Category: Non-Fiction

The Emergence of Race and Capitalism in Colonial Virginia


American capitalism requires American racism. We can trace this country’s race-based oppression to the political economy of the colonial era. More specifically, to colonial Virginia. By the end of the 1600s, the colonial elite in Virginia had united an unruly society by instituting a racial hierarchy. The combination of private property and anti-Blackness they created became the standard for many of the colonies.

The 1622 Massacre and the Invocation of Crisis

The Virginia Company quickly realized that the best way to accumulate wealth was to rely on tobacco. The new crop was lucrative, but it was also labor-intensive and expensive to harvest. In addition to the expensive cost of labor, the Company flooded the market with tobacco. The resulting overproduction lowered profits. In order to make more money, something had to change.

An opportunity to do just this came in March of 1622 when indigenous tribes from the Powhatan Confederacy decided to launch a combined counter-attack against the ever encroaching settlers. They killed colonists, burned corn crops, and raided settlements. Over ⅓ of the colony died the day of the attack.

The Virginia Company elite used the attack and resulting devastation to clamp down on the colonists. They barred anyone from growing corn or hunting, claiming that these activities left the colonists open to attack. They ordered survivors to abandon their plots of land and relocate to a central position. Living in a centralized location would help guarantee security, they said. The Colony Council then decided that in order to grow corn you had to first have a corn-trading license. They distributed these licenses to themselves and no one else. As a result of the 1622 massacre, a group of twelve Company men were able to seize land, consolidate power, and control the flow of food.

The value of corn skyrocketed due to scarcity. And the only way to buy it was to trade tobacco. Unfortunately the price of tobacco had fallen due to overproduction. Since the value of tobacco went down, the majority of tenants (and the planters they were working for) struggled to make enough to survive.

Colonial Labor and the Transition to Chattel-Bond Servitude

Tobacco was labor-intensive and expensive to grow. In order to remain profitable, the planter elite needed to increase their margins. Since the market had been flooded with tobacco, the only way to increase profits was to decrease costs. The traditional bond laborer needed to be more cost effective.

For the majority of the 1600s, the VA colony’s workforce was made up of primarily English workers. They were referred to as bond laborers because they signed contract agreements with the Virginia Company and its stockholders before they boarded ships to the colony. The typical bond laborer expected to work as a “tenant-at-half.” This meant they agreed to work for a Company planter on Company land for half of the profits. The Company was responsible for supplying bond laborers with clothing, food, shelter, and a plot of land upon work completion (typically 4-7 years).

To reduce labor costs, the VA elite decided to change the established English conditions of bond contracts. After the change, tenants arriving at the colony often found themselves assigned to private planters on private land. Furthermore, workers were now expected to pay for their own food, shelter, and clothing. Since the price of tobacco was so low, tenants were barely able to make enough money to survive.

Rebellion and Social Control

The situation was dire. Food was scarce. Land was privatized. A steady stream of European laborers fed the environment of discontent. No longer could laborers expect to hold public office or find workable and ownable land for themselves. Members of the colony’s workforce began expressing their anger in a variety of ways. Some ran away to indigenous tribes. Others linked up with African slaves and burned tobacco crops to protest over-production.

The various rebellions culminated in Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676. Freemen, slaves, and bond laborers banded together to resist. The plantocracy was terrified. The threat of a united labor force pushing back against the plantation system was immediate. They needed to divide the laborers. They did this by creating a system that allowed one group (poor Europeans) to control the other (African slaves). But in order to make this a viable solution, the planters needed access to cheap labor. They needed someone for this new class of landless Europeans to manage.

In the 1680s, the English gained access to a steady supply of African slave labor by way of a treaty with the Dutch. The unfettered access to African labor was counterbalanced by a marked decrease in the availability of European labor. King Charles II made it harder for the Virginia Company to recruit poor European workers. Colonies in the Carolinas and Pennsylvania opened up, creating a place for poor Europeans to move to. The price of tobacco began to rise, improving the lives of planters and their mostly European tenants.

Prior to the early 1680s, most African slaves came to the Virginia Colony by way of Barbados. African slaves who labored in Barbados were often able to learn some English. This wasn’t an option for the new slaves abducted directly from the African coast. They struggled to acclimate and learn English. They were unable to communicate, plan, and find common cause with poor Europeans workers, leaving the new slaves alienated and alone.

In addition to these larger changes, a newly constituted Virginia Assembly instituted a series of legislative moves to place Africans in a state of permanent chattel servitude. Normally, under English common law, the status of a child drew from the status of the father. The Assembly flipped it so that a child’s status was now linked to the mother. This allowed European planters to increase their supply of hereditary chattel labor by raping their female slaves. Additionally, new antimiscegenation laws meant any European woman who married someone of African descent became property of her husband’s owner.

A Community of Privilege

The Virginia and Maryland colonial assemblies used the law to create a community of privilege bound up in skin color and status. Non-Europeans were unable to vote, own property, testify against Europeans in court, and buy/own anything resembling a weapon. On the other side, European slaves were given “freedom dues,” corn, weapons, and other living essentials. Poor whites were often placed in positions of authority over African slaves. This is because the community of privilege is contrapuntal in nature. Every European privilege is built upon the denial of freedom to Africans.

Those in power needed to create a new class that was so attractive that poor Europeans would see themselves as similar to the English elite. This is the origin of the white race, a legal category that begins showing up in official documents around the 1670s and 80s. The lack of historical precedent over a distinctly white race and the visibly distinct difference in pigment made whiteness a perfect way to maintain social control.

This is the origin of anti-Blackness, capitalism, and white privilege in the U.S.


Works consulted for this post:

Birth of a White Nation by Jacqueline Battalora

The Invention of the White Race v.1 and 2 by Theodore Allen

Settlers by J. Sakai

A Changing Labor Force and Race Relations in Virginia 1660-1710 by T. H. Breen

Colonists in Bondage, White Servitude and Convict Labor in America 1607-1776 by Abbot Emerson Smith


Image credit:

The Plantation” by

Licensed under CC0 1.0

Original source via Metropolitan Museum of Art


A Contained Existence: Ritual, Routine, and My Life on the Grid


I experience life through a series of shifting grids. Everything about the way I process information suggests right angles, coordinate planes, and compartments. Anytime I meet someone new, I assault them with a barrage of out of context and somewhat inappropriate questions: What music do you listen to? How was your childhood? What’s your relationship with your family? What were you like in high school? What are your favorite shows? My brain yearns to place everything and everyone into various interconnected frameworks. Everyone’s answers also act as a mirror, allowing me to engage in continuous rounds of self-assessment to make sure I stay within one standard deviation of what I consider to be normal.

The tendency to fix everything to a grid permeates every aspect of my life. When I was little kid, I told my mom how I enjoyed tracking syllables with my left hand. I would take sentences and count them off into alternating groups of 3, 4, and 5. The goal was to make the final syllable of every sentence end on a particular finger.

Heavy metal, my favorite genre of music, fits seamlessly into the grid. Every band taking up residence in my brain combines jackhammer force with the precision of quartz chronological movement. “Still Echoes” from Virginia metal band Lamb of God is a perfect example. Listening to the drums, guitars, and vocal patterns feels like spiraling out from the center of Fibonacci’s golden ratio pattern.

For this reason, my jogging playlist always contains a single song on repeat. No surprises and no shuffling. Just the same two minute chunk looped. It takes a certain kind of song to stand up to this obsessive level of routine. The song has to be relentless and consistent in beats per minute. Although I try to mix it up every few months, I keep coming back to the staples: Slayer, At the Gates, Lamb of God, In Flames, and Darkest Hour. The one exception here is Usher whose banger Scream enjoyed a couple summers of looping.

I’ve been listening to the first two minutes of Darkest Hour’s The Sadist Nation during every run for the last five years. It never gets old or loses its edge. Every listen is a fresh marching order, a call for muscle and sinew to propel the body forward. 1’s and 0’s, on’s and off’s, starts and finishes. I can’t stand jazz for this reason. The organic ebb and flow of improvisation, the rhythm changes, the fluidity of it all claws at my need for repetition and symmetry and containment.

Schools are perfect for me. In most schools, everything that happens slots nicely into a grid. Bell schedules, assignment schedules, curricular planning, everything is rationalized and consistent. I love it. Every school day is a perfect assemblage of self-contained rituals. I can tackle anything as long as it’s fixed to some sort of repetitive grid.

Ritual and repetition help me manage my ADHD. They place boundaries around everything. During summer and winter break, I keep to the same schedule. Wake up around 5 and play video games until 9. Then, work on writing until around 11 when I do some form of exercise. My afternoon is lunch, nap, reading, then YouTube until my wife gets home. Every day. Without such a setup I drown.

I’ve always been an all or nothing person. I recently had my wisdom teeth removed, an experience that left me swollen on the couch for days. I didn’t brush my teeth. I collapsed on the bed every night in the clothes I had been wearing all day. My diet consisted of slurping down ice cream, apple sauce, and ex lax whenever I felt like it. After a week of being off the grid, I was able to begin inserting modules of routine back into my schedule. Mercifully, my life is once again fully contained within blocks of reading, writing, exercise, and socially acceptable hygiene practices.

My contained existence brings me joy because it allows me to meet life on my terms.  Within constraint lies my personal freedom.


The Teacher I Want to Be: A Slice of Life

I sometimes imagine that teaching is sort of like playing in a local band. You’re the opening act for some larger performance. As the opener, not everyone is going to like you. Most of the audience didn’t come to see you, and they simply have to tolerate you. They bought a ticket to the show, they’re with their friends, and they’re excited for the headliner, so they stick around. But there are always a few diehard fans who are ecstatic to hear you play. They know the words to every song. They come early and stay late. When everyone else is on their cell phones, the diehard fans are pumping their fists and sharing that moment with you.

I use this analogy not as a way to compare teachers to rock stars (shudder), but as a way to think about the unique connections that can form between teachers and students. What starts out as a fandom built on the superficial aspects of performance (I love his energy! or He’s awkward like me!) can, over time, develop into a meaningful relationship. This is more the exception than the rule.

The analogy speaks to my belief that students will connect with certain teachers for specific and often idiosyncratic reasons. Some teachers might collect more fans than others, but even the quirkiest among us can make a difference in another human being’s life.

Over time, relationships between teachers and students can grow beyond the hierarchical structures common (and somewhat necessary) to schooling. If a student I taught last year stops by after school to talk, I’m able to engage with them holistically. We can interact with each other outside the realm of immediate academic transactions. Discussions of academic progress can still play a role; they just don’t have to be the focus.

Last week I received a Facebook message from a former student asking if he could come visit me at school. Since his high school classes don’t start until later in the morning, I told him to stop by around at the start of my first planning period. The two of us had kept in sporadic contact ever since we first hit it off four years ago when he was a student in one of my 7th grade English classes.

As he left my room and I scurried off to my meeting, I was struck by how joyous it felt to see him and talk to him about his life. To watch a life grow and stretch and push outwards. He is finding his groove, and I am so proud of him.

Although this might reflect poorly on my character, I’ve always looked forward to the possibility of former students reaching out and reconnecting with me. I guess it’s a reminder of what I love about teaching: growth, relationships, knowledge, the dialectical possibilities of minds interacting with one another.

The rest of the day was a fairly typical middle school day. I left the building exhausted, overloaded with work, and saturated with the tiny victories and big defeats that sometimes seem to characterizes my life as a teacher.

After the school day ended, I found myself in a situation inverse to the one described in the beginning of this post. Now, as I’ve written about before, I enjoy emailing people whom I admire. I’ve been lucky, fortunate, and privileged that some of my correspondences have blossomed into mentorships, leadership opportunities, and professional growth.

I’m currently co-writing a piece with Julie Gorlewski, one of my academic idols. We had a productive Google Hangout session yesterday, speaking through video chat about teaching, the state of public education, and our article. Julie is in every way my superior. She has published widely, taught in a variety of settings, and knows infinitely more about education than I probably ever will. But she treats me as an equal. I left our 75-minute conversation feeling valued as a thinker, learner, writer, and person. She took my ideas seriously and validated how I perceive the world. This, to me, is some of the raw power of education. It reminded me of who I want to be as an educator. Of how I want to interact with everyone I come into contact with.

As I reflected on the day, I was struck by the richness of education. By its ability to forge powerful relationships through generations and influence the outcomes of multiple lives. Most of all I felt an almost cosmic connection to those around me. In my former student and my new co-author, I felt my place as an educator and a human being.

Using “This I Believe” Podcasts to Elevate Student Voice – NVWP Summer ISI – Day 13

Welcome to the Northern Virginia Writing Project’s 2016 Invitational Summer Institute! I’ll be blogging the demonstration lessons and the various activities occurring during our four-week duration. Find out more about the NVWP and the National Writing Project.


We kick off our final week of Summer Institute with Joanne Mann. She’s going to present to us on using “This I Believe” podcasts to elevate student voice. Can’t wait!

Joanne begins her demonstration by having us arrange ourselves along a value line as she reads us a series of affective statements such as “Violence is sometimes necessary,” “Everyone is basically good,” and “All students should be required to speak English.”

Quickwrite: Which one made you think the most? Did others’ positions influence where you stood?

“Love lasts forever” probably resonated with me the most. To begin with, I don’t believe in soul mates. For me love is something that’s built up over time through the accumulation of shared experiences and the continued rejection of outside threats. I also try to think about my family and spouse dying a few times a week. I started doing this after reading about it on a mindfulness website. As a way to remind myself of life’s impermanence and to truly live in the single moment. In one sense, love lasts forever because it, and the memory of it, can remain in someone’s mind. Time’s up!

Here are the objectives for today’s lesson:


We’re doing this for a few reasons. It helps students develop technology skills. It helps them to reflect on their voice and to understand that their voices matter.

We listen to a podcast on Muhammad Ali from Muhammad Ali. This is the first draft reading; we sit and take it in. After this Joanne passes out the transcript of the podcast. Ali discusses his confidence growing up and how Parkinson’s Disease has affected him. The story culminates in Ali holding the Olympic Torch at the 1996 summer games. As he felt his trembles take over he heard a thunderous ruckus storming down from the stadium. Terrific story.

Next we do our second draft reading, annotating the transcript as we listen again. We share out. I discuss how Ali’s story seems quintessentially American. The idea that will and determination can triumph over everything. Others mention that Ali must have experienced failure and disappointment, but he chooses to focus on the triumphant aspects.

Then we create categories to make observations on about the text and fill them in on the following sheet. She runs is through two examples first (the guided release model) before having us work with our partner:


We come up with categories like theme, details, and structure/organization. After sharing out Joanne has us turn out attention towards another podcast. We have a few to choose from. I choose “A Grown-Up Barbie” from Jane Hamill (all of these come from the This I Believe book). I read it and analyze it for structure, theme, and details. I also jot down anything I notice about the piece. Joanne’s methodology here fits in with the type of model-based analysis currently popular among secondary English teachers.

Now that we’ve listened to a podcast, read two transcripts, and discussed both it’s time for us to create one ourselves.

our turn

So, what do we believe? Why do we believe it? What happened to us that created that belief? How has it been reinforced? She passes out a planner (I love planners, btw! I know they’re frowned upon in some circles – and I get it – but my attention deficient brain finds them extremely useful in organizing my thinking). Here’s what I come up with.


After completing the planner we spend time crafting our own brief “This I Believe” essay. The ultimate goal is to then record them using free software (such as the Voice Memos app which comes installed on every iPhone). Let’s give it a shot!

“Honey. This is ridiculous,” my wife said, frowning down at my desk with her hands on her hips. I had to agree with her. My massive white desk, once cramped with books and papers, was now completely obscured by composition text books, histories of education, and expensive books on pedagogy.” 

Crud! Out of time! 

Joanne ends our lesson by playing a couple examples from her students. Outstanding!

Writing Extraordinary Profiles of Ordinary People – NVWP Summer ISI – Day 1

Welcome to the Northern Virginia Writing Project’s 2016 Invitational Summer Institute! I’ll be blogging the demonstration lessons and the various activities occurring during our four-week duration. Find out more about the NVWP and the National Writing Project.

A different person is the ethnographer for each day. This person is responsible for chronicling the day’s events in any format they choose. As a three-year veteran of the Writing Project, I’m tasked as the ethnographer. Mine is as follows:

Day 1 Ethnography: Summer is Here

Our Fearless Leader (referred to from this point forward as O.F.L.) lets me take the lead for the first ISI ethnography. I know from previous experiences that the first ethnography tends to set the stage for the ethnographies to follow. It typically takes a solid week for most of us to feel comfortable enough to create an ethnography in our own vision. This, of course, makes perfect sense. Purposefully ambiguous expectations, institutional pressures to conform, and the hegemony of the model text make mimicry an understandable solution.

So I’m going to make this inaugural ethnography somewhat short and to the point. I encourage you all to write the ethnography however you want. Personally I’m not really pushing myself. First-person non-fiction narration is where I feel most comfortable.

I survey the room. The future teacher consultants seem split 50/50 on the use of digital vs. analog writing implements. The presence of so many pens might also have something to do with the first day’s spotty Wi-Fi. Michelle, a notebook fiend, might also be unwittingly inspiring some of us to ditch the district-provided laptop in favor of colorful pens.

We’re sitting and writing. This is an abridged version of our morning pages routine, a daily chunk of time devoted to nothing but sitting and writing. I wonder what everyone is writing. I would imagine equal parts diary/journal stream of consciousness narration, checklists and schedules, and clandestine email checking. I notice that many of us are also scribbling away on sticky notes for the ice breaker. OFL’s equally fearless daughter created a neat ice-breaker activity, so many of us are penning our six word memoirs, pet peeves, sin foods, and etc. to place on large pieces of chart paper.

You can already draw a few conclusions about everyone’s personality based on how they chose to complete the sticky note icebreaker. Some place their sticky notes in nice and neat Jeffersonian grids while others prefer a scattershot approach. Some use drawings while others create elaborate mini-essays.

Jokes are made. Mostly of the semi-corny variety best suited for first encounters. I do my usual routine of saying non-sequiturs and mumbling sarcastic comments under my breath. The atmosphere seems pretty typical for this type of function. Light jitters. Appropriately subdued and managed levels of libidinal energy. But like the first day of school, everyone is definitely on their best behavior. I’m looking forward to learning more about everyone’s personality in the upcoming weeks. Ron makes some jokes that exhibit a decent sense of humor possibly sympatico to mine. He also drew a neat looking cartoon spider for his ice breaker.

Lauren Jensen comes in around 9:40. A Writing Project alum/mainstay, Lauren will be running us through the first demo lesson of the Institute. She gets us writing with a question about teaching non-fiction writing. There’s nothing I can say about her that hasn’t already been said by way more accomplished people. She’s hyper-literate, driven, organized, and frighteningly knowledgeable. Lauren comes prepared with a vast array of instructional materials for us. Her lesson is an enjoyable combination of air-tight sequencing with off-the-cuff moments of improvisational commentary. I’m not going to type out much more about it, but if you’re interested I recommend checking out my blog. The time is now a little past noon, and we’re starting to get peckish.

We eat lunch. Nothing too noteworthy to say about it.

Michelle Hasseltine begins our first afternoon session by preaching on the power of social media. I cannot cosign enough. Tweet at authors. Connect with teachers. Engage in conversations. Almost everything good that’s happened to me professionally has come in some way from my interactions with others on social media. Michelle is a force of nature. Great teachers have presence, the seemingly preternatural ability to attract attention in a room. Michelle has this in spades. All eyes are glued to her as she walks us through the blogging process for the Summer Institute. She makes a passionate appeal for everyone in the room to wiggle at least a big toe toe in the waters of social media.

Next O.F.L. provides us with a guided tour through the syllabus with special emphasis on the summative portfolio. Everyone will be writing blog posts, completing statements of inquiry, writing various reflections, and etc. We’ll be in writing groups, reading canonical texts, and more. 

That’s it. No linguistic or textual pyrotechnics, no formal experimentation, just a straight-forward, chronological narration of the first day. You heard Lauren Jensen tell the room that the Writing Project was the most powerful professional development experience of her life. I’ve heard the same sentiment echoed by nearly everyone who has experienced the ISI. Personal growth often occurs in fits and starts. It’s my hope that what happens during the next four weeks will reverberate through you for years to come.

After morning pages Lauren Jensen comes in around 9:40. A Writing Project alum/mainstay, Lauren will be running us through the first demo lesson of the institute. This 3-week lesson cycle involves using profiles in the writing classroom (She gave a version of this during last year’s ISI, as well). She gets us writing with a question about teaching non-fiction writing. Lauren begins by asking us to write down our initial response to the question: What do you think of teaching non-fiction writing to your students? My answers will always be in red.

I love it! Non-fiction writing is perhaps my favorite topic/genre to teach. I’m immensely interested in personal stories, self-expression, and any kind of writing that draws its main inspiration from the stuff of lived experience. Similar statements could be made about all writing, for sure. But personal essay writing is just so wonderful to read, write, and teach.

When it comes to more traditional school-based non-fiction writing like research papers, I’m neither excited nor underwhelmed. I haven’t done a lot of research writing in the past simply because I haven’t spent a lot of time looking into how to do it well. I’ll probably look to remedy this omission in the upcoming school year. I’ve read a few nice essays examining the benefits/pitfalls of classroom research writing and I feel more comfortable wading into those waters.

We share our answers out. Some of us approach non-fiction writing with trepidation while others say they enjoy the structures of fact-based compositions. It’s clear that teachers and students alike hold strong opinions about this. The beginning of successfully teaching non-fiction is unpacking what we mean by the genre. She takes us through quotes from past students who all speak to the point that teachers have pretty much ruined non-fiction for most kids. They find it boring, pointless, and requiring way more editing and revision than it’s worth.

She next points out the disconnect between what many of us have our students read (literature) with what we then ask them to write (5 paragraph essays). So she wants to introduce more “real world” writing, composition that’s rooted in authentic audience, genre, and process. That’s where non-fiction profiles come into play.

She begins by tying her portfolio unit into whatever her students are studying at the time. Portfolios are malleable. They can fit into most units because interesting people come from all walks of life and are found in most texts. Portfolios are also found in a wide array of periodicals such as Rolling Stone, In Style, and the New Yorker. As a result, this unit, although quite complex in nature, allows for differentiation, incorporates pop culture, and pushes students into some pretty complex levels of thought.

She introduces us to the genre with a spirited reading of Susan Orlean’s Show Dog. It’s awesome. We then discuss what we noticed about the genre. It’s creative, it uses facts, it’s funny, there’s an element of narrative, it’s non-fiction, it requires research, etc. It’s a wonderful blend of methods and styles. Above all else there’s a sense of intimacy. Intimacy between both the author and subject and the author and reader. Here’s her process.

Writing a Profile: The Process
1. Profile genre study: What do you notice? Immerse yourself in the genre. Read a lot of them. Talk about them, etc. This is a basic component to most inquiry models.
2. Find interview subject and write a letter of invitation: family, friends, family friends, friends of family. They have to learn how to go out into the community and ask people. Plenty of opportunities here to make bridges with the community.
3. Write contextualization essay: 3-4 paragraphs. Requires each student to do some research and acquire important background knowledge about the interviewee and their topic.
4. Practice with recording equipment: pretty self-explanatory. Never assume that students are familiar with technology. Always teach.
5. Conduct mock interviews / craft interview questions: Practice interviewing people who give 1-2 word answers. Go through a few common archetypes. Problem solve in the moment and try to foresee problems.
6. Transcribe interview and select quality quotes: they transcribe the best part(s). It shouldn’t go beyond two pages.
7. Craft lessons: (based on student work and student requests, like how to select quality quotes) This is a great way to help students practice skills within the context of their draft
8. Draft and revise:
9. Write thank you notes to interviewees: actual notes on actual stationary – the thank you note is a valuable genre!
10. Compile portfolio and class publication / public reading with distinguished guests

You see how the process is multi-layered. It leans on the community. It builds and values empathy. It requires research, reading, and writing. We partner up and go through a genre study using some mentor texts Lauren provides us. The portfolios lend themselves to skillful inferences on the part of the reader. They’re rich in description (about the subject, the setting, the events, etc). Parenthetical asides. These portfolios are masterclasses in studying tone, mood, and writer’s voice. How to select important information from a sea of writing. They’re a great way to start talking about writer’s craft.



The last step of the process is to write out our questions and then interview each other. At the ISI we introduce each other using the information gained from these portfolios. Like a drop of soap in greasy water we immediately scatter to the corners of the floor to find some peace and quiet in order to interview each other. After that we spend the final pre-lunch minutes debriefing about the lesson cycle. While having someone as powerful and polished as Lauren present first can increase the intimidation among participants, kicking off the Summer Institute with such an effective demonstration lesson sets the tone for the rest of our time together.

A few of us share out what we’ve written on our profiles before the ink is even dry. A few of us sandbag our reading with “This isn’t that good…,” a common mea-culpa among growing writers. A few of us who have done this before know how to handle it; we shout out “shut up and read the crap!” We’ll no doubt repeat this mantra multiple times throughout the Summer Institute. By the final week anyone silly enough to begin with such a self-deprecating aside will find themselves on the receiving end of a rowdy vocal chorus. Shut up and read the crap.

Student Made Standards Based Rubrics – NVWP Summer Institute – Day 12 pt. 1

Now we have Nick Maneno. He’s one of the many rockstars of the Writing Project. He is a model for pretty much all of us. He apparently begins most of his emails with, “hmmm..” I think I’m going to start doing that.

Nick cover

Student Made Standards Based Rubrics: An Inquiry Approach to using a Mentor Text to identify standards, develop a Rubric, craft and score a poem. 

What a title!

Nick begins by talking about how he isn’t really that into rubrics. But he works in a school system that uses Standards-Based Grading (want to learn more about it? Look up Rick Wormeli. He’s sort of like the guru). Nick says he likes neither rubrics nor standards, but he has to make it work. So this demo lesson is an attempt to make all of this work. Please note that this demo lesson write-up will be devoid of any authorial commentary by yours truly.

Quickwrite1: List some things you do for fun and recreation.
-video games
-pretend to exercise

Now, pick one thing from the list and keep it in your head while reading the following poem. (An intention for reading)  

Sorry about the poor quality!

Sorry about the poor quality!

Then he tells us to read it again, only this time looking for literary elements and text features. What standards do we see being used here? We discuss movement, font size changes, capitalization, onomatopoeia, author’s purpose, exaggerated spellings, non-standard use of line breaks and white space, (link here to Katie’s presentation), alliteration, strong verbs/word choice (link here to Janique’s lesson), a title (link here to Michele’s lesson), parallelism with the ‘ing’ forms, we gerunds.

We get ourselves together in groups of three. Three is the perfect number, he says. You get a diversity of opinions while still allowing a space for everyone to give their opinion. We add polysemous words, some repetition, the form paralleling the content of the poem, and more. (Nick says here that collaborating and turning and talking with partners is the most important part of his classroom. Nick gives a plug for “Teaching with Your Mouth Shut [which I’ve never heard of! Amazon, here we come]). I’ve already learned so much from just this conversation.

So we’re all noticing here. Nick shows us what his fifth graders noticed:

Student stds

Nick is going to have us write our own poem using the Kwame Alexander as a mentor text.

The first step is to compose a rubric for the poem we’re about to write, using the Virginia writing standards of ‘Composition,’ ‘Expression,’ and ‘Mechanics.’ I don’t get very far. We work on our rubric individually, then we go back to our group of three and try to put it together. Nick tells us that he doesn’t really care that much about the rubric. The important part, he says, is the dialogue parsing out what it is that makes a poem successful or not. Nick ties this into the Inquiry model. Immerse students in the genre, and then have them create a rubric for what they’re about to create. Here’s the rubric Nick’s class came up with.

Class rubric

I am again, for the enteenth time this summer institute, reminded of Katie Wood Ray and “writing under the influence.”

Nick wants us to now write a poem emulating Kwame Alexander’s poetic form following the class’ rubric. I’ve written mine about one of my hobbies: watching Northern Lion’s YouTube Let’s Play videos after work. I do this religiously every day. I’ve been watching his videos for months, and by now I feel like part of the family. Interesting connections here with online communities, video games as an industry, YouTube as a public sphere, etc. Here’s my draft!

My Poem

Now he has us ask ourselves the following questions: What did I learn by doing the rubric? Did it help me learn? To be honest, our group was more interested in gabbing about our poems than we were discussing the rubric portion. Nick then shows us a powerful slide reflecting what his students thought about the rubric process.

Student Refl

Next up is Essaying. Nick sets us up with a T-Chart. He calls this the Chronologic method, which I love. Chronologic writing comes from Paul Heilker. Left side is “What I think the poem is about” and the right side is “Why I think Like I do.” He then reads us a poem line by line. After each line he stops reading and we keep a running log of what we think it’s about and why I think the way I do.

T Chart

The evidence falls into five categories: logic, life experiences, intuition, emotion, and text evidence. These are the five paradigms of essay writing, he says. This type of line-by-line analysis is an excellent way to promote the essay as a tool for understanding. Nick is interested in reclaiming the essay for ‘writing to learn’ instead of ‘a record of learning.’ He mentions that the French verb ‘es say’  is ‘to try.’ So he encourages us to use tentative language (instead of the authoritarian language often taught alongside the essay). Coming to understanding through stages of measured analysis and thought. After each stage the class discusses our various interpretations and reasonings. We’re encouraged to ponder each new perspective, adding it to our own if we want. The essay becomes the combination of the Chronologic thinking. Claim and evidence moving forward towards a new point of understanding.

Creating Extraordinary Profiles of Ordinary People – NVWP Summer Institute – Day 10 pt. 1

Today begins with a presentation by Lauren Jensen.

LJ Cover

Literary Lives: Writing Extraordinary Profiles of Ordinary People

She gets us writing with a quickwrite: What’s your initial response when you think of teaching non-fiction writing to your students?

Well, for me the answer depends on the sub-genre within non-fiction. For instance, I love teaching anything dealing with the affective realm. Memoirs, personal narratives, biographies, little slices of life, etc. The type of non-fiction that centers around an emotional core. I’ve stayed as far away from research papers as I could possible get. Not for any real reason. I think I was more interested in pursuing a strictly “creative” writing path last year for myself and my students. 

My “bleargh” attitude towards non-fiction suggests a certain lack of personal creativity and investment in the factual side of things. During a county-wide ELA meeting, for example, we talked a lot about using high-interest (teens, war, depression) texts to teach children about the exciting, creative side of non-fiction. It was an embarrassing moment of “oh yea, duh.”

My final thought chunklet has to do with genre. Creating specific genre divisions seems a bit too arbitrary for my liking. But, I think this is again a reaction to what I perceive as how non-fiction is usually handled in schools. This is odd because I used to quite like “dry” academic style writing. This is an area I need to explore. 

Jensen places this lesson within the context of non-fiction. She’s from NY, where PARCC, the Gates Foundation, the Wal-Mart family, and Common Core have created curricular approach centered around non-fiction. How could she motivate young writers in her classroom given the circumstances? She tells us to ignore mandates we don’t agree with and take control of our classrooms. Cosign!

She teaches “real-world” non-fiction writing. Composition rooted in the events and purposes and complexities of a student’s lived experience. That, as Grant Wiggins would say, ‘audience’ and ‘purpose’ are not mere buzzwords; they are task-defining. Jensen uses a focused quickwrite to help us understand how the profile project fits into her curriculum.

Quickwrite2: Pick a topic and write on it! Does war affect both those directly involved and those on the periphery? If so, what are the effects? How does war fundamentally change those affected by it?

I’m going to answer this one from my own experiences. This is a tough issue to write about. Just thinking about war in the abstract brings up so many issues: patriotism, sacrifice, power, class, propaganda, money. (Also, I remember buying the Desert Storm trading cards that came out during the 90s.) Take the war(s) in Afghanistan. I struggle to find specific ways I’m affected. This probably reveals an embarrassing blind-spot when it comes to my knowledge of the human cost of war and the way massive conflicts shape public policy. I don’t know anyone who has fought in a war. I don’t come from a military family. My understanding of the human cost of war comes through primarily secondary sources. Wounded Warrior commercials. Works of fiction. Now, I’m not devaluing the role of fiction in portraying the reality of war. I’m just explaining that my perception of it is filtered through complex layers of politicized media and consumer goods. Everything I’ve written ignores the question. 

We share out. Some of us talk about how this question leads to a wide variety of answers. Everyone has different experiences. ESOL kids, people living in the NOVA area. So many factors affect the answer. Jensen uses this project to find and give voice to people who have participated in war. This is her framing device. She uses profiles to get answers to the two quickwrite questions. Her 10th graders went out to retirement homes and the community to find people to answer these questions.

She begins by introducing the genre to students. Immersing them in examples of the genre from the “real world.” Where are profiles found: The New Yorker. InStyle. Rolling Stone. Sports Illustrated. She reads us part of a profile to have us try and figure out what a profile is. We listen. The piece is called, ‘Showdog’ by Susan Orlean. We talk about the elevation of the quotidian. Insider vs. outsider perspectives. Physical descriptions.

OK. Here is Laura’s process for teaching portfolios:
profile genre study: genre immersion, tons of examples, creating a class list of genre characteristics, annotating profiles for those characteristics. LIVE AND BREATH THE GENRE BEFORE WRITING
find interview subject/write: write a letter of invitation to ask permission for someone to give you part of their life
letter of invitation: what it sounds like
write contextualization essay: a little research on the military conflict in which the individual was involved. or about being a spouse/military family, etc. This helps them write questions and approach the subject correctly.
practice with recording equipment: record using digital recorders, have them use their phones, etc.This allows the student to write down other obsservations about body language, description, mannerisms, etc.Video recording works as well.
conduct mock interview questions: Laura has them come up with interview questions and practice with her

(This process is true to the inquiry model of instruction. Think Katie Wood Ray.)

Activity 1: We partner up and grab copies of mentor text profiles Laura kindly brought for us.We read and fill in. The sheet we fill in has us list any characteristics we notice and then write out evidence from the text for it. SheetWe come up with genre conventions like quotes, family background, physical description, quirks, others’ comments and observations on the interviewee, reason for the interview, text features, and the gradual occlusion of the interviewer’s voice by the interviewee.

Profile Charac

Activity 2: Select an angle (showcasing how extraordinary the person is) for the interview. Open with biographical questions (trying to focus on open questions vs. closed questions). Record details about the setting, physical description, mannerisms, and other minute details. So many “soft skills” at work here. Empathy, discourse, personal skills, reading body language. Connections here with the oral standards, with helping ESOL/ELL kids, active listening. All of this has to be taught and practiced before the actual interview.

Activity 3: Interview! OK. So I’m going to interview my neighbor. We both decide to use the angle of “how you became interested in progressive values.” Sweet! Now I’m going to come up with my five questions. Her responses are after the questions.

1.Tell me about yourself. I’m _______. I grew up in Boston and have lived in the DMV area for five years. I’ve pretty much known forever that I wanted to be a teacher. My mom was an activist involved in the community. So I grew up in a social justice type environment. Her mom helped steer her into teaching as a job. She volunteered in a public school her senior year of high school. A fight broke out in the classroom she was observing, leading her to examine her own privilege.

2. What is the most difficult part of your job? I’ve definitely worked with some challenging kids, but the hardest part is dealing with the adults, who don’t see issues in the same way that I see them. I consider myself to be very educated, and I get pissed off when I see teachers following trends without thinking critically. So negotiating those interactions and trying not to cuss someone out. At my old school, for instance, at my old school we had a major test prep initiative. I was one of the only teachers to raise questions about why we were doing it and what the purpose of it was. It was a situation of educators doing things even though they’re not the best choices for kids. It’s very hard to explain these things without coming across like a jerk.

3. What do you like about teaching? I love interacting with quirky kids. I love being around children and their different personalities. Sharing with them the power of reading. Not analyzing a text to death, but what does this particular book help you understand life. This view of reading is in conflict with the road I think we’re heading down, which is a process of reading a text to death. I was just reading about an EngageNY program about close reading a text for seventeen days. I’m leaving a private school to go back to public schools because I felt disconnected from the larger debates about education.

4. Do you hold values in conflict with society?

5. Describe for me your growth as a teacher. Well, I am extremely neurotic. I’m a perfectionist, partly in recovery (hopefully). When I do things I want them to be done well. That has really been the drive that has pushed me to grow in terms of my instruction and has pushed me to find resources outside of the school-led PDs. I think this is another reason why I’m able to call BS on practices that I think are harmful to the cause. In terms of the politics of it, I have a sense of great unease with what I see in education. Especially at my first school, where we had testing pep rallies, token economies, and the like. I always hated this. Children should be in class learning, not making rap videos about testing strategies. I’ve always been this way. The cognitive dissonance spurred me to seek out other voices. I found a few in my school to talk through the things I saw that disgusted me. I also somehow stumbled upon education scholars such as Diane Ravitch and Paul Thomas. Too many awards and not enough substance. Now I feel I have the ability to be more outspoken about my views. I’m trying to build in my head these arguments I can use against people. (side note, I do this too! I often think about these imaginary dialogues when I go running)

6. What is your take on the state of American education? I think that American education is under attack by people claiming that they really care about poor children. However all of the policies show that they don’t actually care about them, and that in fact they want to keep the underprivileged in their place. When I hear Diane Ravitch talk about how public schools haven’t changed that much, I realize that I need to work to understand that. I know that schools can’t do it all. Corporate ed reform has this belief that schools can do it all. We need to start addressing poverty and supporting community growth. Not just attacking schools and teachers.

Wow, that was so fun! We both just opened up. Talking and riffing off of one another. We share out about how amazing this was. How much we learned. How even the most “basic” question has the power to illicit a wealth of discourse.

The interview is done. Now what? The Process:
1. Transcribe the best parts of the interview/select quality quotes: 2-3 pages max
2. Craft lessons (based on student requests): selecting quotes, describing the setting, giving them options. Then, they go and write three freewrites on particular genre characteristics discussed earlier. Like, a freewrite only focusing on physical description.
3. Draft, revise, revise, revise:
4. Write thank you notes to interviewees: Like actual notes
5. Compile portfolio: Use students! Create committees! Put them to work!
6. Class publication / public reading with distinguished guest:She requires students to select their best, most emotionally charged 2-3 paragraphs to read out.

Activity #4: Take some of your interview and what you know about the profile genre and just start writing. See what happens.

“We can sit on the floor, if you want. I don’t mind getting dirty,” Janique tells me as we search for a place to conduct our mutual interviews. You can tell a lot about someone by what they say when the stakes are low. This off-hand comment hints at an identity uninterested in the trappings of formality. A sense of self favoring action over poise. Janique Parrott comes from a family of agitators. Social justice as a birthright, a mantle. 

That took me a while! I’m a slow writer, especially when I want to do a subject justice. We go around the room and share out. Smiles overwhelm almost every face. So great!

Phew! What a lesson! Time for lunch.