an open reflection on my practice: semester one of teaching abroad

“As I draw the curtains on the sleepy eyes of 2017, my mind turns to the power of reflection. It is my first semester teaching internationally. How has it gone? What are my strengths? What are my next steps?

At the end of the semester, I presented a survey eliciting student feedback. It is a survey provided by my school leadership that I modified for what matters to me most as a teacher. Here are the results (prompts are at the top). Some thoughts:

  • I need to improve in clarity. 1, “In this class the expectations for assignments, quizzes, tests, homework, summatives are clear.” 2, “In this class I am clear about the goals, standards, objectives.” In both of these categories, I scored an average less than 4. As I have wrestled with before, my current school is adopting Ken O’Conner‘s approach to grades: that is, no grades. Or accurate grades. Or standards-based grading. Or… well, you can see why my students are unsettled with this aspect of my instruction: so am I! As with all initiatives, it is not the theory with which I am at odds, but rather the annoyingly messy implementation. I think this also ties into the below 4 score in “My teacher is fair” category. Here are my plans to address this: 1, more class models and collaborative scoring of work 2, student self-assessment and reflection 3, soliciting continued feedback from students about this aspect of my teaching 4, deliberate introductions and thorough explanation of assessments and 5, being targeted with and explicit about the alignment among homework, formatives and summatives. Those are the easy ones (insert giggling emjoi here). More nuanced but nonetheless necessary: the intentional offering of opportunities for ambiguity (never accidentally). I know that students need to tolerate and negotiate ambiguity to be successful in the real world. But sometimes this is at odds with grading policies, especially in a competitive school like mine. I want to work on transparency regarding this. And yes, well, that is ambiguous. Hopefully, I’ll work through it like my students will!
  • I am proud of the level of rigor I have maintained this semester. 1, “My teacher challenges me to think critically and analyze information.” 2, “In this class I feel challenged.” This has always been the hill I will die on. [bctt tweet=”I will not insult my students by lowering expectations for them. ” username=”eternitymod”] They deserve better. And yes, it is shreddingly painful while I’m establishing that 1, yes they can 2, no I will not back down 3, this comes from a place of love and 4, that’s right, now here we go. One of my greatest points of pride as an educator is the number of alumni who have told me my class prepared them for the intensity of college. I may not be liked, but I make a difference. 

But therein lies the rub: I want to be liked. And this has been the dominant reflection in my mind this break. Today marks two weeks since I have last seen my kiddos; and I won’t see them until January 23rd. I miss them. Do they miss me? Am I a part of their lives more as than just a taskmaster?

To be fair, I don’t think it’s about being liked. That is superficial. But it is about a connection, which is exactly why I asked this question on the survey: “I feel connected to Mrs. Davenport.” This also scored below a 4 average. And out of all the other numbers, I am NOT. okay. with. this. average. And really, connection shouldn’t be about average: it should be percentage. 100% of my students feel connected to me. I am connected to each. and. every. human. in. my. charge. 

And so, more than anything else, this is what I want to work on next semester. And it has a face. This student doesn’t do well. And this student sits in class, quiet, anonymous, hidden. I do not know this student. I am annoyed by parental blame on me rather than student ownership. And I have probably taken it out on this student. And I know this student probably rated me low on so many aspects of the survey.

I have failed this student. I have let it become personal instead of professional. I have neglected our connection. But that was 2017. Look out, this student, I am coming for you.


To all my teacher readers: I’d love to hear your reflections. What went well for you this past semester? What are you working on? What’s your “this student” story? What questions help you reflect meaningfully on your practice? 

 

arrival journal: days five through seven

It’s hard to believe today marks one week we’ve been living in Brazil! The past few days have been a whirlwind of continued professional introductions to the school’s systems as well as more delicious wining and dining.

Wednesday’s orientation provided time for a Portuguese 101 class with one of the school’s most charismatic Brazilian teachers. Her wide smile lights up a room and her warmth makes anyone feel at ease. She taught us through lively action made even sweeter by a table of delicious local candies. I also had my “appointment” with the school’s doctor to make sure I was fit to enter the country; good thing there was no mental exam because I might have failed (“gringa louca”). The PD session focused on feedback which is definitely something that has been on my teacher mind a lot: what will the students’ writing be like here? will I adequately know how to move them? how do I train them to give each other meaningful feedback? That night we ate at a delicious Brazilian restaurant which catered to my vegetarian preferences. For appetizers, more fried cheese on a toothpick (who are they kidding, can I just get a shovel please?!). Then, I had some kind of delicious rice dish with the palm hearts in it, yum! Oh yeah, and tons of wine and conversation with new colleagues.

The most hilarious part about Wednesday is that I came home to a, wait for it, made bed. For all of our friends and family, you also will be laughing at that. While I was at work, Dave actually made our bed (and nobody was coming to see the house and no guests were arriving)! What IS this world we live in?


Thursday’s schedule was built with more autonomous time. The sessions we were together for introduced us to the school’s Google ecosystem and supports for students with special needs [less than 10% of the school’s population (!)]; finally, two things in my wheelhouse. The best part of that latter session was hearing this:

We have to stop loving kids to death.

YES! I have a post unpublished because I can’t figure out how to say it all in the right way, but in essence that is my biggest complaint as of the last year or two. In the US urban school system, we seem to be so afraid of what kids can’t do that we just run right over them with well-intentioned-overcompensation. It infuriates me how little we believe in them.

Anyhoot (sorry to my non-teacher readers about that rant), back to the schedule. Thursday afternoon, we had a personal guide, Jo, show us the ins and outs of apartment living in Brazil, specifically ours. It was crazy helpful. We learned where the garbage goes (we had been piling it in the corner) and that we don’t take the guest elevator with groceries (we take the service elevator) and we saw our parking spot and personal storage space (I guess we don’t have to stock our bins in the fourth bathroom (!) we don’t use anyway) and that you never flush toilet paper in Brazil (!) (well we learned that earlier but I just had to throw it in–no pun intended). Thursday night Dave and I cooked for the first time in our own apartment. We’ve been loving sitting on our porches: the air is crisp and the birds are singing and the sun in shining and the city lights are twinkling.

Friday we spent the morning at the Federal Police Department taking more mug shots (seriously though, I look like a criminal in every one of these legal pictures–every single one. In fact, the one I actually was OK with that the school took, the Brazilian government was not OK with and I had to go take another mug shot, ugh).  We have heard some horror stories about how long this process could take, but we were back in time for the customary Friday lunch of feijoada–a Brazilian dish of stewed beans and meats, though of course they have a vegetarian option at the school. Soon, I’ll do a post about the #outofbounds food down here. We closed the orientation for newbies week in a staff circle of reflections and praise and laughter. Friday night was a more fancy party at the superintendent’s stunning home, complete with catered food, and open bar (by the end of the night, the bartender knew me by my winking smile and empty wine glass; he’d pick up the bottle as soon as he saw me coming) and a live Samba band (is there such thing as a dead Samba band?!). You can bet I was on that dance floor soon enough.

I’ll finish this (long, sorry) post (filled with parenthetical commentary [!]) with some reflections.

  1. One of the hardest parts of a transition to a new school (anywhere) is not knowing the curriculum and thus not being able to plan adequately. This current transition’s woes have been compounded because our entire English department is new, except for the head of the department, who unfortunately has not been able to be here to get us up and running. I like to be planned, a lot. It helps me be a better teacher. So as you can imagine, this component is stressing me out.
  2. The teacher culture here is different. There is a lot of assertive expression of “this is how I’ve done it” or “this is what has worked before.” Everyone seems so confident, so at ease. It is the same experience as going to an AP institute or an IB training. I, of course, feel out of my league. Maybe it’s because I’m not used to working with this abundant level of experienced teachers (years and countries of experience, oh my). But the more and more I’ve been reflecting, the more and more I wonder if it’s actually about my experience in urban education. I am a good teacher. I know that. However, no matter how good I have been in the last decade, it cannot and does not overcome students’ gaps of six or seven or ten years; it cannot and does not overcome the crippling effects of abuse and poverty and racism and systemic oppression; it cannot and does not overcome a pervasive sense of underachievement and hopelessness. When so many needs are in one school, it is nearly impossible to meet them all–no matter how good you are. And so, success is always relative (but no less beautiful). And so, my self-efficacy has never risen to the level of my current colleagues. (I welcome any comments on this, as I am still chewing on it…)
  3. Dave and I feel absolutely ruined by Graded. How can we go to another international school when we’ve been so completely cared for by our first one?! We prayed so much for the best, and we feel it’s been answered, thank you God. The transition has been so delicately planned out with so many of our needs thought through with the help of companies who have just the right expertise with all kinds of staff who have been working tirelessly on our behalf, it is overwhelming in a glorious way. We are grateful.

 

 

arrival journal: day three

As I write this, I sit on my balcony enjoying the interplay of stars above and apartment lights around and headlights below. Dave and I just shared some conversation about our separate days’ experiences (the first we’ve been apart in awhile) on the balcony while sipping out of cherry blossom mugs the whiskey we packed into our overseas luggage.

As you might be able to tell, I am in a much better place than yesterday.

My temporary meditation space.

Today started with the first of many back to school alarm clock appointments followed by a meditation about going with the flow of life’s direction. And for the first time in a while, I actually put effort into getting ready. As my mother-in-law would say, I put on a face. It’s amazing how a little bit of eyeshadow and eyeliner can brighten the outlook.

On the agenda for today was some good old-fashioned team building (name game, line game, etc) for the newbies. If you know anything about me, you know I am a sucker for these things. Partly because they remind me of camp. Partly because they do the trick. Partly because they align with my corny nature. The line game here at Graded was very different than my normal experience though. In the past in urban education when people had to line up according to years of teaching experience, the weight of the line was on the inexperienced side. Today, with my ten years of teaching, I walked to that inexperienced side, realizing that where I would have been a dinosaur (a decade!), now I am an infant. It felt equally intimidating and refreshing.

After that, the obligatory opening remarks by the superintendent that somehow felt different, here, now: students first; we value you; influence is not abused here; the teacher-student relationship is the priority. Yes, please, and obrigada. Then we met with just our high school group where we did the opening rounds of getting to know one another and the school. Here, inspired by the initial authenticity of our principal: “I am such an introvert this week makes me want to run away from you as fast as possible,” followed by more authenticity about humor as defense mechanisms and fear over a lack of meaningful connection and impact with students had me at the cusp of an emotional breakdown. Which I promptly had when it was my turn to share.

I shared, in embarrassing sentences broken by tears, about my experience this year where one of my toughest students broke down and was so beautifully and publicly supported by a peer. This is why I teach. Stories. Connection. This. I then shared that I was overwhelmed by all the extroverted appointments we were doing, and I was completely new to working in this healthy school environment where everything is not life or death, and how authenticity matters to me, and how I was a mess. Literally. Thankfully the group responded with the space of grace, the place to just let it out. It was cathartic, and probably exactly what I’ve been needing.

After this, we took a tour of a campus that is more than I could have ever dreamed. I honestly felt some guilt. I have taught for ten years in places where resources were limited and where students came to school hungry, but here I am walking in a glorious campus full of remodeled fields and black box theaters and recording studios and giant libraries and homecooked meals on the lunch buffet and outside barbecue pits and…

My heart aches for what is broken in American public education. My heart aches for what I left behind. But… that probably will be more posts, later.

All this “work stuff” actually helped me more than I can say. My comfort zone is being good at my job, living a life of love in the classroom, so it was stabilizing to be in the environment where we’re talking school.

The day ended with a beautiful and delicious churrasco of meats and cheeses and garlic bread and yep, you guessed it, an open bar staffed by the school bartender.

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As I reflected with Dave tonight, I could not help but think about how this might just be the place that heals my teacher soul. I was worried that if I did not make a drastic change, I would leave teaching altogether.

But in my heart of hearts, I feel there are students here at Graded that have been needing me as much as I have been needing them.

I cannot wait to meet them.

 

 

 

storytelling using mentor texts

Inevitably, every break brings time for reflection and renewal for teaching. What’s going well? What’s hurting the team? Over winter break, I found myself desperate for a reset in my classroom. Students didn’t even know each other’s names, much less stories; I was the bad guy without enough of the connection that grounds those high expectations; I was so busy trying to collaborate in an overwhelming amount of configurations that I lost my authentic teacher compass; I was buried in systematic behavior expectations that did not align with who I am…and that didn’t work. I felt like a failure…worst, I was uninspired and uninspiring.

Last semester, my colleague and friend started talking about the writing approach which consists of copying mentor texts. She’s all up in this book and talking about it all over the place. (You know, authentic and real PD…not the forced kind; rather the kind that evolves from dialogue and mutual eagerness to grow in our craft.) We implemented mentor texts with our juniors as a way to create real-life writing experiences: reviews.

Slowly these two bodies of reflection met and bowed to each other on the dance floor of my mind: how can I provide students the opportunity to share their stories and improve their writing with mentor texts? How can I create an opportunity for reset while encouraging students to write beyond the traditional (and boring) academic scope (read 5 paragraph essay).

And those two ideas danced. Beautifully and wonderfully, beyond my expectations. Here is how I approached it (some steps are modified for how I wish I would have done it):

  1. I decided on two mentor texts: Maus and Night. This would give students the ultimate choice: story-telling via prose or story-telling via art.
  2. Then I combed both texts looking for engaging prompts and mentor text sections that would elicit stories that matter from my students, the kinds of stories that bond at the heart level. Here are those prompts for Maus and Night.
  3. To begin all this, and to deepen my own connections with students, I also modeled the process, as did my student teacher. I chose for my brain dump a piece about my Mom I had published on this blog a while back. Then I altered it to mimic the mentor text. I also walked through breaking down the mentor text into moves I could mimic.
  4. Next students picked their genre and prompt followed by a rough draft. This draft is not based on the structure or style of the mentor text, but merely is a brain dump to get their stories onto the paper.
  5. Then began the analysis of the mentor texts’ approaches. This was a chance for students to be independently taught writing craft by the mentor text they selected. They were guided through this process using extensive graphic organizers. Here those are for Maus and NightOf course I shouldn’t have been surprised at how this organically produced the close and deep independent reading I’ve been trying to manufacture all year long. But that is exactly what happened. Three cheers for favorable instructional accidents!
  6. After the analysis portion, students transitioned to the remaking of their drafts into the style of their chosen genre. For some, this meant adding dialogue. For others, they rearranged paragraphs. For the artsy, they drew and divided into panels with shading and captions. No matter what, each student was nose deep in a text, looking for how to mimic it. It took a bit for them to get the hang of it, but they did!
  7. At this point, we did some peer workshopping. Secretly, the real point here was the sharing of their stories in partners to prepare them for a larger production. After all, in my head, this IS the reason for this entire writing project: community connections. All the academic benefits are bonuses. (Oops, did I say that out loud?)
  8. Then, the wondrous glory of storytelling: the sharing. I asked for feedback from students regarding which peers they felt most comfortable and uncomfortable sharing with, and then I used that data to place students into a variety of small groups. In those groups, I gave very specific directions to 1, read his/her story out loud and 2, each student was to write a note of encouragement/thank-you letter to the author after he/she shared. I provided sentence frames and colored cards. To me, these are the kinds of days I live for as a teacher. Students huddled together in small groups, sharing secrets of the heart, spinning webs of connection that are strong and trustworthy, a web upon which we build more learning and more connection. A web which catches the light.
  9. Finally, students self-graded using a narrative rubric based on CCSS. In the future, I will do a better job explicitly teaching these elements, because though they were inherent in the works the students produced, the students themselves did not have the language to self-evaluate with specifics.

The pieces the students turned in were breathtaking both in craft and content. Were there grammar errors? Of course…but honestly, who cared when I was seeing some of the best writing I’ve seen from students in my decade of teaching. The pieces were original and unique and authentic and individual and unfettered with the formulaic chains we so often think at-risk students need. The pieces were heart-wrenching with students exposing the dangerous truths of their lives: from gang violence to domestic abuse to homelessness to murder to drugs to suicide to anxiety to sexual assault to the grief of too many orphaned children. I was not reading papers; I was reading souls.

But THE most beautiful moment in this project came the day we shared our stories in small groups. Throughout the day, I roamed to different groups to pop in on students’ stories and leave them a note from my heart to theirs. In one group of two boys and two girls, one of my most difficult and often disengaged boys began sharing his story. As he worked his way through it, it was evident his exterior was cracking. His pace slowed; his face tightened; his eyes moistened; his words chocked. He collapsed into himself, a heaving pile of grief, shattered by bullets past. Literally. His peer, the other boy in the group, silently got up from his seat, walked around the table, knelt beside him, rubbed his back, and just stayed…a steady, silent, comforting rock. It was a moment so beautiful, so raw, I nearly lost my breath.

Who am I kidding? I did.

And things have been better with that student. Not perfect. Not a miracle. But a shaky bridge has been solidified.

And that is just the kind of story I want to write with penstrokes of my career.

 

take this job and shove it?: a tired teacher reflects on when enough is enough 

I don’t know how to write this post.

Partially because on some level I feel like it’s already been written, but the act of putting words and phrases to secret utterances will make them reality lived instead of fear assumed.

Partially because it’s been said before by countless other teachers…ex-teachers.

Partially because this is not anybody’s fault who might be reading this. I have worked in 3 buildings that serve at-risk students, and in each of those places are stories of meaningful and authentic work that makes a difference.

But, I must write it. For me. To breath.

For the first time in my career as a teacher, I don’t honestly know if I can keep doing it. I have spent a decade loving students into learning, but I just feel so… Exhausted. Overworked. Underwhelmed. Ineffective. Discouraged. Heartless. Mistreated. Disrespected. Confused.

Being a teacher has been my everything. It is my ministry. It is my purpose. It is my salvation. It is my joy. It is why I get out of bed in the morning and what I relish as I lay down at night. During every interview for my three teaching jobs, the question was always asked: “Why do you want to be a teacher?” And my response was always the same: “It’s not a want, it’s WHO I am. That’s like asking why do you want to breath?”

But now I find myself choking on the very air that used to sustain me.

I find myself breathless from never being enough. Just today, with some squirrely kids in my advisory, I was waiting for respectful attention. They keep talking, as if I’m not even there. As if this is not even class. Finally one says: “Miss what are you waiting for?” I reply, “Respectful attention.” One of the ringleaders mumbles, “Respect must be earned.” And I broke. I just couldn’t take it anymore. So, all the conferencing I’ve done with you…that’s not respect? All the phone calls home to your parent for positive contacts…that’s not respect? All the food I’ve brought you, that’s not respect? Taking your whole class to spend the period playing basketball, that’s not respect? Asking about how you’re doing, that’s not respect? Lending you one million supplies so you could decorate lockers, that’s not respect? Well…then I guess I better accept disrespect, because I have. nothing. else. to. give.

I am breathless from the frantic data collection. Oh, my method of measuring student progress isn’t enough? Right, I see, let me make 26 spreadsheets, input data, and then make a table of contents just to be able to manage all those spreadsheets. Never mind that all this data collection reduces the time I’m able to do what it’s designed for: respond to it. Can I work on this other data and plan some lessons on it? Oh, sorry, right, no I can’t, because I have to jump through this hoop, for you, for them, for the system. When can I just be a teacher instead of a walking calculator?

I am breathless from the impossible standards. For the past two years, I have had the honor of being labeled as “distinguished.” I worked my ass of for it. But you know what? I had to work a LOT harder in my general ed class than my AP classes. And now, I can’t get a distinguished score to save my life. It’s ironic that the day an email comes out with me being highlighted in a video district-wide for my implementation of a teaching criteria is also the same day that I realize that I’m not being scored so much for what I do as what my students do. But you know what? I can’t control them. And in a new building with students who are not quick to give their trust away, well, I guess there goes my ratings. Does that seem fair? I am the same teacher. It is me. But my scores depend so much on them rather than me. And why do I even care? Is that what teaching is about? I don’t know anymore. How do I know I’m good when my students curse at me in frustration and the system curses me with frustration? Somewhere along the line in leaving no child behind, we’ve left the dignity of teachers out to dry.

I am breathless from the expanding–or shifting–duties of teaching. In college, I learned how to plan and grade, how to teach the art of communication, how to select books and write questions, how to modify for students with special needs, how to use standards. You know what’s missing? HOW TO FREAKING MOTIVATE A STUDENT AND CHANGE THEIR MINDSET. And that is all I spend my job doing anymore. I don’t teach English. I don’t teach academics. I spend 80% of my time managing behavior, attending to social and emotional needs, and figuring out what lever will actually spark a student’s intrinsic motive. I am not doing the work of a teacher. I am doing the work of a cognitive therapist or a motivation scientist. And I don’t have the training. I don’t have the time. I have 150 students. In urban ed as teachers of at-risk students, we always say we are their parents, their teachers, their therapists, their nurses, their lunch ladies, their disciplinarians, their cheerleaders, their coaches, their tutors. Just typing that sentence exhausts. And living it for the last 10 years has me completely drained.

And what is breaking my heart the most right now, what is suffocating me is the crushing-stone-weight of this question: what good is our system doing for at-risk, urban students? We have sacrificed high expectations on the altar of culturally-responsive education. We have buried beneath their specialized needs the conviction that they can–and will–do great things. We have held their hand until they are bruised. We have carried them on our shoulders until their legs have atrophied. We have handicapped them with scaffolds and differentiation and sentence starters and remastery exercises and outlines and modifications and second and third and fourth chances and misdirected restorative justice conversations and soft behavior systems and resources and… And then, they go to their jobs, and they are late, and instead of getting a pass, they get fired. They go to college, and instead of self-advocacy, they wait in vain for a deliver that has always been there. They go to their families, and instead of someone walking them through a hard conversation, they shut down and quit. They go to vote, and instead of having their voice count, they don’t follow directions and their ballot is struck down. Tragically, in an effort to empower students, we have torn them down to helpless, codependent, thoughtless birds who wait for some momma bird somewhere to drop a warm worm in their mouth. I can’t do it anymore. I won’t do it. Enabling is a band-aid for cancer. And my students, our students, your students, their students… students… deserve better.

I am left, empty and winded, after this post. Maybe I’m having a bad day, a bad month, a bad semester. Maybe it will all get better next semester. Maybe it’s just displaced attempts to grieve as my therapist thinks. Maybe I’m a baby and need to suck it up. Maybe in April I’ll be writing more posts like this or this or this. Maybe.

But until then, let me catch my breath.

 

Learning in Circles: Implementing Effective Socratic Seminars

An edited version of this post first appeared on Edutopia.

“Socratic seminars help me understand other people’s perspective as well as advance my own through critical thinking…They have also helped me become a better leader by engaging my peers in the discussion through deepening questions.” ~BQ, class of 2016

One of my favorite moments as a teacher is when guests come into my classroom, and despite their best attempts to locate me visually and auditorily, they can’t. I am hidden quietly among the students, who are engaged in a student-led, high-level academic discussion.

Throughout my nine years as a high school Language Arts teacher, I have discovered and refined a pivotal strategy that results in such a moment in my classroom: the Socratic seminar (hereafter known as SS). These student-led discussions–based on Socrates method of student inquiry rather than teacher lecture–elicit student ownership, deep thinking, critical questioning, respectful communication and collaboration, academic vocabulary usage, and a rooted sense of community. Though seemingly “off stage,” a meaningful and effective SS only occurs through intentional teacher moves before, during, and after.

SS brought us closer as a class, building a comfortable community and they were fun.” ~RP, class of 2016

Before: Planning

The most important part of a meaningful SS is the planning embedded throughout the year.

  • Let’s get comfortable.
    • There is no SS without risk. And there is no risk without trust. An effective SS occurs because there are thousands of invisible strings of connections already built among students and teacher. Build these connections through social-emotional circles, games, laughter, student surveys, journal entries, icebreakers, sharing of stories, high expectations and follow-through regarding respect, positive postcards home, cheerleading at student games and events, humility and authentic care.
    • Norm, norm, norm. At the beginning of the year, establish classroom procedures, routines, and expectations. At the beginning of every discussion, do the same. Hold students accountable for demonstrating the utmost respect to each other. More often than not, my classroom management is unseen and private. But I never let a disrespectful comment or laugh or eye roll go unaddressed in front of the class. For students to feel safe, they need to know I publicly and privately support them and the safety of our classroom.

“I like SS because it gives us a chance to become leaders and it builds our relationship as a class.” TS, class of 2019

  • Let’s get academic.
    • Use anchor charts to teach, model, and expect use of target vocabulary every period. Establish some way of students recognizing each other’s academic vocabulary use (snapping, tracking). This ensures students both identify and apply target language, offering ample opportunity for practice. Provide resources such as sentence stems, directly teach and model language functions, and expect students to practice them in conversations.
    • Use strategically crafted questions to create daily opportunities for academic conversation in a variety of configurations: partners, tables, small groups, concentric circles, around the world cafes, and kinesthetic activities such as 4 corners or line ups. Use a roster to track participation and ensure all students talk sometime throughout each week.
    • Practice gradual release of discussion leadership throughout the year. At the beginning, model strong facilitation skills and verbally label them for students. Create anchor charts collaboratively of what makes a strong discussion leader, participants, and conversations. Reflect on the day’s discussion: strengths, weaknesses, modifications. Eventually poll the class to see who wants to take a more active role in leading class discussions. In a small group with them, discuss strong and weak leadership moves. Norm with the class how to treat a student taking a risk. And then let them run the show! Afterwards prompt students to reflect on how the the progress of the leader, the class, and themselves. Through this process, by the end of the year almost every discussion is like a SS because the cognitive and discourse responsibilities have transferred entirely to the students.
    • Directly teach, model, practice, and assess analytical and text-based questioning. The top resources I’ve found for this are from AVID. This skill is essential in reading comprehension, high-level discourse, critical thinking, and holistic success in a world inundated with messages. What I’ve found works best is delineating between right/wrong, yes/no questions and those that produce divergent discussion. Additionally, text-dependent questions ground students in the work rather than speculative thinking. Use these types of questions as class discussion and/or writing prompts, collaboratively evaluating and adjusting them as needed. This makes a great opener activity, enhanced by a Teach Like A Champion “building ration through writing” strategy. Teach students to craft these kinds of questions as they read, forming a self-monitoring strategy.

SS help me to understand a novel with much more depth. When I read a book I see the events in one way but in SS I was able to deepen my previous thoughts and create new ones based on what everyone else shared.” ~DGC, class of 2016

  • Let’s get prepared.
    • Choose a rich text that offers cross-content and real-world connections. I often use whole novels as the basis of my SS.
    • Create prep work based on learning objectives and student data. Whether in 9th grade Intro to Lit class or AP Lit class, I found that prep work allows students to feel confident going into the SS: a game-changer.
    • Schedule the SS, providing students enough time to complete the work (either in class or out).
    • Repeatedly explain the purpose and expectations of the SS. I use a contract clearly outlining expectations.

During: Implementing

“A well-run SS is is an artful blend of awkward pauses and meaningful analysis.” ~CS, class of 2016

Once the culture and preparations have been established, it is time to set the scene for the actual SS.

  • Let’s get physical.
    • A SS is best in a circle, where students are equal and I–as a facilitator and not participant–am on the outside. There are a couple of ways to do that based on the class size and dynamics. One giant circle for all students or fishbowl style (where there is an inner circle and an outer; the inner participants speak, the outer participants coach).
    • Announce what supplies are expected in the circle and only allow those (e.g. text, homework prep, assessment sheet).
    • Set up the SS so the target vocabulary anchor charts are visually accessible for student use.
  • Let’s get ready.
    • When students arrive on the SS day, I create a “do now” activity that will last between 5-10 minutes so that I can individually check for prep completion. I do not allow students who are not 100% complete with the prep to participate. At the beginning of the year, this is harsh. But as the year goes on, students rise to expectations and accept this is designed to ensure a better discussion (and often grade).
    • The first SS of the year begins with a lot of direct instruction going over what makes a good one, a bad one, and how students get an A (targets). These targets–which can shift throughout the year–are based on standards and can be active voice, upgraded verbs, academic vocabulary, transitional phrases, textual evidence, clarifying questions, etc. Every SS thereafter, I still spend time at the beginning directly establishing these norms and targets. I also have students set goals.
    • I often start with an opening round question that is light (from ice cream flavors, weekend plans to favorite quote or character). This invites all voices in, helping students take that initial plunge into the conversation.
  • Let’s get better.
    • I practice gradual release of SS throughout the year. Early on, I am inserting myself into the conversation more frequently. These interruptions can be feedback about strong moves, ways to improve, lessons about conservation strategies, highlighting of impressive questions or insights, muting dominant voices, soliciting reserved voices, and/or pausing conversation so students can self-assess and adjust moving forward.  As the year goes on, these interruptions occur less and less as students internalize expectations and step up as facilitators. I’ve also found that the shorter SS are in the beginning, the easier it is for students to master them.
    • In any SS, there will be awkward pauses. Here are some ways to approach those. First, I stress every time this is to be expected and honored as thought time. If it extends unreasonably, I will try any of these strategies: switch seats, whip around, pair share, walk and talk, talking piece, self-assess and/or check grade.
    • Students come to SS with a range of abilities and needs. I’ve found that assigning leadership roles and differentiated targets to be successful for upward differentiation. For scaffolding, provide scripts, sentence starters, peer coaches, small group instruction ahead of time and/or differentiated tasks.

After: Following

SS have helped me with speaking verbally, because at the beginning I didn’t talk and was shy, but now I feel confident.” ~AG, class of 2019

  • Let’s get assessed.
    • The hardest part of SS is assessing them. But over the years, I have refined a tracking and assessing strategy that is easy, accurate, and best of all…it works.
  1. Use a roster. Highlight students who are able to participate. Mark those who are not with a 0 and put a line through the row.
  2. Establish “A moves” (e.g. using academic transitions, speaking in literary tense, using and explaining quotes) and codes for those.
  3. Track student participation using the codes. A colleague of mine does this visually on the doc cam so students have live access to their progress. I also do it privately on a clipboard. Here are some examples.
  1. After, highlight each “A move” a different color. Head a column with number of “A moves” and then another for score. Count up the “A moves” and use predetermined scale to establish grade.
  • Let’s get reflective.
    • The final element to any meaningful SS is reflection–both for student and teacher. Here are some prompts I often use.
      • Teacher: How natural was the conversation? How varied was student participation? How analytical were student comments? How authentic and accurate was the use of academic vocabulary? What do I need to reteach? How do I plan ahead to make the next one better?
      • Student: What do you think your grade should be and why? What did you do well? What did your colleagues do well? What do you need to improve? What does the class need to improve? Did you feel safe sharing your ideas? How can we improve community? How has your thinking about ____ changed?

SS have helped me because it allows me to expand my thinking.” ~MC, class of 2019

What I love the most about effective SS–from community to text analysis to rich discussion to student ownership– is that it feels like a college class. And my students deserve this. As do all students.  

 

students vs. statistics: why I stay a teacher

On my way to work each day, looming above the newly-built-but-not-yet-operating-train-tracks is a billboard that declares:

Unlimited Data

Of course, it’s some advertisement for a phone company that offers all the access one could ever want to Facebook, Candy Crush, Snapchat, Twitter and Youtube.

And then I walk through the door of my school, which is a representation of any public school in the American education system, and I hear the same message from above, around, and below:

Unlimited Data


Recently, a dear friend at another school told me a colleague counted somewhere around 27 days of assessment for their school year, not counting authentic assessment teachers are doing in their own classroom on behalf of their own students. Twenty. Seven. Days. That is an entire month of a ten month school year gone, eaten by some number-crunching, spirit-crushing, out-of-the-classroom, higher-up-Pac-Man’s insistent demand we know where are our students are at.

Um, dear pawn of the government, I know where my students are at. My students are below proficiency in reading, writing, math, and science–oh, and they probably will be in gym and social studies, since that’s being tested this year. My students come to school hungry, but are filled with sugar in the morning by the Breakfast in Class program. My students, since they are under-performing, are subjected to overwhelming academic minutes in the seat, without electives and sufficient transitions and a healthy lunch for a full eight hours. My students trip over dead bodies killed by rival gangs in their neighborhood. My students support their moms who have been beaten to seizure-status by their dads. My students take care of four younger siblings while their parents work multiple jobs to pay the bills. My students have surgeries to remove the growing toxins in their bodies from the industrial air they breath daily.


This week, the moon’s fullness has stripped my colleagues and I of spirit. Behavior has been out-of-control. Time is dwindling into unknown black holes. Energy has been sapped. Motive has gone AWOL. On Friday, a colleague and I sat in my “comfort corner” and discussed where we’re at, and how much this is influenced by our nation’s state of education. A nation obsessed with unlimited data. And through discussion we came to the conclusion, we are not against data. We want to know where our students are at relative to the target. We want to know what next steps are for each of our students. This, after all, is good-teaching. And by and large, across our school, across our district, across our nation, teachers strive to be good teachers.

But, then it hit me, education really has moved past the point of data. Unlimited data isn’t data anymore. It’s statistics.  And as a nation, we are shackled by statistics. Unlimited data is data that cannot be processed or utilized. It just sits there, glaring at us in our urban schools with frightening statistics; it is the oppressive gaze.

But, as a teacher, statistics don’t help me. Statistics don’t help my students either.


It is enough to quit. The pressure comes from above (nation, district); from below (statistics, systematic oppression of our students by society); and from the side (unsupportive school systems, weak collaboration). Voices across the nation are echoing the same sentiment. M. Shannon Hernandez nearly begs for systematic change to focus not on statistics, but on students. Elizabeth A. Natale advocates for systematic change to restore the spirit and art of teaching. Sarah Blaine calls for systematic change to honor the challenging profession of teaching. I also have written about my frustrations before.


In my aforementioned conversation with a dear friend, the topic shifted to: how do we stay? In this climate of systematic statistic subjugation, how do we persevere? I was in such a bad place, my question might have even been, why do we stay?

Our students will not get the education they need–they deserve–if not for people like us.

And there it is, the call of my heart. My students. The stories of my students. The souls of my students. The spirits of my students. My students who share the most profound insights as we read literature. My students who leave small gifts on my desk. My students who cry on my shoulders, but then find the strength to wipe their tears and keep showing up. My students who smile so deeply because they’ve finally written something of which they’re proud. My students who read more books in a year than they have in their whole school career. My students who are so resilient, and who overcome, and who shine, and who go on to have functioning families and successful scholarships and courageous college contacts and justified jobs and triumphant testimonials.

And so, like my students, I will persevere and overcome. I will teach, because they need me. And I need them.

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