Tell Me What You Know

research pic

The  students had had nearly two hours of independent research time over two days when I sat down next to a boy. “Tell me everything you know,” I said to him. After all, we had already gone over accessing and assessing websites; I had created a LibGuide leading them to excellent sources; we had reviewed note-taking skills and databases. He should have, in two hours, had a plethora of information on the colonization of his African country.

“I don’t know anything,” he stated.

“Well, let’s start with the basics. Who colonized your country?” I asked.

He stared at me blankly. “I’m not sure. Britain or France, I think.”

As I moved from student to student, similar, vague conversations took place. They had EasyBibs started with their resources, they had lists of bulleted notes, they had their assignments in front of them, they had reliable resources open on their screens. When I scanned the room, it looked like they were doing everything we had instructed them to do. Yet, each time I sat down and asked, “Tell me what you know,” they were caught off guard.

One student grabbed his notes and started reading them to me. I interrupted. “Don’t read me what your notes say, tell me what YOU know.” He asked me to give him ten minutes.

After they left class, I sat, reflecting, discouraged. I wanted to blame the students, but I also know that if every single student in a class is not doing what they need to do to be successful, I am responsible for some of that blame. And so I sat and wondered,  how  can I get them back on track after this railroaded research disaster?

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The following day, when the students came in, they found large pieces of bright paper with 4 index cards taped on them and my coveted collection of Sharpies that they love to raid. Each index card had a question: For what reason was your country colonized? What did life look like for the native inhabitants during colonization? How was the country liberated? What issues does your country struggle with today? “Grab a color you like,” I told them.  “Grab some markers, and start writing what you know. If you don’t know anything, write that. Be honest.”

Students sprawled out on the tables and started jotting down what they could. They started digging out their notes and reading through them. As the other teacher and I circulated, we heard a lot of comments like, “I think I have more to look into” or “Wow, I didn’t even pay attention to the part about that.” When finished, they took out a piece of notebook paper and wrote down where they needed to focus during the class period that stretched ahead of them.

During research time, there was a different tone–a sense of purpose. They started asking us questions about what they were reading. They started being able to answer our questions. When there were five minutes left in class, they returned to their poster-sized notes and scribbled more information down. And then, again, they wrote on notebook paper what they needed to focus on over the weekend.

It was simple really, and I was disappointed in myself for not doing this kind of checkin on day one. But it reminded me that we so often forget to teach explicitly about thinking and reflection. When we tell kids to go research their topic, they comply and walk through the paces that we have “trained” them to do. But how do we train them to reflect on what they are finding? On reading for understanding? On finding purpose in their searches? These habits of mind must be taught daily in order for them to independently make meaning of their learning when they leave for college.

So what can we do to bring explicitness into our classroom research practices?

*Confer with students constantly. Go to them–don’t wait for them to come to you.
*Be flexible in the process. Let them change topics. Let them change thesis statements. Let them change sides. Let them see that research is messy and non-linear, and then give them the time they need to find their way.
*Ask specific questions every day. Why did you choose this topic? What is the most important thing you have read? What do you remember most? What does this mean today?
*Ask students to be active in their daily learning process. Have them write entrance and exit slips–What do you plan to accomplish today and how are you going to do that? What did you accomplish today? What do you have left to do?
*Ask students to stop what they are doing and write from time to time. Writing is thinking, and giving them the time to sit and think about what they know for a moment will help them be more efficient in their process.
*Have students reflect on their habits. Are they proud of their work? What would they do differently? How did they use their time?

Explicitly teaching research takes time, and in the classroom, we never feel like there is enough time. But if we want students to find purpose, meaning, and pride in their findings, we must remember that they–no matter what age–will continue to require that kind of instruction throughout their educational career. It’s not enough to assume that somebody else has taught them how to do a task or  that they remember it from a previous lesson or that they just know how to do it. We need to remember to check in, provide personally-directed reminders, and have conversations about their learning processes routinely.

I, for one, will leave reminders for myself, in my next unit. Because the next time I sit next to a student and ask, “Tell me what you know,” I want her to confidently look me in the eye and open the world.

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Science is Poetry is Science

“An enzyme’s active site is empty.
It floats there all alone,
Waiting to catalyze
A biological reaction unknown.

A substrate, also lonely,
Searches for a friend.
An enzyme to work together with
Who will help reactions begin and end…”

It’s National Poetry Month, and English teachers and librarians are celebrating all over the country. But what about everyone else? Is it true what kids say– poetry only belongs in English class? The biology teacher and I set out to prove them wrong. Looking for a way to add to her enzyme unit instruction, we collaborated, which included her  teaching me some biology and then assigning me homework, and me going over different forms and kinds of poetry, and then planned out the writing of persona poems. We wanted to ensure that this was not just a fun, “cool” activity, but rather a formative assessment tool that would point to any confusion or misconceptions her students might have.

Prior to the activity, the students were asked to sticky-note the important vocabulary from the unit in their text book. Which words are critical to the understanding of enzymes? When I came into class, I showed them Louise Gluck’s Red Poppies. We discussed the tone and the voice of the poem–how the poppy worshipped her god to the point of sacrifice. So what about enzymes? If we personified enzymes, what would they be like? Resentful for the work they selflessly undertake? Joyous and compassionate about the importance of their services? Adopt a persona I told them Decide who your enzyme (or inhibitor or substrate) is, and then start telling their story.

As expected, some kids’ eyes lit right up and they delved in. Others looked at us questioningly. You could read their faces: Poetry in science class? Are you for real? But after some quiet conversations and brainstorming, their pencils starting scratching the paper, too. Textbooks were open. Sticky notes were read and rewritten. The science teacher and I moved around the room–she answered questions about the content; I answered questions about the process.

And in the end, they proved what I had been suspecting for some time, and which, in hindsight seems like a well, duh kind of revelation: you cannot write poetry about something you don’t know. You have to know what hydrolyzing and catalyzing means to successfully use those words. You have to know the difference between a competitive and a noncompetitive inhibitor. You have to know how substrates work and what their purpose is.

Poetry is like the zoom lens of writing, and through its view you can see the pores and tiny hairs of whatever you are looking at. To write stunning poetry, you have to understand your subject and humanity all at once, while being able to pick apart everything you see. It’s dissection, it’s a microscope. It’s close observation. It is, in fact, a science.  What scientists are expected to do–that process of prediction, close observation, risk-taking, and drawing conclusions? That’s everything that goes into writing a good poem, as well.

So I dare you–shun the strict adherence to the kinds of writing we “should” do in each of our classes. Because once we do that, we will recognize that there is a place for all kinds of writing in every subject. And it will not only expose our students to a variety of writing and the importance of voice, but it will help with assessments, creativity, meeting the needs of all students, and strengthening the understanding of our content.

And besides: when was the last time you read something as enjoyable as this in your class?

“My active site is empty,
I’m inactive, waiting for a mate.
But a gorgeous, petite substrate attaches…
Oh my, life is great.

She distorts my molecular bonds
And her love for me is sweet like sucrose.
Yet she exhausts and weakens me with her love
Because I received it in a high dose.

So I gave her my energy,
I gave her my affection
Now she’s hydrolyzing before my eyes.
What were her intentions?

She used me, abused me,
and left me as a fool.
But together we created glucose and fructose.
What perfect little jewels!”

Authentic Writing in the Classroom: Empowering Our Students

No one writes anything worth writing, unless he writes entirely for the sake of his subject.~Arthur Schopenhauer

During my first years of teaching, I assigned the kinds of assignments I was supposed to be giving my students: narratives, arguments, informational texts, literary analyses, etc. But I started to notice that it didn’t matter how much I asked them to write or how much instruction I gave them, their writing did not improve as much as I would like. It certainly wasn’t interesting writing. And they were not falling in love with the craft of language the way I had hoped. I had big dreams that my students would love writing as much as I, but I wasn’t witnessing that. Discouragement clouded my classroom experiences, and I fell into rote, formulaic instruction, succumbing to the idea that not everybody can be a writer.

Except, at heart, I knew this wasn’t really true. It took a few years for me to acknowledge this. First I had to get over the new-teacher humps of navigating everything from classroom management to NCLB to understanding assessment. But then, when my legs felt a little less shaky, I went back to the soul of writing.

I started to closely examine my teaching practices in light of my writing practices, and the most glaringly obvious misalignment was in who was reading the writing.

I always write for an audience–whether it be a letter, a post, an article, or a chapter in a book. Ultimately, after the multiple drafts and revisions, my final pieces are always intended for somebody. But in my classroom, my students’ writing was only intended for me. And the purpose was to put a grade on it and hand it back, and it nearly always found itself to the garbage can during binder clean outs.

I believe, fundamentally, that writing well is the most powerful tool we can give our students. It harnesses their ideas and voices and empowers them to gather their idealism into productive and meaningful work. To write well is to think well. And I cannot think of any greater gift for our students as they catapult into a technology and text-driven society where words matter. I was failing to give this gift to my students.

As I shifted the focus in my classroom, I started small–an assignment here or there. But eventually, every single writing piece we took on had an authentic, live, real audience. Sometimes it was their peers (we would write product reviews and hang them in the hallways where other students would browse). Sometimes it was somebody else in our school community. (One girl wrote a data-driven piece on the benefits of gum chewing for students with attentional issues and permanently changed our school-wide gum-chewing rule.) Sometimes it was a larger audience outside of school. (One student wrote a moving argument for why our school district should have a lacrosse team. It was published in the newspaper the day of voting, and the article narrowly passed. We’d like to think that her articulate and researched words helped move voters.)

Sometimes the audience was larger than our immediate community. Students who wrote powerful letters received replacements for their defunct North Face jacket, post cards from Adam Sandler, and correspondence from our senators. We hosted a book review website where students posted reviews monthly. I would then tweet the articles out, tagging authors, and countless students received word from their authors that their work and words were appreciated.  We held community nights at the local library where their work was on display. They wrote research podcasts that we put on iTunes. We created websites with their research published. They entered contests. They created a literary magazine.

I knew I had accomplished my goals when one day one of my most limited students who sat at his desk, revising a poem, looked up at me and said, “Who will be reading these?” I was stopped in my tracks. This was one assignment I couldn’t quite determine an audience for, yet his question reminded me that knowing audience was going to be important to him during his revision process. I confessed to the class that I had no audience for their poetry. They looked at me blankly (like why not?) and then set off on the journey of creating one. Each student chose their favorite poem and we created laminated copies of them with fancy April is National Poetry Month banners at the top and we plastered the gas station, laundrymat, post office, grocery store, library, and restaurants with student work, making National Poetry Month a town wide celebration.

To teach this way, there needs to be a shift in thinking. Nancie Atwell once taught us to ask our students, “So what?” about their writing. I’m asking you to consider this for your teaching. When we sit to build units and lesson plans, we need to keep this forefront in our minds and ask ourselves, So what? What is the purpose in this? What do we want our students to learn? (Opposed to, what do we want our students to do?)

When I present this topic at conferences, the most dynamic literacy leaders from around the country still have concerns. Here, I would like to address some of the common questions I receive about making a shift to authentic writing in the English classroom.

1. How do you grade authentic writing? It is so personal at that point, how do you slap an assessment on it?

Assessing writing is always a tricky subject. (That’s another whole workshop, right?) But getting past the murky philosophy, the reality is we have to give grades. I only give summative grades for writing, never formative grades, and I rely on the 6+1 Traits language: Organization. Ideas. Sentence Structure. Word Choice. Voice. Conventions. Publication. This language became familiar in our writing projects and among our team members as I taught others how to assess writing. It gave us a common vocabulary, and it gives students the flexibility within the structure to identify which key components would fall in each category. What makes a good organization for a memoir? What about a letter? An essay? Students helped construct our rubrics based on our common knowledge. They know it is intended for an audience, so the focus is no longer about the grade, but about how to craft the best piece possible. With intentional excellence comes good grades.

2. How do you find time to do this?

Teaching authentic writing isn’t any more time consuming than teaching inauthentic writing. It’s still teaching writing. It may be a little more intense, because students are actually invested, but it’s still the same process: draft, revise, publish.

3. What about writing about literature?

What about it? They can still do it! We just have to think about who reads these. Would a literature blog be appropriate for your class? Are there sites that recruit student thinking on literature? Would the local newspaper be interested in publishing student literature reviews? (We once had a Sonnet Showdown, and the winners’ sonnets were published in the newspaper.) 

4. How do you prepare them for teachers’ classes where audience isn’t addressed & more formulaic pieces are expected?

First of all, (and this may sound harsh), I will never adopt a practice in my classroom I disagree with to prepare my students for that practice in another classroom. If students are writing rigorously and frequently, they will become adaptable craftsmen who can adequately address the demands of less-engaging writing. Writing for an audience does not mean lowering the bar—in fact, it means raising it. Publishing your work to a real audience means deliberate thinking and composition and intensive, intentional revision. By engaging them in this process you are not only preparing them for the next class, you are preparing them to be a critical thinker and active citizen.

5. What if my colleagues do not agree with this? What if I receive departmental pressure?
There are many arguments to institute authentic writing into your classroom. As with any pedagogical  decision, you should use research and standards to support your practices. Daniel Pink’s motivation research in Drive is an excellent read that clearly illustrates how autonomy and purpose increase quality and creativity. The Common Core Standards specifically call for students to write for a variety of purposes and audiences, using a variety of modes to publish their work, and the AP Language course description acknowledges the importance of audience. When discussing student motivation and engagement at a departmental level, propose integrating audience into assignments and assessments. The conversation will likely be lively and interesting.

6. What about the colleagues who will talk about me or make me feel like a terrible teacher for shifting the focus in my classroom?

This question was most startling for me. It is not the culture in my current school, yet I recognize it is a stark reality in many schools. In the past, I have certainly adopted practices that did not sit well with me because of highly critical colleagues. And I have heard from many teachers from around the country that they have done the same. Fear of confrontation, tension, being talked about, or receiving jabs in meetings forces many teachers to fit into a mold. Sometimes it is easier to fall into line than to push the limits and try new things. I get that. But here’s the thing: that is professional bullying. If our students behaved that way, we would not tolerate it. As professionals, it is our job to support one another, encourage each other to try new things, be open to taking risks, and have collegial conversations that challenge our ideas and perceptions. Rigidity and judgment serve no one, especially our students.

7. But there’s a test…

Yes, there is. And I would challenge you not to teach to it, but to teach beyond it. I want my students to write better than what is expected on the test. When students have a strong command over language and style and are confident in their abilities, they will be adaptive writers who can address any writing prompt appropriately. There have been times where I have read the test writing prompts and groaned, thinking I have never had my students write like that and they are not going to be successful, but in the end, they come up for air and tell me it wasn’t so bad. And my writing scores reflect this, as well. After having students for three years straight, our proficiency went from an average of 35% (the same as the state level) to an average of 90% (nearly 30 points higher than the state average). Never once did we do test prep–instead we did real world prep, which meant a great deal of writing. Do not let tests scare you into being inauthentic or uncreative. Our students will achieve greater results if their educational experiences are purposeful.  As one audience member said today, “Teaching more five paragraph essays will not make better writers.”

Yesterday, my dear friend and colleague, Sarah Brown Wessling addressed the entire CEL convention and asked us to consider purpose over task. It’s not about what we, the teachers, are going to do today, but rather what our students will learn. Reconsider your writing assignments–are you having them complete a task? Or are they writing for a purpose? Are you inspiring them to fine-tune their voice? Are you breathing passion into their need for expression? Are you empowering your students? 

Ultimately, ask yourself that big question: So what?

The Okay-ness of Hard

“This is hard,” she sighs at me, her body slumped over on the table, head leaning against her arm, pencil lying limp in her other hand. “It’s toooooo hard.”

“Hard is okay,” I say to her.

She raises one eyebrow at me in disbelief. “No, really,” I encourage her. “You learn when you do hard things. If we always did what was easy, we’d still have our moms feeding us, right? I mean, dang. That was soooo easy.”

She lowers that supercilious, 9th grade eyebrow and mutters, “Yeah, I guess you’re right.”

I pat her on the shoulder before getting up to leave.  “I promise,” I tell her, “I’ve never had a student die from writing a thesis statement.” She cracks a hint of a smile and sits up.

We are writing thesis statements for mini-TED-like talks in Health class. And I’m hearing them all sigh and say, “This is hard.”

And this is hard. Not just the thesis statement, but the whole project.

Frustrated by poor quality presentations that felt more like fact-finding than research, the health teacher and I decided to take on the usual independent health projects in a new, more meaningful way. Over the course of this quarter-long offering, working with a class of freshmen and sophomores a few half periods here and there at a time, we asked students to shift from the default Power Point regurgitated tedium that they too-often present to mini TED-like talks where they encourage the audience to look at a health topic in a new way.

Throughout the process, we watched students struggle. We had conversations that often began with “This is tooooo hard.” And we kept telling them, You’re right. This is hard. And that’s okay.

After choosing a topic, they had to decide what they were trying to prove–what they wanted their audience to understand. Writing this kind of a thesis statement is difficult and requires an abundance of conversation, processing, and many drafts. From there, they had to use that thesis statement to drive their writing, weeding through their facts and deciding which were relevant. Part of good research is knowing what is important and what is not necessary, and our students often have a difficult time weeding through all of the material they come across. We reminded them frequently: There are books out there on these topics. You are only speaking for about 5 minutes. Focus. Focus. Focus.  They watched multiple TED talks, observing the craft over the content, and recognized that good presentations have attention-grabbing openings, integrate narrative elements with factual information, and have stimulating visual backdrops. Checking facts, writing drafts, receiving feedback, plowing through revisions, and practicing consumed their time. They worked hard.

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Fast forward to the end of the semester.

It is last period on a Friday and the entire health class is sitting, silently, in the library, their eyes on a usually quiet girl who is presenting on what it is like to live with asthma. She stands, tall, with no note cards in her hands, looking her classmates in the eyes, speaking audibly, recalling statistics and experiences, with word-free images on the screen behind her. She is following another student who presented on how to understand peers who have social anxiety, who used personal and honest anecdotes, intermingled with haunting music, stunning artwork, and stark research. Before her, a boy who struggles with and often does not complete most assignments, stood tall and proud, pleading with his classmates to communicate with teachers the importance of standing and movement during the school day and the health implications of too much sitting. Another student, typically reserved, encouraged everyone to take precautions against skin cancer, using her own father’s experience as a backdrop to the research. Each student who stood up there in front of the class amazed us in a thousand different ways.

The health teacher and I sit, filled with pride, because what is happening this week in health class is spectacular. Our students walked away from the assignment, aware that what speaks to our hearts drives authentic research and that true research isn’t about spitting back facts, but about what we make of the facts we’ve come across. They learned that they can use research to make change, and that their voices are important. They recognized that when giving presentations, audio and visual channels will always compete, and how to balance the two. And that to communicate important research and conclusions, they always need to pull together an effective presentation.

But most importantly, this class of kids–honors students and IEP students, boys and girls, intrinsically and extrinsically motivated students–they took on something hard.

And they learned that hard is okay.