Getting Students to Respond to Failure Like Olympians

Notes from the Classroom

While I watched the Women’s Moguls event during the Olympics, an Australian skier had a particularly bumpy performance (insert groan here), blasting through the orange flags. Yet as she stopped at the finish line, she gestured “oh well” with an unflappable grace, adjusted her goggles, and gave the camera a thumbs up.

So, how do we get our student to respond to failure like Olympians?

Model Live, Unprepared Writing

Imagine my fear when I wrote live in front of my middle school students for the first time. It felt like a daring move in my first year of teaching–to share raw writing with a crowd of thirteen-year-olds. Yet, to my surprise, these students were completely tuned into what I needed as a writer.

When I modeled, students were quick to throw out a word, phrase, or question that prompted me when I was stuck. I scribbled all over the overhead. There was a tremble as I wrote those first few times, and it was a tremble that showed my students that writing has fits of balance and chaos.

In being open to moments where I choked out words, I was able to show my students how a writer gets back up after tripping over words and how a supportive writing community can move a writer.

Resist the Urge to “Red Pen” Their Writing

The godfather of the writing process, Donald Murray, says that the standard approach to teaching writing is a form of “repetitive autopsying,” one that “doesn’t give birth to live writing.” For Murray, live writing is authentic and process based. It allows for growth.

The red pen, on the other hand, leads a student to identify as a poor writer rather than a developing writer–even though writing only gets better when students can take risks and not fear a punishing grade or comment.

Moving away from a deficit model of teaching, then, leads students to not fear feedback from their teachers and peers.

Provide Empathetic Feedback

What can help our students to get back up after a fall? The place to start is to help them recognize that all writers will hit a bumpy stretch at some point in the writing process.

For many students, this vulnerability is scary and paralyzing. And it’s even worse when the feedback is given postmortem–after they submit a composition for a grade. Yet, it’s those moments of moments of vulnerability, Brené Brown reminds us, that can lead a student to deep learning.

One solution is to offer multiple times to confer with a student in a low-stakes way. No grades. No red pen. Just a conversation between teacher and student. This formative feedback is essential to their growth.

All students will find an aspect of the process challenging–make that transparent to them. They will try ideas that may not work. They may delete passages that took time to compose. And they may feel a deep sense of frustration and tell themselves that they are not a “good writer.”

But always bear in mind how challenging writing can be.

When we really know the writer, and we know how much effort has gone into their writing, we will know how to respond generously. We will know that recognizing the strength in the risk they took as a writer will eventually lead them to growth.

Lauren Nizol (@CoachNizol) is an MTSS Student Support Coach and Interventionist at Novi High School. She has eleven years of classroom experience, teaching English, IB Theory of Knowledge and English Lab. Lauren completed her undergraduate degree in History, English and Secondary Education at the University of Michigan-Dearborn and her Masters in English Education from Eastern Michigan University. She is a National Writing Project Teacher Consultant with the Eastern Michigan Writing Project and an advocate for underperforming students and literacy interventions.  When she’s not teaching, Lauren often runs for the woods with her husband and their three sons/Jedi in training and posts many stylized pictures of trees on Instagram.

How to Get the Most out of Education Conferences

Notes from the Classroom

It’s been a little over a month since I came home from this year’s NCTE convention, and I’ve reflected on and used my learning in new ways every single day. 

But over the past several years of going to professional conferences, that hasn’t always been the case.

I’m sure that a large part of the NCTE carryover can be attributed to the quality of the conference. But I also think that it’s due to some specific, strategic moves I’ve taken on as a participant. As I attend sessions and then again after I return home, there are three moves I make to ensure I bring home more than just books.  

When I encounter an uplifting or provocative idea, I make sure to spread it beyond the walls of the conference.

I attended more than one session after which friends and I would gush about how how it felt like “going to church.” Yes, of course, that’s a good thing because we felt a kind of spiritual revitalization, but it also got me thinking: Does this session just feel good, or is it actually doing some good? There was the worry that “going to church” might really be “preaching to the choir.”

Yes, the spiritual revitalization is good in its own right, but to move beyond preaching to the choir, I reflect on how to spread these ideas to people who aren’t already in “the choir.” I ask myself:

  • Who would benefit from hearing this? How would it benefit them?
  • Who else do I have in my building who would be part of “the choir”? How can I empower them to lead with me?
  • What are my entry points? Are there pieces of this session that are shareable? Quotes or statistics that were particularly resonant?

I also make sure to step out of my comfort zone with conference sessions.

Yes, those “going to church” sessions are awesome and empowering and revitalizing, but sometimes it’s important to step out of your comfort zone and go to the sessions where you might not know so much already. Sometimes these are exactly the sessions that can push your instruction forward. So, when you’re browsing the convention book, look for session descriptions that make you think:

  • That’s what so-and-so in my building is always talking about. I wonder if this would help me figure out what the fuss is about.
  • This issue keeps popping up, and I’ve been doing my best to avoid it. Maybe this is a good way to put it back on my to-do list.
  • I’ve never heard of this before, but it sounds like something that might complement what I’m already doing.

Remember to take notes–and then spend time reviewing them.

Sketching big takeaways on my airplane ride home helped me process pages of notes. Click the image to enlarge.

It probably goes without saying that you should take notes during a session. It doesn’t matter whether you use a trusty old paper-and-pen notebook like I do, or you have embraced digital note taking. Just make sure you’ve got a way to capture your thinking as it’s happening.

The same goes for cell phone cameras. Don’t be afraid to take pictures of slides and resources to save for later.

That saving it for later, though, is the most crucial part. After your last session has ended, make sure you take some time to go back through your notes, to start reflecting and synthesizing. I started to do this on the plane ride home, but found that I was just too wiped out to go too far with it. The next day, though, I returned and dug in a little further. It helped me to organize my reflection into a few categories:

  • Resources I can use and share right now
  • Big takeaways to remember forever
  • Opportunities for learning

To seize those opportunities for learning, I ordered a few professional books, started searching some journal subscriptions, and updated my Christmas wishlist. With so many doors for learning opened to me, I know that I’ll be able to carry my conference learning with me for years to come.

Megan Kortlandt (@megankortlandt) is a secondary ELA consultant and reading specialist for the Waterford School District. In the mornings, she teaches at Durant High School, and in the afternoons, she works with all of Waterford’s middle and high school teachers and students through the Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment department. Every time Megan goes grocery shopping, her cart makes her appear to be exceptionally healthy, but don’t be fooled. The healthy stuff is all for her pet rabbit, Hans.

Relevance: an Apathy Antidote

Notes from the Classroom

shutterstock_371530516“Just give me a topic. I’ll write about anything. I don’t care.”

Ah! There it is. The dreaded “I don’t care” that makes every teacher want to throw up her hands in despair.

My students are in the throes of their final writing piece for the year–an op-ed. I love the assignment because it pulls together many of the elements we’ve worked on all year, and it asks the students to write a research-based argument with a genuine, natural voice. It provides choice—one of the keys to increasing student engagement.

But what about when choice isn’t enough? What happens when you lead the horse to water and the darn horse refuses to drink?

It’s easy to shrug the apathetic ones off and say they just don’t care, and there’s nothing you can do about it. It’s certainly an issue that’s been around for a while. A 1988 study published by the National Education Association contended that “student apathy is as common as chalk dust” in American classrooms. That same study also said that while “most educators take pride in their contributions to the winners, few acknowledge responsibility for the losers.”

Yikes. That’s rough.

So what do you do with the “I don’t care” students? As much as I’m tempted to say, “I can’t care more than they do,” I don’t think that’s true. My job doesn’t stop once I’ve led the horses to the water, regardless of how awesome the water is. I have to acknowledge my responsibility for all of my students. And when they aren’t engaged with their writing, I need to continue to seek out ways to help them.

Relevant vs. Interesting

I decided to attack student apathy head-on with this current op-ed assignment, and my first step was throwing out my lists of topics. As a former debate teacher, I have lists of hundreds of “hot topics” that are sure to interest your average teenager. Those lists work for many kids, but they aren’t enough for some.

In their new book, Reading Nonfiction, Kylene Beers and Bob Probst hit on the reason why some of these very “interesting” topics just aren’t enough to catch and hold attention. They explain that “something that is relevant is inherently interesting, but something that is interesting isn’t always relevant. In short, getting kids’ attention is about creating interest; keeping their attention is about relevance.”


Circles of relevance. Click to view a larger version.

Helping my students find that relevance started with brainstorming. I modeled this by using overlapping circles: writer at the center, then our school, then the nation, and finally the world. In each circle, we tried to fill in both serious and non-serious topics.

In my inner circle were concerns and issues that are close to home–my son’s sports choices, the cost of Diet Coke in the teacher’s lounge. As the circles got bigger, my issues got “bigger”–weightier–but I continually reminded my students that even with the weightier issues, I had a personal reason to be invested in the topic. I’m interested in education policy because I’m a teacher. I’m interested in the preservation of the national park system because my family loves to camp and hike.

For many, that day of brainstorming was enough, and they were off and running. But each class still had a few holdouts. So far, I’m discovering that those holdouts simply take time and talk during one-on-one conferences. I wish I had a cool activity or graphic organizer that magically transformed them into focused, motivated writers, but I haven’t found it yet (please let me know if that exists, btw).

For some students, this has been a matter of seizing on one small thing. One young lady groaned and asked, “Can I write about how my stepmom shouldn’t be able to tell me what to do?” She wasn’t seriously considering that as a topic, but what a great one it is! How should parents deal with teenagers in blended families? The more we talked, the more she started to see the possibilities. Yet she needed me to validate that her experiences are important things to write about. Today, she came back and said, “I can’t do that topic. I don’t want it to seem like I hate my stepmom.” So we talked some more about what it means to have a nuanced position, and how her genuine care for her stepmom lends itself nicely to a counterargument.

I’m not sure where that op-ed will end up, but I know that she is invested–at least a little–in a topic that is relevant to her today. Tomorrow, when she doubts it again, I’ll be back with more questions, more talk, and more time. Apathy is as “as common as chalk dust,” but seeking out ways to help students connect to their writing is a good first step to moving past it.

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

The Value of Connecting with Students

Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project

shutterstock_128750762At the start of school, I had a plan for connecting to the students in my classes. I would start by connecting on a personal level, so that they would be open to growing as readers and writers on a professional level.

On the first day of school, I greeted each student at the door of my classroom. They thought nothing of it, since it is a pretty typical structure for many teachers’ first day of class. Then, I continued to greet every student, every day, every hour, as they entered my classroom. Then they started to take notice. Students began greeting me in the hallway and when they entered class. They stopped, smiled, and responded.

I didn’t stop there, though. In the first few days, my next step was to connect to each student personally. 

While students were setting up notebooks and working on classroom tasks, I spoke to each student, inquiring about things they liked to do, or something about them that they wanted to tell me. A student cleverly called these “interviews.” I smiled at this observation, but I knew that I was affecting students, because they felt like their turn was valuable and something to look forward to.

Over several days, I learned that one of my students is an avid sailor. Another is a horseback rider. I have students with siblings, and students who are pet lovers, sports enthusiasts, or guitarists. As I conducted these conversations, I jotted quick notes about these individual prides. The notes allow me to refer to these topics in the future, as I continue to build the connections or suggest writing topics and book themes.

My personal connections with students also support our writing conferences. Students see that these conferences are about growing as writers. They also see that they can choose to take a suggestion, and they can guide the way a conference unfolds with suggestions of their own. As the conferences shift to holistic moves for writers, students are now open to these conversations and open to reworking their writing. I found that conferences proceeded more efficiently and effectively because I had already interacted with each student before sitting at their desk with them. Theyshutterstock_186008123 realized that I was as willing to help with their work as I was to greet each of them at the door.

After each conference, students compare their previous work to their current work. Students name their shifting moves as writers, and then they evaluate the quality of their new work. What is important, too, is that following up with students after a writing conference shows that I value the work that they are doing, and it further forges the connection that I’m making with them.

Proof from an Email

Other than my observations, how did I know that this strategy was working?

Students were working on a narrative writing structure that we’ll grow and use all year. An email from a student said:

I finished my “Slice of Life” last week, but I have a question just to make sure about something. My topic that I am writing about is when my aunt and I went to an ice cream place. So, should I write about us at the ice cream place or when she picked me up from school, dropped my sister off somewhere, going to the market, and then going to the ice cream place? My overall question is, should I zoom in on that one moment (at the ice cream place) or include all the other details (getting picked up from school, dropping my sister off, going to the market, then going to ice cream place).

This email, which was sent outside school time, shows that this writer is using workshop language. She is also inquiring about how she can make a written piece better, even though it is already finished. I smiled as I responded and praised her, saying, “A good writerly question.”

This was just one benefit from my decision to make purposeful and deliberate connections to students at the beginning of the year. And I’m sure I’ll continue to see the fruits of this decision all year long.

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.