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.
Social and emotional learning, like reasoning and other worthwhile educational goals, is an abstraction. This makes it tricky (and all the more necessary) to clarify the specific ways teachers can guide students toward competency.
In this 1969 footage of Fred Rogers’ defense of federal funding for educational television, Mr. Rogers identifies at least three things he tries to do for kids through his show:
He makes it clear that “feelings are mentionable and manageable”
He offers models of people – especially men and boys – working out feelings like anger in constructive ways
He consistently presents a “meaningful expression of care”
That simple, alliterative formulation — feelings are mentionable and manageable — is a powerful, clear vision of what we undertake when we make social and emotional learning a goal.
His words offer teachers lots to think about. There are implications for how we design instruction, relate to students personally, and manage interpersonal conflicts between students. This is also just a really moving speech.
And I feel that if only we in public television can only make it clear that feelings are mentionable and manageable, we will have done a great service for mental health. I think that it’s much more dramatic that two men could be working out their feelings of anger. Much more dramatic than showing something of gunfire. I am constantly concerned about what our children are seeing. And for fifteen years I have tried in this country and Canada to present what I feel is a meaningful expression of care.
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:
Slam poetry attempts to dissolve snobbish barriers between “artist” and audience by knocking pomposity off its perch and making poets recognize their humble yet noble role– as servants to their culture and community. Slam poets learn early that they had better be tuned into their audience’s sensibilities to have any hope of surviving their stay onstage, let alone winning a competition.
Over the past two years, I’ve watched Tessa and her poetry club recruits use their love of language to engage the world around them. For these kids, poetry became a way of working out the human condition, of creating space in the day (and on the page) to reflect on what they find urgent or worthy of care. Just as important, poetry also became a way of working out how to enlist an audience in these acts of reflection and care: how to get people to listen, wonder, rage, and rebuild alongside them. Poetry’s public function — its power to compel a recognition of our shared humanity — was at the center of students’ workshops each week as they crafted deeply personal and broadly resonant pieces.
Last weekend, Split This Rock brought together adults and youth from the DC, Maryland and Virginia area to share in poetry’s public function. Tessa (and 15 other teen poets) took the stage to perform works engaging issues of social justice and personal experience.
Tessa’s poem reflected on her grandfather’s struggle with Alzheimer’s disease. Her performance was flawless; to watch her was to watch a young woman who found her voice and wields it with power. Her careful control of her tone and gestures, along with her bold sensory images and alliterative monosyllables, all demonstrated a well-crafted and strategic ability to engage the audience. She was just mesmerizing.
Every time I hear the poem, these lines stand out to me most:
there’s time for goodbye but never the right time no second or minute big enough to tuck a farewell into
Her pauses and breaking voice around these words perfectly exemplify what poetry can do, because every time I hear them, I’m knocked out of my complacency and reminded of all the things I don’t give myself time to say.
I’m so glad spaces exist like the ones Split This Rock and Poetry Now DMV create, and I am even more thankful that young people like those sixteen poets exist – kids who are willing to use their voice to invoke our shared humanity.
Thirteen semifinalists stand in front of the stage with educator and Split This Rock administrator Joseph Green.
Students model the directionality of RNA polymerase, to understand which strand of DNA is used as a template during transcription.
When it comes to student work, audience matters. My students simply care more when they know they’ll share their work with the school community or outside experts instead of just with their English teacher. They think more purposefully about what they say and how they say it. The extra effort and thoughtfulness show in the quality of their work, and education research bears out my anecdotal experience.
But authentic audiences also provoke fear and anxiety. What if my ideas are wrong? What if I seem stupid? These nagging questions keep students from taking risks in public. In her study of behavior in a girls-only middle school math class, Janice Streitmatter observes:
without taking academic risks, asking or answering questions in the classroom, a large part of students’ lives may be excluded from their conscious or subconscious deliberations during this period of identity.
Chase Mielke echoes this insight with a provocative question:
Imagine the growth potential if 100 percent of our students attempted to answer 100 percent of the questions we asked 100 percent of the time. But they don’t—at least not at the secondary level. There’s no physical danger in raising your hand in class, only social danger.
I remember well what that social danger felt like in high school – the knotted stomach and fluttering heart, the loud voice in my mind warning me what others might think. I stayed silent far too often.
Useful resources abound suggesting interventions to make classroom culture or assessments more supportive of risk-taking. But I was reminded last week when I sat in on my colleague Ashley Gam’s biology class that instructional delivery can make or break students’ willingness to share out their ideas.
Ms. Gam structured her lesson so that student thinking moved in stages from entirely private to increasingly public, first using individual writing, then small-group discussion, small whiteboard visualization, and finally, whole-class presentation with peer feedback. At every step, she moved through the classroom, peppering individual students with Socratic interrogation to refine and extend their thinking. Below, I look at each step and offer some thoughts about why this model is so effective at getting kids to take risks in class.
First, it always bears repeating that well-planned instructional delivery is purposeless without meaningful learning goals. Ms. Gam’s lesson forms part of an ambitious study of evolutionary history inspired by the quirky, award-winning book Your Inner Fish by vertebrate paleontologist Neil Shubin. By the end of the unit, kids will have produced a timeline tracing human biological adaptations back millions of years — and they might also come into class fully costumed as some of our evolutionary ancestors in a culminating exercise (can’t wait!).
Using trade texts instead of textbooks helps students see that what they’re learning is part of ongoing conversations by researchers and academics. By engaging this material, students are participating in the ongoing production of scientific knowledge.
Stage 1: Individual Writing
Class began with the outward appearances of a conventional high school biology class: students grouped at lab desks to record short responses to prepared questions. But as Ms. Gam walked around the classroom, I noticed that she used Socratic-style questioning to tailor this exercise to each student’s abilities. I tried to transcribe a representative exchange:
Ms. Gam: “In the nucleus, when MRNA is produced, what’s the process called?”
Student: “Transcription. But what’s the purpose?”
Ms. Gam: “What do you think?”
Student: “It’s just a copy.”
Ms. Gam: “Yes, it’s just a copy. Why do we need a copy?”
She continued prodding the student until it was clear the concept was fully understood. Ms. Gam’s parting words to the student were, “You already knew the answer.” That’s exactly how these exchanges felt: like each student was uncovering knowledge that was already hanging around somewhere in their mind, and Ms. Gam’s questions were just helping them call that knowledge up.
Perhaps best of all, Ms. Gam was visibly, genuinely excited as students happened upon new understanding.
Ms. Gam helps students construct their own knowledge in one-on-one conversations.
Stage 2: Work in Small Groups
Once she felt everyone had a working familiarity with the lesson’s key concepts, she directed kids to confer in small groups about their responses. She told them:
I’m going to assign you one of these questions to diagram and share with the class.
Ingeniously, though, she didn’t tell groups which question they’d be assigned. It seemed to me that this ensured two things: 1) students felt responsible for discussing and understanding each question, just in case; and 2) Ms. Gam was able to listen in on the group conversations and assign questions based on student ability.
Because everyone had received candid, immediate, and kind feedback from Ms. Gam already, kids were more willing to share their ideas with one another. It’s a small detail, but I was struck by how frequently students looked up from their papers at each other’s faces.
Students discuss their answers and use textual evidence to refine their ideas.
Stage 3: Small Whiteboard Visualization
Students work together to prepare their model on a dry erase board.
In his published work on the acquisition of expertise, Anders Ericsson argues that superstar athletes and musicians develop their skills by creating sound mental representations, or structures that help people encode information into their long-term memory. (Here is an interview in which he discusses potential pedagogical applications).
As Ms. Gam’s student groups discussed their answers, she handed them whiteboards and asked them to represent certain concepts visually. Their whiteboard work actively engaged students in the task of constructing mental representations for the lesson’s key concepts.
This is one of those times when tools matter. I’ve done variations of this activity with posters, graphic organizers, and post-it note parking lots. But by using a whiteboard, Ms. Gam minimizes student anxiety: mistakes can be erased effortlessly and completely, at any time. Knowing that, kids can put their ideas down with little risk at all.
The whiteboard makes student thinking even more public: it’s large enough for anyone walking by to see, and its size accommodates easy collaboration. By this point in the lesson, most of the students are confident enough in their understanding to make their ideas visible.
Groups were at various stages of the process by this point, and the classroom was a bustling and dynamic space. Some kids needed to go back to the text to rework their models; others were ready to share their work out with the class. (To the latter group, Ms. Gam suggested “If you want, take this opportunity to add to your notes in your notebook.”) Everyone was busy doing something.
The classroom was a bustling place, with students at various stages of the process.
Stage 4: Whole-Class Presentation and Workshop
Students respond to feedback on their models of key genetics concepts during a whole-class workshop.
Forty minutes into the hour-long period, Ms. Gam called the class together and asked the first group to present. She gave explicit instructions to the class to make sure everyone knew this was a workshop: everyone will be responsible for accurately constructing knowledge. She said:
The purpose of this is to review and make sure everyone’s on the same page. While you’re listening, make sure that what is being talked about is consistent with what your group identified. If there are any discrepancies between what you found and what the group is presenting, that’s your opportunity to ask questions to either help the group come to a better understanding, or to improve your own understanding.
As students shared their ideas, she’d prod the class: Do you guys agree with that? Did others have different ideas? The presenters made changes to their model in real-time.
Ultimately, Ms. Gam consistently pushed her students into an active role throughout the lesson, but she also started with lots of support and scaffolding to ensure kids felt comfortable trying. Her lesson plan methodically removed layers of support as students became ready.
Here are some ways I can imagine using this four-stage process in my English classroom:
For teaching vocabulary or literary terminology (students start with a list of words from a text or unit of study, work individually to research and understand their denotation, work together to extend their knowledge, and visualize one or more words on the whiteboard)
For studying poetry: same process, but groups are assigned stanzas
For analyzing text structures: how particular paragraph examples from genres are organized (I’ve seen a great visualization of the standard academic essay here, for example)
AP Physics students moved back and forth between theory and practice today in an exercise inspired by physics educator Eugenia Etkina, and I got distracted from Writing Lab by their awesomeness. After reading and discussing models for understanding force and circular motion, the students moved to the center of the school with a rope and some roller skates. One student stood in the middle, holding an end of the rope firmly. Mr. Romero, on skates, held the other end of the rope and directed a second student to push him at varying speeds. Kids took time experiencing both roles.
Toward the end of the exercise, Mr. Romero explained how the force toward the center causes circular motion. He reminded students:
When people hear this explanation, they hear “science science science” or the sound adults make on Charlie Brown. But the purpose of this exercise was so that you feel it in your bones. This is how the universe works.
Isn’t that the ultimate learning goal — to have such a personally meaningful experience with a concept that your understanding becomes lodged “in your bones”? What would instruction look like if we placed those kinds of experiences at the center of our planning?
I was prepping for class today, and this Huffington Post article just tickled me. It explains that Merriam Webster’s Twitter account featured a brush-up with a stickler for traditional pronoun usage:
The dictionary’s temporary social account manager then explained that they were using the singular they, and that the dictionary adheres to descriptivism. “We follow language, language doesn’t follow us,” they tweeted.
“Language rules are all that separate us from the animals,” Smarick then said, via a social media platform on the internet, a technological feat that wrests upon thousands of years’ worth of progressively advanced scientific discovery.
This was not just a win for grammatical descriptivism (an approach to grammar that embraces all linguistic communities as valid, acknowledging the power relations embedded in evaluations like “correct” and “proper” English). It was also a win for scathing irony.
Joseph Green announcing the winner of Virginia’s largest youth poetry slam, Hyperbole 2017
If there’s anybody here who doesn’t believe young people have something valid to say about serious issues confronting our world, you gon’ learn today! – Joseph Green, poet, educator, and co-organizer of the Hyperbole
Five students and I spent nine and a half hours experiencing, writing, performing, and discussing poetry last Saturday at the Hyperbole (cleverly pronounced Hyper Bowl – as in “Super Bowl”).
Loudoun School’s poetry club – representing grades 7 through 12
My students could have done anything with their Saturday, but they chose to use poetry to connect with young people from D.C., Maryland, and Virginia whom they likely wouldn’t have met otherwise.
They mingled during ice breakers, supported each other in the preliminary slam round, participated in two hours of workshops, celebrated music and poetry at an open mic, and watched the ten finalists (plus performers from Ushindi) on the big stage.
In the morning, students mingled with kids from other schools during an ice breaker.
It was cool to see my students overcome the inevitable awkwardness of meeting new people.
The bravery and brilliance of my two students who decided to compete are simply legendary; they each had lines that knocked the breath out of my chest (and I saw the audience respond the same way).
Hannah, 7th grade, performing “How to Write a Poem in Six Steps (a guide by an inexperienced and unqualified writer)
Tessa performs her poem, “For the Boy Who Killed Himself in December”
Tessa and I attended last year’s Hyperbole alone, and she vowed she would build up our poetry club and bring more students this year. The fact that five kids from different grades, genders, and backgrounds came with us to Hyperbole 2017 is a testament to Tessa’s inclusive, compelling leadership. Each week, she chooses prompts, leads exercises, and moderates workshops to help her peers craft their poetic voices. She’s willing to put herself out there first, and to make mistakes in public, to give the rest of us the courage to follow suit. And at Hyperbole, she gets to meet likeminded risk-takers from across the DC, Maryland and Virginia area.
My experience at the Hyperbole drove home Joseph Green’s point about the urgency of listening generously to the voices of our young people. I re-learned what I knew as a kid: teens are paying attention to the words and deeds of their elders; they care about justice and beauty and human dignity. They are willing to envision a better world — and able to articulate those visions powerfully through language and performance.
I am so proud of the kindness, openness, brilliance, boldness, and beauty these students shared with the world and one another.
Deep Sran and his middle school students discuss how to word their search queries, how to evaluate domain names, and what to look for when assessing a website’s credibility.
Are people generally capable of making sound decisions about complex problems? Given the onslaught of “fake news,” misinformation, and conspiracy theories, and given our tendency to isolate ourselves from people with different values and experiences from ours, how do we know when our decisions are right?
Cognitive research scientists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber suggest there is some hope. In their otherwise rather pessimistic study of reasoning’s argumentative function in human life, they note that if we work at it,we can become better reasoners:
Individuals may develop some limited ability to distance themselves from their own opinion, to consider alternatives and thereby become more objective. Presumably this is what the 10% or so of people who pass the standard Wason selection task do. But this is an acquired skill and involves exercising some imperfect control over a natural disposition that spontaneously pulls in a different direction.
My fellow faculty member and school founder Deep Sran is trying to do just that for students in his new Informal Reasoning course. The course is an opportunity for middle and high school students to practice the kind of thinking required to effectively process new information they encounter in daily life — as they listen to the news or surf the web, for example. Informal Reasoning forms part of Loudoun School’s broader mission to educate responsible and empowered citizens.
Today I sat in on the middle school section of his class, and I’m persuaded that giving kids time to “think about their thinking” with modeling and feedback can significantly improve student reasoning. I’m currently considering ways to connect what I saw today with what I’m doing in Writing Lab.
His lesson began with the question, “Should we restrict soda consumption for minors?” This question lends itself to flawed and self-interested reasoning because it’s:
controversial and polarizing
likely to matter to students personally
dependent on specialized knowledge from esoteric sources
Students recorded their thinking on a handout designed to take them through each step of an effective reasoning process, from “first reaction” to “introspection” to “research/verification” to “decision” ( as in, do you know enough to make one?) to a metacognitive question (“is there anything getting in the way of you going where the facts lead?”). The handout makes clear one of the assumptions of the course: we are better thinkers when we can honestly explain why we believe what we believe — and we’re even better thinkers when we can accurately evaluate whether those reasons supporting our beliefs are valid ones.
“Introspection” stood out to me as a particular departure from typical middle school instruction. Deep asked students to articulate what information, values, assumptions, or analysis supports their first reaction. The responses kids shared aloud were more candid and precise than one might expect:
Cavan (8th grade) noted that his personal experiences support his bias against the restriction. “I enjoy sugar, which influences me.”
Hannah (7th grade) shared that a documentary she’d watched in school helped form her opinion.
Eric (8th grade) said that conversations with his mom, a holistic nutrition consultant, had shaped his ideas about sugar.
The bulk of instructional time was devoted to a whole-class exercise in finding and evaluating sources. Though I’ve seen parts of this done in high school English classes or school library tutorials, this lesson was distinctive in several ways, and taken together, these elements are what made it successful:
Students led the process: they shared their searches, sources, and thoughts. Their ideas structured the class discussion, which led to some unexpected revelations (a source Deep wouldn’t have assumed to be reliable because of its sketchy URL ended up proving useful when students analyzed its content and transparent approach to citation).
The exercise began with how to word the search query and how to sift through search results. This is an often-overlooked stage of the research process.
The overhead projector, typically a signal that the lesson will require passive and quiet students, was instead a site of collaboration and student activity. Deep would call on a student, ask her what search query she used, and go through the entire process using the projector. We all followed along, commenting, evaluating, and reflecting throughout the process. There’s something really exciting and empowering about a student’s being able to control what is shown on the projector.
Since the lesson was process-based (“how do we find reliable sources to answer this question?”), the students thought out loud alongside the teacher. Modeling and reflection were natural outgrowths of this approach – kids benefitted from hearing Deep think aloud about source quality.
Feedback was immediate because the exercise combined written and oral participation and involved a small group of kids.
Clear guidelines emerged organically from the process. Students recorded these guidelines to apply in subsequent assessments. A list like this might go ignored if it were distributed in a handout, but because these tips emerged unexpectedly from real-time student comments, the recommendations likely “stuck” more:
“.edu” “.gov” and “.org” are better than “.com” (but this generalization isn’t always true)
Is the source transparent (about who is writing it, what sources they’ve used, etc.)?
Find out about the author of the site or article (is s/he an expert in a relevant field?)
Click on any links to sources included in the article (News media articles citing other news media articles should be viewed skeptically)
Articles that cite scholarly research are more credible, but check at least the abstract of the research to make sure it’s being used accurately
Beware sites that have lots of ads
Look at the badges at the bottom of the page (501c3 and Better Business Bureau are signs of credibility)
Students were required to reflect during the last five minutes of the period. Deep asked them to share their one-sentence take-away.
Also, Deep is hilarious. This isn’t really a reproducible element of his instructional design, but it really helped student engagement that he had a playful, teasing back-and-forth with kids throughout the period. I need to up my game.
Deep summarized the purpose of the lesson toward the end of the period by describing a process he hopes students will get in the habit of following as they reason:
We tend to come to a question like this with initial reactions. The next step, which few people do, is to see if you’re right. Then there’s a third step even fewer people do – I did the initial research, is it any good? And a fourth step — should I make a decision yet, or do I need to find out more? You can do all of this for your closely held positions: Why do I think that? I need to research that. Should I still think that?
These are the kinds of questions that make our thinking more rigorous and reliable. I hope that practicing this process makes kids more likely to apply it outside the classroom. Our future ultimately depends upon their ability to do so.
Poem created by Katie (9th) using MagneticPoetry.com
I hated teaching poetry until I finally understood that poetry’s grand function is in reminding us that our lives and our world can be different. By using language in new and unsettling ways, poets confront us with new ways of experiencing; they denaturalize us from the ordinary and shake us into a keen awareness of our vast, terrifying, beautiful possibilities.
In her 2013 address to the Yale Political Union, Meena Alexander tells us that
language that is used all the time and all around us—in sound bites, advertisements, political rhetoric, newsprint—needs to be rinsed free so that it can be used as the stuff of art.
So even language itself — or especially language itself — can confine us to the familiar, seemingly settled order of things. Poetry exercises refresh our minds like a palate cleanser. Words expose their power anew. Relationships between apparently unrelated concepts become clear, opening up original insights and challenging questions.
Magnetic Poetry offers a free online version of its popular word kit. I hooked it up to my projector and let my AP lit kids play around. Some worked in a group to build collective poems with the projector; others used smartphones or laptops to work quietly where they sat. I offered Telescopic Text, blackout poetry, and Boutes-Rimes as other possible activities. Most gravitated to Magnetic Poetry since we had never done that as a class. I think lots of the kids viewed it nostalgically, remembering the magnets in elementary classrooms or on their own refrigerators.
Sometimes, the structure or confinement of being limited to certain words, syllable counts, or rhyme schemes can paradoxically free us to create in new ways. I saw that happening in my classroom during this activity.
Here are a couple of the collective poems my students authored: