Category Archives: Re-Turn and Talk

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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Mentor Texts Are Everywhere!

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 2014, reminds us of her process for finding mentor texts–they’re everywhere!

Please return to this topic and talk with us in the comments–how do you find, organize, or utilize mentor texts?


This time last year I was amidst a mad dash – a mad dash in seeking out, organizing, asking about, researching, contemplating, and gathering the ‘best of the best’ of mentor texts.  I had just learned what a mentor text was (text that, well, mentors!) and wanted to make sure I had a plethora to kick off the school year.  And, I did.  I had gathered so many I wasn’t even sure when, and in what context, I would be using them.  But, they were ready and I felt confident that I was too.

This year, it’s a bit of a different story.  After implementing the Reading Writing Workshop model in my urban oasis for the first time this past school year, I realized there is no longer a need to be dashing about.  Mentor texts are everywhere!  Literally.  They are in the morning’s newspaper.  They reside in the autobiographies I always find myself engaging in (and of course, loving).  Articles promulgating the Twitter circuit for the purposes of dissecting content and craft.  Classics, more modern, and everything in between became focal points of inquiry and investigation.  Students’ independent reading books shed light on crafty moves authors strategically choose to utilize.  On occasion, an excerpt from professional development texts deserved a public viewing (sometimes with scrutiny, sometimes not).  Nothing is off limits.

So, it is no wonder that as I have been reading a vast array of literature this summer; I have new mentor texts lined up for this coming school year that I am thrilled to explore with my students.  So, grab your Writer’s Notebook and flip to your Next-To-Read list.   I hope you not only fall in love with these pieces, just as I have, but they inspire you to think about what you’re reading and how you’d like to share them with the brilliant and inquisitive minds occupying your learning community.

Making Meaning with Texts: Selected Essays by Louise Rosenblatt was first introduced to me in this summer’s UNH Literacy Institute via Penny Kittle’s Book Love course.  This piece sent a buzz all throughout the campus as we were asked to read it for homework and come prepared to discuss it the next day.  Before the night was through, classmates were chronicling their amazement and joy with Twitter posts such as:  “Reading Louise Rosenblatt for homework and keep saying “Amen, sistah!” in my head. #unhlit14″.  So, you can only imagine how this Reading Theorist evoked an awakening in us all.

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It was when I came to this paragraph that I realized I had just stumbled upon an incredible mentor text; not only for myself as an educator, but for students as well.  What better way to expose students to the questioning and thinking behind our reading and writing than by sharing the source with them?  These questions are going to guide us through our reading (and writing) journeys this year.  We are going to study these questions, make sense of them, put them into practice; but, we are also going to really delve into why Rosenblatt has chosen these questions to guide us.  See, that’s where exploring craft and an author’s intention becomes our focal point.

battle 1

Battle Bunny by Jon Scieszka and Mae Barnett is a clever and witty piece that is sure to get students charged up about editing and revising.  How could it not?  This entire piece chronicles the the narrator’s (yes, the bunny) stylistic and creative writing journey.  The entire story is marked up, crossed out, reworded, and illustrated to show the power of the writing process.  It’s beautiful.

While I educate students ages 16-21, and this piece (I’m sure) was not intended for that audience, I believe this mentor text will be a lighthearted way to quell some of the fears that override their writers’ anxiety.  We know, many students are uncomfortable and afraid to revise, rework, or allow their time-intensive writing pieces to become ‘messy’.  Yet, that’s what produces the most profound writing.

battleI know this may be a risky move in my classroom.  Yet, I’m going to take a chance.  I anticipate shared laughter as we navigate this piece together.  I also plan to explore the bunny’s intentions and make it relevant for our work as writers:  Why did he feel the need to rewrite the story?  Do the illustrations add to the message he is portraying?  Do any of his original thoughts (verse his revisions) feel more powerful to you?  What intentional moves did he make in re-creating this story?  And on and on.

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Destined to Witness: Growing up Black in Nazi Germany by Hans J. Massaquoi is a piece I have not been without this entire summer.  And, although I’m finished reading it, I find myself flipping through the pictures over and over; it’s that profound. Massaquoi is a mentor of life, overcoming adversity, obtaining the (perceived) impossible, and what it truly means to be human.

Journalist by trade, Massaquoi takes such grace in his every word, sentence, and strategic ‘move’ that’s crafted.  This book encapsulates 443 pages of sheer brilliance and I want students to be exposed to this kind of writing because they too, have the ability to craft such beauty.

I also want them to catch a glimpse into my journey while reading this piece (note post-its) because I want to share what I found fascinating.  I want to explore some of the word choices (see my unknown word list) IMG_20140812_121513and talk strategy.  I want to use some of these words within my own vernacular and challenge students to do the same.  Most importantly, I want to show them that reading is a process; not one to shy away from.  And yes, sometimes it takes work, but overtime it becomes natural…and wildly fulfilling.

I can’t help but think, above and beyond the work I plan to do with this text, that the historical context won’t propel students in their study of history as well.  World War II and the Holocaust have rarely been depicted from the racial standpoint in which Massaquoi portrays.  This just may be a piece that peaks enough intrigue among students that they too will add it to their Next-To-Read list.  That’s my goal.

IMG_20140812_124058You are a Baddass: How to Stop Doubting Your Greatness and Start Living an Awesome Life by Jen Sincero has found its way into my Survival Book Kit and I love it!  I’m just past the first thirty pages, yet I have not stopped laughing.  Yes, out loud.

Sincero most definitely has a way with words.  She is edgy and a straight shooter for sure.  Yet, she is able to talk about really serious life-changing ideas in a way that feels ‘light’.  Not your typical self-improvement piece.

I want students to see how infusing humor among the serious can be oh-so-powerful.  Utilizing analogies to talk about the conscious and subconscious mind provides readers visuals…imagery.  A way to process this vitally important information that can shape their lives.  In only the most positive of ways.

I plan to choose the excerpts from this text skillfully.  I want students to have access to the content and the craft…as always.  I do foresee really rich one-on-one reading conferences with those that decide it’s time to make a change in their lives, or at the very least are up for a great laugh, and decide to take this piece on independently.

I hope my four have inspired you.  I really do.  I hope it will do the same for my students.  I encourage you to also share your favorites, here on this site.  As we all gear up for an incredible year to come, and we are swiftly shifting into our ‘going back to school’ mode, this is a wonderful time to start thinking about what we’re reading in a way that lends itself to the idea of being a mentor text.  Articles, books, poetry, graphic novels…all are welcome.

Growing Your Classroom Library

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 how to get creative when building a classroom library.

Please return to this topic and talk with us in the comments–what are your tips for building your classroom library?


FullSizeRender[1]Yesterday was our last real day of school, and it was a busy one.  My students spent our last class periods together sharing their final multigenre writings with one another, clearing out their writing portfolios, and packing up their notebooks.

They also flooded me with classroom library books and sheepish smiles.

“Sorry,” Riley said, as she entered my classroom with a shopping bag full of books.  “I didn’t realize I had like 12 of your books at home.”

“I opened a cabinet and found like 20 of your books!” Emily said.

“If I bring back all your books, can I borrow like five for the summer?” Jordan asked.

“I found The Book Thief and almost just kept it, for the irony,” Hailey explained.

Now that all the books that are usually on kitchen tables, under beds, and piling on nightstands have begun to find their way back onto my bookshelves, things are looking a little crowded:

FullSizeRender

The five bookshelves in my classroom are mostly full of independent reading books–a class set of literature and grammar books, dictionaries, and book club collections provided by my department find their homes on the bottom shelves, but everything else has been a labor of love to build on my own.

FullSizeRender[4]I began building my library six years ago, and started with anything I could find at Half-Price Books.  I spent $20 a month in the clearance section, netting $1-2 finds that built my sci-fi and YA sections, and used my staff ID to get an extra 10% off.  During the holidays, HPB ran promotions for free $5 or $10 gift cards with the purchase of a $25 gift card, and I took advantage of those aggressively.

Next, I discovered Barnes & Noble‘s very generous 25% teacher discount, and shopped mainly in their clearance section, which was always well stocked with “former bestsellers.”  This was perfect, as a book had been out just long enough to generate buzz among my students.  I became a bit of a regular there, and began to ask the manager if he had any damaged, extra, or reject books he didn’t want.  He obliged, providing me with class sets of The Perks of Being a WallflowerWaiting to Exhale, and Tuesdays with Morrie–totally gratis.  I also got lots of hardcover books that were being replaced by paperback editions, again, for free.

Next, I discovered the generosity of my school’s PTA, which granted teachers up to $100 per year in classroom supplies.  Every year, my $100 was spent at Wal-Mart, Half-Price Books, or any other purveyor of cheap books.

FullSizeRender[3]By the time the summer of 2013 rolled around, my library was in decent shape–I had about 800 books, mostly paperback, mostly YA and general fiction.  I traveled to New Hampshire to take Penny Kittle’s course about informational writing, and fell in love with nonfiction.  I also met my amazing friends Amy, Jackie, Erika, and Emily, who told me about DonorsChoose.  I created, and funded, several projects–especially ones that helped me get lots of nonfiction–right away, which increased the number of books in my library up to about 2,000–all without a dime of my own money.

I also created DonorsChoose projects that were funded every October by U.S. Cellular, a partner of DonorsChoose.  Depending on your state, big businesses or even celebrities may fund your existing projects of up to $1000.  I used this partnership to fund two $1000 grants, growing my library up to about 3,000 books.

FullSizeRender[2]For my next brainstorm, I began to write letters to local big-box businesses, asking for donations of gift cards to purchase books.  Target, Sam’s Club, Kroger, and Wal-Mart all granted me gift cards, nearly monthly, of up to $50 per month.  Target in particular was wonderful, as their website offers a wide variety of books, especially great nonfiction finds, and free shipping on purchases of $50 or more.

When I finally got an iPhone in October of 2014, I joined Instagram and followed lots of bookish accounts.  Through these book fanatics, I learned about Book Depository, which offers discounted books with free shipping to anywhere in the world; Books-a-Million, which has a wonderful bargain section and an awesome used books market; and the glorious world of GoodReads giveaways, where free ARCs can be won by one and all.  Thriftbooks, too, has cheap books (around $3 each) and free shipping over $10.

This summer, I’ll take a week of rest, then begin to write book donation request letters, a DonorsChoose grant, and a variety of Morgantown-specific grants.  I’ll focus on replacing lost or stolen books, getting newly-paperback titles, and building shelves I think are a little weak.  I hope you’ll use this slew of resources to build your library, and your readers’ choices, too!

What are your favorite strategies for building your library?

Confession: I’m dating a “non-reader”

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 2014, reminds us that many of our students can easily come to love reading.  It’s up to us to help reshape their reading identities.

And, we offer a special congratulations to Jackie and Eric–whose wedding is tomorrow!

Please return to this topic and talk with us in the comments–how do you help kids identify as readers?


“I don’t like to read.”

These words slipped off the tongue of my date as he sat across from me digging into a burger. I could’ve excused myself to the bathroom then slipped out the restaurant’s back door. Instead, I sat, paralyzed by his open admission.

Does he not realize I teach English? My quaint dreams of cozy dates at used book shops and Sunday mornings curled around novels dissipated. I couldn’t possibly share my life with a non-reader. I spent months fostering a love for literature in my students. I handpicked books for my teens, stocked my shelves with the latest releases, and inhaled literature in my free time. Dating a non-reader was like sleeping with the enemy.

The date was dead.

Or so I thought.

Two years later, we are still together, and Eric has proven to be one of my most valuable assets in understanding self-identified non-readers. Just as I had pigeon-holed Eric into an archetype of resistant male readers, he had categorized me into the antiquated outline of his high school English teachers—the ones who made him hate reading in the first place.

Eric’s teachers were staunch traditionalists. They assigned classics then tested, quizzed, and sucked any joy or personal exploration out of the books, leaving a pulpy mess of literary repulsion. Eric didn’t identify as a reader because his teachers had given him every reason to not identify as one: he struggled with literary analysis and didn’t enjoy fiction. Like many of my students, he skated through English relying on online cheat sheets to get around reading the required books.

This same resistance to identify as a reader plagues many students who step into my classroom. They have fixed perceptions of what a reader is or should be— a person who reads fast, favors classics and fiction, and enjoys literary analysis. Self-identified non-readers see no room in reading for personal growth, gratification, interest, exploration, and pleasure. Ultimately, they see no room for who they are as a person when they recognize that the only celebrated books within English classrooms are those that fit a set standard of literary merit.

Eric's "to read" shelf

Eric is drawn to informational books. Here are some of the books on his “to read” shelf.

Eric was a self-identified non-reader simply because he did not favor traditional literary classics that his teachers drilled in high school. Yet when I first met him, he voraciously read online articles. Gradually he found his niche in books that dealt with scientific theories and particle physics. Recently, Eric completed The Quantum Story: A History in 40 Moments by Jim Baggott, a 410 page book, and he is halfway through A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson, which is 478 pages. Furthermore, he listens to audiobooks on his commute to and from work and our bookshelves are packed with volumes on his to-read list, including On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin and Discoveries and Opinions of Galileo.

If Eric is a “non-reader,” he is exactly the type of student I want in my classroom—the type who has a personal, vested interest in his or her reading and seeks to learn from the material. Gradually, I

Trevor's Reading

Trevor poses with his stack of books read throughout the year.

have come to find Eric’s reading patterns in my own students. Trevor who hated reading found his niche amongst non-fiction books like Ghost Soldiers by Hampton Sides and Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer while Ben, who was rarely interested in whole class reads, challenged himself with diverse genres ranging from science (Stiff by Mary Roach and The Double Helix by James D. Watson) to historical fiction (The Book Thief by Markus Zusak). These students need the time and space to not only figure out how to define themselves as readers but to also establish a sustainable reading pattern.

By definition, readers are individuals who “look at and understand the meaning of letters, words, symbols, etc.” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary). Thus, as long as a student can read, they are readers—classics, fiction, and stereotypes aside. But as English teachers, we must not only show them that this is the case, but also we must help them to foster reading lives that reach beyond the classroom. A generation

of apathetic teen readers doesn’t have to lead to a generation of

Ben's reading

Ben with this stack of twelve books.

apathetic adult readers.

This past weekend while winding the back roads of a coastal Maine town, Eric and I spotted a library book sale. I would usually be the one to erratically swerve to the side of the road and park on a sidewalk if it meant gathering additional books for my classroom library, but this time, it was Eric. As I sorted through the stacks of books, I looked up to find Eric with a stack equal to my own. This was exactly the type of person I could spend my life with.

A Reader’s Workshop Starter Kit to Jumpstart the Process

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 2014, shows us how to jumpstart readers workshop and includes a helpful starter kit.

Please return to this topic and talk with us in the comments–what are some of your most useful workshop tools?


Think back to your first day of teaching on your first year of teaching. What were you feeling? Happy, nervous, excited, afraid?IMG_1776 Fear. Fear was the first thing I experienced when I stood in my classroom on the first day of school. That and enthusiasm, excitement, eagerness, and hope, but ultimately, I was afraid, knee shaking, stomach churning nervous as I stood in front of my new class. Fear comes with the unknown, which is why my nerves of being a new teacher were compounded by my entry into the workshop model. The concept of the workshop model is simple, yet it’s a structure that so few of us grew up with. In turn, as I transitioned my classroom, I found my nerves could be categorized into the fear of breaking tradition, the fear of parents, the fear of students not reading, and the fear of proving rigor. I was not alone though. Interns and teachers who were new to workshop model faced many of the same fears. In turn, I created a reader’s workshop starter kit to provide my colleagues with concrete documents that helped them establish the workshop model in their classroom. The starter kit includes the following documents:

  • Elements of a Reading Workshop by Penny Kittle
  • Reading Letter for parents
  • Calculating Reading Rates & Reading Rates Log Sheet
  • Weekly Reading Recording Sheet
  • Excel Sheet Weekly Reading Recording Sheet
  • Book Conference Log
  • Questions to Ask While Conferencing
  • Book Talk Outline
  • Resources for Helping Students to Find New Books

Whether you are a new teacher or simply new to the reader’s workshop, I hope this starter kit will make your journey a bit easier. Enjoy every step and savor even the smallest successes. If you have any questions or comments about starter kit, please feel free to contact me at Jackie.catcher@gmail.com.

Click Here to Download the Reader’s Workshop Starter Kit

7 Moves in My Workshop Schedule

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 how we might structure our days in a workshop classroom.

Please return to this topic and talk with us in the comments–what are the moves in your workshop schedule?


Quite often teachers ask me what the daily schedule looks like in my workshop classroom.

This is a hard one. I think mainly because it is not about the schedule as much as it is about the routines we start putting into place at the beginning of the school year.

I’ve had a lot of adapting to do this year. Moving to a new school and adjusting my lessons to fit 85 minute class periods where I see my students twice a week for sure and every other Friday (sometimes.) This is quite a change from 50 minute class periods where I saw my students five days a week.

Our normal routines  — and these are non-negotiables that make workshop work — consist of reading, conferring with readers, talking about books, writing in our notebooks, revising in our notebooks, sharing a bit of our writing, and learning or reinforcing a skill, then….it all depends on our workshop task. That’s why writing about my daily schedule is hard.

Here’s the best I can do without going into a long explanation.

READ — 10 to 15 minutes. This is sacred and silent reading time. Students choose books that interest them. I CONFER with my readers, most often with a specific focus, depending on my reader.

TALK about books. Sometimes I do a book talk, reading a few pages of the book, or holding

fabian

Fabian was so excited to share an insight from his book I could not get the camera to take the photo fast enough.

a book interview like Erika does. Sometimes a student does a book talk, if I’ve talked to her first and know she’s passionate about the book she’s just read. Sometimes I ask my students to just talk about the books they are reading, then ask them to write down any titles they think they might like to read next. Shana wrote about the Value of Talk, and I agree completely: “Talk is one of the most valuable tools at work in my classroom.”

WRITE in our writer’s notebooks. Everyday we need to have our students thinking on paper. When I forget, or think we do not have time to open our notebooks and write — in response to a poem, or a video, or a story, or about the books students are reading, or about whatever — I regret it.

Discussions are richer when we write first. Discoveries are more insightful when we write first. Writing is better when we write, just thinking about our ideas, first.

Then, something I learned from Penny Kittle, we always read what we wrote and REVISE. Penny modeled revising with a different color, and I ask my writers to do the same. I simply say, “Read over what you just wrote. How can you make your writing better? Maybe add a phrase or two that develops your thinking more. Maybe change a word or two that adds a punch. Maybe you can remove some words and make your thinking more concise. Where can you add figurative language or a list or an interesting style move?” (When I check writer’s notebooks, I always look for evidence of revision. We work on establishing the habit of revision, daily.)

SHARE some of our thinking. Sometimes we pair up and read our writing to a shoulder partner. Sometimes I ask for volunteers to share out their writing with the class. Sometimes I randomly call on someone (and I usually allow them to opt out at least once if they are uncomfortable reading aloud). Sharing is an important part of our community, and from the first day of school, we work on establishing a safe and respectful community where we can all grow as readers and writers.

Learn, or reinforce, a skill via MINI-LESSON. (If I introduce something totally new, like one of the AP English Language exam prompts, obviously, the mini-lesson will not be so mini. On these days, the mini-lesson time and the workshop time allotment swap places. Sometimes I need the focused direct instruction time because it saves time in the long run.)

Our routines usually take about 35 to 45 minutes. That leaves us about half the class period to hold a workshop. This might be a readers workshop if we are practicing close reading or if we are preparing for a Harkness discussion. This might be a writers workshop if we are composing a piece of writing or studying the moves of a favorite author.

Of course, if we are writing, I change my hat and confer with my writers.

I would love to know the workshop routines you establish with your readers and writers. Please share in the comments.

©Amy Rasmussen, 2011 – 2015

Four Ways to Formatively Assess in Workshop

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, reminds us that formative assessment doesn’t have to be intimidating.

Please return to this topic and talk with us in the comments–how do you build routines for formative assessment into your classroom?


dtrfyguhujSometimes I wake up in the morning, thinking about what I’ll be teaching and learning that day, and feel like a rebel.  That’s right–I think to myself, feeling inexplicably cool–I teach workshop. Yeahhhhh.  Even though this is the most research-based, data-driven form of instruction I’ve encountered in my teaching career, a successful workshop is still such a rarity that I feel like I’m breaking all the rules by employing it every day.  I’m a rebel with a cause.

Still, when I stop feeling like James Dean and reality bites me in the butt, I know I need to be practical and follow the rules by putting some grades in the gradebook–once per week is the suggestion at our school.  If I had it my way, I’d go gradeless and celebrate the myriad acts of literacy within the confines of a classroom.  That’s not possible right now.  I needed another solution, and I think I found it in Amy, right here on this blog.  She writes powerfully about formative assessments in this post.  Her thinking mirrors mine:

I know when I am learning a new skill, I want to be able to practice–free from judgment–so that I might build some confidence before I am formally evaluated.  The same is true for kids.  We should give them opportunities to practice and build confidence.

One grade per week, when I’m grading to evaluate, is impossible.  We don’t master a different skill every single week.  Mastery requires practice.  So, I’ve focused lately on formative assessment for eight out of the nine-week grading periods, and summative for just one.  Here are the four categories I see formative assessment broken down into, and how I put them in the gradebook.

IMG_5605

Un-gradeable, amazing writing

1. Writer’s notebooks – I collect writer’s notebooks every two weeks, and students can receive up to 20 points per collection.  If all of our prompts and exercises are present, and I can see the student’s effort, he or she gets the full 20/20.  I also ask students to mark for me anything they’d like feedback on.  I check to see the status of their to-read, wondrous words (vocab), and cool craft (quotes) sections, but I also look for a telltale pink sticky note.  If I see one, I read the marked piece and write back–just feedback.

2.  Reading logs – Our reading logs are quite messy; you can see one example here.  There are arrows everywhere, new reading rates scribbled in, and tons of titles being read every week.  When students complete their reading goal of two hours per week–determined by individual reading rates–they get 10 points, every week.  Reading logs show me the big picture of a class’s progress, while conferences help me go deeper.  The reading log lets me know, at a glance, who’s soaring and who’s not–helping to give my conferences direction.

IMG_6904

Word play

3.  Vocabulary – I still remember my orange Sadlier-Oxford vocab books from high school.  Those well-worn paperbacks were the source of many a cramped hand and a frantic fifteen minutes of homeroom before English class.  I know from personal experience that I don’t retain new words by completing fill-in-the-blank exercises–I learn by reading widely.  So, I ask my students to maintain a “wondrous words” section in their notebooks, writing down unfamiliar or unknown words as they read.  Then, I give them a different activity to complete with those words every two weeks.  The activities are worth 10 points each, and run the gamut from writing stories using the words to drawing pictures illustrating their meanings.

4. Honest self-assessments – When we finish a unit of any kind, usually about once a month–a writing unit, a reading unit, a book club, a challenge–I pass out a half-sheet with self-assessment questions on it.  I begin each half-sheet with a disclaimer:  “Be honest.  There’s no judgment here.  I just want to know why you were as successful as you were with this unit, and to know how I can help others be successful in the future.”  Students answer very truthfully, sometimes humorously so.  If their answers are thorough, they receive 15 points.

These four formative assessments total about 115 points per month.  With 9-week grading periods, students’ grades therefore are made up of about 2/3 formative assessments (230 points or so) and 1/3 summative assessments (100 points or so).  Well over half of the formative assessments are credit for the simple acts of doing the assigned reading and writing–no evaluation of those acts, just credit for the effort.  I value practice and process over product–and this grading system reflects that.

How do you handle grading, formative assessment, evaluation, etc.? Please share in the comments!

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