Category Archives: Student Interactions

All the Things We Never Tell Them

With the start of a new semester, I have a new group of students and I’m teaching seniors for the first time in what feels like a decade, but is probably closer to five years. I’m struck by a few things that I’ve been turning around in my mind since meeting them:

  • Students who write amazing poetry, for whom I scrawl a question on the top of their paper: Have you ever considered submitting your writing to the Lit Mag? Can I hold on to this as a student exemplar? They respond: “No one’s ever told me I should do that” or “You think my work is that good?” [full disclosure, our literary magazine is only a couple of years old, but I think you know what I mean when I’m asking if they’ve ever thought of sharing their work with a broader audience]
  • Students who are from all different African countries, who look at me with disbelief when I insist that yes, there are authors from Ethiopia (in this particular case), and she only believes me when I pull out a few books from different Ethiopian authors
  • Students who have bought into the belief that they need to attend a four-year college, yet their skills are so low that they are going to have to take developmental classes in college, which will count for nothing, and thereby increase the odds that they will not complete any sort of degree, yet they assume the fault for this is all their own (maybe I was only half-kidding when I said they should ask for a return on their investment of education given these probabilities)
  • Students who are nice, congenial kids, who I’m sure that, in our tracked classes, have been the ones who dutifully complete their assignments without question, who were most likely never recommended to take an upper level class, where I suspect they would have done just fine

I am trying to be hopeful and trying to work as hard as I can in our time that remains, but I find myself with so many more questions than answers, and so much anger about a system that has simply set these kids up for what? When we gather every day, and they are hopeful, and they are reading, and they are owning their part of everything (for not completing all of their work, or not understanding something, or not writing something down when I’m sure that, in my haste to get to the next thing I’ve probably not explained it as best as I could), I silently panic that we are going to run out of time. Seriously, it’s like we are at the mile 2 of a 26.2 marathon that they have to run tomorrow. 

Thus, my lessons are all about practical knowledge: learning how to read for understanding with dense texts, how to structure an argument, awareness of audience, how to write a business letter, a thank you note, a resume, and envelope, even and sprinkling that with literature of various types. They are not all going to a two- or four-year college; it’s best that I make sure all have skills that they will need.

With about three months remaining, I’m going to throw everything I have at this situation in hopes of at least giving them a chance to make their way in the world. I won’t tell them that I can work miracles, because I cannot, but I will tell them, as I told them yesterday, if they give me a good faith effort, they will be better when they finish than when they started.

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Filed under Equity, Literacy, Student Interactions

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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Filed under Lab Classroom, Student Interactions, Writing About Race

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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Filed under Lab Classroom, Professional Development, Reading Lives, Student Interactions

Showing Up

Anna Quindlen has this great philosophy about life, wherein she says something to the extent of “I show up, I listen, I try to laugh.”

I collect a lot of words: jot them down on scraps of paper, inside my planner, the app on my phone, my Moleskine, and try to remember them, but this is one of the few quotes that I have committed to memory. It’s probably because this is my general outlook on life.

This summer, I have been teaching writing again to another phenomenal group of young people, though I’ve had more of them for a summer (which has been perplexing for me because I feel like I just don’t know them like I used to–it’s much more difficult to figure out a kids’ writing quirks when there are +30 as compared to 15. I have even more sympathy and respect for teachers who have that many kids in their classes every day). Because I’ve had a larger class load, I’ve gotten creative about how I interact with kids. I’ve conducted writing conferences at breakfast, talked about integrating quotations over Google Docs and in the hall, given a quick recap of the Birmingham Children’s Crusade over lunch, and stopped to have intense chats between points on campus.

That’s what it means to show up.

Last night, I went to the summer showcase for a writing program because it featured a young man I urged to attend. He’s the type of writer whom you, essentially, get out of his way. We had sophisticated conversations about word choice, about intention, about meaning in ways that I’ve not spoken with many young people about, and that’s because he is curious, earnest and dedicated. (Funny, too, he’s the student who wrote quite adeptly about how he was dissatisfied with our classroom discussions about voice; he found them too reductive when, after all, voice can take a lifetime to develop. Touche. Absolutely correct…)

He was surprised to see me, and broke into a huge grin. As I chatted with his parents in the moments after the reading and before the young writers disbanded to find their families, his mother asked about my summer and thanked me again for suggesting he do the program. The student told me he’s submitted a few articles, rattled off something about words and length and I simply…marveled about how summers help young people to grow, and to be creative and to do powerful, amazing things. (On another note, how can we keep that fire from the summer in the school year?!)

And I’m pleased I was able to show up to let him know I was proud of him.

When I first began teaching, I showed up for everything: after school sessions, book clubs with students, parent events I created, community lectures that I attended with students. My week was on a seven-day cycle. Now, I am selective about my showing up: I get tired, and then I get cranky, and then I realize it’s not fun showing up if I am irritated and thinking about other things.

Thus, I try to pack a number of events into a weekend, say, or an afternoon. I can do a pancake breakfast sponsored by the crew team, see an early afternoon soccer game, hope that there’s a dance performance or a preview of a play, and perhaps squeak in some time to chat with a student who I’ve been hoping to build a stronger relationship with over a high point that I witnessed at one of those events.

There is a power in showing up for kids, and I understand, every time, that there is a power in showing up for them that extends to me. I am never sorry for the time I spent listening, laughing, pushing, stepping back, or just…being in their presence.

I’ll hope to build in those times to see them in other contexts beside the classroom throughout the upcoming school year.

I will show up. I will listen. I will try to laugh.

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Filed under Student Interactions, Teaching Writing in the Summer

The Day When the Kids Ran the Show: Student-Generated Rubrics

There’s the school of thought that encourages teachers to turn over creation of a classroom rubric to students. I’ve known about that school, but have always regarded it as entirely too time-consuming: brainstorming? Discussion? Consensus? Couldn’t I just do that with other assignments? Better still, couldn’t I just use my trusty rubric and move around some of the categories if I was doing something different?

Chalk this one up to always learning (me as teacher as much as them as students).

We have about two weeks left in school and my students have been writing a series of processing papers (called Inquiry Papers) guided by their own questions as they read Frankenstein. I generally don’t grade them until the end; rather, I just look over the questions, give them completion credit, and make broad comments about themes I see across the papers. Now, though, it’s time to grade their best work. Thus, it also seemed an appropriate time to try out something new (I’ve been working on not rolling out too many new ideas, but instead being thoughtful about what the kids need at the time, what I need and ultimately by what is most important for them and what we’ve set out to do): student-generated rubrics!

I began by asking them to do a brain dump of the qualities for an Inquiry Paper that meets expectations. From there, they brainstormed all the skills one would need to be able to write such a paper, which then became criteria that was then grouped into categories. My directions to students were broad: after they’d done the brainstorm, they then had to figure out what it made sense to be evaluated on and they had to reach consensus. Thus, I was going to observe their process to make sure everyone was involved–no one could sit and watch. Then I pretended to busy myself doing something else, but I could hear them and make covert observations.

What did I see? First, the discussion of everything we’ve been working on skill wise: “the question has to be a HOTS-one” (from Bloom’s taxonomy); “I think the quality of the question is really important”; “yeah, but you better analyze it”; “no hit and run quotes”; “the analysis has to be thorough”; “I don’t think you should put a formula in there [re: number of paragraphs]; she doesn’t care about how many paragraphs you have, she cares more about what you have to say and how you say it” (I almost collapsed with joy on that one, btw), and on and on they went.

A student from each class volunteered to type up the rubric and we looked it over the next day for any revisions (there were few). Now, students have a few days to evaluate their papers against the rubric, pick their very best inquiry paper, make any necessary revisions, and submit that paper for a grade.

I know those papers will be of the best they’ll write all year. I just know it.

Next year, I’m going to start the year with this exercise: students will have a few analytical papers that we’ll read (and practice our close reading skills, for sure), then we’ll do the same process. Thus, they’ll know what is expected from the beginning, and what it looks like, in their own language, but we’ll also constantly revise the rubric (well, they will and I’ll use what we come up with) as they develop more mastery with the content and  become more sophisticated writers (I have to give credit to my co-worker who made this suggestion about how to extend this process).

The theory met the practice when they created the rubrics, and the result was, as usual, fantastic.

You just have to let them be great, and you just have to go along for the ride.

Here you go if you want to see for yourself English Rubric 4th block

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Filed under New School Chronicles, Student Interactions

#lcotw: Literary Citizens of the World

I have amazing abilities. Being in two places simultaneously, however, is not one. With the start of my graduate summer class, I found myself having to choose (or, as it were, having it decided for me): the big kids won out.

That meant that after talking up Chimimanda Adichie’s visit to Harvard Square as our next big event, my younger kids would have to go on their own. She’s become something of our own celebrity: we watch her Ted Talk about the danger of a single story and use it as a guiding question throughout the year as we interrogate single stories about colonialism, and that then trickles into everything else as we check ourselves and our own single stories (when kids dip into stereotypes, someone will suggest they stop buying into the single story…it’s awesome).

I managed to make it to the reading early into the Q & A. The place was jammed, so I stood in the back, way past being able to see or hear anything, but there’s something comforting and powerful about spaces where we are all gathered to hear, read and think about books.

Because I am a compulsive reader, too, it was only because I was looking over the selection of new books that I saw one of my students, propped up between the bookshelves, watching the reading via remote screen. When I made my way over to her, she smiled, said she’d been there for the whole thing, that she was having a hard time hearing the reading given her location, but she was happy she’d come.

As the reading ended and people began streaming out, I heard several students joyfully calling to me: they’d arrived early and were front row (!), were a bit breathless about being in the same room with Adichie (who was lovely combinations of funny, thoughtful, brilliant), and as many waited to meet her, we had an informal confab, there in the aisles of the bookstore and talked about the experience, about asking her questions about Half a Yellow Sun, about being out late on a school night to attend a reading.

This is what it means to be a Literary Citizen of the World.

When I taught in the city, I would take kids with me everywhere: readings, plays, events that helped them broaden their understanding of what it means to be a person who thinks and reads broadly in this world. Often the events were free, and other times I managed to get us comp tickets, but those adventures around this city were some of the more memorable ones for how it helped kids think of themselves and the spaces where they could be in, while helping me love them even more.

During my sabbatical, though, it was simply too hard to devote any time other than to learning what was up, so the LCOTW was temporarily disbanded.

I resurrected it this year because I’m in the city again, and I have kids who like showing up for stuff: they’ve attended documentary screenings, conferences, plays, readings and other performances, and now they talk about those events with a confidence and nonchalance that is admirable: as a person who is in the world, you just go to stuff that is interesting and you open yourself up to learning something new, and you almost always do leave with some new perspective. I incentivize the program by requiring a thought letter (a reflection about one big idea they were left thinking about after attending the event), which is always a delight to read because they’re reflecting on what they’ve learned or are still thinking about. I tend to savor those letters because those are moments where, if they’re written well (and most usually are), I can hear their voices, their delights, their joys.

I don’t go to half the things I tell them about, but that’s okay. The movement just needs to be started and they take it from there. Once it is up and running, kids start submitting events for approval and go on their own with their friends. Every now and then, if my schedule permits and if it’s not past my bedtime, I might join them. Or, if I can even make an event for the last few minutes of time, just to be able to chat with them about moments when an author says something so profound that you write it down and carry it with you and want to tell others about it?! Yeah, in those moments, I’m just happy to be in the same space with them so we can all say were there when literacy really mattered (of course they won’t say it like that, because they are children and they’re not so meta, but this moment will be important for them, though, in ways big and small).

As two other students waved goodbye on their way to get ice cream (because one should get ice cream after such events, yes? I completely agreed), they said they were coming back next week for another reading, some author that I didn’t know, but they said it sounded interesting. Literary Citizens of the World now has a life of its own, which is my hope whenever I roll it out: students will understand that all of this wonderfulness is for all of us, and they can go, too.

As the year rushes to its end and I have to make peace with what is done and undone, I’ll carry this time, of the night we went to see Chimimanda Adichie give a reading of her new book and then we went looking for Frankenstein (a different story, but a great one, nonetheless), and we loved reading and all the commensurate delights opened to us.

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Conversations with Student Writers

When my students submit a draft, I ask them to give me some areas of particular growth that they’d like my feedback on. Here, a couple of my comments in response to a student:

After reading her draft: I would like to see your writing become more sophisticated. I think one place to start is with sentence variety and sentence length. You have lots of choppy sentences that are just…boring. From this draft, I can tell you can write. Now, you have to push your limits. Go.

She asked, “Can you detect my voice in my essay?” [Side note: what a brilliant, BRILLIANT question from such a young writer. My heart, my smile…VOICE?! Remind me to write about what Keith Gilyard said about voice that made everything crystal clear-ish to me about that].

Me: It’s there, hidden underneath some dry language. You actually have a voice that is quite poetic. You’ll develop it this term. It will be fun.

Indeed, it will be–and is–fun. I needed a reminder of the joy I have working with my students. March attempts to wring it from me as it marches forth (ha), but there is such joy in this work…

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