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Category Archives: AP English

Our Day One Writing: Personal User Manuals

I’ll be honest. I’ve started this post three times. At first bemoaning why I can’t believe summer is over. Then whining that I didn’t get enough done, and finally, justifying why I can’t seem to get in a writing groove. None of it matters. I started back to school yesterday. Kids come next Monday.

I will be ready. And I’ll love it.

I’ve spent hours working on my new room. It’s almost done (I’ll post photos soon), and I classroom culturefigure if I can get my room perfect, everything else will fall into place. Misplaced priorities? Maybe, but that’s how I roll. The aesthetics in my classroom matter to me, and if you’ve visited (and many teachers and admin from around TX did last year), you know what I mean. Book shelves just right. Colors and furnishings that invite. Places to chart skills taught and showcase students’ thinking. All of this matters to the culture I work hard to cultivate in my classroom.

And while I’ve worked, I’ve thought about the students whose names rest on my rosters. Who are they as readers and writers? Who are they as individuals with needs and wants and passions? How can I help them know of their potential and of the possibilities that await them not just this year but beyond?

I’m teaching seniors for the first time this fall. Since my school is on an accelerated block schedule, I will have these students for one semester. Just one. One semester at the end of their high school experience. One semester to create a community, build a culture, bridge gaps, shape literacy identities as individuals about to face the big wide world — hopefully as citizens unafraid to face their fears, and the frightening things in our society.

One semester to read and write and think — together. One semester with a dream for a lifetime.

I’ve read a lot about the importance of building community lately, and I’ve talked a lot about the first day of school in most of the pd I’ve facilitated. I used to think, especially with my AP Lang classes, I had to knock ’em dead with my syllabus the first day, list my expectations, explain my grading policy, discuss my plan for how and what they would learn. Scare them into understanding the complexities of my AP class. I blew a lot of opportunities over the years. That “my” got in the way a lot.

How can it be “our” learning community if I am the one laying out all the learning plans? If I am the only one talking about what the learning must look like?

I wrote this post Talking about the First Day of School in 2015. Funny because I’m in the same canoe this year, wondering about how I will welcome students on Day One. The last thing I want is to ignite the fear, flight, freeze response, which so often happens with that same ole same ole flood of student expectations. Students are already experiencing high levels of stress the first day of school. I do not want to accelerate it

I’ve thought about reading the poem “Possibilities” by Wislawa Szymorzska. I wrote about how my students and I used this poem to begin our understanding of rhetorical analysis last year. I’ll do that again, but it’s probably better as a week two activity.

TeacherAuthorBio

author bio, Linda Sanchez, Wylie ISD

I’ve thought about reading author bios and asking students to write their own. Lisa and I wrote about our successes with students writing author bios last year and even modeled writing author bios with our teacher friends during pd this summer. So many talented teacher writers! Author bios are a new favorite, but they’re probably not for day one.

I’ve thought about jumping right in and setting up our writer’s notebooks. I stocked up

composition notebooks

I bought 170. The cashier at Walmart scanned them one by one.

and have one for each student ready at the bell. Now, I’m wondering if setting the notebook up is as important as just writing down some thinking on the first day of school.

Susan Barber wrote about her First Day of Class activity, and the idea of beginning with reflection resonates with me. I just don’t know about a trek to the football field — our students graduate at the UNT Coliseum miles away, and TX weather means it’s still hot hot hot. I can already hear whining. I love Susan’s idea though and want to think about this more.

I keep coming back to community. And culture.

My instruction works because of the community we build as readers, writers, listeners, and speakers. Or is it a culture we create as readers, writers, listeners, and speakers? Is it possible to have one without the other?

When Lisa was in town, we sat in my car in a parking lot and talked about this very thing. Lisa shared her wisdom: “Community is the classroom. It’s more immediate.” Mentioning her teaching before her move to workshop, she said,  “I built community to help us get through the things students didn’t like — like Huck Finn.”

Interesting. So community is good — sharing likes, dislikes, working toward a common goal, getting along, respecting one another.

We talked about get-to-know you games, icebreakers, we’ve all used on the first day of school. Many of them good ideas for building community. Then Lisa asked: “Do we get-to-know for the get-to-know — or the value of learning who are students are as readers and writers?”

Ah, the beginnings of building a culture.

“Culture is more pervasive,” Lisa said, “A culture of learning in an English class values reading, writing, talking, and thinking that goes on — that has demands beyond the classroom.”

And now I’m wondering:  On the first day of school, how do I build a community that begins creating a culture, a culture that validates, shapes, and inspires my students’ identities as thinkers, readers, writers, citizens, and humans that goes beyond the classroom?

Not an easy feat. But maybe there’s an easy start.

I don’t know why I clicked on this headline, but I think I’ve found my first day of school: “Completing this 30 minutes exercise makes teams less anxious and more productive.”

I think we will write personal user manuals. It’s a task business leaders are using to help

user_guide

I’d like a better name than “user.” Any ideas?

their teams work better. Why not try it in the classroom?

The article states, “The user manual aims to help people learn to adapt to one another by offering an explicit description of one’s personal values and how one works best with others. This shortens the learning curve for new employees, and helps everyone avoid misunderstandings.” Since student talk and collaboration is central to my instruction, I think writing one-page user manuals about ourselves might put us on the fast track to better communication and the culture that fosters better learning.

Abby Falik, founder and CEO of Global Citizen Year, states: “My User Manual is one of the ways I practice leading out loud. It’s a living document that describes my innate wiring and my growing edge, while putting it out to the world that I know I am – and aim to always be — a work-in-progress.” And the article includes the structure Abby used to write her manual and a link to the manual itself. Mentor text, y’all!

Abby’s user manual centers around these six topics:

  1. My style
  2. What I value
  3. What I don’t have patience for
  4. How to best communicate with me
  5. How to help me
  6. What people misunderstand about me

I’m thinking of including prompts that probe other topics more specific to what I need to know about my students literacy histories — kind of like a reading/writing territory — and topics that can jump start connections and trust between students. Maybe things like:

Describe yourself as a reader.

What is your favorite book? Who is your favorite author?

Write a simile about your writing life. 

When it comes to English class, where do you feel you want to grow the most?

List ten things you like to do in your spare time.

Of all your memories, which three are the most indelible?

What five adjectives describe your disposition?

I also like these questions I read regarding building trust in Adolescents on the Edge by Jimmy Santiago Baca and ReLeah Cossett Lent, a book I just started and am already loving for content, stories, and ideas:

Have you experienced fair treatment, either by family or by the system?

How do you express appreciation? Do you often receive appreciation for your acts?

How important is it for promises to be kept, either those made to you or those you make to others?

Do you feel that you are a part of decision making that affects your life?

Are you dependable? Do you feel others are dependable?

How do you generally resolve conflicts?

How important is truthfulness to you?

Too much? Maybe. But students will have choice in what they answer — and how. And like any time we write like this, we will talk first. Talk matters in a writing classroom.

Of course, I will write my own user manual. If I get my act together, I’ll have it ready on Day One as a way to introduce myself to my students. Hopefully, I can write it in a way that lets them know that while I am intense, passionate, and purposeful in helping them grow as readers and writers, I am also pretty vulnerable, and an introvert on a stage cast in the role of extrovert.

I’m thinking we will use our user manuals a lot. I’ll include a copy of each students’ in my conferring notebook for easy access and review when I meet with them. We’ll share with our table mates. We’ll share in our book clubs and in our writing groups. We’ll share when we do group projects or collaborate on writing.

We will use our manuals like leaders in business do because “the ability to share your thoughts and ideas openly, honestly, and without fear of judgment—has been repeatedly proven the key to innovative, happy teams. Whether you’re a manager or young employee, writing and sharing a user manual has a clear business payoff. The better a team knows one other, the easier it will be for them to navigate conflict, empathize with one another, and feel comfortable sharing, critiquing, and building upon one another’s ideas.”

What do you think? How will you (or did you, if you’ve already gone back) start building your classroom culture?

 

Amy Rasmussen is the mother of six amazing young adults, grandmother of five smart and sassy little people, and wife to a brilliant marketer, sales exec, life coach, and dog lover. She teaches readers and writers in AP Language and English IV in North TX and facilitates professional development on the workshop model of instruction at every opportunity. She loves God, her family, the U.S.A., and all humans everywhere. Follow Amy on Twitter @amyrass

 

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Want to RENEW! Get the book by @ShawnaCoppola

I have never written a book review. (Okay, maybe that’s not true. I think I remember writing one in 4th grade over a biography of Marie Curie, the first biography I ever read.)

I have never written a review of a teaching book. But I am going to try.

I am a teaching book junkie. I have stacks of them, but I rarely read the whole of them. I cannot even tell you why, and I admit there is great irony here because as I write this, I am also trying to write my own book for teachers (I have been for four years, sigh.) If I ever get it written, I hope you’ll read it.

In the mean time, I have to tell you about Shawna Coppola’s new book RENEW!

I read the whole of this book in one afternoon! Thank you, Shawna, for writing so much of my own thinking about “Becoming a Better — and More Authentic — Writing Teacher.”

Shawna’s voice sings with passion and positivity. She paints the pages with possibilities! I know, I am gushing (and that’s probably too many p’s.) But here’s the thing —

I know so many ELA teachers who do know know how to teach writing. I know many more who are not confident teaching writing. I know even more who are not writers themselves, so it’s no wonder that teaching writing is difficult. Teaching writing is hard. A book like RENEW! not only gives us a starting place, it gives us desire.

desire-is-the-starting-point-of-all-achievement-not-a-hope-not-a-wish-but-a-keen-pulsating-desire-which-transcends-everything-napoleon-hill

I am doing a lot of thinking lately around the idea of transcending. How do we go beyond our limits into something more, something better, something real and sustaining?

Let me share with you some of the passages I marked in RENEW!. I think you’ll see why this book is a must read for any teacher who needs a bit, or a lot, of renewal when it comes to teaching students to write.

“. . . if we are truly willing to honor the individuality of our student writers, the RENEW!uniqueness of each community of learners, and the ever-changing nature of our global landscape, we must continually rethink, revise, and renew our practice. Otherwise — to paraphrase Dewey — we rob “today’s students of the tomorrow today’s students deserve” (10).

“Broadening our ideas about what writing “is” can be scary, as if we are opening up a Pandora’s box. But in all reality, continuing to teach our student writers through a narrow, outdated lens — one that, in overvaluing written composition, does not accurately tell a story about the world of writing beyond most schools and classrooms — harms their development as writers by limiting the kinds of composing they are exposed to and encouraged to practice” (51).

“Teaching our writers how to develop their own tools is infinitely more sustainable than using preexisting tools. Quick survey:  How many of you use the graphic organizer your sixth-grade teacher taught you to use to write a persuasive piece? That graphic organizer may have been helpful to you then (although I doubt it was helpful to 100 percent of your classmates), but how useful is it you now?” (62).

“What message or “story” are we sending our student writers with a single overall score? Not only does it imply that their worth as a writer can be whittled down to one letter or number (which itself can mean different things for different teachers and even within different units of study), but that the worth of writing itself can be whittled down this way” (73).

“. . . readers of writing are human, an done person’s response to a composition may not perfectly align with another’s (If it did, what a drab, boring world we’d be living in!)” (79).

“Which is more likely to help students learn:  offering them specific feedback about their work, behavior, or performance, or slapping a score on a piece of paper?” (82).

“. . .when we engage in a semi-regular habit of writing, we can much more genuinely speak to those incredibly fantastic moments that writers experience on occasion, like the amazing feeling of completing a particularly difficult draft or writing something that makes a reader spontaneously laugh out loud. Anyone who’s ever taught a group of students of any age knows that when we are faking our way through something, or at the very least “phoning it in” by only engaging on a superficial level with what we are purporting to teach, students can smell our lack of authenticity a mile away. They know, even subconsciously, that they are being sold a decidedly moldy bill of goods” (92).

That’s all well and good, right? But here’s the beauty of Shawna Coppola’s book — she gives us the research that supports each of her positions AND she gives charts and graphs and resources to help us rethink, revise, and renew our approach, instruction, and practice as we become better teachers of writing. This book is chock full of everything good when it comes to writing instruction. It is a book I will return to again and again.

I hope you’ll read it. I hope you’ll share it with every ELA teacher you know. Really, it is just that good.

 

Amy Rasmussen lives in north Texas and teaches AP English Language and English 4 (new prep in ’17.) She loves talking books, daughters’ weddings (two this year), and grandbabies (five). She also loves facilitating PD for other teachers making the move into a workshop pedagogy. 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. And she really hopes you will follow this blog!

Thinking Differently to Do More Thinking

I think most teachers would agree, no matter our content, our number one goal is to help students develop as critical thinkers. And in a world where technology rules much of their lives, impatience governs their actions, and emotions overcrowd the adolescent brain, this can be daunting.

We must keep trying.

Every day we see see headlines spouting fake news, and more and more we see headlines shouting “This news is fake.” We see sites on how to spot fake news, and analyze fake news. We have access to lessons on fake news — Google “lessons on fake news, and you’ll find 5,250,000 resources. We even see the hashtag #fakenews (a fabulous lesson on paradox btw).

A few months ago I read this article at Forbes. Then clicked through and read this one at BuzzFeed. I shared them with my students. We had an interesting discussion, but one comment left me thinking:  “So, basically, everyone’s making stuff up. How are we supposed to believe anything?”

If we are not helping our students find answers to this question, we are doing a disservice to our students — and by extension a disservice to ourselves. What kind of world will we grow old in if we do not help the students in our classrooms today, determine fact from fiction, identify bias, value diversity of thought, be open to new ideas, support their opinions, and seek to understand before passing judgment?

First, we have to be willing to step outside our comfort zones and seek to understand other perspectives. (If you haven’t seen Outside Your Bubble, it’s an interesting starting place.)

Plato

Next, we must school ourselves on rhetoric. And then, we must weave it more overtly into all aspects of our instruction.

As English teachers, we have a prime opportunity:  let go of the nine weeks novel study where we focus on characters, conflict, plot, and theme. Bring in speeches and essays and news articles that invite discussion about the use of language. At the very least balance the study of both.

A few weeks ago a group of teachers from a neighboring district visited my classroom. They observed as my students and I read two blog posts about the Fearless Girl and the Raging Bull statues: Seriously, the guy has a point, and an opposing view, No, the Wall St. Bull Sculptor Doesn’t Have a Point. The discussion was rich. The thinking was richer.

At the end of the class, I chatted with these teachers. We talked about the routines in my workshop classroom, the book talks I conducted, the way I transitioned from one thing to the next. Then, the conversation turned to novels. One teacher asked how long I spend on novels. I don’t. I responded. My students read novels in book clubs where they facilitate the discussion. They talk of plot and themes and author’s craft. They bring meaning to the text, based on their experiences reading the books. (I am not opposed to novels. I am opposed to spending too much time on them.)

I hesitate to challenge anyone on what they do in their classrooms. I do not know their students. I do not know their routines or their motivations, the goals they hope to accomplish as they instruct their students, or the limitations put on them by mandated curriculum.

I do challenge the idea that studying a novel for “a long time” like this teacher told me, is a valuable use of the limited time we have with our students. Our students’ need to navigate the language of their world is too great to spend week after week with a book “they really like” that “I read to them.” We must put the focus on the needs of the reader and not the book.

What our students need right now — what our country needs right now — is critical thinking around a wide variety of texts. We need a focus on how language works to persuade and to manipulate and to cause outrage. Really, that’s our best, and maybe, our only hope.

As we go into summer (I’ve got three days left), I hope we will think about how we might shift our thinking about the needs of our learners. As we read by the pool, vacation with family, attend conferences and trainings, work our part-time jobs, I hope we will think about language and how it can either make or break the communication that is so vital to a society, a society that will thrive on diversity, respect individuality, and foster empathy and productivity.

Teacher friends, that is our job. And I think it’s our duty.

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

Author Bios – A Follow-up

I collected these papers 20 minutes ago, and I am smiling so hard that my second period class coming in asked me what was going on.

A few days ago, Amy wrote a post about students writing their own author bios. It was an idea that snuck up on me a few weeks back when Amy Poehler’s author bio made me laugh out loud.

Following much the same format that Amy detailed earlier this week, I introduced the idea to my students of writing our own author bios by reminding them of what they have heard from me one thousand times before over the course of this year:

“We are readers and writers.”

To reflect this persona, I shared with my AP Language students a quick writing prompt that is turning out to be one of the best writing assignments of the whole year.

When Brianna turned her piece in this morning, she had a huge smile on her face. “I had SO much fun doing this.” Brianna, as studious, driven, brilliant, and stressed out as they come, was beaming ear to ear. What a testament to the power of writing with self reflective purpose.

To facilitate this assignment we:

  1. Looked over several sample bios from our book club books, some texts off my shelves, and a few internet suggestions.
  2. Students talked at their tables and came up with a list of “look fors” in this type of writing. I was impressed by not only the length of the list, in terms of what they noticed, but some of the insight. “If you are going to write a funny book, be funny. If you’re writing about the Nazi’s, that’s not a good idea.” True, true. Style and form must match purpose. I love it.
  3. Students then drafted both a current and a future author bio. The future bios were far and away the best. Students really embraced how wildly accomplished they will be as readers and writers after college. Additionally, this group is apparently going to rule the world.
  4. Peer feedback came next, with an inclusion of Shana’s “Push and Pull” feedback strategy. It was wonderful to see the details and voice emerge from their pieces. Celina had a line about winning the Nobel Prize, an Oscar, and a Grammy. I suggested she tell us what she won the Nobel for, who she co-starred with for her Oscar win, and how many albums she sold for the Grammy. “Oooo! I helped kids in the Sudan by supplying them with books (Mrs. Dennis swoons), Brad Pitt came out of retirement to play my dad in the movie, and I sold a record to every high school student in America, Spain, and the Ukraine.” Yes, yes, yes!
  5. Students took the peer and teacher feedback, went off to polish one of their bios, get an author picture, and turn in a final draft.
  6. These are HOT off the presses and I am so proud of their voice and creativity.

If you only look at one example, check out this first one. Brianna had me laughing out loud. No wonder she was beaming ear to ear.

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From line one, this piece had me laughing out loud. Brianna could not be a more serious student, but this work let her voice shine. I LOVE it from start to finish. 

Connor is a pretty quiet kid in class. His writing fluency has improved A LOT this year. And look at that smile! 

Charlie just won the most prestigious scholarship Franklin offers, because of his service, incredible heart, academic achievements, and being an all-around amazing person. He really opened up in his one pagers this year. I could not be more proud of this young man. 

Tahseen is a very serious young woman, but the little quips in here brought out her true voice. 

JJ too had a ways to go with his writing fluency and voice development. I’m seeing it now! 

Errin is a young woman whose name you will know someday. I am SURE of it. She had this shirt on in class this morning. The picture was taken before 7:00am. 

Lisa Dennis teaches English and leads a department of incredible English educators at Franklin High School near Milwaukee. She delights in writing in the third person, claiming it’s akin to an existence in parallel universes. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum 

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.

authorbio

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.

MariaLauthorbio

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.

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.

 

None of the Above: A Bubble-Free Final Exam

Remember Scantrons tests? The filling in of bubbles at semester’s end in order to prove your worth as a scholar? Many of my anxiety-cloaked memories of high school involve those hideous little forms, a No. 2 pencil, and hours spent hurriedly filling in bubbles to demonstrate my multiple choice understanding of the world.

exam 9

Once upon a time, I took this type of test. Early in my career, I gave them. Currently, I hate them. Or rather, as this is a company name I certainly wouldn’t dream of defaming, I hate the concept of a test format that negates creativity, deep thinking, or conveyance of personal connection to learning. While admittedly easy to grade, I don’t recall the last multiple choice test that left me satisfied with the assessment in any way.

Now, before I get myself in hot water, both with Scantron and my fellow teachers, there are realities associated with multiple choice testing that are inescapable, and if we want students to be prepared for the high stakes testing they will certainly encounter as a means to pass AP tests, seek admission to college, and succeed on many college campuses, then we must do our part in preparing students for this type of assessment and thinking. Applied Practice tests, for example, challenge students to dig into a passage and deeply analyze the author’s craft and style. That skill development and demonstration is a wonderful tool.

However, this post is about the opportunities presented to us as educators as we look to the end of a grading term and search for ways to have students think critically about their cumulative learning, their growth as readers and writers, and the

exam11

Bailey’s reading insight.

connections they’ve made throughout our time together that will move them forward as educated citizens.

Many of these thoughts started well before my work with workshop when several years ago, our administrative team organized a committee to discuss our practices around final exams. Scheduling, format, exemptions, and weighting were all on the table. My biggest takeaway from those reflections?

I wanted my final exams to be reflective of student thought, synthesis, growth, and accomplishment to this point. In other words, I didn’t want any part of our “final” exam to be final in any way except that it would happen to be our last assessment together.

In other words, a final exam should showcase rather than stifle.

It should be an opportunity.

In years past, a multiple choice test showed a student’s regurgitated knowledge of the texts we had read and the literary movements we had studied. A written portion challeneged skills in supporting claims, sometimes providing text evidence, and timed writing.

exam 7

Amelia’s reading takeaway.

Again, these are valid and necessary skills to prepare students for future academic endeavors. Personally, however, I have grown to believe that if a paper isn’t going to receive some feedback, it’s power and purpose are lessened, or even negated.

 

We want students to grow as readers and writers throughout the year. This should include their final assessment opportunities as well.

exam 1With that in mind, my colleagues and I have worked hard over the years to provide more authentic assessment opportunities for students to demonstrate their growth during final exams.

Portfolios have replaced timed papers. Graded discussions have replaced short answer questions. Reflective speeches, projects, and writing have replaced bubble tests. And, with the advent of workshop, choice reading reflection has become my go-to.

In January, the teachers in my Honors English 10 collaborative group, organized an opportunity for our students to share the insights gleaned from an entire semester of choice reading. I was so excited by the project that I added some additional symbolic and reflective elements to it and used it with my AP Language students as well.

Students reflect on the texts

exam 8

A reflection from Josh.

they have read throughout the course of the term, select meaningful passages from that reading (many had been marking key quotes in their notebooks throughout the year), and give a talk about how the reading changed, moved, and/or developed their thinking with the support of visual cues and quotes to provide context for their ideas.

Illustrations of such deep thought include:

  • Abby learned that “we all struggle, but it’s how we handle those struggles that truly defines our character.” 
  • Errin suggested that “our world is only as vast as our perspectives allow it to be.” 
  • Tahseen claimed that “books help me solve the problems in my life.” 
  • Bailey, in his infinite wisdom buoyed by the most sincere character, pled with the class to not “let ignorance blind you. Knowing ignorance is necessary to keep creating and learning.”
  •  Rachel said we must “know yourself and use that knowledge to go out and know the world.” 

exam 4

exam 6

Some student samples from Amelia and Josh

As the time for final exam planning in at hand once again, here is a link to the project. Use it as a springboard for your own great reflective projects and encourage kids to once again see the value of the choice reading they have completed this year.

How have your finals evolved? What will your students be doing to wrap up the year? Please share in the comments. 


Lisa Dennis teaches English and leads a department of incredible English educators at Franklin High School near Milwaukee. She fondly remembers dabbing chapstick on her Scantron to try and fool the machine. This was during her rebellious streak, which lasted about four days. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum 

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