Blog

Welcome!

by Jennifer Fletcher

Welcome to the ERWC blog! We envision this blog as a way for ERWC teachers to dig into the nuts and bolts of the curriculum: to share teaching tips and success stories, explore problems of practice together, and ground ourselves in the key principles and frameworks that make the curriculum work for all students.

Here you’ll find advice from colleagues on teaching signature ERWC activities, such as descriptive outlining and rhetorical analysis. You’ll also find strategies for designing a year-long course, teaching a particular module, or using the ERWC Assignment Template to create your own units. And we’ll share “think pieces” on some of the larger issues that impact our work as educators, including the importance of culturally sustaining pedagogies.

We hope these bite-sized bits of professional learning sustain your connection to the ERWC community (now over 15,000 educators strong!) and support your essential work in the classroom. We’d love to hear from you, too, about how you make ERWC work—and how you make it better.

ERWC has always been about more than the modules. Teacher collaboration and expertise are the magic ingredients that make the curriculum effective. We’re delighted to invite you to join us in spreading more of that magic around!

To subscribe to the ERWC blog, please click on the button that says, “Follow.” Submissions for blog posts may be sent to Jennifer Fletcher at jfletcher@csumb.edu. Please see the publication criteria on the “Writing for the ERWC Blog” page. For more information on the California State University’s Expository Reading and Writing Curriculum (ERWC), including how to register for an ERWC workshop, please visit the following websites:

ERWC Online Community:
https://writing.csusuccess.org/
CSU Center for the Advancement of Reading and Writing: https://www2.calstate.edu/CAR/Pages/erwc.aspx
ERWC Workshop Registration:
https://www2.calstate.edu/CAR/Pages/professional-learning-workshops.aspx

Jennifer Fletcher is a Professor of English at California State University, Monterey Bay and the Chair of the ERWC Steering Committee. You can follow her on Twitter @JenJFletcher.

“What Is A Text?”

By Jonathon Medeiros

I often tell my students that our job is to be curious, to be critical, to notice the way everything around us is manipulating us, bending our behaviors. They smirk as I ramble on, assuming paranoia or overzealous, curmudgeonly zeal, worthy of temporary entertainment, and nothing more. I go on, asking them to tell me everything they know about text.

“What is a text?”

“It’s on my phone.”
“Words.”
“Books.”

“Is this a text?” I ask, holding up a poem. “And this?” playing a snippet of a song. “And is this a text?” pointing to a painting.

Yesses, and umms, and unsteady nos.

Eventually I reveal my full crazy idea, that anything created by a human for a purpose is a text. We quickly make it through essays, books, poems, and songs being texts. They think they are clever to state that movies are texts, because they can’t read the words. Slowly, we agree that paintings and pictures and sculptures are texts, crafted by humans, afterall, to communicate some idea. The creator of each made specific choices to reach their goal. I eventually push it too far, trying to convince the students that the desks they are sitting in are texts, built to communicate a certain belief system, to manipulate students into behaving in a specific way, purposefully designed to communicate to students that they need face this way, they need to work and listen and write right here, feet on the ground, separate from neighbors.

In my experience using the ERWC, these fundamental yet expansive ideas about text, about reading and writing rhetorically, about the rhetoric that is beyond printed words, are key to helping students to understand their role in making meaning out of the world around them. I have found that one of the most effective ways to help students understand these fundamental ideas is through visual rhetoric. If you have time, I suggest starting the year with a mini unit on the basics of ethos, pathos, logos, on speaker, audience, purpose, but to do so with “texts” that contain no printed words. The ERWC mini-module “Introducing the Rhetorical Situation”–a short unit that uses paintings as its central texts–is a good starting place.

Practicing reading pictures rhetorically is novel enough for most students to find the learning enjoyable, but it is also a way to remove a barrier your EL students might face. For a person just learning about rhetoric, the ideas can be alien enough. If you also struggle with the dominant language, that may be a barrier too many. Once students master and internalize the work of rhetorical analysis and the associated jargon, by practicing on images without printed words, they are more able to put into use the same work as you and your class move through more complicated texts. (See Glen McClish’s post “Reimagining Aristotelian Ethos” for an example of what this next step might look like.)

Yearly, I receive cards, messages, or emails, sometimes passing lines in essays or speeches, talking about the rhetoric of the chair, and I smile.

Jonathon Medeiros has been teaching and learning about Language Arts and rhetoric for fifteen years with students on Kauaʻi. He frequently writes about education policy and is the former director of the Kauaʻi Teacher Fellowship. Jonathon enjoys building things, surfing, and spending time with his wife and daughters. He believes in teaching his students that if you change all of your mistakes and regrets, you’d erase yourself. Follow Jonathon on Twitter – @jonmedeiros or at jonathonmedeiros.com.

Simple Formative Assessment

By Jonathon Medeiros

“Question your most dearly held beliefs.” Puanani Burgess teaches this as a way to help us build community. Questioning our beliefs, especially those we hold most dear, helps us to understand why we believe what we do, helps us to discover when our beliefs need to change, when they are holding us back, when they are counterproductive. The interrogation of our beliefs should be commonplace. We should go through this life assuming we can learn, change, grow. Too often, we prefer the opposite, shoring up our ideas, walling them off from potential questioning. 

Our large systems, like public schools, are purpose built to function on a set of “unquestionable” beliefs, beliefs so unquestionable as to be rendered invisible. Often we do not even know we are clutching to a belief, they way we do not always notice that we are breathing.

Over this strange year, we have been faced with many hardships, many forced changes, many problems to face down. But also, this year has been full of countless opportunities to question our beliefs about school, about what school is, what it is for, how learning happens and why. We’ve had the opportunity to struggle with questions of attendance, of late policies, of where and when and how to hold classes, how to encourage learning, to encourage growth, and how to measure it, if we should even try to measure it. Those of us willing to grapple with these questions, to interrogate our old beliefs, have come away with new answers, with new perspectives, with more energy and safer, more effective and inclusive classes.

One question I grappled with was how to track student growth when I can’t see students in person regularly. I think the most effective formative assessments are simple, frequent, useful to the student, and repetitive. We learn by working and part of my job, even when assessing learning, is to make sure students are always pushing themselves, still learning and growing. Assessment should be part of the learning work that students do, not something that is done to them. 

Assessment should be part of the learning work that students do, not something that is done to them. 

So, I decided to just ask my students one simple question: What did you learn this week? I am not sure students are used to being asked this question, but it is a powerful self reflective tool, a way for students to prod and track their own learning, as well as a perfect way for me to see the students’ growth while giving regular, purposeful, useful feedback.

The question forces self reflection, allows students to dive into and identify what they are learning, how they are growing, and why. But it is flexible and can be tailored as needed. I can focus on developing writing skills. I can focus on speaking skills by having them record their responses. I can be extremely targeted and focus on supporting ideas with evidence or I can zoom out and simply focus on writing fluency.

The key is students are doing the work, investigating their own learning, mulling it over, finding pride and excitement in their own growth, particularly as the year goes on, so I can see their growth but the assessment doesn’t interrupt the learning.

Jonathon Medeiros has been teaching and learning about Language Arts and rhetoric for fifteen years with students on Kauaʻi. He frequently writes about education policy and is the former director of the Kauaʻi Teacher Fellowship. Jonathon enjoys building things, surfing, and spending time with his wife and daughters. He believes in teaching his students that if you change all of your mistakes and regrets, you’d erase yourself. Follow Jonathon on Twitter – @jonmedeiros or at jonathonmedeiros.com

Mini-Modules: Teaching for Transfer

Mini-Modules. What are they? How do they differ from full length centered on issues? And why are my students saying that these were the most fun out of all the modules I taught this past year?

All these questions are answered in this episode of The Teaching ERWC Podcast, where I talk with Nelson Graff of California State University, Monterey Bay. We clear up the purpose of Mini-Modules, how they can help us ERWC teachers stay accountable to teaching transferrable skills to our students, and why they are designed to be fun and memorable.

Want to contribute to the podcast?

The Teaching ERWC Podcast is produced, written, and developed by members of the ERWC Community, who is made up of many voices from many backgrounds. The community invites its members to be part of the content being produced here.

If you have any interest in contributing to the podcast, please fill out this Google Form.

Connect with ERWC on social media

Is Homework Too Late to Check for Understanding?

By Marisol Puga

As a student in my teaching credential program, I was involved in a heated debate in my Global Education course regarding the controversial question of “should teachers give out homework?” I, of course, vehemently argued that homework is necessary in order for the student to demonstrate the skills that they learned in class that day. 

That was my trained opinion, yes, “trained” because through the span of my student career I was trained by all of my teachers from 1st to 12th grade to expect homework on a daily basis. Homework, by the way, I sometimes never saw again after it was turned in, and if I did, it was returned with a meaningless grade with no explanation behind it as to how I earned that grade. Or even, more importantly, what I could do to improve the skill I was applying for that particular assignment. 

It should be clear by now as a teacher in my fifth year in a classroom, that I no longer hold the same opinion on “traditional” homework. This is not to say that the concept of homework cannot be beneficial to students. If used correctly, “homework” can help build a positive digital classroom environment and community. This may sound complicated, but it is done by simply creating “homework” that does not require any physical product and that the students can choose whether or not to “complete.”

Currently, all of my distance learning CHOICE “homework” serves three purposes. First, to get to know my students and vice versa (since I always “complete” all of our homework assignments, too). This is done by assigning something as simple as “Ask your favorite person to describe you in 3 words.” Most students will jump at the chance to tell you what their friend or significant other said (especially via private Zoom chat)! Second, the choice homeworks facilitate communication between students and their parents; this is done with assigning something that will spark a conversation, such as “ask your parents what is their most embarrassing memory from when they were your age.” I can tell you that most of my students chose to complete that one (since it’s usually the parent witnessing or causing their embarrassing moments)! Lastly, my choice homework introduces students to being aware of their mental health by having them create a weekly “to-do” list of three things that they will try to do at least once a day to help them manage their stress.

However, as you might recall I did not start off with, what some might call  a “New Age” idea behind homework’s use. This type of homework promotes positive rapport, an inclusive classroom culture, and builds community that bridges the gap between the school, parents, and their students. Facilitating such bonding and relatable content, sparks increased socioemotional learning, connection, and engagement when students and families need it the most. 

As a meek novice teacher, I continued to follow the educator’s norm of assigning “traditional” homework (i.e., we did this in class, so surely that means you can apply this skill perfectly on your own) even if I did not always see the value of it. 

The main issue I constantly encountered, however, as I would walk the class and grade their work, was I found myself RETEACHING yesterday’s essential skill to at least one student per group. This would happen DAILY. Sound familiar to you? As to be expected, I was frustrated, but I could only blame myself for not doing more…This pattern helped me realize, why wait until the following day to see what your students didn’t understand. Better equipped with this self reflection, I immediately solved this issue by transforming what would have normally been homework into an exit ticket, which was then checked in real time during class. By using this strategy, I was able to address the miscommunication right then and there!

Since distance learning began, at least from my experience, I have witnessed many teachers assigning homework as a means to squeeze in material that they could not cover in class due to shortened instructional time. This creates more workload and subsequently more stress  for BOTH teachers and students. My suggestion is to concentrate on what skill they are supposed to practice that day and create an opportunity for them to demonstrate their level of proficiency,” Therefore, establishing a stress free and manageable check for understanding, enabling students and teachers to monitor their learning.

I know that we can no longer for many reasons “lurk” over our student’s shoulders to check for their understanding, BUT, thanks to easy to maneuver online learning platforms we are still able to accomplish the same means digitally! For this purpose I prefer Google classroom, Padlet, or Peardeck since these all allow you to view what the student is doing in real time. 

This real time check for understanding exit ticket using technology eliminates the need to assign homework for your students to demonstrate what they know or don’t know. Thus, avoiding student disengagement and excess stress for all parties involved by checking for understanding in class when there is still time to correct student-teacher miscommunications. And if you must assign “homework,” then please consider using your homework as a means to nourish the class environment at a time when student buy in is extremely vital for their success. 

Marisol Puga is the favorite (ONLY) freshman English Teacher at Health Careers Academy in Stockton, CA. When she is not teaching, you can find her running, reading Victorian novels, and posting her “Teacher Outfit of the Day” on Instagram. You can follow her @marisolpugarangel.

Digital or Print: Putting Readers in the Driver’s Seat

By Molly Berger

Getting students to engage with their reading, to read deeply as we say, has always been a multifaceted challenge. Now we add one more complication: the impact of digital texts on comprehension. The issue is driving much research and is frequently debated. However, the question should not be whether print or digital is better, because our students will be reading both. It should be, “How do we read well in any format?”

Goal setting and the metacognitive and reflective questions in the ERWC Assignment Template lend themselves to delving into this issue with students because they put the student in the driver’s seat. It is up to the individual to determine what works best for them. Additionally, to help students in determining this, we must ask the students two questions:

How do you read best?

            and then,

How do you know this?

While students may be able to voice their preferences, few have truly explored their options or can articulate how or why it works for them. Most simply read when the teacher says to. Others pretend to read and wait for the class discussion to get the gist of the assignment. So how do we develop student motivation and skill to be self-directed readers? How do we become the warm demanders that both expect and support this?

I shouldn’t be but always am surprised by the students’ ability to solve their own learning challenges. My role is to present them with options and guide them in finding what works best for them. Modeling strategies and allowing students time to share with each other what works gives them the opportunity to understand themselves as learners, which results in self-knowledge and a lasting impact.

Consider these strategies and let the students tell you what works from there.

Manipulating Text

One of the strongest assets of digital texts is the ability to manipulate the way we see it. From font size and background color to layout and design, students can choose what helps them focus and comprehend. Modeling this process is key as some students may choose what they think looks good compared to what actually helps them read. For example, they may love creative fonts such as Edwardian Script or Curlz MT, but these will most likely be difficult to read in longer texts. Have them set criteria for how they will know their design choice works best and then experiment. Have them consider

  • Background color: decrease the contrast of print and background.
  • Font size: find the just right size
  • White space: manage by line spacing

Ebook devices or apps have reader choices for this. Web browsers allow for increasing of font size but note the reader view features explained below for further options.

Managing Distractions

Our students are so used to advertising and links in their reading that they may not even see them as distractions. Modeling how to eliminate advertising and when to open a link or skip it, can focus their attention on this.

  • Block pop-ups: Check the security section of whichever browser you are using. (Search for block popups in Chrome or whichever browser you use.)
  • Open the reader view:  This feature will take out the advertising, pictures, buttons, etc. (This is in the title bar of Firefox and Explorer and is an extension in Chrome.) Reader view also changes the font and background. Click here for an example of reader view.
  • Determine when to click or not click a link: Have the students consider if following a link will help their comprehension or interrupt it. Model this with examples of how some links may clarify meaning as with definitions and how others can lead us completely off track. Have the students develop their own guide for whether to click while they read, after they read, or not at all.
  • Practice highlighting and notetaking: Whether it is one of many apps or browser extensions available (Evernote, OneNote, Google Keep, etc.), a note taker in an ebook or whether students simple copy and paste the text into a Word or Google doc, getting adept at highlighting and notetaking will boost student comprehension and retention of what they read.

Ultimately, the success of comprehending digital or print texts derives not only from skill but from students accepting their role in their learning. If we want our students to be able to dip their “oar into the water” (They Say, I Say,  Graff and Birkenstein) in rhetorical reading, discussion and writing, then they need to see themselves as connected readers (Connected Reading, Turner and Hicks) who make decisions on how they read well based on their own experience.

Molly Berger is a secondary English teacher currently working as an English Language Arts specialist and program coordinator at the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction in Olympia, Washington. As a Washington lead for the ERWC i3 Grant, she has served on the ERWC Steering Committee, supported Washington teachers as a coach and workshop presenter, and written modules.

Works Cited

Graff, Gerald and Cathy Birkenstein. They Say, I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing. 4th edition. W.W. Norton, 2018.

Turner, Kristin Hawley and Troy Hicks. Connected Reading: Teaching Adolescent Readers in a Digital World. National Council of Teachers of English, 2015.

Using Antiracist Reading Practices to Help Writers Engage in Meaningful Revision

By Dutch Henry

In a recent meeting of English teachers one of my colleagues asked, “What are the things you see from students that make you say ‘oh no, not this again?’” Over the laughter, one of the other teachers said, “A ‘revision’ that is the same as the previous draft. I try so hard but I just can’t get my kids to revise. They feel so good about finishing something that they don’t want to keep working on it. They have so much to say and so much greatness in them, I wish I could get them to revise.” The chorus of agreement was so loud I had to turn down the volume in the Zoom meeting.

I think about this lament a lot and I always come back to what I’m doing to help my students meaningfully engage in revision. I’ve tried many different approaches over the years, but without much success. Finally, though, I’ve found that what works best isn’t about me at all. In some ways, it’s not about the writers either, it’s about their readers. Student writers care about the views of their peer readers in ways that are profoundly different than the way they care about me, the teacher-reader. 

In  Asao B. Inoue’s “Teaching Antiracist Reading”, he advocates for antiracist reading practices that “ask [readers] to…investigate the deep and hidden structures that make up their personal reading habits, personal reading habits that are also structural and social.” The varied practices Inoue outlines in the essay involve a series of steps that boil down to two core elements. First, Inoue asks readers to pause while they are reading and ask “What am I feeling right now reading this text? Why am I feeling that? What in the text did that to me?” Next, readers ask themselves “Where in my world do I get the ideas that help me respond this way? Where do those habits come from?” Using these two steps in the process of peer review can help readers engage with their fellow students’ writing in ways that improves their reading process and provides feedback that inspires writers to revise.

Based on Inoue’s ideas, I now ask readers in peer feedback to use these questions to share with their classmates how the writing made them feel and what specifically in the writing made them feel that way. Early in the process I support them with sentence prompts to make specific references to the writing. I also ask them to tell their fellow writers how their response to the writing relates to something in their life or experience. Writers, then, reflect on whether the response the reader shared is the one they were hoping for and how they might revise their writing to increase or alter the reader’s experience. This can then lead to more detailed discussions about how to apply the key elements of rhetorical reading and writing in ERWC.

It may be our lament as teachers that students don’t always reach the goals we set for them, but maybe it’s the “we” in that process that is the problem rather than the students. If we focus on what students are already doing and can do well, we can see them reach goals we hadn’t even anticipated for them. If we turn the experiences of reading and writing over to the students more fully we may find that they reach their own goals, which may be even better than the ones we dream of for them.

Dutch Henry teaches English at Shoreline Community College north of Seattle, WA. As the Higher Education English Lead for the Bridge to College Project in Washington, he has partnered with ERWC on module development, coaching, and professional learning.

Upgrading to ERWC 3.0: Why You Should Be Excited!

“Finally!”

This was my first thought after reading a core document developed by leading members* of the Expository Reading and Writing Course (ERWC).

To be frank, I don’t usually get excited about 15 page PDFs with the words “theoretical foundations” in them, but just reading the overview caused an unexpected level of excitement. I wasn’t just eager to actually see the answer to the dreaded question, “Why are we doing this?” I was realizing that the core values and beliefs upon which ERWC was built aligned perfectly with my own values and beliefs as an educator.  

Here is the rundown of what you will find in the Theoretical Foundations, in bullet point fashion: 

  • Culturally Sustaining Pedagogies (asset-based approach)
  • Reading and Writing as Social Practices
  • Broadening Notions of “Reading,” “Composing,” and “Literacy” 
  • Thinking Rhetorically
  • Supporting Literacy through Student-Centered Discussion 
  • Expanding the Inquiry Space (Supporting Productive Struggle and Goal Setting)
  • Universal Design for Learning
  • The Roles of Engagement and Motivation
  • Transfer of Learning

This is the dream course to teach, folks. And in dreaming that we all read and internalize these foundational beliefs in the Theoretical Foundations document, below are the three I treasure most and am hopeful to connect with fellow ERWC teachers about (seriously, hit me up!).

1. Culturally Sustaining Pedagogies (an asset-based approach)

We didn’t become teachers to tell students “You’re wrong” and to make them feel inferior. As a student, though, I can recall several formative moments where I was made to feel exactly this, and perhaps your experience in education was peppered with moments of being made to feel “less than” too. 

As I have matured as a teacher, I have grown to see many of the circumstances where I experienced feelings of inadequacy had more to do with people participating in a system that skewed toward deficit thinking: emphasizing what was lacking, missing, or “wrong.” If it didn’t fit the expectation, or norm, then there was a “problem” that needed to be “fixed.”

The  ERWC Theoretical Foundations for Reading and Writing Rhetorically makes it clear that everyone, student and teachers, is to be viewed as individuals who are in the process of building. What each of us have built up, and what has been built into us, is worth celebrating and strengthening. Taking in this section of the Theoretical Foundations is giving me the strength to challenge assessment norms I grew up with and was trained to use in my classroom. Too often our assessment tools emphasize what a student can’t do, how what they produced doesn’t fit, instead of helping students recognize the wonderful assets they already have and building from there.

2. Supporting Literacy through Student-Centered Discussion

Learning is social. We process new ideas better together, and ERWC certainly wades into some big concepts. To quote from the Theoretical Foundations, “[W]e first encounter new ideas, processes, and information in real world contexts (including in texts), and we then make sense of new knowledge collaboratively through talk and social interaction with others.”

When I first encountered ERWC, all the activities in a module seemed impossible to squeeze into the calendar. “You want me to teach how many modules in a semester!?” It took some time to realize that I could complete many of the activities through conversation, but for some reason I tricked myself into believing this was a cheat, not something condoned by the ERWC “powers that be.” I could not have been more wrong. In my classroom, conversation, in various forms, has become a key feature in shaping students’ understanding of the material while accelerating the time it can take to work through a module to fidelity. 

Understandably, this has been difficult–bordering on seemingly impossible– this past year, but it’s a practice worth fighting for on behalf of our students. And there are some clever ways teachers within the ERWC community have made room for student-centered discussion during distance learning.

3. Expanding the Inquiry Space

When I first started teaching ERWC, that’s what I did: I taught ERWC. I wish I could go back and apologize to those students I taught in my first year with ERWC. Back then we only addressed the questions I thought were important, and I worked to funnel my students to the answers that I deemed worthy. 

Over the years, I have made major shifts in my practice that put student questions at the front. More and more I have transitioned away from the teacher as the principle mover through a module. These days it’s more student questions that drive my classes through a given module.

Let’s Connect!

If you’re even the slightest bit encouraged or excited about working these elements from the Theoretical Foundation, let’s get connected! Not sure how, here’s a few ways:

  • Follow the blog
  • Leave a comment below
  • Connect with the community on social media

QUESTION: How about you? What are you most attracted to in the upgrade to 3.0?


*Developers of the third edition of the Expository Reading and Writing Curriculum (ERWC) Theoretical Foundations for Reading and Writing Rhetorically document include Mira-Lisa Katz, Nelson Graff, Norm Unrau, Ginny Crisco, and Jennifer Fletcher.

Better, Faster, and More Equitable Feedback

12,600 hours. 12,600 hours of grading student writing. That would be equivalent to working full-time, 52 weeks a year, for 6 years.

For this episode’s guest, the above was a calculation he worked out earlier in his career that would bring clarity to the pain he was putting himself through. In episode two of The Teaching ERWC Podcast, we hear from Matthew M. Johnson, an English Teacher from Ann Arbor, Michigan. He is author of the book Flash Feedback: Responding to Student Writing Better and Faster–Without Burning Out.

When it comes to carrying the weight of the responsibility of assessing stacks of student writing, Matthew has walked the walk. He nearly left the profession due to the crushing expectations he had heaped on himself to get his students timely feedback in an effort to become better writers. In earnest, after year three, he did walk away from teaching for a number of years, expecting never to return. Eventually, he did made his way back, developing feedback practices that freed up his calendar and helped his students grow as writers.

As I have interacted with Matthew over the years on his blog and social media, putting into practice his sage advice, I have not only claimed back more time for myself, my students have received timelier feedback, that was more effective than ever, and has reached every student, improving the writing skills of all.

On April 20th, Matthew Johnson will delivering a webinar that dives deeper into this reality. Did I mention, the webinar is FREE? More details below.

Want to contribute to the podcast?

The Teaching ERWC Podcast is produced, written, and developed by members of the ERWC Community, who is made up of many voices from many backgrounds. The community invites its members to be part of the content being produced here.

If you have any interest in contributing to the podcast, please fill out this Google Form.

Connect with ERWC on social media

Kicked Me in the Gut: Picked Me Back Up

By Meline Akashian

Maybe it’s rude in a blog post to tell you to read something else, but here it is: read Matthew Kay’s Not Light But Fire: How to Lead Meaningful Race Conversations in the Classroom.

And be ready. He says stuff like this:

Just as we cannot conjure safe spaces from midair, we should not expect the familial intimacy, vulnerability, and forgiveness needed for meaningful race conversations to emerge from traditional classroom relationships.

Frankly, that’s nothing compared to page twenty-seven. On page twenty-seven, my note in the margin is an expletive.

That’s where Kay chronicles an informal conversation between his poetry club students in the immediate aftermath of Ferguson–or, more specifically, in the immediate aftermath of a black student suffering through a class discussion about Ferguson.  Kay’s students offer raw revelation of what many students are probably thinking when teachers lead such discussions. 

My takeaways were layered, and they came in depressing waves, but here is a big one: Many kids wear masks during difficult classroom discussions. And during race conversations, some kids might wear the mask. I’m just going to leave that there for a second. For any teacher who wants to help students use their voices and activate their agency, it’s a crushing thought. But let’s be clear–the mask itself is not the problem. All of us disguise our vulnerabilities from most people, for good reason. All of us have public and private selves, and each of us alone decides who sees what. 

OK, so combine that reality with our reality, that nearly every ERWC module could be a touchy subject or tap into someone’s past trauma. ERWC teachers are routinely doing what Kay describes as opening “academic” discussions around topics that are “visceral” for some of our students. The whole course is designed around dialogue aimed at productive conflict.  But productive conflict requires openness and honesty.

For me, the practical implication is this: it doesn’t matter if I think I’m an ally; it doesn’t matter what’s in my heart; it definitely doesn’t matter what I do with my free time; it doesn’t even matter if my students love and respect me. What matters is that my students trust me with their bruised and battered insides. And trust not just me, but their classmates. Only then can I hope that students will decide, when they are ready, to be real–in front of me and everyone else in the room. 

Like–I was already a person who loses sleep the night before a touchy classroom discussion.  So around page twenty-seven, I was feeling pretty overwhelmed, doubting Kay’s ability to offer a workable solution, particularly one for me, an especially private person myself. But then he got down to it.

His first chapter offers specific protocols to build a safe space. Three simple discussion norms and three routine activities honor students as individuals and develop a classroom culture devoted to building and maintaining relationships. They require class time and commitment, and perhaps a mild restructuring of the value system driving instructional decision-making.

His second chapter introduces discussion moves designed, not to eliminate conflict, but to help make conflict productive. For example, “Surfacing the Conflict”: teachers figure out what category of conflict is at hand (around fact? process? purpose? values?) in order to determine their most useful next move directing discussion traffic. I’m pretty excited about this approach, because in an ERWC class, the rhetorical thinking involved with categorizing the conflict can be farmed out to students, giving me more time to figure out my next move. 

More value added in Chapter Two? It closes with protocols for discussion prep using hypothetical case studies. By imagining various scenarios, I can anticipate the more likely conflicts or diversions that could derail discussion and ready myself with some “next moves” in advance. Then I can go to bed and actually get some sleep.

Though there’s 24k gold in the rest of Kay’s book, I’ll start by trying to implement Chapters One and Two–or maybe just Chapter One.  Whatever my measured first step, I’m all in to take it. Because when students’ sincere and passionate engagement with a topic is perceived as a risk, it’s a gross, malignant irony. And because Matthew Kay shows us, guiding real talk about hard things isn’t about being a natural-born Mr. Keating; it’s about the groundwork we lay in advance and our ongoing commitment to the cause.

Meline Akashian is an experienced ERWC teacher with grades 7-12 and former Riverside County Teacher of the Year. She has co-written modules for ERWC and is a member of the ERWC Steering Committee.

Work Cited

Kay, Matthew. Not Light, But Fire: How to Lead Meaningful Race Conversations in the Classroom. Stenhouse, 2018.

What Does It Mean to Value the Languages Students Bring with Them?

By Robby Ching

As teachers, we know in theory that we should value the languages that students use at home and in their communities, but what does that look like when we know that our task is to teach them to become proficient users of English? It turns out there are a number of ways to incorporate linguistically sustaining practices into ERWC classes, but teachers may not always realize what these practices are.  

Using Texts that Incorporate Other Languages

Perhaps most obviously, we can select texts for our students to read that reflect their experiences as users of other languages. Even better, some texts also incorporate those languages into the texts. Reyna Grande’s memoir, The Distance between Us, and the poetry of Diana Garcia in “On Leaving” and “On Staying Behind” both exemplify ERWC module texts where the use of Spanish is integral to the craft of the texts. 

However, we should not simply assume students will get the message that Spanish is a valuable resource that skilled writers use; in the spirit of an inquiry-based curriculum, we need to ask students to think about why Grande and Garcia used Spanish when their audience would include many English-only readers. What was their rhetorical purpose? How did they go about doing it so that English speakers were not excluded at the same time Spanish speakers were privileged (for a change!). And then the most important question–what can students learn from these examples about ways and reasons to incorporate their own languages and varieties of English (for example, African-American vernacular or Hawaiian Pidgin) into writing they do for school and beyond. 

Encouraging the Use of Other Languages in Class

Another strategy is to encourage students to use their dominant language as a tool in class. Although the days when students were physically disciplined for using their home languages in school are over, many teachers still believe students should leave their other languages at the door of their English classroom because how can they learn English if they spend time speaking and writing in Korean or Cambodian or Russian or whatever their primary language might be? But we now know that encouraging students to use that language strategically can actually facilitate their acquisition of academic English and not only because it strengthens their own sense of agency. 

Capitalizing on Multilingual Student Expertise

A recent document published by the California Department of Education, Educating Multilingual and English Learners: Research to Practice (Improving Education Publication – Resources (CA Department of Education)) makes this shift clear:

(Pamela Spycher, María González-Howard, and Diane August. “Chapter 6: Content and Language Instruction in Middle and High School: Promoting Educational Equity and Achievement Through Access and Meaningful Engagement,” 354)

Our multilingual students move among varieties of English and from one language to another constantly. Making them aware of this amazing capacity benefits them while using them as experts when questions of language and translanguaging emerge works to the benefit of every student in the class, whatever the varieties of English and other languages they have at the tips of their tongues. 

Robby Ching is a professor emerita at Sacramento State in English and a member of the ERWC team since 2002. She has written many ERWC modules, most recently those with an ELD focus.