Sunday, January 11, 2015

An authentic audience: Lit Genius and SoundCloud

My family and friends are always surprised at how rare it is that I am formally reviewed or evaluated... by a colleague, by an administrator, even by my students. I called roll for the first time in August of 1993. Since then I've been reviewed formally six or seven times. My class, for years, for better or worse, has been mine.

I'm not sure how to think about this autonomy. In certain courses, this autonomy has led me to be quite complacent--I knew which students I could lean on for keeping the discussion alive, and I knew which students I would criticize in my comments for not being adventurous enough. Sometimes, I needed somebody to tell me that I was coasting. But I've also had far too many successes that went...I dunno...underappreciated, or completely unknown. How could I get feedback from colleagues without the formal staginess of a review? How could I let people see what great work my students were doing? This trimester, my junior poetry seminar has worked because I have assembled for my students an authentic audience, and they have been mindful of that audience, both online and IRL.

Lit Genius allows my students to read critically in and for a community. The Genius site rewards students "IQ points" for annotating a text. Sometimes, it's a comment that they want preserved from our conversation; sometimes, it's a comment that they make before class. Since there's an IQ to earn, my students could see rewards for their efforts and see their progress compared with their classmates. After a couple of weeks, I asked them what should earn more points--defining a difficult vocabulary word or making an incisive thematic observation? Well, they replied, without knowing a word, you might not be able to make an incisive observation. My students began to appreciate their roles in deepening the understanding of others, and without quite being aware of it, they began to to think critically about which of their skills needed sharpening. (One student told me, "I don't want to always be the one upvoting somebody else's comment.") In turn, by "following" my students' activity on Lit Genius, I can offer very precise skills-based suggestions: "Thanks, J. You seem to have meter down. Look closely tomorrow at Lowell's use of slant rhyme--I'm interested to see what you think about it." Please have your students poke around in and comment on our work! Simultaneous with this public curating of our class discussion, I've experienced great success in building community on my campus through poetry.

As a father of three little kids, I've been invited by lower school teachers to join their classes as a "mystery reader". At story time each day, the kids don't who will show up to read, and their faces light up to see a new person each day. So I stole the idea, reaching out to my entire campus for mystery guests to show up and read to my juniors. The response was overwhelming--all departments, all divisions, teachers, learning specialists, coaches, administrators, etc. Fourth-grade teachers teared up to see how mature their former students had grown; coaches delighted in the chance to discuss what James Wright gets right about athletics; trusted colleagues on other campuses Skyped in their readings; and even renowned poet Joshua Mehigan jumped in to help. Now I have an expanding playlist that not only reminds me of the trust that I have built among my colleagues but also helps reinforce for my students the importance of narrative voice for each literary work.

At the risk of resorting to HS-English-teacher stereotype, allow me to quote Whitman: "Unscrew the locks from the doors! / Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!" Open up your classrooms. Or at the very least, step through my open door, look around, listen, and let me know how we can help each other out.


  1. There is something extremely powerful going on here within both your autonomy and your ability to express the need for feedback. I do believe that "being left alone in your classroom" is possibly holding the rest of your school back more than it is holding you back. Because you have sought out feedback and made your classroom into a community of learners, you are able to see how your instructional choices have in impact on your students and any teachers who stumble upon this blog or their writing on Genius. However, my guess is that many folks in your school are not yet reading your blog or using Genius as a way of creating an authentic feedback loop for kids and adults.

    I wonder if this means that without having someone observe and evaluate your progress, your story stays within the walls of your classroom. If your evaluator/observer came in and saw this lesson, I would think that he/she may better understand the connected nature of writing, and want you to help support other teachers within the building in that regard. I may be wrong about this, but I have a hard time thinking that someone who came in and saw this wouldn't want everyone in the building doing it.

    Anyway, thank you so much for your thoughtful reflection. It is inspiring to see not only great practice happening in a Language Arts classroom, but also to see just how much value you place upon the connections being made.

    P.S. This comment is a part of the #C4C15 project. Find out more here:

    1. Thanks, Ben! I'm not sure I meant to express a need for feedback (forms, procedures, etc.) so much as an eagerness to make my lessons better by adding an authentic audience for my students and for me. Between twitter blasts and campus-wide emails and word-of-mouth, though, i'm beginning (BEGINNING!) to build such an audience ...and the feedback has been fantastic so far!

    2. Thanks Ben for joining the conversation! Independent schools definitely treasure their autonomy both for good and sometimes not so good reasons. I think what's exciting about the changing landscape right now is that "feedback" need not be executed from the top down. Technology has made possible flatter, more horizontal models for facilitating feedback. Feedback can be collaborative and more peer-to-peer in nature as opposed administrative and one-directional. The challenge - and you observe it well - is getting independent school teachers to realize that open, collaborative models to teaching are not in conflict with the idea of preserving one's autonomy.