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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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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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 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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