Tag Archives: student interactions

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They said:”We repealed our skit in order to move forward”…”We took a risk when we started designing our prototype.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. 

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Literacy, Uncategorized

The Feel Good File

As the school year creeps to a close, it’s really easy to think that absolutely nothing worked, look at what remains to be graded and fight back feelings of inadequacy, and think that summer really is never, ever going to arrive.

Jimmy Fallon writes thank you notes?! I might have to use this to remind students of this fine art.

When I work with pre-service teachers, I encourage them to keep every scrap of good news, be it a Post-It that has a quotation of what a perceptive student said, notes from parents or students, events that evoked positive emotions. Put all those pieces into a file folder and label it your “Feel Good File (FGF).” Put it in a location that is easily accessible (the location of it is critical; it must be easy to put one’s hands on on days when teaching is particularly brutal) and then, on days when you need a boost (we all have those days: lessons fail, administrators demand what they demand, students are, well, students), open the FGF. Read through it. Reread as much as is required to remember that we do know some things. Repeat as necessary.

I’ve been cleaning up my classroom now that my seniors have departed and I have  been fluffing my own FGF. For the first time in my career, I have an abundance of thank you notes! Seriously, this graduating class was the most grateful group of young people, and someone taught them the importance of penning a thank you note (my heart rejoices for what they’ve proven is not a lost art). Students even returned after graduation to give me notes. Talk about feeling appreciated! I read their kind words (some from parents, too), and tucked them away, because I know there are going to be PLENTY days in the future when I’m not feeling so optimistic. I can just open the folder and remember. I can feel good that yup, on a good day, I’m not doing a bad job.

Curating a FGF is a perfect end-of-the-year activity because it helps to gain perspective. Sure, the papers, late work and final tasks remain, but taking a moment to reread the folder allows me a moment of joy.

Some of the latest entries into my own FGF. Two graduating seniors were asked about their favorite teachers. One said:

Dr Parker: Dr. Parker treated me, and my fellow classmates, like an adult my sophomore year — her class challenged me more than I had ever before experienced, both socially and academically. It was incredibly rewarding. I began to learn from Dr. Parker as much outside the classroom as I did inside — we collaborated with a community organization to facilitate workshops on race/class at CRLS, and we worked together to bring more discussions about these pertinent issues into the classroom (through programs and storytelling). I found myself constantly inspired and challenged. She always said, “I’m always down to start a revolution!” And I guess, after three more years of a personal relationship, I am, too.

and another:

Dr. Parker a.k.a. DParkz. Dr. Parker gave me my first really bad grade, and then taught me that that was okay. Her English 10 class was the hardest class I took at Rindge (besides maybe Calculus) and her Lit class was no joke either. She taught me about the growth mindset instead of the fixed mindset, which was a big deal for me. We had the best conversations in her class, because she allowed her students to argue against her, and draw their own conclusions, which I think is really rare in a teacher. I read the best books I have ever read in her class. But best of all, one day in Lit we all brought in cupcakes and tea and we had a book talk with cupcakes and tea! It was a dream come true.

It’s amazing what kids remember (tea and cupcakes? that was a spur-of-the-moment decision, too!). Indeed, though, their kind words and their gratitude leave me feeling pretty darn good.

2 Comments

Filed under Housekeeping, Reflective Practice

Every Now and Then: When Students Write for Us

I’m trying to write a grant for more books for my classroom library. The application asks for two references. For awards like this, where the grantors are actual educators, I try to have actual students write those letters. I am never, ever disappointed. I asked a current student and one I had a couple of years ago. They complied instantly.

Some excerpts from the current student. This first one is a bit long, but it is so, so good:

On the first day of class, Dr. Parker told us to answer a question: “What does it mean to read powerfully for you?” Never before had I critically thought about what it meant to read powerfully. To me, reading was just reading. Nevertheless, as I thought more and more about it, I was able to develop an answer. Reading powerfully involves an equilibrium of two different things, the heart and the brain. The passion and the imagination. The emotion and the understanding. For me, I am not able to read powerfully if I do not use both my heart and my brain. I can read with just my brain, and absorb the information but not actually feel or make any valid connections with the text. As a result, I tend to not really remember or walk away with much. I can also read with just my heart, and feel the text but not actually understand it on another level. As a result, I tend to never remember the text and walk away emotional. However, when I read to both feel and to understand, then I walk away with a much more interactive experience with the text, with more knowledge. I walk away as a powerful reader. To be completely honest, I wouldn’t have learned any of that if it were not for Dr. Parker asking the tough questions and getting our reader juices flowing. It was at this moment that I learned that my reading habits would be challenged (since she asked a challenging question) and that I would finally develop into becoming a better reader and consequently, writer.

And her conclusion:

Nevertheless, I think that what could make me and the rest of the community better readers is access to more books. When I was younger, I’d always ask my parents for books rather than clothes or anything else. The reasoning behind my thinking was that a book contains everlasting knowledge. A book is a trip you pay for once, but can always go back again free of cost. Books are what allow those who are underprivileged the opportunity to catch up to those who are.  Books are the keys to a gateway of knowledge. When you get young people to read, you give them everlasting knowledge. You allow them to travel the world (and elsewhere) and gain a variety of different perspectives. Not only that, but books allow young people to engage in conversations with adults and bridge a gap that exists between us and them. One thing that I appreciate about Dr. Parker is that she uses books as a way to help us jump start conversations among ourselves and with her. Furthermore, when we are challenged to read books that are well written and difficult, the knowledge we gain influences our writing. Dr. Parker tends to remind us that one of the only ways we can become better writers is if we become better readers. So, if we have more books to read, than we can read more, and if we read more, we probably will become better at reading (practice makes permanent). If we result in better readers, than our writing will be out of this world. Not only that, but as we read, we grow (or at least I do). When we grow and read more books that vary and gain different perspectives, we learn to be more loving of one another (at the very least, accepting). Books create a community of love and knowledge. I know that Dr. Parker has already started doing this in our class, but with more books, she will expand this community of love and knowledge. The beauty of this expansion is whether we realize it or not, is that we all end up falling in love with reading. And a world of powerful readers is better than a world without readers, is it not?

[Note: my first reaction to this beautifully written letter was to cry. At my desk. In front of the kids. Since having a baby, I’m not afraid to be vulnerable. Seriously? To write like this and to be only a sophomore?…]

Letters like this are why we need to ask students to write letters of recommendation for us every now and then. Because when they have the opportunity to articulate what we do every day, what seems so abstract suddenly comes into focus. Often I work with young people and I hope that they know how much reading matters, how much literacy matters, how much I need it to matter. Then, when they write, I know for sure.

Who knows if I’ll get the grant. Doesn’t seem like that’s the most important part of this project anymore. What makes it matter right now is that for this young person, I have made my classroom a space where literacy has created some wonderful experiences. Where reading can humanize us. That reading can make us more loving is perhaps the greatest sentence ever written. I think she is on to something.

Simply because I asked her to write for me.

Leave a comment

Filed under Literacy

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.

Leave a comment

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

Why Am I Exhausted? Oh Wait, I’m Teaching Huck Finn…

When I decided to teach Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to my sophomores, I decided to for several reasons, many of them about the importance of the text as “American” (whatever that means), and also because the character Jim presents all sorts of conundrums. I also wanted them to come to their own conclusions about whether the text should be taught in classrooms (the culminating debate for the text). That Huck can’t quite resolve the conflict between his conscience and his heart is just as compelling, and, while at the center of the novel, there are numerous other angles that also provide interesting moments of analysis.

I also remembered when I taught the text a couple of years ago that I was absolutely worn out once we got done with the book. With the last 12 chapters to go, I’m feeling that same way, and have been thinking about why.

The additional layer that often gets overlooked in these discussions about appropriateness, N-words and the rest is how much background knowledge you have to build for kids AND how much correcting of historical inaccuracies you also have to resolve. Students are as naive as Huck when it comes to thinking about Jim, and–this is where I understand why I have to teach this text and be on my game every single time I work with the kids–they will remain that way unless you help them think of him otherwise.

They want to call Jim illiterate. They want to say that he’s not “smart”. They want to think him illogical. They also have questions about enslaved Africans: would Jim have known his family in Africa? They ask with a genuine interest.

They also think they know everything about slavery because they saw Django Unchained.

I want to pass out, but I can’t.

I have been building text sets out of necessity (ah, the mother of invention) to give them a broader understanding of the lives of enslaved Africans. I’ve shown clips from Skip Gates’ newest documentary, The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross which talks about slavery and fugitive slave laws (and if you don’t cry when you watch the story of Margaret Garner, well, then…), pulled from slave narratives, Frederick Douglass, historical documents, etc.

I am cobbling together supplemental texts as quickly as I can, which is fine. It’s just…frustrating and disheartening and, yes, exhausting. Teaching HF is fraught with my own internal conflicts: is it worth reading a text that potentially takes so much out of me emotionally, through analyzing Huck’s conflict amidst the historical setting and contradictions? Is it worth having to correct so many plain-wrong misunderstandings about enslaved Africans, about romanticized notions of slavery, of fighting to help them see Jim as a person (before that all goes to hell when they reach Phelps’ farm)?

I would say yes, though I’m uneasy.

I think, too, that I’ve come to the point that I think this text should be taught as interdisciplinary, with a History teacher who can set to rights the wrongs that kids have internalized. And I’m not putting this work off on a History teacher; rather, I simply think that the more kids have the opportunity to learn counternarratives, and apply them to texts to broaden or correct their (mis)understandings, the better critical thinkers, writers and people they can become.

Because the struggle is so real right now, and I have never been happier to know that tomorrow is the weekend and I can shore up my own courage before returning down the Mississippi River with them on Monday.

2 Comments

Filed under Teaching Texts

Why Conferences with Kids Matter

There are lots of kids in my classes this year. It’s only now that I think (think) that I know all of their names (a fact that is both embarrassing and infuriating to me because I feel I should have it down by now).

Getting to know them as writers is much harder, particularly given attempts to turn papers around regularly. I write fewer and fewer comments on their actual papers and encourage them to schedule a conference with me to really talk about their work.

Those conference slots tend to fill up around the time a paper is due, which is what happened this week. While we get some good discussions about where they’re stuck and what they’re thinking, for me, the most important aspect of the conferences are that I can actually get to know the kids. In those moments, when they shyly push forward sentences and paragraphs, make the apologies full of fears of their work not being “good” (whatever that means; I tell them we are all in a state of revision, no apologies are necessary), I ask them how the class is working for them, let them talk through their challenging parts…I take notes then we make a plan for next steps, which I make them write down, because they are young people and they forget and one-on-one conferences are intimidating, I know.

It’s amazing, too, because the kids who sit in class and are the quiet ones, or the ones that seem so self-confident, are so different in conferences. So open, I guess, so willing to engage in a conversation about how to improve their writing.

I learn as much about who they are as people as about what they need to do to strengthen their thesis, in those conferences, and I never regret having them. I also have my student teacher conduct ones with students to understand how to be kind, how to listen to kids, how to give pithy advice that will send them confidently on their way. I find that once students come for one, and generally find it useful, they’ll return for more, and their confidence develops, their questions about their work gets more complex and nuanced, and that growth helps me to understand their development as young writers.

I continue to keep in touch with students I’ve taught over the years (though after 11 years, it takes me a moment to remember where I knew a kid, given that I’ve taught in so many different places; I guess I need to do some more Sudoku). I recently worked with a student who I taught as  a freshman four years ago. He’s a senior now, preparing to go to college. His mom contacted me, worried about what he needed to do, what she needed to do, to get him ready. So, I met him on a Saturday at one of the local public library branches to discuss the Common Essay application prompts. This is the prompt that resonated most with him:

Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?

Apparently, he tried out for the high school basketball team as a freshman. Didn’t make the varsity or the JV. The following year, he didn’t make it as a sophomore, either. Ditto for junior year. I asked if he planned to try out this year and he nodded yes. What if you don’t make it? “I guess I’ll run track,” he said. Not bitterly, not quite resignedly, but factually. He wanted to do something that would keep him physically active and track seemed to be it.

We talked about what he learned over the years, when he didn’t make the team, and he said he kept trying out because he felt like he got a little bit better every year, and that people encouraged him to keep working. That this kid was willing to keep trying, even when there the chances of making the team are so small, was quite telling to me. He plays in local leagues, practices, hopes to make the team. Perhaps I’m even more impressed because so many kids would have just given up–heck, I would have given up, probably, after the second time. There definitely would not have been a third or a fourth time. Talk about grit, and perseverance and resilience…

“You have a great story,” I said. “Write it.”

I’d want that kid at my college. He seems to have the qualities that we want: being able to pick yourself up after things don’t go your way, to keep trying even when there is no guarantee of a winning outcome…and you’re 17 years old? Yeah, you’re gonna be just fine.

I never would have had the opportunity to be blown away had I not spent some time on a Saturday conferencing with a kid about what he learned about failure, and why he’s going to keep trying. Kids have great stories to tell and write; thankfully, I can listen and learn when I carve out time to sit beside them.

Leave a comment

Filed under Writing

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Student Interactions, Teaching Writing in the Summer