Creative Spaces: Conference Preview!

Editor’s Note: This month we’re featuring previews of sessions from California State University’s upcoming ERWC Literacy Conference. Author and teacher Martin Brandt is presenting June 27 in Northern California.

By Martin Brandt

I wasted many a Saturday or Sunday morning of my youth watching football before I learned that coaches actually have names for the “gaps” in the line of scrimmage–that is, those spaces between the linemen which can be expanded for either blockers or ball-carriers to run through.

On either side of the center (that’s the guy who hikes the ball, for you non-football fans out there) are the “A” gaps. Beyond those gaps are the guards, whose outside flanks are designated “B” gaps; on the other side of the B gaps are the tackles, who (if there’s a tight end lined up next to them) create a “C” gap.

Why do they name the gaps? Because coaches design offensive plays to create holes in those gaps for players to run through. In other words, the gaps create space for the creative act of offensive football.

I guess I started thinking about this because I wanted to find a way to reach the athletes in my classroom, to help them see that what I am asking them to do at the sentence level–to make use of phrase additions–is analogous to what they already do on the field, court, or diamond–indeed, that it’s something they already understand: they have to find the spaces in order to create.

In baseball and softball, you hit the ball where the other guys ain’t; in basketball and soccer, you create open spaces to make shots possible. And to return to football (but away from the offensive line), receivers must “get open”, either by juking their defender one-on-one, or by finding the “soft spot” or seam in the defensive zone.

In writing, these “soft spots in the zone” present themselves in every sentence we compose. And if our students learn where to look for them, how to find them, and how to make use of them, they can begin to experience writing not as another odious chore inflicted by their sadistic teacher, but instead as the joyful act of creation that it is–as something like scoring on the field.

These spaces have names, too. In the sentence, they are the Left Branch–introductory phrasing which precedes the subject-verb core, situating the reader to the action of the sentence; the Parenthetical, which splits the subject-verb core to comment on the subject; and the Right Branch, which extends from the subject-verb core and comments in some way on the action of the sentence.

Students who can learn to see and make use of these creative spaces can experience exciting and significant growth in the course of a school year, improving both their confidence and their syntactic maturity. And finding ways to help my students understand this has become the driving creative problem of my career. For if we understand the humble sentence better, we create the possibility for authentic growth, both for the student and the teacher.

Martin Brandt teaches English at San Jose’s Independence High School, a large urban school with a diverse student population. He is a teacher consultant with the San Jose Area Writing Project and former winner of the California Teachers of English Award for Classroom Excellence. Martin is the author of Between the Commas: Sentence Instruction That Builds Confident Writers (and Writing Teachers).

We Are Not Immune


Editor’s Note
: This month we’re featuring previews of sessions from California State University’s upcoming ERWC Literacy Conference. ERWC teacher and workshop leader Frank Mata is presenting June 21 in Southern California and June 27 in Northern California.

By Frank Mata

“Too Dope Teachers and a Mic” podcasters (@toodopeteachers) recently tweeted “How do y’all think about folx who you thought were dope, then did real harmful things? Not imperfections, not just being flawed, but actual harm?” 

Their question made me think about how teachers, specifically English language arts teachers, truly have the delicate burden of balancing between an unconscious reinforcement of dominant oppressions and the liberation from it. Big, big thoughts… I know. But we are about to be at a literacy conference. How can we not think about this given the social unrest from our continued and historical American racial reckoning? 

When thinking about this year’s upcoming ERWC Literacy Conference, I am struck with the potential opportunity we teachers have because we are facilitators of the spaces where transition and progress for our immediate society can form. This June, we get to actually look at one another, face-to-face, and dialogue about whether we are contributing to what we say we do. We say we nurture student voice. We say we provide space for young people to find and develop their own interests. We say we help strengthen their literacy and ability to communicate in a variety of contexts and audiences. We say, we say, and we say…

Dr. April Baker-Bell, author of Linguistic Justice, will be the keynote speaker at the 2022 ERWC Literacy Conference.

We say a lot of things.

And though I am absolutely honored to have been invited to speak about our roles as ELA teachers, specifically through the discussion of the existing 12th grade module Language, Gender, and Culture…at a “literacy” conference, I also come with a real-time on-going attempt at understanding this shared burden–our shared burden. At the same time, I am especially excited to be in Dr. April Baker-Bell’s audience because I believe she will ask the same questions we ELA teachers are faced with: Whose literacy are we teaching?

I come to this conference to find community with folks who understand (or are trying to) the nuances and layers infused within the concept of gender, literacy, and racial performativity. After reflecting about both the module and ERWC’s new Theoretical Foundations, this June I aim to unpack how we might not just be reinforcing dominant norms, but also harming young folks through what author Clint Smith refers to in his New Yorker essay as the “ideology [of white supremacy].” I am inspired by James Baldwin’s speech “A Talk to Teachers” that challenges all of us, specifically teachers, to inspect and confront how we are accomplices to harming these young people. I draw inspiration from Dr. Vershawn Ashanti Young’s LGC module text “The Barbershop” because of its examination of how we all perform gender, intellect, and even race. I still wrestle with Dr. Judith Butler’s challenge for both students and teachers to examine “the relation between complying with gender and coercion.” 

At my presentation I aim to unearth the hidden areas that affect this delicate discussion. I want to know how our own social positionalities (social identities) affect the dissemination, facilitation, and delivery to our economically, ideologically, and socially diverse student bodies. Does the discussion of dr. vay’s “Barbershop” hit differently when coming out of the mouth of a white woman? Do male teachers of color showcase an appropriate delicacy when fostering discussions about gender performances? Do we teachers actually have the intellectual capacity to see that our own literacy performance can stifle the transference of knowledge gained from these pieces? 

We are not immune to the cold questioning from Butler, Lourde, Shira, Brooks, or Young. We are not immune to Baldwin’s criticisms of solidifying the existing and malignant racial gaps of our society. But we are capable of hard self-examination. We are capable of confronting our own dependence on these social performances. We are capable of authentically conferencing about what the state of literacy development is in our classrooms. And hopefully, we can be capable of undoing the harms we give from our unconscious reinforcement and protection of our static identities. 

Frank Mata has been in the classroom for eighteen plus years. His current project is developing an ELA 12th grade course focusing on social justice and equity. He teachers at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Eastvale, CA.

Arcs and Spirals

Editor’s Note: California State University is hosting an in-person literacy conference in June of 2022. All are welcome! Sessions feature strategies for teaching texts rhetorically, fostering language awareness and exploration, and promoting equity and inclusion. The $50 registration fee includes lunch and a choice of location and date.

Sheraton Fairplex – Pomona, CA June 21, 2022 | Registration link: https://calstate.eventsair.com/2022-erwc-literacy-conference/event…

San Jose Marriott – San Jose, CA June 27, 2022 | Registration link: https://calstate.eventsair.com/2022-erwc-literacy-conference-san-jose/event


By Jennifer Fletcher

In mathematics, a fractal is a geometric shape in which each part has the same characteristics as the whole. The pattern repeats across different levels of magnification, giving the sense of endless complexity and connections. Worlds within worlds.

The patterns in a fractal recur at progressively larger or smaller scales.

California State University’s Expository Reading and Writing Curriculum (ERWC) is also characterized by intricate patterns that repeat across the curriculum and that mimic the infinite nature of civic and academic conversations. Someone says something, someone responds, and then someone else builds on or challenges that idea in the endless production of texts. The conversation arcs from speaker to listener, or from text to text, and spirals through progressively nuanced iterations. These arcs and spirals represent the dynamic rhetorical exchanges that form the basis of the ERWC instructional modules.

Arcs

The idea of the ERWC “Arc” is an essential part of the ERWC’s course design. The arc enacts the recursive literacy processes that connect the texts students read to the texts they compose. Completing an ERWC module means completing the arc.

The arc is also a key structure for promoting transfer of learning. As students shift from “reading like writers” to “writing like readers,” they transfer the rhetorical moves and literacy strategies they learned from studying professional models to their own acts of communication. The reciprocity represented through the two sides of the arc illustrates the application of rhetorical reading strategies to rhetorical writing. In other words, the reading strategies–for example, descriptive outlining or rhetorical précis–become writing strategies during the composing process as students repurpose these tools for the texts they create.

The ERWC Assignment Template


This recursivity emerges from a shared design structure, the ERWC Assignment Template, that creates coherence both within and across the individual modules, as well as throughout the ERWC literacy network. The generative principles that shape the ERWC and its community are embedded in the template; this is the “DNA,” or protean structure, of the curriculum.

Here we find the ERWC’s core ideas and practices: reading and writing rhetorically, transfer of learning, the cultivation of expert learners, and English language development. All ERWC modules are designed using this common template, including a new collection of modules with designated English language development currently being developed for grades 6-8

Spirals

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The modules also spiral up through increasingly complex texts and tasks over the course of the year. This is what gives the ERWC its scaling shape: the ascending turns through the Assignment Template.

The repeated turns students take through the template over the course of a year-long experience affords them frequent opportunities to develop and internalize the rhetorical literacy skills and academic habits of mind that are essential to postsecondary success, such as the ability to read with and against the grain, to negotiate different perspectives and meanings, to analyze writer’s craft, and to respond to a variety of rhetorical situations. The spirals through the template are important and intentional; they support students’ growth as expert readers and writers.

At the same time, ERWC teachers might also think in terms of a “vanishing Assignment Template” when using these materials. As our students start to develop greater fluency and automaticity in key skills—for instance, surveying or annotating a text—we may no longer need to provide direct instruction in these areas. Some template sections will start to disappear from our lesson plans as our students progress from novices to experts.

Feeding the Feedback Loops

An effective ERWC course design allows us to teach the full arc of each module and to complete several turns through the ERWC Assignment Template. The year-long course should spiral up through increasingly complex texts and tasks while providing an ongoing feedback loop for learners. For instance, students might begin the year by studying a mentor text provided for them in preparation for writing and then end the year by finding their own mentor texts as part of their full consideration of a rhetorical situation–a consideration that includes independent genre analysis at advanced levels. Formative assessment is key to creating meaningful arcs and spirals that are appropriate to our students’ needs at different stages of the learning continuum.

Photo of a fractal by Fiona Art on Pexels.com

The course’s arcs and spirals are designed to foster deep and internalized learning. ERWC thus presents a template for transfer—an iterative process for engaging and responding to texts that sharpens students’ ability to detect similarities in dissimilarities. Like fractals, this curricular model is unendingly generative.

The approach we aspire to take in ERWC is as complex, creative, and beautiful as the students we serve. At its best, the curriculum takes learners on a journey guided by the intricate movements of their own intellectual growth.


*ERWC is a rigorous, rhetoric-based English language arts and English language development curriculum for grades 7-12. Teachers access the instructional modules through Cal State University’s introductory ERWC professional learning sessions, available free-of-charge to educators in California. Please direct queries for out-of-state ERWC professional learning opportunities and curriculum access to jbathina@calstate.edu.

For more information on the ERWC, including how to register for a 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 a former high school teacher. She serves as the Chair of the ERWC Steering Committee. You can follow her on Twitter at @JenJFletcher.

Rhetorical Grammar in ERWC: Part 2

By Robby Ching

Note: This is the second post in a series on ERWC’s rhetorical approach to language learning. For the first post, click here. Please see the teaching resource “Rhetorical Grammar in ERWC: A User’s Guide” in the ERWC Online Community for the full text from which the excerpt below was taken.


ERWC is designed to cultivate linguistic dexterity so students can read texts written for a variety of purposes critically and write texts tailored for their rhetorical situation. As educators charged with teaching our students how English works (California ELD Standards), we have to be mindful of the many languages and varieties of English that students bring to our classrooms.

The ERWC teaching resource “Essential Pedagogies for Integrated and Designated English Language Development in ERWC” advocates “teaching about the relationship between language and power” and “supporting the development of academic English while promoting pride in students’ home languages.” At the sentence level, a rhetorical approach to teaching English grammar invites us to take an assets-based approach as we value these languages and varieties of English while inviting students to further develop their ability to enter disciplinary conversations about topics that matter to them.

Encouraging students to use all the language—as well as other multimodal resources—available to them means keeping the focus on meaningful communication rather than correctness for its own sake. We can invite students to incorporate words, phrases, or entire sentences in their language or variety of English into their own writing while at the same time asking them to be clear about their rhetorical purpose for doing so. We can let them know that they are welcome to use translation apps and bilingual dictionaries and take notes or write early drafts in their home language. We can select texts that include other languages, such as The Distance Between Us, and consider Reyna Grande’s rhetorical purpose for using Spanish in a memoir intended for an audience of mainly English speakers.

We can introduce uncomfortable questions about whether the use of academic English is a way of performing “Whiteness,” an issue raised by Vershawn Ashanti Young in “Prelude: the Barbershop” in the 12th grade Language, Gender, and Culture module. We can draw on multilingual students’ own experiences moving among languages and identities tied to language and acknowledge their remarkable accomplishments. Approaching grammar from the rhetorical perspective rather than the traditional rules-based prescriptive approach is, Micciche asserts, “emancipatory teaching” (717).

ERWC encourages students to ask not what makes a sentence correct, but what makes it work and why.

The language of ERWC texts provide rich opportunities to explore the information-dense complex sentences that are typical of disciplinary English (Schleppegrell). ERWC encourages students to ask not what makes a sentence correct, but what makes it work and why. As students observe how skilled writers make use of these language resources—or choose to use simpler language—they can develop their capacity to better understand the arguments embedded in the language of the texts they are reading.

At the same time, they can observe how and why writers use more familiar language, other dialects, and other languages for rhetorical purposes. When students turn to their own writing, they can apply what they have learned to create varied sentences that are effective for their purposes. Most students who are learning to create complex texts will only be able to do this if we help them develop the tools of the craft.

Our job is to guide their inquiry into how English works and help them transfer what they have learned to their own writing with the questions “What did you observe? And how can you apply it to your own writing?”


ERWC teachers can find activities and strategies for teaching language rhetorically, including 2.0 modules with rhetorical grammar lessons, by visiting the Rhetorical Grammar in ERWC section in the online community.

Click on “Modules 3.0” and select “Overview Documents.”

Then click on “Rhetorical Grammar in ERWC.”

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.

Wanna Teach Hawkeye? Get the Books Now!

By Meline Akashian

There are two main audiences for this post:

  • 12th grade ERWC teachers who want to teach the “Hawkeye: Working Class Hero” module but have been told by their district librarians that the books could not be found, like, anywhere in the world.
  • 12th grade ERWC teachers who say, “There’s a Hawkeye module?” or even “What’s a Hawkeye module?”

“Hawkeye: Working Class Hero” is an ERWC 3.0 module for twelfth grade that got a late release; it did not appear on early module lists, so some ERWC teachers probably don’t know it exists. The module is based (suspend your judgment) on two comic books, issues from Matt Fraction and David Aja’s Hawkeye series.

But for a year or more, many ERWC teachers who knew about the module and wanted to use it found it impossible to score class sets of the module’s core text, Hawkeye: My Life as a Weapon Vol.1 (ISBN: 978-0785165620). This has to do with comics publishing patterns and Covid-19 paper shortages. But once it got on ERWC HQ’s radar that school districts were unable to buy these books, our resident superhero, Gwen Stephens, started making calls.

So cutting straight to the good news, Marvel is sending My Life as a Weapon Vol. 1 back to print. They say the book will be available by May, but even as I write this, on Amazon you can finally buy the book again. If you want to teach Hawkeye next year, let your powers-that-be know immediately so they can order the books. In many districts, district librarians (or whoever orders class sets) compile book orders for the upcoming school year in Spring – like, right now.

If you’ve never considered teaching the Hawkeye module, I hope you’ll take a look.

In the planning stages, we thought about basing this module around Issue #11, in which the entire narrative is told from the perspective of Hawkeye’s dog. We thought about basing the module around Issue #19 (in which our hero Clint Barton permanently loses most of his hearing), written entirely in American Sign Language. Just to say, the series’ creators play with perspective, and there is plenty to talk about with this Hawkeye series.

Nowadays, Hawkeye has his own movie and a new Disney+ show, but when Derek Heid and I started writing this module, Clint Barton was the unsung and relatively unknown Avenger, just a normal human being with really good aim. Fraction and Aja took an unexpected new perspective on that, too. What would it be like for Clint Barton, a regular guy, to hold his own in company with supers like Captain America, Thor, and Iron Man? (Spoiler: He gets hurt. A lot.) And the personality traits that allow him to be Hawkeye the Avenger – how would they play out in his day-to-day life? (Spoiler: He’s kind of a– well, you’ll see.)

Taking on those questions, the “Hawkeye: Working Class Hero” module asks students to examine how the creators subvert archetype and genre conventions to tell a new story. Among other things, you can look forward to students using Burke’s Pentad as a new strategy for analyzing rhetorical situation and characterization; learning disciplinary language and new strategies for analyzing images; and applying their analysis of genre and audience to a culminating presentation assignment. So if you’re worried that spending class-time on a couple of comic books is a disservice to your students, please trust me – your students’ brains will be busy.

Will you avoid this module because you and/or your students aren’t comics people? Please don’t. In the end, we wrote the module around the first two issues from the series, because this is how Issue #1 opens: “Clint Barton, a.k.a. Hawkeye, became the greatest sharpshooter known to man. He then joined the Avengers. This is what he does when he is not being an Avenger. That’s all you need to know.” The sample answers in the module will help you when you need it, but honestly, part of the point of this module is to leverage your students’ visual literacy skills. Trust them.

The text message you see here is from my friend Cara. She is not a comics/graphic novel person, but she is an experienced ERWC teacher who happens to have her year-long course pathway published as a sample on the ERWC website. So if you’re interested to see how she fit the Hawkeye module into her year, take a look. It’s worth noting, she placed Hawkeye right in front of Hamlet because the work with Burke’s pentad (analyzing rhetorical situation to understand characters and their motivations) will transfer directly from one to the next.

Are you interested in using this module yet? Take a page from our guy Hawkeye: make the leap. But if that’s where you’re at, don’t forget, now is a good time to start the book order process. Marvel is sending the books back to press now, but, once they sell out this print run, we can’t be certain they’ll do the same again.

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.

Rhetorical Grammar in ERWC: Part 1

By Robby Ching

NOTE: The following post is the first in a special series featuring excerpts from the new professional learning resource “Rhetorical Grammar in ERWC: A User’s Guide.” This resource can be found with the “Overview Documents” under the 3.0 tab in the ERWC Online Community.


Since Cicero, rhetoricians have recognized that the ability to craft effective sentences is a critical part of convincing an audience of an argument’s validity. How writers form sentences is part of their ethos. Even more important is logos. An argument is based on the logic and coherence of its sentences, and that logic and coherence depend to an important extent on grammar.

The sequence of events is conveyed through the verb tense system. The nuances of a writer’s position are presented through the use of active and passive verbs, modals, and qualifying words and phrases. The logical relationships among ideas are expressed through coordination, subordination, and the use of transitions and parallel structures. The logic of an argument can be strengthened by supplying additional information, and appeals can be made to pathos through the use of adjective clauses, participial phrases, appositives, dashes, and colons. Effectively and accurately integrating the texts of others into one’s writing provides evidence for the argument. Rhetorically effective verbs introduce evidence. And following the conventions of the intended discourse community provides clarity while contributing to the writer’s credibility (for more on this rhetorical approach to teaching grammar, see Kolln and Gray, and Micciche).

For grammar instruction to be worthwhile, you will want to make strategic decisions about what to teach and how to teach it. Writing that students do in your class can be used formatively to help you make these decisions. Some students may benefit from more basic instruction about sentence structure, subject-verb agreement, sentence boundaries, and verbs while all students can benefit from exploring more deeply the interface between grammar and rhetoric, including the ways writers qualify their assertions, logically connect their ideas, add information to sentences, and incorporate the texts of others into their writing.

California English Language Development Standards

California adopted the California English Language Development Standards: Kindergarten Through Grade 12 in 2014. These standards represent a shift in how teachers approach grammar from teaching “grammar as syntax, separate from meaning, with discrete skills at the center” to

“an expanded notion of grammar as encompassing discourse, text structure, syntax, and vocabulary and as inseparable from meaning” (164).

California English Language Development Standards

In ERWC modules, rhetorical grammar activities highlight the relationship between meaning and grammar and provide opportunities for students to learn how to use English to accomplish their rhetorical purposes. In ERWC modules, rhetorical grammar activities highlight the relationship between meaning and grammar and provide opportunities for students to learn how to use English to accomplish their rhetorical purposes.

Modules labeled ELA-ELD contain activities focused on language and aligned with the CA ELD Standards for ELA classes with Integrated ELD and for Designated ELD classes. They are designed to encourage students to notice and analyze particular grammatical features in the texts they read and then apply what they have learned to their own writing as they learn how English works at the word, phrase, and sentence level, and over stretches of discourse as specified in the ELD Standards

Multilingual students, whatever their level, are entitled to this language-focused instruction integrated into their ELA classes, and all students can benefit from attention to academic language. You may, therefore, decide that you want to supplement other ERWC modules with additional language-focused instruction to support your students’ development of academic literacy. ERWC offers a variety of resources to help you do this, including the rhetorical grammar instruction provided with ERWC 2.0 modules, the High Impact Strategies Toolkit to Support English Learners in ERWC Classrooms, and this User’s Guide.


For more information on ERWC’s rhetorical approach to language learning, please see “Essential Pedagogies for Integrated and Designated English Language Development in ERWC.”

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.

“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.