What Happened when My Students Analyzed a Profile of a Nazi

Notes from the Classroom


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

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

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

Was the article as awful as most readers were claiming?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So it was time for the second important question.

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Now what?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sing (err…Speak) Their Praises!

Literacy & Technology Notes from the Classroom

shutterstock_352223126A funny thing happened as my students were wrapping up their narrative journalism papers a couple weeks ago on the shiny new Chromebooks I’d reserved for the assignment. As I was reviewing a few formatting details with them, it suddenly dawned on me that my deadline for a hard copy of the paper–the end of the hour–was physically impossible. There is no printer attached to our Chromebook carts.

After panicking momentarily and shrugging off the realization in front of the kids, I remembered a lovely feature of Turnitin.com. I told my students to submit their papers to Turnitin as usual, and that no hard copy would be necessary. In place of the normal written feedback on their papers and on an attached district rubric, my juniors would be getting three minutes of my silky-smooth voice walking them through their writing, using Turnitin’s audio feedback feature.

“Pass me the mic”

You should know that there are lots of educational tools out there for providing audio feedback to students. If all else fails, the phone app Voxer will let you share voice memos with anyone who “friends” you in the application (which can be done without revealing your actual cell number).

If getting ahold of a recording method isn’t a problem but the huge shift in how you provide feedback is, then I’d ask you to consider why conferencing remains the most impactful method of improving student writing. Kids listen when you talk to them one-on-one. Even the reluctant writers.

In fact, The Writing Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison suggests that the best feedback for student writing “mirrors conversation with student-writers.” Though speaking your thoughts aloud falls one voice short of a “dialogue,” it certainly allows you to imitate the key elements of a good writing conference: your supportive tone of voice, the context for your criticisms, and clear guidance for how to move forward.

Talk Them Up

shutterstock_406788406Let’s consider briefly what written feedback tends to look like when you have 100 essays to grade.

You can use a coded system that reduces full ideas to symbols (that your lowest readers will ignore), you can write slightly longer phrases in the tiny margins (which your kids may not be able to read), or you can attempt to provide a full-bodied paragraph of feedback at the end of each essay (which will eventually give you carpal-tunnel syndrome and break your spirit completely…oh, and many of your lowest writers won’t bother to read it.).

I want to suggest to you that audio feedback solves ALL of these problems. In place of countless marks and comments about a student’s grammar, for example, you can now make one supportive, constructive observation. Here’s one hypothetical piece of feedback about possessives:

“One area you should be focused on in future essays is knowing when to use the possessive versus when something is plural. You confuse the two twice in your first paragraph. You use some really interesting syntax throughout the piece, so this small punctuation issue is holding back the power of how great the rest of your writing is.”

See how I softened the blow of the feedback by connecting it to a reminder of something done well? That’s a lot harder to do in the one-inch margins of the essay itself.

What’s more, you can tell them a sort of “story” about their writing. In place of fragmented ideas like “weak intro” or “explain this better” you can walk them through a coherent examination of their paper’s successes and struggles:

“Notice how your thesis is ambiguous about character X? Now look at how much your second body paragraph struggles to make a clear point about how X behaves in the final scene. Your vagueness in the introduction is keeping you from maintaining a clear focus in your body paragraphs.”

And really, that’s the big advantage to audio feedback: isolated, pragmatic written comments peppering the margins are transformed into a comprehensive walkthrough of their writing. If your department uses a standardized rubric, the structure of your feedback is even provided for you.

Students Want to Listen

I’ve found that even my reluctant writers and apathetic learners are intrigued by the idea of a few minutes of audio just for them. If you keep the tone friendly, they’re especially interested. It feels personal–like you’ve set aside time to speak just to them.

If you aren’t so sure your kids will be as eager about it, save the score of their paper for somewhere at the end of the audio file–make them listen to what you have to say in order to arrive at their score. I promise you won’t have to provide such enticement the second time around if your audio is done right–they’ll be happy to listen.

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 Grammar Ambush, Part 2

Notes from the Classroom

shutterstock_196198283Three months ago, I wrote about being ambushed by a neighbor at a Halloween party. She wanted me—an English teacher—to answer for what she believed to be horrific shortcomings in grammar instruction at the local middle school. The incident left me inspired to rethink my own grammar instruction. I even put “figure out grammar mess” on my to-do list for the Thanksgiving break.

Spoiler alert: grammar instruction is still a bit of a mess in my classroom. But, three months later, I’m in a much different place with my understanding of grammar instruction and my goals for it.  

I ended my last post committing to trying grammar mini-lessons. So December 1, we took off. I took some sample sentences from students’ essays that had problematic punctuation, and I started class with a quick punctuation lesson. We practiced, we did exit slips, and I started keeping a little chart of who was getting it and who needed extra practice.

I was feeling pretty smug about the whole thing until I collected their next essays.  Same mistakes. They had applied exactly nothing to their own writing. Luckily, that depressing revelation coincided nicely with winter break, so I had some time to regroup and come up with a new strategy.

Not Just Rules

Over winter break, I did some more digging online and stumbled across this excellent blog post, which helped me rethink how I was framing grammar instruction for my students. Writer and teacher Allison Marchetti explains that Most students would say that grammar is a set of rules, so we have to work hard to undo this restrictive thinking and help them see grammar as a series of possibilities rather than limitations. 

My wheels started spinning. It’s not just “most students” who think of grammar as rules—I think of it as rules, too. I’d never really thought of grammar as a possibility. I see writing as a series of possibilities, but grammar? I had been thinking of them as two separate things.

41tKTfGYXdL._SX395_BO1,204,203,200_Next, I read Constance Weaver’s Grammar to Enrich and Enhance Writing. I found a passage that took this idea of possibilities even further. She quotes an article by writer Philip Pullman in which he explains that we must teach students to be playful with language. Weaver agrees and suggests that we “rediscover this playfulness, this attitude that language and grammar are to be played with, toyed with, bent, expanded, crafted, enjoyed.” Her book digs into the nitty-gritty of parts of speech and uses all of the terminology that I remember drilling back in seventh grade English. By the third chapter I was knee deep in adjectival modifiers. My ambushing neighbor would be beside herself with joy.

But Weaver is quick to point out that it doesn’t really matter if kids can name or identify the tool they’re using. Yes! Agree! They can if they want to, or they can just play with the structures, experiment with language, and work on becoming more interesting, natural, confident writers.

Learning by Imitation

I’m starting to see a way forward, and this has become my new focus with grammar instruction. I’m not even using that term. Instead, we’re talking about craft and developing a confident, genuine voice. We’re talking about structuring sentences to give a little extra punch, or moving phrases to call attention to different ideas.

I’ve done this before as a writing teacher, but never with the frame of grammar in the back of my mind. I’m sprinkling in terms when they are appropriate, but using them as a way to explain how students can mimic a cool sentence they find in a piece of writing.

Last week, we read a piece by pop-culture writer Chuck Klosterman and examined the moves he makes as a writer. He’s an incredibly funny, inventive, and natural writer, so it worked well as a mentor text. We mimicked some, we practiced a little, and then I asked them to apply it to their writing. It was a tiny little lesson, but I’m already seeing results—certainly more results than my ill-fated punctuation mini-lessons.

I need to do more, and I want to be a little more systematic in my approach. I still have lots to think about:

  • Which craft moves do I introduce to my students?
  • How do I frame those within the context of grammar?
  • How do I continue to weave it into our writing workshop so that it feels connected and relevant?
  • How and when do I unleash this playful grammar on my tenth graders? My AP students are my willing, eager guinea pigs; my tenth graders will be a harder sell.

I’ll keep plugging along, I’ll keep researching, and I’ll keep experimenting. I’d love to hear what works with your students or any suggestions you have for me. How do you help your students think about the moves they make as writers? Tweet me your suggestions @TeacherHattie and join me in learning more on Thursday, April 14, for Constance Weaver’s webinar about her book! Click here for details and to register.

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

The SAT Essay: Embracing My Fear

AARI Notes from the Classroom

shutterstock_217407295I don’t know about you, but when I got my first look at a sample SAT essay prompt, my eyes just about bugged out of my head.

It was last year, and I was trying to wrap my head around the changes that were in store for our kids with the switch from ACT to SAT. If you’re not already familiar, take a look at the information and samples on the College Board website. The essay question on the redesigned SAT, which all Michigan juniors will be required to take this spring, asks students to first read a high-level text that presents an argument. The topic of the text, the College Board explains, will “express subtle views on complex topics.” Then, students must write an analysis of the rhetorical strategies that the author uses to express those subtle views.

At first, I wanted to argue, “But I know how to prepare the kids for the ACT!” Even if students walked into my room with zero knowledge of persuasive writing, I could coach them with enough practice, checklists, and do’s and don’ts to help them reach proficiency. We were machines when it came to preparing for the ACT essay!

But the SAT essay doesn’t assess a genre of writing; it assesses students’ reading comprehension, analysis, and writing. No matter how much I wanted to prepare students for this essay, I couldn’t give them crash-courses—in how to understand a complex text, or how to analyze an author’s purpose. I felt like I would somehow be failing my students.

The Upside of the Essay

The more I worried about it, the more I came to the realization that changed my perspective: This isn’t a bad thing. Why was I clinging to prepping students for a test? I don’t know anyone who went into education in order to teach to a test; I certainly didn’t. The redesigned SAT essay measures the very skills we’ve been teaching as we have shifted to the Common Core State Standards. I realized that I needed take heart in the fact that this new test would assess the skills I am already teaching within my regular units of study.

Still, I worried that the students and the teachers in my district wouldn’t be ready for such a change. I initially felt uncomfortable moving away from teaching as if my students were essay-writing machines, and, I realized, surely there were other teachers who felt the same way. So, I dug into the research and my own practices to determine what I could do to support them.

shutterstock_160526231I kept coming back to the portion of the essay that asks students for analysis. At first, I wondered if we could put together a toolbox of the most common ways of building an argument, or a list of a few “magic” rhetorical devices students could expect to encounter. But the more I read and explored, the more I came back to the answer that no, there would be no magic lists or silver bullets for this test. What the analysis portion essentially boils down to is: Can students understand what an author’s purpose is, and analyze the moves the author made to achieve that purpose? This isn’t a test prep strategy; it’s just what good readers and writers can do!

What made me even happier as I came to this realization is that this is exactly what we are scaffolding in our AARI reading intervention classes. In AARI, or the Adolescent Accelerated Reading Initiative, we regularly read to determine the author’s purpose, then analyze how the author supported that purpose by how he or she organized his or her evidence.

Clearly this is a great start. But it’s not enough. It needs to happen in every class at every level, with a variety of texts.

Taking the Lessons to Other Classrooms

To start supporting our teachers in this endeavor, I went back to the work of favorites like Katie Wood Ray, Kelly Gallagher, and Jeff Anderson, who advocate the use of mentor texts to “read like a writer.” In this instructional method, teachers lead students to not only read for comprehension, but to also analyze how the texts are written, so that they can essentially imitate the craft in their own writing. The result is more focused, purposeful reading, and authentic writing.

This is not a new idea, especially for many elementary teachers who have lived within reading and writing workshops for years. But it can be transformative for many secondary teachers who are still adjusting to our new standards and units.

And though there may not be any magic lists or silver bullets for this essay, this instructional method just may be the closest thing.

MKortlandt2 Megan Kortlandt is a secondary ELA consultant and reading specialist for the Waterford School District. In the mornings, she teaches AARI and literacy intervention classes at Waterford Mott High School, and in the afternoons, she works with all of Waterford’s middle and high school teachers and students in the Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment department. Additionally, Megan works with Oakland Schools as an instructional coach for AARI. She has presented at various conferences including the Michigan Council for Teachers of English and Michigan Reading Association annual conferences.

Life Lesson: Practice What You Teach

Notes from the Classroom

shutterstock_275161592As 2015 came to a close and winter break was upon us, I had some time to reflect upon my teaching practice, as I planned for my next units of study. I remembered how, at the beginning of the year, we received from our Literacy Specialist an immersion packet. The packet suggested several teacher-written pieces, which would go along with the units from Atlas.

The assignment was overwhelming to say the least. Several colleagues remarked that there was no way they were going to do that much writing, on top of everything else that had to be done.

But once we dug into the units with our students, we remembered quickly the importance of writing for—and with—our learners.

When students see me engaging in the writing I am asking them to do, they immediately view it as authentic. I always choose my stories carefully to avoid students’ copying my subject matter (a lesson learned in previous years). And I never do just one draft and call it good.

I have found that if I allow them to see my struggles and imperfections, they are more open to our revising and editing sessions with their work. I will intentionally write stories that I know need revision, allowing my students to see that even adult writing needs work. I write for them and use my pieces to write with them. We even do shared pieces based on shared experiences. Once, for instance, we brought a microwave into the classroom and popped popcorn so that we could all write a descriptive paragraph together. That was a lesson they never forgot!

The Conversation with Editing

Probably the best lesson for me with editing and revision has come through the writing of this blog.shutterstock_266285486 After I submit my pieces, our editor does his thing, which means inevitable changes to sentence structure, word choice, and sometimes even titles. I have to admit, it can be hard to take at times. This made me realize that I need to be more gentle in my approach with my students; more conversation needs to happen as I go through their pieces. It also made me realize how shared writing, revising and editing can help my students achieve better results.

So as I sat in my very quiet classroom planning our launch for our next unit, I decided I would try writing the assignments that I give students, lesson by lesson. I’ll find what fits, what doesn’t, and what I need to move around. I’ll analyze my points of frustration and do my best to anticipate what will be stumbling points for my students. Will it be perfect? No, of course not. But I’m sure I’ll learn a few things along the way that will make it better than if I taught it without trying it.

When it comes to writing, I’m not sure that practice ever makes perfect. But it certainly makes me a better teacher.

beth croppedBeth Rogers is a fifth grade teacher for Clarkston Community Schools, where she has been teaching full time since 2006.  She is  blessed to teach Language Arts and Social Studies for her class and her teaching partner’s class, while her partner  teaches all of their math and science. This enables them  to focus on their passions and do the best they can for kids. Beth was chosen as Teacher of the Year for 2013-2014 in her district. She earned a B.S. in Education at Kent State University and a Master’s in Educational Technology at Michigan State University. 

Everything’s an Argument, Right?

Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project

argument definitionWe hear it all the time: ELA is frustrating and maybe an easier subject, because “there’s no right answer.” It’s all argument and evidence. Math and science, on the other hand . . . they’re objective. Who can argue 2+2, or that the sun is 93 million miles away?

I recently said this to a group of ELA teachers, in a conversation about the best ways to teach argumentative writing. I suggested that we have an advantage because of this. All ELA classrooms come with a built-in culture of argument, right?

Nope, apparently not.

My colleagues informed me that, in fact, a culture of argument is not inherent to ELA classrooms, and it might be really rare. 

So how does this kind of culture develop?

Teacher-Centric Cultures and Norms

This is a hard question to answer, because for the most part culture is invisible. It’s in the background.

Yet, part of the answer for me came last summer, when I attended the Oakland Writing Project’s Summer Institute. At the institute, our focus was on creating a culturally responsive classroom. I learned a lot about how the majority culture, which I took for granted, might have been giving different messages to my students who didn’t share my status. 

My status is as a teacher and a member of the majority-white, male, straight, middle-class culture. This sets me up to be tone deaf. I assume that my cultural values take precedence, always; that my unconscious is my students’ as well. But it’s not, and if I’m not aware of that, I stifle voices. I stifle argument.

As their teacher, I set standards, rubrics, and grades. I am the sole arbitrator of what’s a valid argument and what’s not. Despite my attempts to avoid being their only audience—check out the Tumblr Experiment—they still look to me as their teacher, and that can kill a culture of argument.

So what do I do to foster a culture of argument?

Creating a Culture of Argument

First thing I’ll advocate is getting off the stage. It’s a real ego massage to stand in front of an audience and have them write what I say. But I’m starting to see that as a barrier to a culture of argument.

shutterstock_223920001My colleagues and I have been using the Harkness method for a couple of years, and we’re beginning to see it pay dividends. Some of our colleagues in other disciplines are trying it now. The hardest part about the technique, they’re learning, is shutting up and resisting the urge to steer the conversation. Though students still look for affirmation–as soon as I weigh in or nod, that’s the end of argumentation. My status trumps their argument. It’s something I then have to undo and tell them that I am not their audience.

I’m also looking for different argumentative writing assessments. Many of us have pointed out that the five-paragraph model isn’t of much use beyond those classrooms where it’s valued. Sure, it has its uses. But maybe it’s time to open up the conversation about the supremacy of the literary essay.

As a teacher, this is hard. I’m very comfortable grading essays. I also wonder whether I’m doing my students a disservice—by setting them up to think that the culture we value is valued in other classrooms.

I live in abject fear of the graduate who comes back and tells me that she’s struggling in college, since I didn’t stress the three-part, evolving thesis. I don’t want to let students down.

But I’m making a bet that the larger culture beyond my classroom, beyond all classrooms, will value strong argument over status. I might be wrong, and so I’ll end this by opening up the question: What do you do to to create a culture of argument?

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.