Category Archives: Readers Writers Workshop

How to Listen So Kids Will Talk

Anytime I indulge myself with lots of light fiction, I gravitate toward some thoughtful nonfiction to help balance out my reading life. This month is no exception, and after finishing a few trilogies, I’ve been diving into How to Talk so Kids Will Listen & How to Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish.

This dense, 350-page book is packed full of wisdom aimed at parents, but I’m taking away lots of lessons as a teacher.

Two questions the authors pose in their chapter on praise have stayed with me:

  • What is the relationship between how children think of themselves and their willingness to accept challenges or risk failure?
  • What is the relationship between how children think of themselves and the kinds of goals they set for themselves?

As a literacy teacher, I connect students’ willingness to take risks, challenge themselves, and set worthwhile goals with their ability to grow as readers and writers. Students who have autonomy will often engage with the reading and writing we do in our classroom, but without an intrinsic desire to grow, they may stagnate.

Faber and Mazlish’s response to this is connected to the kind of praise we offer children, which helps define their self-concepts. The authors give us a simple directive: when children come to adults with something to which they desire a response, don’t evaluate; describe what you see or feel–then students will praise themselves.

This feels highly applicable to conferring moments that we have with students. I can attest to its effectiveness; after reading Peter Johnston’s work, I shifted the way I responded to students away from fixed to dynamic praise–focused on growth. I made a second shift when I noticed that the reading conferences I had with students about books I had not read were more fruitful than ones where I wanted to gush about the book–both habits helped me, essentially, to talk less, and listen more.

But the precision of our language is important. “From our small descriptions our children learn what their strengths are,” write Faber and Mazlish. We must be thoughtful and careful with how we speak to our students. “It’s a lot easier to say ‘Wonderful’ about something, than to really look at it, and experience it, and then describe it in detail,” they continue (182). This feels highly pertinent when we think about responding to student work.

My takeaway from this book–a book I recommend for all teachers who want to thoughtfully evaluate their own habits of language–is that the less we speak, the more kids will talk. The more precise and helpful our talk is, the more kids will listen. That will lead them, circuitously, back to the two questions I am still thinking about–how we can get kids to take risks and challenge themselves with their goal-setting. The answer, for me, is building their self-esteem as readers and writers, so they’ll take it upon themselves to grow.

This work isn’t easy. It is slow, thoughtful, deep work–but that’s what makes teaching so wonderful. As we finish out this wintry week, may we internalize this lesson: the heart of our jobs as teachers is to talk so kids will listen and listen so kids will talk. Enjoy every word.

Shana Karnes fills her days working with teachers, students, and her own small children in Madison, Wisconsin. She enjoys talking with all three groups about reading, writing, and learning. Connect with Shana on Twitter at @litreader.

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Shifting our Middle School Reading List to Include Authentic Voices

British Columbia, where I teach, has recently gone through a large shift in educational philosophy and has introduced an entirely new curriculum. The introduction of this new curriculum has required us to reflect on our current curriculum in our Grades 6-12 classes and make changes to reflect the changes required by the province. As well, this has afforded us the opportunity to reflect on our current reading lists and to refresh some of the novels we have our students read.

One of the first areas we focused on was our literature circle unit in our Grade 6 English classes. The unit was one that connected with the Social Studies curriculum our Grade 6 students were also studying and focused on immigration and migration stories. While we still liked the theme of this unit, it became quickly apparent that we needed to refresh our literature circle novels. While each of the novels we used to teach in the unit focused on immigration or migration stories from different parts of the world, not a single novel was written by an authentic voice. Instead, they were all written by caucasian and North American authors. While there are many amazing caucasian and North American authors we want to share with our students, in a unit about the immigrant experience it seemed a little strange that we had no immigrant voices. Many of our students are first generation Canadians whose parents immigrated from many different places in the world and we wanted our students to hear stories from immigrant voices or voices from the cultures being presented in the novels.

This started us on a quest to find new books for this unit. Below are the results of our English team reading as many novels we could find that would suit our criteria and the books we decided to replace our old reading list with:

Inside Out and Back Again: By Thanhha Lai: This beautiful novel in verse tells the story of Hà and her family. Hà has only known life in Saigon and the streets of her neighbourhood. When the Vietnam war starts, however, she and her family are forced to flee Saigon and end up in Alabama where she and her family experience the culture shock of living in a world completely foreign to the one they fled from.

Escape from Aleppo: By N.H. Sendai: This novel is set in the very current events happening in Syria. After the events of the Arab Spring and the war in Syria, 12 year old Nadia and her family are forced to flee their home in Aleppo, Syria. This harrowing and heartbreaking novel tells of what it is like to leave everything you know behind to make the dangerous trek to the unknown as Nadia and her family make their way through their war torn country to seek refuge in Turkey.

The Night Diary: By: Veera Hiranandani: In this novel we are transported to 1947 India where India has just won independence from British rule and the British held Indian territory has been divided into two separate countries: Pakistan and India. Our 12 year old protagonist Nisha is half Muslim and half Hindu and finds that she doesn’t know where she belongs anymore as the Hindu part of her extended family is moved to India and the Muslim part of her family is moved to Pakistan. Nisha and her family are originally resettled in Pakistan, but her father decides it is too dangerous for them to stay there. The story follows their family as they make the dangerous trek to attempt to leave what is now Pakistan to find a safer place to live.

The Only Road: By: Alexandra Diaz: This novel is the first in a series. When Jaime’s cousin Miguel is killed by the Alphas gang in the small town in Guatemala his family has called home for centuries, he knows it is no longer safe. The gang violence that surrounds him every day is so extreme and Jamie is worried he will be the next victim, so he flees with his other cousin Ángela to try and make their way to New Mexico to live with his older brother. This novel follows the dangerous journey they make largely on foot to get from Guatemala to the United States.

With these novel choices we are hoping to revitalize our Grade 6 literature circles and to provide our students with authentic voices sharing important stories of the risks people will take for the safety of their families.

Pam McMartin is English Department Head and Senior School Teacher Librarian at an independent school in Tsawwassen, British Columbia. She is thankfully enjoying her midterm break from school this week and has been working on repainting her bathroom and catching up on her reading (not at the same time) before heading back into the madness of end of the term teaching and marking. You can follow her on Twitter @psmcmartin.

Is NaNoWriMo In Full Effect? by Sarah Krajewski

Last month, I shared the preparation my seniors and I were doing to get ready for National Novel Writing Month. My goal was to help them creating writing routines to increase the volume of writing that they do. Now, we almost halfway through the month of November, but I’m just not seeing much of an increase in volume yet.

We Should Have Planned More

I thought we were ready for NaNoWriMo, but in actuality we were just ready for those first few lines. How am I discovering this? Through my own writing for NaNoWriMo. When I began writing, I thought I had a great idea, but after a page or two, I got stuck. The little basic planning page we did wasn’t enough to guide my thinking. I needed more of a structure for my story, so that meant my students probably did too. It was time to make some changes.

Some additions I added above my NaNoWriMo draft.

I started by noting what has been helpful to me during the writing process. We teachers really won’t know what our students are going through unless we are writing ourselves. The yellow “Reminders” box to the left was on every student’s draft page, but the blue “Characters” box wasn’t. I realized that I needed a place to write my characters so I could remember who is who. Sure enough, when I showed it to my students, a lot of them did the same thing. I also found that in order to get “unstuck,” I had to plan out my ideas more so each scene had a purpose, and I needed my students to see this too.

Some single-scene planning, so each one has a purpose.

Enter YA novelist J. Elle, whose first book, Wings of Ebony, comes out in 2021. She loves sharing writing tips with up-and-coming writers, and she was kind enough to make a video with some writing tips for my students. Yes, I could have shared some of these tips, but it means so much more when a published author shares them. Even before J. Elle suggested it to my students, they were taking notes! Her ideas made so much sense to them, so many reluctant writers had their creative juices flowing again after this video. This worked out so well that I am already looking to bring in another local author.

Other Road Blocks

Besides planning, some students just didn’t see themselves as creative writers. One senior’s comment summed up many of their feelings quite well when she said, “Mrs. K, can you just give us another essay to write?” That was proof that they needed the NaNoWriMo experience more than ever. They were so used to those five-paragraph-test-prep essays that they didn’t know how to write anything else. They were scared, and as I shared with them, so was I. This was my first time writing a story of this length too, so I knew my students needed see all my struggles to know they were not alone. I shared when I got stuck, and when I saw a need to rearrange scenes. I shared a picture I added to help me imagine my setting, and a scene I hated so much that I deleted it. I showed my real struggles, hoping my students would see me as a writer just like them.

Inspired by Pernille Ripp’s “Reading Action Plan”

As we ventured into NaNoWriMo, I also discovered that some students didn’t write outside of class. After conferring with them, I found out that many students just didn’t have a computer or device to write at home. We discussed how this writing time could happen during school hours (besides just in class). We began creating our own writing action plans that worked for us. For me, all of my writing was at home, since I spent in-class time conferring. My students found writing time during their Homerooms, after school, and in study halls. I even encouraged them to write during their mentor time with freshmen, since the 9th graders would benefit from seeing their mentors as writers. For those students that still struggled to find time with a device, I encouraged them to hand write.

Next Step: Keeping Up with Communication

For the rest of the month, I will only see students four more times. I know it’s only November 13th, but that’s because I have two workshops, one being NCTE and ALAN. We also have parent teacher conferences. Yes, I’m not going to be in the classroom much, so I need a way to show my students that they can still communicate with me. We use the Remind app, so I send daily writing reminders to them. I also encourage them to use the “private comment” function in Google Classroom, since their stories are all there. Students will also have “accountability writing partners” (thanks to Debbie Myers for the idea). They will have someone who will try to push them to write, and thus hold them accountable for reaching their goals. My hope is that, with these communication tools in place, more writing will occur.

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 http://skrajewski.wordpress.com/.

The Power of Authentic Literacy

Let me tell you about my fall, y’all. It’s been a doozy. 

Depending on which list of the top life stressors you look at, I’ve managed to hit two, maybe three, right on the head. And mine is spinning.

I moved last week. If you’ve ever packed and moved during the school year, you know how stupid I planned the timing. The Rockstars and Tylenol PM have kept me functioning. Some.

Sometimes life gets in the way. Sometimes life gets away from us.

new books in honor of my father

My English department surprised me with this gift of books in honor of my father — one of the sweetest things colleagues have ever done for me. My classroom library is growing!

My father passed away the first part of September. And while he was old, and his health had been fading for a while, his death hit me hard. I used to call him when I drove long distances alone to present workshops. I miss our talks. My dad was a quintessential optimist:  wise, encouraging, smart — and he believed in me.

We all need people who believe in us. 

Everyday I try to show my students I believe in them. They’ve been so great with all my spinning. Compassionate, kind, studious. Mostly.

I started at a new school this year, and I’ve remembered how much I love working with young people. I also remember how much I detest the distractions: the drills, the mandatory To-Do’s, the paperwork. But that’s a post for another day.

Most days I fake my way — I’ve yet to find a rhythm.

But that’s okay. I believe in the power of authentic literacy instruction. I know those who read and write and communicate well have a better chance at navigating life than those who don’t. 

So everyday we read. Everyday we write. Everyday we talk about our reading and writing. Every Friday we discuss important issues. I believe these things trump any other use of instructional time. The routines work. But for many students it is hard.

A few students fake their way — they’ve yet to find their reason.

That’s not okay. I will keep trying. Trying to get books in hands that spark joy in reading, trying to develop writers who believe in the power of words and the beauty of language, trying to get the quiet ones to share their thinking with their peers. They often have the greatest insights.

My evaluator visited my class last week. We were analyzing essays, discussing the writer’s craft –noticing the moves and their effect on meaning– and preparing to write our own Op-Eds. As the administrator left the room he whispered, “It’s hard to get them thinking.” 

Yesterday in our writing workshop, right after a little skills-based lesson on making intentional moves as writers, a young man said, “You mean everything I write has to mean something?”

What do you do with that?

I think we have a hard row to hoe, my friends. Gardener, or not, helping our students understand the role of critical thinking in their lives is what may save them. It may save us. It’s saved me for the past few months.

In a Forbes’ article published a year ago, titled “What Great Problem-solvers Do Differently,” we learn five skills that enable people to be great problem solvers:  deep technical expertise and experience; the ability to challenge, change, innovate, and push boundaries; a broad strategic focus rather than a narrow focus; drive/push; and excellent interpersonal skills.

I can’t help wondering how I can help students develop more of these skills while in my English class. I know it’s possible. Possibilities mentor hope.

This week a small group of my students — seniors who are eager yet terrified (their words not mine) to face the world after high school — and I chatted a bit about the responsibilities of adulting. I’m afraid I didn’t quell their fears. I might have quickened them. 

The stress that comes with independence sometimes sends us spinning. 

My students are my witnesses, and while I’d wish it otherwise, perhaps this fall is the most authentic I’ve ever been as a teacher.

 

Amy Rasmussen teaches senior English in a large suburban high school in North Texas. She tries to write beside her students and wrote this piece as a practice for their Op-Eds. She’s currently trying to unpack and get used to her new commute. Dallas traffic can be a doozy.

 

Implementing Readers Workshop by Shelby Scoffield

Teaching high school English is a difficult job. In a world overrun with cell phones and gadgets, getting students to actually sit down and read a book seems like an impossible task.  Every year that I taught the classics, students would depend on outside sources to get them through the reading, and sometimes completely ignore the book. 

It was when a former student came back to me and proudly declared “Ms. Scoffield, I never read one book in your class!” that I decided to restructure my class and implement a Readers Workshop. While researching, I heavily relied on books by Nancie Atwell and even traveled to Maine to see her school first hand. 

After implementing the workshop in my classroom, I have eventually come to the conclusion that allowing students to pick their own books in the English classroom drastically increases student interest and allows them to take a more active role in their learning. 

During the introductory unit, I hold a book tasting in my classroom. I hold conversations with the students and direct them to genres they would be interested in.  Between my classroom and the library, they find their top three books. 

After finding their selections, I introduce them to Goodreads and have them read the reviews of their chosen books. Once they make a final decision, we are finally able to launch into the unit. The process of choosing books takes several days.

Topics that we cover in the unit are: 

  • How to read your book
  • Characters
  • Elements of a Plot
  • Analysis of major passages 

In my classroom, we use the Station Rotation model of Blended Learning. When a student walks into my classroom, they look at the board and decide what assignment they want to complete that day. They are required to come to “Table One” sometime throughout the week, because that is a teacher led and often the hardest assignment for the week. 

What do the assignments usually look like?

Book Talk: For this assignment, students are required to start a Twitter conversation with a classmate on Twitter. They have specific questions they answer and a hashtag we use for the class. Check out #mhhsfreshies for ideas! This is also a good way for the students to ask authors questions. You never know who might respond!

Journal: Using excerpts from a mentor text, we practice skills like analyzing passages or creating a character profile. Once the skill is practiced, they apply it to their own books.

Blog: Students work on a blog post once a week. The question focuses on what is currently being discussed that week in class. Students are required to respond to other classmates. This is also a great opportunity to connect with other classes across the globe. 

Supplemental activity: This can be an assignment that the teacher uses to help students learn the skill that is being discussed. I have used it as an opportunity to do Cornell notes, make videos, or create Buzzfeed character quizzes. 

Because I allow my students to choose their own books, a love of reading has been developed throughout the classroom. I have students zooming through books and talking about  them with their peers. I even have two students going through a book a week. 

As a class, we have a class goal of reading 70 books by the end of  the semester. Students are constantly checking the thermometer on the board to see our progress and they are excited to see the number go up.

One of the biggest concerns I hear about this way of teaching is students not being able to read a piece of text deeply and get an analytical experience with a piece of text. While this concern is valid, I would like to state that I have never had students read more deeply.

Give your students time to read and make their assignments worthwhile. Fewer and yet more meaningful assignments are more impactful. It also gives students more time to read in class and hold meaningful conversations with the teacher. 

I also believe that teachers need to remind themselves who their audiences are. Teaching kids in the 21st century is hard and it is vastly different from our own high school experiences. We need to think carefully about our students and what will help them be the most successful. For me, it means implementing a readers workshop.

Shelby Scoffield is a high school English teacher. She loves reading, writing, and playing with her nieces and nephews. You can find her on Twitter at @sscoffield.

A New Look at Data

Data seems to be one of those educational buzz words that has been swinging on the pendulum just like many other educational topics.

When I first began teaching 12 years ago, we had data walls, data folders, data charts, and data talks. In those early years, I taught 4th-grade departmental math. It was easy to collect and analyze data and use that data to inform my instruction. It was easy to assess whether a student knew how to multiply two-digit numbers or find the area of a rectangle. And it was easy to use that instruction to plan additional days of reteaching the entire class or planning small group instruction for the few students who had not quite mastered the skill.

As an English language arts teacher, I found data much more difficult to collect. Data is necessary, but for many, it has become a dreaded four-letter word. Language arts standards, like my Indiana standard below, are so packed with skills, collecting data can be time-consuming, overwhelming, and many times irrelevant.

Standard TTT

For the past several years improving data collection has been a personal goal for me because I knew this was a weakness. I wanted data that was relevant, easy to collect, and could be used to make instructional decisions. I wanted to be able to show my administrator who was making progress, who was not, and what I was doing about it. But that goal has not been an easy one to reach.

It wasn’t until this past summer when I attended a workshop with Kate Roberts, that the data light bulb came on. Her presentation made so much sense, and I left wondering why I hadn’t used this approach to collecting data before now?

In Kate’s book about using whole-class novels, A Novel Approach, she advises teach37946464._SX318_ers to give students a reading assessment before diving into the unit to identify skills that need to be taught or improved upon during the unit. I gave a similar assessment at the beginning of the year as a baseline based on these questions from Kate’s book:

  1. What are the three most important moments in this story, and why?
  2. Analyze the main character.
  3. What theme does the author develop in this story?
  4. What craft moves do you notice the author using and what is their purpose?

After scoring the assessment, I completed a grid shown below. This quickly gave me a snapshot of the skill level of each class and let me know which students needed additional instruction or who could benefit from small group instruction. Kate scores them 1-3, but I changed it to 0-3, as I had many students who did not know how to do some of the skills. As you can see from the grid, my students did not know the term “writer’s craft,” and that skill will now become more of a focus in my instruction.

When analyzing characters, most students were able to give me a trait, but could not support that claim. Interpreting theme had similar results. They could give me a theme but had no idea of how it was developed through the story.

pres. 1

pres 2

After giving the baseline, I told my students these four skills needed to be mastered by the end of the year. That doesn’t mean I won’t teach other skills; these are just the ones that I will assess and track throughout the year.

Students will work on these skills throughout the entire school year. I have a spreadsheet where I track each student’s progress, and they have one where they track their individual progress.

Reading Skills Assessment

I like this assessment for data collection for many reasons:

  • Simplicity – This assessment is quick and easy to administer, as it can be done in one class period. Scoring is easy when you sort student responses according to patterns that you see. Kate compares it to dealing out a deck of cards, each pile being beginning, intermediate, and advanced. These piles become a starting point and eventual guide for instruction.
  • Versatility – Students need to be able to demonstrate what they can do with these skills, so matching them to a text they can read independently is important. The four questions work well with almost any fiction text. I used the baseline with a read-aloud, thus making the text accessible to all students. I have also used the assessment with their independent books, and I plan to use it with their book club selections by the end of the semester.
  • Relevancy – Each Common Core Standard is packed with skills. The four questions in the assessment are general, yet can measure the standards as they are unpacked. The skills assessed are what we notice and do automatically as adult readers, so teaching students these skills is showing them the relevancy of learning them.

I don’t think data has quite the educational buzz that it used to, and I still think collecting reading and writing data is difficult. But after working with Kate and looking at data in a new way this year, I now know that data doesn’t have to be a dreaded four-letter word anymore.

Leigh Anne Eck is a 6th grade ELA teacher in southern Indiana and is anxiously awaiting the learning to be done at NCTE in Baltimore. She hopes to meet many of her online friends in person.

If You’ve Ever Been Coached, Then You Know: Why You Should Consider Using Your Coach (Part 1)

My teaching career (former English teacher) and my career coaching teachers (now Instructional Coach) seem to be converging lately. Of course, this must be: they’re narratives, intertwined, leading me to learning. Keep learning was the theme of the Teaching Learning Conference I attended in October, facilitated by Jim Knight and the Instructional Coaching Group.  I used theme intentionally; in Knight’s Keynote opener, he spoke to the power of story. Knight anchored this in words from Barry Lopez: “The stories people tell have a way of taking care of them. If stories come to you, care for them. And learn to give them away where they are needed. Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive. That is why we put these stories in each other’s memories. This is how people care for themselves.” With these words,  I realized I am still helping others to write their stories and to learn from them.  And, it’s why I believe teachers–in all stages of their careers–should share their stories with their instructional coach (or literacy coach or data coach, etc.). This is a powerful way to stay alive in the classroom, full of possibility.

The most recent intersection of story and coaching occurred as I shared stories with a former student; I cared for the stories he shared but a question he asked of me about my new coaching role caused me to pause and reflect. He asked, simply, “How many of the teachers have been coached (in sports, or music, or something else) at some point?” He followed this with “Because if they’ve ever been coached, then they know.” Yes, teachers would likely know–they would know that coaches see what can be and guide toward that possibility. And, if teachers didn’t know, then there’s opportunity to learn all the ways a coach can act with the compassion necessary to differentiate according to teacher needs, ultimately helping to shape the story. 

Coaches can ….

  1. Help teachers imagine new realities. Coaches (in many places) aren’t there to tell you what to do. In fact, some coaches would love to collaborate on co-writing a new story for your classroom. Recently, I spent time working with a teacher to shift classroom practices so that play anchors the work and intentional grouping will lead to enhanced collaboration. Together, we imagined a reality where her students took the kinds of risks as learners that lead to rich learning.  
  2. Help teachers see the story of their classroom from different perspectives. In working with a world language teacher, I tried to, in Jim Knight’s words, “whisper a different narrative.” For this veteran teacher with perfectionistic tendencies, articulating and affirming where the teacher was already successfully making the moves she desired encouraged her to step back, reflect, and start to shift the story she was telling herself. 
  3. Help teachers determine which story is most important AND help them own a story. Just as when I was in the classroom, I find myself taking note of what I hear or using visuals to help provide structure to thought. As I listened to a teacher share her story of a particularly difficult class, I took note of every strategy she tried, categorized them, and then used this to help her prioritize her challenges. We not only uncovered which challenge mattered most to her to address but also referenced that long list of strategies as a story that shows her strengths of persistence and problem solving. 
  4. Help teachers continually revise and edit the story–even of students. Sometimes this means working together to problem-solve for one student. When working with a teacher whose student struggled to write an argument research paper, we imagined a different approach for this student, improving the likelihood the student could complete the writing.  

This is not an exhaustive list. I’m still uncovering all the possibilities, but I do know that I’m learning to listen better for the story as I work to support teachers. And, as words always have, this keeps me alive in learning.

Kristin Jeschke is a former high school English teacher turned Instructional Coach in Waukee, Iowa. Follow her on Twitter @kajeschke. 

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