On the Power of Small Groups

For the last couple of years, I’ve been struggling with how to make small group lessons work in the middle school classroom.  Sure, I taught the occasional successful one here and there, but I never seemed to understand how to properly and systematically plan for and implement small groups.

Switching schools and grade-levels this year, I was intimidated by the thought of teaching small groups. The task of looking through student work each night and grouping students based on their previous day’s work seemed daunting.  The idea of pulling eighth graders away from their workspace to meet elsewhere in our teeny-tiny classroom seemed embarrassing. The idea of coming up with just the right teaching point for each small group seemed impossible.

Then I had a training with Dr. Mary Ehrehnworth from Teachers College Reading and Writing Project.  Currently, I am part of a Secondary Learning cohort of teachers from the American Schools in Spain. We meet a several times a year to train and teach together.  In our most recent training, we met at the American School of Madrid (ASM) for labsite learning. Our focus for the two days we were together was to plan and implement small groups. 

This professional development was one of those magical combinations of theory and practice.  Each day, a typical training cycle went something like this:

  • First, Mary introduced a teaching strategy, based on the Unit of Study.  This teaching strategy was chosen for a specific classroom at ASM. Mary had coordinated with teachers ahead of time, to be sure her training would be useful for the day we were there.
  • Next, Mary explained to us the large-group mini-lesson she was going to model.  Then, she outlined potential small group teaching points that could accompany the lesson.
  • After hearing Mary’s ideas, we, as teachers, discussed, planned for, and created materials for a small group lessons we would teach.
  • Then, we headed out to the labsite classroom.  Once in the classroom, we would watch Mary teach the mini-lesson.  After students were released to workshop, we tried out our lessons teaching different small groups. 
  • Finally, we returned to our training space to debrief and reflect on the lessons.

Between the theory, discussion, planning, and teaching, I left the weekend not only armed with already-made materials for small groups, but also with a framework for moving forward.

Here are three strategies I learned from Mary that changed how I plan for and teach small groups:

  1. Make it about a mentor text.¹
  2. Manipulatives are not just for math.
  3. Get students started quickly and walk away.  Multiple small groups should be happening at once!

1. Make It About a Mentor Text:

For too long, I had been trying to sort through all of my students’ work to figure out exactly where they were, and then plan small groups based on a specific next step in their individual reading or writing piece.  While that sounds lovely in theory, in practice, that meant in order to plan small groups, I would have to be continually reading through student work every night.  Between planning, assessing, and being a human, this was impossible to sustain.

When we worked with Mary, we approached it differently:  We first talked through the whole-group lesson, and then discussed common problems we could anticipate the students would have.  Drawing on learning progressions and the teachers’ knowledge of the curriculum, we were able to identify skills and next steps that needed to be taught for students who were approaching benchmark, at benchmark, and above benchmark.  Then, we created materials based on a mentor text to address these skills.  Students used our materials and our mentor text to practice the skills, and then they would transfer their learning to their own work.

2. Manipulatives Are Not Just for Math:

In the past, gathering students around me in a small group to watch me try to teach them something had been like torture.  I would usually use one of the student’s pieces as a demonstration piece, which was awkward for the student and everyone else looking at it.  After the small group, one student would leave with their piece marginally revised and everyone else would leave confused.  This structure made small groups feel boring and remedial.

New possibilities opened up for me when when Mary introduced the power of sticky notes for small groups.  Mary recommended creating small group activities that are game-like, reminding us, “Manipulative are not just for math.”  She also encouraged us to prepare sorting and ranking activities for small groups, saying, “When you get kids sorting and ranking, they are automatically doing higher level thinking.” 

What this meant is we would use a mentor text to create materials the kids could manipulate and sort into categories in order to practice a skill (see the photos below for examples).

3. Get Students Started and Walk Away:

Previously, when I attempted to implement small groups, I would spend upwards of twenty minutes with one group of students.  I would give a compliment, introduce the teaching point, and then demonstrate a focus-skill with one of their pieces. After that, students would stay in the small group area and work on applying this skill to their own piece while I coached them and, all-too-frequently, helped them prevent mistakes. All the while, I would be scanning the classroom, making sure the other twenty students I wasn’t working with were on-task and doing what they needed to be doing.

Mary’s advice was that we should be teaching multiple groups at once, rather than focusing on one group at a time.  The idea is to get a group started by giving a quick compliment, setting-up a concrete task, and then informing you are going to walk away, but you’ll be back to see their thinking. This gives students time to work together and talk with one another, and it gives teachers time to  start another small group, conduct a one-on-one conference with a student, or give a couple students a quick tip.  Then, upon return to the original small group, teachers can check-in on student progress as students share their accomplishments and explain their thinking. Structuring small groups in this manner creates space for authentic student interaction, teamwork, and accountability.

Putting the Framework to Practice

This past week, my co-teacher, Lauren Freer, and I have been hard at work planning and implementing small groups.  For me, a typical 70-minute lesson looked something like this:

  • Read Aloud: 8 minutes
  • Mini-Lesson: 12 minutes
  • Workshop: 45 minutes
    • Small Group 1 & 2: 15 minutes
    • Small Group 3 & 4: 15 minutes
    • Small Group 5 & 6: 15 minutes
  • Share: 5 minutes

Each day, I planned three small groups:  One for students who needed a little more support on understanding the mini-lesson, one for students who could use a quick review of the mini-lesson and then were ready have their thinking pushed a little further, and one for students who were ready to think more deeply.²

You can check-out some of the lessons we’ve been working on below:

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Note: We are currently in a History Unit, in which students are studying the American Revolution and Revolutions around the world.  The final project is a TED Talk representing their findings.  

Moving forward, Mary’s wisdom stays with me.  She said, “You want students to want to be in your small group.  Small groups should be fun!”

Small groups should be fun.  Fun to plan, fun to teach, and fun to watch students transfer their skills to their own work.  What I’m realizing is planning small groups is a great way to open up a discussion with my team teacher around student learning, student needs, and the progression of our curriculum.  In all of this, collaboration is key.

I’m only at the beginning of my small group experiment, but I am excited for all of the learning in store–both for me and the kids!


  1. Shout out to our Literacy Coach, Jennifer Killlion for helping me solidify this one.
  2. I have a class of 23 students.  For each unit, students have a learning partner. For each small group, I pulled two learning partnerships (4 students).  As I ran six small groups in each class period, I got to work with every single one of my student  in a small-group setting in everyday. I can firmly say this something I had never accomplished (or even really thought possible) in my professional career before now.
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How We Talk About It: Processing Parkland, FL

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It was first period. The agenda for the day was displayed neatly on the board, class planned out to the minute.  I had just finished reviewing it with everyone, when a student’s hand shot up in the air.

“Ms. Gould,” he said, “Are we going to talk about what happened in Florida?”

My mind flashed back to my reaction this morning, while listening to BBC, when I heard about the school shooting in Parkland Florida. My stomach sank; my knees went weak. My thoughts jumped back further to the mass shooting in Las Vegas, and the last time we discussed gun violence as a class.  I remember that day, I cried in front of my students as we read about it.

I looked at my agenda on the board.  There was so much to get to today.

Then, I looked out at the class of eighth graders sitting in front of me.

“Do you want to talk about it?” I asked.

“Yes!” a body of voices answered.

“It’s one of the most pressing issues of our time,” added the initial student who raised the question.

The agenda would have to wait.


Providing a Pedagogical Framework

When discussing intense current event issues, a conversation with a parent from last year, when I was teaching in McFarland, WI, is always on my mind.  This very wise parent said to me, “My son really likes talking about current events in your class, but sometimes he gets so worried afterward.”

This conversation left me wondering:

How can we give students a sense of agency in situations that are far beyond their control?

How can we discuss tough, complex, and unresolved issues in a way that leaves them better off?

As I quickly pivoted my lesson to dealing with current events for the day, my mind also raced to learning standards:

How can we tie current events in with skills we’ve been working on this year?

Read Aloud

We started with read aloud.  I pulled up the article, “Florida Shooting: At Least 17 Dead in High School Attack” from BBC.  I projected the article, and read it aloud, modeling my thinking as I read.  After each section, students turned and talked, sharing what they noticed, and asking questions.

At the end of the article, I posed the question, “What questions do you have now?”

Students talked in table groups, and then shared their ideas with the class.

After a class discussion, we came to one central question: What problems contribute to gun violence?

Research

Then, we moved into workshop.  Students were informed their job would be to find an article related to gun violence, read it, and take notes on the problem.  We related this back to our earlier learning in the year by reviewing what makes a credible source, and briefly touching base on note-taking strategies.  We focused our attention on our purpose for reading (discovering problems contributing to gun violence), and then students were off.

Group Work

After reading and researching, students came together as a table group to share what they noticed.  As a group, they began to list factors they were noticing as problems.   Their responses included ideas such as school protocols, security, the availability of guns, and gun culture in the U.S.

Then, we moved into problem solving.  Building on the strategies we used to address the problems we were having independent reading, today, we approached the issue thinking about spheres of influence.  Students brainstormed potential solutions that could be implemented on a personal level, in our school, and by the government.

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After this, two table groups combined to make groups of eight.  In these groups, students shared their diagrams, which lead to rich discussions on their noticings, facts they read in their articles, and their thoughts.

Individual Reflection

Finally, students returned to their seat and completed a write-out.  They answered the following questions:

  1. After having this discussion, what is one thing on your mind?
  2. Moving forward, what is one thing you can do today to have a sense of agency in the situation?

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Overall, the lesson wasn’t perfect.  Our knowledge on this topic is only beginning to emerge.

But today, the kids had real conversations.  Today was a day where even the ones who struggle to engage were on task, reading, and contributing.  Today, students left the lesson with a specific action they could take to make our school a better place.

Moreover, the reason this experience happened is because one student braved to ask for what he needed.

Our thoughts are with the families of the victims, and all those in the school and community who are affected.  Our thoughts are with those in the U.S. who are intimately impacted by this.  And our thoughts are with the problem-solvers and policy-makers who we hope will help fix this.

However, in the midst of the devastation, I think it’s also important to check-in and acknowledge what we have:

We have a classroom where we can ask for what we need.  We have a community where we can discuss tough issues, try to make sense of the world, and problem-solve together.  We have each other.

And that, I think, is no small thing.

Problem Solving with Agency

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We had a problem.

My students weren’t reading.  Upon reviewing their 40 Book Challenges (a project to record and celebrate the titles of the books they read independently), I discovered most of my students had only read the required book group books.  Despite continual reminders of our two-hour-a-week independent reading expectation, and regular 40 Book Challenge check-ins, the reading wasn’t happening.

I flipped through their reading reflections, and got continuous confirmation of this:

  • I am not able to read every day.
  • I have not found a good book this year.
  • I didn’t read outside of school.
  • I need book recommendations.
  • I read way more last year at this time than I have this year.

What was happening?

I thought over the beginning of the year.  Due to the amount of curriculum we had to cover in class, my students hardly had independent reading time.  They certainly didn’t have regular independent reading time. My classroom library was still not organized or easy to use, and we hadn’t even visited the school library yet.

My students and I had been doing amazing things, but cultivating our independent reading lives wasn’t one of them.

This made me think about student agency, because while most of the class wasn’t independently reading, there were several students who were reading a tremendous amount.  Several students, who despite the lack of support from our classroom structures, were finding good books, going to the school library, and making time to read.

Why were they able to succeed while other students were not?

Building on my thinking about agency,  my current hypothesis is that a lack of agency comes from a perceived lack of options.  Moving forward with this, my job, then, was to help my students figure out what their real options are.

To do this, I decided my students and I were going to take some time to practice problem-solving strategies.

I gathered the students in our mini-lesson area, and opened the lesson by having them help me brainstorm solutions to a problem that was affecting all of us; a problem that I perceived as my fault: the complete lack of organization in our classroom library. (Our classroom library was still Under Construction)

For the lesson, I took some time to prepare my own writing in my Writer’s Notebook, a strategy I have been working on this year, after being inspired by Mary Ehrenworth’s advice.

First, I provided the context of the problem.  Then, I used thought prompts, which we’ve been working on in class, to push my thinking, and explore what this was really about: a lack of time. After that, I outlined strategies I felt like I had to organize the classroom library and explained why they were unsuccessful for me.

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My Writer’s Notebook, after the students helped me brainstorm solutions.

Then, came the work of the students.  I explained that a lot of times, I think a lack of agency comes from the difference between the options we feel like we have and the options we actually have.  Looking at the “Strategies I felt like I had” column, the students and I realized there were many more options than only the ones I identified.  I asked them to help me brainstorm ideas.

After a turn-and-talk, I recorded their thoughts.  They were full of solutions and excited to volunteer ideas and help.  (You can read their ideas above)

After that, we moved into the next level of problem-solving: institutional solutions.

We discussed how people have control over their behavior, but many times, there are things institutions can do to help set people up for success.

In my example, while it was absolutely my responsibility to get our classroom library organized, there were small changes the school could’ve made that would have made a big difference for me. At first, the students seemed to struggle with the idea of institutional support, but after I gave one example of this, they got it.  They turned and talked, and then chimed in with lots of other ideas.

Now, it was my student’s turn.  Moving into workshop, their job was to apply this problem-solving strategy to their own lives.

Here were the steps for workshop:

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And here are some examples of the work they produced:

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This reflection nailed the heart of the problem: Class wasn’t structured in a way where reading felt important.
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This student’s work reminded me that we don’t really have class structures in place to help students find interesting books.
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This student and I discussed a strategy which could make the commute more productive: audiobooks.
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For students who were successful with the 40 book challenge, they brainstormed ideas to make our class reading community stronger.  We talked about how even if they were successful individually, reading would be a lot better if everyone in our class was reading and sharing ideas.

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Gotta love the student honesty.

At the end, we made a plan, and students did a write-out.  The write-out question was, “What’s the one thing Ms. Gould should really do to help?”

You can see their plans and write-outs reflected in the work above.

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My plan for the classroom library.  (Please ignore the fact that I spelled “labeled” wrong in my hasty demonstration writing.)

 

After reading through their reflections, I made a list of strategies I can use, as a teacher, to help.

Here’s the changes we’ve made:

  1. We take the last ten minutes of class to read.  No matter what.  I set a timer on my phone, and no matter what we are doing, we stop, and read.  With time, I know my lessons will adjust to this, and I will be able to plan so it won’t feel like we have to stop what we are doing.
  2. We set up the classroom library.  We took 30 minutes of class to sort and organize books.  It’s almost done.  We have a committee of students who are taking independent reading time now to help finish getting it set up.
  3. We did a class activity swapping book recommendations.  Students completed a write-in on the best books they’ve read in the last year-or-so.  Then, we did an inner-circle/outer-circle partner interview, where students shared their recommendations.  The best round was when students were challenged to give a recommendation based on what they knew about the specific person they were talking to.
  4. We visited the school library.  I set up a time to meet with the school librarian.  She came to visit our classroom, facilitated the book recommendation activity described above, and then took us to the library.  She pulled out books that were new and displayed recommendations for students.

It’s not perfect.  Not every student has the right book yet.  Heck, the classroom library still isn’t all-the-way put together.

But we’re acknowledging and addressing the problem, and slowly but surely, we’re making gains.

So now, the next steps are on my mind.

Now, we are ready to:

  1. Spend time addressing expectations for independent reading time in class. I notice some students get settled and focused right away, and others aren’t using the time (which they advocated for!) wisely.  We will be having a discussion about what independent reading should look like this week.
  2. Negotiate how frequently we visit the school library.  I wonder if my students want to set up a bi-weekly or monthly time to visit, or if they would prefer to go individually or in small groups when they need books, or if there’s another way they would like to approach the library.  I am going to ask them for their preferences this week, and we’ll make a plan together.
  3. Set up classroom structures for swapping book recommendations. I am playing around with the idea of creating a google doc where students can share their 40 Book Challenges, ideas, and recommendations.  I need to think more about this, but creating structures for students to share ideas with each other is something I want to do.

Overall, we are taking this as a learning experience.  I agreed with the students that institutionally, I can be doing more to help their independent reading lives.

However, we also discussed that moving forward, into high school and beyond, teachers or other adults are most likely not going to be creating space for independent reading.  Therefore, our goal is to get strategies and structures in place for students to support themselves and each other in their independent reading lives.

This is a project we will be working on all year, and a learning an adventure in independence that I am looking forward to.

Catalonian Independence: Current Events in the Classroom

“I don’t think I would even really understand what was going on if we weren’t talking about it in class.”

– Eighth Grade Student, Humanities 8C

The last couple of weeks in Barcelona have been challenging.  We have seen the Catalonian people organize and hold a vote on independence. We witnessed the Spanish police react with violence to the very people it is charged to protect, and we experienced the people of Catalonia respond with a workers’ strike.  Now, we face the uncertainty of whether or not our region will declare independence from Spain.

As a foreign teacher at an American school, I have constantly been wondering:

What is my role in all of this? How do I teach about this?

Current events have always been a large part of my teaching, but in a new classroom, in a new country, most of my knowledge about history and social relations, which made me relevant and interesting in the U.S., has been thrown out the window.  Since I’ve been here, I’ve had a lot of catching up to do.

Following-up with my commitments to learn about and discuss current events, here’s how I am approaching teaching about the conflict:

  1. I am doing my homework:  As I wrote in “You’re doing it now” and “How do we move forward?,” since Charlottesville and the terrorist attacks in Barcelona, I’ve been committed to reading the news, both about the U.S. and abroad.  Accessing U.S. news has been relatively easy.  Thanks to the Internet, I am able to use all my favorite news sources from before.  Accessing Spanish news has been more difficult, however, because I do not know Spanish well enough yet to read or listen to the local news. After scouring the web and asking friends for recommendations, I’ve settled on listening to BBC World Service radio every morning, regularly accessing BBC articles, and reading El Pais in English.  It’s frustrating to me to be getting news about the area I am living in from outside or translated sources, but it’s better than nothing.
  2. I checked-in with my students: As tensions rose about whether or not the vote would occur, I asked my students if they wanted to study and discuss current events relating to the Catalonian Independence movement in class.  Through a written vote, a large majority of students said yes. However, a sizable minority said no.  On their ballot, students were asked to provide an explanation for their opinion. Some students did not want to discuss the news because they felt it did not concern them (remember, about 35% of my students are Spanish, 20% are American, and 45% are International Students). Others were worried it would get too tense.  However, several of the no votes also expressed that although they would prefer not to discuss it, they would be okay with the decision to discuss events in class.
  3. I checked-in with my administration: Taking into account my students’ opinions, I decided to move ahead.  In planning discussions about current events, I always want to ensure I comply with school guidelines while teaching.  I’ve found policies for class discussions around controversial issues vary across schools and districts.  When I checked in, our school director, Mark Pingitore, provided guidance that staff are encouraged to discuss current events in age appropriate ways.  He offered that productive lessons may include teachers helping students learn the main facts of events and provide tools to understand multiple perspectives.  Additionally, Mark instructed that teachers are not to share or advocate for our personal position on issues.
  4. We set class guidelines.  Based on a Positive Discipline training I attended two weeks ago, I set aside time for our class to truly dig into expectations we wanted to hold for ourselves while discussing Catalonian Independence.  We first set a purpose for discussing current events in class.  Then, we brainstormed all the expectations we thought we should have.  I wrote down every student idea that was shared, exactly as they shared it, not editing their words for clarity or concision.  Next, after the brainstorm, we evaluated each of the expectations, comparing them with the purpose of our discussion.  You can see our process below:img_9905-2.jpg
  5. We used current event texts to learn specific, transferable reading, writing, and researching skills.
    Before the vote, we read news articles from multiple sources, using nonfiction reading strategies to gain information from headlines and preview texts before reading.  During reading, we made charts of facts we knew and questions we had.  We discussed the limitation of studying events occurring in Spain through news sources written in English.  We split up into research coalitions, with some students researching events through Spanish-language news sources, other through Catalan-language news sources, and yet others from English sources or sources from their native country.  We discussed source bias, and the importance of evaluating news sources to understand what we read.
    After the vote, we dug into the personal, writing narratives of how the events of the weekend impacted us personally.  We had an author’s chair, and students shared their experiences and opinions.  We studied the structure of police forces in Spain, learning about the different levels of the force (The Guardia Civil, Nacional de Policia, Policia Local), and we tried to make sense of what it means when the police attack the very people they are charged with protecting.  Then, we moved into a larger analysis, looking at global and local factors that affect and influence the Catalonian Independence Movement.
  6. We connected our learning to our current Humanities unit.  And through all of this, our current curriculum continues.  We are in the midst of an Immigration Book Group unit, another topic that is both relevant and timely.  To make all of this fit, we usually spend the first part of class studying current events and the second part of class studying immigration. Lately, a typical class will start with reading a mentor text. We spend about 10 minutes of class studying a news article, watching a video, or listening to a clip from news broadcasts or a podcasts about Catalonian Independence.  Then, I model a reading, writing, or researching skill to help us analyze and understand the content presented.  Next, students apply the skill I demonstrated to their research and reading on immigration, so they can more deeply understand their book book. Finally, students bring what they learn and are noticing both about Catalonian Independence and immigration to their book group discussions.

Yes, we are little behind in our curriculum, but it is so, so worth it. A conversation I had on Friday morning, solidified this for me:

We were on a middle school overnight trip in the Pyrenees.  On the final morning of the trip, I stayed back at the lodge with students who were not feeling well.  After resting, the students and I strolled the grounds.  We picnicked in the grass, and took in views of the mountains while discussing current events.

One of the students is in my Humanities class.  She told a story of WhatsApp group message that included many students from the eighth grade class, and discussed how people were sharing ideas and debating what they thought through messages.  She said she was thinking about the event from different sides, and realizing that she can have her own opinion on the issue.

At the end of this, she looked at me and said, “I don’t think I would even really understand what was going on if we weren’t talking about it in class.”

To watch this student strengthen her voice, realize she can think for herself and form an opinion that is both unique and informed, might be the coolest thing I’ve seen in Barcelona yet.

So, while uncertainty looms ahead, and we’re not sure what country we’ll be living in next week, for now, our classroom is a solace.  It’s a place for us to explore, to process, and to study events as they unfold.   Come what may this week, we’ll have each other to help one another figure it out.

 

The Beginning of School: A Summary

Wins:

  • I found my pool.  It is near my school, has seven beautiful 25 meter lap lanes, huge gorgeous windows that let in tons of natural light, and an entire area dedicated to hot tubs, water massages, and saunas.  Bonus: I learned hot tubs are a great place to practice my Spanish.
  • On my walk home from school, I discovered a hole-in-the-wall pastry shop that sells fresh bread, quinoa cookies, and the most amazing sesame & anise seed crackers. Fantastic and dangerous.
  • My students are hilarious, amazing, and insightful.  To get to know each other, we wrote “Where I’m From” poems.*  Hearing stories from kids with vastly different backgrounds and nationalities was utterly cool.  When we did an author’s chair, my eighth grade students made connections that surprised and intrigued them. They noticed small details and personal moments written by their classmates felt universal. 

Losses:

  • Tonight, as we sat down to dinner, my roommate found black bird poop on our kitchen table. And on our kitchen counter.  Those beautiful floor-to-ceiling windows-doors we have?  Yes, turns out we need to close them when we leave for work.  It looks like the pigeons have been enjoying our apartment even more than we have.
  • I lost a really nice water bottle that I splurged and spent 40€ on.  “Why did you spend 40€ on a water bottle, Lauren?” you ask. Because I was sick of using plastic water bottles, and this one was a backpacking water bottle that looked really cool and seemed perfect for everyday use and use in the mountains.  Guess where it never made it.  You got it, the mountains.

Notable Moment:

When introducing the out-of-class reading expectations for my eighth grade Humanities course, my students asked, “Does reading in a foreign language count?” 

This question was entirely wonderful and – considering the student demographics and my position as a Humanities and ELL Teacher – rather ridiculously caught me off-guard.  Reading in multiple languages was never something I had considered for a large group of students before. 

After thinking about it, we decided that our reading time requirement (two hours per week outside of class) needs to be in English. We are studying and working to improve our English reading and writing, after all. However, we all agreed that all the reading we do is important part of our literary lives, so for our 40 Book Challenge, books in any language count and should be recorded.

Looking Ahead

Moving forward, I’m interested to see the other amazing questions, challenges, and unanticipated situations that arise in class. This is exactly the perspective I am hoping to gain while I am here.


*These were based on the poem “Where I’m From” by George Ella Lyon.  I first experienced using “Where I’m From” Poems as a beginning-of-the-semester activity in Hip-Hop Ed, a multicultural education course taught by Prof. Gloria Ladson-Billings at UW-Madison.

To learn more about Prof. Ladson-Billings work, check out her blog, Black & Smart, her book, Dreamkeepers: Successful Teachers of African American Children, or one of her many academic articles, ranging from Culturally Relevant Teaching to the Education Debt.

How Do We Move Forward? A Classroom Teacher’s Response to Current Events

In the aftermath of the white nationalist rallies in Charlottesville and the terrorist attacks in Barcelona, one thought lays heavily on my mind as I prepare for the school year:

How do we move forward?

After reading countless news articles, listening to podcasts, and having multiple discussions about the events, I’ve decided I’m going to renew my focus on helping students develop a framework for understanding identity.

I’m starting here because I think once we have a deep understanding of ourselves, we can begin to understand the complexity of our communities and make choices that are inclusive and justice-oriented.

For the last several years, a large piece of my teaching with middle schoolers has focused on identity development and specifically, the intersection of identities within an individual.  This concept comes from Kimberlé Crenshaw, a civil rights advocate, professor, and founder of Critical Race Theory, who coined the term “intersectionality.”  In Crenshaw’s work, intersectionality explores how different aspects of identities- such as race, gender, and class- impact and affect individuals’ experiences in the world.

To be clear, Crenshaws work on intersectionality specifically studies black women’s experiences.  Her work critiques the frequent lack of acknowledgment of black women’s experiences as both black and female. As Crenshaw writes in “Mapping the Margins,” “Although racism and sexism readily intersect in the lives of real people, they seldom do in feminist and antiracist practices.”1 Crenshaw argues that black women, who have unique experiences because of both of their blackness and femaleness, are often disregarded or forgotten in decisions and movements that are meant to be antiracist or anti-sexist.

While this unique experience of the intersection of race and gender belongs to women of color,2 the analogous experience of being forgotten or disregarded due to the complexity of one’s identity is something many people who hold oppressed identities experience.  Furthermore, for those of us with privilege, it is important to be aware of the multiple areas in which we hold privilege, so that as we move forward, we can do so in a way that benefits our community, rather than solely ourselves.

Translating this to middle school, what this looks like for me and my students is building an understanding of the multiple dimensions of our individual identities, and exploring how these identities relate, intersect, and impact our experience in the world.

Before I get ahead of myself, let me explain a little about what this looked like in my classroom last year.

Near the beginning of the school year, we started with an identity sort, an idea I adapted from Beth Leah Sondel.3 First, drawing from Crenshaw’s work, I introduced the idea of identity as being composed of multiple facets.  We focused on nine areas: race, gender, sexual orientation, class/SES, religion, nationality, generation, ability level, and a hobby/interest.

From here, students spent time analyzing their own identity in each category.  After creating a list for themselves, students were asked to rank their identities in the order that they were most important to them.  Then, students were asked rank them in the order they felt others perceived them.  Afterward, students compared the two lists and wrote a reflection on their experiences.

While the writing produced in this activity was solely for the students (due to the personal nature of responses, I did not ask students to turn it in), this exploration of identity provided a foundation for the understanding of literature and world events in the year to come.

We transitioned this idea of identity intersectionality to analyzing the identities of characters in books.4  We created identity molecules, in which we placed a character’s name in the center of the paper, and then wrote aspects of their identity (which we learned or inferred from text evidence), around their name.5  We studied how characters’ identities impacted their experiences, looking at the areas in which characters held privilege and areas in which characters experienced oppression.

Soon, students were transferring this understanding of identity and perspective to the world around them.  Our class was asking questions like, “Why would people vote for the candidate they did?” “Whose voice is heard in this news story?” and “Whose story are we missing when we learn history?”

Our understanding of identity helped us analyze current events, make sense of choices, and figure out stories we needed to seek out and pay closer attention to.

Additionally, our understanding of identity helped my students understand themselves. We know that in middle school, students are constantly questioning, exploring and figuring out who they are.  Students are grappling with issues of identity everyday, in the small daily choices, like figuring out what to wear, to big choices, like choosing friends and taking stances and sharing ideas in class discussions and debates.

The importance of developing an understanding of  identity is evident in the reflections of my students.  During a write-out last year responding to our conversations around identity, a student wrote, “I came into class feeling confused about a lot of this stuff.  Writing about it helped.”

I’m with my student on this one: I think writing about it helps too.  And foundational for writing about it is building vocabulary, knowledge, and a framework to help us understand and analyze human experiences in the world.  By starting with identity, my students work on developing a sense of who they are, how they move throughout the world, and where they need to grow.

This won’t solve terrorism. It won’t solve racism.  But it’s a place to start.

For once we know who we are, once we know where we stand- the areas in which we hold privilege, and the areas in which we may face oppression- we can move forward with nuance.  We can listen, we can begin to understand, and we can recognize areas in which we should take up more or less space.  With this knowledge, we can build an authentic community that struggles together, succeeds together, and is a place where each of us, in all of our differences, belongs.


Footnotes:

  1. Crenshaw, Kimberlé. “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color.” Stanford Law Review, vol. 43, no. 1241, July 1991, p. 1242.
  2. For more on this, read Cameron Glover’s “Intersectionality Ain’t for White Women,” in which she argues the word “intersectionality” and the specific experience of it belongs to black women. If you’re doing identity work, and especially if you’ve been doing this work for awhile, I recommend checking this article out.
  3. Beth Leah Sondel is an Assistant Professor at NC State University.  Previously, she earned her PhD in Curriculum and Instruction at UW-Madison, where I had the pleasure of taking a social studies methods course from her.
  4. Jen Breeze, my previous district literacy coordinator, was instrumental in helping me plan how to transfer this learning to age appropriate text for middle schoolers.  Thank you, Jen!
  5. I adapted this idea from the “Identity Molecule” resource published by Keshet, an organization dedicated to creating LGBTQ inclusion in Jewish Life.

To learn more about Kimberlé Crenshaw, check out her bio page on UCLA Law, her work through the African American Policy Forum, or follow her on Twitter.

To learn more about Cameron Glover, check out her website or follow her on Twitter.

To learn more about Beth Leah Sondel, check out her bio page at NC State or follow her on Twitter.

To learn more about Keshet.org, check out their website.

 

Strategies & Volume

For the past year-and-a-half I’ve been working on designing my teaching to focus on the essential and cut out the rest. While reviewing reading workshop materials at a K-8 Literacy action team meeting, something clicked.  When it comes to designing ELA curriculum, there are two things that matter: strategies and volume.

  1. Strategies:  I want to teach my students meaningful, transferrable reading, writing, and thinking skills.  For me, this means having a clear teaching point each day, posting today’s goal in which the students apply the teaching point to their daily work, and ending class with a share, in which students review the teaching point, and explain the progress they made on it.  (One of my favorite ways to do the share is to have students do a write-out, answering a prompt addressing the teaching point, and then share it with their reading/writing partner.)
  2. Volume: I need to provide my students ample time to apply the skills they learned.  This year, I feel like I’ve honed my ability to identify and teach strategies.  However, one growing edge I have is being sure to provide my students with enough volume: enough time to work, enough interesting and diverse materials to engage with, enough opportunities to repeatedly practice and apply skills.

As I move forward in designing curriculum, designating class minutes, and choosing what to include and what to cut out, these questions will be on my mind:

  • What strategies am I teaching?
  • What opportunities am I providing for my students to apply these strategies?
  • How am I teaching for independence?  How will my students know how to transfer and apply these skills in other situations?