Thursday, May 23, 2019

Get Out of the Car (and meet some new people this summer)

On October 10, 2015, an incident occurred at the University of Missouri homecoming parade that made national news but somehow escaped my attention. A group of black students protesting systemic and overt racism dating back to 1839, when the university was built as a whites-only institution using slave labor, blocked a convertible in which the university’s president, Tim Wolfe, was riding. Wolfe remained in the car as the small group of protestors interrupted the parade to present a chronological series of examples of ongoing racial injustices at Mizzou, “not an indictment on white folks but. . .an indictment on white structures and white supremacy.”

The mostly white crowd yelled at the protestors and chanted loudly as if to drown out what the protestors were saying. A number of white men and women attempted to move the protestors from the parade route and to form a human chain to block the protest and allow the president’s car to pass. All the while, President Wolfe remained in his red convertible, where he could clearly see and hear the protest. The protest ended 11 minutes after it began when several police officers intervened and asked the protestors to step aside.  

To simplify a complicated story, one of the activists involved in the protest, Jonathan Butler, began a hunger strike to protest the president’s lack of responsiveness to racist incidents, during the parade as well as when other complaints were reported. The hunger strike attracted media attention and put Mizzou in the spotlight.

Nearly a month after the parade incident, Wolfe finally issued an apology for his silence during the parade. “My behavior seemed like I didn’t care,” the apology stated. “That was not my intention. I was caught off guard at that moment. Nevertheless, had I gotten out of the car to acknowledge the students and talk with them, perhaps we wouldn’t be where we are today.” Several days later, after a threatened strike by Mizzou football players calling for his resignation, Wolfe stepped down.

Reading the news articles about this incident and watching video footage of the protest conjured up many emotions in me, but the part that keeps haunting me is the line in Wolfe’s apology: “[H]ad I gotten out of the car to acknowledge the students and talk with them, perhaps we wouldn’t be where we are today.”

I wonder if enough educators today are “getting out of the car:” meeting diverse students where they are and letting them know they are heard, seen, and valued.

I’m can’t say that every school is that racially charged or that most students of color have reached a similar brink of frustration. I do know that 80% of public school teachers in America are white, and that less than half of the 50 million students enrolled in public schools are white.

For the rest of this essay, I’ll be talking mostly to the 80% of us who are white educators, but the rest of you are welcome to join me to make sure I’m not saying anything foolish.

According to Beverly Daniel Tatum in Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?, a 2013 American Values Survey found that “75 percent of Whites have entirely White social networks, without any minority presence.” The same is not true about the homogeneity of other races’ social networks. Apparently, a lot of white people only hang out with other white people.

It’s difficult to understand the way others perceive the world if we don’t get to know them. In order for me to understand the treatment others experience, I need to listen to those people and hear their stories. I need to shut up and quit my whitesplaining (ironic, since that’s what I’m doing right here. . . sorry) so that I can give others a voice. If I know who someone is, I am more likely to connect with them and others who share an identity with them. If a growing number of the students I see every day come from racial backgrounds different than mine, I face some potential challenges in connecting with those students. I imagine some of these students feel like the students at the University of Missouri felt: unseen, unheard, and wronged. I need to get out of the car, listen to them, and let them know that they are valued.  

So what’s a white person to do if they’re among the 75% who only socialize with other white people? I suggest figuring out how to bring some diversity into your social circle. It’s terribly awkward (and, really, just wrong) to collect friends of different races like you are hunting Pok√©mon, so please don’t go out into the world with a diversity checklist to complete. Consider volunteering in the community at somewhere other than your place of worship (as those tend to remain largely segregated in America today), attending arts events (I love a good talkback after a theatre performance, though I usually listen a lot more than I talk), or finding a group, such as DFW’s Community Conversations, where people meet for the purpose of talking and listening to understand one another’s perspectives.

Making connections like these requires some effort, and there’s no guarantee of success. A less risky way to “meet” some new people is through reading their stories. Take a look at your bookshelf. Was every book written by a white author? Maybe it’s time to step outside the usual to encounter some new literary voices.

Some of my favorite reading experiences are ones in which I have allowed a person with a cultural identity unlike mine to tell me their story. As a college student on summer vacation reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X, I was uncomfortable, shocked, and moved as I experienced racism through Malcolm’s eyes and felt the source of his indignation. As an adult, digesting Ta-Nahesi Coates’s letter to his son, Between the World and Me, continued to stretch my thinking about race relations, cultural identity, and the struggles black Americans face that I seldom consider as a white male.  Recently, I’ve read a number of young adult novels with non-white characters and authors, each of which has helped me grow in my understanding of multicultural perspectives. In Erika L. S√°nchez’s I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter, I felt the pains of growing up as a precocious Latina teen in inner-city Chicago. Getting to know Adib Khorram’s hilarious narrator in Darius the Great is Not Okay, who struggles with his half-Persian identity (and general teenage angst) as he travels to visit his mother’s family in Iran, provided some insight into cultural norms unlike my own. Reading Dear Martin (Nic Stone), On the Come Up (Angie Thomas), All-American Boys (Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely), and The Field Guide to the North American Teenager (Ben Philippe) gave me multiple perspectives on what it might be like to be a black teenager today. Understanding another cultural identity, that of transgender youth, is easier for me after reading Lily and Dunkin by Donna Gephart. The 57 Bus: The True Story of Two Teenagers and the Crime That Changed Their Lives by Dashka Slater helped me see two sides of an incident from the perspectives of two teens: a gender-fluid boy and his African-American classmate.

Can I claim to be an expert on any of these cultures because I read a few books or met a few people? Of course not. Every individual’s cultural identity and life experiences are their own. Just as I can’t speak with authority about the experience of every middle-aged, white male in America, I certainly have no right to claim a full understanding of the experiences of a group I don’t belong to based on my own interactions, however extensive. But opening my mind and heart as I let others tell their stories develops my understanding and empathy. And, when I learn from listening that something in the system we (and by “we,” I mean people who look a lot like me) have built in our country is corrupt, unfair, or unjust, I can lift my voice along with their voice to do something about changing it.

Fellow educators, I invite you to join me this summer in getting out of the car, meeting some new people (whether in real life or on the pages of books), and joining the conversation. Let others be heard, so that we can make more meaningful—more human—connections with our students, their parents, our colleagues, and all the other wonderful humans in this beautifully diverse country we live in.  

Friday, May 10, 2019

Cause for Celebration

We’ve reached the point where you can count the days remaining in the school year on the average person’s fingers. Exhaustion, fatigue, and perhaps delirium have set in. You and the students are racing one another out the door each day. Congratulations on making it through another year.

Before you roll down the windows and blast “School’s Out for Summer” on your stereo, take a moment to think back to August, when you first encountered this year’s crop of students. Think about what they were like back then. You looked at them and thought to yourself, “These kids will never be able to [insert name of thing you were supposed to teach them to do].” Now think about them today, about all the skills, abilities, knowledge, and competencies they have now that they didn’t possess at the beginning of the school year. You’ve got a lot to celebrate.

Don’t keep your celebration to yourself, though. Make sure your students know how far they’ve come. As students creep through the school year day-by-day, they may not realize all they’ve learned during that time. It’s like dieting (so I’m told); if you weigh yourself every day, you may not notice much change, but when someone sees you after being away for a while and comments on how much weight you’ve lost, it feels really good.

In the same way, students need us to point out to them how much they’ve grown during the time they’ve spent in our classes. Or at least they need us to prompt some reflection on their own progress. Maybe you’ve kept a beginning-of-the-year writing sample that they can compare to their current work. Perhaps you can show them a “hard” test from the first of school that they now find ridiculously simple. Making a list of all the new learning from throughout the year can bring about a satisfying sense of accomplishment.

Celebrating successes, big and small, ought to be happening all year long; it’s a key to motivation. At the end of the year, though, celebrating growth can plant a seed that will lead to continued growth and curiosity in your subject area. Leave students feeling successful, and they will hunger for future success.

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

How Did We Get Here?

I am not watching Game of Thrones.

I tried my best to get into the show over Winter Break over a year ago, but I just couldn’t wrap my head around it all. For a person who can’t remember whether he turned the oven off or what he got his mother last Christmas, Game of Thrones is an overwhelming experience. I can’t tell a Snow from a Stark, a Targaryen from a Lannister. There are too many kingdoms, too many relationships, and too many long-ago conversations in heavily-accented English for me to keep track of.   

If you’re lucky like me, you have others in your life who are thoroughly invested in the final season of the show, so you get to overhear the post-show analysis. “Wait—so she is the one who, back in the first season, killed the guy who—we found out in season three—was really the one who. . . .Since the dragon let him ride it, that means that now he will be the one who. . .and because she is third in line to the throne, after so-and-so and whatshisname are killed. . . .” There’s a lot of discussion of the backstory, figuring out all the moves to explain how they got to this point.  

Whether or not you are keeping up with a fantasy series on HBO, you are in real life nearing the end of another school year, a time when it’s useful to spend a few moments considering how you got to this point. Do your own post-show analysis. Take stock of your classes—what your students are doing or not doing—and reflect a little.

I’m sure there are things that are going well. Perhaps your students have become a tight-knit community of learners. Maybe they are reading and analyzing text at a sophisticated level. Or they are using academic language stems and switching appropriately from a casual to an academic register when having classroom conversations. Whatever they may be, take note of these things you want to replicate, the behaviors or skills you want next year’s students to exhibit, too. Then consider the teacher moves you made to get your students to this point. Examine the backstory. Jot down what you did so you’ll remember to do it again next year. Consider what you might do differently (or earlier) to get your students to the desired point more quickly or to move students even further along.

I assume that there are also things in your classroom that aren’t going as well as you hoped. Your students seem unmotivated. Earbud and cell phone use has spiraled out of control. Fewer students are completing work in a quality manner—if they are completing it at all. Now is the time to take note of those things so you can start planning now about how to solve the problems that are driving you crazy in the final weeks of school. How did you get to this point? What did you do (or not do) that created this problem, and what might you do differently to prevent its recurrence?

Instructional coaches on your campus or at the district level are excellent sounding boards to help you troubleshoot in advance for next year. Or find a willing colleague who would like to be an accountability partner. Putting plans in place now, when you aren’t in ready-set-go mode, lessens the chance that you’ll forget to make those plans next year.

Start preparing now so that next season is only a continuation of what you’d like to see in the future. August is coming.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Relentless Reflection: Why? Why Else? and So What?

Reflection is difficult because it forces us to hold a mirror up to ourselves and see what we really look like without filters and tricky lighting. Last week, I fell down an internet rabbit hole after reading an article about hansei, the Japanese art of reflection. I’m hardly an expert on the topic, but I was intrigued at this premise that is ingrained into the culture of some Japanese schools and put into practice as a part of the ongoing improvement process at companies such as Toyota.

According to my casual examination of the topic, hansei involves routine reflection (preferably daily) to question what you intended to happen (your objective), what actually occurred (the reality), and what might account for the difference (the reasons). Further examination of the reasons and exploration of possible solutions and alternatives deepen the reflection process. The result: solution-based problem solving that leads to continual improvement.       

When we are teaching, we are often in such a hurry to move to the next item on the never-ending to-do list that we don’t make time to stop and reflect on our own work. Asking ourselves how a class (lesson, assignment, etc.) went and how it could improve—even if it went well—is how we get better at our craft. The most effective teachers I know live in a constant cycle of self-reflection even if that reflection is done on the fly. Socrates reportedly said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” I think the unexamined lesson is not worth re-teaching.       

Students, too, benefit from self-reflection. According to Hattie, the ability of students to self-report their grades has a significant positive impact on their achievement. In other words, when students reflect upon their own work and where it stands in relation to the objectives and expectations of the learning, they are more likely to do well.

So much reflection that occurs in schools or on the job is often done in a cursory way. We go through the motions (if we are compliant) but don’t see much value in reflecting if the results don’t seem worth the effort. Shallow reflection rarely produces answers that matter. In contrast, relentless reflection requires peeling back the layers until the core issues are exposed so that substantial, rewarding growth can take place.

Relentless reflection involves asking questions that provoke continually deep reflection. The two core questions are “Why?” and “Why else?”  I might begin with a concern unearthed by my initial reflection on how things are going.

For instance, I might identify an initial concern: My English students won’t read during their daily in-class reading time.


They keep getting distracted by their cell phones.


They are more interested in what’s going on with their friends than what’s happening in their books.


Maybe they didn’t choose very interesting books.


Maybe they don’t know how to find a book they’d enjoy.  This seems pretty good, a lot better than merely stating my initial complaint or throwing up my hands in defeat because I’m, defenseless against the power of the Mighty Smartphone. Now, asking “So what?” might produce an idea or two I can act on to change things.

So what?

I could spend some time in class working with my students on how to find good books, including reading book reviews online, asking for recommendations from classmates, and doing more than just looking at the covers when visiting the library. I could also start giving brief book talks of some of my favorites because book talks get kids excited about reading. Nice! Those are some actionable ideas I uncovered from peeling back a few layers of my initial problem. But I am not done. I’m going to back up to a previous statement and examine another possibility.

They keep getting distracted by their cell phones.

Why else?

Their phones are sitting on their desks in full view when the notifications pop up and pull their attention from their reading.


Because I let them have their phones out in class.


I figure they’re old enough to manage their own phone use; it’s their choice whether they choose to pay attention in my class.


I don’t have a good answer to that. I’m the adult in the room, and they are clearly adolescent technology addicts.

So what?

I need to establish a cellular device policy/procedure and stick to it. Not having a policy means that every interaction with a student over a phone turns into a battle, and it also leaves them susceptible to a temptation they can’t resist. Texting, Snapchatting, and Instagramming are destroying my learning environment, and it’s up to me to stop that from happening.  

There! From this little exercise, I now have three solutions to implement to begin chipping away at my problem.

Let’s try another scenario. Here’s my concern: My students don’t turn in homework.


They forget to do it.

Why else?

They are really busy and don’t make time for it.

Why else?

They don’t seem to care.

(I used the “Why else?” question to generate several options here, but I think I want to explore the last one the most.)

Why don’t they care?

They aren’t interested in what we are studying.


It’s something many of them already know a lot about. Why else?
They don’t seem excited about the topic. Why else?
They are too busy to get their homework done with all their activities and commitments. Why else?
They are more interested in socializing. Ah. That’s interesting. Let’s stay on that one.

Why are they more interested in socializing?

Teens like to interact with their peers, and many don’t like working quietly. Or perhaps it’s because I’m assigning boring homework.

So what?

Perhaps I can add in a way to allow students to either do something collaborative or social with the homework in class the next day. Or maybe I could reduce the amount of homework and increase the in-class processing so that my lesson doesn’t depend on so much isolated work at home. I could also consider ways to make homework more social and collaborative using something like Flipgrid or a Google Classroom chat. Another option is to think of how I can assign homework that will be more interesting and relevant to my students.

Now that I have peeled back some layers, I have more than just a complaint. I have a starting point for problem solving and solution finding.

I wonder if this same trick could get students to be more contemplative about their own work in class. . . .

How’d you do on the last test?

I made a 78.


I studied but didn’t do very well.  


I guess I didn’t study enough. Or in the right way.


I don’t really know how to study.

So what?

Maybe I could come to tutorials and ask the teacher for some study tips. Or I could talk with some friends who made higher grades and see if they would help me study. I can’t keep doing what I’m doing if I want to make an A or a B in this class.

The student could have “Why elsed” this question and discovered more solutions. As I was reflecting, however, about how long this essay is, I decided that the point was probably sufficiently clear and that you probably didn’t need or want to read more.

Relentless reflection means not being satisfied with the first answer and digging deeper to get to the root of the concern. Three simple questions—Why? Why else? So what?—can make that happen. When we make reflection a habit, and when we help our students make it a habit, we start seeing improvement.   

Thanks for all you do to keep getting better and better.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

I Put on Clothes for This?

Here I go again, sounding like an old person. . .

Back in the days before the Internet, curious scholars who wanted to learn from a wise expert enrolled in classes to listen to lecturers pontificate about their areas of knowledge. I have fond memories of many of my college professors (and some of my high school teachers) regaling  (mostly) eager students with lectures while we furiously took notes to capture as many brilliant ideas as we could.

In today’s world, we can find lectures in many places. A simple Google search will yield numerous videos, podcasts, and presentations on nearly any topic featuring eminent scholars from around the globe. Students can now receive a better-than-average traditional education for free with only a smartphone and a pair of earbuds.

It would be vain for any of us to believe that our lecturing abilities surpass those of everyone who has ever made a TED Talk or YouTube video, so if we are relying on the one-way transmission of information during our classes as our sole mode of instruction, we are replicating (probably less effectively) an experience students can get elsewhere. Similarly, if we spend class time showing videos or movies, we are asking students to come to school to do something they could do just as effectively at home without having to change out of their jammies.

The advent of learning management systems, such as Google Classroom, and the trend toward 1-to-1 access to technology have made it all too easy for instructors to post an assignment and sit back while the students work quietly on it on their Chromebooks, laptops, or tablets. In many cases, these online assignments are the electronic equivalent of worksheets, with students filling in blanks and boxes as they answer teacher-created questions or complete online charts and tables. Many students come to school and spend most of their day sitting silently in front of screens, providing the information asked for, with little to no interaction with their instructor or peers. It’s really no different than if they had stayed at home taking an online course, except, of course, they had to put on clothes to come to school.   

If physical schools and colleges are going to remain viable in the present and future, they must provide an education that is different and better from what students can receive at home online. Real school has to be different from e-school.* There has to be substantial value in making the effort to get dressed and come to class beyond just hanging out with friends in the halls and cafeteria.

Additionally, if teachers want to remain in actual classrooms with students and to push back on politicians who try to increase class sizes, we have to show that our physical presence in proximity to our learners makes a difference. We can’t follow the example of “Ditto,” the character from the 1984 movie Teachers, whose students are so accustomed to filling in worksheets without any interaction that no one notices the teacher has dropped dead at his desk until  they run out of mimeographed worksheets to complete. We must put into practice the things that distinguish live instruction from e-learning.

One benefit to being a student in a classroom with an actual, living teacher is the opportunity to receive live, in-person, in-the-moment verbal feedback from the instructor. We know that the most effective feedback is the kind that occurs when learners actually need it, at the point when they can improve what they are working on. Telling students what they should have done after the fact doesn’t have the same impact as coaching students along the way. As students are reading, writing, or creating, teachers could hold quick check-in conferences with individuals or small groups to clear up confusion, redirect those who are heading off track, offer suggestions for growth, ask questions to promote self-reflection, or nudge students to the next level.

The teacher isn’t the only source of valuable feedback in a face-to-face classroom. Some of the most transformative feedback comes from peers. When we teach students to give and receive feedback from one another, everyone becomes more skilled and accomplished. Establishing structures and procedures for providing feedback in class on one another’s work is a worthwhile step toward making the most of the learning options available in traditional classroom settings.

Differentiation is another opportunity that is seized more easily in an in-person teaching situation. A savvy teacher figures out where each student is and offers next steps that are responsive to each student’s needs. If we are marching all our students in unison through a one-size-fits-all series of experiences, we are missing out on the opportunity to grow all our students to their fullest capacity. Teachers who make the biggest differences with students have a sequence of clear goals in mind and are able to put each student at the right point on the continuum to move them closer to the target. They also have an idea of how to challenge at a deeper level any student who has reached mastery.

Perhaps the most significant bonus of coming to school and learning in classrooms is the chance to have conversations in real time about what we are learning. The art of verbal discourse is limping along in our emoji-driven society. When the only communication students have with other humans is through Snapchat pics and abbreviated text messages, they don’t get better at speaking. Yet those who can effectively express themselves verbally get what they want in life. What better place is there to practice speaking than in a classroom where there are others with whom to converse and a teacher to offer feedback for improvement? Classroom conversations—whether in informal pair-share situations, structured discussions (such as Socratic Seminars or Philosophical Chairs debates), collaborative study groups, or small work groups—bring the learning to life. Students aren’t just sitting there slack-jawed in front of screens; they are engaged with one another, defending positions, trying out new ideas, clarifying their thinking, and questioning themselves and each other. This is where the learning happens. This is when the effort of coming to class becomes worth it.

As we plan for instruction, it’s not a bad idea to look critically at how we are teaching. If every day of class involves something students could do just as effectively at home in isolation, it’s time to change it up. We need to rethink the role of the teacher and the role of the student in schools. When we see the teacher as a valuable source of feedback, individualized coaching, and inspiration and the students as active participants in a community of learners, school will once again become something worth putting on clothes for.

* I mean no disparagement to those who are doing important work developing online courses and electronic learning experiences for students. There’s a growing demand for e-school classes, and I’m impressed by the efforts to make online learning increasingly interactive, open-ended, and responsive to student needs. I wonder whether the demand for e-school classes is partly due to the fact that so many traditional schools are still teaching like it’s 1985.  

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Sketchy Teaching

Are sketchy things going on in your classroom? I’m talking about paper-and-pen-or-pencil or even stylus-and-tablet kind of sketching. That doodling that got us in trouble when we were in school can be channeled to produce some powerful instructional outcomes.

In Classroom Instruction That Works, Marzano, Pickering, and Pollock identify the use of nonlinguistic representations as a powerful, research-based strategies for increasing student achievement. Marzano expands on the topic in The New Art and Science of Teaching, where he discusses the importance of “providing students with opportunities to record and represent the content that has been the focus of the lesson” (32) linguistically and nonlinguistically.

It’s important to make a distinction between academic sketching and art projects. The point of having students sketch during lessons is to enhance learning by engaging the nonlinguistic parts of their brains, not to produce a masterpiece. Much like so many “projects” and “creative” activities we have subjected students to in school, the important part of the project—the actual thinking—occurs during the gestation period and planning, not in the extended execution. Once the thinking ends, the coloring, shading, detailing, and prettying up is wasted time if your goals are enhanced learning, increased retention, and expanded understanding.  

Scholastic sketching should be quick, nongraded, and, in most cases, explained to someone else. De-emphasize the importance of artistic quality by keeping the time for sketching brief, so brief that even the skilled artists create less-than-perfect products. Teachers can introduce the task by saying something like, “I’m going to time you for two [or some other small number of] minutes only. During that time, I’d like you to sketch [whatever it is you want them to sketch] using pictures, numbers, symbols, and words.“ When the time is up, ask students to explain the sketch to a partner, timing each member of the pair to ensure that everyone has equal opportunity to explain. Allowing students the chance to explain their drawing has three benefits: First, it  connects the nonlinguistic to the linguistic parts of the brain. Second, it provides one more chance for the student to review and reiterate the information, increasing the likelihood of long-term recall. Finally, it allows the partner to hear how another student processed the content, which offers additional perspectives and insights on the subject.     

The purposes for sketching in a content-area classroom are varied. Here is just a sampling of ideas teachers might want to consider:  

Sketch to clarify: When I encounter a difficult piece of text or a complex, multifaceted idea, I find it helpful to clarify by sketching. Kylene Beers and Bob Probst, in their book Reading Nonfiction, call this reading strategy “Sketch to Stretch.” Whether it’s a series of events in a history book, a complicated set of familial relationships in a novel, a plot-packed narrative, or something rather abstract that I need to make concrete, drawing a picture or diagram can help me solidify my understanding. When I notice I’m lost while reading, watching, or listening to something, I often think it’s time for a clarifying sketch. Explaining my drawing to someone else helps me make sure it all makes sense. Sometimes, my explanation sounds like this: “So, this guy wanted to marry this girl, but she was in love with this other guy, whose father owned the company this girl’s father worked for. Another guy, this one here (I put a bowtie on him because he’s wealthy), who worked for the girl’s father, too, was the one the father wanted the girl to marry so that he could take over the business, so. . . .” Other times, it’s more detailed, with actual names and more previse details. If I can explain it using my visuals and my explanation is in sync with my partner’s understanding, I feel more confident that I know what is going on.    

Sketch to summarize: If the goal is not about comprehension of complex material or difficult text but instead to reinforce overall understanding, sketching can be used to summarize content. At the end of a chapter or lecture, at the close of a novel, at the conclusion of a lesson, teachers can ask students to sketch to summarize. “Create a quick drawing that captures the most important points of the story/lecture/concept/lesson.” Explaining the sketch to a partner is an outstanding way to review main points, and because each sketch is personally created, it’s more likely to stick in the mind of the creator.

Sketch to notice: Say you’re studying something that’s visual and you’d like your students to pay more attention to it, focus on some details,  and to commit the image to memory. Asking them to sketch the image in their notes in as much detail as possible in the brief time allotted encourages learners to give the image more than a cursory glance. Students who sketch the layout of the front page of the New York Times, David’s painting Oath of the Horatii, an onion cell they are observing through a microscope, the Taj Mahal, or a diagram from a football playbook are sharpening their visual skills, noticing details they might otherwise have ignored, gathering ideas to discuss or analyze, and making the image more memorable.

Sketch to synthesize: Pulling everything together at the end of a unit is a challenge, but what we know about learning is that the more connections learners make, the better the outcome. Consider asking students to brainstorm—perhaps as a class or in small groups—the key concepts or components of a text, a unit, or a series of lessons and then create a sketch that shows how those elements are related. Explaining the sketches to others in small groups provides an effective review as students listen to the ways others have connected all the dots.  

Sketch to create: While writing a story, authors might need to sketch the layout of a building or map out a neighborhood. When planning a project, teammates might sketch out a blueprint of the final product, map out the workflow to accomplish the task, or brainstorm several prototypes to pitch ideas to others. When considering how to reorganize a room, to organize a presentation, or to lay out a PowerPoint slide, a quick sketch can help make ideas tangible so the creator can consider pros and cons of various approaches. Sketching is a great idea generator. Show students how it can work for them.

Making your classroom a sketchy place will not only increase student learning but also their enjoyment. After all, sketching is fun and freeing. It exercises often-untapped parts of the brain. And we can all use a little exercise, right?

An additional note: I wrote this blog last night and happened to visit some seventh grade English classes this morning that were reading an account of the creation of the world according to the Greeks. The text was dense, with a new character or an important event (and sometimes both) in every sentence. The teacher asked the students to sketch out what happened in the story and gave them 8 minutes to do so. While the students were creating the sketches, the teacher asked students to explain the story using their diagram, which was an effective tool for formatively assessing student understanding and identifying gaps or points of confusion. Students also shared their sketches with the others at their table and were able to retell the narrative for one another and listen to others’ explanations. Students benefited from seeing the approaches of their classmates and were able to add missing information to clarify their own sketches. This serendipitous visit reinforced my belief that sketching is a valuable and engaging comprehension tool, one worth adding to every student’s toolbox.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

What If Every Student Wrote in Every Class Every Day?

Sometimes I like to dream big dreams. I revel in “What if?” scenarios. What if everyone on the planet got along? What if teachers got paid according to how difficult their job actually is? What if I had a dollar for every time a kid asked to borrow a pencil and then didn’t return it?

Lately, I’ve been thinking about what might happen in schools if every student wrote every day in every class. I know. It’s a crazy idea. But, as I said, I like to dream big dreams. If teachers in all subject areas—math, science, social studies, English, fine arts, LOTE, physical education, career and technical education—made it their mission to insert just a little bit of writing into their daily lesson plans, the results would be astonishing.

If every student wrote every day in every class, here’s what might happen:

Students would become more confident writers. Writing— like most things that are worth doing well—takes practice, and the more you do it, the better you get. Students don’t have to write formal papers (which, let’s face it, should be special-occasion experiences) in order to improve as writers. Quickwrites, short answers, explanatory paragraphs, summaries, and letters to the teacher (or other students) are all ways of practicing writing within academic disciplines. The simple act of stringing words together to make sentences and adding additional sentences until something emerges that makes sense builds confidence and self-efficacy.

Teachers would have a better idea of what students know and don’t know. Asking students to explain something in writing gives a glimpse into their understanding in a way that is more complete and nuanced than a multiple choice question or thumbs-up/thumbs-down or fist-to-five physical response. Writing is an easy-to-implement formative assessment tool at any point in the lesson cycle. Having students write what they already know about a topic prior to instruction can give teachers an idea of where to begin teaching the entire class or which students will need differentiation, either enrichment or remediation. Pausing mid-lesson to allow students to explain how they reached a solution or solved a problem can provide insight into their thought processes and help the teacher diagnose gaps in understanding. An exit ticket summarizing the day’s essential question on a notecard provides instantaneous feedback about whether students “got it” so teachers will know whether to move on or revisit the concept tomorrow.

Blank pages and blank stares would become things of the past. Like a car that’s been sitting undriven for a few months, many student writers have trouble getting started when they are asked to write. Once students start writing every day in every class, their batteries remain fully charged, and the ideas emerge much more readily. This is especially true when frequent writing activities are low-stakes, ones in which getting ideas down on paper doesn’t come with the “gotcha” of a grade attached. Writing in a fearful state is paralyzing. Writing (sans pressure) to explore what you think about a topic is freeing. Not every idea that comes out of your pen (or shows up on your screen) is going to be brilliant, but putting ideas into the world every day increases the odds that you’ll produce something worth saying.

Classroom conversations would be better. Writing before talking helps us generate ideas and clarify our thinking. How often, before a difficult conversation, do we write out and rehearse what we have to say to increase the chances of it coming out as intended? Similarly, allowing students to write a response to a question before a classroom discussion has several advantages. First, it provides every student a chance to wrestle with the thinking instead of sitting back and waiting for the loudmouth in the room to answer the question orally, freeing them from any obligation to think for themselves. Second, it gives students a chance to try out their ideas, to have some “think time,” and to organize their response before being asked to share it aloud. Whether or not the student is called on to respond, the student has done some thinking, and that’s what’s most important in an educational setting.

The quality of student writing would improve, which means, among other things, that writing test scores would increase. The more you write, the better you write. If you write every day, throughout the day, you’re bound to get better. Instead of complaining that “these kids can’t write” and focusing on inadequacies, teachers should consider providing numerous opportunities for writing and offering encouragement to reinforce what’s good. Praise-hungry students will latch onto the traits that receive positive feedback, and, eventually, their writing will get better. When the quality and quantity of student writing improves and anxiety about writing withers, the writing they’re asked to produce on-demand for standardized tests will seem less daunting. It’s just another thing we’re asked to write, right? No big deal. What will be a big deal is the amount of time educators can spend focusing on exploring meaningful content rather than tedious test preparation.  

The school will develop a culture of literacy. Where the written word is valued, learning thrives. When students see that all teachers—not just the English teachers—care about writing, they’ll care more, too. Soon, you’ll hear discussions about what writing looks like in various content areas, how writing in science looks different than writing in social studies or English. Disciplinary literacy will shape students to become more thoughtful, purposeful writers and more curious readers. Students will write for real-world audiences and will be eager to let their powerful voices be heard. Building a culture of literacy sets all students up for real-world success in whatever the future holds for them because those who can read perceptively and write with precision have the power to influence others, to get what they want, and to achieve whatever they dream.   

Teachers would spend more time grading. Wait! That’s not true. The kind of writing I’m talking about is mostly ungraded and doesn’t require out-of-class teacher feedback. When students write daily in school, they’re mostly engaging in writing to learn (also known as learning through writing), which is about acquiring the knowledge and skills, not being assessed as right or wrong. It’s more about doing the writing (and the associated thinking) rather than receiving a reward for correctness or compliance. And there’s a likelihood that students will write down some incorrect or misguided ideas on their pathways to mastery, which shouldn’t be penalized because making mistakes is a healthy part of learning. Students should be writing more than we could possibly read anyway. Shifting the audience away from the teacher gives students a more potent motivation for writing well and communicating clearly. When, and if, teachers grade and comment on writing, many other readers should have seen and provided constructive feedback on that piece previously. Content-area teachers who fear being unqualified to assess student writing should free themselves from some of that pressure. It’s not your job to be a copy editor and fix every grammatical error. Focus on what makes sense. Question what doesn’t. When you focus on meaning, any time you spend reading and responding to student writing will be more pleasurable; it will be a conversation between you and your students about what they think about their learning. And that is fascinating.

I realize that asking teachers to add a bit of writing to their lessons is encouraging risk-taking and stepping outside of comfort zones. I acknowledge that my dream isn’t likely to come true on most campuses. I know, however, that students don’t write enough in school, and I’ve seen how learning-through-writing strategies can transform classrooms into active, vibrant, student-centered communities of scholars. You probably don’t have the power to control what goes on in others’ classrooms, but you have control over what goes on in yours. Any bit of writing you add is more than your students would have done without you.  Help me make my big dream come true.