Teaching students how to write is really hard. Students need direct instruction, engaging “real world” models, time to write and revise, an audience they care about, and assignments that appeal to them. Even on the best of days when we’ve somehow managed to tick off all of these boxes, we still have to wrangle with the morass of hormones and developmentally appropriate inattention that is the hallmark of a middle schooler.
Like most teachers, I’m constantly swapping out new (and old) writing pedagogies in search of anything that will get my students excited about their writing. But no matter what instructional methods I’m trying out, one tool remains consistent: writing alongside my students. I don’t mean cobbling something together to offer as a finished product to emulate, but actually getting down into the trenches sweating it out word for word with them on every assignment.
This does a few things. It helps me treat writing seriously and unseriously. Both perspectives are necessary for a writer. It’s also a quick way to find out whether or not an assignment sucks. Working on a piece of writing alongside my students helps me see the nuts and bolts of the assignment. The more I do it, the better I become at predicting where the sticking points will be. Which areas I can gloss over and which skills will require a deep dive. It gives me a chance to demystify the writing process and show students just show much work goes into crafting something even semi-coherent.
When I write with my students, I send the message that what we’re doing in the classroom is worthy of serious time and effort. And that we’re in it together. The feedback goes both ways.
The call for teachers to write with their students is nothing new. A debate about the efficacy of writing alongside students raged across the pages of NCTE’s English Journal in the nineties when high school teacher Karen Jost argued that the time it takes for teachers to write is better spent conferring with students. Teachers already have too much to do, she explained. The demand that teachers of writing now themselves should be writing smacked as yet another example of teachers being told what to do by supposed thought leaders who hadn’t stepped foot in an average classroom in years.
In many ways Jost wasn’t wrong. There is no time. It’s impossible for me to do everything I’m supposed to do. Every day is a series of cost/benefit decisions. I get one 45 minute planning period unmolested by meetings a day. Do I spend it in an IEP meeting that will surely go into my lunch break? Or do I use that time to provide written feedback on student writing? But if I do either of those, I won’t be able to finally meet with that student who has been writing about how bad his depression has gotten. I also need to check in with the counselor about a student’s math placement and think ahead to tomorrow’s lesson. Few of my options deal directly with classroom instruction and the Herculean task of growing readers and writers. So I understand why asking teachers to begin writing with their students seems like just another task.
But that the decision to write alongside our students isn’t a binary choice. It’s more of a stance we take towards curriculum, instruction, and our place inbetween. A teacher as writer stance connects us with the art and science of writing in a way that no rubric or exemplar ever could. It’s the best way to learn that a piece of writing’s center of gravity changes multiple times throughout the writing process. Or that no matter how hard an author wrestles with a piece, sometimes it just doesn’t work out.
To get started, consider one place you can write with your students. A brainstorming session for an upcoming essay or poem, for instance. The good thing about students not being used to their teachers writing is that they won’t call you out if you don’t follow through on it.
Writing alongside your students will fundamentally alter your relationship with what you teach, how you teach it, and how you relate to students. And as this relationship begins to shift, so will your relationship to the writing instruction that’s going on around you. You will (re)connect with the transformative potential of literacy and the power of words to bind us together. It’s a way to come home to a profession that seems so bent on throwing up hurdles between what we do and why we do it.
My back to school night dread begins in August. The ecstatic joy that is the first few days of the school year is always tempered by the dismal knowledge that in a few weeks I’ll be staying at work until well past my octogenarian approved bedtime.
Rationally I know back to school night isn’t a big deal. It just comes at such a rotten time. It’s always crammed into the third week of school when teacher morale is in the dumpster. The euphoric mixture of adrenaline and dopamine characterizing the first ten days of school has been replaced by the sobering realities of overstuffed classrooms, soul crushing bureaucratic demands, and germs. So many germs. Luckily September’s cocktail of choice, a noxious mixture of convenience store coffee and generic Dayquil, keeps me wired enough to get through the gauntlet that hits the third thursday of every September.
The actual night itself is a blast. I love talking to families. Old students come by and stalk the halls like they own the place. Every now and then a student who I haven’t seen in years will pop their near unrecognizable head (the changes from puberty are no joke) into my room and chat for a few minutes. This year’s pop-in was especially memorable.
Many years ago, I taught a student who was fascinated with drawing, thinking about, and talking about animals. They would stop by to show off their most recent artistic creations. A hippo with the head of a capybara. Some multisyllabic dinosaur combined with the spots of a giraffe. And accompanying each image, of which there were many, would be an intensely detailed description of the animal’s biome, mutations, and evolutionary stages.
I was never particularly interested in animal science. It was the kid’s joy that kept me engaged. They were just so infatuated with this stuff that I couldn’t help but grin and follow along with every obscure detail. I don’t think it mattered too much what I said or did, just that I was there. They would plop down at a desk, open up their notebook, and let it rip.
And then they were gone. They graduated and that was it. Until last week when they stopped by to visit me before back to school night began.
It was a joyous reunion. Nothing had changed. We had barely finished shaking hands before they brandished their latest notebook and guided me through their most recent illustrations. They’d even brought some of their original drawings to show me how their artistry had evolved. They told me about a blog they’d been keeping where they chronicled many of their creations. And about the friends they’d made who shared their interests.
They could only stay for a few minutes, but that’s all we needed. The muscles in my cheeks ached from smiling. Every cell in my body was grinning. Theirs were too, I think. It was the perfect way to begin an evening of confronting the high stakes privilege that is teaching language arts to the hearts and minds of young people.
A few moments families began flowing into the room, jostling each other to find space in a room built to accommodate the physical proportions of 7th graders. I did my best to reveal who I was as a teacher. What I hoped to accomplish with their children and how I was going to do my best to help them grow.
The next morning, as I sipped my coffee and chugged my Dayquil, an email from that student appeared in my inbox asking if I could read and provide feedback for something they had written. It’s a story about a group of humans who hunt dragons with futuristic technology on a harsh planet. I can’t wait.
For the last few years, I’ve been one of those “I just close my door and teach what I want” teachers. I’ve outright rejected the pedagogical norms of my school to pursue my own path. I’ve refused to create common assessments. My hermitude became a badge of honor. I saw myself as an outsider fighting the good fight.
It wasn’t until I began working on an essay with Julie Gorlewski that I realized the fundamental error in my thinking. The essay explored the dual roles of teachers: we are both and always agents of the state and agents of change. Closing my classroom door to the world granted me autonomy, but it alienated me and hampered my ability to work with others. I had turned my back on my colleagues and on my community.
So when this school year started, I decided to try and work within the system. This has meant a slew of changes. Some of the switches were small. For instance, I now begin every class by leading students through an “I can” learning outcome. Although I agree with Joe Bower and Jesse Stommel that fixed outcomes cut off authentic inquiry, my administration expects them. Other shifts have been more dramatic. For the first time in years, I’m now teaching what I’m officially supposed to be teaching. I even signed up to be part of a curriculum writing team. What better way to have the social justice and anti-racist curriculum I craved?
The process has not progressed as I thought it would. Faced with more academic standards than could possibly be taught with any level of depth, I’ve struggled with making social justice a priority. Our next unit is 3-4 weeks long. In it we’re supposed to teach students to use context clues; identify prefixes, suffixes, and roots; distinguish between fact and opinion; analyze persuasive techniques in media; identify organizational patterns; make inferences and draw conclusions; identify the main idea; and use text features to skim a text. This is on top of the general English Language Arts stuff of developing a love of literacy and reading and writing authentically.
It’s certainly possible to pursue these outcomes in a way that helps students read both the word and the world, but it takes a committed effort. It has to be the thing, not something extra. Butting heads with my colleagues has given me ample opportunity to reflect on Robin DiAngelo and Ozlem Sensoy’s reminder that “Because dominant institutions in society are positioned as being neutral, challenging social injustice within them seems to be an extra task in addition to our actual tasks” (141).
Making the cognitive and perceptual leap from “we have to cover these standards” to “who benefits from these standards, who loses out, and how can we prepare for democratic citizenry?” is as difficult as it is essential. But until everyone in the room acknowledges the inherently political nature of teaching and learning, ‘finding room’ for social justice and anti-racism is all but impossible.
The way we discuss and envision critical thinking and democracy must also change. In my experience, schools tend to define critical thinking as the process of identifying problems and inventing solutions. This frames students as capitalists and problem solving as opportunities for entrepreneurship. In a social justice context however, critical thinking refers to “a specific scholarly approach that explores the historical, cultural, and ideological lines of authority that underlie social conditions” (1).
And when it comes to democracy, mainstream education casts schools as instruments to educate for democracy. Schools produce democratic citizens by informing students about history, the importance of peaceful protest, and the power of voting. In contrast to this, Gert Biesta discusses education through democracy. A continuous process of learning to value and exist alongside those who are fundamentally not like us (120). Schools can support society in this work, but they cannot create, sustain, or save democracy. And what this would even look like in a public school classroom, I have no clue.
Back inside the classroom, I’ve had a much easier time implementing aspects of culturally responsive/culturally proactive teaching. My students use a variety of discussion and response protocols, combine their out-of-school interests with traditional academic skills, and build knowledge through collaboration and discussion. But most of this gets at the how, leaving the what largely intact. And the what is what I’m interested in changing.
I don’t know how to reorient my classroom around social justice and anti-racist pedagogy, yet. For now, I’ll continue teaching the official units, working with the curriculum team, and looking for ways to exist in that interstitial zone between thesis and antithesis, as an agent of the state and an agent of change.
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:
- Griots: Taking pictures of what we do in class and posting them on our class social media accounts
- DJs: Creating playlists of instrumental versions of popular songs that they’ll play during independent work
- Teacher’s Assistants (TAs): Running any errands, distributing and collecting materials, and dismissing groups based on cleanliness when the bell rings
- Book-Keepers: Keeping our classroom library organized, helping suggest books, picking books for book talks
- Time-Keepers: Watching the clock every time we have timed tasks (which for the most part happens multiple times per class)
- 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.
Image credit: rawpixel.com
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.
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.
“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