Category Archives: Writer’s Notebooks

A Life Full of Revision

I saw one in early August this year, winging its way over our Fine Line Buckthorns, past our Red Maple tree, through our verdant yard. Transfixed, I hoped it would land on one of our scarlet day lilies just like the first time I beheld one (back when I held Ingrid and held Jonas’ hand). But this Tiger Swallowtail–golden-winged and delicate–floated away, on its own journey of transformation. And while I once marveled at its beauty with my children, this year I marveled at the metamorphosis the butterfly endured in order to take flight. 

Even as that caterpillar egg (where, if you look closely, the caterpillar inside is visible) becomes a caterpillar; even as that caterpillar decimates leaves and sheds its skin several times to grow; even as that caterpillar forms a chrysalis and, as it begins its transformation, actually digests itself, using highly organized groups of cells to redirect its creation; even as there is seemingly destruction–something new emerges. And, after all this, the butterfly must hang upside down to allow its wings to harden before it takes flight. A butterfly in its colorful splendor is the culmination of a life full of revision.

Maya Angelou once noted that “We delight in the beauty of the of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty.” She’s right, of course. We reduce the complexity of the transformation in the same ways many of our students reduce the complexity of revision in writing. The beautiful butterfly doesn’t exist without significant change just as beautiful writing doesn’t suddenly and artfully emerge. So many of our students need to learn that once an idea is born into the world, this idea can and will transform–many times!–given the right conditions. This learning can transform the possibilities they see for themselves as writers, possibilities often limited by the misconception that some people are good writers while others are not. 

So, what do we do as teachers? How do we provide the right conditions, the ones that nurture (to help grow, develop, or succeed) destruction that leads to transformation? And, how can we help them look inside their work to see the special parts that hold the potential for splendor?

  1. The pitch: Have students pitch their ideas for writing projects to one another (Liz Prather’s Project Based Writing is an excellent resource for this). This lets ideas live, born into the world by sharing with peers, providing time and space for growth and development. And, sometimes, necessary destruction. 
  2. Feedback: Share this video with students about the nature of offering and receiving feedback. This may transform their understanding of the power of their responses to one another. 
  3. Modeling and practicing revision: Consistent practice in small ways in notebooks allows students to internalize the ways to direct their revision. Ask them to add, delete, rearrange, or substitute in their writing. Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle speak to the importance of this, especially with writing that is generative. More importantly, as teachers, we can and should model this, making it visible how and why we transform our writing. 
  4. Showing: Use the work of other students, snagging Google History screenshots to make visible the kinds of revision that occurs. Discuss these together. Show them our own, too. This is like looking inside the chrysalis! Whoa!
  5. Conferring: The questions we ask and the micro lessons we offer during this time can both trigger transformation and call attention to the parts already bright with meaning. Celebrating with students where a move works may prove a catalyst for more revision. 
  6. Destruction: Encourage students to print drafts and cut them apart. All the parts may be there, but they may need to be rearranged or to be developed further. 
  7. Letting students create their own analogy: Engage students in creating their own analogies about revision. They create meaning while we glimpse their thinking.
  8. Managing their creative process: This video from Tiffany Shlain helps writers think about their own processes. One of the most important aspects it focuses on is time. Writers need time to hang upside down with their ideas before they take flight. 

Of course, the limitation of comparing the nature of revision to metamorphosis is that it likens writing to a cycle. But writing is and must be recursive for our writers to successfully transform their writing. When our writers embrace this, then we can stand back with wonder and appreciation and watch them take flight.

Kristin Jeschke is an Instructional Coach for Waukee High School in Waukee, Iowa (where she spent time prior as an English teacher). She’s standing back, watching her colleagues write in their writer’s notebooks, wondering about the potential in each. What ideas will take flight? Follow her on Twitter @kajeschke. 

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Mentor Texts: Lifting Lines and Elevating Self

When working with mentor texts in notebooks, lifting a line–pulling a line or phrase or sentence for its aesthetics and using it as a launching point to generate writing–remains such an important strategy, as Ralph Fletcher notes here. Of course, we want our writers to work with parts of a text that will help them learn to not just write their ideas but to craft.  But I think these lines, these (where appropriate writer-selected) lines, can also elevate the writer somehow. These lines just might move writers in ways where they’re compelled to study themselves just as closely as the craft.  These lines can tug writers into the stratosphere. 

I felt myself lifted as I read Sara K. Ahmed’s Being the Change this summer (This book about how to teach social comprehension offers numerous mentor texts.). One line in particular heightened my summer reflection: “Understand that everyone’s identity is at stake.” Whoa. 

The urgency of this challenged me to think and write and think and write and ultimately create; the best lines to lift should compel writers to create! In this case, my co-coach and I worked to plan professional development for our returning teachers. In Ahmed’s words, we wanted to “make way for the voices, emotions, and experiences of others,” so we centered our time on identity–individual and the staff’s, the students’, the building’s. And then, in our efforts to use story to promote digital literacy, we used America Ferrera’s Ted Talk My Identity Is a Superpower Not an Obstacle. As staff watched, we encouraged them to respond in their notebooks, ultimately suggesting that they choose a line and reflect on how they can carry it into the year with them. 

My hope is that as staff scans their notebooks during our next professional development, they will see this line. They will consider themselves and others, identities at stake. And this line will lift them toward possibility. 

Kristin Jeschke is an English teacher turned Instructional Coach in Waukee, Iowa. After nineteen years as an English teacher, she’s currently re-imagining her identity. But she’s excited for all that’s possible.  Follow her on twitter @kajeschke.

Hope Thrives in Courage

Today is the third Friday with my senior English students. Yep, I did it. I’m back in the classroom, learning alongside some amazing young people.

I have a billion goals for myself — enough to weigh me down, certainly — but one that keeps floating to the top is this:  Thrive in hope. (Yeah, I don’t really know if that’s a goal, but stay with me here.)

When I left the classroom two years ago, I’d lost a lot of it. Personal struggles. Professional struggles. The state of the world struggles. All of it. But lots of self-reflection, rest, writing, paint, dirt, good friends, family, and growing things –probably most of all growing things — changed me. My hope is back. It’s thriving, just like the plants that add energy and life to my home and my new classroom.

And while I teach literacy skills to seniors in high school, what I really want to teach is hope. Hope in humanity and our ability to thrive — together and as individuals.

So, like you, I’ve started with relationships. Every text we’ve read together, every task WritingBesideDwyaneWadeI’ve asked students to complete, every book I’ve matched to a reader’s interest has given me insight into who these young people are as individuals with backgrounds, cultures, fears, failures, dreams and desires. Just like me, they cling and pounce and clamor after hope.

A few years ago, after a sniper killed five police officers in downtown Dallas, I read this commentary by Chequan Lewis. The last line still resonates: “My sights are simply set on what is possible when we are courageously human.”

Courageously human. That’s what I want for myself and for my students — to practice courage as a means of becoming better than we were when we walked in the door. So moving forward into senior English plans, I’ll invite students to step into the vulnerable spaces that require courage: reading texts that challenge the status quo, writing honestly about ourselves, our learning, controversies, and convictions; and communicating in ways that validate, clarify, empathize, and challenge.

I’ll step there, too, because the more I think about it:  Hope thrives in courage.

Here’s a few of the texts we’ve used thus far to write beside and spark our thinking on this journey. Perhaps you’ll find them useful as you begin your own.

My Honest Poem by Rudy Francisco

Famous by Naomi Shihab Nye; the poem here

“This Bud’s for 3” — Dwyane Wade

If you have ideas for more resources that fit our theme, please share in the comments.

 

Amy Rasmussen teaches seniors at a large high school in North Texas. She’s a #houseplantcollector, writer, reader, gardener, watercolor-artist wannabe, bicyclist, and grandmother to eight courageous little people, the newest little man born today! Follow her @amyrass and @3TeachersTalk

A Poem to Start Your Notebook

Each morning, I receive two poems in my email inbox: one from The Poetry Foundation, and one from The Writer’s Almanac. One morning in July, I received “More of Everything” by Joyce Sutphen, read it, and thought, wow. That would be so powerful to write beside with students.

As it turns out, some pretty brilliant thinkers receive these same poems in their inboxes, and they took the same poem and ran with it in a beautiful direction:

I often have my students write beside poetry inside our notebooks, but Linda Rief and Penny Kittle have inspired me to bring poetry to the personalization process. I love the idea of having students glue this poem into their personal photos and collage pages we create: it prioritizes an individual, emotional response to literature that is valued in the workshop classroom…and the results of the thinking around this text are beautiful, too.


As you and your students begin the school year and personalize your writer’s notebooks, perhaps you’ll consider adding a text to the start of your journals. Will you share any poems or short texts you frame your year with in the comments?

Shana Karnes lives in Wisconsin with her husband, daughters, and cats. She is teaching and learning alongside amazing teachers through the Greater Madison Writing Project this year. Connect with Shana on Twitter at @litreader.

Q & A: How do you grade the writer’s notebook?

Questions Answered

For all the years of my teaching career, my students have always kept writer’s notebooks. We personalize our covers and create our own book lists and dictionaries, practice writing, sketching, and glue-ins to make every writer feel at home, and then go about the work of filling those empty pages with ideas, practice, drafts, and beauty throughout our time together. I do this work beside my students, and we inspire each other–the same way I see my teacher mentors do this.

Because of this framing, students are invested in their individual writer’s notebooks, and they are carefully and creatively cultivated. As a result, when I collect the notebooks, it’s not for the purpose of accountability: it’s for the purpose of students sharing something they’ve chosen with me, and for me to gather some information about where my students might need more instruction.

Just as students have their choice reading books lying open on their desks when we talk about their reading lives, they have their own writer’s notebooks lying open when we confer about their writing lives. I can see, and guide, students’ work in the notebook on a daily basis, so when I collect notebooks, most of what I’m seeing isn’t new to me.

Students select two pieces of writing they would like feedback on and flag them with post-it notes, then turn in their notebook every two weeks. I browse through their writing, have a look at their TBR lists and personal dictionaries, and write back on the pieces they’ve noted.

Once per quarter, I ask students to do a “journal harvest,” in which they revisit their writing from that quarter, assess their growth as a writer, set new goals going forward, and choose one piece they may have abandoned to harvest, revise, and polish.

If my classroom were gradeless, that would be that: daily conferences, biweekly turn-ins, quarterly harvests. That gives students a variety of feedback types and times, and gives me, the teacher, enough information to help move individual writers and the class as a whole in their writing growth. Because I have always been required to enter grades weekly into an online gradebook, I make turn-ins worth 20 points and quarterly harvests worth 60 points.

Students who do the work with fidelity and demonstrate growth earn the full points possible. Daily conferences are filled with self-assessment, which informs my “grading”–it’s easier to help award points to students when they’ve already set their own goals and assessed their progress during our conversations during the week.

As always, I treat the notebook as “workshop, playground, repository,” via the guidance of Tom Romano in Write What Matters. It is a place for students to “think, ruminate, speculate with the pressure off and the stakes low” (16), and as such, our grading should reflect that.


Note:  This post is a part of a series. It’s based primarily on the most frequent questions about readers-writers workshop asked at our workshop trainings. For more see here.

Shana Karnes lives in Wisconsin and teaches writers, educators, and her own small children how to improve their lives with literacy. As a new resident to the Dairy State, she’d love your recommendations about things to do. Connect with Shana on Twitter at @litreader.

How a Bullet Journal Baby-stepped me Back to Writing

I know that it is most important to write when dealing with the very adversity in life that makes us run from writing. I know that. And yet, I have not written much in the past year. I dabbled a bit while writing with my students – mostly during poetry club – but I enjoyed neither the process (it felt forced) nor the products (I lacked the passion to see the potential in my pieces). I felt worse than I did prior to embracing workshop as a teacher because now, I knew better. I felt like a fake. I could hear myself encouraging students to write as a form of catharsis, but I wasn’t walking the walk. It is hard to admit that I felt this way for almost the entire school-year.

I remember how great my muscle memory was in marching band. Even when I didn’t feel well, even when I was not in the mood to play “If My Friends Could See Me Now” one more time, even when I was completely distracted by the cute tuba player in my peripheral vision (we’ve been married 27 years now), my finger knew which holes to cover and keys to hit. I knew when to breathe. I knew when my foot should hit the yard-line. Luckily, that same type of “muscle memory” applies to teaching. Though I secretly struggled, I engaged my students in writing and offered them choice, whenever possible, in their medium of expression, topics, genres, etc.

This is how one of my students came to show me her bullet journal. For several years, I have assigned some variation of a “senior autobiography project.” Students have wowed me each time with introspective pieces and astounding creativity. I do assign some parameters because I want students to include writing, of course, and their final entry requires them to find a major theme in their work (and life), but some of the project types I have received include:

  • a video game walkthrough with text pop-ups and a voice-over
  • scrapbooks (with written pieces)
  • a choose-your-own adventure video game to solve a mystery (and get to know the student)
  • memory boxes
  • a bird’s nest constructed of rolled-up notes and pictures (the theme was written on a beautiful paper bird)
  • a full CD with 12 original songs that capture elements of the student’s life
  • PowerPoints
  • videos
  • infographics
  • traditional journals
  • and recently, bullet journals

I check in with my students at the mid-point to see what format they are considering for their project and to see what written pieces they’re thinking of including. One of my students told me that she was crafting a bullet journal. I had to ask her what that was. I know; I was slacking on my Pinterest-perusing! She looked at me with the most somber expression and said, “Mrs. Counts, you have GOT to check out bullet journaling! You would LOVE it! I know you would!”

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Instead of travel dreams, students could set post-graduation goals or high school bucket lists!

So…several Pinterest-hours later (they have got to start counting that as professional development), I had several pages in my writer’s notebook: travel dreams, reading list, spring-cleaning list, weight-loss goal cough, mood trackers, a list of what I could do if I’m bored or feeling down, a gratitude page, and a list of things I can control. They’re just lists, but I was writing, and writing is never really just a list. The mood trackers have allowed me to gain insight into patterns and how different events affect me. Thinking about what I can control empowers me to do those things and let the others go. My spring cleaning list – well, that’s still not done, and neither is my summer list, but I can reflect on that and set new goals, too! I also create to-do lists for my classes, take notes during training courses, and even have an expanding summer Netflix binge-watch list!

I have always thought that a lot of my best lesson ideas come from my students, so when Screen Shot 2019-07-11 at 10.10.11 PM

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Mood trackers are a valuable self-assessment tool.

I teach creative writing this fall, I plan to incorporate some of the bullet journal ideas into the course. I would love to look at possibilities together and let students choose what areas to explore in their lives. My student’s suggestion got me writing again – first by lists, then by taking ideas or phrases from those lists to create something new. I know that magic can work for some of the more reluctant writers in my class.

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I take “real” notes in my journal, too. I even glued in my annual non-winning convention door prize ticket for laughs 😀

I know that none of these ideas are new. Most of us already use writer’s notebooks with our students for quick-writes, pieces modeled on mentor texts, and much more, but some of the bullet journal templates are quick, non-threatening, adaptable, and fun! Please comment with any fun resources you find on the topic. I’m off to add to my Netflix page…

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Students can visualize concepts before writing about them. This small entry in my journal has somehow reminded me to do these things daily!

 

 

 

 

 

A few resources:

 

Amber Counts teaches AP English Literature & Composition and Academic Decathlon at Lewisville High School. She believes in the power of choice and promotes thinking at every opportunity. She wants her students to know that language is power – one that she hopes they will be able to wield for Good. Someday she will write her story. Follow Amber @mrscounts.

Revising and Editing with Jeff Anderson Part II

If you haven’t had the chance to see Jeff Anderson in person, and hear him deliver the gospel of editing instruction, be prepared…he’s very tall.  He’s also funny, charismatic, and passionate. He has an ability to take something very difficult and make it seem accessible, even to an old ball coach like me. Also, he got me to say, “AAAWWUBBIS.”

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In my post a month back, I outlined how Jeff Anderson describes the first three parts of inviting students into the editing process.

  • Invitation to Notice
  • Invitation to Imitate
  • Invitation to Celebrate

The next three parts are how we take what we’ve noticed and start putting those skills into practice.

Invitation to Collect

Those of us whose students spend most of their time in a notebook might have a dedicated section where we collect “sentence gems.”  These are beautiful examples of sentence construction that we want to hold on to, and maybe one day, imitate.  Anderson points out that he starts this practice with mentor texts that are “controlled.” In other words, he puts specific texts in front of the kids that contain sentences that he wants to help them find.  Once they’ve got an idea about what it means to “collect beautiful sentences, he lets them loose to find sentences in, for instance, their self-selected reading.  Mini-lessons are another place where we can examine well constructed sentences even if our lesson focus is somewhere else.  Many times I’ve paused a mini-lesson to point out a beautifully constructed sentence or a familiar pattern even when it wasn’t a sentence that related to our lesson focus.

Invitation to Write

Putting our skills into practice is the step that might need the strongest shove forward. Whether we use sentence strips, foldables, or just a blank page in our notebooks, we have to sit in the chair and explore these moves in authentic ways.  I think we can all agree that the true internalization of a writing move is most effectively solidified through our hands-on practice with that move.  After that, its up to the writer to use those moves in places where it will increase the effectiveness of a piece.

Invitation to Combine

Anderson writes about how practice with combining sentences helps “develop students’ sentence sense.”  This idea shows us that we can help students understand that they should be “thinking analytically about meaning.” Um…that sounds like effective and engaging instruction and it sounds like the highest level of thinking to me?

Anderson uses a sentence from Lois Lowry’s Gooney Bird Greene (2002) to help us understand that students might learn about combining sentences by working backwards.

Lowry’s sentence: When the class was quiet, Gooney Bird began her Monday story.

Uncombined:

The class was quiet.

Gooney Bird began her story.

Gooney Bird’s story was a Monday story.

 

Anderson goes on to suggest how separate groups could work to combine and uncombine sentences alternately.  Some teachers might see this as too elementary for our secondary classrooms, but I would argue that the writing my students produce tells me this type of practice is still very necessary.

If Anderson’s sentence wouldn’t present much of a challenge, take a look at this one from Nic Stone’s Odd One Out (2018):

She’s probably got Jupe by an inch or so height-wise, but completely opposite body type: slim, kind of willowy. 

I think there is enough there to start a conversation about how sentences can be combined.

Now we can use…

  • Invitation to Edit
  • Extending the Invitation
  • Open Invitation

Anderson’s methods speak to me in that they are intentional and specific.  My growth in literacy instruction leans more towards writing instruction recently, and Anderson makes this type of instruction easy for me to understand.  The greater my understanding, the better chance my students have of understanding, and growing, and exploring their place in this world.


Everyday, Charles Moore hides behind a narrow tree in his front yard waiting for his daughter to walk the three house distance from the bus stop.  She sees him the whole time, but he pretends to jump out from behind the tree and scare her before they run giggling into the house. He’s interested to know if anyone else collects beautiful sentences and if so, what are they?

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