The Power of Freedom

I knew from the moment I applied for summer school that my primary focus in class would be on writing. As a Writing Project teacher, I believe in the power of writing to open new doors for kids and to give them a voice. I wanted them to be able to think creatively and independently and to actually see themselves as writers. As I think kids’ writing identities all emerge at different times and in different ways, I didn’t exactly know what this would look like, but I felt like I might know it when I saw it.

With the ideas of independence, voice, and identity in mind, I was so looking forward to beginning our mini unit on argument with my kids last week. I thought for sure this would get them going. I mean, it’s teenagers’ job to argue, isn’t it?

I thought we might be onto something when my kids began spouting all the topics they could argue about–everything from social networking sites to sports teams to social issues. I told them that the topic from their argument paper was completely their choice, and they flourished.

Of course, generating ideas is only one small part of the writing process, and as I reflected on the expectations of the Common Core State Standards, I realized that students really needed to know how to build a coherent and cohesive argument, as they learned how to develop reasons, include valid evidence, and acknowledge and address counterarguments. Honestly, though, those particular expectations aren’t too different from the standards that we currently have in California. What makes the Common Core different, though, is that students are expected to be able to independently make strategic decisions about how they use the writing process, conduct research, and display the information they have gathered. And with limited resources in summer school, I wasn’t sure how this would go.

But what I love about teenagers is that they’re always wondering what’s possible.

My first reminder of this was when a student, Jack, who has been building a definitive argument to settle, once and for all, the debate of the best player in the NBA, asked if he could use a chart in his paper. When he showed it to me later, I saw a data-nerd’s dream come true: three columns comparing the stats of Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, and LeBron James (Jack’s pick for best in the NBA). He had organized information regarding average points, free throw percentage, three point percentage, rebounds, blocks, and other relevant bits of information. He was determined to prove that James was superior to both Bryant and Durant, especially given the fact that Bryant has four more championship rings than James and is widely recognized by basketball fans as the best player in the NBA.

On his chart he had determined that James had outperformed both Bryant and Durant in all categories but two, and in those two categories, James had lost by tiny margins. The paragraph surrounding the data he had gathered outlined his analysis of these players’ successes.

While he was sharing this research with me, another student was working the room, interviewing all of the students about which shoe brand–Converse or Vans–was superior. He was tallying his results and determining the categories for his comparison–styling, cost, and durability. Of course, he had already looked up the price ranges for both brands and found that, by far, Converse were much more expensive than Vans. When I talked to him about his survey later, he talked about his frustration that, while Converse was the preferred brand by his peers, it was definitely the pricier option. He was trying to determine how to handle that pressing issue in his paper.

When I was talking to these boys and witnessing their enthusiasm as they were working through what evidence was truly going to convince their audience that their opinion was the one and only correct one, I realized that these boys had found their voice. I never told them to integrate charts or to do surveys. They discovered these ideas all on their own as we discussed all the different types of evidence writers can use. These boys had a purpose, and they were on a mission. All of a sudden they realized that their purpose was not to force their points into a predetermined structure; it was to determine how best to communicate their information in order to persuade their audience that their opinion was the correct one. And they did this because they owned their argument. They did this because they found their voice.

So even though I never predicted this level of engagement with these particular students, I realized that, plain and simple, these kids had become writers.

I Thought You Said We Were Reading!

Even though I am teaching a full semester of English 1 (ninth grade) in summer school, I knew going in, with all of the intricacies of this abbreviated course, that I would never even come close to teaching even a large portion of the standards to mastery. Because of this, I made a very strategic decision to look forward instead of behind.

Especially since the ninth grade ELA standards (both current and CCSS) loop into tenth grade, I asked myself, What skills will most help students next year? From there, I divided those standards into two large groups: reading and writing. This is because those two “R”s are the primary reason many of my students are sitting in front of me. My goal was to prepare them for the inevitability that someone will, at some point in the future (and probably some time next year), hand them a piece of hard text and simply say, “Read this.”

Because of that goal, I also organized my day into two segments: the times we think like readers and the times we think like writers.

However, something peculiar has been gnawing at my soul over the past several days. During our “Reading Block” of time, when kids are working with text, I have turned to a tool I know helps people both explore and express the larger meaning of the words on the page: Writing. We write about text all the time. We write to explore the meaning of the words. We write to tell each other what the text has taught us.

And each time we do, I hear a similar challenge from at least one (but usually more) of my students: “But this is READING time!”

It disturbs me–not because the kids are complaining; that’s what teenagers DO by nature at times. But because, as educators, I don’t think we’ve done the best job of making sure that our kids understand that the two–reading and writing–are inextricably linked.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not pointing fingers. I think part of our current reality is a byproduct of how our standards are written (at least in California). There really is no expectation, save the literary response essay (which is a make-believe genre anyway), that students are writing about text. And the STAR test doesn’t improve the situation either when all of the questions about text are multiple choice. It sends a very clear message to everyone: writing is something that we do when we don’t read.

Somehow, the kids have gotten that message too. They don’t see reading and writing as activities that go together–they see them as very separate entities whose paths shall never cross. At least, my summer school students see it that way, and my guess is that at least some of their friends do too.

With Common Core on the horizon, this has to change. These new standards purposefully link reading and writing, and moreover–not that I want to get all test-obsessed or anything–the Smarter Balanced Assessment will require students to write about text too.

I’m not saying that our kids need to write a full analysis of every text they read. There are lots of ways kids can write about text to share their ideas–including many technological tools that can help (digital literacy, anyone?).

I’m just saying that maybe we need to make sure that, as teachers, we show our students the beautiful and necessary synergy that exists between the two–and teach our students how they can become even more insightful thinkers if they can simply harness that power.

Small Victories

Before I started teaching summer school this year, I had a vision of my class coming together as this perfect community of writers sent by angels. We would be sharing and celebrating our writing, tears streaming down our faces as we connected at the deepest of spiritual levels. Okay…maybe my fantasies didn’t go quite so far, but I really had imagined a nearly-spiritual experience.

Unfortunately, my reality hasn’t yet shaped up to be quite what I imagined.

Today, my students finished writing their narratives, so I reserved the last 50 minutes of class for us to have a writing celebration. When I told the students at the beginning of this process that they would need to share some of their writing with the class (because we are a community of writers, I explained), you’d thought I’d asked them to drown kittens in the American River. They were aghast. Share their writing??? “Mrs. Kukral,” they said, “you’re crazy.”

I have to admit…I was a little deflated at their less-than-enthusiastic response, but it certainly wasn’t altogether unexpected. After all, sharing our writing with anyone but the teacher simply hasn’t been a norm in our schools, especially our high schools (though that is thankfully changing).

I continued to promise that it would be okay, but I also assured them that it was an expectation. One student said to me, “What if I refuse?” I explained that I wouldn’t cut his arm off or anything, but I did expect for him to choose something from his narrative to share. Refusing just wasn’t an option. I didn’t threaten to take away points. I didn’t threaten to fail him. I didn’t threaten to send him to the office. I just said, “I hope and expect that you will do it. That’s all.” He scowled at me in the endearing way that teenage boys do (I’m actually serious here), we moved on, and didn’t say another word about it.

Of course, this interaction made me think about the Common Core (these days, even a gusty wind will have that effect on me). One feature that I so appreciate about the writing standards is that there is an expectation that students publish their work. Granted, the specific standard (6) says that this should be done via technology in grades 9-10, but we need to start somewhere.

My students’ reactions made me realize just how uncomfortable it is for them to share their writing with anyone, much less the whole world through the Internet. It brought back my memories of last summer when, as a fellow in the Area 3 Writing Project Invitational Summer Institute, I had to share my writing with my colleagues. I’m relatively certain I had a couple of anxiety attacks over that too.

And if students are terrified and uncomfortable with sharing even a small segment of their writing with a small group of classmates, then how will they adjust to sharing their writing with everyone who has Internet access? Perhaps it will be easier. Maybe there’s something to be said for not being able to actually see your audience while you’re sharing your work. However, I can imagine that, for some students, this type of publicity will send them over the edge.

This makes me realize that, as with anything, we must create communities where it is safe to be in such a vulnerable position and scaffold this experience for our students. Our students shouldn’t be appalled–or really even surprised–when we expect them to share their writing with others. That’s what writing is about.

The good news, though, is that, today, each one of my students shared at least a small part of their narrative. One of my students shared his entire story, and when he was done, his friend spontaneously shared his own version of the same tale.

And the kid who asked me what I would do if he refused to share?

He was the first one to volunteer.

“But I Can’t Read”

I have been teaching for eleven years now, which I think is long enough to have a deep understanding of teaching practice but not quite long enough to avoid the charming giggles of my veteran colleagues who will probably say to this, “Eleven years? You’re still a baby!”

Either way, I had a moment today that I have not yet had in those eleven years, so even though I feel like a veteran at times, the universe reminded me today that, in some areas, I’m still soberingly inexperienced.

This morning, my students and I were reading more personal narratives. Feeling like they were ready for some independence, I provided a new narrative for them to read and then subsequently write about. That’s when it happened.

One of my students, a gregarious JV football player looked at me and said, “But, Mrs. Kukral, I can’t read.”

At first, I thought he was kidding. Unfortunately, he wasn’t.

I went into problem-solving mode, trying to determine whether it was a comprehension issue or a true-to-life decoding one. As I reflect on the day, I think it’s probably a bit of both.

I wanted him to read aloud to me, but understandably, he didn’t want to do that with the other students around, so I selected a small chunk of text, and asked him to read it to himself and underline words he couldn’t figure out. Some of his selections were words like surroundings, belongings, anxieties, samurai, and ethereal.

As we worked together, I offered him some decoding tricks, and then we also tried some comprehension strategies. When he had success decoding and comprehending a chunk of text, I asked him about his thought process so that we could determine other strategies that worked. Over the course of the morning, I noticed that he was starting to use some of the processes independently. But this lively, energetic boy (who admits he got kicked out of class last year–a lot) still has a long road ahead of him, and I have very little time to make a difference.

Thinking about this turn of events for most of the morning, I started to reflect on some really relevant issues in the Common Core, and the one that surfaced most quickly for me is also one of the most controversial: Text complexity.

Of course, we know that the Common Core State Standards advocate that all students should be reading grade-level text and that our kids need to be able march up a perfect little staircase of complexity as they advance through the grades.

Teachers of reading know this isn’t quite so neat and tidy. On the other hand, if students are going to be successful in the world outside our classroom walls, they are going to need to have strategies to comprehend (and decode) complex text from all different disciplines.

That’s where the teaching comes in.

Because another expectation of the Common Core is that we are all literacy teachers. This is a paradigm shift of colossal proportions–even, I would argue, for many English/Language Arts teachers. This is because while biology teachers have genetics, evolution, and ecology, English teachers have Shakespeare, Faulkner, and the persuasive essay.

I think that this needs to change.

In order for us to be able to help our students learn how to read (because this isn’t just a problem unique to elementary school, as it turns out), we need to know how to do that.

I was faced with that reality today. I had this student in front of me who vulnerably said, “I can’t do it.” And I pulled out every tool I had in my shed, including immediate formative assessments I could try in that moment in order to “diagnose” his particular issue.

  • I questioned him in order learn what his mind was doing when he read.
  • I showed him how to deconstruct words and look for word parts that he recognized.
  • I showed him how to read small chunks of text at a time and paraphrase.
  • I showed him how to use his understanding of the previous paragraph to build an understanding of the one below it.
  • I asked him what we was doing to understand the text when he finally did start to figure it out.
Most importantly, I drew on my own experience and reflections as a reader to provide the support that he needed in that moment.

Are these all the answers? No. But they’re what I felt were appropriate at the time given the circumstances. Will I continue to investigate interventions and supports that will work for this student? Absolutely. But my reality is that I have seven more days to help, and he has a very frustrating lifetime ahead of him if we can’t start to solve this problem.

So what do we do about the Common Core? We teach teachers–all teachers–how to be teachers of reading and writing, how to explicitly draw on their own experiences as readers and writers in order to understand how these complex and intricate processes work. Because at the end of the day, not all students are going to fit the straight-edged text complexity mold, and we need to know what to do about it.

We will not always recognize these students, and they will not always bravely tell us what mine did today. In fact, he shared with me that, “I misbehave in class because I don’t know how to do the work. It’s just easier that way.” This is also the student who, on the first day, asked me to do grammar worksheets instead of read and write.

Now it all makes sense.

So no, sometimes our students don’t tell us what they need–not directly anyway–but they somehow still figure out a way to let us know.

We just need to be able to hear them.

Real Talk

My Area 3 Writing Project colleague, Joe, challenged me to share some of my bumps in the road as I experiment with the Common Core in my summer school class. He (very rightfully) said that the bumps are what people want to hear about–because they want to know how other people are navigating them. While I wasn’t in a place to do that yesterday, I am feeling much more up to the task today.

Because I’m not gonna lie. Yesterday sucked.

As I’ve been structuring my summer school class, I have decided to focus on building two major areas of my students’ skills: reading and writing (with perhaps a bit more emphasis on the writing).  Over the next three weeks, my plan is to focus on two major text types: narrative and argument. All of the reading we do is also in those types so that students can start to see the link between what we read and what we write.

For students that say they hate writing, they are surprisingly enthusiastic about it (more about that on a different day). However, yesterday, when it came to reading, I had a huge problem on my hands. We were reading a narrative and working through some tasks to help students collaboratively analyze its structure. This was after we read the piece to understand the gist of it and to extract significant moments from it. I thought the kids would be okay. They definitely were not, and they rebelled.

After what felt like an hour (but wasn’t) of not accomplishing anything, I finally hit the reset button. I stopped all of them, named the fact that something clearly wasn’t working, and then asked for their feedback. Their responses were not surprising, given what I had learned from them the previous day: “We don’t like to read.” “Why do we have to think so hard about this?” “Can’t we do grammar worksheets?” That last question sealed the deal for me. Because when I discover that a fifteen-year-old boy would rather do grammar worksheets than what I’m asking him to do, I know I’m in deep trouble. Very deep.

I managed to survive the rest of the day and left school feeling pretty discouraged and beat up. I needed to figure out exactly what went wrong so that I could fix it. In a hurry.

As I thought about my failings last night (over two glasses of Cupcake Red Velvet), I started to develop a theory. What if I didn’t include enough scaffolding? What if my release wasn’t gradual enough? Could that have been the cause of the rebellion? Had I gone too fast?

So I did what we do as teachers: I re-vamped all of our reading work for the next two days. I shifted our reading block to the morning when the kids (and I) are fresher. Then I thought about the way the Common Core Standards are organized. One thing that is so elegant about them is the way that they are horizontally aligned (in the document) so that one grade level builds on the next.

But what we don’t always talk about is how they are so intentionally vertically aligned on paper so that each standard sort of builds on the next one. The first person who made me realize this was Lucy Calkins in her book Pathways to the Common Core, co-authored by Mary Ehrenworth and Chris Lehman. It made so much sense that I couldn’t believe I had never noticed it before (that’s probably why she’s Lucy Calkins, and I’m not).

Take the reading standards, for example. This is the general progression of the first section, “Key Ideas and Details” (in my words):

  • RI.9-10.1: Pull out details/evidence from a text; articulate explicit and implicit points in a text
  • RI.9-10.2: Gather those details and inferences and determine how they equate to a central idea in the text; write about this central idea
  • RI.9-10.3: Analyze the order of points and details in the text and how they are introduced, developed, and connected to each other.

As students progress through these standards, their understanding of a text can really become more sophisticated. That’s where my problem was.

I didn’t spend enough time with the first two and jumped right to the third one. My kids didn’t know what to do, and it was totally my fault.

When I started thinking about how I would change things for today, I realized that I needed to spend way more time on numbers 1 and 2 and not worry so much about number 3, not yet anyway. After all, what I am trying to do is make sure that my students have some really concrete tools to take with them into next year so that they don’t end up in summer school again.

So that’s exactly what we did. And I scaffolded the heck out of it too. We read the piece in small chunks and wrote paraphrases of each paragraph, including what the narrator was learning about herself. And then, when I finally did release them for independent work, I gave them small, manageable chunks to complete in a very short amount of time (10 minutes or so) and constantly had them share their thinking. For my students, who have demonstrated that they don’t have a whole lot of stamina, this worked.

And when they transitioned to writing about the central idea in the text (after I modeled very explicitly how I take my notes about something and transfer it to a written piece), they were successful.

And as I conferenced with them about their writing, they were listening to the feedback, trying on the suggestions, and sitting up a little taller each time I complemented something they were doing well. Even the kid who hated my guts yesterday and Monday was totally on my side after I recognized how good he is at making inferences about the narrator’s feelings.

So yeah.

It was a good day.

It’s about the Writing

I am passionate about the teaching of writing. But I have to admit. I wasn’t always. I guess it’s because I didn’t really understand how to do it very well. I thought if I did a two-day PowerPoint about the features of a particular genre (“Here’s how you write a personal narrative, kids.”), guided them through the writing process (in a very linear way), and then showed them a couple of student-written examples, I’d be good to go. The kids would produce amazing writing, and all would be right with the world.

Not surprisingly, it never quite worked out how I imagined it in my mind.

Over the past few years as I’ve started learning more about the teaching of writing, however, I’ve learned how much better I could have been at the beginning of my career. And when I became a part of an amazing community of writers and writing teachers–the Area 3 Writing Project–my understanding of the teaching of writing deepened as much as my passion did. This is mostly because, as part of the Area 3 Writing Project (or any Writing Project site, really), I had to actually become a writer myself.

Why is this important? Obviously, for lots of reasons.

However, as I realize how the expectations for writing change with the shift to Common Core, this idea of teacher-as-writer seems to take on new meaning.

Here’s why:

Let’s start by talking about Writing Standards #5: The revision standard. The anchor standard states the following expectation for students: “Develop and strengthen writing as needed by planning, revising, editing, rewriting, or trying a new approach.”What is most striking to me is this new view of the writing process as, well, an actual process. In the current standard (I live in California), the stages of the writing process are presented as isolated events. For example, Writing Strategies 1.9 in the California ELA 9/10 Content Standards states this: “Revise writing to improve the logic and coherence of the organization and controlling perspective, the precision of word choice, and the tone by taking into consideration the audience, purpose, and formality of the context.”

This, by the way, is the only time that the actual writing process is mentioned in the ELA standards for grades 9 and 10.

The way that the standard is written seems to make the following assumptions:

  • Revision can be isolated from the rest of the writing process
  • Revision is the most important part of the writing process (since it’s the only part mentioned)
  • When we revise, we revise only for certain finite things (like organization or word choice)

In contrast, the Common Core State Standards presents the process for what it is–a connected, non-linear cycle that students should be able to manage independently.

Take the phrase as needed, for example. This implies that students use elements of the writing process in the ways that best serve the needs of their writing. The writing process, then, is not a series of steps to follow in a certain order.

The Common Core also values the idea of independence, so not only should students be able to use the elements of the writing process in a non-linear way, they eventually need to be able to do so independently.

Finally, the Common Core Standards also expect that students are able to try “a new approach.” In order to do this, they need to have a deep understanding of task, purpose, and audience (so that they know when to try a new approach), and they will need to have a deep understanding of the writing process (so that they will know how to try a new approach). And again, they should be independent.

With me so far?

So what does this mean for my summer school class? And where does my involvement with the Writing Project factor in here?

First of all, my summer school students struggle with the very act of writing. Most of them (approximately 80%) have told me they “hate” it. Many of them tell me they think it is a “waste of time” and do not see how it relates to their lives. Of course, when the majority of the writing they do in school is writing that does not speak to them, can we blame them?

Second, my summer school students, for the most part, do not see writing as a process. They think revision means that they should add a couple of words here and there, add two or three sentences, fix the spelling, or even make their piece shorter. I know this because I watched them revise some writing yesterday. These students are not yet using the writing process “as needed” or “trying a new approach.”

Therefore, one thing I’m learning about the Common Core is that we must immerse our students in the process of writing. They need to see all the different ways they can engage in it and use the process the way that real writers do. And when teachers see themselves as writers and are able to to model for students how they use the writing process in authentic ways, it makes a huge difference.

This is where my work with the Writing Project comes in. A few years ago, I would never have been able to tell when a student was or wasn’t authentically using the writing process. As long as they went through the motions of completing the graphic organizers I spent hours creating, I was satisfied. As long as they turned in a rough draft with their final copy, I was convinced I had done my job teaching revision.

Now I know there’s much more to it. Students need to spend time collecting ideas–and they need to be shown how by a teacher who writes. Students need to gather details for their piece, draft, revise, edit, and share their writing with others, and who is a better coach and guide in this process than the teacher who writes?

As I’ve been teaching my summer school class, I have shown my students entries in my writer’s notebook and talked with them about my process as a writer. I am talking with one student about his interest in writing graphic novels and another about his voice as a writer. I would not have been able to have these conversations had I not known what it was like to feel the power of writing in my bones.

And though my day wasn’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination, today my students told me that they liked it.

But This is Summer School!

I’m a huge believer in mutual respect in the classroom. Coming from a Title I school where I spent the first ten years of my career, I learned pretty quickly that students don’t grant respect simply because you’re the only adult in the room. Respect must be earned, and I chose to do this in my high school classroom by getting to know my kids.

So of course, as I thought about how I would begin my summer school class, I knew that I would need to start by listening to my students.

As teachers, I think we spend so much time telling students what we expect from them that we may forget at times to ask them what they expect from us. So that’s what I did.

Not surprisingly, one of my students, a lively fifteen-year-old boy with flashing mischievous eyes, said instantly, “Fun assignments!”

When I pressed him for more information–what exactly did he mean by fun?–he said, “Oh you know, like word searches and crossword puzzles!”


After I gently explained that my plan was to engage them differently–with interesting reading and writing assignments that challenged them to think–a chorus of voices simultaneously responded, “But this is summer school! We’re here because we couldn’t do all that stuff!”

In that moment, I was deflated–not because I was upset with the kids for wanting this type of work, but because I was unbelievably disappointed that it seemed to be a symptom of a larger issue–years and years of low expectations placed on those kids. The ones who don’t play school. The ones who are engaged differently. The ones who don’t want or need the threat of a bad grade hanging over them to comply with the system’s demands.

Then, when I think about the demands of the Common Core, I worry even more. I worry because these standards are so much more ambitious than what we have. They expect all students to have access to tasks that push them to think, that respect them as intellectual human beings, that develop their academic identities.

As I learn about what it will take to transition to these standards well and to truly embrace the spirit of what they represent, I think that, first and foremost, we have to honestly face the students we have in front of us–all of them–and, as challenging as this is, relentlessly push each and every one of them forward from where they are now, not where they should be and not where we wish they would be.

Our kids deserve nothing less.