Category Archives: Re-Turn and Talk

What Secondary Teachers Can Learn From Elementary Teachers: A Return

Three Teachers TalkJoin 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!

Angela’s post from 2018 is full of takeaways the secondary readership can glean from elementary practitioners. 


I sat outside my son’s first grade classroom helping students practice handwriting skills one day when a lightning bolt hit me.

Kids were in and out of the room, going to reading group, using the restroom as needed. When I finished with a student, they’d quietly walk in, tap the next person on the shoulder, and out they’d walk. As a high school teacher, I was enthralled by the bustle.

When I went into the classroom to touch base with the teacher, I continued to look around in amazement. Kids were everywhere. More importantly, they were working with purpose and focus. Some kids were lying on bean bag chairs reading. Others around a kidney table with the teacher. Another cluster of kids were sitting at their desks, working on bookmaking, tongues hanging out in determination. It felt like magic.

Screen Shot 2018-10-18 at 5.36.07 PM

I know it’s not magic, though. The teacher had made deliberate choices to nurture this environment. To be honest, though, it took me a moment to be open to this aha moment. At first, it felt like chaos. But when I took a step back, I realized that this wasn’t chaos I was seeing. It was productivity. It dawned on me that my high school classroom rarely had this kind of energy. I wondered, if these seven-year-olds could be taught how to work like this, could I create opportunities for older kids to do the same?

Some of my takeaways from spending time in elementary classrooms:

Classroom Set-up

Rocking chairs. Flip charts. Book bins. Cozy Rugs. Desks in clusters (rather than rows which Tom Murray recently referred to as “the cemetery effect”).

Elementary classrooms feel different. There’s an energy, a flow. The room often hums. When I’m in my colleague’s elementary classrooms, I’m struck by how different they look from my classroom setup. It’s not just the posters on the wall, or the rugs on the floor. It’s that the room feels like it belongs to students. Books students care about are on the shelves. The rooms are a welcoming space, which leads to students engaging with the content differently. They’re not just receptacles; rather, they see themselves as much a part of the space as the teacher. And everything in the space has a purpose.

I’ve been loving the ways that teachers are incorporating flexible seating and I think that even if you haven’t won a grant or launched a Donors Choose campaign, there’s a way to get creative about the space. I know I sometimes worry that kids will talk too much, or goof off. I remind myself, though, that when students are engaged in workshop practice, then I’m coaching them into independence. And if I can easily move around the room, I can cut off much of that behavior.

To read more about how we might set up our rooms, check out Kristine Mraz and Christine Herz’s book Kids First From Day One.

 

Routines

I notice that in elementary school, teachers spend a lot of time explicitly teaching routines for how to utilize the spaces. They build on what’s happened in year’s past, reminding students that they come ready with a whole skill set. They focus on those rituals as much as they focus on the content, especially in the beginning.

Sometimes, we teachers of older kids fall into a deficit thinking trap. I sometimes hear teachers say, “My students can’t do that [insert collaborative/independent work here].” I wonder, though. When they were seven and eight they were doing that work. How might we channel some of that muscle memory from their early learning years?

What would happen if we teach our older students explicit routines for work time. Teaching them explicitly what the room should look like and sound like when they are independently working. And of course, we know that older kids are different. Reinforcing the routines reground them.

Conferring

We know that conferring is one of the most powerful tools in our teacher tool box. Carl Anderson reminds me to ask kids, “how’s it going?” Kelly Gallagher & Penny Kittle show me how powerful conferencing is in their work. An effective conference can be the most impactful thing we do all day.

I also know that this is really really hard to do. Not only because of time constraints, but also because when I’m conferring, other students feel like it’s free time. Suddenly there’s whispering and laughing. While I’m chatting at my desk with a student during a conference, I often find myself saying, “Hey, everyone get back to work,” disrupting both my conference and the students who might have actually been working.

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What if instead I channeled the elementary teachers I know? I notice when I’m in their classrooms that their conferencing happens right where kids are sitting. They crouch next to students, leaning in, having whispered conversations.

This kind of conferring cuts down on transition time. Students aren’t walking across the room. Instead, they’re able to turn right back to their work and apply what they’ve talked about. And the teacher doesn’t have to wait on kids to gather materials and walk to the desk. Those minutes are precious, and I notice that when the teacher is where the work happens, more conferences can take place.

Small Group Instruction

Conferring isn’t the only way to have those smaller settings with students. Sometimes I forget that it’s not an either/or — we either work whole group instruction or 1:1 conferring. After having the same conversation three times in 1:1 conferences, I realized I needed to be more efficient with my time.

When I’m in an elementary classroom, I’m reminded of the power of small group instruction. I thought back to the way I saw my son’s teacher gather five students around her desk to teach them all the same skill. While the rest of the class was working independently, she was able to re-teach or extend the learning. I noticed too that she was able to target their needs in specific ways.

Whether it’s at a kidney table, or clustered around my teacher desk, I wonder if I could have students come to me in smaller groups.

Don’t get me wrong, I know that secondary students are different from elementary kids. They’re louder, bigger, and sometimes have checked out of school by the time they get to us. I try to remember, though, that they’re still kids. And when what I have been doing isn’t working with them, then I wonder if maybe it’s time to try something different. I think back to the students they once were, and I wonder if channeling some of those structures from their elementary days might make our days feel a little more magical.

Angela Faulhaber is a literacy coach in the Cincinnati area. She’s currently reading Greeting From Witness Protection by Jake Burt, based on the recommendation of her 11-year-old daughter. She’s also trying to figure out how it’s mid-October when it feels like school just started. 

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Starting With Why: A Return

Three Teachers TalkJoin 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!

This week’s post is from 2016. Amy Rasmussen’s viewing of a TED Talk left her with a reason for teaching, plus a bonus writing exercise. 


“People don’t buy WHAT you do;
they buy WHY you do it.”
~Simon Sinek, Start With Why

I first heard of Simon Sinek from my son Zachary. He came home from work one day excited to share a TED Talk he’d listened to during his break. I had not seen my youngest son so animated in months. Zach had big dreams, but he made some poor choices that led to him having to wait a while after high school to start making those dreams a reality. This young man needed some inspiration. Simon Sinek gave it to him.

At Zach’s request, I watched Sinek’s TED Talk “How Great Leaders Inspire Action,” and talked with my son about Sinek’s message:

“There are leaders and there are those who lead. Leaders hold a position of power or influence. Those who lead inspire us. Whether individuals or organizations, we follow those who lead not because we have to, but because we want to. We follow those who lead not for them, but for ourselves.”

Zachin Taiwan

Zach watched that TED Talk multiple times, and my husband pulled Sinek’s book from a shelf in our hallway. “You ought to read it,” he said.

“I want to be that kind of leader, the one who inspires,” Zach told me, and he began to make choices based on his drive to help people instead of what he thought he would get out of helping people. As I write this, Zach is in Taiwan. He gave up his cell phone and his friends and jumped into learning Mandarin Chinese. His 6’4” frame dons white shirts and ties everyday as he rides a bike through Taipei, serving a full-time two year Mormon mission.

My son found the WHY that Sinek inspires, and it changed the direction of his life.


Sinek’s book is about identifying why some leaders are able, not just to sell a product, but to create a movement. He explains his purpose: “to inspire others to do the things that inspire them so that together we may build the companies, the economy, and a world in which trust and loyalty are the norm and not the exception” (7).

That reads like a nice idea for educators, too, doesn’t it? I do not know a teacher who does not want “to inspire [students] to do the things that inspire them.” However, according to Sinek many in business go about it backwards. By extension, I argue that many in education do, too. We focus on the WHAT and the HOW– like making learning relevant, engaging our students, teaching them grit, focusing on achievement, calculating grades, teaching a specific book, giving them a quiz — instead of WHY we teach our students in the first place.

Sinek says, “All the inspiring leaders and companies, regardless of size or industry, think, act and communicate exactly alike. And it’s the complete opposite of everyone else.” They start with WHY.Instead of a focus on the WHAT they produce or sell, or HOW they produce or sell it, they focus on WHY they produce and sell it in the first place. Apple, for example, obviously sells computers. That is their WHAT, but their WHY is to challenge the status quo. It always has been. Stay with me here with Sinek’s explanation:

“A marketing message from Apple, if they were like everyone else, might sound like this:

We make great computers.

They’re beautifully designed, simple to use and user-friendly.

Wanna buy one?

When we rewrite the Apple example again, and rewrite the example in the order Apple actuallycommunicates, this time the example starts with WHY:

Everything we do, we believe in challenging the status quo. We believe in thinking differently.

The way we challenge the status quo is by making our products beautifully designed, simple to use and user-friendly.

And we happen to make great computers. Wanna buy one?

Apple doesn’t simply reverse the order of information, their message starts with WHY, a purpose, cause, or belief that has nothing to do with WHAT they do” (40-41).

Now, let’s think about this as educators:  Most of the time, we think and talk about WHAT we do. “I teach English,” or “I teach high school,” or even “I teach kids.” Sometimes we talk about HOW we do it. “I teach readers and writers in workshop,” or “I advocate for choice independent reading,” or even “I teach To Kill a Mockingbird, ” or “I teach Hamlet.” These are different from WHY we teach and have nothing to do with what motivates us to greet our students each morning, armed with carefully crafted lesson plans, and a smile.

According to Sinek, when we focus on WHAT we do instead of WHY we do it, we are like most of the businesses and companies in the world that drive their work with manipulations and punitive rewards, which might work in the short-term, but do not breed loyalty and long term change. We see this in education all the time:  threats of in-school suspension and failing grades, mandatory tutorials, new test-prep programs, increased numbers of safety nets designed to keep students from failing, changes in grading policies, and more. “There are only two ways to influence human behavior: you can manipulate it or you can inspire it,” writes Sinek. Most decisions we make to motivate students are based on manipulation, and we fail to inspire long-term change. No wonder we see the same students in the same trouble year after year. When we define ourselves, or our schools, by WHAT we do, that’s all we will ever be able to do (45), and that is not enough “to inspire [students] to do the things that inspire them,” or to build a world where trust and loyalty are the norm. We need what Sinek calls “inside out thinking.” To inspire lasting change, we must start with WHY.

Let’s take that example of Apple from before and apply it to our schools. If we are like everyone else, we might talk about our school like this:

We teach high school.

Our school culture is spirited and sound. Our curriculum is rich. Our test scores are high.

Wanna come here?

When we rewrite the example again, and rewrite the example in the order an inspiring school leader actually communicates, this time the example starts with WHY:

Everything we do, we believe in challenging our students’ thinking. We believe in genuine and individual inquiry.

The way we challenge our students is by making our school safe and innovative, with passionate and knowledgeable teachers who are caring and compassionate, who cater to the needs of all students.

And we happen to graduate honorable and educated citizens. Wanna come here?

Does that example make you feel a little different?

As I read Sinek’s book, I kept imagining what his argument looked like when applied to education, but more specifically, I kept imagining what it would look like applied to me as a literacy leader in my classroom. The way I talked about teaching was like everyone else I knew; I focused on what I did as an educator instead of WHY I did it.

I taught AP English Language and Composition. I taught skills to pass a test. I taught students to love books and to like reading. I taught students to write.  Although I had changed my instruction from when I first began teaching, from whole class novel studies with little writing instruction, to readers and writers workshop with choice, modeling, and mentoring, I still struggled. I struggled until I turned my thinking inside out. I took that example Sinek uses to explain what makes Apple such an innovative force in the market and applied it to my belief about myself as an educator and how I make that belief happen in my classroom.

See how I start with WHY:

WHY:  Everything I do as a teacher, I believe in helping my students identify as citizens, scholars, and individuals whose voices matter. I believe our world is better when individuals understand their value, believe in their capacity to cause change, and take action to better the world around them.

HOW:  The way I challenge my students is by making my classroom safe and inquisitive for my individual learners, with instruction that centers on trust, esteem, equity, and autonomy. Through the rituals and routines in my workshop classroom, students gain a sense of belonging, identify themselves as readers and writers, develop their voices, advance in literacy skills, and take risks that have the potential to change their worlds and the world around them.

WHAT:  And I happen to teach English by modeling my reading life and writing life.

It works.

My readers and writers advance because they know we are in the business of learning about ourselves and our world — together.

Simon Sinek is right:  “[Students] don’t buy what we [teach], they buy why we [teach] it.”

My challenge for you:

Follow Sinek’s model like I have above, and write your WHY. Please share it in the comments.

Amy Rasmussen lives in North Texas. Follow her on Twitter @amyrass — and if you are not already, please follow this blog.

Defining Readers-Writers Workshop: A Return

Three Teachers TalkJoin 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!

This week’s post comes from 2017, when Amy Rasmussen dove into defining the term workshop–the umbrella that envelops all we do. 


“I need a visual of a ‘workshop.’ That word confuses me still.”

This is not the first time I’ve been part way through facilitating professional development and a participant has made a similar request. There’s a lot for me to learn here.

Before we can begin really sharing the excitement and benefits of a readers-writers workshop model of instruction, we must get on the same page as to what we mean by Workshop. I’ll try to do that here.

Let’s start with the dictionary definition of workshop and zero in on #2.

workshop definition

Based on this definition, let’s consider this essential question:

How do we create open spaces where the children we teach can grow as readers and writers?

To me “open spaces” equates to “workshop.” Open spaces means teachers let go of control, remove themselves from center stage as the holders of the knowledge, and invite students into a space of curiosity and discovery. It’s a space where students thrive in a community of trust and sharing, where they talk about their identities and experiences as readers and writers, where they play with language and take risks as they explore what it means to develop their comprehension and analysis skills — and their craft as writers.

Opening spaces requires planning. It is not willy-nilly choice in books or topics, or stations without specific guidelines and instructions, or seats moved from rows into small groups without modeling the thinking that makes it possible to “engage in intensive discussion and activity” around our content. Teachers must model what this looks like. And we must trust that our students will engage and learn in this model.

They will — if we let them.

Readers-writers workshop is a method of instruction that often requires a paradigm shift, a shift from the teacher making all the choices and telling students what to learn within a text, to students making choices, and through practice and application of skills-based lessons, learning as they read and write.

I’ll return to some definitions found online to help clarify:

“The Reading Workshop is a teaching method in which the goal is to teach students strategies for reading and comprehension. The workshop model allows teachers to differentiate and meet the needs of all their students.”

For our readers, we open the space for students to choose the books they read. By doing so, we meet students where they are in terms of their interests and abilities. The teacher becomes a coach, teaching skills specific to the needs of each learner. This requires time. We must reserve time for students to read when they are with us in class, and we must confer with students about what they are reading — and how they are reading it. This is reading instruction in a workshop model. We teach the reader, not the book. Readers must predict, visualize, infer, comprehend, analyze, and evaluate. These are all skills we model and teach in readers’ workshop.

What about writer’s workshop?

“As in a professional writer’s workshop, each student in the class is a working author. The teacher is a writing professional and peer coach, guiding authors as they explore their craft. … Teachers write with their students and share their own work as well.”

To teach our writers, we must be writers ourselves. We must model the moves writers make as they use language to craft meaning. We must validate our writers and help them recognize what professional writers do to think of ideas, organize those ideas, and convey those ideas in a way comprehensible to readers. In a workshop classroom, we use mentor texts:  sentences, paragraphs, passages, essays, poems, stories to teach writing skills that students apply to their own writing. We teach the writer, not the writing.

workshopquestion

So, what do I mean when I say “workshop”? I mean students doing the work of readers and writers, “engaged in intensive discussion and activity on a particular subject” — specifically related to growing as readers and writers. This work happens because teachers open the spaces in their classrooms which allow for it.

Questions about your move to a workshop model of instruction? Please ask in the comments.

Amy Rasmussen lives in north Texas and teaches AP English Language and English 4 (new prep in ’17. She loves talking books, daughters’ weddings (two this year), and grandbabies (five). She also loves facilitating PD for other teachers making the move into a workshop pedagogy. Amy adheres to the words of Emerson: “We aim above the mark to hit the mark,” and Jesus: “Love one another.” Imagine a world if we all aim higher. Follow Amy on Twitter @amyrass. And she really hopes you will follow this blog!

Our Top Ten: A Return

Three Teachers TalkHappy summer, all!

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!

“A Sea of Talk”

“Writing floats on a sea of talk.” – James Britton.

ocean waves

Photo by Artem Saranin on Pexels.com

If you’re an avid 3TT reader, I’m sure that’s not the first time you’ve read that phrase. In fact, Amy mentioned it here just a few short days ago, and we’ve definitely discussed how to get students to talk to each other on this website before. For me, I didn’t hear of James Britton or this idea of a “sea of talk” until I joined my local Writing Project. (As always, I can not speak highly enough of how the Middle Tennessee Writing Project changed the trajectory of my career and the practices within my classroom. If you aren’t involved with your local Writing Project, I wholeheartedly encourage you to seek out those groups and immerse yourself into that community.)

Shameless plug for WP over… I found myself for two weeks straight during my Writing Project ISI starting each day with a little bit of writing, then some variation of turn and talk before returning to our writing. That process – write, share, write some more, share some more, write some more – was presented to us in multiple ways over that two weeks but all of those activities at their core were some variation of that process. And it’s one I’ve taken to heart.

Of course, our ideas are stronger after we spend some time with them in conversation, after we hear feedback from our peers. Of course, just the simple act of speaking out loud is sometimes  enough to jumpstart an idea or solve a problem. In the programming world, this process is called Rubber-ducking. Of course, it would be ridiculous to assume that our students should only ever write in isolation when they have so much to say and share. So, it’s our responsibility to just get out of the way in the classroom and allow that “sea of talk” to rise and fall, ebb and flow. A former sage on the stage teacher, I had to realize that my voice alone wasn’t enough to create a “sea.”

The latest iteration of this rising and falling in my class literally involves rising. In doing some research on how to make argumentation a more natural and low-stakes part of the classroom, I stumbled upon Dave Stuart Jr.’s blog where he discusses Pop-up Debates. I fell into a deep rabbit hole of links upon links, occasionally shouting at the dog, “This is great!” and “Oh, man! This is going to be good.” B was just as enthused as I was. He’s supportive like that.

The Pop-up Debate works like this: Explain the concept of the pop-up shop and relate it to the pop-up debate. Encourage everyone to participate. Students command the floor by ‘popping-up’ at their desks and beginning to speak. If multiple people pop-up, students politely yield the floor. There are no declared winners because everyone wins when the conversation is lively and intelligent. Encourage students to debate all sides – nothing is so boring as a circle of agreement and repetition.

And that’s it. It’s a simple practice, highly adaptable and extremely engaging.

For our first pop-up, I asked students to respond to a question about honor codes that I pulled from an old AP Language synthesis prompt. They wrote on their own for about ten minutes before test-running their ideas with a partner. Then, they popped for about 17 minutes. I found it fascinating to hear how their conversation grew and moved and evolved as they examined new facets of the conversation. Students who are reluctant to raise their hands stepped up to discuss with no prompting from me at all. Students questioned their peers’ assumptions, asked clarifying questions, raised new points, offered counterarguments, moved from specific evidence to social implications, made their points passionately. In short, as a class, we practiced several of the skills required for good writing collectively in a very low-stakes environment.

Then, we turned back to our notebooks and wrote again before debriefing as a class about how the conversation changed or added to their thinking. Simple and powerful.

Pop-ups can easily be used as a means to practice all manner of writing skills while also working on speaking skills. For example, for our second pop-up, we discussed the extent to which the study of philosophy was useful in modern society. Here, we focused on using accountable talk at the beginning of statements to show relationships between ideas – a skill we’re practicing in other ways for the synthesis portion of the AP exam. This week, when we pop-up, students will track the flow of the conversation in their WNs, and we’ll use this to jumpstart mini-lessons on counterarguments.

I hope that this method is one that you can take to your classroom and use right away. I’m always interested in how others keep that “sea” churning in their classrooms. Please share in the comments or on Twitter.

Sarah Morris teaches AP Language & Composition and Film as Literature in Murfreesboro, Tn. She is reading Mary Oliver for the first time and considering what being a “bride married to amazement…[a] bridegroom, taking the world into my arms” will look like for herself. She tweets at @marahsorris_cms.

 

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?

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?

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