Unpacking focused, engaged silence, and how not grading made space for it #StopGrading

A palpable silence descended in room 811.

Three classes in a row the silence fell, at the same moment in my plan for that day.

It wasn’t a silent reading silence, or a working on a writing task silence, or a we’re-tired-and-don’t-want-to-say-anything silence. This silence had a heartbeat. It pulsed. It was alive.

I dared not breathe; I dared not disturb my students.

For high school seniors less than three weeks from graduation, I expect exasperated looks from my students that seem to say, “we’re almost done with high school–do you really need us to do this?” I expect complaints. I expect from them noisy, excited energy, tinged with uncertainty about the next steps in their lives and sadness that they may not ever admit about high school ending.

But I did not expect such intense, quiet focus.

I sat down and watched. Heads bent over Chromebooks, eyes perusing the words there, fingers tapping the up/down arrows or dragging slowly on the track pad to scroll. Sucked in. Entranced. Completely, totally engaged. Every. Single. Student.

How did we get here? And more importantly, how can I replicate this again and again? I’m not saying I want a silent classroom. Engaged teenagers are usually noisy and that’s what I want. But when we are working silently, I want it to be like this moment was.

The focused silence from that day was a surprise based on the late point in the school year, but I also know it was so surprising because it was a quality of focus that I’d not seen from my students at any point in the school year. They have gotten some good, focused work done throughout the year, but there was a different character about this one moment and the intensity of the focus that I wanted to understand.

That day was near the beginning of our end-of-year culminating activities. The whole school year for this class is essentially a study in reading and writing explicit and implicit texts. In first semester, we spend more time in the realm of texts that inform and argue explicitly (nonfiction texts to read and magazine-style feature writing to practice) and shift to the world of texts that argue implicitly second semester. We read artistic texts–novels, poetry… and discussed how they worked to communicate meaning implicitly. We wrote our own artistic texts. We practiced writing arguments to explicate what those implicit texts were doing. The culmination of all of this was a multigenre paper that works to say something implicitly about the forces that compel humans to do what they do, plus writing an interpretive analysis of a multigenre paper, plus a presentation to the class about that analysis.

I know these are worthy, meaningful tasks. But that alone is not what brought the silent focus onto my classroom that day. I’ve learned something with this about shifting the main audience for the work they do in my classroom away from me, away from the teacher.

In the past when I’ve thought about having a meaningful audience for my students’ writing, I assumed that I would have to find some audience outside of my classroom for my students to share their work. At the end of first semester, we published all of their feature pieces in a blog space. Instant audience besides the teacher, right? Well yes, but it’s an unknown, distant audience. And it’s an audience that isn’t really there unless you do some social media marketing to direct readers to the work. So it wasn’t an audience that brought immediate relevance to their work magically like I hoped it would.

I wasn’t really thinking about the audience issue when my colleagues and I decided we would ask students to write interpretive analyses of another student’s multigenre paper. We were thinking that it would honor each person’s multigenre paper by giving it one reader who would examine every word of it, that it would make the analysis work maybe a bit more relevant and meaningful because the author whose work each student was trying to figure out was sitting across the room.

We were also thinking about how this would keep us, the teachers, from having to spend hours going through lengthy multigenre papers, checking things off on a rubric, leaving extensive feedback.

I did read the multigenre papers, but I read for the purposes of figuring out which other student I would assign each one to. I didn’t leave lengthy feedback because I knew they would get a detailed response from this other student. I didn’t check things off on a rubric because I asked them to do that themselves as they were working on the paper. I didn’t evaluate the quality of their work because they did that alongside completing the rubric–they knew which parts of their multigenre papers they rocked, which ones needed more work, and which ones they left out entirely. When there’s no high-stakes grade attached to this student evaluation, they are incredibly honest.

I could approach these papers in this way because the end purpose wasn’t for a grade in the grade book. It wasn’t to earn points on a rubric.

The purpose of the multigenre paper was for each student to work to communicate what they’ve learned this semester about what they think drives humans to do what they do and to express that in a piece of writing that another student would read, interpret, and write about.

And those–I think–are the ingredients of the focused silence that descended on my classroom that day: meaningful work done for a meaningful purpose with an audience (beyond the teacher) they know and can see and interact with.

When that silence fell, I had just revealed to my students who would be reading and analyzing each multigenre paper and showed them the google doc on the class website that spelled this all out. So in that silence, they were reading the multigenre paper they had each been assigned. On the big screen at the front of the room, I projected a few questions to guide their thinking as they read (they were same questions we have used to think about the novels and other artistic texts we have studied over the course of the semester):

  1. What implicit argument is the text making?
  2. Which pieces of the text work to make that implicit argument?
  3. How does the text make its argument?
  4. Is it true? Is the text’s argument a true statement about the human experience? What is the text asking of you as a human being? How does it change you?

Other than inviting them to get out their writer’s notebooks and capture some thoughts in response to those questions–important prewriting for the interpretive analyses they were going to write next–I kept quiet and didn’t disturb them. What I was witnessing was a real, immediate audience exploring classroom writing that had just been completed (due date the day before). I was witnessing students becoming familiar with the texts they would be writing to interpret next, texts that mattered to them because the author wasn’t a disembodied name on the cover of the book; the author sat across the room from them.

In the days that followed, I have worked to continue using the humans in the room as an immediate audience, and to make sure that each task I ask of students is somehow meaningfully driving them toward the next task.

  • The interpretive analyses they wrote–I asked them to color code their intended thesis and where they were making claims, supporting the claims with data, and warranting their data back to their claims. I looked over this color coding and left each student a short note about how convinced I was by the color coding that they know and understand how to use claims/data/warranting effectively. This took me about 30 to 45 minutes per class rather than the hours it would have taken me if I had gone over each paper with a fine toothed comb.
  • My brief feedback was the launching point for the next task I gave them–with their group of 3 or 4 students they sit with each day, to look at each other’s interpretive arguments and work together to pull out each person’s thesis and ONE claim/data/warrant paragraph to put on a shared google doc and make sure the color coding shows that each student in the group knows how to use claim/data/warrant effectively in an interpretive analysis.
  • I have looked over those shared google docs and used my fine-toothed comb with feedback. I’m looking to make sure the thesis statements and claims are actually debatable. That the data provided does indeed support the claim. That the warrant effectively explains how the data supports the claim AND connects the whole paragraph back to the overall argument outlined in the thesis. My feedback comments point out places where it doesn’t seem these things are happening and asks the groups to work together to revise each paragraph until I’m satisfied that they all have a solid understanding of these critical pieces of argument. So they all have to keep working together on this until they all get there. I’ve had some fantastic conversations with students about their writing as they’ve worked on this, and I’ve seen them talking with each other about strengthening claims, about using strong data, about developing warrants more fully. The more they talk as they work, the more they learn. (You can see an example of the group task here.)
  • This group task has a more important purpose though–beyond being one last opportunity for me to enter into instructional conversations with students about a key piece of the class’s curriculum and to assess their levels of mastery, this task gets each student familiar with the interpretations that the other people in the group have made about the multigenre papers they each read. This is important for the final group presentation task that students are currently working on.
  • In the final presentation task, those same groups of students will share with the class the interpretations they made about the multigenre papers that they each read. They will show us snippets from the papers and tell us what they think we all can learn from them about what drives humans to do what they do. And the authors of the mulitgenre papers will also get a chance to respond: what surprised them about the interpretations their classmates made? what did they say that lined up with their original intentions? what more do they want the class to know about what they were working to say with their multigenre papers? Presentations start Friday. I’m anxious to see what kinds of discussions students’ presentations inspire.

In my previous classroom world I never would have considered making my students’ writing a key component of the work that they could do together or making the students of my class the primary audience for their writing. In that previous classroom world, I put grades and points on everything. I felt like I was obligated to read and respond to every word my students wrote with an evaluation on a rubric. I spent hours upon hours outside of class figuring out and justifying a rubric-based score for each and every paper–and thereby only assigned as much writing to students as I could fit into my life in order to respond in that way. My students wrote for me, the teacher, and the work was not as meaningful for them as it could be. In that previous classroom world, how I’ve finished up this semester would have been unthinkable in so many ways. I, the teacher, was supposed evaluate everything. They, the students, could not be privy to each other’s evaluations because their papers ended up with grades, with scores, with high stakes attached to them.

Remove the grades, remove those high stakes, and what you have left is a group of human beings learning together and helping each other in the process (more about my gradeless classroom here). There’s no reason why they cannot see and respond to each other’s work at all stages of the process. There’s no reason why I can’t use the members of the class as a close, relevant, meaningful audience for the writing individual students do. I’ve seen in the last few weeks how this audience feels real and relevant to them. I’ve seen how working with and on each other’s writing has invited them to focus in ways I’ve not seen before. I’ve heard them striving to honor their classmates’ writing as they write to interpret it, to find the strengths, to take seriously the ideas their peers have put on the table through their words. This has been the case for the multigenre papers of my most capable writers and my most struggling writers. It didn’t matter–the student assigned to read their work took them seriously as writers.

So in the end, my students are doing some significant writing as a culmination of our year together. Multigenre papers. Interpretive analyses. Group presentations. I could have had them each simply present their own mulitgenre paper in a solo presentation. I could have collected and scored those interpretive analyses for no purpose beyond a score in the gradebook. But instead, each task became a precursor for the next task, tasks that students had to work together on in order to complete. And in the process, students are getting extensive response and feedback–and not solely from me.

My classroom looks like a community of humans who read and respond to and work with each other’s writing. Yes, I’ve spent some time reading and responding to their work outside of school, but it’s only a handful of hours rather than the many hours I used to spend on these end-of-semester writing tasks in my classroom before I moved away from grades (see my post here about how long it took me to grade three class sets of persuasive research papers back in 2011). My responding takes less time because my purpose has shifted. I read their multigenre papers to figure out who in class should be assigned to read and interpret each one. I read their interpretive arguments to see how well the color coding they did convinced me that they understand the claim/data/warrant pieces of argument and to reflect that back to them in order to set them up for the next task they would do with their group with those papers. These purposes take far less time than if I were reading to evaluate and justify scores on a rubric.

My takeaway here? More of this. More meaningful, relevant tasks for students to do with each other’s writing that provide feedback and response in the process of completing those tasks. More engaging the class as an immediate audience for their writing, an audience that matters to them. More of me being the coordinator and facilitator of the work my students do with each other rather than the end point, the reason they write, the evaluator of their learner, the giver of the grades.

And if I focus on this, perhaps I will end up with more moments where that intense, focused silence descends on my classroom, and I dare not disturb their work.





This entry was posted in #StopGrading, community, feedback, grading, motivating students, not grading, teaching writing, workshop teaching. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Unpacking focused, engaged silence, and how not grading made space for it #StopGrading

  1. Pierre Lourens says:

    What an inspiring and motivating blog entry. I was reading from my Essential Don Murray the other day, and it struck me how many times that he emphasizes, across multiple essays, that the text of a composition course is student-created and student-centered. That means more than choice-based prompts or meeting writers where they are; it means meaningful, authentic purposes and *actual* audiences, like peers.

  2. MAK says:

    I have seen that same focused work in my classroom as well – when students were reading and critiquing each other’s work. It’s truly beautiful.

    • Sarah M. Zerwin says:

      Yep–I need to do more of this. It works to get students focused! Thanks for reading, Molly!

  3. Incredible, Sarah! How do you go about creating this culture from the start of the year? Itvis interesting because I have experienced that focused, engaged silence before, and it is very different than other silence. Love this.

    • Sarah M. Zerwin says:

      Thanks for reading, Dean. Students start early in the year reading each other’s work so they can get used to it, but only after some community building, small group conversation opportunities, and working to organize them into response groups with people they are comfortable with. They stayed in those groups for all of first semester this year. Second semester I’ve mixed them up a few times reminding them that being able to work effectively with anyone in the room is an important skill to have. I outlined what I did this past fall in this post: http://thepapergraders.org/?p=1487

  4. A fantastic and reaffirming article. Thank you for this vision of how the end of the school year should, and still could, look.

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