Category Archives: Readers Writers Workshop

Combating The Same – Narrative Deserves Better

Reclaiming Narrative and Amplifying Our Voices_ Using Story to Invite Fearless Inquiry and Intellectual Challenge for Our Students and Ourselves

Once upon a time, in the chilly great North, a teacher needed to learn some new lessons.

Though far more skilled and confident than she had been at the start of her career, this educator was suffering from a well-known malady – The Same.

The Same is something that creeps up on us. In some cases, it’s welcome and even necessary for survival. In other cases, though the symptoms may seem innocuous, the lasting impact The Same can have in our classrooms makes it a chronic condition worth treating.

In this case, though The Same takes many forms, what was in need of attention was this teacher’s treatment of Narrative.

A well-intentioned sort, this young lady dutifully taught narrative once per year, as was the want of her friend The Common Core. CC suggested that students needed to know how to write a hook, how to transition between ideas, how to incorporate dialogue, and how to conclude the piece in a “meaningful” way. And so, this young educator went about her business. The business of “teaching” students how to tell stories.

But something was missing. Something was very wrong. Her students were…terrible at it. Their stories dry and lifeless – unbending retellings of birthday parties, first boyfriends (who were mean, mean, mean), and middle school drama involving lockers that don’t open and the mortification that comes with being separated from one’s bestie (boring, boring, boring).

I was not ok with what was happening.
“You should not do that,” I said. 

“Do, what?” she said. 
“That,”I said. 
Suddenly, the bell rang and we were more scared than before. We would never get out of here if Mr. Sanders saw us. We’d be in big trouble. The biggest trouble ever!

The Same had relegated her students’ stories to a checklist, and the results were simply awful. To write. To read. To teach.

What The Same had done was limit narrative. Put it in a box as something to bring out, take care of, and return neatly for the next year. Tell a story, was the charge, but nowhere in that charge was- Share yourself. Explore who you really and maybe how you got that way. Tell me something profoundly true and deeply felt. 

It was time to seek out The Change.

As Tom Newkirk suggests, we must  “rethink the way we position [narrative] in our curriculum.” Narrative, done well and valued for the deeply personal composition it can be, deserves to be more than an assignment. If we want students’ writing to soar, we need to see the value of their stories and the value in highlighting those stories throughout their work, regardless of the type of assignment they might face.

Narrative lets us play.

Narrative lets us peek into hearts and minds.

Narrative lets us shine a light on what’s only ever been private.

Yet, narrative teeters at the edge of the curricular abyss in countless high school ELA classrooms. And why not? We’ve got other fish to fry. Data-driven, framework-aligned, standardized fish. In an era where argument is king and expository is queen, narrative is often relegated to the position of traveling jester – cute to entertain for awhile, but far beneath us.

However, narrative speaks to what we have to say, where we find our roots, and how we are connected.

Narrative is who we are.

If we aren’t letting students explore who they are through their writing, both the low stakes quick writes and the behemoth argument research papers, then we are missing a great opportunity to support our students to in becoming better writers AND better people.

Reclaiming narrative means joining the conversation. Amplifying our voices means joining the conversation. And I can’t wait to extend the conversation on the power of narrative.

Meet me in St. Louis! Three Teacher Talk, with the amazing Tom Newkirk as our chair, will share our thoughts on the power of narrative and how it can transform the lives of our student writers. See you at #NCTE17 – Session C26 on Friday in room 274 at 12:30.

Lisa Dennis teaches English and leads a department of incredible English educators at Franklin High School near Milwaukee. She sincerely hopes that her layover in Detroit today doesn’t foil her NCTE dreams. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum 


Learning Matters When Students Matter

Reclaiming Narrative and Amplifying Our Voices_ Using Story to Invite Fearless Inquiry and Intellectual Challenge for Our Students and Ourselves

It’s 8 months later, and I still think about Amy’s post regarding mirrors, windows, and doors.  In fact, it permeates most of my conversations about education with colleagues, in graduate school, at the coffee shop–okay, kind of kidding on that last one.

But it’s the question at the end of her post that gets me:

How are we making learning matter to our students?

Learning doesn’t matter until students see themselves in the process.  The process of learning is transactional, much like the process of making meaning in general, according to Jerome Bruner.  This concept of transaction means that students need to be involved.  They have to act, rather than simply absorb.

Oscar Wilde

Students must have choice.  They must see themselves in other people’s stories.  They must tell their own stories, not only for the sake of the “personal narrative,” but because good story is woven through all great writing.

We are heading to NCTE tomorrow.  What?!  Tomorrow?!  While it seems like it’s been the quickest semester on the face of the planet, I’m so glad our presentation regarding narrative has been in the back of my mind.  It has made me a better teacher, and caused me to consider how I’m allowing students to tell their stories, or craft a new one, in just about everything we do.

People often say, “For it is in giving that we receive.”  I find this to be increasingly true in writing for Three Teachers Talk.  It challenges my practice and encourages me to think of my classroom in a way that the progress we make can be transferred to other teachers’ classrooms and communities.

My story for this week includes a whole lot of writing, crossing out, scribbling, Googling, then writing again.  In my third year of teaching, I thought I would have fewer firsts.  But, alas, in this month alone, it is my first time speaking in front of non-teenagers, first time meeting my literacy idols, first time going to a conference that will hopefully change my life and my practice–or at least bolster the ideals I already hold.  I am beyond excited to learn alongside the community of literacy advocates whom I have grown to love over the past year.  Will we see you there?!

Three Teachers Talk at #NCTE17, session C.26, Friday at 12:30, room 274.

I’ll be wearing a blue dress, and probably a flushed face accompanied by some armpit stains.  Don’t worry, I’ll cover them up with a blazer.

Jessica Paxson teaches English IV, AP Lang, and Creative Writing in Arlington, TX.  She runs on coffee and exaggeration.  Her husband keeps her sane with his good looks and even-keeled  nature.  She is currently coming off the high that is the Ember in the Ashes series, writing about real life and all it’s messiness (Jessica Jordana), and attempting to inspire students to be the best version of themselves.  You can find her on Twitter and Instagram at @jessjordana to follow along with her many adventures!

Students Who Write by Ear by Amy Estersohn– an #NCTE17 Preview

The following is a sample of what I’ll be presenting with Three Teachers Talk at #NCTE17, session C.26, Friday at 12:30, room 274.

Tom Newkirk’s book, Minds Made for Stories, encouraged me to think about students as natural storytellers.

So I dug through their writers’ notebooks to see storytelling in action. During my dig, I wasn’t looking for detail or dialogue or finished pieces.  I wasn’t reading for apostrophes or paragraphing or numbered and dated pages, either.  I instead wanted to know where writers were already practicing storytelling, and what tools and strategies they were already using.

One the ways I noticed that student writers tell stories is that they listen to their inner ear.  This emerged when I read half-baked, quarter-finished crime stories where a student could hear a bought cop addressing a group of criminals.  I noticed it when I heard a writer list the annoying sayings her mother used.  I noticed it again when writers took on a Ken Burns-ish important-sounding narrative voice to discuss an important world issue.

Some students can really hear when they write.

So the first thing I did was I turned that observation back to the students: did you notice how you hear the character in this section?  That observation then became an expectation.  In your writing, you should be able to hear your character or narrator speaking.  When you revise, ask yourself if you still hear your characters or your narrators.  If you don’t, mark the text for a future revision.

There are also ways that writers can practice hearing stories.  The easiest way is just to choose a good piece to read out loud to the class.  For middle school, I’d recommend the first few pages of a Kate DiCamillo’s Because of Winn Dixie or Jason Reynolds’ Ghost.   For high school, I’d probably choose a text like Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak or A.S. King’s Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future.  You can read the book in your voice or cue up the audiobook, and ask students to discuss what they noticed and then practice some imitations.

You can also invite students to imitate characters they already know.   It’s always fun to try to imitate a sibling’s voice or a young child’s voice.  I invited students to imitate boastful and outrageous LaVar Ball, a parent of an NBA player, after I provided examples of what he has said.  Students embraced the opportunity to play around with LaVar’s voice in their writers’ notebooks.

AmEstudent notebook

Another idea would be to collect some of the voices of nonfiction: this includes Deborah Heiligman’s Vincent and Theo, Candace Fleming’s Giant Squid, some Mary Roach, and whatever nearby textbook or magazine is in sight.  Work backward: what do these voices sound like?  Whom do I imagine is telling me this story?

I could even see students doing multimedia work with voice by tape recording themselves.

I’m going to assume for a moment that teaching voice is probably not new to you.  But what might be new is teaching voice and playing with voice as an element of storytelling instead of housing it within a certain genre or a certain unit.

Will you be at #NCTE17?

Sarah Raises Hand

I hope to see you there!


Amy Estersohn is a middle school English teacher in New York.  She writes book reviews at and is deeeeeelighted to serve on the CYBILS book award committee for middle grade fiction.  


3 Sparks to Shift Thinking and Practice

What gives you pause as an educator? Not politically speaking. Not shake your head and think of simpler times speaking. Not even “Yes, death is the narrator in The Book Thief. You’re on which page?!” speaking.

I’m talking about the changemaker moments. The moments that make you stop in this crazy profession, take a breath, and think about how you do what you do, why you do it that way, how you got to where you are, and how to move forward in the best interest of kids.

You know. A Tuesday, for example.

If you frequent Three Teachers Talk, chances are you’re quite familiar with the benefits of reflective practice. You’re already on the lookout for motivation and inspiration to move your professional work forward. You’re interested in change. You’re not afraid to wear stripes with polka dots.

Three Teachers Talk

But often, the moments that change us the most are the ones that sneak up on us. We don’t go looking for them, but there they are, in the blink of an eye, demanding, “So, now what are you going to do?”

I started this workshop journey over two years ago. And while I’m sad to say that the move wasn’t so much motivated as mandated,  I was ready for a challenge and always in pursuit of positive change. Or, so I thought.

When I found Three Teachers Talk, I had naively come looking for a way to ‘deal with endless annotations to assess assigned reading’ in the workshop model. Yikes. wisdomJust typing that feels like malpractice. I had an open heart and and open mind, but past practice and a limited knowledge of varying philosophies afforded me a narrow scope of imagination on the subject. My mind heard choice, voice, student talk, and for the most part, I believed I was already “doing all that.”

And to some extent, I was.

But, in many cases is was how I was doing it that kept me in control and my students in a cycle of compliant work completion vs. curious exploration as readers and writers. I’m happy to say that I’m growing, but like most things in my life, I have plenty of growing left to do.

So, because I work best with snippets of inspiration, the kind that I can digest, reflect on, and work to put into practice without feeling paralyzed by the scope of change before me, here are three shifts in my thinking and practice this week, and where they came from, where they took me (or took me back to), and the great minds that inspired them:

  1. Shana got me thinking hard earlier this week. Her post “What Will You Teach Into?”, stirred so many feelings that had been resting heavy on my heart the past few months. The world we live in, raise children in, guide students through, and try to navigate ourselves (because really, who among us can consistently stomach everything that’s been crashing down upon the nightly news lately?), is no longer just frightening, it’s often demoralizing.

    In response, Shana wrote, “This week and every week, I hope teachers are having difficult conversations with our students. I hope we are not shying away from the ease of ignoring our nation’s pain in favor of teaching about comma splices or symbolism or character development. I hope our time with students is deliberately geared toward talk about these incredibly complex, nuanced topics.”

    In an nation so politically polarized, it may seem uniquely difficult to have these conversations, but it’s precisely for this reason that the conversations are all the more important. Our students need to see, and in some cases learn, what civil discourse looks like.

    Our classrooms are certainly not the place to promote our own political opinions, but they must be a place to explore nuanced topics with students. My step this week was to have students look at the statement Senator Chris Murphy made after the mass shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas this weekend. We’d recently talked about the debate over guns in our country, sadly after the previous mass shooting in Las Vegas just a few weeks before, with Kelly Gallagher’s article of the week that presented opinions on both sides of this debate, and Senator Murphy’s statement brought us back to this discussion with an exploration of not only the topic, but writer’s craft, bias, and argument.

    Students quickly latched on to word choice (“That word, ‘slaughter,’ it’s heartbreaking.”), the use of context, and possible bias from a senator from the Democratic party. What mattered the most in the course of our 15 or so minute exploration, was that we devoted the time to do it at all. Students referenced the article of the week pieces we had read previously and marveled at the fact that we were having to talk about this. Again. So…we focused on “again” and students vented some of their fears and frustrations about what this all means for their daily lives.

    We didn’t change policy. We didn’t write to legislators. We didn’t protest. We talked. We talked carefully and candidly. It was the best spent 15 minutes of the week so far.

    These conversations are not easy. They shouldn’t be. But they must happen. Reading Shana’s piece reminded me that the time is now. Have a conversation, let students write, invite them to read, today.

  2. Students in our AP Language classes have been writing one pagers weekly since the first few weeks of school. With 76 students, the feedback on these pieces has been relatively minimal. I had been thinking the task of providing consistent feedback on this writing was well beyond my capacity, so I filed this work away as the writing students need to do, even when it’s not assessed.

    However, as I sat scrolling through the weekly work on Monday, it struck me that I had my feet in two worlds. Students still receive a formative grade for this work. Often, when I fail to record consistent scores, their work falters. So, I take a look, put a formative score in the gradebook and try to email five students from each class with feedback each week, which happens…sometimes.

    Noble, I guess, but straight up stupid on my part too.

    It’s disingenuous to record a score to make students compliant in writing these explorations of their independent reading, when growing as writers (which requires more consistent feedback!) is the goal.

    So, I’m getting out from behind my desk and moving those feet, previously in the two worlds of old school and real school, to more purposefully make moves as a workshop teacher.

    On Monday, I recorded reflections on the one pagers for my fourth period class. Just for five students. During reading time, I went to briefly speak with these students about what they had reflected on in their one pager. Since they write these pieces from the books they are currently reading, we just had more to guide the conference. I asked a follow-up question from the one pager and students talked about their writing process in relation to the book in their hands. Heart. Warmed. Goals. Clarified.

  3. Lastly, and probably most impactful, was a reminder from Carol Jago that I nearly scrolled past on Twitter. I’m so glad I didn’t. It’s catapulted my thinking back to a place I’ve known, but sometimes forget. It’s sparked some wonderful conversation with my dear friend Alejandra. It’s made an immediate impact on the feedback I’m giving:

    There are huge implications here. Enough for a whole separate post. But, I will say this – My shift here had less to do with philosophical agreement, because I’m already there, and everything to do with mindset. It was a simple reminder to encourage and instruct more, and correct less.

    My pledge to my students this week was a return to the type of feedback that has everything to do with their next paper. If I do my job and confer with students during the writing process, in an effort to improve the current work, my focus can and should remain on the writer and his/her next paper when I give summative feedback.

The power of wonder moves us forward. The curiosity that surrounds our work is not only necessary to foster in students, but critical to keep our own work fresh, functional, and full of meaning for everyone in the classroom.

What has sparked moves in your thinking or practice this week? Please comment below and share the love through snippet PD. 

Lisa Dennis teaches English and leads a department of incredible English educators at Franklin High School near Milwaukee. Her desire to grow as an educator is only inhibited by the number of classes she can conceivably afford to take, the number of times her daughter wants to re-watch Mary Poppins, and the number of hours in the day. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum 



Rewriting the Narrative with Friendly Competition

Book Comp 3

Left, 10th Period; Right, Mrs. Paxson’s tally for the semester!

Book Comp 2

Left, Creative Writing; Right, 7th Period

November is a weird month for educators.  We’re nearing the end, but also barely in the middle of the fall semester.  The dreams we devised for our classrooms in the summer have been shattered with reality, and we are just beginning to get our feet back under us from that October slump.  Just as we feel we’ve picked up our stride, we reach Thanksgiving break–thank you, baby Jesus–and begin the mad-dash to Christmas break.  I always leave school for Christmas break with wind-blown hair and a what-just-happened feeling.  This is largely contrasted to the sentiments of Spring semester such as, Am I starring in the remake of Groundhog Day, and nobody told me?

As I thought about what I wanted to share this week, I thought, Okay, Jess.  Keep it simple.  What are you doing in your classroom that is tiny, promotes engagement, and reinforces the values of workshop?

Enter the Friendly Book Competition.

This year, as students finish books, they get to create a book spine with the title of the book and their name written on a strip of paper. Then, they tape the book spine to the cabinet door for their class period.  Each class period is competing against one another for who reads the most books.

While this seems like a simple activity, I’ve been really surprised at how this is helping my students to rewrite their own experience with reading.  These are the conversations I hear when students check the status of the competition:

What?!  They read Harry Potter.  Does that even count?!

How does one student read so much?!  There’s no way they’re only reading in class.

Oh, that title sounds interesting.  Who is this student?  Can I ask them about it?

The overwhelming feeling of my students at the beginning of the year is that reading is simply a task that is assigned.  As we traverse through the year, my goal is for them to see themselves as readers and writers.  That means realizing that, YES, Harry always counts.  Reading for fun is the best kind of reading.  Tracking your reading doesn’t always mean writing down minutes or pages.  You don’t become a reader by only reading for 10 minutes in class.

Competition is not the end goal, in this case, but it’s what I’m using to disguise a conversation about reading life and growth between class periods.  They probably will be very surprised when the winners are presented with a “ticket to success in life” at the end of the semester.

How do your students converse about reading?  What visual representations of reading growth do you have in your classroom?

Jessica Paxson teaches English IV, AP Lang, and Creative Writing in Arlington, TX.  She is currently obsessing over Ember in the Ashes and Torch Against the Night and pondering ways to help her students write themselves out of their circumstances, trials, and personal villains, and attempts to do the same through her own writing (Jessica Jordana). Her kryptonite is when the coffee runs out before ordering more on Amazon, and her secret weapon is her writer’s notebook.  You can find her on Twitter and Instagram at @jessjordana–especially if would like to awkwardly meet in person at #NCTE17!

Write with Three Teachers Talk

A strong community has many voices, and we are seeking to grow ours at Three Teachers Talk.

Three Teachers Talk _Call for contributors

We’d like to invite you to join the conversation around readers-writers workshop in your high school English class. Credibility spikes when you share your writing with your students, but for a wider audience of your contemporaries, your voice as a teacher–engaged in a student-centered classroom practice of choice and challenge–begs to be heard.

We invite you to be a regular contributor if you —

  • Are a high school teacher, instructional or literacy coach, or administrator who advocates for choice via readers-writers workshop practices, including self-selected reading and authentic writing instruction
  • Your thinking is guided by the tenets of National Writing Project and our mentors, namely, Penny Kittle, Donalyn Miller, Kelly Gallagher, Nancie Atwell, Tom Romano, Lucy Calkins, Thomas Newkirk, Linda Rief, and more
  • Can commit to sharing writing that highlights details from your instructional practices, your personal and/or professional reading, and everyday teaching experiences

If you are interested in growing your own thinking around readers-writers workshop, strengthening your writing through authenticity, reflection, and publication, and amplifying the voices in our conversation about workshop, please fill out this Google Form.

We thank you for your interest! Please spread the word and invite your friends and thinking partners to join us in this important conversation.

Three Teachers Talk


What Will You Teach Into?

I am a week away from bringing my second daughter into the world, and after yesterday’s horrific shooting in Texas, I find myself revisiting the same fears I’ve often had when I consider my progeny. Primarily, I wonder: what kind of world am I bringing my children into?

As I fretted about this to my husband last night, he reassured me with statistics about how unlikely it was that either of our daughters would ever be involved in a shooting, an act of terror, a horrific trauma.

That’s not what I’m worried about, I told him–not that they’ll die or be injured by one of these awful events. I’m much more worried about the world they are going to have to live in, day in and day out.

A world where a 26-year-old makes a conscious decision to attack a church full of people. A world where this incomprehensible event has become common enough that it is, less than 24 hours later, already being reduced to a sound bite: “This isn’t a guns situation. This is a mental health problem.” A world where a conversation about terror and murder has become more binary than complex. It is; it is not.

I don’t want my girls growing up in a world that doesn’t know how to talk about, seek to understand, or attempt to solve these unexplainable problems–problems that certainly cannot, to me, be boiled down to a single cause or effect.

do want them growing up in a world where we try to talk about these things. A world where these conversations are never taken for granted, where they continue to happen, no matter how difficult and painful, as Kylene Beers writes in “Once Again:”

“Honestly, though, I don’t want tomorrow to be easier. My fear is that this day you face tomorrow has become too easy. My fear is that your students won’t expect that this horrific killing will be discussed. My fear is that tomorrow is just another Monday.”

As a teacher, a mother, and a citizen, I cannot agree more with Kylene. I feel more powerless in the latter two of those roles than I do in my work as a teacher, though, for I feel that teaching is where I can make a difference. I feel it is where we can all make a difference.

This week and every week, I hope teachers are having difficult conversations with our students. I hope we are not shying away from the ease of ignoring our nation’s pain in favor of teaching about comma splices or symbolism or character development. I hope our time with students is deliberately geared toward talk about these incredibly complex, nuanced topics. Kylene says it well:

“No one ever told you that you’d need to know how to sit with children or teens to talk with them about people in churches getting killed by a gunman or little kids in a school getting killed by a gunman or families at a concert getting killed by a gunman. No one. And you didn’t sign up for that. You didn’t. But they will watch you and they will listen for what you say and what you don’t say.”

I hope you are grappling with this and asking yourself:

For what purpose am I teaching?

And I’m talking about a larger purpose than the day’s essential question or the target content standard. I’m talking about how the day’s lesson fits in with the culture of the classroom, the messages we want kids internalizing day in and day out, the life lessons we want them to learn as painlessly as possible.

One of the texts my students and I study that helps us learn to frame instruction this way is Peter Johnston’s excellent Opening MindsIn class on Friday, we discussed Johnston’s closing claims (p. 123-124) about research-based instructional design:


  1. Our singular focus on academic achievement will not serve children or their academic development well.
  2. The individual mind is important, no doubt, but as the center of the academic universe, it is overrated.
  3. We have to take seriously the fact that the adult is not the only teacher in the room.
  4. Children’s social imaginations should be taken more seriously. They are the foundation of civic society.
  5. Our interactions with children in the classroom influence who they think they are and what they think they’re doing.
  6. Making meaning is good. Doing meaningful things is better.

We spent time unpacking each claim, wondering how to apply it to our varied content areas and age groups, but dwelled on the last claim:

Making meaning is good. Doing meaningful things is better.

We were reminded that none of us became teachers so we could fix comma splices. We became teachers because we wanted to change the world–our world, and our students’ worlds–for the better.

This Monday morning, I want us to keep that goal in mind as we teach and plan and reflect on how we’ll spend our time with young people. How will we make sure that our work together is meaningful?


If you don’t already see your work as a teacher as powerful, if you don’t see your role as one of an agent of change, try looking at this familiar work in a new way. Your interactions with children in your classroom influence them in powerful ways. You have the unique power of being able to help them develop their social imagination, their empathy skills, so they’ll never reduce a tragedy to a single cause with an unimaginable effect.

You have the power to choose: what will you teach into this week? Making meaning? Or making life meaningful?

Shana Karnes is a worrywart in the best of times, but an idealist in the worst of them. She is grateful every day to work with amazing preservice teachers at West Virginia University, to be mom and wife in a beautiful family, and to be able to write and think and learn with her friends here at Three Teachers Talk. Connect with Shana on Twitter at @litreader

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