“Teachers are Magic, and Magic is Dangerous!” – DJ Older

Yes, I am finally joining the Paper Graders as an official member!  Mrs. B is here! We had an amazing day at NCTE today, including a presentation entitled Stop Grading: Empower Your Students to Evaluate Their Own Learning to over 200 people in a not-quite-big-enough room at the St. Louis Convention Center. Sarah and Jay spoke about how they are teaching students to take ownership of their own learning by creating their own learning goals, becoming better at reading their own writing and finding flaws in their drafts which they can correct. I shared how my IB students practice for their Oral Exams by pairing up and sitting across from each other with one person as the speaker and one as the listener, and while the speaker delivers his or her commentary on a poem or soliloquy or piece of prose, the listener listens, very carefully, and takes copious notes on the commentary being given by their partner. The exercise is one to prepare them for their Oral Exam in January, since there is no way for me to sit with each of my 90 IB students and listen to a 10-minute commentary. They are learning how to listen carefully, take notes carefully, present a commentary in a compelling way, and then give feedback to their partner that will help them improve in their next attempt at an oral commentary. The point being that I am trying to teach my IB students who are getting ready to head off to college, work, the military or world travel how to speak clearly, listen carefully, and help another human being improve their efforts at speaking and listening. These are skills that will help them in college, in jobs, in life, and they are also learning how to be more independent from me, the teacher, and help each other without my interference. In the end, these practice sessions help me as much as they help them, because I don’t need to be listening to every word of 90 students, but can listen in and offer a helping hand when needed.

My day started with a wonderful walk with Sarah Zerwin down by the riverside as we ventured early this morning to the Saint Louis Archway Park and surveyed the Arch itself, along with the park around the Arch, the trails leading down to the river, and the life of St. Louis on an early Saturday morning. We saw a river barge going by, just as it would have many years ago, we saw the sun come out from behind the clouds to light up the Arch, we saw an amazing bronze statue of Lewis and Clark returning from their long exploration to the Pacific Ocean, and we saw a beautiful little cobblestoned section of St. Louis called Laclede’s Landing, St. Louis’ oldest district. The sad part of our journey was that we saw a few runners and Park rangers, but not many other people, a common theme in our few days here in the city that has served as the Gateway to the West. Jay noticed that there seems to be an emptiness in St. Louis, as if the life of the city has been punched out in the last few years. We heard some poetry shared by Noana, a young teacher at tonight’s Fountain of the Muse session after all the other NCTE participants had gone home, that backed up what we were feeling. She lives here, and she wrote a beautiful poem about St Louis, about the old buildings that seem to have black eyes from the blown-out windows, and the empty streets, and she told us that St. Louis has always wanted to be a big city, but is still and ever was a small town.

My first conference activity this morning was going to hear Sara Ahmed, Harvey “Smokey” Daniels, and Stephanie Harvey speak on Igniting Kids’ Curiosity and Passion with Student-Directed Inquiry Circles. My favorite part was Sara’s section on Soft Starts, where the elementary and middle schools they work with have a 5-15 minute “soft start” to the day where they come into the classroom, find a book or newspaper or magazine, find a comfortable beanbag chair or place on the floor, and read for a few minutes before they begin class. Another version of this soft start that Smokey Daniels presented was a middle school in Kentucky that has kids waiting at the door to come in and choose to do a dance party or reading or work on hands-on projects for a few minutes before the day of learning begins. The end product in all of these experiments was a group of students who were more settled, more relaxed, and more ready to learn. I thought about how I practice a “soft start” with my high school classes by asking them to pause each morning for 3-5 minutes to do a mindfulness exercise. Sometimes we just focus on breathing, sometimes we do morning sun salutations outside facing the sun or the Flatirons, and sometimes we lie down on the floor, put our feet on the chairs in astronaut position and just take a few minutes to calm our minds and bodies. The result for my students is that they can then come to the work of the day in a more relaxed and more focused mood, and they are able to get more work done in less time, because they have a clear mind and a more relaxed body to get into whatever we are working on that day.

For lunch, I was fortunate to go to the Secondary Section Luncheon where Daniel Jose Older, who has a new YA book called Shadowshaper out, spoke to us about the value of teachers in supporting and encouraging young writers to become committed writers of the future. He said “Teachers are magic, and magic is dangerous!” and he spoke about how his mother, who was a teacher, encouraged him in his writing and creativity, as did his teacher in middle school, who gave him a book entitled Bloodchild by Octavia Butler. He didn’t read it or really understand it until 10 years later, but when he did, it became one of his inspirations for writing his own work. He said he did not see himself in books because he was a young boy of Cuban descent in New York, and he said most books he read in school did not contain black or brown characters unless they were being saved by white men. He asked us “How do you survive the long night of invisibility when you love a genre that doesn’t love you back?” Great question, and one that he is trying to answer by writing YA books that feature young characters of color who are powerful in their own right. Daniel ended his talk with the statement that “Literature’s job is not to protect young people from the ugly world around them, it is to arm them with language to describe what they already know.” Powerful words from a powerful writer.

So what did I learn today? I learned that the best way to get to know a place is by getting outside and walking in the streets and parks and secret sections of town. I learned that soft starts can work for children of any age, and I would say soft starts would even work in an adult work environment too, if adults could put down their cup of coffee and calm themselves for a few minutes before diving into work. I learned that I need to be more aware of the diversity in my classroom, and how I must choose works which speak to all the cultures and colors present there. I learned that “Teachers are magic, and magic is dangerous!” And I learned that spending my time, money, and effort to come to the national conference to present with my colleagues brings me closer to them in the shared expenditure of energy, and allows us to share some of the work we are doing at our high school with the rest of the teaching world.


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Best kept secret at NCTE17: poetry

Were you aware

that for the last very many years,

people who love writing poetry have been getting together

Saturday night at NCTE to read poetry, workshop poetry, and talk about writing?

Going to Fountain of the Muse was the best decision I made today.


In that spirit, I offer today’s reflections in (not the best) poetry (I’ve ever written)



F.28 From Book Love to Book Action with Tricia Ebarvia, Kate Flowers, and Anna Osborn

Joy Kirr tells us to “Just keep tweaking,” and Newkirk’s 5% rule

invites us to change 5% of what we’re doing per year.

That means incremental change.

Movement toward.

Not changing everything at once.

I went to this session

because I’m not totally happy with how independent reading is going in my classroom.


A new acronym–TRtP (toughest reader to please)

Would you rather have a kid fake reading all year long

or reading graphic novel after graphic novel?

Classroom libraries seem key to building readers but

I don’t have my own classroom.

Nor can I be assured of being in the same classrooms from year to year.

It’s impractical to build a classroom library.

Partner with your (likely awesome) school librarian

to get books in students’ hands: pop up library, mobile library carts.

First rule of assessing readers: do no harm.

Ask, “who does the assessment serve?”

Check you biases

that might get in the way of students finding the best books for them.

Make reading an event that students want to be a part of:

classroom read-a-thons for deep immersion with reading,

book club meetings with food.

Be a champion for authentic reading in your classroom.

And spread the good news about independent reading,


in spaces you share with your colleagues.

Or if you have a loud colleague like I do (Jay)

have him do it.

Make authentic reading contagious.



H.40 Authentic, Personalized, and Transformative: Using Writer’s Workshop in the ‘Real World’ with Dawn Finley, Diana Hammond, Dominic Pioter, Gwyndolyn Savens

They had a growing dissatisfaction with rubrics.

They wanted a more meaningful relationship with writing and revision.

They sought to make their work more about individual writers

and less about decisions you have to make in the world of grades.

The moment they said “we write”

and spoke as if it would not be weird

if we had a writer’s notebook with us,

I knew I was among my people.

Driving questions:

How does feedback impact our relationships with students

and their perceptions of themselves as writers?

How can we create a classroom where students can see themselves

as real writers and where there is enough trust to take risks?

Work with students to determine a list of criteria about what makes good writing,

a unique list for each class.


How can we embed opportunities to develop independence and writers’ voices?



I.22: Stop Grading, Start Reflecting: Empower Your Students to Evaluate Their Own Learning

We loved talking with you and thinking about your questions,

which we worked to answer here. (Our slides are here.)

You challenged me to think about what that semester final grade should reflect–

mastery? growth?

My students want it to be about growth.

Every time I’ve asked, they are in consensus.

So I tend to side with my students.

Besides, a semester grade that is about mastery

means I’m essentially ranking and sorting students

for whoever looks at the transcript, right?

I’m not so interested in that business.

Shouldn’t it be about the humans sitting in front of me

and not the ones who might look at a grade at some point in the future?

(But I need to think about this more.)



J.28: Reclaiming Grading, Reclaiming Our Craft: Amy Matthusen, Christina Ponzio

Grading was subverting

what they wanted to be doing in the classroom–

creating readers and writers.

They didn’t want students to walk

out of the room feeling less than

because of a number they’ve given them.

And don’t be afraid to hijack the gradebook

to make it work for you.



(and then there was too much pizza)



Fountain of the muse.

Strangers clustered around a pair of conference tables

in a cavernous room.


Then reading their words.


Then responding with care (thank you).


About our shared journeys to write

and teach

and be who we are.



Posted in #NCTE17, #StopGrading, gradebook, gratitude, making change, not grading, presenting, things made of awesome | 2 Comments

Saturday Morning at #NCTE17 (authenticity)


That was a day, wasn’t it?!

Z did a pretty good job getting the global feel last night in her post– me I was pooped and went to bed.

I woke up this morning thinking about our presentation yesterday, and Jimmy Santiago Bacca, and the awesome people we get to see and get to know here at NCTE.

We did this session yesterday about our songwriting workshops, and I went to a great session on folk songs/protest songs, and we had a lot of conversations about authenticity.

Being ourselves in the classroom (and the rest of our lives). One of the things that I find so magnetic about Bacca is that he is completely himself. There is no distance between the poet and the man. I drove him to the airport last year when he came to visit us, and we spent the ride talking about trucks (he was asking if I like my Tacoma- yes, of course I do), which sounds pretty mundane. At the same time he makes more casual literary references than just about anyone I’ve ever known. And I do know a few lit geeks.

When he’s teaching he’s no different- he’s just being him. When I started teaching, like a lot of folks, I thought  a lot of things about how I had to ‘be’ as a teacher. The short version is that most of it is bull. The part that isn’t bull is that I do have to know what I’m doing when it comes to literacy- other than that, the more me I am, the better I feel, the better kids respond, the better the whole thing works.

That’s what we were getting at with the two prongs of authenticity idea. It isn’t enough to ask kids to do authentic things. You have to BE your authentic self. The songwriting stuff came to be because I got busy being my authentic self- and to be authentic I had to bring that self to work. I couldn’t really be someone else.

And it’s the same for your students. We have to make classroom spaces where they can be themselves. They won’t do authentic work (no matter what the assignment), if they can’t be authentic people. If they can’t be who they are. Note- that doesn’t mean you have to tolerate disruptive or abusive behavior, but but you do have to be ready for honest conversations about school, your class, teaching, what your class is doing, whether they like it, whether it’s working (this is actually a really cool conversation to have), and sometime just some time to talk.

There has to be room for choice and self creation in your class. For you AND the students. How are you going to be your authentic self in the classroom?

And to put in another frame- if we are expected to differentiate for our students, then we have to differentiate for teachers.

Jimmy Santiago Bacca said in his morning address:

“Make your classroom as individual as you can to affirm your own spirit.”

Also- holy hell St. Louis! What is up with Gooey Butter Cake!?!? That stuff will kill ya.

I am in St. Louis. This local speciality is called “Gooey Butter Cake.” If you eat the whole thing, you die.

A post shared by Jay Stott (@jgstottmusic) on



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“Don’t mess with the teachers, dude.” #NCTE17

Well we’re here. St. Louis. In the shadow of the arch. Surrounded by our people (that’s the best part).

Like I’ve done for NCTE the last several years, I’m writing this evening to pull together what I thought about today (and last evening since I didn’t write last night). I’ll start with our friend and Colorado colleague, Julia Torres, from the opening session on Thursday:

In a conversation about controversial books, Julia pointed out that we have to question what is considered controversial because what’s unfamiliar is what is often labeled as controversial. This sent me into my notes from my grad school work, searching for the tidbits that helped me to formulate my instructional purposes for teaching literary works:

“Social imagination is the capacity to invent visions of what should be and what might be in our deficit society, in the streets where we live and our schools. Social imagination not only suggests but also requires that one take action to repair or renew.” Maxine Greene: Releasing the Imagination

“Literature and the literary imagination are subversive.” – Martha Nussbaum, Poetic Justice

“Literature focuses on the possible, inviting its readers to wonder about themselves. […] Literary works typically invite their readers to put themselves in the place of people of many different kinds and to take on their experiences.” – Martha Nussbaum, Poetic Justice

“Good literature is disturbing in a way that history and social science writing frequently are not. Because it summons powerful emotions, it disconcerts and puzzles. It inspires distrust of conventional pieties and exacts a frequently painful confrontation with one’s own thoughts and intentions.” – Martha Nussbaum, Poetic Justice

“Narrative fiction creates possible worlds–but they are worlds extrapolated from the world we know, however much they may soar beyond it. The art of the possible is a perilous art. It must take heed of life as we know it, yet alienate us from it sufficiently to tempt us into thinking of alternatives beyond it. It challenges as it comforts. In the end, it has the power to change our habits of conceiving what is real, what canonical.” – Jerome Bruner, Making Stories

Books challenge us and our students to imagine the experiences of others, to see possibilities beyond our own realms of existence, to connect, to question.

Books are our weapons in the battle we fight in our classrooms for our students’ hearts, minds, and humanity, as Jimmy Santiago Baca told us this morning.

I have seen Jimmy speak on a few occasions–and I am amazed that I’ve never heard him repeat any story from his life. He has a universe of stories in him. But today was different–he was speaking especially to us: teachers, of reading and writing, about the critically important work we do. As he spoke, I wrote madly in my writer’s notebook to capture as much as I could. Here are a few tidbits:

  • When will we turn our classrooms into places where we can speak again? Instead of an incessant unbelievable march for acceptance?
  • Turn classrooms into battlegrounds for hearts and minds.
  • We are the leaders. Leagues of students will follow us.
  • Imagine a world without teachers for one second. Everything goes dark.
  • Whenever there’s controversy, there are teachers. That’s who we are.
  • Don’t mess with the teachers, dude.
  • Students are the makers of history because of us. Teach them to use language as a weapon of love to fight the lies.
  • We are the dream makers.
  • Weaponize your words to fight injustice.
  • Just write. Even if it’s only “Hi pencil.”
  • Make your classroom as individual as you can to affirm your own spirit.
  • Education taught him that he could make his own life.
  • Make mistakes. Since when did we start living trying not to make mistakes?
  • The thing we have is amazing endurance to deal with so much crap.

There is something magic about Jimmy Santiago Baca. We were lucky to have him in our school in the spring of 2016. Picture 100 high school seniors, knee-to-knee in the library, writer’s notebooks on their laps, completely rapt by Jimmy. He told stories. He talked about writing. He asked them to write. He asked them to stand and read their words aloud. And they did. It was beautiful.

A real highlight of my day was this:

At the podium is Nancie Atwell. I started my career with In the Middle back in 1994 in my composition for teachers class during my teacher certification program at the University of Colorado. Miles Olsen told my class that we better be able to clearly articulate what we thought about In the Middle when we walked into job interviews as if Atwell’s book was so seminal that every self-respecting language arts department across the country would know about it and have an opinion about it.

I waited for that question in my first job interview back in 1996, and it never came. I got the job and at some point asked my colleagues what they knew about Atwell. They did not know who she was and were not familiar with the book or even workshop pedagogy for that matter. I didn’t quite know what to do with all of that. I was in first year teacher survival mode anyhow, so I just set aside the whole question, having no idea how right Miles Olsen was about the impact of Atwell’s work on my career.

She told the story of one of her students who came to her as a non-reader and ended up reading around 50 books during his 8th grade year in her classroom. And then he went off to high school where he fake read only two books in 9th grade. She spoke of how the readers she cultivates in her classroom have to put their reading lives on hold for the four years of high school language arts.

Enter intense feelings of inadequacy. I worry that even though I intend to build readers in my classroom, I end up squelching them somehow. We do one book together each semester but the rest of what they read is independent or book group reading on books that they choose. But my students are not reading 50 books in a school year.

Atwell repeated a few times the list of components students need to become readers: choice, access to intriguing books and intriguing invitations to read them, time to read in class, conversations with peers and the teacher, expectations from the teacher to read outside school voluminously. I know the things I need to work on–and it all comes down to more talk about books in my classroom. A community of readers can truly persuade a student to pick up a book, and than another, and another. We do some talk about books–but I know we can do more.

Atwell turned it over to Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher to talk about how they cultivate high school readers. They were inspiring as always, and I’m anxious to get my hands on their upcoming book. I had to leave early to get my brain ready for our presentation, but as I left the auditorium, I heard Kelly say, “I’m a literacy teacher, not a literature teacher.” Yes.

Our presentation today was really different from any other presentations we’ve done, and it was a total blast. The core of it was what Jay is calling “two-prong authenticity”–authentic for both teacher and students. Music is in the realm of authentic for our students–they steep themselves in it. And for a singer-songwriter like Jay, music is in the realm of authentic for him. We’ve done songwriting workshops for the last two years for our senior LA class. His insight from inside the process as a songwriter makes the workshop meaningful for students and makes songwriting approachable even for those who do not even begin to consider themselves songwriters. In our session, we modeled the process we’ve used with our students to get them writing songs and shared some resources. And then people wrote some songs.

Jay brought his guitar and he sang–a few of his own songs and and a few songs that people wrote during the time we provided for them to play around with  songwriting. Here’s a clip of him working with one of our attendees to put her lyrics to music. Huge thank you to everyone who came to the session. We really enjoyed working with you! We will post our presentation materials here sometime tomorrow.

In the interest of sleep, I’ll wrap this up, even though there is definitely more I could say about my day today. We present again tomorrow: a follow up of last year’s Stop Grading presentation that gets into more nuts and bolts about what the process has been in our classrooms to move away from traditional routes to the semester grade. (3pm, I.22, room 143–hope to see you there!)

Finally, last evening I got to hang out with my student teacher from seven years ago, who was here representing the Denver Writing Project at the NWP meeting. I love NCTE for the connections. I love these meetings for how they cultivate leaders, like this rock star teacher (whose rock star-ness was crystal clear to me in her very first days in my classroom as a pre-service teacher all those years ago). She’s doing great work in her school and for her students. I know I was supposedly the mentor, but I learned a lot from her.

Thank you, NCTE, once again, for bringing us all together.

Posted in #NCTE17, presenting, professional development, teaching writing, things made of awesome, workshop teaching | 4 Comments

We’re at #NCTE!

YeeeeHaaaaaaaw! Here we are in St. Louis.

Right now we’re listening to Jimmy Santiago Bacca. He’s awesome.

Well be talking about stuff today and tomorrow:

Friday: Singing Your Own Song In the Classroom: Teaching poetry as writers and musicians in a writers workshop setting. #3495029 (yes, I might sing you a song in this one) 12:30 pm – 01:45 pm America’s Center Convention Complex 232 

Saturday: Stop Grading: Empower Your Students to Evaluate Their Own Learning #3496649 03:00 pm – 04:15 pm America’s Center Convention Complex 143 

Hope to see you in the halls or at a session. Please say hi!

Posted in #NCTE17 | 1 Comment

Community, Connection, Articulation, Reflection, Creation

We had a group of teachers from another school visit us yesterday (Z gets all the credit for making that happen, I just show up and talk). They spent the day hanging out in our classes, asking questions, sharing ideas. They were really super people, the sort of people you’d be thrilled to work with.

Reflecting last night, there were a few things that came to mind.

First, if you want change, seek community and connection. Change, especially big change, is really tough to do on your own. A lot of what was great about our engagement yesterday was, at least for me, that feeling of connection and community. The feeling that you are not alone in trying something new or difficult. I hope it was the same for our visitors.

Second, if you want to really understand what you are doing, try to explain it to someone else. We will be going to NCTE next week in St. Louis to present on a few things we’ve been playing with. We’ve done that a lot, and yesterday was not the first time we’ve hosted a bunch of teachers to look at what we are messing with. The value of presenting, either formally at a conference, or informally by hosting others in your classroom, is that it forces us to reflect on what we are actually doing, and then try to articulate, as best we can, what that is. That helps us iterate, update, create, recreate, etc.

The third thing, which I’ve written more about recently (see Rome and Building), is that nothing happens fast. It has taken us a lot of time to get where we are, and we aren’t ‘there.’ In fact, there is no ‘there.’ There’s just the process. Which is why ‘iterate’ has become my new favorite word. One of the things I felt like I didn’t get a chance to say yesterday to these awesome teachers who came to see us was “you’re already there.” They are already doing it. They may not be on the same iteration we are, and if they have a good process, they may never be. They won’t replicate what worked for us, they will create what works for THEM. For their students, in their community, in their context.

This process is really the creative process. We cycle through this over and over. It’s what we are trying to teach our students about reading writing, and it’s the way we get better at reading and writing ourselves, it’s the way Z is working on a book, it’s how I write songs and stories.

The more of it you can get in your life, the more lively and alive you will feel. The better the things you create will be, the more meaningful it all is.

If you’re going to be at NCTE next week, come see us:

Friday: Singing Your Own Song In the Classroom: Teaching poetry as writers and musicians in a writers workshop setting. #3495029 (yes, I might sing you a song in this one) 12:30 pm – 01:45 pm America’s Center Convention Complex 232 

Saturday: Stop Grading: Empower Your Students to Evaluate Their Own Learning #3496649 03:00 pm – 04:15 pm America’s Center Convention Complex 143 

Posted in #NCTE17, collaboration, community, cultivating real learning, making change, reflections, workshop teaching | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

On Building Rome in a Day (and changing your pedagogy)

Doc Z and I presented yesterday at the Colorado Language Arts Society conference on getting away from grading, and using feedback to teach/encourage reflective practice in our students. We packed a lot into 75 minutes, and the teachers in our session asked some really terrific questions that, at least anecdotally, indicate that the shifts we are making resonate with lots of teachers.

Underneath all the really terrific questions people asked is one big underlying question, or maybe it’s just an emotional reaction. When presented with the possibility of radical change, which is what we are discussing, the normal, appropriate, and understandable reaction, is to feel immediately overwhelmed and lost. And since a lot of teaching is feeling that way anyway, having more of that feeling thrown at you doesn’t always feel good.

After the presentation an attendee asked me how I manage to do conferencing with my students- given that like her, I have 25+ students in every class, and they are ninth graders, and if I’m in a focused conversation with one student, that’s maybe 24 other students (or more) who are maybe not on task, or getting into trouble, or need help, and if it takes 10 minutes to conference with one student, and that makes about 250 minutes to have a conference with each kid in the class (or more, lets be real), and there are only 240 minutes in my class week, and there are other things I’m expected to do, and, and, and, and, and…

You get the idea.

My answer comes in two big parts.

First- I was at a presentation some years ago by Mark Overmeyer, who is a terrific resource on conferencing with students. A teacher asked a version of the question posed above, and ended with “if I get to one writing conference a semester with my students, I feel like that’s all I can do.” Mark responded, with zero time to think, “and that’s one more than you ever got, isn’t it?”

Second- Rome wasn’t built in a day. I say that a lot. The stuff Doc Z and I are talking about is the far end of ten solid years of thinking, writing, experimenting, failing, trying again, iterating, tinkering, guessing, following dead ends, and making u-turns. We didn’t start this yesterday, and we in no way have it figured out.

This is not about being ‘perfect.’ Ever. There is no finish line, no medal, no having it down and doing it that way for the next 20 years (in fact- teachers who teach like that, if I may be frank, suck).

We’re just trying to do it better than we did yesterday. Most of the time we run on intuition and guesswork. We live with ambiguity and uncertainty. We work with some of the most talented teachers I’ve ever had the pleasure of talking to, and they help us figure things out every day. We do conference presentations not because we think we know what we are doing, but because doing a presentation a) forces us to be reflective and articulate what we are thinking as clearly as we are able, and b) allows us to talk to more people, which generates more thinking and a larger sense of professional community in which we can continue to innovate, experiment and iterate.

Change takes time, comes slow, and involves a lot of messing around.  We figure out how to overcome one obstacle at a time. Usually, when I think I’ve got one thing figured out, something else that needs to be figured out rears its head. The question is never ‘how can I change everything I’m doing,’ because you can’t. But you can take one interesting idea and try it next week. And see what happens. And they try it again in a slightly different way. And if you keep doing that, and you work on finding a supportive community for thinking about these ‘experiments,’ I promise you that ten years from now you will be radically transformed.

And one of the transformations will be to see that there is no ‘there’ to get to. If I’m still teaching in ten years, I hope I will be a totally different teacher than I am now. If I’m not, I will be both bored, and boring, and really bad at my job. Living things grow, or they are dead, and no longer living. Us, our students, our institutions, are living. They need to be growing, or they die.

Rome wasn’t built in a day. It grew. Over centuries. And then something else replaced it. And grew. And was replaced.

We are always learning and changing, and growing. It’s what living things do. But we don’t always do it quickly. That’s okay. As long as we are doing it.


Posted in cultivating real learning, education, engagement, making change, muddling through, presenting, reflections, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

CLAS 2017- Presentation Materials

Thanks to everyone who came to our session at the Colorado Language Arts Society conference yesterday. We really enjoyed talking about your classes and students with you.

I’m linking the slides and the handout below if you wanted to take a look. We will be revisiting that presentation (on teaching reflection in ELA students) at NCTE, as well as another session on using songwriting to teach writing process and poetics! Look us up if you will be in St. Louis- we’d love to say hi!



Posted in #StopGrading, cultivating real learning, engagement | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

A moment of clarity that helped my AP Lit students see exactly why I don’t put grades on their writing

This will have to be quick. I need to get some other writing done.

But there was a moment this week with my AP Lit students that really clarified why I don’t put grades or points on my students’ writing.

We just finished our second full week of school. In week one, my students wrote a first timed write, in the style of the AP Lit exam question three that asks students to choose a novel they know well to respond to the prompt (as opposed to questions one and two, which ask students to do close analysis of a poem and a passage).

I responded to their work with a score I determined using the 9-point AP Lit rubric for essay responses. Not a grade, just a score, a data point. I also filled their margins with various numbers that correspond to a list of common comments teachers find themselves  writing on student writing of this type. Thank you to my AP Summer Institute teacher for this awesome resource. It’s not something I could create for the other senior language arts class I teach where students choose varied genres that help them to achieve their different writing purposes. The writing in the AP Lit curriculum is mostly one type (analytical interpretive responses to literature), so a comment guide can work. And it has enabled me to leave copious feedback while spending less time.

There are a few items on my comment guide that are, well, nit picky. Really nit picky. As students were asking me questions about the comments, the numbers, the overall score… I explained to them that the conversation we were having at that exact moment was one huge reason why I will not put grades or points on their writing.

In a previous teacher life where I used points to evaluate students’ writing, I would have taken off points for the nit picky things. And in some cases, those lost points could have meant the difference between an A and a B. And there we would be, quibbling about points. Students would be annoyed. I would be annoyed. And they would leave my class thinking I was too hard of a grader, or unfair, or unrealistic. Would they be thinking about what in that piece of writing they learned they needed to work on to grow as a writer? No. They would be thinking about how unfair those lost points were.

To decrease their frustration, I used to say, “this grade is not final. Revise and resubmit and I’ll bring up your grade.” A few of them would look at the rubric and find the quickest, easiest path to the grade they wanted and do minimal revision. It wasn’t revision that actually helped them grow as writers. It was all about getting a few more points. Their motivation to revise was not to improve as writers at all.

Now in my new life as a teacher where I don’t put points or grades on individual assignments, I can still be nit picky. After all, I really want to challenge my students to write as concisely and precisely as they can. To be clear. To use words that are simple and direct but powerful. To be able to translate a complex argument into words clearly. So that’s what I’m doing. But because there are no high stakes attached to my evaluation of their work–no number that will go into the math machine of the gradebook to affect the ever-important overall Grade with a capital G–our conversation isn’t us quibbling over points. Instead, I explain why I’m suggesting they take a different approach in their writing, and they consider it, and they decide–as writers–if they think they will take my advice or not.

And the data I have now in my gradebook! I record the timed writing task as “complete,” and in the comments box I put the AP rubric score and a list of the numbered comments I put in the margins. After the ten to twelve timed writes they’ll do this semester, think of what a great body of data this will be. Students will be able to see trends in the comments they’ve received and hopefully upward movement in their rubric score. This is way better than just a number in a box in the gradebook.

They are free to take risks without grade penalty.

They are free to mess up without grade penalty.

They are free to really figure a new writing challenge, without anxiety about a grade penalty.

My students and I are talking about learning and writing instead of fighting over points. They aren’t mad. I’m not defensive. Their primary work in my class is learning rather than playing the grade game.

I had some people ask me if I was going to try to no grades thing with my AP Lit students, because they’re so grade focused, right? They need the points and the grades or they won’t do the work, right?

WE make them grade focused when we set systems up in our classrooms that keep the conversation so focused on grades. When grades aren’t a constant, high stakes presence, students can relax and just learn.

I’ve worked hard to set up systems in my classroom to make the conversation about reading and writing and taking risks and learning and working because the work matters, not because they’ll lose points if they don’t do the work. Yes, I have to get to a grade for each student by the end of the semester because grades still matter in my school, but there are meaningful ways to get there that don’t have to orbit on a strict point system that organizes every moment my students spend in my classroom. Here’s my latest iteration of how we’ll get to the semester grade:

Screenshot 2017-09-02 at 3.26.11 PM
Click on the image to open up the google doc.

It’s up to us to shift the conversation from grades and points to learning, and we can.

What are you doing to shift the conversation?

This post is part of a blog series on teaching AP Lit with readers/writers workshop. Click here to see the entire series. 

Posted in #StopGrading, 21st century teaching and learning, assessment, feedback, grading, not grading, teaching reading, teaching writing | 6 Comments

A Workshop Teacher Takes On AP Lit

Whoever says teachers don’t work in the summer has no idea what they’re talking about.

I’ve spent most of the last week at my computer in various locations working to wrap my head around my new prep for next year: AP Literature and Composition. I also attended a College Board institute two weeks ago to get myself ready for this class.

The class is not totally new to me. I have four years of AP Lit experience behind me and many hours at College Board training during those four years. But that was twelve years ago, at a different school, in a different state. A lot has happened in twelve years. I now have a teenage child instead of a toddler. I’ve lived in four different houses. I drive a different car. And I’m a different teacher. Graduate school, Colorado Writing Project training and consulting, and the years in the company of my awesome colleagues at school who challenge me constantly–all of these things have really shifted my practice.

I’ve become a reading/writing workshop teacher.

The way I taught AP Lit before doesn’t totally conflict with the workshop model. I wove in a lot of student choice, for example. But I wasn’t as intentional about it as I am now because I didn’t understand as well then what I was working to achieve. I get it on a whole different level now.

When I taught AP Lit before, I was the only AP Lit teacher in my school, which is smaller than the one I teach in now. In fact, I started the AP Lit course at that school. Totally built it from scratch. My classes were capped at 15 students. The 45 total AP students I had then meant three sections. Now that means one and a half sections of AP in my current school. And I am not the only AP Lit teacher. These all make for some key differences. I have to figure out how to manage more students than I had before while working toward the same challenging curriculum, and I can’t do whatever the heck I want within the bounds of the AP Lit curriculum. There is a history to AP Lit at my current school. All the teachers who have taught it before have built something significant. They have been incredibly generous with their resources and I have much to work with.

It’s a totally new challenge, and I welcome it. I have been kind of cruising along the last few years with no significantly new curricular challenges on my teaching load. But more than simply building an AP Lit class however I want, I need to understand the AP Lit tradition at my school and make sure I don’t do something completely outside of the pale. I have to figure out how to make the work load manageable for me with the 60 students I’ll have in two sections, alongside the 60 I’ll have in my other senior Language Arts class, alongside the 30 or so I’ll have on my newspaper staff.

And I have to figure out how to honor what I’ve learned about building readers and writers in my evolution toward workshop.

In May, I met with my colleague who will also be teaching AP Lit this next year. He has taught it for several years at our school. He helped me realize something critically important: AP Lit is essentially a reading class. Yes, there is a lot of writing, and students need ample practice in and feedback on a very particular type of writing, but all of that writing work supports the main event of the curriculum: interpretive reading of complex literature. Getting this understanding uploaded into my head has helped a lot, especially in my efforts to keep straight how the AP Lit is characteristically different from the other Language arts class I teach.

Senior Literature, Composition, and Communication (SLCC) is a reading, writing, thinking, speaking, collaborating, get-yourself-ready-for-whatever-is-next-for-you class. We do a slice of interpretive analysis, but only a slice. The course explores writing for other purposes. Though our students do a lot of reading in the course, it is primarily a writing course. The whole weekly structure revolves around students developing a regular, weekly writing practice. All the reading we do serves our goals for building writers. So seeing AP Lit as a READING class first and a writing class second really helps me as I think about how to put things together.

Here are some key things I’ve learned as I’ve become a workshop teacher and how they’re helping me to design my AP Lit/comp classroom:

1) Weekly Routine/Schedule to Protect the Most Important Work

The weekly routine/schedule is something that has really helped protect my workshop classroom. I have to protect space for my students to read and write. I have to protect time for conferences. I have to protect space for students to read and respond to each other’s work. Until I build a weekly routine/schedule and did everything I could to stick to it, my classroom wasn’t quite the workshop I wanted it to be. So a goal for me with designing my AP Lit class based on what I’ve learned as a workshop teacher was coming up with a weekly routine/schedule to protect the most important work.

SLCC, as a writing first class means that I dedicate over half of the week’s class time writing: writing time, mentor text study, focus lessons on writing. We start the week, Monday and Tuesday with discussion and exploratory writing surrounding texts that we read–all with the goal of giving students something to write about for the rest of the week on our Wednesday or Thursday block period and Friday (the equivalent of about three class periods). I plan to flip this for AP Lit–we’ll use the Wednesday or Thursday block period and Friday for reading: reading time, discussion activities, focus lessons on reading and interpreting the complex texts we’ll study. Monday and Tuesday will be opportunities to practice the writing that goes along with this and extends it–how do you take that interpretive thinking and express it clearly in writing? We’ll practice the sort of timed writing that students will confront on the AP Lit exam on those days and read and respond to that writing toward the goal of clarity in expressing interpretive thinking.

2) Choice Surrounding Reading

If I were the only AP Lit teacher at my school and if the course didn’t already have a rich tradition built by my colleagues, I would be approaching this differently than I will be for this next year. If it were totally up to me, my students and I would choose one major work per semester for us to read and study together and then they would read more major works independently or in book groups. And this follows the recommendation from the instructor of the AP Summer Institute I went to a couple of weeks ago. If students choose their titles, they read more. And I want them to read as much as possible.

There is already a list of six major works identified for the course, a list determined before I even knew I was teaching the course, a list published for students in May so they could purchase the texts, two of which were assigned as summer reading. I LOVE the books on the list: Gatsby, Pride and Prejudice, Frankenstein, Othello, The House of the Spirits, and Beloved. The only one I’ve not taught before is The House of the Spirits, and I can’t wait to read it. These are good books, well worth the time my students and I will spend on them.

But the workshop teacher in me is itching for more student choice. These six books–plus the time we need to spend on close analysis of poetry and passages of fiction–will fill our time completely. Through conversation with my teaching colleague, I’ll work on making changes to create more space for students to choose the major works that they read for the class. But for next year, the six required major works represent a parameter I need to work with.

Student choice is not just students choosing the books they read. Choice extends to the ways students respond to the texts as well. I could spend my summer seeking out resources for each text, carefully planning how I’ll guide my students through each one–the questions we’ll use for discussion, the activities we’ll do as we study them, the prompts I’ll use to guide their writing, the exploratory writer’s notebook work they’ll do for each text. But that approach takes me away from what I’ve learned as I’ve moved toward a reading/writing workshop classroom. The skill we’re practicing in our workshop is interpretive reading. My job is to create space for students to practice that. And it starts very simply with what students notice about the text. I must help them get from those initial responses to some analytical thinking about how the text is working to interpretive thinking about what they think it all means. I could guide them through this with guideposts along the way based on what I think is important for them to notice, or I could follow them as they walk through their own thinking, supporting them where needed, and helping them to discover and build their own interpretations. What I’m teaching is a PROCESS, not a particular understanding or interpretation about each text.

Thinking of it in this way totally changes how I plan and prepare for the time we spend in class on these books. I have worked to build a scaffold, a container for class time that will enable students to do the interpretive work together with enough guidance to show them what the work looks like but then enough freedom for them to really own the work. Jay wrote a post a while about about workshop, arguing that it’s really quite simple. Students need to spend as much time as possible DOING the thing you are teaching rather than talking about it. Teachers support students as they do the work rather than covering content.

I can trust my students to have thoughts about our texts that are worth unpacking. They might not be the same thoughts I have about our texts, but that’s not the point. At the forefront needs to be their thinking, their idea building, their interpretations, their meaning-making. This was rarely the case in my college literature classes where class discussions seemed to be competitions where students each tried to say the thing that was the closest to what the professor already thought. (Read more about my struggle as a reader in school here.)

Toward the goal of NOT doing the interpretive work for my students but instead creating a space where they can hone their ability to do that work on their own, here’s what I’m planning:

  • Our work with a major text will start with a brainstorming conversation after having read the text in its entirety: what did you notice about the text? Collect this visually on a white board. Fill the board with their ideas. Eventually move toward categorizing things–draw arrows, circles, etc. Then hone it down to big issues/ideas in the text worth talking about. From there, have students sign up to facilitate discussion days on any of the topics that surfaced in the conversation.
  • Provide ample resources for students to use as they plan to facilitate discussions. Here’s what I’ve got so far. I’ll model a few discussions for them, talk about what I did to set up the conversation, how I thought it went, and what I would do differently next time. I’ll talk with them about their plans for discussion. And on those student-facilitated discussion days, I’ll sit among my class and participate as just one other reader trying to figure out what I think about a book.
  • Success on the AP exam requires close analysis of poetry and passages of fiction. I plan to do analysis of passages from the major works we do to address the passage analysis. But for poetry–I want to open this up to student choice. We need to read and discuss poems and work together on analyzing how the language is achieving meaning. It really doesn’t matter which poems we use to do this, as long as they are poems of literary complexity. I’ve planned for a week of poetry in between our work with each major text. I’ll model the first poetry week–our first week of school actually–with three poems for us to read and discuss and compare. I will take them through discussion activities with them and exploratory writing to help them discover their ideas. I’ll help them start to develop their own processes for making meaning from poetry. And then I’ll ask students to be in charge of bringing poetry to the table for us to discuss and planning for how we will discuss it in the subsequent poetry weeks on the calendar. (More details about this on the same document I linked to above.)

3) Choice Surrounding Writing and Focus on Writing Process

AP Lit exam writing is responding-to-a-prompt writing, and we will practice that extensively. Nearly every week. But what I will push my students to see is how much choice they have in HOW they respond to those prompts. They will need to read creatively to be able to write their very best interpretive analysis.

But to work in more significant choice and an emphasis on process, after three weeks’ worth of practicing the kind of timed writing students will do on the AP Lit exam, I’ll ask students to pick one of those three time writings to revise:

  • One they will revise to hone the interpretive argument so it would score higher on the 9-point AP rubric.
  • One they will revise to extend the argument beyond the bounds of the original prompt. This means that they will include more of the text in their argument or bring in another to compare/contrast. This asks them to take the timed write as a very tentative starting point for something that will be more extensive.
  • One they will revise to transform the timed write into something completely different. This asks students to take the core of the argument and make it the core of another piece of writing that looks completely different. A poem? A short story? A letter to the editor?

They’ll revise these until it seems they’ve learned what they can from the writing work–an on-going process throughout the semester. (Read more about how we’ll approach these revisions here.)

And I’ve developed a semester punch list to help guide their choice surrounding their writing as well. Workshop is not about totally free, unencumbered choice. It’s meaningful choice within a carefully constructed scaffold that enables students to soar with enough support to grow.

4) Stop Grading

You know this is a huge focus of mine if you’ve spent any time at all reading this blog. I argue that especially for workshop teaching, getting students focused on the work rather than the grade is critical. Readers and writers need to know it’s okay to take risks without there being a possibility of points lost affecting a grade that has high stakes.

Here’s how I’m approaching AP Lit without traditional grades:

  • Day one: we will read and discuss excerpts from Alfie Kohn’s Case Against Grades to begin the conversation about shifting their focus to learning rather than grades.
  • Gradeboook: I have to record number data there. I can’t ignore it. My school uses it weekly for things that have nothing to do with my classroom (e.g., athletic eligibility). I’ll keep track of whether or not students are doing the work. This is NOT grading for completion or points for compliance. Not at all. This becomes a data point to let all stakeholders know if students are doing the work or not. If that number does not equal 100%, it’s a signal to students that they have some work to do. I will also record qualitative notes to let students and other stakeholders know what the student is working on and what growth is happening.
  • Rubric scores: In my SLCC class, I’ve moved away from rubric scores totally. The main reason for this is that my students are always working on such wildly different pieces of writing that I would essentially need a rubric for each piece. My feedback does focus on figuring out what the student is working to achieve in the piece of writing and what the student can focus on to get there. But for the AP Lit exam, there IS a rubric–three actually–and the better students know these rubrics, the more successful they will be with there interpretive analytical writing. We’ll use the rubric frequently and we’ll keep track of the scores, but not in any kind of way that will calculate into an ongoing grade. Frequently, AP teachers will do something like this with the rubric scores to turn them into a grade: 9 = 95%, 8 = 90%, 7 = 85%, 6 = 80%… I just don’t want my students worrying about high stakes grades that will affect their overall percentage on every single timed write that they do. It’s a skill that the need to hone. They need to be free to take risks–some that will work out brilliantly and some that will be a disaster. But that’s how we learn. So in the “grade” box for a timed write in my gradebook I will indicate if the task has been completed or not, and in the comment box I will indicate what the rubric score was. Students will then be able to see how they’re doing on that rubric but no stakes will be attached.
  • Semester grade based on process and growth rather than a collection of points: In the end, I want the semester grade negotiation process to be an opportunity for meaningful reflection over learning and growth. Students will look back over their work, the data I’ve collected in IC, and their reflective writing about their learning goals and determine what grade best reflects the work and learning they’ve done. They’ll know exactly what this looks like from the start, with this. They’ll write me letters at semester’s end to let me know how they think they’ve done.

5) Community

A workshop classroom is a community of readers and writers. When functioning at its best, writers and readers in a workshop need each other desperately for feedback on their writing and thinking. I’m hoping to build this in AP Lit. Peer feedback. Response groups. Lots of opportunities for conversation. Meaningful collaborative projects. I want to build a sense that we’re all in this together, and the more we work together, the stronger we’ll all be.

6) Writer’s Notebook

This is an ongoing area of growth in my teaching and my own writing. I’m slowly figuring this out. I know what I want: students’ writer’s notebooks become indispensable extensions of their brains. I did my annual Target run last week for 50 cent composition notebooks that I give or sell to students. This year I also picked up various tabs and colorful tape for students to use to keep their writer’s notebooks organized. My own writer’s notebook has become more critical to my day-to-day existence, so I’m figuring some things out. I’ve been seeking out inspiration to imagine what writer’s notebooks could become. Sometimes it’s simply a matter of seeing concretely what you could build and then you can build it. Check out biology teacher Lee Ferguson’s Interactive Notebooks. Love it. And this inspiring example. I plan to work to get students’ notebooks under the document camera as often as possible so they can get ideas from each other about what to do with their notebook space.

In short, I want to turn students to their notebooks daily for meaningful work that really helps them with the main event of AP Lit: interpretive reading of complex literature.

As Jay pointed out in the post I linked to earlier, workshop is a pedagogical approach. It’s not something you squeeze in for a short creative writing unit. It’s not additive–it transforms your practice totally. But the reality of going workshop in high school is that sometimes it seems in contradiction with our other curricular expectations, like the AP Literature and Composition curriculum. It’s not necessarily possible to go full on reading/writing workshop immediately. But if I can work on doing less that is teacher-centered, teacher directed and more than orbits on student choice, process rather than product, and using class time to DO the most important work in a vibrant community of readers and writers, I’ll be moving toward workshop.

I’d love to hear from any other AP teachers and your thoughts about workshop.

This post is part of a blog series on teaching AP Lit with readers/writers workshop. Click here to see the entire series. 

Posted in #StopGrading, balancing, gradebook, making change, not grading, planning, teaching, teaching literature, workshop teaching | 5 Comments