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!

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.

Grade Me!

I’ve always identified with Lisa Simpson in this scene.  When I was younger, my sense of self and self-esteem came from the grades I received in school. However, I do not remember a single lesson that I learned from an ‘A’.  In fact, I vividly remember a moment at the beginning of grade 11 when I failed an English diagnostic test.  The teacher showed me my mark reluctantly (probably because she realized two weeks into the course that my grades were clearly tied to my self-worth), but she also explained that what I wrote had no organization or structure. She said that one of my goals for the year should be to learn how to write an essay.  I pestered my parents to buy me a book about how to write an essay, and I asked some older students to give me their notes so I could see the requirements for grade 13.  My motivation was the grade, but the feedback is what helped me to learn.

Fast forward to my second-year university French class, a class that I enjoyed but found very challenging. After finals, I looked up my grade: B+. I dropped French. I told myself that it was out of fear of losing my scholarship (an exaggeration), but really it was about the tension between learning and achieving.  Learning wasn’t enough for me at that point, and as a consequence- I speak only one language.

I have to admit that this tension has found its way into my parenting and teaching. My husband, an elementary teacher, often reminds me that school is not a competition.  I know that in my head, but my instinct is to look to grades as an affirmation of my parenting skills.

In fact, I receive a lot of reports on my progress in my personal and professional life: my Fitbit, my blog stats, my teacher performance appraisal, my weekly Grammarly report (which I love by the way),  and my AQ course (I’m four weeks in and still no grade!). I have all this reporting on my life, but for the past year and a half, I’ve been free of thinking about final evaluations at school. I assess student work all the time, but my role usually consists of giving feedback and planning next steps with teachers. I’ve noticed that in this evaluation-free zone, my learning has accelerated quickly. I know that part of it is because I’ve been granted a lot of learning opportunities, but I think the more significant factor is that I don’t think about report cards; I think about teaching and learning. My curiosity about how the brain works and how students retain and retrieve information has to lead me to do more research and ask more questions than at any other point in my career.

So now I’m at the point where I see the value in practice over evaluation, feedback over a grade, but I’m nervous about how students and parents will respond.

Thank goodness for colleagues who can push your thinking. Yesterday, I spoke with a teacher who has become a valuable critical friend. I worked as a literacy coach in Toby VanHarten’s class last year where he started to implement writing portfolios in his ENG 2P course. I am supposed to be the “coach,” but most of the time he helps me think through my learning. This year he has fully implemented a writing portfolio program with his students where the emphasis is on feedback, not on an evaluation.

I had so many questions for him:

Is the amount of feedback you have to give time-consuming?

How do you keep track of it all?

Are there any students who are refusing to write?

Are they responding to your feedback?

How are you getting them to write without grading everything?

Should students be able to predict their marks?

When do you actually grade things?

Aren’t you afraid that you will get slammed with marking at mid-term?

He patiently spent his entire prep (sorry Toby) answering my questions about how he tracks and organizes his students’ portfolio writing. Most of his answers revolved around the idea that when teachers value student learning and growth and live it through their practice by spending time on feedback and conferencing and less time on grading, students embrace the challenges set before them. For so long the evaluation part of my job has taken up so much space that the learning was sometimes secondary.  Students know this about school.  The system has taught them to obsess over their grades with little time for reflection on their learning. We have to model valuing education over evaluation in our daily language and classroom practice.

When I return to my classroom in  September,  I’ll be trying to let the Lisa Simpson in me go. For now, I’ll have to settle for helping other teachers through their reflections on evaluation, and learn from those teachers who are actively working to keep the learning front and center.

Leveraging Conversations: Article of the Week

I thought I would start my tentative foray into blogging by posting the activity that I am most often contacted about by other educators. It’s also the activity that initiated the shift in the way I thought about teaching English. The initial idea came from Kelly Gallagher’s book Write Like This. If you decide to follow my blog at all, you will be reading about Kelly Gallagher a lot. He uses an activity that he calls Article of the Week to help students fill in the gaps of their background knowledge. It also exposes students to a variety of real-world forms of writing. The version of Article of the Week that I use is a modified version of Gallagher’s idea that I developed with my fantastic teaching partner Pam.

The reason I love Article of the Week so much is that it gives me an assessment opportunity for every English strand, (Oral Communication, Reading, Writing, and Media) every Friday.  This activity helps me to know my students. In other words, Fridays are good days.

The Article of the Week is essentially a period where small groups discuss an article. It sounds simple, but a lot of teaching and student reflection goes into making this work. The process starts on Mondays when I post the article (either teacher or student selected) that everyone needs to read by Friday. Half of the posts are articles students have to read, and the other half are videos (commercials, news, PSAs, movie trailers, etc.). The expectation is that everyone will come to class with notes on the article/video and questions to discuss with their groups. The first week I model what those questions could look like, and we play around with Q-Charts in class so that they become comfortable generating their own questions. I also explicitly teach the characteristics of productive conversations. If you are looking for a place to start talking about conversations,  check out Celeste Headlee’s 10 Ways to a Better Conversation.

The first round of Article of the Week is a diagnostic for me and a practice round for my students. As students discuss the article in their groups, I sit at their tables and furiously take notes on who is talking, who is asking questions, and who is trying their best to hide. I turn these notes into feedback that I give to students before the next round of conversations. I almost always have to discuss with someone about dominating conversations. Many students believe that talking a lot = a high mark. We have to work hard in the first couple of weeks to frame what good conversations look like and sound like.

Once students have had their conversations on Friday, they are expected to write a blog post over the weekend to capture their thinking. These posts are perfect for students to explore voice in their writing. They post throughout the semester, and their blog turns into their culminating project for the course.

Let me reassure you- I do not mark every single blog post.  That wouldn’t be fair to my students or me. My students need the time and space to practice and improve, and I need to eat, sleep, raise my children, and maybe read a book every once in awhile!

I read the first blog post and give feedback, and then I provide additional feedback during writing conferences throughout the semester. These conferences are student directed. I ask them to show me two posts: one they consider a success and one they want to improve. Together we pick an area of focus (voice, organization, word choice, etc.) and we look at the posts with that focus in mind. Students need to write more than we can read and assess because it will take time for them to establish themselves as writers. I need them to have some writing volume so that we can find areas of consistent need and make a plan for improvement.   I also expect them to refer to their feedback when they reflect before and after an evaluation so that I know they are thinking about their growth as writers.

I formally evaluate this whole process before midterms and finals. By then I have multiple rounds of assessment observations, conversations, and products from which to generate a mark.  This wealth of information gives me confidence in my assessment of my students’ strengths and weaknesses. It also gives me a lot of information about where I need to go next with my instruction.  Stay tuned for a future blog post about assessment and evaluation if you’re interested in thinking about this some more.

If you are interested in trying Article of the Week, I would recommend telling your colleagues about your idea so they can send interesting articles your way. Many of the articles I used were sent to me by other teachers, especially the teacher librarian (Thanks, Anne!).  A great starting place for senior classes is Desmond Cole’s article “The Skin I’m In”. This article never fails to start conversations. For junior readers or struggling readers, I recommend using the site Newsela where you can select articles and then change the Lexile level to suit your audience.

I would love to hear your feedback on this process. Feel free to ask questions and leave comments.

Happy Friday!