How To Use Talk as an Entry Point for Literacy

Notes from the Classroom


Many students need a temporary on-ramp to accelerate them through a literacy task.

For teachers of resistant readers and writers, creating this on-ramp can be a daunting task. Yet, I have discovered how talk is an effective entry point for students who are easily overwhelmed by a challenging reading or a complex writing composition, because it leads teachers and students to co-construct meaning.

Talk also reveals to students what they already know.

Over the holiday break, I worked with my son, a third grader, on paragraph writing. Though his composition was definitely different than my high school students’ writing, the process was familiar to me.

When I asked him to write a paragraph, I got one of those “I dunno” shoulder shrugs I often get from my students. When I asked him to tell me about something interesting he learned over break, I got one of those “I kinda know” pauses. Then when I asked him to tell me about seeing his uncle’s fencing equipment, I knew I had him.

Dylan started to rattle off a series of details about fencing–both European and Japanese. As he rattled, I wrote. And by the end of our conversation, what I had recorded became a piece of evidence for him that he did indeed have ideas that he could develop.

Yet I cannot be Dylan’s or my students’ Johnny-on-the-Spot stenographer every time they write.

And that’s why framing this exercise as an entry point works best. It should be used as a way to show students what they have rattling around in their minds. Talk should be used to help students to get comfortable with using their voices, and to see that they really do have something to say. Sometimes providing a space and a simple affirmation can encourage even the most resistant student.

Talk can also help students puzzle through an idea.

Recently I’ve been working with freshmen on writing a research essay that explains how an element of our world today is dystopian. One student I worked with had a hard time understanding a part of an article about China’s protectionist censoring of sites like Facebook and Google. I knew that in her U.S. History class, she had just studied isolationism and the U.S.’s closed-door policy, and as I brought up these terms, she was easily able to make meaning, and to interpret the significance of the evidence to her argument.

This is another area in which talk is important. A lot of students want to jump right into the writing before carefully thinking about the research. And that leads to a lot of out-of-context quotes and disjointed analysis!

But talk can create a space to puzzle through ideas first. This was true of my student who wrote about China–and it shows again why conversation is a necessary part of any writer’s process.


Another benefit of talk is this: it can offer students a path toward revision.

When recently conferencing with a student about a research paper, she remarked, “I have this paragraph, but I dunno–it just seems like a bunch of facts.” Something wasn’t sitting right with her, but she didn’t know how to process it.

This is the messiest stage of writing, and some of our students don’t know how to work through it without intentional conferencing during workshop time. So how did conversation help my student here?

We talked through her sources–articles about gun violence in school–and she pointed out an intriguing line from one of the articles. The line noted that violence seemed to be a familiar story. My student didn’t know what to do with the line, but when we looked closer together at the article, we noticed that it was written in 1999–after the Columbine Massacre.

Our reaction was the same–shivers. It made both of us jump because the story around school shootings has gotten worse, not better, even though it was “familiar” almost twenty years ago. Our astonishment led her to make a careful revision. She looked back at her paragraph that was just a “bunch of facts,” and decided to put it aside while she wrote a paragraph on violence in schools, because she could see how the impact was stronger on her audience.

I praised her for doing the hardest thing a writer can do–letting go of her writing when it just doesn’t fit. Because we had talked through her new ideas, it was easy to let go of what wasn’t working. And by talking, she was able to make a purposeful revision that considered her audience and purpose.

Lauren Nizol (@CoachNizol) is an MTSS Student Support Coach and Interventionist at Novi High School. She has eleven years of classroom experience, teaching English, IB Theory of Knowledge and English Lab. Lauren completed her undergraduate degree in History, English and Secondary Education at the University of Michigan-Dearborn and her Masters in English Education from Eastern Michigan University. She is a National Writing Project Teacher Consultant with the Eastern Michigan Writing Project and an advocate for underperforming students and literacy interventions.  When she’s not teaching, Lauren often runs for the woods with her husband and their three sons/Jedi in training and posts many stylized pictures of trees on Instagram.

Podcast #20: Teachers College Institute

Podcasts

Berkley TchrsBerkley School District sent a group of eight educators, administrators, and teachers to the Teachers College Small Group and Conferring Institute. In this podcast, five of these educators discuss what they learned, how they will use this information to improve student learning, and how they will share this with colleagues.

The five educators who discuss their learning on the podcast are:

Stacie Angel. Instructional Support Specialist. sangel@berkleyschools.org
Scott Francis. Principal, Pattengill Elementary. sfrancis@berkleyschools.org
Prima Dailey. 1st Grade Teacher. pdailey@berkleyschools.org
Lauren Wexler. 1st Grade Teacher. lwexler@berkleyschools.org
Jennifer Griffith. 3rd Grade Teacher. jgriffith@berkleyschools.org

You can listen to the podcast in the player below, or you can find it on iTunes.

 

When to Pull Back Writing Support

Notes from the Classroom

shutterstock_426591961James was spread out on one of the counters, with all his papers and materials circling his laptop. He smiled as I approached.

“So I heard you are starting over,” I said.

“Yeah. I found stronger evidence for this prompt,” James said. (The student’s name has been changed for the sake of this post.)

“That’s really thoughtful of you. Great writing move!”

We talked through his planning ideas and how he was going to use his evidence, and he shared with me some specific examples of how in his bioethics essay he would defend the use of GMOs.

After we were ready to wrap up our conference, I remarked, “You know, I don’t think you really are going to need our support much this semester.”

Moving Beyond Support

As an MTSS interventionist, it can be challenging to know when a writer is ready to move past support. This year, I was hired by my district to coordinate academic interventions for students whose data reveal that they have a skills deficit. In particular, I work closely with Tier Two and Tier Three students to develop content literacy skills. I began working with James a month into the school year, coordinating support in his U.S. History class, then his Biology class.

With James, I observed his growing independence when he showed me that he was thinking carefully about his writing. When writers are given opportunity to talk about their writing, it allows for us to assess what they need most to move forward. And since I only see my students periodically for support in and out of their classes, it’s these conversations that drive everything I do to support a developing writer.

So what do I look for most in a writer when I am deciding to pull back support? Intentional thought and active engagement. Does it mean that students won’t need an occasional conference to lead them to clearer drafts or prompt them to consider new ideas? Absolutely not. But when writers can explain their process, explain their thinking, and explain why their choices matter, it’s time to let go. The best writing lessons are born out of risk, and students won’t take those risks if they are waiting for our stamp of approval.

Letting go can be scary, but it need not be abrupt. Building an instructional practice around dialogue allows for gradual reduction of support. Conversation is vital because it helps teachers to identify what kind of support an underperforming writer still needs. Moreover, conversation sniffs out a mismatch between perception and skill, leading the way to targeted feedback and more.

Intentional Positioning

When I told him he didn’t need me, James looked surprised.

“Really?”

A big smile stretched across his face, followed by his quickly agreeing. James knew he was ready too, but he needed an affirmation.

Years ago when I first began working with resistant and underperforming writers, I came across a theory on positioning. Positioning theory supports the idea that social interactions create identities, and these identities are fluid. As a result, educators have the power to reposition a student’s identity in negative or positive ways.

When I sat down with James to conference about his biology paper, I saw how his posture changed the moment I remarked that he wouldn’t be needing my support much longer. Our conversation revealed to James that there was a mismatch between how he felt as a writer and his actual skill level. Changing a student’s perception about himself alone can raise achievement in an underperforming student, and intentional positioning is the final and arguably most important phase of the intervention process. Students have to accept the good we see in them.

The final proof that James was ready to move beyond my support occurred when James’ English teacher told me how she watched him independently and proficiently compose a response to Fahrenheit 451. When I told James that his teacher had positive feedback on his writing, he proceeded to tell me his thoughts on Fahrenheit 451, his assigned novel for English 9. We had a brief but rich conversation about Montag’s dysfunctional relationship with his wife, and just how timely the classic dystopian novel is for 2017. Here, giving his voice value positioned James to fully take on the behaviors of a strong reader and writer.

Without prompting, James was independently making meaning and composing on his own. He knew enough to quit an essay that didn’t yield compelling evidence. His genuine responses about a complex text reflected his growth and development as a reader and writer.

And our conversation made clear that it was time for me to let go. So I did.

laurenLauren Nizol (@CoachNizol) is an MTSS Student Support Coach and Interventionist at Novi High School. She has eleven years of classroom experience, teaching English, IB Theory of Knowledge and English Lab. Lauren completed her undergraduate degree in History, English and Secondary Education at the University of Michigan-Dearborn and her Masters from Eastern Michigan University in English Education. She is a National Writing Project Teacher Consultant with the Eastern Michigan Writing Project and an advocate for underperforming students and literacy interventions.  

Developing the Writing Habit

Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project

the knackWriting instruction has become my favorite part of teaching, though it didn’t always come easily. In the beginning, my own writing was stilted in structure and lacked voice. I wrote what I had been taught, which was a five paragraph essay and a five sentence paragraph. Not only was my writing boring.  The moves I made to create it were not defined enough for students to use as models, except for stilted, formulaic writing that also lacked voice and a sense of ownership.

It also took a long time to produce this writing because I didn’t care about it. I knew I needed to write more and I needed to write things that I cared about. Essentially, I needed to develop my writing habit so I could help my students develop theirs.

The Value in Habit

One summer, while planning for narrative-poetry writing in the fall, I ordered Getting the Knack: 20 Poetry Writing Exercises. Here I found my dream writing. The challenge was to write for one minute without edits for 10 days. I found that after a minute I didn’t want to stop, so many days I didn’t.

I still use this exercise when I am stuck, or when I have more assigned writing than pieces I choose myself. Overall, it helps to clear my brain and return to the habit of writing.

It helps my students, too. They realized the power to clear one’s brain and write every day, as a way to generate topics. It helped my students set goals as well. If I can write 30 words in just one minute, then how many can I expect of myself in 15 minutes?

Using these exercises, my writing models came faster and my voice showed more than before. But my writing was still very one note. I needed some new craft strategies to vary the way I was writing.

So I studied my units of study, in order to really understand the writing skills and moves that I was asking students to use.

Detailed further in my earlier post “My Favorite Writing Strategy,” I also imitated mentor texts. As I have said before, when imitating mentors, you can learn what makes their writing great, but eventually the writing becomes your own. As I wrote in this way, my model texts became excellent mentors for my students. I used skills I asked them to use, and I explained how and why I made those choices. Metacognition became an integral part of my writing progress and the culture of writing in my classroom.

Other Steps to Keep in the Habit

Writing for students may be hard and it may be scary, but as a wonderful mentor told me once, “You only have to write slightly better than your students.” In the end, if we are going to teach writing, then we have to be writers ourselves.

With this in mind, here are a few other strategies that I have used to remain in the habit of writing:

  • Found Poetry. The idea is that you choose any text that is 50-100 words long. From there, you choose 25-50 words. Make a list out of those words, and use only those listed words to create a new piece of poetry. You have the opportunity to add just two words to your list that did not come from the text.
  • 50 Images. Make a list of 50 images. These can be things you see around yourself, like magnets lined up on a refrigerator, or a glass of iced tea with melting ice cubes. Make sure the list is labeled with numbers. Then have a friend choose two random numbers. Using the images on your list that correspond to those numbers, create a piece of writing that includes both of those images.
  • 25 “Because” Statements. Make a list of “because” statements. “Because I am almost finished writing this post,” or “because it is Monday,” and many others. Use these statements as a starting point for writing.

pic 2Amy Gurney (@agurney_amy) is an ELA and Social Studies Curriculum Coordinator for Walled Lake Schools. She has a Master’s degree from Michigan State University in Educational Administration and is currently pursuing an Education Specialist in Educational Leadership at Oakland University. She is a current Galileo Leader. She worked on the MAISA units of study and has studied reading and writing workshop practice and conducted action research.

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?

20170123_142001

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.

Peers: The Best Writing Coaches?

Notes from the Classroom

shutterstock_507176578In my first post, I described some writing problems that surfaced in my AP US History classroom, as well as my new plan to implement a peer-to-peer space where they could be addressed. The space is called HerodotusHive and it fits into my wider writing program. So far this year, I’ve worked with former students to set up HerodotusHive, and we’ve even had a few sessions. Below I describe the process I went through to create this new learning space.

Mentor Historians Onboard

As explained in my first post, the idea for HerodotusHive started last year when Corey, a former student, offered to help my current students. Now I needed to reach out to more Coreys.

In September I made a list of APUSH alumni (now juniors and seniors) who were strong writers and had potential to be good mentors. I had invitations delivered to 47 students. I was thrilled to see that 38 came to hear my pitch and signed on.

Not every moment of a teacher’s year is one for the storybooks—trust me, I know—but it was incredibly heartening to see the number of former students who came to listen and then said, “Yeah, sounds good. Let’s get started.” I had a deep roster of Mentor Historians in place, ready to help.

Now I needed to share these plans with my current students and get some buy-in. From Day 1 I stressed the importance of adopting a growth mindset. Since APUSH became a 10th Grade course, I noticed many students were increasingly grade focused in the wrong ways. I stepped up on my soapbox and urged them to ditch the question, “What can I do to bring up my grade?” and encouraged them to think in terms of “How can I write better thesis statements?” So when I pitched HerodotusHive to my classes, I explained that we can all get better at writing, implying this was not a program solely for struggling students. And to their great credit, they listened. For our first HerodotusHive, almost half of my 65 APUSH students attended.

What Happens at HerodotusHive?

During my pitches to former and current students, I explained that a HerodotusHive would focus on a featured skill, like the writing of introductions. I then shared the agenda so they had an idea of what they were signing onto:

1. We review the featured skill in a flipped lecture I have recorded (and posted to Google Classroom as a resource). It’s essential for a HerodotusHive to start here. As skilled as my Mentor Historians are, they still need to review what it is I’m asking my current students to do. My current students had seen this once in class and now they’re reviewing what’s needed to write at a high level.

2. Mentor Historians share little insights on how they had success performing this skill.

3. I then post a practice question on the screen and break my current students into groups where Mentor Historians will be there to help.

4. Current students work through the writing task as Mentor Historians help, and I circulate to support and answer some content questions.

Peer Instruction At the Core

At the core of HerodotusHive is a belief that mentor-writers can help developing writers. I’ve studied the work of Eric Mazur, a Harvard physics professor, who explains why this is important:

For more Mazur, you can watch the entire interview and read a feature article. One thing worth noting is that he undersells his value as a teacher in the learning process. Note that he created the space to learn and that he is still lecturing, but the mini-lectures are just more purposeful.

My takeaway is that there are indeed strategic moments in the development of a writer when I, the teacher, am not the best person to help them. And I’m OK with that. Students learn plenty from me about writing, but we know that as teachers we aren’t the only source of learning. Nor should we want to be.

If we set aside the subject matter, the premise of Mazur’s peer-instruction model is that strong students can help developing students. I know it’s transferable because I’ve used the method in AP US History when we work with difficult political cartoons and in my economics classes for supply/demand graphing. In both cases I witnessed little epiphanies across the room as kids now understood something they hadn’t just seconds before.

However, like in physics, these two examples involve right and wrong answers. Writing is different, so as I designed HerodotusHive over the summer, an open question in my mind was whether or not peer instruction would yield the same magic here. In my next post I’ll share early results. Spoiler alert: It’s no longer an open question.

unnamedRod Franchi (@thehistorychase) is in his 21st year teaching Social Studies at Novi High School. He did his undergraduate work at Albion College and the University of Michigan, and earned an M.A. in English at Wayne State University and an M.A. in History Education at the University of Michigan. Having served as an education leader at the school, district, county, and state levels, Rod now works as AP US History Consultant and AP US History Mentor for the College Board. He is also Co-Director of the Novi AP Summer Institute and is an Attending Teacher in the University of Michigan’s Rounds Program.

NaNo What Now?

Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project

6th grade gifted writer, Sydney, working on the next great American novel

NaNoWriMo is coming!

National Novel Writing Month happens every November and is something you should bring into your classroom to encourage community, creativity, perseverance, and independence in the writing lives of your students.

NaNoWriMo asks you to write a novel in one month. It seems insane and impossible, but over 300,000 people do it yearly. If you have never participated, you should try it out this year. And if you have a classroom of students, you should use NaNoWriMo’s Young Writer’s Program to help your students engage in this experience.

I made participating in NaNoWriMo an option in my 8th grade classroom. The camps of students who usually participated included: serious gifted writers, everyday kids looking to be challenged, and special education students.

The Young Writer’s Program has lots of tools and resources to help you give your student writers all the support they need. This includes novel-writing workbooks, lesson plans, charts, buttons, and swag. Not to mention an awesome online community of student writers and mentor authors who give great pep talks.

Quantity Leads to Quality

The whole idea behind NaNoWriMo is just to get your story written. Don’t worry if it makes sense, or if you spelled a word wrong, or if your characters are flat. (Editing comes in later months, for those of you grammar sticklers who were wondering.) Just get your story out there and quit making excuses!

Now, some would argue that writing every day is crazy business! And, having participated in NaNoWriMo, I know that it really is rather hard to write every day, on top of all the other things going on in your teaching and personal life. But, because you have committed to doing this, and because you have a community of other crazy writers on your side, something makes you keep going.

 Students in the media center at Oakview Middle School, updating their novel progress on the school wide chart.

Students in the media center at Oakview Middle School, updating their novel progress on the school-wide chart.

Community of Writers

When you commit to joining NaNoWriMo with your students, you are really creating a community of writers. I had a wide range of student writers participate. The special education students had IEP goals in writing and spelling, but they saw themselves as writers and would come with notebooks full of the stories they had started. These were stories that paralleled video game plots or stories they knew from movies, which they claimed as their own and added new twists and turns to. The gifted writers came to try out new genres and forms of storytelling, and to work on stories they had started on Wattpad.

Some years I started an after-school club for NaNoWriMo. This was nice because I could offer it to different grades and was able to get the other ELA teachers in my school involved. Many of them would come to one of the after-school meetings to see their students write and share in the fun. I even convinced our singing-science teacher to create a NaNoWriMo commercial one year.

The NaNoWriMo website also has an online community that students enjoyed participating in. You can friend people if you know their username, you can send encouraging messages to users, or you can post in the private forums to ask for advice or get feedback on sections of your novel.

Sense of Accomplishment

Most of my students who participated met or exceeded their word-count goals. Yet one of the first things we talked about as a group was setting realistic, attainable goals. We used charts and stickers to mark our progress, and our community was really supportive of each other.

We enjoyed the challenge of meeting our daily word-count goals. But another benefit of NaNoWriMo is that students who meet their word-count goal can submit their novel and get a published copy of their writing. This is a highly motivating factor for most students.

I have attempted to write a novel in NaNoWriMo every year since 2010 and I have never won (it all usually unravels for me around Thanksgiving). But I’m still planning on doing it again this year. If you want to do it, but don’t think you can manage during the school year, you should consider Camp NaNoWriMo–where you can pick any month (think summer!) and work on a month-long writing project. And if you like to compose with digital writing and mixed media, check out DiGiWriMo.

Regardless of whether you try it out, you should definitely bring it up to your students as something they might want to try. You might be surprised to find how many aspiring, excited writers you have in your class.

file-sep-29-8-45-18-pmCaroline Thompson (@TeacherThompson) taught middle school ELA for twelve years in Lake Orion before becoming a stay-at-home mom. She supports AARI teachers for Oakland Schools as an independent literacy consultant in the areas of digital media, professional development, and non-fiction resources. Caroline is a Reading and Writing Workshop advocate, a 2008 Oakland Writing Project Teacher Consultant, and a 2009 Oakland County Outstanding Teacher of the Year Nominee. She has a BA in English from Michigan State University and a Masters in the Art of Teaching Reading from Oakland University. She lives in Berkley, Michigan with her husband and their three year old daughter.

 

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.  

A Virtual Conference on Data Literacy

Critical Literacy Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project Professional Learning
Virtual PD on my patio

Virtual PD on my patio

One day over the summer, I was scrolling through Twitter and saw a post for the 4T Virtual Conference on Data Literacy.  As someone who has presented at the 4T Virtual Conference on Digital Writing, I couldn’t believe that I hadn’t heard of the data literacy arm–and it was coming up in two days! I quickly clicked the link and signed myself up, ready for two days’ worth of virtual PD about teaching students data literacy, and which I could access from my patio.

If you’ve never attended a virtual conference, they tend to work like this: once you sign up, you are sent a link to a virtual room, which you enter a few minutes before the session is slated to begin. Generally, there is some kind of introductory task that allows people to get to know one another. This task also allows a moderator to introduce the presenter and troubleshoot along the way.

Whatever the presenter is talking about is the main reason people attend the session. But the running chat (which move so fast!) among all of the participants often yield tons of great, practical ideas for teachers, too.

The Info on Infographics

I attended multiple sessions, on topics ranging from an introduction to data literacy, to data literacy in the content areas, to action research in the classroom. For this conference, I was most looking forward to the sessions about data visualization and infographics, though. I’ve dabbled with making infographics and have always wanted to have students create them, but I was never sure how to go about doing that, because I didn’t feel that I had a design background.

As the presenters were speaking, something that one of them said really struck me: think of an infographic like an argumentative essay.  The infographic itself is the overall argument. The images, design, and information are the evidence and reasons.

Thinking about infographics in this way was like a light bulb going off in my head. Writing arguments with supporting evidence is something students are well versed in, and moving from a traditional essay to a different argumentative form seemed like a great next step.

Get Visual

visualize this In addition to seeing infographics in a new light, I also learned, from participants in the chat, about two books that would expand my understanding of data visualizations. The books are Visualize This: The FlowingData Guide to Design, Visualization, and Statistics and Data Points: Visualization that Means Something, both by Nathan Yau. While the books are sometimes heavy on programming language, they greatly enhanced my understanding of how data might be visualized, and why you might visualize a particular data set. They also offered tons of practical (and often free) resources for visualizing data.

As I was reading these books over the summer, I had planned on using with students what I learned. But now that I have moved into the role of curriculum coordinator, I know this learning will be very applicable to my new work.

Screenshot 2014-09-26 at 12.44.07 PMJianna Taylor (@JiannaTaylor) is the ELA/SS Curriculum Coordinator for the West Bloomfield School District.  Prior to this role, she was a middle school ELA and Title 1 teacher.  She is a MiELA Network Summer Institute facilitator and member of the OWP Core Leadership Team.  Jianna earned her bachelor’s degree from Oakland University and her master’s degree from the University of Michigan.  She also writes reviews of children’s books and young adult novels for the magazine School Library Connection.

End-of-Year Takeaways

Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project

shutterstock_430544983It’s been a couple of weeks since school let out for the summer. I’ve tackled a few projects, read a book or two. And so, of course, I’ve started to think about next year.

For the last couple of years I’ve had my seniors participate in a final Harkness discussion, where I ask them to reflect on what they’ve thought about the course. The rules are simple: no grades, and I, their Gentle Instructor, will not talk nor take offense. The goal, I tell them, is to improve the quality of the experience for future students. So far it’s been pretty successful–a few tears but no pitchforks. Here are my takeaways this year.

Stories Matter

Literature, fiction, good stories–they still matter. As we’ve moved towards more nonfiction texts, I’ve been generally pleased with the results. I find it easier to teach argument using informational mentor texts. But my students still like fiction. They were emphatic on this.

Nothing stuck with my students the way that the stories do. They called out Holden, Lady Macbeth, Tayo, Offred, Gatsby, and talked about how these characters moved or frustrated–or sometimes bored–them. That doesn’t surprise me. But they also named people from nonfiction pieces that we’d read. They remembered the stories of Derek Boogaard, Jamaica Kincaid, and Bharati Mukherjee and connected them back to the stories they follow: Orange is The New Black, Daredevil, Gilmore Girls, and on and on.

There’s something primal about our need for stories. We might look for them in different formats but we want them. Stories work as “empathy machines” for us, and I have to remember that as I look for mentor texts. Even when I’m really searching for an excellent use of embedded quotes, I have to keep those stories in mind, because audience matters, and empathy is a great way to connect.

Stopping the Search for Perfect Mentor Texts

51ettPWhyFL._SX309_BO1,204,203,200_Two years ago my students really dug into Ceremony, by Leslie Marmon Silko. It was the most discussed novel, followed by Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Not so this year. Ceremony was roundly criticized by almost all of my students, while Handmaid’s was lauded.

My students also asked why we hadn’t read a book with a transgendered or gender-switching character. I offered to do a summer book study of Woolf’s Orlando. I waited a long time at Starbucks; no one showed up.

Where does that leave me? I’ll never get the mix right, so should I abandon “required” reading in favor of student choice? I’m tempted, I’ll admit. But can I really, as I’ve claimed, teach skills using any book?

I’m still thinking about that, and I am moving that way. I want to respect their ability to choose . . . sometimes.

Relatable Characters for All Students

I’m doing a terrible job with my students of color. This was the most heartbreaking part of the discussion. Students who had done a terrific job talking about the Lomans, the Macbeths, Sherlock, and Holmes said that they “were used to” not seeing characters who looked like them, who might represent their experiences.

Used to it.”

It cannot stay like that. They were also clear that they had had their fill of the Harlem Renaissance, “I Have a Dream,” and the rest of the “Black History Month stuff.” They deserve better and I’m working on that for next year.

“Real” Writing

As I’ve written, I’ve moved further away from prescriptive rubrics and forms of writing, in favor of more authentic, audience-driven work. Instead of giving them a simple set of instructions for “successful arguments in writing”–5 paragraphs, 3 part thesis, counter goes here–I’ve been asking my students to devise their own measures for success.

Yeah, it’s much more difficult, but so much more real. My students tell me that they think much harder about this kind of writing. They find it challenging, and sometimes wistfully long for the days when writing was easy, because there was a formula. I can’t lie; sometimes I do too. It was so much easier to look for that thesis statement when I knew its location. But we’re not going back.

My students talked about how much more “real” and mature they felt to have these choices. They talked about how they wished they’d taken feedback more seriously–that’s where I come in–because they saw how important it was to this to the process.

There were more trends in these discussions, of course. My jokes are bad. I might want to rethink my love of 90’s hip-hop along with my dance moves. Some students I absolutely did not move at all. They felt like my classroom was mostly a waste of time. But overall they gave me enough to think about so I can “do better when I know better.”

RICKRick Kreinbring teaches English at Avondale High School in Auburn Hills, Michigan. His current assignments include teaching AP Language and Composition and AP Literature and Composition. He is a member of a statewide research project through the Michigan Teachers as Researchers Collaborative partnered with the MSU Writing in Digital Environments Program, which concentrates on improving student writing and peer feedback. Rick has presented at the National Advanced Placement Convention and the National Council of Teachers of English Conference. He is in his twenty-third year of teaching and makes his home in Huntington Woods.