Archive for November, 2016

So, I’m still thinking about my commonplace book assignment for my senior English elective students.

So far the students have been collecting their own personal bits and pieces from the book and commenting on what they have collected. I have not necessarily checked these collections, but I do see that everyone has one. Some are on paper, others are Google docs, some are using Google Keep, another is using Evernote. A few times students have volunteered that something we were discussing in class was something that was part of their collections.

By Beinecke Flickr Laboratory [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Image of 17thC commonplace book By Beinecke Flickr Laboratory [CC BY 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

I gave a test midway through the book and asked (among other things):

Please comment thoughtfully. What types of things have you been noticing so far? What kind of patterns do you see in your notations/collection? What are you looking for? What are you not noticing? What does this say about what you look for in a book?

Here are some examples of what the students said (each paragraph is from a different student):

I have been noticing the theme of mindfulness and the role that doubt plays in the book… I believe that I look mostly at the characters in the books, and how they evolve and how they struggle to achieve their goals…

I have been noticing that Harbach’s style of writing is incredibly descriptive and heavily detailed. His words have a sort of “flow” where the book kind of flies by and the pages begin to “mesh” together and reading does not feel like a chore… I like the highly descriptive tendencies of Harbach’s writing, and I highlight a lot of his most beautiful sentences.

I see patterns like very thoughtful quotes and meaningful quotes throughout my commonplace book…It seems that I look for a book with descriptive and flowing language as well as many meaningful lessons that each character learns.

…In my collection I see a pattern of broad themes not specific details. I think that speaks to me as a reader as well as a writer. The big ideas and overarching themes are what keep me engaged …

In my commonplace book I am noticing that all the characters have their own personal issues which affect their interactions and speech patterns…I am looking for recurring patterns in characters commentary and their development. I am not noticing any characters that feel completely satisfied with their situations. This says that what I look for… is the characters flaws.

Mainly I have been noticing two types of quotes: ones that are inspirational/are advice and ones that have a strong use of literary devices that make the sentence pop out and come alive… After looking at all the quotes I have collected so far, it is clear to me that I enjoy reading books that have a sense of reliability with not boring text, incorporating literary devices to make reading more exciting and have an extra layer to the text.

In my common book, I have a mixture of two main themes. The first theme is with complicated sentences. I love detail, so certain sentences …really interested me… I am looking for sentences that make me want to read them over and over, never getting old of the complicated language… The second main theme in my common book is relationships…

I was really impressed with the patterns that the students found in their collections.

We are now more than half way through the book and I have been leading or at least coming up with the options for what to discuss in class. I’ve been alternating between big picture thematic discussions and closer passage analysis. I often come in with a list of options that we could discuss, more than enough for class, and ask what topic folks want to start with first. Sometimes I ask for suggestions in on online forum on our learning management page. The point being, it’s time to change it up.

After reading all the answers to the commonplace book question I have put the students in groups based on the focus of their noticings. I’m planning to have the groups meet to discuss particular passages that relate to their topic or think about some idea that is particular to their topic. Although I worry they will skim over some important parts, I see that they have real and specific interests that can carry discussions. I need to let them do that.

So, I’ve been thinking about collaborating. I wrote about the opportunity to have my digital fabrication students work with some 5th graders. Here’s the update.

The 5th graders sent us a handful of drawings. Some had multiple views and details. I gave the drawings out to any of my students who were interested (even when they learned there would be no money involved) and they got started. By the end of a class period, they had a decent design. I had them take screen shots of their Tinkercad models and put the pictures in a shared google folder.

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The next time we met, my students had comments back from the 5th graders on their designs, also in the shared folder. I have to say that my students were a little surprised to get back comments that asked for alterations. However, it was a great opportunity to discuss what it means to be hired, even “hired”, by and to work with someone with whom you are not in class. One student was annoyed that he was asked to put spikes on the top of the ziggurat he had designed as he did not notice them in the original drawing. I looked at the drawing again and there was definitely something zig-zag-y at the top, but it’s hard to tell. In the end my students did make changes.

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I liked that the 5th graders were calling the shots. And, since we were doing all the communicating via pictures and notes, my students did not intimidate or squash the voices of the 5th graders. Another benefit of this project was that it gave my students another opportunity to design something in Tinkercad and to improve their skills on something before we move on to our final, more open-ended project.

Since my class only meets twice a rotation of seven days, it hasn’t exactly been speedy work. Next semester I hope that I can find or run into another chance to do the making part of another project for another class. I’m already volunteering them.

So, I’ve been thinking about what is normal and what kind of relationships we normalize in what we read in schools. I wrote about my experience reading Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan with my senior English elective, YA Fiction. I am continuing to think about these ideas given some professional learning on my part and more interaction with students, and just because I think it’s important.

CCO public domain image, by Stevebp on Pixabay.

CCO public domain image by Stevepb on Pixabay

Books are a big part of how students experience others and themselves. For white heterosexual students, they find themselves all over the place in books. For males in particular, they are the central characters time and again. They act. They search. They discover. They solve. They lead. They also dominate. A few years ago I attended a panel discussion that focused on diverse voices in YA fiction. Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely co-authors of All American Boys spoke about their early reading experiences. Keily noted that he saw himself in so many characters. Reynolds did not. Audience members pushed back saying that books let you see others and try out all sorts of unfamiliar ideas and actions. True. And, Reynolds argued, in order to see others in literature, you first have to see yourself. (I am paraphrasing and it was a while ago, but I’m confident that was the idea.)

So, when we have a diverse group of students in our classrooms (and some of that diversity is hidden from view) what do we have a responsibility to highlight? Really that is what we do when we pull a book out of the millions of titles out there and choose to read it. We highlight that book, that author, those characters, those ideas, those actions. Who sees themselves and who sees others? Should every student see him or herself at some point? If not, why not?

At an ADVIS event recently, Orpheus Crutchfield and Mary Rose Fernandez guided the group in discussing students and teachers of color in independent schools. We were asked to consider how seriously independent school really want diversity in a pluralistic society? What are independent schools willing to do to be places where diverse people (students, teachers, administrators, board members) want to be? I would not deliberately send my personal kids to a school that never read about them. My kids are white. There’s little chance of that happening. However, what about women and girls? Will my daughter see women acting in the literature she reads in high school, or will she read about women being acted upon? Will she have to identify with the men and boys in the books she reads to have any interesting characters to connect to? What if one or both of my kids is not heterosexual? What about students who have same-sex parents? Will they ever read about a relationship that speaks to them? Will all students read about people who are not white, and who are also neither victims nor incarcerated?

This year in my class, we are reading The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach. There are many relationships in the book–friends, mentor/mentee, teacher/student, romantic, familial. One of the relationships is between two men. Again, there is VERY little description of anything physical (PG-13 for sure), and again I got some wide eyes after an assignment where there was little more than a reference to sex. “I wasn’t expecting THAT,” I heard. Why not? All signs were pointing to these two getting together. We had discussed this potential and the ways the author was leading up to it. I think I should translate the students words. Rather than “I wasn’t expecting that,” I think the students was saying “I’m not used to reading about a gay relationship.” However, now the student will have read a book with a gay relationship. Next book, it won’t be a first.

I have no answers here. The only thing I am sure about is that part of my responsibility as the book chooser is to continue to highlight more than one story.

So, I’ve been thinking about commonplace books this school year. Ever since I saw Ann Hamilton’s exhibit habitus at the Philadelphia Fabric Workshop museum, I have been thinking about how this on going habit of collection and reflection. I wrote about it earlier and found others are writing about commonplace books this as well. An art colleague uses Pinterest with her class for their visual commonplace books. She finds it helps students hone in on what they might want to do for their independent projects.

Ann Hamilton's deconstructed commonplace book in her exhibit, habitus, at The Fabric Workshop. Photo by me.

Ann Hamilton’s deconstructed commonplace book in her exhibit, habitus, at The Fabric Workshop. Photo by me.

Well, we are about to begin our commonplace books. I have also been investigating hyperdocs, after the amazing @TeacherDebra featured this tool in her weekly round up recently. As I wrote before, I am trying to get students into a habit of noticing what they notice. Seniors, really any age readers, have their own interests, yet I worry that they have forgotten that they have their own interests around reading if teachers are always directing discussion. While I recognize my role in promoting a discussion that does more than recap plot, I am becoming more and more aware that students must play a more vital role in molding and shaping that discussion. If we are reading even quasi-good books, there is plenty to talk about. The question is not so much what has to be discussed, but what discussion the readers can generate.

As we read our big book of the semester, my goal is to do two things:

  1. to encourage and structure ways for students to notice what stands out for them as they read and to comment on this as they read.
  2. to empower and push students to be responsible for having a discussion that is of interest to them and one requires thinking beyond the plot.

I think these two goals go hand in hand. It will probably also mean some quiet and maybe awkward moments in class. Silence is not bad; I can wait.

We have read the first few chapter of our new book. I had several things I wanted to get out there at the beginning, so I set up a bit with our first discussion. Over the weekend I asked students to look at the hyperdoc below to get acquainted with commonplace books and our project. (I have talked about this in class before, so it’s not out of left field.)

I also asked that they respond to an online question asking what they wanted to talk about in regards to the reading. Could be a passage or an idea. I will see how this goes. I may alternate days between passages and big ideas, because I suspect big ideas will be what students suggest more frequently, and we do need to do some close, slow looking.

I am trying to be very clear with my class about these goals. It’s nothing secret. So far, when I have asked, they have stepped up.

(CCO public domain image from

(CCO public domain image from

So, I’ve been thinking about grading. The other day I wrote about how well my students were doing leading discussions of the book we were reading.

No problem there. My students continued to do a good job during all the presentations. The group leaders were prepared, and the rest of the class stepped up and participated solidly. I could even join in without it stopping conversation. For our last few conversations, I was back in charge. We had one okay discussion, and then the last class I had a particular activity that I wanted to do as a wrap up, big picture type thing.

Now the problem is, how to grade this?

I took notes during the discussion and asked the students to fill out a reflection/rubric. For the most part, they gave themselves high marks.

Why grade it, you may ask. Good question. Here are my reasons to grade this assignment:

  • I said this would be a graded activity, because I knew they would need to spend some significant time, and it’s a big part of class.
  • If students do a good job, I want to reward that. And, since they did mostly do really well, that is all good.
  • I’m not sure if we will be able devote this much time to student planned and led discussion later in the semester, so maybe I should grade it now, while I have something.

However, I don’t really want to grade them on this. Here are my reasons not to grade this assignment:

  • Each discussion gave the next group more to think about in terms of a model, especially at the beginning. The groups and the class got better at this format as we progressed.
  • Did early groups have a disadvantage? How/will I take that into account?
  • Group work is always hard to grade. Do I give the same score to everyone in the group? For a few groups, there was a clear less-active participant.
  • Do I really want these first attempts to be part of a cumulative average? They are hugely important for learning, but really this is formative work.

In a perfect semester, we would do this several more times. I could give feedback this time. We could work on adding complexity to some of their questioning. We would work on connecting to big themes. We would work up steadily to students leading discussion with more complex texts in terms of plot and numbers of characters.

Back in the real world, where I live, I can’t do everything. IF I spend all that time on leading discussion, we won’t be able to work on writing etc. We are finishing a short read of some comics/graphic novel. The format wasn’t familiar enough for students to lead on this one. And, I think it’s good to mix it up. We will be starting our last book for the semester shortly. It’s a big one with many characters of note, a number of interlocking storylines, and a lot of pages. I’m worried that between the number of pages I need people to read per night and the many things going on in the book, it would not be a good choice for general student led discussions. However, I might be able to plan some particular topic-chapter combinations that would work for shorter, focussed discussions.

None of this answers my grading question.

Anyone have any ideas?