Category Archives: Try It Tuesday

What Does It Mean to Be a Writer?

A nonnegotiable in my classroom is that everyone is a writer. We work from day one of class to establish identities as writers: we create writer’s notebooks, we discuss writing routines, we practice writing every day.

But many of my students struggle to see themselves as writers because their definition of “a writer” is so narrow. They are beholden to culturally-entrenched images of Hemingway, Faulkner, Dickens–studious, quill-wielding, miserable, alcohol-fumed, slaves of the pen.

It takes some time to convince kids that despite the intrigue that persona presents, that it’s not true.

I recently encountered a strategy for defining authorship that I continue to return to for its simple brilliance. This school year, I’ve been visiting classrooms of practicing teachers, and one of my favorite places to visit is Gloria Kok’s classroom.

One of the first things that struck me upon entering her room was an entire wall devoted to writers. As I visited over multiple weeks, I realized that her students had created the five points of their working definition of what it means to be a writer. They had also brainstormed personal heroes who fit their definitions. The wall is covered with the likes of everyone from Ta-Nehisi Coates to Oprah Winfrey to Langston Hughes to Tupac.

Frequently, Gloria asks students to use these points to frame their own writing reflections or goal statements. I’ve begun to do this myself, as I’ve visited her classroom so frequently–so much so that I’ve found myself seeking out definitions of what a writer is in my reading and work.

A favorite writing mentor of mine is Donald Murray, whose books I pick up anywhere I find them. I recently acquired Write to Learn, and one of my favorite and most personally relatable definitions of what it means to be a writer comes from his second chapter:

“Not knowing what I will write, or even if I can write, means I will not write what I have written before. I have begun a voyage of discovery. The initial satisfaction from writing is surprise: we say what we do not expect to say in a way we do not expect to say it.”

This approach to writing–that it is an inexpert art full of magic and whimsy, but helped along by the discipline of practice and study–is my personal favorite. The post-it notes papering my desk with quotes by Donald Murray attest to the similarities of our beliefs: these definitions help encourage, refocus, and discipline me on mornings when I do not want to sit down and write.

I encourage you to do the same thing with your students, writers, and even yourself: create a definition of what it means to be a writer. Put it down on paper, hang it on the walls, shout it from the rooftops–whatever works to teach yourself that your belief in yourself as a writer is what matters.

Shana Karnes is a writer who lives in Madison, Wisconsin. Her desk is covered with quotes about writing, pens, poems, abandoned coffee cups, and discarded crayons, stickers, and paint from her children. Connect with Shana on Twitter at @litreader.


Designing a Unit in Workshop: Just Try It

The NCTE Annual Convention begins this week, and as always, its onset has prompted me to try and synthesize a year’s worth of thinking around one pressing topic.  What I’ve been considering this year is the value of units of study within a workshop classroom–the hows and whys and what ifs of planning for complex, themed units.

So, we know that teachers who engage in a workshop classroom often have many of the same routines in their schedules:  time to read, time to write, time to talk.  They often have many of the same components:  mini-lessons, booktalks, mentor texts, conferring.

These are all good things.

They are all engaging practices on their own, but to take on real power, they need to be strung together, applied again and again, over the course of units of study and throughout the year.

When I work with teachers who are diving into the workshop model for the first time, I model as many of these components as I can.  Teachers are engaged–they write, they read, they look at the craft of poetry, they analyze articles.  They are energized and enthused to try these strategies with their students.

But every time, I see one smart teacher, her brow furrowed, her face concerned, in the back of the room.  She tells me, either in person or on her evaluation card:  I don’t see the rigor in this model.

And she is right.  In one day’s work, students are only advancing incrementally.  If we just have fun every day playing with words in our notebooks, listening to podcasts to study their craft, or doing book passes ’til the cows come home, our students are not growing by leaps and bounds as readers or writers.

And that’s where designing strong units of instruction comes in.

Whether it’s reading or writing instruction, harnessing the daily moves of a workshop routine to build toward an authentic product is where rigor lives.

I like Kelly Gallagher’s words to sum up the idea of starting at the end when designing a unit:

Screen Shot 2016-11-14 at 9.53.49 AM.png

Begin by thinking about what you’d like your students to achieve.  Did you just hear an amazing commentary on NPR?  Wow, what a great writer that guy is–I want my students writing like that.

Start with your vision.  That’s where you begin.  Then you ask yourself:  what do my students need to know in order to write like that?

That’s where the workshop routines come in:  booktalk examples of strong nonfiction writing.  Teach mini-lessons that get at the craft of strong commentary writing.  Flood your students with mentor texts, both published pieces and each other’s work, so they can see both the process and the product.  Let them experiment with drafts in their writer’s notebooks–lots of ungraded, low-stakes practice should live there.

At the end of the unit, don’t destroy all of your hard work by trying to “grade” everything objectively with a rubric.  Our beautiful mentor Penny Kittle sums that up nicely:

Screen Shot 2016-11-14 at 10.06.44 AM.png

When best drafts land on your desk, ask:  how do I know students achieved what I wanted them to?  Utilize self-assessments, celebrate the writing, respond authentically.  Consider how each student advanced individually.

Our students deserve high quality instruction that offers them choice, volume, and authenticity.  They deserve units that will allow them to continue to build on their constantly-increasing mastery of their reading and writing skills.

I’ll be sharing more about planning units in an Ignite Session on Saturday morning, from 9:30-10:45, in room A412.  

And I’ll discuss how and why to build rigor into your workshop units in more depth on Sunday afternoon, from 1:30-2:45, in room B211.

Will you be at NCTE?  Please let us know in the comments.  We would love to meet you!

If you can’t make it to Atlanta, you won’t be missing out–tune in to Twitter using the hashtag #NCTE16 during our session times to join the conversation.


Try it Tuesday: Building Fluency (And Relationships) One Page at a Time

I got to know Bennett because he “grew up” in my classroom.

I got to know Kathy because she discovered how much reading could challenge her thinking.

I got to know Austin because his sense of curiosity,  coupled with his sense of humor, brought him back after graduation to share his insights on college level critical thinking with my students last year.

I got to know Trevor because he had lost his love of reading, and workshop helped him find it again.

I got to know Abbey because I unknowingly played a part in developing her confidence.

We get to know our students in countless ways and through countless circumstances. Through conferences, writers notebook entries, overheard conversations, questions, books in their hands, and sometimes simple nods and smiles, we better understand the humans we as teachers are blessed to work with everyday.

And it is my belief that understanding (connecting with, acknowledging, listening to) students is the component that makes true growth and learning possible. As in life, building relationships breeds understanding, compassion, insight, tolerance, empathy…the list goes on and on (and as I’m typing this, is strikingly similar to a list of reading/writing benefits as well. Coincidence? I think not).

Yet, there are plenty of students I feel like I never get to know as I should. In fourteen years of teaching, I’ve had the opportunity to know roughly 2000 students. That’s 2000 unique life experiences, desires, learning styles, and needs, and I’d be lying if I said I connected, to the degree I might have wanted to, with each and every one, or even most.

But workshop does bring me closer. I talk more with students than at students now, and it makes a world of difference. I’m also offering up more opportunities these days for students to have real and honest connections with the classes I’m teaching. They share who they are in what they choose to read, how they respond to it, and what they write in far more meaningful ways, because the personal connections they create with the material allows for more depth.

My task now is to match those personal connections to learning through assessment of their acquisition of skills.

Sounds simple.
Not simple. Not at all simple.

But you know this. I’m pushing at an open door.
And yet, I would wager, it’s rarely easy for any of us.

So. How to keep students honestly sharing, deeply thinking, connecting to their reading, and growing as writers?

The one pager.

Shana wrote about weekly one pagers about a year ago, and I first started them with my AP students last January. It’s a simple concept. Students write every week. They write what they think, feel, and want to explore.

My modification for my AP students is to have them write weekly about what they are reading independently or specifically for class. The emphasis is to contextualize a chosen quote that they find impactful in some way and then react to it. Part craft study, part reflection, part magic. Beyond that, I encourage students to let their writing flow. 500 words (ish). Single spaced. Analysis. Reflection. Once per week. No exceptions.

Since the point is to write more (and more, and more, and more), I try to keep in mind that I don’t need to read every word. With four sections of AP Language this year, totalling 81 students, I’d be in way over my head. So instead, I keep the scores formative, rotate through the classes to comment on one section of the four per week, and give completion scores for those I skim over. Students use to submit the writing each week, so it’s organized and in one place. Occasionally, we’ll discuss our quotes in small groups and/or use the writing for some craft study in class.




Those are the logistics.

My favorite part of this practice, however,  is the way it provides a safe place for my writers to grow, and when they really embrace the exercise, fantastic things happen.

At the start of this school year, I received an email from Simrah, a former student who finds herself in college this year:

Mrs. Dennis,
     I hope you are doing well. I’m having a wonderful time in college and have been meaning to email you to say thank you for having us write one pagers. In English these first two weeks of school, we have been writing one pagers on different readings. Doing so last year was very helpful. We continue to write one page type essays in my class as a grade and being able to do it without question has been great! You can tell you AP Lang students I said this. Thanks again and I hope you have a wonderful school year. Hopefully I’ll stop by the school some time to say hello personally 😉 ❤

        Simrah —– (a very thankful one pager writing college student)

Just this week, as I introduced my AP Language students to their upcoming “opportunity” to grow as writers, I received an email from Charlie, a young man whose heart is big, his desire to learn is bigger, and unfortunately, this week, he had an unexpected topic emerge for his one pager that turned his piece into an outpouring of emotion that he desperately needed and brought tears to my eyes.

Charlie lost his grandfather this past weekend. Up to this point, Charlie and I have laughed together, as he is a wonderfully personable young man, but I wouldn’t say we had particularly connected. Then he emailed me Sunday to (can you believe) apologize for going over the word limit on the one pager and share with me a picture of how striking the resemblance is between his grandfather at the same age Charlie is now.

Charlie’s writing touched me. He quoted Dr. Seuss in saying, “Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened,” and went on to detail the events of the past week and his deep thinking/feeling about them.

When I hugged him this morning, he smiled again, and then hung back for a few minutes after class to tell me more about his grandpa, how the family was doing, and how he was doing. It was a conversation he needed to have and I was honored to share it with him. He joked on his way out the door that it would be hard to top his first one pager this coming weekend, but he would try.

Earlier in the weekend, Charlie had ended our email exchange by saying, “I am so lucky to have a teacher like you who cares so much.”

Well, Charlie, you’re sweet to say, but really,  I’m the lucky one.

Because I’ve gotten to know Charlie, Bennett, Kathy, Austin, Trevor,  Abbey, and I’m learning more and more ways to know more and more students.

I’m getting to know them in ways that truly matter.

As readers.
As writers.
As learners.
As people.

As writers of one pagers. Simple assignments that can be simply amazing.

Have you tried “one pager” writing in your classroom? How do you work to build fluency in your students’ writing. Please share in the comments below. 


Try It Tuesday: 7 Ways to Shake Up Notebooks

October is nearing its end, and you know what that means…’tis the season of needing inspiration! The back-to-school spark of fierce, creative lesson planning has ended, and now we’re all just praying Thanksgiving gets here ASAP.

So, if you’re getting a little worn out from reading the same-old same-old genres in your writer’s notebooks, try these seven ways to shake them up.

Write down the language you hear around you.  From quotes in independent reading books to funny things our friends say, the act of noticing language helps us think like writers and expand our linguistic repertoires.


Annotate a booktalk.  Instead of a focused craft study, or a question-and-response to a booktalk, try just taping it into your notebook and noting what stands out.  This, too, helps build the skill of reading like writers.


Write in someone else’s notebook.  Shake up page after page of your own handwriting by switching notebooks with someone else when responding to a prompt.  Here, my friend Bethany wrote in my notebook as we wrote about invoking wonder.


Try beautiful note-taking.  Sometime, somewhere, everyone needs to just jot down some notes…whether it’s in for readings from a class or in a staff meeting, try to beautify those notes with some doodles or colors.


Attempt some literary analysis.  I love the classics, and I bet many of you do too–but sometimes we beat their beauty to death when we spend hour after hour analyzing them with our students.  Try pasting in a page of whatever you’re reading and just responding to how amazing the writing is.


Jot down fun vocabulary words.  I love to note down both words that I don’t know and words that I just love, with no pressure to define them or use them in a sentence.  It helps me notice wordplay and attempt it myself.


Paste in things you’d like to remember.  It’s too easy to throw keepsakes in boxes or delete emails that flatter us…so glue them into your notebook and flip back through when you need a lift.


Shaking up notebooks in these seven ways will help your students curate a scrapbook of sorts–a place to return to and look back at long after it’s been filled up and the year has ended.  A notebook is a wonderful place to practice reading and writing skills, but it becomes most effective when it’s an authentic placeholder for growth, play, and memory.

How do you shake up notebook time with unconventional genres and prompts? Please share in the comments!

Try it Tuesday: Revising a Goal…Card

Part of being relatively new to the workshop model is acceptance of personal limits on time, resources, and physical strength (I carry a lot of books around these days, but my twig arms persist). What workshop instructors can’t be short on is creativity, sales skills, or copies of  All the Light We Cannot See

So, as I start my second year exploring workshop, I find that some things need major overhaul (my capacity to read all of the books I want to read and share with kids) and some need tweaking (I’m going to try not to tear up while book talking The Kite Runner next year,..but no promises).

Last spring, I wrote about trying to motivate my readers with a visual reminder of the goals they were setting for their weekly reading. We created goal cards and placed them in our choice reading text at the point we wanted to read to (and beyond!) in the coming week. The card looked like this:


Great. Except…not so great.

The goal card, meant to be inspirational, looked like a standings report at a track meet. Numbers, checkmarks, and most hideous of all, math. 

So, in the spirit of innovation, I went back through our former posts to find one I remembered from Shana about self-monitoring reading homework by calculating reading rates and then making bookmarks out of paint samples to inspire her readers. Beautiful shade progressions to symbolize change, quotes to inspire reading greatness, and reading rates, all tucked neatly in a text: IMG_9336

Great. Except…not so great.

Wisconsin hardware and paint stores now seem to only carry single color swatches or detailed color wheels in elaborate weekend warrior pamphlets, neither of which hold a place in a book in influential fashion.

Enter, my revised goal cards. A marriage of inspiration, functionality, and good old fashioned visual cues:

Students spent a few minutes finding quotes about books and reading that spoke to them. With my sample under the document camera as a guide, students created goal cards that reminded them of the importance and power of reading, and of not only setting goals, but keeping those goals visible in their daily reading.

Instead of using these cards as bookmarks, however, we calculated our reading rates (How many pages did you read during our ten minute reading? Multiply it by six and then double it for a two hour goal in your current text.), wrote them on the first page of our writer’s notebook under our text goals for the year, and then put the goal card in the book at the approximate place we’d reach in the text when we’d read for two hours.

Goal setting is important. As I tell the kids, it’s so important that we need to get our goals in print and on our minds to see them daily and make reading a habit.

Visual cues can help. In fact, sometimes they make the difference between passive participation (Sure, Mrs. Dennis. I’ll read for ten minutes in class…) and the active engagement we all seek.

What tweaks have you made to your workshop practice this year? Any major overhauls? Please share your ideas in the comments below. 

Try It Tuesday: Book Pass

While writing about ways to hook readers a few weeks ago, I realized that while we’ve mentioned book passes several times on this blog, we’ve never actually written a post dedicated to how to do them.  So, here that post is!

Book passes are beautiful in their simplicity. Their purpose is to expose potential readers to a wide variety of books in just a few minutes. All you need are a number of books greater than or equal to your students, their writer’s notebooks, and the power of social capital.


Victoria browses through Peter Johnston’s Choice Words, while Brianna tries to decide between a few choices herself.

When students enter the classroom the day of the book pass, I always have piles of books ready to go on their table groupings. They can’t help but pick them up right away (really, they can’t–sometimes it drives me nuts when they paw through materials we’re not ready to get to, but in this case, I LOVE watching them be drawn to a book), so the book’s contagion begins to spread immediately.

When we begin, I ask students to turn to their TBR pages in their notebooks. “Go ahead and grab a book that’s on the desk in front of you,” I invite, and wham, books are in the hands of readers. “Spend about one minute with this book–look at the front cover, the back cover, the inside flaps, the first page. Decide if you think it might be a good fit for you.” With my preservice teachers of all content areas, I ask them how they might use this book, or excerpts from it, in their future teaching.


Habbiba gets excited about Will in the World, and nerds out with Alexis.

I set my timer on my phone for 60 seconds as kids flip through pages. Of course, book love is contagious, so some kids share with others what they find–the power of social capital is at work once again here.

When the timer dings, I ask kids to pass their book to the left. “But first,” I remind them, “write down that title on your TBR list if you think it’s something you might want to read.”

Now the students have new books in their hands, made more powerful if they’ve already watched their neighbor write that title down. I love to watch, after multiple passes, when one title gets written down by nearly everyone, and the students who’ve yet to get that book in their hands begin to practically salivate.


Nick and Ryan thumb through The Double Helix and Moneyball, respectively

The book pass can go on for as many passes as you have time for–enough for every kid to see every title, or just five minutes’ worth, if you prefer. I do this activity multiple times at the beginning of the year, and then again sprinkled throughout the year when I get lots of new books in. It’s a wonderful way to expose students to several titles in a day as an alternative to the traditional booktalk. It’s also a great way to shake up the typical routine in the classroom with a hands-on activity that gets kids excited about books.

I often conduct book passes in this open-ended way–“see if this book is a good fit for you”–but sometimes I do them as a way to expose students to a “new” genre in particular (novels in verse, or graphic novels); a way to introduce the theme of a unit (by finding books all about that theme); or to introduce a reading challenge (read an award winner, or a book of nonfiction). Just passing books around and getting them in the hands of readers does wonders to grow students’ universes of what’s possible when we read.

How might you use a book pass in your classroom? Please share in the comments!

Try it Tuesday:Workshop Thievery

Disclaimer: Theft is wrong. The end.

Steal is a strong word (pun very much intended). Borrow? Swipe? Thieve? Pinch?

That last one makes me feel like a 1930’s gangster, so we’ll go with that.

I’m here to confess that I’ve been pinching materials from this very blog, and I’m pathologically not remorseful.

Pilfering and plundering are practices most teachers subsist on, so it’s only natural that as the fearless English Department at Franklin High School begins its first official year of workshop instruction, we are lifting everything we can get our hands on.

And while the prospect of taking our fresh and shiny Understanding By Design curriculum templates and matching our standards based curriculum with the workshop delivery model is daunting (to say the least), it’s also afforded me an opportunity to look at countless new practices and bring added excitement to this new routine through new ways of helping students read and write everyday.

Faithful readers of the Three Teachers Talk blog.
I stand before you (or sit during my prep), a grateful swindler.

Today’s Try it Tuesday matches (snatches) Amy’s Blessings Cards (or an even more detailed and awesome Blessing Card Mini -Lesson here) with Shana’s Write-Around, and the reflections my students produced were fantastic.

  1. To support my belief that students preparing for in depth analysis, college/career readiness, the AP Language test, and life should know what’s going on in the world img_5673around them, part of my AP summer work is for students to sign-up for a news story as it breaks or develops over the summer.Students are to read several editorials about the topic and draw their own conclusions as to the impact this story has on a given community (either local, national, or international).As one of their first assignments of the year, they take their research on the topic and present a one minute speech to the class. The scores are formative, but they tell me a lot about students’ abilities in using text evidence to support a claim and the basic professional communication skills they do (or do not) possess.
  2. As a positive form of peer assessment during our very first public speaking opportunity, I used Amy’s idea of blessings cards. Each table grabbed a card for each presenter (I split speeches up over several days) and put his or her name on the card.When the speaker was finished and I was hurriedly writing formative feedback on the rubric, students talked at their tables and bullet pointed blessings on the speaker’s img_5672card. We had reviewed the rubric before speeches began, so students could provide positive feedback directly related to their assessment criteria. When all the speakers were finished for the day, we showered our presenters with blessings.Lots of smiles.
  3.  Once all of our speeches were complete, I shared several pictures from Shana’s post about write-arounds. We took a look at how writing/reflection can be guided by objects that give permanence to our experiences.
    I had students glue their blessings cards to a page in their response section of their writer’s notebook and then reflect on the experience. They could write about what they felt went well, goals for their future public speaking adventures, and/or anything that came to mind in relation to the experience.As I peeked over shoulders, I knew my stolen ideas were paying off for this reflection with such statements as:

    “Mrs. Dennis says that some people fear public speaking more than death. I know what she means. But this class seemed to think I had my act together though, so that’s cool.”

    “I’m never going to like this. I know it. I am never going to like public speaking. But I can get better at it.

    “I almost passed out up there. For real. But I had a notecard and it kept me basically organized. Next time, I’ll try breathing while I’m speaking. Maybe that will help too.” 

Classroom community and comfort within that community are not givens. Both must be built with intentionality. Workshop demands that we take time and honor the process around building readers, writers, and in this case, speakers to, because many of our students are not initially comfortable with the roles we are asking them to take on.

By examining the process with a growth mindset,  we put value upon the feedback that comes from not only the teacher, but peers and self reflection as well.  This feedback serves to support and motivate students as they move forward and start to become the community that will serve to encourage, challenge, and motivate better reading and writing throughout the year.

Steal these ideas. Please.

How do you encourage community building for your readers and writers? We would be blessed to have you share some ideas in the comments below.




Try It Tuesday: Notebook Write-Arounds

Tom Romano calls writer’s notebooks “playgrounds, workshops, repositories” in Write What Matters.  As such, the writer’s notebook employed in a workshop classroom is much more than a place to store drafts, brainstorm ideas, or take notes.  It becomes a sacred space that is personal, meaningful, and enjoyable.  To fill it with writing and wordplay that spurs a love of language, I like to write around various artifacts in my notebooks, and urge my students to do so too.


I cheated and wrote around a poem and a picture here

Write around a poem – In this lesson, inspired by advice from Penny Kittle (she told me her writing got more beautiful when she read poems more intentionally), I ask students to cut out a poem and glue it into their notebooks.  This activity can change with its purpose–sometimes students can respond to the language in a poem, sometimes they can write from a line, and sometimes they can work to analyze the text for literary devices and figurative elements.  The act, though, of gluing a poem into our notebooks keeps beautiful language at the center of our work, made visible when we flip backwards through our pages.

Write around a picture – Like Amy, I like to see my students’ notebooks full of pictures.  I ask students to bring in or print photos of any sort, then write descriptions, craft imagined dialogue, or narrate a memory the photo evokes.  In addition to being personal and meaningful, these quickwrite activities often serve as jumping off points for longer pieces of writing.


Lisa sent me flowers, and I wrote around her note

Write around a note – My friends and I are big note-writers, and I’ve always had the compulsion to write “thank you for your thank you note” notes (maybe that’s just me, but Lisa is a dork so she might do it too!).  Because that’s socially awkward, I like to glue notes into my notebook and respond to them that way.  I also have students glue in their Bless, Press, Address responses from other students, or my own written feedback (like Amy’s Silent Sticky Notes), and respond to it in their notebooks.

Write around an object – Whenever I unearth something meaningful from the depths of my glove box, I like to glue it into my notebook and write around it.  I have Starbucks


I’ve memorized my library card number, so I no longer need to carry it in my wallet…

sleeves, library cards, ticket stubs, and even an old necklace glued into my notebook, surrounded by writing.  In this era of electronic communication, I think it’s important for students to put physical objects into their notebooks–I still have shoeboxes full of notes from my friends in high school, and I like their tangible power more than just a series of saved text messages.

Write around an idea – A written version of the Four Corners activity, students write down a statement in the center of a page and then exercise some critical thinking around the statement.  The top left corner represents the “strongly agree” perspective, the top right is “agree,” bottom left is “disagree,” and bottom right is “strongly disagree.”  I’ve also experimented with just having students respond to the statement in general, but I like the Four Corners because it forces them to consider multiple perspectives.  Mostly recently, I asked my preservice teachers to respond to the idea that “Teachers are responsible for 100% of their students’ learning” using the Four Corners method–I can’t wait to see their responses when I collect notebooks next week.

What ideas or artifacts might you have your students write around? Please share in the comments!

Try it Tuesday: 3 Easy Ways to Get to Know One Another

“I’m pretty sure my students are going to know I’m a dork,” I said to my husband last weekend, “from day one.” 

I had been working on updating the pictures I include on my “Getting to Know Mrs. Dennis” PowerPoint (dork alert), and noticed how having a child has really brought out the dork I think I once tried to suppress. I’m sure my daughter, now only three, will delight in that fact someday.

I’d be lying to you if I said that I’ve lost my cool over the years. That becoming a mom turned me from Audrey Hepburn into Jill Taylor (90’s sitcom references only serve to solidify my dorkdom).  To be honest, I never really had the cool. I had the kind, the careful, the detail-oriented, the poofy hair, and the braces, but not the cool.

But cool isn’t me. Watching Stranger Things with a bowl of pretzels and a glass of milk is me. Reading The Nightingale at stoplights because I can’t put it down is me. Pretending to be a bear at the zoo to make my kid smile is me.

And this week, at school, I’ve been introducing my students to the real, dorky, punny, excitable, overly-optimistic me, and it’s going really, really well.

As I told one of my classes on our very first day together, “I’m going to push you all year to share yourself with this class, on paper, in discussions, through conferences. We need to build community in here so we all feel safe enough to share things that actually matter to us. And I’d be a hypocrite


Gentetically linked dorks. Poor kid.

if I preached that to you, but didn’t clue you in to the deeply dorkish, flawed, silly, person I am. I’ll be endlessly dedicated and passionate to our growth as readers and writers this year, and I’ll be looking for the same from you. To start, we need to get to know each other. I’m Mrs. Dennis and I promise to be real with you.”

Building community is why I teach. I want my students to feel that self expression can help make them more comfortable in their own lives and thereby help them connect to others, regardless of the differences they once perceived. In building community, it’s so terribly important to be honest (though considerate) and real (though appropriate), that I spend several class periods at the start of the year working to make that possible for my students.

Here are a few of the first day activities that have my students learning about this new community we’ve just created. I tell them on the first day that our class is about the study of what it means to be human, so we start with getting to know the humans around us, as understanding breeds trust and comfort (key components to any successful group, but especially in a workshop classroom).

  • Share Parts of Who You Are: Last week, I introduced myself to students with the PowerPoint linked here. It includes plenty of pictures, a few policies and expectations, and a lot of who I am. I try to incorporate the people I love, the fun I had over the summer, and some of the background that supports the joy I find in the classroom. I encourage students to ask questions, and this year we had a few laughs over the antics of my summer with a precocious three year old. Horribly embarrassing public tantrums are hilarious in the retelling, thankfully.

  • Encourage Students to Start Sharing Who They Are: I also took Amy’s advice and made time for decorating our writer’s notebooks. I shared some of the pictures and song lyrics I used to decorate mine. We discussed the power of making something their own and turning an ordinary notebook into something that they would hopefully look forward to writing in. I took song requests for work time, students laughed about my complete lack of artistic ability, and we had fun. Rigorous, no. Important, yes. But we followed up that activity with a quick write where students chose to respond to either a quote about conformity from Marcus Aurelius or a quote about the origins of cruelty from Lucius Seneca. They supported their viewpoints with an example from something they’ve read and current events. Boom. 

  • Keep Learning and Sharing Well Into the New Year: Over the years, I’ve done countless ‘get to know you’ activities. Three Truths and a Lie. Interview Questionnaires. Find a Friend. Scavenger Hunts (See below. It’s not pretty). This year, I combined a traditional questionnaire, a twist from a colleague, and a plan to use a little time each class period talking with kids about some silly things that make them tick. On day one, I wanted to get students writing. We have only 18 minute class periods that day, so time is precious. I had kids turn in summer work and get down to a quick write in their notebooks and chat with their classmates after drafting. To take attendance, I had students write their first names (as they would like me to call them) and last names on an index card. I collected the cards and then handed them back the next day to test my knowledge of students names. But I wanted more. I now plan to use the cards to learn about my kids and share some fun with them too. I had them flip the cards over and write:
    • Personal anthems (songs that capture your soul)
    • Spirit animal
    • Dream job when you were 5 and today
    • Book that speaks to your heart
    • Extracurricular passions

So far, I’m seeing smiles and enthusiasm, and hearing lots of discussion. Students are already talking about themselves as readers and writers. 

Not always so. In my first year of teaching, a colleague had me take my five classes of freshmen through a textbook scavenger hunt. They sat silently at their desks (model students) and searched their new textbooks for answers to the questions on the worksheet I’d run off for them on “fun” green paper. I’m bored just typing about it.

Thank the heavens and Fitzwilliam Darcy (Pride and Prejudice and Dorks – my forthcoming novel), I’ve grown to trust myself and the value I see in learning about my students and building relationships. The energy it brings to the start of the year has been incredible.




Try It Tuesday: Red Thread Notebooks

img_3173-1So much of a workshop philosophy centers on the assumption that reading and writing are forever intertwined.  Vocabulary, grammar, poetry–they’re all pieces of the puzzle that make up literacy and a passion for words, too.  It was with this in mind that I created Red Thread Notebooks.

The idea came from two places–one was Penny Kittle’s “big idea books” (found on page 8-9 of those handouts), which are reading response notebooks  centered around themes in literature.  The other was Tom Romano‘s “red thread” assignment, in which teachers had to write about which parts of our teaching philosophy would run through all of our teaching, like a red thread.


This student booktalks The Selection in the “STRUGGLE” notebook.

So, when composition notebooks are just a nickel in the summer, I buy 60 of them each year.  My students and I begin the year by brainstorming themes and topics that are important to us–love, cell phones, faith, music, family, video games, death, high school, forgiveness, four wheelers.  We label our notebooks and use them all year long.

There are a variety of ways I invite students to write in these notebooks:

  • Vocabulary practice: list related words, synonyms, word associations, etc. similar to the notebook title
  • Skill practice: write dialogue, revise sentence structure, practice figurative language, craft descriptive writing, about the notebook’s title
  • Book talks: write about how the book you’re currently reading might add to a conversation about the notebook’s title
  • Grammar instruction: revise a sentence, imitate a paragraph, tinker with style, while writing about the notebook title
  • Free writing: write your thoughts and musings on the notebook title
  • Poetry: find an existing poem, craft your own poem, or create a found poem about the notebook’s title


Hailey and Ryan practice dialogue in the “VIDEO GAMES” notebook after I teach a mini-lesson on its conventions.

Because these are shared notebooks, I ask students to refrain from using profanity in them or writing about any of their peers.  I don’t require names, but many students like to sign their writing.  Those are the only rules.

Once the notebooks have begun to fill up, students can refer to them to find book recommendations, writing topic ideas, or vocabulary words to add to their personal dictionaries.  They can also look for examples of skills practice, craft studies, or grammar lessons that we’ve done for additional guidance.  One year students even selected multigenre topics based on our red thread notebooks.

These notebooks are a lovely way to make permanent a yearlong conversation about literacy.  The topics change every year–Michael Jackson had his own notebook my first year of teaching, and this year Lebron James had one–but the opportunities to write, reflect, and make connections remain the same.

Do you think you’ll try Red Thread Notebooks next year?  Do you do something similar?  Please share in the comments!

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