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).  

unnamed

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.  

School Year’s Resolutions

Notes from the Classroom

shutterstock_88053079On a road trip this summer, an old favorite track, Ice Cube’s “My Summer Vacation,” popped up on my shuffle. I immediately started ruminating about its amazing, subversive cultural commentary. The entire track plays out as a straightforward story of drug dealing and violence, until the final verse ends with the sudden revelation, “No parole or probation / Now this is a young man’s summer vacation / No chance for rehabilitation.” Every time I hear this final verse I react to it–I draw connections to research I’ve read, and I think of statistics about America’s youth. But mostly I react emotionally in exactly the way the song cleverly wants me to.

My years of writing and reading have trained me to react to everything–even decades-old pop songs–reflectively and thoughtfully. Even if I don’t actually grab a writing pad while driving, I have enough experience to know that my thoughts about something like this song would constitute authentic writing with powerful voice, and would probably include quite a few text-to-life and text-to-text comparisons.

Wouldn’t it be great if, this year, your kids were engaging in all of those targets during the first five minutes of every class?

Scorching Hot Takes!

I’ve tried stretching my imagination, believing that the kids are producing meaningful notebook entries–questioning Gatsby’s greatness or their favorite independent-reading books. But the truth is, this is uninspired writing.

And I’m the one who has failed to provide the inspiration.

This year, my notebook topics will be ripped from the pop-culture world of high schoolers and the headlines of the day. And the kids are going to produce a rather new form of writing, perhaps not completely unique to the internet age, but certainly popularized by it.

My kids will be writing…daily hot takes.

If you’re not familiar with the term, I’ll let The Week’s Paul Waldman define it for you, from an excellent piece defending it in the pantheon of opinion writing:

Briefly, the “hot take” is a piece of opinion writing, produced quickly, about some breaking event or controversy. It seldom involves reporting heretofore unknown facts, but instead is meant to provide a unique perspective that will supposedly deepen your understanding of that event.

This sounds a lot like how teenagers prefer to write and think–maximum weight on emotion and personal perspective, little effort expended on reasoning or (God forbid) research.

Not the usual criteria we’d put on a rubric, eh? But think about how well it lends itself to what a good notebook entry could do for a student. It would engage them, draw out their natural voices as writers, encourage them to draw on their own experiences, remind them that their social-media voice is valid in other forms of writing, and provide them a safe zone for writing.

Those last two elements are what I’m hoping will result in better writing. My students are on the internet all the time, but rarely do we, teachers, call attention to the number of colorful, energetic voices that flood that realm. If we celebrate the truly colorful voices in students’ most natural writing, then maybe we can get them to develop more subtle tones as well.

“Safe zones,” too, are going to factor largely here. It’s not news that the material we ask of students sometimes intimidates them, and that many kids don’t extend themselves as writers because of this. How often have your weaker writers produced entire essays that are clearly their perception of what you (the teacher) want to hear? How often have they produced the generic when you were looking, nay, begging for the original and nuanced?

They Might Like it Hot

shutterstock_101218786I’m prepared to be proven wrong. But I think shifting the focus of their low-stakes writing might result in much higher-quality results. A student who felt lost the whole time you read A Doll’s House, for instance, might bring the noise if you ask her to assess the gender stereotyping of The Bachelor or The Bachelorette.

You can make up your own, but you get the idea: Give your students some lively, real-life topics to chew on, and make it clear that the hotter the take, the better. In fact, I’m going to create a “Hot Take of the Week” corner in my classroom, a place to share the best–and hottest–student takes about that week’s topics.

The eventual question is what to do next. Great, they produced a ten-minute free write that captures their rage about The Grammy Awards. Now what? Here’s one possible answer: Perhaps a really good “hot take” is only a few steps away from being a damned good piece of writing, provided students get writing guidance, and pursue a sprinkle of research and/or revision.

That’s getting ahead of the game a bit, but what kind of teacher would I be if I didn’t start off the new year on an ambitious note?

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.  

Lit Hot American Summer

Notes from the Classroom

shutterstock_374832541This summer, my Theory of Knowledge students will read two independent books in preparation for the second semester of the course. Down the hall, my colleague Hattie (you know her from her fantastic blog posts!), will be handing out her lists for AP summer reading as well. These are all students who excel at school–reading a couple extra books over the summer might elicit some grumbling, but for most of them it really just means setting aside a couple of Nicholas Sparks titles in favor of some Toni Morrison or Ishmael.

Meanwhile, for my Co-Departmental English students who made great gains all year reading graphic novels and expanding their ability to work with grade-level texts; for my English 11 students who have signed up for 12th Grade English next fall; for my incoming class of English 11 students–for all of these students, there are no assigned summer readings.

Why is that, exactly?

There is robust research showing that this damages at-risk learners. It’s so robust, in fact, that the effect has earned a nickname: “The Summer Slide.” The estimate is that students lose the equivalent of one full month of instruction by not engaging in regular reading over the summer.

And that’s just an instructional measure. Imagine how much ground is lost when we cut kids loose for summer, having just begun to foster a love of reading in them.

If You Can’t Make ‘em . . . Make ‘em WANT to

The problem is, most of us have perhaps a couple weeks left, so getting administrative approval for a mandatory summer reading program for all students just isn’t going to happen this year.

But here’s what I’m thinking: Most of us can’t create something all kids must do, but we certainly have time to create opportunities that might encourage kids to read on their own over the summer. Towards that ambitious goal I humbly submit a few imperfect solutions.

51mASzxex8L._SX317_BO1,204,203,200_-1The Comic Book Flood
If you tried the graphic novel approach to struggling readers, this could be your best option for those same readers. Amazon has a $5.99 a month Netflix-style subscription program that allows digital access to thousands of back issues of popular comic book titles. The first 30 days are free–your graphic novel enthusiasts could absorb an endlessly graphic summer for only 12 bucks!

Blockbuster Reading
Most of our kids are going to spend a good chunk of the summer at the movies. And when they get home from the latest summer blockbuster, they’re going to play video games or watch TV. You can shake your head (and your cane) at these young whippersnappers and their bad habits–or you can embrace these habits and use them to get your kids reading.

Challenge your incoming students (a quick letter home or an email blast) to get some pop-culture criticism under their belts. One starting place is the website Metacritic, which compiles professional critics’ reviews of films, TV shows, video games, and music.

Metacritic is a far cry from books, but in terms of minutes spent reading, vocabulary absorbed, etc., it’s leaps and bounds ahead of their default option of doing “not anything.” Imagine if every student entered your room in the fall having read five or six critical reviews of pop culture. Sounds like your first writing assessment just created itself!

Shared Spaces
I would imagine that for some students, summer reading simply doesn’t occur as an option. You can create a Google Classroom page or some other blog site that would email recommendations each week for great summer reads (articles would work as well as books!). You can also create another shared space where the students are encouraged to talk to each other about what they’re reading.

Any sort of sharing is good. In the age of Twitter and Instagram, this seems like just the sort of goofy, non-invasive reading encouragement that would get some reluctant readers on board. Sell it as a fun thing–create your own hashtag and get the kids to try and make it “go viral.”

Next Year’s Big Thing

There’s no reason our average-to-low level readers should “take the summer off” from reading when the expectation for our highest achievers is that they’ll spend the summer engaged with text. That is immoral on its face. This summer, consider taking some small aim at the problem with the time you have left.

But start thinking now about next summer, too. Perhaps you can push for that change in your department’s policy. In an age of increasing accountability, I’d imagine administrators would be more than open to a conversation that would improve the performance of the school’s lowest-performing populations.

Hollywood is already teasing the Big Summer Movies of 2017. Is it really too early to start a conversation about how we can better serve our students next year?

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.  

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.  

Bad Data, Good Data, Red Data, Blue Data

Notes from the Classroom

shutterstock_148016636Back in part one of this post, I explored a problem that my PLC had while attempting to gather accurate data from student assessments. 

This post, while still recognizing some problems with data, is more upbeat, and provides some reassurance that you can (and should!) continue to gather and use data.

In my last post, I described how the word primitive was a foreign term even to some “A” students, and how this proved to be a problem for an assessment on the use of textual evidence. Beyond such content-specific vocabulary, there’s a secondary issue of assessment lingo: we ask kids to examine, analyze, compare, and evaluate, but few teachers directly instruct exact meanings for these terms.

The solution here is simple, but often bothers English teachers: define terms for the kids. When students ask you what you mean by contrast, you should be willing to explain that for them every time.  

Why? Because the term itself isn’t the skill you want data about. If diction is the learning target, independence is obviously an expectation. For all the other assessments, though, you’re damaging your own data if you don’t make sure the students understand every word.

Aim Small, Miss Small

Here’s one of the most regular, self-inflicted data failures we bring upon ourselves: writing questions that attempt to assess too many things at once.  

If I’m writing a short-answer question for an assessment about a passage’s tone, my expectation is for:

  • complete sentences;
  • a clear response to the question;
  • a quote (embedded and cited) to help prove the answer is correct;
  • and an analysis of the quote to tie it all together.  

Even without getting into partially correct responses, you can see where my expectations have created six (!) potential point reductions. 

But what have I done to my data if I take off one of two possible points for, say, not including a quote? If students paraphrased the text effectively and were right about the tone of the passage, then they’ve actually provided me two separate pieces of data about two different learning goals; they have mastered tone analysis, but they are deficient in using textual evidence to prove their arguments.  

shutterstock_258993743When we conflate the two and give them a ½ on the question, we have provided ourselves a sloppy data point. And by the time we’ve graded a set of 120 of that assessment, we might come to a wrong-minded, broad conclusion that sets the class back needlessly. Do they even know what tone is? Or are they just averse to quotes?

Consider that tone example once more. Does the question need to be rewritten? Maybe not.

As long as you’re willing to grade the assessment question for only the core skill (tone or textual evidence, but not both at once), then it can provide you some excellent data. 

Writing questions that address one clear skill is ideal. But sometimes a question that entails multiple skills can be highly useful—as long as you aren’t attempting to score it for every skill at once.  

Post-Assessment Interventions

Logic suggests a problem with this, though. Even if I narrow the learning target I’m assessing, it doesn’t clarify the problem’s source. Did a student choose her quote poorly because she doesn’t know tone, or because she lacks the ability to choose textual evidence well?

The solution to this, I think, is the post-assessment tool box most teachers already put to use. Conference with students for a couple minutes. They can speak effectively to where things went wrong, and data then becomes highly reliable.

When you don’t have time for one-on-one conferencing, having students self-reflect while you go over the assessment as a class can be just as useful. Ask students to make follow-up marks that you can look over later (“T” meaning “I didn’t understand the tone that well,” or “Q” for “I didn’t know what quote to select.”). This might seem like an inelegant solution, but think about what you’ve created: a robust data set that includes your initial impressions of their skills, alongside a self-evaluation where students have provided input on exactly what skill failed them.  

There are obviously dozens of other solutions to the problem of inexact data, but I think the simplest takeaway is to be vigilant about communicating what you want your students to know, and explicit about how your grading rubric measures each learning goal in isolation.

It takes time to fix these sorts of systemic problems. But I’d argue that it amounts to less time than we spend reviewing concepts in class that we’ve misidentified as problematic, having listened to the lies of Bad Data.

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.