The Jens

The Jens
jen b & Jen P

Saturday, December 29, 2012


I spent Christmas Day looking at directions. After my boys opened their presents, I helped one assemble his new Lego set.  We worked steadily for an hour or so and put together his new heavy-duty helicopter with minimal fuss, even though the set is rated for older children. Then I tried to help my husband assemble the gas BBQ he gave me. What a difference! My husband is quite handy and loves to fix, modify, and assemble everything from wooden puzzles to cars to computers. So it was with some surprise we found ourselves re-reading instructions and the assembly taking close to three hours, rather than the 45 minutes indicated on the box.

What was so different about the experiences? The Lego instructions were far superior. First, there are the pictures on the box and the front of the directions that show the completed project. Then, the parts are separated into several bags and each bag has its own detailed section in the instruction guide showing how to assemble. There is a picture of the complete section before the detailed step-by-step instructions. Each step adds just a small part to the section of the complete project and it is clear to see where each piece goes and how each section adds to the previous. Contrast that to the BBQ instructions where one exploded diagram includes many steps. We had to talk through the diagram and compare that to the pieces scattered on the ground, trying to figure out which parts to connect to each other first. Holes weren't aligned exactly (particularly infuriating to a machinist used to working within very tiny tolerances) and pieces didn't fit together easily. 

So that made me think about how I ask students to write essays, or rather, how I should help students write essays. Show them a model, point out the parts, go through the step-by-step writing moves that make the essay work. I do show a model essay at the beginning of explaining what an argument essay looks like, for example, but I could slow down on the step by step instructions and just do one small piece at a time, such as how to integrate quotes or what kind of transitions to use. Just because they are seniors, it doesn't mean they know what they are doing...


Tuesday, December 18, 2012

My letter to seniors on Monday

Other educators have responded far more eloquently to the shootings at Sandy Hook, but here's what I gave to each student after they finished writing their final essay for me this semester:

Dear Seniors,

Though the greeting is impersonal, please be assured the sentiments today are not.

Last Friday, as I was getting ready to leave work, I checked the traffic and saw that there had been an accident on 280, just north of Farm Hill and occurring just after we let out for class. I worried that some of you might be involved and hoped it was nothing serious. As I got in my car a bit later, I heard that it was a fatal accident -- my heart sank, and I anxiously scanned news stations to find out more. I tried to remember which students lived where, who might be driving home that way, and prayed fervently that it was none of you. My heart was already heavy from the horrible news of the school shooting in Connecticut and the drive home was long and somber. Though I feel so sorry for the family and friends of those who were killed in the accident, it was with some relief that I recognized none of the names on the evening news that night.

The news of the school shooting in Newtown has continued to weigh heavily on my heart and mind. How can something that terrible happen? How can we explain the unexplainable? I had to stop reading the news and listening to reports and instead, I let my thoughts focus on each one of you. As we finish a book where individuality was non-existent and conformity the norm, I appreciate each of you for what you add to my life. Some of you tell me about good books I should read, some share jokes or funny stories, some add insightful comments to our class discussions while others make those comments in the office, some just give a warm smile in class. You add laughter and joy to our class every day. Many times you also add thoughtful remarks, sometimes even on the topic we’re discussing! J

Seriously, though, as we step away from school for a bit and enjoy the holiday season, take the time to appreciate your family and friends, and know that I appreciate you, too. You may think it’s corny, but you matter to me, more than you’ll ever realize.

Read a good book or two and share it with me when we get back – and have a happy, safe, and fun break! Read! Experience something wonderful! Share your specialness with those around you! Bring joy to others!

But most of all, come back ready to make our last semester together amazing. Congratulations to our early grads and happy holidays to all--

Several students responded via email, a couple left notes on my desk this morning, and a handful talked to me at various points in the day -- all said thank you and that it was nice to know that someone noticed them, cared about them. But all of the kids who responded are kids who interact with me outside of class -- it's the ones who try to fade into the background that I worry about. I hope they read my note and realize that try as they may to fly under my radar, I do notice them, they do matter to me.

Friday, December 14, 2012

My Voice, Their Essays

Just about the time I was finishing up a month-long Transcendentalists unit with my juniors, Jen P shared Jim Burke's video (see Jen P's post) on voice recorded essay grading. The minute I watched, I was ready to try it. To be fair, had he promoted the idea that grading essays while standing on my head would make the process easier, I'd probably try that, too. I hate grading essays. I don't know anyone who loves it. How did we all become English teachers???
Aaaannnyways, back to the point: Here's how I rolled it out:

1. I told students we'd be trying something new...that we'd see how it went, but to be ready to revise after draft one.
2. When the essay was due, I had them print a hard copy for me, save an electronic copy for themselves, and upload to since they had worked on it outside of class.
3. I began reading. Using the voice-record feature on my iPhone, I narrated my comments for students--exactly as Jim Burke describes in his video.
4. I highlighted/circled some words/areas of concern as I was reading, but made no comments, though I did mark on a grading sheet a tentative score.
5. I returned all hard copies to students and emailed each student my comments for him/her.
6. Three days later, students had due: their original hard copy, but now marked-up with annotations based upon my comments for them (to show my they had listened to my comments) and a revised electronic copy, emailed to me. I asked them to specifically highlight in the electronic final draft only the parts of their essay they had changed based upon my comments.
7. Those who followed the process and made significant changes received a bump in the score I had jotted while voice-recording; those who made few changes/didn't follow directions/didn't turn-in a final draft received the initial essay grade.

So, after that process, if I were reading this I'd be wondering, How did it go? Did it save time? Was it less painful than reading/marking up? Will you do it again?
I think for the true-test question, Will you do it again?, my answer is Yes. However, I don't think--at least initially--that it saved me time. The shortest recordings were around four minutes; the longest one was about fourteen (AND he didn't even turn in a revised draft!!!). Most were around five-six minutes. But keep in mind, that's just the recording part. In between recording I was reading/considering, so the recording part only represents when I had collected my thoughts on a particular issue and was ready to speak.
The best part of this process is that the feedback for students is ultimately much, much better through my voice than through my pen because I would never be willing to write as much as I was willing to say. I also really like that it forces them to reread their own writing in a very critical way, having to mark-up and annotate it (instead of me!). That, to me, makes it worth the process. Students seemed to be very positive about the amount of feedback they received and I think with practice I may be able to streamline the whole thing a bit, too. Regardless, I'll definitely be doing it again.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Brave New World in a Brave New Way

I’m in the midst of a dystopian unit I’ve taught before and I’m realizing how much my lessons are changing in order to meet the CCSS. I’ve taught Brave New World a handful of times now, and in the past I’ve focused more on the ideas in the book and connections we can make to present-day life. I haven’t focused as much on the text itself, especially the writing, because honestly, I don’t care for the writing – it’s the ideas that draw me in. I don’t think this novel is particularly well-written and I don’t find the style to be what drives my interest in the book; there are parts of the book I wish Huxley had written differently and there are plenty of places in the story where I think Huxley is focusing more on getting his ideas out than telling a good story. But as I prepared to introduce my students to this classic, I realized that if I am to address the Common Core reading standards for literature, I need to change what I do with this text.

I think I do a pretty good job of having students find evidence in the text (standard 1). That they don’t always integrate this evidence into their essays is another issue, but when I ask them to find, for example, a quote that highlights something the society in BNW values, they can provide a quote about community or stability. We’re about halfway through the book at this point, and I’ve asked them to find quotes that support assertions or reveal something about the themes that I’ve provided them. As we get closer to finishing the text, they’ll have to make the assertions and find the quotes, but initially, I did to make sure they were on the right track.

As we finish and review the text this week, we’ll spend time looking at how themes are developed (standard 2), and new for me this time around, the author’s choices in how to develop and relate elements of a story (standard 3). I usually gloss over how BNW is written, but now I’ll slow down the conversation and let the students focus on the strengths and weaknesses of the writing. We’ll have to spend time looking at how the text is structured and how that contributes to its overall meaning (standard 5). And we’ll look at why Huxley wrote the novel, which I think gets at standard 6 (point of view).

One aspect of teaching this unit that I am not changing is all the additional reading I bring in to support our study of the ideas presented in BNW. Some of these readings include Huxley’s own essays in Brave New World Revisited, but I have some additional current events-type articles to also spark discussion and deeper thought. These address the CCSS standards for reading informational texts. As with the novel itself, I’ve used some of these readings in the past to generate in-class discussions, but now, with the standards for informational reading in hand, we’ll spend more time analyzing the text and not just the ideas.

I know it isn’t necessary to hit every standard in every unit, that the standards are end-of-year grade-level expectations, but I do need to make sure that I am addressing these throughout the year and not just focusing on the easy-for-me or preferably-to-me standards. And looking at how this novel is written is just as important as what was written, so that’s the task this week.
How are you adapting your lessons to meet the new standards, Jen B?

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

What a college- and career-ready student looks like

So at some point in the CCSS webinar from two weeks ago, the presenters said that page 7 of the introduction was one of the most important pages in the document. This page describes what college- and career-ready students can do.

The seven descriptors are:
·         They demonstrate independence.
·         They build strong content knowledge.
·         They respond to the varying demands of audience, task, purpose, and discipline.
·         They comprehend as well as critique.
·         They value evidence.
·         They use technology and digital media strategically and capably.
·         They come to understand other perspectives and cultures. 

The common thread running through all of these descriptions is that students use evidence. 

A couple of comments here. First, I love that everything comes down to evidence, but I realize that this is a going to be a huge challenge. We’re going to have to slow down, read carefully, listen closely, and always go back to the text for answers. Students can’t just respond with “I think…” and not have evidence to support their opinions. Also, the evidence they provide will have to come from the text, not some movie the text reminded them of.

Second, this portrait of a college- and career-ready student fits with what we read in College and Career Ready and College Knowledge. (A good summary is here.) So everything we’ve been focusing on works together and affirms the changes we’ve been making in our curriculum to better prepare students for post-secondary success. 

I think I will use the description of a college- and career-ready student as a mid-year self-assessment piece with students. Does this describe you? What can you do? Where do you need to improve? Show me where you have done this in my class this year. What do we need to do to make sure you can do all that is in these descriptions?

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Back to writing boot camp

So I saw this tweet from the amazing Jim Burke:

Thanks to all those at #NCTE12 who have talked to me about the voice feedback technique illustrated here:…

First, I don't know how that guy has time to do all that he does -- teaches, writes, presents, thinks big thoughts all time...

Second, I am hopeful this might actually save time. I'm guessing it will take some time to set up initially (getting all the kids' emails into my contacts sounds tedious) and some practice so that I'm not recording dead air. But since I HATE writing comments that kids many times won't actually read anyway, I'd like to try this.

I like the way he has built in accountability for listening to the comments by having students create a to do list for revisions.

I'm curious about reading only the revisions using the track changes feature in Word. Will I really be able to limit myself to only reading the changes and will those make sense in isolation?

Two concerns. First, I hate the sound of my voice on recordings. And the paranoid part of me is a little worried about sending students recordings that they could potentially remix into something other than what I intended.

I will definitely give this a try, though.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Balanced. Smarter.

Clearly I am lagging far, far behind Jen P, who has provided lots of fodder for thought in the past few entries.
Rolling out a new set of standards to a district full of assessment-and-change-weary teachers is a fairly monumental task. Luckily, the CCSS are worthy of attainment and focus, in my opinion, on all the right things.

First, one response to prior post: I'm strongly in favor of ELA teachers increasing expository reading toward perhaps that 50-50 balance suggested by the webinar peeps.This is for a couple reasons:
1. Even if that is the goal, many ELA teachers will not reach it because investment in literature is strong and long.
2. We know that 100% of reading in college-level English classes (as well as all the rest of their courses) is expository, so how are we effectively preparing them for those courses if we're 80% literature, 20% expository?

One thing important to implementation, but still in development by the Smarter Balanced Consortium is the assessment piece. Here's where they've released some sample questions:

Of all the performance items released, I believe only one was based on a literature-based prompt, rather than an informational-based prompt (for whatever that's worth).

We have a year-and-a-half before we need to be basing all curriculum on CCSS, with first official CCSS assessment taking place for the first time in the spring of 2015:

At the start of the 2014-15 school year, the interim assessment item bank will be fully accessible to schools and teachers. In addition, teachers will have access to a digital library of formative assessment strategies and practices, including instructional best practices and professional development on assessment literacy.  The end-of-year summative assessment will start in spring 2015.

Smarter Balanced is basing all assessment upon the following claims:

Overall Claim for Grades 3–8
“Students can demonstrate progress toward college and career readiness in English language arts and literacy.”
Overall Claim for Grade 11
“Students can demonstrate college and career readiness in English language arts and literacy.”

Claim #1 – Reading
“Students can read closely and analytically to comprehend a range of increasingly complex literary and informational texts.”
Claim #2 – Writing
“Students can produce effective and well-grounded writing for a range of purposes and audiences.”
Claim #3 – Speaking and Listening
“Students can employ effective speaking and listening skills for a range of purposes and audiences.”
Claim #4 – Research/Inquiry
“Students can engage in research and inquiry to investigate topics, and to analyze, integrate, and present information.”

Now, how they will authentically assess these claims will be interesting to see being developed. Based on what they've released so far, I think they still have a ways to go, though some of the questions are interesting and show promise--especially in the introduction of interactive resources that can be implemented when the test is administered online.

So, while Smarter Balanced is working on that, I'm pretty sure we'll all be busy enough getting ready for them.

The 30-70 split

This past week I participated in a CCSS webinar produced by Schools Moving Up that provided a helpful discussion of Reading Anchor Standard 1. The focus of the webinar was the shared responsibility for literacy development, and page 5 of the Introduction again shows the importance of ELA, social studies, and science working together to improve students’ literacy skills, by providing a breakdown of what types of reading and writing need to occur over a student’s day. By 12th grade, 30% of the reading should be literary and 70% should be informational. For writing, 40% should be persuasive, 40% should be explanatory, and 20% should be narrative.

At one point during the webinar, the presenters indicated that within an English class, 50% of the reading should be literary and 50% should be informative. I had not heard that breakdown before, nor had I seen any reference to a specific breakdown of types of reading and writing within English alone – so I am a little confused there. I was able to ask the presenters about this after the webinar, but honestly, their answer left me wanting more. They said that because the reading standards are divided equally between literature and informational texts, equal time must be devoted to each. They went on to say that because social studies and science may not be ready yet for the reading standards and because 70% of a student’s overall reading should be informational, English teachers may have to devote more time initally to informational texts until social studies and science are ready to fully take on the standards.

Honestly, this really concerns me. Right now my English class is probably the opposite of what it should be, according to the comments above. I probably teach closer to 80% literature and 20% informative texts. The informative texts I use are closely tied to the literature we’re reading in class together. While I have moved to providing more informational texts in my College and Career Readiness class, without this additional period, I would have to dramatically change the way I teach English.

I’m not sure what to think about all this…

If in social studies and science students are reading strictly informational texts, then to balance and reach the 30-70 split between literature and informational texts, English teachers should be spending over 80% of the time reading literature. But this is basically what I’m doing and I need another period to work in the informational text reading that I feel students need to be successful in their college classes.

In the College and Career Readiness class, we’ve used the Article of the Week assignment from Kelly Gallagher, as well as assignments based on the CSU Expository Reading and Writing curriculum and assignments based on an AP Literature and Composition training I took through the Bay Area Writing Project. These assignments are closer to what students receive in their college composition and rhetoric class – but are also more like what they are asked to do in their philosophy, anthropology, and sociology classes, for example.

According to the CCSS standards, social studies and science teachers will help in getting students ready for the demands of those kinds of classes in college, but is what I am doing in English enough? If I am preparing students for the first transfer-level composition class, I should be doing far more informational reading, I think. And if I were teaching back at a regular high school, I’d have to do that all in my single English period…
~Jen P



Ready for College? Or Career?

Last year Jen and I spent time looking at reports on students’ readiness for college – in part, because we were curious as to how our students stacked up to the rest of our district’s students on the CSU EAP test. More on that in a later post, but here’s what we found about students’ readiness in general:

Only about 30 percent of last year’s California high school graduates who took the ACT college entrance exam tested proficient in all subject areas.
The state’s best subject was English – 72 percent of students were considered ready for college freshman classes. In science, however, only 34 percent were deemed ready for higher education.
“In California, about half of entering freshmen at Cal State University need to take remedial courses in English, and about 40 percent have to do so in math," said Hans Johnson, policy fellow with the Public Policy Institute of California
According to The Condition of College & Career Readiness 2011, aproximately 28% of all 2011 ACT-tested high school graduates did not meet any of the ACT College Readiness Benchmarks, meaning they were not prepared academically for first-year college courses in English Composition, College Algebra, Biology, and social sciences.

 A record number of high school juniors took the California State University readiness test last spring, and a record number were deemed college-ready in math and English. But, despite some improvement over the past six years, the percentage of juniors who tested prepared for a four-year college remained stubbornly low: only 22 percent who took the English exam and 15 percent who took the math exam. For Hispanic and African American students, it’s only 12 percent college-ready in English and 5 percent in math.

So why am I bringing up these stats about college readiness? Because page 4 of the Introduction to the CCSS begins with this explanation: The CCR standards anchor the document and define general, cross-disciplinary literacy expectations that must be met for students to be prepared to enter college and workforce training programs ready to succeed.

I think the way the CCSS has set up these standards is rather nice. The anchor standards are the same, K-12, and they provide a broad description for what students should be able to do. Then, the grade level standards, and for high school, the additional literacy standards for history/social studies and science/technical subjects, spell out the specific skills and understandings.
I also like how the CCSS explicitly states that the standards do not mandate how or what to teach – the goals are clearly stated, but how we get there is up to us.
Just as on page 3, the shared responsibility for students’ literacy is made explicitly clear. This makes perfect sense to me as we see students struggle with the reading for their college classes. We have to teach them to become active readers, to annotate, to take notes on the reading and then review those notes. When some of our students are overwhelmed by the reading in their community college social science and science classes, I worry about how they’ll do if/when they transfer to the university. Even though most of our students are deemed proficient or advanced readers, and they take both high school and college English classes, every year we hear from grads who’ve moved on to the university that the amount of reading and text complexity is far beyond what they’ve been used to. So I welcome the opportunity to work with social studies and science teachers to improve students’ literacy skills. 
I’m curious to see what kinds of tests will be developed to assess these skills and understandings. I haven’t yet had the time to explore the Smarter Balanced or PARRC websites.
~Jen P

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Blogging my way through the CCSS

From the CCSS Introduction, p.3

The Standards set requirements not only for English language arts (ELA) but also for literacy in history/social studies, science, and technical subjects. Just as students must learn to read, write, speak, listen, and use language effectively in a variety of content areas, so too must the Standards specify the literacy skills and understandings required for college and career readiness in multiple disciplines. Literacy standards for grade 6 and above are predicated on teachers of ELA, history/social studies, science, and technical subjects using their content area expertise to help students meet the particular challenges of reading, writing, speaking, listening, and language in their respective fields. It is important to note that the 6–12 literacy standards in history/social studies, science, and technical subjects are not meant to replace content standards in those areas but rather to supplement them. States may incorporate these standards into their standards for those subjects or adopt them as content area literacy standards.

As a natural outgrowth of meeting the charge to define college and career readiness, the Standards also lay out a vision of what it means to be a literate person in the twenty-first century. Indeed, the skills and understandings students are expected to demonstrate have wide applicability outside the classroom or workplace. Students who meet the Standards readily undertake the close, attentive reading that is at the heart of understanding and enjoying complex works of literature. They habitually perform the critical reading necessary to pick carefully through the staggering amount of information available today in print and digitally. They actively seek the wide, deep, and thoughtful engagement with high-quality literary and informational texts that builds knowledge, enlarges experience, and broadens worldviews. They reflexively demonstrate the cogent reasoning and use of evidence that is essential to both private deliberation and responsible citizenship in a democratic republic. In short, students who meet the Standards develop the skills in reading, writing, speaking, and listening that are the foundation for any creative and purposeful expression in language.

My initial thoughts: Wow! This is an ambitious undertaking!  This vision of a literate person is far beyond where many people are now, beyond what currently passes for literate. What might society look like if we actually achieved a population that actively seeks the wide, deep, and thoughtful engagement with high-quality literary and informational texts that builds knowledge, enlarges experience, and broadens worldviews? How would our political debates change if everyone could reflexively demonstrate the cogent reasoning and use of evidence?

I love that college and career readiness are part of the name of the standards and that this is the ultimate goal, but boy, we sure have a lot to do to get all students to reach that goal. And I love the emphasis placed on using high quality literary and informational texts that build knowledge, and demonstrating cogent reasoning and the use of evidence. Thinking about how this changes my daily practice is a little daunting.

Okay, rather than get bogged down in the enormity of that, I’ll focus on the top paragraph…

What I particularly like is that the CCSS share the burden (opportunity?) of teaching literacy skills –it isn’t just the responsibility of English/Language Arts teachers. The CCSS explicitly state that social studies, science, and technical subjects all are required to help students learn to read and write.

I’m guessing that a few social studies and science teachers will grumble about how teaching reading and writing skills belongs in English and not their disciplines; others may feel unprepared to teach reading and writing. And I completely understand the complaint or question of “how will I get it all done?!” But I think that’s where the opportunity is – we now have a clear target of what students should be doing and we have (at least) three disciplines working together to make sure students can hit that target. Teachers from all three disciplines can work together to devise close reading strategies or writing templates. A common vocabulary can be used to describe both the writing process and elements of a particular type of writing. Having everyone focus on the same goals for reading and the same types of writing should make it easier for both teachers and students.

Communication and time to think/plan/implement/reflect together amongst the three disciplines will be crucial. I think it would be a real mistake to expect or encourage English teachers to take the lead in explaining the standards to social studies and science – all three disciplines should work through the standards together. I think it would be important to keep the three disciplines on the same page, rather than letting each group decide how to implement the standards:
·      After reading the standards and seeing how the ELA standards are connected to the literacy standards for social studies and science/technical subjects, where do our students need the most help? Close reading skills? Writing skills? That might be a starting point for implementation.
·      Setting a progression for the types of writing. Maybe English starts with inform-explain writing the first quarter and social studies and science pick it up the second quarter. Or everyone starts with inform-explain and then moves together to argument. Hey, how about a school-wide writing bootcamp!
·      Assessing writing together with a rubric shared by all three disciplines. Norming papers together would be fascinating and so helpful! I think this would be really eye-opening.
·      Determining a common vocabulary. Not that all teachers have to teach lock-step together, but it would be so helpful for students if we could all agree to the same terms so they wouldn’t have to call it a concession in one class and a counterargument in another, for example.

I’m excited by this opportunity for collaboration – much to learn, but not as daunting when I realize there will be many teachers working towards the same goal.
~Jen P

Getting into the Common Core Standards

So I’m spending some of my “free” time reading through the CCSS ELA standards. I downloaded   the standards when they were first published in 2010 and sort of skimmed through them because I wanted to see what the fuss was about. At that time, any possible implementation seemed so far off so I felt no need to read closely or figure them out. Promptly set them aside.

Summer 2011 gave me time to look at them more closely. Skimmed through the appendices and introduction, but did spend more time thinking about the grade level ELA standards. At that point, I was still looking at the standards in isolation; I hadn’t studied the anchor standards, nor had I spent much time looking at the grade level progression.

Working with Jen B, we focused primarily on the three types of writing (narrative, argument, and inform-explain). We changed our weekly schedule to include a double-block of English on Fridays, focusing on writing skills. We introduced each type of writing and had students produce one process piece for each type over 4-5 weeks, taking the first semester to introduce and practice all three types of writing.

This summer, Jen and I read Pathways to the Common Core, College Knowledge, and College and Career Ready, as well as a couple of other books on the Common Core standards and college readiness. These three texts were the ones that really shifted my thinking about how I could better prepare students for college and make a full transition to the CCSS.

Anyway, now I am going back to the CCSS and reading the Introduction slowly and carefully – exactly the kind of reading I want students to be doing as well. More thoughts on the CCSS standards soon.
~Jen P

Saturday, October 13, 2012


Trying to find balance seems to get harder each year.

Balance between writing and reading, between whole class books and self-selected books, between grading and lesson planning, between counseling and teaching, between work and home, between staying present in the moment and planning the next thing...

Any suggestions?

~Jen P

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Wrapping up the boot camp

We're finishing our third week of argument writing, our seventh week of writing boot camp, the eighth week of instruction.

We've slowed down the pace considerably for the argument unit, spending the first week talking about the format and practicing a very basic template. The outlines were predicable, but I am okay with that as we gave them a very simple topic (argue for a later curfew).

We also had them look at the convention speeches and debate whether Obama should feel pleased with Clinton's speech or not.  This wasn't a great assignment, but it did allow us to incorporate current events and study rhetorical appeals in the speeches.

The second week we gave them slips with reasons and evidence for both sides of an issue and they worked in pairs to organize the slips into the two sides of the argument. They had to figure out the claims and organize the reasons and evidence, but all the research  was done for them, allowing them to focus on organization and transitions.

This final week we're doing a DBQ style synthesis essay. Students will read several articles on boxing and then write an essay arguing something about boxing.  We've given them the topic and some resources that can be used to help develop and support their argument, but they have to come up with their own claim, organize their reasons and evidence, provide a counterclaim and rebuttal.

Next year I think I'll give overviews of all three types of writing in the first week and then spend more time looking at exemplars from each genre to see how each meets the standard. After spending time looking at professional and student mentor texts, then we'll start writing. I think instead of giving multiple prompts for practice, I'll just give one and spend more time peer editing and self-evaluating. I also want to have students write a draft in each genre on the same topic so they can really see how they need to shift their writing to meet the different standards.

~Jen P.



Sunday, August 26, 2012

Lots of change, lots of (initial?) work

Congratulations, Jen! We made it through orientation week as well as our first week of curriculum/writing boot camp. That feels like quite an accomplishment this year. We both put in a LOT of hours the past couple weeks trying to make these changes happen in our curriculum. I just finished our last post exchange describing my own reflections about what I think went well and what things I still think I need to devote more time toward thinking through and finding solutions for. 
Before we move onto new topics and bring in more research, theories, or ideas for implementation I'm curious to hear your own reflections and analysis of our first week of writing boot camp. What went well? What do you feel needs to be revamped? What might you change in this roll-out next year? Are you still motivated to charge on in this direction? Do you see what we're doing as being more beneficial (than previous methods of teaching) to the students, us, or equally both?
:-) jen b.


Ok, clearly I am already falling way behind…

Here are my thoughts about our boot camp, as of week 3:

·         The pace was too fast – for the kids who really care about their writing and are trying to turn in their best work, the pace killed them; the other kids used the fast pace as an excuse to turn in mediocre work.

·         I need to spend more time training students how to give feedback – some kids did a great job of providing valuable feedback, but others couldn’t make it past “I liked it.”

·         Setting up groups is tricky – some groups functioned much better than others, even though I really tried mixing up high ability with lower ability, introverts with extroverts.

·         Even though our goal was just to read one draft, I felt compelled to look at them all, and kids seemed to want verification that I had read all.

·         I liked the idea of Google forms as a way for students to self-assess, but the kids just copied and pasted entire sections into the form and the result was a huge spreadsheet that definitely did not help me and I’m not sure helped them, either.

·         Still think this is the way to start the year (the writing boot camp), and I do think our progression from narration to inform-explain to argument makes sense, but I want to think more about how to better roll this out next year.

·         I need to learn how to make the most of Google Drive.

~Jen P.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Figuring out our writing boot camp

One of the things I love about teaching is that I get two “New Years” every year, and with that, a chance for new resolutions and fresh starts. As we prepare to meet students this week, I have our writing boot camp ideas swirling around in my head and wondering if we can pull it all together in time. I’m glad we have a week of orientation with the kids first – not only to buy us more planning time, but it gives us a chance to get to know them and their writing before official core class instruction begins.

As Jen B mentioned, we read two articles last week that prompted this major shift in how we wanted to start our year: Junking the Old Way of Teaching Writing and A Cure for Bad Teaching of Writing, both by Jay Matthews.

I wanted ideas on how I could give meaningful feedback on student writing, so I re-read chapter seven of Carol Jago’s Papers, Papers, Papers and that confirmed for me one more reason for us to change our practice: the majority of kids don’t read comments on essays, and if they do actually read them, they don’t actually learn from them. So why are we wasting time correcting every error, making suggestions on how to improve, re-writing awkward sentences for them? She mentions that she keeps track of errors that show up across several students and uses those notes as the basis for mini-lessons on usage, style, and organization. She also cites research that shows comments are effective when the teacher refers back to previous papers and commend the student for concrete improvements based on prior problem areas.

One of her ideas for managing the paper load is something I’d like to adapt and try. She has students (or maybe had, as this was written in 2005) give her a blank cassette tape for each rough draft. She then read the essay aloud and inserted her comments as she read. Presumably, students would listen and then revise their drafts. She suggests allotting 10-15 minutes per draft and stopping at the end of that time period, even if you aren’t finished with the paper. I’m wondering if this might be a technique for students to use together – the peer reviewer could read the draft aloud, commenting and questioning as she reads, and the writer could jot down notes to help him remember what to work on. Or, if both partners have access to technology at home, they could work independently and record their reading and comments on voicethread.

Thinking about how we could structure peer review time led us to read up on how other teachers conduct writing workshops with their high school classes. Two resources we’ve been consulting extensively are Penny Kittle’s Write Beside Them and Jen Roberts’ website. I really like the idea of peer writing groups, reading aloud each other’s papers and giving immediate feedback, but I have a hard time with each kid bringing 6 copies of their paper – I guess if we are working on short pieces initially that might work. I also like the idea of me going around the room, conferring quickly with 7-9 writers per period, but I wonder how realistic it is that I’ll be able to offer solid feedback in 5 minutes per student.

Additionally, we’ve been trying to figure out how we’re going to make this work with limited lab access. Here’s what we’ve tentatively decided on for the first two weeks:

Day 1: overview of boot camp – explain importance of writing well in their college classes, and our goals for them as writers and peer reviewers; explain how we want them to label and organize their google docs.

Day 2: provide an example of narrative writing – explain what differentiates this from inform-explain and argument, review CCSS standard, explain the rubric, and do some preliminary writing in their comp books; HW – read their initial draft aloud, jot notes for revision/improvement, type revised draft in google doc and share with teacher.

Day 3: prompt 2 given in class – preliminary writing in comp book; teacher begins conferring with students on prompt 1in google docs; students are writing, or when finished, reading; HW -- read their initial draft aloud, jot notes for revision/improvement, type revised draft in google doc and share with teacher.

Day 4: peer conferences – students bring in two copies of papers – peer reviewer reads paper aloud and comments as she is reading while writer listens and jots down feedback on draft; ideally, each student will have one-two students read her paper aloud and give feedback; HW – revise drafts of prompts 1 & 2. We will have to model how we expect the peer conferences to go.

Day 5: prompt 3 given in class– preliminary writing in comp book; teacher continues conferring with students on prompt 1& 2 in google docs; students are writing, or when finished, reading; HW -- read their initial draft aloud, jot notes for revision/improvement, type revised draft in google doc and share with teacher.

Day 6: prompt 4 – same as above.

Day 7: prompt 5 – same as above.

Day 8: peer conferences (same as day 4)

Day 9: revising & conferring – hopefully in lab all period.

Day 10: all 5 prompts have been revised; update independent reading in comp book

Our plan is to require students to meet with us twice, once during class time and once before or after class. We will probably only be able to give students 5 minutes of feedback during class if we want to meet with each student (on day 3, 5, 6, 7, 9), so requiring them to come by outside of class on any of those days, plus the two peer conferences days will give us additional time to provide feedback.

We will set up a discussion thread on our class ning to showcase examples of narrative writing for student reference. I’m thinking we could also use this area to make general comments about what we’re seeing in student drafts.

During the entire boot camp, students will have free choice in what they are reading. Our expectation is that they will read every day, respond to what they are reading in their comp books at least once a week, and give a quick book talk on something they’ve read that they want others to know about.

We’re anticipating that there will be some students who fail to bring hard copies on the peer conference days. If we are able to use the labs on those days, students can simply bring up their google doc, but if we are in the classroom, those students will have to sit out and read instead, and then at home with their parent read the paper aloud, self-assess as they read, and hopefully get some feedback from their parent as well.

We’re still working through how to record all of this in the gradebook. Right now, I’m leaning toward two grades in the gradebook: participation and mastery. The participation grade would be based strictly on the completion of the requirements for the unit – the written responses to the five prompts, participating in the two peer conferences and the two teacher conferences, and keeping the comp book up-to-date with the preliminary writing for each prompt and the reading responses. The mastery grade would be based on the teacher reviewing the drafts with the student, rubric in hand, and deciding together the student’s progress toward mastering the standard. This will then clearly identify goals for the student in the next unit.

We don’t have it all figured out yet, and we’re trying to anticipate problems, but I think we’re nervously excited to try something new and focus on an area that definitely needs more attention from us.

~Jen P


Well, that we're five days deep into our "writing boot camp" it feels like a good time to stop and reflect for a minute.

I was able to stick to the plan above for days 1-5; however, it felt like a pretty ambitious pace and I suspect some revision for next week may be in order. Organizing what went well and what was challenging may help in trying to decide where to revise, goes:

What I liked/what went well:
1. Classes went by FAST
2. Kids were engaged--they like to write (at least they like to write narratives)
3. I felt our directions were clear--they were all successful in sharing/naming folders and documents (almost all on day one, definitely all by end of week)
4. I like the singular focus on one type of genre, really honing-in with mentor texts as well as written emulation/practice
5. Having College & Career Readiness class be a support for the first week was good
6. Having all students' work in the computer organized in folders is GREAT
7. I think the peer review groups are going to be really awesome...I did a model group fishbowl on day 4 and it went pretty well. Students then got into their own groups and practiced with at least one or two students reading their chosen narrative to the rest of their group for feedback.

Challenges/concerns that need to be thought-through some more:
1. Checking in with 7-8 students per class to give feedback was a challenge. I did get to that many students one day, but not the other. Also, not sure I was able in the time I had to give "valuable" feedback, though I think there's some value in simply singling out students to talk to individually when I might otherwise just be on a computer myself. Need to think about this more.
2. Becoming more comfortable with the possibilities within Google docs, and simply becoming more proficient and confident within the system logistics will be ongoing.
3. Scheduling and meeting with students to confer and rubric-assess their writing will be a next big step. I'm thinking for now of having kids sign up on paper in the classroom, then putting all kids' appointment times into my Google calendar to share with them...possibly then setting up email reminders to be sent to them. I am also thinking that before they come to their conference I'd like them to have done some work in advance: assessing their own writing (using my rubric) and citing specific examples of elements of the rubric from their writing. For example, if one element on the narrative rubric is "Uses sensory imagery" I would ask that student (on a Google form) to give themselves a rating and also to specifically pull a quote from their paper showing evidence of sensory imagery. The point being that if they having written it can't find the evidence, why should I be able to?
4. So far we've had access each day to a computer lab, allowing students to begin their work directly within Google docs. When we do not have full access to a lab will the process within the classroom--beginning with the writing process in comp books--work as well?
5. I am torn about what I'm thinking is a challenge but might not really be one. The kids are writing at such a  pace that keeping up with reading their work is a huge challenge, but I think I just need to remind myself that this is part of the point...we can't read everything. And if we could then they probably wouldn't be doing enough writing. I just don't want the kids to lose momentum, thinking that no one is reading their work. But I hope through random comments I can occasionally insert, as well as feedback from their peer groups, that this won't be a problem. We shall see.

This is my initial reflection after getting through week one. I'm encouraged by what went well and I have confidence that we can think through solutions to the challenges. Overall, liking what we've begun...hoping you're feeling the same.

:-) jen b.

Friday, August 10, 2012

The Writing Conundrum

"...a good editor can communicate more information and demonstrate more techniques in 10 minutes of conversation than a teacher can by writing in the margins of a paper at home. The personal contact, being rare, is also more memorable for students." 
We left off in the last post with writing, so we may as well pick up there. Especially because it's much of what we've been talking about this week as we attempt to plan our year. One change we've decided to implement this year is to begin with a 3 to 4-week "writing boot camp", which will consist of short readings, brief modeling, and lots of student writing. Also built into our "boot camp" model is lots of individual conferencing with students. Our challenge will be to meet with all students meaningfully. We want to introduce and practice on at least a rudimentary level all three CCSS emphasized writing genres, narrative, inform/explain, and argument so that we may rely on and build upon this knowledge base for the rest of the year.
Part of the inspiration for me came from an article Jen P sent (quoted above), called Junking Old Way of Teaching Writing. What resonated with me about this article is the idea of using class time to conference individually with students about their own writing, eliminating the endless margin comments that take so much time to write. Because in the end, this process does not seem to yield better student writing in direct proportion to the time I spend writing, reading, writing, reading. So, I'm willing to try something new.
Also, I've spent a lot of time on reading but because of the amount of reading I've assigned I realize I've probably not given my students enough practice in writing. Really, our students need writing practice more than they need reading practice. By the nature of our program, our students are already coming to us as pretty good readers. I know that part of my reluctance to assign a lot of writing has stemmed from the idea of taking home all those papers...ugh. The never-ending bag of essays taunts and mocks me relentlessly throughout the year. So, again, let's try something new.
With this plan in mind, I have turned to such resources as Kelly's Gallagher's Write Like This and George Hillock's Teaching Argument Writing. We're currently in progress on planning our boot camp, but I am motivated and hopeful that this is something that will be a worthwhile and fruitful endeavor--more on all this soon!
Jen P, as we're planning and preparing to implement this new emphasis toward in-class writing and feedback, what do you see as our biggest obstacles and how will we overcome them?
:-) jen b.

So in the few hours since you’ve posted this, we’ve already revised our plans to extend our writing boot camp to the entire first quarter! This exemplifies one of the many reasons I love teaching with you – you aren’t afraid to take risks and try something new!

So now we are planning on spending two weeks introducing narrative writing, another two weeks introducing inform-explain writing, and three weeks introducing argument writing.  This is just in our English classes. We’re planning on extending these lessons in our College and Career Readiness class. That sounds like a lot of writing! Which brings me to your question…

I see two huge obstacles: logistics and grading load.

I am interested in going all digital, but I have concerns about my own learning curve, never mind the fact that we are not in a 1:1 classroom. Lots of questions here – can we find lab space to accommodate us all on a daily basis, can I figure out how to use google docs with students before school starts next week, can I really monitor 30+ kids in a lab and create an environment that leads to authentic sharing and reviewing, will this change enable me to be more efficient or will I get frustrated and end up printing everything out and lugging it all home anyway?

I’ve heard many writing teachers say that if you are grading everything students write, they aren’t writing enough. I think Kelly Gallagher (or maybe it was Carol Jago?) recommends grading a quarter of what students write. Even if we don’t grade everything they write as practice for the final essay, that still means we’ll have essays coming in every two weeks for the first quarter of school. Sound intimidating. And though we are planning on conferring with students during these practice prompts, I think we’ll be tempted to write comments and then get bogged down with stacks of papers again.

I have no answers, some ideas, and lots of questions.

~Jen P

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Starting Small

“…going to college is like entering a new culture.” (page 20 College and Career Ready)

Since we’re about to welcome a new group of students into the program in a week, I thought about this quote and wondered how we can best acculturate students to their new environment.

Being on a small community college campus makes part of this easy. Some of the college classes, especially the developmental or prerequisite courses, still feel like high school. The prerequisite courses by definition are pre-college level so the skill level should feel like high school, I suppose. However, there are professors on campus who teach rigorous, transfer-level courses and who have university-level standards, and many students have difficulty transitioning to these new, challenging expectations. After sailing through high school classes where participation at any level was good enough, students receive an essay or exam with C or D at the top instead of the expected A or B. This brings me to what Dr. Conley writes on pages 36-40 (pages I marked up heavily!) – the overarching academic skills required for success, the core academic subjects knowledge and skills needed in college, and the academic behaviors or self-management skills that bring everything together and make academic success possible.

Here are some of my responses to what he writes in the first part of this section:

[Students] will also be expected to reread materials in order to discern deeper meanings and nuances and to deconstruct texts.  They will often be expected to read above and beyond the minimum assigned materials, investigating a topic on their own by independent reading. (p. 36)

We tell students to reread, actively read, reflect on what they read, but most don’t. They don’t have time, they can’t focus, they have too many other assignments to complete, they read too slowly, the texts are boring, etc. Many are surprised when they learn I read the texts in English 4 with them and have done so for many years (how many times have I reread Oedipus??), but I share with them that every time I can learn something new or appreciate a different aspect of the text. Rereading is an important studying strategy when reading a text to learn, such as reading a chapter in a chemistry or psychology text. How can we show students that rereading and that reading beyond what is assigned is expected?

One strategy I will try this year is to better model how I read and reread. I plan on showing students the texts I’ve read this summer – my scribbled notes in the margins, the parts that I’ve highlighted, my longer reflections in a notebook. I’ve done some modeling and scaffolding with students, but after thinking about the quote above, I think I need to do more. With non-fiction pieces such as the ones we use for articles of the week, I’ve asked students to annotate, paying attention to how the writer has structured the piece and what s/he is doing in each section of the article (similar to this or this). With our whole-class novels, I’ve used dialectical journals to show students how I keep track of plot, themes, characters, and how make meaning of the text.  Jen B, as our resident reading specialist, how else can we make our students into the readers described on page 36?

[Writing] is the medium by which student thinking is expressed and assessed most frequently… Students need to know how to prewrite, how to edit, and how to rewrite a piece…College writing requires students to present arguments clearly, substantiate each point, and use the basics of a style manual… (pp.36-37)

Okay, here’s where I really struggle. I love reading what my students have written, but have difficulties providing meaningful comments in a timely manner. Peer review helps, but not significantly, since the quality of feedback ranges so widely. I need to figure out how to conference with them and/or get a faster turnaround on papers, and make peer review more worthwhile. What I really need to figure out is how we can help students learn to revise on their own -- real revision, not just superficial word swaps. How can we set up regular writing assignments that have been taken through the complete writing-revision process and not get buried under papers or get tired of reading the same drafts over and over again?

We know from experience that strong reading and writing skills are critical to college success. Dr. Conley confirms this on page 36. As we get ready for a new year, what do we need to do help students develop these critical skills that are needed across the curriculum so they can thrive in their new academic setting instead of feeling frustrated and lost like a foreigner who doesn’t speak the language?
~Jen P


You're really throwing me a softball here, Jen P!
Your main questions seem to be:

  • How can we instill in our students the drive to go beyond the minimal when it comes to reading?
  • How do we (as mere human beings) give students enough meaningful feedback on their writing to help them toward becoming self-sufficient writers for a variety of purposes?

Well, of course the irony here is that if I had actual answers to your very big, difficult questions then I'd make so much money from my books and workshops that I might never actually teach teenagers again ;-)
My short answer is, I don't know! But we're teachers, so we persevere, right? 

Thus, here are my initial thoughts:
Some kids do what we ask of them on their own--mainly for a few reasons:
--because they care about the grade on their transcript

--because they love the subject matter
--because their instructor has inspired them in new ways

All three of these students have a motivation, whether extrinsic or intrinsic, and students with motivation will take the initiative to learn, ask questions, and aspire to a higher level. But what we're really talking about in your questions are the students who lack motivation--students who have no clue what they'll major in, where they'd like to go to college, why they need another year of math when they hate it, why understanding Invisible Man relates to them in any way at all. How do we ignite these kids?

First, you bring up modeling. Modeling is, I think, really important. Talking about the books we've read for fun, sharing our marked-up pages in books and articles, continually talking about how stories matter in big ways; all of that is good. But I think what comes before modeling is establishing a rapport and a credibility with our students. What teenager is eager to take advice from someone s/he has zero respect for? I think we're able, in part due to the close-knit nature of our program (and also in part to the fact that we're awesome!), to establish this kind of relationship with our students pretty effectively.

So, then what?
I think at least some of the answer is in our College & Career Readiness class. If through that class we can help lead some of our least motivated students toward some concrete ideas of what path might be the right one for them, much of the rest will fall into place. Guest speakers, class discussions, college and career research, exploring the different major options, looking at salaries and job availability in variety of fields, putting together a first resume, understanding the necessary requirements needed to be eligible for colleges and careers...all of this knowledge can lead students to a new-found motivation for school. Students who know what they want are willing to go after it, and willing to put in the hard work necessary to achieve it. At that point, helping them to bring up their skills in order to allow them to succeed is the best kind of teaching. And it's in this way that we're so lucky to not only be English teachers, but also College & Career Readiness teachers, and counselors, and administrators, and attendance clerks, and parent liaisons, etc, etc.

So, I know I haven't answered your questions--and haven't even broached the writing conundrum. That will have to be an ongoing conversation we have...because it's just really hard to provide enough meaningful feedback for so many students on their writing, which is only testament to how much they need it. I know they should be writing more--but is writing more effective if they're not getting the right kind of feedback to improve? I wrestle constantly with my feedback for students. I'm a Nazi when it comes to having a thesis and providing concrete support, and I'm comfortable with that position. But I also think I get too caught up with the grammatical. I can't seem to help myself. If the egregious errors are preventing me or at the very least distracting me from focusing on the content, how do I get past that as their English teacher? Enough questions on writing for many future posts!

:-) jen b.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Yikes! Our high school students are already in college!

While reading Dr. David Conley's book, College Knowledge: What It Takes for Students to Succeed and What We Can Do to Get Them Ready (2005), the following quote particularly struck a chord:
Given that close to 90 percent of incoming freshmen state that their goal is to go to college…high school…should align itself better with post-secondary success…Perhaps the key focus in all classes should be life after high school.
Because our Middle College students are already IN college (while also taking three high school classes on the college campus) it seems extra-imperative that we prepare our students for the differences they experience in their college classes (versus previous high school classes). And of course, by the nature of the program itself we have been acting as a bridge for students in making this transition from high school to college for years. 
But now there's such emphasis and (yay!) validation for what we've been doing that we now have this opportunity to grow, contribute, lead, and learn even more. So, let's tackle this year by setting goals for professional development and document our progress in the hopes that it might keep us more focused and so that others may follow along and perhaps even contribute to our learning throughout the year.
So, Jen P., Conley has identified concrete actions schools can do to make 21st Century skills a priority in the curriculum (well, he's identified many, but here's a few). In which area would our efforts best be spent among these ideas?

  • Better align curriculum toward post-secondary coursework/skills
  • Be able to articulate the role of college readiness skills embedded in curricular program
  • Pay particular attention to underrepresented students’ program of study, as they are least likely to have resources and help outside the school environment
:-) jen b.


Thanks for getting us started, Jen B J  I’ve really enjoyed reading both of Dr. Conley’s books, College and Career Ready and College Knowledge, and I’m sure we will keep coming back to these texts throughout the year.  He’s clearly articulated exactly what we’ve been working on and framed the whole discussion in a way that really helps me focus on the skills and behaviors that will help our students into, through, and beyond college.

You’ve picked three great areas for us to focus on.

Better align curriculum toward post-secondary coursework/skills

I’ve been trying to make curriculum more relevant to students, to show them how they may transfer the skills or knowledge from an assignment in my class to real life, but I don’t do this as consistently as I should.  A good goal for me this year is to explicitly show students how they might apply the skills we practice in class to life outside of school.  One way I could do this is vary the kinds of assignments I give and extend those assignments to show how the same format/skills could be used for something other than a response to literature.  I could see us teaching the inform-explain format in English with a piece of literature and then use the same format in our College and Career Readiness class with more of a job-related assignment, such as writing an inform-explain piece to explain a product or operating procedure, or creating a brochure to highlight a university they might be interested in attending.

Be able to articulate the role of college readiness skills embedded in curricular program

This is something we haven’t done well enough at all.  I think back to a conversation we had with our previous superintendent who urged us to “market our value-added.”  Reading the two Conley books really helped me see our “value-added,” particularly the section on contextual skills and awareness and the differences between high school and college courses (pages 40-52 in College and Career Ready). Helping students make the transition to college should be our strength and explicitly teaching students these skills and behaviors instead of hoping they’ll catch on (sink or swim!) is what makes the MC program different from any other college-prep program in the area.  We can highlight how we do this in our monthly newsletters and our PTSA news blurbs, as well as in our informational presentations.  I really liked having graduates at our presentations to talk about how MC helped them once they moved on to “real college.”

Pay particular attention to underrepresented students’ program of study, as they are least likely to have resources and help outside the school environment

Well, one of the goals of the Middle College model is help underrepresented students into college and be successful there so this has to be a focus for us.  I think the ones who make it to us have good support at home – families who are aware of the program and how it can help their students, families who expect their students to continue in college.  Certainly, I think we can always do a better job of supporting students and helping them access resources, but I think our challenge remains getting more underrepresented students into the MC program in the first place.

~Jen P