Accountable Talk–it’s a thing

When I started working in whole school design reform, I learned a lot about how to get students connected to their own learning. I focused mainly on reading and writing, but also consulted for our science and math divisions. I worked for a company called the National Center for Education and the Economy out of DC. One of our partners was New Standards.

Fascinating stuff. We had standards, rubrics, exemplars (samples of great student work), and accountable talk was vital to it all.

The core concept was that if students didn’t know why they were doing it, what was the point? I mean, we all know the brain-as-vessel or banking method isn’t all that great at moving students up the taxonomy of learning (

Before you read on, please spend a few minutes with the Revised Taxonomy. Roll your mouse over every square. Think about what this means in your life as a learner, as a professional. It’s vitally important to understand Bloom’s (Revised) as a jumping off point to share with students about expectations for their learning. They are used to working in just the first few boxes. AND they frequently want to know how to get an A–just tell them what to remember, they beg, and when to regurgitate that information. Not okay. When you show them this dynamic chart, they can see where they are operating and what it might be like to learn information and translate it into knowledge, from remembering information to applying it to creating new knowledge. (The thing, BTW, that the university is all about after undergrad education, right?)

Back to the accountable talk thing again…

Basically: students and teachers need maps to know where they are going and why they are going there and what it means when they’ve gotten there–and they need to be able to talk about it together. Education maps. EduMaps. Standards/outcomes/rubrics. Keys to success. BUT ya gotta be able to talk about those things, too.

Talk, talk, talk. Super important.

Back in the day, we used extensive standards for writing and reading (my part of the R&D division of the company). These were created for K-12 and substantial with samples of great to fair writing and reading responses (New Standards mentioned above). These were not unlike the Common Core Standards and were widely adopted across the country well before No Child Left Behind and CCS. These were highly successful, and our company secured a LOT of grant money to implement in schools and train teachers–I worked on 13 million of grant money alone. I loved it. Standards for grade level writing and reading (for pre-K, too, which btw I used on my kid to teach him literacies early–from infancy); rubrics and criteria were transparent; students knew the standards and made rubrics for assignments with the teachers, and they each made it clear what work they did and how it met the standards. Standards were displayed everywhere in a classroom; everyone knew what they were (including parents); so unlike the mysterious educational system that molds us instead of moving us to be creative and critical thinkers, this system show everyone where to go and how to get there and helped them make sense of the journey.

And how to we learn from each other: talking. It’s one way, we learn from each other and from teachers, and a most effective way. But it’s talking WITH, not talking AT.

Learning through talking with one another works. You know this is true. When you talk through an idea, you learn. What have you done in FB but talk in order to: 1) articulate what you think; 2) learn new perspectives or approaches; 3) be not afraid?

That’s it. Be not afraid to speak, but have some guidelines for it–learn what you want to say that matters to you and then learn from what others are thinking. “Accountable Talk.” It is a thing. One of our intellectual leaders was Lauren Resnick who knocked it out of the park with literacies and standards, but that wasn’t her only accomplishment:

Accountable Talk at the Institute for Learning:

This is NOT intuitive stuff, but it does teach us what we’d all like our students to be able to do in small group or paired conversation, or even when you are guiding a discussion. You know when we are putting people in groups how some won’t talk? You know. Well, most students don’t much know how to do this talking business; they are insanely afraid to speak to one another; accountable talk principles help them find a way to speak (there are stems to help them find the right words to hook onto their thinking). Be not afraid. It should be easy by grad school, but sometimes it’s not. Right? Right. SO. Who needs to teach this? Every teacher ever in every subject. Right? Right.

This isn’t something you can pick up and teach in one class–this needs to be a philosophical base for your life. But I can tell you, it’s worth the effort. In the 1990s, New Standards and Accountable Talk changed my life. In fact, it was my work in educational publishing that made it possible for me to come back to teaching after I started and HATED it so much. I loved teaching after I learned all this stuff for K-12 kids. Actually, I worked mostly with K-9 and ELL (English Language Learners). And I loved teaching college when I came back to it. I applied all I learned and it was lovely. I get distracted sometimes now, by admin things, but the core of what I learned about getting students to talk and know what they should be doing buoys me up like a life-safer is rough seas, because, let’s face it, teaching is like jumping overboard every single term. Technique and strategies are what keep you afloat.

I believe Accountable Talk is worth learning more about. It will make you not just a better teacher, but a better facilitator of meetings, of small groups, of teams, of family members. (I still use a lot of these strategies on my son when he’s not looking.)

Here are some things to see/think about, but you could have stopped at the Institute for Learning’s site and be fine.

Video of a fishbowl demonstration: teacher and students work together to figure out how to show accountable talk or how they learn collaboratively. Amazing. Young folks can do this. College students can do this. BUT they all needed to be trained. AND the teacher needed to get it and make it happen. And demo it, and make it matter, and reinforce it, and over again, and over again. It needs to be part of every part of the course, every day. It’s how learning happens in the class, how collaboration is done, and then becomes part of the culture.

Another one showing accountable talk with kids: doing math! What matters: teachers who learn how to do this and then teach in small groups. Where are the other kids in the class? Music class? Art class? One can dream.

Teacher talks about accountable talk: not bad. This is all about little kids, but seriously, if kids can do this, anyone can. College students need to be TAUGHT this, esp. in BW. Heck, grown ups could use some training in this.





When you are tired and your heart aches… 1/30

When you’re tired and your heart aches and you think, “I don’t know what to do,” do something for someone else. Let your students know they are safe in your classroom, at the very least. It doesn’t cost much, and it could mean the world to someone who is having a horrible day, week, month. Writing classrooms, especially, need to be places where love reigns and safety is the first order of business, because it’s collaborative, because we share our thoughts, because we are so vulnerable when we write. The professors in basic writing classrooms are overcoming years of discomfort and distress–so they must be understanding of student fear and help allay in all ways possible–including posting signs or including statements like this in their syllabi.screen-shot-2017-01-30-at-8-39-19-amThis image is a bit fuzzy because it’s a screen shot from Facebook, but why not create one WITH your students FOR your students BY your students and YOU.

The best writing comes from a place of vulnerability. Don’t be afraid of that. Embrace it for your basic students. They already know how vulnerable they are: being graded, assessed, evaluated, judged. Help them understand that in your writing class, they are vulneralble but safe: no one will hurt them with words of pure anger, hate, bitterness. And if anyone is dares such an incursion into your classroom, you must promise to jump in immediately to insist it stop, ask why, push for answers, and have a conversation. Such a thing might be the hardest work you ever do, but you cannot let such behavior pass if your students are to believe you are the creator of the environment in which they can and will flourish.

We live in some really difficult times, no matter your political persuasion, but the one thing you can do is be entirely open and honest about what you’re doing as a professor. And what matters to you and that is always ensuring your students have a place to flourish in your classes. Human flourishing is called eudaimonia, a Greek work that means… human flourishing (more than that, but that’s all I’m dealing with at the moment).

Human flourishing is the point of higher education–not to be an expert in pharmocology, or English, or history of the year 1859, or physics. Sure, you can become specialized, but the point of the core classes and a LIBERAL ARTS base is to stretch the brain beyond one small area of certainty. The way we do higher education (at AUM) is about getting multiple patterns of learning into your life and head and heart so that you can flourish and keep on flourishing–always–as you choose in ways you choose in fields you choose. You. Choose. And best yet, you can always choose again because You know how to learn. Higher education isn’t an end game. It’s the starting point for creating a fulfilling and happy life. Maybe it’s about earning money, but that cannot be all it is, because when the money goes, what have you?

And we enter into this college thing vulnerable as babes. Professors of Basic Writing need be especially nurturing to help the students on the brink of non-flourishing to pull themselves in the right direction to keep going. It’s a lofty and noble profession that few folks call that. But ask any student who’s started in BW (or a similar math) about their experiences in getting over this hurdle. It’s like the cow jumped over the moon.

[image by Caitlin Dundon, artist,]

[image by Caitlin Dundon, artist,

I like to show three videos to students as they try to figure out how to manage in college.

One is by Brené Brown, a sociology professor at University of Houston. It’s a TED talk on the power of vulnerability. It’s now been viewed over 28 million times. 45 of those are me. She’s become an important voice since 2010 when she first gave this talk–a voice for facing our fears, for daring to try, for understanding how shame can drive us, and the importance of knowing creativity comes from vulnerability. My students have loved this and changed the way they see themselves because of her words.

Brené Brown on The Power of Vulnerability

Another video that is wonderfully powerful to share with BW students is this one by Elizabeth Gilbert. She dispels the myth that every writer needs to wait for a muse or a bolt of lightening to charge down from the heavens directly into their fingers so they can write. Writing is work. The more you work, the more you have to say–whether that’s thinking of your own things to write about you or doing research so you have something to say about a lot of other people’s ideas–the more you can write. It ain’t magic, baby, it’s thinking in your brain, on paper, through conversation, through drafting, through BW classes, through writing together and alone. Writers write and it’s hard work. This one’s been viewed over 12 million times since it was published on the TED site in 2009.

Elizabeth Gilbert on Your Elusive Creative Genius

Another of my favorites is by Sir Ken Robinson about whether schools kill creativity. And the answer is yes, some schools do. My BW students recognize this and are angry and Angry and ANGRY when they see what’s happened. Then we back up and figure out a way over this hurdle–the cow jumps over the moon. How does the cow do it? The cow believes it can.

So we need to change the way we think of what’s happened to us and start thinking about how WE (profs and BW students) can use higher education to start us on our journeys to jump over the moon.

Sir Ken Robinson on Do Schools Kill Creativity?

You cannot teach people to write who are afraid to write a word, say a word, be in a classroom. You need to recreate the place where they work, see themselves differently, see the work in a new way.

You thought your job was teaching Basic Writing, but it’s really about revising how writing happens, how beginning writers see writing, how they see themselves.

Just like writing is so much about revision, teaching writing is so much about revision.

Basic Writing, circa 1987 1/23/17

Boise State University, 1987, I was learning to be a writing consultant in the Writing Center. I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life as an English major. I was transitioning from undergrad to grad and struggling with that. I found a chance to be a teaching assistant to a visiting professor who was teaching four sections of basic writing. It was for credit, I believe, rather than pay.

Things you need to know.

  1. The prof had a classroom she shared with the other Basic Writing instructors filled with round tables and filing cabinets with some computers lining one wall. And a white board on the front wall and side wall. There were no windows.
  2. Filing cabinets held ALL student drafts, notes, writing, finished drafts, faculty feedback, grades, etc. Students could take parts home, but NOT the full file. This was truly the start of a portfolio grading system.
  3. The prof could type about 110 words a minute. She had made a LOT of money previously working part time in the corporate realm. But she was born into a professorial family and knew eventually she would end up doing this.
  4. She had a master’s degree in literature from a university in England and a degree in creative writing from Middlebury College/Breadloaf.
  5. I was in my first year of grad school having taking a couple of writing classes, but MOSTLY literature classes (with minors in history, math, and theater). I had only learned the theory and application of writing consultation a year earlier.
  6. I  was the TA for all four of her classes, two days out of three (MWF class, I attended two, as I recall). I was like an embedded writing consultant. Eventually, she put my in front of the class to teach some lessons, lead the class, see what it felt like.

The way she taught: having students write, reading their writing, giving feedback, checking to see common errors, teaching how to correct those errors, while students kept writing… that was so bizarre to me. I had, up to that point, never really been in classes that weren’t lecture by the prof, notes by the student, 2-3 tests and a final paper (or pretty much that).

What she taught me was that writing isn’t about talking about how writing is done, it’s doing writing, guiding writing, guiding change, guiding the acquisition of correct English usage. I never heard her say a harsh word to a student. I never heard her berate a student for turning in work late. She never criticized a student for failing to turn in work. She was always calm and explain that no work=no grade. Nothing she could do about that. She made it clear she was the guide for students, but learning was their choice. She could lay out all the info and ideas and tips and strategies in as clear a way as she could, but once that was handled, it was all on the students.

Of course, we lost some. But the ones who stuck it out really improved. I love the portfolio method–the way she managed it. She gave each student a short bit of feedback every week, then every unit she wrote them short notes related to the rubric for grading. It was remarkable. She was so hard on keyboards with her unnaturally fast typing, half way through the first term, they had to get a new keyboard. I was stunned by how quick she work, how smart she was, how she could look at a piece of writing, see patterns of error, give advice about what needed to be expanded or deleted. And did I say she was fast? I aspire to 65 words a minute.

She could carry on a conversation and type notes. It was amazing.

I saw real progress for students with that method. At that point I’d never read any composition theory; I didn’t really understand comp/rhet was a field; I had never heard of Mina Shaughnessy. But she knew all that. She’s come from a place (as an adjunct) where comp theory was deep in the curriculum and professionally available to all the teachers in the comp program. I learned a bit through osmosis. It kept me going for a long while and was, really, responsible for me leaving Boise State without a master’s in literature for Secondary Education and enrolling in a master’s program focused on composition for college.

Through my writing consultation at Boise State (which I kept doing a few hours a week) and my experiences with that prof for the whole academic year, I learned to become a better writer. Without the Writing Center, I would have never been able to get through college at all. Without the computer lab they opened, I would have never been able to get through college at all. Without my experience learning from that prof about BW pedagogy and applying some of that to my own writing, I never would have gotten through grad school at all, or to be honest, even tried.

She left at the end of that year to enroll in a PhD program in comp/rhetoric. I moved away from Idaho, too. She ended up at a university in Texas not too far from where I ended up getting my PhD. We kept in touch for awhile, but with a lot of academic lives, we got busy: she was working on getting tenure; I had course work to get through and a dissertation to write.

I will forever be glad I happened onto that experience in those BW classes–it colored, shaped, and made my life what it is. I told her that often before we lost connection. Also she was huge Star Trek fan and introduced me to trekkie life and fan fiction. What gifts I got. Live long and prosper.

P.S. The students wrote about whatever they wanted, but no general topics were allowed unless approved by the instructor, and she made sure they were personal and wacky, so she almost never had a plagiarism problem. She did something very like what we do: focus on the inherent expertivity that students carry with them–activities or experiences they have already valued and in which they developed as experts of a kind. She was super-ahead of her time. I was lucky, but I also knew when to take advantage of a learning situation.

If you write, you’re a writer 1/18/17

What’s in a Name? (original post from 5 Sept. 2011–with a few changes here and there)

“Basic Writing” has staying power. At least for about 40 years now. Have we made much progress as a field, as a sub-field anyway? It seems not so much when I read about the history of basic writing. Still a plain of contention with armies raging. I am more than troubled that this is so.

I have always been struck by the naming game of basic writing. I went through the naming game when I first arrived at AUM. Our pre-composition course was called “developmental writing.” I changed it to “basic writing” after the first year. Now we are toying with pre-composition (like pre-calculus)–the course one might need to take before composition, to be more prepared for college writing (whatever that means–and you’ll see why I say that later). Not everyone I’ve chatted with about the re-naming is thrilled. Some are outright dismayed, but most of the newest teachers to the profession I work with are digging it. Why? No idea.

[We never made that name change. It just didn’t feel right. AND so it turns out that a BETTER name is “Introduction to College Writing” with Composition 1 and 2 becoming College Writing 1 and College Writing 2. Now that feels right.]

Personally, it appeals to me because I took a basic writing class when it was named “remedial writing”–actually, it might have been called, “English grammar” or something along those lines, but it was a non-credit course in the remedial part of the composition program. I learned a lot from that class, such as: there are about four ways I need to use a comma that I should remember–the rest I can look up or figure out depending on the style required by a particular teacher or field. I also learned that a topic sentence should be the first of a paragraph followed by 5-8 sentences that deal specifically with the topic and one transitional sentence at the end to ease the reader to the next paragraph. Additionally, I learned that look alike/sound alike words are the bane of many a writer’s existence (including mine). I was one of 75 students in this remedial English grammar class. We did exercises in a programmed workbook and turned in three paragraphs all term–I received grades but no feedback on drafts, so why read the final comments? The paper was over. Of what use were the teachers comments two weeks after I had turned in the paper? There were no conferences, no peer reviews, no discussion, no thinking, no anything but the content we were supposed to digest, and in three efforts we would turn our newly vast content knowledge into prose that was elegant, eloquent, and effective. Right.

And when I got my credit for that class, I went onto English 101, Freshman Comp 1, which I immediately hated and which I barely passed (I was given a C… I probably earned a D). I remember going to this class–sometimes. I don’t think I was regularly in attendance, but I wonder if it mattered. I believe we used the Little, Brown handbook and reviewed grammar rules and wrote more paragraphs–about what? No idea. Admittedly, it’s been a very long time ago that this happened, but I have had reason to consider my composition experiences as that is what I teach and have taught for a lot long time (and created curriculum most decidedly NOT like that I was in the midst of as a freshman).

My Freshman Comp 2 came a few years later. Because I was so turned off by Comp 1, I kept avoiding the second part until it was just getting silly. It was a literature and comp class. I felt like a total idiot because there was so much assumed that the students knew that I didn’t: plot, setting, motif, character, and so on. I never got any of that in any English class ever. I avoided that learning whenever I could in high school (yuck). I loved to read and that saved me, but the analysis of literature and writing about it–not working for me. But I had a patient teacher. When I visited him in office hours (the first smart thing I did in college), I confessed that I was entirely lost and felt distant from the text and the class discussion. I read the stories and poems and could get the literal meaning, occasionally, but the deeper stuff was too deep for me. He said, read everything twice.

Honest. I wanted to drop. Read everything TWICE? I was already mystified; how was that going to work? Me + mystified x 2 = me still mystified.

I tried it. What else could I do? I was going to have to take it sometime. Much better. I read once for the literal meaning, then I read again for the figurative meanings (and so much for my social life). I still felt like I wasn’t reading it for the meaning the teacher wanted me to get, but I was seeing metaphor, image, and symbol in what I was reading and the literature text about analysis wasn’t nearly as awful by the end of the term. I consistently got Cs and one B on my papers (no conferences, no feedback on drafts, no peer reviews, and little discussion), but I got an A on my final exam. I kept that final exam for a long time as it was a triumph for me. I compared archetypes of male antagonists in literature and film. It was loads of fun.

I went on to take five more literature classes and finally became an English major (it was a long and winding road to be sure, but I got there). I ended up with seven Elizabethan lit classes (six were Shakespeare), about seven in British lit of the 18th and 19th centuries, with others mixed in to get my BA in English with an emphasis in British literature (at my final university, an English major could pick an emphasis in world lit, Brit lit, or American lit, or creative writing). It was as a junior, though, that I learned how to write beyond the academic–thanks to the Boise State University Writing Center, some remarkable teachers, and peers. My real writing life began there (and that’s a whole ‘nother story). When I learned to tutor, that really changed the game. The rest of my life was set at that time, though I didn’t know it until recently.

Perhaps it sounds as if I am disparaging my early training in comp; I’m not. I’m just owning it, and I’m owning the fact that I try to teach and lead in directions that don’t go in those same ways, or at the very least, I try to offer more options than I had. And more importantly, I see comp from the perspective of a non-English major (the majority, ahem, of students in freshman writing classes).

So what’s in a name? A lot. I was a remedial writer, and I knew it. I couldn’t write, not because I didn’t have anything to say, but because I didn’t know how to write what others expected of me at the academy. Academic discourse? WTH? College was alien to most of my family, so I couldn’t get help there. I assumed I was just born as a non-writer (NOT a non-storyteller–big difference) and that college might not be for me. When I got over that–with a lot of help from others–I realized that I had named myself early on (as others had named me–“not really gifted at writing,” “basic writer,” “developmental writer,” “remedial” and more. And those names dictated my path initially. How could I have known any different?

What I think we need to consider in 2017 [you’ll see I wrote this a LONG time ago intially, but all this is still true] is how we name others, students, writers, and/or peers when we undertake any endeavor. When we hear something enough times, it’s easy to believe. You’d think a bunch of folks who were so involved in how we say things, the power of language, the danger of language mis-used, highly educated rhetoricians all, would be seriously aware of and uptight over how we still name emerging writers, colleagues, programs, classes. People who strive at writing are not basic, nor remedial, or developmental; they are writers.

Ain’t nothing basic about it… 1/9

In my next post, I’ll write about the troubling history of the word “basic” when applied to writing classes and what came before. For today, I want to explain the name of my blog.

This thing--I sort of like it.

This thing–I sort of like it.

I saw this “meme” on Pinterest and it piqued my interest because it struck me as funny. I knew that a new definition of “basic” had become current–see the Urban Dictionary for details: “An adjective used to describe any person, place, activity involving obscenely obvious behavior, dress, action. Unsophisticated. Transparent motives.”

I quibble with the use of basic as applied to writing and to life, for a lot of reasons–one has to do with this largely negative definition. I suggest most basic writing classes should be called “Introduction to Composition” or “Introduction to College Writing.” You know. Like how they do it in Math Departments, calling the class before College Algebra, “Introduction to Algebra.” No stigma there. I took that class. (A few times, actually.)

Another reason I don’t like this current definition is that it belittles the obvious. Sometimes the obvious is perfection. I certainly don’t value vaguery or the obscure or the ambiguous for their own sakes’; I like to work straightforward, straight up, and honor straight talk. In my attempt to own “basic” again, I’m saying “basic” pirates are good enough to be pirates. One doesn’t need to be spectacular or extraordinary to be a pirate. AND I like to think pirates have it going on when it comes to principles of higher education.

Check out these phrases from Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl:

  • Take what you can; give nothing back.
  • Well! I think this has been a very good experience for all of us, eh? Spiritually? Ecumenically? Grammatically?
  • The only rules that really matter are these: what a man can do and what a man can’t do.
  • Keep to the code. // Aye the Code.
  • Any man who falls behind is left behind.
  • Every crew member is to have an equal share in any treasure found.
  • Knowingly targeting and sinking other pirate ships is strictly forbidden.
  • Everyone who invokes the right of parlay shall be granted parlay: temporary protection while brought before an enemy (captain) to “negotiate” without being attacked until the parlay is complete.
  • There’s the Code to consider. // The Code? You’re pirates. Hang the Code, and hang the rules! They’re more like guidelines anyway.

Is there anyway we can see these as applicable to the best practices of higher education? Think about it.

In the meantime, please check out our own codes. These will be listed on the page, The Pirate Code. These are guidelines by which 21st century writing curriculum should be based (created by writers, writing teachers, writing professors, and writing program administrators and librarians). All worth knowing.

Writing Program Administrators’ Outcomes Statement for First-Year Composition (if this is what students should know after Freshman year–then these are outcomes we need to be aware of when crafting curriculum for “basic” writing classes):

Framework for Success in Post-Secondary Writing

With these two documents in hand, you will have a solid foundation that will bridge the gap between those who have and those who don’t–and if our students “don’t have” we need to get them in a position where they can “take all they can; and give nothing back.” Approaching the business of the Pedagogy of Basic Writing like pirates is powerful. (Like the best of the romanticized pirates–and open source/open access/copyleft folks–more on this later.)

So reclaim the word basic for your semester of piracy–every pirate equally shares in booty. We’re going to own “basic,” rethink it, revise it, and rework it, until it makes sense for the 21st century online, on paper, in person, and any way we like. Know the guidelines that govern the best we can do for our students who could use a little of the chutzpah romanticized pirates have. We’ll be epic this term. Yo ho.

Ahoy Pedagogy of Basic Writing Students! 1/5

Ahoy! And welcome to Pedagogy of Basic Writing. The very first thing you should do before starting this class is to click on the “Read This First” page, do everything you are asked to do, in the order you are asked to do it, then come back to the posts and look for what’s next.

Every post will have a title AND a date (even though WordPress automatically dates posts)–I want dates as part of the title–helps me and might help you.

So ahoy and we begin. Avast!