Reflect Today, Model Tomorrow

Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project

The start of each school year is a very special time. I always feel that it is a better, fresher, newer start than January 1. On New Year’s Eve, we toast best wishes and make personal promises to be better people. We make resolutions about new beginnings–like starting and using a gym membership or eating healthfully.

Similarly, on the eve of the first day of school, we wish ourselves and our colleagues best wishes on a successful year and make promises to be better teachers. Often these resolutions involve helping all students succeed and maintaining our sanity.

I find two practices particularly helpful to start the school year with a better track record than I had with my last resolution (staying in shape)–it was just too cold last winter to go the gym!


Teacher reviewing reportAs I look forward to a new school year, I know that it is a new beginning and a chance to try again. I am a little more experienced and hopefully wiser. And though I’m looking forward to a new year, I have to begin by looking back. I have to reflect. Reflection on past units, past teaching, past behaviors and past outcomes is my first recommendation for a successful year. Here are a few ways that I reflect:

Look at my past planning book: I like to remind myself of school meetings and testing dates, as well as the timing of lessons and units.
Review notes I made on units: Throughout the year, I make notes to myself about the things that need updating on lessons including note sheets, mentor texts, and timing.
Revisit relevant texts including professional literature: Often during the school year, I’ll read professional texts and place post-its at parts I like or want to re-read. At the beginning of the year, I revisit these sections because I can implement new strategies better at the beginning of the year.
Enjoy keepsakes from past students: It has become a habit of mine to keep thank you notes from students in my writer’s notebook.

While much of my reflection at this point in the year is personal and based mainly on my teaching practice around lessons, I’ve realized that I can plan as much as I want to for my classroom, just as I planned to go the gym; however, plans cannot be carried out without modeling.


Modeling expectations is another way important way to begin the year.  For example, a workout buddy could have helped me get to the gym–modeling is inspiring. Likewise, a lesson on expectations for notebook setup can show students the habit of daily work in their writer’s notebook. In the first weeks of school, I model all expected behaviors. I will not hesitate to tell you that I model everything from what entering our classroom looks like to what good readers do while reading.

But I didn’t always model expectations. One particularly poignant example of this failure happened mid-year after I attended a writing workshop. I left the workshop excited and armed with great teaching language like, “Write what needs to be written.” In class the next day, I told the kids, “take some time to write what needs to be written.” I also added that I would write while they wrote. Sitting down to write, I realized I had twenty-five students staring at me. One hesitantly raised his hand and asked, “What should we write about?” With a bit more explanation, they wrote, but the outcome was stilted and weak. Little writing was produced, and it had little value in terms of genre and topic. I realized that I needed to model what this work could look like in our classroom.

467432469Now, I start the year with these explicit lessons:

•Notebook setup – pages, labels, table of contents, etc.
•Writing strategies (Interludes and Strategies for Generating Notebook Entries)
•Writing choices
•Reading strategies (choosing books, reading expectations, thinking work)
•Reading choices

These lessons help my students to see expectations, achieve excellence, and consider opportunities. They also begin to build a framework for later work in my classroom. Early in the year, students’ work will generally resemble mine in length, topic, and form, but with more practice and more modeling, their work becomes individual, useful, unique, and skilled. They quickly realize that not everyone’s work looks the same. Modeling classroom expectations has helped my students become more successful and independent.

Considering how I use modeling and reflection in my classroom, I want to transfer this success to my gym resolution with the start of this new year. I am going to go to the gym when there are scheduled classes. My reflection on my past attendance shows me that I do well when things are planned and part of a routine. I do better with these classes because an instructor models a good workout. With continued practice this year, my teaching and my resolutions will be more successful. I also realize that the nice thing about these recommendations is that it’s never too late to start. Reflect today and model tomorrow.

pic 2Amy Gurney is an 8th grade Language Arts teacher for Bloomfield Hills School District. She was a facilitator for the release of the MAISA units of study. She has studied, researched, and practiced reading and writing workshop through Oakland Schools, The Teacher’s College, and action research projects. She earned a Bachelor of Science in Education at Central Michigan University and a Master’s in Educational Administration at Michigan State University.

A New School Year, A New Perspective

Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project
photo by Joe Gall

photo by Joe Gall

The 2014-2015 school year came in like a flood…literally.  My school’s entire first floor was flooded as the surrounding communities were during the great summer storm.  My room is located on the 2nd floor, but because the gutters were so overwhelmed, the windows leaked and my room flooded too.  Needless to say, I needed a new floor and was not able to get into my classroom for set up until Labor Day with the students coming the next day!  Talk about stress and anxiety about going back to work.  I was in a panic about my room, about my new kids, and even about my new principal.  Once I tired myself out from all the worry, I realized that as much as I wanted to be the “in control of all things Mrs. Kraiza,” that is not always possible. And that is okay.

I took a step back to remind myself that cultivating student relationships is just as important, if not more important than sitting at my desk lesson planning curriculum.  Here are some small, simple ways that I connect with my students all year long:

  • Hall duty: I greet my students at the door every day and every hour.
  • I have students sit at tables so I can easily wander the room and check in with them at various points in the lesson.
  • I do not spend first days of school going over rules and expectations;  we deal with each issue as it comes up by holding a class meeting and using students as models for what is expected.  Students also model what not to do as well!
  • We do icebreakers in class, such as line-up, two truths and a lie and anything else I can think of to get students talking and connecting with me and each other.  There are hundreds of icebreakers to be found on the web, especially on places like Pinterest.
  • When they write, I write.  When they share their writing, I share my writing.
  • I take pictures of the things we do in class and of the students.  I also take the occassional selfies with students too!  The good stuff, I post on my classroom website for kids to look at, as well as use them in video presentations to share with students, staff, and parents.
  • I ask students questions about their day, their likes, their weekend, their mood, and anything else that seems important to them.
  • I give hugs, high fives, and fist bumps.
  • I am not afraid to make myself look silly or old-fashioned for the sake of connecting with my students.  This is especially true when referring to cultural references and the newest “thing” the kids are into.

These relationship builders are everlasting, and the students remember the effort that I make to connect.  It makes being with the students in my classroom fun and lively.  This human connection makes both me and my students more committed to being at school.  I don’t think we can survive the year without this crucial component.

The floor of my classroom was finally put in, the furniture arranged, and the posters put up.  When the first day of school came and the kids entered my room, I saw that they looked to me, not the decorations in the room to set the tone for the year.  We are in it to win it, and I will continue to build upon those oh-so-important relationships.  Of course, I am frazzled playing catch up with planning, data teams, starting a classroom website, and a new sponsorship, etc. But I remind myself that I just need to let the new year flow over me as the rain waters flowed in and out of our building.  It will all come together, but my relationship with my students will always come first.

LisaKraizaLisa Kraiza teachers eighth grade English Language Arts at Oak Park Preparatory Academy.  She is also a member of the Core Leadership Team of the Oakland Writing Project.

Talk, Listen, Watch & Notice

Notes from the Classroom

87152481The name tags were ready, pencils were sharpened.  The fall is always an exciting time in first grade.  This was my fourteenth 1st day of school, and I was ready.  My lesson plan book was proof that I had it all planned out.  The on-demand writing paper was copied, the math fact test was ready to give, and I even had my students’ names written on running record recording sheets.  I know my Common Core Standards, and I am clear on my classroom procedures. However, the first few days of school did not go as I had so carefully planned.  My lesson plans barely got a glance, and those copies never got used.  They will…but I realized my time needed to be spent doing more important things.

These important things included talking with my students and truly listening to them, getting to know them.  I listened about how this summer they tried things they had never done before–like learning how to ride their bike without training wheels and playing baseball.  During snack time, I sat in one of those little red chairs and was simply available.  I was available to laugh with them and answer questions–important questions like which recess playground was their favorite and what they liked about our classroom so far.  I listened to one student share a story about becoming a big sister and another describe losing a tooth. I listened to them talk about their favorite kindergarten teacher and even helped one student write her a note.

79081570These important things also included watching my students.  I watched them play outside, and I even joined in.  I went from being a Power Ranger to eating pizza with Ninja Turtles.  I gave pushes on the swing and watched a group of girls try the monkey bars.  In the classroom, I watched what books my students chose and what pictures they drew.  Yep, the books I spent hours organizing were mixed up a bit, but the reason was because the kids were interested in all my informational books.  During writing time, I noticed who was eager to write and who needed a little motivation.  During choice time, I noticed I already had some Lego engineers!  I also have artists!  I have some very creative minds!

As I taught, I noticed more important things about my students.  I noticed that they love stories about my dog and had plenty of questions.  Their questions were really stories, but I had time for that–I made time for that.  I noticed they enjoyed singing and if I called something a game, they were ready to win.  I noticed who needed a hug and who needed a smile.  I noticed little things like how one student didn’t like her lunch piled in the lunch wagon.  I don’t blame her–who likes a squished sandwich?  We solved that problem, and throughout the year, more problems will come up.  We will solve those too.

462952409I know the most important thing I can do is establish a relationship with my students.  I want to find their passion and what motivates them.  I will use all my observations in future lessons to make sure my instruction is relevant and interesting to them.  I realized my “how-to” writing lesson will be about the monkey bars, and I am currently looking for books with adventure characters like Ninja Turtles.  At the store, I picked up some more watercolors and at the end of each unit when they “fancy up” their stories they can paint their pictures if they want to.  My math lesson on number sense will involve Legos.  Those informational books they mixed up are now our new “book look books” ready for Monday.  I will do what it takes to have my students trust me and truly feel safe and secure.  I want them to know that they matter.   I want to use their interests in my future lessons. I want them to make mistakes and be comfortable knowing that mistakes are a part of learning.   I know my students will learn and grow this year.  I believe in them and know they will be successful.  I know what I need to do right now and throughout the entire school year…, listen, watch and notice.

AmyQuinnAmy Quinn is a first grade teacher at Gretchko Elementary School in West Bloomfield, MI.  She is a graduate of Oakland University and has her Masters in Early Childhood.  Amy was an active participant in the first grade MAISA writing unit study and kindergarten MAISA writing unit pilot and review.  She is a member of her school leadership team, RTI team, and Jr. FLL school coordinator.


An Army of Book Nerds

Notes from the Classroom

139786707A few weeks ago, I had the rare pleasure of meeting some girlfriends for dinner and leaving my two-year-old and five- year-old home with a babysitter.  On my way to dinner, I realized I had about 45 minutes to kill. Naturally, I chose the library.  45 whole minutes wandering the stacks for a new book without having to shush Captain Question or calm The Tornado?  Intoxicating.

I walked into the library and started my delightful wander but quickly discovered I had no idea what I was looking for.  My 45 minutes were ticking away, and I was aimlessly reading spines with no titles  jumping out at me. I could have asked a librarian for help. I could have gone to the computer and done some searches. I know all those things; I’m an English teacher. But I didn’t. In that moment of combined laziness and apathy, I realized why so many of my students say they can’t find a book to read. Just like me, they technically know what they should do to find a book, but they just don’t do it.

Why is it so difficult to find good books? Why do so many teenagers struggle to find books they like to read? For students that used to be readers, this is one of the main reasons they no longer identify themselves as readers. After Harry Potter, people stopped giving them books that really appealed to them. Other students have never thought of themselves as readers at all.  Perhaps they were never given books that appealed to them or, even worse, they were never given any books at all.  By the time they hit high school, many kids are reading at a level where they can handle the vocabulary of many “classics” or “grown-up” books, but many of those novels simply aren’t interesting to them. Reading becomes boring.

78753306After a department book study of Readicide by Kelly Gallagher, my English department colleagues and I decided to make a concerted effort to bring back the love of independent reading at our school. Last year, most of us began every day with ten minutes devoted to independent pleasure reading–no book reports, no requirements.  The kids responded well for the most part.  Students who had been readers in middle school picked it up again, and I think we may have even inspired a stray non-reader here and there.

But I think we can do more. I want my students–all of my students–to know that awesome feeling of finding a new favorite book. I want them to love books so much they’ll be excited about the opportunity to go to the library alone someday.

Book nerds. I want to build an army of book nerds.

So, I’m making some changes in how I approach independent reading in my classroom.

  • 97801432062621I read every YA book I could get my hands on this summer.  For whatever reason, kids actually seem to listen when we recommend specific books to them.  They don’t want a list; they want a personal recommendation. On the first day of school, a young lady told me she “hated reading” and was “really bad at it.”  I pressed for clarification, and she admitted she had only ever liked reading The Fault in Our Stars. I quickly ticked through my mental list of cheesy-ish romances and suggested Anna and the French Kiss. Had I only read things I loved personally, I wouldn’t have had an appropriate title on hand to suggest.  I think English teachers have a responsibility to read outside our comfort zones so we can find books for more kids.
  • I’m building up my classroom library. When I handed that young lady my copy of Anna and the French Kiss, she was shocked. “I can just read yours?”  “Sure. Take it.  Read it.”  She brought it to class the next day and the next, and she is already three chapters in. Since I’ve very pointedly asked her how she’s liking the book three days in a row in front of the whole class, there’s now a waiting list forming for this book.  Admit it–we’re all a little lazy. If someone hands me a book, I’m more likely to read it than if they suggest a title for me to find. It’s not possible to have every title, but some kids need you to physically hand them a book so they’ll read.
  • I set my room up differently. Many kids don’t know author names. They need to know “that shelf is the sci-fi” and “If you like high school drama, look on that shelf.”  My bulletin boards are divided into three sections—fiction, non-fiction and YA—and I plan to change the recommended books on those boards monthly.  I’m looking for more ideas to physically change the room, too. As we move through the year, I’m planning to ask students to help me decorate the walls with short, illustrated book blurbs about books they’ve loved.
  • I’m exposing my students to the recommendations of other readers. The entire English 10 team worked with our media center specialist on a day of book talks for our kids. We each talked about four books that we loved– our favorites rather than things we assumed kids would like. My choices leaned nonfiction and history, another teacher stands firmly in the sci-fi/fantasy category, and a third is obsessed with Stephen King. I think it was important for the kids to see us reveal that we don’t sit around discussing classics all day. Some of us dig a good chick lit romance or a thriller now and again.
  • imagesI required my students to start Goodreads accounts.  Goodreads helped me with my “read everything and anything plan” this summer, and I think it has the potential to help students, too. Full disclosure: I have no idea if this will work or not, but I’m experimenting. Right now, I’m overwhelmed by the 150 friend requests from my students, but I anticipate it being useful once I identify who my most reluctant readers are. I can see what they’ve read, what they like and don’t like and then suggest specific books.  All of that can happen in a face to face conversation, too, but I think the online component will make it easier to zero in on good recommendations for some students.
  • I’m showing my students what a real reader does. We begin every day with ten minutes of reading and I read, too. I never take attendance, grade papers, etc.  I read. Some days they see me push the ten minutes to fifteen (or twenty!) if I’m completely engrossed. Other days, I finish reading and start class by talking about the book I’m reading or asking them about what they’re reading.  Slowly but surely, we’re becoming a natural reading community where books are recommended, shared, or completely panned.

None of these things are ground-breaking or revolutionary, but all of these steps are helping to change the conversation about reading in my classroom.  They’re not all book nerds yet, but it’s only September…

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


Podcast # 9: Dr. Doug Fisher – A Conversation about Formative Assessment


Dr. Douglas Fisher joined the Department of Educational Leadership at San Diego State University in 2011 having served as Professor of Language and Literacy Education in the Department of Teacher Education since 1998. In addition, he is a teacher and administrator at Health Sciences High & Middle College. He has served as a teacher, language development specialist, and administrator in public schools and non-profit organizations, including 8 years as the Director of Professional Development for the City Heights Collaborative, a time of increased student achievement in some of San Diego’s urban schools.

He is the recipient of an International Reading Association Celebrate Literacy Award, a member of the California Reading Hall of Fame, the Farmer award for excellence in writing from the National Council of Teachers of English, as well as a Christa McAuliffe award for excellence in teacher education. In 2011, his book Implementing RTI with English Learners, won the innovation award from the Academy of Educational Publishers.

Fisher is a researcher who is interested in school improvement, especially in the area of quality instruction. Find links to some of his many books here: educational books.  Visit his website here:

Register for Dr. Fisher’s Oakland Schools Presentation on October 29, 2014:
Using a Formative Assessment Action Plan to Impact More Successful Teaching and Learning

This podcast can also be found on iTunes (Oakland Literacy Podcast) where you can subscribe to the bi-weekly podcast.


Unnatural Acts: Realizations about Writing Instruction

Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project

146747989I am in a play. It’s an Avondale Schools staff and alumni production of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town.  My role is Doc Gibbs.  I have never acted or been part of theater company, but I was asked by a colleague to take a risk and show my students I wasn’t afraid to step outside the usual role of teacher. I was intrigued. I accepted the invitation.

Yes, teaching can be a kind of theater, but not like this. I walk on stage and say things that someone else wrote. I move in ways meant to suggest this character is me. The director is gently nudging my performance in ways that help me communicate who this character is–what he feels when he doesn’t say what he feels. The director is giving me things to do with my hands so I won’t keep touching my face, telling me where to look and how to stand so the audience can see what I’m doing. It feels odd…unnatural.

480810487Writing is also an unnatural act. Human beings have a voice box that evolution has designed to create speech. It’s unique to us. We have no such organ designed for writing. Speech is natural; writing is not. I encountered this idea in a piece by Dylan B. Dryer, a professor at the University of Maine. He contends that when measured against the naturalness and ease of speech, writers tend to judge their efforts harshly. This idea was banging around in my head when I took up the script of Our Town to learn my lines.

In Act One, my character, Doc Gibbs, has two scenes with boys. He teases the paperboy in one and later leads his son George to feel guilty that a chore he should be doing is being done by his long suffering mother. In real life, I am the father of two boys, so this scene should feel natural. I’ve both teased and guilted my boys. But, as I rehearsed the lines and blocked out the scene, it felt awkward. A natural conversation becomes unnatural when spelled out and scripted. Shouldn’t acting be easier? Am I being too hard on myself here?

177371540For years I approached teaching writing as though it were natural, as natural as speaking. I exposed students to “good writing,” provided models and rubric, and gave instruction. But the idea at the core was that the ability to write well was buried somewhere inside of my students and by my efforts, it would be awakened–this dormant, but natural, ability. After all, they can speak in sentences and that skill developed because they were spoken to, or were near other speakers. They learned by osmosis or proximity. The same should hold for the written word. I thought good writing would rub off on my students the way good or bad habits of speech do. I considered writing a natural act, and I taught it that way. To be fair, this is how I was taught. Some of my students did become good writers, but most didn’t. They didn’t simply move from speaking to writing with a bumpy transition period. It was frustrating for them and for me.

470701001I wanted to be a better teacher, so I started working through different approaches and models. I pieced things together, tried, and failed and attempted to learn from my efforts. Gradually, I got better, but when I encountered the idea of writing as unnatural it crystallized for me. Of course my early efforts were misguided. My expectations were based on a false premise. Writing habits aren’t something my students could naturally adopt because writing is unnatural. Before I came to this idea, I looked at writing the way I might’ve looked at something natural, say walking. My students needed needed help standing: so I gave them a framework to lean on, the 5 paragraph essay, until they got steady. They leaned on these complicated rubrics and paragraph models that looked like a set of Ikea instructions. But their writing was mechanical and clumsy and bore no resemblance to the writing we read and they liked.

When children first begin walking, their motion is graceless and jerky.  But at some point it becomes natural and fluid. They don’t think about it. The gait is natural and no one can say when this happens. I was waiting for that same natural transition in my students’ writing, but it rarely came. Most of them continued to lean on the frameworks I’d given them, and as a result, their writing was mechanical, clumsy, and lacking voice. When I stripped those crutches away, expecting the transition from mechanical to fluid, they fell and got frustrated. Writing isn’t like walking or speaking. I needed to think of it as unnatural, like dancing or singing, where the moves and techniques are broken down and rehearsed until they become, not natural but second nature.

rbrb_2118Realizing that writing is not natural changed the way I approach teaching it. It isn’t an ability to be awakened any more than a father’s ability to talk to his son. It is a habit that is developed.  With this in mind, I find it easier and more natural that we should have to work so hard at writing and teaching writing. My students and I participate in the unnatural act of writing together. I keep a writer’s’ notebook and write with them, sharing my own frustrations with this unnatural activity. Unnatural activities have to be made less uncomfortable and that can happen by simply acknowledging the difficulty, not from without as a “teacher” of writing, but as member of the struggling writing community. It involves taking risks by making our thoughts and habits public. In this way, acting and writing feel oddly similar. I didn’t know I touched my face when I was nervous until I had to communicate a character to an audience from the stage, and I didn’t notice my love of alliterative language until a reader of my writing pointed it out to me. Turns out, both habits are distracting.

It’s my job as a teacher to take this act of writing and help my students see the small moves inside of it. Writing doesn’t have to be a big frightening act. It can be a series of small decisions about what word to choose or where to break a line or the choice to hint at something rather than say it outright. It isn’t easy. It isn’t natural, but as we uncover ways to break down the discomfort and pursue goals with our writing, it gradually becomes a habit.

RICKKRick Kreinbring teaches English at Avondale High School in Auburn Hills, Michigan. His current assignments include AP Language and Composition and AP Literature and Composition. He is a member of a statewide research project at Michigan State University concentrated on improving writing and peer feedback and has presented at the national Advanced Placement convention and the National Council of Teachers of English convention. He is in his twenty-third year of teaching and makes his home in Huntington Woods.

Student Blogging: Benefits & Challenges

Literacy & Technology Notes from the Classroom

Week one in my 5th grade classroom is almost over, and I am exhausted, inspired, and excited! We started blogging the first day of school (yes,I actually tackled it on the first day – a half day!).  It is Thursday night and I still have students who have not posted–the hiccups of technology and password issues, but we are getting there.  When I sat down to read and respond to posts two hours ago, it crossed my brain that I must be crazy. Now, I am so glad that I made the decision to have my students blog. The prompts I gave my students were–tell me about your favorite book & why it’s your favorite and tell me “what is reading?”

blog 1

Student blog post – click for an enlarged view.

The responses I’ve gotten have helped me to know my readers in ways I might not have otherwise for weeks. After one week, I know:

  • what books resonate with them,
  • where their thinking is in terms of what they believe reading is,
  • who they are as writers from the voice (or lack thereof) in their posts;
  • and what grammar lessons I should teach first and what skills are fairly solid.

Being able to respond quickly to each post allows me to connect with each student as well. All of this from one blog post per student! I resisted the urge to give corrections in my comments as I might have done in the past; I recognize that I need to connect and encourage at this point. I also did not make corrections to my students’ posts — I left the misspellings, even as I cringed while I read. I don’t want to shut down their writing process by giving criticism, even if it is constructive. These students don’t know me yet, and we need to establish a relationship of trust before they will be ready to receive this type of instruction. By forcing myself to ignore the grammatical errors, I find that I am intentionally looking for what my students do well as writers. This is a shift from our normal practice of evaluating what is wrong so we know what to teach (though I still do this with their pre-writes).  With these blog posts, I am focusing on my students’ thinking, asking myself: how can I help them grow and develop as thinkers in addition to growing as readers and writers?

blog 2

Student blog post – click for an enlarged view.

I am hopeful that by the end of the year, my students will look back at all their blog posts and be surprised and pleased by their growth. I am also hopeful that they will begin to correct their own errors because they are writing for a larger audience than just me: initially we share with our two 5th grade classrooms; then we will add in parents as audience members; finally, in March, we will participate in Two Writing Teachers Classroom Slice of Life challenge, which opens us up to a global audience.

There is a constant struggle for teachers these days to find balance between district mandated curriculum and expectations and making a professional decision because you know it is best for kids. Blogging these first days has been one of those decisions for me.  My official workshop “launch” looks different this year with the inclusion of blogging. Some colleagues have questioned my choice. I am okay with this because what we have done with this blogging is so valuable and foundational for this school year. It is writing in a real-world context. My expectations are no different for blogging than they are in writing workshop. If anything, the bar is raised because my students have to employ what they have learned about digital literacy and internet safety. Still, I am sensitive to the criticism. I’m wondering how other teachers handle this type of conundrum? I’d love your feedback in the comments section below.

Where will we go from here? Honestly, I’m not sure yet. But I’ll keep you posted!

Beth 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. 

Teaching Argument Using Courtroom Simulation

Consultants' Corner

177839470In July, I was selected to serve on a jury for an armed robbery trial at the Oakland County Courthouse. I’d never watched a real trial, only seen clips on CNN from particularly salacious, high-profile cases–Jodi Arias and Casey Anthony most recently. The armed robbery case wasn’t salacious, just kind of strange and full of inconsistencies. But just like on t.v., the stakes in the courtroom were high. And even more compelling were the elements of argument present throughout the trial–the defense and the prosecution battling it out over their claims, the witnesses presenting their versions of the story, which the lawyers shaped into evidence with their lines of questioning and opening and closing statements. Over those two and a half days, argument came to life for me in a way that it never had when I taught academic argument in middle school and college classrooms.

When the trial was over, I considered ways to simulate legal argument to help students understand the elements we want them to use in their analytical writing. Simulation provides the best in experiential learning; it’s an active, engaging teaching strategy that allows for both student content application and discovery. Using a trial-based simulation involving the elements of argument could help concepts stick and be a great interdisciplinary activity for ELA and social studies classrooms.

Jury Selection – Bias

I’ve always found bias in texts to be a difficult and complex concept to teach. The jury selection process, which took as long as the trial, proved to be a true illustration of bias. During a process called voir dire, the prosecution and defense attorneys questioned jurors to unearth their potential biases about the case. We were asked about our employment, family, and lifestyle. The answers were fascinating and sometimes awkward. What seemed most important though were questions about any experiences or connections to law enforcement and experience as a victim or perpetrator of a crime.

The prosecutor released the college kid with a mohawk; questioning revealed the guy had an anti-authority attitude, which his hair had told me the moment he walked into the courtroom. The numerous potential jurors who’d been victims of armed robbery (or had friends or loved ones who had been) were released by the defense attorney. A former parole officer was also let go by the defense. Another key element of bias the lawyers tried to determine was whether we would assume innocence until proof of guilt.  A young mother of three freely admitted that she could not, stating that we were clearly “here for a reason.”  The defense attorney released her immediately.

Lesson Idea: Provide your students with a courtroom scenario related to the theme or topic they’re currently studying.  Assign students to the role of potential juror, defense team, or prosecution team.  Have students simulate the voir dire process, with the lawyers deciding which jurors remain on or leave the jury.  Following the selection of twelve jurors, have the class reflect on the bias evident in particular jurors and the nature of the questions the lawyers asked to expose that bias. Finally, have students consider the kinds of questions they can ask of texts to determine bias.

Opening Statements – Claims & Persuasion

78724287The trial began with opening statements–the lawyers submitting claims of guilt and innocence to us with an overview of the evidence, angled differently by the prosecution and the defense. Our attention was grabbed; we were enticed first by one side, then the other.  It felt a lot like the opening paragraphs of a good essay.

Throughout the trial, I was struck by how the personalities of both the lawyers and the witnesses influenced my willingness to believe claims and evidence. I felt one lawyer was sharper than the other. And the prosecutor cast himself as understanding and unintimidating, which seemed somewhat false. Many of the witnesses seemed shady or to have poor memories. None of these impressions were based on pure fact, and so, the element of persuasion came swiftly into my jury experience.

Lesson Idea: To practice crafting complex claims and evidence, provide students with a controversial scenario at school or in their community that they’re all familiar with.  Assign small groups to either the pro or con side of the issue.  Ask them to craft “opening statements” that make a claim and lay out the evidence, angled to persuade a given audience. Ask them to consider how they would change their opening statement for a different audience.  To practice public speaking skills, have students deliver their statements to the class or video tape themselves delivering their “opening statements.”

Witness Testimony – Data vs. Evidence

87349294A few cops testified, then a friend of the supposed victim, and then the victim himself. No one had the same story. Few elements of the witnesses’ narratives even overlapped–there was a knife involved, and it was a bitter cold day.  That was it.  But the prosecutor and the defense attorneys’ lines of questioning were both artful — they constructed arguments with their questions.

We had been instructed by the judge to listen only to the witnesses’ answers, not the lawyers’ questions.  The lawyers wanted our understanding of the answers to be biased by the questions that elicited them.  So we had to treat testimony as data.  It only became evidence once each of us passed judgment on the credibility of the testimony and how it compared to the other data we had collected during testimony.

Lesson Idea: When students research, they collect data. Just like a jury, they must decide how credible sources are and compare all the data collected to determine inconsistencies and facts. This process allows them to then select the evidence with which they will craft an argument.  To simulate the process of how data becomes evidence, provide students with the story of a crime. (A common argument exercise like Slip or Trip is one example.) Assign students to play the roles of key characters in the story, as well as police officers or detectives. Have the rest of the class cross examine the characters, then have a full class discussion about the credibility of each witness and their testimony. Who seemed credible? How come? Have the class make a determination of guilt or innocence based on their decisions about the data they received during testimony.

Deliberation – Arguing with Other Jurors

Being in the jury room became an exercise in argument as well. Two of the twelve jurors felt the defendant was guilty and asked the rest of us to explain our reasonable doubts–to make our case. Some people were general: “It just doesn’t add up.” Others were more specific: “A thief who doesn’t run or makes threats when the victim calls 911 might not be a thief.” I pointed out that the supposed victim started laughing at one point in the 911 recording, so he couldn’t have felt too traumatized. Could we say for sure that a crime had occurred? These specifics were what made the difference in our argument and turned the two “guilty” jurors to “not guilty.” They weren’t 100% convinced of the defendant’s innocence, but they didn’t have to be. They now shared our reasonable doubts. We gave our verdict and were released from our civic duty.

Testing Theories & Relevance

My jury experience reinforced how important it is for students to practice argument by experimenting with different theories through talk before they write. The discussion I had with my fellow jurors during deliberation was all about testing our theories with the evidence we had been supplied. And together we came to a decision that would significantly affect one man’s life, which made the importance of being able to understand and craft an argument take on a whole new kind of importance.


If you’re interested in trying out a court-based simulation to teach argument in your classroom, consider using some of the resources below.

United States Federal Courts website – activities concerning impartiality, collegiality, and civil discourse

Mini Simulation of a Supreme Court Oral Argument

iCivics website

Michigan Supreme Court Learning Center – Teen Court Simulation

Delia DeCourcyDelia DeCourcy joined Oakland Schools in 2013 after a stint as an independent education consultant in North Carolina where her focus was on ed tech integration and literacy instruction.  During that time, she was also a lead writer for the Common Core-aligned ELA writing units. Prior to that, she was a writing instructor at the University of Michigan where she taught first-year, new media, and creative writing and was awarded the Moscow Prize for Excellence in Teaching Composition. In her role as secondary literacy consultant, Delia brings all her writing, curriculum design, administration, and teaching skills to bear, supporting districts in their implementation of the Common Core via onsite workshops and consultations, as well as workshops at Oakland Schools.  She is currently spearheading the development of literacy-focused online professional learning modules as well as the building of a virtual portal where Michigan educators can learn and collaborate.



Podcast #8: A Conversation about Universal Design for Learning with Bryan Dean


Bryan Dean, an Oakland Schools Consultant, recently presented at Harvard University on Universal Design for Learning (UDL).  In this podcast, Bryan talks about what UDL is, why it is a powerful teaching approach, how it relates to the Common Core, how it differs from differentiation, and provides resources for educators to learn more about it.


For more information contact:  [email protected]

This podcast can also be found on iTunes (Oakland Literacy Podcast) where you can subscribe to the bi-weekly podcast.