By COURTNEY BROWN
“Writing to learn” is a powerful concept that has long been espoused by literacy educators. In practice, writing to learn includes low-stakes writing assignments that generate authentic responses to prompts on a variety of topics. The goal of writing to learn is simply to unpack a subject, and the primary audience is the writer him/herself.
Some of the most powerful writing to learn practices include personal, expressive writing that allows us to reflect on how we are feeling and thinking. This may take the form of quick-writes in response to a question, journal entries, or letters to ourselves and others.
Although personal, expressive writing is not necessarily a measurable outcome of learning, it is possibly some of the most important writing that we can ask students to do. Personal writing not only helps students develop their voice, but offers them precious space to reflect and process their feelings and thoughts, in order to feel emotionally strong and balanced. James Britton adds that expressive writing helps students academically, to “discover, shape meaning, and reach understanding.” As we plan instruction, whether remote or in-person, creating space for expressive writing is crucial, especially during times of crisis or change.
During the remote learning period that has surfaced due to the COVID-19 crisis, teachers and schools across the world have worked overtime to reach and engage their students. Yet, even in cases where students appeared to have adequate access to digital devices, attendance was often lower than usual, particularly in middle and high schools in low-income neighborhoods.
Prioritizing mental health
When Principal Dr. Charles Gallo and his team at the New York City Charter High School for Computer Engineering, and Innovation in the Bronx — where I partner as an instructional and curricular coach — questioned students and their families about their low attendance, students reported feeling isolated, unmotivated, and in some cases, depressed, despairing, or scared. Dr. Gallo realized that his students’ social-emotional health and well-being needed to be tended to first. His students weren’t learning if they were not engaged, and they couldn’t engage if they were scared, depressed, or lonely.
Swiftly responding, Dr. Gallo encouraged teachers to use their professional judgement to deviate from their planned units and lessons to prioritize students’ mental health and engagement by offering students opportunities to reflect and process their emotions and experiences around the pandemic.
Encouraged by their principal, AECI faculty incorporated journal writing into their classes, which eventually evolved into plans for a schoolwide interdisciplinary project, grounded in personal, reflective writing. Students would craft responses to relevant essential questions, such as: How has the COVID-19 crisis had an impact on your personal life? How has it had an impact on society? What do you propose to solve or address the crisis?
In a digital world, where distance may make it challenging to interface with each student and check in about how s/he is doing, online options — such as Google Docs and Padlet — offer valuable asynchronous opportunities to read and respond to student writing with advice or supportive words.
While sharing personal writing online demands trust and confidentiality, some students have shared that the experience of writing into a Google Doc (as opposed to a notebook) makes them feel braver. For students who don't have access to devices, journaling in a notebook or on paper is a terrific low-tech option for reflection.
Incorporating these practices into your lessons can be as simple and informal as asking students to respond to a prompt that connects with the day’s topic. If you want to dig in further, consider some of these ideas:
An entrypoint to abstract thinking
Dr. Gallo and his faculty first incorporated journaling into their instruction as a way to help students process and express their complex and troubling feelings. Expressing oneself through writing (whether on paper, by typing a note on a phone, or working within a Google Doc) allows us to identify and understand our thoughts, which in turn, helps us become more confident, calmer, and balanced. When we reflect on and process our thinking, we can also start to make crucial connections to comprehend more abstract concepts and ideas. This is how learning begins to happen.
At AECI, students’ responses to how has the COVID-19 crisis had an impact on your personal life? became an entrypoint into an exploration of the more abstract second part of the essential question — how has the COVID-19 crisis had an impact on society? In Math and Science classes, students used their writing as a springboard for interpreting data that showed how COVID-19 affected their communities. In History classes, students connected the current pandemic to the Black Plague and the 1918 Spanish Flu, using resources such as historical journals, information from the New York Times, and the Smithsonian.
A call to action
Following their investigation of the connections between personal experience and the societal impact felt by COVID-19, AECI students began to address the final essential question: What are your recommendations for addressing or solving the COVID-19 crisis? In keeping with the stages of Karen’s Hesse’s Depth of Knowledge framework and CPET’s Rigormeter, students moved from exploring their concrete realities to analyzing data and evidence, developing their own theories, and, finally, proposing a call to action.
The project at AECI will culminate in a schoolwide portfolio of student writing and artwork, as well as letters to politicians that will incorporate supporting evidence from each discipline and propose solutions to elements of the COVID-19 crisis. Although AECI is focusing specifically on COVID-19, this type of interdisciplinary project can work for any relevant topic that’s applicable to your community.
For many of us educators, the demands of content, testing, or curriculum can leave us feeling as though we don't have time to incorporate personal writing into our lessons. However, when we recognize the benefits that come from creating space for students to make sense of their thoughts and feelings, we can see how this work is essential to student engagement, and how it can support the introduction of new content. When students feel emotionally balanced, personally engaged, and connected to a topic, real learning can happen — during times of crisis and every day.
TAGS: COURTNEY BROWN, LITERACY, RESOURCES, WRITING
By COURTNEY BROWN
As I get older and work as a coach and mentor for teachers, I am increasingly thankful to the educators who supported me throughout my journey as an educator.
In the beginning, teaching was a challenge for me, as it is for many teachers during their first years. I lasted a year in my first official teaching job, before, humbled, I decided that I just wasn’t equipped enough, and went back to school to get a Masters in Teaching English. After finishing my degree, I eventually returned to teach at a large high school in New York City. There were over twenty teachers in my department, many of whom were veteran teachers. These remarkable educators became my mentors and coaches, generously offering me advice, lesson plans, teaching moves, and moral support.
Beverly Epstein, Sue Blattner, Demaris Fernandez, Annette Tomasetti, and others shared their enthusiasm and folders full of lesson plans, notes, and short texts and invited me to visit their classes. I quickly learned from their range of approaches that there was a variety of pathways to teaching each lesson or topic. These true professionals were also warm and positive and made me feel that I could master teaching.
From Beverly Epstein, I learned how to make classic texts, like The Odyssey and Hamlet, engaging to students by linking them to current events and helping students make relevant personal connections through authentic discussion. Annette Tomasetti shared with me her passion and a myriad ways to make group work and collaboration happen. Sue Blattner could make any poem come to life in the classroom, and Demaris knew systems and structures. Each of my mentor’s talents and skills had a distinct impact on my approaches and thinking.
Now, as I work to mentor and coach early-career teachers, I realize that these remarkable educators also modeled for me how to mentor and support others; to recognize novice teachers’ potential and promote their passions.
I owe them so much.
Every educator plays a role in creating a positive school culture, regardless of their level of experience. Each person has something to offer, and something to learn.
Teaching is a career of apprenticeship, and the best way for us to learn is from each other. Take time to recognize the crucial role you play in your school, and explore how you might support others in your teaching community.
By COURTNEY BROWN
The numbers are daunting: approximately 50% of teachers leave within their first five years of teaching. This rapid turnover negatively impacts districts, schools, and students. All over the country, schools and principals are left scrambling to find teachers at the last minute, and school culture, curriculum, and instruction suffer from a lack of continuity. Statistically, this high turnover disproportionately affects schools primarily serving students from low-income families and students of color.
What can we do to address the issue of teacher attrition? How do we help teachers not simply stay in their jobs, but become committed, successful, practitioners? Certainly, a strong supportive school culture helps, and we recognize that ongoing mentoring, strong preparation, and a repertoire of instructional moves go a long way in helping new teachers experience success.
Research shows that teachers who are well-prepared and well-mentored are much more likely to make a long-term commitment to the profession, and increase their effectiveness while doing so. At CPET, we specialize in offering new teachers ongoing, individualized mentorship as well as ready-to-use resources they need to be successful in the classroom.
Engaging with a community of peers
The New Teacher Network at Teachers College (NTN@TC) is a community of practice for individuals in their first three year of teaching. NTN@TC provides a custom blend of in-person and online collaboration, personalized support through customized professional development workshops, on-site coaching, and a dedicated online community. Since its establishment in 2014, nearly 250 Teachers College graduates have connected to the network. Though some network benefits are limited to Teachers College alumni, all new teachers can benefit from our in-person workshops and conferences, many of which are tailored specifically for the experiences of first- to third-year teachers:
By COURTNEY BROWN
A student’s command of a range of vocabulary can predict not only their academic success, but even their future job opportunities. This may seem like a bold statement, but in fact, research supports it!
As Marzano and Pickering attest, “One of the key indicators of students' success in school, on standardized tests, and indeed, in life, is their vocabulary. The reason for this is simply that the knowledge anyone has about a topic is based on the vocabulary of that information.” (Marzano & Pickering, 2005).
The correlation between a student’s mastery of academic vocabulary and their success becomes even stronger as they move into high school, where they encounter a broadening variety of discipline-specific vocabulary, in which each word may actually represent a new complex concept. Consider a solution in math vs. a solution in science; a ray in math vs. a ray of sunlight in a poem; function as a noun in math vs. function as a more general verb. As students reach higher grade levels, they face increased demands to gain more specialized knowledge and to differentiate between meanings in each context. It can be a little overwhelming!
To make teaching and planning for vocabulary development more manageable, I find it helpful to begin by taking action in two ways.
Supporting students to manage unfamiliar language as they read
This includes offering students tools to identify words using context clues, replacing words, identifying words by their roots or similarities to other words, or for ELLS, using cognates. Many of these tools help students read fluidly and fearlessly, taking on the challenge of unfamiliar words as hurdles to jump or work around, not roadblocks that stop them.
CPET’s Dr. Roberta Lenger Kang created a simple, adaptable Monitoring for Meaning resource that students can use to figure out, track, and archive words independently as they read. Students can keep the chart right it in their notebooks and regularly build it as they encounter new words.
Identifying specific vocabulary and concepts to teach in each unit
When you plan to teach the key terms for each unit and then strategically reinforce and review the words throughout, students have a much better chance of learning and recalling key words and concepts. Sorting and categorizing, using and seeing the words in a variety of contexts, and learning through games or puzzles helps new concepts take root in the minds of your students. Consider the impact of games such as Pictionary, Taboo or Jeopardy, all of which make learning vocabulary more engaging, and in turn can make vocabulary more memorable.
TAGS: COURTNEY BROWN, LITERACY
By COURTNEY BROWN
As we move closer to the end of the school year and approach the high-stakes testing season, we know educators are grappling with the question: to test prep or not to test prep?
When it comes to high-stakes exams that help determine whether or not students will graduate from high school (as is the case with some New York State Regents’ exams), which colleges they may have access to (based on their SAT or ACT scores), or whether or not they can move to a new grade level (as is the case for elementary students and their scores on NYC ELA and Math exams), there’s no doubt that schools and teachers should strategically plan for test prep. We need to be able to support students in meeting the demands of these exams, and to equip them with the skills and knowledge needed to have authority over the exam.
Preparation is key
Most standardized exams are their own unique genre — they ask questions in unfamiliar ways, and include tasks that may only exist in the specific format on the exam. Some exams may seem foreign to students because of their formatting, structure, and use of language.
One way to think about the importance of test prep is to understand that taking a long, grueling exam once a year is similar to running a marathon. None of us would want to run a marathon without training for it, or without gathering advance information that will help us achieve our goal.
While we should take time to prepare students for challenging, high-stakes exams, it’s crucial that we don’t overinform the focus of our curriculum or instruction. Instead, we should offer test prep strategies that allow students to exercise authority over the exam. To avoid narrowing our instruction to focus solely on test prep, it may be helpful to think of preparation as two components: understanding the content and skills related to the exam, and understanding the structure of the exam itself.
Understanding content and skills related to the exam
Allowing students to learn exam-related skills and content is best accomplished by strategically building key skills, standards, and understandings into your curriculum throughout the year. Ideally, you would also be able to scaffold these components in the years leading up to the exam.
You can then periodically assess student learning throughout the year and re-teach, review, and reinforce areas that still need some work. Going back to our marathon analogy, we can think of this part of the test prep process as conditioning and training so that our students have the tools needed to run the race.
Understanding the structure of the exam
The second part of test prep involves getting to know the exam — it’s genre, language, scope, and scoring methods. We want students to have agency over the exam and an understanding of all its components. Students should have the opportunity to take a practice exam in its entirety, so that they have a chance to practice their pacing, and time to develop their own best practices for test-taking.
Again, thinking about the exam as a marathon that our students are being asked to run, the more our students know about the course of the race, the more empowered they’ll be when developing strategies to tackle it.
If we regularly gauge student progress on as they learn the key skills needed to succeed on an exam, and assess their mastery of the exam’s sections, we can adjust and differentiate our teaching to offer students what they need to be as prepared as possible, while maintaining a positive and enriching experience in our classrooms.
To help get you started with implementing strategic, positive test prep, check out our RISE resource, which offers guidance for helping students gain access, agency, and authority over exams.
TAGS: COURTNEY BROWN, RESOURCES, TESTING
By COURTNEY BROWN
The term teacher leader has gained momentum in recent years, and while we believe that teachers are always leaders — in their own classrooms, schools, and in society — the role of a teacher leader can be hard to define and tricky to inhabit.
Teacher leaders work in a range of supportive roles in the the intersecting space between their fellow teachers and administrators leading departments or grade level teams, facilitating professional development sessions, and serving on committees for initiatives or projects. Understanding and bridging the needs of both administrators and teachers often demands new perspectives and mindsets, as well as a broad skill set.
For over 10 years, we’ve been designing promising practices to support individuals who inhabit this multifaceted role. This year, we’re partnering with an innovative team of administrators in the North Plainfield district of New Jersey to develop their very own cohort of teacher leaders. Through the creation of customized workshops, we’re offering the North Plainfield team a mix of relevant theories and hands-on, practical applications, as well as a supportive collaborative space — a community of practice in which everyone can safely share their struggles and successes, explore ideas, practice skills, and offer or receive feedback.
We examine the theoretical component by including a review of adult learning theory in each of our sessions. By discussing theory, individuals have time to investigate how they might manage the move from teaching students to facilitating and coaching their colleagues. Our discussions then lead to an application of this theory, allowing each team member to connect it to real-world scenarios.
As they shift from theory to practice, our partners often explore the complexities of their teacher leader roles by utilizing a protocol for structured conversations. Two of our favorites, success and dilemma protocols, are simple, yet effective ways for colleagues or small groups to support each other in working through challenges, celebrating promising practices, and identifying next steps.
The development of confident, capable teacher leaders is an essential component of creating productive teams. Are you a current or aspiring teacher leader, looking to enhance your capabilities? Check out our Critical Incidents workshop series, designed to help educators identify the foundations of teacher leadership and build skills in facilitation, working with teams, and leading projects.