Reflections from the 2018 National Day on Writing: Imagination, Empathy, Equity Highlight Why We Write

On Friday, October 19, 2018, my tutors from the Skyline Writing Center traveled to the Sweetland Center for Writing at the University of Michigan to celebrate the National Day on Writing with Christine Modey’s tutors. The National Day on Writing, sponsored annually by NCTE, is a time to remember the reasons that we’ve been compelled to pick up a pen, open a computer, and share our thoughts.  I wrote in a recent post that while reading has been rescued from the doldrums of compliance by a committed group a big names in the field, like Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher, writing has yet to undergo the same transformation in our schools, as students still mainly write for internal audiences, for standardized testing and college admissions ends, and for grades.  There’s very little to fire the imagination or stoke passion, and, by the end of high school, writing can even be something dreaded, particularly if the institutional ecology isn’t equipped to or compelled to raise student voices in any substantive way.

The student choice movement in reading is having huge impacts on students in my classroom and classrooms around the country: twitter chats are springing up about choice reading, teachers are sharing their successes daily on social media, and studies are being done to provide additional support for schools, administrators, teachers, and parents that are reluctant to embrace the power of getting students paired with the right book.  This is exceptional work, as building students’ literacy skills is the key to building equity in our schools and districts, but we often leave writing out of this vital discussion.  Getting students to reconnect with writing as fun–as a legitimate way to share feelings, expand thoughts, and create change–can have huge impacts on our goals to close achievement gaps by raising and amplifying student voices.  We can change the institutional ecologies around writing, slowly, but surely, and recuperate writing from its position as the thing you have to do rather than the thing you choose to do.  Practicing writing in volume–in all of the disciplines–is a great way to help students get better, particularly if they can see the impact of their words.

The opening “icebreaker” sessions were designed to get students thinking critically, working collaboratively, and engaging creatively with writing and with one another.  Students rotated through three stations: a station where students completed the phrase “I write because…” on paper circles that would be displayed in our Writing Center and shared their responses with their group, a station where students completed an “Exquisite Corpse” activity that encouraged students to play with language, and a game where objects were tossed around a circle in a pattern to model the many academic, social, and emotional demands of peer tutoring and the importance of teamwork and communication in an often-stressful environment.  This year, the Skyline Writing Center welcomed 30 new tutors, our largest number since we opened, and with limited time during the school day for community building, having genuine opportunities for students to connect, build trust, and share vulnerability in a contextually meaningful way was vital for the social-emotional growth of our tutors and the edification of tutor-to-tutor relationships foundational to our continued success.

The next part of the day would center on getting students to consider how they can use their voices as everyday advocates for educational equity at Skyline, in the Ann Arbor Public Schools, in our region, and even as part of large national networks.  Students were able to write letters to local, regional, and national officials suggesting reforms to elements of their school or schools more generally that need to be shifted so that all students have equal opportunities to achieve, students could make videos about times when they saw writing make a social change, and they were able to create art that will be displayed in our Writing Center to help other students see the importance of literacy and writing, especially as we try to narrow persistent achievement gaps. 

Edifying trust and sharing vulnerability earlier in the day with our “icebreakers” was vital, as students worked in small groups to share ideas about writing and social change, which required them to be open about their beliefs, values, triumphs, and tribulations and to listen to and be empathetic to experiences potentially far different from their own.  Our Writing Center, which contains multitudes of diversity, requires students to engage with one another on socially cellular levels to have “epiphanies of other,” which activities like this encourage.

Our final activity of the day was an ekphrastic writing competition at the University of Michigan Museum of Art (UMMA), which opened early to accommodate our group.  Ekphrastic writing has been shown to be instructive for students learning to be empathetic, which was part of our day’s intent.  Tutors had the run of the Modern Contemporary gallery, and were given about 20 minutes to compose a poem based on a piece of art they select.  Students were put in groups to select one poem to move to the final round, which was judged by Raymond McDaniel, the world-famous poet.  Students not only had to take perspectives when telling stories based on the art, but they were treated to the perspectives of other students, compelling them to engage in stories and experiences that aren’t their own.  This was an exciting creative experience for students–it was fun, public, and sharable–and it was an important lesson in the importance of stories to our fundamental humanity.

The Urgency of Imagination: What #WhyIWrite Means Now

If you look in the student-blaming outposts on Twitter, you’ll find literally millions of “kids these days” posts about how entitled, lazy kids are responsible for an epidemic of plagiarism without a moment of reflection or introspection from the tweeter themselves (I won’t link them here, but you can find them by searching Twitter): what was the assessment, and did students find it relevant and meaningful? Did students master the necessary skills, such as paraphrasing, prior to the assessment being given? If a student is only writing for a grade or if they feel like they lack important skills, they might turn places we don’t want them to turn. It’s hard for teachers to hear that plagiarism is rarely a student’s first resort, and, often, a symptom of a larger issue with the assessment or their pedagogy. This isn’t to say that there aren’t students who might cut corners, but defaulting to that conclusion requires a fundamental belief in some of the deficit-oriented thinking that might be causing some of the issues in the first place.

At a recent professional development session, I heard a teacher say: “Grades are the only way to get students to improve their writing.” Despite this being anathema to my own beliefs and practices, I took a moment to think through this because, on its face, there might be some truth here; students will often compliantly do what we ask for a better score, and they might learn some skills in that kind of revision process. My worry with this formulation (and others like it) is that the skill students are really learning is how to “do school;” good soldiers get rewarded. I’m also concerned that if a critical mass of a teaching staff believes that grades move writers, they probably believe that scores compel readers, too. There’s a great ILA article, written by Colette Coleman, on the way that students get pulled toward teacher interpretations of a text rather than pushed to develop their own. The article implies that teacher assessment might have something to do with this phenomenon:

When a teacher conveys that students can get to an author’s meaning only through her or his hints and leading questions, the underlying message is that students can’t navigate the text on their own.

My sense is this happens more than we like to admit, and my sense is that this makes students largely insecure about their own abilities to make interpretations and the veracity of their interpretations when they do make them. If that’s the case, can we really be shocked or surprised when a student hits SparkNotes or Shmoop to validate their thinking by finding the “right” answer? Barthes may have argued that the author was dead, but, often, the author—and their adjacent Authority—lives on through our work in the classroom, especially our assessments, which reward alignment with our ideas and agreement with the literary establishment.

Once the Author is gone, the claim to “decipher” a text becomes quite useless. To give an Author to a text is to impose upon that text a stop clause, to furnish it with a final signification, to close the writing. This conception perfectly suits criticism, which can then take as its major task the discovery of the Author (or his hypostases: society, history, the psyche, freedom) beneath the work: once the Author is discovered, the text is “explained:’ the critic has conquered; hence it is scarcely surprising not only that, historically, the reign of the Author should also have been that of the Critic, but that criticism (even “new criticism”) should be overthrown along with the Author.

Not only is this inherently inequitable, as much of the canon and its attendant literary criticism are written from dominant perspectives that lack what bell hooks terms an “oppositional gaze,” but it facilitates a fatalistic sense for students that the interesting, engaging work is done. All that’s left is the parroting and the grade, and why spend time on something that’s a fait accompli?   It’s all over but the scribing.

All of this being said, I believe that what motivates students to write is relevance, choice, and opportunities to fire their imaginations, but it seems like assessments that ask students to do this kind of work are rare, at least in my educational circles. Recently, Ann Blakeslee and Cathy Fleischer from Eastern Michigan University visited to talk with students about our community-facing partnership, and students were asked to reflect about their interest and their questions about the work. Their questions and concerns largely centered around nervousness on doing the work “correctly;” they were really interested in being “right.” This was surprising, and, if I’m being honest, a little discouraging; our Family Fun Nights are all about writing along with students, actively engaging them in storytelling and sharing, and, most of all, helping kids and their families find the fun in writing (as they often find in reading). We never correct, edit, or otherwise comment on someone’s writing at one of these events, and there’s really no way to be “right.” You can be authentic or you can be inauthentic, but that doesn’t have much to do with being “right.” Problematically, however, tutors, most of whom are new, couldn’t really conceive of what this sort of event looked like and how they could promote fun and imagination in writing. Some even said after that they struggled to understand how fun and play could be a force for literacy building, and I have to think that it’s partially because that’s so far away from their current lived experience. What’s writing without grades and competition and assignments and compliance? Without these motivations, participation seems almost pointless: what are we doing this for again? One of the purposes of Family Fun Nights is to help K-8 kids keep their imaginations engaged longer and stave off writing as a purely academic exercise, but there’s some worry on my end on whether my tutors are fundamentally equipped, at least in terms of mindset, to do this work.  In truth, I think our Family Fun Nights do more for my students than we do for the K-8 students.  Indeed, my students need to recuperate their will to write from the grips of a compliance-based machine that has made writing about learning management systems, an interpretive guessing game whose answers are only a Google search away.

I’m excited about our Writing Center’s upcoming visit to the Sweetland Center for Writing, as we’re going to celebrate the National Day on Writing with activities for our tutors that reimagine and rekindle why we write with our college-level colleagues. My sincere hope is that students can remember what drew them to writing in the first place, which I’m willing to wager wasn’t anything that’s drawing them there now. If we can remember why we write, we have a good chance to help others do the same. There won’t be anything to Google, their won’t be any interpretation to mirror, and there won’t be any grades assigned at our event, but I would argue what’s at stake is more important—and more urgent—than any of that. I’m hoping students see it that way, too.

 

Redefining “Rigor:” Trust, Choice + Inclusion

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As the director of a secondary school writing center, I’m used to the skeptical questions about the rigor of our program from colleagues, from students outside of the writing center, and even from college admissions officers who question the value and the difficulty of our work despite having six years of quantitative and qualitative data that suggests we’re having a real-deal impact on narrowing existing achievement gaps in our school and preventing ones from opening.  Much of the skepticism about the rigor of a class called “Writing Center” stems from the way it calls into question traditional educational models that rely on direct instruction; there’s no teacher giving lectures, and there aren’t worksheets to do, but, instead, students go through a training process that engages them in thinking about how to use their role as a peer to honor their classmates’ literacies and funds of knowledge, promote growth-oriented thinking that moves away from education’s infamous deficit models, build relationships with classmates through writing by sharing their own vulnerability, do community-facing work with local universities and organizations that promote K-8 literacy, where achievement gaps begin, and engage in meaningful reflection about themselves as tutors using their own experiences with writing and substantive writing center pedagogy.  This is all while trying to navigate complex peer-to-peer relationships, peer-to-teacher relationships over writing, peer-to-writing relationships, and structural and institutional inequities within our community in order to make lasting, positive change.  This work, while learner-centered and learner-led, seems legitimately rigorous to me even without an Advanced Placement designation or its standardized test at the end; students are using the collective knowledges and resources in an effort to solve pressing real-world, real-time educational issues impacting their friends, their school, and their community.

Narrow definitions of what constitutes rigor in schools extend beyond the Writing Center.  Notions of rigor are frequently discussed when we discussing issues of making space for more choice reading in classes, as there’s an intractable belief that students will scam the system, taking the easy way out.  Indeed, this belief is so pervasive that a recent conversation with a colleague revealed that they were reticent to share their amazing choice reading practices because of negative optics; it simply doesn’t seem hard enough.  However, we know that choice in the classroom promotes high levels of student engagement, and high levels of student engagement encourage students to persist through learning obstacles by thinking metacognitively to find solutions.  We also know that students have an exceptional degree of pride when finishing tasks that they’ve chosen, making them deeply invested in both the process and the product.  The belief that students will somehow scam a system in which they have choice is not only unhelpfully distrustful, but it also further ensconces the idea that we need to force students to learn in spite of their unwillingness to do so.  This hasn’t been my experience; students are deeply passionate and want to expand their literacies in areas that are relevant and meaningful to them.

When given the opportunities to make choices about their learning and their educational process, there’s a palpable energy.  If that feels too anecdotal, then there’s a proverbial boatload of research that there’s a direct relationship between literacy growth and reading volume: an hour of independent reading a day gives students access to 4.3 million new words each year.  Additionally, Judy Willis finds that:

“The highest-level executive thinking, making of connections, and ‘aha’ moments are more likely to occur in an atmosphere of ‘exuberant discovery,’ where students of all ages retain that kindergarten enthusiasm of embracing each day with the joy of learning.”

There are hosts of examples like this one highlighting the ways in which independent reading is both purposeful and rigorous when implemented with fidelity to researched practices.

Here’s the rub: when we anoint ourselves as keepers of rigor, beholden to traditional academic models of what that word means, my fear is that we’re creating more walls than doors, especially for students already on the outside looking in. All students deserve access to lessons that meaningfully challenges them within their zone of proximal development, but rigor doesn’t have to have an AP designation, take the form of standardized test preparation, or be completely teacher-centered. These practices measure exceptionality by exception; the gatekeepers are effective enough without legions of allies. Instead, rigor should—even must—engage our sense of curiosity, the imagination of solving relevant, real-world issues, and the deep metacognition that comes from reflection. As Peter Rorabaugh, Sean Michael Morris, and Jesse Stommel write in “Beyond Rigor:”

“We must move past our traditional definition of rigorous academic work, and recognize that a learning experience or a pedagogical methodology can be both playful and also have the qualities of the best academic work, if not the reagents of traditional rigor.”

Like school itself, traditional notions of rigor work for a very small subset of folks whose funds of knowledge and literacies tend to be highly valued. These funds of knowledge and literacies generally tend to be those possessed by white, middle-and-upper class, cishet males, which sends strong messages of exclusion to those who don’t share those literacies or the values, beliefs, and ideals inherent in them. As Rorabaugh, Morris, and Stommel argue, we need to shift our definition of rigor away from reading really long books that are assessed with really hard multiple-choice questions to finding ways to get students to use their funds of knowledge to imagine, explore, and maybe most of all, create. This new notion of rigor requires rethinking power asymmetry in school and empowering learners to use their agency to seek their rigor and relevance in forms and content central to their interests and assets using inquiry, play, and metacognitive reflection, and we have to trust our students—all of our students—to do the learning that they want to do. It’s here where we can begin measure exceptionality by inclusion rather than exclusion.

The Politics of Policing Reading in Secondary Schools

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On this week’s #CELchat, I mentioned one of the central pedagogical tensions in the schools I’ve taught in is how to hold students “accountable” for assigned readings, a job the mostly has fallen to some sort of assessment mechanism like a multiple choice or short answer reading quiz that measures recall of a text’s key details.   It’s difficult to eschew practices that are engrained part of a school’s culture, and my eventual unwillingness to engage in policing reading through pseudoassessments, which are more guessing games than anything else, has earned me some blank stares, dirty looks, and stern lectures over the years from colleagues, department chairs, and administrators. 

My opposition to these practices has two parts:

  1. Grades don’t motivate students who aren’t reading to start, and grades compel compliance-based reading for those who are engaging with class texts.  Signaling to students that the virtue of reading is about earning a number in a learning-management system creates an entrenched ideology that it’s a means to an end rather than an end in itself, which would send me to surfing to SparkNotes or Shmoop in a second.
  2. Assessments need to be about more than whether a student read the assignment, which opens up a host of questions about what students’ rights are with respect to turning away from a text, even one that was assigned.  My sense is that teachers take it personally that students don’t read, and, in my theory, why so many pseudoassessments are given: it’s a way to command authority and respect through rituals and practices.  The less students read, the more we double down on making sure they know they didn’t read, a move which rarely works.  Amy Hasinoff recently wrote about this control-seeking behavior and it negatively impact on our relationships with students.  It’s important to recognize that students may have a host of complicated reasons for not reading that have nothing to do with laziness, apathy, or disdain for a teacher.  A student should still be able to engage in and learn from class even without having read a whole assigned text closely (and, maybe, even at all).

These two beliefs open up interesting ideological and pedagogical questions about what we mean when we ask students to read and what the rights are of someone we’re willing to call a “reader.”

I had a conversation with a student during this past week, one the sixth day of class, who sheepishly confessed that she didn’t make it through one of the denser readings I assigned, and students were surprised when I asked them to get as far as they thought they could in another dense reading before coming to class to hash out what they learned.  In An Urgency of Teachers, Jesse Stommel writes: “I try to encourage students to be honest about how much they read, what the reading looks like, when they stop reading, when they start again.”  Indeed, we frequently assume that reading is a linear process with universal outcomes; the idea that everyone can and should be done with your assigned readings at the same time and obtain the same information is a problematic ask.  Rather than giving quizzes or bemoaning my students’ reading abilities in commiserative teacher talk, I like to engage students in a conversation about different types of reading strategies and their reading process: why they read a section closely, why a passage stood out to them, how they made meaning from what they did encounter, and some ways they might consider making meaning next time.  A significant part of education is learning about your own learning and understanding the processes you need to make critical encounters with texts.  Psuedoassessments to shame students into writing shut down these reflective conversations in which students and their teachers can imagine alternatives.  Discussions about assessment grades and points, whether their formative or summative, can tend to cloud these conversations with an unhelpful, unspoken subtext.

It’s also vital to consider as educators the compelling reasons that a student might look away from a text, as there are likely very good reasons we’ve done the same in our own reading lives: boredom, pain, we’ve gotten what we needed.  Abandonment, disengagement, skimming, scanning, and all of the other strategies are readerly choices or moves that deserve our consideration and, more importantly, the consideration of the readers themselves.  Put slightly differently, I’d rather have a student skim a text or stop halfway through than be completely apathetic to it.  Apathy represents a kind of intellectual nihilism, while other strategies represent a more active choice, a kind of important agency.  What matters is not whether students read in the way that we think they should; what matters is what they do in response to the reading.  What matters is what kind of reader they become, and becoming a reader requires space to make real-deal choices about not only what to read, but also how to read and how much to read of texts they encounter.  This isn’t disdain, disrespect, or disengagement, but, instead, it’s the opposite.  Later in An Urgency of Teachers, Stommel quotes Mark Sample: “what is broken is also twisted and beautiful.”  Breaking our deeply held notions of what it means to read or be a reader may make room for greater discovery even in the uncertainty of ceding control that we seek so desperately to regain through methods like pseudoassessment.  As Stommel writes, we need to find ways to have honest conversations around systemic and structural common sense that we refuse to replicate in our own classes.

I used to have language in my syllabus that mirrored my department’s culture that likened coming to class without having fully read as cheating and thievery; you’re riding the coattails of someone else’s work, which is a phrase I think I actually used.  These statements were definitely inequitable and probably caused some students to shut down entirely. Embarrassingly, I gave myself license to disengage from those who weren’t reading, and, in doing so, gave them reason to disengage from our community of learners.  This not only robbed them of significant learning opportunities, it also denied our classroom of their voices.  Stommel’s co-author in An Urgency of Teachers, Sean Michael Morris, cites Seymour Papert:

Almost all experiments in purporting to implement progressive education have been disappointing because they simply did not go far enough in making the student the subject of the process rather than the object.

Since ditching the mandates to police reading, I’ve been working on passage-based assessments that allow students to participate in our discussions and our learning no matter where they are on their journey through the text. The goal here isn’t to see whether students have read every page, but, instead, to see how they make meaning from texts using critical theories central to analysis. More plainly, it’s a whole lot more about skills than it is about individual texts, which is a move that has created, believe it or not, even more engaged readers than before. On these assessments, students are asked to closely read a passage, annotating it, and, then, they’re given an open-ended prompt that they use their annotations and close reading to compose.

We can’t be in the business of silencing students in our classes, especially those that our educational systems and its attendant values have harmed and hurt and who might be text-averse when they come to us because of the shame they’ve felt previously. Creating readers won’t happen with grades and threats—students, when push comes to shove, probably don’t care about pseudoassessments and their outcomes beyond the fleeting moments they took them. What they might care about is thinking about what it means to read and be a reader in a way that allows them to participate in class, be fairly assessed on their skills, and rethink reading and what it means to be a reader.

A Critical, Relevant Challenge: Shared Vulnerability, Hope + 38 Tutors’ Mission to Close the Achievement Gap

Today, the Skyline Writing Center begins its seventh year with more new tutors, 31, than any single year since we opened.  These tutors, chosen from the largest applicant group we’ve ever had, are some of the most emotionally and academically intelligent students I’ve met during my 14 years in public education.  My incredible excitement to welcome these amazing students to our team is mixed with some undeniable nervousness because our purpose, our moral imperative—helping close Skyline’s persistent achievement gaps—is as urgent as ever, and we’re starting at the very beginning.  I know that our tutors, new and returning, are capable of helping our school community create more equitable learning conditions, but it’s incumbent upon me and the Writing Center’s student leadership team to ensure students are trained and ready to help in just a few short weeks.

With the urgent moral imperatives of the achievement gap demanding action, it would be easy to start our initial training session with loads of tutoring pedagogy and pages of writing center research to ensure that our tutors know everything scholars say writing center consultants need to know.  Honestly, I considered this strategy when I realized our team was facing its most significant turnover ever, and, after checking in with myself about our core values and beliefs, especially our commitment to equity and social justice, I decided on a completely different approach, one that I believe, ultimately, will be far more successful in helping us continue to make progress against achievement gaps in our school.

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Slide from Skyline Writing Center’s 2018-2019 Opening Day Presentation

To continue to make the significant progress against the achievement gaps that are part of our moral imperative, our tutors need to learn—and be comfortable with—sharing vulnerability with each other and the students they collaborate with daily on assignments. Our student feedback and perception data suggest that getting students to visit with tutors is often inhibited by their perception that our work is evaluative, putting an unfair burden on students seeking literacy support. Our tutor data also suggests that tutors, who often face imposter syndrome, are worried of losing credibility when they admit their mistakes, talk about learning setbacks, or say they don’t know an answer. That said, sharing vulnerability is an essential element of getting to students to use our services, so we must constantly train ourselves, primarily by being vulnerable together about the trials and tribulations of peer tutoring, to understand that acknowledging our own areas of improvement makes us stronger, not weaker, in the eyes of our collaborators.

Today, our tutors were given a prompt that compelled them to reveal something about themselves. They had to share that writing with three other tutors in the Writing Center. The prompts have nothing to do with school or Writing Center, but, in my mind, the emotional literacy skills they ask students to perform are central to the kind of sharing and relationship building between students that closing our achievement gaps require. This modeling and practice continued in the afternoon when we had Circle Time to talk about the hopes and insecurities we had after our first day of school.

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Sharing vulnerability and building relationships is an awesome start to closing the achievement gaps, but it’s also important that tutors believe that they and their classmates can learn and grow with proper support. The idea of a so-called “growth mindset” has gotten some blowback lately, and rightly so: a growth mindset doesn’t change the systemic injustices our most vulnerable students face every day. You can’t “grit” your way out of poverty or racism, and asking marginalized people to do so is as insulting as it is immoral. Moreover, growth mindset doesn’t mean telling everyone that they can do everything; they key is beginning with an asset-based approach and working from it to build transferrable skills and strategies. However, working within what Nancy Grimm calls a “pedagogy of hope” is really important to great tutoring that challenges structural inequities within schools and institutions to bring about a more equitable future. What we mean when we talk about a growth mindset in the Skyline Writing Center is that narratives of scarcity can be supplanted and replaced by truths of abundance. Everyone can learn, and if you’re coming to school—and taking the additional step of visiting the Writing Center—you definitely want to learn. When tutors (and teachers) fall into the thinking that some students can’t or don’t want to learn, the structures that enable to achievement gap to continue unabated remain.

In our training, students were asked to consider experiences in school where they struggled to learn an idea or concept and the resources and strategies they used or developed to eventually “get it.” The list of resources and strategies can be a helpful primer to unlocking the truths of abundance that outshine the narratives of scarcity.

When students elect to be a Writing Center tutor, they’re taking on the most challenging, critical, and relevant mission of their young educational careers: working together each and every day to close persistent achievement gaps in our school and in our community.  As Heather Lattimer shares in Real-World Literacies, the costs of not working for more equitable outcomes are far too high: 3,000 students drop out of high school everyday, mostly because they don’t have the literacy skills to keep up, 82% of inmates left high school, and 33% have fourth-grade literacy skills, and 70% of students who leave high school without the necessary literacy skills leave college without a degree or a certificate.  Equity is literacy, literacy is equity, and it’s on us.

Reading pedagogy, looking at tutoring models, and engaging in tutoring simulations are important parts of any training program, but without working toward shared vulnerability and a belief in the power of growth, the root causes of structural inequity will continue to exist. 

Today, then, our first training session had nothing and everything to do with tutoring simultaneously.

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