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

A palpable silence descended in room 811.

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

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

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

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

But I did not expect such intense, quiet focus.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





Posted in #StopGrading, community, feedback, grading, motivating students, not grading, teaching writing, workshop teaching | 8 Comments

And the best way to take conference notes is…

I don’t actually know what the best way is to take notes on my reading and writing conferences with my students. But a new method (to me) has recently descended upon me that is working pretty well. It all came about when I realized several weeks ago that I wasn’t doing a very good job recording conference notes in my gradebook.

A short sidestep is necessary here: having the notes in my gradebook, has become my new favorite way to keep track of the instructional conversations I have with my students. Not only can I see the notes, but anyone else who has access to gradebook data for an individual student can see the notes as well. Students can review what we talked about. Parents can see what kind of instructional conversations I’m having with their students in the classroom. My special education students’ case managers can see what suggestions I’ve given for their work and can follow up on them. In short, it gives everyone in a student’s circle of support access to the same set of data I use to keep track of the individualized instruction I offer for each student through our conference conversations.

And the gradebook makes a surprisingly useful database for conference notes. I can hover the cursor over any cell that has a note with it, and the note will pop up in a bubble. This makes it incredibly quick and easy to survey my conference data and figure out a plan of attack for instruction based on the current needs of my students.

But it was early March, and the columns in my gradebook for conference notes were way too empty for it being mid-semester. I had to ask myself what was going on.

I realized I didn’t want to carry my computer around anymore. Though typing the conference notes right there while the conference is wrapping up is incredibly efficient–no data entry time needed later–I was growing tired of finding a place to set my computer down so I could type, or of balancing it on my left arm while I typed away (badly) one handed with my right hand. Rather than making students come to me one at a time where I might be sitting at a desk or something with my computer set up (I end up talking to fewer students), I like to be out and about with my students as they work, pausing for conference conversations as I circulate (I end up talking to more students!). But carrying the computer around was becoming the limiting factor. I kept opting for leaving it at my desk instead.

For January, February, and March, I was having lots of instructional conversations with my students, but I didn’t have the data to show for it. That’s no use for anyone. Not for me, not for my students, not for anyone. How am I supposed to plan for instruction when I can’t look across my conference notes? How am I to expect that I’ll remember every single conference conversation that I have with my students? I needed those notes!

I had to do something differently.

Proof that journalists use reporter’s notebooks: my friend’s desk at The Boston Globe.

I looked at one of the many reporter’s notebooks I have stashed away in my desk. As a newspaper adviser, I tend to collect them.  Nearly any conference for journalism advisers includes a free reporter’s notebook. There’s a reason reporters actually use them. They are small and easy to carry around, easy to write with as you hold them in your hand.


So I grabbed one. I wrote “conference notes” on the front with a sharpie. Off I went.

IMG_1948Now, when I am circulating among my students as they are working, I make sure I have the reporter’s notebook with me. And I’m brutal with myself–any conversation that has even a hint of instruction to it means I’m taking notes. The notes are likely not legible to any person but me–but I’m also committed to transferring my notes from the reporter’s notebook to my gradebook as soon as possible after class is over so I can capture more of the detail from the conversation as I record my notes in my gradebook. Specific detail leaves my memory as time passes between the conference conversation and transferring my notes to the gradebook–the sooner I can do this the better.

Holding the reporter’s notebook in my hand and writing in it is easy. It’s unobtrusive. It’s quick for taking notes. I have a ready-made surface if I wish to draw a diagram or write out a sentence as a part of my conference conversation (like I did last week–I drew out a diagram of the narrative structure of Toni Morrison’s Beloved as I listened to what was confusing my student about the book).

After class–as soon as I can make it happen after class–I move my conference notes from the reporter’s notebook to my gradebook. It doesn’t take very long at all.

My gradebook is open and the reporter’s notebook sits right there next to my computer as I transfer my notes. (Ignore the messy desk in the background!)

But the most important thing is that now I’m recording in my gradebook so many more notes about my conference conversations. I have more data to work from as I plan instruction. Students have more information to consult to make sense of the work and learning they are doing in my class. I have better data on what my students are learning than the points and numbers that used to fill my gradebook. (Read more about the various ways I’ve hacked my gradebook here.)

In a workshop classroom, conference conversations are central. They are the setting for the powerful individualized instruction that workshop makes possible. But I cannot harness that power unless I keep track of the conversations.

This is not THE best way to take and keep track of conference notes, but it’s MY (current) best way. It doesn’t really matter how I do it–I just need to keep track of the instructional conversations I have with my students.

What’s your system?

Posted in #StopGrading, conferring, feedback, gradebook, teaching reading, teaching writing, Uncategorized, workshop teaching | Leave a comment

Some poetry, a broken bone, and gratitude that winter is over

I write this from my dining room table on the Monday of spring break. I can hear my husband typing away in the office. My daughter is working out an Adele song on the piano downstairs. I can hear rain–sorely needed here after our first wildfire of the season last weekend–rain tapping on the house. It’s late. I’m tired. Today I spent a few hours in a coffee shop reading and thinking and writing, hiked with a friend, read my book on the couch. Tomorrow the plan is pretty much the same.

The last few weeks have been days at school, evenings responding to student work, conscious efforts to sleep and yoga and hike in the spaces between everything else. “Everything else” included daily hours at the hospital and rehab center for almost three weeks after my mom broke her femur (!) at the end of February. I’ve barely checked Facebook or posted on Instagram. I dip into Twitter a couple of times a day to check the news, see what my teacher colleagues are up to across the country. I haven’t done a great job making dinner very often for my family.

It’s always been a challenge to manage the “extra” stuff on top of my full time teaching gig–like this blog. Like the other writing I have been working on. Like keeping in touch with teacher colleagues near and far. This “extra” stuff energizes me in my teaching work. It keeps me connected to the wider conversation going on about teaching reading and writing.

But it’s been two years in a row now that February has ushered in a period of unproductivity for me in all things “extra.”

Perhaps I’m slowly surfacing. Mom is home and doing really well. She’ll be able to drive again pretty soon and won’t need help with groceries and pharmacy runs. The calendar says it’s spring. The daffodils are up in our yard. There’s no snowstorm in the forecast like we had last year over spring break (but I do know of course that the front range of Colorado and snow do not for sure part ways until mid-May, so I’m ready for more of it if it comes).

I did write some poetry, which I’ve been meaning to post here for a few weeks. We’ve been lucky this year to have the Writers in the Schools program working with our seniors, a project supported by Colorado Humanities and funded by the National Endowment for Humanities. Monica Prince, poet extraordinaire, was one of the writers who worked with our students, and she got us going on negative capability poems, which talk about things without actually talking about them. She started us off with “This is not a poem about…” This turned out to be the perfect prompt to spill the thoughts that were swirling as I approached the year anniversary of losing my dad. After some revision based on feedback from my students and from Monica, I’ll share the poem here with you. Writing teachers need to write and share that writing with their students. Here at The Paper Graders, we want to share some of that writing with you too.


Poem Not to be Read Following the Year After You Leave


This is not a poem about January

and how the landscape is brown and dead

or how the trees have no leaves, just

stark branches, veins against the

too-frequently grey sky.


This is not a poem about the memories

that walk into my consciousness

constantly uninvited.


Chicken saltimboca at Maggiano’s,

red sauce on your chin

and later, “I’m sorry I’m just not very good company anymore,”

as you shuffled along with your walker

outside of the Pepsi Center.

“Dad, I love just spending time with you.”

I did not know then that this was the last Italian meal with you,

the last Nuggets game with you.


This is not about the early February snow day we got–

just one week before.

This is not about sitting outside Jane’s math classroom,

waiting for a conference with her teacher–

a few days before.

This is not about being at your house for the Superbowl,

pizza, snacks, salad.

We encouraged you to cheer when the Broncos won–

twenty four hours before.

This is not about the last time I said goodbye,


not knowing the next time I would see you

would be in the ER




After Paul showed up at the door

to the yoga studio as I rolled up my mat–

“Sarah, your dad.”

After the frantic drive down US 36.

After the text from my brother to slow down–you

were already gone.

After tears

like that time I fell off my bike, hit my head on the flagstone sidewalk, and

didn’t wake up until I was already in your arms–

you carrying me home.


This is not a poem about your empty shoes,

the clutter on your dresser that we had to sort through,

your photos on the wall.

This is not about your ring, your watch–now mine,

your collection of lapel pins.

This is not a poem about your 15 years of

lesson plans in binders in your office,

the words you left behind on your computer

(now squirrelled away in the cloud in case I need them someday).

This is not about your boxes in the garage,

old audio reels, slide carousels,

golf trophies, your tackle box–

ready to go with hooks and sinkers and lures and flies–

your golf clubs, your walker, the box of medical supplies

that had just arrived and we had to send back.


This is not a poem about dreading the grey, cold

days of January and February or hoping the Broncos

never make the playoffs again.


This poem is about how this morning I thought

as I walked to school,

“one year ago today I had only one week left with you

and I didn’t even know.”

Posted in balancing, life and death, muddling through, poetry, reflections, time, writing with students | 4 Comments

Step Ten: #StopGrading and ask your students to evaluate their own learning


I’ve had this post on my to-do list for months.

To be honest, this is the piece of this whole process that I have the most questions about, so I just kept putting off writing it.

I’m in a book group with some colleagues for some PD this year, and we’re reading Linda B. Nilson’s Creating self-regulated learners. I hope this will help me, but I need to articulate my questions before I read, so I’m intending to use this post to do that.

That’s the thing about blog writing–it can be tentative, exploratory, uncertain. I can write to learn here and maybe it will help you think through some things too.

And maybe you’ll read my thoughts and leave a comment that helps me.


So here’s what I have going on in my classroom that fits under the umbrella of the goal of having students evaluate their own learning:

  1. In September, I had them make pages in their writer’s notebooks with their own personal learning goals. Students chose goals for themselves from the Common Core State Standards (we are in a Common Core state). The task was to select at least seven standards (two writing, two reading, one speaking/listening, one language, one research) and paraphrase them into their own words and then write why they wanted to work on those particular standards. My students did some excellent work with this–as you can see in the images below. 2016-09-02-11-18-25 2016-09-02-10-15-58
  2. Throughout the semester, students wrote writer’s memos on every piece of writing. For weekly drafts, the memo asks students to identify their intentions with the piece, how it went, and what help they need from readers. For thorough revisions, the memo asks students to identify which of their standards the revision worked helped them with. Here’s an example memo from a revision:
    • I really needed to add more text details and quotes because they explained and gave examples to the vague statements I had earlier in my writing. Along with the major changes in my piece, I also had quite a few simple mistakes that I didn’t find at first. These things didn’t pop out at me when I reread my paper once I finished, but my group easily helped me fix them to an extent. My mentor text for this paper was Brittany’s college application essay Costco. Brittany’s narrative helped me because it had many examples of how certain events impacted her life, which I wanted to show in my paper. I used her ideas to create my own interpretation of McCandless’ experiences and how his anchors changed his life. I really wanted to start with how I believed anchors affected people, and what types people could have, and later tie it to McCandless’ story. My target standard was focused on craft and structure to determine the meaning of words and phrases, in this particular case the word “anchor” and what it truly means to McCandless and the reader. Overall I am happy with where this paper is now, and the details and adjustments I needed to add.
  3. At the end of October, we started working on our semester grade agreement. I wrote about that process here.
  4. At the end of the semester, students used that grade agreement to write letters to me identifying what grade they think they should have and why, providing evidence to support their claims about their learning. You can see the document I used to scaffold that work here. Here’s a excerpt from one student’s letter where he writes to explain how he met one of the learning goals the students identified (which he articulates in the first sentence):
    • This semester, I worked to improve my reading and writing ability for me, not anyone else, and definitely not for a grade. As I mentioned before, I have been able to take more risks, and have grown because of it. A specific example of how I did this as a reader was when I chose to read a particularly challenging choice book. I read Missoula, by Jon Krakauer. This book was not only challenging because of the content, but because of the highly-informative style in which it was written. It was often difficult to keep track of who was who, and exactly what everything meant, but I did it because I was interested in learning more about the book’s important topic, and to improve my nonfiction reading skills. An example of how I did this in writing was when I wrote a story about my dog for a weekly draft. I was never very good at narrative writing, but I gave it a shot for that draft. I tried to include as much detail as possible, and really make the story believable and interesting. I had to take risks to do this. If I had been worried about a grade, I probably would’ve chosen a different topic, because that would have been the safer choice.

In the last week of the semester, I read and responded to students’ grade letters. In most cases we agreed. But in several cases we didn’t agree. If I saw something different based on the data we had for those students, I pointed them back to that body of data and the grade agreement that we established and in some cases, invited students to do more work.

On the whole, I was pleased with the reflective work they did as they wrote their grade letters. I saw evidence of learning, learning that mattered to my students.

But I’m plagued with questions.

We started with the CCSS but didn’t use them in the grade letters. Shouldn’t the set of learning goals they establish early on line up with the learning goals they are using to evaluate their work at the end?

I know how the disconnect happened. I committed this year to use for the grade agreement learning goals that came from the students’ articulation of what seemed the most important work of the class. After several gradeless semesters, I could so easily craft a grade agreement that would be efficient to use in the end and that captures the work that the course asks of students, but the process of having the students do this thinking together is so important toward getting them focused on the learning. Asking my students, “What does this class ask you to learn?” got them started on identifying the learning work of the course. Putting this at the center of the grade agreement process is powerful. if I just handed them a list, they would not have to do that important thinking.

So in my quest to get students focused on the learning the class is asking of them and to be able to articulate that work in their own words, the learning goals the students had their hands on most frequently were not the list of the Common Core State Standards that each student selected for him/herself but rather the learning objectives that ended up on the grade agreement.

I’ve always worked to make learning goals very clear to students. I did some learning years ago with the assessment work done by Stiggins, and an idea has resonated with me ever since: students can hit learning targets that they can see clearly and that hold still for them. In the past this meant that I wrote clear, specific learning goals for my students. This morphed into me presenting a set of learning goals to my students (like the CCSS) and asking them to identify the ones that are most relevant to them each individually. And now I’ve started working on having students articulate those targets based on the work they have been doing in the class.

But what’s the best way to approach this?

After 21 years of watching students learn in my classroom, I have a pretty good idea about the work they need to do. The cleanest, simplest path to a set of learning goals would be for me to write the targets myself or hand them a list of pretty good learning targets, like the CCSS that capture what I know my students need to work on. But that puts something besides students at the center.

It’s messy to have students articulate the learning goals. And it takes time. But it’s important–critically so I argue. If my goal is to get students evaluating their own learning effectively, they need to know the learning goals well. They need to feel like they own them.

What role, then, do the standards and curriculum objectives play if they are not the center of my students’ work to evaluate their own learning?

Lately I’ve been thinking that the standards and curriculum objectives are solely my responsibility. It’s my job to plan a classroom experience for students that is based on the required standards and objectives. It’s my job to assess how well my students are meeting those standards and objectives. And if I’ve done my job well, there will be parallels between the required standards and objectives and the list of learning goals my students create together. The work of the classroom should reflect those standards and objectives.

But still there is this little worry dancing around in my mind–what about gradebooks that are aligned to the standards? What about putting the standards on the board each day? What about telling students which standards each assignment is helping them to master? Isn’t this all good assessment pedagogy?

Yes, that’s what has been explained to me over and over again, but I think that putting everywhere those standards that someone else wrote–someone who doesn’t even know my students–only serves to tell students that they are not the most important actors in their own education.

This does not mean that I can or will ignore the standards and my required curriculum. I start with them. Here’s what that looked like this year:

  1. I starting with my standards and required curriculum.
  2. I wrote a set of learning objectives for my students based on those required pieces, but that were a little more friendly for me to work with.
  3. I planned work my students could do to engage with those learning objectives: course curriculum, semester calendar, weekly routine.
  4. I met students and got them working. This included having students look at the Common Core State Standards and select a few for themselves individually and write them in their writer’s notebook (but in hindsight, I think in the future I will approach this step later, once we have the set of learning goals for the grade agreement–see #8 below). This also included having students write reflective memos on their writing to connect to their lists of individual standards.
  5. After a few weeks, I asked students, “what is this course asking you to learn?” Together they made a list of learning goals based the conversation we had starting with that question.
  6. I examined the list of learning goals students write together to be sure it lined up with the standards and curriculum I started with.  
  7. I had students choose the most important learning goals (they voted essentially) to become the class semester grade agreement.
  8. This is not what I did this year but may try in the future: have students each choose a few learning goals that best capture the learning they each need/want to do and ask them to record these in their writer’s notebook and reflect on them frequently (writer’s memos, conference conversations).
  9. At semester’s end, have students look over gradebook data, their writer’s memos, and their own work for evidence of their learning and growth to include in their grade letters.

How do you use your required standards and curriculum objectives to assess your students’ learning?

The other nagging question I have is about how much I know about my students’ learning. What evidence do I have that my students are learning? How clear is that evidence to everyone involved? If a grade should indicate to people how much students have learned, how well do the semester grades that end up in my gradebook accomplish this?

And what should a grade indicate anyhow?

I know that my points-based gradebooks of the past didn’t say much about my students as learners. My qualitative warehouse approach to my gradebook now tells me much more about my students as learners. But am I missing out on something important by not quantifying learning somehow, with numbers?

I know the numbers in my gradebooks in the past didn’t really quantify learning, so I shouldn’t be so worried about this. Those numbers told me more about my students’ ability to comply and collect points than they told me about how they grew as readers and writers. But the primacy of the number is so strong in our collective consciousness, so I worry.

Those numbers when they are “grades” communicate all kinds of things to our students about who they think the world thinks they are, and who they think the world says they need to be. According to the set of expectations students carry with them in their minds–reinforced repeatedly by the college application process, by car insurance good grade discounts, by things teachers and parents say to students about why good grades are important–if the number is over 90, you’re just fine. Below 80, something’s wrong with you. Our current online gradebooks that allow students to track that number as we enter test scores and grades makes every single data point high stakes for them.

My students can set the mobile app for our required gradebook to ping them anytime a teacher updates anything.

This is not healthy.

Students ask us, “how can I bring up my grade?” rather than, “how can I learn more?”

But still, am I missing anything by only quantifying how much of the work my students have completed that the class has asked of them?

Numbers do help us to see growth quickly and efficiently–that’s if they are actually meaningfully measuring growth.

But there’s really no quick or efficient way to make sense of students as they grow as readers and writers and thinkers and human beings.

I just want them to work genuinely in my classroom, and to think about themselves as learners, and to focus on the reading, the writing, and to see where they’ve grown and improved, and to take risks and fail and get stronger because of it, and to dive in to make the work as meaningful as they can for themselves.

I want them to do all of this free from the pressure and consequences of a grade that could drop at any time if they mess something up.

Thanks for reading if you’re still with me. Writing this has helped me to figure out a few things, including what I’m looking for as I read the book I mentioned at the start of this post. I’d love to know what reading this brought to mind for you? Anything you can help me with?

This is the sixteenth post in a series about not grading in the high school language arts classroom.

You can read other posts in the series here.  Start with the first post, “The English Teacher’s Holy Grail: #StopGrading” to read about how this series came to be.

This blog series will chronicle my journey through the 2016 fall semester using non-traditional approaches to grading, the thinking process I go through with my students, the steps we take along the way. I’m doing this for entirely selfish reasons–I want to capture it as clearly as I can, which will make it all work better for my students and me. I hope that being along for the journey will help you think about your classroom too.

Please check out this folder –it already contains some of the key documents about non traditional grading out of my classroom, and this is where I will store any documents I create or revise during this semester’s journey.

Check out this folder if you’d like to share your gradeless classroom resources with each other (and with me!) and/or enter into more conversation by joining the Google Group a reader set up. 

Posted in #StopGrading, 21st century teaching and learning, assessment, blog series, fall 2016 blog series, gradebook, grading, making change, not grading | 2 Comments

Ways to keep your students working without points (#StopGrading)


In conversations with teachers about alternatives to traditional assessment, especially skeptical teachers, I often hear, “there’s no way my students will work without points.”

I get it. I do. My journey to here has been lengthy. Paradigm shift does not happen immediately. In fact, you can see on this blog where I argued strongly with Jay that as good as it all sounded to stop grading, I just couldn’t. I needed those points, those grades–my classroom orbited on them. No way I could step away. (I went back and forth with Jay in these three posts: But I am grading, 28 February 2012, Blog throwdown! “Grading” and other offensive words. Bonus tuba solo, 2 March 2012, Without Systemic Change, we Grade, 15 March 2012.)

The thing is that students WILL work without grades and points.

They want to do work that matters to them.

Penny Kittle reminds us that our students want to read and they want to write, if we let them.

So in true internet fashion (I’m moving my thinking slowly back into work world after a lovely holiday break), here’s my list of ways to keep students working without points:


ONE: Engage students in conversation about WHY you’re not paying them with points and grades on everything that they do.

If you just stop doing what your students are accustomed to after years of schooling, they may meet your efforts with resistance. They’re caught up in the grades-for-compliance paradigm that organizes school too. But if you invite them to dialogue with you about grades, about learning–if you ask them about their experiences with these things in school and really listen to them, you and your students can become partners in shifting their focus to learning instead of grades. They will voice some opposition–there is discomfort for everyone in stepping away from grades. They may ask, How will I know how I’m doing? What happens if I think I’m doing fine but then at the end of the semester you think I have a D for my semester grade but I think I should have an A? Be ready for these questions and explain that their concerns are valid and you’ve thought about them and want to continue hearing them.

My post about starting the conversation with students walks through how I approached this on the very first day of school this year. But the conversation continued throughout the semester. Commit to the conversation–listen, think it through together, work diligently to get your students on the same page. If students know WHY you aren’t doing grades per usual and HOW it intends to help them, they can build a completely different stance toward the work in your class. Rather than doing it for points/grades, they will have the opportunity to do the work for themselves, to learn.


TWO: Make the work as meaningful as possible.

What do your students really need as readers and writers to have a success future as human beings? Yes, we’re all working with curricula and standards that we must use, or even external AP or IB tests that we’re preparing our students for. But even in the context of these forces, we can design classroom experiences that anchor on work that students see as valuable and meaningful to their future as human beings.

Why do we read? To know ourselves better. To know our world better. To imagine the experiences of others and develop our empathy. I tell my students that the characters, plot twists, and conflicts in their lives will be more challenging than what they read in any book, but reading books will help prepare them for those difficult moments. No matter what we ask students to do with the reading we put in front of them, if we don’t couch it in these bigger reasons for why their very existence as human beings depends on their ability to develop lives as readers, the reading will not be meaningful. This means lots of discussion centered on students’ ideas about what they read–I love as a starting point for class discussion Kelly Gallagher’s very simple but powerful question, “What’s worth talking about?” If I tell them what they should have noticed or what we should talk about, the focus of our work becomes MY reading of the book. I’ve already read it. It’s not about me. Everything we do with text in my classroom must be centered on my students’ ideas about and experiences with the texts.

And why do we write? To understand ourselves. To make sense of our world. To join in a wider conversation. To learn. No matter what we ask our students to do with writing, we must contextualize it here. Writing should not be a meaningless task of meeting a teacher’s requirements or writing something that fulfills a predetermined formula (I’m talking about you, 5-paragraph essay). If we make decisions for students about the content, form, and purpose of their pieces of writing, we don’t ask them to develop their writing muscles. If students see that writing in your classroom is not an exercise in giving you, the teacher, what you want but rather an opportunity for them to develop their own words, ideas, and voice, they will want to do the work.

The mantra for my classroom that I hope captures all of this is “Read Our World to Write Your Future.”


THREE: Put student choice in the center.

The moment I realized that not all of my students had to be doing the same thing at the same time, my classroom opened up in really powerful ways.

Yes, there is value in everyone in my classroom reading the same book at the same time. We do this twice a year. And I’m very careful to choose books that I think will be engaging for as many of my students as possible. But for the rest of the semester, my students choose what they read. Sometimes it’s free choice with just a bit of guidance from me so that their choices help them make progress toward their semester work. Sometimes it’s choice bounded by a few selections for them to read in book groups. Sometimes I even have the class vote on the books that we read together as a class. If you are choosing all the books your students encounter in your classroom, you are bypassing the most powerful lever for student engagement as readers.

As for writing, my curriculum might specify certain types of writing my students need to complete. But they don’t have to do those all at the same time. I can ask students to choose when they want to tackle each of the different required types of writing, for example. I can ask them to choose which pieces they want to revise. I can rein in the chaos that this all suggests with standing deadlines, with a clear scaffold to guide student choice toward course learning goals and objectives, and with space for writing conferences so I can coach students through their decision making about their work and give them individualized instruction on their unique reading and writing goals. My colleagues and I accomplish all of this with our weekly draft/thorough revision structure and semester punch lists. These organizing structures help to keep together a classroom where students need not do the same things at the same time.  


FOUR: Individualize your instruction

Students will be more likely to work if they see that you recognize them as individual learners and that your classroom responds to their sets of unique needs. You can better accomplish this if your students spend class time doing the work so you can coach them individually as they read, as they write.

Of course my students do need to put in some time outside of class to get their reading and writing work accomplished for my class, but I dedicate huge swaths of time in class with students for them to do this very important work. This gives me the opportunity to individual instruction through conference conversations with individual students and small groups of them.

Why do a comma splice lesson for the whole class when only a few of your students show that they need it? Have a student who needs more support? You can provide that in conferences–more scaffolding, more ideas about how to put a piece of writing together, more help in how to get through a difficult text. Have a student who needs to be more challenged? You can provide that in conferences–help the student to design reading and writing work that really engages them and then have conversations to keep that student working.

One-size-fits-all classrooms can provide too many places for students to check out, to feel unseen, to just go through the motions to get the work done. But if your students know that you SEE them, that you value them, that you are learning to understand them, and that you want to help them grow and learn, they will work with you.


FIVE: Use workshop pedagogy?

You may be thinking that I’m talking about a reading/writing workshop based on what you’ve just read. Reading/writing workshop is a powerful way to get students doing meaningful work, to put student choice in the center of your classroom, and to individualize your instruction. My classroom is a reading/writing workshop, and it’s something I’ve been working toward for several years. I’m not totally there yet–there’s so much to learn about effective workshop pedagogy. But I’m getting closer every year. I love workshop so much that I find myself wondering why every language arts classroom isn’t a workshop. As I’ve put meaningful work, student choice, and individualize instruction in the center, these concepts have forged a clear path straight to workshop in my world. But there are other ways to accomplish these things, and I know that. I see it in my colleagues’ classrooms–I teach with some very talented and inspiring teachers, and my department includes both traditional and workshop classrooms.  If your classroom isn’t a workshop, where can you ask students to make choices about what they read and write? Where can you ask them to do the most meaningful work possible? Where can you make more space for individualized instruction?


SIX: Let students know how they are doing.

So you’re not giving students points and grades on their work, but that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t get feedback from you so they know how they are doing. There ARE numbers in my gradebook–the only thing that makes sense to me to quantify: how much of the work my students have completed.

The gradebook broadcasts a percentage throughout the semester, and I have to train my students and their parents to know that the number there is NOT the grade. It’s a number that shows how much work the student has completed. If it’s not 100%, the student has work to do. This lets students know if they’ve got work they need to take care of and helps to keep them working.

I also use the gradebook to provide more meaningful, qualitative information to my students about their progress. I record notes there from conference conversations and from my feedback on their writing so that my students and I (and their parents, and their special education teachers, and their counselors, and their administrators) can see how they are progressing as learners. It’s one thing to have conference conversations with students–powerful enough just this. But looking across a semester’s worth of notes on conference conversations can reveal trends and patterns and can illustrate a fuller story about a student as a learner. (I wrote much more about this in my post about hacking the gradebook.)


SEVEN: Provide incentives that have nothing to do with points.

The pull of “extra credit” is so strong that even in my gradeless classroom, my students still sometimes ask for it. Extra points are something we’ve all used as incentives to keep students working. But in a gradeless classroom, this makes absolutely no sense. I don’t want grades or points to be the reason for my students to do anything in my classroom. I don’t want students to do something simply because they’ll lose points if they don’t.

But incentives can be powerful, and I have two that I use to keep students working. Every Wednesday, there is a chunk of time in the middle of the day, 45 minutes, designated as “teacher access time.” My school carved this into our schedule a couple of years ago, recognizing that when students’ and teachers’ off periods do not line up, students may have a difficult time meeting with their teachers when they need help.

We can assign students to come to access time if they are behind in our classes, and I do. If my students are missing any major tasks for my class (their weekly drafts fall into this category), I assign them to come to access time. Getting the work done so they don’t have to come to access time is a powerful motivator because access time comes right before lunch, and they can have an extended lunch period instead. The school backs us on this–missed assigned access time means detention.

The other powerful motivator I have is flexible attendance on Fridays. This is something we’ve done for years with the senior class I teach. If students are totally caught up on their work (and their parents/guardians have signed off that they want their student to have the option to choose), Fridays are optional. Students will work incredibly hard for the opportunity to control their time–an excellent motivator. And this allows us to better differentiate the course, spend more time with the students who need the most help, and give students an opportunity to manage independent time effectively now before they head off to college next year.

What in your world could you offer as an incentive that has nothing to do with grades?


Students will work without points and grades to coax them along.

Engage them in the conversation.

Trust that they want to do work that matters to them.

Trust that they want to focus on learning more than collecting points.

But be warned that it will not happen immediately just because you announce that you’re not grading anymore. Students who are still entrenched in the grades-for-compliance paradigm may see this as an invitation to stop working. Put in the work to get your students on board and work on designing your classroom space to support them as learners doing work that matters to them.

How do you keep your students working without points and grades? Teach me in the comments below.

This is the fifteenth post in a series about not grading in the high school language arts classroom.

You can read other posts in the series here.  Start with the first post, “The English Teacher’s Holy Grail: #StopGrading” to read about how this series came to be.

This blog series will chronicle my journey through the 2016 fall semester using non-traditional approaches to grading, the thinking process I go through with my students, the steps we take along the way. I’m doing this for entirely selfish reasons–I want to capture it as clearly as I can, which will make it all work better for my students and me. I hope that being along for the journey will help you think about your classroom too.

Please check out this folder –it already contains some of the key documents about non traditional grading out of my classroom, and this is where I will store any documents I create or revise during this semester’s journey.

Check out this folder if you’d like to share your gradeless classroom resources with each other (and with me!) and/or enter into more conversation by joining the Google Group a reader set up. 


Posted in #StopGrading, blog series, fall 2016 blog series, gradebook, grading, motivating students, not grading, workshop teaching | 2 Comments

An Incomplete List–Writing with Students

At NCTE last week, the other Paper Graders and I discussed this blog space and what we want to do with it from here on out. One thing we thought we’d add is some of our own personal writing, the writing that we share with our students in class. We write with our students–probably not enough–but we have all witnessed the shift that happens in a classroom when the teacher enters into that writing space with students. 

This piece began as a writer’s notebook activity at UNHLit16. Penny Kittle shared with us an excerpt from the novel Station Eleven and invited us to write about our own loss using the same approach as the author did. I started a few tentative sentences then in the few minutes we had and wanted to come back to it.

When introducing mentor texts to my students this fall, I did come back to this piece. I shared the mentor text and then what I wrote that was inspired by it, and I talked with my students about how the mentor text helped me in my thinking and writing. 

An Incomplete List

No more golf courses. No more jiggers of Jack with a slice of lemon, ice cubes, and a splash of water. No more collections of dimes. No more support socks. No more suspenders. No more hearing aides. No more breakfast pears. No more ham steaks. No more need for your vegetarian daughter to roast turkey on Thanksgiving. No more corn on the cob. No more rhubarb pie. No more bottles of Italian red wine.

No more typing your responses to your students’ writing for you. No more worrying that you’ll fall and this time you’ll really get hurt. No more meds spread out across the bottom of a cereal bowl, hoping you were keeping it all straight. No more slow walks next to you as you pushed your walker. No more visits to the neurologist reviewing your symptoms to see what may have changed and to hear about what was coming for you as the disease progressed. No more opening my door to see you on your side in the lawn, having fallen backwards off the porch after ringing the doorbell. No more worrying about how to help you through the loss of yet another thing your body could no longer do.

No more complaints about salad or vegetarian meals or black beans. No more sideways glances at 4 ounce diet coke cans. No more huge bowls of popcorn inhaled on a Sunday afternoon. No more stopping at Chipotle to pick up a meal for you–brown rice, steak, pinto beans.

No more bracing for yet another conversation about politics, or church. No more copies of America magazine handed to me, open to a page containing an article you want me to read and talk to you about. No more worries something’s wrong if you haven’t heard from me. No more calls to let you know I made it back to Boulder.

No more phone calls from you for tech support. No more text messages with nothing but empty text bubbles. No more face time calls where you say, “Sarah, how am I seeing you right now?”

No more walks with you around Viele lake on Christmas day. No more walks around Mesa Lake. No more watching you turn your hat backwards for a little extra power to loft a rock across Lost Lake. No more worrying about how we would get you in a row boat so we could get you closer to the fish. No more hands of solitaire in the cabin on summer afternoons. No more cocktail hours, dinners on the grill, fishing at sunset.  

No more trips to Poland where we argued about whether or not you should buy the $300 stained glass panel that would be difficult to get home on the plane, where we walked together through Auschwitz and you sat on a low wall and cried because you were alive when the horrors there were happening but were oblivious to them in your Dearborn, Michigan childhood, where we sat at a cafe in the square at the center of Krakow and enjoyed the life happening all around us. No more trips to Rome–except I could go, but I wouldn’t have you as my tour guide, speaking in Italian with the locals, showing me the places of your life there so many years ago.

There was only one frantic drive down US 36 to the emergency room at St. Anthony’s North.

But you were already gone.

No more Dad.

Posted in #UNHLit16, cultivating real learning, life and death, mentor texts, teaching writing, writer's notebooks, writing, writing with students | 2 Comments

Outbound- #NCTE2016

We live in troubled times.

I am troubled.

I came to NCTE troubled. I’m guessing you did too. NCTE did not solve the worlds problems. Nor should it. It did, however, ease my sense of trouble some. Not because there is no trouble. But because I leave knowing I am not alone in feeling troubled, and in knowing that you may be troubled by some of the same things.

There is no burden so great that talking about cannot ease it some. There is no burden so great it cannot be shared. There is no burden so great that working together we cannot move towards solution.

The Papergraders are headed out for Thanksgiving. I am thankful for my colleagues, Sarah, Paul, Tracy, and Claire, for sharing this conference, for being my colleagues and friends. I’m thankful for you too. I’m hoping Claire will join in on this strange blogging journey we have been on for the last few years.

Thanks for coming to our sessions and sharing your struggles. It lightened my load to share your troubles. I hope it lightened yours to share them too. We are not alone. You are not alone. Our work is hard. Harder than it looks. HArder than even those who are close to us know. One of the benefits of NCTE is being with the people who know how hard this job is.

Ta-Nehisi Coates told us last night that we have to see things for what they are. So if you’re feeling troubled, well, I am too. And I think we are right to feel that way. We have to see what is, and what I see is troubling. I’m still working on what to do. I know you are too.

One thing we can do is go back to our classrooms and let our students know it’s okay to share their troubles. Let them know that they are not alone in these troubling times. Then together maybe we can move towards solution. Together.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Posted in #NCTE16 | Leave a comment

The Pedagogy of Furniture- #NCTE16

I don’t really want to sound angry- this is a thought, not a rant.

How we arrange the furniture matters. It matters in the classroom and it matters at a conference. We found presenting from a raised dais, with chairs in rows, with microphones that don’t move, pretty challenging.

I found attending presentations with rooms in that configuration pretty challenging.

I find the word ‘presentation,’ frankly, pretty challenging.

If I set up my classroom in a way such that the only acceptable dynamic was for me to deliver content and my students to passively accept it, you, my admins, my colleagues, and most importantly, my students, would be right to call BS on my teaching. I would call BS on that teaching. That isn’t how I really do anything.

Do you see where I’m going here? If all of us generally agree that the ‘sage on the stage’ mode is pretty outdated, pretty ineffective, and I think we do generally agree on that, then why are we presenting in rooms set up for only that?

In our Surviving (And Loving) Teaching presentation we expected the attendees to write, speak to one another, and speak to the group as a whole. Part of our goal was to get as many voices heard as we could (since we think being heard is an important part of ‘surviving (and loving) teaching.’ We got there, but we did so despite the furniture. Being up on that dais created a physical barrier between us and the other people in the room. I don’t want barriers between me and my students. OR between me and my colleagues. Most of my professional life has been trying to figure out how to knock down barriers, or at least get around them.

I’ve watched this dynamic my whole life. When I worked in the ski industry, someone who was the most engaging, dynamic instructor you could possible imagine when working with paying clients, suddenly had a group of colleagues freezing their butts off standing on the side of a run talking when they were in trainer mode. How many PD events have you been to where the leader was expounding on the need to be active and engaging while not actually being active and engaging themselves? Or even worse, making a gesture towards active and engaging without actually succeeding. I’ve been to grad school, three times. I can handle a lecture just fine. But fake active teaching just pisses me off.

One of the most delicious moments of irony in my professional life was my Ed Psych professor in my licensure program lecturing for eighty minutes about the need for multiple modalities of assessment in a course where the only assessment was multiple choice tests filled out on scan-tron sheets.

If we want teachers to teach in an active and engaging manner, then they need to be trained in ways to be active and engaging. They also need to be trained in active and engaging ways. We replicate the deep structures we are raised in. It took me years as a teacher to realize that if I really wanted to change how my classroom worked, I had to change how it looks. Part of that was rearranging the furniture.

We talked in our grading session about D.F. Wallace’s great speech “This Is Water.” ‘Water’ is the stuff that’s invisible. The structure you don’t question. The arrangement of the furniture and it’s profound effect on how we engage one another.

Just pointing out the water.

Posted in #NCTE16 | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

#NCTE16 Day Three: Radical Loving Kindness and Deepened Purpose


We were lucky this year to be able to do two presentations. Today’s was about surviving teaching. We intended an interactive session where our attendees talked more than we did. We wanted them to have space for conversation about the landscape of life as a teacher. We wanted them to leave with some concrete ideas about some things they could commit to in order to maybe make their day-to-day existence in this really difficult job a bit more manageable. We each shared a story from our teaching lives to help the people in our session think about their own teaching lives. My story was about balancing the parts of a teacher’s job that aren’t the actual teaching part.

A few years ago, I had a really challenging year. I was doing way too much on top of my classroom work. I shared this pie chart today in the session to help explain what happened that year and how I was able to think through making some adjustments. I was teaching 4 preps, including advising the yearbook AND newspaper. I was teaching a methods course at the nearby university. I had a .2FTE literacy coaching gig for my district. I was the journal editor for our state NCTE affiliate. I was a teacher consultant for the Colorado Writing Project. And I was on three district committees. Those are all of the pieces in the pie chart at the right. The pie chart represents the space I had in my mind to juggle all of this thinking work effectively–a diagram that helps me to remember that there is not infinite capacity in my mind for handling work, at least not if I want to do a good job at everything.

There are three huge pieces outside of the pie chart: one represents the writing I really wanted to do. The next reminds me that I’m a mom (and a wife and a sister and a daughter) and if my thinking energy is completely taken up with work, there is no space left for my family. The last pie piece that couldn’t fit into the pie chart for that year represents all the things I need to do to stay healthy: exercise, sleep, eat well.

After I made it through that school year, I had to make some tough choices. I wanted to fit those outside pie pieces in, so that meant getting rid of a few things: advising yearbook, editing the journal, teaching at the university, 2 of the 3 district committees, and the literacy coaching. I set all of that aside so I could focus on the things that mattered most, the things I felt I could have the most impact with: teaching, writing project, my writing, my family, my health.

Things have been more manageable since then, but it’s still a lot to keep moving along. When I look at that pie chart representing my work life from a few years ago, I wonder how in the hell I managed all of that. I’m grateful to these people, my dear colleagues I presented with today. Not only did they support me through that year where I had said yes to too many things and I could barely manage it all; they have also supported me in saying no when I need to in the time since then. Tracy, Paul, and Jay have all made some careful decisions about how to manage their work lives, and they show me that it’s okay to set very clear boundaries to make time and space for the things that they need to keep in their lives to keep them happy and healthy. My heroes, yes, in so many ways. How fortunate am I that I get to work with them?

We attended a research session today where Cati de los Rios and Donja Thomas presented their dissertation research on teaching ethnic studies in high schools. I cannot express to you how important their research is, especially now in this post-election world that has left many people in our country worried about their safety, their rights, their families. The students in Cati’s study learn in a vibrant, multi-lingual classroom space that values their culture and language and that asked them to think about the ways they could become civically engaged in their communities. Her work found that focusing on these literacies of civic engagement gave them the opportunity to engage in critical discussion and writing about oppressive social structures. It empowered them. It gave them voice. Donja’s research gave voice to the students involved in her ethnics studies course called English 12: African American Voice. We listened to the words of several of her students–a few of my favorites:

This world is not all unicorns and sunshines like they want you to believe. Get woke so you’re not walking around with ignorance, so you know what they don’t want you to know.

I do feel like I can make a difference and spread the truth.

I love how her work honors these voices. I love how the curriculum she built focuses in on how our country has wrongly educated us on race. She works to “break the chains of miseducation that imprison minds and brutalize bodies.” She argued that cultural studies should be an educational standard in our classrooms nationwide. I agree. Claire and I started talking immediately after the session about how we can engage this conversation in the senior class that we both teach.

Donja also offered us her vision on the heels of the election. She said that the 21st century should be a century of justice, and to get there, we all need to be clear-headed about race. We must create spaces for our students–all of them–to explore race, culture, identity, and power. She said that rather than despair, she now feels an expanded sense of purpose.

Ernest Morrell was the discussant for this research presentation. And as always, I found it a great challenge to take notes as he spoke because every sentence was something I wanted to capture (anyone else have this problem taking notes on Morrell’s presentations?). He made the point that ethnic studies are for everyone but right now, they are also radical self care and reconciliation, something sorely needed in American schools and in American society. We have some significant hurt and pain we need to heal. He also reminded us that what we teach has a greater impact on our students than what we say. If we say we’re all about valuing diverse experiences but don’t make sure all students can see themselves reflected in the texts and conversations we put before them, then we aren’t doing what needs to be done. He said that it’s an American journey to make sense of race, and this is something we need to do together. Ethnic studies, he said, are not just about our black and brown students. We need to “counter the idea that learning about others creates division.” Learning about others forges connection, and we need that now more than ever.

In the end, Morrell said “enough about marching.” He explained that once that kind of speaking out ends, we’re left with the day-to-day landscape of our classrooms. And that is the space where we need to advocate for each other. We need to stand up for voices left out in our departments for instance. We need to do the work every day in our interactions with each other, to stand together, to see each other, to value each other. We need to do this work every day with our students, to stand with them, to see them clearly, to value their lives and perspectives, to give them voice.

This is a message that lines up well with what I’ve heard in other presentations–Newkirk’s call for us to cultivate the practice of deliberate acts of kindness. Minor’s statement that we only deserve our teaching licenses if we demonstrate fierce, selfless love. Donja Thomas’s idea to see deepened purpose rather than despair. I feel so overwhelmed by the state of things post-election. Powerless against it all even. But kindness and love and deepened purpose are all things that I can do, that I am already doing to some degree, that I can commit to doing more of.

The day ended with Ta-Nehisi Coates. He paralleled the work we need to do in our country with the work humans need to do in relationships. Love is hard work. A marriage, a friendship–people are flawed and difficult to love sometimes. But to make a relationship work, you can’t ignore that. You have to strive to understand it and just get to work on the relationship. He said the same goes for loving our country. We need to understand the forces in history that have brought us to this moment and simply get to work. When asked how he has advocated for others in his life, Coates responded that he really has only one little thing he can offer–the time he spends with words on the page. That, he said, is what he’s good at. It’s what he can contribute to the world. So he focuses his efforts there.

Coates also said that school was best for him when he could connect what his teachers asked of him to something real and meaningful. This I think is the most important work that we can do. Reading and writing matter, but our students may not see that implicitly. We must show them. We must teach them to read our world (more complex than any book they will read) so that they can write their lives and future within it.



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Unfinished Thoughts- #NCTE16

I logged into the blog to try and capture a few thoughts the other day and realized I have five or six unfinished posts here. Unfinished thoughts. And that’s sort of where I’m at right now- unfinished thoughts.

Maybe that’s how it is sometime. Lots of things flitting through our minds with little or no focus. Glimpses of one thing or another. My teaching right now is similar. Trying lots of different things. Experimenting. Searching for bits that have clarity or focus.

Maybe it’s an election hangover. Having been soaked in unfinished thoughts and fragments for the last eighteen months, maybe I’m just stuck in that mode.

Now I’m in a session on fostering youth advocacy through writing. It’s really good, some excellent thoughts on how to invite students into a larger discourse about their world. And it is their world. Mitch Nobis opened by reminding us that our students are ‘real people,’ living in the ‘real world’ and they want real things to think and write about. How easy it can be to forget that.

I’ve been thinking a lot about authenticity recently. Mostly mine. How can I be ‘more real’ in the classroom? And by extension, how can I make a space that my students want to step into and be their ‘most real’ selves?

We presented to a full house this afternoon. I hope I managed some complete thoughts there. Nobody looked at us cross eyed, so I think we did okay. I am reminded that this is all a work in progress. There is no one perfect answer, ever. It’s a giant, uncontrolled experiment. It never ends. You just keep gathering data and tweaking the variables.

Now it’s Saturday morning. Paul and I are waiting for the rest of the crew in the convention center. Someone just came up and said nice things about our presentation yesterday. I guess we made sense.

Our students are with us for such a short time. A year, maybe two if you have them in two classes. I once had a student in three different classes over her four years of high school. I think she survived. We are just fragments of our student’s experience. Small pieces of the larger whole that is their lives.

Teaching is but a fragment of the whole that is our lives. Putting all the fragments together makes up the whole. We’re presenting today about surviving teaching. Part of that is remembering that it’s a fragment of your life. We are fragments of our students lives. Lives are made of fragments.

Unfinished thoughts. One after another. Making a whole.


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