Category Archives: Readers Writers Workshop

A Poem to Start Your Notebook

Each morning, I receive two poems in my email inbox: one from The Poetry Foundation, and one from The Writer’s Almanac. One morning in July, I received “More of Everything” by Joyce Sutphen, read it, and thought, wow. That would be so powerful to write beside with students.

As it turns out, some pretty brilliant thinkers receive these same poems in their inboxes, and they took the same poem and ran with it in a beautiful direction:

I often have my students write beside poetry inside our notebooks, but Linda Rief and Penny Kittle have inspired me to bring poetry to the personalization process. I love the idea of having students glue this poem into their personal photos and collage pages we create: it prioritizes an individual, emotional response to literature that is valued in the workshop classroom…and the results of the thinking around this text are beautiful, too.


As you and your students begin the school year and personalize your writer’s notebooks, perhaps you’ll consider adding a text to the start of your journals. Will you share any poems or short texts you frame your year with in the comments?

Shana Karnes lives in Wisconsin with her husband, daughters, and cats. She is teaching and learning alongside amazing teachers through the Greater Madison Writing Project this year. Connect with Shana on Twitter at @litreader.

Advertisements

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.

Give Me an Inch, and I’ll Take a Mile…

back to schoolWrapping up the “back to work” week left me feeling energized and excited for the new school year to start. I’m teaching two new preps, sophomores and AP Lang, and, whereas in the past looking a blank calendar spiked my anxiety, last week my mind danced with literacy possibilities.

One point of origin for my ebullient confidence comes from small but important changes I’ve noticed over the past handful of years in the organization of the professional learning routines I experience in the week before the kids come back.

Gone are the interminable days of marathon “sit-and-get” informational sessions, and with them the mad scramble on Friday afternoon to make sure Monday will be about welcoming students more than merely surviving the cacophony of controlled chaos.

img_5675Our back-to-school schedule included many of the typical, district-mandated informational reviews. It was obvious that our administrators did their best to keep that time from dragging or being wasted, and for that, I am grateful.

What differed most from previous years was the amount of time I was able to spend exploring my needs. I found myself presenting at our district ELA professional learning day, meeting with my instructional coach to hash out plans, debriefing with my intern teacher, checking in with with my first-year teacher mentee, and writing the first mentor text that I’ll share with our sophomores as we attack persuasive writing. Overall, I was given a great deal of flexibility in the decisions I made about how to best take advantage of my time, something I truly appreciate.

However, I can’t help but feel that we could take this experience one little step further.  There is some part of me that wonders what would happen if I could design my own professional learning? What if I could work with my supervising administrator, and a few colleagues, to explore research and practices that could make me a better literacy teacher?

I’m trying to imagine a world where I could, along with some like-minded co-workers, explore my own professional learning path.

Who might enter into that learning with me?

There are some, I know who would walk blindly into the maelstrom, bringing with them knowledge and skills that would supercharge our efforts.  Others would bring with them their positive energy and drive to grow. It takes people with different ideas, willing to share, confident in themselves.

I can think of more than one literacy leader from each of our high school campuses who would welcome, and have welcomed, the opportunity to collaborate across departments, or even content areas. This cross current of efficacy intrigues me and feeds my desire to interact with teacher leaders.

What might that look like?

The most authentic learning experiences that happen in my classroom unfold as the kids take ownership.  In those magical moments I cease to exist and the kids fully shoulder their literacy growth.  The engagement explodes in a quiet bang and for a few brief moments I sit down, take a breath and enjoy anonymity.  This vortex forms spontaneously and when it does, I get out of the way. So often I wished to hit record and save those moments for times when I’m feeling discouraged.

This happens with adult learners too.  I’ve seen it, been in the eye of the storm as it swirls around me. Whether in the hallway in a chance encounter, in team planning meeting, or at a district curriculum review day, there is strength in numbers, and I long soak up what others bring to the table.

Maybe it starts with a research text that ignites and unites the interest of our learning group.  Perhaps a chapter from a professional text like – oh, I don’t know – something from Penny Kittle jump starts the vortex and teachers with similar goals, but different experiences find new territory to explore.

There might be readers and writers scattered haphazardly around the room. Some would whisper in pairs or stare pensively at their notebooks or a self-selected bit of research. Others might engage in lively and loud debate centered on the merits of a particular mentor text or skill. One or two tears might work their way out over the emotional connections writers build with their words or the connections readers build with the words of others.

I can see books being passed around, hear laughter erupting, and feel “eureka” moments; the language of learning.

What would be the result?

Teacher efficacy stands among the leading factors in student achievement and we can always push harder towards this ideal.  When teachers find energy in each other, almost nothing threatens success.

The authenticity that stems from teachers who feel empowered by those around and above them produce positive results. They nurture young minds and walk beside them through their educational journey. They feel free to share their writing and save in the vulnerability demanded therein.

Ultimately, the goal for all professional learning is growth, whether pedagogical or practical; informational or emotional. Whatever the goal, I want to continue my journey in the company of others. This “work” that I’m exploring can’t be done in isolation, and, while I know some amazing people in our ELA department that push me to be better everyday, there is so much more to discover.


Charles Moore is excited to set forth on his 18th foray into education.  He’s feeling humbled by his recent piece in Literacy Today, the ILA magazine.  Working with the High School Section of TCTELA has been both a challenging and rewarding experience, forcing him to exercise muscles he didn’t know were there.  Here is the link for TCTELA presentation proposals.  The deadline is Sept. 4th. Charles is grateful that he gets to spend so much time with his family these days and looks forward to his son’s first year of organized football. 

Guest Post: I’ve been thinking about Ghosts or What I’ve learned about the power of mentors…and time by Elizabeth Oosterheert

“That version of the story–that version of my life without my husband in it–is a ghost I carry around with me. It’s always there, beneath the surface of my real life. I feel…so grateful that this big, messy, joyous life isn’t a ghost life, but mine…”
Kate Hope Day for The New York Times

Joe and Toby

Joe & Toby after a performance of the 2018 play, Merlin’s Fire

If you’re like me, when the end of the school year arrives, you entertain the ghosts of what might have been. These lingering ghosts are questions like:  What if I had spent more time conferencing with that student? What if I had found this mentor text a little sooner? What if I had done more mini-lessons about . . .

And the list goes on.

I learned a few lessons during this past year I hope will have a positive impact on EVERY facet of my readers’ and writers’ workshop for next year. My teacher’s soul already knew this, but I recognized more powerfully than ever before that the right mentor texts at the right time, combined with enough space to explore craft moves and to write about things that matter, makes all the difference.

My students love what I call food literature (thanks to @KarlaHilliard for this amazing idea!),  a writing study we do after Christmas composed entirely of reflections about food. This takes the form of food narratives, poetry, listicles, or critical reviews.

We study mentor texts, and then students choose a direction based on the ideas they’ve developed in both handwritten and digital notebooks.  After discussing many mentors, and highlighting craft observations, students list powerful descriptive words, make notes about the writer’s voice,  and practice composing complex sentences based on passages in the mentor pieces.

I encouraged my students to consider food in the context of specific flavors and seasons. 

Childhood and adolescence have unique tastes. December has a far different flavor than July. What we quickly noticed is that food literature is about so much more than what is on our plates. It’s about savoring cherished memories.

Another frame that worked well for food narrative that is also very effective for other kinds of autobiographical writing is an idea adapted from Penny Kittle that I call Then and Now:

Then I thought, but now I know. . .

When we write Then and Now snapshots, we admit that our understanding of everything from food, to sports, to relationships evolves as we age and learn how difficult it is to be a human being.

Three new mentor texts spoke powerfully to my students. One was “Carrying the Ghosts of Lives Unlived,” published in the Ties section of The New York Times, written by Kate Hope Day. While this piece is NOT about food, it is about how, in Day’s words, “There are hinge points in time when life could be one thing, or another.” My students applied  this mentor to our food study, writing about different life seasons, and how sometimes seemingly small decisions have a BIG impact.

Another New York Times piece that was very helpful to us  was “Christmas Fudge and Misremembered Snow Cream” by Rhiannon Giles.  I composed a piece for my students based on this mentor about the flavors of my childhood.  An excerpt is linked here.  Students then wrote about their own life flavors, recipes, or memorable meals.

Finally, we studied “Ode to Cheese Fries” by Jose Olivarez. What I love is that my discerning, sensitive, wondering students used that poem to create beautiful reflections on some of their fears about adolescence and daily pressures assailing them. In his poem, “Pack of Ranch Sunflower Seeds,” Toby, one of my eighth grade authors, wrote:

 

What if I’m the small seed

With a big shell

Waiting in the bag

Pleading not to be eaten up

By the mouth

Called life

And my inner seed gets revealed

And my outer shell is thrown out and trampled

By reality

 

Maybe I should chew more bubble gum

 

The rest of Toby’s poem is linked here. 

Our food study is a ghost that haunts me, because I hope that I can continue to make it more authentic. For now, though, I have to remember to be grateful for the time and the writing that was — and in the words of Mary Oliver, give thanks for my “one wild and precious life” and the students’ lives that intersect with mine every day.

 

Elizabeth Oosterheert is a middle school language arts teacher and theatre troupe director at Pella Christian Grade School in Pella, Iowa. She loves writing, and sharing the stage with seventh and eighth graders. Her favorite stories are Peter Pan, The Outsiders, & Our Town. You can find her on Twitter @oosterheerte

Five Ideas That Beat the Dread: A Return

Three Teachers TalkThank you for joining us for a summer series revisiting our top posts from this school year! Don’t forget to please “turn and talk” with us in the comments section one last time.

Amy Rasmussen’s back-to-school post from 2018 will help you frame your school year positively and “beat the dread.”


A few years ago I stopped reviewing class rules and smacking down my syllabus on the first day of school. I had been doing some research on chronic stress (mostly my own) and read extensively about the fight, flight, freeze response. One description glared at me and gave me pause:  “You have a sense of dread.”

I remembered what I had been taught as a first year teacher:  Set yourself up as the authority figure. Be kind but firm. Establish norms quickly so students know what you will and will not tolerate in your classroom.

Then, almost in the same breathe, I was told:  Develop relationships. Learn students’ names. Let them help develop class rules.

And I muddled through doing a combination of both the best I knew how. Those first few days of my first few years were rocky to say the least. And in hindsight, it’s clear:  there was dread. Lots of dread.

So when I read up on the fight, flight, and freeze response, I realized a big part of my problem:  With my seemingly simple attempt at outlining classroom expectations and detailing how ‘my class would run, chemicals danced a jig in students’ brains: fight, flight, or freeze. Now, I know my syllabus is not on the scale of major life trauma most often associated with this fff response theory, but many of my juniors and seniors didn’t want to be in school anyway. Why was I compounding it?

I learned a better way.

Wait.

Let every other teacher lay down the law. Lay out their plans. Run through the rules.

On the first day of school — maybe even the first five days of school — just write. And talk. Let students drive the discussion. Let them ask questions. Give them a chance to be seen and heard and welcomed.

“Community before curriculum” Angela wrote in her last post, and I love her thinking there. I also think we can merge the two on the first day of school and lay a firm foundation for thinking and talking every day thereafter. We can jump start community and begin our curriculum as we put pen to the page and write.

Here’s my top five sources that beg a response and invite students to write on the first day of school (or at least the first week or so):

  1. To This Day by Shane Koyczan.

Give every student a notecard and ask them to watch and listen and then respond to the poem as a whole or to a line they particularly like or relate to. (I’ve learned some pretty heavy stuff from students over the years. So many of them can relate to the themes in this poem.)

  1. How poetry can help kids turn a fear of literature into love by Jason Reynolds on PBS.

Give every student a sticky note and ask them to think about their reading lives. Then after they listen to Mr. Reynolds talk about reading, ask students to rate themselves. Are they readers eager for the pit bulls or for the puppies? Why? (I quickly find who my readers are and with whom I need to take on the challenge of helping them want to read.) Then for a little more of a challenge, on the flip side of the sticky, ask them to describe in poetic form their feelings about poetry. (You’ll learn even more.)

  1. Possibilities by Wislawa Szymborska. Or the version here where Amanda Palmer reads the poem.

Give every student a copy of the poem. Then read the poem aloud and ask students to write their own list of possibilities. Their list can be straightforward, funny, or interesting things they want the class to know. (I wrote about how I used this poem to practice imitation a couple of years ago. It’s a great lesson and a great poem to revisit.)

  1. Three poems:

“My Name Is,” an excerpt from Jason Reynolds’ book Long Way Down. (If you haven’t read this book, oh, my goodness. It’s amazing!)

My Name Is by Jason Reynolds

“Instructions” by Rudy Francisco.

Instructions by Rudy Francisco

“Like You” by Roque Dalton, translated by Jack Hirschman

Give students copies of all three poems and a notecard or piece of paper. Read them aloud. Ask students to read them again and then to write a response. They can respond to just one of the poems, a line from a poem, or anything the poems make them think or feel. There is no right or wrong. Just write your thinking. (This is always an interesting response, and it tells me a lot about how to help my students. Many of them will begin to write an analysis of one of the poems — or all three. Others understand that I am asking for a different kind of thinking, one that leads them into ideas for their own poems, stories, or essays.)

  1. Author Bios!

Give students access to books that have clever, witty, or interesting author bios. YA authors like Julie Murphy, Jeff Zentner, Chris Crutcher, Libba Bray, and Gina Damico are great ones, but there are many with a bit of quirk that will draw students in and spark their interest in reading these author’s books. Ask students to explore the author bios and then make a list of the books they think they’d like to explore this semester. Have them write the author’s names on sticky notes for you to put in your conferring notes.

If you want to take this author bio idea further — (this is my favorite):

Read several professional author bios aloud. Ask students what information is shared and make a T-chart that lists the what on the left, e.g., name, personal hobbies, awards won, where the author lives, who the author lives with, etc. Then, ask students to describe how this information is shared and add these craft moves to the right. This is the how. For example, short and sometimes incomplete sentences, lists, 3rd person, the author’s name is first, witty word choice, etc. Finally, ask students to write their own author bio while you write yours as a model. Encourage them to try to craft their bio to include ideas from both the what and the how side of the T-chart. Below are two of my students’ bios from this past year.

Stephany author bio

Tomias author bio

(The author bio idea is Lisa’s baby, and she wrote about it here after I wrote about it here. It’s still the best idea I have ever heard to begin students on their journey into developing their identities as readers and as writers. I’ve used this idea in a model lesson for every workshop I’ve facilitated this summer, so if you were there, feel free to share the author bio you wrote this summer in the comments. My newest one is below.)

I wish you happy reading and writing with your students this year. Please share your go-to ideas for inviting students to write and build your community.

Amy Rasmussen loves books, pretending to garden, adolescents, and coconut cream pie — not necessarily in that order. She lives in North Texas with her dashing husband of 33 years, their twin-terror Shelties Mac and Des, and a not so loving love bird named Colonel Brandon. Amy spent the summer leading professional development in several districts across Texas and has grown especially fond of the Houston area. If only she could move… Follow her on Twitter @amyrass — and if you are not already, please follow this blog.

We Contain Multitudes

animal antenna biology butterfly

Photo by Evie Shaffer on Pexels.com

About two months ago, I found myself crying in the maternity section of Target mere hours before a flight on Sunday to the AP Reading in Tampa. My bags were unpacked, the clock was ticking, and I was sobbing under the harsh fluorescent lighting, lost in a part of the store – a whole genre of clothing – I knew nothing about. 

See, about three months pregnant, I’d finally run up against the inevitable clothing wall. Nothing I owned was comfortable any more; I was hoping to squeeze (literally) a few more weeks out of my clothes before I had to shop for new ones. After realizing that I still hadn’t packed at nine and then realizing that everything was awful and miserable around ten, I found myself an hour later in the clearance section of Target trying to find something cheap that could last me for a few weeks. 

Extra smalls as far as the eye could see. Not what I needed. 

I asked the worker on duty for help; she suggested I shop in the maternity section “even though you’re obviously not pregnant.” That comment broke me. I’m not a crier or one for public displays of any emotion beyond the Snoopy Dance, but there I was. Crying. In. A. Target. 

Over clothes. 

I bought my maternity pants and went home, determined to put the whole night behind me.

But I couldn’t. Days later, I realized what bothered me so much about the interaction: I was pregnant. I was, AM, lucky enough to experience a part of life that not every one else can. I was so thankful and excited about this journey that very few people knew about at that point. And I wanted people to know, to recognize and acknowledge that something really, really neat was going on – completely on its own, seemingly separate from my conscious self. 

In short, I wanted all that was going on inside of me to be made manifest to the outside world; I wanted my inside self to be obviously reflected in my outside self. In the moment – right or wrong – I felt robbed of understanding, or acknowledgement, of something that had become essential to my sense of self. Big feelings for what, ultimately, was such a small moment.  

I’ve been waiting to write this blog post since then.

This experience has stayed with me all summer as I planned for the school year; as with almost everything in my life I tried to apply this thinking to my classroom and found a fresh reminder that often so much happens under the surface or behind the scenes for my students that I may not see or know about. I wonder how many students have sat in my class, struggling because they know what they want to say, but can’t quite figure out how to say it. Maybe they wished they could just write an idea out instead of vocalizing it. I wonder how many times what’s going on inside of them longs to be made unmistakably apparent to the outside world. I wonder if in those moments they feel as frustrated or overwhelmed or alone as I did in Target.

I hope not, but I’m betting some do.

“What is your why?” This simple question is one the blog has posed before, and I love finding a why for my year every August. In addition to my why for this year, I want to remember in my instruction, my grading, my conversations, my interactions with students that they, like Whitman said, “are large … and contain multitudes” even when, especially when, those multitudes aren’t readily visible.

Sarah Morris teaches AP English Language & Composition, AP Seminar,  and Film as Literature in Murfreesboro, Tn. She is currently reading The Shallows and suggests you read it too. Annoy (err…I mean, share joyfully with) all of your friends the interesting ways the internet is changing our society, whether they want to hear it or not! She tweets at @marahsorris_cms. 

Q & A: How do you grade the writer’s notebook?

Questions Answered

For all the years of my teaching career, my students have always kept writer’s notebooks. We personalize our covers and create our own book lists and dictionaries, practice writing, sketching, and glue-ins to make every writer feel at home, and then go about the work of filling those empty pages with ideas, practice, drafts, and beauty throughout our time together. I do this work beside my students, and we inspire each other–the same way I see my teacher mentors do this.

Because of this framing, students are invested in their individual writer’s notebooks, and they are carefully and creatively cultivated. As a result, when I collect the notebooks, it’s not for the purpose of accountability: it’s for the purpose of students sharing something they’ve chosen with me, and for me to gather some information about where my students might need more instruction.

Just as students have their choice reading books lying open on their desks when we talk about their reading lives, they have their own writer’s notebooks lying open when we confer about their writing lives. I can see, and guide, students’ work in the notebook on a daily basis, so when I collect notebooks, most of what I’m seeing isn’t new to me.

Students select two pieces of writing they would like feedback on and flag them with post-it notes, then turn in their notebook every two weeks. I browse through their writing, have a look at their TBR lists and personal dictionaries, and write back on the pieces they’ve noted.

Once per quarter, I ask students to do a “journal harvest,” in which they revisit their writing from that quarter, assess their growth as a writer, set new goals going forward, and choose one piece they may have abandoned to harvest, revise, and polish.

If my classroom were gradeless, that would be that: daily conferences, biweekly turn-ins, quarterly harvests. That gives students a variety of feedback types and times, and gives me, the teacher, enough information to help move individual writers and the class as a whole in their writing growth. Because I have always been required to enter grades weekly into an online gradebook, I make turn-ins worth 20 points and quarterly harvests worth 60 points.

Students who do the work with fidelity and demonstrate growth earn the full points possible. Daily conferences are filled with self-assessment, which informs my “grading”–it’s easier to help award points to students when they’ve already set their own goals and assessed their progress during our conversations during the week.

As always, I treat the notebook as “workshop, playground, repository,” via the guidance of Tom Romano in Write What Matters. It is a place for students to “think, ruminate, speculate with the pressure off and the stakes low” (16), and as such, our grading should reflect that.


Note:  This post is a part of a series. It’s based primarily on the most frequent questions about readers-writers workshop asked at our workshop trainings. For more see here.

Shana Karnes lives in Wisconsin and teaches writers, educators, and her own small children how to improve their lives with literacy. As a new resident to the Dairy State, she’d love your recommendations about things to do. Connect with Shana on Twitter at @litreader.

%d bloggers like this: