Category Archives: Mini-lessons

Tried and (Still) True: An Architectural Approach to Writing

Helen Becker

If you know me, you know that I am a Brene’ Brown fan. No, take that back. I’m a huge Brene’ Brown fan. Brown helps me make my life make sense, both personally and professionally. Brown’s work as an ethnographic researcher influenced my research in educational best practices. As I began my doctoral research in self-efficacy and perceptions of college and career readiness among high school students, I gravitated to Brown’s experiences in grounded theory. Grounded theory, she writes, evolves from people’s lived experiences rather than from experimentation to prove or disprove theories.

Brown adds, “In grounded theory, we don’t start with a problem or a hypothesis or a literature review, we start with a topic. We let the participants define the problem or their main concern about the topic, we develop a theory, and then we see how it fits in the literature.”

Reflecting on these statements, I had an “A ha!” moment: much the same happens in the writing process when a teacher allows students to authentically express their thoughts and ideas. We create opportunities for our students to start with a topic – maybe a person, place, or a moment – and see where the writing takes them. Then we add layers and layers of instruction to shape the first draft into new drafts and eventually, maybe, into various writing products. A poem? Perhaps. An essay? Form follows function.

We teach writers how to bend their writing into new and different forms rather than generating prompt after prompt after prompt for students to write in circles of nothingness.

So how does Brene’ Brown fit into this blog post? Brown’s May 4th Dare to Lead podcast features author and leadership expert, Douglas Conant, and his new book (with Amy Federman) The Blueprint: 6 Practical Steps to Lift Your Leadership to New Heights. Conant’s book, like many featured by Brown, has high priority on my “To Read Next” list. In the podcast, Conant discusses the importance of a strong foundation to guide us through times of uncertainty. Times like now. Our experiences, Conant states, are a blueprint for our future.

Brown and Conant’s discussion intersected my own thinking as I pondered the next installment of “Tried and (Still) True” for Three Teachers Talk. What came to mind? Blueprinting.

Blueprint writing from an equity stance means considering spaces other than the “traditional” blueprint layout.

Tried and (Still) True – June 2021

This month, I’m sharing The Blueprint, modified from a lesson learned by many Abydos teachers, with credit for the original lesson going to Dr. Joyce Armstrong Carroll in the first edition of Acts of Teaching and Peter Stillman in Families Writing. While the original lesson described in Acts of Teaching calls for a house-esque foldable, over the years, I modified the lesson to have students think about any dwelling space (a home, a basketball arena, a car) where they could envision a blueprint. Modifying the lesson in this way meets the needs of students who may not have a place to call home but rather a place where they feel at home.

Here’s a rough sketch of The Blueprint lesson cycle:

We begin with the concept of a blueprint: what is a blueprint, who uses it, what it communicates, and why it is important? We look at sample blueprints and engage in some inferential thinking based on what the blueprint communicates between and beyond the architect’s blue lines.

Then I invite students to think about a space that is important to them. We might draw on previous pre-writing activities such as “People, Places, Moments” or an A to Z list. I encourage students to think about spaces other than a house: one student drew the dashboard of his beloved vintage (beatup) Camaro while another chose the principal’s office because he spent a lot of time there. Before students land on a place to sketch, I model how I sketched the blueprint of my grandmother’s house in Longview, Texas. I tell them how the details you can’t remember don’t matter. What matters is what you remember. I also remind them this isn’t Art class. I’m not grading the accuracy of the drawing.

Once students get their own blueprint generated, I have them focus on one aspect of the blueprint where they can add more detail: what is on the walls? Is there furniture? Plants or trees? Photos? This line of inquiry generates more details to add to the blueprint.

For example, some student-writers feel more comfortable on the basketball court or soccer field.

Then I invite students to write about the connections they feel to this space or to one aspect of the space they just drew. These connections may turn into a narrative or an informative piece or a poem. Form follows function.

One year, a student blueprinted my classroom. He wrote, “In Mrs. Becker’s classroom, I can be myself. I can walk in the door, sit in my desk, look at the pictures of her family, and I feel like I am part of her family too.”

Carroll says in Acts of Teaching, blueprinting “allows students to recreate places that hold memories worth writing about” (18). It is in these memories that stories come back to life from the perspective of the writer, now a few years older and hopefully wiser. Collecting these stories on paper, what Brene’ Brown calls “storycatching,” becomes a means to understand our past and use our memories, both positive and negative, to guide our writing and shape our future selves.

About the author:

One time I blueprinted my Moscow kitchen and wrote about scorching quinoa and testing the bounds of international relations.

Dr. Helen Becker has used blueprint writing as a pre-writing vehicle in nearly every high school ELA course she has ever taught, accounting for roughly 16 years of her own blueprint stories! She has blueprinted about life in her tiny Moscow apartment (pictured here) with her husband as well as the layout of the #8 hole – her nemesis – at Leland Country Club. In her current role as a Research Data Analyst for Clear Creek ISD in the Houston, Texas, area, she is more likely to blueprint her two-screen Excel spreadsheet dashboard than the dashboard of her car.  Her newest blueprint story though? Designing the guest room of her new home to welcome her first grandson for a visit at the end of June. The library of children’s books continues to grow by the day.

Using sorts to shake up the routine and move toward student-generated talk

So much of what happens in English class is internal. Students read and think, they think and write, and we work to help them make their thinking visible. When we aren’t reading and writing we’re often talking, which can still feel internal (or less hands-on) as we process what others say and ponder how to respond. Sometimes, especially at the end of the year, I feel the weight of this routine and want to shake things up so we can better enter into into those reading, thinking, and writing times.

One small strategy I’ve been relying on this year to add some hands-on moments in my junior English classes is a simple sort. Basically I gave each group a pile of examples (short texts, images, quotes, etc.), asked them to sort the examples on their tables, and asked them to defend their arrangements. The task is quick, collaborative, somewhat tactile, and it gives me a chance to engage each group with some on-the-spot feedback as groups tend to stand around their tables (you can see this in the second picture below) and try different sorting patterns. We often did this as a bell-ringer to review the previous lesson or as an extension activity. It can be as quick as five minutes or drawn out to fifteen if the discussion is rich and I spend time with each group. This year my room was organized in 7 groups of 4 and we tried the following types of sorts:

  • Spectrum sort: Students sorted these sources on a spectrum between “truthiness” and “factfulness” (our research unit focus was conspiracy theories) and then had to defend the placement. This gave me a chance to ask groups and individuals really specific sourcing questions: “Why is the Flat Earth tweet more factful than the Taylor Swift tweet? Why does your group have the article with a quote closer to truthiness than the NASA piece?” You could easily substitute any two traits on a spectrum to reframe the evaluation of examples.
  • Quadrant sort: Students map pictures of the characters (I usually do this with Of Mice and Men or Gatsby) into four quadrants using two traits like empathy and likability. For example, Curley’s wife may not be likable but we empathize with her. Tables can compare the four quadrants easily since it’s visual which extends the discussion. It also leads to great thinking about the two axis traits (for example, what do you notice about who we tend to empathize with? How does the Fitzgerald render Tom unlikable? Is likability or our ability to empathize with a character more important?). Students could easily re-map using two different traits. And really, after the sort and discussion they’re ready to write about these characters.  
  • Pattern sort: For this I usually tell students: “Choose a way to organize the examples you have.” I’ve used quotes, books, and editorial cartoons (I pull 5-6 from the current week). They usually struggle to think of how to do this, figure something out, explain their logic, and then I tell them, “Great. Now do it a different way.” It forces them to think about the relationships between the texts or ideas in different ways as they generate their own spectrums or quadrants. I like to do this after independent reading when people have a variety of books because the discussion becomes rich as they consider character, plot, structure, setting, and symbols without realizing that’s what they’re doing. When sorting quotes, it’s a good segway into thinking about the structure of an essay (considering the quotes like different examples you might organize).

This is a pre-Covid example of a pattern sort my students did with their summer reading novels.

  • Classification sort: This is a more straight-forward formative check. I can quickly tell if students have the right mode for this collection of short visual texts and coach them on-the-spot.

This is not a magical or earth-shattering strategy, but it’s easily adaptable and I like how it enables opportunities for me to shift from teacher-generated discussion to co-creation and student-generated discussion (see Kallack and Zmuda for more on this).

Teacher Generated

I specify the type of sort and the parameters

ex: create a quadrant sort for these Gatsby characters based on their likability and empathy

Teacher and Student Co-Created

I specify the type of sort and they set the parameter

ex: create a quadrant sort for these Gatsby characters by choosing two traits

Student Generated

Students specify the type of sort they will use and articulate their own parameters

ex: take these examples and organize them in some fashion; be ready to defend how and why they’re organized that way

The liveliness of the discussion makes me keep coming back to this simple strategy. Because it’s hands-on and visual students willingly engage and it adds energy to the room.  I’m able to talk more with students (instead of at them) as they work. By catching each group I can directly question or follow-up with nearly every student during a sort. This lets the lesson start with a conflict or problem to solve so it gives us momentum. Then we’re ready to dive into the next reading, thinking, or writing task, a little more awake, a little more ready to take on the world.

Nathan Coates teaches junior English at Mason High School, a large suburban district near Cincinnati, Ohio. He’d love to hear what books you’re excited about reading or adding to your class reading lists next year: coatesn@masonohioschools.com

Ode to Moving

The Beckers are on the move again, which means boxes. Lots of boxes.

I’m no stranger to moving boxes, having packed and unpacked thousands of them over my lifetime. I’ll never forget moving to Seattle, Washington, shortly after my college graduation. Seventeen boxes shipped via Greyhound Bus – yes, leave the driving to us Greyhound Bus – full of blazers with shoulder pads, photo albums, stuffed animals, and books. Lots of books.

It’s hard to believe now that my life fit into 17 boxes then. I’ve added a few more boxes of memories since that first big move to Seattle when boxy blazers were in. Very in.

According to my memory and Mapquest ®, the latter certainly more reliable than the former, I’ve made ten significant relocations, adding up to 20,083 miles moved. With each move comes the sober reminder that while our possessions can be put in boxes to arrive, hopefully unscathed, at our next destination, our memories fade over time, the photograph of what we left behind becoming a little less clear with each passing day, week, and year.

That’s where my writing finds me today – possessions in boxes and memories of the last 20,083 miles of my life still (thankfully) vivid and poignant.

Not calculated in my frequent mover statistics are the eleven miles I moved in Summer 2019 from Clear Creek to Clear Brook High School, and then a few months later, the seven miles I moved from high school teaching to an administrative position in the Learner Support Center of Clear Creek ISD.

When I left the classroom, I gave away most of my teaching books. But there’s a box labeled “Not ready to get rid of yet” still lurking in my garage, wondering if it will ever go back to a school, wondering why its owner can’t bear to get rid of the contents

Enter the brilliant, sweet, encouraging Amy Rasmussen.

When Amy Rasmussen approached me about writing regularly for Three Teachers Talk, I voiced some concern as to my relevancy, especially since I’m not in the classroom anymore. “Amy,” I emphasized, “I’m in the Assessment Office now.” As if that retort meant I wasn’t qualified to write about writing anymore. But that’s when I zeroed in on the boxes of my teaching life, the years and years of lessons that, even in a new paradigm of pandemic-era teaching, are tried and still true.

So that’s what I’m calling my segment: Tried and (Still) True. The first Monday of each month, I will recap a lesson from my teaching past that still has impact today, a timeless lesson available for teachers to adapt and make their own, much as I did many years ago with my own lessons.

Tried, and (Still) True, Monday, May 3, 2021

“When I Read, I Feel…” List Poem adapted from the brilliant mind of another mentor of mine, the late Shelly Childers.

When I taught Junior English at Deer Park High School – South Campus, many of my students rediscovered their love for reading. Some actually realized for the first time that they liked reading after dreading it throughout previous years of school. And, well, some still hated reading no matter how hard I tried. Regardless, at the end of the school year, instead of having students write a benign reflection paragraph, I had students compose a poem based off a list of adjectives describing their reading lives. Here’s a rough idea of how I paced the lesson:

I began by inviting students to list three (3) adjectives describing how they felt when they read. Of course, I modeled a few words of my own, but since we had previously done some writing with Ruth Gendler’s Book of Qualities, students already had a descriptive vocabulary. After waiting and conferring with students as they thought and wrote, I then invited students to think about the first word they recorded (we called it Word A) and then write three (3) statements that said more (I always referred to that step as say “s’more”) proving the range of their emotions, comparing their feelings to something else, and of course, modeling with my own example. I repeated the instruction for Word B and Word C. I next modeled how to take what we had just written and express it in poetic fashion. When I nudged students to do this next step on their own, the magic happened. Students had words to describe their feelings, and in the end, I got an honest, perhaps too honest, self-assessment of each student’s reading identity.

Teacher note: In most cases, students could generate some surface-level emotions for the first two describing words, Word A and Word B. It was when I asked students to come up with a third word, Word C, to describe their feelings for reading that I hit a core of emotions reflecting a student’s authentic experiences.

Teachers can easily adapt the “When I read, I feel _____” invitation to different tasks: reading, writing, researching,…even moving! Here’s my opening stanza from a work-in-progress:

When I move, I feel free.

I ride the bus in a foreign country,

            my new home,

            making new friends with my kind eyes and a smile.

            No language skills, just an open mind

            and open heart.

            Open to new adventures.

I bet you’d like to see some student samples, wouldn’t you? I have a few, but guess where I’ve kept them all these years?

You guessed it. They are in the box of things I just can’t bear to get rid of yet. If ever.

About the author, Dr. Helen Becker

Helen Becker currently serves the education community as a Research Data Analyst for Clear Creek ISD in the Houston, Texas area. Prior to being a numbers and stats girl, Dr. Becker taught all levels of high school English for Deer Park and Clear Creek ISDs. Maybe you’ve attended a workshop facilitated by Dr. Becker, or perhaps you’ve been in her Reading/Writing workshop sessions. Or maybe she was your high school English teacher. Regardless of your relationship, you probably know that Dr. Becker wants nothing more than for you to take her ideas, make them your own, and bring powerfully authentic writing experiences to your own classroom. If you want more information on this Tried and (Still) True lesson cycle, feel free to e-mail her at beckerhelenc@gmail.com. She hasn’t packed her computer yet, so it’s all good.

By the way, Dr. Becker really is on the move, this time to a house down the street more fitting for new grandparents!

If you enjoyed this post, read this one from Shana Karnes entitled Mini-Lesson Monday:  Imitating Poetry: https://threeteacherstalk.com/2015/10/26/mini-lesson-monday-imitating-poetry/

Having Layered Discussion Without Actually Talking

We have learned so much in the past year. Our extensions and bookmarks and padlets are brimming with new tools. 

But the other day I was reminded, for the 452nd time, that sometimes going back to the basics is powerful. In this case, the basics is Google Docs. 

In the “before” times I loved a good silent discussion (here’s a nice explanation of the strategy from NCTE). We’d gather around a piece of chart paper upon which I taped a poem or a snippet of text or an image. We’d all grab markers (remember when we shared markers!), and start writing and responding to one another.

Sometimes we’d pass around notebooks and write in each other’s spaces, scrawling words and thinking. Or we’d trade post-it notes, adding layers to the thinking.

But, as we all know, we’ve had to put on pause so many of those treasured strategies. But the need for rich, meaningful conversation is still there. And if your students are like the ones I see, they’re not actually doing a lot of talking right now. If you’re in person, masks are cumbersome. It’s exhausting to repeat yourself. Or they’re behind devices, likely staring at multiple screens.

While I worry that we’re turning our teenagers into zombies, leaning into existing technology can be beneficial when trying to recapture the energy of a silent discussion. We’ve tried discussion boards, padlet threads, and Nearpod collaboration boards. This is the time of year, though, when those routines start to feel a little stale. 

This week, during a professional learning session, our ELA teachers used the comment feature in a google doc to have a conversation about a text, and it was the richest and most meaningful discussion we’ve had all year! 

  1. We watched Rudy Francisco recite his poem “My Honest Poem” on Button Poetry (thanks to @Mr_Georgeclass for introducing and to @colleencourt for reintroducing).
  1. In our writers notebooks, we collected words and phrases during that first reading.
  1. We opened the google doc and read the text again. This time, we found the places where we liked the wording, or we thought about connections we’d like to make, or places where we want to talk back to the text. 
  1. After some time, I encouraged folks to go now and read each other’s comments and to extend the thinking in some way. With students I might give them some sentence stems like “I agree with this because…” Or “On the other hand…” 
  1. We came together and debriefed. Then we wrote our own “Honest” poems.
You can see here how folks were commenting on all sorts of lines. People were making personal connections, and also thinking about text structure.

Using this simple tool was great for so many reasons:

  • Everyone knew how to use it, so we didn’t have the lag of learning a new piece of technology, or signing up for an account.
  • Participants were able to talk directly to the text. They didn’t have to copy & paste anything and put it into a new spot. It was all right there, and that created an immediacy to the experience. 
  • Layers upon layers. Multiple people could comment on the same thing, and have different reactions. They could also comment to each other and it was all right there. They didn’t have to go back and read posts and then comment on those. They didn’t have to read through comments and post on at least two other people’s comments. It was there, happening in real time. 
  • Instant. Real time conversation. Yes we were all looking at our computers but we were active, not passive. We were creating connections and challenging ideas. 
This shows the layers of conversation and connections people were making even with just the last line.

During the debrief I asked “what are you noticing?” And once again everyone was silent. I used to think that the silence meant folks weren’t engaged. But the evidence of engagement was written all over the page. That pushed my thinking about what it means to be engaged.

Sometimes I worry that we’re looking for engagement in the wrong places. Are screens on? Are they talking? What if instead we thought about finding different ways to engage? Using google docs for a silent conversation reminded me that this can be a simple yet rich experience. 

What are some tools that are helping you build community and connections?

Angela Faulhaber is a literacy coach in the Cincinnati, OH area where she supports K-12 teachers. When not working, she’s been busy driving kids to sledding hills and dodging yellow snow with her dog. 

Moving Around the Bend

bendLike so many teachers blessed with a growth mindset, there are always several ideas bouncing around my head that, if realized, might temporarily satisfy my constant need to innovate my teaching practice. Hopefully, new moves and ideas lead me toward maximizing the delivery of instruction and the transfer of learning. Heading into the TCTELA convention back in January, my head was like a Dumbledore’s pensieve, ideas swirling like memories.

My sophomore classes had been building towards a persuasive essay major grade and their writing showed me that they needed some direct instruction centered on the elements of argument: claim, evidence, and commentary. Instead of focusing on the persuasive task from the outset, we worked hard on building arguments and then we “bent” our writing towards persuasion at the last moment.

Reflection on the genesis of this move points my thinking towards the argument writing that is so often the learning focus of my AP Lang classes and the learning progression of authentic writing instruction that focuses on the process rather than the end task.

Last year, I learned how writing can focus on specific, foundational elements that we practice over and over, gradually increasing the complexity of the task up to the point that the data tells us that the learners are ready to put their newly developed skills on display. In this philosophy, the publishing piece is merely a chance to showcase our writing prowess and highlight our growth as writers. I hear over an over that we should teach the skills, not the essay. We should teach the student, not the subject. This is my “how.”

Each lesson cycle circled through a routine that included deep dives into the skills we see demonstrated in mentor texts. At a recent campus professional learning session, I got to learn more about teacher clarity. Specifically, I can be more clear in designing the learning intentions if I understand the skill and teach to the level of the standard. It was an effort to approach our state standards, the TEKS, that helped me determine which parts of a mentor text we would magnify and dissect. Hopefully, that sentence level instruction will support our reading comprehension in addition to increasing the effectiveness of our writing.

Each lesson cycle blended reading and writing, providing multiple opportunities for both. I started each lesson by reading the mentor text aloud, and students only had one task: circle words you don’t know. After the brief read-aloud, we would take three minutes for a quick write connected to a big idea from the text.  Each quick write starts with “write about a time…” so that we tell real stories from our lives that we might be able to use as concrete evidence when we approach argument writing tasks at a later time. Before digging back into the mentor text, we would take a few moments to review the words we didn’t know and to look for the “big ideas” that we noticed while we were reading. I’m obsessed with readers seeing the “big ideas” in what they are reading because I believe it helps us recognize arguments, and maybe we can support our arguments with textual evidence if we make the connection.

After working through the mentor text, we would look at an argument prompt that forced us to take a position.  This was a chance for us to practice our argument writing every day for between ten and fifteen minutes, and we could share our ideas with other writers in the room so that we could give each other feedback.  We took a position and defended it every single day. At first, some of us struggled with the surface level skill of deciding on a position while others struggled with providing concrete evidence to support their claim. That’s one of the difficulties about writing instruction: we are all in different places. A class of twenty writers are going to be in twenty different places in their learning progression, and we have to be ready to teach to the standards while scaffolding for our writers who find themselves struggling. By lesson seven, the writers looked forward to flexing their argument muscles and eagerly dove into the writing tasks. We still encountered struggle, but our newfound skills gave us the confidence to attack those struggles without fear.

This unit asked writers to work hard and switch back and forth between reading and writing, blending literacy skills in a way that demanded significant effort from the students. The lessons were organized so that the students would have to move quickly between tasks, linking their reading and writing. This work is not easy and sometimes the students find gaps in their capabilities that cause them to react negatively. Teachers must balance high expectations with an awareness of students’ needs. They deserve it.  They crave it. They embraced the process.


Charles Moore is a father, teacher, writer, and obscure pod-caster. He’s starting to get his pool ready for warmer weather and kicked off the crawfish season in peak form. In May, he will receive his master’s degree in curriculum and instruction from the University of Houston.

Simple Annotation Strategies to Help Students Comprehend Informational Text

Students across all levels and in all content areas are expected to read and comprehend difficult informational texts. As an instructional coach, I work with our English teachers and other content area teachers to give students simple strategies to help them break down difficult texts and make them more manageable to read and understand.

Step One: Give students a purpose for reading the text. Students need to know WHY they’re doing the reading in the first place and what they’re going to do with the reading AFTER they’re done.

Step Two: Teach students how to preview the text and use to predict what they think the text will be about. Strategies that I have found easy for students to use:

  • Look at headnotes, abstracts, graphics, etc.
  • Check author’s credentials.  Is he/she credible?
  • Look at the type of text (news article, textbook, research abstract, etc)
  • Pay attention to the layout of the text (subtopics, sections, chunks of text, etc)

Step Three: Teach students how to chunk the text into smaller parts to help them break up the information. Sometimes there are subheadings to make it easier and sometimes they will have to do this on their own.

Step Four: Model and practice annotation strategies. The ones I have found most helpful for students to improve comprehension are:

  • Respond to the three “big” questions from Reading Nonfiction (Beers & Probst) in the margins:
    • “What surprised me in this text?”
    • “What did the author think I already knew?
    • “What challenged, changed, or confirmed what I already knew?”
  • Circle repeated words and phrases in each chunk and look for common ideas.
  • Star* ideas that clarify, explain, describe, and illustrate the main idea (examples, quoted words, reasons, numbers and statistics, etc.) and ask themselves if these support the main idea or are just minor details.
  • Note of the techniques/”moves” the author makes in the margins. Write down why they think the author used that in the text?
  • Annotate the 5Ws and use those to figure out the main ideas.
  • Underline the author’s claim and subclaims. Note the evidence he/she uses to support those claims.
  • Look at your annotations.  Summarize after each chunk.
    • What is this chunk about?
    • Write a one-sentence summary.

My one bit of advice is to pick and choose which annotation strategies will work best for your students. I teach my students different strategies depending on my purpose and the text they are reading. Don’t give them all of these at once – I have learned this the hard way. Start with one strategy at a time and as they get confident, add additional ones as needed.

Step Five: Have students revisit the purpose for reading and respond to the text using their annotations. Students can:

  • Summarize the article.
  • Respond to a prompt, using evidence from the text
  • Use evidence from the article in a class discussion.
  • Synthesize evidence from multiple documents to answer an essential question.

When my students are active readers, critically thinking about the words and their meaning, their understanding of the text improves. What are the strategies you have used with your students to improve comprehension of nonfiction texts?

Melissa Sethna is co-teaching a freshman English class this year in addition to her full time job as an instructional coach at Mundelein High School in Mundelein, IL. Her favorite part of coaching teachers is sharing strategies with colleagues and then watching the light bulbs go on in the students’ minds as they see how helpful the strategies are in their learning.

Finding More Time…

neon signage

Photo by Ivan Bertolazzi on Pexels.com

My notes for this blog  (notes that I made in July when I was a VERY different person – pregnant, rested, unfamiliar with the work of Mo Willems…) say that I should write a blog about – not focusing on test prep as testing season begins to rear its ugly head. 

I’m not going to write that blog post…yet (growth mindset…?). 

No, instead, I want to discuss how conferencing and station rotations (which Shelby Scoffield wrote about here just a few days ago) are making my return to the classroom from maternity leave a lot less daunting than I feared it would be. 

First, I really hope that non-moms/dads (paternity leave is just as important as maternity leave) didn’t stop reading…give me a few paragraphs and I’m hoping you’ll find there’s something for everyone. 

Here we go –  there’s a lot of stuff out there about GOING on maternity leave: lesson plans on TPT, blogs, questions about finding subs, questions about who should do the grading while the teacher is gone, questions about structure and organization (elementary teachers rock this part)…and lots and lots of ink shed on how important it is to leave school at school to focus on time with your new baby. Let’s just say I tried my best to go full Elsa and let it all go once our little nugget finally arrived. But with my return to school looming, I knew that I needed to start thinking not just about WHAT we would do when I returned but HOW we would do those things. What attitude did I want for my first few days back? What messaging did I want to send my students? And… I haven’t found a lot out there about HOW to return to class. Apparently, it just goes smoothly for everyone, right?

So with all of that in mind and disappointed that the Internet didn’t just provide a magic answer, I decided to treat this return kind of like the beginning of the school year – a fresh start for us all. So I took a good hard look at what was working for this group of students and what needed to change and began to make plans with those thoughts in mind. 

I also knew that I wanted to hear from the students about their progress while I was gone as soon as possible. So I’m conferencing with all 135 students for 10-15 minutes over the next two weeks. At the suggestion of a friend, I offered them the metaphor of swimming to help them prepare for the conversation. I want to know how they “swam” while I was gone. Did they turn into Michael Phelps and just crush AP Lang while I was gone – putting in extra time, going the extra lap, eating multiple pizzas in a day? Did they just tread water – keeping their Lang muscles moving and loose but not really going anywhere in the pool? Did they get out of the pool completely and take up residence in a nice desert somewhere with no pools or water in sight? I’m going to let them drive the conversation for the first part of our conference – here’s where I am – and then take their temperature (I know, I know – mixed metaphors) to see what they need from me in the next few weeks to feel more comfortable. I’ve made a list of the items they covered while I was gone, and I want us to converse in the last few minutes of the conference about the top 2-3 we should focus on together. Plus, I teach neat students, and it’s going to be nice just to catch up with them. A lot has happened for me in the last 10 weeks; I’m sure a lot has happened in their lives as well. I want to hear about it. 

From here, I’m hoping that the conversation with each student will help put them at ease as we start working together again AND will help me figure out where we are as a group. After these “Check-In Conferences” are over, we will begin our regular writing conferences – looking at pieces they wrote while I was out. 

Now – this second stage of conferencing is where station rotations are key. Before the baby, I would get to work around 7 and stay until 430 or so – holding 15ish conferences throughout the day, using most of my time at school to meet with students and then taking home the grading and the planning. I’m not sure I can sustain that pace right away – if ever again. So I need to find time IN CLASS to make conferences work. Enter MCM’s – for the normal person this is Man Crush Monday – for us, it’s Multiple Choice Monday. 

We work a multiple choice passage from released AP Lang tests every Monday. Normally, students take their MCM individually for 15 minutes. Then, they turn to a neighbor and discuss their responses: “I got A for #1 – here’s how I chose that answer. What did you get? Oh, you got B? Let’s figure this out together.” This process can take anywhere from 5-15 minutes depending on the passage.  I give them the correct answers, and they self score. Then they turn back to their partner and discuss just ONE tricky question now that they know the answer. Finally, we regroup as a class and discuss any questions they are still confused about. I rarely do the talking here but ask for student volunteers who got the question right to explain their thinking. Honestly, if we have to do test prep (and we kind of do), this metacognition/discussion/student driven prep is the best method I’ve ever used. 

So, knowing that I needed some class time to conference, I began looking at how we spent our time and where I could work in conferences routinely. MCMs seemed like the perfect place. Here’s my thinking (and any feedback would be appreciated because while station rotations, MCMs and conferencing aren’t new to me, combining them all together is): 

  • Station 1: Students individually take their MCM
  • Station 2: Students chat in pairs about their MCM results – this would be my empty starting station – students can’t complete this station until they’ve done Station 1 obviously. From here, they would either place their MC answer sheets on my desk/in my hands at the end of this station OR grade their own/discuss and then turn their work in.
  • Station 3: Some kind of writing/peer review station working on a skill we’ve been discussing in class
  • Station 4: Conference with me – I think this would be a good time to group students based on their feedback from the “Check In Conference” and work on those skills in small groups.
  • Station 5: Apply what we discussed in Station 4. (For students who start in station 5 – they will do Station 3 work here and then do Station 5 work where other students do Station 3 work. This group will probably be my most self directed group.)
  • Closing as a whole class – we return to the answers and either grade OR discuss as a whole group. 

For all of these stations, I’m stealing an idea from Catlin Tucker about using video directions at each station so students have your overview of each station, written directions AND a video of verbal directions to rely on. I LOVE the possibilities this simple tweak opens up.

This process can obviously be finetuned, but I’m excited to work in small group conferences into my class every week in another routine way while still maintaining my individual conferences at a less breakneck pace. 

Like I said at the beginning of the blog, I was planning on writing something else entirely. I 100% used this post as a place to process some of my thinking. Thanks for following along – if you have suggestions or feedback, I’d love to hear it. Happy Monday!

Sarah Morris teaches AP English Language and Composition, AP Seminar, and Film as Literature in Murfreesboro, TN. She is currently binging old episodes of Jeopardy with her husband like the two little nerds they are. She tweets @marahsorris_cms.

 

Layering Notice and Note Signposts over the Plot Triangle

Teaching seventh grade is both a challenge and a joy. Students are inquisitive, silly, maturing . . . and in the seventh grade. Until last year, I hadn’t taught this grade for about eighteen years, and I wasn’t expecting to. But, life can be unpredictable, and in a strange and wonderful turn of events, I have found myself teaching seventh grade students.

I couldn’t be happier.

Recently, because of some standardized testing they were involved in, the concept of the plot triangle was raised. My students, for the most part, stared at me blankly, not understanding what it was. I realized that the plot triangle is a simple diagram, but can be a difficult concept.

It was really perfect timing because we were starting to read some short stories together as a class, and we needed some common language for when we discuss and write about them.

I created a chart I and posted it on our classroom wall.

plot triangle

As the students digested the ideas in the plot diagram, I was peppered with eager questions.

Why is the climax so close to the resolution? 

What is the falling action? 

How many events belong in the rising action? 

We talked it through, and students started to feel more comfortable with the ideas, but the next question was one that made me smile. Why does the plot triangle matter?

Fair question. Why? is always a fair question in my classroom, and I had a proud teacher moment.

In trying to explain why the plot triangle matters, I tried to share that a visual representation of a story helps us to understand more deeply.

We made the connection that the fiction signposts also help us to more deeply understand a story. Since we’ve been studying the signposts as we study short stories and narratives, it was a great connection to make.

IMG_6285

So, after class I annotated our wall chart with the fiction signposts. It took some thinking, and I’m hoping I got it right.

I didn’t want to limit anyone’s thinking by suggesting that a signpost might only be found in one part of the story, but I did want to let them know where they might start noticing them.

They started to create plot triangles with some of the stories we had recently read together, and then layering some of the signposts into the plot triangle.

  1. Charles by Shirley Jackson
  2. Thank You, M’am by Langston Hughes
  3. The Medicine Bag by Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve
  4. Fourteen by Alice Gerstenberg

Here are some examples of what they did right at first:

 

My students aren’t done creating their plot triangles, and they aren’t done thinking about how the layering of the plot diagram and the signposts complement one another, but so far their thinking is going in the right direction.

They are asking questions and making connections. They are talking to each other and challenging each others’ thinking. They care more deeply about the stories and the characters they are reading about.

I’ll call it a win.

Update: I had another “aha moment” and asked my husband to help add another layer to the wall chart. What do you think?

plot triangle w tape

Julie has been teaching secondary language arts for twenty years, spending the first fifteen in rural Central Oregon,  four in Amman, Jordan, and the most recent school year in Managua, Nicaragua. 

Follow her on twitter @SwinehartJulie

Q & A: How do I know what mini-lessons to teach? #3TTWorkshop

Questions Answered

When I first started trying to implement readers-writers workshop, I was the master of the quickwrite and pretty much nothing else. It wasn’t until after a lot of volume writing that didn’t go far in helping students improve in style or structure that I knew my instruction was missing something. I had to teach into these quickwrites. Ohhh.

Over time, I’ve learned how to develop lesson plans that not only engage students in the non-negotiables of workshop instruction, but to actually feel confident that I am teaching the ELAR standards.

We all have standards, right? These might be Common Core —  or determined by whichever state we teach. Texas has their own standards (Of course, it does).

The beauty of workshop instruction is that we can practice independent reading and writing — and teach into students’ skills development independently. We just have to plan accordingly. . . and leave space, knowing we will do more on the fly.

Take a look at this —

Minlessons

So how do we know what mini-lessons to teach?

When planning, I start with my state standards. In Texas we have Student Expectations, SE’s. Each one of those can be a mini-lesson. I introduce the SE to students, model what it looks like in a text or task. We discuss, question, and practice it by applying it to our own independent reading or writing.

Then, I pay attention. Sometimes, based on formative assessment or conferring, I may need to teach the mini-lesson again to the whole class, or sometimes small student groups or specific individuals.

These are the mini-lessons I plan in advance. However– and this is a big however — just because I know I must “teach” the standards, does not mean readers and writers must “master” them. (Don’t even get me started on standardized testing.) When it comes to writing, especially, student writers may choose not to apply specific moves in their own writing. That’s the beauty of teaching writers instead of teaching to rubrics or a specific format (Ugh, five-paragraph essay). Real writers makes choices depending on their intent for meaning and their audience. I love how Linda Rief explains more about this here.

So what do responsive mini-lessons look like?

These are the pop ups — the ones I know I’ll need to teach on the fly — based on what I see in students’ learning and growth. Maybe students are struggling with strong thesis statements or putting punctuation in places that actually aid the meaning of their sentences. I respond to their needs, and I teach specific mini-lessons, using mentor texts, to help students see how language works to craft meaning.

There is no list of mini-lessons we may teach in any given year. Your students’ needs are different than mine, and probably different than the teacher next door. Lean in, listen, identify their needs as readers and writers, that’s the best way I know how to know what mini-lessons my students need me to teach them.

 

Amy Rasmussen has taught all levels of high school English, except AP Lit, which is still on her teaching bucket list. She lives in North Texas and will be at a new-to-her high school in the fall. Alas, all gap years must come to an end. Follow Amy on Twitter @amyrass — and if you have questions about Secondary Readers-Writers Workshop, shoot her an email amy@threeteacherstalk.com. While she doesn’t claim to be an expert, Amy’s been imperfectly practicing the routines of workshop for a long time. Maybe she can help.

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