Category Archives: Classroom Management

Secrets to Making Work Time Productive in the English Classroom

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If your classroom is like mine, you’re constantly asking students to create—to display their skills in composition by writing essays, designing presentations, synthesizing research, or penning poetry. While there are many exciting ways to present the content for developing these skills during a traditional lesson, eventually the students do need to take complete control of it by making something that demonstrates their proficiency in the targeted skills. And we all know what that means… work time!

Most schools seem to have adopted the mentality that, at least in part, guided work time belongs in the classroom rather than at home. And while I feel that it is important for students to cultivate independence and responsibility outside of school hours, I also know that it makes good sense to provide in-class work time for students to receive initial feedback, to compensate for time that may be stretched by work and extracurriculars, or to provide quality computer access for a student who may not have it at home. So, we sign up for the computer lab, hand out our instructions, and let the kids go, with the expectation that things are going to get done!

That being said, what actually happens during “work time” can sometimes devolve into a confusing muddle of distraction, idleness, and sub-standard results if the classes aren’t structured appropriately. As a teacher, this can be frustrating! Sometimes we ask ourselves why we even bother to dedicate two or more consecutive days of class to work time if our students don’t use it correctly. While much of that can certainly be remedied through strong classroom management and clear directions, I’ve found a combination of several strategies that, when applied, will consistently ensure that work time is truly a productive block of time where real teaching, learning, and (YES!) work will indeed occur.

*STRUCTURING CLASSROOM WORK TIME: A HOW-TO*

The Prewriting Check-Off

I always give my students a pre-writing activity that will help them start developing their ideas for a particular assignment. This may be a detailed annotation of a poem, a graphic organizer, an outline, a thesis-generator sheet, or even a sketch that shows an idea. When my students have their first day in the lab, before they may even turn their computer on, they must get their pre-writing activity physically checked off by me. This helps students get their ideas in order, so that they have at least a starting point. As I check students off, I can address early misunderstandings or questions while also avoiding the “blank screen phenomenon.” If a student has trouble starting, I can point to their annotations or graphic organizer and help them use that as a springboard for their first keystrokes. This way, I know that every student is prepared to work well before they even begin.

Mini Lessons at the Start of Class

Especially if the project is an extended one requiring several days in the lab, I start my students in the actual classroom, where I give a mini-lesson on a particular writing or analysis skill that’s relevant to the task they are approaching in their work. For example, during a branding project for English 12, I showed my students a brief presentation on how to use color, typography, line, and texture to communicate ideas before we started working on that particular day. A short mini lesson before work time gives my students an injection of learning that they can immediately apply in their work, making them more focused and capable. When I offer mini-lessons, I go pretty quickly as to not take up too much time, but I always make the content available on my website, so that students can refer to it throughout the class if they need to revisit it or take a closer look at an example—which I often see them do!

Goal Setting

This is such an easy step that is often overlooked. Give students a specific goal, or even a set of goals, for each day of work time Goals can be skill-based (Ex. Today, I want you to include at least one metaphor and at least one personification in your writing.), quantity-based (Ex. I want you to write two or more pages by the end of class), or process-based (Ex. I want you to at least get through step three of the directions today.) I also ask students to set personal goals as they are logging on. Again, this gives students a specific thing to shoot for, which increases the sense of meaning and urgency for what they are working on, and gives them a sense of accomplishment when they meet the goal.

Sticky Notes for Student Needs

After the first couple days of a project, it can be hard to know exactly how hands-on to be with the students as they work. Students at the middle or end stages of a paper or presentation have a way of all looking like they know exactly what they’re doing… even though some of them inevitably don’t. So, what’s the teacher to do? You don’t want to distract or intrude upon students who are “in the groove,” but you also want to know if students need help. My technique for dealing with this conundrum is giving each student a sticky note to stick on top of their monitor. I give them a range of options for what to write, usually “I got this,” “I have a question,” or “I’m lost!” As I stroll around the lab, I visually check the post-its. I quickly address the needs of the lost students, meander around to the ones who have a question or two periodically, and leave the go-getters alone to do amazing work without any help from me!

Classroom Management through Sound

I do allow students to listen to music on their headphones as they work if they wish. I will also periodically play music out loud for the whole class—I usually select a Pandora station with contemporary but slow-paced music. [My current favorite station, which changes weekly, is The Gabe Dixon Band. It’s important to avoid Top 40 or very danceable tracks, which have the opposite of the desired calming effect!] I use music as kind of a subliminal “get focused” signal for students that are a being little too social. I don’t say anything about it; I just turn the music on. It seems to work best to start the volume loud, about as loud as the students are talking. As they register the fact that music is playing, they typically start lowering their own volume. I then ratchet the volume down along with them… it’s kind of like magic! In the event that music is ineffective, I will implement silent work time and seating charts. Students may bellyache about it, but when it’s necessary, silence always sends the message that things need to get done. In this case, I usually say “I want to hear the sound of typing. That should be the main sound you are making.” I’ve also found that a half-and-half technique, splitting the class between productive buzz (first part of class) and silent work (middle of class up until the bell), is effective and helps students retain momentum over the full length of the class period.

Individual Conferences

While all of this is going on, I also make sure to conference individually with each of my students at least once throughout the duration of any project. I try to catch students who I know will need a heavy dose of guidance first, and then call students up at random to talk about their vision, progress, and plan. This gives me a really good idea of each student’s understanding of the task, and allows me to offer explanation, ideas, suggestions, and reactions. It also provides a chance to interact with students one-on-one, which builds positive relationships and helps me be accurate with the types of differentiation and assessment methods I’m using.

So those are my secrets for catalyzing student productivity… How about you? Any other ingenious suggestions for how to structure work time? I’d love to hear them!

 

Project-Based English 12–Semester One

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What is English 12?

That’s the question my colleague Ms. J and I found ourselves asking last summer, as we prepared to roll out a brand new version of senior language arts. Our department had found a need for a new way of looking at things as the new Common Core State Standards were being presented, 21st century skills were becoming the most touted measuring stick for student achievement post-high school, and voices in our community were calling for graduates who were more professionally savvy. Our previous English 12 courses were very traditional literature-based classes, with no real identity to ground them as anything other than a basic senior English course. Our vision was to completely revamp the curriculum: Align curriculum to the standards. Create a project-based course that gives freedom and ownership to the students. Find ways to constantly connect learning to the community and to real life experiences. We hoped to see higher student engagement/buy-in, higher achievement, and an emerging professional demeanor in our students.

Here’s what we came up with:What’s English 12? Infographic

As the year unfolded, the students were occasionally mystified or daunted by the new, challenging things we were asking of them. The largest of these is the senior research proposal, paper, and project. Students are asked to select a defining topic that pertains to their interests, skills, or future plans. Throughout the year, they develop research on that topic which eventually results in a project, of their own design, that the students display for the community at the end of the year showcase. During semester one, we’ve planted the seeds for this epic undertaking in several special ways. I’ve given a snapshot below.

September – October: Introduced “big picture” of course, linking to Tony Wagner’s idea of Passion, Play, and Purpose as the most important cornerstones of learning that creates innovation and creativity. Students were asked to begin considering their topic choices, keeping these ideas in mind.

Early November: Over 30 local professionals from many different fields were our guests at the Professional Symposium, an event designed for students to learn more about the real expectations of the different corners of the work world. Each professional had a table where they brought in things related to their career (like a model of a human spine, a laptop video display, architectural drafts, plants…). The students, who were required to dress professionally, then circulated and asked both prepared and impromptu interview questions to prompt conversations. Students also had important roles in the event, such as being in charge of lighting/sound and giving the closing address. This experience offered important insight, and helped several students select a topic.

Late November: Students were required to select their topics by this time. (True to the student-ownership goal, these ranged from the history of comics to Spina Bifida awareness to Bigfoot to sports medicine.) We took the students on a research field trip to the Golda Meir Library at UW-Milwaukee. The staff worked amazingly well with our massive group of students. During this experience, our rural students got to see what a respected university library is like, and they had access to a nearly-endless collection of both digital and print resources to inform their topic. They spent the day taking resource-specific notes and refining their topic choices.

December: In class, we offered instruction on specialized research skills, like how to conduct an email interview, using electronic databases, how to take notes, and choosing what to read in a lengthy  source. During this unit, students wrote a detailed annotated bibliography of 20+ credible sources related to their topics. Students were expected to give periodic reports to the full class about their reading and discoveries.

January: For the semester exam, students were asked to write a formal proposal for their researchEnglish 12 Research Proposal. I was so impressed with my students’ overall excitement and true scholarship associated with their topics. I found myself reading things like…

  • “Philosophy does not get the respect and credit it well deserves. Few people in the world today realize how much philosophy has impacted society and the human race. My stance on this is that philosophy is an invaluable and irreplaceable building block to modern knowledge.” Alex L.
  • “I would say that modern comics are stepping away from old ideas and greeting new ones more openly as well as [showing a] more true step into maturity, unlike the hollow, pandering “maturity” of the 90’s. This is evident in things like superhero comics becoming somewhat less popular, indie and comics that deal with much different subject matters than the mainstream seeing much more popularity, the early 2000’s seeing the abandoning of the comics code almost altogether, and the far more respectful portrayal of modern war and tragic events like 9/11.” Stephen P.

  • “The juvenile system has flourished over time and helps create life saving opportunities for adolescents. Continuing over each generation adolescents will do bad things, but it is the system’s job to help save their lives, and create a better tomorrow. I arrived at my stance through trial and error. First I wanted to research the history of juvenile justice, but then I decided I want to find out what the juvenile system can offer adolescents. What can the system do for kids whose families have given up on them? Samantha S.

Our students have already grown so much in intellectual and professional maturity throughout this process, and I can tell that they are feeling proud to call this class their own. I’m looking forward to second semester, to see what happens as more and more responsibility is released over to them, and they are enabled and empowered to do interesting, contributive things. Students light up when you ask them about the right things–we’re channeling the power of those right things in order to activate remarkable learning.

Things I’ve already observed during semester one of English 12:

-Project-based learning is just as powerful as all the research claims it us! It targets a comprehensive skill set dealing with academics, technology, and professional demeanor.

-Project-based learning is absolutely achieveable in a public school environment, with all levels of students, though those who need to grow in their ability to self-direct have the most work to do to succeed. This type of format requires educators who are able to and interested in keeping close tabs on the progress/development of each individual.

-Project-based learning helps students, even those prone to “senioritis” remember how much they actually do love to learn.

Things I’m still wondering:

-How does project-based learning look in other senior classes around the state and country? Do you teach one or know of one? Please share! Examples have not been the easiest to find.

-What are the best assessment techniques for such a wide variety of outcomes? While many aspects of student acheivement are observable in this format, measuring it objectively and accurately may become a challenge. Are there any educators out there with ideas about this?

 

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Great Expectations: Bringing Rigor Vita into the Classroom

One of the biggest words in education theory today is rigor. According to the Rigor/Relevance Framework established by the International Center for Leadership in Education, academic rigor refers to “learning in which students demonstrate a thorough, in-depth mastery of challenging tasks to develop cognitive skills through reflective thought, analysis, problem-solving, evaluation, or creativity.” This expectation, that teachers will demonstrate a curriculum that not only covers the basics, but also challenges each student to the utmost of his or her ability, can leave already overburdened or disenfranchised educators feeling pressured. We might find ourselves asking things like, “How am I supposed to show rigor when some of my students can’t even read up to grade level?” There’s no magical potion to turn struggling students into savants, this much is true. But I’d like to posit that boosting the rigor of our courses, rather than something to shrink from, is something that we should be applying with a vengeance.

On the curricular level, standards are set by the nation, the state, and the district. For those of us working with the Common Core State Standards, we’ve noticed the rigor ramping up. But really, when you walk into a real world classroom, it’s not the state of Wisconsin that’s setting the bar for the students’ performance. The person setting that bar is the person standing at the front of the room. We all know about The Standards, but what about our standards? I don’t know about you, but I’ve got them. Go ahead, say it with me:

“I have standards!”

This is what I tell my students when they ask me why something is so hard, or why they are expected to do something in such a particular way. It’s because I have standards–for them, for my classroom, for myself as a professional. And they are rigorous standards, because I know my students will reach toward what I expect for them. And I expect excellence! As my hideously wonderful tie-dye classroom poster proclaims, excellence is the goal. No matter where we fall, we are better when we aim for superior performance. And my daily demand for a higher standard from my students is far more immediate and powerful than the CCSS binder sitting sagely on my bookshelf. It makes them want to be better. That desire is fuel for a fire that can equate to greater achievement, even in the most unexpected places.

Concrete and Realistic Ways to Implement Greater Rigor in the High School Classroom

Communicate Effectively and Often: Students really do want to please, despite how much they may sometimes protest. And that’s a lot easier to do when they know what is expected. Create challenging, but very clear learning targets and explain them often, in different ways. As students begin work, engage the lost and distracted in an open conversation–“do you know what we’re doing right now?” Many times, the answer is “no,” but quickly becomes “ok!” after a personal connection. You can also recruit more with-it students to explain classroom processes to a nearby classmate. Take the time to verbally monitor success (it’s a great way to formatively assess on the spot). It only takes a moment to say, “This part that you wrote is really strong because…” or “What did you think of the way the author comes across in this paragraph?” The more acquainted we can be with our students’ current performance, the better we learn how to appropriately challenge and support them next.

Dare to Demand Amazing Things: Wish your students could do something like… perform a scene from Twelfth Night for a live audience? Or market and sell a unique product? Or have professional conversations with local community members? Or design a school vegetable garden? They can. If you need someone to say it, I’m saying it: They Absolutely Can. They need resources and guidance, and may have some failures along the way, but young people are unbelievably capable. Society doesn’t always view teenagers for the wonders they are. Especially if they know that an adult believes that they can do something, they will rise to the occasion. Try to implement one amazing thing per year–something that expects students to reach beyond their normal capabilities for a classroom cause.

Accept that there Is Such a Thing as “Unacceptable” Part of rigor is making a clear statement that mediocrity is not enough. Resist the fear of the irritated parent phone call and draw a bold line that defines unacceptable performance. If a student falls short of expectations, it’s ok to hand work right back to them and say, “This is not acceptable.” Paired with an understanding ear, a re-clarification of expectations, and an opportunity for another try, this is an important moment for teacher and student. Struggling students in this scenario are able to express their areas of struggle, while the lazy or line-pushing students get the message that… well… we have standards! I also try to mirror society’s expectations by defining unacceptable social actions (such as trash-talking anyone in my presence), and even unacceptable grammar mistakes (papers with instances of the wrong “there/their/they’re” get harshly downgraded or, on occasion, handed back without a grade)!

Research Your Own Practicum and Content  Students can tell when their teacher is working hard to provide quality instruction. Consider doing a bit of new reading on something you’ve taught many times before. If we want our students to respect the idea of lifelong learning, we need to model it! High standards for our teaching translate to rigor in expectations… because when our passion overflows, we want our students to understand the subject with the same intriguing complexity that we do.

Celebrate Hard Work  Through your classroom actions and outright statements, communicate the value of hard work. Help students understand that the immediate gratification of Google searches will only go so far in building true knowledge. Help them build reading stamina. Rejoice in the painfully slow but successful interpretation of a 17th century text. Share the deliciously frustrating reality of the writing and research process that makes the payoff that much sweeter. When students know that success doesn’t just descend from above onto the “A” students, they start to make a connection between industriousness and achievement.

Be a Cheerleader  Be vocal when students do well. Write proud comments on their work. Brag about them in the announcements. Post their work in the display case. Write an article about them in the school newspaper. One honest, affirming comment can inspire a student to work twice as hard. Yesterday, after my students finished reading their original poems for the class, I said, “These were so good! You guys make me want to stand up and cheer!” It was true! Every kid deserves to hear something like that once in a while. And don’t reserve praise just for overachievers–when a D average student pulls out a B- performance, it is just as much cause for affirmation and validation.

Create a Culture of Team Achievement The broken record classroom management philosophy that I’ve had since day one has been “We’re all in this together.” Friendly competition can be stimulating, but at the end of the day, students need to understand that the classroom is a community. Make them aware of the fact that their actions, words, and attitude have real power over those in their vicinity. Encourage them to encourage each other, and they’ll want to do well–not just for themselves, but for each other.

 

It’s Our Story and We’re Sticking To It: Seven weeks to an Original Play

 

I’ve had a fantastic semester with my first ever theater arts class. Performing is something that has been a passion and pursuit of mine since grade school. In fact, before the idea of teaching ever crossed my mind, I had the goal of majoring in musical theater and trying to “make it big” as an actor and singer. While my career changed direction, my love for theater still exists, and when I found out that I’d get to teach a semester of theater arts, I was pretty pumped.

I’ve had many awesome experiences teaching this class. We started out learning about theater history in America–many people don’t know about the massive cultural influence that dramatic works have contributed (and still do) to our nation’s history. I later worked with students to build their acting skills, spending time developing the basics–we began with how to stand and walk with confidence and created characters from there. I pushed my students to think about the physicality of their characters down to the smallest nuance–the fingers, the eyebrows, the spine–to notice how everything combines to send a message of emotion and personality. We worked on vocal projection and characterization, then on chemistry as we practiced showing character relationships through touch, expression, and vocal reaction. I taught design basics for costumes and sets, and watched students present detailed sketches of their creations. We sang pieces from musical theater. We read and analyzed Thornton Wilder’s Our Town to explore the idea of the “thinking man’s play.” Above all, my students had me laughing my head off on a daily basis as they presented witty skits and played improvisation games. I was… pretty much in heaven. As much as I love writing and literature, (and film, food, art, animals, cities, the ocean, etc.) theater is definitely a competitor for the position of What I Love Best. Sharing that joy with students is extremely satisfying.

The week before spring break, I talked to my class about the idea of a final assessment. Aside from the theater history unit, all of my assessments for the class had been performance-based (naturally). I liked the idea of a final performance that would roll together everything that they had worked on throughout the semester, but I wanted to get an idea of what they’d be comfortable with and willing to take on. To my surprise and glee, they were gung-ho about presenting a “for real” performance. The following was our process for getting from concept to curtain in seven weeks flat.

WEEK ONE: We started with an initial discussion to answer the vital questions–Should we present an already-published play, or write our own? If we write our own, what should it be about? Should we invite the general public, student body, or just family members? Where should the play be held? When should it be held? Once we got those basic questions answered, we decided upon an evening performance, in the auditorium, for the general public. We also decided we’d like to write our own material. The most popular idea was a “fairytales retold” type of story where characters from different tales could intermingle and run into some strange situations.

Once the concept was clarified, we began to mold it into something. Since all the students would be acting in the show, each student chose a character they’d most like to portray on stage. Then, five small groups were given two days to write twenty minutes of original material based around the characters of their choosing. Each group presented a reading of their script to the entire class. After each skit was presented, we had another full class meeting (with me taking down minutes in real time, displayed via LCD projector). We discussed the aspects of each skit idea that we liked or disliked, and started listing ideas for ways in which we could fuse the material together. Since one group’s skit was about a self-help group for fairytale characters, the students decided that we could use that situation as a device to jump off from into “flashbacks” of the stories that led up to each character’s  arrival in therapy. It sounded good, and we were ready for week two.

WEEKS TWO-THREE: When students arrived on Monday, they were expected to join a committee in order to focus and specialize their work as we prepared for the performance. I reiterated that in order for any type of performance to get off the ground, I needed my class to work hard for me, and I needed to be able to trust that they could collaborate like adults. If I was to be the director and orchestrator of this extravaganza, I knew I would not have time to spend energy on classroom management. The classroom needed to manage itself. In order to help the students with that, I introduced them to the criteria I expected them to fulfill in order to recieve participation credit. I used this document: HOW TO COLLABORATE LIKE AN ADULT , which may be the most useful classroom document I have ever written. My students took it to heart, and got down to business at a level that, truly, stunned me. They were Ready To Go, so I just got out of their way.

I provided the structure of the committees that they could choose from. The Writing Committee would be in charge of taking the current skit ideas and using them as a starting point to create a full one-act play of 30-50 minutes. They used Google Docs to collaborate and communicate as they worked together to develop the script. The Production Committee was in charge of all the show’s technicalities–designing, determining, and creating all costumes, set pieces, props, and lighting. These students also functioned as the show’s set crew in addition to acting. The Promotions Committee handled the design of all promotional materials, like posters, t-shirts, and locker signs. They were also in charge of organizing fundraisers (thanks to these kids, we raised nearly $300.00 to cover all of our costs via community sponsors and a massive bake sale). The Student Direction Committee helped the writers develop characters, and eventually worked alongside me to coach our cast on their acting. One girl even put together a student directing handbook as part of her senior English project. Finally, the Mangagement Committee created a calendar, helped me (and everyone) stay on schedule, and determined all the channels we needed to go through to secure a performance space and get our fundraisers going.

We spent two weeks meeting in committees in the library, where there was plenty of space to gather around computers, or scatter paperwork across big tables. I also gave each committee one “Official Theater Arts Business” pass so that they could move about the building as needed to check in with administration, fetch keys for the costume room, or obtain raw materials. While students occasionally, and without intent to harm, overstepped this freedom a bit, they were extremely productive and responded to my guidance about the etiquette that neccessarily accompanies the trust they’d been given. While they worked, I did too–mainly in order to get us a performance space that wasn’t already taken on the one evening we had to work with. Graciously, the middle school in our district was able to offer their auditorium. We set a date and things started to get real!

WEEK FOUR-FIVE: On the first day of week four, the script was hot off the press and we did our first readings. We walked through rough blocking and gave the students a chance to familiarize with their characters. We made some edits based on character consistency and the reality of our set budget, so the initial script quickly went through a few iterations. One scene was completely rewritten. After everything seemed pretty finished, we got down to serious business as far as building convincing performances, choreographing chases/falls/fights, and growing increasingly comfortable with the flow of the story. Meanwhile, students who weren’t being coached were building set pieces, running lines, or folding programs. This all happened in my classroom every day, with all the desks pushed back against one of the long walls. I also lucked out in a huge way as my next door classroom neighboor, the wonderful Mr. M, offered his room as additional space for students to run lines. As a fellow performer, he also offered some tidbits of advice to the budding young actors that came his way. By the end of week five–just as the calendar required–the kids were off book. (Mostly…)

WEEK SIX: On week six, we started traveling to the middle school auditorium during our class time to rehearse. Again, luck was definitely on our side. Both the high school and middle school administration were very accomodating with our daily journey, not to mention the walk between buildings only amounts to about 9 minutes of travel time. The first two days were completely “prop commando” as my students called it–no props, scenery, or lighting at all–as we got used to the space. On Wednesday, we started adding props, lighting, and scenery as much as possible. After-school obligations began to appear for me: picking up some costume rentals and hauling large set pieces/costume items between buildings. The show was really coming together. My inner director was busting out all over the place. As kids played their scenes I was constantly barking out corrections and encouragements. (The most popular things I shouted each day were probably “I DIDN’T HEAR ANY OF THAT”, “YES! BETTER! KEEP GOING!”, and “FIX IT NOW”) I had hearty chuckle at least eight times a day, due to my students’ hilarious stage antics. I started to fret a little bit though. Several kids were still consistently missing their lines, and nobody was loud enough to be heard from the back rows. But nevertheless, the announcements were read and posters were posted. There was no going back, so I got my game face on.

WEEK SEVEN: Monday through Wednesday of the final week, we ran troublesome scenes and worked the many transitions between scenes with lighting and set elements. We finally had all our set pieces, costumes, and props, so we made sure we knew how and where all those things would move and contribute to the show. And I stopped supplying missing lines. Those first couple days were rough to watch the students grope and stall, trying to resurrect those occasional forgotten lines whilst a tidal wave of frustrated silence practically flattened me. We also had “projection bootcamp” to improve the volume of students’ voices onstage–I sent them to the next door classroom and we listened to each other through the wall. It greatly illuminated the difference between a projected voice and a regular one, and everyone improved quite a bit. By Thursday, we were ready to rock. We held an additional dress rehearsal after school, which went fairly smoothly. Afterward, witches, warriors, princes, and wizards sat on the front of the stage, feet dangling, as I gave them each last-minute corrections. The show would be the next evening, and we were nearly ready.

On Friday in class, we went over the logistics of the afternoon and evening as well as some last minute reminders. Students also got one more chance to practice troublesome scenes. Of course, some t-shirt decorating and general excitement also took place. We did one more run-through immediately after school, without costumes or makeup. Then, we had an obligatory unofficial meeting at Jimmy John’s. Mr. M offered his generous co-chaperoning services, which I gladly accepted. Everyone was in great spirits, excited and happy, including me. The peaceful feeling of “it’s as good as it’s gonna get” started to wash over me. I knew my kids would be great.

We returned to the auditorium and the students started getting their hair, makeup, and costumes ready. Nostalgia overwhelmed me as I thought back to the many productions I’ve taken part of in the past. It was strange and beautiful to be on the other side of the process, knowing the nervous anticipation and excitement that they were feeling, calmly bustling a dress that had suffered a slight rip, gently painting monkey and joker faces, giving out those “You’re going to be so awesome” encouragements to ease nerves, and ushering the students backstage as audience members started to arrive.

This can only end one way, right? The show was absolutely fantastic. The characters all showed up, including the overzealous villains, cantankerous fairyfolk, and lovestruck princesses. My students executed everything perfectly, nobody forgot a line, and the audience loved it. I was floored by how well they did, and overflowing with teacherly pride. Probably the best part of it all, other than having the special privilege of getting to watch them do their thing in spectacular fashion, was seeing all my students bounce out from backstage after the last bows, smiling and jumping happily in their assorted wings and capes and tails and crowns as they ran to greet family and friends. Pure happiness. And a great accomplishment for each and every one of them.

It was a small play, in a small auditorium in a small town, with a small audience. But it was one of the biggest things I’ve done as a teacher, and I couldn’t be prouder of my very own theater arts classroom company.

 

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**All images used with formal consent of students’ guardians  and/or student self-consent if eighteen. Skillful photography by Ms. J.  Editing for blog purposes by yours truly.

 

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Mission (Not So) Impossible: teaching English to high school students with ADHD

***Disclaimer: I am not an expert on ADHD, ADD or any related disorders. As always, medical and counseling professionals are the people to turn to when looking for a diagnosis or treatment for these conditions. The following post is based solely on my experience as a classroom English teacher, and should be taken as such.***

At the outset of this semester, I looked at one of my new class rosters with a bit of leeriness. Or, perhaps dread defines it better—in a cruel twist of fate, all of my sophomores who have been diagnosed (or who self-diagnose) with attention difficulties were now grouped in the same class. Even more to my chagrin, a heaping handful of my counterpart sophomore teacher’s toughest crew were ALSO on my new roster. The memory of my pre-service teaching education reminded me “now, don’t judge these kids before you see how they actually act together.” Reality nudged me closer to thoughts like “heaven, preserve me. This is going to be a nightmare.” The chuckles of my co-workers while viewing my class list did not help the situation.

True to my trepidations, the first few days involved a lot of firm shutting-down of jumping, blurting out offensive or (or just loud) statements, banging on desks, and flicking/poking/trying to pick each other up at the beginning of each class. I was whipping out my strictest persona all over the place. I held things together… but probably just barely. I started to wonder if this class would break my record of zero referrals since working at SFHS—then again, it’s hard to know who to kick out when the entire classroom is a powder keg of chaos. I found myself thinking, “I just don’t know if I’ll ever be able to facilitate this class at the same level as my others.” Every day, it seemed like I was expending a herculean amount of effort just to keep the ball rolling in one, straight direction with minimal deviation.

Now, one quarter later, I am proud to say that my “nightmare” class and I have reached an understanding, and I have grown extremely fond of them. As always happens, once I began to have human conversations and humorous interactions with my students, my assumptions about them began to fade away and I found myself charmed in spite of myself by their occasional antics. They have also met me halfway and, in general, show me respect, perform fairly well academically, channel their energy in positive ways, and answer “yes, ma’am” to the occasional redirection. Looking back over these nine weeks, I’m trying to identify the miracle. I mean, I am no Mary Poppins. In writing this post, I’m trying to explore these questions: What did I do right? And how can I do it again?

I think, on the most basic level, the key to reaching this understanding with my students comes from knowing that their initial behavior was not a hateful vendetta against me. Part of it was brain chemistry, forgetting to take medication, and the stress of a new classroom environment. Another big part of it was their default instinct to fulfill the prophecy of the messages that have been fed to them for their entire educational lives. I can make this assertion with confidence, since several of them came straight out and told me, upon our first meeting, “I have ADHD so… yeah, we might not get along” or “you’re not gonna be seeing a whole lot of homework from me. I mean, really…my mind is WACKO!” I said what I usually say to such things, “Oh. Ok. Well, thanks for telling me.” That shook them up a little bit. I always refuse to react in a major negative way with students, even when they come at my class from a negative mental place. Diffuse and redirect are always my actions of choice. That basic principle, combined with the hopefully helpful tips below, is my way of revising the prophecy to one of classroom success.

TIPS FOR HARNESSING THE SECRET AWESOMENESS WITHIN ADHD HIGH SCHOOL STUDENTS

  1. Identify the instigator(s). In a class full of behaviorally reactive students, it is important to figure out who typically begins the cycle of distraction or deviation. It’s usually not the loudest kid who gets the class rolling. Figure out who that young man or lady is, and address their behavior, privately and firmly, as soon as possible. They need to understand that one initial action that they view as harmless can send the entire operation reeling. Often, this student doesn’t even realize that he or she is instigating and will apologetically shape up. When the leader is suddenly a good example rather than an instigator, the majority of students will begin to really try to fly right.
  2. This next one is good classroom management practice no matter what, but it’s even more important in a class with several ADHD students. Make sure expectations are crystal clear, always consistent, and easy to understand. Also, try to express your expectations in physical terms rather than conceptual ones. For example, “Let me see your eyes so that I know you’re paying attention” works better than “Please pay attention.” It’s also better to describe what you want to see, rather than what you don’t. So: “I need to see you sitting down and writing right now” is typically better than “stop messing around.”
  3. Teach students ways to recognize and manage the thought process that leads up to disruptive behavior. This is what I say to my class almost every day: “You need to make a choice before reacting to something somebody else says or does, about whether or not it’s useful to react. If you have no useful reason to react, ignore it. Do not worry so much about what other students are doing. Your job is to make sure that you are doing something positive and good.” [Repeat, repeat, repeat]
  4. Give students tools to use when that thought process management attempt fails and they begin to escalate or lose attention completely. In my eyes, sending a student on a “walk” (with a pass, and no longer than 7 minutes), is a completely acceptable and good way to manage extra energy. As long as students don’t abuse it, this policy offers them time and space to cool down and collect themselves, before they do something that will require a different type of walk to the principal’s office.
  5. Try your best to empathize with and verbally acknowledge the extra effort it takes for students with ADHD to focus and produce a product. They don’t often get to hear that validation and understanding that, yes, it is tougher for them to do the same things that other students do. However, that’s not always a detriment. The same kids who seem to be focusing on a million things at once can often focus at an intense level on a goal, once they “get in the zone.” It’s getting them in the zone that’s the issue. Setting many short term goals and giving lots of genuine praise as goals are achieved sets students up for a good experience.
  6. If at all possible, stay fast-paced and active in your teaching lessons. Give the students constant things to look at and do. Be excited, theatrical, and loud, if appropriate. (I’m pretty sure anyone watching me teach this particular class might think that I, too, have ADHD.)
  7. As always, I’ve found that personal relationships are key. A kid may act like a terror during an “off” day in class, but when I see him two hours later in the hallway, I’m still going to say “hi” and “how’s it going?” Just giving any student the small recognition of noticing and caring about their existence does wonders for managing that student in a classroom setting.

Not every day in room 209 is a shining example of classroom management, even in the sections with very well-behaved students. There are always rough days (for instance, my recent lesson in the computer lab when all the power went out and everything went to heck). But I guess the message to come away with here is that there can be far, far fewer rough days when the students and teacher understand and respect one another. In some cases, that’s way easier said than done. But a lot of times, it’s those same cases that are all the more rewarding.

Student Collaboration… on Autopilot

A couple weeks ago, I was focusing on teaching my students to go beyond the literal in their interpretation of literature, both in written form and film. For tenth graders, it is difficult at times to spy symbolic meaning rather than what’s on the surface. On this particular day, I used a film clip of Baz Luhrman’s Romeo + Juliet, asking the students to identify elements of the scenery, costumes, colors, music, and casting and the effects that these choices create. After the clip, I did the teacherly thing and stood before them, giving clear instructions about how to take their notes on the film/play and how to form theories about the underlying messages of the text. After giving the instructions and clarifying a couple questions, with 15 minutes left in class, I said (well, I guess “shouted”), “Remember, I’m looking for real critical thinking! See me with questions! Due tomorrow! And… Go!”

Then, something weird happened.

My students all stood up and started moving their desks, forming small groups of 2-3. My knee jerk reaction was to snap into correction mode–something like, “Whoa, whoa, whoa… Where are you guys going?! Did I say to get into groups?! Stay in your seat and get to work!” But, I didn’t. I just frowned a little and watched them. What was going on? Such rebellion!

But as I sat and watched through slightly narrowed and suspicious eyes, I saw what I soon realized to be one of those waking-dream-magical teacher moments. The groups were evenly formed. No one was left out. They were facing their desks together, just as I so often remind them to do. (It’s impossible to collaborate with people whose eyes you can’t see into, I say.) My students were talking at a low volume, but with an excited, nearly conspiratory tone. Listening closely, I heard things like…

*** “Ok, I wrote down something about the designs of the Friar’s tattoos, especially the big cross on his back…”   “Me too! But I’m not sure what it means, other than the obvious religious stuff.”  “Well, he’s not wearing a shirt and we know that he’s like a master of herbs or something, maybe it means that he’s close to nature but also serving religion?”

*** “Did you notice how Romeo and Juliet were in the pool during the balcony scene? I bet that’s related to the fishtank thing we thought of the other day, with the blue and yellow fish mixing for Romeo and Juliet’s families.” “Oh my gosh, you are completely right! Which color was Capulet?” “Blue–they have blue cars… Wait, but Juliet doesn’t wear blue.”  “No, remember, she’s always wearing white to show her innocence and, you know, she’s neutral.” “So… now they are the fish! And they’re not separated by glass anymore! Awwww!”

*** “So, the beach is totally Romeo’s emotions. Sunny when he’s happy, foggy when he’s depressed. It’s like the whole city goes along with what he’s feeling.”  “So that could mean… the peace of Verona depends on him.”

*** “Don’t be SO LITERAL, dude! It’s gotta mean something DEEPER!”

There they were, talking, writing, and trading theories. I just sat at my desk in bliss and did nary a dang thing. I took a deep breath and thought: yes. This is exactly what I have been trying to get them to do ALL YEAR LONG! That’s what mastery looks like. My students were thinking critically, collaborating in a positive, mature way, and totally engaged. Some called me over to check their ideas against my opinion or offered me two options, asking which would be the better interpretation. I had a ridiculous amount of fun discussing it with them.

So what does it say about me as a teacher that my students collaborate automatically? Well, a couple things. Perhaps it does mean that I need to be more direct about my desires when I wish them to work independently. But I hope it also means that I have trained them well to collaborate successfully in an academic context–to use the presence of their peers as an intellectual alliance rather than a simple social opportunity. I hope it means that I’m reinforcing the value of collaboration and “talking out” ideas, and the positive aspects of admitting confusion, taking risks, and watching theories evolve before their eyes.

I’m glad that, at least on this day, I sacrificed my need for management and control in exchange for the gift of seeing my students’ authentic, organic collaboration skills at work. 

 

Church and State: Teaching students to discuss religion in an academic context

As part of my syllabus for AP Literature and Composition, I am teaching The Divine Comedy (otherwise affectionately known as Dante’s Inferno). It’s an amazing work of literature, widely considered to be one of the major literary works of all time. It provides a veritable playground of imagery, figurative language, allusion, and tone for my literature students to analyze, and gives them experience grappling with interpreting a difficult text. It’s definitely AP material. However, as my unit approached, I wondered about the entrenchment of this text within the Catholic, Christian tradition.  I mean, let’s face it–this piece creates a layout of  hell (as imagined by Dante, informed by his religious beliefs) that straight out condemns certain people and behavior based upon very religiously saturated reasons and examples. The entire piece, down to its terza rima structure, is reflective of a Christian worldview. As I began to envision our classroom discussions, I wondered about my students’ ability to talk about religion in the context of literature. Would they be able to delve into ideas about the novel without turning the class into a “whose religion is right?” type of fiasco? Would they become confused and think that I was teaching The Inferno as a sacred text? I didn’t want to shy away from discussing the text, I wanted to have quality discussions that included religion, and I wanted to address my students’ lack of experience in this department. (My situation is also exacerbated by the fact that my students come from a small town where religious diversity is largely overlooked or even feared. They are, generally speaking, uncomfortable talking about difference in religious beliefs, even between Christian denominations.)
With all that in mind, I dedicated a portion of one of my introductory lessons to talking about how religion plays a part in academia, particularly in the humanities. A part of this was instruction on how to participate in an academic discussion where religion features prominently.  I created the following list to help manage our discussions, and my students have responded well so far.
STUDENT DISCUSSION GUIDE
Things to adhere to when discussing religion in an academic context:

žBring your beliefs, but treat their discussion as an intellectual exercise. Detach from extreme spiritual passion in this context.

žExhibit tolerance, respect, and curiosity regarding the beliefs of others.

žRefer to a religious belief/worldview as a belief, worldview, tradition, cultural stance, etc., rather than The Truth. (It may be YOUR truth, but it may not be the truth for others.)

žDo not openly react to a belief-oriented comment which offends you.

žDo not try to convert others to your point of view, or condemn your classmates.

žSeek commonalities between traditions.

žDescribe cultural impact of religious traditions.

žBe able to have discussions on ethics/morality that stand upon foundations other than that of religious tenets.

A public school classroom is the State, and not the Church, without a doubt. However, as I tell my students, intelligent people understand that these two entities profoundly impact one another in an interdependent way. Religion is powerful, and to shy away from discussing it is to water down our understanding of the world, of culture, of ourselves. Students bring their beliefs to class every day. While we don’t, as public school teachers, teach in terms of faith, we do owe it to our students to allow this part of their culture to be recognized as a part of who they are. Discussing religious themes (whether Judeo-Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu, or agnostic in nature) can be sticky, but when done appropriately it provides a deep look into human nature and motivation that, in my opinion, composes much of what literature, humanity, and truth is all about.

When Etiquette and Education Collide: “Good Afternoon!”

I’m one of those teachers who is committed to standing outside the door of my classroom each period, every day, as students enter my classroom. It’s a great opportunity to monitor the mood and energy level of each student before class begins, catch a student for a quick chat about an absence or assignment, and to confiscate the occasional distracting item before it crosses the threshold. But mostly, standing at the door is just to say “hi”—to take a brief moment to connect with students in an interpersonal way, outside of any academic context, to send the message “I notice you are here, and I’m glad to see you.” Taking the time to do that is important. The accumulation of all those two-second greetings can add up to a valuable relationship with each and every student.

That being said, the students aren’t always as enthusiastic about saying “hi” as I am. Maybe they’re not used to adults addressing them. Maybe they hate English class. Maybe they have hearing loss. Whatever the underlying cause, year after year, at least half of my students just walk past as I greet them, staring straight ahead, scowls or blank looks on their faces, completely unresponsive even when I greet them by name. All year long, I say hello. All year long, some will continue to ignore it with all the aloofness of an irritated retail customer. In the past, I’ve simply accepted this behavior as a manifestation of adolescent apathy that was beyond my control. Not anymore.

As the school year began and I again started to experience the Good Morning!/[No Response] Phenomenon, I thought back to a book that I read as an undergrad called The Essential 55: An Award Winning Educator’s Rules for Discovering the Successful Student in Every Child. The book, often more geared toward elementary teaching, uses manners and etiquette as a platform for student achievement. When I read it (and I would still maintain this), some of the 55 rules seemed a bit too picky, superficial, and difficult to enforce; the link between manners and ability to learn sounded a bit sketchy. However, I did recall that one of the rules addressed the situation of an adult greeting a student. Clark required his students to consistently make eye contact and greet adults pleasantly throughout the school day, especially if they were greeted first. This is an essential skill, no doubt. And it was, I felt, an important part of helping my students allow me to establish a relationship with them. So, I decided to go Ron Clark on them.

Sixth hour was the experimental group. As always, I said “Good afternoon” cordially to each student, meanwhile carefully observing their responses. It was as usual. As I started class, I told the students that I had something important and honest to share with them. I asked for a volunteer. A redhead with a goofy grin hopped up and came to the front of the classroom. “All right,” I told him. “You are going to play me. I am going to play a couple of different students. I’m going to walk toward you a few times. All you have to do is smile at me and say ‘Good Afternoon’.” He obliged.

“Every day when I greet you at the door, about a third of you do this,” I said. I walked past, blatantly ignoring the personal greeting and mumbling something like “buhhhh” as I stared like a slack-jawed idiot.

“And about a third of you do this,”I said. Shortly after, I blurted out “DO WE NEED OUR BOOK TODAY?” about three inches from my poor volunteer’s face before he could even finish the “good” of “good afternoon.”

“And… about a third of you do this.” This time I gave a polite smile, a nod, and an enthusiastic reply of “good afternoon!” I finished up the exercise by saying some persuasive things about the importance of courtesy and collegiality in the professional world along with a fair amount of pathos regarding my own hurt feelings at not being greeted in return!

To my surprise and delight, my students responded resoundingly to this demo. I now have a 100% rate of students smiling and greeting me at the door. Many of them now say hello even when they’re on their way to a different class. Success.

It may seem like a small detail, but it has resulted in easier classroom management, increased class participation, and more positive attitudes about English class (and the English teacher herself, I suppose). While this small expectation alone does not create success, it certainly sets students up for it.

Accept No Substitute

Thinking about adding a new trick to your teaching repertoire this year? Read on…

This strategy addresses a question that every teacher has asked him or herself at some point: how do I get my students to be productive, respectful, and engaged when there’s a substitute teacher in charge? I often get frustrated with a couple scenarios that frequently play themselves out when I need to miss a day in my classroom because of a training or professional development day.

Scenario 1: The substitute teacher assigned to my classroom is an excellent educator who follows through by working with the scheduled lesson. Students generally behave, but still take advantage of an opportunity to put forth minimal effort and turn in shoddy work.

Scenario 2: The substitute teacher lacks the content knowledge and/or management skills to execute the lesson, or may not even be too concerned with what the kids are doing as long as mayhem isn’t occuring. Students leave the room discombobulated, do not bother to turn in work, and don’t even seem to know what the assignment was by the following day.

Too often, it seems that students–even the ones who are normally dynamic and just generally awesome–morph into apathetic, learning-resistant slobs when a sub is in charge. So what to do? While I certainly cannot claim to have solved this debacle completely, I can share a slightly offbeat strategy that I tried last year. I call it “ghost teaching.” It requires a sense of humor, a little prep work, and a good relationship with your students. And it works better than anything else I’ve attempted when it comes to getting students to pay attention and do great work, even in my absence.

My conceptual framework behind the ghost teaching strategy is that I want my students to feel as if I’m there in class with them, even if I’m not. Now, at this point in time you may be thinking, “Control freak alert!” But hear me out. I truly believe that the teacher sets the tone, creates the atmosphere, and defines the expectations for every day in class. Students become accustomed to the specific “auras” of their teachers, and respond to them. When this aura is done well, it can be a very positive, motivational force. The point of ghost teaching is to keep that atmosphere consistent, even when the teacher misses a day. If all goes well, it makes things easier and more enjoyable for the sub, too. Everybody wins!

FOUR STEPS TO SUCCESSFUL GHOST TEACHING

1. Let the sub know what you’re doing. Take the time to write out a full note for the sub, explaining the procedure for each class step by step. Have copies of handouts made and organized. Also make the sub aware of the main rules of your classroom so that the students are getting consistent messages about what’s ok and what’s not (these are probably posted in your room already). Once students see that the sub is wise to the normal ways of the classroom, they’re primed for good behavior.

2. Leave an extensive, personal note on the board, addressed to the students. Students will pay more attention to a handwritten note on the board than the most extensive word processed printout or blog post of instructions. I like to write in all caps, use arrows, make little drawings, and throw in classroom inside jokes to get the students to read what I’ve written. The purpose of the note is to provide a step by step agenda for the class so that they can follow along and also to have that extra reminder that I am the one asking for them to do these things today; the sub didn’t just find some random handouts lying around in a drawer. I also include reminders about what they should hand in/prepare for in the coming days. I always try incorporate a message about how much I appreciate them and expect from them as well. Even the most thorny adolescents secretly want to know they are valued by their teachers. Part of my board typically looks something like this:

3. Leave a short video in which you introduce the day’s activities. It may sound a little bit strange, but this is a key part of leaving your teaching ghost behind. Students will respond to the same face, voice, and (in my case) cheesy jokes that they are used to. Really, it’s not so strange. This day in age, people use Skype video calls to chat and YouTube videos to express their thoughts about the world. It’s also extremely quick and easy to do. If you have access to a webcam-equipped laptop or a digital camera, and you have the ability to press the “record” and “stop” buttons, you’re over halfway to a video teaching broadcast of your own. I save the file to a flash drive that I leave plugged in to the computer for the sub, but a video could also be saved on your desktop, posted on a class website, or emailed. All the sub has to do is turn on the LCD projector, open the video file and press “play.” If you don’t have a projector, the students can huddle around the computer monitor. This is where the “ghost teacher” can truly emerge, and where students know, indisputably, that it’s going to be business as usual.

In my first video, I sat down in front of my webcam and envisioned my classroom and the kids in it. It actually felt pretty natural, since I said all of the same things I would have said had they been physically sitting in front of me. The first part of the transcript went something like this: “Hello, my wonderful friends from English 12! I’m sorry that I can’t be with you today in person, but you guys are so lucky, because you are here to bear witness to my very first teaching video broadcast. I’m SO pumped about that… and you should be, too. So, at this point in time, you’ve already responded to your writing prompt which was “If you were stranded on a desert island with only the people sitting immediately next to you, what rescue plan would you make?” Now I’m sure this has generated some interesting, fascinating, potentially disruptive discussion. Hopefully nobody got voted off the island. No matter how that has turned out, I will ask you to turn in your prompts as it is Friday and therefore the last day of the week. Ok. At this point in time, I’d like to explain your main activity for the day, which is something that I really think you’ll enjoy and really get into a little bit…  In keeping with the Senior Skills Scavenger Hunt unit, this activity is designed around a real life communication skill that you will need whether you’re headed for college or the workforce, and that skill is the ability to work with a group in order to solve a complex problem. Ok, so here’s what you’re gonna do…. etc. etc.” And I went on to explain the procedure for the lesson as well as several reminders and the reasoning behind the lesson as a whole.

I was very curious to see the student reaction to the first video that I did. I knew it was a success as I came into school the next day. The seniors smiled at me and shook their heads a little. They were very humored by the fact that I actually recorded a video of myself to instruct them, but I soon discovered that they definitely listened to it! One girl quoted a particular direction nearly word-for-word, and the average reaction was, “Not gonna lie: that was pretty cool, Ms. H.” In fact, I think some of my students may pay more attention to my sub day videos than my real time spoken instructions!

4. Finally, require a presentation of any assigned work on the following day. Instead of just turning in a written copy of work (which is easy to just not do, since there’s no immediate consequence), I hold my students accountable by requiring them to read aloud, explain, or otherwise present their work from the previous sub day. This allows me not only to give an immediate response with descriptive feedback, but also makes things uncomfortable for students who did not act responsibly. I’ve found that for most students, mindful of my on-the-spot assessment before an audience of their peers, do indeed deliver under these circumstances.

***

Ghost teaching takes preparation. Please note, it’s not for the sick days when you wake up feeling like the reaper is nigh. However, if you are like many involved teachers, you may have event coordinating, training, or professional development that takes you out of your classroom on days when you really need the students to stay productive and not lose progress. In these cases, if you can get a little time to prepare in advance, your ghost teacher will make sure that you, your students, and your substitute will all go home happy!

Writing Conferences: When Teacher Becomes Tutor

During my undergraduate years of teacher preparation, I had my first professional experience relating to students. It was not, however, in a classroom, and I was not playing the role of “teacher.” I was a tutor on staff at the UW-Milwaukee Writing Center, helping college students of all levels work out their ideas and words for all kinds of writing. Writing center tutors are trained to be intentionally un-teacherlike: withholding assessment, not claiming authority over the students’ work or ideas, but instead providing a gentle nudge from a position of expertise and relatability. In a writing center conference, the student holds the cards. This seems like a situation that cannot be reconciled with the role of authority that a teacher must adopt to run his or her classroom. But I think that with the right application, teachers can be tutors as well. In fact, some of my strongest teaching comes out when I’m channeling the methods and attitudes I learned back in my tutoring years at UWM.

THE TRANSFORMATION- WHEN TO LET YOUR INNER TUTOR OUT

In order for a classroom to operate efficiently, a teacher needs to show leadership. The teacher steers the course of the classroom. He or she gives assessment on each student’s performance in the class. And, famously, teachers do occasionally need to tell students what to do, to correct a distracting behavior or to address a misconception in learning. Being a tutor looks very different from this, though–the ultimate tutor is on the same level of authority as the tutee. This frees the writer from feelings of intimidation or the detached view of “just tell me what to do and I’ll do it.” Having a tutor that they can talk freely and openly with is key to a student’s success in writing conferences. But how/when can teachers do this, without compromising our authority?

For me, I simply create a physical boundary in the room where this transformation happens. I never tell my students that this is what I’m doing, but it’s true… My desk is positioned diagonally in a corner, facing out toward the classroom. If students are in front of my desk (as they nearly always are), I am the authority figure. If, though, a student crosses behind my desk (where I set up my conference area), all air of authority wisps away, and my interactions with the student take on an assumption of equal power over the direction of writing and ideas. Once students cross that boundary, they have entered my space and I consider them my equal, fellow writers.

A small catch to this transformation is the fact that during a one-on-one writing conference, there is a whole class full of other students who need to be occupying themselves with another task. Depending on the class size and composition, it may be hard to play teacher to them while simultaneously tutoring the student having a writing conference. I compensate for this by having something engaging, thorough, and urgent for the other students to complete which relates to our learning in class. This year, with relatively small classes and invested learners, that has worked splendidly. In the past, with larger classes, I’ve requested that an aide or literacy coach come in for the class period just to oversee the class/be the voice of authority while I focus on student writers one at a time.

As far as which point in the writing process works best with writing conferences, I prefer the beginning stages of writing. Students at this point have an outline and an introductory paragraph at most, or at the least a rough idea of where they want to go with the piece.  This stage lends itself well to the idea of teacher as tutor. It’s not yet time to be picky about grammar or formatting. It’s not too late to make major changes. And it’s the time when most student writers feel lost, conflicted, or overwhelmed. It’s amazing how productive the conversations can be–many students come into a conference with “no idea,” but leave with a plan.

HOW TO CONDUCT THE IDEAL WRITING CONFERENCE

My writing conference style draws directly from writing center praxis. The following are some basic tenets of this philosophy:

-The writer leads the conference. The student is the one who defines in what direction the conference will go. The teacher reacts to the path set out by the student, who should start the conference by outlining their current feelings about the assignment, the progress they’ve made so far, and the type of feedback they are seeking in regards to their writing. The teacher should spend most of the time listening, responding, and prompting, rather than instructing the writer.

-In order to help students assume the role of conference leader, the teacher should have a solid repertoire of open-ended, prompting questions to jumpstart the conversation. Some of my favorites, which tend to elicit the most interesting responses, are…

********How’s it going so far?

********Tell me about how you came up with the idea for this paper.

********What are you looking to achieve or change with this piece of writing?

********What kind of feedback would you like from me? What would you like me to focus on as we go?

********Can you take me through a rough idea of how you want to organize your writing from start to finish?

********How do you feel about your introduction?

********How do you want your readers to respond to this? What are you trying to achieve?

********Where do you feel you’re succeeding? Struggling?

********What are your writing goals for the next time you work on this piece?

-The student reads his/her writing aloud. The teacher should listen without interrupting, and take brief notes based on the type of feedback requested by the student before any discussion takes place.

-Writing is viewed as a fluid process which may change direction at any time. There are multiple ways of communicating a point and the full breadth of these methods must be considered. The conference should be a place where potential solutions can be played with, and no one “correct answer” is asserted.

-Higher order concerns (how the students organize ideas, the content and approach selected, implementation of the thesis statement) take priority over lower order concerns, such as grammar, spelling, and formatting. A writing conference is not an editing session. It is a discussion about ideas and how to convey them.

BENEFITS OF BECOMING A TUTORING TEACHER

My inspiration for this post has been my most recent set of writing conferences with some of my tenth grade classes as they work to complete a research paper on the link between traditional folklore and culture. I’ve gotten to see students in a completely different light as they sit and tell me about their ideas. While they haven’t been informed about the magical tutor boundary behind my desk, they seem to pick up on it, and our interactions become collaborative, congenial, and focused. When their peers aren’t watching them, their communication skills often become far more distinguished! In this space, students feel comfortable to ask questions and reveal struggles which I would never have known about otherwise. In that space, I can really focus on one student at a time, giving them the encouragement, feedback, and potential solutions that they seek. It’s awesome to see the weight leave their shoulders as they cross the boundary back into the classroom, more self-assured and certain about what they want their writing to be. And, maybe best of all, the quality of student writing is noticeably greater when there have been conferences along the way.