Pedagogical Documentation: How Writing Teachers Learn From Their Students

thefirstthing

When Allison and Rebekah asked me to begin a new year of blogging by considering the first thing I would want the writers I teach to understand, this post nearly began writing itself. You see, I’ve spent this summer learning more about the power and practice of pedagogical documentation, and this has inspired some unexpected shifts in my thinking about what matters most inside of writing classrooms.

Writers do.

Of course they do. This is a simple fact. So simple that we tend to take it for granted. It’s easy to assume that the curriculum we design is intended for our students, but when I look hard at many lessons and units, it’s clear that they were designed to meet the needs of teachers and systems, not kids. It’s easy to assume that our assessments are intended to serve learners well, but if we’re disrupting learning in order to assess it, I’m not sure we’re doing it right just yet. And when we position ourselves at the front of the classroom, we’re typically taking ownership of instruction, aren’t we?

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HAMILTON, the Mentor Text

THE NEW YOU

Image via hamiltonbroadway.com

So I’ve been thinking a lot about Hamilton. And by thinking, I mean obsessing. One morning, I was awakened at 4:00 AM by my loving and lively four-year-old, and after some time of trying to fall back into a peaceful summer slumber, the state in which she now rested, I gave in to the sunlight and began my day. My day was to consist of hard-core housecleaning and home organization, the latter, my least favorite of all the tasks on the to-do list.

My husband and children slept on, and I found myself with a few hours of quiet solitude. So, I plugged in my ear buds and got to cleaning. My playlist? The Hamilton soundtrack in its entirety – front to back, top to bottom, in order.

Besides being moved to tears more than once, I felt the way I feel when I’m reading something good, something rare, something special. Like when I read East of Eden last summer after dodging it all those years, or the first time I ever read “The Circus Animals’ Desertion” or a William Trevor story. Just sheer force and beauty, so mindblowingly beautiful you can only stand back and watch, slack jawed.

I’m sure you’ve read or seen the many Teaching Hamilton resources. Megan wrote about using Hamilton here on Moving Writers in the spring. And there are some other great ones out there – this one from The Teaching Channel, this from The New York Times learning blog, and this, especially this, from Atlantic Records and Genius.com which includes complete annotations for each and every song. How fascinating that this musical, this story, can now be a part of our classrooms and our students’ learning experiences. How novel and engaging, how exciting and challenging. To borrow a phrase, “How lucky we are to be alive right now” as educators, when hip-hop, history, and story-telling are so readily available and seamlessly blended.

Take for example the opening track: Alexander Hamilton.

The song opens with Aaron Burr’s character posing the overarching question of the play:

“How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a

Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten

Spot in the Caribbean by Providence, impoverished, in squalor

Grow up to be a hero and a scholar?”

 The lyrics continue, with several characters (who also happen to be important historical figures) delivering lines:

JOHN LAURENS:

The ten-dollar Founding Father without a father

Got a lot farther by workin’ a lot harder

By bein’ a lot smarter

By bein’ a self-starter

By fourteen, they placed him in charge of a trading charter

 THOMAS JEFFERSON:

And every day while slaves were being slaughtered and carted

Away across the waves, he struggled and kept his guard up

Inside, he was longing for something to be a part of

The brother was ready to beg, steal, borrow, or barter

JAMES MADISON:

Then a hurricane came, and devastation reigned

Our man saw his future drip, drippin’ down the drain

Put a pencil to his temple, connected it to his brain

And he wrote his first refrain, a testament to his pain

BURR:

Well the word got around, they said, “This kid is insane, man!”

Took up a collection just to send him to the mainland

“Get your education, don’t forget from whence you came, and

The world’s gonna know your name! What’s your name, man?”

ALEXANDER HAMILTON:

Alexander Hamilton

My name is Alexander Hamilton

And there’s a million things I haven’t done

But just you wait, just you wait

ELIZA HAMILTON:

When he was ten, his father split, full of it, debt-ridden

Two years later, see Alex and his mother, bed-ridden

Half-dead, sittin’ in their own sick

The scent thick

COMPANY:

And Alex got better but his mother went quick

 GEORGE WASHINGTON and (COMPANY):

Moved in with a cousin, the cousin committed suicide

Left him with nothin’ but ruined pride, somethin’ new inside

A voice saying “(Alex) you gotta fend for yourself”

He started retreatin’ and readin’ every treatise on the shelf

BURR and (COMPANY):

There would’ve been nothin’ left to do

For someone less astute

He would’ve been dead or destitute

Without a cent of restitution

Started workin’, clerkin’ for his late mother’s landlord

Tradin’ sugar cane and rum and other things he can’t afford

(Scammin’) for every book he can get his hands on

(Plannin’) for the future, see him now as he stands on

The bow of a ship headed for a new land

In New York you can be a new man

COMPANY and (HAMILTON):

In New York you can be a new man (Just you wait)

In New York you can be a new man (Just you wait)

In New York you can be a new man

WOMEN:

In New York

MEN:

New York

 HAMILTON:

Just you wait

COMPANY and (COMPANY):

Alexander Hamilton (Alexander Hamilton)

We are waiting in the wings for you (waiting in the wings for you)

You could never back down

You never learned to take your time

Oh, Alexander Hamilton (Alexander Hamilton)

When America sings for you

Will they know what you overcame?

Will they know you rewrote the game?

The world will never be the same, oh

BURR and (COMPANY):

The ship is in the harbor now, see if you can spot him

(Just you wait)

Another immigrant comin’ up from the bottom

(Just you wait)

His enemies destroyed his rep, America forgot him

MULLIGAN/MADISON AND LAFAYETTE/JEFFERSON:

We fought with him

LAURENS/PHILLIP:

Me? I died for him

WASHINGTON:

Me? I trusted him

ANGELICA SCHUYLER, ELIZA, MARIA REYNOLDS:

Me? I loved him

 BURR:

And me? I’m the damn fool that shot him

COMPANY:

There’s a million things I haven’t done

But just you wait

BURR:

What’s your name, man?

HAMILTON & COMPANY:

Alexander Hamilton!

 

As an AP Literature teacher, I’m constantly searching for unique ways into reading and writing about literature. Although it seems “there’s a million things” we could use for classroom instruction here in this first song, for my money, the song Alexander Hamilton serves as an excellent mentor text for writing about a novel’s (or any text’s) critical information and context. It perfectly and succinctly catches the audience up to speed on the first 19 years of Alexander Hamilton’s life, all while establishing themes, revealing character, and foreshadowing future conflicts in the story.

The musical functions as an answer to the question Burr initially poses. How did this unlikely immigrant become one of our country’s most important Founding Fathers?

As a fun and challenging end-novel assessment for this upcoming school-year, I’m going to have students create their own “Alexander Hamilton.” Students will, of course, need to model closely from the original, being careful of rhythm, rhyme, and form.

Here are some sample directions for students:

Your task: Create your own Alexander Hamilton song for any character from the novel we’re studying.

  • Choose a character from the novel we’ve been studying.
  • Identify an overarching question for the character that the novel provides the answer to. For example, this for The Cather in the Rye:

How does a prep-schooled, downer, brother of a kid-forgotten and a writer,

dropped in the middle of a well-trodden spot in New York City,

confused and bemused, grow up to be a symbol and martyr?

  • Determine the critical information from the novel that establishes character and theme.
  • Modeling closely from “Alexander Hamilton”, create a song or rhyming narrative poem that provides your audience with the most crucial information about the character you chose.

You should…

– Begin with the end in mind. (Like Burr’s, “I’m the damn fool who shot him.”)

– Make intentional choices about what characters deliver which lines.

– Have some fun with language, rhythm, and rhyme.

– Include the most prominent features of the song’s form.

– Create a catch phrase and refrain like “there’s a million things I haven’t done/just you wait” for the character you chose.

Besides getting a serious mental workout and having a little fun…

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So, I Quit Grading — Part II Update

Screen Shot 2016-01-17 at 11.01.21 PMThis year, I quit grading almost entirely. While I still give quarterly grades (because my students have to have them!), I do not grade individual assignments. I’ve given up traditional grading for many reasons that I explain in my first post on this topic, but the biggest of the reasons is this: I don’t think traditional grading is in the best interest of my students. 

I promised you that I would keep you updated, so, now that I have lived in this experiment for a whole semester, I will share with you what I am finding out. The good, the bad, and the ugly.

The Good

More honest feedback for all

Because I am not spending so much time perseverating over numbers on a rubric, and because I know that I can’t fall back on grades to “communicate” progress, each of my students is receiving far more feedback — not just on how they are currently performing, but also ideas for how to grow, what to do next, and techniques to try next time.

Even better than a greater volume of feedback, though, I find myself free to give more honest feedback. Sometimes, it’s downright blunt. But because my students are convinced that I am on their side, I find I can tell them the truth.

For example, here is some quarterly grade feedback I recently left for two students, one who is working very hard and growing by leaps and bound, and another who tends to eek by doing the bare minimum: Continue reading

So, I quit grading …

Grades — good or bad — tend to make us do unproductive things.

Each September, when I assess my students’ first piece of writing, processed and polished, leave feedback, and return it to them, one of two things happens: students who did well give a great sigh of relief and check English class off of their Things to Worry About List; the students who did not do well become utterly defeated right from the get-go.

And neither of these mindsets is valuable to our students’ growth and learning.

The students who feel secure in their performance continue to perform, filling in the formula they have so often practiced to get the only things they care about — the grade. They already know it all — their thinking and creativity is stunted, they take no risks, as they repeat the steps that they know work.

The students who feel defeated throw in the towel — after all, even when they improve, even when they learn the skills they needed to learn, that low score will forever be in the gradebook, weighing their grade down. They are stressed — their thinking and creativity is stunted, they take no risks, as they try to figure out how to keep their head above water.

I teach both unleveled 9th grade Reading Writing Workshops and 12th grade IB English. My seniors are high achievers, and to them grades matter more than anything. And those grades tend to lure them into unproductive habits of practice and habits of mind.

As I was planning for our course this summer, I kept returning to one big goal — to make LEARNING the self-directed focus of the course rather than jumping through hoops to earn grades and get scores. How to do that? Get rid of the grades.

Now, my students do require quarterly grades — these grades need to factor into their semester grades and final grades. They need an English grade for their transcripts which will be sent to colleges.

Knowing that, at the very least, we need to arrive at a final grade for each quarter, here is what I have done:

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Dabbling in Standards-Based Writing Assessment

Teaching writing is not for the faint-hearted.  Assessing writing is even less so.

For years, I have struggled in vain to find the perfect system — “objective” one-size-fits-all trait-based rubrics, rubrics I have created, rubrics my students have created. None ever seems to accurately measure what I see in a student’s writing. And while I have always offered my students the opportunity to revise for a brand new grade, very few do it. While I offer copious feedback, the number on the rubric is still the bottom-line for most of my kids.

It doesn’t work.

I want assessment to be one more step in moving writers forward in their craft.

After being inspired by many in my Twitter feed, I decided to try a kind of standards-based grading of writing for the last three workshops of the year. In thinking it through, I have realized that what I really want is to feel assured that my students have mastered — not just dabbled in or been introduced to — certain skills before they move to the next grade. I would like to be able to provide that information to their new teacher.

So, this is the new grading policy I developed (and sent home to parents): Continue reading

Responding to the Writer, Not the Writing

Lucy Calkins’ wisdom about teaching the writer (and not the writing) continues to reverberate decades after the publication of her book The Art of Teaching Writing. Yet many of us do not teach in a way that promotes writers. I know because I was one of them.

In the past, I taught writing one composition at a time, units with finite beginnings and endings. Each stack of papers collected was an island…I gave little thought to how one student’s paper fit into the larger scheme of her writing. Students received grades and feedback, and we moved on without much reflection. I taught writing in this way because I didn’t know any better. I had good intentions, but I didn’t know another way.

Until two years ago when a colleague put Penny Kittle’s Write Beside Them into my hands, and reintroduced me to Don Graves and writing workshop through Penny’s work.

Writing workshop changed everything. It refocused my teaching and convinced me that teaching writing–even teaching writing well–is not enough. We have to teach writers.

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