Category Archives: Writers Workshop

Crafting Compelling Claims: A Lesson With Loose Parts (inspired by Angela Stockman)

I first heard about “making” in a writing workshop a few years ago and to be honest, I was skeptical. It felt like busy work. Sure, it would be engaging, but weren’t we already doing the work of making in our writing workshop?

Then I discovered Angela Stockman. I started following Stockman a year or so ago and have been percolating on her ideas around Hacking the Writing Workshop for about that long. I thought it looked interesting, but I wasn’t quite sure how to incorporate the work into the secondary classrooms that I support as a literacy coach.

Then last month Stockman, who is one of the most generous educators online, started posting about how to use what she calls loose parts to support argument writing. The teachers I was working with were getting ready to enter a new round of argument writing, so I followed Stockman’s posts eagerly.

When Stockman shared images of students using loose parts to find their way into arguments, lightbulbs sparked. Partnering with a few willing teachers, we decided to see what would happen. I hit up the Dollar Tree, stocking my basket with bags of shells, rocks, toothpicks, and q-tips. I raided my son’s Lego collection, and pilfered the play-doh basket in our closet. I added beads and buttons. We were all set.

“Today we’re going to play with loose parts,” I explained to the sophomores that morning. I invited them to explore what was on the tray in front of them. They looked at us wide-eyed: “are we playing with play-doh?” Every kid who cracked open the can lifted the dough to their noses and breathed deeply. They let beads filter through their fingers. They began sorting buttons and shells. The joy on their faces as they explored was something we’ve gotten too far away from in high school.

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Each group of students received a tray of loose parts to begin their claim writing.

The students had already generated ideas around argument topics — they’d written beside Wislawa Szymborska’s poem “Possiblities.” They had made quicklists. They had mined their notebooks for patterns.

After letting them explore the loose parts, we gave them three post-it notes to pull out topics that were ripe for argument. They scribbled their topics down: global warming, school funding, screen time, recess for high schoolers, vacations. The topics were as varied as the students.

“Now,” I began, “we are going to use these loose parts to write a claim.” I had, as Stockman recommends, been walking around with my own fistful of playdoh. I shaped it into the shape of a phone. “Remember how I said I want to write about how much screen time I let my kids have? Well, I’m making this into a phone.” I held up my sculpture. “What could I add here to communicate my claim?” Students offered ideas.

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My claim developed from my topic about giving my kids too much screen time.

And they were off. These kids got it. They began to dig into the trays, shaping clay, piling buttons. Frankly, we hadn’t been sure what was going to happen. As they often do, the students blew us away.

We circulated the room, nudging students to add nuance to their creations. We asked probing questions. “What could you add here to communicate that idea?” We asked for clarity and students knew what to do.

I watched one freshman add details to her sculpture and then scribble more thinking onto her post-its. She had started with the idea that locally, too many new houses were being built. She used q-tips to create homes. She decided to add gray legos. She took a moment to look at the composition in front of her. Then she went back to her post-it, adding the layer about pollution. I was inspired.

We noticed that this lesson did something we didn’t expect. Over and over again, we noticed the students were developing sophisticated claims. This work helped us teach something that had been elusive about argument writing — how to develop a nuanced claim. Using learning from the National Writing Project’s work around argument writing, for years we’ve been teaching students that strong claims are debatable, defensible, and nuanced. The first two qualities were easy to teach. That third one had been trickier.

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This student started with a topic “The benefits of therapy” and ended up with the claim “Everyone needs a therapist to relieve stress, knowing you can count on someone, and being able to express themselves.” 

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This student started with the topic of “screen addiction” and worked his way towards a claim “People should enjoy the outdoors instead of being indoors on their phones.” 

The loose parts were key.  Suddenly students were digging deeper into their thinking. They were thinking through implications, making considerations, and adding layers.

After about 15 minutes, we asked students to start to put words to their compositions (see Shawna Coppola’s latest book Writing Redefined for more about honoring non-alphabetic ways of composing). Their claims were some of the strongest we’ve ever seen. They were debatable. They were defensible. They were nuanced.

“This is the most fun I’ve had in English class all year,” one student declared.

I am convinced that making has a place in the writing classroom. We writing teachers need to crack open what we mean by “writing” and honor all types of composition. We were validated when students at all levels were both engaged and successful.

Angela Faulhaber is a literacy coach in Cincinnati, OH. 

Lap One in Research

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When I first read 180 Days Two Teachers and the Quest to Engage and Empower Adolescents by Kelly Galagher and Penny Kittle, I was intrigued by the way they approached planning and teaching within their four essential writing units. Instead of taking the “4 x 4 approach” of four big essays across the school year, they “plan for students to create a series of texts using a progression of skills.” They call this “taking laps around the track” and with each lap, they increase the complexity of skills. They further explain that by completing multiples laps, their students will increase their volume of writing, which will lead to deeper understanding.

Sadly, I was pretty much a 4 x 4 teacher. We took one genre of writing, immersed ourselves in mentor texts, taught minilessons, and produced a piece of writing. We did this with each writing genre required in our state standards. I knew Gallagher and Kittle’s approach to planning instruction would help me and help my students as well. My units are not as in-depth and are not quite structured the same as the units in 180 Days, but we have slowly moved away from the 4 x 4 classroom.

The emphasis on research skills takes a big jump in the 6th grade, so I knew this was an area where I might explore the planning of a unit and where students may benefit by using a series of laps.

I wanted students to master basic research skills while creating a small research project. They were not yet ready to tackle a full research essay. The unit began by teaching them the skills of using keywords to begin a search and evaluating websites. Many students at this age need to understand the difference between searching and “googling a question.”

Once they learned how to find reliable sources, we moved into finding information that was relevant to their research topic and question. Finally, we tackled paraphrasing and summarizing information to use in the project.

The final product for this first lap in research was a collaborative slide presentation that we called an eBook. The mentors we used were the books in the If You Lived Series, in which the books are written in a question/answer format. The is format was perfect for the researching of a short question and when put together with others, became a book. Each class brainstormed times and events they were interested in learning more about, voted on a topic, and chose questions to research. After researching, each student created their own slide using the question/answer format and the information they learned.

This project was small enough to teach basic skills of researching yet a fun way to work collaboratively with classmates while demonstrating their learning. By having students complete this first lap in research, I believe they will be better prepared to tackle their next research project – an argument in an open letter format.

 

 

Have you tried planing instruction using laps similar to Gallagher and Kittle? If so, we would love to hear your success story.

Leigh Anne Eck is a middle school English Language Arts teacher who is currently participating in the #100DaysofNotebooking challenge. 

The Humble Pause and Its Possibilities

In my last post, I wrote about the power of one word–how one word might anchor us in meaning and also make steadfast our mission. I decided on pause. 

Truly pausing requires a certain degree of humility–the kind of humility that requires seeking the unique expression of another’s thoughts or ideas, the kind of humility that elevates those expressions, the kind of humility that necessitates low self-preoccupation. I’ve got much to learn about pausing, especially that part about not focusing on my own thoughts and ideas (workin’ on that whole humility thing!). 

Professionally, choosing pause will help me show up better in some collaborative spaces. I can ask myself whether or not my emerging ideas are really that urgent and instead give space for others’ thinking to surface. It will also help improve my one-to-one coaching. Making intentional efforts to pause my mind and my body will signal my dedication to the person whom I’m coaching.  In either kind of moment, I’ve begun saying to myself, “Pause. Wait. Lean back. Look away.” Wait is a necessary reminder because although I sang a wait-time song in my head in the classroom, engaging in dialogue pressures me into continuous contribution. Hence the reminder. Lean back and look away compel me to check the intensity of my body (am I leaning in, ready to pounce on the next idea?) and signal subtly an openness to what comes next. Interestingly enough, in the moments when I’ve actually adhered to this mantra, I feel peaceful, my own thoughts quieted. And then, neat things happen. 

This occurred most recently as I supported a teacher and his College Prep English students. They were working on interviewing one another to uncover a story that would humanize them to each other, using Humans of New York pieces as mentor texts. I relish my involvement in this, both because for a few years I led my College Prep seniors through this and because I had the opportunity to practice pausing.  When my teaching partner and I first began engaging our students in this, we knew that to uncover a meaningful story, our students needed modeling of strong questioning and intentional listening if their interactions were to be meaningful. We engaged our instructional coaches and other district leaders in this intentional modeling.

So, this time I interviewed my colleague while students observed and made notes. They noticed the pausing, observing that I took a few seconds after my colleague spoke, inferring that this seemed to give him space to say all he needed to say. Another student reflected how this differed from other interviews: as the interviewer, I didn’t interrupt when I thought I had enough information. Again–that whole low self-preoccupation thing afforded another person the space to truly think and reflect. Through the dialogue, my colleague’s thinking was amplified, and his self-awareness increased.  Pausing provided the space for this. 

Engaging students in work like creating their own Humans of the Classroom stories prioritizes the importance of listening with their minds and bodies (Charles wrote about the process he follows here). Our students spend ten plus minutes with a partner; one partner interviews the other, asking questions, using follow up questions, paraphrasing, mirroring body language. We urge them to record the interview so that note taking doesn’t interfere with whole self listening. It’s a moment of profound connections in the classroom. It’s a moment that first as a teacher facilitating and now as an instructional coach observing where I can pause, look around, and  revel in its power and beauty.

Microlab protocol is another way to intentionally honor all voices and cultivate the depth of thought that culminates from the humble pause. It is a thinking routine depicted in Making Thinking Visible (and found elsewhere). Here are the steps.

  1. Students begin first by spending five to ten minutes on their own engaging with whatever material, prompts, or questions they need to grapple with. 
  2. Then, students form small groups and number off. 
  3. With teacher acting as timekeeper, the first student shares their thinking, speaking for the entire time while the other students listen and take notes if they feel they will help. No one else speaks. 
  4. When the student’s time is up, the teacher mandates twenty to thirty seconds of silence. The teacher urges the students to mentally review what they heard. IT’S A BUILT IN PAUSE!!!!
  5. Each student in the group has their turn, following the same procedure. 
  6. Finally, an open discussion ensues. 

Using the protocol helps students learn that productive dialogue is just as much about listening as it is about speaking, that a person’s ideas as an expression of that person are worthy and deserve air time, that expression of them allows for pathways to connection, and that fostering those connections elevates all. The pause in the protocol is integral to this. 

As I write this, I find that I’m pausing here to wonder.

What is possible when we teach students about the power of pausing and its role in listening?

What happens if we anchor their classroom interactions in strong listening skills, using activities and tools like these to help them?

What happens, if in this world where some people shout and stomp to suppress the voices of others, we prioritize the pause to inspire just interactions?    

What is possible when we as educators prioritize the pause?

Kristin Jeschke is an Instructional Coach at Waukee High School in Waukee, Iowa. She’s working in all parts of her life to pause more. Having just spent time with her toddler niece and nephew, the voice in her head reminds her to wait, wait. 

 

Teacher Identity Matters

This wasn’t the blog I intended to write but one I felt compelled to write. As a teacher consultant, I work in a variety of schools across the nation and overseas. This particular day I was in a school filled with students new to our country, who have tremendous gaps in their literacy backgrounds, and whose parents struggle to make ends meet. In small groups, teachers were discussing their identity as readers and writers.

“I don’t read except for some informational text,” one teacher said. “I just got burned out in college reading all those books I didn’t want to read.”

And who was this teacher? The interventionist. The professional whose job it is to support striving readers: those readers who don’t know how to choose a book, who don’t have the strategies they need to read with understanding, and who haven’t experienced the pleasure in finding a book they love. I wondered how she could instill the joy and love of reading if she didn’t know it for herself. How could she help students develop their identities as readers if she doesn’t view herself as a reader?

Then I heard a teacher in another group say, “I love to read. I don’t think I’ve ever gone a day without reading. And I know I’ve never gone a day without writing something.”

“What?” someone in her group asked incredulously. “You write every day?” It was clear that the other teachers in her group shared that response. What those colleagues didn’t understand was that this was a teacher who was a member of the literacy club that Frank Smith wrote about years ago, a teacher who could open the door for her students to also join this club.

Overhearing these conversations reminded me of conversations with teachers in other schools and made me think about the importance of a teacher’s identity, particularly in a readers and writers workshop:

  • “I can’t get my kids invested in their writers’ notebooks. They won’t use them unless I stand over them.” When asked about her own writers’ notebook, she shyly admitted she hadn’t kept one since college.
  • It was day one of a two-week writing institute for teachers. I explained, “In the mornings we study writing instruction and in the afternoons, we write ourselves.” At the first break, one teacher left with plans not to return. Her colleague explained, “She hates to write.” And who was the disappearing teacher? A high school English teacher.
  • A principal – formerly a high school English teacher – told me, “High school students hate to write. You have to do something to trick them into it.” When one of her teachers asked for supplies to beef up her writers workshop, the principal turned her request down, convinced that those supplies would be a waste of the school’s limited funds.
  • With surprise, I watched one of the most caring teachers I had worked with teach a grammar lesson. “When do you use semi-colons?” she asked. And when a student answered correctly, she threw him a piece of candy. She posed question after question about conventions, tossing out more candy when students gave her the right answers. When we debriefed, she told me that she hated teaching grammar  and didn’t know any other way to engage her students in thinking about the rules.
  • Down the hall from that teacher, I watched another teacher confer with one of her young writers. Opening her writers notebook, the teacher said, “I hated the way this part sounded, so I thought I’d try using a colon and list some ideas, just like what we saw in Barbara Kingsolver’s story the other day. Why don’t you give this craft move a try and let me know what you think.”
  • “Those young adult novels are lousy literature. I would never assign one to my students.”  When I asked about what she had read recently, she told me that she hadn’t read a young adult novel since college but trusted the judgment of her friend the librarian.
  • I watched another teacher confer with a reluctant reader. “You might try tScreen Shot 2020-01-22 at 5.00.36 PMhis one. I loved it,” she suggested as she handed him Kwame Alexander’s Crossover. A few days later, the student shyly asked the teacher for another book just like that one. And the teacher found one and then another for him. Because this teacher read young adult literature, she could bring herself into the classroom in the same way Julie Swinehart did in her blog about summer reading.

Teacher identity matters. Our identity as readers, writers, literary scholars, even editors carries over into the classroom, shaping our interactions with students, the plans we make, the structures we put into place. A teacher who sees herself as a reader can share her enthusiasm and knows the value of providing choice and time for students to read. I wonder if a teacher can create a dynamic readers workshop if she doesn’t love to read?

And what about writing workshop? Can a teacher design and implement a writers workshop if she never writes herself? Or can he promote the value of a writers notebook if he doesn’t keep one himself? Can we nurture our students identities as readers and writers if we aren’t a part of the literacy club?

I wonder.

 

How do you nurture you identity as a reader? As a writer? What impact does your identity have on your reading or writing workshop?

 

Novels in Verse in the Senior English Classroom

I have always had a bit of a love/hate relationship with poetry. I know as an English teacher I shouldn’t admit this, but poetry has always been my least favourite genre to teach. While I loved to read poetry as a teenager, I loathed when we had to study it in class as I felt that all the analyzing destroyed it. Unfortunately, some of this mindset has followed me into my teaching career and I have often struggled to really love teaching poetry and I have found that this translated into the way my students have engaged with poetry, as well.

While trying to find a new connection with poetry in my classroom, I have found a few things that have helped. The first was spoken word poetry – the powerful performances of these talented poets sparked some of that old love I used to have for poetry in me and I found that it was easy to translate this excitement into my classes.

The second is what I want to talk about here – my discovery of the novel in verse. The first novel in verse I picked up was Kwame Alexander’s The Crossover when I was trying to find a book to recommend for a sports obsessed reluctant reader. I didn’t realize it was a novel in verse when I first opened it up, but from the moment I started to read it I was hooked. The combination of poetry with a narrative arc spoke to me and I realized that novels in verse could be an accessible pathway to poetry for not just myself, but for my students as well. Since then, I have integrated novels in verse into my classroom in many ways. Sometimes I have held book clubs where all of the novels students can choose to read are novels in verse where other times I have chosen to integrate just one or two titles along with prose novels and graphic novels.

Some of my favourite novels in verse I have used recently in my classes are the following. Some of these books deal with heavy topics (in particular October Mourning), so I would recommend reviewing them before using them with younger students.

Death Coming Up the Hill By Chris Crowe: I stumbled upon this one almost by accident and I am glad I did. It was in the bargain bin at a bookstore I was at and I am glad I discovered it. Death Coming Up the Hill is set during the Vietnam War and follows the story of 17 year old Ashe who is dealing with family issues during the backdrop of the war. The story follows Ashe as he tries to avoid being drafted for a war he does not believe in. This powerful novel in verse is even more impressive as it is written entirely in Haiku with every syllable in the novel representing a fallen solider who actually died during the war.

Enchanted Air: Two Cultures, Two Wings by Margarita Engle: The poetry in this novel is completely compelling. Besides being a novel in verse, it is also a memoir of the author’s experiences growing up between two cultures. Set during the Cold War, we follow Margarita’s childhood as she struggles to reconcile her Cuban heritage with the American world she is growing up in.

October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard by Lesléa Newman: This is a hard read, but a powerful and important one. It may, however, be too much for some students. This novel in verse takes us to October 6, 1998 to tell the true story of when 21 year old Matthew Shepard is lured from a bar and beaten to death simply because he was gay. This novel in verse is tragic and powerful at the same time. 

If you had asked me several years ago if I would ever read a novel in verse, I am not sure that I would have said yes. These three novels in verse, along with several others have changed my opinion and have helped me become a more passionate poetry teacher.

If you want more recommended reads, check out my previous post on integrating authentic voices into our middle years classes.

Pam McMartin teaches Senior English and is the Senior Teacher Librarian at an independent school in Tsawwassen, British Columbia, Canada. She is reluctantly becoming more of a poetry fan the more she exposes herself to powerful, modern works. You can follow her on Twitter @psmcmartin

When Your Teaching Life Throws You a Curve…

Hit a home run.

Or at least make contact, get on base, and rely on your teammates and experience to get you across home plate.

This new year, the new decade, reminds me that teachers often face new challenges and situations. Think about that student who transfers into your school nine days before the semester ends or the joy and then horror that flashes through your mind when you see that new copiers have been installed.

Sometimes though, we face new adventures that even vast swaths of experience cannot prepare us to handle the way we parry and deflect most of what’s throw at us. For me, a move away from athletics pushed me toward new classes that revealed just how comfortable I had become in my almost decade working with seniors. Last year freshman English and freshman Pre-AP English classes taught me about patience and pacing. This year sophomores and AP juniors force me to flex muscles I never knew I had and push me to explore the boundaries of my workshop pedagogy.

For those of us who face the anxiety of teaching a totally new class, a new unit of study, or even a new lesson, consider this advice:

  1. Lean on the pillars of experience around you.
  2. Trust the reading and writing workshop process.
  3. Build a team.
  4. Explore your literacy.

I’ve been blessed to leap into these last two years, and the change they promised, with groups of teachers who had been there before and knew what to expect.  Their knowledge and willingness to support me allowed for less time learning new content and more time planning effective lesson delivery.  While I have many questions, they seem to always have an answer that guides me back on the pathway to success.

Lean into the workshop that supports reading and writing because it invites literacy learners to feel safe within the routines and community that literacy learners need. New learning happens much easier then the teacher and the students feel comfortable and safe with each other.

Growing your support system beyond your teaching team is important. Living on front street with your students about your inexperience can be a scary proposition, but it can also invite them into the type of relationship where they understand that you will all grow together and that they are not the only ones being asked to shoulder a growth mindset. As for the adults in the building, instructional coaches are there to help you and support you, looking for clues to the type of help you need, listening when you struggle, celebrating your successes because they own a piece of your potential. Lastly, but no less importantly, build relationships with your administration. Extend the invitation for them to be in your room and learn about the students that pass through your life on a daily basis.  Admin isn’t there solely to handle disruptions or crisis. Rather, they, like every other educator in the building, have a vested interest in the success of your students and deserve the opportunity to experience your greatness.

Never forget the value of reading and writing beside your students. When you aren’t sure how to fairly and authentically assess the writing tasks you ask your students to perform, write your own response.  When you ask them to revise their writing, invite them into your process to help you explore your ideas.  They will jump at the chance to support your writing the way you support theirs. Share your reading life too.  Your reading life will engage them just as deeply, and as they learn more about what you like to read, they will learn more about you and, perhaps, about their own compassion.

Most importantly, trust the process. Believe in yourself in the face of new experiences. You owe it to the students and to yourself.


Charles Moore recently returned from a 2025 mile road trip vacation where he learned about new people and places and loved every minute of it. He encourages everyone to try to visit the Martin Luther King Jr. Historical Park and The King Center. Bring some tissues just in case a high school band spontaneously shows up to play for Dr. King.

#100DaysofNotebooking

Happy New Year!

As we ring in 2020, many of us begin to reflect on the previous year and to think about new starts and new beginnings. Some create resolutions or goals while others choose a one little word to guide them along the way.

My one little word for 2020 is commit, and I have created my own set of “10 Commitments.” One of my commitments involves writing, specifically notebook writing.

Notebooks are essential in a workshop classroom, but I have to admit that I lack commitment when it comes to using them regularly with my students. Using notebooks more in my classroom is always a goal of mine, but it is also a personal goal in 2020. It is important for teachers to model the writing process and to write with their students, including using writer’s notebooks.

So, when I saw the #100daysofnotebooking challenge by Michelle Haseltine, I had to check it out.

Michelle’s goal for starting this challenge was to help others develop a meaningful habit of writing and to discover the power of writing and the joy it can bring. I decided that if I want my students to become more committed to using their notebooks and if I wanted to be more committed as a teacher, then I needed to be more committed as a notebooker myself.

Looking at the pages in my current notebook, I found I typically write about my reading through the collection of quotes and snippets of writing that I can use as mentor texts for my students.

At the beginning of each year, I start a “books read” list. Although I have a Goodreads account, I like having easy access to a list of books I have read.

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I also play with words and do some initial drafting and explore for potential blog posts.

But here’s the thing…I am not consistent. These pages are actually weeks and sometimes months apart. This is why I have accepted Michelle’s #100daysofnotebooking challenge. I believe that teachers who write make better writing teachers and keeping a writer’s notebook is an important part of that development.

For more notebook inspiration, follow the #100DaysofNotebooking on Twitter or check out the Facebook group. You may also want to take a peek inside Shana’s notebook here and here or see how Amy reflected on an entry in her notebooks here. Seeing notebook pages from other writers always gives me new ideas and loads of inspiration.

If you want to create a better notebook writing habit, why don’t you consider joining me in the challenge? It is not too late to start, and you can find all of the information on Michelle’s website.

Happy New Year and Happy Notebooking!

Leigh Anne teaches 6th grade ELA in southern Indiana, is a notebooker-wannabe, and is ready to commit to a daily notebook habit.

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