Category Archives: Readers Writers Workshop

A Picture Book for Your High Schoolers

Image result for the word collector

I’ve always been a little puzzled by my dichotomous love for both classic, canonical literature and…….unabashedly romantic, sometimes risque, always happily-ever-after……..romance novels.

But as I thought more about it, I realized that what I love about the classics is their lasting potency, the punch that their language and stories deliver, no matter when they’re read. And what I love about romance novels is watching the classic, timeless journey of a fall into love.

And, thanks to a coffee-fueled epiphany in my notebook, I realized that being a teacher of readers and writers was the perfect career for those two passions of mine: I love to see my students falling in love with reading and writing.

Last week, I read a new book to my daughters that struck me as the perfect illustration of that journey into love with words: The Word Collector by Peter H. Reynolds.

As I read, I was struck by what a perfect picture book this would be to share with my high schoolers. Not only is it chock-full of SAT vocabulary words (which, while that is a concept I loathe, I do admit is a lovely list of cool words), it shows the power and joy of language and all that it offers to both readers and writers.

If you have this book, I urge you to read it with your students. If you don’t, the video linked above does a great job telling the story as well. The possibilities for linguistic play and discovery as you study the text are endless, and endlessly enjoyable–and don’t we all need that kind of joy in our classrooms, as often as possible? Try this text out for one way to bring some sunshine into this dreary Friday.

Shana Karnes lives and works with teachers in Madison, Wisconsin. Her two daughters push her to discover new texts and sneak in the reading of grown-up ones as often as possible. Connect with Shana on Twitter at @litreader.


Increasing Writing Volume with NaNoWriMo by Sarah Krajewski

Over the past few years, I’ve worked hard to help my high schoolers increase the volume of reading they do. I book talk popular titles. I give them time to read a book of choice in class. I’ve incorporated student-led book clubs. All of this gives my students what they need to increase their reading volume, but what about their writing volume? Over the summer, I spent some time thinking about ways to increase their amount of writing.

I already incorporate quick writes each day. Students receive independent work time so they can make some progress on a writing piece, but I usually have my own requirements for that piece. Currently my seniors are finishing up college application essays, and my freshmen are adding a second scene to their single-scene narratives. I’m telling them what genre to write in. Though they can choose the topic, I am assigning a task and giving them a rubric. My students need a challenge. They need to push themselves to writing independently outside of class just like I encourage them to do with their reading. Enter National Novel Writing Month (or NaNoWriMo, for short).

What is NaNoWriMo? National Novel Writing Month began back in 1999, and its goal was to encourage participants to write 50,000 words throughout the month of November. I’ll admit that I did not know about NaNoWriMo until a few years ago when I read Vicki Meigs-Kahlenberg’s The Author’s Apprentice. Her 8th graders participated in it, and she was so impressed with the results that it became a staple in her classroom each year. If her 8th graders could do it, couldn’t my 12th graders? I decided that this year would be the year to try it.


The Author’s Apprentice: My seniors will finish up their college application essays this week, and then we will begin preparation for NaNoWriMo. In order to prepare myself, I am rereading The Author’s Apprentice. Meigs-Kahlenberg has her students prepare by starting with weekly writing challenges. These challenges push students to read like writers and eventually imitate what writers do to improve their own writing. This way, if students get writer’s block during the process, or are just stuck for an idea of where to go next, they know they can visit the worlds of the authors they love for ideas.

Brave the Page: I also just finished up NaNoWriMo’s book, Brave the Page, which is written more for student writers, but I got some great ideas from it. The introduction is written by none other than Jason Reynolds, one of my students’ favorite authors every year. He gives a great pep talk to young writers. The section that follows reminds students that all of them are already writers. The inspirational quotes and tips will motivate all readers, no matter the age. Be sure to check out the audio version too! Authors like Jennifer Niven, Marissa Meyer, and Daniel José Older give their own pep talks as well. I plan to use them throughout the month when I see students needing more than just my encouragement.

NaNoWriMo Website: NaNoWriMo has a Young Writer’s Program for educators that we will be using. Teachers can create groups, which I did for each class. Students can chat with one another, and provide inspiration that sometimes a teacher cannot. As their teacher, I can make challenges to push them along. If desired, there is a whole high school curriculum that educators can use. With all of their resources, educators’ minds will be eased.

Some of my “favorite first lines.”

Mental Prep: As teachers of writing, we often know that simply getting started is the hardest part for many students. Next week, my seniors and I will begin preparing by starting to bring our notebooks with us everywhere. (I say “we,” for I will be writing along with them.) When an idea comes to us, we will write it down. We will use our quickwrite time to create lists about past events in our lives, things that made us laugh, things that made us upset, etc. We will collect “favorite first lines” from the books we love. We will talk about giving ourselves goals, and planning out when our “writing time” will be outside of class. We will talk about those all-important deadlines, but also remind ourselves that we are not failures if we don’t meet them. We already have writing routines, but we will create new ones to prepare for the amount of writing that is coming our way. In other words, we will mentally prepare for 30 days of consistent dedication to writing.

Time to Get Started!

So, I think we are ready! Well, we are as ready as we’re going to be. I know I cannot plan for every single issue that could arise, but I’m thankful that my students have a trusted writing community that will encourage and assist them every step of the way. When November 1st hits, my students will begin writing more than they ever have, and I can’t wait to see the results! My hope is that this experience will inspire many of my students to create independent writing routines, even after November ends.

NOTE: I look forward to sharing how NaNoWriMo is going for us next month.

Sarah Krajewski teaches 9th and 12th grade English and Journalism at Cleveland Hill High School near Buffalo, New York.  She is currently in her 18th year of teaching, and is always looking for new, creative ways to help her students enjoy learning, reading, and writing. At school, she is known for dedicating her time to helping students become lifelong readers, and for being a devoted reader herself who “knows her books.” At home, she is a proud wife and mother to three readers.  You can follow Sarah on Twitter @shkrajewski and her blog can be viewed at

Getting to Know You: Beginning of Year Conferences by Sarah Esberger

I know, it’s not the start of the school year anymore. We’re in, and there’s no going back. Still, I wanted to share how beginning of the year conferences went for me this year, so your next year can get off to a great start. Just tuck this idea away until then. 

We all know it’s important to build relationships with our new students. We also know that, in a writing classroom, it’s especially important to develop a classroom community. If students are going to share their writing and give and receive useful feedback, they have to feel comfortable. Like me, I’m sure your year often starts with get-to-know-you activities that introduce the students to each other, maybe help them problem-solve a little, and also introduce some low-stakes writing activities. 

This year, however, I knew I would be conferencing with my students on a regular basis about their writing and reading, so this process also needed an introductory activity. 

The Process

During the first full week of school, I asked the students to prepare to meet with me one-on-one. These were the directions I gave them: 

I would like to be intentional about conferencing regularly with all of you, usually about your reading and writing. While you work with your groups today and the next two days, I would like to also meet with each of you individually for about 3-4 minutes. I will not conference with the entire class, so if your group has a question about your project, please come see me. I will also come around and check on you.

Obviously, these will be short conversations. I would like you to come ready to tell me about any of the following:

  • What’s really important to you – in or out of school
  • How you feel about this class so far – concerns or worries/excitements
  • Anything you think I should know about you that might affect your performance in this class
  • Any questions you have for me 

Throughout the next couple of weeks (this took longer than the few days I imagined), any time students were working in groups or working individually, I held conferences with students at my desk. I keep a writer’s notebook throughout the year with my students, so I simply created a section for each class period and added each student’s name, leaving space for notes from future conferences.

When they came to speak to me, I set a timer on my phone for 3 minutes, letting them know that this would be a clue to wrap up our conversation, and then I just simply asked, “What should I know about you?” 

We would talk for a few minutes with me taking notes, and then I would move on to the next student. 


I had asked students to complete a Google form asking much of the same information I asked for these conferences, but students told me so much more when we talked in person. I learned who really loved English class and who had other passions. I was able to talk books with my readers and assure my science-minded students that there was a place for them in the research we do in AP Language and Composition, especially when it comes to choice reading. I learned who worked long hours at night and on weekends and who had little siblings to take care of after school. I could connect with them over favorite musicals, traveling, and video games. 

Perhaps most importantly, students revealed mental and emotional issues that they would not likely share in a survey. I learned how I could help my students with PTSD cope with feelings of distraction during class. I learned who may need to see the counselor for anxiety issues. I learned who was a cancer survivor and who had just started seeing a therapist. 

These were important discoveries that may have taken me the whole year to learn. Perhaps most importantly, I established that I cared about my students, their learning, and their lives in the first few weeks. I have noticed that my students have seemed more invested in my class this year. They are taking the assignments seriously, doing their best work, and communicating regularly about their progress even without my prompting. Perhaps this is all because I showed them that I was invested in them.

Sarah Esberger teaches AP Language and Composition and Sophomore English at Central Magnet School in Murfreesboro, TN where she lives with her second-grader, her husband, three furry friends, and a bearded dragon. She also runs her school’s student-tutored Writing Lab and is always seeking new ways to incorporate James Britton’s concept “reading and writing float on a sea of talk” into her teaching.

Text Talk: Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson

Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson, has been on my radar for years, but it burst into my classroom last year after Pernille Ripp’s Global Read Aloud inspired me to do a read aloud of Anderson’s text in my class. With some heavy groundwork laid for trigger warnings and difficult subject matter, the text spurred conversation, self reflection, and some seriously intense quick writes.

So, during my latest jaunt to Half Price Books, I was beyond tickled to see the graphic novel version of the text with illustrations by Emily Carroll. Though it’s been out for well over a year, I missed its release, and I’m so sorry I didn’t snag it sooner.

After some perusal, I find it to be an absolutely gorgeous visual text. It’s full of gripping images that convey not only the raw emotion of the pain and uncertainty Anderson’s main character Melinda experiences, but the formatting of the text itself is also a work of art.

Ways I Have Used Speak and Its Graphic Novel Version:

  • Character Analysis: Especially early in the book, the protagonist Melinda is a wealth of character development through thoughts, actions, dialogue, and mysterious backstory. Students (especially my freshmen) can relate to her struggles on the first day of high school and as the book progresses they see the reasons for her struggle as raw and real.
  • Prose as Poetry: The formatting of the graphic novel highlights specific words and phrases, literally drawing the depth of the text into a mentor for rhetorical analysis in a way that helps struggling students see the emphasis and emotions without quite so much inference. For some of my language learners, this is key to both understanding and engagement.
  • Narrative Mentor Text: As students transition from studying narrative to writing their own, this text serves as a mentor with clear and engaging voice, rich story lines, realistic dialogue, and relatable characters.

Have you used Speak as a mentor is your classroom? Have you read and enjoyed it yourself? Feel free to leave a comment below and share your enthusiasm for this awesome text!

Lisa Dennis spends her school days teaching AP Language and English 9, while also leading the fearless English department at Franklin High School, just outside Milwaukee, Wisconsin where she lives with her husband Nick, daughter Ellie, and beagle Scout.  She now tries to live life based on the last pieces of advice her dad gave her – Be kind. Read good books. Feed the birds. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum

Being Changed

baby-changing-chest-of-drawers-4518766_1920Before I became a teacher, I was a district manager for a women’s retail chain. One year the company went through a major change in their customer service program that included hours of new training. Our management team was under enormous pressure to perform, and no one was happy about the change. Marilou, our human resource manager, told us, “The only people who like to be changed are babies.” That quote has stuck with me all these years.

As a teacher, I have gone through so many changes. From grade levels to buildings and administrators to teaching partners and new standards to new testing and to the next how-to-get-higher-test-scores program. These changes add additional stress to already stressed-out teachers.

Change is simply a part of education; however, being changed is more accepted by reflective teachers. As I look back at the changes I have made in my classroom, implementing reading and writing workshop has been my most challenging, yet also the most rewarding.

In the early stages of this journey, I read books and blogs and attended conference sessions on reading and writing workshop. I met educators on social media who have been using workshop successfully for years. They made it appear so easy. In their perfect (in my mind) classrooms, independent reading was at the forefront, writing mini-lessons moved seamlessly into work time, and conferring with students was productive. I thought this was how teaching was supposed to look and was how I wanted my classroom to be.

I started my teaching career as an elementary “basal teacher” because that was what I knew and was how the other teachers taught. Prompt writing was our curriculum because that was how writing was tested. After moving to middle school and becoming a mentor teacher, I knew this would be the perfect time to make a change toward the workshop approach.

Independent reading has been the heartbeat of my classroom for many years and was already in place. Once I made the commitment to try the workshop approach, my mini-lessons became focused on the skills and strategies my students needed to become successful readers and writers. Conferring became routine, and reading and writing became engaging and authentic for my students. None of these changes happened overnight, and I am still changing.

If you have decided to make the change to workshop, then I encourage you to think about these three ideas to get you started:

  • Think Big–Start Small  When deciding to implement reading and writing workshop, see the big picture. Have a goal of where you want to be but begin with little steps to get there. Implement small pieces of the workshop model. I began with choice–giving students choice in the topics to write about and the books to read. I slowly began creating mini-units that included a series of mini-lessons with work time and conferences built in. You could begin here, or you might begin with collecting mentor texts or focusing on making your mini-lessons “mini.” The important part is that you take that first small step.
  • Allow Failure and Accept Grace  Many days I wanted to quit and go back to what was easy. I wanted my workshop to look, sound, and feel perfect. Most days it wasn’t. But then I realized I needed to give myself some grace because change takes time. My students were beginning to see the connection between reading and writing and that the work was authentic. It was what real readers and writers do. I knew I was going in the right direction.
  • Make Connections  I come from a district that does not use workshop, so any learning has always been on my own. Making connections with mentors made it easier. Three resources that I read at the beginning of my journey were Donalyn Miller’s The Book Whisperer and Book Love and Write Beside Them by Penny KittleThese three books gave me the courage to do what I knew in my teacher’s heart was right, and I never turned back.

The Three Teachers Talk blog has a wealth of resources on implementing reading and writing workshop. Penny and Donalyn were the “big picture” and Three Teachers Talk has been the “small steps” I needed for my own professional development. 

My journey is far from over as I continue to learn, reflect, and change every day. I am no expert, but I share with you what I have learned in hopes to make your journey to workshop teaching a little bit easier.

I think I may need to revise Marilou’s quote to: “The only people who like to be changed are babies and reflective teachers.”

Change is hard; being changed is amazing.

As teachers, we are all on a journey, but we don’t have to go it alone. Please share your journey with us in the comments section.

Leigh Anne Eck teaches 6th grade English language arts in Southern Indiana and loves to learn. She recently recieved her Master’s degree in Curriculum and Instruction at the young age of 55. She loves partnering with her husband in parenting their young adult children. Connect with Leigh Anne on Twitter @teachr4.

Embrace the Chaos – How Getting Lost in a Corn Maze Brought Me Some Clarity

This past weekend, I found myself unexpectedly lost. An innocent trip to the pumpkin farm to enjoy a beautiful fall day in Wisconsin quickly deteriorated to a literal Children of the Corn situation as my six-year-old and I spent almost 45 minutes lost in a corn maze. It was a maze of maise, as it were, and the two of us were no match for its twists, turns, or other cleverly landscaped stalks of doom.

As our enthusiasm for our new adventure began to wane, my panic level began to rise. It was no surprise that my daughter needed to go to the bathroom. It was no surprise that we hadn’t had lunch yet and were both starving. It was no surprise that the stalks of corn kept thwapping me in the face. I started having visions that we might be stuck in there for quite a while. What if it started to get dark? What if we turned in circles for hours and couldn’t find the entrance or the exit? What if the mini donut stand closed before I could make my way out?

In desperation, I texted my husband. Using some inappropriate words, I conveyed how disappointed I was that I had thought this would be a good idea and that I was getting sincerely scared about how long it would take us to find our way out. Thus far, my daughter and I had been rather innocently complaining about wanting to be done. Thankfully she hadn’t caught on yet to my growing concern about our situation.

A few moments later, we passed a young couple, headed the opposite direction. Trying to defuse tension with humor, as I often do, I smiled brightly and quipped, “Been in here long? Feels like we may have to spend the night in a corn field!”

“Yeah, we’re sort of stuck too,” the woman replied with a sigh. “We’ve been in here almost 90 minutes.”

***Insert Awkward Fake Laughter Here***

As my panic reached a fever pitch, a text came in from my husband.

“There’s no shame in just walking out the side…”

There might not be shame…but there’s a bit of fear for sure.

What if I pull my daughter off the path and into the corn only to lose my bearings completely? What if we walk toward a landmark that just happens to be in the middle of more corn? What if I have to utter the word “corn” one more time and I lose my mind?

Speaking of losing one’s mind. How’s the start of hour school year been for you? (Nice segway, hmmm?) If it’s anything like mine, there is a very thin line between the enthusiasm of this beautiful fresh start, and the disorienting chaos of being lost in the middle of what is indeed familiar, but no less overwhelming. 30 freshman (13 of whom have professed to hate reading. Hate.), will do that to a person. And that’s just one period.

Split lunch makes for quite the scene

But short of diving for the exits (or the pandemonium of a course forward without a path) what’s a passionate educator to do?

  • Routines – Remember to fall back on the routines of workshop when in doubt. When the crazy of homecoming week has your students climbing the wall, starting the class with 15 minutes of silent reading is not only beneficial, but a soothing balm of calm. I don’t compromise on this time – ever. We read no matter what and we read because no matter what, it’s one of the most important things we do. It gives my students time to change the crazy, amped up rhythm of their day, it gives me time to confer with kids, and it sets the tone for the whole class period of learning. Chaos be gone (eventually, as freshmen are still learning this quiet skill).
  • Build relationships – When I take some time to reflect on what’s causing me anxiety in the classroom, it is rarely the students. It’s the grading, the planning, the politics, the meetings, the everything that takes my time away from getting to know my students. So, when I’m struggling (this time it just happened to be in a field of corn), I try to remind myself that knowing my kids (academically and personally) makes all the difference. We can get through the tough together when we’ve established a connection as a class that makes us a community. When that community is focused on building readers and writers, all the better.
  • Self Care – I texted the Three Teachers last night with a bit of a plea/cop-out/desperate cry for help. I wasn’t sure I could post today. Last week saw PD on Monday, a department meeting Tuesday, School Improvement Team time out of the classroom on Wednesday, English Department Review Thursday morning (also out of the classroom) and PLC on Thursday afternoon. Then I got lost in corn. I’m behind and feeling disconnected from my kids. Amy’s simple advice “Self care, self care, self care” reminded me of a very important fact. One, I’m not alone in this treading water scenario and that brings some comfort. Often, in panic, we feel very isolated. In the community of educators, however, there is a lot of support for the over-committed, overtired, over-stimulated teacher. Instead of wallowing in it though, the mindful practice of self care and acknowledgment of our feelings can go far in helping us seek the balance we need.

In these reminders, there is nothing new. And in that, should be the calm in the chaos we all need. When the rows of corn feel stacked against you, choose a path and head in one reassuring direction. You will emerge. You will be in one piece. You will avoid corn mazes from now on, but in terms of the analogy…you’ll have come out the other side with a new appreciation for seeking the type of calm that can positively impact your day, your teaching, and your sanity.

Lisa Dennis spends her school days teaching AP Language and English 9, while also leading the fearless English department at Franklin High School, just outside Milwaukee, Wisconsin where she lives with her husband Nick, daughter Ellie, and beagle Scout.  She now tries to live life based on the last pieces of advice her dad gave her – Be kind. Read good books. Feed the birds. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum

In Pursuit of Something New


photograph of a pathway in forest

For the first 11 years of my career, I coached high school volleyball. This is my first year not coaching, and, well, there are mixed feelings. I love the increase in time at the beginning of the year; I miss the girls.

Coaching was never one of my life goals. While I enjoyed playing and loved the game (regardless of what game I happened to be playing), I never wanted to coach. After all, I spent four years accruing debt while training to become an English teacher, not a coach. So even though I thought I was prepared to teach,  I wasn’t prepared for the realities of the job market. I was offered a job in my first interview – a job that was conditional upon my agreement to coach volleyball. I hesitated in the interview long enough that the principal repeated himself, thinking I hadn’t heard him make the offer. 

In retrospect, I’m so thankful for that condition; I fell in love with the profession, with the competitiveness, with the players. Volleyball became a refuge during that challenging first year of teaching. I would leave the classroom, wondering if anyone had learned anything, feeling as if I was just tossing spitballs at the wall and praying something stuck. But then I walked into practice. In practice, I could offer advice for hitting harder, watch the player take that advice, and see immediate improvement. It took me, embarrassingly, four years to see that the two professions weren’t mutually exclusive. Once I began to apply some of my instructional best practices to the game, I became a much stronger, more effective coach. Getting there was a struggle, though.

Even though I’m no longer coaching, I still find myself thinking like a coach in my classroom at times. Of late, I’m reminded of one of MY high school coach’s favorite sayings: don’t lose what we have in pursuit of something new. Her point was that when students or players or even people are learning something new, sometimes they start to falter with a skill that they already possess. Essentially, the already learned skill gets put on the back burner as the brain processes a new skill and finds room for both in their new “map” of their brain. (I linked to a blog series there by Eliezer Yudkowsky – it’s a deep dive, but worth it.)

Teaching a jump serve often meant being patient with a flat-footed serve getting a little wonky.

Teaching a new kind of genre of writing (like rhetorical analysis) often means being patient with students conflating genre conventions. 

So what to do? Well, I’m still pulling from my bag of coaching/teaching tricks – so much of strong teaching is predicated on timely, accurate, accessible feedback. 

Here’s what not to do: When I first started coaching, I found, for good or ill, my first team was motivated by high expectations and immediate negative feedback. I became quite accomplished at breaking down incorrect movements and offering players extensive negative feedback (don’t hold your arms like that, feet together, faster, slower, higher) but not so adept at offering positive feedback (good job, nice hands, did everyone just see how she hustled after that ball? wow!). My positive feedback tended to be vague and repetitive. Shouts of “Yes!”  and “Way to go!” peppered our practices. Completely ineffective. The players knew explicitly where their struggles were (I had made that public knowledge for the entire team), but their successes weren’t being praised, and their growth both as players and as people was stymied. Even though we had four successful seasons together – three trips to the state tournament, lots of hardware and local recognition – I failed to create players who thought of themselves individually as successful. We would all agree that the team was successful, but I doubt their inner monologues were encouraging, and I know the way in which they spoke to each other wasn’t always positive – their constructive criticism skills left something to be desired, a trait they acquired from their coach. In this gym, I was the sage on the stage – not the best example for my girls. However, I was blessed enough to work with a group of girls who managed to flourish even when given such weak soil from their coach.

How does this transfer to the classroom? Modeling and conferencing and workshop, oh my. 

We look at multiple samples to remind ourselves of what we should be doing. We conference together focusing on finding positives and one trend to work on for the next round of writing. We workshop multiple smaller versions of the final larger piece, focusing on higher order concerns and lower order concerns in low stakes settings. Knowing that good teaching is often recursive teaching, we revisit previously learned knowledge in mini-lessons and in class discussions so that the new knowledge and the old knowledge can be held in tandem in the brain.

None of this is a ground-breaking, panacea for some of the hiccups inherent in teaching new skills, particularly new writing skills. It’s just solid teaching, and for me, a reminder that learning is a complex process and that I have to plan effectively for students so that we don’t lose what we have in pursuit of something new. 

Sarah Morris teaches AP English Language & Composition, AP Seminar,  and Film as Literature in Murfreesboro, Tn. She is currently contemplating a re-read of The Name of the Wind – reading this book is like those conversations with friends who you might not speak to every day but pick back up with as easily as if you did. She tweets at @marahsorris_cms. 



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