Category: Teaching

Griots and DJs: Student Jobs and Equity in the Middle School Classroom


The skittering hi-hat from Cardi B’s Bodak Yellow slunk through the classroom. Students bobbed their heads as they composed poems and personal narratives about their names. Period 1’s Class DJ surveyed the class with a smile and returned to his seat, leaving his phone plugged into the class speakers for the duration of independent writing time.

Before this year, classroom jobs remained off of my radar. They never interested me. For one, I struggle to delegate work and I have a severe perfectionist streak. I also assumed middle school students would turn up their noses at the quotidian ins and outs of daily classroom life. 

I was wrong. The more I’m leaning back, the more they’re leaning in.

So this year, kids in my classroom will be:

  1. Griots: Taking pictures of what we do in class and posting them on our class social media accounts
  2. DJs: Creating playlists of instrumental versions of popular songs that they’ll play during independent work
  3. Teacher’s Assistants (TAs): Running any errands, distributing and collecting materials, and dismissing groups based on cleanliness when the bell rings 
  4. Book-Keepers: Keeping our classroom library organized, helping suggest books, picking books for book talks
  5. Time-Keepers: Watching the clock every time we have timed tasks (which for the most part happens multiple times per class)
  6. Class Advisory Board members: Meeting with me every Wednesday during lunch to give me feedback on my teaching. What lessons are working, what aren’t, and how I can improve

The first step involved asking the students to figure out what skills each job needed and how each job would benefit the class. I created a one-page description for each job, placed the sheet on a large sheet of butcher paper, and then hung the butcher paper around the room. In groups of 3, students rotated through each job station, spending two minutes jotting down answers on the charts. The idea was to help students think through the ramifications of each class job before applying. Here are the one-pagers I created. Forgive me the old memes.

Afterwards, interested students completed a simple Google Form application. They chose the jobs they were interested in and explained why they would be a good fit. At the end of the day I went through and selected students of color who expressed interest. The next day I wrote out “acceptance” letters in fancy font, printed them out on quality cardstock, and signed them with a flourish. In every class I revealed the acceptance letters with as much fanfare as possible.

It’s been a week since I passed out the letters. Certain jobs like the book-keepers and TAs were able to start immediately. The griots and DJs, however, have required slightly more attention. Class DJs had to figure out how they would pick songs, if they wanted to take requests, how often they would change their playlists, etc. Griots had to create social media accounts, figure out how to advertise them, determine what they would take pictures of and, as one student kept reminding the group, “find the right aesthetic.” As a result, these two jobs have yet to begin.

The decision to go all in with classroom jobs stemmed from Christopher Emdin’s essential For White Folks Who Teach In The Hood. Emdin devotes an entire chapter to discussing the intersections of student responsibility, classroom culture, and equity. He describes classroom jobs as a way to create “…a space where each student is a full citizen responsible for how well the class meets the collective academic, social, and emotional goals” (107). For Emdin, jobs are part of an approach to pedagogy centered on “fostering socioemotional connections in the classroom with the goal of building students’ sense of responsibility to each other and to the learning environment” (105).

In a few weeks, I’ll gather together every student with a job so we can reflect. What needs to be changed? What jobs should be added/removed?

I’m beginning to see how successfully implementing classroom jobs can shift the culture of a classroom. It’s not easy, and I’m finding that I need to spend more time helping students understand that their jobs are about sharing responsibility, not lording power over one another. I’m confident that as the year progresses, and as I become more skilled at working with students in this new way, we can shift the balance of power and co-construct the community we need.

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What’s the Point? Theory, History, and Middle School Language Arts

Huff puff America 2000! Huff puff Goals 2000! Huff puff NCLB! Huff puff Race to the Top! 

I used to run through basic education history facts whenever I went out jogging. Timelines, names, and key concepts fought to implant themselves inside my brain as I heaved myself along the idyllic running path outside my home. Like the cartographers in Jorge Louis Borges’ “On Exactitude in Science,” I sought to construct a map that could store and represent everything I knew about education and theory. If I could only keep my facts straight, I figured, everything else would turn out fine.

I’ve traditionally devoted the summer months to catching up on my theory and history reading. Before this summer started, I lined up what I assumed to be the first chunk of books to plow through. As you can see, I was planning to go hard on history with some theory thrown in for good measure.


Before I cracked open Lawrence Cremin’s The Transformation of the School, I decided to live a little and read Intention: Critical Creativity in the Classroom. The new book was making waves across my various social media feeds, and I wanted to see what all of the fuss was about. The book is split into two halves: the theory behind the lessons and then the lessons themselves. For the first time, I found myself skipping through the theory to get to “the good stuff.” This isn’t me. I’m normally the jerk in the back of the room who insists on parsing out the “why” before launching into the “what” and “how,” a tendency of mine that can wear thin on colleagues.

The self-contained nature of the book’s lessons seemed a perfect fit for Google Keep, an Evernote-esque organization program that lets you store, label, categorize, etc. My memory is atrocious, and I’ve always wanted to see what would happen if I devoted a big chunk of time to organizing everything I know about teaching. So I spent an afternoon taking pictures of the book and categorizing each lesson with various tags. I was so pleased with the end result that I spent the next few days doing the same thing with a few of my favorite teaching books. Before I knew it, I had created over twenty-five different labels and gone through six books. My Google Keep homepage is quickly becoming Borges’ map.


Now I’m at a crossroads. How do I proceed knowing time is finite and I have much to do? Many of the theory and history books I’ve enjoyed don’t fit well into a Google Keep type interface. Even if they did, would it be worth it to reduce them to snippets? The first book I completed this summer, The Young Composers: Composition’s Beginnings in Nineteenth-Century Schools, is wonderful. But is it useful? How do my students and colleagues benefit from my ability to extemporize on the development of school-age composition instruction from rote learning in the early 1800s to experiential writing topics in the early 1900s? The same question also stands for theory. I spent last summer attempting to teach myself the main theories of composition pedagogy. Do my students really gain anything from a teacher who can speak on the interesting symbiosis between the process movement and the expressionist movement?

In a sense, these questions employ a mechanistic and functionalist view of teacher knowledge: the only things worth doing are those that lead to immediate, sequential, and tangible outcomes for students. On one level I recognize that separating theory and practice enforces a false dichotomy. Theory doesn’t necessarily lead to practice; theory is enacted through practice. For instance, I value social justice. So I implement democratic classroom structures that require students to work collaboratively and explore ‘real world’ questions through literacy, my content area. This feeds back into my personal pedagogy as I reflect on my practice and work with students. The recursion of praxis.

Finally, questions about the relationship between theory and practice have implications for knowledge work and what it means to be a teacher. Last winter, Katie Kraushaar and I collaborated on an article for publication in Voices from the Middle, NCTE’s middle grades journal. We attempted to show why teachers of writing should themselves be writers. Part of the revision process for our article meant researching the question of why teachers of writing tend not to be writers themselves. I learned that this same debate raged during the 1990s in the pages of English Journal. And here I was discovering the topic for the first time twenty years later. I experienced the gulf between what goes down in professional journals and academic conferences and what happens in middle school language arts classrooms.

There is probably no satisfactory answer to the question of “why should I spend time reading theory and history?” Any answer I can come up with bends and refracts as soon as I submit it to a critical gaze. For now, I’ll continue plugging away on Google Keep, reducing books to shards of lessons for safe keeping. Resting safe with the knowledge that regardless of how many theorists I forget or the number of concepts that slip from my grasp in the intervening months, I’ll at least have an awesome collection of lessons come September.




“Have you READ their writing?” Resisting the Obsession with Mechanical Correctness

Listening to teachers complain about student writing is exhausting. They can’t write; they don’t know where to use commas; they don’t capitalize every i; their spelling is atrocious. When this sort of narrative pops up in mainstream discourse, it’s often to complain about education’s failure to prepare kids for the workforce and to provide a platform for ‘back in my day, teachers made us diagram sentences/memorize parts of speech/etc.’ bloviating.

When these sentiments appear inside a school, they take on a slightly different tenor. Behind every complaint about a kid’s writing seems to be an underlying message about the failure of that child’s previous language arts teacher(s). It’s as if the teacher is throwing their hands up and proclaiming ‘Look at the mess I inherited! What am I supposed to do? How can I teach my content when these kids don’t even understand the basics!’

There’s a lot to unpack here. First, this nagging is counterproductive and can build resentment among teachers. Schools have more than enough finger-pointing as it is; engaging in ego-driven grandstanding serves no one.

To the teachers who regularly engage in this sort of carping, please stop. If you don’t like what your students are producing, then address it in the classroom. Regardless of content or grade, helping children learn to read, write, speak, and think is everyone’s responsibility. These complaints also elevate surface features (spelling, grammar, basic syntax) above all else.

The notion that mechanical perfection is the goal of writing instruction is deleterious to good teaching. It reinforces a deficit view of student writing by focusing on what a child did wrong. It trains us to approach student writing as something to be endured, some sort of gauntlet all language arts teachers must go through. It also encourages teachers and students to see writing as a series of levels to be mastered. Writing doesn’t care about scope and sequence documents or district-wide vertical alignment. It grows in fits and starts, evolving through recursive spirals of progress and regress.

Historically, evidence shows that teachers have been complaining about student writing since the first American universities. In The Rise and Fall of English, Robert Scholes examines primary documents such as university syllabi and commencement speeches to conclude that

English teachers have not found any method to ensure that graduates of their courses would use what were considered to be correct grammar and spelling. A number of conclusions can be drawn from this situation. One is that the good old days when students wrote “correctly” never existed. A second conclusion might well be that two hundred years of failure are sufficient to demonstrate that what Bronson called beggarly matters (spelling, grammar, capitalization, punctuation) are both impossible to teach and not really necessary for success in life. (p. 6)

This isn’t all to say that mechanical correctness doesn’t matter. The above notion that grammar and spelling are not “necessary for success in life” should be followed by “for certain people.” I’m reminded of an anecdote from Christopher Emdin’s For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood. Emdin recounts a conversation with a white teacher about the role of appearance. The teacher doesn’t understand why her students of color seem so focused on fashion and style. What do these things matter? After all, she says, she comes to school every morning in casual dress. Emdin replies that the ability to be treated professionally regardless of dress is a luxury many people of color can’t necessarily afford.

So of course grammar and spelling matter. Certain errors like nonstandard verb forms and incorrect subject/verb agreement can carry serious connotations of race and class. The legacy of mechanical correctness is steeped in racism, xenophobia, and class anxiety (for more on this, check out Mechanical Correctness and Ritual in the Late Nineteenth-Century Composition Classroom by Richard Boyd and The Evolution of Nineteenth-Century Grammar Teaching by William Woods). As teachers, we have the responsibility to help students understand the intersections of power and literacy. But this doesn’t mean chastising students for every mistake they make in their writing. Nor does it mean requiring every student draft to be mechanically perfect.

My go-to authority for how to treat errors in student writing is Constance Weaver. She urges us to see errors as a necessary component of growth. The following chart, taken from her Teaching Grammar in Context, sums up what a more compassionate and purposeful approach towards errors might look like.

Along with the solid tips outlined above, remember that students should focus on superficial edits using their own writing, on a topic they care about, during the final stages of the writing process.

If nothing else, stop complaining about student writing. It’s counter-productive to our mission and makes an already exhausting job that much more draining. If you’re not enjoying yourself, neither are they.


So, What’d You Think? Asking Students about My Lessons

“Can we have naptime? I think we should have naptime.” 

Ever since September, I’ve been meeting with a select group of students to receive feedback on my classroom instruction. Wooed free 7-11 donuts, five students spend every Monday’s lunch period sitting in a circle and telling me what’s working and what could use some improvement. Nap comment aside, the students take the time seriously and view our weekly meetings as important.

I was first introduced to the idea of meeting with students to discuss instruction in Ira Shor’s books Empowering Education and When Students Have Power. I loved the idea, but I wasn’t entirely sold. Shor’s books deal mainly with higher education, and I had a hard time visualizing what such a meeting would look like at the middle grades.  It wasn’t until I read Christopher Emdin’s For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood that I realized I had to create a space for teacher-student dialogue. For Emdin, these “cogenerative dialogues” are an important and powerful step towards building emancipatory classrooms.

The idea is simple. Gather a representative selection of students from your classes. This means students of all ability levels, race, etc. I explained the process and then had interested students fill out a short Google Form. Then, you ask relatively simple questions with easy-to-implement answers. For instance, what are some ways we can do in the opening/closing minutes of class? What are some things I can do more of? Then, depending on everyone’s comfort level and the nature of the class, the questions ramp up. Instruction, discipline, text selection, etc. All topics are fair game. Students then rotate out of the group every six weeks or so. The idea is that students come to see themselves as co-creators of the educational space.

The first few weeks were spotty: kids didn’t show up consistently, I struggled with schedules, and discussions were more dead air than authentic exchange. But after a couple of months, we settled into a groove that’s persisted into the new year.

The C.A.B., or class advisory board (even after saying it for a month, ‘cogenerative dialogue’ felt forced and weird coming out of my mouth. Instead, I embraced my inner bureaucrat and created a sterile acronym-friendly moniker that fits me), hasn’t yet reached Emdin and Shor’s descriptions. The meetings remain fairly teacher-centered. As soon as the kids come in I pepper them with questions. We make sure everyone speaks, and I move the conversation along at a rapid pace, but my questions and presence drive the meetings.

The Limits of Student Feedback

For the last two weeks, I walked the lunch group through the previous week’s lessons. I created lesson summaries and asked them to tell me what worked and what didn’t work. In my mind, the students would be eager to “thin-slice” each lesson, offering me suggestions for better transitions, more engaging mentor texts, etc. Instead, they tended to remember single activities more than a lesson’s nuts and bolts. “This was fun because we got to move around,” or “This was boring because we’d already done it.”

In order to get around that, I ask every class for feedback on the day’s lesson twice a week. This usually takes the form of answering “What worked about today’s lesson? What would you improve?” on a sticky note and plastering it to the wall as they leave.

This week we talked about how to handle our end-of-quarter portfolios. Students responded with,

“You should give us quizzes so you know what we know.”

“Yea! And quizzes tell us what we know, too”

“If you let us pick our grades everyone will give themselves an A.”

Their answers, while certainly authentic to their experiences, reminded me of a quote from Paul Thomas. “Students remain uncritical of their behavior as students as opposed to learners or humans.” I don’t have discussions with my seventh graders about why I stopped use tests, grades, or quizzes for this reason. (It’s also one of the few aspects of my class that is not open to debate or wiggle room.)

Class Advisory Board has become an important part of my pedagogy. As administrators from central office continue their walkthroughs of the schools in my district, the authentic feedback I’m receiving from students who spend every day with me makes for an interesting contrast to the faceless forms following a 2-3 minute classroom visit. Students aren’t yet co-planning parts of a lesson a la Emdin, but it’s a start



Let’s Plan A Unit! Mentor Texts and Anxiety​

Just like pretty much everything else in teaching, planning for a unit is equal parts exhaustion and exuberance. A new unit is daunting. In one sense it’s sort of like the bags of holding from Dungeons & Dragons, capacious receptacles able to store and accommodate pretty much anything. But just because you can cram every formative assessment, common text, and standard into a unit doesn’t mean you should. As one of my old bosses used to say, if everything’s an emergency, nothing is.

The difference between a successful unit and a bundle of lessons cobbled together comes down to skill and preparation. As a perfectionist, I typically go overboard with the latter to make up for the former. Unfortunately, the planning process places a lot of stress on my holy trinity of anxiety, ADHD, and perfectionism. If I had to graph my stress level throughout a unit, it would resemble what Mr. Carter, my team’s math teacher, told me is a sine wave.


The middle of the unit is always the least stressful; I’m teaching and students are at least going through the motions of learning. The end of the unit is when I have to face the results of what I’ve just spent the past few weeks trying to accomplish. It’s also when the machinery described throughout this post gets going again.

Planning a unit is like going food shopping. Or, I imagine it should be. I would never be tasked with such an important job because me + grocery stores = stupefaction. The volume of products found at any half-decent grocery store, to say nothing about the impact of music, fluorescent lighting, or signage, bogs my brain’s processor down. I lock up. (This is why my weekly trips to Trader Joe’s have to be as fool-proof as possible. I go every Saturday morning at 8:00 AM and navigate the aisles in the same order and purchase the same products in the same quantities. And even then I routinely space out and forget something or end up with a cart full of miscellaneous desserts.)

This year, after reading the outstanding Writing with Mentors by Allison Marchetti and Rebekah O’Dell, I committed myself to a mentor text-based vision of the English classroom. The authors refer to mentor-based planning as “planning forward,” a clever nod to backward design. Instead of starting with the finished product, planning forward begins with a quality mentor text. Since all direct instruction and mini-lessons arise from the mentor texts, selecting the right mentors is pivotal.

Before I located mentor texts, I had to settle on the unit’s focus. After finishing up their memoirs, I asked each class what they wanted to work on next. A surprising number of them told me that they wanted to learn more about poetry. I don’t really like poetry (yeah, yeah), but who cares because the students wanted to do it, their enthusiasm is always infectious, and I didn’t want to burn them out with another ‘writing heavy’ unit. Found poetry was the first thing that popped into my head.

Over the summer I had watched a wonderful presentation on using found poetry in the English classroom. With the lesson still on my brain, I scoured the internet for examples of found poetry. What I found, while exciting and artistic and certainly representative of higher level thinking, felt a little meager to be the cornerstone of a full on unit. Confused, I emailed Allison Marchetti. She confirmed my concerns about found poetry and suggested reframing the unit around word choice. How do authors pick just the right words? Allison helped me see that starting with word choice would allow me to teach mini-lessons on denotation/connotation, syntax, vivid verbs/specific nouns, tone and mood, etc.

With the unit focus set in place, it was time to find mentor texts. I started out by picking the brains of my middle school teacher friends. What poems do middle school students enjoy? They have to be accessible but not simplistic, engaging but not vapid, written by diverse authors, be emblematic of a variety of perspectives, and they must pass the highlighter test. Oh, and they have to relate in some way to the larger theme of belonging. And be free verse. The hunt was on.

This is where the aforementioned stress comes in. I threw myself into the internet. I clicked, read, and copied, saving a dozen potential poems to my Google Drive from websites like Split This Rock, Poetry Soup,, Poetry 180, and the Poetry Foundation. Since this was my first round of gathering, I erred on the side of quantity instead of quality. (This is also how I tend to write. Type up a whole bunch of words, remove 50%, rewrite 25%, and leave the final quarter untouched. Then repeat.)

Following along with Writing with Mentors, I next read through and annotated each poem, looking specifically for potential mini-lessons and teaching points. After a couple hours, I emailed Allison asking her to review my annotations and poem selections. I was in a holding pattern until I received her response, so I closed the laptop and did some chores. By the time Outlook received her reply I had refreshed my mailbox more times than I care to admit.

I’ve learned that my overwhelming need for instructional validation, certainly not one of my best qualities, is an important check against my tendency to plow forward without thinking. It’s tough to find someone willing to put up with my ceaseless flow of communications, so I try to change up who I pester every few months so as to avoid burning them out. Allison has been an amazing resource and I’m beyond fortunate to learn from her.

Allison’s reply (which, as always, came mercifully quick) confirmed my fear that the mentor texts I chose were might be too difficult. The students I teach are awesome, but I didn’t want to shoot myself in the foot by throwing poems at them that were developmentally inappropriate. By now I’ve learned that a poorly chosen text can derail even the best of lessons. So I clicked-and-dragged all of my annotated poems into a new Google Drive folder, went to the bathroom, and started again. This time I decided to ask my PLN for help. I queried Twitter and received a few solid recommendations.

Over the course of ninety minutes, the amount of tabs open in my internet browser bloomed from the five to twenty-five and then back again, each successive closing representing a successful find or a hasty refusal. Half a pack of gum later and I’d found and annotated a new set of mentor texts. The next two days were spent writing and rewriting lessons for the first week. But that’s for another post.

The beginning of a unit in many ways sets the stage for what follows. This is one of the reasons I hem and haw so much about finding the right texts and planning the right introductory reading like a reader/writer activities. All of the previously described activity took place over Thanksgiving break. I spent as many hours as my marriage would allow hunkered down behind my dusty school Dell. What a privilege it is to be able to spend so much time devoted to making minute pedagogical tweaks that, in all honesty, probably have very little effect on anything.


My Own Classroom Disasters

The internet is filled with teachers talking about what works in their classrooms. I’m grateful for this; many of the lessons, strategies, and book recommendations I’ve employed in my class come from edublogs. I’ve tried to write my own success story blog posts, but they never feel authentic. When it comes to chronicling my own professional life, I’m more interested in exploring what hasn’t worked. And there’s no time for failure like the beginning of the school year.

So when I read Rebekah O’Dell’s post on about the importance of moving beyond classroom blunders, I was overjoyed. I’ve returned to O’Dell’s post a multiple times throughout the last month. No matter how badly I feel after a botched lesson or parent conference, I leave the article knowing I’m not alone. On an abstract level I understand the stupefying complexity of educating children. I know that mistakes are how we learn and no one is perfect. That can be tough to remember however in a culture that casts teachers as missionaries and expects education to rectify poverty and inequality. Rebekah’s post reminds me that it’s okay to be human and screw up.

What follows is a highly truncated list of recent mistakes. The purpose of this post is neither to make light of my pedagogical blunders nor rake myself needlessly over the coals. Simply to share my own classroom disasters.

-After spending significant time in class reading memoir mentor texts, every period created a list of noticings about the genre. Students made observations such as “authors build memoirs around a single important event” and “authors of memoirs use inner dialogue to convey their thoughts and feelings to the reader.” We took days hammering out our final list of memoir characteristics. Every period voted, cross referenced, etc. The final list was going to be a key component to my genre instruction. Except after displaying it in the room I immediately forgot about it. And so did the students. Students wrote almost their entire memoirs without consulting the list a single time (thankfully I remembered to shoe-horn it in after brainstorming for this post).

-The beginning of the school year is filled with book talks galore. My students responded well this year, asking when they would get a turn to tell the class about their favorite books. So I created a Google spreadsheet for every class period to help students schedule their book talks. I mentioned it to the kids, showed them the form, and then forgot to bring it up again. I’m not sure if anyone ever signed up; I’m afraid to look.

-After reading Empowering Education by Ira Shor and For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood by Christopher Emdin this summer, I was determined to meet with my students once a week to discuss what was happening in the classroom. I selected a diverse group of students, bought donuts, and arranged our first meeting time. My head was crammed with visions of critical student feedback and contentious debates about power sharing. But when it came time to meet, only half of the kids showed. They ate their donuts in relative silence as I struggled to move the conversation in a productive manner. What was I doing that I should continue doing? Activities. What did they think about the memoir texts I selected for our genre study? They were okay. What recommendations did they have for increasing engagement in class? Devote class time to asking students about their weekends. After a few minutes of awkward one-sided banter, I let the students know they could leave. I hadn’t done anything to prepare the students for critical talk except ply them with sugar.

-The beginning of any piece of writing is such an exciting time. When preparing my students to write their memoirs, I worked hard to make sure everyone had details to write about. We crafted our significant moments with art supplies, created lists of memorable first times/last times, interviewed each other about our lives, and drew inspiration from mentor texts. Pretty much everything except, you know, actually writing. So when I wanted students to share their drafts with each other, they just sat there. “What’s wrong?” I inquired, “share!”

“What are we supposed to share? We haven’t actually written anything yet” a boy replied.


Tomorrow we begin our first round of quarterly portfolios. If the past is any indicator, the next couple of weeks will be fraught with instructional mistakes big and small, enough to fill a blog’s worth of disaster posts. I’m glad I have posts like Rebekah’s to remind me to treat myself with the same patience and compassion I try (and routinely fail) to show my students. The ability to start again is one of my absolute favorite things about teaching. To find joy within the recursive loops of practice, collaboration, and uncertainty.


Becoming a Teacher of Writing: At Peace with Pedagogy

This is the conclusion of a three-part series exploring my growth as a teacher of writing. The first part can be found here and the second part is here

The previous entries in this series follow a basic format of “I used to think X. Then I read Y and thought Z.” Although I regularly found my pedagogy being interrupted by whatever new theory I was reading, there was a certain linear security to my growth. I didn’t have to critique any claims or synthesize competing perspectives, just move from one system to the next. Dogma can be narcotizing to higher order thought. But the more I read the harder it became to sustain a singular methodology. In the last couple of months I’ve had to open myself up and attempt to honor multiple interpretations of composition pedagogy.

Instead of exploring the ramifications of a single scholar or book on my professional growth, this final post in the series explores how I came to rebuild my definition of what it means to be a teacher of writing through a variety of authors and perspectives. This is ultimately a story of turning outwards towards the community, of connecting with others, and of giving up the search for the elusive all-encompassing pedagogy fit to rule them all.

To review: by the end of the 2015-16 school year my composition pedagogy was in shambles. Fueled in part by a desire to escape the rigid prescriptivism of my early years working at a No Excuses charter school, I had launched myself into a form of teaching nearly devoid of direct instruction. Students read, wrote, and discussed, but I rarely tied their learning to specific skills. “As long as they’re reading and writing,” I told myself. Fluency above all else. And while this is of course true to a certain extent, as George Hillocks wrote, teaching requires a direct object.

Without that direct object, I was close to becoming the teacher caricatured in the opening chapter of Lisa Delpit’s book Other People’s Children.Delpit explores the failures of a particular brand of white progressive teaching. Talking about a certain teacher, one of the author’s friends says

What do they think? Our children have no fluency? Our kids are fluent. What they need are the skills that will get them into college. He needs skills, not fluency. 

I had struggled with how to handle direct instruction and skills in my classroom ever since removing grades, quizzes, and tests from my teaching.  I could guide children through the writing process all day, but if I wasn’t explicitly teaching students the literacy skills America would judge them by, I was derelict in my duty. The return to skills was bolstered by my reading of Class War: The Privatization of Childhood by Megan Erickson. Like Delpit, Erickson’s argument seemed tailored to my situation. She excoriates the contemporary unschooling movement, writing

Why do we assume that clear boundaries, a schedule, and a sense of hierarchy are so threatening to students? Why must the individual’s vision be so carefully and serenely sheltered from other people, who are experienced in this framework as interruptions? There is value in being pulled out of a daydream.

While this particular quote doesn’t touch on skills directly,  it tapped into that part of me that used my understanding of expressivism as a retreat from my duties as a public school teacher. The writings of Hillocks, Delpit, and Erickson pulled me back into the reality of the classroom. It was time to reinsert skills and direct instruction into my pedagogy. But this time it would be on my own terms, in a way that made sense to me and reflected my agonizing yet productive journey through theory and reflection.

By the time I came to this realization summer was almost over. I put down the theory and returned to a portion of my book shelf I’d spent the last year ignoring: books by scholar-practitioners (Georgia Heard, Tom Romano, Katie Wood Ray, Penny Kittle, etc.). I cracked open my most recent purchase, Writing with Mentors by Allison Marchetti and Rebekah O’Dell.

The book offered an approach that incorporated almost everything I was looking for. It taught students the craft of writing through authentic genres and real world pieces. It was inquiry based and used student understanding to drive much of the instruction. The book also contained robust suggestions for handling classroom topics like grammar, media literacy, and lesson sequencing. Writing with Mentors keeps most of its theorizing underneath the hood; any analysis of the book’s contents, however, would uncover a pedagogy rooted in authenticity, inquiry, and collaboration. I ate it up.

With WwM finished and only two weeks left until the start of the school year, I had to act quickly. I chose my final book: Make Writing by Angela Stockman. I’d watched the maker movement saturate EduTwitter, and even though I’m wary of education trends, Stockman’s work has always been exemplary. Make Writing surprised me with its understated critique of the ways many teachers (myself included) have taught writing. Stockman illustrates how simple materials (white boards, sticky notes, wall space), tinkering with text, and a sense of play can reinvigorate the traditional writer’s workshop model. In the introduction, Stockman explains that Make Writing is about

pursuing outcomes in ways that support writers who need to move, build, mix, tinker, blend, sculpt, shoot, smear, and tack their writing together. Physically. Making writing obliges teachers to access the voices of those we serve and listen hard.

If one of my goals was indeed to push every student to learn to use writing to express themselves and shape their world, then I needed to put in place strategies that would help me reach as many young writers as possible. Stockman’s book helped me shake off my Peter Elbow asceticism, the belief that becoming a better writer required little more than sitting down, writing, reading, and rewriting. Just because I wasn’t interested in pipe cleaners doesn’t mean my students aren’t.

With Make Writing and Writing with Mentors finished, I felt ready. With a week to spare, I decided to reward myself with a copy of Karen Surman Paley’s I-Writing: The Politics and Practice of Teaching First-Person Writing. I-Writing combines theory, composition history, and ethnography to make a case for the value and complexity of first person writing. Surman Paley made it possible for me to identify as a social expressivist; I was able to reconcile my predilections for the personal with the political necessities of certain forms of knowledge. I felt at peace with my pedagogy.


“You seem to have a lot of epiphanies,” my mom said after reading a draft of my previous post. Her observation highlights my tendency to enshrine everything I read or come across as capital T Truth. I read something, become obsessed with it, preach it as gospel to whoever will listen, and then reorient everything in my life around it. Until the next book I read forces me to go into a spiral of guilt and the cycle begins again.

Up until now, every epiphany carried with it a total brain dump, an out with the old/in with the new mentality that forced me to repeatedly rebuild my schema from the ground up. At the end of every summer, my wife asks me whether or not I’m going to reuse any of last year’s lesson materials. Every year she becomes slightly more exasperated with my stubborn insistence that everything must be new. Some of this stems from a fundamental insecurity about my value as an educator. When you never feel good enough you become mired in the belief that your professional salvation can be found in the next book, in the next article, in the next technique.

Instead I’m learning to stand still, stick with something, and engage with the community. Allison Marchetti (Writing with Mentors) reads every panicked email I send (how many noticings should the kids be listing? When do I introduce the concept of touchstone texts? Am I doing this right?), responding always with patience and guidance. Similarly, Angela Stockman allows me to pick her brain about all things writing and making. Lastly, Katie Kraushaar listens to my lesson ideas and then improves upon them. How fortunate I am to connect with and learn from such wise colleagues.

Since the end of summer I’ve made the switch from theory to young adult literature. I miss wading through dense fields of text, spending hours on seven or eight paragraphs. I love the hermetic splendor of relying on nothing but the page, a highlighter, and my brain. But I know I’ll be back; my copy of Peter Elbow’s Vernacular Eloquence isn’t going to read itself.