Category Archives: AP English

Getting Smarter about Informative Texts

I’ve been thinking about how we use informational texts in our classrooms–if we use them and how often–since Tosh wrote about this topic about a month ago. Her statement is so me:

“I, like many other language arts teachers, overvalued and overemphasized the genres of fiction in the lessons I taught, and now I’m on a mission (crusade?) to help teachers connect students with interesting and complex informational texts that can broaden their knowledge of the world around them as well as model the writing they will have to do in that world.”

Like Tosh, I have my own 20/20 hindsight. And while I never taught my own children in an ELAR class, I did facilitate years of workshops where students “wrote prolifically in their journals and experimented with different writing styles. . . [and] a lot of poetry writing and narratives and imaginative stories” and little focus on reading “more complex informational texts.” Like Tosh, I felt “by focusing on the beauty of language and expression, I neglected the power and practicality of strong informational reading and writing skills.”

And then I got smarter.

It wasn’t that I needed to do away with the the reading and writing practices I had been doing. This kind of reading and writing works magic in developing relationships and beginning the habits of mind of authentic readers and writers–engagement soars when students feel the emotional tug of a beautifully written story or poem, and we invite them to write beside it and then share their writing with their peers. What I needed to do was use these practices as a springboard into an exploration of the more complex informational texts I knew my students needed.

I also knew that to keep students engaged, the spring in my board needed just a little bounce not a 10 foot one. Instead of a sharp shift from one type of reading and writing into another, we took a slow curve. We started mining our own expressive writing for topics we could research, read, and write about in other forms.

For example, since our first major writing piece was narrative, we’d packed our writer’s notebooks with multiple quick writes that sparked reflections about personal events in our lives. Imbedded in these events were topics–topics that could lead to a search for information.

Take my student Jordan (name has been changed for privacy) as an example. He wrote a touching narrative about his first memory after arriving in the United States from Mexico with his parents. He was five. A few of the topics Jordan identified in his piece included: immigration, parent/child relationships, parental responsibilities, financial hardships, mental health, physical health, citizenship both in home and new country. Jordan had a lot of ideas to work with as he chose a topic for our next major writing piece, an informative essay.

Topic mining like this can take time. Many students had a difficult time putting a name to the topics they had written about in their narratives. They also had difficulty in narrowing down those topics. But this is the beauty of talk in a workshop classroom–students talked about their writing. They reflected on it more. They shared their ideas–and they gave one another, writer to writer, authentic feedback.

Photo by Bruna Fiscuk on Unsplash. Narrowing topics is often like this quarry: stair step it down until the topic is small enough yet rich enough to write enough. Photo by Bruna Fiscuk on Unsplash.

Of course, as my writers moved into thinking about their informational writing, I started sharing informational texts we used as mentors. This is when we challenged ourselves with text complexity. We read and studied structure and language use. We discussed objective and subjective views and determined if we read any bias. We delved into how writers use data and statistics or why they might choose not to. And more.

And the bounce from narrative into informational writing worked. And it worked again later as we moved from informative writing into argument and later into spoken-word poetry.

Topic mining like this saves time. More often than not, students stuck with the same topic throughout the school year they wrote about during the first three weeks of school. And with each deep dive into form, students practiced layering skills, be it a variety of sentence structures, precise diction, or good grammar. (Skills all learned and practiced via mini-lessons.)

Informational reading and writing is vital to the success of our students beyond high school. We know this. (Think contracts, lease agreements, college textbooks.) I think we also know that some informational texts are downright boring (contracts, lease agreements, college textbooks.) And if your students are like mine, any text over one page–no matter what the writing style–is not likely to get much more than a quick skim without some pretty intense pleading.

When students choose their topics, our chances of engagement–pivotal for learning–grow exponentially. And the student who chooses to write a narrative about her family getting evicted after her father’s illness just might end up being the adult who writes that complex lease agreement.

While not your typical complex informational texts, here’s two I’ve used with high school students with great success: Joyas Voladores and How to Change a Diaper both by Brian Doyle. (P.S. If you are not familiar with The American Scholar, it’s a gold mine of fine writing.)

I’d love to know your favorite informational texts you use to teach your readers and writers. Please list them in the comments.

Amy Rasmussen reads voraciously, writes daily, and chooses texts to use with students wisely. She’s an advocate for student choice in every teaching practice. She lives and works in N. Texas. You can find her on Twitter @amyrass, although these days she’s mostly a lurker.

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. 

Our Friends the Books Are a Way Back

As I’ve scrolled (endlessly, too much, really) through Twitter recently, I’ve stumbled across some teachers (even Carol Jago!) admitting how hard it has been to read as of late. This is understandable, especially so when many of our typical access points for reading are a barrage of news and opinions and stories of COVID-19. 

As for me, amidst the social distancing and the so many unknown’s, I’ve turned to my first and truest friends: books. When friendships proved difficult and sometimes elusive growing up, many adults in my life offered me books. Books provided companionship that taught me much about my own humanity and the humanity of others. Perhaps that’s why I’ve reached for books now and why I’m using them to connect in my home and to all of you. 

I’m including in this post a book that I am buddy reading with my fifth grader; books that my fifth grader has recently read; and books that I have read or am reading. There are friends that give me ways to share stories and grow with others. There are friends that challenge me, stretching what I’ve known into what I can know and become. There are friends that are old, inviting me back into their pages so that I can find solace and laughter. There are friends that will help me find my way back to all of you when next we socially convene. 

 

Screen Shot 2020-03-25 at 2.39.22 PMMy fifth grader and I are currently reading Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi. According to the eleven year old (11yo): “I think it gives a really good idea of the history of racism and anti-racism, even though, as Jason Reynolds says, it is NOT a history book.” When I asked my 11yo what it does, he explained that it goes through every detail from the earliest period on and tells a really good story through it. Although we aren’t finished yet, he would recommend it to other kids and adults because “it shows how bad people have been.” One example is what happened to Black soldiers from the 25th Infantry Regiment: “they were kicked out of the army and some of them had been falsely accused of killing a bartender and wounding a police officer. These soldiers had been the pride of Black America and had done much for their country.” I recommend it as well, for fifth graders to adults. Jason Reynold’s remix of Stamped from the Beginning uses a conversational tone that shifts to sarcasm at just-right points to reinforce the gravity of the history and perspective shared. 11 yo and I take turns reading, and I ask him follow up questions. I wish I had this book to challenge and expand my worldview at his age. Yet, here we are, growing together.

 

Two other books the 11yo has read recently include Jerry Craft’s graphic novel New Kid and Nic Stone’s Clean Getaway. About New Kid, it focuses on seventh grader Jordan Banks who gets sent to a private school where all the students there are white, and it shows how hard it is to fit in when you are different than everyone else. The graphic novel makes it engaging, especially where it “includes parts from Jordan’s notebook” (11yo thought this was cool!) that he keeps to process what he experiences at school. New Kid is recommended too. Clean Getaway, in 11yo’s estimation, “tells the story of a kid who sneaks away and ends up on a road trip to Mexico with his grandma, where he learns more about his grandpa and his past on the journey. There are lots of surprises throughout and the pictures and point of view of Scoob make it exciting and fun to read.” Each of these books helps 11yo explore and engage with different perspectives. 

 

Two books I’ve read recently, in addition to reading Stamped, continue to challenge me to be a better human: Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson and How To Be An Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi.  Just Mercy tells the story of the founding of the Equal Justice Initiative and its work to seek justice and mercy for those whom our system and policies consistently fail. I appreciate its call to action–that “all of us can do better for one another. The work continues.” In How To Be An Antiracist, Kendi interweaves his own story with critical history to distinguish between racist, assimilationist, and antiracist, culminating in a powerful analogy, one that should inspire us to do better. Both books are accessible to high school students and would be excellent reads for AP Language, AP Government, or AP US History classes. 

And, I’ve found myself thumbing through old favorites like Mary Oliver’s poems from Red Bird (and her other volumes), which remind me to look to the birds, look to the brilliance of their energy, look to all that’s thriving as spring blooms. Your students might respond to Spring, The Sun, Red Bird–each with their own light. When I’ve needed a laugh I reach for Allie Brosh’s Hyperbole and a Half, excerpts of which you can find  here; the stories about the birthday cake and the dinosaur costume spark laughter for their graphic depictions as well as the persistence of the young Allie Brosh and the insistence of her memories.  I’ve found needed solace by re-reading J.K. Rowling’s(okay, and maybe watching the movie, too) Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban, resting in Dumbledore’s assurance that “Happiness can be found in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light.” Perhaps, as you connect with your students in the days ahead you will consider sharing the words on which you lean.

 

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Finally, in my ever-expanding curiosity about instructional coaching, I chose to read Jim Knight’s Better Conversations: Coaching Ourselves and Each Other To Be More Credible, Caring, and Connected. I appreciated the simple statement that “When trust exists, there is learning, joy, and love,” and this point seems most poignant as I think about connecting, face to face, sans screen. It won’t be just about physical closeness, but emotional, too.

Books remain steadfast friends, the friends I have that will lead me back to all of you, a better person, ready to do the work alongside you. 

Kristin Jeschke is, besides a reader, a mom to an eight year old and an eleven year old, who are also readers. That is to say, books are among our dearest friends. She also serves as an Instructional Coach at Waukee High School in Waukee, Iowa. Follow Kristin on Twitter @kajeschke.

AP Lang Students Read a Variety of Texts: Student Voice and Student Choice Increase Both Volume and Love of Reading

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The Firm; Congo; The Tipping Point; Under the Banner of Heaven; A Deadly Wandering; Crazy Rich Asians; All the Missing Girls; Blackberry Winter; Memoirs of a Geisha; The Omnivore’s Dilemma; Unbroken; In the Time of the Butterflies; The Power of One; The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks; Inventing Human Rights; Where the Crawdads Sing; The Time Traveler’s Wife; Blink; The DaVinci Code; How to Stop Time; Thinking Fast and Slow; Girls and Sex; One Hundred Years of Solitude; There is No Me Without You; Dark Money; Deception Point

I recently asked my eleventh grade AP Language and Composition students to share with each other their “favorite” books from the school year. I explained to them that they didn’t have to choose just one, and they didn’t have to pick the top book of the year if they couldn’t decide. They just had to list some favorites. They were happy to oblige!

The variety of topics and genres was a lot of fun to see on the list.

Some of the nonfiction that was popular wasn’t necessarily a surprise. I’ve loved some of these titles, too.

I read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks last summer and loved it so much that I bought four copies for my classroom library. I thought it was a great book for many reasons – it appeals to students who love science, history, ethics, and great writing. Several of my students have read it this year, and it made the list of favorite books.

One of my students read Inventing Human Rights during the first half of the year, and she’s still not over it. She went on to read A World Made New: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights because she was feeling inspired.

Another one of the titles that I have heard several students talk about this school year is Peggy Orenstein’s Girls and Sex.

 

Because of their interest and thoughtful conversation about this book, I ordered a copy of Orenstein’s new book, Boys and Sex for next year’s new classroom library books.

 

AP Lang titles

The Firm; Congo; The Tipping Point; Under the Banner of Heaven; A Deadly Wandering; Crazy Rich Asians; All the Missing Girls; Blackberry Winter; Memoirs of a Geisha; The Omnivore’s Dilemma; Unbroken; In the Time of the Butterflies; The Power of One; The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks; Inventing Human Rights

My students aren’t just reading nonfiction, even though that is the primary focus of AP Lang.

Congo and The Firm are some classic thrillers that some students have nearly inhaled, they’ve read them so quickly. All the Missing Girls is a more current well-loved title, and it’s not just a thriller; it’s written so the timeline is backwards, which makes it a bit more complicated to follow, and I love that my students are tackling this kind of challenge.

Another work of fiction that doesn’t ever seem to be on my shelf – it’s always checked out – is Crazy Rich Asians. I made sure to order another copy as well as the rest of the trilogy, so next year I’ll have some happy students.

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There are quite a few titles that have made the list of favorites, and most of them are from my classroom library rather than our main school library. I truly believe that the immediacy of availability along with the daily book talks are what have made these books interesting and intriguing enough to my students that they try them out, take them home, and declare them as favorites.

Immediacy of availability along with awareness of their existence, plus the expectation and option of student choice become a powerful combination. Authentic readers like wildly different texts sometimes, and other times love the same titles, but are ready for them at different times. The poster with the titles is helpful for this because students can find recommendations as they are ready for them, and can choose their own timing.

The fact that sixteen and seventeen-year-old students have favorite titles makes me happy. The fact that these titles are smart, thoughtful, and challenging is even better.

Julie has been teaching secondary language arts for more than twenty years, spending the first fifteen in rural Central Oregon, four in Amman, Jordan, and the most recent school years in Managua, Nicaragua. 

Follow her on twitter @SwinehartJulie

Finding More Time…

neon signage

Photo by Ivan Bertolazzi on Pexels.com

My notes for this blog  (notes that I made in July when I was a VERY different person – pregnant, rested, unfamiliar with the work of Mo Willems…) say that I should write a blog about – not focusing on test prep as testing season begins to rear its ugly head. 

I’m not going to write that blog post…yet (growth mindset…?). 

No, instead, I want to discuss how conferencing and station rotations (which Shelby Scoffield wrote about here just a few days ago) are making my return to the classroom from maternity leave a lot less daunting than I feared it would be. 

First, I really hope that non-moms/dads (paternity leave is just as important as maternity leave) didn’t stop reading…give me a few paragraphs and I’m hoping you’ll find there’s something for everyone. 

Here we go –  there’s a lot of stuff out there about GOING on maternity leave: lesson plans on TPT, blogs, questions about finding subs, questions about who should do the grading while the teacher is gone, questions about structure and organization (elementary teachers rock this part)…and lots and lots of ink shed on how important it is to leave school at school to focus on time with your new baby. Let’s just say I tried my best to go full Elsa and let it all go once our little nugget finally arrived. But with my return to school looming, I knew that I needed to start thinking not just about WHAT we would do when I returned but HOW we would do those things. What attitude did I want for my first few days back? What messaging did I want to send my students? And… I haven’t found a lot out there about HOW to return to class. Apparently, it just goes smoothly for everyone, right?

So with all of that in mind and disappointed that the Internet didn’t just provide a magic answer, I decided to treat this return kind of like the beginning of the school year – a fresh start for us all. So I took a good hard look at what was working for this group of students and what needed to change and began to make plans with those thoughts in mind. 

I also knew that I wanted to hear from the students about their progress while I was gone as soon as possible. So I’m conferencing with all 135 students for 10-15 minutes over the next two weeks. At the suggestion of a friend, I offered them the metaphor of swimming to help them prepare for the conversation. I want to know how they “swam” while I was gone. Did they turn into Michael Phelps and just crush AP Lang while I was gone – putting in extra time, going the extra lap, eating multiple pizzas in a day? Did they just tread water – keeping their Lang muscles moving and loose but not really going anywhere in the pool? Did they get out of the pool completely and take up residence in a nice desert somewhere with no pools or water in sight? I’m going to let them drive the conversation for the first part of our conference – here’s where I am – and then take their temperature (I know, I know – mixed metaphors) to see what they need from me in the next few weeks to feel more comfortable. I’ve made a list of the items they covered while I was gone, and I want us to converse in the last few minutes of the conference about the top 2-3 we should focus on together. Plus, I teach neat students, and it’s going to be nice just to catch up with them. A lot has happened for me in the last 10 weeks; I’m sure a lot has happened in their lives as well. I want to hear about it. 

From here, I’m hoping that the conversation with each student will help put them at ease as we start working together again AND will help me figure out where we are as a group. After these “Check-In Conferences” are over, we will begin our regular writing conferences – looking at pieces they wrote while I was out. 

Now – this second stage of conferencing is where station rotations are key. Before the baby, I would get to work around 7 and stay until 430 or so – holding 15ish conferences throughout the day, using most of my time at school to meet with students and then taking home the grading and the planning. I’m not sure I can sustain that pace right away – if ever again. So I need to find time IN CLASS to make conferences work. Enter MCM’s – for the normal person this is Man Crush Monday – for us, it’s Multiple Choice Monday. 

We work a multiple choice passage from released AP Lang tests every Monday. Normally, students take their MCM individually for 15 minutes. Then, they turn to a neighbor and discuss their responses: “I got A for #1 – here’s how I chose that answer. What did you get? Oh, you got B? Let’s figure this out together.” This process can take anywhere from 5-15 minutes depending on the passage.  I give them the correct answers, and they self score. Then they turn back to their partner and discuss just ONE tricky question now that they know the answer. Finally, we regroup as a class and discuss any questions they are still confused about. I rarely do the talking here but ask for student volunteers who got the question right to explain their thinking. Honestly, if we have to do test prep (and we kind of do), this metacognition/discussion/student driven prep is the best method I’ve ever used. 

So, knowing that I needed some class time to conference, I began looking at how we spent our time and where I could work in conferences routinely. MCMs seemed like the perfect place. Here’s my thinking (and any feedback would be appreciated because while station rotations, MCMs and conferencing aren’t new to me, combining them all together is): 

  • Station 1: Students individually take their MCM
  • Station 2: Students chat in pairs about their MCM results – this would be my empty starting station – students can’t complete this station until they’ve done Station 1 obviously. From here, they would either place their MC answer sheets on my desk/in my hands at the end of this station OR grade their own/discuss and then turn their work in.
  • Station 3: Some kind of writing/peer review station working on a skill we’ve been discussing in class
  • Station 4: Conference with me – I think this would be a good time to group students based on their feedback from the “Check In Conference” and work on those skills in small groups.
  • Station 5: Apply what we discussed in Station 4. (For students who start in station 5 – they will do Station 3 work here and then do Station 5 work where other students do Station 3 work. This group will probably be my most self directed group.)
  • Closing as a whole class – we return to the answers and either grade OR discuss as a whole group. 

For all of these stations, I’m stealing an idea from Catlin Tucker about using video directions at each station so students have your overview of each station, written directions AND a video of verbal directions to rely on. I LOVE the possibilities this simple tweak opens up.

This process can obviously be finetuned, but I’m excited to work in small group conferences into my class every week in another routine way while still maintaining my individual conferences at a less breakneck pace. 

Like I said at the beginning of the blog, I was planning on writing something else entirely. I 100% used this post as a place to process some of my thinking. Thanks for following along – if you have suggestions or feedback, I’d love to hear it. Happy Monday!

Sarah Morris teaches AP English Language and Composition, AP Seminar, and Film as Literature in Murfreesboro, TN. She is currently binging old episodes of Jeopardy with her husband like the two little nerds they are. She tweets @marahsorris_cms.

 

Building Reflection through One-Pagers in AP Lang (and letting kids be kids)

The end of the semester is stressful for teachers and students alike. Students have essays, projects, presentations, and other summative assessments due, and teachers have to assign and grade them.

This semester in AP Lang, I decided to assign an assessment that wasn’t overly-stressful. These are eleventh graders, after all. This is the toughest year of school they’ve had: their semester was full of PSAT, SAT tests, more AP classes than they’ve taken before, and generally harder classes than they’ve seen before. Plus, the stress of growing up is looming. Their senior friends are applying and hopefully getting into college. They can’t deny it anymore. They will be adults so soon.

Meanwhile, they are still kids. They are kids who are taking AP Lang and learning about structure and rhetorical devices; it’s no longer about what they think the message of the text is, like when they were in the lower grades. It’s somehow different. Their brains are full and sometimes fried.

That’s not to say that we don’t have fun in our class. We laugh, we discuss issues, and we learn. We also independently read together.

Our focus on independent reading gives them some autonomy that they don’t necessarily get in other classes. It also means they have a responsibility to pick books, drop books, and read books. A lot of them.

Which brings me back to the last assessment of the first semester. I assigned a one-pager which included reflection, facts, rhetorical analysis, and art. Eleventh grade students don’t usually create art in an AP level assessment (unless it’s an art class, yes), and they loved it. LOVED IT.

I know some AP teachers are all about teaching their students about the “real world” and I get it. Yes, the world is big and tough and sometimes mean. When they are adults, deadlines will matter a lot and sometimes no one will care about an individual’s opinion, and certainly crayons and colored pencils likely won’t be part of their college career or actual career.

But you know what? My students are still in high school. They aren’t adults. They still like to color and draw. (And don’t many adults in the real world like to do this, too?)

I sometimes allow my students soft deadlines – because let’s be “real” – the adult world has soft deadlines, too. For example, this post was supposed to be ready back in December! But real life happened, and the wonderful women who are in charge of this blog gave me a pass, which was necessary and for which I am grateful. I’m okay with teaching my students that the “real world” is like that, too.

Back to the summative assessment: My students brought their semester reading to class: actual copies of books, readers/writers notebooks with lists of what they had read, dropped, and loved. They brought their markers and colored pencils. And they brought their positive energy. It was one of the most fun days of a summative assessment I’ve ever experienced.

We posted our one-pagers in the hall so all of our secondary students can browse them when it’s convenient.

The final one-pagers were fun to make, fun to read, fun to grade, and now that they are publicly posted, they are a great way for students to talk about who reads what and how much. It helps with the development of our reading community, not just with our eleventh grade students, but with all of our secondary students.

I’ve posted about this topic before, but I think it’s worth mentioning again. It’s a nice wrap-up to the semester and it encourages students to celebrate their reading successes, which leads right into deliberate and informed semester two reading goal-setting, which we are working on now. (Stay tuned!)

Please don’t misunderstand. My students write essays and take tests and do research. But I don’t believe that all of those types of assessments are necessary at the end of a semester or school year (there are other times for that). This individualized reflection coupled with the group “going public” by posting in the hallway is powerful. Students see their growth and can celebrate it, but they can also see where others are and maybe set their sights even higher than if they’d stayed private with their goals.

How have you wrapped up your first semester, AP or otherwise? I’d love to learn some new strategies and ideas.

Julie has been teaching secondary language arts for more than twenty years, spending the first fifteen in rural Central Oregon, four in Amman, Jordan, and the most recent school years in Managua, Nicaragua. 

Follow her on twitter @SwinehartJulie

When Your Teaching Life Throws You a Curve…

Hit a home run.

Or at least make contact, get on base, and rely on your teammates and experience to get you across home plate.

This new year, the new decade, reminds me that teachers often face new challenges and situations. Think about that student who transfers into your school nine days before the semester ends or the joy and then horror that flashes through your mind when you see that new copiers have been installed.

Sometimes though, we face new adventures that even vast swaths of experience cannot prepare us to handle the way we parry and deflect most of what’s throw at us. For me, a move away from athletics pushed me toward new classes that revealed just how comfortable I had become in my almost decade working with seniors. Last year freshman English and freshman Pre-AP English classes taught me about patience and pacing. This year sophomores and AP juniors force me to flex muscles I never knew I had and push me to explore the boundaries of my workshop pedagogy.

For those of us who face the anxiety of teaching a totally new class, a new unit of study, or even a new lesson, consider this advice:

  1. Lean on the pillars of experience around you.
  2. Trust the reading and writing workshop process.
  3. Build a team.
  4. Explore your literacy.

I’ve been blessed to leap into these last two years, and the change they promised, with groups of teachers who had been there before and knew what to expect.  Their knowledge and willingness to support me allowed for less time learning new content and more time planning effective lesson delivery.  While I have many questions, they seem to always have an answer that guides me back on the pathway to success.

Lean into the workshop that supports reading and writing because it invites literacy learners to feel safe within the routines and community that literacy learners need. New learning happens much easier then the teacher and the students feel comfortable and safe with each other.

Growing your support system beyond your teaching team is important. Living on front street with your students about your inexperience can be a scary proposition, but it can also invite them into the type of relationship where they understand that you will all grow together and that they are not the only ones being asked to shoulder a growth mindset. As for the adults in the building, instructional coaches are there to help you and support you, looking for clues to the type of help you need, listening when you struggle, celebrating your successes because they own a piece of your potential. Lastly, but no less importantly, build relationships with your administration. Extend the invitation for them to be in your room and learn about the students that pass through your life on a daily basis.  Admin isn’t there solely to handle disruptions or crisis. Rather, they, like every other educator in the building, have a vested interest in the success of your students and deserve the opportunity to experience your greatness.

Never forget the value of reading and writing beside your students. When you aren’t sure how to fairly and authentically assess the writing tasks you ask your students to perform, write your own response.  When you ask them to revise their writing, invite them into your process to help you explore your ideas.  They will jump at the chance to support your writing the way you support theirs. Share your reading life too.  Your reading life will engage them just as deeply, and as they learn more about what you like to read, they will learn more about you and, perhaps, about their own compassion.

Most importantly, trust the process. Believe in yourself in the face of new experiences. You owe it to the students and to yourself.


Charles Moore recently returned from a 2025 mile road trip vacation where he learned about new people and places and loved every minute of it. He encourages everyone to try to visit the Martin Luther King Jr. Historical Park and The King Center. Bring some tissues just in case a high school band spontaneously shows up to play for Dr. King.

Author’s Chair

 

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Every educator has the ‘moment.’ I wish I had a cute name for the ‘moment’ that would make it sound both adorable and relatable – but I don’t. I’ve never named it beyond just the description of it to loved ones and close teaching friends and confidants – but I’m betting you know the moment. That moment where you find yourself googling what other careers you can pursue with a degree in English or Education that isn’t teaching. 

You still love the kids. 

You still love the work. 

But, man, has the work felt like work recently. 

And that’s the moment. When you’re drained and empty and tired and the best way forward is a little bit of fantasy: I could just start an Etsy business and live off of that – sure, I don’t really make anything people are interested in buying, but I could. I  could just take a year off and write the great American novel – sure, I don’t have any ideas for that novel, just some opening pages and some really, really vague outlines (in the vein of stuff happens to people and it’s awesome), but I could. I could just find a job doing data entry somewhere – sure the nine to five would be sooo boring and I hate numbers and data and I’m not sure I could fake even a little bit of joy for that process, but I could… maybe…

I found myself here in 2014, and a teacher friend suggested I apply for Summer Institute with my local Writing Project. This experience was and still is a literal life-changing event for me. Finding a group of like-minded teachers who wanted to deeply invest in a research based development of their practice through yearly inquiry projects was transformative. Finding opportunities to both learn from other teachers who were still in the classroom as well as opportunities to teach other teachers was and is encouraging and growth-inspiring. Five years later I’m still active with MTWP and still continuing to grow and learn from that community. 

Currently on maternity leave, I’ve found myself thinking about my practice a lot. I thought I would spend a portion of this time at home -in between feedings and diaper changes – worried about my students or the interim or how the class room was going without me. And, sure, those thoughts have crossed my mind a time or two, but mostly when I’ve thought about school at all I’ve found myself thinking about my practice in a macro-sense from the beginning of my career until now: what are my “greatest hits” if you will.

When I taught sophomores several years ago, I incorporated a game-changing strategy I learned at MTWP: author’s chair. Every two or three weeks, students would share their writing with the entire class. The process was simple.

Students would sign up to share their writing with the class at least once a nine weeks. Usually we would share every second or third Friday, and the sharing would take the entire 45 minutes. The sharing student would move to the front of the room and sit in my chair, stand behind the podium – whatever made them comfortable – and then share a piece of writing. They could share whatever they liked – a polished piece, something from their notebooks, something they wrote just for this occasion. The point wasn’t WHAT they shared but THAT they shared. After they read their piece, the class would simply, in unison, say, “Thank you for sharing.” And the next student would move to the front of the room to share. I would share as well – often sharing bits and pieces of my unfinished great American novel (eye-roll emoji here). It was powerful for me to remember how anxiety inducing it can be to share your writing with other people. Often I think teachers forget this part because we aren’t sharing our writing and don’t have to feel the nerves and/or we forget the painful part of this practice because we’re so focused on the gains that sharing can have for a student. 

This simple practice increased our classroom community: we were all in the writing process together – writing, revising, sharing, receiving and giving feedback. Students were motivated to write more and in addition to what I was asking them to write in class – they brought in songs, poetry, narratives, a choose your own adventure, comics, satires, op-eds. Together, we enjoyed a wonderful season of writing for the sake of writing and sharing, for the most part, because we were proud of what we had written. 

When I moved to teaching only AP Lang, I moved away from author’s chair, mostly for timing reasons. There seemed to be so much to cover in AP and I was still getting my feet wet with the curriculum that I felt like I needed the time. In this moment of reflection for me, I’m realizing -again- that ultimately students just need to write, to write and to share -even when it doesn’t feel like there’s enough time.

Sarah Morris teaches AP English Language & Composition, AP Seminar,  and Film as Literature in Murfreesboro, Tn. She is currently binging The Mandalorian with her three week old daughter – we’re both equally enthused. She tweets at @marahsorris_cms. 

 

 

 

Organizing Classroom Libraries — One Teacher’s Answers

My job as an English teacher is to empower my students to discover, identify, locate, rediscover, find, and fall in love with the books that speak to their souls and their hearts.

In order to make that happen, I have to have a dynamic classroom library. A year and a half ago, I didn’t have anything on my shelves in my classroom, but because my school, my family, and my colleagues are on board with the vision of robust classroom libraries, my library looks a whole lot better than it did then.

We’ve raided the school book room, collected our main library’s discards, purchased books off of facebook and other “garage” sale type of venues, and we bring back hundreds of pounds of second hand books in our suitcases at every opportunity. (I live in Nicaragua, which complicates the book buying at times.) We spent our entire English department budget on classroom libraries last year, so this fall we felt like kids in a candy store when we were setting up our new classroom libraries.

Each time we are blessed a new influx of books, we have to think about storage, and more importantly, organization. It’s essential that we store and organize our books so that students will be drawn to the shelves and compelled to read new books.

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I haven’t had any experience that tells me that labeling and micro-leveling books is what makes my students want to read. Quite the opposite. What I read also tells me that labels aren’t for public display on the spines of books or on the front of organizational book baskets. They are tools for teachers to use, which may help them with a cursory understanding of texts before they can get to know them better.

My job as an English teacher is to empower my students to discover, identify, locate, rediscover, find, and fall in love with the books that speak to their souls and their hearts.

My experience and observations tell me that organizing my books by general level and genre is what works best for my classroom library. That rotating book displays pique student interest in titles they might not have noticed or cared about in the past. That topic, passion, and enthusiasm can sell a book to a student a whole lot more convincingly than a level or a label can.

My classroom library is split into four basic sections:

  1. middle school fiction
  2. young adult fiction
  3. contemporary fiction
  4. nonfiction

I do this out of necessity: I teach three sections of seventh grade English and two sections of AP Language and Composition. It’s important to have some distinct sections for these students so they at least have a starting place when they browse for books. They do tend to meet each other in the young adult fiction shelves, and there isn’t much that stops them from “shopping” on all of the shelves.

Within those four sections I have subsections, however.

I have grouped some middle school fiction into some general categories: magic/fantasy, mystery/scary, realistic fiction, historical fiction, books in a series, sports, and shorter/easy reads.

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In the young adult fiction section I caved to a student who really wanted a romance section (why not? I thought). I’ve also grouped some of these books into a “books in a series” section, a mystery/horror section, dystopian, and a sci-fi/fantasy section. The section on World War Two shelf was created because I have a number of students who are gravitating towards that topic right now. It’s not comprehensive, and it mixes middle level, young adult, contemporary fiction, and nonfiction, but it is what’s working for my students right now, so it will stay for at least a while.

That’s the whole point. Our classroom library organization is based on what works for my students. It wasn’t prescribed by any “experts” or mandated by anyone outside of my classroom. It’s authentic, preserves student emotions and privacy, and the shelves are open to whomever would like to browse them.

There is a tiny bit of leveling – three levels plus nonfiction, but this leveling is more about maturity and content than text leveling.  It’s certainly not the microlevels of Lexiles, A-Z, or AR that some libraries employ. It’s helpful rather than restrictive.

Because the books are organized into these smaller topic or genre sections, students have a helpful place to start looking that isn’t rigid. I feel like it’s the best of both worlds because it gives students a direction and a guide, but not rules or rails they have to live between.

Simply because of the space and shelves that I have in my room, I’ve added a subgroup of poetry, plays, and picture books section in the nonfiction corner.

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This is a corner that needs some work. As I add titles to my classroom library, I will deliberately look for poetry and drama, as well as relevant picture books to add to these shelves.

While I have these semi-permanent organizational ideas, I also have some rotating book displays.

Right now, my AP Lang class is starting a research project. One of their sources needs to be a book with either endnotes or footnotes, so I’ve collected many of my classroom library books that meet that requirement and put them on display.

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This display changes about every week or so, sometime with deliberate purpose like this one, and other times it’s just whatever comes to mind. Some recent displays have been around the topics of time travel, aviation, The Great Depression, and sports. Anything goes when it comes to displaying a collection of books.

Another way of displaying and organizing books is by what is popular with students, what the teacher is currently reading, and what’s been book talked in the last day or so.

These are all examples of rotating book displays, and they rotate between every other day, and every couple of weeks. It’s a matter of doing what makes sense for the type of display it is, and what the current needs of the classes are.

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So once the books are organized and on display, students actually start to look at them! It’s a miracle, and a wonderful feeling when they get interested and excited when they haven’t been in the past.

At that point, a check out and return system becomes key.

Mine is old-fashioned and easy to navigate. It’s a spiral bound notebook and a pen. Pretty simple.

Just because it’s low-tech doesn’t mean it doesn’t work. Quite the opposite. Students know to check out books and put them in the return basket when they are done. Sometimes they cross out the original entry of their  returned book, but mostly all they have to do is put the book in the return basket and I’ll find their name and cross it off and then re-shelve the book.

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The return basket is right next to the check out notebook and this sign which reminds students that the honor system is what makes this whole thing work.

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The classroom libraries in our hall are open to all of our students, so often students from other classes wander in to my classroom looking for books. The system is the same for them as it is for the students I currently have in my classes. All of the students at our school are our students; all of the students have access to all of our classroom libraries.

If some students have books out for a long time, and we don’t see those students on the regular because they aren’t in our own classes, we rely on each other to ask those students about those titles, which means we often get books returned promptly with that simple system. Our department has a shared google doc and we list the students’ names and titles that are checked out, so we all have that information at our fingertips.

Our organizational and check-out systems are thoughtful and simple, and can be adopted by almost anyone. There may be other better, different, or more complicated ideas and systems out there that work for people, but I wanted to share ours because of its simplicity and effectiveness.

How do you organize your classroom library, and what philosophical beliefs to you hold that are behind these practices? I’d love to read your thoughts in the comments.

Julie has been teaching secondary language arts for more than twenty years, spending the first fifteen in rural Central Oregon,  four in Amman, Jordan, and the most recent school years in Managua, Nicaragua. 

Follow her on twitter @SwinehartJulie

In Pursuit of Something New

 

photograph of a pathway in forest

For the first 11 years of my career, I coached high school volleyball. This is my first year not coaching, and, well, there are mixed feelings. I love the increase in time at the beginning of the year; I miss the girls.

Coaching was never one of my life goals. While I enjoyed playing and loved the game (regardless of what game I happened to be playing), I never wanted to coach. After all, I spent four years accruing debt while training to become an English teacher, not a coach. So even though I thought I was prepared to teach,  I wasn’t prepared for the realities of the job market. I was offered a job in my first interview – a job that was conditional upon my agreement to coach volleyball. I hesitated in the interview long enough that the principal repeated himself, thinking I hadn’t heard him make the offer. 

In retrospect, I’m so thankful for that condition; I fell in love with the profession, with the competitiveness, with the players. Volleyball became a refuge during that challenging first year of teaching. I would leave the classroom, wondering if anyone had learned anything, feeling as if I was just tossing spitballs at the wall and praying something stuck. But then I walked into practice. In practice, I could offer advice for hitting harder, watch the player take that advice, and see immediate improvement. It took me, embarrassingly, four years to see that the two professions weren’t mutually exclusive. Once I began to apply some of my instructional best practices to the game, I became a much stronger, more effective coach. Getting there was a struggle, though.

Even though I’m no longer coaching, I still find myself thinking like a coach in my classroom at times. Of late, I’m reminded of one of MY high school coach’s favorite sayings: don’t lose what we have in pursuit of something new. Her point was that when students or players or even people are learning something new, sometimes they start to falter with a skill that they already possess. Essentially, the already learned skill gets put on the back burner as the brain processes a new skill and finds room for both in their new “map” of their brain. (I linked to a blog series there by Eliezer Yudkowsky – it’s a deep dive, but worth it.)

Teaching a jump serve often meant being patient with a flat-footed serve getting a little wonky.

Teaching a new kind of genre of writing (like rhetorical analysis) often means being patient with students conflating genre conventions. 

So what to do? Well, I’m still pulling from my bag of coaching/teaching tricks – so much of strong teaching is predicated on timely, accurate, accessible feedback. 

Here’s what not to do: When I first started coaching, I found, for good or ill, my first team was motivated by high expectations and immediate negative feedback. I became quite accomplished at breaking down incorrect movements and offering players extensive negative feedback (don’t hold your arms like that, feet together, faster, slower, higher) but not so adept at offering positive feedback (good job, nice hands, did everyone just see how she hustled after that ball? wow!). My positive feedback tended to be vague and repetitive. Shouts of “Yes!”  and “Way to go!” peppered our practices. Completely ineffective. The players knew explicitly where their struggles were (I had made that public knowledge for the entire team), but their successes weren’t being praised, and their growth both as players and as people was stymied. Even though we had four successful seasons together – three trips to the state tournament, lots of hardware and local recognition – I failed to create players who thought of themselves individually as successful. We would all agree that the team was successful, but I doubt their inner monologues were encouraging, and I know the way in which they spoke to each other wasn’t always positive – their constructive criticism skills left something to be desired, a trait they acquired from their coach. In this gym, I was the sage on the stage – not the best example for my girls. However, I was blessed enough to work with a group of girls who managed to flourish even when given such weak soil from their coach.

How does this transfer to the classroom? Modeling and conferencing and workshop, oh my. 

We look at multiple samples to remind ourselves of what we should be doing. We conference together focusing on finding positives and one trend to work on for the next round of writing. We workshop multiple smaller versions of the final larger piece, focusing on higher order concerns and lower order concerns in low stakes settings. Knowing that good teaching is often recursive teaching, we revisit previously learned knowledge in mini-lessons and in class discussions so that the new knowledge and the old knowledge can be held in tandem in the brain.

None of this is a ground-breaking, panacea for some of the hiccups inherent in teaching new skills, particularly new writing skills. It’s just solid teaching, and for me, a reminder that learning is a complex process and that I have to plan effectively for students so that we don’t lose what we have in pursuit of something new. 

Sarah Morris teaches AP English Language & Composition, AP Seminar,  and Film as Literature in Murfreesboro, Tn. She is currently contemplating a re-read of The Name of the Wind – reading this book is like those conversations with friends who you might not speak to every day but pick back up with as easily as if you did. She tweets at @marahsorris_cms. 

 

 

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