Lit Circles Unleashed

Notes from the Classroom


Ironically, I often find that by the time
Reading Month rolls around in my classroom, the kids who most need to engage more deeply (and more often) with good books are the ones starting to burn out. I’ve got a pretty good independent reading game going on in my classroom–tons of graphic novels, crazy variety (thanks to room sharing with fellow blogger Hattie Maguire), a wonderful librarian (also a blogger!) who book talks whenever we’re looking for some new titles, and lots and lots of encouragement.

Yet I can always sense the slow death of reading growth in some of my students this time of year. Their resolve and eagerness are withering and turning to dust just as the first buds are pushing up through the thawing earth.

It’s a bummer.

Lit Circles without Required Texts

This burnout is why I gave up a whole-class text this unit, and replaced it with some unusual lit circles. Last year, we blew things wide open and made the lit circles for the unit completely free choice, as long as everyone in the group got hold of the same book. It worked nicely, but it felt like a disconnected activity while we were otherwise neck-deep in a very challenging narrative-journalism unit.

So this year I decided to point the kids at the genre we were focused on, but completely abandon the notion of common titles. Even within a lit circle.

In the past, John Krakauer’s excellent Into the Wild was our central mentor text for the unit. While it certainly spoke to some of our students, it definitely left others out in the cold (with apologies to Chris McCandless).

So this time, aside from the requirement to stick to the genre, the options were wide open: Other Krakauer titles (he’s truly an excellent writer), Freakanomics, Picking Cotton, explorations of unsolved crimes. The list went on and on.

And yes, in many of my groups there were students reading several different titles while still conversing together.

Freedom Opens Up Rich Discussions

Was this crazy?

Maybe. But . . . it kinda worked. The conversations between students reading the same title were definitely more detail-oriented. But with a bit of guidance, it turns out my kids were fairly good at (and interested in) having more meta-level conversations about the genre itself.

What is there in common between a book about a false imprisonment, and another about pop culture? Not much content-wise, but tons when it comes to narrative-journalism structure.

The kids spent their lit circle time talking about structural elements of the text: the way one book interposed a lot of primary sources in exploring its subject matter, while another seemed almost entirely subjective in its take on the subject matter (Ben Mezrich of Bringing Down the House fame is known for that almost-novelistic style).

Some of the conversations were clumsier: Did your author use levity? Mine didn’t. And: Did you find a lot of anecdotes? Because that’s all my author seems to use. And so on.

But the conversations could be rich. They compared whether setting mattered to their book. They compared how much bias there was in the authors’ characterizations of real humans. Sometimes they just compared favorite parts or frustrations. It was lovely.

Students Were Reading

They were all reading–at their own paces, but all of them arriving to their meetings having advanced through their chosen book and ready to share.

There’s definitely no perfect solution to the problem of reader burnout this time of year. Part of it is about school burnout more than any animosity toward reading itself.

When the unit and time allow, though, you can certainly inspire your page turners to stick it out for a few more chapters, using the power of student choice.

Michael ZieglerMichael Ziegler (@ZigThinks) is a Content Area Leader and teacher at Novi High School.  This is his 15th year in the classroom. He teaches 11th Grade English and IB Theory of Knowledge. He also coaches JV Girls Soccer and has spent time as a Creative Writing Club sponsor, Poetry Slam team coach, AdvancEd Chair, and Boys JV Soccer Coach. He did his undergraduate work at the University of Michigan, majoring in English, and earned his Masters in Administration from Michigan State University.  

How to Avoid the Educational Rut

Notes from the Classroom


Getting over the drudgery of winter can be tough; even if you’re lucky enough to have a classroom with windows, the view outside is grody (you heard me) and the sunlight feels almost colder than the fluorescence of the room lights. For me, the best cure (besides squinting) to get through the cold white season has always been to bury myself in one of the most enjoyable aspects of teaching:  

Innovation.  

My PLC likes to busy itself updating, modifying, and re-imagining everything in our curriculum.  Yes, we do this yearly. For fun. And because it’s best practice.

The Risk of the Rut

Routine can be good–for kids and for teachers–but it can also become a rut really quickly. Ruts in education sometimes get so deep that it isn’t just our wheels getting stuck in them. They can get so deep that we can’t even see over the edges to look for other possibilities.

When you devote some of your time each week to innovative thinking, you find that being creative and exploring new possible content and activities for your class are pretty good substitutes for sunshine. I mean…except for all the things sunshine actually does.  

How to Avoid the Rut

Here’s how my PLC tends to spend the cold months:

  • Read like crazy. If you don’t already do independent reading in class, add it!  Discovering new books to share with your students is a fantastic way to refresh your own interests and connect with your readers.
  • Look for connections in the world–and stay connected to it. Nothing freshens up a stale unit like some current reading. What are your favorite websites for pleasure reading? For keeping up on the news? Pop culture?
  • Use Twitter. If you haven’t already connected with the infinite treasure trove of fellow educators and resources on this social platform, now’s the time to get your feet wet.  While the site can take a few days to get used to, you can explore completely passively, unlike on sites like Facebook where you have to “friend” other people just to see their thoughts.  
  • Write. It doesn’t matter what, just get back into the practice you spend so much time teaching your students! If you’re feeling ambitious, reach out to a favorite blog or organization and see if you could write a guest-post for them. Maybe keep a journal–or better yet, write the assignments you’re giving your kids right alongside them (sounds almost like a book title I’m rather fond of).  
  • Try something crazy. Give one day in your unit to the sort of lesson that only those maniacs on Pinterest would ever actually try doing in their classroom! Make up a game, get the kids moving, let them decide how to approach the next day’s discussion–break out of the routine and see if the energy doesn’t change.

Spring is coming soon enough, and once the air smells like blossoms and freedom, we start to think more about summer than about our unit plans. That’s okay–so do the kids. But it’s all the more reason to dedicate some time to re-energizing yourself with a bit of classroom innovation to distract everybody from that muddy, melty view out the classroom windows.

Michael ZieglerMichael Ziegler (@ZigThinks) is a Content Area Leader and teacher at Novi High School.  This is his 15th year in the classroom. He teaches 11th Grade English and IB Theory of Knowledge. He also coaches JV Girls Soccer and has spent time as a Creative Writing Club sponsor, Poetry Slam team coach, AdvancEd Chair, and Boys JV Soccer Coach. He did his undergraduate work at the University of Michigan, majoring in English, and earned his Masters in Administration from Michigan State University.  

To Teach Equity, We Should Choose Modern Texts

Notes from the Classroom


A colleague of mine recently received an interesting reaction to Zora Neale Hurston, when a young black man in his class declared one of Hurston’s essays to be “bullsh**.”

The student wasn’t interested in Hurston’s perspective on race, in a piece written in 1928. While my friend handled the incident as well as possible, it gave our whole PLC pause, since it raised an important question:

When selecting texts for an English classroom, how do we rank student interest and equity?

For many of us, the gut response is to look to The Canon. We find reputable voices from across time and distance, and select texts that diversify our collection of readings.

Which gives most English classes something that looks roughly like this:

  • Shakespeare
  • Hemingway
  • Fitzgerald
  • Lee
  • Miller
  • And a grab-bag of other White or European or early-American authors

And then, for balance and equity we might add:

  • Cisneros
  • Harlem Renaissance voices
  • MLK
  • Amy Tan
  • And Toni Morrison, if the school district will allow it

I’m not looking to unfairly profile anyone here. But the list of names tends to be finite.

Yet for non-white or non-male students in your district, these canonical texts, which felt relevant not so long ago, might not resonate today.

This was the case in my colleague’s class.

Hurston’s piece is mainly about taking life by the horns in spite of adversity. But in the process of being pro-self-confidence, she takes more than a few shots at fellow African-Americans who, she believes, are too busy feeling sorry for themselves.

Can you blame my colleague’s student for not wanting to hear this 90-year-old voice, two generations removed from a modern perspective? (Here I should point out that my colleague and I teach the same curriculum–my criticism is not of him but of the texts we–all of us ELA teachers–have allowed to define the course for too long.)

It’s not hard to imagine that this one forthright student speaks for many who quietly suffer through a whole semester of reading that never speaks to a modern point of view, much less a modern perspective for minority students.

It’s something that my PLC considered a few years ago. We had realized that out of our first six or seven texts, we had to present caveats for five of them about the use of terms like “negro” or other racial insensitivities, and that included Fitzgerald’s wonderful Gatsby.

That doesn’t make Gatsby a bad choice, but it certainly creates an oppressive classroom atmosphere for students of color who have to hear this language almost daily, in literature that we tell them is important and definitive.

Even our well-meaning texts, like those from the Harlem Renaissance writers, can alienate the very students we hope they speak to the most.  

Why?

Because–ironically–we ask students to embrace the perspectives of (to them) ancient voices while refusing (or neglecting) to listen to or examine the modern voices that have emerged since then.  

Is Langston Hughes an important voice in our history? Of course.

But in this cultural moment, is it more important for our students to hear Langston Hughes’ voice than, say, Angie Thomas or Clint Smith or Jason Reynolds? These are writers who have captured the zeitgeist of our current race issues. And they’ve done so through eyes that dilate more or less in sync with those of our young, impressionable students.  

If you haven’t read these enormously popular and well-known modern voices, perhaps ask yourself, What limitations exist in your own perspective of modern cultural issues? If The Canon offers our kids one set of eyes to see the world through, is it not our responsibility to try other, newer lenses as well?

Michael ZieglerMichael Ziegler (@ZigThinks) is a Content Area Leader and teacher at Novi High School.  This is his 15th year in the classroom. He teaches 11th Grade English and IB Theory of Knowledge. He also coaches JV Girls Soccer and has spent time as a Creative Writing Club sponsor, Poetry Slam team coach, AdvancEd Chair, and Boys JV Soccer Coach. He did his undergraduate work at the University of Michigan, majoring in English, and earned his Masters in Administration from Michigan State University.  

Why Students Benefit When You Take Professional Risks

Notes from the Classroom

There’s a lot of groupthink in education.

It’s an obvious side effect of our nature as teachers.  We’re team builders and supporters, nurturers and cooperators.

Those are all wonderful traits, but they also make us reluctant to press into new or unknown territory. We even give each other the stink eye when somebody in our department goes rogue on a writing assignment.

It’s like ambition and risk-taking are betrayals of some unwritten teacherly pact.

But risk-taking is important for our students.

The last few years, I’ve learned that not only does a little boundary pushing lead to better outcomes for students–it also helps the professionals coming up behind you to trust their instincts.

My first venture into unknown territory came a few years ago when I started to explore graphic novels for my lowest readers. It felt strange to give these pleasure readings to kids, in a medium that few other people (at least in my building or immediate professional group) were engaging with.

I kept second guessing myself. People would nod their heads when I explained my thinking, but nobody else jumped on board immediately, aside from the comfort-zone books that had already been accepted into the canon of “okay” English texts (think Maus and…well, that’s about it…).  

I remember thinking constantly that at some point–if I kept on with this “weird” idea I was exploring–that someone was going to step out from behind a tree in this woods I’d wandered into, and tell me to get back on the path and stop taking risks that could impact students.  Here’s what actually happened.

Nobody ever told me to quit exploring.  

In fact, special education teachers in my building were incredibly supportive and started helping to spread the word. I also discovered quite quickly that I wasn’t the only one who was using graphic novels for high-interest pleasure reading. Several colleagues had multiple titles in their classroom libraries.  

While I was utilizing them in different ways, it became evident quite quickly that my idea wasn’t as “out there” as I’d originally thought. Then something else became evident.

The Risky experiment started to work.

It was the great graphic novel experiment. And it worked.

I found titles that really resonated with kids–and I even blogged about the titles that were big hits.

What’s more, my school librarian (whom you might know from this very blog!) turned out to be way ahead of me in terms of graphic novels, and helped build up our media center’s collection while I worked on my classroom one!

Over time, students I’d had in previous years started returning to my room, looking for new titles–which also helped other teachers find titles that these struggling-but-eager readers would latch onto.

Then this year, when I attended NCTE’s big annual conference, I was elated to see multiple sessions explaining the effectiveness of graphic novels. The sessions even looked at the novels’ complexities–which actually rival many traditional classroom texts.

The topic blew up on Twitter for the next couple days, and suddenly there was a shift.

My graphic novel experiment was getting validation.

I wasn’t in the woods anymore. What I thought was a (pun intended) novel idea a few years ago, turned out to be the same idea lots and lots of teachers were having. It just took us a while to spot each other.

I probably would’ve listened to those two great presentations at the conference and started using graphic novels anyway. But I think about all the students I’ve had, students who never saw themselves as readers until the right graphic novels were in their hands.

And I’m glad that I took a professional risk, instead of waiting for someone else to tell me what good ideas the group had pre-approved of.

Michael ZieglerMichael Ziegler (@ZigThinks) is a Content Area Leader and teacher at Novi High School.  This is his 15th year in the classroom. He teaches 11th Grade English and IB Theory of Knowledge. He also coaches JV Girls Soccer and has spent time as a Creative Writing Club sponsor, Poetry Slam team coach, AdvancEd Chair, and Boys JV Soccer Coach. He did his undergraduate work at the University of Michigan, majoring in English, and earned his Masters in Administration from Michigan State University.  

Loosening The Lit Circle Grip

Notes from the Classroom


A few months back, I realized that something felt off about independent reading time in my classroom. The energy (there’s definitely an energy to a silent room full of readers) just felt like it had drained away someplace.

I fretted about this for a while. And then I remembered that I’d just spent the past month or so engaged with my favorite end-of-the-year (calendar, not school) activity–browsing the dozens of “best of” lists that flood the internet around mid-December.

So I asked each of my students to choose two books and two films from 2016’s lists, and make them their “pop culture resolutions” for the new year. The reading improved immediately. We had some great discussions about film, but the real surprise only came recently–when Lit Circle Season rolled around.

Letting Students Decide

So, Lit Circle Season isn’t really a thing. We’ve done one this time of year for the past several years, though, to mixed results. It has always gone somewhat well, but the limitations of our book options sometimes stifled student interest. They were solid titles, but the scope of student interest was much broader than what we could cover.

Cue the New Year’s Resolution lists!

This year, I pleaded with my students to maximize the Lit Circle experience by selecting their own groups, and agreeing on a book title that intrigued all of them. I was cautiously hopeful that two or three groups would find their own title based on the New Year’s lists or the recommendations of their peers (we do book talks year-round). I figured I’d get a few ambitious groups, and the rest would read the selections I had to offer.

To my surprise, only one group chose NOT to select their own book–and they all showed up on Official Book Selection Draft Day (also not really a thing) with their own copies of their chosen titles already in hand.

A Major Lift from a Minor Shift

For the first time all year, there was some buzz surrounding reading. I decided to embrace it all the way—and let go of my control:

  • My students selected their reading schedule, with Lit Circles held each Tuesday and Friday for three weeks.
  • I made discussion topics available, but I gently discouraged them. Instead, I suggested that students identify their own topics for discussion prior to each meeting–based on whatever direction their books led them.
  • Groups decided what to focus on. If their book had been adapted into a film, they might spend a meeting discussing the film. If their book echoed current events (one group, for example, read All American Boys) then perhaps one meeting might be best spent talking about a news article.
  • Assessment was built entirely around student contribution to the group’s dialogue–based on a speaking and listening rubric, not a reading comprehension rubric.

None of these are new ideas. The best voices in literacy have actually been telling us to do this stuff for years. But they do work–if you’re willing to relinquish control.

The Real Point

Once students had books they truly wanted to read, motivation took care of itself. Do they all have the required reading done by each meeting? No. Do they all love their book choices now that we’re two weeks into the process? Certainly not.

But you know what? I would answer those questions the same way for the book club that I just finished with several of my colleagues. Students–when they’re reading what they want to read–behave pretty much the same way that adults do.

Assessing this can be hazardous (mostly for students). But a well-designed discussion rubric will tell you all you need to know. My students score well on mine if they are actively engaged as listeners (body language and responsiveness to the ideas of others) and are bringing engaging, original ideas into the conversation regularly.

By the end of their Lit Circle experience, all of my kids will have read a book of merit and experienced it as a set of ideas–not the ideas I’ve pointed them to, but the ideas inherent in the text. Their peers will have helped shape their perspectives, and their own curiosity will have provided the primary force behind their efforts.

The curriculum we assign our students has great value. But none of it will build a passion for reading like the empowerment of independence.

Michael Ziegler
Michael Ziegler (@ZigThinks) is a Content Area Leader and teacher at Novi High School.  This is his 15th year in the classroom. He teaches 11th Grade English and IB Theory of Knowledge. He also coaches JV Girls Soccer and has spent time as a Creative Writing Club sponsor, Poetry Slam team coach, AdvancEd Chair, and Boys JV Soccer Coach. 
He did his undergraduate work at the University of Michigan, majoring in English, and earned his Masters in Administration from Michigan State University.  

Misreading Readers

Notes from the Classroom

shutterstock_561669964My youngest daughter is a wonderfully spunky first grader whom people often call “headstrong,” using that tone that suggests they’ll make sure and say a prayer for me later.

People make those casual remarks and we all have a good laugh, and I quietly cross them off the family Christmas card list. Just kidding. They’re right about her and I’m glad for it. She knows what she likes and doesn’t like, and she’ll never waste a moment of her life letting someone else tell her how to live it.

All of this is to say that she gave me a heart attack a couple nights ago when she announced at bedtime, “I don’t like reading.” I challenged her immediately by pointing out that she’s constantly reading Mo Willems books and Dog Man and all sorts of graphic novels.

Which led to this exchange:

“No, daddy, I don’t like reading THESE books,” Taylor said, tossing her bag of leveled-reading books at me in disgust. These are books she brings home at least a couple times a week to help make sure she’s reading in the right difficulty range and to help her continue growing. They’re good at that job, I think, but they’re about as interesting as potato salad.

“Oh. Buddy, those are to help you get better at reading! They don’t have to be your favorites,” I said.

Her response: “I don’t like them and I’m not reading them anymore.”

We eventually talked things out. But not before the episode got me thinking about Taylor as a future student in high school, and by extension, my own current students.

Willful Reading and Forced Reading

I suddenly imagined Taylor as the sort of student I see all the time–the type who lights up conversations and writing assignments when a text catches her fancy. Passionate about their favorite readings, these kids are equally passionate about their hatred for what they consider forced labor–any assignment related to a text they aren’t into.

No sooner did this “nightmare” occur to me than I realized my hypocrisy. I LOVE these sorts of students. They’re unwilling to “play school” but are more passionate–and much more knowledgeable–than students who do the work without slowing down to consider the value of anything beyond a grade.

shutterstock_568776415There are lots of conversations to be had about this intersection of student interest and assessment. But let’s come back to my daughter for a second. Imagine her ten years from now. Or just look around your own classroom and pick the half dozen or so kids this description fits: She continues to love a good book when someone hands it to her, but she shrinks from most of what a teacher assigns, assuming wearily that it’s more literature that someone else has decided has value–or is being used to test her. If she’s learned to “do school” then she’s compliant but uninterested. If she decides that there are better things to do than complying with assessments, then maybe she’s taking a pass on most of what’s handed to her in an English class.

Taylor will be fine–she has two teachers for parents and a reading-centered household. I worry more about the students I have in class now. How often do we give them opportunities to demonstrate their skills as readers and writers, unshackled from the separate (much less useful) skill of compliance?

Our curriculum’s standards help expose students to seminal works of literature, but we are often slow to recognize that analytical reading and genre exploration are absolutely NOT tied to those same texts. If a student is reluctant to engage with Shakespeare or Krakauer, have we accurately assessed their reading abilities when we write them off, based on an effort we know wasn’t indicative of them as readers?

Balance for the Forced

It would be enormously insulting of me to suggest that you should build alternative assessments for your entire gradebook to accommodate students who haven’t learned to tow the line sometimes. But I think sometimes there’s also room for balance: If one opportunity to demonstrate annotation skills presents itself during The Great Gatsby, a standards-based alternative might be fairly easy to build with Flipgrid or a quick conference about a scene from a student’s independent reading. If they’re reading books that are Lexile-appropriate (or complexity appropriate, if you’re measuring implicit meaning), then their ability to perform on the text they’re attached to should overshadow however they perform on the task related to a class reading.

This idea can be a tough pill to swallow. Many of us got into this profession due to a love for the classics and the notion that we are laying the foundations of culture in our English classrooms. Yet for every one of us who fawns over Faulkner, there’s another of us who never quite figured out why Salinger was such a big deal.

If a student in high school has the fundamentals down–if she can read a grade-appropriate text and tell you the tone and the mood and tie it to current events and posit motives for the main characters’ decisions–then we should be much more worried about how to get all of those A-plus students who never pick up a pleasure book to follow her lead and learn the value of reading itself.

Michael Ziegler
Michael Ziegler (@ZigThinks) is a Content Area Leader and teacher at Novi High School.  This is his 15th year in the classroom. He teaches 11th Grade English and IB Theory of Knowledge. He also coaches JV Girls Soccer and has spent time as a Creative Writing Club sponsor, Poetry Slam team coach, AdvancEd Chair, and Boys JV Soccer Coach. 
He did his undergraduate work at the University of Michigan, majoring in English, and earned his Masters in Administration from Michigan State University.  

The Grid and The Great Gatsby

Notes from the Classroom

toplogo2xMy last post was about the new app Flipgrid and my plan to use it to get my students talking about revision. My goal was pretty simple: Get students to make meaningful revisions that they could explain and support as good writing.

 

In order for students to perform well on this revision assignment, they needed to succeed in two separate phases. First, they had to make revisions–based on very directed feedback from me–that improved a section of their paper. Then, they had to fill 90 seconds of video with their explanation of why their revisions constituted effective writing.

Here’s what my rubric looked like for the video itself. In order to receive full credit:

The video

  • clearly explains specific and meaningful changes to the text
  • outlines why the changes were made, using the language of the rubric strand
  • includes visible and thorough annotation of the revised section to help guide viewers
  • Clearly demonstrates that the author understands how to improve writing for future pieces
  • feels polished and uses the full 90 seconds available

When I finalized that rubric, I had to tell myself that if worse came to worst, I could always toss the scores and tell the kids it was a learning experience. I had faith in them, but this assignment basically demanded that each of my writers speak for a minute and a half…like a professional writer.

Which is why I’m pretty comfortable saying that Flipgrid is a game changer. I’m going to let the students’ efforts speak for themselves, but first some context: they revised a narrative that reimagined a scene from The Great Gatsby from a different character’s perspective. My feedback on it narrowed them in on certain areas of their writing that they might choose to improve on (narrator’s voice, organization, etc.), and then they chose one of those for the video. (If you’d like to skip ahead and watch the videos, scroll down to the bottom of this post.)

Flippin’ Fantastic

Turns out my concerns about their meeting the rubric demands were misguided. Most of them killed it with this assignment.

Take note of a few heartening examples:

  • A student who exited ESL about a year ago added sensory detail describing a character praying on the “cold, painful floor.” His explanation of the revision: “This emphasized that he was really sad and was begging for God’s help.”
  • One of my more talented writers, whose original narrative was imbalanced with long flashbacks, color coded her revision to emphasize how her new organizational structure improved things: “There’s an obvious balance [now] between what’s going on in the scene and what Daisy is thinking about,” she explained while pointing to the modified paragraph order.
    A frame from a student video: note the color coding and annotation of how she developed narrative voice.

    A frame from a student video: note the color coding and annotation of how she developed narrative voice.

  • A writer who had struggled to establish the voice of her narrator added several lines of narrative reflection to establish her main character’s selfish motivations in the scene, and explained how this transformed the narrative perspective.
  • A writer who enjoys playing with diction added the phrase “riled me up” to her narrator’s reflections and explained, simply, “I thought that was cool.”

It was cool. All of it was cool. Even the kids whose revisions themselves weren’t quite masterful were able to articulate not only what they had improved in their writing but also why it was better.

Re-vid-sion Is Key

If you like what you’re seeing but you’re also wondering whether the video element really matters to its success, think about this: Talking about writing is a stressful endeavor for most young writers–even the good ones. Using Flipgrid to turn that process into a student-driven, premeditated, predictable, finite process alleviates all sorts of stresses that otherwise tend to silence less experienced writers.

Video is a familiar medium that allows them to combine a visual outline of their efforts with a verbal elaboration of their reasoning. As a result, many of my students suddenly loosened up a bit and actually had some fun talking about their writing (seriously–one student even took a picture of himself with a wad of dollar bills in his mouth as the opening to his video, which I’m going to just presume is a reference to all the wealth in The Great Gatsby and try not to think about ever again).

There’s one more treasure buried in this sea of video footage. My students’ grid of videos are my new models for future writing. Don’t know how to structure dialogue? Go watch Ken’s video. Did I knock your organization last time around? Check out what Lauren did with her opening paragraphs on that last assignment.

It’s the most productive 90 seconds my kids have ever spent on their phones.

The Videos

Here’s a small selection of student videos:

 

 

 

Michael Ziegler

Michael Ziegler (@ZigThinks) is a Content Area Leader and teacher at Novi High School.  This is his 15th year in the classroom. He teaches 11th Grade English and IB Theory of Knowledge. He also coaches JV Girls Soccer and has spent time as a Creative Writing Club sponsor, Poetry Slam team coach, AdvancEd Chair, and Boys JV Soccer Coach. He did his undergraduate work at the University of Michigan, majoring in English, and earned his Masters in Administration from Michigan State University.  

Video Raised the Revision Bar

Notes from the Classroom

toplogo2xThis post’s title is better if you sing it to the tune of “Video Killed the Radio Star,” but I suppose that’s true of almost anything ever typed. Anyway, if you’ve followed my rantings for any period of time, you’re probably familiar with my efforts last year to modernize the writing feedback process via audio feedback to students. Despite some hiccups from the technology itself, the experiment has been a reasonable success.

At least, when it’s used as intended.

The site I use (Turnitin.com) for providing feedback has another feature–it allows me to track which students have actually listened to said feedback in order to, you know, become better writers and whatnot. It probably won’t surprise you to hear that not all of them are tuning into my dulcet tones–and it would probably surprise you even less to learn that the students most in need of supportive, growth-mindset feedback are the demographic least likely to listen.

Sing It Again, Zig

This leaves me in a bit of a bind. The students really need to absorb the feedback on their paper, and I’ve invested a lot of time into restructuring the feedback itself into something friendly and positive (it’s like the Fireside Chat of paper grading). I can beg them to play the audio, or try withholding their grade itself until they do, or even demand that they summarize my thoughts in their own words, but none of that really feels like learning so much as a grumpy middle management technique.  

But two things have occurred to me, prompted by the discovery of an app called Flipgrid. First, struggling students are unlikely to do much with feedback if they aren’t invested. Second, the best way to get them invested is to let THEM use technology to express themselves, not just the other way around.  

The logical conclusion of those two premises seems obvious: Students should be shooting 90-second video clips, wherein they explain their own revisions based on my feedback, and then share them in a public space and use them as models for their own future writing!  

Sometimes it’s the most obvious things that we overlook.

“Flip Mode is the Greatest” (I Hope)

Busta Rhymes said that, but I’m pretty sure he was referring to his record label. I’m hoping it’s true in this case too, though, because Flipgrid is the centerpiece for the next phase of revision work in my class. My students just got back their audio feedback from me. In the next few days, they’ll have time to digest it and revisit their own writing, along with their rubrics (which also have feedback from me).  

Then the real fun begins! All of my students will be choosing one paragraph (or 200-ish word section) of their narrative and making revisions to it based on the audio feedback I provided them. They will have time to workshop the revisions in class, conferencing and all.  

After that, I’ll be modeling for them a Flipgrid video. The app allows them–from their phones or computers–to create exactly 90 seconds of video and submit it to a “grid” that I have already created for this assignment. The videos get pre-approved by yours truly, and then they become a part of a communal online space (“The Grid,” which Flipgrid should totally copyright so they can sell the movie options to Hollywood later).  

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A screenshot from my revisions grid–note the model video I made at the bottom. Click to enlarge.

I’m hopeful that this high-tech approach to revisions will have a two-pronged impact on students. Foremost, I’m hopeful that making revisions a performance-based activity will encourage greater effort from reluctant writers. It’s a challenging task to create exactly a minute and a half of video narration that sounds polished and conveys everything you need it to. I tried it last night to create a model: by my fourth try I was getting frustrated, and by my final cut I had to leave several pretty great one-liners on the “cutting room floor,” so to speak, just to hit the time window. I’m hoping that there’s something about staring into a camera lens that will make kids a little more invested.

I’m also hopeful that when students suddenly have a shared space, where they can openly watch one another’s writing processes visualized and narrated by their own peers, that they will discover in that space both models for improving their own writing and reassurance that they aren’t alone in the frustrations and limitations they sometimes feel as writers.

Time will tell! Tune in for part two of this blog in a few weeks–I’ll let you know how it went and alert you to any tweaks that you might want to make if you’re feeling similarly ambitious. Who knows–maybe we’ll discover that all it takes is a bit of amateur video footage to make good writing “go viral” in our own classrooms.

Michael Ziegler

Michael Ziegler (@ZigThinks) is a Content Area Leader and teacher at Novi High School.  This is his 15th year in the classroom. He teaches 11th Grade English and IB Theory of Knowledge. He also coaches JV Girls Soccer and has spent time as a Creative Writing Club sponsor, Poetry Slam team coach, AdvancEd Chair, and Boys JV Soccer Coach. He did his undergraduate work at the University of Michigan, majoring in English, and earned his Masters in Administration from Michigan State University.  

A Nanobot of Sugar

Notes from the Classroom

shutterstock_116283283Our annual return-to-school professional development this year was a lovely buffet of technology-themed mini-workshops to help us navigate the ever-expanding realm of ed tech. The PD was well received, and it also got me thinking.  

I’ve never been a technology skeptic, nor does technology make me uneasy.  That being said, I’ve also rarely been the type to let any particular app or site or device really transform my classroom in any particular way. I adore Google Classroom and the entire suite of Google work tools (Docs, Slides, etc.), but I still think of them as supplements to my normal curriculum and pedagogy, as opposed to transformative additions (though Google Docs comes close with regard to writers workshops).  

A Nanobot of Sugar

Lately, though, I’ve started to realize that tiny doses of technology here and there have a pretty transformative impact on how we help our kids. I’m not offering this up as a revelation, but it’s worth thinking about what kids need in an English class and how we deliver it to them. Virtual and augmented reality are knocking at the door–Pokemon and PlayStation have already invited them in!–so we’d do well to think about what roles technology has performed well in inside our classrooms.

I’d encourage you to slow down your busy lesson planning routine to take similar stock of how and where you’re implementing technology.

To Infinity and Beyond: Traditional Assessments

Here are a few tech forays I’ve made into advanced approaches to very traditional English stuff.

Reading comprehension. My old failing in this arena was my continual insistence that students demonstrate their comprehension in written form. As I began to trust graded discussions more, I discovered how many students actually had a rather robust knowledge of the texts we were reading. These students, though, lacked the writing sophistication to express that knowledge in the only way I had been allowing them to.  

Oh, the irony, technology, you sly dog! It turns out, given a “safe space” where kids are typing (also known as “writing”) to each other–instead of to me–they suddenly reveal that very sophistication in their writing that I had found lacking.  

Technology is the key. In class I’m really fond of GoSoapBox, which allows for things like instant polling in addition to longer responses. It will also provide a printable transcript of any conversation the class produces. Google Classroom has similar features, but apps with a polling feature allow for some very interesting on-the-spot data: turns out kids get pretty honest when they’re provided a formative (absolutely key) and anonymous virtual space to share their thoughts.

Writing Feedback

I’ve written at length about the joys of audio feedback, which I began exploring last year using turnitin.com. This year I may explore other apps that provide kids a verbal walkthrough of their writing. My frustration has been that technology in this case was only addressing one side of the process–it’s great that I can talk to kids about their final product, but it seems almost MORE important for them to talk to ME.

toplogo2xEnter “Flipgrid,” a new app I discovered at a conference recently (thanks, AssisTechKnow!) that allows students to respond to a prompt with 90 seconds of video. If I can give them three minutes of summary about what I thought of their writing, it seems reasonable that they could give me half that amount in reflection on some area of the rubric I ask them to consider more closely. We’ll see how this turns out, but I’m surmising that speaking into a camera lens might have a sobering effect that traditional forms of reflection (“Fill out this self-reflection sheet–and be honest!”) simply do not.  

Exit Slips

Exit slips involve a bit more application of the same technology I’ve mentioned above, at least for now. I think Join.Me will play a role here too, eventually, allowing my students to share to the classroom’s center screen right from their seats. For now, though, I’m looking at smaller ways to gather fast, impactful formative data from my kids.

Right now it’s mostly online discussion or polling spaces, but there are apps out there that will allow kids to, say, take a photo of a page in their book and then annotate it with a drawing tool before submitting it to me on their way out the door. Imagine the usefulness of snippets of focused annotation from a struggling reader in response to a question–without having to photocopy a thing!

Like I said–nothing groundbreaking. Worth thinking about though: Are you using technology to fill gaps or to rethink failures…or are you just using it because it’s all the rage? I, for one, welcome our robot overlords…but that’s because I feel pretty good about all the toys they’ve brought.

Michael Ziegler

Michael Ziegler (@ZigThinks) is a Content Area Leader and teacher at Novi High School.  This is his 15th year in the classroom. He teaches 11th Grade English and IB Theory of Knowledge. He also coaches JV Girls Soccer and has spent time as a Creative Writing Club sponsor, Poetry Slam team coach, AdvancEd Chair, and Boys JV Soccer Coach. He did his undergraduate work at the University of Michigan, majoring in English, and earned his Masters in Administration from Michigan State University.  

Mnany, Mnany Mnemonics

Notes from the Classroom

shutterstock_389332456Our department read the wonderful The Skin That We Speakby Lisa Delpit, a couple years back, and while every chapter of that book could be its own focal point for an entire department overhaul at most high schools, we committed ourselves to addressing the challenges of code switching for students in their writing. It turns out kids are pretty much naturals at code switching (switching between various dialects or other linguistic patterns from one context to another). But they have to know a code and its corresponding context before they can “switch” into it.

Maybe that’s why it was such an epiphany the other day when two of my “besties” (code switch!) at work had a rather funny exchange regarding a co-curricular writing assignment. In the midst of explaining the organizational structure of their work, my friend was suddenly bombarded by the students shouting: “Dorito of Tension! Dorito of Tension!” All to her understandable confusion, of course.

It didn’t take long for her to figure out that her co-teacher over in the Social Studies department had his own name for the structure of their writing. Later on she texted him (with all their pals cc’d for laughs), “What the heck is a ‘Dorito of Tension’?” She knew, of course, that it’s a mnemonic device, and a right funny one at that.

But the minor incident does bring up a broader issue.

A Thesis by Any Other Name

We all find ways to help kids wrap their heads around dense concepts and structures and nuances. In some sense one might even argue that it’s the core of our work–finding effective ways of getting some really complicated ideas to make sense for a LOT of kids in a VERY short time window.

The trouble is, the more individualized these efforts become, the more we create discrete, isolated dialects and vernaculars within our own classrooms, PLCs, grade levels, buildings, etc. Our department has been lucky enough to be gifted some time to work on vertical alignment between grades. But even with those efforts, we’ve discovered just how much we confuse kids with language barriers of our own making.

Let’s take the example that I think is most likely to be present in most districts: the language we use to discuss writing. To a professional in our field, a thesis is a main idea–is a topic sentence–is a claim.

To a kid? You might have just laid out four different tasks for her with no sense that they’re interchangeable. If this happens from grade to grade, the language transition may very well be guided–eventually a kid learns several terms for the same writing construct and is better prepared for the diversity of college professors.

But quite often it doesn’t happen that way at all. What happens, for example, when a kid has an English teacher who calls it a “thesis” and a history teacher the next hour who calls it a “claim”? I know the easy answer feels like, “Uh, he learns to read directions and figure it out.” But let’s imagine for a second that this student also has a history of struggling with writing. He isn’t great at organizing his ideas, he doesn’t always get how to choose the best evidence, and he tends to stray off topic.

Now multiply this sudden code-switching by all the other elements of a writing piece. Are they “examples” or “supporting ideas” or “quotes”? Is it a “conclusion” or “synthesis”? Do you offer “counterpoints” or “alternate perspectives”?

You get the idea. And none of this terminology is wrong! It’s the transitioning between several names for the same concept that I think is killing some kids.

My Mnemonics

Which brings me to the problem. I don’t have a solution to this one. We all get very attached to our mnemonic devices and cleverly named assignments and graphic organizers, and well we should! These are a part of our classroom culture and that’s really important!

And yet, kids understanding the complexity of writing and other concepts over time is also important. If we aren’t creating a cohesive enough narrative for them over time to internalize all of those intricate ideas, then I think we also have to stop asking ourselves why our seniors so often still lean so hard on those same graphic organizers and goofy mnemonics that we all thought they’d leave behind much earlier in their writing careers.

Perhaps it’s no wonder so many of our writers tell us that when they have to write they always end up feeling a bit salty (code switch!).

Michael Ziegler

Michael Ziegler (@ZigThinks) is a Content Area Leader and teacher at Novi High School.  This is his 15th year in the classroom. He teaches 11th Grade English and IB Theory of Knowledge. He also coaches JV Girls Soccer and has spent time as a Creative Writing Club sponsor, Poetry Slam team coach, AdvancEd Chair, and Boys JV Soccer Coach. He did his undergraduate work at the University of Michigan, majoring in English, and earned his Masters in Administration from Michigan State University.