Building Connections in a Disconnected Fall Through Micro-Sharing of Student Writing

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This is the second post in a short series on small but fierce tools that can boost your writing instruction in the matter of a few minutes. For the original entry, click here.

For me at least, the last 18 months haven’t exactly been the ideal in regards to professional development. I have read far fewer teaching books, written even fewer posts about teaching, and attended only one (online) teaching conference, instead spending the hours normally allocated to those things just making it through the day in a way that is reminiscent of my first years of teaching.

During many moments this lack of time and space to grow has been a source of frustration, but recently I’ve been thinking a lot about how the dark screens of Zoom, the divided focus of hybrid teaching, or the endless fire drills of this fall have brought their own meaningful lessons too.

And of those lessons, the one that I have been thinking about a lot recently is how absolutely crucial classroom community–which is so often cast as periphery, nice-if-you-can-do-it-but-not-essential topic–is to doing the work we do at a high level.

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A Little But Fierce Feedback Trick: Letting Students Start the Conversation

A Note from Matt: T.S. Eliot once said that April is the cruelest month. With respect to him, from a teaching perspective I find that this moniker likely belongs to October instead. What makes October a sometimes cruel month is in part its busyness, with its parent/teacher conferences, curriculum nights, and piles of letters of recommendation. The first major assignments also come home to roost in October, suddenly adding to our workload, and while the year is well underway, a major break still lies far beyond the calendar’s horizon.

But for me, what tips the scales for October is that it is when the lofty dreams of the summer run into the realities of the actual classroom. The result is that my once pristine plans from August, if they were a suit finely tailored on the first day, already have tears and stains from missteps, holes from days missed (especially when one has small children with eternally runny noses during a pandemic), and quickly crafted alterations whose seams show if one looks close enough. Of course, I don’t mean to imply that my classes are going poorly; they are actually going better than I could have hoped for coming off the online/hybrid format of last year. Even still though, they will never quite match the dreams of the summer.

This is all to say that October, at least for me, is an odd month. It is one of the times where I am the most hungry for new ideas, tricks, and tips to patch holes that have appeared in my plans and pedagogy, but it is also a hard time for things like prolonged attention and deep and lofty pedagogical debates due to my busy schedule. With this in mind, my posts over the next month are going to be a series of things that are, to paraphrase Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, little but fierce. These are some quick ideas and tricks that have made a meaningful impact on my classes and yet can be understood and implemented in just a few minutes. First up is probably my favorite right now: Letting the students lead when it comes to feedback.

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Why I Love Essay of the Week

We are back in the building this week, so my post will be short (for me). Still, don’t mistake my brevity for lack of excitement. Today’s topic, Essay of the Week, is something that has done wonders for my students’ relationships with essay writing and writing in general, which is why I didn’t want to wait until the school year settles in to share it with you.

Essay of the Week is based off the language arts/social studies teacher staple, Article of the Week. For those who don’t know Article of the Week, here is its originator, Kelly Gallagher (from his site) on what it is and why he does it:

Kelly recognizes that part of the reason students struggle with reading is because they lack prior knowledge and background. They can decode the words, but the words remain meaningless without a foundation of knowledge.  To help build his students’ prior knowledge, he assigns them an Article of the Week every Monday morning. 

From Kellygallagher.org

Gallagher is absolutely right about the importance of building knowledge,* but it is only one reason why I love Article of the Week. Another beautiful thing about it is that even though I always did Article of the Week without grades and other external carrots or sticks, it was usually one of the most high engagement/high interest moments of reading and writing in my classroom each week. If I picked the right article, I found that nearly all of my students couldn’t help but to break into debate or furious writing, even when it had no impact on the grades that far too often dictated their level of effort.

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Why This Is the Year to Get Serious About Student Self-Assessment

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One of my favorite creative writing teachers in college introduced me to the iceberg theory of character design. I’m sure many of you likely know it, but, if not, here is a quick primer:

The basic idea is that 90% of the mass of an iceberg sits below the waterline, and much like the secretive iceberg, the theory argues that when an author creates a character, she should only show a fraction of what she creates on the page. The logic is that the hidden, unseen depths will help the characters to feel more authentic and complete because, just like with the people around us, there will be much to deduce and infer.

I’ve always loved this lesson because I’ve found it to be so true, and not just when it comes to crafting characters. The world around us is awash with icebergs. Nearly everything we see, buy, consume, and do has so much more beneath the surface than can be seen above water.

As someone who writes regularly about his own practice as an educator, I’ve also come to find that my teaching is a land of icebergs too. So much of what I do and assign goes so much deeper than what can be seen on the surface–often to depths I didn’t realize until I sat to examine them in writing.

And of the icebergs in my practice, I’ve found few that go down further than student-self assessment, which is a suggestion that has been around for a long time and yet it is still relatively rare in practice, even in classes that otherwise put lots of emphasis on student voice and autonomy. In today’s post, I want to explore its depths and why if you make one change this year in particular, increasing the amount of student self-assessment should maybe be it.

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How Grammar Became My Students’ Favorite Subject Last Year

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I can’t think of a question that I disliked more as a new teacher than “How are we going to use this in the real world?” I got this question plenty in my early years, and it always felt so dismissive of the work we were doing, and, even though I didn’t yet understand why, I knew that if too many students asked that question too many times, it could seriously erode the work of the class.

In those days, when a student asked that question, I can recall usually responding in a curt and quick manner–my irritation thinly veiled, if veiled at all. These days though, I have come to realize that if ever there was a question that I need to respond to with great thought, it is this one. This is because a student who asks How are we going to use this in the real world? is really saying Why should I value this?, and that is a reasonable question for one to ask. In fact, it is likely the same question we ask before every staff meeting and professional development we attend, and we know how different our approaches to these meetings and trainings can be depending on our answer.

Now before moving on, it’s worth noting that focusing too much on a topic’s usefulness or utility can be a problem too, as Dave Stuart Jr. discusses in a recent video. Only teaching what is instantly recognizable as useful in the real world limits our curriculum and can backfire because what we view as useful and what a student views as useful might be quite different. In those cases, if our only major argument for engagement is usefulness, students now have a strong reason to disengage.

Still, value and utility do matter a great deal, as is evident by the prevalence of the How are we going to use this? question in our schools (and maybe also in our PD). This question also speaks to something important and related, which is that as educators, our knowledge of and love for our subjects illuminates so many things, but it can also blind us to other things. For example, it is generally so clear to us how the skills and content we teach connect to each other and will help students that we often forget that our students might not see these things as clearly as we do.

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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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