Category Archives: Writer’s Notebooks

Thinking About Next Year – Already?

black and white blackboard business chalkboard

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Confession: I really struggled with where to take this blog post. I was worried that the onset of summer would bring fewer ideas or less will to write. Instead, I’m starting week three of my break, and my teacher brain hasn’t shut off once. I have too many zipping thoughts percolating upstairs to just focus on one. I’m constantly jotting down ideas for next year. I find my friends zoning out as I bring conversations (sometimes gracefully, oftentimes not) back to my new plans for next year. My TBR list is full of books about teaching (Teaching Argument, anyone?). I’ve jammed my summer schedule full of teaching activities: working with the College, Career and Community Writers Program; attending the AP English Language Reading, AP English Literature training, and summer AP PLC meetings (fondly called AP Allies). The list goes on and on. I might be obsessed with my job.

Confession: That obsession wasn’t always the case. The 2014-2015 school year almost did me in. Long hours, too many responsibilities, too few ‘wins,’ and an overwhelming certainty that I was both doing too much and not enough at the same time had me considering other kinds of employment. The kinds where you can go home at the end of the day and just be home. The kinds that don’t have you bringing home stacks and stacks of papers to grade, that don’t have you dumping hours of planning time into the job, the kinds that allow you to leave the problems of work at work. I’m not a quitter, and I came dangerously close to quitting the profession. I know that I’m not the only one who’s ever felt this way.

Enter the Middle Tennessee Writing Project. Recommended by a fellow teacher, this program rejuvenated my love for teaching, changed the way I approach the profession, reminded me of why I love the calling. We were required to choose from a list of best practices (I chose student agency) and work on improving that aspect of our craft for an entire year. Having just one overarching goal to focus on made the  upcoming year so much more approachable, made measuring any growth I achieved so much easier to ascertain. Focusing on student agency put the students front and center in my classroom again, right where they belong.

In the years since, I’ve continued to work on improving just one best practice every year. Instead of splitting my 100% between various small projects and doing a lot of tasks decently, I try really hard to do one task really well (I’m paraphrasing Ron Swanson here…). I’ve worked on incorporating more writing workshop in my AP classes and offering better feedback.

This year, inspired by the slowchat #DisruptTexts, my PLC is moving away from the whole class novel and implementing more independent reading choice. While brainstorming how this change would affect our writers notebooks and socratic seminar discussion schedule, we came to a few practical realizations:

  1. Modeled after AP argument questions, our essential questions are fairly broad, allowing students can take the questions in lots of different places. This broadness means that we need to spend some time teaching students how to break down each questions into all of its parts and permutations before they can begin to answer the question. This approach models what students are expected to do with each argument question (and to some extent synthesis questions as well).
  2. To address this broadness, we’re building in “intro days” where we spend a short 45 minute period breaking down the question into all of its parts: stakeholders, universal nouns/themes, “so whats,” other questions, connections to the real world, places along the argument spectrum. All essential pieces to consider before beginning to answer the question. We want to demonstrate in our teaching the value of listening, thinking, and planning before speaking, writing, answering.
  3. To highlight each beginning “intro day” for each unit, we plan on giving students colored paper to insert into their writers notebooks and ask them to do their notetaking/brainstorming for that question on that piece of paper. The colored paper will cause each beginning of the unit to stand out in their notebook, clearly separating each unit from other units.
  4. We plan on ending each unit with a socratic seminar and an in class writing – an assessment pairing that will pull together all the rabbit trails and threads we’ve chased throughout the unit. Honestly, we have no idea where these units will go yet. Hopefully, into deeper and deeper questioning and thinking, so we need some way to track the journey. We’ll ask students to collect their final noticings, observations, and remaining questions on another similar colored sheet of paper in their writers notebooks, giving the unit a clear, visual beginning and end.
  5. As we’re introducing choice into student reading and moving away from the whole class novel, we’re asking that students work with a classic American novel, a work of fiction, a podcast, a documentary, and a book of their choice at least once throughout the year. Helping students choose selections will undoubtedly present its own unique problems, but we’re expecting that students will work closely with our amazing librarians, book talk their books in small groups and with the whole group. After each unit, we will ask students to include their book on a class wide google document organized by question, with each selection tagged with universal nouns/themes and a short review. Hopefully this will help other students choose future selections while also crowdsourcing a “if you like this, you might like this” text.
  6. We’re supplementing those independent reading selections with lots of smaller mentor texts. Because we’ll have more room for smaller texts for in-class discussions and the small texts sometimes get lost in the shuffle of the year, we’re going to ask students to create and keep a bibliography for each small text in the beginning of their writers notebooks. They’ll provide the citation for each smaller work and answer two small questions for each entry:What is useful about this text for rhetorical skills/writing? What universal nouns/themes/real world events does this text connect to? Hopefully, this will give students more practical knowledge to pull from for the synthesis/argument questions of the AP test and a way to organize their mentor texts.
  7. Finally, we need to model and practice on a smaller scale what we expect students to do throughout the year with these essential questions and independent reading choices. We can’t just toss kids into the deep end of our new approach to English. So, at the beginning of each semester, we will pose a smaller question and have students go through each step with more in-class support. We will use these smaller questions to teach independent reading selection and question brainstorming while substituting novels, podcast series and documentaries with essays, short stories, and individual podcast episodes.

MTWP’s insistence on best practices and focusing on one improvement a year was a game changer for me. This post is a very small glimpse into what those changes will look like for my classroom. And, to be honest, I feel a little bit like Tantor stepping into the river, but I’m ready to take the plunge. I imagine that if you’re reading this blog on your summer break, you, too, find it hard to turn off your teacher brain even on breaks. As you continue to plan for next year, my wish for you is rest, relaxation, and rejuvenation. But… if you, like me, can’t turn your brain off and you want to share, the comments and Twitter are open. We can tiptoe into that water together.

 

Sarah Morris teaches AP Language & Composition and Film as Literature in Murfreesboro, Tn. She has been binge watching The Wire and wishes she hadn’t waited this long to start the show.  She tweets at @marahsorris_cms. Happily posting from the AP Reading in Tampa, Fl.

 

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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.

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(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.

Hope is the Thing with Feathers – Teaching in a Time of Overwhelming Tragedy

How does one process news like that of the school shooting in Broward County yesterday? What do we do when the classroom bell rings for us today, but a school just like ours will instead be dealing with the loss, hurt, pain, fear, emptiness, and uncertainty of another mass shooting? What can we say to adolescents whose educational experiences are littered with pox far beyond even the terribly usual trials young people can and must endure?

Painfully, we’ve all had more than enough practice at wrestling with such questions, but attempting to digest the senseless slaughter of innocent school children within the walls of our professional workplaces is never easy. Blessedly, it feels far from normalized. Horrifically, by the sheer number of circumstances we’ve been presented with over the past few years, it does, in fact, become almost routine.

Basically, the haunting normalcy of these events leaves in its wake a sense of utter helplessness, despair, and at times, hopelessness.

As a teacher, as a mother, as a wife, as a daughter, as an educator who teaches next door to her very best friend and works with people she considers family, I am close to lost. The what if of such a scenario playing out at yet another school, let alone my own, is something beyond terrifying. It rips into the realm of disorienting, numbing, paralyzing.

My own daughter starts kindergarten next year. While a completely idealized reflection of my personal experience would only be partially true, I know for certain my teachers and parents did not need to explain to me what I should do, at the tender age of five (or ten, or eighteen), if someone should enter our place of learning, intent on carrying out an act of chaos that would put my life in danger.

That I might not come home from school because of the actions of someone with a gun, was not my reality.

It is now the reality of our students, our colleagues, and our own children.

To say I am disappointed by inaction is an understatement. Pointedly, I’m terrified to imagine the scale of an event it will take for change to occur. I’m disheartened by the unending cycle of condolences, followed by outrage, followed by a seemingly patient and quiet resignation to our circumstances as we wait for the next special report to interrupt our regularly scheduled hand-wringing and begin the cycle all over again.

Our students, sadly,  have little choice but to see these events as a part of their education. While the events at Columbine, an event we could not know and would shutter to imagine as a prelude to so many more school shootings, were a deeply disturbing occurrence in only the last two months of my own high school experience, our students already count this most recent tragedy as one among many.

As educators, we have little choice but to wish fervently, speak passionately, and push daily against such vile intrusion into our schools, all the while preparing solemnly for the possibility that our communities could see just such a tragedy.

So what do we do today?

The normalcy of routine can be reassuring to some. I could go about my way of logical fallacy presentations and book club discussions on modern nonfiction texts today. And most likely we will. But I feel like we all might need something more.

In reading Tricia Ebarvia’s post on Moving Writers this morning, I felt her searching in much the same way I am. Her initial list of possibilities is recognizable to many of us and a place to start:  “hug your kids a little tighter, tell them they’re valued, be a little kinder, read to them, remind them that they’re safe but to look out for one another, urge them to reach out to adults, and so on.”

Her beautiful post goes on to suggest a variety of approaches from classroom discussion, to the analysis of political cartoons, to reflecting on the words of our nation’s leaders in the wake of yesterday’s events.

A few months back, in the days after another mass shooting, this time in a church, Shana reflected on Kylene Beers’ piece “Once Again,” suggesting we really consider the purpose for which we teach in order to best move ourselves and our students forward with purpose and passion. I love Shana’s heart in this piece and her wrestling with the raw emotion of such events by asking teachers to reflect on whether making meaning or making life meaningful should be our goal. 

So with a lot of options, I think today, I am going to write with my students. The thrust of Ebarvia’s post today is the avenue we can take that will most likely feel familiar, as both embedded workshop practice and proven activity to handle stress. I am going to give my students space to write.

A few minutes. An extended session. Whatever the class needs.

The writing can be open response. It can be prompt related if we think our students need it. It can also be response to beautiful words. Poetry saves souls, I am convinced, and Ebarvia must have been thinking along the same lines. Several of the poems Tricia shares are powerful reminders of the depth of the human spirit, how we cope with tragedy, and what it means to be human. Student reflection on these will bring wondering, questions, hope, fear, pain, and maybe unexpected release.

I’ll humbly add the following piece. I think this is what my classes will reflect on today : hope2

We are going to use our writer’s notebooks to pour out some emotion and let it linger on the page. Coping and healing can begin in our classrooms. We need not be counselors, but we can do what we’ve always done…provide the safest emotional space possible for all of us to deal with the increasing lack of safety that surrounds us.

As educators, we share common challenges, but thankfully we also share a common purpose. Together we can move our students and thereby the world to a better place. I’m glad to be wrestling with all that it means to be human with you.

Be well today, friends.


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

Students Who Write by Ear by Amy Estersohn– an #NCTE17 Preview

The following is a sample of what I’ll be presenting with Three Teachers Talk at #NCTE17, session C.26, Friday at 12:30, room 274.

Tom Newkirk’s book, Minds Made for Stories, encouraged me to think about students as natural storytellers.

So I dug through their writers’ notebooks to see storytelling in action. During my dig, I wasn’t looking for detail or dialogue or finished pieces.  I wasn’t reading for apostrophes or paragraphing or numbered and dated pages, either.  I instead wanted to know where writers were already practicing storytelling, and what tools and strategies they were already using.

One the ways I noticed that student writers tell stories is that they listen to their inner ear.  This emerged when I read half-baked, quarter-finished crime stories where a student could hear a bought cop addressing a group of criminals.  I noticed it when I heard a writer list the annoying sayings her mother used.  I noticed it again when writers took on a Ken Burns-ish important-sounding narrative voice to discuss an important world issue.

Some students can really hear when they write.

So the first thing I did was I turned that observation back to the students: did you notice how you hear the character in this section?  That observation then became an expectation.  In your writing, you should be able to hear your character or narrator speaking.  When you revise, ask yourself if you still hear your characters or your narrators.  If you don’t, mark the text for a future revision.

There are also ways that writers can practice hearing stories.  The easiest way is just to choose a good piece to read out loud to the class.  For middle school, I’d recommend the first few pages of a Kate DiCamillo’s Because of Winn Dixie or Jason Reynolds’ Ghost.   For high school, I’d probably choose a text like Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak or A.S. King’s Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future.  You can read the book in your voice or cue up the audiobook, and ask students to discuss what they noticed and then practice some imitations.

You can also invite students to imitate characters they already know.   It’s always fun to try to imitate a sibling’s voice or a young child’s voice.  I invited students to imitate boastful and outrageous LaVar Ball, a parent of an NBA player, after I provided examples of what he has said.  Students embraced the opportunity to play around with LaVar’s voice in their writers’ notebooks.

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Another idea would be to collect some of the voices of nonfiction: this includes Deborah Heiligman’s Vincent and Theo, Candace Fleming’s Giant Squid, some Mary Roach, and whatever nearby textbook or magazine is in sight.  Work backward: what do these voices sound like?  Whom do I imagine is telling me this story?

I could even see students doing multimedia work with voice by tape recording themselves.

I’m going to assume for a moment that teaching voice is probably not new to you.  But what might be new is teaching voice and playing with voice as an element of storytelling instead of housing it within a certain genre or a certain unit.

Will you be at #NCTE17?

Sarah Raises Hand

I hope to see you there!

 

Amy Estersohn is a middle school English teacher in New York.  She writes book reviews at teachingtransition.wordpress.com and is deeeeeelighted to serve on the CYBILS book award committee for middle grade fiction.  

 

News You Can Use

I find most of what’s reported on the news today to be either deeply disturbing, horribly demoralizing, or downright exhausting. It almost feels like the past few months have been less of an end to summer/start of fall and more of an obstacle course of the absurd, obscene, and disappointing.

However, in the unending quest to inform our future electorate, we forge on. Articles of the week, hot topic debates, impassioned student speeches on the criminality of injustice, and an endless stream of quick writes to vent some of the hot, hurt feelings.  Then there are the daily discussions on the struggles we face, the struggles of those we need to know more about, and the struggles to balance it all when sometimes we just want things to feel whatever definition of “better” might help us through.

In the face of all of this, here is a recent success I had that championed choice and voice (coupled with a bit of creative reflection) around some of the news that might get overlooked in the whirlwind of our current news cycle.

News You Can Use

  1. Students selected an article from several that I had re-tweeted in recent weeks with our class hashtag –#fhslanglife. Topics varied widely and I simply went through and briefly highlighted the focus of each article in an effort to pique interest. Here are a few I included. Student response was awesome. We could have easily talked about these articles for the full 86 minute class period:

Are my students reading pieces on the economy, info-graphics, and authors (even authors they love) on their own? Not often. Are they talking with gusto about the relativity of these pieces, sharing insights on author craft, and talking about topics that impact them in the here and now when they are offered up as choice? You bet.

  1. Then, inspired by the Three Teachers Talk Twitter chat earlier this week with Tom Newkirk (#3ttchat), I stole a quick idea (the very foundation of Twitter chats,yes?). I love the quick and dirty nature of professional educators hurling greatness at one another in rapid succession and a maximum of 140 characters. For this week, I was immediately able to implement the single line, or as I told my students, “THAT line. You know the one” craft analysis. Based on the awesome insights of my fellow chatmates, I asked my students to do their reading and zero in on THE sentence that made the piece.

  2. Students read for 10-15 minutes, jotting down reflections and searching for “the one.” Once they were finished, I challenged them to respond in their notebooks in a creative approach they didn’t usually use. A dialogue, letter, poem, etc.

  3. After sitting silently for roughly 30 minutes, I had students get up and connect with someone from the other side of the room. Get the blood flowing a bit. They were to connect with someone who read the same piece and debrief. Ideas flew around the room.

  4. We then came together to share and here is a sampling of what I heard throughout the day:

  • From Ward’s piece on raising her son, Kaitlin pulled out: ” I hope I love him enough in the time I have with him, that while he can be a child, I give him the gifts of a childhood: that I bake chocolate chip cookies and whisper stories to him at bedtime and let him jump in muddy puddles after heavy rains, so he can know what it is to burst with joy. “
  • The info-graphics brought Nhan’s attention to: “We can trace the US story through stereotypes.”
  • After looking over the maps detailing climate change, Karan wrote a dialogue between President Trump and an environmentalist.
  • Several students brought up questions about college vs. career after reading about the jobs of their future.
  • Jerry Khang (who told me to publish his last name so you all know who he is even before he’s famous) read the John Green piece and wrote the following poem in about 4 minutes flat:

Books are a closer look into a person’s soul. 
We find ourselves deteriorating, gloomy, and so dull. 
But when we are able to read, to relate, to medicate our minds, 
We’re temporarily fixated on happiness in a short burst of time. 


When we provide students with relevant, yet challenging reading material, choice, time to write, time to think, and time to talk, 30 seemingly innocent minutes reading an article and writing about it can be beautifully rich, engaging, and rewarding.

And beautiful is something I think we could all desperately use right now.

Lisa Dennis teaches English and leads a department of incredible English educators at Franklin High School near Milwaukee. Her social media scrolling is driven largely by searching for class related articles and pumpkin soup recipes. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum 

Snapshots from My Students’ Notebooks

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This weekend, I spent some time reading and responding to my students’ Teacher-Researcher Notebooks. These TRNs, my preservice teachers’ versions of the writer’s notebook, are where my college students’ thinking about their learning, teaching, students, and growth intersect.

Their notebooks inspired me–so much so that I began making a list in my own notebook of all the techniques and sketches and thoughts I saw so I could utilize them myself. I saw some ideas I’d given them, based on what’s in my own notebook, but I also saw some fresh genres that were new to me.

These five excerpts from my students’ notebooks illustrate that when given the choice afforded by workshop’s emphasis on frequent, low-stakes writing, balanced with the structure of routines, mentor texts, and feedback, the writer’s notebook is a powerful tool in any teacher’s arsenal. I’ll share them in the hopes that you and your students will try them out, too!

Orientation Pages. Making lists of writing territories, drawing heart maps, or tracing your hand like Penny Kittle often does are great ways to orient yourself in your notebook. I often ask students to do this both at the beginning of the semester, when our notebooks are fresh and empty, as well as periodically throughout the year to orient ourselves.

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These “orientation pages” center us, remind us who we are and what’s important to us, and double as a handy list of writing topics when we don’t know what to write. I love how Kourtney blended this technique with what she was noticing in her students.

Artifacts. Glue-ins not only serve to remind us of a particular time or place, but also act as inspiration for future writing. Many of my students glued in their name badges from their schools last year–a tangible marker of time’s passing that helped them see how much closer they were to becoming “real” teachers.

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I love that Megan glued in her Tutor badge–she’s graduated to a Participant this year, and will be an Intern next year–and how faded it is. She also glued in a final feedback note I gave her after she presented her end-of-semester research project last year. Her title “Things That Keep Me Going” is a handy thing to have around when the stress of teaching gets to be a little much.

Imitations of Mentor Texts. Like many of my Twitter friends, I am obsessed with the lovely and poetic Mari Andrew. Her art serves as a frequent mentor text for my students, and we studied this image about how we define our passions, and they don’t define us–then imitated it.

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I love Julie’s illustration, which shows not only how many “Julies” she is beyond just teacher Julie, but also serves as inspiration in the form of an orientation page and a source for high-interest lesson topics she might pull in when she’s searching for some imaginative planning ideas.

Quotes. We learn so much from studying others’ words, not just for their message, but for their craft. Gluing in quotes, poems, essays, emails, and other bits of writing inspires us, teaches us, and motivates us to put pen to paper in ways that are meaningful.

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This quote Cat glued into her notebook is a wonderful one that I copied down myself, the better to write around, be inspired by, and imitate. It’s an apt metaphor for both teachers and writers, and served for Cat as a reminder of her potential and power as a blossoming educator.

State of the Writer. I urge my students to pause every two weeks or so and create a “big-picture entry.” This could involve doing a little reflection about themselves, looking at the undercurrents of what’s going on in their teaching, synthesizing some of the learning they’re doing in their classes, or a combination of those.

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I love that Elizabeth chose to do a little sketch of herself surrounded by the myriad thought bubbles typical to a teacher’s brain. Lesson planning, fretting about money, digesting Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, and the black hole of Pinterest…I mean, how spot-on is this!? I’d love to use this as an alternative to a written quarterly reflection with high school students to illustrate the intersections between who we are and what we’re learning.

Will you share some of your students’ notebook wisdom with us? Tell us about what your students write in the comments, or using the hashtag #whatsinanotebook on Facebook and Twitter!

Shana Karnes is mom to 1.5 spunky little girls and wife to a hardworking surgical resident.  She teaches practicing and preservice English teachers at West Virginia University and is fueled by coffee, a pregnancy craving of Honeycrisp apples (this week), and a real obsession with all things reading and writing.  Follow Shana on Twitter at @litreader or read more of her writing on the WVCTE Best Practices Blog.

First Days of School: Listening Leads to Learning

‘Tis the season of back to school–that time of year that is ripe with fresh school supplies, empty notebooks, and an as-yet-un-ransacked classroom library.  This time of year always delights me, and I got to experience it early because today marks week two of having students for me.  I hope you’re one of the lucky ones who hasn’t seen students yet, but if not, cheers to being back already!

Untitled presentationI’ve been thinking carefully about what tone I’d like to set in the first days of school.  I didn’t want to leap into things with a review of the syllabus, a distribution of the many forms my preservice teachers will need to fill out, or a review of the big tests that loom large for them at the end of this school year.

I wanted to start with something, instead, that would build our community into one of support and anticipation, rather than one of anxiety and pressure.

Naturally, we began with writing.  I asked students to brainstorm four questions they’d like every teacher to be able to answer.  We spent some time in our writer’s notebooks writing, then paired off to ask one another a few of our questions.

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After a few minutes of talk, which is always invaluable, I asked students this question to elicit some sharing:

Who heard a good response they’d like to share?

Students began their replies with, “I loved what Sara said,” or “I thought Sean made a great point,” or “Jake had an interesting answer.”  As many of our responses touched on the importance of building communities that were inclusive, we noted how simply shifting the way we shared responses to focus on listening rather than talking emphasized the former.

As we moved through our day, I returned again and again to this theme:  we selected critical friends to partner with who would read our work and provide feedback; we read an article about student-faculty partnerships before setting professional development goals we’d work toward in teams; we set up a Google Drive folder to encourage collaboration and negotiated feedback protocols and submission guidelines; we did some yoga to encourage the notion of disequilibrium and read an excerpt from Pose, Wobble, Flow about being teacher-writers.

My first day of school thinking around listening hearkens back to my work with the C3WP Institute I led through NWP this summer, which is focused on argument writing and how we can encourage students to consume, create, and negotiate real-world arguments more skillfully.

It also reminds me of a passage I read about compassionate readers in Disrupting Thinking this morning (a book I refer to as Interrupting Thinking, thanks to a certain 16-month-old in my life):

Compassion should sharpen the readers’ ability to see other points of view, other perspectives, and to imagine the feelings of those who hold them.  It should enable readers to take, if only momentarily, the perspective of someone else and thus understand motivations and thinking.

But to be willing to take on another’s perspective…you must be willing to enter into a dialogue with the text, to interact and not merely extract.  And through these transactions with texts, we might learn how to better enter into conversations with those in the real world who offer us another perspective.   (45-46, emphasis mine)

AAEAAQAAAAAAAAUQAAAAJDI2MTU1ZjY0LTdhNzgtNDdjNy04MmZiLTc4ZmNjY2YzMTczZQ.pngFar too much of the reading, writing, speaking, and listening that our students do is for the purpose of extraction, and not interaction.  Of course it is–what can be extracted is easier to measure than what can be inferred, experienced, or connected with.  We’ve taught students to read in order to answer a question; to listen in order to reply.

As a result, in our schools and in our self- and social media-saturated society, our students are all too practiced at speaking, and out of practice at listening.  If we want our students to learn, to engage with texts and peers and the world in a more authentic, dialogic way, we must teach them to listen.

This year, I will ask students to more thoughtfully listen to and engage with the ideas of others.  The teachers they’re observing, the authors they’re reading, the students with whom they’re working, all have notions my students will agree and disagree with–but they will learn nothing if they don’t slow down to listen.

How will you encourage your students to learn by listening on the first days of school, and beyond?  Please share in the comments, on our Facebook page, or with us via Twitter!

Shana Karnes teaches sophomore, junior, and senior preservice teachers at West Virginia University.  She finds joy in all things learning, love, and literature as she teaches, mothers, and sings her way through life.  Follow Shana on Twitter at @litreader or read more of her writing on the WVCTE Best Practices blog.

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