How do we tap into teacher empowerment? This is a question that I have thought about for a long time. It has been my experience that empowered teachers draw on knowing the curriculum, having an understanding for child development, and a knack for setting attainable goals with students that help their students recognize their own inner stores of power, but I wondered what other teachers had to say on the matter. On September 16, 2021 #G2Great began a conversation about tapping into teacher empowerment, and after reading through the Wakelet it became clear to me that GROWING A CULTURE around empowerment is really the next frontier.
What if we actively created a culture that was built around teacher empowerment in school? I imagine that it might be like this, teachers come to school believing that their thoughts and decisions will make a positive impact on the collective good. Every faculty member would know that their expertise would be held in the highest esteem. From where I stand, teaching is already the best career there is and if it were possible to work in a culture that tapped into teacher empowerment, it would be life changing for our profession and our students. That is something worth fighting for, and here are some ways we can begin to make a shift towards tapping into (a culture) of teacher empowerment.
Listen to Teachers
Building a school wide belief system stems from an ongoing conversation about how students learn best. Once we have that vision, we can begin to align our beliefs and we can promote a shared voice in the materials that we put into the classroom. One way to promote ownership is to let teachers decide what kinds of materials reflect the shared vision. Teacher autonomy would stem from having a voice and choice about classroom libraries, based on the needs of their classrooms.
Promote Intellectual Curiosity
It is a goal of many to take a student centered approach to teaching and learning. It is also important to extend that same stance for professional learning for teachers. Having choice in the kind of professional learning that is received is very empowering. We need to follow the teacher lead when it comes to learning because each teacher has a different need. Peer facilitated coaching is another way to promote empowerment because having the freedom to visit a colleague and learn collectively is the kind of on the job training that promotes professional growth while tapping into teacher expertise.
Take Action Through Agency
The culture of school does not always jive with the concept of agency. There are so many tasks teachers are asked to complete at school that suck up time and effort. Our focus becomes a checklist of “have to’s” rather than time spent cultivating the craft of teaching. It is hard to feel inspired to take action when obligatory duties take over. We can strive to make this better. Everyone has to submit lesson plans, but rather than submitting lesson plans prior to the lesson, submit them after with teacher reflections written in the margins. This encourages deeper reflection while giving administration a better view of what is happening in the classroom. What went well? What failed? What did you learn? Innovative solutions are out there, let’s devote time and energy to making it happen.
Begin Good Conversations
One tenant of #G2Great is that we believe we move from “good work” to “great work” in the classroom (Howard 2012) when we continue to read and act on professional learning. A school culture that embraces a teacher’s desire to learn and try something new is one that is made to tap into teacher empowerment. Every week, I learn so much from the teachers I work with and the teachers I know through social media. Risk would be a badge of honor, a marker of courageous learners who are trying to outgrow themselves. This would be a culture that would be worthy of the students we teach everyday.
Never Lose Sight of What is Possible
The culture we live in school is in some part a reflection of ourselves. What if? Two common words that have an uncommon ability to power real change. If you find yourself wanting more, and dream of tapping into your own sense of empowerment; don’t wait, you can make the difference.
Thursday, September 2, 2021 found #G2Great fans gathered around the Twitterverse to discuss Diane Ravitch’s blog from April 2021 where Yong Zhao and William McDiarmid shared their thinking on Standardized Testing. This was the first of a two part chat series that concludes next week with a media study of a topic currently under debate: “Learning Loss” so tune in again next week as well.
Let’s consider the “setting” for this blog post. April of this year. 14 months into the pandemic. A world-wide pandemic. Hopes. Fears. Vaccines becoming available although not yet available to all. And yet, simultaneous pushes for “a return to normal” and “a time to create a new normal.” Definitely a time of uncertainty, perhaps ripe for change. Perhaps ready to return to the known, the familiar.
Words matter. I’ve used that succinct phrase here and on my own blog as post titles here and here. Words matter because the meaning and power come from the words authors choose to use. Or even from words they deliberately choose NOT to use. With the Six Traits +1 of Writing (Voice, Ideas, Presentation, Conventions, Organization, Word Choice, and Sentence Fluency), word choice seems to be just one of seven factors, but in reality it impacts all the other traits to some degree. The words authors use are often equated to be a sign of level of education or intelligence.
I am venturing to guess that there is little doubt about my feelings about this topic. Consequently my choice with this article was to view the frequency of words in the post by Zhao and McDiarmid as a starting point of my personal study. Which words did they repeat? So how did I do a frequency study? I used technology to copy and paste the entire post into worditout.com, and this word cloud was automatically generated. As with any word cloud, the largest words appeared most frequently. This cloud uses five different colors of ink in varying sizes to show levels of frequency for words.
I literally breathed a sigh of relief to see that “students” was the largest word as I admired its placement in the center of the cloud, and then “testing” was second and “standardized” was third. Because those two words were in the title that actually confirmed the content of the post. The biggest yellow words stood out next: “educators,” “learning,” and “high-stakes.” The descending order quickly became trickier. Red words that next stood out were “skills”, then “knowledge,” “Zhao,” “families,” and “many.” I’m not going to go through all the words but I did list out about thirty of my favorite words that I found in the cloud. Before I continue on, I invite you to think about this question: “What words in the word cloud seem interesting to you?”
Did you choose nouns? If yes, “educators, families, tests, talents, opportunities, counterparts” might be some on your list.
Did you choose verbs? If yes, “marginalized, reduced, nurture, mastered, disrupted” might be words that catch your eye.
Or were there words that just created a sense of wonder? Maybe these caught your attention: “especially, consequently, perhaps, although, more, significantly, some.”
High-stakes standardized testing
Standardized Assessments . . . What do you think of when you hear that phrase? I immediately think of the old, old, old, Iowa Tests of Basic Skills, #2 pencils, and ovals that are to be “completely filled in.” That led to my vote for this visual to be a part of our slides for the chat. I see the broken pencil as frustration. Over the administration. Over the time spent assessing. Over the delays in assessment results. Over the inappropriate uses of the results.
Because this was an article study, this blog post is perhaps a bit different from other posts and significantly different from posts featuring books and authors. However, my study of the words brought me to the conclusion that there were three key ideas in the blog that also surfaced in the chat.
Has failed educators
Has disrupted learning for families and communities
Although those words are displayed above, they may not have been the words that you felt were emphasized. Thank you for sticking with me through this post as I demonstrate the examples that happened to show me these results. Please continue reading to follow my thinking as I share my processing of the words above and the tweets from the chat that impacted my thinking (and see exactly how many words I also use from the word cloud.)
If I begin with the littlest students, kindergartners entering school this year may have attended pre-school in the lowest numbers in the last decade. Many missed out on play dates, family events and interaction in their neighborhood and community.
First graders may be more fortunate. Some had a kindergarten year in a classroom with masks and social distancing. Some had hybrid classrooms with some instruction online and some face to face. Some others had a year of online instruction. What will first grade bring? It’s impossible to predict but bumpy rides are ahead and no one solution is possible because of the complexities of the previous year.
And second graders . . . those children who left school in March of 2019 for “a couple of weeks” who never returned for the final days of kindergarten. What were those final days like? What was first grade like? And now how will second grade look? Students who have and will now have three consecutive years greatly impacted by the pandemic.
And then students in grades three and up . . . They too have now known three years of disruption and three years of different learning. Soon we will hear from testing companies about their view of learning during the pandemic. But I want to take this opportunity to remind you of two important words: achievement and learning. Achievement tests give us comparisons of grade levels and stanines and percentiles that are often used to sort out students into categories of students dependent on the rate of growth in skills that are progressing on a scale. Learning, and in particular life-long learning often encompasses: curiosity, creativity, communication, leadership, critical thinking, adaptability, and listening.
How are students impacted?
High-stakes standardized testing has failed educators.
High-stakes assessments have promised to be the “end-all” in education reform. Unfortunately, I believe that they have done the opposite. They’ve sent us down rabbit-hole after rabbit-hole of broken promises, tired rhetoric, and trust-breaking programs as “Everyone” tries out their own experiments in improving school. But what if we take a step back and consider those who have been successful? What if we reread Dr. Gholdy Muhammad’s work to study histories of success? (Cultivating Genius chat here)
As a “Mid-Westerner”, I love New York City. This statue and its nature as a gift from our friends in France fascinates me. And these words are mesmerizing.
Many teachers whose classes began in August are already tired and poor. They are “yearning to breathe free”; free of the tyranny of standardized test requirements. Free of a six foot stack of test-prep materials. Free of local, state and federal requirements that feel counterproductive to learning. Outdated measures of learning. Disruption is needed.
High-stakes standardized testing has disrupted learning for families and communities.
When media touts the failure of schools and students by reporting FAILING data such as NAEP reports of students not meeting proficiency, it’s hard not to believe the 100th presentation of said data. However, NAEP in particular never talks about “proficiency” in any of their descriptions of their performance levels. That one sneaky little word added in makes it easy to be derailed and question the efficacy of schools in general. And then what happens? Check out the following tweets.
In conclusion with a challenge . . .
Thank you for indulging me in my wandering and wondering about words in this post, “Time to Rethink Standardized Testing.” In 2012, EdWeek stated the cost of testing to be at $1.7 billion per year. (link) Five years later Penn State reported that the same dollar figure was used for primary assessments. (link) Unfortunately, the EdWeek article was their quoted source even five years later. Testing/ Assessments are expensive.
Find out how much assessments cost your district. Actual cost. And then look for the hidden costs. How much instructional time is lost to test prep, test administration, and assemblies with promises of rewards for student improvement? What is the cost of stress for students, teachers, administrators, family and community? How much time is lost in item analysis to find out there was only one item for that skill so it may not even have been a lower performing skill, but just an inattention to detail? And then honestly answer these question: What is the cost benefit for students? How do these assessments help the students become more effective citizens? What have the teachers learned from the assessment that they did not already know?
And then take your answers to your administrators and folks in charge.
It’s time for change.
And testing/assessment needs to be at the top of the list.
For as long as I can remember there has been an ongoing public debate for how to teach children to read. The “Reading Wars” asked teachers to take a side – are you pro phonics or whole language? Not even a global pandemic could silence it. If anything, it has only gotten worse. Nowadays it is: are you for the Science of Reading or Balanced Literacy? While that may all be well and good for selling newspapers, or getting “likes” over social media, it does little to elevate teacher knowledge or practice. The best way to do that is to engage in a good conversation rather than rigid one-sided debates.
On August 12, 2021 the #G2Great team hosted a chat to take a closer look at how to keep Phonics in Perspective. Teachers from all over came together to share their knowledge and experiences for phonics instruction. We discussed what we know to be true, we listened with the intent to understand, and aspired to build on our existing knowledge base to grow our instructional practice.
What we know to be true
Phonics learning is a strategy that helps readers to match spoken sounds to letters in an effort to decode. Phonics knowledge also helps readers identify common patterns embedded within syllables, this is helpful for both reading and spelling. Teachers of young children know that phonics instruction is important. When it comes to teaching children to read, nothing should be off the the table. Reading is a very complex process, one that requires teachers to differentiate instruction based on the needs of the students in front of them. This is a basic truth that many commercial programs fail to acknowledge and I think that is why so many programs fall short:
Listening to learn and grow instructional practice
During the chat I found myself reflecting on what others had shared about how to keep phonics in perspective. I returned to the Wakelet and gathered some tweets that really helped to clarify what I learned to grow my instructional practice. One takeaway I had was the importance to make room for transfer of learning to occur. Making room for transfer can happen when students: participate in word sorting, interactive writing, shared reading, or independent reading of decodable or more authentic texts. Then my thoughts turned to how important it is to bend the curriculum in order to make room for lots of component work. Finding ways to integrate interactive writing, shared reading, guided reading, and conferring to phonics learning will give students so much repeated practice for their learning of phonics as well as many other important strategies. I also though about the reading writing connection and how that promotes opportunities for phonics learning during reading and writing workshop. Again, I found my thoughts returning to the need to differentiate because reading is complex and there is no one simple “right” way to teach children how to read.
Teachers already know what side to take when it comes to the “Reading Wars” debate. There is no alternative but to be on the side of students, and that means integrating phonics instruction and honoring student centered decision making. Throughout this post many smart educators discussed how to embed phonics instruction for their students in meaningful ways. I am truly so grateful to be able to learn from so many talented and experienced teachers.
Jen and Hannah emphasize this central trust theme in a quote we shared in our chat:
As I began to reflect on this post and the book that inspired it, I found myself pausing to ponder their heart and soul using the word “TRUST”. As I often do, I turned to the dictionary where I found two meanings that worked beautifully in concert along with several descriptors.
These ‘trust’ references made perfect sense in the context of Trusting Readers. After all, we can’t claim that we truly trust readers unless we can demonstrate unwavering belief that children deserve and need our trust and the freedom to put that trust into action as we create a relationship of mutual ‘trust and respect’. We willingly embrace our responsibility to demonstrate trust for our children by offering opportunities that matter where it matters most – in the company of the very readers we claim to trust.
Although these dictionary references seemed fitting, the heart and soul I felt as I read Trusting Readers from cover to cover was missing. I quickly turned back to Jen and Hannah for that missing connection. It didn’t take long to find the heart and soul that the dictionary didn’t quite do justice. In their introduction on page xv, Jen and Hannah write an opening invitation to teachers:
Notice that Jen and Hannah are speaking directly to educators here. While every word is essential, the word POSSIBILITY looms large. They ask us to see the POSSIBILITY that surrounds us when we trust our readers as we also trust ourselves to make trust-worthy day-to-day decisions in the name of kids. The word POSSIBILITY appeared in varied forms across the book, lifting its impact even higher. Their gentle words of flexible advice with powerful practices for independent reading oozed POSSIBILITY for trusting readers and ourselves as we seek to design learning experiences that will celebrate us both.
Already knowing the deep trust Jen and Hannah demonstrate for us across their book, the tweet below caught my attention two weeks before our chat. After Fran McVeigh complimented their Classroom Indicators for Engagement they describe “as clearly visible and observable” on pages 54-55 of Trusting Readers, they wrote:
We always ask our #G2Great authors to reflect on three questions to gain insight into their thinking. Their reflections on our first question offered a wonderful peek into their shifting purpose during writing informed by student stories:
What motivated you to write this book? What impact did you hope that it would have in the professional world?
Our original intention in writing this book was to make conferring with readers easier. During our time in schools, we noticed that conferring is often a missing piece of classroom practice. Our goal was to come up with a framework that would simplify it while also making it impactful. After delving deeply into the research and studying our own conferring, we realized the truth: Conferring is hard, especially when as a teacher you are trying to do and say everything “right.”
Instead of making it “easier,” we let go of preconceived notions of what conferring should be and opened ourselves up to listen closely to students tell the stories of themselves as readers. Instead of having conferring be about waiting for the student to make a mistake so we can teach them a strategy to correct it, we emphasize the power of starting with strengths, honoring student identity and constructing relevant instructional pathways alongside students. We hope teachers implement the Cycle of Conferring and see conferring with fresh eyes.
Jen and Hannah open Trusting Readers by reflecting on their shared experiences in “supportive, trusting environments” where they were afforded the freedom to make instructional decisions that would enrich the lives of learners. As I read this, I thought about my own experiences in schools where I was a trusted professional and in those where I was seen as a compliant disseminator. My memories were a reminder that this trust is sorely missing in too many schools. While most teachers model trust for their children in spite of this sad reality, we add a level of challenge for designing a learning environment where children are seen as trusted co-creators if the level of professional trust that we know is critical is in short supply. This can become a breeding ground for mistrust and make it harder to draw from the instincts that impact trust in action.
Whenever I sit down to write a blog post based on the books of our guest authors, I seek to merge both the book and chat experience into my reflections. Having read the book before the chat, I keep it close as I revisit the chat wakelet to pull in new wisdom shared during the chat (albeit at a slower pace thanks to our ability to capture their wisdom in a chat artifact). I carefully mine the chat for author tweets that reinforce and extend their book wisdom. And I always manage to find it.
Let’s set the tweet stage first by celebrating the foundation of trust with examples:
As I gathered their tweets, I saw many connections between the book and chat with the sense of POSSIBILITY I felt in Trusting Readers. In honor of these findings, I’d like to share eight POINTS OF POSSIBILITY that were inspired by a combination of our chat and book wisdom with a collection of additional tweets added the end of this post. It is my hope that these twitter references from Jen and Hannah offer a starting point for making trust for our readers and those who teach them a shared reality:
POINT OF POSSIBILITY #1: Hold Tight to Your Beliefs
POINT OF POSSIBILITY #2: Keep Students at the Center
POINT OF POSSIBILITY #3: Value Meaningful Intent
POINT OF POSSIBILITY #4: Celebrate Unwavering Love
POINT OF POSSIBILITY #5: Learn to Listen to Kids
POINT OF POSSIBILITY #6: Highlight Strength-Based Data
POINT OF POSSIBILITY #7: Refute the Myth of Perfection
POINT OF POSSIBILITY #8: Embrace the Journey
With these POINTS OF POSSIBILITY in mind, let’s turn back to Jen and Hannah as they reflect on our second question:
What are your BIG takeaways from your book that you hope teachers will embrace in their teaching practices?
We hope that teachers will embrace the invitation to reinvent Independent Reading. Try having your students set up the classroom library. Start the year with a whole class inquiry into reading engagement or identity instead of focusing on routines. (We love good routines– but do we have to start with them?) If you are new to conferring, jump in and do Discovery Conferences. Try the Cycle of Conferring with a handful of students before doing it with the entire class. As Debbie Miller says: What is the best that can happen?
We also hope that teachers will embrace the challenge to stop using labels and deficit language. We have to retrain our brains to only ever speak about students in terms of strengths and next steps. This is harder than it seems, as it is easy to fall back on the shorthand of “struggler” and “low”. We have to actively resist the norm of labeling. All students deserve to be seen. When we see them, their strengths, their interests and all the possibilities in front of them, teaching (and learning) is joyful.
MY CLOSING THOUGHTS
As I come to the close of this post, I am drawn back to the gift of Trusting Readers.Jen and Hannah don’t just tell us how to trust our readers and ourselves. Rather, they show us in page after glorious page by sharing examples, charts, conversations, and a generous array of research-based advice that invites teachers to trust their readers by trusting themselves in a spirit of two-sided trust that is empowering!
Trusting Readers offers teachers a haven for POSSIBILITY in safe spaces where trust abounds. Grounded in numerous examples that illuminate POSSIBILITY, Jen and Hannah ask us to celebrate all that our children bring to the literacy table and to trust the ever-changing knowledge and understandings that we bring to that table as we ensure that children are at the center of our every effort. This combined sense of trust amplifies POSSIBILITY as trust is viewed as a two-way proposition.
Since I opened this post by borrowing the POSSIBILITY that Jen and Hannah elevate for us all, I want to return full circle to the first quote from their introduction on page xv with the addition of three essential questions worthy of exploration:
And THAT my friends, is where POSSIBILITY resides. If we are wise, we will take the time to sit very still so that we may notice those glimmers that are sure to beckon us on a moment-to-moment and day-to-day basis. It is within these GLIMMERS OF POSSIBILITY that trusting readers and ourselves can converge into brilliant living color view!
Jen and Hannah highlight this mutual trust in their response to our final question:
What is a message from the heart you would like for every teacher to keep in mind?
Trust yourself and your students. It may require some bravery to disrupt the “but this is how we have always done” thinking in your school. Hold onto your belief system and be ready to cite research that supports your decisions. Make all parts of your literacy instruction relevant and joyful, and find like-minded colleagues with whom to collaborate.
Thank you, Jen and Hannah. We are so grateful to you for generously sharing your wisdom in your beautiful book and on our #G2Great chat. We are richer for both and we promise to keep our sights on Trust from our side and theirs in the coming year.
Tweet collection from Jen and Hannah that reinforce our Points of Possibility
What is a message from the heart you would like for every teacher to keep in mind?
I think that we have made writing in schools a task, heavy labor. We need to connect writing with play, with improvisation, pleasure, and friendship.
Tom Newkirk, email.
Tom Newkirk’s response hurts my heart. My teacher heart. My writing heart. My parent heart. My grandmother heart. My literacy being just hurts.
It hurts my heart because I also know it to be true. Writing has become a “chore” in many classrooms, whether it is the kindergarten classroom where students COPY sentences from the board daily, the fourth grade classroom where students respond to daily writing prompts from the teacher, or the middle school classroom where students are engaged in formulaic argument writing day after day. Of course, not all classrooms have reduced writing to tasks and heavy labor. But many classrooms in middle schools and high schools across this country teach “how to write a sentence”, “how to write a five sentence paragraph”, and “how to write a five paragraph essay”. Disheartening. Disillusioning. Deadly for a writer’s heart.
Where do your writing experiences fit? Consider the stories in this blog post. Do they parallel your experiences? You will see stories of writing from writers, teachers of writing, and wisdom from some writing experts!
And now, back to our regular format. Typical posts begin with our title slide and some background on our author or topic. So let’s resume our regular program!
Our #G2Great chat on Thursday, May 27, 2021 with Thomas Newkirk tackled a variety of issues about writing that all writing teachers need to consider. We were discussing his newest beautiful book, Writing Unbound: How Fiction Transforms Student Writers, which is student-centered, qualitative research. Research carefully and respectfully gathered from students and teachers! This was a return visit to #G2Great for Tom who hosted in January of 2018 to discuss Embarrassment and the Emotional Underlife of Learning. His previous books, Minds Made For Stories and Holding on to Good Ideas in a Time of Bad Ones continue to grow our thinking about current fads as well as what we need to hold tightly to in order to realign and reignite our actions, visions, and beliefs about writing instruction.
I love to write. I write best when I have choice in topic/content and organization. I know that’s not always possible. I’m not comfortable writing fiction and stories are still hard. Not fun. Not pleasurable. But in recent years I know that stories cultivate friendships as I have learned through Two Writing Teachers’ Slice of Life. I have searched for the source of my failure feelings with fiction. One factor: I came from the era when we were taught that our writing should never include “I” or “you”. I and you were consistently “red-inked” by multiple teachers. Consequently it became easier to avoid situations where an “I” or “you” story felt more natural. Avoidance seemed to work. A second factor from my own school days – I don’t remember ever feeling that my teachers were WRITERS so there was little encouragement. And thirdly, writing was often a task or assignment to be completed only by students. Fiction . . . It was never presented as a choice in junior high or high school.
So here are two quick stories from my writing life.
My obsession with improving writing instruction began with a course on writing with Sue Meadows after I had been teaching for a decade or two. Sue was a local district administrator with ELA Curriculum responsibilities. And then I was hooked. Atwell, Graves, Harwayne, Hansen, Murray and Spandel were just a few of the writers that I was studying. I became a sponge. I went to additional training on the “6 Traits” and thoroughly absorbed the notion of aligning instruction with the rubrics used in assessment. Through assessment academies, I also went on to co-lead district-wide writing assessment. Each opportunity led to increased understanding and typical me, I never waited for “someone else to bring the learning to me”. Instead, I continued to search for more information about writing processes and the different genres of writing. My goal: Continue to grow my own understanding of “Quality Writing”!
In November of 2014, I attended and presented at NCTE in Baltimore. One speaker in a panel presentation stood out: Tom Newkirk. I was fortunate to have a seat in the packed room. I chuckled with conference attendees when Tom said that a “hamburger” organizer was an “even bigger insult to a hamburger” besides it often resulted in boring, dull, tired writing. I appreciated his emphasis on student choice writing even as I knew that would be a tough sale for some of the high school teachers in my region. Since that date, my collection of Tom Newkirk’s books has risen exponentially.
What motivated you to write this book? What impact did you hope that it would have in the professional world?
I felt that there were several “disconnects.” Students are immersed in fictional narratives–movies, video games, books, TV. But they are rarely given the chance to write in these forms. That’s one disconnect. Another is the profusion of fictional writing outside of school (e.g. fanfiction) and its absence in school. I think schools are still operating on an outmoded idea that reading is the dominant form of literacy, and that writing, particularly fiction writing is for the talented few. That’s no longer the case Finally, we praise the benefits of fiction reading as creating empathy and self-understanding. Why can’t the same be said for writing fiction–creating characters? So my goal is to open space for a kind of writing that students are eager to explore.
Tom Newkirk, email
Opening space. I wouldn’t have written about video games until my grandson introduced me to Mario Brothers. But I still don’t know enough to write about it. Fiction reading is my absolute favorite. Fiction writing is my absolute least favorite writing. I don’t know the expectations. I haven’t written enough fiction to write it even “passably” well.
What do you know about fanfiction? Here’s an excerpt from fanfiction.net under “Books”.
What is the role of fiction in our students’ lives. Are students being asked to READ fiction but NOT write fiction? Isn’t that ironic?
This leads me to the final question that we ask our authors.
What are your BIG takeaways from your book that you hope teachers will embrace in their teaching practices?
I hope that they will open their practice to allow fiction writing–not even necessarily requiring it, but making a space for it. I hope that they will listen to students–about what they want to write, and their experiences writing. I hope that teachers themselves try out fictional writing. I hope that teacher prep will make a place for fictional writing as prospective teachers move toward their career. And I hope that our instruction will avoid formulas and instead look inductively to how writers actually write.
Tom Newkirk, email.
Many hopes: allowing fiction writing, listening to students, trying it themselves, teacher prep, avoiding formulas and examining real writing.
Now that we have looked at Tom’s goals for his book and heard two of my stories about writing, let’s get to the heart. What are students saying about their writing? These two quotes were part of the #G2Great chat.
Some people don’t get the “What if?” Some people like the easier what ifs of what if this happened to so-and-so, in modern day. Other people can’t stand that kind of stuff and that is what fantasy is for.
Helen, quoted in Reading Unbound
I can relate to Caroline’s “flow of ideas” as drafting is a messy spot in my head with ideas ping ponging everywhere. As for Ernest’s ideas, I think I would pass on the writing a story and the analysis. Helen speaks of the freedom of “What if?” in fantasy writing. Maybe my niche in writing would be to verify more informational text/ideas that could be added?
What I take away from all three students and Tom’s tweets is that writing stems from many sources and that we must trust students because 1) they do know a lot and
2) there is no one way for writing to go!
And they, the students, know it!
But I don’t see that flexibility for students or even for teachers of writing in many of our schools.
The wakelet contains so much wisdom from Tom Newkirk and the many teachers and #G2Great friends who join us weekly. The remainder of this post is going to focus on just this one question.
Why has fiction writing diminished in the upper grades?
Call for college prep writing and Common Core Standards
College and Career Ready
I call this bias, the cattle-chute vision of preparation. This is why a creative writing elective is often viewed as a kind of indulgence, unrelated to the main mission of high school writing. I think of the advice that the young Dav Pilkey received: that he would never make a living drawing silly cartoons about a principal who thinks he is Captain Underpants. That, of course, was several million book sales ago.
Tom Newkirk, Writing Unbound
Some folks do not believe that fiction writing has a place in academia; fiction writing is for beginning writers. That leads us to reason two.
2. Fiction is too easy and not rigorous enough.
… narrative is not a discrete type of writing—it is our primary mode of understanding, and it underlies all writing.
It simply makes no sense to deny students the opportunity to write in the genres they choose to read.
3. Lack of personal perception of competence and conviction that fiction fits into daily writing instruction
Fiction writing can also offer an experience that I feel is crucial to enjoying writing: the feeling that writing generates writing—that a word suggests the next word or phrase, that we can listen to writing and sense what it suggests. And even for teachers committed to fiction writing, it’s a tough fit in the curriculum. Stories take time and are often far longer than more contained forms of writing—an editorial, for example, which can be held to a few paragraphs.
Tom Newkirk, Writing Unbound
Not all writing is equal. Writing-like activities are available that may or may not parallel reading activities. Tom calls these peripherals. It may surface in writing prompts, vocabulary or comprehension work.
In Conclusion . . .
As I searched for a way to conclude this post I was drawn back to these questions that Tom Newkirk used to close chapter 2 of Writing Unbound. What are your answers? How would your students answer them? They might be a source of reflection on past instruction or planning for next year’s instruction!
So we need to ask: Can we inhabit the dizzying worlds that Ernest and his friends create? Can we experience with them the dangers and narrow escapes? Can we even help them think through their plots, imagine their characters? Can we play their game? It’s a challenge worth taking up.
The Wakelet artifact is available for your perusal here.
The #G2Great chat world was alive, well, and ROCKING on Thursday, March 11, 2021. The podcasts (link) of their work was a hint of the depth of the work proposed but, WOW! What an amazing, well-orchestrated text and chat.
On one hand, when a book comes from authors like Mary Ehrenworth, Pablo Wolfe, and Marc Todd, it might be easy to say “Oh, great, another book about what kids can do in classrooms with supportive teachers, supportive administrators and supportive communities.” However, the wisdom, wit, and enthusiasm generated in the #G2Great chat merely emphasized that everyone in school communities needs to be thinking about civic engagement. Not just one class period a day. Not just the ELA teacher. Not just teachers. But the entire community. (And more about that later.)
On the other hand, naysayers may have a different view. “Really? More political speak about what teachers should or should not be doing in their classrooms?More brainwashing? Is that really the purview of our school systems?
Like any great performance from an orchestra, the resulting concert is only as good as the score. In this case, the score (written music) begins this post with the wisdom of the authors and their responses to the three questions that we ask and then moves to some specific high notes from the chat and then enthusiasm as a rousing finale for this work.
1) What motivated you to write this book? What impact did you hope that it would have in the professional world?
The Civically Engaged Classroom was born out of the idea that as a society we need to think deeply about the purpose of school, especially in times as fraught and divisive as those we are living in. We want teachers to look at their classrooms and see future citizens in front of them, citizens that need to be well-prepared for the hard work of leading and strengthening our democracy.
In our own teaching and staff development, we have met many colleagues who have inspired us with the way they teach with a civic mindset. We have also met countless others who aspire to do this work, but are in communities where they feel unsupported. This book is meant to both highlight the brilliant work we’ve seen, as well as to encourage, inspire and sustain those who feel like they’re teaching into a headwind.
We were also motivated to write this book because it helps to address one of the persistent questions in education: how do we get kids motivated and engaged by school? We think one of the most profound, and overlooked, ways to engage kids is to make sure that the work of school is aimed toward civic ends. When the walls of the classroom come down, kids see that their work has real purpose and impact.
Ultimately, as with everything in education, this is for the kids. We hope that some of what we put in the book helps them seize their power and shape the world they will inherit.
2) What are your BIG takeaways from your book that you hope teachers will embrace in their teaching practices?
We hope that our readers see…
● …that identity exploration is essential to all curriculum and pedagogy, especially if we are to prepare our children to engage responsibly in our multicultural society.
● …that schoolwork must be worldwork. That it should include political and historical content that is relevant and contemporary.
● …that we need to move beyond the single text, everytime, in every situation.
● …that we can model being active, engaged citizens in front of our students without being partisan.
● …that when students consume nonfiction, they must teach each other and their parents about what they are learning and why it matters.
● …students need frequent opportunities to practice service to a community.
● …that teachers aren’t alone in this work! There is a thriving, and growing, number of us who are re-envisioning school as a preparation space for citizenship.
3) What is a message from the heart you would like for every teacher to keep in mind?
This book is a call to work. Throughout The Civically Engaged Classroom we’ve included a feature called Practice What You Teach, a regular reminder that the work in these pages is for all of us to take on, not just our kids. We can all do more to be better citizens; we can all do more to re-envision our democracy. This is not about indoctrinating children, but it is about our duty as educators to help them realize that they have a lot of responsibility in this society and that if they don’t take it, or aren’t adequately prepared for it, they’ll continue to perpetuate grievous harms to themselves and to others.
The work in our classrooms is part of the world. The more we bring the real world in with its injustices as well as its beauty and hope, the better we serve our students, and the better we serve our society.
Ultimate Roles For Teachers and Students
What is needed? Teachers who address identity with honesty and courage, … co-creating with students on a level playing field … to determine a course of action with students … valuing listening and … arguing to listen. Check out the following four tweets that include Mary, Pablo and Marc’s own words.
What is the end goal? Dr. Mary Howard gives us the “411”straight from the book:
While it may seem “easy” to defer to the authors to use their own words, this post could become quite lengthy if a commentary was included for all their wisdom. So sticking with a personal motto of “less is more” here are three high notes of focus from the chat. These refrains will help you get started on a civically engaged classroom.
Where and How Does a Civically Engaged Classroom Fit?
Where do you position a civically engaged classroom? Do you view it as a solo? As an entire section of the performers? Or embedded in the entire musical performance? Your view impacts your planning. Consider these gems of wisdom.
Where might you begin? What do you value? What are your priorities? And then consider Pablo’s wisdom and his verb choices . . . “cut” . . . “replace” . . . “OR infuse” with the end goals of “application of skills, real-life experience, and communal celebration.”
Students: Identity, Stories, Experiences and Interests
The work of so many “artists/performers/authors” is the foundation for all work with students. Sara Ahmed’s identity work in Being the Change (blog post) has led the way for teachers and students to explore their identity and bring about social change. So too have Jody Carrington in Kids These Days and more recently Matt Kay in Not Light, But Fire as well as many other authors. When we embrace Dr. Rudine Sim Bishop’s, “windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors,” we will have a fun-filled concert program as we follow the lead of so many educators when we consider how to engage students by following their interests.
Where can you find the information to get started? What do you already know about your students? Their interests? Their passions? What are the artifacts that they already have about their own thinking beyond what they are reading and writing? How are we inviting students to be a part of this co-construction?
Explicit Instruction: Norms, “Inclusion,” Note-Taking, and Examining Biases
But what do we teach? What’s important? Of course instruction will vary depending on the needs and interests of the students in front of you! Here are a few ideas for you to consider as you wonder about the WHAT that needs to be taught and practiced before the concert is scheduled.
Instruction is all about routines and processes. Routines and processes for civil discourse. Routines and processes for research. Routines and processes for affirming information. Routines and processed for determining biases and collecting additional information. Which ones might be a priority for you and your students?
In conclusion, the time for action is NOW. No waiting. Do not pass go. Do NOT collect $200. Move from the audience to the stage, backstage, behind the side curtains, or center stage under the lights.
It’s time to practice. Take action. Consider student identities. Have a discussion. Focus on student choices. To learn more, check out the Wakelet archive and the Additional Resources. Watch the stellar three part video series. Check out the Coalition of Civically Engaged Educators below. Explore the padlet. Find a friend to travel this journey together and have a conversation partner. Make a plan. Get started!
Neither the weather or the continuing pandemic was able to dampen spirits and pull folks away from the #G2Great chat with Colleen Cruz on Thursday, February 11, 2021. As we began planning for this chat, I worried about being able to write about both the book and chat in a credible fashion that would do justice to the brilliance shared. As the chat ensued, I realized that I was right to worry with so much greatness packed into a 60 minute chat!
I first met Colleen almost eight years ago when she was my staff developer at my initial Writing Institute at Teachers College Reading and Writing Project. Eye opening. Jaw dropping. Work. Writing. Learning. And in the interest of full disclosure I have learned from Colleen, live and in person or virtually, every year since as I continue to grow my own literacy knowledge and skills.
So where to really start with this mutual adoration of Colleen Cruz and her brilliance, this book and the chat? I reread all of my notes about Colleen’s books and presentations. I perused the Wakelet artifact from this chat and liked or retweeted almost a hundred tweets that included every single one from Colleen. How to organize? How to find a manageable set of tasks to meet my purpose: What to share in this post?
A Mistake. Two paired tweets from Colleen from the last question in the chat.
The following tweets offer a glimpse into definitions of mistakes. You can learn more from the text excerpt, the audio book or the Heinemann blog listed below in the resources. Mistakes are hard to define unless you spend some time thinking about what they are and what they are not as #g2great team member Val Kimmel offers in the second tweet. Stacey and Nadine add on to the learning properties of mistakes.
What are the different types of mistakes?
Getting beyond mistakes are “good” or “bad” takes some work or study. Not all mistakes are equal. Four kinds of mistakes include: stretch mistakes, aha moment mistakes, sloppy mistakes, and high-stakes mistakes. You can read more about those at Heineman here, “Not All Mistakes are Good”, check out the Facebook Live series here, or read from Eduardo Briceno at either Mind/Shift here or his Ted Talk here.
The goal: to be aware of the types of mistakes, when they happen, why they happen, your response to mistakes, and the effects of those mistakes. This will take study, thoughtful reflection and a bit of self-awareness. The danger is in continuing on the path of sloppy and high-stakes mistakes after knowing that these are harmful. Many sloppy and high-stakes mistakes are avoidable with careful attention to our words and actions. I wondered about characterizing Colleen’s Tweet mistake above as one of the four types . . . and yet, without an edit button in Twitter, mistakes can easily happen from nimble fingers on less than responsive keyboards. I didn’t see the mistake when I first saw the second tweet as I read the word “msitake” as I expected it to be – during the fast pace of the chat – rather than the word as presented on the screen.
My past week and two mistakes …
1. Missed a webinar. I signed in on the last five minutes. Yes, sloppy mistake on the time zone recording on my calendar. I emailed and apologized for missing and will take greater care in recording/checking the times on my calendar. (Self care? Definitely a tired mistake!)
2. Fabric rows on my quilt did not match. Border and final two rows were more than an inch longer than the above 7 rows. At the time, I thought it was a high-stakes mistake, but it was really a stretch mistake as this was my first “pieced” quilt and I had never even thought about the difference in the rows. Future: check and double check connecting rows as the pieces are assembled.
Are all mistakes equal? When do we give grace? And to whom?
Jill’s tweet above is the bridge between reflecting and learning and offering ourselves grace. Mistakes are not a cause for self-flagellation. Mistakes vary according to the type as to intent and impact. Even more, our responses vary. Do we automatically offer grace to some students? Do we like to share our magnanimity with the entire class when we bestow grace? Which students have to earn grace? All of these are questions just about grace that stem from Colleen’s tweet below. The most “telling” factor may be “Who do we withhold it (grace) from?”
So now what?
Think of a recent mistake of your own. Which of the types was it? What was your response? What is your plan for next time?
Now think of a recent student mistake. What happened? What type was it? What was your response? What might you say or do differently? Do you know enough? Consider which of the resources below will be helpful?
As Colleen Cruz says in Risk. Fail. Rise. and Val and Mary emphasize above, the value in studying our mistakes is so we “can learn to separate our ego and form a mistake-welcoming culture.” Mistakes as learning experiences. Mistakes as a sign of growth and a source of data to use to ascertain growth.
Imagine a little girl with dark curly hair, very thick glasses, and a huge vocabulary. This child came from a family who believed that children had important things to say. A family with a mother, a father, two brothers, and a sister who all shared their views, spoke their minds without hesitation as though their ideas were all important. This same child, who had a big extended family that shared the same values in an even larger social setting. Then, as if that were not enough, another whole layer of family friends also encouraged children to speak their minds and who were genuinely interested in hearing what they had to say. Imagine the benefit of having such a rich social language learning environment to grow up in. Couple those lived experiences with voluminous reading and writing and now the child has, even more, to think about, more to say, and more opportunities for self-expression. That is a child who is being immersed in a language learning process that will help her for the rest of her life. How fortunate would that child be? Very. That is my story. That child was me.
The reason why I specialized in literacy is that I wanted to give as many students as possible the same experiences I had growing up. Believing that a school is a place where teachers may cultivate a social learning environment that holds purposeful talk in the highest esteem is very powerful. If you believe that, as I do, then you know we have the power to reshape a child’s life. So you can understand why, it was a real thrill to welcome author/educator, Maria Nichols, to lead #G2Great in a conversation about how to create a process of growing purposeful talk.
What voices are being valued?
Show students that you believe that they have something important to say. Help them believe that their voices matter the most to us and then there will be boundless growth. Children, who feel as though their words hold weight with teachers will be more likely to share and elaborate on their thinking in deeper more meaningful ways. Part of the work is to create equity and access for purposeful talk, and there is a lot we can do in school to make that a reality. Teachers are setting the table for talk by giving space for feedback and reflection. Don’t be afraid of those quiet moments. Be generous, give space for students to process their thinking. Give them the chance to fill that space with their own words.
What do all students think?
Be curious about what students think. Whenever we start to fill in their words for them just stop. Let them go, find out what they really think. Treating classroom talk as you might an inquiry study will help to cull out what they think through lean questioning and wait time. Then if we teach them how to take a questioning stance, we create other “teachers” in the room. We create more opportunities to uncover the collective thinking that is happening in real time. When we use mentor texts that serve to underscore thoughtful talk we add another layer of support to elevate students’ thinking. It is an amazing process.
How can we raise talk to new levels?
Listen to learn first, not to evaluate. Be strategic when planning spaces in conversation to pause and ponder. This not only fortifies stamina, it also models what thoughtful dialogue looks like. Building a culture of “talk” starts when we take the time to reflect on what went well and when we invite students into that reflective process we raise the quality of purposeful talk over time. Purposeful talk requires a plurality of perspective to inform how it is going. It is not just what teachers think, teachers are one part of a broad community of thinkers. The talk in the classroom mirrors everyone who is part of that community. That is what makes talk so important.
Purposeful talk measures the level of intellectual rigor. It conveys the level of trust and relationships within the community. The words that fill a classroom reflect the learners themselves. Think of it this way, talk paints a picture of students’ culture, beliefs, passions, and even their fears. We are showing students how to communicate in the world, we are teaching them that their words are valuable, that they are important, and every child deserves to know that they have a voice that is worthy of being heard. Thank you, Maria Nichols. Thank you for writing your beautiful book, Building Bigger Ideas: A Process for Building Purposeful Talk.
Wow! The Twittersphere was on fire on 10/22/2020 when the #G2Great chat discussed Alfie Kohn’s article from the Boston Globe, “Is Learning ‘Lost’ When Kids Are Out of School?” You can check out the article here and the Wakelet for the chat here.
I trust that you will want to check out the article as Alfie Kohn succinctly answers his own question. But that also causes a few more questions for readers which is why the discussion was scheduled with the #G2Great audience. What’s important? What matters?
Here are a few tweets illustrating that point.
Where do we begin? Many government officials and capitalists would have us begin with assessments but if you espouse “student-centered” education then you already know that we must begin at the very beginning. Are there really gaps? How would those be assessed? And how would we really assess learning? And that circles back to student-centered learning. We begin with student assets as identified in the tweets below.
In the Boston Globe article, Alfie Kohn pulls no punches with his beliefs about standardized tests. Do they REALLY measure learning? Well, that then requires us to think about learning. Is learning merely the regurgitation of factoids, examples, and curriculum that could be answered by a Google search? Or is “learning” something else? What do educators believe? How would students respond?
Here are some thoughts on “What is learning?” from the #G2Great community.
So if we are not going to use standardized assessments to measure “Learning”, what can the education community STOP doing now? How can we help “Learning” be the sustained focus and not just the “flavor” for a chat response or a newsletter? How can we make LEARNING the focus of all our future conversations?
In order for instruction to provide opportunities for learning as well as choice, and adding in “student-centered”, what will educators need to be working on expanding? What about: Student agency? Empowerment? Choice?
These four tweets will jump start your thinking about additional actions for your school community.
Is learning lost? There may be some summer slide, but as previously mentioned, students have shared powerful learning from their at-home work that has longer lasting life-time implications for their communities. Where will change come from? What will it look like? It will begin with a belief in the need for change. We can no longer afford to prepare our children for the 20th century. Change has been needed for decades and is evident that we are now in the THIRD decade of the 21st century. The pandemic just made the need for change more visible when schools were shuttered across the U.S. (and Canada) last March.
Where will YOU begin? Who else needs to read and discuss this article with you? When? The time for action is NOW! The students are depending on YOU!
An archive of this weeks chat with Dr. Anindya Kundu can be found here.
This past week we had the pleasure of chatting with Dr. Anindya Kundu about his book The Power of Student Agency. As we look at the hurdles our students face, we very often forget how resilient our students are and see them through a deficit lens.
What motivated you to write this book?
“I was motivated to write TPSA after years of seeing how strapped schools, students, and districts can be when it comes to resources. At the same time, there are so many students overcoming incredible challenges in their lives (homelessness, incarceration, broken families, etc) and schools that still create cultures of success despite limitations, that I felt these stories needed to be shared. This book compiles a couple years of my fieldwork research meeting exceptional people and sharing their stories to make the case that achievement is possible for all students, if we can get behind them and support them holistically.”
The Power of Potential
A few years ago I was touring a potato farm, bear with me I am going somewhere with this, as we walking in one of the building I noticed a drain hole in the floor. I walked towards the drain and found this.
Through the concrete, with so little nutrients and the required materials to grow, this little plant was growing. Instead of focusing though on the adversity faced, I think we look at the plant and its potential despite the conditions faced. When we look at our students who face hurdles we (teachers generally) tend to look at the deficits as a starting point instead of the potential. As Dr. Kundu asks in the question, “What happens when we stop looking at the Rose in Concrete and begin looking at our schools as gardens” we see things like this.
I feel like the term “grit” has always been misused and in our current Covid reality of teaching it continues to be. I love the different reflections that came out of this simple question because they look beyond just saying things are not working and offer up hope. As Heather mentioned, schools are in need of some heavy weeding; by focusing on the schools that need to look at their practices, we are taking some of the weight off our students. By not falling back on the analogy of the rose through the concrete or the potato plant and instead looking at the environment we are providing and the potential of our students to succeed, we move away from this “grit” concept and towards a space were students see that where they are planted is fluid and can be adapted to fit their needs.
What are your BIG takeaways from your book that you hope teachers will embrace in their teaching practices?
“The whole book is structured around highlighting the social side to grit and resilience. All students have these internal reservoirs of necessary character traits for academic and professional success; however, structural limitations are real and must be acknowledged and addressed because otherwise, we place the onus of achievement on the student alone and absolve ourselves. Instead, when we constantly think about a student in terms of their agency, or potential, we reintroduce that teaching and learning are foremost social practices that require collective responsibility.”
Shifting the System Requires Change
When Covid-19 first hit there was this call to change the system. To create systems that provided our students with what they needed to succeed in this new normal. The thing was, however, as some made moves to make those changes it was a lot easier to talk about it than do it. Especially when the practices and thinking you have held so near and dear are the ones that are limiting our students. So how do we begin? We let go of power, we question the systems that are in place that have continued to limit the potential of some students and we get uncomfortable. Growing pains are a real thing. I started a new weight lifting plan a few weeks back. On day three EVERYTHING hurt. I started to look at how easy it would be to go back to me tried and true (and easy at this point) routine. Maybe just add a little weight. But I also understood that the hurt was my muscles repairing and growing stronger. If as teachers we are honest in our desire to create a system where all of our students are able to meet their potential we have to be willing to push through the discomfort of change that is required. No more calling for system changes but being unwilling to change our practice.
Just this morning I was talking with a colleague about the needs of a student. We discussed this idea that so often we ask students, especially students with learning needs, that they change to fit our needs and we don’t change to fit theirs. So where do we begin? Always with our students.
What is a message from the heart you would like for every teacher to keep in mind?
“I hope that teachers and educators can challenge themselves to see the giftedness in all students, even the ones who can be more difficult. They need our help more than others! If we can learn how to take a child’s existing interests, competencies, and talents and use those as motivational tools, we can create vibrant learning environments where all students thrive. This requires a thorough understanding of who our students are as people. It may sound complicated, but I hope the narratives I share (of how homes and families, educators and schools, and students themselves) can personify actionable, simple, and FREE strategies to inspire student agency.”
Our Students Don’t Need Saving
The hero or saviour narrative that is often applied to teachers of students who learn differently or have obstacles in their lives that potentially disrupt learning needs to be one of those things we put aside. Our students don’t need saving, they need us to be better. These last few months I have often raised the question on social media if our practices are doing more harm than good, especially in this time of Covid-19 where inequity has been under the spotlight. Sadly, it is met by hostility. If we are really interested in shifting and changing practices we have to be willing to change. Our students’ success is not dependnnt on us, because kids will succeed despite us. But we can do more to make room for them to shine. We must purposefully question our practice and explore the gaps we have that limit our students and we can make the moves to be better and help create those opportunities for them to realize their potential.
I am no saviour, hero or gardener. I am a teacher. My students are not statistics. They are amazingly talented human beings who, when provided the space to learn in ways that suit them and display that learning in ways they can shine, they will.
If you are looking for more from Dr. Kundu you can check out these links: