What if we got rid of classroom rules?

David Tow, a California-based teacher-researcher, wondered whether requiring his students’ unquestioning compliance with class rules was at odds with his otherwise inquiry-based instructional approach.

How could he encourage his kids to take risks and pursue truth in their academics while expecting mindless adherence to convention in their behavior?

At the same time, he understandably worried that abolishing rules could lead to chaos in the classroom. He didn’t want to tear down the old way of doing things without first envisioning a new and better approach to stand in its wake.

He decided to start with first principles: what sort of classroom community does he want to build? What are the values that shape this vision?

The entire article is worth reading, but the four first principles he sketches are particularly inspiring.

  1. Be respectful to yourself because it sets the context for being able to participate in a community; to others because it is hard to be a student and everyone’s struggles merit your respect; and to the teacher because although it is a position of authority, the teacher should also be vulnerable and learning.

  2. Be engaged, because merely being present in the classroom does not necessarily qualify as participation, and a truly pluralistic community requires all voices.

  3. Be prepared, because informed conversation requires prepared members, and preparation transcends just the work that is assigned—and is closer to deep thought, sincere skepticism, and a general willingness to interrogate assumptions.

  4. Be courageous, because learning requires acknowledging that there are things we don’t know, skills we lack, and ways in which we might still be foolish—which is a scary prospect for everyone in the class, teacher included.

I love the way each begins with a particular orientation toward the world – “be respectful,” “be engaged,” etc. – and then clearly justifies that orientation, showing how it contributes to a thriving and just community.

Through this model, as Tow notes, student infractions become opportunities for the student, peers, and teacher to reflect on how the behavior might detract from the sort of community they had all decided they wanted to build.

In other words, what used to be simple, top-down interventions (the teacher calls out student behavior and possibly imposes a consequence) are now sophisticated, student-generated metacognitive and collaborative reflections. Students become responsible for noticing and regulating their own actions, and they do so because they feel empowered to actively create classroom culture. 

The article makes me wonder what other kinds of “first principles” students and teacher might converge around in additional communities and contexts.

Our students want to be seen. What is getting in the way?

“Teacher Perception Hole”: at Deeper Learning 2017, a conference participant improvised this visualization to show how much we simply don’t or can’t see about our students’ lives and experiences. The student is held behind the paper and can only be seen through the narrow hole.

In my first real year of teaching, my first-born son had trouble in elementary school.

I knew him at home as a bright and curious kid who loved to read; I knew him as a kind, dinosaur-obsessed game-changer with an impossible recall for song lyrics and an affinity for imitating the way jaguars walk. I had him young and (for his first six years) raised him on my own without many resources, so he learned how to make his own fun with what he could find around him. Like all parents do, I knew my son was an original, and watching him engage the world gave me hope for the future. (And it still does).

His fourth grade teacher didn’t see what I saw. She saw a kid who found it difficult to sit still. She saw a kid who secretly read novels in his lap while she taught. She saw a kid who rushed through his work and forgot important details — a kid who turned in shoddy products and didn’t appear to care much about learning.

It was hard for me to imagine how a teacher with so much experience could fail to see my son, to see all that he had to offer this world, all that was inside him that was begging to be cultivated. His teacher was obviously a caring professional who worked hard everyday to support her students. How did she overlook that beautiful eagerness to discover and create that beamed so clearly from his face?

And if she could overlook something that seemed so obvious to me, what was I, a brand new English teacher, also failing to see? Were there kids I had already decided couldn’t do advanced work or engage rigorous texts? Did the kids I’d written off as unmotivated have passions that brought out the best in them, like my son’s dinosaurs? To what extent might race or gender play into my assumptions about students’ potential?

Ultimately, what I was really asking was: whose gifts and abilities am I rendering invisible by the way I design and assess learning? Whose greatness and potential are hidden from me?

These are questions I believe all teachers committed to students’ humanity should ask. We have choices about how we craft learning experiences and check for understanding. And those choices privilege certain students over others. The learning outcomes in our classrooms are not inevitable or immutable. They are, at least in part, the product of our instructional design.

My literature courses, for example, tend to disadvantage introverts, students who process information more slowly, and students with social anxiety. The conventions and pacing of the seminar discussion simply do not give everyone an equal opportunity to demonstrate mastery. This doesn’t mean that I will scrap the seminar altogether. But if I want to create a just and inclusive classroom, I must give all my students access to the work of the course. I must design activities and assessments that help me see these young people as they are — indeed, I must design activities and assessments that help these young people see themselves and all they can be.

This article is a beautiful reminder of what a difference this can make in the classroom. Tara Malone recalls her experience as an introvert in college humanities courses. After some difficulties, she finally meets a professor willing to experiment in her students’ best interests:

One day after class, Professor Simon spoke with me after the other students had gone. She matter-of-factly but sensitively told me that she noticed I had trouble speaking in class and proposed a solution to boost my class participation grade. She invited me to email her after class with my thoughts and impressions about the readings, and to include anything I had wanted to say during discussion but was unable to. I greatly appreciated this alternative and returned to my dorm room and composed an email to her that very night.

It was amazing to me how quickly and easily the thoughts flowed onto the screen, and I realized that I had a lot of insights and original ideas when I was alone, free from the pressure of the classroom environment. I developed the habit of composing a thoughtful email after each class, which Professor Simon would carefully read and respond to with some ideas of her own. The exchange of ideas and dialogue was rewarding, and it made me realize that I had a lot to contribute, even if I wasn’t the biggest talker or the fastest debater.

The last line haunts me. Without this intervention, she may not have discovered all that she had to contribute; she may not have realized her capacity for insight or originality. The choices we make as teachers are ultimately about creating the conditions that allow our students to be seen in all their fullness and potential. If we truly care about cultivating our kids’ humanity and helping them all flourish, we must reflect on whom we empower and whom we marginalize through these choices.

When students take the lead, education can be beautiful

My brilliant colleague Sharon Knipmeyer built a beautiful visual story of all the work my students did in Arc of Justice last semester. Click this link to see the photographs and learn more about the project.

The photos show the long and exciting process through which students imagined, planned, and created an interactive exhibit for the community to share what they learned about how change happens in the world. Building the exhibit required a diverse set of skills, and students chose the tasks that best matched their passions and interests, including:

  • cleaning and preparing the site
  • painting
  • mixing concrete
  • sawing and drilling PVC poles
  • selecting and arranging primary documents
  • choosing the music
  • making historically-accurate protest signs
  • flying the camera drone to record the unveiling

Please explore these additional links for more artifacts and background:

  • The course syllabus
  • The student-designed handout for visitors to the exhibit
  • The student music curator’s statement for visitors
  • The conference program for individual student presentations
  • My earlier blog post about the course rationale and the importance of difficult questions

In defense of the difficult questions

Students know our purpose by the questions we ask. By our questions, they know whether we are about “business as usual” — what they’ve come to expect from all the adults and institutions in their lives — or the lifelong, collective work of understanding and enriching the human condition. 

Shailee, 9th grade, records her thoughts at a student-produced interactive multimedia exhibit about social justice.


In large and small ways everyday, our students show us how deeply they care about what’s going on in the world around them. They ask questions; they share articles; they talk outside of class; they joke and wonder and argue and read. This year, as the adults in their lives and on their screens debated what a more just nation might look like, our young people took notice and added their voices to the conversation.

The civic engagement I see in my students is happening all over the nation, across college campuses grappling with complex histories of oppression and exclusion, high school students connecting our past to current injustice, protests and counter-protests contesting the boundaries we draw around socially permissible speech, young people leading movements for justice, transforming our political landscape, and challenging older models of activism — and, across the Atlantic, 18-24 year olds voting at rates unprecedented in recent history.

In and out of the classroom, there is palpable energy around the divisive political questions of our time — the kind of energy that would capture students’ attention and extend their learning. But we rarely make space for these worthwhile and difficult questions in our classrooms.

It’s not hard to see why this is the case. Although we know our students’ academic needs and interests best, most teachers lack the power to choose what and how to teach our students. Even those who can exercise some control might understandably play it safe to hold onto increasingly precarious jobs. Teachers have a well-defined and often worthy curriculum to cover; we have tests to prepare for and benchmarks to meet. We are hesitant to appear biased. Most of us are not experts on these issues. And we are working through these questions for ourselves, uncertain of what we should say, uncertain of whether there’s a place for it in the classroom at all.

Despite all of this, we teachers, administrators, and parents — we adults who care about the people our children will become — must argue in defense of the difficult questions. Students know our purpose by the questions we ask. By our questions, they know whether we are about “business as usual” — what they’ve come to expect from all the adults and institutions in their lives — or the lifelong, collective work of understanding and enriching the human condition. And when kids recognize our classrooms as sacred spaces for making sense of the world around us, education becomes beautiful and transformative.

How do we know a worthwhile and difficult question when we encounter one? I’ve found that such questions do several vital things:

1. Difficult questions force a new way of seeing and confront us with new considerations. They surprise us.

So much of what we encounter each day leaves us unchallenged. To the extent that we have the power to do so, we organize our lives around our own comfort and security – as any rational person would. But this choice narrows the ideas and experiences we can access: we come to inhabit a bubble that requires less of us each day. A good question surprises us, reminding us that there is more to consider than our own interests. Who are we leaving out or leaving behind? Whose experiences are we ignoring? Whose stories are we not telling? What does this event or institution look like for someone very different from me? A good, difficult question opens the wide world to us and demands we expand our vision to make space for all that we don’t know.

2. Difficult questions remind students that they have power over what happens in the classroom and in their lives.

When teachers ask questions we don’t know the answers to, we make it possible to have conversations and make discoveries we couldn’t plan in advance. Engaging with uncertainty leaves room for students to take responsibility for making sense of complexity. Our students are less likely to step up if they sense we already have an answer in mind: why would anyone take ownership of a lesson that had clearly been settled before the discussion even began? When we pursue understanding alongside our students, though, we empower them to decide how their learning takes place. School is no longer something that happens to them; it becomes a place where they can shape the goals and outcomes of their inquiry. And when our questions explore issues relevant to their lives, we help them see all the power they have to shape the world outside the classroom, too.

3. Difficult questions show us that our world is not the inevitable product of unchanging processes: things could be different and better.

So much about the world can seem fixed and hopeless; most people find ourselves resigned to the way things are. But a worthwhile, difficult question can reveal the choices we make every day, too often without realizing we have made any choice at all. How have our public schools become so racially and socioeconomically segregated so long after Brown v. Board? Why do most federal housing subsidies benefit the affluent while the majority of poor people receive no federal housing assistance? Is our criminal justice system the best way to address drug addiction or mental health crises or poverty? What rights do the animals we eat have? These kinds of questions remind us that it’s possible to do better. And this is the mindset most conducive to the curiosity and problem-solving orientation we hope to inspire in our classrooms. If we implicitly present our world as a settled state of affairs, we leave little incentive to wrestle with the problems we confront. But if our questions suggest that things can change, that a commitment to truth-seeking and hard choices can build a better world, students might decide it’s worth thinking deeply about how to make that happen.

4. Difficult questions reveal something about the person who asked the question: that we’re curious and willing to risk being wrong in the pursuit of truth.

Asking good questions shows our students who we are and what we care about. In this sense, worthwhile and difficult questions build meaningful relationships between teachers and students. We risk something when we ask a question that matters to us, one that we are still trying to understand. We risk a bit of our authority and control; we risk our apparent mastery; we risk revealing a glimpse of our flawed humanity. All important relationships require these kinds of risks, but classroom conventions constrain us, so students rarely encounter their teachers as fellow humans on a quest for understanding. When we are willing to show up as people who don’t yet have it all figured out, difficult questions can produce important, enduring conversations.

So this year, in response to what I heard from my students, I worked with a colleague in history to build an interdisciplinary course asking a question we continue to confront today: how have people fought to extend America’s grand promise of freedom and equality beyond its initially narrow application?

We took inspiration from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s hopeful pronouncement that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice” — a statement he uttered in a Hollywood synagogue three years before his assassination. In our current moment of deep uncertainty about our nation’s future, such a sentiment offers a longer view of how change happens. Placing King’s vision at the center of our inquiry, we called our course “The Arc of Justice in American Literature and History, 1830-1915.” [syllabus link]

Our whole-class readings focused on the past: African Americans’ struggle for civil and human rights in the nineteenth century.  But students’ individual projects and choice reading assignments were designed to help kids frame and pursue the difficult questions that seem most urgent and worthwhile to their present. Over the course of a semester, we drew on history and current events to explore how movements for justice take shape.

A variety of primary and secondary historical sources, as well as novels, films, poem, stories, photographs, and paintings, helped us explore what forces might effectively bend the arc toward justice. We grappled with John Brown’s legacy through Tony Horwitz’s biography and James McBride’s novel. We explored Lincoln’s shifting perspective on abolition by reading Harold Holzer’s compelling account and Henry Louis Gates’s edited volume of Lincoln’s writings on race. We examined the crushed promise of Reconstruction with the help of Eric Foner, W.E.B. du Bois, and novelist Howard Fast. Field trips and guest speakers supported real-world connections to the continued relevance of our course content.

Three essential questions structured our inquiry, and each question was linked to one of the three units of study described above:

  • How have individuals decided for themselves whether violence is a morally acceptable means of achieving justice?
  • How have leaders wrestled with – and evolved on – their historical moment’s central questions of justice?
  • Is a period of political and extra-legal backlash inevitable after civil rights gains?

But the real work of the course was students’ self-directed study of a movement for justice they each decided to explore independently. My essential questions became both models and touchstones for the students’ original inquiry. It was important for me to get out of the way so they could ask the questions that seemed most pressing to each of them.

Some wanted to learn more about intersectional feminism; others gravitated toward immigrants’ rights; two explored Black Lives Matter, mass incarceration, and police brutality. Other projects focused on veterans’ rights, animal rights, LGBT struggles for justice, workers’ dignity, poverty, the American Indian movement, activism around mental health and disabilities, the complex role of music within the politics of liberation, and the question of whether sentient robots could lead a successful movement for self-determination.

As we moved through the whole-class readings on African American experience, students drew on what they were learning independently to identify patterns structuring how people create change. In student-led seminars and peer workshops, kids pushed each other to interrogate their assumptions and account for their biases. They suggested additional readings, helped each other craft persuasive texts for authentic audiences, and made connections across their individual projects.

The questions the students framed for themselves and posed to one another harnessed all the potential inherent in worthwhile and difficult questions. Over the course of the semester, they produced a collective understanding of the shape that movements for justice have taken in America’s history and present. They noticed that movements typically begin with a catalyzing event that promotes awareness and causes people to take a side. Next, people committed to change often fracture along ideological or strategic lines: more moderate and more militant approaches, for example. The separate paths coalesce around a moderate gain the majority can support, but this brief victory is often followed by violent backlash and political losses.

Under the guidance of our brilliant art teacher, my students worked together to turn these insights into an interactive multimedia exhibit experienced by the entire school on our last day of classes. They likewise presented their individual projects to their peers and teachers during a two-hour academic conference and panel discussion. It was clear by the end of the event that the work of the course was not done: students will continue reading, discussing, writing, wondering, and dreaming long after they receive their final grade.

As a teacher, I know that many adults are skeptical about whether our young people have something worthwhile to say about the topics my students chose to explore for this course. The arguments are familiar: adolescents’ experience is limited; they don’t yet understand how the world works; their expectations are unreasonable.

But as a teacher of English, I know why some of the most celebrated American novels about issues of justice use child narrators to tell their story. Think of Huckleberry Finn or To Kill a Mockingbird. The frank and uncompromisingly ingenuous voices of Huck and Scout remind us that things don’t have to be as they’ve always been — that we have choices about what kind of society we want to build. What some might say discredits young people’s perspectives — their inexperience, their idealism, their lack of stake in the way things are — is exactly what makes their voices so powerful. They are free to imagine other ways of being and to work passionately toward achieving this vision.

Risking the enduring conversations prompted by worthwhile, difficult questions can help our young people change the world.



How do people learn to write well?

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.

Free public college saved my life

Here is a short talk I gave this month for alumni of my alma mater, The City College of New York. I share my experience as a college student to make the case that investment in our young people’s education is both personally and socially transformative.

There’s an amazing story behind everything, and great teachers know how to bring it to life

A good teacher is by nature a good storyteller. Short, resonant anecdotes bring abstract concepts to life; stories humanize teachers and capture kids’ imaginations. These are the things our students will remember long after the lesson is over.

My colleague Kevin Oliveau is a master storyteller.

Being in Dr. Oliveau’s World War I class is like reliving the plot of your favorite movie with someone who knows it inside-out: the history of its production, the science behind the special effects, the psychology of the characters, the philosophical implications of the unfolding events. These battles fought on distant shores a century ago are transformed into something like an epic film: vivid, engrossing, urgently relevant.

Here is what I mean: ten minutes into class, Dr. Oliveau riffs on a student’s comment about U-boats. He pulls up an image on the projector and describes what it might have been like to live inside one of these vessels:

You’re talking about cold, damp rooms where stuff drips on you all the time. And one bunk for eight people. So how do you do it? You need to sleep for 8 hours a day. It means also that if your fellow crewman has lice or nits or fleas, you have them as well. So when you climb into the bunk, it’s when someone has just climbed out of it. So these spaces are really cramped, really difficult.

[He’s gesturing at the image now.] And there’s the equivalent of an analog computer which guides the torpedo in a straight line at a fixed depth until it strikes the enemy vessel below the water line where it’s most vulnerable. And it doesn’t actually destroy the ship; it lets the sea into the ship and lets the sea do the work. Has anyone been in one of these?

As an English teacher, I’m sitting there appreciating his craft: he uses the second person to place each student in the story; he packs his description with unsettling and memorable sensory imagery; he asks well-placed questions that activate kids’ imaginations. Students’ hands shoot up to share their thoughts and questions, delving deeper into the content and relishing the opportunity to participate.

There are reasons that great teachers like Dr. Oliveau use narrative frequently: it works. Neuroscientist David Eagleman observes that stories facilitate the spread of ideas from person to person:

It’s not easy to infect the brain of another person with an idea; it can be accomplished only by hitting the small exposed hole in the system. For the brain, that hole is story-shaped. As anyone who teaches realizes, most information bounces off with little impression and no recollection. Good professors and statesmen know the indispensable po­tency of story.

The human need to tell and consume stories reveals a lot about how our brains work. Cognitive neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga suggests that a major function of the brain’s left hemisphere is to organize our memories into plausible stories, filling in gaps when necessary. Gazzaniga’s research supports what teachers like Dr. Oliveau intuit: that stories are how we make sense of our world when our world doesn’t make sense on its own.

Psychologist Daniel T. Willingham concurs; he explains the educational benefits of narrative and suggests some ways teachers can incorporate story into their pedagogy, focusing on the  “four Cs of narrative”: causality, conflicts, complications, and character. (Teachers should scroll to the bottom of that resource for helpful suggestions using each element across disciplines).

Dr. Oliveau’s lesson showed me three ways that great stories become opportunities for deeper and more joyful learning: they inspire active participation; they reveal what is possible, and they break through the boundaries of academic disciplines. Below, I explain how each takes shape in Dr. Oliveau’s instruction.

Great stories inspire active participation.

Nobel- and Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Toni Morrison explained her ideal relationship with her readers way back in 1984:

The text, if it is to take improvisation and audience participation into account, cannot be the authority – it should be the map. It should make a way for the reader (audience) to participate in the tale.

For Morrison, the best stories demand active participation; they map the territory and invite the audience to explore and discover. That’s just how Dr. Oliveau’s stories work: they build a highly detailed, multidimensional world around his students. It’s essentially a very low-tech version of virtual reality.

His class is a collaborative, sometimes raucous, call-and-response event. Kids chime in with details, jokes, questions, and exclamations, until the conflict-laden story reaches a fever pitch. Led by Dr. Oliveau’s prodding and momentous questions, the class delights in the process of retelling the key moments point by point, reliving their fascination by poring over each historical figure’s motivation, the details coming together to reveal a compelling portrait of history.

From the corner of the room, he shouts a question in the general direction of the back row:

Oliveau: What is the counter move the Germans fail to anticipate?

Keaton: Convoys. The Germans didn’t know that the British would use convoys.

Oliveau: Right. The Royal Navy and merchant ships don’t like this. It’s boring, not exciting. Instead of heroically charging out, it’s like, we’re going to put you on this dinky boat, and you’re going to go sail circles around these other boats, and with luck, nothing will happen. [Student laughter.] And by the way, your boat is so small that when there’s a storm at sea, everyone is going to get violently seasick. So there’s resistance.  But how did convoys reduce losses?

Kids wave their hands to offer their hypotheses and help craft the story; and on and on, the process repeats.

Great stories reveal what is possible.

People who don’t geek out over history tend to think of it in the past tense: a collection of dusty artifacts and static, settled events. Why bother? But to experience history as a great story is to be reminded of the terrifying and exciting fact that many futures are possible, and we don’t ever quite know how things might turn out.

Dr. Oliveau structures his entire lesson around that insight. His essential question is: why does England’s attitude toward involvement in the war shift so dramatically? This question is great because it invites kids to examine the dramatic contingency of history: the outcome of a war is not a foregone conclusion leading inevitably toward our current geopolitical order. Things could be very different today. Dr. Oliveau’s rich and detailed stories transport his students from the comfortable hindsight of 2017 to the uncertain complexity of one hundred years prior.

As he moves through each phase of the war, Dr. Oliveau reenacts the concerns and desires of various nations’ military leaders as they would have experienced them in the moment. He explains Germany’s worries:

By 1918 they haven’t hit their goal. One of the things about war is, you’re not sure. Even if you sink the 3 million tons which they pretty much did in twice the time, it’s not enough. They didn’t think about what the British might do in response. They were sort of optimistic in their view. They didn’t think, we’re gonna try this but it probably won’t work. They needed something to work, and they convinced themselves it would. They managed to sink almost 3 million tons that year, but it wasn’t enough.

When events are narrated as if their outcomes are uncertain, it’s easy to appreciate how many things needed to go wrong (or right) to get us where we are today.

Great stories cross academic disciplines.

Students learn deeply when they understand the content’s relevance to their own lives. We educators are thankfully in a moment in which that insight is neither original nor controversial.

Stories are an effective way to bridge the relevance divide — to craft a pathway between a student’s passions and the day’s learning goal. This is because narrative weaves disparate elements into a coherent whole.

No matter what Dr. Oliveau’s students are interested in, it’s a safe bet that he at least tangentially connected it to his narrative of the first World War. In 90 minutes, Dr. Oliveau’s lesson drew together anecdotes about syphilis, trench warfare, Ernest Hemingway, the science and engineering of weaponry, behavioral economics concepts like the sunk cost fallacy, military strategy, the sociological implications of male soldiers’ absence from the workforce, and the legacy of imperialism. Students also had to perform some basic mathematical calculations to determine how far Germany was from achieving its goals in 1918. The high point, however, was easily his highly technical explanation of submarines’ limited offensive capacity:

Oliveau: Right, it’s a three dimensional problem. It’s what submariners call firing solution. You have to locate your enemy precisely enough to fire your weapon. This problem won’t be solved till the end of World War II. It gets very complicated because in the ocean there are temperature differences and salinity differences, which has the tendency to reflect sound waves in an arc.  In the modern day, we have —

Will (interrupts): How do you know that?

Ben (to Will): ‘Veau knows everything.

Ben’s comment stood out to me as the moment of the class because it insightfully identifies exactly what Dr. Oliveau offers his students. Through storytelling, Dr. Oliveau becomes a sort of omniscient game master, constructing a detailed discursive world and organizing students’ play within that world, integrating each distinct part into an engaging and unified narrative. To borrow from John Keats, it is a thing of beauty.

Beyond memorization: when numbers make sense

Evalynn (6th) shares her theory of how and why multiplying 11 by two digit numbers can be predictable.

“What does it mean to know mathematics?”

This question, posed by former National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) President Cathy Seeley, is really what we’re asking when we discuss the best way to make sure kids are proficiently numerate by graduation.

Seller’s answer is that to know mathematics is, ultimately, to be capable of working out the relationships between numbers in your head. She explains:

Problem solving continues to be a high priority in school mathematics. Some argue that it is the most important mathematical goal for our students. Mental math provides both tools for solving problems and filters for evaluating answers. When a student has strong mental math skills, he or she can quickly test different approaches to a problem and determine whether the resulting path will lead toward a viable solution. Estimation skills require both a sense of number and facility with mental computation and can provide a ballpark answer to a problem before the student attempts to solve it. They also offer a comparison point by which to judge whether a result is reasonable for the given situation. Estimation is an important skill for inclusion in students’ tool kits, whether they perform calculations with a pencil and paper or on a calculator.

Research suggests that teaching mental math builds numerical reasoning and supports computational accuracy, efficiency, and overall student confidence.

I was able to watch this in action in my colleague Rita Lahiri’s middle school math class (sixth and seventh graders). Her lesson invited students not only to master content, but to reason as mathematicians. They would multiply numbers by 11 to gather data on the pattern, and then come up with a theory explaining why that pattern happens. Her directions were concise, clear, and inspiring:

Whatever rule or strategy you come up with has to apply to every problem. Write it down, because there are some theories that when you write it down on paper, you own it. And if you own it, you can contribute to why it’s happening.

I was so struck by Ms. Lahiri’s words. You, quiet sixth grade girl in the back row, can contribute your theory to the conversation. That is an incredibly powerful invitation to offer to a young learner. You are part of the collaborative construction of knowledge, and you have something to say. It was also an immensely convincing argument for taking notes!

Ms. Lahiri began by grounding the lesson in real-world contexts. In what direction do you typically read words and numbers? (Left to right). In what direction do you typically calculate? (Right to left). Why is that? (Engaged silence!). What are some places where you or your parents might use mental math?

Then kids worked individually, computing and observing the data. Ms. Lahiri moved through the room, peppering kids with challenging questions to move them forward.

When she noticed one of the students had figured it out before everyone else, she honored the student’s abilities while still managing to keep her engaged:

We’re going to do our best not to say anything for five minutes. The goal is for all of us to come up with theories for why this happens. Another thing to consider while you wait is: how does this change when we multiply by three-digit numbers? If you’re extremely confident in what you are doing now, and you have written it all out, you can work on that next.

Those five minutes were difficult. Kids were brimming with excitement to share their theories.

Evalynn (6th) can barely contain her excitement to share her research, but she knows she must wait.

By the last twenty minutes of the period, Ms. Lahiri placed students in the teacher’s role. Each student contributed a vital part to the theory, and each was responsible for holding the group’s ideas accountable to the standard Ms. Lahiri had set (does it work for every problem or just a few conveniently selected ones?)

Taz (7th) shares his research on multiplication by 11.

While the work was rigorous and worthwhile, the biggest takeaway I had from sitting in this classroom was that every student was free to engage the content at his or her level of ability and interest, and Ms. Lahiri’s fundamental role was to methodically, humanely, and uncompromisingly push each kid a bit past where they were at the beginning of the period. No one was off the hook from having to contribute, and no one was left behind because of boredom or inability. There was a place for everyone in this work.

Ms. Lahiri’s parting words to the kids were:

Thank you to everyone for bringing enlightenment to our research on multiplication by 11.

That really sums up her work with the students that day. They were not doing worksheets or rote memorization; they were doing research. They were not checking the box for participation points; they were bringing enlightenment. And the knowledge is owned and produced collectively, just as it is in a research university or laboratory. This is a beautiful education.

“Greenbelt Writing” to Preserve Student Joy

Greenbelt in Staten Island, New York

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?

Poetry Mad Libs

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.

Here is the assignment sheet we ended up with: NewClozePoemsforadvisory-4

The Execution

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.

Here is mine:

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