Category Archives: Readers Workshop

Fostering Structured Discussions: Coffee Talk

Students in classroom Multi-ethnic group of students in classroom, working together on a project. middle school discussion stock pictures, royalty-free photos & images

This school year has been one of simplification for me. I’ve really been trying to embrace doing more with less. Can I reuse this mentor text? Are there ways to better scaffold this concept? I’m constantly having to evaluate my lesson plans. Trying to find the tenuous balance between student engagement, skills practice, and bridging gaps has been difficult.

You know what? That’s ok. I tell my students all the time that growth happens when we are pushed outside of our comfort zones. So this year, my teaching practice is growing and changing. Reading this post definitely encouraged me to be reflective about my goals and practice.   

Here was my issue: 

I’d give my students a speaking prompt in response to something we’d read, journaled, etc. Sure, they’d chat about non-academic topics with their friends, but when it came to something related to class- crickets. My simple side-bar turn and talk activities were falling flat. 

Logically, I know this often comes down to students lacking confidence in their own ability to discuss the topic well. But I also know how necessary it is for them to break through that.

As teachers of writing, we know that if our kids can talk about something, they can write about it. I repeat this ad nauseam for my students. Making space in our classrooms for our students to discuss ideas is imperative to their growth as writers, but what do we do when they won’t?

Here was my solution:

This, my friends, is where we employ structured speaking opportunities in our lessons. In true teacher fashion, I went digging through archives of activities to see what popped out. I like to use an activity called Coffee Talk. Why I forget to use it from year to year? I’ll never know. It was something used in a professional development I attended ages ago and genuinely enjoyed because I, too, am often one to avoid jumping into a conversation if I feel a little unsure about how my ideas might be received. 

In the way a Socratic Seminar is like an essay, Coffee Talk is kind of like pre-writing. It embraces unfiltered, messy thoughts and protects the speaking time of every person in the group while still providing structure to help move the conversation along. 

Coffee Talk is a discussion in three rounds, designed for small groups of 3-6, and is easily adjusted to your purpose. It goes like this:

Round 1: 90 seconds per person is set aside to discuss the topic, text, etc. Whatever is in their brain about it is fine. Stream of consciousness-type thoughts abound. They may repeat something they heard- totally fine. This is NOT an open discussion.

Round 2: 60 seconds per person is set aside to continue their previous train of thought, expand on something they heard, and so on. This is STILL not an open discussion. Students should be more clearly developing their ideas as this round progresses.

Round 3: 5 minutes is set aside for the entire group to discuss. This is the moment they’ve all been waiting for- NOW it’s an open discussion. Encourage your kids to ask questions, respond to one another, and dig deeper into the topic. 

The fully detailed instructions I use with students can be found here

The beauty of this protocol is that every person is guaranteed a chance to speak, it’s easy to customize, and the entire class participates. 

What are some of your favorite ways to foster structured discussions in your classroom?

Samantha is a wife, mom to three tiny humans, high school English teacher, perpetual student, Texas transplant, and lover of beautiful stories. She spends her days seeking levity in the chaos, sharing her passion for writing and storytelling with students, and searching for her constantly misplaced cup of reheated coffee. You can follow Samantha on Twitter @SimplySivils and on her blog http://simplySivils.wordpress.com/.

Kids These Days Are Amazing

I know this title is going to cause some teacher eye rolls because it is rough in education right now. Some of us are using every classroom management tool we can think of and still struggling with refusals to work or listen. I get it- I am there, too.

However, despite this year being even more difficult than last due to social-emotional needs we weren’t expecting, I still think kids these days are amazing. I don’t think I could show up to work everyday if I let this belief go.

I like to use this countercultural phrase because we often hear “kids these days don’t want to learn” or “kids these days don’t know how to make choices for themselves” or “kids these days just don’t care.” I wholeheartedly believe this is not true. Kids, like all human-beings, have an innate need to learn and make sense of the world. Right now, a global pandemic, a year of less connection, continued uncertainty, etc. has caused learning to end up on the backburner of needs. Am I saying this means teachers should just suck it up and deal with the environment of burnout we are experiencing? Absolutely not. We have also been through all of these draining circumstances, too, and we have to give ourselves grace and maybe even a break. The only thing I ask from you is to stop, look around, and see what’s going right. YOU are doing many things right.

I had my own moment of revelation as I sat in bed for days grading our most recent project while I am quarantined for COVID (my case is not bad, and I am doing okay). This quarter, our sophomore English students chose a nonfiction book on any topic they wanted that made them curious and they wanted to know more about. Students chose books like Lone Survivor and Stamped and I Have The Right To. They read about true crime, UFOs, wars, history, racism, assault, poverty, the justice system, psychology and on and on.

My inspiration when creating this project was from those ordinary moments we all experience: we are sitting on the coach watching a movie or reading a book and a question about what we are reading/watching pops in our heads. “Did that historical event actually happen?” “Did those actors break up?” Then, we find ourselves down a rabbit-hole of research from which we emerge half an hour later after reading about how asparagus might cure unwanted hair loss. Though I am making light of this common phenomenon, it demonstrates the yearning to know and understand in our real lives. I wanted to create that phenomenon as authentically as I could for my students while fostering independent reading.

Inquiry Project Details

As students read the nonfiction books they chose, they kept an inquiry log of questions that arose for them as they read their book; they took these questions into our research days to find out more information about a topic in their book. For example, multiple students read about sexual assault and wanted to know statistics about assault in America. At the end of our time reading, questioning, and researching, the students created either a podcast, a TED talk, or a website to present their learning to their peers. This project involved choice, authentic research, authentic product, digital literacy, and authentic publishing. The conversations, products, and learning that came from this project were superb. I had to take a few moments to just stop and bask in the goosebumps-producing joy that is kids being freed to learn what they want to learn.

Of course, there were lots of road bumps (or even total road closures) along the way. We had issues with students picking random books without a lot of consideration as to their interest in it to just get their reading check grade. We had students who didn’t or wouldn’t read. There were lots of absences and catching students up. And we also dealt with a total lack of knowledge in research because of the circumstances of their last two years of school.

For students who picked books they didn’t actually want to read, the remedy was pushing them hard to read in the first two weeks with the option of abandoning their book. Some kids still didn’t read enough within the two weeks to know if they enjoyed their book or not, so those students were stuck with their book and the lesson to choose more carefully next time. For students who had a hard time getting started in their reading (always the toughest, but most important time!), my colleague, Kristal All, created these awesome bookmark trackers so students could practice making checkpoints along the way for themselves. These led to some good conversations about goal-setting, following through, and the mess we make for ourselves when we don’t do the work early on. We also had reading conferences to check in on their progress, understanding, and enjoyment of the book as well as to check in on what kinds of questions students were asking about their books. They kept track of their questions on this document.

Many students started out asking questions that would later be answered in the book or questions about the author’s thoughts/feelings. As we continued in our reading, we steered students toward asking broader questions about the topics that arose in the book that would be better for outside research. We kept reminding them that if the question could be answered by the book, it wasn’t a research question. It took a little while to get them out of a compliance mode and into true curiosity, but the work was worth it for true learning.

Every two weeks, we had a research day. We would start with a mini-lesson such as using the benefits of using the databases, bias in sources, or reliable vs. unreliable sources. The students would then be released on their own to do their research. For my level students in particular, I highly encouraged them to stay on our school databases so they did not have to do the extra work of determining reliability/credibility and so their citations would be made for them. I plan to do some more lessons to open up their research to the whole web next quarter. Our first research day really helped students reframe their thinking about what kinds of questions they should be asking as they read their books.

We used these charts to have conversations about bias in media and when it’s appropriate to use certain sources. For this project, we encouraged them to stick to the center of the bias chart, if researching outside of the databases, since this was supposed to be purely informational.

At the end of the quarter, students chose what mode of media they wanted to present their project in- TED Talk, podcast or Google website. They were given this sheet of instructions, tutorials, and planning documents. The intention was for students to get a major grade for the project and a major grade for presenting. This was our rubric for the product they created. My getting COVID messed up presentations for my classes, but I think it still heightened the level of product I received from the students. For the TED Talk and podcast, students would simply play their media for the class and answer questions at the end. For websites, students would have to present in real-time in front of the class and answer questions. The podcast was a popular choice for students since they didn’t have to be on camera, they got to re-record as many times as needed, and they could potentially read off of their script without anyone knowing. It was also fantastic for my students who are learning English as a second (or third or fourth) language. They got to practice the very important skill of speaking, and I was so impressed with how hard they worked on these.

Student Products

I did this with both my level and my honors ELA II classes. This podcast was produced by a wonderful young lady in my honors class, Brooklyn Spikes (tw: it deals with the topic of sexual assault). She sounded like a podcasting professional, and I think everyone can feel the passion in her speaking. This podcast was created by a student in my level class, Enzo, and my favorite parts are the well-timed comedic pauses and asides.

I wish I could share the amazing websites students have done, but my district has publishing settings where only those inside the district can access the sites. Nevertheless, I will share that many students knocked it out of the part with their website design, flow, engaging details, etc. I have received no TED Talks, and I am still reflecting on why that option wasn’t chosen.

The Joy in it All

I chose to share this project because, at its core, it is a pretty simple idea from which I saw such a powerful effect. It wasn’t easy, as seen in all of our setbacks above, but I think the students were more engaged in their reading and more excited to learn than they have been for a couple of semesters. I know I felt immense joy every time I had a reading conference, and I got to see the light in my students’ eyes as they passionately explained their topic to me. That’s why I say kids these days are amazing. They are very much re-learning how to “do school,” but I think this proves that they are up to the task and that authenticity and choice lead to ultimate engagement. I will also add that this project could not have been as successful without the wide-ranging availability of books for students to choose from (with permission slips from their parents saying they will talk to their children about what they feel is appropriate for them to read). There are many counterarguments to book bans, but above is mine. I hope these resources are helpful to you in some way. Keep hanging in there, teacher. Your work is making a difference.

Rebecca Riggs is in her 5th year of teaching, but her first year at Conroe High School. She just finished reading The Cousins by Karen McManus and really enjoyed another thrilling mystery from the author. She would like to thank COVID for nothing except the little margin it afforded in which she was able to write this blog post. She is starting her Master of Education in curriculum and instruction at UT Tyler in January, but has no plans to leave the classroom soon. She does, however, wonder when she will find time to post on the blog. Her next read will be Somebody’s Daughter by Ashley C. Ford. You can find her on twitter @rebeccalriggs or on instragram @riggsreaders

Leaning into the recent school board book debates

It’s a scary time to be a teacher. States that are zealous to combat Critical Race Theory (CRT) are intruding into the classroom, even offering $500 bounties for proof of teachers pushing “divisive concepts”. Other states have sought to tackle unwanted ideas (like CRT or LGBTQ issues) by examining the reading lists in curriculums and libraries, with one VA school board member advocating for burning unwanted titles while a Kansas school district built a list of 29 books to ban. This, of course, is on top of teaching during a global pandemic with all of the curveballs and landmines it presents to supporting students.

It has made me think twice about what book lists I put in my students’ hands and how they might be perceived by parents, even though my district and community have traditionally been very supportive and inclusive in their approach.

But when Beloved became a swing issue in Virginia’s election for governor, I began to feel a little bit of hope, too, that literature is still relevant, still a disrupting force in a culture adrift in social media sludge. I think the recent school board debates offer some great ways to lean into literature, the power of stories, and the responsive climate the workshop model offers.

An opportunity for research and inquiry

When we begin semester 2, we usually shift from argument to analysis in our approach to writing in English III. As we do that, I’m going to share a Deep Dive opportunity (see the full version here) with my students so they can get a handle on what’s happening in the world. It works like the intro to this piece, trying to give them some context with links to keep learning more about the root issues and perspectives driving the stories.

The Deep Dive is also a model we’ll use to think about how to write about a controversial topic in a neutral way and how to utilize and synthesize hyperlinks to enhance the presentation or sharing of our research. But there are so many other great inquiry questions this event can spark:

  • Why are some school districts building lists of books they don’t want you to read?
  • How does your school district decide which books can or should be read?
  • What is the role of a classroom within a community?

An opportunity to discuss the value of literary analysis and interpretation

At the heart of the school board discussions is how we interpret and arrive at meaning in a text. So it’s fair to ask: are these good interpretations of texts that parents and schools boards are making? What makes an interpretation good? Are some interpretations better than others?

The news hook gives these potentially stale academic questions some context and urgency. It also opens doors to explore some good analysis mentor texts. These are two analysis texts we will spend time with, one I’ve used before and one I intend to use next semester:

These are some of the guiding questions we’ll use during our analysis work of their independent reading:

  • What is the relevance of the books we read to the MHS student experience?  In what ways are the books windows or mirrors into those experiences?
  • Do the books we read reinforce or challenge old stereotypes? Are they meant to be emulated or are they criticisms of what to avoid?
  • Do the books address social issues in a constructive, inclusive way or in more confrontational, divisive ways? Are they too political? Are they literary enough?

An opportunity to make the argument for literature

Some potential argument topics have been alluded to above, but a few more flow from thinking about what literature is:

  • What is literature? Who should get to decide?
  • What books should schools require to be read? Should books be able to be required?
  • Which books would you be willing to fight for? (which leads into some analysis and interpretation moves)
  • Should parents or schools have more say in the learning curriculum?

This leads to some great opportunities for conversations about the power of stories to transform minds and hearts and why storytellers have often been met with resistance by the powers-that-be in other times and in other places. Right now you can also find many mentor texts arguing for or against what each state or school board is doing in response to parental complaints or challenges. 

This satirical take is a fun way to think about argument and Petri is a consistently fun writer to revisit: “Take all the books off the shelf. They’re just too dangerous” by Alexandra Petri (The Washington Post 11/26/21).

To wrap up, the value of the workshop model in facilitating these moves and discussions is central. If I was only teaching one book to all students with the same pacing, it would be much more difficult to maneuver the discussion to respond to current events. When students are at the center of the learning experience in the way that workshop intends, their story and responses drive the learning rather than my agenda. They’re empowered by literature to take on a world that is in scary need of timeless truth.

Nathan Coates teaches junior English at Mason High School, a large suburban district near Cincinnati, Ohio.

Creating Book Buzz: Using Memes for Book Talks

We are eight days into a new school year and already I’m in awe of how hard teachers have been working to get books in kids’ hands. Our amazing media specialist has gotten kids into the space earlier than ever and it’s been fun book-talking and matchmaking. 

Last week a pink-haired sprite of a student stood with a book in her hands, looking puzzled. “What kind of books do you like to read?” I asked her. She shrugged and turned over the book she was holding. It was Blue Lily, Lily Blue by Maggie Stiefvater and though I hadn’t read the book yet, I knew enough about the author to know this could be a match. “I think this book found you,” I told the student. She smiled and carried it over to the check out desk. 

It feels like that sometimes, doesn’t it? Like books just find a student. There are other times, though, when kids get in a rut. Or when students don’t even know enough about what they like to read to help figure out where they might start, or what to read next. While there’s excitement and urgency around the reading now, how do we carry that energy past October, the point where it feels like everything gets harder to sustain?

My colleague Tiffany Walters is amazing at sustaining reading energy. When students finish a book in her room, they immediately book talk it. There’s no schedule or deadline. She just creates spontaneous space for kids to share and they do it all year. I’ve been thinking about additional ways we might leverage the other readers in the room to keep the momentum going.

Tiffany turned me on to the Instagram account for a book store in St. Louis called The Novel Neighbor because they make creative recommendations. I was delighted and spent an embarrassing amount of time reading back through past posts. I even put several titles on hold as a result of the memes.

That got me thinking, how might we use these memes as mentor texts for the kinds of conversations we want to kids to be having about books?

The first step might be to flood students with examples of the mentor text. This is a padlet I created with a variety of the memes. Invite students to peruse, to craft a list of what they notice about how the memes are put together. Which ones appeal to them? What do they notice about form? About content? About structure?

Students might say:

  • each meme has an image of the book. 
  • colors are bold and the words strategically placed. 
  • The creator uses an If…Then structure
  • I read Survive the Night by Riley Sager, so I notice that the bullet points are important plot points. 

I imagine after we do this with students, they’ll need a nudge, something Ohio Writing Project co-director Beth Rimer calls “nurturing an idea”. It’s not enough to just show the mentor text and then tell students “okay, go do that.” We have to create a little more runway. 

Here’s where Gretchen Bernabei’s quicklists come in. This is the quicklist I used when I shared this idea with a group of teachers earlier this school year.

After we generated a list, we talked to each other about the lists, adding more ideas. Then I invited them to consider what kind of connection they could make between the book and one of the items on their quicklist. 

And then we messed around. In fewer than 10 minutes, we created memes on google slides full of book recommendations.

As we move further into the school year, we might post these memes along the hallway outside the media center. We might share the google slides the week we head to the library so kids can gather ideas. We might even see if admin will let us put the slideshow on the TVs in the cafeteria.

What are some ways you might have students share their If…Then reviews?

Angela Faulhaber is a secondary literacy coach at West Clermont Schools in the Cincinnati area. Working with teachers in grades 6-12. If you like the Netflix series All American, you might like the latest book Angela read Blackout by Dhonielle Clayton, Tiffany Jackson, Nic Stone, Angie Thomas, Ashely Woodfolk, and Nicole Yoon.

The Yearning to Learn Carries On

Just like Nathan Coates in his post last week, I have been thinking about the conversation surrounding Critical Race Theory in schools. From what I have seen in my area, fear is playing a huge role: fear of the unknown, fear of discomfort, fear of hard conversations. Now, I firmly believe that many of the things coming up for CRT are misguided. Too many terms are becoming synonymous that aren’t- “anti-racism” is equated with “white fragility” is equated with “race-baiting” is equated with “critical race theory.” It seems to go on and on, but each of these things is so different from the next.

As I took my first vacation with my husband alone since our honeymoon four years ago to Atlanta, Georgia last week, I had an epiphany. I mentioned in a post a few weeks ago that nature is where I come up with my best writing ideas. While exploring Georgia, specifically Sweetwater Creek State Park, I took a moment to sit on a big swath of metamorphic rock (I originally wrote “granite,” but my geologist husband corrected me) lodged into the hill on the riverside to watch the whitewater flow. Lots of things came up for me: this water kept flowing amidst a worldwide pandemic, this water kept ceaselessly eroding away the rock beneath it while we struggled to figure out what school looked like this year and what was best for students, and this water kept finding the path of least resistance while fear was being brandished after racial reckoning, insurrection, and the fallout. I got emotional as I realized that our kids kept going, too. It was different from all the years before, but they still had an obvious ache inside of them for learning. Just like that water, their natural human tendency to want knowledge and want to understand kept flowing. I think I forgot that at times this year.

If you ever go to the state park, this can be seen on the red trail.

While I was stuck in my mindset about how learning has looked for decades and how that was so different this year, I missed some amazing moments that I am just realizing right now. Together, my students and I processed a pandemic, the politics that raged around that pandemic, the racial reckoning, the history-making insurrection, and the movement toward a more “normal” return to life. They created powerful “America to Me” videos to start off the year so we could see our country through their eyes (using this video as a mentor text). They taught me new things about how to look at texts during their book clubs. They took on big topics that they felt passionate about and researched them to create a website for publishing (adapted from an idea from Kelly Gallagher using this site as a mentor text). We may have read less texts and written less formal essays than in years past, but these kids learned. Not because of me, but because of their instinctive will as human-beings to make meaning. No one could have stopped their learning no matter how hard they tried.

With this epiphany and the war against CRT gnawing at the back of my mind, I realized that the kids are going to be alright. I am hoping for some more nuanced conversations between politicians and adults about what CRT actually is and what free speech/true inquiry in the classroom should look like, but even if all those adults let these kids down by not having those tough but necessary conversations, I know my kids will keep talking about it. They will keep asking questions and not stopping until they get an answer. They have a deep yearning to learn that can’t be thwarted by misguided laws, just like that body of water won’t be stopped by rocks or trees. My hope lies in the fact that the kids will always find a way to make meaning, no matter what we do or don’t do. However, our job is to remove the obstacles to learning to make it flow easier, not add more resistance to their path.

*Many of our curriculum ideas mentioned here were created in large part due to my colleague, Deanna Hinnant’s, amazing mind. You can find her at @DAHinnant on Twitter.

Rebecca is moving into her 5th year of teaching at a new school, Conroe High School. She is looking forward to a fresh start and all the ways this move is getting her out of her comfort zone. In the meantime before school starts up again, she is resting hard by bingeing TV, reading tons of books, and relaxing in the pool. She is currently reading Sanctuary by Paola Mendoza and Abby Sher. You can find Rebecca @riggsreaders on Instagram or @rebeccalriggs on Twitter.

Literacy, Inquiry, and Critical Race Theory

The ongoing debate this summer about the teaching of Critical Race Theory in schools and how states have responded has been unsettling. The debate raises questions about free speech, about scholarship and academia, about the role of politicians in the classroom, and about community values. You can find plenty of opinions out there that likely support your own.

My goal in this short post is not to examine the pros and cons of CRT or whether or not politicians should legislate its presence in classrooms, but rather to think a little bit about what the debate has exposed about the teacher’s role within the classroom, specifically the English teacher’s role, when it comes to tackling controversial current event topics.

2 postures toward controversial topics

Some legislators apparently fear my superpowers–that I will somehow brainwash a generation of young adults into adopting a critical lens that prizes race. I like that they grant me these powers, but anyone who has spent a week in the classroom understands the absurdity of this premise. These fears of indoctrination are based on a pretty flawed assumption about what a teacher is and does. For example, I don’t know anyone who teaches (or who has time to teach) CRT. It’s not even on most teachers’ radars if I had to guess. And while I teach with some wonderful people who explored social justice this year in response to the racial unrest of the summer of 2020, their posture is worth noting. Their goal was not to indoctrinate, but to open up avenues of inquiry. I think this is what literacy is really all about and what the secondary English classroom approach should be when it comes to charged topics like CRT.

LiteracyIndoctrination
creator, researcherstudent’s rolepassive consumer
empower students
co-learner
teacher’s roleshape perspective
expert
students are self-empowered to find and
interpret information
outcomesstudents can repeat or recite information
avenues of inquiry
personalized
processone path
one-size-fits-all

inquiry driven by neutral essential questions

I assume most secondary English teachers would agree. It gets trickier in the application, though, starting with how essential questions get framed. Note the subtle difference in these two questions:

  • What is Critical Race Theory and why is there so much debate on it?
  • Why should schools continue to reach Critical Race Theory amid the current debate?

The first one is simple, but it promotes inquiry. It puts responses in students’ hands and asks them to become more literate. There is no presupposed answer or bent to their pursuit of knowledge. There is room for discussion and dialogue about what people think and why. I used the following three questions as part of a unit on anti-racism in semester 2 last year:

  • What is systemic racism?
  • Is systemic racism present in the literature that most schools read?
  • In what ways do schools perpetuate or combat systemic racism?

Notice how the first two are the most open because they are the most neutral. The third is built on the assumption that systemic racism is present, which narrows it a bit. But the posture of opening avenues of inquiry is hopefully what’s central here rather than students feeling like I am trying to indoctrinate them. The first two invite us all to participate as co-learners.

inquiry driven by vocabulary exploration

This is, like so much of literacy, really about vocabulary. In this case, some additional guiding questions can be really illuminating:

  • What do people mean when they say “Critical Race Theory”? 
  • What are the connotations of CRT? What do Republicans mean when they say this? What do Democrats mean when they say this? What do academics like professors mean?

These are vocabulary questions. How does this word/phrase work and function in different rhetorical situations? What gives it the power to elicit such reactions? How can there be such differing views about what it is?

There is a genuine academic interest in answering questions like this. It adds to our body of knowledge and understanding about the world around us, making us better citizens, and it also equips us to ask the same kind of questions about the next hot-button issue that lights up social media. I’ve used CRT as an example, but really any politically-charged topic can be effectively handled through inquiry that is driven by neutral essential questions and vocabulary exploration.

I do not want my children to be indoctrinated at their schools. I want them to be given the space to explore and learn to think for themselves. To become literate. I do not want to indoctrinate anybody else’s children. I want to pass on the values of literacy–of critical thinking that leads to empathy and understanding. Secondary English teachers are uniquely situated to create those kinds of learning experiences. 

Nathan Coates teaches junior English at Mason High School, a large suburban district near Cincinnati, Ohio. He serves on his building’s equity team and is ready for his family’s annual summer pilgrimage to Lake Michigan.

Micro-writing for the Win

Sometimes it takes a lot of patience. That was my first thought when I read Sarah’s post last month The Hits Will Come. She shares how baseball and writing have a lot in common–both require a lot of practice. And sometimes the “hits” come quickly for student writers. Sometimes they don’t. Sometimes we have to help students want to even try to write a hit.

My thoughts turned to a student I taught last year. I’ll call him Dan. The very first day of class as I made the rounds, trying to speak to each students individually for just a moment, Dan said to me, “Miss, I know you just said we were gonna write a lot in this class, but I gotta tell you, I can’t write. I mean, really, not even a decent sentence.”

theofficeofficequotes.com

Of course, I appreciated the honesty, and that Dan thought enough about how I started the class to tell me straight up how he felt, but inside I was thinking, “Dude, you are a senior about to graduate high school in a couple of months, what do you mean you can’t write a sentence?” Of course, I didn’t say that. Instead I asked him why he thought he couldn’t write. His answer still makes me angry.

“My teacher last year told me,” he said. “I failed every essay. I just couldn’t seem to write what she wanted me to write.”

So many thoughts.

Over the course of the first several days of class, I made sure to find the time to talk with Dan. I learned that he had plans to go into the military as soon as he graduated. I learned that the only book he’d read all the way through in his 11 years of school was American Sniper by Chris Kyle.

And during the next few weeks, I learned that Dan could write–when he chose what he wanted to write about, and when his peers and I gave him feedback that made him feel like he was a writer. This took a lot of time and patience.

First, Dan had to want to write. He had to know that I wasn’t going to judge whatever he put on the page. He had to trust that I was sincere in 1) wanting to know what he thought, 2) helping him string sentences together so they said what he wanted them to say.

Reading helped. Since Dan liked Chris Kyle’s book, I helped him find other books written by those who had served in the Armed Forces. Lone Survivor by Marcus Luttrell and No Easy Day by Mark Owen were ones my own soldier son had read. Then, I found the list “Best Modern Military Accounts” on Goodreads.com and the article The 13 Best Books the Military Wants Its Leaders to Read. Dan didn’t read any of these books (not for my lack of trying to get him to choose a book), but during independent reading time, he did read about them–and this was enough to give me talking points to help him understand why growing in his confidence as a writer might be in his best interest– and topics for him to write about that semester.

Relationships helped. Since Dan had been so forthright with me about his experience with writing, I asked if he’d share his thoughts about writing with the peers who shared his table. He was all too eager! I’m pretty sure he thought his peers would share his writing woes. But like a miracle from heaven, Dan happened to have chosen to sit with two confident and capable writers. These students did not know one another before my class, but they grew to trust each other as we followed the daily routines of self-selected independent reading, talking about our reading, writing about our reading (or something else personal or thematically related to the lesson), and sharing our writing with our table groups.

Prior to independent notebook writing time, sometimes I’d say, “Today as you share your writing in your groups, let’s listen for just one phrase or sentence that you think holds a punch. Talk about why you like what they wrote.” This instruction gave students a heads up. Oh, I need to be sure to write at least one pretty good sentence.

One pretty good sentence was a good starting place for Dan. This micro writing gave Dan his first “hits.” And once he started to gain some confidence, he started to write more. Once Dan started to write more, he started asking for help to make his writing better. I think that is what it means to be a writer–wanting to improve your writing.

I think sometimes we get rushed. We expect more than some students are able to give. When I first started teaching, I assigned writing instead of teaching writers. Thank God I learned a better way. I would have missed out on a lot of joy in my teaching career.

I don’t know that Dan will ever have to write in his career in the military. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that he can write, and he knows he can. Even if it’s just a pretty good sentence and another and another.

Amy Rasmussen lives in a small but about to burst small town in North Texas with her husband of 35 years, her poison dart frogs Napoleon and Lafayette, her Shelties Des and Mac, and her extensive and time-consuming rare tropical plant collection. She believes educators should Do Nothing all summer. (Affiliate link, so you buy, 3TT gets a little something.) You can find Amy on Twitter @amyrass, although she rarely tweets anymore, or on IG @amyleigh_arts1, where she posts about grandkids and grand plants.

Tried and (Still) True: An Architectural Approach to Writing

Helen Becker

If you know me, you know that I am a Brene’ Brown fan. No, take that back. I’m a huge Brene’ Brown fan. Brown helps me make my life make sense, both personally and professionally. Brown’s work as an ethnographic researcher influenced my research in educational best practices. As I began my doctoral research in self-efficacy and perceptions of college and career readiness among high school students, I gravitated to Brown’s experiences in grounded theory. Grounded theory, she writes, evolves from people’s lived experiences rather than from experimentation to prove or disprove theories.

Brown adds, “In grounded theory, we don’t start with a problem or a hypothesis or a literature review, we start with a topic. We let the participants define the problem or their main concern about the topic, we develop a theory, and then we see how it fits in the literature.”

Reflecting on these statements, I had an “A ha!” moment: much the same happens in the writing process when a teacher allows students to authentically express their thoughts and ideas. We create opportunities for our students to start with a topic – maybe a person, place, or a moment – and see where the writing takes them. Then we add layers and layers of instruction to shape the first draft into new drafts and eventually, maybe, into various writing products. A poem? Perhaps. An essay? Form follows function.

We teach writers how to bend their writing into new and different forms rather than generating prompt after prompt after prompt for students to write in circles of nothingness.

So how does Brene’ Brown fit into this blog post? Brown’s May 4th Dare to Lead podcast features author and leadership expert, Douglas Conant, and his new book (with Amy Federman) The Blueprint: 6 Practical Steps to Lift Your Leadership to New Heights. Conant’s book, like many featured by Brown, has high priority on my “To Read Next” list. In the podcast, Conant discusses the importance of a strong foundation to guide us through times of uncertainty. Times like now. Our experiences, Conant states, are a blueprint for our future.

Brown and Conant’s discussion intersected my own thinking as I pondered the next installment of “Tried and (Still) True” for Three Teachers Talk. What came to mind? Blueprinting.

Blueprint writing from an equity stance means considering spaces other than the “traditional” blueprint layout.

Tried and (Still) True – June 2021

This month, I’m sharing The Blueprint, modified from a lesson learned by many Abydos teachers, with credit for the original lesson going to Dr. Joyce Armstrong Carroll in the first edition of Acts of Teaching and Peter Stillman in Families Writing. While the original lesson described in Acts of Teaching calls for a house-esque foldable, over the years, I modified the lesson to have students think about any dwelling space (a home, a basketball arena, a car) where they could envision a blueprint. Modifying the lesson in this way meets the needs of students who may not have a place to call home but rather a place where they feel at home.

Here’s a rough sketch of The Blueprint lesson cycle:

We begin with the concept of a blueprint: what is a blueprint, who uses it, what it communicates, and why it is important? We look at sample blueprints and engage in some inferential thinking based on what the blueprint communicates between and beyond the architect’s blue lines.

Then I invite students to think about a space that is important to them. We might draw on previous pre-writing activities such as “People, Places, Moments” or an A to Z list. I encourage students to think about spaces other than a house: one student drew the dashboard of his beloved vintage (beatup) Camaro while another chose the principal’s office because he spent a lot of time there. Before students land on a place to sketch, I model how I sketched the blueprint of my grandmother’s house in Longview, Texas. I tell them how the details you can’t remember don’t matter. What matters is what you remember. I also remind them this isn’t Art class. I’m not grading the accuracy of the drawing.

Once students get their own blueprint generated, I have them focus on one aspect of the blueprint where they can add more detail: what is on the walls? Is there furniture? Plants or trees? Photos? This line of inquiry generates more details to add to the blueprint.

For example, some student-writers feel more comfortable on the basketball court or soccer field.

Then I invite students to write about the connections they feel to this space or to one aspect of the space they just drew. These connections may turn into a narrative or an informative piece or a poem. Form follows function.

One year, a student blueprinted my classroom. He wrote, “In Mrs. Becker’s classroom, I can be myself. I can walk in the door, sit in my desk, look at the pictures of her family, and I feel like I am part of her family too.”

Carroll says in Acts of Teaching, blueprinting “allows students to recreate places that hold memories worth writing about” (18). It is in these memories that stories come back to life from the perspective of the writer, now a few years older and hopefully wiser. Collecting these stories on paper, what Brene’ Brown calls “storycatching,” becomes a means to understand our past and use our memories, both positive and negative, to guide our writing and shape our future selves.

About the author:

One time I blueprinted my Moscow kitchen and wrote about scorching quinoa and testing the bounds of international relations.

Dr. Helen Becker has used blueprint writing as a pre-writing vehicle in nearly every high school ELA course she has ever taught, accounting for roughly 16 years of her own blueprint stories! She has blueprinted about life in her tiny Moscow apartment (pictured here) with her husband as well as the layout of the #8 hole – her nemesis – at Leland Country Club. In her current role as a Research Data Analyst for Clear Creek ISD in the Houston, Texas, area, she is more likely to blueprint her two-screen Excel spreadsheet dashboard than the dashboard of her car.  Her newest blueprint story though? Designing the guest room of her new home to welcome her first grandson for a visit at the end of June. The library of children’s books continues to grow by the day.

A Huge Bright Moment in a Pretty Bleak Year

GUEST POST by Rebecca Riggs

Last year around this same time in “the before,” my students were participating in a book tasting to choose their book club books for the fourth quarter of school.

As I walked around the library (no seating chart needed) and looked at my students smile, scowl, and everything in between, students passed around books on their tables. I built up my library of books so I had multiple copies of popular, widely representative books mostly from the ProjectLIT list, and I was very excited to see what students would pick.

I spent the first days of my break leafing through my students’ ranked choices, and I was pleasantly surprised that they almost all fell perfectly into groups where I was able to give them their first choice.

It was my team’s first time trying out book clubs; I was thrilled to try something new and to see what it would teach me! Unfortunately, we all know how that ended–my students never got to do those book clubs, and I did not get to see them again.

Here we are a year later with my current students (including some of those students from last year since I moved up a grade) engaging in overwhelmingly successful book clubs in a hybrid teaching model in a pandemic!

If you told me at the beginning of this dumpster fire of a school year that I would have been able to try out any new instructional model, let alone book clubs, I would have told you to cut out the toxic positivity and leave me to my despair.

I will not lie, the logistics and setting things up was a lot of work and overwhelming at times, but I am so glad we took the time to do this. My students are having meaningful conversations about their books, some are reading a whole book for the first time in years, and almost all engaging more than they have this year because of these clubs.

I am so grateful for this huge bright moment in a pretty bleak year.

As far as logistics go–

I first gathered class numbers from each of my colleagues who do not have their own sets of book club books, and I made sure we could make it work with what I and my one other colleague, Deanna Hinnant, had.

Since last year, we have taken advantage of First Book Marketplace’s low prices, promo codes and book bank prices to gather books for clubs.  Once that was settled, and I gave those teachers their books, we had to figure out how to facilitate a book tasting that was both safe and accessible to students online.

My amazing librarian, Tasha James, made us book tastings for students to choose books for their independent reading at the beginning of the year, and I just modified one she had already created. My colleagues who did not feel as tech-savvy reached out to Mrs. James, asking her if she could create their book tastings for them.

Here is the one I created. I gave the students about half of a class to look at the book tasting and to complete this form to rank their choices.

From there, it was pretty easy to get kids into groups and to assign kids who chose not to respond. I intentionally had the groups be a mix of online and on-campus students, but some of my colleagues chose homogeneous groups. I also chose to go through each book and break it into 5 sections that aligned with chapters (if there were any), and I gave them this document in hopes that the groups would mostly stay on the same page. (I know there are date discrepancies between some of the documents. We can thank the Texas Winter Storm for that one!) My colleagues chose to let their students break it into 5 sections themselves and decide as a group where they would reach in their book for each discussion, which seemed to work just as well.

After we had our list of groups, we stayed after school two different days in two different weeks in order to hand out books to online students. We began advertising this well before students even chose their books through parent emails, telling the students at the beginning of every class, and sending Remind101 messages. As expected, there were lots of students who did not pick up their books. We tried our best to meet with these students one-on-one to set up alternate times, to leave the books in the front office for them to get or to explain to them how they can get the book online from our school/county library. At the end, 90% of the students got a hold of their book in one way or another, and the ones who did not were not participating in class at all regardless.

For our assessment, we created a TQE document that you can view here.

We practiced using this method during our reading of The Crucible one time before it was used for book clubs to make sure students understood the method, but also to make tweaks because it was our first time as teachers using the method, too. The “Topic of the Week” aligned with our mini-lessons each week and were merely a suggestion of what to think about as they read. You can find more about the TQE method from the Cult of Pedagogy Podcast episode 103 or from their blog post. This is where we got the idea and modified the method for our purposes.

Overall, I found this method to be an amazing, fairly-easy way to get kids to make their thinking visible and to prepare them for their book club discussions. However, I did have to “fail forward” when I realized during the second book club discussion that I had not made it clear that the “Thoughts” and “Questions” (and maybe epiphanies) portions were to be filled out before their discussion while they read in preparation for the discussion.

The standards we were focusing on for the reading, TQE’s and discussions can be found here.

When I tell you that these book club discussions I listened into made my heart leap in my chest, I am not being hyperbolic in the slightest. These kids, man. They just amaze me.

Students were demonstrating mastery of so many standards, but also just saying such thoughtful things while connecting with each other. It’s everything I have wanted for this year.

It was not a perfect start, and some kids came to their first discussion with only five pages read, but I saw so many kids start to read when they heard how excited their peers were about their reading.

I had a couple groups of students who I actually had to redirect because they would try to talk about their books when we were working on other tasks in class, or I was giving a lesson. Honestly, I do not even mind that they were being disruptive!

I had one student who is designated as SPED who was reading Monday’s Not Coming* by Tiffany D. Jackson who was having a hard time getting into the book and getting motivated. After her groupmate encouraged her and raved about the book, this student read 100 pages in one day. She shared that this will be the first book she’s read in its entirety in years. Many students have been positively affected, but that one student becoming a reader would have been enough to make it all worth it. Fortunately, this is one of many stories of students finding books they love and finally seeing themselves as readers.

I will not lie and tell you that the organization and logistics were not hard and time consuming and frustrating at times. We had students we couldn’t get in contact with. We had different people, including me, out at different points during that unit for weeks at a time and others on our team had to pick up the slack.

We also had an unprecedented winter storm in Texas that took a week of instruction and rocked many of our staff and colleagues’ lives.

Some students never got their books and some students are still just on page 50 after five weeks of reading. In addition, we had students dropping other classes three weeks before the end of the quarter grading period and being added to our classes in the middle of book clubs.

It was not perfect, but it is one of the most impactful things I have done in my classroom since I started doing independent reading with my students, and I cannot believe we were able to pull it off during hybrid teaching with everything else we have added to our plates this year.

As my dad would say, “You can do hard things,” and this hard thing was well worth the effort.

*Affiliate link: If you purchase through this link, 3TT gets a little something.

Rebecca Riggs is currently in her 4th year teaching (feels like 10th) at Klein Cain High School in Houston, TX. She loves recommending books! You can find her on Twitter @rebeccalriggs and on Instagram @riggsreaders 

Free Digital Book Resources for Teens – Booktalking during a Pandemic

Independent reading always matters.

Student access and student choice are important now more than ever, so it’s time to share what is working!

Before our school went to distance learning, we could see it coming. We knew it wasn’t a matter of if, but of when, so the teachers in my department made extra space and time for our students to go to the school library during English classes to check out books. It was a good idea and I’m glad we did it, but those books are running out. Many students have read through their check outs and then some, and are looking for something new.

During regular school days, I always shared a new book in the form of a book talk. It’s hard to keep that up without our classroom library right at our fingertips, but it’s still important.

That’s where the online book talk comes into play.

I’ve been posting and talking up books every day of our online learning time. I have tried to find books that are free and relevant so that there aren’t any unnecessary barriers for students.

One resource that I’ve particularly loved is Epic! because they have so many graphic novels, and right now their content is free for teachers and students until June 30.

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They have more than just graphic novels, and their collection is very kid-friendly.

Another one I love is Simon Teen’s offerings of lots of current YA lit. They rotate their free offerings each month, and most of their content is the full read.

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I’ve definitely used these options for my virtual book talks. In fact, today I’m book talking Want.

Some of my students have discovered that listening to books is more appealing to them than traditional reading, so audio books are more and more popular in my classes. Audible has made their content free until the end of the school year, so it’s a great resource. They’ve got titles for all ages, from classics to teen lit all the way down to picture books for little ones.

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Some other good resources are

  1. the new Harry Potter World website.
  2. Time for Kids
  3. Project Gutenberg
  4. Bartleby.com
  5. Scribd

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Harry Potter

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Time for Kids

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Project Gutenberg

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Bartleby

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Scribd

This is certainly not a comprehensive list. There are many, many resources out there for our students and teachers. These are a few that I am familiar with and I like. I hope they are helpful for you and your students. Feel free to leave more ideas and resources in the comments below!

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

Follow her on twitter @SwinehartJulie

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