An Incomplete List–Writing with Students

At NCTE last week, the other Paper Graders and I discussed this blog space and what we want to do with it from here on out. One thing we thought we’d add is some of our own personal writing, the writing that we share with our students in class. We write with our students–probably not enough–but we have all witnessed the shift that happens in a classroom when the teacher enters into that writing space with students. 

This piece began as a writer’s notebook activity at UNHLit16. Penny Kittle shared with us an excerpt from the novel Station Eleven and invited us to write about our own loss using the same approach as the author did. I started a few tentative sentences then in the few minutes we had and wanted to come back to it.

When introducing mentor texts to my students this fall, I did come back to this piece. I shared the mentor text and then what I wrote that was inspired by it, and I talked with my students about how the mentor text helped me in my thinking and writing. 

An Incomplete List

No more golf courses. No more jiggers of Jack with a slice of lemon, ice cubes, and a splash of water. No more collections of dimes. No more support socks. No more suspenders. No more hearing aides. No more breakfast pears. No more ham steaks. No more need for your vegetarian daughter to roast turkey on Thanksgiving. No more corn on the cob. No more rhubarb pie. No more bottles of Italian red wine.

No more typing your responses to your students’ writing for you. No more worrying that you’ll fall and this time you’ll really get hurt. No more meds spread out across the bottom of a cereal bowl, hoping you were keeping it all straight. No more slow walks next to you as you pushed your walker. No more visits to the neurologist reviewing your symptoms to see what may have changed and to hear about what was coming for you as the disease progressed. No more opening my door to see you on your side in the lawn, having fallen backwards off the porch after ringing the doorbell. No more worrying about how to help you through the loss of yet another thing your body could no longer do.

No more complaints about salad or vegetarian meals or black beans. No more sideways glances at 4 ounce diet coke cans. No more huge bowls of popcorn inhaled on a Sunday afternoon. No more stopping at Chipotle to pick up a meal for you–brown rice, steak, pinto beans.

No more bracing for yet another conversation about politics, or church. No more copies of America magazine handed to me, open to a page containing an article you want me to read and talk to you about. No more worries something’s wrong if you haven’t heard from me. No more calls to let you know I made it back to Boulder.

No more phone calls from you for tech support. No more text messages with nothing but empty text bubbles. No more face time calls where you say, “Sarah, how am I seeing you right now?”

No more walks with you around Viele lake on Christmas day. No more walks around Mesa Lake. No more watching you turn your hat backwards for a little extra power to loft a rock across Lost Lake. No more worrying about how we would get you in a row boat so we could get you closer to the fish. No more hands of solitaire in the cabin on summer afternoons. No more cocktail hours, dinners on the grill, fishing at sunset.  

No more trips to Poland where we argued about whether or not you should buy the $300 stained glass panel that would be difficult to get home on the plane, where we walked together through Auschwitz and you sat on a low wall and cried because you were alive when the horrors there were happening but were oblivious to them in your Dearborn, Michigan childhood, where we sat at a cafe in the square at the center of Krakow and enjoyed the life happening all around us. No more trips to Rome–except I could go, but I wouldn’t have you as my tour guide, speaking in Italian with the locals, showing me the places of your life there so many years ago.

There was only one frantic drive down US 36 to the emergency room at St. Anthony’s North.

But you were already gone.

No more Dad.

Posted in #UNHLit16, cultivating real learning, life and death, mentor texts, teaching writing, writer's notebooks, writing, writing with students | 2 Comments

Outbound- #NCTE2016

We live in troubled times.

I am troubled.

I came to NCTE troubled. I’m guessing you did too. NCTE did not solve the worlds problems. Nor should it. It did, however, ease my sense of trouble some. Not because there is no trouble. But because I leave knowing I am not alone in feeling troubled, and in knowing that you may be troubled by some of the same things.

There is no burden so great that talking about cannot ease it some. There is no burden so great it cannot be shared. There is no burden so great that working together we cannot move towards solution.

The Papergraders are headed out for Thanksgiving. I am thankful for my colleagues, Sarah, Paul, Tracy, and Claire, for sharing this conference, for being my colleagues and friends. I’m thankful for you too. I’m hoping Claire will join in on this strange blogging journey we have been on for the last few years.

Thanks for coming to our sessions and sharing your struggles. It lightened my load to share your troubles. I hope it lightened yours to share them too. We are not alone. You are not alone. Our work is hard. Harder than it looks. HArder than even those who are close to us know. One of the benefits of NCTE is being with the people who know how hard this job is.

Ta-Nehisi Coates told us last night that we have to see things for what they are. So if you’re feeling troubled, well, I am too. And I think we are right to feel that way. We have to see what is, and what I see is troubling. I’m still working on what to do. I know you are too.

One thing we can do is go back to our classrooms and let our students know it’s okay to share their troubles. Let them know that they are not alone in these troubling times. Then together maybe we can move towards solution. Together.

Happy Thanksgiving.

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The Pedagogy of Furniture- #NCTE16

I don’t really want to sound angry- this is a thought, not a rant.

How we arrange the furniture matters. It matters in the classroom and it matters at a conference. We found presenting from a raised dais, with chairs in rows, with microphones that don’t move, pretty challenging.

I found attending presentations with rooms in that configuration pretty challenging.

I find the word ‘presentation,’ frankly, pretty challenging.

If I set up my classroom in a way such that the only acceptable dynamic was for me to deliver content and my students to passively accept it, you, my admins, my colleagues, and most importantly, my students, would be right to call BS on my teaching. I would call BS on that teaching. That isn’t how I really do anything.

Do you see where I’m going here? If all of us generally agree that the ‘sage on the stage’ mode is pretty outdated, pretty ineffective, and I think we do generally agree on that, then why are we presenting in rooms set up for only that?

In our Surviving (And Loving) Teaching presentation we expected the attendees to write, speak to one another, and speak to the group as a whole. Part of our goal was to get as many voices heard as we could (since we think being heard is an important part of ‘surviving (and loving) teaching.’ We got there, but we did so despite the furniture. Being up on that dais created a physical barrier between us and the other people in the room. I don’t want barriers between me and my students. OR between me and my colleagues. Most of my professional life has been trying to figure out how to knock down barriers, or at least get around them.

I’ve watched this dynamic my whole life. When I worked in the ski industry, someone who was the most engaging, dynamic instructor you could possible imagine when working with paying clients, suddenly had a group of colleagues freezing their butts off standing on the side of a run talking when they were in trainer mode. How many PD events have you been to where the leader was expounding on the need to be active and engaging while not actually being active and engaging themselves? Or even worse, making a gesture towards active and engaging without actually succeeding. I’ve been to grad school, three times. I can handle a lecture just fine. But fake active teaching just pisses me off.

One of the most delicious moments of irony in my professional life was my Ed Psych professor in my licensure program lecturing for eighty minutes about the need for multiple modalities of assessment in a course where the only assessment was multiple choice tests filled out on scan-tron sheets.

If we want teachers to teach in an active and engaging manner, then they need to be trained in ways to be active and engaging. They also need to be trained in active and engaging ways. We replicate the deep structures we are raised in. It took me years as a teacher to realize that if I really wanted to change how my classroom worked, I had to change how it looks. Part of that was rearranging the furniture.

We talked in our grading session about D.F. Wallace’s great speech “This Is Water.” ‘Water’ is the stuff that’s invisible. The structure you don’t question. The arrangement of the furniture and it’s profound effect on how we engage one another.

Just pointing out the water.

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#NCTE16 Day Three: Radical Loving Kindness and Deepened Purpose


We were lucky this year to be able to do two presentations. Today’s was about surviving teaching. We intended an interactive session where our attendees talked more than we did. We wanted them to have space for conversation about the landscape of life as a teacher. We wanted them to leave with some concrete ideas about some things they could commit to in order to maybe make their day-to-day existence in this really difficult job a bit more manageable. We each shared a story from our teaching lives to help the people in our session think about their own teaching lives. My story was about balancing the parts of a teacher’s job that aren’t the actual teaching part.

A few years ago, I had a really challenging year. I was doing way too much on top of my classroom work. I shared this pie chart today in the session to help explain what happened that year and how I was able to think through making some adjustments. I was teaching 4 preps, including advising the yearbook AND newspaper. I was teaching a methods course at the nearby university. I had a .2FTE literacy coaching gig for my district. I was the journal editor for our state NCTE affiliate. I was a teacher consultant for the Colorado Writing Project. And I was on three district committees. Those are all of the pieces in the pie chart at the right. The pie chart represents the space I had in my mind to juggle all of this thinking work effectively–a diagram that helps me to remember that there is not infinite capacity in my mind for handling work, at least not if I want to do a good job at everything.

There are three huge pieces outside of the pie chart: one represents the writing I really wanted to do. The next reminds me that I’m a mom (and a wife and a sister and a daughter) and if my thinking energy is completely taken up with work, there is no space left for my family. The last pie piece that couldn’t fit into the pie chart for that year represents all the things I need to do to stay healthy: exercise, sleep, eat well.

After I made it through that school year, I had to make some tough choices. I wanted to fit those outside pie pieces in, so that meant getting rid of a few things: advising yearbook, editing the journal, teaching at the university, 2 of the 3 district committees, and the literacy coaching. I set all of that aside so I could focus on the things that mattered most, the things I felt I could have the most impact with: teaching, writing project, my writing, my family, my health.

Things have been more manageable since then, but it’s still a lot to keep moving along. When I look at that pie chart representing my work life from a few years ago, I wonder how in the hell I managed all of that. I’m grateful to these people, my dear colleagues I presented with today. Not only did they support me through that year where I had said yes to too many things and I could barely manage it all; they have also supported me in saying no when I need to in the time since then. Tracy, Paul, and Jay have all made some careful decisions about how to manage their work lives, and they show me that it’s okay to set very clear boundaries to make time and space for the things that they need to keep in their lives to keep them happy and healthy. My heroes, yes, in so many ways. How fortunate am I that I get to work with them?

We attended a research session today where Cati de los Rios and Donja Thomas presented their dissertation research on teaching ethnic studies in high schools. I cannot express to you how important their research is, especially now in this post-election world that has left many people in our country worried about their safety, their rights, their families. The students in Cati’s study learn in a vibrant, multi-lingual classroom space that values their culture and language and that asked them to think about the ways they could become civically engaged in their communities. Her work found that focusing on these literacies of civic engagement gave them the opportunity to engage in critical discussion and writing about oppressive social structures. It empowered them. It gave them voice. Donja’s research gave voice to the students involved in her ethnics studies course called English 12: African American Voice. We listened to the words of several of her students–a few of my favorites:

This world is not all unicorns and sunshines like they want you to believe. Get woke so you’re not walking around with ignorance, so you know what they don’t want you to know.

I do feel like I can make a difference and spread the truth.

I love how her work honors these voices. I love how the curriculum she built focuses in on how our country has wrongly educated us on race. She works to “break the chains of miseducation that imprison minds and brutalize bodies.” She argued that cultural studies should be an educational standard in our classrooms nationwide. I agree. Claire and I started talking immediately after the session about how we can engage this conversation in the senior class that we both teach.

Donja also offered us her vision on the heels of the election. She said that the 21st century should be a century of justice, and to get there, we all need to be clear-headed about race. We must create spaces for our students–all of them–to explore race, culture, identity, and power. She said that rather than despair, she now feels an expanded sense of purpose.

Ernest Morrell was the discussant for this research presentation. And as always, I found it a great challenge to take notes as he spoke because every sentence was something I wanted to capture (anyone else have this problem taking notes on Morrell’s presentations?). He made the point that ethnic studies are for everyone but right now, they are also radical self care and reconciliation, something sorely needed in American schools and in American society. We have some significant hurt and pain we need to heal. He also reminded us that what we teach has a greater impact on our students than what we say. If we say we’re all about valuing diverse experiences but don’t make sure all students can see themselves reflected in the texts and conversations we put before them, then we aren’t doing what needs to be done. He said that it’s an American journey to make sense of race, and this is something we need to do together. Ethnic studies, he said, are not just about our black and brown students. We need to “counter the idea that learning about others creates division.” Learning about others forges connection, and we need that now more than ever.

In the end, Morrell said “enough about marching.” He explained that once that kind of speaking out ends, we’re left with the day-to-day landscape of our classrooms. And that is the space where we need to advocate for each other. We need to stand up for voices left out in our departments for instance. We need to do the work every day in our interactions with each other, to stand together, to see each other, to value each other. We need to do this work every day with our students, to stand with them, to see them clearly, to value their lives and perspectives, to give them voice.

This is a message that lines up well with what I’ve heard in other presentations–Newkirk’s call for us to cultivate the practice of deliberate acts of kindness. Minor’s statement that we only deserve our teaching licenses if we demonstrate fierce, selfless love. Donja Thomas’s idea to see deepened purpose rather than despair. I feel so overwhelmed by the state of things post-election. Powerless against it all even. But kindness and love and deepened purpose are all things that I can do, that I am already doing to some degree, that I can commit to doing more of.

The day ended with Ta-Nehisi Coates. He paralleled the work we need to do in our country with the work humans need to do in relationships. Love is hard work. A marriage, a friendship–people are flawed and difficult to love sometimes. But to make a relationship work, you can’t ignore that. You have to strive to understand it and just get to work on the relationship. He said the same goes for loving our country. We need to understand the forces in history that have brought us to this moment and simply get to work. When asked how he has advocated for others in his life, Coates responded that he really has only one little thing he can offer–the time he spends with words on the page. That, he said, is what he’s good at. It’s what he can contribute to the world. So he focuses his efforts there.

Coates also said that school was best for him when he could connect what his teachers asked of him to something real and meaningful. This I think is the most important work that we can do. Reading and writing matter, but our students may not see that implicitly. We must show them. We must teach them to read our world (more complex than any book they will read) so that they can write their lives and future within it.



Posted in #NCTE16, 21st century teaching and learning, kindness, making change, society, teaching | 2 Comments

Unfinished Thoughts- #NCTE16

I logged into the blog to try and capture a few thoughts the other day and realized I have five or six unfinished posts here. Unfinished thoughts. And that’s sort of where I’m at right now- unfinished thoughts.

Maybe that’s how it is sometime. Lots of things flitting through our minds with little or no focus. Glimpses of one thing or another. My teaching right now is similar. Trying lots of different things. Experimenting. Searching for bits that have clarity or focus.

Maybe it’s an election hangover. Having been soaked in unfinished thoughts and fragments for the last eighteen months, maybe I’m just stuck in that mode.

Now I’m in a session on fostering youth advocacy through writing. It’s really good, some excellent thoughts on how to invite students into a larger discourse about their world. And it is their world. Mitch Nobis opened by reminding us that our students are ‘real people,’ living in the ‘real world’ and they want real things to think and write about. How easy it can be to forget that.

I’ve been thinking a lot about authenticity recently. Mostly mine. How can I be ‘more real’ in the classroom? And by extension, how can I make a space that my students want to step into and be their ‘most real’ selves?

We presented to a full house this afternoon. I hope I managed some complete thoughts there. Nobody looked at us cross eyed, so I think we did okay. I am reminded that this is all a work in progress. There is no one perfect answer, ever. It’s a giant, uncontrolled experiment. It never ends. You just keep gathering data and tweaking the variables.

Now it’s Saturday morning. Paul and I are waiting for the rest of the crew in the convention center. Someone just came up and said nice things about our presentation yesterday. I guess we made sense.

Our students are with us for such a short time. A year, maybe two if you have them in two classes. I once had a student in three different classes over her four years of high school. I think she survived. We are just fragments of our student’s experience. Small pieces of the larger whole that is their lives.

Teaching is but a fragment of the whole that is our lives. Putting all the fragments together makes up the whole. We’re presenting today about surviving teaching. Part of that is remembering that it’s a fragment of your life. We are fragments of our students lives. Lives are made of fragments.

Unfinished thoughts. One after another. Making a whole.


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Fierce Kindness, Day Two, #NCTE16

I’m writing this while hanging out at Java Monkey in Decatur. Jay is strumming away on the guitar and singing his songs. We’re eating vegan cake, enjoying some wine. We actually ran into a former student of ours who now goes to college here in Atlanta and regularly hangs out at this coffee house. She was surprised to see us all here, and I was reminded again about how our students just might be taking over the world (it is customary to run into a current student or alum whenever I travel anywhere…). She commented that we all seem to be pretty good friends, and we are. I’m so grateful for the people I teach with. As Claire helped me maneuver my fork on the plate to scrape up the last of the vegan chocolate ganache, Paul jokingly said, “It takes a village.”

But it’s no joke. That’s exactly what it takes.

We are a village.  (Claire is even helping me write this right now.)

NCTE expands the village.

Today started at 6:45am.

So worth it, though. Teacher church. Otherwise known as the Don Graves breakfast. My friend Kate invited me, and I’m eternally grateful. I feel like I missed out on some critical writing teacher experience by not ever having had a conversation with Don Graves. I can read his words (I’m working on that), and I know that his legacy plays out in the writing and teaching of the teachers whose writing and words have inspired me for years.

But today I got a better sense of the person Don Graves was.

There were some stories about him. About how he listened to people in a way that made them feel like they were important and that they had his attention fully and completely. People felt valued and honored in his presence. There were stories about how he would give his time to teachers he didn’t even know, to listen, to hear about their classrooms, to offer whatever he could to help them in their pursuit to make writing meaningful for their students.

In these stories, there was a definite a call to honor his legacy of kindness and generosity.

Last spring, the University of Denver had a memorial service for my dad to provide an opportunity for the community there to say goodbye. My brother and I read our eulogy to the crowd of Dad’s students and colleagues. After the service, two of his colleagues came up to me separately and told me that they had never heard my father speak an unkind word to anyone. I loved hearing this, and it became my father’s challenge to me. He had always taught me to care about the experiences of others, to say thank you, to be exceedingly generous, and to work to improve people’s lives. These were the rules in our home when I grew up. These were the principles that I saw my dad live out in his interactions with people in his professional world, with extended family members, and with waiters at restaurants and salespeople in department stores and cashiers at the grocery store. When I learned that Dad worked intentionally to be a force of kindness in his professional life, this became my challenge too. I would be beyond honored if kindness was a quality that stood out about me. Via my father, via the legacy of Don Graves, this has become my charge.

And what does that look like in my classroom, this “relentless barrage of kindness” (as Smoky Daniels called it)?

It’s showing my students that I know they can become readers and writers, that their ideas and words matter, that their unique perspective on the world is important. It’s “leaning in” to listen to students, to their parents, to colleagues. It’s saying thank you, thank you sincerely. It’s generosity with my time, my focus, my resources–with anything I can give.

It’s doing what Tom Newkirk implored us to do as he closed out the Don Graves breakfast as a response to what he called the recent “troubling crossing of so many lines.” He asked us to march, to show solidarity, and he suggested that we could do it in small ways, like cultivating the practice of deliberate acts of kindness. He said that sometimes in the busy-ness of our work, we don’t think about who we could reach out to. We must reach out. We must connect. We must speak up–even if it’s difficult and scary.

From 6:45 am to now, approaching midnight, it’s been a typical NCTE day–a blur of wonderfulness and new ideas and conversations with colleagues from across the country. I connected with the fellow teacher bloggers at Three Teachers Talk. We saw our friends from Michigan (session A.55–“Teenage Change Agents”) and got some great ideas about how to get my students writing to have an impact, to make change. We met new colleagues in the people who attended our session today. I got to hear from some of my inspirations: Penny Kittle, Linda Rief, Kylene Beers, Bob Probst. I love the sessions that Kylene moderates. Her questions pull out the specific details that the audience craves to understand about the practices the panelists describe. Linda closed the session with a call to kindness. She read to us from Wonder, a passage where the principal says to be “kinder than necessary.”

From the legacy of Donald Graves to the reminder from Linda Rief, my day was bookended by calls to be a beacon of kindness. I love that this is our village’s response to the results of the recent election–action through kindness. Standing together to protect and honor our students and their stories is what we must do.

I’ll close with the words of Cornelius Minor from his brief talk at the Don Graves breakfast where he expressed his credo that guides his teaching: “If we are not showing fierce, selfless love, we do not deserve our teaching licenses.”







Posted in #NCTE16, kindness, literacy, on the road again, relationship, teaching, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

#StopGrading Presentation Resources #NCTE16

Hello friends–we now have a bunch of new ones! Thanks for coming to our #StopGrading presentation. We enjoyed talking with you.

Thanks to Kate for the photo!


Here’s the website full of resources that we shared in our presentation. Please share as widely as you wish and let us know how you’re navigating your journey away from traditional grading in your classroom. Our emails are on the front page of the website. Keep in touch!

Also, I’ve been writing a blog series about this topic since August. Check out the first post here.

In case you’re wondering, we were a little anxious as the crowd filed into the room…


Posted in #NCTE16, #StopGrading, assessment, balancing, gratitude, not grading, on the road again, presenting, professional development | Leave a comment

Hope Among Escalators, Elevators, and Revolving Doors, #NCTE16

Escalators were the theme of the day for us.

We took the bus from Boulder to the Denver airport and took a very long escalator up from the bus depot to the terminal. A bus driver had told Tracy that it was the longest escalator in the country. We didn’t think that was the case–I can remember an impossibly long escalator in the D.C. subway system from a couple of years ago that I’m certain is longer than the Denver escalator.

We had no idea there would be so many escalators today. Down to the plane train at the Atlanta airport. To the MARTA station, around inside of the MARTA stations, up from the MARTA stations, up into the hotel, down into the conference center, up to the ballroom for the opening session… on and on. While we were on the train from the airport, we even got the following text from Jay: “Meet you in the lobby. Loooooong escalator at Peachtree.”

Up, down, up, down, at snail’s pace, often in crowds, often encumbered by luggage…out of control of the pace, at the mercy of the machines that take you from one place to another. There was even a moment when Claire and I both started side by side on two separate escalators but hers was moving more quickly than mine, and she got to the top first.

I’m not a fan of big machinery that I can’t control. Elevators. Revolving doors. Escalators. I’m worried I’ll get stuck in a dark elevator between floors, or hit by the revolving door behind me if I don’t move fast enough, or caught up in the cogs of an escalator due to an errant shoestring or edge of a shoe. I try to stay clear of the dangers, keep myself safe, remain balanced so I don’t teeter off the edge.

And what on earth does this have to do with my first day at NCTE this year?

As teachers in American schools–especially in public American schools as my colleagues and I are–we are often at the mercy of machinery over which we have no control. We’re on an escalator or elevator heading up? heading down?–sometimes it’s not clear which direction we’re going. But we’re often moving at a pace set by someone else and we have no control and there is danger of getting caught in the cogs or trapped in the darkness. Or we’re caught in the middle of something revolving–and you have to keep up or your might get knocked down by the things spinning spinning spinning. Just stay on your feet and keep focused on getting through.

Maybe while you’re reading this, you’re thinking about budget cuts or education policy or testing mandates. Or maybe you’re thinking about the uncertain next challenges for schooling considering the recent election results. The machinery manifests in any force beyond your control that impinges on your teaching world–often without being focused on what best serves your students.

Diane Ravitch’s Skype conversation with us at the opening session hit on the machinery currently at play. She said she thinks that we’ll see more and more efforts to privatize public schools–an assault on our democracy. She said that we’re grading schools, teachers, children to no end. She said forces blame schools for failing, but it’s the wider societal machinery that is failing instead. We need to defend our public schools against the forces that want to destroy them.

She also said to find something that gives you hope and to cling to it with all you’ve got.

I find hope in my students–they are wise and clever and kind.

I find hope in the thousands of ELA teachers temporarily residing in the hotels surrounding the convention center here in Atlanta. I can see a wall of hotel rooms outside of my window, lights glowing through curtains, TVs flickering, and I feel I am part of a band, a nation of warriors. We are here because we believe in the power of reading and writing to remind humanity that we are all in this together.

I find hope in my umpteen teaching colleagues across the country who are right now at home on a Thursday evening, maybe reading student work, maybe planning lessons, maybe helping their own kids with homework, maybe reading a book. There is something that unites us in the work that we do.

Doug Hesse reminded us today that all teachers are writers. I find hope in words. I find hope in struggling to find words to capture ideas, to work through confusion, to reflect over experience, to connect with others.

Thank you for being here, all of you. Despite the machinery we all exist within and alongside, you help me to find balance so I don’t teeter off the edge of an escalator step. You help me to remain focused so I can make my way safely through the revolving doors. You help me to stay calm if trapped in a dark elevator.

I can’t wait to learn from you over the next few days.

Cast of characters for NCTE16: Sarah, Paul, Jay, Tracy (who have been to several NCTE conferences together now), and Claire, who is on this adventure with us for the first time.



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“All the candidates do is bicker and fight and high schoolers in this class are better at talking about things.”

I got to the point last Tuesday while watching election returns that I couldn’t focus anymore on what was unfolding on the US maps the news commentators kept describing, so I wrote a few emails, shopped for some new running shoes, made an appointment to get my hair cut–anything to distract my mind at the time.

And ever since, I’ve wanted to write something here that would help me to achieve some clarity, some vision, some understanding. I’ve started umpteen posts in my head, none of which have made their way here.

Every so often, I dip into the cacophony that makes up my social media feeds, hoping for some new understanding, but all I come away with is confusion from the many voices speaking from a stance of their own absolute rightness: Oprah says to give the President Elect a chance! Oprah is horrible for saying that! Trump says he will spend weekends at Trump Tower. Trump says he will never leave the White House because he wants to govern 24/7. Wear a safety pin to show you’re an ally. Your safety pins are meaningless and stupid. Trump’s son-in-law wrote a strong defense of his father-in-law–he’s no racist, he’s no anti-semite. Trump appoints to his transition team a known anti-semite. Obama says that if the President Elect succeeds, we all succeed. If Trump succeeds, that means all the horrible things he said he would do will actually happen so we want him to fail. Trump won’t even make it two years. Trump will be the best President ever. Abolish the electoral college. Convince the electors to vote their conscience. Faithless electors are a threat to our very democracy. The mainstream media is normalizing our President Elect. Nothing is normal about our President Elect. Trump vows to deport millions of illegal immigrants. Children with undocumented parents fear that their parents will be taken away from them. Calm down everyone–it’s going to be okay. If you’ve not walked in my shoes, you can’t tell me to calm down. You’re minimizing my very justified fears…

And on it goes.

I shut off my phone, close my browser window, take a deep breath. Look around at the physical objects on my desk: the blue Swingline stapler, the beach rock from Maine, the funky 70s-era ash tray (now collecting paper clips and such) I just recovered from the boxes of things in my parents’ garage. I begin to feel grounded again. At least for a moment or two.

How can I expect my students to see their way through all of this when I am struggling to make sense of it myself?

* * *

About three weeks ago, I asked my students to watch and study a Ted Talk in preparation for a Socratic Seminar. It was my election season lesson for them as their teacher of language arts, so I wanted my lens to be about how to navigate the complex conversation surrounding the election. They are seniors–age 17, 18. Some of them were poised at the moment to vote in their very first presidential election. We have very clear policies in our district to guide us during election seasons. We are to create safe spaces for student dialogue, not dominated by our own political views. Outside of school, we can campaign for candidates, knock on doors, make phone calls, put stickers on our cars and signs on our lawns, but in school we must remain neutral.

I didn’t want to tell my students it was an election season lesson. I wanted that focus to be a bit of a twist. I wanted to create a space for them to talk and listen to each other in conversation little facilitated by me. Socratic Seminar was the perfect forum for this.

Our text was Kathryn Schulz’s 2011 Ted Talk, “On Being Wrong.” We watched it together in class on a Monday. For that week, we were focusing on writing to explain something complicated, a key skill they would need for the magazine-style feature pieces they are working on now. We looked at mentor texts where writers worked to explain something complicated and we practiced this writing ourselves (you can see the week’s lesson plan here).

Why this text? Schulz shares what she discovered when she studied how wrongness plays out in human interaction. We don’t like thinking we are wrong about something. It doesn’t feel good. So we get stuck in a feeling of being right, and “this attachment to our own rightness keeps us from preventing mistakes when we absolutely need to and causes us to treat each other terribly,” explains Schulz. Rather than considering we might be wrong about something, our minds go through what she calls “a series of unfortunate assumptions”:

The first thing we usually do when someone disagrees with us is we just assume they’re ignorant. They don’t have access to the same information that we do, and when we generously share that information with them, they’re going to see the light and come on over to our team. When that doesn’t work, when it turns out those people have all the same facts that we do and they still disagree with us, then we move on to a second assumption, which is that they’re idiots. They have all the right pieces of the puzzle, and they are too moronic to put them together correctly. And when that doesn’t work, when it turns out that people who disagree with us have all the same facts we do and are actually pretty smart, then we move on to a third assumption: they know the truth, and they are deliberately distorting it for their own malevolent purposes.

I love this description of what our minds do when someone disagrees with us, and this helps me to make at least some sense out of the cacophony I described at the beginning of this post. If we’re not careful, we become voices thinking we’re on the right side of things, and our sense of “rightness” keeps us in our own personal echo chambers, further dividing us, separating us, making it impossible for us to work together. Schulz goes on:

This internal sense of rightness that we all experience so often is not a reliable guide to what is actually going on in the external world. And when we act like it is, and we stop entertaining the possibility that we could be wrong, well that’s when we end up doing things like dumping 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, or torpedoing the global economy. So this is a huge practical problem.

I hoped that these ideas from the Ted Talk would resonate with my students and give them something to think about as they navigated the conversation swimming wildly around them regarding the upcoming election.

The seminar conversation happened on block day (Wednesday or Thursday), and I asked students to do the following as their ticket into the seminar, all centered on our focus for the week, explaining something complicated:

  •  Write the following in your writer’s notebook:
    • What complicated idea is Schulz working to explain in her Ted Talk?
    • What are the top three most important concepts of her explanation? Write a few sentences about each one.

The most successful seminar ticket tasks get students into the text and ask them to identify some important moments/ideas that they can then use to support their ideas in the seminar conversation. The ticket task often is very different from the opening question, which was the case for this seminar. Here was my opening question:

  • What ideas from this Ted Talk will you take forward with you as you become an adult who votes?
    • Follow up question (to pose when it seemed like the right time): Why did I ask you to consider this text and this question at this point in time (election season)?

I’m lucky to have an awesome student teacher for one of my three senior classes this year, and she was in charge of this seminar for that class. Hence, I was able to capture the class’s seminar conversation in my writer’s notebook. Here’s how a portion of it played out:

Student teacher: What ideas from this Ted Talk will you take forward with you as you become an adult who votes?

(conversation went pretty immediately to the election)

Student 1: When you align with one party, it can make you blind to other ideas.

Student teacher asked about the two party system and then asked why this text, this Ted Talk, now?

Student 2 asked if it had to do with voting.

Student 3 made a connection to what we had been discussing earlier in the week surrounding Stegner’s essay “Living Dry.”

Student 4: The world and issues–we’re being brought up to believe that it’s not okay to be wrong.

Student 5 said this reminded him of conspiracy theorists.

Student 6 had initially decided not to take part in the conversation but she was getting visibly frustrated at her desk at the outside of the conversation circle so the student teacher invited her in.

Student 6: Stop just writing off the other side. Don’t let two stupid candidates ruin relationships with people we care about. Rather than saying “you’re wrong,” maybe we need to say, “I’m wrong.”

Student 1: Our sense of righteousness… when something goes wrong, we don’t look at ourselves.

Student 7: The President is only one person who cannot represent all of us.

Student teacher: What keeps you from admitting you’re wrong? Pride?

Student 6: Politicians don’t seem able to apologize. Is it a generational thing?

Student 3: It’s not generational. It’s more who you are as a person.

Student 2: It depends on your situation in life.

Student 5: Getting criticized in public is not easy. The whole world is watching.

Student 2: Can they say they’re wrong? Will they use their supporters?

Student 3: Society conditions people that being wrong is a weakness. Candidates can’t afford that.

Student 6: Nixon and JFK: JFK in the first televised debate looked stronger. To win, you need to look strong.

Student 1: Bill Clinton’s speech on cracking down on immigration from Mexico–he got a standing ovation. Trump says it and it’s not okay.

Student 2: The political views of the country are different now.

Student 1: We’ve become more accepting of it.

Student 4 presented as an example of this Hillary’s changing stance on gay marriage.

Student 6: Look at the other side. Look at yourself before writing anything off as wrong.

Around this time the student teacher ended the seminar to provide time for the critique–starting with the students sitting on the outside of the conversation listening in. Here’s what they noticed about the conversation:

  • There were strong arguments but people were open to hearing from others.
  • There were some intense moments but the conversation was respectful.
  • There was some real passion for the ideas shared. 
  • All the candidates do is bicker and fight and high schoolers in this class are better at talking about things.
  • The conversation went off of the text and into talking about life.
  • Props to Student 6 for speaking her mind.
  • The conversation was focused on the election.
  • I learned a lot.
  • The students respected each other’s opinions. 
  • There was no shouting!

As I listened to my students talk with each other about the election and as I listened to the things they noticed about the conversation, I was hopeful. They did hone in on the big ideas in the Ted Talk and used them to think about the dialogue surrounding the election. “Look at the other side. Look at yourself before writing anything off as wrong,” said one of my students. If only this was the guiding principle of political discourse…

I usually keep my mouth shut during Socratic Seminar conversations (other than for posing the opening question, for making space for students to speak who are having a difficult time entering their voices into the conversation, to end the seminar conversation, and to facilitate the critique). But with this seminar, I did get on a bit of a soap box. I asked my students to pay attention to the timber of the conversation about the election, to think about Schulz’s series of unfortunate assumptions and to look for places where people write off those who disagree with them as ignorant/stupid/evil, to be the ones who are above the fray, to seek to connect with people who think differently than they do, to understand where others are coming from and to value the experiences of others rather than minimizing them. If we all demonize those who disagree with us, we’ll never be able to move forward together.

I know this is difficult work, especially when it means connecting across a chasm that seems to widen more and more. But I know my students can do it.

I know we as a country have to.

* * *

My father passed away very suddenly in February. He is the person I want to turn to now to help find a way through the mess we’re in. He dedicated his career to improving the lives of others–from the pulpit during the 60s, from non-profit organizations for nearly 30 years, and from the college classroom for almost 15 years where he taught fundraising and financial management for non-profits to students who wanted to save the world. He taught his last class the day he died. One of his students even took a photo of him that day. It was just a snapshot of the room to text her brother back quickly to let him know where she was. She had no idea it would be the last photo taken of my dad:


He is listening intently. One of his students must be speaking. He used to say to me, “Sarah, those students are going to change the world.” You can see it here–he really does believe that.

I share this with you because I know that my father–a bleeding heart liberal to the nth degree–would have been devastated by the election results, but he would have gone right into his classroom the next day and continued his work. He would have reminded his students that they can have an impact, that they need to care about the lives of others and work to improve them, that they need to connect across divisions in politics to work together to solve the problems of humanity.

I did not know three weeks ago that the cacophony would be louder now, that it would be even more important for my students to be able to engage in conversation with others that hinges on listening, on questioning one’s own standpoint, on knowing that we humans tend to get attached to our own sense of rightness and this keeps us from being able to work together to solve problems.

Our standards ask us to teach students to not just speak but listen. Our standards ask us to teach students to read widely–informational texts that describe our world and artistic texts that invite us to cultivate empathy for the experiences of others. Our standards ask us to help students to discern bias, to determine which sources are credible, to effectively manage the flood of information coming at us from everywhere. Our standards ask us to teach students to write to inform, to argue and persuade, and to use story to communicate important ideas. We are lucky that this is our work–to teach our students to read our world so they may write their future–our future–within it. This work is more important now than ever. Let’s keep at it.

I can only hope that Schulz’s closing words will continue to resonate for them:

We think this one thing is going to happen and something else happens instead. George Bush thought he was going to invade Iraq, find a bunch of weapons of mass destruction, liberate the people and bring democracy to the Middle East. And something else happened instead. And Hosni Mubarak thought he was going to be the dictator of Egypt for the rest of his life, until he got too old or too sick and could pass the reigns of power onto his son. And something else happened instead. […]

You need to step outside of that tiny, terrified space of rightness and look around at each other and look out at the vastness and complexity and mystery of the universe and be able to say,“Wow, I don’t know. Maybe I’m wrong.”

Posted in 21st century teaching and learning, cultivating real learning, engagement, making change, reflections, teaching | 4 Comments

#NCTE16: Stop Grading. Survive Teaching. Rock out with Jay.



We have two more days in our classrooms before we board a jet plane and head east to Atlanta for NCTE16!

We’re thrilled to be traveling and presenting with a few of our colleagues this year, and we’re looking forward to catching up with our NCTE friends.

Join us for some conversation–we’ve been thinking about ways to move away from traditional grading and we’ve been thinking about how to survive teaching (and somehow there is a lot of crossover between those two topics…). We’d love to hear about what you’ve figured out in these areas too.

And you may not know that one of The Paper Graders is a singer/songwriter. Jay Stott will be performing on Friday night at a coffee house just outside of Atlanta. Looks like it’s an easy ride on the east-west MARTA line to get there. We enjoy populating his audience when he plays in Colorado. Join us for this Georgia gig?

Safe travels everyone–see you in Atlanta!

Posted in #NCTE16, balancing, grading, not grading, on the road again, presenting, professional development, things made of awesome | Leave a comment