The Magic of the 100-Word Memoir: in Retrospect

100_Word_Story_Logo_332x190We (my teaching partner, Mariana, and I) never questioned the value of the 100-word memoir, the first piece we would take through a full prewriting – drafting – revision process with our students. After all, it’s what Penny and Kelly do in 180 Days. Need we any better reason? No. Turns out, though, there is major added value we hadn’t realized about this little genre as the first text we ask of our students. (My guess is Penny and Kelly knew, but didn’t have space to elaborate in the book.)

So, here are the values and beliefs that our experience of the 100-word memoir brought to light, mostly after the fact:

1. Short pieces offer even the most reluctant writers a sense of accomplishment. Those writers who need more time than their classmates — and we all see them right away — turned in their notebooks with a complete draft within the allotted time frame. Every single student turned in a complete draft (even if the rest of their notebooks were still in progress). Just a guess, but an early sense of “I can do what’s being asked of me in this class” can set a tone of that invites rather than excludes.

2. The value of re-vision in its truest sense becomes apparent, even palatable. I’m sure we are all used to the experience of reading a student draft that gets to any substance only at the very end, close to the word count. With the 100-word memoir, more students than I can count on two hands (out of 83 total) saw this in their own writing. They were not only willing to but intent on rewriting. Questions went from “Is it good enough if I just fix …?” to “If I’m rewriting the whole thing, should I do that in my notebook first?”

3. Students begin to understand their own processes as writers. The above questions naturally led to a class discussion of the difference between meeting a teacher’s requirements and cultivating good writing. Even my youngest students (sophomores) are mature enough to understand the value of knowing themselves as writers. “Do you prefer to rewrite the draft by hand? Or will you ‘revise’ as you retype the draft into a document?” The offer of that respect to them as real writers was a major trust builder at this critical early moment in the year. The concept of writing conferences is still alien for most students. But when they called for a one-on-one conversation about whether another “first” draft was required if they were completely rewriting, a conversation opened up about their own process. Doing so, I had the opportunity to point out we were in the midst of a writing conference right then. I don’t think it’s overly optimistic (no one has ever accused me of such a stance) to imagine that any trepidation a student had about a writing conference with me was at least a little dispelled — and I made sure that fellow writers at that table who were conspicuously keeping their heads in their notebooks heard that, too.

4. Students writers can benefit by learning the art of DELETING. Kristin Jeschke writes thoughtfully here about the value of teaching students to be incisive. Our 100-word memoirs aren’t long enough for us to do literal paper-cutting (or are they … hmm), but the practice of incision with a short piece can instill this habit early on. In Intention: Critical Creativity in the Classroom, Amy Burvall and Dan Ryder discuss — among other innovative cross-curricular ideas — the notion of “creative constraints.” I’ve pretty much fallen in love with this phrase in place of language resembling “criteria” or “learning targets” (and the meanings can conveniently satisfy the paperwork of performance evaluations). The phrasing helped students to see “criteria” as a creative challenge: at best, inspiring and at worst, less arbitrary than some assignment “criteria” can be. AND, as Mariana pointed out, inevitably our seniors must cure the logorrhea in their college essays, and the 100-word “creative constraint” gives them practice.

Coulda3Usually my own post-lesson, reflection phase is a litany of all that I could have, should have done. How refreshing, then, to reflect in a way that identifies value beyond what we’d hoped. What an affirmation that our practice recognizes beliefs we hadn’t even seen.

I have no intention of giving up my private, critical post-practice litanies. But the experience of the 100-word memoir lowered the volume of that familiar, reproachful teacher-self. At least for a day or so.

 

 

A Taste of Workshop for Juniors

Deciding to jump into workshop is sometimes a little intimidating, especially if you’re a high school teacher. It seems that resources abound for workshop in the younger grades but that high school teachers (except for places like this blog) don’t have as many options.

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One way that I have been easing some of my Juniors into workshop writing involves college application essays. Over the past few years, I have gotten tons of requests from former students for help with their college application essays. These requests generally come in the summer, so I’m not always able to spend a ton of time helping them. This year I decided to take a more proactive approach. I went to the Common Apps site and pulled the list of essay topics that they posted for 2018-2019 and created my own essay prompts. My plan is to have my kids write on one of those essay prompts as an in-class writing assignment every month this year. Once they turn in the initial timed-write draft version, they’ll transfer their essay to a Google Docs file and then we’ll have lots of workshop back and forth goodness until they’re satisfied that they have developed a good solid reflection of themselves in that particular prompt. At the end of the year, they should have a folder on Google Drive that has a good solid 8 essays that are ready for them to use or tweak for the college and scholarship application process.

My goal with this is twofold–garnering buy-in from some of my more reluctant writers and giving my students tangible materials to have at the end of the process. I think it’s an easy way to pull some of them into workshop. They have a very tangible goal at the end of this process–to have materials for their college application process that will begin over the summer–so they’ll be more motivated to dig in to the process and take ownership of their writing. I like the thought of arming them with lots of materials to help them prepare for the college application process, too. Of course the prompts may change when they’re actually sitting down to write their college application or scholarship essays, but hopefully this process will give them some solid time and experience to pull from as they work on those things.

We spend a large amount of time on both reading and writing workshop tasks in my classroom throughout the year, but I thought I would share this one little idea as a way for some of you to try out workshop and see if you can make it work for you and for your students. What are some other ways that you have used to take baby steps into writing workshop?

What Do Today’s Students Need?

This post very nearly slipped through the cracks, but I’m tickled to have found it. Mid-July Lisa and Two-Weeks-Into-School Lisa are of the same mind, if not the same sleep surplus, and now is the perfect time to resurrect my enthusiasm around knowing our students from as many angles as possible.


Greetings from McKinney, Texas where the RealFeel temperature is 108 degrees and this Wisconsin gal is melting her way through professional development with an awesome group of enthusiastic, inquisitive, and insightful secondary teachers.

It is always such a privilege to be asked to teach teachers. The energy that’s built around sincere investment in collaboratively improving practice is inspiring, even in those desperate weeks when “Back to School” advertisements burst onto every conceivable media outlet in that all-out assault to all things summer that makes me equal parts desperate, angry, and a little bit twitchy.

In our work in McKinney, we’ve had a goal to both educate teachers on the inner workings of workshop instruction and to encourage them to provide opportunities for students to have transactional experiences with texts. To begin, Amy shares a quick YouTube piece that gets us all thinking about how the students who sit before us are defined (and how they are not defined) based on the chaotic, frenetic, and often times depressing experiences the wider world has thrust into their lifetimes.

We then reflected in our notebooks on what this video suggests to us about the needs of our students.

Now, let’s be frank before your own list of student needs forms in your head. If the needs of our students are defined by the standards that require assessment, the chunks of curricular content that define the roadmap of our lesson planning, and or our preconceived ideas of their abilities, we’ve started in the wrong place.

We must always remember…we teach humans. Our work with specific content, abilities, skill levels and learning styles can be important factors in meeting our professional obligations and/or defining parts of what we do each day. However, it is the growth of students as readers, writers, and thinkers that must be at the center of our determination of their needs.

With this in mind, here was my sixty-second jot list:

  • They need role models
  • They need calm in a world of unending chaos
  • They need security
  • They need to learn to communicate effectively, both in person and through technology
  • They need to see themselves reflected in their education
  • They need to see the value in their voices and then have a place for that voice to be heard
  • They need to better understand one another in an effort to build empathy.

The large group shared out a list of ideas that was beautifully responsive to the wide variety of difficult realities our students face. These are the needs of a generation, as one PD participant suggested, who have been largely raised by “lawnmower parents,” in other words, those who pave the way for their children to avoid conflict, though the wider world is full of it. So in essence, our students need not only a respite from the chaos of the world but also a place that then challenges them to critically think through how they can maneuver their way through it and problem solve solutions to big issues.

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So, what to do with this information? Everything. We do everything with this information. It guides the choices we make from the start of the year to the end, from the first time we sit down to plan to our responsiveness in the face of differentiated preferences and needs, from the enthusiasm that bolsters the start of the year to the shadow that can fall on our practice when we’ve lost our way and enthusiasm and productivity can plummet in our classroom.

It’s no easy work, but as we know, so often that means that it is precisely the work that needs doing most.

What specific needs are your students exhibiting early this year? How are they impacting your daily work? Feel free to comment below!

Lisa Dennis teaches English and leads a department of incredible English educators at Franklin High School near Milwaukee. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum 

Takeaways from Tyrolia: Four Days with Kylene Beers, Penny Kittle, Bob Probst, and Linda Rief by @KarryDornak

Tyrolia Ranch
I still haven’t mentally returned from my time at Tyrolia, Kylene Beers’ ranch, in Waco, TX. My mind still thinks I am sitting at her dining room table, painting a watercolor picture while overlooking a pond banked with Cypress trees. Or nestled on one of her incredibly-comfortable couches talking about a podcast with a newfound friend. Or riding a Mule (the all-terrain vehicle, not the animal) with Penny Kittle and five other people who were just as giddy as I was. Or sitting around her living room chatting and laughing with Bob Probst and Linda Rief while the aroma of the evening’s dinner tempted our senses.

Scenic Tyrolia RanchIt’s amazing that a place of scenic tranquility and beauty could rouse such feelings of rebellion and determination.

But you can’t talk about rebellion without first talking about power, so let’s start with the power of literacy.

For the first time in history, power is no longer based solely on wealth. Power is a Tweet. A YouTube video. A social media post. Kylene gave a fascinating talk about the “ugly roots of literacy in America.” In Colonial America, “literacy” primarily meant one’s ability to sign a document or contract. Who held the power there? Those who could sign the document, or those who could write the document? During the Revolutionary and Civil War times, penmanship was valued as literacy. But who had the leisure to practice their penmanship? Those with wealth, privilege, and power. From the Civil War to World War I, literacy meant one’s ability to recite poems, monologues, and stories. But who had the leisure to practice memorization? Those with wealth, privilege, and power. Then we get to the Industrial Revolution, where the assembly line was born. And then our schools began modeling the assembly line design (can’t you just picture kids on a conveyor belt being carried from class to class?). From the 1950s to 1980s (and even in the present), literacy meant analyzing the meaning of what we are reading. But still, someone else held the power (it was the teacher — or CliffsNotes —  who determined if a student’s analysis was correct or not).

The point is, the definition of literacy shifts to reflect what is happening in the country and world. Presently, businesses see the value in synthesizing information and identifying potential problems rather than just solving existing problems. So what does this mean for our classrooms?

It means we abdicate the power we as teachers have held on to for decades and give it to our students. If we are only teaching them analytical literacy, we are preparing them for 1980. For this century, students need the same literacy skills they’ve always needed: to summarize, to retell, to articulate, to evaluate. But more importantly, they also need a willingness to see another perspective, the chance to take a risk, the ability to sustain their focus, an acceptance of ambiguity, and the self-confidence that allows them to identify as readers and writers. Because that’s power, right?

But the chances are, if you’re reading this, you already believe this. Chances are, if you’re visiting Three Teachers Talk, you are already subscribed to the belief that education has not caught up to the 21st century. And chances are, you sometimes feel alone in this belief. Or isolated. Like you are fighting a losing battle. Like you have found a great discovery, only to feel that no one else believes you.

That’s where Penny Kittle’s words ring true  — that courage is more important than caution. I understand not wanting to “rock the boat” or damage friendships with your colleagues, but at what cost? The risk of sending our students into the world illiterate by 21st century standards and powerless?

Kylene told us that to start [educational, metaphorical] fires, we must start with our best kindling. So find your tribe. Find your people. Those who value courage over caution. They may not be in your hallway. Perhaps they’re across campuses, across districts, across states, across international borders. That’s who I found at Tyrolia. I found my tribe.

And persist. Penny said that it is often the changemakers who take the lumps. And I don’t know about you, but I have definitely felt it. But our kids are worth it. Linda echoed this sentiment when she said that even if you just change one teacher, that is one group of kids who are benefitting. To add to the conversation, Bob suggested we focus on the 5%: the 5% of teachers who are ready and willing to make a change, or the 5% of our teaching that we are dedicated to improving. So ask: “What’s one thing we can change this year?”

For me, I am vowing to write more. Penny encouraged us to start the habit of writing for fifteen minutes a day. You know what I said to her? I’ve tried to keep notebooks and journals, but I always lose interest because I feel like what I’m writing doesn’t matter.

Dwell on that sentiment: My words don’t matter.

You know many of our students feel the same way. How can I show my kids that their words and voices matter when I don’t even feel that my own do?

But she told me that my words did matter. And then four days later, she retweeted this, and I can’t help but think it was for me:

PK notebook tweet

The truth is, words matter.  Everyone’s: mine, yours, our students’. The words we read shape our thoughts. So immerse yourself in the words of Kylene Beers, Penny Kittle, Bob Probst, and Linda Rief. Their words are life-changing.

Immerse your students in words of both the past and the present, so that they understand how we got to now, and how we can change the future. And the words we write matter. They help us reflect, learn, process, and discover.

I’m slowly wakening from the dream that was Tyrolia, but I hope that we all remain:

Determined to write.

Unafraid to rebel.

Revolutionaries for 21st century literacy.

On a mission to find our tribes.

The 5%.

As of today’s publication, Karry Dornak has continued to write, rebel, revolutionize, and seek out her fellow 5%. She is balancing life in Spring, TX, as an instructional specialist, teacher, wife, mom, and Pumpkin Spice Latte enthusiast. Follow Karry on Twitter @karrydornak

 

Atmosphere: 4 Big Ways to Nurture Readers And Writers

How do we get our students to become readers and writers; literate, engaged, empathetic contributors to our world?

flexible seating 3It’s simple. Ask yourself, “How do I prefer to read, write, create and learn?” I can guarantee that each and every one of us would have a different idea of what that looks like and would choose something different. We don’t all learn the same, so why do we expect our students to. The relationships we build and the space that we provide to our students each year is crucial to allowing them to become readers, writers and creators, and we have to cater to the different needs that allow them to become what we hope they can be. How do we create open spaces where students can, and want, to learn and grow?

The answer = Relationships!!!

Team building

This happens for at least the first FOUR days of school in my classroom. Yes, four. I don’t even say the word syllabus until day three. I want to start the year getting to know my students and how they function; who they are, what they love and what they hate. I spend these days doing team building activities and switching the teams up each day intentionally. It teaches them to work well with different personalities and it allows me to see who they can work best with. It’s also a nice perk to know who should avoid whom in those more difficult classes. This all plays into how I approach them to start those one on one conversations. These team building moments can carry on throughout the year, not just be left for the first week. I often break up high pressure times of year with a team building activity to help keep the momentum going and refresh their minds and our classroom atmosphere.

A big part of our relationship and team building happens when have a conversation about our classroom social contract. Every year, it never fails, each class initiates the signing of that contract with no prompting from me. It’s a beautiful thing to know that they WANT to act and sign the contract that THEY helped create. The more involvement and choice students have in what they do in our classrooms, the more investment they have in what they are working to create. Giving them the opportunity to have a say in what our classroom expectations are allows them to have that investment.

Team building is so important to me and my classroom environment because if we don’t feel like a team, if the students don’t feel welcome and safe, they will never hear one word of anything I need to teach them the rest of the year. A positive relationship is the best foundation for the rest of the year to be built upon.

Conferring

Flexible seating 2Yes, we confer to learn what books they like and guide them in their writing, but we also need to use it to build our relationship. Conferring during the first week (sometimes two) of school is simply “get to know you” conferring. I ask about reading and writing but I also want to know about the person behind the face and name that I will spend all year with. I write with them and they learn about me, then I confer with them about what they’ve written about their own lives.

Allowing our students to get to know us is just as important as us getting to know them. We need to let them see us in the struggle of writing; that’s why modeling what we ask them to do is so important. We need to let them know if we might be having a bad day and let them know it’s their turn to show the teacher some grace, like we show them each day. It’s a swaying tightrope that requires an immense amount of balance through a necessary obstacle if we want our students to become great readers and writers.

When students see their teacher taking the time to notice specifics about their personal life, not just the way they read or write, it creates a trust and willingness to be vulnerable and authentic in their writing. A simple, “I am so happy you shared!” or, “I am sorry to see that you felt this way and hope you never do again” can really allow them to feel like a wanted soul in your classroom, especially when you have 32+ students in one class period and they feel like just a number.

Affirmation and Validation

flexible seating 1These kids need to hear the words from us, spoken aloud, that tell them, “I care about you.” We can assume they know but hearing it out loud is necessary to their belief in that feeling. Sometimes a simple, “Hey! I care about you guys! Have a great rest of the day!” is something that will make a kids day turn around. Some of these precious souls that come through my door each day don’t see an adult figure, or one that is a positive role model, outside of this school. I need to be that for them. If I’m not, then who?

Validation is what they need to feel like they matter, that they are worthy, in order to move into a creative space and explore themselves as readers and writers. Yes, there are probably a million things we could critique about their writing, BUT we need to remember to build them up or they will never have the motivation to create at all. Validating and affirming that they are on the right track through conferring, notes, and blessings is a good way to do this. Starting with the positive and ending with encouragement. Giving them a positive end note can help them become motivated to dive back into a piece and create that authentic masterpiece. If we don’t work to make our students feel welcome, they will never hear what we want to teach them.

SPACE

Alternative seating  –  Five years ago I began my adventure of flexible seating. I have not had one moment of regret ever since. I am so glad I chose to push back against the fear of change, the “norm” in classrooms, and power through to what I have created now.

As you enter my room, you will see a space that ditches that harsh fluorescent lighting and replaces it with soft, warm lighting from lamps and stranded garden lights. You will notice that there are very few desks and many bean bags to sink into. There are two couches that will call to you and beg to be used. There are two bistro tables at standing height for those of us who need to stand in moments of writing to get our energy out. There are saucer chairs to hug you through those difficult pieces of reading and writing. My coffee tables are the perfect height for the “floor sitters,” like me, and accompanying floor pillows. There is also a beautiful, whimsical bench that my husband crafted (he also made the bistro tables with his talents – I might keep him around for a while). The atmosphere is welcoming and inviting, nurturing creativity.

When I first decided to bring in these seating alternatives, it was because I asked myself how I prefer to learn and WHY that space looks the way it does for me. The why is so, so important and gave me direction for which to take my classroom. Why do we need to create a comfortable space for students to create and learn in? The answer was simple. As an adult, I prefer to learn or read or write or create in a space filled with pillows or bean bags. One day I might want to sit on the couch, or, for days when I am really concentrating and creating (like while writing this blog) I prefer to sit on the floor with a coffee table as a desk, where I can spread out. So, as an adult, if I prefer this, I knew for sure my students would appreciate the option of getting to sit in the way they prefer, too. Feeling comfortable in a space provides us with the opportunity to open up all of our senses and focus on the creating of a piece or escaping into a novel. Giving them the opportunity to choose their space in my room is crucial to their development as readers and writers.

Flexible seating does not mean traditional desks are trashed and burned. Students use all the flexible seating, including the traditional desks. Some even move up to a traditional desk in moments of deep thinking or creating. Most of this seating you see in our classroom was free, donated or built. I only purchased the three saucer chairs and large futon from an online garage sale app. This is 5 years of accumulating different seating, so if you are inspired to start using flexible seating, know that it will take some time and always look for those deals! Even spending what you can spare on a simple cushion for the floor will be worth it.

I often get asked many questions when I talk about flexible seating. I think the biggest one is, “How do you get them to behave so well?!” Our flexible seating expectations are a topic we discuss while creating our classroom contract. It is important to voice your expectations at the beginning, just like any other classroom expectation. One of my expectations is that if students are debating on who gets to sit in a certain spot, they will decide calmly and compromise on who gets to sit in the seat that day, then switch the next day. Another important expectation that I make very clear is that it is their responsibility to maintain their focus while in the flexible seating. If they talk to their friends, sleep or just don’t complete the task at hand, they need to practice responsibility and make the decision to place themselves in a successful space. Some kids may need a reminder of this responsibility, but I rarely have to intervene when it comes to this. I think you will be pleasantly surprised at how much responsibility our students will take on when we give them the opportunity to have more responsibility through choice.

My students are free to choose how and where they sit, to learn and create in the way that fits them best. That choice gives them so much ownership of their own learning! And, isn’t that what we need to provide; more responsibility and ownership when it comes to their learning? Giving them a choice is how we provide them with that opportunity; in what they read, what they write and HOW they learn. When we establish the relationships with our students that allow them to feel comfortable in the vulnerability that is attached to what they share and write, when we give them the opportunity to take their learning into their own hands by giving them choice, they become literate, engaged, empathetic contributors to our world. They become readers and writers. Our students have stories to tell, and we need to guide them and give them the skills to tell them through the relationships and space we create for them.

Sarah Roy is currently singing songs from The Greatest Showman nonstop and wondering what took her so long to finally take her nose out of a book and watch those 105 minutes of greatness. She is enjoying spending time in her students work and seeing the potential that they have to create greatness in her class this year. Sarah is also seeking out her next read but enjoying reading all the informational books about salamanders with her eldest son, Crosby.

My Classroom Library Shelves went from Empty to Full . . . and Yours Can, Too!

My family took a big plunge five years ago, and made the decision to move from our placid, beautiful Central Oregon to Amman, Jordan. So much about Jordan was wonderful, but part of our decision to move away from our home, from Oregon, was about traveling the world. So after four years in Amman, we decided to move away from Jordan, to Managua, Nicaragua.

Between making the decision in January to move to Nicaragua and actually arriving this July, Nicaragua’s travel advisory from the US State Department went from level 2 to level 3 because of civil unrest, crime, and limited healthcare availability. Of course that travel advisory rating, combined with what we were reading in the news and hearing from people who lived in Managua gave us pause, and we carefully considered the choice we were making. Ultimately, we decided to move to Managua, and we are happy with our choice.

I share this background because I want to point out that while private schools often don’t share exactly the same issues and concerns found in public schools, private schools are not always utopian. Our school is wonderful, students are eager, teachers are welcoming and caring, and our facilities are beautiful. But with the current situation in Nicaragua, some families have chosen to leave the country, which ultimately means revenue from student fees is down, and the budget reflects that situation.

Everywhere I have ever taught has had budget concerns, public or private. I’m sure all teachers can relate to budget issues, which is why I bring it up.

Even in a time of budget concerns, my classroom library grew from empty shelves to full shelves in a matter of weeks, and it didn’t cost me an extra dime.

I walked into a nice, big, but empty classroom. The bookshelves were beautiful, but bare.

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Within a day or two of being in my new space, at my new job, in my new city of residence, I was having conversations with administrators and coworkers about how to build classroom libraries.

Our first step was to visit the book room. I think most schools have a book room, and in my experience they are full of books that are rarely in the hands of students for any length of time. We decided to gather a copy of each book for each of our five classrooms, and if a teacher needed one of those copies for teaching a whole-class-novel, we would give it to that teacher to use during that particular unit.

There were also books in the book room that were not being taught as whole-class-texts, and that weren’t available in high enough numbers to be used in that way. They might be titles that could be used in future book clubs, but we decided that getting these books in the hands of students sooner rather than later was the right choice, so they were distributed as well.

My classroom library was greatly improved by visiting the book room and reimagining the uses for all of the wonderful reads that could be found there.

I found some small white boards in the closet in my classroom and repurposed them as book displays so that I could highlight titles that might be especially interesting to my students. I think the same thing could be done using repurposed cardboard and printer paper, so I want to encourage others to use what’s available in order to highlight high-interest books. There are many other ways to focus attention on desirable titles, but sometimes simple is easiest.

After raiding the book room, it was time for step two. We checked in with the main library at our school. The shelves in our library were packed tight, full of great titles, and because shelves were so full, we had the ability to pull books out of the library and redistribute them to our classroom libraries.

Our librarian has spent the last several days pulling titles from the shelves and delivering them to our classrooms. Every other day or so, a basket of books arrives, and we never know what we are going to get. What we do know is that we will have more and more books as this process progresses. There will be additional books in our classroom libraries and more room on our school library shelves. Reallocation of resources is working in a very positive way in our school.

Once I received the books from the book room and the library, I implemented step three. I organized the books. I don’t think it matters how the books are organized, just that they are organized.

I categorized my books into the following sections, and used markers and printer paper to make my labels:

  • award winners
  • historical fiction
  • classics
  • mystery
  • fantasy and sci-fi
  • contemporary fiction
  • nonfiction
  • romance and other fun reads
  • “orphan” series books (books that are #2 or later in a series when the others aren’t there)
  • short stories and essays
  • poetry and verse

As you can see, I didn’t spend a dime on any books. I didn’t ask anyone else to spend any money, either. I used what was already in my school and simply helped to redistribute resources.

In some schools or districts, asking students to bring in books, applying for grants, and asking the parent-teacher groups to support classroom libraries will be great options. However, I wanted to share that sometimes, maybe often, classroom libraries can be built with what we already have.

What do you do to help build your classroom library? I’d love to see your ideas in the comments below.

Julie has been teaching secondary language arts for twenty years, spending the first fifteen in rural Central Oregon, and the last four in Amman, Jordan. She’s thrilled to report that she and her family have moved across the world to Managua, Nicaragua this year, where a new adventure has begun.

Follow her on twitter @SwinehartJulie

Quickwrite Mentor Texts for Writer’s Notebooks

img_6062I love going back to school for so many reasons, but one of the frontrunners is definitely that “second chance new year” feeling it provides. Teachers and students have the unique opportunity to have not just one fresh start at the beginning of a calendar year, but a second shot at goal-setting, changes, and achievements that the fall offers.

We all have our back-to-school rituals, and they are sacred: fresh notebooks, pens in all the colors of the rainbow (because we haven’t lost any yet), a well-organized classroom library that will be pilfered and picked through soon enough. One of the most important parts of establishing a workshop community is the routine that comes with setting up a writer’s notebook each fall: personalizing notebooks to make them our own, modeling a notebook’s possibilities, the establishment of quickwrite practices.

But now that the year has begun, and your notebooks are ready to go…what should you begin to fill them with? The writing in the beginning of my notebook always guides and inspires me as I continue to fill it, so I never want it to be uninspired, dull, or colorless. I crave fresh, exciting, dynamic things to fill up the first several pages of my notebook every time I start a new one, which is usually in the fall.

Here are my five favorite mentor texts that give me ideas and inspiration galore for those important start-of-the-year quickwrites–the first in a routine of creativity, agency, freedom, vulnerability, and engagement as a writer.

The Artist’s Way Workbook by Julia Cameron

This workbook is full of writing prompts for real writers: short exercises that encourage reflection, fluency, and the habit of writing vulnerably often.

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I love this workbook and its series of prompts, and use them often when I start my day with the #5amwritersclub each morning. They would be wonderful prompts for students to ease into vulnerable, personal writing in September.

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I’d Rather Be Reading by Anne Bogel

I first discovered Anne Bogel thanks to her “What Should I Read Next?” podcast, but she is also a writer and blogger, and just released a beautiful book yesterday. It’s a book about our reading lives, and provides a wonderful mentor text for writing about our reading without writing about a specific text.

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In addition to the lovely writing, I am obsessed with the illustrations: they would be wonderful to recreate in students’ notebooks with scraps of old magazines or dusty dictionaries.

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I visualize this mentor text as a wonderful one for helping students find a voice for writing about their reading lives during quarterly reflections, reading ladders, and self-assessments.

The Book of Qualities by J. Ruth Gendler

Writing about our own emotions is hard for all of us, but it’s especially hard for teens. I’ve found that writing about emotions in general, rather than our own, is a wonderful gateway for personal writing.

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In addition to being an amazing lesson in personification, this book provides gorgeous mentors for doodling, metaphors, and multigenre possibilities.

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Write the Poem

Poetry can be intimidating, but a little guidance goes a long way, and this book provides just that.

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The combination of a prompt and keywords to incorporate takes some of the guesswork out of choosing a structure, a rhyme scheme, a title, and the myriad other decisions that go into crafting poetry.

Am I There Yet? by Mari Andrew

Sometimes words are hard. They just are. Those days call for doodles, and this book is full of plenty of them–in addition to pages of plain old writing. I love this text because it tells stories beyond what we see on Mari’s Instagram and Twitter feeds, giving students a mentor text not just for writing but for the thinking and living behind it.

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Mari Andrew has long been a favorite of mine, but this book shows me how to play with writing and thinking in genres I wouldn’t have considered, and is super teen-friendly.

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I hope you’ll utilize one or more of these beautiful texts–many excerpts of which you can view on the Amazon preview pages linked above–with your students this fall. Their possibilities as entry points for writing topics and genres are powerful, and will lead to composition possibilities for the duration of your school year.

Happy writing! We’d love to know how you and your students utilize these ideas, or what others help you kick off your writer’s notebooks. Please share other quickwrite possibilities and ideas in the comments, on Twitter, or on Facebook!

Shana Karnes is a mom to two daughters, a daily reader and writer, and a forever educator. Her work with teachers in West Virginia is through the National Writing Project, West Virginia University, and the West Virginia Council of Teachers of English. Connect with Shana on Twitter at @litreader. 

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