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Category Archives: writer’s notebooks

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.  

 

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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.

What’s in a Notebook?

It’s that magical time of year when my writer’s notebook is almost full, and I get to start a new one.  I love setting up my notebook, personalizing it, giving it value.  But I love, nearly as much, to look back at a full notebook–and today I want to share mine with you.

I’ll preface this overload of snapshots with a caveat that my sharing is unusual in terms of the writer’s notebook.  Whether we ask our students to use these tools as playgrounds, workshops, or repositories, notebooks belong to students.  Ownership is key if our students are to take on the identities of writers.  This means that for some, a notebook is private, while for others, sharing is essential.

So, with that said, let’s take a walk through my notebook–and, so we can see many other examples, please share what your notebook is full of on Twitter with #whatsinanotebook!

First, personalization and inspiration are key.

The first few pages of my notebook always contain photos, a tracing of my hand with some goals, a heart map, or some other kind of writing territory or prompt.  Whenever I’m stumped about what to write, I return to these first few pages to remind myself of the topics I need to mine.

From there, the variety begins.

I always write beside my students, so my notebook is generally peppered with quickwrites or “write into the days” from NWP.

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These are often the roughest drafts of posts that land on TTT, like this page, which morphed into this post.  For my students, quickwrites are often seed prompts that lead to longer compositions.  Just as often, though, they remain untouched:  an essential part of building fluency and stamina and the identity of a writer with many starts and stops.

My notebook is also full of poetry that I write beside or around.

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I get my poems every day via email from the Writer’s Almanac.  In addition to just being inspiring and enjoyable to do, this active reading of poetry makes me more aware of wordplay, themes in literature and in my life, and a new perspective.

I also write in response to quotes from books, TED talks, poems, or anywhere.

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This helps me to unpack a quote that strikes me for its craft, content, or both–students, too.

Gluing in artifacts to write beside is also powerful for me.


These serve not just as reminders of who and what is important to me, but a lovely time capsule to show me what was happening in my life at the time when I return to look at my notebook in future years.

There are also things I’m attempting to make connections between, but perhaps never do…

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(This might go under “things I abandon.”)

Rants that should probably be left in the dark…

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(You can tell by my handwriting that I was ticked, here.)

Things I abandon

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Sometimes I mean to write a bit more, and never do, so I add some squiggles and doodles to fill up the white space.

It’s important to remind students that it’s okay to abandon pieces of writing…we abandon books, don’t we?

…and random doodles, drawings, and in-the-moment jots and notes.

The last spread of my notebook is always my what-to-read page…

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(I keep my lengthy read, currently reading, and TBR list on GoodReads, so this page functions more as a ThriftBooks shopping list.)

…and the very last page is always my list of words and phrases that strike me as unusual.

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I jot these as I find them in books, poetry, or conversation.  Sometimes I look up definitions of these words; sometimes I already know what they mean, but just like them.  I ask students to keep this page, and twice monthly we visit it and do something with our lists.


As you can see, there’s really no “order” to my notebook–no sections other than those crucial first and last pages–but that’s just what works for me.  I taught seniors most recently, and found that they didn’t require the structure of a multi-sectioned writer’s notebook, but when I worked with 8th graders, they most definitely needed a little guidance.

This is just a guide, an inspiration, and an invitation–to not judge me for my wonders about the woes of motherhood, my consternation about teaching topics, or my completely unhealthy obsession with expensive writing utensils (Precise V5 pens…thanks, Amy…and PaperMate Flair markers are my top picks).

Please use this to help you craft a vision for the possibilities notebooks afford in helping us build fluency, gain confidence, and take on the identity of WRITER, and feel free to reach out to any of us with questions or wonders you have about the magic of writer’s notebooks.

Share with us, please, what your notebook looks like on Twitter using #whatsinanotebook!

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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