Teaching The Hate U Give While White

One of my favourite responsibilities as a department head has always been purchasing new books for students to read independently and as a whole class. I still enjoy this process of reading and discussing books with colleagues to decide what we think would work best, but recently I’ve come to see that this part of my job is a serious responsibility because I could get it wrong. In fact, I think I’ve gotten it wrong many times already.

As a department, we’ve decided that we need a new text for our grade 10 students to study as a whole class. Many of the teachers in my department want to teach Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give. I love this book, and the next book by Angie Thomas called On the Come Up. These books work every time I put them in the hands of students for independent reading. However, I have a lot of questions about using it as a whole class novel:

  • What kind of work must I do to unpack my own bias and misconceptions before I teach this novel?
  • What other voices can I include while exploring this novel so that students can hear from members of the community?
  • How might this novel and the discussions that accompany it re-traumatize students of colour in my classroom? How will I support them?
  • How will I prepare my students for these discussions?
  • Am I falling into the cycle where I only select novels about the trauma of people of colour?
  • For what purpose will I choose this novel? Am I simply selecting it because it is popular? How will I use it to teach critical thinking and literacy skills?
  • How will I ground this novel, set in the USA, in issues that we also have in Canada?
  • Who can I surround myself with in order to receive critical feedback on my lesson and discussion planning?

I have some answers for these questions. For example, I would ground the issues in Canada by sharing the writing of Toronto’s Desmond Cole and exploring the issue of carding. As far as purpose, The Hate U Give is perfect for introducing critical theory. I also love the focus on community in this book, so we could look at how the characters’ identities are shaped by the environment and people around them.

However, there is a lot more I need to think about before I begin to teach. If you are thinking about teaching a novel like The Hate U Give, these are some of the resources I’ve been reading that have been helpful. Some of them are monthly chats that have helped me unpack my practice and thinking.

These are educators of colour are providing the most useful PD I have ever experienced:

Why Diverse Texts Are Not Enough by Tricia Ebarvia

Not Light, But Fire by Matthew R. Kay

The Peel District School Board’s Work on Culturally Responsive Classrooms

On Twitter

  • #DisruptTexts
  • @triciaebarvia
  • @arcticisleteach
  • @TchKimPossible
  • @nenagerman
  • @juliaerin80
  • #THEBOOKCHAT
  • #BUILDYOURSTACK
  • #ClearTheAir

There is a lot of nonsense on #EduTwitter, but I have grown so much from this group of people. They use their own time to provide educators with spaces and resources to talk about teaching reading and writing. They are smart and talented; spend a few minutes browsing and you’ll see what I mean.

I’m still learning furiously, so if you have other suggestions for resources or questions I should consider, please comment or message me. I’m just looking to do a little bit better everyday.

Trying to Build a Connection to Home

I have a lot of back to school anxiety. But it’s not about me or my classroom; it’s about my oldest son who has some learning challenges. I want his teachers to understand him and see the wonderful human being that I see every day. In short, I want him to be safe, cared for, and loved, which I think is what every parent wants.

In light of my own wish for my son’s experience, I wrote a letter to the parents of my students hoping to bridge the gap between the classroom and home. Maybe I’ll be overwhelmed with emails from parents, or perhaps it will be that extra bit of support. Either way, I’m hoping that by reaching out, I can learn more about my students so that I can serve them better.

To the Caregivers of my Students:

I’m writing to you in hopes of beginning a partnership between home and English class for all my students. Your insight into your students and their strengths and next steps can make a difference in my instruction and approach. Please feel free to email me with anything that would be helpful as I get to know your students. In my experience, a tip from a parent about a student’s interest or needs has often been the information that helped me to strengthen our relationship and move a student’s learning forward.  

You may notice (at least I’m hoping you will) that your student is reading at home. A core expectation of this English class will be that students actively find their own reading material and reflect on the type of readers they are. By the end of the course, my hope is that they will have favourite authors, genres, and books while also finding books that offer a challenge from what they would typically select. You can help with this in several ways: talk to your students about what they are reading, listen to audiobooks in the car or public transportation, or make frequent trips to the library together. If possible, read a book that your student is also reading. Reading in isolation is not as rewarding as reading with a community of family, teachers, and friends who are also reading and talking about books. If you are interested in sharing a favourite book with the class, please contact me. I could arrange a Skype session or a classroom visit for a 5-minute book talk. Also, we are always looking for used book donations or books from our class wish list, which I will find a way to post. 

My personal classroom library and the school library contain a range of reading material. Caregivers often have different ideas of what types of content is acceptable for their students. For example, there are young adult novels that address drug addiction. Some caregivers may find this unacceptable, while others may be open to it. Please discuss your students’ book choices with them if you have any concerns. 

As a class, we will read the Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese. Please grab a copy and read with us if you have the time. There is also an audiobook available. We will probably read the novel sometime in October. The novel addresses the trauma of a survivor of Canada’s residential school system. I will be working with the HWDSB’s Indigenous and Equity teams to discuss the content in this novel properly. In addition to this core text, students will also participate in book clubs where they choose a novel to read with a small group. We are still building the selection for reading groups, but there is a range of titles and genres. Small groups of students may also be interested in checking out a book club package from the public library.

When we find the material we enjoy reading, we often find the inspiration we need to write. Students will write every day to practice the writing moves that we find authors employing in our reading material. The goal here is for students to build a portfolio of writing from which they will choose the pieces they wish to develop for evaluation and hopefully, publication. I will encourage students to submit their writing to newspapers, writing contests, blogs, or the school Sequitur. Writing can be intensely personal so students may not want to share everything they write, but asking if there is something you could read with their permission may help students take that first step to share their writing.

I usually communicate through email because it gives me time to think through responses and find information that sometimes phone calls do not allow, so I’ve asked students for the email addresses of their caregivers. If you wish me to use a different email than the one listed, please let me know. Thank you for taking the time to read this letter.

I am looking forward to getting to know your student.

Sincerely,

Colleen Court

I need new teachers in my life and so do you.

There is a whole generation of teachers losing their jobs in Ontario right now. I’m calling them “new” teachers, but many of them are anything but “new.” Some of them have been teaching for 6+ years, and they are still finding themselves with precarious employment. This is awful for these teachers and their families, and it is also a significant blow to the profession.

I can’t speak to this experience first hand. I started teaching thirteen years ago. I waited one year for permanent lines, and I’ve never been declared redundant to the board. I was able to start my family because of my job security. But things have changed. To many new teachers, my career trajectory is the stuff of myth because this doesn’t happen anymore. Yet they come to work everyday tireless in their efforts and energy, hoping to secure employment, but also doing the job because they love it.

There are so many things wrong with what is happening in Ontario right now. Claims that the effectiveness of the teachers is what matters in the classroom conveniently ignore the working conditions that create an effective teacher. Many things help me work effectively and a workforce made up of teachers of diverse backgrounds, ages, and experiences is one of them. I need new teachers in my life, and if you are another teacher, a parent, an administrator, or a student- you do too.

In order to write this post, I came up with a list of new teachers that I’ve worked within the last 5 years and started making notes about what I’ve learned from them. However, the list kept growing, and I had so much to say about each of them that my post would’ve been thousands of words. Every time I thought I was finished, I would bump into another teacher who has influenced my practice. Instead, I’ve created a list of the things new teachers have taught me, and I’m hoping that after you finish reading this post, you’ll comment about what a new teacher has taught you and share #newteachersarevaluable.

Professional Growth that New Teachers Inspired

  • This blog would not have happened without the encouragement of a new teacher
  • Much of the material for my reflections on here come from new teachers. If you’d like to read a post inspired by or featuring or a new teacher see the list of strategies they’ve helped me test towards the end of this post.
  • A new teacher taught me about how to include Indigenous literature in my classroom, while patiently answering all my questions and gently correcting my misconceptions.
  • There is one new teacher in particular whose compassion and empathy have reminded me to always think about what is happening in the lives of my students before I ever make assumptions about them or their behaviour. This reminder makes me a better teacher every day. Actually, it makes me a better human being.
  • I’ve learned about how to integrate the community into the classroom and school thanks to a new teacher.
  • I had no idea what Knowledge Building was until two new teachers enthusiastically gave me private in-services every time we met. It has changed the way I think about how we share our thinking in the classroom.
  • Many new teachers are actually second career teachers. These teachers remind me that there is a world outside the school system- an important reminder for someone who entered the school system at 5 and will exit at 55.
  • Do you know how to use Team Drive on Google Docs? I didn’t. Until a new teacher showed me. He also set up a drive for me which I now share with every teacher who asks.
  • Whenever I have lunch with a new teacher, they ask me a question that makes me think for days. Then they are usually subjected to a long follow up email about how my thinking has changed as a result of their question. This type of reflective material is invaluable.
  • I’ve been trying to get students to buy into using assistive technology for years, but it wasn’t until I watched a new teacher talk to a whole class about technology using the language of speed and productivity instead of the language of assistance that I was able to start helping students “buy-in” to using technology for their learning
  • A new teacher showed me PechaKucha presentations. If you’ve ever watched 30 student presentations, you will know the value of this to everyone in the classroom.
  • Yesterday, I worked with a new science teacher who asked me to look at her SNC 2P (grade 10 applied science) lesson from a literacy perspective, and it was amazing. She was a reminder about what can happen in classrooms when we hold high expectations of all our students. She never once said they “can’t.” She believes they can, and she is determined to help them realize it.
  • Many of these teachers have tested my theories for me during the past two years. When I come back from professional development, I don’t have my own classroom to try new ideas, so they open their rooms, and we try it together. Together we’ve tried many ideas

I wasn’t doing any of these things when I left my classroom, but I will be able to do all of them when I return because new teachers helped me workshop them.

To all the new teachers I’ve worked with these past several years, thank you for everything you have contributed to my own learning and the learning of your colleagues. Thank you for the passion and energy you inject into our schools every day. I’m sorry that you are in this position. I’m sorry that you’ve had to worry about your job for years. I hope you know that the value that you bring to your students and your colleagues every day. We want to see you in the classroom next door, teaching your heart out.

There are actions you can take right now that can influence the outcome of education in Ontario. Send an email to your MPP or edulabfianance@ontario.ca to give your feedback about the potential impact of class sizes. Also, take a minute to thank a new teacher for how they’ve contributed to your own growth or the growth of your child. They need all the encouragement they can get right now. #newteachersarevaluable

The Novel Unit: Part 1

I have a colleague who consistently asks me questions that I can never answer on the spot. The answers come to me hours later, sometimes in the middle of the night. Today, he asked me how I would teach a novel. We only had two minutes to talk, and he knows me well enough by now that he didn’t expect me to answer right way, probably assuming that he would be subjected to one of my long rambling emails that may or may not go directly into his clutter box.  However, this is the first time I’ve fully developed my thinking about teaching a class novel, so I’ve turned my response into a multi-part blog post, which may or may not ramble.

There isn’t an easy formula for teaching a novel unit. In fact, the very teaching of the “novel unit” can cause some controversy in some English teacher circles with some being adamantly for it and others against it. My position is that students need to read books that are challenging, books that are at the right level and books that are “vacation books.” The only way this can be done is by providing a variety of reading opportunities where students are provided different levels of guidance and choice. So students should read independently, in small groups, AND as a class. There is no “or.” I think they need them all, which means that I need to dramatically shift the way I approach reading in my classroom.

Before I can address how I would approach a class novel, I need first to explain what I wouldn’t do. I’d like to remind everyone here that this is my best thinking about this right now. I realize that many people may approach this very differently and my post is not meant as a criticism, it is merely a reflection of what I want my students to be able to do when they are reading. My priority when teaching reading is to help readers love books and access them with a deep understanding without needing direct guidance. In short, I want them to read,  decide what they think about what they read on their own,  talk to other people about what they read and then decide if those conversations have shifted their thinking. What I don’t want them thinking about is what I, as their teacher, want them to notice in a book. I don’t want them to believe that my interpretation is the only interpretation that is worth investigating.

When I’m deciding what I want my students to learn, I have to be able to decide how I will know if they have learned it. In the past, my students’ ability to understand and interpret a novel was usually assessed through a literary essay. This is not how I would do this anymore.  Before anyone sends me an angry email, I am not advocating for the removal of the literary essay from the English classroom.  Literary essays are complex in terms of both form and content, so I would need to teach this genre of the essay using mentor texts which would be challenging to do while I am also teaching them the art of analysis and interpretation.  Students must be used to thinking and talking about texts in complex ways before they can begin to write about them. The real goal of a literary essay is to see the students’ thinking about what they’ve read, but if we already know what the content of their essay is going to be or should be is there really any thinking for them to do or have we done it all for them?

Another reason I recommend separating the literary essay from the novel unit is that when we teach both at the same time, the thinking suffers and the writing suffers.   This is because we are so concerned with having students analyze a book in essay form that we decide to control everything about the evaluation. We control the topics. We control the structure. We control the writing process. Both analysis and writing are creative acts so when we remove the creativity what we are left with is boring formulaic papers. And this isn’t good for anyone- not the students who have to write them, nor the teachers who have to read them.

Rather than combine the literary essay with the novel unit, I would leave this type of essay to closer to the end of the course when students have read enough to pick a text that moves them to want to write and think deeply.  This, of course, means that students have to read — a lot.

The last time I taught ENG3U,  my students select their own texts and topics. Some wrote about Indian Horse by Richard Wagmese, some wrote about Secret Path by Gord Downy and Jeff Lemire, others wrote about poems that were weaved throughout the course. I’ve heard the argument that this isn’t “rigorous” enough. That all my students should be writing about a novel because it is more difficult. However, which is the more complex task? Having students write an essay about Great Expectations with the essay topics generated by the teacher, or asking students to generate their own topics based on their thinking about a particular text? It may be more difficult to write an essay about a book that is hundreds of pages, but I am more interested in increasing the complexity of the task by requiring students to notice and name the patterns and points of significance that they see in texts. I’m not interested in seeing my thinking regurgitated back to me.

As a result of allowing students to perform the analysis of their choice, I learned more about my students both in terms of their thinking and their writing. This had the added benefit of being a much more interesting task to evaluate. For example, I had a student write about the function of the songs in Secret Path and another wrote about the significance of the word “glory” in Indian Horse. Neither of these essays was based on topics I would have considered.

If you are interested in learning more about the thinking behind separating the teaching of analysis from the novel unit, I highly recommend Beyond Literary Analysis by Allison Marchetti and Rebecca O’Dell. It’s an amazingly helpful book with practical teaching points for different types of analysis papers. My copy is always lent out!

Now that I’ve explored what I wouldn’t do with my novel unit, my next post will focus on a specific text and genre in order to finally answer the question I was actually asked!

10 Mentors for Your Students’ Writing

As a new semester is about to begin, I thought I would post the passages that make wonderful mentors for writers or quickwrite inspirations for the first 10 minutes of class.

Writing this post has reminded me how important it is to find a teacher partner who is exploring similar ideas. Many of these passages have either been tested by or given to me by my mentor text search partner Toby VanHarten. Sharing what we find has been important for me because while I usually stick to fiction, Toby finds me fantastic non-fiction pieces. You can’t read everything on your own,  so find a reading buddy. It’s worth it.

If you have your own favourites, please add them to the comments. I can never have too many of these!

Also if you try any of them, please take pictures of your students’ work (with their permission), and send them to me (cmcourt@hwdsb.on.ca). I love reading the work that these passages inspire.

Passage #1 from Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

I was on fire.

It’s my earliest memory. I was three years old, and we were living in a trailer park in a southern Arizona town whose name I never knew. I was standing on a chair in front of the stove, wearing a pink dress my grandmother had bought for me. Pink was my favorite color. The dress’s skirt stuck out like a tutu, and I liked to spin around in front of the mirror, thinking I looked like a ballerina. But at that moment, I was wearing the dress to cook hot dogs, watching them swell and bob in the boiling water as the late-morning sunlight filtered in through the trailer’s small kitchenette window.

I could hear Mom in the next room singing while she worked on one of her paintings. Juju, our black mutt, was watching me. I stabbed one of the hot dogs with a fork and bent over and offered it to him. The wiener was hot, so Juju licked at it tentatively, but when I stood up and started stirring the hot dogs again, I felt a blaze of heat on my right side. I turned to see where it was coming from and realized my dress was on fire. Frozen with fear, I watched the yellow-white flames make a ragged brown line up the pink fabric of my skirt and climb my stomach. Then the flames leaped up, reaching my face.

I screamed. I smelled the burning and heard a horrible crackling as the fire singed my hair and eyelashes. Juju was barking. I screamed again.

Mom ran into the room.

“Mommy, help me!” I shrieked. I was still standing on the chair, swatting at the first with the fork I had been using to stir the hot dogs.

Mom ran out of the room and came back with one of the army-surplus blankets I hated because the wool was so scratchy. She threw the blanket around me to smother out the flames. Dad had gone off in the car, so Mom grabbed me and my younger brother, Brian, and hurried over to the trailer next to ours. The woman who lived there was hanging her laundry on the clothesline. She had clothespins in her mouth. Mom, in an unnaturally calm voice, explained what had happened and asked if we could please have a ride to the hospital. The woman dropped her clothespins and laundry right there in the dirt and, without saying anything, ran for her car.

Possible Uses:

Quickwrites about memories of injuries (I’d probably use the first time I broke my arm when my mom waved it up and down and asked “Do you think it’s broken?”)

As a mentor, I would use it to talk about how powerful short sentences and paragraphs can be. You can’t get much better than that first line! I would also use it to discuss how to write about single moments. The description of the tutu and the flames “climbing” her stomach also make for interesting craft moves for students to study.

Passage #2 from Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

To this day I hate secondhand cars. Almost everything that’s ever
gone wrong in my life I can trace back to a secondhand car.
Secondhand cars made me get detention for being late for
school. Secondhand cars left us hitchhiking on the side of the
freeway. A secondhand car was also the reason my mother got
married. If it hadn’t been for the Volkswagen that didn’t work, we
never would have looked for the mechanic who became the
husband who became the stepfather who became the man who
tortured us for years and put a bullet in the back of my mother’s
head – I’ll take the new car with the warranty every time.

Possible Uses:

As quickwrite inspiration, Toby told his students to choose something different than secondhand cars that they either love or hate. Using the technique of repetition and listing, students craft a similar paragraph explaining the reasons they love or hate their
chosen item. As a bonus, he suggests that they try to craft a final sentence similar to the one from Noah.

As a mentor text, I would point out the repetition of “secondhand car,” and also the climatic order of his examples. He starts with detention and ends with the attempted murder of his mother by his stepfather. I would also want to point out how he uses that last phrase to create humour after revealing trauma.

Passage #3 from A Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds

BEEF
Gets passed around like name-brand
T-shirts around here. Always too big.
Never ironed out.

Possible Uses:

As a quickwrite, students can write about grievances, feelings, or attitudes that they’ve inherited from family or friends.  Some students use this quickwrite to work out a current conflict they are experiencing.

As a mentor text, I think the amazing simile is pretty apparent, but I would want to point out why it’s so brilliant. There are multiple layers to it.  Students can examine how the t-shirt’s size and wrinkles relate to beef.

Passage #4 from Michael Redhill’s Bellvue Square

Only Nick can detect that I’m off. Beneath his shell, he’s a feeling boy. I go into his room at ten to turn out his lights.

“You okay, Mum?”

“Of course I’m okay.”

“Your face is white and shiny.”

“I had Filet-O-Fish for lunch.”

“You ate fish twice today?”

“I guess I did.”

“On purpose?”

“It’s lights out now, so let’s finish with the questions. Scooch”

He wriggles toward the foot of the bed and I pull his covers up.

“Can I ask you one more thing?”

“What?”

“Do you have cancer?”

The question shocks us both. “Why on earth would you ask me that?”

“‘Cause you look sick.”

I kiss his forehead. “You’re a good boy.” I worry about what goes on in their heads when they’re alone. “Everything is fine. We’re all together. We’re safe as houses.”

“Some houses fall down,” he says.

Possible Uses:

As a quickwrite, students could record the dialogue of a conversation they’ve had, or may wish they could have. Students could also write about their parents, their childhood fears, or their own siblings who may ask startling questions.

As a mentor text, I love using this piece to show how dialogue works. Redhill only uses a speech tag once, but we can follow the speakers all the way through.  We examine this passage together and then come up with a list of suggestions to make dialogue work.

Passage #5 from Carmen Aguirre’s Something Fierce: Memoirs of a Revolutionary Daughter

Lima kneed me in the gut.This city of cathedrals was full of people.Crowds jammed the cobblestone streets, and vendor sold shakes from stationary bicycles with blenders attached, whistling boleros as they pedalled.Flies landed on papayas as fast as the vendors could peel them, but they threw the fruit into blenders anyway, topping it with milk that had been sitting in the sun for hours.All around us there were people hawking jackets and gold chains and little trinkets. Beggar children missing arms and legs were pushed around on homemade skateboards by bigger children whose feet were black with dirt.The boys who passed by winked their eyes and made kissing sounds, murmuring “Mamita” in your ears.Everywhere you looked, even on the cathedral steps, there were couples making out.Church bells rang and nuns asked for donations.Music blasted from every store, and groups of yelling men pressed up against shop windows to watch a soccer game on T.V.Buses never stopped honking their horns.The air stank of sewers and diesel………

Possible Uses:

As a quickwrite, Toby had his students choose an exciting or busy place they have experienced (the first day of school, Canada’s Wonderland, a visit to a different country),  and they write with each sense, unconcerned with having each sentence connect with that before it.

As a mentor text, Toby says that it is terrific for descriptive writing and mood.  He points how she describes unrelated experiences that just seem to come at her (you can hear it, feel it, see it, smell it, and taste it) smacking her in the face and overwhelming her.

Passage#6  from James Wood’s The Nearest Thing to Life

Here he was, jumping off a boat into the Maine waters; here he was, as a child, larkily peeing from a cabin window with two young cousins; here he was, living in Italy and learning Italian by flirting; here he was, telling a great joke; here he was, an ebullient friend, laughing and filling the room with his presence.

Possible Uses:

As a quickwrite, Toby has his students write as if they were looking at pictures in a photo album or on social media, reflecting on someone’s life (or their own).

As a mentor text, the full-length passage is an excellent example of how to write about a single moment using listing effectively.  It also would work as a handy passage for teaching how to use semi-colons and commas in a list (boring I know, but better than a worksheet!)

Passage #7 Nikki Giovanni’s “Allowables

I killed a spider
Not a murderous brown recluse
Nor even a black widow
And if the truth were told this
Was only a small
Sort of papery spider
Who should have run
When I picked up the book
But she didn’t

And she scared me
And I smashed her

I don’t think
I’m allowed

To kill something

Because I am

Frightened

Possible Uses:

As a quickwrite, I ask students to write about their own fears, or something they’ve done when they were afraid.

As a mentor text, we talk about how Giovanni is using her act of killing a spider to say something much bigger. This text would also be perfect for introducing Vicki Vinton’s Know/Wonder charts (see my earlier post about those here) so that students can discover the meaning in this poem on their own.

Passage #8 from  Anthony Swofford’s essay, “I was a Marine. I Don’t Want a Gun in my Classroom”

Before the United States Marine Corps allowed me to carry a live M-16 assault rifle, I went through hundreds of hours of firearms training. Classroom sessions devoted to nomenclature, maintenance and basic operation accounted for more than two weeks of study before I even set eyes on ammunition. For weeks, I carried an M-16 without a magazine — a dummy weapon, basically. I secured it with a padlock overnight while I slept in the barracks, and unlocked it each morning before chow.

Only at the shooting range was I allowed to check out magazines and ammo from the armory. The first day at the range I spent 12 hours disassembling, cleaning and reassembling the weapon. I had to do this blindfolded. I had to do this while a drill instructor hurried me, yelling that enemies were at the gate. I had to do this while fellow Marines wept nearby from doing hundreds of burpees as punishment for not being able to reassemble their weapons fast enough.

Possible Uses:

As a quickwrite, students could experiment with writing introductions to opinion pieces where they use their own experiences and knowledge to establish their authority.

As a mentor text, you might want to use the entire piece from the New York Times. Toby uses it to teach how you could start an opinion piece with a personal narrative ( a lot more engaging than- “I think school uniforms are a good idea for the following reasons…”). Swofford actually takes three paragraphs to get to his thesis. Three! Throw out those 5 paragraph essay models!

Passage #9 William Carlos Williams’ “This is Just to Say”

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
saving
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

Possible Uses:

As a quickwrite, Toby had his students write to apologize for something they were sorry, but not really sorry, about. Later in the semester, he had a student write him a “This is Just to Say” apology for stealing one of his books. (These are the nerdy moments we live for!)

As a mentor text, Toby uses the poem to talk about structure and tone (sorry, not sorry).

Passage #10  Susan Marie Scavo’s “Food. Music. Memory.”

She says: Cupcakes. Brownies. Pies. She says:
Remember this. Bread. Stew. Sauce. She says:
All that time. She says: singing. All I taught
you. She says: Crayon. Alligator. By Scouts.
She says: Baseball. Soccer. Track. She says:
I was there. Remember?

I say: Shouting. Silence. Shouting. I say:
Remember this. Scotch. Vodka. Kahlua. I say:
Cupcake. Meatloaf. Sauce. I say: Singing. All
you would not tell me. I say: Crayon. Dancing.
Guitar. I say: Belt. Hairbrush. Hand. I say:
I was there. Remember?

Possible Uses:

As a quickwrite students can write about a relationship, event, or disagreement from two different perspectives.

As a mentor text, there is so much to work with here. Again I would recommend using Vinton’s Know/Wonder chart for this. Toby delayed giving his students the second half of the poem, and then really enjoyed their reactions as they were creating meaning for themselves. It is interesting to point out that words change meaning depending on how they are grouped.

Hopefully, these ten passages will get you started on what is a very rewarding and effective classroom routine. Stay tuned for additional posts about mentor texts, including one I’ve started about passages perfect for middle school.

What does it take to teach writing?

I’ve heard that English teachers can reduce the time they spend marking papers, but I haven’t figured out how to do that.  Even the essential shift from evaluating to providing feedback hasn’t reduced the amount of time I spend looking at student work. If anything I found that the time increased because students started valuing the comments on their papers, so they ask for feedback more frequently. More feedback= more time. Yes, writing conferences work, and I love them; however,  if I can’t get to everyone in 75 minutes, I write my comments down instead. So there are multiple points in the year where I would feel like this:

Through John  Warner’s book Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other NecessitiesI learned about the CCCC (Conference on College Composition and Communication) Executive Committee’s position statement about the Principles for Post-Secondary Teaching of WritingWarner highlights Principle 11 which includes this description of the workloads of writing teachers: “No more than 20 students should be permitted in any writing class. Ideally, classes should be limited to 15. Remedial or developmental sections should be limited to a maximum of 15 students. No English faculty members should teach more than 60 writing students a term.”  I spit out my tea when I read this.

I know this is a position on college instruction, and I know that it’s not going to happen, but that didn’t stop me from daydreaming about what I could do to support my students’ writing if I only had 60 of them per semester. I could give multiple rounds of feedback. I could conference weekly with students about their writing (and maybe their reading!). I could read everything they write and respond with thoughtful, practical feedback consistently in both print and conversation. I could study books about writing instruction and use what I learn to move my students’ writing forward. I could treat “every piece of writing [as] a custom job” (Warner 29).

He makes the point that “[t]eaching writing is a lot like coaching. There are many things you can communicate to the entire team at once, but at some point, you need to work one-on-one on the specific difficulties each player is having”(116).  After all, when I look at student work, the goal is first and foremost to help the writer not that one specific piece of writing, so being a copy editor is pointless for me and harmful to the writer.  My time is better spent thinking about what can I say to this student that will help them grow as a writer. Then I need to plan the mini-lesson that may accompany that conversation.

This whole question about what it takes to be an effective writing instructor came about as I helped a deeply reflective colleague, Seema Narula, mark culminating essays and projects. In fact, this post was supposed to be about the experience I had while evaluating so closely with  Seema, but I was distracted by watching the volume of her work and the amount of time she spent moving her students forward, including a couple of individual writing conferences that went after school for over an hour. The students who took advantage of that personalized conference time showed great development as writers and thinkers, but there is no way that a teacher could spend that kind of time with every student on one piece of writing.

What struck me about Seema’s process was that the entire time, she kept thinking about her practice. Even though she had only a few days to turn around all these papers, even though students would soon submit their exams, and even though she was preparing for reading conferences, she turned the whole thing into a learning experience. We spent a couple of preps together where we marked a maximum of two papers each in 75 minutes. Two. This is because the task wasn’t about just grading papers. We talked about the student growth over the semester, possible changes to our teaching, and even how to word our comments. And this is important too. Teachers need time to think and grow as writing instructors. If we become machine-like and systematic in our evaluations, it de-centers the learner.

My reflection about this has come about at exam time, but this isn’t a once in a semester thing.  I’ve come to the belief that if we are going to help student writers improve, they need to write more often in as many genres as possible. The writing pieces need not all make it to the final draft, but students do need to write, and they need someone to read what they write so that they can develop their writing voices. We also need to throw out all our lessons about formulaic writing. This is not writing; it’s a test-taking strategy which can be taught on its own, but it does not deserve the amount of time we spend on it because it doesn’t create better writers. It creates compliance.

I don’t have all the answers about how to do this with more than sixty students or even with sixty.  I’m still learning from the amazing teachers I’ve met who are able to put this into practice, but the work of an effective writing teacher is necessary and worthwhile. Managing writing workshops and student writers will come up in future posts, but first I had to write about the sheer commitment it takes to dedicate yourself to your student writers. Thanks, Seema.

Can we talk about graphic organizers?

My writing process does not look anything like the one I used to require my students to use in class. When I write, I have multiple posts started. Some are just titles, some are a couple of paragraphs, and some are almost fully formed but not ready to make their entrance into the world. Sometimes a post takes me an hour to write, sometimes a week. My last post took a year from the initial idea to publishing. This particular post has been bothering me since Tuesday.

The way I plan a post often varies as well.  I might make a few point form notes in advance, but most often I start paragraphs with the ideas I want to cover and then quickly move on to the next one. When I’ve sketched that rough outline, I go back and fill it out, over and over again. Whole paragraphs get moved or deleted.  This is all just a part of my thinking.

So why have I denied my students this experience in the past? Why do I ask them to conform to a writing process that I do not even use myself?

Lately, I’ve been thinking about how the graphic organizer often contributes to this limiting of process exploration and, as a consequence, thinking. Before anyone runs to the defense of the graphic organizer, I am not here to suggest they should be taken away; however, I would like to challenge when they are used.

I’ve used graphic organizers for essays, short stories, news reports, etc. One issue that has consistently cropped up when I use these organizers is that students often do not know how to transfer their work from the organizer to a draft copy. An organizer may have all the different paragraphs laid out, but when a student writes it out, they lump it all together into one giant paragraph. This is not the organizer’s fault. It’s not the student’s fault. It actually tells us a lot about the gap in the student’s learning. This type of error seems to communicate that the student does not know the function of a paragraph. This is a significant learning gap.

So now the question is how to fill in this gap, and another graphic organizer is not the answer. In fact, I would argue that giving out a graphic organizer too early in the reading-writing process may cause this problem. There is a difference between using an organizer to help students outline their ideas, and using an organizer to tell students how to organize their ideas. If we control their writing too early, students are never given the opportunity to think about the organization of their writing. We’ve already told them what should go in paragraph three, so why should they think about it? On the essay organizer it says that they need to start with a hook, so why would they consider using a personal narrative or an analogy to begin their introductions? We need to let go some of this control.

Before we give students a graphic organizer, there are some instructional questions that may help us to determine when and where to use it in our instructional cycle:

  • Have students been exposed to enough mentor texts in this particular genre?
  • Am I using the graphic organizer to replace instruction about the complexity of organization and structure? If I am, I need to slow down and increase my use of mentor texts before I start passing out the graphic organizers.
  • This graphic organizer is one way to visualize this text. What are some other visual representations students can use?
  • How can I help students draw/create their own organizers? If our goal is to create writers who select strategies independently, they need to be able to identify when they need an organizer and what that organizer should look like.
  • Is the graphic organizer overly scaffolded? I’m not going to lie. I’ve used a fill-in-the-blank essay organizer where all the transition words were already in place. I’m pretty sure none of my students learned how to move smoothly from one idea to the next when it was already done for them (in a very mechanical way at that).
  • Does this graphic organizer limit thinking? Some students may think better with the use of an organizer, while others may find it restrictive and limiting. We need to know which students need the scaffold, and when that scaffold is just going to get in the way.
  • Am I giving students a graphic organizer because I have given them a task on which they have little chance of succeeding? If so, the completion of a graphic organizer does not mean that they can now complete the task. This is another place where we need to slow down and fill in the gaps rather than using a strategy like a graphic organizer to place a very temporary band-aid on a problem that is not going away.

My thinking about this topic this week has reconfirmed that I need to slow down my writing instruction, while simultaneously increasing the number of mentor texts I use in class. I also need to dramatically increase the amount of practice writing I do with my students ( see a previous post “In Praise of the Quick Write” for ideas on this). Some of my students may need a graphic organizer, and I’ll help them decide which one at the right time, but I think I will have to recycle the stack overly prescriptive organizers in my filing cabinet.

A Love Letter to the Teachers in My Life

Dear Teachers,

November is a tough month. In high schools and elementary schools, report cards have just passed, and both teachers and students are exhausted. I’ve never really had the chance to observe teachers going through this period because I’m usually right with them: head down, marking, reading, commenting, and eating a big bowl of m&ms.

At the moment, being a literacy coach affords me some distance from this, so I’ve noticed the strain on my colleagues. I walked into a staff room the day before report cards were due, and I saw teachers with stacks of paper in front of them looking a little bleary-eyed from writing their reports. I talked with a teacher who is concerned about students who are missing evidence to meet expectations; he was agonizing over how to fill in those gaps and report on them.

A young teacher, who was getting was getting married the Saturday before report cards were due, conferenced with every single one of her students while I tried to help. She worked tirelessly to pull last minute pieces of evidence from students who are facing immense challenges.  Then she spent her whole prep talking to me about how to help students she is concerned about instead of doing the pile of marking she is carrying around. She isn’t sleeping.

Some people might hear complaints about the marking and reporting, and that does happen – teachers are human after all- but what I see is teachers pouring everything into their students. Report cards cause anxiety because we aren’t finished with our students. We need more time! Just one more week! I know they’ll hand it in tomorrow! Teachers have to decide how to communicate ten short weeks of learning through a number and 400 characters.

So this is why this post is my love letter to teachers. The following is what I have the privilege to experience every day.

I see the new teacher teaching a marginalized group of students at his school. His room is a place where students feel comfortable, and they trust him. They have been ridiculed and rejected in other areas of their lives, but they know that they have a safe space.

I see the elementary teachers who full-on participate in daily physical activities with their students. I didn’t even think to join, but my elementary colleagues got right into the games to the point where they were physically sweating by the end. Their students loved it.

I see the teacher who wants his students to value learning and is running up against twelve years of conditioning where students have been taught that their value is attached to their grades. He wants them to value their growth and potential.

I see the librarian who is waiting for her library to open so that she can resume doing what she loves: connecting with students in a space that shouts its joy of learning.

I see the elementary teachers who sat with me in a meeting on Tuesday and shared how they teach students with a range of needs in one room.  One teacher gave me such simple advice about talking to students. So simple that it probably seemed ridiculous to her that I hadn’t thought of it already. I tried it, and it worked. She made me a better teacher by spending time with me.

I see the ESL teachers and consultants who have been sharing their knowledge with me. They look at student work with me, share resources, and help me shape my next steps. They are giving me the training I need when I don’t have anywhere else to get it.

I see the resource teachers who will not give up. They push for change, they see kids who have slipped through the cracks in the system, and they help teachers meet student needs. When the challenge is daunting, they shout for help, and they keep shouting until someone finally listens.

I see the teachers who are going through the pain of their schools closing. Years of teaching in one building will soon be over, but they are thinking about their students and how to make the transition easier for them, even as they deal with the uncertainty over their futures.

I see the teachers who ask questions and push our thinking so that we move beyond doing what has always been done. They challenge our methods, our texts, and our ideas. It must be exhausting to continue to have to push for needed change, but they do it because they know that it is good for their students.

I see the teachers who spend a fortune buying books for their classrooms, clothing for their students, and, in some cases, food for their students. Their acts of kindness are done without wanting anything in return. They do it because they believe that every student has value. That every one student deserves hope.

So during this dark November if you’re feeling discouraged and exhausted, please know that what you do every day is so vitally important.  I know there are days when you feel discouraged, undervalued, and overwhelmed, but I see what you do every day and it’s beautiful. This is my love letter to teachers.

In Praise of the Quick Write

Some of the most creative and thoughtful pieces of student writing I’ve seen have come from the ten-minute quick write I like to do at the beginning of class. I’ve had particular success with one in particular, so I thought I would share. The work you see below is all from students taking ENG 2P.

Kwame Alexander’s book The Crossover is a frequently read book in many of my classes, but it also has some great passages for quick writes. In her book “The Quickwrite Handbook,” Linda Rief recommends this passage from the novel:

“Mom, since you asked, I’ll tell you why I’m so angry”

Because Dad tried to dunk.

Because I want to win a championship.

Because I can’t win a championship if I’m sitting in this smelly hospital.

Because Dad told you he’d be here forever.

Because I thought forever was like Mars – far away.

Because it turns out forever is like the mall -right around the corner.

Because Jordan doesn’t talk basketball anymore.

Because Jordan cut my hair and didn’t care.

Because he’s always drinking Sweet Tea.

Because sometimes I get thirsty.

Because I don’t have anybody to talk to now.

Because CPR DOESN’T WORK!

Because my crossover should be better.

Because if it was better, then Dad wouldn’t have had the ball.

Because if Dad hadn’t had the ball, then he wouldn’t have tried to dunk.

Because if Dad hadn’t tried to dunk, then we wouldn’t be here.

Because I don’t want to be here.

Because the only thing that matters is swish.

Because our backboard is splintered.

We read it together and pointed out some of the “craft moves” the Alexander is making: repetition, listing, capital letters, italics, similes, etc.

Students are then challenged to imitate Alexander’s form, and I do the same thing in my journal while I project it with a document camera. Today was a unique experience because some students didn’t feel comfortable writing about emotions, so they wrote about other things like sports and school. It was wonderful to see them making the writing their own. Some of their writing was personal, but many of them agreed to share their work. This is what students at Sir John A. Macdonald and Sherwood produced in five minutes with no time for revision or planning:

This is some very thoughtful work created in a short amount of time. Students may come back to this and revise their work, or they may choose to use some of these craft moves in other pieces of writing. Either way, I think this is an excellent way to spend 10 minutes of every day.

As I find mentor texts that work, I’ll post them. Happy Writing!

Problem Based Reading

One of the perks of being a literacy coach is that people give me a lot of professional resources to read. I have a stack of 5 at home that I need to get through, but I’m pausing on this one book because it has me excited.

Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Reading by Vicki Vinton has changed the way I think about reading instruction. Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher changed my writing instruction, but I still felt a little lost when it came to reading. Most of my frustration came from how students rely on me (or the internet) to interpret their reading for them. I wanted to get them thinking on their own,  revising their ideas,  and tracing patterns through their books, but for some reason, they always come back to me.

I stopped using question/answer sheets within a year or two of teaching because I hated them and my students hated them. I moved to QCharts and teaching students how to talk about books, but they still seemed to be dependent on me come analysis time.

Then I open up Vicki Vinton’s book. I felt like I was yelling “Yes!” for every page.

In the introduction, Vinton cites a study done by Education Trust which found that “‘many – if not most- assignments were over-scaffolded … [with] much of the work actually done for the students rather than by them” (xvii).  Some of her advice contradicts how I was instructed to teach about reading. Remember “set the purpose” instruction for reading?  I was given a passage about a house, and I was told to read it like a thief and highlight important information. Then I was told to read it like a real estate agent and highlight important information. The goal of this model lesson was to help me see that readers pull out different ideas, so I, as the teacher,  would remember to set the purpose for reading, so students pull out the ideas I want them to pull out. This type of instruction will help students find the information that I want them to find, but will it help them understand a text when there is no one to direct their purpose? What if their purpose is simply to figure out what the text means?

Vinton observes that “Students are repeatedly asked to analyze particular aspects of a text – the development of a character, a text’s structure, an author’s choice of words – rather than to think more deeply about how those pieces all work together in complex and meaningful ways” (4). So the question, of course, is: How do we do this? Section Two of the book is dedicated to walking teachers through what problem-based reading instruction might look like in a classroom.

A few weeks ago, I was at Dundas Valley Secondary School in my friend and colleague Crystal Dumitru’s class. She is using Cherie Dimaline’s novel the Marrow Thieves with the students in her ENG 2P class. They were on the second chapter, so I asked Crystal if I could jump in and experiment a little, and, being the wonderfully accommodating human being that she is, she let me.

I decided to try the text know/wonder chart that Vinton outlines in her book. Before I get into what happened, I want to repeat Vinton’s caution: “It’s also important to note that the chart can outgrow its usefulness…, and that, as a scaffold, it should only be used as a temporary support” (95). The goal is always for the students to do the thinking on their own.

I started our know/wonder chart by selecting a passage from Marrow Thieves that revealed information about the story and characters, but that also left the reader with questions:

I couldn’t have him mad at me; he was all I had left. I clambered out the window and folded upward to grasp the slats on the roof. I shimmied up, belly to the wood, butt pulled down tight. I lifted my head once, just high enough to look over the small peak in the center, just enough to see the first Recruiter lift a whistle to his mouth, insert it under his sandy moustache, and blow that high-pitched terror tone from our nightmares. Under the roof I heard Mitch start banging the plywood walls, screaming, ‘Tabernacle! Come get me, devils!’ (3).

I asked students to either tell me something they know as a result of that passage or a question they have as a result of the passage.  You can see their thinking on the chart.  We filled three of them! Often students found that a statement of knowledge resulted in a new question. The arrows indicate when a question was in response to knowledge or sometimes when we were able to find an answer.

First of all, they were amazingly good at this task. I couldn’t keep up with all the statements and questions. Second, I love how when a student makes an error in reading, this process helps them self-correct.

For example, one student claimed that the Recruiters were hunters, but other students disagreed. They thought it was more than that. So we turned the student’s statement into a question: “Who are the recruiters?” After we read the next passage, students were able to answer this question with evidence from the text.

The teacher’s only role here is to write down the know and wonder sides and ask students to explain their thinking using the text. I tried my best (and was mostly successful) to avoid making interpretations for them. One student raised her hand and started with “Well, on this page it says that…” My job was then to name what she did as a reader to make it more concrete for other students. The next time I was in the room, that same student had graduated to using sticky notes in her book (without any prompting from me). Sticky notes! An English teacher’s dream.

The hardest part of this whole activity was not reacting to their amazing answers- I definitely failed at this. I was basically bouncing around the room exclaiming at everything they said because I was so excited that we were having such a rich discussion about a book. I was even excited when a student had that “misreading” of the recruiters because I was able to practice how to help the student think a little deeper using the text.

We did this know/wonder chart for the first four chapters, and then I asked them to continue on their own for the fifth chapter. I will be back in this class tomorrow to see what they’ve been thinking about the book. My next step for the middle of the book would be to help them use the know/wonder charts to identify patterns or symbols that repeatedly appear on the know/wonder charts. We would then turn these into pattern tracing charts- which I will write about once I try it.

I’m very grateful to my colleague, Carolyn Venema, for putting this book into my hands (and lending me Vinton’s other book). I feel like I finally have the tools to teach my students to do the work of interpretation rather than telling them what they should notice and think. This type of reading instruction takes a different kind of preparation. You have to read the text and think about where the author may leave unanswered questions so you can select passages to work through with your class, but it is well worth the time and effort. I can’t wait to try this again.