Creating a Culturally Responsive Community of Practice: A Guest Post by Chris Butts

Today’s post is written Chris Butts, one of the co-authors of Planning Powerful Instruction, a book (actually two books, as it is broken into two levels: elementary and secondary) that introduces the EMPOWER model of inquiry through apprenticeship. I had never heard of inquiry through apprenticeship or EMPOWER until I attended a session by Jeffrey Wilhelm at last year’s National Council of Teachers of English conference, but I have been using both ever since when designing my lessons, as they are fabulous tools for thinking about lesson design. In today’s blog post, Chris Butts explores the role that one piece of the framework–priming–is playing in making his classroom a more culturally responsive place this year.


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What the Life Cycle of a Star Can Teach Us About This School Year

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

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.

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How Do We Talk and Write About Race and Equity from a Distance? A Q+A with Matthew Kay

After a summer of protests that was bookended by the tragic shootings of George Floyd and Jacob Blake, I want to conclude my series on major questions going into the fall by looking at a question that I hope teachers across the country are thinking about closely: How can we discuss issues of race and equity (through conversation and writing) if we are teaching from a distance?

To help me with that, I was lucky enough to digitally sit down with Matthew Kay last weekend to hear how he will be approaching conversations about race remotely this year (he is starting fully online, with the potential to switch to blended learning at the quarter). For those who don’t know him, Kay is a high school teacher from Philadelphia, the founder of the Philadelphia Slam League, and the author of Not Light, But Fire: How to Lead Meaningful Race Conversations in the Classroom.

Regular readers will likely know that Not Light, But Fire has quickly become one of my all-time favorite teaching books since I read it last winter. What makes it such an essential read (seriously, everyone should buy this book) is that while it does give clear and thoughtful guidance for approaching and structuring conversations about race, it also does so much more. It is a masterclass in building meaningful connections and relationships with students; creating a safe, supportive, and engaging classroom–the type of classroom where discussions of race can thrive; and engaging in meaningful writing instruction, as Kay views writing followed by student publishing as essential next steps after any good conversation. 

I should also note that this interview happened on Saturday, the day before Jacob Blake was shot by police and three days before two protesters in Kenosha, Wisconsin were killed. Those shootings and deaths, while not discussed in the question and answer, underscore just how important it is for us teachers to think carefully and deeply about how we, even from a distance, can support our students in discussing, processing, and writing about traumatic events like these during this year.

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What Does a Distanced First Day of Class Look Like?

Last year I wrote a piece called Rethinking the First Day of Class. Its premise was pretty simple: Humans are more open to changes in perspective, behavior, and motivation in moments that mark a “fresh start” (more on this “Fresh Start Effect” here) and the second students walk into our rooms, they begin doing the calculus concerning the value of our class, and how valuable they find it matters a great deal. Put these two together and the first day of class is incredibly valuable real estate–real estate that is far too often squandered with taking role and reading off of a syllabus.

The post goes on to discuss how my first day has shifted from logistics and boilerplate icebreakers to something closer to that of a hook in a piece of writing that both piques the students’ interest and establishes the key themes of my class.

This year though, much of what I normally do on the first day won’t work, as my school has decided to go remote for at least the first six weeks. This has me thinking a lot about my question of this week:

What Should My Distanced First Day of Class Look Like?

Like the other posts in this series of questions, I don’t have all the answers, but I wanted to share the voices that are guiding me and what I’ve got so far in the hopes that it might help others to plan their own first days. Also, I recognize that some have started school already and many readers will be doing blended learning or distanced in-person instead of remote. For those fellow teachers, I have tried to design this post to have lots of good stuff for you as well. Ok, onto the post about what I’m doing my first day…

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How Can We Best Support Our Students From a Distance?

Two weeks ago my district announced that we would start online for at least the first six weeks, with the hope of returning in-person after that. My feelings about this were too wide-ranging and complex for the scope of this post, but in short, I was at once relieved that I won’t be spending hours upon hours in a small brick room that has no ventilation (we still have boilers and radiators) with 150+ teenagers who can seemingly spread Covid as effectively as any adult, frustrated at how little is being done nationally to get case levels down to where it would be at least reasonably safe to send students and teachers to school, and deeply concerned about how additional months of learning from a distance will affect many of my students.

My guess is that many of you might be experiencing some similar feelings, and what makes them even more acute for me is that I can do so little about so many of the issues. Our country’s infection rate, the state of our over 100 year old building, and district, state, and national policy lie largely outside of my immediate control.

There is one of these areas of concern that I can impact in a significant way though, and it brings me to my question for the week:

How Can We Best Support Our Students From a Distance?

I might not have the nation’s ear or even my local school board’s ear, but my students will be listening to me, which means I have an opportunity to provide meaningful support to them, even if it is from a distance.

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Can Workshop Work from a Distance?

For weeks I have been trying to figure out how I will run a writer’s workshop style class from the various distances that learning might take place from this year: the social distance of six feet, the oscillating in-and-out-of-class distances of blended learning, and the fully online distance from my kitchen table to my students’ houses.

I haven’t been the only one worrying about that either. In recent weeks I’ve gotten over a dozen queries about this exact topic, and I think what makes this question so tricky is that workshop was largely created to eliminate the various distances that traditionally existed in classroom. It was meant to get the students working together in slightly messy groupings instead of working alone in orderly 19th century rows and meant to get the teacher out and amongst the students instead of standing behind the podium at the front of the class.

And yet now, even in the best case scenarios for this fall, we will likely be stuck in rows again, rows that will be even farther apart this time. We will also likely be wearing masks and maybe have some plexiglass and industry-scale ventilation joining us too.

Further, as COVID cases continue to rise in the United States, a great many districts and schools are also opting to replace in-person rows with online ones, boxes lined up in neat columns on Zoom calls.

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How Can I Connect with Students and Build a Classroom Community From a Distance?

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Many once-in-a-generation challenges await educators this fall. With that in mind, the blog will be a little different this summer. It will still have a writing instruction focus, but it will also focus a great deal on how we might continue to have relationship-based, workshop-style instruction in classrooms that, if COVID cases aren’t significantly lowered, are looking increasingly likely to be somewhat or completely distanced or socially distanced for those of us in the United States.

Much of this thinking will be a lot more conceptual than I normally publish. This is because most of us have so little idea of what our classes will be like beyond the fact that they will undoubtedly be very, very different. Still, even though the horizon is filled with question marks, there exist many established voices and best practices that can potentially be of use in lighting our way down the twisting and uncertain paths ahead.

The organizational structure for the blog this summer is that each week I will pose a question that I and the writing teachers I know are grappling with and then go in search of answers to that question. Also, if you have questions you are struggling with, I encourage you to send them to me here.

This week’s question is based around something I’ve been thinking about since school ended, which is that the pandemic hit near the end of the school year, at a time when most teachers have firmly established relationships with their students. The same will not be true this upcoming year–many of us will have entirely new students–which has me wondering and worrying about the following:

How can I Connect with students and Build a CLassroom community if most or all learning is Distanced or Socially Distanced?

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The Six Books I’m Reading This Summer

It is somehow almost July, which means it is past time for my Six Books of Summer. Since I have some new readers, I wanted to quickly recap the theory behind this annual post, which goes like this: My to-read list is impossibly long. Intriguing books and must-reads come at a rate that far outpaces my time to read them, and so in my early years of teaching I spent my summers desperately trying to read as many books as possible in the vain attempt to catch up on my list. The issue with this was that even when I kept up a frantic pace, my list never shrank as much as I hoped and I often ended the summer feeling less recharged and a bit fuzzier on the details of many of the books than I’d like.

My approach now is to prioritize. Instead of reading twenty or thirty books, I read six–one per week–and I take my time and really enjoy, process, and think through the books. I have been doing this now for three years, and the result has been far so much more meaningful and satisfying than my old I-have-to-read-them-all method.

I also encourage you readers to discuss the books with me; some of my favorite blog-related conversations have happened over previous summer book choices.

So without further preamble, here is my 3rd annual list of the six books I’m reading this summer. It is out later than I normally like, but with everything happening in the world I needed a little extra time to regroup before getting back on the keyboard. I hope you enjoy.

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Using Storytelling to Keep Students Engaged in the Last Month of School

T.S. Eliot states in The Wasteland that “April is the cruelest month.” He is close, but he misses the mark by a month, at least in my opinion. In normal years, I find May to be the cruelest month by a fair margin, at least when it comes to my teaching life. The problem is that after a long Michigan winter, the extra summer sunlight of the north makes everything lush and leafy, seemingly overnight. This might not seem like a bad thing, but the appearance of summer is a serious problem when it comes to my students, as en masse and like clockwork they begin to checkout in uncharacteristic ways once the trees suddenly burst with leaves, despite the fact that over a month of school remains.

This May is obviously very different than previous ones, but the one similarity with other years is that the second it stopped snowing (which was only a week and a half ago), I once again saw my student engagement drop rather precipitously. Of all years, it makes a lot of sense that students would struggle to engage right now though. Many just want the year to be over, but I believe there is also a larger issue at play. To understand what it is, here is an image of a basic model of motivation from my book Flash Feedback that combines the work from James Clear and Dave Stuart Jr..

The idea behind this model is pretty straightforward: Our actions (or inaction for many students right now) largely come from our identities, and our identities largely come from the outcomes we’ve experienced from previous actions.

This Identity/Action/Outcome Loop helps to explain why in normal years student actions and outcomes begin to differ in May and why seniors sometimes get pretty acute cases of “senioritis” when the summer appears on the horizon. In these situations the identities from the past year–the basketball team member seeking a regional championship or the AP student looking to pass the AP test–begin to wane, and as they do, the actions and outcomes that come with those identities naturally begin to wane too.

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Best Practices for Teaching When One Has Little Time and Even Less Bandwidth

Teaching in normal times is not a profession that lends itself to balance. A study by the Gates Foundation and Scholastic found that teachers on across the country work over 53 hours a week on average, and it seems that every year the number of tasks, students, and papers grows larger and larger.

And even though right now the vast majority of us are not teaching in our schools, the size of the job remains massive for many. There are meetings to attend, classes to teach, feedback to give, and students and parents to reach out to. Further, there are new tasks: we must translate our brick-and-mortar classes into new digital spaces, learn entirely new platforms, keep up with ever-changing requirements and developments, and help 140, 150, 160, or maybe even more students navigate a moment of acute worldwide trauma.

At the same time, many significant barriers to productivity have risen around us. I, for example, am the primary caregiver for two children under four during the week, meaning my teaching has been relegated to early mornings, late evenings, and weekends. And I am one of the lucky ones who isn’t dealing with losing a job or, even worse, a loved one due to the pandemic.

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