Posts Tagged ‘English’

So, I’ve been thinking about the looking, seeing, and interpreting skills of my students. I’ve been talking with a few colleagues about a potential broad interdisciplinary, humanities course.

After a long, involved chain of events, I found myself in possession of both a new copy of  Ways of Seeing by Jon Berger and Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental Professor by Lynda Barry. I purchased them both at the same very small bookstore on a lovely afternoon of wandering about with my husband. Ah, winter break. Picking them both up at the same store was a happy coincidence that made me think about them together.

Anyway, I read Ways of Seeing decades ago and was reminded of it again last school year by a colleague. When I tried to find my copy at home, I couldn’t. So, it’s been on my mind recently as I’ve continued looking for it. Another colleague has been suggesting Syllabus, but her copy is also missing (as in she lent it to someone who keeps forgetting to return it). The two titles were already linked in their lostness, but I did not notice.

Well, now I have put them together as a new twisted pair. (Old twisted pair blogging challenge description)

I am part way through Syllabus and have begun rereading Ways of Seeing. They are certainly VERY different reading experiences; in fact, I really cannot overstate how different. Syllabus‘ pages are combinations of drawings, doodles, and handwritten text. The pages are colorful and lively. There is a lot of space to think and a lot of need to think about what is not being said. Ways of Seeing has images as well, but there is no shortage of words. As a reader, there is a lot of information coming at you in the words, rather than in the spaces.

However, I am also struck by their similarities. Although they are approaching the task from wildly different angles, both Barry and Berger are thinking about the interplay between words and images, seeing and drawing.

As I continue reading and rereading this twisted pair of books, I am getting so many ideas for ways to incorporate these ideas and habits into my English class. . .

Back to reading.


So, I’ve been thinking about excellence. The book my class is reading has meant that we have been talking a lot about greatness–what it is, what it isn’t, what we want it to be, what we don’t want it to be, what it’s like to have it or to witness it. As we were talking about it the other day, I was reminded of Ron Berger’s book The Ethic of Excellence that I read many years ago. The sentence (idea really) that I took away from the book is this: excellence is transformative. At 5th grade back to school night, I told my students’ parents and guardians that I wanted that experience of excellence being transformative for each of their students–that I could not hand it out for free, but that I wanted each child to see that potential in him or herself. Then there was dramatic music.I decided this was one of my goals for the year.

I mentioned Ron Berger’s idea that recognizing the potential for excellence in oneself is transformative to my group of seniors this year as we discussed characters struggling with their potential or lack of potential for greatness. They were less than wowed. There was no dramatic music. We moved on.

CCO public domain image by Keliblack on

CCO public domain image by Keliblack on

Then, I corrected tests and decided to read some good answers aloud to the class when I returned the tests. I gave some general comments and mentioned how one of the common challenges was not getting to that big idea, not moving beyond retelling, when answering the more complex questions. I read a few short answers from one student who did in fact get to a big idea every time and a passage analysis by another student who also got to the thematic issues. The class could tell that these were good answers– that they went somewhere and had something to say. The two students puffed up. They were smiling big on the inside, even if they were playing it cool; they weren’t so cool that I was fooled. They felt that power of being recognized by others as excellent. I have to say that I was reminded again that these big, almost-grown people sitting in front of me are not so different from my old 5th graders (in fact sometimes they are those exact 5th graders).

When we broke up into small groups later that period, one of the students whose work I read took a much more active role in the group that usual, leading discussion, engaging with the group. Of course I know that there is no proof of causation here. And, I know both those students left feeling like this is a class where they can be excellent. Same student a few days later mentioned paying extra close attention to a particular grammatical error that I have pointed out too many times. And a few days after that the other student that I had recognized also made a point to break, at least for one quiz, another problematic habit that I have mentioned over and over.




All of this has me thinking about my responsibilities. I am responsible for this experience for as many students as possible, not just these two. Why don’t I read more good work aloud? I have some reasons (they are not necessarily acceptable excuses, just reasons):

  • The 48 minute class period. Where does the time go?!
  • In high school there is just less little stuff that gets turned in.
    • When I taught 5th grade, I had students doing short writing on our blog all the time. And, I could share (or the students could see without me) little examples of good work frequently. Plus, I had control over so much of the day in 5th grade. “My classes” with the students amounted to almost all of the “big stuff”. Now I’m just one of the classes, and I don’t get to say what is most important. (What? This continues to be difficult for me to come to grips with.)
  • How hard am I looking for opportunities to do this? (Probably not hard enough.)
  • I have not valued this enough, and therefore I have not given it time.

So, here’s my plan going forward. As I think about it, there are a bunch of times when I have said things like, “lots of people did a really nice job” or this particular part of the assignment” was really successful for a lot of people.” Why not just read some examples? It’s much more specific feedback and gives those who were not as successful information as well. Between writing the first draft of this post and publishing, I had some old examples all set to read in class. What happened? Well, I was going to do the sharing at the end of class. Then, we ran out of time. Sigh.

There’s not too much time left before exams. However, if I come in with something to share each day (maybe two things), and I manage to get to the sharing half the time, I can make some in roads.

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 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?

So, Ive been thinking about student ownership of and engagement in class discussion. I teach a section of senior English (the course is called Good Reads), and I do not want to lecture or have a forced march through each page of the books we read.

When I taught 5th grade, I did a lot of work with my class on gradually being more independent in discussions. I had all year to work on this. We started with much more teacher led discussions, did a lot of commenting on a blog for homework to get ready for discussion (wow did this improve the level of discourse!), moved to round table “Great Books” style discussions (teacher does not answer questions, only asks questions), then to students leading group discussion on the blog, and finally to students leading very small in person discussions. It was a lot of work to make that transition happen, but we did usually get there.

In high school, I think those of us who teach discussion based classes, sometimes imagine that students will just take ownership of discussions, be involved, see the bigger picture. (I have a vivid imagination and also like to imagine that there is time in the week for me to do all my work, have lovely dinner table conversations with my family over delicious, home-cooked meals, read for pleasure, exercise, and make art. HA!)

Here are a few things that I find get in the way of student ownership and engagement in discussion:

  • Other classes! It turns out students have work to do in other classes too and can’t devote all their time or energy to my reading. What?!
  • Bells and set periods. To do this well, I would like to have time to debrief, discuss not just the content and skills of English class, but also the skills and habits that lead to good discussion. 48 minutes goes by in a flash. By the time everyone arrives, we are down to 44. And, the big kids can have longer conversations once they get going, which is great. It leaves less time for that important reflecting work.
  • The reading is more complex. If students are going to be in charge of the discussion, the content has to be at a “take charge level” which is probably lower than a “listen and understand” level. (These are very technical terms.)
  • Grades. Ugh.

So, nothing on the list above is going away. I am forging ahead.

Last year I tried using some of the literature circle roles in small groups with choice books (I wrote about the set up and the entire experiment.) We did discuss what I was looking for in advance; however, it was more about the different jobs. Leading up to the small group discussions, I made a point to call out when I was dong one or the other job in the course of our discussion, but since the literature circle format (jobs etc) is not necessarily familiar to students, the jobs piece was too forced. The discussions themselves were mixed. Sometimes better than others. It was ok, but as I am thinking about it now, we had not practiced enough in a bigger group, and most importantly I did not follow up on the roles and expectations of the group. There ended up being too many competing interests. That’s on me.

Back to this year.

We are reading a number of books, but I decided that The Catcher in the Rye was perfect for student groups to lead discussions. First of all, I think it falls into the “take charge level” in terms of difficulty. We are also not worrying about the readers workshop/literature circle jobs so much as what makes for a quality discussion. Together we generated a bit of a list and I added some. Ultimately we ended up with this document, although the first time around I forgot the specific pages part.

Before early groups were in charge, I email the group to remind them of the general outline, that they can rearrange the room however they want, and offer myself to support however they need.

The first discussion was fine. Several people were absent and the group hadn’t gotten the “find a passage” reminder. They had some good questions ready and wanted to engage the group. I passed them a note part way through to encourage them to find a way to quiet one person to give others room to talk. However, they did not enter into the conversation much themselves. I later realized that this might be them copying what I do when we have a particular type of discussion. I do it because, as I have written about before, when I join in, everyone looks to me. So, before the second group I made sure to clarify that they did not have to be, and should not be, as removed.

The second group went last week. They planned a task to get the group going. It was a good opening option, but the class hung back. I finally jumped in with an answer/passage. This got things rolling. The group did a good job with questions and bigger themes as well as having particular passages that someone read aloud, and we then discussed. In addition, they managed to invite some quieter students into the conversation. Their discussion had legs.

I noticed that the groups have both chosen to have us sit around a big table, which is fine. Both groups have also mostly just lead discussions, no particular activities. So, at the end of discussion two, I reminded folks that an activity for part of the time was an option too.

Today, the third group guided our discussion. They had a theme around which they focussed our attention. It related to the section they were tasked with discussing, but also the earlier sections. The group of three took turns, engaged with the group, and had particular passages ready. The topic led the class to branch out and connect the book to themselves and what is going on in the world. Again, several of the more quiet students joined in.

Needless to say, I am very happy with how things are going. Not only are the students stepping up and coming prepared, I am able to participate in the conversation as another class member (almost). Maybe I can join in because we have other, assigned leaders. I’m not sure. The more I think about it though, I think that there are a number of things that have contributed to our success.

  • We talked about the parts of a discussion and made a list of what the groups were responsible for in advance.
  • I have been able to do a tiny bit of debriefing with the entire class after (sometimes days after) each discussion.
  • The content, in this case The Catcher in the Rye, is at a “student ownership” level.
  • They are having good conversations, which leads to more people being involved, which leads to better conversations etc. It’s a good cycle.

Now if only I did not have to figure out how to grade this.