The Students Become the Teachers

One of my favorite parts of the end of the school year is watching as the students become the teachers. All year, I have modeled for my students how to read like writers and how to learn from the writers we love. And now, this is something that my students know how to do on their own. So it is time to let them show me.

Our final writing work of the year involves informational writing. Our first project was to create our own, student-written website that resembles the brilliance of the website Wonderopolis.  As we did this work, my students had a chance to select their own mentor texts, analyze those mentor texts and then teach the writing strategies they discovered to their classmates. You can read about that work HERE.

For our next unit, we started to work on creating longer pieces of informational texts.  As we began this work, each student selected his/her/their own mentor text. Here is an explanation of that process.

As the students got farther along in their research on the topics they chose to write about, I knew it was time to start thinking about how they were going to write. One of the biggest challenges that I have found with my 5th grade writers is helping them to do more than write a giant list of organized facts and instead write something that is interesting, clear and even evokes an emotional response from the reader.

The best way that I know how to help my students learn to write this way is for them to look to the incredible informational picture books that we have in our classroom and in our library.  So as students started moving from researching into writing, I asked them to pull back out the mentor texts that they had selected. I asked them to especially pay attention to the mentor texts that they had selected for writing style.

I began by sharing my own mentor text, RAD American Women A-Z. I put a copy of a page from this text under the document camera and also gave a copy to each child. We read through the page together first without stopping. Then I told them I was going to go back and look for any parts of the writing that seemed like MORE than just a listing of facts. I was looking for places where the writer did something that helped make the information clearer to the reader or that helped make the writing more interesting or that helped the reader to feel some kind of emotion. I marked the writing strategies that I found and I asked the students to do the same thing.

Then, I told the kids that they were going to look more closely at their own mentor texts in order to find the writing strategies that their writers used. I shared with them that if they were no longer feeling inspired by the mentor texts they had chosen, then they should go choose new ones. Find something that moves you and then figure out how that writer did what he/she/they did. We discussed that while we cannot steal the words of other writers, we can indeed steal their strategies. That is how we become better writers.

So the kids headed off to analyze their mentor texts and to discover new writing strategies.  They kept track of what they found HERE.

The next day, I pulled out another one of my mentor texts. I reminded them that on the first day of my work, with the mentor text RAD American Women A-Z, I saw my writer use stories to show something important about the topic.  In my second mentor text, Incredible Inventions, I saw a totally different writer, using the same writing strategy to write about a totally different topic. I told my students that this was important because it helped me to see more than one way to use a writing strategy. I told them that as they looked at their own mentor texts today, I wanted them to see if they noticed two different writers using the same writing strategy. I asked them to mark this on their charts.  And off they went again.  This seemed to help them move from simply finding interesting content, to actually finding the strategies that writers were using to make the content more interesting.

On the third day, I told them that it was now time to select a writing strategy that they had seen used in their mentor texts to teach to their classmates. We had done this in our last unit, but I realized that when we did it the last time, I did not provide nearly enough support in helping them find effective ways to teach others about their writing strategies.  So this time, I wanted each student to come up with a lesson plan.

I began by explaining to my students one possibility for a structure for an effective writing lesson. I used this chart to help explain the gradual release of responsibility model to them:

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I also shared this chart with them in order to give them some ideas on how they could show how they might use a new writing strategy and to give them some ideas on how to have the students they would be teaching practice using this new writing strategy as well:

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I then told the kids how teachers create lesson plans so that they know how they are going to teach their students.  I told the kids that to help them to be better teachers, I was going to have each of them fill out a lesson plan as well. THIS IS THE LESSON PLAN EACH CHILD FILLED OUT.  After creating a lesson plan, I asked each child to create something for their students to look at.  Once this was made, I collected the visual aid and the lesson plan.

I did allow students to work together because I know that for some kids, leading a group of other students by themselves feels like too much.  So the kids who worked together turned in one lesson plan and one visual aid.  If the visual aid was a handout, I made copies for the students and if it was something on the computer, I just checked to make sure the teacher knew where to find it.

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It was amazing to see what a difference the lesson planning sheet had made.  The last time I had the students teach each other new writing strategies, it was a bit more of a free for all.  Some of the kids did a great job and other kids just weren’t quite sure what to do.  And that was my fault.  Of course they don’t know how to plan a lesson. I also didn’t give them enough time to plan a lesson in the past. I just sort of threw them into the work.  Having the structure of the lesson planning sheet gave the kids the direction they needed.

It took the kids about two days to plan their lessons. Some students needed more time to go back and find examples of writers using their strategies and other students needed more time to find ways to use these strategies themselves. While they were lesson planning, they were also using some of our writing workshop time to continue their research and drafting.

Today, they were ready to begin teaching. I created a sign up sheet so that we could keep track of who was teaching, what strategy was being taught and which students would be attending which lesson.  Just like the last time we did this, I only allowed five students to sign up for each session because I didn’t want there to be one session that had 12 kids while another one only had 2.  Here is what our sign-up chart looked like:


When I asked for volunteers to teach on the first day, almost every single hand went up.  I ended up having to randomly select popsicle sticks with names because everyone was so eager to go first.  The three teachers were chosen and went off to set up. I told the rest of the kids to think about the three writing strategies being taught that day and to think about their own topics.  I told them that they should sign up for a strategy that would work for their own topic.  This way, they could learn something that would actually help them in their writing.

Here was our chart after everyone signed up:


After signing up, the students went off to their groups with the things that they were told they would need.  When they arrived in their groups, the first thing that they had to do was add the writing strategy to their build-your-own revision checklist.  In our classroom, we often use revision checklists to help the students to be more independent in the revision process.  For most writing units, I create the revision checklists by listing all of the writing strategies that we have learned in a unit and then asking the students to select a certain number of strategies that will work for their own writing in order to revise.  But for this unit, the students would all be learning different writing strategies, so I created a build-your-own revision checklist. THE REVISION CHECKLIST TEMPLATE CAN BE SEEN HERE. 

After the new strategies were listed on everyone’s revision checklists, the teachers in each group began teaching.  It was incredible to listen to and incredible to watch. The language that we had used all year to talk about writing and to talk about the texts we were reading was now coming out of the mouths of these students who were assuming the role of teacher.  I watched as kids redirected the students in their groups. I listened as kids asked the students in their groups probing questions. I heard students encourage each other and make writing suggestions to each other. It was clear that these kids felt ownership over the writing process and over this writing work.

Next week, the rest of the students will have a chance to teach their lessons.  As students finish up their first drafts of their informational writing, they will move into the revision process with at least three new writing strategies to apply to their own writing, on top of the writing strategies that they have discovered on their own from their own mentor texts.

I think about how much quicker it would have been to choose four or five writing strategies  myself and to teach them to all of the students at once on my own. Some kids might have even learned the strategies better if I had taught them.

But then I think about how much the kids would NOT have learned. They would not have learned that they can learn new writing strategies on their own. They would not have learned that some of the best writing teachers they will ever find are the books that they read. They would not have learned that they have the power to learn from and teach each other. They would not have learned what it feels like to know something well enough to teach it to someone else. They would not have learned that learning from each other is one of the best ways to solidify a community. They would not have learned that they do not need me to be writers.

And all of that is so much more important to me, and for them, than the efficiency that might have come from controlling all of the learning myself.


Fighting the Formula: Empowering Students To Make Their Own Writing Decisions

We have recently begun our study of persuasive writing. We are taking time to learn what we need to know about how writers can use persuasive writing to demand change in the world, before we use these skills to take action at the end of our inquiry circle studies.

To begin our work together, we worked on selecting audiences, the forms of writing that would best reach these audiences and the claims that we would make to these audiences that would explain the changes that we hope to make in the world.  Like last year, we began our work by looking at many different types of persuasive writing that exist outside of the school walls.   Too often, our students’ definition and image of what persuasive writing is begins and ends with a persuasive essay. In fact, outside of a school setting, the world is filled with much more interesting, purposeful, and passionate types of persuasive writing.  So to help us begin to expand our definitions, we look at advertisements, protest flyers, speeches, op-eds, letters to the editors and blog posts.  As my students begin to see the power of persuasive writing, they are better able to select the kinds of topics that are really worth writing about.

Yes, I still have students who write to their parents to ask for a puppy, but I also have students who plan to submit letters to the editor of our local newspaper in order to ask our local schools to stop separating P.E. classes by gender.  I also have students who want to write letters to congressman asking for reform in gun laws.  I also have students who plan to write to the heads of television networks asking for more diversity in their television line-ups.

I attribute this range in topics to our mentor texts.  As teachers, we have so much control over how our students view a particular type of writing. If we only share with them persuasive writing that is written for school, then they will only think that persuasive writing is done for school and for teachers.  If we only share with them persuasive writing about getting a new pet or about getting your own room, then they will only think that persuasive writing is used to ask for things for yourself.  If we only share with them essays, then their definition will only include essays.  If we only put before them the mentor texts that match the very narrow definition of persuasive writing that is expected on a standardized test, then they will only write as if they are writing for a standardized test.

And I cannot imagine that is really what we want for our students.

So I make sure, right from the start, to bring in mentor texts that expand my students’ definition of persuasive writing, not limit it.  And from there, I trust my students to make the writing choices that will help to make their writing feel meaningful and purposeful. I tell my students that I will NEVER tell them what to write about in writing workshop, no matter how much they might beg me to do so. Because the second that I take the choice away from them, I have set the tone, from the very beginning of a piece of writing, that this piece of writing is for me and not for them.

So once my students know what they want to ask for, they think of who has the power to make the change or changes in the world they are looking for. Then they think about how best to reach that person or group of people. Perhaps it is an op-ed, perhaps it is a blog post, perhaps it is a recorded speech that we upload to YouTube and then Tweet out the link to. Perhaps it is a letter to the editor that we submit to the local newspaper or perhaps it is a letter that we send to a company or a television network or a congress person.  This choice cannot be made by me because this choice must reflect the purpose of their writing. The students must, again, be in control of this choice or else they will not be making an authentic choice based on the purpose of their writing. Instead they will be making a choice based on what specific type of writing has been assigned for us to practice in fifth grade.

This does not mean that I just throw out our assigned curriculum. I will still teach my students what they need to know about op-eds (which happen to be the type of persuasive writing assigned to 5th grade in my district). However, I will teach about op-eds so that my students know about one possible choice that they can make when writing to ask for change in this world.  Everything else that is really important: making claims, supporting claims with evidence, finding multiple ways to support multiple claims, these things can be taught and applied to any type of persuasive writing. It must be up to my students to choose which type will work best for them.

And once they have all of this figured out, then we talk about how every writer has to have reasons for asking for what they are asking for. We go back to our mentor texts and pull out some claims that were made and some reasons that were given by our writers to show why those claims should be believed. I share with my students my own claim and the reasons that I have thought of so far as to why my claim is valid. I share with them how I think about what change I am asking for and how I am going to prove that this change is worth making. And I share with them how I create a quick list of reasons and how then revise my list until I am left with only the strongest ones and the ones that will not repeat the same ideas over and over again. And then I ask them to do the same kind of list making and revising in their writers’ notebooks.

While my students are busy working on their lists, I tell them that I am going to hand out their graphic organizer. And this year, in both of my classes, there was an audible groan.  It was actually quite loud. There was a collective hatred for the graphic organizer. I could feel it start to fill up the room. Until, one student saw what I was handing them and then word began to spread. “Hey! This is just a blank piece of paper.” And it was. I handed every child a blank, white piece of paper. There were no pre-drawn boxes, no circles, no lines to fill in. There was nothing on the piece of paper that I was handing out and yet I continued to tell them, “This is your graphic organizer.” And I felt them all relax.

Because I do not believe that my students really loathe the idea of planning out their writing. I do not believe that my students even really mind taking time to think about what they are going to include before they begin the actual writing. I think that many of them feel some relief once they know that they have their plan already made. I think that what they have come to hate are the boxes that we make them shove their writing into. Because, once again, this takes so much power away from our writers. When we tell them that their writing has to look one certain way. When we tell them that if their ideas don’t fit into the pictures that we have drawn, then they are not going to get to write about them. When we tell them our way of writing is the only way of writing. Then of course they are going to resent that.

And it just simply isn’t how writers outside of schools write. As we rely more heavily on mentor texts from the world outside of school, then we see that there are many ways to write. There is no one formula that writers in this world follow. Are there essential elements? Yes. Are there common structures? Yes. Is there always some system of organization? Yes. But writers make those choices based on what they have to say and we have to let our students make those same choices.  We have to fight the formula, by instead focusing on how writers in the world choose to structure their writing and then allowing our students to make the choices that best fit their own writing.

This is how we empower our students as writers. We allow them to make the choices that make the most sense for them and for their writing.

I shared with my students the way that works best for me to organize my writing. I told them that I start with my claim in a circle in the center of my paper. And then I make a simple web with lines and circles going out from the center. And I draw enough circles to contain the reasons that I have listed in my notebook to support my claim. And then I ask my students to create an initial plan for their own writing. I tell them that as we learn new ways to support our reasons, we will come back and add to our plans in a way that makes sense for us.

And then they get right to work creating their own plans. Making their own choices.

So they have their main claim, they have their audience, they have their type of writing and they have some reasons why they believe in their claim. And they even have the beginnings of a plan. And then it becomes SO tempting to hold them back from actually writing. I want them to know everything they need to know about good persuasive writing before they begin. I want them to know what they need to know about how best to begin their writing, how to support their claims in interesting ways, how to use statistics and stories and quotes and examples to prove that what they are saying is true.  I want to stop them before they write in a way that I don’t want them to write.

But if I do that. If I give in to that. Then I have lost some of the greatest enthusiasm that we will have throughout the course of our entire writing unit. Because once these worlds of possibilities begin to open up for them, they just want to jump in and start writing. So while I want to hold them back, I instead let them go.

We look at a few ways that writers begin their persuasive writing. We notice that even though they have been taught that they must state their claim in the first paragraph, the writing that we look at shows us that the claim CAN be the first sentence, it CAN be in the first paragraph, or it CAN come a bit further in to the piece of writing. I help them to identify strategies that our mentor text writers use instead of the words that they use to begin. When my students know strategies to begin instead of specific words to use to begin, then they are better able to chose a strategy that works for their topic and then truly make it their own. We create an anchor chart of the wide variety of ways that writers begin their writing.

Then I ask my students who feels ready to begin writing their own pieces of persuasive writing. Most students at this point raise their hands. And I trust them. I let them go. Those who are not yet ready, I pull together with me in a small group to find out what extra support they need. And soon, they, too, are ready to begin writing.

And I know. I know that some of this initial writing will be bad. Really bad. I know that some students will go off and write for ten minutes and say that they are done. I know that some students will quickly fall back into the formulaic writing that they have learned in the past.

And that has to be okay.

I can look at that and I can tell myself, “Look at how much better their writing is going to get!” And when students run up to me and tell me they are done, I work hard not to crush the excitement I see on their faces. I work hard not to jump in and point out all of the places that I see right away where they can expand their ideas.

Instead, I look at what they have written and I share in their excitement. I say to them, “That is so great! What are you going to work on next?” And, again, I have to trust them. Because there WILL be time to go back and revise these initial pieces of writing and make them so much better. There WILL be more time to learn new strategies. There WILL be time when I can confer with them and find places where we can support what they have said in a different and more powerful way. But we haven’t learned those things yet.

And that is okay.

There will be time for all of that. I trust that they will use what we learn together when they need to. They, the writers, must make the choices of when to use the strategies that we have learned. I will, of course, be there throughout the entire process to help guide them in ways to use what we are learning, but they will have to be the ones who make the decisions if any of these lessons are really going to stick, really going to matter.

And by the end of our study of persuasive writing, I know that each of them will have grown as writers. I know that by the end of our study, each writer will look back on his or her first piece of writing from this unit and they will compare it to their last piece of writing from this unit and they will see for themselves just how far they have come.

And they will know that the choices that we made, the ones that got them to where they end up, those choices were all theirs. They will own those choices. They will believe that they can make those choices again, even if I am not right there next to them. And THAT is empowering writers.


Old Habits Die Hard

The following conversation took place between me and a student during writing workshop today:

Me: Find a place in the room that works for you as a writer and get to work.

Student: Can I sit on a floor chair on the carpet?

Me: Yes.

Student: Can I sit at a different table spot than where I was first thing this morning?

Me: Yes.

Student: Can I sit on the chairs in the classroom library?

Me: Yes.

Student: Can I sit at your desk?

Me: Yes.

Student: Can I sit in the hallway?

Me: If you will be able to work successfully out there, yes.

Student: So really, I can sit anywhere?

Me: YES.

I am not exaggerating. I cannot begin to count the number of times that I have told my students that this is our classroom. That there are multiple spaces to work because I want them to choose the spots that work best for them. That they can move spots as many times as they need to during the day. That there is a variety of seating options because I want them each to work in a spot that feels comfortable to them. That they can sit. ANYWHERE. that works for them.

And no matter how many times I say it, my students still continue to ask for my permission to sit in a spot that they think must be an exception to the rule.

Old habits die hard.

It seems that the first few weeks of the school year often involve some changing of old habits. The things that our students walk into our classrooms believing that they must do. The ways of teaching and learning that our students believe are simply the way things must be in school. And while I am constantly amazed at just how long it takes to break some of these habits, I know that my students just need time. I need to show them that I really do mean what I say. I need to prove to them that I really do value their ideas. I need to help them to believe that what I believe is that there is no one way to do anything that works for every learner in our classroom.

They just don’t know me yet. I have to give them time. I have to let those habits fade away only when my students realize that they are not needed here.

Here are some of the habits that I notice that my students are having an exceptionally hard time letting go of:

  1. They seek permission for everything: I understand that we have drilled into our students’ heads that they need permission to do just about anything in school. I just forget how hard it is to undo all that drilling. On the very first day I explain that my students do not need to ask me to do the following: eat snack, go to the bathroom, get a drink of water, get something from their lockers.  And from the very first day, here are the things that the continue to ask me for permission to do: eat snack, go to the bathroom, get a drink of water, get something from their lockers.  I appreciate their thoughtfulness, but I also am saddened that they think that I mistrust them right from the start.  We do have a system for all of these things. A way to let me know who is where. A way to make sure that the entire class doesn’t leave at the exact same moment. The kids know the system, mostly it involves places a giant rubber duck on your table spot to show that you have left the room. And yet. Still. My kids continue to ask.
  2. They worry about what is good enough: In writing, the most popular question is, “How many sentences do I have to write?” In reading they ask, “Does this book really count as reading?” In every aspect of our day, my students worry that the work they are choosing, the work that feels right to them, the work that fits their needs at that moment, they worry that work just isn’t going to be good enough.  They worry that their writing will be too short. They worry that they are reading the wrong kind of book. They worry that instead of getting to know them, to know where they are and then pushing them gently to new places, that I will instead try to catch them, get upset for not doing the right thing and then give them a consequence because they didn’t guess correctly what I deemed worthy. They do not believe that what works for them is good enough for me.  They do not believe that I will get to know them and know what they need and help them get there from wherever they are right now.
  3. They believe I am trying to catch them doing something wrong: I sat down to confer with a student about what he was reading. I knew that he took home the third book in the Legend series over the long weekend. I noticed that today he was reading a historical fiction graphic novel, so I asked him if he finished his book over the weekend.  He immediately jumped up from his seat, ran and got the Legend book and told me that he was sorry and that he would go back to reading right away.  I was so confused at what had happened and so it took me a minute to realize that he thought that my question was a way to catch him doing something wrong and make sure he got back on track. There I was trying to make a connection with a child, trying to show him that I remembered what he took home to read over the weekend, trying to show him that I was so interested to know his thoughts on the final book, and all he could think was that he was getting in trouble for reading a graphic novel.  When I figured it out, I had to chuckle to myself. Then I told him that I was thrilled that he was trying one of our new graphic novels and that I had just been dying to know what he thought about this last book in the series.  He looked at me skeptically and as I was getting ready to walk away, I heard him ask quietly, “So is it okay if I keep reading the graphic novel?”
  4. They think that a teacher’s rules are more important than what works best for them: My students are still afraid to abandon books when they don’t like them. They are afraid to tell me that a writing strategy doesn’t work for them. They are scared to respectfully speak up and let me know they need a break when I have been talking for too long and they know that no one is listening to me any more. These are things that by the end of the school year, I take for granted. These are the things that I assume they know that they can do and I quickly realize what a terrible assumption that is. So they just don’t do them. They sit there and do what they think I want them to do, even when those things clearly do not work for them.

So we have a lot of work to do. We have a long road ahead of us to travel. I know that we have time. And while I wish that we were already there, while I wish these habits would find their way right out of our classroom, I know that my students need more proof that it is really okay to abandon them. So i will continue to gently reassure them. I will remember that it is not their fault that they don’t believe me. I will remind myself that we were the ones who did this to them. We created a school system that counted on these habits, that thrived on these habits. And now, we have the job of slowly trying to reverse those messages and ask them, beg our students, to trust us and believe that we trust them.

We Seem To Be Forgetting Something (Or Someone)

It has struck me as of late, that we seem to be forgetting something.  Or someone. Or many someones. Ones who should be at the front of every single thought that we have and every single action that we take.

It seems to me that we have been forgetting about our students.

Not about teaching them, providing them with rich curriculum, instructing them in the ways that are most effective, giving them the tools they need to connect to the global community they are a part of. These things we have not forgotten. These things seem to occupy much of the time and space of our discussions.

But it seems to me that we have been forgetting about the students themselves. The human beings sitting right next to us. The living, breathing, dreaming, hurting, crying, hoping, wishing human beings that are the reason we all got into this job in the first place.

These thoughts began to swirl around in my brain this past Tuesday as I read the incredibly brave and honest posts on the struggles with mental illness that made up the beautiful and courageous #semicolonEDU landscape. I read and listened to stories, some of which were like my own and some of which were so very different. And what I heard throughout so many stories was the authors’ need to raise awareness on mental illness issues for the sake of educators and for the sake of our students.

And I started to wonder why we needed so many movements that asked us to remember the struggles of our students and the issues in their lives. #LGBTeach is begging for educators to think about the struggles of our LGBT students. #EduColor is begging for educators to think about the issues of race and how they are intertwined in every aspect of our students’ lives. And now #semicolonEDU is begging for educators to think about the issues of mental illness that are present in the daily lives of so many of our students.

Why do we need all of this?

And then I realized. It is because it is so easy to forget. It is so easy to forget the children who we teach and the struggles that they face when we are constantly surrounded by demands to think about other things. We are asked to think about test scores, we are asked to think about technology, we are asked to think about instructional strategies, we are asked to think about teacher evaluations and policy and funding and textbooks and so. many. other things. And while these things are important, they will never be as important as the beings that walk through our doors every day and look to us to notice them.

And it is so easy for us to forget.

We work in districts that will spend countless days and countless hours and countless dollars on professional development to ensure consistency and to ensure we are ready for the big standardized tests and to ensure that we have the latest technology or the most comprehensive assessments and yet our districts relegate topics like suicide prevention and sexual abuse warning signs to ineffective online training just to meet state mandates.

We spend days and weeks and months talking about curriculum, instruction and assessment. We spend so much time on these topics that many teachers begin to ask, “Well what else is there to think about?” And that question makes me want to scream. That question breaks my heart. What else is there to think about? What about the students? What about their well-being? What about how we can see the many ways that they are hurting and how we can help to make that better? Where is our professional development on that? When does that get figured into the budget?

And when we don’t set aside time to think about our students, as humans, then we find ourselves spending our own time talking about things that just don’t matter. We waste time talking about the right titles for school principals. We waste time arguing about whether or not teachers were cliquey at the last conference that we went to. We waste time shaming other teachers for not doing things the way that we do them. We waste time arguing about which instructional strategy is the more effective than any of the others. As if any of that matters if our students are hurting. As if any of that makes a difference if our students feel as if we don’t understand them or understand their lives. As if any of that makes one iota of difference if we have forgotten to think about our students first.

So, for me, it is important every once and awhile to remember to take a step back. To refocus on what is truly important. To listen to the students sitting right next to me and to realize that the words coming out of their mouths are the most important words that I could ever hear.  To take a second and just remember that nothing is more important than loving and accepting the students who walk through our doors every day.  And as we gear up for another school year we have this amazing chance to do it all better this time.  From day one we get to start over with a brand new group of students and make them feel as if they are the most important thing in our world inside of that classroom. And THAT. That fills me with tremendous hope.

Rubrics: What My Students Had to Say About Them

We are nearing the end of our persuasive writing unit. My students have been working for many weeks to learn about what good persuasive writing looks like and sounds like and even feels like. They have read examples of persuasive writing that are better than good. They have tried out new strategies, they have applied new skills when they have needed them and they have reached a pretty good understanding of what a persuasive piece of writing should include in order to make it better than good.

We have a few more weeks to finish up the pieces that we are currently working on and then it will be time for them to chose the piece of persuasive writing that they believe represents the best of what they have done and the best of themselves as  persuasive writers. Now, this is hardly the only time that my students have been assessed. I assess them everyday, they assess each other every day and, most importantly, they assess themselves every day.  I offer feedback in one-on-one conferences, in small group meetings, in whole class work time.  Students offer each other feedback as they have side-by-side conversations and small group conversations.  Students assess their own work every time they use one of our persuasive revision checklists and choose at least two ways to make their writing better.

So there is a lot of assessment and a lot of feedback going on.

But, towards the end of any of our writing units, I want to give the kids a chance to choose the piece of writing that they believe shows the very best of what they have to offer and I want them to use what they know in order to complete a formal assessment of that piece of writing.

The problem is always how to do this in a way that values who they are as individual writers and values what we have learned to do as writers in our classroom.  I have found that most of the assessment tools out there for teachers to use don’t often reflect the unique learning that goes on our classroom (or any other classroom other than the one that the assessment was created for).  And in the past, when I have created my own writing assessment tools, I have felt as if my students felt completely detached from them.  I would spend so much time crafting a checklist or a rubric and then I would hand them out all excited and I noticed that my students’ eyes would glaze over as I read through each bullet point on the paper in front of them.  And then when it came time for the students to use them to self-assess, they simply went down the list and checked every single item or circled the highest number on the rubric. They were meaningless.

So for the past few years, I have tried to get my students more involved in the assessment tool creation process.  At the start of the year, our assessments look pretty simple. For our narrative writing unit at the start of this year, our assessment was a simple yes or no checklist, but the students created the checklist so that it reflected what THEY thought was important to have in a piece of narrative writing. Here is what we came up with.

Before beginning our work on creating an assessment tool for our persuasive writing, I decided to begin with a discussion on the way that persuasive writing is often assessed in our district.  For years we have used the rubric that was created for the writing portion of our old state standardized assessment, the ISAT. There has not been a writing portion of the ISAT for several years now and, of course, this year there is no longer even an ISAT because we will be taking PARCC instead (this is obviously a discussion for another post, I do not want to waste the energy on that now). Anyway, I decided to begin by having the kids look at the rubric that is often used in our district and ask them what they thought about it.

As always, my students’ feedback was incredible.  My morning class began with a collective groan. They then got a bit more specific about what they were groaning about and said that they often felt sad when they had put a lot of effort into a piece of writing and then discovered that it was only worth a 2 in the eyes of their teacher.  Some said that it was overwhelming to them and that it made them feel like they had to do so many things in order to get a good score.  Some kids did acknowledge that it was helpful for them to know exactly what they had to do in order to do well on a piece of writing.  Other students said that while it was helpful for them to know what they had to do, it also felt limiting. In my afternoon class, several students spoke about how it made them afraid to try something creative because they didn’t think that was what the rubric was looking for. Others said that they felt like there were many things missing, like a category for creativity, connection with the audience, emotions, relevance of chosen topic, etc.  And to me, the most eye opening comments were the ones that expressed that while the rubric that we use helped them to know how to get a good score on a piece of writing, it didn’t really help them to know how to create a good PIECE OF WRITING that would be read outside of the walls of our school. It was amazing how much they had to say.

At the end of both discussions, we decided that while this assessment tool was helpful in some ways, it really was more detrimental to our writing because it was missing some important characteristics and it made us feel limited in what we could try with our own writing.

So we decided to create our own assessment tool.

The first step in our creation process was for the kids to work together in small groups to create a list of all of the qualities of better than good persuasive writing that they could think of.  Here is one of the final lists that they came up with. In order to come up with this list, I asked them to think about all of the mentor texts that we have read, all of our writing strategies that we have learned, all of the work they had done and all of the work they had seen their classmates do. I asked them to think about what common elements existed in all of those better than good pieces of persuasive writing.  They added them to a collaborative GoogleDoc and I did some cleaning up at the end to merge some similar ideas and remove any repeated ideas.

The next step that we took was to get back in our small groups and to begin organizing these listed qualities into categories. The kids were free to have as many categories as they wanted and to create the kinds of labels for each category that made sense to them.  Here is one group’s work that is still in the middle of the process.  And here is one group that has finished with the sorting process.  It was so exciting to hear the kids having discussions about the kinds of categories that they wanted to see assessed in their own writing.

It was powerful for them to talk about the things that they believe needed to be in a piece of better than good persuasive writing. And what I found especially helpful was hearing that even though some of my students were not yet able to do all of the things that I would expect a fifth grade writer to be able to do, they still knew what things SHOULD be in a piece of persuasive writing in order for it to be better than good. It helped me to understand that while they might not be at the target yet, they know where they need to be heading.

This is a far as we have gotten in the process so far, but I have been so excited about it that I just had to put some thoughts down.  This week, I am planning to print out all of the organized qualities and ask the students to create a draft of a possible assessment tool. We will talk about how some groups might opt for a yes/no checklist, other groups might opt for a checklist with point values, other groups might opt for a rubric or other groups might simply opt for some form of written assessment.  I want the groups to think for themselves how they think we can best assess a piece of persuasive writing.  After the groups share their drafts, as a class, we will choose one assessment tool, or create a combination of several of the shared ideas, to use on our chosen pieces of persuasive writing.  The final assessment tool will be completed by the students on a piece of their writing that they believe best shows what they know as a persuasive writer.  As they complete these assessments, they will need to highlight and annotate where they find evidence for each descriptor in their own writing.

One of the things that is most exciting to me is that all of this work (in creating the assessment tool) will be taking place as my students are working on their final pieces of persuasive writing.  So they are going to be able to use these tools in order to make their current pieces of writing better, even if those aren’t the pieces of writing that they choose to assess formally.

It’s been great to hear the energy in the room as this work is being done and I am so excited to see what our final product will look like. I will make sure to share a copy here as well so that you all can see what we end up with.  No matter what it is, no matter what it looks like, no matter how much I wish that it was a little bit different, what I will know is that it is a true reflection of the learning that my students have done and a true reflection of what they believe is most important in a piece of persuasive writing. And that matters so very much.

When Kids Feel Empowered, It Is Amazing What They Will Do

Several months ago, my class and I put together a Donor’s Choose project in order to buy some alternative seating for our classroom.  As I was showing them the incredible website, one of my students was really affected by seeing some of the projects that were listed for schools in the highest poverty areas in Chicago.  She was upset by the fact that while we were asking for cool and fun chairs, other schools were asking for notebooks, art supplies, snacks for students and black-and-white printers.  And, because she believes that she can do good in this world, she decided to do something about this.

After our project was complete, this brilliant student of mine decided to organize a fundraiser so that we could return the favors done for us by incredibly generous people in our lives and make a donation to complete a project listed for a school in one of the highest poverty areas of Chicago.  So she, and a few of her classmates, got to work. They arranged a meeting with our principal and came up with a plan to host a penny war for the four fifth grade classes and then to raise awarness and collect donations from all of the other grades in the school as well.  These students worked through recess for several weeks planning the fundraiser, writing letters home, writing announcements for the school, delivering envelopes to teachers to collect money in and create a place to collect all of the spare change brought in for the fifth grade penny wars.  They also convinced the fifth grade teachers to agree to allow the winning class to throw a pie in the face of their class’s teacher.

The fundraiser ran from the last week in January through the first week of Feburary. Today we counted all of the money raised.  In total, our school raised over SEVEN HUNDRED DOLLARS to donate to projects listed on the Donor’s Choose website.  We were able to find four projects that we will be able to complete the funding for, all coming from high poverty schools in Chicago.  Today, the kids worked hard to count all of the money, create announcements to share our earnings with the school and select the four projects that we will be donating our money too.

I was brought nearly to tears several times this morning while watching my students work. The investment that these kids put into this project was amazing. The one student who organized much of this fundraiser has single handedly convinced me that our world is going to be in very good hands as these kids grow up. She is amazing and she wanted absolutely NO recognition for the work that she did. While other students bickered about who got to do what, she kindly kept reminding us all that the real point of all of this was to do something good for other people. I wish you all could know her.

What continued to strike me as I watched my kids work is how easy it would have been for me to tell her that this project wasn’t going to work. And in years past, I think that I probably would have done just that. I think that in past years, I would have seen all the work that would have been necesary to pull this off and I would have assumed that she wouldn’t be able to do it.  In past years, I don’t think that I would have truly allowed my students to follow their ideas through for fear that they would fail. I would have cut them off before they had a chance to soar.  And what a shame that would have been.

One of the things that I am learning this year is that our students will grab whatever power we are willing to give them and they will, most often, use that power to do incredible things.  When our students truly believe that they can change the world, they will try to change it. When our students see that we will trust them and follow them when they share their ideas, they will start to share more and more amazing ideas. When our students know that we are not just preparing them to one day create positive change, but instead know that they are capable right now of creating positive change, then they will look for ways to create that change today.

When kids feel empowered, it is amazing what they will do.

And in case anyone is wondering, my co-teacher and I will be getting pies thrown in our faces tomorrow afternoon, all in the name of a good cause. I promise to share some pictures and perhaps even some video!

Getting Out of the Way and Letting the Kids Lead the Learning (Action Research Part 3)

This is the third post in a series of posts I am writing about my action research project. If you are interested in reading part one, just click here. If you are interested in reading part two, just click here

After a few weeks of working one-on-one with students, modeling the kind of thinking that I was expecting in their reading journals in whole class lessons and small group lessons, each of my students was working on specific reading focuses in their reading journals.  Each student was paying attention to something and collecting his/her observations in a way that worked for that particular student.  And I was so proud.  And then I realized that we had a really, really long way still to go.

While I was happy with the work that my students were doing, I realized that they were still pretty much completely dependent on me to help them find a reading focus.  They were not yet noticing their own observations and they were not able to craft these observations into something that they wanted to know, something that they wanted to pay attention to, something that they needed to discover.  Instead, they patiently waited for me to come and meet with them to figure out what they should be paying attention to and how they might pay attention to it.  While I was thrilled that this work was taking place, I was unsure of how I would ever break their dependency on me.

Enter my students.

One day, one of my students asked if he could share the work he was doing in his journal with the rest of the class because he was really proud of it.  This year, I began the year with a goal of talking less and allowing my students to talk more. I wanted them to create ideas that worked for them. I wanted them to take ownership over their own learning.  And one way that I had started to try to do that was to really listen to my students’ ideas. Not just listen, nod and then forget about the idea. But, listen, agree and ask them, “What do you need from me in order to do that?” I quickly found that as I put their ideas into action, they trusted that I wanted to hear their ideas and they kept coming up with more and more of them to share with me. It was a wonderful cycle.

So when my student asked me if he could share his reading work with the class, I said, “Of course!” And what began that day was perhaps the most powerful piece of my action research project so far. Because that was the day that I finally got out of the way and allowed my students to teach each other.  And that was the day that the “share” part of our reading workshop finally became valuable and meaningful and purposeful for all of my students.

What I saw that day was that a “share” session could be more than just one student talking about his work in order to make that student feel good about the work he had done. What I saw that day was that the last few minutes of our reading workshop could be the most important because they could allow my students to learn from and be inspired by each other.  I wasn’t the only one who could help show them how to notice their own thinking and use it to come up with particular reading focus and a way to keep track of the observations that came from that focus.  They could share their work with each other and learn from each other.

But they had to really learn how to learn from each other.

One of the first things that I did in order to revamp our reading share, was that I asked my students why they thought teachers had students share their work. The answers were, again, so honest and so eye-opening.  One student said that he believed teachers had kids share their work because then people got to talk about what they were proud of.  One student said that she thought it was because it motivated kids to do good work so that the teacher would choose them to share with the class.  One lovely, and oh-so-honest, child told me that she believed that teachers let kids share because it took up time at the end of the class. I love hearing the reasons why kids think we do what we do. And who knows, maybe for some teachers, this last student is right!

What I noticed right away is that not one child said anything about having kids share so that other kids could learn from the brilliance of the work being talked about. Not one child seemed to realize that they were supposed to listen in order to learn from each other. And who could blame them? I, certainly, have never bothered to explain to my students the purposes for sharing our work. Yes, I told them they should listen to each other. Yes, I told them to be respectful when other students were talking. But, I never even thought to tell them that they should listen to each other in order to be inspired by each other and to gain new ideas for their own work.

And so, we started to have these conversations. I started to share with them ways that I heard ideas kids shared and thought about how other kids could use those ideas. I started to share with them that when I heard a good idea, I often asked questions to help me better understand how I might be able to use this idea too. I started to share with them that when I heard an idea that I liked, I often made sure to tell the person with the idea a specific thing that I thought would work for me. And as I started to share these things with the kids, I noticed that they were beginning to do them as well.

And every single time that I noticed a child was listening in a way that allowed her to learn from someone else’s ideas, I complimented them and pointed it out to the class. When a student shared how he might use someone’s idea in his own work, I made sure the class knew what a huge deal that was. When a student said that what she saw one child doing in one book could be something that she could do in her book, I made sure to acknowledge just how smart that student was being. And the kids began to notice and our sharing time began to change. It had more meaning and it had more purpose and it was actually helping the kids to begin to break their dependency on me.

As our reading share began to evolve, I noticed that kids were stating how they planned to use each other’s ideas in their own work. I noticed that the feedback that they gave each other became more specific. And, most importantly, I began to see the students trying out the ideas of other students in their own reading journals. I had proof that they were learning from each other. I had proof that I was officially not the only teacher in the room any longer.

I also noticed another exciting change in the way we shared our reading. In the past, my reading share quickly morphed into kids providing five to ten minute summaries of the books they were reading. Other kids would ask questions about the plots and maybe, just maybe, the child sharing would talk about a prediction they had.  However, now, our sharing time has finally become more about the thinking that the kids are doing as they read than about the books themselves.

Don’t get me wrong, I love having kids talk about the books they are reading with each other. It’s just that I think there are more effective ways to do that. We share the books we are reading through a Google Doc and Google Form that one of my students created for the class. We share the books we are reading through the QR codes we create that are linked to 30-second audio recordings of book commericals that the kids have made. We share the books we are reading through the informal conversations and book talks that the kids are constantly having. We share the books we are reading through the blog posts that we write about our books. There are many opportunities for the kids to talk about and learn about the plots of the books that we are reading.

And now there is also a time where we get to learn about the thinking that we are doing as we read. This reading share has become such a purposeful and meaningful time of our reading workshop. Where it used to be the first thing that I cut out when we didn’t have enough time, now it is something that the kids really demand because they are eager to share AND they are eager to learn from each other.  Now it has meaning. Now it has purpose. Now my students have a chance to learn more from each other than they do from me on any given day. And we still have a long way to go in order to break their dependency on me, but changing our reading share was a huge step in the right direction. Getting out of the way and letting the kids lead the learning, has been one of the most powerful changes I have made this year.

Empowering My Students by Changing the Way We Talk and Write about Reading (Action Reseach Part 1)

Several months ago, I came up with a plan for my action research project. This is the first time that I am writing to talk about what has happened with that plan. It is scary to share because I always worry that what has happened, won’t live up to what I planned to have happen.  But as I shared in my last post, I know that it is time to write about it. It turns out, I had a lot more to say than I imgained. So here, is part one:

By the time most of my students get to fifth grade, they have grown a deep and very serious hatred of writing about their reading.  They have been asked, for several years, to keep track of the thinking that they do on post-it notes, in reading journals and through reading response letters.  And to be honest, they hate it. They have hated it for years.

And for so many years I would tell them things like, “Writing about your reading is sort of like eating brussels sprouts. You may not like it, but we know it is good for you.” Honestly. Those words came out of my mouth. And at the time, I thought I was doing a good thing for my students. Teaching them that sometimes we have to do things we don’t like because it is good for us.

But when I reflect back on those words, I realize that I was sending my students a much more harmful message.  What I was telling them was, “I don’t really care about your feelings towards this task. I am telling you to do it and so you should do it. It does not matter that it does not seem meaningful and purposeful to you. I am telling you it will help you to be a better reader and that should be enough reason for you to do this.” And my kids hated it. They hated the task that I was giving them. The task changed from weekly reading response letters, to post-it notes, to writing in sentences and paragraphs daily in a reading journal, but the idea remained the same,  And for many years I ignored the fact that no matter how I changed the task, they still hated it.  I just kept doing what I was doing because I believed it was good for them.

And that’s the thing, so many of us are driven by incredible intentions. We do what we believe is best for our kids or what we are coerced into believing is best for our kids. Because we love our kids. We want them to do well. We want the very best for them.

But what I am learning this year is that we might want wonderful things for our students, but if we continue to take our students out of our equation, if we continue to ignore their feelings about the work that we are asking them to do, then we aren’t really doing what is best for them.  Because they know what is best. They know what is meaningful and purposeful. They know what motivates them and what drives them to push themselves towards deeper levels of understanding.  And they are so willing to tell us.  They tell us with their complaints, they tell us with their glazed over looks out the window, they tell us with their misbehaviors, they tell us with their smiles and their hugs and the speed with which they run or walk into our classrooms in the morning.  But we must listen and we must act on what they have to say.

And my students were telling me loud and clear that how I was asking them to use their reading journals, how I was asking them to keep track of the thinking that they were doing as they read, and how I was asking them to write about their reading, all of that was not working.

With that information in mind, I began my action research project this year to find a better way to help kids work with their texts in a way that would deepen their thinking. My goals were to:

  • Help students to notice the thinking that they were doing as they read
  • Help students to take what they were noticing and use it to come up with a plan of what they would pay attention to as they continued reading a text
  • Help students to create a system to keep track of that thinking that worked for them as a reader and as a thinker
  • Help students to take all of that thinking and synthesize it through writing that would allow them to deepen their thoughts and share them with the world

The place I chose to begin was with the very students I was hoping to reach and to help. We started our year as readers together by talking about the reading work they had been asked to do in the past. I asked them to tell me about how they were asked to keep track of their thinking in previous years and I asked them to tell me how they felt about it all.  And because they are good and honest and wonderful and because in our first few days together we had already built a community of trust, they told me.  They told me about the post-its and letters and journals of the past years. And they also told me about how those things often stopped them from enjoying what they were reading. They told me how they found little purpose in the tasks that they were asked to do. They told me how the work they did in those journals and on those post-its was not helping them to be better readers.

Right from the start, I knew that one of my first obstacles was going to be overcoming their negative attitudes towards writing about their reading.  And by that, I do not mean that I needed to teach them to be more positive. No. What I needed to do was work to find a way to show them something different. I needed to prove to them that writing down their thinking as they read could actually enhance their reading experiences.  That is work that I needed to do in order to help them to feel more positively. I could not expect them to change their attitudes if they believed that I was going to ask them to do more of the same. If I was going to continue to demand of them work that lacked meaning and purpose, I could not fairly expect them to change the way they felt about that work.

So in the first few weeks of school, I did not require any of my students to write about their thinking as they read. And at first, that felt wrong. It felt like I was losing valuable time. It felt like they should be doing more than “just” reading. It felt like I was letting them take the easy way out.  But, of course, that is not what I was doing at all. What I was really doing was beginning by building a culture of joy around reading in my classroom. We talked about books that we loved. We talked about how books could make us feel less alone in the world. We talked about how books could help us to better understand people in this world who are vastly different than we are.  And then I began my conversations with my students. Slowly, I began to meet one-on-one with each of my students in reading conferences. And that is when the real work began.

Why I am Pretty Sure I Have Been Accidentally Stopping the Most Authentic Book Discussions Taking Place in My Classroom

Every so often, I am struck by the fact that I have been making a huge mistake as a teacher and I suddenly wish that I could run around and gather up all my former students to apologize.

Well this morning, while on a family walk, I had one such realization. My wife and I had taken our daughter and our dog out for a Sunday morning walk.  My wife and I were chuckling as we watched my almost-two year old struggle to hold the leash of my rather unruly lab-mix. And I was struck at the “conversation” that was occurring amongst the three of us.  I say “conversation” in the loosest sense of the word because my daughter has a whole lot to say, but only about 10% of it is understandable to any other human.

Anyway, I realized that all of these words that we had been trying to get her to say earlier in the day, were suddenly flying out of her mouth because she needed them and they were useful to her. She didn’t say them when we wanted her to say them. She said them when she had something that she needed to say.

And then it hit me.

For some reason, this moment, this walk, this authentic use of language by my daughter, it all made me realize that I had been making a terrible mistake.

You see, I have always said that I valued authentic talk about books in my classroom.  I have always said that one of the most important things to me was that my students were able to talk about the books that they are reading with passion and enthusiasm.  I have always said that, for me, one of the greatest markers of deep reading comprehension is that students can be engaged in conversations with their peers about their books.  I have always said that these things were important, but today I realized that I might have been putting a stop to THE most authentic conversations about books that my kids have been having.

Let me paint you a picture and see if you can catch this mistake that I have been making for years. One specific image that says it all sticks out in my mind. This image is so clear in my mind.  It is independent reading.  There is a silence that fills my classroom. A silence that I am proud of, that makes me feel as if really important work is being done.  A silence that I have worked hard to create. A silence that I have demanded of my students, because I can’t think if there is even a quiet buzz in the room, and so obviously neither can they.

I then gather a group of students and purposely break the silence because I have a lesson I need to teach to this group of students.  It is, of course, okay for me to break the silence. That is different than if the kids were to do it.  So I am leading my small group of readers, in something that I am sure is really important. And all of a sudden I am distracted.  There are two boys over in the pillow corner. They are curled up amongst our collection of pillows and they are both reading Fablehaven by Brandon Mull. And they are whispering. GASP. That’s right, they are whispering and gesturing in an exaggerated manner.

I am appalled that they have interrupted my work with my small group and that they have potentially interrupted the other students who are trying to maintain my demanded silence.  So I give them the look.  They ignore me.  I try again. They ignore me. They are way too wrapped up in their conversation to notice my looks. So then, I apologize to my small group of students, I walk over to the two offenders, I bend down next to them and explain that when they talk during independent reading, it stops the rest of us from being able to think as deeply as we need to and want to.  I smile. They smile. They look at me. And they say, “But Mrs. Lifshitz. We were talking about the book.” I smile. I nod. And I say, “That’s great boys, but not during independent reading.” And I walk away. And they are good and kind and respectful so they do what I tell them to do.

And they stop talking about the book.

And. It. Is. All. My. Fault.

There you have it. This scene has repeated itself in my classroom over and over again throughout my many years of teaching fifth grade.  I have been the one who has single-handedly stopped what could have been THE most authentic book discussions that have ever taken place in my classroom. The discussions that spring from a genuine NEED to talk about a book.  The discussions that come from the very heart of my fifth grade readers. The discussions that are caused because a reader is so overjoyed or so dismayed or so disappointed or so angry, that he or she MUST talk to someone about it right at that very moment. The discussions that are 100% motivated by the students themselves and not because it is their scheduled time to talk about their books and not because I told them that we are going to be practicing talking about our books and not because they have been assigned to talk about their books. They are talking about the books because they have thinking that they must share with someone else. Because they have thinking about their book that is too good to keep to themselves.

And I have stopped that.

I have stopped that because it wasn’t time for book discussions.  I have stopped that because I placed silence as a priority over authentic conversations about books.  I have stopped that because it wasn’t our scheduled literature discussion time. I have stopped that because in my classroom, in the past, I have been the one to say when we will discuss books and how we will do it.  I have stopped that because I felt the need to teach my students how to have literature discussions correctly before I trusted them to actually have those discussions.  I stopped that because I didn’t know what exactly they were talking about or if they were doing it in a way that would allow them to build off of each other’s comments.  I stopped that because I wasn’t in control of it and I didn’t think it was the right time.

And I look back now and see how very wrong I was.  These kids were itching to talk about books. They were so motivated to talk about book that they defied the silence of our classroom even though they knew they would be risking my very serious teacher look.  And I put an end to it.

I just can’t get over it. How did I not see what I was doing?

But here is what I know.  There is no point in lamenting what I have done in the past. I have recognized that it was a bad choice and now I need to look ahead.  Now I need to think about how I am going to do things differently. Now that I know what I know, I must think about how I am going to run my reading workshop so that it nurtures authentic discussion about books instead of hindering it.

Of course, as often is the case, I have no real idea. But I know that I am going to start by talking to my students.  I want them to know that if they are so moved by a book that they need to talk about it, I want them to feel like they can do that. And then, together, we will come up with a way for them to have those conversations so that it does not stop those around them from their work and so that it does not take away from their own time to read. I think that we will find a way together for there to be more conversation when the students authentically need and want them.

And if nothing else, I know that the next time I hear students talking during independent reading, I am going to think twice before giving them any sort of serious look. I am going to start by trusting them and giving them a chance. I am going to start by believing that the work they are doing is helping to make them better readers.  And then maybe, I will pull up a chair and just ask them what it is they are talking about.  I have a feeling that more often than not, I will be genuinely pleased with what they have to say.

Am I Losing Points for Empowering Students?

My principal completed the first of my two required formal observations this past week.  This year’s observation felt incredibly different from past years’ for several reasons.  The first and most obvious reason was that the lesson that I did this year while he was in the room was not one that ever would have been possible in the past.

My students have been engaged in a study of questioning.  We have been focusing on how to craft better questions in order to provoke deeper, more critical thinking and discussion.  We have been looking at the questions we ask and analyzing them in order to put them into categories that have created types of questions that we know will lead to good, deep and critical conversations.  In order to put my students’ newly acquired skills to use, I reached out to some of the incredible fourth and fifth grade teachers who I am lucky enough to be connected with through Twitter. I asked them if they would be willing to join in a Twitter chat that my class would host. We would all read the same picture book, my class would craft some questions and we would all meet at a certain time in order to discuss the book and my students’ questions.  Because I am connected to the most wonderful and generous teachers, many of them agreed to join me and were willing to do it when my principal would be observing.

I wanted to use my observation as an opportunity to show my principal what is possible when we use technology to reach out to students and teachers outside of our own building. I wanted to show my prinicpal that because of being connected, my students realize that they are a part of a global network of learner. I wanted to show my principal that we can use technology for more than just creating fancy end products. We can use technology to connect our students to a community of readers and writers that is so much bigger than the small corner of the world that we live in.  We can motivate them to read and write by making them feel a part of somethign bigger than themselves and bigger than our classroom. And I could not have done this last year, because last year I didn’t know that this was true.  And now I know it is true and so now I want more teachers at my school to know it is true and I figured that showing my principal would be a great place to start.

So the lesson I was doing was new to me this year because I could not have possibly had my students host a Twitter chat last year, mostly because I had no idea what one was.  But now, we have participated in several Twitter chats this year, we have hosted two chats ourselves and my students know that when we are a part of a Twitter chat, our work has meaning beyond the walls of our classroom.  As my students worked to craft good questions for this Twitter chat, they knew that people were depending on these questions to be good.  They knew that their work mattered. They knew that if they did not do their very best thinking, reading and writing, then they would be letting people down in the world outside of our classroom.  There is no letter grade or prize that I know of that could rival that kind of motivation. And so the work they did was phenomenal.

But beyond just seeing a new lesson this year, my principal saw something else.  Student empowerment. Our Twitter chat began at 10:15 and my observation began at 9:55.  When my principal walked in, the students were in their small groups setting up for the chat. This meant that they were opening up the collaborative Google Docs they had made with all of our questions for the chat written on them.  They were opening a second tab with Tweetdeck and getting logged in to our class account.  And when they were done with the work they knew they needed to do, they joined me over in our meeting area.

I had written a question on our chart paper before the lesson began. It read, “How can we build on to the responses of other students in order to provoke deeper and more meaningful discussion?” As the students gathered, I explained that as hosts today, we not only were responsible for sharing answers to questions, but we were also responsible for building off of the thoughts of others to promote more discussion and conversation. I asked the students how they thought we could do this. And then, one of my students took my spot in my rocking chair because it was her day to be the discussion leader. Another boy said that he was supposed to lead yesterday, but missed his turn due to a doctor’s appointment.  The two students had a quick discussion and compromised by deciding that he would call on students with their hands raised and that she would write down the responses that were given.  And then the discussion began. Kids raised their hands, my student leader called on people and the other student leader rephrased what they said so that it could be added to our chart.

After all thoughts were shared, the kids knew it was time to start and they went off to their computers and got started.  Each group was responsible for sending out one of our questions.  Each group was at a computer sending responses and looking for ways to build on other people’s thinking.  I mostly walked from group to group to quickly confer with kids about what they were doing and how they were building on to other people’s thoughts.  When I noticed a group using a new strategy to provoke discussion, I shared it with the class and my student leader went and added the new strategy to our chart.

When the Twitter chat was over. The kids gathered back together and one of my other students led us in a debrief discussion about how we did and what we want to work on for next time.

And that was the end of my observation.  I could not have been happier. The kids did great work, as they always do, and I was so proud of all that they had accomplished.  I have not yet had my post-observation meeting with my principal, but I know that he was pretty blown away by the whole thing.  At one point he looked at me and said, ‘I have no idea how to capture all of this in my notes.” He also completed the entire observation while sitting in one of our new balance ball chairs (which the kids loved and you can witness for youselves in the top image).

Can I stop here for just a second and tell you how amazing my principal is. Seriously. I won the principal lottery big time.  This man is 100% student centered.  The kids love him. The teachers love him. The parents love him. He has made our school an incredibly happy place and one that we all feel lucky to work in.  He sees us for exactly who we all are and he values us for what we bring to the table.  He knows that I sometimes say things in meetings that I probably shouldn’t and he knows that I often say things in meetings in a way that can be less than polite. And he also knows that I do all of that because I care about kids. He is just amazing.  And I never worry when he is in my classroom because I know that he gets what I am trying to do and he respects me for it.  He allows me the freedom that I need to try new things and find out what works best for kids.  And I could pretty much write my own evaluation at this point, because I know what he is going to say. And it will be lovely.

But as I was reflecting on my observation lesson, I was struck by a somewhat awful thought.

What if I had a different administrator? What if I had a different administrator using the same evaluation rubric? Would I lose points for empowering students?

Because here is the thing about the lesson he observed. I, myself, didn’t do much. The kids did all the heavy lifting.  I didn’t say very much to the class. I didn’t even say very much to the small groups of working students. I didn’t lead the discussion. I didn’t ask any probing questions. I didn’t give much feedback other than to gently push the small groups of students as they worked. I, myself, did very little. And so if my principal were to simply take the actions and words that he saw and heard during this 45 minute chunk of time, would I lose point for giving my students a large portion of the power in this lesson?

When I am no longer the strongest voice in the classroom, will I be marked down for the things that I am not saying? Where does student empowerment get figured into my evaluation as a teacher?

As I looked carefully at the rubric used to evaluate teachers in my district, I couldn’t help but notice that the vast majority of the descriptors begin with the words, “The teacher…” Other than the one section on student behavior, everything else written on the rubric begins with a description of teacher actions.  When we think about the tools we are using to evaluate our teachers, I think that we need to think a bit more carefully about what we really want teachers to be striving for.  Is it enough that we, as teachers, learn to ask good questions and promote discussion or should we be asking for more? Should we be asking for teachers to be giving the power to the students to do those things? Does the system of evaluation that we have demand that teachers engage students in the learning they are doing? Or does it say that it is enough to go through the motions, teach the good lessons, and hope that our students are feeling valued and important.

I have to say, I took a second and more careful look today at the rubric used to evaluate me. And I realized that I don’t have as much to worry about as I thought I did. In the “EXCELLENT” categories on the rubric, there is mention of students taking ownership and control over their learning. As I dug deeper, I found descriptors such as, “Students formulate many questions, initiate topics, challenge one another’s thinking, and make unsolicited contributions. Students themselves ensure that all voices are heard in the discussion.” I also found, “There is evidence of some student initiation of inquiry and student contributions to the exploration of important content; students may serve as resources for one another.”

Those words made me feel better, but I still believe that we can do better. I still believe that we can create systems for evaluating teachers that take the students and the amount of power they hold into consideration more. I believe that we can demand more from ourselves. Because student ownership of learning shouldn’t just be an option. It shouldn’t be something that “might” happen or “may” happen. It should be an expectation in every single classroom we are a part of. I honestly believe our students deserve it.

And if any of you have made it through this very long-winded blog post, I would love to know how your systems of evaluation deal with student empowerment and ownership. Do you feel as if you are rewarded for giving students power and control? Do you feel like your district’s system of evaluation still expects the teacher’s voice to be the loudest one in the room? I would love to hear anything that you are willing to share!