Category Archives: Writers Workshop

Revision Strategies that Make the Cut: Helping Students Be Incisive

I learned to be more incisive as a writer as an AP Language and Composition student (somewhere in between rocking flannel and rocking out to Pearl Jam). My perspicacity heightened with my argument research paper, which I had written by hand. Yes, by hand. We owned a computer, but I still expressed myself better pen to page (I’d make the case that writing by hand is still important for our students. Um–notebook time, anyone?). As I read what I had written, preparing to make revisions, I knew I wanted to rearrange the sections. So, I reached for scissors and tape. And–gasp–I cut up my essay, by paragraph, by sentence even. Sprawled on my bedroom floor, I spent the rest of that evening moving parts around until satisfied the parts built toward my whole.

My students’ body language says it all when I offer this story as the lead in to cutting up their own writing. They lean back, raising eyebrows, looking at me quizzically. I imagine their thoughts: “We have cut and paste for that, Mrs. J. You know, on our smartphones.” “Oh rats (emphasis added), I didn’t print my paper. Ha! Now I don’t have to do that.” “I like the way it is. Why would I want to cut it up?” This last query I think is most important. Writing is an act of making, of creation. As humans, we typically get attached to the things we make; we grow to love our words and the way we’ve orchestrated them on the page. Some students need to wrestle with this implicit bias more in order to discover the gaps in their writing. By making my students cut up their drafts, giving them a different kind of constraint, I’m helping them to engage in cognitive conflict, the kind of disequilibrium they need to continue their work revising and to move forward as writers.

These are 5.5 of the strategies so far (I’m always culling) that have made the cut in my classroom.

1. For Invention and Structure

Process: During the planning phase for their argument research papers, I offer old books and magazines to my students, directing them Disney Imagineer Style to cut words and images related to their issues and then arrange them on the page, keeping their audiences in mind.

Benefits: This kind of gathering, cutting, and moving allows for intuitive structuring of their papers AND sometimes engenders creative analogies within their justification (warrants).

2. For Structure

Process: To further gather ideas for structuring, I direct students to cut apart mentor texts to see how they are structured. Typically, I advise them to start with paragraphing but then encourage them to make further cuts and move text as needed in order to discover the ordering of the text and to label and note for themselves what moves the writers made.

Benefits: This exploration compels students–because they must analyze the implications of how the writer arranged the text–to more purposefully arrange and connect their own ideas.

3. For Development

Process: Students begin by cutting up their papers by paragraphs. They then label the purpose of each section or determine what question each paragraph answers, keeping a post-it with the thesis/theme/point near to see if each paragraph aligns. They can then begin moving paragraphs or parts around to see how to manipulate time, to see if there can be greater logical interrelatedness, or to see if parts require more information.


This student sample shows a narrative cut up and labeled.

Benefits: Cutting apart their own texts challenges students to determine the efficacy of development in their writing, especially because this compels them to examine one section–in isolation–at a time (something more difficult to do digitally). Here is one of my students talking through how he used the process and what he discovered.

4. For Purpose

Process: Here the cutting gets more minute: I ask students to cut out the center of gravity sentence (their thesis, claim, so what, point, etc.) to see if everything really does rest on it. After cutting it out (and sometimes just transferring it to a post it), students can move it next to different parts of their paper to see if the parts not only relate but if they build toward this.

Benefits: Sometimes the benefit here comes in the realization that they need a so what or that the parts don’t align or that the sentence itself lacks strength.

5. For Style

Process: Cutting out where they used a mentor text move and seeing if they applied that move to their own writing gets students looking at sentence construction.

Benefits: If we ask our students to “lift” a move from a mentor text, can’t we also ask them to lift their text and compare it back to the original, moving them side by side to determine how effective the application of the mentor text move is after all?

 5.5 For . . .?

Possible Processes: Cut away what tells instead of shows. Cut out all of the comparisons in the text to look for patterns, connectivity, etc. Cut out the best sentence from each paragraph to look for ways to build meaningful repetition.

Benefits: I don’t know yet. These are half-formed ideas right now. But I know they could help my students become more discerning as writers.

Amy Estersohn wrote in her recent post about the tools she relies on for workshop. I’d like to add one more tool: scissors. This tool inspires strategy, and thus, our writers. I frequently tell my students that writing is made of moveable parts. So, let’s get our students moving it!

Kristin Jeschke frequently finds scraps of paper and post it notes around her house–writing that may or may not have made the cut of her budding cartoonist nine-year-old and her emerging storyteller six-year-old. Of course, on days when her students are armed with scissors, her classroom looks similar. Follow her on Twitter @kajeschke. 


Politically Motivated: Positively Harnessing Student Passion in a Time of Uncertainty and Fear


Yesterday morning, I stood outside for 17 minutes. Per the instructions of my administration to maintain the opportunity for all students to learn without interruption should they choose, after a moment of silence in our school for the victims of the Parkland shooting, if students chose to participate in the national walkout, teachers were to follow only if every student in his/her class left the building. After a few seconds of looking around at one another, one by one my sophomores stood up and filed quietly out of the room.

Outside, a small group of students had prepared statements to lead the several hundred students gathered in the chilly March sunshine through 17 minutes of reflection, support, and silence. The group was large, diverse, respectful, and unified, if not in purpose (likely a few students were carried out more by curiosity than conviction), then in the experience itself. A hush I’m not used to experiencing in the company of several hundred high school students quickly fell on the chilly March morning and the group stood in near silence, listening to their peers eloquently unite the crowd in peaceful purpose.

Teaching in time when I feel that I must often couch statements with a reminder that logic and facts should not be considered political, I must again come to you today and suggest that the overwhelming pride I felt in the students gathered in front of our school yesterday, and at the student-led debrief/discussion held during our resource period afterwards, had nothing to do with the politics of their statements. It has everything to do with the way I saw students, our students, standing together in support of one another to promote safety, unity, and empathy, not only for our schools but for our communities.

Several weeks ago, after the tragedy unfolded at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, I was compelled to write about how we can help our students (Shana too wrote beautifully about positive activism in the classroom), those young people who were not even alive when the shooting took place at Columbine in 1999, process such violence and uncertainty as a constant shadow to their educations. Little did I know that our school too would need to process an alleged threat to safety, a school day where several hundred students stayed home out of fear, social media-fed rumors of possible violence, and countless discussions with students who said time after time that even though this particular brand of violence has been taking place for the entirety of their educations, they didn’t know what to do. They didn’t know how to feel. They didn’t know how to cope.

They just want it to stop.

I looked at their faces and saw fear, anger, and pain that frankly frightened me, and for the millionth time this year, I knew I needed to figure out what we could do.

Discussion, writing, reflecting, sharing, and hugging was working, but much like this past month, something felt different.

These kids needed to DO something.

My colleague Sarah and I decided to have our AP Language students write letters to their representatives, expressing their researched opinions on how to end the violence of mass shootings. Their arguments would be their own, bolstered by research to better understand the issue, their own positions, and their audience.

social changeWe were clear with students from the very beginning that this was not an assignment in support of any particular political agenda. Instead, it was an exercise in better understanding our preconceived ideas and more deeply, and diplomatically, developing our rationale for how to bring about change  As long as their research came from credible sources, students could argue for changes to gun laws, support of the 2nd amendment, mental health considerations, school security, or any other defensible position to end mass gun violence. They could write to state or local representatives, as long as they researched that representatives current position on related issues, providing students with key insights to audience consideration we’ve previously only talked about or tried to emulate through blogging.

Supported with ideas from Kelly Gallagher’s incredible argument unit published over the course of 12 days on his personal blog, Sarah and I helped students through pointed research to build letters rich in ethos, persuasive argument, and pathos that could only be provided by the very students whose passions for activism have been flamed because they are so heavily and personally burdened with the threat of this particular brand of violence.

Over the course of the past two weeks, I have:

  • Seen students come in more for help/feedback with this assignment than any other throughout the year. When I asked a student after school yesterday, what had him so dedicated to crafting this particular summative he said, “Because my school work matters, but this assignment is going outside of the school. It matters outside of these walls.”
  • Watched young people who before could not identify who their state or federal representatives even are, research these people and their positions on key issues, and write directly in response to those issues in order to argue to an authentic audience.
  • Helped students channel their feelings of helplessness into purpose, simply by picking up a pen.

What these kids have produced is incredible. I am so proud of the way they have positively focused their overwhelming emotions into powerfully convincing letters to the men and women with means and opportunity to make changes to protect our students from further disaster.

Here are a few excerpts from letters that have started rolling in. In the coming days, we will get the letters printed, addressed, and mailed to Madison and Washington.





I am a firm believer that addressing issues in a constructive manner is a significant step toward positive change. We owe it to our students to provide them with, encourage them around, and support their efforts in making positive changes in their own communities. Though unequivocally necessary as a foundation to an informed electorate, we will not raise the citizens this nation so desperately needs on standards, skills, and summative assessments alone. A new reality is built on the combined knowledge and passions of the humans willing to take risks in support of that reality.

I will certainly never stop teaching my students that deconstructing a prompt is the best way to dig into a timed writing task or that commas don’t occur only where you would naturally take a breath, but I will also never stop supporting them in all they have to teach to us. Our students deserve our help in amplifying their voices to bring about a better world. In this, our jobs have never been so important.

Lisa Dennis teaches English and leads a department of incredible English educators at Franklin High School near Milwaukee. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum. 



A Book for Women, Young and Old and In-between

I am always on the look out for books that will hook my readers and mentor texts that will inspire my writers.

But when I saw the title The Radical Element, 12 Stories of Daredevils, Debutantes & Other

My Radical Granddaughters

It’s never too early to give girls hope.

Dauntless Girls, I thought of my own three daughters, my daughter-in-law, and my two granddaughters. (Well, not so much the debutantes, but definitely the daredevils and the dauntless.)

We need books where our girls see themselves –where they feel empowered to take on the world. In a brochure I got from @Candlewick, it states:

To respect yourself, to love yourself, should not have to be a radical decision. And yet it remains as challenging for an American girl to make today today as it was in 1927 on the steps of the Supreme Court. It’s a decision that must be faced when you’re balancing on the tightrope of neurodivergence, finding your way as a second-generation immigrant, or facing down American racism even while loving America. And it’s the only decision when you’ve weighed society’s expectations and found them wanting.

So today, I write to celebrate the book birthday of The Radical Element edited by Jessica Spotswood.

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Jessica writes:

. . . Merriam-Webster’s definitions of radical include “very different from the usual or traditional” and “excellent, cool.” I like to think our heroines in these twelve short stories are both. Our radical girls are first- and second- generation immigrants. They are Mormon and Jewish, queer and questioning, wheelchair users and neurodivergent, Iranian- American and Latina and Black and biracial. They are funny and awkward and jealous and brave. They are spies and scholars and sitcom writers, printers’ apprentices and poker players, rockers and high-wire walkers. They are mundane and they are magical.

. . .

It has been my privilege to work with these eleven tremendously talented authors, some of whom are exploring pieces of their identities in fiction for the first time. I hope that in some small way The Radical Element can help forge greater empathy and a spirit of curiosity and inclusiveness. That, in reading about our radical girls, readers might begin to question why voices like these are so often missing from traditional history. They have always existed. Why have they been erased? How can we help boost these voices today?

I have only read a few of these stories so far, but they are a wonderful blend of adventure and courage.

Here’s what three of the 12 authors have to say about their stories:

From Dhonielle Clayton, “When the Moonlight Isn’t Enough”:

1943: Oak Bluffs, Massachusetts

What encouraged you to write about this moment in history?

 I wanted to write the untold stories of hidden black communities like the one in Martha’s Vineyard. I’m very fascinated with black communities that, against all odds and in the face of white terrorism, succeeded and built their own prosperous havens. Also, World War II America is glamorized in popular white American culture, however, we learn little about what non-white people were doing during this time period. 

 In researching this topic, did you uncover any unexpected facts or stories?

I didn’t find as much as I wanted because historians focused on white communities and the war effort, leaving communities of color nearly erased. I had to rely on living family members that experienced this time period and a few primary sources detailing what life was like for black nurses in the 1940s. 

 How do you feel like you would fare during the same time period?

The one thing I trust is that black communities have been and will always be resourceful. Accustomed to being under siege, we have developed a system of support. I think I would’ve fared just fine. 

From Sara Farizan, “Take Me with U”:

1984: Boston, Massachusetts

What encouraged you to write about this moment in history?

I’ve always been fascinated with the 1980’s. Even with all its faults, it is the period in time that stands out for me most in the 20th century. The music, the entertainment, the politics, the fear and suffering from the AIDS virus, the clothes, and the international events that people forget about like the Iran/Iraq war.

In researching this topic, did you uncover any unexpected facts or stories?

It was hard to look back on footage from news broadcasts about the Iran/Iraq war. I felt embarrassed that it seemed this abstract thing for me when really my grandparents came to live with my family in the States during the year of 1987 to be on the safe side. I was very young, and didn’t think about why they had a year-long visit, but looking back, I can’t imagine how difficult that must have been for them. Fun not so heavy fact: Gremlins, Ghostbusters, Purple Rain came out in the summer of ’84. And so did I!

How do you feel like you would fare during the same time period?

I think I would know all the pop culture references and my hair is already big and beautiful so that would work out great. My Pac-Man and Tetris game is strong, so I’d impress everyone at the arcade. However, I’m not down with shoulder pads and I don’t know if I would have been brave enough to come out of the closet back then.

From Mackenzi Lee, “You’re a Stranger Here”

1844: Nauvoo, Illinois

What encouraged you to write about this moment in history?

My story is set in the 1840s in Illinois and is about the Mormon exodus to Utah. I was raised Mormon, and these stories of the early days of the Church and the persecution they suffered were very common place. It took me a while to realize that, outside of my community, no one else knew these stories that were such a part of my cultural identity. I wanted to write about Mormons because its such a part of my history, and my identity, but also because, when I was a kid, there were no stories about Mormons. There are still no stories about Mormons–it’s a religious minority that has been largely left out in our current conversations about diversifying our narratives.

In researching this topic, did you uncover any unexpected facts or stories?

Ack I wish I had a good answer here! But honestly not really–I already knew so much of what I wrote about because I’d gone to a Mormon church throughout my youth.

How do you feel like you would fare during the same time period?

Badly! The Mormons went through so much for their faith, and as someone who has had a lot of grief as a result of the religion of her youth, I don’t know if I could have handled having a faith crisis AND being forced from my home multiple times because of that faith. Also cholera and heat stroke and all that handcart pulling nonsense is just. too. much. I didn’t survive the Oregon Trail computer game–no way I’d survive an actual trek.



Amy Rasmussen teaches readers and writers at a large suburban high school in North TX. She loves to read and share all things books with her students. In regards to this post, Amy says, “It’s Spring Break for me, and I’ve been idle. Kinda. Three of my grandkids arrived at the spur of the moment, so I’ll use that as an excuse for posting late today.” Follow Amy @amyrass and @3TeachersTalk.



Say it Ain’t So! Poetry Can’t Help Readers with Non-fiction!

I know, I know. I write about poetry ad nausem.  Poetry has been a focus for me this year I’m constantly finding ways to fold poetry into my instruction all the time. I wrote about it here.

Don’t single me out; Amy included her own poetry thoughts in this post.

I’ve noticed that my students don’t connect their emotions to non-fiction pieces as well as they do with poetry.  That’s unfortunate because real world issues should elicit an emotional response…but in most cases they just don’t.  I think its important, in literacy instruction, that we try to bridge that gap.

Recently, I found an opportunity to integrate a little poetry with some non-fiction.

One of several non-fiction pieces that I brought into the classroom was this one from the New York Times written by Carl Wilson. The piece talks about Rupi Kaur and her popularity compared to those who published poetry before the avalanche of social media.

Our focus was not only to look at these non-fiction pieces in order to see the moves that authors make, but also read with the thought that we could respond to the articles in the form of a Letter to the Editor.

I chose this response format because I saw that it might facilitate and opportunity for us to talk about citations, embedding quotes, and responding to nonfiction in a way that might appeal to my students.  Not only did the student struggle to connect to the pieces, they struggled to keep their eyes open the first time they read through.

Not coincidentally, the poem of the day was by Rupi Kaur herself.  It was about how when we let go of someone to whom we are connected, it can be cathartic. At least thats what it means to me.


(I know its hard to read, but I hand write the poem on the board every day.)

I invited the students to respond to the poem in one of two ways: either by using the poem as a mentor text that could engage their poetic thoughts and help them write a poem of their own, or by responding to the poem about how it makes them feel or think.

We group talked our emotional reactions and shared how so many of us could relate to the poem.  Most of us connected with it in some way, but we discovered that those connection vary widely from person to person.

The next day, we came back, read the articles, began our letters to the editor, and completely failed to connect with the pieces on an emotional level.

There had to be a way to show them that we can have an emotional response to non-fiction. So, in a move stolen directly from Kelly Gallagher, I wrote a model Letter to the Editor in which I roasted the author and his article for being wrong-headed and totally missing the point of Rupi’s poetry.  The students perked up as we went through my example noticing elements like formatting, structure, embedded quotes and properly cited sources. Most importantly, they saw how I was able to show an emotional engagement with another author’s non-fiction piece.

We brainstormed some reasons that they struggled to make the same connections to non-fiction and talked about how they can have the same kind of emotional reaction across genres.

By the time we ended our discussion, they blasted off on the trajectory of writing their own letters to the editor, providing blistering commentary or thankful praise to writers they’d never even heard of before.

The writing I read was authentic, heartfelt, and emotional.  Something about weaving the poem and the article about the author of the poem allowed them to carry that connection to other pieces and release their feelings in a way that showed a real connection to something they otherwise would not have paid a second glance.

What I was reminded of once again, was that this isn’t about non-fiction texts or thoughtful poems.  It was about the students embracing their potential as writers and having the confidence to express their voice. This is a lesson that I’m sure I’ll have to learn over and over, but I won’t stop treating students as writers, even when they don’t believe that they are. 

 Charles Moore fell in love with Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward and no one has seen him since.  Rumors persist of sightings out in Phoenix and even San Francisco. Please visit his hourly musings @ctcoach or visit his instagram account @mooreliteracy1.


Three Ways of Looking at a YouTube Video

If your kids are anything like the ones in my life, both at home and at school, then they love YouTube. When I ask them what they watch, they list names of YouTubers.

At first, I scoffed at this medium that seems to absorb all their energy. Then I started noticing something.


It started last summer after I kicked my three kids outside to play. They were writing in their notebooks furiously. Being my nosy self, I peered over their shoulders.

My kids, who are wonderfully, beautifully average, were planning their upcoming YouTube “projects”. They’d found an old digital camera and had been making videos (but not yet posting them anywhere). Upon further inspection, I noticed that many of these videos ideas were inspired by ones they watched endlessly on YouTube. They were using the texts they love as a way to generate ideas for their own composing. Further, they were using YouTube as a mentor text.

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They reminded me that often when I use mentor texts in my own instruction, I want students to use the mentors to generate their own ideas. Whether we read The Important Book by Margaret Wise Brown, or an essay about Hermione Granger in The New York Times, I want student writers to use those texts as launching pads for their own thinking around topics. I know that one of the most important things that writers do is choose topics that inspire them. I also know that doesn’t happen by accident or chance or magic. We have to teach students how to find their ideas and mentor texts can help us do that.


A few months later, my 10-year-old son started his own YouTube channel. One day I walked into his bedroom where I saw his bulletin board covered in notes. He had created a vision board about his channel where he posted a criteria list focused on what Screen Shot 2018-03-07 at 10.58.07 PMhe had been noticing in other videos. Upon further inspection, I noticed he had also created a template for a video. He was making note of the patterns in the videos, his mentor texts. He paying attention to the structure of a video, to the introduction (the intro) as well as the conclusion (the outro). He also made notes about what not to do.

Jacob’s work around structure reminds us that another way of looking at mentor texts is through the eyes of organizational patterns. When we ask students to notice how something is built, we invite them to create possibilities for their own writing. I want my students to read like writers and to make choices about the way they might structure a piece of writing. Mentor texts help us create a vision for doing that and they empower students to uncover those possibilities themselves.


As Jacob’s gotten better at making these videos, I’ve noticed that he’s also gotten better at the craft within the videos. He and his younger brother Justin decided to launch a series together (of which they’ve only made one episode). When I watch just the first minute of the video, I notice the way they use their voices and gestures. I notice the way they set the stage, displaying the title. I notice how they have clearly rehearsed what they’re going to say. These are all things they’ve picked up from watching their favorite videos, from studying the mentor texts. They identified nuances that add voice and flavor to the text, and then they tried it

Their attempts at incorporating these moves reminds me that another way to consider using mentor texts is to think about the ways we can teach students to read like writers. When we teach students to hone in on the craft moves a writer makes and to think about the purpose of the moves, they can start to think on a granular level about their own writing. The next step is to try those moves out in our own writing.


As I notice the way my own kids have become immersed in these texts, I can’t help but think about how this relates to my own teaching using mentor texts. It’s not enough to show students a text and say, “Okay, now do this in your own writing.” We know that doesn’t work. Instead of becoming frustrated that kids don’t “get it,” I want to instead use  mentor texts with intention.

Using mentor texts is also a process. I can’t expect for students to be able to look at a text and consider ideas, structure and craft all at once. I have to carve out time for students to be able to work through the different ways mentor texts can support them as writers. I have to teach with intention so they can write with intention.

When I consider immersing students in the kinds of writing that will help them grow as writers, I want them to have the same kind of authentic experience as my kids did. As a teacher, I also want to lean in to exploring all the ways mentor texts can look in my classroom — anything from YouTube videos to essays to infographics can help nudge writers to think about how to generate ideas, how to make choices about structure and how to develop their craft.

If you’d like to learn more about finding mentor texts, you can check out this smart Mentor Texts Are Everywhere.



Research In Search of a Claim

Why do high schools feel compelled to create their own “headings” for how students should format their papers, in spite of an English curriculum that calls for teaching MLA style? Oh, never mind. Put like that, I can see that this contradiction is in line with what we are tasked with every day in our classrooms: to machete through convoluted curriculum standards so we can lead our students to some real learning. This particular contradiction usually preempts any teaching energy I might have at the beginning of “The Research Unit.” As I plan, I am haunted by images of students typing their research questions word-for-word into Google, scrolling aimlessly through search results based on what they are most likely to click through to infinity, and finally just quoting from Wikipedia or that first Google blurb (attributed to “Google” and a 400-character URL in a triple-spaced Works Cited page presented in a hodgepodge of fonts from the cutting and pasting). Sigh.

It’s not their fault. This work can be rather uninspiring. Last year I tried to shake things up by offering another option to the traditional research argument: Students could compose a “research narrative” by using story form to trace their process of developing a claim. I spent hours developing model texts and elaborate instructions, devoted precious class time to comparing the two forms and creating anchor charts. Students dutifully complied with this. They complied again by completing a traditional research paper filled with information they mostly already knew or will have quickly forgotten. I dutifully (and wearily) returned papers filled with equally uninspired feedback they may or may not read and a grade that left me feeling morally compromised. Sigh.

So … no. How can we get away from Google as a first-resort and turn instead to our own minds — and each other — as we develop topics? And how can we make use of all the writing work we have already done and blend it with the research “unit” so that it feels less like a “unit” at all? Where can we look for topics that might inspire some meaningful, lasting learning?

Instead of starting from scratch, I had students turn back to their “Writing Territories,” the areas in their lives and in the world they identified earlier this year as potential writing topics. (Nancie Atwell is a continued inspiration–“Writing Territories” comes from Lessons that Change Writers). I modeled using my own territories to extract 1-2 potential research topics, and students did the same. I wanted to develop a sense of community and investment in each other’s topics, so I adapted an activity from Kelly Gallagher’s Teaching Adolescent Writers: 

  1. Students write their topics at the top of a piece of lined paper and pass the paper to the person on their left.
  2. This person reads the topic and writes one open-ended question about it.
  3. Papers continue around the room until each student receives their own paper back.

Even just this movement was energizing. After some initial fumbling, papers began moving through the room (almost) smoothly. Even better, students began talking to each other about whose topic was whose, and competing to write obscure and original questions to “stump” each other. Students took their own papers home, and were tasked with thinking through the questions and deciding on a few focus points within their topic in order to move forward.

So, this was fun and students had a bunch of interesting questions to explore. But that vision of students typing those interesting questions into Google still loomed large. I felt they still needed more of their own entryways into their topics, entryways into authentic thinking beyond search engine results. And as usual, I borrowed. This time, I adapted a poetry exercise from Georgia Heard: the 9-Room poem. I asked students to move through “9 rooms” of preliminary research that I hoped would lead them to consider their topic in terms of themselves and their own worlds.


My intention was for students to move through the rooms to establish a basic foundation of information (rooms 1, 3, 5, 7) and to explore their topic through a more creative lens (rooms 2, 4, 6, 8). As with the question swaps, perhaps the most valuable outcome of this exercise was the conversation it generated around the room. Students are talking about their topics with each other, even excited about being quoted in each other’s work!

So, here’s where we landed for now. Stay tuned for student examples as we move through this process toward formulating a claim. And, of course, proper MLA format.


Why It Matters

An enormous part of my teaching philosophy is centered around teaching students to question the “why” of what we learn. Not necessarily why are we learning, but why does what we learn matter? How does what we do in our classroom apply to their lives? I sincerely believe that if students cannot walk away from my class each day able to answer those questions, then I need regroup and question the purpose of my lessons.



pasted image 0Kelly Gallagher, a high school teacher in California, is an advocate for getting students to think critically, read deeper into various texts, and along with several other educational rockstars, structures his classroom according to the workshop model.

In his book, Deeper Reading, he discusses the “Say/Mean/Matter” chart as a way to make any text relevant to students in addition to helping them become critical readers and thinkers.

 I regularly use this strategy in several ways in my classroom which consistently provides me with opportunities to keep my lessons meaningful to my students. What I love most about using it is that it provides students with an opportunity to focus on what they are learning and why/how it matters. This also shows them that EVERYTHING we read, write, discuss, etc., has a purpose.


I recently completed novel studies with my students and was able to implement the “Say/Mean/Matter” concept with all 3 of my grade levels. In my experience,  I learned that I needed to provide more scaffolding for my younger students versus my Juniors who were more equipped to take the concept and run with it. It seems like the older they get, the more eager they are to share their opinions and challenge what they read.

For my Freshmen

Earlier this school year, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to attend a professional development session that centered around Kelly Gallagher’s Say/Mean/Matter strategy. I was able to scaffold this lesson by targeting specific pieces of the novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, a few at a time in order for students to focus on examples of social injustice. Over a series of impromptu class discussions and informal reading/writing responses to various texts about inequity, I broke each section of Say/Mean/Matter down so that students were familiar with applying this idea to various forms of literature. Once we reached the pivotal point in the novel, we completed this with partners they chose (and some they didn’t), using sticky notes to frame discussion.

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From there, we completed our graphic organizer together using our stickies from the day before. Students were asked to expand on the ideas they came up with together. After modeling my discussion notes and conferencing with students, their responses clearly showed that these examples of social injustice meant something to them. It became more than just an assignment to them, it was a chance for them to safely explore, discuss, and write about opinions that mattered to them.

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Eventually, this led to a Socratic Seminar that took us 2 full class periods to complete. Every student was engaged and ready to share their ideas and ask questions because it was relevant to them. Not only was this a chance for their voices to be heard, but they truly cared about what each student had to say and remained open-minded throughout the process.

A Small Snapshot

This was just one of the incalculable ways to foster relevance and meaning to students that perfectly aligns with the benefits of teaching through the workshop model. Now more than ever, what we do as educators is of the utmost importance. By building these moments of discovery into our lessons, we allow students to create and develop meaning for themselves. The students are our purpose. Our profession centers around helping them develop and unleash their potential. Once students realize what we teach has applicability and value, there is no limit to what they can accomplish.

I would love to know other ways you make your lessons meaningful and relevant to students in your classroom in the comments!

Gena Mendoza currently teaches Freshmen, Sophomore PreAP, and Junior English in Texas. She is passionate about teaching her students to use their powers for good and not evil in her classroom. When not pouring over any written or spoken word by Jason Reynolds, or preparing her family for their next Disney adventure, you can catch her Tweeting/Retweeting at @Mrs_Mendoza3 on Twitter. 

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