Not the Same Old AP Writing Teacher

ocsWriting takes time. I imagine most English teachers know this. However, I am not sure most English teachers allow students enough time to produce their best work.

I speak from experience. You might be able to relate.

Traditionally, I would give students a writing assignment. We’d pre-write a day, sometimes two. We’d draft a day, sometimes two. We’d revise (or I’d hope they’d revise) maybe a day–or none at all, depending on the student. We’d publish our work and turn it in for a grade.

Oh, how incredibly dull . . .and ineffective. No wonder so many students hated writing.

This year we do writing differently. We are writing a lot more like real writers.

We start with reading. We read an engaging and complex mentor text. The author becomes our writing coach for as long as we are working on the assignment. The piece my students are writing now is a feature article modeled after the work of John Branch in Snowfall:Avalanche at Tunnel Creek, which recently won a Pulitzer Prize. We read the first four pages or so together, stopping to talk about the many devices Branch uses to craft the introduction to this piece. We discussed the rhetorical appeals and how Branch uses them to build credibility and create emotion. Students were mesmerized by the narrative. It’s a lovely day in my teaching life when every sentence in a text has something worthy of taking note–I had to stop myself in Snowfall. Too much talk, and we lose the rhythm of the article.

After we read, my students and I looked at the embedded photos with the captions and watch a couple of the videos. We discussed why the author included these in the piece where and how he did. I then told students that they would be creating their own article, and John Branch just became their writing coach.

Students chose topics after a lot of class discussion and responses to my probing questions in their writing notebooks.

  • If you didn’t have to go to school, or work, or any other responsibility, what would you do with your time?
  • If you could have dinner with three famous people, past or present, who would you invite to dine?
  • If you could travel in time, what era would you want to return to?
  • Where to you see yourself in five years?
  • What do you want your life to be like in 10 years?
  • What is something you have always wondered about?

Students chose some interesting topics:  One young woman is writing about building schools in Mexico, another is writing about neurobiology, and another is writing about hiking across Europe. A young man is writing about what life was like during Jesus’ time, another is writing about game design, and another is writing about becoming a pastry chef.

Initially, I had students jot their topics on a sticky note, so I could see if what they had chosen was “doable.” (We all know those students who choose topics that are so broad, and perhaps the students’  skills are so immature, that there is no way they will ever be able to write anything interesting.) I wrote some quick feedback, pretty much either “Run with it,” or “Wait! narrow this down,” and most students were ready to write.

Then I had this idea that I’d been playing with in some consulting I’ve conducted with North Star of TX madewithOver-2Writing Project. It’s a working structure to get students thinking. And if I teach it right, students will learn four different modes of writing in one go:  definition, narrative, examples, and argument.

I wrote my own working piece, and my students and I read it together. Then I asked them for suggestions on where I could improve and where I could add research. You can see my working document here: Authenticity.

Students then began crafting their own four paragraphs. This ended up being the final summative assessment for fall semester due to the deaths in my family and my many absences. Turned out to be a pretty good resting place.

When we return to class next week, these are our next steps:

First, we will return to Snowfall and read and discuss the piece in more detail. You know, to get us back in the reading and writing groove after our two weeks break.

Then, we will project a few student work samples on the board and talk through them the same way that students did with mine, offering suggestions on improvement and where research may work to advance the meaning. Every student who wants whole class help will have the chance to ask for it. Others might choose to just get help from their small writing groups. Either is fine, as long as all students share their work and get feedback.

Eventually, we will work on revising our structure, moving around paragraphs, and making our writing follow Branch’s award-winning article. Of course, I will pull sentences to study and conduct other mini-lessons all throughout our writing process. And I will confer with students regularly. We will add photos and videos (hopefully originals), and we will polish and polish and polish before we publish.

For the first time ever, I am in no hurry. I will not allow our time to be regulated by grading periods– well, until the very last one at the end of the year.

We will write.

We will revise.

We will confer and share and grow as writers.

And eventually, we will publish.

And celebrate.

I’d love to know how or what you have changed as a writing teacher. Please share.

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8 thoughts on “Not the Same Old AP Writing Teacher

  1. […] A follow up to a comment on the post Not the Same ‘Ole AP Writing Teacher […]


  2. amyrasmussen January 31, 2014 at 8:28 pm Reply

    Thanks for the inquiry. In short, we are a work in process. I’ll have to write a follow up post to give an update on our progress. In the meantime, I’ll send you an email.


  3. Sharon Townsend January 31, 2014 at 12:20 pm Reply

    Hi Amy,
    I am an English teacher in Plano, Tx. I love your blog, and my team is very interested in following the Snow Avalanche assignment. We, too, are following Penny Kittle, and it has been an awesome year thus far. I have a couple of questions if you would be so kind to answer.

    1. Do you have any completed student assignment that you would be willing to share?

    2. What vehicle/medium did you use for to students to publish their work?

    3. What were your specific requirements for the assignment?

    4. Any other information that you could share with us would be greatly appreciated.
    Thank you so much.
    I will be looking forward to hearing back from you.

    Sharon Townsend


  4. Fred Haas - @akh003 January 5, 2014 at 10:18 am Reply


    Awesome idea. I just gave my journalism students that Branch piece to read in a jigsaw way as a way to end the semester, but I like the idea of using it more the way you outline here. I think I will in a different class, as the opener to a longer research task. I think it can offer a backdoor way into the work that I had not considered.

    So, many thanks for sharing. Also, condolences on the losses and missed school time. I have no doubt they make everything a lot more challenging. Stay strong.



    • amyrasmussen January 5, 2014 at 4:19 pm Reply

      Thank you for the kind words, Fred. Oh, and I love it when I find a backdoor way into working with my kids! Best wishes.


  5. teachjournalism January 4, 2014 at 9:08 am Reply

    Thank you for sharing your work. One thing I’d most like to do is improve how I teach writing. It’s just so intuitive for me that I find it hard to teach to students who don’t find it easy. I have made a plan for the coming weeks to try smaller, less intimidating pieces and sort of workshop them within groups of 5. I’m going to try a yearbook editing trick I read about called clocking, simply because papers move through the group in a clockwise manner. Each person in the group is in charge of one thing: sentences, paragraph structure, words, content, that sort of thing. Each paper will pass through each “person/station” for specialized feedback. Then they will revise.
    Until this, revision based on my feedback to improve their grade has resulted in absolutely no revisions. I have to change the mindset. I see about 25 percent of my class putting off starting a writing assignment, and I’m realizing now that it’s because they lack the confidence to do it correctly. By the time they turn it in late, they’ve lost the opportunity for me to check in with them while the entire class was working on it, while I could give them feedback during the process. Those students are the ones who need the most help.


    • amyrasmussen January 5, 2014 at 4:18 pm Reply

      Thank you for sharing this clocking idea. It is a good one, and I believe it will work with my students, too. I think many are overwhelmed when it comes to revision, and this will give them a specific thing to look at. One thing I learned from Penny Kittle is the importance of taking a moment to read over and revise everything we write–even quick writes. I started doing this, and it has made a huge difference. I always write with my students, then turn on the projector and revise in front of them. I cannot claim that all students do it with me, but many more are beginning to see the importance of at least reading over what they write before they claim they are done writing.


      • teachjournalism January 5, 2014 at 7:23 pm Reply

        Amyrasmussen, thank you for commenting. While see your kind words on my phone app, I do not see them on my computer screen. I hope I didn’t inadvertently delete your message. Giving credit where credit is due, the idea came from Judi Coolidge who published it in Balfour’s yearbook magazine, fall 2012 edition. Hope it works for you. Heck, I hope it works for me.


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