Category Archives: Literacy

Teach Challenging Books

I first floated the idea of teaching Claudia Rankine’s book Citizen: An American Lyric at Lincoln on The Nerd Farm podcast. One major point of discussion was that despite being first published in 2014, the urgency of this book is felt on every page. It feels like it was written for this moment.

Within a few short weeks, listeners flooded the mailroom with donated copies. I was a little nervous. I teach about race, class, and gender but I’ve never taught a book like this. I’ve taught poetry but I’ve never experienced a book of poetry that defies what I learned in college. In the back of my mind lingered the most daunting question of all: can I, a white woman, do justice teaching a book about racism, microaggressions,and intersectionality?

Not one to shirk challenge, I talked my student teacher into team-teaching the text. We found exactly three resources for teaching this text–a reading guide from Graywolf Press and two teacher blog posts from higher ed. For one month, my juniors wrestled with the language, structure, and themes of this book.

Despite the unfamiliarity of poetry as a genre and the “untraditional” way Rankine breaks any expectations of form, Rankine is accessible in a high school classroom setting. Every high school student needs to experience poetry, art, and language the way Rankine creates it. This year when I prepped for the unit, I found, more articles from college level classes, and several university teacher guides signaling to me that I’m not the only one feeling the timeliness of this text.

With the rise of hate crimes, public displays of racism and the casual way these are presented by media, I’m especially convinced that now more than ever, students and teachers need to grapple open and honestly with the discomfort of these issues. In particular, white teachers should teach books that make them uncomfortable or are out of their “range of expertise.”

For students of color, they tell me they need this book because it validates their daily existence. They want to read a Black author who excels at the art of language. They want to feel they are not alone.

For white kids, they need to see a black artist at the highest level. They need to be challenged as perpetrators and beneficiaries of white supremacy. They need to consider how intersectionality shifts and shapes power.

For teachers, we need to teach books outside our comfort zones be in content or style. We need to use our platform in the classroom to amplify authors our students might never experience.

For white teachers, we need to create safe spaces to have open and honest discussions about race in America–where we aren’t threatened by disagreement, where students of color feel confident expressing their thoughts, and where we don’t’ “not all white people” the conversation.

Instead of being fearful of these difficult conversations, we need to be brave. No matter what race we are, we need to collectively read and discuss more books like Citizen. Maybe then we will actually do something to loosen the grip of racism on our country.

On Leveraging Technology part four of several—the problems of addiction

I’ve been thinking about addiction lately, and cannot help seeing my students constantly gazing into their palms as anything but problematic. As I’ve been musing about technology in the classroom this year, basic concerns about screen-time, as well as ideas about maximizing the technology as a benefit for education have come up, but in March (the longest and toughest month for everyone involved in education) concerning addictive behavior is at the forefront.

Students cannot seem to stop looking at their phone. I get the impulse, and spend a great deal of time on computers as well, less on the phone because of personal dislike of the medium. Sven Birkerts and Nicholas Carr worried about this years ago, and the research started in the recent past is playing out their fears—as evidenced in this study by Lin and Zhou: “Taken together, [studies show] internet addiction is associated with structural and functional changes in brain regions involving emotional processing, executive attention, decision making, and cognitive control.” Another study recently brought to my attention by a child occupational therapist, shows us that screens light up the same regions of the brain that cocaine sets afire. And science shows us addictive video games may change children’s brains in the same way as drugs and alcohol.

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On Leveraging Technology: part three of several–tools, devices, &iInstruments

The main response to concerns over screen time and children that I have run into is that educational screen time is not the same as entertainment screen time. I take the point, but I have my doubts. One of my chief concerns is the blind belief in the goodness of technology. Anand Giridharadas illustrates this in a recent interview with Krista Tippet. Giridharadas points out that in Silicone Valley

“there’s this thing of dropping out of college because…they feel they have the technical knowledge they need to get started. And part of what they’re dropping out of, in many cases, is the liberal arts education that is precisely designed to give you these kinds of frameworks to understand things like, history is cyclical, and good things have bad effects, and things go ways that you couldn’t anticipate, and just this normal understanding of how the human condition,…works.

When you have people with that much power over humanity, that much power to decide more and more how children learn and how commerce works and how power functions, and they basically have a naïve, childlike understanding that any tool that they invent will inherently make things better, you go to a very dark place.”

I share his concerns. Teaching literature, the human condition is an obsession, so this resonates with me (plus, I believe in the philosophy of a liberal arts education), but I’m putting my doubts aside for the moment to consider how to maximize the positive potential technology offers the classroom. I want to illustrate a framework for technology in the classroom (or anywhere else).

Recently a friend of mine offered this distinction summarized from Andy Crouch: humans, as inventive, industrious, and inventive beings regularly use tools, devices, and instruments. The distinctions work as follows: Continue reading

On Leveraging Technology: part two of several–does it really help?

To leverage is to use the power or force of a lever in the literal sense, and in the figurative—to advantage for accomplishing a purpose. This is a great educational word.

I once had a mentor tell me I should teach every day as if a parent were standing in the doorway demanding excellence for their child. This is a great educational standard. It is also a recipe for failure, which I’m ok with (as I’ve blogged about before, twice). The truth is, the days I really use technology in the classroom are the days I would never want a parent standing at the door.

A newsletter comes home every week from my children’s teachers. Lately, they are full of pictures. The most recent newsletter is full of pictures of students “doing science.” 50% of the pictures are of kids looking at screens. It is not an image of kids doing anything observable.

The image of my classroom or my children’s classroom should not trouble me if the technology is being leveraged, if the technology is being used to advantage to accomplish a purpose. I teach English and sometimes students are staring at books in my classroom, and other times computer screens. I completely get it is part of the fabric of a class. The trouble I have, more often than not, is with the word advantage. An old French word, advantage means a positon in advance of another. It means profit or superiority. It means before. More often than not my lessons that use technology could be carried out on paper. What advantage is the technology? It saves me deciphering handwriting. It is faster, mostly. This begs the question—why is speed something to value in learning?

My son has a lesson on water, and the way it forms land. The class starts on the computers looking at photos of Mars. Amazing. They observe how the land is shaped, determine there is sedimentary rock in a channel (full disclosure I don’t understand how they determined this) and deduce it was shaped thus by water. The homework is to look around their neighborhood, or town and describe land formed by water. This strikes me as odd, it seems the reverse path practicing scientists take. Don’t practitioners observe their world around them and then make connections to new discoveries and distant objects? My son can describe how water forms land, but does he understand how science works? How scientists have used observation since Galileo? He’s 13, what lesson is the most valuable? It didn’t take long for him to learn how water forms land, but did he miss out on a larger, more important understanding? It is possible I’m being persnickety, but I can’t shake the feeling the technology was used to be used and not necessarily used to the advantage of student learning. I’m not so much questioning a colleague’s choices here, as playing the role of parent in the doorway.

What advantage can these machines provide? How do I, as a classroom teacher, rectify the research showing the use of computers does not help much? It seems computers do not increase understanding any faster than any other educational innovation. The results of a seven-year study of the most scrutinized laptop 1:1 program showed laptops allowed test scores to raise at about the same rate as other counties without them:

“Test scores did go up a lot in Mooresville after 2008, when it started handing out laptops. But Hull calculated that test scores also soared by about the same amount in neighboring counties, which didn’t give laptops to each student.”

Additionally, Jill Barshay notes that the computer implementation had a negative impact on how much time students read books:

“From student surveys, the researchers found that Mooresville students reduced their time reading books by more than four minutes a day, on average, to roughly 40 minutes a daily in 2011 from more than 45 minutes daily when the laptop program was introduced. Meanwhile, kids in neighboring counties increased their daily reading by two minutes.  Four minutes might not sound like a lot, but over the course of a year that adds up to more than 25 fewer hours of reading, which is substantial. Unfortunately, the state stopped administering that survey after 2011 and it’s unknown if book reading rebounded.  But if time spent reading continued to deteriorate, that could partially explain why reading scores didn’t rise as much as the math scores did.”

I suppose this is natural, the new technology will eclipse the old. As mentioned above, I’m a bibliophile, so this sort of news is personally heartbreaking, but I recognize it is not for everyone. But even the lightest research yields rafts of studies where brain researchers are determining that, at best, the results of reading from a screen are only equal to reading from the page. The screen offers no advantage. The more troubling problem arises when one notes these even results occur when testing for basic comprehension not more complex understanding. Even then, the device sometimes can get in the way of the content. Students often report on how they use the device, and then on the content the device provided. The larger problem is, when asked more sophisticated questions, as described in Naomi Barron’s New Republic article, Why Digital Reading is no Substitute for Print, print wins every time. So, the clearest conclusion here is integration of technology succeeds most clearly in pushing out a more successful technology.

Barshay again:

“Students continued to spend as much time on homework as before but spent more of their homework time on a computer.”

The New Republic findings indicate this homework time is less productive, less focused, and equally concerning is this conclusion from Barshay:

“… the highest achievers and lowest achievers didn’t benefit more from the laptops than average students. One of the arguments ed tech advocates make is that educational software can help slower learners review material while quicker learners jump ahead to new topics, with each student learning at his own pace. But the researchers didn’t see stronger test score gains among the bottom quarter or the top quarter of students relative to students in the middle. They did notice, however, that higher performing students were more likely to increase their time on computers.”

The device succeeds most at encouraging more time on the device. A New Jersey school district (also reported on by Barshay) ditched the 1:1 program altogether. The device has some advantages, and is more popular, yet brain research holds with paper. This is not just the preference of luddites and bibliophiles. The long term scientific brain studies are continually reaching the same conclusions previously reached by authors such as Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, Sven Brikerts, and Nicholas Carr in their fiction and memoirs across nearly 80 years. How do we leverage something not offering a clear advantage? Huxley and Neil Postman would argue that what we love will destroy us. Birkerts and Carr posit our love of technology is leaving us with a lack of depth. I suppose I’m arguing that we’re missing the important points. My son misses out on a clear experience of the scientific process, my students type drafts and feel they are done because they look done (all typed up neat and clean), and when we read from the screen we receive diminishing returns. I find irony in the fact that the term “leverage technology” comes out of a program adopted by my district titled “deep learning.” It seems technology is great for many things, but depth is not one of them.

So, in addition to my previous questions, we’re left with this: technology is here, and it will remain. How do we leverage it both in the classroom and in personal space so it works to our advantage and does not inhibit our learning and engagement with our lives? I’ve found some terms and am reading some research I will parse in my next post that attempt to offer some possible answers to this troubling situation.


Civil Discourse, in the Classroom and Beyond

Election Day is approaching, and I am reminded of an ongoing struggle I face as a teacher, the need for civil discourse.

The strife and anger expressed by political figures and everyday people on social media penetrates our communities at every level. Our politically divided society has far-reaching effects, and we teachers know that these effects manifest in our classrooms far too often.

I teach in a generally conservative community, which is also home to a large immigrant population. There is built-in conflict and a wide array of opinions, both well-informed and based on hearsay. Leading up to the presidential election two years ago, I was breaking up heated arguments in the halls of our junior high between 12-year olds. They didn’t fully understand the issues; they were parroting what their parents were saying, no doubt, but I remember being shocked, and deeply concerned. How did the political climate infiltrate our tiny, rural school?

Then, when the election was over, I was worried. I have behavior expectations around discussion and debate that require respect on all sides. I wondered if my students would still respect these ideals when their most admired figures did not adhere to respectful behavior or civil discourse. How can I have high expectations of my students when the adults around them were so far from civil? The whole world seemed full of terrible examples of uncivil behavior, and this continues today in the extreme, with bombings, shootings, hate crimes, and blatant hate-mongering on social media.

Although it seems like a monumental task, it is still our responsibility as teachers to instruct the key skills that can combat all of this incivility. If we intentionally instruct and model civil discourse, we can help our students build a better future.

Civil discourse is the engagement in conversation to enhance understanding. It requires respect for all others involved, without judgment. You cannot conduct civil discourse if it is obvious that you question the good sense of your peers. You cannot conduct yourself with hostility, sarcasm,  mockery, or excess persuasive language. You have to accept the views of others as valid, despite your disagreement.

Now take a moment to imagine what that looks like in a junior high classroom. How about a high school debate? Conversation over Thanksgiving dinner with the extended family? Interactions on social media? A political debate? What if civil discourse was the norm?

The Common Core and Washington State Language Arts Standards are explicit in the requirements for discussion and communication:

“To become college and career ready, students must have ample opportunities to take part in a variety of rich, structured conversations—as part of a whole class, in small groups, and with a partner—built around important content in various domains. They must be able to contribute appropriately to these conversations, to make comparisons and contrasts, and to analyze and synthesize a multitude of ideas in accordance with the standards of evidence appropriate to a particular discipline. Whatever their intended major or profession, high school graduates will depend heavily on their ability to listen attentively to others so that they are able to build on others’ meritorious ideas while expressing their own clearly and persuasively.”

As teachers, the urge to stay out of it, to be apolitical and neutral is strong. We don’t want to offend our students, their families, or our communities. However, we must model that we all have views and ideas, and how we express them is important. We do not force our views on others, but, instead, we invite discourse. Our students need to learn to share their ideas and listen to their peers. They need to understand the importance of researching the issues and verifying their sources. They need to practice protocols of debate and dialogue that guide them to be supportive listeners, even when they disagree.

On my quest to be a better teacher of civil discourse, I am piecing together some resources. These are diverse and inspirational, but certainly incomplete. Check them out, and let me know what I am missing.

This is our calling as teachers. We are nation builders. Let’s build a nation full of citizens who are well-versed in civil discourse.

Essentials in Dialogue

Teaching Tolerance: Civil Discourse in the Classroom

Wall Street Journal: New Topic on Campus Civil Discourse 101

Sarah Cooper’s Why We Won’t Be Having No Holds Barred Debates This Year

Katherine Cadwell’s TedX Students Need to Lead the Classroom, Not Teachers  

What is the Harkness Discussion?


On Leveraging Technology: part one of several–some background

This year I have more technology in my room than I have ever had in fifteen years of teaching. I don’t know how I feel about it. The phrase in my district is “leverage technology.” I like this quite a lot, especially in contrast to the experience my own children are having in a different district. My children’s district decided to go one-to-one. Technology immersion, seems to be the tactic. It has been a rough transition. As a parent who has used technology mindfully, and been very deliberate about my kid’s exposure to technology, seeing my child use it all the time because he “has to for school” is unnerving. I want to spend some time analyzing these two approaches, and see what I can figure out (if anything). But this post is just background, the setting of the stage.

My early mantra around technology for my personal life and for my classroom was: technology must enhance what I’m doing not distract me from it. I’m not convinced we’ve figured out how to do this in education, as a system. I’m mostly positive a few individuals have figured this out. I’m in the process.

I want to be clear: I am not anti-technology. I coupled my English major with a computer science minor and used contractor jobs building websites to help pay off my student loans. Though I write often in a notebook, all my writing eventually is on a computer. I did resist a cell phone for years, mostly because I didn’t want something else to carry. I teach and have taught hybrid and fully online classes for years. Though, my family hasn’t owned a television in fifteen years.

I am of an age where I can remember the world pre-internet, as I’m sure many readers of this blog are, but I mention it because watching the web come into being taught me something about how I would use it. I lost friends to computers. They just became more interested in the machine and then we spent less and less time together. Nothing too serious, or out of the ordinary coming-of-age stuff, but I noticed. Then, in college, I read Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman, and, being the serious minded young person I was, I thought hard about both the messages I received and the medium through which I received them.

Then I started teaching. I’ve had varying access to technology over the years, and I’ve used much of it. I’ve had a bank of computers, a smartboard, a small cache of laptops (webbooks they were called). But as the technology wore out, I did not feel a pressing need to replace it. It provided a way to do things, not necessarily a better way—as far as I could tell. Besides, a computer lab full of students, oddly silent, staring at monitors creeped me out. I only did it when it made sense—typing final drafts, et. all. Continue reading

Reading From the Ground Up

Last year my district bought a brand-new ELA curriculum for the elementary grades. It has short stories, poems, and even a handful of class sets of novels for teachers to share. There are also nonfiction materials integrated into the standard social studies and science topics of the different grade levels. For example, since fourth graders across America often study Native cultures, the fourth grade ELA curriculum has booklets about Native tribal history and a traditional Native story. In addition, there are booklets about money management, economics, and innovation. For science, the booklets include topics ranging from earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis, skeletons, and porpoises. There is also a short biography of an early paleontologist.

Our school day is scheduled around lunch, recesses, specialist time, a set period for math, a set period for reading, plus additional WIN times for math and reading—WIN standing for “What I Need,” whether it’s reteaching, extra support, or enrichment. Last year our fifth grade teachers complained that they had 20 minutes a day to fit in all the district-adopted science and social studies curriculum. “But you are teaching science and social studies in your ELA curriculum, right?” was the response they got.

Well yes. To a degree.

This week I attended a full-day curriculum workshop on the Next Generation Science Standards. The presenter at one point blurted out that he wished that one subject would be dropped from the school day altogether—reading.

Publishers would love to have you believe that they have provided the tools needed for integration by teaching science and social studies lessons within the ELA curriculum. But that’s exactly backwards for how true integration works.

In fact, this backwards system of integration may explain why reading scores have flatlined since 1998!

According to The Atlantic, “Daniel Willingham, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia … writes about the science behind reading comprehension. Willingham explained that whether or not readers understand a text depends far more on how much background knowledge and vocabulary they have relating to the topic than on how much they’ve practiced comprehension skills.”

The Thomas B. Fordham Institute says improving reading and writing instruction in America’s schools requires teachers taking the lead. “Teachers should tackle the content-knowledge deficit. In particular, they should take the lead in adopting content-rich curricula and organizing their lessons around well-constructed ‘text sets’ that help students build on their prior knowledge and learn new words more quickly.”

For real integration, I maintain that you need to start with your content-rich subject. Start with science. Or start with social studies. Figure out the main topics you will teach over the course of the year and decide how you will organize them. I teach either science or social studies, one at a time, alternating them. I am starting this year with Explorers and then Mixtures and Solutions. Next will be Colonies followed by Space. Finally we will study the Revolution and Constitution, and we will end the year with Living Systems.

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Find a Mirror, Peek Through a Window, & Open a Sliding Door

For me, summertime = reading time.

During the school year, I can’t keep up with the growing stacks of books precariously balanced on my nightstand. So in the summer, I set a goal of reading 5-10 books. My pattern is consistent—usually some young adult fiction to add to my classroom library (All American Boys, Ms. Marvel Vol 1), something political (Evicted), something I meant to read ages ago (Crazy Rich Asians trilogy, Orange is the New Black), a friend recommendation (Number One Chinese Restaurant), a “teacher” book (I’ll read that one mid-August), a book I only half-finished years ago (Whistling Vivaldi) and a mindless beach read (Matchmaking for Beginners, Girl Logic).

Despite burying myself in non-school related books, I don’t stop thinking about the work. I know, I know. Like many teachers, even when I’m “off”, I’m still on. No matter how much I try to avoid thinking about my classroom and my students (even with my mindless, beach reads), my mind wanders back. When I read, I imagine faces of students who would ____. I mull over ways I could use a certain chapter in my unit on ___. After years, I’ve finally accepted that reading and reflecting during the summer is part of my “self-care” plan.

And so this summer, I met 2014 Ms. Marvel, a Pakistani-American, Muslim teenage girl struggling to balance faith, family, and friends. I deepened my understanding of the American housing crisis and how evictions disproportionately impact Black women. I ruminated on the meaning of love and how to express it to those closest to me. I reflected on the meaning of identity threat, and how stigmatization directly impacts student success in my classroom.

Summertime is also prime travel time. My husband and I make it a priority to grab our passports and get out of town. The magic of travel is that it literally transports you to a different world. Eating Korean BBQ on South Tacoma Way or ordering Tom Kha in East Tacoma is not quite enough to understand what it means to be Korean or Thai. Breathing Bangkok air, sitting in Kuala Lumper traffic, visiting the S-21  Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh puts you face-to-face with people, culture, and history in a new way.

Both the acts of reading about and physically traveling to another world, always refreshes my perspective. I might arrive with preconceived notions about a certain group or culture based on my previous experience or my hours scouring a Lonely Planet guidebook and TripAdvisor pages. But I always leave with a greater understanding of systems, an empathy for human struggle, and a realignment of my own values with what actually matters. Mark Twain once said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” This is the main reason I continue to get out of dodge each summer and sweet-talk my friends into going abroad. For students, there are more complications than simply applying for a passport and buying a ticket to Beijing.

Literacy experts use the phrase Windows & Mirrors when referring to the way a reader engages with a book. This concept was actually developed by Dr. Rudine Bishop in her essay Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors. Essentially, a book can help you see yourself, your family, your community or your values (mirror). A text might serve as a window, peeking into someone else’s life and learning about another world. Finally, a novel could work as a sliding door–at first giving you a peak into another realm, then sliding open so you can walk through it (think Butler or Tolkien). I’ve made it a reading habit to ask myself is this text meant to be a mirror, a window, or a sliding glass door? For whom? As a reader, I want mirrors to feel a sense of personal validation (that’s easy for me to find since I’m a white female). As a reader and an educator I know I need more windows and sliding doors in my life to help me be a better teacher.

And so this summer, I once again remember that while I still believe everyone should travel abroad, I know not everyone can. As the new school year approaches, I accept my responsibility as a teacher to construct classroom experiences that transport students to new worlds, even for a few days. Besides showing pictures and sharing stories, I can make instructional choices such as incorporating more diverse texts as mainstream curriculum. We must intentionally find windows, mirrors, and sliding doors for each learner.

Thinking about Feedback

In the last few weeks of school I was admonished by two students from different classes, and different schools actually, about the feedback I’d given them on their writing. There was not enough, basically, is what they both said.

I don’t disagree with them.

I remember the power of teacher feedback when I was in high school, and college. In fact, my graduate program did not give out letter grades. Each semester our professor/mentor/writing guru would write a half-to-full page review of our work. I was not alone pacing in the vestibule before the wall of student boxes afraid to pick up that powerful envelope, open it, and read what those professors said about me and my writing.

And that was after a semester of generous feedback. My whole master’s degree program was modeled on writers in conversation about their work and the great writers of the world.

As a professional I have read Nancy Sommers’ Harvard study, Stanford’s information on how to improve student writing through feedback and many other sources.

I get it.

Currently I teach four different English courses across seven sections, and they are all writing intensive. I love it and I don’t want a different course load. But there are realities I must face with this course load, like the amount of hours I can remain awake. And I don’t need much sleep.

I have rubrics designed to give as much feedback as a rubric can with the circling of a box. I hold individual student conferences, a few times a semester because I can say more than I can write, and I strive to, at bare minimum, note something working and something not working in a piece of writing so students can give it attention and amplify it or rework it. I think that works. And I know for a fact there are weeks and, sometimes months, where I do this really, really well, and there are weeks or months where I do not do this very well.

Here is what I am thinking about, offering up, and plan on working on next year: the way students ask questions about their writing. The students who questioned my level and quality of feedback had a legitimate concern. I looked back at their documents and remedied the problem by offering feedback and asking them multiple questions. I don’t mind doing that. But what has stuck with me most in the exchange is the fact that these writers (these student writers—though I’d argue we’re all student writers) did little more than complain about a lack of comments and never engaged with their own work at any level.

If a student won’t engage with their own work beyond, “is this good?” or “what’s wrong with this?” or “I need your feedback to reach my full potential,” then one problem in my classroom is not my feedback or lack of feedback, but the way these writers are engaging with their work. I have not taught them how to ask questions about their own writing. Good writers are good tinkerers. They always look at their work from one direction, then another direction, delete something, add it back in, re-arrange, etc. I need to find ways to foster that mentality in students. I never know if a piece of writing is “good,” and I know for sure I have nothing to do with a student’s “full potential.” Those, of course, are things they must work out for themselves.

I read interviews with writers obsessively, and can say with some confidence that the majority of great writers will acknowledge that the quality of a piece is ultimately measured by the writers’ internal satisfaction with it, with the knowledge they’ve done everything they can and it is time to abandon the work. What the world does or does not do with it is, well, up to the world. All artists know this.

Therefore, the writers I know and share my work with have conversations about our writing that center around language such as, “I’m having a problem with the ending….” Or “is the tone off in the third paragraph?” or “do you believe this character?” or “dear god, I can’t think about commas any longer, but I’m sure some of the commas are off in this, could you take a look?” The point is the questions are specific and come from a perspective of deep engagement with the piece of writing.

That is my new teaching focus in writing instruction. How do I foster attention (beyond telling them to pay attention to their language and to ask specific questions, which I’ve done for years) in a student writer?

Good thing I have some time to think about it.

Project, Products, and Publishing (or All’s Well That Ends Well)

Assessment. That’s a loaded word these days, particularly in the last months of the school year. But, what is it, really? Is it the state test? Is it an essay? Is it multiple choice?

Of course, the answer is yes to all of that, but there is so much more. We could get into the semantics of what is summative or formative assessment, and what type/mode/format of assessment is more valid or reliable or necessary. However, today I am interested in discussing one particular sort of assessment: publishing.

What I mean by “publishing” is this particular definition: to make publicly or generally known.

The Washington State English Language Arts Standards reference it:

W.9-10.6 Production and Distribution of Writing

Use technology, including the internet, to produce, publish, and update individual or shared writing products, taking advantage of technology’s capacity to link to other information and to display information flexibly and dynamically.

Ooh…and “to display information flexibly and dynamically!” That really gets to the heart of the matter, there. How do we assess this? How do we teach our students to publish? to create products? to display information flexibly and dynamically? And then, once we do teach these skills, how do we assess them?

My answer to all these questions is project-based learning. This last week, while my seventh-graders were busy toiling over their answers on the Smarter Balanced Assessment, my ninth-graders were wowing the public with their “Shakesfair” projects. Both of these assessments are valid. Both give me information that informs my practice. Both can really stress a kid out if they don’t have the skills or support. And, both can bring a sense of pride and accomplishment.

Animatic Project for Shakesfair 2018

The difference is that one can also be an entertaining and educational way to connect with families and the community. It can inspire creativity, and it can celebrate individuality. It can encompass so many aspects of a child’s intelligence, skills, and talents. I can tell you without a doubt that the projects my students create prove their understanding of the material we cover in class. They also extend the learning, showing the reading, writing, communication, and research skills I am teaching them. These are valid assessments, and they also “display information flexibly and dynamically.”

On the down side, projects can be a royal pain. They are messy, hard to manage, and time-consuming. They require a teacher to set firm guidelines and offer support in ways he or she never imagined, like problem-solving last-minute tech issues for an Animatic animation, or finding creative ways to serve non-alcoholic English trifle to hundreds of guests. While projects bring out the most creative and imaginative attributes of most students, they bewilder and frustrate others, often those with special needs. To avoid these pitfalls, projects take tons of preparation, patience, and dedication.


I am committed to assessing my students with projects several times a year. Sometimes these are project-based learning activities, and sometimes they are just projects. To understand the difference, check out the handy table here. Some of my project-based assessments are small, such as one day tasks chosen from a menu to show understanding of a text through multiple pathways. These are simple and not too terribly messy or complicated to score. Each grade level gets a couple big projects, too. Some are group projects, some are individual, and some are flexible. They choose. Student choice is paramount for successful projects. For all projects, I have carefully crafted rubrics and timelines and rules established over time. Of course, that was all accomplished through trial and error, pursuing a good idea and learning how terribly complicated it really was!

That said, project-based learning is not for every teacher. It takes a willingness to face the issues head on. It takes a lot of patience to guide students through the discomfort they often experience when they actually have choices. It takes a lot of nerve.

Now the nerve is what you need when you get to the publishing part. That part requires the PUBLIC. The public is your audience. They see the whole big, beautiful mess, with all of its warts and all of its wackiness. You have to be willing to let your students shine or fizzle in a public format. And that is very, very hard.

Historical Recipe Project

At our 14th Annual Shakesfair, my students were shining. Well, mostly. We had Renaissance Era a slightly messy smorgasbord of food – trifle, roast chicken, meat pies – served by enthusiastic students. We had music researched and played heroically by young musicians, and there was a variety of artwork created by students who surprised their classmates with their hidden talents. Others shared creative writing based on Shakespeare- short stories, poetry, and songs. Several this year chose analytical writing, critiquing plays and films and examining themes. A select few gave slide show presentations, and there were the always popular models of the globe theater. Students from previous years came in and begged to show the films they produced when they were freshmen, and we all enjoyed seeing their first attempts at film-making once again.

I have thirty freshmen this year and well over a hundred visitors joined them. Parents, grandparents, staff, upperclassmen, and members of the community came and viewed their work, displayed “flexibly and dynamically.”

It was an exhausting time. The project overlaps with a full month of our Shakespeare unit, but the last week is a flurry of activity. And, to top it off, I was proctoring the 7th grade assessment for three hours on the day of the event, with no prep time. Luckily, my students in my afternoon classes chipped in to help set up, and clean up was well-managed and fast. I have a system.

To those brave and crazy enough to take on project-based learning, I am here to tell you that it is worth it. You will never forget the creativity and enthusiasm of your students, and the praise of their families. And, neither will they.

Ubiquitous Glob Theater Project


Do you assess with projects? Tell me how your students publish their work and create products to share.