Some Reflections on Being a Student Again

Photo by Chris Wormhoudt on Unsplash

One of the many reasons I haven’t had much time to blog lately is the fact that I went back to grad school in September. I’m working on my doctorate at Northeastern University. Working full time and going to school has meant all the writing I’ve had time to do has mostly been for school, but it’s been a fantastic learning experience so far. I have learned so much from the reading and writing I have done. I can’t even compare my experience with earning my master’s degree to my experience working on my doctorate, and I’m only sorry I wasted so much tuition money and time on the master’s. Here I’m showing my ignorance, but I didn’t realize one could go right into a doctoral degree program with a bachelor’s degree.

My dissertation in practice is an action research investigation on grading and assessment practices. If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, it’s perhaps not a surprise, as assessment has been an interest of mine for a long time. I have come to the conclusion that grading impedes not only motivation but also learning, as students tend to focus on the grade at the expense of the learning. It’s true that some students don’t find grades to be a motivator, and those students tend to view them more as a stick than a carrot. Whether grades motivate students or not, however, they do encourage students to focus on the wrong thing, and even students who truly want to learn find grades demotivating. Students have told me they are afraid to take risks. They select “easier” options. They try to figure out what the teacher wants to hear and parrot it back rather than think for themselves. All of this is anecdotal—I’ve seen it many times over the years; however, I see no reason why students would be dishonest about their feelings regarding grades.

Going back to school has put me in the same position as my students. The anxiety I have experienced over my grades has been difficult to manage at times. Of course I want to learn, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to please my professors. Even though I’m actually studying the effects of grading and know exactly what is happening to me, I find myself unable to focus only on the learning. I want to earn good grades too badly. It’s utterly ironic on a few levels. I’m actually doing very well, for one thing, and for another, the research is quite clear that grades are subjective, demotivating, and even contribute to poor performance (Cvencek, et. al., 2018; Klapp, 2015; Brackett, et. al., 2013; and Bloxham, et. al., 2016). My hunch is it has to do with mindset. I noticed my students relaxed quite a bit once I instituted a liberal revision policy.

One of my classmates mentioned that a professor I will have for a summer course is a hard grader. So naturally, I’ve already started worrying about a class I won’t start for nearly a month. It made me reflect a little bit on reputation. I don’t think I have a reputation for being a hard grader. One person told me my reputation was my expectations are “reasonable,” and I’ll take it. My students this year seemed to be happy in my classes, and my course surveys revealed they felt cared a for and that the choice and agency they had was important for their growth. I relaxed a lot on my own grading practices as a result of the research I have done and because of my own experiences as a student. I truly do not understand the need for a graduate program to use grades.

We know what to do about grading and assessment. I think one reason I was not accepted to another graduate program to which I applied is that my research does not examine a gap in the research. On the contrary, there is plenty of research on grading and assessment, and going all the way back to the 1800s, the research has been fairly clear. And yet, we keep reporting learning by using grades. So even though there is no gap in the research, it’s clear to me that classroom practices haven’t changed as a result of the research, and that’s what I’m interested in: change. We need to do right by our students and fix this problem that has plagued education for far too long.

References

Bloxham, S., den-Outer, B., Hudson, J., & Price, M. (2016). Let’s stop the pretence of consistent marking: Exploring the multiple limitations of assessment criteria. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 41(3), 466-481. doi:10.1080/02602938.2015.1024607

Brackett, M. A., Floman, J. L., Ashton-James, C., Cherkasskiy, L., & Salovey, P. (2013). The influence of teacher emotion on grading practices: A preliminary look at the evaluation of student writing. Teachers and Teaching, 19(6), 634-646. doi:10.1080/13540602.2013.827453

Cvencek, D., Fryberg, S. A., Covarrubias, R., & Meltzoff, A. N. (2018). Self‐concepts, self‐esteem, and academic achievement of minority and majority North American elementary school children. Child Development, 89(4), 1099-1109. doi:10.1111/cdev.12802

Klapp, A. (2015). Does grading affect educational attainment? A longitudinal study. Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy & Practice, 22(3), 302-323. doi:10.1080/0969594X.2014.988121

What Can Educators Learn from the Great British Bake Off?

gbbo
©BBC, Fair Use for Educational Purposes

I know I am really late to this party, but I just discovered The Great British Bake Off. I have been catching up on each of the seasons available on Netflix. It’s rare for me to actually be able to binge-watch something, but I can watch The Great British Bake Off all day. I find it helps me destress a bit. I love seeing what the contestants come up with. I admit I haven’t watched the American versions. If you have, feel free to chime in here, but my feeling is that it couldn’t quite work the same way with American contestants because one of the best things about The Great British Bake Off is the fact that even though contestants are competing against one another, they support each other, show each other kindness, and even seem happy for others when they are named Star Baker or win the competition and sad to see contestants go. I’m not sure Americans are like that in a competition.

I don’t have this idea fully formed in my head yet, but for the past couple of weeks, I have been wondering what educators can take away from this show. I don’t mean the competition aspect, necessarily, but the structure of the show intrigues me as a learning model.

If you haven’t seen it, each week has a different focus: Bread Week, Pastry Week, French Week, etc. Some of these themes repeat each season, while others don’t necessarily. For example, the most recent season available on Netflix included a Vegan Week. Bakers have to display a wide variety of skills and apply what they know about baking to several challenges.

The first challenge in each episode (or week) is the Showcase Challenge. This challenge sets a goal, such as making 24 identical buns, that allows contestants to demonstrate their skills. They know the Showcase Challenge in advance and are allowed to practice recipes at home. The second challenge is the Technical Challenge. For this challenge, contestants do not know the recipe, and often, the judges set really difficult baking tasks for the contestants. They must apply what they know about baking to the challenge because in some cases, they are not given full, precise directions. It’s not uncommon, for example, for the baking directions to just say “bake” without offering baking time or temperature. The final challenge each week is the Showstopper Challenge. For this challenge, contestants must impress by going all out to create something truly amazing that fits the theme. For example, if it’s Cake Week, the judges might ask for a landscape cake with a whole scene in edibles.

I am a bread baker, somewhat new to baking bread as I had always thought it too intimidating. I’ve been baking bread about a year and a half or so. Not too long. I love baking bread. It tastes good, and it provides just the right amount of challenge coupled with simplicity—after all, it’s mostly just flour, water, salt, and yeast. I have had a sourdough starter going for about 15 months.  I started watching The Great British Bake Off thinking I would find it entertaining since I like to bake. I didn’t really expect to learn anything from the show, and not because I’m an expert or anything, but mainly because I don’t usually learn much from television or video. I generally have to read books. I actually will read cookbooks cover to cover. However, aside from learning a few things about baking that I didn’t expect to learn, I also noticed the show teaches a few important skills and competencies that it would be good for all students to learn.

First, the show asks contestants to apply their knowledge about a variety of baking skills, from cookies (or biscuits) to cakes to bread to pastries. All aspects of baking are important: the appearance, the flavors, the ability to follow instructions and deliver what is asked. Each week’s three challenges offer an opportunity to demonstrate different skills:

  • What can you produce within the confines of certain expectations with time to practice?
  • What can you produce bringing to bear what you know about baking when you are giving a challenging task?
  • What can you make that will really impress?

These skills could be applied to other kinds of learning. What if an art class tried these three different challenges? A Showcase with a chance to paint something you know well? A Technical that challenges you to apply a skill, such as stippling, to create a painting? A Technical that challenges you to apply an array of painting skills to create something.

What if a writing class gave students a Showcase challenge that allowed them to write in a genre of their choice about a topic? A Technical that gave a topic and challenged students to write in a specified genre? A Showstopper that asked students to write in several different genres on a topic?

These ideas are obviously not fully formed, but I must admit when I watch this show, several things impress me. The contestants take feedback really well and learn from it. They demonstrate a great deal of resilience and dedication to learning. They have to display a wide array of baking skills, probably far more than the average home baker usually knows. As I mentioned before, they are really supportive of each other. I have actually seen several contestants help others when they’re struggling.

I can’t help but wonder what might happen in a classroom that looked a little bit like The Great British Bake Off.

Reflection on Grades: A Student’s Perspective

stress photo

Tomorrow I start the second quarter of my doctoral program, and I’m reflecting on last quarter. I am studying assessment, particularly grades and why they are not effective. I believe they reduce motivation, increase anxiety, and don’t actually tell us what students have learned. We can absolutely assess student learning without grades. I know many schools have gone gradeless, and I am hoping my research will help me explore the best ways to assess students.

My experience as a student being graded myself for the first time in a while was interesting. Though I was studying assessment and grading and knew what was happening intellectually with my anxiety and motivation, I couldn’t prevent myself from focusing on my grades. I will not go so far as to say I was motivated by my grades. Quite the opposite: I was terrified of my grades. For me, they weren’t a carrot, but a stick. And the strange thing is that I did very well last quarter. I did as well as I possibly could do. And the better I did, the more anxious I became because I felt like I had to maintain it. At a certain point, I was incredibly anxious just a single point would be taken off. That’s just ridiculous.

One night, I dreamed that one of my professors told me she would need to give me a bad grade on an assignment, and she also said I wouldn’t be able to revise. I remember feeling frustrated because each assignment seemed important for my learning, and if I really hadn’t done well, I needed to revise. Otherwise, what was the point of the assessment?

My dream never came true. I really enjoyed what I learned in my courses. I was able to have rich discussions with peers, and the assignments were really helpful in focusing my research and teaching me what I needed to know in order to move forward. I received good feedback from my professors and peers. I enjoyed the readings.

I’m writing this reflection for a couple of reasons. The first is that I need to be kind to myself and not focus as much on my grades from now on because the stress I put on myself was harmful. My back stayed clenched just about all quarter. I just need to remember the grades are not as important as the learning. I know they are not. They are meant to be feedback, even I believe they are imperfect feedback at best and incredibly harmful at worst.

The second reason I’m writing this is I might be just like a student in your class. When one of my students expressed anxiety over a small grade drop, I was much more empathetic with her than I might have been in the past because I was anxious about the same issues. I understood it wasn’t about a couple of points. The problem is deeper than that. And yet we call students “grade grubbers” and tell them not to focus on the minutiae, but at the same time, we tell them over and over how important grades are. And some of us, and you know who you are, insist the learning is important, but make no provision for revision.

I feel much more empathy for my students in general after going back to school. I would never characterize myself as lacking empathy, but the quality of my empathy has changed. One day my students came in stressed out over grades, college applications, graduation projects, and I don’t know what all. I asked them if they wanted to do a meditation exercise, so we used my iPhone app and did one. One of them gave me a shout out in morning meeting for “taking care of” them.

My goal is to prevent, as much as possible, causing undue stress. For the first time this year, I added a section to my course outline, which I adapted from my colleague Matt Miller:

Taking Care of Yourself

As a student, you may experience challenges that interfere with your learning—strained relationships, increased anxiety, feeling down, difficulty concentrating, and/or lack of motivation. These mental health concerns or stressful events may diminish your academic performance and/or reduce your ability to participate in daily activities.

It is important that you take time to take care of yourself. Do your best to maintain a healthy lifestyle by eating well, exercising, avoiding drugs and alcohol, getting enough sleep, and taking time to relax. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle will help you achieve your goals and cope with stress. If this class is the result of undue amounts of stress on you, please come discuss your concerns with me so that we can work on a solution to help you better manage your stress.

If you or anyone you know experiences serious academic stress, difficult life events or feelings of anxiety or depression, I strongly encourage you to seek support from a parent, teacher, advisor, coach, or counselor. Please let me know if I can assist you with this any way.

Be kind to your kids. And if you’re not being kind to yourself, fix that, too.

NCTE 2018 Reflections

Each year, I try to take some time to reflect on my learning at NCTE. Last year, I actually did it in three parts, which I don’t think I will need to do this year.

Some perennial issues remain unaddressed. For example, rooms are still over-crowded for certain popular sessions. I know this is hard to figure out, and predicting which size room presenters need is blind guessing, but it’s essential that whoever is making these decisions has the pulse of conversations happening on social media. I could have predicted, for example, that the #DisruptTexts and #TeachLivingPoets sessions would be full to bursting based on chat participation, but neither were in big rooms. On the other hand, my session, which was up against the ALAN Breakfast and some heavy hitters (see below), had scant attendance, and we were in a ballroom. That session should have had better attendance, but it’s hard to compete against the ALAN Breakfast (to say nothing of big-name presenters).

Another issue: We are still an echo chamber to some extent. I tweeted this out twice during the conference:

There are some folks who present every year, and unfortunately, it’s pretty much the same thing every year. I realize not everyone goes every year to hear them, but there are folks presenting multiple sessions, and they do it every year. And they’re selling books and professional development workshops. And some of these folks have great, innovative ideas. But we need to share the floor. Caveat: I have presented several times, too—six times since 2010. Some of the folks I am talking about have presented six times in the last two years or less.

I also know some folks who were in the session in which writer Sarah Cortez apparently said some hurtful, homophobic, bigoted things. Two horrible results: 1) fellow panelist and author Bill Konigsberg was hurt by the remarks, 2) many of the others presenting in the session were also hurt and are preservice teachers experiencing their first NCTE conference. I know in the moment, it’s hard to know how to respond, and it is very easy for those of us who were not there to say what we would have done, but it’s important that this is addressed with whatever agent that helped NCTE book this author and also that this author is not invited back again. Clearly, it was not something the fellow panelists should have had to address.

I had actually marked that session as one I might attend and went to High School Matters instead. I loved getting Carol Jago’s book recommendations at that session, and the two roundtables I attended were great. One was “Taking Writing from the Personal to the Public Minded: Teaching for Social Justice and Global Citizenship,” and the other was “Reading Between the Lines: Using LGBTQ Literature with Middle and High School Teachers and Counselors.”

I’m already out of order with my reflection. I missed A and B sessions as well as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s keynote because my flight landed at 6:00 PM. Usually, that’s not an issue with NCTE, but this year, some sessions were moved up so that Sunday could end a bit earlier (that’s my conjecture, anyway), and I like this change, but I didn’t know it would happen when I booked my plane tickets months ago. Lesson learned.  I hated missing Adichie.

I went to Cornelius Minor’s session, C.01: Raising Student Voice—What is Our Role in Equity and Justice in the English Classroom? He is a dynamic speaker, and I enjoyed hearing from him. We received free copies of Kwame Alexander’s Solo, too! Unfortunately, I didn’t get notes. I was sitting on the floor in the corner and couldn’t see, too, but that’s because I was late. I had gone to a Penguin/Moth breakfast that morning, and it ran into the first session. I’m not sure if Penguin was aware they were running into the next session or not.

I skipped a D session so I could eat and check out the exhibits. I only went to the exhibit hall this one time. The more often I attend this conference, the less interested I am in the exhibit hall. I can’t tell you how much free stuff I’ve taken that I’ve never looked at again. I’m really thoughtful about what I take now (my husband would probably disagree, but it’s true).

I went to Tricia Ebarvia, Lorena Germán, and Julia Torres’s session F.65: #DisruptTexts: Dismantling and Rebuilding (Reimagining?) the Literary Canon. If you haven’t been involved with #DisruptTexts on Twitter, you should fix that. We missed Kim Parker, but the group shared a stellar rationale for why we need to do this work and how we can do it—even if we have limited options about changing our curriculum, we can still disrupt it. I do hope they will share their slide deck. It looked like they had linked some interesting things on the slides themselves and also cited some research worth digging into. Josh Thompson took good Twitter notes (see the entire thread):

One big takeaway from this conference and from #TeachLivingPoets: I have a renewed interest in poetry. I admit I had let this interest slide because I was looking in the wrong places. We are in the midst of a poetry renaissance, and we need to be sharing these poets with our students. The picture at the top of this post includes all the books I heard about from #TeachLivingPoets either before or at the conference. I went to two sessions with the #TeachLivingPoets crew: G.34: #TeachLivingPoets: Redefining the Canon to Discover and Develop Student Voice through Living Poets and M.18: The Argument for Poetry: How Poetry Can Help Students Hear Other Voices and Raise Their Own. Both sessions were fantastic, and the great news is that both groups shared their slides and are linked above. I will try to share the book recommendations in a future post once I’ve had a chance to read them all.

My research in graduate school concerns eliminating grades, so I went to J.22: Report Cards that Motivate: Including Student Voice in Assessment. I was hoping to encounter research I wasn’t familiar with, but instead, I walked away with a list of schools who are actually doing this work, and perhaps I can figure out how to visit or how to interview people at these schools as part of my research. I’m glad I went for the sake of my dissertation, and I hope I can bring some of the ideas I learned in this session back to my school.

My last session was N.18: Teaching for Social Justice in the Age of Trump: Exploring Empathy and Vulnerability in a Divided America. This was a panel crafted from separate proposals, I gather. Meredith Stewart and her colleague Laura Price from Cary Academy, North Carolina, shared some interesting ideas about an American video essay assignment. They were great, and the assignment looks really intriguing.

I went to an E session that wasn’t memorable and co-opted the work of others, to boot. Nothing new and nothing to report. Same with the I session, which I attended hoping to get some ideas for a text I am not a huge fan of teaching. I mostly didn’t. I guess it’s time to speak with my fellow ninth grade teachers about this text.

I reiterate the remarks I make every year. Please check your equipment. Bring the right dongle. Make sure it works. Share your slide deck so people can listen to you and do not need to frantically take notes and block everyone’s view taking pictures of your slides. If you’re interested in other advice, you can find it here.

I missed part of Chris Emdin’s keynote but caught the second half. It was powerful! It was the only general session I was able to attend. I wish I had had time to get a book signed. I think it’s important that NCTE is bringing in academics like Chris Emdin and inviting authors like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie to speak at this conference.

It might have been my imagination, or perhaps I was more aware of it, but on the plus side, it looked to me like more teachers of color attended and presented, and this is a step in the right direction. So what can we do to be more inclusive?

This conference remains out of reach for many. Some years, I had to pay my own way. It’s nothing to drop $1000 to attend this conference. I’m lucky my current school supports my professional learning, but many teachers are not in this position, and NCTE can and should do more to make this conference accessible to all. They can start by not charging presenters. I have a feeling they don’t want to do that because they make a lot of money from presenters attending the conference, but I have long thought it seems like a lot of money to shell out for a line on a résumé. NCTE is profiting from the work of these presenters. The least they can do is charge them a presenter fee that is significantly less than the full conference registration fee, but the right thing to do would be to waive the fee altogether.

Scholarship opportunities are also limited. Julia Torres and Lorena Germán coordinated an effort to raise money to send teachers this year, but NCTE should be part of the solution on this one. I know many, many teachers who only go when they can commute to the conference because hotel and airfare cost too much to go every year. And the learning they miss out on is substantial. We can do better by these teachers. I know how they feel because I was in their position, and there were some years that I went to NCTE on borrowed money and ate only fast food or snacks the whole time because it’s what I could afford since my school didn’t support my going. I love this organization and conference for making me a better teacher, and because I love it, I feel like I can tell them they need to work to be even more inclusive.

It was great to connect with friends and colleagues again. Despite some hiccups and fumbles and significant problems, I think this is a good conference that can be GREAT, and I look forward to next year already. The conference theme is “Spirited Inquiry.” I already have some ideas.

#TeachLivingPoets: Introduction to Literary Analysis and Critical Lenses

Books

I’ve been a little bit frustrated by my first unit in AP Lit. since my first year teaching it. Since this year is my fourth, it was time to make some changes or scrap it altogether, and since I felt it had some real potential, I decided to rethink the selections I was using to introduce literary analysis tools and critical lenses. I’m a little embarrassed it took me three years to figure out the solution. Even more embarrassing? I stumbled on this solution by accident after forgetting I was a day ahead of where I thought I’d be in my lesson plans. But after that serendipitous change went well, I knew what I needed to fix the rest of my unit: student agency.

I started peeking into discussions on Twitter at the hashtag #TeachLivingPoets some time ago. I asked which collections teachers using the hashtag recommended, and they offered a great list. I already had Clint Smith’s Counting Descent, which I highly recommend, and Wisława Symborska’s Poems New and Collected. I found Second Space by Czesław Miłosz, The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Poetry edited by J. D. McClatchy, and Miracle Fruit by Aimee Nezhukumatathil in a classroom, presumably left behind by a teacher who departed our school.

I ordered the following:

I put all these collections in a box I called my Box of Books by Living Poets. Of course, Miłosz and Symborska are not living poets, but they are at least 20th-21st-century poets. I carried the box with me to class.

The books that generated the most interest were Counting Descent and Citizen Illegal, though students also looked into Calling a Wolf a WolfElectric ArchesAmerican Journal, Miracle Fruit, and The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Poetry. To be honest, no one cracked open either Miłosz and Symborska. Some students elected to focus on poems they knew and loved by poets as diverse as Rupi Kaur, Allen Ginsberg, Dr. Suess, Eminem, and Emma Lazarus.

The first thing students do with the poems is learn how to use one of several literary analysis tools to help break down the poem. In my AP Lit workshop a few years ago, I learned about DIDLS, TWIST, and SIFTT (video). Lisa Huff had already introduced me to TPCASTT (weirdly, this TPCASTT post on my blog is the one that consistently receives the most traffic). If you know who invented any of these strategies, let me know so that I can give proper attribution. I do not know who created them, but they’re widely shared.

Students worked in groups to use the literary analysis tool to analyze a poem of their choice, create a presentation using Google Slides explaining how to use the analysis tool, and demonstrate their application of the tool to their own poem analysis.

In between using the literary analysis tools and learning critical lenses, students discussed Thomas C. Foster’s How to Read Literature Like a Professor.

Students created a second presentation using critical lenses to deepen their poem analysis. They could use the same poem as before or a different one. Most students chose a different poem, again from the Box of Books by Living Poets or one of their own choosing. Again, students analyzed the poem using one of the literary analysis tools and added the layer of the critical lens.

Some of my takeaways from the change:

Students were much more engaged in this unit this year. It’s probably obvious, but the reason why I think they enjoyed the unit more was the selection of poetry. They had an opportunity to either analyze poetry they really like or they were introduced to poetry by living poets, with the immediacy and relevance of those voices bring with them. Students were really enjoying Clint Smith’s poetry. They were excited by the fact that José Olivarez’s book had been released just weeks ago, and they were probably some of the first students to analyze his poems.

Students were reading more poetry than they had in previous years. They had to find the poems they wanted, which in itself was a process. Students also shared their poems in presentations, reading the poems they were analyzing before sharing their analyses. Because of the large variety of poems available, students were simply reading more of them.

Students were able to bring in literature that was important to them. One student lamented in a recent discussion that she didn’t feel represented well in our school’s curriculum. She had read one major text by an author with her background, and to quote her commentary, “It was weird.” Because of these projects, she was able to bring in poets with backgrounds similar to her own background and share those poems with her classmates. Another student brought in her own poem to analyze. Two other students brought in a poem by a student their age at another school (video).

Students understand the literary analysis tools better. They are better able to articulate why they selected certain tools. For example, they noted the diction was interesting, and it prompted them to use DIDLS. If tone seemed really important, they chose TWIST. They loved TPCASTT for its versatility.

Students understand the critical lenses better. Purdue OWL has revamped their pages on critical lenses, and they are amazing. Having really good introductions to the critical lenses made a huge difference. Also, I think choosing their own poems asked students to think more about which lenses could be used to interpret the poems. For example, students with experience reading Clint Smith’s poems for the first presentation knew he would work well for critical race theory in the second. A student who loves Eminem knew his song “The Monster” was ripe for a psychoanalytical analysis. As a result of having to select their poems, students had to use higher-order critical thinking skills of application and evaluation to do their analysis as opposed to the past, when I selected poems I thought would be good to use for the critical lenses.

I was more engaged in the classroom, too. No, it’s not about me as the teacher, but I was way more interested during the students’ presentations because their own engagement and interest showed through in their work. Watching the presentations this year was really a lot of fun.

My prediction is that students will use both the literary analysis tools and the critical lenses more this year than they did in past years. I am hoping to grab a few minutes to ask their feedback on the unit in the upcoming week, but one student remarked as she left class Friday that “this is fun English.”

Note: This post contains affiliate links.

Slice of Life: Improvisation

My AP Lit Class

This morning my Keurig decided to break. I have a single-serve Keurig that I have to fill with a cup of water each time I use. Only half a cup came out. I knew there had to be water trapped inside, but I wasn’t able to open it to see. So I turned it upside down over the trash can, and super-concentrated coffee went everywhere. Including the legs of my chinos. I knew they’d dry fast based on the kind of material they’re made out of, and my previous experiences getting them wet taught me I could try to wash the coffee out of my pants in the bathroom, and they’d probably be dry by class time.

I sat down and checked Blackboard. I started my doctoral program yesterday, and we are introducing ourselves to each other in both of my classes. I also wanted to see if my professor had answered my question. She had.

Then I thought to check my plan book to see what my AP Lit classes had on the docket for today, and I realized with horror that I’d made a big mistake. I had actually finished a project with them a day earlier than I had anticipated when I created my plans. I didn’t have anything for my students to do.

I knew I wouldn’t have time to create a meaningful lesson out of whole cloth, and I couldn’t move ahead because I had given my students until tomorrow or Thursday (depending on which class they are in) to finish Thomas C.  Foster’s How to Read Literature Like a Professor.  It wouldn’t be fair to tell them they had to create seminar questions today when they might not be quite finished reading.

The project my students had just completed was to learn how to use a literary analysis tool (one was TPCASTT) and teach it to their peers in a presentation in which they also share their analysis of a literary work using the tool. In past years, I’ve been frustrated that the tools have been introduced early in the year and haven’t gained any traction. The students thought they were useful, but later on, they simply didn’t return to them when they were analyzing literature. We fall back on habits and methods that we know. We forget.

I thought fast. What if my AP Lit students worked in groups to choose a poem in one of my new collection of books by (mostly) living poets, chose a literary tool they learned last week (not one they themselves presented), analyzed a poem, and shared their findings with the class?

I tossed my poetry books in a box and made my way across campus. It was just starting to rain. I was glad I had remembered my umbrella so the books would stay dry.

All went well in my first class. After you’ve taught for a while, you come up with some handy go-to techniques you can use to stretch a lesson.

As I made my way back across campus slowly and carefully in a torrential downpour that was the remains of Hurricane Florence, I tried to keep the books dry and succeeded in making my pant legs wet all over again—the puddles were unavoidable—and arrived back at my office about ten minutes late for my “office hour” ( really half-hour). Thankfully, no one was waiting for help. I dried off my shoes with a paper towel from the bathroom and prepared to do the lesson again in my second class.

What started out as a mistake turned out to be serendipity. The students dove into the poems and presented thoughtful analyses. They considered which tool to use thoughtfully, thinking about what their chosen poems included in terms of diction, literary devices, imagery, symbols, and other elements. It was brilliant. And I think it may have helped me along the path to achieving my goal of convincing students to use these tools to analyze literature.

Thank you to #TeachLivingPoets, and thank you to generous AP teachers everywhere who share their ideas. In spite of me, I had some great classes today.

Slice of LifeSlice of Life is a weekly writing challenge hosted by Two Writing Teachers. Visit their blog for more information about the challenge and for advice and ideas about how to participate.

Ramping Up Writing Instruction

writing photo

I set my summer professional goal to ramp up writing instruction. It’s an area in which I feel a level of competence and confidence, but I am always looking for ways to improve. I asked Twitter for suggestions. I’m embedding the tweet here so you can follow the suggestions if you like.

Later, this tweet also crossed my timeline, so I’m embedding it, too:

Maggie’s question is really what I was trying to ask in a way: I am looking for something that goes beyond theory and offers concrete ideas for exercises to try. I don’t need to give the book to students, but I do want takeaways I can actually use.

I did, however, get a lot of great suggestions, and I will read through some of the selections and post thoughts here on the blog from time to time. I won’t devote a blog post to each book I read. I might read a few of them and then write a blog post with quick thoughts and takeaways from each book.

This Blog is a Teenager

thirteen photo
Photo by josephmatthews

As of today, this blog is a teenager. Thirteen years ago today, January 25, 2005, I started blogging at huffenglish.com.  I always post on my blog anniversary, and usually, I share some statistics, but I’m not going to do that today.

Instead, I’m going to ask for your help. If you have found this blog useful, and you want to pay it forward, I support these organizations and would be happy if you would support them, too.

How I Changed My Mind Once

John Moore, Getty Images
John Moore, Getty Images

Literature is a powerful means of helping us understand things we don’t understand otherwise. It can offer us new perspectives. It can reflect ourselves, certainly, but it can also help us understand others who are not like us. It offers us an opportunity to see things from a perspective besides our own. It’s incredibly obvious to me that our current president doesn’t read because he lacks that important perspective.

We have all, at one time or another, been blind to others’ perspectives. For instance, I have been thinking a lot lately about homelessness. I have held some beliefs about it that I am questioning, and I’m also questioning why I believed these things when I admit now that I didn’t have certain information. My information about who becomes homeless and why was woefully incomplete. I have had an opportunity to get to know some young people who found themselves homeless, and not for reasons I would have thought.

I was watching some videos last night when I was having trouble falling asleep. Because I went to a U2 concert on Thursday night, my ears are still full of their music, and I’m still feeling that post-concert energy. (I had a really hard time going to sleep Thursday night after the concert.) I was really just clicking through different videos, feeling 80’s nostalgia big time with some of them, and I happened upon this short interview with the Edge in which he describes working on a documentary about homelessness and how he had begun interrogating his feelings about homelessness. It’s fairly candid. It’s hard to admit you were not open-minded about something in the past or that you held political or social beliefs in the past that you now disagree with. Watching that video, in which someone I admire a great deal admits to a certain blindness about a situation—I blindness I shared—helped me figure out what I wanted to say about the current crisis at America’s southern border. We all change. As Taylor Mali says in “Like Lilly Like Wilson,” “changing your mind is one of the best ways / of finding out whether or not you still have one.”

As I have learned from others, I have changed my mind many times. It’s not “waffling,” it’s adjusting based on information you didn’t have before. In order to adjust, you have to be open to that information. Many people reject information that conflicts with what they believe. Cognitive dissonance is not a rare phenomenon. People confronted with information that contradicts beliefs they have held will do one of several things:

  1. Change their mind or their behavior based on the new information.
  2. Justify it in some way.
  3. Ignore or dismiss the new information.

We should interrogate the source and strength of the information, of course, but if the information is both strong and comes from a reliable source or data, we are lying if we do anything except change our minds or behavior. Climate change is a good example. A lot of people are choosing either to justify not doing anything for the climate or to ignore it and say climate change is made up.

A long time ago, I believed every person coming into our country should follow the legal channels. What is the big deal? If you want to become an American, I thought, fine, but do whatever paperwork you need to do. I changed my mind after reading Barbara Kingsolver’s book The Bean Trees. What made me change my mind is that Kingsolver opened my eyes to the fact that a lot of people cannot follow legal channels and come to America for a variety of reasons: their governments are so corrupt that they will never be able to complete the required paperwork and go through official channels or their lives are in danger (often because of their corrupt government). Obviously, there are a host of other reasons.

In The Bean Trees, the protagonist Taylor Greer meets a couple, Estevan and Esperanza, who are undocumented immigrants from Guatemala. Taylor’s friend Mattie runs a sort of “underground railroad” for undocumented immigrants out of her home. Kingsolver allows Taylor to stand in for the uninformed reader. Her naivete about what is happening in the world around her mirrored my own, despite the fact that I watched the news, and I knew about the rampant corruption and violence in Central and South America. I didn’t see it because I didn’t know anyone who had experienced it, and one thing novels allow you to do is live vicariously through the characters.

Getting to know Estevan and Esperanza changed my mind about undocumented immigrants. They were fleeing a civil war in Guatemala. Their lives were in danger. Their child was taken from them in Guatemala. Kingsolver gets at the heart of the issue many Americans have with refugees and undocumented immigrants through Estavan. After the character Virgie May Parsons declares that immigrants should “stay put in their own dirt, not come here taking up jobs” because “before you know it the whole world will be here jibbering and jabbering till we won’t know it’s America” (143), Taylor feels she should apologize to Estevan for Virgie’s comments. Estevan says, “I understand . . . This is how Americans think. You believe that if something terrible happens to someone, they must have deserved it” (157). We blame victims of oppression instead of looking at policies and systems that created oppression.

Later when Taylor learns that Estevan and Esperanza’s daughter Ismene was kidnapped because Estevan was a member of an underground teachers’ union in Guatemala. Esperanza’s brother and friends are also in the union and are killed in a police raid. Ismene, Estevan and Esperanza’s daughter, is abducted as a form of “ransom.” If they will give up the information they have about the union, the government will return Ismene to them. Giving up the information they have will mean death for union members. Taylor is horrified when she finds out that Estevan and Esperanza had to choose to leave their daughter behind, and she says, “I can’t even begin to think about a world where people have to make choices like that.” Estevan replies, “You live in that world” (184).

I lived in that world, too, and like Taylor, I didn’t know. I didn’t know because I had the privilege not to know. The way I handled the cognitive dissonance that came with learning that not everyone can follow the proper channels when they are seeking to come to America is that I changed my beliefs. I don’t feel threatened by people coming to America to seek a better life, but I understand that for one reason or another, many people do feel threatened.

I had the opportunity recently to hear Clint Smith speak as part of the Multicultural Teaching Institute in Weston, MA. I didn’t attend the entire institute; I have attended in the past. The only part of the institute I attended was Clint Smith’s talk. One thing he said really resonated with me. It isn’t indoctrination to teach the truth. Present the information to the students and let them decide what to do with the information. For example, he cited the statistic from a Southern Poverty Law Center study that found that only 8% of high school seniors name slavery as the cause of the Civil War. This, despite the fact that many primary source documents written by secessionists name slavery as their reason for wanting to break from the union. Smith says that it’s not our job as educators to convince students to agree with us. Present the information in its totality, however, and let them grapple. It is our job to complicate the narrative, to show the complexities and contradictions. But the students will need to cope with the potential cognitive dissonance. And they have a few options. They can accept the new information and change their minds or behavior. They can justify it in some way. Or they can reject it. But we need to make sure students have the information they need to make that choice. They need to read books like The Bean Trees. Check out the work in #DisruptTexts on Twitter to learn how to share multiple, diverse perspectives with students.

“Home” by Warsan Shire seems appropriate to share.

Thank you to my friend Glenda for 1) reminding me to write about The Bean Trees, which has been much on my mind lately, and 2) to challenge educators to write about this issue.

Make Just One Change: Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions

It has been a little while since I posted about professional reading here. I picked up Make Just One Change: Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions by Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana at the suggestion of colleagues at my school.

This is one of those books, sort of like Understanding by Design, that makes such a clear, compelling case in such an immediate way that you wonder how you’ve been teaching all your life without using the techniques the authors describe. You can quite literally take the Question Focus Technique (QFT) described in this book right into your classroom.

Rothstein and Santana argue that students learn better, retain more, and are more engaged if they are trained to ask questions. The way teachers can facilitate this learning is to give students a prompt, which the authors call a “QFocus” or “Question Focus.” I decided to try this out in my short Emily Dickinson unit in AP Literature.

I knew one thing I wanted my students to take away from reading Dickinson’s poetry is that word choices are important. I brainstormed potential QFocus ideas in my notebook. I started with the obvious “word choices.” That wasn’t enough, but I was encouraged by reading in Make Just One Change to start with the basics to generate ideas. Then I wrote “word choices matter.” Just to be contrary, I added: “word choices don’t matter.” In the end, this is the full list of QFocus ideas I came up with (including some quotes I found online while looking up authors’ ideas regarding word choice):

  • word choices
  • word choices matter
  • word choices don’t matter
  • words have power
  • you can use the power of words
  • “The secret of being boring is to say everything.”—Voltaire
  • “Good words are worth much, and cost little.”—George Herbert
  • You have to wrestle with word choice.
  • “I never knew what was meant by choice of words. It was one word or none.”—Robert Frost
  • “Writing a poem is discovering.”—Robert Frost
  • “Words have weight, sound, and appearance.”—Somerset Maugham

I ultimately decided on “word choices matter” as the QFocus that would best help generate questions about word choice without being too obtuse or unnecessarily provocative.

Note: I deviated a little bit from the QFT because I hadn’t read very far into the book when I already knew I wanted to introduce the idea, so I took a risk that paid off. Instead of putting students in groups to generate questions, I just wrote “word choices matter” on the board and gave the students the four rules described in Make Just One Change:

  1. Ask as many questions as you can.
  2. Do not stop to discuss, judge, or answer any question.
  3. Write down every question exactly as it is stated.
  4. Change any statement into a question. (43)

Then I asked the entire class to share our their question ideas rather than generate ideas in groups. It might seem easy, but it is really hard not to try to rephrase questions, and it is also hard not to place a value on the question through encouraging students who ask good ones. If you comment on the value of a question, you are liable to shut down students who think maybe their questions are not as good. And you do need to remind students of the rules. They wanted to dismiss some of the questions. I should back up and add before we generated questions, we discussed the rules and in particular which ones would be hard to follow. Rule 2 was the one they knew (rightly) they would struggle most with because they love to discuss ideas.

They came up with the following questions (unedited):

  • Why is it word choice matters instead of word choices matter?
  • Isn’t it ironic that word choices matter in a statement about word choices?
  • Why are we doing this exercise?
  • Is this supposed to be about The Hours?
  • In what context is word choices being applied?
  • Is this about Emily Dickinson?
  • Are we still going to see her house? And get lunch?
  • Do word choices always matter?
  • Do authors limit themselves to their own writing style?
  • Do authors limit readers to their (reader’s) interpretation?
  • In what scenarios does word choice matter the most?
  • Is word choice very important to all authors or just some?
  • Do authors disagree about the purpose of word choice?
  • Are we implying that the effect of words are quantified by how they compare to one another?
  • Does word choice limit emotion?
  • What is word choice?
  • How do authors use word choice to enhance their writing style?

As you can see, some of their first questions revolved around the purpose of creating questions, but they quickly generated an impressive list. The next day, I asked students to get in groups and do three things: 1) classify questions as either open-ended or closed-ended (this is an activity described in the book); 2) rewrite an open-ended question so it was closed-ended and vice versa; and 3) prioritize their top three questions.

There was quite a lot of overlap when groups prioritized their questions, and in some cases, the rewritten questions made the cut rather than the originals. This was our final list:

  • In what scenarios does word choice matter the most?
  • How do authors use word choice to enhance their writing style?
  • Do authors limit themselves to their own writing style?
  • Does word choice limit emotion? OR How does word choice limit emotion? (The question was rendered two different ways by different groups.)
  • Why is it word choices matter instead of word choice matters?
  • In what context is “word choices” being applied?

The project students are completing in this unit is to create a video or presentation in which students explain one of Dickinson’s poems and explore her word choice variants. I asked them to choose one or more questions from this list as part of their project’s focus.

One immediate observation: All of the students were more engaged, but in particular, some students who rarely participate were participating, and not just in the question generation. They continued to participate when discussing one of Emily Dickinson’s poems, which is an activity we did after generating questions.

I will be trying the QFT with my ninth graders next week. We are reading Persepolis, and I plan to show them Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk “The Danger of a Single Story.”

As I did with my AP Literature class, I brainstormed potential QFocus ideas and also considered positives and negatives for each.

QFocus Idea Pros Cons
stereotypes short and sweet too broad
all stereotypes are bad  more specific too easy to agree with
no stereotypes are good more specific same, but negative, does reframe
stereotypes are both bad and good might generate divergent thinking might not generate a ton of questions
stereotypes are incomplete ties to Adichie, makes me wonder might be hard for kids to parse
social groups judge each other based on difference specific might be too specific?
we all use stereotypes sets up challenge to thinker negative response? argue back?

I was initially inclined to select the last one, but I showed my list to a colleague, and he suggested, “stereotypes are incomplete.” He argued I said myself that it “makes me wonder,” and that perhaps part of my concern about the statement being difficult to parse is what makes it good. The students will have to pick it apart. And it has the advantage of being a direct quote from Adichie’s TED Talk.

If you are looking for something to read that you can take into your classroom right away, no matter what you are doing, this book will offer you some great tools and advice. Towards the end of the book, the authors quote two great educational thinkers:

Abraham Joshua Heschel, a rabbi and scholar who was a refugee from Nazi Germany, asserted at a White House Conference on Children and Youth in 1960 that in a democratic society we should be assessing our students less on their ability to answer our questions and more on their ability to ask their own questions. The educator Paulo Freire was actually thrown in jail by a dictatorship in his native Brazil for challenging its authority and then spent much of his life after that challenging societies around the world to embrace questions and questioning as a fundamental democratic action. (154)

Something I actually wrote in the margins of my book on page 7, “Wonder if Parkland teachers use QFT.” It would explain the students’ activism and leadership.

All I can say about QFT is my first thought is “Why didn’t I think of this before?” and my second is “This is going to change everything.”

Issues, ideas, and discussion in English Education and Technology

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