Rewriting Our Definition of Writing

9780874216424I really don’t think there’s anything more invigorating than learning with other teachers, and this week, I’m doing just that.

I’m feeling lucky to be encamped in the mountains of southern West Virginia at Pipestem State Park, working with National Writing Project teachers on the College Ready Writers Program.  This isn’t my first NWP workshop, but it’s my first time leading one, and the thinking and planning and writing that have surrounded our work has been absolutely energizing.

(“You’re like a wind-up toy,” my co-leader remarked yesterday as we planned over dinner.  “You just never stop!”)

It’s true–all week, I haven’t stopped thinking, connecting, writing, reading, and wondering about our course topic, which is argument writing.  One of our central reads, Joseph Harris’ Rewriting: How to do Things with Texts, has been inspiring and informative.  Harris has gotten me to revise how I think of writing and its purpose in a classroom.

Writing, in my experience, is a process of discovery.  We write to learn, to help us grow into ways of thinking.

When we frame writing this way for our students, the entire writing process as we usually approach it must be revised.  There can be no more, “brainstorm an idea, then write a draft, then revise it, then turn in a final draft.


Make sure you show me you can do ______ throughout.”

Instead, the process needs to become one of starts and stops, of constant learning and revision of thinking, and a process that is never completely independent of other learning.  What I mean by this is that we can never just write for writing’s sake–we will always be writing to learn about our topic: the reading we’re writing about, the questions we’re asking, or the craft moves we’re making.

Writing is never separate from its subject.  It is always both art and craft, both structure and content, both phrasing and approach.  When we rewrite our notions of what writing is, we see that the way we approach, assess, and value the writing process must reflect those beliefs.

Harris asserts that students are often asked to assume the roles of disciples as they write, adopting the moves and beliefs of another thinker (often the teacher or the author of whatever text they’re studying) rather than adapting them.  “Little new knowledge is created.  Instead the disciple simply shows that the master is correct,” (74) in this type of teaching.  I’ve seen, and experienced, this kind of writing in classrooms.

How many of our students’ writing experiences have stifled their voices?

Just one is too many.  Our students do enough of this posturing.  They’re teens, for crying out loud, constantly adopting the moves and beliefs of others.  We need to help them find their voices, and not just their writing voices–a voice in which to sing a song of themselves.

All this thinking only reaffirms my belief in a writers workshop approach:  one in which a community of students can safely take risks, engage in high volumes of low-stakes, choice-driven, mentor-text-rich, craft-study-laden writing, confer with a practiced writer about their growth, and take on the identity of a writer themselves.

If you’re interested in working toward a classroom that values this kind of writing, I highly recommend reading Joseph Harris’ Rewriting, and continuing along with us on our readers-writers workshop journey here at Three Teachers Talk.

How might your classroom look this fall if you rewrite your definition of writing to match Harris’?  Please leave us a comment and share!

Shana Karnes teaches sophomore, junior, and senior preservice teachers at West Virginia University.  She finds joy in all things learning, love, and literature as she teaches, mothers, and sings her way through life.  Follow Shana on Twitter at @litreader or read more of her writing on the WVCTE Best Practices blog.


Workshop: Going Sane Feels Like Going Crazy

Three Teachers Talk

My life altered in many ways last summer.

I attended an Abydos (formerly, New Jersey Writing Project) training for writing workshop.

One of my incredible mentors, Valerie, suggested Book Love as I searched and pleaded that there MUST BE a better way than the way I taught my first year.

My work bestie, Michelle, encouraged me to rekindle my creative life with The Artist’s Way, by Julia Cameron.

In August, I jumped headfirst into creating a classroom environment entirely different than the one I felt as though I clumsily stumbled into the year prior.  As I reveled in the joy of matching kids with books, watched as they surpassed what even they thought they could do, held firmly to my principles when questioned by many-a-colleague or administrator, I found myself stuck on Julia’s words one weekend.

“It’s important to remember that, at first flush, going sane feels just like going crazy.”

-Julia Cameron

I have to admit, I’ve felt much more CRAZY than SANE in this adventure in teaching and learning.  Anyone with me?

A few weeks ago, I sat in the only true workshop (though many claimed to be so) session in my AP Summer Institute training.  It was a fantastic event with many incredible educators.  As we know from Amy’s many rants, advanced educators have a hard time wrapping their minds around workshop.  I couldn’t help but chuckle as the presenter, Jacqueline Stallworth, fielded the question of many steam-eared AP teachers:

But do you have a list for them to choose from?  How do you know they’ll choose right?

How do you know they read if you haven’t read the book?

And Amy’s favorite: They won’t ever read these books if we don’t make them!

Well, I was “made to read them,” and I didn’t.  Neither did Shana–at least not in high school.

We know the vast majority of students are not reading. So what if you could get them to read?

As we at Three Teachers Talk always say, it’s about teaching the reader, not the reading.  It’s about teaching the writer, not the writing.  Why does that seem so crazy?

I’m increasingly convinced that workshop–while backed by reputable, extensive research and proven time and again to advance the WHOLE student, not just the test-taker–is still new to many educators.

In true summer fashion, I’ve binge-watched episodes of Quantico.  In season one, Alex says, “You are willing to blow yourself up for people to see your truth instead of helping them find it for themselves.”

I’m hoping that this year, I can step back and realize it won’t work for teachers until they find it of their own accord, try it themselves, ask questions and realize there is not always an answer.

I’m hoping that I can do less of the “blowing up,” and more of the “helping [teachers and students] find their own truth” rather than simply taking on mine.

What makes you feel crazy as a workshop teacher?  Let us know in the comments!  We are here for you, reading/writing warriors!

Jessica Paxson teaches AP Language and Composition, English IV, and Creative Writing in Arlington, TX.  She is currently pursuing her Masters in Educational Psychology and GT education, and dreaming of a home free of construction materials and boxed-up books.  If you are a fan of candid vulnerability, you can catch more of that over at Follow her on Twitter or Instagram @jessjordana.

Want to RENEW! Get the book by @ShawnaCoppola

I have never written a book review. (Okay, maybe that’s not true. I think I remember writing one in 4th grade over a biography of Marie Curie, the first biography I ever read.)

I have never written a review of a teaching book. But I am going to try.

I am a teaching book junkie. I have stacks of them, but I rarely read the whole of them. I cannot even tell you why, and I admit there is great irony here because as I write this, I am also trying to write my own book for teachers (I have been for four years, sigh.) If I ever get it written, I hope you’ll read it.

In the mean time, I have to tell you about Shawna Coppola’s new book RENEW!

I read the whole of this book in one afternoon! Thank you, Shawna, for writing so much of my own thinking about “Becoming a Better — and More Authentic — Writing Teacher.”

Shawna’s voice sings with passion and positivity. She paints the pages with possibilities! I know, I am gushing (and that’s probably too many p’s.) But here’s the thing —

I know so many ELA teachers who do know know how to teach writing. I know many more who are not confident teaching writing. I know even more who are not writers themselves, so it’s no wonder that teaching writing is difficult. Teaching writing is hard. A book like RENEW! not only gives us a starting place, it gives us desire.


I am doing a lot of thinking lately around the idea of transcending. How do we go beyond our limits into something more, something better, something real and sustaining?

Let me share with you some of the passages I marked in RENEW!. I think you’ll see why this book is a must read for any teacher who needs a bit, or a lot, of renewal when it comes to teaching students to write.

“. . . if we are truly willing to honor the individuality of our student writers, the RENEW!uniqueness of each community of learners, and the ever-changing nature of our global landscape, we must continually rethink, revise, and renew our practice. Otherwise — to paraphrase Dewey — we rob “today’s students of the tomorrow today’s students deserve” (10).

“Broadening our ideas about what writing “is” can be scary, as if we are opening up a Pandora’s box. But in all reality, continuing to teach our student writers through a narrow, outdated lens — one that, in overvaluing written composition, does not accurately tell a story about the world of writing beyond most schools and classrooms — harms their development as writers by limiting the kinds of composing they are exposed to and encouraged to practice” (51).

“Teaching our writers how to develop their own tools is infinitely more sustainable than using preexisting tools. Quick survey:  How many of you use the graphic organizer your sixth-grade teacher taught you to use to write a persuasive piece? That graphic organizer may have been helpful to you then (although I doubt it was helpful to 100 percent of your classmates), but how useful is it you now?” (62).

“What message or “story” are we sending our student writers with a single overall score? Not only does it imply that their worth as a writer can be whittled down to one letter or number (which itself can mean different things for different teachers and even within different units of study), but that the worth of writing itself can be whittled down this way” (73).

“. . . readers of writing are human, an done person’s response to a composition may not perfectly align with another’s (If it did, what a drab, boring world we’d be living in!)” (79).

“Which is more likely to help students learn:  offering them specific feedback about their work, behavior, or performance, or slapping a score on a piece of paper?” (82).

“. . .when we engage in a semi-regular habit of writing, we can much more genuinely speak to those incredibly fantastic moments that writers experience on occasion, like the amazing feeling of completing a particularly difficult draft or writing something that makes a reader spontaneously laugh out loud. Anyone who’s ever taught a group of students of any age knows that when we are faking our way through something, or at the very least “phoning it in” by only engaging on a superficial level with what we are purporting to teach, students can smell our lack of authenticity a mile away. They know, even subconsciously, that they are being sold a decidedly moldy bill of goods” (92).

That’s all well and good, right? But here’s the beauty of Shawna Coppola’s book — she gives us the research that supports each of her positions AND she gives charts and graphs and resources to help us rethink, revise, and renew our approach, instruction, and practice as we become better teachers of writing. This book is chock full of everything good when it comes to writing instruction. It is a book I will return to again and again.

I hope you’ll read it. I hope you’ll share it with every ELA teacher you know. Really, it is just that good.


Amy Rasmussen lives in north Texas and teaches AP English Language and English 4 (new prep in ’17.) She loves talking books, daughters’ weddings (two this year), and grandbabies (five). She also loves facilitating PD for other teachers making the move into a workshop pedagogy. Amy adheres to the words of Emerson: “We aim above the mark to hit the mark,” and Jesus: “Love one another.” Imagine a world if we all aim higher. Follow Amy on Twitter @amyrass. And she really hopes you will follow this blog!

Summer Alert! Educators, Remain Calm!

I was speaking with a friend yesterday about summer anxiety some teachers experience. How the “endless” expanse of summer gets eaten up by, well…work.

We agreed that “teachers have the summer off” is a dangerous myth, both politicallyimg_4296 (which I’d need 289 pages to dig into, so I’ll avoid that angle) and emotionally (which I will explore, but just a bit. My daughter and I are heading to the park, because I’ve been working on prioritizing). It’s a myth that was making me downright twitchy, because I thought I was “doing summer wrong.”

Summers of my youth were eternal. Swimming, biking, The Sandlot viewed from sleeping bags, vacations to Gettysburg and Colonial Williamsburg (my Dad was a history teacher), and reading countless books. Reading in my swing set fort, unless I saw a spider. Reading on my trampoline as I liked to imagine I was multitasking, because I was also tanning. Reading in the car, until I felt like puking – such a bummer for a bibliophile to get carsick from reading. Reading as a cliche, under the covers with a flashlight.

Stress was not a part of the equation. Various foods on a stick, mud up to my knees, and bicycle trips to pay for candy with a bag full of pennies, yes. Stress, not so much.

These days, summer days years later, I was finding myself legitimately nervous. Such anxieties include:

  • It’s already the Fourth of July! What have I done with the past four weeks?!
  • Each week of the summer has had at least one day (more likely two or three) on which I either went to school for a meeting/to work, or I worked several hours from home.
  • I’m reading, but not enough.
  • I’m writing, but never enough.
  • I’m spending time with my daughter, but…is that enough?
  • My list of to-do projects is largely unchecked.
  • I’ve burned once, but returned quickly to sickly Wisconsin pale.

In short, I’m doing a lot. However, I think my big mistake so far is that I’m still trying to balance being a teacher and taking time off. In other words, I haven’t actually allowed myself any vacation.

Today, the AP scores come out for the great state of Wisconsin. Awesome. No stress there.

Kelly Gallagher shared a tweet this morning, linking to a post from Diane Ravitch about research into AP courses and their impact on our school system. Basically, the courses are important. Rigor is important. However, what we’ve done with the courses (high stakes for class rank, stress on students who overload, etc.) is far from ideal. On extra stressful days like these, I am reminded each year of Amy’s post about what really matters in AP courses: creating readers and writers out of our students. Not hyper-focusing on the test and the scores.

In the same way, I need to stop hyper-focusing on school during the summer and remember what’s really important. If I don’t take some time to recharge, I am going to burn out by October.

There are ways to let go. There are ways to really embrace a little bit of summer.

And for those of you who are like me and aren’t so good at it, here is a list off the top of my head:

  • Read. Read under the covers with a flashlight if you are feeling nostalgic. Read exactly what you want, when you want. This one should be easy…it’s a part of being a workshop teacher.
  • Take the time you can. Maybe it’s a weekend or maybe it’s two/three weeks in a row, but no matter how much time, intentionally set it aside for you and for your family. No meetings, no planning, no curriculum work, no searching Twitter for ideas (save your Three Teachers Talk blog post from that time as something to look forward to later!).
  • Practice some mindfulness. I was introduced to this concept by a friend. As a teacher, I’ve lost a bit of “in the moment” thinking in favor of planning ahead and reflecting back. Resetting myself to return again and again to the moment I am in brings grounding and appreciation for what is right in front of me.
  • Grab some of your summers past youthful innocence back. My daughter just said from the other room that Belle and the Beast are finally loving each other now. I took a break. I went in to watch Belle throw snowballs at the Beast. Tale as old as time: you need to play more than you work sometimes.
  • Let yourself take a break. Good heavens…you know you deserve one.

How are you capturing summer? Please leave your comments below!

Lisa Dennis teaches English and leads a department of incredible English educators at Franklin High School near Milwaukee. She loves to count fireflies in her backyard, sip root beer floats through striped straws, and get so lost in a book that she loses all track of time. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum 


Please respond: What do our students really need?

Dear Readers, would you help with something? I’d like to collect some informal data. All you need to do is read below, take the survey, and maybe leave a comment. Thanks in advance! (I #amwriting)

Sometimes when I conduct PD, we start with a discussion of the characteristics of the students we teach. I introduce this topic by discussing the differences between Millennials and Post-Millennials, also known as Generation Z. 

Of course, they are also called other names:  Homeland Generation, iGeneration, Gen Tech, Neo-Digital Natives, etc. (Wikipedia provides a good starting place for a bit of research with an impressive list of citations.)

What I think is even more interesting than the names marketers and researching are calling these young people are some of the descriptors used to define them:  cynical, private, entrepreneurial, multi-tasking, hyper aware, technology reliant; and the terms in which they self-identify: loyal, compassionate, thoughtful, open-minded, responsible, resourceful, determined.

What I really wonder though — based on our experiences with our students day in and day out — plus what we know about their tech savvy selves — what do our students really need from us as their educators?

Please take this poll and share it widely. I’d like to know what other educators, (actually all adults really) think. 

Also, if you have the time, I’d love to know you thoughts on the best ways to give our students what they need within our ELA classrooms. Please leave your thinking in the comments. (Maybe you’ll make it into this elusive book I’m trying to write.)

Thank you!



Thank You, Thoughtful Teachers

I’ve been really delighted this summer to see a great deal of teacher engagement in a variety of places.  From the participants in my National Writing Project summer institute, to the enthusiastic readers in the Book Love Summer Book Club, to the still-hashtagging tweeters on various ed chats, I love seeing so many teachers interested in refining their practice outside the school year.

I’m especially thankful for you, our thoughtful readers, for continuing to read and comment and engage with us in the summertime.  I love that you’re on this journey with us as teacher-writers, constantly reflecting on our practice, striving to improve it.

You deserve a thank-you gift!  How about some free books?


Yes, those are Eric Carle pajamas…

Ruthie and I are excited to give away another big box (or two or three!) of books to add to your classroom library.  You all helped me reduce my shelf load last year with a big book giveaway, but there’s still some more #booklove to dole out.

To enter to win, please help us engage more thoughtful teachers by spreading the word about the community we’re working to build here at Three Teachers Talk.  First, make sure you’ve subscribed to receive emails from us by signing up on the home page:

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Just click on the “Give Me More Posts Like This” button to get signed up.

Next, make sure you’ve liked our Facebook page, which you can do directly through Facebook or on the TTT home page as well:

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Next, follow us on Twitter at our official TTT account, @3teacherstalk, and consider finding us on our individual accounts, too:

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If you’ve already subscribed, liked, and followed, please invite others to do the same.  You can do this through a tweet, a Facebook post, or however you want.  Just help us grow this amazing community of thoughtful, engaged teachers!

Once you’ve done so, please leave a comment on this post that tells why you’re thankful for teachers, plus one way for me to contact you to get your mailing address if you win!

Best of luck winning books, and happy sharing!


The books I’ll give away, with Ruthie for scale, of course

Happy Summer,


Defining Readers-Writers Workshop

“I need a visual of a ‘workshop.’ That word confuses me still.”

This is not the first time I’ve been part way through facilitating professional development and a participant has made a similar request. There’s a lot for me to learn here.

Before we can begin really sharing the excitement and benefits of a readers-writers workshop model of instruction, we must get on the same page as to what we mean by Workshop. I’ll try to do that here.

Let’s start with the dictionary definition of workshop and zero in on #2.

workshop definition

Based on this definition, let’s consider this essential question:

How do we create open spaces where the children we teach can grow as readers and writers?

To me “open spaces” equates to “workshop.” Open spaces means teachers let go of control, remove themselves from center stage as the holders of the knowledge, and invite students into a space of curiosity and discovery. It’s a space where students thrive in a community of trust and sharing, where they talk about their identities and experiences as readers and writers, where they play with language and take risks as they explore what it means to develop their comprehension and analysis skills — and their craft as writers.

Opening spaces requires planning. It is not willy-nilly choice in books or topics, or stations without specific guidelines and instructions, or seats moved from rows into small groups without modeling the thinking that makes it possible to “engage in intensive discussion and activity” around our content. Teachers must model what this looks like. And we must trust that our students will engage and learn in this model.

They will — if we let them.

Readers-writers workshop is a method of instruction that often requires a paradigm shift, a shift from the teacher making all the choices and telling students what to learn within a text, to students making choices, and through practice and application of skills-based lessons, learning as they read and write.

I’ll return to some definitions found online to help clarify:

“The Reading Workshop is a teaching method in which the goal is to teach students strategies for reading and comprehension. The workshop model allows teachers to differentiate and meet the needs of all their students.”

For our readers, we open the space for students to choose the books they read. By doing so, we meet students where they are in terms of their interests and abilities. The teacher becomes a coach, teaching skills specific to the needs of each learner. This requires time. We must reserve time for students to read when they are with us in class, and we must confer with students about what they are reading — and how they are reading it. This is reading instruction in a workshop model. We teach the reader, not the book. Readers must predict, visualize, infer, comprehend, analyze, and evaluate. These are all skills we model and teach in readers’ workshop.

What about writer’s workshop?

“As in a professional writer’s workshop, each student in the class is a working author. The teacher is a writing professional and peer coach, guiding authors as they explore their craft. … Teachers write with their students and share their own work as well.”

To teach our writers, we must be writers ourselves. We must model the moves writers make as they use language to craft meaning. We must validate our writers and help them recognize what professional writers do to think of ideas, organize those ideas, and convey those ideas in a way comprehensible to readers. In a workshop classroom, we use mentor texts:  sentences, paragraphs, passages, essays, poems, stories to teach writing skills that students apply to their own writing. We teach the writer, not the writing.


So, what do I mean when I say “workshop”? I mean students doing the work of readers and writers, “engaged in intensive discussion and activity on a particular subject” — specifically related to growing as readers and writers. This work happens because teachers open the spaces in their classrooms which allow for it.

Questions about your move to a workshop model of instruction? Please ask in the comments.

Amy Rasmussen lives in north Texas and teaches AP English Language and English 4 (new prep in ’17. She loves talking books, daughters’ weddings (two this year), and grandbabies (five). She also loves facilitating PD for other teachers making the move into a workshop pedagogy. Amy adheres to the words of Emerson: “We aim above the mark to hit the mark,” and Jesus: “Love one another.” Imagine a world if we all aim higher. Follow Amy on Twitter @amyrass. And she really hopes you will follow this blog!

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