Category Archives: Readers Writers Workshop

Dinner Table Book Talks

“Never underestimate the power of a great book in the hands of a teacher who knows how to use it.”

This quote from Seven L. Layne in Igniting a Passion for Reading is one in which I often quote. I believe books have power and we, as teachers, have a great responsibility to transfer reading energy by what we do with them. But many times, our students hold that power too.

Many teachers give book talks in their classrooms, which are a fun way to get kids reading and buzzing about books. I have found that when teachers create a short presentation about a book they have read, students are more apt to pick that book up and read it themselves.

I like to eventually give students the opportunity to give book talks to their peers, but before I hand this responsibility off to them, preparation and teaching need to be done.

In the book, In the Middle by Nancie Atwell, she talks about a time she and her husband sat around the dining room table with some friends and “gossiped by candlelight” about a book.  She compares her dining room table to a literate environment where people around it talk about literacy.  She states “We don’t need assignments, lesson plans, lists, teacher’s manual, or handbooks.  We need only another literate person.”

After reading this, I began to wonder how I could bring that dining room table environment to my own classroom? How could I use the low-risk environment of sitting around a dinner table to encourage my kids to have these discussions about books?

Enter dinner table book talks.

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Students are given a paper plate (non-coated works best). Some years I have given them no instructions but to think about a book they have loved this year and create a prop to help them talk about the book. Other times, I have given them specific requirements such as title, author, passage, summary, or a blurb. No matter what the directions were, they have enjoyed being creative with their plates.

I tell them they will be doing book talks, but I do not tell them what this will entail. The room is set up like tables with tablecloths and some type of centerpiece. They take their plates and find a seat at a table. Each student uses their plate to help them give their first talk. After some time has passed, they get up and mingle, find a new table, and give another talk. We continue to mingle until they have given 3-4 talks.

These first book talks are unpolished and imperfect, but they get the conversations going in a low-risk environment of sitting around the dinner table with their friends. This space becomes a place where they can share the books they have read without the anxiety of talking in front of the whole class.

This activity is the perfect way to add a little “art” to English language arts, boost student confidence, and hand over the power to students while placing book talks at the head of the table!

Leigh Anne teaches 6th grade ELA in southern Indiana and gave this perfect-for-a-sub assignment while she attended NCTE in Baltimore.

Why You Should Get Coached: Part 2. And, 20 Questions to Guide Conferring

I’m about to get coached. And I know it. It’s ahead of a planned observation of a PLC meeting I’ll facilitate. This coaching experience will be, well, different from those I experienced as a classroom teacher. Not only will I be netting my own thinking as my co-coach surfaces it, but also I’ll be observing the questions she casts. I’m hoping to catch more than ideas for how to best support the team of teachers I’ll serve. I’m hoping to hook on to more ways of listening, more ways of asking the right questions, more ways to perfect the timing of my casts.  Like many of you, I began this work through conferring with readers and writers. And, hence Part II of Why You Should Get Coached: to further build your conferring skills. 

When I attended Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher’s 180 Days Conference last October, they spoke to this, with urgency. In their eyes, conferring is the single most important strategy for an ELA teacher (I’d argue for ALL teachers but I’m still working on how to angle that for other content areas) AND it’s the one teachers need the most professional development around. In Katie Martin’s Learner Centered Innovation, she cites research from Joyce and Showers (2002) that demonstrates that “teachers who were coached in the classroom implemented 95% of skills over time compared with 5% of their peers that implemented instructional practices in their classroom without coaching.” When you invite a coach to be a part of your classroom story, you’re acquiring direct access to listening and questioning and reflecting skills. Imagine the outcome! When I invited my coach in to observe small group conferring and when I invited him in to observe video of my conferring, my tackle box of strategies swelled. So did my confidence. So did my trust in my coach and my students’ trust in me. This occurred for me because of talk that invited it.

Screen Shot 2019-12-03 at 11.01.01 PMKittle is right: “The language we use to invite talk begins with the questions we ask.” Because coaches’ learning centers around building rapport, trust, and reflective capacity, and because we are (or at least should be!) the most coached in a building, we’re uniquely centered to model questioning and listening and to coach on it.

Here are some of my new favorite questions you might toss out when you need to reel in student thinking. 

  1. What’s on your mind?Screen Shot 2019-12-03 at 11.00.36 PM
  2. And what else?
  3. What all have you tried?
  4. If you were someone else, what do you think you would try?
  5. If you did know the answer, what would you think?
  6. What have you tried in the past that might work here?
  7. On what past successes might you draw on as you do this work?
  8. So how do you feel about _____________?
  9. What’s the most important part of your work?
  10. What are you hoping to accomplish with _________?
  11. What skill or process are you looking to really strengthen with this?
  12. What will guide your decisions about _________?
  13. What might your classmates think (especially in terms of strengths) is important for you to focus on?
  14. Which of these is the biggest challenge right now?
  15. What’s keeping you up at night?
  16. It seems you might be feeling _________. Would you like to talk about that?
  17. Looking back, what would you do differently?
  18. What is most important to you?
  19. What do you think your next steps are?
  20. What was most helpful today?

Your coaches will lean into other, even better questions. And they’ll listen to you because they see your value. Why not toss out an invite?

Kristin Jeschke loves questions and really appreciates (in her new role as Instructional Coach) that she doesn’t have to have the answers. Follow Kristin on Twitter @kajeschke.

Author’s Chair

 

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Every educator has the ‘moment.’ I wish I had a cute name for the ‘moment’ that would make it sound both adorable and relatable – but I don’t. I’ve never named it beyond just the description of it to loved ones and close teaching friends and confidants – but I’m betting you know the moment. That moment where you find yourself googling what other careers you can pursue with a degree in English or Education that isn’t teaching. 

You still love the kids. 

You still love the work. 

But, man, has the work felt like work recently. 

And that’s the moment. When you’re drained and empty and tired and the best way forward is a little bit of fantasy: I could just start an Etsy business and live off of that – sure, I don’t really make anything people are interested in buying, but I could. I  could just take a year off and write the great American novel – sure, I don’t have any ideas for that novel, just some opening pages and some really, really vague outlines (in the vein of stuff happens to people and it’s awesome), but I could. I could just find a job doing data entry somewhere – sure the nine to five would be sooo boring and I hate numbers and data and I’m not sure I could fake even a little bit of joy for that process, but I could… maybe…

I found myself here in 2014, and a teacher friend suggested I apply for Summer Institute with my local Writing Project. This experience was and still is a literal life-changing event for me. Finding a group of like-minded teachers who wanted to deeply invest in a research based development of their practice through yearly inquiry projects was transformative. Finding opportunities to both learn from other teachers who were still in the classroom as well as opportunities to teach other teachers was and is encouraging and growth-inspiring. Five years later I’m still active with MTWP and still continuing to grow and learn from that community. 

Currently on maternity leave, I’ve found myself thinking about my practice a lot. I thought I would spend a portion of this time at home -in between feedings and diaper changes – worried about my students or the interim or how the class room was going without me. And, sure, those thoughts have crossed my mind a time or two, but mostly when I’ve thought about school at all I’ve found myself thinking about my practice in a macro-sense from the beginning of my career until now: what are my “greatest hits” if you will.

When I taught sophomores several years ago, I incorporated a game-changing strategy I learned at MTWP: author’s chair. Every two or three weeks, students would share their writing with the entire class. The process was simple.

Students would sign up to share their writing with the class at least once a nine weeks. Usually we would share every second or third Friday, and the sharing would take the entire 45 minutes. The sharing student would move to the front of the room and sit in my chair, stand behind the podium – whatever made them comfortable – and then share a piece of writing. They could share whatever they liked – a polished piece, something from their notebooks, something they wrote just for this occasion. The point wasn’t WHAT they shared but THAT they shared. After they read their piece, the class would simply, in unison, say, “Thank you for sharing.” And the next student would move to the front of the room to share. I would share as well – often sharing bits and pieces of my unfinished great American novel (eye-roll emoji here). It was powerful for me to remember how anxiety inducing it can be to share your writing with other people. Often I think teachers forget this part because we aren’t sharing our writing and don’t have to feel the nerves and/or we forget the painful part of this practice because we’re so focused on the gains that sharing can have for a student. 

This simple practice increased our classroom community: we were all in the writing process together – writing, revising, sharing, receiving and giving feedback. Students were motivated to write more and in addition to what I was asking them to write in class – they brought in songs, poetry, narratives, a choose your own adventure, comics, satires, op-eds. Together, we enjoyed a wonderful season of writing for the sake of writing and sharing, for the most part, because we were proud of what we had written. 

When I moved to teaching only AP Lang, I moved away from author’s chair, mostly for timing reasons. There seemed to be so much to cover in AP and I was still getting my feet wet with the curriculum that I felt like I needed the time. In this moment of reflection for me, I’m realizing -again- that ultimately students just need to write, to write and to share -even when it doesn’t feel like there’s enough time.

Sarah Morris teaches AP English Language & Composition, AP Seminar,  and Film as Literature in Murfreesboro, Tn. She is currently binging The Mandalorian with her three week old daughter – we’re both equally enthused. She tweets at @marahsorris_cms. 

 

 

 

Text Talk: Ink Knows No Borders

In American Literature this year, we are taking a “disrupted” look at the American Dream, noticing its failings and shortcomings through the literature we read as a class. 

After discussions over the summer reading titles and a gallery walk to generate our thinking around the American Dream, we watched an abbreviated version of Chimamanda Adichie’s TedTalk “The Danger of a Single Story” before identifying and discussing the “single stories” in our lives and our world.

We then dug into selections from Ink Knows No Borders: Poems of the Immigrant and Refugee Experience. The collection of poetry features a range of perspectives on adjusting to life as an immigrant as one tries to stay connected to their home culture while adapting to a new place. The poems are both heartbreaking and heartwarming tributes to the courage of the authors.

With a packet of assorted poems, students first processed one poem with their peers, spending time deciphering meaning and making connections.  We then created jigsawed groups where students taught and discussed their poems with a new set of peers. Together, the jigsawed groups began to track thematic connections across the differing, yet similar experiences of the authors.

The poetry offered alternative perspectives while being accessible and real. The poems about names and traditions resonated with my refugee students from Africa, while other students related to the burden of balancing two cultures, one at home and one at school. We Googled more information about the current situation at the Mexico-US border, and one student was brave enough to share his family’s story of obtaining citizenship while another student shared that she fears ICE will take away her parents every day. 

When we discussed the poetry as a full class, students came away with an understanding that often in our country, there is a single story told about immigrants. Students came to the insight that this was misguided and unfair because immigrants founded our country and the United States often promotes the promise that the dream is achievable to all. Students overwhelmingly agreed that we should be more understanding, welcoming, and helpful to people who want to make a better life because we all have stories and hardships.

This text worked well because students discovered new perspectives, connected to their lives and our world, and also gained low stakes poetry exposure, one of my goals for the year. Plus, our conversations made me so happy and hopeful to teach resilient, inclusive young people in this time of division.

Maggie Lopez is grateful for her digital colleagues and an incredibly rewarding profession.  You can find her on Twitter @meglopez0.

 

The Struggle is Real: simple tips for decreasing student stress and anxiety at the end of the semester

It’s the end of November and my students, my co-teacher, and I have hit the hump. The structure and routines we have established in our English class are becoming monotonous and our students are pushing the limits with us.  Are you feeling this now too?

The end of the semester brings more stress, more anxiety, and more challenges for both students and teachers. For our freshmen, this uncertainty causes students to act in ways outside their norm.  Just the other day, the word “finals” was mentioned in class and that led to many panicked faces and questions about the end of the semester.  At that moment, I realized that my students have never taken finals before and have no idea what they are, why teachers keep stressing that they are coming up, and how they will affect their grades.

These moments remind me that we need to slow down.  Our content does not matter if the students aren’t in a place to perform. They need to know that we believe in them and that they can be successful in and outside of our class. We need to let them know we hear them and care.

Tips to get through the end of the semester struggle with your students:

Gather feedback from your students: Google Forms are my favorite tool for gathering quick feedback from students.  Keep them short and simple to get the best results.  We don’t use them often but when we do, we take their feedback and make changes right away.

 

Take time to answer their questions: When the bell rings at the beginning of class, we spend three to five minutes a few days a week just answering their questions.  As teachers we are used to the ever changing schedules in our schools; we know the content and how we want students to perform; we understand the routines like finals. But, our students don’t and we need to relieve their fears.

Talk individually with students:   Every day we meet with students during independent reading and writing workshop to talk to them.  Some talks are more academic like reading comprehension or fluency checks or standards checks. Others times we are pulling students aside to check on their mental health – noticing those moments when they are zoning off or are bouncing off the walls when they normally are focused. When we show we care about them more than our content, they do step up and give us their best effort.

Have students set goals:  Our standards based gradebook is complicated and not easy for students to navigate. These quick standards check-ins lead to goal setting.  We keep the bar high and constantly verbalize our belief that they all have the potential to earn an “A” in our class.  We ask them what their goal is for the end of the semester and what they are going to do to achieve that goal. Sometimes this an informal conversation and sometimes they write it down on a notecard or on paper and commit to achieving it.

Increase movement during class:  Our class structure is fairly simple:  they read, we do a mini-lesson, and they read or write some more.  They sit a lot and even during our first period class, we notice such a difference in attitudes and behaviors when they get brain breaks or we add movement to our normal lesson.  Even a simple thing like taking a 30 second stand and stretch break after independent reading and before writing workshop begins, wakes them up. Instead of having students just  turn and talk, we ask them to stand up and turn and talk with a neighbor to get them blood flowing as they share.

 

These are just a few ways we are fighting the end of the semester struggle and trying to relieve some of our students’ anxiety and stress.  How are you keeping students motivated these last few weeks of school?

Melissa Sethna has been a high school instructional coach in Mundelein, IL for the past ten years. While coaching is her passion, she missed the students and is so grateful to have the opportunity to co-teach one freshman English class this year.

 

 

 

Book Club Kits

“The students are asking me if they’re going to get to do book clubs this year,” Julie told me last week. Her junior English students had participated in a few rounds of book clubs last year and it was encouraging to hear that the learning stuck. 

This was validating because last year, teachers worked hard to create experiences with book clubs that were engaging and meaningful (you can read more about that here or here). We noticed that, as Kate Roberts writes in her book A Novel Approach, “Book clubs, when done well, dance along the line of truly authentic student-driven reading and teacher-directed, curriculum-based literacy.” 

But, the fact remained that organizing book clubs was challenging. For many teachers, it felt like an insurmountable task. Even though we work with amazing librarians (shout out to Amanda and John!), if we wanted to use current, engaging titles, it was difficult to collect enough titles to give students choice and have enough copies for everyone. Teachers were hauling books in their trunk to school, then back to the library. The logistics became something that was holding teachers back from implementing a practice we knew was good for kids.

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Teachers Alex White and Kassidy Hammonds spend a few hours on a Friday sorting books for book clubs. Since nobody wants to do that, we had to find a better system.

So, this year, we decided to make book clubs more sustainable using Book Club Kits, an idea I first heard discussed while working with teachers at Anderson High School in Cincinnati, OH. 

What is a Book Club Kit? 

The idea is based off of book club kits at public libraries where librarians put together multiple copies of the same title along with questions and other resources. Put simply, a school Book Club Kit is a collection of multiple copies of multiple titles, along with a possible plan for implementation. 

How do we make a Book Club Kit?

Step one: Collect titles

Hopefully if you’re using book clubs, there’s a culture of literacy in place so students Screen Shot 2019-11-25 at 7.38.34 PMmight be able to help identify titles. If that is not yet part of the culture, there are lots of places you might go to look for ideas. You can visit websites like Nerdy Book Club and Pernille Ripp’s blog and the Disrupt Texts site and hashtag. NoveList Plus, a resource we can access through our public library, also has excellent recommendations. Additionally, there are lots of threads on Twitter where teachers and students share titles.

Identify what students might like. Conduct a survey. Do an inventory of your book room to see what you already have. Ask students for their recommendations. Scour the library. Talk to kids. 

Once we did this, I compiled titles into a document and sent to teachers for feedback. From there we were able to use department funds to purchase enough books for six kits (each kit has enough books for a class set). If you don’t have funds available, you might consider Donors Choose, or participate in the #clearthelist social media campaign.

It was also important that the titles could, as Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop outlines in her scholarly work, act as mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors for readers. Therefore, we were intentional about having a wide representation in both content and authors (to read more, read Amy’s post here).

Step Two: Cluster the texts

We didn’t want these books to just sit on shelves to be put into hodge-podge book club configurations. Instead, we decided to be intentional about the way we clustered the titles. For example, in freshman ELA, one of the kits is centered around the theme Coming of Age; 10th graders might participate in a book club around novels in verse, or maybe a genre study of mystery titles. In 11th grade, there’s a kit around memoir. A book club around literary non-fiction for 12th graders contains the most complex titles. You might think about these groupings in three main ways: 

  • Genre (novels in verse, mystery, literary non-fiction, etc)
  • Theme (coming of age, overcoming obstacles, etc.)
  • Author Study (Jason Reynolds, Nikki Grimes, K.A. Holt, Kwame Alexander, Sharon Draper are examples of authors whose writing is varied enough and would make great book club possibilities)

 

Step Three: 

Make it accessible. We put all the books in clear plastic bins. There’s a sign-out sheet to keep track of the kits. Each kit has a list of the titles and how many copies, along with a QR codes that link to a corresponding unit plan one might use with that set of titles. 

I finished organizing the kits last week and already two of them are out in classrooms. We’re getting ready to launch the Mystery Book Clubs once we get back from Thanksgiving and I’m excited to see the way a genre study will play out. 

Screen Shot 2019-11-25 at 7.33.04 PMNow that you have your Book Club Kits organized, I strongly encourage you to check out the book Breathing New Life Into Book Clubs by Sonja Cherry-Paul and Dana Johanssen (and if you use the code NCTE19 you get 30% off and free shipping!).

Angela Faulhaber works as a literacy coach in Cincinnati, OH, where she gets to work with the best book nerds in all the land. She just finished reading Beartown by Frederick Backman and is in that sad phase of book-mourning where the next book can never live up. She welcomes your suggestions.

 

A #FridayReads Come back

How could I forget?

I just remembered I used to celebrate #FridayReads with my students. Every week, after independent reading time, we’d talk about our books, maybe tweet a selfie with them, maybe imitate a favorite sentence. It was probably a Friday when we wrote book reviews in the form of haikus. It was a Friday when we became literary critics. That one was epic.

This year we’ve been having Friday discussions. Reading, talking, listening. That’s worked well — we’ve explored many interesting and important issues — but I completely forgot about doing more with our books. Dang it.

No wonder my students are not reading as much as they have in the past.

I won’t play the What/If game, but it’s staring at me in with weary eyes.

This morning I read about the 2019 National Book Award winners, and while I haven’t read any of them, yet; I gulped at the beauty of these lines, shared by one of the winners as she spoke of her mother–

“As a child, I watched her every move, seeing her eyes fall upon every word everywhere — encountered in the grocery store, on a bus, pamphlets, the package labels, my high school textbooks. She was always wolfing down words, insatiable — which is how I learned the ways in which words were a kind of sustenance, could be a beautiful relief or a greatest assault.”

Words. A beautiful relief or a greatest assault.

On this Friday, I think we will start here. We’ll write in response to this idea:  How are words both a relief or an assault?

Then, we’ll explore books — in anticipation, and hope, that just maybe one of my readers will fall in love with words.

 

Amy Rasmussen teaches senior English in a large high school in North Texas. She’s still working on building her classroom library to its former glory, and knows she needs to read more herself if she wants to get every student into a book they will love. Follow her on Twitter @amyrass

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