Category Archives: Readers Writers Workshop

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.

Control What You Can

It’s my last full week of summer vacation, so of course my mind is on the coming school year. I’ll admit, I’m a bit nervous. I still don’t know what school will look like. However, instead of focusing on what could be, I’m going to focus on what I can control.

I can listen. From Day One, I will get to know my students as best I can. My first goal: learn at least 5-10 things about each one of them within the first few weeks. When they share something personal, I’ll be there.

I can be flexible. When students sound overwhelmed, I’ll extend deadlines. When I see reteaching is necessary, I’ll make time for it. I won’t put pressure on myself to complete a unit by a certain date. Instead, I’ll let whatever is needed, happen.

I can put my mistakes out there. I won’t assert the “teacher power” I have, but instead prove I am just like them: a reader/writer/human being that makes mistakes. I’ll allow myself to be vulnerable by sharing my own blunders with classes and how I attempt to fix them. I’ll share personal learning experiences, and how we can unpack tough topics that often make some of us uncomfortable.

I can speak my truth, which is one of the four agreements I learned from Glenn E. Singleton’s book, Courageous Conversations About Race. I’ll speak honestly about the various pieces we read, including many that are about races and cultures different from my own. By modeling this first, my students will hopefully to do the same. We’ll explore our own identities throughout the year by reading various poems and excerpts one day, and sketching our thoughts the next. I’ll introduce “radical empathy” (from Isabel Wilkerson’s book Caste), and we’ll discuss how to find humanity within ourselves and others so we can face problems together, be better informed about the world, and listen to each other with love (#IREL21).

I can write with my students. Writing is so much more than just following a task or completing a worksheet. We’ll write everyday to build stamina, trying out new moves, studying mentor texts, and revising consistently to make our writing better and our voices heard.

I can focus on joy. There are so many different forms of joy. By getting to know my students, I’ll learn what brings them joy. I’ll share pieces of writing that bring me joy, and ask students to share some of their own. We can focus on our accomplishments to push ourselves to do more.

By focusing on what I can control, we can become communities that thrive.

Texts that inspired this post (besides those that were already mentioned above):

  • The Antiracist Writing Workshop: How to Decolonize the Creative Classroom by Felicia Rose Chavez
  • Being the Change by Sara K. Ahmed
  • Black Boy Joy edited by Kwame Mbalia
  • Risk. Fail. Rise. by M. Colleen Cruz

Sarah Krajewski teaches high school English and Journalism near Buffalo, New York.  She is about to begin her 20th year of teaching, and is always looking for new, creative ways to encourage her students to read and write. At school, she is known for helping students become lifelong readers, and for being a devoted reader herself who “knows her books.” You can follow Sarah on Twitter @shkrajewski

Field of Dreams: Film Study in Writing Workshop

by Elizabeth Oosterheert

Kevin Costner and Gabby Hoffmann in Field of Dreams.

If you build it, they will come…

For Iowans like me, last week the iconic line from 1989’s classic Field of Dreams came true  as our state hosted its first ever Major League Baseball game between the White Sox and the Yankees on a field adjacent to the Dyersville site used in the famous film. 

Eight thousand fans welcomed the teams, and Kevin Costner walked through a cornfield onto the new diamond, giving a sparkling speech referencing his love for baseball and the movie. Thirty years ago, on the other side of that corn, we filmed a movie that stood the test of time,” he said. “Tonight, thanks to that enduring impact that little movie had, it’s allowed us to come here again. But now we’re on a field that Major League Baseball made.

We’ve kept our promise, Major League Baseball has kept its promise, the dream is still alive. There is probably just one more question to answer – is this Heaven? Yes it is,” he added, a nod to one of the film’s famous quotes.

 (Speech excerpt courtesy of People.com.)

Reading the multitude of articles about the new field and the iconic movie reminds me of how films become woven into our cultural identity, and how vital it is for us as teachers  to invite our students into studying, interpreting and responding to visual text.

Field of Dreams is a perfect example of a sports themed movie that is about much more than a baseball game. It’s a story of regret, redemption, and relationships between fathers and sons.

For eighth graders, analyzing an entire film is a daunting task, so I’ve learned that one of the best ways to welcome them into film study is through analysis of ONE scene, giving attention to nonverbal elements such as the actors’ positioning, facial expressions, costumes, use of props, and more.

Film study also exemplifies how bias informs writing. When we read a film review with our writers’ eyes, we can infer within a sentence or two what the author intends to communicate. We can also use the reading of critical reviews to teach sophisticated craft moves.

My favorite mentor texts for film study include:

The New York Times Anatomy of a Scene Videos

How I Use This Mentor:

  • These videos are excellent tools for demonstrating how much thought goes into a movie. What’s even better is that directors narrate them, so students know this is expert analysis rather than another school “hoop.” One of my favorite videos is this one for Kenneth Branagh’s 2015 live action Cinderella. Branagh explains that every detail of the first meeting between Cinderella and Prince Charming is critical, from the Shakespearean trees in the background to the horses’ genders. This video is also helpful if you have a student who chooses to write about the rash of live action remakes studios like Disney have released, from The Lion King to Mulan. And speaking of Mulan, there’s an Anatomy of a Scene video for that film as well! The Times continually updates this collection, recently adding videos for summer hits such as Black Widow and In the Heights.

Film Analysis and Prompts from Scott Myers (@GoIntoTheStory) on Medium.com

How I Use This Mentor:

  • Myers is a screenwriter, professor and blogger. His work is an outstanding mentor text since he leaves NO writing stone unturned. Whether your students are engaged in film study, writing narrative snapshots, or responding to their independent reading, studying Myers’ writing will inspire them to delve beneath the surface of setting, characterization and more to produce writing that is truly empathetic.  Recently, Myers wrote a piece for Medium.com called “The Writer as Psychologist.” In it, he discusses how often shame motivates fictional characters, and invites readers to explore Red’s development in The Shawshank Redemption. Myers concludes by saying that “it is our responsibility to understand each of our characters to the core of their emotional, spiritual, and psychological being. That process not only enables us to write complex, multilayered characters, it also informs us as to how each character ties into the overall narrative as well as the shape of the story’s structure.” It’s awesome to aspire to this analytical depth in writing workshop.

What evidence of learning do I ask students to share?

  • Students take notes with a partner on cinematic scenes and techniques.
  • Students view and comment on videos from the NYT Anatomy of a Scene series.
  • We discuss professional and student written mentor texts for writing about visual texts. 
  • Students write their own Anatomy of a Scene. This may be in response to a film OR an episode from a series.
  • Students compose an original scene individually or collaboratively.
  • Students read a variety of professional film reviews and we comment on craft moves such as writing a lead for a review and how those leads often show the writer’s bias. Discussion of bias is critical to future argumentative writing that we will do later in the year.

What are your favorite ways to invite students into writing critical commentary? 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.

Some thoughts on bringing more choice to writing

When I read Readicide I was, like many English teachers, really affected by the argument Kelly Gallagher made about how reading instruction was destroying the love of reading in our classrooms. It helped spark myself and many I know to adopt a workshop approach that placed greater value on independent reading than our curriculum had allowed for in the past. 

Going into the 2021-22 school year, I’ve decided to focus on doing something similar with writing. Like most English teachers I know, I use a derivative of the writing workshop model and offer choice in the prompts I give. But I haven’t felt like the writing we do is truly personalized yet, or that students see it as vital. For many students I encounter writing is something they do to answer school questions. So in this post I’m going to try to organize the questions I’ve been mulling and offer some ideas for offering a more personalized approach to writing instruction.

This year’s vision: 

I always start with the big, overly idealistic picture of what I’d love to see in my classroom. Then I try to wrap my mind around what steps might enable it. So when I think about my students as writers, what I really want to foster within them is the academic independence and agility to make choices. Choices about genre, structure, word choice, syntax, etc. that befit their audiences and purposes. I’m not interested in teaching them how to write an argumentative essay, having them practice that, and then submitting one to be scored. I’m interested in finding ways for them to be always writing, always exploring, always engaging with a form that suits their content. Like I said, overly idealistic but it helps me know which way to move. 

Some guiding questions for me this year:

  • How can I provide more choice but still make sure each student covers the needed skills?
  • Can more choice lead to more staggered deadlines and a more manageable paper load (which facilitates more writing)? How would that work?
  • Are units a help or hindrance to writing instruction, writing volume, and learning to be a good writer? Do units help facilitate meaningful writing experiences?
  • Which writing skills transcend genre and stock assignments?

Some first steps:

Work to co-create student writing goals. I’m hoping that the goal-setting and progress-monitoring model that Sarah Zerwin outlines in Point-Less will help me tackle guiding question 1. Sarah Krajewski wrote two excellent posts (part 1 ; part 2) about Zerwin’s approach if you’d like more context. Zerwin has several resources posted at the Heinemann site you can explore as well. These co-created goals form the backbone of the accountability in a more personalized setup. This will mean more conferencing and feedback during workshop time, which is the real work of building writers.

Begin with some menus before advancing to fully student-driven tasks. Here I envision offering a couple of writing options during first semester. For example, during the early weeks of the semester we do an activity about the ship of Theseus. I’ve tentatively set up the following prompts for a short writing response:

  • Argue: Does A = B? Prove it using interesting examples.
  • Tell a Story: Have you changed since you started HS (or JH)? In what ways are you the same, different?
  • Analyze: Critique the argument you heard in class that was least convincing. What made it un-persuasive?

I envision giving students feedback based on which approach they chose, then working them to track what they tend to write and which types they tend to avoid. Since students may choose different modes, this will prevent me from slapping an “argument rubric” on it and force me (and hopefully them!) to think more about the traits that make an argument or an analysis good writing. For example: specificity and complexity.

Let some content topics, questions, and articles dictate topics, then allow them to explore forms and structures and approaches. This is my attempt to break free from units. Instead of blocking off four weeks to focus on argument while we discuss school shootings, for example, I want to bring a new or different mentor text that is responding to current events and move forward from there. 

I feel good about the general direction and basic first steps to get the ball rolling. Figuring out if it’s working will be an ongoing struggle. It’s the question we always have no matter the method: are my students become better writers?

Nathan Coates teaches junior English at Mason High School, a large suburban district near Cincinnati, Ohio. He highly recommends checking out John Green’s The Anthropocene Reviewed for a great collection of mentor texts.

Friday Night Quickwrite 7/23

It is hard to believe that we are heading into the final days of July. I just came from a week at the beach, and this time away is just what I needed to relax and find some time for myself. I hope you are finding some time just for you and also some time to write.

Today I read a Facebook post from Nanci Steveson, one of my favorite middle-grade authors. She asks us to remember that we have so many important and wonderful things that happen outside of our “daily grind.” Like “skies to gaze at, ponies to pet, stories to write, children to hug…ice cream to savor, music to dance to…toasted marshmallow, letters from home, and dancing naked in the rain.”

Although this is part of Nanci’s personal list, I think we could all make a list of those important things. Today I wrote about buying a dress. I have not bought or worn a dress in many years, so buying one was a huge step for me. I worked hard this summer on taking care of me, and buying this dress was a little reward for my accomplishments and an act of bravery.

I invite you to take some time this weekend to explore those important things in your life. Or maybe something on Nanci’s list has sparked writing idea for you. Whatever you write, I hope you come back and share your thoughts with us.

Leigh Anne is about to start her 15th year of teaching, her 8th year as a middle school language arts teacher. As her summer winds down, she is looking forward to meeting and sharing books with her new students.

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