Empower Them: Concrete Ways to Encourage Risk Taking and Agency in Your Classroom

One thing that’s been on my heart this last year is the topic of fear. 

Not the obvious, quiver-in-your-boots, run-for-cover type of fear, but a much more insidious kind. The kind that creeps up when nobody’s watching, that manifests as a quiet doubt or belief that you’ll never be good enough and that stepping out of your comfort zone is for other people and never you. It’s the fear that lurks in the periphery of your mind, yet controls everything you do.

And, in my own experience as both a teacher and student, I’ve noticed fear not only holds a prominent place in my life, but in the lives of my students as well. 

The Manifestation of Fear

When I was in high school, I was extremely quiet. I was a “good” kid, but you’d never see me stay late to ask a teacher for help or volunteer for a leadership role. I didn’t want to inconvenience anyone. I didn’t want to give myself the chance to let anyone else down. I was quiet and meek and almost afraid of my own voice and, because of that, I let my dreams go by.

It wasn’t until college that I felt comfortable. Not until a series of events led to me applying to be an orientation leader and Freshmen Seminar TA and Writing Center Tutor that I found my voice. I student taught. I became a teacher. In the walls of my own classroom, I was safe.

Yet I still see so much of my own fear in my students.

I came to this realization after a series of observations. One such came about in an informal post-socratic seminar discussion with an incredibly brilliant student of mine.

I asked her what she thought of “A Rose for Emily” and if the socratic method was working for her. She replied that she liked it, but that she had already realized the North vs. South symbolism inherent in the text on her first read, something I had paused the seminar to talk about at the end of class.

“That’s great! I’m glad you got it!” I exclaimed, “Why didn’t you bring that up in class? A lot of other students could have benefitted from that insight.”

“Well,” She shrugged, “I just figured that I’d rather be quiet than wrong.”

I thought about this statement for a while. My brilliant student had a profound lack of trust in her own insight. She didn’t trust her own voice.

The root problem wasn’t a lack of trust in her classmates or a lack of classroom. She was good friends with everyone in her class and had been since she was very young. It wasn’t that every student in that class had shared brilliant insights (in fact, one student in her class had even introduced a far-out conspiracy theory somehow involving aliens). It was a fear to take up space, to be visible, to share her own voice.

Year after year, students are easily intimidated for various reasons. Whether that fear originates from the way they were raised, a language barrier, a disability, or past failures, it’s crippling. It prevents them for seeking out the help they need and taking control of their own future.

Below are a few suggestions to help your students step out on the ice.

Ideas and Solutions:

1. Build confidence through practice

Confidence takes time and comes from a sense of accomplishment. Oftentimes, I’ve observed the best way to help my students take risks is by slowly easing them into challenging situations and providing multiple scaffolds for their skills.

For example, I assign my freshmen a presentation at the beginning of each year as a get-to-know-you activity, and students are always terrified. The idea of presenting their thoughts and ideas to their peers is utterly terrifying to them. I assure them by the time they present they’ll be prepared, but it’s still scary.

This all changes though when my students are offered a low-stress, low-stakes way to practice their presentation skills. We play something called the “press conference game” (a wonderful game I borrowed from a former colleague of mine) where weird, humorous pictures are displayed on the screen behind the presenter and the presenter has to improvise answers to questions about a picture he can’t see.

By the end of the game, students are begging for more and much of the edge of presenting has worn off.

2. Provide “think time” and opportunities to prepare

As a teacher, I speak for a living, but I still need time to gather my thoughts and prepare. For many of our students (especially our quieter ones), they need this preparation time, as well.

Even in socratic seminars, processing time is important and providing opportunities and guidance on how to plan for discussions is important. One of my favorite blogs about socratic seminars is The Readiness is All’s post on BRAWL Socratic Seminars. What’s a BRAWL Seminar? It stands for Battle Royale: All Will Learn, and it provides a structure for ALL students to craft detailed and insightful discussion questions and prepare for discussions. Many of our students need that structure to be bold.

3. Encourage a Growth Mindset and give them opportunities to revise and hone their craft

Very few people are born being persuasive, confident, and cohesive speakers. They have to grow and they have to practice. No one learns to read by revisiting the alphabet once a year and the same goes for public speaking. If we expect students to trust their voice, we must give them opportunities to use it.

Last year, I gave my ninth grade honors students a daunting task. I told them I wanted them to prepare their own TED Talks that would be 5-7 minutes long, have minimal text on their slides, be completely memorized, and be presented in front of 100 of their peers from other classes. It was a big ask and my students were nervous, but with that big ask I provided a lot of support.

We spent five weeks researching, planning, and prepping those speeches. Students mapped out their speeches and then presented to a partner; then they presented to a group and filmed themselves; then they received peer critiques, revised, and then presented again in order to receive further feedback. The average TED Talk speaker practices her speech hundreds of times before presenting; high school students need opportunities to practice too.

4. Don’t shy away from the challenge

As great as low-stakes public speaking and practice are, they are not sufficient in fully preparing students to take the risks that lie ahead. In order to gain true confidence, students must be required to do work worth doing and step out of their comfort zone. Achievement builds confidence, which sparks further growth.

Students may fail or initially struggle, but they must learn that this is okay and is part of the learning process in order to become the resilient leaders they are meant to be.

Before my TED Talk project, I had a student come to me, terrified and crying, sure that her speech wouldn’t be good enough. I talked to her, let her know that the fear was okay and that we could adapt the assignment, but that I thought she needed to do the speech because I knew she was capable. Shaking, she stepped up to the podium and gave a truly moving speech.

She later told me she was glad I had forced her to do that speech because it let her know she could do it.

Conclusion

In conclusion, true confidence only comes from doing work that is worth doing with excellence. Achievement leads to a desire to do more, but students often need a push to get there.

Challenges are part of students finding their voice and we must be sure that we are providing these opportunities to our students.

Three Books Shaping the Way I Teach – January Edition

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As an English teacher and self-proclaimed bibliophile, I am constantly on the prowl for new books to consume that will challenge and inspire me, and this past month – riddled with endless snow days – provided me with the opportunity to dig into some really excellent ones that have been shaping the way I “do” education in the classroom.

Book #1: Talk Like TED by Carmine Gallow4148mpr8dhl

I picked up this book on a whim when I decided I wanted to give my Honors English 9 students another speaking assignment. They had just completed their fifth presentation of the year in January and they had grown significantly, but there were still some common presentation skills I felt that we could improve on, like making more eye contact and relying less on notecards when they give a speech.

I chose this book because my 9 Honors students love TED Talks. Earlier this year, we watched the videos “Inside the Mind of a Master Procrastinator” by Tim Urban and “The Danger of a Single Story” by Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie. Each talk couldn’t be more different in content and style, but they had both resonated with my students and because of this I had been tossing around the idea of having my students create a TED-style talk and present it to their peers.

Talk Like TED was very insightful and helpful in planning my upcoming unit. Not only did it hone in on using ethos, pathos, and logos to engage an audience, but it gave practical tips for helping students brainstorm, practice, and fix presentation issues. It’s also just a fascinating read. I would recommend it for everyone.

Book #2: The Differentiated Classroom by Carol Ann Tomlinson

51h1rcxsixl-_sx397_bo1204203200_I feel like I’m partially cheating by including this book here because it’s actually one of my textbooks for an online class I’m taking through UVA, but this book is such an insightful piece of writing about what it means to truly meet the needs of all learners.

Tomlinson is up front that “teachers need not differentiate all elements in all possible ways in each unit,” but that purposeful differentiation is an essential part of teaching and meeting the needs of all learners (19). She talks about the various ways teachers can help both struggling and gifted students to succeed, while at the same time not “pigeonholing” them as one type of student or another. She discusses the value of growth vs. fixed mindsets in the classroom and some of the unforeseen consequences of sorting students by ability levels. It’s a challenging, but important book.

Book #3: The Writing Revolution by Judith C. Hochman

51f4qf-hc2bl-_sx389_bo1204203200_If you’re like me and you teach a wide range of learners with an even larger spread of abilities than this book is for you! I picked up this book when looking for some strategies for reaching some of my 9th graders who struggle with writing, but I found some strategies that are helpful for all students, including those in my English 9, 9 Honors, and AP Literature courses.

Hochman argues that in order for students to be proficient in writing essays, they must first be skilled in writing effective paragraphs, and that before they can write effective paragraphs, they must be able to write effective, complex, and varied sentences.

She starts by digging into syntax and then moves from paragraphs into the entirety of the paper. What I liked about this book is that it provided specific, differentiated activities and ideas for teaching each concept effectively to all children, wherever they might be in their writing development. If you’re a grammar nerd like me, it’s a really interesting read — I read the entirety of this book during a five hour drive across the state; if you’re not really into grammar, it does a great job breaking down each of the concepts and teaching ways to integrate writing and grammar into the curriculum without it feeling like a chore.

Things that go bump in the night: Creepy Stories and Student Engagement

Creepy Old HouseMonsters that lurk in the shadows, things that go bump in the night, tales that keep your head spinning through the late hours of the night… these are some of the stories that engage high school students.

This summer, I eagerly assembled a list of short stories that I wanted to teach. On the list were some of my old favorites: “The Small Assassin” by Ray Bradbury, “The Cask of Amontillado” and “Black Cat” by Poe, and “Lamb to the Slaughter” by Roald Dahl. I wanted to come up with a project that would engage my students in the literature immediately and these creepy, unusual tales were sure to peak their interest. I introduced these stories as a model for their own writing, having them critically investigate how Poe, Dahl, and Bradbury created suspense through setting, characters, tone, and literary devices. This project turned my some of my more reluctant readers into engaged writers on a mission and provided them a better lens through which they could evaluate literature.

How I Set It Up

The Project Launch: The first day of the project took my students by surprise. My classroom was transformed. They came to class and the lights were dim; a creepy writing prompt was projected on the board and they had ten minutes to write. Once they finished, I projected the video of a crackling fire behind them, gave them a flashlight and had them present their own short stories as if they were around a campfire telling eery tales. Afterwards, I gave them the calendar for the unit and had them dig into the story “The Feather Pillow” with their group and analyze it.

The Project Itself: For the project I was giving my students, they had a choice of three possible end products: a comic book, a short story, or a podcast. Students knew that as we read we would be modeling our short stories off of the techniques we were studying in class, and I interspersed creative writing opportunities at every turn.

As we read through the stories, I introduced literature circles into the classroom, allowing students to become critical questioners of the texts. We worked on our first literary analysis paper and we had multiple delightful conversations about what makes a story truly scary.

Next week, we will have our story presentation day where students will present their work to the class. I have already had handfuls of students share with me the stories they’ve begun in their free time and ask how they can improve.

Giving students a project like this, where they have a purpose for reading and writing, is so exciting. It allows students to authentically tap into what makes literature great and strengthen their writing abilities… and it also allows them to tap into some creepy stories in the meantime.

Host Your Own Poetry Slam (Strategies to make poetry engaging)

One of my favorite adventures I had with my students last semester was our end of the semester poetry slam. In my experience, students are not always the most excited about poetry. Although many times they may be obsessed with creating rhythms and rhymes for their own songs and raps, they seem to believe that poetry belongs in a land of hoity-toity literature that they want to spend their entire lives trying to avoid, which is a bit of a shame if you ask me. Holding a poetry slam this year, though, seemed to alleviate much of their negative feelings about poetry, and students have been asking if we can hold another poetry slam ever since.

Below are some ways to spice poetry up and prepare your students for their own poetry slam:

  1. Poetry Sneak Peek: The day before we started our “Poetry Rocks” project (where they’d write poetry about rocks — get it!? Aren’t I punny?) I had my students watch free verse poems performed by spoken word artists.  My kids loved it and I think it broke down a lot of their presuppositions about poetry. For the rest of the week, they kept on looking up poems of their own and sharing them with me. It was a very nice way to start the project off.

The video embedded above seemed to be my students’ favorite and they looked up other poems by Prince Ea on their own afterwards. It has a nice environmental flair, which is nice for my English/Science class, but the way he presents his work engages students immediately.

2. After getting them hooked on more modern poetry, transition into other classic poems: 

After our first day where we watched spoken word poems together, we began transitioning into some other great poems, as well. Nicki Minaj has a great reading of “Still I Rise” by Maya Angelou, which my students really enjoyed. Afterwards, I had them do some activities reading and analyzing “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou, “I Too” by Langston Hughes, some of Richard Wright’s haikus, and “Sonnet 18” by Shakespeare.

3. After exposing them to classic poetry, have your students use other poems as mentor texts for their own poetry. As my students prepared for the poetry slam, they would read a poem (perhaps on of Wright’s haikus), study the structure and the literary devices, and use it as a model as they wrote their first haiku. It’s a way to make poetry a bit more real and engage them in some higher level thinking and analysis. It gave them a purpose for their studying.

4. Make sure they know that they can (and should) be silly and creative when presenting their poems: On the day of the poetry slam, I had a student come up to me and ask if it was alright if he read his poems “in a silly way, like the guys on the video.” I said, “Of course. That was why I showed you the video.  I want you to be silly and creative and vary your voice inflections as you present.” Although I (mistakenly) assumed that my students realized after watching the “poetry sneak peek” videos that poetry slams are supposed to be funny and challenging and creative, my kids didn’t realize that they could make their leap in the way they presented their own poetry. Make sure that your expectation is clear, because, if it is, it will be the key to a much more enjoyable poetry slam, as it was in my case. Which leads me to my next point…

5. Consider having smaller “practice poetry slams” before the real one: I wish I had done this before my poetry slam in December. Sometimes when you’re doing a two or three week project, you can have a very fun, exciting plan for the way your students are going to present, but if they aren’t entirely sure how they’re going to present or that they can be funny and ridiculous when they do present in the first week of the project, they can lose momentum fast. Consider coaching one or two students to present the way you want them to and to present at the beginning of class so that students know what’s expected. Or, possibly even better, write your own poem and present it to the class in a dramatic fashion. Make sure that students never lose sight of “the end in mind.”

6. Last, but not least, make the poetry slam into an occasion: Bring food and snacks so that students know that it’s a celebration. If you have a classroom microphone, let the kids use it. Teach them how actual poetry slams and readings work, and how often people snap after poetry is read. Make your kids excited to present all of their hard work to the class.

Happy poetry writing!

English and Science – The Benefits of an Unlikely Partnership

English and Science

This is currently my second year co-teaching an Environmental Science/English combo. course. It’s been a wonderfully exciting and challenging adventure that’s stretched me to think about teaching, literature, writing, and science in an entirely different way. 

Here are a few of my favorite things about co-teaching with science:

(1) Science impacts literature: I’ve been aware for a long time that scientific discoveries often spark new perspectives in literature and culture, but it wasn’t until I started co-teaching with a science teacher that I truly got to explore what the impact of scientific theories, trends, and phenomena have had on literature. When I first read Brave New World in high school, I remember observing the philosophical venture into pain with knowledge vs. ignorant bliss,  but I have no memory of identifying the Malthusian undertones that are so present throughout the text and Huxley’s commentary on them. When I read Handmaid’s Tale for the first time, I was ignorant of how much of her social commentary also dealt with ideas about Global Warming, toxic waste, and pollution.

Many times, literature reflects our concerns, fears, and beliefs, and science often impacts those things significantly.

(2) On the flip side, literature (and just writing in general) impacts the way we view science: Last year, when my co-teacher and I were brainstorming possible connections between English and climate change, I spent a lot of time looking at post-apocalyptic literature. Most dystopian novels – including Hunger Games, Brave New Word, Handmaid’s Tale, and even The Giver – deal with the idea of environmental catastrophe (usually due to human decisions) leading to the rise of a dystopian society. The way that society treat the world around it impacts the way society treats people. This sort of social commentary sparks change in the way we deal with environmental issues as nations, communities, and individuals. I love exploring the way that one impacts the other.

Even when we’re not necessarily studying literature in my class, we explore the ways that we can use writing to impact our environment. My students have written research papers about the environmental impact of both climate change and the energy sources we, as a nation, choose to use. They’ve written persuasive letters to inform people about environmental issues present in their county. They’ve written poetry in order to expand on their knowledge of geology. It’s exciting to see my students being impacted by literature, but it’s even better to see them impacting others with their own forms of literature and writing.

(3) Pairing English and Science allows students to see the real-world connections to both content areas: This has already been briefly addressed in my two previous points, but pairing English and Science together has led to my students exploring on their own how they can impact their society through persuasive writing. It’s allowed them to see that scientific discoveries impact our culture and the way society reacts to issues. It puts all of their learning in context and gives them a purpose for each task they complete.

(4) Beyond that, it’s given me a greater appreciation of the world we live in. Working so closely with science teachers and looking at literature from a scientific perspective, gives you a new appreciation for the way the world works and the ways that people take care of it. It’s been very eye opening to see how much we can take for granted and to learn to move beyond that.