Category Archives: Classroom Culture

It’s a Good Day to Talk about Talk

Many of us are on edge. You may feel it, too.

I woke today thinking about something I heard in the first professional development session I attended as a new teacher:  We read literature to learn what it means to be human. It provokes a seemingly simple question, and one that’s prompted rich discussion with my students:  What does it mean to be human?

Maybe we don’t talk about our shared humanity enough. Maybe we should do that a little more.

For those of us who embrace choice reading, we often refer to the words of Rudine Sims Bishop:

Books are sometimes windows, offering views of worlds that may be real or imagined, familiar or strange. These windows are also sliding glass doors, and readers have only to walk through in imagination to become part of whatever world has been created or recreated by the author. When lighting conditions are just right, however, a window can also be a mirror. Literature transforms human experience and reflects it back to us, and in that reflection we can see our own lives and experiences as part of the larger human experience. Reading, then, becomes a means of self-affirmation, and readers often seek their mirrors in books.

Let’s think about this line:  “When lighting conditions are just right, however, a window can also be a mirror.” Shared humanity.

Last year at NCTE, Lisa, Jessica, and I had the chance to sit down and chat with Cornelius Minor. We were three white women educators working to listen and learn and do more to advocate for equity and social justice in our classrooms. We knew Cornelius could help. He did.

“We start by focusing on what we have in common. Our humanity,” Mr. Minor told us. Then he highlighted the difference between diversity and inclusivity:  Diversity is everyone sitting at the table. Inclusivity is everyone sharing equal power at the table.

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Photo by Daiga Ellaby on Unsplash

So what does this mean for me as a teacher, a facilitator of professional development, a writer, a mother, and a grandmother — someone who desperately cares about not just my family, but others’ families, about my country and the interactions we have with one another, about the future and all that entails?

What does it mean for you?

Sure, getting students reading and talking about books is a great starting place. But we also have to open spaces for talk. Cultivating risk-rich safe spaces where readers and writers can share their ideas, struggles, and successes about topics and issues that matter to them is vital to cultivating a civil society. I’ve long thought that our classrooms represent a microcosm of our society. If we can facilitate critical conversations where students respect and truly listen to one another, maybe we have a chance at changing conversations on the street or in courtrooms or press conferences or Congress.

Idealistic? Sure. But that’s the nature of hope.

In her article “Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors,” Bishop concludes with these lines:

Those of us who are children’s literature enthusiasts tend to be somewhat idealistic, believing that some book, some story, some poem can speak to each individual child, and that if we have the time and resources, we can find that book and help to change that child’s life, if only for a brief time, and only for a tiny bit. One the other hand, we are realistic enough to know that literature, no matter how powerful, has its limits. It won’t take the homeless off our streets; it won’t feed the starving of the world; it won’t stop people from attacking each other because of our racial differences; it won’t stamp out the scourge of drugs. It could, however, help us to understand each other better by helping to change our attitudes towards difference. When there are enough books available that can act as both mirrors and windows for all our children, they will see that we can celebrate both our differences and our similarities, because together they are what makes us all human.

We come to understand each other better, yes, through wide reading, curating libraries with diverse, vibrant, engaging titles by authors of diverse heritage and backgrounds. Reading more matters. Couple Bishop’s thoughts with these by Lois Bridges:

Reading engagement is nothing short of miraculous—engaged readers spend 500% more time reading than do their peers who aren’t turned on by books—and all those extra hours inside books they love gives them a leg up in everything that leads to a happy, productive life:  deep conceptual understanding about a wide range of topics, expanded vocabulary, strategic reading ability, critical literacy skills, and engagement with the world that’s more likely to make them dynamic citizens drawn into full civic participation.

Yes, wide voluminous reading matters. A lot.

But so does talk.

I believe it’s through talking about their books, discussing their similarities and differences, their characters, conflicts, and resolutions; talking about their writing, helping each other see angles they might not have seen, validating ideas and challenging others — all in safe spaces of shared respect — that we fast track students’ abilities to engage with each other and with their world. Our world.

So on this election day, I would ask you, dear reader, one favor:  Between now and the next election, can we all do a little more to open spaces in our instruction to facilitate more meaningful discussions? Let’s amplify our shared humanity.

 

Amy Rasmussen has no middle name, but if she did, it would be “Idealist”. She believes everyone is a child of God and should be loved as such. She’s excited to attend NCTE this month and hopes you will attend her session at 4:15 on Saturday as this blog team presents “Accomplice”-ing Great Things: An Action Plan for Equity, Inclusivity, and Allied Partnerships in ELA Classrooms. 

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On Writers’ Testimonies & Why We Need Them

If I want to call myself a writer, I better start writing. Seems simple enough, right? I’ve read tons of quotes from writers who say the best way to begin is just sit down and bleed on the page. But I struggle.

As I was trying to write this post, with my dogs barking incessantly at an invisible squirrel in the backyard, and The Walking Dead booming from the bedroom tv where my husband languished with flu-like blahs, I thought of all the tweets last week for the National Day on Writing (fantastic inspiration and ideas there).

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I thought of why I write:  to think, to feel, to clarify, to play with language, to vent and heal and commit to change. All the reasons that everyone else writes. I am not unique.

Or am I?

Recently, I’ve been reading and re-reading the writing of Donald Murray. (Learning by Teaching: Selected Articles on Writing and Teaching is my bible as a writing teacher. Huge thanks to my friend Penny K. for the recommendation!) But I’ve also delved into Murray’s Shoptalk: Learning to Write with WritersIt’s a collection on quote on writers about their craft. Murray states in the preface that he began collecting quotes on writing when in junior high, filling twenty-four three-inch-think notebooks with at least eight thousand quotations. His motivation? He just wanted to know how writers wrote. Murray explains the importance of writers’ testimony:

     Many people have the romantic notion, encouraged by those writers who feel comfortable in the magician’s robes, that writing is an instinctive matter of talent, an art, not a craft, and therefore cannot be explained.

     But writing is not an unintelligent act. Writing is a craft before it is an art, and writers can and do discuss their craft in terms we can understand. There are good reasons teachers and students of writing should hear what writers say about their craft.

     . . . I bring writers into my classroom through their written testimony. As writers of today and yesterday–female and male, young and old, poets and novelists and playwrights and nonfiction writers–talk about their feelings and their problems while writing, my students discover that their natural responses to writing are often the same as experienced writers.

     This is vital. Students facing a writing problem will often find they have to solve it by starting over and will fell they have failed. When they read the testimony of experienced writers, however, they discover that they too act like writers and this increases their confidence in designing their own solutions to their own writing problems. School often teaches unnatural, non-writerly attitudes toward writing–know what you want to say before you say it–and students need to see that their own instincts are the instincts of published writers.

     Students also need to see that writers are not looking back at a finished text but are in the act of confronting the blank page–or looking at the world before their is a page; trying to get started; trying to keep a text on tract or following it off track; working to make a text clear to themselves and to a reader. Writer’s counsel isn’t distant, detached from the act of making; it is immediate, speaking to the writer in the middle of making, a master sharing the tricks of craft with an apprentice at a common workbench.

I need these reminders–for myself and those I hope to take on the identity of writer, other teachers and students alike. Murray explains:

Too often we defend writing as a skill, saying writing should be taught so that students can fill our a job application or write a better letter asking someone to buy a cemetery lot. Writing is a skill on that level, but it also a craft and an art; it satisfies an essential need of the human animal.

So how do I share more writers’ testimonies? How do I help satisfy the essential need of the humans in my care daily?

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Here’s some ideas:

  • Share some quotes on writing by writers. There’s lots of insights in that link and even some nice images like the one above.
  • Share Poets & Writers and follow on Twitter, too. I love their weekly update.
  • Read and share articles from NY Times Writers on Writing. This one by Amy Tan is a favorite and makes a fantastic mentor text to write beside.
  • Think, write, model, talk, share, and repeat with writers every single day. Let them know they are not alone in their pursuit of putting meaning on the page.

When I brought the barking dogs in, and before the tv went off and the zombies faded out in the bedroom, I heard a line that gave me pause. It went something like this: “This place is a canvas, and we are the paint. We were sent here to create. We did.”

I don’t know about you, but I think that relates to writing. I write to paint my world in the swirl of language, to create images and goals and imaginings, to figure out what I feel and think and know. I write because it feeds my need. I am human, so I write.

Amy Rasmussen writes most often sitting at her newest DIY project, a desk she repurposed from a vanity her paternal grandfather made for her grandmother over 70 years ago. She lights a candle and listens to Michael Bluble radio on Pandora. And when she gets stuck in her head or on the page, she reads. Follow her @amyrass

Guest Post by Amanda Penney: The Workshop Classroom and YOU!!!

Note: This post signifies quite a milestone for the ELA 1 team I had the privilege of joining this year.  As of this morning, and thanks to the graciousness of this blog’s creators, the entire team has now published on this site.  To see a post by our department chair Megan, click here. Austin posted this summer, here. Sarah, our team lead posted a few weeks back, and my one year anniversary as a regular contributor is in January. This agency affords us power.  It gives us a voice in our fight for literacy.  To the creators of this blog, Thank You.

The workshop classroom is undoubtedly overwhelming to embrace at first. It is difficult to find information on how to properly implement this pedagogy, and there are many misconceptions of what workshop actually looks, for instance, on sites like TeachersPayTeachers. It’s a lot of work to be a workshop classroom. You actually have to read and write yourself if you want your students to benefit from this structure. You need to learn how to identify a solid mentor text from a variety of works and know what you can do with them successfully.

But the work pays off. It gives you, the teacher, so much more than you could ever have imagined. To keep your students engaged in their choice reading, you have to keep up with the never-ending influx of newly published works. You are forced to venture into genres of writing that you would not normally reach. For instance, I read Matt de la Pena’s We Were Here, and I can assure you, it is not historical fiction (my typical go-to). My students were writing about their foster care experiences and retelling their mishaps that placed them in alternate schools. Matt de la Pena provided an avenue for me to better understand these students, who in turn, helped broaden my reading interests.

For me, this shift has been monumental. As a workshop teacher, I actually get to read what I want to read and have picked up books I wouldn’t normally and enjoyed them! I get excited when I stumble upon a passage that might as well jump off the page and into my computer, so I can begin identifying my mini lesson and therein construct my fantastic lesson cycle. It is fun and exciting, and I have such a unique opportunity in my profession to be creative each and every day.

Writing has been the most exciting shift for me personally. I had lost a lot of confidence in my abilities as a writer when I entered college. I will never forget attending Texas A&M’s orientation for new students and the very blunt speech we were given. Simply put, the speaker stated that the five-paragraph-essay would lead to nothing more than a failing grade, so we better learn something new now or “See you later!” I was terrified, of course, because I had been taught nothing other than the five-paragraph-essay. The only piece I had ever written that did not follow that god-awful structure was my college admissions essay. Little had I known, I had “workshopped” my most proud piece of high school writing to which my first line stated “I am crazy.” However, one piece did not shake the terror I felt upon beginning my first day of classes the following week.

As a transfer student my sophomore year, I took an Advanced Composition course and a Shakespeare course. I held a solid A in my Advanced Composition class with helpful pointers and typically positive feedback from my professor. Yet, I could barely hold a low C in my Shakespeare class where I was regularly criticized for my writing style. I spent most of my time in the writing center, and at one point, the graduate assistant was so baffled by my C- paper over Shylock’s speech “I am a Jew” that he asked for the opinion of his “boss” who returned with a shrug and said, “I’m sorry, I don’t know why you got a C…. it looks like he just dislikes how you write and is grading you accordingly. Good luck.”

I spent the rest of my English degree pursuit frustrated and confused. I concluded that writing was a painful process, which would typically yield disappointment from my readers. I would never truly be able to improve because I, unfortunately, did not and would not inherit the mutant skill of mind-reading from Professor Xavier or Gene Grey.

Then, I began to teach. My first year, our campus did not have workshop at all, and teaching was painful day in and day out. My students really did not benefit from The Odyssey or the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, and to be honest, neither did I. My second year began with the introduction of workshop, which was difficult to understand, considering I not only had never taught this way with my meager one-year experience under my belt, but I also had not learned this way. So, I struggled through what I learned and still could not get my students to engage. They always referred to their “I give up” phrase of “I don’t know what to write about,” and it left me frustrated and exhausted each day.

I had heard about writing along with my students, but I was afraid to do this. I did not identify as a writer and had long since decided I wasn’t very good at it. My students could never know this of course… But I was getting nowhere, and it was time for a shift.

So, one day, half-way through my second year of teaching, I tried something new. I chose to write with my students. I had been flipping through the pages of Kelly Gallagher’s Write Like This and stumbled upon his “1 to 18 Topics” lesson cycle. I embraced my fears of writing with my students and took the dive head-first the next day.

I started safe with soccer and intended to choose a new topic to expand each class period. To my astonishment, every single student had their pens to their papers and were scribbling madly as if they had been starved of this freedom for too long. Conferring revealed a vulnerability I had not anticipated, and I became inspired to show my own vulnerability as the day continued. I realized I had a lot to say, and I wanted to “say” it through my writing. I had starved myself of this freedom for far too long, and I was eager to continue writing.

My third-year of teaching is when workshop really kicked off in my classroom. I was searching for an engaging mentor text that utilized simple sentences as my students struggled (and still do) with sentence boundaries.  An excerpt from Dune stood out to me and I was eager to write beside it with my students in class. The excerpt is as follows:

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Each student wrote for 10 minutes and were asked to begin their piece with “I must not __.” We then pulled a Penny Kittle and revised it to ensure it was only constructed of simple sentences. My students wrote some incredible pieces, and I am convinced their success is a result of my own enthusiasm for the lesson itself. Their writing inspired my writing and in turn began to reconstruct my identity as both a writer and teacher. I was embracing myself as a writer, and my students, in turn, began to embrace themselves as writers.

Workshop has transformed my perspective of writing and provided a unique platform for me to embrace myself as a writer. It has exposed a variety of genres to read but also has provided a variety of genres I can choose to write.

Prior to workshop, I used to hate poetry. Yes. I used the word “hate” … as an English major and teacher…. It was this daunting task and an awful entity that lurked in the dreary school hallways. My teachers never taught me to write beside a poem and always found the most difficult poetry to “interpret” in class. In Ohio, my freshman English teacher appeared to enjoy watching us squirm in confusion and insisted we leave his classroom never ever knowing what the author’s message actually was. I despised poetry’s very existence because of this and determined its purpose was a cruel joke on the reader.

Workshop completely shifted this perspective of poetry for me. I would never had guessed in a million years that I would currently be reading not one, not two, but THREE poetry books at once. The thought of writing my own poetry was a complete joke as well. Yet, here I am, writing beside poetry in my classroom and encouraging my students to do the same. It has a completely different purpose now than it ever did before. Its purpose is no longer to torment my being but to excite my creativity and provide an avenue for expression I never would have known existed if it wasn’t for workshop. The first poem I wrote beside was a Rudy Francisco piece and it looks like this:

Mentor Text:

When people ask how I’m doing

I want to say,

my depression is an angry deity, a jealous god

a thirsty shadow that wrings my joy like a dishrag

and makes juice out of my smile.

I want to say,

getting out of bed has become a magic trick.

I am probably the worst magician I know.

I want to say,

this sadness is the only clean shirt I have left

and my washing machine has been broken for months,

but I’d rather not ruin someone’s day with my tragic honesty

so instead I treat my face like a pumpkin.

I pretend that it’s Halloween.

I carve it into something acceptable.

I laugh and I say,

“I’m doing alright.”

-Rudy Francisco, Helium


My Version:

When people ask how I’m doing

I want to say,

leave me alone, please, now and forever while

my anxiety leaps and jumps throughout my body

and makes me cringe.

I want to say,

standing here is an allusion of sanity,

a trick I feel I will never truly perfect.

I want to say,

this fear is my only possession I have ever had

and I want someone to destroy it so it cannot return,

but I’d rather not burden someone’s day with the demon that encircles me

so instead I treat my face like a canvas.

I paint with bright colors.

I create something mundane.

I smile and I say,

“I’m doing alright.”

-Ms. Penney


I felt so freed of my previous misconceptions with this one piece, and as a result, my class and I enjoy our daily “Poet Moments” inspired by my colleague Charles Moore. I revel in this peace and tranquility and am grateful for workshop with each and every poem I have the privilege to write with my students. This joy has completely altered my initial definition of poetry, and I will forever be indebted to workshop and this genre of writing.

Workshop has given me the opportunity to grow as a reader and writer. It has given me a purpose and a drive to find new and exciting ways to engage not only my students but myself. I no longer feel as if writing is a painful process and the nagging frustration of how my invisible readers expect me to write has long since passed. I have a voice and a means of expressing that voice, as do you, every single day.

Amanda Penney is a bit of a perfectionist and is grateful for the patience that her colleague, Charles Moore, has for her and her ever-changing blog post. She plays soccer whenever she can and loves exploring nature with her only child (her dog who she considers her child) Shanti. She is a complete nerd when it comes to anything comic book oriented and is currently exploring the possibilities of her favorite series, The Uncanny X-Men from the late 1960’s, becoming an exciting and invigorating mentor text. She hopes this will be the topic of her next guest post, that is of course, if Charles is willing to embrace another bought of Penney and her procrastinating-perfectionism.

A Rebuilding Year – Growth Mindset for the Weary Educator

It’s been a solid decade since I taught freshmen, but those babyfaced, wide-eyed foundlings and I are on a long overdue reunion tour this year.  Such youth. Such innocence. Such…incredible chaos. I’m straight up exhausted. It’s a late February tired in early October on this homefront and wow, do I feel a heck of a lot older than my (insert inaudible mumbling here) years.

But, I’ve got a contingency plan, my fellow workshop enthusiasts, and it goes a little something like this:

Keep at it.

Keep at it for the ones whose names you learned first, out of necessity to rein in their testing behaviors. Keep at it for the ones who just can’t seem to get their curiosity, listening ears, and class materials in the same place at the same time. Keep at it for the ones who have fought you on every book selection you’ve slid ninja-style before them without yet hearing the sweet click of a kid who is hooked on a great book. Keep at it for the ones glued to your book talk, but still “too cool” to ask the teacher about something to read. Keep at it for the long haul…we’ve only just begun.

Sometime a few months back, in the blissful noncombative expanse of summer, I must have had a premonition of the deep need I would have to hear these words and repeat, mantra-style, this cadence of pushing forward to what can and will be better because of my efforts.

I was putting a cover together for my writer’s notebook so I’d have something personal to show my students, my 9th graders especially when it came to creating a notebook that invites exploration. I had been cleaning out a closet in our office/playroom, sorting through mementos I was saving to document my daughter’s latest art projects, and I came across two seemingly disparate items that sparked a theme for my writer’s notebook, and my year.

The first was a collage that hung in my locker when I was in high school. A random conglomeration of magazine clippings that spoke to some of my extremely adolescent aspirations.

growth.jpgThe other, a stack of unrelated photos from when my grandparents built their house in the early 1950’s. The tiny black and white photos cataloged the creation of a home that I would come to know as a place with countless memories, but in these photos, it was an unfinished, stark-looking shell.

The kitchen I would learn to bake in did not yet exist. The trees I would climb and swing from had not yet been planted. The four-lane highway that runs before it now, was then, just a dirt road.

But in those pictures, beyond the unfinished walls and barren yard was something even greater than it’s current state of general chaos – potential.

From those photos, I selected one and went on a mission to gather other illustrations of potential and growth. I added to my cover a picture from my wedding day, another of Ellie on one of her first days of daycare, a daily behavior chart from those same early days of “school,” and a sample of her earliest “stories.”

Together, these pieces helped me share with my students a purposeful personalization of my notebook, and shed light on part of my goal-setting process for the school year:

Overcome the fear (The freshmen are coming! The freshmen are coming!) and keep at it. Push forward through what’s hardest. Look for signposts of small successes along the way. Always travel in packs – collaborate, seek feedback, lean on others for support (Huge shout-out here to my fellow English 9 support team who have kept me afloat these first few weeks). And these pieces of advice are as true for the educators, as they are for our students who are just gaining their footing as readers and writers.

So, as my freshmen file in today, I will look past my tired and the somewhat frustrated, and instead, remind myself of the big goal I set for myself and their potential for growth. I will look to the young scholar I have had to speak to in the hallway on more than one occasion already about his disruptive behaviors sidelining the entire class. I will look to the young woman who rarely even makes it to class, and I’ll capture each time I see her as an opportunity to try and get her to come back. I will look to the socially awkward young man whose first speech of the year suggested he likes online video games to make friends so he can avoid people judging what he looks like in person. And for each of them, and all the rest, I will focus on what my conversations with them one on one can accomplish. Conferring is where the magic really happens, and if you’re too tired or overwhelmed to talk with kids, as I have sometimes already felt this year, then it’s time to reprioritize. Quickly.

It’s for those students who have admitted they haven’t completed any books since about the 5th grade. It’s for those students who say they love to write, but never want to share that writing with the group. It’s for the students who loved reading at one point and somehow that love was stomped out of their lives. It’s for the compliant ones, almost most of all, who need a spark instead of a dying fire to light their way back to the beauty of being readers and writers.

It’s because they can grow, they need to grow, and so do I, that I do this work every day. And though that road sometimes seems very long, often thankless, and sometimes overwhelming to the point of mental breakdown, it’s where this work will take us that’s important. So…I’ll keep at it.

Lisa Dennis teaches English and leads a department of incredible English educators at Franklin High School near Milwaukee. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum 

Utilizing Every Square Meter

We’ve got them in every class… those students who love to sit in the back of the room or in the corner that’s difficult to get into once chairs are out, backpacks are on the floor, and drawers have been opened, etc. The corners and spaces that present challenges to navigate, and without being aware of it, make it so we let things slide. Maybe we don’t check in as often during notebook work, maybe we don’t see what’s on the computer screen as much during our writing work time, maybe we don’t always see what page they are on during independent reading time.

Maybe you all have figured out how to prevent these “dead spaces” from being a thing in your classrooms, but I was still working on it at the beginning of my twentieth year of teaching.

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It was a concept I had first started thinking about when reading Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion a number of years ago (the updated version can be found here).

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I remember having a conversation with colleagues about “owning the room” based on what we had read in the book. I knew then that I had dead spaces, and I’ve worked on eliminating those spaces ever since.

This year I wanted to think about my classroom differently. I didn’t want to “eliminate dead spaces” as much as I decided I wanted to utilize the space to its fullest potential. I wanted each student to have a front row seat for at least part of the class time every day. I feel that this is inclusive; the students who often stay under the radar in the quieter spaces of my classroom can still find the spotlight, and the students whose personalities require constant attention sometimes find that they aren’t in the limelight for a little while. I want to spread my attention evenly and fairly, and I think that utilizing our space deliberately is one of the answers to this issue.

While nothing is every perfect, I think I’ve stumbled upon some good solutions.

I started by figuring out where the traditional problem areas are. I’m sure many teachers can relate: it’s primarily the corners and the walls. So I first focused on the perimeter of my classroom.

I looked at the corners and made sure that each of the four corners has a specific purpose.

  • One corner has the TV screen and rug so that students can come up to participate in mini-lessons.
  • One corner is where students enter and exit, so I used the wall space for student work and my currently reading notice. I also re-purposed my podium — I turned the front of it to the wall and am using it as a place for students to sign in when they leave class or come in tardy. There are also handouts for students on the lower shelf.
  • Another corner has a cupboard in it, which is always accessible. It’s for students — they can find extra supplies as well as their textbooks (we use them more as anthologies, to be honest).
  • The last corner is the most popular. It’s the reading corner. It’s next to the classroom library, has the comfy couch, and also showcases student work as well as our reading agreements.
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This corner has the TV/computer set up for mini-lessons.

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The corner with my door showcases student work, has a spot for handouts and the bathroom/tardy sheets, and has my “currently reading” notice on the door.

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The corner with the closet isn’t off-limits to students. Extra supplies and textbooks (we’re calling them anthologies this year) are accessible to students at any time.

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Student work is displayed in the reading corner. Currently on the walls are some grade eleven one-pagers. These also provide ideas for what other students might want to read next.

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The reading corner is a popular spot; it’s right next to the classroom library and has the comfortable furniture.

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Mrs. Swinehart is currently reading…

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Students come to the rug for mini-lessons in this corner of the room.

After looking at the corners, I examined the purpose of each of the four walls.

  • One wall is our classroom library, which is always a popular place to be. We use it and love it every day, in every class. It’s organized, at eye level, has a rotating display, and most importantly, includes titles that will appeal to my students.
  • Another wall is what would traditionally be the back of the room. It already had bulletin boards on it, so I hung anchor charts that are relevant on a daily basis. I refer to them, I walk to and through the space, and kids actively turn their bodies to look at them.
  • The next wall is what would traditionally be the front of the room. It’s where the white boards are, so it’s naturally where I put our daily agenda, and where I write the things that don’t need to be digital or saved on a chart. Books are displayed on the marker tray, monthly book talk lists are on one of the bulletin boards to the side of the white board, and it’s where we can go for “spur of the moment” lessons that aren’t created digitally in advance and don’t use the document camera.
  • The last wall is a wall of windows, and where a teacher might put a desk. My “desk” is there, but it’s pushed up against the wall and serves as a supply table. Next to it is our conferring space, which is used when I’m not circulating the room, and is even as a space for completing our Running Records. When I’m circulating the room, it’s another space for students to complete the learning in our classroom.

 

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Our classroom library is constantly in use.

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The white board wall is also used for book displays, a daily agenda, and unit goals.

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The “teacher desk” is also a supply table. I’ve reserved a student desk behind it for the “teacher stuff” – including the obligatory year-round-use Christmas coffee mug, stack of loose papers, and Norton Reader. (I’m assuming every teacher has something like this?)

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The conferring space/extra space for student learning

 

Lastly, I had to look to the inside of the room. The perimeter is important, but the students tend to “live” towards the center of the room. I’ve tried to make it so the desks aren’t pointed in one particular direction so that each space feels important. I’ve moved desks so students have partners, I’ve had arcs facing different directions in different parts of the room, and sometimes the desk arrangement feels random or messy. I think that’s okay. The point isn’t to have orderly desks. It’s to have students who are engaged in their learning.

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While I’m sure I’ll still have days when I don’t visit every square foot in each and every class period, I think it’s an improvement on what my classroom set up once was. I don’t think there are any spots for students to “hide” and I feel comfortable walking around in each corner and cranny of the classroom. Because I circulate throughout more of the room, and because my students get up and move more often to the spots where they need to be, I interact with my students on an individual level more often than before. It helps to build relationships, which leads to trust, which leads to learning. This makes for a more inclusive, learning-focused classroom, and that’s our ultimate goal.

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A panoramic view from one of the conferring chairs. On the right side of the photo, behind the fan controls, is the closet. The rest, I think, is self-explanatory.

What do you do that ensures that every corner in your classroom is used for the power of learning?

 

Julie has been teaching secondary language arts for twenty years, spending the first fifteen in rural Central Oregon, and the last four in Amman, Jordan. She’s thrilled to report that she and her family have moved across the world to Managua, Nicaragua this year, where a new adventure has begun.

Follow her on twitter @SwinehartJulie

Atmosphere: 4 Big Ways to Nurture Readers And Writers

How do we get our students to become readers and writers; literate, engaged, empathetic contributors to our world?

flexible seating 3It’s simple. Ask yourself, “How do I prefer to read, write, create and learn?” I can guarantee that each and every one of us would have a different idea of what that looks like and would choose something different. We don’t all learn the same, so why do we expect our students to. The relationships we build and the space that we provide to our students each year is crucial to allowing them to become readers, writers and creators, and we have to cater to the different needs that allow them to become what we hope they can be. How do we create open spaces where students can, and want, to learn and grow?

The answer = Relationships!!!

Team building

This happens for at least the first FOUR days of school in my classroom. Yes, four. I don’t even say the word syllabus until day three. I want to start the year getting to know my students and how they function; who they are, what they love and what they hate. I spend these days doing team building activities and switching the teams up each day intentionally. It teaches them to work well with different personalities and it allows me to see who they can work best with. It’s also a nice perk to know who should avoid whom in those more difficult classes. This all plays into how I approach them to start those one on one conversations. These team building moments can carry on throughout the year, not just be left for the first week. I often break up high pressure times of year with a team building activity to help keep the momentum going and refresh their minds and our classroom atmosphere.

A big part of our relationship and team building happens when have a conversation about our classroom social contract. Every year, it never fails, each class initiates the signing of that contract with no prompting from me. It’s a beautiful thing to know that they WANT to act and sign the contract that THEY helped create. The more involvement and choice students have in what they do in our classrooms, the more investment they have in what they are working to create. Giving them the opportunity to have a say in what our classroom expectations are allows them to have that investment.

Team building is so important to me and my classroom environment because if we don’t feel like a team, if the students don’t feel welcome and safe, they will never hear one word of anything I need to teach them the rest of the year. A positive relationship is the best foundation for the rest of the year to be built upon.

Conferring

Flexible seating 2Yes, we confer to learn what books they like and guide them in their writing, but we also need to use it to build our relationship. Conferring during the first week (sometimes two) of school is simply “get to know you” conferring. I ask about reading and writing but I also want to know about the person behind the face and name that I will spend all year with. I write with them and they learn about me, then I confer with them about what they’ve written about their own lives.

Allowing our students to get to know us is just as important as us getting to know them. We need to let them see us in the struggle of writing; that’s why modeling what we ask them to do is so important. We need to let them know if we might be having a bad day and let them know it’s their turn to show the teacher some grace, like we show them each day. It’s a swaying tightrope that requires an immense amount of balance through a necessary obstacle if we want our students to become great readers and writers.

When students see their teacher taking the time to notice specifics about their personal life, not just the way they read or write, it creates a trust and willingness to be vulnerable and authentic in their writing. A simple, “I am so happy you shared!” or, “I am sorry to see that you felt this way and hope you never do again” can really allow them to feel like a wanted soul in your classroom, especially when you have 32+ students in one class period and they feel like just a number.

Affirmation and Validation

flexible seating 1These kids need to hear the words from us, spoken aloud, that tell them, “I care about you.” We can assume they know but hearing it out loud is necessary to their belief in that feeling. Sometimes a simple, “Hey! I care about you guys! Have a great rest of the day!” is something that will make a kids day turn around. Some of these precious souls that come through my door each day don’t see an adult figure, or one that is a positive role model, outside of this school. I need to be that for them. If I’m not, then who?

Validation is what they need to feel like they matter, that they are worthy, in order to move into a creative space and explore themselves as readers and writers. Yes, there are probably a million things we could critique about their writing, BUT we need to remember to build them up or they will never have the motivation to create at all. Validating and affirming that they are on the right track through conferring, notes, and blessings is a good way to do this. Starting with the positive and ending with encouragement. Giving them a positive end note can help them become motivated to dive back into a piece and create that authentic masterpiece. If we don’t work to make our students feel welcome, they will never hear what we want to teach them.

SPACE

Alternative seating  –  Five years ago I began my adventure of flexible seating. I have not had one moment of regret ever since. I am so glad I chose to push back against the fear of change, the “norm” in classrooms, and power through to what I have created now.

As you enter my room, you will see a space that ditches that harsh fluorescent lighting and replaces it with soft, warm lighting from lamps and stranded garden lights. You will notice that there are very few desks and many bean bags to sink into. There are two couches that will call to you and beg to be used. There are two bistro tables at standing height for those of us who need to stand in moments of writing to get our energy out. There are saucer chairs to hug you through those difficult pieces of reading and writing. My coffee tables are the perfect height for the “floor sitters,” like me, and accompanying floor pillows. There is also a beautiful, whimsical bench that my husband crafted (he also made the bistro tables with his talents – I might keep him around for a while). The atmosphere is welcoming and inviting, nurturing creativity.

When I first decided to bring in these seating alternatives, it was because I asked myself how I prefer to learn and WHY that space looks the way it does for me. The why is so, so important and gave me direction for which to take my classroom. Why do we need to create a comfortable space for students to create and learn in? The answer was simple. As an adult, I prefer to learn or read or write or create in a space filled with pillows or bean bags. One day I might want to sit on the couch, or, for days when I am really concentrating and creating (like while writing this blog) I prefer to sit on the floor with a coffee table as a desk, where I can spread out. So, as an adult, if I prefer this, I knew for sure my students would appreciate the option of getting to sit in the way they prefer, too. Feeling comfortable in a space provides us with the opportunity to open up all of our senses and focus on the creating of a piece or escaping into a novel. Giving them the opportunity to choose their space in my room is crucial to their development as readers and writers.

Flexible seating does not mean traditional desks are trashed and burned. Students use all the flexible seating, including the traditional desks. Some even move up to a traditional desk in moments of deep thinking or creating. Most of this seating you see in our classroom was free, donated or built. I only purchased the three saucer chairs and large futon from an online garage sale app. This is 5 years of accumulating different seating, so if you are inspired to start using flexible seating, know that it will take some time and always look for those deals! Even spending what you can spare on a simple cushion for the floor will be worth it.

I often get asked many questions when I talk about flexible seating. I think the biggest one is, “How do you get them to behave so well?!” Our flexible seating expectations are a topic we discuss while creating our classroom contract. It is important to voice your expectations at the beginning, just like any other classroom expectation. One of my expectations is that if students are debating on who gets to sit in a certain spot, they will decide calmly and compromise on who gets to sit in the seat that day, then switch the next day. Another important expectation that I make very clear is that it is their responsibility to maintain their focus while in the flexible seating. If they talk to their friends, sleep or just don’t complete the task at hand, they need to practice responsibility and make the decision to place themselves in a successful space. Some kids may need a reminder of this responsibility, but I rarely have to intervene when it comes to this. I think you will be pleasantly surprised at how much responsibility our students will take on when we give them the opportunity to have more responsibility through choice.

My students are free to choose how and where they sit, to learn and create in the way that fits them best. That choice gives them so much ownership of their own learning! And, isn’t that what we need to provide; more responsibility and ownership when it comes to their learning? Giving them a choice is how we provide them with that opportunity; in what they read, what they write and HOW they learn. When we establish the relationships with our students that allow them to feel comfortable in the vulnerability that is attached to what they share and write, when we give them the opportunity to take their learning into their own hands by giving them choice, they become literate, engaged, empathetic contributors to our world. They become readers and writers. Our students have stories to tell, and we need to guide them and give them the skills to tell them through the relationships and space we create for them.

Sarah Roy is currently singing songs from The Greatest Showman nonstop and wondering what took her so long to finally take her nose out of a book and watch those 105 minutes of greatness. She is enjoying spending time in her students work and seeing the potential that they have to create greatness in her class this year. Sarah is also seeking out her next read but enjoying reading all the informational books about salamanders with her eldest son, Crosby.

How We Built our First 3 Weeks of Workshop

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Look at Sarah’s room!

A classroom built around flexible seating is amazing for kids building their literacy.  Comfy chairs, tall stools, and bean bags take a student out of a “classroom” mindset and into a creative work space that encourages ideas to flow across boundaries that might have been impermeable with rows and rows of sterile desks.

It works just as well for teachers building a workshop from thin air. You can imagine how comfortable that tan couch felt on the last Friday morning before the start of school.

Sitting in that room for this much anticipated planning session felt as comfortable as if I’d been there for a decade.  Five teachers with a singular focus gathered their resources and experience to put together a plan that was student focused and built on the foundation of workshop.   I got to know this group well at the Literacy Institute but I’m still trying to learn the full extent of their individual and collective power.

It is important, on our team, to be intentional and explicit with our lesson design.  The kids should know exactly what we are doing and why we are doing it.  They should recognize the moves their teachers make and take comfort that those moves were selected specifically for them. There is no reason to keep the “why” and the “how” a secret.

On this team, we typically build lessons with an eye towards a learning focus that starts with something like: I want you to know that readers/writers ….. do something. (Thanks Amy, Billy, and the Lit Institute.)

For the first three weeks, though, we talked about using: I want you to know that members of a Reader/Writer Workshop….do…one of the six pillars.  You get it.

Our curriculum documents, designed by teachers, contain a section devoted to the six routines of workshop instruction and the following are the routines around which we built lessons:

The Reader’s/Writer’s Notebook

Lesson Focus: I want you to know that members of this Reader’s/Writer’s workshop use a notebook to explore thier literacy.

Our “notebooks” look very different teacher-to-teacher.  Some of our classes will use traditional composition notebooks and some will use Microsoft OneNote in our explorations.  Either way, the point of having a safe and personal place to plan, draft, revise, reflect, etc. remains consistent across our classes.  Its not enough for us to ask the kids to have a notebook, they need to know the importance of having it.  Some of the kids struggled with following my set-up instructions because they were intentionally vague.

Student: “Mr. Moore, what categories do you want us to use to track our reading this year?”

Me: “That’s up to you.  Its your notebook.”

Self-Selected Independent Reading:

Lesson Focus: I want you to know that members of this Reader’s/Writer’s workshop take ownership of their reading and writing experiences.

I remember back to last year, and how much the kids struggled genuinely connecting to a book. Maybe it was the hurricane sitting out in the Gulf or that they really only had one year of workshop leading up to their senior year.  What ever it was, we worked hard to take ownership of our reading, so much so that I wrote about it here and here. (Looking back at those words is like seeing the words of a different writer, but I digress…)

Mentor Texts:

Lesson Focus: I want you to know that members of this Reader’s/Writer’s workshop use mentor texts to guide their learning.

We use mentor texts to teach kids how to read and write like a writer. The students need to know that we looking at the writing of others with specific intentions in mind. Its important to delineate the separate lenses of craft and content and constantly reinforce the importance and interconnection of both.

We planned for ways to write beside them.  When I write in front of my students it invites them to connect to a writer from their community.  This connection is between a student and a person that shakes their hand every day and smiles when they make eye contact. That’s an incredibly deep connection and one that I’ll leverage every chance I get.

Mini-Lessons:

Lesson Focus: I want you to know that members of this Reader’s/Writer’s workshop look at specific skills that we want to learn and then apply those skills to their reading and writing.

The skills we choose to highlight are intentional and our students need to understand that they aren’t chosen at random.  Not only that, but we aren’t going to spend more than a few minutes in our mini-lessons before we move back into reading and writing, with an emphasis on those specific skills.

Collaboration:

Lesson Focus: I want you to know that members of this Reader’s/Writer’s workshop listen to others share and provide feedback that supports their growth.

I can’t teach all 30 of them all the time and maintain any level of effectiveness.  We have to build a supportive community that  allows me to widen the feedback cycle from one, typically confident student, to 30 who are confident to share with their confidants. They need to know that the days of me asking a question and calling on one person for the answer are far behind us.  We practice the routine over and over. Ask a question, discuss in group.  Ask a question, practice their thinking through written response. Rinse/Repeat.

Oh, and they have to be trained not to shoot up their hands or shout out an answer when they are asked to notice something.  Instead, they will learn to sit in the silence and let their thinking wash over them in waves. Or maybe the metaphor is to peel back the layers of their thinking like an onion. Whichever you prefer.

Conferring:

Lesson Focus: I want you to know that members of this Reader’s/Writer’s workshop take advantage of opportunities to talk one-on-one with the expert in the room.

The importance of regular one-on-one conferences can not be understated. I’m not just “checking-in” on them while they read and write.  I’m digging into their thinking for places I can provide support.  We will explain to our students how important it is for them to be honest and open when we confer.  They can’t hold back due to nervousness or fear. Like Jerry Maquire said, “Help me, help you!!!” with that typically creepy look on his face.

 

Based on our planning sessions, impromptu secret meetings, and the genuine happiness in which we approach each other, I know this year will be my best ever and it is because of the work this team will do together to move our freshman class forward in their literacy.

Now, in all seriousness, lets cross our fingers and hope nature and fate don’t hit us with the same intensity as last year.  We all need time to heal a little more.  Let’s do it together.

Charles Moore had a quiet Friday night and went to all four of his son’s soccer games this weekend.  He passed El Deafo by Cece Miller back and forth with his daughter this weekend.  He put more than two thousand words to the page this weekend between his grad classes and this blog post; a new record.  He can’t wait to get back into the classroom Monday morning and learn alongside the students.  And he wishes you the same happiness he’s enjoying right now. Visit him on twitter or instagram.

 

 

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