Category Archives: Conferring

How do you read enough to match students with books? #3TTWorkshop

Questions Answered (1)The verb is the key. How do we read enough in order to help students find books they want to read? We read. We have to read — a lot. And we have to know our students.

The reading part is fairly simple. Well, as simple as carving out the time for it, which I know can be a challenge. Maybe it’s a matter of belief. I have to believe my time reading books I may not normally choose for myself will be worth it. I have to believe that YA literature has substance. I have to believe that my students will read, and most likely read more, when I can recommend books because I have read them.

We find time for the things we value. Simple as that. If we value our readers, we must do the things that help them want to read, and reading books that appeal to adolescent readers is a major part of it.

Book Stack

My Current To Read Next Stack

Personally, I like books in print because I like to save favorite sentences and passages that I might be able to use for craft lessons as I read. But audiobooks are a time saver I trust. I usually have at least two books I’m reading at any one time, hardcopy and in Audible. (I started The 57 Bus by Dashka Slater yesterday; I’m halfway through listening to There There by Tommy Orange.)  And honestly, there are some books I just can’t finish, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t read enough to know if I might have a student who wants to give it a try. I can read enough to know if a book might engage one of my readers.

I have to know my readers. The best way I know to get to know them is by talking to students one on one.

Again, the time issue.

Short personal writing can be a real time saver, especially at the beginning of the year or a new semester. Lisa’s Author Bio idea is one of my favorites, ever. I also like to use Meg Kearney’s Creed poem and have students compose their own. Writing like this gives students permission to show themselves, and it gives me an invitation to see into their lives. This is what I need to help match students with books.

A follow up question to the How do you read enough . . .? is often:  How can I find books my students will want to read? or What are some great books for seniors? for 7th graders? for sports enthusiasts? for dog lovers? for a student born in Pakistan? for a group of kids into becoming Insta famous?

I don’t know.

Your school librarian will, most likely.

(Really, I may have some ideas for a few of those questions….but that’s not the point.)

Create a partnership with your school librarian. Hopefully, you still have one. This person loves books and advocates for books and readers. This book expert is a friend to self-selected independent reading, and this professional has access to book lists with descriptors and synopses. (And sometimes funds to add books to the school library.)

Of course, you can find all kinds of book lists online:  Pernille Ripp posts great lists on her blog. The Assembly on Literature for Adolescents of the NCTE (ALAN) shares picks. Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) has Best of the Best lists. Edith Campbell recently posted a list of 2019 middle grade and YA books, featuring and written or illustrated by Indigenous people and people of color. And, of course, this list I crafted before Christmas — all recommendations from the contributors on this blog.

To make self-selected independent reading work, which is a vital part of an authentic literacy focused pedagogy, we have to do the work. We have to read, and I wish I could remember where I heard it first:  Reading YA literature is a powerful form of professional development. Isn’t it?

Amy Rasmussen reads a ton of books on the porch, in the yard, by a pool, on her bed in North Texas. She will be spending a lot of her summer with teachers facilitating PD around readers-writers workshop in secondary English classes. Her favorite. She’s also going to be doing a lot of writing. And a little poetry study at the Poetry Foundation Summer Teachers Institute in Chicago. Follow her @amyrass

 

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Rethinking Summer Assignments

black and blue plastic pen non top of black covered notebook

Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

Ahh…Summer reading…

For some of us, summer reading means lounging by the pool reading something that isn’t school related. Maybe we’re soaking in the rays and the books that, if you’re like me, have been piling up on our dressers all year long while we reread Gatsby for the 100th time. (If you’re looking for a great summer pleasure read, I have to suggest Daisy Jones and the Six. It was fantastic. Definitely listen to some Fleetwood in the background while you read the novel.)

For others of us, summer reading means sitting down with our arsenal of sticky notes and highlighters and InkJoy Gel Pens to catch up on some professional reading because, you know, we spent the year rereading Gatsby for the 100th time. Gotta love that green light and the bae across the bay plotline! (If you’re looking for a solid professional summer read, I highly suggest Why They Can’t Write. It’s prompted some interesting conversations and some thoughtful reflections for me.)

I plan on partaking in both kinds of summer reading – the more traditional for pleasure books and the I can’t stop thinking about teaching for pleasure books.

For our students, however, I wonder how many of them look forward to their summer reading. I wonder how many of them find value in their summer assignments besides the assignment just being a hoop to jump through.

I do think there’s value in summer reading assignments. Summer slide is real, and I like my classes to come in to the first day with something more to discuss than the syllabus. I also teach at a highly competitive magnet school, and summer work is one of those unstated expectations for AP classes.

So all of these ideas were running through my mind when thinking about my summer assignment for AP Seminar – a new course we’re offering for the first time next year. I knew that the students were expected to complete something over the summer. I knew that I wanted their assignment to have some choice involved. I knew that I didn’t want the assignment to take all summer, but that it should be meaty enough that we could start discussions at the beginning of the year. A lot of boxes to check. The brilliant Hattie McGuire came to the rescue. She posted her ideas of offering a summer writing invitation instead of a summer reading assignment. After talking with her, I tweaked some of her ideas to fit my environment.

Here’s the assignment:

I wanted my students to continue to think critically and inquisitive about the world around them, to take stock of their surroundings and experiences and to try to push their thinking further by asking themselves, “I wonder…” until they couldn’t wonder (or in some cases, wander) anymore.

So in an attempt to spend part of the summer writing and to cultivate a researcher’s mindset, each student will create 42 entries in a “Curiosity Journal.” Each entry will catalogue an observation/problem/question about their day and an attempt to take that observation/problem/question as far into “I wonder territory” as possible. We’re calling this part “further implications.”

A sample entry might look like this:

I observed that the extremism of Marie Kondo’s method of cleaning was very cathartic for me personally, and the house does feel less cluttered, but I wonder what good I’m truly doing by donating all of my unwanted junk to Goodwill.

My further implications for this observation might be: In participating in this behavior and in giving my stuff to Goodwill, I’m making the assumption that other people want my junk. I wonder if I’m doing good with my leftovers. This makes me think of disaster relief efforts and how often we send out crappy sloppy seconds to people who are truly in need. We do offer our stuff because doing so makes us  feel better, makes us feel useful, but I wonder if it’s actually useful for those people in need. I also wonder if it’s better to just throw all of this stuff away in a landfill. I wonder if there are other, better options for donation besides Goodwill. I find that the trend of minimalism goes against the consumerism of American society – it’s counterculture but it’s also pop culture, which is interesting. We’re overwhelmed by our stuff, which should make us question why we have all of this stuff to begin with in the first place. I also wonder how long I can keep up this minimalism streak until I’m back in Target buying another throw pillow. I also notice that there’s a lot of privilege present in even being able to KonMari my home. I wonder what the implications and effects of this privilege are?

So after a run of seven observations, students will choose one problem or question to pursue a little bit further by finding one external source that deepens their understanding of the issue, offers another perspective, or adds to their further implications. They’ll write about this new piece as well.

We’ll begin our first day of class discussing our favorite observations and, hopefully, the rabbit holes our observations led us down, maybe sparking a conversation about research and questioning. I’m hoping to find trends in the kinds of problems/questions/observations my students noticed that could begin to facilitate a conversation about what all of this says about who we are as people or how society works. I plan on using their Curiosity Notebook as a jumping off place for our individual introduction conferences that will happen during the first two weeks of school.

Mostly, I’m hoping that this assignment will keep students writing and reading and thinking over the summer about ideas that they’re interested in.  I’ve linked the assignment here if you’re interested.

Happy reading – whatever you’re reading, I hope it’s good!

Sarah Morris teaches AP English Language, AP Seminar and Film as Lit in Middle Tennessee. She’s currently enjoying her first summer as a married woman, spending her time travelling with her husband. You can follow her @marahsorris_cms.

 

Assessing Conferences Part 2: What We Can Learn When Teachers and Students Assess Writing Conferences

Wanting to affirm for myself that conferring really is a strength, wanting to determine ways I could continue growing this strength (that Harvard Business Review article “The Feedback Fallacy” keeps me thinking!!!), I decided to act on one of my steps from my last post about assessing conferences with student writers. 

Knowing that my AP students would be meeting with me for extended one-on-one conferences (it felt less disruptive to film since these occur outside of class time), I selected four on which to focus. When selecting the four, I chose two students with whom I felt confidence in the relationship (these two, in fact, typically sought extra time to confer over their writing) and two students with whom I felt less connected. I wondered: in what ways would my conferring look different?

Before filming, my instructional coach and I determined that I would examine number of questions asked and/or how questions were used, where I took steps to affirm or maintain that “love first” approach, and where I offered strategies. I chose these three lenses with the guidance of my instructional coach: I was worried about questioning my students to death, whether or not  I truly lived up to my love-first value, and the usefulness of the conference. 

Technical Aspects 

In terms of technical aspects, I filmed on my phone (I know, high-tech, right?! This means you can do it, too.). After each conference, my student scored it and I scored it; then I watched and transcribed it (imperfectly since it was mostly for me). Upon collecting each of the four videos, I shared them with my instructional coach so we could confer (ALL learners need conferring!!), and then I color- coded the transcript so I could look for patterns and other A-Ha’s (green for questions, pink for love-first/affirmation, orange for strategies). Of course, this is a limited data set; but it provided a manageable, pragmatic entry point.

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My Noticing’s

  • With each of my students, I maintained the love-first affirmation (phew!). With my student with whom I perceive having the weakest connection, affirmation proved the dominant strategy. Interactions with that student, in particular, seemed to suggest that she left with heightened confidence, ready to continue revising.
  • With my students with whom the relationship is more connected, questions dominated.
  • Strategies tended to arise from the student or me near the end of the conference.

Instructional Coach Noticing’s/Suggestions

  • He reinforced with me that conferring is a powerful way that teachers connect with students through content.
  • Beyond the areas I examined, he noted appropriate pause time during the conferring, suggesting that students had space to think and to ask questions.
  • He observed that ending the conferences with the rating of it positioned it more around how the student felt at the end of the conference rather than the last moment being about the “to-do list.”
  • He suggested that when I confer with students during class time that I audio record and skip the video; this is a simple shift to make it seem less distracting or intrusive.

Learning and Further Wondering

  1. Awareness of the level of connectedness with a student should help steer the conference. Wonder: What’s a quick question I can use to prompt myself toward this each time I sit with a student? How can I use body language to help infer level of connectedness and comfort?
  2. Understanding the student’s level of self-efficacy should also impact the moves I make while conferring. Wonder: Would student tracking of this be beneficial?
  3. With students whom I feel confident in our relationship, I can challenge more. I can ask more questions and prompt them to determine solutions or next steps. Wonder: How can I accelerate the level of connectedness and/or student self-efficacy so that more of my students arrive at this point sooner as writers? What do I need to do more deliberately here? (Note to self: study the giants–Kittle, Gallagher, Murray, Graves, Elbow, etc.)
  4. With those same students, they may also–because that confidence in problem-solving is there–initiate their own solutions. Wonder: What are ways to keep track of where students generate their own solutions versus when they use those offered through mini lessons and mentors? After all, this is what I want my writers to be able to do for themselves. 
  5. Individual conferences–no surprise here–are an effective way to redirect students to mini lesson strategies. Wonder: Do I need to more directly prompt my students to consider what strategy might work?

What’s Next?

With more time, I’d act on the suggestion of my instructional coach to audio record some of my in class conferring (those three minute regular conferences). I’m curious to see what patterns emerge with a greater constraint of time.  This experience also has me pondering what else I should be recording…mini lessons? 

Reflecting on conferring confirms the power of it in the classroom (see Amy’s #3). Reflection emphasizes that conferring truly is the best differentiation. That conferring promotes problem-solving.That conferring grows confidence. That conferring shows the ultimate flexibility, allowing for responsiveness to each learner’s needs.

Kristin Jeschke supports awesome learners at Waukee High School in Waukee, Iowa. Though nervous about directing and starring in these short films, she discovered that they were not all that painful. Follow her on Twitter @kajeschke.

On Slow Stylists and Teaching Writers

My hair and North Texas humidity are not friends. I can fix my hair in the morning, take one tiny step outside, and floop — it’s like the photo next to the word frizz in a picture dictionary.

I need help with my hair.

Not long ago, I had to find a new stylist. I’d seen my hair pro for going on 20 years — through short and kinda long and short again and kids’ friends and schools and graduations. I didn’t even know I had attachment issues until I called to make an appointment and learned Vivian had moved to another salon. They would not tell me where.

You may know how hard it is to find a new stylist. Overwhelming and risky come to mind. I just couldn’t deal with it — so I went cheap. I saw a random ad on line for “models” and took a chance on a “stylist-in-training”.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

And it was good.

Well, it got good. First, I waited 35 minutes just to get in the chair. I learned why as Emily tentatively combed and cut in tiny snips. She was S.L.O.W. but cheerful, eager, and excited to put the skills she learned through lecture and video into hands-on real-hair practice. Emily’s “expert mentor” stood to the side, giving tips and clarifying process the whole time. Then, when Emily thought she was done with my cut, the mentor picked up the comb and scissors, checked each section for wayward hairs, and reviewed the moves Emily had just made to create my style.

Of course, this all reminded me of teaching writers.

Awhile back I wrote about slowing down and planning time for students to think and talk and question before we demand they get to drafting. I think planning time applies to other aspects of teaching writers as well.

Here’s three things I’m wondering–

  1. How can we plan time for more talk? Writers write well when they have a solid base of information from which to build their ideas. Purposeful talk can help our writers grow in knowledge, recognize bias, and engage in conversation that pushes thinking. Listening and speaking often receive short shrift in ELA classes. We can change that. We can help students get their hands and heads into real-life practice as they talk about issues, news, and attitudes that fuel their writing.
  2. How can we plan time for more questions? When writing, questions often lead to answers. I teach asking questions as a revision strategy:  Students read their peers’ writing and can only respond with questions that prompt the writer to add more detail, include examples, develop thoughts more fully, etc. This takes practice, but it’s the best approach I’ve found so far in helping students question their own writing. (See Start with a Question for more on how questions aid writers.) We can give tips and clarify process — and help students work together to improve their writing — when we spend a little time helping them ask good questions.
  3. How can we plan time for more conferring? A few years ago, I asked my students how best they wanted me to help them improve as writers. These high school juniors overwhelmingly asked for more one-on-one. I was kind of surprised: Teens wanted to talk to me moreSeriously, they did. These writers understood they were all at different places with their language skills and writing abilities, and they knew the value of our conferences. Undivided attention, sometimes just noticing, even for a brief few moments, can make a world of difference to a writer. Sometimes we instruct. Sometimes review. Most often we just listen.

I left the salon that day 2.5 hours later — the longest I’ve ever spent in a salon. Time didn’t matter to Emily. She wanted to do well, truly practice her new skills, and create a cut she’d be proud of. I know we feel rushed and crushed in our English classes, but there’s a lesson here:  How can we slow down in order to maximize the time our students need to grow as writers?

In case you’re wondering, I like my cut, but I’m still battling Texas weather.

 

Amy Rasmussen loves working with student writers and their teachers. She thanks her family and friends for their time: generating ideas, reading drafts, proofing, editing, encouraging. And she thanks you for all you do for readers and writers everywhere. Follow Amy on Twitter @amyrass

Revising and Editing with Jeff Anderson Part III

Grouped around a big table in the library, seven students looked at me as if they knew the next hour of their life would set the record for engaged boredom.  These were students who volunteered their time to get one last push towards success on our state assessment. Like dental surgery, they assumed going in, that it would be painful.

None of these students were on my rosters, thus, they had no idea who I was or of the learning vortex we were about to descend into.

We picked up an excerpt from Unwind by Neil Shusterman and jumped in with both feet, after reviewing the guidelines for sentence building. Our stated goal was to review the piece with an eye towards sentence structure, alas, what we found was much more meaningful.

I wrote about Jeff Anderson’s book Everyday Editing here and hereCheck out those posts for Anderson’s first six tenets in editing instruction.

The last three parts of this book are:

  • Invitation to Edit
  • Extending the Invitation
  • Open Invitations

Invitation to Edit:

Anderson, in this section, writes about seeking authenticity and meaning in their editing practices: developing an editor’s eye.  He shares with us an activity he calls, “How’d they do that?”  This is an exact move we practiced in my STAAR prep group Thursday afternoon. We stumbled upon a sentence that blew us away and we dissected it with a thoroughness that I’m not sure I’ve ever explored with high school students.  We looked at the way the Schusterman wove words and punctuation together to create magical meaning.

Cast your gaze on this beauty:

unwind

Consider this Anderson gem:

“It hit me as the exact way education gets editing instruction wrong. We make it about identifying what’s missing or there, and students haven’t ever met the concept or become familiar with it.  If they don’t know of it’s existence, they can’t notice its absence” (p. 43).

Extending the Invitation:

What are we supposed to do when we see an amazing sentence sitting there, minding its own business, nestled quietly in a mentor text? The answer is, we stop what we are doing and ogle it. We poke and prod it , using our editing scalpels to peel back its layers and reveal the secrets where-in.  Don’t ever be afraid to pause a reading or writing lesson that has nothing to do with sentence structure to talk about a particularly well structured sentence.  I mean, really, all reading and writing lessons connect a text’s internal and external structures.  Amirite?

Open Invitation:

This section is about removing the idea that editing lessons are their own separate learning task.  Anderson argues that they should be the basis of all writing instruction and that these lessons should creep over into all the others that we use to help our students grow in their literacy.

One more time:

“I want those boundaries muddied so that the rest of the writing and editing lessons I do, besides those start-of-class, blastoff point invitations, are mixed with mini-lessons, writing, and sharing time in writer’s workshop” (p. 46).

All this reminds me how important one-on-one instruction is to literacy instruction and I think back to the absolute necessity that is self-selected independent reading. Consider the wisdom of Penny Kittle quoting Kylene Beers:

PK2

And then what she tweeted next:

pK1

I think this “nudge” can be about craft and not just content.  This is a place into which we can extend invitations.

With you-know-what looming, a lot of what we’ve studied with our reading and writing should, hopefully, help the kids out, but more importantly, set them up for success in their literacy lives.


Charles Moore is so excited to share the last six weeks, or so, of the year with his freshman. He’s looking forward to experimenting with collaborative groups, exploring new ways for students to publish, and, of course, talking to kids about books.  If you want to reach out to him about teaching reading and writing, shoot him an email. Check out his twitter if you want to see the latest episode in dad themed humor.

Why I’ve Started Getting Feedback on Writing Conferences

Of course, one of the best indicators of success with conferring (or applying mini lessons or using mentor text moves or utilizing feedback or adapting a quick write…) appears in student writing. Did the student try time cues in her This, I Believe piece after examining the mentor? Yes, I can see that application. Did the student use the strategy of highlighting important lines in the essay and then rearrange them to build a poem? Yes, the drafting shows the highlighted essay, and the poem synthesizes those powerful lines. This is feedback, information I can use to continue to tweak, modify, adjust, and adapt how I confer with writers.

One day recently, though, I thought: I should ask my students to assess the conference. Maybe what compelled me that day originated from working with Making Thinking Visible and a desire for my students to make more concrete a thoughtful conference–one involving curiosity, creativity, and connection from student and teacher. Maybe it originated from Cornelius Minor’s We Got This and an increased urgency to seek more direct feedback from students (in the most unobtrusive ways). Maybe it originated from observations that some of my students seem reluctant participants, participants who lack experience with this kind of conferring. Maybe it originated from my deep desire to anticipate and insure that I meet everyone’s needs.

7-Empire-Records-quotes

*From Empire Records

Whatever the genesis that day, I knew a simple strategy, one my instructional coach used with me. When experimenting with a collaborative multi genre research project this fall, I realized I had little experience with group conferring. So, I invited my instructional coach to observe. He scripted each of the three conferences; he asked me to assess the conferences based on a scale of 1-10 (this is a Jim Knight instructional coaching strategy); he and I then described what we noticed. Looking back, we kept the “source of truth” (in the words of Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall in “The Feedback Fallacy” featured in the Harvard Business Review) of the words with me, allowing me to examine my conferring practice without a sense of external judgment.

IMG_3340

**Notes my instructional coach took

In these 10 minute conferences, I learned that . . . I asked a lot of questions, between 10-15; I paraphrased regularly; I directed them to mentor texts; I offered micro lessons. Though I assessed no conference higher than an 8/10, and though I wondered if I questioned my groups to death, I noticed ultimately that I exercised flexibility, stretching in the direction of my groups’ needs. Yet at the time, I wasn’t sure what would constitute a 10/10 in my assessment. But now I’m sure what I’ll need to try to reach this (well, almost sure). Student assessment. Because what I see manifested in their writing makes visible only some of the effects of conferring (if any at all!).

So, on that recent day, I tried it. To my students, I had not indicated I would do so nor had I trained them for what the numbers could mean, nor given them any other parameters. With the handful I tried this with, here’s what I noticed:

 

  • It affirmed my writers’ needs were met. A few were quick to offer a 10/10 rating (surprising me with their smiles and affirming nods) because they “got what they needed”–had their questions answered, discovered next steps, or received resources they could further collaborate with.  
  • It prompted reflection. One offered an 8/10 rating. Upon seeking explanation, the student explained that the conference may have been more valuable had he been more prepared with his writing; there was a limit to the benefits of the conference when his writing was not as “ready.”  
  • It cued them to symphonize. When directed to explain their rating, the students then engaged in integrating their thinking with my noticings, reactions, or inquiries into their writing, an orchestration of thought that helped them internalize next steps.
  • It compelled me to remember that my perception of success in these conferences was just that: my perception.

Possible Next Steps

  1. More routinely ask students to assess our conferences and offer explanations, and then keep a record of these so I can see patterns across a student or through a room over time;
  2. More routinely self-assess conferences and record my self-assessment and why so as to study my practices;
  3. Assess the conferences for different skills or effects–academic or affective (modeling of a strategy, level of safety, etc.);   
  4. Video select conferences to assess and study OR invite my instructional coach to script.  

True to when my brain puzzles over any novelty (book, song, teaching strategy), I’ve been testing this outside the classroom. The other night, working with my son as he practiced cello, I asked him to rate, on a scale of 1-5 (which seems a more manageable range for a ten-year-old), his performance of “Lightly Row.” He assessed it at a 3; I asked why and he explained. Then I asked what he thought he should work on, and since he wanted to get it up to a 5, he took charge of figuring out what he needed to do to perform at that level. Music to my ears.

group of people

Photo by Mark Angelo on Pexels.com

When I confer with my students, I can orchestrate even more opportunities for growth, especially when I discover ways like this to share the baton.

Kristin Jeschke teaches College Prep English and AP Language and Composition at Waukee High School in Waukee, Iowa. She’s been trying to work on feeding her writers and herself in 2019, and she appreciates how this sounds in her classroom.

 

Keeping It Real As a Teacher of Writers

I have taken up watercolor. It’s been ages since I tried a new hobby, and I find the challenge pretty intense. Prone to put perfectionistic pressure on myself, my need to “get it right” limits my ability to play. This is problematic. And pretty stupid.

I will never get better if I do not take risks — with brushes or pigment or with the water.

For a long while now, I’ve followed my friend Laura’s work with watercolors. Her talent paints.jpgpiqued my desire to give painting a try, so I sent her a message asking advice on beginner supplies. She was gracious and encouraging in her response.

Then, I bought not three brushes but nine, not one medium-grade paint set but five, not one pad of paper but seven — in a variety of sizes. And I saved over 48 watercolor tutorials on Pinterest, plus, watercolor images of flowers, people, trees, waves, birds, landscapes, gardens. . .and pigs; and followed 18 watercolor artists on Instagram.

Because it seemed a lot easier to get ready to learn to paint than it did to try and fail.

Kind of like writing.

If you’ve read this blog awhile, you know I’ve been thinking about writing a book almost since starting 3TT. I’ve outlined three now. But I think and talk and read what others say about writing much more than I write. Like my hesitation about painting, this is problematic.

Of course it is.

And it reminds me of many of my student writers — the fear of getting it wrong or not making the grade, the vulnerability it takes to put ideas out there.

It’s real, and sometimes it’s stifling.

As I’ve worked to conquer my fear of learning to watercolor, practicing lessons on Skillshare (which has a plethora of lessons on multitudes of topics — check it out if you haven’t), trying new brushes and different washes and color combinations, and, finally, just relaxing into my art, I’ve discovered what I hope all young writers discover:

Writers must write for themselves. They write because they feel the tug of it, the need to express thoughts and ideas and meaning. Because they want to. Just as I paint for myself –the joy of it, the adventure in seeing if I can, the peace it brings me.

Recently, 3TT was asked this question on Twitter:  How often do you think MS and HS writers should publish? and I responded–

3tt tweet

I’ve thought about this exchange a lot since, and my thinking has led to more questions than answers:  How can we help our writers set personal goals for their writing? Which comes first:  the personal goal or the desire to write? If there’s no desire, can writers still write well? Does it matter if students write well?

Of course it does.

But just like every watercolorist finds her style, every writer must find his. All too often, school writing means prompts and formulaic structures, word counts and rubrics that restrict meaning-making more than they invite it.

So what can we do to open spaces that invite writers into the vulnerable places needed to grow? The best way I know is to keep it real.

Here’s a short list of what real means to me as I teach writers.

  1. Design Lessons based on what real writers do. For example, they don’t use standardized prompts — they come up with ideas they want to explore, creating their own prompts. Try quickwrites that inspire students to think about their lives and the world around them. Plan time for them to talk to their peers in ways that expands their thinking. Plan time for them to explore topics that interest them or challenge their thinking. Don’t just ask students to write about what they know. Ask them to write about what they notice.
  2. Make your writing life visible. Our writers need to see our thinking as we organize our thoughts into words on a page. They need to see us clarify, discover, and make meaning. They need to see that revision leads to improvement. Revision is not just a one-and-done step in the writing process. It’s not a strategy. Revision is a living breathing move writers make, and they make it often. Model all of the moves you do as a thinker, reader, and writer.
  3. Talk about everything related to writing and writers. “Writing floats on a sea of talk” (James Britton). Our writers need to share their ideas with one another — and with us as writing coaches in conferences. Often, we wait to invite writers to talk about their writing in peer feedback groups or in conferring sessions after they have penned their drafts. Real writers talk throughout their writing processes — from idea to draft into revision and on to redrafting. Talk leads to clarity and discovery, and in my experience, purposeful talk is the best resource teachers have for helping all students grow in confidence as writers.
  4. Immerse writers in beautiful language, clever word play, effective and powerful stories, essays, and poetry. Mentor texts that show students the impact of word choice, figurative language, and everything else from how an author creates believable characters to using dialogue to propel a plot forward are valuable teaching tools. Studying mentor texts helps students internalize what writers do. They come to recognize organizational patterns and structures they may choose to use in their own writing. Before I write pretty much anything of import, I study mentors. Don’t you?
  5. Make writing personal and purposeful. When we write about things we care about for readers we care about, we make deliberate choices as writers. Too often, and I am guilty of this myself, our writers only write for their teacher. Now, maybe your students differ from mine, but I’ve taught many a writer who didn’t care that I was her reader, and it showed. However, when I removed myself as my students’ primary audience and worked to build a community of writers where they wrote for one another, almost every student (sadly, there’s often a few hold outs) began to take greater care and ownership of their writing. They knew they had readers other than me. Of course, we can also help students determine outside-of-class purposes and audiences for their writing, and I encourage it; however, I’ve found that sharing our writing within our own classroom community is just as effective.

By no means do I claim to know it all when it comes to teaching writers. The puzzle working with adolescents is as real as my desire to help them grow as writers — and my newfound desire to learn to watercolor. I do know authenticity matters. When we make choices about literacy instruction, steeped in the authentic practices of what real readers and writers do as they read and write, more students engage in the tasks we ask of them. They take more risks. They more often than not rise to the occasion. And they shine as writers in their own right.

If you’ve made it to the end of this post with me, I appreciate you. And while I am not super confident in my watercolor abilities, and I have a ton to learn about the art of it all, I do have a stack of 20 bookmarks I’ve painted — mostly of birds because they make me smile. If you’d like one, share this post, follow me on Twitter @AmyRass (if you aren’t already), and send me a direct message with your name and address. (First 20 only. I’ve got a book to write.)

 

Amy Rasmussen has decided she loves teaching writers more than she loves to write, but she’s working on a balance of that as she attempts to discipline herself to “get ‘er done.” She has also decided that watercolor painting is harder than it looks. Amy’s currently on a “gap year” from the high school English class as she works on a book about authentic literacy instruction and facilitates professional development as an independent literacy consultant. She misses kids. A lot.

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