Category Archives: AP English

Give Me an Inch, and I’ll Take a Mile…

back to schoolWrapping up the “back to work” week left me feeling energized and excited for the new school year to start. I’m teaching two new preps, sophomores and AP Lang, and, whereas in the past looking a blank calendar spiked my anxiety, last week my mind danced with literacy possibilities.

One point of origin for my ebullient confidence comes from small but important changes I’ve noticed over the past handful of years in the organization of the professional learning routines I experience in the week before the kids come back.

Gone are the interminable days of marathon “sit-and-get” informational sessions, and with them the mad scramble on Friday afternoon to make sure Monday will be about welcoming students more than merely surviving the cacophony of controlled chaos.

img_5675Our back-to-school schedule included many of the typical, district-mandated informational reviews. It was obvious that our administrators did their best to keep that time from dragging or being wasted, and for that, I am grateful.

What differed most from previous years was the amount of time I was able to spend exploring my needs. I found myself presenting at our district ELA professional learning day, meeting with my instructional coach to hash out plans, debriefing with my intern teacher, checking in with with my first-year teacher mentee, and writing the first mentor text that I’ll share with our sophomores as we attack persuasive writing. Overall, I was given a great deal of flexibility in the decisions I made about how to best take advantage of my time, something I truly appreciate.

However, I can’t help but feel that we could take this experience one little step further.  There is some part of me that wonders what would happen if I could design my own professional learning? What if I could work with my supervising administrator, and a few colleagues, to explore research and practices that could make me a better literacy teacher?

I’m trying to imagine a world where I could, along with some like-minded co-workers, explore my own professional learning path.

Who might enter into that learning with me?

There are some, I know who would walk blindly into the maelstrom, bringing with them knowledge and skills that would supercharge our efforts.  Others would bring with them their positive energy and drive to grow. It takes people with different ideas, willing to share, confident in themselves.

I can think of more than one literacy leader from each of our high school campuses who would welcome, and have welcomed, the opportunity to collaborate across departments, or even content areas. This cross current of efficacy intrigues me and feeds my desire to interact with teacher leaders.

What might that look like?

The most authentic learning experiences that happen in my classroom unfold as the kids take ownership.  In those magical moments I cease to exist and the kids fully shoulder their literacy growth.  The engagement explodes in a quiet bang and for a few brief moments I sit down, take a breath and enjoy anonymity.  This vortex forms spontaneously and when it does, I get out of the way. So often I wished to hit record and save those moments for times when I’m feeling discouraged.

This happens with adult learners too.  I’ve seen it, been in the eye of the storm as it swirls around me. Whether in the hallway in a chance encounter, in team planning meeting, or at a district curriculum review day, there is strength in numbers, and I long soak up what others bring to the table.

Maybe it starts with a research text that ignites and unites the interest of our learning group.  Perhaps a chapter from a professional text like – oh, I don’t know – something from Penny Kittle jump starts the vortex and teachers with similar goals, but different experiences find new territory to explore.

There might be readers and writers scattered haphazardly around the room. Some would whisper in pairs or stare pensively at their notebooks or a self-selected bit of research. Others might engage in lively and loud debate centered on the merits of a particular mentor text or skill. One or two tears might work their way out over the emotional connections writers build with their words or the connections readers build with the words of others.

I can see books being passed around, hear laughter erupting, and feel “eureka” moments; the language of learning.

What would be the result?

Teacher efficacy stands among the leading factors in student achievement and we can always push harder towards this ideal.  When teachers find energy in each other, almost nothing threatens success.

The authenticity that stems from teachers who feel empowered by those around and above them produce positive results. They nurture young minds and walk beside them through their educational journey. They feel free to share their writing and save in the vulnerability demanded therein.

Ultimately, the goal for all professional learning is growth, whether pedagogical or practical; informational or emotional. Whatever the goal, I want to continue my journey in the company of others. This “work” that I’m exploring can’t be done in isolation, and, while I know some amazing people in our ELA department that push me to be better everyday, there is so much more to discover.


Charles Moore is excited to set forth on his 18th foray into education.  He’s feeling humbled by his recent piece in Literacy Today, the ILA magazine.  Working with the High School Section of TCTELA has been both a challenging and rewarding experience, forcing him to exercise muscles he didn’t know were there.  Here is the link for TCTELA presentation proposals.  The deadline is Sept. 4th. Charles is grateful that he gets to spend so much time with his family these days and looks forward to his son’s first year of organized football. 

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Q & A: How do book clubs work in a Readers-Writers Workshop classroom?

Questions Answered

Book clubs, or literature circles as some like to call them, can be a real bonus when it comes to not only getting some students to read, but in helping students talk about books in meaningful ways and learn about literature through discussion.

I like to think of Book Clubs as discovery:  Students lead the learning. They choose the books they’ll read (often within parameters I give them) set their reading schedules, generate questions about their books, and engage in small group discussions. Each group discovers something, or a series of somethings, that strikes them as readers. Book Clubs by nature are collaborative, yet they can be powerfully personal.

“I really liked being able to just read the book and discuss it like a real book club would, not with any assignment. It gave me the freedom to enjoy the book and not have to focus on finding anything specific.”  Emily, 11 grade

When I first started doing Book Clubs with my students many years ago, I didn’t have a clear purpose or direction, and that often created a bit of chaos for me and my students. Although most students did the reading, I didn’t have a plan on how to teach into the reading or any notion of how to authentically assess learning.  I knew I didn’t want to teach books but to teach readers, and I knew what that meant when it came to self-selected independent reading — but not for book clubs.

I’ve learned that to have success with the negotiated choice of book clubs, I must do some heavy thinking before I ever choose the book titles. (My hope this coming year is that my students will choose the titles. I’ve never trusted myself enough to try trusting them to choose. I’m learning.)

Here’s a little list of questions I try to answer in order to clarify my purpose and to make a plan for accelerating learning within student book clubs:

  • What are my goals for my readers? What are my goals for my writers?
  • How can I help my readers and writers set their own goals?
  • What books can I offer as choices that will help students meet these goals? Do I include a variety of books that will meet the various reading levels of my students?
  • How will I help students set expectations for their reading and discussions?
  • How will I know if students are really reading? How can I help my students hold one another accountable?
  • What whole-class, skills-based mini-lessons might I teach when students are engaged in book clubs?
  • How might my students collaborate with other students who may be reading different books?
  • How might my students collaborate with other students, perhaps on a different campus, who may be reading the same books?
  • How will I assess student learning, based on the instructional goals I set for book clubs?

The answers to these questions guide my planning. Many of the answers look the same when applied to self-selected independent reading and student choice in writing. The routines of workshop remain the same:  We read, talk, write, and talk — every day. And I do a whole lot of listening.

There’s so much to say about book clubs, and I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all way to make them work. We have to know our students. We have know their needs and align those needs with instructional goals and practices that best meet them. I think book clubs are one good option for doing so, and I can’t wait to get them started in the fall with my seniors. I’m thinking we’ll do at least two rounds: memoirs and something social sciences, but fiction with multiple or unique perspectives could be interesting.

I’m still thinking.

Amy Rasmussen just spent a week in Chicago at a conference on poetry, hosted by The Poetry Foundation. Her notebook now sings with melodic musings and personal poems. In a few weeks, Amy will start a new position, teaching senior English at Hebron High School in Lewisville, TX. She’s excited about learning with young people again everyday. Follow her @amyrass

Filling your tank

Happy Summer, friends!!

By now hopefully you have had some time to recover from the hustle and bustle of the school year. My school has been out for over a month now, but that means that my summer is halfway over! One of the things that is so important for all of us is to find time to recharge over the summer break.

What’s the first thing that you think of when you think about recharging? I think about travel! My husband decided that he’d run a half-marathon along the North Rim of the Grand Canyon this summer, so we made a little fun trip out of it. Amazing! Oh, and while he was busy running around at 7000-8600 ft altitude (crazy man!), I spent about 4 hours reading surrounded by this gorgeous view! Win-win! 🙂

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But recharging can’t always just be about escaping life, can it? The other thing that I’ve done quite a bit of this summer is getting recharged by doing some professional development that has refreshed my teaching spirit and gotten me excited for the coming school year.

My first experience was as a reader for the AP English Language & Composition course. About 1600 high school and college English teachers spent all week reading about 1000 essays each to score this year’s AP Lang exam. Not only did I learn an incredible amount about this exam and what’s needed to do well on it, I also met some amazing educators from around the country. Think about it–I spent 8 hours a day with people who teach exactly what I teach! Talk about a PLC! We ate breakfast, lunch, and dinner together, and it didn’t matter if you sat down with a complete stranger because you had tons of things to talk about. Fabulous!

Next up on my summer of recharging was a week at an APSI (Advanced Placement Summer Institute). There are some changes coming in the way AP Lang exams are scored, and I wanted to take advantage of a week of training so that I could best serve my students. When I got approved to travel to this training, I decided to take the training with an instructor who I’ve admired for a couple of years. He’s someone who is in the same Facebook AP group (it’s an amazing group) and I’ve really appreciated the lessons that he shared and the way that he encourages others.

What happens when you go to work with a rockstar? Other rockstars are also drawn to the same place.  My APSI class was a master class of teachers, both experienced at teaching AP Lang and new to it. What an engaging and enriching week! We talked, we modeled instruction, we traded ideas for approaching the material–we did all of that and more!

Teaching can be an incredibly isolating career. Oftentimes it feels like we’re in this alone. This is especially true if you’re in a small school or a small department. For me, the summer is the time that I try to reach out and broaden my horizons. I try to find others who think and work like I do and then I soak up as much learning and experience as I can from those people. It refreshes me and rejuvenates me to go back into the classroom to get ready to help my new crop of kids grow and learn as much as possible.

Whatever you do to recharge this summer–whether it’s traveling or reading or digging into some incredibly PD–I hope that you enjoy your break and come back to the new school year refreshed and engaged and ready to broaden the minds of the young people in your care. If you’re looking for others ideas about professional development, check out this post about doing workshop, this post about finding mentor texts, and this post about great books!

Enjoy your break!

Q & A: How does workshop work to prepare students for college? (Or I love teaching these books) #3TTWorkshop

 

Questions Answered (1)I’ve been asked this question in several different ways:  How do we do this for college prep courses? How does workshop work in an AP English class? If I’m not teaching books from the canon, how am I preparing students for college? And we’ve written about it a lot on this blog. (See here and here and here and here and here and here for starters.)

Sometimes I think we have misplaced ideas about what is expected of students in college — especially if we were English majors, and our students may not be —  and perhaps some skewed ideas of what rigor looks like when it comes to high school English classes.

I first clued in when I read Readicide by Kelly Gallagher. No doubt, I killed the love of reading — and the love of the literature I loved — the way I “taught” the books I expected my students to read. (Most didn’t.) Since then, I’ve studied, practiced, implemented, revised, and stayed up late thinking about how I need to revise my instruction in order to best meet the needs of my students. All of my students — not just those in a college prep or AP English or those going to college — but every student in every English class in preparation for the rest of their lives. I want them to be fully confident in their literacy and all the gifts that will give them in whatever future they choose.

My students, not just those in advanced classes, or on a college-bound track, need to know how–

  • to think critically about their ideas and the ideas of others
  • to articulate their thoughts in writing (in multiple modes) and orally (with clarity and confidence)
  • to support their thinking with valid sources
  • to revisit their ideas and revise them when they encounter viewpoints that require them to extend, modify, or change their thinking
  • to verify sources, and identify and analyze bias

There’s power in these skills, opportunity and freedom — for our students and for ourselves. We do not need a list of “AP suggested novels” to teach them.

What we need is to build communities in our classrooms where students feel safe to engage in inquiry, share their thoughts, receive feedback, and give themselves to the learning process. Study guides, worksheets, TpT lesson plans, and the same ol’ same ol’ approach to teaching the same ol’ books will not cut it. Just because a book is considered of literary merit does not make the learning around it rigorous. Rigor is not in the text but in what students do with the text. (For more on this, see Jeff Wilhelm’s article “Teaching Texts to Somebody! A Case for Interpretive Complexity“)

What we need is to to know our state ELA standards or the AP English Course and Exam Description as provided by College Board. (I think the AP English Course descriptions scream “workshop.”) Then, begin thinking about and hunting for mentor texts, written in a variety of modes, that 1) prompt students to think in different ways about a different topics, 2) engage students in inquiry and class discussion, 3) spark ideas for research, and all along the way, invite students to write beside these mentors:  What do you think? What do you notice? What do you wonder?

At least this is the genesis of answering the question:  How does workshop work to prepare students for college? There’s so much more to it.

Resources that have helped me:  Write Beside Them and Book Love by Penny Kittle, Dr. Paul Thomas’ blog. Currently reading: Why They Can’t Write by John Warner, and the #1 on my summer reading list Handbook of Research on Teaching The English Language Arts 4th edition, edited by Diane Lapp and Douglas Fisher.

I once did a two day workshop, helping a district coordinator move her teachers into the readers-writers workshop model. In a reflection after our training, one teacher-participant wrote:  “I’ve been teaching for 24 years, and feel like I’ve been told I’ve been doing it wrong all along.” Nope.

But. . .

What if we could do instruction better?

 

Amy Rasmussen lives in North Texas where she thinks, ponders, and writes about how to motivate, engage, and teach today’s adolescent readers and writers. She will be spending a lot of her summer facilitating PD focused on readers-writers workshop in secondary English classes. Follow her @amyrass — and she’d love it if you follow this blog!

 

Q & A: Where do you find mentor texts for informational reading and writing? #3TTworkshop

Questions AnsweredHere’s the thing:  Finding engaging mentor texts, whether to integrate current events into lesson plans or use them to teach reading and writing skills, requires us to be readers of the world.

“I don’t have time,” I hear some thinking. Yeah, well, finding the time to read ourselves is the best professional development available.

Want to engage students more in independent reading? Read a wide variety of engaging and inclusive YA literature. Want to shake up literature studies? Read more diverse and award-winning literature. Want to bring real world events into the classroom for some critical discussion? Read a whole bunch of news.

There’s no secret to finding mentors that will work. We just have to do the work to find them.

We can rely on others to help. Kelly Gallagher posts the articles of the week he uses with his students — a good resource. Moving Writers has a mentor text dropbox — also good. However, what works for some students may not work for others. We know this.

We also know our students. We know the instructional goals we have for them, and we know what they need from us in terms of interest and ability (at least we should.)

So — read more. Read with a lens that will best meet your needs and the needs of your students. Sometimes we find treasure.

For me treasured mentors, particularly for informational texts — because they often get a bad rep — are those that are not boring. (In my experience, most students think info texts are boring.) Voice, format, and style = engaging real world informational writing.

I’m sure there’s more out there, but here’s three sources I read regularly. Sometimes I pull long excerpts, sometimes paragraphs, sometimes sentences to use as mentors.

The Hustle. “Your smart, good looking friend that sends you an email each morning with all the tech and business news you need to know for the day.” You can sign up for the newsletter here. Here’s a sampling of a great piece with imbedded graphs and data: How teenage hackers became tech’s go-to bounty hunters. This is a mentor I would love to use with high school classes.

The Skimm. (I’ve shared this before.) “Making it easier for you to live smarter.” Sign up for the newsletter here. The women who started this site are all about promoting and advocating for women. I like that. Their podcast is interesting, too.

Robinhood Snacks. “Your daily dose of financial news.” I’ve been teaching myself about investing for the past couple of years, so this one just made sense to me — the newbie-tentative investor. What I like is how the writers make the information so accessible — and they post a “Snack fact of the day,” which will often work as an interesting quickwrite prompt. Sign up for the newsletter here.

What about you? Do you have favorite resources to stay in the loop of the news or to find treasured mentors for informational reading and writing? Please share in the comments.

 

Amy Rasmussen spends a little too much time reading daily newsletters and checking her most recent stock purchases. Her favorite investing apps:  Robinhood, Stash, and Acorns. Really, if she can do it, you can, too. Amy lives, writes, and loves her family in North Texas. Follow her @amyrass

Q & A: How do I keep my students reading throughout the summer?

Questions Answered

Let us know if you have questions about readers-writers workshop. Throughout the summer, we’ll be posting answers.

Don’t you just love this question so much more than “What do you do for summer reading?”

Of course, we know to get to the “keep my students reading” part, we have to do a lot of work — sometimes a whole lot of work — to get some student reading throughout the school year. And those of us who give so much of our time to this heart work of reading, can feel sad, anxious, and exasperated when our students leave us and get “assigned” a book, or more than one, for summer reading.

For several years, my AP Lang students, many who were second language learners who took a courageous leap to tackle an advanced English class, would read stacks of self-selected books, and grow exponentially as readers, only to get handed at the end of their junior year a summer reading assignment and a list of study questions for AP Lit. Beowulf. This is problematic on so many different levels — but entirely out of my control. What could I do?

The only thing that made sense at the time was to encourage my students to form their own summer book clubs. I suggested they might set some goals to read their assigned text first, and then meet together to talk about it — similar to what they’d done in class in the three rounds of books clubs we’d done throughout the year. Then, they could choose another book and meet up again. Students took it upon themselves to circulate an interest form, and most students wrote that they were interested.

It didn’t really work. I was too busy in the summers to commit to keeping the idea alive. And we all know soon-to-be-seniors, or many teens for that matter:  Procrastination is their BFF.

I still love the idea of summer book clubs, and I know some schools are having great success with them. Hebron High School is one of them. The English department at Hebron is doing amazing things to cultivate a culture of reading, not just during the school year, but throughout the summer as well. They open the school library every Wednesday afternoon, so students can select books — and get coaching for college essays. They’ve got book clubs scheduled with teachers and coaches. They’ve got a wish list for books circulating within their community. Really fantastic ideas to keep the focus on the power of reading.

Scholastic recently released a report about summer reading trends. The report states that 32% of young people ages 15-17 read zero books over the summer — up 10% in two years. The report also states that “53 percent of kids get most of the books they read for fun through schools—so what happens for that majority when school isn’t in session?”

It doesn’t take much to know the answer. So what can we do? Besides following Hebron’s lead, here’s a few ideas:

  • Talk up your public library! Invite a librarian to come visit your classes, and get students to sign up for library cards. One of my biggest regrets at my last school is that I didn’t take my 11th and 12th grade students on a field trip to the public library. We could have walked — the library was that close. I know the majority of my students had never been inside, and every year I thought what a great activity this would be. Every year I didn’t do it. #ifIcouldgoback
  • Cull your classroom library, and let students take home books. I know. I know. Many of us invest so much time, energy, and money building fantastic classroom libraries, and we lose enough books throughout the year without giving them out freely at the end of it. But, really, what can it hurt? Every year I’d pull books that I felt I could give up and put them on the whiteboard rails for students to take home for the summer. (Sometimes they even brought them back.) It didn’t matter. I’d rather have books in kids’ hands than hidden under butcher paper in my closed up classroom. Kristin does, too:tweet about giving books
  • Give students access to lists of high interest and award winning books —  and free resources. Pernille Ripp shares her students’ favorite books each year. YALSA has great lists. And a cool new Teen Book Finder. BookRiot published “11 Websites to Find Free Audiobooks Online.Audiobook Sync gifts two free audiobooks all summer. Great titles, too!
  • Invite students to talk to you about their reading. Yes, even during the summer! Lisa does this in a slowchat on Twitter with students who will be in her classes in the fall. Students tweet her updates about their reading lives. She tweets back. It’s a great way to build relationships and share book ideas.

Every year I feel like I could have done more to keep my students reading throughout the summer. The truth is — we can only do what we can do. Sometimes it touches the right student at the right time. Sometimes we just keep trying.

I’m sure you have more ideas. Please share them in the comments.

Amy Rasmussen lives, gardens, and rides her bike in North Texas. She will be spending a lot of her summer with teachers facilitating PD around readers-writers workshop in secondary English classes. Her favorite thing. She’s also going to be doing a lot of writing. And a little poetry study at the Poetry Foundation Summer Teachers Institute in Chicago. Follow her @amyrass

One Pagers as End of Year Reading Reflections

Ending the year should be a ton of fun. Once the standardized testing season is over, it’s not time to let the days drag. It’s time to continue the learning, the fun, and the reflecting. As Angela wrote, it’s important to end the year strong, and on a positive note!

I think one-pagers are a great answer to some of the end-of-year-dilemmas we teachers face.

The possibilities for one-pagers seems to be endless. They are fun, they are hands-on, reflective, and what student doesn’t want to use markers and crayons in the classroom?

I’ve shared some of my experiences with one-pagers before, and I thought I’d share another idea or two here now.

At the end of the first semester, I asked my AP Lang students to reflect on their reading habits and experiences. This was our last assignment of the semester, and it was so fun and positive to grade. What a way to wrap up!

The requirements for the reading reflection one-pager were as follows:

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I modified this assignment from one a colleague shared with me. It originally focused on one book that a student would read for independent reading, so when I modified it into a semester reading reflection for AP Lang, I was unsure, yet hopeful, about how it would turn out.

One of the big differences between doing a one-pager for a book vs a semester reading reflection is the idea of What’s Your Number? I told students they could use any unit of measurement they wanted: pages, hours, books, chapters, inches, pounds, it didn’t matter. It just needed to represent their reading for the semester, as it acknowledges the accomplishments!

I was so happy with the results.

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I plan to ask my AP Lang students to do this again in a couple of weeks, but to focus on either second semester or the entire year, whichever they like.

It’s a positive way to end the year. It’s a celebration of learning and reading and growing, and it puts a smile on all of our faces.

How else have you used one-pagers in your classroom? I’d love to read all about it!

 

Julie has been teaching secondary language arts for twenty years, spending the first fifteen in rural Central Oregon, and the last four in Amman, Jordan. She’s thrilled to report that she and her family moved across the world to Managua, Nicaragua this year, and are loving their new adventure.

Follow her on twitter @SwinehartJulie

 

 

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