Category Archives: Professional Learning Community

It’s Okay to Not Know What to Do Next

Today feels weird. 

Weirder than a normal Friday the 13th, full moon, week after time change. 

If you live in Ohio like Angela, you might feel like the world is burning. If you live in WI like Shana, you might feel like, what is happening?

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No matter where you live, we want to remind you that it’s okay not to know the answers today. It’s okay to take a deep breath, close your eyes, and wait a while until you begin to try to figure out next steps. 

It’s okay to give kids an (air) hug and send them on their way with excitement in your voice. That’s what they need. 

It’s okay to keep up your usual lunchtime rant sessions alongside colleagues instead of maintaining “social distance.” It’s okay to worry about where we might send our own children if their districts close and ours remain open. It’s okay to continue to allow large gatherings of students to gather in our classrooms for lunch. Normalcy isn’t necessarily a bad thing right now.

I’m in a school today and hear teachers saying, “Have a great spring break!” And as soon as the kids leave, teachers are gathering work, finding chromebooks to send home, and collaborating on next steps, preparing for the worst.

Maybe we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Maybe it’s okay to wait until Monday to see what unfolds. 

We want to create space as a community of teachers here at Three Teachers Talk to support each other. How might we figure out ways to eventually deliver instruction to kids remotely? It’s not enough to just assign StoryWorks, or send links home, or hope our kids have access to Schoology or Flipgrid. How can we continue to create space for our student communities to support each other? How can we make those experiences meaningful…ish? 

But that’s a post for later. 

Today we just want to join together in a collective hug deep breath gesture of support that doesn’t involve droplet transmission of any kind. 

Because we’re teachers. And we got this. 

Angela Faulhaber is a literacy coach in Cincinnati, Ohio, and Shana Karnes teaches in Madison, Wisconsin. Together, they support one another’s practice, reassure each other about political, social, and healthcare upheavals, and keep each other motivated to write through the use of witty text messages and snarky GIFs. May you find an equally like-minded teacher friend to help you survive and succeed in these trying times. Connect with us on Twitter at @wordnerd and @litreader, respectively.

Lift Off: This One’s for You, Teachers

“For generations we have known of knowledge’s infinite power.”

I’ve been so fortunate throughout my teaching career to work within true professional learning communities. My colleagues have been passionate, informed, and welcoming, and as a result, those dreaded professional development days have never, in fact, been days that I have dreaded.

“But I’ve always been a thorn in the side of injustice. Disruptive. talkative. A distraction.”

Today is one of those days for our team, as we meet to discuss planning concerns, student successes, and vertical alignment. To frame the day, we began by reading the transcript of a truly beautiful spoken word poem: “Lift Off” by Donovan Livingston.

This poem was performed originally at the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s 2016 convocation ceremony, and on reading the transcript multiple times, I only find more layers to unpack.

“She told me that our stories are ladders that make it easier for us to touch the stars.”

As a learning community, we kicked off our day by standing and reading lines from the poem that struck us powerfully–lines I’ve italicized and woven into this post. Beginning a day with a whipshare of Livingston’s words was a centering way to frame discussions around our work with attention to equity and justice.

“Beneath their masks and mischief, exists an authentic frustration.”

I highly recommend sharing this poem with your teaching team, students, or anyone else who might benefit from rich language around learning. If nothing else, watch it just for yourself–it will help you lift off as you begin your day.

“Together, we can inspire galaxies of greatness for generations to come.”


Shana Karnes is fortunate to live and work this year in Madison, Wisconsin alongside many professional colleagues both in the Madison Metropolitan School District, as well as the Greater Madison Writing Project. Connect with Shana on Twitter at @litreader.

The Rollercoaster of a Teaching Career

Last week, I began a new teaching assignment–the seventh in my career.

As I familiarized myself with my new role, new students, and new colleagues, I couldn’t help but reflect on how many turns my teaching life has taken over its twelve year span.

RIP the Vortex, my first looping rollercoaster

I once heard Penny Kittle refer to her ideal reading life as a rollercoaster–some easy, downhill books; some tough, uphill climb books; some that make you want to puke and abandon the ride; some that make you scream with exhilaration and joy.

My teaching life has been a lot like that: a rollercoaster of good years, hard years, long years, and fast years. It’s been a wild ride of new states, new schools, new colleagues, and new subjects. It’s been difficult, and fulfilling, and exhausting, and uplifting.

My rollercoaster teaching life, as full of ups and downs as it is, is a ride that I don’t see ending anytime soon. In fact, as my personal life settles down in the next few years and my husband’s job will no longer require us to frequently relocate, I hope to see some of the bumps and hills even out.

And as much as I loved rollercoasters as a teenager, I’m getting older. I’m ready for a smoother ride.

As a teacher, this means cultivating a sustainable, healthy practice that allows me to feel comfortable and confident as a teacher, while also providing enough excitement and novelty to keep me engaged and interested.

My One Little Word for this year is curate, which I hope will keep me focused and restrained. I’ve been concerned about the health of my teaching practice for a while–my classmates in a summer NWP course noticed that I have a penchant for trying to do/read/learn/investigate/accomplish way too much when it comes to teaching. My friend Chris gave me this invaluable advice: instead of learning more, curate my inquiry process. Hone it. Sharpen it.

And it’s been so helpful, to feel allowed to do less–to make it a goal, in fact, to say “no” more often, or click “save for later” in my Amazon cart for that newest teaching book, or keep thinking about how to improve the depth of my reading instruction without worrying that I’m dropping the ball on writing.

The truth is, teaching is an unsustainable profession if we don’t give ourselves permission to curate. When I was brand new, single, and 21, I relished the fact that I beat the principal to school every day. I loved spending 12 hours in my perfectly-lit, freshly-painted classroom.

But now that I have children, a home, and a slew of other responsibilities to care for, I have to curate. I may not have the most Pinterest-worthy classroom in the future. I may not have the neatest classroom library; I may not sponsor three clubs; I may not volunteer to be on all the committees. But I will be able to do the work I love, which is having a life that allows me to take my daughters to soccer practice and read my students’ fascinating essays from the sidelines.

I hope that this year is a year in the rollercoaster of your teaching life that you enjoy–whether you’re hurtling down the big hill, looping with abandon, or slowly creaking up a steep slope. I hope that you’ve thought of one little word to help focus you, and that it helps you enjoy this year’s ride.

Shana Karnes is enjoying the ride this year with her 9th graders in Wisconsin. She looks forward to moving one last time, to Columbus, Ohio, where she hopes to curate a life that balances teaching, family, and fun. Connect with Shana on Twitter at @litreader.

5 Takeaways from #TCTELA20

Last Monday I made my way up to school fearing the worst. Missing one day of school is stressful for most of us, but missing two days meant that I needed to prepare myself to return to a classroom that needed to be reassembled. I imagined paper strewn floors, piles of books randomly placed around the room, and desks askew if not overturned.  I must have had the two best substitute teachers of all time. The room looked immaculate, the work I’d left for the students sat neatly stacked on my desk.  Both notes reported students who worked hard and followed instructions.  I can’t say enough about how much returning to a well run classroom helps me feel better about missing work to attend a conference.

The 2020 TCTELA Conference left me feeling empowered and excited to return to my classroom stronger than I left it.

Oh, and I got to meet Rebekah O’dell.img_6255

Several of us on the board agreed that we would answer Rebekah’s call to share our voices through our writing.

 

Thus, these are the top five takeaways from the 2020 TCTELA Conference

  1. Clarity

    One of my goals for this conference was to visit as many sessions as possible. I bounced in and out of the morning workshops and the concurrent sessions, and almost every speaker talked about or touched on the idea of clarity.  This subject, one I’m learning more and more about each week, is emerging as an area of interest for many of us. Research tells us that teacher clarity has a huge effect size, and I’m excited to see this shift in focus moving forward. The clearer we are in our interactions with our students, the greater our chances of helping them grow in their literacy.

  2. Collective Efficacy

    Saturday morning, sitting at the High School section meet-up area, I kept noticing teachers filtering past with the same maroon t-shirts. Later that morning, I saw them sitting a few rows behind me at the general session. As evening approached, I saw this group presenting at the round table sessions. Their presentation shared their experience with FlipGrid, and it just about floored me. I sat in awe of how many amazing ideas they brought to their session and how they made this technology work for them at every level of high school English.  The most impressive part of their presentation wasn’t their understanding of this teaching tool, rather, it was the mutual commitment to their shared goals. The collective efficacy that they brought to the conference impressed me so much that my instructional coach team and I waited only 3 days before meeting with them online to talk about how I could bring their experience into my classroom.  No offense to all my friends out there, but the English department at Silsbee High School is my second favorite.

  3. Practices based in Research

    Over and over again presenters reached beyond their own experience to support their claims.  Our understanding of research continues to grow in importance, and our capacity to fold that understanding into instructional practices must grow as well. The research piece can be daunting for teachers because we have limited time and energy beyond those factors that immediately affect our students. However, the shift to incorporate research based practices into our instructional methodology will affect the learning of our students as much as anything else.

  4. Service over Self

    My role at this conference differed greatly from conferences in the past.  Typically, I’ve focused on presenting with or learning from others, but this time my position as high school section chair meant that more would be required of me. I talked to so many people on Friday morning that my voice failed me by lunch. I handed out buttons and invited people to join the various sections for meet-ups. I visited with presenters to make sure they had what they needed. I shook more hands than ever before.  One of my goals for the conference was to help our attendees feel like they had a connection to the organization, and I did my best to make those connections happen.  This idea is one that we often preach to our students, and it felt so rewarding to live that message.

  1. Choice

    Choice remains at the top of the list of discussion topics.  Besides being a keyword in the title of the conference, every presentation that I saw touched on the importance of choice. I hope this concept continues to spread to classrooms across out state and empower all students to find themselves as readers and writers.  My first adventure into the world of AP Lang has only strengthened my resolve to advocate for student choice and I know that the support for that commitment continues to grow.


Charles Moore looks forward to his new role as VP-Elect for TCTELA. Every day he looks forward to bringing his very best to his students and his school. He’s excited to finish up graduate school and continue to build his professional learning network one conversation at a time. 

Becoming a Writer — Guest Post by Austin Darrow

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

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

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

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

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The Image by zephylwer0 from Pixabay

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

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

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

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

And so our work began.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Will You Write With Us?

Six years ago, Amy Rasmussen looked at me and said, “I’d love for you to write for our blog.” 

It wasn’t a casual offer–it was said with levity, marking me as a Writer, a Teacher With Things to Say. At first, I wanted to shake my head and demur, as so many teachers are taught to do: fade into the background and let our students shine.

But something in me made me say yes. I felt honored, nervous, and purposeful as I worked in my classroom that year, beginning to think about my instruction through a new lens: how I might write about what I was doing, what pedagogy was informing my instructional design, what artifacts of learning my students were producing. I had to start thinking more critically about why I made the instructional decisions I was making, and exactly how they impacted students. Then, I wrote about my thinking, which led to new critical reflection, new thinking, more writing…and the cycle continues.

In six years, I’ve written over 200 posts at Three Teachers Talk. That’s 200 think-critique-write cycles. And I know that every one of them has made me a better, more reflective, more thoughtful educator. 

If being a better, more reflective, more thoughtful educator sounds like someone you’d like to be, then we extend that same invitation to you, with the same sense of levity: write with us. Find your voice. Hone it. Amplify it.

We invite you to join us as a regular contributor if you —

  • Are a high school teacher, instructional or literacy coach, or administrator who advocates for choice via readers-writers workshop practices, including self-selected reading and authentic writing instruction
  • Your thinking is guided by our mentors, namely, Penny Kittle, Thomas Newkirk, Donalyn Miller, Kelly Gallagher, Cornelius Minor, Tom Romano, and the tenets of National Writing Project 
  • Can commit to sharing writing that highlights details from your instructional practices, your personal and/or professional reading, and everyday teaching experiences

If you are interested in growing your own thinking around readers-writers workshop, strengthening your writing through authenticity, reflection, and publication, and amplifying the voices in our conversation about workshop, please fill out this Google Form. I hope you’ll join us in contributing writing around student-centered literacy practices. As someone who has enjoyed the benefits of this practice for more than half of my teaching career, I can say with confidence that becoming a teacher-writer is one of the best professional decisions you can ever make. I know that you, your students, and our readers will benefit from your leap of faith.

Please consider joining our writing team and spreading the word to your trusted colleagues and professional learning communities. We hope to have a diverse representation of voices sharing and growing thinking about readers-writers workshop best practices in schools and communities everywhere.

Filling your tank

Happy Summer, friends!!

By now hopefully you have had some time to recover from the hustle and bustle of the school year. My school has been out for over a month now, but that means that my summer is halfway over! One of the things that is so important for all of us is to find time to recharge over the summer break.

What’s the first thing that you think of when you think about recharging? I think about travel! My husband decided that he’d run a half-marathon along the North Rim of the Grand Canyon this summer, so we made a little fun trip out of it. Amazing! Oh, and while he was busy running around at 7000-8600 ft altitude (crazy man!), I spent about 4 hours reading surrounded by this gorgeous view! Win-win! 🙂

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But recharging can’t always just be about escaping life, can it? The other thing that I’ve done quite a bit of this summer is getting recharged by doing some professional development that has refreshed my teaching spirit and gotten me excited for the coming school year.

My first experience was as a reader for the AP English Language & Composition course. About 1600 high school and college English teachers spent all week reading about 1000 essays each to score this year’s AP Lang exam. Not only did I learn an incredible amount about this exam and what’s needed to do well on it, I also met some amazing educators from around the country. Think about it–I spent 8 hours a day with people who teach exactly what I teach! Talk about a PLC! We ate breakfast, lunch, and dinner together, and it didn’t matter if you sat down with a complete stranger because you had tons of things to talk about. Fabulous!

Next up on my summer of recharging was a week at an APSI (Advanced Placement Summer Institute). There are some changes coming in the way AP Lang exams are scored, and I wanted to take advantage of a week of training so that I could best serve my students. When I got approved to travel to this training, I decided to take the training with an instructor who I’ve admired for a couple of years. He’s someone who is in the same Facebook AP group (it’s an amazing group) and I’ve really appreciated the lessons that he shared and the way that he encourages others.

What happens when you go to work with a rockstar? Other rockstars are also drawn to the same place.  My APSI class was a master class of teachers, both experienced at teaching AP Lang and new to it. What an engaging and enriching week! We talked, we modeled instruction, we traded ideas for approaching the material–we did all of that and more!

Teaching can be an incredibly isolating career. Oftentimes it feels like we’re in this alone. This is especially true if you’re in a small school or a small department. For me, the summer is the time that I try to reach out and broaden my horizons. I try to find others who think and work like I do and then I soak up as much learning and experience as I can from those people. It refreshes me and rejuvenates me to go back into the classroom to get ready to help my new crop of kids grow and learn as much as possible.

Whatever you do to recharge this summer–whether it’s traveling or reading or digging into some incredibly PD–I hope that you enjoy your break and come back to the new school year refreshed and engaged and ready to broaden the minds of the young people in your care. If you’re looking for others ideas about professional development, check out this post about doing workshop, this post about finding mentor texts, and this post about great books!

Enjoy your break!

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