Category Archives: Logistics

Experimenting with reading portfolios

Fake reading and readicide have been well documented as the enemies of English teachers everywhere. The workshop model does a nice job of thwarting each by offering students choice and ownership over their reading lives. In a previous post Shana suggested that if the reading is authentic and student-centered that it can even be independent from grades. Finding the balance of autonomy and accountability is still a challenge, though–how do we turn students loose to explore books while still gathering evidence of their mastery of the reading standards?

This year I resolved to rely less on quizzes or study guides that are averaged into a grade as a way to solve this dilemma. The last few years I’ve been moving more toward a combination of one-on-one conferencing and informal reading check-ins that gave students space to respond to what they’re reading while also demonstrating some skill mastery. This year I decided that I would experiment with reading portfolios in my junior English classes and ask students to gather evidence of their reading in one place that would comprise a quarterly reading grade. It is a more holistic approach to considering their reading work. This is the rough progression we’ve followed:

Goalsetting

At the top of our collection doc I asked students to consider their reading lives and to set a goal for that quarter. You can see a quick example here:

A student’s reading goals from Bell 1
A student’s reading goals from Bell 1

Delineate the types of reading

  • Volume (independent reading, pleasure reading) skill focus: development of ideas and themes
  • Speed (for ACT-type scenarios) skill focus: comprehension
  • Depth (close reading, annotations, classroom discussions, etc.) skill focus: comprehension, style analysis

Each type of reading requires something different from readers. The task was to find good evidence of each type from each unit. This allowed students to choose our reading check-ins, pieces we annotated or discussed together, or to build other ways to interact with their independent reading. The goal was to learn what strategies make sense for each type of reading that we do and to develop strategies for annotating short works versus tracking information in longer works versus reading to find test answers. 

Gather artifacts and experiences

Once we understood the different types, I was able to better organize classtime to meet those goals. Our reading workshop time was mainly spent on volume, but occasionally we’d do a check-in that asked students to reflect on their books that they could use as evidence of depth. 

For speed we would periodically test our comprehension using ACT or AP Comp/AP Lit practice passages. We simulated the pressure of time and discussed test-taking strategies, test-making strategies, and what it means to read a short text with rigor. I never counted these as actual scores, only as experiences they needed to complete. This took some pressure off and enabled them to engage with learning how to learn.

Finally, when we read poems, articles, or other short texts together as a class I always point out that if they choose to annotate or reflect on the piece that they can use it as a piece of evidence for depth. Most will take me up on it. This gives some choice and ownership over the annotation tasks instead of me requiring post-it notes on every chapter of Gatsby. In reality I can tell from one or two artifacts whether or not a student is actively engaging the text in effective ways. You can see a few images below of how one student collected the artifacts:

Discuss quality of the artifacts

Because I didn’t want the portfolio to simply be a completion grade we tried to attach some traits to strong reading responses, specifically for depth. I essentially trusted what I saw in daily reading workshop times and some informal check-ins for volume, counted the practice tests as completion for speed, and then used depth as the category to focus on assessing. I used an informal rubric that focused on the specificity and complexity of their interactions since those are the two words/skills we’d been focusing on, but you could adapt to the specific traits you’re hoping to capture in their reading work.

The end products are not pretty (Student example from Q1; Student example from Q2)–I’m sure there are better technology solutions to explore–but they do offer me a decent picture of what each individual student is up to as a reader in a way that I wasn’t able to see when I collected and averaged quizzes and study guide questions. It’s improved the vocabulary of our discussion about tasks. And ultimately it has helped continue the shift of ownership over their reading life from me to them, which is the end goal of workshop. 

Nathan Coates teaches junior English at Mason High School, a large suburban district near Cincinnati, Ohio. He is excited to start reading the final installment of the Wolf Hall trilogy.

Finding More Time…

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Photo by Ivan Bertolazzi on Pexels.com

My notes for this blog  (notes that I made in July when I was a VERY different person – pregnant, rested, unfamiliar with the work of Mo Willems…) say that I should write a blog about – not focusing on test prep as testing season begins to rear its ugly head. 

I’m not going to write that blog post…yet (growth mindset…?). 

No, instead, I want to discuss how conferencing and station rotations (which Shelby Scoffield wrote about here just a few days ago) are making my return to the classroom from maternity leave a lot less daunting than I feared it would be. 

First, I really hope that non-moms/dads (paternity leave is just as important as maternity leave) didn’t stop reading…give me a few paragraphs and I’m hoping you’ll find there’s something for everyone. 

Here we go –  there’s a lot of stuff out there about GOING on maternity leave: lesson plans on TPT, blogs, questions about finding subs, questions about who should do the grading while the teacher is gone, questions about structure and organization (elementary teachers rock this part)…and lots and lots of ink shed on how important it is to leave school at school to focus on time with your new baby. Let’s just say I tried my best to go full Elsa and let it all go once our little nugget finally arrived. But with my return to school looming, I knew that I needed to start thinking not just about WHAT we would do when I returned but HOW we would do those things. What attitude did I want for my first few days back? What messaging did I want to send my students? And… I haven’t found a lot out there about HOW to return to class. Apparently, it just goes smoothly for everyone, right?

So with all of that in mind and disappointed that the Internet didn’t just provide a magic answer, I decided to treat this return kind of like the beginning of the school year – a fresh start for us all. So I took a good hard look at what was working for this group of students and what needed to change and began to make plans with those thoughts in mind. 

I also knew that I wanted to hear from the students about their progress while I was gone as soon as possible. So I’m conferencing with all 135 students for 10-15 minutes over the next two weeks. At the suggestion of a friend, I offered them the metaphor of swimming to help them prepare for the conversation. I want to know how they “swam” while I was gone. Did they turn into Michael Phelps and just crush AP Lang while I was gone – putting in extra time, going the extra lap, eating multiple pizzas in a day? Did they just tread water – keeping their Lang muscles moving and loose but not really going anywhere in the pool? Did they get out of the pool completely and take up residence in a nice desert somewhere with no pools or water in sight? I’m going to let them drive the conversation for the first part of our conference – here’s where I am – and then take their temperature (I know, I know – mixed metaphors) to see what they need from me in the next few weeks to feel more comfortable. I’ve made a list of the items they covered while I was gone, and I want us to converse in the last few minutes of the conference about the top 2-3 we should focus on together. Plus, I teach neat students, and it’s going to be nice just to catch up with them. A lot has happened for me in the last 10 weeks; I’m sure a lot has happened in their lives as well. I want to hear about it. 

From here, I’m hoping that the conversation with each student will help put them at ease as we start working together again AND will help me figure out where we are as a group. After these “Check-In Conferences” are over, we will begin our regular writing conferences – looking at pieces they wrote while I was out. 

Now – this second stage of conferencing is where station rotations are key. Before the baby, I would get to work around 7 and stay until 430 or so – holding 15ish conferences throughout the day, using most of my time at school to meet with students and then taking home the grading and the planning. I’m not sure I can sustain that pace right away – if ever again. So I need to find time IN CLASS to make conferences work. Enter MCM’s – for the normal person this is Man Crush Monday – for us, it’s Multiple Choice Monday. 

We work a multiple choice passage from released AP Lang tests every Monday. Normally, students take their MCM individually for 15 minutes. Then, they turn to a neighbor and discuss their responses: “I got A for #1 – here’s how I chose that answer. What did you get? Oh, you got B? Let’s figure this out together.” This process can take anywhere from 5-15 minutes depending on the passage.  I give them the correct answers, and they self score. Then they turn back to their partner and discuss just ONE tricky question now that they know the answer. Finally, we regroup as a class and discuss any questions they are still confused about. I rarely do the talking here but ask for student volunteers who got the question right to explain their thinking. Honestly, if we have to do test prep (and we kind of do), this metacognition/discussion/student driven prep is the best method I’ve ever used. 

So, knowing that I needed some class time to conference, I began looking at how we spent our time and where I could work in conferences routinely. MCMs seemed like the perfect place. Here’s my thinking (and any feedback would be appreciated because while station rotations, MCMs and conferencing aren’t new to me, combining them all together is): 

  • Station 1: Students individually take their MCM
  • Station 2: Students chat in pairs about their MCM results – this would be my empty starting station – students can’t complete this station until they’ve done Station 1 obviously. From here, they would either place their MC answer sheets on my desk/in my hands at the end of this station OR grade their own/discuss and then turn their work in.
  • Station 3: Some kind of writing/peer review station working on a skill we’ve been discussing in class
  • Station 4: Conference with me – I think this would be a good time to group students based on their feedback from the “Check In Conference” and work on those skills in small groups.
  • Station 5: Apply what we discussed in Station 4. (For students who start in station 5 – they will do Station 3 work here and then do Station 5 work where other students do Station 3 work. This group will probably be my most self directed group.)
  • Closing as a whole class – we return to the answers and either grade OR discuss as a whole group. 

For all of these stations, I’m stealing an idea from Catlin Tucker about using video directions at each station so students have your overview of each station, written directions AND a video of verbal directions to rely on. I LOVE the possibilities this simple tweak opens up.

This process can obviously be finetuned, but I’m excited to work in small group conferences into my class every week in another routine way while still maintaining my individual conferences at a less breakneck pace. 

Like I said at the beginning of the blog, I was planning on writing something else entirely. I 100% used this post as a place to process some of my thinking. Thanks for following along – if you have suggestions or feedback, I’d love to hear it. Happy Monday!

Sarah Morris teaches AP English Language and Composition, AP Seminar, and Film as Literature in Murfreesboro, TN. She is currently binging old episodes of Jeopardy with her husband like the two little nerds they are. She tweets @marahsorris_cms.

 

Organizing Classroom Libraries — One Teacher’s Answers

My job as an English teacher is to empower my students to discover, identify, locate, rediscover, find, and fall in love with the books that speak to their souls and their hearts.

In order to make that happen, I have to have a dynamic classroom library. A year and a half ago, I didn’t have anything on my shelves in my classroom, but because my school, my family, and my colleagues are on board with the vision of robust classroom libraries, my library looks a whole lot better than it did then.

We’ve raided the school book room, collected our main library’s discards, purchased books off of facebook and other “garage” sale type of venues, and we bring back hundreds of pounds of second hand books in our suitcases at every opportunity. (I live in Nicaragua, which complicates the book buying at times.) We spent our entire English department budget on classroom libraries last year, so this fall we felt like kids in a candy store when we were setting up our new classroom libraries.

Each time we are blessed a new influx of books, we have to think about storage, and more importantly, organization. It’s essential that we store and organize our books so that students will be drawn to the shelves and compelled to read new books.

nonfiction corner

I haven’t had any experience that tells me that labeling and micro-leveling books is what makes my students want to read. Quite the opposite. What I read also tells me that labels aren’t for public display on the spines of books or on the front of organizational book baskets. They are tools for teachers to use, which may help them with a cursory understanding of texts before they can get to know them better.

My job as an English teacher is to empower my students to discover, identify, locate, rediscover, find, and fall in love with the books that speak to their souls and their hearts.

My experience and observations tell me that organizing my books by general level and genre is what works best for my classroom library. That rotating book displays pique student interest in titles they might not have noticed or cared about in the past. That topic, passion, and enthusiasm can sell a book to a student a whole lot more convincingly than a level or a label can.

My classroom library is split into four basic sections:

  1. middle school fiction
  2. young adult fiction
  3. contemporary fiction
  4. nonfiction

I do this out of necessity: I teach three sections of seventh grade English and two sections of AP Language and Composition. It’s important to have some distinct sections for these students so they at least have a starting place when they browse for books. They do tend to meet each other in the young adult fiction shelves, and there isn’t much that stops them from “shopping” on all of the shelves.

Within those four sections I have subsections, however.

I have grouped some middle school fiction into some general categories: magic/fantasy, mystery/scary, realistic fiction, historical fiction, books in a series, sports, and shorter/easy reads.

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In the young adult fiction section I caved to a student who really wanted a romance section (why not? I thought). I’ve also grouped some of these books into a “books in a series” section, a mystery/horror section, dystopian, and a sci-fi/fantasy section. The section on World War Two shelf was created because I have a number of students who are gravitating towards that topic right now. It’s not comprehensive, and it mixes middle level, young adult, contemporary fiction, and nonfiction, but it is what’s working for my students right now, so it will stay for at least a while.

That’s the whole point. Our classroom library organization is based on what works for my students. It wasn’t prescribed by any “experts” or mandated by anyone outside of my classroom. It’s authentic, preserves student emotions and privacy, and the shelves are open to whomever would like to browse them.

There is a tiny bit of leveling – three levels plus nonfiction, but this leveling is more about maturity and content than text leveling.  It’s certainly not the microlevels of Lexiles, A-Z, or AR that some libraries employ. It’s helpful rather than restrictive.

Because the books are organized into these smaller topic or genre sections, students have a helpful place to start looking that isn’t rigid. I feel like it’s the best of both worlds because it gives students a direction and a guide, but not rules or rails they have to live between.

Simply because of the space and shelves that I have in my room, I’ve added a subgroup of poetry, plays, and picture books section in the nonfiction corner.

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This is a corner that needs some work. As I add titles to my classroom library, I will deliberately look for poetry and drama, as well as relevant picture books to add to these shelves.

While I have these semi-permanent organizational ideas, I also have some rotating book displays.

Right now, my AP Lang class is starting a research project. One of their sources needs to be a book with either endnotes or footnotes, so I’ve collected many of my classroom library books that meet that requirement and put them on display.

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This display changes about every week or so, sometime with deliberate purpose like this one, and other times it’s just whatever comes to mind. Some recent displays have been around the topics of time travel, aviation, The Great Depression, and sports. Anything goes when it comes to displaying a collection of books.

Another way of displaying and organizing books is by what is popular with students, what the teacher is currently reading, and what’s been book talked in the last day or so.

These are all examples of rotating book displays, and they rotate between every other day, and every couple of weeks. It’s a matter of doing what makes sense for the type of display it is, and what the current needs of the classes are.

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So once the books are organized and on display, students actually start to look at them! It’s a miracle, and a wonderful feeling when they get interested and excited when they haven’t been in the past.

At that point, a check out and return system becomes key.

Mine is old-fashioned and easy to navigate. It’s a spiral bound notebook and a pen. Pretty simple.

Just because it’s low-tech doesn’t mean it doesn’t work. Quite the opposite. Students know to check out books and put them in the return basket when they are done. Sometimes they cross out the original entry of their  returned book, but mostly all they have to do is put the book in the return basket and I’ll find their name and cross it off and then re-shelve the book.

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The return basket is right next to the check out notebook and this sign which reminds students that the honor system is what makes this whole thing work.

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The classroom libraries in our hall are open to all of our students, so often students from other classes wander in to my classroom looking for books. The system is the same for them as it is for the students I currently have in my classes. All of the students at our school are our students; all of the students have access to all of our classroom libraries.

If some students have books out for a long time, and we don’t see those students on the regular because they aren’t in our own classes, we rely on each other to ask those students about those titles, which means we often get books returned promptly with that simple system. Our department has a shared google doc and we list the students’ names and titles that are checked out, so we all have that information at our fingertips.

Our organizational and check-out systems are thoughtful and simple, and can be adopted by almost anyone. There may be other better, different, or more complicated ideas and systems out there that work for people, but I wanted to share ours because of its simplicity and effectiveness.

How do you organize your classroom library, and what philosophical beliefs to you hold that are behind these practices? I’d love to read your thoughts in the comments.

Julie has been teaching secondary language arts for more than twenty years, spending the first fifteen in rural Central Oregon,  four in Amman, Jordan, and the most recent school years in Managua, Nicaragua. 

Follow her on twitter @SwinehartJulie

How Healthy is Your Practice?

It seems like self-care, wellness, mindfulness, and balance are all the buzz these days. Yet, too often, I see self-care employed as a marketing technique or a rationalization tool: buy this face mask! Do some mindfulness coloring! Treat yo’self to that $6 latte! Schedule a 6-night, 7-day spa retreat in Switzerland! IT’S FOR SELF-CARE!!

Yeah, no.

I admit, I bought into the hype a little bit and splurged at Target a few weeks ago in the “self-care” beauty section. But when I struggled mightily to successfully peel off the peel-off face mask that was supposed to “refresh” me, I didn’t feel refreshed. I just felt like a moron when I looked at my patchy, half-green face in the mirror. Instead of feeling satisfied, I felt, “wow, I can’t even PEEL OFF A FACE MASK.”

Not helpful, y’all.

Instead of having a teaching-life balance that somehow makes me think a peel-off face mask will help me feel less stressed (but instead makes me feel like a Halloween makeup artist), I need to have a teaching-life balance that is rejuvenative all on its own.

As a teacher, it’s a constant struggle not to get to the point in a school day where I don’t feel overwhelmed. When I think about the orientation courses in my inbox, the IEP feedback forms sitting in a folder on my desk, the messy disaster that is my classroom library, the toppling stack of writer’s notebooks students submit for feedback every other Friday…I don’t feel the need for some little moments of self-care. I feel the anxious, grasping need for escape to that spa in Switzerland, except I never really want to return from the spa to my real life.

We cannot let ourselves get to this point.

As teachers, we have to cultivate a practice that is more responsible, more sustainable, more respectful to the fact that we are HUMANS, and that we should feel ABLE to do our jobs, to do the work of teaching because we love it, and not because we’re suffering from some teacher-as-martyr delusions of grandeur and existential suffering.

A tweet about this very feeling from Dulce-Marie Flecha stuck with me–so much so that I still remember it, word for word, nearly five months later:

This sentiment struck me, forcefully, in mid-April: when tests were looming and assemblies were rampant and the science fair kept interrupting my carefully-crafted multigenre lesson schedule. I was so stressed out by the daily practice of teaching middle schoolers, on top of having two kids under the age of three and a life in general, that I really felt I could not do the work of teaching. I knew I had to make a lasting change that was more sustainable than trying to survive on coffee and weekend laundry marathons and naps.

Tami Forman writes in Forbes that self-care is actually kind of boring: it’s boundaries, it’s saying no to things we know we shouldn’t take on, it’s turning off the TV so we can actually get some sleep. It’s the little things, the simple habits that make our lives manageable.

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I’m reading Onward this year with a group of colleagues, which offers guidance for how to know yourself and your limits as an educator, so you can design a sustainable teaching practice more successfully.

And as an English teacher, it’s crafting a curriculum, a classroom, and a culture at school that don’t require me to give feedback on every single paper, to grade every single page a student reads, to be on every committee or lead every after-school activity.

We have to do what we can, the best we can.

If you’re spending too much time stressing out about your inadequacies as a teacher, consider how you might revise your teaching practice to be more sustainable, more balanced, more enjoyable. It’s more than just throwing that stack of papers you meant to grade in the recycling bin: it’s thinking carefully about how you might shift the cognitive load in your classroom toward student self-assessment, conferences, and peer feedback rather than just being all on you. It’s something that’s beneficial for teachers and students alike.

Ask yourself: how healthy is my teaching practice? And let us know in the comments how you’ve made shifts to keep your work and life in balance, so you have time to read all the latest and greatest YA, doodle in your own writer’s notebook, and daydream poetry.

Shana Karnes lives and works in Wisconsin alongside many smart, thoughtful, inspiring English teachers via the Greater Madison Writing Project. She enjoys reading, writing, and poem-ing in any spare time she gets when she’s not with her two baby girls and hardworking husband. Connect with Shana on Twitter at @litreader.

Using Scrum in the Classroom

As we shift many of our educational practices towards more inquiry focused learning, we must also shift the skills that we focus on in our classrooms. In many of my classes, I have students engage in long term learning experiences that emphasize important skills including communication and collaboration. One issue I have consistently come across, however, is that students often lack the project management skills required to be successful in this type of learning and that we often launch them into assignments that require planning both their task and their time without providing them with the tools the need to be successful. How many times have we given students “a work block” and set them free only to be frustrated by how poorly many of them use their time?

One of the classes I teach is AP Capstone Seminar. In this class, as part of their AP exam score, students are placed in teams where they have to collaboratively produce a problem/solution style research presentation. Because this is considered part of their assessment for their AP exam score, the CollegeBoard requires that I as their teacher am not allowed to provide them with assistance (similar to if they were writing a sit-down exam).  It quickly became apparent to me that for my students to be successful with this collaborative project in their live assessment, I would need to provide them with strategies to help structure their time and that is when I stumbled across Scrum.

Scrum is a technique that has been used in schools in the Netherlands and has been adopted by many schools world wide. It is a style of project management that originated in the computer design world and that has been adapted to help support students manage long term learning tasks.

When using Scrum with my class, I help guide them through the following process:

1.) Set the end term goal for the project – what is the final product you are trying to produce, or what is your final goal? What date must this be finished by?

2.) Break this final goal down into shorter goals that we call sprint goals – essentially what are the smaller tasks that first must be accomplished in order to succeed in the end goal? By what date must be finish the sprint goals in order to achieve our end goal?

3.) Once students have set their end goal and their sprint goals, they are then asked to create their “flap board”. This flap board is where they will break their sprint goals down into the individual tasks they need to complete to reach their sprint goals, they will assign that task to members of the group, and they will track the progress the group has made on the task.

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The flap board for one of my AP Capstone student groups on the first day.

A flap board can consist of many elements depending on the task, but I have simplified it into the following categories for my students:

1.) Task Backlog: This is where students brainstorm all of the tasks that must be completed in order for them to achieve their sprint goal. These tasks are always written on sticky notes so they can be moved. If a task is in the Backlog area, it has not yet been started. This helps students visualize the volume of work they need to complete.

2.)Week Column: Students divide this section into the number of weeks (or classes) they have to complete the task. This allows them to visualize the amount of time they have to complete their work.

3.) “To Do”, “In Progress”, “Done” columns: these columns are where students track their progress on a task. When they are ready to start on a task from the Task Backlog, they move it to the “To Do” Column and place a coloured sticky note on the task indicating which student will be responsible for the task. Once the student has actually started the task, the move it to the “In Progress” column and when they have completed it, they move it to the “Done” Column. We usually have to come to an agreement within the groups as to what they would constitute as “Done”.

4.) Impediment Backlog: This section of the flap board is for when students hit a roadblock that impedes their progress. For example, a common impediment in my AP Capstone class is that the student has started to research their topic and has realized there are few reliable sources on their topic. If this is the case, they move the task to the Impediment Backlog section.

The Scrum Process:

At the start of each class where students have a “work block”, each group meets with their flap board and takes stock of their tasks. We call this meeting a Scrum and a Scrum should take no more than 5-8 minutes. In this Scrum, students move any of their tasks that they have completed before the class into the “Done” column and then set their goals for the class period. This may involve moving tasks out of the Task Backlog into the “To Do” Column, or moving tasks from the “To Do Column” to the “In Progress” column. As well, if any tasks have been moved to the Task Impediment section, this is the time to address the problem and to come up with an action plan. In these five minutes, students are taking stock of their progress and setting goals for tasks to be completed during this class period. At the end of each work block class, students will hold another 5-8 minute Scrum where they take stock of the progress they made in class, move tasks to the appropriate column, and set their goals for the next class.

A class Scrum is an easy and quick process, but it has revolutionized the way my students accomplish collaborative tasks that require long term planning. When students take five minutes at the start of the class to set their goals for the block, they are more productive and when they take the time to chunk a larger task down into smaller pieces in a guided manner, they are learning how to manage projects, how to collaborate, and how to problem solve to achieve their goals.

For more information on using Scrum in the classroom watch this, video showing it in action.

For more ideas on how to teach the specific skills required for collaboration, check out this excellent post.

Pam McMartin is a Senior English Teacher, English Department Head, and Senior Teacher Librarian in Tsawwassen, British Columbia. She is always looking for ways to apply the project management techniques she tries to share with her student to her own life in order to help manage the chaos. So far, this has been a work in progress. Feel free to follow her on Twitter @psmcmartin.

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.

Utilizing Every Square Meter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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This corner has the TV/computer set up for mini-lessons.

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

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

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

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

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Mrs. Swinehart is currently reading…

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

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

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

 

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Our classroom library is constantly in use.

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

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

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The conferring space/extra space for student learning

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

Follow her on twitter @SwinehartJulie

Thinking About Next Year – Already?

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Confession: I really struggled with where to take this blog post. I was worried that the onset of summer would bring fewer ideas or less will to write. Instead, I’m starting week three of my break, and my teacher brain hasn’t shut off once. I have too many zipping thoughts percolating upstairs to just focus on one. I’m constantly jotting down ideas for next year. I find my friends zoning out as I bring conversations (sometimes gracefully, oftentimes not) back to my new plans for next year. My TBR list is full of books about teaching (Teaching Argument, anyone?). I’ve jammed my summer schedule full of teaching activities: working with the College, Career and Community Writers Program; attending the AP English Language Reading, AP English Literature training, and summer AP PLC meetings (fondly called AP Allies). The list goes on and on. I might be obsessed with my job.

Confession: That obsession wasn’t always the case. The 2014-2015 school year almost did me in. Long hours, too many responsibilities, too few ‘wins,’ and an overwhelming certainty that I was both doing too much and not enough at the same time had me considering other kinds of employment. The kinds where you can go home at the end of the day and just be home. The kinds that don’t have you bringing home stacks and stacks of papers to grade, that don’t have you dumping hours of planning time into the job, the kinds that allow you to leave the problems of work at work. I’m not a quitter, and I came dangerously close to quitting the profession. I know that I’m not the only one who’s ever felt this way.

Enter the Middle Tennessee Writing Project. Recommended by a fellow teacher, this program rejuvenated my love for teaching, changed the way I approach the profession, reminded me of why I love the calling. We were required to choose from a list of best practices (I chose student agency) and work on improving that aspect of our craft for an entire year. Having just one overarching goal to focus on made the  upcoming year so much more approachable, made measuring any growth I achieved so much easier to ascertain. Focusing on student agency put the students front and center in my classroom again, right where they belong.

In the years since, I’ve continued to work on improving just one best practice every year. Instead of splitting my 100% between various small projects and doing a lot of tasks decently, I try really hard to do one task really well (I’m paraphrasing Ron Swanson here…). I’ve worked on incorporating more writing workshop in my AP classes and offering better feedback.

This year, inspired by the slowchat #DisruptTexts, my PLC is moving away from the whole class novel and implementing more independent reading choice. While brainstorming how this change would affect our writers notebooks and socratic seminar discussion schedule, we came to a few practical realizations:

  1. Modeled after AP argument questions, our essential questions are fairly broad, allowing students can take the questions in lots of different places. This broadness means that we need to spend some time teaching students how to break down each questions into all of its parts and permutations before they can begin to answer the question. This approach models what students are expected to do with each argument question (and to some extent synthesis questions as well).
  2. To address this broadness, we’re building in “intro days” where we spend a short 45 minute period breaking down the question into all of its parts: stakeholders, universal nouns/themes, “so whats,” other questions, connections to the real world, places along the argument spectrum. All essential pieces to consider before beginning to answer the question. We want to demonstrate in our teaching the value of listening, thinking, and planning before speaking, writing, answering.
  3. To highlight each beginning “intro day” for each unit, we plan on giving students colored paper to insert into their writers notebooks and ask them to do their notetaking/brainstorming for that question on that piece of paper. The colored paper will cause each beginning of the unit to stand out in their notebook, clearly separating each unit from other units.
  4. We plan on ending each unit with a socratic seminar and an in class writing – an assessment pairing that will pull together all the rabbit trails and threads we’ve chased throughout the unit. Honestly, we have no idea where these units will go yet. Hopefully, into deeper and deeper questioning and thinking, so we need some way to track the journey. We’ll ask students to collect their final noticings, observations, and remaining questions on another similar colored sheet of paper in their writers notebooks, giving the unit a clear, visual beginning and end.
  5. As we’re introducing choice into student reading and moving away from the whole class novel, we’re asking that students work with a classic American novel, a work of fiction, a podcast, a documentary, and a book of their choice at least once throughout the year. Helping students choose selections will undoubtedly present its own unique problems, but we’re expecting that students will work closely with our amazing librarians, book talk their books in small groups and with the whole group. After each unit, we will ask students to include their book on a class wide google document organized by question, with each selection tagged with universal nouns/themes and a short review. Hopefully this will help other students choose future selections while also crowdsourcing a “if you like this, you might like this” text.
  6. We’re supplementing those independent reading selections with lots of smaller mentor texts. Because we’ll have more room for smaller texts for in-class discussions and the small texts sometimes get lost in the shuffle of the year, we’re going to ask students to create and keep a bibliography for each small text in the beginning of their writers notebooks. They’ll provide the citation for each smaller work and answer two small questions for each entry:What is useful about this text for rhetorical skills/writing? What universal nouns/themes/real world events does this text connect to? Hopefully, this will give students more practical knowledge to pull from for the synthesis/argument questions of the AP test and a way to organize their mentor texts.
  7. Finally, we need to model and practice on a smaller scale what we expect students to do throughout the year with these essential questions and independent reading choices. We can’t just toss kids into the deep end of our new approach to English. So, at the beginning of each semester, we will pose a smaller question and have students go through each step with more in-class support. We will use these smaller questions to teach independent reading selection and question brainstorming while substituting novels, podcast series and documentaries with essays, short stories, and individual podcast episodes.

MTWP’s insistence on best practices and focusing on one improvement a year was a game changer for me. This post is a very small glimpse into what those changes will look like for my classroom. And, to be honest, I feel a little bit like Tantor stepping into the river, but I’m ready to take the plunge. I imagine that if you’re reading this blog on your summer break, you, too, find it hard to turn off your teacher brain even on breaks. As you continue to plan for next year, my wish for you is rest, relaxation, and rejuvenation. But… if you, like me, can’t turn your brain off and you want to share, the comments and Twitter are open. We can tiptoe into that water together.

 

Sarah Morris teaches AP Language & Composition and Film as Literature in Murfreesboro, Tn. She has been binge watching The Wire and wishes she hadn’t waited this long to start the show.  She tweets at @marahsorris_cms. Happily posting from the AP Reading in Tampa, Fl.

 

Status of Class– How to Formatively Assess where your Students Are

You could hear the cliched pin drop in the room, even though we’re only a few weeks into independent reading. It’s one of my favorite moments in the classroom–heads tilted towards their choice books, eyes moving side to side across those beautiful words and sentences. It’s a moment that ultimately lasts until mid-October, where the shine begins to dull a little and students are either completing books faster than I can get them into their hands, or dropping books faster than I can keep up with (“What do you mean you want to drop Everything, Everything? You just started it yesterday!”).

In a perfect world–not always my 10th grade classroom at my regional vocation urban high school–students would be moving excitedly from one book to another, we would have brilliant classroom discussions about the various books we are reading, and there wouldn’t have to be accountability because everyone is completely engaged and on their way to becoming the bookworms they’re meant to be.

In reality, I’m putting out small fires here and there as the first term ends, trying to keep my head above water. Between helping a handful of students find a book because they either finished their first pick or were dropping their first pick and craving the need to circulate to eliminate any temptation of students, I needed something to hold students accountable (for my boss) but in addition, a way to formatively see where each student was in our inaugural journey into IR.

As I’m sure we all can agree, reading logs don’t work.  Shana summed up what I’ve been thinking for some time now.  All I can think of are my poor (now junior) students who had to endure a reading log entry every time they read with a sentence summary of what they read and a sentence reflection along with their starting page and ending page for those 10 minutes.

Every. Single. Time.

No wonder only my most studious students did it (fearing a bad grade, not because they wanted to or saw value in it). Not only that, but I dreaded grading them (or opening each one in Google Classroom and seeing them not filled out). A sea of zeros flooded my grade book.

Enter what I’ve been using: Status of the Class.

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Status of the Class is truly inspired by both my reading of Nancie Atwell’s amazing book In The Middle (which all teachers should read at some point in their career) and Donalyn Miller’s presentation at Write Now 2016 in North Conway, NH. Both ladies have taught me the beauty of organization in the workshop classroom and the value of short check-ins among the longer conferences I make with my students as they work on their independent reading.

It’s my way to formatively assess where my students are and the progress they are making in their independent reading book. As students are reading the first 10 minutes of class, I circulate the room and peer over shoulders so I can write down what page they are on (and for some students, the title of their new book). While not a traditional conference, this works well on the days (and sometimes it feels like the many days) where I need to do a quick check-in so I can help the handful of students who are either dropping books or finished their book and don’t know where to go next.

I also like using status of the class to keep a running tab of how things are progressing to use when I email parents or during progress meeting for my special education students. It’s also a great resource to use when I conference with Juana, who has dropped three books this month alone–the data doesn’t lie. It also helps me to see that although Paul has finished three graphic novels in a row over the last 6 weeks, it might be time to challenge him outside the genre and try something new.

An added benefit to the status of the class is the competitive nature it brings out in my students. One of my EL students, Marco, asks me for his progress every time I do a Status of the Class. The look of pride on his face when does the math and sees that his reading rate is improving, little by little, is priceless. For Stephanie, she finds the check-in reassuring. On more than one occasion, after a Status of the Class, Stephanie whispers to me, “Miss, I read more pages this week than I did last week.” Stephanie is rereading Room, because last year when I had her as a 9th grader, she fake read it and only made it halfway. This year, she can’t put it down.

I still haven’t figured out a way to make it more student-led in my short 43 minute classes. When we are in the middle of an Independent Reading unit this spring, after our Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System test is over and the constant test prep pressure is off, I’m thinking of making the Status of the Class a digital resource, asking students to input via Google Form and holding students more accountable to tracking their titles and progress. By doing so, more students like Paul, Marco, and Stephanie can actively engage in their progress and see how far they truly come this year.

How do you track and hold students accountable in their reading progress? What advice or tips could you offer to teachers with shorter class periods?

 

 

Conferring with Students Proves Difficult to Implement, Even for the Most Determined

My professional goal this year centered on conferring with students about their reading and writing on a more regular basis and keeping track of those conversations in order to track progress, pose questions, and offer valuable feedback. Based on a tip offered by Kelly Gallagher at the NTCTELA conference (2017), I created a notebook with a 2-page spread for each student in order to record notes from these conversations.

RWNotebookOn the left-hand side, I pasted in a notebook card that students filled out on the first day of class with information about their favorite genre(s) of books, their favorite book, their least favorite book, one writing strength, and an aspect of their writing which they wanted to improve. Below this card, I kept a record of reading conferences with the student. Here, I not only kept a list of what books students read, but I also jotted down notes during our conversations about the text.

The best method I have found for finding out how much my students actually read, understand, or like specific texts is to talk to them about their reading and ask thought-provoking follow-up questions. By recording notes about these conversations, I am better able to tailor instruction for all students – based on common observations or questions – and recommend books for future reading that I think they’ll enjoy and that will match the level of rigor they require.

On the right-hand side of the notebook, I recorded essay scores as well as some feedback about what students need to work on in their writing such as: use of passive voice, crafting a strong thesis statement, and providing evidence to support assertions. This allows me to track student progress toward improvement of writing skills. For instance, I love it when I can record additional comments such as “she successfully wrote in the literary present tense this time” or “his poetry shows insight and creativity.”

Conference and feedback notes also allow me to see when a student fails to make progress. How many times do teachers write the same feedback on successive essays, and where is the student’s incentive to change that practice unless they are one of the rare few who are intrinsically motivated? When we speak one-on-one with students and note the recurrence of these habits, they are more likely to address them.

So – I had a plan. I implemented that plan. But things did not exactly go according to plan.

I encountered several difficulties that prevented me – and more importantly, my students – from reaping all the benefits that our discussions and resulting data collection could offer. Below, I have listed some of the problems I encountered, their causes, and the potential solutions I plan to try this semester:

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Though these difficulties left me feeling extremely frustrated at times, I do still deeply believe in conferring with students. Our students need, desire, and deserve the individual attention and feedback that reading and writing conversations provide.

Please comment with suggestions about how you have successfully conferred with students and tracked important ideas from that discourse. Let’s help each other find new ways to build relationships with as students as they build confidence in their writing and a real love of reading that extends beyond our classrooms.

 

Amber Counts teaches AP English Literature & Composition and Academic Decathlon at Lewisville High School. She believes in the power of choice and promotes thinking at every opportunity. She is married to her high school sweetheart and knows love is what makes the world go around. Someday she will write her story. Follow Amber @mrscounts.

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