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If I remember my high school science classes correctly, stars like our sun spend a good long time burning brightly at the center of their solar systems, providing the light and heat and gravity that keep everything moving and, in our case, alive. But as many a poet reminds us, all good things must come to an end. Eventually, once their hydrogen is gone and after brief explosions, most stars settle into new existences that consist of gradual cooling and general diminishing of their once radiant dominance.

I’ve been thinking about the life cycle of a star a lot in regards to this school year, as there are a few similarities. Generally speaking, the role of teacher has long been to be the undisputed sun at the center of her/his/their classroom. The classwork, class structure, and class community have all traditionally orbited around the teacher, with the students acting as satellites of sorts, satellites whose trajectory is almost wholly dependent on the sun they orbit.

But last spring after our educational systems largely exploded, many teachers faced a reality that was not unlike the reality that a star faces after it has blown up. Anyone who has spent more than five minutes on a Zoom call likely knows that even the most dynamic presenters just don’t shine as brightly on Zoom as they do in person, and the gravitational pull of a class from a distance just isn’t the same as when thirty five bodies are all crammed together in a 500 sq. ft. room.

If I’m being honest, even though in recent years I’ve made a strong push to give students lots of room for choice and voice and opportunities to pursue their own interest and goals, I struggled significantly in the spring with no longer being the gravitational center of my class, and I worried a great deal this summer about how I would run class this year with the diminished pull that comes from teaching from a distance.

But then last week I had the opportunity to sit down and talk to two experts on digital writing instruction, Dr. Kim Jaxon and Dr. Anna Smith, for an upcoming National Writing Project Colab, and I was struck by something in hearing them talk. Dr. Jaxon and Dr. Smith both have extensive digital teaching history, and while they have different methodologies in many ways, the one clear commonality they share is that both described their classrooms as places where the diminished gravitational pull of the teacher online was in many ways a strength of online teaching, not an obstacle to be overcome. In the same way that the smaller stars in the Milky Way suddenly shine brighter and clearer when one moves far away from the city, Dr. Jaxon and Dr. Smith describe digital classrooms as places where students can shine brighter because the teacher isn’t sitting there at the center of the class.

I experienced this to some extent in the spring when I had students design their own writing curriculum for the fourth quarter. Not only were many of these the best work I have received since the start of the pandemic, many were among the most interesting and inspired that I have ever received.

And so this year, instead of dwelling on my frustration concerning my inability to conduct class like I normally do, my plan is to look at my remote teaching as an opportunity to push my classroom into an even more democratic space that gives students a bigger and better microphone concerning the class and the curriculum.

Part of how I plan to do this will be increasing the prominence of certain things that already exist in my class. This includes elevating the role of student goal-setting, choice writing, and peer review. It also means adding even more flexibility in both the structures students can use in their writing and the topics they can write about.

But I also plan to implement a few entirely new things. The ones I’m the most excited about include…

Opening Conferences

Conferences are precious real estate. With my 150-160 students, each round of conferences is a roughly 13 hour time investment, meaning I can only do so many in a year. Consequently, I have never started the year with opening conferences, but given the circumstances and how varied the students’ situations will likely be, it seems important this year.

I plan to use the introductory letters the students will write as the base for these conferences, and my goal, in the words of Dr. Jaxon from the upcoming CoLab, will be to notice them (which is a concept she puts at the center of her online classes). My hope is that this noticing will demonstrate to students that their needs, interests, and desires matter and are my priority too, and that this, in turn, will act as an invitation of sorts for the students to fully engage with my class, even if it is remote.

I think the key to making sure the students feel noticed and generally making the conferences meaningful will be to take a page out of Kate Murphy’s book You’re Not Listening (one of my books of the summer), and offer more of what she calls support responses and fewer of what she calls shift responses. To see the difference between those, here is her example from the book:

Shift Response

Person #1: I watched this really good documentary about turtles last night.

Person #2: I’m not big on documentaries. I’m more of an action-film person.


Support Response

Person #1: I watched this really good documentary about turtles last night.

Person #2: Turtles? How did you happen to see that? Are you into turtles?”

The difference between these is that in the first example the listener pivots the conversation to them, while in the second, the listener digs deeper. In a rush to form connections (when connected with my tendency towards talking too much), I could easily see myself doing lots of shift responses, so in these conferences I plan to consciously try to use lots of support responses to make this about the students and to show that I am listening to them.

A “Who Are You?” Quarter

I am starting my classes with a “Who Are You?” unit that will be longer and deeper than any memoir/narrative unit that I have ever done. In fact, my plan is to have it last the whole first quarter. The inspiration for this comes from Gholdy Muhammad’s book Cultivating Genius, where Dr. Muhammad makes an impassioned pitch to elevate our focus on identity in the classroom. She says at one point:

“Before getting to literacy skill development such as decoding, fluency, comprehension, writing, or any other content-learning standards, students must authentically see themselves in the learning. When I work with teachers, I often take multiple pictures of them in small groups and project them on a large screen. Their eyes invariably go directly to their faces. The look for themselves. I believe students do the same in classrooms” (69).

Dr. Gholdy Muhammad in Cultivating Genius

I plan to show students themselves in the learning by having them use the texts we read and the writing lessons on craft and content to write and explore their own stories during the whole first quarter. My frame for this quarter will be “Who Are You?” (also from Cultivating Genius), and it will include letter writing (see this amazing mentor text letter from Jason Reynolds), poetry (see the poems I will use in this post from August), memoir (here is Sandra Cisneros reading “Eleven,” a favorite short memoir of mine), and even fan fiction (seriously! And thank you to Dr. Smith for that brilliant suggestion!). Towards the end of the quarter, students will get the opportunity to assemble and polish the pieces that they think best speak to the question of “Who are you?”

Use of Student-Found Mentor Texts

I have used some student-found mentor texts in the past, but generally most of my mentor texts have been ones that were chosen and curated by me. This year I hope to change that by making student-found mentor texts a priority, as having a collection of student-found texts could give students more models and more models that might speak to them. Further, it is worth noting that the very act of looking for mentor texts is a wonderful opportunity for learning, as students will have to think closely about what makes a poem/story/essay work or not work.

The way I plan to do this is to have a shared public Google folder, similar to Moving Writers’ Mentor Text Dropbox, where students can drop links and pdfs. Then, a week or so before a unit, I will put out a call for texts and maybe even give students some class time to find them.

The hope is that by the day of the lesson, I will have an assortment of mentor texts to share in class alongside the texts I contribute and a folder of additional texts that students could use to browse and search personalized inspiration that speaks directly to them, inspiration that would remain live in the folder all year long!


It is worth noting that planets still continue to orbit a star after a nova, and those “spent” stars still burn at over 179,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Teachers this year can still have a strong pull and produce plenty of light, even over Zoom, which is good because during these hard, uncertain times, students will need both steadiness and inspiration.

Still, I think a key to this year will be to both provide steady guidance/light and to give students the space (pardon the pun) to chart their own path and shine their own lights too. And while so much about this year is pretty dark and scary, it is important to remember that while pitch darkness can be disconcerting, it is also what allows use to truly see the whole beautiful spectrum of the Milky Way.

Yours in Teaching,

Matt

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