Interrupt the Process

The last two weeks of school have been unusual and hectic. First was homecoming week, in which the days are themed and the students are in costume and there’s a powder puff football game and skit practice, float building, door decorating, and a parade. That week was followed by a Monday holiday and then testing – PSAT and Practice ACT for two days with community service thrown in the mix. Even though class must go on, a realist knows that not much gets done after hours, and students’ attention is not at its best in class.

You can only imagine my students’ frustration when in the middle of that chaotic two weeks, I assigned a timed rhetorical analysis essay in class. Some were resolute and resigned; others were complaining; but none was optimistic. Still, I pushed on, handing out the passage to be analyzed and the ‘practice AP’ paper upon which I make them write.

The room went quiet and then they dug in. Fifteen minutes went by as they read and annotated the passage. Another five passed as they began to formulate ideas and outline how they might tackle their essays. Then suddenly with no warning, I stopped them and assigned them a partner or group with which to meet.

This technique, compliments of my APSI instructor, Valerie Stevenson, is called Interrupt the Process.   Here is what it looked like:

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IMG_1467The relief on their faces was obvious, even though they didn’t know where I was going or what the outcome of this assignment would be. They didn’t yet know I wouldn’t take them up for a grade when class was over. All they knew was that in this moment, they got to collaborate with a friend, get another’s perspective, share the burden and the stress of this difficult writing assignment, and not have to face it alone.

This look on their faces was priceless to me, and then even more valuable were the conversations I began hearing once they pulled their desks together and began talking and exchanging ideas. That’s when I grabbed my phone and snapped the pictures. I wasn’t even sure why at the time I was doing it, though I figured I’d feature them on my blog somewhere.

Later that afternoon, as the blog post began to write itself in my mind, I realized the importance of “Interrupt the Process” as a metaphor in my own life. Where would I be without community? When life gets crazy or difficult, I need a friend to ‘interrupt the process’; to speak up and give me a new perspective, or reach out and tell my that the idea I’ve come up with is actually not bad! Both intervention and validation come from the mouth of another. When I’m stuck in something difficult, I need to turn my chair and my face toward a friend and get help.

The value of the technique in my writing class is to give the students practice in timed essay writing, insuring they take the practice seriously, yet not turn every writing assignment into an assessment. It also enables them to learn analysis techniques from their friends and helps them see in new ways and gain multiple perspectives.

I had surgery a few years back and remarked to a friend a day or two after that I was trying not to take the pain medicine that the doctor had prescribed for 10 days post-op. “Why not?” she asked. “They aren’t going to give you badge for not taking it.”   (She has her doctorate in education!) “Doctors prescribe medicine for a specific length of time after surgery because people generally need it for that length of time,” she said.   Why was I treating recovery from surgery like some test on which I would be scored according to my teeth-gritting endurance?

Most days don’t end with a gold star by your name. Most of them are ‘just practicing’. Most of life is not for a grade. By design, it is intended and necessary to “interrupt the process” and get all the help that we can.

This Is What Revision Looks Like

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This is What Revision looks Like –

I glanced across my classroom today and this is what I saw. About five weeks ago, we started the Modes Project (a great idea from my APSI instructor Valerie Stevenson). This part, the writer’s workshop, in which students meet in ‘expert’ groups to critique each other’s papers was the part I dreaded most. Frankly, in my previous years teaching ninth graders, I’d felt like most group revision was not very helpful, that might students didn’t know enough to truly help each other revise. At best, they were proofreading and editing. This year in this project, with my AP Lang students, I was pleasantly surprised.

I’d had my students read an essay in each of seven modes all centered around the same general topic of language. I then had them read two essays on any subject of their choice in each of those seven modes. For each of those they had to write a rhetorical précis, which is a highly structured four-sentence paragraph blending summary and analysis. Finally, the students had to choose a topic of their own and write an essay on the topic in each of the seven modes.

Our days have been filled with reading, writing précis, getting feedback, and writing essays. Today we are to the revision stage. As I watch my students work in these groups and eavesdrop on their conversations, I hear things like, “If you think metaphorically, you can take this paper from here (the speaker’s hand is waist high) to up here” ( her hand is now over her head). Another group member agrees, “If you stomp through the woods long enough, you’ll get a dead deer! Your paper is really about perseverance.” This narrative essay from a deer hunter was being revised to more than he thought he had written.

I’d written the acronym RIP on the board just before my students began their group revision. “It stands for Rest in Peace,” I said, as this was the first time in weeks they didn’t have assigned homework or a deadline for my class hanging over their heads. We would be back in the groups the next few days in class. “It also reminds you to RIP those papers up,” I said, reminding them of the golden rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

We have created a safe community in these classes this semester. The students know and trust each other. They are highly motivated and want to succeed as well as see their peers do so. I suggested they think of themselves as doctors: diagnose the problem with these paper and cut out the diseased parts before they come to me for summative assessment. “You can even think of me as the coroner. You don’t want your paper to be pronounced Dead on Arrival, so don’t be shy, do for your peers what you want them to do for you—-tell them the truth and help them write their best essay in the mode you are an expert in.

As I watched and listened and heard them caring enough and trusting enough to tell the truth and receive the truth, I realized these revision groups are working a lot like what a friend of mine calls “a pit crew”. Not exactly the NASCAR kind, though she does borrow the image from them. We all need a few people in our lives who are brave enough to tell us the truth, to help us be our best selves, to not let us get away with bad behaviors. We need people who push us farther than we want to go – for our own good, and who call out the bad and tell us to get rid of it. Like a pit crew in a NASCAR race, they make us perform more efficiently and become more capable of finishing the race we are called to run.

This is what is fun about teaching. My students become my teachers. Just watching and eavesdropping in class today reminded me to give thanks for those “pit crew” people in my life who love me enough to clean my windshield, change my tires, and keep me fueled for the race.

Teacher as Student: The Growth Mindset- Learning Empathy and Humility

I’ve been in Atlanta all week attending an AP Institute. This training is for a new class I am teaching next year, and the subject- Language and Composition – is my favorite strand of the English curriculum. I’ve been looking forward to this week for a few months and I expected it to be interesting, intellectually stimulating, and fun. It was.

It was also challenging and humbling. I walked into a roomful of strangers Monday morning at 8:00, many of whom had more education and teaching experience than I, though they are younger people. At noon, four hours into knowing these people, we headed to the cafeteria on the campus where our training was held. I thought of my freshman students who every year write about the social terrors of the lunchroom the first week of high school. As I filled my water glass while trying to balance my plate, I wondered where I was going to sit, which table would have a space for me. I felt my freshmen’s pain.

Without realizing initially what was happening to me, I was being put through the paces my students go through each time they start a new class at a new level. Our instructor, Valerie Stevenson of San Diego, CA, a master teacher, wasn’t about to just show us course material and how to construct a syllabus for this class. Oh no! She had us taking the sample multiple choice test, writing a synthesis essay, a rhetorical analysis, and an argument. If that wasn’t enough, she handed us sample student papers, instructed us in the scoring guide, and told us to score them “the AP way.” My first attempt at that was unnerving. Let’s just say I didn’t have a clue what I was doing and it showed the next morning when I brought my homework to class.

When I whispered to her during the break that I had given the “9” paper a “5” and that I felt I might not be cut out for this work, she laughed. “So you are not good at it yet,” she said. She and I had previously discussed Carol Dweck’s  The Growth Mindset, required summer reading for teachers at my school and on Valerie’s recommended resources list. I’d read that book last fall thinking about all the parents I knew who should rear their children to have this ‘growth mindset’ instead of instantly thinking they should make A’s in everything from the beginning of a course. I’d read that book with my nose in the air, never once seeing myself as that student. “I bet you were that student who was usually good at things the first time and when you hit something hard, you lost confidence and backed away,” Valerie said. Bingo! Ouch! Was this woman a psychologist, too?

“It’s the growth mindset,” she said. “You’ll get better with practice. Can you see, now that I have explained it, why it was a 9?” I answered ‘Yes’. “Then you are going to be fine,” she said, “If you are seeing, then you are learning.” She was so breezily confident in me and unworried about my future in her profession that I decided maybe I was taking myself and my performance in the moment entirely too seriously. Then she went on to confess that she made a “D” in seventh grade English. This woman, this master teacher who has made a name for herself across the country as an English teacher and AP Consultant, made a D in seventh grade English. Another teacher standing nearby, a seasoned AP teacher attending her second institute as a refresher course, confessed to failing Freshman Comp as a college freshman. Carol Dweck’s book was standing in front of me.

I’d bought into Dweck’s arguments when I read it, but I hadn’t really experienced it personally in recent memory. I’d used the concepts with my students, ninth graders beginning high school, repeatedly telling them it was OK not to be good at something the first time you try. I had not put myself into a situation where that was possible.

Empathy and humility. Who doesn’t want to have those virtues? Yet acquiring them is another thing entirely. We don’t just ‘muster up’ humility or empathize by an act of our wills. Rather, these qualities are worked into us as human beings by the circumstances of our lives. At every turn, though, we will unconsciously avoid the very situations designed to make us humble and empathetic creatures because the situations are uncomfortable and unpleasant.

My ‘going back to school’ this week met my expectations as interesting, intellectually stimulating and fun. It exceeded my expectations by being challenging, and humbling. I’m practicing to become a good AP Lang teacher and grader and more importantly, an empathetic teacher and human being. I can see it; but as Valerie said, “Not yet.”