I Write to Learn What I Think: Why Our Classrooms Need a Lot More Learning Through Writing

“I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” -Flannery O’Connor

One of the biggest misconceptions that many people hold about writing is that it is mainly a vehicle for recording and sharing what we already know. While preservation and dissemination of knowledge is certainly a key reason to write, any writer will tell you that writing just as often (if not more often) is actually about figuring out what we know. Continue reading “I Write to Learn What I Think: Why Our Classrooms Need a Lot More Learning Through Writing”

The Most Overlooked Yet Important Writing Instruction Stat I’ve Ever Seen

The massive 2011 “Nation’s Report Card” on writing contains a number of striking statistics. Among other things it found that…

  • barely a quarter of students in both 8th and 12th grade are proficient in writing
  • students who were assigned 4-5 pages per week of writing had the highest average scores
  • computer access translates clearly into larger writing success.

But tucked in amongst all of these stats–as a mere footnote–is one of the most important stats I’ve ever seen concerning writing. Out of all of the factors measured, which do you think was the most correlated with students’ levels of proficiency in writing? Is it the schools they attended? Their socioeconomic status? How much they wrote each week? These things were correlated or even highly correlated, but they were not the best predictor of their writing scores. That honor belonged to how many times the students hit the backspace key. Continue reading “The Most Overlooked Yet Important Writing Instruction Stat I’ve Ever Seen”

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”