doing the same.

Different this year, I told my students that the writer’s notebook is the one thing that they need for class (that and whatever novel we’re discussing together). I wanted it to be THE thing that held all of their resources and information for class–no additional binder or folder needed. After discovering biology teacher Lee Ferguson’s resources on interactive lab notebooks, I was able to show my students how to make pockets to hold onto any resources I give them and to file away their timed writes.

One student’s pockets in his writer’s notebook where he stored his timed writes.

I also frequently provided items on half sheets of paper and asked students to tape or glue them into their writer’s notebooks–the learning objectives for the semester for example. Then they could circle or highlight their chosen objectives and do some annotating right there about why they chose those particular learning objectives for themselves. I also loved giving them poems to tape in and write all over.

Freshly stocked buckets full of writer’s notebook supplies.

Another new thing I tried this year was providing colorful tape and tabs and stickers for students. I created eight “buckets”–one for each pod of students in each class. I stashed them away in the closet in my classroom and pulled them out on the days I knew they would need them, but my students knew that they were welcome to grab a bucket at any time if they needed something for their writer’s notebook. I found colorful masking tape and washi tape online for the best prices. And my students’ favorite thing beside the tape was those little, round, brightly-colored price tag stickers that you might buy if you’re having a garage sale. They used them all over their notebooks for a variety of purposes. The bowls came from Target–less than 2 bucks each and in our school colors.

I was lucky this past year to teach all of my classes in one classroom. I’m not so lucky next year–I’ll have three classrooms. I haven’t decided yet if I’ll make three sets of writer’s notebook buckets or shuttle them around on a cart…

 

3) Ask students to complete writer’s notebook tasks that invite them to do the kind of thinking work that would make the notebook an extension of their brain. 

Here’s my AP class learning objective regarding writer’s notebooks: The student maintains a vibrant writer’s notebook for writing informally and creatively to explore initial responses and emerging ideas about literature. It becomes a visible extension of the mind. I developed writer’s notebook tasks with this goal in mind in order to show students what this work looks like. These tasks generally fell into a few categories:

  • To help us think about the books we studied: From Socratic Seminar tickets to Socratic seminar notes to notes on class discussions to free writing in response to the reading, I asked students to use the writer’s notebook as home base for all of this. Take a look here at how a few students approached this.
  • To help with the writing we did: Students used writer’s notebooks to prepare for timed writes and to prepare for the AP exam. They also did a lot of thinking/planning for the semester-long piece of writing. See a few examples here.

    One student’s page to track her reading goals for the semester. The yellow book on each shelf identifies a unique reading goal–“school,” “expand my mind,” “explore,” and “for funsies.” She colored in the books when she read them.
  • To track growth toward students’ individual learning objectives: A few weeks into the semester last fall after students had gotten used to what the work of the class looked like, I had a day in class where students chose their learning objectives and we talked about how they could use their writer’s notebooks to track their progress and growth. Students did a variety of things, but my favorite was the book case that one student drew, each shelf a unique set of books toward a certain reading goal she had, particular titles written on the spines, books colored in when she read them. Awesome! I also saw calendars where students made regular notes about their learning goal progress and pages where they collected evidence of how they were doing. I blocked out time in class for students to show each other how they were using their writer’s notebook to track their learning so they could steal each other’s awesome ideas.
  • To stay organized: Students made tables of contents and tabbed sections and numbered pages and clearly labeled items and even used different colored pens for different purposes. I made a few general suggestions for how to approach staying organized and talked through my own strategies.
  • To make the writer’s notebook totally yours: Whenever I have a big thought I want to hold onto, I write it in huge letters on a blank page and draw a cloud around it, for example. Students did a range of things here, from margin notes to drawings to photos. I loved this margin note from a student who challenged herself to regularly annotate what she had written to capture her thinking about it all:

This was in the margins on a page where she was writing down her answers for some AP exam multiple choice practice that we were doing together in class. I love the simple honesty of this, how it captures what she was thinking at that moment. Yes, the work we ask of students in AP Lit IS hard–close reading of complex text for the purpose of articulating your own interpretive analysis of it? Difficult indeed.

And I’m excited to try out some sketchnoting–great resource here for students that came across my Twitter feed this week:

 

 

Assessment

If you’ve read any of my blog series on grading, you’ll not be surprised that I use no rubric, assign no points, or even “grade” writer’s notebooks at all. Having and using a writer’s notebook is a requirement in my class that I monitor every single day in my class. But I never collect writer’s notebooks.

I consider the writer’s notebook the student’s individual space. The very first year I used them years ago, I collected them every so often figuring that I needed to make sure students were using them for what I was asking them to use them for. This was also a few years before the moment I stopped grading traditionally, so I was in a different mind frame about assessment and grading–needing to hold students accountable for the work via points and grades.

But here’s what I noticed that first year when I collected students’ writer’s notebooks: they didn’t seem very authentic. They didn’t seem like the students were really using them in genuinely meaningful ways. The reasons for this are many I’m sure, especially that I wasn’t very good at inviting students to make them meaningful. I’m learning and getting better at this. There’s something powerful for students when I tell them that the writer’s notebook is THEIR space. They control it. They design it. They determine how integral it will become to their work for the class.

That’s not to say that I never look at them. I look at their writer’s notebooks all the time. I assign tasks periodically that I need to check. In a conference conversation, we might look together at something in the notebook and talk about it. Every so often, I invite students to put their writer’s notebooks under the document camera so the class can see something there. I don’t collect the notebooks, but I pay attention to how students are using them from day to day. (Check out my post on sharing the feedback load with students for a fuller discussion of what student writing I DO collect, read, and respond to.)

At semester’s end and at each 6-week grading period, my students self reflect/self assess toward the three learning objectives they’ve chosen for the semester. Their semester grades are based in part on their documented growth toward those three objectives. For students who have chosen the writer’s notebook objective, I get extensive reflection on how the tool has been working for them. Here are some examples. The first speaks to the importance of a writer’s notebook as a place for students to work through their thoughts, especially if they’re reticent to speak up in class:

At the start of this semester, I wrote in my writer’s notebook that I wanted to use my notebook to “write about ideas of my own” because I am often too intimidated to discuss my own ideas about books in front of the whole class. I have found my writer’s notebook to be a valuable space where I can write about and expand on my own ideas without feeling nervous to share my ideas with the entire class. I turned my writer’s notebook into a extremely helpful resource that I have used throughout the semester to keep track of my thoughts about books, as well as a space to plan for and brainstorm about timed writes.

And from another student–I love the clear focus here on making the notebook more relevant to her thinking:

Last semester was the first time that I was able to have a journal I stuck to and filled out almost everyday and I was able to carry that into this semester as well. I think the main area of improvement came in the relevance of everything I wrote down this semester. I did a better job of recognizing what I already knew and wrote down things that really mattered to me. Likewise I tried to recognize what I didn’t know and needed to work on, writing it down more thoroughly. I continued to take extensive notes for socratic seminars and book discussions. I continued to write free writes and poetry in my blank pages and my favorite part of my writer’s notebook this semester would definitely be that. I think this learning target has really helped me with organization and understanding what I do and do not already know.

This student describes how she went beyond note taking and did some reflective writing to learn from what she had written down in class:

I have put a lot of work into maintaining a writer’s notebook that illustrates my ideas. In my writer’s notebook, I have jotted down my interpretations of class text and taken very detailed notes for all of our class discussions and socratic seminars. For example, for each of the discussions I have jotted down important points that other people have started and then made individual interpretations of those thoughts, such as making theme statements based off of presented ideas. It has also been a place where I can store class handouts and mt timed writes. In having all the information I need for this class in one place, I have had a very easy time looking back on my notes and handouts and using them for other activities. Overall, my writer’s notebook has been a very useful tool for me regarding my growth as both a reader and a writer.

This student articulates growth from having to force himself to use the notebook to reach for it when he needed ideas and talks about how much this helped him for the AP exam:

I chose this as another one of my learning objectives because I wanted to have a vibrant writer’s notebook that I could constantly reach for when I had an idea, or was struggling to find one. To better understand class discussions, various texts, and possible themes, I found it very helpful to write it all down. This really helped me track my growth and understand what I needed to improve on in all subject matter. I initially wanted to work on this learning objective because at the beginning of the year,  I felt like I was forcing myself to work in my writer’s notebook. I did not want that to be the case. Fortunately, I now recognize the effectiveness of journaling your thoughts. In addition, keeping an extensive writer’s notebook better prepared me for the AP test at the end of the year. Through collecting data on all of our books and discussions, I was able to go into the test with something in mind to write about.

 

I aim to do a better and better job each year of figuring out how to invite my students to make their writer’s notebooks the thinking space they need to support this difficult but worthy work. What are your strategies?


This post is part of a blog series on teaching AP Lit with readers/writers workshop. Click here to see the entire series. 

Posted in #WorkshopWorksForAP, AP Lit, blog series, engagement, motivating students, summer 2018 blog series, teaching reading, teaching writing, workshop teaching, writer's notebooks, writing, writing with students | 2 Comments