A Learning Conference

The first quarter of seventh grade has ended. Final grades are due. Students are checking the portal, comparing grades, bartering with teachers for a few more points to bump up this grade or that.

I don’t want to talk about grades, but it is part of school culture.  I’ve written about what I call “the ghosts of gradings past” and how so much of our learning mindset is wrapped up in past grading experiences. So, I am trying ways to change the evaluation process by including learning conversations around the mandatory grading periods. In this post, I share a few of those conversations.

The end of a term should be, in my view, a time to celebrate learning, reflect on growth, and give thanks, so I set aside a couple days at the end of the quarter to talk to students one-on-one and try to do all of “that” (celebrate, reflect, and give thanks) in under five minutes. It may seem like an inconsequently length of time, but I think it makes all the difference in our learning relationships.

Prior to conferences, students prepare portfolios in the form of parent-letters and portfolios. I read, view, and listen to these culminating projects throughout the last week of the quarter, and then on the last day of our term, I begin class by asking students to journal for about ten minutes on any or all of these questions:

Then, students work on an alternate project– silent reading, blogging, research, or even writing a novel–while I meet with students one-on-one for our conference. In the three videos offered here with parent permission, I follow a similar format. We talk about their reflection; we decide on a final grade; and I thank them for their contributions to our learning community. Each student offers something unique to our class, and the conference is an opportunity for me to share my observations and gratitude.

Students tell me that they struggled to find time to read but figured out a routine that worked for them. They tell me they are noticing authorial choices in the books they read. They tell me they are learning how to make their stories come alive. They tell me they are writing because they love it and not because it’s an assignment. They tell me that they know they are writers because their classmates laugh at their stories, compliment their word choice, and ask them to write a sequel.

A conference should be a conversation to uncover how students see themselves as readers and writer through and beyond the artifacts or evidence. I want insight into their thinking and self-perception, and I want to share with them what I am learning about who they are and are becoming as readers, writers, and class members so that we can build on those experiences.

Below are two more learning conferences.  The first minute or so are the most important for me as a teacher.  The next two minutes, I do more talking than I’d like, but I think the last 30 seconds may be the most important to students because it’s when I tell students how fortunate I feel to be their teacher. For many, this is the first time they’ve heard a teacher express such gratitude.


Nurturing the Being and Becoming of a Reading Life

On September 30th, Kylene Beers posted a memo to teachers on Facebook with advice on how we can talk to administrators about the value of independent reading programs.  She includes three research articles that teachers could share with principals. Then, she goes on to say this:

And then remind your principal that you aren’t building an entire curriculum around students reading choice novels each and every day for each and every minute. Instead, independent reading is a part of your day; it’s when they practice independently — with books they choose — the reading skills and strategies you’ve been teaching them.

After reading Mrs. Beers’s post, I felt so relieved, so validated to have a scholar-researcher-teacher, whom I respect and follow, to support the spirit of the independent reading program that I have developed for my junior high students.

However, the dark history of independent reading programs like AR, choice-by-Lexile/letter, and reading logs looms. I feel like any independent reading that is part of the curriculum is doomed because of the measurement discourse that consumes education. Thus, whispers of doubt about what I am doing haunt me. Am I nurturing/reviving reading lives or am I committing readicide (Gallagher) when I make choice-reading integral to what we do in our class?

An Independent Reading Program

For the first five weeks of school, students read choice novels in class, and I asked them to apply/transfer strategies and concepts we practiced together to their own reading experiences. I watched them do this in class to offer support and feedback in their own reading progress forms, which they created and personalized in a Google form. The next four weeks, we read a shared text in class to learn a few more strategies, and I asked students to transfer/apply these strategies to their reading at home in their form. I envisioned this Google form as a site where readers track their own progress for the entire school year. 36 weeks of reading choices and comprehension/analysis practice in one place that they own and manage (and share with me). Titles, authors, genres, forms, reading highs, reading slumps, mirrors, windows, sliding doors — an artifact of a reading life being and becoming.  Here’s what it looks like after 9 weeks or 43 days of school, which is pretty close to what I envisioned:

This reader is using Notice and Note to make claims about her reading and practice text citation.

Imagine the infamous “data digs” with this beauty, but, even better, imagine students doing the data analysis — reflecting on their choices, experiences, and discoveries about themselves and reading and the world. That’s what we do every four weeks. The reflection helps us celebrate and tweak our practice so that we can continue to stretch into new reading experiences.

The data will change as students’ lives and needs change. Why they read–pleasure, escape, interest, research, insight–will change. The Google form is one way to track, monitor, and reflect on all that real readers do over time.

Now for the Whispers of Doubt

For students with established reading lives, I am asking them to slow down a little bit — a break from voraciously devouring book after book — to notice something. By no means do I  suggest that every time students read that they have to write a response. No. As a reader, I don’t do this, but I do write notes on Goodreads or Instagram a few times a week after I read — to reflect, share, process, to track my books. This form is their space for all of that. Still, this shift was/is uncomfortable for some readers. I am asking them to stretch, even disrupt,  their comfy independent reading routine.

In conferring with students, I hear that they are discovering that they can still get lost in a book AND use their readerly voice to interact with the text, to practice the thinking and analytical skills we are doing in class.

To be fair, however, many of the established readers are also conscientious students who just do what the teacher says (so I check in with them often to talk about what they love about the books).  Still, there are a few who are just now trusting me enough to try something new because they didn’t buy that the tracking, reflecting, conferring could help them become stronger readers. Reading was already part of their identity, and the test scores proved that they were “good” readers. What could a reading program that asked them to stretch into new genres, forms, topics, cultures, and ways of responding possibly offer them?

The whispers of doubt are a little louder with the less-established readers; the dissonance is especially unsettling in the form of student voices asking me this: “Next quarter, do we have to keep doing the responses?”  This sentiment mostly comes from readers still licking wounds from the days when they’d have to stare at a book waiting for the timer to go off or assuaging their conscience from the days when they’d forge their parent’s signature on a reading log; the reading progress form is a wolf dressed in sheep’s clothing. I get that. Some readers haven’t felt the beauty of the reading flow. They haven’t learned the difference between liking a book and gleaning value from a book (Readicide, 57). They think this form is something to endure; IR is not essential to a reading education; and, if they keep refusing that it/I would go away.

If I truly believe that a reading life is something we have to nurture within and beyond the classroom, I have to help every reader find the joy, appreciate the value, experience satisfaction.  It’s nurturing a reading “life” not a reading grade.

Book groups are next, and I hope the reading groups will do what I could not for our reading resistors. We are diving into contemporary issues in America and beyond. Students will compare a book representation to research-based representations. The purpose will still be to stretch our reading lives, but it will also be more project-based and collaborative.


Inevitably, any sort of curriculum that values independent reading leads to questions of evaluation: How many books should I read? How many minutes should I read? How many days a week do I have to read? How teachers handle this is, in my view, what shifts nurturing a reading life toward readicide.

I know students just want to know how they’ll be evaluated, but some while some are really asking how little they have to do or trying to figure out if they can fake their way through, others are asking how they should organize their time. I don’t want independent reading to be about holding readers accountable or about a good grade. I want something fundamentally different. A reading life. And a rich one at that. A life that comes with deliberate choices.

I tell students this: “What, when, and how much depends on you; it depends on the book; it depends on your schedule; it depends on how you like to read — so much depends.” I try to undermine the measurement discourse with conversatipns about places to read, snacks, times of day. We actually talk about this in class so that we can try on different routines.

Instead of reading homework in the form of worksheets or projects, I just ask that students make some time to read each day understanding that it might not always be possible. I also ask that, a few times a week, readers write a short response in their progress forms to 1) document their progress (title, author, genre, form) and 2) to practice some of the skills we do in class, to see what they notice in their own books.

I encourage page or chapter goals instead of time because so many students have been trained to put in 10 or 15 minutes only to have never actually read. Some students have said that when they have a chapter goal that they often read further because, well, chapters have mini-cliffhangers.

Essentially, nurturing a reading life is complex, but I want to stretch students from their being to their becoming. Their personal progress sheets help me to do that, but I am all-to-aware that my intentions can be misinterpreted and that I am fighting the ghosts of readings past, so I really try to personalize the assessment process.

Once a week, I check the reading form for insight into their choices, experiences, patterns, and application of our work together. I look for patterns across responses and use that to inform my teaching and conferences with students. I know who I have to spend more time with and who needs a new book.

I don’t “grade” this, per se. I assess. I give feedback each week about what I am noticing, then I meet with certain students who are struggling with finding time to read or who need help in their responses transitioning from retelling to entering a conversation about or commenting on what their books are doing and saying. If students are not reading, not responding then they will not have evidence to point to of how they are developing in their independent practice, how their reading life within and beyond the classroom is growing.

When it comes to the end of the term (when we confer about final grades), students who are not reading beyond the classroom will simply not have evidence of reading growth, which will impact their grade. This will also show me, them, and their parents that we have to do some problem-solving. I just cannot accept the death of a reading life.

I am committed to reading in class. It’s an environment in which I can set the tone. I cannot control what happens at home, but I know that what we do in school has to transfer beyond those walls. Otherwise, we are just doing school and not educating.

For hope and sustenance, I have Kylene Beers and these words from Kelly Gallagher:

Small Group Discussions and Self-Assessment

I try to keep Fridays a low-tech, relaxed, community day in our class. In reading, that means time to get into groups to discuss books.

It’s our third week together, and I want to know how students think, talk, and behave in small groups.  I also want to hear them talk about what they are noticing in their books. In a class of 30 students, it is challenging (to say the least) to observe seven small groups in order to assess their small group collaboration and reading skills.  In the past, I recorded book group discussions with a digital audio recorder; I thought this was great until I learned about Screencastify, which is a free camera recording extension that captures voices and faces, what they say and how they say it to other readers. Screencastify creates an artifact — evidence of students demonstrating what they know and can do– at one point in their learning. When they post this artifact on a blog to share with their teacher and group members, it also becomes a learning tool.

One Friday, I asked students to get into groups of four or five with one member responsible for recording their discussion. I offered a small handout with questions related to our work during the week to a group leader. After the discussion, the group leader posted the recording to our class blog.

On Monday, I asked students to analyze their discussion by 1) diagramming with arrows the interactions within the conversation and 2) marking when each member asks a question, responds, uses text evidence. Then, I asked students to self-assess their group skills based on the evidence in the video. None of this is for a grade; it is purely diagnostic so that we can discuss and move toward growth.

What students quickly discovered is that the discussion was much more Q & A — the group leader asking questions, members taking turns responding, not too many follow-up questions or connections.  Some found new books they’d like to read, and many enjoyed the experience of just getting to talk about their reading.

We discussed how questions can get the conversation going, but within the responses, there are spaces to go deeper with analyzing why things happen in the story and how characters are changing. As group members, we can help one another think more deeply with questions. In sharing our reading experiences and books, we can find connections in the characters, subjects, stories — similarities and differences in how authors represent them. Also, a conversation is much more dynamic — the conversation arrows don’t have to be back and forth but can go in all different directions.

That Friday, we had another group discussion. This time, students wrote their own questions — not all that different than mine the first time around, but this way, each member had a question to contribute to the discussion.

We recorded the discussions again, but I suggested that no one even looks into the camera because that would mean they are not using eye contact with their group members. I used this mnemonic device — Word PEACE — to help them consider the features of a good small group discussion: use words related to the topic (academic language/jargon); be prepared having done the reading with notes or questions; encourage equal contributions among members; ask follow-up questions to help each member get at the how and why of their reading; connect ideas also as a way to get at deeper understanding; use eye contact to be sure you are attending to the discussion.

It should be no surprise that the second group discussion went significantly better than the first. That’s the nature of learning: understanding, skills, and confidence improve with informed practice.Students also had more fun. We will now take time on Monday to look at the second discussion and do a play-by-play analysis — again charting the discourse with arrows, noting the balance of contributions, and reflecting on small group collaboration skills. This is learning. Here is a link to one discussion; the books include Flora and Ulysses, Inside Out and Back Again, All in Pieces, Girl on a Plane.


Alex Corbitt was kind enough to pass around a chart I made for my talk on assessment at nErDcamp, Michigan.  I was glad to see people were intrigued by the distinction between assessment and grading, which is important because informed feedback with time for practice is essential for learning. What we did here with our small group book discussions was essentially observational feedback, which increased an awareness of how conversations can flow. The first was more like a quiz, and the second was more exploratory. The students were the change-agents, and my role was to gently guide and reinforce academic language and collaboration skills as they practiced, which was, for the most part,  reminding them to ask follow-up questions like “How do you know that?” or “What makes you say so?”.

Flipping the Classroom, Flipping the Mindset

Name Signs_Rachel
see: http://www.ethicalela.com/namescommunity/

Nameplates help teachers learn the names of students efficiently. Lesley Roessing posted an enhanced version of the nameplate strategy on Ethical ELA last year, which incorporated interest-imagery and art (see example on the right). This year, I opted for flipping the nameplate activity in order to flip the mindset of our classroom, which meant I also needed to flip how I introduced myself.  I am not sure if the flipped classroom is still on trend, but in this post, I share two flips to emphasize kind collaboration and questioning-to-uncover, foundational elements of the ethical classroom.

Flipping the Nameplate Author

Instead of students making their own nameplates, students made a nameplate for a classmate.

To begin, students generated a list of non-academic bits of information they wanted to learn about one another, which ranged from favorite YouTube channels to cats versus dogs, from hobbies to creamy versus chunky peanut butter. I handed out cardstock and asked students to choose four topics they’d like to share about themselves and write those on one side of the cardstock — without their names.

I collected the cardstock and then redistributed them randomly. Then, I invited students to go and find their person — the owner of the card — by introducing themselves with a handshake and asking questions based on the information written on the cardstock, e.g., Is your hobby chess? Do you like cats? Once students found their person, they folded the cardstock and wrote their partner’s name on one side and the phonetic spelling on the other to value the how of saying another’s name. Then, students asked elaboration, follow-up questions to uncover the story behind their partner’s interests: tell me more, why is this, how did that happen, when did this begin. They took notes on the cardstock. Since the match-ups were not perfect partnering, there was lots of walking around and listening in on people’s conversations, so students ended up hearing a lot of stories in a short period of time.

Finally, students took selfies with their partners and created a mini video introducing their person to the class. We will post these on our blog and take class time to watch the videos and write connections and appreciations.

Because of this flip, I did not actually learn many names this week; students were talking among themselves (and were carrying around their person’s nameplates rather than their own). No one was really sitting in a desk, so the nameplates never were displayed on a desk.

This flip worked to emphasize and value the people with whom we will share our learning. It valued the names and how to pronounce them. It valued communication (talk and listening), movement (approaching others, finding space to talk), and curiosity of our shared humanity.  The experience was inter-dependent rather than individual, which is how I hope our learning community will be this school year. It also de-centered me and my role.

Flipping the Teacher Intro

Because of the first flip, I did very little speaking the first week of school. Students knew just enough about me to model the nameplate activity (crunchy peanut butter) and only knew I wasn’t big on grades because when one boy asked, “Will we get a grade for making our partner’s nameplate?” I responded, “I will never put a letter or number on anything you create, so, no, just enjoy the experience.”

Students were anxious about tests, homework, and grades, so for the second flip, instead of taking class time to explain my philosophy (and, thus, interrupt their bonding), I assigned this homework: “Go to this website: ethicalela.com/ourclass. Read, listen, watch, and come to class tomorrow with questions.”

I assigned students the introductory letter I wrote to their parents on “Our Class” page of this website. There is some reading involved, but in this assignment, students also see my Goodreads list, listen to a podcast from Talks with Teachers (an interview with me), and watch my YouTube video about feedback (or why I won’t put a letter or number on any of their papers). I embedded a survey at the bottom of the page for students to tell me 1) what they found interesting and 2) what questions emerged from their experience of the “Our Class” page.

I expected students learn a little bit about my education, expertise, and background from reading and listening to the podcast, and I expected students would have lots of questions about my not-grading, my feedback-only method from the YouTube video, but I didn’t expect how they’d connect to me, what they’d wonder about me, and how thoughtful their questions would be about my methods. The next day, I set aside fifteen minutes to address the questions submitted on the survey. (I have posted some below and here.)

For those of you shifting toward going gradeless or minimizing grades, what strikes you as important about their comments below and why?

Assessment Mindset

The thing about being a teacher who is trying to grade less or throw out grades or focus on more feedback — just trying to be better —  is that while she focuses on what she will or will not do, she also has to rethink what students will or will not do and how. She has to support students in flipping their mindset about what a learning community feels like and how it works.

From day one, the routines, materials, talk, movement, artifacts, assessment — all the experiences — have to be grounded in a consistent philosophy of learning, which celebrates being and makes space for becoming.  The mindset our learning community must cultivate together is one of assessment. Thus, if I am to do more assessment and less evaluation this school year and if I want students to be agents in that assessment process, then I must teach students to value learning relationships.

Innovation Summit: Grading

This post is a supplemental resource for a presentation at CCSD15’s Innovation Summit 2017.

A. Gathering Activity: In the comment section below, write

  • the title of a book/movie you appreciated/found interesting this summer;
  • the author/director’s name (if you know); and
  • choose one or more of the sentences stems below (or make your own):
    • One big questions this book/movie seems to be asking about human beings is…
    • The part of the story that helped me make sense of my own life was when…
    • The part of the story that helped me understand another life, place, time, possibility was when…One of the following statements:

B.  Planning Calendar:

A guide/template to start planning your quarter to make time for portfolio development, reflection, and final grade conferring. I’ve included a sample writing week and a sample reading week to show how, in each segment of learning, students are creating artifacts with self-peer-teacher feedback.

C. Sample mid-term letter to parents (written by a student):

Students wrote letters about what their learning and emailed them to parents; some translated the letters into their home language. Here is how the letter about reading class is organized:  1) books read independently; 2) discussion comparing shared reading character (Ponyboy) to independent reading character; 3) blogging reflection of claims, evidence, examples, growth: 4) partner poem reflection on collaborative meaning making; 5) book group reflection, 6) overall reflection on purpose and progress.

D. Sample end-of-term screencast:

When you meet with the student, you will ask follow-up questions about this evidence. The free version of screencast allows 10 minutes; students can do multiple screencasts and post them on the blog or attach them to Classroom. (Click here for a video on how to set up Screencastify in Chrome.)

E. “5 Routines for a Meaningful Final Grade Conference

F. Questions?

Write questions in the comments below or email me if you’d like 1)any additional material or 2) to schedule a time to meet to discuss any of these documents or processes further: donovans@ccsd15.net.

G. Follow-up Session:

Complete this survey if you’d like to meet in late September to talk more about grading less.

H. Resources:

10 Months.10 Lessons.

Thank you for your readership of Ethical ELA this school year. Thank you for being my teacher-friend.

In a typical school day, the only time teachers may be alone is when we use the restroom (until someone knocks on the door).  Still, teaching can feel quite lonely. Who can understand the joy of a lesson gone well? Who can appreciate when clouds of doubt blow in to rain upon said good lesson? To whom can we confess our tears of joy when a student finishes her first book or tears of regret when we lose our temper? Ethical ELA has been a place for me to work through the most humbling moments of teaching, and I appreciate you being virtually alongside me as I grapple with how to be good enough for the students with whom I am entrusted. So thank you. Thank you.

This is my final post of the school year; it is a year in review essentially, and then I will take some time this summer to just be Sarah (whatever that may be or mean). See you in August.

1.August 2016: Tech is just a tool.

Weekend Reading ExperienceI tend to write about questions and discoveries from our classroom. This year was no different. I started with discussions of technology because our class piloting 1:1 Chromebooks (among other classes across the district) as we transition to a district-wide 1:1 tech initiative.  I spent August trying to blend hand-held books and pens with sharing out docs, slides, and forms on screens I had to bend down to see. I taught tech skills alongside reading skills and tried out new apps and extensions. I know some of the tech lessons were necessary, but others sucked up important reading time.  After August, the Chromebooks became nothing more than a tool for organizing thinking, gathering resources, and preventing the delays and aggravation of  forgot-it-in-my locker, lost-it, dog-ate-it of learning artifacts, and we didn’t need these tools every day. Fridays were tech-free days when we’d look into each other’s eyes and paper pages — not screens.

2.September 2016: Be mindful of how you and your students communicate needs.

5 love languagesI was teaching at DePaul that fall – a course about socio-cultural influences on perceptions and development of middle school students. The Cubs were going to the World Series, and Donald Trump was becoming president. It was an emotionally charged semester within and beyond the classroom. This month was all about getting to know one another, which is the only way I knew we had a chance at a safe space to take risks and grow in junior high or in college classrooms. The “Love Language” post helped me work through many challenging situations with students the first weeks of school; they were testing me, teaching me how to know and relate to them. The love language framework helped me be mindful of the ways we communicate our needs and learn — deliberately– how to treat students and how to teach them to treat me.

3.October 2016: Taking care of yourself is an ethical responsibility.

be the teacherIn a matter of weeks, I was both invigorated by choice reading and fatigued (already) by the hustle and bustle of the schedule. The “honeymoon” phase of the year ended quickly, and I was not only unsure about whether or not to capitalize my blog titles but whether or not I had any business being a teacher. Thirteen years in, and I still had not figured out how to eat and stay hydrated in a school day. My first talk at the Illinois Reading Council made me feel like other people in Illinois actually cared about what I was doing; I had people in my session who came because of Ethical ELA’s work. Still, I had to take personal days to speak at a state and national conference, and I wasn’t so sure I would make it through another seven months with my sanity in tact. Because of this site, I felt like I had to recover from my melancholy, so the “fatigue in teaching” post reminded me to search for (and even fake it till you make it) balance. I bought vitamins and a pretty water bottle, pledging to drink more water in the name of health and sanity. When I fill my water bottle around 8th period, I feel like I am doing something good for me and my students: a hydrated teacher is a happy, rationale, ethical, kind teacher who is more open to choice and conversation.

4. November 2016: Love has to be at the heart of what we do and how we do it.

Imagine Together with BooksThis was the month for the election and for NCTE. It felt so great to be leading a session with Lesley Roessing about how books are mirrors, windows, and maps for our students in a time when I (and my students) were feeling panicked about the future of our country. I met Lesley on Facebook, and we proposed a session about YA lit that enticed a number of teachers looking for new titles and inspiration.  I returned to the classroom inspired by the teachers I met at NCTE — determined to read into new places and experiences. My course at DePaul had read Sherman Alexie’s The True Diary of a Part-Time Indian  and so did our eighth graders. Still compelled to walk the talk and be the teacher I was asking these thirty pre-service teacher to become, I wrote more about how to transition from choice to whole-class novels. In my #bookaday quest, I read several books that included sex scenes; I recalled my own experiences reading romance lit and considered how and if these book have a place in a middle school classroom library. So many of our junior high students experience love (and, yes, sex), and literature could do what the adults in their lives could not — talk about it. And then, there was the issue of assessment. I struggled with how best to assess learning, so I wrote about the “loving test” and how I try my best to test and grade in ways that help support students in their learning.

5.December 2016: Discomfort can hurt, and apologies can heal.

Broken HeartBy December, we had experienced 9-weeks of choice reading and a core text; we were transitioning to book groups. Students were making a lot of choices: books, groups, reading pace, annotating methods, and, of course, snacks for their groups. Some students soared and others acted out, resisting the responsibility overtly or subversively, uncomfortable with choice and autonomy. I was uncomfortable, too. It is so much easier reading one book as a class and using a packet of pre-determined questions to guide everyone to the similar “answers.” Now that we knew one another better, we had to be open to the implications of diverse lives intersecting in a shared reading experience. I made mistakes amidst the discomfort, which I wrote about, and I learned the power of an apology, which I used a lot this year. Discomfort is part of learning, but our reaction to discomfort may hurt others, and when it does, an apology goes a long way.

6. January 2017: It’s essential that you ask yourself this: “What are you doing here?”

After two weeks in Europe including a tour of Auschwitz, I began January with a new student teacher and existential questions. It is natural for teachers, especially student teachers to ponder our purpose, and I was discerning my place in teaching broadly and my position at my school more specifically. The posts this month seem all over the place, but as I look for a common thread, I notice that I wrote about why I am a teacher now. I wrote about my place in the classroom library, my place in the hallways of our school, my place in evaluating students — and the implications of how I use my place. My student teacher(s) helped me grapple with and through this in January because of the many, many conversations we had before, during, and after school. We have to ask questions, do inquiry, and find answers regarding our purpose as teachers.

7. February 2017: Materials, deadlines, and declarations are provisional.

Career Speech, WrittenOne of the greatest frustrations of teaching is time, especially when students are working in the realm of the provisional while the teacher (and school) is working with hard and fast deadlines. Learning, however, is so personal and even ethereal at times that one cannot count or plan or grasp just how and when learning will happen. The elusive nature of teaching and learning hit me hard in February that I could only surrender to its provisionality. Ownership (of books) is relative. Deadlines undermine learning. Lies reveal truth. Inasmuch as schools force neat, measurable ways of quantifying learning and categorizing students, students, as human beings, will remind us that learning is beautifully messy and will (almost never) fit into a school’s schedule.

8. March 2017: Remember and honor your roots.

I have had the privilege of working with several special education teachers over the years in a “push-in” almost “co-teaching” model. These women were gifts to me — having a partner — and to the students — having another adult to attend to (and even love) them. So when I had the opportunity to have a student teacher (another adult to teach and love students) both terms this school year, I said “yes” as long as we could use a co-teaching model. By March, their presence had me thinking deeply about how I became a teacher and who had most influenced who I became (and was still becoming) as a teacher, so I drew my teaching tree and invited teachers to share theirs. I noticed the other posts I wrote this month had nuances of comparison. By reflecting on my roots, I recognized and celebrated the traditions that shaped my becoming, which actually made it difficult for me to take ownership or celebrate a perceived accomplishment. “The Pride and Shame of Sharing” post was about me second guessing this webiste and any sharing I do about my teaching. I am who I am because of my roots and branches, so I feel self-indulgent in sharing any accomplishment or pride in my work. So, I guess I have to make clear that anything I say or do in my work is never wholly mine nor new. Ethical ELA exists because of my beautiful teaching tree.

9. April 2017: Students should create, should be the curriculum.

This was my third year hosting a site for students to write thirty poems in thirty days in honor of National Poetry Month. For this month, we moved away from daily reading of books toward daily reading of poetry — poetry written by students. As I noticed the quality of the poetry, I knew that their work had to “be” our curriculum: reading response to student poetry, text evidence from student poetry, figurative language analysis from student poetry. In thirty days, Ethical ELA hosted close to five thousand poems and comments written by students: a plethora of powerful content. Students wrote blog posts and created comparison projects (Comparison Blog) for their portfolios using student-written poetry. This was the highlight of my year because I finally got out of the way.

10. May 2017: Transition from your teacher-self to just being your self.

As much as I tried to not be oppressive in my practices this year — more choice, more student-created curriculum, less grading, less teacher-talk — I found myself pulling tight the reigns of instruction in our final month together.  In writing “The Countdown,” I realized that I while I help students find closure in our time together with portfolios and letters to their future selves, I do not do enough to help my teacher-self find closure each year. The aesthetic experience of teaching gives me such joy and purpose, that I don’t want it to end and feel lost without it, so this May has been about me trying new hobbies (e.g., swimming, hiking) and seriously pondering how I will spend my two-months off to take care of my heart, mind, and body. As my husband said, “I can’t wait to see who you become this summer.”


Thank you for reading Ethical ELA this year. What are some lessons you’ve learned this school year? What from Ethical ELA has been most helpful to you this school year? What will you do this summer to rejuvenate your heart, mind, and body?

Deadlines and “Late” Work: The Potential of the Provisional

Deadlines and Late Work

“Hey, Isa! Isa!” I call as I ride the wave of students heading to their lockers before school. Finally, she turns and stops at the next break.

“Good morning. I missed you yesterday and thought we could work on your speech for today. Maybe you can come in at lunch?” Isa was absent the day before because she and 25 percent of our students joined thousands of immigrants for “A Day Without Immigrants,” a national day of political action to show America the importance of immigrants (February 16, 2017).

Isa nodded and jumped back on the wave.

When lunch started, I made my way to our cafetorium to find Isa. I scanned the tables and found some of her friends, and they told me she was in my classroom. Sure enough, when I returned to my classroom, Isa was sitting at her desk with a Chromebook working on her research and speech.

The week before winter break was the last week of second quarter for our junior high. Every quarter, I use that final week of the quarter for two purposes: 1) to confer with students about their final grade and 2) for students to work on a project that they can do mostly independently and later present on our Friday public speaking days — every Friday for the entire school year, students present stories, poems, or research. For second quarter, students conducted research to imagine and plan the next ten years of their life. They each researched an answer to one question: What will you do with your one precious life? They reflected on their values, dreamed about what, who, and where they wanted to be, took a career quiz, read biographies, explored opportunities in high school, looked into part-time jobs, explored colleges, searched apartments, created a budget, read about philanthropic options, developed mottos, wrote a speech to synthesize the research in the voice of their future self (see an example below), and created a slideshow with images to support the content (e.g., Slides, A Life as an Artist, also see below). I set up a schedule for three students to be “guest speakers” each Friday through January, February, and March.

Career Speech, Written

Career speech
Career speech (1)
Career speech (2)
Career speech (3)

The deadline for the written speech was in December, before break. I considered this a rather provisional deadline because I figured many students would revise their speech as they saw others or just spend more time on it as their official speech date neared. Isa spent much of the research week trying to chat with friends while I conferred with other students about their final grade.

On the Monday of Isa’s speech week, she had about a third of her research and speech completed, so I invited her to lunch or to stay after school. She did not come on Monday or Tuesday. On Wednesday, I “invited” her to our back table away from our study of Night to guide her through the project step-by-step, but it wasn’t enough time, and she didn’t stay after school on Wednesday. Thursday, she was absent, and by Friday morning, it looked like she would miss the official deadline.

I always let students revise and resubmit work. I always let students turn in assignments until I absolutely need to submit a final grade, but the speeches were scheduled to give everyone an official time, place, and audience. There is no “next week” because those slots/commitments have already been made.

During lunch on the day of her speech, Isa told me about her love of Pixar movies. She showed me some of her drawings. She found a school where she could get a degree in digital art and animation. She asked me about GPAs, SAT scores, and philanthropy.

Our class is right after lunch, so we altered the order of speeches so she could she work through the first guest speaker’s presentation. I sat beside her coaching her through the parts she’d have to ad-lib. When we heard “please welcome our next guest speaker, Isa Gonzalez,” I took her seat as part of the audience, and she went right to the podium, which is a music stand:

Hello, my name is Isa Gonzalez, and I am a production animator. When I was in 8th grade, I valued friendship, respect, and acceptance. Someone I looked up to was Alvy Ray Smith a computer animator he was one of the founders of Pixar.I wanted to be a computer animator. So in high school I joined computer club, volleyball, and the girls soccer team. Some part time jobs I took was Starbucks. I wanted to prove I was responsible. I talked to my counselor to make sure I was taking the right classes like Architecture, animation and engineering and to be sure I was ready to go to a University. I wanted a GPA of 3.5 and test score like 1000 for my SAT. I am proud to say that I attained my goal. I graduated high school in 2021. Junior Year of high school, I applied to several colleges, I got into DigiPen Institute of Technology University. Shortly after graduating I got my dream job at Pixar and work at the  Computer Animation. I love my job because I get to do what I love. One way I give back to the community is by volunteering at art clubs in local schools. Here’s what I think 8th graders should know: do your work. Thank you for listening.

As Isa returned to her seat, I got up and shook her hand.

“I want to finish this,” she said smiling.

“You can. And in your slide show, I hope you put some of her own art work. We can organize a lunch time presentation. You can bring some of your friends to be your audience.”

Isa wasn’t looking at me. She was adding to her speech until the next speaker began, and she closed her Chromebook to listen.

Deadlines are important. Much of the “real” world works around and, in part, because of deadlines. When teachers have 170 students, a deadline is a contract between the teacher and the student to submit work or evidence of learning by a certain time and date. The teacher has, likely, adjusted her calendar to free up time to write feedback to honor her part of the contract with timely feedback (and even plans to make time for revisions).

But readiness and willingness are two features of learning that may just happen because of deadlines which complicates the teacher-student contract. This view frustrates teachers and students because the report card deadlines are always looming and pushing against the true nature of learning through experience, which is rarely linear and not at all compliant with the neat measurements of points and letter grades.

I think that the “lesson” of deadlines is that while they exist for the sake of order and accountability — part of schooling’s systems — they also have potential to stimulate and in some cases agitate learning. For this reason, as much as possible, then, I try to see deadlines for assignments or projects as provisional in that the deadline serves for the time being, existing only until readiness and/or willingness occur, which may or may not occur by the deadline. Essentially, the only firm deadline I follow is the one from our district office that says “grades are due by 11:59 pm on Tuesday.”  For me, reframing deadlines in this way has allowed me some peace and made me more patient with the Isas in my classes; this has required in me a shift in thinking about learning — how, why, and why learning happens — but also a shift in how I envision assessment and grading.

Deadlines and Late Work

Isa’s “grade” for the speech and public speaking was not so good.  We evaluated the detail of her research, the slides for how well the media supported her message, her eye contact, and her volume, and her professionalism in the delivery of the speech. She essentially read her speech, which was enough for me that day, but it was not enough for her. In that moment, she had a sense of readiness and willingness that was not realized until she had the time, place, and audience.

When Isa told me she wanted “to finish,” I could have told her that the deadline came and passed, but the truth is that we have four more weeks for this quarter, and if she wants another time, place, and audience, and if she has the readiness and willingness, then I am all for making a new deadline.

Life is not linear. We do not plan our one precious life and then follow that plan. The twists and turns of life shift our imagined deadlines and distort our dreams; experiences in those twists often help us revise or refine our wishes. Learning is no different. As teachers, we set up a plan and do our best to facilitate that plan for all students, but the reality of it is that the plan does not work for every student — it just can’t.  Yes, we have to have due dates and deadlines for our sanity, for some sense of order and time management, for report cards.  However, the deadline itself is a learning experience that may just be what some students need to, in fact, learn.

I am not sure if the high of the speaking event will sustain Isa long enough for her to finish her research and redo her presentation, but I will invite her to do so, at least until the end of the quarter.

True Lies and the Patience to Dialogue Toward Truth

Disengaged Student


“I can’t stay after school. I gotta pick up my little brother,” Leo says as he comes in at lunch to do a reading assignment. (All names are pseudonyms.)

“I understand, but you missed a week of school, and if you can just stay one day after school, we can work through this research project step-by-step. Twenty minutes at lunch isn’t going to do it,” I explain as we sit at a table in the back of the classroom and log into our Chromebooks. Leo opens up his blog and takes out his soccer book.

“But I finished the blog. Can I leave?” he pleads.

“Really? Great. Let’s take a look, and then we can work on your speech,” I reply opening my trail mix.

“Nope. I ain’t doing that. I am not giving a speech,” he states firmly pointing to his almost finished blog post.

“Uh huh, I hear you. Let’s just work on it and then see how you feel,” I suggest.

For fifteen of the twenty minutes, Leo talks (sort of flirts) with a girl who stayed in at lunch to write her speech. Unlike Leo, she hasn’t missed a single day of school. She just wasn’t interested in doing the project until today.

My student teacher jumps into their banter. Between bites of food and typing, a debate about Real Madrid and Barcelona (and later Chivas) emerges. I think it is cute, but not a lot of work is happening here.

I get up from our table to get my cell phone and move to my laptop attached to the projector docking station at the front of the classroom.I pull up the school information system, find Leo’s mom’s cell number, and text her about Leo staying after school. I was Leo’s teacher last year. He never, not once, did an assignment outside of class. He has stayed after school in the past, but not once this year. I know many students have responsibilities at home, but I also know that parents want to know how their child is doing in school, to be involved. I text her asking how we could make arrangements for one day after school — maybe more. She texts back in seconds saying he could stay that day — no mention of Leo’s brother.

“We’re all set for after school today, Leo.”


“No, today. Your mom, it seems, will make other arrangements for your brother so you can stay today and Monday,” I explain to Leo showing him the text as gets up to throw away is half eaten orange and untouched hash browns.

“I ain’t staying after school,” he says as he walks out of the room.

The school day ends at 2:30 pm, and there is an activity bus at 4:00 pm. I stay after school a few days a week to work with students or just offer a quiet place to read or do homework as I do the same. When a student does stay to work on reading, what we can accomplish in an hour and a half is a lot, and we also have some time to just talk about life. For so many students, this dedicated time has made all the difference in their understanding of reading, self-confidence, and the trust in our relationship.

Some version of this “I-can’t-stay-after-school” or “I-won’t-stay-after-school” or “I-promise-I’ll-stay-tomorrow-just-not-today” — played out over a dozen times this week with any number of reasons why, including the most honest: “I just don’t want to.” And some version of this parent text message went out to over fifty parents this week. Essentially, I expressed concern and said that I am available to help their child get some time and help after school.

The 2:30 bell rings. I say good-bye to my ninth period class, pull on my coat, and speed walk out to my bus duty position. As I supervise my corner, I try to coax a few students to stay with me after school. They say, “Tomorrow. I promise.”

Once the buses are safely on their way, I return to my classroom. And guess who is there?


And guess what he did? He wrote his speech.

Will he give his speech? Not sure.

Was Leo lying about his brother? Was he lying about doing his blog? His speech? Did I overstep by texting his mother and potentially causing problems for childcare?


“I don’t read. I’m not reading,” Johnny says as he folds a sticky note into a triangle.

“I recall you saying that yesterday and the day before. Remember when we went to the library last week and you checked out two books? Where are those books that you chose?” I ask.

Johnny joined my class second quarter, so I didn’t get to know his independent reading choices like I did my other students during the first nine weeks of school: One 9-Week Plan on Choice Reading in the Classroom (a Follow-Up). He was really engaged when we read True Diary of a Part-Time Indianand he did well in the book groups (talking is his strength). It’s only now that we are back to choice reading that I see what he chooses on his own.

“At home. But I’m not reading those because I don’t read,” Johnny replies continuing to fold the yellow sticky note.

“Uh, huh, but I know you are writer. You are a poet. Maybe we can find some books that will enhance something you are working on. Tell me what you are writing now.”

“I really just read comic books, but those are at home, too,” Johnny replies bypassing my attempt to connect to his writing.

“Uh, huh, so let’s go to the library and get some comics. You know, when I say you could read any book, I meant it. Comics are books.”

“I have two books checked out, so I can’t.”

“Uh, huh. Hmm,” I respond taking a deep breath. The other twenty-seven students are reading (or pretending to read). I walk away to the graphic novel bookcase and pull out a few books: Tina’s Mouth: An Existential Comic Diary, Ms. Marvel, Vol. 1: No Normaland Batman: The Killing Joke.

I return to Johnny’s desk who now has several sticky note triangles. I kneel down, exhale, and whisper, “So these might interest you. This one is in a diary form like your writing notebook. Notice how the drawings and notes work together. And these are comic books,” I say putting Ms. Marvel  and Batman on his desk. “Have you read…?”

“This one,” Johnny interrupts as he takes Batman: The Killing Joke.

Johnny doesn’t look up from the book for the rest of class.

Was Johnny lying about being a reader? Reading?

The True “Lies” of Teens in English Class

Embed from Getty Images

I hate reading.

I’m not gonna do it.

I forgot it.

It’s boring.

I’ll come in at lunch to work on it.

I can’t stay after school.

I don’t care.

I imagine you’ve heard others. Please share.

It’s midterm, which means revision days in my reading classes, and I’ve heard all these and more, numerous times this week. I put “lies” in quotes because I don’t understand these statements as lies or falsehoods. I believe that students believe what they say (or use these words because they can’t or won’t say what they really want to). I do believe students say these things to get rid of me a lot of the time or to try to give me a false impression so that I’ll leave them alone. But I also believe that a lot of students have this narrative going about the kind of student (or person) they are, and reading and homework and success just don’t fit into that story.

When I hear these statements in my classroom, my heart breaks a little. My ego is bruised a lot.  Some days, I want to walk away, to give in even for just a day. In fact, the days when these utterances are accompanied by a head down or anger, I usually give a gentle touch on the arm and walk away.  If I can get a little eye contact, I try to convince them why they are wrong or why I’d like them to reconsider, but these “talks” are one-sided and don’t interrupt the student’s narrative.

This week, I wanted to change the narrative. This week I decided to do some revision of my own. I decided to shift the way I respond to students when they seem to reject my plans for class or offers for help. This week, I spent a lot of time within and beyond the classroom uncovering the truth behind these “lies.”  Like the paradox of true lies, it was satisfyingly exhausting.

When a teenager utters a sentence, I 1) believe them and 2) take nothing they say as the absolute truth. Put another way, I do not take what they say as wholly true nor completely a lie. I consider these utterances conversation starters about their beliefs related to the issue and call upon Patience to help me dialogue.

Leo may very well have had to take care of his brother after school, but my job is not to question the veracity of his statement and his integrity, not to lecture him about the importance of school (as if to say brotherly love is less important), not to tattle on him to his mom about a possible lie. My job is uncover what is possible and believe that, in that process, we will get some positive outcomes.

Johnny may very well see himself as a nonreader. He wasn’t trying to give me a false impression of himself when he said he doesn’t read. My job as an educator, however, is to gently disturb his belief to see if he could suspend that belief temporarily to try something other than folding sticky notes in that moment.

A lie is a false statement made with deliberate intent to deceive.  I actually think that when students “lie” or make seemingly false or hyperbolic statements about learning that they are being more honest than we give them credit for. I just try not to let their statements end the possibility of thinking, of experiencing:

You hate reading? Hmm, what do you do in your spare time?

You can’t stay after school? Hmm, let’s look at your schedule and see where we can find some time.

You think this is boring? Hmm, tell me what “this” is so far?

You don’t want to do this? Hmm, what would you like to do?

It takes patience for sure, but in these conversations we actually uncover some deep seeded beliefs about learning and start to trouble the narrative of what can happen at school. These conversations are teaching. These conversations are learning.

7 Reflections to Quiet the Ghosts of Grading’s Past

Grades are letters that conflate the learning from the entire semester or quarter.  I have to assign a grade for my seventh and eighth grade readers at the end of every quarter, and I struggle with this every time because their learning defies such neat, confining symbols, which is somewhat ironic because we talked a lot about symbolism in literature this term. Such is my perspective of grades.

Some students, however, see grades as part of their identity. For some it is just a sliver, but for others,  they are very much wrapped up in being an “A” student or an “F” student – or in our case a “U,” for unsatisfactory. Imagine getting used to seeing “unsatisfactory” next to your name quarter after quarter. How do you recover from that? Imagine seeing “A’s” quarter after quarter. What sort of expectation of self in and beyond school might that create?

Students in junior have been carrying around these identity markers for many years and have, in some cases, committed to this the identity of a perfectionist or failure or resigned to the good enough “C’ or passing “D.” When it comes to final grades each quarter, I find myself battling these identity markers like they are ghosts hovering over and among us. The Ghosts of Grading’s Past.

In the portfolio process at the end of each quarter, I invite these ghosts into our individual grade conferences to see if we can illuminate the narratives they are whispering in our ears in the hopes that I can make space for some new, healthier perceptions of learning and self.

1.Prepare for the Conference by Collecting

In our second to last week of this quarter, students developed slideshows of their learning, a portfolio:  a collection of artifacts (pictures of their work) and synthesis charts where they process their reading experiences. For example, in book groups, students read two immigration novels, so they created a comparison chart of the characters’ experiences; we also talked about assimilation, acculturative stress, and xenophobia, so students created a chart with examples from their two immigration books, in addition to our class novel: Sherman Alexie’s, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.  These portfolios contain proof that nobody is a failure. Everyone has evidence of some experiences because we did some things as a class, some in groups, and some independently.  The “Loving Test” was a success for everyone because of the process;and the four book group discussions gave everyone many opportunities to practice, improve, and experience the joys of shared reading.

2. Reflect on the Collection

In the final week of the quarter, I asked students to write a reflection of their learning by responding to just one question. I projected these reflection questions and offered some time to write. The wording of these questions attempts to quiet the negative ghosts so that students can acknowledge what they experienced.

Here are a few responses:

What im noticing about myself as a reader that im starting to read a little bit more out of school. Because i use to not read at all out of school. And im starting to ask more questions when im reading a book. A struggle that I worked through was the test because some of the questins were hard but i kept trying until i got the question right.  (J., as he wrote it.)


  1. I’ve experienced that the two books I read are very similar, the main characters were girls and were from Korea.
  2. I noticed that I can read well when it’s quiet and there’s not a single sound.
  3. The immigration books I read had different words for mom and dad, in A step from heaven Young Ju would say Umma or Appa instead of mom and dad.
  4. Instead of having to read the book I would of listened to the audio version since it makes it easier and you can listen to it without having the book.
  5.  I think we test and write and ask questions in class so we can remember what we’ve read/ tell something we read about the book. It makes write down and explain what happened in the book. (R., in his words.)

3. Create a Self-Guided Project

In order to have the time and the quiet to meet with students individually, the rest of the class needed to be engaged in something, well, engaging and self-guided. I created a research project that asks: What will you do with your one precious life? This is essentially a career study project with opportunities to reflect on the present and imagine the future.  It is high interest and will set us up for presentations in the next quarter while also taking to task the ghosts of the past.

4. Stay Mobile as Your Confer

To confer in previous quarters, I would set up in the corner of the room and call over students to confer; this gave us privacy, but I sort of felt like the queen summoning my people. Now, I just set up the desks in rows and drag an old metal stool up and down the rows for the whisper conferences.

I am part of a Chromebook pilot, so I asked students to present their portfolios to me as a slide presentation.  I sat beside them. We pointed to learning evidence, and I asked questions about how things felt and even shared my own memories and observations from the quarter. We ended by reading the reflection together and then deciding on the final grade. In our brief conference — a few minutes each — I worked into the conversations concepts like identity and asked how they see themselves; how their little brother and sister sees them;  how friends see them. I talked about who they wanted to be and how the way we define ourselves can help or hinder that journey. We imagined together what the next quarter could look like for them, and then I wished them a restful winter break.

5. The Essence of the Conference

I was able to meet with each student over the entire week — 6 classes of about 25-30 students, 30-40 minutes class periods (some days were shortened schedules). The few minutes I spent with students were, perhaps, the most important of the quarter because so many don’t see themselves as readers, don’t see themselves as smart. Some carry with them this identity of being a failure or stupid because somewhere they heard this or saw the big “F” mark on their papers.  Others carry this identity  of an “A” student, which is more of a perfectionist marker than one of deep, thoughtful learning.

The portfolio and conferences are about disrupting such markers and beliefs about the self and learning. The portfolios make visible and tangible to the students that they are, in fact, readers, thinkers, and students of reading but also of the world. The reflection is essential to this. We are honest about what could be better (if we could do it over). Some asked for one more day to redo an assignment or rework their slideshow portfolio, so we rescheduled our conference with hope. I allow it because readiness is also something that does not fit neatly into a letter grade. Some follow through and others don’t, but I try to close each conference with a sense of the possibilities ahead — to make space for future, friendlier ghosts.

Essentially, the letter is the grade, but the reflection process and conference is a continuation of learning, which is symbolic in the sense that we are reframing evaluation. Still, students are “programmed” to celebrate the letter, and I can see the relief and pride in their eyes when we agree on the final letter for the quarter. I accept this as much as I try to undermine it. For now,  I am happy that the portfolio-reflection-conference method communicates to them that they did learn, and they are capable. No one “fails” with this approach, and I think we all do a lot of healing in this process – -me included.