Archive for the 'James Britton' Category


Mastery vs. Understanding: Honoring my students

The whole school year there has been a push for recording and analyzing data, with the parties involved (let me rephrase: with teachers, administrators, and superintendant) using the trigger term mastery. I believe some colleagues were able to engage students in collecting and seeing their own data about standards they had been assessed on, and that as a class they were able to see at a glance how well they had performed on a specific task with respect to its related standard; then were successful at helping the students set goals to improve or re-learn.

I admire teachers who invite students to set and achieve goals; and I dutifully posted and projected daily standards phrased as statements of “I can:” or

We are learning how to:

In retrospect, though, I believe I had greater student buy-in the previous year, using Judith Langer’s concept of envisionment, in which my students agreed upon one or two classroom standards or cognitive procedures chosen from a preselected set–“Ask relevant questions” or “Apply lessons from literature to our own lives”.


 I am left wondering if justice is done to the rich processes, lasting meanings, and deep understandings my students practiced and constructed all year.


In either case, deep student learning was connected to benchmark standards, for which various assessments were employed to sample student preparedness, ability, and degrees of mastery. Setting aside for now the class time needed to re-teach for mastery, and the question of involving the already-proficient students in new studies based on new goals or deeper knowledge and thought, I am left wondering if justice is done to the rich processes, lasting meanings, and deep understandings my students practiced and constructed all year.

I wish, when it came to the big, statewide, district-mandated tests, that my students had been afforded the opportunity to show outside the walls of our school the big things they carried away with them this year, the meanings they constructed in our classroom communities. They did have such opportunities through debate, music competitions, and Schools to Watch involvement; I might have done much more myself to promote visibility and engage the wider community.

Here are a few things my students might have written, spoken, sung, discussed, or asked good questions about:


What multiple perspectives about justice compete for attention in this narrative?

How the details of any Edward Hopper painting contribute to its mood.

How an English Language Learner can distinguish between English words that sound or look the same but mean different things.

The way an author uses historic detail from a civil war battle to dramatize the story of a young teen in search of a father figure.

How students’ writing pathways and mindsets lead to a sense of control over their own writing purposes.

Why their books, music and video games are important to their lives.

Where new vocabulary terms and concepts intersect with their own lives.

When, how, and why to use literal, inferential, and critical reading skills.

How can dramatizing a poem help understand what it means?

What process did they use to compare the way two different genres tell the life of a President, and what did they learn about the genres, themselves, and others? Who will tell the stories of their lives, and in what media?

How to listen to all other people, and to address them with dignity and respect.

How to ask the group for help when they do or say something harmful to another person.

How to write a proposal and follow through on an individual plan for learning during genius hour.

How to work with others to establish the criteria by which their work will be assessed.

When making a decision, can they listen to an argument, recognize when someone is using ethos, pathos, or logos in an attempt to persuade me, tell if her or his argument is flawed?

What writing tools and tricks to apply depending on the job they want done or the idea they want to explore.

How to run a class meeting.

How do they conduct research and evaluate, document and cite reliable sources?

How and when to participate in written and spoken dialogue (including comic strips and opinion/editorials) with texts, people and ideas.

If an argument can be constructed and a viewpoint expressed using combinations of expository prose, poetry, narrative, fiction, allegory, and figurative language, then what combination will they use in their writing to express a new idea?

My students did amazing work all year, and I am left at the end of it all imagining that the lasting record of their learning is quantified as “30% growth demonstrated by 45% of students in grades x and y.”

My classes were full of individual human beings, each with her own learning styles, interests, and background experiences to be activated as she constructs meaning for herself. Because a single letter grade, reading level, isolated test score, or even year in school do not do justice to the complex thoughtfulness of each person over a whole year, I resist placing much value in them. I wrestle with the increasing amount of attention they are given and the time they demand.

Today I celebrate the accomplishments of my students, the middle grade classes of 2015-2016! My students showed care for others, worked together on hard things to achieve great results, read a ton of good books, and engaged in conversations all year about texts, learning, and life. They took risks, were willing to fail in order to learn, and stretched outside their comfort zone with many learning activities. They forged deep connections between ideas, experiences and friends.

My students went deeper, with extended and strategic learning (Webb’s Depth of Knowledge). What a privilege it has been to see all this at first hand! Today I honor my students for all the work they did to construct learning that will not show up on a report card, in a statistic, or in a comparison with Finland. I salute the students who ran home last weekend to try their hand at baking cream puffs after reading Wednesday Wars, or who sought me out to have a one-on-one discussion about a question they brought after reading The Giver. Today I commit to remembering the faces of learning this summer, not its frustrations!

Please let me know, via Twitter, WordPress, or your own blogs and FB pages, what you commit to remember and celebrate from this year. Have a great summer!





Balancing Act

On reading Steven L. Layne, Nancie Atwell, William Broz, Kelly Gallagher

I appreciate the viewpoints and passion of all these mentor teachers. Their enthusiasm for learning, for students, and for good teachers and teaching translates into all their writing. They are full of stories, hope, and honesty about what their students are accomplishing. The difficulty for someone navigating the impasses –forks in the road where they may seem to disagree–is one of discernment. It is not “which is correct”,  but “which methods are best for my students today?”

Because they all focus on reading, the issues and solutions they address often feel most relevant to reading workshops in which daily periods are dedicated to reading, as they might be in middle school, where there is also separate time in the day for writing. Since reading and writing are integrated in my high school language arts curriculum (at least in the school day), I am reading them with an eye toward how the reading will relate to the writing that goes along with it. What I am left with after briskly reading each of these authors is a clarified sense of my role and responsibility to make readers of my kids – to help them to love books and want to read them.

Gallagher’s theme is to make certain that a 50/50 balance is met between pleasure reading and assigned reading, such as class novels; Layne’s is that we teachers can do much more to promote a love of reading, and he provides many structures and modelling behaviors we can use to do so. Atwell insists that reading is the single activity which promotes “skilled, passionate, habitual, critical readers,” sharing and promoting her own tested methods of engaging mainly younger students (pre-high school) in the pleasure of the reading experience. She and Gallagher observe that book lovers entering ninth grade may soon become indifferent to reading when the fun is choked out of it by well-intended assignments that inhibit the “lived-through” experience Louise Rosenblatt wrote of as an aim in esthetic reading.

All agree that certain scaffolding can occur, and Broz qualifies Atwell’s approach by pointing out the practical need for such teacher expertise in classrooms where you won’t find students able to read Jane Austen on their own (an example Atwell uses).

For myself and my students, I reflect on this past year and fondly recall the many days in my 10th grade class when we had pleasure reading time. I really can and ought to encourage something approaching the 50/50 model. All the books contain practical ideas for how to log the student reading without making it burdensome for teacher or student. It seems that I am fortunate in that I am in a position to teach only the books I love, and therefore my own enthusiasm about the texts we read as a class can transmit to the readers. I also liked the idea of allowing readers an opportunity to read these in any order. As students are making such decisions, it is beneficial that several of the writers provide samples of students learning goals, and introduce scenarios that scaffold such goal-setting for the students.

But because I am also largely affected by the social dynamic of book discussions, believing them to offer students the multiple viewpoints of their fellow classmates, and alternative ways to experience literature, I hesitate to do away with them. All of these writers are interested in helping teens out when literature gets difficult and classes become harder in high school. They are clear about the message that good teachers must do everything in their power to gain and keep readers for life.

So if I can fashion a schedule wherein students can spend a bit of time reading, a bit of time discussing, and a bit of time writing, and involve a combination of student-selected and canonical works, I will be happy. I must add even more times when I am reading aloud to the class, enthusiastically, dramatically; this is a venue which seems to help students to enjoy a book – being read to by an expert reader.

Next, I will read up a bit on writing, with Donald Graves. Tinkering with the fit between reading and writing will help my classrooms to run more clearly toward their goals.

 I am wondering what you are doing or have done to make sense of any of the recent arguments for or against class study of novels, such as Readicide? How do you handle the balancing act between teaching students how to read the challenging books and how to read for all the pleasure they can get?

As  a related note, young adult books are crucial to the arguments in Atwell and Layne, especially. Atwell’s book was recommended to me by Gordon Pradl when it came out; and the necessity of drawing children of all ages to love reading and learning is closely connected with Mike Rose’s ideas in Why Schools?, such as the Jeffersonian ideal of an educated citizenry.

This assortment of related books leads to my central questions about how and when to introduce philosophy and politics to students, such that by senior year they are able to read “Federalist” papers or segments of Tocqueville. I like Matthew Lipman’s work in this area, as well as books like The Pig That Wants To Be Eaten


Gordon’s Tweets

RSS Good Questions

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