Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Check Out My Latest Post on Leadership & Implicit Bias in Schools at the ATLIS Blog

This year the Association of Technology Leaders in Independent Schools is hosting a series of seminars based on 4 essential books that all educational leaders should read. I'm hosting the first seminar on Mahzarin Banaji's and Anthony Greenwald's Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People.

The book explores how implicit bias shapes the perspectives and behaviors of all people, even those with the best intentions. It was written by the same people who developed the Implicit-Association Test at Harvard University. If you haven't taken one of the IATs, I strongly urge you to do so (they have tests on all sorts of topics, ranging from race and gender to things as innocuous as our biases towards insects).

Go here to read my blog post about the book, and if you're an ATLIS member, join us September 26 for a live webinar discussion of the book.

Monday, May 6, 2019

Reflections on Part Three of John Warner's Why They Can't Write, Pages 127-183 (Post #4) - A Guest Post by Lauren Carfa

At The Oakridge School, the entire English department is reading John Warner's Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities. Six of us have volunteered to post reflections on the book as we read and discuss the text. Lauren Carfa, 3rd grade ELA Instructor, volunteered to post the fourth reflection, which I've provided below.

Must It Be All or Nothing?

I have, embarrassingly, severely held up the progress of this blog! While life has truly been a big factor in this, I’ve come to realize some personal avoidance as well. I have really struggled through this book because I find myself often frustrated either with what Warner is suggesting, or with what I feel is a lack of completion. What I mean by that is I feel he keeps saying what is wrong, what not to do, and why, but that is it. I’m left wondering what he suggests as a better method.

I’ve tried to be very reflective as I read this text. I wrote at the beginning of my notes for this section that I am a product of the system that he is writing against. I was taught how to write for the purpose of taking and passing a standardized test and then moving to the next level and I wholeheartedly agree that, while I have some strong and helpful skills in writing, my education was narrow and lacking. Sadly, I didn’t find college to be any different at any of the institutions I took classes from. This personal experience lends me to feel supportive of many of Warner’s arguments about what students need. I wish my educational experience had been more about encouraging thought and creativity rather than teaching me to meet specific measures that may or may not bear fruit for me in life.

On page 129, Warner says “If you believe school is properly viewed as something like ancient Sparta...much of what I have to say...will sound like the rantings of a soft-hearted dreamer entirely divorced from the real world.” I keep coming back to this statement because I do think so much of what he says isn’t realistic. I don’t see how to merge his desires and aspirations for education with the reality of people. However, I don’t feel like I belong anywhere near the other option he offers. To me, this further illustrates what I keep feeling about so much of his opinion - there is no middle ground, just either or, us or them.

Further illustrating my struggle to sift through the reading, I know that all of the above isn’t fully reflective of my section that I am to represent, but rather my feelings on the book as whole.

In my section, Warner talks about the need for students to be fed and come to school well-rested, and also says, “...but can we agree that enhancing the intellectual, social, and emotional capacities of students is likely to lead to these [preparing children for higher education and careers] outcomes?” Perhaps this will be the conclusion of Warner as well, but the piece I often find to be missing in the field of education is relationship. I really believe relationship is what sets educators into the categories of someone who leads, produces, or brings up students who are successful, confident and capable, verses the educator that holds a place, or worse, stifles the love of learning. Warner keeps referring to the “tyranny of grades” and compliance. I think of tyranny of grades as nit-picking for mistakes, rather than looking at the whole picture of what the goal of the learning was. Regardless, he is right - grades and compliance can lead to defeated, apathetic children. I think that type of educator is one that lacks relationship. I believe that grades and compliance, inside relationship, can be healthy, beneficial, and provides a platform for success and growth. This also applies to writing. Grade, or don’t, but if you don’t have a relationship with your students they won’t grow and develop as a result of your efforts either way. In my opinion, this point is exemplified on page 141 when Warner lists five things that should be our goals. Goals 4 and 5 state:

4. We will end the tyranny of grades and replace them with self-assessment and reflection.

5. We will give teachers sufficient time, freedom, and resources to teach effectively. In return, they will be required to embrace the same ethos of self-assessment and reflection expected of students.

My question is, how do we then determine this standard is met? If there is not a relationship and there is no grade or requirement to demonstrate the expectation is being met, I envision a huge range of “success”. Don’t misunderstand, I do not think that everyone should turn out the same or have identical goals. I want to celebrate the individual. I mean in terms of teachers certain they are impacting students when students feel lost and uncertain, or students certain they are top of their class when they haven’t mastered basic skills. Self reflection is not a strength for everyone.

Finally, on page 153 Warner talks about the circumstances in which writers thrive and advocates giving students experiences and opportunities to make choice and build a practice and love for writing. This, I can get excited about. This, I can get behind. I just don’t understand why it must be completely separated from grades and structure. I see a classroom where both can hold space.

I chose to include the following pictures to demonstrate why I still hold value to giving children structure to work first within, and then out of. This first picture is of a writing piece done with little to no structure. The requirements were very broad and focused on minor things such as how to turn it in, to make sure you have your name, etc. The children had a choice of topic, including one that was free choice. There was no grade attached and no structure given to follow.

This next picture is of the same student's writing, during even the same week. This picture is a portion of their final copy pages for a project in which they had choice over the topic, but they had to follow a structure and use various tools practiced in class as part of their grade.

My expertise is not in English, though I am an “English Teacher”. My expertise is in children. I believe children need guidance and structure that comes from a loving person they respect. That is the place they grow from.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Reflections on Part Two of John Warner's Why They Can't Write, Pages 87-123 (Post #3) - A Guest Post by Claire Reddig

At The Oakridge School, the entire English department is reading John Warner's Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities. Six of us have volunteered to post reflections on the book as we read and discuss the text. Claire Reddig, MS English Instructor & Writing Specialist, volunteered to post the third reflection, which I've provided below.

My blog post is organized around quotations that I hope capture key issues discussed and provide room for debate and discussion

“In fact, contact between faculty and between students may be the most meaningful part of education” (90).

At Oakridge, we often hear about the importance of relationships and for good reason. This quotation caught my attention not because it is radical, but because I wonder how our writing instruction and feedback would be different if building relationships was our top priority. For me, I’d definitely make more room for writing conferences (I think I’d call them writing conversations) and I’d see my students’ writing as a chance to learn more about them as people and as writers. I’d probably be less critical if building a relationship was my primary goal and I’d give my students more room for creativity and autonomy. What about you?

“We should not be surprised that a school day could be alienating when it’s dominated by interacting with a screen and a computer running software specifically designed to highlight your deficiencies” (93).

This quotation caught my attention because we use a computer program called iXL in Middle School to teach grammar skills. The upside to iXL is it is personalized and it (in theory) teaches the students how to avoid mistakes. We began using iXL a few years ago when the grammar pendulum began swinging away from direct grammar instruction and we were searching for a middle ground. We also found that our students were at very different places when it came to grammar knowledge, so iXL allowed us personalize grammar instruction and free up more class time for reading comprehension and writing practice. As you can imagine, students are not fans of iXL and see it as a chore. I still see iXL as having a role in our MS classrooms but I would love to hear about other options...

“They have rarely been required to distill or synthesize an argument to its essence, a higher order task than mere comprehension. They are comfortable repeating what they’ve heard/​ read but less experienced in articulating what a text ‘means’” (99).

I think this quotation gets at the heart of so many issues in our classroom. I think we are giving our students less opportunities to push themselves as creative and critical thinkers in a safe and stress free environment, whether it is in writing or in conversations. If we want to see our students use complex analysis, they have to practice these skills in an arena that values trial and error. And we need to value and highlight this critical thinking when we see it in our students’ writing (even if the arguments contain grammar and spelling errors!)

“But the far more important part of the work is my trying to figure out why the error has been made so I can offer something to the student that allows them to return to their writing process in order to do better next time. Often, this is only achieved in consultation with the students themselves” (101).

I think this quotation goes back to my thinking about how my feedback about student writing would be different if relationships were my key goal. I think I would see myself as a teammate who is offering feedback in a non-threatening way and is instead offering suggestions and things to ponder rather than requirements.

“Those who hold on to the notion that students must learn the ‘basics’ of grammar before allowing writers to move on to the more difficult work of expressing ideas are denying those students access to experiences that make use want to learn to write. It is the equivalent of music students being confined to the study of sheet music, without ever being allowed to play an actual instrument” (108).

I have to admit, this quotation got me a little hot before I read the following quotation several pages later…

“This is not a declaration that anything goes or that students do not need to be instructed on writing good sentences, but from their earliest attempts at writing we must allow students to see that ‘proper’ expression is dependent on audience and occasion, and this means they must make informed decisions” (110).

For me, the key to successful writing and grammar instruction is to find a happy medium. We don’t “confine” our young writers to worksheets and practice in isolation, but we also don’t deprive them of direct instruction and feedback about grammar concepts in a stress free (read grade free) environment. I also really appreciate the reminder that purpose, audience, and format always matter when it come to writing.

“Unfortunately, we make many sacrifices on the altar of correctness, a practice that is surely exacerbated by testing and accountability systems that promulgate the illusion that there are right and wrong answers in the realm of reading and writing” (109).

This quotation brings me back to conversations Lauren and I have had on numerous occasions about what type of writing is “worthy” of public consumption. Do we need to make sure our students’ writing is free of all grammar and spelling errors before posting it in the hall or posting it to a blog or sharing it with an authentic audience?

“There are reasons why we don’t keep score and everyone gets in the game when children first start playing a sport” (109).

I’ll choose this quotation as my final one because one of the enduring points for me from this book so far is the need to grade less and give more freedom and grace to our student writers.

P.S. - I didn’t feel the need to reinforce the message on pages 113-123. It seems like I would be “preaching to the choir.” Feel free to share your favorite quotations from that section!

Monday, April 8, 2019

Reflections on Part Two of John Warner's Why They Can't Write, Pages 35-123 (Post #2) - A Guest Post by Stephen Hebert

At The Oakridge School, the entire English department is reading John Warner's Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities. Six of us have volunteered to post reflections on the book as we read and discuss the text. Stephen Hebert, AP Lang & American Lit. Instructor, volunteered to post the second reflection, which I've provided below.

A Recent Lesson in Atmospheric Conditions

This past week, I witnessed a disappointing phenomenon in my classes.

After spending the first three quarters of the school year figuring out my new school, I decided to dedicate this final quarter to a series of pedagogical experiments. My first experiment was to find a new approach to the most difficult text we read all year: The Scarlet Letter. I turned the book into a role-playing game in which students had to complete a series of “quests” in order to escape 17th century Boston and make their way back to the present. For the first two weeks, students seemed quite excited. We had weekly goals for how much they needed to read, but otherwise, their progress in the game was left up to them. They could choose which quests to complete and which to ignore.

Something changed, however, this past week. In the Upper School, we have progress reports, and I had to somehow convert students’ performance in the game to a letter grade for these reports. I put students into groups and asked them to devise systems for turning game performance into a letter grade. After listening to a dozen different proposals spread out over five class periods, I took the most popular ideas, combined them, and then put them on the board. Very quickly, the energy that we’d built up in class over the previous two weeks died out.


When I asked students about it, the theme was quite clear: “Grades are the worst.” For me, this is just a variation of what John Warner suggests in the opening chapter of this section: “School sucks.”

In “The Problem of Atmosphere,” Warner begins with a social experiment that leads him to a startling claim: “Students are not coddled or entitled. They are defeated” (38).

I tend to agree.

The System and the Culture

As a teacher and a chaplain at three different independent schools, I have spent many hours over the last ten years counseling students who have been defeated by grades and test scores, who feel so beaten down that the opportunity for growth is no longer possible for them until they can get some distance from the system that made them feel that way.

What are the characteristics of that system?

As an Upper School teacher, I’d argue that the specter of college admissions plays a large role. More specifically, the misguided belief that all students need to go to college to be “successful” and that only certain colleges count. The highly competitive nature of college admissions, coupled with the belief that a blown test or quiz will end their chances at getting into University X, creates a culture of compliance rather than creativity, a culture that values grades over learning, a culture that sees school as a transactional, quid pro quo arrangement, rather than a journey of (self-)discovery.

Our students fear failure.

They look at a 100-point scale and they see 70 ways to fail (0–69) and less than half as many ways to succeed (70–100). Even worse, many of them believe that anything less than an A- is a failure. As we prepare them for college and life, where the economy is more and more based on gigs which require creativity and soft-skills, this narrative of "success" has put our students in a bind that doesn’t allow them to experiment, to make a mistake, to skin their knees. Thus, we make our contribution to the anxiety epidemic. If I believed that my future hinged on a particular quiz or test, then I’d probably be anxious too. 

Writing as Antidote?

What does this have to do with writing?

As Warner says to his students, “writing is an ‘extended exercise in failure’” (41). As teachers of writing, we have an opportunity to provide students with an alternative to the do-or-die culture that they find themselves mired in. Why? Because we can teach them how to fail. We have to.

In her response to Jared’s post, I deeply appreciated Lauren’s extended bicycle analogy in which she approached teaching writing in the third grade as a way of building skills by laying down fundamentals. You have to know the basic rules of bike riding in order to ride a bike: how do the pedals work? where are the brakes? what's up (or down) with gravity? 

Lauren Carfa's comment from the Oakridge English department's private blog

It reminds me of one of my son's first bike riding lessons. His grandmother bought him a balance bike for his fourth birthday. He loved that thing! He would zoom all over the driveway and sidewalks on it. One day, he decided, against my advice, to brave the very steep hill just beyond our driveway. I watched out of our kitchen window as his little blue helmet disappeared from view down the hill. I ran outside to see him speed downhill and steer intentionally into a hedge on the side of the road a few hundred feet away. I ran down after him, disentangled his little body from the bushes, cleaned him up, and wiped the tears from his cheeks. When I asked him why he steered into the bushes, he told me, “I didn’t know how to stop.” (Incidentally, this is how he stops on ice skates too...)

As it turns out, steering into the bushes is an effective way to stop your bike, but it may not be the best way. It’s reckless.

Likewise, in coaching golf and baseball, I’ve watched kids get hung up on the details. Recently, I was working with a nine-year-old pitcher. I was trying to get him to move his hips in a certain way so that he could really push off the rubber and toward home plate; hopefully, he’d generate a little more speed and accuracy. I took him through a drill to give him the right feel for what his body should be doing, but when he got up on the mound to try it out, he was so focused on what his lower body was doing that he literally forgot to release the ball. Instead of throwing it toward the catcher, he spiked it into the mound several times before I told him to just forget everything and throw a strike.

Sometimes, when we are faced with a glut of rules and regulations, we find ourselves stymied, unable to even complete the simplest tasks.

In writing, there must be some middle ground, some sweet spot where we can avoid being totally reckless while also avoiding stultification. We must be able to create an atmosphere in our classrooms that foster the kind of creativity that we long for in our students.

But how?

The key might be in taking seriously what Warner tells his students: “[E]very piece [of writing] is a custom job, created by a unique intelligence (the writer), in the service of the needs (purpose) of a specific audience” (72).

Questions to Consider

This leads us to a series of questions to reflect on and explore in our own practice and in our own institution:
  • What are we doing to create an atmosphere that encourages students to take risks and learn from their failures?
  • What systems in our classrooms, in our department, in our divisions, and in our school should we re-examine?
  • How does our grading and assessment of writing reflect our values as educators?
  • How are we creating writing assignments that help students to see each piece of writing as “a custom job”?
Or, perhaps you disagree with John Warner (and me). Maybe you’ve got an alternative way of understanding the atmosphere, the systems, and the fads that Warner calls out in this section. Maybe you’ve got a passionate argument for why the system isn’t broken. Spell it out below!