Category Archives: AP English

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.

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. 

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

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