This week has been particularly inspiring. It was in many ways a culmination of the work — and the risks — we have been taking together, my students and I.

This is the first year that my students read a book they selected for their graduation project, which is a literary analysis essay and on-demand presentation.

excerpt from student 1 writing about the book Illegal by Eoin Colfer and Andrew Donkin

This should not sound particularly revolutionary, but when you teach all newcomers with varying degrees of literacy, this idea meets quite a bit of resistance and criticism from various corners, or it meets support from people who think “it’s a great idea, but….”, and hesitantly wish you luck . Especially when we also coupled it with letting students write the essay as a hybrid genre of personal narrative and literary analysis, and had them analyze first by focusing on their responses to the text, jotting down the sentences that caused these emotional or thoughtful reactions (aka “evidence”). Ooooooooo the controversy was real.

This was also a culmination of the journey I embarked on, challenging myself to put into action what I believed (and had researched) these kids to be capable of doing. I was simultaneously proud and terrified of taking the risk to do this with so much at stake (their graduation, nevermind the curriculum I had proposed the school take on 9-12), and with so many voices of doubt running around my stressed-out brain like 4-year-olds amped up on sugar:

Was I up to the task? Are the traditional ELA people right that students need ample amounts of direct instruction to determine a theme in a text and contextualize it in the larger world? Should I have given them a small selection of books to choose from, and organized them into book clubs? How was I going to manage keeping up with 43+ books among 110 kids? Am I lowering standards – will they be able to meet the higher expectations in the rubric? Were they going to get frustrated and give up reading a book independently, often the first book they had ever read?

So, what happened this week? Well, after approving 75 papers (so far), 21 students presented to their panels (made up of two teachers) and they all passed, 13 with the highest grade possible. 🥳 And along with this, kids were confident. They cared deeply about their books and wanted their audiences to feel it. They were invested. I have never before felt so inspired.

Have I worked straight through preps and lunch for days on end? Yes.

Have I had kids coming to me instead of other classes when there was a sub there? Yes.

Did I offer video conferring to kids who were struggling to get started and wanted to work during the winter break? Yes (because I don’t believe in homework).

Did I have to act like a crazy person, organizing 5 1:1 conferences daily and then walking around the room intermittently to make sure kids were all focused because they were soooooooooooooooo loud? Sure. Was it ever more than 1-2 kids playing games on their iPad? No. No?! No! Kids were helping each other (and since very few ever had the same book, it was legitimate help, and not copying and sharing work).

Example from Student 2

But did I enjoy every. single. minute watching my students’ passions, confidence and determination grow, instead of watching them wither beneath threats of deadlines and ultimatums? Absolutely.

Did I stand back in awe multiple times, noticing how they moved with purpose and felt comfortable writing by just “going where their minds were”, instead of filling in boxes or conforming to sentence starters? Hell yes.

Did the beauty some students discovered in their own use of language bring me to tears more than once? Yup.

Did it help me identify the students who truly, truly needed more concrete scaffolds? Definitely.

Did I stand back in awe multiple times, noticing how they moved with purpose and felt comfortable writing by just “going where their minds were”, instead of filling in boxes or conforming to sentence starters? Hell yes. Did the beauty some students discovered in their own use of language bring me to tears more than once? Yup. Did it help me identify the students who truly, truly needed more concrete scaffolds? Definitely.

I share this with you in hopes of giving you inspiration and strength to take on risks you see in front of you, squash the self-doubts and take the chance if you are also trying to transform your classrooms to ones where students are increasingly in charge of their learning. It’s worth it. I promise.

(Though I do wish there were a way to teach teenagers the art of whispering!!)