Upstanders: How to Engage Middle School Hearts and Minds with Inquiry is a new book from Harvey “Smokey” Daniels (@smokeylit) and Sara Ahmed (@SaraKAhmed). Smokey is your guide to Sara’s classroom. Together they’ll show you exactly how Sara uses inquiry to turn required curricular topics into questions so fascinating that young adolescents can’t resist investigating them. In our Upstanders blog series, Sara and Smokey will highlight topics in the book related to middle school and helping kids go from bystanders to Upstanders. In this blog, Sara gives an example of how to engage students to solve a problem. This blog is a selection written for the book.
Working with (Not Against) Adolescent Development
Written by Harvey "Smokey" Daniels & Sara K. Ahmed
Unpaired shoes are strewn about the room. Backpacks are open with folders sprawling out onto the floor. Hoodies are thrown over backs of chairs haphazardly, cascading down to the floor. Magazines and novels are everywhere—in the hands of kids, on their bellies, under their feet, under the desks. Water bottles lie on their sides, condensation soaking homework. The kids are at peace, little angels reading independently in their happy place. I am boiling over with frustration after I trip over my third and final backpack.
Rather than interrupting their Zone, I take some deep breaths. I have already tried to institute the rule that they need to line their shoes up along the wall and their backpacks need to be under their desks. That worked for four days. There has to be a solution to this, I think. I am very open with communicating to them when I am frustrated and invite them to do the same; but when I have reached my limit, it is not the time.
The next day, after our soft start, I bring the kids to the rug for a chat.
“Guys, I want you to look at the room for a second and talk to me about why I might be frustrated.”
They look around and there are some blank stares from kids who accept this kind of mess as normal. A few of the kids who actively try to keep their space clean notice that there is stuff everywhere. They point out the shoes, the bags, and the magazines that are perpetually in the wrong place.
I affirm their keen observations and then explain to them that I am tripping over things, they are tripping over things, and that when guests come to our classroom, I have to warn them of the obstacle course they face.
“I need to let you guys in on a little secret.” I pull up a colorful map of the human brain on the doc camera and hand out a paper copy to each kid. “Your brain is part superhero power and part kryptonite.” (We read a Superman book at the beginning of the year.) “It is pretty awesome because you have something that I and most adults don’t have anymore: you have an amazing capacity for strong emotions because this part of your brain, the amygdala, is more dominant than the amygdala in adults’ brains. This enables you to have amazing emotional responses, and it even helps you really understand the characters and people in history that we read about. It may be why you feel extra sensitive to people and events sometimes, but makes for you being a great person too because you are so caring. It’s awesome!”
Crickets… I suddenly forget why I am explaining any of this to them. It would be much easier to just yell at them.
“The kryptonite part, though, is your frontal cortex, this part on the diagram, and it is still developing. This is the part of your brain that allows you to slow down and think about your actions, like where you are putting things, and be a little more aware of your space.
“I posted a link to our Edmodo page about these parts of the brain. I am going to give you some time back at your desks to research the amygdala and the cortex and figure out what they mean to you. On the brain maps you just labeled, write down two or three characteristics of each part, like a caption right next to it. We will meet back here in a few minutes.”
A few minutes later, back on the rug, we share our findings and fill out our brains together. They are pretty excited to have more excuses as to why they are tripping over their own two feet, why there is a trail of debris and equipment behind them everywhere they go, and why they lose their things every second.
“So, my initial frustration with you guys has been tamed by this new knowledge we all have, but this just means we all need to work a little harder to keep this a safe space for everyone. We have to work double hard to be aware of our things and how we are actually sharing the classroom with others in our community. We want to be our best selves all the time, so we all need to pitch in with this. Can you try to override your amygdalas a little?”
There’s a cheerful chorus of, “Sure, Ms. Ahmed,” and on we go. My expectations are realistic—I know progress will be measurable but modest.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Sara K. Ahmed has taught in urban, suburban, public, independent, and international schools. Harvey "Smokey" Daniels has been a city and suburban classroom teacher and college professor, and now works as a national consultant and author on literacy education.
In his new book, Reading Projects Reimagined, veteran teacher and author Dan Feigelson raises an important question about the larger goal of reading instruction: while it’s our job as reading teachers to introduce students to new ideas and comprehension strategies, shouldn’t we also teach them to come up with their own ideas – without teacher prompting? In the book, Feigelson shows us how conference-based, individual reading projects help students learn how to think for themselves. Today's blog is an excerpt from Reading Projects Reimagined. (Click here to read Dan Feigelson's previous blog on helping kids expand their own ideas.)
Chess, Jazz, and Reading
Written by Dan Feigelson
Professional chess players compete. They need to be acutely aware of each move in the game, not only in the moment, but also to anticipate what may happen next. Since every match is different, chess players must pay attention to what is going on here and now, while keeping in mind strategies that worked in the past. They can’t follow scripts. “I missed the strongest move . . .” Grandmaster Garry Kasparov reflected after a rare loss. “I was so entranced by my vision of the gold at the end of this rainbow that I stopped looking around as I approached it.”
Jazz musicians improvise. They need to be sensitive to what the band is doing behind them, to the mood in the room—not to mention the structure, harmony, and feeling of the song. Since each performance is a bit different, jazz soloists must be listening and reacting all the time. The best ones never play a song exactly the same way twice. “I can’t stand to sing the same song the same way two nights in a row,” Billie Holiday famously claimed. “If you can, then it ain’t music, it’s close order drill, or exercise or yodeling or something, not music.”
Clearly, the magical moments in any field are the ones where we invent things we never thought of before—and they turn out to be exactly right. But no one can count on this happening all the time.
Chess players may not follow scripts, but they do remember past situations. They mix and match strategies encountered before in order to decide how to move forward in each new game. “Chess masters are known for their remarkable memory for the pieces on a chessboard. But it’s not because people with photographic memories become chess masters,” explains Steven Pinker. “The masters are no better than beginners when remembering a board of randomly arranged pieces. Their memory captures meaningful relations among the pieces, such as threats and defenses, not just their distribution in space.” In other words, there are certain setups that occur in many games. The key to being “spontaneous” in chess is knowing which past scenarios may apply to a new situation, and when to apply them.
Similarly, while a jazz musician strives to play something unique in every solo, most have set melodic phrases, or “crips,” to draw on as a starting point. Often it is not the actual melodies that are new, but the way they are put together. “I’ve found,” remarked master saxophonist John Coltrane, “that you’ve got to look back at the old things and see them in a new light.” When horn players encounter a predictable song structure—a slow blues or a bright, up-tempo AABA swing tune—they mix and match what they already know to create something original.
It is not so different in the teaching of reading. Developing conference-based reading projects involves listening carefully to what students say about a text, and helping them name an idea worth following. On the surface, it would seem this is not something a teacher can plan for—after all, each child is unique. Moreover, students in a given class may be reading different texts.
The truth is that although no two children are exactly alike, we can often predict directions that a conference with a particular age reader may go. Fourth-grade teachers notice patterns in the sorts of things their nine-year-olds think about as they read; a sixth-grade teacher, like it or not, begins to anticipate the comments of her eleven-year-olds. Some of these conference types have to do with the developmental level, and some are specific to a particular group of students.
Putting knowledge of an age group together with end-year-end expectations for each grade, it is possible to go into a conference with some idea of possible directions—and be ready to mix and match them, when appropriate, for the individual child. Like a jazz soloist or professional chess player, over time a reading teacher may develop a repertoire of “go-to” conferences—or “crips”—to fall back on when a brand new idea is not forthcoming.
In author Dan Feigelson's new book, Reading Projects Reimagined, Feigelson shows us how conference-based, individual reading projects help students learn to think for themselves. Feigelson raises an important question about the larger goal of reading instruction: while it’s our job as reading teachers to introduce students to new ideas and comprehension strategies, shouldn’t we also teach them to come up with their own ideas? In today’s blog, Feigelson uses a conversation with a 5th grader to bring home the importance of allowing kids to do reading work based on their own thinking.
Helping Kids Expand their Own Ideas
Written by Dan Feigelson
Fifth grader Bronwen, like many upper elementary and middle school students, couldn’t get enough of dystopian novels. After going through the entire Hunger Games series in a week and a half, she had moved on to Lois Lowry’s The Giver. When I sat down for a conference with her and asked what she was noticing about the genre, she thought for a minute. “Well, they aren’t the easiest kind of books,” she finally responded. “You sort of have to know how to read them.” Intrigued, I asked her to say more. “Well, there are certain kinds of parts where you really have to stop and pay attention. Like here in Chapter 2—Jonah’s parents are telling him about the Ceremony of Twelve, where he’s going to find out what his job will be when he grows up.”
I was genuinely curious. “You said there were certain kinds of parts. What kind of part is that one?”
“Well, it’s like when there’s a big ceremony it’s usually really important. And also, Jonah’s parents are explaining it to him. I’ve noticed that when a parent or some older person explains something to a younger person that’s usually a big deal.”
After a couple more minutes of conversation, I suggested that her reading work for the next several days could be to put together a guide to dystopian novels, teaching other readers where they should stop and pay attention. Here’s what she came up with:
My conversation with Bronwen didn’t come out of nowhere. Most people who become teachers do so, at least in part, because they are fascinated with the way kids think. At one time or another each of us has marveled at some idiosyncratic piece of wisdom coming from the mind of a child.
Sadly, once we enter the hectic life of the classroom the ideas of students tend to take a back seat to standards and units of study. Schools and districts are under enormous pressure to achieve and to test well. This means kids must be able to perform at a level comparable to other children of the same age. A teacher who cares about the success of her students has little time to concentrate on the quirky ideas of each individual kid—especially when it comes to core academic subjects like reading.
It’s not that paying attention to literacy standards is a bad idea; wise curriculum is critical for a good reading class. Indeed, we wouldn’t be doing our job as educators if our fourth graders finished the year without knowing the stuff fourth graders are supposed to know. But the truth is most students are raised on a steady diet of clever comprehension questions formulated by teachers or commercial programs. The result is that kids—even those who do well on state tests—often have a hard time knowing how to approach a complex text when there is no one there telling them what to think about.
Over the last several years I’ve had the good fortune to explore this issue with many courageous teachers. We’ve realized that at least some of our time in reading class should be spent teaching kids to recognize, name, and extend their own ideas about what they read.
To do this well means getting back to that original passion all teachers share. We need to allow ourselves the time and space to be fascinated with what our students think. This means that when we ask them to comment on a story or an informational text, we listen for the most interesting part of what they say and ask them to say more about that rather than quickly going on to the next child—or jumping in with our own agenda. And lo and behold, when kids do reading work based on their own thinking they are more engaged, more independent, and willing to take on new challenges. The classroom takes on a very different buzz. The rigor goes up, not down—and it carries over into whole-class curriculum work as well.
In Reading Projects Reimagined I’ve laid out a series of steps for teachers to use in individual reading conferences so their students can engage in rigorous work based on their own thinking. My hope is that these sorts of conferences will help create joyful, independent student readers who are just as good at coming up with their own ideas about books as they are at answering questions on tests.
The third edition of Nancie Atwell’s In the Middle will be released on November 13th. In a special series, Nancie Atwell blogs for Heinemann Publishing every Wednesday. This week Nancie talks more about the Center for Teaching and Learning.
Beyond a K-8 workshop approach in writing, reading, and math, what else makes the Center for Teaching and Learning different?
My book and DVD Systems to Transform Your Classroom and School not only describes our methods and curricula but also a community, one with explicit traditions, expectations, and values. CTL teachers determined early on that the school was going to be a good place socially—that we would pay attention, intervene, and talk with kids about meanness, exclusivity, and hurt feelings. The worst things that happen to students happen at the hands of other children. In 1990, we instituted Vivian Paley’s overarching social rule: “You can’t way you can’t play.” Ever since, we’ve been working with children to help them resist the lures of exclusivity and best-friendism and figure out how to include others in their play.
Our day begins with a fifteen-minute, all-school morning meeting: a gathering of teachers, learners, and members of a community where we establish and review school policies, make announcements, sing a song, recite a poem, and work on social stuff. If there was an altercation on the playground the previous day at recess, teachers will bring it to morning meeting, help kids orchestrate a role-play of the situation, and then ask the rest of the school for suggestions about what to do next time. For example, if a game was already in progress, and a child wanted to join in, how could you include him or her?
CTL’s Bill of Rights provides more specific social guidelines. The first version was written by students and teachers soon after the school was founded. Ever since, every five years, we gather for a constitutional convention to consider each right, debate it, sometimes revise it, vote on it, and propose new rights. The Bill of Rights is our go-to school policy about what kids and teachers should be able to expect from one another. The DVD for Systems to Transform Your Classroom and School shows the first day of the most recent reconsideration of the CTL Bill of Rights: a serious, engaged conversation about what’s working at our school, what’s not, and what refinements will help all of us learn and teach better.
We’ve also been deliberate about creating traditions and inviting students to feel as if they belong to something that’s bigger than they are. We celebrate everyone’s birthday; memorize songs and poems; create silly, school-wide holidays; honor dozens of real holidays, secular and religious, with activities, discussions, and food; teach fourth graders to tutor kindergarten readers; provide kids in K-4 with overnight bookbags and assign every student, K-8, to read or be read to for half an hour every night; and collaborate across grade-level groups in science and history—our school-wide, spiral curriculum in these subjects means that every year everyone, K-8, is studying the same topics and concepts.
Our methods of assessment—of students and teachers—are another hallmark of CTL. Both begin with self-assessment, with students and teachers reflecting on where they’ve been and setting goals for themselves, in collaboration with their teachers in the case of children, and their peers in the case of faculty members.
Finally, instructional innovations, in the form of methods that transcend the workshop, play an integral role in making CTL an exemplary school and, we hope, a model for other educators. These include the way Helene Coffin uses fresh, contemporary poetry to teach kindergartners how to read, Ted DeMille’s students’ use of individual whiteboards across the curriculum, weekly roundtable discussions in Glenn Powers’ 5-6 reading workshop, and mathematician biographies, presentations, and celebrations in grades 7-8 with Katie Rittershaus.
So far, eight of CTL's graduates have been valedictorians and salutatorians of their high school classes. Our alums excel at such colleges and universities as Harvard, Dartmouth, Stanford, Carlton, Kenyon, Amherst, Bowdoin, Bates, and Cornell.
And they become competent, curious grown-ups who engage in work that matters to them. They know how to express themselves and their ideas, and they're a source of pride and wonder to their former teachers.
Heinemann Publishing’s In the Middle Wednesday blog series, written by Nancie Atwell, continues with Nancie taking about her student’s writing.
There’s a ton of writing by your students in the new edition of In the Middle Why was it important for you to include?
I included a lot of student writing—over two hundred pieces—because I think it will be of such help to teachers. I hope they’ll recognize in this rich evidence the practical benefits of writing workshop, as well as what’s possible for their own students as young people who use writing to consider, name, and change their worlds. Plus I hope they’ll teach with it—reproduce my students’ work to illustrate minilessons about topics, genres, and techniques of craft. Bottom line, I packed the book with student poetry, memoirs, reviews, essays, parodies, short stories, and original research because, in my own workshop, kids have been so inspired by models written by other kids.
I’ve learned that in addition to the superb published writing we read and analyze—a poem or two each day, book and film reviews from The New York Times, op ed pieces from the Boston Globe—it’s essential for adolescent writers to see how someone close to their age took an interest, experience, confusion, concern, or opinion and tried to shape it as literature. With kids, the subject matter matters. They get ideas and motivation from the topics of their peers, and they begin to learn what each genre might be good for.
Because I included in the book many before and after versions of student texts, I also hope the kids of other teachers will see and understand how particular approaches to drafting and revising can improve their own texts, from shifting to a first-person voice in a poem or memoir, to writing-off-the-page to generate specifics, to pushing for a “so what?” or theme.
Finally, I organize my writing workshop across the school year as a series of genre studies. When I teach a kind of writing, I begin by asking students to read examples of strong work from the genre and tease out criteria. These lists of genre features are essential—because kids have named them, they own them, and they try to write toward them.
While it’s important for kids to read the published work of professional authors and understand adult literary standards, I can’t begin to account for the power of the student models we analyze as part of each genre study. Somehow, genre features are more apparent in the work of peers—easier to tease out and more likely to be incorporated in the writing that emerges from the study. Voices raised by adolescents trying to craft the best writing they can are a powerful inspiration, motivation, and influence.
This blog post is part of In the Middle Wednesdays series. Please visit http://www.heinemann.com/InTheMiddle to learn more.