Category: Theory

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.




The Heart of Praxis: NCTE2017 Proposals

The call for proposals for the 2017 NCTE conference has been issued. The title for next year’s conference, Teaching Our Students Today, Tomorrow, Forever: Recapturing Our Voices, Our Agency, Our Mission, highlights NCTE’s commitment to speaking truth to power and championing the teacher as a change maker. I’m interested in how we can use theory to reclaim our voices and engage in our work with renewed focus.

To that end, I’d like to put together a proposal for a session on using theory as a source of vitality and inspiration. Here are some rough ideas. They all fall under the draft session title of

The Heart of Praxis: Using Critical Theory to Inspire and Guide Your Teaching

1. Drawing inspiration from America’s neoliberal turn of the 1970s and 1980s, teacher prep programs are training teachers to be data managers and technicians. Politics, history, and theory are of little value when all that matters is increasing test scores among gap groups. How can we draw on critical pedagogy to recenter teacher training on issues of critical literacy and social transformation?

2. The dominance of test scores and punitive systems of accountability create an atmosphere of distrust between teachers. Building a supportive network of teacher collaboration has become increasingly difficult. For many teachers, collaboration has become yet another mandate required by central offices, a standardized ritual focused on quantitative learning outcomes and Dufour/Solution Tree agenda templates. What does radical teacher collaboration look like?  How can we use theory to replace false collaboration with meaningful exchange?

3. The rise of alternative assessment practices like standards based grading and proficiency scales harken back to the administrative progressives of the early twentieth century. Critical theory can help us understand how our language of learning sacrifices the democratic potential of education and figure out how to chart a course to a more relevant and uplifting form of learning.

4. All too often teachers experience cultural competency as a set of boxes to check off on their district-wide professional development regimens. Cultural competency can become what Leigh Patel describes as “parking lots for emotionality and white fragility.” By ignoring education’s historical role in creating and sustaining class stratification and material inequality, much cultural competency training fails to prepare teachers to ignite change within the classroom and the teacher’s lounge. How can critical race theory help us recenter our classrooms and school communities?

Again, these are just ideas. Please reply to this blog post or contact me on Twitter/email if you’re interested in putting together a proposal on these or any other theory related topics. 

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.



Know Your Theory! – Feminist Composition Pedagogy Edition

This series of blog posts will provide an overview of the composition field’s relevant pedagogies. These posts will draw mainly upon A Guide to Composition Pedagogies by Gary Tate et. al. The book is divided into chapters based on the different pedagogies. The breakdown for each post will be around 1/2 summary and 1/2 my own reflections, analysis, anecdotes, and commentary. Although I’m writing these posts to help myself process through and reflect upon the field of composition, it’s my hope that any teacher of writing can find something of interest. Part 1 addresses collaborative writing pedagogypart 2 explores critical pedagogy in the writing classroom, and part 3 describes expressivist composition theory.


Feminist Composition Pedagogy

Just like critical pedagogy, feminist theory contains within it a broad range of practices, assumptions, techniques. However feminist pedagogies typically share a common goal of bringing about social justice through specific teaching and learning methods. Every wave of feminism has expanded and complicated the definition of social justice. In terms of composition studies, feminist pedagogy seeks to use literacy to “interrogate and transform social relations.” It is a practice well suited for investigating social and political categories of difference such as race, class, and gender. This post explores a number of important concepts in the feminist composition classroom.

Gender Differences and Experiences
Feminism’s primarily white/cisgendered focus came under attack during the 1960s when scholars and activists began elevating black and lesbian voices. What started out as a women’s suffrage and abolition movement in the 19th century now fights for social justice on issues of race, class, gender, ability, sexuality, and migration. Feminism didn’t move into Composition Studies until the 1980s. Work during this early period focused on “experience as a legitimate form of knowledge, the inherent gender differences and effects on writing” as well as encouraging women to write from positions of power and authority. Early feminist compositionists wanted students to understand experience as a construct instead of some essential, private truth.


Diverse Discourses and Practices
In the 1980s and 1990s, postmodern and poststructuralist notions of subjectivity, agency, and textuality infused feminist composition with experimental prose and multilayered structure. Feminist pedagogues looked to complicate and subvert the single viewpoint approach favored by academic writing by introducing new methods of argumentation. Scholars like Catherine Lamb advocated for collaborative and cooperative academic discourse that valued and highlighted a panoply of voices and perspectives. Ann Berthoff  and Terry Myers Zawicki pushed students to write through hesitations and to use writing as a vehicle for knowing, rather than a simple method of recording thought. Students in a feminist composition class often mix genres, modes of writing, and perspectives in a single piece.

Feminist compositionists work to dislodge traditional univocal academic discourse. Through alternative models of composition and revision, these scholars brought attention to the difference and complexity of literacy. Collaboration and shared linguistic ownership undercut traditional notions of power and authority by “creating spaces for marginalized voices.” Donnalee Rubin’s important study Gender Influences: Reading Student Texts called attention to the the way gender biases affect the way teachers respond to student writing. Influenced by this study, many feminist educators engaged students in non-competitive activities and helped females to move from “private discourse to public pronouncements.”

Conflict and Difference
As mentioned in the introduction, feminist pedagogy is an “orientation to learning and knowing charged by social justice commitments.” Embracing conflict is a dominant theme for feminist compositionists. In “Feminism and Composition: The Case for Conflict” Susan Jarratt argues that feminist teachers should use conflict as a tool for calling attention to and ultimately challenging the racist, sexist, and classist foundations of the contemporary classroom. Similarly bell hooks views conflict in the classroom as a “catalyst for new thinking, for growth.” Conflict becomes a way to help students confront the dominant sociopolitical beliefs that help define and bracket their experience. Feminist compositions look to conflict to help disrupt and critique mainstream narratives of issues of race, class, and other categories of difference.

A portion of feminist composition’s use of conflict in the classroom comes from the notion that there is no “purely democratic, utopian space available to us in face-to-face or virtual realities.” Borrowing and continuing from Cultural Studies, feminist compositionists submit a wide range of textual objects and discursive practices to rigorous critique.


Listening to and Grappling with Emotion
In the late 1990s feminist compositionists began addressing the role of emotion in the classroom. They did so by situating emotion and affect in the social and political. Emotion is “bound up with judgment, belief, ideology, and social life broadly conceived.” Any investigation into larger issues of dominance, power, and identity must therefore progress in some way through the fabric of emotion. Feminist scholars like Michelle Payne call attention to the way traditional social construction theory has largely ignored emotion. As a result emotion is often seen as a private force bound up in the individuality of the body. Critical discussions of gender, identity, and emotion are crucial when dislodging stereotypes of female instability and irrationality.

The act of listening plays an important role in the feminist composition classroom. In Rhetorical Listening, Krista Ratcliffe uses listening to help students “recognize resistance, analyze it, and when necessary, challenge it.” It’s a way to identify and think critically about the narratives that shape our reality. The human body is not a hermetically sealed unit containing emotion. Instead feminist compositionists see affect as relational and social. The body is both a site of lived experiences and an amalgam of competing social forces. Teachers would do well to help students locate their own affective experiences within the larger social forces of the classroom and society.


Corporealities and Wrapping Up
The last decades of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st have witnessed the growth of queer and disability studies pedagogy. Like feminist pedagogy, queer and disability studies positions the body “as a locus from which to develop praxis.” Performativity, the way we express, reproduce, or subvert normative categories of identity, also plays an important role in the current feminist classroom. Feminist pedagogues use writing to help students contextualize their identity. What are our cultural norms regarding categories of difference? How do we choose to embody or disrupt them?

The feminist classroom should challenge, subvert, and push students outside of their comfort zones. There is no set of essentialist feminist pedagogical tools. This type of learning methodology poses active questions, questions norms, and views categories of difference through multiple perspectives. Students will collaborate to construct meanings and pursue critical inquiry. Although this book concerns college students, it’s never too early to introduce students to feminism’s critical perspectives.

Know Your Theory! – Critical Pedagogy and Composition Edition

This series of blog posts will provide an overview of the composition field’s relevant pedagogies. These posts will draw mainly upon the excellent A Guide to Composition Pedagogies by Gary Tate et. al. The book is divided into chapters based on the different pedagogies. The breakdown for each post will be around 1/2 summary and 1/2 my own reflections, analysis, anecdotes, and commentary. Although I’m writing these posts to help myself process through and reflect upon the field of composition, it’s my hope that any teacher of writing can find something of interest. Part 1 (Collaborative Writing Pedagogy) can be found here.


This week’s post examines critical pedagogy from the perspective of the composition classroom. Critical pedagogy envisions a society devoted to issues of social justice and freedom. If traditional education is about raising the individual to improve society, then critical pedagogy recognizes the need to improve the society in order to raise the individual. To this end critical pedagogies look to engage students in analyses of how cultural practices and institutions (including schools) replicate certain power dynamics and social hierarchies.

Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed is the ur-text for critical pedagogy. This 1970 work introduced several important concepts such as the banking model of education (the notion that traditional schooling positions students as passive receptacles, teachers as cultural arbiters, and knowledge as demarcated units of discrete information), schooling as an instrument of cultural domination (curriculum and instructional practices that value specific types of knowledge) and critical consciousness (questioning the nature of lived experience and the unspoken norms governing our society).

Freire’s theory situates him as a social constructivist; for him, knowledge is a socially constructed linguistic product. He is therefore interested in language as a mechanism of both domination and possible resistance. Although language as domination is certainly not a new topic (see Lisa Delpit and Gloria Ladson-Billings, for instance), contemporary scholars such as Christopher Emdin and Gert Biesta continue to explore how curriculum, speech, and agency operate in the classroom.


American critical pedagogy hit its stride during the 1980s as a radical response to conservative reports on education such as A Nation at Risk  and Action for Excellence. The rise of neoliberalism during the 1980s produced reactionary and canonical works by academics such as Henri Giroux, Ira Shor, and Peter McLaren. These critical pedagogues worked to bring light to the ways schools functioned as sorting mechanisms to perpetuate inequality.

Through the works of these and other scholars, American critical pedagogy aims to inspire students to reimagine what it means to build a society based on democratic values and the respect for difference. Critical teachers wrestle with four central questions:

1. What does a critical classroom look like?
2. Can we create democratic classrooms within traditional institutions?
3. Is the goal to produce radical student activists? How?
4. Is Freirean pedagogy applicable to American schools?

Classroom Practice
While early American critical pedagogues like Giroux produced canonical texts that galvanized educators (check out Schooling and the Struggle for Public Life or Critical Teaching and Everyday Life), many teachers expressed frustration with the inattention to classroom practice. The authors consider Ira Shor to be an important exception. His books Empowering Education  and When Students Have Power bridge theory and practice with activities, anecdotes, and critical reflections. Shor invited a group of students to meet with him regularly after class to evaluate the day’s session and activities. Doing so allowed teacher and student to negotiate together the various contradictions inherent in the critical classroom.

Can Classrooms Be Democratic?
Thinking about democracy as a set of static actions and chunks of knowledge (voting, awareness of laws and various judicial and legislative processes) ignores the concept’s need for continuous renewal, deliberation, and public contestation. Democracy as a mode of being rather than a series of skills to be imparted and enacted. Democratic classrooms are not ones in which the teacher abdicates all power. Especially in terms of the secondary classroom, where I teach, the teacher must remain “in charge.” The contradictions of teaching for critical resistance in a highly structured environment remain one of the biggest challenges to any critical educator. It is possible, and indeed highly recommended, to engage students in as many decisions as possible while still allowing for professional control and guidance.

Producing Student Activists
It should go without saying that education is highly political. The content we teach, the methods we use, and the perspectives we highlight are political decisions. That said, the image of the classroom as an overtly political arena doesn’t sit right. My experiences de-testing and de-grading my classroom last year let me see first-hand the way many students (and adults) push back against any sort of explicit proselytizing. At the time I naively thought I was liberating both students and myself from a mechanistic and reductive assessment system. I openly spoke with them about my decision in an attempt at transparency. While my intentions might have been in the right place, my actions served mainly to polarize the class. Certain kids celebrated it while others dug in their heels and became hostile. I had forgotten that critical pedagogy is a process, not something to be delivered.

Freire in America
Poststructuralist and feminist educators have made valuable contributions to liberation pedagogy by unpacking Freire’s uncritical empowerment rhetoric. For, as the authors explain, to empower someone suggests an agent who empowers and a willing object who receives power from another. This setup mirrors Freire’s own banking analogy of education mentioned above, where power moves unidirectionally from teacher to student. We hear echoes of this when educators seek to “give minority students a voice,” a statement that ignores the fact that children already have voices.

As originally conceptualized, Freire’s critical pedagogy positions power as a commodity to be traded around and horded. As academics like Foucault have persuasively articulated, power is more of a verb than a noun. It is “exercised instead of owned.” Contemporary theory helps us reject the binaries of teacher/student, us/them, and oppressor/oppressed. We now understand identity and power to be relational constructs that “form (and reform) at the intersection of multiple axes of difference and power.” Viewing students as objects in need of saving is paternalistic and deleterious for teachers and students alike. Scholars working within poststructuralism, feminism, and critical race theory have successfully expanded upon Freire’s original aims to create a more inclusive rhetoric of power and resistance.

What Does This Mean for Teachers?
This brings us back to the aforementioned point about what critical pedagogy looks like in the composition classroom. While the authors refrain from providing many examples of what critical pedagogy might look like in a composition classroom, providing specific instructional strategies isn’t necessarily the purview of the book (or this post). Critical pedagogy is a practice, the routine contestations of power, value, and authority. The critical writing classroom asks students to examine the systems of academic discourse that bolster certain voices while devaluing or silencing others. Much of schooling’s “common sense,” assessment policies and grades, assignments, norms, and readings must all be scrutinized under a critical gaze. We can help students become aware and critical of the hegemonic forces informing our modern life. What better place to start than in the writing classroom?



Categorize, Graph, Infer: A Lesson in Concept Development

Concept development activities make me nervous.

I remember back to my student teaching. We were about to begin reading George Orwell’s fantastic book 1984. So, to get ourselves thinking about some of the themes relevant to the novel, I cooked up an activity about surveillance. I don’t remember the specifics of the activity, just that I hooked up a few classroom SMART boards to video cameras. I remember spending hours trying to create an environment that challenged the way students thought about surveillance and social control. After running the kids through some elaborate scenarios, I stood in front of the class ready to receive their accolades. A kid with a giant shock of auburn hair raised his hand.

“Wow, Mr. Anderson. That sure was a fun way to waste time! Is it time to start the real work now?”

Concept Development work doesn’t lend itself to the realm of the purely quantitative. For me, helping students break down and explore overarching concepts draws more from constructivism than positivism/empiricism. Constructivist theories of knowledge, at their core, situate the central components of learning within cognition and the faculties of the brain. Even though constructivism comes in many flavors (cognitive constructivism, social constructionism, and critical constructivism, for instance), each method emphasizes the active creation of the learning experience.

As most method courses will tell you, constructivist theories (and therefore concept development) draw heavily from work of Jean Piaget. According to Piaget, the process of learning is one of continuous adjustment. The brain is constantly struggling to maintain a sense of equilibrium. It does this by struggling to understand new concepts using what it already knows (assimilation) and changing what it already knows to incorporate what’s new and different (accommodation). Any educator practicing a form of constructivist pedagogy needs to help students build connections between new content and what a he or she already knows.

There’s no one constructivist pedagogy. That said, constructivist teachers typically seek to help students make and expand on conscious links between themselves and the content. So, while planning my upcoming unit on the concept of ‘relationships,’ I knew I wanted to start out by helping students work through the meaning of the concept. Additionally, a previous memory of being eyeball deep in a ‘belonging’ unit only to have a student say “I still don’t know what belonging means” had been haunting me. I wanted to do a better job.

Day 1
A quick search for ‘concept development map’ on Google yields a wealth of resources. I fished around online, dug through a few books, and wandered through the halls of my own memory before settling on four simple questions.

Concept Dev 1

I wanted groups to tackle these questions because they’re actually quite complex. While students discussed and wrote down answers I circulated around the room, stopping a few times to wonder aloud whether relationships were always good or if it was possible to have a serious relationship with an inanimate object. I asked these questions to try and nudge each group beyond their established relationship schema that defined the concept as a dyadic bond between humans. My questions helped a few groups expand their answers to the four questions. The activity also let me get in a little ‘show, not tell’ practice. A relationship feels like comfort? Well, what’s comfort feel like? What about happiness? What might different forms of happiness look like? And so forth.

Concept Dev 2

After brainstorming, I asked students to individually pick their ‘favorite’ answers to each of the four questions, share out, and then come to a consensus. One student from each group wrote each of the answers on pieces of chart paper hanging around the room. Next  students did a quick gallery walk to check out everyone’s answers (which accrued mightily over the course of the day) and come up with their own definition for the word relationships. The final step was for each student share that definition with his or her group and then settle on one definition for the group.

Moving students in and out of group work is a definite hallmark of my teaching, for better or for worse. I try to strike a balance between difficult tasks best suited for a group (coming up with criteria, for instance) and individual assignments that allow for reflection and personal choice. The goal here is to foster an environment that honors introversion and extroversion in equal parts.

When each group settled on their definition, we threw them up on the board, debated them, and narrowed the options down to a single sentence. With Alfie Kohn’s adversarial majoritarianism in mind, I tried to create opportunities for students to push for consensus instead of merely asking them to vote. However, since I’m not that skilled at facilitating this sort of group discussion, the results weren’t stellar. Nor were they disastrous. At the end of the day I put the five definitions (one per period) on a Google Form for the students to vote on the next day. This might seem like a lot of work for a simple definition. I could have simply used a transmission approach and given it to them. But constructivism takes time. While we can’t obviously go this in-depth with everything, spending time creating a working definition of our overarching concept seemed worth it.

Day 2
After revealing the chosen definition, we went to work at bringing the concept a little closer to home. Earlier in the month I decided to split the unit into three sections; our study of relationships would cover objects (what objects do we cling to? what might that say about us?), places (what places do we hold dear? why are physical and online spaces so important?), and people (how do our relationships with people sustain us?).

We started out by examining the important P/P/O in the life of Cadence, the protagonist from our last read aloud, The Girl Who Was Supposed to Die. I had students begin with a fictional character because I wanted them to be strategic in their choices. In a well-written novel everything exists for a reason. Details typically serve larger goals of plot movement, character development, etc. Groups made lists of objects, people, and places and we discussed why each one was essential to the protagonist. I took the opportunity to throw in some more abstract questions. How would the plot have changed if Cadence gone to the police instead of ranger station? What effect did Michael Brenner’s cell phone have on the plot?

I then asked students to brainstorm the most important people, places, and objects in their lives. My hope was that they would choose their own answers with the same amount of care and deliberation as the novel’s. Next they picked the top answer for each category, wrote it on a sticky note, and posted it in a designated spot in the room. Here’s what the walls looked like about halfway through the day.

We took some time for a few off-the-cuff observations, but by the time the dust settled we barely had enough time to squeeze in our read aloud.

Day 3
The final day of concept development required students to analyze the data. In this case the data sets were the accumulated sticky notes for the three categories. Since drawing conclusions can be a fairly advanced skill, I spent a significant amount of time modelling the process. Before the day started I went through the objects category and took stock of every sticky note. I counted them (pretty easy considering 75% of students listed their phone) and then played around with putting them into different categories. The strategy of collecting information, categorizing, sub-categorizing, and etc. comes from Hilda Taba. I think it’s an incredibly powerful way to organize and draw conclusions about things. Once I had my categories straight I drew out a few crude bar graphs to make sure everything worked.

I walked through the process with students, relying on standard think-aloud protocols. I made sure to get student input on the final phases of my graph. Although I knew the ‘answers’ before hand, I wanted to make sure a few specific students were still with me and able to predict the next step (a severely truncated version of what’s commonly referred to as the gradual release model). After spending a fair amount of time on this I gave students their marching orders. Categorize, group, graph, and draw conclusions based on one of the two remaining data sets.

Graph 2

We spent the final minutes of class discussing everyone’s findings. Some of the questions turned out to be conversational goldmines (Why, for instance, did students mention ‘Mom’ five times as often as ‘Dad?’) while others were duds (Why didn’t any student list ‘school’ as his or her important place?).

The students appeared to enjoy the concept development activities and discussion. Although it certainly wasn’t perfect, nothing is and that’s not the goal. These three days, especially the graphing component, were the result of much hand-wringing and brainstorming. I’m lucky to have a great thought partner next door, Mr. Carter, my team’s math teacher. The time we spent spitballing ideas during our planning periods was enjoyable and useful.

Have any concept development activities that you love? Please share!

Why I Won’t Be Using Common Formative Assessments This Year

Why I Won’t Be Using Common Formative Assessments This Year

Although I’ve only taught in the classroom for six years, I’ve been around long enough to observe trends in education. For instance, I’ve watched Paul Tough and the No Excuses movement catapult grit, the notion that all it takes to succeed is perseverance, from a charter school mainstay to the NAEP and the national stage. Another current trend in schooling is Carol Dweck’s growth mindset theory. In a nutshell, Dweck argues that ability is more important than innate talent. Both grit and growth mindset theory state that children need to learn to push through discomfort in order to develop inner resources of resiliency. Stated as a platitude, few would argue with the idea that determination is important for a successful life. Teaching children to better navigate a school system predicated upon rooting out standard deviations is a no-brainer. However with both of these trends educators have put forth counter-narratives suggesting that grit and growth mindset theory actually disenfranchise children.

This essay is an attempt to place another contemporary education fad, the PLC, under a critical lens. PLC, an initialism that stands for professional learning community, has become a ubiquitous part of today’s education scene. A PLC is a group of teachers who meet weekly to discuss learning and instruction. So far so good. The birth of the modern PLC movement dates back to 1969, when teacher Richard Dufour created the PLC at Work model to foster a results-oriented school culture. Since then, PLCs and Richard Dufour have become big business. Out of the first sixteen results that popped up on Amazon when I typed ‘PLC’ into the search bar, Dufour has authored fourteen of them. It’s not hard to see why the topic has become so popular. Teacher collaboration makes sense. It’s hard to argue against professionals discussing their craft. As someone who has experienced the atomization of teaching (every classroom as an island), I welcome any trend that supports meaningful collaboration. But underneath the veneer of Dufour’s cottage industry lies an ideology of teaching that enforces standardization, accountability politics, and data idolatry. This essay teases out what I see as the significant problems of the PLC model to ultimately argue that professional learning communities coerce teachers into taking part in harmful pedagogy.

PLC, Common Formative Assessments, and Data


I came across the above advertisement while reading the most recent paper issue of Education Week. Although PLCs vary in their particulars, the four bullet points in the ad sum up the anchoring components of most professional learning communities. The first bullet point speaks to the role and value of common formative assessments in a PLC.[1] Formative assessments are typically low-stakes assignments used by teachers to check for student understanding. Under the PLC model, teachers must use identical formative assessments. For instance, my fellow 7th grade ELA teachers and I would all give our classes the exact same quiz on whatever skill we’re all teaching that week. Then, for the next meeting, we would bring our assessment data to discuss trends and devise remediation strategies for any student who didn’t ‘get it.’

This isn’t good. Let’s break down the assumptions about students, teachers, and assessments implicit in the PLC approach.  In order for the PLC to function as intended, I would need to teach the same things at the same time as every other 7th grade ELA teacher in the building. This doesn’t make sense. The students aren’t the same. The teachers aren’t the same. The classroom realities aren’t the same. Why would we all do the same thing? I’m granted essentially no agency as an educator in a professional learning community. Being in lock-step forces me to ignore the teachable moments that abound in any dynamic classroom setting. This standardization numbs me to the vitality of the moment. Instead of picking up on student tangents and teaching in the moment, I’m pushing through shallow curriculum. The system reduces my autonomy and forces me and my students to conform to externally created standards and speeds.

After my PLC created and administered our common formative assessments, we would then use our next meeting to go over the results. Since analyzing student performance requires a consistent data set, our assessment have to rely upon multiple-choice questions. This type of assessment favors the measurement of discrete skills over developing organic and complex understandings. I can’t test to see how reading, analyzing, and writing poetry has affected a student. I can, however, test someone to see if they know what a simile is. Or how many times a poem uses alliteration. The system is setup to guarantee shallow teaching. In the age of accountability when teachers across the country struggle against unfair evaluation methods based on high-stakes tests, why would I do anything other than what gets the best scores? This has nothing to do with teachers and everything to do with the systems that define teaching and learning through a technocratic lens.

The final two bullet points on the advertisement are equally problematic. This company promises to connect me with content and training from “top authors” and “PLC-certified coaches.” By appealing to non-teacher ‘experts,’ the PLC model frames teaching as a simple delivery mechanism. A non-thinking entity taking from one pile and putting in another. Such an approach devalues my knowledge, training, and passion. I refuse to farm my classroom out to interest groups predicated upon expanding the bottom line. I understand that not every PLC hires consultants or buys subscriptions to websites. Schools, however, do. Reading programs, school-wide benchmark assessments, and mandated curricula all remove the locus of control from the teacher, deskilling and marginalizing him in the process. I won’t allow county or state mandates to coerce me into instructional practices that stunt the emotional, academic, and social development of my classroom.

PLCs and the Banking Model of Education

By reducing students to data points and teachers to impotent technicians, the PLC model aligns itself with what Paulo Freire called ‘the banking model of education.’ The banking model of education explains that teachers discover essential knowledge through official channels (objective, scientific processes). Teachers break the knowledge down into properly sequenced units to deposit into a child’s brain. Students are then responsible for demonstrating an understanding of the knowledge through some sort of performance task. The cycle of learning is complete when the teacher tells each student whether or not they ‘got it right.’ Rinse, wash, repeat. Human growth cannot be static. It cannot be reduced, memorized, and regurgitated. I’m arguing that PLCs are yet another form of the banking model of education. I don’t believe that Richard Dufour created PLCs out of a malevolent desire to shortchange teachers and students. I do believe, however, his desire for accountability and results through shared instructional methods has been misguided.

 A Social Constructivist Stance

So this year I’m going to abstain from common formative assessments and curriculum standardization. Instead, I’m going to invite myself, my colleagues, and my students to make meaning together. We’ll develop ourselves through a social constructivist stance. I’ll work to create a classroom where learning and meaning come from the interplay between individuals and their environment. There are no universal truths here. Meaning is context dependent and communal. A teaching stance rooted in social constructivism replaces the PLC with actual teacher collaboration. I want to meet with my colleagues to discuss what we see in our classrooms. I’m excited to learn from teachers who speak and think and act free of the bonds of standardization and accountability. What theories and pedagogies we’re using and experimenting with. This is what collaboration is.

I want to teach fully from the top of my head and heart and spirit. If this sounds unspecific and vague, that’s because it is. It has to be. I’m not teaching by numbers or following a predetermined path. I’m allowing myself and my students the freedom and support to follow their natural inclinations wherever they may go. Will they learn? Absolutely. But this knowledge won’t fit on an Excel spreadsheet. It explodes both outward and inward and takes no discrete shape or form.

Thanks for reading!

[1] Please see to read about how formative is the new summative for major testing companies.