What Happened when My Students Analyzed a Profile of a Nazi

Notes from the Classroom


In late November, a reporter from
The New York Times wrote a little piece about a Nazi.

You may have heard about it or the backlash that quickly followed. Or you may have read one of the satirical takedowns, like this or this.

After the article was pubished, I watched the drama unfold. Readers quickly took the NYT to task for normalizing white supremacy, and the paper tried to respond. Amid this controversy, I knew that this was a lesson for my high school English classes, because it raised a knotty and important question.

Was the article as awful as most readers were claiming?

Much of the writing our students will encounter in their adult lives is like The New York Times piece: controversial and up for interpretation. And that’s important to recognize, because in many schools–mine included–aligning to the Common Core has pushed more and more of our writing toward argument that focuses on clear claims, evidence, and reasoning.

An unintended consequence of this shift, I think, has been students who are ill-equipped to read texts with muddier claims–like the NYT piece.

So, what do we do when the writer’s intent is up for debate? How do we evaluate an argument if we can’t say with certainty what the argument is?

In my classes, we asked these three questions about the NYT piece, as we worked toward reasoned conclusions.

1. What is the writer trying to do with this piece?

There are lots of ways to phrase that question or coax the answer out of students, like:

  • How do you think the writer wants you to feel?
  • What does the writer want you to know–or think, do, believe, or understand–once you’ve finished reading this?  

My students and I pretended we were the NYT writer and imagined what his purpose might have been. Was he trying to convince us that Nazis are real people just like us? Was he trying to normalize them? Was he trying to show us that they have already been normalized? Was he trying to sound an alarm bell? We weren’t sure.

The New York Times explained they had hoped to “shed more light, not less, on the most extreme corners of American life and the people who inhabit them,” but they admitted that the piece “offended so many readers.”

So it was time for the second important question.

2. Did the writer accomplish what he intended? How?

I sent my students digging for evidence. What features of the text suggested the writer hoped to “shed more light” on the extremism?

In her book Teaching Arguments, Jennifer Fletcher suggests that you have students play the “Doubting and Believing Game” with a text, so we did a version of that here.

I asked students to suspend their frustration with the writer and believe positive intent. They went looking for examples of attempts to “shed some light.”  

Next, we doubted. We looked through the lens of those who were offended by the text. Which raised the question: How might these same examples read differently if considered from a different perspective?

Finally, we were left with the third–and most important–question.

3. Now what?

At this point, my students were a little frustrated. They wanted to know the answer. Is this awful?! Yes or no? The muddiness of it all made them uncomfortable.

Though it was tempting to tip back in my teacher chair and unleash my answer on them, I restrained myself. Instead, we generated more questions:

  • Which perspective is valued most in this piece? Why?
  • Which perspectives are missing in this piece? What does that suggest?
  • How much does intent matter?
  • Who decides which impact is most important?
  • How do I respond to a piece that offends me?

These are the types of questions we need our students to grapple with if we hope to help them engage in the complex, muddy arguments of today. It is easy to gasp in horror at an “awful thing” somebody says or writes. It is much more challenging to push back against that and look for an explanation or clarification.

We won’t always understand one another, of course. And sometimes further examination will reveal that something is, indeed, awful. Still, we can’t just leave awful things unexamined, and critical reading and conversation can help our students see that.

Hattie Maguire (@teacherhattie) hit a milestone in her career this year: she realized she’s been teaching longer than her students have been alive (17 years!). She is spending that 17th year at Novi High School, teaching AP English Language and AP Seminar for half of her day, and spending the other half working as an MTSS literacy student support coach. When she’s not at school, she spends her time trying to wrangle the special people in her life: her 8-year-old son, who recently channeled Ponyboy in his school picture by rolling up his sleeves and flexing; her 5-year-old daughter, who has discovered the word apparently and uses it to provide biting commentary on the world around her; and her 40-year-old husband, whom she holds responsible for the other two.

How We Can Help Students Transcend Social Groups, and Share Risky Ideas with Each Other

Notes from the Classroom

When I showed up to the hotel, I wasn’t prepared for the motley crew I’d encounter.

It was two weekends ago, and I was at the National Council of Teachers of English annual convention. There, scarf-wearing English teachers bustled through the lobby, toting bags of YA novels, and tripping over tattoo-covered attendees of another conference: the Old School Tattoo Expo. It was a crowded space, to say the least.

And then the cheerleading competition showed up.

Though I never got to see a love connection, I did experience some predictably awkward elevator rides of groups who seemingly had nothing in common. A week later, I’m still thinking about those awkward rides, and the lesson they offer us:

Our classrooms can mirror those awkward elevator rides if we aren’t careful.

How often do we accept that same awkwardness from our students? We provide a topic or text for discussion, and we get crickets. Or, a few loud voices engage in debate while others avoid eye contact.

As English teachers, we have an opportunity to tackle controversial topics and help our students listen to one another. Those rich exchanges can’t happen, though, if our students make assumptions about one another based on the things that mark them as part of certain groups–their scarves, tattoos, and JoJo bows (figuratively speaking, of course).

Many of our students are hesitant and guarded, and it makes sense why: it’s not easy to share ideas if you’re certain no one gets you.

If we truly want to move from politely awkward conversations to challenging ones, we need to create spaces where our students can connect with one another and practice pushing themselves past hesitation. They don’t need to be kumbaya-singing besties. But deliberate work is necessary if we want them to authentically communicate with one another.

Here are five ways we can help students engage each other in conversation.

1. Show students, by example, how to share risky ideas.

Last year, when discussing a police shooting with students, I shared my struggles: my deep concern for the incidents of police brutality in our nation, and that I’m also married to a police officer. Sharing my conflict opened the door for students to share theirs as well. And though not everyone agreed, we moved past assumptions and into productive conversation.

2. Do–and share–lots of low-stakes writing.

Many students haven’t had opportunities to develop their thinking about controversial issues. Notebook writing can give them a low-stakes opportunity to do just that. Students need to test ideas in notebooks, and puzzle through their answers to questions. And then they need to share–sometimes with a partner, and sometimes with a group.

3. Move students’ seats. And do it often.

I think students are young adults who can choose their own seats, but moving them around, and pushing them to work with new people, can help break down barriers. They can return to seats they choose, but it is good for them to move for part of the period.

4. Study texts that contain multiple perspectives.

Providing credible, quality texts with multiple perspectives gives students mentors for their discussions. A hesitant student might chime in, too, if you add a text from a voice that might not be present in the discussion otherwise. It is tricky when I have a strong opinion (and it’s rare that I don’t), but by providing students with several texts that look at an issue through different lenses, we are opening the door for richer, more inclusive conversation.

5. Provide a space for many different types–and sizes–of discussion.

The easiest way to get more comfortable talking is with practice: pairs, small groups, whole groups, rotating groups. Sometimes those discussions need to be teacher guided, and sometimes student led. Sometimes they need discussion protocols, and sometimes they need to be free form. Different students will respond better to different types of experiences, but all need to practice talking often–daily!–about topics that matter to them if we expect them to engage fully.

It’s not easy to help students find and use their voices. But we can start by creating classrooms that give them chances to practice. By understanding their differences, and learning to see that each unique experience is valuable, students can move beyond awkward, Holiday-Inn elevator conversations toward, engaged and complex ones.

Hattie Maguire (@teacherhattie) hit a milestone in her career this year: she realized she’s been teaching longer than her students have been alive (17 years!). She is spending that 17th year at Novi High School, teaching AP English Language and AP Seminar for half of her day, and spending the other half working as an MTSS literacy student support coach. When she’s not at school, she spends her time trying to wrangle the special people in her life: her 8-year-old son, who recently channeled Ponyboy in his school picture by rolling up his sleeves and flexing; her 5-year-old daughter, who has discovered the word apparently and uses it to provide biting commentary on the world around her; and her 40-year-old husband, whom she holds responsible for the other two.

3 Ways to Work With Newby Teachers

Notes from the Classroom

I was walking out of school the other day with my colleague Emily, and as we passed a newer teacher, I said, “Man, everybody seems so young around here these days.” She laughed ruefully and said, “Yup. We’re the Old Guard now.”  

When I started teaching, “Old Guard” meant the teachers who had been there long enough to have it all figured out. They were the ones who made the decisions while the rest of us followed their lead.

I certainly don’t have everything all figured out, and I’m not really comfortable with this whole “getting older” thing, so here are a few ways I’m trying to hang with the newbies:

1. Learn with (and from) Younger Teachers

One of the things I love most about my colleagues is our teacher-led book studies.

Right now we are doing a study on The Teenage Brain, and at our last meeting, one of my favorite parts was hearing from Kaitlyn, a second-year Spanish teacher. She described how she’s slowing down her instruction so that she gives her students time to process.

I know kids need processing time. I’ve heard about wait time for years. But listening to her describe how it was working in her classroom was the reminder I needed. The next day, I could hear her voice in my head as I was rushing through a class discussion. Slow down, give them time to process. I did. And it worked.  

2. Let Younger Teachers Take the Reigns

I’m a bit bossy (bit is not the right word at all). I like to lead. So, naturally, when two new teachers started teaching AP Language with me, I was quick to tell them how we do things.

We were clipping right along when Gina started offering suggestions. Maybe we should change the order of how we introduce the writing tasks, she suggested. Insert horrified face from Hattie. What we’re doing is working so well, I thought. But–her reasoning was sound. Her idea was a good one. We tried it, and I’m happy to report that she was right. It wasn’t easy for me to give up what I knew had always worked, but it was good to push myself to try a different approach that might be better.

3. Listen to Their Questions

I’m lucky to be part of an awesome group of AP Lang teachers who share ideas on Voxer, a messaging app. This year an experienced AP Lit teacher who is teaching Lang for the first time joined our group.

A few weeks ago, she asked how we explain exigence to our students. Her followup questions, and the discussion she sparked, made me realize I’ve been explaining it poorly for awhile. It helped me think about why I was doing what I was doing, and pushed me to think about teaching it from a new angle.

Others’ questions, then, help me think about why I do what I do, which in turn helps me rethink my teaching.

Younger Teachers Keep us Fresh

It’s easy to settle into a professional identity based on experience. But pushing myself to connect with newer teachers is a way to keep myself fresh.

Don’t worry–I won’t go too far. I’m still good for teasing the pesky millennial history teacher for his strange hipster ways. But after I run him over with my walker, I might just pick his brain a little, too.

Hattie Maguire (@teacherhattie) hit a milestone in her career this year: she realized she’s been teaching longer than her students have been alive (17 years!). She is spending that 17th year at Novi High School, teaching AP English Language and AP Seminar for half of her day, and spending the other half working as an MTSS literacy student support coach. When she’s not at school, she spends her time trying to wrangle the special people in her life: her 8-year-old son, who recently channeled Ponyboy in his school picture by rolling up his sleeves and flexing; her 5-year-old daughter, who has discovered the word apparently and uses it to provide biting commentary on the world around her; and her 40-year-old husband, whom she holds responsible for the other two.

All the Cool Kids Are Stressed

Notes from the Classroom

shutterstock_176141129
It’s testing season and stress is at an all-time high. But the past few years, I’ve started to notice an alarming trend. The students aren’t stressed about their stress; they celebrate it.

On test days, an AP student will drag into class and proudly proclaim that he was up until 3:00 a.m. studying. Not to be outdone, a fellow student will counter that she slept for three hours–midnight to 3:00–and then got up to continue studying. And they’re not lying.

I get more emails from my students between the hours of midnight and 6:00 a.m. than any other time. They chug coffee and Red Bull. They give up activities they truly love in favor of more studying and more test prep.

Happiness and a balanced life? Totally lame. Stressed and miserable? Badge of honor.

A Culture of Overworking

I know it’s not just my school. The other day a fellow English teacher in another school tweeted this to her students:KV

On the same day I saw her tweet, I read this New York Times piece about how a high school in Massachusetts is working to combat stress among its students.

And it’s not just high school students. In my Twitter feed, this opinion piece about our culture’s celebration of overworking popped up. Why wouldn’t our kids wear stress like a badge of honor? We do.

I think English teachers have a unique opportunity to do something about the stress we see in our students. We can’t change the culture of overwork and stress completely, but we can set our students up to better manage it.

Writers’ Notebooks

One of the easiest places to open the conversation about stress and workload is in the students’ writers’ notebooks. I think we need to be careful about how we frame those writing invitations, though. Inviting students to write about their stressors might be an opportunity to unload and unburden themselves, but it might be just one more chance for them to glorify their stress. Instead, frame reflective writing opportunities around stressors, successes, and plans.

Recently, my AP Seminar students returned to school on a Monday after a weekend of completing drafts of a major essay. The stress in the room was palpable when they entered. We started with our notebooks:

What’s something you’re happy about with your writing?

What is something that’s stressing you out about your writing?

What is the next step in your plan?

Verbally, I urged the kids not to skip a question or respond with one-word answers. As they wrote, I walked around and encouraged those who were struggling to find something good, and engaged those who couldn’t see a next step.

By the time we were done with our notebooks, the tension had eased and they were ready to dig into their drafts. If we are mindful about creating opportunities for students to work through their stress, hopefully they’ll be able to do it independently, too.

Standards-Based Grading

A broader consideration for reducing stress is in how we grade.

Though we are all eager to focus on the learning and to discount the letter grades, many of our students (and often their parents) are most concerned with their grades. As English teachers, we are uniquely situated to move toward standards-based grading because so much of our curriculum focuses on skills rather than content. If our students begin to see our classes as opportunities to practice skills and grow over the course of the year, perhaps individual assignments will begin to feel less like a hammer drop.

For example, in AP Language and Composition, I needed to prepare my students to write three different styles of essays. Throughout the second semester, we probably wrote four or five of each type. We conferenced about them, we self-assessed, we peer reviewed, and the writing improved over time. Through it all, students knew they would have multiple chances to improve and show me what they could do. When it finally came time to make one “count,” the pressure was significantly lower than if I had been counting them all along.

Modeling

One final way we can help our students manage stress is through our own modeling.

English teachers are notorious for dragging home bags and bags of essays. And, if you’re anything like me, you’re probably guilty of telling your students how buried you are in papers.

However, do we share enough of the ways we find balance in our own lives? Do we find balance in our own lives? If we do, we should share it with them. Tell them about how we pushed the stack of papers aside last night and stayed up reading–not a required novel but something we loved. Or even better? Tell them how we pushed the papers aside and played outside with our kids. If you don’t do those things, it’s time to start.  

On that note, it’s a beautiful day. I’m going for a run.

Hattie Maguire (@TeacherHattie) is an English teacher and Content Area Leader at Novi High School. She is spending her sixteenth year in the classroom teaching AP English Language and Composition, AP Seminar and doing Tier 2 writing intervention. She is a National Board Certified Teacher who earned her BS in English and MA in Curriculum and Teaching from Michigan State University.

Everybody Needs a Librarian

Notes from the Classroom

booksplosionDuring a power outage this afternoon, I decided it was time to tackle a major problem in my house: the books-plosion.

This–the image on the left–was just my daughter’s room. We had similar piles in the living room and my son’s room.

It was time to cull the herd.  

I put the children to work and came back about an hour later to discover the herd was still quite large. However, a budding young librarian had been organizing.

I listened at the door as my son, who’s eight, talked to my five-year-old daughter about his system of organization: These books are really more for me, Molly. But this shelf will be great for you while you’re learning to read.”

It was one of those heartwarming parenting moments, and I watched as he helped her pick a “just right” book to add to her own shelf. I’m sure he’ll continue giving his sister recommendations for years to come, but at some point, my daughter will probably need recommendations from a real librarian. I’m hoping that one will be available at her school.

Last week, The Detroit News ran an opinion piece about the need to restore certified library staff to our public schools, and as I read about the horrifying numbers of dwindling librarians in public schools, I realized that I needed to share my story. At Novi, we’ve retained our librarians, and I’ve had the benefit of seeing firsthand the impact a certified librarian can have on a school.

Fostering a Culture of Reading

Certainly, anyone can–and should–give book recommendations to students. But you can’t understate the impact of having someone whose job it is to read widely and share that knowledge.  

An example helps explain why. Two years ago, a young man came to me insisting that he hated reading. I went through all of my usual winners that hook kids, but I was unsuccessful.

So I sent him to our librarian, Bethany Bratney. She managed to figure out he was interested in organized crime, and she matched him with the right book: Son of the Mob, by Gordon Korman.  

Bethany comes weekly to my AP Language classes and recommends books that will push students’ thinking, and help deepen their contextual pools. She visits our co-departmental special education classes and book-talks our Playaway collection, giving kids access to all kinds of books they may not be able to read independently.  

To foster a culture of reading in a school, then, it’s essential to have someone whose job is to know books that will be the right fit for all different kinds of kids.

Spreading the Book Love

Her job doesn’t stop at recommendations, though. Bethany has been key in our efforts to celebrate reading with our students.

dress up

Our last New Years reading party, with students’ reading resolutions. Click to enlarge.

For the past two years, she and I have co-hosted a New Year’s Reading Resolutions party in December, and a Reading in the Sunshine summer reading kick-off in June. In February we made Book Valentines. Last fall she helped another teacher participate in the Global Read Aloud with her students, and this semester she’s encouraging kids to Read Without Walls, and find books that help them learn about other people and cultures. Bethany also leads two different, well-attended staff book clubs–one for “fun” books and one for professional books.

Could all of these things happen without her? Maybe. But would they? I don’t think they would–at least not all of them.

Team Teaching

Still, her job extends even beyond all of that.

I teach a research-intensive class, and Bethany has become a regular visitor. I considered myself pretty adept at the old interwebs until I watched Bethany model how to narrow a search in JSTOR. In other classes, she teaches the basics of source evaluation and citation.

She also helps support writing in the content areas, and works with our science and social studies teachers to teach research techniques. We don’t have it all figured out when it comes to teaching research skills or research writing. But we’re getting a lot of help approaching this in a systematic way.

Everybody Needs a Bethany

Unfortunately, you can’t have ours. But, if you’re lucky like me and you teach in a district with a certified teacher librarian, I hope you’re taking full advantage of this person’s skills!

If your district has cut those positions, I’d encourage you to advocate for their return. We, as teachers, need to communicate to the those in power how important teacher librarians are. We simply cannot expect to build vibrant reading communities in our schools without the help of qualified professional librarians. 

Hattie Maguire (@TeacherHattie) is an English teacher and Content Area Leader at Novi High School. She is spending her sixteenth year in the classroom teaching AP English Language and Composition, AP Seminar and doing Tier 2 writing intervention. She is a National Board Certified Teacher who earned her BS in English and MA in Curriculum and Teaching from Michigan State University.

With Writing, Quantity Begets Quality

Notes from the Classroom

shutterstock_560033377“There are no more words left in me to write, I think.” (Read with melodramatic hand on brow, maybe even a Southern belle accent for an extra flair of drama.)

A student of mine said this the other day as I returned the class’ most recent essays and started describing our next writing adventure. I am lucky to teach both AP Language and Composition and AP Seminar (a new, research-writing based course) this year. The young lady who made the dramatic pronouncement has the pleasure (?) of being in both. That means she did a lot of writing this fall. A crazy amount of writing.

And exactly the right amount of writing, I think.

She’s not the only student in this position. I have about 15 overlappers, and they’ve really made me rethink the amount of writing I’m doing in my classes. Despite the dramatic “there are no words left” comment, they actually have quite a few words left, and those words are getting more insightful and more interesting. All of that writing is paying off–and I think they know it.

I always thought I had a lot of writing in my classes. But watching how far my overlappers’ writing is coming, I’m realizing that maybe they need even more. Kelly Gallagher, a reading-and-writing-teacher guru, is often quoted as saying, Students should be writing way more than a teacher can grade.Though I know that’s true, I have never really embraced it fully. I have been so caught up in the idea that I need to give feedback in order to help them grow, that I thought that meant grading everything. It simply wasn’t possible for them to write and write and write and write, if I wasn’t going to write all over it. Right?

Copy/Paste

Wrong. There are plenty of smaller writing activities that I could replicate in each class, and I have different strategies from each class that could be copied and pasted into the other. My students shouldn’t need to be in two of my classes to get such a flood of writing opportunities. There are four things I’ve been doing on and off in each class this fall. What if I did all four things consistently in both classes?

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A page from my bullet journal. (Click the thumbnail to view a larger image.)

Bullet Journals
My AP Seminar kids have been experimenting with different ways to reflect on their research process all year, and most recently, we’ve started bullet journals. I hesitated to start this with my Lang students because I already had writing notebooks in AP Lang. But, my notebooks in Lang are inconsistent. Bullet journaling would force daily reflection and guarantee that my students would never go a day without writing at least a few lines.

Holistic Feedback
The other thing I’ve been very good about in AP Seminar is giving consistent holistic feedback. There is one, 4-point, simple scale in my Seminar class. Because my students have worked with that scale all year, it works as shorthand with us now. A 3 scribbled in the margins tells them just as much as a paragraph of feedback. And it’s a lot faster. AP Lang has a holistic, 9 pt scale, but it’s not simple and isn’t as clear to my students. If I could break the scale down for them more and help them see the levels more clearly, I could start using this practice in that class as well.

Write Two, Choose Your Best
I often ask my AP Lang students to write two different pieces (different days) and then choose the best one for me to evaluate. This works really well in AP Lang because sometimes students feel great about one analytical piece and horrible about the next one. This both removes the pressure and pushes them to be a little more critical of their own writing. I hadn’t thought about doing this in AP Seminar because all of our writing has been long, workshopped pieces. But, I need to do a better job of assessing my Seminar students’ reading, and this strategy would work well with that.

Self-Annotation
One of the ways I save time prior to writing conferences in AP Lang is by asking the students to annotate their own essays with reflective comments and questions. What were you trying to accomplish with a particular section? Why did you choose one word rather than another? This reflective writing has been absent from my Seminar class, and I think I need to add it. 

*

When my son was a baby, his pediatrician used to tell us, “Sleep begets sleep.” Put him to bed early, make sure he gets lots of naps, and he will sleep perfectly. My pediatrician was right. Lots of sleep led to better sleep.

This fall I learned the same thing about my writers. Lots of writing leads to better writing. Quantity begets quality.  This spring, I’ll see if I can up the writing in each class. My poor overlappers don’t know what they’re in for.

Hattie Maguire (@TeacherHattie) is an English teacher and Content Area Leader at Novi High School. She is spending her sixteenth year in the classroom teaching AP English Language and Composition, AP Seminar and doing Tier 2 writing intervention. She is a National Board Certified Teacher who earned her BS in English and MA in Curriculum and Teaching from Michigan State University.

Teaching Elections: Part 2

Notes from the Classroom

shutterstock_114757342A few weeks ago I wrote about using the election in our classrooms. I said it was important to respect our students’ beliefs and try to keep our own political opinions out of the classroom. I suggested that focusing on skill development was key.

That was a lot easier before the election.

Now, after the election, I’m left wondering how to respond to my students. Some are upset and worrying about their futures in a country that doesn’t seem to value them. Others are excited and certain that now is the time America will finally rise to its full potential. It feels like focusing on skills would be artificial at best and probably just insensitive when they’re trying to process all of this.

As an adult who is highly engaged in political conversations, and as an educator who wants to help my students respond to this divisive election, what is my responsibility now? I still think it’s important to respect their beliefs and stay as neutral as possible, but tonight I’m wondering if focusing solely on skills is enough.

A Moment for Grit

Sometimes, answers pop up in incredibly unlikely places. Tonight, my answer, I think, is coming from Trolls. Not internet trolls–I’m talking about the fuzzy-haired singing ones in the recent Dreamworks movie. I took my four-year-old and seven-year-old to see Trolls last weekend, and throughout the whole movie, I kept thinking that the main character’s life perspective–keep trying, get back up again, etc.–was eerily reminiscent of a book pretty popular in education circles these days: Angela Duckworth’s Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. As the main character sang her way through all kinds of problems and, ultimately, succeeded because of her grit, I chuckled to myself about the parallels. The cartoon was like a commercial for grit–just with glitter.

Truth be told, I’ve always been a little skeptical of the whole “grit” concept. It seems a little shallow to look at a student drowning in problems and say, “Hey! Keep tryin’, buddy!” But, really, what other choice do we have? We want our students to be resilient. We want our students to respond with relentless positive action when they are faced with challenges. And, regardless of whether you saw this election result as a positive or negative, there’s no denying that this election has been challenging. This has been a rough fight, arguments have turned personal and people on both sides are hurting.

So perhaps this is the time when Language Arts teachers ask our students to respond with a little grit. Perhaps our response needs to be: What is your response? If your side won, what do you think we need to do to move forward? If your side lost, how can you stay engaged in the process? If this whole thing left you totally disillusioned and disengaged, what can you do to get back in the game?

Tomorrow, my AP Lang. students are comparing two texts. One is a speech given by Booker T. Washington during the Reconstruction Era. He believed African Americans should “cast down their buckets” where they were. He wanted them to accept low- or no-skill jobs and work their way up slowly in society. Another text is by W.E.B. Dubois, responding to Washington’s suggestions. He had a totally different response: seek higher education, demand opportunities. We will examine those two responses to a complicated, contentious time. Both men responded to a challenging time not by throwing up their hands in despair or gleefully skipping off into the sunset. They dug into the challenge and offered a way forward.

After we study the texts, I think the question for my students will be an obvious one. In this contentious time, what will you do next? What is your way forward?

If we ignore the outcome of this election and hope it will go away or that time will heal the wounds in our country, we are missing an opportunity. Before the results, I thought we could zero in on skills and use politics as our base. I still think that works. But today I’m thinking that we need to see political topics as a challenge for our students as well. The Common Core State Standards require us to teach students to “Integrate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media in order to make informed decisions and solve problems.” Focusing on skills helps with the informed decisions part, but giving them space to write, talk, and think about how to solve problems is key to helping all of us move forward.

Hattie Maguire (@TeacherHattie) is an English teacher and Content Area Leader at Novi High School. She is spending her sixteenth year in the classroom teaching AP English Language and Composition, AP Seminar and doing Tier 2 writing intervention. She is a National Board Certified Teacher who earned her BS in English and MA in Curriculum and Teaching from Michigan State University.

Using Politics to Zero In on Skills

Notes from the Classroom

shutterstock_458871724This is the third time I’ve rewritten this opening.

I wanted to start this blog post by telling the story of my experiences working on a political campaign in high school, and my teachers’ different reactions to that work. No matter how I wrote it, my husband kept telling me that my political opinion was shining through. Unfortunately, that was the whole point of my piece.

My experiences taught me how frustrating it can be for a high school student who’s just beginning to form her political opinions, only to have those opinions directly criticized by a teacher. Teachers certainly need to question faulty logic or unsupported opinions; we need to teach critical thinking skills and help students question the messages bombarding them. But, we also must walk a very careful line and respect their budding young beliefs.

Politics in a 2016 Classroom

This election has been so polarizing that some teachers have questioned that approach. Last week, ten former state and national teachers of the year published an open letter condemning Donald Trump, and rejecting the notion that teachers should remain neutral. I respect their belief that the uniqueness of this election requires a different response, but I’m still not sure I can abandon my practice of neutrality. I remember what it felt like to feel so strongly about a candidate, to be so passionately convinced that I was on the right side. And I remember what it felt like to have a teacher unequivocally tell me I was wrong.

It’s tempting to just put politics aside. There are plenty of other texts my students can study. I don’t want to step into a discussion and have hateful language–regardless of the target–supported and championed by students in my class. On the other hand, how can I not teach my students to dig into the texts that are all around us with this election? They have a right to engage in political discourse.

Educator Rick Wormeli, in his blog post for the Association for Middle Level Education, argues that teachers have the opportunity to show students “how to respond constructively to people and policies that offend us.” He makes some great points about balancing neutrality with an approach that respects students’ opinions, but I think there is one more step to consider when figuring out how to blend political texts into a secondary ELA classroom.

For me, the key comes in framing. Rather than focusing on the political topics themselves, I have the most success when I use the political material to zero in on skills we are learning and practicing. I give students texts from both ends of the political spectrum, teach them the skills to analyze them, and let them make their own decisions.

Zero In on Word Choice

shutterstock_339032462In my classes, we talk a lot about using precise language that gives you the most bang for your buck. Twitter forces that because you only have 140 characters. The day after the protests in Charlotte, NC, this fall, we talked about word choice and how it sends implicit messages. One example:

Those who protest in peaceful ways are welcome to the table, those who engage in chaos & violence have no place in society. #Charlotte

There’s a lot to unpack in that short sentence. The contrast of peace vs. chaos? The suggestion that you either do it peacefully or you have “no place in society”? The more we discussed it, the more my students realized there was a lot lurking under the surface. A tiny text opened the door to a great discussion about the power of word choice. And since it was directly related to a skill that is central to our work with critical reading and writing, I didn’t feel like I was ramming political opinions down their throats.

Zero In on Argument Structure 

We work on recognizing claims, evaluating evidence, and then examining the reasoning that goes with the evidence. Op-eds are excellent mentor texts for this type of writing because students can identify the claims, and then try to follow the threads of evidence and reasoning. In some cases, it becomes clear that those threads are a little weak; that leads to discussions about evidence-based arguments vs. emotional arguments.

Later, when students write their own op-eds, they have to justify the types of arguments they’re making in their writing. By linking the politics to the skills we’re studying in class, we can have rational, reasoned discussions–something too often lacking in the adult world of political discourse.

Zero In on Audience and Purpose

Finally, this political season has given us all kinds of ways to examine audience and purpose. When my students struggle to move beyond generalizations, I use political cartoons as a first step.

It’s easy to look at a cartoon and identify the target. But the followup questions are: Who is the target audience? Is this intended to convince people to change their minds? Is it intended to merely fire up people who already support the candidate? How can you tell? After students look closely at audience and purpose in visual texts, they are better prepared to consider those questions with written texts.

Using political material in class during such a polarizing election is tough. But I think it’s important to give students practice in the examination of these texts with a critical eye. Zeroing in on the skills will make them better prepared to make up their own minds.

Hattie Maguire (@TeacherHattie) is an English teacher and Content Area Leader at Novi High School. She is spending her sixteenth year in the classroom teaching AP English Language and Composition, AP Seminar and doing Tier 2 writing intervention. She is a National Board Certified Teacher who earned her BS in English and MA in Curriculum and Teaching from Michigan State University.

Stealing Time for Workshop

Notes from the Classroom

shutterstock_163387808In May, as the school year was winding down, I was met with an all-too-common challenge: running out of time. There were about four weeks left, and the calendar was quickly filling with standardized tests, field trips, and sports competitions. I needed two solid weeks of writing workshops with my tenth graders to complete their final writing piece–an op-ed–but it looked like ten kids would be gone each day for the next four weeks.

I addressed my problem by adding some flipped mini lessons to my writing workshop. Instead of starting class every day with a mini lesson in class, I did a screencast of the same lesson and assigned it for homework. One night the students watched a ten-minute video about improving their diction in their op-eds. Their assignment was to show me where they’d made an intentional choice with their diction. In class, I could quickly check in with each writer, give some feedback about their diction, and assess their understanding of the skill. And my absent students didn’t miss any key instruction!

I was really happy with how the unit worked out for two main reasons. First, I felt like I was stealing back time for writing workshops to do the thing that is key to improving student writing: face-to-face conferences. Second, I was assigning purposeful homework that was giving my students a chance to practice, without their being overwhelmed or confused.

That’s how I ended the year. As I get ready for this new year, I’m wondering how I can expand on this success from the spring. Most kids will tell you that one-on-one time with a teacher has the most impact on their learning. Most teachers will tell you that one-on-one time with their students is the most effective way to move the needle with their learning. So this fall I’m committing to stealing as much of that time back as I can, in the following ways. 

Day One Overview

Course procedures and the course overview are brutal. On one hand, you want to go over some key information with the kids. On the other hand, it’s the first day!

I want to start building my classroom community. I want them writing. This year, I’m going to steal time by flipping my procedures and course overview. The students’ first night homework will be to log into our Google Classroom page, watch a (short!) screencast of the course overview, and answer a question or two in a Google Form for me. 

I’ll be able to gather some information about the students, and ensure that they all know how to log into Classroom. And I’ll free up a whole class period for some opening writing, reading, and community building.

Differentiated Reading Instruction

Last year I flipped my writing workshop mini lessons, but why not use technology with reading instruction as well? My students are all at very different places with their ability to read and annotate complicated texts. Typically, we practice reading strategies as a whole class. We often need a whole class period to work through a text together. We will still do that sometimes, but what about assigning different texts (based on student ability and interest) and using different online tools to help students practice on their own?

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A screenshot of Newsela. Click the image to expand it.

Last year, Amy Gurney wrote about Newsela and its potential for differentiating reading instruction. That’s a great tool to add to my blended workshop toolbox. While students practice, I can do one-on-one reading conferences.

Examining Mentor Texts

At various points in reading and writing workshops, I like to examine mentor texts with the students. Sometimes we’ll look at a professional piece of writing to consider how the author develops an argument. Other times, we’ll look at a student essay and discuss what is going well and what the student may want to revise.

This is a great whole-class activity and a valuable use of time. But, sometimes that whole-class examination could be replaced with a video of my reading and annotating the text. Apps like ExplainEverything make it very easy for me to create a quick video. Students can see and hear my thinking as I read and process a text. The time saved could be used talking one on one about the students’ writing.

I am certainly not advocating that you replace your teaching with a series of online lessons. I will always believe that the best teaching occurs when you are working one on one with student writers and readers.

Still, the reality of modern schedules and schools means that we won’t always have as much time for the deep discussions that we need. Blending technology into my reading and writing workshops means taking various tools and using them to refine and enhance my teaching. As I start the 2016 school year, I want to be purposeful about how I use technology tools to free up time, in order to go back to the basics: face-to-face discussions between readers and writers.

Hattie Maguire (@TeacherHattie) is an English teacher and Content Area Leader at Novi High School. She is spending her sixteenth year in the classroom teaching AP English Language and Composition, AP Seminar and doing Tier 2 writing intervention. She is a National Board Certified Teacher who earned her BS in English and MA in Curriculum and Teaching from Michigan State University.

More Than One Way To Skin a Cat

Notes from the Classroom

shutterstock_240744010My mom always used to say, “There’s more than one way to skin a cat.”

I’d never really thought about that disgusting idiom until I used it in class one day and the kids were rightly horrified. It’s awful, but it addresses a core principle of good teaching and learning: there is more than one way to do something well.

For the past seven years or so, our English department at Novi High School has been on a journey through that principle. As we have attempted to align to the Common Core State Standards, we have moved toward an aligned curriculum with shared texts and common assessments.

This has prompted a debate about the difference between common experiences and common assignments. Must we be lock step, or can we skin cats however we choose? Okay, that’s gross. I’ll stop.

This year, my professional learning community has finally hit its stride and figured out how to preserve teacher autonomy while still providing a CCSS-aligned curriculum for all 500+ tenth graders at Novi High School. How’d we do it? Skills based, aligned common assessments.  

As we head into summer and start thinking about changes for next year, perhaps our model can give you some ideas for how you can better align with your colleagues but still maintain your autonomy.

Before A Unit Begins

This is a key to success. Prior to starting the unit, everyone needs to know where you’re going so you can get there however you’d like. We look at our district curriculum in Atlasand we revisit the five to six very specific learning goals for the unit. Then we make sure our assessments are measuring the students’ abilities with those skills.

For example, in the third unit for the year, we worked on five learning goals:

  1. reading info texts critically
  2. analyzing dramatic structure
  3. maintaining argumentative claims
  4. presenting effectively
  5. using varied syntax

Our PLC talked about what proficiency in each of those standards looks like, and started imagining how students could show us that proficiency. For each standard, we decided on one common skill-based assessment that we’d give to our students. We made samples of what the proficient work would look like, and agreed to use formative assessments with each standard to help students monitor their learning. That’s it. We all agreed on the end point and then went our separate ways.

During the Unit

This is where the freedom came in.

Some of us started with informational reading, while others jumped right into the unit’s anchor text (a play). We shared things informally as we moved through the unit, but the pressure to do the same things and move in lock step was off completely. At our PLC meetings, we shared what was going well, where we were struggling, and worked together to come up with solutions.

After the Unit

shutterstock_410136730This was the most important part, I think. After the unit, we shared our different approaches and what had gone well.

The language standard, for example, was a bit of a mess. Some of us had tried to give students formative assessments in a writers’ workshop with writers’ notebook checks, and quickly found ourselves overwhelmed. Other people had done one-on-one conferences and liked them, but struggled to squeeze all the kids in.

One teacher, on the other hand, had developed a short-answer written formative assessment that had worked well for her and seemed very manageable. For the next unit, we all decided to use her method.

Wait, you’re thinking. I thought this post was about more than one way to do something well!

It is! I promise. Good teaching is about experimenting and testing and figuring things out. That’s what this new structure has allowed us to do. We all tried different ways to teach the language standard and, after that experimentation, we found a way that works best. Had we not had that freedom to experiment, though, we might have never landed on the best way at all.

With some of the other standards, we found that we all did things very differently, we were all happy with with what we’d done, and our kids performed the same on the common assessment. The key is that this structure has given us a way to stay aligned to what’s important–clearly defined standards and assessments–without shackling us to agreed upon daily lessons.

As you go into the summer and think about everything you’d like to change next year, I’d encourage you to consider where you and your colleagues can make agreements about being the same, and where can you leave yourself a little room for creativity. I think you will find that agreeing to give each other a little space to experiment will ultimately help you see that there are many ways to…um..do things well.

Hattie profileHattie Maguire is an English teacher and Content Area Leader at Novi High School. She is spending her fifteenth year in the classroom teaching AP English Language and Composition and English 10. She is a National Board Certified Teacher who earned her BS in English and MA in Curriculum and Teaching from Michigan State University.