Using new lenses. Paving new roads.

pexels-photo-877702.jpegThis has been a year of teaching shakeups for me, of seeing my classroom and my students through new lenses.

This year, I decided to stop grading writing.

That’s right.
I am a seventh grade English teacher, but I don’t grade writing any more.

Are you freaking out yet? Many teachers do. On the other hand, most of my students do not. They are psyched on this new arrangement.

I am, too. For years, I created different rubrics for every assignment with probably one hundred details in teeny tiny font to squish it all on one page. I revised or recreated them every year. I taught from these rubrics, a different one for every different writing assignment, and kids self-evaluated from it. But they didn’t own it. They didn’t use it as a tool to grow as writers. I’m just being painfully honest with myself here. Rubrics worked for me for a long time, until they didn’t. Until I started looking through some different lenses, until I realized what I’ve known for a long time. It wasn’t working for my students, whether any of us realized it or not. It was time for a new lens.

For clarification, not grading does not mean not teaching. Here’s what I do to get kids using the writing process during our genre studies.

First, we read many mentor texts written by published writers and former students, as well my own writing. Then, my students discuss what made that writing strong and brainstorm criteria. We’ve done this in fishbowls, though I want to try some other techniques that are more comfortable for my introverts. The criteria becomes the map they follow as they draft, revise, and edit. It becomes the blueprint for our conversations with me and with peers. “Am I cutting to the bone? Is my “So What?” clear? “Did I share enough of my thoughts, feelings, and opinions?”

This criteria becomes the foundation for the mini-lessons I teach the whole class and for the conferences I have with individual students. I conference multiple times with each student face to face about what they’re currently writing, and I track how many times we’ve met as well as a quick description of what we talked about during the conference. I try (sigh, I’m going to try harder) to give students a sticky note reminding them what we discussed during the conference so that they remember what to do. Students track their progress in the writing process on a big huge white board, and they can also see other kids’ progress. We are also working on setting goals for each new piece of writing, though this is a total work in progress as I figure out how to make it work best for kids.

For the record, this process is often a hot mess. I am just beginning. I try not to be too hard on myself!

Then, based on the criteria that my students and I established at the beginning of the genre study, they self-evaluate their writing. They use a single-point rubric to evaluate their strengths and areas to work on next time.

Because there will be a next time.

It’s not the last time they’ll cut to the bone, write a “So What,” or use TFO (thoughts, feelings, and opinions). They’ll try it again during an essay, a short story, or a book review. They get many chances to give it a go.

But we do not end any more with my purple pen stating, “This is advanced, or proficient, or, God forbid, novice.” I experiment with what the notation looks like in my gradebook. We don’t have portfolios at my school; we still give letter grades every quarter, so I keep thinking about what I want these notations to reflect. This shift is complicated, so I will save my thinking for another blog.

I have read a lot about giving feedback once a student is finished with a particular piece. It’s tantalizingly hard to resist writing all over a finished piece; won’t THIS insight make them see what they need to do next time? Sure, kids read the feedback, and they look at the grade. But does this really help them grow much, if at all, as writers? I have my doubts, and trust me, I have scored thousands of papers and worked with thousands of writers.

If feedback is most important during the writing process, where the writer can make changes in that moment, then why don’t I spend a whole lot less time and energy at the end? Why don’t I focus my efforts and my energy on the process-won’t this benefit the product most? More importantly, timely feedback in the moment benefits my WRITERS the most.

In the past, I always offered students the opportunity to revise and edit again, and I would regrade it. Very few students-maybe a few every year, if that-took advantage of this offer. This leads me to believe, once again, that it’s not about the grade, it’s not about the final feedback I used to spend hours on, it’s not about the rubric I created with fifty million little specific details that STILL doesn’t say exactly what I want it to.

And the grade itself? Well, if it’s an A, kids are happy momentarily, and if it’s not, it makes them feel bad. I’m oversimplifying, but my target has shifted.

I want my writers to grow. I want them to see their own growth. I want them to move towards this growth by figuring out what they care about, by taking risks, by experimenting, by playing with words, sentences, and ideas, and by figuring out how to make their audience care, too. A grade isn’t gonna do much. My feedback, my instruction along the way, their feedback and support from their peers, how we “float on a sea of talk” (Britton, 1970)-that’s what makes the difference.

I realize, acutely, that this is a work in progress. You can probably tell by my blog post! I have so many questions, so much to learn, and so many ways to grow. My students still need quarter grades, and I keep experimenting, tweaking, refining.  

I do know, in the immortal words of Dolly Parton, “If you don’t like the road you’re walking, start paving another.” Luckily for me, there are plenty of teachers out there paving the way. My job is to keep finding new lenses for my glasses.

If you are interested in single-point rubrics, here is a blog about it.

Here is a terrific blog from some Colorado teachers. They presented their ideas powerfully at NCTE 2017 in St. Louis.


With just a little more grace


This past month has grabbed me in an unnerving, relentless whole-body shakeup. I keep questioning if my experiment with writing workshop is best for kids. I keep questioning now that I’m emphasizing process over product, and right now the product is not meeting my expectations. I keep freaking out; what do my students need next? Where do we go after we finish our “This I Believe” essays, which, frankly, have been a struggle? Should I teach critical reviews, which I’ve never taught and am spending hours trying to find solid mentor texts for seventh graders? Should we write a quick poem? Should I acknowledge my burnout and teach a goals unit I love, kids love, and I’ve taught many times before…but is very teacher-driven, doesn’t help them with the common assessment, state testing, and I’m not sure how to workshop it? Or do I head into the abyss of persuasive essays, which take a long time and include many challenging moving parts for workshopping?

It’s all so new, and I am making so many mistakes. What do I need to stay inspired and energized? What do my students need to stay inspired and energized? Should I stop reading all these professional books, articles, and blogs on Twitter which fill my head with new ideas? What do I DO?  I am trying to keep the faith and find some clarity amidst my intense questioning, but it is challenging.

Finding immediate answers became less pressing to me this morning when I read the newest post from one of those blogs. One of my favorite inspirations to keep my currently shaky faith comes from a blog I’ve been reading called Three Teachers Talk. This morning, it gave me just what I needed. Shana Karnes wrote about how teaching is like a yoga pose, and she encourages us all to “embrace the wobble.” Right now I feel like I’m not only trying to stay upright in a handstand but also balancing fragile dishes on top of my feet as I attempt to walk around the room on my hands. Without dropping or breaking anything. Without falling. Without failing.

Then, I read her next words. “It’s only by being uncomfortable, by trying new things day or week or year in and out, that we can improve as teachers.”

Thank you. I needed that today. I am almost constantly uncomfortable as I try so hard to hold my pose, to find the grace in flipping upside down and looking at my teaching world from that angle without falling over.

Part of my internal struggle is that I feel like I have too much to prove with my new journey. I believe the workshop model is what is best for kids, and I have seen it work this year. However, when it’s not working, it feels not just messy or uncomfortable. Occasionally it feels painfully, excruciatingly terrible.I need to remember that I’ll hold my handstand longer when I stretch new muscles, when I listen, when I pay deep, neutral attention, when I let go. When I fall over (and I’m about to), the trick is to get back up, take deep breaths, and try again.

Most importantly, handstands don’t just happen. They take time. Practice. Trial and error. Tuning in. Learning what works and what doesn’t work.

Maybe I need to reread the quotes posted outside my classroom window about making mistakes. Maybe we’ll all try a balancing yoga pose tomorrow in class for our brain break as I remind my students and myself. Discomfort leads to growth.

If this is true, I could potentially grow ten feet taller by the end of this school year. Then, maybe I can hold my handstand just a little longer, just a little stronger, and with just a little more grace. Because when we allow ourselves to wobble, when we permit ourselves to fall, then we can rise up again, better than ever. 


Deadlines vs. Engagement

goldfishOne of the main reasons I decided to shift to writing workshops is this: I want engaged students. Not compliant ones. And there is a huge difference.

I have always tried to strike a balance between writing process and the final writing product. My ego does get involved in the product. Giving up control of the process means that the final writing product may not be the polished, pretty piece I am accustomed to.  

It’s kind of like when your children learn how to wrap presents. You have to let certain things go. The bow is crooked, the wrapping paper won’t match and Scotch tape is used indiscriminately. It does not look department-store ready. But it’s THEIRS. Not mine.

It’s the same with writing workshop. The final product could look a whole lot messier than I’m used to. It’s my students’ writing, generated from their decision making, crafting, use of time, and problem-solving. Not mine.

The next time they wrap presents, they get better at it. It’s real, messy, frustrating, and beautiful. If I step in and corral my students through a process they don’t own, they are complying to my terms. They’re wrapping my package, not theirs. And I don’t want just compliant writers. I want them playing, wrestling, struggling, and trying because they care, because they want their words to be heard, because they know their words and efforts matter.

We are heading towards finishing personal narratives. My seventh graders started writing them in mid November and will turn them in next week. Too many of them are not finished, even with a first draft.  This gives me heart palpitations. It makes me feel like I am not doing enough. I am not structuring things in a way to keep my kids moving forward and feeling successful. I am not holding kids accountable enough. I am not offering enough support. My directions aren’t clear enough. My expectations aren’t clear enough. My experiment with writing workshop makes them less successful, and it’s not fair to them. Basically, I’m freaking out. And so on and so forth, the questions and doubts swim through my head like restless goldfish searching for nuggets of food.

These doubts make me want to set deadlines, to wrest control of the process, to say, Okay, today we’re back to all doing the same thing at the same time. I give you deadlines, I keep showing you what I want, and you do it.

However, my experiment has shown me that there’s no turning back. We’ve had a taste of freedom, of choice, of that open road, and we don’t want to return to our narrow streets, all heading the same direction.

When we enact big changes, it is all too tempting to return to our default, our comfort zone. As we all know, our comfort zones can be completely dysfunctional and unhealthy. My teaching zone wasn’t; my student writers grew every year. But I kept being haunted by the idea that there was a better way.

Recently, as I agonized over my conundrum, the lightbulb brightened. My kids don’t need deadlines. They need more engagement. I can’t tell them what their writing process is or should be any more than I can tell them who to marry. We’re discovering preferences, and right now, this is all new. Many of my kids are engaging with their writing in different ways. They are learning how to own it. They need my continued enthusiasm. They need to talk to each other. They need to keep sharing parts and whole pieces of writing with each other and with me, and they need to keep feeling seen, feeling understood. That connection keeps me writing, too. I need to keep showing them why their words matter to me and to each other and to themselves. I need to keep catching them playing, taking risks, trying, and rewarding them for their ownership of their writing, for shifting their ideas of themselves and what they’re capable of.

Instead of setting tons of deadlines because I’m freaking out that they won’t finish or that the quality will suffer, I need to remember how powerful it is for students to learn what they need as writers and who they are as writers. Most have no clue. This year I am giving them the gift of time and space to figure it out, to give them permission to play, take risks, and, yes, to make mistakes and fail. I need to give myself that same permission. 

When I see our writing class as a safe place to try, fall,  and try again, when I realize many of my students ARE engaged, when I remember I want engaged students, not merely compliant ones, I tell the frantic goldfish in my mind, “It’s okay. Keep swimming. We’re on the right track.” We don’t need tons of deadlines (though some, I realize, are necessary!)

The product may not arrive in a shiny package any more.

But here’s the difference. It’s not MY package any more. It’s theirs to keep forever. 

The “Share a Line” Shakedown

Hands down, one of my favorite parts of the Writing Workshop is an idea called “Share a line.” I discovered “Share a Line” in Penny Kittle’s wonderful book, Write Beside Them. During the last five minutes of class, my seventh graders read a sentence they wrote that day. I still can’t believe they do it! It’s a joyful little miracle every single day.

Every day, as we go around the circle, my students pause. They mark the spot in their writing that they want to share. Then, we all take turns reading.

Every day, I get goosebumps.  

Here’s what an especially good day might sound like.

Picture seventh grade voices. Some voices squeak, while others crack. Some voices sound like they are five years older than they really are, while others sound five years younger.

Picture a hushed classroom. We dim the lights, and we all listen intently, another small miracle with twelve year olds. Here are eight voices shared.  

*Five words. Five words that became who I was. Five words that suddenly defined me. “You’re just a pretty girl.”

*“Grandma has lung cancer. They’re going to put her on chemo but there’s only a small chance it could work.” I hugged my parents and slipped back into my room. My dad’s words smothered me, and I couldn’t breathe.

* “Look out below!,” screamed Josh, throwing himself off the twenty-five foot cliff, splashing into the frigid water below him.

*“Can I tell you something personal?” she asked, her warm brown eyes looking dead at me. I nodded. She looked at me for a while longer, to assure herself she could trust me. “My parents fight,” she said, “not just occasionally picking fights, but real fighting.”

* I ran through a set of hurdles and was walking back when Senora asked me, “Why do you always walk on your toes?”

*“ Leave me alone,”  she blubbered through her sobs.

*“Let’s go!” shouted Coach Morgan, but as I looked over at the scoreboard and saw the 6-4 score, I knew it was over.

*“It’s going to be okay,” my mom said in a voice that told me she was convincing herself as much as she was trying to convince me.

When we first began this experiment, many kids were scared to share anything and didn’t want to be vulnerable. This makes total sense to me. It’s hard to share your writing. Talk about feeling exposed. As an option, kids could choose to share one word. This helped them break through the initial terror of actually reading their own writing out loud in front of twenty other hormonal middle schoolers.

To make sure the classroom feels especially safe, I am also a ‘blurt enforcer.’ I am not super strict in general, but I tell kids right off the bat: they will have to stay after class if they talk, blurt, or whisper while we’re sharing. They get the message. They pay attention-usually, since after all, this IS middle school, and they ARE distracted by Every Single Thing. But the beauty is that they are also intensely curious about each other. 

Sometimes, I’ll have kids focus on a specific skill. For example, if we’re working on dialogue during mini-lessons, I’ll encourage them to select a line of dialogue. Sometimes we don’t have time for everyone to share, so I’ll use name cards to call on five or six students randomly. Sometimes, like today, we were working on writing hooks for personal narratives, so I asked two students if they would end class by reading their hooks in the “Author’s Chair” or by projecting their writing on the Hovercam so that we could read it along with them on the big screen. I had half the class wanting to share their hooks after that.

When students share, I don’t comment. I try to stay neutral and then get really excited at the end. Or I just smile at the student or give a little nonverbal positive reaction. I don’t want to break the spell. I’m practicing listening, too.

Now for the shakedown.

I am seeing my classroom culture change. I believe it’s partly due to the fact that every day we put everything aside and end our class with this simple yet powerful moment. We listen to each other. Because we listen closely and carefully, kids feel heard and seen.

Please note. This is NOT an easy group of students. I love ‘em, but there are a lot of tough cookies and wounded souls. Last year, I heard a lot about how unkind they were to each other. I was worried that this whole thing could backfire miserably. I credit our sixth grade teachers a ton for teaching them empathy, because now we are reaping the benefits at the end of class.

Recently, every student stood up at the front of our classroom and read one entire original poem out loud. Yes, kids were nervous. My own husband couldn’t believe it. “You made all your seventh graders read one of their OWN poems?!” he joked. It helped that they got cookies and doughnuts! However, many kids told me they were much less nervous than they expected. Many kids understood it was because they had all been sharing snippets of their writing for weeks already. They were used to having their voices be heard.

I heard recently that the vast majority of teenagers do not feel seen, no matter their gender, race, cultural background, religion, or sexual identification.

Every day, my kids’ writing is heard, and I think to myself, “I see you. We see you.”

I can only hope that this moment we take every day reminds us how we are all more alike than different. I can only hope listening to each others’ words reminds us of our shared humanity.

High hopes, I know, but I am an eternal optimist, and I believe in my students.

Share a line.


More questions than answers

lava-diving-towersMany years ago, I lifeguarded at the neighborhood pool. We had a lot of down time on cloudy days, and we had many creative modes of entertainment. One of our favorite spots was the diving well. This was back when pools still had not only diving boards but diving platforms. I’d watch as my braver fellow lifeguards would climb the ladder to the diving platform twenty feet up and then flip, cascading gracefully way down into the deep end. When I climbed onto the platform, shaking, stomach in knots as I looked down at the turquoise square of chlorinated water far below me, I couldn’t stop thinking, I can’t do it. I can jump, but I can’t flip.

Then, one day, I climbed up on the platform and thought, “Well, I can do this.” I stopped looking all the way down. I stopped overthinking it. I reminded myself that I could do a front flip and a back flip off the low diving board, and the higher platform just gave me more time to complete the rotation. And I started to breathe.

Now I’m taking a similar plunge in my teaching career. After twenty years of teaching writing, and after twenty years of remaining simultaneously curious and terrified about writing workshops, I am transforming my class into a true writing workshop. Now my students choose  their topics. They choose which genre they are working on. They choose when a piece of writing is finished, and they choose what they will write next, not me. I am just providing structures, support, and coaching to guide them to their own discoveries and processes.

Here’s why, and my reasons are at the heart of my love of teaching.

I want my writers to be engaged rather than merely compliant. I want to help my writers, not their writing. I want them to become curious, independent, and empowered writers. I do not want to rob my middle school students of this rich opportunity to discover not only what matters in their lives but why it matters so much.

As a writer, I know my own writing process. I relish choosing whatever I read, and by the same token, I want to choose what, when, and how and why I write.

So why haven’t I handed my students this same great freedom? We don’t all write the same way using the same process. Giving students the freedom to choose and to discover their own process is paramount to their development as writers and as thinkers. So what has held me back for all of these years?

Fear. The same fear that kept me from initially taking the plunge off that diving platform over thirty years ago.

Is my classroom going to turn into chaos? Can I still address all the standards I am supposed to be teaching? Will my students feel prepared as they move into eighth grade and on to high school? How will this affect my writers who struggle and need more structure-will they still feel successful? And, the most important question of all-will my students like writing workshop? Will they grow as writers in the ways I fervently hope they will? Will they be engaged and motivated?

Fear is not holding me back any more.

I needed to put my fear to the side and educate myself rather than speculating and wondering.  Last spring, I read books by Penny Kittle and Linda Rief. I searched on the Internet and read articles about writing workshops. I watched videos. I spent all summer taking a 6 credit class based on Nancie Atwell’s In the Middle. Most importantly, I talked with my curriculum director, my principal, and my colleagues. And this knowledge and these conversations fed my belief that this was how I want to teach my writers.

In my defense, it’s no secret; middle school students are not easy. I love their energy, their optimism, and their ability to quickly forgive and forget. I also appreciate their questioning, their rebellion, and their sass, but they can be total nut jobs. We all were! Believe me, I’ve heard how tough they are from their parents, not to mention parenting my own pre-teens. Honestly, the thought of letting them loose, of giving up the little control I had, of relinquishing the always-fragile classroom management, terrified me. Even now. Even after years of guiding kids through the writing process. Middle school kids are distracted by their fingernails, by Sharpie markers, or by someone’s new braces, not to mention Picture Day or Halloween. And, some of my students, as a direct result of the trauma they’ve experienced, have an extremely difficult time self-regulating. For many years, I agonized. By giving my students freedom, would I lose control? Would they?

Our world is changing rapidly. I honestly do not know what particular skill sets my students will need ten years from now. I do know that they will always need to problem-solve, to think critically, to respond kindly and honestly to the opinions and words of others, to listen deeply. Choosing topics, choosing when a piece of writing is finished, choosing what to write next, and choosing how, when, and why they write will guide them towards greater self-reliance, confidence, and trust in their abilities to listen, read, write, and speak. Now I understand that my ‘loss of control’ is my students’ great gain as lifelong learners.

I will blog much more about the nuts and bolts as I stumble, make mistakes, and grow this year. I can already see how writing workshop is transforming my classroom and how my students perceive themselves as writers. I will also say that I have many more questions than answers, but I am embracing the challenge. We can jump and flip from high places together, and we will come up for breath.