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.

 

 

 

 

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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.  

 

Writing Lessons

During the summer of 2015, I was writing what I had hoped might become a collection of short stories. One day  I took a break to write a letter to prospective students of the literary arts program where I teach.  As I wrote the letter,  I was struck by how differently I taught writing then as compared with the first half of my teaching career.

That might make a good book, I thought, and I jotted down about eight rough ideas for chapters.  The next day, I typed it up and did some research on publishing houses.  I contacted an education writer friend of mine for pointers.  Then I wrote out a more formal proposal, a fleshed out table of contents, coupled with a cover letter and shipped it all off.  That was June 30.  

On July 7, my cell phone rang. It was an acquisitions editor with Heinemann Press. They were interested in my book idea.  I was completely floored.  I thought I had just sold my first book.  

Not so.

During the next nine months, I rewrote that proposal six times.  My editor was interested in my idea, but I couldn’t frame the subject in a way that convinced the marketing department. Finally in March, I was offered a contract and started the process of writing.  

During the summer of 2016, I wrote daily,  and by the time  I was ready to go back to school in August, I had a 70,000-word draft finished. I revised that draft twice, and the final manuscript was delivered to Heinemann on January 3, 2017.  

Sometime in September, I will hold the finished book, Project-Based Writing: Teaching Writers to Manage Time and Clarify Purpose, in my hands, this book that happened while I was working on another book. This is the way life works, of course.  

I always thought my first book would be either a memoir or a collection of short stories. A teacher’s resource book just wasn’t sexy enough for my inaugural foray into the world of publishing, but here it is, and I’m so proud of it and stunned by the insights I’ve gained along the way. In no particular order, here are some of those observations:

Every teacher should write a book about her practice.  Like writing, the actual moves of teaching are enormously personal and idiosyncratic. My teaching strategies are mostly of the moment. Until I sat down to try to  articulate my practice, I had no idea what elemental steps figured into my methods. Even though I daily reflect on my teaching practice, it’s often done anecdotally with friends over BBQ nachos, and not as a serious reflective endeavor. Writing this book forced me to seriously look at what I do; some of it was nice, even fun, to look at. Some of it, I realized, didn’t work, but I got the opportunity to figure that out.  

I am a first draft disaster. I have never been a writer who thinks through a logical line or narrative arc,  then commits that to an outline. I just throw a bunch of sentences on a blank page and cry for several days.  I have to write bits and halves and parts before I recognize the whole. Once I’ve discovered that, I have to organize it in such a way that readers won’t want to toss it in the trash in disgust. Organization requires looking at big chunks of writing for patterns and commonalities, then arranging those chunks in a sequential way that helps a reader see the point. So I wish I’d learned how to outline earlier in life.   

Edu-speak makes me lazy.  There were so many times when I was writing this book I unconsciously lapsed into the convenient jargon of our ilk.  When I couldn’t find the right words to describe something real in my classroom, sentences like “Students benefit from innovative competency-based practices in a data-driven environment” were always hanging around like an old boyfriend– comfortable, willing, and only a keystroke away. Ugh.  Think about how much better those awful education classes would have been if the writers had just used regular words to describe learning. Why don’t we demand better writing from the books of our discipline?  

Keeping a source list is crucial.  In college, I hated compiling the works cited and consulted page after I finished a research paper; it just seemed so unnecessary.  I wasn’t vested in the writing I was doing and the stakes were low. (This is how, I imagine, most students feel about writing for teachers.)  But during the writing of this book, I realized the stakes were much higher.  People would be reading this book, I hoped, and I certainly didn’t want to unwittingly plagiarize someone else’s language. The problem I had was 1) I don’t typically write down the sources of cool things I find in books or online, and 2) there are books, essays, and stories I’ve read so many times, they’re ingrained in my mind to the point where I didn’t know where their words ended and my words began. Two weeks before the book was printed, I was horrified to discover I had not attributed a beautiful quote from a friend of mine.  Source list:  it’s a must.

No one really knows what you’re doing.  If I mentioned to friends I was working on a book, “that’s nice” or “how interesting” was the normal response, followed by silence.  The last thing anyone wants to ask is “what’s it about?” because then they’re on the hook to act interested while I nanner on for twenty minutes about some possibly esoteric topic.  So when you write a book, you are laboring completely alone.  You are working and creating and having bad days and good days and stonewalls and breakthroughs, yet no one knows you are doing anything at all. You might as well be lying on the couch watching SVU.  As is the case with all creative endeavors, I suppose.  As is the case with research scientists too. Only after the creation emerges can it be shared with others.

 

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 12: What are the best strategies for teaching grammar?

Confessions:  I’ve never diagrammed a sentence in my life. I always have to roll around lay/lie and who/whom in my head before I commit. And if someone put a gun to my head, threatening death unless I told them the pluperfect subjunctive tense of a regular verb, I most likely would die.

However, I love language, and I love to write.  And gosh darn it, people can understand me, so what gives on the grammar front?  Unfortunately, grammar has gotten a bad rap because teachers tend to trot out the grammar exercises as the path to writing greatness, when actually clarity of expression, significance of idea, and originality of style and voice have more primacy in good writing.   Yes, correctness is significant because without an agreed upon system of communication, how could one enjoy the expression, idea, style and voice? But grammar and usage are only a small part of the wider practice of writing.  Many of us have made grammar instruction the one and only path to better writing.

Let me save you a few years of frustration.  In the first decade of my teaching career, I was a beast with the grammar worksheets and grammar units. But here’s what I discovered.  Kids might score 100% on an isolated comma drill worksheet, but then write an essay as if they’d loaded up their BB gun and comma shot through every sentence.

Even after I circled every single grammatical mistake and wrote in the margin the page number where this error was addressed in the textbook, they might fix the errors on that draft, but would make the same mistakes on the next essay.  The corrections didn’t stick.

I was teaching these rules in isolation without understanding that while most people think of grammar as a bunch of arbitrary rules, grammar is actually a system by which a writer can order words in sentences for power and beauty.  Here are three broad tips I use for teaching grammar:

  • Teach grammar in the context of their own writing. Teaching grammar in the context of a student’s own writing is the key to students understanding and applying the logic of a grammatical system.   Students have varying readiness levels for grammar instruction, and meeting them where they are, on the page, is the most effective, differentiated instruction you can use. Read Constance Weaver’s Grammar to Enrich and Enhance Writing, a fantastic book that shows a teacher how to teach grammar in the context of a student’s own writing.
  • Teach students explicitly the top 20 most common grammatical errors as they edit their own writing. Most students consistently make the same types of errors in their writing. After you’ve read several thousand student essays, you will see that the pattern of errors concentrates on about 20 old familiars.  Showing them why these errors occur and how to remedy these errors will improve their writing more than a blue million grammar worksheets.  Use mini-lessons to instruct students how to avoid The Big 20, and then refer back to those lessons during one-on-one conferences.
  • Teach grammar in the context of their own reading. Students who read independently are more likely to absorb the sound and sense of syntax. They can hear the balance and rhythm in their own sentences.  If a sentence is awkwardly constructed or logically flawed, they will be able to identify it even if they don’t know exactly what is wrong with it.  That’s where you coach them on the structure or punctuation or positioning of clauses and phrases.  Ask them to examine the sentences of an author they love.  Illustrate the power of style, grammar and usage by examining the sentence structure and usage of William Faulkner alongside Raymond Carver.

New Teacher Series/ Question 11: What are the best strategies for teaching vocabulary?

Broadening a student’s vocabulary is important and critical to her academic success.  Having a comprehensive vocabulary increases a student’s ability to read with clarity and to communicate both orally and through writing with precision.  Students who are competent and independent readers often absorb much of their vocabulary from reading, but direct instruction augments that word pool even more. However, vocabulary instruction needs to be embedded and experienced multiple times for students to actually learn and use the words.  By introducing words once, then quizzing kids over the list and moving on, the skill developed is memorization and test taking, not literacy and word acquisition. Vocabulary unrelated to an actual personal, social, cultural, or literary context doesn’t stick in the brain.

Good teachers use a variety of strategies to teach vocabulary in concert with one another. Here are 15 Vocabulary Strategies in 15 Minutes   You will also find teachers using word walls, word journals, word maps, keyword methods, flash cards, vocab Bingo, Pictionary or Jeopardy.  Some strategies involve using the vocabulary words to write songs, short stories, or poetry. One of my favorite vocabulary trends was a call and response script – I can’t even remember the patter now – but it called for kids to clap, rap, and spell out the words and define them orally with me sing-songing and beating on my podium too.  It was fun, but I was still only asking kids to define and memorize words in isolation

About five years ago, I noticed several kids in one class were using some of the words from our vocabulary list during discussion.  I discovered these words not only were on their vocabulary list, but they had appeared somewhere in their reading that year, and—this seemed to be the key— they were words I used all the time.  The one I remember specifically was “truncated.” I love that word. I still use it all the time.  I realized that students were using it in their Socratic discussions and debates in class.

Why? Because they saw it and heard it more than once.  I used it all the time; they saw it in their reading; they knew what it meant, how to pronounce it, and how and when it should be used.  They had assimilated it into their lexicon.

From then on, I began to teach fewer words, but teach them more deeply.  I created a context for the words and allowed students to make connections with the words through discussion, reading, semantic maps, games, or even drawing visual interpretations of the words. I also read Bob Marzano’s great book Teaching Basic and Advanced Vocabulary  which provided me with many great strategies.  You will figure out what strategy scratches your vocabulary itch, but here are three broad conceptual stances that I suggest you develop:

  • Use a rich vocabulary yourself. Just as you must be a reader and writer to teach English Language Arts as a practitioner, you must also have a robust vocabulary and use it.  When you are leading a discussion, when you are describing something in the reading, when you are conferencing, or even lecturing on a concept, use precise, exact language.  You don’t want to use $50 words for the sake of using them; you want to use the specific and accurate word because you are articulate and have a range of rich, complex words to choose from. Develop your ability to speak with depth, nuance, and sophistication.   Describing something as “small” sometimes isn’t sufficient; sometimes that small thing is actually trifling or trivial or insignificant or inconsequential or negligible or nugatory (what an insanely fabulous word!) or infinitesimal.
  • Tap into the emotional shading of words. When you teach vocabulary, suck the marrow out of those words.  Ask kids what emotional baggage a word like “hysterical” channels.  Ask kids to chart the words on a positive to negative cultural continuum.  Ask kids how different generations might perceive a word.  The dictionary definition is flat and static, but the connotative meaning of the word is rich and varied and often dependent on culture, regional geography, and social class. Turn kids on to both the social- and psycho-linguistic power of words.
  • Be a language freak. Create a culture of language in your classroom.  In the words of my colleague Bob Howard when he calls on kids to analyze art in his Art History class, “Remember, we use big words in here! Big, huge, glorious words!”   Point out especially dizzying words in the reading.  Share new words with your students that they won’t be assessed on, just words you have discovered and fallen in love with.   Have a Word of the Day calendar and use it.  Assign this as a job to a kid.  Start your day off with language, maybe challenge kids to use that word throughout the day.    Show kids how to use the online OED

New Teacher Series/ Question 10: What are the best strategies for teaching writing?

 

Last year, I had a conversation with one of my classes on why writing was so hard.  Here are a few of their reasons:

  • I don’t know where to start.
  • I don’t know where to end.
  • I don’t write in chronological order or in any order that makes logical sense. It’s all over the place.
  • I don’t always write in complete sentences, but sometimes I do.
  • I’m afraid I’ll write the wrong thing and have to do the whole thing over.
  • The choices are overwhelming.
  • Every time I write something crappy, my teacher always likes it. Every time I write something I think is brilliant, my teacher thinks its crap.
  • Because it just is.
  • I have a hard time getting what’s in my head out on paper.
  • I’ve discovered that I really don’t know how to tell a story.

In an interview with the New York Times on the occasion of his retirement from fiction writing, novelist Philip Roth said, “I no longer have the stamina to endure the frustration.  Writing is frustration— it’s daily frustration, not to mention humiliation. It’s just like baseball: you fail two-thirds of the time.” And yet failure is the process by which all writers – novelists, essayists, social critics, screenwriters, journalists, technical writers—meander their grief-stricken way to the finished product. How do we support kids in failure?

Next to teaching (and all things for which there are no clear paths—loving someone, raising kids, grieving, etc), writing is the hardest thing I do and it may be the hardest thing we ask kids to do.  We’re asking students to engage in an activity which requires memory, logic, visualization, vocabulary, plus kinesthetic and cognitive awareness.  Plus failure.

Research on the neuroscience of writing shows just how enormous an undertaking writing is.  Neurologically, writing is a skill on par with someone playing a musical instrument or participating in a sporting event. It’s complex, unique, and only develops through practice.

So while I admit that writing is so incredibly, mind-bogglingly hard, I would argue, the teaching of writing is even harder.  A good high school English teacher attempts to create an environment wherein 150 students (with 150 sets of information and misinformation, memory, value, prejudice, vocabulary, and logic) grapple with the enormously complex task of 1) attaching mental images to 2) the concrete, appropriate words in 3) the best order to 4) move an audience for 5) a specific purpose in 6) a specific, cohesive form using 7) appropriate-to-the-product usage and grammar.

Gasp.

So how are we to manage this Herculean task?

You must be a writer yourself.  I feel everything that needs to be said about the importance of English teachers to be active readers and writers has already been said by great teachers, like Nanci Atwell  (In The Middle) and Penny Kittle (Write Beside Them). Writing with your students makes you humble in the face of the staggering, monumental task you are asking them to accomplish. Writing is dynamic, not a set of static concepts students learn once and master.  To understand the struggles of writing, you don’t have to be a published author, you just have to write on a regular basis. You can’t teach writing from a position of theory.  You must have a process and projects of your own.  If not, you are in an untenable position to support students with the overwhelming number of decisions with which they will be faced.

Move beyond the free write, graphic organizers, and constructed response. If students are to become better writers, they must move beyond teacher-created forms, like the 3.5 paragraph essay and the 6 point essay.  Freewriting and graphic organizers have given struggling writers a great tool by which to get the ideas in their head down onto a piece of paper in the form of words and sentences. But those tools are still training wheels, and writers need to learn how to ride, wide open into the dark unknown. Struggling, then failing, then learning how to struggle and fail smarter is part of the process of becoming a better thinker and writer. If we provide students with the pre-fab forms by which to fashion their thought, they will never have the opportunity to learn from the process of navigating that road alone.   Students must learn to manage the project of their own writing from start to finish to become better writers.

Allow students to choose their own writing projects.  Teacher-created writing assignments come from the brain of the teacher, not the student writer. Writing prompts have a long and gloried history in the English classroom. From “What did you do over your summer vacation?” to the perennial “What would you do if you won a million dollars?” writing prompts have provided reluctant writers a spring board from which to jump onto the often-intimidating blank page.  Being able to respond in writing to an on-demand prompt is also one of the skills we use to measures how students demonstrate their own learning of a concept.  However, real world writing asks students to discover their own reasons to communicate, their own exigence.  We need to teach students to recognize this need and to write toward a finished product. Students must learn how to select their own topics, manage the time to research, draft, and edit a long project, and ultimately, deal with the inherent failure, even while becoming a better and braver writer in the end.