Powerful, Low-Stakes Poetry (with minimal prep)

“Find a good place to stop in your books,” I say to end our choice-reading time.

I finish up a student-reading conference and look around to see students finishing a page, writing a response on a sticky note, stretching their legs.

“Today we’re going to spend a little bit of time thinking about 9/11. I imagine you’ll do some historical work in your social studies class, so I thought what I can offer us today is a shared experience with poetry,” I say.

“Yes,” one student whispers to a neighbor.

“No,” one another whispers to a neighbor.

“Right, so mixed responses — to the poetry? to 9/11 poetry? I think poetry can help us recognize 9/11 in a way that other mediums — images, documentaries — can’t. I want us to take a look at how some people processed their experience of 9/11 by writing poems.

“You have likely learned poetry in different ways in elementary school — a unit of study, some writing of poetry.  Poems are not actually written for students to analyze. Poems are a very concentrated form of ideas and experiences — big, complex ideas condensed, concentrated into phrases. Powerful words and images about those ideas seem mysterious to readers because phrases and fragments want the reader to think about what’s there and what’s not. What I like about poetry –its form — is that it accepts that sometimes ideas and stories and experiences are partial or incomplete.

“Now what does this have to do with 9/11?  Ater 9/11, people needed a way to process what they were experiencing, and something rather beautiful started happening –incredibly, ironically people started writing poetry and hanging those poems in public places throughout New York City. Some witnesses processed what they experienced by writing poems. The concentrated and fragmented form helped people process the fragments they were piecing together  — the unimaginable and the unspeakable,” I say.

The room is quiet. I think the mood is right to begin. I appreciate their patience and respect. I continue.

“Let’s read a few of those poems to recognize the witnesses’ experiences and, ” I pause, “the experiences that we will never know because those people perished. Instead of an oral reading of these poems or a discussion, I thought we could do this in silence but still together.”

Students open up their Chromebooks, log into our Google classroom, and open up the shared document of poems we can all edit.

I want us to all be inside this document of poems together, trying to make sense of poems that represent that which defies logic and knowing.

I found all these poems to be accessible because of length and language, but that doesn’t mean they’re easy or simple. Most of the following poems can be found in this post by John Lundberg: A. “I Saw You Walking” by Deborah Garrison; B. “When the Towers Fell” by Galway Kinnell; C. “Photography from September 11” by Wislawa Szymborska; D. “The Morning America Changed” by Stanley Plumly; E. “Going to Work” by Nancy Mercado.

I assign students a poem to read, then wait.

I assign students a number to guide them in what to look for, observe, notice in the poem (see below).

I instruct them to select phrases in the poem to support their observation and use the comment feature of the Google doc to explain what they are noticing in the poem.

I also remind students that they can and should open a new tab to look up the denotation of unfamiliar or powerful words as needed:

  1. What do you know about the speaker? His/her relationship to the audience, concerns, purpose for saying these words?
  2. What is the setting or sense of place in this poem? Which words/phrases are most vivid or create an image/picture?
  3. Which words capture the mood throughout the poem?  
  4. Which words seem fancy or unfamiliar? Find the denotation or dictionary definition of a few words.
  5. Which lines or phrases teach us about 9/11? What does the poet want us to know or remember?
  6. Describe the form of the poem: how many lines; does it rhyme; how many syllables in each line, most common punctuation.
  7. Notice any figurative language: simile, metaphor, allusion, personification,alliteration, onomatopoeia, hyperbole.

Students read, select phrases, and attach comments to the phrases. I notice some students opening up a new tab to look up a word, an allusion, an image. They are uncovering meaning, reading into the white spaces the poet left open.

I hover in different spots of the room making myself available for quiet conversations about the poems. One boy calls me over with a wave.

“This poem here doesn’t have a meter and doesn’t rhyme. I don’t think I have anything to comment on,” one student says in a whisper. “Should I do something else?”

I kneel down and take a look at the poem he’s referring to.

“I see what you mean. This is a free verse poem.  There isn’t a pattern. It doesn’t rhyme. We are both noticing the same thing. But let’s think about why that is. A poet crafts each line-break purposefully, so if the form doesn’t follow a regular pattern, that might be for a reason. If we think about the subject of 9/11 and how the poet must have been feeling, it makes sense that there’s lots of irregularity or uncertainty.  It’s possible that the poet is trying to capture the chaos with this irregular meter,” I whisper.

The boy has an “aha” look in his eyes and returns the poem.

“I’m a little confused. Can you help me?” another student asks in a whisper-shout waving me over. She is reading “The Morning America Changed” by Stanley Plumly. “The speaker in this poem seems to be in Italy? Via Garibaldi? What is this part down here about a ‘tiny screen inside’?”

“Aha, I see what you mean. Let’s read this together.  Who is the “her”? Judith. Where is she? Pasticceria.What is the poet describing here as he references a window, a tiny screen?”

“Oh, it is a TV screen inside the pastry shop, and they are seeing the towers fall in America while they are in Italy.” She is no longer talking to me, returning to the shared document to share her discovery.

“This is interesting, Dr. Donovan,” a student says as I start to walk away. “I noticed that this poem is about a photograph, but there’s no photograph.”

“Right, and that’s unexpected. I came across this poem from an article that I read about 9/11; the author noted that there was a photograph that they were going to put on display, but the photograph was too distressing. I think that it is one way of protecting the dignity of the victims and perhaps the memory of the people who survived. Pictures are one way of offering evidence for history, but poetry is another way. These poems show us how people processed 9/11 and, we, in turn, are learning from that.”

“I know,” he says. “I’ve seen videos on YouTube, and we saw a documentary in another class, but this poem is…different.”

Students have had an opportunity to make some comments on their assigned poem, so I interrupt the quiet to move into the online discussion.

“Okay, so finish up the comment you’re making right now. And then go to the top of the poem and read the observations and comments your poem-mates noted. If you click on the comment, you’ll see that you can reply to one another. See if this helps you notice new features of your poem, if this extends your understanding of the poem and 9/11.”


Before we end class, I ask students to return to Google classroom and write a public comment on the assignment: “The poem I read was “__________,” and one thing I learned/found interesting-powerful-insightful-meaningful is __________________because ______________________.”

I thank students for their silent dialogue, compassion, and thoughtful work as we close class. One boy wants to tell me the story of his grandmother who was on a flight the day of 9/11. I listen and then invite him to render his story into a poem.

“That’s all I know,” he says.

“Sort of a fragment of the story? I think that’s enough. You’d be surprised what meaning emerges in the white spaces around the poem once you write it.”

You don’t have to do a poetry unit for students to read a poem. You don’t have to do a lot of frontloading of poetry analysis methods or figurative language for students to be able to access the meaning of a poem.  Gather a few poems; create a few questions; and then let students uncover the poetry. The poem itself is enough to start the conversation. Students will dialogue about meaning with one another to uncover meaning, illuminate the poet’s craft, and respond with their hearts and minds.

As Pablo Neruda says, “Poetry is an act of peace.” And don’t we need more peace now? Don’t wait until April (National Poetry Month) to welcome poetry into your classes.


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?”.

Do you really read a book a day?

Why do I read a book a day?

I didn’t become a teacher because I played school as a kid though there were enough kids in our home growing up to do so (eleven of us). I didn’t want to be in charge of anything, preferring to observe the chaos of our big family from a corner and drift away into my imagination for comfort and safety when I needed.

I wasn’t a particularly good student, especially not in English. I never actually read a whole book in my junior high and high school years, and it didn’t seem to matter to anyone — teachers or parents. I got by looking over at a friend’s multiple choice or fill-in-the-blank quiz (i.e., cheating) or summarizing a book based on the book jacket. I did not know or even consider that there might be something for me in the pages beyond that book jacket; I did not imagine that a story could help me connect to my teacher, other students, or make sense of my own life. I just did enough to pass, stay under the radar.

So it may seem rather surprising that I became a teacher and read a book a day.

I had been a social worker in the county jail for seven years after college. While it was very challenging, I found great healing in asking for and listening to stories. I thought I could do more of that (but in a more positive setting) as a teacher. I became a teacher in 2004. It turns out my social work training actually compliments teacher training quite well. In my Masters of Education program at the University of Illinois, Chicago, I actually had to read books, and I finished books — a lot of them — because we actually talked about the books. I found my teenage self (and my siblings) living in many of those pages and met local and global teens I’d never meet in person because of gifted authors.

When I became a teacher, however, many of those books never made it into my students’ hands. Why? Because in my reading and writing workshops, I neglected a very key feature — choice reading. I got caught up in skills and unit planning; I used the stories in the textbook and class sets from our school book room. Sure, I bought books for multicultural and genocide units, but over a decade later, I was still teaching the same stories, pushing a curriculum that failed to nurture or sustain a healthy reading life. (Afterall, I had already read everything I was teaching, over and over.) My contribution, my side of the conversation was stagnant and so was my reading life. I stopped reading beyond the curriculum. I stopped nurturing my reading life. The students’ lives had changed. Our world had changed, and yet, we weren’t really talking about that. The stories that brought me to teach were pushed to the margins.

I took an inventory of my books, short stories, poems, and discovered that I was missing many voices and perspectives. I was not the diverse or inclusive teacher I thought I was. I realized that if I was going to make my classroom about the stories within and beyond our classroom that I needed help, and I decided my co-teachers would be authors. I had to get to know them and their books so that we (teachers, authors, students) could collaborate and develop a truly inclusive curriculum.

Enter #bookaday. I read a post by Donalyn Miller around May of 2016 inviting teachers to commit to reading a book a day over the summer, so I did it. I wrote about my first summer here. I also wrote about how reading again changed how I teach: Letting Literature do the Work: How I Started an Inclusive Literature Workshop,  9 Whole Weeks of Free Choice Reading, and One 9-Week Plan on Choice Reading in the Classroom (a Follow-Up).

#bookaday was about me claiming my reading life, but it became more existential than that. Yes, I enjoy reading now, and yes, I feel good knowing a lot about books and authors to help other readers claim their own reading lives. Beyond that, however, I feel compelled somehow to share what I am discovering. Essentially, I read a book a day because it gives me purpose, a purpose I have assigned myself. I read for other people who don’t have the luxury of time or the access to resources in the author-academic-school worlds that I navigate. Indeed, there are other brilliant people doing this work, but reading is my contribution to the small circle of people, real and virtual, in my world who will accept it: teachers, professors, parents, authors, students, friends, family. It is a privilege to read so widely, to appreciate an author’s art, to bear witness to so many ways of being in the world, and it is an utter joy to do it with and for my circle (even if they didn’t ask me to.

How do I read a book a day?

My life situation affords me time.

  • First of all, I don’t have any children. I understand they take up a lot of time.
  • Second of all, in 2015, I earned a PhD in English. My husband told me when I started it that I better do something with that degree. I decided not to go into academia, deciding to write about teaching and literacy until I knew what I wanted to be when I grow up, so there is a sense of responsibility I am trying to honor.
  • Finally, I am the type of person who always needs a project or mission (even if it is in my imagination). I have a tendency to fall into a state of melancholy if I am idle too long.
  • Oh, and really finally, I don’t like watching too much TV and am not really social, so reading seems to me like an acceptable reason/excuse to hide away in a quiet place for a few hours each day (or to go for a long walk).

I listen to a lot of books.

I have two apps on my phone: Libby and Audible. Libby is an app connected to my library account. I download MP3 books for FREE. I find new titles this way because I can’t always find the latest but take what’s available. Audible is a subscription that costs about $15 a month. You get a free book each month and discounts on others. They run specials, too.  I tend to reserve books on apps for my long walks, runs, or workouts. Sometimes, I clean the house while listening. I listen to the first few chapters at a regular speed and then listen to them at a faster speed. If I listen for one to two hours a day, I can finish a book in a couple days.

I order CD audiobooks from my library. Their book search engine is connected to local libraries, so I just created an account using my library card, select the audiobooks I want, and when they come in, my library puts them on a shelf for me and sends me an email. These are books that I can only listen to in the car. I drive about 45 minutes to and from school every day, and I drive to the city on the weekends to play volleyball. I am in the car a lot, so I can usually finish a CD audio book in two weeks (because I can’t adjust the reading pace as far as I know).

Whenever I see a list of middle grade or young adult books on my Facebook or Twitter feed, I go to my library website and search for the books. I place a hold, and my library adds them to my shelf when they arrive. Sometimes, like yesterday, I discovered that I had 20 books and 3 audiobooks waiting for me. I couldn’t carry them even with my library bag, so here is the real reason I can finish so many books: I return the long ones. While many of my students love the modern version of the triple-decker and they can devour that book in a reasonable amount of time, I want students to read deeply and widely, and so I just don’t have a lot of the 400-1000 page books in my classroom library or in my hands ready to book-talk. I opt for the shorter 200-300 page books.

I read in different modes.

This week, I read The Sky Between You and Me. It is close to 400 pages, but it is written in verse. A student bought it for our class — I required everyone to donate a 2016/2017 book to our class. I had not read it, so I took it home. I read the first 200 pages slowly, swimming in the verse and getting my footing in the unfamiliar rodeo setting. Once I got into the eating disorder aspect of the book, I had a sense of the student who might like this book and how I’d book talk it, support the reader, questions I’d pose in our conference. I have read quite a bit of eating disorder stories, so I am familiar with the progression into and out of it, so I read the last 150 pretty quickly to get a sense of how this might be different. I was reading for craft, for plot, for students’ interests/needs, and for parents who expect me to know what their child is reading/experiencing.  I also read through the last part because I have some eating/body image issues, and I didn’t want to be in that world too long. I keep this mind as I read for students, too.

Sometimes I don’t finish a book.

If I am struggling to get into a book or if I think it feels too young or too old or too something for my junior high students or my university students who might teach high school or if I have a stack waiting for me that seems more interesting, I will abandon the book. This doesn’t happen very often; typically, I read some reviews to motivate me to finish, but sometimes I am just not feeling it.

I track my reading with Goodreads and shelfies.

I started using Goodreads to track my reading a few years ago. I don’t share much or write many reviews there. I just needed a central location to keep track of the books. I often have the image of a cover in my mind and know that I want to recommend it but forget the title or author. Goodreads gives me quick access to my list.  I used to put my to-reads there, but now I just put a hold on the book through my library right away. This way, it ends up my shelf without me having to go to Goodreads, look at my to-read list, and then order the book from my library.

The shelfie is something new. I kept my image off Facebook for a long time thinking that nobody wanted to see pictures of me and that I didn’t want to seem vain or braggadocious, i.e., look at me reading. However, I realized through my blog that people were following what I read and how I taught, and I realized that where and when I read might matter, e.g., walking, driving, resting, traveling. The different images of me with my books show me where and when I was reading/listening to what, and the pics serve as a record. I am also proud to be a teacher reading, so I want to show people who are not teachers that we do, in fact, read, that we are, in fact, working a lot when we are not with students. And, I am just happy to be reading and want to share that joy.

To answer the question, then, no, I don’t really read a book a day. Some days I don’t finish a book. Some days, I read two books. Most weeks, I read between three and seven books — several going at the same time. I guess you could say that I have revived my reading life.

Anne Sutton, how did I do? What else are you wondering?


A Conversation about Characterization (without Worksheets or Slides)

“And that’s our ‘Read for 15.’ Find a good place to stop and mark your page with a sticky. Make any notes you need to help you pick it up at home,” I say in a low voice, hesitating to interrupt their reading because it’s just so beautiful.

Thirty-one seventh graders, eight days into the school year, are well into their first book (some starting their second). A few students reach for their Chromebooks to write a response in their personal reading journal (Google form).  They already know the routine well, but today is tech-free Friday, and we are going to talk about our books rather than write. I want to get students connecting to characters, thinking about characterization, practicing text evidence, and, above all, thinking through talk.  While students were reading, I met with one boy who seems to know everyone well — really social (wink) — and asked him to track our conversation by marking who talks, who says “for example,” and who builds on other people’s comments.  I hand him my notebook.

“No Chromebooks today,” I say. “Fridays are going to be tech-free. You know, I don’t always make notes in my books as I read or mark my progress on Goodreads. Sometimes I want to talk about my book, and sometimes, when I am reading at night, I just want to close my eyes. Today, I’d like to try a whole group discussion about our books. I have a question that, I think, applies to all of our books. When you respond, try to connect to what the person before you said — like Similar to what Julie said or I think my main character is like Joe’s– and, like we practice with our written reading responses this week, try to give an example that supports your claim. Here’s the question: Would you want to be friends with your main character?

“I am reading And We’re Off, and even though the main character is an artist and is traveling through Europe, I am not sure I want to be friends with her, Nora. She is insolent to her mother who wants to be a part of the adventure, and she is keeping a secret from her best friend. For example, Nora knows something about the boy her friend is dating, that her friend MUST know, but she is more concerned about herself than her friend’s well-being; I am not going to tell you in case you read the book. Okay, who wants to start? Tell us your book, your main character, then respond to the question.”

“I do,” says Maria. “I am reading This is Where it Ends. Tomas is really brave. In the middle of the school shooting, for example, he makes sure his classmates are safely out of the way before getting himself out of the auditorium. I’d like to friends with him.”

“And it sounds like he is selfless — thinking of others. We get to know our characters because of what they do or don’t do in certain situations, and clearly, this situation shows Tomas’ selfless and brave nature,” I say.

“Yeah, and to build off what Maria is saying, my character is also brave,” says Paul, “but I am not sure I’d want to be friends with him. I am reading Miles Morales, and I don’t think I’d want to be friends with Miles because he gets into trouble at school in part because his teacher is a racist, and he has family members with a history of crime. I think it would difficult to know how to be a good friend to Miles.”

“But Miles is Spiderman, and he can do cool stuff like in that scene where he dunked the basketball and went into camo-mode,” I say, and Paul nods. “Authors work hard to create complex characters. Miles’s back story does complicate his life at school in part because of his Spiderman secret, but Jason Reynolds, the author, also wants to you know how people treat and react to Miles — like the scenes with his teacher. As you read on, you’ll see that relationship is even more complex than you know at this point — you’re around page 150, right?”

“Yeah, okay, I’ll try to get to that part this weekend,” Paul says.

“Similar to Paul,” Katrina says, “I am not sure I want to be friends with my characters. I am reading Paper Towns. Margo and Quentin sneak off in the middle of the night and do pranks. I would not want to get into trouble, but some of the pranks are deserved, and I like how Margo stands up for herself, but I wouldn’t want to be on her bad side.”

“Yeah, I hear you. By what Margo does, and how cleverly, we learn a lot about her. Authors help us get to know our characters by their backstory, their reactions, their actions, and how other people behave around them — just like how we are, well us, by our back story, reactions, actions, and stuff,” I say.

“Yes, Bruce?” The bell is about to ring, so I am wrapping up our discussion, but Bruce wants to jump in. ” Um, I think I want to read some of these books, Did you just get us to do book talks?”

“And use text evidence and connect to the characters in our books and think about how authors create complex characters and have a literary discussion? Yes,” I say. “All without a test, worksheet, slideshow, or grades. Mostly, I just wanted to talk about books though.”

“That was cool.”

(All names pseudonyms.)

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.

An Announcement of Change and Changing

Take a good look at this pic. Your eyes do not deceive you. Indeed, that round red tag says “I’m a stroller strap” (and in French, too). But don’t get too excited, I will not be buying a stroller anytime soon. It’s just that, as it turns out, the best bags for teachers who travel are diaper bags. Think of it: lots of pockets, easy-to-clean fabric, a changing pad to protect your laptop, bottle holders for coffee and water, not to mention padded shoulder straps for comfort.

My announcement is related to this bag, and it is about change, but I’m not having a baby: I am just going part-time.

For the past seven years, I have been teaching junior high ELA full time while either working on a doctorate or adjuncting at local universities.  In other words, a full-time job, which we all know is way beyond 40 hours, and a part-time job. It was not for financial reasons but by choice and a desperate need to understanding teaching better that I took on this extra work for so long.

Developing and teaching courses for pre-service teachers is the best professional development out there. Consider the process of developing a ten or fifteen-week syllabus: reviewing professional teaching standards, selecting and sequencing texts (and rereading them), creating assignments, integrating technology, imagining how to prepare and support teachers for this very important work. Consider the weekly discussions of those texts and the synthesizing, questioning, and reflecting that happens in the experiences — not to mention the privilege of bearing witness to the excitement, fears, and whispers of self-doubt pre-service teachers feel.

Reading and writing alongside teens each day is a way to ensure that teacher-training is authentic and anchored in the realities of students, teachers, and schools. I would leave school at 2:30 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays, drive to the university, meet with undergrad and grad students before class (office hours), and facilitate a three-hour class all the while holding tight to who we serve –the kids — and all the whys.  And when I latched the chain on our condo door and heard the news signing off “Jimmy Fallon is next,” I would sit beside my husband on our sofa and say, “I am so fortunate — and overwhelmed.” Many evenings I’d stay up with Jimmy on mute just processing the day until my eyes would grow heavy from the stories.

The relationship between both places was, it seemed to me, mutually beneficial, reciprocal.

After a few years of hoping that either my junior high job might find a way for me to both teach teens and work with teachers or my university job would offer me a position that would include teaching teens in the morning and pre-service teachers in the afternoon, I gave up hoping for my health and sanity and turned down the part-time offers from the universities. My financial security was at my junior high job, and without teens, I was pretty sure I’d lose my purpose in higher ed.

And then, a few weeks ago, I learned of a part-time position (67%, or 4 instead of 6 classes) in my district and started hoping again. What if I could teach part-time at the junior high and not lose my tenure? Sure it would be a pay-cut (33%), but I could make up some of it if I could teach more at the university? After talking it over with my husband, human resources at the junior high, and university department chairs, we agreed we could make it work (at least for a year).

So that’s the big announcement. I am creating my close-to-dream job of teaching part-time junior high and part-time higher ed. I will spend my mornings writing, afternoons at the junior high, and a couple evenings at the universities. With this change, of course, comes others.

Change #1 (that’s number not hashtag): Access to Books

For the past fifteen years, I have curated a classroom library of well over 1,000 books, many passed down to me from mentors. I did not mind packing up my books because I enjoyed actually holding each one knowing that they’d be in the hands of readers, but access to them would be compromised. I knew, in accepting the part-time position, that these books would no longer have their own classroom. My new school was gracious enough to accept my shipment of 18 boxes of books and house them in a storage closet until I figured out what to do.

It turns out that a part-time teacher in junior high is not all that different from a university professor. In college, did your professor have her own classroom? No, she rushed in with her well-worn bag, unpacked papers (maybe coffee-stained but certainly tattered), rolled up her sleeves, grabbed a dried-dry-erase marker, and got to work.  That will be me, only add connecting and projecting a laptop and take away the stack of papers. I will be teaching 4 classes at the junior high in 4 different rooms and 2 classes at 2 universities. I’ll be okay. There are many traveling teachers out, and certainly, higher ed people have been doing this for a long time.

But the books. Access to the books. I am not so minimalist and brilliant as some college professors who just need a marker (or chalk) and a dazzling lecture to edify students. Sure, I will have markers, sticky notes, note cards, a journal, a laptop, and water (planning to actually hydrate this year), but I need something that I cannot fit into the diaper bag: my co-teachers, a.k.a., books.  Here is some good news: many junior high teachers still do, in fact, have their “own” classrooms, and the ones who have to let me borrow theirs have made space for a bookcase.  So, I will divide up my books and periodically rotate them among the rooms.

I know that there will come a time when I am conferring with a student and will not have the book that I want to give her in that moment — that it will be in box 13 — but I will just retrieve it that night and offer it the next day. I will make it work.

Change #2: Sense of Place

The aesthetics of the classroom that I could control were very much part of our learning community, its ecology.

  • The smell. I used an oil diffuser.
  • The lights I turned off the fluorescent, illuminating with lamps and twinkle lights.
  • The seats. I moved them all the time- varied, flexible seating.
  • The book cases. I surrounded us with stories as our only decor.
  • The teacher desk. I hid it in a closet wanting to minimize symbols of power.

Space, I believe, influences the  community and learning — where students read influences how they read, where students write shapes how they write.  The aesthetic of the place does impact the aesthetic response, which is why teachers invest so much money in their classrooms. We want students to have a positive aesthetic response in our classrooms — comfort, safety, joy. Now I am wondering: Does the particular classroom community change if the place is not deliberate for that teacher, those students?

Rosenblatt’s ecological perspective on reading — that students’ reading transactions are affected by the interplay of numerous personal, textual, and contextual factors which account for diversity of reader response — has me thinking about the place in which the experiences happen.  And sociocultural theory of learning is such that learning is a social practice — that students take their resources and knowledge and recontextualize them in the classroom. Now I am also wondering: Is the classroom aesthetic situated within the actual walls or is the aesthetic within the beings who share that space, whatever space it is?

I am at the beginning of this change, so I am just starting to pull on this thought thread. I will have a group of students for 41 minutes, and then we will leave one room and move to another for another 41 minutes — same people, new space. How will the change of space impact us — will the changing change us?

We’ll make it work, and while we will be sharing the space, visiting other people’s classrooms, we will still be a we, and our transitions and adjustment will become part of our community identity.

Perhaps not having a “my” classroom is even more symbolic of sharing power than not having my teacher’s desk. Maybe, since it will not be “my” classroom, our learning space will, in fact, be more ontologically ours.

Now I am off to spend some time with dear friends who will become my co-night-teachers this term.

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:

Tell me your story. I will listen.

Innovation Summit Participants, This post walks you through the process of implementing this in your classroom, but we are going to actually do this together in our workshop, so save this for later and just click on this, make a copy, and find a partner.

We hear a lot about the importance of building relationships with students, of creating a respectful classroom culture, of designing lessons that are project-based and student-centered, but discussions of how our content fits in with this class-culture framework are often pushed to the side — as if class culture and content are separate.

What would happen if our students’ lives WERE the curriculum?  For the past two years, I have started the school year with a story exchange project that extends throughout the first quarter and then have modified the project for different genres/mediums each quarter thereafter so that throughout the year, the students’ voices, stories, writing, speaking, listening – their lives– are at the heart of what we do all year. This has significantly changed the culture of my classroom and students’ relationships with one another in addition to literacy.


  1. Talk about stories — why they matter and how they are crafted: Show videos of people sharing seemingly ordinary stories but are still engaging, offering a mirror to our lives or a window into another’s. Every story matters. Start class with these for a few days (e.g, nickname, conversation w/grandparent, making/spending money, a person who influenced you). What is the story? What images, colors, shapes came through? What character interaction and movements? What are specific details you connect to or give you a window? What was the discovery/realization looking back?
  2. Brainstorm: Model and do the brainstorm part of the “master form” together. In the model, just get all the ideas out, and then circle the ones you feel comfortable sharing.
  3. Interview process: Model with a student how to use the form — Chromebooks to the side, body language, follow-up questions, tracking time, kind responses
  4. Partner students: I like to partner boy-girl strangers so that everyone is working from the same position of familiarity — decide A and B, A will ask questions first.
  5. Partners work through the interview process (two class periods).
  6. Do mini-lessons for each part of the draft and then give students time in class to draft — lead, middle, end. They’ll have to confer with one another as they go, getting more details.
  7. Organize small group revisions with groups of 5-ish students; they pull up their doc, read it aloud to you and the group, you write in comments/suggestions, the group offers feedback, and so on; then that group revises while you work with another group. You are teaching how to do peer feedback and modeling the writing group experience. After revisions, the writer should share with the interviewee, revise as needed, and seek consent to share.
  8. Publishing: Publish to the class blog for in-class reading and feedback; have read aloud time on Fridays to practice speaking, listening, author’s craft text evidence, and complimenting.

Sample Schedule

Master Form: Brainstorm, Interview Guide, Drafting Space

  • Google Doc (make a copy to edit)
  • PDF
  • Rubric to guide the drafting and revision process based on your mini-lesson work. Students and peer groups should use this to self-assess toward publication.

Sample, Completed Form

  • Google Doc with annotations
  • In the comments, I talk through my interpretation of the story and explain my choices. My partner can respond or resolve my reasonings. This is an act of communication and consent.

Sample Stories

Google Docs

  • note taking
  • drafting
  • collaborating
  • revising
  • sharing

Kidblog Publishing:

  • can link to Google Drive (but will be deleted when they leave school),
  • can be written directly into the blog,
  • can be viewed publicly beyond the school or privately within the class or just between teacher and student,
  • teacher has complete control,
  • students can comment
  • teacher can comment publicly or privately
  • parents can comment

In-Class Sharing: Speaking, Listening, Author’s Craft Text Evidence, Complimenting

Students self and peer evaluate their speaking, and add their video or audio to their portfolio.
Students present their stories on Fridays- make a schedule, hang some twinkle lights. Listeners use this sheet to track their noticings, responses to their peer’s stories using text evidence.
Phrases to use to respond to class stories that show the many ways we can respond — to how the author writes, to how the author makes you feel, to how the author is teaching you
Giving and accepting compliments takes practice and can really unite the students in showing mutual respect for the process of creating and sharing stories.

Choosing Choice in Your English Classes this School Year: Books and Writing Projects for Self-Formation and Class Community

If you are like many teachers on Facebook and Twitter this summer, you are reading a lot of great PD books about collaboration and technology and new methods and the “best” strategies.  Maybe you’ve spent your own money on materials for your classroom library (e.g., color-coded genre stickers, pillows, new books). Maybe you’ve reimagined your seating arrangements to be more flexible (and spent money on new chairs and more pillows). Maybe you’ve made anchor charts or posters with the strategies you intend to teach (and spent money on having bookmarks or post cards made to give to each student). And maybe you’ve already written your syllabus knowing this year you won’t spend the first day reading it. You feel accomplished and ready to start the new school year.

However, if you are like me, you decided at the beginning of the summer that you’d abstain from education PD and reimagine yourself to see if there is a person in there anymore who is someone other than a teacher. In previous years, I had a sort of post edutum depression, wondering just who am I if I don’t have a school to go to each day, if students are not waiting to read and write with me. So if this sounds like you, maybe you spent this summer playing with your kids, tinkering with your former or new-found hobbies, or rekindling the romance with your sweetie. And maybe you joined Teachers Write! with Kate Messner and Gae Polisner (among many other authors) and wrote a novel. (Yes, I did that!)

Whether you are the former or the latter, you are ready to take what you learned this summer about education and about yourself and make decisions about your practice. You have your strategies. You have a happier, healthier self. Now how do you bring that process (the experience of becoming better, smarter, healthier, more conscious), that self-formation experience to your students and their literacy lives? Perhaps you plan to take what you learned this summer and apply it to your favorite books, stories, and writing units. Perhaps in your school, the standards are set; the required readings are set; the sequence of writing projects are set — so, again, you will take what you’ve learned to enhance the prescribed content. Still, you did some amazing becoming over the summer, and will your students have that same experience in your classroom?

I have yet to meet my students for the upcoming school year, so I do not know what they will need, which books they will love, what stories they will write, what questions they ponder about our world. I never have in the fifteen years that I have been a teacher; nevertheless, for the first thirteen of my fifteen years, I planned glorious units with the novels, short stories, and poems we’d read, with the narrative, informative, argument essays we’d write — prompts and all. Still, I thought I was social justice-y teacher. We read multicultural books and stories; we wrote about our beliefs and being change agents in the world. However, I neglected the most fundamental aspect of democracy (not the political democracy, but Dewey’s definition of democracy): choice. So for the past two years of my practice, I have made significant changes to my “plans” by, in fact, planning to uncover rather than cover concepts with and through a student’s choice in what they read and write. I have made the classroom a place of self and community formation (still with a social justice-y lens). I have tried to harness the process of becoming, and choice is at the heart of these plans.

So below, I share some books and writing experiences that, I think, lend themselves to lots of choice while also being rather layered and complex in all the good PD we’ve learned: collaboration, technology, innovation, empathy/compassion, flexible grouping, project-based learning, multimodal. You have your PD ready to go. You are rejuvenated by the choices you made this summer to become as you wanted or needed, so move into your school year offering a similar experience of exploration and choice so that your students — like you– can become.

Reading: If you must teach a specific book or story or poem, make time every day for students to read what they want and however they wish (stick notes, journal, talking, no responses; chair, floor, pillow, slouched). The reading response posts below are rather formative, but encourage students to make it their own.

Writing: If you must teach a specific form of writing in isolation, make time every day for students to write whatever they wish, however they wish. And don’t hesitate to admit (even at the cost of some confusion) that there is narrative, information, argument, poetry, fiction, and nonfiction in almost every piece of writing. While I have the writing labeled rather restrictively, each post uncovers the complexity of the process and form.


Book Review: None of the Above by I.W. Gregorio

None of the Above by I.W. Gregorio 2015, Harper Collins Children ISBN: 9780062335319
None of the Above by I.W. Gregorio
2015, Harper Collins Children
ISBN: 9780062335319

I grew up in the 80s surrounded by images like Cindy Crawford and Pretty in Pinkwhich made figuring out what sort of girl I was “supposed” to be rather complicated. On top of that, I grew up with seven sisters ranging in size, shape, interest, and certainly attitude and three brothers who had their own ideas about what a girl “should” be.  And as a middle school teacher for over a decade, I see teenage girls and boys navigating a world of gender “shoulds” and trying on a spectrum of gender markers, which is beautiful and painful (at times) to witness. None of the Above by I. W. Gregorio is about an 18 year old girl with AIS (Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome), when one’s chromosome make-up does not match the gender to which one identifies or intersex. She questions how she (and her whole school) understand what it means to be a girl.

In None of the Above,  Kristin Lattimer’s AIS was invisible to her father, her friends, and even her boyfriend. You can’t see AIS. Kristin, however, saw the signs as she matured; they were biological and personal. When a doctor confirms her diagnosis, whispers of self-doubt invade her private thoughts until sharing her diagnosis with a friend initiates public shaming and discrimination. Ignorance hurts.

The author I. W. Gregorio is a doctor, which adds quite a bit of credibility to this book’s subject.  Indeed, as I talked about in my review of  Tree Girl books can lift the veil of ignorance and teach readers by making accessible new concepts, anticipating questions and misconceptions, and by creating a bit of distance (and perspective) between the reader and the subject. Gregorio embeds in the narrative information to illuminate the ways people tend to conflate LGTB. Chromosomal sex  refers to our biological sex. Intersex means the biological sex does not align to the gender to which the person identifies. Gender identity is one’s internal sense (not chromosomes) of being male or female which may correspond to external sex but may not, which is transgender, and sexual orientation is a person’s sexual identity in relation  to the gender to which they are attracted. Gregorio also provides further reading recommendations in her appendix.

None of the Above is not a textbook; it is literature, and literature can cultivate empathy, recognizing that other people have feelings and that those feelings count. If readers approach None of the Above with an open mind, they will be more empathic about sex, gender and sexual orientation after reading it.  I think readers will feel for Kristen as she learns about and seeks support for AIS. I think readers will relate to Kristen being blindsided by her diagnosis and feeling rejected by her friends and even her gender.  At one point, after discussing Shakespeare in class, Kristen wonders, “…maybe Shakespeare was preaching that it shouldn’t matter if you were a man or a woman. But what if you were something in between.” Don’t we all feel “in between” at times in our lives? Don’t we all wonder if we are “normal”?

The brain does not know the difference between feeling compassion for a fictional figure and feeling it for flesh and blood. The emotion and the memory will be imprinted. I think  None of the Above  gets readers thinking about how we “other” people in our lives and how society teaches us to turn away from the unfamiliar, but I also hope readers will think about how they learned what it means to be a girl or to be a boy or to just be. For me, Cindy Crawford and Molly Ringwald were helpful, but my sisters — seeing them grow into amazing women — have taught me much, much more. And Kristen became my sister for a few hours.

So I like to rate books in two ways: finding the flow and classroom library. Did I get totally immersed when reading? Did hours go by without my noticing? And is this a book I would include in my middle school classroom library as a one copy, a book group selection, or a whole class novel?

  • Finding the Flow: I finished this book in two sittings — a few hours each. My need to understand kept me turning the pages. I learned about androgen insensitivity syndrome (AIS), and I feel like I have a better understanding of the diversity of biological sex and how it is something quite different from yet commonly muddled with gender identity and sexual orientation.  My favorite part was when Kristen sought help from a support group, and after talking about her diagnosis feeling “amazing” and finding “sisterhood” because she no longer felt alone.  I think this book is an important contribution to young adult literature.
  • Cla$$room Library: I would buy one copy for middle school, maybe a few more for a book group depending on the interests of students. Because the protagonist is 18 and there are quite a few detailed sexual encounters, this book seems more appropriate for high school readers  and libraries although I would love to read this in a book club with students (though I feel like I’d need parental consent).