Conversation in the classroom

DISCLAIMER: This post deals with my students, ALL of whom are seniors in high school, MANY of whom are college bound and need my class to graduate. Thus, I know that my experience is at least somewhat unique in that there is a significant amount of buy-in for my students to work in class and complete the assignments in my classroom with a limited amount of pushback.

One of the things I’ve done in my classroom this year is to group my students into “writing cohorts”. I took my cue from my OWP 4-week last year.

I tried this last year, but it failed miserably after a few days. My problem was that I had arbitrarily grouped my students before I even met them. I randomly assigned seats in ProgressBook and then arranged the desks into convenient groups, with complete disregard for student personalities, friendships, beefs, relationships, etc.

This year, I tried something different.

My research focus this year is on conversation in the writing process, and it started out with conversations between ME and the STUDENTS. I quickly realized, however, that I would have to shift that dynamic if I had any hope of helping all of my students, rather than the 4 or 5 neediest kids in my class. With this in mind, I thought back to the writing cohorts from OWP. Sure, I had tried it in the past, but this year was going to be different. After reading Keri Franklin’s English Journal article, “Thank You for Sharing: Developing Students’ Social Skills to Improve Peer Writing Conferences” (Vol. 99, No. 5 [May 2010], pp. 79-84) I got the idea to give the students most of the input in the selection of their writing cohorts. I made copies of the seating chart and asked them to identify students that they were willing to work with, students they didn’t want to work with, and if they were willing to work with anyone. This allowed me to group them with students they liked/respected over the course of the next few weeks/months. Sure it took some legwork on my part (see the chart below) but in the end, the groups have overall worked very well together.

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The big change that I made (aside from letting the students basically pick their groups) was that I didn’t group them until about week 8 of the school year. Until this point, they were sitting in rows, working relatively independently, occasionally with random partners or row mates. But since the end of September, they’ve been in these writing cohorts every day.

One unexpected benefit was in handing out work/small group assignments. While the primary function of these groups is to work on writing assignments with a built in peer network, having the students in groups has been handy in passing out things like reading packets or completing small group activities.

There has also been an unexpected issue (well, not unexpected, but something I had to deal with). One of the things I have had to constantly remind myself of, and something that I am mindful of every single day, is the idea of letting go and letting the kids talk. A primary focus of my research is: what effect the simple act of conversation has on my students’ writing. So that means…letting them talk. It’s tough for me, as I am generally a teacher that prefers a quiet, “focused” group of students. I don’t shush a lot, but before this year, I would find myself redirecting students frequently on work days.

Now, some of you can already see the problem here. When they’re writing, most of the time, they’re actually working, but on those days when we’re not working on a writing assignment, I was struggling with chattiness and TOO MUCH conversation. It was difficult to manage the chaos, and I felt myself losing them.

Here was my solution: give them time to talk at the beginning of class.

I had a conversation with each of my classes about the chattiness and the side-conversations. I suggested that I give them 2 minutes at the beginning of each class to just talk to their friends/cohort. BUT! after that 2 minutes, we would get to work. I start each class with a poem, an image and 5 minutes of journaling. With this structure in mind, I had to give them 2 minutes of the remaining 45 minutes, but hopefully it will be worth it in terms of work gained later in the bell.

It’s been two days, and so far two of my three classes have adapted well, the third is it’s own special snowflake that I’ll have to explain on another day, but…so far, so good.

So do me a favor, and let your kids talk sometimes. They spend so much of their lives staring at a screen that they really do need that face-to-face interaction with their peer sometimes. And if we don’t give them that time, they might not get it anywhere else.


The very essence of Action Research…Try it out and see.

I am so overwhelmed right now, however, I did settle on a framework for my research this year.

Last night, after putting Yelka down, I came back into the bedroom at 11:45 PM and realized that what I am doing is following a pattern. This is the framework for my research and how I will be moving forward.

The point that I have been dancing around is trying out different conferencing strategies, the purpose is on the DRAFTING process, not on the REVISION process, so my conferences are taking place before a final product is complete. I think that a lot of my students (and a lot of our structure) are revision averse. While I value revision, our curriculum and department do not. Otherwise, there would be a bigger push for more room for writing. Instead, we are often confronted with a stack of content to cover, and revision takes a backseat…


I have thus far tested/implemented 3 conferencing strategies and I have a 4th on the way.

1- Peer conference Worksheet

Tried this one with our first writing assignment. The assignment was a personal narrative-ish style paper that could take any form. I asked the students to complete a short peer review form based on Barry Lane’s After the End chapter, “Don’t fix my story, just listen to me.” The students were tasked with answering the following questions:

  • Before: Where are you going with this story?
  • Before/During: What do you like about your story? What do you dislike about your story?
  • What suggestions does your peer have for you?
  • After: Plan for action…

The response was uniformly dull and barely helpful. Often the comments (if there were any) were things like, “Fix grammar” or “Add more.” I’m going to ask students to pass them back to me, if they have them, so I can get some specific responses. Overall, it was a wasted exercise, but then, for some teachers, that would be the extent of their conferencing. They might pair the students up (or allow them to pair up on their own) and then fill out a worksheet or a checklist. Useless.

2- One-on-One Teacher Conference (informal)

As the students were working on their second paper, a Rhetorical Analysis of a commercial, I decided to implement some of Carl Anderson’s strategies from How’s It Going? I circulated the room while they were working, kneeling down or sitting next to the students and asking them simply, “How’s it going?” I loved this technique, I got to speak with almost all of the students in all of my classes, I helped many of them (Laura Pirtle, and a few others) I also started keeping a log of my conferences, something that I had never done before. I used a modified/simplified version of one of the forms in Anderson’s book. This was incredibly helpful as I checked to see not only WHO I’d talked with, but what we’d talked about. As I glanced at drafts after school, I noted things to check in with students about, so when I saw them in class the next day, I knew exactly where to start the conversation.

As I was just writing that bit out, I wonder if that wasn’t the best place to START the conversation, but to maybe make sure that it was something we touched on during our conversation. Anderson advocates for letting the student’s conversation or writing drive the direction of the short, informal conferences. If I come in with an agenda, it kind of defeats some of that purpose.

I also found that I struggled with focusing on ONE THING per conference. The result (as I found in both my experience and in some of the literature I’ve been reading) was overwhelmed students and numerous repeat visits.

I also feel that sometimes I would set a student a task and then leave them to struggle with it, rather than to stay long enough to ensure that they were on the right track. Again, this resulted in numerous repeat visits.

3- Informal, Voluntary peer conferences before an On-Demand Writing

Before a recent Poetry Analysis On-Demand Writing, I gave students the option of talking through the poem and the essay for 5 minutes before they started writing. Many students took me up on the offer, and the feedback was almost uniformly positive. The essays were very good, and while I’d like to credit the brief conference, I also did many things differently this year, so I can’t really point to one thing as THE factor that made a difference.

4- Writing Groups and Small Group Conferences

Taking a cue from OWP (with some minor changes) I decided that for this next paper, a Persuasive Speech (and likely the Satire next), I would place the students into small peer groups. I was very honest with them and shared something that I discovered during the OWP Fall Conference: that many folks, writers, and teachers among them, seek feedback from a trusted cohort of mentors, peers, and friends. Folks whose opinions they value and trust. Rarely would I share my work in progress with someone I didn’t know, didn’t like, or didn’t respect, and yet we do that so often in our classrooms. How often have I paired students up to complete a peer conference on a rough draft (and provided them with a checklist, natch)?

So my plan with this next writing assignment (and one that I have started) is to group them based on an article I read by Keri Franklin, “Thank you for sharing: Developing Students’ Social Skills to Improve Peer Writing Conferences” (English Journal Vol 99. No 5 May 2010). In the article she shared how she asks students to identify 3 or 4 students they’d feel comfortable working with and then groups them according to their self-identified peer groups. On Monday, I passed out seating charts to all of my classes and asked them to fill out the following:

  • I would like to work with the following people:
  • I would not like to work with the following people:
  • I’m fine working with anyone: ______

After collecting all of the sheets, I put together a spreadsheet identifying the students and who they would and would not like to work with. After about an hour, I was able to group students according to the chart in 7 groups of 3 or 4. I’m going to put them into their groups on Thursday as we begin working on the persuasive speeches. Hopefully it’s a beneficial grouping strategy.

In addition to the groups for peer conferences and sharing within those small groups (including the ever important CONVERSATIONS that will happen in the groups [I’m also currently reading Sherry Turkle’s Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age]) I’m going to be having small group conferences, rather than individual conferences. I think that I will still have those one-on-one conversations, but I will ask the group members to stop what they’re doing and take part in the conversation as I work through a student’s paper with them. This way I will be able to touch base with groups rather than individual groups.

Again, all of these conferences are taking place within the DRAFTING process, not in the revision process. I think that it is vital to help students through these early stages, especially as we work with reluctant writers or weak writers to both help them and encourage them to continue and have success in the writing process.

I don’t think I have a set 5th stage yet, but I’m okay with that. I think that the writing cohort might work well. I’m a little worried about group dynamics, but I might be worrying about losing some of my control and letting students work with their friends. I will have to try it out and see. But I guess that’s the very essence of Action Research…Try it out and see.

9-20-17: Reflection

Thoughts on reading, “The Student-Centered Conference and the Writing Process” by Charles R. Duke from The English Journal Vol 64, No. 9 (Dec, 1975) pp 44-47.

This article made me think about how one thing I’m doing this year–which I haven’t necessarily done in years past–is conferencing with every paper. And not just conferencing, but deliberate conferencing with all of my students. In previous years, I would check in with most kids, as they needed it or asked for it. I might do a blanket check on Thesis statements, but beyond that, I let the reins out and let the students sink or swim on their own. I would probably hop onto each google doc and leave comments, but it was rare that I would check in with each student, one-on-one, for every paper.

Now, what this means for my students is that I might chat with Jacob when he’s working on his prewriting and outline, and then I’ll check in with Jenna when she’s working on her Thesis statement, I might help Sarah with her reasoning, and when I finally talk with Caleb, he’s looking for assistance with his hook and introduction. I think this is okay, especially when I only have ~40 mins a day with these students and 90 or so students.

I was also reminded of one of my students that I spent significant time with this week. Duke mentions (and Carl Anderson mentioned this…and so did Donald Murray…) that “the key to success in the conference is handling only one problem at a time” (47). When I stopped to talk to Laura about her Rhetorical Analysis, she essentially threw up her hands and said, “I don’t know what I’m doing, can you help me?” I tried to get her to clarify what she needed help with, to essentially focus our conference, but she wasn’t sure with the very basics of things like Audience and Warrant, so I had to work through each of those with her, to eventually touch on Ethos and finally Pathos and Logos. All told, over the course of a bell, I probably spent 20+ minutes with just this one student, and I’m not entirely sure she reached any kind of greater understanding with the process. The commercial she chose was pretty clear (to me, at least), but because I tried to help her through all the problems she was experiencing, I’m not confident that I was able to help her as much as I would have liked. The next time I encounter a student like that–or the next time SHE has a problem–I’ll be sure to limit myself to one discrete problem.

Another question I was thinking about as I read this article was in response to his encouragement to keep records of your conferences, specifically, that I should keep, “some kind of record of each conference” (47). He suggested things like “file cards” or “check sheets…which can…then [be] handed to the student at the conclusion of the conference” (47). This got me thinking about how I might be able to quickly make note of what was discussed and then SHARE THE RESULTS with the students. I don’t walk around with carbon paper to make quick duplicates, but neither am I particularly interested in lugging around a laptop to share a notes doc with the student. I’m also a little concerned about typing as we talk, which is inherently a distraction. I have an iPad, but I don’t like typing on it and I’m not sold on the pen/stylus option. I love my clipboard and notes sheet I have already taken to carrying (I’m using one of the simple charts that Carl Anderson shares in How’s It Going? but I’m not sure how to easily share that info with my students. I’m sure there’s an elegant solution, and I hope it’s better than sending an email to every kid at the end of the day.

Can you teach the canon in the Age of Sparknotes?



As I work through the beginning stages of my research year, I am finally faced with choosing an initial/preliminary research question.  I think that initial question will be/is, “How can I teach the canon in the age of SparkNotes?”

Here is what I had to say about the question back in my passion exercise in April:

This question has nagged at me for several years. Especially as I see students routinely read a short poem and then immediately look up sparknotes or enotes or something about it’s meaning. I have decided that I am very much a subscriber to the Reader Response theory of literary criticism, as such, I really want to hear what my students have to say about a work, even if it’s something I don’t necessarily agree with. I tell them again and again that I genuinely want to know what THEY think a work means, not what Sparknotes thinks it means. They beg off and say, “Well, it helps me understand it” which drives me crazy. So that’s a question I have. It might be too broad for our purposes, but it’s something I’ve thought about for many years.

So this tension that I’m seeing in my classroom is the problem with the constant access to validatory resources that my students can’t resist. And if it’s not for validation (in the best case), it’s used as a replacement for reading a book. I’m still worried that this question is too broad, but I know that it’s a starting point that I would like to focus on this year.

In one of my classes this summer (shout out #LitBox!) I decided to take some action when faced with this question, rather than throwing up my hands — once again — and lamenting to the heavens about the sorry state of reading in the 21st century. I don’t want to throw in the towel just yet. I would much rather think about the underlying causes to the “fake reading epidemic” and offer up some concrete solutions. I’m still struggling about how to frame this thought process into a research question, unless “How can I teach the canon in the age of SparkNotes?” is sufficient for my purpose.



Below are some other questions that I brainstormed:

Question: How can I teach the canon in the age of SparkNotes?

  • When students choose to not read a book, why aren’t they reading it?
  • Something about “Shades of non-reading” or a “continuum of non-reading”
    1. In my initial inquiry, only 2 students claimed to not read ANY books, others said that they SOMETIMES didn’t read a book. I wonder what causes students to choose to avoid reading? What is the impetus? How can I combat those impulses? Can I?
  • What concrete solutions exist to combat “fake reading”?
    1. What happens when I offer concrete solutions to student barriers to independently reading a novel?
      1. Can I offer them a toolbox to draw from? Does it ALL have to be individualized?
      2. Is it possible to generate a matrix/taxonomy of barriers to reading in order to offer solutions?
  • What’s the best way to teach a whole class novel?
  • What is the effect of student-selected text sets vs teacher-selected text sets on synthesis of meaning?

The power of conversation in the Idea Generation Process

Today I was working with my students on their “One of My Stories” assignments. This is the second year I’ve done this short assignment to start the year. Here is the assignment sheet:

I know about baking bread and growing up with a single parent and record collecting and driving a stick shift. I know about lots of other things too, like being a father, owning cats and dogs, mowing the lawn and Ohio State University. We all know about tons of stuff, and guess what, all of those things that you know about have stories that you can write about.

For this assignment, you will be writing a story about something that you know; telling us one of your stories. You all have something to say about something, this is your chance to tell us about it.

I want you to tell a new story, not that one story you always trot out on occasions like this. Those stories are worn smooth and featureless like a worry stone. Tell a story you’ve never written about, tell a happy story or a sad story or a story about something that made you mad. Whatever it is, make it yours.

This assignment can take any form, be it narrative, argument, poem, script, article, or something else entirely, just make sure you’re telling us a story. We’ll be spending the next few days working through the drafting process and turning in a semi-finished product to

I start the project by having the students brainstorm a list of “Things I can Talk About”. They take a minute or two to jot down their ideas and then I have the scratch out the word, “talk” and replace it with the word “write” (Shout out to OWP), because, as I explain to them, everything they can TALK about is something they can WRITE about.

So after they brainstorm, I had them complete the following steps today:

  1. Revisit list of “Things I can Write About”
  2. Broad Topics => More specific
  3. Pick Top 3 Topics (specific)
    1. What stories can you tell?
  4. Share stories Informally with a peer
  5. Pick best story
  6. Start drafting

I think that step 4 is especially important in this process. I think sometimes we spend too much time in our own heads in the writing process and that at a certain point (especially early on) it can be beneficial to share your ideas with someone. Even if you don’t want them to give you much feedback, just the ACT of sharing can help clarify early aspects of the writing process.

Step 2 above is in direct reference to the kids who put things like, “Music” or “Sports” or “Video Games” on their list.  I see this a lot with students who struggle with topic generation or picking something worthwhile to write about.  I ask them to be more specific, things like video games becomes the image below (my live model for the class).


“Music” becomes “The Logic concert this weekend with Jimmy and Kyle”. Several kids were tempted to write about how, “Baseball has impacted my life,” but I always try to steer them away from such boring and generic topics.

In my conversations with those students who are either leaning towards the generic personal narratives or are stuck without a topic, I try to steer them to those parts of themselves that show how complex each of them are as a person. The first baseman on the baseball team isn’t JUST a baseball player, the Drum Major isn’t JUST a band kid.

My conversations usually start with just general interests, “What are you thinking about? What things are you interested in? What do you know about?” This leads me to hear some of the topics that are on their mind. From here, I can usually gauge some source of inspiration for them. What topic is it that causes their voice to change? What are they excited about, even subconsciously?

For example- One of my Co-taught students had things like, “School – boring, senior year, lame” and “Feelings – happy, sad, tired, excited” and then “Animals- pandas – cuddly – Monkeys – almost like us – intelligent” and when I asked her about the “Monkey” line, her face lit up and she immediately started talking about how she’s always wanted a marmoset and how they stay really small, but there’s a ton of issues with them, etc. I immediately knew that she should START this assignment about monkeys, that’s where HER energy was, I could tell as soon as she started talking about it. Now, the final product might not END there, but by starting with monkeys, I know that the end result will be coming from a place of excitement and interest for this student, and by extension, the product will be exciting and interesting to read.

This happens ALL. THE. TIME. when I’m able to have these one-on-one conversations with my students. One thing I’m trying to puzzle out now is: how do I leverage that power of conversation with a student centered classroom, or rather, how can I offload some of that responsibility so that the students can have that sort of conversation amongst themselves so that more kids can arrive at that same level of interest and excitement about the writing process?

On the loss of Joy in the Secondary Classroom


Image via Chronicles of a Modern Dad

Or maybe a better title would be, “On the LACK of joy in MOST secondary classrooms”

I was thinking about this sort of thing as I started planning for the beginning of my sixth year of teaching at Milford High School. I teach all seniors, and while I think that it is very important that we treat these 17 and 18 year old young people like the adults we expect them to be, I think sometimes we forget that they aren’t quite grown up yet. I think that sometimes we don’t allow enough space for play or for lighthearted enjoyment in our classrooms. With the pressures of college, high stakes testing, jobs, sports, the stress of senior year, these kids are sometimes confronted on all sides by the serious-ness of things.

After my experience with OWP last summer, I decided to start my year off with writing on Day One, rather than with the syllabus and rules. Last year, we did a short journaling period and then some sentence stalking followed by some brainstorming. All based on student interest and a poem we read.

This year, I decided to tweak the process to focus on joy and fun. As the students walked in, I handed them a glowstick and asked them to find their seats. The lights were off and when the bell rang, I asked them all to break their glowsticks and just PLAY for a few minutes. Lots of the kids mentioned that they haven’t played with a glowstick since they were little kids. And every one of them had a smile on their faces as they waved it back and forth or made bracelets out of them.

Instead of responding to a poem or a picture, I asked them to write about something that made them happy, or a funny story, or something they were looking forward to. Then, I had them share their happy/funny/hopeful story with a partner and then we shared with the class.

I also use reward stickers on perfect quizzes (last year was Spongebob, this year is The Avengers). These small tokens of childhood help these young people reconnect with a time in their lives and school careers that were (hopefully) more enjoyable for them. I want to make a conscious effort this year to bring in more of that joy and hope as we work towards graduation. And starting this year off with joy and with fun will set the tone for my classroom.

The Butterfly Tinker

Image via Robert and Shana Parke-Harrison

Here is a short work of fiction I wrote for one of my classes this summer.  The task was to write a story inspired by an image.  I found the above image and wrote this piece. 

“The Butterfly Tinker”

The butterfly tinker sifted the pollen through his cupped palms, the flapping of the weightless insects brushed him, making no sound, only movement. They gathered on his face and he cooed to them tunelessly.

He stepped again, the golden pollen drifting to the ground in a thin carpet, the leather bottoms of his shoes marring the yellow road.

The rainbow of wings stretched behind him in a fluttering arc, ceaseless movement shimmering in spite of the iron gray featurelessness of sky. The riot of color challenging the desolation that confronted the world.

The small boy sat watching the spectacle from the back stoop of his home, his grandfather sitting next to him. His family was lucky, they were on the outer edge of the old favela, so instead of a narrow, laundry and cord strewn alley, they had the vast expanse of the wastes, crisscrossed by the massive power lines. His grandfather was telling him of the butterfly tinker, of the magic words he murmured to the colorful wings, of the swooping maneuvers they would perform for him. “But why?” the small boy wondered aloud, as his grandfather pointed his gnarled, knuckly digit to the man who was still, slowly, making his way across the wastes. “Why not?” came the old man’s voice. The little boy sat, no answer came to him.

As he watched, the butterflies scattered away from the butterfly tinker, shooting in every direction, blossoming away from him in every expanding swirls. Whirling and twisting, so fast that it startled the little boy.

And then they stopped

They were suspended in midflight, wings mid-flutter, and the little boy held his breath. He was waiting for them to fall, to tumble to the ground, lifeless.

But they didn’t.

His eyes flicked from wing to wing, from cyan to brown, to green, to peach, to an ultramarine blue and to a neon pink that hurt his eyes to look at, to silvery white and a burnt orange the color of the flames of the favela.

He felt his grandfather’s warm hand rest on his, he felt the thick knuckles grip his small hand. He began to breathe again but his eyes continued to jump from one magical butterfly to the next, from one perfectly suspended insect to another. He didn’t dare make any noise, lest he disturb whatever magic was happening right in front of him.

He looked up at his grandfather and saw a shimmer of tear tracks tracing down the deep furrowed wrinkles that criss-crossed his face. He saw the well of unshed tears in his age yellow eyes and the small smile that was turning up the corner of his lips.

He couldn’t help but smile himself and then he knew the answer to his grandfather’s question.