I recently went through the books on my shelves in my office at school. There on the shelf, back behind a stack of assorted novels, was Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. It was not just any copy of this book. It was MY copy of the book–my copy from the African American Literature course I took in college in the spring of 1994, my copy that I took on my airplane with me when I flew to New York that spring break to visit my best childhood friend at Columbia University, my copy with margins full of my notations–evidence of the most engaged reading I had had with a text since many, many years earlier in my life.
I read the prologue on the east bound airplane. The narrator was high on reefer, he said. He was listening to Louis Armstrong sing about why he was so black and blue. I read the words, and I actually heard the music–something I didn’t realize was even possible with words. I read, consumed, lingered over, considered, lived every single word in that book.
It was miraculous.
How was it possible that I was several semesters into my declared English major, yet this was the first book I had actually read in a meaningful way since I was a young child sitting on my front porch, reading until the twilight was strong enough I could no longer see the words on the page?
I devoured books as a child. I still have many of MY books from then, tucked away on my daughter’s bookcase. It’s unlikely that she’ll read them, but I know they are there. They are evidence of my relationship with books, with characters and stories and far-away places and obstacles to overcome. I worked through the Choose Your Own Adventure books backward so I could figure out which choices to make to get to the endings I wanted.
Despite this childhood love of books, I completely lost it by high school. I cannot pinpoint the moment in my memory when it happened. All I know is that by the time I walked into my AP Literature class as a 12th grader, my world was devoid of books. I looked at the list of the classics on the syllabus and promised myself I would read them.
And so I began.
The first book was Gulliver’s Travels. My teacher told us it was pretty much the first novel ever. I of course knew some things about it–mostly tidbits from Gulliver’s travels in Lilliput–huge visitor strapped down to the ground by tiny Lilliputians. And this was where it all came from? I was curious. I started reading.
I was intrigued–had no idea Gulliver went to many lands, including Brobdingnag, where Gulliver was the little one among giants. I only bring this part of the text up because it was a conversation about that place in class that is seered so violently in my memory. It went something like this:
Teacher: “So the Brobdingnagians are rationale beings…”
Me: “They’re not rationale.”
Teacher: “They are rationale…”
Me: “But they think Gulliver is a rodent. They can’t rationalize that he’s a tiny human.”
Teacher walks over to my desk, hulking over me, looking down as I cowered behind my book.
Teacher: “Sarah, you’re wrong.”
Me: “How can I be wrong if I can support my interpretation with evidence from the text?”
Teacher turns from me and walks away.
Teacher: “You’re wrong.” (dismissively)
Full disclosure: It was not possible for my AP Lit teacher to hulk over anything–she was the kindest, sweetest, most lovely person. The hulking (and my cowering) are how the memory lives in my mind, both physical manifestations of the way I was feeling in that moment. But the words, the conversation–I’m pretty sure that’s how it happened. And I see the ways I may have been a bit of a butthead in the situation. Looks like I maybe interrupted her a few times there. And maybe my friends and I were somewhat rambunctious that day. It happened on occasion–behavior that warranted the teacher to enter our general proximity to redirect our energy. In my memory I was the perfect student in that moment, trying to participate earnestly in class, with my hands clasped before me on my desk, perfectly polite, but I know that was likely not the case.
But I do know that after that moment, I did not read more of Gulliver’s Travels. Nor did I read any other book on the syllabus that year. I tried each one, but I just didn’t make it. The books remain on my too-long list of books yet unread, these on a special section of the list reserved for my guilt and regret for not reading them in that class when I had the opportunity.
After that short interaction with my teacher, the promise I made to myself didn’t matter. The class that initially engaged me as a reader became school as usual, yet another place where the teacher controlled what we read and what we were supposed to think about it. I reverted back into passive student role, listening carefully to the teacher’s interpretation and returning that to her on exams and in essays. I attended every single one of her review sessions, but I didn’t read a single book in that class. I got a B in the class (which was okay in my mind; due to the weighted grade in the class, the B would not dip my GPA below a 4.0).
I did learn some things in the class about the process of literary analysis. I watched my teacher do it. I saw the conclusions she made about the texts she asked us to read and figured out what she did to get there. I got a five on the AP exam. And the skills I gained continued to be useful–useful in terms of succeeding in college literature classes without actually reading the books assigned to me. My first college English class, American Literature, was the second time I wrote about Huckleberry Finn without ever having read it. When I got my paper back, the professor wrote across the top, “A! Best in the bunch!”
But all of that was about grades, not about being a reader.
All these years later, I’m working on that part, being a reader. If I ask my students to become this, I need to show them my process too. A link to my goodreads page is in my email signature. I talk about the books I’m reading. I talk about what I cut out (random internetting) to make space for reading. I talk about my goals as a reader and my struggles to get there.
I started to become a reader again during those first few pages of Invisible Man. I was astounded at what Ellison was able to do with words. I didn’t know it was possible. I started to play with words myself–poetry, journaling, even my papers for my classes began to reflect more focus on craft. I don’t attribute this to the class I was taking at the time or the professor (though it WAS the professor’s syllabus that put the book in front of me). The class was a typical college literature class where students competed with each other to say the most interesting thing during discussion.
I give Ellison the credit for pulling me back into the world of reading and Invisible Man for grabbing me and not letting me go.
I want my classroom to be a place that doesn’t shut down my students as readers. I do not blame my AP Literature teacher for my failures as a reader. I remember her fondly. In fact, I got in contact with her when I became an AP Literature teacher myself to ask her for resources. She’s a favorite teacher of my past. I used to love running into her on my college campus–she worked through a PhD in literature in the last years of her teaching career.
But her classroom did not engage me as a reader. I needed space to make choices about what I read. I needed space to form my own ideas about the texts. I needed space that wasn’t dominated by a teacher’s interpretation. Sure, I learned a lot from watching my teachers form and support their interpretations of our texts. But I didn’t learn to be a reader. In my high school and college English classrooms, literature was a thing to conquer, to parse apart, to make an argument about, to be able to say the most interesting thing in the room about–not a thing I needed because I am a human being.
I’m sitting in my living room in Colorado, the first day of Thanksgiving break coming to a close. I got home from Minneapolis last evening and opted for checking in my with my family over finishing this blog post (that I started at gate F5 at MSP, writing until my 45 minutes of free wifi ran out). (Click here to see my daily posts from NCTE this year.)
What will really help me now is to attempt to reach into the swirling mass of ideas in my head, newly invited in through the conversations and presentations of the last few days, and identify the nuggets that I will carry with me as I walk back into my classroom next week.
In no particular order:
Data. I have rich data in my classroom about what my students are reading, thinking, writing, learning. It lives in their writer’s notebooks, in the weekly reading check in form that I send around the room every Tuesday, in the margins of their writing (marginalia of the writers themselves, of their peers, and from me, their teacher)–I collect and use much of it to drive instruction, but I need to do more of this, more efficiently, more frequently, more intentionally. I also want to teach my students how to collect and use meaningful data themselves to be able to see and know what they are learning and where they are growing and to be able to set meaningful goals for themselves.
Deficit language about students. This comes from Kwame Alexandar–he reminded us that when you talk about students as marginalized and when you tell them they are marginalized, you will perpetuate the idea that they are marginalized. They will see themselves as other and every one else will too. This even comes down to terms like “struggling reader.” We’re all struggling readers. So let’s just stop with the labels. Words are thoughts and thoughts become how we see and organize the world. If we want our students to see themselves as capable, we’ve got to quit marginalizing them through the deficit terms we use so readily.
And as for words that we need to stop using–can we all just agree right now that we won’t use the word “rigor” anymore? According to my favorite app on my phone, Dictionary.com of course, the definition of rigor is as follows: “strictness, severity, or harshness, as in dealing with people.” There is nothing about this concept that has any business being in any classroom. I’m not sure how rigor became a goal we aspire to in education. I’m trying to make reading/writing workshop work in my high school classroom, yet I hear other teachers sometimes say that workshop isn’t “rigorous” enough for the serious business of high school language arts. That’s right. It’s not strict, severe, or harsh. It’s a place where human beings can read, write, imagine, explore, question, wonder, problem solve… I did hear the word rigor in presentations this year, held up as a goal, as a good thing. Can we just stop? Thanks.
Welcome feelings of inadequacy. This is not a new phenomena for me and the NCTE annual convention. I wrote about this last year, too. I find myself frequently listening to a brilliant teacher presenting and I think, “Argh! Why aren’t I doing that? That’s awesome!” But rather than beating myself up constantly about this, I have to realize that feeling inadequate at my job is an important part of reflective practice. I want to constantly strive to do better for my students. day by day, week by week, year by year. If I cannot create a vision for what my classroom could become that is different from how it is, I will never grow as a teacher. The stories I witness at NCTE help me build vision, they create the gap between my classroom as it is and my classroom as it could be. Without that gap, there is nothing to reach for. So thank you, every single teacher I heard speak, for helping me craft my vision of the possible (even if it does come with a creeping sense of inadequacy).
Write. I am a better teacher when I write. I am better able to teach my students from the inside of the writing process when I write. I am more aware of my world and my place within it when I write. I am a more reflective teacher when I write. I am a better human being when I write. I am more connected to my colleagues near and far when I write. I better understand myself, my teaching, my classroom when I write. So I aspire to more blogging. More tweeting of thoughts/observations/moments from my classroom. More writer’s notebook writing. More writing with students. More writing to figure out what the heck I’m trying to accomplish in my classroom.
Writer’s notebooks. These are going pretty well for some of my students this year. But I want writer’s notebooks to become indispensable to them, as indispensable as Penny Kittle’s is to her. What a great model she is for her students for living the life of a writer. Even in the session she presented with Kelly Gallagher and Donna Santman, when she was not presenting, she was writing in her writer’s notebook as she listened to her colleagues speak. I loved her reminder of doing a writer’s notebook tour for her students and the photos she showed us of her students’ writer’s notebooks, plastered with photos and other things to make them truly unique to each writer. I also need to remember that writer’s notebooks are an important location of data for me about what my students are understanding and not understanding and what they’re thinking about. I don’t collect writer’s notebooks from students, but I do create opportunities for students and I to peek into them together and talk about what’s there. I need to remember how important this is and continue to do it.
The applied humanities. This comes from Christine Kuster and Katie Miles on Saturday (and Bill McGinley, who was unable to be at NCTE this year). Katie sent along an article to me on this, “Applied Humanities” by Svetlana Nikitina, published in Liberal Education, winter 2009. This may be the framework my colleagues and I need for imagining what we can do with second semester with our seniors. We want them working with words to have an impact on their world–focusing on the particular social issue that they are researching this semester. The humanities, story, emotion, art–these things are so second nature to us that it’s sometimes difficult for us to even see them there. But they must be there. A heavy focus on STEM sometimes seems to eclipse the humanities. This is not a good idea. The humanities help us to understand the human consequences of the things that we pursue through science (or math or engineering or technology). This is what Frankenstein is all about, the ethical boundaries of science. Some scholars are working on how to make the role of the humanities more explicit so students know when they are using those lenses and so teachers can plan for classroom experiences for students to use those lenses. This is really what we are aiming for with our seniors, and the framework may help to to get there more concretely. Dave Eggers said in his keynote that “English teachers are the guardians of empathy.” And we are. We MUST help our students to see very concretely why the work they do in our classes matters toward their meaningful life as human beings.
Jettison what distracts my classroom from the most important stuff. Penny Kittle reminded us to keep focused in our planning first on what’s essential for our students to know/be able to do, then on what’s important, and lastly on what’s nice to know if there’s time for it. The work of a high school ELA classroom is important–students must develop lives as readers and writers able to collaborate with others to solve problems. Why on earth do we ever do anything else in class? I want to look closely at what we’re doing and look for the places where we’re not focused in a meaningful way on this work. I know there are things we just don’t need to be doing in favor of students engaging with text as readers and writers in the most meaningful ways possible. Kelly Gallagher showed us how he presents “seeds” to his students in the form of info graphics, one per day, that they read together, discuss, and then write about. He did this for seven class days in a row. Low stakes writing. Infographics that reflect topics and issues that matter to students. Powerful texts for practicing reading and for them using as a launch pad for writing. I need to do more of this. And get maybe a bit more committed to a daily classroom schedule that makes space for meaningful reading and writing work every single day.
Why read? Kathy Collins presented some powerful research about why reading is so important to us individually and collectively. It’s transformative for individuals who then can contribute more positively to our collective needs. It’s a critical piece of a functioning democracy. This is so clear now with all the angry and often unfounded-in-any-kind-of-reasonable-thinking rhetoric that is flying around everywhere. We’ve got to slow down, think, ask questions, listen to one another, learn about the experiences of others, develop empathy. Reading helps develop all of these things. I can make a better argument to my students about this.
Elementary teachers rock. I attended a few sessions aimed at elementary teachers and I learned so much about concrete ways to help my high school students become better readers. I loved Vicki Vinton’s very simple framework where she asks students what they know about a text and what they wonder about it. The first question teases out what they are able to see, learn, figure out–infer. The second question gets students to explore what is uncertain, what they don’t know, what they want to know more about. As a framework to structure a collective reading experience (as we did in Vicki’s session), it’s beautiful. So simple and uncluttered, yet there we were pointing out very specific bits and pieces of the text and seeing what we could figure out about them, forming questions that drove our reading, and revising our understanding as we read and discussed more of the text. I can see how this could be so helpful to emerging readers in elementary school–and I know it will be incredibly helpful to my adolescent readers. It’s as if we get to high school and assume that they can all do just fine with reading, but really we must remain vigilant. They need to continue this sort of reading work to become stronger and stronger readers.
Stop grading. I attended a couple of sessions about grading, managing the paper load, etc. And both were PACKED with people, pretty much standing room only. People are hungry for strategies to do less “grading” because it is the one thing that sucks up our very life as ELA teachers. And I cannot tell you how many times I heard presenters say, “I’d love to just not have to deal with grades at all but my school requires me to put grades in the gradebook.” So does mine. But I don’t do it anymore. At least not in a traditional sense. Points, letter grades, rubrics that spell out every little possible contingency for a student’s performance on a task… we really can stop all of this. In fact, we must. It’s better for our students and better for us. They are readers, writers, human beings, not point collectors. But as long as we still throw points at them, they will continue asking, “how many points is this?” rather than, “can you read this and see if my ideas are coming across clearly?” I haven’t put a grade on a paper for almost two years now (trying to catch up with Nancie Atwell’s forty years with no grades on papers, as Kelly Gallagher told us on Saturday). We can look at this differently. (Click here to read some of my thinking about this in the blog from the last two years.)
Love. Susan MacKay told us about her third grade student Angelina who said, “I figured out what belongs in the middle. It’s love.” This is beautiful. So simple and so true, yet love so often seems to be at the center of the business of school. Ernest Morrell reminded us that we are engaged in a war with media for the “lives and souls of our babies”–a media, he explained, that broadcasts constant messages about what it means to be cool, what it means to be beautiful, what it means to be smart, and who gets to do math, for example. Hence, he called to us to commit to teaching them how to read those media messages critically. And in his call I see an example of love in the middle–for “our babies” and their very souls. Kathy Collins asked us to have an appreciative view of the children in our classrooms, to work to know them as the individuals that they are, to be able to serve up invitations to them as readers and writers that are as unique as they each are. Colleen Cruz reminded us how important it is to find the positive in every single student so we may cultivate healthy relationships with them so they feel safe and valued in our classrooms. I could go on–calls to put love at the center of the work we do came up again and again. Love belongs in the middle of all of it.
And with that, I feel like I can close my notebook (for now), the most important strands in my thinking downloaded here to this blog post. I’ll work to get through the school work that followed me on break in the next two days–then enjoy Thanksgiving, then get to some writing I want to accomplish this week.
I’ll close with gratitude. Thank you, NCTE15. I’ve also decided to do less Facebook and more Twitter (even removed Facebook from my phone toward this goal) so I can keep in better touch with all of you in the months ahead.
I’m so glad I made the trip to Minneapolis–and I’ll see you next year.
Warning: I’m reflecting over my day/working on my day 3 blog post. There will be a few tweets here in the next few minutes. #NCTE15 — Sarah M. Zerwin (@SarahMZerwin) November 22, 2015
(On the way to dinner tonight–in my first ever Uber car–Tracy and Julia and I discussed the formatting of this blog post. Today (day 2, day 1) I wanted to focus on things tweetable because I knew that my schedule included some people who say lots of things that are tweetable. So should I compile actual Tweets for this, mine and others? Or should I just write in the style of tweeting? I opted for the actual tweets because it’s their location in the midst of the Twittersphere that makes them so powerful. I began by collecting tweets from people I knew were tweeting in the same sessions I went to and then tweeting out more tidbits from my notes. Jay might mark me partially proficient in tweeting today because I did not tweet live in the sessions themselves, but I know that interacting with my phone distracts my attention more than taking notes in my writer’s notebook. Hence the tweets came all at once at the end of the day rather than while the sessions were actually going on. My apologies if I ended up bombing your Twitter feed.)
(Me too, Kelly Gallagher. Me too. First year in 10 years that I have 9th grade. And though they pulled off whole-class productions of Romeo and Juliet last week, I’m just not yet seeing the community that I want to see in both of my freshman classes. They aren’t yet in the mindset that they are all in it together as readers, as writers, as human beings.)
(The day’s first session was G.01, “Becoming Critical Educators: Responsibly Navigating Creativity and Critical Commitments in Early Career Praxis.” Four of my former methods students–Chelsea Hernandez, Kaela Lind, Greg Payne, and Hannah Tegt presented with their former instructor/now professor, Michael Dominguez. The young teachers told powerful stories about their first years teaching. And they showed us “In Lak’ech.”)
(Then it was off to H.15, “Expert to Expert on the Joy and Power of Reading: A Panel Discussion” with Kwame Alexander, Pam Allyn, and Ernest Morrell and moderated by Kylene Beers.)
“When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.” @KyleneBeers#NCTE15
(Next was L.19, “Drop That Red Pen and Enjoy Teaching Writing: How Doing Less Work Will Make Your Students Better Writers” with Christine Pacyk and Laura Wagner from Wheeling High School outside of Chicago).
(This session was very interesting to me. The room was PACKED–clearly people are wanting to find alternatives to business as usual with grading. It seemed that in this session, the term grading referred both to the act of getting through a stack–or mountain–of student writing AND affixing a grade on each piece of writing. These are not the same thing. One is just the act of doing the work, as in, “UGH! I have too many papers to grade!” and the other is evaluating said work, as in, “This one gets an A-.” There seemed to be an assumption that the end game for all the suggestions they were giving was to end up with a letter on each piece of writing, whether that happened through a grading competition of through student self-grading. I’d like to shift that conversation to whether or not we need put a letter grade–or points or whatever–on anything at all. I don’t think we have to or should.)
Laura Wagner asks “is our job to teach them how to write? Or is it our job to grade?” #NCTE15 — Tracy Brennan (@TracyBrennan15) November 21, 2015
(Anticipating that we might encounter standing room only in the next session we wanted to see, we left a few minutes early to head back to Auditorium 1 for “The Art of Teaching: Crafting Classrooms that Inspire” with Penny Kittle, Kelly Gallagher, and Donna Santman.)
“We want our students to be independent and empowered readers, writers, listeners, and speakers in the world.” @pennykittle#NCTE15 — Sarah M. Zerwin (@SarahMZerwin) November 22, 2015
“It’s only when we interrupt and lift our eyes off the page that sentences of response begin to happen.” @dsantman#NCTE15 — Sarah M. Zerwin (@SarahMZerwin) November 22, 2015
(Who else noticed that while Donna was talking, both Penny and Kelly were madly taking notes in their writer’s notebooks? That tells me I need to seek out more of Donna’s work!)
(Dinner break at Travail Kitchen and Amusements. We were one vegetarian, one person allergic to shellfish, and one person who avoids dairy, gluten, and soy. This kind of thing is normal where we come from–and the restaurant did an amazing job accommodating our food issues. The meal was AMAZING! And we made it back to the convention center in time to see Dave Eggers.)
“English teachers are the guardians of empathy.” Dave Eggers #NCTE15 — Sarah M. Zerwin (@SarahMZerwin) November 22, 2015
Dave Eggers to the ASL interpreter: “Is there a sign for Morrissey?” #NCTE15 — Sarah M. Zerwin (@SarahMZerwin) November 22, 2015
(Eggers left us with some thoughts about writing that I sorely need right now. I’ve got a big writing project in the works. And as excited as I am about it, I’m also nervous and worried and wondering how I’ll pull it off. There are days the writing feels like slogging. And there are days I’m plagued with feelings of inadequacy and a nagging fear that I’m just an imposter at all of this. Eggers’s bits here about writing will keep me going through that). (and full disclosure–that blog link I just put in goes to my husband’s blog)
“Writing is not always fun, as you know. But you get there one way or another.” Dave Eggers #NCTE15 — Sarah M. Zerwin (@SarahMZerwin) November 22, 2015
“It’s often more pleasurable to have written than to write.” Dave Eggers #NCTE15 — Sarah M. Zerwin (@SarahMZerwin) November 22, 2015
Tomorrow afternoon we go back to Colorado. But before I get on the plane (if I can), I’ll write my last post: my top 10 (or maybe more or less) takeaways from NCTE 2015. Maybe it will be interesting for you to read. But more importantly, it will help me to write it. The things swirling, swirling, swirling in my thinking due to the conversations and presentations over the last few days–I hope to settle them and focus them with some writing.
I took 16 pages of notes today. Four sessions. Four awesome sessions. But first, a bit of a flashback to yesterday:
So Jay and I have attended this conference together for four years in a row, bringing various colleagues with us each year. It’s odd not having him here with us this year, but due to the wonders of Twitter, he’s participating in his natural way, which is giving us a hard time whenever he can. When I tweeted back at him that there are things he misses (like selfies with Taylor Mali) when he chooses not to attend NCTE, his response was “Whatever. Bet I can still out tweet you w/out being there.” He’s probably right. I’ve always been only partially proficient in Twitter (according to Jay at least).
So we’re missing the other Paper Graders, but Jay’s student teacher is here, as well as a few of my former methods students from CU, and we’re surrounded by Colorado colleagues. In fact, this afternoon we sat at the tables outside of the UPS office and collected them as they walked by.
We started the day at the fitness center.
It was mighty difficult to get up in time to do this today. I was up late last night blogging. But I’m so glad that we made it to the fitness center. Forty minutes of fast walking with the treadmill on incline (trying to simulate the hills Tracy and I hike on back home) and a few minutes of yoga stretching and we were ready to go.
I had about five sessions identified for each time slot today that I wanted to go to, so over oatmeal at Starbucks this morning, we each narrowed it down.
I started my day with A.19, “Connecting, Constructing, and Disrupting Digital Writing and Literacies Across the Content Areas” with Liz Homan, Kellyanne Mahoney, and Catherine O;Flaherty. Liz is my former high school student, and she was on the program to present with two teachers she’s worked with in Boston. But Liz is 38 weeks pregnant and can’t travel, so she was there on Google Chat–which was working at first but eventually the internet just didn’t cooperate and her voice disappeared.
Even though I didn’t get the chance to put my face in the camera so she could see I was there before the internet failed, it was great to see the work she’s doing with technology and to hear from the two talented teachers there. Liz’s work reminds us that we should work beyond facilitative digital technologies in the classroom toward integrative uses of digital technologies. Yes, technology can help us to more efficiently facilitate our classrooms–efficiencies in organizing and delivering content to students. Think Schoology. Think using PowerPoint to organize lecture materials. These things are powerful and can help us to work smarter. But if we only stop there, the bright wall where the projector brings up our computer screens for all of our students to see is merely a high-tech chalkboard. Integrative digital technologies ask us for more. They transform the curriculum. They support inquiry-based learning. They put tech tools in the hands of students, so they have the content in their hands, on their devices, and the projector and the big screen bring THEIR work to the center of the classroom. I couldn’t teach without a projector. But how often do I use it to bring student work front and center? Not frequently enough. I need to work on this.
Innovation in this area, according to Liz’s slides that the teachers walked us through after the Google Chat died and we didn’t have Liz in the room anymore, requires:
rethinking what it means to “do ELA”
transformation of pedagogy first, technology second, or both simultaneously
district and school leadership that supports a dialogue around this work
job-embedded, collaborative professional development for teachers
My next session was B.18, “Embracing Trouble: Problem Solving and Responsive Teaching in the Reading and Writing Classroom” with Colleen Cruz, Barbara Golub, and Jennifer Serravallo.
It quickly became clear that I had entered the realm of a few elementary rock stars. The only space left was a square of floor space near the front, and I heard people around me saying things like, “can you believe they scheduled these presenters in such a small room?” This happens at NCTE.
But seriously, we high school teachers have a lot to learn from our elementary colleagues. I’m so glad I went to this session. Cruz offered her “writing workshop problem solving protocol” and took us through a think/talk exercise that really helped me to tease out some issues surrounding one of my biggest “problems” in my classroom right now–I want to find a way to spend less time somehow working outside of the school day. I don’t have one of those jobs where I can just leave at the end of the day and go home and not work. I have to do some work beyond the school day and I don’t mind, but what I don’t want to do anymore is give over most of every weekend and most of every week night. I know that some clever thinking about this can help me find ways to work more efficiently and to get students doing more in ways that are really meaningful to them as writers and as members of our classroom community.
Barb Golub challenged us to recast apparent problems in our classroom as opportunities, as goals, as different questions that challenge us to see things differently. She asked us to think about how the things we see as problems just don’t have to be problems. Yes, so much of how we perceive problems in our classroom is all about how we choose to look at it. I can work on this more. And Jennifer Serravallo was so smart about how to establish goals for readers. She showed how she collects meaningful data on her students as readers from her daily classroom practices. The data then help her to really know her students as readers so she can establish appropriate goals for them and tie all feedback to those individualized goals. I loved this. I don’t know that it would be manageable for me to use her approach to establish goals myself for the 150 students I have BUT I’m already having them choose their own goals from the CCSS. Serravallo’s presentation made me wonder if I could do more to help them choose those goals. How do they know which goals they need to work on? I could help them figure that out with some clever data collection and analysis that they could do on themselves as readers and writers. I really want to work on this. And I realized I really need to work on my record keeping of the instructional conversations I have with students in conferences. I’m usually moving so fast as I conference that I don’t pause to take notes as often as I should, but I really need to do more of this.
Next was C.44, “Feeling the Burn(out): How Non-traditional Writing Response Leads to Healthy Teachers and Students” with Jill Dahlman, Patricia Eagan, Tia Macklin, and Stacy Wittstock. They’re all college composition instructors, but the room was packed with what seemed to be middle and high school teachers. We’re all in this together, people. I was VERY interested in this session as I’m doing a lot of work in my own classroom to focus on feedback rather than traditional response involving rubrics, grades, and points. There was lots to think about in this session. Stacy Wittstock talked about how she uses collaborative peer review to help manage the task of giving feedback. She asked us to think about peer review not because it might lessen our load for responding and conferencing but rather that it can cast students in more active roles with their writing, to give them more agency as writers. As they work with each other on their writing and have conversations with each other, they get better at talking about writing, better at identifying what help they need, and better at then talking with the instructor when the time comes. I learned there’s an acronym for the pedagogy she builds toward in her classroom: CPRR (collaborative peer review and revision). She gave some concrete suggestions for how to make it successful: you must teach students how to do this with clear guidelines and modeling. There needs to be some form of accountability for them to do a great job providing feedback. The approach requires patience from teachers and students. The teacher must show genuine investment in the process. And the work they do in peer feedback must be tied clearly to the overall course goals. Ultimately she argued that pedagogy anchored on CPRR is more sustainable because it frees up the teacher to focus on teaching writers rather than on fixing individual pieces of writing. I like this stance–it makes sense. She also indicated a goal of making the feedback dialogic. I like this stance too, and I’m heading in that direction in my classroom but could get more focused on it.
Most of the panelists in this session use screencast software to record verbal feedback for students. I’ve done this before, for summative evaluation of student portfolios in my secondary English methods course a couple of years ago. Tia Macklin had some interesting survey data about this practice–that students prefer this kind of feedback generally over all others and that they often would review the feedback videos on their work again and again as they worked on revision. She also asked them to write her a summary of her screencast feedback so she could see what they understood from it. Great idea too.
Perhaps most intriguing was Jill Dahlman’s approach: grading conferences. When students are finished with a piece of writing and ready for a grade, she has a 30-minute conference with each one. In the conference, she reads the piece of writing to the student, pausing frequently to provide verbal feedback. At the end of this, the student goes through the rubric and determines a grade for the piece of writing in the presence of the instructor who can then engage the student in conversation about this if the student seems to be missing something or not paying careful enough attention to what the paper really shows s/he knows and can do. This is intriguing. No papers to take home and read outside of school. No prior work before the grade meeting. Great opportunity for conversation and instruction, one-on-one. Puts the student in the driver’s seat in evaluating their own writing. I love all of this. But HOW might I draw on this for my case load of students? Having these kinds of grade conferences with all of my students isn’t even possible in the time I have with them unless we pretty much did nothing but these kinds of conferences in class.
That’s something to think about. I can’t of course do nothing but grade conferences every day, but this does take me back to what fellow Paper Grader Paul has asked countless times: why again do we do anything else besides workshop? I’m still trying to jettison everything that doesn’t serve the ultimate goals of students as engaged readers and writers, in control of their own work/thinking. Dahlman ended her talk with “go meet with your students. Put down that pen!!!” I love this. And it challenges me to think about how I can do more of this. I DO have individual conversations with my students, but lately it’s been mostly with students who are behind and we focus our conversation on how to get them caught up. That’s important. But I need to make more space for those conversations that move writers.
And that was a lot for me to think about. I wanted to sit and process and write and get started on this blog post (and eat some lunch), so we found a place to set up shop for a bit. But that’s when we started collecting Colorado colleagues as they walked by where we were sitting. Before long we had amassed seven Colorado teachers altogether. One was Julia, whom we rescued from the daze she was in due to the hunting/gathering expedition she had just braved in the exhibit hall. She set up a photo of her finds and of course we had to help make sure the background of the photo wasn’t boring.
And I didn’t get any writing done. But the conversation we shared about the sessions we had been to and what we learned from them helped me to zero in on my takeaways for the day.
Speaking of my takeaways for the day, the last session I attended was E.42, “The Rhetoric of Responsibility: Teaching Human Rights as the Embodiment of Personal Responsibility” with Christine Kuster and Katie Miles. Bill McGinley–my PhD adviser–was also on the schedule to present with them but was unable to make the trip. But they did a great job. Christine presented some of the theory that Katie’s pedagogy works to enact and Katie told us about a couple of different projects from her classroom. Christine reminded us why we need the humanities–we need to teach empathy (more important now than ever based on all the debate I’m seeing in Facebook about the Syrian refugee crisis) and we need to remember why we need story. Story prioritizes human feeling as a way of knowing each other, ourselves, and the world. It is in the realm of the qualitative, the experimental, the emotional, the historical, the empathetic, and the imaginative. We need story to help us see beyond the given, to avoid portraying reality as just one possibility, to avoid the tyranny of the single story. These concepts underpinned my dissertation work in so many ways, and it was great to be immersed in them again, reminded of why we need literature and art anyway.
Katie also presented a framework for enacting applied humanities in the classroom, a way to think about the kind of inquiry-based, social justice work my colleagues and I have been imagining for our seniors next semester. I’m excited to share this framework with them to see how it colors our planning and thinking about next semester:
Working within classroom experiences structured on these tenets, Katie’s students were able to articulate some powerful learning:
you can learn by just feeling
even in evil, there is almost always some good
others have stories that connect with your stories
we embody different characters every day
we are not limited to one story
Yes! This is the work I want my students to be doing, and this framework for applied humanities may be a really powerful lens to help me get them there.
After four sessions and sixteen pages of notes, these are my main takeaways from today:
I need to create space for more dialogue in my classroom, particularly surrounding students’ writing.
I need to get better with my records on reading/writing conferences with students.
I want to help my students collect meaningful data on themselves as readers/writers and then use it to build powerful goals for their work.
I must shift the focus in my classroom from me as the primary feedback giver in the classroom to more of a community approach to this–not because it will make it possible for me to spend less time outside of class responding to student writing but because it will give my students more ownership and agency as writers.
I will share with my colleagues the applied humanities framework to see how it might hone our thinking about next semester with our seniors.
A great second day at NCTE 2015, even if we’re still not sure what to think of the Skyway.
It’s the week before Thanksgiving break, and that must mean that it’s almost time for NCTE.
The weather report for Minneapolis shows the daytime temperatures are dropping by about 20 degrees just in time for us to all be there for a few days. I guess that means I’ll need my heavy winter coat and that I’ll be grateful for the Skyway since our hotel is about seven blocks from the convention center (is it kind of like a human hamster track? I’m oddly excited about the Skyway). We’re still heavy into sunshiny fall days (crisp air, warm sun) here in Boulder. The blizzard that hit Denver and areas south and east this week completely ignored us. So I’m bracing myself for the midwest cold I’ll see tomorrow.
We’re not presenting this year. We wanted to talk about the obstacles to workshop teaching in high school and how we’re navigating them–same presentation basically that we ended up doing at our state conference this year. It’s really fine that our presentation proposal wasn’t accepted–can’t expect to end up on the program every year. And to be honest, I’m looking forward to just focusing on learning and connecting without the added stress of presenting. I’ve already got my conference schedule packed with presentations I want to attend–the hardest part will be deciding which presentation to go to for each session.
My lesson plans for my substitute teacher for the next two days are stacked neatly on my desk at school, safe under the lobster paperweight (one of my favorite student gifts ever, right up there with the Death Star shaped tea infuser). My bag is packed. I’ve got my writer’s notebook and my favorite pen ready to take notes. I pulled the warm winter coat out of the hall closet. I’ve figured out how to use the light rail to get from the airport to the hotel tomorrow. There are plans to dine this weekend with Colorado colleagues I don’t have enough time to see ever in the midst of the school year. My alarm is set for 5am so I can be ready at 6:15am for my ride to the bus to the airport. In my wallet–exact change for the bus here and the light rail there, my driver’s license, my credit card. Water bottle, a few snack bars, some Chocolove 65% dark, warm hat, favorite scarf, gloves. Various devices are charging on the kitchen counter, ready to be squirreled away in the morning. I think I’m ready.
I’m looking forward to being in the company of a few thousand colleagues.
In my head I’ve started many blog posts over the last several weeks.
There was this blog post idea:
This article claims (based on research) that kids who use computers in school daily have lower test scores. But it doesn’t say anything about HOW kids were asked to use computers in these schools. And it doesn’t ask IF we want to hang all of our success on standardized test scores (we don’t). I know that the collaborative power of the google apps in general and the many aspects of google docs (collaboration, revision history, suggesting mode…) make for the most powerful tools I’ve ever had for teaching writing. I want my students to have access to them every single day. But we have three sets of computers to share among 17 teachers in our department. I can’t have computers in front of my students every day.
But I certainly spend a lot of time pushing carts of chromebooks around…
And there was this blog post idea:
Workshop has uncorked something in my classroom. I’ve dedicated myself to two things this year: the daily workshop time structure (focus lesson, significant work time, sharing/debrief) and using a portfolio to organize students’ work as they all take their individual paths to get meet general portfolio guidelines (three thoroughly revised pieces–narrative, informational, argumentative–one research based, one over five pages, and one based on a book). And these things have gotten me successfully out of my students’ way.
In the pile of first pieces (of 4 or 5) that my students are submitting this semester to me for feedback, I had:
a few chapters of a fantasy book about a school in Utah where young people who can actually turn into owls go to learn how to control their power.
a personal narrative about the field of neuroethics, something I’ve never even heard of.
an analysis of Chris McCandless, using evidence from Into the Wild and information about mental illness to make the argument the was schizophrenic.
an extensive research paper on mental illness that is growing into something even more extensive as the semester goes on.
a list of the best horror movies ever made, each with a thorough analytic description (Halloween was number one on the list, and I agree).
a fictional story about a man visiting his elderly mother in a memory care facility–the man asks his mother to tell him about her son in the hopes that she will recognize her son sitting right before her. She does not. (this from a student whose grandparent is dealing with Alzheimer’s disease)
the beginning of a science fiction story about a man who must get himself into orbit before the apocalypse, so he can be one of a few who will keep the human race alive.
I could not have provided a specific, directed writing assignment that would have yielded any of these awesome pieces of writing…
But neither of these got written.
And parent/teacher conferences two nights in a row until 8:30pm.
And a book proposal I’m working on.
And busy weekends (I’m a soccer mom and it’s soccer season, there was a funeral last weekend, there have been some family birthday parties, and nice people have had us over for dinner because we’re in the middle of a kitchen remodel).
And a field trip with my newspaper students.
And three talks/presentations in one week.
And yoga/hiking/walking/running to keep my energy up for all of this.
And the reading I do because I’m asking my students to read more too.
And the extra time I’m spending planning this year because of a new prep (yay freshmen! I love them!) and being more oriented on workshop.
And homecoming week.
And a 50th anniversary celebration at the high school where I went to school.
And sleep. (I’m not doing the best on that, but I’m trying.)
It’s just a lot and there are times where I feel like I can barely keep it all going–
so the blog posts exist only in my head where no one else can read them.
Until I find a few moments to utter something. Like this. (Thanks for sticking with me on this.)
(which is actually procrastination over the student writing I need to be reading and responding to. So I’ll go do that now.)
As Dr. Z posted a while back, we have been experimenting with Schoology. Overall I have to say I really like it.
This week I have been tweaking how I ask kids to respond in the discussion platform. I like Schoology’s platform, it makes it really easy for me to monitor the discussion and I can follow along without much extra effort. However, I run into the same problem that many others do, which is that the online discussion becomes
…over-cultivated factory farms, in which nothing unexpected or original is permitted to flourish. Students post because they have to, not because they enjoy doing so. And teachers respond (if they respond at all) because they too have become complacent to the bizarre rules that govern the forum.
So, a great description of what happens that we DON’T want to happen. The passage is from a post by a grad school colleague of mine (Jesse Stommel, who along with others, writes about pedagogy from the University perspective at hybridpedagogy.com). I really liked how they continued the ‘farming’ metaphor:
With the right teacher and engaged students, discussion in the classroom includes carefully cultivated spontaneity, more akin to an organic garden. Online discussion forums require the same careful attention and engagement, the same understanding of when to train and prune and when to allow things to take their own course, flourish in their own way, on their own time. And in order for that to happen, the technology must make room for that spontaneity.
‘Organinc garden’ is exactly what we are hoping for, in class and out. And I really like the ‘cultivation’ part of the metaphor.
As I play with the Schoology platform, I find that it has made it easier for me to ‘cultivate’ this particular garden.
The social media style ‘like’ button is a useful way for me to respond quickly, and the threaded discussion format allows me to jump in at any point in the conversation. Because it is easy, I find my self doing so more regularly.
I also made a change to my students instructions for discussion posts. They always have a prompt, and some reading, to which they are required to respond. And while their responses are sometime insightful, they do often have the perfunctory tone described above.
This week, in addition to reading and them posting, I required them to also respond to a colleague’s post. Suddenly there was an explosion of dialogue. People responded in unexpected ways, and as the conversation developed, new posts were clearly informed by the earlier conversation, instead of existing in their own hermetically sealed (manufactured) container.
Was it perfect? Of course not. But it gave me a clue about direction. And, it improved my ability to coach the students in the skills of dialogue, which is something they need to be taught (it doesn’t magically appear, strangely). So I’ll be working on ‘cultivating’ in this arena as we move through the course.
This video was posted by a teacher friend this week. It’s Japanese (by Takuya Okada, from 2011, judging by the youtube channel), and from a bit of peripheral reading I picked up that it was inspired by conversations in Japan around the connection between inordinate pressure to succeed in school and the high suicide rate among Japanese school children. A light topic for Saturday morning. But a really interesting video statement on the subject.
As it happens, I teach an interdisciplinary class for honors students where a bit of media like this might make for a good conversation. I really had no idea how they would respond. I was happy to discover that they actually found it quite alien. As we discussed it they did draw some connection to the level of stress they sometimes feel as high performing students, but other aspects, such as the way students were depicted as being unable to speak, did not resonate with them at all. We had quite a conversation about how to interpret the end of the film. Is it positive? Not so much? Leave a comment below if you want to weigh in, and I’ll take your thoughts back to my students.
As much as we may feel our system doesn’t meet the needs of our students, this film did show me that it could be worse. The system depicted in the film is devoid of, and uninterested in, creativity and exploration.
We (at The Papergraders) are fortunate. We operate with a great degree of autonomy and encouragement to innovate. There is a lot of conversation in our building about how to teach creativity and critical thinking. I didn’t think twice about showing this film as a discussion starter in class. I know others are not so lucky. The truth is that the driving factor in our freedom is socio-economic status, but I’m grateful to have that luxury. The fact that not every school and teacher has the freedoms we do is one of the things that keeps us fired up. And keeps us writing.