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What Happened When We Asked Students to Think: Conclusions

Reading student reflections is always my favorite part of anything I plan. There, if we’ve done it at all well, they will reveal what they really think, what they learned (or didn’t), and offer any suggestions for future instruction. This process of asking for feedback and reflection is amazingly useful and quite humbling. It’s also thrilling. Thus, when I sat down to read through the student reflections of what they’d learned through the messy process of growth mindset (part one is described here and part two is described here) and design thinking, here are some snippets of what they said:

Question: Why do you think this assignment asked you to think of a problem and design a solution?

They said: “Maybe because people want to know what kind of ideas we might have.” “To tell people nothing is impossible, there’s a solution for every problem.” “…there are always problems in this world and to design a solution can help us learn to think of a problem then solve it.” “…because Dr. Parker wanted to know/see what we’re capable of.” “Because we as students might want a change in the high school.”

Question: What risks did you take to move your project forward? What did you try that you weren’t certain about at first? What were the results?

They said:”We repealed our skit in order to move forward”…”We took a risk when we started designing our prototype. We weren’t certain about the drawing of the brain. The result of the drawing turned out to be good.” “The biggest risk was changing of topics because if we did that we’d have to start back at square one again with the very little time we had left. But it turned out all right in the end.” “I wasn’t sure that this idea will work because it seems a bit too far fetched. Like not many teachers and staff in the school may agree with the idea of naptime.” “We tried to use a soft poster, like a thin one and it got destroyed and it resulted to us having a really good poster board.” [Note: ALL students remarked that their results were satisfactory because they made changes. That’s a big deal!]

Question: What did you learn about yourself through this activity?

They said: “I learned that I need to have a positive growth mindset at all time and not everything that’s impossible unless you actually try.” “I can be creative if I want to be and I want to be able to use my creativity through everything I do.” “I like solving problems.” “I can have a lot of potential if I focus more.” “I learned how to manage my time.”

As I look at these responses a few months after the project, I’m gently reminded that, while I felt this project was disorganized and I was one step ahead of my students, they learned a tremendous amount. Specifically, they learned how to collaborate, how to think of something that mattered to them and try to change it, how to take pride in their work, how to present their ideas to an authentic audience.

Since that project, we’ve moved on to other pursuits, but we keep the throughlines of the growth mindset work with us. [Note: it’s important, too, to consider what Carol Dweck has said about how the growth mindset understandings can be used incorrectly with young people. She’s right. We are all combinations of growth and fixed mindsets. It’s situation-dependent. We are all works in progress, and that is not a bad thing.] Students will occasionally challenge each other to “GROW!” which I find hilarious, especially as those words come when we are doing something hard. Kids want more of this type of work, work that matters, work that is real, work that encourages them to push against their own boundaries and, indeed, to grow. 

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A Little Help for Some Teen Book Joy

It’s an all-hands on deck type of situation with my classroom now. All my kids are reading, but they won’t go to the library, I can’t get a library cart for them, and the books they want to read aren’t readily available.

So, in the latest attempt to do some problem-solving, I created a Donors Choose project to raise money for books for them and some bookcases.

If people donate before November 3 and use code SPARK, DC will match the donations.

Here’s the link.

#sharebookjoy!!!

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Winning a Literacy Award

…and, I’m back! I was named a MA Literacy Fellow over the summer. My project is to create what I’m calling the Black Literary Society during this next school year. The goal of the organization is to connect all students in our school to Black literary traditions. We’ll have monthly themes, explore literary luminaries, read some books in a book club, and generally nerd out over literature. This might be the most fun EVER!!!

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Video from the Random House Teachers Event for New MLK HS Anthology

I spoke at Random House’s Author Event for NYC Educators on Friday, June 28, 2013. Best thing I might have said (and what I firmly believe): “Intertextuality is my jam.” The anthology is called A Time to Break Silence and is appropriate for grades 8-12.

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September 4, 2013 · 11:03 am

One Year!

Word Press just informed me that I’ve been blogging for one year. One year?! Already? I swear that I blinked and I missed it. But this picture of Octavia Butler is a fantastic way to celebrate. Image

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Trying to Turn to Wonder

The strange part about social media is that, even when you don’t want to, you find out what people you know (or, in this case, think you know) are thinking.

This week has been difficult, largely because injustice prevailed in the Trayvon Martin case. I have been inundated via the media, as people express feelings of hurt, disappointment, lack of surprise, all of those emotions and more as many of us attempt to get some sort of perspective on this moment when yet another young Black man is killed and justice isn’t served. 

I intentionally decided to limit reading of social media. I didn’t want people telling me how I should feel about the verdict, attempting to justify any laws, making dismissive comments about the values–or lack of values–of Black bodies. I also didn’t want to have to, as a surprising number of friends have been doing, un-friend folks for their comments and perspectives.

Not this week.

However, given that I’m teaching in my summer program, it’s not like I could stay holed up in my apartment during what has been a heatwave and refuse to engage with anyone. So, I began to process the verdict with people I trust, and showed up for school on Monday. 

The kids knew what had happened, but I don’t think they quite knew how to talk about it. Thus, I started with my own feelings, wherein I expressed my sadness, my feelings of hopelessness, my…worry that, as the aunt of two Black boys they might one day experience this. I recalled my student who was killed the first year of my student teaching and how the school essentially kept moving along while the teachers who loved him were left to pick up our own pieces. If anything, I was trying to feel hopeful when I was fearful.

Gotta tell the kids the truth.

They began to speak, and their responses were similar to mine, and different, close and far, but they were their responses, and they were real, and valued, and they mattered. 

Still matter. Will always matter, as far as I’m concerned. 

This is one of those difficult conversations that teachers can have with kids, or choose NOT to have with kids. Race is going to come up–it’s the axis on which everything turns, I’d argue–but these conversations are challenging, scary, and also easy to “convince” students what they should be thinking. I try not to do that, but that, too, is difficult to manage around sensitive topics. I do a better job of it sometimes rather than others.

Another group of student writers read King’s “What is Your Life’s Blueprint?” and had to write about the relationship between that text and another. Many of them chose this article, an apology to Rachel Jeanteal. The letter and Rachel are compelling to them. Like Trayvon, we know Rachel, too. And many of them are grappling with the bigger idea of what to do when your “somebodiness” as King defines it is challenged by forces over which you have no control.

I read this quote somewhere that said when times get tough, turn to wonder, and I’m really, really trying, but I am so very disappointed. 

Trying, though. Ever trying.

Then, it happens: I sit and talk to a young writer about the article, about quotes that stand out to him, about details that matter, and I realize that in those spaces, hope does exist. I do try to turn to wonder with them, and we marvel over the relevance of “Blueprint” to all young people, not just the underserved ones. I do think and believe, too, that they can be change agents in the world, and I say it to them, while swallowing my own worries of racial profiling, presumed guilt, other concerns that threaten to paralyze me if I sit and think about them too much. 

We’re going to see Fruitvale Station. Their decision. I read them a bit of the review from the New York Times and they said we should go. I suspect I’ll be chaperoning a trip once it comes to the city, then spending even more time afterwards trying to help us all figure out what it all means: to be people of color, living in a world where wonder is important, but is, at this moment, so difficult to find.

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Teaching At This Moment: Already Missing the Time I Don’t Have

A couple of weeks ago I spoke at the Random House Annual Educators’ Event in New York City, where, I started by saying that I refuse to be freaked out by the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). I then was able to explain how I’m anticipating being able to be creative, to think broadly about texts, to help my students engage in complex, higher-order tasks around literature and literacy.

At the moment–and still–I believe that. 

However, the problem is that the more I read about the CCSS–the vast amounts of money that are driving the initiatives, the stakes that are going to impact educators and students–I realize that staying true to the desire not to be freaked out, to hold on to those beliefs, is going to be more difficult than I anticipated.

I’ll explain:

  • Complex writing tasks mean more people are going to need to be expert writing teachers. There are simply not enough of us in the field who feel confident teaching writing. Thus, we see lots of reductions of writing to acronyms, to numbers (paragraphs, sentences, words, whatever), and we move further away from what we know to be true about how to turn kids into powerful writers.
  • Appendix B is a suggestion, not a mandate. I am excited about using it as a suggestion and building some unbelievable text sets that encourages intertextuality, synthesis, real writing. However, there will still be schools and departments that use those texts only. How can we expand our understanding of literature and literacy (as evidenced by my current reading of this fantastic book that I highly recommend) if we only use Appendix B?
  • I have become interested, of late, in text-dependent questions (TDQ) because, as I’ve stated before, I’m a much stronger writing teacher than I am a lit teacher, so I’m constantly thinking about ways to improve my craft. TDQ drive students back into the text, which makes sense, right? What makes you think that? Where in the text can you find evidence to either support or refute those ideas? But, there are formulas for these things, too (related to generating questions. This site made my head spin).  I worry that in our quest to make everything systematic, or “accessible” or whatever that we make it too uniform. Why not have kids create their own TDQ? In all of this desire to get kids “college and career ready,” I don’t see a lot about how teachers can systematically teach kids to take control of their own learning in the classroom. I usually teach them how to ask questions, we spend time (most of the term) generating, critiquing, revising questions for ones that do what we need them to do. I don’t know…I am not optimistic that that independence is quick to come for kids. 
  • Time, the need for so much time to understand what is coming. And time is the one thing we simply do not have. Currently, I’m fretting about systems, how to create peer review that works, how to reduce the amount of direct instruction to allow for more time for kids to master the content through hands-on work, but most of all, I’m worried that since my principal lifted the caps for class sizes, next year, I could very well have three sections a semester of 30 kids in a class. How will I be an effective teacher with classes that are this large? What kind of teacher will I be if I don’t have time to read papers, give feedback, conference, etc.? Will we have time for those moments–those in-between moments–where the learning happens? 

While the above concerns are all relevant, I think the last one is the most perplexing for me. I have never taught classes of this size, though I have many colleagues who do. I worry that these adjustments, of the class size, will force me to change my practice in ways that concern me. 

As I said, though, I refuse to be freaked out, and I’m pretty good at finding end runs around potential road blocks. 

And, it is summer, after all. 

Thus, I’m thinking about systems. I’m pretty sure I can get kids to work in groups for writing feedback and I just need to get better about rotations of due dates, what I will grade, what counts as indicators of learning. I’m also going back through what I need to teach and making myself justify what’s important (not interesting; sometimes, I get caught up in what’s interesting and shiny, pretty, things) and only do that. Only do that. That’s kind of fun for me and my neuroses. It’s also the only way I can contend with being able to be in control of the situation rather than the situation controlling me. 

 

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