Bud to Bloom

I read a post on Edudemic written by Patrick Larkin called “How Staying Uncomfortable is the Key to Success.” The post got me thinking about all the different ways we make learning comfortable or uncomfortable for ourselves and our students.

These were the last roses of the season on our rose bush.

These were the last roses of the season on our rose bush.

I don’t know who has a harder time dealing with discomfort: students or teachers. On the one hand, some of my students demand easy answers and rote assignments. They want to know precisely which details are worth memorizing or what one-right-answer can be found in the textbook. They like the comfort of worksheets with predefined limits. They demand “study guides” that are little more than veiled versions of the test. It takes us a while to move away from this mindset toward the open fields of intellectual risk, argument and counter argument, and original creations. More than once this year, a student has said to me, “Just tell me what to write. Just tell me how many sentences. Just tell me how many pages.” These students are stuck between anxiety and their own comfort zone.

On the other hand, teachers can be too quick to judge themselves and their practice, sticking to the safe paths already marked and traveled. It takes courage to experiment with new methods and when we fail to meet our own expectations, the sting can take a while to fade. When it comes to technology integration, it can feel like there is so much to know that even the smallest change feels like walking into a minefield. Doing things the way they have always been done feels safe and soothing. To upend our curriculum, examine our pedagogy, confront new research about how students learn best: all of these things can send a wave of panic in motion. No one who loves teaching wants to think of the work we do is less than our best, but often that’s what we are left to conclude. It’s even worse if we work in an environment that feels punitive or makes us question our own competence. Self preservation can make staying comfortable feel like our best option. It’s a fatalistic version of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Just as students need to know they are safe to step outside the boundaries of what they know and find familiar, teachers need that support from one another and from our leaders if we are ever going seek a little discomfort over staying comfortable. Any learning endeavor has a curve. Many times it starts with a goal that seems daunting or just too far away. It demands patience, practice, and persistence for us to achieve it.

Just when the flower feels snug in the bug, it's only holding back the bloom. Gotta keep blooming and show your colors.

Bud to Bloom

As for me, when I first read the title of the article, it made me think of a rosebush. As the stem develops a bud, the flower develops inside a nice, safe, protected place, but it only fulfills it’s purpose once it splits open into a blossom. If we allow ourselves or our students to stay only where it feels safe and comfortable, we keep from blossoming to our full potential.

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Practitioner or Wannabe?

As a teacher of English Language Arts, I do my best to write alongside my students. If I ask them to brainstorm, I “write live” and project it for them to see my thinking in action. I haven’t always taught this way because it took time for me to find the courage to show my process. Many of my students struggle with creative writing because they believe it is something one is born having and not something one can develop over time through practice. It’s the constant tension between writing and “righting”–as in “Is this right? Am I right? Did I do this right?” I save and share my brainstorming in a folder on Google Drive so that by the end of the day, there are four different takes on any given exercise.

Still, there’s only so much courage in a bubble. My students write and share with me and their peers, but for me, who can be my peer to give me feedback? There’s not as much to risk if I don’t practice what I ask my students to do: to write broadly and brazenly; to work on an idea through iteration and revision; to share their work and put it into the world for others to comment, correct, and question.

So when I saw Chris Lehman was hosting an online workshop for #TeacherPoets, I was filled with a mixture of enthusiasm and apprehension. What a great way to renew my writing spirit and push my boundaries with real peer feedback!

It’s not enough to read and write as preparation for my classes. If I want to be an effective teacher, I have to be an authentic practitioner of my art.

Consider joining the Teacher Poets community on Google+ or form a writing community of your own around a kitchen table. Practice your practice and grow your voice.

Oh, and here’s my practice–to be added to the Poetry section of the blog:

“Tenderness”

(for my grandparents, the greatest love story I know)

she was receding
the ocean’s depth of her memory
evaporating like steam
Alzheimer’s
hid her crossword puzzles
lost her crochet hooks
stripped her photo albums
ravaged her appetite

when she left a roast smoking in the oven
he cut off the gas for good
took her to the Ponderosa buffet

she clung to his arm
their independence
as unsteady as his shuffling gait
he led her gently to a booth
then made his way to the
salad bar

breathing hard from the effort
legs numb from neuropathy
he leaned against the soup stand
dipped a ladle into the brine
fished for carrots until he had filled a plate
with soft orange slices
tender enough for her to eat
with ill-fitting false teeth

sighing, he sat and reached across the table
her frightened, clouded eyes seemed to clear
and for a moment
this pair, alone in the restaurant
in dirty clothes and unwashed hair
held the universe
in their hands

 

In Defense of Poetry

My employer, my state, the world demands: teach your students how to read and write. Teach them how to cite their sources, dig deep into ideas, learn and compare and contrast and make Meaning. Teach them how to argue with logos and facts as their foundation. Leave the ethos and pathos to pretty speech-makers and politicians. What we need are citizens who can think dispassionately, reason clearly, and (for heaven’s sake) write using proper spelling, grammar, and punctuation.

So I have. I do all of these things. These bloodless, starched-shirt, bureaucratic things. I tell my students these skills are valuable. I tell them these abilities matter. And I mean it.

For the most part.

What I don’t tell them, and what tears inside me like a growing ulcer, is that this is not the epitome of what makes a successful human being, or a dispassionate citizen, or a college-and-career-ready life. At best, these lesson amount to training in marketable skills in the business world. At worst, it’s a lesson in conformity. It subtly implies the only writing and thinking that matters is the writing and thinking we do when we work for others, when someone tells us what to do, when it’s our job and not driven by curiosity or passion or even basic interest. Cite your sources, please. Don’t think about being your own source.

Instead, in quiet defiance, I teach poetry. That fluffy-bunny writing that will doom you to a life on welfare and living in your parents’ basement. No one makes a living writing or reading poetry. Or stories. (Unless those stories become blockbuster novels turned into films. But, hey, not all ball players make it to the majors, so you’d better focus on that business degree when you’re twelve, ok?)

Poetry. The realm of dreamers and dissidents. The writing that’s “for girls not boys.” The kind of writing only nerds and flaky artistic-types understand, right? In the classroom it can mean opaque symbolism and a coroner’s quest for meaning through autopsy. Line by line, excavating, making note of figures of speech, counting the syllables, and hauling away adjectives and alliteration into neat, tidy, standards-based piles of UNDERSTANDING.

The Standards say:

  • Cite several pieces of textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.
  • Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the impact of rhymes and other repetitions of sounds (e.g., alliteration) on a specific verse or stanza of a poem or section of a story or drama.
  • Analyze how a drama’s or poem’s form or structure (e.g., soliloquy, sonnet) contributes to its meaning
  • By the end of the year, read and comprehend literature, including stories, dramas, and poems, in the grades 6-8 text complexity band proficiently, with scaffolding as needed at the high end of the range.

I am aware that these are worthy goals and “standards aren’t curriculum” but as the distance grows between what will be tested and what can never be tested, I find myself fighting to keep poetry as a vital part of what I teach and what my students learn. I feel pressure to keep it short and move on to “more important” things.

I don’t teach poetry because it’s cute or pretty or cultured. I teach poetry because it is one of the best ways for the truth and honesty of human experience to find expression. I teach poetry outside of surface measures and seek-and-find literary device games.

We read and write for real, and the work my students produce takes my breath. Instead of limp and dull, though technically proficient poems, what they write when we study poetry sends electricity up my spine.

Like this:

only In–

our dreams             when the world is wish-

magnificent the things

we wish were reality

 

fly high      and        free

 

and the princeandprincess live

happily ever after and

do the unimaginable

but we’re dreaming

 

when the world is journey-magnificent

 

the plans we’ve

held captive inside us escape

then come to be

and we hopeandpray to never wake up

 

from imagination and perfection

 

we’re

dreaming

and

                    the

                                     frightening

things real life holds make us

wish

we

weren’t

 

Or this:

Grade 7–

 

a Time where everything is Group–Separate

nerds and JOCKS as well as

those who are world–unaware

 

the crude Talk in the

room–

the Alliances and Enemies

 

the Numbers and the TEACHERS–

 

a Place that is experiment–fearful

the Whispering

                     the Giggling

                                          the “Secrets”

to think it is all bricks

caging the Mayhem–

even the labyrinth

has never been so twisted–

 

everyone has to but

eventually will

                                                forget

a place where the odds may be ever in your favor

Or this:

in Science–

where everything is lecture-boring

and the science man

goes on

and  on

and

on

sapping every bit of interest    out

 

when life around you is snail   –   speed

the distant mumble of speech

droning on — forever

endless

meaningless

 

a standardized test

the monotonous article

that puts you to sleep

at a single glance

 

everpresent is the interest

lurking

creeping on the edge of existence

living in a deep   dark slumber

searching for a time to awaken

 

but that time

has yet to come

I hear their voices clamoring to make sense of the world they find themselves in, struggling to understand how they are to become whole people in the midst of conflicting expectations and misdirection. I want to tell them that sometimes there are no arguments that make sense, no sources to answer the questions they ask, and that pushing against their fears with a poem might be the best self-defense.

Adventures in Paperless Assessment and Feedback

One of the best parts of going paperless on assignments is the ease of giving feedback digitally. Too many times when I would hand-write comments on student papers, I wound up with drained ink pens, writer’s cramp, and zero correlation between my feedback and improvement in student work habits or skills. It got to the point that I tried everything from highlighter schemes to byzantine coding just to make the effort feel worth the time I put in.  (! for a positive, ? for something confusing, * for…I forget…)

Who was I fooling?

Even those methods weren’t enough to put a dent in making feedback part of learning.  I found myself noticing patterns in the errors and wrote and rewrote much of the same advice as I dutifully marched through each individual paper–to no great effect. As I slaved away writing comment after comment, it frustrated me to know their papers were destined for the deepest, darkest, and most neglected corners of their backpacks or lockers. Students merely looked for a grade and promptly tossed their work and mine.

In the last five years, I have made a shift in my philosophy toward assessment, feedback, and measuring student progress. That shift has meant closer alignment to standards-based grading and a greater internal consistency for assigning grades. I hung a laminated poster of the district grade-scale along with the standards-based language I use in order to help students see the link between the grade and their progress.

Image

Students consult the assessment guide during a self-assessment activity.

 

Enter Paperless Assignments

This year, our school joined the ranks of Google Apps for Education, and with that giant leap forward came another shift in the way I collect, assess, and give feedback on student work. I keep experimenting with different ideas, but my paper-management past caused issues for my digital-management present. With a stack of papers, I could easily attach a rubric or checklist to the front with a stapler. I couldn’t see a way to do that digitally without altering a student’s document and potentially upsetting a carefully formatted document. Philosophically, I don’t want my grading feedback to overwhelm or intrude on a student’s work, nor do I want to bury it at the bottom of the page or otherwise “spoil” a student’s desire to improve their work with the poison of a numerical grade. Students deserve to have the integrity of their writing assignments respected.

Comment bubbles in the margins have been a great compromise for me. I still get to mark the text and call out features that either need work or are outstanding. Students have the ability to confer with me or ask questions without cluttering up their work with any intrusions that might interfere with the coherence of their writing. Students also have the capability to remove my comments from the margins while still having a record to access at any time. A side benefit of these comment bubbles is the invitation for students to engage with me in conversation. Students rarely skip over these comments without either replying, making the suggested correction, or asking a question of their own. They almost can’t help themselves! Comment bubbles in the margin are great for this kind of on-the-spot feedback, but when it comes to a final holistic snapshot or grade, it didn’t feel like enough.

Enter Autocrat, my new favorite Google script.

Autocrat, Where Have You Been All My Digital-Grading Life?

I was first introduced to Autocrat in a side conversation during a Google Cloud Camp held in our district last November. I was already using gClass Folders, Doctopus, and Goobric (three other tools that have made the switch to paperless much more painless), but I was unfamiliar with the merge tool and couldn’t picture how I might use it other than to correspond.

With a little creative thinking and a post on rubric assessments in spreadsheets by Alice Keeler, inspiration struck.

I began with a spreadsheet populated with my students’ names, email addresses, and the direct link to their documents. I then added columns for feedback scores (based on a 3-2-1 rubric for exceeds expectations, meets expectations, and approaching expectations). After collecting student work and recording their scores and feedback in the spreadsheet, I designed a separate document that would act as my feedback template.

The magic of Autocrat lies in the merge ability. I can design one feedback sheet in a document, insert tags for student names, scores, and customized feedback, and then run the script to merge the grading input from my spreadsheet with the template. Each student receives a personalized email, a pdf attachment to the assessment, and a link to their document with further comments.

Each student.

Timely, appropriate, personalized feedback.

Respect for the integrity of student work.

Efficient use of time, attention, and energy.

Assessment bliss!

This process takes less time and produces a superior output to anything I might have done by hand. I’m looking forward to hearing from my students to see if they like their personal feedback reports and see how they use the feedback to improve.

Image

 

For Those Keeping Score at Home

Today was the big composition test and in the words of my students, “It was the dumbest prompt EVER, Mrs. Leung.”

Maybe that’s a bit hyperbolic, but I am quoting twelve year-olds.

Despite the “dumbest prompt EVER,” they did it. They told me they felt capable, that it felt like they’d accomplished something. Instead of feeling lost and unsure of what to write, they told me how they broke apart the prompt, used a brainstorming tactic we’d discussed in class (be still my heart!), and even took advantage of the classroom dictionaries. A few said they were proud enough of their work that they couldn’t wait to get it back…

Oh yeah, and they were disappointed to learn that not only would I not get to read their work, but they would also never see their essays again.

“Why did we have to work so hard if we can’t even see it again or show it to our parents?”

Great question, kids. This is why I am so proud of you. Never stop asking great questions.

T’was the Night Before Testing

And I can’t fall asleep.

My seventh graders take part one of a three part test to see how much I’ve been able to develop 180 days worth of skills as readers and writers crammed into in the first six months of the school year. At one hour per day with each class, that’s not a lot of time.

I’m not worried about the scores that will form part of my evaluations next year and for years to come. Those numbers are of no use to me, coming too late to inform our work. Instead I think of individual students, homogenized as data points for easy consumption and judgment far from my classroom.

I think of the absent students who have missed ten or more hours of instruction due to illness, appointments, or family vacations. I think about students who have made incredible leaps in such a short time, but who struggle to find their confidence in the impersonal drone of “make your mark heavy and dark.” I worry about the high achievers who told me today, “I can’t help it. I’m nervous.” I worry about the anxious students who will panic or freeze and then fear letting me or another adult down.

I hurt for the students who said, “You really can’t help me tomorrow? Really? Not even if I’m stuck?” Not even, kiddo. Especially then.

My desks are in rows; my Writing Tips posters, covered; my boards, clear; my pencils, sharpened; my “Do Not Disturb” sign, hung. All that remains is the impersonal recitation and threatening jargon from the proctor’s manual.

I’ve been doing this since NCLB became law at the start of my career. I know they’ll be fine; we always are. Still, I can’t sleep. There has to be a better way.

Fingerpainting with Perfectionism

Recently, I assigned students to read a nonfiction article by art historian Richard Mühlberger called “What Makes a Rembrandt a Rembrandt?” We had spent time as a class using the Artful Thinking strategy Claim-Support-Question (from Harvard’s Project Zero) to examine Rembrandt’s painting “The Night Watch.”

The Lesson: Part 1

For the protocol, students first observed the painting on Google Art Project and we discussed what we thought we saw in the image. The levels of zoom on Google Art project allowed us to see the image more accurately than if we had merely used a full-screen image of the whole painting.

After we had discussed what we noticed, I invited the class to make a claim based on their observations. They then had to support that claim with evidence from the painting. Finally, I invited each student to ask a lingering question about the painting that we may or may not be able to answer. I collected these responses at the end of the class period, gave individual feedback, and returned their responses at the beginning of the next class.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:The_Nightwatch_by_Rembrandt.jpg

Militia Company of District II under the Command of Captain Frans Banninck Cocq, Known as de ‘Night Watch’, Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn, 1642

The Lesson: Part 2

We spent some time previewing the Mühlberger article, looking at the embedded images, title, and subheadings. I asked them how previewing these elements might help them better read and remember.

Next, we built a KWL on the board and focused on building the K and W. My seventh graders told me they were not familiar with this graphic organizer, but they were surprised and excited to see just how much they already “knew” about the topic before they read.

Finally, I asked the class to read the article on their own and see if they could answer their W column “wonders” or “want to know” questions through their reading.

I chose three critical thinking questions from the textbook to assess both reading comprehension and drawing conclusions based on the painting, their reading, and their analysis.

Conclusions:

What makes this lesson effective are the many ways students have to use their observations to draw inferences and build a mental model of their understanding. If we had read the article without previewing the art, my students would likely have seen this reading exercise as nothing more than “something to do in Mrs. Leung’s class.” Learning how to use claim-support-question as a strategy for approaching art allows students to practice engaging with a visual “text” while drawing conclusions that are not limited to one single interpretation. This is good practice before asking students to read research or write an argument.

The students who struggled the most with reading and responding to the critical thinking questions were high achieving students who tend to worry about whether or not their work is “right” in the eyes of authority. One student in particular who is an admitted perfectionist chafed at one of the first questions.

The question asked the student to consider the painting’s incorrect, informal title “The Night Watch.” After examining the way the painting looks to a viewer and reading the background information about the painting’s true subject, the student was supposed to generate her own alternate title and support it with reasons. Since this was an open-ended response, as long as the student could support her choice of title with reasonable evidence from the painting and the article, almost any response would be considered correct. When we talked, her frustration was clear, so I asked her to try something different. Before writing a “good” title, I wanted her to write three “terrible” ones. If she was able to write a terrible one, I hoped that would help her continue to think about the painting and what would make a good title (or not). That tip didn’t work instantly, but it did offer her a strategy for coping with the paralysis of perfectionism through play. The student did overcome her mental block and wrote a new title (in addition to three pretty silly ones!)

As I continue to grow in my practice, I see a need for more opportunities for students to meet the challenge of “no one right answer” and to give themselves the permission to use divergent thinking in order to fuel creative thinking.

Cross-posted on Sanderling.