I am a proponent of the well-timed anecdote, the personal connection that makes content relatable and relevant.
There’s been a movement, or perhaps a misunderstanding of the new standards, to make the classroom so student-focused it’s lost sight of the other human in the room: the teacher.
Consistent with these NAEP recommendations, the Common Core Standards for Language Arts now call for an “overwhelming focus of writing throughout high school to be on arguments and informative/ explanatory texts” and that the distribution of writing purposes across grades “should adhere to those outlined by NAEP” (NGA/ CCSSO 2010e, 5). This de-emphasis on narrative writing is a mistake.
Gallagher, Kelly (2015-02-28). In the Best Interest of Students: Staying True to What Works in the ELA Classroom (Kindle Locations 1870-1873). Stenhouse Publishers. Kindle Edition.
But here is something we all know – we know we don’t start off in life as “teachers” (at least I didn’t, far from it) but simply ourselves. No matter what we end up doing for a profession, we have our stories first.
The best teachers, doctors, lawyers, salespersons, managers, nurses, CEOs, taxi drivers, scientists, football coaches, and politicians have one thing in common: the ability to connect with people through storytelling. Being able to tell a good story is not a school skill, it is a life skill, and as such, it should be given greater, not less, emphasis. If we want our students to be good storytellers, they need to read and write more narratives.
Gallagher, Kelly (2015-02-28). In the Best Interest of Students: Staying True to What Works in the ELA Classroom (Kindle Locations 1873-1876). Stenhouse Publishers. Kindle Edition.
And if you need more proof that “yes you will use narrative writing in ‘real life,’:
Using Narratives and Storytelling to communicate science with non-expert audiences: Abstract:Although storytelling often has negative connotations within science, narrative formats of communication should not be disregarded when communicating science to nonexpert audiences. Narratives offer increased comprehension, interest, and engagement. Nonexperts get most of their science information from mass media content, which is itself already biased toward narrative formats. Narratives are also intrinsically persuasive, which offers science communicators tactics for persuading otherwise resistant audiences, although such use also raises ethical considerations. Future intersections of narrative research with ongoing discussions in science communication are introduced.
Keywords: persuasion, ethics
From Writing Narratives About Science: Advice from People Who Do It Well by Maryn McKenna: To me the most important tool for telling narrative is time. Not just time within the narrative, which is what allows you to tell the story as a chronology, but time for research and reporting before you begin writing. Really good narratives are grounded in memorable characters confronting difficult problems, and it takes a lot of research time up-front to identify them.
“Confronting difficult problems:” the mothers who choose not to have their children vaccinated, or the husband who supports his wife during breast cancer treatment, or the teenage girl struggling with an unwanted pregnancy. Real stories, with wide implications. And as we share our own stories, consider the same parameters we provide students: audience awareness, risk taking, language, and intent.
Come on old brain, learn some new tricks! Is it possible to re-program a brain to think differently, not focus on the negative, but wash away shameful thoughts and quickly suture confidence? Hope so. Remember, there’s no such thing as overnight success, people! I have faith–I’m a writer, after all. Whatever that means. (Maybe I need Journalist Inner Voice, too?)
The other day I had a gift of an opportunity to discuss ideas for next year: it was a good chance to listen to new directives and possibilities. My local professional circle is characterized by folks of immeasurable generosity, new connections and long-time colleagues. I have been attempting to do planning now for next year, anticipating and adapting for students’ needs. I have a lot of questions about new directions, and am desperately trying to sort out the most important things. But me and my big mouth. Unfortunately, I wrote something in an e-mail that was too strident in tone, and I wish I could have the chance to say it differently, because what I was trying to say matters. Because I said it in a matter-of-fact way the perception (and understandable) may have been that I was being petulant and stubborn, not action-oriented. From that point, what got lost, because of my own stupidity, was the potential for a great discussion about the bigger ideas. I mishandled it, and made it worse. Talk about the alarm bells going off! There isn’t a homunculus personified emotion representation for how it feels to feel ashamed at allowing the conversation to veer off into personality ditches. Where is the “Beating Yourself Up” inner voice?
Here was the big idea: there are solid concepts, enduring understandings, and pedagogical foundations that transcend change. A few examples may be the concept of Name, Voice, Identity, Social Justice, History Repeats, Monomyth Studies/Archetypes, Storytelling Over Time, etc. These themes in the Humanities are transformative for generations of students. The time and place, however, for these deep discussions about instruction is something I need to work on, big time. But what steps to take, which direction to go?
As we shift toward focused, skill-based conversations about instruction and less about the means of delivery, I know I’m blessed–the empowerment of teacher choice and autonomy is huge, and that message was clearly communicated, for which I am grateful.
Keep in mind, the standards are helpful in guidance, but not necessarily these ‘big view’ ideas:
Before we myopically fixate on any set of new standards, teachers and administrators would be well served to remind themselves two things about the new standards: (1) teachers who religiously follow them are being asked to do things that are not in the best interest of our students, and (2) these new standards will one day be ushered out the door to make room for the next generation of “improved” standards. When first introduced, new standards come with a certain gravitas— a gravitas, however, that is unlikely to persist. One study, How Well Are American Students Learning? The 2012 Brown Center Report on American Education, notes that “standards with real consequences are most popular when they are first proposed. Their popularity steadily declines from there, reaching a nadir when tests are given and consequences kick in.
Gallagher, Kelly (2015-02-28). In the Best Interest of Students: Staying True to What Works in the ELA Classroom (Kindle Locations 157-162). Stenhouse Publishers. Kindle Edition.
Most of the time I am in the role of listener. I listen to directives, agendas, targets, and translating subtext. (Translating subtext is a skill I wish I could shed, however. Blessing in the classroom when I’m listening to a student, a curse when I recognize others are not synthesizing or integrating concepts, or I’m failing at communication.) I am the receiver of others’ decisions and discussions, and no longer at the local ‘big kids table.’ And that is totally okay.
Choosing time and place is tricky. It was a great discussion about logistics and philosophies, and that’s really important. I listened, and listened deeply, to the bigger message. It’s possible, and perhaps preferable, to keep those big idea conversations in my own head as I clean out the mental teacher clutter. I am an ambivert, and need processing time. However, that internal monologue at some point needs to be external: I love my partnerships and collaboration, and am so grateful for PLNs (Professional Learning Networks). So the take-away: not all conversations should be about the means of delivery of instruction. This is where a PLN (Professional Learning Network) is a lifesaver.
Ah, but what a gift that is: I am free to create on my own, and collaborate with whom I choose. One of my passionate PLN connections has, and will forever be, with the National Writing Project. I can’t wait for the first of two workshops starting tomorrow. I have things to pack my lunch, and extra snacks! (I might even write myself a note to put in my lunch bag: they’ll command, “Make Me Proud!” and “Make Good Choices!”)
PSWP Writing Workshop | One of the pillars of the National Writing Project is that teachers of writing should write. In this class we immerse ourselves in the writing workshop, focusing on ourselves as writers. We spend time writing, working in writing groups, sharing craft lessons, and reflecting on our writing process. Genre for your writing is open; craft lessons focus on memoir, article writing, and fiction. We welcome anyone who teaches.
PSWP Reading and Writing in ELA and Social Studies | This class focuses on language arts and social studies content and how to approach the new thinking and skill demands of the Common Core. We explore strategies for teaching students to think, read, and write in English, social studies, and/or humanities classes. This engaging class is inquiry-based, hands-on, and practical.
This past June, one of the nicest things an exiting teacher told me was to keep her on my ‘tech tips’ e-mail list; she loves those tips, and wanted to make sure she was still included. No one pays me for those, and oftentimes I thought they were either annoying folks, or being sucked into a vacuum. This local PLN heartened me greatly.
There are hundreds of potential PLN connections, from politics, to social studies, authors, researchers, science, math, current issues to history. Caution: once you fall down this rabbit hole it’s tough to get back out. But you won’t want to–it’s a safe place to discuss big ideas. And the coffee is just how you like it.
My brother-in-law (my husband’s brother) possesses a skill that fascinates me: he understands personality assessments better than anyone I know, and how to apply his knowledge adroitly. He is not some flash-in-the-pan self-titled self-help guru, nor does he pontificate unless the audience (me) is a willing listener and learner. He came out to visit recently, and over breakfast I shared some of my reflections about my past year of teaching, and some issues that were still causing me anxiety. After careful listening, he summed it up this way:
“You’re the black sheep.”
His findings derive from Stephen R. Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, but I’ll be darned if I can find any reference to the black sheep personae in the work place. (I’ll read it for myself, because there is always something to learn.) In any case, the black sheep is the one who stands out, stands up, puts their neck on the block, cries wolf, (but real ones) and instead of the intentional help and support, merely ends up losing trust of those they love and respect most. I thought I was a crusader, a paladin/protector, but turns out I am just annoying people.
How to turn back to grace? My brother-in-law mentioned there’s a formula of sorts: 8:1 ratio of positive things to one negative, and the voila! Trust is regained. What about the wolf?! No one cares: his advice was to get a witness. Don’t go after it alone.
Well, crud. My words and advice are heard as the bleating of sheep. (He mentioned unsolicited advice is never, ever listened to. There goes my mom talent.) Great. My anthropomorphic glory resides in stinky fleece, not lions’ manes or peacock struts. Last fall he said I was a ‘traditionalist’ and now I’m a ‘black sheep.’ (After reading a description about traditionalists, however, I am not too comfortable with this label, as I slouch toward speaking in generalizations while my guard is down.)
But our professional lives have to be more than just archetypes and personification, right? Maybe? The question I asked my husband this morning hit at the heart of what is on my mind now: in his years of of being a digital pioneer, teaching himself every conceivable programming and computer design nuance, code, application, and creating original games and apps, how does he sift through what’s most important to mentally keep, and what’s not? He is going to get back to me.
I wish there was another word for ‘overwhelmed’ right now, because to say I feel overwhelmed is an understatement. I am desperate for a deep conversation about what is MOST important to pull from the flotsam and jetsam from my nine years of teaching, over 1,215 students, 1620 days, three different state tests, two Federally mandated programs, six administrators, racing to the top while leaving no child behind, and one new teacher evaluation system to rule them all. Is it hot in here or did I just see two Hobbits run by?
Well, dang–time to visit the wizard, Kelly Gallagher. I just started reading his new book, In the Best Interest of Students, Staying True to What Works in the ELA Classroom, and I feel a huge sense of relief. Already his clear, honest organization of what has transpired, and what is positive and negative about the current state of affairs in education provided true clarity and validation. Here are my first impressions:
All Good Things Come to Holistic ELA Instruction.
Writing and reading in the curriculum remains interconnected, co-dependent, and in harmony. He says it, he restates it, and underscores it in ways that others will listen to. (I haven’t built up my 8:1 ratio yet.) He remarks that many teachers (when writing was not being tested), didn’t teach it, and now students are paying the price.
Writing instruction should be a nonnegotiable, core value in any classroom, and teachers should not have to be concerned with fitting it in. The question “How do you fit in writing instruction around the new standards?” is the wrong question. The correct question should be, “How do you fit in all of the standards around your writing instruction?”
Gallagher, Kelly (2015-02-28). In the Best Interest of Students: Staying True to What Works in the ELA Classroom (Kindle Locations 243-245). Stenhouse Publishers. Kindle Edition.
All Good Things Come in A Continuum
I am reminded of my Costa’s Levels of Questions work, and where I’ve always said no one should expect students to swim in the deep end of the pool all the time, to please respect all the levels of thinking, to show a continuum, the ‘not yet,’ and please don’t put obstacles in good teachers’ ways.
This is a great lesson idea, one I can easily adopt in practice:
Deeper reading starts with a literal understanding of the text. If students cannot figure out what the text is saying— if they cannot retell what is happening— then moving into closer reading and deeper understanding will be impossible. You have to recognize who is a Capulet and who is a Montague before any rich understanding of Romeo and Juliet can take place. When it comes to making sure my students know what the text says, I start by introducing a series of summary activities. The ability to write summaries is an often overlooked and underrated skill. They are hard to fake, and they give me a quick, formative assessment of what my students understand (and what they are missing in their initial reading). When introducing the skill of summarizing, I start very simply and scaffold my students up from there. Here are some activities I have my students do to sharpen their summary skills: 17-Word Summaries My students were just beginning to read Lord of the Flies (Golding 1962). I walked them into Chapter 1 by reading the first few pages of the chapter to them and then asked them to complete the reading of the chapter on their own. Before we really dove into the later chapters of the novel, I wanted to see if they understood what was happening in Chapter 1, so I chose a student at random and asked her to pick a number between ten and twenty. She chose seventeen, so I asked my students to write seventeen-word summaries of the chapter. Not eighteen words. Not sixteen words. Seventeen, and exactly seventeen words. Here are some of their responses: Ralph and Piggy are stranded, but with the help of a conch shell, they discover more kids. —Alicia
Gallagher, Kelly (2015-02-28). In the Best Interest of Students: Staying True to What Works in the ELA Classroom (Kindle Locations 427-440). Stenhouse Publishers. Kindle Edition.
All Good Things Come to Those Who Read. Books.
Do not feel once moment of guilt, hesitation, or concern if someone comes in your room and observes a teacher read-aloud or students silently reading. Not every thing needs to be a ‘close reading’ lesson. Don’t buy into the hype. Close reading is a skill for students to employ in order to enjoy texts more, not less, to give them the independent a-ha moments and connections, both literature and non-fiction. But that’s it.
Because close reading of short passages is valued by the tests, some teachers are overdoing having students analyze short passages. Conversely, the tests do not measure a student’s ability to hold his or her thinking across 300 pages, so less emphasis is placed on having students analyze longer works.
Gallagher, Kelly (2015-02-28). In the Best Interest of Students: Staying True to What Works in the ELA Classroom (Kindle Locations 338-340). Stenhouse Publishers. Kindle Edition.
Ba Ram Ewe.
The thing is, as my husband says, no one really knows what they’re doing, and no one’s in charge. Truly. This isn’t a fatalistic sentiment, it’s actually quite liberating. I am in as much control, or lack thereof, as anyone else. This is the essence of growth mindset: ask good questions, listen for good answers, and don’t be afraid to share your own expertise.
And read a Kelly Gallagher book.
To my esteemed colleagues: how do you keep from getting overwhelmed with change, and focusing on what’s meaningful and critical for your best practices?
Over they years multiple “big projects” have been my honor to lead, collaborate, and work on: novel units, curriculum maps, and curriculum adoption to name a few. In an effort to help clarify the sometimes subtle differences between the terms, I’ve endeavored to set sail and navigate some of these stormy seas. This may be one pivotal reason why I continue to appreciate the culture of my district, because by and large it appreciates and, outwardly at least, respects qualified teachers to make flexible instructional decisions without being in a lock-step or canned curriculum. This flexibility and agency to steer instruction as needed is not without some peril, and requires a great deal of preparation and reflection. It’s work I love to do, and is my passion, and whether I’m the ‘captain’ or a dinghy rower, it’s all part of a greater armada.
Okay, enough with the sea metaphor. Onward!
So to help clarify some terms, and get us out of the rock and hard place discussion, here is the best guidance I can offer:
They’re not called maps by mistake. Think of any great map: it doesn’t necessarily tell you where or why to go, but how to get there, and what you may encounter along the way. Consider the range or scope of maps, too: universal, global, to the smallest micro-view of any terrain. Maps have keys, legends, scales of time and distance, too. So do strong curriculum maps. My district is in the process of creating a new curriculum map/units of study guide. I conflate the two because they are using the term ‘units’ to contain a set of related standards and suggested texts.
Note: I might include place for related media, too: short films, photographs or paintings, etc. This would carry these standards:
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.8.7 Analyze the extent to which a filmed or live production of a story or drama stays faithful to or departs from the text or script, evaluating the choices made by the director or actors.
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.8.2.A Introduce a topic clearly, previewing what is to follow; organize ideas, concepts, and information into broader categories; include formatting (e.g., headings), graphics (e.g., charts, tables), and multimedia when useful to aiding comprehension.
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.8.2 Analyze the purpose of information presented in diverse media and formats (e.g., visually, quantitatively, orally) and evaluate the motives (e.g., social, commercial, political) behind its presentation.
Novel Units may focus on one novel, but that one novel may be part of a larger text comparison unit, or an even larger Unit of Study (Journey of the Hero with leveled/varying interests texts, etc.) The novel unit may focus on one thematic enduring understanding, or again, take part in a larger scope. There is really only one unbreakable rule when teaching a novel unit, and that is to read the novel first. Creating anticipatory guides, pre and post assessments, create a space for literature response groups (small group instruction, Socratic seminars, book projects, individual and group work, potential vocabulary lessons, character development, literary terms, etc. all play a crucial role in novel unit creation. But most importantly: what are students going to walk away with from their time spent on this novel?
Caution: when you read novels with the purpose of teaching novels, it’s hard to put those wings back on the butterfly:
Professors also read, and think, symbolically. Everything is a symbol of something, it seems, until proven otherwise. We ask, Is this a metaphor? Is that an analogy? What does the thing over there signify? The kind of mind that works its way through undergraduate and then graduate classes in literature and criticism has a predisposition to see things as existing in themselves while simultaneously also representing something else. Grendel, the monster in the medieval epic Beowulf (eighth century a.d.), is an actual monster, but he can also symbolize (a) the hostility of the universe to human existence (a hostility that medieval Anglo-Saxons would have felt acutely) and (b) a darkness in human nature that only some higher aspect of ourselves (as symbolized by the title hero) can conquer. This predisposition to understand the world in symbolic terms is reinforced, of course, by years of training that encourages and rewards the symbolic imagination.
Foster, Thomas C. (2014-02-25). How to Read Literature Like a Professor Revised: A Lively and Entertaining Guide to Reading Between the Lines . HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
There are multiple sources for PBL and PBL, and Maker-Space Learning. Project-Based Learning can include Problem based, but Problem-based is specifically a ‘real world’ issue with an applicable outcome. Maker-spaces allow us all to find flexibility and creativity within a physical dimension.
An expert inthis conversation is John Spencer. I admit I was doing ‘maker spaces’ long before this term was coined, but I just called it blending art and literacy. (Learning how to make Japanese folded books is one of my favorites.) If you have a principal who is not fond of messes, this can be problematic, but I am grateful that the term “maker space” is in place now so those who don’t like to see chaos and mess can now be told it’s ‘research based.’ (Nothing like getting validation for the best practices you were doing anyway!)
Constructive and Deconstructive Approaches
Now underlying all of this is a soup of making meaning, engagement, and critical thinking skills. I encourage during the process of creating any unit or map to consider constructivism, and deconstructivsim. During the assessment data analysis, if you see students are in the ‘I don’t get it’ spot still, have them pull the lesson apart. That’s when it is clearly time for the ‘teacher talk’ to cease, and approach the learning from a different view point.
Any other thoughts about the essential pieces of curriculum planning? Oh yes – my mentor’s superlative pearl of wisdom: ask how can things go wrong: try to anticipate those scenarios, and it should be relatively smooth sailing. And then be prepared for those teachable moments!
Sometimes I wonder how we adults take a stance on things we do not do well ourselves: sometimes we don’t get it right when it comes to social media etiquette, so how can we expect our students to do so? We are all connected and wired to one another, and have equally sized megaphones drowning out respect and ideas. Determining when to cut loose or when to strengthen bonds is challenging sometimes. My decade-long love affair with the written word on a computer screen is still in the honeymoon phase. But not all my friends and colleagues have enjoyed this delicious means of communication. Mordechai Luchins wrote an article for GeekDad, “Why You Should Teach Your Kids to Unfriend Without Guilt.” The take-away:
Remember, your feed/wall is your digital home. If you see that someone is not someone you’d want to invite to hang out in your real house, why would you invite them into your virtual one?
We haven’t had guests in our real home in a long time: this weekend my brother-in-law is coming out for some July 4th hijinks: it was great to have this real goal of getting the house back in some shape: it’s not a dirty house, but became cleaner. We pushed to get our air conditioning fixed, and did other house projects. Point being: we do decide how we want to present ourselves in our real and digital lives. Be mindful, and hopeful. There are some rules of thumb, though, you may want to keep in mind (and help students understand, too).
3. Be clear in intent: I cannot help or defend when someone thinks I’m self-promoting, self-aggrandizing, or proselytizing. To be fair, if someone knows me well, they know I am a thinker and curious. Sometimes this ‘seeing all sides’ thing drives my husband crazy, who is capable of seeing a situation or controversy in clean lines. Since being judged as someone who is just a pot-stirrer, I am increasingly mindful of stating intent in potentially controversial posts. But I reserve the right to state a claim, too.
4. Perspective. The Internet has done a great job at creating a chum-bucket of click bait. If you intend to litigate every post, you will have no time to watch those cat videos. Be respectful of perspectives, and don’t lose sight that people bring a whole lot of unspoken personal truths with them everywhere they go, virtual spaces most of all.
5. Share and Share Alike. If you link an article or idea that someone else has written a statement or idea about, link the entire thing, including their comment or insight. You are welcome to state your own ideas/opinions in your forum.
6. Share and Shake It Off. If someone forgets to @yournamehere, let it go, too. The Internet is an echo chamber, and inherently serves the intention and will to repost and share good articles and ideas. What fascinates me is how it’s altered the art of conversation: our minds work like Reddit feeds now: layer upon layer, so far down the rabbit hole, we can’t possibly keep track of everything that sparks our interests.
7. No Quarter. If you still see someone’s posts, but they never comment on yours or give you a ‘thumb’s up,’ it means they’ve hidden your posts; you’re not ‘unfriended.’ In my personal experience, I can only infer that I have posted way too many controversial/political posts and it’s fatiguing for most colleagues. It’s okay. Curate your own information, too. (Pinterest has become my haven for my virtual bulletin boards, as has Tumblr.)
8. U and Me. Don’t assume everything posted by a colleague is their personal gospel: perhaps they are wanting to engage a conversation about a topic and get different points of view. I know that is why I post many things, because I am curious, not judgmental. I enjoy thinking about something from many perspectives. (See #3.)
9. Sins. We humans, so full of flaws. I have had to hide friends’ posts because I can’t see one more shot of their toes in Hawaiian surf, or when someone pontificates in political diatribe that offers no room for dialogue. It’s not that I don’t want them to have their vacation, of course I do, and I truly honor free speech. But these things can distract us from our core selves, and get our own purposes splintered.
Though this is intended for business, it serves us educators, too: (Click to make larger.)
10. Fuggedaboutit. As my esteemed friend says, Rule #10 is break the rules. If it’s important to you to say and think, you will find a way to do so. Nothing is as protected as a good, old-fashioned journal or idea list.