CEL 2014 Reflections

Leading others and teaching others are the same thing.  This is my biggest takeaway from attending this year’s Conference on English Leadership in Washington D.C.

A leader and a teacher want the same end result: improvement, success, and happiness of those under their care.  Those who are successful as educational leaders–professors, supervisors, classroom teachers–cultivate many of the same qualities, habits of mind and motivations.  While the day-to-day actions of these individuals may vary vastly, their reasons for acting closely relate.

For many of the people I saw and spoke to, they devote incredible energy towards helping others improve, and they recognize that the best way to become better at something is to teach it.  Another way to put this is to say that they lead by example. So, while many may believe that helping others is a use of time that they might spend otherwise, helping others is also a way to better oneself. And in that way, it’s not so selfless.

Aside from learning about these broad, maybe too-philosophical-for-some concepts, I came away with a great sense of responsibility, too. Through seeing so many examples of great teaching and powerful leadership, I consider it a duty to use these practices in the classroom to help my students, and then share these practices and how I’ve used them with other teachers.

Here are a few such ideas that come to mind:

  • Increasing the standard for what it means to write for an authentic audience.  To me, this now means having the finished product leave the classroom, and be shared with other classes, other teachers, school administrators, the local community or public figures.  With technology, this is easier than it has ever been to do.
  • Trusting students to surprise and impress me when they are given the conditions to do so.  To me, these conditions are high expectations, consistent feedback, choice in their learning material, and an opportunity to use their talents to show what they’ve learned.
  • The importance of clear objectives and purposes for all that is done in the classroom. In the reading/writing workshop setting, I often give students time for reading and writing.  This is the independent practice they need. However, to balance this, I must also provided them with well-planned, engaging, and well-delivered instruction so that they see how a more experienced reader and writer thinks through challenging situations.
  • Recognizing that students think much of what we read in school is boring, yet there are so many intriguing, sometimes even unbelievable stories to share–of both fiction and non-fiction.
  • For nearly every skill I want students to learn and practice, there is an engaging, student-centered, interest-driven group of lessons, activities, and/or assessments that will allow students to acquire that skill while enjoying the process (this doesn’t mean every student every time, but most students most of the time)
  • Worthwhile learning opportunities are memorable.  I should consider The Grocery Store Test, as Oona Abrams calls it, when designing assessments.  Will students remember this when we bump into each other in The Grocery Store ten years from now?

The biggest takeaway is not from any specific sessions or conversations, but from the experience as a whole.  Improving at and enjoying teaching (or for some, leading) means finding and surrounding myself with great teachers, whose presence alone pushes me to improve.  This is the same for any pursuit in life: find those who do what you cannot yet do, and learn how they do it.  Then, turn around and look for someone who needs your help.

How do you see the relationship between the titles “teacher” and “leader”?  How do you see the roles overlap or separate themselves in  your life?

Stuck in a teaching rut? Make things uncomfortable.

What have you done to “shake things up” from your typical class structure?  If this post jogs any memories, post them in the comments.

The classroom buzzed with energy.  Students were on the floor, in re-arranged desks, or outside in the hallway.  Many were laughing.  Most talked quickly to each other.

It was Friday, last period, and the students were discussing poetry.

No…this is not the beginning of an elaborate joke.

The 25 students read, re-read, clarified, corrected and debated, all over the specifics of three poems. And these weren’t even especially engaging poems for a young adult audience. I had intentionally chosen some classics, hoping to present a challenge. Robert Frost, Lewis Carroll and Anne Bronte. Not typically selected for maximum engagement of high school sophomores.

To what can I attribute the energy in the room on a Friday, when minds wander and attention spans dwindle?

Everyone was uncomfortable.

Now, this is not my MO–making students feel uncomfortable–and it conflicts with many of my beliefs as a teacher.  Students should feel welcome, comfortable and safe in the classroom. They need these minimum conditions before learning begins. No one succeeds if they are put on the spot, uncomfortable, or made to feel less than capable.

However, it’s here that I refer to my student teaching supervisor and a mentor, Mr S.,  who asked me to consider the questions: “When does a structure become a crutch? When does a routine become  a rut?”

In simple terms, he meant: sometimes you need to shake things up a bit.

For this activity, all it took was telling a room full of 16-year-olds that they’d all have to record themselves speaking.  Just like that, they were filled with nervous energy, and ready to focus, even on a Friday.

Asking the students to record themselves was not a gimmick. It was a fair, authentic way for me to assess their understanding of the skills we’d practiced over the past few classes.  They began by reading a poem aloud to each other. They performed close readings, making literal, inferential and finally a critical response to the poem. Then, the curve ball, each group recorded themselves explaining their annotations and thoughts about the poem, using a cell phone or computer and USB mic. Each student in the group had to speak.

Had I asked the students to write an essay, they might groan, but they’d do the assignment, with varying levels of success and effort .  Writing a literary analysis essay, while an arguably important skill, does not invigorate a sixteen-year-old.  The voice recording had nearly the opposite effect as would handing out lined paper and prompts.  The task of recording an audio close reading of the poem meant that each student’s thoughts would be made manifest for themselves to listen to. When writing an essay, it’s easy to write stream of consciousness, hand in the paper and never look back. With this task, students were required to listen to themselves, both checking for the clarity of the audio and the clarity of their thoughts.

They had to be sure of themselves. It’s easy to pick a few quotes, throw in the phrases “this represents” and “this is a symbol of…” and be on your way to the weekend. But when speaking out loud, with other group members listening and depending on each others’ performances, the students prepared deliberately to be sure about the thoughts they were speaking.

[As an aside, no one likes the sound of their own recorded voice, including me. However, in today’s technological word, audio tools are so readily available, and it’s a situation that students should get comfortable with.]

This activity spanned two class periods, and I noticed that I felt the same excitement that I observed from the students.  This may be because I felt uncertainty about asking students to do something that I knew would be challenging, and even unpleasant for some.  Every student who attended class that day completed the activity.  For most, it was a challenge when they had the recording device ready and prepared to press the red circle.  Also for most, once they got started, it wasn’t nearly as bad as they’d expected it to be.

As a teacher, I think it’s important for me to go to the places of discomfort, too.  I should sit there, acknowledging the discomfort, and recognizing that if it makes me uncomfortable, I’m probably no good at it.  And if it’s something I’m not good at, it’s probably important for me to work at it.

A few recent moments where I’ve embraced discomfort:

On the first day of school this year, I memorized and recited the poem “Introduction to Poetry” by Billy Collins to four of my classes. I displayed the poem behind me and asked students to follow along and check my performance.

I taught students how to use a new online tool, Scrible, which I’m only moderately comfortable with using.  I knew students would gain value from it and would probably end up teaching me about it.

I’ve shared my students’ work with administrators (Just waiting for a response can be nerve-racking sometimes.)

In daily life, I’m approached with choices about exercise, meditation, healthy eating, having difficult conversations.  All of these are times where the best action is to go to a place of discomfort.

Go there, sit, and embrace it.  It won’t be as bad as you think.

Below, post an idea or memory about when being uncomfortable was a good thing.

Do this exercise to test your teaching priorities

“Show me your to-do list, and I’ll show you your loved ones.”  No, Ben Franklin never said this.  It’s probably too clunky to spread.  But whenever I pause to reflect on my teaching, this idea resonates with me.

To better understand my point, I invite you to do the following:

Draw a line down a piece of paper.  On the left, list your priorities.  On the right, list the activities you choose to do everyday.  (I emphasize choice, thinking that people may not prioritize their job, but they prioritize the life that it allows them, and the family that the job helps to feed.)

On the left, I list loved ones, health, and teaching.  On the right, I list talking with my wife, sleeping, eating 3-4 meals, meditating, working, commuting, and reading.  Looking further, I notice other daily patterns: eating lunch distracted, often while reading online, checking social media or websites too frequently, allowing my mind to wander as I talk to people.  Everything else varies from day to day.  Whether I like it or not, this is the truth.

Here, I remember David Foster Wallace’s words about alcoholics who struggled with concepts like “one day a time.” He eloquently wrote, “it starts to turn out that the more vapid the cliche, the sharper the canines of the real truth it covers.”

This simple exercise is both disappointing and empowering.   The power comes through recognizing behaviors that have become habitual, and changing them so they align with your priorities.  The changes need not be drastic, just small and consistent.

Teachers: does this sound at all familiar? A battle between the ideas you believe in, and the truth of your daily lessons?

This post is a reminder to me to stay aware of my teaching habits, and align them with practices that I know work best.

It’s easy to let distractions cloud teaching and planning.  There’s a lot to do–or dare I say “cover”–and shortcuts and rushing sometimes creep in.  But just as with my overall priorities, my classroom priorities each deserve one thing–time.

Each of the following is a habit that I remind myself to make time for this year:

  • Listening: Pausing and waiting after asking a question shows students that deep thinking, and giving everyone a chance to formulate an idea, is important.
  • Writing Beside Them: I allude to Penny Kittle here: taking time to write with and in front of students.
  • Sharing: After writing, asking students to share in small groups or with the whole class, modeling intent listening by reporting back the details heard.  This shows students that sharing writing is not just a time-filler but a way to learn from each other.
  • Re-doing, rewinding, repeating: Spending time with a grammar or writing concept, then revisiting the same rule or skill several times throughout the year shows students that curriculum is not just for coverage, but for understanding and practical use.
  • Time (yea I said it, I’m making time for time) Sometimes students should practice reading or writing without me conferencing or interrupting them.  This shows students the connection between my class and sports–no one improves if the coach blows the whistle too often.  Thanks to Kelly Gallagher for this analogy.
  • Talk: Asking students to talk to each other in a variety of formal and informal situations nearly everyday, about a specific question, an opinion, or simply to explain their accomplishments for the day.  This shows that talking is a way to reinforce, remember, and figure out what’s important.
  • Expectations: Giving students a lot of class time to work on big projects, then holding students to high expectations for those projects.  This shows the big idea I’ve been talking about throughout this post–the more time given to something, the more important it is.

Many of these items appear consistently in my teaching, and some should appear more.  Throughout the year, I’d like to stop and ask myself to compare what I believe is most important to what students did yesterday, and what they’ll do tomorrow.

What will you make time for in your classroom or life this year?  Let me know below in the comments or at Gerard.Dawson1@gmail.com.

“No More AoWs, Matey”

Back in June, students gave me anonymous feedback about the year on the last day of school.  The feedback form was intentionally short and open-ended, as to elicit honest thoughts from the students about the course. The three questions I used were:

  • If you were to take this class again, what would you want to stay the same?
  • If you were to take this class again, what would you want to change?
  • What other reactions do you have to this class?

I hoped that these questions would allow students to share the positive or negative experiences that stuck with them most.  Memory and emotion are so closely tied, so the moments where students were excited, bored, happy or sad are valuable for me to consider.

For me, directly acknowledging areas of my teaching that aren’t going as well as I’d like them to is difficult. It takes admitting a certain level of failure, and then some deep thinking about what might work better.  Using the students’ comments as a starting point for this reflection allows me to see through my own emotions and biases, and get to the facts about the students’ experience in my class.  If enough students said it, it just might be the truth. This type of candid reflection would be difficult or impossible if I used my own memory as a starting point instead.

When it comes to collecting and analyzing feedback, fortunately Google Forms exists. I have all of the student responses in an easy to view and search spreadsheet.  A simple “CTRL+F” shows some of the most popular terms, and  today, I’ll start with the term that was mentioned most often, a rousing 35 times in fact…the Article of the Week.

Made famous by Kelly Gallagher in Readicide, the Article of the Week (AoW) is a magazine or newspaper article given to students to read and/or respond to every week. The intention from the teacher is to increase students’ background knowledge, which will help them become more informed citizens and help them use this prior knowledge in other reading situations. This sounds like a simple solution to address the common problem, and I was very enthusiastic about using the AoW as part of last year’s class.

Here’s what my students had to say about my beloved Article of the Week.  These comments all responded to the question, If you were to take this class again, what would you want to change?

“No more AoWs matey”

“I didn’t enjoy the long AoWs”

“I felt as if constantly doing a new AoW didn’t improve my writing”

“I would want there to be no weekly assignments like AoWs”

“I didn’t enjoy AoWs so please don’t do them ever again”

“No AoWs please. I found it boring and tedious to constantly read and annotate things that I did not care about”

And so on.  The 29 other mentions of “AoW” were similar in tone and content.

Why was there such a disconnect between my well-meaning intentions, my belief that this was a reasonable assignment, and the students’ responses?  This is especially confusing considering the positive responses I received regarding other assignments, which the students found meaningful and even fun.

I find the first step in reflection is to return to my broad beliefs about teaching, and analyze more specific aspects of my teaching against these broad beliefs.

If there were three “themes” to my teaching this year that drove my planning and instruction, I believe they were choice, inquiry and authenticity.  In most cases, when I planned units and activities that were centered around those themes, students were engaged and seemed to enjoy their learning experience.  We wrote memoirs about meaningful experiences, created editorials about important issues in the students’ communities, presented reviews of student-selected books.  But how does the Article of the Week stand up to my three-theme test?

Choice: Students didn’t have a choice about what they read. I selected and distributed the articles every week.

Inquiry: While the students did respond to questions about the articles in writing, I developed the questions.  They were “school” questions, which often leaned towards one “right” answer.

Authenticity: Do adults often read articles about topics they are uninterested in, simply because they feel they should know about the topic? I doubt many do.

This last idea, authenticity, inspired the changed that I’d like to make to the AoWs, which will still accomplish the overarching goals of the assignment.

How do adults authentically find, read, and sometimes respond to periodical publications in today’s world?  There are newspapers and magazines, but most of this reading is now done digitally. The technology of RSS feeds allows people to manage the sources they read, and delivers newly published articles directly into one place, instead of requiring the reader to search the Internet to find sources and articles he or she would would like to read.  You’ve seen RSS before, whether you use it or not.  You know, that little symbol that looks like this:

The RSS feed, which stands for Rich Site Summary, or more casually, Really Simple Syndication, is a web function that allows users to subscribe to web pages that are updated frequently with new content. These pages could be blogs, news sites, or pages that post podcasts or YouTube videos.  There are many online tools known as RSS readers, which allow users to keep track of and view the sites that they subscribe to (Feedly is my favorite).  Every time a site that a user subscribes to is updated, the new content appears in the user’s RSS reader feed. Think of it like a personalized Twitter feed, but with long(er)-form content contained in each post. 

Here’s how I see RSS feeds as a way to potentially balance my students’ disdain for AoWs with my feeling that developing background knowledge is a crucial part of succeeding in school, social situations, and life:  students can choose a topic of interest (either freely or from a teacher-provided list), and subscribe to several news sites or blogs that post about this topic. This is an opportunity for some digital literacy lessons.  Students can be taught about identifying writers’ perspectives or bias on certain issues, especially when navigating the vast amount of content available online.  The class can discuss the importance of reading news from a variety of sources in order to develop one’s own opinion. Not to mention, many RSS readers have mobile apps, so students could use their own familiar devices to do some meaningful reading.

If I put myself in my students’ positions, I think, would I rather choose a few interesting topics, have an online tool like Feedly automatically gather interesting articles about these topics, then read and respond to the articles that I’m most interested in…OR…receive an article from the teacher once a week about a topic that I did not choose?

If I know anything about students, I think that they’d prefer the first choice.

Reflecting on the survey results from students shows me that formative assessment can be used not only to check for understanding and competency in content and skills, but also to garner feedback about students’ engagement and feelings about the activities used in instruction.  

Have any other teachers reading here used RSS feeds as part of your curriculum?  Has anyone else realized a major disconnect between how you feel about an aspect of your class and the way your students feel? 

Please share your comments below or with me at Gerard.Dawson1@gmail.com or on Twitter @GerardDawson3




Are you at a feast or a famine?

Teaching is a practice where people often adopt one of two mindsets: feast thinking or famine thinking.  Instead of food, the commodity is ideas, resources, or even time.

In feast thinking, there is abundance.  There is the perception that there are plenty of ideas and resources for me to have, and there are plenty for you to have, too.  If I share with you and the neighbors, I’ll be happier because you’re happier. We’re all better off with shared abundance.  We’ll keep more of what we prefer; we’ll share or discard what we don’t like. There’s no felt need to keep what we don’t like, and there is motivation to share what we have with others.  Because of the abundance, we might get overwhelmed by all there is to choose from, but we learn to share, use discretion, and develop tastes.  Those we trust make suggestions and act as curators. We all end up happy and fulfilled.

In famine thinking, there is scarcity and rivalry.  There is the perception that things can turn bad at any moment. There are not enough ideas or resources, so I perceive mine as more valuable. I also want to keep mine to myself, or even pretend that I don’t have anything, because I’m worried that you might come steal.  I might try and spy on others in order to figure out what ideas and resources they have. I wouldn’t dare to ask outright about what others have, because they might become suspicious of my intent.  There is constant worry that I’ll leave my door unlocked or leave something laying out, and someone else will come by and swipe it.  Except for cases where physical resources are severely limited, the famine situation is almost always imagined or at least perceived as worse than reality. Famine thinkers believe they’re playing it safe by avoiding risk, but often the riskiest decision is to take no risk at all.

I find it interesting that people with feast and famine thinking can co-exist in the same environment. To me, this shows that it is not the environment, i.e. the actual amount of ideas and resources, that dictates feast or famine thinking, but it is the mindset that individuals bring to the situation. Those who believe they’re coming to a feast will share, take what they need and be merry. Those who believe they’re existing in a famine will hoard, close doors and look over their shoulder.  When the feasters try to share with the faminers, the faminers will be suspicious at the motives, and they’ll likely reject the offering.  Often both groups maintain their behaviors regardless of what their peer group is like.

Much of this involves ego. Opening up and sharing involves a destruction of the ego, a willing vulnerability. I need to admit the following: some of my ideas are good for me, some are only good for others, and some might even be universally good (they’ll work for most people). Some of my ideas are bad for me, some of my ideas are bad for me but work for others and some are just bad. It is likely that a famine thinker can realize this on his or her own.  There’s a third category, though, that describes the majority of ideas: the ideas that are OK, but become much better when they’re shared, discussed and reflected upon with a group of others who have different perspectives.

This is where growth happens in teaching or in any other field. Notice that this growth is nearly impossible in a famine mindset, where the only reflection happens on the individual level. And when you believe you’re in a famine, who wants to stop and think about the circumstances?

The Student: An imitation poem

On Wednesday, my students and I read and imitated “The Poet” by Tom Wayman. The poem characterizes using negative comments, yet the mood of the piece isn’t pessimistic.  Here’s my imitation inspired by my own likes and dislikes as a high school student, and how they inform my current teaching.

“The Student”

Ignores lessons he finds irrelevant to his life

May speak rapidly when excited about a topic

Cannot sit still for 56 minutes (who can?)

Does not read books assigned to him, but this

Does not mean that he dislikes reading

Cannot stand teacher questions  that have obvious answers


Has great difficulty finding test-prep engaging

Has difficulty recalling vocabulary words that seem to exist in a vacuum

Cannot compose a story about a topic that was pre-selected for him

Cannot recognize historical figures when they are de-contextualized and mentioned on multiple choice exams


Has difficulty classifying and categorizing his many needs and responsibilities

Has difficulty retaining facts that were mentioned on a PowerPoint and then never again

May recognize what he wants for his future one day and not the next

Awareness and Reactions

The following post is inspired by my recent reading of the blog Zen Habits, the work of Richard Brady, and my attempt to apply their work to my teaching.

I encounter a new situation everyday in school, yet I imagine people with other jobs don’t have this experience. People come into the office daily, repeating the same tasks with the same result.  They hear little about if they’re doing a good job or not. For me, this is far from the truth.

Consider the variables that affect each day:

  • 115 students
  • The time of day and day of the week when I interact with students (some classes meet at different times during the week)
  • The type of lesson planned for the day (kinesthetic, discussion-based, a group activity, individual reading or writing)
  • The situations that may have occurred in the hallway, the previous class or any of the students’ home lives.
  • The feedback students provide (spoken, written, through body language)

So, while habits and routines may seem repetitive late in the year, it’s easy to see how each class and moment in the class is unique. There’s no way to plan or predict the situations that may arise.

And this leads me to the important skill I’ve been working on lately: being aware of my emotions and reactions to them during class.

On any given day, the following occurs:

  • A student asks me a difficult, thought-provoking question.
  • Students struggle to grasp a concept I introduce, or struggle to understand the directions I provide.
  • A student seems shut-down and withdrawn, or especially loud and gregarious.
  • A student is excelling far ahead of peers on an activity, or lagging greatly behind peers.
  • A class is filled with interruptions like requests to leave the room, phone calls, announcements, or fire drills.

Most of the aforementioned events  requires a decision and reaction from me.  Lately, I’ve practiced recognizing my immediate thoughts and emotions about these situations, evaluating their potential effect on the situation, and pausing briefly to decide the best course of action.

Consider the class filled with disruptions.  Let’s make it Friday. Last period. I have an intricate lesson planned, and it’s one that is crucial to students’ success on the project they’ll begin over the weekend.  I arrange students in groups, distribute materials, and…the phone rings. Then, a student gets a nose bleed. Then, an adult comes to the door to speak to a student (albeit, for a valid reason). Then, there’s an important update to the athletics schedule communicated over the loudspeaker.  (Yes, I’ve experienced all these in a single class before.)

Without awareness, I would likely respond to the situation in one of two ways: stubbornly push on with my plans, facing the resistance of students who know I’m rushing to get through a lesson; or abandon the lesson altogether, feeling defeated about losing control of how class time was used.

There is a third option, which I’ve recently tried to practice. It first involves being aware of the causes of my immediate feelings and reactions: I hoped that students would get to finish the lesson; I felt offended that the lesson I planned was encroached upon. It’s probably a little bit of both.  As soon as I pause to consider these, I can control my action instead of defaulting to my gut reaction. So, I accept that the schedule has changed, give students a focused question to write about and discuss with a partner, and take a few moments to edit and abridge the lesson, which will be continued during the next class.

This habit of mind applies to interactions with individual students, whole classes or even when working and planning on my own. I don’t always do it well, but it’s something that I’m aware of and working on. While I trust experience and I often trust instinct, knee-jerk reactions are part of my teaching that I’ll continue to develop some control over.

No Fear Peer Feedback

I forget that students interact with each other (or don’t) outside of my classroom.  That seems ignorant, I know, but it’s a kind of cognitive bias that seeps into my consciousness every so often.  I see students in my room, acting generally civil as they work and learn, and I assume that they all feel comfortable with each other.

And then…”tomorrow, bring a clean copy of your draft for peer feedback.”

Silence. Looks of trepidation. Uncomfortable glances around the room.

After witnessing scenes like the one above throughout the past few years, I reflected on the process of peer feedback I’ve implemented.  For me, it involves selecting small groups for the students, providing guiding questions for students to consider as they read; for the students, it means handing their paper over to classmates they may or may not be friends with, and getting the paper back with comments written by those students.

As a student, I wouldn’t be too thrilled by that process.  It feels impersonal and intrusive.  The process could work better.

I decided on three main factors that were negatively affecting the process, but that I could also easily change:

Factor #1: Student writers receive their paper back with marks all over it. This is a defacement of their thinking.

How to address it: all peer feedback comments go on a separate piece of paper.  No red marks scribbled in the margins.  This encourages readers to write narrative-style comments, instead of the dreaded “awk” or “good vocab.”  Readers sign their names at the bottom of their comments.

Factor #2: Readers focus on elements of the writing selected by the teacher, instead of providing an authentic response to the writing.

How to address it: all comments are framed in terms of the reader’s reaction to the writing, and the readers cite specific moments in the text where applicable.

So something like, “You were really unclear in this essay, you should re-word it,” is unacceptable for this process. This is judgement and advice, not feedback.  The advice is vague and could be wrong, and the judgement feels rude.

A similar comment could be framed by the reader as, “I got lost in the middle of paragraph three” or “The sentence beginning with, ‘_______’ confused me.” Now, the writer gets an honest glimpse at what the reader’s reaction to the piece was, without the condescending directions imposed by the first type of comment.

Factor #3: At the end of the process, writers may be unsure of the next step. How do they use this bunch of words provided by others as a means to improve the writing?

How to address it: writers begin the process by noting their “intention” for the piece. This is a description of how they want the piece to effect the reader. It could be something like, “I want this piece to make the reader feel the sense of awe I felt when visiting the Grand Canyon, and I also want this piece to teach the reader about the geography about that area.”

After student writers receive their writing with a separate sheet filled with peer feedback comments, they have a specific standard to measure themselves against. They consider the comments of the readers, and notice if the readers reacted in the way that the writer intended them to react. If, using the example from above, a reader noted that, “This piece left me wondering how the writer actually felt about his trip to the Grand Canyon,” the writer knows that he must return to his piece and make some changes.

The results:

After trying this with a few classes, I noticed an improvement in engagement and the overall atmosphere of students during the peer feedback session. The quality of the reader comments was not at the level I believe they can be, but in the future, more modeling of the kind of comments that I think would be help writers may lead to an improvement in that area.  Students responded authentically to each other’s writing by explaining what the pieces taught them and how the writing affected them; most of the time, their comments matched the writer’s intentions for the piece.

So, while this was no educational miracle, it never hurts to put myself in the mind of a student in my classroom, and imagine what the experience is like. It’s important to consistently ask myself: is this an activity I’d find meaningful, relevant and comfortable doing?

Listening Through Distractions

Can I listen carefully to one student in a class of 24, hear what he or she is communicating, and respond in a way that shows I understand?

Even when the exchange is brief, this is a challenge.

Pencils drop, students speak to others near them, hands raise with requests for the bathroom or clarification.  And coinciding with these external events is my internal dialogue: how much times is left in the period? Remember to close with the question you thought of…Who is working, who isn’t?  Why?. This internal and external noise is part of the flow of the classroom, especially when I give students chunks of time to work while I conference with individuals.

The classroom and the students within it are a microcosm of modern society: multiple forces fighting for my attention, all with value, each with a different voice.  First, I decide whom to devote a burst of attention towards, then I have the challenge of maintaining that attention.

Developing the skill of listening in a busy environment is essential for me. I don’t always succeed, but I strive to stay aware of how well I’m doing.

At times, I’ve thought that taking so much time to conference with individual students is the wrong approach. As I mentioned above, 100% of students don’t stay on task 100% of the time while I do this.  This is something I’m honest with myself about.  These are two alternatives:

Option 1:  Change the class structure so that conferencing is not required or simply not part of the class. Students listen to me drone on in a whole-class lecture format, which leads to boredom and/or disruptive behavior as students lose their attention.


Option 2: Students work independently or in groups, as I act as “overseer” or “supervisor” to their work. I avoid having individual conversations with small groups or students, because then I can’t keep an eye on every student at all times.

As with so many other decisions that I find both difficult and “right,” the best choice for me involves awareness, trust and surrender of total control.

So, taking the time to sit next to individual students, listen to them carefully, ask a few questions, and respond to them meaningfully is a “non-negotiable” for me.  And with things like exercising, eating right, or having conversations with certain people, it’s even more important to do when I feel that it may be too difficult (i.e. in a large class, in a class where some students are talkative, etc.).

What better good can I try to provide students in today’s distracted society than an example of what it means to stop, pay attention, and listen?

Lose the Harness, Use the Lever

Student energy is too often harnessed and too rarely leveraged.

Recently, I arranged one group of students in a circle for a discussion. I shared the standards for participating: hand raising was unnecessary; however, speakers should refrain from interrupting others, and they should wait for others to finish before adding questions or comments in response to a student.

The students were excited and full of energy.  After all, they were discussing self-selected research topics, which included the people, activities and ideas they valued, and they were in a new formation where they could see each of their classmates simultaneously.

This excitement translated into little following of my aforementioned standards. Comments flew from each side of the room as I dutifully prompted students to take turns. I then reacted by switching to a facilitator roll, requiring students to raise their hands to respond to an initial student comment. This stopped some of  the talking over talking, but much of it persisted.  By the end of the period, I felt my frustration mounting, but the students were still energetically talking about the topics.  In terms of following of my rules, the activity had failed.

After that class, I considered:

  1. What did I want students to be able to do for that lesson?
  2. What prevented students from being able to what I planned for them to do?

These were my initial answers:

  1. I wanted discussion to occur between students about their research topics, and I thought it was especially important for students who don’t often interact to be aware of each others topics.
  2. I thought that the students talkativeness was preventing the conversation from running smoothly.

My answer to #2 was conventional thinking.  Students must follow rules.  As the teacher, I establish the routines and procedures, and the students following of these habits helps the class run smoothly and effectively.

I believe those ideas. But in this case, my imposed structure of the conversation was an inefficient waste of student energy. I was trying to harness the energy, when I should’ve been leveraging it.

The next day students walked into the classroom: “Mr. Dawson, are we going to do a discussion again?” “Are we going to put the desks like that again?” “Can we make a big circle again? That was fun.”

Notice the disconnect between students’ reaction to the activity, and my perceived failure of the activity.

That second day, I had a new plan.

After much reflection, some ego-denying, and a little acceptance of failure, I change the discussion format.  This wasn’t anything revolutionary; we did “speed dating,” where students speak in pairs for a short period of time, before one group of students rotate, and a new conversation begins.

As I walked around listening to the many conversations, almost all of them were on topic.  Students listened to the person sitting across the desk.  These were conversations between students that would not occur in a social setting.

The same energy that had caused a perceived failure in the previous day’s lesson was now leveraged into a productive, active situation, allowing students to practice speaking, listening, and refining their ideas.

For other classes, a different conversation structure would work better. Each class has its own personality and energy.  Attempting to harness energy is bound to incite dissonance, but leveraging the energy brings productivity and harmony.

One example does not make a case, but for me it often leads to a realization.  In this case it was that the more that I am able to step back from my teaching, along with any other part of my life, and view it objectively without ego or fear of failure, the more I’ll be able to revise and make adjustments. Less dissonance, more harmony.