Trying to Lose 10 Pounds a.k.a. the Paper Load Problem

Notes from the Classroom

I have a problem with to-do lists. I love them. I gleefully make long, epic lists of my plans for a day or weekend. Sometimes I even write things on my list that I’ve already done just so I can experience the joy of crossing it off. Other people do this, too. Right? Maybe?

shutterstock_95585014Unfortunately, sometimes my lists spiral into what my husband calls my “ten pounds” problem. He teases me that I insist on trying to cram 10 pounds of fun into a five-pound bag. Often when I tell him my plans for a weekend, he’ll roll his eyes and say, “Sounds like ten pounds to me.”

But this past Friday—the second Friday of the school year—when I dragged home my bag filled with 85 AP English essays, 85 AP English quizzes, 58 ELA-10 narratives, 58 ELA-10 quizzes, and 58 ELA-10 constructed responses, I realized that I, for once, might actually have 10 pounds of fun in my bag. And I was not happy about it.

The Paper Load

It was the second week of school, and I was already overwhelmed.

Some of it was simply a product of a busy first two weeks back: Curriculum Night, activities for my own shutterstock_103570856kids in the evenings, first week exhaustion. Those pressures will ease up as the year progresses, and things will get easier. But some of the pressures will not go away.

Yet one of the downsides of this job, which I adore, is the paper load. Often, it is easiest to assess students’ comprehension of a text by having them write about it. And students only become better writers if you give them specific feedback on their writing.

As I slogged through the stacks this past weekend, I resolved to be smarter this year. I’m still committed to giving consistent, quality feedback, but I need to figure out how to lighten the load in my 10-pound bag a bit.

Here are some of the things I’m hoping to try this year and some of my concerns:

  • Reading conferences. Some of the assessments I graded this weekend could have been easily replaced with a simple conversation. An individual reading conference would give me the opportunity to connect with my students one on one and ask some pointed questions about their reading. I created this Reading Conference Prep sheet to help them prepare for our reading conferences.
    • My concern: How will I make this work time-wise? What will the other 28 students do while I’m conferencing? Twenty-nine individual conferences will likely take three days of class time. I will have to use this strategy carefully and plan independent activities for the students. Also, it’s not something I’ll be able to do that often. Still, I think it’s a worthwhile “sometimes” solution.
  • Small-group discussion. This is a strategy I have used for several years now and I will need to employ it more this year. I divide my students into small groups and send them out in the hallway for a 10-minute discussion. They videotape it and I can grade it later using a rubric like this.
    • My concern: What about my shy students? Will I truly see what they know about the text in this setting? This can’t be the only way I gauge understanding, but it is valuable to assess speaking and listening. That’s a whole strand of the Common Core!
  • Group comments, analysis, and revision. This is a strategy that I used this weekend. As I tackled the third stack of writing assignments, I realized I was writing the same comments over and over. Enough. Why was I working so hard when they were all struggling with the same thing? I stopped writing comments and scored the essays on a 4/3/2/1 scale. I pulled some student samples of 4-level writing to use as models. In class we examined the models and figured out the characteristics of each level of writing. When I handed back the scored, comment-less papers, I had the students tell me what was missing from their writing and then revise to make them better.
    • My concern: Does this even save time? Realistically, no. I spent a lot of time prepping this lesson. Still, I think it was more useful than handing back papers littered with comments. The students were engaged in the revision process and, hopefully, it will pay off in future writing assignments.

None of these ideas are earth shattering or groundbreaking. Teachers have been doing these types of things for years. For me, though, I need to commit to finding a better balance between my desire to give quality, timely feedback with my need to not be overwhelmed by grading. As my husband constantly reminds me, there’s only so much room in a bag.

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.


Camp ALEC 2015

Consultants' Corner

Pulling in on the winding gravel road of Indian Trails Camp, I IMG_1160took a deep breath. I was excited to arrive after the two hour commute on a sunny Sunday morning. To say I wasn’t nervous would be a lie. I was about to embark on what I had heard was an incredible, yet challenging week of intense learning. I, along with eight Oakland County teachers and two of my Oakland Schools colleagues, would spend the next seven days together attending a Level II course in Literacy for Students with Significant Disabilities at Camp ALEC. The course, taught by Drs. Koppenhaver and Erickson, exposes participants to over 60 hours of classroom learning, including providing literacy instruction for campers with significant disabilities. Little did I know that early Sunday morning that the experience would teach me so much more.

I learned before the campers arrived that the two girls I would instruct during this week were 12 years old. I first met Maggie when she arrived with her Mom and younger brother. As her Mom navigated her wheel chair, my first glimpse of Maggie, appearing so helpless and limp in the chair, brought tears to my eyes. You see, my own daughters are 12 and 13 years old. Funny how we can so easily make assumptions about someone based on a first impression. Here I was, a Special Education teacher, feeling so blessed for my own daughters, when Maggie taught me one of the biggest lessons I would learn all week: She rolled her eyes at her Mom, who had just apparently annoyed her with a comment, just like my own daughters do. Maggie could not talk, but boy could she communicate! I knew I was in for an amazing week.

The training I have received over the years reflects a belief that teaching literacy to students with significant disabilities does not require “prerequisites” or “readiness” or  that literacy can only be learned by “higher functioning” students. We all learn to read and write in basically the same ways, but literacy instruction for students with significant disabilities requires a more deliberate and concentrated effort to ensure the student has access to communication and learning. It requires a commitment to lots of time dedicated to comprehensive literacy instruction. If a student is not learning, we as educators need to figure out what is not working. It is our responsibility to provide meaningful instruction that offers repetition with lots of variety to engage and help these students generalize their learning in multiple environments. This and other principles of good ELA instruction are described in a DLM (Dynamic Learning Maps) module.

Camp instructionSo knowing what good instruction is and actually teaching are two very different things. My partner for the week, Darlene, and I spent our planning time designing lessons to reflect what we knew to be good instruction. Maggie and Josie spent two hours with us in the morning and afternoon. Our job was to provide their parents by week’s end a summary of activities we tried and ideas for helping their daughter improve in the area of literacy. We completed some assessments to help guide our instruction and quickly learned that things don’t always go as planned. We needed to give ourselves permission to get to know the girls and understand their interests.

Once we anchored our lessons based on the girls’ experiences, they started to make connections. Josie, for example, loved to play Tag with anyone who would run with her. We started taking pictures of her and others playing, printed them and shared the collection with Josie. I glued the pictures onto paper, showed Josie and waited for her response. She quickly started signing and verbalizing her descriptions of the pictures while laughing and smiling. It was clearly a motivating activity for Josie. I then handed her a pen and asked her to tell me IMG_1754about her pictures. Josie’s smile left her face and she signed “nervous”. She was not comfortable with this request, but with encouragement and permission to write in short segments throughout the week, she created a book about playing Tag. When her mom arrived Saturday, Josie read her the Tag book she created. This process required creativity to engage Josie and patience on my part to allow her the time she needed to express herself.

Another opportunity for making connections to the girls’ experiences came about the last day of camp. Maggie relies on an alternate communication device; she is unable to speak and has physical limitations that make using her hands for signing impossible. Despite these limitations, Maggie had a very typical “goal” for camp: she wanted to kiss a boy! She achieved her goal (Luke gave her a kiss on the cheek) and was so excited. She even texted her mom, letter by letter, using a head mouse connected to her device mounted on her wheel chair.Camp Maggie writing

There was a dance Friday night and one of the counselors suggested that maybe she and Luke could dance. Maggie smiled and typed out “Write a note to ask him.” Unfortunately, Maggie was in a lot of pain that day. Her chair was bothering her and she kept saying that her back hurt. Karen Erickson came by and asked Maggie if she would like to lay down. I was disappointed, thinking Maggie would have to go back to her cabin, but there was a bean bag in the room, and Maggie’s counselor transferred her. In a more comfortable position, but without her device, Karen guided me through an alternate way of helping Maggie write her note. With a pad of paper on my lap, I went through the alphabet, letter by letter, until Maggie raised her eyes for “yes”. I wrote down each letter until she completed what she wanted to write:Camp Maggie note

Maggie gave her note to Luke at lunch, and the two shared a sweet dance. If Maggie had not been given the opportunity to switch positions, she likely would not have written her note. We as teachers need to embrace teachable moments even when obstacles arise. This method was shared with Maggie’s Mom, who immediately saw the potential for using this to communicate with Maggie during car rides. Instead of crying to let her Mom knows she needs something, she now has access to the alphabet when hooking up her device is not convenient.

Based on observations and assessments given to the girls, a recommendation for reading easy books would help with print processing and language difficulties.  One resource shared with both girls was Tarheel Reader. This free site houses thousands of easy-to-read and accessible books on a wide range of topics. Each book can be speech enabled and accessed using multiple interfaces, including touch screens and the IntelliKeys with custom overlays. Both Maggie and Josie loved going on the site and searching out books. Maggie even bookmarked the site as a favorite. She now has independent access to thousands of books.

Saturday morning, the teachers from Oakland County and I shared our excitement for the upcoming school year. They agreed that this camp experience was an incredible and yes, challenging experience. They are now teacher leaders and will enter the school year with a deeper, richer understanding of teaching literacy to students with significant disabilities.

Oakland Schools will offer one day sessions on Emergent and Conventional Literacy Instruction in March, 2016. Please visit the Special Education Professional Learning section of our website for more details.

A local newspaper highlighted Camp ALEC during the week. Click here to see the video.

ColleenMeszler photo 3Colleen Meszler joined Oakland Schools in 1994 after earning her special education teaching degree from Eastern Michigan University.  She holds a Master’s Degree in Special Education with endorsements in Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and Emotional Impairment and is approved as an ASD Teacher Consultant.  Her passion is supporting the unique learning needs of students with Autism.  Her work has changed over the years as Oakland Schools has responded to the changing needs of the districts in the county.  She began as a teacher in the Oakland Schools Autism Program educating middle school and post-high students.  She then provided ASD Teacher Consultant services to the districts of Oakland County, again focusing on the needs of students with ASD.

In her current role as a Special Education Consultant in the Professional Learning Unit of the Department of Special Education, Colleen supports public school special educators as they close the achievement gap between students with and without IEPs.  Specifically, she facilitates the professional learning of special educators in the provision of emergent and conventional literacy instruction to students with moderate to significant cognitive disabilities.  The emphasis is on instructional practices for pre-K through post-high students who are educated to alternate achievement standards and assessed through the alternate state assessment.

Colleen stays busy on the home front as well, attending soccer and volleyball games, boating and snowmobiling with her husband and two daughters.




Listening to Dragons & Peacocks at the OWP Summer Institute

Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project

I have a hard time finding time to write. I think about it, make notes in journals, and sometimes, sometimes, I finish something, but that something rarely gets in front of an audience. Maybe an audience of one or two gentle readers will take a peek but that’s it. I don’t get much feedback so I don’t really know how I’m doing. Teaching can be the same way. I do what I do, hope it made some kind of impact and move on. It can be frustrating and lonesome and, what’s worse I never know if I’m getting anywhere. No, I’m not looking for “points” or a grade–I am not my students–but I would like some kind of interaction. Writing and teaching can be very solitary which makes teaching writing downright monastic–not the ones who make beer, the ones who go off by themselves in search of enlightenment. The last two weeks in July, I crawled out of my teacher/writer cave and joined with a group of other pilgrims looking for some enlightenment or at least company. For those two weeks we talked about writing and teaching and we wrote, and shared what we wrote. I was teacher and student and writer and audience and I was happy. Here’s why:

OWP logo copyThe Oakland Writing Project Summer Institute was lead by Richard Koch and Marcia Bonds. It focused on culturally responsive teaching but that was a springboard into our teaching practices and our habits as writers. This is a recent conversion for me, teacher as writer, working through all of the challenges alongside my students and it has lead to changes in how I think about my practice. I try to do more listening now, less talking; more growth, less grading. I learned that to be responsive I need to listen more carefully. I need to try and quiet the voices in my head so I can hear, and respond to my students’ voices. This can be hard, especially for a monastic type like myself, because I spend so much time in my own head, or in front of students who want to please me for a grade that they tend not to challenge me when I spout off. Those voices tell me, “Yeah, that’s right. That’s how to teach all these kids.” That’s a culture of one and it is not always helpful.

The Summer Institute taught me that those voices that I think are  the “right” voices are simply the voices I respond to because they sound like me. The voices have had the same experiences I have so they’re familiar and have the ring of Truth, but not all my students hear those same voices, or if they do, they might not say the same things. How could they? My students come from a variety of cultures and experiences and it’s my job to help them give a voice in writing so they can express that unique culture and experience. Richard Koch likes the word “Namaste.” We talked about what it means–quite a few things apparently–and what we settled around was the idea that the light in me honors the light in you. (I know I’ve mixed my metaphors, voice and light, forgive me gentle ELA friends.) Being responsive doesn’t mean I agree with you or even I understand. It simply means that I’m listening, trying to hear your voice, to make a space where we can make sense of it. Writing and teaching at their core are ways to make a connection to another person. By learning to listen better, more carefully, I learn how to be a better teacher. This wasn’t something I could learn by myself. I needed to be a student, to sit in the learning chair. I spend a good deal of time in that chair. It’s humbling and that’s what I need.

23-2eLtnQYFrom my time in the learning chair one of the early prompts that stuck with me was a discussion of “peacocks” and “dragons” in our writing. It’s a metaphor for the beauty in the world that some people don’t have the patience to wait for, a peacock, and the things that frighten us but tend to produce good writing when we grapple with them, dragons. It comes from Flannery O’Connor, a writer not afraid of dragons, and I couldn’t stop returning to it.

Dragons: I wondered if, in becoming more culturally responsive, I should try to rid my classroom of dragons. Should I fill it with peacocks and wait for the joy to follow? I’m not really a peacock guy. I love beautiful writing but what I think I want is to create dragons. That’s how I tend to choose many of the texts that we work with. How many dragons are there? How skilfully has the writer confronted them. I look for craft dragons and theme dragons, and I do get some complaints. At times I’ve heard that a text is too “difficult,” the use of language too challenging, too hard to follow. This is a craft dragon and tends to be hard for students because the struggle is with the decisions the writer is making about how to tell the story; that’s where these dragons lurk. Craft dragons challenge students to work hard as readers and consider how hard they are willing to work. These dragons take sophisticated skills and patience to defeat. Craft dragons challenge students to think about themselves as readers, writers and students. The poor student who never confronts a craft dragon never knows their own character, their own strength as readers of “hard” stuff.

shutterstock_124981199Theme dragons…these beasts are so fierce. They can linger, haunt a reader. Shy away from a craft dragon–I struggle with stream of consciousness–and probably it won’t make a difference in your life, just avoid it. Fear of theme dragons is something different. There’s been a lot of conversation about so called “trigger warnings” for academic content that might disturb students. (This book has been rated TD for “Theme Dragons.”) Those triggers, those are dragons. They are born in culture and experience, things to be listening for and responsive to. They lurk in ideas of gender, politics, sexuality, morality, ethics, religion, and relationships of all kinds. Harder to confront because they are deep seated and engrained, they challenge who we are, or think we are–but isn’t that why we read, to find out who we are–so the battles are bloodier and tend not to have clear outcomes. These fights linger.

I don’t mean to imply that all we read in my class is heavy, soul baring tomes about BIG issues, but don’t we find these dragons everywhere, even in humorous texts? Don’t they lurk in unlikely places? The concerns I hear about these dragons often centers on the “appropriateness” or “maturity” of the themes. I understand these concerns and they do affect how I choose texts and I have shied away from dragons I think my students are just not ready to confront. The odd thing is though, that when I have taken that chance I’ve seen students do some of their best work. If we abandon the dragons, hide from them, we abandon the most rewarding aspect of language arts. Writing, reading, talking, when they are at their best are all about making connections to others who struggle with those same kinds of dragons.

shutterstock_122636782Asking students to confront theme dragons often means asking them to expose their fears, weakness, doubts and prejudices to their peers and then be evaluated on that battle. What could be more terrifying? But that is exactly what we ask students to do when they read and write. When they are successful and make a connection to their audience it’s often because the writer has found a way to portray their voice. They write in ways that conveys a sense of themselves to an audience. I think that’s a function of voice, and it is what I want them to develop.  In the next few weeks, I’ll be looking at and helping students with their college essays. I’ve done it for years and those topics don’t change, “Consider a time…” What the colleges are asking for is that the student pull out a dragon, fight it and hope that it’ll get them into college. That’s a high stakes fight and if it’s the first time a student has been asked to do it, I end up reading a lovely, generic travelogue that sounds nothing like the interesting, engaging complicated people in my classes. I need the dragons in my class. I need to find them, drag them into my students’ paths and help them give voice to the struggle.

This is what I thought and wrote and talked about during the Institute as we all struggled with our dragons. If I want to be an effective teacher of Language Arts I need to try listen to my students’ voices. They are telling me about their peacocks and dragons, and then I can help them develop skills–reading, writing, speaking skills–they can use to show the peacocks and struggle with the dragons. In the Institute, Richard and Marcia created a place where that could happen, where we could try and sometimes (mostly in my case) fail in our attempts to write for an audience, to convince, or narrate or reflect on our dragons and peacocks. That, to me, seems to be a key, creating a place, a community of writers and readers, where all of that can happen. It’s a tall order, I know. I think my first step will be to listen…

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