Category Archives: Modeling

Question Storming with Students

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Eighty percent of my teaching load is in the role of senior school teacher librarian and much of this aspect of my job is spent working on research skills with our middle years and graduation years students. One of the hardest tasks students face when starting with research is knowing where to start. Often times students will start with a topic that is significantly too broad and they lack the skills to narrow down their search focus, which leads to a frustrated student proclaiming they can’t find anything at all on their topic.

One technique I have used with my students to help them narrow their focus in their research and to guide them through the search process is a technique called question storming. Question storming is a technique I discovered in the educator section of The Right Question Institute website and I have used it with success in research lessons with Grade 6s all the way up to my Grade 10-12 AP students. Question storming is similar to brain storming, but instead of generating ideas or statements that come to mind, students are asked to generate questions. The following are the steps I take to guide my class through the question storming process.

Step One: I model the process of question storming by walking through the process with them. I love to use images as prompts to generate questions as I find students really become engaged with the images the more they ask questions about it. After I briefly explain what a question storm is, I project a thought provoking image on the screen. With my most recent question storming practice with my AP Capstone class, I used the viral image of the Palestinian protester in Gaza.

Step Two: After projecting the image, I ask students to generate as many questions as possible about the image. In my initial modelling with my students, I have them call the questions out and I record them on the board. I also remind my students that at this stage we are not trying to answer the questions and we are not judging the questions, we  are simply trying to generate as many questions as possible. The first questions generated are often rather surface level, things like why is the man holding a flag or where is he, but after the first few questions, I am always surprised at the depth that starts to emerge in the questions.

Step Three: After a few minutes of generating questions, we stop and review the difference between a closed question (one that can be answered simply) and an open question (one that is complex and has multiple possible perspectives) and we go through the list of generated questions and label each as being either an open question or a closed question. At this stage we talk about how it is the open questions we want to explore in our research, but the closed questions often help us in our research, as well because they help us explore what basic information we need to understand about the topic before we can delve into exploring the open ended questions.

Step Four: Once we have labelled our questions as being closed or open, we then select the one open question we want to explore as our main topic. Some of the open ended questions my students generated about the Palestinian protester photo included: To what extent are the Palestinian protests in Gaza affecting the conflict? How has the media coverage of the conflict in Gaza affected the conflict? To what extent has the media coverage of the conflict in Gaza affected the level of aid provided by other countries?

At this stage, students have a significantly more focused starting point for their research and have narrowed their focus with their open-ended questions. As well, they can use their close ended questions to help provide search terms to help narrow their research down even more.

When students start research or an inquiry with a powerful question they find the research process to be easier and more meaningful and question storming is a technique that helps make the challenge of coming up with the right question easier.

For some more practical teaching strategies, check out Shana’s post on some strategies she learned from the pre-service teachers she works with.

Pam McMartin is a Senior School Teacher Librarian, Senior English teacher and English department head at an independent school in Tsawwassen, British Columbia Canada. When she is not wading through storms of questions with her students, she is braving the perpetual winter stormy weather outside that comes with living in the Pacific Northwest. You can follow Pam on twitter @psmcmartin. 

 

 

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Humans of League City

I work with a team of freshman teachers who are experienced, passionate, knowledgeable and, luckily for me, functional.  We collaborate in the creation of lesson plans, lesson cycles, the unending search for mentor texts, and grade calibration. Our collaboration doesn’t just benefit the teaching team; the students are the true beneficiaries of our functionality.

Consider the following:

Our goal was to take the hard work and struggle that our kids overcame as they learned about expository writing and literary analysis and have them turn that lens back onto themselves.

We spent the last forever working on pulling issues, claims, and evidence from the writing of others, how could we do turn that around and invest it in ourselves?

Enter: Humans of New York, an idea brought up by colleague, Austin,  at our team planning day. The idea was that we would work through the exploration of expository writing by having students interview and then write about a human in their life.

Lesson Cycle 1

Lesson Focus: I want you to know that writers use specifically selected issues to support their claim.

  1. Reading
  2. Dear World Video
  3. Respond to the video- Write for three minutes. I wanted them to get the emotional response out and onto the page because it’s important, but not the focus of our lesson.
  4. Question 1 – Why do issues matter?
    • Take one lap around your group sharing your response.
    • Write for three minutes, sharing your response.
  5. Question 2 – Why is it important that we identify issues important to us?
    • Take one lap around your group sharing your response.
    • Write for three minutes, sharing your response.
  6. Seed writing: Tell me about issue you care about enough to write on your skin. This is an extending time for writing, something in which I strongly believe.

Lesson Cycle 2

Lesson Focus: I want you to know that writers use craft to strengthen their expository argument.

  1. Reading
  2. Poet moment, I wanted to get their minds set.
  3. Read two HONY examples, look for issues, claims, and evidence and think about how those the author expresses those ideas.
  4. Seed Writing – Tell me about a human you know along the same lines as what you saw in the Humans of New York mentor texts.

Lesson Cycle 3

Lesson Focus: I want you to know that writers use stories to advocate.

  1. Reading
  2. Euripides Excerpt (7 minutes total)
    • Read and show your thinking.
    • Respond using the sentence stem: This piece is really about…
  3. Read two more HONY examples, look for issues, claims, and evidence.
  4. Seed Writing – Tell me about: A different human than yesterday, a different story about the same human as yesterday, or yourself.

Honestly, these lessons look a lot like most of the lessons that find their way into my classroom.  These are the structures with which my students have become accustomed.  If you look closely, in three days, the kids wrote for over an hour, experienced five mentor texts (and a video) and talked… a lot!

Oh, and throughout these three days, I hardly sat down.  I made it around to every student at least once and worked beside them through the process.

This doesn’t just happen “sometimes” in my classroom.  Truthfully, the functionality of the team I get to be a part of promotes this level of complexity because none of us are going at this alone.  We work together, and as a result, the kids win.  I love watching kids win.

Charles Moore likes learning about humans, even if they don’t love the Dallas Cowboys.  He loves moving students through moves that unveil their literacy. He’s pretty worn out from the multiple Robotics practices he helps supervise, but he’s learned exactly how much work he can complete in three hours. He’s excited to co-present at NCTE and to receive his first solo invitation to present at TCTELA in 2019.

On Writers’ Testimonies & Why We Need Them

If I want to call myself a writer, I better start writing. Seems simple enough, right? I’ve read tons of quotes from writers who say the best way to begin is just sit down and bleed on the page. But I struggle.

As I was trying to write this post, with my dogs barking incessantly at an invisible squirrel in the backyard, and The Walking Dead booming from the bedroom tv where my husband languished with flu-like blahs, I thought of all the tweets last week for the National Day on Writing (fantastic inspiration and ideas there).

tweet#whyIwrite

I thought of why I write:  to think, to feel, to clarify, to play with language, to vent and heal and commit to change. All the reasons that everyone else writes. I am not unique.

Or am I?

Recently, I’ve been reading and re-reading the writing of Donald Murray. (Learning by Teaching: Selected Articles on Writing and Teaching is my bible as a writing teacher. Huge thanks to my friend Penny K. for the recommendation!) But I’ve also delved into Murray’s Shoptalk: Learning to Write with WritersIt’s a collection on quote on writers about their craft. Murray states in the preface that he began collecting quotes on writing when in junior high, filling twenty-four three-inch-think notebooks with at least eight thousand quotations. His motivation? He just wanted to know how writers wrote. Murray explains the importance of writers’ testimony:

     Many people have the romantic notion, encouraged by those writers who feel comfortable in the magician’s robes, that writing is an instinctive matter of talent, an art, not a craft, and therefore cannot be explained.

     But writing is not an unintelligent act. Writing is a craft before it is an art, and writers can and do discuss their craft in terms we can understand. There are good reasons teachers and students of writing should hear what writers say about their craft.

     . . . I bring writers into my classroom through their written testimony. As writers of today and yesterday–female and male, young and old, poets and novelists and playwrights and nonfiction writers–talk about their feelings and their problems while writing, my students discover that their natural responses to writing are often the same as experienced writers.

     This is vital. Students facing a writing problem will often find they have to solve it by starting over and will fell they have failed. When they read the testimony of experienced writers, however, they discover that they too act like writers and this increases their confidence in designing their own solutions to their own writing problems. School often teaches unnatural, non-writerly attitudes toward writing–know what you want to say before you say it–and students need to see that their own instincts are the instincts of published writers.

     Students also need to see that writers are not looking back at a finished text but are in the act of confronting the blank page–or looking at the world before their is a page; trying to get started; trying to keep a text on tract or following it off track; working to make a text clear to themselves and to a reader. Writer’s counsel isn’t distant, detached from the act of making; it is immediate, speaking to the writer in the middle of making, a master sharing the tricks of craft with an apprentice at a common workbench.

I need these reminders–for myself and those I hope to take on the identity of writer, other teachers and students alike. Murray explains:

Too often we defend writing as a skill, saying writing should be taught so that students can fill our a job application or write a better letter asking someone to buy a cemetery lot. Writing is a skill on that level, but it also a craft and an art; it satisfies an essential need of the human animal.

So how do I share more writers’ testimonies? How do I help satisfy the essential need of the humans in my care daily?

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Here’s some ideas:

  • Share some quotes on writing by writers. There’s lots of insights in that link and even some nice images like the one above.
  • Share Poets & Writers and follow on Twitter, too. I love their weekly update.
  • Read and share articles from NY Times Writers on Writing. This one by Amy Tan is a favorite and makes a fantastic mentor text to write beside.
  • Think, write, model, talk, share, and repeat with writers every single day. Let them know they are not alone in their pursuit of putting meaning on the page.

When I brought the barking dogs in, and before the tv went off and the zombies faded out in the bedroom, I heard a line that gave me pause. It went something like this: “This place is a canvas, and we are the paint. We were sent here to create. We did.”

I don’t know about you, but I think that relates to writing. I write to paint my world in the swirl of language, to create images and goals and imaginings, to figure out what I feel and think and know. I write because it feeds my need. I am human, so I write.

Amy Rasmussen writes most often sitting at her newest DIY project, a desk she repurposed from a vanity her paternal grandfather made for her grandmother over 70 years ago. She lights a candle and listens to Michael Bluble radio on Pandora. And when she gets stuck in her head or on the page, she reads. Follow her @amyrass

Writer’s Notebooks and other Little Big Things

I have a collection of writer’s notebooks I’ve filled since 2009 when I attended the a National Writing Project summer institute, and my life changed. It’s been a long while since I explored the thinking I penned there. I don’t know why. There’s some real gems.

my notebooks

In the front cover of a purple notebook I starting in the fall 2013, a couple months before my mother died, I found four quotes I’d written in different colored pens.

“If I waited until I felt like writing, I’d never write at all.”

Anne Tyler

“Start writing, no matter what. The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on.”

Louis L’Amour

“Write to the one or two people who would git it, not to “readers” or “the market.”

Avery Chenoweth

“Do not wait to strike till the iron is hot; but make it hot by striking.”

William Butler Yeats

You’d think I was planning on (and hesitating) writing a book or something. Guess I still am.

The first mentor text idea I noted as an idea to use with students is “Little Things are Big.” I couldn’t remember why I liked it but had written a question to the side: Why is this event important to the author? I looked up the title, and found this fantastic personal narrative by Jesus Colon. Watch the story here.

Then, I flipped a little further and found my own Little Things are Big. It’s ragged and pretty raw, but you’ll get the idea.

“Quick as a bunny.” It was written on a scrap of paper, tucked in the antique secretary my mother got from her grandmother. We found it the last evening I ever laughed with my mother.

My father slept in intensive care with a machine keeping him breathing, and every day I’d drive my mother to the hospital, so she could stay with him throughout the day. This was harder than it sounds.

My dad had covered my mother’s illness in platitudes. She was not doing “fine.” Her dementia had advanced to the point that she was often angry and unreasonable — so unlike my mother.

Alzheimer’s is a wrecking ball, leaving chaos and confusion, not just on the person who suffers from this illness but on entire families. So many days, trying to drive to the hospital, as she tried to open the door “to get there faster.” So many days, trying to coax a meal, a bath, or even sleep. My dad was the calming balm, the light in Mother’s darkness. And I became the enemy.

Then, one evening I wasn’t. For a hopeful moment, I saw my mother happy. Without prelude she walked to that old secretary, and then walked the sore hearts of my sisters and me through a journey of loving memories. She pulled out pictures and trinkets and old church magazines — all things that represented little parts of my mother’s huge and loving life. And we laughed as she laughed deep girlish giggles.

The funny thing? This silly, rambunctious, talkative woman — she wasn’t like my mother either. No, my mother was mostly demure — a lady in every sense of the word. Sure, she’d pitch in the occasional pithy line. She’d toy with her grandchildren, even tossing one or two in jest into the backyard pool, but she was never like this brash, loud, gregarious woman who laughed with us for a few precious hours.

When Mother passed away several months later, that disease had corrupted everything. Her language. Her love for those who loved her.

And I still grieve.

But I have this tiny note tucked away in the jewelry box my mother gave me, written in my mother’s hand, and that evening sealed in memory.

She held that scrap of paper in her soft papery hand and said, “My mother used to say that to Jody and me when it was our turn to do dishes:  ‘Get them done. Quick as a bunny.’ And we did. Mostly.”

 

What little big things do you have to write about? How will you invite students to write their little big things?

Note:  I think I will be revisiting my notebooks for awhile. More to come…

Amy Rasmussen just finished refinishing the perfect desk, and now she thinks she may have solved the problem of her writer’s block. She is the daughter of incredible parents and the mother of six incredible children. She loves sharing ideas that help move readers and writers, and she’s grateful to you for reading this blog. Follow Amy on Twitter @amyrass 

How We Built our First 3 Weeks of Workshop

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Look at Sarah’s room!

A classroom built around flexible seating is amazing for kids building their literacy.  Comfy chairs, tall stools, and bean bags take a student out of a “classroom” mindset and into a creative work space that encourages ideas to flow across boundaries that might have been impermeable with rows and rows of sterile desks.

It works just as well for teachers building a workshop from thin air. You can imagine how comfortable that tan couch felt on the last Friday morning before the start of school.

Sitting in that room for this much anticipated planning session felt as comfortable as if I’d been there for a decade.  Five teachers with a singular focus gathered their resources and experience to put together a plan that was student focused and built on the foundation of workshop.   I got to know this group well at the Literacy Institute but I’m still trying to learn the full extent of their individual and collective power.

It is important, on our team, to be intentional and explicit with our lesson design.  The kids should know exactly what we are doing and why we are doing it.  They should recognize the moves their teachers make and take comfort that those moves were selected specifically for them. There is no reason to keep the “why” and the “how” a secret.

On this team, we typically build lessons with an eye towards a learning focus that starts with something like: I want you to know that readers/writers ….. do something. (Thanks Amy, Billy, and the Lit Institute.)

For the first three weeks, though, we talked about using: I want you to know that members of a Reader/Writer Workshop….do…one of the six pillars.  You get it.

Our curriculum documents, designed by teachers, contain a section devoted to the six routines of workshop instruction and the following are the routines around which we built lessons:

The Reader’s/Writer’s Notebook

Lesson Focus: I want you to know that members of this Reader’s/Writer’s workshop use a notebook to explore thier literacy.

Our “notebooks” look very different teacher-to-teacher.  Some of our classes will use traditional composition notebooks and some will use Microsoft OneNote in our explorations.  Either way, the point of having a safe and personal place to plan, draft, revise, reflect, etc. remains consistent across our classes.  Its not enough for us to ask the kids to have a notebook, they need to know the importance of having it.  Some of the kids struggled with following my set-up instructions because they were intentionally vague.

Student: “Mr. Moore, what categories do you want us to use to track our reading this year?”

Me: “That’s up to you.  Its your notebook.”

Self-Selected Independent Reading:

Lesson Focus: I want you to know that members of this Reader’s/Writer’s workshop take ownership of their reading and writing experiences.

I remember back to last year, and how much the kids struggled genuinely connecting to a book. Maybe it was the hurricane sitting out in the Gulf or that they really only had one year of workshop leading up to their senior year.  What ever it was, we worked hard to take ownership of our reading, so much so that I wrote about it here and here. (Looking back at those words is like seeing the words of a different writer, but I digress…)

Mentor Texts:

Lesson Focus: I want you to know that members of this Reader’s/Writer’s workshop use mentor texts to guide their learning.

We use mentor texts to teach kids how to read and write like a writer. The students need to know that we looking at the writing of others with specific intentions in mind. Its important to delineate the separate lenses of craft and content and constantly reinforce the importance and interconnection of both.

We planned for ways to write beside them.  When I write in front of my students it invites them to connect to a writer from their community.  This connection is between a student and a person that shakes their hand every day and smiles when they make eye contact. That’s an incredibly deep connection and one that I’ll leverage every chance I get.

Mini-Lessons:

Lesson Focus: I want you to know that members of this Reader’s/Writer’s workshop look at specific skills that we want to learn and then apply those skills to their reading and writing.

The skills we choose to highlight are intentional and our students need to understand that they aren’t chosen at random.  Not only that, but we aren’t going to spend more than a few minutes in our mini-lessons before we move back into reading and writing, with an emphasis on those specific skills.

Collaboration:

Lesson Focus: I want you to know that members of this Reader’s/Writer’s workshop listen to others share and provide feedback that supports their growth.

I can’t teach all 30 of them all the time and maintain any level of effectiveness.  We have to build a supportive community that  allows me to widen the feedback cycle from one, typically confident student, to 30 who are confident to share with their confidants. They need to know that the days of me asking a question and calling on one person for the answer are far behind us.  We practice the routine over and over. Ask a question, discuss in group.  Ask a question, practice their thinking through written response. Rinse/Repeat.

Oh, and they have to be trained not to shoot up their hands or shout out an answer when they are asked to notice something.  Instead, they will learn to sit in the silence and let their thinking wash over them in waves. Or maybe the metaphor is to peel back the layers of their thinking like an onion. Whichever you prefer.

Conferring:

Lesson Focus: I want you to know that members of this Reader’s/Writer’s workshop take advantage of opportunities to talk one-on-one with the expert in the room.

The importance of regular one-on-one conferences can not be understated. I’m not just “checking-in” on them while they read and write.  I’m digging into their thinking for places I can provide support.  We will explain to our students how important it is for them to be honest and open when we confer.  They can’t hold back due to nervousness or fear. Like Jerry Maquire said, “Help me, help you!!!” with that typically creepy look on his face.

 

Based on our planning sessions, impromptu secret meetings, and the genuine happiness in which we approach each other, I know this year will be my best ever and it is because of the work this team will do together to move our freshman class forward in their literacy.

Now, in all seriousness, lets cross our fingers and hope nature and fate don’t hit us with the same intensity as last year.  We all need time to heal a little more.  Let’s do it together.

Charles Moore had a quiet Friday night and went to all four of his son’s soccer games this weekend.  He passed El Deafo by Cece Miller back and forth with his daughter this weekend.  He put more than two thousand words to the page this weekend between his grad classes and this blog post; a new record.  He can’t wait to get back into the classroom Monday morning and learn alongside the students.  And he wishes you the same happiness he’s enjoying right now. Visit him on twitter or instagram.

 

 

Summer Time Writing Inspiration

Up here in Canada, we are not quite on summer vacation like many of my colleagues to the south, but we are firmly at that time of year where our minds are more in the next school year than the current one. As we are invigilating our year end exams and saying goodbye to our Grade 12 students, the minds of myself and many of my colleagues are already turned to planning for the next group of students we will be working with in the fall.

While an important part of summer is taking the time to relax, recharge, and delve into my growing pile of guilty pleasure books for reading, I always look forward to the time summer gives me to catch up on my professional reading.

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The Creativity Project – complete with a barcode from my school library!

One such resource that I am so excited to delve into over summer break is The Creativity Project written by Colby Sharp. Colby Sharp may be a familiar name to those of us who have embraced the works of Donalyn Miller’s The Book Whisperer and Reading in the Wild in our classroom practice as he is, among many of his other amazing contributions to the world of education, one of the co-bloggers on the Nerdy Book Club blog.

What has me so excited about this resource is that it combines two of my favourite things and two of the most magical elements of a creative writing class – exciting writing prompts and engaging mentor texts.

In The Creativity Project, Colby Sharp reached out to some of the best authors in the juvenile fiction and YA world – the ones our students are loving and reading- and asked them to create a writing prompt for his book. Contributors to his project include authors such as Kate DiCamillo, Mariko Tamaki, and Lemony Snicket to name just a few. He then shared the prompt of one author with another author and had them write a piece inspired by the prompt for the book. The end result is a book not only chock full of prompts, but also with mentor text gold. After the prompts themselves, the author who created the prompt provides a brief explanation for their inspiration for their prompt, which provides a lovely window into where authors get their inspiration from. The responses to the prompts are honest and raw, humorous and hilarious. There are short stories, poems, and graphic novel panels. What is most wonderful of all is the fact that the pieces are not the final polished pieces, rather they are evidence of published authors engaging in the very tasks we ask our students to do – take a prompt, run with it, and see where it takes you. For another great post on writing prompts, check this one out.

This summer I am hoping to use the Creativity Project to rekindle my own creativity and to use the prompts to get writing again. If I am feeling particularly brave in my next summer blog post, maybe I will share something I have written with you. The next school year, I am excited to see how this book can be used to inspire my students to write.

Pam McMartin is jealously reading the blog posts of her colleagues already on summer break and dreaming of the summer sun, which has been rather absent lately at her school just outside of rainy Vancouver, British Columbia. Her summer plans involve enjoying letting go of the daily schedule, slowing down and enjoying time with her family, and hopefully writing on prompt after prompt from Colby Sharp’s book. Find Pam on Twitter @psmcmartin.

100 Days of Writing

Today my favorite quote on writing is this one attributed to James Michener.

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I’ve had a lot of emotions lately. Chaotic, confusing, crippling emotions. The kind that freeze action and force reflection.

But time thaws, and the writing of others warms me in ways my own writing often does not. I have found healing in the writings of my friend and colleague Amber lately. So raw and real and poignant.

I share her most recent post here. (An interesting mentor text idea:  Choose an age and write about it.)

I think about the work of writing and teaching writing a lot — more often than I actually write. I need to change that. Find my groove. Free my soul within the swing and the swirl of my pen. Stop thinking I can only write research-based pieces or tips on this blog. I need to walk my talk and just write — more. Period.

Our friends at Moving Writers have an incredible idea:  100 Days of Summer Writing. Imagine the possibilities — for ourselves and our student writers.

What do you think? Could we all use a little writing inspiration? Could we all write a little more, strengthen a few mental muscles?

I’m thinking if I do, perhaps everything that’s sent me into a spin lately will spin into something else entirely.

Writing can do that. That much I know.

 

Amy Rasmussen teaches English IV and AP Language & Composition in North Texas. She recently moved homes, trading one cluttered mess for another, which does nothing for her need for order and simplicity. You can find her searching websites for minimalist living and selling So. Much. Stuff. on Facebook Marketplace when she isn’t trying to prep her students for graduation or the looming AP English exam. For tweets, follow @amyrass 

 

 

 

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