Category Archives: Professional Learning Community

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.

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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!

Q & A: How do I do this on my own without other colleagues teaching this way? #3TTWorkshop

Questions Answered (1)

Believe me when I say I understand. Completely. I think many other teachers who took off the old shoes of making all the choices in their English classes and tiptoed, stomped, or danced into workshop instruction understand, too. Sometimes we are the only one hearing the music.

This was me most of the time.

Of course, working with colleagues in highly functioning PLC’s is advantageous. If we’re lucky, we’ve been in a few grade level teams, or even full departments with colleagues who embrace the choice and challenge readers-writers workshop offers and collaborate well. Other times we have to stick with our knowledge of what works best for growing readers and writers and make our own instructional choices, based on what we know is best for the students relying us in our own classrooms. It’s always our own students who matter most.

So how do I do workshop on my own without other colleagues teaching this way?

Here’s the advice I got when I asked a similar question to someone with a whole lot more experience than me in all things authentic reading and writing instruction:   Nod your head a lot, and then close your door.

That’s pretty much what I did for the first eight years when I was figuring out how to manage a classroom library, give students choice in the books they read, hold them accountable in some way for their reading, get them writing more (and better), using mentor texts, conferring semi-regularly, and trying not to lose my mind when I’d go to team meetings and hear “I’m teaching ________ (insert title from the canon) and making students do study questions, along with these specific annotations. Do you want a copy of my test over the book?” Thanks by no thanks.

We teach readers, not books. And maybe it’s just me, but when I hear teachers say “I make my students do ____”, I kind of cringe. Study questions, annotations for all (done with a teacher’s specific rules for notes instead of the reader’s own rules), and tests over books:  Sandpaper on teeth.

When I shifted my instruction to include choice, student engagement soared. I was converted, and I hungered for more ways to fully move into workshop instruction. But at the time, I was the only convert on my campus. I was lonely there.

However, I had company outside my school. Everyone who determines to make this shift does. You may just have to find it.

First off, there’s this blog. I started it with two brilliant teachers, Heather and Molly, I met at a summer institute of the North Star of TX National Writing Project, a site of National Writing Project. We wanted a place to write about how we applied our learning from our institute with our students, and we wanted a space that helped us stay connected. I was teaching at a Title I high school in a district just north of Dallas; Molly had just moved to a high school with a focus on project-based learning in Longview; Heather taught middle school in a district east of Ft. Worth. (If you know north TX, you know we spanned a distance geographically.) I tell you this history for a few reasons:

The National Writing Project advocates for authentic writing instruction, and it is one of the best networks of educators, willing to collaborate and share, I know. If you can link to a site near you, you will never do this work alone.

Three Teachers Talk has grown as my learning about workshop instruction has. Heather and Molly moved in exciting career directions different than mine, and at times this blog has really been one teacher talking as I tried to figure things out. (Note: Writing helps us figure things out.) Then, when I attended the University of New Hampshire Literacy Institute and took a two week class taught by Penny Kittle, and learned with Shana, Erica, and Emily, a similar blog-writing collaboration happened.

We started writing regular posts here called Our Compass Shifts because we were all working to shift our thinking about instruction and apply the learning from Penny’s class with our own readers and writers. Our teaching souls clicked. The Modern PLC. Emily and Erica wrote with us for awhile, but like Heather and Molly they moved on to other good things. We remain friends, but Shana — Shana remains as Diana exclaims of Anne in Anne of Green Gables, my “bossom friend. A bosom friend—an intimate friend, you know—a really kindred spirit to whom I can confide my innermost soul.”

To continue improving, growing, striving to do right by our students, I think we all need at least one bossom friend. I’ve got two in Shana and Lisa, two of the other admins on this blog. (Angela, you’re up-and-coming.)

I had to find them though. I couldn’t keep my classroom door shut and not step in to learning opportunities that helped me grow. Growing takes action.

So how do I do workshop on my own without other colleagues teaching this way?

Seek out connections with others who are making workshop work. All of the contributors on this blog have been where you are. Read their posts. Leave comments. Ask questions. Email me directly if you can’t find answers amy@threeteacherstalk.com. Like everyone else in the teaching world, I’m busy, but I will do my best to help. (And your questions may turn into blog posts. That’s how I met the amazing Lisa Dennis.)

Join a network of passionate educators on Twitter. There’s chats for you. #TeachWrite #DistruptTexts #buildyourstack #3TTworkshop #titletalk #NerdyBookClub #APLitchat #teachlivingpoets all come to mind. So many teachers moving the work of choice and challenge — and equity — forward. If you are new to Twitter and don’t know who to follow, follow us @3TeachersTalk; then, check out who we follow — educators like you.

Read books by those who’ve built a movement, and join in on discussions. Some of our favorite teacher-writers are active on Twitter, and they share brilliant ideas regularly. Thomas Newkirk, Tom Romano, Penny Kittle, Kelly Gallagher, Linda Rief, Cornelius Minor to name a few.

Also, Shana put together a fabulous resource page here. It’s not exhaustive, but it’s a good start.

I know joining chats, reading books, and connecting online does not replace collaboration on a campus, but it does work to help us grow in our practice.

Just like my daughter has online friends who are in the #houseplantclub, and my sister has online friends who play Pokemon Go, teachers — eager to make workshop work for their students — can find the support they need to make this ever-important pedagogy of engaging students as they grow in their identity as readers and writers work.

Press on, my friends, we are here for you.

Amy Rasmussen calls herself a literacy evangelist –among other things. Wife to a lovely man, and blessed to be the mother of six and grandmother of seven (five of which are boys), she loves to read and teach and share ideas that just might make the world a little brighter — for everyone! Follow her @amyrass — and join the conversation around workshop instruction on the Three Teachers Talk Facebook page. Go here see other Q & A posts about Secondary Readers-Writers Workshop.

A Sneak Peek at the List I Sent to Santa

I’ve never had the winter break creep up on me like this.  Between coaching responsibilities, Student Council activities, and English IV team lead duties, I always kept an eye on finals week, not because I wished for the semester to be over, but because that week meant we were out of time and every minute up to that point better have been accounted for.

The changes in my responsibilities, duties, and campus freed me up, I’ve come to realize, to just flat-out teach. Thus, I find myself staring at one more week of school remaining in the semester, confident I’m living my best teacher-life.

So I thought I’d share a few items I sent to Santa in the hopes he’s thought I was a good boy this year.  I only included a few of the items from my list because I’ll probably just end up with a lump of coal:

Item #1 – A Really Nice Pair of Shoes

My wingtips are hand-me-downs and the soles are so bad that by the end of the day my knees and ankles feel like I’m almost forty years old. Wait…um…

Item #3 – Notebooks and Pens

I love notebooks and pens and after reading Amy’s list of teacher supplies, I’m hoping to see a Moleskin notebook or a pack of Flair pens in my stocking.

Item #7 – More Amazing Reading Experiences

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This is my book stack for the break.

I read a ton of books this semester, but most were assigned as required reading for my young adult literature class.  Since that class wrapped up, I’ve treated myself to Dry by Neil Shusterman and son, and I savored the immaculate The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo.  I also snuck in the guilty pleasure known as a Lee Child novel. Past Tense, like all Jack Reacher books, ended before I was ready for it to be finished. Currently, I’m bouncing back and forth between Nic Stone’s new book, Odd One Out, and A Very Large Expanse of Sea by Tahereh Mafi.  I love both of these books and will be talking about them in my classes in January.

Item #8 – More Amazing Reading, Writing, Thinking, Talking Experiences in My Classroom

Thursday, I whet their literacy palates with the first three pages from Dry before we looked at the pairing of this piece by Leonard Pitts and “The World is Too Much with Us” by William Wordsworth.  I should have an Elf on the Shelf in my classroom so that maybe Santa will catch wind of the amazing thinking, talking, reading and writing that the kids are doing in room D120.

Item #12 – Organic and Authentic Professional Learning

Maybe Santa can bring me more learning opportunities like this most recent adventure with the whole class novel.  A Novel Approach by Kate Roberts is a great resource and I’ve read Gena’s post at least three times, but I can’t say enough about how my colleagues facilitated my exploration of the shared reading experience in a workshop setting. They handed me a blueprint and I took it and ran…away from boring, disengaging, traditional teaching practices.

Item #15 – More Experiences like NCTE

Co-presenting with a team from Three Teachers Talk is going to be one of those “career highlights.”  I may never get the chance to speak on a stage like that again and I refuse to take it for granted. I can’t believe I’m so lucky. My batteries recharged from meeting Cornelius Minor, receiving a giant hug from Penny Kittle, sitting slack jawed absorbing the power of Christopher Emdin. I run on inspirational people and those were just a few of the men and women I look up to. I’m flying solo as a presenter at TCTELA, and my session is about research writing in the workshop setting.  Bring your popcorn because this sesh is gonna knock your socks off. It will be fun, and a growth experience. ILA, in the fall, is the next big conference for which I’m crossing my fingers and praying.

Item #19 –  A Dallas Cowboys Super Bowl Win

Is that too much to ask?


Charles Moore loves watching college and professional football with his son, but he hates losing to his mother-in-law in fantasy football.  Maybe the third time will be a charm as they face off again this week in the playoff semifinals.  Perhaps an upset is brewing.  He’s so proud of his daughter’s Snowy Christmas Tree and his son’s tenacious love of reading.  

NCTE: Sparking Hope, Equity, and Voice

Like so many educators who attended the 2018 NCTE conference, I am still reeling from the wealth of information and inspiration provided by some of the brightest and most compassionate people in the world. I listened with awe and determination as strong speakers like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Elizabeth Acevedo stressed the importance of what we do as ELA teachers, and I carry with me a renewed sense of urgency about literacy instruction that empowers all students. No – not “empowers” – even that word has been transformed, as I now understand that it’s not my place to give them power; rather, it is my job to help students recognize and harness the power they already possess.1

The universal message of the conference did not so much present new ideas as it did combine them and clarify that we cannot wait any longer to act. We must reach each of our students where they are, provide them with the representation they need and deserve, and encourage them to add their own voices to the world. We have embraced diversity, equity, and representation in a variety of ways, but the time for the best practices to coalesce into purposeful change across schools is at hand.

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My book haul from NCTE 2018 – I can’t wait for my students to read these!

As I walked through the exhibit hall, admittedly searching for free books to take back to my students, I heard two main ideas – to quote Kylene Beers and Bob Probst – “again and again.” By absorbing the voices around me over the four days of the conference, I was able to discern what teachers, who attended a wide variety of sessions, thought. One of the most common ideas expressed was that NCTE presenters were “preaching to the choir.” Of course, this is true to a great extent. Teachers who love learning, who support choice, who engage their students in meaningful instruction, who believe in the power of writing workshop: these are the teachers most likely to attend the conference, and, more specifically, the sessions that explore these ideas. Teachers who believe in the humanities love the young humans we teach, and we will always seek to improve for their benefit and the benefits to society. This is no way diminishes the power of these workshops or their presenters, for they offer the keenest insight and carefully collected research to support best practices in teaching, and though I admittedly enter sessions predisposed to agree with much of what I hear, I always leave with new ideas scrawled in the margins of my notes. Like many others, I always leave feeling renewed, reinvigorated, and inspired, and I wish every ELA teacher could feel this way.

This brings us to the second most common idea expressed throughout the exhibit hall lines: how do we take these ideas back to our schools and inspire those who weren’t at the conference? I heard several teachers – both in sessions and while milling about – who said things like “I wish [so-and-so] from our department could hear this.” The truth is: we all know teachers who need to hear the messages from the conference, and the difficulty lies in how to offer the essence of what we have gleaned in a palatable manner. Some ideas are not well-received by teachers entrenched in established practices, and we must balance the urgency with which shifts need to occur with the tact and professionalism that our well-meaning colleagues deserve. I had the opportunity to speak with Amy Rasmussen about The College Board’s stance on shifting away from a focus on the canon to include more contemporary and diverse texts, and she offered an analogy that I wish all could hear: we don’t expect doctors to ignore research in favor of the practices they personally prefer, and when one of their primary research-based organizations like the American Medical Association or the New England Journal of Medicine offers guidelines, those are adopted as best practices. Can you imagine if they didn’t? We’d still have doctors bleeding us for pneumonia.

So, as I continue to synthesize all I learned at the conference and develop my own lines of inquiry, I leave you with these questions: why don’t we expect all ELA teachers to follow the research and vision of NCTE? Why can’t we confidently return to our campuses as ambassadors of ELA and NCTE and share what we’ve learned with our peers? Will we let the established system and soft bigotry continue to deny true equity to our students, or will we carry the spark of progress back to our campuses? I, for one, plan to stoke the fire.

1 I would love to offer due credit to the speaker who discussed the problematic idea of “empowerment,” but I cannot find the connection in my notes. If you can offer proper attribution, please add it in the comments.

Amber Counts teaches AP English Literature & Composition and Academic Decathlon at Lewisville High School. She believes in the power of choice and promotes thinking at every opportunity. She is married to her high school sweetheart and knows love is what makes the world go around. Someday she will write her story. Follow Amber @mrscounts.

NCTE 2019 Pregame- Gearing up our Action Plan!!!

Why am I so nervous?

The lights and the stage don’t scare me.  The topic of our presentation is something I’ve lived, day in and day out, for a few years now.  The faces in the crowd, the silence begging to be filled, the words I’ve rehearsed over and over…none of that scares me.

Is it because I want so badly for ears to hear our message? Is it because I’ve been afforded this massively important opportunity to share this message?

Late this afternoon, at the NCTE Conference, I will share the stage with some very important teachers.  These women, like me, believe that inclusivity is something that we must address intentionally.

I’ll spend every second of my allotted time sharing how I’m moving my classroom library from something that reflects traditional, mainstream texts to one that is more inclusive.  One that invites students to read books that give them a better opportunity to see themselves on the pages and a better opportunity to see themselves in this world.

Please join us this afternoon at 4:15 in 361 C.

NCTE 2018- shared slides

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