Category Archives: Writers 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.

One Word: Goals and Other Possibilities

Happy New Year! 

I always appreciate the expanse of winter break. After the joyful rush of the holidays (and sometimes the excess–so many cookies), I find myself with the time and space and never ending mugs of coffee needed. To think. To properly think and reflect. During this deliberate withdrawal from the world, I recenter and refocus. Usually, I develop new visions for my classroom, my students, and myself (professionally and personally). Last year, discovering #OneWord via my PLN energized my thinking. Jon Gordon describes it here as choosing the one word that will give “meaning, mission, passion, and purpose.” Beyond the fun of ruminating over possible words (always the nerd for words, here), I loved the intentionality of choosing the words that would anchor me for the year. I chose two: outside and feed. 

Outside moored me personally and professionally. I knew I wanted to spend more time literally outdoors, and so, I sought ways to do so: walking, running, hiking, scootering, skating, floating, fishing…even working outside. In fact, this one word led me to my best outside adventures of the year–hiking and running in Norway and enjoying a fjord cruise. This particular journey also fit my other interpretation of outside–seeking ways to go beyond or outside my comfort zone. The trip was the first long trip with my husband away from my children. Anchoring to outside helped me take risks professionally, too, which is why I write this now as an instructional coach. 

Feed became a mainstay in my classroom. I thought of feed as the ways in which I provided, maintained, or sparked the energy of the classroom and my students. So, I worked on delivering feedback that fed forward. I managed pace, working to stay brisk and lively. I altered mini lessons so that they stayed consumable. Feed nurtured my students and me. 

Reflecting now, I wish I had engaged my students in this kind of reflective anchoring. It’s a different way of goal setting, certainly. Here and here are some resources for getting started with students. But the possibilities for use during workshop make it worth further consideration. These extend beyond the variation of the New Year’s Resolution. 

Use OneWord to…

  1.  Set purpose each week for your class or for workshop time. Tethering to a carefully selected word might help students move more intentionally through the week and allows a reflection point at the end of the week. Class this week is brought to you by the word ___________. 
  2. Craft one word summaries of how their writing is going prior to conferring with you or their peers. Perhaps these one words are more about their affective states (build emotional intelligence further by providing them with a list); perhaps they indicate progress; perhaps they demonstrate the most valuable word of the piece. 
  3. Employ in quick writes. Encourage students to apply one word from independent reading into multiple quick writes from the week. That word might take on different meaning for that student. 
  4. Shape perspective. Instead of or in addition to essential questions, these one words become the essential ways for filtering reading and writing in the classroom. Maybe students use a blend of whole class (community perspective and individual one words (identity driven) through which to view reading and writing.
  5. Create a Words to Watch list of your own as a class. Consider using this list as a mentor text of sorts. Maybe students tie in Article of the Week and develop a word list based on their explorations of contemporary issues.
  6. Identify the developmental arc of a character. Students could choose one word to describe a character at each stage of transformation. 
  7. Craft one word summaries of their reading. This isn’t a new idea but maybe a reminder of how students might use words as mainstays–perhaps starting with what’s accessible before  
  8. Ground in reflection. Invite students to choose one word (provide them with a list if necessary) to depict their progress as readers, writers, or thinkers over the course of the week. They could use Flipgrid or SeeSaw or a Jamboard or just their notebooks or post it or notecard to present the word and reflect on it as their choice. 

And what else? I’m certain there are other ways to adapt the one word perspective. And I’m also certain that as we encourage students to ruminate over words–whether for the purpose of goal setting, reflecting, or creating–that we give them ways to anchor their thinking. 

I’m still ruminating over my word for this year. Pause is a strong possibility. So is perspective. And leap, dive, explore, and elevate.  I think I’ll pour another cup of coffee. 

Kristin Jeschke taught high school English for nineteen years, twelve in Waukee, Iowa at Waukee High School. She now serves as Instructional Coach (20 years in education in 2020!) and is as big a word nerd as ever. Follow her on Twitter @kajeschke. 

Workshop-izing Our Writing Instruction

“We didn’t have to spoon feed them!” The teacher beamed as we read the student writing hanging in the hallway.

Two months ago, the experience had been a little different. It was time for informational writing and students researched spiders. With class input, teachers wrote the spider report on chart paper. When it was time for students to write, 95% of them copied the report the teacher had written.

We realized that this kind of writing wasn’t honoring the students and all they know how to do.

Where we started

In my role as a literacy coach, I support teachers in lots of ways. This year one district is in the first year of implementing a writing workshop curriculum (after piloting and lots of teacher input, they decided on the Collaborative Classroom Being a Writer).

Some teachers, though, feel like this new curriculum takes away a chance to do “fun” writing that they enjoyed in the past. So we face the question of how to support students in transferring the rich skills they’re learning in workshop to other tasks. In other words, how could we take the things they’d done in the past and workshop-ize them?

We started by naming what students could do as writers, and then thinking about the implications:

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Workshop-izing

Teachers tried again with another informational writing unit. We began by showing students an image as a provocation:

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We used the See/Think/Wonder protocol to get the conversation going, a strategy I first learned from Tanny McGregor. First, we asked students to list the things they see in the image. After discussion, we then asked them to talk about what they think is happening in this image. This step encourages students to make inferences. After discussing our predictions, we then explained the origin of the image (this one is a photograph of monarchs migrating).

Then we moved to the Wonder step. Here we ask students to capture all the questions they have about this topic. From there, we might go in a few directions:

  • give students a set amount of time to find as many answers to as many questions (the shorter the better — we want students to see how much they can learn in a short time).
  • provide students with a shared text and ask them to annotate the text every time they find answers to their questions.
  • ask students to trade questions with a classmate and find the answers.

Once students built their schema around the topic, we stopped and talked about what they could do next as writers. We showed them several ways that writers write about information:

Students noticed that writers can use pictures and labels, or write a story, or even have a fact-based informational paragraph. And if writers did that, then they can too. Now students were ready to write. And they soared.

They wrote stories and poems and fact-based writing. One student wrote an opinion. Another wrote a story with characters. The best part was that we saw them transferring skills from other writing units to this one.

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This writer shows evidence of craft through repetition and using capitals to show emotion.

 

What does this have to do with secondary students?

You may have noticed by now that the writers I’ve been talking about are first graders. Why would I be sharing what first grade teachers are doing on a blog that’s meant for secondary teachers? Because, as I’ve written about before, I think secondary teachers have much to learn from what students are doing in elementary school.

Can our middle and high school students do this too? I’d argue that yes, those writers can make these same kinds of moves. What would happen if instead of giving our older writers graphic organizers and fill-in-the-blank essay templates, we instead give them a chance to write in ways that stretch them?

Let’s workshop-ize the writing that’s happening in all our classrooms. Let’s make space for all the writers to soar.

Angela Faulhaber is a literacy coach in Cincinnati, OH. You can follow her on Twitter @WordNerd

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.

The Power of Authentic Literacy

Let me tell you about my fall, y’all. It’s been a doozy. 

Depending on which list of the top life stressors you look at, I’ve managed to hit two, maybe three, right on the head. And mine is spinning.

I moved last week. If you’ve ever packed and moved during the school year, you know how stupid I planned the timing. The Rockstars and Tylenol PM have kept me functioning. Some.

Sometimes life gets in the way. Sometimes life gets away from us.

new books in honor of my father

My English department surprised me with this gift of books in honor of my father — one of the sweetest things colleagues have ever done for me. My classroom library is growing!

My father passed away the first part of September. And while he was old, and his health had been fading for a while, his death hit me hard. I used to call him when I drove long distances alone to present workshops. I miss our talks. My dad was a quintessential optimist:  wise, encouraging, smart — and he believed in me.

We all need people who believe in us. 

Everyday I try to show my students I believe in them. They’ve been so great with all my spinning. Compassionate, kind, studious. Mostly.

I started at a new school this year, and I’ve remembered how much I love working with young people. I also remember how much I detest the distractions: the drills, the mandatory To-Do’s, the paperwork. But that’s a post for another day.

Most days I fake my way — I’ve yet to find a rhythm.

But that’s okay. I believe in the power of authentic literacy instruction. I know those who read and write and communicate well have a better chance at navigating life than those who don’t. 

So everyday we read. Everyday we write. Everyday we talk about our reading and writing. Every Friday we discuss important issues. I believe these things trump any other use of instructional time. The routines work. But for many students it is hard.

A few students fake their way — they’ve yet to find their reason.

That’s not okay. I will keep trying. Trying to get books in hands that spark joy in reading, trying to develop writers who believe in the power of words and the beauty of language, trying to get the quiet ones to share their thinking with their peers. They often have the greatest insights.

My evaluator visited my class last week. We were analyzing essays, discussing the writer’s craft –noticing the moves and their effect on meaning– and preparing to write our own Op-Eds. As the administrator left the room he whispered, “It’s hard to get them thinking.” 

Yesterday in our writing workshop, right after a little skills-based lesson on making intentional moves as writers, a young man said, “You mean everything I write has to mean something?”

What do you do with that?

I think we have a hard row to hoe, my friends. Gardener, or not, helping our students understand the role of critical thinking in their lives is what may save them. It may save us. It’s saved me for the past few months.

In a Forbes’ article published a year ago, titled “What Great Problem-solvers Do Differently,” we learn five skills that enable people to be great problem solvers:  deep technical expertise and experience; the ability to challenge, change, innovate, and push boundaries; a broad strategic focus rather than a narrow focus; drive/push; and excellent interpersonal skills.

I can’t help wondering how I can help students develop more of these skills while in my English class. I know it’s possible. Possibilities mentor hope.

This week a small group of my students — seniors who are eager yet terrified (their words not mine) to face the world after high school — and I chatted a bit about the responsibilities of adulting. I’m afraid I didn’t quell their fears. I might have quickened them. 

The stress that comes with independence sometimes sends us spinning. 

My students are my witnesses, and while I’d wish it otherwise, perhaps this fall is the most authentic I’ve ever been as a teacher.

 

Amy Rasmussen teaches senior English in a large suburban high school in North Texas. She tries to write beside her students and wrote this piece as a practice for their Op-Eds. She’s currently trying to unpack and get used to her new commute. Dallas traffic can be a doozy.

 

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