Frederick Douglass and Schitt’s Creek: Teaching for Joy and Justice

Three snapshots from a hard year. I promise that they add up to something in the end:

January snapshot: In early 2021, I had a hard conversation with a parent, who told me that she commended me for teaching challenging texts and topics but then itemized the ways in which I had misstepped. Okay, fair enough, and feedback is important; I agreed with some of her points and disagreed with others, and it was a helpful and mutually respectful conversation.

But one thing she said stopped me in my tracks, and I’ve been haunted by it ever since: She said that I seemed “overly invested in Black suffering.” This comment was apropos of the way I was teaching The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845), a memoir I have taught countless times in my career and think is a crucially important American text.

After a month or so of thinking “what the hell does that even mean?,” I began frantically reading other 19th-century nonfiction by Black authors, with the thought that I would change my book order for next year’s course. Other than the “frantic” part, this was a fun experience, since I returned to several texts I hadn’t read since graduate school, which is now over 20 years ago. (Mandatory pause to marvel at the passing of time.)

But in the end, I decided that Frederick Douglass’s Narrative is powerful for a variety of reasons and that the response to this parent’s critique was not to stop teaching it but rather to teach it differently. I did switch to a new edition of the book, one that has larger font and wide margins, but the real reason is that the new edition, with a new cover and different page numbers, will be an ongoing reminder to me not to slip into my well-worn paths of teaching this text but to keep rethinking it.

March snapshot: The faculty always returns from spring break a day before the students do for a professional development in-service day. This year, we spent several hours looking collectively and departmentally at the excellent Social Justice Standards put together by Learning for Justice (formerly Teaching Tolerance).

The framework (here’s a link for the handy .pdf version) has four major components: Identity, Diversity, Justice, and Action. Not every lesson or even course has to hit all four points, of course, but a student’s education overall should definitely include all four elements of the framework..

The English Department had an excellent conversation that afternoon — building on years of developing conversations — in which we recognized that we are doing increasingly better with the Diversity and Justice orientations but probably fall short in the Identity goals of “positive social identities,” “affirm … membership in multiple identity groups,” “pride, confidence, and healthy self-esteem.”

That is, we tend toward texts that are about miscarriages of justice, about social evils that need to be addressed, about pain and suffering and the wrong done in the world. Now, partly this is because these are areas that literature does really well! And partly it’s because we’re a group of teachers who want to make the world a more just place, and so teaching literature of injustice seems like a good way to do that — educating students and lighting a fire under them while giving them the communication skills to make a difference in the world.

But, we asked ourselves collectively, might that goal mean that we are, to quote that mom from January, “overly invested in Black [and other] suffering”? Are we trying to teach about injustices against so many different groups that our book choices are just depressing the heck out of everyone and leaving no room for positive group identification? Ouch.

An additional complication: We teach Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give in 9th grade — what a novel! so important! — and I think it does a wonderful job of both analyzing racism in complex and nuanced ways AND celebrating Black culture (family! religion! food! community!). But, after that professional development day in March, when I talked with my juniors about the novel (which they’d read two years before), they remembered only the pain and suffering of the novel and not the celebration. Is that memory pattern because, even when we have a text that includes lots of joy, we teachers are focusing so much on justice that we’re ignoring the joy? I think I probably need to plead mea culpa there.

May snapshot: Near the end of the school year, exhausted from pandemic teaching and stressed about final grading and AP exams and the rest, I fell deeply in love with the show Schitt’s Creek. (Okay, yes, that means I didn’t start watching it until after it had already finished its six-season run … but I’m convinced it’s a show for the ages and that it makes no more sense to say that one is “coming late to Schitt’s Creek” than that one “came late to Langston Hughes.” Classics are timeless.)

One of the many wonderful things about this show is, of course, Daniel Levy’s creation of a fictional small town with no homophobia.

I’ve been out for 30 years, with my partner for over 20 in a marriage that is embraced by our families, teach at a school with a critical mass of queer folks, worship in a progressive, queer-friendly temple, and live in a blue state. Basically, I’ve got about as good as it gets. And so I was surprised at just how powerful and moving I found the queer-positive imagined world of Schitt’s Creek.

Reflections on those snapshots: Pride Month is normally something I mostly ignore (in part because the end of the school year always trumps everything else), but this June it was meaningful and politically resonant for me in a way that it hasn’t been for ages. I give Schitt’s Creek most of the credit for this change, although a new presidential administration is undoubtedly helping.

Wait a minute. An experience of queer joy gave me energy to think anew about queer justice? Hmm.

And then I started thinking about an experience I had years ago. I was teaching at an increasingly conservative Roman Catholic college where I was literally the only openly gay employee in the 200-year history of the school. I was the co-advisor of the student LGBTQ group with a wonderful priest, who used his authority to sanction the group, God bless him, but who also kept the message of the club within orthodox limits. So basically the only official message we could give students was “God loves you” and “hatred against gay people is wrong.” (I, of course, said quite a few unorthodox things outside of official club time.) As a result, we spent so much time talking about hate crimes and other miseries, because everyone official could agree only that murdering gay people was definitely wrong. It was SO depressing. If the best that someone official can say is “no one should kill you just because you’re gay,” that is hardly a life-affirming message!

So now I’m wondering: Does sitting in my class, learning about slavery and oppression and racism, sometimes feel to students of color like that student group used to feel to me, that we are focusing only on the grim stuff and not on the wonder and joy of their communities and identities?

I don’t think that our studying the Holocaust — grim as it obviously is — felt quite this despairing to my students, because a Jewish teacher and a critical mass of Jewish students were obviously a testament to Jewish spirit and survival. There aren’t so many openly queer students at my school, but there are so many out teachers and administrators leading obviously happy lives and clearly loved within the community that I don’t think learning about anti-gay history felt so devastating.

But the experience of racism and students of color is very different. We do not have a critical mass of students of color, and we have even fewer adults of color at school. (We’re working on it, but progress is slow.) And of course we are surrounded every day by the racism of American culture. Students need to learn their history, understand the rhetoric that is used against communities of color, and master the art and skills of standing for justice, as well as knowing deeply the necessity of doing so.

So the question before me, as I plan for the next year: How to teach for both joy and justice? How to provide students of color and white students with the learning they need to understand the society in which they live AND help them celebrate the extraordinarily rich cultures they are part of? How to avoid teaching only a single, depressing story about the many vibrant cultures that make up our student body?

I don’t know exactly what this new approach is going to look like, but I know that it requires a multivocal approach. No one voice can represent any culture, and I have to make sure our class is telling multiple stories. In other words, to use my earlier example, I would want to teach perhaps the gay-baiting of McCarthyism (oppression), the Stonewall riots (standing up for justice), and Schitt’s Creek (the joy of queer life).

So guess what the rest of my summer is looking like? Finding examples of JOY! Yes, Frederick Douglass’s Narrative is important to read, but so are texts about Black joy. It’s important that the latter be integral to the course and not feel like a box to be checked.

So this is why I have been thinking about Frederick Douglass and Schitt’s Creek for weeks now.

I have a lot of work to do. I’m eager for suggestions, thoughts, reactions, and text suggestions.

Ungrading (plus welcome back to me!)

Well, here I am again in the blogosphere after two years’ absence. It occurred to me this week that resurrecting this blog could be a good platform for thinking through some of my teaching ideas from this last, pandemic/BLM year and from some pedagogical experiments I’ve tried. So here goes:

I have always been known as a hard grader, by which students meant that I had high standards and assigned grades accordingly. At the same time, my reputation has been (accurately, I think) that students learn a lot and become much stronger writers in my course. As one former student/advisee said, “She’ll kick your butt, but in a good way.” I’ve been reasonably happy with that pair of characteristics, but it’s also true that at the end of every year, I have felt discouragement because (a) most students didn’t grow as much as I’d hoped, and (b) the grades I assigned never quite seemed to accurately represent the students’ journey of the year.

So this past year I tried an experiment in one of my classes, and it went SO well! For my junior AP English class, I adopted a policy of “ungrading.” (N.B., I got the support of my department head and the permission of my division head before trying this experiment, and I limited this experiment to a course for which I was teaching all of the sections at my school, so I wasn’t imposing my experiment on a fellow teacher.) Here are the basics of the plan:

  • I didn’t assign any grades during the term, and only assigned a trimester grade at the end of each term.
  • Our class philosophy was “it’s not over ’til it’s over,” and so any and every assignment could be revised. Mostly the way this revision worked is that students turned in a portfolio of revised work at the end of each term.
  • I was strongly and explicitly anti-averaging, a stance I adopted after reading Ken O’Connor’s How to Grade for Learning, K-12 (Corwin, 2009, 3rd ed.). The reasons I laid out for students was that (a) I wanted them to take risks, but they needed to trust that not doing well on a specific assignment would not drag down their overall grade; and (b) I don’t care how long it takes a student to learn something as long as she eventually learns it. The goal is to keep growing all year long.
  • I used the ongoing metaphor of learning to drive: You expect to make a lot of mistakes along the way and, indeed, we should recognize that mistakes are how we learn; ideally, those mistakes are made in a safe environment in which there’s no penalty for making them; the goal is to be a safe, adept driver by the end, but your earliest attempts won’t get averaged in with your final performance on the driving test (because if they were, no one would ever get a driver’s license!); even once you’re a good driver, you can keep refining your skills, and even accomplished drivers will sometimes be challenged by new goals or circumstances (different weather conditions, a tricky road, a new vehicle).
  • As part of the no-averaging policy, the term grades were simply indications of how the student was doing at that time; I didn’t average the term grades to arrive at a year-end grade. There was no number-crunching involved in arriving at grades.
  • The gradebook was simply an indication of which assignments were turned in and which weren’t, not of the grade students were earning. (The Schoology gradebook did not work very well for this project; my school is switching over to Canvas for next year, and apparently that LMS gradebook will do this work better.)
  • Students assessed their own learning and performance in a detailed way each term and assigned themselves a grade. I still took the responsibility of officially assigning the grade, but for the most part I agreed with students’ self-assessment, although I occasionally had to bump up the grades of overly modest students. (Only one student had persistent delusions of grandeur, but there were other issues with that student anyway.)

When I introduced my students to this approach a few weeks into the year, there was some rejoicing and some trepidation. Over the course of the year, the rejoicing grew and the trepidation decreased, and at the end of the year the students unanimously declared that I should keep this approach for next year’s students. The one recommendation they made was that I do a more formal mid-term check-in each term and give the students a tentative letter grade then. This seems fair — after all, I’m asking the students to trust me, just as I’m trusting them, and they are all used to assessing their work by seeing the grade it’s been given — although I’ll need to think more about how to take this step without undermining the larger principle of ungrading.

One outcome of this project that I haven’t seen mentioned in any of the reading I’ve done on ungrading: The final grades were the highest across the board in all of my 20+ years of teaching, and I felt really confident that those high grades accurately reflected student learning and achievement! Students were more willing to keep working and revising and trying because they knew that all of that work would actually be reflected in their grade. It’s certainly not the case that students stopped worrying about grades — they are, after all, high-achieving students taking AP courses in a competitive school who have been trained for most of their lives to see a good grade as the goal — but they did seem to trust the process and operate in good faith that their improved abilities would result in a higher grade. My favorite part was that there was never a moment when a student would sigh and say, “well, the best that I can get in this course is an A-/B/whatever.” That is, there was no mathematically-derived ceiling on how well they could do, and so they never stopped working and caring. I understand that this result is at least partly about students’ still being extrinsically motivated by grades, but I’m pretty clear that my one course is not going to change students’ overall orientation toward grades; after all, they are still getting traditional grades in all of their other courses. But at least they learned and grew in my course a lot more than they probably otherwise would have done.

Speaking of the reading I’ve done:

At the end of the year, I asked students in their final reflection to give next year’s students advice about how to thrive in the course. (Why didn’t I ever think to do this before?) None of them mentioned ungrading — maybe because I had already asked about it in a different question — but one student gave this advice, which beautifully encapsulates the attitude I was hoping that students would take as part of this ungrading system:

I would say embrace the revision process and the peer review process. Revision is a way to visibly see your progress. The point of revision is to make your essay better than before, so don’t feel bad if you look back at an essay and think it’s really badly written. It just means you’ve improved since then.

One change I do want to think about for next year is shifting the thinking from *making the essay better* to *becoming a stronger and more thoughtful writer, who is thus able to make this particular essay better*. Clearly I have continued thinking to do over the summer and during Ungrading 2.0 next year.

I am eager for conversation! (Indeed, I just took the totally unexpected step of setting myself up with a Twitter account — @KarenAKeely — since I think that’s where a lot of broader education conversations are happening these days. Not that I’ve done anything with it yet, but that’s a project for this summer.) I’d love to hear about other folks’ thoughts on and experiments with ungrading.

Building an Internal Library

This post was originally published today on Dana Hall School’s blog, The Roar.

On April 12, 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. was arrested in Birmingham, Alabama, for marching for civil rights without a permit; he remained in jail for 11 days, during which he wrote his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” That is, 56 years ago this very week, King was in jail and writing the Letter that continues to inspire thousands of people.

My students and I read King’s Letter fairly early in the year whenever I teach AP English Language and Composition, both because it is brilliant in its own right and because it lays the groundwork for my pedagogy of asking students to begin building what I call “an internal library.”

One of the many things that astonishes me about King’s Letter is that he wrote it under such adverse circumstances. An ally smuggled into his jail cell the newspaper that contained a statement by eight white Alabama clergymen denouncing King’s activities, and he immediately began writing a response. As he later explained, “Begun on the margins of the newspaper in which the statement appeared while I was in jail, the letter was continued on scraps of writing paper supplied by a friendly black trusty, and concluded on a pad my attorneys were eventually permitted to leave me.”

And yet, sitting there in his jail cell, writing on scraps of paper and with nary a book in sight, King draws powerfully on 2,000 years of resources. He discusses ancient and modern history as well as current events. He quotes from the bible, from legal statements, from Abraham Lincoln and from Martin Luther. And he can do all of this because he essentially carries those writings within himself. In my imagination, I see him going into his own mind and browsing the bookshelves of the extensive library that resides there.

An internal library helped King write an extraordinary manifesto of civil rights, and that Letter has in turn become part of my own internal library. I turn to it often when I’m trying to work through the right and wrong of a situation … and by “turn to it,” I mean that I call up the relevant passages in my mind. Yes, I could easily look it up on the internet, but I know it well and can simply flip to the passages I want in my own mind. My internal library comes nowhere close to rivaling King’s, but in just this past week, I have pulled King, Henry David Thoreau, and Emily Dickinson off the bookshelves of my mind so that I can consult and quote from them.

And so I have my students begin to build their own internal libraries. My AP English Language and Composition students select and memorize five lines from King’s Letter that they can imagine wanting to consult in the future. My US History students this winter memorized and recited Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address” so that “of the people, by the people, for the people” now lives within them. I asked my seniors this month to choose five books from their high school reading that they want to be able to carry around with them mentally. And later this spring, my ninth graders will memorize the speech of their choice from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and I will tell them the story of a wonderful spring day several years ago, when my class was performing the final act from the play for some visiting grandparents. As one student began speaking Macbeth’s “out, out, brief candle!” speech, a grandmother began delightedly reciting it with her, having learned it in her own high school days. There could have been no better lesson in the joy that comes from a well-built and well-maintained internal library.

What’s on your own library shelves?

Separating the performance from the mitzvah

I chanted Torah at Shabbat service this past Saturday … and let’s just acknowledge that I didn’t do so particularly well.

I’ve only been Jewish for three years, and I did not grow up hearing these melodies or studying Hebrew, so I find it all quite a challenge. I’ve now chanted Torah five times (including at my adult Bat Mitzvah), and only one of those could be counted a success. I have shed many tears along the way, including slipping out of the sanctuary to go cry in the bathroom after the total debacle of my second time leyning. After that low point, a Jewish friend reminded me that leyning was a mitzvah entirely aside from how well I pronounced words or hit the right notes, and ever since then I’ve been trying to separate the performance from the mitzvah.

This of course is not a universally held belief; as explained by Joshua R. Jacobson’s Chanting the Hebrew Bible, the Talmud includes the following admonition: “Rabbi Shefatiah further said in the name of Rabbi Yohanan: If one reads Scripture without a melody or learns the Mishnah without a tune, of him the Scripture says (Ezekiel 20:25), ‘Do they think I gave them laws that were not good?’” (318). There is always an expert reader standing nearby with a Torah in codex form (which I’ve just this minute learned is called a chumash as opposed to the Torah sefer, which is the scroll), and I had always assumed that this person was there to help along the non-expert chanter. But apparently in some temples that person is there to correct any mispronunciations, and a friend said to me last week that she thinks of that person as standing by in judgment. This had never occurred to me and fortunately is not the spirit in my synagogue. Before my shaky leyning on Saturday morning, I said to the rabbi, “I’ve been working really hard, but I’m probably going to need help in some rough spots,” and she immediately replied, “I’m there for you, babe” … which indeed she was!

Okay, back to the point I was making, which is that my friend reminded me that chanting Torah in a worship service is a mitzvah in a way that is entirely separate from the quality of my chanting, and her comment inspired me to work toward separating the performance from the mitzvah. The former is so much about my ego and how I hope to be perceived by others. But my shaky chanting is not meant as disrespect for G-d; it is rather about my ongoing learning. Every time I’ve chanted, I’ve learned something new; for example, this past time was my first time using my new “Torah reader’s compendium” that includes pointed Hebrew (with vowels) and Torah Hebrew (with no vowels and all sorts of crowns and decorations that are really hard for a newbie reader!), and by the end of my studying, I could find my place relatively easy in the Hebrew, which was a huge advance for me. So is G-d honored more by my struggling to learn to chant Torah in Hebrew or by my refusing to chant because I won’t do it that well? I’d argue for the former.

After Shabbat service, I went home and took a nap — chanting Torah is exhausting! — and then I went off to school that evening for the annual freshman talent show. I really don’t care for talent shows as a rule; I am given to second-hand embarrassment from poor performances, which are inevitable in any talent show. So this is not my favorite student event of the year, to say the least. But the day before, a colleague had commented at lunch, “You know, it’s great to work at a school that encourages 9th-graders to take a risk on stage in front of a packed audience.” Hmm, food for thought.

So as I was sitting in the audience, watching some great acts and some not so great, I was thinking about my own assertion from that very morning that the quality of the performance is not equal to the value of the performance. This freshman event is important because it gives students the opportunity to work together to create something larger than any one of them; it creates esprit de corps in the class and gives many students a new confidence. So maybe how well any one kid sang or danced is really not so important.

When I used to teach at a Roman Catholic college, the freshman seminar professors were required to teach Dorothy Sayers’s 1942 essay “Why Work?” One of her arguments is that only good craftsmanship can honor G-d: “No crooked table legs or ill-fitting drawers ever, I dare swear, came out of the carpenter’s shop at Nazareth. … No piety in the worker will compensate for work that is not true to itself; for any work that is untrue to its own technique is a living lie. … [The church has forgotten] that a building must be good architecture before it can be a good church; that a painting must be well painted before it can be a good sacred picture; that work must be good work before it can call itself God’s work.” Students always got really mad about this statement and almost universally disagreed with Sayers.

As do I … and yet, I do believe that good work is worth doing well. There’s a Jewish principle of hiddur mitzvah — enhancing a mitzvah through attention to aesthetics. On the one hand, I find that lovely; on the other hand, the Protestantism of my youth means that I get uncomfortable with too much liturgical ornamentation. (I vividly remember the first Episcopal church service I attended; when the priest processed into the congregation holding up a gold-bound bible, and everyone turned toward said bible, I got very agitated about bibliolatry! You can imagine that the silver Torah crowns cause me some uneasiness every week.)

All of which is to say that I’m of two — or three, or four — minds about my own claim of separating performance from mitzvah. I’m probably quite inconsistent logically on this point. But what I do know is that this separation is what’s allowed me to even embark on the project of learning to leyn, and my 9th-grade students to embark on singing and dancing and acting on stage. And maybe the results of this doctrine are valuable enough to warrant holding on to it, even if I prove inconsistent in its application.

Procrastinating productively & eschewing urgency

I’m having an overly challenging year, mostly due to situations of my own contriving: two brand-new course preps and too many volunteer obligations. I’ve learned my lesson; eagerness for new challenges is one thing, and wearing myself out is entirely another! So I will make better decisions in future years, but in the meantime, I have this challenging year to get through. But I hate having “just get through this” as my daily mantra! I want to thrive, not just survive. So I’ve thought a lot over winter break about the “thriving” part that has been missing during the first half of the year and how to get it back.

And here’s what I’ve come up with: I miss the productive procrastination that has traditionally been a major part of my work life. Years ago, when I read John Perry’s essay on “structured procrastination,” I felt a wonderful rush of recognition: Someone had put into words what I’d been doing for ages! Perry writes,

“the procrastinator can be motivated to do difficult, timely and important tasks, as long as these tasks are a way of not doing something more important. … The list of tasks one has in mind will be ordered by importance. Tasks that seem most urgent and important are on top. But there are also worthwhile tasks to perform lower down on the list. Doing these tasks becomes a way of not doing the things higher up on the list. With this sort of appropriate task structure, the procrastinator becomes a useful citizen. Indeed, the procrastinator can even acquire, as I have, a reputation for getting a lot done.”

For years I’ve been doing interesting (at least to me) work that isn’t urgent, which I do mostly by taking advantage of the time that more conscientious teachers would fill with urgent work. This often takes the form of not wanting to grade and so therefore spending time thinking about the novel I’m teaching or writing new and interesting assignments. So my students are actually beneficiaries of my productive procrastination; it might take another day or two to get back their papers, but our class and our work together is more engaging. (And even then, I’m not actually slow about getting back work; I just have an overactive conscience in this regard.) But it also takes the form of reading and thinking and sometimes writing about things that aren’t related to school at all but that help me keep learning and being an interested (and therefore interesting) person.

But because of the two new course preps and the fact that I’m also teaching an extra class this year (a one-time favor to the department that I won’t be repeating, because it’s wearing me out!), I went into this year determined to stay on top of things, to be extra organized, to grade and return everything as quickly as I can, to make the best possible use of my time so that I don’t drop all of the balls that I’m trying to juggle.

The result: I’m having less fun and feeling less creative, and I’ve been dropping balls anyway.

So here are my New Year’s resolutions for the rest of the school year:

  • Eschew urgency. Resist as much as possible the sense that everything is on a tight deadline, because it probably really isn’t. (Dave Stuart, Jr. helpfully wrote a blog post on this very point just yesterday.)
  • Welcome my own tendency to productively procrastinate. Sometimes my inner Calvinist gets on my case and makes me feel bad about being a slacker, and that has absolutely been the case this past fall. But if “slacking” really just means “reading and writing things that aren’t immediately necessary,” then slacking is the recipe for the good life! Notice that I haven’t written in this blog for over two months, because there was always something that was urgent waiting for me, and clearly the blog doesn’t need to be written; but today, with grading awaiting me, I decided to write this instead — and of course the grading will still get done, because it has to.

And, in a larger way,

  • Seriously rethink the “more is better” tendency that my pedagogy has taken over the last few years. With the best of intentions, I’ve kept adding to the thinking and the work that I do for and about my students. Yes, I’m a better teacher now than when I began, but I’m also more exhausted. And when I wear myself out over a class, I always need to stop and ask myself if I’m wearing out my students as well.

I have a lot more thinking to do on that last point especially … and I’m totally going to do that thinking at some point, perhaps when I really ought to be doing something else.

How to act on my new ideas about grading?

I did a lot of reading last spring about how to assign grades such that they reflect students’ actual learning, rather than their compliance or timeliness or enthusiasm or other things that are fine qualities but not the same as learning. In particular, I became a big fan of Ken O’Connor’s How to Grade for Learning. Of course, putting his ideas into practice is an uphill job, given that I teach at a school with traditional grades, but I’m trying to build his ideas into my approach for grading within my traditional context.

One thing in particular that O’Connor convinced me of is that we should move away from averages for calculating grades, for “The mean always lets the bad overtake the good so that for every low mark earned, a student needs many good marks to return to his or her real level” (157) — something that probably every teacher has recognized at some point. If we must use a centralizing tendency, he argues, we would be better off using the median or the mode as a more accurate picture of  students’ learning, although even then he warns that “the more inconsistent a student’s performance is, the more none of the measures of central tendency work” (157). However, our online course management system calculates final grades only through averaging grades, and there isn’t really a way to disable that component of the system.

The most important point for me was O’Connor’s argument that “learning is incremental. Determining a grade should, therefore, be based on the trend in the student’s performance with considerable emphasis on the more recent assessments” (157). I think about this particularly with my 9th-graders, who learn and grow so much with every passing month; why shouldn’t their grade reflect what they know at the end of the term rather than how long it took them to get there?

I tried to craft my gradebook this year in light of what I had learned by following in the footsteps of a colleague who sets up two categories in his gradebook: working toward mastery (worth only 10% or so) and demonstrating mastery (90%). So homework and quizzes and the like would actually be worth very little for the term grade, and the term grade would essentially be based on only a few major assignments such as essays. And I’m feeling pretty good about how this system is working thus far for my 11th- and 12th-grade students …

… but it turns out that my 9th-grade students are a different story. I realized today that I pretty much want *everything* they do to be in the “working toward mastery” category because they really do know so much more with each passing week. I basically want everything to be practice until some future point when I’m finally willing to count their work as a true representation of their learning … maybe in June? Okay, so I need to give them a term grade in November, but what should be included in that grade if I really do want it to reflect what they can do in November rather than some average with what they could do in their first month of high school? At this point, every grade I’ve given has been in the “working toward mastery” category.

One option I’ve considered is to have the students submit a portfolio of revised writing at the end of the term, and only that portfolio grade would be in the “demonstrating mastery” category. On the one hand, that strikes me as odd … and on the other hand, it makes a lot of sense. It would mean that only revised work would count as demonstrating mastery, and the term grade would by necessity emphasize what they’ve done at the end of the term, since that’s when the portfolio would be due.

Life was so much easier when I was a college professor and assigned only two essays and a final exam!

I’d love to hear folks’ thoughts on how you’ve set up your assignments and gradebook so that the term grade reflects as accurately as possible what the students have actually learned. It’s one thing to talk philosophically or abstractly about student learning, but I find the rubber-meets-the-road gradebook to be the challenge. I’m interested in what other teachers are doing!

Rebounding and rebooting

This year has been a hard reentry to school. A couple of new course preps, and a couple of new novels in the one “old” prep, mean that I have felt behind from the beginning of the year. I normally am a pretty organized teacher and school community member (although, sadly, that organization has never reached into my out-of-school life), but I’ve dropped balls regularly in the last month and a half.

A week ago Wednesday I hit a particularly low point … but the beauty of a good cry is that I often start feeling better pretty quickly afterward. It helped enormously that this past weekend was Columbus/Indigenous Peoples’ Day, and I took full advantage of the extra time to both catch up on some work and to get much-needed rest.

I did my best to limit my grading work to Saturday morning, when I was proctoring SATs, and Monday morning, when I was doing some volunteer work that required my presence only. That limitation meant that was I was focused and productive during those two sessions and that I felt no grading guilt during the rest of the weekend. And this experience reminds me of the importance of placing constraints on my working time — something I have not paid any attention to in the start of the year. (I reread some helpful advice on how a fixed schedule or time constraints can help productivity — and thus lessen guilt! See Dave Stuart, Jr. on Cal Newport here, as well as a good post from Dave back in 2015 about his fixed schedule for that year.)

I also took some time that weekend to not only sleep but also relax. I read a mystery novel just for fun, and I cross-stitched while listening to podcasts, which is one of my favorite R&R activities. And one of those podcasts happened to be Angela Watson (whose podcasts I’ve been listening to for a few years) on “How to Beat the October Blues” — perfect!

I really did feel like a new woman when I returned to school on Tuesday. And now that I’m in rebound mode, I’m also rebooting, giving myself what amounts to a new start for the school year. Sure, we’re six weeks into school … but we’re only six weeks into school, which means that most of the year is remaining. I’m not so much putting new ideas into place as I am remembering the old ideas that I wanted to keep working on but got too overwhelmed in September to deal with.

American Sign Language & class participation

“Things I’ve learned from my students” could obviously be the title of a very long series of blog posts! Here’s a cool thing I learned from my ninth-graders this week:

We were having a lively class discussion about Jean Kwok’s Girl in Translation, which was their required summer reading. It’s early days in the course, I want as many of them participating as possible, and both of my frosh courses are filled with eager students who want to chime in — hurrah! But we all know how challenging it can be to facilitate a conversation with lots of student hands up in the air. A good problem to have, but still! Am I calling on students equally? Are they listening to one another or just waiting to make their own point? Is the conversation going in circles or heading somewhere? How is the timing working?

During one of the conversational moments yesterday afternoon with lots of hands in the air, I called on a student, who gave a thoughtful answer. And then an unexpected thing happened: The other students who’d had their hands in the air, and who were clearly going to give a similar answer, started jiggling their right hands with their thumbs and pinkies in a Y shape with the other fingers curled down. What on earth?

And so I asked them: What on earth are you doing? What is this sign you’re making?

“Oh, it’s sign language for ‘me too. I agree.'” (Here’s someone demonstrating it.)

I agree, ASL


What a fabulous way to get students listening to one another! And participating actively even when they’re not speaking! I told the class how exciting I found it to have so many “voices” chiming in even when people weren’t speaking. I said right then and there that I totally loved this and that I want us to keep this signing going in class.

I figured it must have come from one of the middle schoolers, but I asked a group of those teachers at lunch today, and they all agreed that it was fabulous, but no one knew who had started it. But several of them said that when one or more of their students had done it in class in the last couple of years, they too had loved it and had gotten others doing it. So maybe this is something that’s been spreading almost organically in our middle school and has only now filtered up to the middle school (to mix a metaphor)? But I’m not satisfied to leave it as organic; I want to institute this as part of our class conversation habits!

I asked the students what they did when they disagreed. Did they do a thumbs down or something? No, they said, they just didn’t do anything. But I don’t love the idea that you can only chime in soundlessly if you are in agreement. I don’t want to make this too complicated — the simplicity is part of the beauty — but I wonder if it’s worthwhile teaching them the sign for “disagree” as well? (Demonstrated here.)

Have you seen this at your school, and my school is only now catching up? Can you think of other ways we could be incorporating such non-verbal participation into class discussions? I’m so excited by the possibilities! I think I may use it just with my 9th-graders for now, since many of them are already doing it, and then perhaps expand it to my older students.

Authorial intent and Talmud

I said in my first blog post that teaching and reading and writing and being Jewish all overlap in my mind, and here is the perfect example:

Yesterday in Torah study, the rabbi reminded us of the famous “oven of Achnai” story in the Talmud (Beva Metzia 59b):

We have been taught: In the case of a person who made an oven by cutting coils of clay and placing them one on top of the other — Rabbi Eliezer declared that such an oven is not susceptible to defilement, but the Sages said it is. The oven discussed is called “the oven of Achnai” — “a snake” — because they heaped arguments around it like a snake.

On that day, Rabbi Eliezer brought forward every possible legal argument in the world [to support his viewpoint], but the Sages did not accept any of them. He said to them: “If the halakhah [the ‘correct’ legal ruling, ‘the way to go’] should be according to my opinion, let this carob tree prove it!” The carob tree became uprooted from its place, and jumped 100 cubits high into the air — some people say it was 400 cubits high. But the Sages said to him: “We do not accept testimony from carob trees.” Once again he said to them: “If the halakhah should be according to my opinion, let this channel of water prove it!” The channel of water began to flow backwards. But the Sages said to him: “We do not accept testimony from channels of water.” Once again he said to them: “If the halakhah should be according to my opinion, let the walls of the House of Study prove it!” The walls of the House of Study began to tilt as if they would fall. But Rabbi Yehoshua rebuked the walls, saying: “If students of Torah are arguing with each other about matters of halakhah, what should it matter to you?!” They did not fall, out of deference to Rabbi Yehoshua, but they did not straighten up, out of deference to Rabbi Eliezer. To this day, they are still tilted. Once again, Rabbi Eliezer said to them: “If the halakhah should be according to my opinion, let the Heavens prove it!” A Divine Voice [bat kol] called out from the Heavens and said: “Why do you dispute Rabbi Eliezer, with whom the halakhah always agrees?!” But Rabbi Yehoshua stood up on his feet and quoted (Deuteronomy 30:12): “It [the Torah] is not in heaven!”

— What does “It is not in heaven” mean? Rabbi Jeremiah said: It means that because the Torah was given to us at Mount Sinai, we do not make rulings according to the Divine Voice. Rather, it is written in Torah (Exodus 23:2): “After the majority must you incline.”

Later, Rabbi Natan met up with Elijah the Prophet and asked, “What did the Holy One blessed be He do at that moment [of the discussion]?” He said: “He smiled [with joy] and said: ‘My children have defeated me, my children have defeated me.'”

There is so much that is fabulous in that Talmud story, but the English teacher in me always seizes on the fact that the author (or, in this case, Author) stops having complete ownership over the text once it is published. It now belongs to the readers, and we can do what we like with it, including things that the author might not have envisioned and might not be particularly happy about. (I’m talking here about making meaning, not about copyright and legal ownership, obviously.)

One of the things that my students regularly ask me — and I’m sure the true of every literature teacher out there — is “but is that really what the author meant?” And one answer, of course, is “it doesn’t matter one whit what the author meant.” I usually go for the milder “There are often things in the text that the author him or herself doesn’t recognize, including assumptions and worldviews that the author is blind to. And the readers are partners with the author in making meaning out of the text. Authors may write with an audience in mind, but they can’t control what the audience thinks or how they respond.”

In another direction: One person in the Torah study yesterday gave the example of teaching his daughter to play chess and the sheer joy he felt when she then beat him at the very game he’d taught her. That’s another lovely reading of the Talmud story for teachers: “Listen, I’ll teach you what I know, and I’m hoping you’ll go on and know much more than I do.”

And on that note, it’s time for me to go practice chanting the blessing before and after the Haftorah for tomorrow morning’s Rosh Hashanah service (which me luck!) and to wish you all l’shana tova, Happy New Year!

Thinking about students’ key beliefs and questions

Dave Stuart, Jr. (whose blog and whose book These 6 Things: How to Focus Your Teaching on What Matters Most I highly recommend) talks about “the five research-based key beliefs that drive student learning behaviors” (T6T 27-28):

  1. Credibility: I believe in my teacher. (She knows her stuff, treats people fairly, and cares about me as a person and a learner.)
  2. Belonging: I belong in this classroom. (People like me belong in this space and can do this work.)
  3. Effort: I can improve through my effort. (Basically growth mindset — doing well at this subject isn’t just about inherent qualities but is about putting in the work with effective feedback.)
  4. Efficacy: I can succeed at this. (I can actually do this work — if not now, then eventually.)
  5. Value: This work has value for me. (There are connections between the work of this course and the things I care about or want to do.)

Dave talks about all of these in chapter 2 of These 6 Things (and at greater length in his online course on student motivation), and one of my goals for this year is to cultivate those beliefs in my students. After all, what’s the point in my showing up each day if students are convinced that there’s no point to what we’re doing or that people like them can’t succeed in my classroom or that I don’t really care about them?

And then this week, during our teacher meetings before school starts next week, a colleague reminded me of the work of Rosetta Lee, a diversity educator who teaches at Seattle Girls’ School. I’d first heard of her work a couple years ago at a one-day diversity education workshop done by the same folks who direct the annual summer Multicultural Teaching Institute at Meadowbrook School in Weston, MA. My colleague had been to MTI this past summer and shared with us Rosetta Lee’s work, which prompted me to remember my own exposure to her ideas.

(Side note to add that this forgetfulness of mine is one of the things I worry about even with excellent professional development opportunities. I can be inspired by something I hear in a one-day or even one-week workshop, but it’s so easy then to forget about it once I’m back in my regular surroundings. How do we hold onto the great stuff we learn so that we can actually build on it in our normal school lives? This blog is one attempt to write about and therefore actually learn the things that I hear about.)

Anyway, Rosetta Lee argues that students — particularly students of color and those who are marginalized in some way — have four questions of any teacher or new educational experience:

  1. Do you see me? (Do I think you care about me? Am I represented in the curriculum and on the walls of the classroom/school?
  2. Do you hear me? (Do you acknowledge my previous experiences and my previous knowledge? Do you seek and respond to student feedback? Are you empathetic? Do you give students some choices?)
  3. Will you treat me fairly? (Are the expectations clear? Will you support me if I struggle? Is there consistency in our classroom?)
  4. Will you protect me? (Do you understand my identity and experience even if you don’t share it? Will you interrupt exclusive or oppressive behaviors? Do you get cultural differences?)

It’s interesting to put these two lists together. I think that Rosetta Lee’s questions mostly fit into #1 and #2 of Dave Stuart’s beliefs: teacher credibility and belonging. That is, she’s breaking down and making explicit the culturally inclusive work that informs Dave’s list. (Dave is explicit about this as well, especially in his online student motivation course. I find Rosetta Lee’s four questions a helpful way to bring that cultural inclusion to the forefront of my brain.)

I’m going to make myself a sign to tape onto one of my desk drawers so that I’m literally seeing these beliefs and questions every day when I come into the classroom.