Having the opportunity to teach a middle school course dedicated to writing for 6th, 7th, and 8th grader learners in 2016-17 was a roller-coaster of experiences and emotions, but more importantly, it was also a time of questioning and growth for me as a teacher and a learner.   There was a good deal of trial and error as I tried out new strategies and approaches, but there were also important insights and questions that came from this experimentation.

As I got to know my students better and increased the amount of feedback I was giving on a daily basis both face to face with 1:1 writing conferences and through Google Docs, I grew increasingly frustrated with the limitations of “grades” and uneasy with how they represented the growth in student writing.  At the same time, I was amazed to see how much better I knew my kids as individual and their strengths and weaknesses as writers through this regular daily conferencing I was doing.  I felt like this frequent and regular feedback was making a difference, but I also wondered how I could step it up and do it better.

Through the year, I read several posts by both Catlin Tucker and Rebekah O’Dell about going gradeless ; I also read works by Carl Anderson to improve my ability to engage in effective and meaningful writing conferences.    By the end of the year, I was uncomfortable and disturbed by the disconnect I saw and felt between grades and authentic assessment.  I decided I want to dive more deeply into these topics to help me grow as a teacher in 2017-18:

  1.  How are grades different from assessment?  What does it mean to engage in effective assessment, and how do we engage students more effectively and authentically through assessment?  How can we use assessment to capture growth, and how do we record/showcase/archive/utilize that evidence?  How can I do a better job of giving feedback in real-time and get to everyone on a regular basis each day/week?
  2.  What does a gradeless classroom look like?  How do you go about this approach in a way that impacts student learning for the better and is fair?
  3. How do I give more meaningful and strategic feedback to my writers?  How can I help them use this feedback, and how do I help them to conference with themselves so that they are setting goals and not dependent on me to know how a particular piece of writing is coming along?
  4. How do I design my writing units more effectively?  How do I utilize writer’s notebooks better than I did last year, and what are ways I can facilitate writing workshop and independent reading more effectively?
  5. How do I bring this feedback-oriented, workshop approach to reading and writing to a high school classroom, especially in upper level courses where a “canon” approach is the norm?  How do I push those pedagogical boundaries and show others how students are clearly demonstrating growth and how students are mastering district standards?  How do we capture evidence of student learning and how can students take ownership of showing what they’ve learned?

Through my summer reading, I’ve come to see how interrelated all these questions are to my instructional practices and design drivers for learning.  I set forth an ambitious summer reading plan, and though I didn’t get through even half of what I planned, the texts I’ve read (both books and blog posts) have really shifted my thinking and help me see a glimpse of the possibilities.

What I Read

Right now I have a feeling of panic because I didn’t even get through a quarter of the books I wanted to read or re-read (and the total amount was unrealistic, I know, but still!).  However, what I read was impactful; these reads (in the order I read them) included:

I found all of the these texts to be enlightening on a philosophical level as well as a day to day “how do I do it?” level. Some of these books were not even on my radar at the end of May because nearly every book led me to a title that was not on my list!  I can see now how the ideas in one book informed my reading of the others in the very best way and helped create a serendipitous but coherent reading experience that came together around key ideas and principles.   I wished that I had every single one of these books last summer because I can see now what a difference it could have made for my students had the ideas, mindset, and strategies been in my head this time last year.  Though all reads were great and recommended to you, I have placed an asterisk by the reads that were most influential for me and whose ideas will be most visible in how I hope to approach teaching and learning during 2017-18.  I’ll share that my three books I read in Kindle format were so meaningful to me that I also bought print copies as well.  In addition, I enjoyed the Mark Overmeyer book so much I purchased his other two texts to read.  It seems one author and reading leads to more; my latest find is Shift This thanks to Patty McGee via Twitter just yesterday.

I still need to somehow gather and organize my notes from each book (again, sense the panic that I am out of time)  in a way that will help me keep them handy as a compass as I begin to design learning experiences in earnest a week from today when preplanning begins.  I could probably write a blog post on each book (and if I had been more motivated this summer, I should have), but the big takeaway for me is that both I and my students will dwell in a growth mindset fueled by strategic and meaningful feedback that will inform instruction, formative assessment, goal-setting, and self-assessment.  While I don’t think I can go “gradeless” as a teacher new to a school and district this year, I CAN emphasize feedback and let that drive student learning so that we are focused on learning and not grades.  I know I will need to be very intentional with this goal so that I don’t get bogged down in the weeds that can cause me to lose sight of this endeavor.

In addition to these books, I read a ton of articles and blog posts.  I have collected these readings on my hard drive, Google Drive, and Pinterest; in addition, I have printed the ones that have the most immediate application and am working on organizing a notebook for handy/quick reference as I need them.  I’m working on adding my pretty tabs this week so that it will be easier to find a section of each notebook; you can see an example of the notebook in progress below and my efforts to organize them in Google Drive below as well.  Though it is not complete (I still have articles to upload and organizing left to do), you can view my library in progress of helpful articles.

Books I Didn’t Get Around To Reading But Still Want to Read in 2017-18

Books I Wanted to Reread This Summer But Didn’t Get To (But Still Hope To!)

Final Thoughts:  Fear, Vulnerability, Excitement and Growth, Oh My!

Right now my head is exploding with ideas as the readings have really stretched my thinking and will impact how I approach teaching English Language Arts to my 11th and 12th grade readers and writers come August.  I really want to go deep and stay in an inquiry stance on my practices as a literacy teacher this year.  The prospect of these shifts is slightly overwhelming and even a little scary but mostly incredibly energizing and exciting! In Feedback That Moves Writers Forward: How to Escape Correcting Mode to Transform Student Writing, Patty McGee says:

Perhaps the toughest part of supporting writers comes when it seems like they are just not doing anything at all. There is, I believe, a common thread among all “stuck” students: Writing requires vulnerability, and stuck writers let their fear stop them. In other words, there is a level of shame associated with taking imperfect action in writing.

McGee frequently references Brene Brown and the concept of vulnerability.  I first heard of this TED Talk and Brown through Chattahoochee High Assistant Principal Camille Christopher during 2015-16, but it didn’t really resonate until I read about vulnerability in the context of teaching writing AND being a writer.  This dimension of helping student writers is one I will keep front and center as I work with my new students this year.  I also want to embrace vulnerability as a teacher because I think teaching requires vulnerability and fear of failing–on our evaluations, with our students and their high stakes tests, or with the way our colleagues see us–often stops us as teachers from making courageous and brave shifts in our practices.

I hope to pull together my ideas better in the next two weeks because the beginning of the year is upon us!  In addition to small posts throughout the year, I hope to do some sort of monthly updates about what is going well and where I’m struggling; this blogging goal is inspired by Kristy Louden, whose blog I discovered this summer and enjoy reading.

In addition to Kristy, I know I have other colleagues out there in my PLN like ELA teacher Stephanie Hampton who have similar aspirations and hopes to make some significant shifts to foster better and deeper learning experiences for our students in our ELA classrooms.  It is comforting to know you are not on this journey alone, and I am thankful for so many ELA thought leaders and practitioners in the trenches who so generously share their wonderings, their strategies, and their experiences so that we all grow and become better.

One final note–if you are interested in gradeless classrooms, you may want to join Teachers Going Gradeless (blog here and Twitter handle here)  for a Twitter chat this Sunday evening, July 30 from 9PM–10PM EST; Patty McGee will be one of the moderators!: