Category Archives: AP Language

On Writers’ Testimonies & Why We Need Them

If I want to call myself a writer, I better start writing. Seems simple enough, right? I’ve read tons of quotes from writers who say the best way to begin is just sit down and bleed on the page. But I struggle.

As I was trying to write this post, with my dogs barking incessantly at an invisible squirrel in the backyard, and The Walking Dead booming from the bedroom tv where my husband languished with flu-like blahs, I thought of all the tweets last week for the National Day on Writing (fantastic inspiration and ideas there).

tweet#whyIwrite

I thought of why I write:  to think, to feel, to clarify, to play with language, to vent and heal and commit to change. All the reasons that everyone else writes. I am not unique.

Or am I?

Recently, I’ve been reading and re-reading the writing of Donald Murray. (Learning by Teaching: Selected Articles on Writing and Teaching is my bible as a writing teacher. Huge thanks to my friend Penny K. for the recommendation!) But I’ve also delved into Murray’s Shoptalk: Learning to Write with WritersIt’s a collection on quote on writers about their craft. Murray states in the preface that he began collecting quotes on writing when in junior high, filling twenty-four three-inch-think notebooks with at least eight thousand quotations. His motivation? He just wanted to know how writers wrote. Murray explains the importance of writers’ testimony:

     Many people have the romantic notion, encouraged by those writers who feel comfortable in the magician’s robes, that writing is an instinctive matter of talent, an art, not a craft, and therefore cannot be explained.

     But writing is not an unintelligent act. Writing is a craft before it is an art, and writers can and do discuss their craft in terms we can understand. There are good reasons teachers and students of writing should hear what writers say about their craft.

     . . . I bring writers into my classroom through their written testimony. As writers of today and yesterday–female and male, young and old, poets and novelists and playwrights and nonfiction writers–talk about their feelings and their problems while writing, my students discover that their natural responses to writing are often the same as experienced writers.

     This is vital. Students facing a writing problem will often find they have to solve it by starting over and will fell they have failed. When they read the testimony of experienced writers, however, they discover that they too act like writers and this increases their confidence in designing their own solutions to their own writing problems. School often teaches unnatural, non-writerly attitudes toward writing–know what you want to say before you say it–and students need to see that their own instincts are the instincts of published writers.

     Students also need to see that writers are not looking back at a finished text but are in the act of confronting the blank page–or looking at the world before their is a page; trying to get started; trying to keep a text on tract or following it off track; working to make a text clear to themselves and to a reader. Writer’s counsel isn’t distant, detached from the act of making; it is immediate, speaking to the writer in the middle of making, a master sharing the tricks of craft with an apprentice at a common workbench.

I need these reminders–for myself and those I hope to take on the identity of writer, other teachers and students alike. Murray explains:

Too often we defend writing as a skill, saying writing should be taught so that students can fill our a job application or write a better letter asking someone to buy a cemetery lot. Writing is a skill on that level, but it also a craft and an art; it satisfies an essential need of the human animal.

So how do I share more writers’ testimonies? How do I help satisfy the essential need of the humans in my care daily?

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Here’s some ideas:

  • Share some quotes on writing by writers. There’s lots of insights in that link and even some nice images like the one above.
  • Share Poets & Writers and follow on Twitter, too. I love their weekly update.
  • Read and share articles from NY Times Writers on Writing. This one by Amy Tan is a favorite and makes a fantastic mentor text to write beside.
  • Think, write, model, talk, share, and repeat with writers every single day. Let them know they are not alone in their pursuit of putting meaning on the page.

When I brought the barking dogs in, and before the tv went off and the zombies faded out in the bedroom, I heard a line that gave me pause. It went something like this: “This place is a canvas, and we are the paint. We were sent here to create. We did.”

I don’t know about you, but I think that relates to writing. I write to paint my world in the swirl of language, to create images and goals and imaginings, to figure out what I feel and think and know. I write because it feeds my need. I am human, so I write.

Amy Rasmussen writes most often sitting at her newest DIY project, a desk she repurposed from a vanity her paternal grandfather made for her grandmother over 70 years ago. She lights a candle and listens to Michael Bluble radio on Pandora. And when she gets stuck in her head or on the page, she reads. Follow her @amyrass

Nothing New Under the Sun?

So many thoughts came up as I read Maggie’s post last week, the same day the American people, indeed the whole world, had a chance to witness our judicial process unfold in TheCrucible_940x470-678x381real time. My very first thought was, “I’m going to read The Crucible aloud with my AP students, too.” Miller’s play is one of the core texts of the junior English curriculum. Having promised myself that this year, I intended to provide my AP students with as much of the RWW as I could while still “covering” everything, this idea was perfect.

the-crucible-3360718-59ac57cf0d327a0011aa0fe9My next thought … politics. In the play, Reverend Hale is one of the few characters who exhibits any change in thinking. He observes. He listens. He struggles to negotiate his worldview when what he sees and hears doesn’t fit. Reverend Hale — indeed the whole village — experiences the crucible of accusation, doubt, and disintegration.

By definition, a crucible is “a situation of severe trial, or in which different elements interact, leading to the creation of something new.” The “something new” in Salem? Miller concludes, “To all intents and purposes, the power of theocracy in Massachusetts was broken.”

My hope is that our study of this play will evoke conversation about our current democracy, about whose voices are heard, about whose voices are (at the risk of further mixing david-butow-brett-kavanaugh-senate-vote-friday-1literary allusions) a little more “equal” than others. And how can this “interaction of elements,” lead to the creation of something new, perhaps some power structures that need to be broken? 

So, what to do with this as teachers of writing, and to glean something practical from our own real-time crucible? My students will write an “Open Letter” essay as we study The Crucible to explore concepts of voice and audience. (McSweeney’s is a great source for open letter examples of all kinds. I want to provide an opportunity for them to give voice — their own — to what matters to them, directed to the audience that most needs to listen.

Writing Conferences: Stories, Schemes, and Strategies

Conferring is hard brain work. When do I listen? How do I listen? When do I talk? How much? How do I anticipate what a student needs? When do I step back and let them problem solve? Am I even conferring right? (Maybe not. So put your Judge-y McJudgers pants away while you read this.). As Shana explained in this post back in January, there’s so much value in talk, in engaging our students in conversation, in encouraging them–as Amy framed here— to tell the story of how their writing is going.

Because (as Tom Newkirk suggests) we have minds made for stories, over the years I’ve begun to recognize some common schemes while conferring. Recognizing these patterns frees me to listen and to respond. Perhaps you’ll recognize the stories of your own students in the stories I share. Perhaps you’ll pick up a strategy or two. 

The What-Did-I-Do-to-Myself Conference

This conference may typically begin from a position of fear–mine because my student’s eyes have suddenly become two daggers, piercing my helpful, loving heart. This occurred in a recent conference, where my student who chose ice cream as her multi genre research project topic hurled at me these words: “I don’t know how I’m supposed to write an argument about ice cream.” Was she complaining about lack of direction? Instruction? I took a deep breath to let go of any defensiveness I felt. Then I reflected on her question. Oh. Oh! The fear was not mine to have.

My student needed:

  1. to hear that to write about this is, indeed, possible.
  2. to understand the possibilities for executing the writing.

Conference next steps:

  1. I confirmed the correctness of my reflection by paraphrasing (So, what I think you’re saying is that you’re feeling pretty uncertain if you can, and if you can, what it looks like?).
  2. Once confirmed, I chose another seemingly tiny and narrow topic like tacos and verbally processed some options for how I could craft an argument for an audience on tacos. I did not do any written modeling or reach for any mentors at this point. My role in this early phase conference was to dispel fear, to affirm possibility, and to confirm faith in my student’s ability.

Student next steps:

Following this verbal modeling, my student disarmed with affirmation and a smile, she continued working in her notebook, mapping her argument and the rest of the multi genre.

The I-Need-to-Change-My-Topic Conference

This conference may typically begin from a declarative statement: “Just so you know, I’m changing my topic.” I’m being put on notice here.  But I delight in these William Carlos Williams “this is just to say” moments almost as much as ripe-n-ready plums. So, curious now, I say, “Tell me about why you abandoned the old topic” (I’m always thinking we can learn something from discarding topics) and “Tell me about the new topic.” That’s when my student in this case explains that the topic is music but that’s all he has. Hmm.

My student needed:

  1. To narrow his topic by sinking his teeth into the best tidbits of it.
  2. To get moving. And fast. IMG_2711.JPG

Conference next steps:

  1. With the topic so broad, I asked the student to tell me a story that shows his relationship with music.
  2. Once the student shared his story–one that involved him writing his own music and performing several songs at a local concert venue (Our students do amazing things!)–we mapped out a plan for the different parts of his multi genre text.

Student next steps:

With a story in his head (and probably a song) and a general plan mapped out, this student left for the day, ready to focus on more specific planning.

The So-Can-I? Conference

This conference may typically begin and end within a very short burst of time; a meteor shower during the Perseids, this conference starts with a short burst of light from the student, a recognition of how to apply a resource. In a recent case, the student examined a resource on possible argument structures I shared with the class, and ingenuity bursting forth, queried, “So, I can use the pro/con structure? And, can I make this modification to it?”

My student needed:

  1. To know that he has more freedom than he’s using.
  2. To have the affirmation necessary to keep burning bright.

Conference next steps:

  1. I replied,” Tell me a little more about that” and followed that with paraphrasing, “So, what you want to do is . . .?”
  2. Then I simply said, “Yes.” 

Student next steps:

Following this all-of-sixty-seconds-conference, the student returned to mapping out writing, synthesizing his own ideas with the resource. And, I spent five minutes with the next person instead of three.

The I-Know-I-Need-to ______ , But . . . Conference

This conference may typically begin with candor from the student. Like the first sip of lemonade on a hot summer’s day, it’s so refreshing to hear in response to my opening questions (How’s the writing going? What roadblocks are you running into?), “I know I need to _______, but I’m having a little trouble.” Ah. This can become an opportunity to model for the student or offer a micro-lesson; sometimes–like in a recent conference where my student wanted to build a more humorous tone–I help the student find or use mentors. **Note to self–I should probably start asking my students to tell me about mentor texts they’ve turned to when they’re tackling challenges. 

My student needed:

  1. To resolve gaps in skill level (impressively, one’s the student recognized).
  2. To access additional resources  for strategies.

Conference next steps:

  1. For this student working on narrative writing, I pulled David Sedaris’ “Let It Snow” and a couple of others.
  2. Then we talked through typical strategies a writer uses to develop humor.

Student next steps:  

Time well-spent, smiling now, my student worked on reading and studying the mentors.

 
The I’m-Avoiding-Letting-You-Read-My-Writing Conference. May also sometimes appear as the I-Don’t Have-Any-Writing-to-Show-You-Yet Conference

This conference may typically begin, well, haltingly–like a first time driver slowly circling around the empty high school parking lot. I’ll ask, “How is the writing going? What roadblocks are you hitting?” “Doin’ fine. No roadblocks.” Okay. Next approach. “Why don’t we look at a section together? Show me a section you feel really good about. Let’s celebrate what’s working!” Sometimes that gets us turned in the right direction (a smile and an oh, sure and we’re underway); sometimes we skid (uh, so, um, I don’t really have much yet. Uh-oh.). When I most recently tried this approach, my student offered, “Well, I really like this paragraph; but I’m not sure about how to develop it more.” 

My student needed:

  1. to feel safe enough–safe enough to embrace the opportunity or safe enough to admit to lack of progress.
  2. to have re-direction for what conferring might look and sound like. Sometimes they just don’t have the mechanisms down.

Conference next steps:

  1. In the first situation, I generally point out the parts that are really working in the section the student chose to share. I thank them. Then I ask if there’s anything else they want to share or questions they have. And, sometimes I get to look at more writing. I did in this particular case. And, had I not pressed gently, I don’t think I would have (I was kind of impressed that it actually worked!).
  2. In the second situation, I paraphrase what they might be feeling. I might say, “I imagine you might be feeling ___________ (stressed for not having more done; frustrated by how to begin; confused about the direction of your writing; etc.). They typically correct me if I’m wrong and we work together to plan next steps, even if it’s breaking down the process further.

Student next steps:

In the first situation, the student began applying feedback; in situation two, the student typically articulates what’s getting in the way and what resources are needed and then begins tackling a small goal (drafting a paragraph versus drafting the whole thing).

When I’m conferring, I’m listening, paraphrasing, questioning, re-teaching, modeling, affirming, finding resources, building possibility, and showing my students that what they write matters. No wonder my brain hurts.

Kristin Jeschke remembers with fondness the many teachers that encouraged her writing but especially Greg Leitner who always listened more than talked. And who always inspired her to keep writing. Now as an AP Language and Composition teacher and senior English teacher, Kristin appreciates the gift of moments spent conferring. Follow Kristin on Twitter @kajeschke.  

 

 

Elvis had it wrong: a little MORE conversation

End-of-the-school-year-Sarah is so hopeful, so starry-eyed, so confident that this will be the summer that it all gets done. See, at the end of every school year, I make a giant list of all of the ways I want to improve for next year. I go through all of my chicken scratch post-it notes on old lesson plans, through the emails I’ve sent myself throughout the year (often-times labeled “this” as if that’s helpful or useful), and the articles I’ve saved to my feedly account. I shove all of this nonsense into a google doc and then start working my way through this mess of things that briefly inspired me last year but was marked as not important enough to look at or implement in the moment.

I wade through the torrent of ideas throughout June. I keep some of it. I toss a lot of it. I look for trends.

This year I noticed that a lot of my ‘save for laters’ focused on feedback and building community – so many of my post-its from past-Sarah (who really over-estimated present-Sarah’s with-it-ness) focused on how community improves feedback and how both of these are built through conferencing. Feedback, building community, conferencing: these aren’t new topics for this blog. I’m just looking to add on to the wealth of information you can already find here from these fine people, like here, and here, and here.

I’ve approached conferencing in two distinct ways this year.

First, introduction conferences. We’ve been in school for three weeks, and in this time, I’ve conferenced with 95 of my 96 students for about ten minutes. Our conferences were simple. Students came prepared to answer five questions I gave them in advance, and I came prepared to listen/pepper them with lots of questions. Here’s a quick run down of those questions.

Question Follow-ups Intentions Realizations
How would you describe yourself as a reader? What have you read lately? What did you read for your summer reading book of choice?

Oh, you like this (genre/book)? Have you read ___? I hated/loved that book, what did you like/hate about it?

This is a softball question – it’s a simple yes or no but there’s a lot of room for impromptu discussions. For some of my students, we spent almost our whole conversation talking about our shared love/frustration with The Kingkiller Chronicles. I liked the opportunity to low-key assess who had already finished their summer reading. Some of their insights also prompted interesting conversations as well. I also liked that this first question highlights one of the most important parts of our class: reading. A lot of my students labeled themselves as “avid middle school readers.” They were big readers until the time demands of high school forced them to make some tough decisions. This conference, honestly, reinforced for my why choice is so important for high school students.
How would you describe yourself as a writer? Have you written anything lately? What does it feel like when you write? What about in-class writing? Or writing for fun? What did you write last year that you were proud of? When you sit down to write do you have a lot of ideas but it’s hard to get them out or…? I teach AP English Language so the majority of our class is writing focused. This allowed me to see who already thought of themselves as writers. We also had interesting conversations about idea generation which wasn’t intentional but it was useful information. Students’ perceptions of themselves as writers are deeply ingrained. Their definitions of what a “writer” is are also often limited. It will be fun to change some of those perceptions as the year goes on.
How do you learn best? What kind of learner are you? (For example, I’m a visual learner.) Not very many follow-ups here. This is a quick question. I want to group them by kind of learner homogeneously and heterogeneously throughout the year. LOTS of visual learners and, oddly enough, a lot who go home and rewrite their notes.
Last year, typically, how much time did you spend on homework? Why that amount of time? What other demands do you have on your time? What does your schedule look like this year? Honestly, I wanted to see what all these kids have on their plates. Some were very full:4 or 5 AP classes, jobs, sports, clubs. Some were less full. This also opened the conversation to talk about their interests as well. I teach at a Magnet school, and while I know that it can be a demanding school, sometimes I forget how demanding it can be. This reminded me to check with the APUSH and APCHEM teachers and make sure that we’re not doubling up or tripling up major assignments with students.
Do you have any questions or concerns or anything else that you’d like to share? No follow ups- just tried to ease some anxieties. My class has a reputation for being “worth it, but difficult.” I wanted to get ahead of any anxieties or nerves. This was so helpful. One, it allowed me to talk over strategies with kids BEFORE the strategies were needed. Two, it allowed me to walk through several accommodations with students BEFORE their IEP/504 meetings.

 

This was a highly time consuming endeavor, but I’ll never go back to not having these conferences in person. They were investments that have already started paying off – students are more willing to ask questions, to participate, to follow-up on assignments.

Secondly, I’m changing the way I grade in-class essays. Previously, students would write, we would workshop, I would grade, they would revise and then we’d all move on with our lives. Inspired by Catlin Tucker’s discussions of station work, I’m differentiating between grading (with feedback) and scoring (just the grade) this year. Students will write two AP English Language prompts in a six week period in class. For the first prompt, students will sign up for conferencing times during station time or before or after school, and I’ll grade the essay in front of the student, verbalizing my thinking, offering suggestions, answering questions. I’ll hold off on the grade (which goes into the grade book as a formative grade) until they have their conference with me. This will be a lot of time – ten minutes give or take for 96 students. BUT, I won’t take home a single essay. Then, after everyone conferences and I reteach as needed, students will write a second in class essay which I will only score (summative grade). Just scoring without the feedback will make grading these essays faster, but I’m also hoping that sitting down one on one will mean that we’re doing more with less, that more of the feedback will transfer to the student, that growth happens sooner.

Good teaching is about good relationships, and conferencing definitely helps to build relationships. What have you tried that’s worked for you?

Sarah Morris teaches AP English Language & Composition and Film as Literature in Murfreesboro, Tn. She has recently fallen down the rabbit-hole of Fallout 4, and she tweets at @marahsorris_cms.

Saying Yes

Over the last several months, I’ve been learning how to say yes. I know, I know. I should be learning to say no, right? When I run a Google search for articles about just that, it returns 571,000,000 results. Pressure, amiright? But I’m not talking about the kind of yes that over-commits me and zaps my time and energy. I’m talking about the kind of yes that disrupts the status quo, altering the time space continuum of my classroom. Here’s the snapshot of HOW I’ll be saying yes. 

Day Structure Notes
Mon. Deep Dive (1) with Reading: 40 minutes free reading, 40 minutes deep reading instruction Maybe start with a thinking puzzle or something that gets their brains going for a Monday.
Tues.-

Thurs.

Typical: Individual Writing Goal Work; Notebook Time (2); Reading Instruction; Writing ML; Independent Writing (3)

Special: Watch/discuss Othello, reading assessments, etc.

This is flexible.
Fri. Deep Dive with Writing: 40 minutes of writing, 40 minutes of collaboration (4) and reflection, 10 minutes of celebration (5) Maybe start with a class meeting or something that sets the tone of reflection and looking ahead.

Specific Ways to Say Yes

(1). Independent reading is important in my classroom: student reflections indicate the time dedicated to this reading helps some of my seniors (and my AP Lang. and Comp. students!) fall into books again. Recently, though, my students have clamored for more time. While ten minutes daily can significantly impact students’ reading skills, it is difficult for students (for a variety of reasons) to get into a state of flow with their books.

The yes: So, this fall my colleague and I are saying yes to Deep Dive Reading Monday’s, where students read independently selected books while we confer with them. We believe this may help us improve reading conferences as well (where I’ll continue to practice yes by not looking for correctness but rather conveying openness. Tell me more about that, I’ll say.). Deep study of reading skills–like closing reading a text or looking for dissonance in the text–follows. We want their thinking to flow

(2). Since we teach on the block schedule, too many transitions in a block prevent students from reaching a state of flow on anything. It’s a reason why I’ve struggled to integrate notebook time meaningfully and consistently. Embarrassment and the Emotional Underlife of Learning by Tom Newkirk along with Gallagher and Kittle’s 180 Days and Linda Reif’s Quickwrite Handbook challenged us to invent a schedule that allows for both deep flow and quick bursts. In particular, Newkirk notes the importance of thresholds, moments where we can invite our students to enter into writing without worry. If we want our students to build writing and thinking skills, we need to write– sometimes quickly and without censor.  

The yes: consistently integrating notebook time into our class schedules (I’m trying this for the first time, too, in AP Lang. Maybe it will help them generate ideas for Question #3 on the AP exam.).

(3). Of course there’s extended time for writers to write and for us to confer. Of course! Typically, I feel satisfied with the nature of conferences. An early stage conference this past spring gave me pause, however. When conferring on this student’s topic, I challenged the student to demonstrate his authority and knowledge on the topic, wanting only for him to successfully grapple with it, but mostly thinking to myself NO, NO, NO. He pushed back (NO, NO, NO.). I relented and said yes. Conferring a few days later, the student confessed he was in over his head and began a more open dialogue with me about next steps.

The yes: saying try it, try it and see what happens. In this case, the student discovered for himself, testing for himself whether or not his idea would work. There’s so much more power in that.

(4) Feedback is a critical part of empowering my writers. Yet with class sizes swelling, providing that nourishment becomes a greater challenge. I need to help my students improve the quality of the feedback they provide one another.

The yes: Friday Feedback groups. I’ll place my students into writing groups where students will choose some work from the week to share, critique, and ultimately celebrate. Yes, my students will receive feedback from others and from me, yet I’m optimistic that this consistency of the grouping will lead to feedback that truly feeds writers.

(5). In my last post, I wrote about ways to celebrate writing and reflected that I needed to regularly celebrate the progress of student writers, especially in the small moments. I intend to verbal high-five my way through conferring with students this year, yet I also want them to celebrate each other. We’re a family of writers, after all.

The yes: celebration. On Friday’s we’ll have students celebrate their writing–their words, phrases, moments. We’ll recognize the power and beauty and vulnerability in what they share, appreciating their progress, hearing how it starts to come together, in concert. 

The biggest yes, though, isn’t visible in this framework. This year we’re asking our seniors to create a multi genre research project. That in itself isn’t novel, not a new way to saying yes to possibilities for our writers. What we are saying yes to is time on the calendar that is only loosely planned by us, time for us–as Allison Marchetti notes in this post–to listen to our students. This is time to help them ideate, to help them plan, to help them read, to help them write, to help them think, to help them grow. How could we say no to that?

Kristin Jeschke actually says yes a lot, too much, in fact. She’s working on that. In between, she teaches College Prep English to seniors (soon to be re-named English 4) and AP Language and Composition. Follow her on Twitter @kajeschke.  

Persisting in the Face of Criticism

I have a confession to make…my AP scores were not what I was hoping they would be–wait, let me rephrase that: my students’ AP scores were not what I was hoping they would be. That’s the temptation; to take on the blame when the test scores aren’t what you hoped. I notice that most of us don’t take credit when the students do well, though. Interesting…

At any rate, back to my confession. This was our 2nd year of AP Lang at my school. Last year, my students scored fairly well–pretty similar to the national average–and I was pleased. This year, they had more 4s than they had last year but there were also more 1s. The average score dropped by .1. That doesn’t sound like a big deal, does it? In this age of high stakes testing, though, it is. There is always pressure to do better and better, to demonstrate that you are effective and that you’re doing the “right” things. I’m largely removed from that pressure because I teach in a private school, but the pressure comes from other places in that situation. Instead of pressure coming from admin or a central board, there’s pressure (real or perceived) from parents. I can make all of the arguments–different set of kids, 2nd year of AP (supposedly it takes 5 to really know the AP material and get “good” at it), etc. The arguments don’t matter, though; I want to give my kids the best opportunities that they can get, so it’s reflection time.

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As I look forward to next year, I have to think about what worked and what didn’t, and already the pressure to drop my independent reading has begun, at least for my AP kids. Here are some of those questions and my responses to them:

  • How can you sacrifice 10 min of instructional time every day in an AP class?
    How can I not? My AP kids especially are so overloaded with classwork (plus athletics and extracurriculars–at my school, it tends to be the AP kids who do or join everything)–that they have precious little time at home to read. These kids see reading as a chore that has to be accomplished, something to mark off before they move on to the “real work” of AP Calc or AP Bio. They’re reading in a grind but not at all for pleasure. How can I not carve out a little time every day (from my 53 minute class periods) to help them reconnect with that love of reading just for the joy of reading?
  • What about more multiple choice practice? You could do that in the 10 minute reading time!
    I could, but I feel that building the reading lives of my students will pay off dividends, even on those multiple choice sections. After all, there’s a degree of that that’s based on reading comprehension, so I think reading is a pretty essential skill for them to work on. Sure, I probably do need to build in more m/c practice, but I’m not doing it at the expense of my independent reading time.
  • If you’re going to let them read, shouldn’t you make them read on-level AP-worthy books?
    First of all, what exactly is an AP-worthy book? On the AP Language exam, students are expected to make connections in their writing and to use evidence from their reading, among other things, to support their connections and observations. Nowhere in the instructions or scoring guidelines does it say that only “worthy” texts can be utilized. A student can make an insightful connection between a prompt on civil disobedience and Nic Stone’s Dear Martin or Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy (one a YA novel, one a contemporary non-fiction) just as easily as he might refer to Henry David Thoreau. One more argue that the connection to the newer pieces could be even more effective because they may not be used as frequently as Thoreau’s essay. In addition, there is much research to suggest that adding choice to a reading program (check out Donalyn Miller’s post “I’ve got research. Yes I do. How about you?” for more on this) does more to promote an increase in reading skill and reading volume than anything else. My kids are Juniors, which means they’ll be going off to college in 2 years. These kids who have largely fake read to survive their work load (yes, even the honors and AP kids fake read) will be expected to read 200-500 pages a week when they’re in college, and too many of them are NOT ready. One of our 2018 graduates is taking a couple of classes of summer school before the full academic year starts, and she was shocked that the material on her sociology test came from the textbook chapters that she was assigned and not from the class notes that she studied meticulously. Yep. Welcome to college.
  • Well, don’t you at least have to test them or monitor them? How do you KNOW they are reading?
    This one gets me because it’s such evidence of the educational climate right now. I KNOW that they are reading because I’m talking to them. I talk to them every day about what they’re reading and the connections they’re making and about what they’re going to read next. They stop me in the hall to tell me that they’re mad at this character or that I’ve got to read this new book they just discovered. I have them write about their reading, using whatever they’re reading as support for their points. And I see the growth in their reading–it’s a pretty powerful thing to watch a student who states that she’s never done more than skim or fake read a book since elementary school dive into a new series and then, when she’s done, ask me for a suggestion because she feels like she wants to challenge herself and read something with more bite.

So while I am thinking about what tweaks and changes I’ll make for next year, I know for certain that independent and choice reading will continue to be an important part of my classroom plan.

What about you? What challenges do you face in your reading program? How would you answer these questions? If you’re looking for more support for your reading choices, check out these posts by Amber Counts here and here. And these by Amy Rasmussen here and here.

Thinking About Next Year – Already?

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Confession: I really struggled with where to take this blog post. I was worried that the onset of summer would bring fewer ideas or less will to write. Instead, I’m starting week three of my break, and my teacher brain hasn’t shut off once. I have too many zipping thoughts percolating upstairs to just focus on one. I’m constantly jotting down ideas for next year. I find my friends zoning out as I bring conversations (sometimes gracefully, oftentimes not) back to my new plans for next year. My TBR list is full of books about teaching (Teaching Argument, anyone?). I’ve jammed my summer schedule full of teaching activities: working with the College, Career and Community Writers Program; attending the AP English Language Reading, AP English Literature training, and summer AP PLC meetings (fondly called AP Allies). The list goes on and on. I might be obsessed with my job.

Confession: That obsession wasn’t always the case. The 2014-2015 school year almost did me in. Long hours, too many responsibilities, too few ‘wins,’ and an overwhelming certainty that I was both doing too much and not enough at the same time had me considering other kinds of employment. The kinds where you can go home at the end of the day and just be home. The kinds that don’t have you bringing home stacks and stacks of papers to grade, that don’t have you dumping hours of planning time into the job, the kinds that allow you to leave the problems of work at work. I’m not a quitter, and I came dangerously close to quitting the profession. I know that I’m not the only one who’s ever felt this way.

Enter the Middle Tennessee Writing Project. Recommended by a fellow teacher, this program rejuvenated my love for teaching, changed the way I approach the profession, reminded me of why I love the calling. We were required to choose from a list of best practices (I chose student agency) and work on improving that aspect of our craft for an entire year. Having just one overarching goal to focus on made the  upcoming year so much more approachable, made measuring any growth I achieved so much easier to ascertain. Focusing on student agency put the students front and center in my classroom again, right where they belong.

In the years since, I’ve continued to work on improving just one best practice every year. Instead of splitting my 100% between various small projects and doing a lot of tasks decently, I try really hard to do one task really well (I’m paraphrasing Ron Swanson here…). I’ve worked on incorporating more writing workshop in my AP classes and offering better feedback.

This year, inspired by the slowchat #DisruptTexts, my PLC is moving away from the whole class novel and implementing more independent reading choice. While brainstorming how this change would affect our writers notebooks and socratic seminar discussion schedule, we came to a few practical realizations:

  1. Modeled after AP argument questions, our essential questions are fairly broad, allowing students can take the questions in lots of different places. This broadness means that we need to spend some time teaching students how to break down each questions into all of its parts and permutations before they can begin to answer the question. This approach models what students are expected to do with each argument question (and to some extent synthesis questions as well).
  2. To address this broadness, we’re building in “intro days” where we spend a short 45 minute period breaking down the question into all of its parts: stakeholders, universal nouns/themes, “so whats,” other questions, connections to the real world, places along the argument spectrum. All essential pieces to consider before beginning to answer the question. We want to demonstrate in our teaching the value of listening, thinking, and planning before speaking, writing, answering.
  3. To highlight each beginning “intro day” for each unit, we plan on giving students colored paper to insert into their writers notebooks and ask them to do their notetaking/brainstorming for that question on that piece of paper. The colored paper will cause each beginning of the unit to stand out in their notebook, clearly separating each unit from other units.
  4. We plan on ending each unit with a socratic seminar and an in class writing – an assessment pairing that will pull together all the rabbit trails and threads we’ve chased throughout the unit. Honestly, we have no idea where these units will go yet. Hopefully, into deeper and deeper questioning and thinking, so we need some way to track the journey. We’ll ask students to collect their final noticings, observations, and remaining questions on another similar colored sheet of paper in their writers notebooks, giving the unit a clear, visual beginning and end.
  5. As we’re introducing choice into student reading and moving away from the whole class novel, we’re asking that students work with a classic American novel, a work of fiction, a podcast, a documentary, and a book of their choice at least once throughout the year. Helping students choose selections will undoubtedly present its own unique problems, but we’re expecting that students will work closely with our amazing librarians, book talk their books in small groups and with the whole group. After each unit, we will ask students to include their book on a class wide google document organized by question, with each selection tagged with universal nouns/themes and a short review. Hopefully this will help other students choose future selections while also crowdsourcing a “if you like this, you might like this” text.
  6. We’re supplementing those independent reading selections with lots of smaller mentor texts. Because we’ll have more room for smaller texts for in-class discussions and the small texts sometimes get lost in the shuffle of the year, we’re going to ask students to create and keep a bibliography for each small text in the beginning of their writers notebooks. They’ll provide the citation for each smaller work and answer two small questions for each entry:What is useful about this text for rhetorical skills/writing? What universal nouns/themes/real world events does this text connect to? Hopefully, this will give students more practical knowledge to pull from for the synthesis/argument questions of the AP test and a way to organize their mentor texts.
  7. Finally, we need to model and practice on a smaller scale what we expect students to do throughout the year with these essential questions and independent reading choices. We can’t just toss kids into the deep end of our new approach to English. So, at the beginning of each semester, we will pose a smaller question and have students go through each step with more in-class support. We will use these smaller questions to teach independent reading selection and question brainstorming while substituting novels, podcast series and documentaries with essays, short stories, and individual podcast episodes.

MTWP’s insistence on best practices and focusing on one improvement a year was a game changer for me. This post is a very small glimpse into what those changes will look like for my classroom. And, to be honest, I feel a little bit like Tantor stepping into the river, but I’m ready to take the plunge. I imagine that if you’re reading this blog on your summer break, you, too, find it hard to turn off your teacher brain even on breaks. As you continue to plan for next year, my wish for you is rest, relaxation, and rejuvenation. But… if you, like me, can’t turn your brain off and you want to share, the comments and Twitter are open. We can tiptoe into that water together.

 

Sarah Morris teaches AP Language & Composition and Film as Literature in Murfreesboro, Tn. She has been binge watching The Wire and wishes she hadn’t waited this long to start the show.  She tweets at @marahsorris_cms. Happily posting from the AP Reading in Tampa, Fl.

 

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