Category Archives: Lab Classroom

De-Tracking: Harder, So Much Harder Than It Looks

The first semester is about over and, after being entirely consumed with getting this class to run, I have a moment to catch my breath. Here’s what I’m thinking at the moment:

The goal was to create a class–Honors Prep–that took a small group of students that had some desire to enter Honors English 10 classes and prepared them through learning and mastering parallel skills. Thus, that meant that essentially everything I teach in my Honors class, they do in their prep class–the only difference is that sometimes I took more time to scaffold the skills, I used a lot more encouragement and tough love, eked out a bit more patience, and did a whole lot of wraparound stuff. In the process, I tried to document as much as I could so I could think about writing it up for others who might want to try such an initiative in his/her own classroom.

Lessons learned:

  • You have to build an intentional literacy community: you have to help kids see themselves differently. I did that, first, through some growth mindset and resilience work (this video by Will Smith is awesome) and having students write their own resilience narratives about a time when something was hard but they kept going. Also, you have to help them build their reading skills explicitly. That meant I had to go back to my strategies of what good readers do and TEACH THEM that it’s not about reading Spark Notes but about actually making meaning of the text on the page. And then we had to read a lot of books, so we did: Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Purple Hibiscus, Merchant of Venice and The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Additionally, they read and wrote about a weekly news article (Article of the Week, adapted from Kelly Gallagher), did some study of rhetorical appeals and read some articles from The Atlantic by Ta-Nahesi Coates, and read daily in-class for 25 mins. (that’s for all classes, Honors and Prep).
  • Take the time to teach them how to write an argument: they hate writing. Still do, after a semester. But, they have a better idea about what makes a solid thesis statement and how to structure an argument. We wrote and revised papers, talked about writing, I modeled my own writing…that’s a work in progress, but they’re coming to see writing as just another part of what intellectuals in school do, and, since they are intellectuals, they can write papers, too.
  • Reveal the ghost in the machine: The Prep-Stars (my nickname for them) have all kind of misconceptions about what happens in Honors classes. I had a plan to have them conduct some observations to disabuse themselves of those notions but time got away from me. Instead, I was explicit about explaining what the HN kids do, and that’s usually being really good at “doing school.” That means, they act interested even when they’re not, they tend to do their homework consistently, they read the books (or not, usually Spark Notes), that they, essentially, play the game. They’re a bunch of fakers, actually. The Prep kid were kind of shocked by those revelations, but I think it helped them to realize that the only thing separating them from those kids was quite surface.
  • Give them a chance to shine: Look, I’m tough. I know it. I don’t offer empty praise and I tend to only celebrate excellence. But, I had to remember, if they don’t KNOW what excellence looks like, then I had to celebrate the steps they achieved to reach excellence. Thus, when they mastered explicit skills (look at the analysis in this paper–that’s Honors work right there, I might say), we’d clap it up, or made some amazing comment, we’d take a moment to relish in the moment. I baked cupcakes for the team that put together the best director’s playbook for Merchant. I called their parents to share praise. We went to Yogurt Land on the day before holiday break to celebrate kids who were doing well. I have been reminded how much, too, relationships matter with them.
  • Reflection counts: When the class began, I had them write weekly reflections about how they were doing, what they noticed about themselves as developing scholars, what they needed to do differently or keep doing. They were always serious and thoughtful, and from those reflections, I could help to keep them accountable and to help them stay on track. I would also be reminded that things were actually going better than I tended to think. Phew.
  • This is a one-shot deal: Look. This semester has been exhausting. For the most part, the majority of the kids should do well in Honors when they move into that class in a week or so. I’ll move into a support role, meeting with them, conferencing with them, staying in touch with their parents about how to keep them moving forward (my student teacher, who has been co-teaching with me in the first part of the course will take over full-time for the second part of the course). I’m not going to do this class again, though. Nope. Because it’s about changing the broader systems. I’ve always known that, when I set my mind to something, I can usually get it done. But I’m just one teacher in one classroom. On the fifth floor. Around me is a system that relentlessly tracks kids into Honors or CP. As we all know, most of the kids in CP are kids of color and other underserved kids. I wanted to do something that would make me not so complicit in what was happening, but I have realized that I can’t. This is one group of kids that had this pilot experience. Unless the broader school system changes, unless people actually OWN UP to the process being racist and classist, then I am just one person standing on the shore attempting to sweep the ocean back with a broom. And I’m simply not interested in being that person anymore.

Score: The system-1, Me-0

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Between Tweet Summaries, Shylock’s Defense and Sour Patch Kids: Places Where Learning Happens

I’ve been away for a bit to help with the National Council of Teachers of English annual conference, which was ultimately a wonderful success. While it was a good amount of work, the conference came at exactly the right time: my morale wasn’t particularly high, I was frustrated with administrative structures, annoyed that larger class sizes have slowed my ability to know my kids as well as I usually do, and concerned that the overall vibe of myself and colleagues was one of low morale, too.

Nothing like a conference full of good ideas, friendly faces, chats about books, favorite authors and everything else to change that! What is also important about conferences, and about this one in particular, is that NCTE got introduced to an entirely new audience of younger teachers, or teachers who had been teaching for years but had not been to a conference. I realized how much belonging to a professional organization matters. Already, being back in my school, the teachers who attended (my whole grade level team and most of the grade above me) have been simply ebullient about sessions they attended, new information they learned and are eager to try…there’s a spirit of re-invigoration.

Given that I’ve been away for a few days, I was not necessarily looking forward to returning to my classroom. I worried that my desk would be a mess, kids would have completed none of the work I’d left for them to do with their sub…overall chaos would await me. Luckily, none of that was the case. Desk was orderly, kids were happy to see me, wanted to know about the conference, if I brought them anything (books, books, books), and they turned in the work they completed. (That’s another story about how quickly I will get that all graded–I have to get better about these things).

My student teacher attended the conference. She’s been a great colleague because she actually has the time to observe what’s happening in class between students and me, between students and other students, etc. As is typical of a new teacher, most of her observations focus on behavior and classroom management. I don’t know if you remember, but this is the year I’m piloting a class with a group of sophomores that have a desire to enter Honors English classes but need some skills work (academic and habits of mind). While it’s by far my most difficult to teach, it is my joy every single day. I can see why she gets concerned with their behavior: they talk out, they get off task, they get me off task (I got caught up in a conversation about “Scandal” that was about 10 minutes too long, but it was so compelling…), they sometimes don’t do their homework, they can be resistant, they take everything personally…

So yesterday, on that first day back, after she voiced her thinking about students, I had to remind her about all the reasons I’m quite pleased that these kids are going to be ready to enter Honors in January. I had to give her a different way of looking at student progress that extends beyond classroom management.

In short:

  • We administered the Gates-McGinty reading assessment to get some sort of data about their current reading levels. Once I got the results, I asked the kids if they wanted to know their levels, reasoning that it’s just one type of data, and it’s good to be well-informed, because then you know where you can improve. While a few of them are reading on the post-high school level, many of them are hovering around middle school, but I told them that all they need to do is read more challenging books and write a lot, and they would raise those levels in no time. They just needed to be persistent. Add to that that I told them they needed to read 15 independent reading books over the course of the semester (why not set goals that are ambitious? If they read 10, I’ll be happy; what’s good to know is that they are all reading), in addition to the core texts. Lots of them like reading YA (who doesn’t?), but I told them that they needed to balance their reading diet with some more challenging texts (I have a great analogy that involves Doritos). Thing is, when you make such recommendations to kids who aren’t big readers, you best be ready to start pushing books at them. I’ve been bringing my books from home (I used to have a really great classroom library that I tend to donate to teachers when I leave schools, so I’m not at my current levels, but I still have some good ones), but we also have a fantastic school library. We read for 20 minutes to start every class, and kids go to the library when they need to. Yesterday, five kids needed to go, so I went with them. They wanted to read more challenging texts, and I was tired of them saying that and returning with YA, so we had a spontaneous trip, which yielded some new books and new interests. I also remembered that librarians don’t know all types of kids–my school librarian was recommending texts that I knew they weren’t going to read, or ones that were too challenging at the moment, or too…boring, so I had to pull books myself for them. But that’s progress! They want to read, they want to improve, they are on the path to becoming readers, and I need to step my own game up because they need my help.
  • To get some semblance of a status of the classroom, I had kids write a Tweet summary for an assigned act and scene from our current all-class text, The Merchant of Venice. After having arguments about characters and spaces, they summarized key points, used hash tags to emphasize the most important parts, and created a review sheet for their peers. More progress: they can distinguish between what is most important and what is interesting. 
  • On that same note, they then had to re-read Shylock’s defense and argue if he was a villain or a victim. It’s now become habit for them to remind themselves and each other to include textual evidence to support their claims, and to analyze that evidence. They would have just written their opinions and turned it in a few months ago.
  • I was at the candy store after school yesterday and ran into three of the kids from that class. It’s so great to see kids in environments outside of school, when they are themselves, and funny, and free. I made some fuss about scholars and Sour Patch kids and being happy to see them (why not make a fuss over them? Can’t be sure if anyone else will, so I make sure I do) before they wished me well and made their way into the evening. What is most important, too, is that they see themselves as part of a community of achievers that extends beyond what happens on the fifth floor. That community will see them through.

Progress happens, but sometimes it occurs on such a minute scale that we can miss it. I told my student teacher that we needed to remember those signs, and we spent a moment recounting those and others, just to make sure we don’t get so bogged down in the other stuff that we forget that these kids are moving forward, and that I just know they’re gonna do it. Don’t get me wrong, there have been moments over these last few months where I’ve wondered if it was going to work, but then, something like that happens: I either run into a kid outside of class who wants to show me something they’re reading, or invites me to come see her in the school musical, or submits what is a fantastically written paper, and I remember: we are going to do it, and for that, I’m grateful.

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And So It Begins: This HAS to Work

Summer officially ends on Monday, when I return to school for a grade-level PD meeting, followed by a few more days of all-school PD. The kids turn up after Labor Day.

I’ve been thinking about this new group of kids quite a bit as I prepare to launch a new initiative, now called Honors Prep. 21 students (with the potential of reaching 23 by the time we are rolling along) have made the commitment to take my class this fall with the goal that it will prepare them to enter–AND STAY–in Honors English classes for the rest of the time in high school. Thus, by the time they finish a semester of the prep class, they enter my Honors English class, prepared to be awesome.

My contention is that they simply need a bit more time: to learn the skills required to write well, to spend some more time sharpening their critical thinking, to improve their reading skills. They also need a bit more time developing their grit: what to do when things get difficult. Rather than quitting, they need to learn strategies for surviving and thriving. Traditionally, underserved kids (insert all of understanding of kids who aren’t in Honors classes: kids of color, kids who are from low SES, some boys, etc.) show up for their Honors class, get the first assignment or two and then drop the class. Nearly all of them do not take an Honors English class again in their high school experience.

Not acceptable.

They need to learn that they have the power to be intellectuals if they 1) believe they can and 2) learn the requisite skills.

So while I’m developing a new class, the only big differences will be in the content and in the amount of scaffolding they receive. I’ll still be my warm-demander self, but I anticipate loving them up a bit more as they get used to being pushed. It’s going to be uncomfortable for them at first, true, but I believe in them more than they will believe in themselves at first. It’s fine. I’ve been in this position before.

It’s a parallel skills class: they’ll learn to cite evidence, close read, write arguments, conduct rhetorical analysis, ask their own questions (it’s an inquiry-based class anyway), lead discussions, the same things the Honors classes do, but they’ll have a semester to “practice” and “master” those skills before being thrown into the deep end. Now, I’m not necessarily reducing the amount of text complexity, but I am starting a bit slower.

My Honors classes tend to study: The Odyssey, Things Fall Apart, Macbeth, Huck Finn and Frankenstein, with some particular attention to smaller units that deal with women, postcolonial lit theory, rhetorical analysis, etc. They also write a good amount as they tackle the argument (it’s own challenge because we struggle with disabusing them of writing with formulas…it’s fun and eventually we find peace, but it takes us nearly all semester).

The Prepsters (as I call them unofficially; I’m thinking we should get some t-shirts!) will be practicing the same skills that the Honors kids are working on, but will use different texts. Their texts include Purple Hibiscus, Merchant of Venice, Malcolm X and smaller units on the short story, tracking a columnist for rhetorical analysis and, yes, lots of writing.

Both groups will get some early work on growth mindset. All students will be part of a smaller writing/review group. Honors Prep kids will have the support of some graduate students who will be responsible for monitoring the progress of the writing groups.

I’m moving to the writing groups (and I think that they’ll have a broader function of supporting the students within them as they collaborate) because I’ve been thinking about a comment a parent made to me last year. He wondered why American students tended to be so isolated when they studied. He, as Argentinian, was much more accustomed to working with a group, of being part of a regular community that shared ideas, helped each other out, became stronger because of a shared experience.

He’s right: I do a LOT of community building in the early months of school, then move into community maintenance for the remainder of our time because my students tend to be ridiculously competitive. I have to teach them–intentionally–how to work together, how to collaborate (which, by the way is one of the skills lacking in young people, the ability to collaborate and one which employers wished students were more adept at doing). Thus, if I set my mind to doing it from the beginning, then it will be something I can give due diligence rather than treat it as an add-on.

I’m grateful that so many people are behind this idea for the prep class. I’ve just decided that it has to work because these kids–the ones who rarely make it in an Honors class because of lack of preparation, the kids, I would argue, that we NEED in Honors classes–deserve it. They deserve to be in an environment where they know they have a shot to make it, and they need to know that they are prepared to answer the difficult questions, take the tough risks, write the hard papers because they’ve been prepared.

And because I am an eternal optimist, my hope is that next year, I teach a few more of these classes, get a few more kids ready to move up into the Honors track, and those kids become part of a support network of the kids that came before, and they look back and pull others up. Then, in five years, I hope to not be teaching these classes at all because–while I don’t believe in panaceas–at least this class will have become enough of a model that other folks realize that if we simply buckle down and do the hard work of believing first that ALL kids deserve this preparation and that it should be happening up and down the grade levels, others take up the challenge and…I can’t quite even finish that thought because if that were to happen, we might have a revolution.

I’m down for that.

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Teaching Up

One of the last writing assignments I ask students to do is called The Last Word Is Yours (not my original assignment; I have taken it from some brilliant teacher somewhere who offered it up). In it, students are encouraged to evaluate the year, subjects they liked, ones that they didn’t think worked so well, and provide some overall advice about the class for future years. They tend to be honest, thoughtful and quite helpful.

About three years ago, one of my students told me–nicely, I have to note–that I should teach honors classes because he felt like that would be the group of students that would fit me best. I didn’t think much of it. I’ve always taught kids who struggle. I have never had a desire to teach kids who were on or above level; honestly, the challenge for me is to get the kids who are below up and past grade level. I’ve tended, also, to be relatively successful in those endeavors.

My niche was/is(?) kids who struggle.

Then, this year, through some over-enrollment problem (maybe?), I ended up with three sections of honors sophomore English.

Three. That’s teaching the same class back-to-back-to-back, which means that the first time is shaky, the second time the lesson is usually entirely revamped, and the third time, I teach it like I intended to teach it. I thought I’d initially be bored with the same thing, but it’s amazing how reflection helps to immediately change what didn’t work into what works better. (Side note: I should do a separate post about the power of reflection. It’s perhaps the most useful habit I’ve ever cultivated that I can directly tie to improved practice)

So maybe that student from the past is laughing now that I’m teaching honors, but I‘ve also gotten a much better understanding of what it means to teach for equity. Because in honors classes, the expectations are simply…higher. Read 30 pages and be prepared to discuss character motivations, motifs, themes, whatever. They do it. Write a 2-3 page response about something that interested you about this article, making intertextual connections that demonstrates your understanding of the essential questions. Done. Attend this event because, as a literary citizen of the world (what I call them), that’s what smart people do. Done.

This is similar to my realization that kids in the suburbs write more papers than ones in the city. Honors kids have entirely different expectations for what they’re expected to do. As we all know, though, kids rise (or fall) to our level of expectation. What would happen if we simply (ha, simply is such an understatement, but go with it) expected kids in the track below honors to do the same thing? Sure, we’d have to work like hell to make that happen–I mean, we’d have to counter years of low expectations and bad habits, but it’s been done before by numerous excellent educators–but what’s stopping us?

My immediate future goal is to create an intentional community in which the students in the track below honors spend a year with me and leave prepared to be successful in an honors class the following year. This means that I’m going to have to think about all the “stuff” that goes into creating an environment in which an honors student is successful, but geez–I spend my time immersed in data. Isn’t this another chance to look at the data in a way that actually privileges kids who need it most? I’m moving beyond deficits.  I already have some hunches, so I’ll spend the next few months creating this space and then, hopefully, the next school year making it happen.

Working Title of this endeavor: Project Lab Classroom 2013. I told a former colleague that this might just be the hardest thing I will have ever done in my life, but it could be the most important thing I’ve ever done in my life. I can live with that.

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