Category Archives: Writers Workshop

Shifting to a Lego mindset to teach writing during a remote learning pandemic

Since my kids have been home from school, they have reinvested themselves in their basement Lego worlds comprised of an embarrassing number of Lego sets. The kids disappear for an hour every now and then and build, and they don’t really need my help but sometimes appreciate my approval. That’s the kind of mindset that I’d love for my students to have as we think about writing in this online world. Dad’s not here–now I can finally build what I want to. 

Coates family basement Lego world

In the best of circumstances it is difficult to teach writing. To do it online for the past six weeks has felt at times impossible. But as I look back I can see how it’s forced a few shifts that have helped push me closer to a Lego mindset as we consider how to prepare for an uncertain fall.

More frequent, shorter tasks: In class we tend to focus on timed tasks or processed tasks. My favorites, though, tend to be the pieces that take a day or two. They’re often more polished and experimental than timed pieces and more lively and raw than processed pieces. As we moved online, my goal was for students to continue to read and write independently each week. Here is how I tried to manage the writing portion:

  • Week 1: Writing Challenge 1 (300 words)
  • Week 2: Writing Challenge 2 (300 words)
  • Week 3: book club discussion boards (2 posts+replies)
  • Week 4: poetry discussion Padlets (3 responses)
  • Week 5: Writing Challenge 3 (300 words)
  • Week 6: informal independent reading reflection (personal email)

I tried to find lengths and formats that allowed for a sustained, multi-paragraph thought but were still short enough to ensure weekly completion without overwhelming a student facing a list of tasks from seven different teachers. 

More choice: Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle recently published a terrific piece called “The curse of helicopter teaching” in ASCD. In it they argue, “When students haven’t been required to wrestle with difficult writing decisions–and when much of that decision making has been done by the teacher–they lose their sense of agency and their confidence as writers.” Teaching remotely definitely thwarts my helicopter tendencies. I’ve tried to take advantage of this in each of the writing challenges by giving a bigger variety of prompt options (in topic as well as in mode). In addition, I worked to bring in structural choices to push the thinking: based on the topic I chose, what structure makes sense? I think this lines up pretty well with what Angela Faulhaber said about focusing on content before form…what you say should drive how you say it but it’s hard to get there in class sometimes if we’re all writing an argument essay. Since the tasks were short, they were a little more willing to experiment. See a sample task here.

More challenges: This idea comes from John Warner (see his article “I’m never assigning an essay again”), though he calls them “writing problems.” The idea is to give some parameters that foster experimentation rather than a rubric that restricts choices. It’s a narrower focus for the writer, which I think works well remotely. For example, in the first task I challenged students to focus on the specificity in a reflective piece about their Covid-19 experience. For the second Writing Challenge they chose a specific structure to explore (deductive, inductive, anecdote, listicle). The idea is that by narrowing to one aspect of writing they’ll have more space to consider their decision-making. This also allows for more targeted feedback on my end. 

John Warner’s newest book has many writing challenges/problems to explore.

More personalized options: Each task I’ve given remotely has included an option that allows students to focus on their current personal experience. For some it’s clearly therapeutic. For others it’s a chance to document their experience. It’s an easier entry point if they’re home alone and stuck than if we used a traditional academic prompt. But they can still practice specificity and structure; they can still work on adding complexity to their observations. I’ve had to loosen up but it’s empowered them in positive ways. Examples we’ve tried:

  • from Writing Challenge 1: What was the moment that you knew things were not normal, that this was going to be different? How has your life been disrupted? What’s been good, bad, memorable?
  • from Writing Challenge 2: Describe something you’ve been learning about one (or more) of the following: yourself, your family, remote learning, politics, science, your faith, a new hobby or interest. This piece is more personal in nature, so you’ll likely tell a story as you did in the college essay.

More feedback, fewer grades: Instead of grades, then, the focus in our remote learning environment is on feedback (see Sarah Krajewski’s recent tips on feedback here). I try to articulate what they did well and what I noticed about their attempts toward meeting the challenge. Essentially, and I think this is true for in-class writing, too, it’s not about giving more grades but giving more ungraded opportunities to build and experiment. I was also really challenged by this feedback article from Harvard Business Review to reconsider what helps and what hurts, especially if the feedback I give is not face-to-face.

Online writing has got to be more like the end of the first Lego movie, when Will Ferrell realizes that if his son has some freedom about what he can build and is allowed to recombine and go beyond the direction packets, he finds more joy and ownership over the experience. Our feedback can help cultivate this kind of mindset in the writing process whether it’s online or live. 

Nathan Coates teaches junior English at Mason High School, a large suburban district near Cincinnati, Ohio. He has really grown a lot this year from being allowed to post some reflective pieces on Three Teachers Talk. His first Lego set was the classic 1980-Something Space Guy set. @MHSCoates

Walk and Confer: Another Way Back

The eleven year old (11 yo) and I–and sometimes the 8 yo–have been going on a lot of walks. Usually initiated by me, he readily (and sometimes the 8 yo but usually if we scooter) accepts. On these walks, I mostly listen. I’ve learned much about Star Wars, the Percy Jackson series, the Harry Potter series, LEGOS, Minecraft, the history of baseball, birds… and whatever else he’s been reading and viewing and creating. As we walk, shoulder to shoulder (he’s getting taller!), looking at the trees and for birds, we connect. But I’ve also discovered that I can ask questions. Yesterday 11 yo offered his opinion that books are really preferable to movies because the movies always leave out or change key details (yep, full on book nerds in this house). So I asked him why he thought the movie makers would choose to leave out details. He launched into an animated explanation involving the Harry Potter books versus the movies. Our walking and talking, at times it seems, has been connecting and conferring. We’ve been moving together toward shared meaning. 

This kind of meaningful movement may be just what we need when school resumes. When my 8 yo learned about her first class meeting over Google Meet, she was delighted to learn that she too would get to be the little box on the screen. I laughed, but it’s heart-wrenching. We’ve all become little boxes on the screen. And the limited dimensionality of that is an effect of this shared trauma. When school resumes, then, how do we move together toward shared meaning with the now larger than life persons gathered between our four walls?

We move. We listen. We talk. We engage our learners in the walking reading or writing conference. Instead of pulling up the stool alongside the desk or sitting across the table from one another, business-as-usual acts that might now evoke anxiety and fear after months of social distancing, we walk. Walking will allow us to fall into rapport (body mirroring), to find an easiness with our body language that will make it easier to talk and to connect. Feeling scared or anxious can make it difficult to look someone in the eye, and walking removes that pressure. And knowing that learners will not only need to re-learn how to share a physical space with our bodies and with our words, everyone in the room can walk with a partner as we walk and confer with individual students or pairs of students. We can use questions or prompts (on cards to flip through) or post around the building; here and here are a few resources around walking and talking. Our typical conferring prompts remain valuable, too. Moving and conferring is another way back. Not just to each other. But to meaning and creativity and possibility and hope.

In my head, I keep hearing the words of Virginia Wolff: “Better than these walks…”. These walks with my 11 yo and 8 yo may be what I remember most about this time in quarantine. Better than these walks as learners will be when we can be shoulder to shoulder, connecting, moving together toward renewal. 

Kristin Jeschke likes to move (unless her nose is in a book). She serves an active and caring staff as an instructional coach at Waukee High School in Waukee, Iowa. Follow her on Twitter @kajeschke. 

 

Pairing Poetry & Nonfiction

One of my favorite literary pairings is that of a nonfiction piece and a poem. Opinion columns, argumentative essays, editorials, and biographies strike me so much more strongly when I connect them to a short, sweet, descriptive text like a poem.

Maybe it’s because I feel like the prose of Leonard Pitts, Jr. reads more like poetry. Maybe it’s because when I read Ta-Nehisi Coates I feel like I’m listening to a song. Maybe it’s because when I read Mary Karr or Tina Fey or Roxane Gay or Elizabeth Gilbert or Joan Didion I feel like I’m enjoying a piece of performance art rather than just reading “nonfiction.”

So, connecting nonfiction and poetry seems natural to me, which is perhaps why I so loved “Black Like Me” by Renee Watson. Watson, a prolific YA author who’s also an educator, reimagines John Howard Griffin’s original book into a combination essay/poem that feels like a cohesive narrative rather than two separate genres. I loved reading it alongside students this week and discussing how relevant this piece still is, although it’s describing a time fifty years in the past.

The pairing of a poem with an essay was a powerful one with which our students practiced intertextuality and close reading. I urge you to take a look at this text with your students, or try out the poem-nonfiction pairing of your choice…and consider sharing those pairings with us in the comments!

Shana Karnes works in Madison, Wisconsin alongside fabulous students, colleagues, and a professional learning community second to none. She works with teachers in the Greater Madison Writing Project and 9th through 12th graders in all content areas. Connect with Shana on Twitter at @litreader.

Three Reasons We Should Stop Teaching the 5-Paragraph Essay (and what we can do instead)

Wait! Before you get ticked off, hear me out.

I had never heard of a “5-Paragraph Essay” when I was a student. We wrote essays. Sometimes stories, sometimes research, sometimes about the books we read. In college, my professors wanted me to have a strong thesis, but never did they talk to me about how many paragraphs I should have.

When I became a teacher, though, I was inundated with this new (to me) way of thinking about writing. I had no clue how to teach kids how to write. I was just good at it, I thought. Therefore, this formulaic approach to writing clicked with me. I liked the directness, the accessibility. And frankly, I liked how it made it just a little easier for me to assess writing. “It’s like training wheels,” I told myself.

Here’s the thing, though. We never took the training wheels off. Kids were going to college, or into life, without knowing how to ride the bike.

So, why do I think we should abandon this idea of the “5-Paragraph-You-Know-What” (a term coined by my favorite writing teacher, Tom Romano)?

This writing doesn’t exist in the real world

I can’t remember the last time I clicked on a blog, or read a newspaper or a smart analysis of a film, and counted the paragraphs. I read to find the idea, to see how the writer leads me through their thinking. There are no editors anywhere telling writers, “Okay, this is a good start, but you don’t have five paragraphs.”

Because I want to develop students who see themselves as writers beyond my classroom, I have to ask myself why I continue to privilege a genre that seems to only live in school (if your answer is the test, keep reading). Can high quality writing be five paragraphs long? Sure! Does it have to be? Nope.

This writing privileges form over content

Screen Shot 2020-03-02 at 2.02.28 PMWhen students are overly concerned with how long their writing is, they lose sight of the important stuff, like content. They fill paragraphs with half-plagiarized evidence, or sprinkle in cumbersome transition words. They’re more concerned with adornment than substance.

Conversely, for many students, focusing on the number of paragraphs shuts them down. They see it as insurmountable, so they don’t even try. And before anyone accuses me of saying kids don’t have to know how to organize their writing, let’s just stop right there. Writers organize their writing. What writers don’t do, though, is say “This has to be a body paragraph with 5-7 sentences, and evidence.” No, instead writers focus on WHAT they want to say and then they figure out HOW to say it.

This writing doesn’t grow writers

About four years into teaching, I had an epiphany. Students weren’t getting better at writing 5-paragraph essays. Many of the kids I’d taught as 9th graders still needed the support when I had them again as juniors. Often kids ended up filling in a graphic organizer I created just so they had something to write about (and by graphic organizer, I mean fill-in-the-blanks dressed up like an outline. Cringe.)

I realized that this kind of writing wasn’t helping them to become better at thinking, at teasing out a train of thought, and developing it across a piece of writing. And if the thing I kept doing wasn’t working, than maybe… I should think about doing something else.

So what do we do instead?

  • Read Like Writers: I have a total teacher crush on The New York Times Writing Curriculum. When I read through one of the winner’s of last year’s Student Editorial Contest “Nothing Comes Between Me and My Sushi...Except Plastic” I notice a few things:Screen Shot 2020-03-02 at 1.27.53 PM When I model for my writers what it looks like to read like a writer, we start to notice thing we can do in our own writing, and more importantly, we can start to think about HOW we can do them in our own writing.

 

  • Focus on Content Before Form: When I look further into this piece of writing, I notice how the writer develops an idea. She’s doing all the things I hope for my own writers. In addition to what’s above (a thesis, a hook, incorporating research), she also anticipates the counter argument AND pushes back. She’s not dropping this counter-argument in because it’s what she has to do. She’s doing it because it makes sense. She has been building up to it.Screen Shot 2020-03-02 at 1.26.24 PM

Screen Shot 2020-03-02 at 1.26.33 PM

Screen Shot 2020-03-02 at 1.26.39 PM

  • Teach test-writing… and LOTS of other kinds of writing too: If you feel you absolutely have to teach the 5-Paragraph Essay because they’ll need it on The Test, then I encourage you to spend most of the year immersed in the study of the craft of writing (start checking out The AV Club, Players Tribune. Follow #wildwriting or #beyondanalysis). Teach students about the moves writers make in writing. We still talk about transition words, thesis statements, adding reasoning, and writing effective conclusions. But now, it is within the context of the craft of writing. Then, a few weeks before the test, teach students how to transfer all those skills to the test. Remember that nowhere in our standards does it mention that students have to write five paragraphs. They have to write multi-paragraphs, sure. But that could be three, or seven, or five. Nowhere in the rubrics from the state (if you’re using Common Core or something like it) does it talk about how many paragraphs students should have. Instead, it looks at content development, ideas flowing. 

Still not convinced? That’s okay. I encourage you to read John Warner’s book Why They Can’t Write: Killing the 5-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities. Screen Shot 2020-03-02 at 2.02.12 PMIn here, Warner, who’s a college professor, talks about how limiting this kind of writing is, and explores other ways of teaching. For ways of thinking about literary analysis, check out Rebekah O’Dell and Allison Marchetti’s book Beyond Literary Analysis. And Kim Campbell and Kristi Latimer’s book Beyond the 5-Paragraph Essay is a great resource. Sign up for a class at your local National Writing Project site.

Whatever your next step is, I encourage you to help kids take the training wheels off, to ride the bike on their own. They might crash, and that’s okay. That’s when the learning is happening!

Angela Faulhaber is a literacy coach in Cincinnati, OH. She is blogging this month as part of the Slice of Life challenge at Two Writing Teachers, and thus, is seeing every interaction as a potential writing piece. Join her!

 

Moving Around the Bend

bendLike so many teachers blessed with a growth mindset, there are always several ideas bouncing around my head that, if realized, might temporarily satisfy my constant need to innovate my teaching practice. Hopefully, new moves and ideas lead me toward maximizing the delivery of instruction and the transfer of learning. Heading into the TCTELA convention back in January, my head was like a Dumbledore’s pensieve, ideas swirling like memories.

My sophomore classes had been building towards a persuasive essay major grade and their writing showed me that they needed some direct instruction centered on the elements of argument: claim, evidence, and commentary. Instead of focusing on the persuasive task from the outset, we worked hard on building arguments and then we “bent” our writing towards persuasion at the last moment.

Reflection on the genesis of this move points my thinking towards the argument writing that is so often the learning focus of my AP Lang classes and the learning progression of authentic writing instruction that focuses on the process rather than the end task.

Last year, I learned how writing can focus on specific, foundational elements that we practice over and over, gradually increasing the complexity of the task up to the point that the data tells us that the learners are ready to put their newly developed skills on display. In this philosophy, the publishing piece is merely a chance to showcase our writing prowess and highlight our growth as writers. I hear over an over that we should teach the skills, not the essay. We should teach the student, not the subject. This is my “how.”

Each lesson cycle circled through a routine that included deep dives into the skills we see demonstrated in mentor texts. At a recent campus professional learning session, I got to learn more about teacher clarity. Specifically, I can be more clear in designing the learning intentions if I understand the skill and teach to the level of the standard. It was an effort to approach our state standards, the TEKS, that helped me determine which parts of a mentor text we would magnify and dissect. Hopefully, that sentence level instruction will support our reading comprehension in addition to increasing the effectiveness of our writing.

Each lesson cycle blended reading and writing, providing multiple opportunities for both. I started each lesson by reading the mentor text aloud, and students only had one task: circle words you don’t know. After the brief read-aloud, we would take three minutes for a quick write connected to a big idea from the text.  Each quick write starts with “write about a time…” so that we tell real stories from our lives that we might be able to use as concrete evidence when we approach argument writing tasks at a later time. Before digging back into the mentor text, we would take a few moments to review the words we didn’t know and to look for the “big ideas” that we noticed while we were reading. I’m obsessed with readers seeing the “big ideas” in what they are reading because I believe it helps us recognize arguments, and maybe we can support our arguments with textual evidence if we make the connection.

After working through the mentor text, we would look at an argument prompt that forced us to take a position.  This was a chance for us to practice our argument writing every day for between ten and fifteen minutes, and we could share our ideas with other writers in the room so that we could give each other feedback.  We took a position and defended it every single day. At first, some of us struggled with the surface level skill of deciding on a position while others struggled with providing concrete evidence to support their claim. That’s one of the difficulties about writing instruction: we are all in different places. A class of twenty writers are going to be in twenty different places in their learning progression, and we have to be ready to teach to the standards while scaffolding for our writers who find themselves struggling. By lesson seven, the writers looked forward to flexing their argument muscles and eagerly dove into the writing tasks. We still encountered struggle, but our newfound skills gave us the confidence to attack those struggles without fear.

This unit asked writers to work hard and switch back and forth between reading and writing, blending literacy skills in a way that demanded significant effort from the students. The lessons were organized so that the students would have to move quickly between tasks, linking their reading and writing. This work is not easy and sometimes the students find gaps in their capabilities that cause them to react negatively. Teachers must balance high expectations with an awareness of students’ needs. They deserve it.  They crave it. They embraced the process.


Charles Moore is a father, teacher, writer, and obscure pod-caster. He’s starting to get his pool ready for warmer weather and kicked off the crawfish season in peak form. In May, he will receive his master’s degree in curriculum and instruction from the University of Houston.

Lessons from #100DaysofNotebooking

notebookThe first of the year I began participating in the #100DaysofNotebooking. The goal is to write in our notebooks for 100 days. Although I have missed a few days, notebooking has certainly become a habit.

Writing for over 50 days, come many lessons. Some of these lessons I learned as a writer and others as a teacher of writers.

What I have learned as a notebooker and how that will help me as a teacher of writers:

  • Notebooks are personal – Our notebooks are an extension of ourselves and consequently become personal. They become a container to hold our thoughts, our rants, our emotions, our struggles, and our hearts. If I want my students to see value in notebooks, I must allow them time to make them personal. I can do this by giving them choices and the freedom to write what they want.
  • Sharing is not always easy – The #100DaysofNotebooking group uses social media to share pages. Sometimes, this was not easy to do, and some days, we decided to keep them personal and not share. We acknowledged that we had written but kept the words private. I must allow my students to maintain that level of privacy as well, even from us, their teacher. Not everything they write is shareable, and I must respect that.
  • Writing creates more writing – I think I first heard that writing is generative from Kelly Gallagher. Writing daily in a notebook and developing a habit created other ideas and led me in new directions. I have written more in these 50 days than I have in a long time. I currently give my students time for independent reading but often neglect independent writing. Adding more notebook time in our day will help to develop this habit as writers, which will lead to more writing.
  • Notebooking is not a competition – When I saw the pages from other notebookers, it was difficult not to become envious. Their pages were gorgeous with sketchnoting, doodles, and lettering. I needed to remind myself that this was my notebook, and it was perfect for ME. Middle school is a breeding ground for competition. I must remember how it felt when I saw the pages from my fellow notebookers, and remember that notebooks are personally perfect for one person only – ourselves. 

Looking toward the second half of the challenge, I want to begin mining my notebook to gather ideas for longer pieces. Yes, the notebook is a container to hold ideas, a playground to play with words, and a garden to grow as writers, but taking these seed ideas in my notebook and developing them into poems and blog posts and stories is the next step. This experience has taught me lessons as a writer, but more importantly, it has taught me lessons about being a better teacher of middle school writers. I can’t wait to continue notebooking and taking what I have learned about myself as a writer into my classroom.

 

Leigh Anne is a 6th grade ELA teacher at a middle school in Southern Indiana. She has been a notebooker wannabe for many years and is close to shedding that label. You can find her slicing the month of March on her blog, A Day in the Life, or you can connect with her on Twitter at @teachr4.

Check Yes for a Writer’s Checklist

It’s been a hot minute since I used a checklist in my practice as an educator. I’d largely abandoned the checklist because it felt too simple, too bossy, too uninspired. But, as part of learning the in’s and out’s of being an instructional coach, I’ve confronted these assumptions–in theory and am starting to in practice. In fact, for a recent professional development, I created three different checklists about formative assessment from which my colleagues could choose to mediate their reflection. Watching them interact with these checklists rekindled my interest in the checklist as a tool promoting growth. So, I began to reimagine my writing classroom through that lens.

A writer’s checklist …. 
Reinforces the process or its parts 
Insures nothing is overlooked (curse of knowledge!)
Encourages reflection 
Provides direction
Allows for agency 

Reinforces the Process or Its Parts 

When I taught ninth and tenth grade English (early in my career), I created checklists for some of the writing students created: for the more formalized research paper, for instance, a checklist for folding in sources or for how to begin and end.  Though more prescriptive in some ways than I care to remember (see Allows for Agency), for some of my students this correlated more directly with the student samples, modeling, and mini lessons we explored. And, the concision of the checklist provided clarity and accessibility. 

Insures Nothing Is Overlooked 

Beyond providing clarity and direction, the checklist may also ensure writers employ the strategies proven to best impact their audiences. The checklist items can help users of the checklist confront that whole curse of knowledge thing.  When my colleagues used the checklists in our recent professional development, the checklist items grounded us back in the qualities of formative assessments. Of those I directly supported, I observed them grappling with a particular element of assessments and considering what adjustments they might make. They also engaged in this with a partner, an approach I used with my students (back in those early days) as well. This not only insures the quality but also promotes the dialogue that leads to reflection.

Encourages Reflection 

The checklist acts as a third point, a neutral document with a set of qualities that partners or small groups can reference or as the neutral point of comparison when placed adjacent to work. For students, it helped guide their peer revision and editing processes. For my colleagues, it prompted them to consider whether or not certain elements were present or what it might look like if they made adjustments to their assessment. In fact, these kinds of reflections help point learners in a direction when otherwise there may be too many ways to go. 

Provides Direction 

For learners, the checklist may break revision (or reimagining or retooling or relearning) into actionable steps so that they are not overwhelmed, directionless. For my colleagues , the checklist helped them zero in on one direction they may take to adjust their assessments and the necessary steps. Any no’s my students received from their peers on their checklists allowed them to seek additional feedback, ideas, and resources during our conferences. The precision of the checklist can incite more precise action. And the learner gets to choose what adjustment and how to adjust it, fostering more ownership.
Allows for Agency 

This is perhaps the most critical function of the checklist, and it’s the function I didn’t recognize in the classroom and have underemployed as a coach. With my more novice ninth and tenth grade writers, I got by with those prescriptive checklists. But with my AP Language and Composition writers and my College Prep senior writers, I didn’t use checklists (all too often). My colleague and I–in determining whether or not to use checklists–ultimately decided that checklists would do little to foster the kind of autonomy we hoped to nurture in our students. We felt it might be telling them what to do in a time where they needed (developmentally) to drive their own processes. And we weren’t wrong in that. Using that same prescriptive approach with seniors as I used with freshman would not have been productive. But we shouldn’t have wholly abandoned the checklist. We could have used checklists to elevate their autonomy. Maybe students could have built their own checklists based on a mentor text set. Maybe students modify a checklist–adding or subtracting qualities– based on the needs of their audience. Maybe students create a checklist of all the strengths they possess as writers they want to make evident in their writing. There are possibilities here. There were possibilities for my colleagues, too: why didn’t I invite them to adjust the checklist they selected in ways that made sense for their students and for them? Clearly, I needed to use the checklist on checklists!

A checklist should not stifle. A checklist should not reject. A checklist should not merely confirm or affirm. A checklist should elevate (my other word for 2020). Yes!

Kristin Jeschke is watching the Cubs’ manager David Ross closely to see how he shifts from player and teammate to coach. She’s begun a mental checklist of his moves so far but most appreciates his intentionality. Follow Kristin on Twitter @kajeschke.

%d bloggers like this: