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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

But I’m plagued with questions.

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

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

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

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

But what’s the best way to approach this?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And what should a grade indicate anyhow?

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

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

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

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

This is not healthy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

They want to do work that matters to them.

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

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


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

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

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


TWO: Make the work as meaningful as possible.

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

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

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

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


THREE: Put student choice in the center.

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

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

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


FOUR: Individualize your instruction

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

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

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

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


FIVE: Use workshop pedagogy?

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


SIX: Let students know how they are doing.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Engage them in the conversation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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