Perhaps, like me, you’ve gotten caught up on sleep (and your Netflix to-watch list), you’ve read some mindless fiction just for fun, or you’ve otherwise unwound a bit from the end of the school year. Perhaps, like me, you’re not quite ready to look ahead to next year’s wonders and worries, but perhaps…like me…you’re ready to reflect.
The day-to-day mundanity of teaching can obscure the larger rewards, conundrums, and purpose our profession offers. But in the summertime, when I’m half-dozing in the sun, a book perilously close to dropping out of my limp fingers, I can better grasp the big picture of a school year. I can more clearly see the ebbs and flows of my high and low points each year, my strengths and weaknesses, and begin to think about them analytically.
It seems that you, our readers, are on the same wavelength: our top ten most-viewed posts this year were a perfect roadmap to reflecting on a school year. You read (and re-read) our authors’ writing on the basics of workshop, the nuts and bolts of reading instruction, the how-tos of writing instruction, and the inspiring posts that get at why we do this thing called teaching.
So this summer, we’d like to return to our top ten posts from the 2018-19 school year in a series about why it is that we do what we do. We invite you to re-read these pieces with us on Wednesdays, and then join us for a conversation about each week’s topic via the post’s comments, Twitter, or Facebook. Please return to these posts with us, and then engage in a turn and talk with our authors and readers to keep the love of learning alive all summer long.
Join us for a summer series revisiting our top posts from this school year, and please “turn and talk” with us in the comments section each week!
I’ve been asked this question in several different ways: How do we do this for college prep courses? How does workshop work in an AP English class? If I’m not teaching books from the canon, how am I preparing students for college? And we’ve written about it a lot on this blog. (See here and here and here and here and here and here for starters.)
Sometimes I think we have misplaced ideas about what is expected of students in college — especially if we were English majors, and our students may not be — and perhaps some skewed ideas of what rigor looks like when it comes to high school English classes.
I first clued in when I read Readicide by Kelly Gallagher. No doubt, I killed the love of reading — and the love of the literature I loved — the way I “taught” the books I expected my students to read. (Most didn’t.) Since then, I’ve studied, practiced, implemented, revised, and stayed up late thinking about how I need to revise my instruction in order to best meet the needs of my students. All of my students — not just those in a college prep or AP English or those going to college — but every student in every English class in preparation for the rest of their lives. I want them to be fully confident in their literacy and all the gifts that will give them in whatever future they choose.
My students, not just those in advanced classes, or on a college-bound track, need to know how–
to think critically about their ideas and the ideas of others
to articulate their thoughts in writing (in multiple modes) and orally (with clarity and confidence)
to support their thinking with valid sources
to revisit their ideas and revise them when they encounter viewpoints that require them to extend, modify, or change their thinking
to verify sources, and identify and analyze bias
There’s power in these skills, opportunity and freedom — for our students and for ourselves. We do not need a list of “AP suggested novels” to teach them.
What we need is to build communities in our classrooms where students feel safe to engage in inquiry, share their thoughts, receive feedback, and give themselves to the learning process. Study guides, worksheets, TpT lesson plans, and the same ol’ same ol’ approach to teaching the same ol’ books will not cut it. Just because a book is considered of literary merit does not make the learning around it rigorous. Rigor is not in the text but in what students do with the text. (For more on this, see Jeff Wilhelm’s article “Teaching Texts to Somebody! A Case for Interpretive Complexity“)
What we need is to to know our state ELA standards or the AP English Course and Exam Description as provided by College Board. (I think the AP English Course descriptions scream “workshop.”) Then, begin thinking about and hunting for mentor texts, written in a variety of modes, that 1) prompt students to think in different ways about a different topics, 2) engage students in inquiry and class discussion, 3) spark ideas for research, and all along the way, invite students to write beside these mentors: What do you think? What do you notice? What do you wonder?
At least this is the genesis of answering the question: How does workshop work to prepare students for college? There’s so much more to it.
I once did a two day workshop, helping a district coordinator move her teachers into the readers-writers workshop model. In a reflection after our training, one teacher-participant wrote: “I’ve been teaching for 24 years, and feel like I’ve been told I’ve been doing it wrong all along.” Nope.
But. . .
What if we could do instruction better?
Amy Rasmussen lives in North Texas where she thinks, ponders, and writes about how to motivate, engage, and teach today’s adolescent readers and writers. She will be spending a lot of her summer facilitating PD focused on readers-writers workshop in secondary English classes. Follow her @amyrass — and she’d love it if you follow this blog!
Hello. My name is Lisa Dennis and I used to be a writer.
For an English teacher, that should be a pretty scary admission, but this year didn’t go at all the way I planned, so admissions seem like a good place to start. This was going to be a year of new beginnings with an English 9 reunion tour, and plenty to blog about, but instead it was a year of loss and uncertainty. Both stole my voice.
But I cannot let that loss roll unchecked from this year to the next. Neither I, nor my career could survive it. So, it’s time to reclaim my role as writer. I want to relish the feeling of the keys under my fingers and the possibility that this post will release what’s been building up in me for months now. Perhaps it must be as Louis L’Amour suggests and I should just “start writing, no matter what. The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on.” Here’s to releasing some flood waters.
November of 2018 was supposed to have been a time of great achievement and celebration. I was speaking at NCTE with some of my dearest friends and colleagues at a session chaired by Cornelius Minor. I was headed home from that event to celebrate Thanksgiving with my family. As it turns out, very little went as planned that month.
At NCTE, our incredible session entitled “Accomplice”ing Great Things – An Action Plan for Equity, Inclusivity, and Allied Partnerships in ELA Classrooms” was a well attended (thanks for the boost, Corn!) multi-presenter talk and was generally well received. After weeks of work with my dear friend Alejandra on a presentation celebrating cross-categorical partnerships, the two of us spoke on the joy we feel in working cross categorically to build both community and highly engaging/challenging work for our students.
During our presentation, however, an audience member took umbrage – on Twitter – with our suggestion that fellow educators create their own “Teacher Tribe” with colleagues in order to build a supportive culture amongst staff to positively influence student outcomes. For the offense, though we had no idea at the time that our wording was offensive, we took great pain in having misstepped. For the public Twitter shaming, however, I was horrified. Our group was still presenting when someone showed me the tweet. Instantly, my stomach dropped and my heart began to race. Though we weren’t even finished presenting yet, the hard work of all our entire group now had a shadow over it and I felt that I was to blame. I wanted to melt under the table and disappear. It took everything I had to keep from crying through the rest of our presentation. Jon Ronson, if you need a subject for a sequel, I’m your gal. Talk about an instant lesson in the power of embarrassment to halt learning.
A bit later, after apologizing to everyone involved, including Cornelius Minor (shame, shame, horror, and shame), I took stock. Our work had been heartfelt, sincere, and intended to support the awesome work of educators of all backgrounds in raising student voice. Instead, for me, the entire experience was tainted by my feelings of having failed my fellow presenters in some way I could never have anticipated.
And then…I got mad. Overeat takeout in my hotel room, angry text my husband, downright mad. In my humble opinion, a community of educators working to support one another deserve the same grace we grant our students when they take risks and try new things. A conversation to teach, versus a tweet to publically call out, would have been the most appropriate, and helpful, way to move a fellow educator forward.
I fully understand that the road to hell is indeed paved with good intentions, and as leaders we must do and be better, but when a learner is unaware of new rules and changing guidelines, we teach.
When we see a need for change, we teach.
When we know more or better or deeper than our students, we teach.
We teach because the need is great and the best learning occurs with support. That’s the teacher I strive to be.
So, I worked to turn the corner and do better. However, when I returned home to Wisconsin, things did not improve. In fact, the hit and run of NCTE was nothing in comparison with the imminent head on collision to come. I wanted to write about the experience, but couldn’t find the words. Before I knew it, that turned in to not wanting to write about anything. At all. I felt afraid to speak, for fear of saying the wrong thing. Afraid to offend. Afraid to suggest I knew much about anything at all.
Then, just after the holiday, my father, who had been in remission from stage four cancer for well over a year, announced that his cancer had returned. A surgery was scheduled for mid-December and all the fear, uncertainty, and helplessness that accompanies the aging of our parents, washed over me once again. Anyone who has supported a loved one through cancer knows…the tide can be swift and merciless.
The next four months are sort of a blur. Dad’s heart stopped unexpectedly during surgery and added both time and difficulty to his recovery. Though the procedure had been successful in removing the cancer from that one area, it was determined just a few weeks later that the cancer had spread even further. Dad’s treatments intensified and his quality of life simultaneously plummeted. My vibrant, funny, energetic, all around amazing Dad was slipping away. Quickly.
It was during these bleak midwinter months that I desperately wanted to write. The feelings, longings, and bottomless black holes opening inside of me made me ache to release my uncertainties and insecurities, but I couldn’t. I would sit and nothing would come. I would open my notebook and cry instead. I would wish the pressure in my chest onto the page, and I just couldn’t make the pen move. I felt so hollow and so desperately full of pain at the same time.
And then, in late March, Dad’s body could take no more. In a sterile, ugly, impersonal ICU room, my father, who only weeks before had been so hopeful, and full of life, passed away of an infection he contracted just days before. After five years battling cancer, he was suddenly gone, and what had been my seemingly endless fears, and questions, and longings, tiny explosions ripping through my body at all hours of the day, went completely numb. My little nuclear family, just the three of us, was down to two and the man who had taught me to love reading, think critically, and write myself into existence no longer existed himself. I could barely breathe.
In the coming days, I knew I would need to return to writing, and it would be the most important piece I had ever crafted – my father’s eulogy. The doubts and the writer’s block had to melt away. I had no choice. I must find my voice to sing the praises of the man who gave me life, taught me to love, and showed me how rich a life of learning could be. Weeks later, I would read C.S. Lewis’sA Grief Observed, and see how it was possible for me to suddenly pour myself onto to page after months of nothing. Lewis writes, “We cannot understand. The best is perhaps what we understand least.” Such is true of both what is lost and what is found. I obviously wish that the finding could sometimes happen without the losing, but this was not my truth this time around. I had to be completely empty. Only then could I pick up a pen and squeeze something from nothing.
It’s an appointment with my therapist that brought about this post. As she is helping me to process my grief, I’m starting to see the possibilities in myself, and my writing, again. It was her suggestion to write. Now I ponder the implications on my students for next year. How different I will be in fostering their writing lives and advocating for the saving graces that accompany a release of emotions onto the page.
Here’s hoping that turning on the faucet of my writing leads to a mighty monsoon. I miss this…and I cannot be the writing teacher my students deserve next year unless I get back to it.
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 now tries to live life based on the last pieces of advice her dad gave her – Be kind. Read good books. Feed the birds. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum.
During undergraduate studies (with Shana!), Dr. Alan Frager, a favorite professor of literacy at Miami University, assigning a repeated readings fluency experiment to my fellow pre-service teachers in which we had to have a peer read a poem multiple times and track their fluency improvements. While During student teaching, I worked with a reading intervention group and later relied on the practice when teaching in my own classroom to improve student fluency and comprehension. If repeated readings work to improve student reading–what about repeated writings?
I had a theory that if we ask students to write the same type of piece or over the same topic a few times, perhaps they would gain fluency in the mode or achieve more depth of thought with more opportunities to practice and process. I noticed this to be proven true with my AP Literature and Language courses, as we practice the same style responses throughout the year, working to deepen analysis and improve craft but wondered what impact repeated writings would have on creative, analytical, and reflective pieces. We do repeated readings or re-readings of texts to glean and gain more information. We ask students to practice their speeches, presentations, and pre-writings. We practice writing high quality, thoughtful questions for Socratic Seminars. Why not challenge students to “lap,” as Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher would say, around the same pieces?
Throughout the past school year, juniors practiced quick writes, many from Linda Rief’s The Quickwrite Handbook and creative responses inspired by mentor texts. We journaled in topic notebooks about our independent reading books. I also assigned multiple iterations of the same writing assignment in the hopes that, like repeated readings, style and content would improve as students gained confidence.
The repeated assignments, usually chunked into 3 to 5 practices, created a series of thought and writing improvement that could be tracked throughout my informal study. During the year, students practiced writing responses about editorials in the news three times over three weeks to hone our argumentative skills. We worked on literary analysis chunks that paired with choice novels which culminated in a mini-literary analysis when strung together. This spring, students wrote four reflective one-pagers that synthesized The Bluest Eye, the documentary “13th,” and their understandings of the world each week. We reflected on growth with quarterly Reading Ladders, too.
Repeated writings provided opportunities for improvement and depth. Once students understood the type or style or writing, they were able to shift their cognitive focus to their ideas and voice versus the parameters, requirements, or purpose of the assignment with repeated practice. I noticed students moving away from the five-paragraph essay and templates to infusing voice into their argument. I saw a synthesis of ideas across texts. I noticed more different syntax and academic vocabulary, as well as moments of writer’s craft rule breaking. Most importantly, I saw students become more confident in their writing–there was much less “Is this right?” and more “I can’t wait for you to read my paper!” or “Can we share these in groups?”
While one must strike a balance between assigning the same task over and over again to the point of monotony, repeated writings worked like repeated readings with the most gains being in confidence and identity as a writer.
Maggie Lopez is enjoying the slow mornings of summer break, sunshine, and endless reading time on the back porch. You can find her on Twitter at @meg_lopez0.
If you advocate for student-centered learning via RWW, we’d love to have you as a guest blogger. Email Amy@threeteacherstalk.com
A year ago, Olivia launched a new school year of freshman English — classroom stocked with a library of over three hundred fresh titles. The first day of school was filled with getting to know her new students and getting them to know some of the books they could choose to read. She knew that all of her students wouldn’t find the right book on the first day, and she had planned regular “book tastings” over the first three weeks of school, patiently making plenty of space to build community and establish the routines of a student-centered Readers-Writers Workshop model of instruction and learning to invite choice and voice, and to distribute ownership to growing readers and writers in order to systematically build independent habits for reading, writing, communicating, and thinking.
However, on this first day of school, Olivia noticed a student named Mia slip into a familiar reading zone—a book had hooked her. While the other students in class spent time exploring several books, trying them out—frowning, smiling, confused, interested—Olivia noticed Mia turning page after page, lost to the classroom around her. Shyly, at the end of class, Mia asked Olivia if she could take the book home. Olivia warmly assented, marveling at the immediate connection Mia made to this book while wondering what exactly it was that sparked it.
The next day, Mia walked into class and immediately began reading the book again. Olivia noticed that Mia must have been reading last night as well because she was nearly half-way through the book. Excited, Olivia sat next to Mia and asked her how she was liking the book and what really drew her to it. Quiet at first, Mia emotionally explained: this was the first time she’d read a book with a character struggling with an eating disorder — just like her. This gave her the courage to tell her parents about her own disorder for the first time, last night, after struggling with and hiding it for the past six years.
Mia went on to tearfully ask if she could continue to talk to Olivia about her experience in class, as she read the book and processed; she knew that this would be an emotional challenge for her. After a hug, Olivia explained that that was one of the most important things they would do in class this year: talk and write and share (when ready, because—writers make choices about sharing) about the issues and reality that impact their lives and the world around them.
Books help us see, understand, and talk about things deep inside us that we either don’t recognize or try to ignore. Providing teachers and students with a robust classroom library may be the most meaningful support we can offer to this end.
Writers address real issues, and our student readers and writers can, too. When we put the books that contain the real issues—the authentic, relevant, enigmatic issues—that humans are not able to escape into our students’ hands, heads, and hearts, we teach our learners to confront them and give them tools that lead to empowerment.
Billy Eastman is a curriculum coordinator for English Language Arts and World Languages and Culture in League City, TX. He enjoys talking with folks and finding ways to make smart ideas happen. Follow Billy on Twitter @thebillyeastman
Here’s the thing: Finding engaging mentor texts, whether to integrate current events into lesson plans or use them to teach reading and writing skills, requires us to be readers of the world.
“I don’t have time,” I hear some thinking. Yeah, well, finding the time to read ourselves is the best professional development available.
Want to engage students more in independent reading? Read a wide variety of engaging and inclusive YA literature. Want to shake up literature studies? Read more diverse and award-winning literature. Want to bring real world events into the classroom for some critical discussion? Read a whole bunch of news.
There’s no secret to finding mentors that will work. We just have to do the work to find them.
We can rely on others to help. Kelly Gallagher posts the articles of the week he uses with his students — a good resource. Moving Writers has a mentor text dropbox — also good. However, what works for some students may not work for others. We know this.
We also know our students. We know the instructional goals we have for them, and we know what they need from us in terms of interest and ability (at least we should.)
So — read more. Read with a lens that will best meet your needs and the needs of your students. Sometimes we find treasure.
For me treasured mentors, particularly for informational texts — because they often get a bad rep — are those that are not boring. (In my experience, most students think info texts are boring.) Voice, format, and style = engaging real world informational writing.
I’m sure there’s more out there, but here’s three sources I read regularly. Sometimes I pull long excerpts, sometimes paragraphs, sometimes sentences to use as mentors.
The Hustle. “Your smart, good looking friend that sends you an email each morning with all the tech and business news you need to know for the day.” You can sign up for the newsletter here. Here’s a sampling of a great piece with imbedded graphs and data: How teenage hackers became tech’s go-to bounty hunters. This is a mentor I would love to use with high school classes.
The Skimm. (I’ve shared this before.) “Making it easier for you to live smarter.” Sign up for the newsletter here. The women who started this site are all about promoting and advocating for women. I like that. Their podcast is interesting, too.
Robinhood Snacks. “Your daily dose of financial news.” I’ve been teaching myself about investing for the past couple of years, so this one just made sense to me — the newbie-tentative investor. What I like is how the writers make the information so accessible — and they post a “Snack fact of the day,” which will often work as an interesting quickwrite prompt. Sign up for the newsletter here.
What about you? Do you have favorite resources to stay in the loop of the news or to find treasured mentors for informational reading and writing? Please share in the comments.
Amy Rasmussen spends a little too much time reading daily newsletters and checking her most recent stock purchases. Her favorite investing apps: Robinhood, Stash, and Acorns. Really, if she can do it, you can, too. Amy lives, writes, and loves her family in North Texas. Follow her @amyrass
I’m amazed, sometimes, by how quiet this room can get. Lights dimmed, soft piano music playing, I slowly shift papers from one stack to another as I pour over the thoughts and words of this, my first class of students at my new school.
Pausing for a moment, aware of the unusual peacefulness, I glance around the room. Everyone who visits complements the view through the big picture window overlooking the courtyard studded with live oaks. I, for once, appreciate that view before continuing my scan of our sacred space. Everywhere my eyes land, I see evidence that students populated this space. Someone taped snowflakes made of empty gum wrappers to my bookshelves. Another person wrote “HEYYY” on a sticky-note stuck to the built-in shelves. Some creative soul splashed hearts and stars across the small whiteboard. Paper, wrappers, and empty water bottles litter the floor and remind me that I need to pick up a little before I turn off the lights.
Hundreds of colorful pennants decorate the space above the book shelves; a reminder that as we struggled through our literacy lives this year, we covered vast expanses of literary territory. Upon closer inspection, I notice names, titles, and authors scribbled on each scrap of paper – evidence of books loved, hours of silent satisfaction, and reading identities. These little flags wave reminders at me of the hard work, joy, and successes we’ve shared.
Books laze haphazardly on shelves overloaded, wondering where their friends have disappeared to. Shifting my eyes towards the door, I see the book nook stacked high with books waiting for a magic book fairy to shuffle them back into their places in the classroom library before school lets out.
My thoughts move to the front wall, draped in sagging and fading anchor charts, and I remember when two intern teachers – confident and comfortable – created their own “vortex” (more on that another day) and hashed out a lesson cycle like they’d been doing it for years.
My professional library brings up thoughts of lunches spent silently scouring the words great thinkers, and roads traveled; places left to visit or re-visit. Kittle, Gallagher, Newkirk, Romano, Anderson and many more, remind me of monumental tasks I faced each day and remind me too, that I signed up for this. Above, those books rest, (on the shoulders of giants, one might say) mementos, pictures, action figures and even a giant check left over from days of football past.
Too often, thoughts grades, lesson plans, assessment, and skills consume my mental calories. Not near often enough do I take the time to reflect, piano music drifting softly through the air, on our work here in this room.
This year was far different from all those that proceeded it. The end-of-day rush out the door wasn’t a mad dash to football practice or to the parking lot just before driving a bus full of teenagers across town to a soccer game. Instead, I rushed out the door to get home in time to meet my daughter at the bus stop before picking up my son at school. There were no serious talks with students facing graduation, warning them how much it hurts to have life after high school hit them square in the face.
Instead, these freshman taught me as much about teaching as I taught them about reading and writing. They forced me to face struggle as much as I forced it upon them. They made me look at my craft with fresh(man) eyes and change the way I moved through workshop routines. I’m better for it.
Graduate school, too, reinforced the importance of life-long-learning and ripped the cover off the academic writing skills I’d boxed up almost twenty years ago.
In one year, I won a #BookLove grant and presented at the district, state, and national levels. Recently, I was asked to contribute to the ILA magazine, Literacy Today, based solely off of a piece I posted right here back in July. Not bad for a an old ‘ball coach.
Being asked to chair the High School Section for TCTELA has been both an honor and an eyeopener. I’ve never experienced the feeling of fear that came over me when I realized how much the members of this section needed outlets to amplify their powerful voices, and I didn’t know the first place to start. To even begin to think about conquering these tasks, I leaned on the lessons that have come before this, in times of vulnerability, and I looked at those around me who handle their struggle with grace and composure. Oh, and those inspirational educators are the people with whom I’ll travel to Louisiana, for ILA 2019, to continue to spread our love of literacy.
Charles Moore looks forward to new challenges and growth opportunities even in his old age. He’s trying to rebuild his reading habits and write as much as possible. If you are high school teacher in Texas, and would like to help out with the High School Section of TCTELA, please email Charles at firstname.lastname@example.org. He wishes everyone a peaceful and relaxing summer and promises to post as many twitter selfies as possible.