Inviting Students to Read Required Books in AP Lit #WorkshopWorksForAP

Grade distribution for the summer reading exam over The Great Gatsby and Pride and Prejudice

To the right is the grade distribution that describes how my students did last fall on the multiple choice exam over their summer reading books.

What would you conclude if presented with that set of data from your students: did they read the books assigned for summer reading?

The grades seemed pretty strong–only 16 of them (28%) got fewer than 80% of the questions wrong. Given how notorious we ELA teachers are for writing difficult and specific questions over the books our students read, this appears to be pretty strong data suggesting that they did in fact read.

But I wasn’t so sure.

So I asked them.

Only 42% of students reported to have read all of both books assigned for summer reading. 51% said they read one (most often The Great Gatsby) and some or none of the other (most often Pride and Prejudice).

Students wrote on a piece of paper how much of the assigned summer reading they completed and how carefully they read. I asked them for complete and total honesty because in order to teach them well, I needed to know exactly what I was dealing with. I assured them that there was no grade penalty whatsoever attached to what they said, so it would not hurt them to admit to not reading if that was the case.

I discovered that only 41% of them had actually read both books. Over half of them had completed one book only (having read some or none of the second book). Two students completed neither book but read some of both of them. And two students read none of either of the assigned books.

I saw a contradiction between what the multiple choice reading exam showed and what my students told me when I asked them. Had I based my assessment over whether or not they had done the summer reading solely on the exam, I would have been pretty confident that the vast majority of them had read both books. But the majority of them had NOT read both books.

How did they still do so well on the exam?

You know how. Sparknotes. Watching the movies. Shmoop. It’s actually pretty easy to do okay on a multiple choice exam over books you haven’t read as long as you consult enough of these kinds of sources. I know. I’ve done this. That’s how I survived AP English Literature myself as a high school senior. I read not even one of the assigned books and got a B in the class and a 5 on the exam.

I’ve been teaching high school ELA for a couple of decades. I was not actually surprised by how few of my students had actually completed the summer reading assignment. In fact, I surveyed a class of 30 students several years ago to get a sense of how much they read of what was assigned to them in school. Only ONE of the 30 students indicated that she had read every single book assigned in the previous year of school. Most students could not recall even one title of a book that had been assigned to them.

I want my students to read. To ACTUALLY read. And I want them to read because we must read to make sense of our existence as human beings.

So if my goal is that my students will actually read the books, I need different data to help me see if they are hitting that goal. The multiple choice reading test didn’t give me the information I need; there was no reason for me to continue this kind of accountability measure . So as I did back in August, I asked students throughout the school year to tell me about the reading, with complete honesty, with no grade penalty at stake. On the date we were scheduled to begin conversation about each book, I gave each student a note card and asked for an honest report about whether or not they completed that book and how carefully they read it. I read their note cards, wrote a note back to them, put some data in the gradebook about what they said, and ask them to tape the card into their writer’s notebook so they could keep track of their reading over the course of the year.

Here’s what I’ve learned:

The first book we discussed together in class was Gatsby. According to student self-reports at the start of the year about their summer reading, most of them had read the book in its entirety. It was the book they had most likely read had they only read one of the two books. But the summer reading self-report data showed a different story for the second book we discussed in class together, Pride and Prejudice. Most of them had NOT read it. They had some time to read P&P if they hadn’t completed it over the summer while we were dealing with Gatsby. And by the time we started discussing P&P in class, 71% reported that they actually read it in its entirety. I was thrilled. Only 6 of my students reported to have read only some of Pride and Prejudice.

71% of students reported to have read all of Pride and Prejudice by the date we started discussing it in class. This included students who did not read it over the summer as assigned but read it in time for our work with it in class.

I’ll let you scroll through the charts for the rest of the books we discussed together and follow up with some thoughts…

70% of students reported to have read all of Frankenstein by the date we started discussing it in class.
71% of students reported to have read Othello by the date we started discussing it in class.
57% of students reported to have read all of The House of the Spirits by the date we started discussing it in class. (There were several students absent on this day for a field trip.)
70% of students reported to have read all of Beloved by the date we started discussing it in class.

Pretty consistently, around 70% of my students said they read each book completely– except for The House of the Spirits. From talking with my students and reading what they wrote on their notecards to explain what got in the way of completing the book, I think the book’s length and complexity was an issue. Many students told me that they just didn’t give themselves enough time to read it or that it took more time than they thought it would. This will be helpful information to pass along to my students next year. It’s also important to note that it’s uncertain how the 10 or so absent students that day skewed the data.

Another consistent data point was the number of students for each book who reported to have only read some of the book–4 to 6 students. I would have liked to see that number decrease, and I will work on that for next year.

When students wrote on notecards for me to tell me honestly if they read or not, I also asked for them to tell me how carefully they read. It was here that I saw some real growth:

Only 32% of students said that they read the summer reading books carefully.
Only 38% said they read Pride and Prejudice carefully.
69% of students said that they read Frankenstein carefully.
52% of students said that what they read Othello carefully.
61% of students said that they read The House of the Spirits carefully.
70% of students said that they read Beloved, carefully.

I was glad to see the jump from how many students reported to have read carefully for the summer reading and for Pride and Prejudice to how many students said they read carefully for the remaining books. The slight dip on Othello I think is very likely connected to it being Shakespeare. It takes much more time and effort to read carefully, which some students admitted to not having done in their notecards to me due to the difficulty of the text. Several students told me that they started out reading very carefully but then just wanted to get it done.

Thank you for hanging in there with all of my graphs here–by mistake, I purchased a writer’s notebook that had graph paper instead of lined paper and, well, it inspired the graphing.

Putting my purchased-by-mistake graph paper writer’s notebook to good use.

But the point here is this: traditional accountability measures like reading quizzes/tests fail to give us the data we need to really know how our students are doing as readers. If there are high stakes attached to these measures (grades), then students might do whatever it takes to get the grade that they want. Often this includes things that they do instead of reading. If they can still do fine on the traditional accountability measure with out reading, then why would they engage in the difficulty of reading the challenging literature that an AP Lit course asks of them?


My students did reasonably fine on the multiple choice test over the two books that they were supposed to read for summer reading, yet only 41% of them actually read both books. I am not okay with that. I will not use traditional accountability measures to get my students to read. Here’s my alternate approach:

1) Dedicate class time to reading.

If reading is so important, then we need to spend class time doing it. Students will learn to value whatever it is that we teachers decide dedicate minutes in class to. Hence, my students have 30 minutes every Monday to read silently. I tell them that job #1 is reading the books assigned for class. Job #2 is reading other books of equal literary value (I provided to them the list of authors recommended by the College Board for AP Lit). Job #3 is reading anything they want. I have some ideas for next year to provide a bit more structure to the independent reading (a list of contemporary writers doing really incredible work like Jesmyn Ward, George Saunders, Mohsin Hamid, and Paul Beatty and some book clubs to help to cultivate some reading habits for life) (the Man Booker award winners and shortlist nominees has become a go-to for me in my own personal reading of late). The 30 minutes on Mondays for reading has become critically important in my classroom. Students know it’s their job to show up with a book to read. Many use this time to re-read sections of our assigned novels (which I love). I also invite them to use a few minutes of it to head to our school library to browse the fiction section as needed. I can monitor their reading and have some brief reading conferences. And I always try to sit down for at least a few minutes of it and read with them. It makes reading a thing we do together.

2) Re-purpose traditional accountability measures as low-stakes “reading comprehension checks.”

Since I’m not using reading quizzes as accountability measures, I have re-purposed them into “reading comprehension checks.” These are google forms that I build as I’m reading the book myself. It’s multiple choice so I can set the google form as a quiz and the students can get immediate feedback on how they did with the questions. They can go through the form as many times as they want–it will let them know which answers they got wrong but won’t tell them the right answers (look here for screenshots of the necessary google form settings). In this way, working through the form becomes a learning experience–they can use it to check and hone their understanding of the text. I make it available as they are reading so they can check comprehension as they go, but I set a date for completion about a week or so after the book is due for class discussion. As an example, here’s my reading comprehension check for Beloved. It’s a difficult read on so many levels, but the constant movement between present and past in the book makes simple comprehension of what’s happening in the story a challenge. Of course we talk about the purpose of the interplay of past and present in the narrative once we get into our discussion of the text, but I designed the reading comprehension check to help the students to keep track of what happened–present vs. past–in each chapter. There’s a list of plot events for each chapter and their job is to check off which of them happened in the present timeline of the book. You’ll see at the start of the google form that I drew the plot events from an online source (Shmoop). I’m working to model for them responsible use of those kinds of resources–alongside a text rather than instead of reading the book. Especially with a tough book like Beloved, students might give up if they have no help to make sense of things. There are many tools at their disposal that they can use to assist a successful reading of a difficult piece of literature.

3) Use a variety of strategies to support students as they work toward deadlines for assigned reading.

We don’t discuss or write about a book in class until the students have read it in its entirety. In a class like AP Lit, I have always wanted to have the entire text available for our work with it. Otherwise, it’s like trying to interpret a painting when you’ve only seen a little bit of it. I do know, however, that my students need some help along the way for a successful reading experience. I assign discussions in Google classroom (using the “question” feature). Students post a thought or question they have about the reading when we are maybe 2 weeks away from the due date for discussion and then read other students’ posts and choose one to respond to. This becomes an opportunity for me to monitor what they are thinking about the reading and jump in to offer some clarification where needed. And it’s a bit of encouragement to read. The weekly in-class reading time also helps here because I can check in with students if they’re struggling with the reading and offer some individualized instruction. I also launch the reading of each book with a short presentation–who wrote the book, what was going on in the world when the book was written, what the key elements of the text are, what might be difficult, some essential questions to consider as they read, etc. I spend no more than 20 minutes on this, but it lends some context and background to students for their reading and also is a very clear “hey, you need to start reading this book!” And of course having the reading comprehension checks available for students while they are reading can be an important support to them. So I’m not assigning ranges of chapters and working with students as they read, but I am offering some supports to them, suggestions about how to manage their time to hit the reading due dates for each book, and creating natural opportunities for me to monitor their reading along the way.

4) Be an active member of the reading community.

I have to remember that I’m a critical member of our reading community. I re-read the books every time I teach them, and I tell students how it’s going–quick updates at the beginning of class, stories about my efforts to get through a book, etc. I also talk a lot with them about my own reading practice. Over the last several years, I’ve made concerted efforts to read more and to model that for my students. There’s a link in my email signature to my Goodreads account, and I also post that link on my Google Classroom pages so students can take a look at what I’ve read, what I’m reading, and what I plan to read.

5) Frequently collect meaningful data on their reading progress.

I ask students every week how their reading is going. They fill out a google form that takes them only a few moments during Monday’s reading time. The form asks them how much time they spent reading in the past week (I ask for 2 to 3 hours), what they read during that time, how the reading is going, and what their reading plans are for the next week. I look over the resulting data to make plans for reading conferences, and cumulatively over the course of a semester, I end up with a detailed portrait of each student as a reader. This is way better information for me than a bunch of reading quiz scores. This information actually gives me a shot at helping students strengthen as readers–not just for my classroom, but for the rest of their lives. (This is what I say to them on the last day of school, that their assignment is to read books that challenge them as human beings for 2 to 3 hours per week for the rest of their lives.)

6) Do not attach any grades to students’ reading progress. 

This is so critical. You can read much more about my approach to grades in my blog series on grading. But the relevant point here is that students may not be totally honest with us about their actual progress as readers if they know that there is some high stakes grade consequence for what they say about it. And it’s high stakes to our students if there is some kind of score attached to reading progress data that calculates into the overall grade that students monitor so carefully through our online gradebooks. Even in my gradebook where I tell students that the number they see is not their grade but rather a simple metric to let us know if they are getting the work done or not, I don’t let the reading progress data I collect have any impact on the number the gradebook spits out. I build a qualitative data record instead. It looks like this:
The words you see in the last column are the student’s own. They are what she typed into the weekly reading check in google form. I did a simple copy/paste from the spreadsheet holding the google form data to the gradebook–this takes me about three minutes per class. For very little time and effort on my part, I have an excellent qualitative data record on this student’s reading progress. I can use this to get insight into her life as a reader. And she was honest with me because she knows there was no grade penalty if she didn’t achieve the weekly reading goal.


What do you do to invite your AP Lit students to read the required texts?

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 #DisruptGrading, #WorkshopWorksForAP, AP Lit, blog series, gradebook, making change, motivating students, summer 2018 blog series, teaching literature, teaching reading, workshop teaching | 9 Comments

Heading to Houston for #NCTE18

We look forward to this conversation with you in November:

Posted in #DisruptGrading, #NCTE18, #StopGrading, gratitude, not grading, on the road again, presenting, teaching writing, workshop teaching | Leave a comment

The importance of writing with your students… #WorkshopWorksForAP

I’m teaching AP Lit for the first time in about fifteen years this year. And I’ve started doing something that I never did in those years before: I’m doing the timed writings I ask of them. When they sit down to write, so do I. Under the same time restrictions, they and I both struggle to make sense of a dense passage or of an abstract poem or work to conjure up enough to say about a novel that we’ve read and discussed together.

The first few I wrote were the poetry or passage analysis type of prompt. We all had the same text sitting in front of us, the same question to answer, the same blank sheets of lined paper, the same requirement for blue or black ink, the same chunk of time. I discovered that the task is really challenging, and even more challenging with the limited time. I discovered that my brain maybe works more complexly than it did when I was seventeen–good because I could find more to write about but bad because it was complicated and difficult to reign in concisely in about 45 minutes. The result of me writing with them was some first-hand knowledge of their experience and a better ability to coach them in my feedback as I read their work and talked with them as a class about how they all approached the analysis.

But it was in the “question 3” style essay that we wrote where I really started to wonder why I had never written the timed essays with my students. I found a couple of prompts from the list of past AP Lit exam prompts that I thought would be fruitful for my students to write about Othello a few weeks ago as our ultimate culmination of our work with the text. We had a fruitful socratic seminar conversation the day before the timed writing, which is an excellent prewriting activity. My students have always struggled with clear theme statements that capture what they think a work of literature is asking of us as human beings, so as they spoke in the seminar, I made sure to point out the theme statements that naturally spilled out of the conversation. I encouraged students to list theme statements in their writer’s notebooks and think about which aspects of the text got to those themes–good prep, I thought, for the next day’s timed essay.

And then I went home and spent my evening probably reading student papers and such per usual, not thinking anything of the timed writing task that was waiting for my students and me in class the next day.

And I was woefully unprepared.

I’m the teacher, right? I had all the text details in my head, right? Surely I was ready to write an awesome essay. Hmm.

I struggled. Significantly. When I needed a clear, concise theme statement that lined up with the prompt I had chosen to write to, I couldn’t pull one forward in my head as readily as I needed to. I stumbled through the intro–it took me ten of my precious minutes to write it, and it came out of me in fits and spurts, many words crossed out along the way. By the end of the intro, I had a plan for the rest of the essay, but I struggled even more. I kept asking myself, “when exactly was that moment when Iago said________?” And “at what point of the play did Othello____________?” I had the generalities of the play at my fingertips, but the specific details I needed to write a well-supported interpretive analysis were nowhere available in my mind. It was so frustrating.

The bell rang and I wasn’t even close to being finished. I wrote hugely on my paper where the rest of the essay should have been, “LESSON LEARNED: review theme statements and text details for a more successful writing experience.”

Then I started to wonder how many of my students had had a similarly frustrating writing experience. I know the prep work I needed to do and didn’t do, but do they? Do they know what they should be doing to prepare for this kind of task?

Since then, we’ve made some changes. The last few minutes of every discussion day about our books is reserved for some very targeted writer’s notebook work–collecting theme statements and details from the text that students could use to write an essay arguing for that particular theme statement. Here is one page of notes in my writer’s notebook toward that goal:

Had I not been writing timed writes with my students, I would not have seen–from inside the process of doing a timed write–that my students needed some additional instruction. The few minutes we spent on theme statements and related text details at the end of class discussions this past semester were time extremely well spent. Students reported that they felt prepared for the open question on the AP exam due to this work that we did.

One cornerstone of writing workshop is that the teacher needs to be a writer too. The idea is that writing is best taught by someone in the midst of the struggle of writing. You see things there that you don’t see if you’re standing on the outside, watching your students write and then responding to their writing from there. How long has it been since you did the kind of timed writing required on the AP Lit exam? Get in there and write with your students. Yes, you’re trading the precious time you get when an entire class is busy with something for a class period and they don’t need you. Yes, you have to find time outside of class to do your own prep work for the essay. Yes, I’m asking you to willingly do something that’s kind of frustrating–spitting out a coherent argument about a complex text in the space of 45 minutes or so. But I argue it’s necessary. (And the literature geek in me thinks it’s actually kind of fun!)

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 #WorkshopWorksForAP, AP Lit, blog series, summer 2018 blog series, teaching writing, workshop teaching, writing with students | 3 Comments


One reason I go to NCTE every year is to listen.

There are people I try to see every year, just to hear what they are thinking about and working on. Just to hear what they think the rest of us need to think about and work on. Ever since I first saw him at NCTE16, Cornelius Minor has become one of those people.

Cornelius was the key note speaker at the CEL luncheon–my first time ever attending the conference after the conference. At the core of his talk was a call to action: support teachers to take on their own classroom-based action research that confronts the problems that plague their classrooms. He framed all of this with a larger conversation about systems that oppress our students, about how when we remain neutral in a stream we go with it, about how when we remain neutral in a system, we perpetuate it. About how it’s not enough to just say you’re against a system that oppresses–you have to actively disrupt it. He presented a lengthy list of places where oppression hides in schools, and grading wasn’t on the list, but it certainly belongs there.

The grading system as we know it–points/grades for compliance and a constantly updating, high stakes grade in the electronic gradebook–fails to empower students to own their learning and growth. It’s a power system where the one who awards the points and grades has all the power and students are left scrambling to collect as many points as they can.

What our students need to be doing instead is honing their skills as readers and writers. Ours is a complex world to read. They need to be able read that complexity if they’ll be able to write their own futures within it.

Cornelius reminded us that what we teach–literacy–at its center is not an academic pursuit. It’s a socio-political one. Literacy sits at the core of democracy. Teaching literacy is a radical concept, he explained, and denying literacy of any human is one of the most vicious forms of oppression that there is.

My no-grades journey has always been about empowering students. It’s always been about creating a classroom where they own the learning rather than waiting for the numbers I put in the gradebook to tell them if they’ve learned anything or not. When it was about the number, the points, the grade, that is all my students looked at rather than the critically important learning they need to do.

When I’ve said in the past “stop grading,” it doesn’t really capture the work we need to do. In most cases, we can’t stop grading. I can’t. I still have to get to semester grades. But there’s nothing that says I can’t get there in ways that will lead to more empowerment for my students. I can disrupt the grading that is expected of me. THAT is what I’ve been up to for the last four years, even though along the way I didn’t quite have the right term to capture it.

So let’s disrupt grading. The blog series I wrote last fall is about that. I’m hoping to turn it into a book–that’s been my focus of late, and it’s the main reason this blog hasn’t gotten as much attention as it should.

Best of luck fellow teacher friends out there with the end of the semester. At my school, we have one more week for finals. I’m buried in semester grade letters–but the stories my students are telling me about their journeys as readers and writers this semester are inspiring. I’m loving every moment of it.

We can make grading a route to empowerment. We can make the semester grade an opportunity for reflection over and celebration of our students’ learning.

We can disrupt grading.

Posted in #DisruptGrading, #NCTE17, #StopGrading, gradebook, grading, not grading, reflections, the system, things made of awesome | 1 Comment

The English Teacher Blues (#ncte17)

Home already, thanks to the magic of air travel. There wasn’t really a venue for this at the conference, but I did a ton of writing this year at NCTE. And I did manage to work up a whole song. Just for you all. So here, in its global premier, is ‘The English Teacher Blues.’


Posted in #NCTE17, things made of awesome | Tagged | 2 Comments

Fear and Loathing in St. Louis (#NCTE17)

I know that sounds terrible, but it was the only good title I could think of. (I’m writing on my phone at the airport, forgive the typos)

I had a great time at NCTE.

I saw old friends, made new friends, and we got Tracey to blog!!!!

That’s a lot of wins. And I like wins.

But my theme for this conference is authenticity, which means being real. And the real is I also heard some tough stuff at this conference.

We were talking at dinner on Friday and someone I really respect (Stevi Quate- check her out, she’s awesome) challenged me to really think through how I would encourage and advise a fellow teacher to start changing things in the classroom in the way that we’ve been advocating. I like being challenged and pushed and it was a fair call, especially knowing how hard it is to enact change under even the best of circumstances.

In our presentation on Saturday many teachers asked about how to do the things we do when there is either subtle or overt resistance to change in departments, schools and districts, and from colleagues, administrators, and communities. Those are serious questions that we are trying to answer (here’s one take from a while back- it’s hardly complete, but it’s a start).

At dinner I finally got the full story about a teacher who nearly lost a job because of what they posted online. It’s a long and interesting story, and I encouraged that teacher to write about it, because it’s a story that needs to be told.

Last night we went to Fountains of the Muse (holy crap people, why didn’t someone tell us about this, and why aren’t you ALL there. Never mind, next year I’m making you go). We got talking, near the end, about the challenge of being who we really are as teachers and people (I’m a musician, and I think that raised some questions, since I’m also a teacher). Several folks shared about the fear they feel around revealing parts of themselves as teachers. We shared a bit about our fears about blogging when we first started- and we did have fears.

And we are judged, and shamed, and silenced. Often. In our departments, in our schools, in our districts, and in our state and national politics. That is the real. That is one of our truths. And we need to speak that truth.

Here’s another truth. There are a lot of us. Together we have a big voice. A really big voice. NCTE is a way to connect with others, to amplify our voice. Find other ways. Make friends and allies. In your school. Your neighborhood. Your union. Your local politics. Your state association. Twitter (yes, it’s a cesspool, but it’s also a great way to connect). However you do it, find your people, find your voice, be heard. We need all of us to join in here. Even you.

Posted in #NCTE17, balancing, community, cultivating our voice, relationship | 1 Comment

“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