Category Archives: Conferring

The Role of Play: Discovering a Structure for Writing

Having grown up in the home of a preschool teacher who has always taught in a play-centered classroom, I’ve witnessed the importance of play in the physical, social, emotional, and cognitive development of a young person. Mom and I speak frequently about our concern for the lack of play at all levels of education. Kenneth Ginsburg, in an article for Pediatrics, reinforces that highly-scheduled children (which so many of our students are!) have had less time for free, creative play and therefore have built fewer coping mechanisms for managing the effects of pressure and stress. Of course, I can not wholly mitigate this; but I can help students harness (thanks Amber!) their creative potential to not only foster cognitive growth but also social-emotional well-being. I can help them use play as a means for creation.

Compelled to prioritize play as a creative force, inspired by Angela Stockman’s Make Writing, driven to help students find intuitive ways to structure their argument research writing, I use this lesson to help students move beyond the perceived rigidity of the research paper.

Objectives:

  1. Understand the roles of tools and of play in the act of creating;
  2. Discover a possible structure for the argument research paper that serves both purpose and audience;
  3. Inspire confidence in students’ own decision-making skills as writers.

Lesson:

Step 1: For my AP Language and Composition students, many of whom are used to the highly analytical, “academic” environment (indeed, the one I–along with others–foster), I begin by positioning the learning opportunity. I show them pictures of my own children: in one, they play with cardboard boxes, making their own spaceships, dressed in costume for the occasion; in the other, swirling words and designs into shaving cream, using fingers and forks and Duplos. This is critical! These pictures evoke memories of their own childhood, priming my students’ imaginations. Then I share words from Kenneth Ginsburg: “play helps children develop new competencies that lead to enhanced confidence and the resiliency they will need to face future challenges. …When play is allowed to be child driven, children practice decision-making skills, move at their own pace, discover their own areas of interest, and ultimately engage fully in the passions they wish to pursue.”

Step 2: Purpose articulated, I give the a tour of the “Play Stations”:

    1. Imagineering: Disney Imagineers cut out a collection of images they find interesting and then they start to arrange them to see if they can blend ideas. At this station, students find old books and magazines, paper, scissors, and glue so they can imagine away.
    2. LEGOS and Duplos: At this station, students find these toys for building; considering the size, shape, and color of the LEGOS/Duplos, students experiment with the structure of their piece.
    3. Pipe Cleaners and Beads: At this station, students are encouraged to consider the size, shape, and color of the beads and to talk through their ideas as they string the beads. When they finish, they look for patterns.
    4. Comic Book Templates, Receipt Roll Paper, and Craft Paper: At this station, students use the comic book templates provided to craft the “story” of their argument. They may also choose some receipt roll paper to work with the “story” in more linear ways or craft roll paper to make “cave drawings” or other illustrations of their ideas.
    5. Painting:  At this station, students use watercolor paints or paint pens along with paper plates (this offers a different constraint) or paper to paint their arguments.
    6. Play dough: At this station, students use play dough (homemade is the best) to mold and shape their argument. Sometimes I encourage multiple buildings since the joy of play dough is how easy it is to build, destroy, re-build.

Step 3: Before freeing my students to play, I ask them to consider this question: “What can you build that will meet the needs of your audience and purpose?”. I also direct them to review their work plan, their issue, claim, and a list of topics they’ll address in their papers.

Step 4: Play. “Confer” (I ask students to tell me about what they are making. I offer observations about their creations. I exclaim over the cool things they invent.).

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Step 5: Reflect. On post-its, students describe what they made, what they discovered, and what they may do as a result.

Follow-Up:

Following this lesson, I share other ways to arrange or format an argument paper, including Persuasive, Rogerian, Pro Con, Problem Solution, Problem-Cause-Solution, Top 5, Monroe’s Motivated Sequence, and others. When my students ask if it’s okay if they use the structure they invented or if it’s okay to combine what they invented with one of these structures or even if they can combine these new structures, I see the value of play. I see my students combining, adapting, modifying, synthesizing, and harnessing their own potential to discover–for themselves!–how to shape their writing.  

Kristin Jeschke helps her students–in AP Language and Composition and College Prep English at Waukee High School–harness their intuition through play. She doesn’t even mind the chaos and inevitable mess that follows (as long as it leads to creation). She thanks her parents for free time to play in the dirt and the sand. Follow her on Twitter @kajeschke. 

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Stick to It: Reading Goals with Staying Power

In the world of Readers Workshop, I am still working to strike a balance between the promotion of reading for the sake of enjoyment, and my capacity to hold students accountable for that reading on any consistent and meaningful basis.

In the past, I tried (and liked) Google Forms to have students reflect on and make reading goals, the use of their writer’s notebooks to track current and past reading throughout the year, and of course conferences with students to see who and where they are as readers.

However, my capacity to consistently track the reading lives of 142 students (which is far fewer even than many of my colleagues) often feels daunting, if not completely crippling. I rarely feel like I’m giving enough attention to, or celebration of, the ever-evolving reading lives of my students, at least early in the year. As the year progresses, regardless of the method, we get to know our students well enough that their reading lives come into focus, but the before Thanksgiving days are far too murky for my taste.

My goal this year was to figure out a way early in the year that I could take manageable snapshots of my students’ goal progress in order to both celebrate the success that would fuel reading momentum and to get a handle on who among my students would need the most encouragement.

For this purpose, I’ve worked to make our goals more visible, easy to check in on, hard to ignore, and readily accessible for quick conferences.

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  1. I started the year with my Reading Goal posters prominently displayed for my 9th grade classes. Each week, students would set a goal after calculating their reading rate, let me know the progress they would be working to make in their books, and how long they had spent reading. Not surprisingly, for the first few weeks of 9th grade, my projected sample of a Post-It didn’t necessarily (consistently) get us a clear picture of what we were looking for. Numbers weren’t labeled, titles weren’t always included, etc.
  2. I decided to take out the guesswork and use a Post-It template I found and photocopy quick reflections each week that would make it easy for both students and teacher to see:
  • What book are you reading?
  • What page are you on now?
  • What page will you be on based on your current calculation of reading rate?
  • How long have you been with this text?
  • Did you meet your goal for last week?

As I hand back slips to each child each week, I can do a quick check-in to see how on target, or not, my students are. This quickly prioritizes conferences for later in the week.

How do you keep track of students’ reading goals? Please leave a comment below!

Lisa Dennis spends her school days teaching AP Language and English 9, while also leading the fearless English department at Franklin High School, just outside Milwaukee, Wisconsin where she lives with her husband Nick, daughter Ellie, and beagle Scout.  She is a firm believer that a youthful spirit, a kind heart, a big smile, and a good book can ease most of life’s more troublesome quarrels. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum.

First, Love

Wisdom to Stand On

On a gray, rainy October Monday in central Iowa, Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher came to town. And, friends, I got to spend a day with them (in an intimate ballroom at the Sheraton stuffed with many other teachers and coaches and administrators). Did I fangirl? Of course I did. But not for long. Their struggles with technology, their comedic timing, their gifts as storytellers–these transformed them. These giants in our field morphed into humans in front of me: mentors with experience, mentors with ideas about volume and choice and feedback–wisdom to stand on. Even now, nineteen years in, I still need that kind of mentorship. Perhaps that’s why one of Penny’s principles about feedback lingers, even now, weeks later: The first teacher interaction with writing should be love.  

I’ve worked hard over the years to provide the kind of feedback that sets my students up in hope. Yet I wondered–have my first interactions been love? No. Not consistently. While conferring, my leading questions are “How’s the writing going? What roadblocks are you running into?”. These certainly help conferences stay focused and solutions-oriented in those precious few minutes. Love, though? No. When providing feedback on drafts and best drafts, I’m certainly identifying and encouraging strengths; and I’m taking the time to respond as a reader, too, with what I love and appreciate about the writing. Is that very first interaction, are those words in the first comment bubble, love, though? No. Not regularly. How does it feel if what’s first heard is or read is criticism?

In Tom Newkirks’ Embarrassment (pretty sure I’ve referenced this in each of my blog posts this school year. Like Penny’s words, the book lingers. Read it.), he mentions the “close association of writing and shame.” On some level, writing means rejection. Our ideas, our words, our rhythms–all can be rejected. For students, this feeling of rejection–linked with shame!–comes from us, especially, as Newkirk notes, because of the power dynamic in the classroom. But we can learn to look at the love-first interaction as a tool for more productive feedback.

My colleagues will remind me of the challenge, at times, of the love-first interaction. Indeed, it may be challenging to find what’s working in the piece, and there’s danger in seeming disingenuous. I tend to agree with Newkirk, though, who explains that in most writing, there is something to like: “a word choice, an image, a bit of humor, a good detail, a sharp verb, a telling fact or statistic, a fine bit of logic.” Still, there’s also danger in love that’s not balanced with constructive criticism, which is why we can use the love-first interaction to set the stage for that constructive criticism.

In the days following the conference, I tasked myself with love-first interactions, while conferring and while scripting feedback. To do so, I prioritized strategies already in my repertoire.

Ways to Interact with Love

  1. When a student shares a concern, I scan the paper and look for a place where the student successfully handles the skill. Then I say, “Look what you did here! More like this!”. Following this approach in a recent conference, the student commented she worked hard on the section I pointed out, and if she just needed to do more of that, then she could. That conference ended with smiles.
  2. Sometimes it’s about giving love through curiosity. When I read a student’s paper and realize a deficit of details, I re-frame it with something like this: “Wow. I really want more of this. I’m so curious about …”. This reinforces that what’s written has value and then showing where they can build more value.
  3. Other times, it’s about saying YES!  I’ll say, “YES–I notice that you recognize the need for justification here and use the “this shows that because” strategy. Now the next step is to . . .”. The love first interaction allows me to set the student up in hope through the small victory.
  4. Occasionally, I focus love to the idea or topic. I confess–sometimes I might even squeal. “Ohh. I really like this idea of comparing grief to a pinball machine. There’s a level of unexpectedness there that will engage the reader.” I’m loving and reinforcing what good writing does for audiences.  
  5. And, finally, my new favorite: asking my students what they love. Some students still don’t believe in my genuine praise; I get the side-eye, the nervous giggle. So, encouraging them to share what they’re loving allows me to affirm their observations and shift the power dynamic.

Why Prioritizing Love First Matters

We all need the shoulders of giants to stand on: as I need the steadying wisdom of Penny Kittle, Kelly Gallagher, Tom Newkirk, Peter Elbow, Don Murray, and so many others, our students need our strong shoulders to hold them–no, LIFT THEM–higher. Love first interactions set up our students to persist. Love first interactions set up our students to take risks. Love first interactions set up our students to silence their own inner critics. Love first interactions set up our students to hope.

Kristin Jeschke teaches AP Language and Composition and College Prep English in Waukee, Iowa. She’ll need to remember the love-first mentality as she helps her nine year old practice cello and her six year old practice violin. Follow her on Twitter @kajeschke. 

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:

penny1

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.

Writing Conferences: Stories, Schemes, and Strategies

Conferring is hard brain work. When do I listen? How do I listen? When do I talk? How much? How do I anticipate what a student needs? When do I step back and let them problem solve? Am I even conferring right? (Maybe not. So put your Judge-y McJudgers pants away while you read this.). As Shana explained in this post back in January, there’s so much value in talk, in engaging our students in conversation, in encouraging them–as Amy framed here— to tell the story of how their writing is going.

Because (as Tom Newkirk suggests) we have minds made for stories, over the years I’ve begun to recognize some common schemes while conferring. Recognizing these patterns frees me to listen and to respond. Perhaps you’ll recognize the stories of your own students in the stories I share. Perhaps you’ll pick up a strategy or two. 

The What-Did-I-Do-to-Myself Conference

This conference may typically begin from a position of fear–mine because my student’s eyes have suddenly become two daggers, piercing my helpful, loving heart. This occurred in a recent conference, where my student who chose ice cream as her multi genre research project topic hurled at me these words: “I don’t know how I’m supposed to write an argument about ice cream.” Was she complaining about lack of direction? Instruction? I took a deep breath to let go of any defensiveness I felt. Then I reflected on her question. Oh. Oh! The fear was not mine to have.

My student needed:

  1. to hear that to write about this is, indeed, possible.
  2. to understand the possibilities for executing the writing.

Conference next steps:

  1. I confirmed the correctness of my reflection by paraphrasing (So, what I think you’re saying is that you’re feeling pretty uncertain if you can, and if you can, what it looks like?).
  2. Once confirmed, I chose another seemingly tiny and narrow topic like tacos and verbally processed some options for how I could craft an argument for an audience on tacos. I did not do any written modeling or reach for any mentors at this point. My role in this early phase conference was to dispel fear, to affirm possibility, and to confirm faith in my student’s ability.

Student next steps:

Following this verbal modeling, my student disarmed with affirmation and a smile, she continued working in her notebook, mapping her argument and the rest of the multi genre.

The I-Need-to-Change-My-Topic Conference

This conference may typically begin from a declarative statement: “Just so you know, I’m changing my topic.” I’m being put on notice here.  But I delight in these William Carlos Williams “this is just to say” moments almost as much as ripe-n-ready plums. So, curious now, I say, “Tell me about why you abandoned the old topic” (I’m always thinking we can learn something from discarding topics) and “Tell me about the new topic.” That’s when my student in this case explains that the topic is music but that’s all he has. Hmm.

My student needed:

  1. To narrow his topic by sinking his teeth into the best tidbits of it.
  2. To get moving. And fast. IMG_2711.JPG

Conference next steps:

  1. With the topic so broad, I asked the student to tell me a story that shows his relationship with music.
  2. Once the student shared his story–one that involved him writing his own music and performing several songs at a local concert venue (Our students do amazing things!)–we mapped out a plan for the different parts of his multi genre text.

Student next steps:

With a story in his head (and probably a song) and a general plan mapped out, this student left for the day, ready to focus on more specific planning.

The So-Can-I? Conference

This conference may typically begin and end within a very short burst of time; a meteor shower during the Perseids, this conference starts with a short burst of light from the student, a recognition of how to apply a resource. In a recent case, the student examined a resource on possible argument structures I shared with the class, and ingenuity bursting forth, queried, “So, I can use the pro/con structure? And, can I make this modification to it?”

My student needed:

  1. To know that he has more freedom than he’s using.
  2. To have the affirmation necessary to keep burning bright.

Conference next steps:

  1. I replied,” Tell me a little more about that” and followed that with paraphrasing, “So, what you want to do is . . .?”
  2. Then I simply said, “Yes.” 

Student next steps:

Following this all-of-sixty-seconds-conference, the student returned to mapping out writing, synthesizing his own ideas with the resource. And, I spent five minutes with the next person instead of three.

The I-Know-I-Need-to ______ , But . . . Conference

This conference may typically begin with candor from the student. Like the first sip of lemonade on a hot summer’s day, it’s so refreshing to hear in response to my opening questions (How’s the writing going? What roadblocks are you running into?), “I know I need to _______, but I’m having a little trouble.” Ah. This can become an opportunity to model for the student or offer a micro-lesson; sometimes–like in a recent conference where my student wanted to build a more humorous tone–I help the student find or use mentors. **Note to self–I should probably start asking my students to tell me about mentor texts they’ve turned to when they’re tackling challenges. 

My student needed:

  1. To resolve gaps in skill level (impressively, one’s the student recognized).
  2. To access additional resources  for strategies.

Conference next steps:

  1. For this student working on narrative writing, I pulled David Sedaris’ “Let It Snow” and a couple of others.
  2. Then we talked through typical strategies a writer uses to develop humor.

Student next steps:  

Time well-spent, smiling now, my student worked on reading and studying the mentors.

 
The I’m-Avoiding-Letting-You-Read-My-Writing Conference. May also sometimes appear as the I-Don’t Have-Any-Writing-to-Show-You-Yet Conference

This conference may typically begin, well, haltingly–like a first time driver slowly circling around the empty high school parking lot. I’ll ask, “How is the writing going? What roadblocks are you hitting?” “Doin’ fine. No roadblocks.” Okay. Next approach. “Why don’t we look at a section together? Show me a section you feel really good about. Let’s celebrate what’s working!” Sometimes that gets us turned in the right direction (a smile and an oh, sure and we’re underway); sometimes we skid (uh, so, um, I don’t really have much yet. Uh-oh.). When I most recently tried this approach, my student offered, “Well, I really like this paragraph; but I’m not sure about how to develop it more.” 

My student needed:

  1. to feel safe enough–safe enough to embrace the opportunity or safe enough to admit to lack of progress.
  2. to have re-direction for what conferring might look and sound like. Sometimes they just don’t have the mechanisms down.

Conference next steps:

  1. In the first situation, I generally point out the parts that are really working in the section the student chose to share. I thank them. Then I ask if there’s anything else they want to share or questions they have. And, sometimes I get to look at more writing. I did in this particular case. And, had I not pressed gently, I don’t think I would have (I was kind of impressed that it actually worked!).
  2. In the second situation, I paraphrase what they might be feeling. I might say, “I imagine you might be feeling ___________ (stressed for not having more done; frustrated by how to begin; confused about the direction of your writing; etc.). They typically correct me if I’m wrong and we work together to plan next steps, even if it’s breaking down the process further.

Student next steps:

In the first situation, the student began applying feedback; in situation two, the student typically articulates what’s getting in the way and what resources are needed and then begins tackling a small goal (drafting a paragraph versus drafting the whole thing).

When I’m conferring, I’m listening, paraphrasing, questioning, re-teaching, modeling, affirming, finding resources, building possibility, and showing my students that what they write matters. No wonder my brain hurts.

Kristin Jeschke remembers with fondness the many teachers that encouraged her writing but especially Greg Leitner who always listened more than talked. And who always inspired her to keep writing. Now as an AP Language and Composition teacher and senior English teacher, Kristin appreciates the gift of moments spent conferring. Follow Kristin on Twitter @kajeschke.  

 

 

Choice Reading Shouldn’t be a Choice Not to Read

I love that silence that permeates our reading time. A certain peace settles over the room as thirty souls lose themselves in the pages of their books, the only sounds: rustling pages, tapping feet, or contented sighs.  I also love that groan they emit when, after ten minutes, an eternity of silence, I implore them to mark their page and pause their reading for now.  That’s exactly what I say to them, “Alright kiddos, lets pause our reading and get out our reader’s/writer’s notebook.”

While we’ve practiced that transition dozens of times, they still plead begrudgingly, “Can we just have more reading time!!!”  “You can,” I tell them, “on your time.”  Some of them, the truly committed, make time for their self-selected independent reading, but most, for now, do not.  This reality, jarringly disturbing to committed readers like you or me, is something that keeps me up at night.  It prompts old teacher/football coach friends to text me on Sunday morning, asking for some kernel of knowledge that might help them move readers.  For this problem, though, there is only one short and fast answer: Hard Work.

I wrote about the difficult task of moving seniors into reading lives last year: here and here. The results, transformative for some, middling at best, and woeful for many, read like a Picasso.

I promise you this: We can’t afford not to give them everything we’ve got.  That thought spurred this tweet from me earlier in the week:

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We know reading and writing dovetail to form literacy.  If we instruct using whole class novels, we run the risk of alienating many who can’t engage with something in which they have no interest and as a result, we get nothing. If we encourage choice reading and we allow the kids to choose not to read, we get nothing.

We must engage in their self-selected reading lives and I believe that I can’t do that if I’m reading while they read.  While they read, I’m moving around the room, tracking pages read, asking the reluctant about their reluctance, asking the readers when, where, and why they are reading on their own, simultaneously serving both ends of the reading spectrum.  You won’t ever find me sitting behind a desk, because my desk is shoved up against the wall, relegated to table status, as a place where papers pile.

It’s hard work, like everything about our roles as literacy advocates.  It takes planning,  reflection, and intention to match every kid to the perfect reading conference question.

That’s part of it too.  One question does not fit all.  If a student isn’t reading, they can’t reach into their reading experience to share with me their opinion on the effectiveness of setting, for instance, in their selection.

Also, I have to give them the sobering news that this lack of reading life may hinder their writing life as well, and while I don’t take grades for self-selected reading, I do take grades for writing and their engagement from one directly affects their success in the other.  I need to tell them that, before their grades do.

Charles Moore loves conferring with readers, even struggling ones.  He loves concerts with his wife and when his son texts during the concert, he texts back, “We are having fun without you.”  He’s loving the new adventure with Pre-AP students and his freshman are growing on him; they are adorable.  Check out his book review blog at www.mooreliteracy1.wordpress.com and his far too frequent twitter rants at @ctcoach.

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.

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