Archive for the 'composition pedagogy' Category


Are you standing at the borders of mystery?

Begin mystified
begin unbelieving
___off balance
learning begins.

We learn to believe
___to accept mystery
___to stop the balancing act.

Such moments, seeds of new knowledge
___of wisdom

V  i  s  t  a  s

Are you standing at the borders of a mystery?

                                                                             by G. Hultberg

We are disillusioned. Teachers, students, and parents are disenchanted with school and schooling. Just when we are about to give up, a new book offers hope.

coverjoEnacting Adolescent Literacies across Communities: Latino/a scribes and their rites (2017) offers a hopeful vision where young scribes:

  • relate learning to their public and private communities;
  • work with teachers to demystify literature, writing, and hidden processes;
  • co-learn and co-lead in their communities to enact their literacies;
  • celebrate:
    • dialogue and discovery,
    • beauty and language,
    • deliberation and negotiation.

Joseph Rodríguez knows teachers. He knows that new and veteran teachers alike are desperate to turn this historic moment into poetry. For some it may be poetry of protest; for others meditative sonnets.

Students, too, want to lend their voices to conversations about the past and present. Who will tell their stories, if they remain silent? Teachers in Enacting Adolescent Literacies invite us to introspection and investigation of past and present lives, and of forces that shape histories.

I love how the same question surfaces in Hamilton, serving as a theme not only of the show, but of histories themselves:

Who Lives,

Who Dies,

Who Tells Your Story?

[PHOTO: composer Lin-Manuel Miranda in Hamilton] spotify:album:1kCHru7uhxBUdzkm4gzRQc






In Chapter 2, “Histories and Scribes at Milagros High School”, Mariano Guerra’s students, tired of “succumbing to authority in their schooling lives” and having legitimate questions go unanswered, learn to equate history with investigation and research into the “veracity of sources” and “chronicled points of view”. They move from studying Herodotus, through Mr. Guerra’s teaching as “subversive act”, to their own research as citizens whose education “questions and challenges authoritarian policies”.

The beauty of Mr. Rodriguez’s research and reporting is that it holds out hope for all such students, not merely Latino/a adolescents. Although his work focuses on school sites near El Paso, Texas, with a high percentage of Latino/a students, it invites any teacher to re-engage with the often mysterious, and inherently human, learning processes which drew us into learning and teaching in the first place.


Upcoming posts this week will feature a few thoughts about Mr. Rodríguez’s book in connection with my own thinking and learning.  


Lexington Books:

Mr. Rodríguez will co-direct a summer institute Tales From the Chihuahuan Desert: Borderlands Narratives.screen-shot-2017-02-26-at-1-42-31-pm


from “how do you know?” to “let’s find out.”

I became an English teacher because of Kaye Clohset.

It was 1977. We were reading Jane Eyre in my tenth grade accelerated class, and Miss Clohset made the claim that the lightning-struck tree was a symbol for the love between Rochester and Jane.


“How do you know?”, I asked with a raised hand.

Ever since that day I have been seeking the best answer to my own question.

My quest involves numerous strands, such as the art of interpretation, analytic reading, historical-biographical criticism, the canon, student-led inquiry, authority in the classroom, and literary period. It also wonders, along with my 15-year-old self, how much an author “hides” things in a text to be discovered, and when analyzing a book moves from an appealing activity that enhances enjoyment to a monotonous speculation that detracts from the pleasure of reading.


This week, as I read Claire Harman’s compelling biography of Charlotte Bronte, “A Fiery Heart”, I am transported to the Brussels and England we visited last summer, and back in time to my introduction to Bronte that sophomore year. However Miss Clohset answered my question that day, I determined as a teacher that I would try to equip students to address such questions openly, whether they openly resist a particular reading of a classic passage, or hope to demystify the reading process of an experienced reader.

I can trace my interest not only in reading instruction, but also in composition theory and the teaching of writing to those early high school days, when we might have been asked to demonstrate in an essay test that a recurring theme or symbol had value, though we students didn’t actually do the work of digging through an assortment of selected passages, drawing our own conclusions about them, and forming an original controlling question or thesis.

I have stepped further and further away from making pronouncements about literature in my teacher role, and closer to encouraging exploration and discovery in student reading and writing.

I also experiment with how best to answer student questions, like my own how do you know? Here is a range of potential comebacks

“Does anyone see it differently?”

“Great question. Who else is wondering the same thing?”

“Hmm. Let me turn to the page and see what Bronte writes…”

“I haven’t been honest with you. I read ahead last night and in a later chapter she says …”

There is any number of teacher moves that might occur here, from modeling my own thinking through a “think aloud”, to inviting a student to moderate a discussion/debate on the topic, where students could pair off and prepare interpretations of the tree, backing them up with textual evidence. At some point a determination must be made about whether this question is worth pursuing for its own sake, or whether we need more students to generate more questions and begin a classwide investigation. Conversely, I may offer extra credit (or excuse a future assignment) for looking up some critical commentary, either online or in a resource I have in the room.

These split second decisions make teaching a thrilling adventure for me, especially as the direction the class takes after such a moment can influence careers, with students seeing themselves as confident and resistant readers and writers in an interpretive community. image

I fast forward to today. I have been reading Robert Cormier’s Tunes for Bears To Dance to. It would make a great pairing with The Diary of Anne Frank as an 8th grade book, raising questions as it does about anti-semitism, hate crime, individual conscience, and what makes people feel powerful when they can get weaker people to carry out their hostile actions. The teacher’s gift and art is the ability to extend an invitation to students themselves to raise their questions, as well as to recognize an author’s questions and decide which ones are worth investigating through discussion, writing, research, and further reading. Whether dealing with a classic book or contemporary work; middle grade, YA, or general readership, good writing triggers a questioning and teaching urge–I can’t avoid imagining how I would use it in the classroom.

The counter-narrative here is my high school English teacher’s own strong role in pushing me toward this career long inquiry. Without her firm convictions about that tree, I would not have resisted her reading and become suspicious of critical interpretation. On one hand I desire to let young readers explore multiple points of view, yet on the other I need to offer clear well-argued solutions to literary problems that have already been worked out. It is a bit like playing chess in the summer: I set up the board with a chess problem from a 20th century game in my handbook, Logical Chess, and play along with the historical combatants in the hope of acquiring a more strategic mind myself. I hope students will practice new strategies in order to grow and advance.

Thanks to those teacher we have had who prompted us, in their own particular ways, to pursue our own questions, careers, and passions. Wherever you are, Kaye, I want you to know that your class made a difference in my life.


Images: top to bottom – posted by Megan Murphy

cover art for Charlotte Bronte biography by Claire Harman, 2016 Borzoi Books.

NYT review:

Leonard Nimoy, Star Trek TV series, Paramount.


full frontal

At the first whiff of plagiarism, I am quick to launch a full frontal assault. Check the plot summary or, for my student, uncharacteristic phrase against its occurrences online; assign a zero for the assignment, request a meeting, send a parent/guardian email, deliver the offending evidence to an administrator who can track other screw-ups by the same perp.

These are all in my arsenal of responses to the Demon Plagiarism. From there it is a short walk to sending a herd of pigs off the cliff, and having the teachers-only job satisfaction of seeing a student crumple into tears as years of bad behavior are repented of, and finally wading into the water with him, emerging with faces to the sun, both knowing that Creative Commons has our allegiance forevermore, and the laws of copyright shall remain inviolate. “from this day to the ending of the world.”

But today yesterday I brought out a new weapon; a kinder gentler means by which to assert my dominance over the spirit that bedevils young writers. In my feedback to the writer I referred not once to the “P” word. I made no mention of credit. I appealed to the writer’s sense of authority, personhood, audience and purpose. [See images below of writers at my school creating and sharing their work for a variety of authentic purposes and audiences in secondary English and science, also second-grade/tenth-grade collaboration.]

Because of my recent focus on expressing “what the words do to the reader” — both in peer and teacher response to student writing as well as mentor/class texts — my vocabulary and tools have been enlarged for responding to cutting and pasting of another’s work.

my vocabulary and tools have been enlarged

Rather than corner the student with an awkward out-of-class confrontation, I took a different approach by responding just as I would to any electronically submitted draft. Instead of using the authority of our student handbook and its policy, I appealed to the authority of the reader.

➡️Will your reader know these big words?
➡️Where does the reader hear your voice?
️➡️Why should your reader be interested?
➡️Which class discussion or personal inquiry question got you thinking about exploring this topic? If the reader can see your thinking process, you might persuade her to thoughtfully consider your point of view.

Although I have slightly modified these to protect the anonymity of the writer, they differ drastically from my typical frontal assault: Is this your own work? Where did you get it? Why didn’t you cite the source? What did you think was the goal of the assignment?

All of which are mere pretenses and preamble to the often unstated Big Gun: Whatever could have possessed you to think I, all-knowing, would not recognize this as another writer’s work? You have insulted me, broken our trust, and demonstrated that you do not value the deities of the writing process (insert constellation of choice, for me Bay Area Writing Project, Penny Kittle, Kelly Gallagher, Sheridan Blau, Tom Romano, Dons Murray and Graves to infinity and beyond)?

As I often remark, I am the one doing the learning here. Because of my interest in authority in the classroom, I see this as an opportunity to wait and observe the outcome — just as I do with every other paper at this later drafting stage. By turning the focus inward, I am able to monitor my own problem-solving process, identify the place where my own ego gets in the way, and try an innovative or at least creative solution that eases the burden for the student in one way by subtly shifting it.

The student’s responsibility would have been to justify himself (his cheating behavior) to me and to his parent, at least; but now it becomes more about justifying his writing choices to his readers. If the writer is willing to assume creative control over this writing task, the finished written product will communicate a chosen purpose clearly and strongly to a specific chosen audience, which it does not yet do.

The paper will have voice and the student will exercise choice. This is my first blog entry ending with the term “Voices and Choices.”






Strangers on a plane

How would you describe the CEL (Conference on English Leadership) and NCTE convention to others? As I traveled home, I found myself explaining it to Alphonso, a D.C. pedi-cab driver who toured me past the monuments; to strangers on a plane, a mother and daughter returning from a trip to Puerto Rico; and to a shopgirl a perfume fragrance counter saleswoman at Macy’s. Notice, I already monitored my phrase and revised it because of my audience. In what ways do we self monitor and alter our messages for specific audiences?


During the conference itself, I used persuasive terms with a college professor who was at the contemporaneous ALAN conference, and beforehand I chose humorous analogies to give my students a picture of where I was heading. For my parents and sisters, who know a lot about my 25 year teaching career, and have attended professional conferences themselves, I wrote a letter detailing particulars of my personal involvement that would distinguish this year’s conference from those of previous years.


As I had the privilege of visiting a New York publishing house office this week, I noticed this sign on an editor’s desk: “I am silently correcting your grammar”, which was hilarious to me because both English teachers and editors, whose complex roles cannot be distilled into a single phrase, are frequently oversimplified and misunderstood as grammar police. This becomes evident whenever we meet strangers on a plane or train, who suddenly feel the need to excuse themselves for speaking improperly, or for not being readers or writers.

Since all writing is language choice, we choose language to suit the occasions of our dialogue. I have never had the chance to use these words in a sentence before, but CEL made it happen: “THIS NOTE IS LEGAL TENDER FOR ALL DEBTS PUBLIC AND PRIVATE.” Can you picture me, waving my bill under the ticket window of the National Harbor Ferris Wheel, contradicting their devil-may-care no cash policy?

Tailoring our tongues to meet particular situations involves knowing something about our audience. Kylene Beers and Bob Probst insisted on this as one of the keys to adolescents understanding complex non-fiction, as they shared recent collaborative work with us on Tuesday at CEL’s closing session. “What does the author assume I know already?”

Learning to listen
As I planned this blog post, I expected to present you with a fun challenge to write about a recent event you attended — conference, performance, holiday celebration, service opportunity — for several different audiences, say: children, peers, strangers and administrators (the Oxford comma debate matters here).

“I went out to dinner with some new friends, and we rode the Ferris wheel together…”

“I spent several days with high-powered speakers on cutting-edge topics…”

“I got to go to Washington, D.C. to tell researchers about the exciting writing you guys are doing…”

But as I relive each of my actual conversations, I realize they involve not so much constructing a stance, but rather listening to the person I am interacting with. I found out from Nadine at Macy’s that she was an English major, but could not stand the thought of her love of books such as Jane Eyre being dehydrated by dry analysis; that Alphonso, a D.C. native, used to be a bike messenger and has never been to California, and will have to find different work when weather prohibits operation of his pedi-cab for the season; that the mother-daughter love reading books, which were stolen the second day of their two week vacation; that the visitor from Paris at the Blue Note jazz club believes Paris is “not what is used to be”; that the airport shuttle driver works seven days at peak travel seasons; that Audrey, a session attendee, believes collaboration can lead to shared values and assumptions about writing.

We not only enrich a conversation by knowing the people we speak with, but I learn and grow myself by hearing them. The difficulty comes now, when I ask myself if I can be as diligent, open-eared, and knowing of those in my inner circle as I am with strangers or acquaintances.

All the “out-of-town” practice, as David Perkins calls it in learning, has to be brought to bear on the big games: our marriages, families, significant friendships, and career.

What good is it if I carry on inconsequential small talk with someone I meet once a year or once in a lifetime, if I don’t apply more careful listening in my most dear relationships?

Because of this,

Sara, I want to be the best listener I can; please be patient with me. I love you more each day, and want to know you even better.

Susan, I want to be a better friend and colleague, to keep asking the right questions.

Patrick, I want to be a better friend, to offer support where you need it and receive your input when you offer it.

Tyler, I want to be the kind of encourager you are to me.

Judi and Janice, I hope to be the brother you can depend on to celebrate your triumphs and share in your disappointments.

Evan, I hope I can be a better mentor; please help me know the ways I can support you this year in your teaching.

Writing is important, and conferences are helpful; but relationships and love are essential, necessary, foundational. The purpose for communicating is understanding, empathizing, knowing and loving people: communion and community themselves.

So go ahead, know your audience. Don’t just be a clanging cymbal, Gordon; “though I speak with tongues of men and of angels…[without] charity…I am nothing.” My plea: reduce me to Love.

(me on the left, Chris Bronke on right)


“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?


Offering choices is Hard work

Today, teaching is hard work. This minute of this day. Hard because I know I want to avoid the mistakes of yesterday, and hope to see strides in learning tomorrow. Hard because it takes planning, thinking, forethought.

The trick is in devising ways to communicate to students that they actually not only have some autonomy, but are expected to use it with care and discernment. It is as if a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. The students must take the medicine if they are going to grow into healthy independent learners, or authors of their own learning, as I referred to it in August.

But the sugar to sweeten the deal is often, like processed sugar, an ingredient used far more than necessary for good health. For instance, it takes time to train people out of the bad habits they have adopted, so we wean them little by little from the teat of the teacher as author of their education. My dream is to show up daily to every class and have the students begin and proceed without my leadership: discussions, homework sharing, quickwrites, free reading, reading or writing conferences. I/they have come close in the past, several days in a row, or longer in a few classes, but besides my own learning to step out of the way, it takes time to train them to assume the leadership roles in order to effect a practical transference of ownership.

Today, as an example, I needed to figure out a way for American Lit students to agree on an Essential Question (similar to a unit theme or goal), using an exhaustive list from which they have been sampling, and which they have applied in their discussions of short pieces, beginning with their summer reading titles. That they will have the freedom to determine as a class which question is worth tracing as we read The Grapes of Wrath is a step forward from where I was a year ago at this time, when I presented the essay question on the theme of the major work the very day we began.

But I couldn’t sleep at night. I agreed with many colleagues who publish books who said that students need help at the start of a book, and a glimpse of the final destination from the beginning is helpful. But I wrestled with my own training in thinking and learning, especially with socratic approaches to reading and a composition view swayed by Murray and Graves toward letting the writer choose her topic.

Today I asked students to read Chapter 1 silently and slowly, then to discuss in their small groups any way they might notice Steinbeck playing with language. (We have spent time on playfulness of readers and writers.) I had an additional prompt and example ready if anyone needed it, and a backup system for grouping and alternate short text in case anyone forgot her book. Then both groups, after sharing, were asked to generate a brief list of EQs they felt would go well with their text. That is what they are engaged in just now. The work pays off. We have what we need today, and as they transition to their creative writing groups to produce screenplays and interoffice production memos, pop-up books, and realistic fiction, all through a process of their decision, I type out this note. Ethiopia [mother and child]

My mission for tomorrow is to have them adopt an EQ that will drive the thinking, writing, supplemental texts (Dorothea Lange and Sebastiao Salgado photographs of continental migration) and close reading of the unit and possibly the semester. Even the Steinbeck novel is their choice, made last year in May by students who knew they would be taking this class with me. Some of the chose “The Pearl” as a summer reding book. I think of my niece, Amy, teaching Kindergarten for the first time and reporting a tortoise-paced student learning curve for the basic procedures: we know what the students will soon be able to do on their own, and grow impatient for the rewards. So, the “sweetness” of the moment are the comforting prompts, the homework reminders, the tailoring of choices to a particular group. But even today I will have a fifth period class of sophomores who are deciding and announcing their own homework, and my second period just operated their second full day on a lesson plan (Free reading, Speed Dating with books, and poetry exploration) they devised. I want to become the least intrusive yet most helpful experienced reader and writer in the room. It is hard to get out of the way and let them learn.


PHOTO CREDITS (top to bottom) Dorothea Lange, found on Jim White’s “World Famous: the photography portfolio of Dorothea Lange”; Sebastiao Salgado, 1984, at the Peter Freeman Gallery at


The night i first heard laura nyro

…I met a fellow traveler. I was seated at Joe’s Pub on the Lower East Side. A stranger was put at the same table, and soon we were introduced by a mutual friend. “I’ll let you all figure out what you have in common,” Louis said as he left to meet others. Ha, before the lights went down and we were all held spellbound, electrified for seventy-five minutes by theater magic, all I had learned was that David teaches.


2007 reading, Kate and Louis, One Child Born website.

As we listened to the gospel as sung by Laura Nyro, a miracle was in progress. Somehow David and I had been immersed in a process or authorship, experiential learning that honors creativity.

At the end of the performance, when we really had time to visit, it turned out that David in his teaching had been pioneering ideas about teaching and learning that will move students from ownership of their learning experience to authorship of their own learning. Music has this capacity to bring people together; theater has this charm, to gather strangers, unite them through story; both are engines of empathy, generating an experience that leads to greater understanding of others and of oneself.

The performance, featuring Laura Nyro’s songs performed adoringly, beltingly, and bluesily on the piano by Kate Ferber, is a scripted tapestry woven of original monologues by distinct characters all brought under the charm of Nyro’s music, life, and persona. It is also molded and shaped by the metanarrative of Kate’s appreciation for the music.

Louis Greenstein and Kate Ferber can’t know directly how each audience member is affected by the monologues and music that we hear and see, or through our communal theater experience. But they and the director must know that for each person brought to life on stage last night, we each supplied our own concert and place memories, recalling ourselves. Director Adrienne Campbell-Holt tutors us in a beautiful reversal that honors her former teacher, David. There is something poetic about educators being taught by past students, as exemplified in this public performance before a rapt audience.

Kate Ferber in performance

Kate Ferber in performance

The reversal is the same one he and I look for every day in our classes, a moment where the student moves from asking the authority figure for permission to “wonder and wander”, as David Dunbar puts it in his blog entry, toward assuming authority for learning. At that point, she or he might decide to share her wondering with the whole group, and ask for help with a new idea; bring a text to the table for discussion; or propose that the best way to explore an issue is to write and perform a play about it. When it is equally possible that in the classroom the learner will be the leader, and the tutor the listener, what you have is authentic dialogue, a productive and yearned-for ambiguity. Such a dialogue seems to be carried on between the audience and the show: during the actual performance I saw it in the give and take; over the years this show has been developed it is apparent in the sequencing and the truthfulness of each section.

I think the secret to effective learning is listening: teachers who listen to students, students who listen to their own minds and worlds, and writers, directors, and performers who listen to the voices around them. Louis said he keeps tinkering with the script, and I am certain that means he wants to learn by listening to what his characters are teaching him about themselves, as well as about structure, writing. You don’t play and sing as authentically and passionately as Kate Ferber does without internalizing the songs, empathizing with the person whose story is told in each song. She has listened to those voices; she has become a conduit for them.

He and I were privileged to listen last night. We were taught; we were changed.
One Child Born: The Music of Laura Nyro

David Dunbar’s blog

Gordon’s Tweets

  • RT @onewheeljoe: A3 Almost all of the challenges I have encountered I handle by giving the student an alternative. When students have voice… 2 days ago
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