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
You should check out the website that Liz and the teachers put together for this session.
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.