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Category Archives: Re-Turn and Talk

Top Books for Reluctant High School Readers

return and talkThis summer, we’d like to return and talk about some of our most useful, engaging, or popular posts.  Today’s post, written by Jackie in 2015, shows us some great possibilities for back-to-school booktalks.

Please return to this topic and talk with us in the comments–what are some hot titles you’ll booktalk as we return to school this year?


IMG_2877“I’m not a reader.” I hear this multiple times during my first weeks of conferencing. The non-readers are easily identifiable; their body language alone speaks volumes of their disdain for books.

“You just haven’t found the right book,” I tell them, and they smirk, knowing they’ve heard that statement before.

The first week of school is a vital week of matching students with books, and while I itch to recommend titles, I hold back, giving my freshmen the independence and freedom they so desperately crave in high school. Too often students blindly accept recommendations without so much as a thought to the contents. They lack self-awareness when it comes to their reading interests or style, which is why those first two weeks are essential to not only organizing but also empowering them through choice.

Throughout the week, I book talk popular titles, engage in “speed dating” with books, and provide ample free time for students to explore our classroom library, but I also get out of their way. Instead of telling them what to read, I model ways to find a strong candidate, considering reviews, awards, contents, genres, and summaries.

While the majority of the class tends to quickly settle into their books, there are always stragglers who remain convinced they’ll never enjoy reading. These students sometimes grab the first book they see off the shelf, and oftentimes these books are too dense, difficult, or in some cases “boring.” That is okay! I settle into conferences with these students, getting to know their hobbies and eventually handing them two or three books that might pique their interest. In the end, they still choose what to read, but in the process they might require some initial guidance.

IMG_2870Regardless of who picks the book, the end result remains the same—to find a plot that envelops and consumes students, forcing them into the story. Here are some of my number one titles that tend to break down the shell of even the most reluctant readers.

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

I’ve already had three students read this book, one of which is Leah, a gamer and self-identified non-reader. When I asked if she has ever had a favorite book, she thought for a second then said, “I think this one might be the only book I’ve ever really liked.”

The Compound by S.A. Bodeen

Adrian initially picked a sequel to a book he read last year. “You must have liked the first one then?” I asked.

“Not really,” he replied. “I just didn’t know what else to read.” The next day he picked up The Compound, which is full of the fast-paced suspense he craves.

Paper Towns and Looking for Alaskaand basically everything by John Green.

I chased Emily up the stairs for this recommendation. When I asked her which one sparked her interest in reading, she said she couldn’t remember which had sucked her in. She just knew that despite her protestations at the beginning of the year, by the end she “loved them both.”

The Eleventh Plague by Jeff Hirsch

Damion had only ever loved one book and he was bound and determined not to like any in my classroom; that is until he came across this futuristic, survival story. Upon sitting down beside him for a mini-conference last year, he looked away from his book briefly to say, “Ms. Catcher, I’m at a really good part and I can’t talk right now.”

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

“I’ve had people give me ‘dark’ books before, but they aren’t dark at all,” Sarah tells me. I hand her three options, one of which is Gone Girl. Three days later she tells me, “I’ve spent my whole life hating books, and you’re the first teacher who ever found one I actually liked.”

Unwind by Neal Shusterman

I book talked Unwind second this year. It’s a given crowd pleaser because of its twisted plot and graphic scenes. The fact that I only have one copy of my four originals is a testament to its popularity.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

Carter claims he hasn’t read a book cover-to-cover since third grade, but he has fallen in love with Chbosky’s classic on teenage life. He said to me today, “Ms. Catcher, I love that this book talks about real things, things that are actually happening to us.”

“That book is only the beginning, Carter,” I said

What books do you recommend for reluctant readers?  Which titles are most popular in your classroom?

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The Power of (very short) Stories

return and talkThis summer, we’d like to return and talk about some of our most useful, engaging, or popular posts.  Today’s post, written by Amy in 2014, shows us a great back-to-school writing activity.

Please return to this topic and talk with us in the comments–what are some of your tried-and-true writing activities for the first days of school?


As soon as I created my own very short story, modeled after VISA’s Go World videos, I knew I would have my students create their own.

For our introductions at the Book Love class I attended with Penny Kittle this summer, she had us watch a few of the Go World videos, and then imitate one of the structures. This is harder than it seems.

Here’s a few of the ones I watched and transcribed. They all represent moments that matter in the person’s life, and they are only in 35 to 60 words.

Lopez Lomong started running when he was six. And he didn’t stop for three days and three nights as he escaped life as a child soldier. Twenty years later he was still running; he just had a different thing driving him every step of the way.

Hours before his race in ’88, Dan Jansen’s sister Jane passed away. He’d promised her he’d win gold. He didn’t — until six years later. Then he skated a victory lap with his daughter — Jane.

Derek Redmond didn’t finish in first place in the 1992 400 meter. He didn’t finish in second or third or fourth. He, and his father, finish dead last. But he and his father finished.

People had been leaping over the high jump bar the same way since the sport began until one day when Dick Fosbury came along and moved the whole sport forward by going over the bar backwards.

You should watch a few of you own. Then write down the words and look at the structure of these very short stories. Then, I challenge you to write your own.

Think about your writing process as you write. Revise in your notebook. Pay attention, so you can share your process with your students. I’ve learned that the best thing I can do as a writing teacher is let them see me struggle as I try to make meaning.

I ended up writing four different versions with four different structures before I wrote a version that pleased me.

Here’s mine:

I am introducing this writing activity to students next week. I thought about having them write a full-blown narrative first and then having them cut their stories down to their own Go World stories. That would be an interesting exercise in word choice. I decided instead to have students write and create their own videos first — then we will tackle descriptive writing and work on exploding our very short stories into ones with a little more substance.

I opted for the fast-track to build community.

Story does that, you know.

Any ideas on how you might use this type of mentor text with your students? or any others you’ve had success with?

5 Non-Negotiables When Designing Writing Instruction

return and talkThis summer, we’d like to return and talk about some of our most useful, engaging, or popular posts.  Today’s post, written by Shana in 2015, shows us her process for designing writing instruction.

Please return to this topic and talk with us in the comments–how do you design instructional units in the workshop classroom?


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First draft of a unit plan in my notebook

I plan my units of instruction in three-week chunks, alternating between a reading-focused unit and a writing-focused unit.  In every unit, and in every class period, I keep some routines the same, much like Amy describes here.  While I do most of the big thinking about a unit up front, I do leave some holes in the plans to make space for mini-lessons that are responsive to what I discover students need during our conferences.  And every year, I design brand new units.

While each unit is unique, I was reminded while at the NCTE Annual Convention of five non-negotiables to keep in mind when designing writing instruction.

Writing should be low-stakes.  Students need to write a lot, and a lot of that writing should be ungraded, unread, or worth very few points.  I have felt liberated in terms of grading writing since I read Kelly Gallagher’s research-based statement that students should be reading and writing four times as much as a teacher could ever grade.

I think, since I embraced that philosophy, that my students also feel liberated.  Their notebooks are a “safe place for regular, ungraded practice,” as Penny Kittle described in her Ignite session.  While we write in our notebooks every day, and outside of class in one-pagers, I only collect notebooks every two weeks, and only carefully read and respond to one or two pieces my students have marked.  Indeed, 80% of the writing we do stays in our notebooks and never makes it to ‘published’ form.  This takes the pressure off writers to produce something perfect or error-free, because “our classrooms need to be a safe place to fail,” in the words of Taylor Mali.

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The first two weeks of Kelly Gallagher’s unit plan–week three is filled with revision and getting to best draft #3 at the ‘deep end’

Teaching writing is complex, layered, and nuanced.  In her session on revision, Georgia Heard shared the five things all students need in order to make authentic revision happen:  “opportunities for students to write, mini-lessons on craft and revision, choice in topics, mentor texts, one-on-one conferences with both teachers and students.”  Kelly Gallagher’s unit plan he walked us through adhered to those rules remarkably well.  “Assigning writing and teaching writing are two different things.  Grading writing and assessing writing are two different things,” he reminded us.  It is impossible for students to produce great writing if it is merely assigned.  Thus, when I plan a unit of writing instruction, I leave ample time for craft mini-lessons, modeling my own writing, and talk amongst students and myself.

When teachers are writers ourselves, and experience the process of topic choice, revision, and studying craft moves beside our students, we can become the most effective teachers of writing.  We have to walk the talk.  “Great, effective teachers must be informed AND inspired,” Kwame Alexander asserted.  To be a truly informed teacher of writing, a teacher must be a writer herself. I learned more about writing a strong narrative while participating in NaNoWriMo alongside my students than I ever did just trying to teach fiction before I wrote fiction.  I loved the experience six years ago during my first attempt, and I’ve continued to complete all assignments beside my students ever since.  When we write with our students, inspiration will spread through “the contagion of passion,” in Penny Kittle’s words.

Writing should be personal.  While I love to write about reading, and find it valuable for students to do so often, most of the writing in my classroom is personalized, choice-driven, and often remains private.  When we do a nonfiction writing unit, like the rhetorical analysis we’re in the midst of right now, our written products are focused on the students’ relationships to the texts they’re analyzing–in this case, the misleading rhetoric often found in American politics.  Mostly we write narratives, even in the midst of nonfiction, telling the stories of our connections to the topics we discuss in informative or argumentative genres.

“You can write yourself out of dark places. How much of the writing we do in school nurtures that?” Gary Anderson wondered in his session on reflection.  We have to honor the fact that students are not inherently motivated to write for their futures–for college, job applications, or resumes–but rather they are motivated to write for the here and now, and for themselves.  This is why choice is, and will remain, at the center of my writing instruction.

How do you design writing instruction?  Share your process in the comments!

3 Ways to Jump-Start Reluctant Writers

return and talkThis summer, we’d like to return and talk about some of our most useful, engaging, or popular posts.  Today’s post, written by Jackie in 2015, shows us how to engage teens who may be more resistant to writing.

Please return to this topic and talk with us in the comments–how do you jumpstart your reluctant writers?


IMG_1703My younger sister Brittany is a phenomenal writer; in school, she excelled in all subjects, including English, but I never saw her struggle quite as much as when she was required to keep a writer’s notebook. For me, writer’s notebooks had always been liberating. I kept one in my spare time after having read Ralph Fletcher’s A Writer’s Notebook the summer before sixth grade. This was not the case for my sister though who, at the urging of her teacher, would write, “I do not know what to write” for ten minutes straight. Her teacher would tell her, “You’ll figure out what to write after a while,” but she clearly didn’t know my sister who is not only brilliant but also strong willed and persistent. In turn, when I told my sister I’d be integrating writer’s notebooks into my classes, she groaned, saying, “I hated those things.”

Brittany’s PTSD was reasonable. When used without encouragement or prompting, writer’s notebooks can become tedious and painful. Students can easily learn to loathe this tool that should otherwise be fun and stimulating. In turn, when my students explore their writing, I make an effort to help fuel their ideas and interests through a variety of writing activities and exercises that oftentimes help even the most particular writers.

  1. Prompt Board: At the beginning of the year, I ask students to write 3-4 pages in their writer’s notebooks. This helps students establish a writing routine and it helps me to learn about my students quickly. That being said, many students stall when it comes to putting pencil to paper. After running into this problem early on, I began posting five writing prompts per week on the side of my main white board. These topics included personal questions about students’ interests or extracurricular activities as well as sentence starters and fictional scenarios intended to lead into creative writing. I compiled the majority of these prompts off of social networks like Twitter and Pinterest, but I also use sentences from my book talks during the week as prompts as well. I post these prompts on my website in a separate section so students can always go back and revisit the prompts from past weeks.
  1. Ideas Shelf: Teens love thumbing through the pages of oddly shaped writing books. One of my most well-loved books is a cube shaped book called The Writer’s Block, which has “786 ideas to jump-start your imagination.” That being said, there are plenty of fantastic average size books that I store on an ideas shelf, which also includes 642 Things to Write About, Now Write: Nonfiction, Now Write: Fiction Writing Exercises From Today’s Best Writers and Teachers, and 100 Quickwrites by Linda Rief. When stuck, students gravitate towards this shelf. In addition, with the help of my Writer’s Club, I am hoping to add a jar of words, images, and prompts this year for students to pull from whenever they are struggling.
  1. Self-Guided Activities: As the adviser of Writer’s Club, I always have trinkets on hand Rory's Story Cubes for StADato help students put their pencils to paper. Some of my students’ favorite toys include Rory’s Story Cubes, which are dice with small pictures on them. Students can toss a handful of dice and incorporate the images into a story. I also have a collection of old skeleton keys I bought at a craft store. Tied to each key is a tag with a sentence starter that discusses where the key might have been found or what the key opens. Another easy activity involves collecting paint strips from your local hardware store and having students write stories involving the absurd color names on each strip.  Finally, I love utilizing found photography like the pictures from Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children or old calendar images to get students thinking. I have a collection of small Dana Heacock calendar images, which are brightly colored drawings of New England scenery or objects.  These images oftentimes stir up students’ memories of childhood and lead to fantastic personal stories.

How do you help inspire your reluctant writers?  What methods do you use to jump-start their independent writing process?

5 Reasons Reading Conferences Matter–Especially in High School English

return and talkThis summer, we’d like to return and talk about some of our most useful, engaging, or popular posts.  Today’s post, written by Amy in 2015, reminds us that conferences aren’t just for assessment–they’re for nurturing, too.

Please return to this topic and talk with us in the comments–how and why do you confer?


The Attention. Every child needs one-on-one conversations with an adult as often as possible.  Adolescents, by nature of their age, struggle with identity, fairness, stress, and a slew of other issues that contribute to all kinds of problems. The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University. reports that “9 out of 10 Americans who meet the medical criteria for addiction started smoking, drinking, or using other drugs before age 18.” This is not surprising since according to this study, “75% of all high school students have used addictive substances, including tobacco, alcohol, marijuana, or cocaine.”

I know there are many reasons for teenagers to partake in these substances. I also know that many students think that adults do not care, or will not notice, if they are in class, participating in class, or lucid in class. One way to show our adolescent students that we care is to talk with them. And face-to-face conversations about books and reading is a pretty safe way to do so, not to mention that we model authentic conversations about reading when we do.

Try questions like:

  • How’s it going? (Thanks, Carl Anderson)
  • Why did you choose this book?
  • Do you know anyone else who has read this book? What’d she think?
  • How’d you find the time to read this week?
  • What’s standing in the way of your reading time?

The Relationship. Once students know they can trust us, they will tell us things about their lives, their struggles, and their hopes beyond high school. According to the Zur Institute, teen internet and video game addictions, violence in the media, online bullying, and violence in the home top the charts as some of the major influencers of teen behavior. On the Zur website, there’s a section titled “What You Can Do.” We find language that mirrors the words and phrases that lead to the most effective reading conferences, like “learn what [it] means to your children by talking with them about it,” and “be genuinely curious about what draws them to [whatever it is],” and “discuss balance,” and “keep the conversation active.”

We hear so much talk in education circles about engagement. Engagement comes as a result of relationships. When we talk to our students about their lives and the things that matter to them, and we help them see that somewhere in some book a character has experienced similar situations, conflicts, and heartaches, we show our students that literature is a living breathing source of hope. This Psychology Today post explains it clearly:  “Books are friends we can choose without restriction,” believed John Ruskin, an English art critic of the 19 Century who influenced Marcel Proust “who developed the idea of a novel that was not just a friend, but a friend who enables us to become intimate both with other minds and with our own.” Proust called readers of his own work “a sort of magnifying glass … by which I could give them the means to read within themselves.”

My students and I talk about windows and mirrors. This is why we read literature:  to learn what it means to be human. How do you see yourself in the characters, conflicts, situations, and how do you see out into a world that is very different from your own? The more we grow in empathy, the better relationship we’ll have with our friends, our families and all other people we associate with — at least the idealist in me will cling to that hope as I continue to talk to students about books and reading.

Try questions like:

  • What character reminds you of yourself or someone you know?
  • What part of the story is the most similar/different to your life?
  • Why do you think the author makes that happen in the book?
  • What does he want us to learn about life?
  • How does this story/character/conflict/event make you think about life differently?

The Learning. There are times when I’ve done a mini-lesson, I feel like I’ve talked to myself. I see little application of a skill I know I’ve taught. Sometimes students completely miss the point of the lesson. However, when I take the time to talk to each student individually, and reinforce the skill in a quick chat, the application of that skill some how seeps into their brains much deeper. And you know those students who are super apprehensive — the ones who have to ask “Is this right?” and show us a teeny bit of work before they will really produce any work? Holding a regular reading conference has solved this problem.

Students know they will get a chance to talk with me about their progress, and they are more willing to take risks than when we talk infrequently. Time for reading conferences, and conferences timed to meet the needs of each one of our learners solves many at-risk behaviors and promotes deeper learning.

Try questions like:

  • Tell me about _____ that we learned in class today. How does that relate to your book/character?
  • Remember when we learned _____, tell me how/where you see that in your book.
  • Think about when we practiced ___, where does the author do that in your book?
  • You’ve improved with ___, how could you use that skill for _______?

The Literacy. Sometimes I think we forget that the purpose of our instruction must be to develop the literate lives of our students. We must provide opportunities for our students to grow into confident and competent readers and writers in order to handle the rigor and complexity of post high school education and beyond. We must remember to focus on literacy not on the literature — just like we must focus on the reader not just on the reading. We must validate our readers, ask questions that spark confidence, avoid questions that demean or make the student defensive, and at the same time challenge our readers into more complex texts. We can learn if a child has read a book, or the assigned pages, with a few quick questions. Then we must turn the conversations to the why, the what, and the how that will get students to choose to take a step up the ladder of complexity.

When students know that we care more about them as the person than we care about what or how much they have read, they will trust us. And it’s trust between the adolescent and the adult that creates the most movement as a reader, a writer, a student, a young person emerging into adulthood. Students will read the rich literature we bless because they know we are leading them into literature that will in turn bless their lives.

Try questions like:

  • On a scale of 1 to 10 how complex is this book for you? Why?
  • What do you do when the reading gets difficult?
  • Of all the books you’ve read this year, which was the most challenging? Why?
  • How’s it going finding vocabulary for your personal dictionary?
  • Tell me how you are keeping track of the parallel storyline?

The Reward. We can experience powerful rewards as we meet with our students in regular reading conferences. (I wrote about one here.) Every year, after students get to know me a bit, they tell me things like: “We were scared of you at first. You seemed so strict,” and “You intimidated me, and I was afraid to talk to you.” I get how students see me. I’m tall for one thing. For another, I get right to the point and state the learning that will happen in my classroom. Structure and routine are important for the work we do here, and I explain what that looks like within the first twenty minutes of day one. We work bell to bell with very little down time. I get that many students are not used to such habits, especially in our 85 minute classes.

My students experience breakthroughs regularly.  It’s during our reading conferences that they tell me my instruction works. “Miss, I only read two books in all of 10th grade. I was so behind. This year I’ve read SO many. I can’t count. You’ve helped me so much. I wish I could go back in time and read this much in 10th grade,” one girl tells me. Another says,  “I never thought I would like to read. Now, look at me,” as she shows me the copy of Anna Karenina she bought over the weekend. (We’d done a mini-lesson on beautiful sentences, and I talked about the books our mentor sentences came from — not really expecting anyone would want to read that one. Oh, they can surprise us!)

I ask students about their confidence levels in our little chats, and they tell me they know they have grown as a readers. This is the best kind of reward.

Try questions like:

  • How has your confidence grown as you’ve read this year?
  • What do you think is the one thing we’ve done in class that’s helped you improve so much as a reader?
  • How will the habits you’ve created in class help you in the reading you’ll have to do in college?
  • Why do you think you’ve grown so much as a reader the past few weeks?
  • What’s different for you now in the way you learn than how you learned before?
  • Describe for me the characteristics you have that make you a reader.

What kinds of questions work for you in your reading conferences?

©Amy Rasmussen, 2011 – 2015

“Why Should I Trust You?”

return and talkThis summer, we’d like to return and talk about some of our most useful, engaging, or popular posts.  Today’s post, written by Erika in 2013, reminds us that the real reason for so many of the non-negotiables of workshop (conferring, feedback, reading, writing) is to build trust.

Please return to this topic and talk with us in the comments–how does the workshop model help you cultivate rapport and trust with your students?


Our Compass Shifts 2-1Every year at this time just as I’m about to focus on, and plan for, this upcoming school year; I remember a very powerful moment I keep with me – always.  This moment, and more specifically this very innocent yet profound notion, continually resonates with me.  I make sure to put myself back in my Day One shoes, standing in front of my class comprised solely of eager male high school freshmen looking to challenge me, test me, but ultimately, accept me (as their educator).

*****

“Good Morning!  I’m Ms. Bogdany.  I am…”

(And we’re off!  This introduction (being oh-so-carefully crafted and rehearsed) had a very distinct mission: do not lead on to the fact that this moment marks your very first day educating in Brooklyn, one of the five boroughs of New York City; the most comprehensive public school system within the United States.  Breathe.  Just keep breathing!  You’ve got this!)

As my introduction was coming to a close, it was time.  Questions.

“So, does anyone have any questions for me?”

At that, I see one particular student’s hand confidently emerge into the air.  This unique student coolly, and wildly presuming, asks:  “Why should I trust you?”  (Wait, Wait, Wait.  Wait!  No one prepared me for this!  Ok.  Just keep breathing, Erika…I mean Ms. Bogdany.  I mean…   Breathe and answer the question.  Quickly, all eyes are on you.) 

I found myself simply replying, “You shouldn’t.” (Did I just say that?!)

 At that, he put his hand down, smirked, and the weight in the room (for all of us) lifted.  The truth surfaced.  I realized what I just admitted.  This unique student was satisfied.

 *****

Throughout the years, I’ve come to realize that Day One truly defines and shapes the journey we all embark on together as a class community, so I need to be ready.  While each year presents unforeseen opportunities and obstacles, I ask myself endless questions before the school year even commences; before I know who my students are; and way before I know how our community is going to function as a whole.  Annually, I will probably continue to do so; yet I always end up finding my way back to this guiding, eight-year-old question, “Why should I trust you?”  Once this question rests its reassuring presence on my question-filled mind, I settle back into the comforts of the same revelation: It’s simple, in order for students to trust me, I need to trust myself.

Disclaimer:  Starting the school year needs to feel authentic…for students and educators alike.  In answering my student’s question for him and the students in that same class; and for all of my students to come…I am not certain of much, but I am certain that the following three intangibles prove to create trust among all of the communities in which I have been fortuitous to be a part of.  For me the most authentic success resides largely within the art of teaching, not the science. 

Create the classroom you’ve always dreamed of!

See beyond the institutional green walls and peeling paint.  Do you see the mismatched desks, tables, chairs, bookshelves…?  You shouldn’t.  This is your canvas so paint it.  There are limitations to all of our working environments, and we know it.  Take charge…change it around…move things…turn things upside down…whatever it takes.  Students know when we’ve invested our time and energy into our shared space; and they are appreciative of it.

Students are less resistant to become a part of a class community when they know educators are doing the best we can to make them feel welcomed in a space that lends itself to learning, teaching, challenging, questioning, struggling, and movement.  Give them the paintbrush, they’re sure not to disappoint.

Where’s the library?!

The inquiries students have about the world never cease to amaze me.  They internalize their own struggles, or struggles of their families and friends, and don’t often know how to process what they’re experiencing.  Hill Harper guides our young men and women via Letters to a Young Brother and Letters to a Young Sister as Esmeralda Santiago does in When I was Puerto Rican.  Other times students want to explore worlds beyond their own; they want someone to guide them through the land, culture, religion…differences.  The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho takes them on quite the journey.  Sometimes students want to just escape; don’t we all?  Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson is comical, relative to students’ lives, and wildly crafty.

Despite the content area in which we educate, it is powerful beyond measure to have literature lining our walls, stacked on tabletops, and accessible to students.  Teaching math this year?  Stock up on biographies of mathematicians such as Emmy Noether: The Mother of Modern Algebra.  Science educators, have you thought about The Hot Zone by Richard Preston or The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch?  Art and Music educators, books with visuals, lyrics, memoirs, and struggles of artists (of all kinds) are empowering for our young emerging artists; it makes it real.  Howard Sounes takes on an enlightening journey with Down the Highway: The Life of Bob Dylan.  History.  Non-fiction heaven!  Night by Elie Wiesel, A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah, The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Alex Haley.  There are more…

Make a decision! 

There are so many unknowns we face daily as educators: We take risks before we even realize we’re doing so.  We find ourselves as the ‘go to’ when we know we don’t have answers.  We internally battle if students should leave their ID card in return for a writing utensil.  We wonder when to push a student verse when they have truly reached their limit (for the time being).  We grapple with riding the waves of a ‘teachable moment’ or tossing aside our planned lesson.  We all know, the list is endless.

Rest assured.  When we allow ourselves to make decisions we are giving ourselves permission to trust ourselves.  We are setting the tone for students that while decision making can be difficult, we must trust ourselves in the process, and make students privy to the journey through this process.  Because here’s the reality, when we model our own decision making, students start to follow our lead.  When we exhibit our ability to be independent thinkers and change agents, students are inspired to do the same.  Before we know it, students are showing us the way.

And so, as we all gear up and find ourselves in the midst of the ‘get ready whirlwind’; let’s think about how we can answer (so our students don’t have to), “Why should I trust you?”

Writing Workshop: Assessment and Hope

return and talkThis summer, we’d like to return and talk about some of our most useful, engaging, or popular posts.  Today’s post, written by Amy in 2012, reminds us that writing isn’t just done for assessment–it’s done to get kids to love reading and writing.

Please return to this topic and talk with us in the comments–how do you help kids write to write, and not write for a grade?


Students should write more than teachers can ever grade. I heard this first from Kelly Gallagher, author of the book Readicide, a book, among others, that helped me frame my curriculum around Workshop. If I remember correctly, he said that his students write four times more than he grades. Really?

I pondered this for a long while, and I still struggle, but I think I have some of it figured out. I thought for a long time that my students would not write unless I graded what they wrote. Every assignment:  “Is this for a grade?” Every answer: “Yes, everything is for a grade.” The refrain got old.

Then I tried something new: I began writing with my students on the first day of school, and I had some kind of writing activity every single day. I don’t remember where I read it, but when I was researching the work of the reading writing workshop gurus a couple of years ago, I know I read:  if you struggle with time and have to choose between reading or writing, choose writing.

It’s the complete opposite of what I thought:  My students are struggling readers. How do I give up reading when I know they need it? I thought about it more and realized: If I teach writing well, students will be reading. And they will be reading a lot.

So let me explain how this works for me. Remember, I teach AP English Language and Composition (that’s the top 11th graders) and English I (that’s on-level freshmen)–two extremes.

Writing Every Day

There are many ways to get students to write every day. Of course, some ways will get them to take their writing more seriously than others. I find that when I give them an audience, students will put a lot more effort into what comes out their pens. Audience matters!

Topic Journals. Following the advice of Penny Kittle, author of Write Beside Them, I created “topic journals” that students write in once a week the first semester. I bought composition notebooks and printed labels, using various fonts, of the topics: love, conflict, man vs. man, man vs. self, man vs. nature, war, death, gender, hope, redemption, family, romance, hate, promise, temptation, evil, compromise, self-reliance, education, friendship, guilt, doubt, expectation, admiration, ambition, courage, power, patience, fate, temperance, desire, etc. I created 36 notebooks; one for each student in my largest class.

I introduced the topic journals to my AP students first. I set up the scenario:  “I will be teaching 9th grade. I need your help. Do you remember what it was like to be new to high school? nervous, anxious, a little bit obnoxious? I created these notebooks so you could write and give advice to my younger, less advanced students.”

The first task was to turn to the first page in the journal and define the topic. Many looked up the terms in the dictionary or online. They wrote a quickwrite explaining what the topic meant. Then on the next page they wrote about anything they liked as long as their writing fit the topic. I had them sign their posts with their initials and the class period. I told them that they could choose their form (a letter, a narrative, an advice column) as long as they remembered that their audience was 9th graders, and whatever they wrote had to be school appropriate. “If you write about bombs or offing yourself or anyone else, you’re off to see the counselor or the police.” These are good kids, most of them in National Honor Society. They took my charge to help my younger students seriously. This exercise often worked as a lead into our critical reading or class discussion that day, and sometimes students chose a piece they’d started in a topic journal to continue exploring for a process piece.

You can imagine how I introduced the journals to my freshmen. I began by saying, “You know I teach AP English, right? That’s the college-level English class. Well, those students would like to offer you advice about high school, life, and whatever else you might have to deal with the next few years. They are going to write to you in these topic journals. Your job when you see these notebooks on the tables is to choose the one that “calls” to you. First, you will read the messages the older students wrote for you, and then you will respond. Remember to use your best writing.” I then set the timer and had students read and write for 10-15 minutes, depending on the lesson I planned that day. Sometimes I had students share out what they wrote; most often we tucked the notebooks away for another week.

Students constantly fought over a couple of the topics:  love, death, and evil were their favorites. I am certain that is telling (and it did help me when selecting titles for book talks.)

While students wrote in topic journals, I read what students had previously written in the notebooks kids did not select. I’d write a quick line or two in response to something in that notebook. I always used a bright orange or green pen, so students could tell I’d had my eyes in that journal. They knew I was reading them, but they never knew when or what entry. This helped hold them accountable for not only the content of what they were writing but also the mechanics of how they were writing it.

Assessment? Formative. Students have to think quickly and write about a topic on a timed test for the AP exam (11th grade) and STAAR (9th grade).

Blogs

At first I only set up a class blog, and I had students write in response to posts I put on the front page and in response to an article I put on an article of the week page (another Gallagher idea). It didn’t take me long to realize that students would write more and take more ownership of their craft if they created their own blogs. The first year I had students set up blogs I taught gifted and talented sophomores, and I was nervous. Nervous that something would happen:  they’d post inappropriate things, they’d do something to get themselves and me in trouble, they’d be accosted by trolls out to hurt children through internet contact. I chose Edublogs.org as the platform because I could be an administrator on the student blogs, and I had my kids use pseudonyms. This was overkill. Yes, I did have to change two things that year:  one student called his blog Mrs. Rasmussen. I told him my husband didn’t appreciate that much. Another kid used a picture of a bomb as his avatar. Not funny. All-in-all my students did great, and they wrote a lot more (and better) than they ever did for me on paper. I was a stickler for errors and created this cruel scoring guide that said something like: A=only one minor error, B=two minor error, C=three minor errors, F=four or more errors. Students that had never gotten a C in their lives were freaking out over F’s. “Sorry, kiddo, that’s a comma splice. That’s a run-on.” I had more opportunities to teach grammar mini-lessons than I ever had in my career. But see, these kids cared about their grades.

My 9th graders now–not so much. They care about a lot of things, but if I punish them for comma errors or the like, they shut down and stop writing. I learned to be much more careful. Now, I work on building relationships so they trust me to teach them how to fix the errors themselves. It takes a lot more time, but in the end, student writing improves, and students feel more confident in their abilities. I am still working on getting my 9th graders to be effective writers. So far, I have not accomplished that too well, as is evidence of their EOC scores this year.

This past year my AP English students posted on their blogs once a week. I told them that I would read as many of their posts as I could, but I would only grade about every three. I wouldn’t tell them which ones I’d be grading. I let students choose their topics, but since I had to teach them specific skills to master for the AP exam, I instilled parameters. They had to choose a news article that they found interesting, and then they had to formulate an argument that stemmed from that article. The deadline was 10 pm on Monday–every week. This assignment accomplished two of my objectives:  students will become familiar with the world around them, and students will create pieces that incorporate the skills that we learn in class. When I turned to social media to promote student blogs, I got even more ownership from my students.

Assessment? Formative or Summative. Students apply the skills they learned in class regarding grammar, structure, style, devices, etc. Scored using the AP Writing Rubric for the persuasive open-ended question.

Twitter in the Classroom

One of these days I will write a post about the many ways I used Twitter in class this year. For now, let me just tell you:  Twitter was the BEST thing I added to my arsenal of student engagement tools. Ever.

When I began asking students to tweet their blog url’s after they wrote on Mondays, I started leaving quick and easy feedback via Twitter. It was so easy! Kids would tweet their posts; I’d read them; re-tweet with a pithy comment. Within minutes of the first couple of tweet exchanges, students were posting and tweeting more. They were getting feedback from me, and they were giving feedback to one another. They began building a readership, and that’s what matters if students blog. Just because they are posting to the world wide web does not mean anyone is reading what they write. But, a readership, especially one that will leave comments, that’s a whole new story.

Assessment? Formative. Students share their writing and make comments about their peers’ writing. Critical thinking is involved because students only have 140 characters to express their views.

Student Choice. Sometimes.

In a perfect writing class, I am sure students get to choose what they write about every time. This does not work in an AP English class where I am trying to prepare students for that difficult exam. Once a week my students complete a timed writing where they respond to an AP prompt. The guidelines for AP clearly state that the essays are scored as drafts; minor errors are expected. My students must practice on-demand writing. There is no time for conferencing or for taking these essays through the writing process. Unless–we revisit. And sometimes we do. Students are allowed to re-assess per our district grading policy if they score below an 85. 85 is difficult for many of my students, so lots of them re-assess. To do so, students must come in and conference with me about their timed writing. I am usually able to pick out the trouble spots quite easily, and it’s through these brief conversations that I get the most improvement from student writing. Often, instead of conferencing with me, students will evaluate their essays with one another.

I show several student models of higher scoring essays and teach students how to read the AP Writing Rubric. Then, in round robin style, students assess their own essays and at least three of their peers. I remind students not to be “nice” to their friends and give a score that’s undeserved. This will not help anyone master the skills necessary for the AP exam. Rarely do students give themselves or their peers scores higher than I would.

My students also write process papers. For AP reading workshop students choose a book from my short list. After reading and discussing the books with their Book Clubs, students have to write an essay that argues some topic from the book. I model how to structure an essay. I model how to write an engaging introduction. I model how to imbed quotes and how to write direct and indirect citations. I model everything I want to see in this type of writing.

I allow several weeks in my agenda to take these papers through the writing process, and students do most of the work outside of class (not so with my 9th graders).

  • Day one students generate thesis statements, and we critique, re-write, and re-critique.
  • Day two students bring drafts that we read and evaluate in small groups. (I have to teach them that a draft is a finished piece that they are ready to get feedback on–not a quickwrite. So many students type up their rough draft and call in good. This makes me crazy! And I tell them that I will not read their first draft unless they come before or after school or during lunch. They must work on their craft before I will spend my time reading it.)
  • Day three students bring another draft that we read and evaluate again. Sometimes, depending on where my kids are in terms of producing a good piece, I will take these up and provide editing on the first page. Never more than the first page!
  • Day four students turn in their polished papers. I score them holistically on a rubric that aligns with the AP Writing one, or if it’s my 9th graders, I score them on the appropriate STAAR writing rubric.

My freshmen students need a much more hand holding, and we do a lot of writing on lined yellow paper. Most often, especially at the first of the year, they get to choose their own topics. However, I have to give them a lot more structure because on the new Texas state test. 9th graders have to write two essays (about 300 words each): a literary essay, which is an engaging story, and an expository essay, which explains their thinking about a given prompt. Students use the yellow paper to draft during class. I wander the room, answering questions and keeping kids on task. I also try to write an essay every time I ask students to do so. I use these essays as mentor texts in addition to mentor texts I find by professional authors.

Usually I begin class with some kind of mini-lesson if students are in the middle of drafting. I might show students a paragraph with a description that uses sensory imagery and instruct them to add some description in their own writing. Or, I might teach introductory clauses and have students revise a sentence to include one or two or three. This way I am able to get authentic instruction that my students need right there in the middle of their writing time. When I score these student papers, I specifically look for the skills I’ve explicitly taught. If I do it right, I will have read my students papers one or two times during their writing process, prior to them ever turning in their final draft.

Notice I said “if I do it right.” I rarely do it right. I am still learning to budget my time and get to every kid. I am still learning to get every kid to write. I am writing English I curriculum this summer, which I will use in the fall. I hope to get some of my challenges with my struggling students worked out as I focus more purposefully on the standards. I realized this year that while I am teaching writing as a process all the time, I am not necessarily targeting the standards that fit into the process. I am thinking about this a lot lately.

This is still my burning question:  how can I get kids who hate to read and write to participate in writing workshop so their writing improves and their voices are heard?

I am turning to the gurus as I research and think this summer. Jeff Anderson’s book 10 Things Every Writer Should Know has been an excellent start.

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