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Dedicated to Teachers

On the Podcast: Letting Students Lead with Their Writing with Heinemann Fellow Brian Melton

Photograph of a black, leather-bound journal with the words 'write ideas' on it. A pencil sits beside it.

Today on the podcast, we're handing the podcast over to Heinemann Fellow Brian Melton.

This is Brian's second episode on the podcast. Go back and listen to his first episode if you haven't heard it yet.

Brian currently teaches English and creative writing in Illinois, and oversees a slam poetry team. He believes in the power of conversation and self-reflection, and infuses these values into his practice as an educator and leader. Here's Brian with more on his project...


Below is a full transcript of the episode!


Brian: Writing for me was always a little like breathing. I started putting my own books together around the second grade, started writing poetry in middle school, and by the time I was in high school, I was writing my own short stories and some exceptionally poor lyrics for my band's original punk rock songs. Come to think of it, I don't even remember what my first essay was or my second. I do remember getting note after note about my use of passive voice even after my mom poured over my essays and various edits surrounding grammar and syntax. I was always less concerned with my academic writing than that of the writing I was doing in my own spare time. It wasn't until my junior research paper based on a novel of my choosing, which was Alice in Wonderland, that I truly felt curious enough to give academic writing more than a passing thought to simply earn a grade.

My name is Brian Melton and I've been on this journey this year to connect authentic writing and creativity to the ELA classroom. With Heinemann and the Heinmann fellows, I think that that journey has become something even larger. In this podcast today, we're going to explore some great questions surrounding authentic writing in the classroom. I've seen things change, and as a teacher in 2019, it's incredible to me the amount of emphasis that we put on the formulaic structured form of writing that was almost an afterthought when I was in high school. Standardized tests, common core, ELA teachers are almost exclusively focused on the literary analysis essay. I teach creative writing and it's a little sad that the biggest compliment I get from my senior kids in that class is that creative writing has reminded them of the power of their own writing and how that writing helps their sense of purpose, their sense of wellbeing and has renewed in a lot of ways their love of writing.

I suppose that's a great gift to give a group of seniors, but what about the students who are mired in that formulaic structure for the three years prior? So one of my goals in my high-demand action research project was to explore the ways that authentic writing could help my students open up their minds to interpretation and to see themselves as content creators rather than simply receptacles for my thoughts and ideas. I'll repeat my research question for those of you joining us for the first time, in what ways am I a shift away from whole class novels to a focus on music, art, poetry, and storytelling in the ELA classroom enable students self-expression and help them develop critical inquiry into the work of others? In today's podcast, we're going to speak with an expert in the field of authentic writing, the editor of the New York Times Learning Network, Katherine Schulten.

If you aren't familiar with all of the wonderful writing prompts and activities the Learning Network provides, you won't want to miss our discussion. Katherine has been extraordinarily helpful in my quest to enhance the voice of my students. I also spend some time with Vidhi Metta, a sophomore in my research group who has bloomed this year as a writer and a powerful thinker. Vidhi will discuss the ways that we as a class have worked to further our understanding of writing and how her consideration of audience has greatly impacted her work as a scholar. I hope you enjoy the podcast. I really thank you for joining us. Without further ado, Ms. Katherine Schulten.

All right. Well, thank you so much Katherine, for being a part of this podcast today with me. This is Katherine Schulten. She is the editor of the New York Times Learning Network. Katherine, I thought we'd start off with you just talking a little bit about your position and your role with the New York Times.

Katherine: Yes. As you said, I was the editor for 12 years. I have to say that I've just stepped down to part time, but I'll get to that in a minute. I was a high school teacher for 10 years in New York City public schools at a school called Murrow which is actually the single most diverse school in all of New York City. The whole time I was a teacher, I was a member of the New York City Writing Project. So huge shout-out to all local and national writing projects because that is what taught me how to teach and everything I believe about teaching and learning. Then I had twins in '97 and if you're doing the maths, I'm super old, yes. For the next nine years, I worked as a literacy consultant for the Writing Project and other people all over the city in what we call the New York CTE schools, Career and Technical Ed, so like schools of cosmetology, schools for plumbing, but all part of the public school system.

I had always done freelance writing on the side to help media companies with... many of which are based in New York of course, get their materials into classrooms. So I had done that for Time Magazine, for a whole bunch... for Scholastic, for a bunch of people. Then the Learning Network was invented in 1998, and because I had done that work, it's very small world let me tell you. I knew people who were starting it and I got involved from the minute basically it started as a freelance editor and writer. There was only one other editor and when she left she said, "Do you want my job?" Frankly, I was pretty happy as a literacy consultant, so I thought, hmmm, no, not really. But then I also thought, well you can't really say no to the New York times, so let me try this for a year.

Now we're going on 13 years, so obviously it worked out. But I have stepped down because I'm working on a book, which I'm not going to talk about much because it's not out there yet. But Michael Gonchar, who's my longtime deputy, is now the editor and I only work part time. But I think I'll be involved with Learning Network until I no longer work.

Brian: Congratulations on the book.

Katherine: Thank you. I will say the book is about student voice and draws on stuff from our site with my thoughts kind of about the conditions under which we get the great stuff we get from kids. That I will say, but you know how you don't want to talk about anything until it's a real thing? So I keep to myself.

Brian: Yeah, absolutely. Understood. Well, we can kind of pivot to that idea of student voice. And as you're writing and thinking about the importance of this particular issue, can we explore that topic a little bit with you and talk about the importance of student voice as you see it?

Katherine: Sure. I mean, let me give a little backstory on our site because it'll explain why this has become such a huge thing for us and this new la... I mean, I saw... Obviously as a classroom teacher and a literacy person, I had tons of thoughts about student voice, but being the editor of the site is a whole new perspective on it. The site, which as I said has been around since '98, used to be really just in the business of giving teachers lesson plans about the news quite frankly. But that was 20 years ago and we've really evolved to be a site where what we want is kids to grapple with what's happening in the world and not just... Obviously the Mueller report, we have a huge thing about that on our site right now. We always respond to front page news.

But we want kids to see themselves in the Times and see themselves in current events in general and have... I'm going to voice and choice. That little phrase didn't exist exactly when I was a teacher, but I love it so much because it's exactly what we try to do every day on the site, is have kids make choices about what they want to read and what they care about and almost what news they can use and then tell us about it. So our site has really changed. We do give out lesson plans still, sure, but a lot of what we do now is create forums for kids to come on and grapple with what's happening or with what they're interested in. We do that in a whole bunch of ways. One of them is that we ask a question every single day based on something that's been in the Times. It will sometimes be about important front page news that's controversial and we want kids to weigh in.

But often it'll be pulling stuff that really matters to their lives, like how should we spend senior year? Was a recent question because there was a whole article about maybe eliminating senior year or stuff about relationships that we pull from like the Modern Love column or things about their relationship with video games or the movies they watch or the books they read or whatever. We get thousands of kids around the world answering those questions. Because it's such a low stakes kind of writing, teachers just say, "Go on, take a question that interests you. We have thousands of these things." You can really hear real voice in that because it's not an essay they're writing. It's like, "Just respond to this question." We now weekly pick out our favorite answers that kids have given us.

Those are always ones that have real voice in them. Like you can hear a kid behind the answer and you can see why the kid cares about it and you can almost see the kid thinking in real time about tough issues. So, as editor of the site, I just realized that if there's not voice, it's just not interesting.

Brian: Yeah. I love the idea and one of the things that I grapple with, I know, as a teacher, is making that shift from the formulaic writing that comes along with the four-paragraph, five-paragraph essay and writing towards a specific prompt that has been given to you by a teacher to what you're talking about, which seems to me a much more authentic space. How might we begin, do you think, in your opinion, shift our students from being stuck to be able to open up and experiment with writing in ways that maybe they aren't doing in their... inauthentic sort of classroom writing?

Katherine: Yeah, I mean, look, I want to say as a kind of surround to everything I'm going to say today, that I've been out of the classroom myself now for 13 years, but I am such a Twitter-holic. I mean, I think I follow 6,000 people or something. It's mayhem. It's messing with my relationships. I follow half journalists and half teachers because I kind of straddle those two worlds, right? I cannot tell you how much I have learned in the last... I think I've been on Twitter maybe 10 years now. Just watching teachers on Twitter kind of thinking in real time about these real questions that you're asking, I mean, that really pushes us to change what we do on the Learning Network because we start to see cool stuff happening out in the world, and teachers... And I have to say, a lot of them are Heinemann fellows, like the Disrupt Text people, my God! How much have they caused me to rethink everything in the last year?

Anyway, that's a side, now to Heinmann. Props to you, however you pick people, you've done a great job. But I just want to say that I feel like there's so much great experimentation around that's going on right now. We asked teachers recently why they brought their kids to our site. Number one answer, of course, is that need for authentic audience. In the process of that, teachers just gave us so many good reasons why it's important to find authentic audiences and in the live session, shared so many different ways that they do that from really, really simple things like hanging stuff up in a school hallway or putting it on the school site or your blog or whatever to writing letters to the editor of a local paper, working for the school newspaper, talking to the school board, solving real world problems, all those things.

That just kind of thrill me when I read about them in my cubicle, not with students anymore, and just see the ways in which the message seems to have kind of gotten out to teachers that writing for that audience of one, that teacher, that's... what is that? I mean, that's fine for some things, but I will say as somebody who... I've twins who are graduating college and when they were going through the college process, it dawned on me that for my kids it was probably the first time that they were writing for a real audience. What a shame, right?

That is such a high stakes way for it to be the first time you're writing for real audience, for your college application. My God, you should've had so much more practice before that, with figuring out the audience and the purpose and all that before you are doing it in a way that kind of makes or breaks your college application.

Brian: That's important. I teach freshmen and sophomores and it's interesting to watch as the students come in their ninth grade year, they have such a fear of writing. If I ask them to write me a paragraph, they give a sentence and then they stop. And that's day one. We always start with writing day one because I need to see them push themselves to... or where they stop in their process. Then you spend the entire year sort of building up the foundation material and then sophomore year they cling to that like a life raft.

Katherine: Right. Yeah.

Brian: When you start to ask them to think outside of, "Well, let's talk about what a hook will actually do and how we can write an authentic hook," they're used to the formula by then and that's what they sort of latch on to. So that's one of the reasons why I love use utilizing the Learning Network, is to give them real authentic prompts and then push them often to try to send their work out there to other sites and to consider their audience and I think that that's incredibly important. Part of my research question is the shift away maybe from the whole class novel to where I can incorporate more art, more music, more poetry and simply just creative expression because I believe that that creative expression will then help them see themselves as authentic writers and authentic readers so that they are able to validate their own understanding of a text and then they can use that in their written word. What kind of support does the New York Times Learning Network provide for educators looking to maybe make a similar shift?

Katherine: Well, it's funny, I have quite a few answers. There's this teacher that we work with lots of times and she actually presented with us at MCTCE. Her name is Krista Forester. She is down in Houston and she teaches at a private school there. She told me on the phone recently that what the learning network does for her among... besides obvious stuff like the authentic audience and we have all these contests, which I'll get to in a second, which pries all kinds of genres of creative expression. But she said, "Listen, when I need to differentiate my classroom, the Learning Network and all the other places that students can publish real work these days," and they are many and growing, right? "That is a way to do it. I see a kid who wants to do something that's more visual. So there's film contest for him.

I see a kid who's got an argument he really wants to explore and you guys have a student editorial contest, and just having the resources of the internet, including The Learning Network, and again, all these other sites, she says, "Allows me to know what's available and to send these kids out." She actually does this amazing thing, which is for a grade every semester she invites her kids to send something out into the world, and they can pick what and where. They just have to prove they did it. She said it's just a huge surprise every semester where kids send stuff, what kind of response they get, and it's a whole new way for them to see themselves because they've put their ideas up against the marketplace of ideas. I don't know how else to put it, but they have a real audience judging their stuff and it gives them a kind of validation that nothing else ever has because school is school. Kids all know to some level when it's a game and when it's authentic, right?

Then as another teacher wisely said to us, for many of the kids she works with, their validation is school or their parents and both are fraught. The parents are either super critical or insanely supportive and everything the kid does is great, but sending it out into the world along with the work of other kids, is something they consider super legitimate and not fraught with any of that personal stuff. They're not known to these people. Their work has to stand for itself. I thought that both of those were well-put.

Brian: I think that that's a culture that you need to establish fairly early on with your students in the classroom, that taking those risks is an okay thing to do because I think our students see rejection in a different way than maybe you or I do, and that rejection comes from not only their peers in school, but social media. I find that there can often be a reluctance in students to send something out into the world because they just don't feel confident.

Katherine: That's funny too because that's a question I've asked a lot of teachers who've written for us or constantly enter our contests. I say, is it weird when one or two kids win and the others are rejected, or what does it feel like if none of them are chosen? I really probe this because as a former teacher sitting on the judging side now, there's some measure of like, oh, I want everyone to win. I love these kids. They all say no. They all say, first of all, it's kind of like they get that the competition's steep and like it's just an extra thing that they're doing. If somebody wins, they're thrilled.

They've also pointed out many times, and this goes to the safe essay, that it's often the kids that are not the front row sitters, the ones that everybody knows is going to get a straight A, those are often not the kids that do well in our contests, The Learning Network contests, because they often write or produce the safest work, right? They're like, "Oh, five paragraph essay? I got this. Yeah, thesis, end of the first paragraph, yeah, but kids who take chances are often quieter kids who aren't playing the game of school quite as hard is one way to put it. I didn't say this, this comes from teachers.

The other thing that they constantly tell us is that sending stuff out kind of helps you get used to rejection. It does feel really different to be rejected from kind of the faceless New York Times than it does to feel that from somebody you have a relationship with. Somehow it's less scary, it's just a institution, but that more often than not they get recognized in some way. Here again, I'll talk about the fact that we have a billion forums now on our site. We have all kinds of weekly conversations going and all kinds of ways for kids to be, quote, seen. We have interactive forums where they talk about photographs that have appeared in the Times or where they analyze graphs. We have adults who are moderators who call those kids out to say, "Good thinking, Mary," or whatever.

Then we have this thing where we, whatever comment they put on, other kids can comment on it or recommend it. It's not just coming from us, it's coming from their peers. Just that little bit of trying, just putting a comment out into the world in some way beyond your own classroom can often lead to you realizing that other people find it valuable and interesting. You know what that does for a writer.

Brian: Repetition of rejection for me was a huge learning opportunity.

Katherine: Interesting.

Brian: I think if I had had the opportunities that a high school student is given these days to write more authentically, because when I was in high school, we never had ... You could submit to a contest or something like that, but there was a whole arduous like mailing process.

Katherine: Right.

Brian: There was no click of a button.

Katherine: You had to find a stamp.

Brian: Right? You had to print it out, you had to do all sorts of different things just to get your work into somebody else's hands. Now with the click of a button you are instantly able to get that kind of feedback. The opportunity to express yourself when I was growing up is not the same as it is today, but I do think that fear is much greater. The stakes seem somewhat higher even though they'll Instagram everything they do during their day and Snapchat it all out by the end of the afternoon.

Katherine: Right. Yeah, they have such a different ... I mean, and this is something where I feel like teachers are the experts and I don't know much except having my own kids, but it's such a crazy thing that they're so out there publicly all day, every day, but the fear of rejection is growing even ... Oh, maybe it's part and parcel of it because you see what happens if some things doesn't meet the pleasure of the public on social media. I don't know. They're so rehearsed in audience and purpose in some ways because they spend all day thinking about it for themselves, and yet in school, I don't know, it's just still divorced from how they think about real writing. I mean, there's all this research that show kids are composing more than ever, writing more than ever because of text and social media, but it's like it's a different process than what happens at your desk in school somehow.

Brian: I'm trying to make this practical for somebody who's thinking like, "How might this look in my classroom?" Do you see a teacher themselves submitting large, maybe their entire class or two classes full to you, or is that something that you're getting the responses directly from the students?

Katherine: It's funny, we sit in a newsroom, right? There's no other thing like The Learning Network in any American newspaper.

If there is anything like it, it's on the business side and it's a kind of circulation endeavor. Ours is really very free from that. We don't have anybody looking over our shoulder. We have total editorial control, et cetera, but what comes with that is we don't have a ton of data. We just only know what we see coming in from comments or social media or email or that kind of thing. I'm speculating here from anecdotally what I've been told over the years, but what I think happens is that a lot of teachers use us as a kind of choice and voice alternative, right?

We'll see schools like the school Masterman in Philadelphia loves our student opinion questions. That's we ask a question a day, right? Over the week, we'll hear on all five questions, one a day, from a variety of those kids who are obviously picking the one that they thought was most interesting and they'll respond and then they'll go across and look at what other kids have responded to other questions and respond to those. That's a perfect use of our site as far as we're concerned. We love it because they're talking not just to each other, but they're picking what they're interested in. They're talking to each other, but they're also talking to kids globally who are answering the same question and responding to them and that's fantastic.

Another use of our site is people who just love particular features like our most popular one is easily this Monday feature, what's going on in this picture, because it's so simple. We just strip a really intriguing Times photo of its caption, kids come on from all over the world, like over 1000, and start saying, what's going on in this picture? What do you see that makes you say that? What more can you find? Kids unearth amazing things in these photos and make great speculative guesses that they can back up with evidence. Some people just come to the site to use that, right?

Teachers use it in all different kinds of ways, but what we've heard often, I guess like maybe the most common use of our site is we put out a contest calendar every August. That is every contest we're going to run throughout the year and we run this year, eight of them, sometimes seven, sometimes nine, and they are all across genres. Some of them ask for kids to make films. Some of them are poems, some are essays, some are editorial cartoons, that kind of thing. Many, many teachers have told us, "Okay, I know you're going to ask for editorials from February to March so that's when I'm teaching argumentative writing because it's going to culminate in them sending editorials to you." Boy, I mean, we love that. That's kind of a dream that anybody would move their curriculum around to respond to our contest. We are super honored to play that role.

Brian: Say a teacher is listening and they are curious and interested in going and moving in this direction and say, "Hey, I want to try some things out," but they're concerned with the amount of time that maybe they can give up in class or the district assessments that they may have to work towards at the end of every year. What might you say to them about the importance of utilizing something like The Learning Network in their classroom?

Katherine: It's not that hard to find a quick, easy way to match something to your curriculum. I'll say two things. One, there's an amazing teacher in New Jersey, Sarah Gross, @TheReadingZone on Twitter, who teaches with the Times every single day because as she says, and has done for years, she just devotes about 10 minutes or 15 minutes at the beginning of class to it. She does teach English, yes, but it's ninth grade and she says it teaches so many things. Kids get to choose what they want to read. The vocabulary level is really high. It exposes them to tons of content that builds background knowledge across subject areas. It's voice and choice in the sense that kids pick what they want and they sometimes do writing around it. She's managed to work it in just as a quick, quick thing every day.

Now she's amazing and I don't know anyone else who's done that and she just really believes in it. She also has a subscription to the print paper, but I would say knowing ahead of time the predictable things that we're going to do every year, like our contests, or what's going on in this graph, that's a Wednesday discussion that we have, if you're trying to teach kids how to read infographics, which appear on like every standardized test there is, so maybe you don't have time that Wednesday, but we have a whole bank of them. Our site's always open and it's free. It's outside the paywall for everything but lesson plans. It's a free way into the New York Times. As long as you come from our site, any related Times material is then free to you. You can kind of look over our very predictable options and just see what fits with your curriculum anyway.

The final thing I'll say is that we do have one contest every December to January, just as the semester's ending. That's our connections contest where we say, listen, anything you studied the semester, connect it to anything in the news you want and tell us why. Any teacher could use that, right? A lot of teachers use it as a sort of end of semester assessment, but that one assignment shouldn't take that long. You can just assign it as an extra credit thing if you want, but the stuff we get from it is amazing.

The connections kids make, my single favorite ever just because it was wacky, was last year when a girl connected the me too movement with Newton's laws of motion, an object in motion will remain in motion or whatever, talking about the snowball effect and how all of a sudden all these people came out because they felt safe to talk. I mean, what? Just to make that kind of connection, and the ones we honor are all that creative, but this probably took like one day in a class to say, "Let's brainstorm this and then if you want to turn it in, go ahead."

Brian: I just want to thank you so much for your time today, Katherine. I know that you've got kiddos at home, you've got a lot of stuff you want to do over your weekend, so I thank you so much for taking a little bit of time today to sort of share your insight with us.

Katherine: Oh, sure. I thank you for asking. I hope I didn't just bombard you. Thank you Brian. Anything else I can do, let me know.

Brian: I will do that. Thank you very much, Katherine Schulten of the New York Times.

Writing for authentic audiences is such an important part of what we do in the ELA classroom, in all of our classrooms, as we're trying to incorporate more chances for our students to use their voice to help change and navigate the world. I'd love to thank Katherine Schulten for taking time out of her extremely busy schedule to talk with me. If you want more information, the easiest way to do it is to just google The Learning Network at New York Times. The actual address is NYTimes.com\section\learning. Really just take advantage of the opportunity to use what the New York Times has done to enhance the voice of your students in the classroom.

Moving on, I'm going to speak with somebody who has grown very near and dear to my research and my voice as a teacher, a young woman by the name of Vidhi Mehta. We're talking with one of my students Vidhi, who is going to give you a little brief introduction and we're going to focus a lot of our discussion today on the practice of writing in the English class and sort of the journey that we've been on all year.

Vidhi: My name is Vidhi. I'm a sophomore in High School.

Brian: We've been on this journey together. I want you to kind of reflect a little bit on what might have taken place prior in your writing experience and what sort of ideas you had about writing, especially of the academic kind, when you first sat down in the class.

Vidhi: Writing, for me previously, was a very like sort of high stress affair. I think it was filled with a lot of uncertainty and I think it's still sort of is, but writing is very subjective and I think I was terrified of that. My approach to it was very formulaic. I think that's how I've been taught and so that's what I sort of did, but I think there was also a lot of ... Even with the formula, there was a lot of uncertainty. Generally speaking, I hated writing. I don't know if I was bad at it. It was just because I didn't like the uncertainty to it. I thought that was kind of stressful and I feel like I'm not alone, but yeah, it wasn't a pleasant affair.

Brian: As far as the stress is concerned, where do you think that stress, the uncertainty, where does that derive from?

Vidhi: I think every teacher sort of has a way of grading. I remember last year, students from different classes, we would compare our essays and one student would be like, "He would never allow that." I was like, "Well, my teacher told me to put it in." I think every teacher has a different way of grading. I find that students generally feel like, like at the beginning of class, I have to figure out how to write in a way that my teacher will like.

Not necessarily like, "How do I become a better writer?" But more like, "How do I become a writer that my teacher will grade well?" And so, I think there's a lot of uncertainty. Writing is tough anyway because there's nothing like... You can't objectively say something is good. And it doesn't help that a teacher's perspective may affect your grade. I think a lot of it's based around grades and that kind of deal. But I think a lot of students like a very cut-and-dry sort of approach. Like you write a sentence and then, or like you write this thing but it doesn't always work out.

Brian: I think what I hear you saying here is that the audience, the audience changes from teacher to teacher. And your aim is to write in the way that the audience is going to... which is going to produce the best results of the audience. And if the audience is in an academic writing or at least in writing that we're doing in high school, a majority of our audience is always the teacher. But you've written in a lot of different ways this year through this class but also in your work with me in the poetry slam where your audience has shifted and changed. Where you're not writing to me, I don't really care that you're writing to me. I want you to write to the New York Times. Or you're writing in poetry slam, you're writing for the audience that's sitting in front of you, or you're writing just to write yourself. How has that shift in audience helped your writing?

Vidhi: I think I've developed a sort of new approach in sort of ignoring the, I mean, audience is a very important part of writing. But I think for poetry or for that New York Times article, I will definitely shift my language and that kind of deal. But I think the content itself, I really think have reached a point where I'm not necessarily picking content that I know that will get me favor or something. I'm picking stuff that I actually like. Like now that I'm writing to my peers. And for poetry, I'm writing to other poets. I think that now I want to write something that in the end that I guess other people like but also that I like, something that I'm proud of, as opposed to writing something for the sake of getting good reaction from the audience.

Brian: Right? Especially when that audience is the teacher who you're only going to have in that one particular time, that moment in time in your life and then you're going to move to another class. Where you're going to get another teacher for just that moment in time in your life and you're constantly trying to see what pleases them. But I think one of the things that I believe as a writer, and I think one of the things that I've tried to push onto all of my students is that if you're not writing to make yourself happy, then what's the point? If you're not interested in what you're writing, then you're just going through some sort of mindless exercise, you know what I mean? And at the end of the day, it should be about more of what we're interested in. Can you think of just the assignments that we've done or anything like that? Is there something that stood out to you maybe as a turning point in that particular journey?

Vidhi: So I guess we wrote our Taming of the Shrew essay. And I think it was like a partner essay. And I think it was a lot of points and there wasn't completely like there was a prompt. But a lot of it didn't necessarily have a form to it. And we ended up doing well on it. But I guess that's besides the point, after reading back on it, I was like, not only did I like what I wrote but I think that Taming of the Shrew essay was the point where I kind of branched out in a way that felt more scholarly or, I don't know, adult. And then also, there was things like poetry. I think when I did slam, I had to present to quite a few people, a very diverse audience. I mean, I was presenting my peers, I was presenting to other poets, I was presenting to teachers. And I think as I did that, I wanted it to be something that anybody could be interested in.

Brian: The topic that she did wind up choosing for this piece that she has performed not only in front of basically the entire school but also at Louder Than A Bomb, which is the largest youth poetry slam in the country that is, it happens in Chicago every February. That topic was on sexual harassment in the schools. And so, what Vidhi did was sort of put that into a poem. So what I think Vidhi is, what you're saying is that through the poetry, you were taking more and more ownership over the content that you were creating.

And I think that for when she's talking about The Taming of the Shrew essay, one of the things that I tried to accomplish during The Taming of the Shrew is I divided, basically asked the question of all of the students, is Shakespeare in Taming of the Shrew, is Shakespeare sexist? Is this a sexist play? And you either agreed with the fact that it is or you disagreed with that. And either argument could be supported by multiple interpretations. It can be picked up by the evidence in not only the text but also in critical theory.

And so that began us to start to think about like, "How can we own our own interpretations of these works?" Instead of being told by a teacher, "Well, this is a feminist play" or "this is a feminist book" or "this is" whatever, I want the students to sort of own that interpretation. And so what that culminated in at the end of the year with our Wuthering Heights essay, and I'll let Vidhi speak to that here in a second, was that I gave them a promptless essay. And I said, "You need to do the work of a scholar and find your own understanding of the text and go find secondary sources that support your understanding. And you need to own this, this analysis. You need to own this paper in much of the same way that we might own our work through poetry or any sort of personal narrative or anything that we might just be writing for ourselves."

Brian: Can you speak to me about that process a little bit and sort of maybe your hesitation, maybe, if you had been told that you were given a promptless essay at the beginning of the year, and do you feel that maybe you were prepared for that kind of assignment by the end of it?

Vidhi: I think that if I had been given a promptless essay, I would have freaked out. Although I feel like when I got the assignment, I think we sort of dipped our toes into it. And I think we were like, you were getting to the promptless kind of thing and that Wuthering Heights was that final culminating assignment?

Brian: Yeah. I think that ultimately, and Vidhi knows this, but I'll just sort of repeat kind of what my hypothesis has been through this entire journey, is that it is that by taking more ownership over our interpretations, by using not only our creative work, but really evaluating critically the work of others and putting those two things together, by taking ownership of our own ability to write, writing for authentic audiences, writing for people that aren't just the teacher at the front of the room, and writing more for ourselves through that creative place. I think through that we can become more reflective on the work that we've been given.

So if we're given Wuthering Heights, we've done all the work leading up to that and we can look for those themes, unpack those themes as educated scholars. And then base our response to those themes on the things that we're interested in. That's liberating. At the end of the day, that lets us move into other spaces with other books. Those are skills that can transfer anything that you're given next year. You're able to kind of critically look at those things without the help of the teacher, which is ultimately the most important thing. I guess just summarizing, as you move forward to next year, maybe what are some major takeaways? Or you're going to have in here, you're going to have, I would hope, thousands of teachers listening to this particular podcast. So, if you were to talk to teachers of English language arts, other secondary English teachers, what can they do to help their students become better writers?

Vidhi: I guess guide them into a position without restrictions. I think guide them to a point in becoming confident about the writing. I think most kids hate writing because of that uncertainty, like in a math assignment or in a science assignment. I think, generally speaking, there's a finite number of answers. It's a very yes or no kind of process. But writing isn't like that. And I think that kids need to be taught to embrace the fact that it's not a yes or no process. It's something that requires, I think, students should be given a little bit of autonomy and ability to sort of think for themselves. Not necessarily dropped into it but sort of eased into a position where they can get comfortable in their writing and get comfortable knowing that they can explore something different. It's a lot easier to write when you're confident about it. And I think that's, I guess, the most important part, just to encourage independent thought.

Brian: What you're talking about is a buzz word that I've used before, I don't know if necessarily in this class, but it's called inquiry. And that is in student-driven inquiry, in students being the ones to guide their own instruction in their own... letting their curiosity dictate what it is that they're producing for you and showing you how they've learned. And in a way of a promptless essay. I mean that is the ultimate to me sort of this invitation into inquiry is that I started it with Lord of the Flies at the beginning of the year is like focusing on something that you see. And we're going to track that. You're going to tell me exactly what that is. Then at the end of this, with Wuthering Heights, it's like what of the 1700 things that we've been talking about, what ultimately is the most interesting to you?

Right? And how can we put together a paper that is interesting to us, generated on research that is interesting to other people? And we can put that all together in writing that doesn't necessarily have to look like a five-paragraph essay or formulaic. Or if you need two pieces of support, use two pieces of support. If we have to start to let go of our need as teachers to micromanage every element of the writing process, open up to a larger audience for the students so they'd see themselves and their interests reflected in the work that they're doing. And I think ultimately, we'll prepare our students to be better writers in the future and maybe at some point actually like it.

All right, well, we're going to wrap it up. Vidhi, thank you so much for taking the time.

Vidhi: Thank you. Or You're welcome?

Brian: Yeah, both.

Authentic writing is such an important part of what we need to do in our classrooms to help enable our students to see themselves as content producers. To see their work is valuable not only to the class but to the world outside of our buildings. Our kids have access to all sorts of channels of communication. And we seem to stifle that when they get into the classroom. We need to be looking for those authentic ways to help students like Vidhi take what they already have, which is an incredible insight into the world and help them transfer that into the written word. And it has only increased her ability to be confident, to be assertive, and to engage in the world in really unique and interesting ways. And I can't wait to see what she does over the next couple of years as a scholar and a poet.

I want to thank both of my guests today, Katherine Shelton. I want to thank Vidhi Mehta for taking time out of their days. I'd like to thank Heinemann for giving me this platform and a way to engage in action research that's really redefined who I am as an educator. I really had a great time putting these past couple of podcasts together. I'm going to be doing a little bit of writing over the summer, kind of to follow up and help put a bow on the end of this package that has been this entire year-long search in response to my action research question. And please look forward to more podcasts as we move into next year from not only myself but from all of my other Heinemann fellows. Thank you so much for listening. Have a wonderful rest of your day.


Learn more about the Heinemann Fellows and their work at Heinemann.com

Read More from the Heinemann Fellows

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brianmeltonBrian J. Melton started his career in radio, journalism, and public relations. He integrates the experiences from his first career into his current role as an English and Creative Writing teacher at Glenbard North High School in Carol Stream, IL. He also advises a slam poetry team, who in 2017 performed at the Louder Than A Bomb youth competition. Brian believes in the power of conversation and self-reflection and infuses these values into his practice as an educator and leader. You can follow him on Twitter @Beezy_Melt

Topics: Heinemann Fellows, Podcast, Student Writing, Writing, Heinemann Podcast, Brian Melton

Date Published: 09/19/19

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