Category Archives: AP English

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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AP Lang Learning

This year my conference period falls in the dead the middle of the day.  Periods one through three are versions of English II, featuring students who are learning English as second language and students with accommodations, along with general education students.

The last three periods of my day bring (mostly) juniors into the classroom for our AP Lang classes. Just like the morning classes, these classes feature learners who vary wildly in ability and performance levels. In the past, teachers have shared with me the opinion that AP classes don’t require a great deal of consideration with regard to differentiation and that these classes don’t lend themselves to reader’s and writer’s workshops.

Some teachers might say that having a conference period splitting two different preps would be a chance to switch gears and shift to a more traditional style.

I couldn’t disagree more.

I’m learning more about more about the content of AP lang, and I’m learning how to deliver that content through routines and practices in which I believe. Those routines and practices are grounded in workshop pedagogy.

Take, for instance, this recent lesson cycle:

Formative assessment data told me that the students were feeling comfortable with the “rhetorical situation” and identifying it’s elements. Assessment was also telling me that many of the writers struggled to express their understanding in their writing.

In my mind, this indicated they needed to see authentic responses where real writers wrote with a purpose similar to what I was asking them to write. Luckily, College Board recently released sample essays with scores and commentary. I could have (and will soon) shared my own writing, but these examples were too good to pass up, and I wanted the writers to start to make a connection between their writing abilities and what they will be asked to write between now and May 13th.

img_5796Taking one paragraph each from the sample essays, we read them like writers and explored the decisions and moves made by those writers. Our process of discovery put the cognitive load on the students and allowed me to serve as a “tour guide.” We learned how our argument skills can be applied to this specific writing task, finding new words to add to our personal dictionaries and use in our own writing.  We debated the use of claim and evidence and the utility of being intentional with the length of the direct evidence we blend into our argument. We examined the sentence structure decisions made by the writers and noticed how combining sentences can make our writing, and our argument, clearer.

A good friend of mine, someone with AP Lang experience, recently reminded me that a big part of analysis is about looking for repetitions and contrasts. Bringing this idea into our conversation unlocked deeper meaning and more writing territory we could explore.

Before we finished looking at the mentors, they were ready to dive back into their own writing. They moved into the independent practice portion of the lesson with confidence, but also questions, and I set about conferring with individuals and groups depending on the needs of the learners.

I won’t say it was a mystical vortex of learning, but I will say that this turned out to be exactly what they needed at that moment. Meeting their needs based on what I learn from many different streams of data helps me get there. The data part is a conversation for another day.


Charles Moore is attempting to recover from the beat down he received in fantasy football ….from his wife. He is thrilled to look forward to ILA 2019 this weekend as he is co-presenting with two amazing teachers about how novels-in-verse can be used to help English learners.  Their session is Saturday at 11 am in room 295.

Maybe the Best #MentorText I’ve Found Lately

Don’t you just love to find mentor texts that make your head spin with ideas? Okay, maybe it’s just me.

But take a look at this one and see what you think:  The 25 Songs That Matter Right Now, published in the NY Times.

I’m not sure how I’ll use it yet — I’m still trying to get my head wrapped around teaching seniors everything they can possibly need to know to be successful as readers and writers beyond high school when I only have them in class one semester. (We are on accelerated block.) But this text is way cool, and I think most of my students will like it.

It’s got music and images and music started playing without me even doing anything.

It’s got analysis and commentary and reflection. It’s multi-modal!

As I begin thinking and planning for what comes next in my instruction, I’m moving this to the top of my mentor text stack.

I’d love to know your ideas on how students might write beside it. Please leave your ideas in the comments.

 

Amy Rasmussen teaches senior English at a large suburban high school in North Texas. She loves her school, her students, and adding mentor texts to her ever-growing lists of “We Could Do This to Learn That.” She’s a bit of a fanatic about matching readers to books and writers to whatever it takes to help them amplify their voices. Follow Amy @amyrass — and if you’re reading this, our team would love it if you follow this blog if you aren’t already.

A Reverse Approach to Multiple Choice

I know–yuck.  Multiple choice?  On a blog about workshop?  This post may seem like the odd man out or the one that doesn’t belong here, but please keep reading!

While a multiple-choice assessment is certainly not a form I want to use in class, it is inevitable my students practice the format for the AP exams.  The challenge for us teachers is to make the practice meaningful without taking practice tests over and over again (No thank you, “Drill and Kill”). This year, instead of making these exercises something we do, I want students to see these as something we workshop.

First, my language has shifted from “Let’s complete this multiple-choice practice” or “Let’s working on our timing” to “Let’s dig into this passage and create meaning together.”  I am hoping students begin to see the passages as a challenge to unlock and discover as they inquire about meaning rather than a 15-minute task.

I am also shifting how we work through the passages, igniting the workshop mindset of reading, questioning, re-reading, and making connections.  Sometimes we will read the passage together out loud, look up unfamiliar terms, paraphrase, and annotate, creating meaning together before examining the questions.  Othertimes this close reading is done in pairs and students work the questions together. Another strategy, done in peer groups, is what I call “Reverse Multiple Choice.”

Although the process takes a bit of planning and sometimes typing on our end, I think it is worth it (there is a sample linked at the end to get you started, too!).  In summary, students are grouped and given each part of a multiple-choice selection–the passage, the question stems, and the answer sets–one at a time, then asked to answer the questions after a lot of process thinking.  

Students have enjoyed working together to break the monotony of practice selections as this becomes about thinking and talking with one another while still developing the thought-patterns necessary for working through passages on the exam.  Starting this practice early in the year, I notice students immediately learn to share any thinking or ideas surrounding the “gray areas” of a text and to not shy away because they aren’t sure of the correct answer (that is exactly where they should be in the fall!).

Here are the steps as you would implement them in your classroom (please note the time required will be determined by your students or your expectations of how quickly they are to work, the times provided are just suggestions and will differ with the text):

  1. Group students into clusters of 2-4 with their desks circled.
  2. Distribute a multiple-choice passage and ask students to independently read and annotate as they would on the exam (7-9 minutes).
  3. Once completed, ask students to chat about the gist of the passage in their groups, allowing time for questions and clarifications (2 minutes).
  4. Pass out the passage’s Question Stems, without answers, in random order.  Invite students to work through the questions as a group, referring back to the reading and writing what they believe the answer is as if they were open-ended questions.  Some questions may require students to think in reverse (i.e., students may list what elements are present if the question stem asks “Which is NOT present…” or a similar variation), but all questions will get students talking about their thinking (10-15 minutes).
  5. Once completed, pass out the Answer Selections, again in jumbled order, and ask students to pair the appropriate Question Stem and Answer Set together.  I like to use numbers for the Question Stems (step 4) and letters for the Answer Sets (step 5), so students know to pair a letter to a number (3-5 minutes). 
  6. If you’d like, you may check that student groups paired the Question Stems and Answer Sets correctly before distributing the full question set for the passage.  Students then, using all of their thinking and notes, work together to answer the multiple-choice questions (8-10 minutes).
  7. In whatever manner you’d like, reveal the correct answers.  I have found students want to understand questions they missed and other student groups can often explain the thinking that led their group to the correct answer.

I am hoping these varied, workshop-esqe approaches build student’s ability to process challenging texts through the processing of each component separately and build their confidence for making sense of the gray areas in challenging texts through the peer to peer talk.  This approach can be adapted for any test-prep we may be required to work in for state exams or standardized tests, too.

Here is a sample of the process using the 50 Essays Multiple Choice for  “Letters from a Birmingham Jail”

 

Maggie Lopez is:

A) Enjoying being back into the swing of the school year.

B) Currently reading How Soccer Explains the World by Franklin Foer.

C) On Twitter @meglopez0.

D) All of the above.

New Learning Territories and a Growth Mindset

I’ve mentioned before that I have two new “preps” to which I’m slowly adjusting. I’ve had a tendency to shoulder forward into new experiences with mixed results.  HulkSometimes enthusiasm and energy carry me through the learning part at the beginning. Other times, I’ve made mistakes caused by my straight-line approach that could have been avoided. Perhaps I’ve trended more towards the Hulk, when a more intentional, Bruce Banner style might have served me better.

Patience, I’ve learned in my old age, is truly a virtue.

Moving into the realm of an advanced class that focuses on rhetoric is a challenge all to itself. Couple that with a move to sophomore English where students have different literacy needs than the freshman I worked with last year, and I’ve gotten myself into a situation that demands open-mindedness, near constant reflection, and growth.

While these classes appear to diverge completely in content, I would argue that they have something important in common: an environment where workshop works.  In one class we learn about building narrative, in the other we explore the rhetorical situation. For me, success lies in the “invitation.” I can’t drag them towards a greater understanding of reading and writing anymore than I can make my daughter move faster when we are headed out the door in a hurry.

Examining the structure of a Rhetorical Precis recently, I took the risk of holding back the “notes” and letting the students tell me what they thought the elements of an effective rhetorical precis might be.  I had MY notes, of course, but the students built the anchor chart that we use. Unsurprisingly, each of the three classes noticed elements that the other classes didn’t, providing me valuable data and helping me understand the learners even better.

As I shared my writing with them, I had to be vulnerable. When they asked me about my writing decisions, I needed to have answers. This held true across both levels.

Our sophomores learned about creating effective characters, and it was their search through the mentor texts that informed their understanding, and those elements found their way into the writing.

We read self-selected books and utilize reader’s/writer’s notebooks in all my classes. They may diverge in content, but the importance in those connections remains paramount.

Conferring with readers and writers dominates the time before and after mini-lessons.  The effectiveness of one-on-one instruction doesn’t change because one student might read or write better than another.

One size does not fit all, and I know that teachers deserve autonomy.  The autonomy afforded me empowers our workshop to work in two totally different environments with totally different sets of students.  Their needs, however, are the same. They need to move forward in their literacy; be better tomorrow than they were today. The skills are different, but that’s where my work comes in.

This journey can not be survived alone.

I’ve learned, in a few short weeks, that the only path to success this year runs through a few very specific places: the office of our instructional coach, the room of my department head (from whom I’m learning how to teach rhetoric), and the room in which our sophomore team gathers as we plan our units and our lessons. It’s going to take a village to raise this learner.

I remain steadfastly committed to a workshop that centers on readers and writers, and the first five weeks of this school year have only strengthened that resolve.

Many of our readers at 3 Teachers Talk have brilliant ideas, and I hope to learn from our writers and our readers.  If you want to collaborate, email me at mooreliteracy1@gmail.com.


Charles Moore loves watching his son play football for the first time ever.  He loves to read, write, and learn along side readers and writers. Check out his twitter at @ctcoach.  If you headed to ILA, come see us at 11 on Saturday October 12th for our presentation on novels in verse. Our clothing will coordinate… I promise.

Hamilton or Burr?

If I hooked you with the Hamilton reference, YAY! But…there’s about four paragraphs before we get there, so here’s Weird Al performing a Hamilton medley.

We all know how important feedback is. And we all also know how much feedback we’re both getting and giving to students during every interaction: that sigh from the corner of the room, the eye roll at particularly bad puns, the way “That’s interesting” can be both a positive and negative for a student who volunteers in a class discussion, and the slump back into the seat as they try to figure out which one. We’re inundated in feedback, both coming to us and leaving us. Not to mention all the grading and conferencing and the feedback that comes with each of those. 

It’s a lot. 

So, to help make that feedback more focused for me and more reflective for my students, I ask them to complete a weekly feedback every Friday. Essentially, they answer the same three questions every week: what were your positives this week, what would you like more opportunities with, is there anything else I need to know. I particularly like the last question as it creates a place for students to show me a little of themselves as people and academics. 

My favorite response this week:  “In terms of my opinions, I am an Aaron Burr. (Don’t let them know what you’re against or what you’re for). I’d like to be at least a little bit more of a Hamilton, and I foresee your class providing an excellent opportunity for that growth.” 

Besides the Hamilton reference, I love the blunt honesty in this remark; she may already be more of a Hamilton than she knows. We often talk about current events and politics in our AP Lang class; of course, that could be uncomfortable for some for a variety of reasons. AP is at its core an argument class, so students are constantly asked to assume positions and defend them – sometimes with more zest and fervor than others. 

I appreciated the reminder that this practice/habit of argumentation can be scary or intimidating for some students or that they might not want to wade into the difficult or uncomfortable conversations in front of their peers, or right after that chem test, or in a place where their ideas may not stay inside the walls of the classroom or when they’re using the space to figure out what they actually think and why they think that way. So while this particular student might want to work to be a Hamilton – I’m betting I have a lot of Burrs sitting in my classroom. 

So what to do about it? 

I think it might be time to bring in an old favorite: Margaret Wheatley’s Willing to be Disturbed. Ultimately, a student’s comfort level with discussion and argumentation are directly related to classroom culture and that’s on me and my students to create. Maybe we can come to a place where we realize, as Wheatley says, “There is no need for us to be joined at the head. We are joined by our human hearts.” 

close up photo of book pages

Sarah Morris teaches AP English Language & Composition, AP Seminar,  and Film as Literature in Murfreesboro, Tn. She is currently watching the new Jack Ryan series and realizing it would be so much better if Krasinski and Pierce were just going through the plot of Jack Ryan but as their characters from The Office and The Wire respectively. She tweets at @marahsorris_cms. 

 

Becoming a Writer — Guest Post by Austin Darrow

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

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

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

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

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The Image by zephylwer0 from Pixabay

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

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

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

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

And so our work began.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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