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.


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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?


Bruner over break

Today you would have seen me playing Twenty Questions in study hall. My subject asked “was it a female driver?” -No. “Was he texting?” -No. “Was the car going down a hill?” -No.
Organized persistence is a feature of what Jerome Bruner calls cumulative constructionism, wherein students formulate hypotheses in a game of Twenty Questions. Intrigued by the idea of whether my students, fifty years after his experiments, tend to be deficient or rich in organizational persistence, I began to repeat his experiment this afternoon in a trial run. It was easier than I thought it would be to categorize my subject student’s questions as “locating constraints” or as “posing hypotheses as questions”; categorizing questions – about why a car ran off the road and hit a tree – provides information about how someone is constructing knowledge, organizing the information received in the “yes” or “no” response.

Although I was really interested in whether adolescents’ minds operate now as they did then, and ultimately in how valid Bruner’s work is today, I now think a better experiment for me must take into account Bruner’s point, which is that discovery learning should lead students toward more organized persistence, and a better way of organizing memory and harvesting information.
If this is true, my students who have become familiar as discoverers in my class should show strengths such as organizing questions in cycles, and summarizing things to themselves. Cumulative constructivism is “characterized by sensitivity to constraint, by connective maneuvers, and by organized persistence,” Bruner says in “The Act of Discovery”, found in his collection Essays Written for the Left Hand.
I admit going into it that I have trepidation. My students in 2014 may be less able to persist over the course of an entire Dickens novel, say, than those of 1993 or 2003; can they find ways of organizing all that information? But the hope persists, despite doubts, that discovery learning will be the best antidote to an “episodic” culture, demanding increasingly brief attention spans. Episodic empiricism, Bruner argues, is the other end of the continuum from cumulative constructionism. It is deficient in organizational persistence, and may ignore or disregard prior constraints in a Twenty Questions game, just stringing hypotheses along non cumulatively. 20130925-145038.jpg
To gather useful data, I ought to know which teachers my students have now and have had previously who tend to invite students to learn through discovery. It would also be helpful to know how many hours or months of discovery in learning actually occur, and how much it helps a child learn the varieties of problem solving, of transforming information for better use, “helps him go about the very task of learning.” Quantifying all that seems a bit daunting.
For the moment I will recollect the discouragement written on the face of my subject when a series of unconnected hypotheses returned void, and her elation when she finally concluded accurately that a squirrel caused the driver to swerve. Unfortunately, each subject needs to play 4 times, with 4 scenarios, and one game was enough.
Anyone for Twenty Questions?


Melodious Monday

A good Monday – (Thankfully!) – It began in second period with our Romeo and Juliet introduction to the rhythm of the sonnet - which for the first time I equated to “the old soft-shoe” ["Tea for Two"]. Everyone had a hat, and choreographed her/his own Chorus Line-style moves (arms straight out; foot-kicks). Then we got down to business with a quick-write.

Later, in third period, American Lit, my Grapes of Wrath Unit really took off (the Joads are at the government camp) as “families” comprised of 2-3 smaller reading groups met and began discussing human rights. Fur flew further than off a jack-rabbit crossin’ Route 66. Then, to complete our block period, students modeled a democratic process in decision-making about how to establish criteria for journal entries. They have selected themes and essential questions pertaining to the American Dream and Order vs. Chaos, and I was somewhat surprised at how effectively today’s all-class meeting was facilitated, and at the high standards students seemed to aim at, desiring both autonomy and skills that will help them prepare for college. Good job, AmLit!

Finally, my Pride and Prejudice sophomore class split into two groups last week, based on personal preference as to pace, and today met and demonstrated almost total engagement as they shared journal entries, collaborated on vocabulary words they selected from the reading, responded to the prior reading and worked to set future goals. It is about the first time I have seen students reach for my new dictionary and thesaurus on their own. Great things are happening :)


Students choose to read either play or poem


Gordon’s Tweets

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RSS Good Questions

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