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An Idea: Author Bios and Some Focus, Wit, & Polish

I stole this idea from Lisa. She said it was okay that I write about it first. Bless her.

I finally feel like I’m getting a little of my writing mojo back. If you’ve been following my posts lately, you know I’ve had a hard time. I loved my student teacher, but I missed my students and how they inspire me to want to write and share.

It hasn’t been easy taking back my classroom. I am much more intense than Mr. G, and this translates to mean for some of my students. It’s true I grade hard, expect a lot, teach bell to bell. It’s not that he didn’t — maybe it’s just that I’m 50+, and he’s close to half my age. Whatever the reason, reinvigorating relationships hasn’t been easy.

Kind of casually one day, Lisa suggested she wanted to write author bios with her students next year. She said she’d read a few she wanted to use as mentor texts, thinking this little writing task would be a way to help her students develop their identities as writers. What a fantastic idea!

So last week for our writer’s notebook time, we wrote author bios, short, little, quippy, quirky writing that states who we are and why we write. (We still need work on the why we write part.)

booksforauthorbiosI prepared first by reading the inside back covers of some of my hardback YA literature. I chose four bios with similar elements:  Andrew Smith, Winger; Julie Murphy, Dumplin‘; Heather Demetrios, I’ll Meet You There; and Jason Reynolds, All American Boys. {Bonus: four book talks, along with the author intros. Boom.]

I explained the task:  We’re going to read four short author bios and then write our own. Listen to each one carefully, so we can pull out the similarities within each one.

We charted the elements of the bios on the board and then drafted our own.

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We spent five minutes on the writing, two minutes on revision, and six minutes sharing with our peers. We laughed. We wondered if the authors wrote their own book cover bios. We discussed our writing process.

“It would have been easier writing about someone else,” one student said.

“I need more time to think of how to say things,” said another.

“This would be fun to do at the beginning of the year,”

“I don’t do anything!”

“I’ve never won anything!”

“I cannot write that I am interesting when I am not interesting.”

“Can we write about what we want to do in the future instead?”

Oh, yeah, we stirred the pot, and ideas bubbled out. Throughout their questioning, my response remained:  Be creative.

One of the best books I’ve read on writing is How to Write Short: Word Craft for Fast Times by Roy Peter Clark. I marked it up with lesson ideas:  “the whole chapter would make a great lead in rhetorical analysis” and “on annotating: read before starting 1st book club” and “use b/f narrative –teaches analysis with song lyrics” and “parallel structure & compound sentences!”

This paragraph from the introduction is a great reminder for all types of writing — and writing instruction:

How to Write Short

Focus, wit, and polish. My students and I talked about our identities as writers. We talked about the time it takes to develop our voice, our craft, our meaning.

As they read their author bios to one another, the cough of community clamored just a bit, and in a few minutes the whole classroom caught it.

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MariaCSkyauthorbioMicaelaauthorbioTreyauthorbioI reminded students as they write over the next few days — finishing their multi-genre projects, their last major grade — to write with intention, to write in a way that shows the answer to the last question I’ll write on the board this year:  How have you grown as a reader and a writer?

In the fall, I will do this exercise again. We will write our author bios at the beginning of the year, on day one, maybe. We will spent a good deal more time on them, and we’ll return to them again and again as we practice the moves all writers make to produce effective, convincing, creative writing. We will publish our writing with our bios. Hopefully, this will help us keep our sights on Focus, Wit, and Polish in all aspects of our writing.

How might you use this author bio writing activity? What tasks do your writers do that help them take on the identities of writers? Please leave your ideas in the comments.

Amy Rasmussen lives in north Texas and teaches AP English Language and English 3 at Lewisville High School. She loves talking books, daughters’ weddings (two this year), and grandbabies. Facilitating PD for other teachers making the move into a workshop pedagogy delights her. 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.

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6 Takeaways from Student Self-Assessments

51W731EdIWL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_After completing self-assessments in Tom Romano‘s classes in college, and finding them invaluable, I’ve always made them a large part of my teaching arsenal.  At the end of every year, we spend a few days on SAs, or they’re part of the final exam, or they’re what we share as a last-day-of-class celebration.

This semester, my students wrote three self-assessments, with the last one counting as the final exam.  In this particular SA, I asked students to do five things:

  • Evaluate our course materials and routines
  • Discuss your growth as a teacher, thinker, writer, reader
  • Write your teaching credo
  • Give me some advice about what to keep/change next year
  • Make a list of strategies, frames of mind, and ideas you’ll use in teaching

As finals week drew to a close and I was crushed by grading, I looked forward to reading these self-assessments.  Students didn’t hold back on the advice or evaluation portions, used their signature writing voices with abandon as they discussed their growth and beliefs, and made me fill my notebook with pages of ideas and strategies as I read their lists.

In addition to just being fun to read, I also learned a great deal from their honest words.  While I took a whole book full of ideas away from these amazing and inspiring future teachers, I’ll spare you and just share six lessons I learned from reading their self-assessments for this semester.

What we read matters.

Without exception, every student extolled the virtues of our central text, Paul Gorski’s Reaching and Teaching Students in Poverty: Strategies for Erasing the Opportunity Gap.  I highly recommend this excellent text as reading for any teacher, especially Gorski’s vehement statement that all students, no matter their background, need appropriate challenges when learning.

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Lily cements my belief that a strong central text really helped anchor our course.

By studying a text I was so passionate about, my students could feel my enthusiasm, and I believe it was contagious.  A strong central text anchored our lively class discussions and students’ weekly one-pagers.

Trust your pedagogical instincts.

Our students are champions when it comes to complaining–their stamina is literally unending.  “But I don’t want to write this.”  “ANOTHER paper?!”  “MORE writing?”  “Why are we doing this again?”

All of these gripes can really wear a teacher down.  But, teachers usually know what is best for our students–we know that a high volume of writing will help our students become better writers.  We know that writing about our reading will help our students become better readers.  We know that constant practice with critical thinking will help our students become more literate and conscientious citizens (and teachers, in my case).

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Aaron grudgingly admits that despite the onslaught of papers and projects, he grew in his thinking and learning.

So, despite the eye-rolls or sighs, I kept at it with what my gut was telling me.  I knew that, no matter how much of all of our time it took, students needed to do a lot of reading, writing, and talking about their thinking, with a lot of feedback from their peers and from me, all while remaining appropriately challenged and engaged in learning.  I kept at it and resisted the frequent temptation to revise my syllabus, and students appreciated it–and grew.

Frequent, low-stakes writing often provides the most space for growth.

While the big assignments of the semester may be what most teachers consider the bread and butter of teaching writing, I believe the opposite.  Those long essays or projects, in my experience, are more likely to stress out all parties involved.  For me, the short stuff is where the growth happens, and exponential growth is what leads to student success in writing long and complex pieces.

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Anetta extols the value of informal weekly writings.

My students wrote six major papers this semester–none of which were shorter than six pages, and some that were up to twenty–but where they really displayed the biggest leaps in learning were in their one-pagers, submitted weekly.  Every single student except for one told me that I should keep one-pagers and that, despite how much they sucked/were annoying/ruined their Sunday nights, they were the most valuable part of the class for their growth.

All students crave challenge.

As Gorski reinforced for my students this semester, all learners crave a challenge.  Nobody wants to be bored, and by engaging students in complex tasks of reading and writing, nobody in my classes will be.  With small- and large-scale assignments scattered throughout the course, frequent opportunities for revision, and detailed feedback, all students felt that they could succeed, and had ample opportunities to practice and prove that they could.

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Ryan vows to replicate the challenge of high expectations in his own classroom.

Feedback is invaluable.

It is a lot of work.  A LOT.  I know.  But every student valued, appreciated, and grew because of thorough feedback protocols on any formal paper.

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Erin was appreciative of the attention her writing received.

Students did a lot of writing I never graded–in notebooks, in drafts, in groups.  But what they turned in, I spent a great deal of time commenting on, and while it was definitely arduous, I know I’ll keep it a condition of my classes in the future…fueled by lots of coffee.

Creating conditions for safe student growth is paramount.

Kevin became something of a celebrity in our class with his frequent questions, hilarious asides, and opinionated comments.  He never held back, and because he was welcomed into dialogue with open arms by myself and other students, he really flourished as a learner for one of the first times in his academic career.

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Kevin, with his signature writing voice, reminds me that a safe learning environment is the most important thing we can give students.

By creating a community of trust and engagement and low-stakes learning, Kevin felt safe to take risks and grow.  It’s what I want all students to be able to achieve, and is one of the most powerful reminders about teaching and learning I can think of.

What have your students taught you about your teaching?  Will you utilize self-assessments this year?  Please share in the comments!

Shana Karnes lives in West Virginia and 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.

Have you asked students what they need? It is not too late

I am great at taking notes. I am lousy at looking back at them (a lot like my students).

But my student teacher is done with his semester, and am back reading and writing with my students each day. We’ve done a little AP exam crunch — our exam is today — and we are all ready for that test to be over. I’ve got 14.5 days before the summer bell rings, and my students leave me. Fifteen days to solidify my students’ identities as readers and writers, not just students reading and writing for an English class.

It’s been a hard row with this group. This group, especially my brightest students who let grades motivate their every move. There’s a disconnect the size of the Mississippi when it comes to showing evidence of learning and whining about grades.

Maybe I notice it more because I haven’t been with them every class period for the past six weeks. But something’s got to give.

So I opened up my notebooks and read notes from the class Penny Kittle taught at the University of New Hampshire Literacy Institute in 2014. Don Murray leaped from the page:

“If you understand your own process, you stop fighting against it.”

“We have to respect the student, not for his product, but for the search for truth in which he is engaged.”

“If you don’t leave a conference wanting to write more, there’s a problem with the feedback.”

“We work with language in action. We share with our students the continual excitement of choosing one word instead of another, in choosing a true word.”

“Mule-like stubbornness is essential for every writer.”

“One teacher in one year can change a child’s view on reading.”

All reminders of what I love about teaching writers and what I hope for all my students. And I’ve got 14.5 days before the summer bell rings, and my students leave me.

Recently, I read a great post by Tricia Ebaria titled “One Important Thing I Can Learn from Students.” This part resonates:

Rather than join the chorus of end-of-the-year countdowns, instead of giving in to fatigue (or cynicism), what if we reframed our thinking and asked ourselves: What’s the one important thing I can still do with my students? After all, it’s never too late to do work that is meaningful and important to our students and to the world.

Or how about this question: What’s the one important thing I can still learn about my students? studentswriting

So today I asked two questions to help me focus on students’ needs, and to help students focus on our need to keep learning:

1. Have your grown as a reader and a writer this year? And we talked about if the answer is no then we’ve both failed.

2. What’s one thing you still want, or need, to learn regarding reading and writing before your senior year and beyond? And students wrote their responses at their tables.

Some responses gave me pause. Others made me crazy. Many gave me hope that we still have time so every student can answer question one with a resounding YES.

student want 5

“Because we’ve really done nothing in class this year” is my first thought, right? But I have to wonder: Why does this students still feel this way?

student want 6

student want 8

student want 3

I’m celebrating the word PLAY.

student want 1

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student want 4

Hmmm. 

We have to be willing to be vulnerable. We have to be willing to ask our students what they need from us as their teachers. If we don’t, we may miss the point of teaching them all together.

I learned valuable things about my students and how they feel about their growth. This lesson is enlightening and humbling. And frightening.

I am almost out of time.

So we started in our writer’s notebooks. Updating our currently reading lists and talking about the books we’ve read, we’ve started, abandoned, and we’ve finished. We updated our challenge cards and checked our progress.

I book talked Goodbye Days by Jeff Zentner, my new favorite (I wrote about it here), and American Street by Ibi Zoboi, and let students know I had a fourth copy of The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. All books I’d read when Joseph was teaching and was dying to share with kids. Students eagerly reached for them, even tussling over Zentner’s book. (TBH I shudder just a bit when I think about not getting these new books back with it being so close to the end of the year.)

Next, I showed them an idea for their end-of-year writing — a pretty monumental task for teens already dreaming of days out of the classroom. But I think I sold them on how it can answer my question #2.

Multi-genre. Thank you, Tom Romano, and Shana for showing me how a marvelous multi-genre project can light a fire within my writers and let them showcase their interest, their talents, and the learning they’ve acquired this year.

We looked at samples. We talked about topics and research and genres. We talked about how the topics we choose can potentially help us learn the things we still need and want to learn.

We got excited about writing. I think some even got excited about learning.

So with 14.5 days left in the school year, we committed to a pretty intensive end-of-year plan.

I have a mule-like stubbornness when it comes to teaching readers and writers. Certainly some of that will wear off on my students, and maybe someday they’ll look back on their notes and their writing from their junior year in high school and recognize they’ve learned and grown in their “search for truth” as a writer.

How are you utilizing your end-of-year time? Please share in the comments.

Amy Rasmussen lives in north Texas and teaches AP English Language and English 3 at Lewisville High School. She loves talking books, daughters’ weddings (two this year), and grandbabies. Facilitating PD for other teachers making the move into a workshop pedagogy delights her. 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.

 

Two Take-Aways from Mentoring my Student Teacher

Next week I get my students back. For 12 weeks I’ve had Joseph as a student teacher, and I’ve come to really miss my kids. It’s an exciting time.

I am hoping I get my writing mojo back, too. I’ve struggled with topics to write about since I haven’t been working with my students day to day. One of my favorite parts about being a reflective practitioner is my itching need to think about, write, and share my experiences in the classroom. Thanks for reading this writing.

This is the fourth student teacher I’ve mentored. It is the first time I’ve given up control. Maybe it’s because I’ve learned how. Maybe it’s because Joseph is just that awesome at stepping into the role of teacher. It’s probably Joseph. I have learned a lot from Joseph over the past several weeks, and I’ve learned a lot about my teaching practice as I have become the observer.

In every aspect of my practice, I have become more purposeful. When I return to my classroom next week, I will be sharper, more intentional in my planning and instruction, and how I interact with my students day to day.

Here’s two top take aways — and why I think every teacher, especially teachers who practice a workshop pedagogy — should offer to mentor a preservice teacher eager to enter our discipline and our profession:

Perception changes everything. My first conversation with Joseph was in the fall. He spent several weeks during the semester observing my classes two days a week. After his first visit he said something like this:  “That was unlike any English class I’ve ever been in. I was always bored in English. I didn’t know a class could look like this.”

Don’t most new teachers step into their roles and teach the way they were taught?

I did. I assigned writing with prompts and due dates instead of teaching writing with mentors and modeling. I pulled out the textbook, assigned a lead weight book to every student, used the suggested lesson ideas and the questions for guided discussion and the activities in each chapter. I chose every novel for the whole class, torturing children with booklets of questions to “aid their understanding” or dialectical journals to “write their thinking” for the complex texts I chose. The students I taught year one certainly still dream about Dickens, and quizzes about characters and setting and plot. I was a nightmare.

Joseph conferring

Conferring with readers during independent reading time.

New teachers have to believe there is a better way. I know some university education programs prepare students for choice and workshop. (Shana was blessed at the University of Miami with the likes of Tom Romano for a professor.) But many programs do not come close to preparing students for the realities of teaching, much less the research-based practices of readers-writers workshop.

Experienced workshop teachers can change that one student teacher at a time.

Research-based Practices in Reading and Writing Instruction. Even more than usual, I’ve turned to research to back up and refine my thinking. I’ve studied Lou LaBrant thanks to Dr. Paul Thomas and his blog. I’ve read more blogs by thoughtful educators like Tricia Ebaria and books by teacher leaders who inspire great ideas — favorite faithfuls like Penny Kittle’s Book Love and Write Beside Them, and I have re-read conference notes and remembered the why and the how of this pedagogy called readers-writers workshop.

I’ve been able to support my thinking with research, and I’ve learned through my reading the importance of validating that research. Research is important to the choices I make in my classroom.

My confidence grows as I read the work of people who are smarter than me and usually more experienced. I nod along, making notes in the margins, get giddy when I think “I do that.” And as my confidence grows, I am more apt to take risks. When I take risks, my students are more likely to take risks. Risks are exciting in a writing class where we celebrate the process over the product. We go on the journey of discovery together.

Sharing this research with Joseph is like a backpack of confidence. Depending on where he lands as a teacher, and the input and control of administration, he may need it to back up his workshop approach to teaching readers and writers. Knowing Joseph will begin his career with evidence-based practices may take away some of the other frightening struggles of first year teaching. I hope so.

I look forward to seeing Joseph step into a classroom of his own. His students will be lucky ones.

What advice can you give Joseph as he steps into his career in English education? Please share in the comments.

Amy Rasmussen lives in north Texas and teaches AP English Language and English 3 to the Fighting Farmers at Lewisville High School. She also facilitates professional development for other teachers making the move into a workshop pedagogy. She adheres to the words of Emerson: “We aim above the mark to hit the mark,” and Jesus Christ: “Love one another.” Imagine a world if we all love more than we think we can. Follow Amy on Twitter @amyrass.

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