Category Archives: Classroom Culture

Author’s Chair

 

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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. 

 

 

 

What Does It Mean to Be a Writer?

A nonnegotiable in my classroom is that everyone is a writer. We work from day one of class to establish identities as writers: we create writer’s notebooks, we discuss writing routines, we practice writing every day.

But many of my students struggle to see themselves as writers because their definition of “a writer” is so narrow. They are beholden to culturally-entrenched images of Hemingway, Faulkner, Dickens–studious, quill-wielding, miserable, alcohol-fumed, slaves of the pen.

It takes some time to convince kids that despite the intrigue that persona presents, that it’s not true.

I recently encountered a strategy for defining authorship that I continue to return to for its simple brilliance. This school year, I’ve been visiting classrooms of practicing teachers, and one of my favorite places to visit is Gloria Kok’s classroom.

One of the first things that struck me upon entering her room was an entire wall devoted to writers. As I visited over multiple weeks, I realized that her students had created the five points of their working definition of what it means to be a writer. They had also brainstormed personal heroes who fit their definitions. The wall is covered with the likes of everyone from Ta-Nehisi Coates to Oprah Winfrey to Langston Hughes to Tupac.

Frequently, Gloria asks students to use these points to frame their own writing reflections or goal statements. I’ve begun to do this myself, as I’ve visited her classroom so frequently–so much so that I’ve found myself seeking out definitions of what a writer is in my reading and work.

A favorite writing mentor of mine is Donald Murray, whose books I pick up anywhere I find them. I recently acquired Write to Learn, and one of my favorite and most personally relatable definitions of what it means to be a writer comes from his second chapter:

“Not knowing what I will write, or even if I can write, means I will not write what I have written before. I have begun a voyage of discovery. The initial satisfaction from writing is surprise: we say what we do not expect to say in a way we do not expect to say it.”

This approach to writing–that it is an inexpert art full of magic and whimsy, but helped along by the discipline of practice and study–is my personal favorite. The post-it notes papering my desk with quotes by Donald Murray attest to the similarities of our beliefs: these definitions help encourage, refocus, and discipline me on mornings when I do not want to sit down and write.

I encourage you to do the same thing with your students, writers, and even yourself: create a definition of what it means to be a writer. Put it down on paper, hang it on the walls, shout it from the rooftops–whatever works to teach yourself that your belief in yourself as a writer is what matters.

Shana Karnes is a writer who lives in Madison, Wisconsin. Her desk is covered with quotes about writing, pens, poems, abandoned coffee cups, and discarded crayons, stickers, and paint from her children. Connect with Shana on Twitter at @litreader.

Embrace the Chaos – How Getting Lost in a Corn Maze Brought Me Some Clarity

This past weekend, I found myself unexpectedly lost. An innocent trip to the pumpkin farm to enjoy a beautiful fall day in Wisconsin quickly deteriorated to a literal Children of the Corn situation as my six-year-old and I spent almost 45 minutes lost in a corn maze. It was a maze of maise, as it were, and the two of us were no match for its twists, turns, or other cleverly landscaped stalks of doom.

As our enthusiasm for our new adventure began to wane, my panic level began to rise. It was no surprise that my daughter needed to go to the bathroom. It was no surprise that we hadn’t had lunch yet and were both starving. It was no surprise that the stalks of corn kept thwapping me in the face. I started having visions that we might be stuck in there for quite a while. What if it started to get dark? What if we turned in circles for hours and couldn’t find the entrance or the exit? What if the mini donut stand closed before I could make my way out?

In desperation, I texted my husband. Using some inappropriate words, I conveyed how disappointed I was that I had thought this would be a good idea and that I was getting sincerely scared about how long it would take us to find our way out. Thus far, my daughter and I had been rather innocently complaining about wanting to be done. Thankfully she hadn’t caught on yet to my growing concern about our situation.

A few moments later, we passed a young couple, headed the opposite direction. Trying to defuse tension with humor, as I often do, I smiled brightly and quipped, “Been in here long? Feels like we may have to spend the night in a corn field!”

“Yeah, we’re sort of stuck too,” the woman replied with a sigh. “We’ve been in here almost 90 minutes.”

***Insert Awkward Fake Laughter Here***

As my panic reached a fever pitch, a text came in from my husband.

“There’s no shame in just walking out the side…”

There might not be shame…but there’s a bit of fear for sure.

What if I pull my daughter off the path and into the corn only to lose my bearings completely? What if we walk toward a landmark that just happens to be in the middle of more corn? What if I have to utter the word “corn” one more time and I lose my mind?

Speaking of losing one’s mind. How’s the start of hour school year been for you? (Nice segway, hmmm?) If it’s anything like mine, there is a very thin line between the enthusiasm of this beautiful fresh start, and the disorienting chaos of being lost in the middle of what is indeed familiar, but no less overwhelming. 30 freshman (13 of whom have professed to hate reading. Hate.), will do that to a person. And that’s just one period.

Split lunch makes for quite the scene

But short of diving for the exits (or the pandemonium of a course forward without a path) what’s a passionate educator to do?

  • Routines – Remember to fall back on the routines of workshop when in doubt. When the crazy of homecoming week has your students climbing the wall, starting the class with 15 minutes of silent reading is not only beneficial, but a soothing balm of calm. I don’t compromise on this time – ever. We read no matter what and we read because no matter what, it’s one of the most important things we do. It gives my students time to change the crazy, amped up rhythm of their day, it gives me time to confer with kids, and it sets the tone for the whole class period of learning. Chaos be gone (eventually, as freshmen are still learning this quiet skill).
  • Build relationships – When I take some time to reflect on what’s causing me anxiety in the classroom, it is rarely the students. It’s the grading, the planning, the politics, the meetings, the everything that takes my time away from getting to know my students. So, when I’m struggling (this time it just happened to be in a field of corn), I try to remind myself that knowing my kids (academically and personally) makes all the difference. We can get through the tough together when we’ve established a connection as a class that makes us a community. When that community is focused on building readers and writers, all the better.
  • Self Care – I texted the Three Teachers last night with a bit of a plea/cop-out/desperate cry for help. I wasn’t sure I could post today. Last week saw PD on Monday, a department meeting Tuesday, School Improvement Team time out of the classroom on Wednesday, English Department Review Thursday morning (also out of the classroom) and PLC on Thursday afternoon. Then I got lost in corn. I’m behind and feeling disconnected from my kids. Amy’s simple advice “Self care, self care, self care” reminded me of a very important fact. One, I’m not alone in this treading water scenario and that brings some comfort. Often, in panic, we feel very isolated. In the community of educators, however, there is a lot of support for the over-committed, overtired, over-stimulated teacher. Instead of wallowing in it though, the mindful practice of self care and acknowledgment of our feelings can go far in helping us seek the balance we need.

In these reminders, there is nothing new. And in that, should be the calm in the chaos we all need. When the rows of corn feel stacked against you, choose a path and head in one reassuring direction. You will emerge. You will be in one piece. You will avoid corn mazes from now on, but in terms of the analogy…you’ll have come out the other side with a new appreciation for seeking the type of calm that can positively impact your day, your teaching, and your sanity.


Lisa Dennis spends her school days teaching AP Language and English 9, while also leading the fearless English department at Franklin High School, just outside Milwaukee, Wisconsin where she lives with her husband Nick, daughter Ellie, and beagle Scout.  She now tries to live life based on the last pieces of advice her dad gave her – Be kind. Read good books. Feed the birds. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum

Disturbing My Beliefs

Okay, reader, I have a challenge for you before you read this blog. If you were to read a student’s IEP and learned that he had been diagnosed with all of the following, what would be your first thoughts?

  • Chronic anxiety
  • Obsessive compulsive thinking
  • Tourette’s syndrome
  • Asperger’s syndrome
  • Depression

 Really, don’t read any further until you’ve thought about teaching this student. How would you plan for him? If you were to predict his future, what would your prediction be?

Now read on.


I’m not sure when I ran across Peter Smagorinsky’s work, but I’m guessing it was sometime in the 80s while studying writing pedagogy, and for literally decades his writing has influenced me. So it was quite a shock when I encountered an article by him in Maureen Downey’s Get Schooled column. Writing about the “mentally ill,” he explains:

In fact, I am among them, as are several people in my family. Various people in my gene pool have been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, Tourette’s syndrome, chronic anxiety, depression, obsessive compulsive thinking, oppositional-defiance, and other conditions. I suspect that many readers can say the same.

Reading this sent me into the research mode. From his vita, I discovered that he has Screen Shot 2019-10-02 at 11.55.53 AMwritten or co-written over 15 books and a ridiculous number of articles for professional journals, has been honored with numerous awards, and currently holds the title of Distinguished Research Professor of English Education.

Have you ever had one of those moments when you knew you needed to rethink an assumption that you didn’t even know you held? An assumption that carries serious implications for a sound readers/writers workshop? That’s what happened to me. All too clearly I recall in the past saying something like, “For a special ed kiddo, he’s doing okay.” Or – I confess this with great embarrassment – “I’ll cut him some slack. After all, he is in special ed.” And as a consultant, I don’t know how many times I nodded in empathy with a teacher when she talked about low test scores and all of “those” students or I indicated my understanding when the teacher said, “Oh, she has an IEP. Of course, she’s struggling.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about beliefs lately, and Peter’s story has stirred up beliefs that lay dormant, beliefs that I hadn’t examined. My discomfort reminded me of what Margaret Wheatley describes in her essay “Willing to be Disturbed.”

DisturbedLately, I’ve been listening for what surprises me. What did I just hear that startled me? This isn’t easy-I’m accustomed to sitting there nodding my head to those saying things I agree with. But when I notice what surprises me, I’m able to see my own views more clearly, including my beliefs and assumptions.

And Peter’s column dredged up assumptions that I would have denied. For years, I’ve argued for thinking of kids from an asset perspective, but buried deep within me reigned a deficit orientation.

As I kept reading more of Peter’s writing, I encountered his push for neurodiversity in which teachers recognize that there is a range of neurological orientations and, therefore, it’s important to “foreground potential, not disorder.” Peter argues:

Rather, I think that I follow a different order, like many who share my classifications. In fact, it’s quite ordered. There probably is no more ordered way of being than to live on the autism spectrum. It’s a life of pattern, ritual, and clarity of purpose. The problem is that those purposes can seem odd to those who believe that having a narrow or unusual way of being in the world is a problem to be fixed, a sickness to be cured.

Looking at more of his writing, some in blogs and some in academic essays, I found provocative gems such as these:

  • “My ability to complete work quickly and efficiently is, I believe, a consequence of having Asperger’s in conjunction with OCD.”
  • “As part of my rebellion against … stereotype, I have begun referring to my Asperger’s Advantage, especially when Asperger’s is bundled with my anxiety and obsessive-compulsive thinking.”

In one essay, he credits Tourette’s for his prodigious writing career, explaining that when he reads, he picks at his nails and goes into endless tapping routines, but writing channels his nervous tics into productive and satisfying work.

What if I had viewed my students with “special” needs – just think of the condescending tone of that phrase – as seeing the world differently and my job was to figure out their strengths and ways I could build from those strengths? My buried beliefs were madly disconnected from my espoused beliefs.

Yes, Peter disturbed me, surfaced my beliefs, and challenged my assumptions. And the troubling question is: what other negative beliefs are tucked away, needing to be disturbed?

For over 25 years, Stevi Quate taught middle and high school English in Colorado. Even though she no longer has her own classroom, she is in classrooms throughout the US and internationally. Currently, she consults in international schools and with Public Education and Business Coalition. When she’s home, she’s playing with her dogs, reading in her backyard, and realigning her beliefs. Follow her: @steviq

 

 

 

 

Hamilton or Burr?

If I hooked you with the Hamilton reference, YAY! But…there’s about four paragraphs before we get there, so here’s Weird Al performing a Hamilton medley.

We all know how important feedback is. And we all also know how much feedback we’re both getting and giving to students during every interaction: that sigh from the corner of the room, the eye roll at particularly bad puns, the way “That’s interesting” can be both a positive and negative for a student who volunteers in a class discussion, and the slump back into the seat as they try to figure out which one. We’re inundated in feedback, both coming to us and leaving us. Not to mention all the grading and conferencing and the feedback that comes with each of those. 

It’s a lot. 

So, to help make that feedback more focused for me and more reflective for my students, I ask them to complete a weekly feedback every Friday. Essentially, they answer the same three questions every week: what were your positives this week, what would you like more opportunities with, is there anything else I need to know. I particularly like the last question as it creates a place for students to show me a little of themselves as people and academics. 

My favorite response this week:  “In terms of my opinions, I am an Aaron Burr. (Don’t let them know what you’re against or what you’re for). I’d like to be at least a little bit more of a Hamilton, and I foresee your class providing an excellent opportunity for that growth.” 

Besides the Hamilton reference, I love the blunt honesty in this remark; she may already be more of a Hamilton than she knows. We often talk about current events and politics in our AP Lang class; of course, that could be uncomfortable for some for a variety of reasons. AP is at its core an argument class, so students are constantly asked to assume positions and defend them – sometimes with more zest and fervor than others. 

I appreciated the reminder that this practice/habit of argumentation can be scary or intimidating for some students or that they might not want to wade into the difficult or uncomfortable conversations in front of their peers, or right after that chem test, or in a place where their ideas may not stay inside the walls of the classroom or when they’re using the space to figure out what they actually think and why they think that way. So while this particular student might want to work to be a Hamilton – I’m betting I have a lot of Burrs sitting in my classroom. 

So what to do about it? 

I think it might be time to bring in an old favorite: Margaret Wheatley’s Willing to be Disturbed. Ultimately, a student’s comfort level with discussion and argumentation are directly related to classroom culture and that’s on me and my students to create. Maybe we can come to a place where we realize, as Wheatley says, “There is no need for us to be joined at the head. We are joined by our human hearts.” 

close up photo of book pages

Sarah Morris teaches AP English Language & Composition, AP Seminar,  and Film as Literature in Murfreesboro, Tn. She is currently watching the new Jack Ryan series and realizing it would be so much better if Krasinski and Pierce were just going through the plot of Jack Ryan but as their characters from The Office and The Wire respectively. She tweets at @marahsorris_cms. 

 

Hope Thrives in Courage

Today is the third Friday with my senior English students. Yep, I did it. I’m back in the classroom, learning alongside some amazing young people.

I have a billion goals for myself — enough to weigh me down, certainly — but one that keeps floating to the top is this:  Thrive in hope. (Yeah, I don’t really know if that’s a goal, but stay with me here.)

When I left the classroom two years ago, I’d lost a lot of it. Personal struggles. Professional struggles. The state of the world struggles. All of it. But lots of self-reflection, rest, writing, paint, dirt, good friends, family, and growing things –probably most of all growing things — changed me. My hope is back. It’s thriving, just like the plants that add energy and life to my home and my new classroom.

And while I teach literacy skills to seniors in high school, what I really want to teach is hope. Hope in humanity and our ability to thrive — together and as individuals.

So, like you, I’ve started with relationships. Every text we’ve read together, every task WritingBesideDwyaneWadeI’ve asked students to complete, every book I’ve matched to a reader’s interest has given me insight into who these young people are as individuals with backgrounds, cultures, fears, failures, dreams and desires. Just like me, they cling and pounce and clamor after hope.

A few years ago, after a sniper killed five police officers in downtown Dallas, I read this commentary by Chequan Lewis. The last line still resonates: “My sights are simply set on what is possible when we are courageously human.”

Courageously human. That’s what I want for myself and for my students — to practice courage as a means of becoming better than we were when we walked in the door. So moving forward into senior English plans, I’ll invite students to step into the vulnerable spaces that require courage: reading texts that challenge the status quo, writing honestly about ourselves, our learning, controversies, and convictions; and communicating in ways that validate, clarify, empathize, and challenge.

I’ll step there, too, because the more I think about it:  Hope thrives in courage.

Here’s a few of the texts we’ve used thus far to write beside and spark our thinking on this journey. Perhaps you’ll find them useful as you begin your own.

My Honest Poem by Rudy Francisco

Famous by Naomi Shihab Nye; the poem here

“This Bud’s for 3” — Dwyane Wade

If you have ideas for more resources that fit our theme, please share in the comments.

 

Amy Rasmussen teaches seniors at a large high school in North Texas. She’s a #houseplantcollector, writer, reader, gardener, watercolor-artist wannabe, bicyclist, and grandmother to eight courageous little people, the newest little man born today! Follow her @amyrass and @3TeachersTalk

We Contain Multitudes

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Photo by Evie Shaffer on Pexels.com

About two months ago, I found myself crying in the maternity section of Target mere hours before a flight on Sunday to the AP Reading in Tampa. My bags were unpacked, the clock was ticking, and I was sobbing under the harsh fluorescent lighting, lost in a part of the store – a whole genre of clothing – I knew nothing about. 

See, about three months pregnant, I’d finally run up against the inevitable clothing wall. Nothing I owned was comfortable any more; I was hoping to squeeze (literally) a few more weeks out of my clothes before I had to shop for new ones. After realizing that I still hadn’t packed at nine and then realizing that everything was awful and miserable around ten, I found myself an hour later in the clearance section of Target trying to find something cheap that could last me for a few weeks. 

Extra smalls as far as the eye could see. Not what I needed. 

I asked the worker on duty for help; she suggested I shop in the maternity section “even though you’re obviously not pregnant.” That comment broke me. I’m not a crier or one for public displays of any emotion beyond the Snoopy Dance, but there I was. Crying. In. A. Target. 

Over clothes. 

I bought my maternity pants and went home, determined to put the whole night behind me.

But I couldn’t. Days later, I realized what bothered me so much about the interaction: I was pregnant. I was, AM, lucky enough to experience a part of life that not every one else can. I was so thankful and excited about this journey that very few people knew about at that point. And I wanted people to know, to recognize and acknowledge that something really, really neat was going on – completely on its own, seemingly separate from my conscious self. 

In short, I wanted all that was going on inside of me to be made manifest to the outside world; I wanted my inside self to be obviously reflected in my outside self. In the moment – right or wrong – I felt robbed of understanding, or acknowledgement, of something that had become essential to my sense of self. Big feelings for what, ultimately, was such a small moment.  

I’ve been waiting to write this blog post since then.

This experience has stayed with me all summer as I planned for the school year; as with almost everything in my life I tried to apply this thinking to my classroom and found a fresh reminder that often so much happens under the surface or behind the scenes for my students that I may not see or know about. I wonder how many students have sat in my class, struggling because they know what they want to say, but can’t quite figure out how to say it. Maybe they wished they could just write an idea out instead of vocalizing it. I wonder how many times what’s going on inside of them longs to be made unmistakably apparent to the outside world. I wonder if in those moments they feel as frustrated or overwhelmed or alone as I did in Target.

I hope not, but I’m betting some do.

“What is your why?” This simple question is one the blog has posed before, and I love finding a why for my year every August. In addition to my why for this year, I want to remember in my instruction, my grading, my conversations, my interactions with students that they, like Whitman said, “are large … and contain multitudes” even when, especially when, those multitudes aren’t readily visible.

Sarah Morris teaches AP English Language & Composition, AP Seminar,  and Film as Literature in Murfreesboro, Tn. She is currently reading The Shallows and suggests you read it too. Annoy (err…I mean, share joyfully with) all of your friends the interesting ways the internet is changing our society, whether they want to hear it or not! She tweets at @marahsorris_cms. 

Guest Post: Ways I Can Encourage More Students to Love Reading by Holly Dottarar

“People don’t realize how a man’s whole life can be changed by one book.”  -Malcolm X

At the beginning of each year, I spend close to a week talking about independent reading with my students.  To me, it’s worth investing the time because independent choice reading is the heart of my class.

MSDottararBookshelves

How I frame choice reading during the first week:

  • discussing how to find a just-right book and how that is different for every reader, different genres and their definitions,
  • setting a weekly reading rate (from Penny Kittle’s book Book Love),
  • speed dating a variety of books to find potential novels to read,
  • going over My Top-15 Reading List (adapted from Kelly Gallagher’s book In the Best Interest of Students),
  • discussing how book conferencing works, and how to keep track of books read.

Even though I check in with each student monthly, share my Top 15 List with my classes, and book talk new books bi-monthly, there’s always a small percentage of students who refuse to read, or read very little.  My avid readers love the freedom to choose books, but my non-readers, emerging readers, and the reading-is-okay-but-currently-I-have-no-time readers need more of a nudge.  

How can I help all students be successful in creating and cultivating a reading habit? How can I help them look forward to diving into their book, to truly enjoy reading? How can I keep up the momentum for those who love to read?  

I whole-heartedly believe in the reader’s workshop model, but it is hard.  

Keeping track of 150 students all reading different books, and all at different places in their books, requires commitment and organization.  It is a daily, conscious decision to sit beside a student and recommend book after book, hoping something sparks an interest, or to try to find a new book for a student who has read 50 books in the last two months and isn’t sure what to read next.  (Yes, I have about 10 of these voracious readers each year.)  Up and moving around the classroom, talking with kids about books when sometimes all I want to do is sit at my desk and read my book too doesn’t help.  (And there are days that I just read alongside students, but it is few and far between.)

While there are times I want to throw in the towel, I am reminded that the hard work pays off.  Those tough days are just a bump in the road.  Students deserve to be confident readers.  They deserve to learn to think critically. They deserve a teacher who will not give up on them.   

As a reflective teacher, I’ve been thinking a lot about the reader’s workshop:  what worked in my classroom and what I want to make better.  These are ideas that I am going to incorporate this fall to build upon the love and joy of reading for all students.

 

1. Be consistent about my Book Talk Wall and teacher What-to-read-next list.

BookTalkWall

I have a wall in the back of the classroom where I post the book jacket of every book I book talk.  My goal this past year was at least one book a week, usually on a Monday, but I was not consistent.  This year I plan to continue book talking books I’ve done in the past, but really play on the books I just read and books that are new.  

Which leads to my What-to-Read-Next list.  Two years ago, I had on the board these titles MsDottararReadingListswith books:  What I just read, What I am currently reading, and What I plan to read next.  Next to each phrase I had an arrow and a copy of the book jacket so students could see my book list.  I didn’t do that this year because I didn’t have white board space.  

However, after reading students’ end of the year reflections and seeing if they met their book goals, my students two years ago read more than my students last year.  While I don’t think that each group of students should be compared, as each year we have different groups of students, I can’t help but think sharing what I read and talking often about it made a difference.  I’ll collect the data on that this year and then draw a conclusion.  

 

2. Student recommendation share outs

Book Recommendation SheetTwice a year, right before Christmas Break and right before school is out, I have students fill out a recommendation form on books they enjoyed and think others might like.  It goes in a binder organized by genre.  However, students do not share these recommendations prior to turning them in.  Why have I not done that? Not sure.  It was kind-of like checking something off my to-do list.  In this area, I plan to have students share out books they wrote down on that sheet of paper before turning in.Recommendations Binder

 

Even though this binder sits on top of one of the bookshelves, SO MANY students didn’t even know it was there.  I plan on referencing it often so if students need a book and don’t have one in mind, they can go to the binder and see what others have recommended.  (As that was the whole point of this activity anyway.)

3. Theme Topic Books

Penny Kittle has inspired me in so many ways.  Six years ago, over the summer, I took 42 composition notebooks (because that was the number of students in each class that upcoming year—yikes!), scrapbooked the covers, and wrote on 3×5 cards the theme topics.  (You can find more information about this in her book.) One of my goals was for students to write in them three to four times a year, thinking about how their book connects in some way to the theme topic.  And how cool is it for students to see what others have written years prior?  However, this past year, they only wrote in it once.  My goal is to incorporate this at least once a trimester.

Theme-Topic Notebooks

The other goal was if a student wanted to read a book about that theme topic, say compassion, they could look in the notebook and read what books others have read dealing with that topic.  However, these notebooks were filed in a cabinet with other supplies.  Not an easy way for students to find.  So, in this area, I am thinking about a good space to display these topic notebooks so more students can read what others have said.

4. Creation of Book Trailers

I am growing in the area of technology.  When I started teaching 16 years ago, I had an overhead projector and a chalkboard.  Phones were installed in December, and I couldn’t wait to pick up the phone to call the office instead of pressing the intercom button when I needed something.  When we went to white boards a few years later, I jumped up and down.  I no longer had chalk marks along the side of my right palm or somewhere on my back.  When our school installed projectors, I begged a friend in the history department—as they received a grant for document cameras shortly thereafter—to loan me an extra one so I could teach writing through a step-by-step process.  In terms of technology, this is the extent of my expertise.  A coworker had to show me how to use Google Classroom last year.  

With so many of our students interacting with technology, why not use that to our advantage? There have been some really good book trailers lately.  My favorite still is with the novel Salt to the Sea.  The music is haunting, which fits the book perfectly.  (You can check it out here.)

If I show professional book trailers for students on novels I think they’d like, why can’t they create their own and share on Classroom?  Something I plan to look into more and try this next year.

5. Virtual Book Stacks

Students keep track of books they’ve read on a sheet of paper titled My Top 15, but why not have a visual book stack at the end of the year to share and celebrate growth? I thought of a real book stack, as I’ve seen them all over Instagram, but to have students try to find each book they read and stack it up felt daunting to me, especially if students checked out books from the public library and not mine or the school’s library.  I plan to use Padlet for students to share their books and maybe even categorize it by their favorites.

 

 

 

 

If you are interested in more reading on this topic, I suggest the following books:

Nancy Atwell’s The Reading Zone

Carol Jago’s The Book in Question

Donalyn Miller’s The Book Whisperer

Lisa Donohue’s Independent Reading Inside the Box, 2nd Ed.

Penny Kittle’s Book Love

Teri Lesesne’s Reading Ladders

 
Holly Morningstar Dottarar is an 8th grade English teacher in the Pacific Northwest.  While she spent her adolescence as a reluctant reader, once she read The Hobbit—in college—she became hooked.  Now, she carries a book wherever she goes.  When she’s not reading, teaching, or spending time with her family, she can be found in her kitchen baking.  She blogs at www.hollybakes.com and www.hollyteaches.com.

Q & A: How do you confer with readers without causing a distraction?

Questions Answered

Recently, I facilitated a readers-writers workshop training with a small team of brilliant teachers in Minneapolis. We shared an inspiring two days together, exploring and discussing how to shift instructional practices to allow for choice, challenge, and the authentic moves readers and writers make as they mature in their craft. In these trainings, I tend to talk a lot about conferring. I think it’s the linchpin that makes all the essential parts of a workshop pedagogy work. (It’s also the thing I still struggle with the most.) Towards the end of our time together, one young teacher said, “Have you tried everything? It sounds like you’ve tried everything.”

Pretty much.

At least it feels like it. I’ve pretty much tried anything and everything I think will help my students want to read and write — and want to improve as readers and writers. (I am still learning. Send me ideas!) And when it comes to conferring with my readers, I’ve tried a lot of things.

One thing I know for sure:  The expectations we set matter — a lot.

When I work with teachers, I get this question often:  How do you confer with readers without causing a distraction?

I don’t. I want to cause a distraction, especially for the one student I’m conferring with at that moment, perhaps for the couple of students sitting near enough to listen into our conversation, maybe for the student across the aisle who needs to know it’s not as scary as she may think to talk to a teacher about a book.

Besides — I may only distract a reader for a moment before I move on to the next reader. Right? And with a class of thirty students, it may take several days to loop back around to distract that reader again.

Sure, I could ask students to come to me — maybe at my desk or at the side of the room or just a step outside the door (I’ve tried all these locations), but scooting up in my rolling chair, or kneeling beside them, at their space seems much more authentic to me — less threatening, more inclusive. In my experience, our conversations are richer when my readers share their space with me.

I know it can be hard to concentrate and read when someone is talking, even in whispers, to someone else a couple of feet away. (I tried reading on a plane yesterday, but the couple next to me kept talking, talking, talking, and I finally took a nap.)

Expectations matter. If we build a culture of reading within our learning communities, where all students know we expect them to read during sacred reading time, and all students expect us to talk to them about their reading lives, every student will come to expect our conferences. It’s part of the overall workshop routine. It’s a huge part of what makes self-selected independent reading work on the daily.

The weight of the distraction just doesn’t come close to the impact of regular one-on-one conversations with our readers.

 

Note:  This post is a part of a series. It’s based primarily on the most frequent questions about readers-writers workshop asked at our workshop trainings. For more see here.

Amy Rasmussen lives, loves, and teaches in North Texas. She will be at a new-to-her high school in the fall — teaching seniors! This week she is in Chicago at a conference sponsored by The Poetry Foundation. So cool! If you have questions about Secondary Readers-Writers Workshop, shoot her an email amy@threeteacherstalk.com. While she doesn’t claim to be an expert, Amy’s been imperfectly practicing the routines of workshop for a long time. Maybe she can help.

 

To Flex or Not to Flex:  I’ve Been Thinking about Flexible Seating

Being a new teacher at school this past year, I was the recipient of the “new English teacher classroom” that has been passed down for the last two years.  This classroom is located at the far end of the cafeteria, literally in the cafeteria, and came stacked with rows upon rows of forward facing desks, equally spaced in rows, all facing the front.  So industrial revolution-esqe. So not ideal for cultivating a welcoming environment where students to take ownership of their learning by interacting with one another to question and create meaning.

In the hopes of making my corner of the school more welcoming and conducive to English work, I slowly began to create flexible seating areas.  I built this up over the school year, finding more cozy chairs, lights, and touches of home to add, but I will confess: I don’t love my flexible seating classroom.

 

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Isn’t this how we want all students to read in a Book Club?!

 

Let me explain, as there are pros and cons to everything.

Positives:

  1. Students are pretty chill and calm in class (also see Issues #1).  Students are relaxed because the lights aren’t blazing overhead and the furniture creates a homey vibe.  Students enjoy a break from sitting in the rigid desks that are too small for some or built for right-handed writers.  They also have more space for their books, laptops, and notebooks.
  2. Students can settle into our reading time.  I’m not sure about you, but I don’t read for pleasure at home in a rigid desk, sitting straight up.  I read on the couch settled to my gently snoring dog, or I read in an armchair with my slightly overweight dog, or I read propped up on pillows in my bed with my dog who sprawls out to cover half the space.  While I can’t bring Bounder to work (I wish!), I can create the transference of reading atmosphere from school to home.
  3. Students have a choice over where they sit depending on how they’re feeling or what type of work we are doing.  I had a few students who changed seats every day, and some who stuck with the same place. Sometimes a student would move to a new seat halfway through the class, usually to a desk or table after reading time.  This makes seating charts completely unnecessary and beside the point (woo!). Students also exercise soft skills, like compromise and problem solving, when they negotiate their daily seating choice.
  4. I can easily circulate around the room, accessing each student without having to disturb their neighbors in the tight rows of desks littered with backpacks.  Students also have access to one another.

 

Issues:

  1. Students are pretty chill and calm in class (also see Positives #1).  Sometimes the siren song of the plush armchair is too much to resist, and even my most engaged students are sucked into a nap.
  2. Students cannot see all of their peer’s faces at one time.  I didn’t realize how much it would annoy me, but I realized that to me, eye contact equals engagement.  Sometimes, this led to group conversations versus whole class conversations, as one side comment turned into a table chat.  While there is less of a “front of the room” as students are not all facing the same direction, this can be an impediment to the building community at times.
  3. While student seating is flexible, room configuration is not. I only have one projector and whiteboard, so there is a distinctive front of my room, which all the chairs have a vantage point of.  I have a collection of regular desks, two large tables with, a small table with chairs, and a living room set up with larger chairs and a coffee table. There isn’t much flexibility for reorganizing the shape of the classroom to support instruction, aside from group work.  Moving the furniture into an inner-outer circle is near impossible, especially given the four minutes between preps or short precious 40 minutes I spend with students.
  4. Creating these flexible spaces costs money out of my budget.  In total, I think I spent a little over $200. I debated–$200 in books for my classroom or $200 to buy old furniture.  I debated, that is a lot of book money, but figured options for seating would help me cultivate a welcoming, comfortable classroom environment.
  5. Students are always jostling for the biggest, most plush chair, which I suppose cuts down on tardies, but also calls for a bit of regulation of the most coveted chair on campus by me.  This guy: 

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I learned a lot from this experiment and while room 104 has received a total facelift, there are some kinks to work out.  In the fall, I will set guidelines, not rules, to help form clear expectations for next year for how to navigate our space.  I will encourage students to select a new seat each week, so one group doesn’t always sit around the coffee table and students are mixing the voices they’re hearing.  I will also teach the importance of connection and looking at the speaker. Not doing so creates pods that are isolated versus cohesion as a full group.  I will continue to reserve the right to ask students to make a new or better choice in their seating, as well as use the sections of the classroom to a group and regroup as it best fits instruction.  I will also scour the local Goodwills for smaller tables and different chairs that are both more comfortable and flexible.

Aside from the lack of flexibility in the layout and money borrowed from my book budget, I believe creating a classroom with flexible seating was worth it for students. I adapted the “weird classroom in the cafeteria,” as one junior put it, into a space students feel welcome to breathe and relax a little during the day–there is something about being out of a desk and making a choice.  At the end of the day, if students are happy and like the setup, I can be satisfied with that.

Any flexible seating transition suggestions, guidelines, or ideas?  Please share them!

 

Maggie Lopez is enjoying summer vacation and hopes all of her teacher friends are doing the same.  You can find her on Twitter @meg_lopez0.

 

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