My Students Say Thank You

I don’t remember when I first noticed it. A student here or there would pause on the way out my classroom door, turn to me, and say, “Thank you, Mrs. Leung.”

It’s new to me.

When I was in middle school, it never occurred to me to thank my teachers for opening doors and windows in my mind or for believing in me. I never said thank you for the corrective feedback and coaching on writing assignments. It never crossed my mind that my teachers were anything more than gatekeepers of right and wrong.

So that’s why it struck me. Those thank yous stopped me in my place with the power of gratitude: Thank you for teaching me. Thank you for today’s lesson. Thank you for listening. Thank you for challenging me. Thank you for the feedback.

Thanks so much Ms. Leung for the feedback. I will use your feedback.

Student comment on feedback. The response came one minute after I posted.

I’ve been teaching fourteen years and I’ve never had so many students say thank you so often. In a way, I think it’s a function of the ease of electronic communication. If I leave a comment in a Google Doc or in Classroom, many students see the note pop up on their personal screens. It’s a way to say, “Hi. I saw your work. I notice your skills.” How can that not lead to stronger teacher-student relationships? But that can’t be the only reason. This generation of children I am fortunate to know has a keen understanding of valuing relationships.

When I feel frustrated at the lack of civility that seems to permeate public discourse, I think of my students and am so grateful. If a student understands the power of thanks at the age of twelve, that is a person who will grow into a grateful adult who can accept constructive criticism and use it to better herself.

These remarkable people are growing up fast. Keep your eyes open. When they start appearing on the horizon, you’re going to be dazzled by how much they’re going to change the world.

More Than Technically Engaged

We’re at the end of our poetry study and my students have written some amazing poems. I structure the unit so that as we examine each feature of craft, we practice that feature and focus on it, while building each layer. It unlocks the reading process and helps demystify the moves poets make.

In the past, I’ve asked my students to revise a poem based on all the craft features and use it to demonstrate what they have learned about poetry. For some reason, this ability to look closely at their writing and make revisions on creative writing never seemed to gel when the work was on paper. This time I took a different approach and brought in a few digital tools.

The poetry project asks students to revise all five poetry assignments and choose how best to share them with a larger audience. We’re using flipsnack, Google Story Builder, and WeVideo to transform their typed documents into digital books with flipping pages and images, living poems, and photo stories. What’s been exciting for me is that in the process of creating their digital products, revision becomes more attractive to my students. They read, reread, reflect, and consider their poems carefully when choosing which lines to add to a page and which images to include. The digital product options also encourage them to consider how the poem might “speak” to a viewer best and it hones their media literacy eyes.

When we opened our Chromebooks today, my students dove deep into their work. They drafted, revised, reformatted, tried again–and kept experimenting. The room was nearly silent at times as each student focused on her (or his) poetry so intently that there was no temptation to drift away from the work. Every now and then I would hear, “You’ve got to see my sonnet,” or “What do you think of my rhyme scheme here?” As I circulated through the room, student questions allowed me to teach them computer literacy skills like keyboard shortcuts, design tips, eyeflow, and even terms like PDF.

I’m looking forward to their final projects and on Friday we will celebrate their artistry by setting up the Chromebooks to display their poems in a digital gallery, ready for comments, laughter, and appreciation. The best part for me are the many ways their performance on this assessment shows me what they have learned deeply and much more meaningfully than a traditional unit test.

Cross-posted on Sanderling.

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.

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.

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.

Argument: Was this in the cards?

According to the student handbook, playing cards of any kind are not allowed at school. It’s an obscure rule buried deep in the handbook and has its reasons, but isn’t on the list of top student infractions.

"Wave" by Caleb Roenigk cc Attribution License

“Wave” by Caleb Roenigk cc Attribution License

A few of my students had been using a deck at some point during their lunch break to perform magic tricks, and an adult rightly asked them to put the cards away.

This is where things got interesting.

The students came to me, their language arts teacher. We’ve been studying argument writing and my students, instead of wanting to complain or protest, wanted to write an argument to defend their use of the playing cards as appropriate and to ask for an exception to the school rules. I’ve seen this movie before. Over the years I have witnessed student petition drives, performance art, handbills plastered across every public surface, and even outright rebellion as students fought to have their voices heard. Often there was an edge of immaturity to these protests because, let’s face it, adults have the power and the advantage. The immature response is a result of their perceived lack of power or frustration due to feeling unheard. The adult reaction isn’t always as constructive as it could be, often devolving into a “because we said so” or “sorry you feel that way; too bad.”

That wasn’t happening this time. These students were calm, rational, and respectful. They acknowledged that the adult in charge who had asked them to put the cards away was following the rules and they held no grudge. They had done their research, brought a copy of the handbook rule to me with the significant parts highlighted, and simply asked: how can we have our point of view heard?

What is a teacher to do? I knew the rule and the simple thing would be to tell the students there was no point in arguing. This is the rule; we have to abide by it with no exceptions. Instead, I offered to help them put their thoughts in order. The rule is inconsistently applied with some playing cards allowed at certain times of day, including a four-table Pokémon game before school officially begins. They had been using a standard deck of playing cards and the rule assumes these cards are a distraction while the other games’ cards are not.

The students came to my room during team time to get my advice and to start putting their argument together. I will read it and likely give them advice for revision or editing, but the words and opinions will be theirs. As I listened to their thoughts, I was so impressed with the way they turned to writing and dispassionate argument as a way to find their voice and a sense of personal power. Real world writing, indeed!

Are the adults in administration ready for these voices? Are we prepared for students to take the lessons we teach them about analyzing evidence and defending a position to challenge our rules, policies, and procedures?

When a student uses close-reading strategies to mark up the handbook, are we ready for honest conversation and to possibly admit we need to change?

I hope we are. There could be nothing worse than to teach students how to become their own advocates through reason, logic, and maturity to tell them it only works when it’s for a grade.