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 If all of us generally agree that the ‘sage on the stage’ mode is pretty outdated, pretty ineffective, and I think we do generally agree on that, then why are we presenting in rooms set up for only that?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

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#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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Fierce Kindness, Day Two, #NCTE16

I’m writing this while hanging out at Java Monkey in Decatur. Jay is strumming away on the guitar and singing his songs. We’re eating vegan cake, enjoying some wine. We actually ran into a former student of ours who now goes to college here in Atlanta and regularly hangs out at this coffee house. She was surprised to see us all here, and I was reminded again about how our students just might be taking over the world (it is customary to run into a current student or alum whenever I travel anywhere…). She commented that we all seem to be pretty good friends, and we are. I’m so grateful for the people I teach with. As Claire helped me maneuver my fork on the plate to scrape up the last of the vegan chocolate ganache, Paul jokingly said, “It takes a village.”

But it’s no joke. That’s exactly what it takes.

We are a village.  (Claire is even helping me write this right now.)

NCTE expands the village.

Today started at 6:45am.

So worth it, though. Teacher church. Otherwise known as the Don Graves breakfast. My friend Kate invited me, and I’m eternally grateful. I feel like I missed out on some critical writing teacher experience by not ever having had a conversation with Don Graves. I can read his words (I’m working on that), and I know that his legacy plays out in the writing and teaching of the teachers whose writing and words have inspired me for years.

But today I got a better sense of the person Don Graves was.

There were some stories about him. About how he listened to people in a way that made them feel like they were important and that they had his attention fully and completely. People felt valued and honored in his presence. There were stories about how he would give his time to teachers he didn’t even know, to listen, to hear about their classrooms, to offer whatever he could to help them in their pursuit to make writing meaningful for their students.

In these stories, there was a definite a call to honor his legacy of kindness and generosity.

Last spring, the University of Denver had a memorial service for my dad to provide an opportunity for the community there to say goodbye. My brother and I read our eulogy to the crowd of Dad’s students and colleagues. After the service, two of his colleagues came up to me separately and told me that they had never heard my father speak an unkind word to anyone. I loved hearing this, and it became my father’s challenge to me. He had always taught me to care about the experiences of others, to say thank you, to be exceedingly generous, and to work to improve people’s lives. These were the rules in our home when I grew up. These were the principles that I saw my dad live out in his interactions with people in his professional world, with extended family members, and with waiters at restaurants and salespeople in department stores and cashiers at the grocery store. When I learned that Dad worked intentionally to be a force of kindness in his professional life, this became my challenge too. I would be beyond honored if kindness was a quality that stood out about me. Via my father, via the legacy of Don Graves, this has become my charge.

And what does that look like in my classroom, this “relentless barrage of kindness” (as Smoky Daniels called it)?

It’s showing my students that I know they can become readers and writers, that their ideas and words matter, that their unique perspective on the world is important. It’s “leaning in” to listen to students, to their parents, to colleagues. It’s saying thank you, thank you sincerely. It’s generosity with my time, my focus, my resources–with anything I can give.

It’s doing what Tom Newkirk implored us to do as he closed out the Don Graves breakfast as a response to what he called the recent “troubling crossing of so many lines.” He asked us to march, to show solidarity, and he suggested that we could do it in small ways, like cultivating the practice of deliberate acts of kindness. He said that sometimes in the busy-ness of our work, we don’t think about who we could reach out to. We must reach out. We must connect. We must speak up–even if it’s difficult and scary.

From 6:45 am to now, approaching midnight, it’s been a typical NCTE day–a blur of wonderfulness and new ideas and conversations with colleagues from across the country. I connected with the fellow teacher bloggers at Three Teachers Talk. We saw our friends from Michigan (session A.55–“Teenage Change Agents”) and got some great ideas about how to get my students writing to have an impact, to make change. We met new colleagues in the people who attended our session today. I got to hear from some of my inspirations: Penny Kittle, Linda Rief, Kylene Beers, Bob Probst. I love the sessions that Kylene moderates. Her questions pull out the specific details that the audience craves to understand about the practices the panelists describe. Linda closed the session with a call to kindness. She read to us from Wonder, a passage where the principal says to be “kinder than necessary.”

From the legacy of Donald Graves to the reminder from Linda Rief, my day was bookended by calls to be a beacon of kindness. I love that this is our village’s response to the results of the recent election–action through kindness. Standing together to protect and honor our students and their stories is what we must do.

I’ll close with the words of Cornelius Minor from his brief talk at the Don Graves breakfast where he expressed his credo that guides his teaching: “If we are not showing fierce, selfless love, we do not deserve our teaching licenses.”







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#StopGrading Presentation Resources #NCTE16

Hello friends–we now have a bunch of new ones! Thanks for coming to our #StopGrading presentation. We enjoyed talking with you.

Thanks to Kate for the photo!


Here’s the website full of resources that we shared in our presentation. Please share as widely as you wish and let us know how you’re navigating your journey away from traditional grading in your classroom. Our emails are on the front page of the website. Keep in touch!

Also, I’ve been writing a blog series about this topic since August. Check out the first post here.

In case you’re wondering, we were a little anxious as the crowd filed into the room…


Posted in #NCTE16, #StopGrading, assessment, balancing, gratitude, not grading, on the road again, presenting, professional development | Leave a comment

Hope Among Escalators, Elevators, and Revolving Doors, #NCTE16

Escalators were the theme of the day for us.

We took the bus from Boulder to the Denver airport and took a very long escalator up from the bus depot to the terminal. A bus driver had told Tracy that it was the longest escalator in the country. We didn’t think that was the case–I can remember an impossibly long escalator in the D.C. subway system from a couple of years ago that I’m certain is longer than the Denver escalator.

We had no idea there would be so many escalators today. Down to the plane train at the Atlanta airport. To the MARTA station, around inside of the MARTA stations, up from the MARTA stations, up into the hotel, down into the conference center, up to the ballroom for the opening session… on and on. While we were on the train from the airport, we even got the following text from Jay: “Meet you in the lobby. Loooooong escalator at Peachtree.”

Up, down, up, down, at snail’s pace, often in crowds, often encumbered by luggage…out of control of the pace, at the mercy of the machines that take you from one place to another. There was even a moment when Claire and I both started side by side on two separate escalators but hers was moving more quickly than mine, and she got to the top first.

I’m not a fan of big machinery that I can’t control. Elevators. Revolving doors. Escalators. I’m worried I’ll get stuck in a dark elevator between floors, or hit by the revolving door behind me if I don’t move fast enough, or caught up in the cogs of an escalator due to an errant shoestring or edge of a shoe. I try to stay clear of the dangers, keep myself safe, remain balanced so I don’t teeter off the edge.

And what on earth does this have to do with my first day at NCTE this year?

As teachers in American schools–especially in public American schools as my colleagues and I are–we are often at the mercy of machinery over which we have no control. We’re on an escalator or elevator heading up? heading down?–sometimes it’s not clear which direction we’re going. But we’re often moving at a pace set by someone else and we have no control and there is danger of getting caught in the cogs or trapped in the darkness. Or we’re caught in the middle of something revolving–and you have to keep up or your might get knocked down by the things spinning spinning spinning. Just stay on your feet and keep focused on getting through.

Maybe while you’re reading this, you’re thinking about budget cuts or education policy or testing mandates. Or maybe you’re thinking about the uncertain next challenges for schooling considering the recent election results. The machinery manifests in any force beyond your control that impinges on your teaching world–often without being focused on what best serves your students.

Diane Ravitch’s Skype conversation with us at the opening session hit on the machinery currently at play. She said she thinks that we’ll see more and more efforts to privatize public schools–an assault on our democracy. She said that we’re grading schools, teachers, children to no end. She said forces blame schools for failing, but it’s the wider societal machinery that is failing instead. We need to defend our public schools against the forces that want to destroy them.

She also said to find something that gives you hope and to cling to it with all you’ve got.

I find hope in my students–they are wise and clever and kind.

I find hope in the thousands of ELA teachers temporarily residing in the hotels surrounding the convention center here in Atlanta. I can see a wall of hotel rooms outside of my window, lights glowing through curtains, TVs flickering, and I feel I am part of a band, a nation of warriors. We are here because we believe in the power of reading and writing to remind humanity that we are all in this together.

I find hope in my umpteen teaching colleagues across the country who are right now at home on a Thursday evening, maybe reading student work, maybe planning lessons, maybe helping their own kids with homework, maybe reading a book. There is something that unites us in the work that we do.

Doug Hesse reminded us today that all teachers are writers. I find hope in words. I find hope in struggling to find words to capture ideas, to work through confusion, to reflect over experience, to connect with others.

Thank you for being here, all of you. Despite the machinery we all exist within and alongside, you help me to find balance so I don’t teeter off the edge of an escalator step. You help me to remain focused so I can make my way safely through the revolving doors. You help me to stay calm if trapped in a dark elevator.

I can’t wait to learn from you over the next few days.

Cast of characters for NCTE16: Sarah, Paul, Jay, Tracy (who have been to several NCTE conferences together now), and Claire, who is on this adventure with us for the first time.



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“All the candidates do is bicker and fight and high schoolers in this class are better at talking about things.”

I got to the point last Tuesday while watching election returns that I couldn’t focus anymore on what was unfolding on the US maps the news commentators kept describing, so I wrote a few emails, shopped for some new running shoes, made an appointment to get my hair cut–anything to distract my mind at the time.

And ever since, I’ve wanted to write something here that would help me to achieve some clarity, some vision, some understanding. I’ve started umpteen posts in my head, none of which have made their way here.

Every so often, I dip into the cacophony that makes up my social media feeds, hoping for some new understanding, but all I come away with is confusion from the many voices speaking from a stance of their own absolute rightness: Oprah says to give the President Elect a chance! Oprah is horrible for saying that! Trump says he will spend weekends at Trump Tower. Trump says he will never leave the White House because he wants to govern 24/7. Wear a safety pin to show you’re an ally. Your safety pins are meaningless and stupid. Trump’s son-in-law wrote a strong defense of his father-in-law–he’s no racist, he’s no anti-semite. Trump appoints to his transition team a known anti-semite. Obama says that if the President Elect succeeds, we all succeed. If Trump succeeds, that means all the horrible things he said he would do will actually happen so we want him to fail. Trump won’t even make it two years. Trump will be the best President ever. Abolish the electoral college. Convince the electors to vote their conscience. Faithless electors are a threat to our very democracy. The mainstream media is normalizing our President Elect. Nothing is normal about our President Elect. Trump vows to deport millions of illegal immigrants. Children with undocumented parents fear that their parents will be taken away from them. Calm down everyone–it’s going to be okay. If you’ve not walked in my shoes, you can’t tell me to calm down. You’re minimizing my very justified fears…

And on it goes.

I shut off my phone, close my browser window, take a deep breath. Look around at the physical objects on my desk: the blue Swingline stapler, the beach rock from Maine, the funky 70s-era ash tray (now collecting paper clips and such) I just recovered from the boxes of things in my parents’ garage. I begin to feel grounded again. At least for a moment or two.

How can I expect my students to see their way through all of this when I am struggling to make sense of it myself?

* * *

About three weeks ago, I asked my students to watch and study a Ted Talk in preparation for a Socratic Seminar. It was my election season lesson for them as their teacher of language arts, so I wanted my lens to be about how to navigate the complex conversation surrounding the election. They are seniors–age 17, 18. Some of them were poised at the moment to vote in their very first presidential election. We have very clear policies in our district to guide us during election seasons. We are to create safe spaces for student dialogue, not dominated by our own political views. Outside of school, we can campaign for candidates, knock on doors, make phone calls, put stickers on our cars and signs on our lawns, but in school we must remain neutral.

I didn’t want to tell my students it was an election season lesson. I wanted that focus to be a bit of a twist. I wanted to create a space for them to talk and listen to each other in conversation little facilitated by me. Socratic Seminar was the perfect forum for this.

Our text was Kathryn Schulz’s 2011 Ted Talk, “On Being Wrong.” We watched it together in class on a Monday. For that week, we were focusing on writing to explain something complicated, a key skill they would need for the magazine-style feature pieces they are working on now. We looked at mentor texts where writers worked to explain something complicated and we practiced this writing ourselves (you can see the week’s lesson plan here).

Why this text? Schulz shares what she discovered when she studied how wrongness plays out in human interaction. We don’t like thinking we are wrong about something. It doesn’t feel good. So we get stuck in a feeling of being right, and “this attachment to our own rightness keeps us from preventing mistakes when we absolutely need to and causes us to treat each other terribly,” explains Schulz. Rather than considering we might be wrong about something, our minds go through what she calls “a series of unfortunate assumptions”:

The first thing we usually do when someone disagrees with us is we just assume they’re ignorant. They don’t have access to the same information that we do, and when we generously share that information with them, they’re going to see the light and come on over to our team. When that doesn’t work, when it turns out those people have all the same facts that we do and they still disagree with us, then we move on to a second assumption, which is that they’re idiots. They have all the right pieces of the puzzle, and they are too moronic to put them together correctly. And when that doesn’t work, when it turns out that people who disagree with us have all the same facts we do and are actually pretty smart, then we move on to a third assumption: they know the truth, and they are deliberately distorting it for their own malevolent purposes.

I love this description of what our minds do when someone disagrees with us, and this helps me to make at least some sense out of the cacophony I described at the beginning of this post. If we’re not careful, we become voices thinking we’re on the right side of things, and our sense of “rightness” keeps us in our own personal echo chambers, further dividing us, separating us, making it impossible for us to work together. Schulz goes on:

This internal sense of rightness that we all experience so often is not a reliable guide to what is actually going on in the external world. And when we act like it is, and we stop entertaining the possibility that we could be wrong, well that’s when we end up doing things like dumping 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, or torpedoing the global economy. So this is a huge practical problem.

I hoped that these ideas from the Ted Talk would resonate with my students and give them something to think about as they navigated the conversation swimming wildly around them regarding the upcoming election.

The seminar conversation happened on block day (Wednesday or Thursday), and I asked students to do the following as their ticket into the seminar, all centered on our focus for the week, explaining something complicated:

  •  Write the following in your writer’s notebook:
    • What complicated idea is Schulz working to explain in her Ted Talk?
    • What are the top three most important concepts of her explanation? Write a few sentences about each one.

The most successful seminar ticket tasks get students into the text and ask them to identify some important moments/ideas that they can then use to support their ideas in the seminar conversation. The ticket task often is very different from the opening question, which was the case for this seminar. Here was my opening question:

  • What ideas from this Ted Talk will you take forward with you as you become an adult who votes?
    • Follow up question (to pose when it seemed like the right time): Why did I ask you to consider this text and this question at this point in time (election season)?

I’m lucky to have an awesome student teacher for one of my three senior classes this year, and she was in charge of this seminar for that class. Hence, I was able to capture the class’s seminar conversation in my writer’s notebook. Here’s how a portion of it played out:

Student teacher: What ideas from this Ted Talk will you take forward with you as you become an adult who votes?

(conversation went pretty immediately to the election)

Student 1: When you align with one party, it can make you blind to other ideas.

Student teacher asked about the two party system and then asked why this text, this Ted Talk, now?

Student 2 asked if it had to do with voting.

Student 3 made a connection to what we had been discussing earlier in the week surrounding Stegner’s essay “Living Dry.”

Student 4: The world and issues–we’re being brought up to believe that it’s not okay to be wrong.

Student 5 said this reminded him of conspiracy theorists.

Student 6 had initially decided not to take part in the conversation but she was getting visibly frustrated at her desk at the outside of the conversation circle so the student teacher invited her in.

Student 6: Stop just writing off the other side. Don’t let two stupid candidates ruin relationships with people we care about. Rather than saying “you’re wrong,” maybe we need to say, “I’m wrong.”

Student 1: Our sense of righteousness… when something goes wrong, we don’t look at ourselves.

Student 7: The President is only one person who cannot represent all of us.

Student teacher: What keeps you from admitting you’re wrong? Pride?

Student 6: Politicians don’t seem able to apologize. Is it a generational thing?

Student 3: It’s not generational. It’s more who you are as a person.

Student 2: It depends on your situation in life.

Student 5: Getting criticized in public is not easy. The whole world is watching.

Student 2: Can they say they’re wrong? Will they use their supporters?

Student 3: Society conditions people that being wrong is a weakness. Candidates can’t afford that.

Student 6: Nixon and JFK: JFK in the first televised debate looked stronger. To win, you need to look strong.

Student 1: Bill Clinton’s speech on cracking down on immigration from Mexico–he got a standing ovation. Trump says it and it’s not okay.

Student 2: The political views of the country are different now.

Student 1: We’ve become more accepting of it.

Student 4 presented as an example of this Hillary’s changing stance on gay marriage.

Student 6: Look at the other side. Look at yourself before writing anything off as wrong.

Around this time the student teacher ended the seminar to provide time for the critique–starting with the students sitting on the outside of the conversation listening in. Here’s what they noticed about the conversation:

  • There were strong arguments but people were open to hearing from others.
  • There were some intense moments but the conversation was respectful.
  • There was some real passion for the ideas shared. 
  • All the candidates do is bicker and fight and high schoolers in this class are better at talking about things.
  • The conversation went off of the text and into talking about life.
  • Props to Student 6 for speaking her mind.
  • The conversation was focused on the election.
  • I learned a lot.
  • The students respected each other’s opinions. 
  • There was no shouting!

As I listened to my students talk with each other about the election and as I listened to the things they noticed about the conversation, I was hopeful. They did hone in on the big ideas in the Ted Talk and used them to think about the dialogue surrounding the election. “Look at the other side. Look at yourself before writing anything off as wrong,” said one of my students. If only this was the guiding principle of political discourse…

I usually keep my mouth shut during Socratic Seminar conversations (other than for posing the opening question, for making space for students to speak who are having a difficult time entering their voices into the conversation, to end the seminar conversation, and to facilitate the critique). But with this seminar, I did get on a bit of a soap box. I asked my students to pay attention to the timber of the conversation about the election, to think about Schulz’s series of unfortunate assumptions and to look for places where people write off those who disagree with them as ignorant/stupid/evil, to be the ones who are above the fray, to seek to connect with people who think differently than they do, to understand where others are coming from and to value the experiences of others rather than minimizing them. If we all demonize those who disagree with us, we’ll never be able to move forward together.

I know this is difficult work, especially when it means connecting across a chasm that seems to widen more and more. But I know my students can do it.

I know we as a country have to.

* * *

My father passed away very suddenly in February. He is the person I want to turn to now to help find a way through the mess we’re in. He dedicated his career to improving the lives of others–from the pulpit during the 60s, from non-profit organizations for nearly 30 years, and from the college classroom for almost 15 years where he taught fundraising and financial management for non-profits to students who wanted to save the world. He taught his last class the day he died. One of his students even took a photo of him that day. It was just a snapshot of the room to text her brother back quickly to let him know where she was. She had no idea it would be the last photo taken of my dad:


He is listening intently. One of his students must be speaking. He used to say to me, “Sarah, those students are going to change the world.” You can see it here–he really does believe that.

I share this with you because I know that my father–a bleeding heart liberal to the nth degree–would have been devastated by the election results, but he would have gone right into his classroom the next day and continued his work. He would have reminded his students that they can have an impact, that they need to care about the lives of others and work to improve them, that they need to connect across divisions in politics to work together to solve the problems of humanity.

I did not know three weeks ago that the cacophony would be louder now, that it would be even more important for my students to be able to engage in conversation with others that hinges on listening, on questioning one’s own standpoint, on knowing that we humans tend to get attached to our own sense of rightness and this keeps us from being able to work together to solve problems.

Our standards ask us to teach students to not just speak but listen. Our standards ask us to teach students to read widely–informational texts that describe our world and artistic texts that invite us to cultivate empathy for the experiences of others. Our standards ask us to help students to discern bias, to determine which sources are credible, to effectively manage the flood of information coming at us from everywhere. Our standards ask us to teach students to write to inform, to argue and persuade, and to use story to communicate important ideas. We are lucky that this is our work–to teach our students to read our world so they may write their future–our future–within it. This work is more important now than ever. Let’s keep at it.

I can only hope that Schulz’s closing words will continue to resonate for them:

We think this one thing is going to happen and something else happens instead. George Bush thought he was going to invade Iraq, find a bunch of weapons of mass destruction, liberate the people and bring democracy to the Middle East. And something else happened instead. And Hosni Mubarak thought he was going to be the dictator of Egypt for the rest of his life, until he got too old or too sick and could pass the reigns of power onto his son. And something else happened instead. […]

You need to step outside of that tiny, terrified space of rightness and look around at each other and look out at the vastness and complexity and mystery of the universe and be able to say,“Wow, I don’t know. Maybe I’m wrong.”

Posted in 21st century teaching and learning, cultivating real learning, engagement, making change, reflections, teaching | 4 Comments

#NCTE16: Stop Grading. Survive Teaching. Rock out with Jay.



We have two more days in our classrooms before we board a jet plane and head east to Atlanta for NCTE16!

We’re thrilled to be traveling and presenting with a few of our colleagues this year, and we’re looking forward to catching up with our NCTE friends.

Join us for some conversation–we’ve been thinking about ways to move away from traditional grading and we’ve been thinking about how to survive teaching (and somehow there is a lot of crossover between those two topics…). We’d love to hear about what you’ve figured out in these areas too.

And you may not know that one of The Paper Graders is a singer/songwriter. Jay Stott will be performing on Friday night at a coffee house just outside of Atlanta. Looks like it’s an easy ride on the east-west MARTA line to get there. We enjoy populating his audience when he plays in Colorado. Join us for this Georgia gig?

Safe travels everyone–see you in Atlanta!

Posted in #NCTE16, balancing, grading, not grading, on the road again, presenting, professional development, things made of awesome | Leave a comment

Step Nine, Part Two: My Finalized Grade Agreement with My Students for this Year

As a follow up to a previous post about the process my students and I went through to craft our grade agreement for this year, I wanted to share the finalized grade agreement we ended up with.

Here it is.

The contrast between this grade agreement and the ones I’ve had for the last two years reveals some ways that I hadn’t totally made the shift away from grades as usual when it came to determining the semester grade. What I had before was much more like a checklist, a rubric, a list of things students had to achieve. The semester grade was based on how much of those things they achieved. Here’s that list from last year’s grade agreement:

  • Do your best and put in the work required toward the purpose of learning something new (as seen in your documentation of growth toward three of the standards you chose for this semester).
  • Work authentically (no B.S.) in all areas of the course (reading, writing, research).
  • All weekly drafts and thorough revisions in and complete (ANY missing drafts/revisions will result in an INCOMPLETE grade for the semester).
  • No other assignments missing or incomplete.
  • Very few late assignments.
  • Follow instructions.
  • Complete the semester punch list.
  • Post on the relevant standards pages in your google site portfolio links to your work and reflections on how you’re doing toward those particular standards.
  • Read 2-3 hours per week outside of class consistently.
  • Be a positive community member: provide helpful feedback on writing, engage in effective conversation in class, help others, navigate our classroom with kindness, and do not distract others.
  • Do meaningful work for all end-of-semester projects (having an impact, final exam task)

Whereas this list of things to achieve was really easy to evaluate and the grade became clear pretty quickly (do all of this for an A, do most of this for a B, do some of this for a C…), I remember a sneaking feeling last year that this list wasn’t about learning but rather compliance. The only item in the list that is really about learning is the first one. But it gets swamped by all the other list items that are school as usual: compliance to get a grade. (You can see last year’s full grade agreement here.) 

The new grade agreement is really different. It’s a set of learning goals that students identified themselves as most meaningful, as goals that would inspire them to do useful work for themselves. Here are the goals they came up with that ended up on the grade agreement:

  • Improve your reading and writing ability by working for you, not for the teacher, not for a grade.
  • Utilize peer feedback to revise your writing and help others to do so.
  • Manage your time and get your assignments done.
  • Help prepare us for the future WOOOOO!!
  • Develop your own style of writing.
  • Become self-aware and proactive.
  • Read more.
  • Take risks.

These learning goals different from what made up last year’s grade agreement because they are written by my students and then chosen by my students (out of a list of about 30 that they came up with) as the most meaningful. They are not checklist items, tasks to complete. These goals are much more about learning, and they reflect the learning that my students want to do.

I’m a little nervous about this grade agreement to be honest with you. It feels… squishy. What we came up with eventually was that basic competence for the course was being able to show evidence of meeting the top three goals (the first three in the list up there). This would be a C. For a B, students would choose one more goal to provide evidence for. For an A, students will choose two more goals to to provide evidence for.

I hope this isn’t too onerous for them that it isn’t meaningful. I want the work that they do to pull together their evidence for their grade requests to be useful, for them to learn something from the process, for them to see the task as worth their time. The grade agreement does list possible sources of evidence to examine for each goal–it’s the qualitative gradebook data I’ve been collecting for them (including my notes on conference conversations and my notes about what they work on from revision to revision), it’s the body of work they’ve each produced, it’s the reflection they’ve done in their writer’s memos on every single piece of writing. My hope is that looking over the evidence with these learning goals as a lens will help them to see clearly what they’ve learned and where they’ve grown and what more they want to focus on for next semester.

But what about the curriculum standards? Where are they? Shouldn’t the grade ultimately reflect how well students achieve toward those standards? Yes, it should, and it will. The standards are everywhere–I plan with them to be sure the course asks students to do work the work outlined in the standards and my required curriculum over the course of the semester. I ask students to examine the standards and choose their own set of them as their focus for their work (more about this in the next post). Students identify a standard to guide the revision work they need to do on each thorough revision and write about how they targeted the standard with the revision work that they did in the piece. So we are working with the standards–they just aren’t immediately visible in the learning goals for our grade agreement.

If students are going to really own their learning and drive it, then the standards belong in the background. They are my job. They are not for my students. It is my job to make sure my course gets students doing the work outlined by the standards. And it is my job to make sure my students make progress toward them. But in the end, if I want my students to really own their reading and writing work and growth, why not have them work toward goals they wrote, goals they chose, goals that matter to them as they look over their work for the semester to determine what grade best reflects what they learned?

If I do my job well of crafting a course that is based on the required standards, then the learning goals my students write themselves after they’ve been doing the work of the course for a while should reflect those standards.

At the heart of all of this is a value on putting students at the center in all aspects of my classroom, from making individual decisions about the focus and direction of their work to what the final semester grade will be based on. I build scaffolds to structure their work toward our required curriculum and standards, but they are merely scaffolds. Students need to build their own learning upon them. They do the learning, the live it, they decide how to fill in the scaffolds I create.

This is paradigm shift–student centered, student ownership, de-centering the teacher. Students’ goals in their words, not the teacher’s. By shifting the locus of control surrounding what makes for semester grades and by keeping the conversation and work focused on learning rather than compliance, hopefully my students really learn and grown and do work that matters to them. I want them to be readers and writers, not point collectors, not checklist finishers. Especially when it comes to the semester grade. That’s the only grade we deal with, and it’s the last piece of the course that can show students that my classroom really is about their learning more than it is about me or the curriculum seemingly imposed on them by unknown adults who wrote it.

I can see now that my last two grade agreements weren’t really focused on my students’ learning–they were focused on my students’ compliance. I want my classroom to be more than that, more than grades per usual. In our efforts to make grades “objective,” quantifiable, and overtly tied to a set of external standards, the whole process becomes too complex and less about student learning than it is about accountability.

I want more for my classroom.

I want to harness the one grade I must record for my students, the one data point from my class that “counts” on their transcripts, as an opportunity for meaningful learning and reflection based on learning goals that my students care about because they wrote them. 

This is the fourteenth 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, assessment, blog series, CCSS, fall 2016 blog series, grading, making change, not grading, workshop teaching | Leave a comment

Trust your students, trust yourself, and #StopGrading.

My colleagues and I did our #StopGrading presentation at our state ELA conference a few weeks ago. Seeing as we’ll be doing the same presentation later this month at NCTE in Atlanta, we distributed notecards to the teachers who came to our session and asked for their feedback to help us improve the presentation.

One person wrote on a notecard that we gave a dismissive answer to one person’s question about how to move away from traditional grading in a school culture where it seems like students would never actually work without grades.

Our dismissive answer was to trust your students. Trust yourself.

I can see how this might come off as dismissive. I can see how someone might leave our session thinking, “well, they teach in Boulder and of course it works there but it would never work in our school.” I can see how someone might think that we teach in a school that doesn’t share the same challenges that their school deals with on a daily basis. And I want to figure out a way to keep our session attendees from writing off what we offer based on all of this.

But it really does ultimately come down to trust.

Moving away from traditional grading is terrifying. Schooling swirls on a grades-for-compliance exchange, a paradigm that organizes everyone’s ideas about the purposes and practices of school. The teacher asks students to do something, promising to pay them with points if they comply, and students then trade in those points for grades that they use for high school diplomas and college acceptance and discounts on car insurance.

It can absolutely seem dismissive to tell a teacher to just step away from this ubiquitous paradigm and trust that everything is going to be okay. I see that. I get it. I’ve been there. As proof, I offer an excerpt of a post I wrote on this blog in March of 2012:

And why must I grade? I have too many students and not enough time to manage them effectively. In an ideal world, I would dive deep into the writing process with every single student–conferencing at length over rough drafts, giving nothing but feedback on multiple drafts, never affixing any sort of symbol on a paper until I absolutely had to and then not without a substantial conversation with the student over the final product where the student and I decided on the “grade” together. I dream of this ideal world. It’s a place where I have dreamy-small classes of maybe 15 students in each. It’s a place where I teach maybe three classes tops. It’s a place where I have ample time built into my work day to respond to student work and meet with students and plan my instruction based on the systematic assessment I do of my students’ work.

We do not live in that dreamy place. We teach in a large, comprehensive public American high school where we regularly carry a load of 150 students (or more) in five classes…

When I wrote those words back in 2012, I was arguing with Jay that there was no way I could step away from grading, that the contours of our job in a large public high school made it impossible. My issue wasn’t that I didn’t trust that my students would still work without grades–my issue was that I didn’t trust that I could still manage my job efficiently without the apparent efficiency of points and grades.

But yet, here I am, four years later, asking other teachers to trust that their students will work without grades, that they can manage their jobs without traditional points-based grading, that parents won’t flip out without what they are used to seeing in the gradebook, that administrators will be okay with you approaching things differently.

It does not all happen automatically, however. It does not all fall magically into place just on the basis of a teacher’s announcement to a class that it will not be grading as usual. Paradigm shift is not easy or automatic. It takes time and conversation–conversation with students, with parents, with colleagues.

When I ask my students to do something different from what they expect without explaining to them why we’re doing it differently and how that other way doesn’t serve them well as learners, I should expect pushback and students not stepping up to do the work. I learned this the hard way. But when I really truly engage students in conversation about school, about learning, about how well school has supported their growth as learners and LISTEN to what they have to say, they start to trust that I’m on their side. They see that I value their experiences in school. They see that I care about their dreams and goals for their lives. They see that I want to make my classroom a space where they will do work that matters to them. They will start to believe that we are really, truly, stepping outside of the game of school as they know it, and they will come with me.

I know that school is an incredibly complex system and that every school is a separate universe with its own landscape, values, and challenges. I’ve taught in five different high schools in three different states over my 21 years in the classroom, each one a completely different planet. It can be easy to look in at my current school from the outside and assume that we’ve got it easier than other schools–but we do have our challenges too. Some of our challenges are really similar to those in other schools. And some of them are unique really only to our school.

My colleagues and I haven’t ended up here automatically. It has been a journey of years. And we’re still on it. Some of the things we’ve tried along the way haven’t worked out very well. But the ones that seem to fire up our students a bit more, that get our classrooms humming along more productively, that provide space for students to do work that matters to them–those are the things we build on and keep doing. Workshop. Not grading traditionally. Asking students to do authentic work. De-centering ourselves as teachers so our students can step forward and do the real work of reading and writing.

The truth is that high school students want to read and want to write, as long as that work matters to who they are as human beings. Kittle says in Book Love that “teenagers want to read, if we let them.” We just have to get the hell out of their way. And we need to take our traditional notions about grading with us. Strict rubrics. Unyielding point systems. Late work penalties. Grading scales. Gradebooks that broadcast up-to-the-minute percentage-based grades with high stakes attached. Weighted grades. We built all of this–because we thought that students wouldn’t comply? Because we thought that students wouldn’t do any work without these things? It doesn’t really matter why we built it–we can also take it down.

We don’t need to pay them with points. They want to do work that matters to them.

Sometimes teachers try to move away from traditional grading and it doesn’t work for them. When teachers say they aren’t grading traditionally but then they still kind of do, students see the disconnect and they don’t trust that the teacher really means it. It won’t work if teachers don’t have enough conversation with students about why the game of school doesn’t support them as learners. Students know–we just have to ask them about it and listen to what they have to say. It doesn’t work very well when the class is still teacher-centered, not providing enough space for students to make choices to do work that matters to them. And it doesn’t work very well if teachers don’t provide enough feedback and qualitative data to students so they know how they are doing, even without the points and grades they are used to.

I’ve learned all of these things because I’ve been through them myself.

And yes, at the root of all of this is trust. Trust that students will work. Trust that the classroom won’t fall apart when the grades-for-compliance paradigm that has been at the center of it forever is no longer there. None of it will work without that trust. And depending on your school culture, you may have to very deliberately build that trust. I cannot speak to the contingencies of the culture of any school but the one I teach in–only you can navigate your school landscape.

Students will follow you away from a classroom experience that rewards them with grades for their compliance IF they can see clearly that they place they’re headed to is worth it. Show them that it is.

It’s scary for them too. Students have become comfortable with the system we’ve created. They are used to working for points. They may need some help stepping away from that.

But trust that students can go with you. Trust that they want to.

And trust that you can lead them there.

This is the thirteenth 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, fall 2016 blog series, feedback, grading, making change, muddling through, not grading, presenting, the system, workshop teaching | Leave a comment