How We Can Help Students Transcend Social Groups, and Share Risky Ideas with Each Other

Notes from the Classroom

When I showed up to the hotel, I wasn’t prepared for the motley crew I’d encounter.

It was two weekends ago, and I was at the National Council of Teachers of English annual convention. There, scarf-wearing English teachers bustled through the lobby, toting bags of YA novels, and tripping over tattoo-covered attendees of another conference: the Old School Tattoo Expo. It was a crowded space, to say the least.

And then the cheerleading competition showed up.

Though I never got to see a love connection, I did experience some predictably awkward elevator rides of groups who seemingly had nothing in common. A week later, I’m still thinking about those awkward rides, and the lesson they offer us:

Our classrooms can mirror those awkward elevator rides if we aren’t careful.

How often do we accept that same awkwardness from our students? We provide a topic or text for discussion, and we get crickets. Or, a few loud voices engage in debate while others avoid eye contact.

As English teachers, we have an opportunity to tackle controversial topics and help our students listen to one another. Those rich exchanges can’t happen, though, if our students make assumptions about one another based on the things that mark them as part of certain groups–their scarves, tattoos, and JoJo bows (figuratively speaking, of course).

Many of our students are hesitant and guarded, and it makes sense why: it’s not easy to share ideas if you’re certain no one gets you.

If we truly want to move from politely awkward conversations to challenging ones, we need to create spaces where our students can connect with one another and practice pushing themselves past hesitation. They don’t need to be kumbaya-singing besties. But deliberate work is necessary if we want them to authentically communicate with one another.

Here are five ways we can help students engage each other in conversation.

1. Show students, by example, how to share risky ideas.

Last year, when discussing a police shooting with students, I shared my struggles: my deep concern for the incidents of police brutality in our nation, and that I’m also married to a police officer. Sharing my conflict opened the door for students to share theirs as well. And though not everyone agreed, we moved past assumptions and into productive conversation.

2. Do–and share–lots of low-stakes writing.

Many students haven’t had opportunities to develop their thinking about controversial issues. Notebook writing can give them a low-stakes opportunity to do just that. Students need to test ideas in notebooks, and puzzle through their answers to questions. And then they need to share–sometimes with a partner, and sometimes with a group.

3. Move students’ seats. And do it often.

I think students are young adults who can choose their own seats, but moving them around, and pushing them to work with new people, can help break down barriers. They can return to seats they choose, but it is good for them to move for part of the period.

4. Study texts that contain multiple perspectives.

Providing credible, quality texts with multiple perspectives gives students mentors for their discussions. A hesitant student might chime in, too, if you add a text from a voice that might not be present in the discussion otherwise. It is tricky when I have a strong opinion (and it’s rare that I don’t), but by providing students with several texts that look at an issue through different lenses, we are opening the door for richer, more inclusive conversation.

5. Provide a space for many different types–and sizes–of discussion.

The easiest way to get more comfortable talking is with practice: pairs, small groups, whole groups, rotating groups. Sometimes those discussions need to be teacher guided, and sometimes student led. Sometimes they need discussion protocols, and sometimes they need to be free form. Different students will respond better to different types of experiences, but all need to practice talking often–daily!–about topics that matter to them if we expect them to engage fully.

It’s not easy to help students find and use their voices. But we can start by creating classrooms that give them chances to practice. By understanding their differences, and learning to see that each unique experience is valuable, students can move beyond awkward, Holiday-Inn elevator conversations toward, engaged and complex ones.

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

Hard Conversations

Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project

51mp4tejmhl-_sx336_bo1204203200_Last year I participated in a book study at the Oakland Schools chapter of the National Writing Project. It picked up themes from a summer workshop on creating a culturally responsive classroom. Focused on Geneva Gay’s book, it began for me a difficult process that, along with a conversation I had with my seniors, taught me that I wasn’t doing enough to create a classroom atmosphere that promoted and supported all of my students equally.

During this conversation–a kind of exit interview I’ve done on and off over the years–my students of color gave me some hard facts about the education I was trying to help them with. They said that they were “used to” being on the outside, used to only reading about white people–except in February–that that’s just how it is.

Used to it.

That haunts me.

Blind to the problems I was creating and perpetuating, I decided to ask myself hard questions about my own assumptions, and how those assumptions were affecting my students. I don’t like the answers I’m getting but I’m going to work on it.

51vllt2frql-_sx334_bo1204203200_Step 1: Expand Our Horizons

Over the summer I assigned The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and Between the World and Me to my AP Language and Composition classes.

We read Lacks last year, and I thought that by adding Coates’ excellent book to the menu, I might begin to open my students’ thoughts to ideas of privilege, to a culture that sends very different messages to students who lie outside the mainstream. I’ve come to see summer reading as an opportunity to introduce students to things they might not pick up and that are not from the canon.

Step 2: Brave Conversations and Listening

I edged students into the shallow end of this conversation about race, exploitation, poverty, and history by using a Culture of Thinking routine–Circle of Viewpoints. This let us take on different points of view and explore how the writer can skillfully move a reader through complicated and difficult ideas.

My hope was that this would set the tone for the more challenging Between the World and Me. For this I used a simple Think-Pair-Share routine to set up small conversations that I could eavesdrop on. With students spread out all over the floor, their books open to close-read passages, I watched and listened. How would they respond to Coates’ razor sharp, often accusatory, observations? Most of my students are people who “think they’re white,” but there’s a sizable portion who are not. Avondale is blessed with a remarkably diverse population. Would the white students notice the knowing looks on their non-white classmates’ faces, as they read passages that pointed to a culture that told them that they were “different”? How would they react to the idea that there are laws and regulations that are not just unfairly enforced, but designed to put certain groups of people on the wrong side of them?

Another Step: Reflect

It was a mixed result. I didn’t expect an epiphany about privilege. Epiphanies are rare, and scary. My aim was to point students toward challenging ideas, those that were skillfully written.

Some of the ideas were too much for them–my fault for not better scaffolding the skills–but there were some encouraging conversations. I heard a conversation connecting Coates’ idea about the “control of black bodies” to what happened to Henrietta Lacks’ cells. In another conversation in a larger group, students discussed how the dress code seemed to be designed to make girls’ fashion choices responsible for boys’ behavioral ones. I heard students wonder about the dress code’s prohibition against “sagging” and who that might be aimed at.

These are tough issues. But when I feel that discomfort, I think back to that conversation last May and that horrible phrase “used to it,” that my students felt like outsiders, extras in a play not about them. That discomfort we feel, that shift from familiar to unknown–that seems important enough to spend time on, and I’ll be returning to it throughout the year.

Always Another Step

I’d like to invite others to help me with this. I’ll take any advice, and I’d love to talk about these issues. The book study ended so I’ve got some time.

Who’s up for some discomfort?

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.

End-of-Year Takeaways

Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project

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

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

Stories Matter

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

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

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

Stopping the Search for Perfect Mentor Texts

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

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

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

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

Relatable Characters for All Students

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

Used to it.”

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

“Real” Writing

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

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

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

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

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