Making Student Work the Center of Teacher Work

I am consistently pleased by and proud of the Leyden High School English department’s collaborative energy. We write objectives together. We exchange lesson frameworks and email classroom activities. We share unit and reading calendars. We co-write quizzes, tests, study guides, and rubrics. When I think about what happens at our best Wednesday morning meetings, I conjure up an image of committed and competent educators huddled around tables, purposefully planning, problem-solving, and producing.

But after three days attending the CEL Summer Institute on Critical Issues: Assessment, I have to admit that the image no longer materializes with the same nobility. The excellent character and competence of my faculty remains intact, as does the quality of the work being produced. What’s changed is that the CEL institute has thrown an important absence into sharp relief.

John Rossi

John Rossi

When my colleagues and I collaborate, we focus primarily on teaching artifacts, the learning materials we develop and create. We need to shift our energies to work with learning artifacts: responses, essays, and projects that students have submitted as evidence of their learning. As chairperson, I need to direct my colleagues to devote more of their collaborative time to the second (and more important) half of the teaching and learning cycle.

To be fair, it’s not that we ignore this part. We regularly look at large sets of exam data together in order to identify troublesome test questions and guide revisions. And I know my teachers interrogate their students’ performance constantly and in various ways. They also adjust their instruction accordingly. Thus, I know solid formative assessment is taking place.

Yet we’ve been operating under this paradigm: we review summative assessment data together but monitor and respond to formative assessment evidence alone.

Unfortunately, the cut scores on data reports rarely foster sincere discussion. Because they are reductive in nature, teachers usually respond reductively: “The students bombed this question, we need to revise it.”

Reviewing student work is different. At the CEL institute, we talked about the inherent value in conducting a collaborative examination of student artifacts. Among other benefits, it may allow teachers to form norms for grading and expectations, discover or share best practices, illustrate how students progress as they move through the program, and monitor whether or not the tasks assigned yield products that reflect the department’s published goals or values.

The call to look at student work together is just one way that the CEL Institute reinforced the importance of teacher decision making in assessment matters, a highlight of the NCTE position statement on formative assessment. While I understand and appreciate the power of data to inform instruction, I sometimes worry that “the numbers” are presumed to be superior to the careful, informed observations of a well-trained, caring professional. There’s room for both, and I hope to assert the power of the latter in the coming year by requiring my teachers to endow their students’ work with the bagel crumbs and coffee stains of their coworkers.

In addition to the singular takeaway above, I’d also like to share some thoughts about the conference as a whole.

The three day institute provided invaluable networking opportunities. Because CEL specifically attracts disciplinary leaders, I found myself working with colleagues whose concerns were identical, not just similar or related, to my own. Moreover, each and every one of the CEL organizers and facilitators demonstrated his or her commitment to English leadership and experience-driven expertise in an approachable and effortless manner. I left the conference with contact information for exponentially more peers and role models than I had previously.

All these feel-goods were accomplished because the institute included a purposeful and practical structure, rather than a routine series of whiplash-inducing lectures on loosely-related topics. The keynote speakers and sponsors remained squarely focused on issues of assessment, and for the majority of the time, participants were in small groups exploring different strands related to assessment.

I chose to work with others in the Curriculum Program strand, investigating the role of assessment in an organization’s scope and sequence. In that context, I had the opportunity present my unique plans and goals for the English department at my district through a consultancy protocol discussion. It was powerful to listen–and not respond–while others with a direct knowledge of my position and the ELA content offered concerns and troubleshooting about my unique and timely problem.

Given the tremendous, personal gains I made in these three short days, I’m excited to continue working with CEL and its members in the future. And I wholeheartedly encourage others to take advantage of this powerful learning network.

John Rossi (@JRossiLeyden)
English Department Chairperson
Leyden High School, IL


Changing a Stubborn School Culture

In high school, I was involved in a variety of extracurricular activities. I was a varsity gymnast. I was on student council; attended football and basketball games; went to a few high school dances (but only when I had a date because that was the unspoken social rule at my school), and took advantage of volunteer opportunities. I was proud of the school I attended and looking back now I realize that a large part of my high school social life revolved around school activities. Nerdy? Maybe. But, I enjoyed those four years immensely, and I did well in school.  It seems I enjoyed those four years enough to return to a high school and to dedicate my time working with teenagers. My guess is that if you are reading this, you enjoyed being in school as well, and it is part of the reason you returned as a teacher. But what about those students who only put in the required attendance time? Could they be enjoying their high school experiences more by getting involved in extracurricular activities? Would their grades improve by simply joining a club or sport? Data suggests that they would. So how do we as educators encourage reluctant or uninvolved students to become involved in extracurricular activities and in turn improve the culture of our schools?

Stephanie Fike

Stephanie Fike

We start by making the 7:00 am – 3:00pm school day more enjoyable for our students so that they are more likely to stay after hours or return in the evening. Before you roll your eyes and tell me there is no room for fun while aligning to common core standards or practicing for the ACT, think about your favorite class or your favorite teacher. What made it enjoyable? Was it an activity, a routine, an approach to learning that you connected with? Maybe it was a personality trait of the teacher, or maybe it was the first cIass in which you felt understood or part of the group.  What if someone from that class, or the teacher of that class, invited you to become part of a club or activity you had never tried before? Would you have taken that risk? This is exactly the issue the staff at Wauconda High School, in Wauconda, IL, is examining.

Using a database program called 5 Star, Wauconda High School learned that it is operating within a 50/50 culture. The data showed that slightly less than half of our students participated in at least one activity/sport/club.  This means slightly more than half of our students remain uninvolved in anything other than required attendance in classes. This revelation was disheartening. Certainly, we want to create a stronger feeling of inclusion for our student body and change our 50/50 culture, not only because we are aware that participation in extracurricular activities improves grade point averages, but also because we want our students to have great experiences, fond memories, and skill sets such as time management, self motivation, and self confidence.

If we can identify which students choose to remain at school past the required time to participate in activities, and pinpoint which students never return in the evening hours for performances or athletic events, then we can start to discuss why. We suspect that some of our students have after school jobs that make it difficult to participate. We also suspect that some of our students are charged with caring for younger siblings while their parents work. Sadly, some of our students opt to not participate because they do not buy in to our mission, or they feel that they do not fit in. So, how do we remove those obstacles? In all honesty, that remains to be seen. The 2014-2015 school year will be the rollout year for Wauconda High School. We plan to use the preliminary data from last year to guide our focus.

This year is going to require a great deal of individual and group effort on behalf of both students and staff to change this 50/50 culture.  It will be a calculated, sometimes awkward effort. But make no mistake, it will be worth it for all parties involved. I envision a culture this year in which teachers and staff speak directly to students about whether or not they are going to attend a club’s meeting because it sounds like something the student may enjoy. I envision faculty and staff handing a student a free ticket to the homecoming dance and encouraging that student to bring a friend. Don’t worry student council advisors; this is not lost revenue. These students had no plans to purchase tickets to homecoming, but they may come now since someone has included them. I see a student inviting a classmate to show up at his club’s meeting tomorrow because the two of them have worked well on a class project and that bridge has already begun being built. Activities directors will invite specific students to free pizza lunches in order to discuss what clubs the non-participating students may have an interest in starting. There may be sibling days where clubs welcome in the younger siblings of active members, or there may be off site meetings now and then at locations other than the school that might attract a few newcomers. The possibilities are endless, and part of our mission this year will be to explore some of them.

The ultimate goal for Wauconda High School is to improve our 50/50 culture. We would like to see much more than half of our students participating in extra curriculars, feeling more connected to our school community, and in turn performing better in their classes. We do not let our students opt out of participating in our classrooms because we know that they learn best by doing; we should be viewing extra curricular activities in the same light.

Stephanie Fike (@sfike11)
English Teacher
Wauconda High School, Wauconda, IL.

#LitLead 8.14.14 Preview – Launching Independent Reading

After reading the work of Donalyn Miller and Penny Kittle, English teachers at Chatham Middle School and Chatham High School teachers implemented independent reading into their middle and high school classrooms.  By simply giving students the time and the resources to read books they choose, our school has truly become a community of readers.  Tonight’s #LitLead guest hosts, Gina Bakaj, Oona Abrams and Christina McCabe, are excited to share what they have learned and to learn from all of you!  We look forward to chatting  about independent reading tonight at 8:30 pm ET!


Below is a sneak preview of the discussion questions:
1. Why is IR important? What are your goals in implementing IR?
2. How do you get student buy-in to IR?
3. On Day 1, how do you introduce IR to your Ss?
4. How do you help Ss find their first book choices?
5. What are creative and authentic ways to share book suggestions?
6. How do you build an authentic community of readers around IR?
7. How can you get admins and teachers involved in IR?
8. How do you include parents in IR?
9. What do you (the teacher) do during IR time?
10. How do you assess IR authentically?
11. How do you keep track of what Ss read?
12. What books will you recommend to Ss this year?


And here is Penny Kittle’s video I showed the English department at our opening meeting last year that inspired even the most dubious members of my team.


Reading 2011


See you online tonight!


~Heather Rocco
Supervisor of English Language Arts & Literary, Grades 5 – 12

Honest Prose

Recently, I read an essay which quoted the following from Kingsley Amis: “If there’s one word that sums up everything that’s gone wrong since [World War II], it’s Workshop.” Though I wasn’t quite sure what about it struck me, I annotated the sentence so that I could return to it. A few weeks later a colleague mentioned how one of the teachers she supervises defended her effectiveness in the classroom based—among other things—on the fact that she “ran a great writing workshop.”

I cringed.

David Padilla

David Padilla

Thinking back to Amis’s words, I think I now know why the teacher’s statement elicited this reaction. Admittedly, I don’t know if the teacher in question does or does not run a “great writing workshop,” but I do know that simply stating she does something doesn’t necessarily mean she does. Nor does it mean that her perception of what is or is not “great” is accurate. After all, what does it mean to “workshop” something? Are all workshops created equally? Does her understanding of a writing workshop match up with mine? Who knows?

ELA teachers absolutely need a common vocabulary to discuss what we do. Especially in an age of “standards” and “accountability” (Two more words which give me pause.), we need to be able to speak to each other in ways which open the door to transferability, to talk about things that work in a meaningful way. I fear, however, the ELA world has unwittingly piled on layer after layer of catch phrases which simply give the impression of clarity. We do PD in our PLCs so teachers can brainstorm best practices for anything from formative assessments to literature circles to critical thinking skills.

You get the idea.

Way back in 1916, Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch produced a handbook of sorts which has consistently remained in publication and which has been a staple for ELA teachers for nearly a century. In it, he took on a variety of topics, but one—in a section “On Jargon”—seemed to capture a dilemma we all face. The writers too often retreat behind stock phrases and clichés to capture their ideas.  Quiller-Couch calls such empty language “sham prose.” He tells us that only “by clearing this sham prose out of the way, we shall the better deal with honest prose when we come to it.”  Each year, it seems, I begin my classes by declaring war on automatic phrases which actually don’t say anything. I have students who disengage their minds as they reach for some pat saying that they’ve heard thrown around in ELA classrooms. For obvious reasons, educators need to make sure we hold ourselves to the same standards. We, too, need to avoid the trap of pseudo-clarity. Don’t assume everyone agrees on what we mean. Moreover, we need to make sure that what we mean when we reach into the barrel of stock phrases accurately captures our intent. There must be at least some measure of understanding of what we are addressing.

I don’t mean to be simplistic. After all, it would be inefficient–or even reductive–simply to pursue an endless series of “clarifications.” But too often, I have been in professional meetings where the “sham prose” ends up veiling—or outright overwhelming—the “honest prose.” Someone spouts off the latest collection of Common Core-appropriate phrases or terms, and the eyes of all participants simply glaze over. The retreat to jargonism unfortunately allows us to disengage. When someone begins dipping into the well of stock phrases, what follows is just too predictable. The most electrifying, engaging, and productive presentations I’ve seen have been remarkably jargon-free.

In “Politics and the English Language,” Orwell famously advocated the adoption of six “rules” for writing which included, among other things, the directive that writers “never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.” I’m not so simplistic as to think that one can—or even should—abide unfailingly this rule; after all, ELA teachers need to be able to provide some kind of umbrella terminology so we can move on to the important conversations about improving reading and writing. Still, in the same essay, Orwell tells us, “[i]n prose, the worst thing one can do with words is to surrender to them.” My concern is that we sometimes fall back on (or surrender to) what we assume to be a common understanding packaged in the vocabulary we share. While a certain amount of clarification arises in conversation between capable people, we’ve all had the experience of expecting the terminology umbrella to cover something which it doesn’t, in fact, cover.

So what does this mean for ELA leaders? Basically, leaders at all levels simply need to be attuned to the dangers of slipping into jargonese. We need to do all we can to make sure that stock phrases do not undermine the potential for progress. In our classrooms, in department meetings, in district meetings, or at professional gatherings, we need to work consciously to make sure the language we value doesn’t undercut us. This may mean that we are mindful of dedicating more time to framing conversations, to setting clear definitions/descriptions for common terminology. But it is, I believe, time well spent. We should also be clear that passive agreement about vocabulary won’t necessarily ensure effectiveness; however, it might provide a baseline for making sure that we’re not hiding behind jargon. As the poet, critic, and teacher Donald Hall writes, “Jargon is a language by which we attempt to prove that we are the initiated, and to keep noninitiates in confusion and befuddlement. It is language, not to communicate, but to exclude.”  ELA teachers purport to make our professional work the improvement of communication, the expansion of opportunity, the pursuit of clarity. We just want to make sure that we don’t let the vocabulary of this pursuit get in the way.

David Padilla
English Instructor & Upper School Head
Baylor School, TN