What Teaching During the Pandemic Taught Me About Student Choice and Voice

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I have long been a proponent of seeking ways to allow for student choice and voice when it comes to writing. It was the topic of one of the first posts on this blog and something that I’ve returned to over the years (like here and here).

I think this interest in choice and voice has a lot to do with my own experiences as a student and how the effort that I put into writing tended to oscillate like a kite on a gusty day. Give me a topic where I had some room to write about things of interest in my own voice and my effort and writing would generally soar like it was caught in an updraft. More than once on these occasions I would ask my teachers if the page maximum was firm or more of a suggestion.

But give me a topic that I found stifling or disinteresting and my energy would deflate, plunging my effort downwards towards the earth. Often in these situations I found myself spending more time figuring out how much I had to do for this paper than on the paper itself.

I have seen similar situations in my classroom more times than I can count, and I tend to look at this issue using the Expectancy/Value Theory of Motivation (see below), which states that motivation generally comes from a combination of the value we assign to something multiplied by our belief concerning how likely we are to succeed.

Taken from The Motivate Lab at the University of Virginia

For many students, restrictive essay prompts and structures can feel pointless, and according to this theory, when something feels pointless, all of the careful instruction and scaffolding in the world likely won’t lead to dramatic student interest or investment (as anything multiplied by 0 is still 0).

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Why Teaching Students How to Listen to Each Other Is More Important Than Ever (and How to Do It)

Last week a friend of mine introduced me to an app called Radio Garden that allows you to listen to tens of thousands of local radio stations across the world. Since then my trips to the store, daycare, and the dentist have been filled with calypso from Barbados, Ghanian hip hop, and electronic tango straight from Buenos Aires. These are not necessarily genres that I normally listen to, but in scanning stations I have been purposefully non-purposeful, clicking on random stations and delighting in the happy accidents and new music that have followed.

Sam’s Radio from Ghana on Radio Garden (seen here) has been a huge hit with my whole family.

Coming across these beautiful genres of music from around the globe has reminded me of something I thought about a lot during this distanced year: How much we have to learn and gain from each other and yet how rarely we seriously invest in doing so. Instead our default tends to be sticking to our well-worn paths of information or spending the moments where do meaningfully interact with others largely waiting for our turn to speak.

I have found this to be especially true in education, where despite Speaking & Listening being a core standard for almost any school or state I know, the Listening part is given almost no attention at all–that is unless its listening to the adult (both the teacher and the texts) who is currently speaking.

The summer before the pandemic I discussed how when teachers begin to seriously listen to their students, that listening can become, in the words of Cornelius Minor, a superpower. Now, in this summer after the full pandemic year, I am convinced that the same is equally as true for students. Fifteen months of Zoom, hybrid, and distanced teaching have made clear just how much students get from hearing not only the voice of the teacher, but the voices of their fellow classmates as well.

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The Six Books I’m Reading This Summer

For many years I swam and surfed the Pacific Ocean on a near daily basis. One of the things I loved about its waters was that they were predictably unpredictable. Each night the combination of the current, tides, swells, and wind reshaped its bottom, creating a topography of the sand and movement of the sea that was unique to that specific moment in time, and each morning I would swim or paddle out to feel how that day’s motion differed from the day before and the day before that.

Last week, even as I was landlocked in the Midwest, I spent my hours doing something similar, as I took time to actively feel for the new contours, pushes, and pulls as one unprecedented year ended and another, hopefully at least somewhat more precedented, period began.

My Six Books That I’m Reading This Summer (which is in its fourth installment, more on why I choose six here) were chosen largely as a response to the questions and feelings that arose last week as I bobbed between the school year that just passed by like a towering and roiling wave and the next one that for now is just a slight swell on the horizon. Like the lulls between waves that I knew during my hopelessly novice surfing days, my goal for these books is equal parts recuperation from the year that just was and preparation for what I think I am reading from the horizon. I hope you enjoy.

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Using Writing to Cultivate a Narrative of Progress Even As We End a Year of Loss

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One of the first things I tell my students each year is that writing is not simply a tool for expressing thoughts to others. It is very useful for that, but there are numerous other uses that are arguably as important as well.

Writing can also be used as a tool for figuring out what one thinks. As someone who strives to write daily, I couldn’t agree more with Joan Didion, who famously once said, “I don’t know what I think until I write it down.” It also serves as a mode of expression–a medium for getting out and processing those jumbled feelings that constantly bound through all of our heads. And writing can be an act of preservation, where one uses a journal, diary, or blog to act as a photograph of one’s mind and point-of-view at a particular moment in time.

A lesser-known, but still deeply important use of writing though is that it can also be used to promote meaningful shifts in beliefs, behaviors, and mindsets. Some of the most striking educational studies I’ve ever encountered explore this, including the following:

  • A 2011 study that found that 9th grade students with significant test anxiety scored nearly a grade better on their first finals (B+ vs. B-) when they wrote for a couple minutes about their thoughts and feelings concerning the test ahead of time.
  • A 2015 study where high school students who wrote briefly about how their work in schools can help them to make the world better significantly raised their GPA the next semester and those at the highest risk of dropping out decreased their likelihood of doing so.
  • A 2009 study that found that 9th grade students who expressed pessimism about their ability to do well in science scored nearly a grade higher on average when they wrote short pieces every month about how topics from their science class applied to their lives.
  • A 2014 study where students who read stories of other students making positive contributions and then wrote their own stories of awakening and striving to make a difference increased their grades and were more likely to push through even assignments they found boring.
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The Anatomy of an Effective and Efficient Piece of Feedback

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Before winter break, I asked my subscribers to send me topics that they were interested in discussing in 2021. I got a lot of great suggestions, but the clear winner was to go deeper into how to provide quality feedback faster.

This makes a lot of sense, as so many teachers have been pushed to the brink by this year. In general teaching loads before this year were already too big and too many teachers already wore too many hats, and yet the days before we had to simultaneously teach online and in-person or load every syllable of our lesson into a learning management system seem, at least to me, like a relative breeze.

To manage this extra load while still maintaining the quality of our instruction, we need to be as efficient as possible right now, and for writing teachers any talk of efficiency begins with feedback, given that each minute of feedback taken on the scale of a 150 or 160 students requires over 2.5 hours of teacher time.

So today, I wanted to take a look at an email sent by a reader named Ann-Marie after my recent post on looking for ways to find the poetry in each student and use it to unpack what we know about what the most efficient and effective comments tend to look like.

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Annotated by the Author: Why Having Students Annotate Their Own Writing Is My New Favorite Writing Instruction Tool

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Several years ago, the New York Times introduced one of my favorite writing classroom resources: Their Mentor Texts column, where seasoned writers annotate their work with the motivations, methods, and writing moves behind a piece previously published by the Times. Their first annotation, an article about a tiny T. Rex, was an instant hit in my composition class and helped me to solidify many of the themes we’d been working on, ranging from the importance of crafting compelling leads to how to engage in a real writing process.

Last year, this wonderful resource went to the next level, with the column adding a sub-column where the teenage winners of their student writing contests do the same with their winning submissions (see below).

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Things That Are Working Right Now: Using Celebration as a Teaching Tool During the Pandemic

This is the third in a series of posts I’m running about what is working inside my pandemic classroom. If you have things that are working in your classroom right now, please reach out. We teachers are better when we work together, and I’d love to share what is working in your class with others!


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Of the adjectives I’d use to describe this moment, celebratory is not one of them; in fact, it might be the antonym of how I feel as I look out on this grey morning and think of the news dominating the headlines today: Frightening new Covid variants, staggeringly high levels of economic hardship, and the looming specter of a previously unthinkable assault on our capital still hanging over our democracy.

Of course, there is also some good news too. We are on the backside of this dark winter I’m seeing out of my window. My state already has more vaccinations than overall Covid cases. Amanda Gorman just gave us a poem for the ages. These things are cause for celebration, but I still find myself struggling to celebrate even these wonderful things, given everything else going wrong.

In a time like this, a post centered around celebration might seem odd or misplaced, but it is precisely because of how dark and difficult this time is for so many that I have come to believe that we teachers need to, now more than ever, use celebration consciously as a pedagogical tool in our classes.

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Looking for the Poetry in Every Student During the Pandemic

A few days ago my parents, in a fit of fall-cleaning, boxed-up assorted artifacts from my youth that were collecting dust in their basement and dropped off a surprise trip down memory lane on my front porch. And so my daughter, who loves such fragments of “the old times,” as she calls them, and I spent the evening digging and laughing our way though old photos, newspaper clippings, and momentos until we got to a large stack of papers at the bottom, the sight of which froze me in mid-sentence.

Sitting there was something I’d long given up as lost–something that is now of great professional interest to me: my high school and college papers, complete with the feedback my teachers gave to me.

As I began to draft Flash Feedback three years ago, my initial hope was to start the book by reflecting on these old secondary and post-secondary papers and feedback that I received as a student, but after months of unsuccessfully looking for them, I eventually wrote them off as lost to a pre-digital age and moved on. And yet, years later here they were, perfectly preserved in all their analog glory.

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Three Things That Are Working

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I originally planned to take a few weeks–maybe a month at most–off from writing at the start of the school year to get accustomed to being a remote teacher (we have been online the whole school year). That was over two months ago, and yet only recently have I started to feel that I am, maybe, finding some semblance of balance when it comes to teaching to boxes on a screen (or at least enough that I can stomach looking at a keyboard and screen a little while longer after yet another Zoom-filled day).

I plan to have a full-length post coming after Thanksgiving, but, given that there is so much that is distinctly not working across the educational landscape at the moment, I wanted to quickly share today three things that are working well in my remote classes, as now, more than ever, we need to exchange tips and ideas in real-time. So without further preamble, here they are:

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

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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.

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