Writing Essays Should Be Fun

The iconic writing resource They Say/I Say, begins with a quote by literary theorist and poet Kenneth Burke where he likens academic discussion to a dinner party…

You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about…You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you…The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress.

When I first encountered this quote, I was enamored, and then, nearly as quickly, horrified. The quote perfect encapsulated what I wanted my class to be, and for a moment I reveled in that vision before being crushed a few seconds later under the sad realization that my class as it currently stood looked nothing like that.

Of course, if I am being fair to myself, the discussions in my class around ideas and literature sometimes verged on passion and heat, but the essay–the main historical vehicle for centuries to deeply engage in the dinner party of thoughts–was generally as cold and lifeless as some remote moon orbiting an outer planet.

I’ve written before about the problems with keeping essays penned-in to five paragraph boxes, and there is no doubt that the form-first teaching of essays contributes to the lack of passion so omnipresent in so many student essays, but there is more to the story than that. Most students when questioned don’t actually know what an essay is, what they are for, and why they are valuable to write. They generally know nothing of the diverse universe of essays that exist beyond the school walls and are shocked when I tell them that authors ranging from Ta-Nehisi Coates to Mark Twain are at their cores essayists. And nearly all of them chuckle and eye-roll the first time I tell them that writing essays should be fun. Continue reading “Writing Essays Should Be Fun”

Why Students Brag About Not Doing Work (And What We Can Do About It)

We’ve all probably heard it.

“I didn’t even study for this, and I still got a B…”

“I wrote this entire thing an hour before class. I don’t even know what is in it…”

“I haven’t’ read a book all year. I just look at SparkNotes, and I still pass everything…”

The sounds of secondary students boasting about not doing their work to their friends as they walk the halls or shuffle in and out of class.

Early in my career, I heard so many of these comments on the peripheries of my classroom that I got lulled into thinking that these comments were normal markers of adolescence, a notion supported by my vague recollection of making similar types of boasts to my friends during my secondary years.

But if we think about it, bragging about doing substandard work and having Swiss cheese sized gaps in one’s knowledge is an odd thing. Boasting is generally supposed to be reserved for our successes and positive traits. It is supposed to be the hope that someone will ask about the marathon you just completed, how many books you read this summer, or if you have lost weight, so you have an excuse to gush a little bit about a triumph–not a place to celebrate laziness and mediocrity. Continue reading “Why Students Brag About Not Doing Work (And What We Can Do About It)”

The Game-Changing Teaching Tool That Is the Micro Conference

Nearly every teacher I know likes the idea of conferencing with students. When we talk one-on-one with students we can clarify messages, correct misconceptions, build relationships, cultivate key beliefs, and give the students a platform to be heard.

Where the issues with conferencing often come in are in the logistics, which can be next to impossible in an age where teachers often carry 140, 150, or 160 students on their loads. Take my American Literature classes, both of which currently sit at 35 students. If I have a five minute conference with each student and factor in a minute of transition time, the amount of time needed comes to 210 minutes, which is nearly 83% of the time I have with them each week. Add in logistical details like taking role, providing directions, logging into and off of computers, etc., and it wouldn’t be hyperbole to say that each five minute conference with students requires an entire week of class time.

I have written before about my strong belief in the value of conferencing, and so despite the massive time investment, I do full conferences with students several times a semester, but this has never felt like enough for me. Continue reading “The Game-Changing Teaching Tool That Is the Micro Conference”

How I Teach My Students to Fail Forward

“The world comes into our consciousness in the form of a map already drawn, a story already told, a hypothesis, a construction of our own making.” –Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander, The Art of Possibility

Last week in staff professional development, an amazing art teacher in my school leaned over during a transition and whispered to me, “You are writing a book, right? This needs to be in it.” He then slid a little yellow book stuffed with margin notes and post-its to me. Its cover read The Art of Possibility.

During the mid-morning break I opened it, and I was so instantly hooked that by the end of the day, I’d used every spare minute, break, and transition to devour nearly half of it. By the time the day ended, the book was done and my mind was already thinking about how to work it into my classroom this year.

When I reflect on why the book had such a hold on me, I think part of it was the intersection of its remarkably positive message with the optimist dawn of a fresh school year. The book is awash with anecdotes reminding us that while judgment and jealousy come easy, in general we find more success when we search for people’s strengths, not their failings, and find places to contribute instead of fixating on areas where we have been overlooked. But, as I think on it now, while those messages were nice, what really grabbed me about the book is that it offered a potential answer to a problem that I have been grappling for some time:

How can I help my students to view mistakes, missteps, and failures as potential positives that can teach them essential lessons? Continue reading “How I Teach My Students to Fail Forward”