6th & 7th grade students discussing competing utilitarian ethical claims in the “philosotree” – a tree they designated as the meeting place for their philosophy club.
When we imagine a “good student,” to what extent are we simply imagining a compliant student? Is our idea of “good” interchangeable with “well-behaved,” or even “docile”? Are our classrooms rewarding the wrong things — rewarding students who aspire to our idea of who they should be, and penalizing those free enough to insist on becoming their fuller, better selves?
I wondered that this morning as I re-read English professor Catherine Savini’s reflections on her own assumptions in an article on academic rigor and mental health. Savini noticed that, like most teachers, she inferred a great deal about her students’ character and capabilities from their in-class behavior. She was concerned that those inferences had led her astray:
But after more than a decade of teaching, I realized that my idea of the good student was standing in the way of good teaching.
This was because her preconceived notions of what a student should be kept her from seeing her students as they were. So instead of deciding that the student who left abruptly in the middle of class was inconsiderate or indifferent, Savini decided to gather more information. And by learning more about the students in her classroom, she was able to teach them more effectively. (A recent study bears this out).
Teachers know this intuitively and witness it every year: taking the time to know our students as full human beings frees them to flourish in and out of the classroom in ways we can’t predict. But we rarely look more closely at this magic. Why is it so liberating to be truly known by someone who matters to you? What happens when we step back and make space for who students are and who they can become?
I think about freedom in those terms – the powerful and creative spontaneity borne of meaningful relationships that leave room for ourselves as individuals. Philosopher Erich Fromm argues that true freedom requires the kinds of relationships that help us shed our loneliness without losing our individual selves in the process. Novelist Toni Morrison offers a similar vision of liberatory human connections in her novel Song of Solomon:
Did you ever see the way the clouds love a mountain? They circle all around it; sometimes you can’t even see the mountain for the clouds. But you know what? You go up top and what do you see? His head. The clouds never cover the head. His head pokes through, because the clouds let him; they don’t wrap him up. They let him keep his head up high, free, with nothing to hide him or bind him.
I want my students to be free: to be known and cared for by the trusted adults in their lives, yet unencumbered by the kinds of artificially-imposed expectations or demands that would constrain what’s possible for their development as thinkers and human beings. I want my students to be mountains.
At LSG, I’ve seen kids transformed time and time again because adults took the time to create the conditions for this beautiful kind of freedom. Here are some ways our students respond to those conditions:
1. Students are free to care
Knitting enthusiast and viral internet sensation Samuel Barsky.
All that I understand about what’s most precious and worthy of protection in my students is embodied in a sweater-knitting internet sensation named Samuel Barsky. I was likely procrastinating grading when I came across one of his videos last year, and I was moved by the unguarded joy of this man who knits jumpers inspired by places and then photographs himself wearing his work at the actual place. His year is ordered by the careful craft of making these sweaters he’ll never sell, and traveling to the places he’d stitched freehand. He mostly taught himself how to do this beautiful thing that matters so much to him, and he decided on his own terms the purpose of his intensive labor.
It’s obvious from the first minute of the interview: Samuel Barsky spends his time doing what is most personally meaningful to him, and he would devote himself to his sweaters even if no one else valued them. Barsky reminds us of all that life has to offer when we care with openness and depth about the thing we feel most called to do in the world. How many human beings are brave enough to be that free? And yet: can any human being do great things without being that free?
Perhaps no one at LSG is more Samuel Barsky-esque than Kamran, one of our graduating seniors.
Kamran is the sort of student who sends thousand-word emails at 2 AM about the United States’ diplomatic relations with Iran, or the shortsightedness of establishment Democratic politics. Kamran is the sort of student whose class participation consists of delivering gesture-laden monologues with little warning and no preparation, to the enthusiastic, impromptu applause of his peers. Kamran is the sort of student whose mind lights upon a detail — a nineteenth century painting referenced offhandedly in a seminar discussion, or the cycle of idealism and disillusionment present in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man — and fixates on that detail for months, building it into an original, all-encompassing theory he’ll expound on to anyone who will listen.
Kamran is the sort of student, in short, who cares unapologetically and publicly and eccentrically, in a way that few people are brave or free enough to do.
Most people walk around trying to hide who we are and what we care most deeply about, because to be truly known and then rejected or mocked seems far worse than to never be known at all. And we see this in our students: so many children come to our classrooms already having been told by the world that they must hide who they are.
But Kamran puts himself out there fully, and because of that, he learns more, does more, and leaves his mark wherever he goes. He single-handedly built one of the only student-led Model U.N. programs in the nation as a freshman, and students signed up to join him only because he cared so desperately about the team. He spent half his senior year in D.C. as an intern for the National Iranian American Counciland a communications staffer for two nationally-significant campaigns. He lobbied incessantly for history courses reflecting his personal interests and worked alongside the teacher to design them. He emailed local politicians so relentlessly that they finally showed up to speak at the school.
It’s not just his deeds but his presence that impresses people. I see it in the classroom and at school-related social events: when Kamran is in the room, everyone notices; when he is not, everyone wishes he was. There is a definitive idea of “something Kamran would say” — he has a sensibility all his own. Community leaders have remarked to me how surprised they were to learn he was in high school. Teachers and students alike will never forget him.
In preparing to write this post, I interviewed teachers who’ve worked with Kamran throughout his time at LSG to get a better sense of what was distinctive about him. Our school founder Deep said something worth sharing here because it articulates precisely what is at stake in preserving students’ freedom to care:
I think the real lesson for us as educators is: we have designed all of education to make sure that people like Kamran don’t stay people like Kamran. And we are doing our very best to homogenize these kids. And so the real lesson of Kamran is: what type of teacher or school leaves Kamran as he is? That is the challenge. And that is all we’re talking about when we talk about teacher autonomy, and by extension student autonomy.
We must build classrooms and schools that protect students’ ability to care publicly and vulnerably about the work they are called to do — both because we owe it to all of our children, and because our shared future demands it.
2. Students are free to question
Biology teacher Ashley Gam leads her Evolutionary Biology students in a discussion of pain receptors in the skin.
What I am most struck by when I observe my colleague Ashley Gam teach her evolutionary biology course is how she encourages and embraces students’ questions about the material in real time.
The excitement of great content always prompts questions for students. When kids find a way into the material that’s personally meaningful, they naturally want to know more. The difference between a good teacher and a great one is how she responds to those questions: does she make space for students’ interests, or does she stick to her lesson plan? Does she free kids to participate in the construction of knowledge, or does she constrain them to the passive role of information receptacles?
I watched Ms. Gam deliver a lesson on sensory receptors found in our skin. After reviewing the differences in construction and placement of nociceptors, thermoreceptors, and mechanoreceptors in the dermis, she began explaining what happens in your body when they are stimulated. Her explanation fascinated Cam (10th), who peppered her with questions:
Ms. Gam: I blow on Keaton’s eye. It activates specific neurons that tell whatever, tell your brain in this case, that your eyeball has been blown on. It’s immediately going to send a response. But it’s not thinking about that stimuli. If these neurons are activated, you’re automatically going to get that response —
Cam: But where is the programming?
Ms. Gam: The programming is in the structure and organization of the neurons.
Cam: So it’s in the spinal cord
Ms. Gam: In the case of your knee jerk reflex, yes. I want to get back to Cam’s question about the reflex: if it’s trainable, can you inhibit them. Can you inhibit or —
Cam: So what’s muscle memory?
Ms. Gam can barely get through a sentence without Cam interrupting her out of a sincere desire to know more.
Other teachers might see such questions as a disruption. Even in more progressive classrooms, teacher talk typically dominates instructional design. We know that students who talk more in our classes learn more, but children simply don’t spend much time using their voices at school: wondering aloud, making observations, reacting to new information, pursuing original lines of inquiry. They stay quiet because they know there is no space for them to speak up.
Here, though, I watched Ms. Gam draw on Cam’s enthusiastic inquiry as a source of engagement for all her kids. His questions were surprising and delightful detours through the content of the lesson, and the exchange created an improvisational structure that crescendoed toward shared insight.
Ms. Gam continued to respond to Cam’s question about whether our reflexes can be trained, and she marshalled memorable details (including the possibility of death) that might not have emerged without Cam’s participation:
Ms. Gam: Can you inhibit or override? I’d like us to look at this and I’d like us to look at some of these reflexes. To your question of muscle memory, of can you train a reflex: these are highly ingrained in your body. Everybody’s body. If they weren’t ingrained, you would not be here. These are highly adaptive responses. You would have things in your eye and you would die from some sort of infection if you did not have this response. If you can develop a reflex, ultimately what you’re trying to do is you’re trying to speed up a response so you’re not thinking about it a lot. That information is —
Cam: So you are thinking about it a bit though?
Ms. Gam: It’s about how fast you can process the information given a specific stimuli.
There are few things more discouraging to young learners than a teacher hearing their earnest and passionate questions and admonishing them to stick to the topic at hand. And there are obvious reasons a teacher might shut down student inquiry: the fear of failing to “cover” the material, of losing control of the lesson, of chaos ensuing. Ms. Gam approaches Cam’s questions entirely differently: she tacitly invites him to help her build the lesson, and everyone engages more deeply as a result.
Cam: Is it – if you’re playing a song on the guitar very quickly, you hear what’s happening now and you predict, you do something before there’s a sensory input, you think ahead?
Ms. Gam: So the idea is there’s a specific neural network that’s responsible for your environment, how you process it. “I just played an A, what am I gonna play next?” But all these pathways can be kind of modulated depending on how much time you spend doing them. So you can increase the neural networks to specific parts of your arm or your hand —
Cam: is that just building muscle?
Ms Gam: It’s building, and changing, and modulating neural connections in your brain and nervous system connected to areas responsible for the behavior you’re trying to cue.
Cam: So that’s purely speed or coordination?
Ms. Gam: Or sensitivity or —
Cam: That’s interesting.
Because of the space she leaves for her students to wonder aloud, Cam was able to make a personal connection between the course content and music, one of his core passions. Teachers spend months building relationships with their students so that they can facilitate these connections; Ms. Gam achieved it simply by being responsive and flexible in the moment when it mattered most. And Cam is far more likely to understand and remember what he’s learned because of this opportunity.
Ms. Gam: Yeah and a lot of physical therapy is about retraining that. Musicians trying to maintain their dexterity – you can desensitize some of those aspects, and you need to retrain them through physical therapy.
Cam: Does touch incorporate temperature, like if you get goosebumps?
Ms. Gam: We’re gonna do that in a little bit. I learned this from a crazy, wonderful poultry science teacher, but he was in love with histology which is basically cells and tissues. It’s a matter of appreciating the complexity and also the logic behind the relative position of things right on your skin. So this is what your textbook doesn’t necessarily do: it doesn’t provide you context-dependent information about what’s going on in one location and how it goes down.
When they work with Ms. Gam, students get the sense that they have this great opportunity to learn stuff with someone who clearly knows a lot more than them, but is still curious and growing, and willing to think alongside them. They feel like they’re free to — even expected to — pursue their own lines of inquiry during class, and they approach Ms. Gam as a thinker who is open to seeing her area of expertise in new ways. The freedom to question is the kind of freedom that reminds students that their ideas and interests matter in ways that can shape their world.
3. Students are free to play
Sixth- and seventh-grade Nature Writing students observe samples in microscopes to prepare for a writing exercise.
My sixth- and seventh-grade Nature Writing course this year was a beautiful mess.
The idea for the class came to me awhile ago from two sources, weeks apart: an eager pair of seventh-grade girls who’d formed a club dedicated to caring for and observing a caterpillar they’d recently acquired named “Stripey,” and a recent book on composition pedagogy by Ralph Fletcher that drew on a nature metaphor to advocate for what he termed “feral writing”: letting kids run wild as writers in their English language arts assignments.
In Nature Writing, we’ve collaborated with art teacher Danielle Ferrin to visit beautiful local sites and reflect on our relationship to the natural world. At the suggestion of biology teacher Ashley Gam, we’ve constructed Smithsonian-inspired “biocubes” and looked closely and patiently at these diminutive units of nature. We’ve read Rachel Carson and Annie Dillard and Mary Oliver and even Henry David Thoreau — and we’ve tried to emulate their styles. We’ve kept nature journals with weekly entries cataloguing minute details observed in our environments, exploring what wisdom or insight is to be found in such documentation. We’ve collaborated with history teacher Jim Percoco to write research-based personal essays grounded in a particular place that matters to us. We’ve used long walks and model texts and even actual stones as writing prompts. I never quite knew what would happen during any given class period, but it was always extraordinary.
And thanks to Ms. Gam, we also used microscopy as a tool to generate ideas for poetry, short stories, and essays.
I prepared students for the activity by asking them to think about the role of perspective in the literature we’d studied. The essential questions of our discussion were were: “How can we as writers help others see ordinary things in new ways? And why is such a thing worthwhile?” We brainstormed the different ways the writers we’ve studied — Annie Dillard, Rachel Carson, Henry David Thoreau, Mary Oliver, Sharman Apt Russell — helped us see ordinary things in new ways. Here’s what the students came up with:
By providing the hidden backstory or secrets about the thing
By using unconventional imagery which helps make the thing seem unfamiliar or new
By creating unlikely comparisons through metaphor, simile, analogy
By making personal connections through flashback, memory, narration
By shifting perspective or scale
But the exciting part was actually going into the biology lab to see our world in new ways.
Ms. Gam brought in wildflowers, grasses, and other samples from our local environment. (An insect that tagged along on one of the flowers excited the pair of boys lucky enough to find it). After a brief lesson on how to use these tools, and a mini-lecture on spring as a time of reproduction and rebirth for these plants, students were left to explore these natural materials.
Here are some images students created during the lesson:
Evalynn (7th) wrote this poem after thinking about the activity:
Thoughts on Perspective
It’s amazing how much the world changes when seen from a different perspective. There is always more to see. There is always another angle to look from. You thought with your incredible eyesight you could see all of it. Your naked eyes could see that there was texture in the center of the wild daisy, yes. But could they see that each dot was a tiny hexagon, Blooming at the edges of the center of the blossom Into miniscule golden flowers? Could they see that the seed on one puff of a dandelion had stripes running down it? Each with its own row if tiny spikes, Hooks to hold on to a landing place? No. They couldn’t. You couldn’t. There is always more to see. Don’t try to kid yourself otherwise.
And here is what the classroom sounded like:
Part of Ms. Gam’s introductory lesson:
Student group work:
As I listened to my students generating ideas and reveling in the experience of discovery, I thought of a piece by Anthony Brandt and Dave Eagleman about what they call “sandboxing”: trying out multiple ideas before getting graded and moving ahead with a longer-term project. They argue compellingly that for students (and for all of us), “knowledge shouldn’t just be a landing point-it should be a springboard. More class time needs to be devoted not just to mastering the material, but launching from it.” Indeed, we tune out and learn less when the events of our classes happen in fixed and predictable ways:
Our brains gradually tune out the predictable, making it a struggle to stay focused in the face of drills and rote learning. Surprise captures our attention.
When kids are free to play, they do sometimes make a mess – and as I said above, my Nature Writing course often felt like a beautiful mess. But the joyful depth of learning students access during these ill-structured and delightful experiences means that mess will take shape in students’ minds, anchoring their understanding and extending their skills. The poetry and stories that came out of that exercise were only possible because of my students’ freedom to play during that class period.
4. Toward a conclusion: Free to become
One of our parents recently told us that her daughter, a former LSG student, said that here, she felt free to become who she should be and not who others expected her to be. It was the most important thing I’ve ever heard anyone say about this school.
Hearing those words made me reflect on what conditions make such a personally-meaningful, student-directed transformation possible. I think a big part of it is beginning with the assumption that students’ interests, passions, and voices are worthy of our attention. All of my colleagues do this, and I am gratified to work with them everyday.
Too much instruction proceeds from the unexamined notion that there is something wrong with our children that must be fixed.
Instead, a truly liberatory and transformative education is one that takes at its starting point the act of seeing the whole child, and making space for all the inquiry and discovery and creativity that naturally follow from such recognition. The school that accommodates truly free students is ultimately one in which adults decide each day to insulate the students’ learning experiences from any short-term or narrow or bureaucratic exigency so that what matters most is placed at the center of the instructional design.
When our students are free to care, to question, and to play, they can (in the words of that eloquent LSG alum) become the people they should be instead of the people our flawed, existing world expects them to be. And it is only in this way that we can imagine and work towards a better future.
William (7th) records observations of his biocube for Nature Writing, a middle school English Language Arts seminar
Novelist and writing teacher Anne Lamott keeps a one-inch picture frame on her desk. When she is stuck or overwhelmed, she looks to it for comfort and order:
It reminds me that all I have to do is to write down as much as I can see through a one-inch picture frame. This is all I have to bite off for the time being. All I am going to do right now, for example, is write that one paragraph that sets the story in my hometown, in the late fifties, when the trains were still running. I am going to paint a picture of it, in words, on my word processor. Or all I am going to do is to describe the main character the very first time we meet her, when she first walks out the front door and onto the porch. I am not even going to describe the expression on her face when she first notices the blind dog sitting behind the wheel of her car–just what I can see through the one-inch picture frame, just one paragraph describing this woman, in the town where I grew up, the first time we encounter her.
E. L. Doctorow once said that “writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” You don’t have to see where you’re going, you don’t have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you. This is right up there with the best advice about writing, or life, I have ever heard.
There is something about framing a small part of the world that paradoxically invites an expansive, seemingly limitless exploration of it. Writing teachers like Lamott have known for a long time that divergent thinking often happens most productively within rigid guidelines: a structured prompt, a well-defined form, a given number of stressed and unstressed syllables. Leave some choices wide open; foreclose other possibilities. The wandering brain longs for something to grab hold of as it explores. Even the wildest games have rules.
And it’s not just the structure, the limits, the frame: it’s also the size. It matters that Lamott’s picture frame is one square inch. A bite-sized scale makes possible a comprehensiveness that’s otherwise unfathomable.
That’s the idea of the “biocube”: a twelve-inch cube set down in nature to facilitate the recording of biodiversity. We tried this exercise in my 6th and 7th grade Nature Writing seminar today. A piece in Smithsonian Magazine explains the rationale:
Twelve inches by twelve inches by twelve inches, the cubic foot is a relatively tiny unit of measure compared to the whole world. With every step, we disturb and move through cubic foot after cubic foot. But behold the cubic foot in nature—from coral reefs to cloud forests to tidal pools—even in that finite space you can see the multitude of creatures that make up a vibrant ecosystem.
Led by our biology teacher Ashley Gam, students assembled and then placed their cubes in different locations outside our school building. The exercise was meant to train our observation skills, to focus intently on a manageable window of the natural world, and to try to make sense of what we saw.
Students make biocubes out of straws.
Emily and Amanda (6th) place their biocube in a bush outside school.
After students recorded their observations (using magnifying glasses and rulers for precise data collection), we returned to the classroom for reflection. I added a few prompts but let kids write about whatever inspired them:
How does human disturbance affect biodiversity?
What interactions between living things did you observe? Pollinators, predation, herbivory?
How would you describe the different relationships in your mini-ecosystem?
What memories, thoughts, images, or questions come to mind based on what you saw?
Anything else you’d like to write about based on what you observed
We wrote silently for fifteen minutes and then shared out some of our observations about the value of the activity. Torin (7th) noted that the bright blue frame encouraged us to see with new eyes ordinary things we walk by everyday. The work my students did certainly bore that out; they made connections between disparate objects, crafted memorable imagery and analogies, reflected on their place in the world, and drew insight from their observations into the broader human condition. William (7th) used his notes to write a poem about decaying leaves and human civilizations through the centuries.
In the final five minutes of class, students set goals for “next steps” – what they’ll do with the things they saw and wrote today.
I’ll start at the end: I’m in a car full of students from grades 7-12. It’s close to 10 PM. We’re listening to M.I.A. and talking about whether and how we can make space for people to grow when everyone at school thinks they know who you are. We’re talking about what it means to care about something in public, in front of strangers. We’re talking about how hard it is to be a human being. No one wants to go home, so we sit together at school to share our big take-aways from this incredible day.
Here is some of what I heard my students say:
I’ve never been in a space like that, where people snap for you and encourage you when you make a mistake.
I was surprised by all the different perspectives I heard.
The poetry was amazing.
I mostly act like I don’t care about anything. Today made me think it’s OK to care sometimes.
It reminded me how much I still have to learn. We’re all trying to unlearn what we’ve been taught by systems of oppression, and it’s a process.
We’d spent the day at the Hyper Bole, the largest individual youth poetry slam on the East Coast. This is my school’s third year participating. In 2016 it was me, one brave high school junior, and her father. Last year, because of that young woman’s leadership (shoutout to Tessa!), we brought five kids. This year we took eleven. Two competed, and a third shared a just-written poem on her family’s immigrant experience.
Here is the truth: to be an adult is to never have to take seriously the voices of young people. We have the power to avoid them, ignore them, exclude them, and silence them — and too often, we do. As a teacher — even one who strives to be student-centered — I know how tempting it is to always lead the discussion, deciding who can speak about what and for how long. But on Saturday, for ten hours, I listened. I listened to young people from Baltimore, D.C., Norfolk, and all over Northern Virginia make art, publicly declaring their experiences, their hopes and fears, their vision of a better world. And I was reminded why I need to listen more often.
Every poem I heard at the Hyper Bole was an act of seeing our deeply flawed world with open eyes and still insisting that beauty is possible when we show up for one another. The poets were unflinching in their critiques of injustice, yet they made space for hope. They reminded us that there are better ways of being with each other in the world, and that we can only get there by dreaming and acting together. Indeed, the choice to raise their voices and share their truth with strangers reflects that abiding belief.
In this sense, Hyper Bole participants offered all of us a model of collective action for social change: seek and tell the truth; envision a better way; act in the service of that vision, in solidarity with those different from you.
My students and I ended our day at Hyper Bole talking about how empowering and affirming this community was, and about all that becomes possible within such a space. This didn’t come together by accident; co-founders Joseph Green and Brian Hannon made purposeful decisions to create the conditions for a transformative experience.
To give a better sense of these conditions, here are some photos and videos:
10 AM – 12 PM: Welcome and Ice-Breaker
In the first moments of the day, Joseph Green said just what I was thinking:
There has never been a time in my lifetime when it was more important to create a space and then hand it over to young people.
This is in line with what our school founder Deep Sran says often: we adults can’t get out of young people’s way soon enough. This idea pervades our instructional design, our clubs and projects, and our broader school culture and civic mission. We want to help students become their better and fuller selves so that they can get to work changing the world.
We began the day by giving students time to get to know one another. Young people had the chance to connect with peers who lived within a few hours from them but nonetheless led very different lives under very different conditions. A set of questions about poetry and social justice — and the incentive of a $50 gift card — broke students out of their cliques.
12 – 2 PM: The Preliminaries
Organizers purposefully scheduled the competition early in the day so that poets could enjoy workshops, lunch, open mic, and dinner without worrying about their impending performance. Students competed in small breakout rooms, and judges did not announce scores. This year, LSG had two competing students: Cas (12th) and Hannah (9th), who also lead our Poetry Club.
2 – 4:30 PM: The Workshops
Split This Rock invites experts to lead small-group workshops on poetry and social justice. Here is a list of the breakout sessions kids could attend:
The Poem and the Immigrant Poet: Claudia Rojas, Split This Rock
The Art of Opinion: Peter Certo, Institute for Policy Studies
Art as a Core Element of Social Movements: Aaron Noffke, Poor People’s Campaign
Intro to Theater of the Oppressed: Annalisa Dias and Althea Middleton-Detzner, Theater of the Oppressed
Beyond Diversity and Community Building: GMU Office of Diversity, Inclusion, and Multicultural Education
4:30 – 6 PM: Dinner and Open Mic
Over pizza, students performed poetry and music (this year, my kids were super excited to hear a song from Hamilton). Shailee (10th), who had never attended a poetry slam before, stood in front of this large audience and shared a poem she had written just moments ago in one of the workshops. We were all blown away by her bravery.
The Grand Slam Finals
The ten highest-scoring poets from preliminaries competed on the final stage. Students performed poems about homophobia, Islamophobia, the loss of a father, antiblack racism, albinism, bullying, friendship, love, and truth.
One of my students noted that there was at least one line in each poem – often far more – that was fundamentally transformative for her. We gain so very much from listening to one another.
Because scores were announced aloud, it was here that we all remembered how absurd it is to assign a number value to a poem – especially these deeply personal and consequential utterances. But the competition (and the $1,000 scholarship prize) matters in the sense that it affirms these poets’ craft and effort as any public competitive event would. The scores remind us that something is at stake here — and the photo reflects that — though what’s truly at stake is much more significant than the points.
It would have been worth waiting 9 hours just to see the feature poet this year, Elizabeth Acevedo. Here is one of her poems. Just before it, she speaks compellingly about her experience in University of Maryland’s creative writing program as the only student of African descent, the only Latinx student, and the only student who came from a working class New York City background. Her words remind us all why a space like the Hyper Bole is so crucial. And her poem – an ode to the city’s rats – affirms everything in us that exclusionary spaces and standards fail to see as worthy.
When I think about what it takes to make sure the future Elizabeth Acevedos currently sitting in our nation’s classrooms have every opportunity to share their voices with the world, the student-centered events of the Hyper Bole are a crucial model. My students and I are so grateful to have participated.
For more on LSG’s approach to enrichment, please click here.
The question of how we teach and evaluate good writing is the sort of thing that bitterly divides English departments, sending instructors fleeing into well-worn ideological grooves.
There’s the generational divide: some embrace old-school grammar drills and sentence diagramming, and others champion the post-1960s move toward modeling and low-stakes, iterative writing. There’s the philosophical chasm: some argue that composition instruction should instill the syntactic and discursive structures students must imitate to succeed, and others see writing lessons as opportunities for students to experiment with different genres, ideas, and voices. There are methodological fissures: how and whether to craft rubrics, the value and pitfalls of peer workshops, the language and methods we use to evaluate, and the perennial question of how best to deliver feedback that will actually make a difference. And then, of course, there’s all the sociocultural baggage around what forms of English we value; the complex intersections of race, class, culture, and access to standard English; the implicit and problematic conflation of “proper” English and intelligence; the question of who belongs in college; and the tedious claim all older generations make about subsequent ones: things aren’t as good as they used to be.
Given all of this, when I encounter clear and thoughtful arguments about composition instruction, I share them widely, invariably annoying my colleagues and social media contacts in the process. This is one of those articles. Along with the beautiful Joy Write: Cultivating High-Impact, Low-Stakes Writing, this article will form the basis of my school’s faculty-led conversations about writing across the curriculum this fall.
The piece shares writing teacher John Warner’s response to a controversial Washington Post guest article embracing a Mr. Miyagi-inspired approach to writing pedagogy (rote practice focusing on style and sentence construction).
Warner draws on research and experience to explain how that approach fails our students. I quote him at length below, but the article is worth reading in its entirety. Ultimately, Warner reminds us, when we teach writing well, we are teaching students how to think deeply. We must keep this big-picture goal in mind as we design our instruction.
Students struggle at writing because in an era of standardization and accountability, very little of the “writing” we ask them to do requires them to engage deeply with the true basics of writing: ideas.
Maguire analogizes writing with the “muscle memory” that Mr. Miyagi teaches Daniel in “The Karate Kid,” but writing is thinking, and thinking is not a reflex, but is instead a complex and deliberative process.
Maguire’s focus on sentence “readability” as the basics of writing is actually rooted in the same problems with writing instruction that is oriented toward passing standardized assessments judged on surface level traits. Students are coached on rubrics and rules that will help them pass muster on these tests — for good reason when teachers and schools are going to be judged on the results — but genuine, meaningful writing does not adhere to rubrics and rules.
Sure, drilling students in what competent sentences look like will allow students to create something that resembles writing, but to invoke another classic film, “Blazing Saddles,” it’s writing that’s akin to the fake version of Rockridge the townspeople erect in order to fool the marauders, flimsy facades with nothing behind them.
If we want students to truly write well, rather than settling for surface features either through a “readability” approach, or one rooted in the necessity of passing a standardized assessment, we must require students to engage in a much more rigorous curriculum centered on the most important skill all writers must practice: making choices.
Writers choose what they want to write about (subject), who they want to write to (audience), and why they’re writing (purpose). In composition circles we call this the “rhetorical situation,” and without it, you’re not really writing. Instruction that ignores these dimensions will prevent students from developing meaningful writing practices.
This is not the fault of teachers, or parents, or students, but instead is a consequence of a system that was put into place bit-by-bit without sufficient thought as to the larger implications, a system that privileges shallow traits over genuine intellectual engagement.
What’s the best way we can help kids write clearly and effectively? This question has been contentious since at least the late nineteenth century when we began teaching composition at the secondary level (Harvard began the conversation in the 1880s when it required an application essay, instituted freshman composition courses, and later convened the famed Committee of Ten to set guidelines for secondary instruction across disciplines).
Since then, adults have been pretty consistently concerned about the apparently “poor” state of student writing. Those concerns sometimes reflect institutional changes (more people going to college) or demographic changes (different people going to college). Writing, after all, is about access to the language of power: the standard, conventional English that suggests a particular class background and academic preparation. Muddying the waters further, other skills — like reading and reasoning — are inextricably bound up with what we mean when we talk about writing. The broad implications of student composition quality suggest that ultimately, when we ask whether our students can write, we’re really asking whether they’re learning at all.
Given those stakes, it’s perhaps unsurprising that there’s been a volatile and far-reaching history of shifts in American composition instruction, with predictably extreme ideological swings between prescriptive, formulaic approaches (think of a traditional Catholic school) and approaches that prioritize personal meaning and self-expression. (I’ve found that, in practice, most teachers mix both approaches eclectically with their students’ needs in mind. I try to be that kind of teacher.)
Mentor teacher and writing expert Ralph Fletcher’s forthcoming book Joy Write: Cultivating High-Impact, Low-Stakes Writing is decidedly in the latter category, making a compelling case for rejecting outright the highly structured academic writer’s workshops borne of the Common Core’s standardized imperatives. Fewer formal academic exercises with rigid rubrics, he argues, and more free-flowing and creative prompts.
In this sample published online, he uses the metaphor of the “greenbelt” — a purposely uncultivated tract of land meant to protect the environment against encroaching development — to imagine spaces of wild, joyful, untethered writing experiences for all of our kids. What an apt image! He explains:
Some wildlife can thrive without a greenbelt. Robins, sparrows, crows, rabbits, voles, and skunks can survive perfectly well within the confines of a neighborhood development. But many other species of birds, mammals, reptiles, fish, plants, and trees need the conditions provided by raw, wild forest. Otherwise they will struggle and eventually disappear.
All well and good. But what does all this have to do with teaching writing? In recent years the writing workshop has come under intense pressure: state writing tests, Common Core State Standards, various commercial programs. Writing workshop as we once knew it has been “developed.” Many old-growth trees have been cut down. A great deal of curricular land has been cleared, parceled off, and subdivided. It’s harder and harder to find the essential wildness — the unique intelligence found whenever children freely express themselves — that once infused the workshop.
As he points out, lots of kids are able to do well within the constraints of standard academic writing instruction. But what about the kids left behind? And what are we all missing out on — teachers, academically successful kids, bored and reluctant writers, all of us?
It’s true that some kids, like some species, may be able to survive and even thrive in this more developed workshop atmosphere. But I submit that many students find today’s writing workshop too narrow and constricting for them to generate any enthusiasm for writing. Those writers would benefit from being allowed to do more writing that is free and unguided — writing that they generate themselves.
The excerpt makes a compelling case to question what it is that we think we’re doing when we craft writing assignments. Those of us who teach AP English might not be ready to throw out the rhetorical analysis essay, and those of us who prepare kids for college might continue to find academic writing exercises purposeful vehicles for giving students access to particular discourses, texts, and fields of knowledge. But Fletcher’s work makes me wonder: if the composition we require of students forecloses their sense of discovery, wonder, and joy, what are we really teaching them about writing?
At Hyper Bole this year, I attended a poetry teachers’ breakout session and got great ideas for making poetry accessible to all my students. One coach shared a whole-school cloze activity her poetry club members lead during lunch. Cloze is a strategy typically used in reading instruction: words are “rationally deleted” from an existing passage, and students use their comprehension skills and reasoning to select a word to fill the blank (click the link for examples and rationale).
The coach at Hyper Bole explained that asking kids to fill in the blanks is a lot less intimidating than giving them an open-ended prompt. The mad-lib-style exercise also makes silliness and fun possible. Although humorous answers may feel transgressive to students, it’s exactly the point of the exercise: kids are having fun with words, word order, and sound.
We tried this out today during Advisory, and it went well. Here is how we prepared.
Finding the Poem
I chose a section of a poem that I thought would offer a broad array of options to students: from straightforward, literal, or autobiographical to whimsical, abstract, or figurative. Audre Lorde’s “Movement Song” seemed like a great choice for the following reasons:
the use of a first-person speaker is accessible to most students
the lack of rigid rhyme or meter leaves everyone free to complete the blanks as they wish
the parallel grammatical structure provides an appealing, impactful rhythm
the opening sentence of the second stanza is interesting (“Do not remember me as a bridge nor a roof”)
anytime I can get students to read Audre Lorde, I will take the opportunity
Preparing the Poem
I decided to eliminate most of the noun phrases but retain prepositions and some verbs. What remained of the poem became an open-ended skeleton that could become what the student wanted it to be.
To make the exercise less daunting, I placed most of the blanks at the ends of the lines.
I retained only part of one visual image (“hanging on the edge of…”). Students had to supply the rest through their imagination.
Getting Student Buy-In
For this to feel like a fun writing game instead of classwork, students needed to lead the exercise.
In advance, our poetry club read my example cloze poem and then created their own. We put all three exercises together in a two-sided handout.
Then we had to test it: we spent about a half hour trying to complete each cloze poem, retooling the blanks as we stumbled. When we felt like we had the wording right, we discussed how to make the exercise successful, and students wrote the instructions in their own words.
Of all the advisory writing prompts I’ve tried to orchestrate this year, this was by far the most successful. Tessa, our poetry club leader, led the whole thing with poise and graciousness.
Kids wrote with enthusiasm and focus for over ten minutes, and six willingly shared their work aloud in front of the whole school. Our English language learner students were able to complete the handout (in part by using Google Translate), and kids produced really cool work. Even though we all started with the same poems, everyone’s pieces were unique.
It seems to me that the scaffolding, the whimsical and nostalgic nature of Mad Libs, and the student-led structure of the activity were the main reasons kids did such great work today.
It’s always helpful to be reminded that learning does not occur in a vacuum. Students define their classroom roles in relation to their peers and their teachers. So if I want active students, I need to be the kind of teacher who makes space for students’ self-efficacy.
Adam T. Rosenbaum, a professor at Colorado Mesa University, offers one vision of what that could look like: teachers doing homework alongside their students. He explains in a recent piece for the American Historical Association that completing all assignments with his senior thesis students increased the quality and timeliness of student work. He submitted all major components of his “senior thesis” a week before the class, and used his work to spark discussion and model expectations.
Rosenbaum observes that by doing the work, he was more attuned to the roadblocks his undergraduates faced:
When discussing our drafts collectively, I noted that many of us were struggling with our introductions, spinning our wheels at the beginning of the paper. I also acknowledged that many were successfully engaging with primary sources, but I warned against the temptation of making the paper a series of annotations. In general, I reminded the students that writing history was storytelling, and that our papers should contain preliminary exposition, clearly identified characters, a plot, and a climax. On some level, I was also reminding myself.
Writing teachers have long advocated the use of models in effective composition instruction – student work, the work of professionals, and the work of teachers themselves. Students need to have a strong sense of what’s expected before they can write well and with confidence.
But Rosenbaum goes beyond the mere use of models. He shares in the collective experience of classwork, positioning himself as a student and very candidly sharing his imperfect progress. This changes the whole dynamic of the classroom — indeed, he terms it a “think tank” rather than a seminar. By willingly taking on the role of the student, he inspires students to take on roles traditionally identified with the teacher: inquiry, feedback, assessment, reflection.
More than anything, what he describes is a bold (and time-consuming) act of empathy. The assumption is that to become a better teacher, one must understand the student’s experience.
Coincidentally, I’ll be undertaking exactly that goal in advance of the Deeper Learning conference in San Diego next week. The conference organizers have asked participants to complete the “Shadow a Student” challenge – experience a school day by following a student’s schedule, and then reflect with the goal of retooling instruction and assessment. I’m excited to see the extent to which my assumptions and values are challenged by the experience.
The new “Creative Writing Bookshelf” in the student lounge.
Anne Lamott offers lots of wisdom in her memoir/writing advice classic, Bird by Bird. The title refers to advice her father once gave her brother, who had procrastinated completing his long-term research report on birds. “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird,” Lamott remembers her father saying. She goes on:
I tell this story again because it usually makes a dent in the tremendous sense of being overwhelmed that my students experience. Sometimes it actually gives them hope, and hope, as Chesterton said, is the power of being cheerful in circumstances that we know to be desperate. Writing can be a pretty desperate endeavor, because it is about some of our deepest needs: our need to be visible, to be heard, our need to make sense of our lives, to wake up and grow and belong. It is no wonder we sometimes take ourselves perhaps a bit too seriously.
In the interest of not taking ourselves too seriously with the sometimes-overwhelming work of writing, I’ve been trying to create spaces outside the traditional classroom for experimenting with language. This creative writing bookshelf is one of those attempts.
Over the weekend, I nerded out and ordered a bunch of creative writing books and materials: writing prompt books like Start Where You Are, Rip the Page, The Daily Poet, and 3 AM Epiphany; writing advice from Annie Dillard, Steven Pinker, and William Zinsser; genre-specific advice for screenplays, novels, and short fiction; and two kits of magnetic poetry (full list with Amazon hyperlinks below).
A couple of students from NEHS helped me arrange everything in the student lounge, a high-traffic area (thanks Meghan & Tessa!). We also left pens, scraps of paper, and (forthcoming once it’s dry) a decorated box for submissions to our literary magazine. We’re hoping this encourages kids to try out new ways of using language outside the confines of the classroom.
I’ll update this post noting which books are the most popular with students. So far, Magnetic Poetry is the clear favorite. It’s pretty amazing how this kit of tiny magnetic words inspires kids to write poems during their free time, just for fun.
Shyla (7th) writing a poem during independent study
Langston (6th), Taz (7th), and Sten (7th) making poems for fun with Magnetic Poetry
A list of books and resources currently on the Creative Writing Bookshelf:
The “offensive” ideas my middle school students chose to engage for 24 hours
For 24 hours, my students “offended themselves” by generously imagining themselves on the opposite side of an issue about which they’re passionate. Inspired by Roi Ben-Yehuda, they sought out and read sources with which they vigorously disagreed; they left their comfortable corners of the Internet and explored perspectives that unsettled them.
The goal of the challenge was not to change their minds or values. Instead, I wanted them to deepen their understanding by engaging the ideas and experiences they might otherwise avoid acknowledging.
This was, without a doubt, the most engagement I’ve seen from my students for a required writing assignment. Students were also intrinsically motivated to improve their Internet-based research skills — a lot of them didn’t know where to start in seeking out oppositional sources, and weren’t shy about asking for help. In the finished products, I was impressed by the level of nuance, sophistication, and detail. Students who’ve been quiet all semester wrote hundreds of passionate words in response to this challenge.
In short, I heartily recommend this assignment to all secondary-level teachers, and I plan to do it again next year. Here is the assignment sheet I prepared (feel free to use): Offend Yourself Guidelines
I found that the more seriously and sincerely students approached it, the harder this task was. Joel, a high school junior, challenged his faith in big government and noted:
As simple as this may sound, I was immediately struck with how difficult a task this would be for me. Even thinking about empathizing with the opposing view made me not only intellectually uncomfortable, but Physically uncomfortable! I have held the idea that big government is the only path to national security and personal safety for as long as I can remember. Even with the knowledge that the assignment wasn’t to agree with the other side, I still felt morally opposed to trying to empathize.
I was stuck in this rut for a few days, trapped inside my own dogma. To be honest, I don’t think I ever really left that phase.. but I eventually got around to looking for sources. It was at this point that I realized how I could get out of my dogma, albeit temporarily… –Joel, 11th grade
The students who went through with the challenge noticed that reading disagreeable sources helped to humanize those they disagreed with. Two students engaged a variety of anti-gay perspectives and came to a similar conclusion:
There’s a definite trend of fear in the opposing ideas. Fear that LGBT+ people will attack morals, spread disease, harm others, etc…. I think it is good that this mini-project was assigned because of my tendency to believe that opposers of LGBT+ are only driven by a need to hurt others, but it is actually mostly the human instinct of protecting oneself. –Ilsa, 10th grade
I found that it was difficult to empathize with these people, as I am very firmly against their perspective, but this challenge gave me insight into what values and traditions influenced their beliefs. For example, I visited a few Christian-affiliated websites that promoted anti-gay ideas, and I could see what Bible passages or core ideas led them to their conclusion. I also came to the realization that the story is not quite as black-and-white as I had imagined, as I noticed people who were “between sides” (for lack of a better term), struggling with opposing information and ideas. This challenge definitely helped me to view all angles of a story, which will definitely help me going forward in my pursuit of journalistic truth. –Sofi, 8th grade
Some students found their perspectives altered by the end of the exercise. One sophomore came to understand the broader historical context of #blacklivesmatter by reviewing statistics and anecdotes in Bernie Sanders’ campaign materials:
On his website, Bernie says that African Americans are twice as likely to be arrested and almost four times as likely to experience the use of force during encounters with the police. He points out many cases where extreme abuse has taken place, like the killings at a church in June. Many other statistics support his claims that racism is still a big problem and needs to be stopped. I can definitely see from these why a Black Lives Matter movement is needed.
Conclusion: Racism is still a prominent problem in parts of America. I completely agree with the idea of Black Lives Matter, I just think some of the movement’s actions are too radical and don’t have enough evidence to take their more radical ideas seriously. Remember, racism isn’t cool kids. 🙂 –Tanner, 10th grade
Most, however, remained resolute, though still recognizing the exercise’s value:
Now that I’m finished writing from the perspective of a radical Islamist Islamic State supporter, you might be wondering how this could have been intellectually worthwhile. It’s important to look at why people espouse views that you object to, so that you’ll be even better at countering their arguments. Specific to this topic, it’s especially important to understand why people support the Islamic State. Understanding this can strengthen counter-terrorism and foreign policy. It can help combat propaganda. We can analyze how we make decisions regarding the region, since these decisions may be used against us to bolster their propaganda. –Kamran, 10th grade
According to Couch’s attorneys and many other people, “affluenza” is a real condition. I do not agree with this opinion. However, I do believe that understanding and analyzing their thought process as I have above is important, especially since we live in one of the richest counties in the country. There are probably many teenagers who were raised just like Ethan Couch in Loudoun County… –Chasya, 9th grade
One eighth-grade student, who challenged her faith in the efficacy of higher education, insightfully articulated the implications of the exercise on our understanding of how ideas form and spread:
This exercise was valuable to me for many reasons. Firstly, I think that it forced me to disrupt some of the firm viewpoints that I have settled into as I wind my way through my education. This challenge caused me to think about the way that assumptions get blown out of proportion so that advocates of each side refuse to ‘offend themselves’. Secondly, I spent some time wondering to what extent our beliefs are based on the way we’ve been raised/the community with which we interact. The ‘tribes’ that Ben-Yehuda mentioned in his video could be based not only on the beliefs we have chosen to uphold but on the amount of interactions that we have with those who do not share those beliefs. One trend that I noticed when sifting through the vast amount of information available to me was that most of those who disagree were older people who had written about their own disappointing experience in higher education. Perhaps those who have yet to experience college for themselves are taught to think that college is a worthwhile goal because, in a school setting, the authority figures are more than likely to share that belief. Lastly, this challenge has made me think about the ordinary citizen’s role as a collector and interpreter of information. Seeking out information/articles/posts with which I disagree was valuable to my state of being ‘free and self-governing’, but based on my experience so far, it is very easy to become set in your ways and to stop seeking experiences like this one. – Katie, 8th grade