Thursday, July 21, 2016

More Room to Write

When conferring, I am learning to let the student lead me to their areas of need through the natural course of conversation. I practice listening so that I might respond with a question that a) I am naturally curious about (this is a conversation after all) and b) will help them with their next move as a writer.
This conference with Kathryn revolved around her end of the marking period portfolio. One thing I want you to notice is that I deliberately do not get into correction or errors. We don't address the specific pieces of writing per se, but we discuss Kathryn as a writer--the writing is another portion of evidence to consider, but conferring is about helping writers grow forward, not feeling exposed or inadequate over something previously written.
Notice that Kathryn tells me "I like writing about my running" and that "it all comes to me easily"..."other stuff is kinda harder." This takes me to Mina Shaughnessy's work--her book Errors & Expectations in particular. Shaughnessy writes, "use modes encouraging a flow of words until the pen is an extension of the mind." I have that opportunity here with Kathryn.
While running is a area of interest (and not a mode) I try to help Kathryn feel encouraged to work her writing territories into a variety of modes. I point out that she is already blending modes as she writes about running. I want Kathryn to feel my appreciate for her joy and I want her to feel that her decisions have power in the classroom.
After establishing what is going well (and all writers need to hear that positive feedback), I try to find a path into what a student is going to do next. I hope to leave them with a goal or two. This does not always happen (and that is ok). Conferring through the student's agenda and needs now is a form of differentiation. Growth does not always happen on our watch, but every conference is an opportunity to continue to build trust within our writing communities.
As always, please feel welcome to share or comment here, on Twitter, or on your own blogs. Feel free to reach out to me on Twitter (@_briank_)!
Enjoy Episode 27: More Room to Write

Thursday, May 26, 2016

First Classroom Mentors

My first mentor teacher, Bernie, kept a manilla folder on each student and walked the aisles, every day, folders in hand. When he checked homework, he recorded a plus or a minus on each student's folder. When students submitted work, each sheet went into a folder.

Every two weeks or so, Bernie emptied the folders into individual portfolios in a cabinet (or returned the work he no longer needed) so that the folders he carried up and down the aisles never grew too thick, too heavy. If he scored something with a number or a letter, that also went on the outside of the folder.

Every week, Bernie transcribed the records from the outsides of his folders into his grade book. That was his system, and it worked for him. He was organized and diligent. This was 1993. We did not have computers in our classrooms for students. Teachers did not have an individual computer in their classrooms. Record keeping happened with pen and paper. Writing, for the most part, happened at home.

Almost 25 years later, my memory locks onto Bernie's fastidious record keeping on manilla folders. That couldn't be all I "learned" from student teaching...was everything reduced to that one memory?

Wanting to dig deeper, I started a list of what I remember:

-Bernie served in the Peace Corps in Brazil.
-In 1993, he was writing a novel based on his experiences in Brazil.
-He kept a theoretical chart of the consistency of symbolism. He had sketched it out for himself: midnight, winter, December/January, black, blue all aligned in the same way that 3pm, summer, red and yellow, and June/July all aligned. His chart had a dozen different layers of details...much more than I can recall.
-Bernie telephoned my parents to tell them how well I did as a student teacher.
-As a parting gift, he bought me a first edition of a novel he loved: Butterfield 8, by John O'Hara.
-He wore a jacket and a tie every day.

-He told me he worked at being a better teacher every day, every year. He said it took effort.
-He coached soccer at various points of his career.
-We taught Lord of the Flies and Romeo and Juliet. We taught The Scarlet Letter.
-Bernie was highly respected by his colleagues. Accordingly, his colleagues treated me very well and always spoke with great admiration about Bernie. They were pleased that they knew him, that they worked with him, and that I got to be his mentee.

The thing is, I don't remember anything about how we taught.

I don't remember great lessons or failed lessons. I don't remember teaching strategies. I just remember scattered fragments of content. And I remember how Bernie was, who Bernie was. I remember the great respect he afforded me, but I especially recall the great respect he gave to the profession.

In retrospect, I don't remember Bernie conferring with students or working or getting to know them. I don't recall ever seeing the students write or seeing them read. This isn't to say that it did not happen--I just did not experience it when it did happen or my memory fails me. While Bernie was a writer, I don't remember his sharing that fact (or his writing processes) with the students. I don't recall Bernie writing in front of them.

But the one thing I still carry with me is Bernie's affect--his control and confidence in who he was and what he offered in the classroom. I remember trying to process what Bernie meant about trying to be better every day...did he mean that his record keeping became more efficient? Did he mean that he grew smarter about the novels? I didn't really know, and even today I can only surmise from a different point in my life.

Bernie was true to his spirit, his style. He knew how to make himself--who he was--most effective for his students. And, it seemed at the time, that many of his colleagues also had that trait...they seemed to enjoy that they worked with people who were different than they were. Teacher A wasn't trying to be like Teacher B. Teaching wasn't standardized even though the content was. It was ok to teach to your strengths.

Maybe my one significant take-away from student teaching is just that--maintaining control and confidence in who I am in an escalating climate of assessment, judgement, and policy. Maintaining control and confidence comes from action. Taking control over who we are fuels our confidence.

Maybe the best we can all hope for, after leaving student teaching, is remembering one key thing. Maybe we are so overwhelmed by all of it that our brain does not know which kernels of experience are so valuable that we must remember them forever.

Maybe we don't really know what to see, what to hear. Or maybe a teaching career does have to begin with content, and maybe growth only comes with practice and experience. There are no magic packets or workbooks. There are no magic techniques.

As a student teacher, I remember being so concerned with knowing the facts, knowing the books, knowing the answers, that the pedagogy often came a distant second. I didn't want to be wrong. I didn't want to get caught not knowing something. What if students asked a question that I could not answer?

The only energy I put into pedagogy was a reliance on how I remembered being taught as a student and what I observed when Bernie taught. I mimicked what I experienced and observed.

And I wonder what it was, in me, that flipped a switch to start to grow, to seek change, to find a process that would help me become a better teacher later in my career. The thing about Bernie is that I met him towards the end of his career. I don't know how Bernie started. I don't know how Bernie grew. Yet, I remember Bernie telling me that the previous year was his best year of teaching. I remember being surprised. Thirty years into the profession, Bernie only just felt that he had a great year.

As I reflect on that experience, I am reminded that we may never master this thing we do, teaching; yet, that does not mean that we just settle on being who we were when we started.

Even though policy and climate may shift from year to year, it is incumbent on me to take responsibility to grow and change from year to year while retaining the confidence and control of who I am and who I can still become in this profession. I cannot wait for guidance to make me better. I cannot wait for top-down Professional Development to make me better. Growth, confidence, and control are all within my power and, quite honestly, what makes up much of my being professional in this vocation is what I do--taking responsibility for my actions and development.

I wonder, what have you taken with you from student teaching or your first classroom experience? 

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

The Unkept Promise of Rubrics

In ELA classrooms, the rubric reigns over writing. Yet, I am wondering if others also feel that rubrics aren’t truly as helpful as we make them out to be?

When I was thirteen-years-old, I had a hard enough time prying bubble gum from my sneakers let alone untangling the language in a rubric. And even if I could untangle it, what would I have done with it? Would it have made me a better writer?

And now I wonder, does a rubric make a student a better writer?

Consider these two variations on the left from the same slot (Organization) on the rubric for Pennsylvania Writing Assessment:

While the bottom example has been rewritten as kid-friendly, it is no more helpful to students (and this is key) than the example at the top. 

How does either version help kids? Reminding students to have a beginning, middle, and end is not a bad idea...but is it helpful? Does it make or break a student’s ability to grow as a writer? Seriously, is this the guidance parents are clamoring for whenever their child receives a writing assignment? In education, we scratch our heads wondering why our students don’t grow; yet, when we introduce words like sophisticated to describe the difference between a 3 and 4 we offer little evidence as to what sophisticated means. 

A consequence is that our assessment of writing becomes subjective under the guise of making expectations transparent and concrete.

We treat the domains on rubrics like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart treated pornography: “I know it when I see it.” That colloquialism isn’t helpful to anybody, yet it is very much alive in ELA. Frustrating, isn’t it?
Why Aren't Rubrics Effective?
Constructed to rank and sort, rubrics have been leaned on as guidelines for the end of the process. The time of distribution does not make up for the absence of engagement. Rubrics send the message that good writing has very specific features. Aim for these features and we’ll let you know how you did later. Just look at any state assessment.

This standard fare of rubric is ineffectual in the classroom. Features such as organization become targets to hit, a finish line, and in many cases a brick wall. Writing to the rubric, turns the rubric into their audience. Students do not understand what is asked of them in a rubric any more than they understand comments in the margins of essays. For example, writing “Be Concise!” in the margin helps no one unless the teacher demonstrates how one writes in a concise manner.

When rubrics are not effective it is because they became scoring guidelines first, writing guidelines second, and conversation (mentoring) guidelines last--if at all. Rubrics, too often, are dead ends for students because the feedback comes at the end of the process and that is too late.

The Scoring Trap
Even though our state assessments insist on modelling it, avoid using the rubric to score.

The state assessment arena is much different than writing in the classroom or the real world of writers. Yet, teachers continue to debate how to best use a rubric to score according the presence of or absence of evidence from the noted domains

The kinds of conversations I have engaged in sounded like:
  • “if a student has three areas marked a 3 and one area a 4... is that more like a that an 85% an 86%...but I really like what they did; could I still grade it with an A-?" 
  • "if we treat the numbers as points and add up the 1s and 2s and 3s and 4s and divide by the number of possible points according to the number of categories..."
In my opinion, these conversations were misguided. I chased the score and lost sight of what positive actions could be taken with conversations, mentoring, and modeling.

And so I am left wondering--is the score on the rubric evidence of student growth or is the score on the rubric evidence of a teacher's effort? Are we scoring with rubrics for the student or are we scoring with rubrics to cover our asses?

This scoring trap is exacerbated when we learn that state assessments are scored holistically--as in, this is what a “4” looks like. Scorers literally create piles of paper (4s and 3s and 2s and 1s) while teachers in classrooms scrutinize rubric summaries (re: sophisticated) and mark errors on student writing in pursuit of the justification of a given grade. When teachers try to shoehorn a score into a rubric, we turn writing into a transaction--if you do this, then we will reward you with that.

And this, indeed, is the trap. Too much writing has become transactional in our schools. The consequence is that students do not have enough experience with expressive writing because expressive writing is the development of thinking and the development of thinking is much more difficult to score...even though it is much more valuable developmentally.

Academic Wallpaper
Perceived as a measure of a job well done, some schools encourage (or require) teachers to display the state rubric in all ELA classrooms--academic wallpaper to make us feel good about ourselves.

How can we transform the rubric--or our use of it--into learning and evidence of learning? How do we turn this around?

Use a part of a rubric, not all of a rubric.
If you can’t justify abandoning the state model or if you are precluded from using anything but a standard district model, teach it in parts.

For example, display only the Organization column. As the days and weeks pass, teach students strategies within each concept. For organization, we would focus on leads, transitions, and conclusions in addition to studying multiple structures. Exploring mentor texts to uncover how different writers organize different types of text--depending on their purpose--takes time. There is no reason to rush the process.

Some of the best teaching and coaching I have experienced has been through a part-part-whole philosophy. Think of dancing lessons or yoga. We learn a series of steps or positions in stages. We learn to improve in increments and with support. We improve when our instructor talks with us, guides us, and asks us questions. They do not hand us a form with gradients of performance circled or attributed to a score and say, “see you when it’s over.”

Use the piece of the rubric to be the topic of conversation over a lengthy period of time. Hold professional texts up to the piece of the rubric highlighted in your class and talk about it. Make time for your students to be able to write and talk about it. Let them practice on mentor texts and let them practice on their own drafts in nonjudgmental (un-scored) situations. Open up your notebook and ask the class to have a conversation about a rough piece of your writing--pull the goals of the rubric domain into the conversation. Ask your students to brainstorm what you might do next as a writer to accomplish the organizational goal on that one slot in the rubric. I am confident our conversations will be richer and more meaningful for our students. Learning will exceed the standard set by the rubric.

And do these things again and again and again.

Assessing a part of the whole
If we had to use a rubric, could we use one column today and a separate column another week when the student was ready to move on?

Could one student’s rubric grow at a different rate than another student’s rubric? According to Janet Emig, writing is a natural process and everyone grows at differing rates. Why deliver the same doses of a writing rubric to all kids at the same rate on the same day?

For example, couldn’t we focus on organization for several different drafts--encouraging ongoing feedback during the process--and when a student articulates the elements and strategies of organization add another component of the rubric--something they are ready for. They all do not have to move through the domains of the rubric in the same order at the same rate. When it comes to writing, students are not going to be in the same place as their classmates. I have learned that student growth does not often happen by our watch.

Asking students to highlight or explain their organization reveals more about what they are learning than a teacher serving as a judge at the end of the process. In the example to the left, a student demonstrates her learning.

I use this model at all stages of the process--and rarely at the end. I try to instill a sense that this type of rubric is more about the writer and less about the piece of writing. These writing moves are appropriate and measurable irrespective of the writing assignment. We can return to these skills again again throughout the year.

While I did not have to score anything, I did score her ability to show me what she learned. Literally, all I was looking for was the student's ability to show me a writing skill found in her writing. 

Additionally, I confer with students about their rubric and pick their brain about their choices. Students understand that these conversations contribute to my assessment of their work. We keep the conversation alive throughout the process as the student continues to develop as a writer. 

Another element of the re-imagined rubric is providing space for reflections and explanations. This particular rubric was built around only one domain: organization.
Sending the message that students are not just plugging in correct answers engages them as writers. At each step, I want students thinking, writing, and talking about writing. 

I share these rubrics through Google Docs (Google Classroom makes everyone their own individual copy) and most students will type their responses and reflections right into the shared document.

Using parts of a rubric, and building upon them, serves each student where he/she is today.

Use the comprehensive rubric at the end of a marking period
If a comprehensive rubric must be used in its entirety, ask students to write reflection letters about what they see in their own writing as it pertains to the classroom rubric. Perhaps students would point out topics not yet covered, but topics of concern in their own work. Students might be able to go back into their own writing and demonstrate their growth. Also, it is much more valuable for a student to explain their growth. Put another way: ask students to explain how they believe they moved from a 4 in organization to a 6 in organization. What did he/she do?

A final thought on scoring and writing
Resist the urge to see the numbers on a rubric as reflective of a score.

Distance the score from the prose. Move the score as far away as you can. If you must score something, score the process in a portfolio at the end of the marking period or isolated skills within an early draft. Score their ability to demonstrate their strengths and weaknesses as a writers and what they would like to do about it. Score the reasons behind their upcoming goals. Score their articulation of how they feel they improved. Score what is there instead of what is not there. Score it in conversation in lieu of or in addition to writing. Discuss the score. Guide them. We do not need to score students in a private vacuum. If they can’t take the feedback in person with a compassionate human being what makes us believe that they can take, process, and understand on their own what we mark on a rubric by ourselves at our desk?

Ultimately, how we use rubrics (if at all) should come down to the following question for our students to answer: did it make you a better writer?

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Paper Elephants in the Classroom

A friend summarized the difference between short and long term solutions in the teaching of math. She said kids can fall into the trap of relying on tricks. The problem rests in the fact that the trick does not promote deep understanding. The student learns a work-around without understanding the content.

Credit: Asiatic elephant by Satoshi Kamiya
In ELA, I find myself feeling similarly about buzz words or phrases: hook your reader, writer's purpose, audience. While I understand what we mean when, as teachers, we present concepts to kids, our terminology can often turn into paper tigers. Well, maybe tiger is too strong. Maybe our words becomes more of a paper elephant in the classroom. Large and ineffective.

Each term hook your reader, purpose, audience remains vague to kids as a concept and unhelpful to kids when posed as advice: set your purpose; define an audience; etc. Often, our kids are left with one silent question: "How?"

Offering concrete examples of what writers do, and constantly returning to examples helps students focus on the moves made by writers. Seeing the strategy within an authentic newspaper, magazine, or text reinforces that these tools exists. Furthermore, teaching leads, or any aspect of organization, is ongoing and recursive because each new text opens new possibilities. 

Some of the more common and specific moves used when writing a lead:

  • striking image
  • startling fact
  • action!
  • dialogue
  • scene that sets the stage
  • intriguing question or quote
  • anecdote
  • summary of a problem

Take a look at the following leads. These are a small sample of what I pulled to discuss with my classes over the last week. Each image from the March 2016 edition of Teen Ink.

When I asked my students what they noticed in the first example, they noticed that the writer blended a summary of a problem with a scene that sets the stage. We don't have these terms memorized even though we have been working with them for several months. They are still displayed on the board. Students glance back and forth from the newspaper to the list before making a decision.

It is necessary to note that I use several interchangeable words for "problem" as in "summarize a problem." Writers might use a summary of a connection, a summary of an accomplishment, a summary of a solution, et al. Often, it is this element--the summary of a [problem]--that directs a reader towards an understanding of a writer's purpose. I don't need to say develop you writer's purpose. Most kids don't grasp the context of that word. Most need something more concrete. Without this brief summary, writing tends to plummet into narrative. As the writer risks writing a(n) (un)remarkable moments without much for the reader to hold onto, the writers risks allowing the reader to drifting away from the text, disconnected, uninterested.

Notice, in the second example, that we can point out the use of a dialogue blended with a summary of a problem. The dialogue is one of several ways in, but the path chosen by a writer always leads to a summary of something.

Currently, my students are wrestling adding this element--summary of [...]--to their writing. Through conferring, I understand that many are still writing to find their purpose--and this is ok. Actually, I prefer this method of writing to discover connections. Writing to make meaning. Writing to pull together fragments of life experiences, learning, and observations. 

I would rather a student write and write and write in order to make their own meaning than for students trained to write for my meaning, to my prompts or to the prompts of a textbook. Students trained to make widgets. Assembly line writing. Short term methods in lieu of deeper understanding. 

We do no one any favors when we focus on teaching the writing instead of teaching the writer. In other words, students can apply and adjust what they learn about leads to almost any writing or reading asked of them in school. 

Encouraging students to write to find their own meaning takes time. However, we can reclaim a lot of time by offering concrete moves. When students can refer to what they want to do by a specific term, instead of the blanket term (hook my reader) we are all positioned to help one another move and grow as writers with a long term understanding. 

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Margin Notes, Used Books

I'd read George Hillock's thoughts about writing and writing instruction in chunks. A chapter or essay here. An excerpt or quote there. 

An online seller shipped me Teaching Writing as Reflective Practice for a the cost of a cup of coffee. Bargain.

Inside, the margins are littered with notes. Sentences and phrases are underlined. At first, it felt like reading text through dirty glass. It distracted me. Sort of like someone muttering to me all throughout a film. Now, that dirty glass strikes me that it is closer to a bottle flung into the sea, and the margin notes are, well, my note--the message from the past.

As I began to fall into Hillock's line of reasoning, the notes in the margins become less distracting. I've come to see these notes as evidence of a person who was not a writer.  I recognize them because I have been there too. Maybe they were a teacher, maybe they were not. That is hard to glean. But I am fairly confident that I notice the questions and observations of a non-writer...which has made the experience of reading Hillocks, today, all the more fascinating.

The margin notes are still like someone muttering all throughout a film, but now it is like someone questioning and criticizing: "Oh, who would ever believe that! Nonsense. No one would ever be able to sneak onto the Titanic." 

I can feel the presence of an occasional Harumpf! and the shudder of a grouse in the brush.

For example, Hillocks writes, "...writing is a special craft that requires a trained professorate." The note in the margin asks, "How do you create or divine this?" 

A few pages later, Hillock writes, "The problem appears to be some combination of inadequate knowledge of what effective writing requires, absence of the strategies for producing it, and an assumption that 'people will know what I mean.'" And my margin-writer asks, "So what is the answer?"

Can I reach in through the text? If so, my hands would slip through time, grasp my new friend by the lapels, and shake him/her (gently) while pleading, "Write. At every turn of the page, and with every question you ask, the answer is almost always, write."

If it sounds like I am oversimplifying something, good. That is my intention. Sometimes, with good intentions, educators can turn obvious answers into a sticky taffy pull. 

It is as if we were hunting for light switches in windowless rooms where there is no electricity, only candles and flame. 

"There must be a switch somewhere."

There is no switch.

"Well, I'll just wait for a switch. Have one put in. There must be a way to put in a switch."

And we wait for switches when we, the teacher, have to strike matches. We have to touch flames to wicks. We have to come to a real, tangible, understanding of the work if we ever want to be able to teach by the light.

And so I am left wondering. How did this Hillocks book end up in my hands? Is the book like a bottle tossed into the sea? Was the person who scribbled all through this text...lost? Did they ever find the answer they were looking for?

Did they ever write?

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Dumbest Places I've Been

I've been in some dumb places...all for some really good reasons.

Squeezed inside the back window ledge of 280ZX in 1986. I was 18. We were driving around (aimlessly) looking for girls. We weren't thinking of accidents. Or breaking laws. Or the driving being able to see. We were thinking about girls. 

Chilling on the iron posts, peering out of the opening in the middle of second "O" in the Hollywood sign. It was very late at night during the summer of 1990. Three of us, recent college graduates, climbed Mt. Lee in the Los Angeles with a couple of backpacks of beer. It just seemed like the coolest place to slug back some beers. We were from Philadelphia on job interviews. We weren't thinking about rattlesnakes, mountain lions, or it possibly being trespassing. Or falling.

Clinging to the iron pegs leading down (or out) of the sewer in Philadelphia. It was Philadelphia. I was a curious child. I'd heard there were alligators and giants rats in the sewer. I wanted to see. Two of us pried the heavy iron plate off of the sewer. And down I went. Quickly, I realized I wouldn't see much until I would be willing to climb all the way down to the bottom. Or until I would be willing to let go of the rungs. Or until I took my eyes from my hands and their death grip in the rungs. I was not willing.

The pursuit of girls, beers, and giant alligators makes males do stupid things...and it doesn't change much with age, ladies. It doesn't change much with age.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Phone a Friend?


One November, possibly 1989 by my best estimate, my answering machine message was me "BOK-BOK-BOKKING" like a turkey. Remember when answering machine messages instilled an inordinate amount of pressure to sound cool or funny? I was in undergraduate school. Being professional wasn't on my radar yet. I felt the need to be quirky with the answering machine.

Today, I don't make voice mail messages. The thrill is gone. The default "your call has been forwarded to an automatic voice message system" recording is good enough.

And I don't carry a pager anymore. Remember those?

A phone was different when I was an adolescent and teenager. How we used it was different! And waiting for someone to pick up on the other end...before answering machines...we could be so patient!


Someone from the other room would yell, "Hang up! They're not home!"

"No, no, they might pick up! She said she'd be home." 

We hadn't suspected or invented screening calls yet.

I can remember walking to see people--not calling people on the phone. We would knock on, I think I might jump out of my skin if someone ever knocked on the door of our house. 

In college, we would walk into strange dorm rooms and foreign apartments just because we knew one person who would invite us in. Barely any furniture. Maybe a huge computer stacked together on the floors. A few ashtrays. We'd sit on the floor. Meet new people. The door would be open to a common area or the hallway.

Back at our place, we used the phone to call our family. Maybe friends at another school. But as far as the people around us, the people we saw on a daily basis...I can't remember calling those guys much, if ever. Now, we don't even use a land line in our house. We just use the devices in our pockets.

Recently, I joked with a small group of colleagues that I have a bone to pick with the new generation of teachers. A jealous bone. I'm jealous of their college experience with smart phones. All it took for them to find their friends was to send a text message--especially late on a Friday or Saturday night.

In the 80s, Sweet Honey Iced Tea! finding your friends was almost all luck. We would walk all over campus--dorm to dorm, fraternity to steak shop, student union back to the dorms--and the people you ran into, that is who you hung out with.

Our younger colleague--the one who grew up with and went to college with a smart phone, quipped, "Yeah, I don't understand how any of you ever made any friends!"

I almost wonder.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Where Does the Joy Go?

Christian Robinson/Courtesy of Penguin Random House Publishing
Yesterday afternoon, I conducted a podcast with a few 4th and 5th grade students. It was after school. Excited and nervous, the kids volunteered to stay.

For just under an hour, we discussed the picture book Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Pena and Christian Robinson.

What strikes me about the experience is that all four students spoke about content, text features, and personal connections. They extracted specific quotes from the text in order to make a point. They referenced how the illustrations worked with the text. They brought up simile and metaphor.

Most of it on their own.

What I am left with are discoveries compounded by questions--each its own slippery slope. I realize that I wouldn't have to test these kids. A conversation revealed just how much they understand about a book, reading in general, and analysis...because they could talk about it. If you listen to the podcast (15 minutes in length) you will hear the students make inferences. You will hear them use support for their positions. And you will hear their curiosity.

However, more importantly, you will hear their empathy and joy.

What will happen to their joy? In the time between 4th grade and when they reach me in 8th grade, what will happen to the joy I heard? I saw it. I sat around a table with it.

Will it stay? Or will their joy get snuffed pressure, by the loss of time, by mounting so many young teenagers report to me again and again and again?

If you listen to the podcast, you will hear me ask these four kids make a promise to not forget their joy, to not let it go, And to come and see me when they make it to middle school. Come tell me about your joy and the books that you love.

I hope they do.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Acres of Diamonds

The first video footage I ever saw of a teacher conferring with a student about writing astounded me. The conversation wasn't about correction; it was about decisions--the decisions made by the writer. 

[Cue the music of angels and flood the stage with golden light]

EUREKA! There is so so so much more to discuss. There is significant value in discussing the decisions of writers. It is so valuable, in fact, that it is literally worth our time to make it work, to make it happen.

For a few years, I had been scanning the web and thumbing through professional texts for links and QR codes for more examples, but few examples exist. Sure, I found footage of Atwell, Graves and Calkins, and Kittle, but there really is not much (publicly) in the way of video/audio beyond what has already been offered by these Titans. 

I had been so hungry to watch and listen to other teachers in the act of conferring with their kids, that I forgot about the acres of diamonds in my own backyard. And in your backyard! Why spend years scouring the globe when many of the answers I'd love to have are literally right here in front of me...are literally right in front of you, too!

My kids. Your kids. My students. Your students. Me. You. Why wasn't I recording my conferring?

Why aren't you??? (Are you? If so...please share!)

At the beginning of the year, I started using the Voice Record Pro app on my iPhone to record the conferences, and I haven't looked back. Instead of fumbling with clipboards, instead of the daunting task of deciphering hastily scrawled observations, I keep a library of audio recordings of my conferring right on my iPhone.

Through email, or uploading into Google Docs, or into an unlisted YouTube channel, I have shared these audio files with students and their parents. In each case, it has proven to be a concrete method of talking about what the student is saying about their writing in addition to what the student is showing in the writing. After several months of realizing what a goldmine of information my kids were sharing with  me, I decided to take the leap to podcast with my kids.

Three days a week, during lunch, I sit with two or three students and discuss reading or writing. We don't talk about any one specific essay or book per se, because I am more interested in writer and not so much the writing. I am interested in what has and what continues to influence their decisions. Where is their confidence? Where is their passion? Where is their curiosity? I try to say as little as possible. I want their words to build the content.

Learn from the writer, not just the writing.

So, my niche is presenting podcast episodes between 15-20 minutes in length that address these middle school students' perspectives on writing and reading. Students often offer a different (and honest) lens to see the very issues we grapple with as teachers.

So often, my kids tell me that they used to love writing, especially before elementary school. Many claim that up to third grade they still remember loving it. When I ask what changed. they say stress. Expectations. Time. Writing, especially writing for oneself, is no longer important enough. It gets set aside, forgotten. 

In the most recent episode (embedded below), Blank Paper & Big Dreams, one of my students says of herself as a writer, "I had big dreams." Kind of bittersweet to hear kids say this about themselves in the past tense. They are only thirteen and their writing dreams are over? What are we doing???

Give The Classroom a listen, and if so inclined, subscribe to it on iTunes. If you would rather hook up with it on your phone, I included a direct link on my Twitter profile @_briank_

In order to keep the podcast going, and in order to transition from one year and into the next year, I plan to podcast with teachers and authors over summers.

Finally, I would love some feedback...and I would be happy to answer any questions coming up for you. Technology has made it infinitely easy for us to keep audio libraries of our conferring as well as turn that workflow into a podcast--this is something that each of us could do in our own way. I would love to know if anyone gets something valuable from my podcast, but more importantly, I would love to know about your podcast if you decide to do something similar with conferring and talking/listening to your students.

PS Even though this looks like a video, it is an audio file.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Spoon Feeding Children Their Castor Oil

Lining Up
Photo by Fox Photos on Getty Images
Yesterday, during the continuity session with the writing project, a colleague shared a developing situation at a school. During some training, a clear division arose over the scoring of a student writing sample.

Nothing new, right? These exercises are extremely valuable for the conversation alone. It is one way to draw colleagues into comfortable conversations about writing. By comfortable, I mean everyone is happy to offer an opinion about student writing. Often, teachers come at it from differing angles. At times, teachers focus on the mistakes in the writing. Regrettably, we can grind kids' noses in the elements needing correction.

It is more challenging to find colleagues willing to write and/or share their own writing. So, until the day when the unicorns deliver us to that end of the rainbow, we can settle on discussing the writing of children.

In this specific case, the teacher and trainer (both of whom write) scored the student work at a 5 or a 6 in one specific category. The teacher's colleagues (including an administrator) scored the writing sample at a 3. None are writers.

A few universally accepted truths bubbled up as I listened to my writing project colleagues discuss the situation:
  1. Writing is becoming a stronger emphasis in schools.
  2. All stakeholders in schools want consistent experiences for students.
  3. Consistent assessment is a challenge.

I walked away from our continuity session chewing on the conversation. More truths surfaced, but these are not universally acknowledged by the actions of enough teachers:
  1. Teachers who do write understand writing, and the rubrics for writing, differently. 
  2. Teachers who do write can identify the moves that young writers are attempting (successful and unsuccessful) and see these moves as progressive and ongoing.
  3. Teachers who do not write tend to interpret writer's moves as outcomes, as final evidence, as endpoints. 
  4. Teachers who do not write tend to match the evidence in the writing to the surface meaning of the imperfect language on the rubric. 
I can say this with confidence because I was once a teacher who did not write...and one who kept trying to write the perfect rubric.

I struggled with understanding the language on rubrics for a couple of reasons.

First, writing a rubric is brutal. We tend to overwrite them to the extent that our kids have no idea what they mean...let alone the adults. We perseverate over the specific words. We try for accuracy. And we get well that when considered from a distance we end up asking ourselves, what the hell does proficient mean? what is the difference between effectively supports and sufficiently supports?

Can you imagine a room full of non-writers trying to ascertain how to explicate those concepts for our students? Wouldn't we be better served by actually doing what we ask our kids to do? Wouldn't we be better served by being writers? Writers understand writing. Scorers think they understand rubrics.

[setting soapbox aside]

Second, I misinterpreted many rubrics because I did not write. I was a scorekeeper. I took on the roll of torchbearer of the state rubric, holding it high, jogging it through the community, through the halls, and into my classroom where I tacked it proudly on the wall like a Presidential portrait...because I was supposed to. Because this was the standard of good writing. Not because I understood it. I treated the teaching of writing (to borrow a metaphor I heard on Friday...thank you, Bill!) as if I were spoon feeding children their castor oil: You will be good writing citizens. The state knows all. Just follow the rubric and you too can find a life of proficient writing. I'm only doing this because it is good for you! You need to learn to be better! Look to the poster! Look to the rubric.

Please do not be offended if you interpret this as being directed at you. I truly am writing about me. My experience. And the connections I made and internalized yesterday in a roomful of teachers (from all over several counties) who are teachers who write.

By the way, we all saw the child's writing in question as a 5 or a 6. We shared no stake in it or that school or staff. But we do share a common lens--the lens of being writers.

I can't make an impassioned plea to schools hard enough. If writing is to be emphasized, if we truly want consistency, if we want to be better at assessing writing, then become teachers who write. There is no magic pill or no magic rubric.

The real magic is in writing.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Meet Bo's Snack Attack

Docile and calm, Bo hasn't caused much trouble in our house. But he has learned to check a certain door leading into the one bedroom where the cats eat. To keep the dogs out of the extra bedroom, we installed two features: a latch lock on the door, and a kitty door.

The kitty door works just fine. Bo can't fit. The cats can. And, quite honestly, the latch works just fine long as someone locks it.

Sometimes someone forgets to put the latch on the door (we won't get into who). And Bo checks that one door by ramming his head into it. When it has been locked, it sounds like Vikings are taking a battering ram to the house. He grinds his head against the wood, the hinges screech, the door jamb crackles, and the floor rumbles. Cats scatter.

When the door, unlocked and forgotten, has swung open, Bo has entered and has gobbled down all of the dry cat food from the feeder. This snack attack has happened more than once. We won't count.
This act has one significant consequence: Bo gets a tummy ache. Like an old furnace asked to heat ancient pipes for one more winter, Bo whines and groans and rattles around the house for several hours. He requests to go outside...a lot. And he sounds pathetic, but the discomfort and distress eventually passes.

You'd think the humans would remember to keep the door locked!

Friday, March 4, 2016

Meet Bo's Path from X to Y.

Dean (left), Bo (right)
When we rescued Bo and Dean, they each lacked different components of being a dog. It was like they skipped a lot of school, and completely missed a unit. Too many years passed. Nothing seems to help them improve their areas of weakness.

In Dean's case, he must have missed the lessons on playing fetch. Actually, he missed the lessons on playing, period. Seriously, it has been a long process, but Dean is only just learning how to play. He won't chase any balls or squeaky toys. He doesn't really show an interest in any dog toy.

For Bo, he seems to have missed the doggy class on coordination...or manners. He rams through doors, shrubs, computer cables, extension cords, portable heaters, dining room chairs, and people. Anything in his way, Bo barrels into and through it. He barrels into the ocean. He barrels through any doggy accidents in the house...clean up is, ugh. If I am not careful, Bo damn near still takes my legs out from under me on occasion. I guess we are just in his way. Bo wants to go from point x to point y, and well, his course his set. Godspeed, Bo! Oh, and Bo lays behind Karla's feet in the kitchen--if she isn't careful, one day she just might tumble over him.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Meet Bo's Sidekick

Bo (left), Dean (right)
Bo has a brother. Not a blood brother, but a kill shelter brother. 

When inquired about adopting Bo, we learned that a second black lab was pulled from the shelter in Ohio. Both dogs would be, temporarily, at a farm. 

Karla and I drove several hours into Western Maryland to meet the dogs, intent on adopting one. Well, we adopted both. But don't assume it was an immediately warm and cuddly moment. Neither dog liked the other. As a matter of fact, the family who owned the farm would not bring both dogs out together.

We were told that the attacks were vicious. These dogs had been imprinted with some serious fear, anger, anxiety, distrust, and maybe even hate. It is hard to imagine that dogs can experience hate. But listening to this family prepare us for what we were about to encounter, I can't help but wonder.

Leaning on the family, we coaxed them to show us both dogs at the same time. We wanted to see what they described. We wanted to see if we could handle Bo and Dean, rehabilitate them. We wanted to see just how bad their hatred for the other appeared. Karla took Dean by the leash. I took Bo. And, yes, they clearly did not like one another. And, yes, the farmer raised a skeptical eyebrow when we decided that we would rescue both of them. Together. 

He said, "I 'spected you'd turn around, walk off without either of 'um."

Change took time. There were fights. I got nicked up a bit when trying to separate them, trying to protect them from one another. But after seeking some wonderful professional advice from an animal behaviorist, and lots of patience, Bo and Dean settled into a...friendship. At the time, we did not dare predict it. We did not see it coming. It just sort of happened one day. Literally, we woke up and things were different between them. They were sleeping alongside one another. For months, they had slept in separate rooms.

Now, this all fell into place after a long year and a well-needed neutering. So, time and snip-snip helped. Nevertheless, the neutering didn't to take as there were times when we didn't know for certain that Bo and Dean would ever be buddies. We were never going to give up on either. Instead, we were prepared to take care of them both even if the best we could hope for were a couple of dogs who only came to tolerate the other. We have over an acre of fenced-in land. There'd be space.

Yet, it turned out better than we had hoped. We were able to massage the anger out them. We out-waited them. We out-loved their expectations. And trust built. 

It reminds me of something I picked up from Shakespeare and have never forgotten. The real magic in this world is, indeed, in time. For all of those potions in Shakespeare's plays, none ever worked as intended. Often, disaster ensued when humans tried to concoct magic out of herbs and potions. Yet, it was is time...that erases mistakes, softens the edges, and brought two dogs together to write a new chapter--two dogs who were previously conditioned into a life of fear amid the unmistakable scent of death. 

It is true. Time is a powerful eraser and a pencil point.