Too much noise has been spilled

and the cat will no longer lick it up.


The raucous dinner guests who knocked it over

walked away without acknowledging the wet elbows and wrists

of those who suffered to listen.


They who are now inundated

stare in frozen disbelief

at the bottle, as it tumbles, heedless of its impending doom,

to the floor.


No one realized the bottle would cause such a crash

when it tumbled to the hard, stone floor.

Glass shatters; the noise flies in all directions.


Spilling under the refrigerator, under the stove, in the high heeled shoes of the young girl

who hadn’t said a word.

It will take hours to clean in the silence made victim by the noise. The smell will linger.

We’ll need to air out the room. Maybe use some bleach.

No one has seen the cat.

Flow-grading papers

Yeah, flow and grading papers. Sounds like an oxymoron. Kinda like lets have fun going shopping

Hear me out. Nobody likes to grade papers. I’ve been teaching for twenty years and not once have I said, “Yeah! I’m so looking forward to spending my evening grading papers! I’m cancelling all of my plans and I’m gonna bust out the wide line red pen and tear apart some self-esteem!” Nothing destroys a writer’s self-esteem more than a thick, dripping red pen. Who doesn’t have a memory of that English teacher.

But, as I’ve said before, I’ve been thinking a great deal about flow. And I realized that as crazy as it sounds,  you can enter flow when grading papers. And no, I abstain from all forms of medication to do this. Though a glass of wine does help. But, hey, wine helps with most things.

Grading papers can be a form of torture, belonging somewhere in the lowest circles of hell. Those of us who love teaching went into the profession because we love the content or because we like working with kids. We did not go into teaching looking forward to hours of our lives being taken up by attempting to find order out of chaos, to which the reading and grading of adolescent writing can be compared.

I think that the act of making the crooked straight and the way smooth should happen much earlier than a student’s belief that they have turned in a “final” draft. The conclusion of a student’s written work should be an affirmation not a submission.

I start all writing tasks either by providing my students with the criteria for success (a rubric) or I start by creating this list with them. For example, we may create a list of the successful elements of a short argument. We generate items like a clear topic sentence that includes an argument and the subject of the argument. In this post, I’m talking about a persuasive argument that includes research so I provide the students a rubric that lists out all of the requirements. If I can figure out how to upload it to this site, I’ll do that.

By the time all the papers are submitted, I believe success means that I can already predict what each paper will earn because I have read them all, or portions thereof.

Each element on the rubric is a mini-lesson, a conversation, a peer-review session, a posting on an on-line platform where all members of the classroom can review (Padlet is great for this). No part of the research paper is completed without someone else’s eyes looking at it and providing some level of feedback. Please see my earlier post on peer review.

Of most critical importance to this idea of mastery is that for the research paper, I conference with every student twice. Yes, twice. Does this take well over three hours per class? Yes. I can’t imagine doing it any other way. How else do I best guarantee that the student can organize a sustained argument; trust me, the red pen of death doesn’t work.

Every student gets a three minute thesis conference, presenting their viewpoint and their three supporting arguments based on the reading of at least 5 sources.  At the end of the three  minutes, we have several possibilities. One, we both agree that the argument is sound and provable. Two, some of the argument works but more sources are needed or one of the supporting arguments needs more development. Three, back to the drawing board. Every student meets with me until they have a thesis that makes sense. Why?

There is zero point in assigning a significant assignment, especially a challenging task like a research driven persuasive argument without many frequent checks for understanding. There is no point in having a student move forward to the next step in constructing the paper without the first being solid and clear. The simplest analogy would be to build a home without first pouring the foundation and letting the concrete cure before attaching your framing. No home will stand long without a solid foundation.

Then, every student gets a conference to justify their outline. Three supporting arguments with three text supports to justify their thinking. Mind of a thirteen year old here. Remember flow, right?  Now you need to listen to the logic of a young adolescent-fascinating!

I’m no musician or artist, can’t carry a tune in a bucket and can  barely sketch a stick figure, but I equate this time, working individually with a student, as a collaboration in making something of meaning, of lasting beauty even. If you know any thirteen year olds, you know that logic is a thing of beauty, a rare gem.

Some come to me focused as an arrow to the bullseye. “Because the planet is heading for a mass extinction event, people must reduce their use of fossil fuels, eat less meat, and recycle more materials.” Pretty good for a thirteen year old, right? Then there are those trying to prove that we should allow cell phones in school because so many kids have them. You get the idea. Every conference takes you on a different ride. It’s just that some end up like Jason Bourne at the end of a chase scene, bruised, limping, desperate for a way out.

But every paper is eventually saved. Is given some kind of cure. These two conferences, thesis and outline, set up a logical, sequential paper. While we work on other projects and other material, every student has access to me during every class for all of the days leading up to the paper.

And, call me crazy, I feel like flourishing a conductor’s baton when a student can, after we’ve talked and worked so hard together, walk me through his or her viewpoint, providing me three supporting arguments and research driven evidence for those arguments. It’s poetry, it’s music, it’s a work of art. It just flows. It’s an English teacher high.

Yes, there are many other details to a research paper. The hook, the background in the introduction, the citations, the conclusion. Yes, these are all important and we examine all of these in class.

Now it is time to submit the final papers. Rubrics are stapled to the top of these 3 to 5 page offerings to the gods of pathos, logos, and ethos.  Works cited entries are carefully alphabetized with many a mumbled ABC song.

Ah, what about the flow?

And now I get to grade 120+ 8th grade research papers. Grade them, but not read them for the first time. The writer and I know what the paper will likely earn. We’ll be off by a few points; we may have a difference in opinion about what how many points should be deducted for the forgetful omission of a parenthetic citation or whether the hook is truly interesting and engaging.

Yes, some will be a heretical waste of time; some will have done everything they could to avoid conferences, delaying the inevitable.

Many will be artistic in their simplicity. Hook, background, thesis, three paragraphs supporting the thesis, conclusion. Each paper allowing me to flow through the argument.

I’ll pick  up that pen only occasionally and, by the way, I don’t use red.

Thank you for reading.

Photo journal

It seems that I am already in the New Year’s spirit. I have several resolutions already. With the combined inspiration of a dear friend and of a beloved place, I hope to record the beauty of the Hawlings River with a camera  and my words. I tried this a few years ago and was pleased with the result. Then, I attempted to capture the beauty of the river alongside the beauty of my son and our dog, the simplicity of our time together in natural places such as these.

Perhaps they will join me on my future outings. My son and I often find ourselves in the woods together. It is where we both belong. He is certainly always welcome. Always will be.

But no, this time I want to capture, with the images of a camera and with my words, the river and the wooded banks that embrace it. I want to travel far and travel long by staying in one place and by visiting frequently. Thoreau sought to live deeply and shave close by living at his Walden Pond. I too hope to learn something new with my plan to frequently visit the banks of Hawlings River. I have no plans to drive life into a corner though; I prefer to be a quiet observer.

I plan to visit each month, focusing on the growth of spring and the deeper greens of summer even though my soul yearns for wider horizons with the return of the warmer months.

Like the study of a moment in history where each new book, new diary, new photograph provides me with yet more exciting people, moments, ideas to pursue with yet more reading; I will give this simple place more of my study.

I will meet no Washington, no Lincoln, neither Teddy nor Franklin on these banks; however, if I am lucky, I will learn the names and faces of the denizens of these woods. These quieter souls who never seek public office, finding the shelter of the mountain laurel to be mansion enough. They too have much to teach about how to be noble and just.

This is no Acadia, no Yellowstone, not even the C & O; but it is a beautiful place and a place worthy of contemplation.

Hope to see you there; I’ll be the one with the tripod and the dirty boots.



Flow in the writing classroom

I’ve been thinking about flow lately. Why? I keep trying meditation but I can’t sit still long enough and counting my breathing is boring.

Flow is another way to describe being in the zone. I’ve been reading a bunch of articles about it and how some people reach flow at work, in a sport, in a hobby. My favorite hobby, working in the local parks, has me in the zone for hours every weekend.

So, does flow happen for a teacher?

These past few weeks, I have had several students say things like, “Man, class went fast today!” Maybe they zoned out thinking about playing sports or a computer game after school, but I don’t think so. I was observing them, at least a little, before they made this comment. They were engaged and focused on meaningful, interesting work.

And so was I. I can stand up in front of the whole class and lecture all period. Haven’t done it in a decade or so, but I can do it. No flow there. No, I’ve been finding flow in one-on-one writing conferences. Sound ridiculous? What can be so interesting in talking to a bunch of 13 year-olds about their research papers? A great deal.

You enter the mind and thinking process of a young adolescent and you’re in for a mind bending ride through a maze of endless twists and turns with each one is different from the last. I try to set a timer for 3 minutes per student; that things goes off and I’m still listening , still thinking, still flowing. You haven’t experienced an exercise in pure concentration until you listen to a thirteen year old explain to you how what they have created is a logical, sequential argument. And that is just the beginning. Then I get to help; I get to ask questions; I get to send them off powerful in their knowledge that they created something, something all their own.

That’s like knowing how to hit a 90 mile an hour fastball. That’s like being able to return an Andy Murray serve.

Pure flow. Pure “in the zone.”






Peer Review

Though the final draft of the analytical paragraph is the culmination of over two weeks of close study, drafting, and revising, the peer review session is also a critical step in demonstrating mastery of the structure and thinking involved in an analytical task.

I know that some of what I reference will require a posting on what, exactly, the “11 sentence analytical paragraph” looks like in my classroom. I just collected and graded this year’s first batch, so I’ll attempt to scan and post some those as well.

With a carefully designed peer review session, students can critique another’s writing, using the skills learned during the past weeks’ lessons.

When we must analyze another’s work, stepping away from our own, we are given a chance to come up for air. We are relieved of the burden of attempting to design our own argument. We can examine another’s design, looking for strengths and flaws. And, in turn, look at our own design anew,

From one student, responding to my request for feedback on the effectiveness of the peer review session-“I think this specific peer review strategy was very helpful because I got very good feedback and its crystal clear what I can/should change in my piece.” [I have not corrected spelling errors and I have italicized what the student underlined.”

Several things can happen. One, the student reviewer will  be able to see ready flaws, pointing out what the writer may have lost in the challenge of crafting an eleven sentence  analytical paragraph.  For some students, they prove to be better editors than they are writers.

My students are instructed to turn in a “best draft.” The implications of a rough draft is exactly that-rough; as in a “rough idea”, “rough on someone” or “rough edges.” None of these have a positive connotation.

The first thing I do is collect the drafts.  During earlier “bull sessions,” I let student work with whomever they want.  I give them a set time and objective and keep an eye on their progress. Needless to say, some friends are quickly encouraged, by me, to find other people with whom to work.

From the mouth of babes:

Another student on the effectiveness of peer review-“While doing this peer review editing, I like it better than just editing with your friends. I like this better because your open to new papers and get a variety-with your friends, you just get the same paper every time, and you can go off task easily.” Again, I have not edited any errors.

I communicate to my students the seriousness of this activity. Their classmates are relying on them to help make their drafts exhibit a high level of mastery.

In past years, when I  had more energy, I would take all drafts, provide individualized feedback, return to my students, and then grade. Even with the multiple checklists and other cheat sheets I used, I found myself giving at least 5 to 10 hours per task assigned; With 90 students, I would spend 3-5 minutes per first draft, writing comments, completing checklists that would offer specific suggestions. Then I would conference with all students who wished for one. Out of 90 students, typically, 25-30 would meet with me before school or during lunch.  These conferences would take anywhere from 2 minutes to 10. Then I would grade final drafts, often allowing for rewrites. All the while, we would be starting other assignments and other writing tasks.

In another post, I’ll talk about how I would first collect a pretest where students would write an analytical paragraph in the first day or two of class, using a reading passage that is either on or below grade level, depending on whether I was doing this with an advanced English 8 class or a co-taught, inclusion class. Then I would create a Word table; I would then chart every student’s strengths and weaknesses as I examined each pretest; I would then  tailor my feedback on their drafts to their individual needs. Effective but ultimately too much work for me. It was unsustainable.

So back to peer review. I keep wandering off topic…I have pages in  Word filed with these wanderings. As I tell my students, “my train of thought often goes off the rails, sometimes crashing and burning at the bottom of a rock strewn ravine.” It can lead to some very humorous moments in class.

Before I actually get into what the peer review looks like, I want to again emphasize that my writing instruction is built on teaching a specific skill, such as an effective topic sentence;  practicing it/writing it, repeating the skill, analyzing exemplars, and revising. There is not always a set order in these steps. They are repeated, reviewed, assessed as students need. The common denominator is that all students are provided the means to learn a specific writing skill and learn it well.  More on that later.

So, finally, the specifics of peer review:

The writing prompt is “How does the author develop a character in a short story and what is the purpose of the character in the larger context  of the story.”

I’m looking for students to examine the character’s impact on another character, the mood, the tone, the conflict, the theme.

This year, the writers are advanced English 8 students. They have all demonstrated above level reading scores on multiple measures. This is their first writing class. 6th and 7th grade are traditional English classes.

All reviewers write their names underneath their comments.

Lets try a list format:

1.) This will all take place in a 50 minute class period. Students have been anticipating this day. They know that this is the last chance to have the entirety of their argument examined. The final draft is due two days from this class. This gives some time for the writer to talk with the peer reviewer or meet with me.

2.) After collecting, all drafts, I outline the day’s lesson, The objectives are clearly stated and posted: “By the end of class, all students will analyze the effectiveness of a specific element of an analytical argument.”  and “Students will apply this feedback to the revision of their own argument.”

3.) Students are instructed to put the writer’s name at the top of a piece of lined paper as I distribute, mostly randomly, the drafts. I say mostly randomly because I do place in the hands of my most focused thinkers and best writers, the papers that could use the most feedback and guidance. I know this because of our prior writing sessions.

4.) Task One: Read the entire argument of the paper in front of you. This takes the average student 4-5 minutes. Students are then told to write down, on the lined paper, the writer’s subject and the argument. For example, one entire topic sentence is ” In Rules of the Game, by Amy Tan, the mother is characterized as harsh and controlling through her interactions with her daughter, Waverly, which in turn creates fighting and other conflicts between them in the story.” The reviewer would write down as the subject: “mother” and for argument “the mother…creates fighting and other conflicts between them in the story.” This affirms for the original writer that the argument is clear to a reader; this allows the reviewer a chance to look at another argument, perhaps generating new ideas on how to communicate clearly or receive affirmation that his argument is clear.

5.)  Task Two:  The papers are recollected. Directions: Read the entire argument. Pick one “chunk”-[this refers to one piece of text support and the  two sentences of interpretation that explains how the text support supports the topic sentence, the argument.] Does the text support relate to the topic sentence? How so, explain briefly. Does the interpretation explain how/why the text support supports the topic sentence?   An example, from the same paper above: “For example, when the mother and young Waverly are walking through the market, Waverly starts crying for a sweet, causing the mother to yell at her to “bite her tongue,” even though the child is young (1). This cruel interaction sets the tone for the span of their tense relationship as the mother trains and manipulates her to become extremely obedient as she ages.” The peer reviewer would communicate (and write down on the same paper as  reviewer two such things as “your text support clearly supports the topic sentence; however, you only provide one interpretative sentence. Can you say more?”

Clearly, more could be written to help the writer; however, this  peer reviewer reminds the writer to go further with their thinking.

6.) Collect the papers and distribute again. Task Three:  Directions: Read the entire argument. What are two successes of this paper? What is one thing that you, as a reader, need to better understand either this argument?

7.) Lastly. This can get chaotic, but it works. The last peer reviewer returns the paper to the writer. The writer than takes the time to look over the comments; if needed, she is then able to have a conversation with one or more of the reviewers. Inherent in this process is the writer’s reflection on her work and the formulation of next steps. I didn’t have too, but there may be a need for the peer reviewers and the writers to meet the next day.  We did not need to do this year.

A few more students comments about the effectiveness of this session:

“I know what I need to change to get a good grade on it, like maybe alter my transitions between sentences.” [again, I did not alter the student’s comments.]

“This peer review session was very effective because I now know how to make my topic sentence and I can see what people think of my writing. Other’s comments made me understand why the flow of my paper wasn’t very good.”  [I did not alter the student’s comments.]

” This peer review helped me know not just what the teacher thought’s and mine are, but other classmates that are doing the same thing as me. I like doing these because I get feedback and as I give feedback, I learn something or notice something about my own paper. Very effective.” [ I did not alter the student’s comments.]

Sometime soon, I’ll scan and post a best draft, a peer review paper or two, and a final draft.

So, I hope this is a pretty good explanation of why and how I conduct a peer review session. I may come back to this as I fill in the gaps of how I teach the analytical paper.

If you stumble upon this blog, comments and feedback most welcome.


an introduction to a philosophy of teaching and method of teaching writing

I will be using this platform to attempt to put my writing program down in a form where I can finally, after nearly twenty years of teaching English 6,8,9, and 12 put it “all together.” Eventually, I hope to include a discussion of the need for vertical articulation through as many grades as possible. Also, eventually, I will include actual student work, exemplars and examples. I will not attempt, at this time to provide a logical sequence of how I teach 8th grade students to write analytically; I will select lessons and ideas that have worked best in my classroom and patch up any holes as I go. I’ll, eventually, actually talk about the pieces of literature I use.

Perhaps, first, a word on my philosophy of education.

As it is for those of us who not only teach our subject but also attempt to teach the children themselves, I will attempt to communicate how I reach the child. Not just to mold his thinking process but her very view of herself as a student. Socrates is quoted as saying, “I cannot teach anybody anything, I can only make them think.” That is my job. Not to lecture, to rant, to spew, to talk incessantly, hoping that sheer volume will somehow make a student a better thinker. To sit next to the child, to shut my mouth, to read, and to listen. Then ask questions. Not point out failure. Not bleed red with my correcting pen. Not shoulder the child aside and rewrite to show them how it is done. No, no, no. The teacher must ask the questions of the writer in such a way that the student is able to ask and then answer the very question that he is unable to articulate. That is what must be done when one teaches writing. That is why Socrates is still remembered today. Now there is an example of a powerful teacher. He is long gone, but his pedagogy remains.

Any attempt to teach a child to think is a failure from the start if I cannot build a relationship with him. I cannot hope to ask a child to put themselves out there as a writer if they do not trust me. Sitting next to a child, looking them in the eye, acknowledging her work, asking questions is how to do that. The power of a question. The inherent respect and offer of power that is in a question. You, as a reader, want to know more. You desire to hear more of what the writer has to say. You are eager to learn from the student who herself is then given the power to teach you, the teacher. The adolescent loves to talk about herself. There is no more fascinating topic. There is nothing that she is better qualified to talk about. It is simply a matter of turning that conversation to writing, to what has been read. Listen and the child will talk. Talk and the child may listen.

In the hundreds of conversations I have had with teachers about writing, one or two may have discussed how much we are asking of our students when we ask them to write. When a person writes, and attempts to write with meaning and purpose, he is, in some form, confessing. Baring a piece of the soul. A very personal act. To write is to share, to share is to invite to criticism. We have to acknowledge this. A child who knows how to “play school” will write for any teacher, no matter how he feels about the teacher. But this writing will offer little of the writer. Little that is original and thoughtful will be offered.

Anyone who has spent a hour with an early adolescent knows that criticism cuts deep. It must be prefaced with love and understanding. To return to my earlier point, one way to show this love and understanding is to listen; not just to the spoken word but to the written. I hope to make this philosophy clear in the lessons I will share in future postings. I attempt to teach my students to work with each other in a similar way-open ears and closed mouths.

I am not tech savvy but I do know how to teach a early adolescent how to write and write well. My proof is the the feedback from teachers, parents, and students. Again, I will attempt to put up some examples and exemplars and any readers, however, few and far between they may be, can tell me otherwise. So forgive any clumsiness in my approach. And forgive my off topic wanderings. There may be many.


Heifetz's fits on teaching, writing, the woods, and other miscellanea

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