Training TAs: The Art of Empathetic Inquiry

This morning I met with a group of students and two teachers to launch a mobile writing lab at Lafayette High School.  This writing lab pilot is the brainchild of the Lafayette writing committee, chaired by our writing resource teacher, Holly.

We don’t have the physical space for the kind of writing center you might see on a university campus where students make appointments with a tutor to discuss writing assignments. We also don’t have the staff to supervise such a venture.   Also, a before-school or after-school writing center wouldn’t be able to serve students who have no reliable transportation.  

Many of our students need one-on-one or small group assistance with their writing. Our writing committee also wanted to support our large faculty, who assign writing tasks, but need help with the time-intensive process of brainstorming, drafting, revising, and editing necessary for quality writing.

This program allows teachers to “check out” writing teaching assistants (TAs). Similar to reserving a computer lab or a tech cart of laptops, teachers can reserve one or two tutors through an online app. The TAs will email the reserving teacher an intake form which allows teachers to describe the writing aid they need. TAs will then attend the class and provide the requested assistance.

In November, the English department recommended students whose writing, speaking, listening, and leadership abilities positioned them as naturals for this role.  From these recommendations, Holly invited fifteen students to participate in the pilot and attend the training this morning.

After Holly discussed the nuts-and-bolts of reserving a TA (in a future blog, I will hyperlink examples of how we set up our teacher intake form, our teacher feedback form, and our running record of TA work) she asked students to introduce themselves and tell a story about a writing assignment that had been difficult for them.

Sharing writing war stories was a great place to start the conversation about writing tutoring.  One must come to the table with respect for the difficult task of writing, and empathy and understanding are the cornerstones of any good teaching foundation.

After we reviewed our writing TA manual (a Google folder full of brainstorming strategies, graphic organizers, research resources, plus a bell and lunch schedule and a list of our faculty, their rooms, and planning periods) I asked TAs to test their tutoring chops by role playing with one another, using anonymous student samples. One sample was an argumentative essay about the most important word in Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech.

“What might you say to this student?” I asked.

“I might ask her if she thought she took a long time to get to her point,” Kris said.

“Okay. Pretend I’m the student who has written this essay. What might your opening question be?”

“Do you think you took too long to get to your point?” Kris said.

“No, I don’t.  I think it’s good,” I said in the role of the student and pushed the essay back across the table toward Kris, who laughed, immediately realizing he had backed himself into a tutoring corner by asking a yes or no question instead of an open-ended question.

“A student will give you a yes-or-no answer if you ask a yes-or-no question, and the conversation comes to a grinding halt, right?” I said.  The group shook their heads, yes.

“I would say to the student, in your introduction you make a lot of good points, but you need to get to the point sooner,”   Kenna said.

“So yes, that’s clearly what needs to happen in this introduction, but what kind of question can you ask this writer that will allow her to arrive at that same conclusion?” I said.

“Let me try,” Leslie said. “I would say, I like how you have a lot of good points, but where is the main point that you want to make? Can you underline your main point?  And what other points come before the main point?”

Leslie had it. She was leading the student to make an independent discovery about the writing instead of fixing it herself. She was using inquiry to move the student writer toward a solution. 

“Think of the adage, give a man a fish, he eats for the day; teach a man to fish and he can feed himself for life. You can fix a peer’s writing today, but that only helps him once.  Or you can show him how to think through his writing independently and become self sufficient. ”

As the training continued, I was so impressed with how empathetic our TAs were and how they were using inquiry to assess student needs. This on-the-spot diagnostic inquiry requires a TA to 1) access the student’s need, while 2) figuring out the best way to help the student meet that need, while 3) forming a question that will lead that student to discover the answer to his own problem.  This kind of formative assessment is a skill many actual teachers struggle with, but it’s the key to meeting students where they are.

So, our TAs have been trained and are ready to be checked out Monday morning. Holly and I are excited about tracking the data and feedback we get from students and teachers on the efficacy of this model.  Stay tuned to hear more about this process!



Here’s a Radical Thought: Admit to Your Students You’re Human

“I’m not self-actualized on all these myself,” said Dr. Caryn Huber, Dean of Students, to a faculty of 200 teachers during our opening day professional development. She was introducing a powerpoint that featured the prescribed behavioral qualities we would like our students to master to achieve social, emotional, and academic success.

It was a surprising admission. So surprising, in fact, that I wrote it down. It’s the first time I’d ever heard an administrator (or any one in front of a PD) say this out loud:  that every day we ask kids to act in ways that we ourselves as adults haven’t mastered yet.

We ask kids to set SMART goals, manage their time well, bounce back in the face of failure, interact with peers not of their social group, be compassionate, be responsive, be engaged and curious, be driven and goal-oriented.  But the truth of the adult world is very few of us have that list in the bag.  How many of us have our anger truly in check? How many of us respond with compassion every single time? How many of us sit with  new people at faculty meetings?

Dr. Huber’s admission was a rarity,  yet it shouldn’t be.  Admitting our humanness should be on center stage in every classroom and every PD.  Our shortcomings or weak spots or unevolved selves are some of the most powerful things we could share with our students. That our own struggle to learn is not on display every day in every classroom is a waste of a powerful demonstration on the notion of growth mindset.

I’m not suggesting you talk to your students about your addiction, your divorce, or your abysmal financial situation.  I’m suggesting you share the hills and valleys of your own intellectual journey, the one you’re still on.  My colleague Vickie Moriarity wrote a blog recently about failing her Google test, and the empathy she developed for those students who try and try again to learn content they just can’t master.  Vickie’s own failure and her continued journey to gain Google certification will be a powerful model of resilience for her students.

Teachers sometimes present themselves as having arrived at guru status. Perhaps I have presented myself as a master of things of which I am not because pretending to have all the answers is reassuring to me.  If kids can figure out things on their own, why am I even in the room?  But isn’t that the key consideration in all project-based learning, namely,  what is my role in an educational landscape where the answers are not solid, objective realities, but fluid, in-progress creations?

We often speak through our ego, which manifests itself as dictatorial control when we’re in front of our students.  We have the answers.  We have mastered this content.  Really though, when was the last time I have participated in the kinds of thinking I am demanding of my students?

Am I asking students to write an argument on a controversial claim? When was the last time I wrote an argument on a controversial claim from start to finish with evidence and works cited and clear organization? Am I asking students to write a poem? When was the last time I attempted to channel human experience into figurative language?

Being real about our struggles is a powerful teaching tool.  And more importantly, we need to talk about it.  Dr. Huber tapped into that on opening day:  confession is good for the soul. Admit that we don’t always have our act together.  Make that admission into a testimony.  Our stories will connect us more tightly to one another when we share them with our students.  Sharing the story of your own attempts to learn something, or hey, actually writing and mathing with your students (what a concept!) and letting them see you struggle will be the biggest (and most long lasting) lesson they will learn all year. Be the thing you teach. Show students how it’s done by doing it with them, and sometimes failing. Show them that too.





First Week Lesson: Demographic Grouping

During the first week of school, my goal is two-fold:  I want my students to see self-discovery through writing as their main goal, and I want to build a community based on story.  I use activities that encourage students to meet each other through the details of their lives. These stories and details eventually serve as the fodder for personal essays, arguments, and informational texts they will write later in the year. 

Demographic grouping is one activity which asks kids to group themselves by various identities and meet the other people in the room who share that characteristic.  The key to this activity — for both community building and self-discovery– is to ask kids who find themselves in a demographic group to argue for or against their own inclusion based on their life experience, hence stories. When they find themselves in a circle of Capricorns, for example, they need to tell stories and trot out evidence as they share the details of who they are or who they think they are.

For a 90-minute block class, I use three demographics: Myers-Briggs, Western astrological signs, and birth order.  I want students to share stories about what it’s like to be a part of these subsets of the larger population, and I want them to challenge or confirm their placement in these groups.  Do they agree or disagree with their “label?” What stories in their lives support or negate this assessment of who they are? Do the definitions fit?

The first demographic congress we convene is around the 16 personality types founded in Carl Jung’s theories on psychological types as listed on the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator.  Students take a 10-15 minute quiz which will then place them in one of the sixteen possible combination of four paired personality traits: 1) Introversion or Extraversion; 2) Intuition or Sensing; 3) Thinking or Feeling; 4) Judging or Perceiving.  Based on their answers to the personality quiz, students will be given a four-letter personality, such as INFJ.  

Before class starts, I post the 16  individual personality types around the room along with a brief explanation of each type.  Once students have their types, they migrate around the room and find their Myers-Briggs compadres.  For fifteen minutes, I ask them to trade stories that confirm, negate, or qualify the personality type by which they’ve been labeled.  

In addition to being a fun, engaging activity which generates numerous narrative opportunities, I also get to see where my dreamers, my leaders, my risk takers, and my nurturers are. 

After that,  students divide themselves by their zodiac sign.  The Western astrological signs are based on which month of the year you were born. According to astrologists, planetary formations at the time of birth can determine a person’s individual character.  I’m surprised every year by how many students do not know their zodiac sign.  

Before class, I print off a generic description of each of the 12 signs and post these around the room.  Students migrate to the mini-poster that bears the symbol for their sign and join the others in the room who were born under the same sign.  As they did with the Myers-Briggs grouping, students spend about 15-minutes reading the descriptions of their sign (they especially love to read the section about relationship compatibility) and share stories in these groups as to how they are alike or unlike their sign. This is a great activity because it immediately creates kinship among disparate students in the class based on their birth month.

The last grouping I do is birth order.  All the first born, middle, youngest or only children get together in groups. I will have printed off descriptions of the characteristic of that particular birth order, and the groups discuss whether they agree or disagree with the definition of their particular rank.  Birth order is a great nugget of teacher information for me as well.  I know first and only born kids are often my natural leaders, and when I select group leaders for inquiry sessions later in the year, this information will come in handy.

Once we’ve circled through three demographic groups, I ask students to return to their seat and write a reflection of the activity, such as what surprised you about the descriptions? Did you strongly agree or disagree with any of the demographic groupings in which you found yourself? What was the best story you told today? What was the best story you heard today?   


Back-to-School Nightmares

“What terrified me will terrify others; and I need only describe the specter which had haunted my midnight pillows.” – Mary Shelly, upon waking from the nightmare that would inspire Frankenstein

I cannot get the copier to work. I stand in the copy room where the thermostat registers: surface of the Sun. My dress dissolves. The copier jams again. The beeping, the jamming. The red arrows. And I have 250 kids (or more)  in my class, standing on desks, chanting mayhem and anarchy. I race into the room and am screaming, hissing, and spitting, between 30 and 150 Hz, but to no avail. My throat bleeds. A brick slams into my head, and I lose consciousness.

They start right after July 4th or when Wal-Mart parks their Back-to-School display in the front of the store.  At this moment, a teacher’s fear circuitry is activated, locked and loaded, and offers up a nightly terror.  The patterns are similar: loss of control, running late, losing lesson plans, your classes, your mind.  

According to Psychology Today, nightmares provide a way for our subconscious to deal with trauma. Other stressful vocations (ER nurses, EMTs, public defenders, air traffic controllers) may also have similar dreams, but since I’m a teacher, I’m very familiar with this annual nocturnal visitation. The stressors in teaching are relentless and myriad, which is why a staggering 30%-40% of teachers exit the profession within the first five years due to stress. Once you’ve experienced this stress in your waking life, the probability that your subconscious will try to warn you of the coming onslaught is high.   

Here’s a sampling of nightmares from my teacher friends:

  • I had an anxiety dream last week starring a middle schooler who would not let me help her learn how to do her combination lock on her locker, even though she was crying in frustration when I found her. She refused to listen and just walked away.
  • The kids revolt on Day One. They hate me and they won’t cooperate in any way whatsoever. For some reason, it feels dangerous, like they’re saying, “Just try your techniques on us, Mrs. Classroom Management.”
  • I’ve dreamt everything from teaching in a tube top to not having the syllabus copied to farting in front of my class to getting lost and teaching the wrong subject!
  • I’ve dreamed there is only one copier working and I have to body check a colleague to get to it.  Also, I have too many students and not enough seats or materials for them.
  • I was away somewhere, enjoying one last mini vacation before school started back, and my teeth began to fall out — like, a few at a time. I was mortified, but not entirely, until my two front teeth disappeared.  In my dream, my hope was that I would be able to get home from the trip and have my friend (who is an oral surgeon) help me find a solution for the next day, which was the first day of school.
  • Our counselor kept showing up at my door with a new student every few minutes. I am sure this has to do with the large class sizes I have this year with no block scheduling.
  • I get to school and they’ve moved my classroom, and I can’t find it and then get in trouble for leaving students unattended while I am desperately searching for my room.
  • I’ve occasionally had the “horror movie in a school” dream, where I was having to either get myself or myself and students out of the building due to a threat. Those may be fueled by the “live shooter” training we’ve done a few times recently.

School starts on Wednesday for me, and even though I loop with my students for four years (no surprises), I recently had two teacher nightmares, featuring both loss of control of my classroom and getting to school three hours late while my students ran wild through the halls.

If you’re having back-to-school nightmares, take heart. It’s a profession-wide annual visitation. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad teacher or that you’ll have a bad year.  It only means that your subconscious is probably working out the back-to-school jitters.  If you are seriously plagued with these nightly frights, there are ways to conquer them. In the meantime, practice self-care:  exercise, eat right, hydrate, and treat yourself to a stress-reducing massage every month.  Talk out your fears with colleagues who suffer similar anxieties, and practice leaving your school worries at school instead of taking them home with you and catastrophizing them into a daily reality.  


New Teacher Series/ Question 15: What is the best way to involve parents?

Communication and trust between parents and their child’s teacher is crucial, and you should strive to initiate and maintain that relationship as soon as you get your roster until the last day of school. You’ll have no better partner in the academic success of that child than his or her parents.  Here are a few ways to build that bridge and connect with parents often:

  1. Home visits: This is a huge time investment, but so worth it. Home visits at the beginning of the year show parents you care enough about your job and their child to drive around three hours every night for a week to visit families. Call ahead, send an email, or write a letter and let parents know when to expect you.  Go with someone, another teacher or a principal, for company.   Have something like a welcome letter or a contact sheet or a personal profile to leave on the porch or in the door to say that you’ve been there if no one is home.  If they are home, stay long enough to introduce yourself and meet the family, answering any questions they may have, but be considerate of their time. This is a great way to start the year on a positive note.
  2. Communicate virtually:   There are times when talking directly to a parent on the phone is necessary and preferred, but using virtual communication is often more efficient and effective to keep parents in the loop about assignments, field trips, dues, or club activities.  You can create a simple newsletter to distribute via email or create a class website that you update frequently with assignments and a calendar of events. I also use a  great texting app called Remind that is both safe and secure.  Students and parents join your class by texting a class-specific code to a five-digit number. Once they’ve joined, you can send a single announcement to the whole class or contact a parent or student directly with a private message.
  3. PTA: We have an unbelievably strong parent-teacher-student organization at the high school where I teach, and one of the great benefits of that organization is the parent involvement with other parents.  By joining in the planning or working at a school wide event, their involvement increases the family’s investment in the culture of the school.
  4. Open House: If your school has open house before school starts, your role is hostess. Print up some nice inexpensive business cards with your contact information, classroom website, times that are good for parent conferences, and hand these out to parents.  Be sure to welcome them in and encourage them to look around and ask questions. If your school has open house after school starts, your role is to communicate to parents how their child is doing in your class.  Have samples of each student’s work available for parents to see along with a specific praise for their child.  If there are concerns, request a parent-teacher conference later; open houses are usually not a good place to go in depth about one child because multiple parent and guardian groups may be moving in and out of your classrooms, and confidentiality may be compromsied.
  5. Field Trips: The parents that I’ve had the best relationships with have been the ones that I’ve asked to help with field trips. I believe in the value of taking kids outside the brick and mortar school as often as possible, and I have several small walking field trips to places near our school throughou the year. Because our district requires a 1:10 chaperone-student ratio on field trips, I often reach out to parents to help.  These are low-stakes trips that often do not require transportation and last only for a few hours.  It’s a great opportunity to get to know parents beyond a cursory conference.
  6. Night Events: Another great way to create parental involvement is to plan events where their child will be performing or participating. This might be a debate or a mock trial, a spoken word poetry open mic, or a theatrical performance. All of these activities draw parents out to support their children, and you can use this as an opportunity to make contact and give them an update on their child’s performance in your class.

New Teacher Series/ Question 14: How do you stay on top of grading?

Grading is the English teacher’s special crucible.  Sunday nights are especially arduous. You’ll bring those papers in on Friday afternoon, promising yourself to grade them first thing Saturday morning.  But Saturday morning rolls around, and you run some errands, go to the grocery. Then you promise yourself that you’ll get to them Saturday afternoon.  You know what happens. Finally, it’s 3:00 pm on Sunday, and there’s a pile of ungraded essays on your coffee table that you keep circling.

My late father-in-law always said to me, “You know how to avoid those essays? Don’t assign them!”

Of course, it’s not that simple with English teachers.  Writing is a skill that requires nuanced and individualized feedback.  Last year, a meme was making its way around the interweaves that showed how many hours it takes teachers to grade essays.  At the low end (a teacher who had 100 students and only spent 5 minutes on each essays) the teacher spent 8 hours grading papers.  At the high end (a teacher who had 150 students and spent 20 minutes per paper) the teacher spent 50 hours grading papers.  That’s just insanity.  So how does a high school teacher, with a relentless daily schedule, do it?  Here are a few tips:

  1. Don’t make everything due at the same time. I know this might be impossible if you are teaching several sections of the same class, and you want to keep them at the same pace, but one class of 25 essays isn’t as daunting as five classes of 25 essays.  Even if you break them up by a few days, the wiggle room will keep the grading stress to a minimum.
  2. Don’t grade everything all the time. There are numerous activities that are both important and beneficial that don’t need to be assessed.   Carol Jago’s book Papers, Papers, Papers gives many examples of strategies for assessments that are non-graded, but still provides students with skill practice.
  3. Google Forms is your friend. Any online grading system, such as a clicker system, which collates student answers in a spreadsheet and provides graphs and individualized data for you is excellent for quick assessments.   Use these online data gathering tools to streamline your grading flow.
  4. Grade essays with an analytical rubric, preferably one designed with your students. Rubrics make grading essays easier as the descriptions and feedback concentrates on 3-5 categories in a range of performance levels. Creating a rubric with your students is an instructional gold mine that allows them to understand how they are being assessed and what the expectations of the assignment are before they start.
  5. Formative assessment comes in many forms. You don’t have to have a paper and pencil test to assess all student learning. A quick conference or a thumbs up/thumbs down survey can yield the information you need to know.


New Teacher Series/ Question 13: Do you find bell ringers helpful?

In 2008, I first used bell ringers to sneak in a few ACT strategies before the regularly scheduled curriculum, but I liked them so much I began using them in every class to prime the class for whatever learning objective was on the table.   They have been lauded by everyone from Fred Jones to Harry Wong, and they serve as an effective way to set the tone and smooth the transition from the bustle of class change to an academic environment.

The utility of the bell ringer is myriad.  During a unit on the argument, I might post two short blurbs from opposing views on a controversial topic for a quick bell ringer debate. During a literature class, I might use the bell ringer to take a quick formative assessment to test for retention of a concept or skill from the previous day.  During a study skills class, I might introduce a free time or money saving app and have students try it out on their cell phones.  During a project-based writing class, I might use a quick Google form to check in with each student’s status and their goals for the day. During film units, I might show establishing shots or clips of dialogue or one scene and ask for a quick analysis.   Bell ringers can be used for introducing, reviewing, reteaching, or building on a skill or concept.

  • They need to be relevant. Don’t slap a bell ringer on the board just so you can take attendance in quietness.  Make sure the bell ringer is relevant to the skill or content you are teaching.  Ideally a bell ringer previews or taps into prior knowledge of what you are teaching that day or connects to an essential question that drives a larger part of your curriculum.
  • The transitions need to be smooth. One of the main reasons bell ringers are popular is they create a good transition from the bustle of the hall to the academic environment in the classroom, but the transition from the bell ringer into the main lesson needs to be equally seamless. Bell ringers that require a lot of moving parts are cumbersome and the cost-to-benefit ratio decreases when that is the case. The strategy should increase, not decrease, classroom efficiency.
  • They need to be time-bound. Don’t allow the bell ringer creep. This is sometimes difficult, especially if your bell ringer involves discussion or debate, but I use the online stopwatch and project it onto the whiteboard to make sure the bell ringer stays within the time limit.  Some teachers play music and the bell ringer is finished when a single song is over.
  • They should be diverse. Having a writing prompt every single day can get stale. Using a variety of  bell ringers will keep the practice fresh.   A quick poetry analysis or a visual rhetoric inquiry using a video will create the necessary change of pace, but also include inquiries, grammar, journaling, vocabulary, silent reading, even mindful meditation, breathing and stretching– all great bell ringers.