Category Archives: Reflection

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.

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.”

We Have a College Admissions Problem

college photo

I follow many of the students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL. on Twitter. I don’t think anyone who has followed my Twitter feed or even this blog for any amount of time is unaware of how I feel about the MSD students and their stand against gun violence. I was surprised to see this tweet from one of the MSD students who has been most vocal in his advocacy for change:

If someone as articulate as David Hogg has demonstrated himself to be—time and time again over the last month—is not accepted into the colleges to which he’s applied, we have a college admissions problem. To my way of thinking, colleges should be clamoring to admit David Hogg and his peers. The fact that he has received several rejections boggles the mind. What, exactly, are these schools looking for if he doesn’t have it?

I wasn’t going to write about my personal experience here. I’m not embarrassed about what happened, but it’s not something I thought I’d talk about publicly. A doctoral program I spent about a half a year preparing to apply to and another three months waiting to hear from rejected me. I took the GRE, and given how long it has been since I had taken mathematics at the level the GRE tests, I was pretty proud of my average score on the math component of the test. Behind that average score was months of hard work practicing math using Khan Academy and GRE practice books. Aside from that, my verbal and writing schools would be difficult to beat: 168 (out of 170) on the verbal and a perfect score of 6/6 on the writing. I honestly thought it was a sign when one of my essays prompted me to write about the very subject I’d like to study in graduate school.

My college transcripts for both my bachelor’s and master’s reveal a hardworking student. I graduated magna cum laude from UGA, and my master’s GPA was a 3.9. My recommendations couldn’t have been stronger. I wrote something like seven or eight different drafts of my statement of purpose. Was it the statement of purpose that sunk me? I don’t know. It’s hard to tell if you have hit or missed the mark by a wide margin with such things, even if you pore over the advice from admissions offices.

My résumé reveals someone who publishes (including this blog for over a decade), often presents at a variety of conferences, and regularly engages in professional learning. I’m honestly the kind of lifelong learner for which I should think a doctoral program is looking. I have a certain humility, but I am proud of my desire to learn. You will never hear me say I know everything there is to know about a subject.

The rejection letter was a mere few sentences long. I didn’t think there would be a point in trying to figure out why I was rejected; most likely, I’d be told that the school didn’t have time to respond to those types of questions. Maybe a part of me didn’t want to know. So one of my dreams died. That’s okay, I consoled myself. I have other dreams. Maybe I should focus on achieving them instead.

So, aside from the fact that the program to which I applied is competitive, why was my application rejected? I was honestly a bit more stung by the fact that I didn’t even receive an interview request, which spoke of a whole other level of disinterest on the part of the school. I suppose I don’t understand why I didn’t even make it through the first hurdle of being asked to interview. The only reason I can think of is encapsulated into the word “fit.” That word covers a wide variety of potential reasons for rejection, some of them discriminatory, some of them not. It’s true I am a lot older than the average age of the student who studies in the program. I felt my experience would be an asset. It’s true also that I am a teacher, a practitioning educator, and I don’t want to spend the rest of my career researching. I want to be involved in education, not just study it and talk about it. For that reason, I admit, the program might not have been the best one for me. I have tried to decide if I am feeling bitter or if I’m being honest, and after much soul-searching, I concluded that the program honestly would not have been the best program for me. I was swayed by the cachet the name of the school would have offered me. Perhaps they just recognized it before I did, and if that’s case, maybe they did me a favor.

I went to two respected public universities—University of Georgia and Virginia Tech, and yet I have often felt, especially in New England, where I currently live and teach, that neither school is considered good enough. A former colleague shared he felt the same way. A doctorate from the college to which I applied would prove something. I’m not sure what.

I spent a couple of weeks feeling sad about it. I cried a few times. Then I thought long and hard. Did I still want to earn a doctorate? I concluded that I did. I applied to a different program. I am hoping for better results, but at the moment, my application remains incomplete until the school receives official transcripts and one more letter of recommendation. And honestly? The program I just applied to is much better suited to my needs and my current career as well as my future goals.

I do think we have a problem when applicants as strong as David Hogg receive multiple college rejections. I honestly think it’s a problem that my application went into what I imagine is an enormous slush pile. What exactly is it that colleges want in their applicants?

If applicants like David Hogg find college acceptance difficult, what does that mean for other students? Some might argue that college isn’t for everyone. It should be for everyone who wants to go, but I don’t agree that college should be required for everyone. In our economy, however, we demand college educations for jobs that don’t necessarily need one, and college graduates still find it hard to obtain work. However, despite recent arguments to the contrary, colleges do great work with students, and I remember my time at UGA in particular as a wondrous time filled with learning.

I don’t think I could have been better prepared to teach than I was as a student at UGA. Even to this day, their English Education faculty includes such luminaries in the field as Sara Kajder and Peter Smagorinsky. I applied to the school as a transfer student after a year at a community college. I was relatively new to Georgia, having moved there halfway through my junior year in high school. I had the most unhelpful college counseling you might imagine (as in it didn’t exist). The internet wasn’t available for me to research programs on my own. So, I went to community college for a year, so I could decide what to do. I saw a recruiting table for UGA’s College of Education at my community college. I spoke to the recruiter for a few minutes. I liked the look of the materials. I applied only to UGA. Later, I found out my SAT scores and probably my high school grades were not high enough to meet UGA’s threshold for freshman admittance. And yet, the entire time I studied at UGA, I earned A’s and B’s and, as I already mentioned, I graduated magna cum laude. UGA never asked for my high school transcripts or SAT scores when I applied as a transfer. I wonder if UGA would have given me a second look had I applied as a freshman rather than as a transfer, after I had proven I could excel in college studies.

Therein lies the problem. How many potentially great students are rejected for seemingly arbitrary reasons each year? I’m sure that college admissions offices have a tough job. How to distinguish one strong candidate from another on paper? How to determine who would be a good “fit”? Competition for a shrinking number of open student slots is fierce. I’m not sure how they should change, but I do know that if colleges are rejecting students like David Hogg, they’re getting it wrong. I’m concerned about issues of access for all if strong students like David Hogg are shut out.

Wish me luck as I wait to hear from the second doctoral program to which I’ve applied. I think I would not only be an excellent fit for the program but that it’s an excellent fit for me. If I’m rejected, however, I’m not sure I could try again with another program.

Update 3/19: I want to state for the record that David Hogg appears to be handling these rejections in stride. He is regrouping and discussing a gap year and internships as possibilities. He is in no way acting like his recent activism entitles him to college acceptance. I did not make that clear. It is also true I don’t know about his school record beyond what I have seen, but I am impressed with what I have seen. I think it speaks to the notion that he is a strong critical thinker and communicator.

Update 3/29: TMZ said yesterday that David Hogg’s GPA is a 4.2 and his SAT score is 1270, for those people wondering about his background and potential credentials. The SAT score puts him above the 80% percentile when compared to other SAT test-takers. He has been rejected from UCLA, UC Davis, UC Santa Barbara, and UC Irvine, which, incidentally, is a school I considered applying to before my family moved away from California in my junior year. Not sure I’d have been admitted, but it was my top choice until I moved. So, I think my argument that we have a college admissions problem is probably accurate.

Slice of Life: Maker Space

Oat and Maple Bread

My kitchen is a maker space. If you have been reading my blog for a while or know me in person, you might know I make soap. I haven’t made it as often over the last year—mostly just for my family and me. One of the beautiful things about making something like soap yourself is that you can control everything that goes into it. I also make lotion, and if you knew how cheap and easy it is to make, you’d never buy expensive lotion at the store again.

Over the last six months or so, my new favorite thing to make is bread. I have long been intimidated by baking bread because I have zero skills coaxing recipes that need special attention. I can’t do kneading or rolling things out (don’t ask me about my attempts at pie crust). I ran into a great no-knead recipe, and I was sold. I’ve been baking bread ever since, and nothing beats homemade bread. The picture above is my flour mixture and oats for an oatmeal maple bread that happens to be my favorite one to bake… and eat.

So why am I writing about this on my education blog?

I’m on winter break, which means I have time to bake Christmas cookies and bread and whatever else strikes my fancy. Teaching is such an exhausting profession. When I come home from work, most of the time all I want to do is read. I try not to bring work home.  And honestly, I try not to give a lot of pointless homework. Preparation for class in the form of reading and writing is pretty much the extent. Occasionally, students study for quizzes in my class. Over the two weeks that they are on vacation, I have asked them to read what they choose. I have explicitly told them not to work on revising their essays. The only work I want them to do for me is to read… and to read what they want to read. Maybe they’ll make a few things, too, with the time they have. I hope they do.

My friend Jared says in his Statement of Teaching Philosophy that if you “ask [his] sophomores ‘How many of you are painters?’ there might be a few hands raised in a class.” On the other hand, he adds, if you ask young children the same question “a swarm of hands would shoot into the air proudly and enthusiastically.” So what gives? As Jared asks, “What happens between Kindergarten and 10th grade? Where do all the painters go?”

We all need an artistic outlet. I never felt like a very confident artist. I have been a pretty good musician (though very out of practice). For the past five years or so making soap and then learning to bake have been artistic outlets for me. With all the buzz in education about maker spaces, one thing we seem to forget is that elementary school classrooms are tremendous maker spaces, or at least mine was. We need to figure out how to give students the time and the space to continue to be creative. My answer to Jared’s question is that over time, we devalue creative projects in school. I know English teachers, for example, who think I waste time with creative writing in my classes. I don’t care what they think because I feel in my gut that they are wrong.

A good case in point: my last AP Lit class right before winter break. I didn’t have high hopes. They meet at the very end of the day. Some of the students likely wouldn’t be there or would leave early as the dorms closed at 5:00. We would wrap up our short unit on Love and Relationships after a great discussion about “Brokeback Mountain” the previous day. But I pulled out a great lesson idea from writer Jason Reynolds from NCTE 2016. I gave students Shakespeare’s Sonnet 138 and asked them to rewrite it in the idiom of their choice. To sweeten the deal, I brought them homemade gingerbread using Emily Dickinson’s own recipe. Wishing I had Jason Reynolds’s mentor text from that session, I plunged ahead anyway. I wrote with the students (I chose 1980’s Valley Girl slang). One student asked, “Is it okay if I cuss in my poem?” I grimaced and said, “Sure.” Another student asked, “Is it okay if I curse a lot?” Why not? In for a penny…

With around 20 minutes left, the students said it was time for everyone to share. We had poems in the voices of a robot, a pirate, a resident of Southie, and a more modern take. Honestly, I knew they understood it perfectly when I overheard one student reading the first line to another: “When bae swears that she ain’t lying…”

I asked the students what they got out of the exercise, and one student said, “I understood the poem a lot better because I had to in order to rewrite it.” No, she wasn’t a paid shill, I promise.

The students were still in the room at 3:30 at the end of the period. I practically had to kick them out. On Friday right before break. In senior year, no less. I couldn’t believe it. We had a lot of fun creating together that day.

I often say that we make time for the things we value. I am asked a lot how I have time to read, to bake, to make soap, to do creative activities with students when there is just so much to cover. We can’t “cover” it all, folks. Students will not learn everything we think is worth knowing in our classrooms, and that’s okay because if we stopped to think about it, we’d realize we didn’t learn everything worth knowing in a single class or even in ten classes, or maybe not even in a class at all. But if we value creativity, we need to make time to create, to allow our classrooms to be maker spaces.

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.

Slice of Life: The Highest Form of Mastery

Sophia teaches 9th grade
Sophia interacting with students as they read (and listen) to music lyrics in groups

My school has an advisory system. We have from six to eight students whom we advise, which means looking after grades, social and emotional wellbeing, and disciplinary issues that arise as well as being part of a support system for these students.

One of my advisees loves poetry. Sophia read a collection of poetry for a summer choice read. She is involved in our literary magazine and the Poetry and Prose club, which has produced ‘zines for the Halloween and Thanksgiving holidays this year.

Sophia with the Halloween 'Zine
Sophia with the Halloween ‘Zine, photo credit Charley Mull

Sophia asked me if she could teach my 9th-grade class a poetry lesson. She confessed to me today that she was joking initially, but as she started thinking about it, she wanted to give teaching an English class a try. Keeping in mind what I learned from the Bow Tie Boys at NCTE, I agreed.

I know what you are thinking. This could go south pretty quick.

You have to have a great deal of trust in students to turn your class over to them. Sophia and I met in advisory to discuss what she would do, and she showed up to class prepared.

She started the lesson with a short reminder of how poetry connects to our schoolwide essential question: How do we honor and harness the power of our stories? She asked my students to journal for ten minutes about one of two topics:

  • What is your favorite song right now? Why do you like it? What are some lyrics you like?
  • Write about a song that takes you to a different place and time.

I thought her journal prompts were great. She called on students to share their journals, and then she led a discussion about the song “Feel it Still,” especially noting which poetic devices the students found and what they thought the song might be about.

Then she asked students to get into groups and identify a song they liked. If they were stuck, they could use the Billboard Hot 100. They combed through the song lyrics looking for literary devices.

She ended the lesson by reading Tupac Shakur’s poem “The Rose that Grew from Concrete.”

Not only did my students have fun, but they also got to apply their understanding of literary devices in a way that was authentic and offered them agency and choice.

One of the Bow Tie Boys said at NCTE (and I regret I didn’t write down his name) that teaching something is the “highest form of mastery.” He said he felt he really learns from his peers when they teach him and when he teaches them in order to study for his AP World History class.

Sophia prepared an engaging lesson. She shared with me that she was worried about filling 70 minutes of time (60 once we take out independent reading), but she did great. I had a backup lesson ready to go just in case, but I am thrilled I didn’t need it. My students seemed to enjoy the lesson, and I know that Sophia did.

Frankly, both my current 9th-grade students and Sophia learned much more about how pop music and poetry intersect than they would have with the lesson I had planned. My lesson wasn’t as interactive. Sophia herself introduced the lesson by stating she didn’t really like the way the subject was approached last year when she was in World Lit I. Ouch! But it was honest.

We should let our students teach more often than we do.

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.

Slice of Life: Writing a Rationale

brokeback mountain photo
Photo by jiadoldol

I started a unit on Love and Relationships in my AP Lit class today. We discussed everything from what it means to love someone, what it means to love yourself and how you show love to others to the four kinds of love defined by Greeks to Capellanus’s rules for courtly love to #metoo and sexual harassment and rape. It was quite a class.

I took a second look at my syllabus, and I realized something was wrong with it. All the relationships depicted in the stories and poems were heterosexual. I am committed to selecting texts that are both windows and mirrors for students. As such, not only do they need to read to learn about others and develop empathy but also to see themselves reflected back in the books they read. Statistically speaking, even if students are not “out,” I have to have students who either already identify as LGBTQ or are still thinking about their identity. Adolescence is a time of considerable confusion; it’s especially confusing for kids who wonder if they are okay or if other people struggle with the same feelings as they do.

What a gaping hole in my curriculum!

I can’t defend the fact that my syllabus did not explore this issue in the Love in Relationships unit, but I did already include LGBTQ authors Virginia Woolf and Michael Cunningham in my Conformity and Rebellion unit.

Some years ago when I was teaching in Georgia, I taught a short story course for seniors, and Annie Proulx’s Close Range: Wyoming Stories was one of my major texts. My students engaged in literature circle discussions of the stories. Students had to read “The Half-Skinned Steer” and could select other stories, including “Brokeback Mountain.” I had students who were eager to read the story, but I also had students who refused.

“Brokeback Mountain” explores some essential ideas within the unit theme of “Love and Relationships.” Most critically, it explores the essential question: How have changing roles in society affected romantic love and relationships? I had to put it in my syllabus, so I made a small change. I took out a story I wasn’t even that familiar with but thought I’d teach since a text I use for reference in building my AP Lit course suggested the story, and I replaced that story with “Brokeback Mountain.”

“Brokeback Mountain” addresses literature standards involving the development of elements such as setting and character and narrative structure and offers an opportunity to read through critical lenses (psychological, sociological, historical, among others).

I decided to re-read the story so that I could identify what issues it might raise if, in the worst case scenario, it’s challenged. After all, it was a long time ago that I last taught the story. Maybe ten years!

If I’m honest, I can’t think of another short story with LGBTQ characters that addresses some of the same issues as “Brokeback Mountain” does.

But there is a depiction of the sexual relationship between main characters Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist, and the characters use realistic, coarse language.

So I wrote a rationale for using the text.

It was an interesting experience. I think through in some considerable detail why I am using specific texts, especially for new courses when I am creating backward design units, but I haven’t written an entire rationale for a text. If a text I had selected was challenged, I think I could have come up with a rationale for its use, but it’s so much better to be thoughtful about why we are using texts in advance. One of my big takeaways from NCTE is the critical work of teaching literature means we need to be able to justify our choices. We might not ever need to, and that would be great. However, we should be able to explain why we are asking students to read texts and what we hope those texts will offer.

You know what? I’ve been complacent because I’ve been fortunate. Writing that rationale made me feel like this:

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.

NCTE Reflections Part Three

Gareth Hinds delivering the Sunday keynote

I reflected on Friday and Saturday at this year’s NCTE conference in previous posts. This post is my final reflection on Sunday’s events.

Session K started before the Sunday Keynote. I attended K.06: Public Rhetoric: Agency, Voice, and Mission in the Public Sphere, a roundtable discussion. The session included three roundtable discussions. I rotated among tables led by Jennifer Ansbach, Debbie Greco, and Camille Marchand. Jen discussed the shifting nature of language in the news, Debbie discussed memes as visual rhetoric, and Camille discussed using primary source documents (letters) to teach To Kill a Mockingbird. Great first session!

After session K, Gareth Hinds delivered his keynote. I created a Storify to document my own tweets and capture highlights from other attendees.

I especially enjoyed seeing Gareth’s early work.

I captured a bit of video as he did a live demonstration, too.

I enjoyed Jim Burke’s session L.18: Seeing and Hearing Each Other through Nonfiction: For the Good of Kids and Country as well. Jim shared his resources and expertise. One big takeaway from his session:

We need to think about our students as users and design accordingly.

I couldn’t stay for all of session M because I was afraid I’d be late for my own session, but it was amazing. M.08: Breaking the Classroom to Prison Pipeline. The title might have been a bit misleading as it was really more about seeing our students and social justice. I was curious about the session because its leaders were Linda Christensen and Dyan Watson. I knew that Linda Christensen has done a lot of work in social justice in education. I recently ordered two of her books to read. It was a really great session with opportunities to write and turn and talk. I left it a few minutes early to hustle across the convention center for my session.

I presented N.18: Representing, Rendering, and Respecting Diverse Lives and Labels with Ruth Quiroa and Leah Panther. My topic was digital storytelling.

One more minor complaint: NCTE made a deal with the GO Shuttle shared van service, and it was a great discount. Unfortunately, as far as I could determine, the latest shuttle to the airport on Sunday left at 3:00 PM, which was in the middle of the last session. I tried lying about when my flight left to see if there were any later shuttles, and I couldn’t find any. Obviously, this means anyone taking advantage of the great shuttle deal had to leave early. I doubt this is NCTE’s fault, but I wonder if they took it into consideration when they made the deal with Go Shuttle. It was about three times as expensive for me to get an Uber ride to the airport, as I couldn’t take advantage of the shuttle deal. The last session of the last day is hard all the way around, but I felt bad for my fellow presenters who had prepared great presentations. I am glad I have friends who came to my session at the end of the conference on Sunday at the end of the day.