Category Archives: Affiliate links

Micro-writing for the Win

Sometimes it takes a lot of patience. That was my first thought when I read Sarah’s post last month The Hits Will Come. She shares how baseball and writing have a lot in common–both require a lot of practice. And sometimes the “hits” come quickly for student writers. Sometimes they don’t. Sometimes we have to help students want to even try to write a hit.

My thoughts turned to a student I taught last year. I’ll call him Dan. The very first day of class as I made the rounds, trying to speak to each students individually for just a moment, Dan said to me, “Miss, I know you just said we were gonna write a lot in this class, but I gotta tell you, I can’t write. I mean, really, not even a decent sentence.”

theofficeofficequotes.com

Of course, I appreciated the honesty, and that Dan thought enough about how I started the class to tell me straight up how he felt, but inside I was thinking, “Dude, you are a senior about to graduate high school in a couple of months, what do you mean you can’t write a sentence?” Of course, I didn’t say that. Instead I asked him why he thought he couldn’t write. His answer still makes me angry.

“My teacher last year told me,” he said. “I failed every essay. I just couldn’t seem to write what she wanted me to write.”

So many thoughts.

Over the course of the first several days of class, I made sure to find the time to talk with Dan. I learned that he had plans to go into the military as soon as he graduated. I learned that the only book he’d read all the way through in his 11 years of school was American Sniper by Chris Kyle.

And during the next few weeks, I learned that Dan could write–when he chose what he wanted to write about, and when his peers and I gave him feedback that made him feel like he was a writer. This took a lot of time and patience.

First, Dan had to want to write. He had to know that I wasn’t going to judge whatever he put on the page. He had to trust that I was sincere in 1) wanting to know what he thought, 2) helping him string sentences together so they said what he wanted them to say.

Reading helped. Since Dan liked Chris Kyle’s book, I helped him find other books written by those who had served in the Armed Forces. Lone Survivor by Marcus Luttrell and No Easy Day by Mark Owen were ones my own soldier son had read. Then, I found the list “Best Modern Military Accounts” on Goodreads.com and the article The 13 Best Books the Military Wants Its Leaders to Read. Dan didn’t read any of these books (not for my lack of trying to get him to choose a book), but during independent reading time, he did read about them–and this was enough to give me talking points to help him understand why growing in his confidence as a writer might be in his best interest– and topics for him to write about that semester.

Relationships helped. Since Dan had been so forthright with me about his experience with writing, I asked if he’d share his thoughts about writing with the peers who shared his table. He was all too eager! I’m pretty sure he thought his peers would share his writing woes. But like a miracle from heaven, Dan happened to have chosen to sit with two confident and capable writers. These students did not know one another before my class, but they grew to trust each other as we followed the daily routines of self-selected independent reading, talking about our reading, writing about our reading (or something else personal or thematically related to the lesson), and sharing our writing with our table groups.

Prior to independent notebook writing time, sometimes I’d say, “Today as you share your writing in your groups, let’s listen for just one phrase or sentence that you think holds a punch. Talk about why you like what they wrote.” This instruction gave students a heads up. Oh, I need to be sure to write at least one pretty good sentence.

One pretty good sentence was a good starting place for Dan. This micro writing gave Dan his first “hits.” And once he started to gain some confidence, he started to write more. Once Dan started to write more, he started asking for help to make his writing better. I think that is what it means to be a writer–wanting to improve your writing.

I think sometimes we get rushed. We expect more than some students are able to give. When I first started teaching, I assigned writing instead of teaching writers. Thank God I learned a better way. I would have missed out on a lot of joy in my teaching career.

I don’t know that Dan will ever have to write in his career in the military. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that he can write, and he knows he can. Even if it’s just a pretty good sentence and another and another.

Amy Rasmussen lives in a small but about to burst small town in North Texas with her husband of 35 years, her poison dart frogs Napoleon and Lafayette, her Shelties Des and Mac, and her extensive and time-consuming rare tropical plant collection. She believes educators should Do Nothing all summer. (Affiliate link, so you buy, 3TT gets a little something.) You can find Amy on Twitter @amyrass, although she rarely tweets anymore, or on IG @amyleigh_arts1, where she posts about grandkids and grand plants.

The Culture Code and Writing Conferences: Part 1

I’m a sponge

“I love taking in so much new information that it just oozes out of me at the slightest provocation.” A friend recently described herself this way and, gross imagery aside, I get it. The feeling of having just read or heard or watched something new and being so INTO the idea that you can’t help but bring everything in every conversation back to that idea. We call this sponging. We’re very original.

She sponges…a lot. I sponge…less.

So when I do sponge, I stop and take notice. Last week I finished Daniel Coyle’s The Culture Code*,  which outlines ways to build effective, productive cultures by examining everything from the San Antonio Spurs to Zappos to a call center in India while sprinkling in a healthy amount of research to support his claims. I soaked it all up, finishing the book in a day – and then began oozing ideas about culture and long-term flourishing all over everyone and everything.

See, the book rests upon the idea that humans are constantly (consciously and unconsciously) asking themselves questions as they interact with others:  

  1. Are we connected? 
  2. Do we share a future? 
  3. Am I safe? 

If we can find ways to answer these questions for members in our groups, we can create robust cultures. Confronted with the powerful notion that our brains are trying to answer these three questions all the time even when we’re unaware, I couldn’t help but think of the implicit ways our writing conferences answer these questions and then began to think of ways to make the implicit explicit. So, over my next few blog posts, I’d like to discuss those three questions and how they relate to writing conferences, looking at strategies and routines we could implement to get more from this common practice.

Unpacking the Questions

Question 1: Are we connected? 

Coyle quotes MIT Professor Alex Pentland: “Modern society is an incredibly recent phenomenon. For hundreds of thousands of years, we needed ways to develop cohesion because we depended so much on each other. We used signals long before we used language, and our brains are incredibly attuned to certain types of behaviors.” In short, our brains are constantly and UNCONSCIOUSLY looking for clues that we are connecting to other individuals. It’s why we pay so much attention to facial expressions, why we maintain eye contact, why we turn our bodies to face the people we’re interested in. We’re looking to see that the energy we’re bringing to any given conversation is being matched, that we’re being treated as unique individuals. These often non-verbal cues speak loudly and help answer the second question humans are constantly (and again unconsciously) asking of each other. Part 2 of this series will look at the physical set up of writing conferences and routines I’ve built to answer the “are we connected” strategy. One such routine is my system of weekly feedbacks. You can read about them here

Question 2: Do we share a future?

The non-verbal cues from question one signal that the relationship will continue into the foreseeable future, letting us know that we are connected to others and, thus, are safe. In our social engagements, we have some choice about the kinds of relationships we engage in and the level to which we feel safe. For example, this question makes me think of a volleyball team I play on. With the end of the season nearing and none of us quite sure we want to continue to play together next season, that “do we share a future” question looms large. This uncertainty leads to awkwardness and doubt amongst the teammates, which, unsurprisingly, translates to the way we play on the court. We need a better culture. However, in the classroom, we can’t choose which kids sit in front of us day in and day out. So we might amend that question to “do we share a mutually respectful and productive future?” This safety question becomes even more important because those interactions are created non-voluntarily. Essentially, in our classrooms, our students might consistently be asking themselves (consciously or unconsciously), about the state of their relationship to us, checking in to see where we stand with each other. Answering that question often can put the brain at rest, prepping it to learn and grow more efficiently. Part 3 of this series will look at how we can answer this question through feedback routines and quick check ins with students AFTER the writing conference is over. 

Question 3: Am I safe? 

Maslow had it right – humans just want to know that they’re safe in any given situation. Granted, we’ve developed past the “is that a tiger in the bush” phase in our evolutionary cycle, so we’re less worried about getting actually eaten and more worried about getting metaphorically eaten. The combination of the physical cues (Q1)  that tell a student they belong and that we share a future together (Q2)  work to assure a student that she is safe in our room- safe to learn, to take risks, to grow.  Coyle writes, “They [the cues] seek to notify our ever-vigilant brains that they can stop worrying about dangers and shift into connection mode, a condition called psychological safety.” Part 4 of this series will look at how the one on one attention provided  by conferences allows students to calm the worrying part of their brain and focus more comfortably on the task at hand. I’ll also talk here about how I use writing conferences to navigate the move to a gradeless classroom inspired by Sarah Zerwin. You can read about fellow contributor Sarah Krajewski’s work in the gradeless classroom here

Where do we go from here?

As we begin to answer these questions for students we can work towards communicating our actual message: I care about you as a person and a student. I want you to learn and grow. From here, we can begin to say to students as Coyle writes: “You are part of this group. This group is special; we have high standards here. I believe you can reach those standards.”

*Affiliate link: If you purchase through this link, 3TT gets a little something.

Sarah Morris teaches AP English Language & Composition, AP Seminar  in Murfreesboro, Tn. She is currently rewatching The Good Place. She can’t help it. There’s something about this line from Chidi in Season 2 that gets her every time: “I argue that we choose to be good because of our bonds with other people and our innate desire to treat them with dignity. Simply put, we are not in this alone.” She tweets at @marahsorris_cms. 

A Huge Bright Moment in a Pretty Bleak Year

GUEST POST by Rebecca Riggs

Last year around this same time in “the before,” my students were participating in a book tasting to choose their book club books for the fourth quarter of school.

As I walked around the library (no seating chart needed) and looked at my students smile, scowl, and everything in between, students passed around books on their tables. I built up my library of books so I had multiple copies of popular, widely representative books mostly from the ProjectLIT list, and I was very excited to see what students would pick.

I spent the first days of my break leafing through my students’ ranked choices, and I was pleasantly surprised that they almost all fell perfectly into groups where I was able to give them their first choice.

It was my team’s first time trying out book clubs; I was thrilled to try something new and to see what it would teach me! Unfortunately, we all know how that ended–my students never got to do those book clubs, and I did not get to see them again.

Here we are a year later with my current students (including some of those students from last year since I moved up a grade) engaging in overwhelmingly successful book clubs in a hybrid teaching model in a pandemic!

If you told me at the beginning of this dumpster fire of a school year that I would have been able to try out any new instructional model, let alone book clubs, I would have told you to cut out the toxic positivity and leave me to my despair.

I will not lie, the logistics and setting things up was a lot of work and overwhelming at times, but I am so glad we took the time to do this. My students are having meaningful conversations about their books, some are reading a whole book for the first time in years, and almost all engaging more than they have this year because of these clubs.

I am so grateful for this huge bright moment in a pretty bleak year.

As far as logistics go–

I first gathered class numbers from each of my colleagues who do not have their own sets of book club books, and I made sure we could make it work with what I and my one other colleague, Deanna Hinnant, had.

Since last year, we have taken advantage of First Book Marketplace’s low prices, promo codes and book bank prices to gather books for clubs.  Once that was settled, and I gave those teachers their books, we had to figure out how to facilitate a book tasting that was both safe and accessible to students online.

My amazing librarian, Tasha James, made us book tastings for students to choose books for their independent reading at the beginning of the year, and I just modified one she had already created. My colleagues who did not feel as tech-savvy reached out to Mrs. James, asking her if she could create their book tastings for them.

Here is the one I created. I gave the students about half of a class to look at the book tasting and to complete this form to rank their choices.

From there, it was pretty easy to get kids into groups and to assign kids who chose not to respond. I intentionally had the groups be a mix of online and on-campus students, but some of my colleagues chose homogeneous groups. I also chose to go through each book and break it into 5 sections that aligned with chapters (if there were any), and I gave them this document in hopes that the groups would mostly stay on the same page. (I know there are date discrepancies between some of the documents. We can thank the Texas Winter Storm for that one!) My colleagues chose to let their students break it into 5 sections themselves and decide as a group where they would reach in their book for each discussion, which seemed to work just as well.

After we had our list of groups, we stayed after school two different days in two different weeks in order to hand out books to online students. We began advertising this well before students even chose their books through parent emails, telling the students at the beginning of every class, and sending Remind101 messages. As expected, there were lots of students who did not pick up their books. We tried our best to meet with these students one-on-one to set up alternate times, to leave the books in the front office for them to get or to explain to them how they can get the book online from our school/county library. At the end, 90% of the students got a hold of their book in one way or another, and the ones who did not were not participating in class at all regardless.

For our assessment, we created a TQE document that you can view here.

We practiced using this method during our reading of The Crucible one time before it was used for book clubs to make sure students understood the method, but also to make tweaks because it was our first time as teachers using the method, too. The “Topic of the Week” aligned with our mini-lessons each week and were merely a suggestion of what to think about as they read. You can find more about the TQE method from the Cult of Pedagogy Podcast episode 103 or from their blog post. This is where we got the idea and modified the method for our purposes.

Overall, I found this method to be an amazing, fairly-easy way to get kids to make their thinking visible and to prepare them for their book club discussions. However, I did have to “fail forward” when I realized during the second book club discussion that I had not made it clear that the “Thoughts” and “Questions” (and maybe epiphanies) portions were to be filled out before their discussion while they read in preparation for the discussion.

The standards we were focusing on for the reading, TQE’s and discussions can be found here.

When I tell you that these book club discussions I listened into made my heart leap in my chest, I am not being hyperbolic in the slightest. These kids, man. They just amaze me.

Students were demonstrating mastery of so many standards, but also just saying such thoughtful things while connecting with each other. It’s everything I have wanted for this year.

It was not a perfect start, and some kids came to their first discussion with only five pages read, but I saw so many kids start to read when they heard how excited their peers were about their reading.

I had a couple groups of students who I actually had to redirect because they would try to talk about their books when we were working on other tasks in class, or I was giving a lesson. Honestly, I do not even mind that they were being disruptive!

I had one student who is designated as SPED who was reading Monday’s Not Coming* by Tiffany D. Jackson who was having a hard time getting into the book and getting motivated. After her groupmate encouraged her and raved about the book, this student read 100 pages in one day. She shared that this will be the first book she’s read in its entirety in years. Many students have been positively affected, but that one student becoming a reader would have been enough to make it all worth it. Fortunately, this is one of many stories of students finding books they love and finally seeing themselves as readers.

I will not lie and tell you that the organization and logistics were not hard and time consuming and frustrating at times. We had students we couldn’t get in contact with. We had different people, including me, out at different points during that unit for weeks at a time and others on our team had to pick up the slack.

We also had an unprecedented winter storm in Texas that took a week of instruction and rocked many of our staff and colleagues’ lives.

Some students never got their books and some students are still just on page 50 after five weeks of reading. In addition, we had students dropping other classes three weeks before the end of the quarter grading period and being added to our classes in the middle of book clubs.

It was not perfect, but it is one of the most impactful things I have done in my classroom since I started doing independent reading with my students, and I cannot believe we were able to pull it off during hybrid teaching with everything else we have added to our plates this year.

As my dad would say, “You can do hard things,” and this hard thing was well worth the effort.

*Affiliate link: If you purchase through this link, 3TT gets a little something.

Rebecca Riggs is currently in her 4th year teaching (feels like 10th) at Klein Cain High School in Houston, TX. She loves recommending books! You can find her on Twitter @rebeccalriggs and on Instagram @riggsreaders 

Today’s a Good Day to Write a Poem–or anything really

Perhaps you’ve noticed. Posts here have been scant for quite a long time. Maybe the reasons are too complicated to explain, or maybe they only make sense in my head. I could probably figure out how to explain the gap year, but if you’re like most of my students you’d think there’s too much print on the page and skim or skip this post before it really says anything.

I’d rather just say “Hi! I hope you are well, sane, surviving–maybe even enjoying this crazy life we are living. I’m glad you are here, and I’m working on stiffening my spine and sharpening my skills for the 3TT Come Back Tour.”

Since today launches National Poetry Month, it only makes sense to think and write about poetry. A quick search reminded me I wrote something similar close to two years ago today– Can Poetry be Wrong? And Other Inspiration for #National Poetry Month. I still believe in what I wrote there. Maybe I believe it even more. I’m still stunned by the first comment: “Yes. In fact, most poems are wrong, the 99.99% of poems that do not survive the test of time.” What the what?!

Since I wrote that post in March of 2019, my life has changed in dramatic ways–some positive, some not-quite-so, and some tragic (these still leave me reeling.) And when I read poetry, even snippets of it on my IG feed, my moods and emotions get a boost, a validation of sorts. I am grateful for the wonder of it all: Someone somewhere said in a poem something I wanted/needed/hoped to say.

Today, I’m wondering how you will celebrate National Poetry Month — by yourself and with your students. There’s some great ideas at the previous link. Here’s a three more if you are still looking–

Join #verselove21. It’s a celebration–and a challenge–to read and write poetry, hosted by Dr. Donovan at the Ethical ELA blog. I’ve joined in several of her Open Writes and always find new ways to expand my craft–and ideas to use with student writers. Writing a poem a day for 30 days is hard for me, but I like to try. It’s also hard to share, but I do it anyway.

Check out some poets on Instagram. Raquel Franco and Amy Kay are two new favorites, and both have posted a list of prompts for the month.

Order the keepsake book of Amanda Gorman‘s poem “The Hill We Climb, an Inaugural Poem for the Country.” (I’m reading it slowly and playing with tiny illustrations on the pages.) Note: If you order through the link, 3TT will get a tiny something.

Use the photos on your phone for inspiration. For example, look at the last five photos and choose one for inspiration. Or, scroll through and notice colors; then choose an image with a color that speaks to you today. Or find an image of an object and write a poem that personifies it. There’s so much inspiration in our phones!

And if you just don’t have it in you to write poetry this month, (I get it. I really do.) I hope you will at least find some time to enjoy it. Whether you take a shallow dip or a deep dive, I hope you’ll find joy. And maybe you’ll find these words by another of the IG poets I follow worth noting–

how to understand the poem:

do not be afraid to feel it. (alison.malee)

Please share in the comments your best tips for leveraging National Poetry Month or leveraging poetry in any month.

Amy Rasmussen is a lover of words, color, and living things, like plants and grandkids. She lives in North Texas and escapes for long periods of time on the country roads near her home. She writes (mostly in her notebook) to see and feel and think in new ways, and when it comes to publishing anything publicly, her phobia of heights doesn’t seem half bad. Amy has a book about authentic literacy practices she’s co-written with Billy Eastman due for publication this fall. She’s both excited and terrified. Follow her @amyrass –maybe she’ll get a little more active on social media.

Not Averse to Verse: Using Novels in Verse to Engage English Learners #ILA2019

This is a guest post by Dr. Helen Becker, and I owe her a big apology. I had agreed to run this post before her presentation at ILA. I have a million excuses:  None will do. So I publicly I say, “I’m sorry for not following through,” and if you are reading 3TT today, know this:  Helen is one of the smartest educators I know.   ~Amy

To understand the instructional power of novels in verse in the high school English classroom, you must first know a bit about my former school. Clear Creek High School, a comprehensive high school in Clear Creek ISD in southeast Houston, serves 2500 students in grades 9-12. According to Texas Academic Performance Reports (TAPR) published by the Texas Education Agency (TEA), in the last five years, the campus has experienced a steady rise in the number of English Language students. Many of these students have come from Latin American countries.

What you must also know is that our district advocates student choice reading in a reader/writer workshop setting. Furthermore, to provide students greater choice in reading material, the district invested nearly a million dollars to flood classroom libraries with high-interest books. Self-selected independent reading has become a constant in the changing school landscape at Clear Creek High School.

Fast-forward to my fifth period Reading class two years ago: a group of thirteen boys and one girl who, despite the best of intentions and instruction, had still not passed both End of Course (STAAR) exams in English. Enrollment in a Reading course, coupled with co-enrollment in grade level English class, was meant to close the gaps in their reading and writing lives. This is where the workshop model and classroom libraries intersected with my fourteen EL students. When the District ELA coordinator brought a stack of newly released novels in verse to my fifth period Reading classroom, the students devoured the books. Thanks, Billy Eastman.

And so began my quest to know more about the power of using novels in verse in the EL classroom. I knew I had found a topic that I needed to know more about – for not only my use in my classroom but use in the classrooms of others as well. While researching the topic further, I encountered a noticeable lack of research-based information about using novels in verse with EL students.

In fact, the only direct source of data I located was from Farish (2013) who writes based on her first-hand work as a librarian at a school with a large population of EL students. Farish writes in School Library Journal that the poetic form of novels in verse mimics folksongs and tales that are part of many foreign cultures. As a result, EL students feel comfortable with the novel in verse genre because of this similarity.  Farish (2013) adds, “Many who work with English-language learners and others who struggle with reading seek novels that promote fluency and a sense of competence in readers.” Verse novels accomplish just that. They can move fast and offer readers at any level a feeling of completion.

I broadened my research scope to consider the transferrable skills all students, not just ELs, could practice with novels in verse as an instructional medium. The arrangement of words and a sheer abundance of white space on the page makes these books, well, friendly and approachable. EL students have fewer words to decode. Furthermore, Young Adult novels in verse often involve a protagonist with the same issues the EL students themselves are encountering. In short, novels in verse promote student agency (Garud, Hardy, & Maguire, 2007; Oakeshott & Fuller, 1989; Tran & Vu, 2017), and self-efficacy (Bandura, 1977).

But my experience with novels in verse really concerns one Fifth period Reading student in particular: Emerson. Emerson moved to our community from Guatemala five years ago and had difficulty finding books in English to read in my class. He experimented with books at a lower Lexile (I, for one, feel that Lexile level hinder rather than encourage literacy. This Literature Review from ALA provides data to support my stance on Lexile levels), but he was quick to abandon them, shrugging and saying, “They are boring, miss.” When I put Booked by Kwame Alexander in his hands, I totally mean it when I say that I didn’t see Emerson’s nose for a long time…it was in his book the entire time. In fact, I’m pretty sure Emerson read the book several times over. When I asked him about the book and why he liked it so much, Emerson said, “It speak to me.”

I cried those tears you cry when a student finally connects with a book.

As a result of my experience with ELs, I authored and co-presented a workshop at TCTELA on using novels in verse to engage English Learners in the high school classroom. In the session, fellow teacher and now Instructional Coach Megan Thompson and I delved into ways to leverage this popular genre to encourage reading comprehension and improve writing craft. I reworked the presentation for the International Literacy Association (ILA) conference this month in New Orleans, and Megan and I and invited our fellow teacher and TCTELA High School Section chair, Charles Moore, to join the presentation team. Both Megan and Charles brought their expertise as literacy leaders to the presentation.

Helen Charles Megan at ILA2019

If you were not able to attend the presentation but want more information on novels in verse in the EL classroom, reach out to me at hbecker@ccisd.net. I’d love to share my learning with you.

P.S. I gave my copy of Booked to Emerson as his graduation present.

For research citation see here.

Helen Becker has taught all levels of English Language Arts as well as AP Capstone Seminar in her seventeen years teaching secondary English. Today, Dr. Becker teaches Senior English at Clear Brook High School in Clear Creek ISD. Any day now, a suitable replacement for her will be found, so she can transition to her new job in the CCISD Office of Assessment and Evaluation. Until then, every day is a workshop day. Which means every day is a good day in Room 406.

Becoming a Writer — Guest Post by Austin Darrow

On a late summer night, as the new school year looms on the horizon, my wife and I re-watch Heath Ledger’s comedic masterpiece A Knight’s Tale for the umpteenth time. As Ledger’s character William makes the decision to bravely follow his true calling and stand as a knight, knowing he will be arrested, Roland proclaims the old adage, “Well boys, all good things must come to an end.”

As all teachers oft do, I took this as a metaphor. It’s time for summer to come to an end, to don my armor, pursue my calling, boldly face the new year. In response, my wife said to stop being so melodramatic and watch the movie.

With her reminder, I did put an end to these flairs. Sure, summer–with its days of sleeping in, its weeks to simply and blissfully read for hours, catch up with old friends, its endless possibilities–would have to make way for something more structured. But I also felt a change this time around. The nervousness, the butterflies, the back-to-school nightmares (mostly) gave way to a new feeling: excitement. This would be a great year.

You see, last year, my second year in this profession, was a furnace for me.

industry-647413_1280

The Image by zephylwer0 from Pixabay

Conditions were just right: the heat was cranked up by my peer Charles Moore, who constantly challenged me to grow through conversations, mentor text wars, an anchor chart “hall of fame”, and an endless pursuit of authenticity in our shared love of teaching literacy; a mold was given to me by my mentor, Helen Becker, who showed me concrete strategies to make these things work while always reminding me to read, write, and cut out all the extra “stuff” that could allow impurities to ruin my work; Megan Thompson was the hand that guided the hammer, refining the techniques I tried, inviting me into her classroom and her thoughts, and modeling an unconditional love for students that requires a strong will; lastly, the students were the anvil, always giving me a sturdy base on which I could hone my edges and continue growing and shaping.

Without “further gilding the lily” as Chaucer would say in A Knight’s Tale, I learned and grew so much in this forge through the strong students, mentors, peers, colleagues, and I daresay friends that were willing to walk the walk with me.

Our North star–our central focus–at the heart of this growth was always learning how to make the literacy experiences for our students more authentic.

As I continue to reflect on these experiences, I realize that our greatest growth was in writing instruction. As our students walked in the door for the first time last year, we quickly realized many had gaps in their writing instruction. But perhaps a more alarming assessment was that most students, even those “proficient” by any state standards, had no love or purpose for writing.

And so our work began.

We tried many things–increasing the amount of formative data we would look at in team meetings to help guide our planning; shifting what and how we assessed and graded with rubrics and scales that would be more authentic; changing the pacing and length of our mini-lessons to get out of the way of these young writers; and so much more. Each of our adjustments were tried, refined, and often ditched and replaced, and I believe that each warrants further reflection. But one adjustment stood above the rest: when we as teachers became writers too.

In Kelly Gallagher’s Write Like This, he proclaims: “Of all the strategies I have learned over the years, there is one that stands far above the rest when it comes to improving my students’ writing: the teacher should model by writing–and think out loud while writing–in front of the class” (15).

Nearly all teachers of writing have heard something along these lines at some point in their career. Many have been brave and vulnerable enough to try it.

But this past year, I learned that there is a difference between writing in front of your students and becoming a writer.

A writer is a person who keeps journals and notebooks and endless Word documents, filled with ideas and drafts and revisions in a smorgasbord of conditions. A writer is an artist who pursues and experiments with their craft to get it just right. A writer is a dreamer filled with goals and purpose that can only be met through careful, meticulous, arduous effort.

With this working definition, I quickly realized that I was not a writer. Are you? I also questioned myself:  How could I authentically ask my students to become the writers that I have qualified here if I hadn’t become a writer yet myself? How could I expect them to give what I was not willing to give myself?

So I set out to become a writer. At first, I wrote the same essays and assignments that I tasked my students with. Then I said yes to sponsoring our school’s Poetry Corner and shared my own work at our weekly meetings. I wrote letters to family and friends, and love notes to my (at the time) fiancé. I wrote reviews of products I had purchased and services I had received, application letters to conferences I wished to attend, thank-you cards to wedding guests, and much more.

As I climbed each of these mountains of literacy, I shared my writing experiences with students. I wrote many of these pieces with them, inviting their feedback and giving mine in return. I became a writer and watched as my students became writers, too.

In a recent conversation with the aforementioned colleagues and friends, we created an anchor chart of reasons why everybody–students and teachers alike–benefit when the teacher becomes a writer:

  • Foresight to specific struggles students might have
  • Better understanding of what skills to teach in mini-lessons
  • Concrete conferring questions to ask student writers
  • Empathy for students struggling with the writing process
  • Equity in creating assessment scales and rubrics
  • Modeling vulnerability, struggle, and craft for the students
  • Modeling authenticity and purpose as a writer

I’m certain there is more to unpack here, but with these benefits alone, I am convinced: the most essential “tool” of writing instruction is when the teacher becomes a writer, too.

So as I glimpse into the year ahead, the usual back-to-school nerves have been replaced with sheer excitement. I am excited to step into the classroom, share my writing territories with students, and coach them as they create their own. I am excited to write alongside them, receive their feedback, and watch as they grow. I am excited for our next Poetry Corner meeting, where old students and new are so electrified by their literacy that they have to come and share. I have so much to learn still about writing instruction, and I am excited to step back into the furnace.

Austin Darrow has now begun his third year as a teacher and self-proclaimed literacy advocate. He teaches English I, AP Lit, and coaches the Academic Decathlon at Clear Creek High School. He is trying to grow and refine his voice of advocacy, so follow him on Twitter @darrowatcreek.

Guest Post: Ways I Can Encourage More Students to Love Reading by Holly Dottarar

“People don’t realize how a man’s whole life can be changed by one book.”  -Malcolm X

At the beginning of each year, I spend close to a week talking about independent reading with my students.  To me, it’s worth investing the time because independent choice reading is the heart of my class.

MSDottararBookshelves

How I frame choice reading during the first week:

  • discussing how to find a just-right book and how that is different for every reader, different genres and their definitions,
  • setting a weekly reading rate (from Penny Kittle’s book Book Love),
  • speed dating a variety of books to find potential novels to read,
  • going over My Top-15 Reading List (adapted from Kelly Gallagher’s book In the Best Interest of Students),
  • discussing how book conferencing works, and how to keep track of books read.

Even though I check in with each student monthly, share my Top 15 List with my classes, and book talk new books bi-monthly, there’s always a small percentage of students who refuse to read, or read very little.  My avid readers love the freedom to choose books, but my non-readers, emerging readers, and the reading-is-okay-but-currently-I-have-no-time readers need more of a nudge.  

How can I help all students be successful in creating and cultivating a reading habit? How can I help them look forward to diving into their book, to truly enjoy reading? How can I keep up the momentum for those who love to read?  

I whole-heartedly believe in the reader’s workshop model, but it is hard.  

Keeping track of 150 students all reading different books, and all at different places in their books, requires commitment and organization.  It is a daily, conscious decision to sit beside a student and recommend book after book, hoping something sparks an interest, or to try to find a new book for a student who has read 50 books in the last two months and isn’t sure what to read next.  (Yes, I have about 10 of these voracious readers each year.)  Up and moving around the classroom, talking with kids about books when sometimes all I want to do is sit at my desk and read my book too doesn’t help.  (And there are days that I just read alongside students, but it is few and far between.)

While there are times I want to throw in the towel, I am reminded that the hard work pays off.  Those tough days are just a bump in the road.  Students deserve to be confident readers.  They deserve to learn to think critically. They deserve a teacher who will not give up on them.   

As a reflective teacher, I’ve been thinking a lot about the reader’s workshop:  what worked in my classroom and what I want to make better.  These are ideas that I am going to incorporate this fall to build upon the love and joy of reading for all students.

 

1. Be consistent about my Book Talk Wall and teacher What-to-read-next list.

BookTalkWall

I have a wall in the back of the classroom where I post the book jacket of every book I book talk.  My goal this past year was at least one book a week, usually on a Monday, but I was not consistent.  This year I plan to continue book talking books I’ve done in the past, but really play on the books I just read and books that are new.  

Which leads to my What-to-Read-Next list.  Two years ago, I had on the board these titles MsDottararReadingListswith books:  What I just read, What I am currently reading, and What I plan to read next.  Next to each phrase I had an arrow and a copy of the book jacket so students could see my book list.  I didn’t do that this year because I didn’t have white board space.  

However, after reading students’ end of the year reflections and seeing if they met their book goals, my students two years ago read more than my students last year.  While I don’t think that each group of students should be compared, as each year we have different groups of students, I can’t help but think sharing what I read and talking often about it made a difference.  I’ll collect the data on that this year and then draw a conclusion.  

 

2. Student recommendation share outs

Book Recommendation SheetTwice a year, right before Christmas Break and right before school is out, I have students fill out a recommendation form on books they enjoyed and think others might like.  It goes in a binder organized by genre.  However, students do not share these recommendations prior to turning them in.  Why have I not done that? Not sure.  It was kind-of like checking something off my to-do list.  In this area, I plan to have students share out books they wrote down on that sheet of paper before turning in.Recommendations Binder

 

Even though this binder sits on top of one of the bookshelves, SO MANY students didn’t even know it was there.  I plan on referencing it often so if students need a book and don’t have one in mind, they can go to the binder and see what others have recommended.  (As that was the whole point of this activity anyway.)

3. Theme Topic Books

Penny Kittle has inspired me in so many ways.  Six years ago, over the summer, I took 42 composition notebooks (because that was the number of students in each class that upcoming year—yikes!), scrapbooked the covers, and wrote on 3×5 cards the theme topics.  (You can find more information about this in her book.) One of my goals was for students to write in them three to four times a year, thinking about how their book connects in some way to the theme topic.  And how cool is it for students to see what others have written years prior?  However, this past year, they only wrote in it once.  My goal is to incorporate this at least once a trimester.

Theme-Topic Notebooks

The other goal was if a student wanted to read a book about that theme topic, say compassion, they could look in the notebook and read what books others have read dealing with that topic.  However, these notebooks were filed in a cabinet with other supplies.  Not an easy way for students to find.  So, in this area, I am thinking about a good space to display these topic notebooks so more students can read what others have said.

4. Creation of Book Trailers

I am growing in the area of technology.  When I started teaching 16 years ago, I had an overhead projector and a chalkboard.  Phones were installed in December, and I couldn’t wait to pick up the phone to call the office instead of pressing the intercom button when I needed something.  When we went to white boards a few years later, I jumped up and down.  I no longer had chalk marks along the side of my right palm or somewhere on my back.  When our school installed projectors, I begged a friend in the history department—as they received a grant for document cameras shortly thereafter—to loan me an extra one so I could teach writing through a step-by-step process.  In terms of technology, this is the extent of my expertise.  A coworker had to show me how to use Google Classroom last year.  

With so many of our students interacting with technology, why not use that to our advantage? There have been some really good book trailers lately.  My favorite still is with the novel Salt to the Sea.  The music is haunting, which fits the book perfectly.  (You can check it out here.)

If I show professional book trailers for students on novels I think they’d like, why can’t they create their own and share on Classroom?  Something I plan to look into more and try this next year.

5. Virtual Book Stacks

Students keep track of books they’ve read on a sheet of paper titled My Top 15, but why not have a visual book stack at the end of the year to share and celebrate growth? I thought of a real book stack, as I’ve seen them all over Instagram, but to have students try to find each book they read and stack it up felt daunting to me, especially if students checked out books from the public library and not mine or the school’s library.  I plan to use Padlet for students to share their books and maybe even categorize it by their favorites.

 

 

 

 

If you are interested in more reading on this topic, I suggest the following books:

Nancy Atwell’s The Reading Zone

Carol Jago’s The Book in Question

Donalyn Miller’s The Book Whisperer

Lisa Donohue’s Independent Reading Inside the Box, 2nd Ed.

Penny Kittle’s Book Love

Teri Lesesne’s Reading Ladders

 
Holly Morningstar Dottarar is an 8th grade English teacher in the Pacific Northwest.  While she spent her adolescence as a reluctant reader, once she read The Hobbit—in college—she became hooked.  Now, she carries a book wherever she goes.  When she’s not reading, teaching, or spending time with her family, she can be found in her kitchen baking.  She blogs at www.hollybakes.com and www.hollyteaches.com.

Q & A: What are some good poems to write beside? #3TTWorkshop

Questions Answered (1)

I think I’ve mentioned before that I used to avoid poetry. Now, I’m really not pointing fingers at anyone — okay, yeah I am — but I blame it on my teachers. Not one of them shared poetry just for the love of poetry — of rhythm and words and images often cloaked in color and emotion. Not one. Not one used poetry as inspiration for other writing. It was always analyze this and write a paper on it. Bleh. My least favorite kind of writing.

Good poems have the potential to be great teaching tools. Sure, analysis but so much more. If we want students to love language or even play with it in their writing, we have to expose them to language worth loving — and encourage them to make paper swords and sequin-shiny shoes with it. Inviting students to write beside poems with us is one good starting place.

This month Shana and I attended the Poetry Foundation Conference for teachers in Chicago. We read, talked, listened to, and explored poems for a week. (And slept on the worst dorm beds possible.)

The thing about immersing yourself in poetry for a week is this:  You start seeing poetry

GiordanoPizza

Giordano’s Pizza — so good!

everywhere. Billboards, names on shops, menus in restaurants, bikers on the path along Lake Michigan, ceramic swans cuddling on the other side of a pane glass window, and pizza!!

Poetry is like an English teacher with a brand new set of 36 Flair pens. Color everywhere!

In my workshop classroom, we share a lot of poetry. Sometimes just for the love of it. Sometimes to talk about. Sometimes to inspire us to write.

PoetryFoundationpresHere’s a few poems (and a lesson plan) my group and I collected for our project at the poetry conference. We titled our presentation Boundaries & Borders:  Exploring Poetry Beyond our Front Yard (That’s a shout out to Gwendolyn Brook’s “a song in the front yard.”) I’ll tell ya, we hashed around a topic for a long time and finally decided that reading poems that help us explore our personal and societal boundaries might make an interesting backdoor into exploring identity, which is a topic many of us develop out thematically using a variety of other texts in our courses. If nothing else, the images we collected (all found at Unsplash) might be interesting to use to prompt student thinking.

If you’re looking for other topics, take a look at the Poetry Foundation. There’s so much there! And if you like podcasts, you might like this one:  the Slowdown with Tracy K. Smith. It’s my first-ever podcast listen, and I’m hooked.

So, what are some good poems to write beside? You decide. And please share some of the poems you love in the comments!

 

Note:  This post is a part of a series. It’s based primarily on the most frequent questions about readers-writers workshop asked at our workshop trainings. For more see here.

Amy Rasmussen is a teacher, writer, artist, and house-plant enthusiast. She lives near Dallas, TX and is a believer in all things that make us better humans. Follow her @amyrass

 

Guest Post: Culturally Relevant Texts and Striving Readers By Lauren Nizol

screen-shot-2017-05-01-at-8-44-22-pmI’ve been thinking about culturally relevant texts and how they encourage striving readers to reach for increasingly complex texts. 

Gloria Ladson-Billings, a pioneer in the field of culturally relevant pedagogy, believes that students need opportunities to find themselves in the books they read and be held to “high expectations.” To build strong readers, we need to expose all students to complexity and nuance, not just those who we consider advanced. 

pexels-photo-1759524

Photo by Luis Quintero from Pexels

I work as a literacy interventionist in my district with teachers and students to close literacy gaps. This year, I had an eye-opening experience with a freshman who reads at an intermediate level and selected Born a Crime, by Trevor Noah, as his lit circle book. 

If you aren’t familiar with this book, it is often a summer read for some of our juniors going into AP Language. Noah, comedian and anchor of The Daily Show, masterfully recalls his childhood in apartheid South Africa, all while interspersing his trademark humor and rich historical details. Despite its levity, it’s a hard book, dense with context that even strong readers may find challenging in places. 

And yet, this freshman thrived with this book. Even though he didn’t grow up in South Africa, he grew up in an area that he describes as “the projects”.

After working with me one day to develop a text-response strategy, this young man excitedly ran back to his teacher and told her about “this sticky note annotation strategy” that both his teacher and I had been modeling all year for him. He had a great sense of pride and engagement in his reading that we had never seen before. And when the time came for discussion, he had a great deal to contribute to his group.

This book transformed him as a reader. 

This had me thinking… what if instead of assigning the “appropriate” leveled text to striving readers, we focus more on finding a text relevant to them?

Often reading intervention programs focus on simplistic texts. Overtime, students who read at a lower than grade levels may miss out on context-rich literacy experiences. 

Literacy is about building equity, and if we aren’t giving striving readers the same opportunities as thriving readers, then we are limiting their access to diverse and timely ideas. 

All readers, but especially those who are striving, need books that mirror their reality.

At the heart of a strong reading intervention lies a teacher’s ability to connect readers to texts that engage, excite, and encourage them as readers. It’s about the just-right-text, not the just-right-level. 

 

Lauren Nizol (@CoachNizol) is a literacy interventionist, ELA 9 teacher and co-director of the Wildcat Writing Den, a campus writing center in metro-Detroit. You can find her laughing easily with her husband and three sons while spending time in the great outdoors this summer. Visit her blog at www.learningonramps.org

Q & A: How do I do this on my own without other colleagues teaching this way? #3TTWorkshop

Questions Answered (1)

Believe me when I say I understand. Completely. I think many other teachers who took off the old shoes of making all the choices in their English classes and tiptoed, stomped, or danced into workshop instruction understand, too. Sometimes we are the only one hearing the music.

This was me most of the time.

Of course, working with colleagues in highly functioning PLC’s is advantageous. If we’re lucky, we’ve been in a few grade level teams, or even full departments with colleagues who embrace the choice and challenge readers-writers workshop offers and collaborate well. Other times we have to stick with our knowledge of what works best for growing readers and writers and make our own instructional choices, based on what we know is best for the students relying us in our own classrooms. It’s always our own students who matter most.

So how do I do workshop on my own without other colleagues teaching this way?

Here’s the advice I got when I asked a similar question to someone with a whole lot more experience than me in all things authentic reading and writing instruction:   Nod your head a lot, and then close your door.

That’s pretty much what I did for the first eight years when I was figuring out how to manage a classroom library, give students choice in the books they read, hold them accountable in some way for their reading, get them writing more (and better), using mentor texts, conferring semi-regularly, and trying not to lose my mind when I’d go to team meetings and hear “I’m teaching ________ (insert title from the canon) and making students do study questions, along with these specific annotations. Do you want a copy of my test over the book?” Thanks by no thanks.

We teach readers, not books. And maybe it’s just me, but when I hear teachers say “I make my students do ____”, I kind of cringe. Study questions, annotations for all (done with a teacher’s specific rules for notes instead of the reader’s own rules), and tests over books:  Sandpaper on teeth.

When I shifted my instruction to include choice, student engagement soared. I was converted, and I hungered for more ways to fully move into workshop instruction. But at the time, I was the only convert on my campus. I was lonely there.

However, I had company outside my school. Everyone who determines to make this shift does. You may just have to find it.

First off, there’s this blog. I started it with two brilliant teachers, Heather and Molly, I met at a summer institute of the North Star of TX National Writing Project, a site of National Writing Project. We wanted a place to write about how we applied our learning from our institute with our students, and we wanted a space that helped us stay connected. I was teaching at a Title I high school in a district just north of Dallas; Molly had just moved to a high school with a focus on project-based learning in Longview; Heather taught middle school in a district east of Ft. Worth. (If you know north TX, you know we spanned a distance geographically.) I tell you this history for a few reasons:

The National Writing Project advocates for authentic writing instruction, and it is one of the best networks of educators, willing to collaborate and share, I know. If you can link to a site near you, you will never do this work alone.

Three Teachers Talk has grown as my learning about workshop instruction has. Heather and Molly moved in exciting career directions different than mine, and at times this blog has really been one teacher talking as I tried to figure things out. (Note: Writing helps us figure things out.) Then, when I attended the University of New Hampshire Literacy Institute and took a two week class taught by Penny Kittle, and learned with Shana, Erica, and Emily, a similar blog-writing collaboration happened.

We started writing regular posts here called Our Compass Shifts because we were all working to shift our thinking about instruction and apply the learning from Penny’s class with our own readers and writers. Our teaching souls clicked. The Modern PLC. Emily and Erica wrote with us for awhile, but like Heather and Molly they moved on to other good things. We remain friends, but Shana — Shana remains as Diana exclaims of Anne in Anne of Green Gables, my “bossom friend. A bosom friend—an intimate friend, you know—a really kindred spirit to whom I can confide my innermost soul.”

To continue improving, growing, striving to do right by our students, I think we all need at least one bossom friend. I’ve got two in Shana and Lisa, two of the other admins on this blog. (Angela, you’re up-and-coming.)

I had to find them though. I couldn’t keep my classroom door shut and not step in to learning opportunities that helped me grow. Growing takes action.

So how do I do workshop on my own without other colleagues teaching this way?

Seek out connections with others who are making workshop work. All of the contributors on this blog have been where you are. Read their posts. Leave comments. Ask questions. Email me directly if you can’t find answers amy@threeteacherstalk.com. Like everyone else in the teaching world, I’m busy, but I will do my best to help. (And your questions may turn into blog posts. That’s how I met the amazing Lisa Dennis.)

Join a network of passionate educators on Twitter. There’s chats for you. #TeachWrite #DistruptTexts #buildyourstack #3TTworkshop #titletalk #NerdyBookClub #APLitchat #teachlivingpoets all come to mind. So many teachers moving the work of choice and challenge — and equity — forward. If you are new to Twitter and don’t know who to follow, follow us @3TeachersTalk; then, check out who we follow — educators like you.

Read books by those who’ve built a movement, and join in on discussions. Some of our favorite teacher-writers are active on Twitter, and they share brilliant ideas regularly. Thomas Newkirk, Tom Romano, Penny Kittle, Kelly Gallagher, Linda Rief, Cornelius Minor to name a few.

Also, Shana put together a fabulous resource page here. It’s not exhaustive, but it’s a good start.

I know joining chats, reading books, and connecting online does not replace collaboration on a campus, but it does work to help us grow in our practice.

Just like my daughter has online friends who are in the #houseplantclub, and my sister has online friends who play Pokemon Go, teachers — eager to make workshop work for their students — can find the support they need to make this ever-important pedagogy of engaging students as they grow in their identity as readers and writers work.

Press on, my friends, we are here for you.

Amy Rasmussen calls herself a literacy evangelist –among other things. Wife to a lovely man, and blessed to be the mother of six and grandmother of seven (five of which are boys), she loves to read and teach and share ideas that just might make the world a little brighter — for everyone! Follow her @amyrass — and join the conversation around workshop instruction on the Three Teachers Talk Facebook page. Go here see other Q & A posts about Secondary Readers-Writers Workshop.

%d bloggers like this: