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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A real highlight of my day was this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’re at #NCTE!

YeeeeHaaaaaaaw! Here we are in St. Louis.

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

Well be talking about stuff today and tomorrow:

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

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

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

Posted in #NCTE17 | 1 Comment

Community, Connection, Articulation, Reflection, Creation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You get the idea.

My answer comes in two big parts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

CLAS 2017- Presentation Materials

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They are free to take risks without grade penalty.

They are free to mess up without grade penalty.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are you doing to shift the conversation?

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

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

A Workshop Teacher Takes On AP Lit

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

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

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

I’ve become a reading/writing workshop teacher.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2) Choice Surrounding Reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3) Choice Surrounding Writing and Focus on Writing Process

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

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

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

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

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

4) Stop Grading

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

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

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

5) Community

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

6) Writer’s Notebook

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

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

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

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

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

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

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