unfinished business

This has never happened before.

With at most two class meeting left at the end of the year, I have failed to reach the destinations I had assumed we desired.

There is one act of The Tempest yet be read.

There are two chapters of Tale of Two Cities still ahead.

The group action and product for a collaborative inquiry has yet to be created, though it is under way.

On the list of “completed” I am happy to say that small group book clubs and research studies did not suffer. I subordinated my own “coverage of content” goals to student goals such as the book clubs, and curating To-Read lists on Goodreads for their summer reading.

They also worked with younger students to teach them how to get onto Edmodo, and how to dance Jane Austen -style (both 21st Century skills!).

This group chose to read Pride and Prejudice, research dancing and etiquette, and teach peers and younger students to dance.

This group chose to read Pride and Prejudice, research dancing and etiquette, and teach peers and younger students to dance.

They provided me with useful feedback and their own reflections about small group and individual learning as readers, writers, and researchers; they offered suggestions for whole class book studies for themselves and future students.

I have not ever faced so blatantly the absence of alignment between my unit calendar and the actual daily learning processes that occur. I attribute the finish–like the Preakness, where my students are California Chrome and I am the pack spread out behind; or the Giro d’Italia, where they are riders out front, and I am the peleton who waits too long to put on the speed and overtake them before the finish–I attribute the finish to the surrender of control that necessarily accompanies the sharing of authority in my classroom. As I try to respond to their pacing, their needs, I adjust the pacing and mini-lessons that I had planned, adding writing conferences to generate encouraging feedback and removing burdensome requirements.

But the subtraction of certain work means re-prioritizing goals, so that I must ask myself “How important is it for their learning?”

For example, I always told them “Tale of Two Cities [whole class novel] is the dress rehearsal; your book club is the opening night.”

Diigo screen for research group

Diigo screen for research group


Coming into the home stretch at the end of May, we have all run the race. Our students, us; there is plenty of unfinished business on either side. I have a heap of partially operational websites and apps to either dismantle or rebuild as models of student portfolios, class blogs, glogs, and research tools.

Google Site

Google Site

But for now, I have left it all behind at the paddock.

I have to get out of the old mindset, in which I was in competition with myself against last year’s number of units, with students over whose goals merit priority treatment, or with a Platonic ideal of interpretive community. In the new mindset, my students are in the game, and I am their coach, not their opponent; their goals and my goals merge end evolve over time, but flex more by student progress achieved (Past Performances) than by distance remaining to the final furlong, toward unrealistic expectations.

What I see as unfinished business is actually an opportunity for me to practice a flexible mindset and join my students in the Winners’ Circle.


Getting my hands dirty

As I begin a project assigned by my lead teacher, I can’t escape the feeling that I am somehow implicated in an ethical dilemma.

Having been asked to review Honors English policies for similar schools, then to write two course descriptions for freshman high school language arts — Honors and non-Honors — I find myself torn in opposite directions so far.

On one hand, Honors classes can be a teacher’s dream. I was hired at the independent school years ago especially to teach honors and AP. I collaborated several times with the other main high school English teacher, who taught the “regular” classes. Someone else had pre-selected the students for the honors track and I just taught them at the level that served their needs best, keeping the challenge and enjoyment high. Later, due to variations in class size and staffing, we went to heterogeneous classes with greater differentiation. Students in honors classes tend to be already effective at “playing school”: they speak and write in school discourse, enjoy reading (or seem to appreciate its value) and write competently (at least as far as surface features go). They do homework the teacher assigns, even on nights when they play “away” games, without complaint.

What teacher wouldn’t like a room full of compliant students?

On the other hand, I have found that the rewards of teaching accrue when critical and creative thinking flourishes in any student population. Take the reader/writer whose non-standard spelling or punctuation have prevented her promotion to the typical “honors” group. When invited to take Honors because of her creative thinking, the writing falls in line soon enough, because she writes with motivation to express important ideas, caring enough about them to see them to clear and strong written completion. Or the ordinarily reluctant reader who is nevertheless excited to begin a book club because of the enthusiasm of others in his heterogeneous group who are excited about a student-chosen novel.

The view in Salt Lake’s Alchemy Coffee House on Capitol Hill/Marmalade, celebrating creativity

What happens to the mixed-ability class when all the “best” students are culled for Honors?

If we glean the “advanced” students from among the others, then a class like mine that depends on lively dialogue among all participants becomes problematic. The rich mixture of voices usually results in a multiplicity of viewpoints; and small group activities often allow both more and less experienced readers and writers to contribute in their respective areas of strength, which may not necessarily be “academic discourse”. For instance, in a mixed ability group of five rehearsing a scene from Romeo and Juliet, a teen who shies from performing herself directs others; two, uncomfortable saying Shakespeare’s words, negotiate a line’s meaning and then put it into youthful vernacular; the last pair, inspired by the updating of the first pair, apply the modern context in gesture and expression, but keep much of the original text. Without such a blend of learning styles preserved by heterogeneous classes, a class full of “lower ability” learners would come to depend more on teacher innovation than student creativity. Yes, I could make such a class fun, and could teach peer-to-peer interaction, but having to replace authentic student motivation with a teacher-generated hybrid could wear down co-leaders and co-learners.

A better option may be to offer a supplemental class in reading and writing for low-performing students – a writing lab or reading lab, perhaps, dedicated to self-selected books and writing topics, whose only purpose is to increase confidence and resistance in readers and writers. And instead of a special class for those who “do school” already, challenge every student to resist teacher-assigned homework and learn to design her/his own homework, work that enriches something already discovered that day, that identifies an element of author’s craft in a free reading book, or writes a challenge to an idea someone expressed in class or at home.

There might be legitimate reasons for students or parents wanting an Honors option, such as the desires for a brisk learning pace, for peers who care about deep inquiry, and for high degrees of instructor contact and feedback; these values would be consistent with any effective learning environment: a good drama class or soccer practice might offer them. But we get into cloudy water — and this is where my hands feel dirty — when we consider to name a class Honors mainly because it “looks good on a transcript”.

If the designation “honors” means that a student elected to take a more challenging course, just to see if she could, that would be fine with me. I have students who claim to be taking AP English Lit/Comp for that reason next year. But if it means that a student was assigned to Honors class merely because she was “compliant” in school, I might differ with the selection process or with the interpretation. Who indeed interprets? We cannot control for the universities who weigh the term in their own fashions, nor for parents who push their students into advanced courses indiscriminately. But we can be responsible to students if we offer such courses.

For my own part, as I work out course overviews this week, I will keep in mind that whatever the label on the syllabus, each ELA course must challenge all students to use the full range of critical thinking and communication skills, to become authors of their own learning, and to pose and solve problems creatively.

An effective program challenges students to think, communicate, and work together in any environment


Nightmare before an AP English exam

I dreamed that there were pole dancers where in Xanadu did Kubla Khan a stately pleasure dome decree.

…that the meaning of the prose passage was “obvious”.

…that “allusions” contrast with reality, but “illusions” reinforce the universal truths of a text.

…that a coherent essay means gluing a transition sentence between each paragraph of a five paragraph paper.

…that students brought neither quill-sharpeners nor chronometers.

…that Wilde, Wordsworth, and Woolf shall be known from this day as Oscar, Bill, and Virginia.

…that the one year we didn’t have time to study the Drama, the open question demanded a play choice studied in AP.

…that yesterday’s students, none of whom remembered iambic pentameter, but who identified it after review–met trochaic hexameter on the poetry sections.

…that Sir Philip Sydney “sired” Faerie Queen, winner of the fourth race at Churchill Downs on Derby Day.

…that the simple theme of “love” appears in every paper.

…that carpe diem is declared the central motif in “Rape of the Lock”.

…that instead of memorizing selected passages from the works they studied, GoogleScholar supplied an “essay” about Henry James they committed to heart.

…that “throughout the entire book of Bleak House, Captain Nemo’s figure looms large.”

…that A Room of One’s Own is confused with A Room with A View, both of which we studied.

…that Simon runs away, crazy, at the end of Lord of the Flies.

…that the theme of Les Miserables is sung by Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe as they are surrounded by cynical gargoyles.

And then I woke up.


mouths of babes

A freshman doing homework after school called to me before I reached the doors to the parking lot.

“I finished reading a book and I decided I want to do a journal entry on it it. I thought about the AP journal topic you had on the board, ‘What is the most memorable moment or image in the work, and why?’”

Having been pulled in two directions last week, considering the pros and cons of an Honors English class (we offered Honors 9, 10, and 11 years ago), the beautiful audacity of the late afternoon encounter hit me between the eyes. There is always at least one student who is reaching, who picks you up like a tornado and sets you down two years in the future, where you see the class you will be teaching, and have the chance today to modify your navigation settings in order to achieve or circumvent such a destination.

Sure, this will be a great student to have sitting in the front row of my AP Eng Lit class in 2016-17. But I look past the first row (metaphorically…I don’t have rows) and see only empty seats.

My job, it would appear, is to offer so many learning opportunities over the next two years that every student stops me at the end of the day to tell me about the responses they want to write to a free reading book; ideally, all students will be excited about certain books and anxious to sign up for senior electives such as AP, Moby Dick, or Virginia Woolf. It may be that honors classes occupy a place in the future, but I don’t see a necessity in ninth grade.

I exchange a few words of encouragement with my freshman reader and writer, whose exacting questions in September about what I wanted, have transformed into reflections about what she wants. Students like this take not only ownership, but authorship of their learning.

I move through the doors and walk to my car, beginning to prepare for tomorrow.



a revolution

Stuck. In a hard place between gamifying A Tale of Two Cities — involving students discovering things I have predetermined and solving problems I have identified and defined; or having them learn it “by wholes” — incorporating play, working on the hard parts, and treating it as the “junior version” of the real game afterward: small group book clubs.

In gamifying, I become gamemaster, a role I am quite comfortable with when it comes to Dickens novels. They chose this book, incidentally.


In the other option I coach as they identify problems that defy easy definitions, offering useful feedback as they respond to the text (which a well constructed game will also do), and setting up conditions for collaborative inquiry. This approach, too, should lead to discoveries, yet I cannot know in advance what they will be.

Because the novel is set during the French Revolution, I have been thinking that revolution encompasses a good deal that might be worth inquiring about as a reader establishes connections and builds envisionments through this text.

There are so many beautiful aspects of revolution that stir me: patriotism and social change; faith, and spiritual change; education, and intellectual change. And there is that unpredictable awakening that happens in most individuals during the teen years when they rebel against conformity and distinguish themselves from others through clothes, music, art, books…looking for a subculture with which to identify.

I insist upon [the right attitude to work], because it seems to me that what becomes of civilization after this war is going to depend enormously on our being able to effect this revolution in our ideas about work. Unless we do change our whole way of thought about work, I do not think we shall ever escape from the appalling squirrel cage  of economic confusion in which we have been madly turning for the last three centuries or so, the cage in which we landed ourselves by acquiescing in a social system based upon Envy and Avarice.   From Dorothy Sayers’ post-war essay, “Why Work?” 

For a few moments they will recognize Mr. Lorry, who fights through his deadpan facade, whose bright eyes are the only unburied thing about him; Sydney Carton, who redefines his unsatisfying life by leaving it behind; and the embittered Madame Defarge, knitting in silent rebellion at first, her indignation rising until it breaks out in violence.

Possibly they will acknowledge the protests their grandparents endured or waged against the Vietnam War, similarly removed in time as Dickens was from the Revolution.

And then there is the technology revolution. Will they be moved to consider the implications, the new freedoms, the shameful abuses?

And then there is me. Stuck. Witness to a time of great education revolution, yet grudging participant in a system that still issues grades for indefinite achievements, shouts Liberty, Fraternity, Equality! for some, but not for all. As much a relic of the British Tradition (title of my little-used but proudly shelved Prentice Hall anthology) as Mr Lorry or the institution he serves, Tellson’s bank. All I need is the powdered flaxen wig.

What pulls me forth from my grave, recalls me to life, as Manette, Lucie, and Darnay are summoned to resume theirs? My freshmen, who last week devised a solution to the problem I posed. They had to evaluate “how do I know if I am finished?” with Fahrenheit 451. One group came back with a great response: “We want to read another novel to compare it with (Lord of the Flies), research some elements of both the books, and then show connections we make between the texts, ourselves, and our lives on the bulletin board with yarn [like the one up there now that the sophomores did].”


My American Lit students are enthused about pursuing an inquiry question arising from The Scarlet Letter that will lead to research and social action: writing a bill to send to a Utah legislator who has promised to read all propositions. They became quite engaged in Pearl’s custody hearing earlier this month.


2014-02-26 10.42.33

2014-02-26 10.42.25


No, I am not actually stuck. I am challenged and excited to help my sophomores make sense of a complex text that will yield unpredictably personal and individualized rewards. I just want to be worthy of their thinking, ingenuity, and creativity; this means practicing patience, and allowing ideas their percolating time.

Last time my students did Dickens, my goal was that they would become performers of the spoken text; they found it very helpful when I offered them a guideline that suggested what proficiency might look like, sound like. Fearful at first that they would turn a teacher-designed rubric into a pale excuse for a cause for reductive grading (conformist, aristocratic, abnegating reflection and authorship of their own learning), I was recalled to life by the students’ choice to respond individually to each other’s presentations one by one, pausing between oral interpretations to offer written feedback and encouragement in the form of blank notecards I had in my possession. Each presenter received immediate feedback on her speech from peers, who had also coached her during preparation earlier in the week and could monitor improvements. A true, meaningful recognition by peers of learning by whole, rather than teacher grading on Gradgrind-iose toadying expertise.
Students in those merry days would swap with others who became delightedly immersed in a speech; they recorded the orals as a lasting record of achievement.

The next step sophomores will take is determining whether an Essential Question is to guide their reading and inquiry, now that they have been introduced to the earliest chapters and done some learning activities. Essential questions can work very well; this is where revolution may aid us as a centering concept, but other themes could just as well take the shape of EQs and drive inquiry into this novel. Yet to be a truly responsive coach, I would be remiss not to allow students to delve fully into the love triangle that Dickens places against the backdrop of the French Revolution. For me to urge a Revolution focus would be the equivalent of attending Hamlet and advising an essay be written on the draperies masking the wings, or the fabric of the arras behind which Polonius [spoiler alert] is run through. If the teacher chooses the Essential Question he belittles the concept of democratic decisions. Better perhaps to model frequent socratic seminar questions related to daily readings, asking students to come up with their own opening seminar questions, then periodically grouping and categorizing the subjects of inquiry, watchful for any common elements that might suggest a centering concept.

About my own next step I am ambivalent. The above Tweet appeared just a week after a parent had told me about a book she was reading on grades, motivation, and Finland. I voiced an opinion about grades, homework, and standardized testing, but what I really meant was REVOLUTION. Parents, students, teachers, administrators, colleges, textbook/test publishers, and legislators all play roles in the dialogue about what good learning is. Until we reach consensus about what Dorothy Sayers calls the “absolute value” of doing hard work, the ultimate purposes for and measurements of learning will be frustrated. Last week’s #satchat gave rise to multiple possible ends of the educational project in our country: citizenship, morality, democracy, imperialism. It may be up to stakeholders in each learning community to define its outcomes. Ask essential questions: Why is it worth teaching well and learning well? What can parents do to enter into good learning? How do teachers and students reject tests that don’t measure the things that make good work valuable? How do administrators support and communicate the beliefs about learning among all constituents?

Back to my sophomores. They told me, in response to my mid-year reminder to them that class exists to serve their learning purposes, how to help coach them: 1) “force us outside our comfort zone”; 2) “do a unit where we all read exactly the same thing at the same time and pace”; and 3) “help us work on the hard parts”. That is my mandate. I will fulfill it if I have to don a flaxen wig, take up a pair of knitting needles, and direct the storming of the Bastille in “Tower” Room 209 myself.




Holy fear

Romeo: If I profane with my unworthiest hand/This holy shrine… (1.5.92ff)

For years I have shied away from inviting students into a deep engagement with the language of the lovers at their first meeting in Shakespeare’s famous love story. This week I shook off my fear, screwed my courage to the sticking place, and learned from my freshmen.

In the past I have prematurely hurried on into Act 2, afraid to impose my own reading of this scene on the students, because it closes off further thinking about the language in this scene and discourages multiple viewpoints. Ironically, I was doing exactly that anyway by avoiding a close reading of the scene. Today, students organically explored the meeting between Romeo and Juliet. In doing so, they not only classified the diction in the lovers’ sonnet, but began to adopt a critical stance toward that language choice.

A student-created poster hangs in the room: “Learn to recognize paradox in a scene, so we can apply it to the rest of the play”, the unit goal reads. After students met in expert groups to work towards their goal by categorizing potentially paradoxical terms from the scene, I gathered new groups comprised of one member of each expert group at which students shared their findings and reflected on categories of words Shakespeare uses and their effects.

What they taught me was that even at grade nine they make a distinction between author’s intention and reader’s interpretation. Asked to consider aloud the effect of Shakespeare’s language, a student countered with the question, “Do you mean the effect the author intended, or the effect it actually had on us?” Bingo.

I gestured wordlessly to the student — “We are all listening to you,” — and backed slightly from the round table at which we sat. Elated, excited, I was a bundle of nervous energy. Authorial intent? Where does meaning reside? These are concepts I listen for and encourage, yet seldom find emerging even in AP classes without teacher- driven, goal-oriented prompting.

A resistant reader is born.

A vigorous conversation ensues without me speaking.

Fast forward several weeks into the future. See these students generating ideas about culture as they read Fahrenheit 451; hear them wrestling, unprompted by a teacher, with whether books can be meaningful or dangerous; watch them divide into three large reading groups as their solution to a reading problem. By making their own decisions, managing their own talk, and setting their own goals, students gain ownership and authorship of their learning purposes. They will teach me to leap out of the way so they can do the hardest and most enjoyable work.



“I don’t know how a grade would reflect my learning process”

I began interviewing students last week about their self-evaluations in order to negotiate their English grade. The conversations afforded wonderful insights into each student’s mind. One tenth grader, stumped, said she wouldn’t even know how to go about giving a letter grade to her learning, and used the above (title) sentence.

She had pinpointed the difference, without my directly expressing it, which led to a helpful dialogue about that difference– between earning and learning. She knew that getting the work done was not equivalent to learning. I suggested other things she could rate herself on, such as finding humor in Pride and Prejudice. She imagined that only if she were to explain the book to another person less familiar with it would she really have demonstrated learning.

Asked if she had done that with a sibling, she said that yes, in fact, she had talked about the book often with her mother and sister, who knew the film versions but not the novel. I asked if it would be fair to evaluate herself on how well she explained the book and its characters to those interested parties, and she began to feel more confident in finding ways to talk about what she called her learning process.

Such one-to-one meetings are proving valuable to me, and time will show whether students, too, find them so. I suspect that they have not often been given a chance to contribute so deliberately (deliberatively) to a grade at the end of a marking period.

Since Alfie Kohn’s announcement on Twitter that he had written the foreword to Joe Bower’s book De-Testing and De-Grading, I have been investigating alternatives to traditional grades and formulations. My only certainty at the moment is that offering my students a voice in the grading process is a good thing, one that involves them in the reporting process, and begins to make me even more accountable to them for the meaning of a grade.

At the very least I can use these interviews as a chance to ask students to tell me anything they think would help me to meet their personal learning goals. One today said, “We’re all kinesthetic learners, so the more hands-on learning we do, the better!”

But at their heart they are proving richly rewarding conversations that shed light on how students see themselves–their proficiencies, areas to grow in; at my faith-based school it is also a chance for some to respond to my open question about growth or change they notice in their reading, writing, thinking, or faith.

I encourage you to personalize the grading process in a way that reflects your goals for your own class. You could pass out a short self-evaluation sheet for a unit or quarter, possibly considering essential questions, 3-5 class and individual goals, or proficiencies and standards the class has been targeting, for the purpose of inviting students to reflect on their learning during the period. The completed form or journal reflection could be brought by the student to a 5-minute meeting during a time when others are reading, studying, or writing. On two I directly asked what letter grade they thought would reflect their learning, but on a third I avoided connecting the evaluation (of their small group experience and decision-making, partly) with a grade, and merely used it to start students thinking about their progress.

I think giving students a voice in the reporting process is one way to help them see that class exists to serve their purposes, as Gordon Pradl has said. It does not cost anything to share authority this way. It did involve carving a good-sized niche out of the routine schedule of class activities, but students are grateful for additional free reading or study time. Through these meetings I have been able to watch and hear my students actively evaluating themselves as learners, searching almost painfully for the right words to express their ideas, their eyes casting about the ceiling for a solid hold.

20140113-144352.jpg Penny Kittle taught us about reading and writing conferences, now it is time for grading conferences; soon it will “abolish grading” conferences?

Gordon’s Tweets

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