Step Ten: #StopGrading and ask your students to evaluate their own learning


I’ve had this post on my to-do list for months.

To be honest, this is the piece of this whole process that I have the most questions about, so I just kept putting off writing it.

I’m in a book group with some colleagues for some PD this year, and we’re reading Linda B. Nilson’s Creating self-regulated learners. I hope this will help me, but I need to articulate my questions before I read, so I’m intending to use this post to do that.

That’s the thing about blog writing–it can be tentative, exploratory, uncertain. I can write to learn here and maybe it will help you think through some things too.

And maybe you’ll read my thoughts and leave a comment that helps me.


So here’s what I have going on in my classroom that fits under the umbrella of the goal of having students evaluate their own learning:

  1. In September, I had them make pages in their writer’s notebooks with their own personal learning goals. Students chose goals for themselves from the Common Core State Standards (we are in a Common Core state). The task was to select at least seven standards (two writing, two reading, one speaking/listening, one language, one research) and paraphrase them into their own words and then write why they wanted to work on those particular standards. My students did some excellent work with this–as you can see in the images below. 2016-09-02-11-18-25 2016-09-02-10-15-58
  2. Throughout the semester, students wrote writer’s memos on every piece of writing. For weekly drafts, the memo asks students to identify their intentions with the piece, how it went, and what help they need from readers. For thorough revisions, the memo asks students to identify which of their standards the revision worked helped them with. Here’s an example memo from a revision:
    • I really needed to add more text details and quotes because they explained and gave examples to the vague statements I had earlier in my writing. Along with the major changes in my piece, I also had quite a few simple mistakes that I didn’t find at first. These things didn’t pop out at me when I reread my paper once I finished, but my group easily helped me fix them to an extent. My mentor text for this paper was Brittany’s college application essay Costco. Brittany’s narrative helped me because it had many examples of how certain events impacted her life, which I wanted to show in my paper. I used her ideas to create my own interpretation of McCandless’ experiences and how his anchors changed his life. I really wanted to start with how I believed anchors affected people, and what types people could have, and later tie it to McCandless’ story. My target standard was focused on craft and structure to determine the meaning of words and phrases, in this particular case the word “anchor” and what it truly means to McCandless and the reader. Overall I am happy with where this paper is now, and the details and adjustments I needed to add.
  3. At the end of October, we started working on our semester grade agreement. I wrote about that process here.
  4. At the end of the semester, students used that grade agreement to write letters to me identifying what grade they think they should have and why, providing evidence to support their claims about their learning. You can see the document I used to scaffold that work here. Here’s a excerpt from one student’s letter where he writes to explain how he met one of the learning goals the students identified (which he articulates in the first sentence):
    • This semester, I worked to improve my reading and writing ability for me, not anyone else, and definitely not for a grade. As I mentioned before, I have been able to take more risks, and have grown because of it. A specific example of how I did this as a reader was when I chose to read a particularly challenging choice book. I read Missoula, by Jon Krakauer. This book was not only challenging because of the content, but because of the highly-informative style in which it was written. It was often difficult to keep track of who was who, and exactly what everything meant, but I did it because I was interested in learning more about the book’s important topic, and to improve my nonfiction reading skills. An example of how I did this in writing was when I wrote a story about my dog for a weekly draft. I was never very good at narrative writing, but I gave it a shot for that draft. I tried to include as much detail as possible, and really make the story believable and interesting. I had to take risks to do this. If I had been worried about a grade, I probably would’ve chosen a different topic, because that would have been the safer choice.

In the last week of the semester, I read and responded to students’ grade letters. In most cases we agreed. But in several cases we didn’t agree. If I saw something different based on the data we had for those students, I pointed them back to that body of data and the grade agreement that we established and in some cases, invited students to do more work.

On the whole, I was pleased with the reflective work they did as they wrote their grade letters. I saw evidence of learning, learning that mattered to my students.

But I’m plagued with questions.

We started with the CCSS but didn’t use them in the grade letters. Shouldn’t the set of learning goals they establish early on line up with the learning goals they are using to evaluate their work at the end?

I know how the disconnect happened. I committed this year to use for the grade agreement learning goals that came from the students’ articulation of what seemed the most important work of the class. After several gradeless semesters, I could so easily craft a grade agreement that would be efficient to use in the end and that captures the work that the course asks of students, but the process of having the students do this thinking together is so important toward getting them focused on the learning. Asking my students, “What does this class ask you to learn?” got them started on identifying the learning work of the course. Putting this at the center of the grade agreement process is powerful. if I just handed them a list, they would not have to do that important thinking.

So in my quest to get students focused on the learning the class is asking of them and to be able to articulate that work in their own words, the learning goals the students had their hands on most frequently were not the list of the Common Core State Standards that each student selected for him/herself but rather the learning objectives that ended up on the grade agreement.

I’ve always worked to make learning goals very clear to students. I did some learning years ago with the assessment work done by Stiggins, and an idea has resonated with me ever since: students can hit learning targets that they can see clearly and that hold still for them. In the past this meant that I wrote clear, specific learning goals for my students. This morphed into me presenting a set of learning goals to my students (like the CCSS) and asking them to identify the ones that are most relevant to them each individually. And now I’ve started working on having students articulate those targets based on the work they have been doing in the class.

But what’s the best way to approach this?

After 21 years of watching students learn in my classroom, I have a pretty good idea about the work they need to do. The cleanest, simplest path to a set of learning goals would be for me to write the targets myself or hand them a list of pretty good learning targets, like the CCSS that capture what I know my students need to work on. But that puts something besides students at the center.

It’s messy to have students articulate the learning goals. And it takes time. But it’s important–critically so I argue. If my goal is to get students evaluating their own learning effectively, they need to know the learning goals well. They need to feel like they own them.

What role, then, do the standards and curriculum objectives play if they are not the center of my students’ work to evaluate their own learning?

Lately I’ve been thinking that the standards and curriculum objectives are solely my responsibility. It’s my job to plan a classroom experience for students that is based on the required standards and objectives. It’s my job to assess how well my students are meeting those standards and objectives. And if I’ve done my job well, there will be parallels between the required standards and objectives and the list of learning goals my students create together. The work of the classroom should reflect those standards and objectives.

But still there is this little worry dancing around in my mind–what about gradebooks that are aligned to the standards? What about putting the standards on the board each day? What about telling students which standards each assignment is helping them to master? Isn’t this all good assessment pedagogy?

Yes, that’s what has been explained to me over and over again, but I think that putting everywhere those standards that someone else wrote–someone who doesn’t even know my students–only serves to tell students that they are not the most important actors in their own education.

This does not mean that I can or will ignore the standards and my required curriculum. I start with them. Here’s what that looked like this year:

  1. I starting with my standards and required curriculum.
  2. I wrote a set of learning objectives for my students based on those required pieces, but that were a little more friendly for me to work with.
  3. I planned work my students could do to engage with those learning objectives: course curriculum, semester calendar, weekly routine.
  4. I met students and got them working. This included having students look at the Common Core State Standards and select a few for themselves individually and write them in their writer’s notebook (but in hindsight, I think in the future I will approach this step later, once we have the set of learning goals for the grade agreement–see #8 below). This also included having students write reflective memos on their writing to connect to their lists of individual standards.
  5. After a few weeks, I asked students, “what is this course asking you to learn?” Together they made a list of learning goals based the conversation we had starting with that question.
  6. I examined the list of learning goals students write together to be sure it lined up with the standards and curriculum I started with.  
  7. I had students choose the most important learning goals (they voted essentially) to become the class semester grade agreement.
  8. This is not what I did this year but may try in the future: have students each choose a few learning goals that best capture the learning they each need/want to do and ask them to record these in their writer’s notebook and reflect on them frequently (writer’s memos, conference conversations).
  9. At semester’s end, have students look over gradebook data, their writer’s memos, and their own work for evidence of their learning and growth to include in their grade letters.

How do you use your required standards and curriculum objectives to assess your students’ learning?

The other nagging question I have is about how much I know about my students’ learning. What evidence do I have that my students are learning? How clear is that evidence to everyone involved? If a grade should indicate to people how much students have learned, how well do the semester grades that end up in my gradebook accomplish this?

And what should a grade indicate anyhow?

I know that my points-based gradebooks of the past didn’t say much about my students as learners. My qualitative warehouse approach to my gradebook now tells me much more about my students as learners. But am I missing out on something important by not quantifying learning somehow, with numbers?

I know the numbers in my gradebooks in the past didn’t really quantify learning, so I shouldn’t be so worried about this. Those numbers told me more about my students’ ability to comply and collect points than they told me about how they grew as readers and writers. But the primacy of the number is so strong in our collective consciousness, so I worry.

Those numbers when they are “grades” communicate all kinds of things to our students about who they think the world thinks they are, and who they think the world says they need to be. According to the set of expectations students carry with them in their minds–reinforced repeatedly by the college application process, by car insurance good grade discounts, by things teachers and parents say to students about why good grades are important–if the number is over 90, you’re just fine. Below 80, something’s wrong with you. Our current online gradebooks that allow students to track that number as we enter test scores and grades makes every single data point high stakes for them.

My students can set the mobile app for our required gradebook to ping them anytime a teacher updates anything.

This is not healthy.

Students ask us, “how can I bring up my grade?” rather than, “how can I learn more?”

But still, am I missing anything by only quantifying how much of the work my students have completed that the class has asked of them?

Numbers do help us to see growth quickly and efficiently–that’s if they are actually meaningfully measuring growth.

But there’s really no quick or efficient way to make sense of students as they grow as readers and writers and thinkers and human beings.

I just want them to work genuinely in my classroom, and to think about themselves as learners, and to focus on the reading, the writing, and to see where they’ve grown and improved, and to take risks and fail and get stronger because of it, and to dive in to make the work as meaningful as they can for themselves.

I want them to do all of this free from the pressure and consequences of a grade that could drop at any time if they mess something up.

Thanks for reading if you’re still with me. Writing this has helped me to figure out a few things, including what I’m looking for as I read the book I mentioned at the start of this post. I’d love to know what reading this brought to mind for you? Anything you can help me with?

This is the sixteenth post in a series about not grading in the high school language arts classroom.

You can read other posts in the series here.  Start with the first post, “The English Teacher’s Holy Grail: #StopGrading” to read about how this series came to be.

This blog series will chronicle my journey through the 2016 fall semester using non-traditional approaches to grading, the thinking process I go through with my students, the steps we take along the way. I’m doing this for entirely selfish reasons–I want to capture it as clearly as I can, which will make it all work better for my students and me. I hope that being along for the journey will help you think about your classroom too.

Please check out this folder –it already contains some of the key documents about non traditional grading out of my classroom, and this is where I will store any documents I create or revise during this semester’s journey.

Check out this folder if you’d like to share your gradeless classroom resources with each other (and with me!) and/or enter into more conversation by joining the Google Group a reader set up. 

Posted in #StopGrading, 21st century teaching and learning, assessment, blog series, fall 2016 blog series, gradebook, grading, making change, not grading | Leave a comment

Ways to keep your students working without points (#StopGrading)


In conversations with teachers about alternatives to traditional assessment, especially skeptical teachers, I often hear, “there’s no way my students will work without points.”

I get it. I do. My journey to here has been lengthy. Paradigm shift does not happen immediately. In fact, you can see on this blog where I argued strongly with Jay that as good as it all sounded to stop grading, I just couldn’t. I needed those points, those grades–my classroom orbited on them. No way I could step away. (I went back and forth with Jay in these three posts: But I am grading, 28 February 2012, Blog throwdown! “Grading” and other offensive words. Bonus tuba solo, 2 March 2012, Without Systemic Change, we Grade, 15 March 2012.)

The thing is that students WILL work without grades and points.

They want to do work that matters to them.

Penny Kittle reminds us that our students want to read and they want to write, if we let them.

So in true internet fashion (I’m moving my thinking slowly back into work world after a lovely holiday break), here’s my list of ways to keep students working without points:


ONE: Engage students in conversation about WHY you’re not paying them with points and grades on everything that they do.

If you just stop doing what your students are accustomed to after years of schooling, they may meet your efforts with resistance. They’re caught up in the grades-for-compliance paradigm that organizes school too. But if you invite them to dialogue with you about grades, about learning–if you ask them about their experiences with these things in school and really listen to them, you and your students can become partners in shifting their focus to learning instead of grades. They will voice some opposition–there is discomfort for everyone in stepping away from grades. They may ask, How will I know how I’m doing? What happens if I think I’m doing fine but then at the end of the semester you think I have a D for my semester grade but I think I should have an A? Be ready for these questions and explain that their concerns are valid and you’ve thought about them and want to continue hearing them.

My post about starting the conversation with students walks through how I approached this on the very first day of school this year. But the conversation continued throughout the semester. Commit to the conversation–listen, think it through together, work diligently to get your students on the same page. If students know WHY you aren’t doing grades per usual and HOW it intends to help them, they can build a completely different stance toward the work in your class. Rather than doing it for points/grades, they will have the opportunity to do the work for themselves, to learn.


TWO: Make the work as meaningful as possible.

What do your students really need as readers and writers to have a success future as human beings? Yes, we’re all working with curricula and standards that we must use, or even external AP or IB tests that we’re preparing our students for. But even in the context of these forces, we can design classroom experiences that anchor on work that students see as valuable and meaningful to their future as human beings.

Why do we read? To know ourselves better. To know our world better. To imagine the experiences of others and develop our empathy. I tell my students that the characters, plot twists, and conflicts in their lives will be more challenging than what they read in any book, but reading books will help prepare them for those difficult moments. No matter what we ask students to do with the reading we put in front of them, if we don’t couch it in these bigger reasons for why their very existence as human beings depends on their ability to develop lives as readers, the reading will not be meaningful. This means lots of discussion centered on students’ ideas about what they read–I love as a starting point for class discussion Kelly Gallagher’s very simple but powerful question, “What’s worth talking about?” If I tell them what they should have noticed or what we should talk about, the focus of our work becomes MY reading of the book. I’ve already read it. It’s not about me. Everything we do with text in my classroom must be centered on my students’ ideas about and experiences with the texts.

And why do we write? To understand ourselves. To make sense of our world. To join in a wider conversation. To learn. No matter what we ask our students to do with writing, we must contextualize it here. Writing should not be a meaningless task of meeting a teacher’s requirements or writing something that fulfills a predetermined formula (I’m talking about you, 5-paragraph essay). If we make decisions for students about the content, form, and purpose of their pieces of writing, we don’t ask them to develop their writing muscles. If students see that writing in your classroom is not an exercise in giving you, the teacher, what you want but rather an opportunity for them to develop their own words, ideas, and voice, they will want to do the work.

The mantra for my classroom that I hope captures all of this is “Read Our World to Write Your Future.”


THREE: Put student choice in the center.

The moment I realized that not all of my students had to be doing the same thing at the same time, my classroom opened up in really powerful ways.

Yes, there is value in everyone in my classroom reading the same book at the same time. We do this twice a year. And I’m very careful to choose books that I think will be engaging for as many of my students as possible. But for the rest of the semester, my students choose what they read. Sometimes it’s free choice with just a bit of guidance from me so that their choices help them make progress toward their semester work. Sometimes it’s choice bounded by a few selections for them to read in book groups. Sometimes I even have the class vote on the books that we read together as a class. If you are choosing all the books your students encounter in your classroom, you are bypassing the most powerful lever for student engagement as readers.

As for writing, my curriculum might specify certain types of writing my students need to complete. But they don’t have to do those all at the same time. I can ask students to choose when they want to tackle each of the different required types of writing, for example. I can ask them to choose which pieces they want to revise. I can rein in the chaos that this all suggests with standing deadlines, with a clear scaffold to guide student choice toward course learning goals and objectives, and with space for writing conferences so I can coach students through their decision making about their work and give them individualized instruction on their unique reading and writing goals. My colleagues and I accomplish all of this with our weekly draft/thorough revision structure and semester punch lists. These organizing structures help to keep together a classroom where students need not do the same things at the same time.  


FOUR: Individualize your instruction

Students will be more likely to work if they see that you recognize them as individual learners and that your classroom responds to their sets of unique needs. You can better accomplish this if your students spend class time doing the work so you can coach them individually as they read, as they write.

Of course my students do need to put in some time outside of class to get their reading and writing work accomplished for my class, but I dedicate huge swaths of time in class with students for them to do this very important work. This gives me the opportunity to individual instruction through conference conversations with individual students and small groups of them.

Why do a comma splice lesson for the whole class when only a few of your students show that they need it? Have a student who needs more support? You can provide that in conferences–more scaffolding, more ideas about how to put a piece of writing together, more help in how to get through a difficult text. Have a student who needs to be more challenged? You can provide that in conferences–help the student to design reading and writing work that really engages them and then have conversations to keep that student working.

One-size-fits-all classrooms can provide too many places for students to check out, to feel unseen, to just go through the motions to get the work done. But if your students know that you SEE them, that you value them, that you are learning to understand them, and that you want to help them grow and learn, they will work with you.


FIVE: Use workshop pedagogy?

You may be thinking that I’m talking about a reading/writing workshop based on what you’ve just read. Reading/writing workshop is a powerful way to get students doing meaningful work, to put student choice in the center of your classroom, and to individualize your instruction. My classroom is a reading/writing workshop, and it’s something I’ve been working toward for several years. I’m not totally there yet–there’s so much to learn about effective workshop pedagogy. But I’m getting closer every year. I love workshop so much that I find myself wondering why every language arts classroom isn’t a workshop. As I’ve put meaningful work, student choice, and individualize instruction in the center, these concepts have forged a clear path straight to workshop in my world. But there are other ways to accomplish these things, and I know that. I see it in my colleagues’ classrooms–I teach with some very talented and inspiring teachers, and my department includes both traditional and workshop classrooms.  If your classroom isn’t a workshop, where can you ask students to make choices about what they read and write? Where can you ask them to do the most meaningful work possible? Where can you make more space for individualized instruction?


SIX: Let students know how they are doing.

So you’re not giving students points and grades on their work, but that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t get feedback from you so they know how they are doing. There ARE numbers in my gradebook–the only thing that makes sense to me to quantify: how much of the work my students have completed.

The gradebook broadcasts a percentage throughout the semester, and I have to train my students and their parents to know that the number there is NOT the grade. It’s a number that shows how much work the student has completed. If it’s not 100%, the student has work to do. This lets students know if they’ve got work they need to take care of and helps to keep them working.

I also use the gradebook to provide more meaningful, qualitative information to my students about their progress. I record notes there from conference conversations and from my feedback on their writing so that my students and I (and their parents, and their special education teachers, and their counselors, and their administrators) can see how they are progressing as learners. It’s one thing to have conference conversations with students–powerful enough just this. But looking across a semester’s worth of notes on conference conversations can reveal trends and patterns and can illustrate a fuller story about a student as a learner. (I wrote much more about this in my post about hacking the gradebook.)


SEVEN: Provide incentives that have nothing to do with points.

The pull of “extra credit” is so strong that even in my gradeless classroom, my students still sometimes ask for it. Extra points are something we’ve all used as incentives to keep students working. But in a gradeless classroom, this makes absolutely no sense. I don’t want grades or points to be the reason for my students to do anything in my classroom. I don’t want students to do something simply because they’ll lose points if they don’t.

But incentives can be powerful, and I have two that I use to keep students working. Every Wednesday, there is a chunk of time in the middle of the day, 45 minutes, designated as “teacher access time.” My school carved this into our schedule a couple of years ago, recognizing that when students’ and teachers’ off periods do not line up, students may have a difficult time meeting with their teachers when they need help.

We can assign students to come to access time if they are behind in our classes, and I do. If my students are missing any major tasks for my class (their weekly drafts fall into this category), I assign them to come to access time. Getting the work done so they don’t have to come to access time is a powerful motivator because access time comes right before lunch, and they can have an extended lunch period instead. The school backs us on this–missed assigned access time means detention.

The other powerful motivator I have is flexible attendance on Fridays. This is something we’ve done for years with the senior class I teach. If students are totally caught up on their work (and their parents/guardians have signed off that they want their student to have the option to choose), Fridays are optional. Students will work incredibly hard for the opportunity to control their time–an excellent motivator. And this allows us to better differentiate the course, spend more time with the students who need the most help, and give students an opportunity to manage independent time effectively now before they head off to college next year.

What in your world could you offer as an incentive that has nothing to do with grades?


Students will work without points and grades to coax them along.

Engage them in the conversation.

Trust that they want to do work that matters to them.

Trust that they want to focus on learning more than collecting points.

But be warned that it will not happen immediately just because you announce that you’re not grading anymore. Students who are still entrenched in the grades-for-compliance paradigm may see this as an invitation to stop working. Put in the work to get your students on board and work on designing your classroom space to support them as learners doing work that matters to them.

How do you keep your students working without points and grades? Teach me in the comments below.

This is the fifteenth post in a series about not grading in the high school language arts classroom.

You can read other posts in the series here.  Start with the first post, “The English Teacher’s Holy Grail: #StopGrading” to read about how this series came to be.

This blog series will chronicle my journey through the 2016 fall semester using non-traditional approaches to grading, the thinking process I go through with my students, the steps we take along the way. I’m doing this for entirely selfish reasons–I want to capture it as clearly as I can, which will make it all work better for my students and me. I hope that being along for the journey will help you think about your classroom too.

Please check out this folder –it already contains some of the key documents about non traditional grading out of my classroom, and this is where I will store any documents I create or revise during this semester’s journey.

Check out this folder if you’d like to share your gradeless classroom resources with each other (and with me!) and/or enter into more conversation by joining the Google Group a reader set up. 


Posted in #StopGrading, blog series, fall 2016 blog series, gradebook, grading, motivating students, not grading, workshop teaching | 2 Comments

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.



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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.”







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#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…


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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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