Writing Essays Should Be Fun

The iconic writing resource They Say/I Say, begins with a quote by literary theorist and poet Kenneth Burke where he likens academic discussion to a dinner party…

You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about…You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you…The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress.

When I first encountered this quote, I was enamored, and then, nearly as quickly, horrified. The quote perfect encapsulated what I wanted my class to be, and for a moment I reveled in that vision before being crushed a few seconds later under the sad realization that my class as it currently stood looked nothing like that.

Of course, if I am being fair to myself, the discussions in my class around ideas and literature sometimes verged on passion and heat, but the essay–the main historical vehicle for centuries to deeply engage in the dinner party of thoughts–was generally as cold and lifeless as some remote moon orbiting an outer planet.

I’ve written before about the problems with keeping essays penned-in to five paragraph boxes, and there is no doubt that the form-first teaching of essays contributes to the lack of passion so omnipresent in so many student essays, but there is more to the story than that. Most students when questioned don’t actually know what an essay is, what they are for, and why they are valuable to write. They generally know nothing of the diverse universe of essays that exist beyond the school walls and are shocked when I tell them that authors ranging from Ta-Nehisi Coates to Mark Twain are at their cores essayists. And nearly all of them chuckle and eye-roll the first time I tell them that writing essays should be fun. Continue reading “Writing Essays Should Be Fun”

Why Students Brag About Not Doing Work (And What We Can Do About It)

We’ve all probably heard it.

“I didn’t even study for this, and I still got a B…”

“I wrote this entire thing an hour before class. I don’t even know what is in it…”

“I haven’t’ read a book all year. I just look at SparkNotes, and I still pass everything…”

The sounds of secondary students boasting about not doing their work to their friends as they walk the halls or shuffle in and out of class.

Early in my career, I heard so many of these comments on the peripheries of my classroom that I got lulled into thinking that these comments were normal markers of adolescence, a notion supported by my vague recollection of making similar types of boasts to my friends during my secondary years.

But if we think about it, bragging about doing substandard work and having Swiss cheese sized gaps in one’s knowledge is an odd thing. Boasting is generally supposed to be reserved for our successes and positive traits. It is supposed to be the hope that someone will ask about the marathon you just completed, how many books you read this summer, or if you have lost weight, so you have an excuse to gush a little bit about a triumph–not a place to celebrate laziness and mediocrity. Continue reading “Why Students Brag About Not Doing Work (And What We Can Do About It)”

The Game-Changing Teaching Tool That Is the Micro Conference

Nearly every teacher I know likes the idea of conferencing with students. When we talk one-on-one with students we can clarify messages, correct misconceptions, build relationships, cultivate key beliefs, and give the students a platform to be heard.

Where the issues with conferencing often come in are in the logistics, which can be next to impossible in an age where teachers often carry 140, 150, or 160 students on their loads. Take my American Literature classes, both of which currently sit at 35 students. If I have a five minute conference with each student and factor in a minute of transition time, the amount of time needed comes to 210 minutes, which is nearly 83% of the time I have with them each week. Add in logistical details like taking role, providing directions, logging into and off of computers, etc., and it wouldn’t be hyperbole to say that each five minute conference with students requires an entire week of class time.

I have written before about my strong belief in the value of conferencing, and so despite the massive time investment, I do full conferences with students several times a semester, but this has never felt like enough for me. Continue reading “The Game-Changing Teaching Tool That Is the Micro Conference”

How I Teach My Students to Fail Forward

“The world comes into our consciousness in the form of a map already drawn, a story already told, a hypothesis, a construction of our own making.” –Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander, The Art of Possibility

Last week in staff professional development, an amazing art teacher in my school leaned over during a transition and whispered to me, “You are writing a book, right? This needs to be in it.” He then slid a little yellow book stuffed with margin notes and post-its to me. Its cover read The Art of Possibility.

During the mid-morning break I opened it, and I was so instantly hooked that by the end of the day, I’d used every spare minute, break, and transition to devour nearly half of it. By the time the day ended, the book was done and my mind was already thinking about how to work it into my classroom this year.

When I reflect on why the book had such a hold on me, I think part of it was the intersection of its remarkably positive message with the optimist dawn of a fresh school year. The book is awash with anecdotes reminding us that while judgment and jealousy come easy, in general we find more success when we search for people’s strengths, not their failings, and find places to contribute instead of fixating on areas where we have been overlooked. But, as I think on it now, while those messages were nice, what really grabbed me about the book is that it offered a potential answer to a problem that I have been grappling for some time:

How can I help my students to view mistakes, missteps, and failures as potential positives that can teach them essential lessons? Continue reading “How I Teach My Students to Fail Forward”

The Magic That Happens When Students Set Their Own Learning Goals

“We have to do this work with the students, and not for the students.” -Patty McGee

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I’m not proud of it, but I have seen all eight of the Fast and Furious movies. I have no defense except that I have a soft spot for absurdist early 2000s bubble-gum action movies that involve Vin Diesel and/or Dwayne Johnson. One of my favorite parts of nearly every one of these movies is that each one inevitably has a scene where the racers are involved in an intense race and, right as the moment of truth comes, somebody yells, “Use the NOS!” If you haven’t seen the movies, NOS  refers to Nitrogen Oxide, which is a gas that if piped into an engine significantly boosts its performance for a brief burst. The racer then hits the NOS button (always a giant red button), the car takes off like a rocket, and the good guys just barely edge out the bad guys.

One of the things I like about both the movies as a whole and the NOS scenes is the fantasy of how wonderful it would be if reality were that easy — how wonderful it would be if there existed a button that we and our students could hit to suddenly succeed in our toughest ventures.

The closest we have to this is a topic I talked about last post–wise interventions–which are short, timely, and targeted actions that can rapidly make a huge impact on improving student outcomes and/or closing achievement gaps. In preparation for the first day of school next week, I am going to spend this week looking at a few of the most impactful, and I want to start today with one that can have an NOS-like effect on the learning process, if used right: student goal setting. Continue reading “The Magic That Happens When Students Set Their Own Learning Goals”

Wise Interventions: The Most Important Educational Concept You’ve Probably Never Heard Of (And How to Use It to Help Your Most Vulnerable Students)

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Wise Intervention: a brief, timely action that significantly improves student achievement and/or closes performance gaps based on race and gender.

In Helping Children Succeed (the link has an annotated pdf of the whole wonderful book!), Paul Tough tells the story of a group of Stanford researchers–Geoffrey Cohen, Gregory Walton, and David Yeager–who decided to investigate how we can best help the most vulnerable students, namely those who are grappling with trauma, toxic stress, low-self esteem, and/or feeling like outsiders.

And what they stumbled upon is something that should be as ubiquitous in education as concepts like the growth mindsets and grit (both of which grew out of the same research): wise interventions.

To introduce wise interventions, it is probably best to tell the story that Tough and Angela Duckworth tell to illustrate it:

In 2006, Cohen and fellow Stanford researcher Julio Garcia did a study with 7th graders who were getting essays returned to them. The teacher gave feedback on the essays in exactly the same way the teacher always gave it with the exception of one small difference. Half of the students got a little handwritten post-it on the top of their essays that said…

“I’m giving you these comments so that you’ll have feedback on your paper.”

The other half got a handwritten post-it that said…

“I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know that you can reach them.”

This little difference might not seem like much, but they found the quick I-believe-in-you nudge resulted in double the number of students doing a revision. What was even more striking is that while white students in the “high expectation” group were only slightly more likely to revise than the control, Black students in the “high expectation” group were over four times as likely to revise. Further, later replications not only showed similar numbers, but researchers also found the high levels of revision continued to the end of the year without any further interventions.

In a later paper, Yeager and Timothy Wilson of the University of Virginia theorize that the reason the intervention had little effect on some students and a profound lasting effect on others is that it only worked on those students who consciously or unconsciously viewed feedback as threatening in some way. For the students who already felt teacher feedback came from a place of high teacher expectations, the post-it offered nothing new. But for those who saw feedback as punitive, intimidating, or biased, the post-it stepped in at the time when the student was the most vulnerable—-when their papers fluttered down on their desks–and disrupted those feelings with an instantly noticeable vote of confidence. For many, this effectively quieted those negative feelings, which in turn cleared the way for them to act in a more academically advantageous way.

That is what a wise intervention is and the power it can have.

To recap, a wise intervention is where the teacher…

  1. Identifies a belief or behavior that some students have that is detrimental to their learning,
  2. Identifies a moment where that belief or behavior is reinforced, and
  3. Identifies a small intervention that can disrupt the negative belief or behavior at that critical moment and replace it with one that will be more positive for student learning, thus creating a new and more positive cycle.

And when the teacher executes a wise intervention right, the effect can be like magic. Think about the teacher above. He/she/they didn’t have to massively change pedagogy or how the class operated to get double the revisions and significantly close a serious gap in a lasting way. Instead it took one post-it–the work of five seconds–to do it.

There are numerous studies like this where tiny wise interventions have led to remarkable student gains:

  • Ramirez & Beilock (2011) found 9th grade students who struggled with test anxiety scored significantly better on their first finals (B+ vs. B-) when they were given an opportunity to write for a couple minutes about their thoughts and feelings concerning the test ahead of time.
  • Hulleman and Harackiewicz (2009) found that 9th grade students who started the year with low expectations of success in science and wrote every month about how topics from their science class applied to their lives scored .80 grade points higher than similar students who simply wrote about the topics from class generally. 
  • The famous Stanford Marshmallow Experiment (the one that offered kids a chance of one marshmallow that was sitting in front of them now or two if they waited 15 minutes in a study of self-control) had a follow-up that showed that when kids who exhibited less self-control were taught strategies for control (like imagining the marshmallow as a picture or turning their chairs around so they couldn’t see the marshmallow), they were able to delay gratification at similar rates to kids who demonstrated higher self-control.

The issues these wise interventions address–test anxiety, low self-confidence, fear of the teacher, self-control–are some of the most important and difficult we face in the classroom, and while wise interventions aren’t panaceas for all gaps and problems, they point to a really effective and efficient way to help many of our most vulnerable and alienated students. Next week, in preparation for the school year, I’ll be doing a mini-series diving a bit deeper into proven and practical wise interventions, so check back soon, if you are interested. In the meantime though, I encourage you to think about your most vulnerable students and why they believe what they believe and behave in the ways they do. Then think of strategic spots where small, surgical interventions could disrupt their negative beliefs, behaviors, and cycles and point them towards more positive ones. Like wise interventions themselves, this little activity takes minimal investment, but if done well it would not be hyperbole to say that the return on the investment could be immense.

Thanks as always for reading!

Yours in teaching,


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What Should We Do With the Five Paragraph Essay?

“What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure.” -Samuel Johnson

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Kids book author Sandra Boynton’s classic sketch of the five-paragraph theme.

As a writing teacher, one of the most common questions I’m asked is how do I handle the five-paragraph essay. If I’m being honest, until relatively recently, I tried my best to avoid this question, as discussion of the five-paragraph essay is the writing instruction equivalent of talking about politics at Thanksgiving. It is the third rail of ELA instruction, with an army of passionate and seemingly intractable supporters on both sides.  Continue reading “What Should We Do With the Five Paragraph Essay?”