Writing this makes me a better teacher

Recently a friend posted an article in which the author argues that she is a better writing teacher because she writes frequently.  I merely skimmed the article, but she seemed to primarily focus on how she writes creatively on a regular basis, and as a result of this, she is a better writing teacher.  I couldn’t tell you the last time I tackled any sort of creative writing, and I can only think of a select few assignments that I have given over the years that force students to write creatively.  I love fiction; I don’t consider myself a strong fiction writer, nor do I feel confident in grading students’ fiction writing.

That being said, I do assign a great deal of academic writing ranging from short responses to multi-page research papers that go through many drafts.  I’ve been writing this blog for a couple of years now, and as I think about it, I’m not just a better writing teacher because of it, but an all around better teacher because of it.

Writing, though seemingly simple, is actually a difficult task.  When writing, students not only have to flesh out high quality ideas, but they need to communicate them in the most effective way possible, which is, of course, a matter of interpretation.  While there are many writing rules, none of them are truly set in stone, and good writers break them all the time.  Imagine how complicated this must be for students.  As a teacher, when the last thing you wrote was in college, think of how difficult it is to sympathize with what your students are tasked to do.  Even the best writers come to a stand still and get writers’ block, and yet our students are still faced with deadlines that don’t really care about writers’ block.

Writing this blog on a  semi-regular basis helps me sympathize with what my students are forced to do not just in my classes, but in all their classes that require some writing.  I share this with others on social media and receive a great deal of feedback from educators around the country and plenty of non-educators as well.  The comments I have received on this blog via Facebook, twitter, wordpress, etc. have helped me flesh out my ideas more clearly and helped me realize where I lack in communicating those ideas that leads to confusion and misinterpretations.

Pretty much everything I write in here is what I consider first draft writing.  I rarely re-read and edit before posting.  Seeing how people respond has helped me understand my own strengths and weaknesses as a writer which allow me to understand my students’ struggles more clearly.  I only have anecdotal evidence, but I conference better and provide much better feedback to my students since I have taken up writing this blog.

Not only that, but I am an overall better teacher because I write this blog.  I’m an education nerd.  I love talking shop, and this blog has allowed me to do that and reflect on so many aspects of education.  Educational leaders are constantly reminding us that we should be reflecting on our practice.  This blog allows me to do that, and then allows me to re-read and reconsider my practice.  It also allows me to reflect on policies and trends in education, so that I can figure out how to best implement theory into practice.  This blog has opened up dialogue with my students, my colleagues, to some extent my bosses, as well as people outside of the educational community who offer interesting insight into what education can offer.

I cannot off the top of my head point to particular and specific data that demonstrates growth as a teacher as a result of this blog.  But I can think of how I have taught in the past and my educational philosophies and I can quickly realize that writing this blog has helped me grow as a teacher.

This has been a very self actualizing project for me.  As a teacher, time is perhaps our most precious commodity, and it can be very difficult to find the time to do all that we want nonetheless add another task to our to do list.  And while I have not blogged nearly as frequently as I’d like this past year, I think this may be the best professional development tool available to me on a regular basis.  After all, when we sit in workshops we are not developing professionally; it is when we think about and wrestle with the ideas presented that we actually develop professionally.  That is what this blog allows me to do.



A cool inquiry based activity

I realize I haven’t posted much recently.  This year it has been harder to keep up with the blog because of the way my schedule is set up.  I used to have a study right smack in the middle of the day when I would do most of my posting.  Now my free period and study are at the beginning and end of the day.  For some reason, this complicates my writing schedule.  I come rushing in in the morning and have to use my first free period to make copies and get ready for the day, and then my end of the day duty gets taken over by various end of the day tasks.

So on that note, I want to take a few minutes on this Friday morning to describe a nice inquiry based activity that I learned this year and have implemented a couple of times.  All credit for this activity goes to my ever great colleague, T. Kerman (who, I think, stole it from someone else, but she is the one who told me all about it.)

The activity is called an inner-outer circle discussion.  Essentially students are in 2 circles.  half the class is in the inner circle (facing into each other) and the other half is on the outer circle (facing into the inner circle).  The outer  circle question asks discussion questions and then the inner circle discusses those questions amongst themselves.

So how does this work exactly?  Beforehand, students have to prepare 5-6 questions on the topic/readings. This would be a huge component of the inquiry based portion.  I found that they require instruction on how to do that.  I give them three levels of questions: level 1 are factual based questions.  If it is a level one question, you can literally put your finger on the answer in the text.  Level 2 are interpretive or inferential questions.  If it is a level two question, you can put your finger on the evidence to support your answer.  Level 3 questions are experiential questions.  If it is a level 3 question, you don’t have to have read the piece to answer it, but it helps.  I instruct my students that their questions must be include both level 2 or 3, but no level 1 questions.

On the day of the discussion, students are seated in either the inner or outer circle.  I have let them choose (first come, first served), but then they switch, so every one is in both the inner and outer circles.  I could certainly see benefits of assigning students to inner or outer circle groups to mix it up though.  Once seated, someone in the outer circle asks one of their questions.  The inner circle then discusses the question using textual evidence.  Again, I found this requires a bit of training to get them to actually search for evidence before answering.  They don’t like the silence while everyone checks their books.  While they are discussing the question, the outer circle cannot talk or add to the discussion at all, but needs to merely take notes on what is said.  Once the inner circle decides they have sufficiently answered the question, they throw it back to the outer circle for another discussion question.  Eventually, the inner and outer circle switch spots–either the following day or perhaps half way through the class.

At the end, I grade students on their participation in the inner circle (speaking clearly, respecting opinions, responding to peers appropriately, providing appropriate evidence, etc.).  I also grade them on the questions they brought to the outer circle (were the appropriate, thoughtful questions?), as well as their listening while in the outer circle (I generally ask them to answer some questions regarding the discussion and /or the questions that were asked).

So what do I like about this activity?  It touches upon so many important skills and ideas. By having students develop the question and police themselves while in the discussion, it is a fully student centered and student driven activity.  The topic I give them is specific enough that it relates to the big ideas and concepts of the course at that moment, but they decide exactly what to ask and how to answer.  I also like that it requires students to find evidence to support their answer-an important close reading and arguing skill.  Finally, I find it to be a great way to increase students speaking and listening skills.  Generally, those students who are quiet in a full class discussion are more talkative when discussing in a smaller group, but it is also an important lesson in having the more dominant students draw responses from the less talkative ones.  And it is a great moment to help those more dominant students learn to not take over the entire conversation.

Obviously, there are management concerns that everyone needs to figure out on their own, and determine what works best for you and your class.  Obviously, everyone needs to figure out their own method to track the conversation and such.  And while this activity works well in an English classroom, I could certainly see it working effectively in all different disciplines where students are tasked with finding evidence to support their answers.  In short, I highly recommend giving this activity a try; I’m quite glad I did.


Who do I write for?

One of the things we don’t talk about enough when it comes to writing is who we are really writing for.  When I assign my students an essay rarely do I tell them who their intended audience should be, and I’m not so sure that when we are discussing academic writing we have ever truly clarified that.  Often times I hear teachers tell students to write as if their classmates are their audience, but then their classmates rarely actually read the essay.  Sometimes we make up an audience and tell them to pretend they are writing to congress or some such thing.  This sounds great in theory, but then, when we read the essay as the teacher, do we truly view it through the lens of a congressman?  If not, then really their audience is the teacher.

This got me to thinking about who I write this for.  I never had an intended audience in mind; I was just looking to clarify my own thoughts and put it out there.  I guess I assumed only other educators would be interested in what I have to say, but I know there are non-educators who read this as well.

Recently some of my students have found this blog since they seem to enjoy googling my name rather than writing their essays when we go to the computer lab.  In fact, we are going later today, so Hi Tommie, Zack, Matt, James, and Michael, and anyone else in my class who stumbles upon this.  I’m not sure how I feel about this.  On one hand there is something almost embarrassing about having my students read and critique/tease me in class about my writing.  Especially when I want them working on something else.

On the other hand, there are some nice benefits too.  I like that they get to see that I write from time to time.  We ask students to write all the time, but we ourselves don’t do it nearly enough.  They can see my style, my voice, and my flaws as a writer.  Ultimately I think this is a good thing.   They also have too much fun picking apart my writing, but there are valuable skills inherent in that.  One of my students found an egregious error in parallel structure in one of my posts.  Since I taught them parallel structure, there is a sense of pride in knowing that he can identify it outside of a worksheet-even if it is in my own writing.

So to go back to the original purpose here: who do I write for?  I still don’t know if I have a good answer for that.  This started as a self reflective practice, but it’s developed beyond that some.  I like that I have colleagues who read this; I like that that I have non-educators who read this; and I think that I like that I have students who have read this.

5 PD books that changed my teaching

Every teacher has had to read books about teaching (in college or otherwise) and every teacher has been forced to attend PD workshops, but often times teachers walk away from these with little in terms of new and lasting ideas.  On that note, I decided to reflect on the PD books that changed the way I teach.

1. Understanding by Design by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe

This is one of the first books I was assigned to read for my undergrad, and it transformed the way I thought about teaching.  To be totally honest, until I read this, I had never thought that good teaching required such intentional lesson planning.  Now backwards design is second nature to me, and I couldn’t imagine approaching lesson planning in any other fashion.

2. Readicide by Kelly Gallagher

I discovered Kelly Gallagher a few years back when I read this book.  As an English teacher I often struggle with how to teach kids reading and great literature while trying to instill a love of reading.  While it’s certainly an uphill battle, this book confirmed many of my thoughts and gave me many great new ideas for my classroom.  This is a wonderful book that presents theories and ideas clearly while offering practical and meaningful advice as well.  I have since read other material by Kelly Gallagher and all his work so far has been helpful, but this is the first I read.

3.   Fair isn’t always Equal by Rick Wormeli

When I first saw Rick Wormeli present a few years back I was only familiar with a few of his articles.  Seeing him present and reading this book transformed my views on grading considerably.  While I had always been a bit uncomfortable with the traditional grading system (especially in a differentiated classroom), I never knew what to do about it.  This book gave me practical tips and the courage to start making changes.

4. What Great Principals do Differently by Todd Whitaker

This is one that I happened to pick up while completing my masters in Administration.  It is a quick and insightful read about effective leadership.  What’s really great about the book is that Todd Whitaker has another book titled What Great Teachers Do Differently which includes many overlaps.  Great principals build relationships; great teachers do the same thing.

5.  School Culture Rewired by Todd Whitaker and Steve Gruenert

Another great one from Todd Whitaker–this time with Steve Gruenert.  This is a practical guide to what makes up a school’s culture and how to go about transforming it.  Since reading this a few months back, I find myself constantly referring back to it as I examine my own school’s and my own class’s culture.