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Back-to-School To-Do List #2: Establish Burning Questions

By Dave Stuart Jr.
This photo will make more sense at #3.

This photo will make more sense at #3.

I can still remember sitting in the interview for the Lake Michigan Writing Project's Invitational Summer Institute several years ago. I was surrounded by brilliance (I had known the people for a few minutes or so, but you could tell), and one of the LMWP leaders asked us this simple question:

What are your burning questions right now as a teacher?

It seems super simple, but this question put into words an instinct that I had felt even from early on in my career: the most effective professional development possible, for me, comes from the questions I'm currently wrestling with as a teacher, particularly those that burn — the ones that hit me repeatedly throughout the day, the ones I just know I can get closer to answering with a little more time, a little more research, a little more practice.

The absurdly sane premise of that Invitational Summer Institute (ISI) and those around the nation is this:

  • Get together a bunch of educators willing to get after it for a few weeks in the summer (get after it = four weeks of 6+ hour days);
  • Give them time and space to write about whatever they want — and therein learn more about teaching writing — and have them share their writing with one another regularly;
  • Give them time and space to read whatever they want in pursuit of their burning questions, and have them share their reading with one another regularly;
  • Have them choose something they know about teaching and lead PD for the group — these “demos” happen once per day.

Hmm… What do you think, National Writing Project Fellows? Am I leaving anything out? I don't think so — those are the essential pieces of an ISI. If that sounds interesting to you, find your nearest site through this link and get in touch with them. Not every NWP site offers the Summer Institute, especially in the wake of the Congressional defunding that happened a couple years back, but they do other cool things, too. Also, wide open to K-12, cross-content teachers. Get it!

Um, Dave — this was supposed to be a to-do list, not a sales pitch for the National Writing Project


So the reason I started this post was because I wanted to establish a preliminary list of burning questions to explore this year. Some of these may burn out quickly as other fires start, but getting them down on some paper will help clear some brain clutter. (Or at least provide some important-seeming procrastination.)

Here are some questions I want to explore this year:

1. PVLEGS is important, but…

As I shared before, PVLEGS was one of the coolest things I learned about last school year — my kids became noticeably better at speaking through actually teaching them how to deliver words from your mouth.

Yet while their delivery improved, their content was often weak. In others words, they got better at how to speak (go figure –when you teach them how to do that, they get better!), but they still fumbled around a bit with what to say.

This was especially true in pop-up debate situations. Kids would stand up and say things like “The atomic bomb drop on Japan was a bad decision from a world history perspective because the bombs were kilotons and — drum roll please — this created smog. Thank you.”

Well, no, dear learning friend, the bombs created a special kind of smog called radioactive fallout, and that doesn't actually follow from the evidence you provided, so…

Gotta get better at teaching kids to check what they say before they say it. Here are some questions I want to get the chillens used to:

  • Am I using academic vocabulary accurately? This is hugely important in the content areas because, unlike in ELA, discipline-specific vocab means something specific — you can't bust out the thesaurus nearly as often when you're writing or speaking in the content areas because there's just one word for a technical thing or process. Thank you to Justin of Owens Valley Unified School District for clarifying that for me. If the smog kid in the example above would have said “fallout” and then explained why fallout is bad, he'd have done a great job. Except for…
  • Does my evidence support my claim? Do I explain how? In the example above, the student used evidence (kilotons), but then made an unsupported claim (these kilotons produced smog). He could have said how such a large amount of kilotons in a single bomb was too much power to use on anyone or something like that. Granted his opponents could have brought up Dresden or Tokyo or any number of examples to refute his point, but he still would have made a claim, supported it with evidence, and explained how the evidence supported the claim.
  • Is my evidence from a reputable source?
  • Am I accurately stating the evidence?

Gotta get away from the smog kinds of errors, and also…

2. How do I help kids really debate?

In-class debates are a central way I provide students access to the argument-centered education kids receive at more elite institutions around the country, but here's the thing: even though the students love them, even though I can see how frequent debating improves their ability and motivation for reading and writing, there's still so much untapped potential in my classroom when we do these debates.

For example, even though students learn Graff/Birkenstein's They Say, I Say pattern of thinking, they're still generally slow to see the holes in the arguments their peers put forth. To go back to the “atomic bombs are bad because smog” argument, none of my students challenged that argument. This is far too common in my class, and I firmly believe that's a result not just of the students not having much experience with debate, but predominantly it comes from gaps in my teaching.

So I need to get better at teaching listening. It's like there's this listening bottleneck in my kids — they hear each other, they pay attention, but they don't consistently do that plus analyze one another's arguments. And they can. I know they can.

3. And what about research? How do I teach research in an efficient, effective manner?

As I write this, I'm literally sitting at a picnic table in Google's sprawling headquarters in Palo Alto, CA. Not kidding.

I'm painfully aware that, at present, the non-freaked out (NFO) approach doesn't explicitly address research, despite research being a consistent, strong theme throughout the Common Core literacy standards.

But while I was playing around this summer with a six-fold NFO 2.0 that would include research (see this post for early thoughts on that), I called an audible and removed it from the professional development sessions I've been leading the past few weeks — honestly, I haven't felt it's absence. The call to give kids the chance to go big on argument, to do more reading, more writing, and more speaking while simultaneously growing their character — this is a lot. I'd argue that before we do anything else — before we even fire up the computers to do research — we need to become proficient as teachers at providing kids with lots of quality opportunities to do these things.

At the same time, I realize that research is a kind of reading, a kind of writing, a kind of speaking and arguing. In the Google era, you can't not teach kids to do research.

So I'm just being straightforward with you on the tension there. I know that spending huge swaths of valuable class time letting kids do “research” isn't a smart use of time, especially if we don't have effective, clear ways of teaching kids how to do the work.

And I don't know what those are yet. I like Lehman's Energize Research Reading and Writing: Fresh Strategies to Spark Interest, Develop Independence, and Meet Key Common Core Standards, Grades 4-8 as a starting place, but I yearn for something more robust or simple; I like Booth et. al.'s The Craft of Research, Third Edition, but I long for something simpler. Honestly, I need to read and re-read these books, both of which are truly brilliant, and work to simplify them down into things I can actually accomplish with teenagers in a way that will stick.

So I've got some work to do on the research front this year.

4. How do I stay encouraged more of the time, and how do I better encourage others?

The year always has those periods when things get pretty rough — at least for me, and seemingly for my colleagues. The 6am staff meeting coincides with conferences coinciding with an overflowing “to grade” pile coinciding with what have you, and pretty quickly the job enters “the grind” zone. So much of that is mental though, right? So much of that flows out of what's going on in the head and heart, as I explain a bit in this post.

So how do we keep our heads and hearts focused on the important stuff? How do we combat stress, both in ourselves and in others? I think the answers here are probably pretty simple to say and pretty darn hard to do, day in and day out. So I want to get better at the doing and better at the knowing, too.

I think that's enough burning for now — I don't want to set the Internet on fire. What are your burning questions this year?

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2 Responses to Back-to-School To-Do List #2: Establish Burning Questions

  1. Karen August 24, 2014 at 11:28 pm #

    I am on the edge of what you are saying, but enjoying every bit of it. I am in Adult Ed, teaching GED, with very small classes, often only 2 to 5 students. Just returned from a conference and all the emphasis is on “unpacking the anchors.” Buzzwordification again. I am sucking in all kinds of knowledge from your writings and the corresponding posts, am getting filled with enthusiasm, but still must face the task, which we split up among three of us, of unpacking the anchors. You have given me much fuel for the start up, but would be happy for some direction on specific things/posts to read. We are starting with reading, so I have been veraciously reading your posts, hoping to be able to apply what I am reading to my own classroom, tiny as it is. Back to the question, I am not being very encouraging, but hoping for suggestions on filling out those charts, asking for verbs in one column, nouns in another… Hoping to encourage my fellow teachers with what I am learning here, which, BTW, is far more than I learned in the 2 days of PD I just endured.

    • davestuartjr August 28, 2014 at 9:30 pm #

      Dear Karen,

      How said yet proper that word “endured” is in your final sentence, for far too many folks returning from Common Core PD. Honestly, the chart you’re having to fill out tightens my chest with anxiety immediately. I simply don’t grasp how given teachers worksheets to fill out (that’s basically what it is, right?) is supposed to make us better at helping our students develop the reading, writing, speaking/listening, and language skills they’ll need to be ready for whatever challenges they choose in life.

      It’s pretty rare that I “hawk” my forthcoming book (link at end of this comment; it releases in less than a month) because honestly, most people don’t need to think through each individual anchor standard. However, in your situation where it is mandated, I do think it might be helpful.


      If you need this stuff sooner, check out my posts that unpack each individual anchor standard — these are the posts that started the book. You’ll find them sorted by “strand” toward the top of this page:


      All the best to you, Karen — it is always a privilege meeting someone who resonates with Teaching the Core, as this blog is a labor of love 🙂

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