Category Archives: Readers Writers Workshop

Pixie Dust: Or Life Among Fairies

by Elizabeth Oosterheert

PETER: Wendy, get better quickly, and I will take you to see a mermaid. She is awfully anxious to see a mermaid…J.M Barrie–Peter Pan

“Mom, I’m so thirsty…” 

Those aren’t strange words to hear in July and August, are they? I didn’t think much of them in the lazy heat of late summer. I was more focused on soaking in every last drop of Michigan sunlight, and answering the call of the lake, a voice that is more insistent every year. “Join us…we are your memories. Don’t get too old to go back to your childhood…”

It seems fitting to me that every summer I bring my children to all of the places I loved as a child, hoping to awaken the same magic that captivated me. Wind, waves, and an unending shoreline.. I admit that I was preoccupied during our trip. I was writing a play called Crown of Roses and the words were criminals, trying to escape capture every night when I desperately wanted them to live on the pages. 

We had been home from our vacation for a few weeks when I began noticing how thirsty my daughter Summer was. A bottle of Gatorade or a glass of chocolate milk vanished in seconds, leaving her begging for more. At first I blamed the heat, but when August turned to September and the temperatures surrendered to fall, Fear’s cold fingers gripped my heart. I knew there were only a few things that would cause constant thirst, none of them good. “It’s nothing. She’s growing and eating more, too. Everything was fine at her checkup in June.” That was the voice in my head that I entertained when I dared to think about the situation at all.

Friday night football…a sure sign of autumn in countless cities across the country. Summer, a pixie who loves flying around the stands under those stadium lights, went to an Eagles game and returned home reporting that she had thrown up during the game. Again, I heard that voice in my head: “It’s the flu. A little rest, some fluids, and everything will be back to normal.” I offered her 7-Up,  Popsicles, Cookie Dough ice cream, anything to ignore the chill overtaking my heart. 

A few days passed. Summer was worse. Much worse. Wednesday, September 18th…

****OOSTERHEERT THEATRE PRODUCTIONS PROUDLY PRESENTS…A ONE-SIDED CONVERSATION****

ME: How are you feeling? I think you should try to go to school today.

SUMMER: My stomach hurts. 

ME:  I’m starting to think you just don’t want to go to school. You need to try to eat something. Dry Cheerios. Toast. A banana. ANYTHING!

SUMMER:—(TEARS)

ME: I’ll call at noon to see how you’re doing. 

SUMMER:—

:—

SEPTEMBER 18TH, 6PM: I arrived home from school to find Summer pale and unmoving on the couch. Immediately, I called our local hospital and was told to bring Summer to the ER. 

My husband carried her out to my Ford Excursion because she was too weak to walk. I could see every bone in her legs and wondered how she had gotten so thin in a matter of days. After she was safely in the back seat, I turned to my husband. “They’re going to tell me she’s a diabetic,” I said. 

9PM: Summer and I have been in the emergency room for three hours. A doctor confirmed what I suspected for weeks. My daughter’s sugar levels were six times the normal level, and she was diagnosed with Type One diabetes. I prayed Psalm 23: Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil…” 

When I wasn’t praying, I was worrying. Worrying about Summer’s future. Worrying about my other children. Worrying about the Crown of Roses rehearsal I was going to miss the next day, and how much work we still needed to do on choreography. I allowed myself the luxury of tears when Summer was sleeping, and then I decided to call Tyler, my student director. He was the only one who would be able to keep a rehearsal afloat if I couldn’t be at school.

A Late Night Cell Phone Conversation

Hello?

Hey-Tyler. It’s Mrs. O. Sorry to call so late. I’m at the emergency room and I’m about to get in an ambulance with my daughter to go to Blank Children’s Hospital.

Wow. I’m sorry. Is she going to be okay?

I think so. She was diagnosed with Type One diabetes. There’s a team of specialists that is going to teach us how to take care of her. It would be so reassuring for me if you would run the rehearsal tomorrow. Could you be there? I know you weren’t planning to come.

Anything. I would be glad to. Those kids are heroes.

I know. They’re amazing…and so are you. Thanks, Tyler….

Don’t worry, Mrs. O. I’ll be there.

It is no accident that Tyler played the role of Richard the Lion-Hearted when he was an eighth grader. He is royalty.

The ambulance was dark and calming, if a vehicle that is usually a trauma center can be peaceful. Summer was given her first insulin injection, and started feeling more like her light-filled, fairy self. I held her hand, and watched her heart’s gentle rhythm on the monitor.

I thought it was only flowers that die…J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan

Lines from Peter Pan flooded my mind all night, and I was grateful for the comfort of the familiar words, and the story of the Boy Who Would Never Be Old in the midst of a situation that was far from the shores of Never Land. When we arrived at Blank Children’s Hospital, one of the first things I saw was a mural featuring Peter Pan. I recalled that on the night my four babies who are now sophomores were born, and I thought I might bleed to death, God gifted me with an extremely compassionate nurse whose name was WENDY. The holiness of story has surrounded me in so many seasons…

Summer spent the rest of that night on a brick-hard triage bed. She tried to sleep, and I sat next to her with my MacBook, praying and planning lessons for all of the classes I would miss the next day. I didn’t know what the morning would bring, but I knew that we were in the company of angels.

For this month’s post, I wanted to tell you the story of my daughter’s diagnosis with Type One diabetes (with her permission), a story that I shared with my eighth grade students as we work on writing tributes and Note to Self narratives. My writing turned out to be a tribute to both my daughter and to one of my favorite stories, Peter Pan. My students and I are inspired by the following mentor texts:

“Go to the Ice” by Dorothy Hamill

Note to Self by Yonder Alonso

The Life of Reilly by Rick Reilly

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

CBS News Note to Self Videos. One of our favorites is this one featuring Will Reeve.

We’ve watched a different mentor video each day at the beginning of our workshop time , and then conferred about what we noticed in that visual text. The template that we’re using for recording our observations is linked below.

Our list of craft moves for our Note to Self/Tribute pieces is linked here. We’ve discussed elements such as incorporating multiple genres in one piece, using intentional sentence fragments, playing with figurative language and repetition, the importance of meaningful titles, and more.

After making this list together and practicing sentence imitation based on sentences we chose from our mentor texts using @Wakelet, and watching a series of Note to Self videos courtesy of CBS News for inspiration, we’re ready to begin drafting.

As students write their drafts, they have opportunities to confer with me AND other writers in our workshop. One of the most beautiful things about this writing is that it’s an opportunity not only to reflect on their younger selves. It’s also an invitation to thank someone who has mentored them, or to celebrate a good friend, an effective coach, or a close sibling relationship. It is one of my favorite ways to invite students into reflection and growth.

How do you invite students into reflective writing? Start a conversation in the comments, or email me at oosterheerte@pellachristian.net.

Elizabeth Oosterheert is a middle school language arts teacher and theatre troupe director in central Iowa. She loves writing, and sharing the stage with seventh and eighth graders. Her favorite stories are Peter Pan, The Outsiders, & Our Town. She recently finished writing an adaptation of Arabian Nights for performance in November 2021.

Wiki-poems

Inspired by Brian Bilston’s creative poetic structures, such as his Google auto-fill poem, I thought about additional ways to inspire students to construct a form of non-threatening “found” poems. Based on my own quirky practice of researching documentaries and historical films that I view to determine their historical accuracy, and the fact that I often start with Wikipedia as a beginning point of reference (there are great resources cited at the bottom of the pages), I decided to experiment with a “wiki-poem.” Wikipedia pages are already sorted into categories, so if a student takes one line from each section, a poem will naturally progress through a sequence of ideas. This works well for both biographies, historical events, works of art and literature, and other high-interest subjects.

For example, here is a table that shows the organizational chart for Mary Shelley:

Setting parameters that make sense for a specific assignment, you could have students choose words, phrases, or sentences from a certain number of sections to craft their poems. If you’re working on specific literary or rhetorical devices, structure, or other elements of craft, you could require those.

Giving myself the guidelines of writing a poem constructed from at least one phrase from each of the sections from “life and career” through “reputation,” here is a found wiki-poem on Mary Shelley:

Works Cited: “Mary Shelley.” Wikipedia, 4 Sept. 2021. Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Mary_Shelley&oldid=1042316021.

Amber Counts is a frazzled grad student studying English literature while teaching a variety of courses to high school juniors and seniors. Excited to start teaching a 9-week creative writing course today, she spent most of the recent 3-day weekend lesson-planning anywhere inspiration struck. She’s still getting back into the writing groove after a Covid dry spell.

Writing sparks from Bewilderment by Richard Powers

I just finished reading Richard Powers’ new book, Bewilderment, and I was culling through some of the lines that really stood out to me to see if they might be potential writing sparks for my juniors. I found some of them especially relevant for English teachers, so I’m going to share those here with some reflections about why I liked them and a few ideas for how they could turn into prompts or mentor texts. 

Passage 1: “My boy was a pocket universe I could never hope to fathom” (5).

This line really resonated with my parent and teacher heart–I often feel my kids are hard to fathom. Fathom is such a great word. I think it used to be a way to measure depth in water. It’s as though Powers is saying that our kids have these depths and worlds inside them that we may never tap into. And he pairs that with this great metaphor: “pocket universe.” Kids are an entire universe in a small package. The sentence is short but conveys such a sense of wonder and awe. It’s that kind of awe that can be hard to muster in October, when the new school year honeymoon is over and first quarter grades are in and self-destructive patterns of behavior have emerged in certain students and I’ve given the same warning so many times. But it’s true anyway: our kids and our students are pocket universes with rich stories and untold possibilities. It was a worthy reminder for me that helps check the cynicism I know I find myself battling. 

  • Possible prompt: What are some things you could “never hope to fathom?” Build a good list, then zero in on one. Use a metaphor to say what that thing was: ________ was a ___________.

Passage 2: “She held her small frame like an athlete before the starting gun: she was everywhere. She felt like a prediction, a thing on its way here” (49).

I think it’s the simile that draws me–”she felt like a prediction.” I love encountering unexpected comparisons like this. He’s thinking of her physicality and uses a completely abstract noun to convey that. It’s perfect.

  • Possible prompt: Choose a family member or close friend to describe. Think of their posture, their bearing, their energy. Make a comparison of their demeanor to an abstract noun, action noun, or -tion word. The bigger the gap in the comparison the better.

Passage 3: “In the auditorium, I felt the pleasure of competence and the warmth that only comes from sharing ideas. It always baffles me when my colleagues complain about teaching. Teaching is like photosynthesis: making food from air and light. It tilts the prospects for life a little. For me, the best class sessions are right up there with lying in the sun, listening to bluegrass, or swimming in a mountain stream” (66).

“Teaching is like photosynthesis.” This is such a gift of a thought–that our work is like something that takes light (ideas) and creates food (intellectual sustenance). That and the word “tilts.” I know I often leave work for the day a little discouraged by a lesson that went awry or by my perception of resistance or distraction on the students’ part. But Powers reminds us that we’re creating something that might tilt those students’ futures a little. Teaching, like photosynthesis, is subtle and unseen but vital and powerful. I need this reminder.

  • Possible prompt: Choose a scientific process that describes or explains a passion of yours. What is rowing like? What is hiking like? What is playing piano like? Use the colon like Powers does to set up a short reason or extension of the simile.
  • Possible prompt #2: Look at Powers’ last sentence. Choose one of your passions and then tell us what it’s “right up there with” using a list of three items. Aim for the same level of specificity he uses. 

You can hear the way nature permeates the language choices that Powers makes. When he reaches for comparisons, he comes up with pocket universe, prediction, photosynthesis. These passages give a good flavor of the wistful, hopeful tone of the conversations between an astrobiologist and his son who is on the spectrum and battling some complicated mental health issues. Maybe their conversations will help tilt our writers into deeper fathoms. 

Nathan Coates teaches junior English at Mason High School, a large suburban district near Cincinnati, Ohio. After Bewilderment he has moved on to read A Key to Treehouse Living by Elliot Reed.

Independent Reading: Celebrating Small Successes

I started writing this post after reading Embracing Silliness in Skills Practice. I love her approach to writing practice. It reminded me of the approach I am taking with independent reading, after 18 months of “remote learning.” It is now October and my small class of struggling readers is finally starting to find some success in reading. The first few weeks of school were rough. They didn’t believe me when I told them I was determined to help them find a book that might turn them into a reader. They didn’t want to read during independent reading time. They talked instead. I respectfully asked that they were quiet during this time. They asked to go to the bathroom. I said they would have to wait until after reading time was done and they completed their log entry for the day. They put their head down and I came over and asked them to read to me instead. They dropped books on a daily basis (“I don’t like this one.” “It is boring.”) so I gave them a new one. I didn’t give up on them and slowly I started to see progress. I am by no means a miracle worker when it comes to books, but here are a few tips for those whose students are struggling like mine.

TIP #1 – We started independent reading with small increments of time. Take time to build up their stamina. The first week we read 5 minutes (well, let’s be real. They probably read about 1-2 minutes the first day and by Friday they got up to 4-5 minutes.). The second week we read 6 minutes. The third week – 7 minutes and so on. We are finally reading 10 minutes this week and they aren’t complaining. Some are even reading past the 10 minutes and don’t want to put their books down! Each week we celebrate the improvements they are making in their reading stamina and all the books they are finishing. Such a small, yet extremely exciting success!

TIP #2 – Each day I read with 1-2 students. They talk to me a little about their book and then read a small chunk. I love listening to their fluency improve as they gain confidence in the books they have chosen. In the past I had a list of questions that I referred to when conferencing and this year I have kept things simple. I ask them to tell me about what is happening in that part of the story and what has kept them reading it and not putting it down. I have learned about their interests and what keeps them engaged in the books that they keep reading. Some need action. Some need white space and graphics. Some need drama and romance. Some are into anime. Some just need the time and a quiet space to read. Students talking to me about books = success!

TIP #3 – I allow students to drop books and start something new. TIP #4 – Find authors that will engage your students right from the start. In the beginning it felt like everyday they were dropping books and then something clicked. Each day I put three or four books in front of them and booktalked even more. If they request a book that we don’t have in our class library, we check the school library. If it isn’t there, I check our public library or just buy it. They were surprised in the beginning that it didn’t bother me that they put a book down. I reminded them that there are too many books available to them that they shouldn’t waste time on something that they aren’t interested in. Plus, who knows… they may pick that book up again in a year or two and really enjoy it. So far this year I have had several students read YUMMY, Long Way Down, Crossover, Perfect Chemistry, and Chained Reaction. These are the gateway books that suck my students in. They may have a lot of white space or pictures (think of all the infering they have to do), and may not be long, but we celebrate each and every book they finish. In the end, whether they drop a book or finish one, they are figuring out what they like and don’t like and that is a success to me!

TIP #5 – We find different ways for our students to respond to what they are reading each day. Because I teach a reading class, I do ask my students to respond (1-2 sentences) on a log each day and my instructional assistant and I walk around and have our students read their responses aloud to us. We have asked students to make connections, to summarize, to evaluate their character’s actions, to apply the vocabulary we are teaching in word study to what is happening in their books. It doesn’t take long, but it gives us a glimpse of what they understand about their books and if they are truly engaged in the book or not. In the beginning it was pulling teeth to get them to write anything about their books and over time, this has become routine. They look forward to our questions and are adding more details in their responses. Simple routines practiced over and over = success!

As a realist I know that most of my students did not read much the last 18 months while we were in school remotely. In order to build back that love of books and stamina for reading longer periods of time, I am keeping independent reading simple and with that we are celebrating our successes one day at a time.

What are some strategies you have found to engage your students and build their stamina with indepedent reading?

When Melissa Sethna isn’t teaching her one Strategic Reading class, she can be found around her school either planning professional development, working 1-1 or in PLCs with teachers, or visiting classrooms as an instructional coach. During her free time she loves to read YA novels and binge watch Ted Lasso. She is grateful to be part of this learning community and is honored to share her experiences with others. While she has a Twitter account, @msethna23, and sometimes retweets posts, she is trying to limit her social media presence this year in an attempt to keep her sanity. She does post all books she reads on her Goodreads page.

Embracing Silliness in Skills Practice

As teachers of writing, it can be tempting to jump straight into a big, meaty composition or class discussion to get a feel for where our students’ skill levels are at the beginning of the year. High expectations, planned scaffolds, but somewhere it takes a left turn in a very different direction because the students do not feel confident enough to fully participate. 

When I was a brand new baby teacher, I had no idea there was another way to gauge my students’ skills. So we jumped in the deep end, feet-first, and had a collective sink or swim moment. They sank. I sank. Life preservers all around.

In a previous post, I wrote about ways to address perfectionism in student writing. We write daily in my classroom because quantity leads to quality. Sometimes the prompts are in response to quotes. Other times, I have my students respond to something completely bonkers. Oftentimes, these prompts are used to prime a lesson that builds the skills they need for something bigger. 

One of the best ways to build skills and confidence in the classroom is to embrace silliness. Here are some tips and perks.

1. Plan Backward

This isn’t new and I’m sure we’ve all heard this at some point, but the reminder doesn’t hurt. Work backward from your end goal as you plan.  

My seniors have been working on social commentary and I knew that I wanted them to craft an original piece of social commentary in addition to being able to engage in academic discussions about their topics. 

By the end of their time with me, they will have one of my catch-phrases permanently embedded in their brains- if you can talk about it, you can write about it. Unfortunately, they weren’t ready to talk about such intense and heavy topics in a way that was constructive. 

2. Back to Basics

Don’t get me wrong. I love a good, well-crafted student composition. But I like to walk it back and work on the skills needed to complete that task so students have the confidence to actually begin. By “walk it back”, I mean waaaaay back. Sometimes, taking baby steps early in the year means major leaps and bounds later. 

This is where you ditch the worksheets and other skills practice that robs the joy from your practice. Gamify it. Be ridiculous. Have no fear. 

For my purposes, a silly writing prompt. 

Students came in at the beginning of the unit to the following prompt: Is a hotdog a sandwich? Craft an argument to convince someone else. 

They gave me All. The. Side-Eye. They wrote. They giggled. But they wrote. 

It took me a little while to come around to the understanding that extremely low-stakes practice is often the best way to reinforce old skills and to introduce new skills. If we make it fun and create a positive association, that skill is going to stick. 

3. Chunk It 

When fully embracing silliness in skills practice, be prepared for a slow release. The goal is for content mastery, not speed. You can adjust your pacing to your students’ needs. 

My aim is to find that balance between skill-building in a low-stakes environment and making it a positive experience. Laughter is a bonus. 

The path from silly writing prompt to final class discussions and original social commentary took several class periods, but oh my stars was it worth every additional, hysterical second.

4. Facilitates Easy Modeling

If the practice is goofy but engaging, it gives you the opportunity to model the skills or behaviors you are attempting to have students master. In my case, it was academic discussion and reinforcing the use of evidence to support a viewpoint. 

I gave my students a set of sentence stems to help foster civil discourse in an academic discussion. So far, so good. Then, I paired them up and tasked them with using the stems to discuss their responses. Easy peasy. I simply had to float around the room while these awesome humans carried out their discussions. 

When I tell you that I did not expect the levels of investment from students over a discussion about hotdogs, I am not kidding. Did you know that the US Department of Agriculture has an official definition of a sandwich? I didn’t either, but I do now. 

5. Tie It All Together

As with any new skill, we want our kiddos to own it and use it well. This is the moment we’ve been coaching them for. This is where you shift from low-stakes practice to linking the skills back to your end goal. 

My kids researched and wrote and crafted some fabulous original pieces of social commentary. Then, they engaged in discussions in groups of 8 to 10 students. I was absolutely blown away with how well, even the most timid, students were able to share their thoughts about some pretty heavy topics. 

These kids were able to disagree, ask clarifying questions, and offer different opinions better than many adults I’ve seen. No raised voices. No tears. No ad hominem fallacies. 

**BONUS TIP**

In the spirit of adding a little laughter and some extra eye-rolling to break up the seriousness that is a group of high school students in English class, consider a silly song for a transition or brain break. A personal favorite is “It’s Raining Tacos” by Parry Gripp. 

Dance parties are highly encouraged.

How can you bring some silliness into your skills practice?

Samantha is a wife, mom to three tiny humans, high school English teacher, perpetual student, Texas transplant, and lover of beautiful stories. She spends her days seeking levity in the chaos, sharing her passion for writing and storytelling with students, and searching for her constantly misplaced cup of reheated coffee. You can follow Samantha on Instagram and Twitter @SimplySivils or on her terribly neglected blog http://simplySivils.wordpress.com/.

Searching the Depths of Your Heart: Parallels Between Writing Workshop and Theatre

by Elizabeth Oosterheert

Caleb & Garrett rehearse combat choreography for Arabian Nights.

One of the most magical things about directing middle school theatre…

is inviting students to unwrap the art of stage combat choreography. I love the beauty of the interaction, the sheer grace that is part of learning together, and the way that students use their imaginations to enter the world of the play and make decisions about how each scene, and each combat sequence will evolve as part of the larger story.

As I reflected on the fine art of stage combat, I realized that there are many parallels between spectacular swordplay, and being part of a writing workshop.

Since my students and I will be writing listicles this week, (thanks to @KellyGToGo and ESPN Magazine for the idea!) I thought I would share a listicle with you about the tandem hearts of theatre (combat choreography in particular) and writing workshop.

Six Things I Know About Writing Workshop & Stage Combat Choreography

  1. Both writing and combat choreography are matters of the heart. Excellent writing, AND masterful choreography begins in a restless heart that simply MUST write, or MUST take to the stage-to be complete.
  2. Whether one is wielding a pen or an epee (stage combat weapon) risk is involved. Authentic writers and actors embrace risk as part of the journey. What does risk look like for writers in our workshop? It’s everything from playing with mixing genres (last week we looked at mixing poetry and informational text as we studied stories of 9-11–See a list of mentor texts at the end of this post!) to working with a co-author for the first time. On stage, there is inherent risk in crafting a new combat sequence and in trusting one’s partner to memorize every move.
  3. Both writing and acting involve world building. Eighth grade writers construct worlds built of childhood recollections as we compose our autobiographies together, while 8th Grade Theatre Troupe members are invited to suspend their teenaged, central Iowan existence every day for an hour to become princes, or palace guards. 
  4. Writers and actors need inspiring mentors. Our favorite poetic mentors in writing workshop so far this year for crafting autobiographical texts have been “My Honest Poem” by Rudy Francisco, and “Possibilities” by Wislawa Szymborska. On stage, eighth grade actors are mentored by high school and college students who bring a wealth of stagecraft knowledge to us every day.
  5. Writing and acting are about surrendering the spotlight so that we can truly grow into the supporting roles we’re meant to play in a story that is larger than we are. I frequently tell students in our writing workshop that writing is about growth and grace, not grades. The same is true about learning the language of combat choreography. Students quickly discern that it takes countless hours of rehearsal to polish even five minutes of finished fight choreography. It is time and effort that elevates a performance (or a piece of writing) from good to great.
  6. One of the greatest gifts of both theatrical training AND writing workshop is the opportunity to be part of a thriving community that scales the mountains of a great performance and also weathers the valleys of those days when it feels like we’re not “good enough” to write anything of consequence or to tell a story on stage convincingly. Whether we’re in writing workshop or on stage, the invitation is open. Regardless of how discouraging today might have been, tomorrow we can return to the page, or the stage and begin again.
These epees are ready to go on stage. They’re waiting for a few eighth graders…

As writers and actors, we’ve been invited on a journey to a place of discovery, harmony and joy. What a privilege it is to write beside the students in our workshops–and in my story I am doubly blessed with opportunities to build worlds with words in notebooks and in auditoriums.

Last week, we were mentored by the heroes of September 11th.

Mentored by Heroes

I thought I would close by sharing links to a few deeply moving mentor texts in honor of the victims of 9-11 and their families. My students and I studied these written and visual texts last week, and used them in crafting narrative snapshots.

The Unusual Courage of Todd Beamer by Brandon Anderson

Anderson beautifully weaves the threads of the loss of his brother into a story that honors the extraordinary courage of Todd Beamer and the other passengers of Flight 93. My students and I noticed that looping is a powerful craft move, and that this is a multi-genre piece that blends narrative, poetry and commentary.

The Man in the Red Bandana courtesy of ESPN.com

This is the story of Welles Crowther, a volunteer firefighter who sacrificed his own life to save the lives of many others.

Beverly Eckert Remembers Sean Rooney courtesy of Storycorps.org

Eckert invites us to know her husband Sean by ushering us into her final conversation with him on September 11th. This is a story of searing loss and enduring love. Ironically, Eckert later died in a fiery crash as she traveled to award a scholarship in Sean’s honor.

The Photos of 9-11 courtesy of The New York Times Insider

This photo journal captures unforgettable images of September 11th and includes captions to draw us into the stories of each photo. My students used this piece as a mentor for constructing our own “Dear Photograph” captions. This piece illustrates not only the power of a photograph, but also the importance of word economy.

What are your deepest convictions about writing workshop?

Share your ideas in the comments, or email me at oosterheerte@pellachristian.net

Elizabeth Oosterheert is a middle school language arts teacher and theatre troupe director in central Iowa. She loves writing, and sharing the stage with seventh and eighth graders. Her favorite stories are Peter Pan, The Outsiders, & Our Town. She recently finished writing an adaptation of Arabian Nights for performance in November 2021.

Things I Learned in August

One of my favorite podcasters/writers/self-help gurus is Emily P. Freeman. She has such a soothing voice and some really great advice. Her podcast is “The Next Right Thing,” and she also has a book by that title. The podcast has everything to do with decision-making, reflecting, and taking the next right step. It helped me a great deal during the 2021-2022 school year when I couldn’t look past the next day without having a total breakdown.

One of her reflective practices is to write what you have learned “within a season.” She encourages you to define “season” however that feels right to you. For me, back to school, a.k.a. August, is a whole season in itself. Here are the things I learned in August:

  • What a panic attack feels like
  • That taking the summer off, really off, probably kept me in this career field
  • That changing schools is hard and uncomfortable, but also challenging in the best way
  • That it’s very difficult to keep up with your blog responsibilities when you are working 10+ hour days and collapsing once you get home (sorry!)
  • What PTSE is and how it makes so much sense
  • To use “good readers…” and “good writers…” when developing objectives/teaching points

For today’s post, I am going to pull out one of those learnings to expound on in hopes it helps you the way it has helped me.

PTSE

In August, I started reading Tarana Burke’s and Brene Brown’s new anthology You Are Your Best Thing: Vulnerability, Shame, and the Black Experience. In one of the pieces, “The Blues of Vulnerability: Love and Healing Black Youth” by Shawn A Ginwright, he writes about the term PTSD being “inadequate to capture the depth, scope, and frequency of trauma” in the environments of Black youth. Instead, he proposes the term “persistent traumatic stress environments,” or PTSE’s, to demonstrate the constant fear, trauma, or sadness that comes with food insecurity, lack of housing, and more. These are not things that live in the past and haunt our present; they are current stressors that affect these kids everyday.

After reading this piece, I had many epiphanies about my students’ experiences and some of the roadblocks they may have to learning. There is an urgency in front of us to both rid communities of these constant stressors by building better living conditions and also to meet students’ mental health needs now. We have to always stay in front of it because it is present, not past.

I also had a realization about my own experience. I have been grappling to find the words to describe how I feel to my husband, my parents and all the other non-educators around me. I am not feeling PTSD from last year. I am also not sure I am feeling burnt out because I took a true break over the summer and have felt that it really helped me recover. I think I am living in a persistent traumatic stress environment. Now, please hear me clearly when I say that I am a middle-class, white, cisgender, heterosexual female and I in no way think my experience is equal to the youth that Ginwright speaks of. However, he did give me some new language to clarify how I am feeling. I am so happy to not be teaching hybrid and to be able to be more interactive with my students this year. But I am also feeling extreme amounts of stress that I haven’t experienced before (see “learning what a panic attack feels like” above). I am feeling pressure to “get things back to how they were before” and to “close learning gaps.” I am also feeling pressure to keep my students safe because my state has done nothing to do so, and we have a massive amount of cases. My mind is always going, I am always feeling like I can’t possibly get it all done, and I am always aware that we are not doing enough for what these kids need. These feelings came as a major disappointment to me because I was expecting this year to be better for a lot of reasons. It was confusing and upsetting that I was still feeling the 100-pound weight of stress digging into my chest everyday.

With this new clarity around my feelings with PTSE’s, I have been able to offer myself some grace. I understand now that I won’t just be rid of the stress after I just get past this hurdle or that deadline. I will still have to think about how best to set up my room/do activities to keep kids as safe from COVID as possible. I will still have to find every avenue of creativity to help these students get back on track. With this knowledge, I made the decision to work some longer days than normal but to also create a work-home boundary to prioritize real rest in the evenings and on the weekends. There may be no end to this PTSE in sight, but with understanding of the problem and some strategies I can handle it better than I was when I was just trying to make it to a new day expecting it to be better. Because I have put on my own oxygen mask, as they say, and done the work to take care of myself, I am better equipped to help my kids through this extremely stressful time.

For example, I understand that many of my students are also living in these environments- because of mental health situations, race, economic status, living as a teenager in a pandemic, etc. I can use this knowledge to help them also find similar boundaries and grace for themselves, too. I really enjoyed the advice in the reflective piece “Two Weeks In…” and think these are great ways to get students through their own PTSE’s.

Rebecca Riggs is in her 5th year of teaching. She has moved to a different school in the Houston, TX area and is teaching ELA II. She is surviving these times by throwing caution to the wind and eating/drinking all the Fall things even though it’s still 90 degrees and not technically Fall yet. She is reading You Are Your Best Thing and The Tattooist of Auschwitz. She and her husband will celebrate 10 years together this month, which makes her giggle because they met when she was her students’ age.

Creating Book Buzz: Using Memes for Book Talks

We are eight days into a new school year and already I’m in awe of how hard teachers have been working to get books in kids’ hands. Our amazing media specialist has gotten kids into the space earlier than ever and it’s been fun book-talking and matchmaking. 

Last week a pink-haired sprite of a student stood with a book in her hands, looking puzzled. “What kind of books do you like to read?” I asked her. She shrugged and turned over the book she was holding. It was Blue Lily, Lily Blue by Maggie Stiefvater and though I hadn’t read the book yet, I knew enough about the author to know this could be a match. “I think this book found you,” I told the student. She smiled and carried it over to the check out desk. 

It feels like that sometimes, doesn’t it? Like books just find a student. There are other times, though, when kids get in a rut. Or when students don’t even know enough about what they like to read to help figure out where they might start, or what to read next. While there’s excitement and urgency around the reading now, how do we carry that energy past October, the point where it feels like everything gets harder to sustain?

My colleague Tiffany Walters is amazing at sustaining reading energy. When students finish a book in her room, they immediately book talk it. There’s no schedule or deadline. She just creates spontaneous space for kids to share and they do it all year. I’ve been thinking about additional ways we might leverage the other readers in the room to keep the momentum going.

Tiffany turned me on to the Instagram account for a book store in St. Louis called The Novel Neighbor because they make creative recommendations. I was delighted and spent an embarrassing amount of time reading back through past posts. I even put several titles on hold as a result of the memes.

That got me thinking, how might we use these memes as mentor texts for the kinds of conversations we want to kids to be having about books?

The first step might be to flood students with examples of the mentor text. This is a padlet I created with a variety of the memes. Invite students to peruse, to craft a list of what they notice about how the memes are put together. Which ones appeal to them? What do they notice about form? About content? About structure?

Students might say:

  • each meme has an image of the book. 
  • colors are bold and the words strategically placed. 
  • The creator uses an If…Then structure
  • I read Survive the Night by Riley Sager, so I notice that the bullet points are important plot points. 

I imagine after we do this with students, they’ll need a nudge, something Ohio Writing Project co-director Beth Rimer calls “nurturing an idea”. It’s not enough to just show the mentor text and then tell students “okay, go do that.” We have to create a little more runway. 

Here’s where Gretchen Bernabei’s quicklists come in. This is the quicklist I used when I shared this idea with a group of teachers earlier this school year.

After we generated a list, we talked to each other about the lists, adding more ideas. Then I invited them to consider what kind of connection they could make between the book and one of the items on their quicklist. 

And then we messed around. In fewer than 10 minutes, we created memes on google slides full of book recommendations.

As we move further into the school year, we might post these memes along the hallway outside the media center. We might share the google slides the week we head to the library so kids can gather ideas. We might even see if admin will let us put the slideshow on the TVs in the cafeteria.

What are some ways you might have students share their If…Then reviews?

Angela Faulhaber is a secondary literacy coach at West Clermont Schools in the Cincinnati area. Working with teachers in grades 6-12. If you like the Netflix series All American, you might like the latest book Angela read Blackout by Dhonielle Clayton, Tiffany Jackson, Nic Stone, Angie Thomas, Ashely Woodfolk, and Nicole Yoon.

Expanding the writing workshop feedback loop

In my previous post one of the questions that was guiding my thinking about writing instruction this year was how to personalize it more, how to open up more choice during workshop time in similar ways that we have with reading. One of the things I’m hoping to experiment more with this year is pacing. All students doing the same paper (even if they choices of prompts) at the same time with the same deadline is efficient for the process but not for the feedback. Especially this year as it’s the first time I’ve ever had one prep–6 sections of English III, 169 students. Collecting anything sounds and feels overwhelming, let alone a longer piece of writing that I can get meaningful feedback on in a timely manner. 

My longer term vision is that students would have individual writing goals and plans that they work on that include a variety types of pieces in varied numbers with genuinely staggered deadlines within the class. I’m not nearly there yet and may not get there this year. But my first step has been a good one so far. I’ve set up a feedback rotation system for our first three “laps” (as Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher call them in 180 days) so that on one lap students self-assess, on one lap they get peer feedback, and on one lap they get my feedback. This enables me to closely read two sets of papers on each lap instead of 6, still getting to each class by the final lap. I will still give a quick read to the other four sets to look for any significant issues (partial completion, red flags in structure or minimum basics) or significant praises (amazing efforts, great sentences, or surprise improvements). I will also do some reading and feedback during class and amid the writing process (as we always do) via conferencing.

my ugly plan

In all three scenarios the feedback is framed with essentially the same questions:

  • What’s one strength of the piece? (or, for those doing self-reflection: What’s one thing you’re proud of in this piece?)
  • What’s one idea for the piece? It could be an improvement that’s needed or an addition to make.

I have students and peers make these comments on the bottom of the doc they submit, and my gradebook allows me to include (via copy/paste) those comments/feedback. So a student’s “grade” in writing from each bell set looks like this right now:

Eventually students will see each type of feedback for their writing feedback in my gradebook. This makes a more narrative-based grade and helps tell a more accurate story of the writer’s progress.

The next step will be some reflection on those first three pieces where students will identify some of their best work toward our 4 writing targets (specificity, complexity, structure, style) and do some inventory of their strengths and weaknesses, which the feedback should prime them to consider. That will enable us to set some more targeted, personalized goals for the next round of writing.

The main challenge I had to confront to take this baby step is guilt. I feel guilty not interacting more on every doc they submit, so it has taken a lot for me to turn over some of the responsibility for feedback. But hopefully this will enable us to write more, to acknowledge the value of other readers, and empower more self-assessment.

Nathan Coates teaches junior English at Mason High School, a large suburban district near Cincinnati, Ohio. He’s excited to finally have some meaningful Reds baseball in September.

Two weeks in…

I have been reflecting a lot on my teaching and my students in these first two weeks of class. We are back in school, all 2200 students, and wearing masks all day long. When I read Sarah Krajewski’s post, Control What You Can, the other day I felt like she was reading my mind. This year I am teaching a freshman reading support class and my students have challenged me in ways that I haven’t seen since I first started teaching twenty four years ago. They are pushing me to be a better teacher every day. Here are a few things I have already learned:

Students are out of school sync. For many of our students, they have not set foot in a school in over 18 months. My biggest worry was that they would be muted and quiet coming into the classroom. That was not the case! They haven’t seen many of their friends in person or on screen so they are so excited to be around each other. They LOVE to talk. That being said, they needed some reminders of what is sometimes okay to do/say in school and what might be better outside of school. We have had many conversations in my class already about the different expectations between remote learning and in person learning.

Vulnerability with students is more important than control. The first week we spent a lot of time on community building and setting expectations in our class. Our class spent two days creating our class norms, which were what I had hoped they would say without me writing them myself. But I realized right after doing this activity that their definition of respect was not the same as mine. They knew what they were “expected to do in school” but application of those norms was NOT as easy for them and I lost my cool the first week of school. So embarrassed, I reflected right away with colleagues and later in the evening came across the article, “Reframing Classroom Management: A Toolkit for Teachers,” on the Learning for Justice website and the paragraph below hit me. I wanted my students to be compliant, but that isn’t what respect is to them. They really just want their teachers to get to know them. The next day I started class with an apology for my actions and shared what I reflected on. We had an honest discussion about how hard it is to be back in school after 18 months and what they need from me. The most common response: belief in them, positivity, and encouragement even when they do things that I think are better suited for hanging out with friends.

Students need structures and routines. My students thrive on structure and organization which wasn’t as easy to do via Zoom. So each day when they come in I remind them to grab their binders from our cabinet, plug in their phones to charge, take out their independent reading book, etc. I use timers to hold myself accountable and to make sure that the routines go long because I get distracted. We start with a simple attendance question or a quick “how are you?” and go right into word study when the bell rings. I book talk a book and we then read before moving on to our main lesson. When given structure over chaos, they choose structure any day.

Listen to your students and be flexibile. I started the year with with a two week plan for what I thought we would accomplish in our class. I learned quickly that flexibility is key in my class. Certain activities just took us longer than other support classes and I needed to adjust. They also didn’t have the stamina to work for as long as I thought they would so we are doing things like a gradual build in independent reading and take breaks as needed. By listening to my students and observing their behaviors, I am really trying to adjust and meet their needs, emotionally and academically, where they are at right now.

Please focus on joy! Sarah was 100% spot on when she said focus on the positive and control what you can. There is so much negative in the world around us and even through the rough moments look for the bright spots in your day. Compliment students when you see them doing something right, even if it is as simple as putting their phone off to the side during independent reading. Ask them about their lives, their routines, their families. Celebrate successes and look for those smiles underneath their masks.

Find your marigolds. Find your people who will support you and have your back no matter what. Find those who will build you up and help you reflect and grow during this transition back to “normal”. Without my “people” I wouldn’t be in an emotional space to write this post.

While this wasn’t exactly the way I had hoped to start my year, I will say that I am so grateful to be back in school full time. Being in the presence of students and not behind black screens rejuvinates and inspires me to do better.

Wishing you all a healthy and happy start to the school year.

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