What’s your comment? #SOL19 30/31

A few weeks ago I read the article The Feedback Fallacy in the Harvard Business Review. (Before you click on the link you should know that you only get three free articles from HBR every month.) The article is about providing feedback in a business setting, but it seemed immediately relevant to the classroom – in fact, it even uses examples from school settings. Much of the article resonated with me, and this really stood out:

Whenever you see one of your people do something that worked for you, that rocked your world just a little, stop for a minute and highlight it. By helping your team member recognize what excellence looks like for her—by saying, “That! Yes, that!”—you’re offering her the chance to gain an insight; you’re highlighting a pattern that is already there within her so that she can recognize it, anchor it, re-create it, and refine it. That is learning.

Isn’t that just what we do in this March Slice of Life challenge? We comment on each other’s work and point out the bits and pieces that make us stop and go “yes!” I know that the heart of the challenge is writing, but, in many ways, this month is a commenting challenge, too. Last year, my first, I didn’t quite understand this. I commented on the required three a day and was proud when I commented on five or six. This year, I comment on as many as I can get to, and I aim for twenty if I can keep my eyes open long enough.

Why? Why all the comments? Well, I’ve now been blogging and commenting for one year and one month (minus one day), and one of my biggest surprises is how giving and receiving comments has changed the way I write AND the way I respond to student work. Two for one! Here are some of my observations:

Receiving comments

  • I love receiving comments. I mean, I really love it. Knowing that someone is reading what I wrote and thinking about it is incredibly powerful. It motivates me in ways I did not expect when I started.
  • I love it when people notice something that I did on purpose or notice something that really worked in my writing when I wasn’t even thinking about it.
  • I love it when people connect to my story or relate my story to their own. I love the feeling of interconnectedness comments can generate.
  • I like getting comments anytime, but in the hours after I publish something, I sort of hover around, waiting to see if anyone says something.

Commenting

  • I never tell another blogger that their grammar is wrong or that a particular area of their writing needs improvement. I would never even think about doing this.
  • I use my comments to tell bloggers what I like about the structure, details or content of what they’ve written.
  • I often use comments to connect to posts, to share my reaction or relationship to the post.
  • I typically respond to posts from that day. When it’s not the March challenge, I try to respond to posts in the first day or two.
  • Commenting makes me read and re-read. Commenting helps me recognize the wide variety of ways to be excellent.

My own writing is better because of all of this. I am able to see what is working and what people are responding to. My use of structure has improved, and I have a wider range of posts. Sometimes, I realize that something I’ve written is unclear. I’m still not great at predicting which blogs will be most read (though sometimes that’s a question of luck), but I am getting better at knowing when my posts are done. 

Commenting on blogs has also changed my responses to my students’ work, especially on quick writes and early drafts. No longer do I point out what they are doing wrong; I try to extend to them the courtesy I extend to writers here. These days, I’m much more likely to tell them what I like about their writing or how I’m responding to it personally. The result seems to be that my students are now producing a greater volume of work and some of my struggles to get them to elaborate (such a hard skill for reluctant writers) are fading away.

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I still have challenges, of course, like making sure that I provide feedback as quickly as possible, but I’m getting better at using class time to provide oral – and even written – feedback as they write. This also lets me see patterns of mistakes which I can address with mini-lessons. These seem to help more with structure and grammar than the endless corrections I used to put on their essays. It remains to be seen if I can do this with a larger class – this semester’s is mercifully small – and if it will work with more formal essays, but I suspect I will be able to pull some aspects of this forward.

Commenting every day all month is challenging, but I’m pretty sure I’m getting out of it at least as much as I put in. So… time to post this and go write some comments.

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The wrong choice #SOL19 29/31

Earlier this month, Sherri over at Sherri’s Slice of Life Project asked if any of us were thinking about race and, if we were, challenged us to write about it during the month. I think about race a lot for various reasons, but I’ve struggled to find the right story to tell. Today, I’m sharing one. I have others that I will share over time. I share this one with a pounding heart and the sincere hope that others will recognize that I am striving to do better.

I found my former student in his English class. He knew why I was there. So we walked.

I said, “I heard about X’s class. You want to talk about it?”

Pause for a moment: I am a White woman from a privileged background; he is a young biracial man whose single mother works hard to make sure they have what they need. I probably wasn’t the ideal person for him to speak to. But I’m all he’s got in this school. It’s me or someone like me because in a school with about 80 teachers only two are people of colour. Neither of them chooses to emphasize that part of themselves in the school. Neither of them is Black or biracial, either.

“It’s just… we don’t even talk about this stuff in class. I feel like we should at least talk about it…” His voice trailed off.

The “stuff” was racism. His mother had called the school to complain about racism in his English class. The teacher had shown two movies with images of lynchings, images of the KKK, and White characters using “the hard R” (I had to look it up), and had not discussed or contextualized any of it. The images and the words were not central to either film, but they were present. During the second movie, this student walked out. No one else did.

My student was frustrated. “It’s just… no one else cares about this. And this is the only time we’ve even seen Black people this semester. And it’s like it’s not even happening, like it’s just normal or invisible. And…”

After a long conversation, I asked him what he would like to see happen next. He said he just wanted to talk about these things in the class. He wanted the teacher to acknowledge what they were seeing and hearing. I asked who he would like to lead this discussion. His teacher? Absolutely not. We cast about for the right person. Finally he said, “Well, you could do it.”

First I said ok. Then I said no. I know the kids in the class, and I love talking with them and listening to them and helping them think about things. But how could I place myself in front of them as the right person to lead this discussion in a room where race was being ignored? It felt wrong to me. That said, who else could speak to the issue of racism?

And this is the crux of it: I could only think of one Black man who might be able to talk to the class. So I got in touch with him. It still makes me feel sick.

I asked a well-known Canadian spoken word poet to come to our school – not because of his incredible work but because of his skin colour. I told him that this is what I was doing. I told him that I was asking because I really wanted to honour my student. I really wanted him to know that someone was listening, that someone was trying.

This wonderful poet agreed, then declined, then agreed again. I think he and I were having similar misgivings. At best, his presence – the presence of an award-winning poet with black skin – would be a band-aid. Neither of us thought that anything in the school would change. Neither of us thought that what we were doing was a solution or even an adequate response. In the end, I think I asked and I think he came because we wanted that young man to know someone cared.

I think it was the wrong choice.

Oh, the presentation was wonderful. He said things that I didn’t know, that I couldn’t know. He said things that I couldn’t say. He was honest and open and thoughtful. He engaged many of the students in the classroom, not just the one who had complained, not just the students of colour. He was great.

I had asked that both the teacher and the Vice Principal attend and they did. For a brief moment I thought maybe they had heard, maybe this wasn’t just a band-aid. But in the end, the teacher neglected to mention the presentation the next day, and continued on with class as usual. The payment for the poet was inexplicably delayed. The student’s mother ended up calling the board office to complain.

And me? I had used a man for his skin colour rather than for himself. No wonder there was no change.

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Dress up #SOL19 28/31

First, I put on a navy Land’s End dress. You know the type: knee-length, wide neck, 3/4 sleeve, tasteful pattern, ties around the waist. I wear this dress often and it is very teacherly. I check my reflection then go downstairs. “Do you think this looks ok?”

My husband is perplexed. “Umm… yes?”

“It’s parent-teacher conferences,” I remind him.

His face lights up with comprehension. “Oh! Right! Yes. Yes, that’s perfect for parent-teacher conferences. You’ve worn it for them before, I think. Great choice.”

We eat our breakfast, he heads up for a shower, and I get the kids out the door. After they leave, I smooth down the dress and think, I never know which tights to wear with this. And what about shoes?

I head back to our bedroom and check the mirror. The wide neck shows a bit of my bra strap. That’s the end of it. No. Not this dress. I take it off, turn to my closet and start moving the hangers.

Too dowdy. Too short. Too revealing. Maybe pants? No, not pants.

The people who come to meet me at parent-teacher conferences tonight will be diverse. They will be newcomers to Canada or born here. Some will be native English speakers; some will bring children to translate for them; some will struggle through this important conversation in a language that is not their own. Some will be White; many will not.

Some of the “parents” coming tonight will be guardians rather than biological parents. Some are single. Some will come with a partner, but the status of their partner will vary: spouse, significant other, stepparent.  They will be artists, business people, bureaucrats. Their wealth will vary. 

Some of their children find school easy, but many do not.

Each of them will walk into my room with their own cultural expectations of “teacher” and I will or won’t live up to that pre-formed image. But – and here’s the crux of the matter – I really want our talk tonight to focus on their children: on what their child is achieving and what their child can achieve, on how we can work together to help their child reach new goals. I do not want my clothes to challenge anyone’s notion of teacher. I don’t want them to notice my clothes at all.

Hmm… I stare at my closet, perfectly adequate on almost every other day of the school year.

My thoughts cycle through my various students, culling what I know about them, trying to imagine what their parents see in their mind’s eye when they hear “teacher.” How can I honour my students and their parents tonight? How can my presentation of myself speak to them of respect?

Finally, I choose a knee-length black skirt, blue Oxford shirt and black tights. I hesitate between boots and pumps. Pumps are culturally safer but it’s going to rain. I glance at my watch. I really need to get to school. Practicality wins: boots it is.

I check the mirror. “Honey?” I call, “How do I look?”

He comes in, looks at me and smiles: “Like a teacher.”

Perfect.

Now I’m ready to spend the evening not talking about me.

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Curses #SOL19 27/31

Today was our big standardized test: the OSSLT, fondly known as the Literacy Test. In Ontario, this is the test all students must pass in order to graduate. They take it in grade 10 (and again if they fail). I more or less hate it, though when I look at my American colleagues, I know I should be grateful that this is the only standardized test we do.

While I was proctoring (well, during a bathroom break), I saw this post from a friend (hi, Katie!):

An itchy curse: May Poison Ivy grow on your grave.

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This is the picture Katie took

There’s not a lot to do while you proctor a standardized tests. Some years I try to write haiku or other short poems about students, but I can usually only keep one or two in my head at a time. This year, I made up curses, and let me tell you, I had a hard time not giggling as I “wrote”. Here are the ones I remember:

May your colleagues be chatty.
May your partner be taciturn.
May you read only 5-paragraph essays.
Worse, may you write only 5-paragraph essays.
May your pizzas all be gluten-free.
May your ice cream be ice milk.
May your coffee be lukewarm.
May all your white t-shirts have yellow pits.
May your hairdresser retire.
May raccoons nest in your roof – over your bedroom.
May your children be precocious.
May your library books come due two chapters before you finish.
May your pencils be dull and may your ink pens leak.
May you write standardized tests every day for a year.
Worse, may you proctor standardized tests every day for a year.

Heeheehee. First thing I’ve found in a while that made me smile during testing.

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Hello, it’s me again #SOL19 26/31

For part one of this saga, see this post from last year.

Dear Amanda,

I tried to tell you about your doctor’s appointment tomorrow, I really did. I got the email in plenty of time, but – I’m not going to lie – I kind of ignored it since you’re so far away from me. I mean, the only thing Oklahoma and Ontario have in common is that they start with O and I figured the doctor would get in touch. That said, when the next email came and said that they were going to cancel your appointment, I felt a little bad and looked you up. I found out a lot about you, and I nearly called, but then I decided that it might be an unusual introduction. “Hi, this is Amanda Potts, and I’ve been getting your emails… but about that doctor’s appointment, I really think you should go.”

Now, Amanda, maybe you cancelled that in favour of the reunion dinner? I mean, it’s in New Orleans, so it’s going to be hard to make it there after that doctor’s appointment in Oklahoma, but I think you could do it. After all, I’ve got your invitation right here & frankly, food and conversation in New Orleans sound pretty good when viewed from snowy Ottawa.

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As for you, Amanda, I know Arizona is a long way away, but you could keep in touch a little better, I think. I got those emails from Baby Center about trying to get pregnant for so long that it actually started to sound like a good idea. I would not have had to spend the better part of 20 minutes trying to figure out whether or not you had actually had a child if you had just updated the account. (Or if I weren’t avoiding grading, but whatever.) Finally I caved and unsubscribed, but I feel like we’ve fallen out of touch.

And Amanda, Toastmasters is no follow-up to last year’s trip to Portugal. If it wasn’t bad enough that you sent me all of the pre-trip information, having the group share all the pictures with me was really just rubbing salt in my wounds. I feel a little better, however, knowing that this March sees you attending toastmasters rather than yoga on the beach. That said, self-improvement is always a good thing, so you go, girl. I swear I won’t snicker when you’re looking.

And seriously, Amanda, I don’t know which one of you gave my email to Polk County Jail, but I was pretty taken aback when I got a request for communication from an inmate who counts you among his friends and family. Just FYI, since I don’t fit that bill at all, you’re going to have to figure this one out on your own.

Finally, I have a bone to pick with you all: whoever signed up for Ancestry.com and Siriusxm – you’re on my shit list. Let’s stick with more interesting mistakes, please, I’m going to need to update this letter next year, and that sort of novice error just isn’t going to cut it.

Hugs and kisses to all of you,
Amanda
(the real owner of that email address)

 

They, um, sort of understand #SOL19 25/31

Paula Borque over at litcoachlady has been offering a wonderful list of ways to spark writing all month long. I’ve been tucking some away, trying some myself and sharing some with my students. On day 18, Paula shared an idea about using sketchnoting to synthesize our reading.  Since I’ve been actively trying to incorporate sketchnoting in my classes, I was instantly intrigued.

My students are in Grade 10 and many (though not all) arrive in my class without a strong reading base. They will admit to reading few or no books for several years, to fake reading, to avoiding writing and more. I’ve been using choice reading with conferencing to assess their understanding and development as readers, but all of this is mediated through words. I wondered what would happen if I used Paula’s spark and asked my students to sketch something from their reading after our independent reading time. The results were fascinating.

Some students clearly understand what they are reading. Below, I can see this student’s focus on character relationships, plot and even some emerging theme in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.img_8421

The next student is reading HP Lovecraft (!) and his sketchnote highlights his focus on sentence structure and diction. He chose to sketch a two-sentence paragraph that he found hard to understand because of its diction and complex structure. Afterwards, he said that sketching helped him figure out what it meant.img_8428

Another fascinating moment was this one, where a student who is really a novice reader tried sketching a moment from Monster. He originally thought that Mr. Harmon was the judge, but as he drew, he realized something didn’t fit. We spoke briefly, looked at the text, and learned that Mr. Harmon was the father not the judge. He was talking to his son in the visiting area of the prison. This sketchnote helped him clarify his understanding and helped me see his gaps.

The next day, that same student picked up far more details as he read:

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Finally, one of my English Language Learners spends her independent reading time working with our (amazing, generous, talented) librarian on language development. Right now we’re specifically working on English vocabulary for everyday words in her home, since her family doesn’t speak English. Rather than sketch her understanding of a book, she sketched a room in her house and labeled as many items as she could. Then I was able to sit with her and identify some errors and add a few new words. This was incredibly effective. I was able to see that she hears/says “belw” for “pillow” and “cheer” for “chair.” Her pronunciation of those words improved almost immediately once we recognized this. Moving from “rog” to “rug” was harder. We also added “dresser” “sheets” and “bedspread” to her lexicon. Baby steps.

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To be clear, I didn’t just walk into class and say, “Hey guys, draw today.” First, I sketchnoted my own reading – the graphic novel 7 Generations – alongside my students. We talked about my choices in terms of plot, character, important ideas and images. I’m never going to win any awards for my art, but I think the students felt better knowing that I really wasn’t looking for perfection.

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Then, we did it three days in a row so that they had a chance to really “get it.” Some students moved quickly back to writing – no drawing for them, thank you very much –  but others stuck with sketchnotes. In the end, I think that sketchnoting our understanding of our reading expanded the way some students could express themselves and let them show me what they know in a way that isn’t exclusively mediated by words. Sketchnoting let me see some of the processes of student comprehension. It feels like this is another tool in my toolkit to help develop proficient readers. Thanks, Paula.

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Tidying up #SOL19 24/31

Buried deep in the folds of a soft blanket on the couch, Thomas whispered, “She’s so nice” and I knew we were in trouble. He was at home sick for a second day, something I can hardly remember happening before, and he had turned on Marie Kondo’s show on Netflix. It was that bad. Also, he was in love.

Thomas is our tidy child. He likes predictable days, down time and organized spaces, so I should have known that Marie Kondo would appeal to him. Once he felt better, he surveyed our home with barely hidden disdain and declared, “Our house is WAY too cluttered. We need to declutter and tidy up.” He was relentless and March Break was coming, so we spent a fair amount of March Break decluttering, as per Marie Kondo. And Thomas. 

On day two, I attacked the papers. Twelve years ago I moved from Paris to Ottawa. The year before that I moved from Washington, DC to Paris. In both cases, I had to fill out reams of paperwork – visa applications, work permits, teaching certifications, permanent resident applications, banking information, moving documents… Getting married in the middle of all this meant marriage certificate, followed by birth certificates, passport applications, dual citizenship forms… My whole life seemed to depend on a flurry of papers, originals and photocopies, sorted and organized into binders and folders and sent to various agencies or presented at kiosques to people who made decisions based on paper.

So I didn’t throw much out.

Actually, the evidence suggests that I stopped throwing out any paper at all. I had a lot of paper.

My husband and children gave me some space (hours and hours) and I went through the papers, a history of my life in documents, keepsakes and cards.

A horoscope, ripped from the newspaper and squirreled away for reasons I can no longer fathom
More than one to-do list, partially checked off
A moving announcement – the toddlers in the picture are now in middle school; the family has moved twice since this announcement – and baby photos of children who are now in high school
A Father’s Day card which I’d swear I’ve never seen before from my mother to her father when I was a few months old
Multiple bookmarks and untouched writing notebooks
French poems, papers, and general teaching materials. I haven’t taught French in nearly a decade.
A 22-year old checkbook register
Handouts from a course I’d forgotten I’d taken
A printout of an article I was quoted in from the Chicago Tribune
Patterns for sweaters that I am frankly glad I never made
Annotated texts I taught 20 years ago
Evidence of early decluttering attempts – saved, of course
More than one article proving that I’ve been worried about my weight forever. Sigh
Approximately a million cards from friends, family and former students. I was not able to throw away any of these away. 

In fact, Marie Kondo would be horrified by how much of this I kept, and I pretty much can’t let Thomas into the attic for fear of the righteousness of a 10-year-old, but I was pretty proud of how much I recycled and shredded.

And I was rewarded for all my hard work. In the middle of the keepsakes and the papers, I found a small envelope with a pink border and my name printed in pencil. It was thick enough to make me curious, so I opened it and found… 500 euros! Triumph! We just won’t discuss the fact that I haven’t been to Europe in 12 years and I have no idea who this came from or how long it’s been there.


This was obviously the ideal place to take a break. And after a few hours away, I realized the break could possibly extend for months, or even years. Those papers are still up there waiting for me, but that money is in the bank. And hey, someday maybe the memory of that will encourage me to follow more of Marie Kondo’s advice. Next thing you know, I might be letting my socks breathe or spacing my t-shirts out. Not so sure about keeping up with the papers. 

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