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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now that I’ve described

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in 21st century teaching and learning, making change, reflections, student feedback, teaching writing, using data, writer's notebooks | 7 Comments

Marinating myself in the work of Donald Graves

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From “The Enemy is Orthodoxy” (1984):

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

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

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



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

One Week Later: What’s Resonating after #NCTE14

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

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



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

rigorous = rigidly severe or harsh. 

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

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

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

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

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


2. Literacy demands of our democracy.

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

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

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

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

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



3. Smarter uses of technology in my classroom.

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

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

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


4. Hack it.

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


5. Love is everything.

And finally,

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

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

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

#NCTE14 Outbound

The Airport Reflection

New in my bag is:

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

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

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

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

New in my head:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cool ferris wheel though.

See ya next year NCTE. Try to behave.

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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



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

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

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

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

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

Posted in #NCTE14, education, gratitude, making change, presenting, stories, teaching, things made of awesome | 1 Comment

NCTE14 Reflections, Friday, peppered with Tweets and feelings of inadequacy

Greetings from DC!? We’re not quite in DC. The Gaylord Hotel is not quite DC. It’s certainly something, but not quite DC.

Anyhow, it was a tiring but inspiring day, as they always are at this conference.

And if you’re wondering what we thought about the day, you can take a look at today’s tweets… using this handy guide that Jay sent out first thing this morning:

It really is true–Paul hardly ever Tweets. But that’s okay. We will still hang out with him. The morning general session–awesome. So inspiring, both Marian Wright Edelman’s talk and the panel discussion gave us much to think about:

When the general session ended, the three of us sat there and talked about what we had just heard and used it to reflect on the school where we teach. We could have kept talking about it all day right there, the only three conference goers left in the huge ballroom. But we realized that the convention center crew was re-setting the chairs for whatever was going to happen next, so we relocated to the atrium area, where we ended up in a great interstitial conversation:

Jay recognized Paul Thomas sitting next to us. We got to hear him speak last year in the session with Alfie Kohn, the session that sent me on the gradeless trajectory that I’ve been on since then (read more about that here). So it was awesome to tell him how my classroom practice has changed since then, for the better. But it did kind of launch what ended up being the theme of the day for me: feeling inadequate. I reflected constantly over my classroom practice–every conversation, every presenter I listened to, on every page in my writer’s notebook (I filled eleven and a half of them today). The distance and space from my classroom helped me to see it clearly, to find the places I want to grow, to see clearly the places where my practices aren’t matching my intentions, as Paul Thomas said.  And this is okay–this place where I start to question, wonder, feel inadequate. It’s a reflective place. Back at school, the days move so flippin’ fast that I hardly have time to breathe, let alone find that distance from my practice to really think about it. But here, constantly challenged with the vision articulated by the people I meet, I have that space to reflect. And it’s powerful. The sense inadequacy that bubbles up is a good thing. It moves my practice. And I’m reminded of Newkirk’s words in Holding on to Good Ideas in a Time of Bad Ones: Six Literacy Principles Worth Fighting For (2009) (the book I brought with me on the trip because I think it’s the meditation I need right now): “So what happens if we begin with this premise: Difficulty, disappointment, resistance, and failures are inevitable in the profession of teaching” (p. 164) Newkirk says we need this because

In the classes I read about, everything seems to work; student writing is impressive, often deeply moving; the teacher seems to have achieved full participation of all members of the class. And what I find most difficult to believe, the teacher never shows signs of despondency, frustration, anger, impatience, or disappointment. If there is anger and frustration, it is usually directed at external forces–administrators, testing services (the designated “bad guys”)–and never at themselves or their students. The teachers I read about don’t doubt their competence, or at least they don’t admit to their doubts. (p. 163)

And yes, today (and lately) there have been times where I doubt my competence. There I said it.  And I OWN it.  Today when we talked with Paul Thomas and heard about the simple yet powerful ways he gets his students focused on driving their own revisions in their writing, I wondered if my thorough revision assignment (starting first with MY feedback on their work) actually directs their writing too much. In the process of getting grades out of the way of them becoming engaged writers, am I actually getting in the way instead? I need to do some thinking on this. Next we attended the 11am session with Jim Burke, Alan Lawrence Sitomer, Michael W. Smith, and Jeff Wilhelm: 

And it was going great:

Awesome, right? Until

We left for a short time, but then we snuck back in (don’t tell anyone). We were just in time to hear Sitomer discussing technology. I’m pretty psyched about technology and the very important literacy skills practice tech tools provide our students and the powerful ways these tools can engage our students. So when I heard the doubt, the questioning, the wondering from Sitomer about whether or not tech tools in the classroom are making it possible to win the war between focus and distraction in our classrooms, again surfaced those feelings of inadequacy. He wondered if in our march toward one-to-one technology integration, we are actually moving ourselves toward a place we don’t want to be. He brought up the examples of the tech company CEOs who don’t permit their children to use technology at home as evidence for us to reconsider our journey toward wired classrooms.

But I’ve already done a lot of thinking about this issue and I respectfully disagree. All tech tools are not created equal. Sitomer provided an example of an on-line Shakespeare resource that had blinking images in the margins that distract just about everyone, no matter how focused they tend to be. I pretty much don’t send my students anywhere on line during class where there are blinking distracting things. We use powerful digital tools to connect and engage in the writing process and collaborate with each other.

And let’s be honest–if we don’t help them figure out how to manage all the distractions in their high tech world, when will they learn it? Removing tech tools from their hands totally isn’t the answer. That will never teach them how to use them effectively, and basic literacy is at stake here. I wrote about this a few years ago in response to an article about a Waldorf School in Silicon Valley that had gone tech free. In short, if we take away tech tools from classrooms in the name of helping students focus, privileged students who have access to those tools at home will likely be fine, but our students who don’t have access to those tools outside of school will lack some important literacy skills they need to find success in life.

So it was a good reminder about how important it is for me to help my students figure out how to manage their life and their focus and their use of technology in the context of their learning. And the creeping inadequacy was managed, temporarily.

Until session D.21:

My big classroom research project right now is about going workshop–not just sort of like it feels like it’s been in my classroom with workshop hiding here and there the last few years, but solidly, fully, all the way workshop. And it didn’t take the presentation from these rockstar teachers for me to doubt my ability to achieve this. It’s been there significantly for the last few weeks. That’s the subject of a much longer piece of writing I’ve been building in my head for a few days now. But this session–these teachers were so clear on workshop, on just exactly what it looked like, on just how to approach it, on just how to construct PD to get everyone on board. I was in awe. Workshop is complex and complicated and messy and hard to visualize within the structure of a high school curriculum where the things we assume we must do are in such stark contrast with the workshop vision. There appears a chasm that feels unnavigable, yet these teachers have not only crossed it but built a bridge for others to follow. And I think their very clear vision will help me to pinpoint the places where I’m getting tripped up (and the places where it’s working, because I know it is working in places too).

From there it was a Troy Hicks chaired session that included my former high school student recently finished with her PhD in literacy. She studied the ways that teachers used technology in their classrooms, looking to understand what it looked like when teachers’ beliefs about the role/power of technology infused their teaching practices in ways that, at the most powerful iterations, integrated smoothly into their students’ literacy skill building.

And there it was, the inadequacy. Are my classroom practices with technology growing my students’ literacy skills?

Can you see why I’m so tired this evening?

Paul and Jay and I walked around looking for a restaurant for dinner, and–after reading several menus–settled on Potbelly for sandwiches and then Ben and Jerry’s for ice cream rather than braving the 90-minute wait at the Italian place (the hostess seemed surprised we didn’t have a reservation… who knew?). Then we holed up in a quiet spot in the lobby of my hotel (no light shows on the hour every hour at my hotel) where the wifi was moving a bit better and finalized the details for our presentation tomorrow.

My mind will be spinning I’m sure as I drift off to sleep.

That is why I keep coming back. This place–this conference–in the company of all of these people–challenges me. It forces me to keep building my vision for what my classroom could be, for the powerful and wonderful things my students could be doing. Even though my brain is exhausted now to think about it all, I’m excited to get back to my classroom and get started working toward the new pieces of the vision I’m seeing appear just beyond what my line of sight has been up until today, here, now, with all of you.

Thanks for being here and providing opportunities for me to feel inadequate.

It’s a good thing even though generally our world doesn’t make it seem like that’s a good thing.

But again, we need to be able to dialogue about our moments of failure, else how will we ever be able to see past them to all that is awesome and possible just beyond the place where things aren’t working as well as they could?


Posted in #NCTE14, 21st century teaching and learning, gratitude, making change, muddling through, teaching | 4 Comments

Why NCTE? (with rock video)

Apparently there is a video storytelling project going on at NCTE this year. We will throw down on that because… well, because video! So stay tuned.

The two ideas suggested as topics were untold stories from teaching, or ‘why do we come to NCTE?’

The why questions got us thinking and talking a lot. So I’m going to write as well as make video.

It’s our fourth (me and Doc Z) NCTE. We’re doing a presentation (K.24). You should come see us. Why do we come back?

The presentation is really about planning to do a presentation. It forces us to reflect and take time to think in a job that doesn’t allow us time to reflect or think much. It makes us focus on some aspect of our practice and unpack it. It forces us to understand. The presentation itself is just a frame for our own process. Of course, if our process can be of use to someone else so much the better.

But even the presentation is just an excuse to get us here. The real reason is VISION. Here is where the vision is. Here is where it’s tangible. We can feel it. And we need that. Being in the school, in the classroom, is tough. It will bury you. As I said above, our jobs are not structured for deep reflection, and there are many entities, both within and outside of the school trying to tell us what to do. Much of what we are being told has little to do with helping our students be better readers or writers.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not all bad, but there is a definite drift. When your head is buried in the day-to-day you can loose track of what you are doing. Then when you finally look up you realize you are WAAAAAY of course. It happens to me, it happens to everybody I think.

So being at the conference is a way of resetting that vision. It’s been a while since someone has said something I have never heard before, but people say a lot of things that I have forgotten. And so I hear them in a new way, I am reaffirmed in my vision.

Our presentation will be the same. Yes, it is about teaching practice in a very specific way,. But mostly it is affirming our vision. Again. Because that’s what we need.

As I was writing this, a particular song popped in my head. So here you go. It seemed appropriate.

As somewhat of an aside, and placed below the video knowing many fewer people will read it, reaffirming the vision is especially difficult for me right now. I’m not actually an English teacher this year, for the first time in thirteen years. I’m currently the Dean of Students in my building (which I volunteered for BTW). I’m learning a lot about schools and teaching, which it why I wanted to try this. But I feel a long way from the classroom right now.

I need to do some reflecting on this blog about that experience, but I’ve been pretty exhausted by the experience I’m having, and exhaustion is not really conducive to reflection. So you’l have to stay tuned for more of that.

Posted in #NCTE14, 21st century teaching and learning, administration, engagement, presenting, reflections, time | Tagged , | Leave a comment

How We’re Getting to Semester Grades in My Gradeless Classroom

There are only eight weeks of classes left for this semester. I’m not sure how quickly we got to this mid-semester point, but we did.

And much has happened on the gradeless front in my classroom.

Last spring, I felt somewhat unmoored in the grade conferences I had with my students. We hadn’t made any agreements ahead of time about what the grades would be based on. I wanted to make some changes for this year in order to feel a bit more grounded in those grade conferences at the end of the semester. You can read here about my reflections over all of that and the changes I hoped to make for this year.

Step one was narrowing down the too-many CCSS for 11th/12th grade. If I wanted my classroom to be clearly focused on these targets, I wanted a reasonable number of them so we could all keep them present in our thinking. I called my list of 22 (plus 4 “successful student habit” standards) our Super Standards. Here they are:

  1. Provide an objective summary of a text, including themes/central ideas. What is the text’s overall purpose or argument? Point to specific evidence/detail from the text to explain the text’s overall purpose or argument. (Reading)
  2. Analyze how an author’s choices concerning the structure of specific parts of a text contribute to its overall meaning as well as its aesthetic impact. (Reading)
  3. Determine an author’s point of view (nonfiction) or speaker’s point of view (literature) and analyze the impact of that point of view on the meaning of the text. (Reading)
  4. Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts, using valid reasoning (warrant) and relevant and sufficient evidence (data). (Writing)
  5. Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas, concepts, and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content. (Writing)
  6. Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, well-chosen details, and well-structured event sequences. (Writing)
  7. Words: Use precise words, phrases, domain-specific vocabulary, and/or specific vivid details to develop an argument, to convey information or explain, or to pull the reader into a narrative. (Writing)
  8. Connections: Use words, phrases, and clauses as well as varied syntax to link the major sections of the text, create cohesion, and clarify the relationships between concepts, between events of a narrative, or between claims/data/warrants. (Writing)
  9. Structure: Organize complex ideas, concepts, claims, and/or events of a narrative so that each new element builds on that which it precedes it to create a unified whole, including an effective concluding statement or section. (Writing)
  10. Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience. (Writing)
  11. Develop and strengthen writing as needed by planning, seeking feedback, revising, editing, rewriting, or trying a new approach, focusing on addressing what is most significant for a specific purpose and audience. (Writing)
  12. Write routinely over extended time frames (time for research, reflection, and revision) and shorter time frames (a single sitting or a day or two) for a range of tasks, purposes, and audiences. (Writing)
  13. Conduct short as well as more sustained research projects to answer a question (including a self-generated question) or solve a problem; narrow or broaden the inquiry when appropriate; synthesize multiple sources on the subject, demonstrating understanding of the subject under investigation. (Research)
  14. Gather relevant information from multiple authoritative print (literary and/or informational) and digital sources, using advanced searches effectively; assess the strengths and limitations of each source in terms of the task, purpose, and audience; avoid plagiarism and overreliance on any one source and follow a standard format for citation. (Research)
  15. Come to small group and large group discussions prepared, having read and researched material under study; explicitly draw on that preparation by referring to evidence from texts and other research on the topic or issue to stimulate a thoughtful, well-reasoned exchange of ideas. (Speaking and Listening)
  16. Work collaboratively with peers to promote civil, democratic discussions and decision-making, set clear goals and deadlines, and establish individual roles as needed. (Speaking and Listening)
  17. Propel conversations by posing and responding to questions that probe reasoning and evidence; ensure a hearing for a full range of positions on a topic or issue; clarify, verify, or challenge ideas and conclusions; and promote divergent and creative perspectives. (Speaking and Listening)
  18. Present information, findings, and supporting evidence, conveying a clear and distinct perspective, such that listeners can follow the line of reasoning, alternative or opposing perspectives are addressed, and the organization, development, substance, and style are appropriate to purpose, audience, and a range of formal and informal tasks. (Speaking and Listening)
  19. Make strategic use of digital media (e.g., textual, graphical, audio, visual, and interactive elements) in presentations to enhance understanding of findings, reasoning, and evidence and to add interest. (Speaking and Listening)
  20. Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English grammar, usage, and mechanics when writing or speaking. (Language)
  21. Determine or clarify the meaning of unknown and multiple-meaning words and phrases by using context clues or consulting reference materials. (Language)
  22. Demonstrate understanding of figurative language, word relationships, and nuances in word meanings. (Language)
  23. Follow instructions; pay attention to details. Read assignment instructions carefully to make sure you are taking care of business. Don’t let Doc Z have to remind you again and again about missing components of a task. (Successful Student Habits)
  24. Manage time effectively to meet deadlines. Communicate with teacher ahead of time if more time is needed on a specific task. Show that you know that deadlines matter and manage your time effectively to meet them. (Successful Student Habits)
  25. Monitor one’s own learning toward the standards. Collect evidence to demonstrate mastery of said standards. (Successful Student Habits)
  26. Use digital tools to learn, collaborate, and reflect over your learning in this class. (Successful Student Habits)

I presented this list to my students on the first day of school (here’s my lesson plan) and engaged them in conversation surrounding some excerpts from “The Case Against Grades” by Alfie Kohn. I had initially planned that day to start the conversation about what makes an A, B, C, etc., but we didn’t have time (and I don’t think it would have been a very productive conversation so early on). So I scheduled that conversation for a few weeks later, once they had worked a bit with the super standards and gotten used to how the class works.

The next step was to set up a way for students to track their progress toward the standards. Toward that, I built the “Super Standard Student Tracker,” a google spreadsheet. They each made a copy of it to personalize and store in their folder in Drive for the class and began filling out the self evaluation column for September 2014.

Once they had a bit of time to reflect on how they were doing toward the standards individually, I opened up the conversation about grades. I asked them what our metric should be to determine a grade for each person at the end of the semester. How many standards should each person have to address? And should we be going for mastery?

There was some real consensus between all three classes. For one, my students wanted things to be differentiated. They wanted to choose individually the focus of their work for their grade for the semester, but there was some disagreement about how many standards students should have to focus on. Some argued that for an A, a student should focus on all of them (this felt like it would become a much too onerous task). Some argued that for an A, a student should have to focus on two thirds or half of them–this also felt too onerous. I didn’t want the act of tracking their learning to get in the way of actually doing the learning. Also, they wanted the grade to focus on growth, not mastery. I asked them if it would be okay for all students to have to focus on the four successful student habit standards, since I think those skills are foundational to broader success in the class. All three classes were okay with that.

So a few days later, I gave them a proposal. In short, it says that for an A, students need to work well toward the four successful student habit standards and track their learning toward five or more of the other standards, providing evidence of significant growth in each one. Students seemed okay with this, and they also asked for the ability to write their own standard to work toward if what they wanted to focus on isn’t represented in the list of super standards. I loved this suggestion and made space for it. The truth is that as I narrowed the CCSS to my list of 22, I lost some detail. And students were identifying some specific skills they wanted to target that they didn’t see in the list of Super Standards.

super standard selections
This bar graph shows how many of my students chose each super standard as one of their five that they will focus on for their grade for this semester.

I built a google form for them to let me know what grade they were going for and which standards they were going to focus on. The results of their choices for standards are here in this bar graph. I found it interesting that so many students want to focus on narrative. This may be because we happened to be working on personal narratives as we had this discussion and the work was familiar to them. That may also be why there were fewer students who chose to focus on research-related standards. We really haven’t discussed those much. But we will soon as we launch into our big research persuasive paper for this semester.

I shared the semester grade proposal with one of my administrators, and she pointed out to me that this approach is actually very similar to how our district is approaching teacher evaluation this year. There’s a set of standards for teachers in our state, and we all had to assess ourselves toward each of them here at the start of the year. But then we chose three that we want to zero in on for our individual teacher evaluation. Same exact plan my students and I came up with.

I should also say that even though we’re technically gradeless until that semester grade that each student and I will negotiate together, there is still a lot of information in my gradebook. I am keeping track of every task I’ve asked of students, from paper drafts to revisions to weekly reading check-ins. For each task, I enter either “complete” or “partial” or “review instructions” or “missing.” And the grade book still boils all of this down to a number, because I have to be able to exist within a school community that pulls students’ grades every week for eligibility and files progress grades every six weeks. But in the end, all of that information about what work students have completed or not just becomes data, part of the conversation between each student and me about what his/her semester grade will be.

So we’ll see how it goes. I’m hoping this will give my students and me more guidance in those end-of-semester conferences.

And I also know now what grades they are all shooting for:

grade goals
The “others” were two B’s and one “A for Awesome” and one 98.32 from one of my more math-inclined students.

Let’s hope they all get there!

Posted in assessment, grading, not grading | 3 Comments