The 1st steps to a connected reading classroom [with screenshots and videos]

Who thinks the term “English teacher” is accurate? Here’s why I ask…

We teach many skills in a class named after a language.  We teach students:

  • Reading literature, informational texts, images, and videos
  • Writing to inform, entertain, argue, explain and narrate
  • Public speaking skills, research skills, and listening skills.

That’s a lot lumped under the heading “English.”

So, we excel at some of that list and struggle with other parts of it.  I’ve struggled as a reading teacher and excelled as a writing teacher.

Reading instruction challenges me because I find it hard to make a student’s thinking visible in creative ways.  I  get the feeling that students understand more or less than I gather from conversations or written responses.

Though traditional reading challenges me, connected reading plays off something I love–solving problems with technology.  By creating a “connected” reading classroom, I’m trying to improve my reading instruction by leveraging my comfort with technology.

In this case, a connected reading classroom means using communication, collaboration and connecting to let students share thinking when they read.

This type of reading is an addition to print reading and not a replacement of it.

As Troy Hicks and Kristen Hawley Turner write in their NCTE Book Connected Reading: Teaching Adolescent Readers in a Digital World:

[W]e view reading in the twenty-first century not as an either/or, but instead a both/and; we need and want students to read traditional print texts as well as digital texts. We are concerned, however, that the digital gets lost in discussions of reform, policy, and implementation. And, if we are being totally honest about it, we wonder if teaching students to read digital texts, specifically, has been marginalized in classroom instruction, too. Even our colleagues who use technology regularly and for purposeful learning in their classrooms have told us that, sadly, they don’t spend much time teaching the skills needed for students to comprehend digital texts.

This last point resonates with me. I use technology purposefully in the classroom, but usually for scaffolding the writing process for students and facilitating independent research projects.  However, a quick glance around the classroom or the hallways shows that students do plenty of connected reading all day long.

So shouldn’t students practice connected reading to prepare them for the world they’ll enter after leaving the classroom?

Here are a few examples of the steps I’ve taken lately to create a connected reading classroom:

Below is a screenshot from a chapter of the book How to Read Literature like a Professor in a Google Doc.  I shared copies of the Doc with small groups of students, so they could read the chapter and make comments.

connected-reading

Students collaborated to annotate a digital text by defining unknown words and references

Then, students annotated the chapter by researching, defining and explaining those words and references using the comments feature.  Students scaffolded learning for each other by defining words that they knew and on some occasions discussed references or determined the best information to use when the same word or reference was explained twice.

The end result was a hyperlinked chapter, rich with information about the vocabulary and references used within the chapter.

This can serve as a reference for these students later in the year or for other students in the future.  More importantly, it emphasizes to students that reading is an active mental process, and that reading a text with unknown words and references is managed through actively seeking to fill gaps in knowledge.

I’ve written previously about articles of the week, and how it seemed that students disliked the lack of choice and the repetition involved in the assignment.  Reading about current events and practicing skills of close reading and annotation is important, though.

Now, students can use Feedly to create curated reading lists, and use annotation tools like Scrible or Diigo to annotate the documents and share them with me (for the future I’ll probably just stick with Google Docs for this).  The students have the choice of what articles to read and have more space and options when making responses (they can use colors, include links, etc.) I get to see what independent reading choices students make, and I’m no longer the one selecting, copying, distributing and organizing 80-100 pieces of paper.

connected-reading

A student selects an article on Feedly then shares his thinking using Diigo.

Finally, this think aloud screencast was an example I shared with students for a project that they did earlier in the year.  The assignment asked them to choose a passage from their independent reading books worthy of a close reading, annotate the passage by making literal, inferential and critical responses, and then present their annotations.  The presentation could occur through an audio file, video file, or in-class presentation.

Though many students are still uncomfortable with making a screencast, several students chose to record their think aloud using the voice memo apps native to most smartphones.  The assignment allowed students lots of room to explain their thinking about the texts they read, and gave me a great insight into the mental processes that students do while reading challenging text.

These three examples are simple ones, though hopefully they’re indicative of a larger shift that I’d like to make in reading instruction.  While the examples do rely on technology, it is the mix of reading with communication and collaboration that I find most valuable in making the steps towards a connected reading classroom.

By blending the time, choice and response that traditionally works best in reading instruction with the connectivity and room for elaboration that technology allows, I hope to help students make their thinking visible, and be a little more balanced of an “English” teacher…whatever that is anyway.


I go deeper into connected reading in the Google Docs for Social Learning Workshop.

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How Learning to Code Became Learning to Learn

This post originally appeared on Edutopia.

Jane is my student, and she loves stories.  Janes loves movies, she loves narrative video games, she loves telling stories to friends and hearing stories read aloud. But Jane struggles to write and read.   She loves to experience stories but lacks the skills that make stories possible.

So, I talk with other teachers and learn what works in math or history.  I scaffold assignments with and check-in frequently.  I use Jane’s interests to find relevant books and topics.   Jane might not see herself as a reader and writer, but I believe in the growth mindset: with the right strategies and lots of work, she can improve.

Until recently, I was like Jane, but with technology.  I used tech tools all day with little knowledge of their workings.  And, despite my interactions with Jane I had a typical fixed-mindset explanation for this: “I’m an English teacher. My brain doesn’t work that way.”   What I was really saying was, “I forget how to be a beginner.”

A year ago, though, I became a beginner, an apprentice, a struggling learner.  I decided to learn to code.

Immediately, the experience became less about designing websites, and more about experiencing the growth mindset, improving confidence with technology, and learning that failure is part of the process.

The Lessons

Learning to code was a reminder of the need to ask for help.  Teachers praise the growth mindset, recognizing the benefits for student learning. But how often do teachers live this philosophy by collaborating across grade-levels or departments?  Rarely. Teachers have our own fixed mindsets and are often reluctant to ask others about gaps in our knowledge.

My experience: In order to learn to code, I started from zero.  I quickly developed a strategy and list of resources. Instead of sticking to one course or book, I found multiple communities of coders who answered questions from beginners.  I was able to fill gaps in my knowledge, but only by asking for help.

The Resources: Stackoverflow and Quora are communities for asking questions and getting help from others.  If you decide to learn to code, these will be your best friends.

The takeaway:  Teach students to visit multiple sources to fill gaps in knowledge.  Demonstrate reaching out to experts through Twitter.  Facilitate peer feedback sessions and have students consider multiple perspectives on their work.  Asking for help is hard, but it’s a priceless part of the learning process.

Learning to code improves confidence with technology in the classroom.

My experience: when learning to code, things get “broken.”  The app crashes.  The web page won’t load.  No matter how broken things look, there’s nearly always a solution (except for those few times I scrapped everything and started from scratch.

The resources: Dive into something new like a blogging platform for students, try a backchannel discussion during class, or some of the fantastic (but somewhat complex to set up) Google add-ons from New Visions Cloud Lab.

The takeaway: Learning requires diving in head first without a fear of failure.  Try a new tech tool to solve a problem, even if you’re not totally comfortable using it. Invite students to help figure out how to use new apps or platforms, and when things break, consider it a challenge not a catastrophe.

Learning to code reminds teachers what makes learning fun, challenging, and authentic.

My experience: Each week, I reflect on three questions in my notebook: “what’s working? what’s not working? and what next?”  As my coding skills increased, my goal became creating a blog app to use for these reflections. I stayed motivated because I had a project to complete.

The Resources: I used One Month to learn the web framework Ruby on Rails because their courses are project-based. If you have zero experience coding,  start with one of the project-based courses on Codeacademy.

The takeaway: The process of learning to code reminded me of the importance of making school authentic.  When students do or make something real, they stop focusing on their inabilities and start looking for answers to their questions.

Though I approached this challenge hoping to learn a new set of computer skills, I came away with lessons about learning that I believe any teacher can gain by throwing themselves into something where there a beginner.

It’s been about one year since I started learning to code, and I’m not ready to build the next Twitter.  The next time a student like Jane comes along, though, not only will I have a set of strategies to share, but I’ll be able to say, “I know how you feel, believe me.”

 

How to show students your writing process in real time

This post explains some of the fears that come with modeling writing for students and describes a tool that lets you share your process, keystroke by keystroke.


Have you ever stood in front of a class of 25 teenagers with a pencil in your hand and constructed an argument in favor of raising the minimum wage?

Or have you sat at the computer with your screen projected for the class to see as you write the opening of a narrative about the time you disappointed a friend?

It’s not easy.

But after reading Kelly Gallagher’s Write Like This: Teaching Real-World Writing Through Modeling and Mentor Texts a few years ago, I knew that writing in front of students would help to demystify the writing process and help them improve.

What Gallagher says about real-world writing

Simple solutions to complex problems are great. I find that Kelly Gallagher’s two suggestions for how to build real-world writers incredibly simple, though not easy. He says teachers should:

  • Give students the chance to write in “real-world discourses”
  • Give students lots of models of good writing–both from ourselves and others

Reflecting on his experience teaching writing, he shares this wisdom:

When my students see me wrestling with decisions as my writing unfolds, it gives them insight on how to compose their own pieces. I don’t tell them how to draft their papers; I show them how I draft my papers. I am the best writer in the room, and as such, I need to show them how I grapple with this mysterious thing we call writing. You are the best writer in your room; your students need to stand next to you and see how you struggle with the process as well.

As anyone whose ever tried to build a habit learns, knowing the right thing to do and actually doing it are different.

After what must be close to 100 times or more of composing in front of students, the fear has lessened, but there’s still always the risk of having a tough audience for that day.

Students have talked over me, put their heads down or looked quizzically at me while I model a writing task. Other students have made breakthroughs after watching me write in the genre that they are working.

Some get it, and it’s clear that it helps them. Some show a face that says, “Can you just let us get to work?”

Despite the challenges or fears that come with writing in front of students, I know that modeling the process and providing good feedback are the best ways to help student writers improve.

While writing in front of students is valuable in the right situation and for the appropriate time duration, sometimes students need to see a finished product and see how the writer got there.

This is where Draftback comes in.

Draftback is a Google Doc add-on that allows you to play back every keystroke that you’ve recorded in any of your Google Docs. Yes, I know, it’s kind of creepy that every key stroke you’ve made is saved by Google, but it’s also powerful.

James Somers, the programmer who created Draftback, has an appreciation for the writing process, which led him to build this useful tool. He talks about his fascination with his favorite writers, such as John McPhee and Ernest Hemingway, and he wonders about the “archaeology” of their writing. He writes:

But what if you could actually see these guys at work? Isn’t it a shame you can’t?

I worry that most people aren’t as good writers as they should be. One thing is that they just don’t write enough. Another is that they don’t realize it’s supposed to be hard; they think that good writers are talented, when the truth is that good writers get good the way good programmers get good, the way good anythings get good: by running into the spike. Maybe folks would understand that better if they had vivid evidence that a good writer actually spends most of his time fighting himself.

After trying the tool out, I notice that I spend most of my time fighting myself, too. Constant deletions, backtracks, re-wordings. Hardly the fast-flowing, free write that I imagine happening and encourage students to pursue.

So modeling writing in this way adds a new layer of depth, because it allows the writing teacher to gain insights into his or her own process through watching the playback of the writing, and then share these insights with the students as they watch the teacher’s or their own playbacks.

Using Draftback to show students my writing process has me thinking about the various ways that teachers model writing. I’ve tried:

  • Writing in front of students from scratch while thinking aloud about the process.
  • Planning out my writing in advance, then sort of pretending to write it from scratch.
  • Creating a finished product, sharing it with students, then re-writing part of it in front of the class while thinking aloud.
  • Presenting a finished product to students and discussing it as a class.

Each of these ideas scaffolds the writing process in a different way.  Of all the above options listed, none seem to work as well as using Draftback because it allows me to write a full piece, then go back and show students both the full piece and the process I used to create it.

In this case the students were working on “Going from prose to poetry.” This is a process I first learned of from Jim Mahoney, author of Power and Portfolios, my former professor and a mentor.

Here’s a link to the draft I typed in front of one class, then used Draftback to show to another class.

The students followed these steps:

  1. Find a photograph or painting related to their research topic.
  2. Spend five minutes free writing about the image from an established perspective (either as themselves or someone in the image)
  3. Re-read the writing, looking for distinct images.
  4. Transform the writing into poetry by breaking the lines where new images occur, deleting excess words and adding vivid description where possible.

Students may struggle with this task because it involves an especially challenging final step of visualizing how the writing might be transformed into a poem and where strategic edits and revisions can be made.

So, by demonstrating the process of removing entire lines, rewording a line to make it more precise, reordering the words in a sentence, and breaking the sentences up into lines and stanzas, students see the “moves” that a writer can make, and they may gain a better understanding of how to use these moves in their own work.

It doesn’t work magically, and I know that I was more excited about using this tool than the students were; however, I do think that students benefited from seeing the writing process for one writer demystified, from start to finish.

How have you shown students your creative process? Do you model the writing process in front of students from scratch? Reply in the comments.

Scaffold the writing process with the digital writer’s notebook

I detail other similar strategies for responding to student writing in a short guide called Simplify Feedback. Get it here.

Too many papers to read, too many individual needs, too little time.

This is the life of the English teacher. With 100+ students and 100+ individual needs, the situation seems dire.  Teachers see two solutions, on opposite ends of a spectrum, as a way to solve the problem and improve student writing.  You can either  spend hours responding to individual papers, or, scan the papers, identify trends in student writing and address those through mini-lessons.  Both options work, but both make some sacrifices.

Either sacrifice your energy and risk burning out, or sacrifice the learning of all the students who don’t need your mini-lesson.

Both of these approaches can be made more manageable, but lately the option that’s worked best to improve my students’ writing is “the digital writer’s notebook.”

The “digital writer’s notebook” is a simple, two-tool system:

  • Students write several drafts in the same genre of writing in a single Google Doc
  • The teacher uses Kaizena to give consistent but short feedback on these drafts until students eventually create a final draft

So, there’s no spending hours on a single class-stack of papers, and no making broad generalizations about the writing needs of a whole class in order to save time.

In my freshmen academic class, which is largely reading and writing workshop based, students are required to meet weekly word count goals as they explore writing in a specific genre (expository, persuasive, descriptive etc). They write several different drafts in the same genre of writing, or complete parts of one larger piece, step-by-step.

For example, this year my freshmen students have:

  • Written 250 words per week on an expository essay, leading up to one final draft
  • Written three persuasive complaint letters, each at least 350 words in length. Each one was addressed to a different recipient. At the end of the unit, students revised one and sent the letter to the person or organization who needed to read it
  • Written three descriptive writing scenes, each at least 500 words in length. One was inspired by a photo from The New York Times 2014 photos of the year, one was a personal memory, and one was a fictional scene created by the students. Students will revise one and display it with an accompanying visual (photo, drawing, etc)

One important aspect is that all of the writing for the unit goes in one Google Doc. Doing this makes seeing progress and improvement faster and easier for the teacher and students, and it allows students to use the feedback they’ve received on a previous draft to help them writing an upcoming draft.  Doug Fischer and Nancy Frey have referred to this use of formative assessment for future learning as “feed forward.”  This repeated practice in a single genre, combined with the use of Kaizena to give specific, actionable, feedback, has allowed me to scaffold the growth of student writing from the beginning of the year to now.  The students have developed stamina and confidence in their writing, and I’ve been able to provide them a manageable amount of feedback in a way that puts the students in charge of improving their writing.

The Fine Print

In the interest of not making things sound too automatic and magical, here are the issues that may arise with this “Digital Writer’s Notebook” concept:

  1. If students don’t complete the weekly word requirements, then they fall behind quickly, because other students have received feedback and are working on revising and writing their new drafts, while these students have little to nothing written yet, and therefore little for the teacher to provide feedback on.
  2. There is a learning curve with Kaizena, the Google Doc add-on used to provide feedback. With my classes, I’ve taken time to demonstrate to students how they can get my feedback, and some students have required individual help when they struggle to find where to get their comments.  I don’t use Kaizena for technology’s sake, but at a few moments it has felt like I’m teaching technology instead of writing.  Once studnets get the hang of it, though, there’s no need for more tech instruction.
  3. Students might put more work into some drafts than they do on others, knowing that they’ll choose one to revise.  This is bound to happen. Still, more writing practice is better than less.

That said, here’s the story…

Start with “easy wins”

In the beginning of the year, the writing requirements were small–much less than what most students could do comfortably.  This was by design.  They were asked to write 250 words per week in their Google Doc, and they could include anything that they’d written in their “real” writer’s notebooks, quick writes, brainstorming, notes taken during researching their topic, anything.  This made meeting the 250 word goal easy for nearly all students.

By starting with “easy wins” for the students, they developed momentum and confidence in their writing.  They realized that they can write 250 words in a sitting with ease, so as the word count requirements gradually increased–doubling, tripling, and eventually quadrupling–the students rise to the challenge because they’re used to meeting the requirements.

Google Docs make this process practical for me and the students. They can see their progress by viewing the changes by the time date feature.  I get a quick reference to track student progress, even sometimes checking how much a student has written within a specific class period dedicated to drafting.  This feature is also useful for checking students’ meeting of due dates and for assigning credit to students for work completed.

Students are often pleasantly surprised when they find out that they can check out the previous changes they’ve made to their document by clicking on the “All changes saved in Drive” link at the top of their document, which brings up their Revision history.  They see their color-coded changes with timestamps like these:

Reviewing revision history in Google Docs is a great tool for conferences, as it is an undeniable record of what changes students have or have not made.  Simple questions like, “Why did you decide to replace/add/delete/reorder this?” are made more concrete when students can see the color-coded changes that they’ve made to their writing.  I also get insight as to when students receive feedback, but ignore it.

Why Word Counts?

Providing students with specific word count goals has been one of the most important features of scaffolding student writing growth with the digital writer’s notebook throughout the school year.  Word counts eliminate a lot of the gaming that students may try to do with writing assignments.  No finagling font sizes, no slowly creeping in the margins, and no changing the periods to a larger font size (The last technique is clever, but still dishonest).

First drafts are for addition, second drafts are for subtraction.

Word counts give the students a concrete goal to shoot for, and gets them used to elaborating on their ideas and developing stamina.  At 450 words but shooting for 500?  Figure out how to fully explain that idea from paragraph three. First drafts are about addition, second drafts are about subtraction.

Following this maxim, students are provided with word counts for the first drafts, but on final drafts I leave with them with the words of Kelly Gallagher’s response to the student question, “how long should this essay be?” This is roughly paraphrased from Teaching Adolescent Writers.

It goes something like,

KG: “How long is a piece of string?”

Student: “As long as you decide to cut it?”

KG: “Exactly.”

So, word counts place a sort of maturity and authenticity to the students writing assignments.

Support along the Way

As students are making word count progress on a single long piece or multiple drafts in the same genre, I use Kaizena to give short, focused and actionable feedback.

The resources feature of Kaizena acts as a force multiplier of my time and hopefully of student learning, as I am able to quickly share a website or video with students that they can read on their own time, learn from and apply to their writing in several places.  This doesn’t always happen, but when it works out, it works out beautifully as students are leading their learning far more than if they were simply retyping an essay by fixing the spelling errors I’ve identified.

Overall, this practice of having students complete word count progress during writing units in a single Google Doc and providing feedback along the way with Kaizena allows me to:

  • Identify trends in student writing that mini-lessons can address, but not relying on this as the only way of providing instruction
  • Give students responsibility to evaluate their own writing, notice other areas for improvement based on comments I’ve give them
  • Make revision manageable for students, and make providing feedback manageable for me

Basically, the digital writer’s notebook is a paperless way to have students practice writing a lot, get some feedback, and make consistent progress throughout the school year.

What ways have you found to simplify the writing progress?  Do you use any systems to put students in charge of their learning and improvement?  Share your ideas below.

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4 Resources (and questions that got me thinking)

Every two weeks, a few colleagues and I get together.  At the end of the conversation, I find a page full of notes with useful resources and questions.

Why keep that all to myself?

Here’s the first in what I hope to be an on-going series of messages filled with resources and questions to consider. Enjoy…

  1. Sir Ken Robinson’s “Changing Education Paradigms”

A personal classic that I always find worth revisiting.  Robinson outlines the state of education from 10,000 feet, placing our current medication- and test-obsessed school system in context with the industrial revolution and the modern technological revolution. I prefer to watch the RSA Animate version because the visuals enhance his message in a clever and meaningful way.

To consider: what’s the first step towards moving in the direction Robinson suggests? How do we make the classroom a place that awakens students instead of anesthetizes them?

  1. Geneva Gay’s “Hip-hop hip-hope” and “Preparing for Culturally Responsive Teaching.” Gloria Ladson-Billings “But That’s Just Good Teaching! The Case for Culturally Responsive Teaching”

To consider: where are your gaps in cultural knowledge?  What cultures are part of your students’ lives but not part of your classroom?

  1. Dividing our attention or enhancing the conversation? Live-tweeting lessonsand back channel discussion in the classroom.

To consider: How can we balance the benefits of a connected classroom with the ever-shrinking attention span of students?

  1. Evolving understandings of source attribution and plagiarism: “What your students really need to know about digital citizenship” by Vicki Davis via Edutopia.

To consider: How do writing teachers negotiate the changing nature of sharing sources, attributing sources, and research, with the traditional standards of research taught in the English classroom (i.e. MLA, typically)?

Hopefully these resources and questions will be helpful and will allow for a continued conversation. Reply with comments or new questions for discussion.

Coaches don’t keep score during practice (why do writing teachers?)

Grading.  This is an area of teaching I constantly struggle with.  How to grade, what to grade, how many points is this worth?

Feedback is important, but it seems that grades often get in the way of feedback and learning, instead of promoting them.

In his book Teaching Adolescent Writers, Kelly Gallagher talks about using a writing coach mindset in order to have students do more writing practice and get more feedback, without teachers doing more grading.

Here’s a simple Google Drawing that shows the 3:1 philosophy, part of the writing coach mindset.

Enjoy and share.

P.S. — This image comes from the guide I’m working on called Simplifying Feedback.  If you’d like me to send it to you, enter your email in the box on the left.

These ideas are originally created by Kelly Gallagher in his book, Teaching Adolescent Writers

These ideas are originally created by Kelly Gallagher in his book, Teaching Adolescent Writers.

No Fear Peer Feedback

I forget that students interact with each other (or don’t) outside of my classroom.  That seems ignorant, I know, but it’s a kind of cognitive bias that seeps into my consciousness every so often.  I see students in my room, acting generally civil as they work and learn, and I assume that they all feel comfortable with each other.

And then…”tomorrow, bring a clean copy of your draft for peer feedback.”

Silence. Looks of trepidation. Uncomfortable glances around the room.

After witnessing scenes like the one above throughout the past few years, I reflected on the process of peer feedback I’ve implemented.  For me, it involves selecting small groups for the students, providing guiding questions for students to consider as they read; for the students, it means handing their paper over to classmates they may or may not be friends with, and getting the paper back with comments written by those students.

As a student, I wouldn’t be too thrilled by that process.  It feels impersonal and intrusive.  The process could work better.

I decided on three main factors that were negatively affecting the process, but that I could also easily change:

Factor #1: Student writers receive their paper back with marks all over it. This is a defacement of their thinking.

How to address it: all peer feedback comments go on a separate piece of paper.  No red marks scribbled in the margins.  This encourages readers to write narrative-style comments, instead of the dreaded “awk” or “good vocab.”  Readers sign their names at the bottom of their comments.

Factor #2: Readers focus on elements of the writing selected by the teacher, instead of providing an authentic response to the writing.

How to address it: all comments are framed in terms of the reader’s reaction to the writing, and the readers cite specific moments in the text where applicable.

So something like, “You were really unclear in this essay, you should re-word it,” is unacceptable for this process. This is judgement and advice, not feedback.  The advice is vague and could be wrong, and the judgement feels rude.

A similar comment could be framed by the reader as, “I got lost in the middle of paragraph three” or “The sentence beginning with, ‘_______’ confused me.” Now, the writer gets an honest glimpse at what the reader’s reaction to the piece was, without the condescending directions imposed by the first type of comment.

Factor #3: At the end of the process, writers may be unsure of the next step. How do they use this bunch of words provided by others as a means to improve the writing?

How to address it: writers begin the process by noting their “intention” for the piece. This is a description of how they want the piece to effect the reader. It could be something like, “I want this piece to make the reader feel the sense of awe I felt when visiting the Grand Canyon, and I also want this piece to teach the reader about the geography about that area.”

After student writers receive their writing with a separate sheet filled with peer feedback comments, they have a specific standard to measure themselves against. They consider the comments of the readers, and notice if the readers reacted in the way that the writer intended them to react. If, using the example from above, a reader noted that, “This piece left me wondering how the writer actually felt about his trip to the Grand Canyon,” the writer knows that he must return to his piece and make some changes.

The results:

After trying this with a few classes, I noticed an improvement in engagement and the overall atmosphere of students during the peer feedback session. The quality of the reader comments was not at the level I believe they can be, but in the future, more modeling of the kind of comments that I think would be help writers may lead to an improvement in that area.  Students responded authentically to each other’s writing by explaining what the pieces taught them and how the writing affected them; most of the time, their comments matched the writer’s intentions for the piece.

So, while this was no educational miracle, it never hurts to put myself in the mind of a student in my classroom, and imagine what the experience is like. It’s important to consistently ask myself: is this an activity I’d find meaningful, relevant and comfortable doing?

A simple test for your teaching priorities

“Show me your to-do list, and I’ll show you your loved ones.”  No, Ben Franklin never said this.  It’s probably too clunky to spread.  But as school starts and teaching begins, this idea resonates with me.

To better understand my point, I invite you to do the following:

Draw a line down a piece of paper.  On the left, list your priorities.  On the right, list the activities you choose to do everyday.  (I emphasize choice, thinking that people may not prioritize their job, but they prioritize the life that it allows them, and the family that the job helps to feed.)

On the left, I list loved ones, health, and teaching.  On the right, I list talking with my wife, sleeping, eating 3-4 meals, meditating, working, commuting, and reading.  Looking further, I notice other daily patterns: eating lunch distracted, often while reading online, checking social media or websites too frequently, allowing my mind to wander as I talk to people.  Everything else varies from day to day.  Whether I like it or not, this is the truth.

Here, I remember David Foster Wallace’s words about alcoholics who struggled with concepts like “one day a time.” He eloquently wrote, “it starts to turn out that the more vapid the cliche, the sharper the canines of the real truth it covers.”

This simple exercise is both disappointing and empowering.   The power comes through recognizing behaviors that have become habitual, and changing them so they align with your priorities.  The changes need not be drastic, just small and consistent.

Teachers: does this sound at all familiar? A battle between the ideas you believe in, and the truth of your daily lessons?


This post is a reminder to me to stay aware of my teaching habits, and align them with practices that I know work best.

It’s easy to let distractions cloud teaching and planning.  There’s a lot to do–or dare I say “cover”–and shortcuts and rushing sometimes creep in.  But just as with my overall priorities, my classroom priorities each deserve one thing–time.

Each of the following is a habit that I remind myself to make time for this year:

  • Listening: Pausing and waiting after asking a question shows students that deep thinking, and giving everyone a chance to formulate an idea, is important.
  • Writing Beside Them: I allude to Penny Kittle here: taking time to write with and in front of students.
  • Sharing: After writing, asking students to share in small groups or with the whole class, modeling intent listening by reporting back the details heard.  This shows students that sharing writing is not just a time-filler but a way to learn from each other.
  • Re-doing, rewinding, repeating: Spending time with a grammar or writing concept, then revisiting the same rule or skill several times throughout the year shows students that curriculum is not just for coverage, but for understanding and practical use.
  • Time (yea I said it, I’m making time for time) Sometimes students should practice reading or writing without me conferencing or interrupting them.  This shows students the connection between my class and sports–no one improves if the coach blows the whistle too often.  Thanks to Kelly Gallagher for this analogy.
  • Talk: Asking students to talk to each other in a variety of formal and informal situations nearly everyday, about a specific question, an opinion, or simply to explain their accomplishments for the day.  This shows that talking is a way to reinforce, remember, and figure out what’s important.
  • Expectations: Giving students a lot of class time to work on big projects, then holding students to high expectations for those projects.  This shows the big idea I’ve been talking about throughout this post–the more time given to something, the more important it is.

Many of these items appear consistently in my teaching, and some should appear more.  Throughout the year, I’d like to stop and ask myself to compare what I believe is most important to what students did yesterday, and what they’ll do tomorrow.

What do you make time for in your classroom and your life?  Let me know below in the comments or at Gerard.Dawson1@gmail.com.