Why do *I* have to facilitate discussion? Facilitating book talks that start with student inquiry #uiwp2012 #PBLchat
When I started the year, I had 56 students in one of my sections and 50-some in another. (Want to try your hand at trying to manage that classroom on the first week?) As the year goes on, my classes get smaller, due to our transient student body at my school -- kids move, transfer or get in some disciplinary messes. Slowly, my classes have leveled off around 40 or so the last two years.
Given that class size, facilitating a classroom discussion in our co-taught classes (English and Current Events this semester) can be a challenge. Given the class size, students are probably intimidated, plus there is no way to keep things accountable. And given the class size, there are some days that I can barely get through an Agenda without an interruption or distraction. (The days that I can are the days I celebrate.)
I had thought about trying some Lit Circles this year (and there is still hope, given the flexibility of having a Current Events companion to my English curriculum), but I did not detect that we were there yet in our professionalism/collegiality... That is, until this week.
A week ago, I attended the University of Illinois Writing Project's Spring Conference and presented, too. My biggest take-away came from the keynote address by a former UIWP fellow who presented on her collaborative efforts to build student talk. What impressed me most was the way that she worked discussion around novels into the weekly routine, had the means to keep kids accountable and also covered the Common Core State Standards for Speaking and Listening. She put together a number of things that I had already been doing in my classroom -- text-marking while reading, setting roles for group members, taking notes while listening -- and found a way to weave them into a great process for setting students up for having collegial discourse about novel excerpts. Her examination of the power dynamics of discussion in her highly diverse classroom were thought-provoking as well, particularly when we started examining video clips that showed the growth of her students discussion skills.
In her week, step one was to give students all a common excerpt, which they marked up. Students were to develop "seed" questions that could grow into a conversation about the text. Students had a day for this and then a day for discussion in groups of four. Their discussions notes then could turn into possible avenues for essays and other written responses that fulfilled other CCSS strands.
Silent reading time takes a lot of effort to achieve given the class size, but I did manage to get to it with smaller excerpts in 15-20 minute slots. I adapted this format and did a couple trial runs on Monday and Wednesday in quick, one-period runs. As an AVID teacher as well, one of my biggest foci in my PBL classrooms is inquiry. We have been really hitting Costa's levels of questions. So, as a means for describing what a "seed" question was, I related it to level two and level three questions. The prep-work that my students did to get ready to talk about Fahrenheit 451 (see Text-Marking for disc - F451pt3 Burning for example) paid off, but I anticipated that the discourse would not necessarily be collegial right off the bat. Students work in groups regularly on projects, so my groups had already been established.
Technology played a part in helping to document this, so that we could have discussion in small-group workshops during our stations days. The power of video put kids on the spot to perform. As I moved around the room on the first two days, students would try to act more sophisticated when they saw me coming, but they still struggled. At our Promethean Board after the second attempt, students examined what the CCSS were and whether they were fulfilling them (see Discussion PS1213 Examples for our talking points ). We talked about steps to improve for Friday's discussion. Many noted they wanted more time to discuss (wow!), because they were not getting to all of their questions, nor were they getting into enough depth. Some wanted to go back to their questions, because they were proud of them and wanted to know their partners' opinions. (Secretly, I also celebrated the fact that they wanted to reflect on the alternate reality that Fahrenheit depicts.) They also picked out the best keywords of CCSS -- prepared, diversity, perspective, evidence, thoughtfully -- and were able to apply them to the good and not-so-good samples that they saw. They picked up on when students were going back to the text to back up a statement or contribution. We talked about the difference between "acting like listening" and "active listening", which made many students tune in and participate further in the workshop. (This may have been the best workshop I have run on so-called "soft skills" in my career.)
I played up the growing process all week, and, sure enough, my students were proudly calling me over to show off their new discussion skills on Friday. Some students saved their "best" questions for when I was sneaking around, listening in and taking video samples for further examination next week. Now having some time to examine their discussion trackers (see F451 pt3 Disc Organizer exemplars 3-8), I can see their levels of questioning were very diverse and also thought-provoking. Themes that I did not even really bring up in other scaffolding activities came to the surface.
In reflecting back on this experience, the core of the problem, I realized, was that my perception of discussion called for me, the teacher, to start the discussion ball rolling. This is an idea that was probably prompted by another UIWP fellow's blog post, but was proven by the discussion that I simply set students up for. Potential next steps would be adding some "How do you know?" sections to the organizers that I am proud of already. Finally, I can say discussion can be done, despite class size.
I spent a lot of time thinking about writing today. The University of Illinois Writing Project held its fall miniconference. While I was not presenting, it has been a good time to put new lenses on my writing instruction.
Earlier in the week, I was prompted by a Tweet to think more about what some writing initiatives look like in other schools. Peg Tyre indicates in "The Writing Revolution" that a school struggling with true literacy -- the reading and writing to learn type of literacy -- could accomplish big jumps in test scores with a return to some of the basics as well as a building-wide initiative to get students writing across all of their content areas. But the New Dorp initiative grew into more htan just a return to the traditional worksheet-driven grammar instruction; they grew a way of living literate in their school.
I commend educational leaders who respect the other end of literacy that has been neglected mostly thanks to No Child Left Behind. The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) Initiative has made it clear that we need a new direction for our priorities. With a greater emphasis on analytical and argumentative writing, the CCSS serves as an invite to think critically. But, as Tyre indicates (and does not elaborate on), there are some true speedbumps that some teachers are not ready to make.
What's missing in the "bitterly divided" school
What I think New Dorp desserves credit for is the process of inquiry that they went through in order to determine their students' weaknesses. Process is an important part of a teacher's life. With how predictable the bell schedule is, there is actually not much more we can rely on to happen regularly. So, when New Dorp's leader, Deirdre DeAngelis, pushed a writing initiative that involved all teachers, I would expect a "bitterly divided" staff at first. What's worth examining in division is the triggers where teachers commonly find themselves pulling into camps.
When you want to improve writing, you must recognize the culture that surrounds writing. (The UIWP conference was well-timed in order for me to refresh some things before responding. A big thanks to Paul Prior, whose presentation was an inspiration for much of this post.) There are two values which I will argue 1) were probably part of their process or 2) could become part of their larger picture:
- Writing needs a response to improve
- Writing is done in contexts
Writing needs a response to improve
Have you been through a department meeting recently where a building-wide writing initiative was discussed? How about one that is not an English department meeting? From colleagues outside of English, I have heard these can be quite heated conversations in their own right. In those conversations, there are a number of different statements re-used. "I'm not going to teach grammar" or "I don't know how to teach writing" are very common reactions and probably were part of the basis for the New Dorp school feeling "bitterly divided". Through sustained professional development, the staff seems to have developed a toolbox for the latter complaint -- teaching writing. But the most common complaint that non-English teachers use to throw all the papers in the air is frustration with poor grammar.
We still have a number of good English teachers and other teachers of writing who are preoccupied with the "error hunts" when they sit down and grade papers. And this kind of response to writing is very troublesome. You may sit down and make a comment in the first sentence to clarify or describe a phrase used...that is then only elaborated on in the subsequent sentence. What should the author do with that marking? Alternatively, you "code" your markup so that when finished with a paper the student has dozens of markings to attend to that will make him/her a better "writer". The student's next steps, then, require a longer first step of first further translating the codes. Teachers get caught up on this mentality and then have nothing to actually say about the writing -- they presume a deficit in writing when they actually should be trying to promote deeper learning through critical response. Students will never go back and fix all of these things you put so much energy into. In all reality, you, as a teacher who wants a good author-reader relationship, does not want to be known for drilling the blood red out of their paper constantly.
What I see in the New Dorp story is a clear and focused effort on getting better responses to and from students before they sit down to write. The teachers are creating a culture of writing. There is goal-driven process to all of their conversations (and remember, conversation is a two-way path). By creating a culture that uses the grammatical structures in discussion, New Dorp has built in the steps to drive students to more critical thinking -- they have matched response to their goals instead of distancing it through excessive markings. The meaning they put behind these grammatical/rhetorical structures is empowering to students because students know now that they have the capacity to explain their complex thought. Shouldn't that be the same way we mark up their papers? Clear, selective and focused?
In the process of writing, there is a time and place for editing response, but it should not fall on the final draft. Every teacher needs to remember that editing should be treated as an entirely different draft than the one that students will use to revise (that is, re-approach the thinking, planning or research they put into their explanations, arguments or narratives). There are some practical things that teachers can do to ease up the struggle of the editing phase. Many involve setting boundaries like only marking the first ten errors. Students could set goals for or label their grammar after reviewing their mechanics. My favorite (which I still have to try myself) involves picking at random a "G page" that you mark with a big G and then that is the only page you will use to evaluate mechanics.
When I see that New Dorp went through periods of bitterness, it was perhaps because of the implications that teachers will have more work to do. But, they should be selective about it. As Paul Prior puts it, don't live in A.W.E. -- assign, write, evaluate. That is the trap that leads you to want to grade everything all at once. Instead, take the time to go through the entire process and take steps to purposefully target areas of improvement.
Writing is done in contexts
Struggling school? Transient student body? Unsupportive parent bodies? Concerted efforts on skills and curriculum are nothing without an equivalent balance on the culture that promotes and makes students proud of them. You have to build positive culture into your classroom because its the only thing that will save you from submitted to deficit thinking yourself.
This semester, I have tried to focus on the culture of writing I give off in my classroom. After each quarter, I will be getting a temperature gauge of where my students think I am at in establishing this culture. (I am also expanding this survey to act as a data collection tool for my student portfolios... gotta collect that SMART data somehow!) I try to reinforce this culture through tags or comments that I have students put on their writing before submitting it as a rough draft. This type of annotation taps into their meta-cognitive skills and also starts the conversation for me, enabling them to feel empowered.
But where does the power begin in a school? The final session by a fellow UIWP fellow got me thinking about the satellite view of any school's culture, including my own. (Social justice is about to peek its head out beyond more than just my leadership theory classes now.) This presenter raised questions about which cultures have what capital and how we might tap into those in order to generate responses that reach students. By bringing in some of students' capitals -- aspirational, navigational, social, linguistic, familial, resistant, etc -- we might be able to bridge our instruction into the contexts that students see them in their lives. This kind of cultural sensitivity could be the essential next step that New Dorp needs to embody for for any type of writing response, regardless of what type -- argumentative, explanatory or narrative.
Which conversation is worth having?
Moving beyond what seems to be the easiest bitterness frees up a lot of energy to really consider the bigger-picture ideas. Call those people hippes as much as you want, but I call them (as the National Writing Project does) teacher-writers. Once we get beyond some of the trivial, there is so much that writing can do to help connect students with the world. (Is that not the purpose of writing anyway?) Only when we have the time to step back, see something working and ask the next question are we, too, modeling the critical thinking that CCSS and many other education reforms are now asking of our students. So, what's your response?
This morning, I woke to the a Google Alert on my name to find that I had been mentioned in a recent post by author Vicki Spandel on one of her blogs. I have written about some of Spandel's work and also used it as a basis for my argument in my New Tech Network Annual Conference (NTAC) Ignite talk on how to avoid FRACKing around with writing. (For even more FRACKing stuff, check out the page dedicated to the talk, complete with downloadables, etc..)
A fellow NTAC Ignite-er, Theresa Shafer, put together a very moving piece that I have used in my class and referenced at least once a week not that captures my fascination with this cross-country connection. In "Bridges and Fences" Shafer asks our NTAC audience whether we will build bridges to new experiences or to new people or whether we will box our minds and our hearts in. I am happy to say that this is one case where my bridge just made the world a bit smaller. Little did I realize this past summer how a response to a book would turn into a blog post... and then turn into a University of Illinois Writing Project (UIWP) teaching demo... and then into an Ignite talk... and then turn into a bridge to the expert author-consultants visiting throughout the year to help our high school develop better writing instruction practices across the contents. There's the power of blogging and social media for you.
Hopefully, this could develop into a lasting relationship that benefits my students. As a teacher on-the-ground, I'm constantly trying to translate the theory into better practice. Further curiosity in Spandel's Nine Rights of Every Writer turned into a SMART goal this year related to the culture of writing that I intend to build in my classroom. I'll be examining the first round of data from a Nine Rights / Culture of Student Writers survey I administered via Google Forms. It's not easy to teach culture per se, but perhaps knowing my students' thoughts will give me fuel for my continued pursuit of getting them to see themselves as writers, not just students completing another drone task. And now that I have the bridge over which to asks questions and dive deeper into reflection, my path will not be unguided.
So, this is what the big moment looks like. After weeks of writing and rewrites...Memorizing and practicing and rewriting... I am finally sitting in the front row of the ball room at the 2013 NewTech Annual Conference (#NTAC12), ready to take the stage with my heart pounding and my brain running at lightspeed.
For this of you visiting my blog to find out where to find some notes, FAQs or resources from my Ignite talk, "The Cylons are still out there; don't FRACK it up!", see the page dedicated to that talk here: http://wp.me/P11pIV-tR There, you are sure to find something to read or use in your own classroom as you prepare your Echo Literacy Tasks for next year!
This post is in response to my presentation / teaching demonstration, "Avoiding FRACK-ing by Building Better Writing Rubrics" (slides here), for the 2012 University of Illinois Writing Project Summer Institute. After presenting, other UIWP fellows also sent me feedback.
I ran out of time, but, I feel, such is the case for presentations that rely so much on tacit knowledge. Rubrics are such a touchy topic, but one that I had a lot to reflect on. In fact, most of the demo/presentation was really a reflection on my growth over the past year in the New Tech / PBL environment. For me, the biggest downfall I experienced while I was assessing writing last year was in trying to build a 3-column project rubric for writing. Project rubrics often more resemble checklists than scales of execution; writing rubrics need to look come with more columns and more emphasis on the values of writing and on critical thinking.
I'm glad to see that my conceptualized "Discovery Rubrics" (see slide 22) were well-accepted. With time, I hope that idea continues to evolve, offering me a way of promoting risk-taking and revision based on student inquiry/choice. With all of the talk about getting students to write more but revise more carefully, I hope the discovery rubric will invite and structure those goals in my classroom next year. My audience definitely took from me that rubrics should be looked at as tools for assessment/feedback (and thus formatted as such) as much they should be seen as tools for evaluation.
I only mentioned once that rubrics could be community-constructed, and the rest of the cohort here at UIWP seemed to really stick on to this. Sure, I was at the end of the line of a series of great presenters, but I am glad to hear that many would welcome an added discussion on to go about co-creating rubrics with students.
My audience wondered about the authenticity (in other words) of the breakout activity (they were to try to use Bloom's terms and a critical thinking score to build a rubric...in teams/groups). Since everyone in a team/group was coming from different backgrounds, they found themselves still generating generalized categories without having an assignment in mind. The task would have been better accomplished individually so that my audience could "localize" a rubric (a term that I used to describe attributing the values of a classroom's writing community) to a task they would use in the next school year. Unfortunately, collaboration fell apart here under such a time crunch. I wonder where conversations could have taken us had we the time for discussion and had the activity been paired or invidual vs. group-engaged.
I was reminded by another UIWP fellow as I was debriefing that "The same way that formulas do the hard thinking for kids is the same way that rubrics do the hard thinking for teachers... just ahead of time." As I continue to grow as a teacher, I want to think hard about feedback (and then assessment) ahead of time; I should not be let off the hook in that regard. Just as there should be no formula for my kids to cruise along, so should it be with my evaluation/assessment tools -- one must think critically and reflect so we do not just mindlessly fill in our gradebooks...or follow the guy in front of us off the bridge.
This is a down-down post to collect responses from the fellows attending my teaching demonstration during the 2012 University of Illinois Writing Project (#uiwp2012). The comments and replies represent the opinions of the authors and may not represent the owner of this site.
- Where did you start? / How did you go about establishing categories? / Did you start with a prompt or driving question?
- What "pet peeves" came up as you worked to develop a rubric?
- How did collaboration play into your rubric creation?
- How can you (if you can?) scale Bloom's taxonomy/terminology?
- Do you "grow out" of rubrics at some point?
- Is there a genre that is harder to establish a rubric for than another?
- Where did numbers play into your discussion?
- What's your impression of the proposed "discovery rubrics"?