I’m Baaaaaaaaaaaack…

Howdy Followers of The Papergraders,

Did ya miss me?! Did ya?

I missed you! I missed me.

I’ve been pretty quiet for the last year or so. As I posted back then, I was in a program to get my administrative license, and as a part of that process I ended up serving a year as the Dean of Students for our school last year. Which was a departure for office 831.  That was an incredible challenging, interesting, exhausting and illuminating…and I’m REALLY glad it’s over.

To be clear, I had the chance to work with a amazing team, all of whom were incredibly kind and patient with me. I was allowed to do the work in a way that seemed to fit me and feel like the right approach, and I think I did a decent job. I even ended up with my admin license. But I really didn’t like it.

Which is especially clear to me now that I’m back in the classroom.

I’m back teaching 9th grade for the first time in ten years.

I’m back teaching Theory of Knowledge for the first time in five years.

I’m not in office 831. Okay, so it’s not ALL rosy. But I’m right down the hall.

I have a student teacher this semester.

I don’t carry a radio.

I’mmmmm sooooooooo haaaaaaaaappppppppyyyyyyyyyy.

I like being a teacher. I’m glad I had that learning experience. It will be meaningful in how I deal with students. I’m even glad I had some time away from the classroom for the first time in 13 years. I will do some writing this year about last year and I may share some of that writing here. Some of it will be funny. Some will not. Really not.

But mostly I just want to say a joyful hello to my students, and to you, our readers.

Stay tuned. More is coming.

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Here We Go School Year 2015-2016!

It’s school year 2015-2016 eve.

We have the 9th graders in the building tomorrow for orientation. Then everyone on Friday.

I’m ready.

Well, I’m not actually ready in terms of lesson plans sketched out in detail and copies made and seating charts ready to go.

But I’m ready for the school year. Ready to meet my students. Ready to put into practice the things I figured out this summer in my thinking and writing. Ready to work with colleagues to figure out how to make each other’s classrooms awesome.

I’m ready to see those 2-dimensional photos in Infinite Campus become the 3-dimensional people that I will get to spend 180 days with between now and the end of May.

I’m ready for walks around the lake in the park below our school, talking and thinking with my colleagues, watching the leaves change and fall, the snow cover the grass, the flowers poking out of the earth, the baby leaves to emerge. I’m ready for the seasons of a high school: back to school, homecoming, Halloween, hoping for snow days (but never getting them), final exams, winter break, a new semester, hoping for snow days (but never getting them), spring break, seniors counting down to graduation, finals, summer!

I’m ready for cool fall football fields, loud basketball gyms, soccer fields. I’m ready for seeing the stage full of the singing/dancing/acting talent that walks our halls. I’m ready for hearing from our house the marching band practice in the evenings, the cadence of the drums rumbling off the houses.

I’m ready to see the school full of the human beings that are the whole reason we exist. We do it all for them. For them collectively and for them each as individuals. We do it to help them become who they are, to help them imagine what their future could be, to support them as they move toward that future, to challenge them to be better, to insist that they are kind, to listen, to understand, to watch carefully to figure out how to invite them each to think like writers and readers or scientists or mathematicians or musicians or historians or linguists or artists.

All the meetings over the last week, all the hours spent reviewing legal expectations, safety guidelines, concussion protocols, the intervention pipeline, the next steps of the strategic plan, teacher evaluation, curricular changes…we’ve taken notes, listened, asked questions, laughed, caught up, told stories about our summer adventures, welcomed new colleagues, smiled for our new staff IDs, figured out the new iteration of the grade book, gone out to lunch (so civilized!)…

But now it’s time to fill the building with the students.

And I’m ready.

Posted in education, reflections, teaching, things made of awesome | 1 Comment

Student Feedback: How my students said my class helped them as readers

I’ve been putting off this post, even at one point thought I could just not write it. But I must–this is the weak link in my classroom. I have umpteen ideas and plans about how to help my students become more engaged writers. I’m already building lesson plans in my head. I’m imagining my future students (whom I’ll meet next Friday) as writers, composing powerful texts that means something to them as human beings. (By the way, this is the third and final in a series about the feedback I collected from my students at the end of last year–see here for my post on what my students had to say about how my class helped them as writers and here for my post on what they had to say about the digital tools we used.)

The reading piece, though, flummoxes me a bit. The default for high school ELA teachers is what we’ve experienced as students ourselves: the college professor chose the book, we all read it and came to class ready to discuss, and then we wrote papers about the book. But honestly, I was able to be successful in this model of an English class without actually reading the books. You need only pay close attention to the teacher’s interpretation and there you go–everything you need to say in an essay or on an exam.

I want more as a reading experience for my students. I have always wanted more for my students. And I’ve made important movement away from that more traditional model. There are some important things to achieve through a group of people all reading a book together, so my students and I read one book together each semester and then they choose their own independent reading texts. Those choices are guided by a semester-long research project wherein they are pursuing an answer to an essential question–the one for our class as a whole and related questions they each develop on their own. They present their findings from their reading in their final project presentations. And I’ve been conferencing with them about their reading and keeping rich data on those conversations. This is all great.

But I’m definitely not quite there yet. For teaching writing, I have writing invitations and focus lessons and revision activities galore. For teaching reading, well, I don’t have as much. So far it’s been time to read mostly that I’ve given my students, and choice about what to read, and a dialogue space with me to talk about the reading. These things are working, but not as well as I want them to toward creating the engaged readers I want to send out into the world beyond my classroom.

You can see in the list below the things we did in my classroom last year toward reading. The list is definitely not as long as the list of things we did toward writing (as you can see in my post about that student feedback).

What helped your growth as a reader? (percent of students who said it helped)

  • reading books on my own that I chose: 79%
  • time to read in class: 54%
  • reading books together as a class: 54%
  • reading at least 2 hours per week: 48%
  • whole class discussions about reading: 45%
  • conferencing with Doc Z about your reading: 42%
  • weekly reading update form: 28%
  • book talks from the librarian: 23%
  • writing about the reading in writer’s notebooks: 18%
  • your response group: 14%
  • tracking your growth toward reading standards you selected: 11%

I love that at the top of the list here is “reading books on my own that I chose.” Nearly 80% of my students said that helped their growth as readers (and only 4% of them identified that as something that didn’t help their growth as readers). This choice reading is so key to creating engaged readers in the high school classroom. And not choice reading as “outside” reading as it often becomes, but choice reading as a centerpiece of the classroom, as THE place where students are doing the lion share of their reading for a course. It’s been a challenge to figure out how to make choice reading that central, and for me it works when I’ve got a long-term research task for a semester that requires students’ choice reading to complete. That provides a focus for title selection, a reason to keep going, and a forum for sharing what they discovered through their reading with their classmates. When I choose all the books and we read them all together at the same pace, it does not place reading at the center of students’ lives as human beings. It places reading as something done to students by a class/teacher and they just need to survive it any way they can (I’m speaking from my own experiences as a student here). I’d rather that my students develop lives as readers, and this means they need to make important choices about what they read.

Next on the list is the reading time–54% of my students said the time provided in class to read helped their growth as readers (and only 4% of them identified that as something that did not help their growth as readers). I will continue this. Students learn to value what we spend time in class doing. If reading is important, than we should prove it by reserving precious class time for it. Last year it was one day a week of silent reading. This year it will be 10 minutes every day plus one reading workshop day. This day will sometimes be silent reading of independent book choices and will sometimes be collective reading of shorter shared texts with discussion and explicit instruction in reading strategies. Yes, high school students still need explicit instruction in reading strategies.

As I said above, there are important things to gain from a group of people reading a book together, and 54% of my students identified that the two times we did that did indeed help them as readers. We’ll continue this–first semester we’ll start with Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer. Second semester we’ll start with a selection of novels and the class will either choose one to all read together or we’ll break into groups and read them in book groups. I will have to wait and see what seems best for my classes. A similar percentage of students (48%) indicated that having to read two hours per week outside of class helped them grow as readers and only 9% of them said it did not help them as readers. I think it’s important to have some sort of expectation out there about how much they should be reading outside of school. I have the same expectation for myself–more than two hours though. And I talk with them about the things I need to do to carve out the time. Less Facebook, for instance, gives me more time to read.

Forty-five percent of my students said that whole-class discussions of reading helped them grow as readers. This is something we’ll keep doing, but this tells me I could do a better job at making this more effective. I think that my new-found dedication to the workshop structure each and every day (mini lesson, work time, share time) will help because it will make me more intentional about our purpose each day. When we get to the share time on a reading workshop day, students should be primed and ready to talk after the mini lesson sets them up for what they need to focus on in the reading time.

Forty-two percent of my students said that reading conferences with me helped them as readers. Seems kind of low, but only 10% of them said they didn’t help at all. I really grew to look forward to these conversations with students about their reading. I used a google form to collect thoughts on each conference so that I could build a database of students’ reading experiences throughout the year and track their growth. This I will continue, but I think I’ll simplify the form so it works faster for me–I want to focus on the conversation, not on filling out the form, as I’m talking to my students. One thing I will keep on the form though is a question about whether or not they got their two hours of reading in during the past week. It’s important to check in with students about these kinds of expectations and help them problem solve if they’re having a difficult time finding the space to read.

The last few things on the list–book talks from the librarian, writing about reading in writer’s notebooks, response groups, and tracking learning toward reading standards–didn’t get a very glowing review from my students. I need to think about these things. The writer’s notebooks and response groups are two things that I will focus on much more intentionally this next year–they were both things that came up rated lower than I had hoped in my students’ feedback on what helped their growth as writers as well. And as for the book talks from the librarian–the point of that was to get possible titles in front of students so they would always have lists of books they wanted to read. There are other ways we can accomplish this–maybe even some sort of student database of books they read and recommend to each other. I could look at Goodreads for this. I’ve done this with a Google Form in the past and I can’t remember why I stopped doing that.

Here are my students’ responses to my question about what didn’t help their growth as readers–I’ve already discussed much of this above so I’ll mostly just put it here for you to see in case you’re curious:

What didn’t help your growth as a reader? (percent of students who said it didn’t help)

  • your response group 51%
  • weekly reading update form: 34%
  • tracking your growth toward the reading standards you chose: 32%
  • book talks from the librarian: 30%
  • writing about reading in writer’s notebooks: 30%
  • reading books together as a class: 24%
  • whole-class discussions about reading: 16%
  • conferencing with Doc Z about your reading: 10%
  • reading for at least 2 hours per week: 9%
  • reading books on my own that I chose: 4%
  • time to read in class: 4%

So here’s what I’ve learned: reading went okay last year, but I can improve on how I help my students grow as readers. To do this I will continue with choice reading AND whole-class reading, time to read in class, the expectation of at least two hours a week outside of class reading, and reading conferences. I’ll think about some new ways to get book title options in front of students more frequently and will be more intentional about writer’s notebook work and building response groups where students support each other as readers. I’ll work to be more focused on reading days to provide purpose and structure to conversations we’ll have as a class about our reading. Hopefully this will all help me toward my goal of helping my students to cultivate fuller lives as readers.

Posted in engagement, making change, muddling through, reading, reflections, student feedback, teaching literature, teaching reading, using data, workshop teaching | 2 Comments

I’m Moving to Schoology from Google Sites

Our school district just adopted Schoology as our official learning management system. When I first heard this news I thought, “I’m so set with how I use Google sites and drive and docs to manage my courses that I don’t think I’ll need Schoology.” But then some colleagues whom I respect said some good things about Schoology, and I know the people in IT who made this decision and trust that they think it’s a decent resource, so I started to explore Schoology to see how I could use it in my classroom.

Here’s the thing: technology evolves and so must I. And ever since I made the jump from overhead projectors and transparencies to PowerPoint slides projected from my computer, my thinking about technology remains the same. I use technology only if it allows me to do something important I cannot do without it. Sometimes the chalk board is literally the perfect tech tool for the job. In the case of PowerPoint, I could work more efficiently in designing slides rather than overhead transparencies, I could keep from getting overhead marker ink on my hands, and the slides engaged my students more effectively than what I had on the transparencies. It was technology that allowed me to do some important things that I could not do without it.

One of the best examples of a technology application that allows me to do something I cannot do without it is using Google Docs for writing. The collaborative nature of a Google Doc makes it possible for a student and I (and peers who read and respond) to engage in a conversation in the margins of a piece of writing. All of my feedback and the discussion we have about it is preserved right there on the document. Revision history shows the evolution of the piece of writing from the very first letters typed on the page. And suggesting mode makes it so easy for me to see the changes my students make as they revise. Google Docs is indispensable for me as a teacher of writing. I will never go back to dealing with writing on paper, with multiple drafts stapled together, with having to carry stacks of papers to and from school. Students can’t lose papers anymore (there’s no physical paper to lose or floppy disk to become corrupted or flash drive to disappear…) and my students and I will be able to see exactly what has happened to a particular piece of writing from beginning to end through the writing process and several iterations of feedback and revision. Powerful.

Since those early years of my teaching career (I’m now starting year 19) when PowerPoint seemed so sparkly and new, my technology tools have evolved significantly. Google’s apps shifted the landscape completely. I was religious about keeping a lesson plan book for years. I used the traditional teacher’s plan book with the grid for each week to do my week-by-week planning and wrote more detailed daily plans in a spiral that I kept at my side constantly. Once I set up a Google Site, where daily plans showed up in the “what happened in class” page so students could easily see what we did if absent, I stopped writing my daily lesson plans in a spiral–it felt redundant. I simply taught off of my lesson plan posted on the website each day–where I could link to the resources I needed for that day and students could access everything later as needed.

And because google documents were hyperlinkable, all of the resources I created for my students could be available on my website as links. This way, if I updated the document in my google drive, the link to it from my website would take the student to that updated version. This was a huge efficiency for me.

I loved how the Google Site was infinitely customizable. Over five years, I built and used a site that became not only my daily teaching tool, but a rich archive of all of the materials I had created during those years. Resources lived in my Google Drive and I used my Google Site to link to them and make them accessible to my students.

These powerful tools changed everything. And I imagined that I would never step away from my Google Site.

But it’s time. Schoology allows me to do more that I cannot do without it.

Years ago while working on my master’s degree at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, I remember vividly the first time I went to the graduate library. I knew that the library housed the largest collection of a public university in our country, so I was intrigued to see it for myself. Only graduate students are permitted to enter (if undergrads need books that live there, they submit the call number at the desk and someone goes to get the book for them), and the first room you go into is massive. I walked around looking for what I needed, but something was amiss. It seemed that there were gaps in the call numbers–not everything seemed to be there. But then I noticed a big door near the back, and I headed toward it. Very slowly I began to realize that the room I had entered was essentially an anteroom. It housed only new arrivals or something… (can’t remember exactly which books lived there or why). Beyond it were (I think) nine floors of books, nine floors of moveable book cases in order to make the very most of every inch of floor space. This creeping feeling slowly took over me–the library was far more massive than I had imagined, and I stood at the doorway to it, ready to slowly and carefully make my way into the stacks to find the books I needed to form the theoretical underpinning of my master’s thesis.

I tell you this story because from what I’ve learned thus far about Schoology, I feel like I’m standing in another anteroom at the doorway to a much larger landscape with resources I can only barely glimpse and imagine from where I am right now. Schoology will permit me to do everything I’ve used my Google Site for–posting daily lesson plans, linking to resources, posting everything students need to complete the work for my class. But it will do this in a fully socially networked space, one that students will be familiar with pretty much instantly because it functions much like other social network spaces, and one that has the potential to connect my students and me to the world beyond our school in ways not possible without Schoology. I can use Schoology as home base for a PLC with teachers across the country, for example. I can share resources with teachers in Mississippi or Ohio or Alaska. Students can see on ONE PAGE all of their work, current and upcoming for all of their classes, and can post questions to teachers and classmates right there. I can post assignments of many types: quizzes (with instant feedback to students about how they did), discussions–and it will keep track for me of who has completed things and who has not. All of these are huge efficiencies that will enable me to spend more time responding to students and planning instruction to respond to their needs. There is potential here for rich, engaging, interactive work for students too.

At first I thought I would still keep up my Google Site as home base for my classroom and just use Schoology to link to the resources there, but I have known for a while that my Site is cluttered and visually overwhelming to some students. There’s more there than they need. Moving things to Schoology is forcing me to identify exactly what students need so I can have everything there in one place for them, archived for them to find it easily, and in a space where they can send me questions at the moment they have them. Schoology will enable me to work faster and smarter, able to better individualize my instruction for my students.

So I’m totally jumping ship. Well not totally. I’m not abandoning the powerful google apps that I use for teaching writing, collecting student data, and creating resources for my students (google docs, drive, slides, forms). And a Google Site is still the choice for our department’s new grade 9-12 digital portfolio. We built a template and filled with the Common Core State Standards, where students can collect their work across four years. There are portfolios within Schoology, but not something that my department can structure with a common template for all students so they all have the same pieces from year to year. And I will maintain my google site that’s about me, my professional home base as a teacher.

But Schoology will become my new home base for my classroom, and I can’t wait to see where it takes my students and me. I’m just peeking through the door right now–aware of the tremendous potential but not totally understanding how it all works. So I will just walk in, slowly, carefully, and see what I can find and learn.




Posted in 21st century teaching and learning, CCSS, collaboration, technology, things made of awesome | 4 Comments

Student Feedback: How my students said digital tools helped them in my class

I wrote earlier this week to reflect on what my student end-of-year survey data suggested about how what we did with writing helped them as writers. And I’ll write later about how things went in terms of reading.

This post is about the digital tools we used this past year.

To begin, I’ll describe the digital tools we used this past year. My class hub is a google site for the class. I’ve been using this google site for five years now, and it’s become a huge resource for me. I can search through past lesson plans and assignment resources and everything I’ve used in those five years–this is way better than a physical file cabinet for me. In fact, once I started posting my lesson plans daily and publicly for my students and their parents, I stopped keeping a paper lesson plan book. That was kind of a big deal for me! (I DO have ALL of my previous lesson plan books in the top drawer of the file cabinet next to my desk…). The google site in conjunction with google drive and google docs makes up the trifecta of my class. All materials I produce for my students are google docs and I post links to them on my site. My students do most of their work in google docs as well, and they share a google drive folder with me that holds all of their stuff for a given class. These three  tools (sites, drive, docs) really form the backbone of my classroom digitally.

We are an Infinite Campus district. Teachers post grades and students and parents access that information whenever they want. Some even have the IC app on their smartphones–they can set it to ping them when a teacher updates anything in IC for their/their students grades. I don’t really like this to be honest. Do students and their parents really need live, to-the-minute updates about grades? (No.)

A new digital tool this year is Trello. This is a free, online project management application. What you get is essentially a bulletin board (I set one up for each class) with “cards” that you put on the board. You make columns for the cards to move among. I set my columns as “drafts in progress,” “complete draft ready for Doc Z,” “feedback done–now revise!”… in other words, the different steps that papers need to go through in my class. Students make a card for each paper and attach the google doc for the paper to the cards AND set their own due date for the draft. In one glance I see the status of everyone’s work, and that has made it much more possible for me to keep track of all of my students across all of my classes working at their own pace on their writing.

We also blogged this past year. First semester I set up one blog for all 90 of my seniors (I had three sections of them) to contribute to together. Second semester I had each student set up his/her own blog. We used Blogger in both cases–since we’re a google district, this blogging tool is available to us and connected with their google accounts for school.

I also used a google site template for students to build portfolios during second semester. I had used this approach for my creative writing class for a few semesters–this was the first time through with the seniors.

Finally, I’m also on Twitter. This account is what I use exclusively for my classroom. I have another account that I use as my professional social media presence. Why the two different accounts? I figure that the teachers who follow me in Twitter aren’t necessarily interested in the Twitter chatter intended for my students.

Now that I’ve described

Which digital tools were helpful to you? (percent of students who said it was helpful)

  • the SLCC website: 93%
  • Trello: 92%
  • Google Docs: 90%
  • Google Drive: 89%
  • Infinite Campus: 78%
  • your individual blog: 25%
  • our collective first semester blog: 23%
  • your portfolio: 21%
  • Doc Z’s tweets: 21%

I’m happy to see that my students found my course google site helpful. It usually gets to a point in the year where when students ask me “hey where’s that one thing?” they answer for themselves before I even have to say anything, “it’s on the website.” I’ve worked hard to make sure everything–and I mean everything–my students need to be successful in my class is there and that they can find it easily. So yes, this is good news that so many of them said that it was helpful. I do worry that visually it may be too cluttered and I want to work on that. I want it to be super simple for students to find what they need. I make changes every year when they tell me what’s difficult about navigating the site.

And I was pleased to see Trello rated so highly as a helpful tool as well. It was there where students would look to see the status of their work–what was finished, what needed more work, what was still waiting for my feedback. It kept things organized for me and I’m glad it did for them too. Seeing that google docs is the best tool for interacting with a writer over a piece of writing that I’ve ever used, I’m so glad to see students rated that so highly as helpful as well. From being able to track the evolution of paper through revision history to being able to collaborate with others to being able to capture the conversation students and I have over their papers via the margin comments–there’s just nothing else that works as well.

So the blogs didn’t rate well here either in terms of being a helpful tool for my class (see my post on what my students said helped them with their writing for more reflection on this). I definitely need to re-think how I’m suing blogs.

And the portfolio–not many students rated that as helpful. Again, I need to figure out the best way to approach this. I think the simpler portfolio my department and I built this past spring may be a better options. But we’ll see.

Finally, I’m not sure Twitter is the right social media platform for my classroom. Few students rated my tweets as a helpful tool. That means that either the things I’m tweeting out aren’t particularly helpful (definite possibility) or that I’m not using the social media tool that they’re using. I’ve been learning Snapchat this summer–that’s the one my students couldn’t seem to ignore during this past school year, so I’m wondering about its possibilities. Instagram too. Anyone using these in compelling ways in your classrooms?

Which digital tools were not helpful to you? (percent of students who said it was not helpful)

  • your portfolio: 58%
  • your individual blog: 58%
  • our collective first semester  blog: 51%
  • Doc Z’s tweets: 18%
  • Infinite campus: 9%
  • Google Docs: 1%
  • the SLCC website: 1%
  • Google Drive: 0%
  • Trello: 0%

The most not helpful tools according to my students: portfolios, blogs–by a majority. Again, more information that tells me I need to rethink how I use these or even if I will continue to use them at all (in the case of blogs, maybe not. In the case of portfolios–I’m not ready to give up on them). I didn’t talk about Infinite Campus above because, well, I can’t NOT use it. It’s not an option. I’m expected to have meaningful data for students and parents in IC pretty early on each semester. And again here–docs, drive, my course website, Trello–the power digital tools. Pretty strong mandate there to keep those all running.

And then there’s Schoology. We’ve just become a Schoology district. I’m not sure what that will mean for my digital tools. It won’t be a mandate that we use it, but if it’s a powerful tool that allows me to do things more efficiently than I’m doing now, why wouldn’t I use it? I know we’ll be able to continue using google apps, and that drive can be woven into Schoology. But what about my google site course website? Will it make more sense to move those resources to Schoology? I’m not sure yet. Will the blog embedded in Schoology meet my classroom blogging needs better than Blogger? I’m not sure yet. Will the benefits of being so socially networked in Schoology override whatever I might give up by moving away from my google site? I’m not sure yet.

But I do know that I need to evolve as the digital tools do. This is life in the 21st century. The tools are changing rapidly. It’s not important to be a master of specific digital tools but rather to be flexible enough to figure out how to use the right tool for the task. And Schoology might be that. What thoughts do you have out there about this? What powerful digital tools are you using?

Posted in 21st century teaching and learning, education, muddling through, reflections, student feedback, technology | 1 Comment

Student Feedback: How my students said my class helped them as writers

July. And I’m working. Who was it that said teachers take summers off?

I’m perusing the data I collected at the end of the school year regarding my students’ feedback about my class. It’s great information. I think I finally figured out how to collect data that really helps my planning for the following year.

In this post I’ll focus on the data I collected about writing. I will do two more posts regarding this set of data–one about reading and one about our use of digital tools. In these posts I’ll focus on the numbers I collected. There is so much more to unpack in the qualitative data I also collected (I asked students to “tell me more” about something they had just checked off in lists about the different kinds of things we had been doing in class and I asked them to recommend changes to me), but I’ll save that for some other writing I’m doing right now.

So I asked students what helped and didn’t help their growth as writers in my class. About 70 students completed this survey.

What helped your growth as a writer? (percent of students who said it helped)

  • Doc Z’s written feedback on drafts: 96%
  • the thorough revisions: 83%
  • working in Google Docs: 69%
  • setting my own deadlines: 58%
  • time in class to write: 55%
  • looking at Doc Z’s drafts on the big screen and giving her feedback: 55%
  • one-on-one conferences with Doc Z: 52%
  • writer’s memos: 47%
  • studying examples of the kind of writing we were doing: 47%
  • tracking your growth toward super standards you selected: 28%
  • writing in your blog: 23%
  • writer’s notebook: 18%
  • giving feedback to peers on their drafts: 18%
  • getting feedback from peers on drafts: 17%
  • your response group: 17%
  • reading other people’s blog posts: 13%
  • responding to other people’s blog posts: 6%

I’m thrilled that so many students said that my feedback to them on their drafts helped them grow as writers. That’s what it’s all about. And even though the thorough revision task is challenging and sometimes onerous according to my students’ comments to me throughout the year, look at that. Most of them credited it as having helped them grow as writers (and only 4% of them said it didn’t help them grow as writers, as you’ll see in the next list of results).

Very interesting that the next most helpful thing was working in Google Docs on their writing. I have always believed that this one digital tool completely changes how we can teach writing. Revision history shows the evolution of a piece of writing from the very first words a writer puts on the page. The collaborative nature of it with the comments in the margins–so powerful. And we love “suggesting mode.” Like track changes in Word, this makes clear the changes writers make to a piece of writing. My students work in suggesting mode when they revise and it helps me tremendously to hone in on exactly what they are working on in a piece of writing. I can work much more efficiently as I respond to their work, again and again and again (that’s what happens with the thorough revision process).

The next chunk of results show things we did in class that roughly half of my students said helped them grow as writers: setting their own deadlines, time to write in class, looking at my drafts on the big screen, conferences with me, reflective writer’s memos on every draft, and looking at examples of the type of writing we’re doing. I think these things are important, and this tells me that a lot of my students see them as important too but maybe we could be doing them more effectively. Maybe I wan’t able to do writing conferences as frequently as I could for example. I should do more (especially since only 1% of the students said these conferences DIDN’T help them grow as writers).

It’s the last section of results that really give me some things to think about. Blogs, writer’s notebooks, peer response groups… these were not frequently identified as things that helped my students grow as writers. And as you’ll see in the list below, they were the most frequent things indicated for NOT helping my students grow as writers.

So what to do? Do I jettison the blog work totally? Maybe. Or maybe I just re-think it. The bulk of the blog work last year was in the form of blog carnivals. These were opportunities for student hosts to choose writing topics and make calls for submissions for their classmates. They loved this. I never had to beg for volunteer blog carnival hosts. Their topics were awesome and drew on their lives in meaningful ways. Students seemed to enjoy blog carnival days but they did not see the blog work as something that helped them grow as writers. I had already thought about this. Because the blog carnivals were separate from the other work we were doing in class, I wondered if they were really worth our time. Students liked them and they helped build community but why would I spend time in class doing anything but support my students to grow as writers and readers? I don’t think the answer is to jettison blogs, but I will jettison the blog carnival. I want to re-see the role of blogs in my class. These can be a more public sharing space for students, to share with someone besides me the awesome work they are doing. I envision blog days once a month or so, and students will post in their blogs something from their current work–a freewrite from the writer’s notebook, a portion of a draft they’re working on, thoughts about their reading–and we’ll gather and read and respond. At least maybe we’ll try this first semester and see how it goes.

Writer’s notebooks. I know I’ve not been putting as much emphasis on these as I can. Whereas only 18% of my students said they helped them grow as writers, only 30% indicated that the were NOT helpful at all. I’d like that number to be smaller, but I don’t think it’s a mandate to get rid of writer’s notebooks. I’ve already been thinking of ways to integrate them more in what we do in class, to talk about how it’s going using them more frequently and let students share ideas with each other about how to make them a useful tool for class. I never collect them from students–in years past when I have, I find they use them inauthentically because of the presence of my eyes on them. I observe how they are using them in class and at times ask them to show me something in the writer’s notebook. Or we’ll use a student’s writer’s notebook together during a writing conference as we brainstorm an approach to a piece of writing. I’ve had them do self-assessments in the past to let me know how the notebooks are going. But I didn’t do that much of this last year. I did have a few students tell me in their end-of-year letter that the goals they set at the beginning of the year to write daily were awesome for them, and they did it. I think more goal-setting conversations, more student reflection about how they’re going, more intention around them. I know they can become indispensable to writers–as they were to some of my students. I just need to cultivate more of this.

And the last piece there in the results–all things connected to peer response groups. They didn’t see much value in the feedback they gave and received from their peers on their writing and by having a peer response group at all. This is my fault. I know how to set up intentional peer response groups. I do this in my creative writing class every year–through a combination of whole-class getting-to-know-you activities and a student survey about who they are as readers and writers where the results are public to the whole class, students make requests for who they want in their response groups and I weave them together based on those requests. And then we work on those groups getting to know one another. It takes time–time I’ve blocked out in creative writing but not with my seniors. I need to change that. I know that these mini writing communities are important–I just need to prove that to my students.

What didn’t help your growth as a writer? (percent of students who said it didn’t help)

  • responding to other people’s blog posts: 52%
  • getting feedback from peers on drafts: 49%
  • reading other people’s blog posts: 48%
  • your response group: 47%
  • writing in your blog: 35%
  • writer’s notebook: 30%
  • giving feedback to peers on their drafts: 27%
  • tracking your growth toward standards you selected: 25%
  • writer’s memos: 18%
  • setting my own deadlines: 17%
  • time in class to write: 10%
  • studying examples of the kind of writing we were doing: 9%
  • looking at Doc Z’s drafts on the big screen and giving her feedback: 6%
  • the thorough revisions: 4%
  • working in Google Docs: 1%
  • one-on-one conferences with Doc Z: 1%
  • Doc Z’s written feedback on drafts: 0%

Again, I see here that my written feedback on their drafts is working. Not even one of them marked that is not helpful toward their growth as writers. That’s a mandate to keep doing that on their drafts, in response to their revisions, all of it. Blog posts, peer feedback, response groups–again the results here tell me something is not working. If around half of my students say these things did not help them grow as writers, then I need to stop doing them or completely change how I am doing them. I reflected on this above.

One thing I’ve not talked about is what my students said about tracking their own growth toward writing standards they self-selected. I wrote an earlier post about the standards they did select to guide their work. But a quarter of them said that this did not help their growth as writers and just over a quarter of them said it did, leaving half of them somewhat ambivalent toward whether or not this helped them grow as writers? This piece is part of much bigger conversation about not grading my students’ work in order to get them focused on the work rather than the grade. (If you’re curious to read more about this, I’ve written several posts about my journey to going gradeless.) But this tells me I’ve got more work to do around this piece. My department has put together a standards-based portfolio for use with ALL of our students starting in 9th grade. I’m excited about this because it puts the standards in front of our students and communicates to them that it’s their job to build a body of evidence to show what they’ve learned. We tried to keep the portfolio simple so students would be able to use it without much instruction, but it will definitely fall to each teacher in each year to direct them on how to use it most effectively. So I’m thinking about this. What kinds of posts will be meaningful for them to do? How often? How is this different from the blog? Lots to think about here. I’ll write more in my upcoming post about my students’ feedback on the digital tools we used this past year.

What have you used to get feedback on how you encouraged your students’ growth as writers? What changes will you make for next year?

Posted in 21st century teaching and learning, making change, reflections, student feedback, teaching writing, using data, writer's notebooks | 8 Comments

Marinating myself in the work of Donald Graves

For some reason, I escaped my PhD program without studying the work of Donald Graves. Well, it makes sense. I’m focused on secondary literacy and his work was largely with elementary writers. And my dissertation focused on teaching literature, not on teaching writing. So it makes sense that I didn’t turn to his work then to make sense of my classroom research study.

But it’s never too late to read Graves. I picked up Children Want to Write: Donald Graves and the Revolution in Children’s Writing, edited by Thomas Newkirk and Penny Kittle, and I’m reading it bit by bit over my oatmeal every morning before I head out the door for school (one of this semester’s mini habits). That means that my school days for the last few weeks have started with Graves, and that’s a great way to get my mind in the right place for the work I hope to do each day.

Why Graves? Well, I’m working on a book. I have one chapter in complete (rough) draft form and two more in the works. It’s about the challenges on doing a reading/writing workshop in a high school classroom. I’m finding myself going back to read the people who started us on this trajectory to begin with, and it has been fascinating. And inspirational. Next up: Don Murray and Linda Rief.

(This book project is also why I’ve written little in the blog of late.)

I’ll use the rest of this post to simply share with you some Graves tidbits that I have found particularly meaningful. Enjoy!

From “Balance the Basics: Let Them Write” (1978):

“People want to write. The desire to express is relentless. People want others to know what they hold to be truthful. They need the sense of authority that goes with authorship. They need to detach themselves from experience and examine it by writing. Then they need to share what they have discovered through writing.” (20)

“The imbalance between sending and receiving should be anathema in a democracy. A democracy relies heavily on each individual’s sense of voice, authority, and ability to communicate desires and information.” (20)

“Another reason that there will be less writing is that too often our schools show little concern for the individual development of the learners themselves or the important ideas they may have to share. Our distrust of children is most evident when we insist that they always be receivers rather than senders. If our approach to writing is to change, that change must be born of a confidence that what students have to say is worth saying. Writing is a matter of personal initiative. Teachers and parents must have confidence in that initiative or there will be little real writing.” (24)
“Research data now show, however, that scrupulous accounting for all errors in a student paper is actually harmful to good writing development.” (26)
“Indeed, the main task of the teacher is to help students know what they know.” (32)
“When children are able to see their own writing used by others, their concepts of themselves as writers are heightened. When writing is not just a context between the child and the teacher but serves a broader audience, the teacher does not have to attend continually to correcting technical errors, but can concentrate on other matters essential to good writing.” (32)

From “A New Look at Writing Research” (1981):

“We complained that teachers would not pay attention to research. But so far the teachers have been right… most of the research wasn’t worth reading. It couldn’t help them in the classroom. They could not see their schools, classrooms, or children in the data. Context had been ignored.” (179)
“It wasn’t until much later in my teaching career that I was able to focus on what children were doing, in order to adjust my own teaching style. I found that I could not afford to be without the information that told me where they were. As a result, I began to participate in the ‘middle’ of the process of their learning. For example, I asked questions while they were in the middle of observing the travel patterns of turtles. I responded to their initial observation notes, asking more question. And back they went to add, delete, revise their earlier observations.” (182)
“Writing is an organic process that defies fragmentary approaches to explain its meaning” (183).
“Professors of education need to spend more time in the only true laboratories, public school classrooms, to understand the role of teacher, the processes of learning. Perhaps the reason we researchers have neglected issues of context of learning in research for son long is that we have spent so little time on the sites where experimental data have been gathered. We have gathered research in absentia, whether we were doctoral students, psychologists, or professors of education” (200)

From “The Enemy is Orthodoxy” (1984):

“The Writing Process Movement has been responsible for a new vitality in both writing and education. But orthodoxies are creeping in that may lead to premature old age. They are a natural part of any aging process. Some are the result of early problems in research (my own included); others come from people who try to take shortcuts with very complex processes. These orthodoxies are substitutes for thinking. They clog our ears. We cease to listen to each other, clouding the issues with jargon in place of simple, direct prose about actual children.” (204)

“All of us have orthodoxies in our teaching that prevent us from being sensitive to writers. Some of these orthodoxies, or maxims for teaching, are necessary for temporary sanity as coping mechanisms for our teaching situations, or our personal need to overuse something in order to understand it. Often, something like publishing meets our own needs as teachers at the expense of what is best for children. Publishing is visible evidence that ‘I am a productive teacher.'” (214)
“The second check against orthodoxy is to keep writing ourselves, to learn more and more how we write, to discover firsthand the nature of our own writing in order to understand what children are doing when they compose. The process must always be fresh to us and to the children. The exciting thing about having the children teach us, and having us teach ourselves in our own writing, is that teaching becomes a process of discovery in its own right. Orthodoxies continually make us use old data, without today’s fresh evidence. Orthodoxies make us tell old stories about children at the expense of the new stories children are telling us today.” (215)

Many thanks to Tom Newkirk and Penny Kittle for this book. Having the most important pieces of Graves’ work in one place is absolutely invaluable.



Posted in gratitude, making change, reflections, research, teaching writing, things made of awesome, workshop teaching | Leave a comment

One Week Later: What’s Resonating after #NCTE14

One week ago I left National Harbor–free shuttle to a metro station where I took the yellow line to L’Enfant Plaza in DC. From there, a short walk to the Holiday Inn, where I dropped off my things and headed out to walk the National Mall while I waited for my kid and husband to arrive. We spent three days together seeing DC (I had never been before–the food! Seriously! So good!), flew home on Thanksgiving morning, and spent the weekend with my husband’s parents, visiting from Iowa (they took care of the fur children while we were gone and had a lovely dinner waiting for us for Thanksgiving when we got home).

Oh and there were those 88 research paper drafts I had to get through before going back to school tomorrow. That sucked up a good bit of my weekend. Only today have I had time to finally think about this post. There are 29 pages of notes in my writer’s notebook from the sessions I attended at NCTE this year. Here’s what’s resonating:     



I loved this. Jay tweeted this out from one session we attended together. The Tests… I love how there wasn’t a huge focus on The Tests in the sessions I attended and the conversations I had with people. We all get it. The Tests are not the ultimate measure of our success with our students, so we don’t spend too much time talking about them. Rather, we discussed story and how to get students to love reading and how to get them engaged as writers. These we know are the more important things. But in these conversations and presentations, I did hear lots of people mention rigor. Rigor as a goal of the work that we do in our classrooms. Rigorous thinking. Rigorous conversation. Rigorous reading. Workshop is rigorous, we say, to justify the approach to people who think it’s too easy for students because of the freedom and student choice–in her Sunday noon presentation, for example, Penny Kittle said she’s tired of hearing people say that teaching kids to love to read is not “rigorous enough.” It bothers me that we work to prove to ourselves and critics that the work we do with students demands rigor. I am working hard to get this word out of my vocabulary when it comes to teaching. If you’re wondering why, just review the definition:

rigorous = rigidly severe or harsh. 

synonyms: stern, austere, hard, inflexible, stiff, unyielding, strict, demanding, hard, bitter 

There should be absolutely nothing about learning that is rigidly severe or harsh–except for our efforts to protect student learning spaces from all things that seek to make them rigorous according to the definition above. I think what we mean when we say “rigorous” is a whole collection of concepts. To define that work for my students, I present them a list:

thorough, all-out, assiduous, careful, complete, comprehensive, conscientious, detailed, in-depth, intensive, meticulous, scrupulous, sweeping, whole-hog

That’s the kind of work I’m hoping to inspire my students to aspire to. Kittle followed up her lament about people writing off the importance of teaching students to love to read with this (as Jay tweeted out from that session): 

And I love this. That thorough, assiduous, questioning, in-depth work we hope to inspire in our students comes from a real love of learning, of reading, of asking questions. I agree with Kittle–LOVE is the highest standard. If we get our students to love the literacy practices we ask of them, our job is done.


2. Literacy demands of our democracy.

Kittle’s Sunday noon session with Kelly Gallagher and Carol Jago left some big ideas rumbling around in my head. Said Jay from that session:

I agree with Jay. This presentation pretty much contextualized all of the work that we do. It gave the reasons why literacy is important. They spoke on the literacy demands of our democracy, the literacy skills our students need to be engaged citizens. Jago argued that “our democracy depends on people being able to read and understand and analyze argument,” that we need to “help students to be able to read their world for ethos, pathos, logos, and kairos.” Yes. Every image our hyper-active media world throws at our students pretty much every moment of their waking hours is an argument. If they can’t read those arguments, they cannot participate in our democracy and they cannot participate as the active agents of their own lives. I have always told my students that the most complex text they’ll ever read is their lives and that they need to be able to handle complexity in order to write their future. But this presentation gave me so much more to add to that argument. It’s not just for students individually that they need to be able to read the world effectively–it’s for all of us and for protecting the freedoms we share in our democracy. It only works when we are all engaged in making it work. And what role do books play in all of this? Kittle was spot on with this:

Our job as teachers is not just to drag students through books they do not want to read, but to help them find themselves in books.

Yes! They must be engaged readers. They must practice handling complexity. They must read to find themselves to figure out what role they will play in our world and how they will contribute. There is no more important thing for us to ask of our students. And, as Kittle explained, our job is to provoke their thinking. With books. With conversation. Through the writing we ask of them. We must read our students carefully to figure out how to do this–there’s no pre-packaged curriculum to buy. THANK YOU, Penny, for telling a packed room full of teachers that we have to do this work on our own. This IS the professional work of teaching, no matter what those policy makers/ textbook writers/ “teacher-proof” curriculum marketing people say. I’m on a year-long journey in my classroom this year to document my attempts at going workshop, and sometimes it starts to feel so complicated because I can’t see it clearly through the screen of the curriculum expectations that seem to be asking for something different. So it was so refreshing to hear Kittle articulate it all so simply: Read, write, revise, every day. I’m percolating over that. It’s the mantra I need right now. Gallagher’s contribution to the conversation was all about reading, and he offered three simple claims:

  1. Students need to read more: “Reading Hamlet is not the problem. ONLY reading Hamlet is the problem.”
  2. Students need to read better: we are literacy teachers, not literature teachers.
  3. Students have to learn how to track their thinking over time. We need to teach them to read differently: he’s worried about the “runaway train of close reading.” Instead, students need to work to track close reading over time. He gave an example of tracking a story in the media over time–what an awesome idea. Imagine if your whole class collected articles published about an issue like Ferguson over the course of an entire school year and read and discussed them frequently? This is real-world literacy.



3. Smarter uses of technology in my classroom.

Gallagher showed a photo of a bulletin board from a classroom where students were collecting media articles about one story as a way to study the story that emerges over time. Teachers in a Saturday workshop session we attended showed photos of classroom doors covered with photos of the book covers that the teacher had read that school year as a way to model a reading life. These teachers also showed photos of their ever-growing classroom libraries, shelves neatly organized with enticing titles peeking out at students from every wall in the classroom.

I love what these teachers are doing, but in my teaching world, where we share classrooms with other teachers and can’t be guaranteed the being in the same teaching space from year to year, it’s just not feasible to plaster walls or doors or shelves with artifacts and books. But can’t I use technology to achieve some of the same things? My students could use a Pinterest board to track one story in the media over time. In fact, I just started a few weeks ago with Pinterest to collect articles connected to my students’ social issue research. But I could absolutely open up the job of collecting to all of us and we could study the board frequently–and students could see it at any time, not just when in the classroom. Plastering my classroom door with photos of all the books I read is complicated–I have three different classrooms that I teach in, so I’d have to do this three times. And I’m not sure my colleagues who share my teaching spaces would be okay with me totally taking over our shared door. But I can (and do) model my reading life for my students with my public Goodreads account.

And as for that classroom library that I’m pretty sure I’ll never have? Our school librarian is awesome. He will buy any book we ask him to for the library. He has a student advisory board that recommends titles as well. And he can put almost any title on a Nook that he’ll check out to students. He’ll happily put together a huge cart full of engaging titles for my students and wheel it to my classroom. In short, our school library is pretty fantastic, and my students and I spend a good deal of time there. And I can use some tech tools (Goodreads, students’ blogging about their reading, etc.) to keep talk about books front and center in our classroom so that my students continue to travel that path between my classroom and the library.  


4. Hack it.

I wrote about my experience with the Hackjam in my post about Saturday. But what I wrote above about technology is an example of hacking. I’m using technology to re-see, to re-imagine the approaches other teachers have used to make reading visible in their classrooms. I want to continue to hack my classroom with workshop (and hack my approaches to workshop to make it work in my classroom). In short, what’s resonating to me is that hacking is about being creative, about taking a different approach, about working to “stop talking about what’s not possible” as Marian Wright Edelman implored us all in her keynote address.  


5. Love is everything.

And finally,

Morrell’s Presidential address was nothing short of inspiring. How lucky we are as an organization to have his vision and leadership. I loved his review of the history of NCTE to show how we’ve always been fiercely dedicated to social justice; we need to continue this important work and be agents of change. I love how he fights for students and cultivating their voices. I love how he helps us to see clearly the literacy demands our world asks of our students, now and into the future (“Kids become playwrights to discuss issues in their community. That’s tomorrow’s English”). I love how he reminds us of the sacred privilege we have to teach young people. I love how he honors us as teachers: “The best kept secret of English Education is the genius in our classrooms that we sit on because we don’t know how to share it.” I blog to share and read others’ words to learn. But we’ve got to figure out how to do more of this–how to share our expertise with each other and against the forces out there who think they know better than we do what is best for our students in our communities.

This work we do is not easy, and we should not expect it to be. Kittle ended her noon session presentation by reminding us that the hard thing about this work is that it is never complete. But she loves it because it’s so imperfect. So do I. It’s good to know that we’re all working at it together:

Posted in #NCTE14, 21st century teaching and learning, making change, professional development, reflections, things made of awesome | 2 Comments

#NCTE14 Outbound

The Airport Reflection

New in my bag is:

A copy of Ralph Fletcher’s Breathing In, Breathing Out

A copy of Wilhelm, Smith and Appleman’s UnCommon Core

A copy of the videos for Best Practice by Zimmelman et al.

A copy each of The Clockwork Scarab and The Spiritglass Charade autographed by the author (Colleen Gleason) for my daughter.

New in my head:

Why was the Literacy for Democracy session at the end of the conference? It should have been at the start. It should have been first. It should have been in the main ballroom. It should be in the goddamn Common Core. Why is ‘college and career ready’ in the Common Core but not ‘ready to participate fully in democracy?’ Lets critically interrogate THAT! Penny Kittle, Carol Jago and Kelly Gallagher all came at it from their own points of view, but together made the point that critically interrogating the world around us is the chief skill of an educated, informed, activated populace (wait, maybe that’s why it isn’t in the Common Core?)

How do we propagate the message of equity in education better? Why am I suspending kids? Is there a better way? Can I figure it out? If I can, can I make it happen? Can I do that without going completely crazy?

How to we tell counter stories, counter narratives, to the prevailing narratives about education? I tweeted a headline today, from Passi Stahlberg, of all people, which read, “Why Is American Teaching So Bad.” I didn’t feel that the New York Review of Books was being helpful with that one, though the essay was somewhat less biased than the headline.

English teachers are cool, though based on our admitedly biased and limited observation, not great dancers.

Writing is fun. Especially with friends. Even friends you don’t know that well yet. Thanks to everyone who came and wrote with us in our session Saturday afternoon. I hope you take that energy and engagement to your students.

Speaking of engagement, why do we chuck the rules of good teaching out the window when we try to teach teachers? This should probably be a longer post, and it isn’t really pointed at NCTE or the conference, but is more a larger reflection. So much of our PD, which is TEACHING, painfully ignores the rules of TEACHING. We had a conversation last night, or more accurately I had a conversation and Bursiek nodded politely, about how we seem to think a different set of rules are in play when we teach adults. There are no other rules. No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care. That’s true if the average age of your audience is four or fourty-four. But man do we seem to let that go a lot.

Why doesn’t Bursiek tweet more? He’s really good at it. He is pithy, cynical and funny. The perfect skill set for twitter.

Doc Z needs to quit worrying about whether she’s doing okay. She is. End of story. Really. I’ve watched her teach. It’s frightening.

Why was this conference advertised at being in Washington? It wasn’t. I went to Washington during the conference, but that’s not where the conference was.

Okay, that light show hourly at the Gaylord was a bit much. Actually it was a lot much.

Did anyone go to “Ice?” How was it? What was it?

Cool ferris wheel though.

See ya next year NCTE. Try to behave.

Posted in #NCTE14, education, engagement, reflections | 1 Comment

#NCTE14 Saturday reflections, with artifacts, inspiration, and gratitude

Whereas yesterday left me feeling somewhat inadequate, today left me feeling inspired. That is the roller coaster of great professional development if you ask me.

The day started at 7am with a run with Liz–my former high school student from my teaching days at Illinois and newly minted literacy education PhD. We ran along the Potomac and talked about life for 40 minutes or so. After the run, I had a spectacular oatmeal breakfast in my hotel (I have oatmeal issues, ok?) and eventually made my way to my first session of the day: Hackjam (G.37).

You can see the results of our work at the Hackjam here. But in short, I have got to do this with my students. I’ve got to design some missions to send them out in the school re-seeing, re-imagining, re-mixing things they’ve always understood in a certain way. I can’t wait. And this is just the kind of thinking I need to figure out how to get workshop working more effectively in my classroom. I know I’m essentially hacking my classroom with workshop to begin with, but I need to continue to re-see it, to re-imagine it, to re-mix it to make it really work for my students as readers and writers.

At the Hackjam, the mission I chose (and took on with Liz and a teacher she has worked with in Michigan) was to go to the exhibit hall and collect as much free stuff as we could in 10 minutes and then bring those things back to re-mix them into something else. (Liz also wrote about this adventure here). I just have to share with you one item I picked up during this mission (aside from the Pearson pen I picked up as a funny gift for my student who was heavily involved in the student protesting of the Pearson-made state tests that happened last week at our high school) (another article on it). There was a Cliff’s Notes booth. That alone I found gutsy… many English teachers do not hold these resources in terribly high esteem to begin with. But this button…



Firstly, I think it’s gutsy for the people at Cliff’s Notes to come to an ENGLISH TEACHER’S CONVENTION where we don’t necessarily have the best relationship with things like Cliff’s Notes. Often students use them when they are not reading. Of course this is the subject of a much longer blog post at some point (or an entire dissertation if you really want to know what I did my PhD research on), but I think the existence of Cliff and Spark and their ilk has a lot to do with the disengaging ways classrooms sometimes ask students to deal with literature, my classroom included (there’s a whole story about that in the dissertation). In short, I’m always working to inspire my students to READ for themselves, for their understanding of the world, to imagine the experiences of others, to be a better human being, because their lives depend on it. Cliff’s Notes do not help them with that. They need to engage in the text itself. And I need to help them with those texts that are challenging and difficult so that they don’t resort to Cliff (like I did as a student because, well, reading wasn’t that much fun as it played out in school for me).

This button is also problematic because it’s entirely inappropriate. It’s inappropriate for A) the sexual innuendo. The “I” on the button is presumably a student, the one taking a test to “score” on. Not the place for this kind of innuendo. And B) the implicit message here is that students need Cliff’s help to do well on the test, that what’s most important here is a test score. This does not emphasize all the best reasons we can put before our students to become readers. I don’t see this button saying, “I became a better human being with Cliff” or “I developed empathy with Cliff” or “I learned about living a life with Cliff” or “I became a better thinker with Cliff” or “I am better able to handle our world’s complexity with Cliff.” Nope. Apparently it’s all about test scores. We have a hard enough job right now convincing our country that test scores are not the ultimate measure of the success of our schools and students. This button is not helping.

Next was the Secondary Section Luncheon, which I’ve never attended before, but kind of had to this year. I’m so honored that my state affiliate thought to recognize me with this award. Liz attended with me as my guest and former high school student. The food was pretty good. And the speaker–Cory Doctorow–wicked smart. I’ve never read any of his books but I will now. I’m pretty sure he should run for president, even though he’s Canadian.


After lunch–another session about workshop, J.44, chaired by Penny Kittle and presented by another set of teacher bloggers (yay!) who write at threeteacherstalk.wordpress.com/. I’m very much looking forward to exploring their blog a bit to see what they talk about there. Jay met us at the door–he’d gotten there early to get a spot, since it was Penny Kittle, and the room was small, and you know the drill.

It was so great to hear stories from other classrooms where teachers are attempting to do the same work we are. One of the hardest things about going workshop is having a clear vision for what it looks like. It helps to hear as many teachers as possible describe what it looks like in their classrooms. And here we are in that session–quick Paper Graders selfie: IMG_6458.JPG Up next? Our session! Here was one Tweet we sent out to entice people to come hang out with us:

Our plan was to share with our audience some stories we’ve written and shared with our students toward the efforts of writing WITH our students–a key piece of workshop teaching. It’s been a game changer for all three of us. And the session reminded me that I need to be doing even more of it. We’ve gotten to the point where we are writing those stories that are the hardest to tell (my dad’s decline due to a nasty variant of Parkinson’s disease, the scary premature birth of Paul’s daughter, that time when Jay failed a class in college…), and when we do this, we open up the door for our students to write their most important stories too. Writing becomes authentic, relevant, real. And thanks to Liz for capturing the pre-session scene (and thanks to Liz for hanging out with me a good portion of the day and attending our NCTE session for another year!):


Our crowd was awesome. They listened to our stories. They indulged our descriptions of how we work with those stories in our classrooms. And then they put pen to paper with us and they started writing their stories too. I love the silence of a group of writers in the same space together but lost in their own writing worlds. And then the sound of those writers turning to one another and sharing what they wrote. We hated to interrupt the story sharing, but we wanted to see if any brave souls would take a risk to share their stories with the whole group (three did!) and we wanted to reserve some time for dialogue with the audience–their ideas/thoughts inspired by what they experienced with us.

Oh, and during that silent writing time, I started a piece in my writer’s notebook about a story from my life I’ve not yet written about. That was good.



I was kind of exhausted after all of this. And getting hungry. And losing patience for the light show and over-the-top holiday decorations and crowds of the hotel. So we headed out to find food in a quieter place. We had a very nice dinner and then wandered out for hot chocolate in a chocolate shop where we sat for a good hour or so telling each other stories from our lives. Even after all these years we’ve worked together, we discovered stories about each other that we didn’t know.

That’s a huge reason why we do this conference every year. This kind of time with colleagues is indispensable. The work we do every day in our classrooms is exhausting and frustrating and wonderful all at once. And important. Critically important. My PhD adviser, Bill McGinley, argues that we teachers of reading and writing are in the business of saving lives. And he’s right really. That is what we do. It’s just a heck of a lot easier to do that work together.

As I write this, I’m actually at the end of my NCTE journey for this year, on my way to a shuttle to the metro station so I can re-locate to a hotel just off the DC Mall. My family is joining me for a few days so we can see DC. Paul and Jay have already left for the airport to head back to Colorado. And English teachers from all over the country are trickling out of the hotel and heading back to their lives. Some have to be back in their classrooms bright and early tomorrow morning (we’re lucky to have the whole week off for Thanksgiving).

I still have one more NCTE14 blog post coming. I need to write to coalesce the big threads I want to take back with me to my classroom. That might take me a few days.

Thank you, all of you, for coming to this thing, again and again, year after year. I appreciate you and the work you do. I’ve learned a lot and I leave here full of gratitude.

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