Meaningful Questions, Meaningful Discussions

So I use “Fishbowl Discussions” in my English classes.

They are whole-class discussions in which an inner circle of students talks about questions related to a certain topic, and the outer circle observes, takes notes, and–in my version– can raise their hands to ask questions of people in the inner circle.

So the desks are set up like this:



It’s called a fishbowl because it kind of looks like a fishbowl:




Only the fishes on the inside can talk, whereas the fishes on the outside of the fishbowl… well… can’t breathe?

The thing with fishbowls is you need to have something to talk about. And in order to do that, the kids have to be prepared. So usually I give them a reading and create questions in the margins to help guide them and to help push them toward the objective. Then we discuss the questions in the fishbowl.

Sample from the text we discussed in class yesterday:

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This system works pretty well, but I find myself having some doubts.

A lot of my questions are pretty basic comprehension level questions. I stick with lower-level questions because a huge number of my kids really struggle with basic reading comprehension. These questions help those kids identify a purpose for reading and help them focus on what is important in the text, but they tend to limit my stronger students.


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Those are pretty low-level questions, but they are really helpful for my struggling kids. And discussing those basic-level questions in class, even if the “stronger” students answer them, provides a helpful model for the struggling kids about how to look for textual evidence, etc.

But my stronger students often are limited by these basic questions. They want to dig deeper, but the format I’ve established seems to limit them to the questions I have created.

One possible solution to this would be creating multiple versions– like include more advanced analysis questions for the stronger kiddos. But this solution wouldn’t work very well in a fishbowl when we’re all trying to answer the same questions together. And it would confuse the struggling kids who already have a hard time following along as it is.

Another solution, related to the first, is to keep the margin blank for the stronger students so that they create their own questions. But that would be really confusing for the struggling kids if they could not actually see the questions in front of them. It’s really hard for a lot of my kids to follow along with a conversation if they don’t have visual anchors.

Maybe I could give everyone two versions–one with the basic, anchoring questions, and one with a blank margin. They could read and answer the first version, and then in smaller groups they could create their own “higher-level” questions about the text after I had modeled examples for them.

Teachers – what are some other techniques you use to create meaningful discussions in your classroom?

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“Beauty Will Save The World”

The other evening I attended the Archbishop’s Lecture Series. Dr. Jonathan Reyes came and spoke about how to preach the Gospel in a skeptical age–and an age in which reasoned arguments no longer have much purchase.

Jenny over at Mama Needs Coffee has a beautiful reflection on his talk. An excerpt:

That’s the kind of love that speaks to a world grown blind to logic and deaf to reason. They might not believe in absolute Truth any more, but they can still perceive its counterpart, absolute Love. And from that encounter of being loved, of being valuable…a conversation can begin. (“My Little Lepers”)

She goes on to recount Dr. Reyes’ reflection on Mother Teresa. The reason the world loves Mother Teresa is because although it cannot comprehend faith very well, or the idea of “objective truth” (the phrase even makes me cringe a little), or rational argument, it is still attracted to beauty, for all of its infatuation with ugliness. And because Mother Teresa went to the ugliest human places with love, she reminded us of what real beauty is like. And the world noticed.

Dr. Reyes encouraged all of us to “get our hands dirty.” The world will not really listen to what Christians have to say anymore, but it is still watching us closely, and it may yet be moved by something beautiful.

Dostoevsky famously said, “In the end, the world will be saved by beauty.”

I thought about this in the context of my own world–my students. They are, as I am, products of a “skeptical age” that has lost the ability to reason. Our generation does not have the patience careful argument requires. Just watch the Presidential debates. We prefer slogans, soundbites, tweets, and hashtags.

I’ve noticed this countless times when I try to teach essay writing at the beginning of the year. Especially this year, I have been bewildered and discouraged by my student’s intellectual poverty–their struggle to form coherent thoughts, never mind reasoned arguments. Many of them still have a hard time wrapping their minds around what an “arguable thesis” even is. They can parrot back cliches and soundbites, but they cannot prove a basic claim.

It is my responsibility to try to teach them how to do this.

And yet, Dr. Reyes’ talk gave me pause. Maybe I am starting in the wrong place. Maybe I shouldn’t start off the school year with essay writing– essentially, teaching kids how to think and prove a point.

Maybe I need to start off the year with beauty.

Maybe they would be more open and eager to learn how to think, how to write, how to formulate a thesis and use evidence to support it, if they were at first struck by something beautiful.

I’m still not sure what that would look like. But I’m going to give it some thought.




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Teaching Archetypes; Or, Backdoor Natural Law Theory and “Myth Become Fact”


I’m in the middle of a mythology unit with my kids and we’re learning about archetypes–recurring character and event patterns that show up in stories from all different cultures, times and places.

For instance, the orphan-turned-hero archetype: the young boy in the Native American Blackfeet myth we read, Harry Potter, Frodo Baggins, Superman, Batman, Spiderman, Jane Eyre, , even Luke Skywalker if you admit that Anakin is kind of dead, practically speaking.


And of course, Lil’ Orphan Annie.

Or the mentor figure who must die/disappear so the hero can become a hero: Gandalf, Dumbledore, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Glenda the Good Witch.


So sad.

Or the flood myth archetype: Noah and the Ark, Utnapishtim in The Epic of Gilgamesh, Deucalion and Pyrrha in the Greek story, and stories in practically every culture on this planet.

Or the hero’s journey archetype. Here’s a fun video we watched in class about that:

Or, perhaps more provocatively, the dying and rising godlike hero: the Egyptian Osiris, Babylonian Tammuz, Greek Persephone, Hercules going to the Underworld and bringing Theseus back, Odysseus, Aeneas… and Gandalf the Grey coming back from the dead as Gandalf the White, and Aragorn passing through Dunharrow.

And, of course, Jesus.

Whoah. Yes, it’s true. Jesus fulfills archetypes big time.

One of the essential questions we are considering in this unit is What do Archetypes Suggest About Human Nature?

Well, what they suggest about human nature is that such a thing actually exists– and that human beings all over the world are caught up in the same search for meaning and often come to surprisingly similar answers.

Archetypes suggest there may be eternal truths about human beings. The stories we tell are similar because we are all similar. Among these standards are moral standards that all cultures recognize but some cultures realize more fully than others do.

And there you go: Backdoor Natural Law Theory. Sort of.

Next up on the unit plan: Is Christianity just another myth?

I mean, it is pretty similar to a lot of other myths. Sometimes uncannily so. There’s the whole scapegoat archetype thing going on. And isn’t Jesus basically like the half-god, half-human heroes of old? And doesn’t that prove that Christianity just adopted other mythologies and so basically our God is just an updated Zeus, or something?

We’ll have some interesting discussions, for sure. But to guide us, we will be reading excerpts from C. S. Lewis’ “Myth Become Fact.”

Now as myth transcends thought, incarnation transcends myth. The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. The old myth of the dying god, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens-at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences. We pass from a Balder or an Osiris, dying nobody knows when or where, to a historical person crucified (it is all in order) under Pontius Pilate. By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle. (Lewis, “Myth Become Fact”)

This is going to be a bit mind-boggling for some of my kids, but I think it’s worth a try.


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A Letter to Parents

Dear Parents of my Students,

I am writing you this letter to let you know that we are on the same team. It may not always feel like it, but we are. We both want your child to succeed in English class this year, to learn a lot, to improve in writing and reading and grammar usage. We also want your child to be responsible, kind to others, and hard working. Above all, we both want your child to be happy and to be close to God.

You should know that I love all of my students, including your child.

I hope you know it would be much easier for me, as a teacher, to just give everyone a “good” grade. I would avoid a lot of angry emails from you that way and a lot of hurt feelings and a lot of heartache.

But what is easy isn’t always right.

I hope you know that when I give your child a grade, I am not grading your child at all. I am assessing his work. I am trying to give him as accurate feedback as possible on what he has demonstrated he has learned, and what he has demonstrated he hasn’t learned yet. Your child’s grade in my class is a grade he has earned.

So when you say to me, “My child is not a D student!”– I completely agree. She might have a D in my class right now, but she is not a “D student.” There is no such thing as a D student–or, I might add, a “B student” or “A student.” Because, whether or not he or she is doing well in my class, your son or daughter cannot be defined by a mere letter grade.

The grade merely attempts, as accurately as possible (but certainly not perfectly) to reflect the learning your child has demonstrated so far.

I am on your team. I love your son or daughter and I hold them to high expectations not in spite of, but because of that love.

I promise to give them help, support, encouragement, and guidance. I promise to show my own love of learning and of English literature.

Anything you can do to support that effort is greatly appreciated. You are the primary educator of your son or daughter and I very much honor and respect that huge responsibility. I honor the fact that you are making many sacrifices to send your child to a Catholic school. I thank you for entrusting your child to me. I can only imagine how challenging it is to be the parent of a teenager, and I know you are doing your best. You have your own crosses to carry every day that I know nothing about.

I ask you to believe that I, too, am doing my best. I ask you to respect my professional background, my dedication, my experience, and my dignity during parent-teacher conferences this week.

Let’s work together for your child.


Ms. Shea

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What Education Can’t Fix

I’ve been having a lot of good–but difficult–conversations with teachers about the state of Catholic education in the United States.

And as I was talking to one of my former ACE roommates about all the struggles I’m having this year with my kids, I realized something that maybe I had only been aware of before on a subconscious level.

Education can’t fix the problems it faces.

That sounds pessimistic. But it’s true.

And maybe also a little bit liberating.

I was frustrated a few days ago with a kid who did not come to finish an essay we had written in class. I was offering her support and extra help, and she did not come after school even after I had reminded her. And then I reminded her the next day and she did not come. And I had made myself available during lunch this time even though originally I had planned on trying to keep my lunchtimes this year. I was upset. Why oh why won’t you come when I am bending over backwards trying to help you?

And suddenly, later, on the phone with my ACE friend, I realized — this kid doesn’t really give a damn about my essay. And that’s kind of reasonable. From the little I know about her situation, she has so much going on at home that if I were her I wouldn’t give a damn about some essay either. She has bigger battles she’s fighting.

I mean, she still has to write that thing and I reminded her again today and she did come, thank goodness.

But sometimes as a teacher I get so caught up in my goals for my kids– or the curriculum standards — that I lose some perspective.

And I starting feeling like it’s my job to “save” them, when of course that’s God’s job.

But I think all educators–not just Catholic ones– are suffering from an identity crisis. We think that education can save these kids from their apparently grim destinies. But although a good education can make a big difference, it is not the only thing.

We get kids with learning disabilities. We get kids from broken homes. We get kids who have never met their dads. We get kids whose parents are struggling to pay the bills. Many of these parents — for all of our Catholic talk of “primary educators”– do not have the time or resources to read to their kids or get them books or help them with homework. Some of them may not know how to read well or at all. Indeed these parents are the primary educators, but many of them do not have the ability to educate. And no matter how good a school is, a school cannot fill the role of a parent.

Education isn’t just trying to overcome ignorance– its trying to overcome material poverty and broken families and cultural decay and entitlement and prejudice and despair.

But really all educators can do is try to teach kids who may be unwilling or exhausted or distracted by bigger problems.

Even the best charter school networks with all the money and resources and professional development and “best practices” in the world cannot quite make up for those things.

All we can do is help. All we can do is love our students and hold them to high expectations and give them the support they need to meet those expectations. And some of them will get there, and some of them won’t.

As Mother Teresa says, “We are not called upon to be successful, but to be faithful.”

Let’s be faithful to our students and leave the success part to God.


via Roy Bennet @ InspiringThinkn


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Retakes and Repentance

Usually when I write a blog post, I sit on it for a day or two and reread it a few times before hitting “publish” and unleashing my stream-of-consciousness onto the internet.

Unfortunately, I didn’t do that the other day with the post “Retakes as Mercy.”

I was feeling fired up and published that post without reflecting on my tone. And although I still stand by the heart of what I said, I want to apologize for some of the things the post may have implied about teachers who don’t necessarily agree with me. There are many wonderful teachers out there who do not agree with an “assessments only” or a “retake policy”, and they are wonderful, merciful, Christlike teachers.

Clearly, every year I am trying to grow as a teacher and I certainly am not perfect. Maybe some of the ideas I adhere to so passionately today I may have to revise in the future when I learn more.

First of all, I should have clarified that because I am only a high school English teacher, I do not know how an assessments-only policy and a retake policy would work in other subject areas or for other student age-levels. I can only speak from my own experience that it has worked well for my kids.

Second of all, there might be many other ways of showing mercy to students besides allowing retakes. Some teachers allow test corrections, for example, which I think is a great idea.

Third, a friend reminded me that repentance is an essential part of Church teaching on mercy. God always offers us His mercy, but we cannot receive it unless we repent. Repentance opens us up to mercy.

So, if you want your grading policy to reflect mercy, you also need to make sure it makes room for repentance. I try to do this in my own retake policy, but I can see how students might take advantages of the policy and not use it the right way.

I’m not trying to suggest that failing a quiz because you honestly did not understand the concept is a sin and therefore requires repentance–it’s not and it doesn’t.

But laziness is a sin. Assuming you’re all set without honestly preparing or quizzing yourself–that is, pride–is a sin. Making excuses or blaming others instead of taking responsibility for one’s own learning–vanity or dishonesty–those are sins. And they are all sins by which high school students are tempted and to which many of them succumb to from time to time.

Teachers sometimes succumb to them as well.

I firmly believe that grades should reflect learning. And I firmly believe that one’s grading policy should reflect mercy.

But your grading policy must also encourage repentance–the only way human beings can open themselves up to mercy.

It is important to remember that different teachers may have very different ways of encouraging both mercy and repentance.


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Retakes as Mercy

The other evening I went to a housewarming party where there were a large number of current and graduated ACE teachers (I don’t say “former” ACE teachers, because once an ACE teacher, always an ACE teacher).

The topic of conversation inevitably turned to teaching, no matter how many times we scolded ourselves and reminded ourselves that we were supposed to be having “fun.” (Secretly, of course, I was thinking how talking about teaching is fun.) And someone brought up the whole assessments-only model that I have written about here a few times, and someone else brought up the usual objections to the model, and then someone else brought up retakes.

I have written before about why allowing retakes on tests, quizzes and essays is a good thing for students. Most teachers at my school don’t agree with me, and I understand that because this time last year I would have disagreed too. We grew up thinking of school a certain way and it’s hard to see why the traditional model should change. If you don’t prepare for a quiz and you flunk it, you flunk it. Better luck next time.

But apart from the fact that allowing retakes give students who otherwise would never learn the objective another chance to learn what they were supposed to learn in the first place, I’d like to talk about another dimension of the retake policy that just occurred to me:


Maybe it’s Pope Francis’ influence, but I really think Catholic school teachers should model their classroom policies on the Gospel as much as possible. That might be a small step towards solving “The Problem with Catholic Schools.”

So often the objection teachers and others make to retakes is “Well, the real world isn’t like that!” and “If you don’t come prepared to a job interview and you flunk the interview, you’re not getting the job.”

Apart from being a rather poor analogy based on a ill-conceived premise (we should make our policies in school reflect the “real world” as much as possible), such objections are also not very realistic.

Most people have gone to job interviews without enough preparation, or without the right type of preparation. And most of us have also experienced bad interviews. But most of us, after a bad interview, learned from it and tried again, at another interview. And eventually we got a job.

Similarly, if a student fails an assessment the first time, the only reason not to allow him to come see you, learn from his mistakes, and try again on a different but similar assessment is the idea that the student should be punished for his lack of preparation (or, in many cases, his lack of understanding).

But of course that is not a good reason at all, unless you think grades should be used as a form of punishment.

My retake policy requires students to come in during lunch or after school for extra help to discuss the first assessment and their mistakes, to develop a study plan, and the meet again to write a metacognitive letter explain how the student is planning to improve and make better academic choices. Then the student does a “retake”–a different assessment that covers the same objective as the first one.

I would say that the best consequence for not doing something right the first time is to do it right the next time.

“But he can do it right the next time,” you say. “On the next quiz!”

But then the student will never learn what he should have learned on the first quiz. And if your class, like most classes do, builds upon each concept as you go along, the student is now already primed to fail the next quiz because he failed the first one.

Perhaps most importantly, such an approach is not very merciful. The way the “real world” works is the way God works. And ultimately His world, the world of mercy, is the “real world.”

Second chances, as trite and as silly as they may sound, are actually the hallmark of the Gospels. Are such chances undeserved? Of course. But that’s what mercy is. It’s completely undeserved. The “good” thief on the cross, or Saint Matthew leaving his corrupt tax-collecting career behind, or Peter denying Jesus three times and still being made the leader of the Apostles– all of them got second chances, and third chances, and on and on.

God’s mercy is so lavish that we often resist it. But we are called to try to offer that same mercy to one another.

And because I teach in a Catholic school, I can mix theology and education as much as I please.



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