Category Archives: Conferring

The Trouble with Grading by Abigail Lund

I sit down at my desk. It’s the end of quarter 3 and it’s time for the dreaded report cards — the time where I average the homework grades, find missing assignments, and vigorously come up with something to say. My computer flickers on and my online gradebook comes to life. It happily tells me many students are receiving A’s and B’s and then, as if it is the Ghost of Christmas Past, the dreaded F appears. John Doe: English Language Arts Quarter 3: F. I stare blankly at the screen.

This very moment I had been dreading the whole quarter. What does this F tell me about John Doe? Does it say how much he’s improved in reading over the quarter? Does it say if he knows how to compare two texts or write an introduction to an opinion writing piece? More so, does it tell me about his cooperation with others and his big heart?


A year ago this is how I graded, this vicious, unnerving cycle of grading. Then I found Twitter. Twitter is a beautiful tool, and after a bit of digging I realized that there were other classrooms out there that were gradeless (an amazing Twitter community for all of this is Teachers Going Gradeless; @TG2chat). I wasn’t the only crazy person – so I took the plunge.  The past seven months of a gradeless classroom has changed my perspective and gives my John Does a fighting chance

Gradeless doesn’t mean a lack of assessment. It means giving students an opportunity for success through practice, voice, and self-reflection. A gradeless classroom is multi-faceted and is constantly changing.

In my experience, it offers students more practice, collaboration, observation, conferring, and gives more time to accomplish what I, as a teacher, was asking for previously. Gradeless classrooms take the pressure off of points and focuses on learning and growth (which happens for kids at different times). According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), researchers concluded that “after around four hours of homework per week, the additional time invested in homework has a negligible impact on performance.” This very fact was the first step into my gradeless classroom. As teachers, our time is often consumed with grading endless amounts of homework in hopes that our kids will average a decent score at the end of the quarter, but with my gradeless classroom I spend my time on more things of value.

When I finally had this mind shift, I allowed for more student reflection on work, which has a positive affect, and I eliminated graded homework. Previously I spent a lot of time assessing students’ homework. When I decided to move to gradeless I moved more towards rubrics and conferencing, which naturally moved away from homework. Students reflect on the work they have done. Through reflection and rating of their understanding, I am able to confer with them more effectively during our conferencing and small group times – far more than homework ever did.

images.jpgBy ditching homework students have more opportunity for self-reflection and practice without the pressure of having every piece of their work graded. Students take more risks and ask more questions, because there isn’t the fear of failure. For example, student practice work and homework becomes less about getting the right answer and more about the exploration of the process. In the day to day students are meeting in small groups, reflecting on learning using rubrics, and analyzing strong mentor models.

Eventually, as the learning processes unfold, I formally measure students’ understanding through using my State’s standards: student exceeds standard, meets the standards, or does not meet the standard. This assessment occurs after students have had ample time to ask how they need to improve and what they need to learn. There isn’t a specific algorithm for when this assessment occurs, but by meeting with students weekly you will get a strong sense of what your students know and how you can push them towards meeting the standard.

When I started caring LESS about the percentage and MORE about my students learning, I began to let go of control. Gradeless means more attention to detail. As a teacher, I am able to observe student work and evaluate it with a greater purpose in mind. When evaluating, I use standards based grading, which is district initiative. This lends itself greatly to my gradeless classroom because it eventually assesses students on skills and not percentage based scales. Standards-based and gradeless are not synonymous but are blended very easily. If you are thinking about going gradeless, standards based is a route you may want to go, but there are other avenues as well.

This can also be done by creating standards-based rubrics and face-to-face conversations for assessment. It allows for my students to work through projects together to begin with, and after gaining confidence, they often being to soar through the second quarter. Through this gradual release, I am able to create lessons that are multi-faceted and allow students to know what I am expecting, the standards, and how to achieve them.

Some questions come to mind

What will my report cards say if my district isn’t like yours and has percentage based grading?

An encouraging word I was gradeless before my district moved this way. Unfortunately when it comes to report cards you will have to average your students’ work. However, this doesn’t have to be done in the traditional sense of a composite score of homework, assessments, and projects. This can be done with observation notes, through assessing what your students really DO know, and using your knowledge of your students to grade them fairly.

How do you keep track of your students’ progress?

In my classroom I have my students send their work via Google-classroom. This gives me a portfolio of work to draw from when I am assessing with our standards. My students are rated on a 1-4 scale (1: not progressing 2: progressing with guidance 3: grade-level achievement 4: achieving above grade-level). Also students rate themselves on their understanding weekly. I am able to pull from those examples to compile an understanding of where my students’ understanding is.

How did I explain this to my students’ parents?

For the most part my parents were very much on board when I decided to go gradeless, this was probably because we were also going to standards based grading scales, which was a district decision that they communicated to parents. I was very upfront at the beginning of the year, explaining the gradeless philosophy, and had a lot of support from my parents.  With a gradeless classroom I believe that I am talking more to my students than I ever did before, and this translates to home as well. Keeping an open conversation going about student progress keeps parents happy, whether it is concerning grades or not.

Going gradeless is an ever-changing, flexible way of teaching. This isn’t perfection but what in education is? My hope is that my classroom would be a place where students can explore, desire education, and create. My greatest desire is that my students would be known and their ideas & thoughts would be validated. The place I have chosen to start is to know my kids by name and not by a letter.

Abigail Lund teaches 4th grade ELA and math to her fabulous kiddos in Cincinnati. She loves coffee about as much as her husband and cat… and is a self-proclaimed lifetime learner. Catch up with daily happenings and ramblings on Twitter @mrsablund.

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Growing Writers: Making Use of Student Mentors

My mentee Sarah, a new-to-the-district teacher in the midst of an intense co-teaching experience (where on an average day seven adults supported thirty students with an expanding continuum of needs), was filling me in on the narrative her students would be drafting. Support for students while drafting is critical. Sarah’s students would need questions answered, ideas suggested, and gentle encouragement: just-in-time support. Which is why I blurted out, “We should see if the AP Lit. kids will help!”.

Why AP Lit. kids? Why not?! By the time they reach AP Literature in our building, these students have completed two advanced English courses and a college level composition course (AP Language). Skilled, these students know what good writing looks like and how to produce it. But more than that, the AP Lit. kids could be–as Shana coined and Amy embellished on–living mentor texts.  

As living mentor texts, the AP Lit. kids’ stories differ from the current story of this particular classroom and the many stories of the students in it; the AP Lit. students are further along the learning journey. No one would be comparing the writing generated by Sarah’s students to these mentors, and there’s comfort–safety–in that. 

I did worry a little, though. While our AP Lit. students successfully provide feedback for writers in the advanced sophomore course, routinely mentoring them, I didn’t know how this would translate to a co-taught classroom. Would our living mentor texts help the sophomores optimize their skills and ultimately their stories as writers? 

Steps of the Experience

Before escorting the seniors to Sarah’s room, I briefed them on the parameters of the narrative writing assignment. After coaching the seniors to listen, paraphrase, question, ask to look at the writing, offer suggestions, and celebrate strengths, we headed to Sarah’s classroom. Following introductions, the seniors began moving about the room, neatly engaging the sophomores in conversation about their writing, inviting them to story-tell. Of course, my worry was needless. 

 

Reflections on the Outcome

Sarah certainly saw the power of their interactions:

“I saw my students open up so much more. Students who were nervous or uncertain about asking me questions or getting feedback were so much more willing to talk to peers. The students seemed to look up to these upperclassmen. Even if the seniors said the same thing I did as a teacher, the students took the senior’s perspective so seriously and really engaged with the process fully. Even if it was only a few minute conversations, the students really appreciated having someone who could check in with them right away. A lot of the base level questions could be answered more efficiently since there were more “experts” to share. Especially in a large class of 30 like mine was, it is hard for the teacher to get to spend quality time each student. This allowed for more contact time with each student.”

When Sarah later collected her students’ reflections on what type of feedback they found most helpful for their narrative essay, so many noted their living mentor texts.

“The AP people helped a lot. They just were there when I needed help or was stuck.”

“The peer mentors helped me see where I could transition or use better words.”

“Having an upperclassman helped me see how other people might do the essay which helped me think of new ways to write.”

“The AP students were new eyes and that helped me get over my writer’s block.”

“I liked that other students from another class saw my paper. It wasn’t pressure like a teacher grading but I still got feedback.”

Wanting to know what impact being a living mentor text had on the senior volunteers, I asked them to reflect on the experience.

Emily felt both “inspired to stop taking her English skills so lightly” and “inspired to use [her skills] to their full potential.”

Claire noted that “[the students] seemed really appreciative of [her] help, and seemed like they really wanted to talk about their writing. In helping and talking to them, [she] realized that [she does] have the ability to be a writer.”

Kyler reflected that “[t]he goal is getting students to revise and revise until they feel they’ve created something great. The smiles that came across some students’ faces when [he] told them [he] loved a part of a sentence or a comparison were fulfilling…The world of writing is something [he] really enjoy[s], and to share that joy by helping others consider the impact they can have is always a joyful experience.”

Screen Shot 2018-04-14 at 10.21.43 PMWhile Sarah and I loved the story of her classroom those two days, we experienced less success the next attempt. But we’ll try again. We’ll schedule the AP Lit. students more specifically, we’ll partner students according to need, we’ll invite the AP Lit. mentors to support the sophomores throughout the writing process. We’ll even explore digital mentoring through Google Docs. Sarah’s optimistic that increased access to our living mentor texts would increase confidence in her writers, helping them to grow. And, I am too.

Next Steps

 

IMG_1718

Ap Lit. students work with Honors II sophomores. Also pictured my teaching partner Amanda who teaches AP Lit. and one of my mentors Ann who first began the practice of AP Lang. and AP Lit. students mentoring honors students. 

My fellow AP and advanced teachers plan to expand the current mentoring as well. AP Lit. students and AP Lang. students will continue to guide our advanced sophomores; yet starting next fall we hope our advanced sophomores will mentor our advanced ninth graders (who are in different buildings). What a way to use writing to  foster connection!

 

I know there are exceptional peer writing tutor programs out there. But in these times of budget cuts and burgeoning class sizes, tapping into resources like Emily, Claire, Kyler, and the others who serve without expectation of reward is powerful. Many of the students–mentors and mentees–recognized the value in the stories of others and in their own. Their perspectives on writing, on others, and on themselves shifted, ever just so slightly.

It’s a small way to change the world. Or at least grow writers.

Kristin Jeschke teaches AP Language and Composition and College Prep seniors at Waukee High School in Waukee, Iowa. She loves when her former students eagerly volunteer their services for the underclassmen yet upstream, and she loves serving as mentor to her two favorite mentees, Abbie and Sarah. Follow her on Twitter @kajeschke. 

Formative Assessment Works!!!

For those of you who haven’t taught Seniors, trust me on this:  Formative assessment during the second semester is challenging.

If you’ve taught seniors, then you might understand where I’m coming from:  Sometimes it’s hard to tell if they aren’t grasping a concept, or they are just too tired of school to have the energy to engage.

I hurts my heart to even consider that my precious learners are worried about bigger issues than Comparative Literary Analysis essays or finding examples of bias in their self-selected texts.  Prom looms five days away and graduation seven weeks after that.  They work, they compete in extra curriculars, they deal with the adults and peers in their lives.  I forget, sometimes, that their plates are filled with important thoughts.  I remind myself I’m not doing their stress levels any favors by point out that we still have important work to do before June 2nd.

Last Monday we reviewed an excerpt from Niel Schusterman’s Thunderhead as a mentor text for practicing literary analysis through all the lenses that should be crystal clear to these literate learners.  I needed to assess their understanding and thinking so that I could make decisions about the instruction leading up to the summative assessment.  That’s the point of formative assessment; to “form” a plan for instruction.

I read the short selection with them, and asked them if they would, please, mark their thinking on this first lap through the text.  They should, as they’ve done many times before, underline or highlight what they noticed about the words the author chose through the lenses of diction, bias, author’s purpose…literally anything they noticed within the realm of literary analysis. It’s the last nine weeks of their public education career. They should be able to look at a text through a variety of lenses.

Some of them made some marks on the page while others wrote notes next to highlighted lines or words.  Others, though, marked nothing.  [Alarms wiggle and stir in my head. Something’s not right.]

I asked them to share within their groups what they noticed.  Muted whispers of ethos, tone, and metaphor struggled out of some groups, but again, most said very little.  Very few connections were being made. For them and for me, the picture was as clear as mud. This, by itself, is important formative assessment. This wasn’t working. [Def Con 55- Full tilt klaxons at maximum volume!]

Yet, I refuse to blame them.  I fully believe that it is solely on me, the teacher, to facilitate engagement with the text.  Somehow I need to do a better job inviting them to take all those useful tools out of their tool belts and dissect this very meaningful text.

New England Patriots at Washington Redskins 08/28/09

I bear a striking resemblance to Tom Brady.  Photo by Keith Allison

In football parlance, I needed to call an audible in the middle of the game. What I had hoped they would do; they won’t or can’t.  It’s time for me to jump in and scaffold this concept to a place where they can see the connections they can make and I can assess their thinking.  I’m not going to put them in a position to fail on the summative assessment if I know they aren’t ready for it.

In a whole class mode, I read over the text, mark what I notice and verbalize my analysis.

Now I ask them to talk about what they notice.  There it is…an increase in discussion, an inflation in dialogue. The alarm volume turns down a notch, but it doesn’t turn off.

I wrap the class period up with an invitation to write about what moves the author is making and as they do I confer with a few students who seem completely flabbergasted.  The bell tolls, signaling an end to their literary torture session.

 

Thus was the source of my salvation:

book

I only saunter.

Jumping into this book reminded me of a few important tenets of writing instruction that I let myself forget:

  1. Give them choice- I was allowing no choice in the subject of their analysis.  I know better than to restrict their reading and writing experiences and I let my, and their, end of the year exhaustion affect my decision making.
  2. Show them, not tell them, what you want to assess.  I wasn’t showing them examples of literary analysis and again, I know better.  I was expecting, wrongly, that Senior English students would confidently engage in literary analysis and move forward with their thinking in a way that shows me they can write a response in essay form.

After school, I tore up my lessons plans for the next four days and re-wrote them to reflect what I SHOULD do to support my students in this exploration.

On page 5 of their amazing new book Marchetti and O’Dell introduce a mentor text written by Joe Fassler from The Atlantic.  His recurring series “By Heart” is a collection of responses from a diverse group of thinkers and writers and is an amazing resource.  A simple Google search returned a link to this series of essays. I scanned the list of the titles and discovered an article from September titled, “What Writers Can Learn From Goodnight Moon.”   In it, Celeste Ng describes her feelings of the children’s book and how it “informs” her writing.

Perfecto!!!

This checked so many of the boxes of what I was looking for in a mentor text.  And…I get to read a children’s book to “big” kids.  I know enough about my students to know they will love this.

Also, I used Marchetti and O’Dell’s five part descriptions of literary analysis on pages 11 and 12 to create a glue-in anchor chart for their readers’/writers’ notebooks that helped to clarify what exactly we should look for when reading and writing literary analysis.

Confidence restored! Disaster averted… kind of.

We Ng’s reflection and discussed how this was a perfect example of literary analysis.  They asked questions, we laughed about Goodnight Moon.  I saw their confidence grow and I knew we were back on track and ready to move toward our essay.

Thursday, we started the drafts and I hope to see many of them tomorrow.

Being responsive and intentional is a crucial part of the workshop pedagogy.  I can’t stress enough how this one piece can make our break my teaching.  My lesson planning skills have finally reached the point where I plan for and anticipate opportunities to change up what we are doing to match what the students need. This was an opportunity for which I hadn’t planned, but we made the adjustment and made it work.

Sometimes, that’s how it goes.

Let me know in the comments below when you’ve had to make big changes on the fly to support your students’ learning. I know I can’t be the only one.

Charles Moore is neck deep in Children of Blood and Bone.  He’s spending the day taking his daughter to school and then having lunch with her.  It might be the best day of his life.  His summer TBR list is growing uncontrollably; feel free to add to it in the comments.

A scaffold is a scaffold…

As a curriculum coordinator this time of the year gets blurry. I have begun to mold what our summer curriculum work will look like, so naturally I forget that it’s still the current school year and start thinking and feeling like we’ve already moved into next year. A question that I’m going to pose to our grade level curriculum writers is this: what are we going to do differently next year than we did this year? How are we going to continue moving down our path of becoming a workshop district? It’s hard. What do teachers need? Support? Resources? A scaffold? A scaffold!

When we teach our students complex or multi-step skills we break them down, right? Make it more digestible. Isn’t it the same when it comes to teachers implementing workshop in a classroom? Scaffolding workshop implementation expectations make implementation manageable and sustainable.

Maybe this is the time you flag this post and come back to it in May or June when your school year actually ends. Or, ask yourself what went well this year, and what you can do next year to make it even better for your students.

Best advice I received and try to share is this: be okay with organic or grass-roots growth. Just let it happen. Not everything needs to happen at once, or even in one semester, or in one year. I know that’s difficult to hear, especially for English teachers, but take a deep breath and repeat after me…it’s okay to go slow.

So, how do you add one more layer of workshop into your English classroom?

1.What “workshoppy” things do you already do? 

As a district team, we began with a list of “workshop” things. Teachers circled what they were already doing in their classroom and then chose ONE thing to commit to trying in the upcoming semester.

Our list included: Independent Reading, Independent Writing, Conferring, Mini-Lesson, Grammar Instruction, Vocabulary, Structure, Classroom Library, Balanced Literacy Model, Small Group Instruction, Notebooks, Share Time, Collaboration, Mentor Texts, Classroom Culture/Community, Goal Setting, Assessment

What I saw and heard is that our English teachers are already doing a lot. So when it comes to being a workshop teacher give yourself slack, give yourself grace, and give yourself credit. YOU are already doing great things for your students.

2. Where do you start?

I think you have to start by asking yourself what you believe and why you believe that. Shana wrote about some must reads for teachers considering workshop and for me personally this was a great place to start. I bought and read the books she shared. Amy shared a post: Citing the Research That Drives Your Practice. I read it and nodded, a lot. Then I dove in to what I thought my district could do.

⇒ Two key things: the first is independent reading

Our district was able to bring Amy Rasmussen and Lisa Dennis in for two days last summer (repeating this summer) where they shared and defined workshop with about 50 teachers. It was magical to say the least. My big takeaway was how important independent reading is within a workshop classroom. Because of that, we began asking teachers to incorporate 50 minutes of in class reading per week (break it up however you want/however it fits your classroom routine/structure).

I recently went to a PD led by Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher where they shared their new book 180 Days which reinforced the work we’ve been doing. No surprise, I immediately bought the book and cannot WAIT to finish it and talk to all the people about it. In the book they share a chart regarding independent reading which shows that if students add basically no outside reading to their routine, but add 10 minutes per day in class (or 50 minutes per school week) they are able to increase their word exposure by 556%! Is there an easier way to increase word exposure than this? <– that’s rhetorical, of course. 😉

⇒ The second key is conferring. 

Same training with Penny and Kelly; I’m immersed in taking notes when Kelly begins to talk about why they sit down beside kids to talk with them about their reading and writing. At this point, I was so engaged that I stopped taking notes mid-sentence and just soaked it all in. So, please no judgement on this sure to be mis-quote. Kelly said something to the effect of conferencing doing more and telling you more than anything else can: it’s 1:1 teaching, it’s a response to intervention, it building relationships, and above all it tells you what kids know and what they don’t know. Wow! No program or worksheet or multiple choice test can give you all of those things.

3.Where do you go next?

If you’re not a part of a campus or district where workshop is an expectation or recommendation, start with your campus and/or district vision. What does your campus/district want the student learning experience to look like, and how does workshop instruction fit into that description? Keep digging into the Three Teachers Talk blog posts. There are so many different perspectives from all over the United States (and outside, too!).

And now, I leave this last nugget from the 180 Days PD with Penny and Kelly…

responsive teaching

If we are responsive to student’s needs they will be engaged in the work that we’re asking them to do. Maybe that means you start by incorporating choice in independent reading, or bring in relevant articles when studying nonfiction versus pulling out the same ‘ole file folder with the same ‘ole speech you do every year, or maybe it meanssitting beside students to talk about what they think.

With the end of the year rapidly approaching now is the time to really reflect on how this year went and what can be done better or different next year. What “workshoppy” thing do you want to try?

 

 

 

Why Workshop? Because Kids Deserve It!

When I first watched the Rita Pierson TED Talk titled Every Kid Needs a Champion, I found myself shouting, “Yes! This lady gets it!”  Our job is to help kids feel connected at school- to ensure that kids feel safe and taken care of while also giving them the best educational experience possible.  This TED Talk catapulted me into thinking- How Screen Shot 2018-03-07 at 10.40.19 AMcan we do things even better? How can we reach more kids?  How can we ensure that every student feels connected to their school and their teacher? Don’t misunderstand me- I work with the best teachers around, who love kids and are passionate about the work they are doing in their classrooms.  However, we can always do more and get better, right?

I am a high school administrator, that is lucky enough to work with the English department.  We serve almost 3,000 students on a daily basis. It’s my job to ensure that every kid has a champion, someone they trust and feel has their best interest at heart.  It’s also my job to ensure that we are providing the best educational experience possible for our students because our students deserve that. James Comer said, “No significant learning can occur without a significant relationship.”  That’s where the workshop model comes in. The workshop model provides us with the opportunity to give students choice in what they read and an authentic environment to write about things that hold value to them. It provides an avenue for our teachers to get to know students on a deeper, more personal level because students are ingrained in work that matters to them.  Teachers are able to work one-on-one with students through reading and writing conferences. Teachers are able to have in depth conversations over current events through philosophical chairs and classroom debates. Students talk about what they’re reading on a daily basis. Students improve their writing because they have great mentor texts and a teacher who is writing with them and modeling writing for them.  In short, we know our kids better because we have implemented the workshop model.  We are also able to teach all the skills we need to through choice reading and providing authentic writing opportunities for our students.

I love Amy Rasmussen’s blog post, So You Don’t Think Workshop Works?  5 Reasons You are Wrong, because she makes key points about why the workshop model can and does work in classrooms everywhere.  I found that as we made the shift away from a more traditional classroom structure to the workshop model, we encountered some people that questioned its effectiveness and its validity.  Some questioned how it would impact our state testing scores (they’ve gone up and we are closing the gaps for our students), some questioned whether students would actually be reading and learning the required TEKS in our classes (they definitely do and on an even deeper level than before), some questioned whether or not you could teach a PreAP or AP class through the workshop model (I see it happen on a daily basis).  It’s important to know your why and your purpose. When you know and believe that the workshop model is what is best for students, because of the positive impact it has for them both academically and relationally, it’s easy to defend.

As the workshop model has become more pervasive, and people notice the positive results happening within our department and in our district, we have received lots of requests for campus visits (which we love!), and I get asked quite often about how and why we made the shift to the workshop model in our department.  I thought I’d share my top tips for implementing and sustaining the workshop model in hopes that it helps you carry on the great work.

  1. Teammates.  You need a team of people who “get it” and believe that building student relationships is the key to success in education.  You need a team that understands workshop and why it’s essential in the English classroom, or at least a team that is willing to learn.  Hiring and retaining the best teachers around will help make your workshop thrive.  If you have an administrator, or teachers, that don’t understand the value, send them the Three Teachers Talk blog!  Point them towards professional authors such as Kyleen Beers, Penny Kittle, Jeff Anderson, Donalyn Miller, Kelly Gallagher, etc.  Have them attend conferences so that they are able to immerse themselves in the work.  Take them on learning walks so they can see it in action, or utilize technology to view workshop from afar.  It has been my experience that you have to see it in action to truly understand the work.  You need to talk to students to understand the impact it is having on their educational experience.
  2. Professional Learning Communities.  Whether you have a team of 6, 3 or 1, PLCs play an essential role in getting the workshop up and running and then also sustaining the workshop model.  Teachers need to collaborate with others. We need to talk about the work we are doing, how our students are doing, what engages them, and even what frustrates them.  We have to learn from each other.  At my school, we team within our school, our district, and even with teachers in other districts.  Additionally, I love blogs and Twitter and consider them a vital part of my learning community. I strongly encourage you to connect with as many people as you can while you are navigating the wonderful world of workshop.
  3. Conferring. Andrea Coachman, a Three Teachers Talk guest blogger and also the English Content Coordinator in my district, wrote a post about Accountability Through Conversation which details our district’s journey of implementing the workshop through one of the most Screen Shot 2018-03-08 at 5.47.07 PMimportant aspects- talking with our students.  This area was a big learning curve for us.  The tendency is to think that having a teacher table or holding daily student conferences is an elementary concept, but in reality it’s what’s best for students at all levels.  The teachers I work with would say that conferencing with students has been a game changer.  They know their students strengths and weaknesses in reading and writing better than before, and they are able to target specific skills that each student needs.
  4. Money. Every school allots a certain amount of budget money to each department.  It really doesn’t matter if it’s a lot or a little, but you need to commit to spending your budget money on professional development for teachers and also books!  Teachers must have the training they need to run the workshop. It’s always a good idea to send them to professional development where they can learn from the experts. My teachers always come back and share with the department, so we all benefit from their learning.   If money is an issue, apply for grants and scholarships to help teachers attend professional development. There are also a plethora of professional books written to help teachers with workshop- check out 10 Pedagogical Must-Reads for Workshop Teachers.  Another important component of the workshop is having classroom libraries; they are a key component because our students must have a selection of books to choose from.  We have been lucky that our Media Resource Specialist has purchased many of our classroom libraries.  However, our teachers are also great about adding to their own libraries as well.
  5. GRIT.  Angela Duckworth wrote Grit which examines why some people fail and others succeed.  She defines grit as a combination of passion and perseverance for a singularly important goal.  It takes a lot of work to get the workshop up and running because the teacher is creating mini lessons based on their students needs, helping students find choice books, modeling writing with mentor texts, and conferencing with students.  We are in year 3 of implementation and are still learning and adjusting each day.  It’s a marathon, not a sprint.  

Workshop works and it’s worth it.  At 7:30 AM this morning, I was on hall duty, and a group of students came walking by, and said, “I love starting my day with English class.  It’s so fun- we read, we write, and we talk about it all. My teacher is the best! It’s the best way to start the day.”

 

How to Confer Like a Ninja

NinjaConferring.

We all know it is the true Special Sauce in the workshop classroom.  Without conferring, it’s just Silent Sustained Reading, which ironically does little-to-nothing to actually SUSTAIN READERS.

However, we also all know #teacherlife.  When we get into the thick of things, it’s easy to lose our groove when it comes to consistently and effectively conferring with students about their reading lives. (Writing lives matter, too, but that’s another post.)

So, enter my new tutorial, How to Confer Like a Ninja.  I know many of you are imagining me in something resembling an all-black suit and stealthily skulking around whispering, “What are you reading? Why’d you abandon that book?”  I hate to disappoint you, but my students know I’m anything but graceful.  I regularly trip over Chad’s backpack with his tennis racket sticking out the top.  That thing is a weapon of mass destruction.

Instead of the stealthiness of a ninja in terms of moving about the room, I’m going to teach you how to ask questions that students would NEVER even know are conferring questions!!

For all other ninja-moves, please see Coach Moore, or maybe Lisa, or Shana’s daughter Ruthie.  They seem–stealthy.

Anyway.

Here are my four favorite questions for conferring like a ninja:

  1. How’s it Going?  I could write an entire book on this question alone.  Lucky for me–and you–Carl Andersen already did.  This is a completely low-stakes question that leaves room for the student understanding that you respect them as a reader–even if they are a struggling one–rather than feeling like they’re in the middle of a spotlight and interrogation room situation.  Ninjas are nice.  Ninjas are welcoming.  Ninjas just want students to become readers.  (Okay, so my analogy is breaking down a bit, but stay with me.)
  2. What’d you think?  This one I usually pull out in the hallway when a student runs to me in between classes to tell me they finished a book.  I usually get one of three responses: 1) “I’ll have to tell you later, I don’t have enough time!” 2) “Eh, it was okay.” 3) “Ugh!  Mrs. Paxson, I’m so mad!!” All three of these are great because it gives you an entrance–like a ninja–into a larger conversation.  Yes, even the “eh” response is perfect ground for finding them their next great read.
  3. Would you recommend this to a friend?  The answer to this question tells a lot about the journey of a reader.  If they would recommend it to a friend, that means they really do like it and they would risk being ridiculed by said friend if they thought it was boring, weird, etc.  Students don’t often risk that for just anything.  Also, if you can get a student to recommend a great book to one of your holdouts, they are scientifically about 83% more likely to actually read that book.  Yep.  That’s right.  I said SCIENTIFICALLY.
  4. Would you read it again?  Okay, be careful with this one.  I can feel you getting a little eager over there, and you can’t just pull it out of nowhere.  This is the perfect question to test the true level of a book in a reader’s mind.  But, THAT’S the ticket.  This question is for readers.  I would not pull this question out at the beginning of the year, or with one of my reading holdouts.  If I asked one of those students this question, they would stare at me, appalled that I would suggest such a thing.  However, real readers re-read.  It’s a true test of love for a book.  So use this one sparingly, but it will allow you to examine if a reader liked a book, or truly developed an undying love and will miss the characters long after the fact.  Our biggest nemesis in workshop teaching is time, and everything else that is competing for it in our students’ lives.  If they volunteer the information that they would be willing to spend MORE time reading something they’ve ALREADY READ, that means we’ve got ’em.  Take that, cat videos on YouTube.

All of these questions are part of my favorite aspect of a workshop classroom–the in-between.  Its difficult to quantify the leaps and bounds made within any given reading and writing workshop, but don’t let that distract you from the magic of the inconspicuous–or some people call it “normal”–conversation.  Getting to know our students, their reading tendencies, and their journey is part of what shows them that we are different.  We care about teaching them how to learn instead of just what to learn, and we are willing to support them on that journey as often as we can.  Even in the hallways, in transition time, and everywhere in between.

Happy teaching!


Jessica Paxson teaches English IV, AP Lang, and Creative Writing in Arlington, TX.  She runs on coffee and exaggeration, a deadly combination at 7 in the morning. Her students frequently describe her as “an annoyingly cheerful person who thinks all her students can change the world.”  Yep, pretty much. 

Coffee spoons and Google forms – Measuring a Year

Five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred minutes.

Five hundred twenty five thousand moments so dear.

five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred minutes.

How do you measure,

Measure a year?”

Ah.. the opening lines of “Season of Love.” Go on, take a minute, and listen to it here. (Hi, young, pre-Frozen Idina Menzel! You’re amazing!) These lines -especially the “spoons of coffee”- have become so cliche, so tired, so parodied. Yet, even knowing all of that, those opening chords still tug at my heart. And I still find a little (ok, a lottle) truth and joy in the question the song poses: how do we measure a year?

For a teacher, of course, the question of why we measure anything is obvious: we need to know where we are so we know how far we need to go, where we need to go. So, the why is easy – we want our students to leave our classrooms as better readers, writers and thinkers, comfortable “playing” with ideas and using their own voices. However, the question of how we measure a year is a powerful one and, maybe, a more difficult one. How do we measure our successes? How do we measure our students’ growth as learners? How do we know that we’re making progress? How do we know what steps to take next?

Feedback is a big, recurring topic on 3TT. Here are some of ways feedback has been tackled on this site before: from Amy Estersohn, from Amy Rasmussen, from Lisa Dennis.

For me, the answer came in combining some National Writing Project best practices ideas with my love of Google Forms/Sheets. The result? Each week students are asked to use Google Forms to answer three questions based on a modified version of the writing project model of bless, press, address (BPA).

Now, BPA was  originally meant to guide students in asking for and giving advice when reading their peers’ writing. So, directions for BPA would like this in class:

Do you want your piece BLESSED, ADDRESSED, or PRESSED?

        o Bless: If you want your piece blessed, you’re not ready to hear criticism yet (however constructive it might be). You want only to hear about what’s working so far.

         o Address: If you have chosen the address option, what one problem or concern do you want your readers/audience to address? Be as specific as possible.

         o Press: You’re ready to hear constructive criticism and give the readers/audience the freedom to respond in any fashion. This, of course, can include “Bless” and “Address.”

However, I thought the questions would work well as a weekly thermometer of where my classes are, So I modified them to look like this:

  1. What are your positives from this week? (Bless)
  2. What concerns do you have about the ideas/skills we covered this week? (Address)
  3. Is there anything else I need to know? (Press)

Here’s what this looks like in my class. Every Friday I ask students to fill out the form (see what it looks like here). Google Forms automatically collates the data into a spreadsheet, and then a code I created allows me to email all 116 students about their responses individually from the spreadsheet. Easy, peasy, right?

The way this simple give and take has changed my classroom has been astonishing.

For example, here’s a response from a shy student:

Positive Concern Anything Else? My Response
I greatly enjoyed discussing a modest proposal in class and learning and discussing satires. I don’t think there is anything specific I need help with. I really enjoy satires, considering I am very sarcastic in all aspects of my life. Awesome. Keep up the good work. I appreciate you volunteering multiple times in class; I know that’s been a struggle this year.

This feedback allowed me to compliment a student who wouldn’t contribute to class discussions at the beginning of the year for contributing multiple times this week. Our entire conversation about her participation nerves and my suggestions happened via email. And, honestly, that reinforcement might never have happened in our day to day interactions in class. We would have wasted time frustrated with each other: I would have been frustrated that she wasn’t participating, she would have been frustrated because she wanted to participate but didn’t know how, and neither of us would have grown or moved forward.

The form also helps me adapt lesson plans to students’ needs more thoroughly. For example, here’s some feedback from last week’s in class timed practice:

      I need more practice connecting my sources in a timed synthesis writing because my essay felt very choppy when moving between sources.

      Not necessarily with this. I just need to work on doing everything quickly. I’m always running out of time.

      I don’t think I need help with that, I just need to pay attention to the clock more.

      Even though we talked about framing our evidence with our own voice, I struggled including warrant to frame the evidence in the synthesis due to the time limit. I know the warrant and “so what” of a claim are typically the most important parts and I know how to include them but I just never have the time so I tend to just skim a topic and move on so I can address all my points. What other part of my paper would be the best to shorten to leave time for warrant?

This feedback tells me that I need to spend a little time next week emphasizing the value of brainstorming before a timed write.

And what do the students think of the process? Here are a few thoughts:

      It’s nice to have an easy way to regularly discuss the issues as well as the positives with a teacher. Not often to teachers inquire about the good things the class is doing for you and your successes. I also enjoy hearing back from a teacher and feeling like my opinions and concerns are heard 🙂

      Also, I think especially in an environment like Central, students (myself included) are nervous to say they don’t understand things in class because they don’t want to look stupid, but weekly feedback makes it easier to get help.

       Some weeks, it doesn’t seem all that helpful, but others it helps me keep track of all that we have done in that week and keep track of what I need to focus on. It isn’t hard.

        It’s an interesting system. I’m running for governor for this upcoming YIG conference, and we’ve discussed about implementing a system that is quite similar statewide to streamline teacher-student feedback in attempt to improve K-12 education so each individual teacher can cater to his/her classes’ specific needs. I think it works pretty good and there’s not really much of a negative from the student standpoint.

So, how do I measure a year? In emails, and google forms, and excel spreadsheets. My version isn’t quite as catchy as the RENT version, to be honest. But this weekly format works for me; it’s how I measure my year. I value the conversations it starts, the way it allows my classroom to extend beyond the school hours, the relationships it deepens, and how it informs my practice. What works for you?

 

Sarah Morris teaches AP Language & Composition and Film as Literature in Murfreesboro, Tn. Born with a reading list of books she’ll never finish, she tries to read new texts but often finds herself revisiting old favorites: Name of the Wind, The Stand, Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality. She tweets at @marahsorris_cms.

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