Passionate educator and popular author Laura Robb shares her ideas for moving teaching into the age of choice and collaboration!
By Laura Robb
It’s time to let go of 19th-century instructional methods that are alive and well in too many middle school classrooms around our country. Take a deep breath and think of the students sitting in classrooms you know about and consider how well the following practices serve them.
Practice: The entire class reads the same book.
Pitfalls: One book serves the group who can read it. Students who can’t read the book aren’t reading, and those who find it easy aren’t progressing because the book is at their independent reading level.
Practice: The teacher leads a recitation and asks questions that usually have one correct answer, then selects students to respond. Immediately, the teacher moves on to the next question.
Pitfalls: Asking students to answer literal questions doesn’t foster critical and analytical thinking. Moreover, students don’t have opportunities to pose and discuss their own questions.
Practice: Students complete worksheets with multiple choice and fill-in-the-blank questions.
Pitfalls: Fill-in-the-blanks and multiple choice questions are artificial checks to gauge literal comprehension; they are not authentic responses to reading. Research shows that when students write authentic responses about books they read, their comprehension rises by 24 percent.
Practice: Students sit in rows.
Pitfalls: A hallmark of 21st-century learning is collaboration. Sitting in rows isolates students and discourages generating ideas and discussing worthwhile texts in small groups.
Updating Teaching Practices
You can avoid the pitfalls associated with these traditional methods by implementing robust practices that differentiate instruction so that all students can improve their reading, writing, critical thinking, and collaboration skills.
It’s beneficial to work with a colleague so you can support one another and observe the changes in action when you visit each other’s classrooms. By differentiating reading instruction and inviting students to discuss diverse texts using student-led conversations, you can heighten their ability to analyze texts and hone their critical thinking skill. Let’s break it down.
We need to shift our practice from students reading the same book to students reading books at their instructional reading level. This practice is quite manageable when you offer books at different reading levels that are connected by genre, theme, or topic, enabling students to talk and think together even though they are reading different books. Rather than “covering” a specific book, reading instruction becomes focused on the ideas you want students to understand.
For example, Ms. Galloway’s eighth grade class was reading Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Out of 27 students, 10 could read and comprehend the book. However, when I asked her what she wanted students to learn from that book, she said, “I want them to understand what it was like for African Americans before civil rights.”
Armed with her idea, Ms. Galloway and I found several books that met the instructional reading levels of her students and addressed her target concepts. Differentiation enabled every student to reflect on life in the South prior to civil rights legislation using a text he or she could read — and every student could contribute to a meaningful, collaborative discussion on the topic. Here’s our list with lexile levels:
And here are some tips for developing units with diverse texts that reach every reader in your class.
Tip 1: Identify the idea(s) you want students to explore as they read.
Tip 2: Ask your school and community librarians to find books related to these ideas on the reading levels of students in your class.
Tip 3: Organize stacks of books on the same reading level. Invite students to browse through the books at their instructional reading level and choose one to read.
Tip 4: Chunk books by having students read three to four chapters, then stop to hold a partner or small group student-led discussion on that section.
Student-Led Literary Conversations
A powerful form of thinking and communicating, student-led conversations can last from five to 15 minutes and bring social interactions to students’ learning. When students are in charge of discussing books they selected and can read, motivation and engagement soar. These conversations develop critical thinking and strong communication skills as students practice framing responses to peers that represent their ideas with clarity.
Have students take turns volunteering to be the group’s leader. The primary job of the leader is to maintain the forward motion of the discussion by using prompts such as:
- Can you provide text evidence?
- Does anyone have a different idea?
- Can you elaborate further on that point?
- How does that relate to what (another student) said?
- Can you link that idea to a teacher’s read-aloud?
Open-Ended Ways to Discuss Diverse Books
Students can use literary elements, themes, ideas, and genre structure to discuss different books.
Explore Literary Elements. Have students identify the protagonist and several problems he or she faces; antagonists and how each works against the protagonist; conflicts, themes, and how other characters affect the protagonist.
Focus on Genre. Ask students to discuss genre structure. For example, for realistic fiction they can discuss what makes the characters and plot realistic. For science fiction they can reflect on the warnings about present-day society and/or technology that the author presents.
Think Through Themes. Have students provide examples of unit themes such as obstacles the person or character faces and whether he or she overcomes these. Or ask students to define stereotyping and offer theme statements that are examples of this from their books.
You can observe one to two discussions during a 45-minute class period. Students can also write several key points from a discussion in their readers’ notebooks and/or evaluate the discussions by writing about specific examples raised during the discussion. Encourage self-reflection using these questions: Did I participate? Did I cite evidence? Did I listen carefully? What did I learn about my book? About a different book? About literary elements? About genre? About theme?
It’s helpful to have students compose open-ended, interpretive questions that apply to any text. Interpretive questions have two or more answers. Verb such as why, how, explain, compare, contrast, evaluate can signal an open-ended query. Have students test each question by finding two responses the text supports. Once they’ve identified two different responses, they can compose another question.
By posting questions on a whiteboard, students can choose those that work for their texts or link to a specific area such as theme or genre structure.
You can also ask students to develop queries that lead to self-evaluation and add to them or adjust them throughout the year.
When you incorporate student-led literary conversations, you inspire students to read, talk, and write about texts they choose. Remember, a student-centered approach builds a community of learners who collaborate and support one another. The result? Students improve as readers, writers, communicators, and critical thinkers.
Author, teacher, coach, and speaker Laura Robb has more than 40 years teaching experience in grades 4-8 and now works with school districts to train teachers. You can learn more about student-led conversations in her latest book, Read, Talk, Write: 35 Lessons That Teach Students to Analyze Fiction and Nonfiction. Her 25+ books also include Unlocking Complex Texts and Vocabulary Is Comprehension
July 20, 2016
By Patricia A. Dunn
When people are overly self-conscious or frustrated, they don’t learn well. Whether they are new drivers or new writers, rattled people need to calm down. The feedback they receive can make things better or worse. I used to teach driver’s education, which taught me much about how people learn. I’ve been teaching writing for a long time, and I see many parallels. Sometimes new drivers or writers who have the most need of improvement are least able to absorb multiple commands. Here are some suggestions for how to give more useful feedback on written drafts—and what to avoid.
What to Avoid in Giving Feedback
Screaming at brand new drivers to “Check your blind spot!” does little good to those who have never been taught what a blind spot is. Barking at them to “Brake smoothly!” may not help either—they would if they could. Sometimes developing writers encounter multiple marginal comments from their teachers to “Fix commas!” or “Write in complete sentences!” But these angry-sounding commands may not work. Disheartened writers have no doubt heard all this before, but they may be too confused, frustrated, or disengaged to learn.
Therefore, driving—or writing—instructors should take care not to engage in criticism overload. I’ve seen new drivers, frozen with fear, struggling to coordinate what experienced drivers do without thinking: signal at the right time or brake smoothly without throwing passengers into their seat belts. I’ve learned that yelling Don’ts at them can sometimes make things worse: “Don’t signal too early!” “Don’t stare in your rearview mirror so long!” Some new drivers are already so stiff and nervous that they’re not thinking clearly. They need to take a breath, gain a bit of confidence, and think about what’s around them—as do writers. It doesn’t work to tell new drivers or new writers how terrible they are and then demand that they stop being so bad.
Two scenes: a driver education teacher and a writing teacher yelling at terrified learners.
How to Give Better Feedback
Say something positive: “You stepped on the gas a little more smoothly just now!” “Your hands are certainly placed firmly on the steering wheel!” This praise, small as it was, would calm their frazzled nerves. They had succeeded at something. Shaky writers, like shaky drivers, need to be handled with similar tact. Like some student drivers, student writers may come to a new challenge overwhelmed, discouraged, perhaps, from repeatedly being told how bad they are. They, too, are afraid. They may have a litany of good (and bad) advice playing in their heads. They face a blank page or screen with the same frozen self-consciousness that blocked the clear thinking of the trembling drivers.
Try an Alert Noticing of Positive Features in Writing
Writing teachers, like driver education instructors, also need to notice what’s going well. However, many instructors do not know how to notice or name what developing writers might be doing right. So focused are some teachers on error, or perhaps on justifying a bad grade, they may not know how to find in a very rough draft some aspects to praise (an active verb, a complex sentence, some vivid details, a lively snippet of dialogue, a helpful transition, the legal use of a semi-colon, etc.) When teachers can name specific things a writer is doing well (as Nancy Mack shows how to do with color coding), that writer is more likely to remember to continue to do those things in the future. What’s more, this confidence boost can provide motivation needed to address the many aspects of the draft that undoubtedly need to be fixed.
Of course it’s true that writers “in the real world” will surely have their writing criticized, sometimes brutally. It’s possible—in fact preferable—for instructors to provide a balance of response to a writer: an alert noticing of effective rhetorical moves as well as a focused analysis of how the piece could be improved. It’s this alert noticing of positive features that many of us who write comments on student writing need to learn how to do better.
Address First Things First—Mostly
New drivers and new writers often need to fix much, but first things first and not all at once. Regardless of the number of big and small things drivers and writers need to improve upon, they can’t fix everything before the next block, or before the next draft. Instructors must learn to prioritize. What needs addressing now? What can wait until next time? With beginning drivers, I’d let them build their skills gradually, both for their own development and my own safety. I’d start them off in empty parking lots, dead-end streets, or cemeteries. As their steering and braking improved, they’d begin looking further ahead than the hood of the car and start to process events unfolding in the coming blocks.
Here’s where my driver/writer analogy breaks down, however. Developing writers should not be made to slog around in the dead-ends of grammar exercises or mind-numbing five-paragraph themes. In addition to developing their skills, these wary writers also need to develop their engagement in writing—to see it as both doable and empowering. They need to write about things they care about, in real-world, authentic writing situations, for reasons more important than a grade.
Use a Strategic, Customized Balance of Praise and Critique
Another caveat is that not all writers—or drivers—need the same proportion of praise and critique. In fact, some overconfident new drivers often require candid commentary on their perceived skills. While their wisely under-confident peers often need gentle encouragement coupled with well-placed, prioritized direction (“Nice signaling—now brake gently here for that right turn coming up”), these Grand Prix wannabees often need clear, immediate, and unfiltered correction: “Stop speeding!” “Don’t pass here!” “Pull over now!”
Likewise, some writers, accustomed to getting As on well-edited but vapid school writing, can handle a less-cushioned response from an alert reader who sees their potential to challenge themselves: “Support your claim here with a more respectable source.” “Consider deleting some unnecessary throat-clearing in your introduction.” “You seem to want to say more about this.”
Feedback on writing, like feedback on driving, should be informed, balanced, and tailored to the individual learner. There should be well-placed, solidifying praise when it is warranted and needed, and insightful, prioritized suggestions for what can be improved. Having teachers who can balance their responses strategically for these learners will make our students’ writing better, and our highways safer.
Patricia A. Dunn is a professor of English at Stony Brook University (SUNY), where she teaches current and future teachers of English and writing. She is a former high school English teacher and two-year college instructor who has written several books on the teaching of writing, including Grammar Rants: How a Backstage Tour of Writing Complaints Can Help Students Make Informed, Savvy Choices About Their Writing (2011), with Ken Lindblom. She has contributed several other posts at this blog: the role engagement plays in writing, how bad “grammar” instruction can impede a young writer’s progress, and what learning to play a ukulele taught her about teaching writing. She has a new book, Disabling Characters: Representations of Disability in Young Adult Literature (2015). She is on Twitter as @PatriciaDunn1.
At the end of every academic year, we collect all the lesson plans we’ve published and list them in a kind of directory for teachers.
Below, you’ll find our 2015-16 offerings, but to scroll through all our roundup posts since 2010, just click here.
This year, we also featured a number of experimental educational features beyond our traditional lesson plans. Though they are not included in the lists below, you can find them here:
- A weekly article, quiz and writing prompt for ELL students
- Film Club documentaries of 10 minutes or under, with discussion questions
- Six contests for teenagers that asked for original political cartoons, reviews, raps, vocabulary videos, editorials and found poems.
- A Student Council comprising teenage Times enthusiasts who chose content and wrote pieces for us
- Our long-running monthly Poetry Pairings and Teenagers in The Times features
Happy summer, and let us know what topics you’d like us to take on in academic year 2016-17.
English Language Arts
Literature and Poetry
Literacy Skills and Strategies
The re-title classics are fantastic! –but may not be suitable for middle school.
High School for Technology and Communication
English 12 Syllabus
Read the following poems (also posted to your instagram, twitter, tumblr, snapchat, tinder, apple watch, hoverboard, wifi hotspot, $300 headphones, etc.). Tweet, snap, gram, or mind-beam your thoughtful, text-based responses to each piece.
“8 Squad Goals You Should Get Rid Of RN” by Gwendolyn Brooks
“The Relatable Reasons Why I Literally Do Not Have Time For Death” by Emily Dickinson
“5 Ways To Complicate Your Decision-Making Process” by Robert Frost
“Dis Fruit Ain’t Loyal” by William Carlos Williams
“Confessions Of An Angst-Ridden Sailor Who Took Out His Emotions On The Wrong Bird” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
“13 Ways To Have No Chill When It Late At Night & You Lonely AF” by Edgar Allan Poe
“This Tyger Is Way Too Turnt” by William Blake
“3 Foods You Never Knew You Could Compare To Your Dreams” by Langston Hughes
“You’ll Never Guess Why This Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou
“An Anthem For (deleted for inappropriate content for middle school)” by Andrew Marvell
“This Reason Why Money Can’t Buy You Happiness Will Destroy You” by Edwin Arlington Robinson
“Why You Should Turn Up On the Regular” by Dylan Thomas
“26 Lit Words You Didn’t Know You Needed In Your Life” by Lewis Carroll
This year my students are writing in a Writer’s Notebook. I was delighted to find this article in support of keeping a journal. Thank you Brain Pickings! ❤
by Maria Popova
Reflections on the value of recording our inner lives from Woolf, Thoreau, Sontag, Emerson, Nin, Plath, and more.
“You want to write, you need to keep an honest, unpublishable journal that nobody reads, nobody but you,” Madeleine L’Engle counseled in her advice to aspiring writers. W.H. Auden once described hisjournal as “a discipline for [his] laziness and lack of observation.”
Journaling, I believe, is a practice that teaches us better than any other the elusive art of solitude — how to be present with our own selves, bear witness to our experience, and fully inhabit our inner lives. As a dedicated diarist myself, I’ve always had an irresistible fascination with the diaries of artists, writers, scientists, and other celebrated minds — those direct glimpses of their inner lives and creative struggles. But, surely, luminaries don’t put pen to paper for the sake of quenching posterity’s curiosity — at least as interesting as the contents of those notable diaries is the question of why their keepers keep them. Here are a few perspectives from some of history’s most prolific practitioners of this private art.
Anaïs Nin was perhaps the most dogged diarist in recorded history — she began keeping a diary at the age of eleven and maintained the habit until her death at the age of 74, producing sixteen volumes of published journals in which she reflected on such diverse, timeless, and timely subjects as love and life,embracing the unfamiliar, reproductive rights, the elusive nature of joy, the meaning of life, and why emotional excess is essential for creativity. In a 1946 lecture at Dartmouth, she spoke about the role of the diary as an invaluable sandbox not only for learning the craft of writing but also for crystallizing her own passions and priorities, from which all creative work springs:
It was while writing a Diary that I discovered how to capture the living moments.
Keeping a Diary all my life helped me to discover some basic elements essential to the vitality of writing.
When I speak of the relationship between my diary and writing I do not intend to generalize as to the value of keeping a diary, or to advise anyone to do so, but merely to extract from this habit certain discoveries which can be easily transposed to other kinds of writing.
Of these the most important is naturalness and spontaneity. These elements sprung, I observed, from my freedom of selection: in the Diary I only wrote of what interested me genuinely, what I felt most strongly at the moment, and I found this fervor, this enthusiasm produced a vividness which often withered in the formal work. Improvisation, free association, obedience to mood, impulse, bought forth countless images, portraits, descriptions, impressionistic sketches, symphonic experiments, from which I could dip at any time for material.
It was also her way of learning to translate the inner into the outer, the subjective into the universal:
This personal relationship to all things, which is condemned as subjective, limiting, I found to be the core of individuality, personality, and originality. The idea that subjectivity is an impasse is as false as the idea that objectivity leads to a larger form of life.
A deep personal relationship reaches far beyond the personal into the general. Again it is a matter of depths.
In her extensive meditation on the creative benefits of keeping a diary, found in the altogether absorbing A Writer’s Diary (public library), 37-year-old Virginia Woolf speaks to the value of journaling in granting us unfiltered access to the rough gems of our own minds, ordinarily dismissed by the self-censorship of “formal” writing:
The habit of writing thus for my own eye only is good practice. It loosens the ligaments. Never mind the misses and the stumbles.
I note however that this diary writing does not count as writing, since I have just re-read my year’s diary and am much struck by the rapid haphazard gallop at which it swings along, sometimes indeed jerking almost intolerably over the cobbles. Still if it were not written rather faster than the fastest type-writing, if I stopped and took thought, it would never be written at all; and the advantage of the method is that it sweeps up accidentally several stray matters which I should exclude if I hesitated, but which are the diamonds of the dustheap.
A diary, she observes at the age of forty-eight, also builds a bridge between our present selves and our future ones, which are notoriously cacophonous in their convictions. She writes with a wink:
In spite of some tremors I think I shall go on with this diary for the present. I sometimes think that I have worked through the layer of style which suited it — suited the comfortable bright hour, after tea; and the thing I’ve reached now is less pliable. Never mind; I fancy old Virginia, putting on her spectacles to read of March 1920 will decidedly wish me to continue. Greetings! my dear ghost; and take heed that I don’t think 50 a very great age. Several good books can be written still; and here’s the bricks for a fine one.
Henry David Thoreau was among history’s greatest and most lyrical diarists, as evidenced by The Journal of Henry David Thoreau, 1837–1861 (public library) — that endlessly revisitable compendium, full of Thoreau’s timeless meditations on everything from the true meaning of success to the greatest gift of growing old to the meaning of human life. In an entry from October of 1857, Thoreau considers the allure of the diary not for the writer but for the reader:
Is not the poet bound to write his own biography? Is there any other work for him but a good journal? We do not wish to know how his imaginary hero, but how he, the actual hero, lived from day to day.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, a close friend of Thoreau’s and a keen observer of the human experience, illuminated the question of diary-writing with a beautiful sidewise gleam, observing in The Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson (public library):
The good writer seems to be writing about himself, but has his eye always on that thread of the Universe which runs through himself and all things.
For someone like me, it is a very strange habit to write in a diary. Not only that I have never written before, but it strikes me that later neither I, nor anyone else, will care for the outpouring of a thirteen year old schoolgirl.
I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train.
In a 1957 diary entry found in Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947–1963(public library) — the same volume that gave us Susan Sontag on marriage, life and death, the duties of being 24, and her 10 rules for raising a child — 24-year-old Sontag writes under the heading “On Keeping a Journal”:
Superficial to understand the journal as just a receptacle for one’s private, secret thoughts—like a confidante who is deaf, dumb, and illiterate. In the journal I do not just express myself more openly than I could do to any person; I create myself. The journal is a vehicle for my sense of selfhood. It represents me as emotionally and spiritually independent. Therefore (alas) it does not simply record my actual, daily life but rather — in many cases — offers an alternative to it.
There is often a contradiction between the meaning of our actions toward a person and what we say we feel toward that person in a journal. But this does not mean that what we do is shallow, and only what we confess to ourselves is deep. Confessions, I mean sincere confessions of course, can be more shallow than actions. I am thinking now of what I read today (when I went up to 122 B[oulevar]d S[ain]t-G[ermain] to check for her mail) in H’s [Sontag’s lover ] journal about me — that curt, unfair, uncharitable assessment of me which concludes by her saying that she really doesn’t like me but my passion for her is acceptable and opportune. God knows it hurts, and I feel indignant.
Of course, a writer’s journal must not be judged by the standards of a diary. The notebooks of a writer have a very special function: in them he builds up, piece by piece, the identity of a writer to himself. Typically, writers’ notebooks are crammed with statements about the will: the will to write, the will to love, the will to renounce love, the will to go on living. The journal is where a writer is heroic to himself. In it he exists solely as a perceiving, suffering, struggling being.
Sylvia Plath like Nin, began keeping a diary at the age of eleven and penned nearly ten volumes, which were posthumously edited and published as The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath (public library) — that vibrant and bittersweet compendium that gave us Plath on life and death,wholeheartedness, and the reverie of nature. She saw her diary as a tool to “warm up” her formal writing, but perhaps the most ensnaring passage from her published journals is one of strange synchronicity two literary legends of staggering genius and staggering tragedy meet across space and time through the pages of their diaries. In February of 1957, six years before her suicide, Plath captures the role of the diary as a lifeline for the writer with poignancy utterly harrowing in history’s hindsight:
Just now I pick up the blessed diary of Virginia Woolf which I bought with a battery of her novels saturday with Ted. And she works off her depression over rejections from Harper’s (no less! – – – and I hardly can believe that the Big Ones get rejected, too!) by cleaning out the kitchen. And cooks haddock & sausage. Bless her. I feel my life linked to her , somehow. I love her – – – from reading Mrs. Dalloway for Mr. Crockett – – – and I can still hear Elizabeth Drew’s voice sending a shiver down my back in the huge Smith class-room, reading from To The Lighthouse. But her suicide, I felt I was reduplicating in that black summer of 1953. Only I couldn’t drown. I suppose I’ll always be over-vulnerable, slightly paranoid. But I’m also so damn healthy & resilient. And apple-pie happy. Only I’ve got to write. I feel sick, this week, of having written nothing lately.
But perhaps the most important meta-point on the subject comes from Woolf herself, who considered the impact of reading a writer’s diaries on how we experience his or her formal work, an impact the magnitude of which she argues is ours to decide on:
How far, we must ask ourselves, is a book influenced by its writer’s life — how far is it safe to let the man interpret the writer? How far shall we resist or give way to the sympathies and antipathies that the man himself rouses in us — so sensitive are words, so receptive of the character of the author? These are questions that press upon us when we read lives and letters, and we must answer them for ourselves, for nothing can be more fatal than to be guided by the preferences of others in a matter so personal.
Indeed, if there is one thing I’ve learned about diaries, both by having read tens of thousands of pages of artists’ and writers’ journals and by having frequently revisited my own from the distance of time, is that nothing written in a diary is to be taken as the diarist’s personal dogma. A journal is an artificially permanent record of thought and inner life, which are invariably transient — something the most prolific diarist in modern literary history articulated herself in her elegant defense of the fluid self. We are creatures of remarkable moodiness and mental turbulence, and what we think we believe at any given moment — those capital-T Truths we arrive at about ourselves and the world — can be profoundly different from our beliefs a decade, a year, and sometimes even a day later.
This, perhaps, is the greatest gift of the diary — its capacity to stand as a living monument to our own fluidity, a reminder that our present selves arechronically unreliable predictors of our future values and that we change unrecognizably over the course of our lives.