We All Get Sucked Into The Intellectual Echochamber

I checked by my Facebook newsfeed a few weeks ago, and, according to the posts I saw, there was a %100 guarantee that Bernie Sanders would (still) win the election. The creators of Pokemon Go were the near runners up.  When I looked over the shoulder of some older adults using Facebook, their feeds told a different story. (It wasn’t spying. I had to do it as research for this post.)

What does this tell us about the nature of reading in the 21st century?

Educators, and presumably our students, can fall into what I’ll call the Intellectual Echochamber. A few quick examples of this come to mind:

  • Our beliefs tailor our social media feeds. Our clicks, comments and likes dictate the content we see. This restricts the scope of differing perspectives we experience.
  • The “niche” Interest site provides media that fits our exact interests, reinforcing our identities. So, we can find the group of moms who make baby food from CSA vegetables.  
  • Even on Amazon, we see what customers who viewed our purchases also bought. This is saying, “people like you, who like this item, are also the type of people who like X, Y and Z.”

While adults love to criticize the current youth for the complete digital saturation of their lives, they may have an advantage. They have only ever experienced the Information Age, so they will have more practice and more time to develop social norms for digital communication and consumption by the time they are adults.

For current adults, the ones who are often busy saying that the current youth will have no communication skills and no sense of “truth” about information, this digital world has crept up on us as a gradual change from the world of old media.  We are also stuck with our heads down on our phones, but we might be more likely to pop up and say, “Wait, how did I get here?”

As an educator promoting literacy as well as objectivity through teaching journalism, it is important to cultivate a sense of awareness about the fragile nature of truth and information that pervades our reading today.

I think this process involves two steps:

  1. Recognizing the concept of the Intellectual Echochamber (awareness)
  2. Developing strategies for how to stay aware of it (and maybe even get out of it.)

Here’s a simple process I sometimes follow. I’m still thinking about how to adapt this into a lesson for my students this year:

  1. Scan my newsfeed to find a political post.  It can be a shared photo with caption (these are especially treacherous), a link to an article, or a rant.
  2. Read it/watch it/view it, and determine the thesis of the post and/or the article shared.
  3. Research the validity of the claim made in the post and/or the article.
    1. Snopes.com is one (imperfect) source for quick checks. I use it for political memes and those treacherous decontextualized photos.
    2. FactCheck.org is a non-profit that can also serve as a place to corroborate information.
  4. Now, I may come to a realization about my friend’s post. Are they sharing a bogus photo? Is their post filled with logical fallacies and factual inaccuracies. While I could reach out and share this information, I’ve found this process is more beneficial at keeping me aware of the generally poor quality of information shared on the Internet, as opposed to going on a mission to fact check all my friends.

I feel a responsibility to maintain a level of literacy and awareness as an educator and as an American. There’s also a responsibility to pass on these attributes to students in public schools. It’s important to stay aware of how literacy, democracy and the nature of information has fundamentally changed, and is never going back.

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Holding students accountable in the way that works

As a high school freshman, I was woefully unprepared to meet the demands of my classes.  I think I had the intellectual abilities, but I did not have the necessary time management or organization strategies. School had been easy for me up to grade eight, and I entered grade nine with no thoughts about devoting more time, effort or planning to my work. A typical day involved me coming home from school and going out to a friend’s house, or staying up too late playing the guitar.  This left me finishing long papers and other projects late at night, which meant I was doing sub-par work.  My grades dropped from As to Cs.

The next year, I dropped out of two of my four honors classes, thinking that the course load was to blame. Fortunately, my English teacher Miss Kelly had a plan of her own to help me succeed: she asked my friend Nora, a student who was organized, forward thinking and is successful today because of it,  to help keep me on track. Nora talked to me about my school work, reminded me to finish assignments, and reviewed upcoming due dates.  I didn’t have a miraculous turn around, but this accountability system worked.  I’m grateful to Nora and Miss Kelly for their help, and I keep that story in mind when working with a student who seems to have the ability, but lacks the other skills required for academic success.

The ability to maintain focus, consistency and deliberate practice  is one of the Super Powers of the 21st Century (along with listening and mindfulness, in my opinion) that students must learn in order to be successful adults in our modern world.

If you read any of the bloggers who write about habits, like Leo Baubauta of Zen Habits or James Clear, you’ll know that they don’t just tout one common system for every person and every habit. If you want to lose weight, start meditating, read more, or improve a relationship, you have to find the accountability and motivation system that works best for your personality, history and environment.

Why, then, when trying to build a lifelong habit of reading with my students, should I expect every student to respond to the same accountability system? And are traditional grades the best accountability system for encouraging a habit in students? I argue that external motivators like grades are a temporary motivator at best, and that teachers must differentiate their accountability systems for students, just as we differentiate learning activities and assessments.

Why not just use grades?

Punitively grading students who don’t read is one option, but this external motivator is not likely to promote a long-term love of reading. It’s more likely to promote students lying, cheating or pretending to read, in order to get the grade. That’s not their fault, it’s ours. If we set extrinsic goals for reading, the students will use whatever methods they can to meet those goals. Intrinsic motivation is what I want for student readers, but it is much more difficult to cultivate. Not every approach will work for every kid.

What’s a potential solution?

Many teachers I’ve talked to would agree that differentiating instruction and varying the type of learning activities that take place in the classroom are generally good teaching practices, because different things work for different students. During this past year, I started to look more at my own practices for reminding myself to take certain actions and how I tried to maintain habits, and match those practices to students who would benefit.

A few options:

  • Some students like to set their own goals for pages or books that they’ll read in a week, month or marking period. Those students enjoy tracking their progress, monitoring themselves to get feedback, and honestly reflecting on how and if they met their goals.  The reading ladders system, often discussed by Teri Lessesne in Reading Ladders and Penny Kittle in Book Love, works well as an end of term assessment for students who use this approach.
  • Other students need consistent reminders and motivation, either from adult or else where. Daily conferencing might help these students stay on track.  I’ve also encouraged some students use the reminders on their phones as an alarm to remind them to read or bring their books to school.
  • Other students benefit from a social accountability measure–they need to know that others depending on them or will see the results of their work. Challenge these students to give a book talk by a specific date in order to reach these kids.

Teachers can helps students make consistent progress in the long term by explicitly teaching a variety of accountability methods, and when the assessment happens, some students will be more prepared because they’ve been putting in the effort thanks to their new way of staying on track. When I think about the times that individual students have succeeded in moving from non-readers to readers, it’s been the individualized approaches that have made the difference.

What implications does this have?

There’s a lot of buzz around personalized learning right now, and it’s often a tech-based conversation. But, if we ignore apps and devices, this is the original personalized learning: finding out what works for each individual student in front of me, and creating conditions where they can do hard work and succeed.

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Teaching and the art of saying “no”

Here’s the scene: Two things pop-up on my calendar simultaneously. My wife, Jen, and I realize two things are planned for the same day. An overwhelming feeling notifies me that I’ve taken on too much. The root cause of this? Not saying “no” often enough.

There are two causes to this scene:

  1. Fear of disappointing others
  2. Shiny object syndrome

The first cause is rarely justified. When I respect my own time by managing priorities, other respect my time as well. The second, shiny object syndrome, is sometimes good. For example, my original Internet browsing of the Teachers Throwing Out Grades group led me to teach a full year without grading any of my freshmen assignments.

But more often than not, the cycle goes like this:

Can’t say no —> overcommitment —> stress —> less energy to do all of those commitments.

Saying “no” purposefully is an art, and it is essential for success as a teacher and as a person. When planning instruction, the art of saying “no” comes down to the question: how will I spend my time with my students?

How do I figure out what to say “no” to?

There’s a quote from General George S. Patton that helps me when I’m struggling to make plans. He said:

“A good plan today is better than a perfect plan tomorrow.”

I apply this to teaching by telling myself that often, the decision of what to teach is less important than actually making the decision. No, teachers should not simply teach whatever they want. We should deliberately decide on the best materials and lessons for our students, forget everything else, and accept that we cannot teach everything. Say “no” to all but the things we decide are the essentials.

What’s an example of this?

Close reading might be the most cluttered part of English Language Arts instruction. The mountain of approaches, resources, strategies and skills mentioned in blog posts, books, conference presentations and Tweets is overwhelming. It’s a recipe for overcommitment. It’s a place to practice the art of saying “no.”

In previous years, I’ve been distracted by trying to teach every reading strategy I can think of, different types of annotation for different situations, various ways to ask and answer questions, and all sorts of literary devices and stylistic elements that students might come across. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t see a problem with doing any of those things, but I did see a problem in my own teaching with doing ALL of those things.

It was time for a change.

Throughout this past school year, Falling in Love with Close Reading by Chris Lehman and Kate Roberts was a helpful guide for my direct reading instruction. It allowed me to practice saying “no” when planning my days, weeks, units and entire school year.

The reason it was so helpful? It was simple.

There are four aspects of close reading mentioned in the book: finding evidence to support an idea, analyzing word choice, analyzing structure and analyzing perspective. That’s it. I chose to focus on one of those ideas per marking period, building on the previous marking period each time.

The list above includes only a fraction of the topics that could be taught under the umbrella of “close reading.” It worked well for me and my students because we had a clear focus and clear objectives. There was no shiny object syndrome, because there was a simple plan to follow.

This is not an endorsement for Falling in Love with Close Reading, but it is an endorsement for developing a clear, simple framework for however you approach your direct reading instruction.

Other helpful, streamlined models for direct reading instruction include:

Falling in Love with Close Reading: Lessons for Analyzing Texts–and Life by Chris Lehman and Kate Roberts
Notice and Note by Kylene Beers and Bob Probst
Notice and Note for Nonfiction (same authors)
How to Read Literature Like a Professor
Doug Fisher and Nancy Frey’s thoughts on annotation (slides):
The Non-Freaked Out, Focused Approach to the Common Core by Dave Stuart Jr.

When have you practiced the art of saying “no” in your teaching? What frameworks for close reading do you use? Leave your answer in the comments.

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Everything I learned while teaching English without grades

This post is brought to you, quite literally, by Starr Sackstein’s Hacking Assessment. The ideas in Hacking Assessment inspired me to try a feedback instead of grades policy in my freshmen English classes. If you read Starr’s book, you might not make a radical shift, but you’ll definitely learn A LOT about assessment. You can Get 50% off on Hacking Assessment here.

Why did I do this?

Here’s a story that’s embarrassing to tell. But, as Neil Gaiman says about writing, “the moment that you feel, just possibly, you are walking down the street naked, exposing too much of your heart and your mind…That is the moment, you might be starting to get it right.” So, it’s a story I’ll tell:

The grading period was just about to end, and I had a stack of student essays about the play Inherit the Wind. After a quick pass through them, one thing became apparent to me: none of the students’ work surprised me. The students who typically did well in my class did well on this assignment. The students who had struggled all year long struggled on this assignment, too.

So, I looked at each student’s current average, and placed that grade on the top of the paper. For students who were on the threshold of two grades (the ol’ 89.9) I gave the student the grade that he or she needed in order to be bumped up. My face is getting red with embarrassment as I type this.

Now, there are two things that come out of this story for me:

  1. That was wrong to do.  That being said…
  2. The assignment, and my assessment practices, did not lead me to feel motivated to read the papers and see the student progress that has occurred. 

This leads us to where I am today. In three of my classes, which are three sections of freshmen academic English (think College Prep), I did not put a grade on a single assignment this year. No grades on pieces of writing, no grades on presentations, no graded homework and no graded formative assessments (that is something I will never go back to, as it is clear to me now that putting a number on a formative assessment removes any right that the assignment has to be called formative). Anyway, no grades.

The exception to this was the interim report and end of marking period times, when students receive a grade. I’ll get to how they get those grades later in this post.

How did I hear about this idea?

One day, scanning the Interwebs, I encountered a hashtag, #TTOG. It led me to scroll through more tweets, until a man named Mark Barnes mentioned something about a Facebook group called “Teachers Throwing Out Grades.” Hmm, I thought. Interesting. Grading is my least favorite part of teaching, and it never feels meaningful to the learning process. So, in my effort to explore further, I checked it out.

Immediately, I knew I had found an important community. In this group were teachers committed to  student learning instead of numbers. The basic ethos of the group was that learning was difficult or impossible to measure, and that traditional grading systems hinder learning by putting the emphasis on symbols like letters, numbers and percentages instead of meaningful feedback loops. In theory, I think this is something that lots of teachers would agree with: Everyone seems to care more about grades than whatever it is they are getting grade on.

The deep realizationI came to after perusing posts in this group was that this required a radical change. This was not something you just do, like trying a new website or printing out an article for your students to read. This was a commitment, and one that that required deep planning, preparation and communication with everyone involved in the learning process of your classroom.

How did it start out?

The most important part of this process happened before I ever began it with my students. That was the conversations I had with administrators before the school year started. In order to make what some consider a radical shift in my classroom, it was important to communicate my plans and rationale with the administrators in my school, and to make sure that they understood that I had a plan, and I wasn’t simply trying to shirk on my responsibilities.

To prepare for this, I gathered all the research and planning I could and developed a proposal to share with my supervisor and building principal. Much of the ideas and structure of this proposal was inspired by a similar document that Starr Sackstein wrote for her school.  Here’s the document:

What did I do to prepare?

I was nervous about starting the year with this new policy. Of course, there were visions in my head of total parent and student mutiny. Teachers sometimes have a tendency to envision the worst case scenario when they are trying something new in the classroom. So, partially motivated by the fear of starting this new program, I set out to prepare myself.

The personal learning network (PLN) is an acronym that is often thrown around on social media. When I decided to make this change, my PLN became the go to resource for transforming the assessment policy of my classroom. Specifically, I’d like to thank a few people who shared their time and experiences with me:

  • Steve Fergusson, an English teacher in New Jersey and fellow TCNJ alum, who shared his experienced with a hybrid of traditional and standards-based grading. Talking to a teacher I already knew made this whole process feel doable.
  • Joy Kirr, who curates one of the most valuable educational resources on the Internet, her Live Binders, helped me both through her reflective blog posts (like this one) and through many interactions on Twitter.
  • Starr Sackstein talked to me on the phone about how to use a traditional online grading portal to implement a feedback instead of grades system. Again, I recommend reading her book, Hacking Assessment
  • Mark Barnes and the entire Teachers Throwing Out Grades Facebook group answered many of my preliminary questions about how to go set up and sustain an English class without using traditional grades.
  • Farrah Krovoza, a middle-grades teacher in Hawaii, shared her experience with standards-based grading with me.

Sometimes, just following the ideas in a book and implementing them is good for personalized PD. But in this case, with so many questions to ask, being able to reach out to these people was so valuable. Thank you all.

How did it work?

I refined the process throughout the year until I came to three main components of the no grades classroom:

  • Portfolios

These were digital, and they allowed students to reflect on and gather their best work from the marking period and the end of the year. We used Google Drive and Google Classroom, so students could easily go back through the previous work they did and drag and drop their best work into a portfolio folder. For written work, students used the built in camera on their chromebooks to take a snapshot and add the photo to a Google Doc. That looked like the photo below. It wasn’t always the easiest text to read, but it provided a record that the students had done the work, and allowed me to follow up by reading the students paper work and talking to them about it in person.

  • Self-Assessments and reflections

At the end of each marking period, and often at the interim report time, students completed a self-assessment checklist based on the skills we had practiced during the recent quarter. Students reflected on questions about their best work and wrote about the areas that still needed improvement.

  • Conferences

While conferences happened nearly daily in the classroom as students read and wrote, the end of marking period conferences were focused specifically on students’ accomplishments during the marking period, and where they thought their work left them in terms of a final grade.

What were some of the struggles?

  1. The number one struggle of this system was having students complete assignments on time. I try to leverage intrinsic motivation and student choice as much as possible in my classroom by allowing students to read, write, research and speak about the topics that they care about in life. Still, at times I found students openly describing to me that they would do work for other classes first because they knew that those assignments would be graded the next day, and they were concerned with their numerical averages falling in those classes. Each teacher does what is best for his or her students, so I place no fault on other teachers. I need to  work on making this system function better within a school that, by and large, uses traditional assessment methods of points and averages.
  2. Another struggle was getting students to fully understand how the system changes the nature of the class. Primarily, it was difficult to get students to lose the fear of punitive grading. Even later in the year, some students would still ask if they would lose points for making a certain error in a writing assignment, or not demonstrating a certain public speaking skill during a pop-up debate (thanks, Dave Stuart Jr.)
  3. A practical, day-to-day challenge was figuring out what to put in the online gradebook. My students completed plenty of reading and writing activities, and I aligned these activities with the specific skills (standards) that we focused on in each marking period. So, I wrestled with the idea of putting the assignments in the gradebook and leaving feedback comments next to those assignments, or putting the standards/skills in the gradebook and leaving comments about how students were progress on those skills. This is something I’m still wrestling with.

What did students think?

I asked students to give feedback on the feedback instead of grades system on their final self-assessment survey. They answered these questions:

What do you think about the grading system used this year? Why? Be honest and specific.

Looking back, the question could’ve been posed better. I did use the word “grading” right in the question, because the students still view classes in terms of grades, and so asking them about the assessments or feedback in the class would’ve been less direct. Students understand that there are no grades on their assignments in this class. Their responses were predictably wide-ranging, and they were very valuable for how I might modify my plans moving forward. Here are some highlights (I focused on the extremes, both for and against the system:

This grading system was great. – -allowed me to worry about the work rather then the grade -less stress -gave me an end goal to strive for

I don’t like not physically seeing my grades. It makes me slack a lot. When I dont [sic] see a grade in I think that I have time to do the work later and then eventually all my work piles up and I don’t do most of it.

Honestly I loved it. I felt much more comfortable being graded on effort than being graded on completion. As a young writer who writes based off of feeling its so hard to write with rules. Its stressful knowing I’ll get a bad grade because I didn’t complete a 5 paragraph essay. Its not that I was procrastinating and didn’t get a chance to finish, but its because I put all my creative energy into writing 3 paragraphs and rather not have two crappy paragraphs chucked in there. This grading system was comforting and actually made me want to improve for myself rather than for a grade.

I didn’t like it. I didn’t like not having individual grades for assignments because I couldn’t see my progress throughout the marking period. Seeing my progress helps me know how much I need to work on to improve my grade, but I couldn’t see that with this grading system.

At first, I absolutely hated it. But then after getting to know it. I realized it was a smart idea. It gives students abilities to grow and learn when they don’t understand something rather than doing poorly on it would give them at bad grade. I really wished all my other teachers used it.

The grade system was a new way to get grades. I thought it was a good way of going it. If we made a mistake we could just go back and fix it rather the teacher just giving us the first grade. It will help us learn from the mistakes and learn.

I felt that because of the grading not being directly on the grading form, this class didn’t seem that urgent. One, if u go on to grade portal, you don’t see a grade however, if you went on grade portal and saw an F (45%) instead, you would want to try harder in class. But I also understand the main goal of this system, its not so much about a straight forward grade, but its based on what each of us can do and how much we can improve ourselves.

What did this student feedback help me realize?

Some students never made the connection between feedback, improvement and learning. They still tie their progress only to a number. And, when there are other seven classes and all of the classes before this year have relied on numerical grades, this is understandable. Still, I take ownership of not explaining the system clearly enough to those students who thought that they couldn’t track their progress unless their work was numerically graded.

Some students fully realized the benefits of the system as I intended. They were able to “grow and learn” without focusing on grades and made them “want to improve for [themselves] rather than for a grade.”  When students mentioned that they had clear goals to strive for, were able to focus on reading and writing instead of stressing on grades, and were able to make mistakes without worrying about the punishment of a bad grade, it makes me think that the impact that this system had on those students makes it worth it.

What did parents think?

Overall, parent response was positive. I attribute this to the fact that I thoroughly explained my reasoning during back to school night, I shared my proposal letter with parents via email and I maintained opened communication with all parents who had questions about the system.

For the parents who were deeply involved in their children’s educations, my hope was that this system would allow parents to get a more clear sense of the actions their son or daughter could take to improve. Theoretically, it removes one step in the conversation about school work. So, instead of:

Mom: What’s your grade?

Kid: 75

Mom: Why?

Kid: I got a bad grade on a quiz.

Mom: What was the quiz about?

Kid: Angles.

Mom: How can you bring up your grade?

Kid: We have another quiz coming up next week.

Mom: What do you need to work on.

Kid: I’m not sure.

Ideally, it would go more like this:

Mom: I saw in the grade portal that your introductions are strong but you need better evidence in your essays, have you worked on revising?

Kid: Uhh, no… I guess I better get to work.

And of course, that is a utopian ideal, but the principle is hopefully clear: by putting feedback directly about student performance in the grade portal, it tells parents and students exactly how the student is doing, instead of using a symbol (letter or number) that must be interpreted.

What will I change for next time?

More in class conferencing and keeping records of in class conferencing. Record conferences notes in the grade portal as feedback, make audio comments of conferences.

Collect even more of what students create, so it can be used to demonstrate learning and be used as meaningful assessments for me and the students (record small-group discussions, have students capture their writing with cameras, take pictures of their independent reading books, etc.)

Use posters around the room to remind students of the skills that we are learning, refer to them more in conversation.

Make end of the year portfolios a bigger deal, follow more of the sage advice from Mr. Jim Mahoney and my colleeague, Mr. Erik Petrushun.

Overall, using a feedback instead of grades policy was the most informative, reflective  and yes, stressful, process I’ve undergone as a teacher. It was extremely rewarding, and I look forward to building on the system for next year.

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Engage with Twitter to Build a Culture of Readers

It’s no surprise that Twitter is a powerful educational tool. But often, educators keep Twitter for themselves, using it for their professional learning. But what about Twitter’s power to build a culture of reading?

I’d like to share a few ways that Twitter can be used to build a culture of reading. This is a topic that I’ve been exploring as I work on Hacking Literacy, a Hack Learning series book.

Schools can use Twitter to build a reading culture among staff.

Amy, the librarian at my school, has done so much to build a culture of reading. One of her initiatives this year is a simple idea with a big payoff: she gave each teacher a sign for their doors, and on this sign, the teachers can post the book they are currently reading. On this sign is also a hashtag, #HHSReads. The hashtag becomes a place for sharing and discussion between teachers about their reads. I recently sent a Tweet sharing the book I was reading, and the replies were filled with recommendations that I’d like to check out in the future:

Classes can use Twitter to connect with authors.

This is most successful when the practice is first modeled by the teacher. Last year, I began Tweeting students’ book reviews at the authors who wrote the books. Then, surprisingly often, the author would respond, much to the students’ delight. Here’s an example:

While the response might be short, it was meaningful to David. He recognize that his reading and his writing was a community-based experience, and he recognized that Twitter can connect the work done in class to the outside world.

As a way to expand on this, have students Tweet at the authors on their own. Elementary and middle school teachers often use class accounts, so multiple students can safely Tweet from the account.

Students can use Twitter to share their reading lives.

While the conversations between students or classes can often remain relatively one-sided, students can also conduct conversations with each other on Twitter about their reads.

While working on Hacking Literacy, I talked to Stephen Ferguson and Christine Finn of Cedar Creek High School in New Jersey. They created #PiratesRead as a way for students to share their reading lives with the each other and the public. You can search #PiratesRead and get a sense of the volume of Tweets and the engagement of students using the hashtag.

So, whether you decide to Tweet at authors, at your colleagues or amongst your students, you’ll soon see how Twitter is an out of the box tool ready to connect readers and build a culture of reading.

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Stuck in a teaching rut? Make things uncomfortable


Sometimes, the classroom becomes a stage. (image: wikipedia)

Someone said that you can fake it ‘til you make it.  And that person was right.

I’m not an actor…at least I’d never consider myself one. But the thing, is, as a teacher, I don’t have a choice in the matter. Teachers are actors and actresses.

A certain experience in class two weeks ago led me to this realization, and maybe you can relate to it. As I looked around the classroom on a Wednesday afternoon, I realized that students were bored. It’s a bad thing to have to admit, but it was true.

And that had to change. Because if the kids are bored, it means that I’m probably bored, too. And it’s hard for the students to get energized about learning if the teacher is not energized about teaching.

You might start to get the wrong idea here.  I’m not talking about a utopian classroom where everyone is high-fiving and calling out complements. “Energized” here just means awake, alert and engaged at the task at hand.

After the initial period of feeling down about myself passed, I came to the realization that this makes sense at this time of year. The days are dark, it’s cold outside, the holiday break had recently ended.  It can be easy to fall into patterns of doing something similar in class everyday, following the curriculum, going through the motions.  When this happens, that theme of “make things uncomfortable” comes to mind.

This simple idea is about coming up with something that would be great to do in the classroom, but that scares you a little bit.

Dramatics are a surefire way to shake things up in the class. Especially if you are a teacher like me, who is generally a mellow guy, having the teacher act in a dramatic, outgoing way catches kids’ attention, makes them laugh, and engages them in the learning.

So here’s the lesson. Feel free to try it out.

There were 5 cards, each with a type of character written on them.  These cards were:

  • People with a fear of notebooks
  • Technology-addicted teenagers
  • People who laugh at anything
  • People who cry upon hearing the word “hello”
  • People who deal with any problem by acting like Superman

The class began with a projection on the board: “Mr. Dawson’s House of Horrors.”  There was creepy music playing, which was an hour-long YouTube video found with a search for “scary music.”  As the students walked in, they looked around a little bit, but didn’t react too strongly to the board or the music.

Then, I told them that today’s class was not English 9, but was instead a field trip to Mr. Dawson’s House of Horrors.  Each of them would be transformed into a horrifying character, and the classmates would observe these characters and take notes.

Then it was time for an example to set the tone.  I changed the slide, and the board read:

“I become a monster whenever I’m asked a question.”

I stood silently in front of the room.  The kids stared at me.  I said nothing back.  It got awkward.

Then, eventually, a student asked, “What do you want us t–”


I threw my hands in the air, stepped quickly towards the student and let out the best monster roar I could muster.  The poor girl drew back into her chair, and then eventually let out a smile.

Another kid said, “Are you acting like a–”


I did it again. Same great reaction from the student who asked the question.

Eventually one student said, “he becomes a monster when you asked him a question.”

We finally got to the point of the lesson then.  I said to the students, I told you that I become a monster whenever I’m asked a question, but how did I show you?  Write down what you saw and heard after someone asked me a question.

We shared examples, and this led into a discussion between showing vs. telling in narrative writing.

The students each demonstrated their own “House of Horror” characters and we repeated the process.

The whole activity took much longer than planned, so we didn’t get as much time at the end for independent practice as I would’ve liked.  But now, there’s that mental anchor that students have in their heads.  When they are telling instead of showing in their writing, they can quickly be reminded: “remember when Mr. Dawson was a monster?”

There was a funny feeling of butterflies in my stomach as I did that routine with three of my classes.  There’s always the risk that students won’t think anything of the antics, that they’ll think it’s stupid or they won’t make the connection to their writing.

But it worked, and it was a way to shake things up in class…by making things a little uncomfortable.


Below you’ll find the original post that has led this theme of “get out of your comfort zone” to be a part of my teaching.

For this activity, all it took was telling a room full of 16-year-olds that they’d all have to record themselves speaking.  Just like that, they were filled with nervous energy, and ready to focus, even on a Friday.

Asking the students to record themselves was not a gimmick. It was a fair, authentic way for me to assess their understanding of the skills we’d practiced over the past few classes.  They began by reading a poem aloud to each other. They performed close readings, making literal, inferential and finally a critical response to the poem. Then, the curve ball, each group recorded themselves explaining their annotations and thoughts about the poem, using a cell phone or computer and USB mic. Each student in the group had to speak.

Had I asked the students to write an essay, they might groan, but they’d do the assignment, with varying levels of success and effort .  Writing a literary analysis essay, while an arguably important skill, does not invigorate a sixteen-year-old.  The voice recording had nearly the opposite effect as would handing out lined paper and prompts.  The task of recording an audio close reading of the poem meant that each student’s thoughts would be made manifest for themselves to listen to. When writing an essay, it’s easy to write stream of consciousness, hand in the paper and never look back. With this task, students were required to listen to themselves, both checking for the clarity of the audio and the clarity of their thoughts.

They had to be sure of themselves. It’s easy to pick a few quotes, throw in the phrases “this represents” and “this is a symbol of…” and be on your way to the weekend. But when speaking out loud, with other group members listening and depending on each others’ performances, the students prepared deliberately to be sure about the thoughts they were speaking.

[As an aside, no one likes the sound of their own recorded voice, including me. However, in today’s technological word, audio tools are so readily available, and it’s a situation that students should get comfortable with.]

This activity spanned two class periods, and I noticed that I felt the same excitement that I observed from the students.  This may be because I felt uncertainty about asking students to do something that I knew would be challenging, and even unpleasant for some.  Every student who attended class that day completed the activity.  For most, it was a challenge when they had the recording device ready and prepared to press the red circle.  Also for most, once they got started, it wasn’t nearly as bad as they’d expected it to be.

As a teacher, I think it’s important for me to go to the places of discomfort, too.  I should sit there, acknowledging the discomfort, and recognizing that if it makes me uncomfortable, I’m probably no good at it.  And if it’s something I’m not good at, it’s probably important for me to work at it.

A few recent moments where I’ve embraced discomfort:

On the first day of school this year, I memorized and recited the poem “Introduction to Poetry” by Billy Collins to four of my classes. I displayed the poem behind me and asked students to follow along and check my performance.

I taught students how to use a new online tool, Scrible, which I’m only moderately comfortable with using.  I knew students would gain value from it and would probably end up teaching me about it.

I’ve shared my students’ work with administrators (Just waiting for a response can be nerve-racking sometimes.)

In daily life, I’m approached with choices about exercise, meditation, healthy eating, having difficult conversations.  All of these are times where the best action is to go to a place of discomfort.

Go there, sit, and embrace it.  It won’t be as bad as you think.

How do you get students out of your comfort zones? Let me know in the comments.

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A robot helped me write this…(and it can help your students, too)

The Uber for writing teachers

What if you had a personal writing teacher on call?  Someone to look at all of your emails, letters, proposals, articles and documents? Thanks to WriteLab, a new application developed by people at Stanford, this is closer than you think.

The idea is simple: plug your draft into WriteLab, and you have suggestions to improve your writing within seconds.

The suggestions fall under seven categories:


“Teach the writer, then teach the writing”

You’ll notice that spelling, grammar and usage are absent from the list above. This is why WriteLab is so fascinating. It doesn’t help to ensure that your writing is correct, it helps you to make your writing sound better and more clear.

The suggestions that WriteLab makes are helpful, but it’s not the isolated improvement that makes this application powerful. It’s the facilitation of mindfulness, the way that taking suggestions, considering their validity and deciding whether to take them or not can help writers grow.

When hearing about WriteLab, I was skeptical. Technology is advanced. Yes. But the subtleties in language that result in good writing are complex, and it seems unlikely that an algorithm will be able to actually give me suggestions about my word choice, clarity, fluency and even sound. Yet, after trying Writelab, I’m convinced that it’s a helpful resource.

It’s utility lies in the fact that it doesn’t do the work for you, but offers suggestions that require you to revisit your sentences, analyze your writing and decide whether or not you’d like to take the feedback or stick with your original choice.

And that sounds like the same thing that a good writing teacher does, now that I think of it.

How I think WriteLab could expand and improve:

  • Include a “reflect on your choices” pop-up that writers could use at the end of the process
  • Change the buttons. Some of the suggestions are helpful, but not worthy of addressing. Maybe something like: “Changed it” “left it” and “thanks for the tip” might resonate with students.
  • Make the writing guide more prominent. There’s a little book icon next to each suggestion that takes users to a writing guide, but a more prominent link might be useful.
  • If a writer makes a lot of the same choices, display a pop-up or even more prominent message with something like, “We’ve noticed seven places where you can be more concise. Would you like to watch a short video on how to do this?”
  • Have a teacher dashboard where writing teachers can view the most common types of suggestions made, taken and ignored. (They may actually have this, I’m not sure.)

How I’ll use WriteLab in my classroom:

Students learn best when I get out of the way of their learning. WriteLab is a tool that can help me facilitate independent learning without imposing too much of my own subjectivity and writing style on students.

When using this in class, I plan on demonstrating the tool to students, maybe having a student try it out in front of the class, then leaving it as an option for students who want to improve their writing style. This will be a great help to the students who enjoy it, but might become a chore to the students who would rather conference with me first or work on their writing entirely independently.

That said, all students may benefit from the process of putting their writing into WriteLab and then reflecting on the experience. Students could write a draft, enter it into WriteLab, then go through the process of accepting or rejecting the suggestions made. After that, the students could look back at the log of advice given, and write a reflection on why the students made their revision decisions.

That’s metacognitive thinking, mindfulness and independent learning facilitated by technology. That’s how I want to use technology in my classroom.

There are some broader implications here

Some teachers fear being replaced by technology. I know it. They may not admit it, and they might not even consciously think it, but when they see tools like WriteLab, which can do some of the work that a human does, it creates an uneasy feeling.  Dealing with this is exemplary of a larger shift in mindset that all educators must undergo in our world of emerging powerful technology.

Before, we had to deliver content. Now, YouTube, Wikipedia and Google can do that. Before, we had to manage all of our students’ work. Now, Google Classroom can do that. Before, we had to have the whole class working on the same thing at the same time, so that we could teach them all and know what everyone was doing. Now, students can teach themselves with sites like Khan Academy and EdPuzzle, so what is the teacher’s role?

The teacher now has to get out of the way of student learning by creating the conditions for learning and inspiration. Now, a teacher must be there to guide students towards independent and collaborative discovery, yet still be ready to jump in at the right moment when the student cannot do something on his or her own, or with the help of peers.

This is an incredible opportunity. Let’s go back to the example of WriteLab. If a writing teacher can teach students to thoughtfully run their drafts through this application and make decisions about writing style, then the teacher has just freed up some time to focus more on the depth of a student’s ideas, the persuasiveness of a student’s evidence, and hopefully, the value that the final product will deliver to a real-life reader.

So, education is moving the same way that our larger economy is going. More and more tasks are being automated and digitally outsourced. This is a threat to those who cling to an old way or an opportunity to invest time and attention towards new higher levels of thinking that students and teachers couldn’t get to as often before, because there simply wasn’t enough time.


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How to teach writing by doing less and trusting more

The English teacher sits down with a stack of essays, coffee on the left and red pen to the right. She leafs through the stack, finds one that looks promising, and begins to read.

Suddenly, the realization hits: What am I looking for? How do I grade this?

The grades slapped on student papers will surprise many students, because no criteria were set. The learning has stopped and the conversation is over.

This teacher represents the first of four scenarios I’ve enacted, observed or experienced when it comes to students, teachers and writing assignments:

    1. Students get the directions for an essay. They submit a draft. They receive a grade, number or letter, at the top. There may be evaluative comments on the paper, too. Case closed.
    2. Students receive directions and a rubric. They submit a draft. They receive the assignment back with a rubric covered with circled boxes. There may be comments on the paper.

(Some may see a difference between one and two, but I find that they have the same effect: they evaluate students’ abilities but don’t promote writing growth.)

3. Students receive directions and a rubric. The teacher collects the drafts, and provides formative feedback. Students use the feedback to revise, and re-submit for a grade.

(This is an improvement, but still teacher-driven, carrot and stick. The students address the teacher’s comments, ignoring the rubric and learning objectives. The comments are the standards that they are judging their work off of, not the rubric, because pleasing the teacher will lead to a good grade)

Here’s the fourth option, which takes the most planning but gets results.

The major difference: it relies on the teacher trusting the students’ ability to know good writing when they see it.

4. Students receive an assignment. Earlier in the year, my students wrote editorials, so I’ll use this for an example.

First we read mentor texts and discuss the style and structure of editorials.

Eventually students write drafts, and I collect the work to provide feedback. I focus the feedback specifically on the the lessons that we’ve done in class leading up to the writing of these drafts. I ignore many small errors in spelling, grammar and usage, so that my feedback is focused on the skills we’ve addressed in class.

The students revise. They don’t realize it, but they’re revising based on the rubric. The feedback I gave them was based on the lessons that we’ve done, which will later be materialized on the rubric used to grade the final products.

Next, students bring in printed, revised papers. Here, I use read around groups (RAGS), an activity from Kelly Gallagher’s Teaching Adolescent Writers. Before the activity begins, we review the rubric criteria as a class.

Let’s say the criteria are:

Content (the quality of arguments and evidence, and the acknowledgement and response to counterarguments)
Style (the quality and clarity of “voice.” This is a nebulous one, but the concept was discussed extensively in our study of mentor texts.)
Structure (The use of intentional paragraphing to organize and emphasize ideas.)

Also on the rubric are four column headers: “Exceeds Standards,” “Meets Standards,” “Approaches Standards” and “Doesn’t Address”  It looks this like:


Then, the RAGS begin. Students remove their names from their papers using markers or scissors. They form groups of 4-5 and one person collects the papers. Each group passes its group of papers to another group to begin the activity. Then, each students receives one paper and spends one minute reading the paper. At my call, students pass the papers to the right. The activity continues until each student in the group has read each paper.

Students have 2-3 minutes to choose the best paper. I find that the word “best,” though vague, is clear enough to allow students to identify the quality writing in the class.

When students have decided, I note the names of the best papers, and each group gives its papers to another group. The activity continues until all students have read all papers (except their own.)

The votes are tallied. Every time I’ve done the activity, there are a handful of papers that receive the majority of the votes. I usually select the top three papers to use as models for next class.

Before the next class, I make a copy of the model papers and and the blank rubrics.

We have a class discussion about which papers best utilize the skills on the rubric. Often their is some overlap of opinion, which is beneficial for students to see and talk about.

We decide on if we think the papers do some things that all students should be able to do–Meets Standards–and if the papers do some things that likely few students will be able to do–Exceeds Standards.

The students describe what the writers have done to meet or exceed the standards for the three categories.

At this point the students have:

  • Experienced lessons on various writing skills
  • Received feedback focused on those skills
  • Revised their writing based on the feedback
  • Read 20-30 similar papers of various quality
  • Discussed and selected the best writing
  • Written about the qualities of the best writing

Now they have ideas about what makes a good editorial. Students revise their work. I suggest changes based on what the mentor texts do that the students don’t do, or what the mentor texts might do better than the students.

Yes, at the end, the papers are graded…but the trust placed in the students to know good writing when they see it facilitates more student learning than other systems I’ve used.

They receive a letter grade corresponding to the mastery level ratings they received on the rubric. This is an imperfect process, because it involves some averaging and eventually some judgement calls on which letter grade the student deserves. I hope to improve that by using a standards-based grading system this year.

While the stuff above describes very specific class procedures, it is also part of a larger teaching mindset: get out of the way of student learning.

The best way for students to improve as readers, writers, speakers, listeners, and thinkers, is to create the conditions for them to build on what they already know and what they can teach each other. It’s important to ask: am I needed right now? Or can they do this on their own?

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How to create a self-paced learning environment using Google Drive folders


The problem: At the end of this school year, the last day was rapidly approaching, and students were working at wildly different speeds on our final project.  The task was a multigenre research project: choose a topic, research it, then write about the findings in poetry, narrative, expository and more.  The old plan to go through genres one-by-one, day-by-day wouldn’t work.

The goal: Have all students work on the project at their own pace and have access to all of the lessons I wanted to teach.

The raw materials: Mentor texts designated for mini-lessons, slides explaining the nuances of each genre, the Screencastify Chrome extension (publishes directly to Google Drive), a list of every student’s Gmail address.

The solution: (1) Create a “resource library” for students to access at their own pace.  This was a folder in Google Drive containing all of the mentor texts that I wanted to share with students, along with short explanatory screencast videos. (2) Share that folder with each of my students. (3) Allow them to work at their own pace on the project in class and individually conference with students to check on their progress.

The results: The final projects included many examples of writing I only taught through the resource library and had not addressed in whole class mini-lessons. To me, this is evidence that the resource library was a successful way to deliver content to students in a way that was time-efficient and allowed for student-centered, self-paced learning.     

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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.


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.


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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