Category Archives: Conferring

How We Built our First 3 Weeks of Workshop

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Look at Sarah’s room!

A classroom built around flexible seating is amazing for kids building their literacy.  Comfy chairs, tall stools, and bean bags take a student out of a “classroom” mindset and into a creative work space that encourages ideas to flow across boundaries that might have been impermeable with rows and rows of sterile desks.

It works just as well for teachers building a workshop from thin air. You can imagine how comfortable that tan couch felt on the last Friday morning before the start of school.

Sitting in that room for this much anticipated planning session felt as comfortable as if I’d been there for a decade.  Five teachers with a singular focus gathered their resources and experience to put together a plan that was student focused and built on the foundation of workshop.   I got to know this group well at the Literacy Institute but I’m still trying to learn the full extent of their individual and collective power.

It is important, on our team, to be intentional and explicit with our lesson design.  The kids should know exactly what we are doing and why we are doing it.  They should recognize the moves their teachers make and take comfort that those moves were selected specifically for them. There is no reason to keep the “why” and the “how” a secret.

On this team, we typically build lessons with an eye towards a learning focus that starts with something like: I want you to know that readers/writers ….. do something. (Thanks Amy, Billy, and the Lit Institute.)

For the first three weeks, though, we talked about using: I want you to know that members of a Reader/Writer Workshop….do…one of the six pillars.  You get it.

Our curriculum documents, designed by teachers, contain a section devoted to the six routines of workshop instruction and the following are the routines around which we built lessons:

The Reader’s/Writer’s Notebook

Lesson Focus: I want you to know that members of this Reader’s/Writer’s workshop use a notebook to explore thier literacy.

Our “notebooks” look very different teacher-to-teacher.  Some of our classes will use traditional composition notebooks and some will use Microsoft OneNote in our explorations.  Either way, the point of having a safe and personal place to plan, draft, revise, reflect, etc. remains consistent across our classes.  Its not enough for us to ask the kids to have a notebook, they need to know the importance of having it.  Some of the kids struggled with following my set-up instructions because they were intentionally vague.

Student: “Mr. Moore, what categories do you want us to use to track our reading this year?”

Me: “That’s up to you.  Its your notebook.”

Self-Selected Independent Reading:

Lesson Focus: I want you to know that members of this Reader’s/Writer’s workshop take ownership of their reading and writing experiences.

I remember back to last year, and how much the kids struggled genuinely connecting to a book. Maybe it was the hurricane sitting out in the Gulf or that they really only had one year of workshop leading up to their senior year.  What ever it was, we worked hard to take ownership of our reading, so much so that I wrote about it here and here. (Looking back at those words is like seeing the words of a different writer, but I digress…)

Mentor Texts:

Lesson Focus: I want you to know that members of this Reader’s/Writer’s workshop use mentor texts to guide their learning.

We use mentor texts to teach kids how to read and write like a writer. The students need to know that we looking at the writing of others with specific intentions in mind. Its important to delineate the separate lenses of craft and content and constantly reinforce the importance and interconnection of both.

We planned for ways to write beside them.  When I write in front of my students it invites them to connect to a writer from their community.  This connection is between a student and a person that shakes their hand every day and smiles when they make eye contact. That’s an incredibly deep connection and one that I’ll leverage every chance I get.

Mini-Lessons:

Lesson Focus: I want you to know that members of this Reader’s/Writer’s workshop look at specific skills that we want to learn and then apply those skills to their reading and writing.

The skills we choose to highlight are intentional and our students need to understand that they aren’t chosen at random.  Not only that, but we aren’t going to spend more than a few minutes in our mini-lessons before we move back into reading and writing, with an emphasis on those specific skills.

Collaboration:

Lesson Focus: I want you to know that members of this Reader’s/Writer’s workshop listen to others share and provide feedback that supports their growth.

I can’t teach all 30 of them all the time and maintain any level of effectiveness.  We have to build a supportive community that  allows me to widen the feedback cycle from one, typically confident student, to 30 who are confident to share with their confidants. They need to know that the days of me asking a question and calling on one person for the answer are far behind us.  We practice the routine over and over. Ask a question, discuss in group.  Ask a question, practice their thinking through written response. Rinse/Repeat.

Oh, and they have to be trained not to shoot up their hands or shout out an answer when they are asked to notice something.  Instead, they will learn to sit in the silence and let their thinking wash over them in waves. Or maybe the metaphor is to peel back the layers of their thinking like an onion. Whichever you prefer.

Conferring:

Lesson Focus: I want you to know that members of this Reader’s/Writer’s workshop take advantage of opportunities to talk one-on-one with the expert in the room.

The importance of regular one-on-one conferences can not be understated. I’m not just “checking-in” on them while they read and write.  I’m digging into their thinking for places I can provide support.  We will explain to our students how important it is for them to be honest and open when we confer.  They can’t hold back due to nervousness or fear. Like Jerry Maquire said, “Help me, help you!!!” with that typically creepy look on his face.

 

Based on our planning sessions, impromptu secret meetings, and the genuine happiness in which we approach each other, I know this year will be my best ever and it is because of the work this team will do together to move our freshman class forward in their literacy.

Now, in all seriousness, lets cross our fingers and hope nature and fate don’t hit us with the same intensity as last year.  We all need time to heal a little more.  Let’s do it together.

Charles Moore had a quiet Friday night and went to all four of his son’s soccer games this weekend.  He passed El Deafo by Cece Miller back and forth with his daughter this weekend.  He put more than two thousand words to the page this weekend between his grad classes and this blog post; a new record.  He can’t wait to get back into the classroom Monday morning and learn alongside the students.  And he wishes you the same happiness he’s enjoying right now. Visit him on twitter or instagram.

 

 

3 Ways This Year Will be the Best Ever!!!

Can you feel it coming?  Do you smell new books and old desks?  Are you imagining the sounds of students shouldering their way through the halls and into your classroom like bees through long un-mown grass? (I’m a huge Oscar Wilde fanboy!)

Are you ready to hear a deep breath or quiet giggle interrupt a totally silent self-selected reading segment? Are you ready to mop up tears in buckets and heal emotional wounds with book bandages?

If not, you better get ready.  You may be starting school today, or maybe next week.  It doesn’t matter; time to get your mind right.

I’m ready to launch from the best summer of my life into the best teaching year of my life.  Happiness breeds happiness.

So here are three thoughts I have that will help me be the best teacher I’ve ever been.

  1. Book Talk like my teaching life depends on it…because it does.

If the number one tool in my belt is my classroom library, my number two is my ability to “sell” books.  We all know that we need to be able to sell books both informally and formally.

Informally, we confer with readers and talk about books with individual kids (and adults!) who are in the market for their next reading relationship.  This is the easy back and forth that comes with being a reader and contributing to a literacy rich classroom culture.

The formal moments, in my mind, are those points in time you carve out to stand in front of your class, or some group, and give them the hard sell on a book you’ve decided was worthy of their attention.

To me, these two different bookish scenarios require different thought processes and the latter is example is the one to which I plead my case.

Obviously we have to consider “how” we present the key information that we think will engender interest in deserving books.

But also, we have a massive burden to present books that offer a cultural variety of information that will allow our readers the “windows, mirrors, and doors” that Rudine Sims Bishop wrote about all the way back in 1990.

I took a step forward on the Sunday of the ILA conference and chose to attend a session featuring LGBTQ writers and their books.

Over and over, the panelists describe the point in their lives when they first encountered a character in whom they saw themselves.  Ashley Herring Blake, a primary grade teacher and middle grade writer from Tennessee talked about how she was 32 when it happened to her.  We have to be more pro-active when it comes to offering students windows, mirrors and doors.  Book talks are an opportunity in which we can’t afford to play it safe.

2. Love the kids like their learning lives depend on it…because it does.

I said it before: I will be 100% this year in telling my classes I love them before sending them out the door each period.  I’ve already been practicing with the Student Council kids that I hung out with at Fish Camp.  It was our first time to work together and as the day ended, I told them too. You never get a second chance to make a first impression.

But I’m not just going to say it to their backs as they sprint out of the room.  I’m going to say it to their faces as they enter and I’m going to write it on their papers.  Reading and writing culture revolves around love: of texts, but more importantly the readers and writers.

3. Empower the students to read and write in a massive volume like our world depends on it…because it does.

We know how important volume is in a student’s growth.  We have to let them read and write more than we can ever think about grading.

Also, we have to give them room to read and write in ways that let them explore their place in the world. Anything less than this, and I’ve failed. I will not fail.

Charles Moore will, for the first time in many years, teach Freshman English this year. His bleeding heart required him to volunteer to sponsor Student Council at this new school. You can follow his antics on twitter at @ctcoach

 

 

 

 

Guest Post: The Authentic Writing Process

Writing is one of the biggest struggles among the students who visit my classroom each year, much like many classrooms across America. The traditional, sterile way students are taught to write stifles the authenticity of what writing is naturally. The writing process is often the most confusing because the students are told they can only write one way through a certain formulaic expectation. Instead of teaching a formula and using a one-size-fits-all graphic organizer, we need to teach students how to write authentically; teach them the process of writing, not the product. By teaching a student how to master the process of writing we teach them how to overcome the struggle that so many of our students experience.

This summer I excitedly attended the Summer Institute with some of my fellow Clear Creek ISD English teachers and was able to really absorb and practice the writing process through Reader Writer Workshop.

The writing process began when the class was tasked with mimicking a mentor text. Students need to see the moves that writers are making in their own pieces and use what they have seen and learned to inspire their own writing craft. Using mentor texts is a great way to help students improve their writing through reading. We read a few texts, responded with writing about those texts and then briefly discussed in our groups what we had written, then moved on to our writing task. We were given about 8 minutes and told to respond in writing to a piece we felt a connection with, to not worry about the way we began, but just to write. I chose to write alongside The Poem Mami Will Never Read from The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo. Something about the way she wrote the poem for someone who, for one reason or another, would never read it, really spoke to me. For the last two years I have been dealing with grief over the death of one of my best friends, so I decided to write a poem to him that he would never read.

I began by mimicking the line from the poem, “You will never read this poem that…” and took it from there. I poured my heart onto this page in my notebook revealing all the pent-up emotions I have been pushing to the back of my mind and ignoring in my heart for two years. Quite possibly, it could just be that it took this long for my heart and mind to process the shock and grief that came with his death. I wrote about a page and a half before the class moved on and I was able to come up for air and let the poem be. Having permission through the process to just write without a formula is what gave my piece the ability to become something great.

The next class day we were given time to draft more on our piece. I began by reading back through what I had written and began adding to it. At the end of the writing period we were encouraged to share with a peer at our table what we had written so far. Fear surged through me, I could feel my heart begin to beat so quickly I was sure everyone at my table cold hear it or see my shirt move up and down with each beat. I reminded myself that as a teacher, I will ask my students to do this. How can I ask my students to share their vulnerable hearts with me, if I do not do the same. At the beginning of Summer Institute, I vowed to dive in 100% with the Workshop process and way of teaching, so I shared my piece with a partner at my table. I immediately felt fear but also a feeling I didn’t expect; liberation. Handing him my notebook, with my heart on the page, was like handing the emotions over and validating that they are real; my first step to find healing within myself, and my first big leap in the writing process.

I remember feeling anxiety begin to pour into every crevice in my body as I watched him read every word on the page and begin to make notes about my writing, my feelings, my emotions. I remember being scared as he handed back my notebook with a look I could not discern on his face. As I read through the notes I began to feel empowered, my writing was validated by my partner and friend as a touching and creative. He pushed me to write more specifically and pour more of myself into this piece. Sharing became a significant and empowering tool in my writing process. By seeing what others thought and how readers read my writing, I was able to revise and edit my piece in a way that ensures my readers hear what I am wanting them to hear and learn what I want them to learn.

I intentionally took a day away from my piece after sharing and revising for a bit. I think this is one of the most important things I did in the process. It allowed me to step back and process my feelings and thoughts and let the piece breath for a bit before I dove back in. I felt refreshed and was able to refocus when I came back to the piece. I worked on this piece for another three or four days before sharing again to learn more about what was lacking in my piece for my reader and continuing in the process of writing.

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During my revision of my third draft, I heard the terrifying words, “Let’s all share with our groups our best lines.” I had to remind myself that I committed to fully experience this process; what I ask my students to do each day in my classroom. I shared. I cried. I kept writing. My face flushed with heat and my voice shook as the words were spoken aloud for the first time, in front of other people. It felt as if the world stopped and all eyes were peeking into my soul. I hated it. But loved it at the same time. I loved it because I saw the process working. I didn’t stop writing, in fact, I wrote six more pages. Six. More. Pages. Imagine if we model with our students with as much vulnerability and dedication as we ask them to share. Imagine if we give ourselves over to this process, as scary as it might be for some. Change is never easy but almost always, in my experience, worth it.

On the last day I was to present my piece. When it was my turn in the circle I pulled on my memory of the last three weeks and the process I took to get to get this “final” piece. I channeled the empowerment I felt through sharing and after about 60 seconds of steady tears and intentional calm breathing, I read my whole piece aloud for the first time.

I sobbed as I read, remembering how death stole from me. I shook at the overwhelming feeling of grief’s grasp on my heart. I breathed through the memories of never getting to say goodbye to someone I loved so dearly for more than 16 years. Each exhale taking with it another line from the poem, another piece of my shattered heart. I painted a picture with words of my precious best friend’s soul, smile and life that I never thought I would be able to. At the end, when I was done, the room was silent for a many long seconds and I remember feeling the weight and shackles of grief release in the slightest bit. A start to more healing; therapy through writing.

My experience this summer was messy, beautiful, difficult, liberating, scary, healing and most of all empowering. Reader Writer Workshop allowed me to experience the writing process in a way that renewed my love of writing and freed my creative mind previously bound by the limits of traditional, templated writing curriculum. The whole writing process gave me so much confidence in myself and my writing and I can’t wait to instill this same confidence in my students next year.

A few things I took away from my time as a Workshop student about the writing process:

  1. The writing process needs to be authentic and organic. It is different for each writer.

  2. Being a reader is so important. Reading as a writer is what helps the writer find their voice and authentic process of their own writing.

  3. The writing process is not a one size fits all formula. It is far from that, so throw away your essay outline template and let your students follow your lead on becoming a true writer. The writing process is something that happens naturally, authentically, differently, for each writer.

  4. Authentic writing is not a formula. I have found that I don’t really “brainstorm” or “pre-write” or make webs and charts… I just write. Whatever it is I feel, whatever it is I want to say – or sometimes what I don’t want to say.

  5. My first draft is often messy and there is so much beauty in that mess. It is often unorganized, drowning in imperfect sentences and awful cheesy metaphors, and that is okay. Our students need to know this as well, that as writers, we are never going to get it on the first try. That is why this is called the Writing PROCESS. There are many steps to writing an essay, a story, anything at all, and if we are to do it well we need to be 100% committed to the Workshop Process.

  6. Sharing is necessary. This was the most difficult part for me and my writing piece this summer. Letting others read my scorched and broken heart on a page was not something I was immediately ready to let happen, but without it, I would not have gone through the writing process and created my piece with the depth I did. The piece I wrote is raw and full of anguish. It was, and still is, terrifying to share but more therapeutic than I could have imagined. Hearing what my friends and peers had to say was encouraging and gave me confidence that what I was writing and what I was writing about was important to more than just my healing, but others’ as well. Knowing this is what made the tear stained pages a little easier to share.

  7. Revision is a balance. Knowing when to resurface before diving back into the emotions and write more, write with deeper purpose and meaning is essential to a successful writing process.

  8. Writing is never really done. I read my “final” piece aloud in our read around on the last day of this class and I still find myself wanting, needing to dive back in a make it more than it was.

Although a piece may never feel “finished”, knowing when to leave well enough alone is important.

  1. The writing process gave me power and bravery to keep writing. I feel like more of my heart is ready to pour out into this one piece, but maybe that means there is another piece lying within me. This is the beauty of this process, seeing clearly what the purpose is of each piece and moving on to another when you need to.

  2. Our students need to experience this each and every day in our classrooms.

This next year I will continue my growth as a writer alongside my students in the Reader Writer Workshop classroom by modeling what true writers do. I will be sharing my experience with the writing process and encouraging my students daily to find their voice through this beautiful, necessary process. Yes, it is less conventional, but so are our students. I hope to free them from the traditional approach to writing and watch them create and find empowerment in their creations. It is up to us, their teachers, to model and write alongside them vulnerably and intentionally, showing them what real writers and readers do. They deserve the chance to learn in a way that will empower them for the rest of their life. Imagine the writing we can experience from our students if we let them find their writing process.

Sarah Roy is a mother to three amazing, energetic, creative little boys and wife to a Marine turned Texas State Trooper who is braver and more selfless than anyone she has ever known. She is a Disney addict and is excited to surprise her sweet boys with a trip to Disney World in 10 days. Her passion for reading and writing overflows into her students each year and she loves watching them grow on their journey to be readers and writers.

My Number 1 Tip for Moving Readers and Writers

My go-to question for readers and writers who don’t know where to go next is: What have you been thinking about lately?

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Whatcha thinkin’ about?

That’s it.  That one question works just as well on adults as it does on kids.  It makes people think about who they are and where they are in their thinking.  Whether it’s a theme, issue, or struggle, I can go to my library and present a handful of books to meet almost every reader’s needs. Struggling writers need to examine themselves in that same way.

This very blog, for instance, has so many posts about the importance of making connections with kids.  Look here, here, and here, for just a few examples.  There shouldn’t be any argument about prioritizing the hearts and minds of our students.

Take me, for example: I’m addicted to YouTube.  My subscription list is a mile long and the list of topics is a mile wide.

When I really look at it though, it turns out most of my channels connect thematically..  My feed is full of builders and makers and I look forward to their progress videos like I do the next Game of Thrones episode. It’s not exactly “appointment TV,” but it’s pretty close.

Some of my favorites:

I love this channel produced by April Wilkerson (a Texan!) where she designs and builds everything from Adirondack chairs to her own gigantic workshop!!!  This woman is an inspirational creator that shows me that I could learn how to do anything I put my mind to. Maybe this speaks to my need to build literate people.

TheCorvetteBen channel documents the restoration of cars, mostly C3 corvettes. As an owner of a 1970 Corvette, a family heirloom, I love watching a regular guy work on cars and save them from the trash heap.  It’s cool to me that he works cars like the one I work on.  Maybe this speaks to my need to save as many kids as I can.

Pure Living for Life shows the lives of a couple who sold everything, moved to Idaho, and started the process of building a timber frame house from scratch.  A lot of this channel is about “grit” and “problem solving.”  It reminds me of a major theme from our district’s Literacy Institute: the privilege to struggle.

Those are just three of the several dozen channels I watch, but the themes repeat themselves over and over.

Questions:

What do you watch? What types of media attracts you and appeals to your interests?

Do we need to be aware of the media our students consume? Could deepening our awareness help us make stronger connections to the issues in which our students are interested?

I think so.

Charles Moore is struggling to get his grandfather’s corvette to drive.  He is struggling to get in a summer reading rhythm because he can’t put down his iPad and he can’t convince himself to focus on reading One of Us is Lying.  He wants to go sit in that river in Wimberley, TX already!!!

3+ Ways to Help Writers Recognize and Celebrate Their Growth

The challenge?

I’ve always enjoyed our end-of-the-semester portfolio in College Prep Senior English. It’s where students typically celebrate their growth as writers. However, with a This-Is-the-Winter-That-Never-Ends leading to loss of instructional days compounded by fewer days for seniors in the spring, my colleague and I knew we couldn’t maintain the portfolio in its current form.

The solution?

So, we opted for celebration days for our writers to reflect on their writing journeys this semester. Their reflections will address the four key concepts of our course: process, purpose, audience, and collaboration. Inspired by Jennifer Serravallo’s The Writing Strategies Book and a few ideas of our own (sometimes constraints really do elicit creative problem solving!), we selected three ways to celebrate our writers, spread out over the last three classes. Each selection involves preparation and presentation (process and product, right?!).

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This chart contains the nutshell version of each day. On day 3, we’ll use FutureMe to have them craft their emails to their future selves. 

How will the celebrations go? Why will this matter, right now, in May?

Oh, I think that the students will benefit from feedback from an intended audience; I think they’ll laugh while they toast their pieces; I think making their process visible (as Shana discussed in Artifacts of Our Learning) will reinforce their learning; I think–given some of the relationships built in the classroom–that they’ll enjoy leaving their fellow collaborators love notes; I think that reflection at this threshold moment could help my seniors grasp the significance of their learning journey.

Why will this matter . . . in August?

I’m looking forward to this. Mostly. I’m also looking beyond it, thanks to Nathan. 

Through conferring with Nathan over the last two weeks, I realized that celebration–feeling happy about an occasion and engaging in fun related to it–is not enough. Nathan reminded me that my students also need recurrent recognition–admiration and respect for accomplishments. Yes, I recognize and celebrate strengths in student writing regularly via written feedback. Yes, I do recognize and celebrate application and growth while conferring. But not as consistently as I should. And, I’m certainly not doing a good job of prioritizing recognition and celebration as a whole class community of writers. If I recognized and celebrated successes more, would Nathan have said to me (while working on his final writing for the term), “Can you help me with this so I can produce the kind of writing you’re looking for?” Instead of the kind of good writing needed for the situation, he was still aiming to produce writing to please his teacher. What if I had shown greater recognition–with him while conferring–of progress before this moment? Would our impending celebration matter more? Yep. 

Through the rest of my conferences with Nathan, I tried to shift the conversation toward his audience. I pulled in mentor texts. I modeled some revisions I would make to voice and imagery. And over the next several days and a few conferences later, his piece began to transform, leading to this: “You know, Nathan, I think this has the possibility of being your best piece all year if you keep working at it.” I’m sure you might guess what I’m celebrating here: yes, Nathan sat up straighter, smiled wider, and, ultimately, revised more. He began really crafting. Later he reflected, “It’s like with the other pieces we really had to learn the basics. And this is getting into what really matters.” His words show his own recognition–his understanding and respect–for how his skills built in the course. There’s something to celebrate! And the genesis of this larger realization might be that small moment, that moment of affirmation.

Big celebrations are important. But life is made in the small moments. And, next year I want to consistently recognize and celebrate the good times (anyone else flashback to ’80’s weddings?)–big and small, in big and small ways.  

Next year I will . . . try to have students share lines from their notebooks more. I’ll probably need to schedule it!

Next year I will . . . try to make their successes visible. Maybe I’ll try Penny Kittle’s and Kelly Gallagher’s Beautiful Words Google Doc idea.

Next year I will . . . have my students reflect on and admire moments of growth during the celebrations portion of our weekly class meeting.

Next year I will . . .

It’ll be a dedication to celebration to last throughout the year (my apologies to Kool & the Gang.).

Kristin Jeschke’s life was made in the not-so-small moments of her children’s births. Happy Mother’s Day to mothers of all kinds, everywhere!  She also needs someone to get married soon so she can dance with her mom and her aunties to Kool & the Gang’s “Celebration.” Follow Kristin on Twitter @kajeschke. 

Guest Post – Chronicles in Conferring

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I was so excited when Charles Moore asked me to write a guest post for The Three Teachers Talk community.  After meeting Amy Rasmussen and reading posts like Writing Heals. Writing Assignments Do Not and How to Confer Like a Ninja, I continue to learn solid strategies for engaging my students in authentic writing activities that matter to them.  I am an avid reader and writer; so, it is no surprise that my favorite part of this job is conversing with students about their own reading and writing lives!

In the past, my conversations with students tended to be informal and sporadic; I would only focus on the more traditional feedback like formatting, conventions, and organization. But, with no end-goal or clear means to measure if these conferences were improving my student’s abilities to really think like writers, I would often feel lost and underwhelmed.

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Luckily, I found some real direction after reading, Minds Made for Stories, by Thomas Newkirk and Writing with Mentors, by Rebekah O’Dell and Allison Marchetti.

Both books inspired me to weave together genuine writing advice with mentor texts the students could use as unique needs emerged during their writing journey.

I am so thrilled to share my experiences with other teachers because I love workshop now, and each day is a new opportunity to promote passion and purpose through writing. Charles Moore showcases some great resources for similar strategies in his post, Formative Assessment Works!!! 

A Look Inside My Classroom; Conferencing & Sharing Mentor Texts

Setting the Scene: Sarah, a music enthusiast, has been working on a song analysis essay for a few weeks and she started getting frustrated with her lack of progress. I met with her on several occasions, narrowing her choices in artists and songs, until she had a solid

2plan for her draft. Suddenly, she felt like “it just wasn’t going anywhere,” and she was ready to abandon the project entirely. I think we’ve all seen this before; it was a classic case of “I know what I want to say, but I don’t know how to say it.” She was also suffering from the mind-numbing effects of having more material than she could manage. What to do?

The Intervention: In response to Sarah’s crises and hearing similar angst from other students, I decided to have them all conduct a peer-to-peer conferencing activity. Students would read each other’s drafts and provided feedback that both praises the connections made and presses the writer to stretch a little more.

The Sharing Magic: Sarah decided to exchange her draft with another student who is really into writing poetry and has published several poems during Workshop this year. The two writers discuss, and Sarah is immediately rejuvenated by her partner’s comments and recommendations.  Her partner suggests that she use lines from the songs she has analyzed to write her own epic poem.

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My Teachable Moment: As she is emphatically exclaiming her eureka moment, I turn to the bookshelf behind me and grab an annotated translation of Dante’s Inferno. I hand her the book, explaining how Dante created elaborate allusions in his poem that are illuminated by the translator’s detailed footnotes.

I never get tired of having moments like this with my students! Sarah now had a mentor text to help guide her through the treacherous depths of poetry composition and analysis.

The next day I brought her a copy of  Your Own, Sylvia by Stephanie Hemphill.  A portrait of the poet’s life told in a collection of verse. Each poem includes insightful footnotes that Sarah could use as a model for her own writing.

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The Final Act: I was so happy to see a copy of Dante’s Inferno and Your Own, Sylvia on the desk of a student who had spent the entire first semester fighting me to read anything other than mystery novels. Not only is she growing as a writer, she is also growing as a reader. Funny how it works like that.

 

 

 

 

Jenna Zucha teaches English II Pre-AP at Clear Springs High school. She is currently reading Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime and is looking forward to spending more time with her dog, Scout, and devouring her summer reading list! Follow her on twitter @MsZucha and There’s a Book for That

Artifacts of Our Learning: A Classroom Museum

One of the things I love most about learning is how dynamic it is–how sometimes there is tangible evidence of growth in thinking, but how (many) other times it’s invisible to our eyes and others’ when we’ve learned a lesson well.

It’s an art, in my opinion, to try to represent our thinking to others–through talk, images, poems, music, or any genre. That’s why in the past, so many of my final projects with students have been multigenre–it’s much too hard to try to encompass learning in one simple genre.

This year, as I wondered how my students might share their learning with one another at the end of the year, I kept coming back to the concept of art. Any creative offering is an artifact of the artist’s mind in one particular time and place–what Picasso created in his early years is much different than his later works.

For a final assessment of our learning, I asked my students to think like artists whose works would be displayed in a museum, and to bring in something that represented their learning. To prepare, I asked them to look back at their early notebook writings and one-pagers to discover artifacts of their thinking about our readings, their writing, and their growth as teachers and thinkers over the semester, and to write a brief explanation of how their learning was represented.

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Our classroom was transformed into a museum that was a diverse, multigenre affair. We played music as we set up our artifacts and their explanation cards around the room.

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Once our artifacts were on display, students set out papers or their notebooks for peers to write on, and we each rotated around the displays and wrote notes to one another. There was lots of talk, writing, and laughter. It was a lovely, celebratory atmosphere.

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Students came into class with representations of their learning; they left with tangible artifacts of their peers’ feedback. Making learning visible has been a key theme of ours this semester, as a book by that same title was our central text study. In addition to a summative representation of learning, I hoped to get my students thinking about how to represent their thinking in a way that wasn’t literally getting it down on paper.

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I paired our end-of-year museum of learning with individual conferences with students about their final assignments and projects. These two activities–the visible representation of our learning, and our talk through it–were the things that helped me not only pop a grade into the gradebook for students, but end the semester on a high point, feeling connected to my students and optimistic about the future of our collective learning and growth…which, as is true for all artists, will never end.

What are you thinking of doing to wrap up your time with students? Please share your ideas for student reflections, self-assessments, or showcases in the comments!

Shana Karnes is wrapping up her semester with students at West Virginia University, finishing a yearlong C3WP workshop with the National Writing Project @WVU, and delightedly bidding adieu to the longest winter ever. She’s excited to start a summer of reading, reflecting, writing, and collaborating with her PLN…and spending time in the sun with her two lovely daughters! Connect with Shana on Twitter at @litreader.

The Trouble with Grading by Abigail Lund

I sit down at my desk. It’s the end of quarter 3 and it’s time for the dreaded report cards — the time where I average the homework grades, find missing assignments, and vigorously come up with something to say. My computer flickers on and my online gradebook comes to life. It happily tells me many students are receiving A’s and B’s and then, as if it is the Ghost of Christmas Past, the dreaded F appears. John Doe: English Language Arts Quarter 3: F. I stare blankly at the screen.

This very moment I had been dreading the whole quarter. What does this F tell me about John Doe? Does it say how much he’s improved in reading over the quarter? Does it say if he knows how to compare two texts or write an introduction to an opinion writing piece? More so, does it tell me about his cooperation with others and his big heart?


A year ago this is how I graded, this vicious, unnerving cycle of grading. Then I found Twitter. Twitter is a beautiful tool, and after a bit of digging I realized that there were other classrooms out there that were gradeless (an amazing Twitter community for all of this is Teachers Going Gradeless; @TG2chat). I wasn’t the only crazy person – so I took the plunge.  The past seven months of a gradeless classroom has changed my perspective and gives my John Does a fighting chance

Gradeless doesn’t mean a lack of assessment. It means giving students an opportunity for success through practice, voice, and self-reflection. A gradeless classroom is multi-faceted and is constantly changing.

In my experience, it offers students more practice, collaboration, observation, conferring, and gives more time to accomplish what I, as a teacher, was asking for previously. Gradeless classrooms take the pressure off of points and focuses on learning and growth (which happens for kids at different times). According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), researchers concluded that “after around four hours of homework per week, the additional time invested in homework has a negligible impact on performance.” This very fact was the first step into my gradeless classroom. As teachers, our time is often consumed with grading endless amounts of homework in hopes that our kids will average a decent score at the end of the quarter, but with my gradeless classroom I spend my time on more things of value.

When I finally had this mind shift, I allowed for more student reflection on work, which has a positive affect, and I eliminated graded homework. Previously I spent a lot of time assessing students’ homework. When I decided to move to gradeless I moved more towards rubrics and conferencing, which naturally moved away from homework. Students reflect on the work they have done. Through reflection and rating of their understanding, I am able to confer with them more effectively during our conferencing and small group times – far more than homework ever did.

images.jpgBy ditching homework students have more opportunity for self-reflection and practice without the pressure of having every piece of their work graded. Students take more risks and ask more questions, because there isn’t the fear of failure. For example, student practice work and homework becomes less about getting the right answer and more about the exploration of the process. In the day to day students are meeting in small groups, reflecting on learning using rubrics, and analyzing strong mentor models.

Eventually, as the learning processes unfold, I formally measure students’ understanding through using my State’s standards: student exceeds standard, meets the standards, or does not meet the standard. This assessment occurs after students have had ample time to ask how they need to improve and what they need to learn. There isn’t a specific algorithm for when this assessment occurs, but by meeting with students weekly you will get a strong sense of what your students know and how you can push them towards meeting the standard.

When I started caring LESS about the percentage and MORE about my students learning, I began to let go of control. Gradeless means more attention to detail. As a teacher, I am able to observe student work and evaluate it with a greater purpose in mind. When evaluating, I use standards based grading, which is district initiative. This lends itself greatly to my gradeless classroom because it eventually assesses students on skills and not percentage based scales. Standards-based and gradeless are not synonymous but are blended very easily. If you are thinking about going gradeless, standards based is a route you may want to go, but there are other avenues as well.

This can also be done by creating standards-based rubrics and face-to-face conversations for assessment. It allows for my students to work through projects together to begin with, and after gaining confidence, they often being to soar through the second quarter. Through this gradual release, I am able to create lessons that are multi-faceted and allow students to know what I am expecting, the standards, and how to achieve them.

Some questions come to mind

What will my report cards say if my district isn’t like yours and has percentage based grading?

An encouraging word I was gradeless before my district moved this way. Unfortunately when it comes to report cards you will have to average your students’ work. However, this doesn’t have to be done in the traditional sense of a composite score of homework, assessments, and projects. This can be done with observation notes, through assessing what your students really DO know, and using your knowledge of your students to grade them fairly.

How do you keep track of your students’ progress?

In my classroom I have my students send their work via Google-classroom. This gives me a portfolio of work to draw from when I am assessing with our standards. My students are rated on a 1-4 scale (1: not progressing 2: progressing with guidance 3: grade-level achievement 4: achieving above grade-level). Also students rate themselves on their understanding weekly. I am able to pull from those examples to compile an understanding of where my students’ understanding is.

How did I explain this to my students’ parents?

For the most part my parents were very much on board when I decided to go gradeless, this was probably because we were also going to standards based grading scales, which was a district decision that they communicated to parents. I was very upfront at the beginning of the year, explaining the gradeless philosophy, and had a lot of support from my parents.  With a gradeless classroom I believe that I am talking more to my students than I ever did before, and this translates to home as well. Keeping an open conversation going about student progress keeps parents happy, whether it is concerning grades or not.

Going gradeless is an ever-changing, flexible way of teaching. This isn’t perfection but what in education is? My hope is that my classroom would be a place where students can explore, desire education, and create. My greatest desire is that my students would be known and their ideas & thoughts would be validated. The place I have chosen to start is to know my kids by name and not by a letter.

Abigail Lund teaches 4th grade ELA and math to her fabulous kiddos in Cincinnati. She loves coffee about as much as her husband and cat… and is a self-proclaimed lifetime learner. Catch up with daily happenings and ramblings on Twitter @mrsablund.

Growing Writers: Making Use of Student Mentors

My mentee Sarah, a new-to-the-district teacher in the midst of an intense co-teaching experience (where on an average day seven adults supported thirty students with an expanding continuum of needs), was filling me in on the narrative her students would be drafting. Support for students while drafting is critical. Sarah’s students would need questions answered, ideas suggested, and gentle encouragement: just-in-time support. Which is why I blurted out, “We should see if the AP Lit. kids will help!”.

Why AP Lit. kids? Why not?! By the time they reach AP Literature in our building, these students have completed two advanced English courses and a college level composition course (AP Language). Skilled, these students know what good writing looks like and how to produce it. But more than that, the AP Lit. kids could be–as Shana coined and Amy embellished on–living mentor texts.  

As living mentor texts, the AP Lit. kids’ stories differ from the current story of this particular classroom and the many stories of the students in it; the AP Lit. students are further along the learning journey. No one would be comparing the writing generated by Sarah’s students to these mentors, and there’s comfort–safety–in that. 

I did worry a little, though. While our AP Lit. students successfully provide feedback for writers in the advanced sophomore course, routinely mentoring them, I didn’t know how this would translate to a co-taught classroom. Would our living mentor texts help the sophomores optimize their skills and ultimately their stories as writers? 

Steps of the Experience

Before escorting the seniors to Sarah’s room, I briefed them on the parameters of the narrative writing assignment. After coaching the seniors to listen, paraphrase, question, ask to look at the writing, offer suggestions, and celebrate strengths, we headed to Sarah’s classroom. Following introductions, the seniors began moving about the room, neatly engaging the sophomores in conversation about their writing, inviting them to story-tell. Of course, my worry was needless. 

 

Reflections on the Outcome

Sarah certainly saw the power of their interactions:

“I saw my students open up so much more. Students who were nervous or uncertain about asking me questions or getting feedback were so much more willing to talk to peers. The students seemed to look up to these upperclassmen. Even if the seniors said the same thing I did as a teacher, the students took the senior’s perspective so seriously and really engaged with the process fully. Even if it was only a few minute conversations, the students really appreciated having someone who could check in with them right away. A lot of the base level questions could be answered more efficiently since there were more “experts” to share. Especially in a large class of 30 like mine was, it is hard for the teacher to get to spend quality time each student. This allowed for more contact time with each student.”

When Sarah later collected her students’ reflections on what type of feedback they found most helpful for their narrative essay, so many noted their living mentor texts.

“The AP people helped a lot. They just were there when I needed help or was stuck.”

“The peer mentors helped me see where I could transition or use better words.”

“Having an upperclassman helped me see how other people might do the essay which helped me think of new ways to write.”

“The AP students were new eyes and that helped me get over my writer’s block.”

“I liked that other students from another class saw my paper. It wasn’t pressure like a teacher grading but I still got feedback.”

Wanting to know what impact being a living mentor text had on the senior volunteers, I asked them to reflect on the experience.

Emily felt both “inspired to stop taking her English skills so lightly” and “inspired to use [her skills] to their full potential.”

Claire noted that “[the students] seemed really appreciative of [her] help, and seemed like they really wanted to talk about their writing. In helping and talking to them, [she] realized that [she does] have the ability to be a writer.”

Kyler reflected that “[t]he goal is getting students to revise and revise until they feel they’ve created something great. The smiles that came across some students’ faces when [he] told them [he] loved a part of a sentence or a comparison were fulfilling…The world of writing is something [he] really enjoy[s], and to share that joy by helping others consider the impact they can have is always a joyful experience.”

Screen Shot 2018-04-14 at 10.21.43 PMWhile Sarah and I loved the story of her classroom those two days, we experienced less success the next attempt. But we’ll try again. We’ll schedule the AP Lit. students more specifically, we’ll partner students according to need, we’ll invite the AP Lit. mentors to support the sophomores throughout the writing process. We’ll even explore digital mentoring through Google Docs. Sarah’s optimistic that increased access to our living mentor texts would increase confidence in her writers, helping them to grow. And, I am too.

Next Steps

 

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Ap Lit. students work with Honors II sophomores. Also pictured my teaching partner Amanda who teaches AP Lit. and one of my mentors Ann who first began the practice of AP Lang. and AP Lit. students mentoring honors students. 

My fellow AP and advanced teachers plan to expand the current mentoring as well. AP Lit. students and AP Lang. students will continue to guide our advanced sophomores; yet starting next fall we hope our advanced sophomores will mentor our advanced ninth graders (who are in different buildings). What a way to use writing to  foster connection!

 

I know there are exceptional peer writing tutor programs out there. But in these times of budget cuts and burgeoning class sizes, tapping into resources like Emily, Claire, Kyler, and the others who serve without expectation of reward is powerful. Many of the students–mentors and mentees–recognized the value in the stories of others and in their own. Their perspectives on writing, on others, and on themselves shifted, ever just so slightly.

It’s a small way to change the world. Or at least grow writers.

Kristin Jeschke teaches AP Language and Composition and College Prep seniors at Waukee High School in Waukee, Iowa. She loves when her former students eagerly volunteer their services for the underclassmen yet upstream, and she loves serving as mentor to her two favorite mentees, Abbie and Sarah. Follow her on Twitter @kajeschke. 

Formative Assessment Works!!!

For those of you who haven’t taught Seniors, trust me on this:  Formative assessment during the second semester is challenging.

If you’ve taught seniors, then you might understand where I’m coming from:  Sometimes it’s hard to tell if they aren’t grasping a concept, or they are just too tired of school to have the energy to engage.

I hurts my heart to even consider that my precious learners are worried about bigger issues than Comparative Literary Analysis essays or finding examples of bias in their self-selected texts.  Prom looms five days away and graduation seven weeks after that.  They work, they compete in extra curriculars, they deal with the adults and peers in their lives.  I forget, sometimes, that their plates are filled with important thoughts.  I remind myself I’m not doing their stress levels any favors by point out that we still have important work to do before June 2nd.

Last Monday we reviewed an excerpt from Niel Schusterman’s Thunderhead as a mentor text for practicing literary analysis through all the lenses that should be crystal clear to these literate learners.  I needed to assess their understanding and thinking so that I could make decisions about the instruction leading up to the summative assessment.  That’s the point of formative assessment; to “form” a plan for instruction.

I read the short selection with them, and asked them if they would, please, mark their thinking on this first lap through the text.  They should, as they’ve done many times before, underline or highlight what they noticed about the words the author chose through the lenses of diction, bias, author’s purpose…literally anything they noticed within the realm of literary analysis. It’s the last nine weeks of their public education career. They should be able to look at a text through a variety of lenses.

Some of them made some marks on the page while others wrote notes next to highlighted lines or words.  Others, though, marked nothing.  [Alarms wiggle and stir in my head. Something’s not right.]

I asked them to share within their groups what they noticed.  Muted whispers of ethos, tone, and metaphor struggled out of some groups, but again, most said very little.  Very few connections were being made. For them and for me, the picture was as clear as mud. This, by itself, is important formative assessment. This wasn’t working. [Def Con 55- Full tilt klaxons at maximum volume!]

Yet, I refuse to blame them.  I fully believe that it is solely on me, the teacher, to facilitate engagement with the text.  Somehow I need to do a better job inviting them to take all those useful tools out of their tool belts and dissect this very meaningful text.

New England Patriots at Washington Redskins 08/28/09

I bear a striking resemblance to Tom Brady.  Photo by Keith Allison

In football parlance, I needed to call an audible in the middle of the game. What I had hoped they would do; they won’t or can’t.  It’s time for me to jump in and scaffold this concept to a place where they can see the connections they can make and I can assess their thinking.  I’m not going to put them in a position to fail on the summative assessment if I know they aren’t ready for it.

In a whole class mode, I read over the text, mark what I notice and verbalize my analysis.

Now I ask them to talk about what they notice.  There it is…an increase in discussion, an inflation in dialogue. The alarm volume turns down a notch, but it doesn’t turn off.

I wrap the class period up with an invitation to write about what moves the author is making and as they do I confer with a few students who seem completely flabbergasted.  The bell tolls, signaling an end to their literary torture session.

 

Thus was the source of my salvation:

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I only saunter.

Jumping into this book reminded me of a few important tenets of writing instruction that I let myself forget:

  1. Give them choice- I was allowing no choice in the subject of their analysis.  I know better than to restrict their reading and writing experiences and I let my, and their, end of the year exhaustion affect my decision making.
  2. Show them, not tell them, what you want to assess.  I wasn’t showing them examples of literary analysis and again, I know better.  I was expecting, wrongly, that Senior English students would confidently engage in literary analysis and move forward with their thinking in a way that shows me they can write a response in essay form.

After school, I tore up my lessons plans for the next four days and re-wrote them to reflect what I SHOULD do to support my students in this exploration.

On page 5 of their amazing new book Marchetti and O’Dell introduce a mentor text written by Joe Fassler from The Atlantic.  His recurring series “By Heart” is a collection of responses from a diverse group of thinkers and writers and is an amazing resource.  A simple Google search returned a link to this series of essays. I scanned the list of the titles and discovered an article from September titled, “What Writers Can Learn From Goodnight Moon.”   In it, Celeste Ng describes her feelings of the children’s book and how it “informs” her writing.

Perfecto!!!

This checked so many of the boxes of what I was looking for in a mentor text.  And…I get to read a children’s book to “big” kids.  I know enough about my students to know they will love this.

Also, I used Marchetti and O’Dell’s five part descriptions of literary analysis on pages 11 and 12 to create a glue-in anchor chart for their readers’/writers’ notebooks that helped to clarify what exactly we should look for when reading and writing literary analysis.

Confidence restored! Disaster averted… kind of.

We Ng’s reflection and discussed how this was a perfect example of literary analysis.  They asked questions, we laughed about Goodnight Moon.  I saw their confidence grow and I knew we were back on track and ready to move toward our essay.

Thursday, we started the drafts and I hope to see many of them tomorrow.

Being responsive and intentional is a crucial part of the workshop pedagogy.  I can’t stress enough how this one piece can make our break my teaching.  My lesson planning skills have finally reached the point where I plan for and anticipate opportunities to change up what we are doing to match what the students need. This was an opportunity for which I hadn’t planned, but we made the adjustment and made it work.

Sometimes, that’s how it goes.

Let me know in the comments below when you’ve had to make big changes on the fly to support your students’ learning. I know I can’t be the only one.

Charles Moore is neck deep in Children of Blood and Bone.  He’s spending the day taking his daughter to school and then having lunch with her.  It might be the best day of his life.  His summer TBR list is growing uncontrollably; feel free to add to it in the comments.

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