Try it Tuesday:Workshop Thievery

Disclaimer: Theft is wrong. The end.

Steal is a strong word (pun very much intended). Borrow? Swipe? Thieve? Pinch?

That last one makes me feel like a 1930’s gangster, so we’ll go with that.

I’m here to confess that I’ve been pinching materials from this very blog, and I’m pathologically not remorseful.

Pilfering and plundering are practices most teachers subsist on, so it’s only natural that as the fearless English Department at Franklin High School begins its first official year of workshop instruction, we are lifting everything we can get our hands on.

And while the prospect of taking our fresh and shiny Understanding By Design curriculum templates and matching our standards based curriculum with the workshop delivery model is daunting (to say the least), it’s also afforded me an opportunity to look at countless new practices and bring added excitement to this new routine through new ways of helping students read and write everyday.

Faithful readers of the Three Teachers Talk blog.
I stand before you (or sit during my prep), a grateful swindler.

Today’s Try it Tuesday matches (snatches) Amy’s Blessings Cards (or an even more detailed and awesome Blessing Card Mini -Lesson here) with Shana’s Write-Around, and the reflections my students produced were fantastic.

  1. To support my belief that students preparing for in depth analysis, college/career readiness, the AP Language test, and life should know what’s going on in the world img_5673around them, part of my AP summer work is for students to sign-up for a news story as it breaks or develops over the summer.Students are to read several editorials about the topic and draw their own conclusions as to the impact this story has on a given community (either local, national, or international).As one of their first assignments of the year, they take their research on the topic and present a one minute speech to the class. The scores are formative, but they tell me a lot about students’ abilities in using text evidence to support a claim and the basic professional communication skills they do (or do not) possess.
  2. As a positive form of peer assessment during our very first public speaking opportunity, I used Amy’s idea of blessings cards. Each table grabbed a card for each presenter (I split speeches up over several days) and put his or her name on the card.When the speaker was finished and I was hurriedly writing formative feedback on the rubric, students talked at their tables and bullet pointed blessings on the speaker’s img_5672card. We had reviewed the rubric before speeches began, so students could provide positive feedback directly related to their assessment criteria. When all the speakers were finished for the day, we showered our presenters with blessings.Lots of smiles.
  3.  Once all of our speeches were complete, I shared several pictures from Shana’s post about write-arounds. We took a look at how writing/reflection can be guided by objects that give permanence to our experiences.
    I had students glue their blessings cards to a page in their response section of their writer’s notebook and then reflect on the experience. They could write about what they felt went well, goals for their future public speaking adventures, and/or anything that came to mind in relation to the experience.As I peeked over shoulders, I knew my stolen ideas were paying off for this reflection with such statements as:

    “Mrs. Dennis says that some people fear public speaking more than death. I know what she means. But this class seemed to think I had my act together though, so that’s cool.”

    “I’m never going to like this. I know it. I am never going to like public speaking. But I can get better at it.

    “I almost passed out up there. For real. But I had a notecard and it kept me basically organized. Next time, I’ll try breathing while I’m speaking. Maybe that will help too.” 

Classroom community and comfort within that community are not givens. Both must be built with intentionality. Workshop demands that we take time and honor the process around building readers, writers, and in this case, speakers to, because many of our students are not initially comfortable with the roles we are asking them to take on.

By examining the process with a growth mindset,  we put value upon the feedback that comes from not only the teacher, but peers and self reflection as well.  This feedback serves to support and motivate students as they move forward and start to become the community that will serve to encourage, challenge, and motivate better reading and writing throughout the year.

Steal these ideas. Please.

How do you encourage community building for your readers and writers? We would be blessed to have you share some ideas in the comments below.




Mini-Lesson Monday: Low-Stakes Community Building With Post-It Blessings

I am always searching for low-risk ways to build community in my classroom during the first weeks of school.  In order to build norms of sharing our writing, responding to one another’s writing, and writing a whole lot in general, I like to combine some low-stakes activities like imitation writing and positive feedback protocols so students become confident members of a community of real writers.

Objectives — Create your own version of Langston Hughes’ “I, Too, Sing America,” Critique your peers’ poems positively.


Lesson — I recently read Nancy P. Gallavan’s article “I, Too, Am an American: Preservice Teachers Reflect Upon National Identity” with my students.  The article includes a sample of students’ imitation poems of Hughes’ classic poem, which they wrote in the weeks after 9/11.  The poems sought to make students aware of the stereotypes each one faced, and to defy those stereotypes.

I asked students to read the article before coming to class, to write their own version of the poem, and to bring a copy to class because we’d be sharing it.

(It’s important to disclose to students before they write that a poem will be shared in order to build the norm of openness with their peers.)

With a pile of post-its waiting on each desk, I asked students to take out their poems.

“We’re going to share our writing today, and we’re going to practice giving each other positive, specific feedback.  To begin, pass your poem to the left, and then grab a post-it note.

img_4840“The feedback we’re going to give today is part of the Bless, Press, Address protocol by the NWP. Blessing the writing means to give specific feedback on what you like about the poem. Pressing the writer means pushing him or her to strengthen their piece in some way. Addressing an issue the writer asks you for help on means giving responsive feedback in order to help the writer achieve his or her goals. Today we’re just going to bless one another, since it’s the first time we’re sharing our writing.”

(I think it’s important to begin with positive feedback because it removes the stigma of “peer editing,” which is often vague or negative if not structured properly.)

“So, take a post-it and write a response to a line, or give a compliment about word choice, or discuss something you agree with.  When you finish, pass your poem on to give your neighbor a subtle nudge to keep things moving.”

The room hums with rustling paper and murmured conversation, and I have the students pass the poem five times.

Follow-Up — After giving feedback, students receive their original poems back and read their peers’ comments.  I ask them how it felt to receive this type of feedback, how this activity helps build community, and what other assignments they could use this feedback protocol with.  Their responses to the last question were so creative–DBQs, lab reports, narratives, essays, published works of literature, math activities, thesis statements, and more.

After our discussion, I ask the students to put their poems and post-its into their notebooks to remain a permanent artifact of their peer feedback.

How will you use the Bless, Press, Address protocol with your students? Please share in the comments?

9 Books to Hook Your Holdouts

This fall is my first out of a high school classroom, and I miss this season of watching teens fall in love with books. I relished the task of matching every kid with the right book, armed with the energy that a crisp autumn morning and a pumpkin spice latte afforded me. By this time in September, I’d usually managed to hook most of my readers, but I had also identified my holdouts–those few skeptics who just didn’t think there was a book for them, who I couldn’t entice with a booktalk, or bribe with a “just try it,” or persuade through a conference.

So, I always turn at this time to the power of social capital, harnessing tools like speed dating with books, book passes, or writings in Red Thread Notebooks, to get my students recommending books to one another.  If I couldn’t hook my holdouts, well, their friends were my last hope.

So, to recommend some titles to hook your holdouts, I decided to ask my former students for their recommendations: what’s the last book you read that really hooked you?  Their responses, via Snapchat, are as follows:


Anna recommended Men Explain Things To Me by Rebecca Solnit, a collection of essays that are both scathingly funny and weightily serious about communication between men and women. It’s a great pick for your holdout who doesn’t want something long–he or she can devour one of these essays in no time.


Connor recommends the National Book Award winner Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates.  This beautiful text, a commentary on race in modern America written in the form of a letter from father to son, “was intriguing because it touched on social justice issues in a way that I could relate to even though I had never had to deal with those issues,” according to Connor. It’s a fantastic, fast read whose subject matter will really draw you in.


Gabi’s recommendation is Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, a story of twisted justice told by a young, new lawyer. Stevenson’s idealism wars with the machinations of politics and injustice and biases, and is written in a voice that has made many compare the narrator to Atticus Finch. If that doesn’t make your holdouts fall in love, I don’t know what will!


Jocelyn recommends Leslye Walton’s award-winning The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender, a prose book of fiction that reads more like beautiful poetry. Ava is born with wings, and writes in a voice direct and melancholy–she reminded me of Madeleine from Everything, Everything. And, as Jocelyn notes, the cover is gorgeous, which is sure to help hook your holdouts.


Claire recommends Donna Tartt’s layered novel of accidentally-murderous friends, The Secret History.  Tartt, the Pultizer-winning author of The Goldfinch, introduces us to a group of college students who, through their readings and conversations, begin to fancy themselves above the law–both legal and moral. As Claire says, it’s a brow-wrinkler that’d be great to recommend to a reader you just can’t challenge enough–and its writing is amazing.


Olivia recommends John Green’s Paper Towns, of course!  Recently adapted into a film, it’s the story of a misfit boy who loves a supercool girl from afar, and then is inexorably sucked into her world of adventure in the tale that ensues. John Green is a YA favorite for a reason, and you’re sure to hook some holdouts with the knowledge that the book was big-screen worthy.


Caleb recommends Ashlee Vance’s exceedingly well-written biography, Elon Musk: Inventing the Future. Musk, described as a “real-life Tony Stark,” founded PayPal, Tesla, SpaceX, and other billion-dollar companies throughout a life filled with both struggle and success. While telling Musk’s tale, Vance compares his work to inventors from Thomas Edison to Steve Jobs, and entices the reader to wonder whether anyone can compete with geniuses such as Musk in a technology industry as competitive as today’s.


Garrett recommends Hank Haney’s The Big Miss, an inside look at Tiger Woods’ golf game through the eyes of his coach. While Tiger was always a gifted athlete, his mental game made him constantly fear a “big miss”–a wild shot that could ruin an entire round. Haney gives insight into Tiger as an athlete as well as a man, who ultimately committed a big miss in his personal life that derailed his golf game far more than he ever saw coming. This is a great pick for any athlete who’s holding out on reading.


Allison recommends C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce, a book I equate to a modern version of Dante’s Inferno. The story begins with the narrator boarding a bus, which takes him on a long journey of discovery about himself, great truths, and the nature of good and evil via a trip through Heaven and Hell. Described by many as their “favorite book by C.S. Lewis” (a real feat, since The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is so colossal in our culture), this allegory will be sure to hook any holdout into some irresistibly deep thinking.

Now that I’ve had my proud-teacher moment of so many of my former students continuing to be lifelong readers (and look at all their actual BOOKS lying around!!!), and significantly expanded my own TBR list, I hope you’ll ask your students to recommend some engrossing titles to help hook your holdouts.

What books are your students recommending to one another? Please share in the comments!

Try it Tuesday: About that Digital Citizenship

I only had to ask three students to put their phones away on Monday. This is progress.

I know some teachers “outlaw” phones in class. I do not. We use them too often. Besides I have never been in a meeting or in a conference session or anything of the like and been asked to give up my phone. Of course, I know a thing or two about etiquette. Many of our students do not.

Instead of being the phone police, I would rather take the time to teach my students to use their devices appropriately in class — and, of course, with any luck, if the learning sticks, I’d like them to take that “appropriateness” beyond my classroom as well.

If we are not taking the time to teach our students phone etiquette and digital citizenship, we are missing out on important opportunities that may make a startling difference in their lives.

For example, did you see this headline:  “Girl gets kicked out of college for Snapchat photo”? The link lead to a hard sell for why every teacher should take the time to teach students the importance of digital citizenship.

I’ll be sharing it with my students today.


What are some ways you teach phone etiquette and digital citizenship in your classroom? Please share in the comments.


Mini-Lesson Monday: College Applications and the Six Word Memoir

College applications are a daunting endeavor for many of my students each year. Their mailboxes and email inboxes fill with opportunities to apply everywhere from the local community college, to pricey Ivy League schools across the country, to study abroad programs in countries they may never have heard of.

As if that wasn’t enough to sort through, lurking in these countless pages and pamphlets is another overwhelming prospect – The college application essay. Also known as the “tell us who you are as a human, what your soul’s greatest desires might be, and every intimate struggle you’ve had that define you as a young adult” essay. No wonder my announcement that our first paper in AP Language will be the college application essay is usually met with huge sighs of relief. However, that relief is also somewhat short lived as we start to take a look at prompts:

  • Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act?
  • Please tell us why you think you would be a good fit for __________.
  • Consider something in your life you think goes unnoticed and write about why it’s important to you.

As I tell my AP classes, “Colleges want to know the real you. The honest, gritty, learned from your mistakes, can bring something unique to their campus you. Your transcripts say keep-calm-and-apply-to-college-27-resized-600a lot about your work ethic, experiences, values, and achievements, but once you put pen to paper, you are a writer, and your story might just help them see the real you and decide that you are far too good to pass up.”

Their horrified looks usually tell me I should follow up with an explanation along these lines:

Don’t worry. We are going to do this together. Sharing your story might not be easy, but take it from this girl, everyone has a story to tell. I was your stereotypical upper-middle-class white girl with loving parents and a blissfully happy childhood. I pretty much seized up when my senior composition teacher said that we needed to write something deeply emotional and challenging in our college application essays. He had me convinced my happy life was going to keep me from going to college. Without a car wreck, lost dog, or deeply wounded heart, what compelling story did I have to tell?

Well, it turns out that one can write from the heart no matter the circumstances, and that’s what I want you to use for your own applications. An experience, belief, value, or direction for your life, can all be deeply emotional and revealing of the type of person any college would want to accept. I spoke about my desire to be a teacher in my application. Teaching is in my blood, and I had known I wanted to be a teacher since I was little. My dad used to bring home an extra gradebook for me and I’d line up my babies and stuffed animals and teach class. See…? I have the beginnings of a narrative right there. I expanded on what it would mean to me to become a teacher and how I knew the patience and passion I already possessed would not only make me a good teacher someday, they would make me a great addition to any campus because true teachers know the value of lifelong learning.

So…how to help students concisely sum up who they are?

Examples, examples, examples.

Let’s try six words. Total.

Objective: Using the language of the Depth of Knowledge levels, students will create six word memoirs as written artifacts in their writer’s notebooks to either spark ideas for drafting their college application essays, or serve as possible opening sentences for those essays.

Lesson: The timing of this lesson is after several class periods of having students explore who they are and what they value through quick writes and other activities. On one occasion, I have students write a quick write on the story they would tell to demonstrate positive elements of their character. We share stories about helping those in need, commitment in the face of certain defeat, and encounters with temptation, and then bullet point some of the “college friendly” attributes these stories suggest.

During another class period, I had students read, analyze, and then emulate Amy’s recent suggestion of the poem “Possibilities.” This was the first year I used this poem during this unit, and I could not be more happy with the results. Students did some beautiful work in analyzing Szymborska’s structure in order to write a poem with their own preferences. I made sure to discuss with students the variety of topics that Szymborska uses in the poem from straightforward preferences of activities and food to those that reveal character and life experiences. I challenged students to do the same with some wonderful results.

Finally, for this specific lesson, I reminded students of my suggestion to keep their college application essays brief, as most applications would demand that they be so with limited word counts.

“So today, I want you to be really brief. Six words brief. We’re going to try to capture some of who you are and what you believe in exactly six words.”

I begin by sharing with them a few six word memoirs of my own and talking them through sixwordthe back stories. We then head to Smith Magazine’s Six Word Memoir page so students can look around. They are to write down a few favorites and also write what they think the larger message of those snapshot memoirs might be. We discuss at our tables and then share out a few to discuss what their favorites might reveal about the authors that crafted them.

Throughout the lesson, I remind students that just as we saw in “Possibilities,” brief snippets can reveal an awful lot about who we are. This is our goal in the college application essays as a whole, and this is our goal in the exercise.

Students spend some time drafting, sharing, and then praising the work of their peers. I suggest to students that these memoirs might be great hooks for their essays, they might spark an anecdote they could include along the way, or they might simply keep students focused on their own beliefs and values in order to use those to guide what they write about themselves.

Follow-Up:  Students are working hard on their college application essays and will be doing some peer editing early this week with submission to follow later in the week. To extend the work even further, I’ll be sharing a unique extension activity with my classes.

On September 22nd, 2016, the team at Six Word Memoirs will be participating in the 3rd annual Character Day, which is a global discussion about the importance of developing true character in the world’s citizens. I’ll be encouraging my students to participate with some of the six word memoirs they’ve already created and perhaps with contributions they craft especially to speak to developing, according to the Six Word Memoir site, “curiosity, empathy, and grit.”

How do you challenge your students to write about themselves in meaningful ways? Please share your ideas in the comment section below! 

Ugly Cry Round Two – #FridayReads

Hi. My name is Lisa, and I’m a book hugger. “Hi, Lisa…” 

I feel like I can tell you this. Like you’ll understand and still let me sit near, if not at, the cool kids’ table. See, last week I was a dork. This week I’m a book hugger. Is that super dork? Literate dork? Biliophilic dork?

Either way, I’ll own it. That’s totally fine. In fact, if I know myself at all, as I hugged my copy of Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale this morning,  my eyes were probably a bit wild too, breath bated, satisfied smile projecting my hope that pens would fly across the pages of our “I want Read” lists. Basically, when I book talk, I feel like the author is standing next to me. “Get them interested, Lisa.  Get them thinking. Sell it. Put my book in their hands, and hearts, and minds.”

So obviously…no pressure.

One of my AP Language students, Zach, smiled as I stood hugging my book today.img_5539 “Mrs.Dennis,” he said with a coy smile, “you’re super emotional.”

Who? Me?

Well…ok. Maybe. I do love a good cry. The “cathartic, wring you out, snot on the back of your hand, tell everyone to read the book” cries are my favorite (Please see my unraveling at the hands of A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness). But I know that you know; you’ve been there. Whether the tears actually fall or not (and they should, trust me, it feels great), a book that captures you can feel like a conversation with a good friend, an exploration of pure emotion, and a learning experience that leaves you a better person. Talk about a worthwhile human endeavor.

So, I quickly reflected and responded to Zach’s observation. “True, true. Hallmark commercials make me cry, but with books, that shows a pretty deep connection, doesn’t it? When the characters in a book are so real that you feel their struggle. When their stories remind you of your own, even if their life experiences are completely different from yours. That’s what I want for you. That’s why I’m up here hugging this book. Human connection.”

With further reflection, it’s how I have chosen each of the books I’ve book talked so far this year. No, they haven’t all made me cry, or I know for a fact that I’d be missing a significant portion of my audience; however, they have all been books that have touched me in different ways, to different degrees, and in different parts of my life.

So far this year, I’ve book talked:

Mudbound by Hilary Jordan – This text started my summer reading and while it’s justly won acclaim for it’s themes surrounding racial tension in the south, betrayal, and the secrets that can bury a family, I spoke to my classes about the rich voice Jordan is able to give a wide variety of characters. With a new narrator each chapter, you see this story from all angles and each is more personable and heartbreaking than the next.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood – I finished this book right before summer break and I book talked it then too. It has quickly become one of my favorites as a cautionary tale and an all too real examination of how gradually, but how drastically people can become complacent to the loss of personal freedom. I took students down a “let’s imagine” path by asking them which events in their daily lives they inadvertently take for granted, but would certainly miss if they were denied the privilege. What if it was the right to have your own money that was denied? Or the right to travel? Or learn?

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah – The characters became family to me. I realized that the terrible trials of World War II were occurring when my grandmothers were the same age as the main characters. Just because the pictures of the time period are in black and white, doesn’t mean the stories to come out of that time period are any less real. Or relatable. Or powerful (I hug what I love. I loved this book. It may be my current favorite piece of fiction). My three copies of this book disappeared today. I was tickled.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie – This is the first book I read this school year. I took it down in three days and could not stop laughing. I told my students that my connection to this book surprised me, and I think that’s part of the endearing quality of protagonist Junior’s voice. He hooked me with fart jokes. Certainly not my usual forte, but Junior’s search for hope is so real. And as I said to students, we all search for hope in different capacities. Junior searches off the reservation. I search the room during reading time. Just as Shana suggested, reading outside your comfort zone can offer some big rewards.

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness – We’ve been well over this one. Ugly. Cry.
Though an additional sell, at the moment, is the forthcoming movie based on the book. My students want to take a field trip, but I’ve only committed to investigating the release date, if they get on reading the book. All six of my copies are currently gone from the library shelves. Win.

So, as I wrote last week when I was working to get to know my students, I feel it’s important to share who you are as a person, as much as you share who you are as a teacher, and illustrating you are a reader and writer is a part of that
img_5537-1opportunity/responsibility. With that in mind, showing you are a passionate reader is even more impactful. I feel like my students are getting to know the real me (dork and all). It’s the very best way to start building honest relationships. The kind that build trust, and thereby, community.

I’ve carefully chosen some of my favorite texts to book talk, followed my colleague Catherine’s lead in making my reading life visible, and jumped into this year with the goal of spreading my enthusiasm about books to another set of students through an honest look at what moves me, in a sincere effort to move them.  So far, so good. I just need some extra Kleenex boxes in room.

Reading Your Students’ Reading Lists by Amy Estersohn

guest post iconThe words “reading assessment” sound about as charming as “dental prophylaxis,” especially if you’re committed to free-choice independent reading and feel under pressure to prove to yourself that the kids really are growing.

A list of finished books is one of the best reading assessments there are.  Here are four questions I always ask when I review a list:

  • Is the student reading books that were published recently?   If students are reading fresh and contemporary titles that are hot off the bookshelves, that’s a sign that this student is already in the “in crowd.”  He isn’t waiting for the librarian to do a book talk to go ahead and finish The Fifth Wave series.  He probably visits bookstores and libraries on his own, has a sense of the kinds of books he enjoys, and has a stable of authors he trusts to create compelling stories.  
  • Is this student reading across a variety of complexity levels, and does the time it takes to finish the book scale to the complexity of the title?   My seventh grade students’ reading lives often mirror the myriad feelings and experiences they have over the course of the year.  In my case, I have students who might pick up a elementary-level comic book/ text hybrid like Charlie Joe Jackson’s Guide to Not Reading and follow it with  the adult book Unbroken.  It might take her one week to finish Charlie Joe and six weeks to finish Unbroken.   If she were only reading books that took her six weeks to finish, I’d wonder about her ability to self-select appropriate titles.  However, given that she has found “popcorn” books like Charlie Joe, I’m more confident that she understands herself as a reader to know what reading is like when it is easy and what it is like when it’s slower going.
  • Is this student listing a lot of series books?  If the student is clustering series books on a list in groups of 5 or more, I start to wonder about the authenticity of the list as well as the self-confidence of the reader.  Is this reader in love with Lisa McMann’s action-adventure series, or did he just write down “Unwanteds 1, Unwanteds 2, Unwanteds 3, Unwanteds 4” because he saw others reading the books? (Not to mention that the books in the Unwanteds series all have different titles.)   Students claim to stick very closely to series books are students I want to get to know early on.
  • Is this student listing books that are also movies or books that have a large online presence?  If her list prominently features Hunger Games, Divergent, and Maze Runner series, I also wonder if she has enjoyed these books for their own sakes or if she put the books on the list because she is relying on the movies to assist with comprehension.  Even without the movies or Spark Notes for assistance, a quick google search will get you the summaries and main ideas of many contemporary bestselling titles, enough so that a student could have a passable reading conference if she relied on this information instead of on the text.  You want to be aware of what’s out there when you see what books your readers are holding.

2008readinglistOkay, so how do you collect all this information on what books readers are reading?

Some of the teachers I work with rely on the Penny Kittle clipboard method, where a clipboard circulates around the room during independent reading time and students self-enter the book and page number they are on.    Others take the Nancy Atwell approach and record the book title and page number as part of the conference routine.

I did both and neither: last year I had students self-manage this information in their reading notebooks by giving them class time to do a reading log every day.   I did occasional graded notebook checks to keep students on target.   I also surreptitiously chose about 3-4 students per class to watch carefully over a period of 2 weeks or so to see if my notes and their notes lined up.

One of my goals for this coming school year is give my students more opportunities to find their books completed data as helpful as I do.

Amy Estersohn is a middle school English teacher in Westchester County, NY.   She also reviews comic books for   Follow her on twitter at @HMX_MSE


%d bloggers like this: