Category Archives: Reading

Learning from Other Teachers

5054c4145eaf8a4c41c3bbd1d1954cdd.jpgI have so much hope for our profession, our students, and our society.

In a pretty pessimistic world, want to know why I’m so optimistic?

Because I believe in our future teachers.  After an entire school year of working with preservice educators, I have seen so much energy, excitement, and engagement from every single one of my students.  Every challenge that comes their way–whether in the form of an assignment, a tough reading, or grappling with a seemingly unsolvable education issue–only reaffirms their desire to help their students.  They just careso much.

A fantastic conference I attended last week was a wonderful reminder of all of that hope I have for teachers and teaching and learners and learning.  We’re here because of love–love for who and what and how we teach.  Yesterday, I shared my learning from the morning sessions of that conference, and today I’d like to share the ideas, quotes, and joy I heard in my afternoon sessions.

Session Three:  On Teaching Writing & Knowing Our Students

This amazing session was led by three preservice teachers who interned in high school ELA classrooms in our community.  Each of them spoke about their struggles and successes with so much passion that I was left feeling proud to be a teacher by the end of their talks.

Idea:  Audio Recording Peer Feedback–I absolutely loved Katie N.’s idea of having students record their feedback to peers.  After a semester of struggling to get her students to view themselves and one another of being capable and worthy of giving authentic, valuable feedback, she hit upon the idea of having students read one another’s papers ahead of time, prepare some comments, and then record a few minutes of thoughts, responses, suggestions, and connections.  I can’t wait to have my students try this idea!

Quote:  “When I conferenced with my students, so many of them really surprised me!!”  Danielle focused on looking for patterns in her students’ extracurricular involvement and how it might connect to their engagement, motivation, and success in schools.  She had lots of preconceived notions about how her athletes, club members, or student body leaders might act in the classroom, and many of them were wrong.  She loved the experience of being surprised by her students when she took the time to confer with each of them multiple times.

Just Joy:  Katie P. was interested in taking a whole class novel study far beyond the book.  While reading A Separate Peace with her students, she encouraged her students to read the novel through a critical literacy lens, identify social issues they could connect to their own school community, and then take action to improve the state of those issues.  As a result of her teaching, the students in her class created a club focused on improving mental health by participating in mindfulness activities like meditation, yoga, and deep breathing.

As she spoke about this new awareness of mental health issues in a school that had been plagued by student suicides, Katie teared up–as did many of us in the room listening to her speak.  I was so impressed and inspired by the power this young teacher realized she had to change a school community.

Session Four: On Evaluating Ourselves

In this session, led by a mix of teachers and school leaders, speakers presented on ways in which they looked at their own teaching, their whole classroom, or their entire school community; identified a problem; and then attempted to fix their issue.  Many of their inquiries resulted in some amazingly ambitious goals–one principal wanted to find a way to improve her students’ poor attendance, which was often caused by factors stemming from a community plagued by poverty; a group of teachers formed a committee to implement more responsive, sensitive discipline into their elementary school; and an academic coach shared ways she’d aggressively procured free technology into her school for teachers and students to use to improve learning.

I loved all these school leaders’ ideas, but I found one presenter’s approach to strengthening pedagogy incredibly effective and easy to implement.  Josh Karr, a high school math teacher, simply emailed his colleagues and invited them to form an informal PLC to evaluate themselves.

Idea:  Record Your Teaching–Josh invited his whole faculty, via email, to video record one of their lessons, watch it alone, and then bring a small clip to share with a partner in their mini-PLC after school.  Thirteen teachers agreed to participate, and showed up, quite nervously, with their recordings.  They paired up, regardless of content area or grade level, and worked together to analyze their videos, give and get feedback, and talk through some questions they had.  I loved this super easy, low-stakes idea to self- and peer-evaluate our teaching in such a welcoming way.

Quote:  “We laughed at how many teachers didn’t even have students in their videos.”  Josh told a funny story about how several of the teachers’ video cameras had only been pointed at the teachers themselves, and how they didn’t realize this narrow-minded view until they started talking with colleagues.  It was a real revelation for many of these teachers to realize that, wow, their worldview wasn’t very student-centered.  I was so uplifted by hearing Josh speak about how this simple activity prompted these teachers to stop looking at themselves for evidence of good teaching, and to begin looking at their students instead.

Just Joy:  Josh talked about what an inspiring thing it was to be part of this tiny community of teachers within his school, which included teachers from all content areas, and even the band director.  He gave me such hope when he shared how the teachers’ video recordings had evolved over the weeks to include more students, more difficult class periods, and more and more vulnerable learning.

I loved hearing how teachers of all levels of experience and expertise were willing to open themselves up to their colleagues for the sake of improving their students’ learning opportunities.  It’s a hard thing, in this profession, to invite criticism of our teaching when our  work can sometimes be thankless.  I can’t wait to try this idea with my students and colleagues alike.


Check out Part I of this post from yesterday, and then please leave us a comment:  what strategies, ideas, or frames of mind might you try out in your classroom?  Will you share some fantastic lessons you’ve gleaned from good conferences in the comments?

Shana Karnes lives in West Virginia and 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.

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Getting Invigorated by Good PD

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I love this accurate graphic about PD by Sylvia Duckworth.

Last Friday, I was fortunate enough to attend some of the best professional development I’ve been to in a while–and it was free!

At the end of the day, I left my 3TT friends a seven-minute WhatsApp message of out-of-breath enthusiasm, describing my day’s learning.  That’s how you know it’s been a good day.

The conference I attended is held annually to celebrate our Masters’ students’ impending graduation and entry into the field of teaching.  The all-day event features presentations by both preservice and practicing teachers, academic coaches, and principals.

Before the conference, speakers are invited to conduct an inquiry into one aspect of their practice, then present on their methods, findings, and insights.  I attended four absolutely wonderful sessions, and filled up six pages in my notebook with ideas and quotes and just joy–and I’d love to share them with you all.  Today I’ll share ideas gleaned from my morning session, and tomorrow I’ll share what I learned from the afternoon portion of events.

Session One:  On Independent Reading

In my head, I called this session “What you do after you’ve read Book Love,” because it was full of amazing ideas that I’m certain would be Penny Kittle-approved.  One presenter, Andy Patrick (@MrPatrickELA), absolutely blew my mind with the ways he’s clearly innovated independent reading.

Idea:  Reverse Reading Rates–Andy explained that when students chose a challenge book, they took a new reading rate and then used their findings to determine how long it would take them to finish the book.  The students could set a completion goal, Andy could touch on this goal in his conferences with them, and when the book was finished, students reflected on their reading process.  Since I’ve struggled with reading rates and accountability, I just loved this idea.

Quote:  “I never let them off the hook” when they tell me they don’t like reading.  Andy followed this fantastic one-liner up with his philosophy that they just weren’t reading the right books, and it was his job to help his students find them.

Just Joy:  I left this session absolutely impassioned thanks to Andy’s flurry of ideas.  He tossed out strategies like using quotes about the joy of reading as quickwrite prompts, his determination to get colleagues on board with teaching reading across the curriculum, and how great teachers of reading cannot excel unless they are real readers themselves.  YAAAAAAAASSSSSSS was the prevailing word in my notebook after that session!

Session Two:  Strategies for Reading, Writing, and Grammar

After leaving the first session, I had no idea how any other speakers could top that.  Luckily, I was just as inspired by three preservice teachers who’d done their internships in middle school ELA classrooms, and who shared their optimism for our profession in the form of their research.

Idea:  Say Something Journals–Sierra shared that many of her seventh graders weren’t engaged in reading independently or as a whole class, and she wanted a way to spark their interest in their texts.  She created journals, simply folded out of notebook paper, in which students could practice recording their internal reactions to something while reading during class.  When they were reading shared texts, she had students trade journals and giggle about the similarities and differences in their reactions.  The journals culminated in getting the reader to “say something” about the “something” they believed the writer was trying to “say.”  I loved Sierra’s emphasis on the transactional nature of reading, rather than a linear interpretation of a book’s message.

Quote:  “Why don’t they just capitalize their i’s?!” said Tori, who struggled with getting her 8th graders to use grammatical conventions in their writing, even after conferences and practice sessions in which students proved they knew what they were supposed to be doing.  Tori’s presentation was characterized by her sheer love of grammar and her bewilderment about why the heck kids could study mentor texts, send flawless text messages, and yet still refuse to obey the conventions of standard English.

One student’s response?  “Well, I just think capital I’s aren’t very cute.”

Just Joy:  Charity brought sophistication and high expectations to her 8th graders by teaching them about what critical literacy is and then working with them to practice it when reading nonfiction texts.  She focused on helping students develop discussion skills to practice thinking, reading, writing, and speaking within a critical literacy framework, all while reading place-based texts they helped her select.

I think my jaw was on the ground throughout the whole of this brilliant young teacher’s presentation–I want my daughter in her classroom someday, I kept thinking to myself.  What a treat to end my morning by feeling so hopeful about the new talent entering our profession!

Stay tuned for Part II of this post tomorrow, and please share with us in the comments–what have you learned from strong PD sessions you’ve attended?

Shana Karnes lives in West Virginia and 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.

 

None of the Above: A Bubble-Free Final Exam

Remember Scantrons tests? The filling in of bubbles at semester’s end in order to prove your worth as a scholar? Many of my anxiety-cloaked memories of high school involve those hideous little forms, a No. 2 pencil, and hours spent hurriedly filling in bubbles to demonstrate my multiple choice understanding of the world.

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Once upon a time, I took this type of test. Early in my career, I gave them. Currently, I hate them. Or rather, as this is a company name I certainly wouldn’t dream of defaming, I hate the concept of a test format that negates creativity, deep thinking, or conveyance of personal connection to learning. While admittedly easy to grade, I don’t recall the last multiple choice test that left me satisfied with the assessment in any way.

Now, before I get myself in hot water, both with Scantron and my fellow teachers, there are realities associated with multiple choice testing that are inescapable, and if we want students to be prepared for the high stakes testing they will certainly encounter as a means to pass AP tests, seek admission to college, and succeed on many college campuses, then we must do our part in preparing students for this type of assessment and thinking. Applied Practice tests, for example, challenge students to dig into a passage and deeply analyze the author’s craft and style. That skill development and demonstration is a wonderful tool.

However, this post is about the opportunities presented to us as educators as we look to the end of a grading term and search for ways to have students think critically about their cumulative learning, their growth as readers and writers, and the

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Bailey’s reading insight.

connections they’ve made throughout our time together that will move them forward as educated citizens.

Many of these thoughts started well before my work with workshop when several years ago, our administrative team organized a committee to discuss our practices around final exams. Scheduling, format, exemptions, and weighting were all on the table. My biggest takeaway from those reflections?

I wanted my final exams to be reflective of student thought, synthesis, growth, and accomplishment to this point. In other words, I didn’t want any part of our “final” exam to be final in any way except that it would happen to be our last assessment together.

In other words, a final exam should showcase rather than stifle.

It should be an opportunity.

In years past, a multiple choice test showed a student’s regurgitated knowledge of the texts we had read and the literary movements we had studied. A written portion challeneged skills in supporting claims, sometimes providing text evidence, and timed writing.

exam 7

Amelia’s reading takeaway.

Again, these are valid and necessary skills to prepare students for future academic endeavors. Personally, however, I have grown to believe that if a paper isn’t going to receive some feedback, it’s power and purpose are lessened, or even negated.

 

We want students to grow as readers and writers throughout the year. This should include their final assessment opportunities as well.

exam 1With that in mind, my colleagues and I have worked hard over the years to provide more authentic assessment opportunities for students to demonstrate their growth during final exams.

Portfolios have replaced timed papers. Graded discussions have replaced short answer questions. Reflective speeches, projects, and writing have replaced bubble tests. And, with the advent of workshop, choice reading reflection has become my go-to.

In January, the teachers in my Honors English 10 collaborative group, organized an opportunity for our students to share the insights gleaned from an entire semester of choice reading. I was so excited by the project that I added some additional symbolic and reflective elements to it and used it with my AP Language students as well.

Students reflect on the texts

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A reflection from Josh.

they have read throughout the course of the term, select meaningful passages from that reading (many had been marking key quotes in their notebooks throughout the year), and give a talk about how the reading changed, moved, and/or developed their thinking with the support of visual cues and quotes to provide context for their ideas.

Illustrations of such deep thought include:

  • Abby learned that “we all struggle, but it’s how we handle those struggles that truly defines our character.” 
  • Errin suggested that “our world is only as vast as our perspectives allow it to be.” 
  • Tahseen claimed that “books help me solve the problems in my life.” 
  • Bailey, in his infinite wisdom buoyed by the most sincere character, pled with the class to not “let ignorance blind you. Knowing ignorance is necessary to keep creating and learning.”
  •  Rachel said we must “know yourself and use that knowledge to go out and know the world.” 

exam 4

exam 6

Some student samples from Amelia and Josh

As the time for final exam planning in at hand once again, here is a link to the project. Use it as a springboard for your own great reflective projects and encourage kids to once again see the value of the choice reading they have completed this year.

How have your finals evolved? What will your students be doing to wrap up the year? Please share in the comments. 


Lisa Dennis teaches English and leads a department of incredible English educators at Franklin High School near Milwaukee. She fondly remembers dabbing chapstick on her Scantron to try and fool the machine. This was during her rebellious streak, which lasted about four days. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum 

6 Gut-Punchers to Read After You Binge-Watch 13 Reasons Why

I got a Netflix subscription just so I could watch the 13 Reasons Why miniseries.13-reasons-why_0

The series is graphic and unsettling and leaves a lot to be talked about.  I haven’t even finished the series yet, but I bet my Scholastic Bonus Points that I have a few students who watched it over spring break and now are itching to read this book and others like it.

Here are a few books to steer readers to now…

friends for life

Friends for Life by Andrew Norriss

This book covers similar topics to 13 Reasons Why, but the plotting, pacing, and development of the topics is catered towards a younger teen audience.  Francis and Jessica become close friends quickly, but there’s a problem: Jessica’s a ghost, and Francis can somehow see her.  As readers learn how Francis can see Jessica, readers are also invited to consider the importance of friendship and reaching out to loved ones in times of need.

backlash

Backlash by Sarah Darer Littman

 

I find myself returning to recommend this book over and over again because it hits so many teen sweet spots.  Once upon a time, Lara and Bree were best friends.  Then Bree started to cyberbully Lara, pushing her to attempt suicide in a highly publicized manner.  Readers watch characters recover from trauma and hear the voices of others who were affected by the ongoing cyberbullying.

 

optimists die first

 

Optimists Die First by Susin Nielsen

 

Relevant information for adult readers: Susin Nielsen wrote for Degrassi.  If that’s not enough to pique your interest in her books, I don’t know what is!  (Unless, that is, you’ve never seen an episode of Degrassi.  Fix that!)  Nielsen’s book follows Petula, who feels burdened by guilt over a sibling’s death.  Her healing process involves Jacob, a boy who just moved to town who is keeping some secrets of his own.

 

truth alice

The Truth About Alice by Jennifer Mathieu

 

Have you heard about Alice and what she did at that party?  With not one guy, but two?  This fast-paced, multilayered story makes readers think more about empowered female sexuality and the pernicious power of the school rumor mill.

 

gerald faust

Reality Boy by A.S. King

 

From the files of deliciously messed up A.S. King comes a book about Gerald Faust, a boy better known to his high school classmates for his early-childhood antics on a reality TV show.   Gerald can’t escape his well-publicized past, and his parents might as well live in a fictional universe.   A.S. King’s talent as an author is developing some of the cruelest family dynamics known to contemporary literature, and this book ranks right up there for unkind parents.

bang lyga

Bang by Barry Lyga

 

Sebastian, at age four, shot his baby sister Lola by accident.  Now, Sebastian is immersed in homicidal/suicidal ideation.  When a new girl, Aneesa, joins the neighborhood and is unaware of Sebastian’s burning guilt, Sebastian has a chance to remake himself.

 

What books would you recommend to students who enjoyed watching 13 Reasons Why?

 

Amy Estersohn is a middle school English teacher in New York.  She is a 2016 recipient of the NCTE/ALAN Gallo Grant.  She laments the loss of the cassette tape.

 

Want to Be a Better Teacher? Pick up a Book.

teacher

Confession time. Who is with me?

Not long ago, only a few years I’m ashamed to say, I was not the reader I once had been.

I was not really a reader at all.

In that respect, I think I was much like many of our students. A formerly voracious reader with vague intentions of spending more time with good books, but I never quite found that time. I found excuses instead.

I didn’t want to read because “I read all day. All I do is read. Paper after paper after paper. I don’t want to read one more word.” 

I didn’t want to read because “There are far more important things I need to do now. Plan, grade, have a life. If I get half a second to myself, reading isn’t top on my list.” 

I didn’t want to read because “I have plenty of time to read over the summer.” 

I was burned out by work. I was betrayed by years of being told what was important for me to read. I was shackled to loving the books I was teaching.

I had become a reluctant reader.

In this way, it would seem, I was also a complete fraud.

Every day, I would walk into my classroom with genuine passion for my role as an educator. I wanted my students to learn. I wanted them to be inspired by great stories and turns of phrase. If only they would connect with language in the way that made my heart flutter, they too would see the great romantic quest that is English. 

A noble pursuit, to be sure…if one is aiming to enlist 200 some students per year into the ranks of English teachers, the chances of which are as dismal as they are ridiculous.

It wasn’t until I pulled my head out of my well meaning behind that I looked around and really saw what I was creating:

A classroom set to run on my love of a select number of texts. A failing endeavor for countless kids in my classroom.

Trust me. If enthusiasm and/or passion for certain texts was capable of making life long lovers of the written word, I humbly submit that I would have been able to do it.

Daisy’s love of Gatsby’s beautiful shirts, pales in comparison to my love of the irony presented in Nick’s claims not to judge.

Pip’s love of Estella pales in comparison to my love of the tragedy that is Miss Havisham’s crushed soul and engulfed bridal gown.

Two roads diverging in a yellow wood present endless possibilities…to me.

The Lady of Shallot is my patroness.

But which kids does this really hook? The students who are likewise entertained and thereby worthy of my continued energy? The students who will “become something” because they “get it”? The students who are compliant? The students who can successfully fake compliance?

love the books I taught, year in and year out, but you can’t make someone love you, I mean the books you teach (flashback to college there, please excuse me), you can only share your love and encourage your passion for the texts. My passion for the whole class novels we worked with was legitimate, palpable, and just not enough to reach all of my students.

Not unless I helped them see themselves as readers first.

I was far too narrowly focused on the texts I had been told were important and had set about making it my job to make students believed in the importance of those texts too.

And along the way, I stopped reading everything else. Well, not completely. Of course, I still read, but I was no longer a reader. I talked with my students about the difference in those two terms, but I was no longer living it.

I wasn’t until workshop and choice became a big part of my daily practice, that I really returned to my life as a reader. Students would need recommendations for books, which meant I needed to have a lot more under my belt that The Scarlet Letter.

However, this is only part of what it means to improve your teaching by reading.

Our students deserve teachers who understand and live the belief that teaching students to read is vitally important, but so is living the life of a reader and being that model of just how many books, genres, conflicts, poems, and symbolic representations of universal themes (sometimes old school dies hard) can be found beyond the canon.

And that making time to read changes who you are in so many powerful and meaningful ways.

These days, the books I know, love, and share are still classic, in some respects, but they are far more broad than that as well.

I’ve learned the following:

Taking time to read is not cheating

If you are grading so many papers that you can’t imagine picking up a book in your freetime, you are grading far too many papers. Small changes in practice can lift that burden and provide much needed time to connect with texts that you can then share with students.

The tried and true are a springboard

Workshop does not mean abandoning all of the texts you’ve worked with over the years. It means making pointed decisions about your belief in the value of whole class novel work, selecting authors to study for craft through mentor text work instead of reading the whole text together, and moving students to some of the more challenging and classic pieces when they are ready. Build readers and then lay the likes of Bronte, Tennyson, and Plath on them. As options. As texts to achieve, rather than endure.

Without a book(s) in your hand and heart, you are cheating

You are cheating yourself and you are cheating your students. I get so excited to book talk new texts, share audiobook snippets with my students, sit down and read next to them, and even to tell them their summative essays will be returned one day later, because I couldn’t put down The Underground Railroad. Students get excited to then share their own reading, in a way that is only really ever achieved because it’s their reading.

When we share our vast and varied reading life, as opposed to saying these are the few books that matter, we are giving students the opportunity to build the love of reading that captures their hearts and minds with high interest material. Yes, we English teachers find Keats to be a master. Many students, with little reading background, find him infuriating and a reason to suggest that “reading is stupid.”

We must give our students time to read every day.

We must talk about books every day.

We must talk with our students about books everyday.

We must read alongside our students.

We must be readers…otherwise, we are in the business of false advertising.


Lisa Dennis teaches English and leads a department of incredible English educators at Franklin High School near Milwaukee. She is currently reading A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backmanlistening to At the Water’s Edge by Sara Gruen, and regretting never having read 13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher. She’ll be taking care of that later this week. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum 

5 Ways to Avoid the Trap of Test Prep

The AP Language test is a month away. Only 14 school days (Spring Break, y’all. Woot!), which means 7 class periods with each of my AP classes between now and the big day.

This imparts in me equal parts excitement, dread, and crippling panic. I’m not sure what my problem is. I’m not the one taking the test, but my test anxiety runs high.

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Now, Amy has written beautifully in the past about the test scores and how little they really mean. How AP and workshop can be beautiful partners.  I applaud her conviction. I need to learn from her resolve. Because all year, I can workshop and weave in test prep (in other words, my priorities are straight – I’m building readers and writers, not test takers), but when the test draws near, I start thinking in numbers. Always dangerous.

When this happens, I feel my brows furrow. I’m suddenly focused on the wrong thing.

I can FEEL it.

Experimenting with workshop during semester two of the 2014-2015 school, I very purposefully placed reading and writing experience above test prep. My scores went up. Last year, I was all in. Lots of student choice. More focus on why and how, instead of what. My scores went up.

Do students need practice with the multiple choice format? Yes.

Should they write several AP practice essays over the course of the year with self scoring, student sample analysis, peer and teacher feedback? Certainly.

Will students be prepared for the test if test prep is secondary to building authentic readers and writers all year. Unequivocally, yes.

Just a few days ago, Donalyn Miller beautifully stated that the best way to improve test scores naturally is to “provide access to books, encourage free choice, give children time to read, and actively support their reading development at school and home.” Her piece for the Nerdy Book Club furthered my determination to remain focused on my students as readers, not as test takers. This is what workshop does. Focuses on readers, writers, and the humans who are so much more than test scores.

Here are a few suggestions to keep focused on what really matters (in my humble opinion), even as AP tests draw nigh, and frankly, in the face of any “big” test.

1. Focus on Experience

I tell my students every year, that living life and being aware of humanity in general is the best argument preparation there is. So, when I saw Elizabeth Matheny‘s spring break Twitter challenge, I immediately asked if I could adopt the idea. Matheny provides her students with a hashtag to document their adventures and several suggestions of ways to really live it up over break as a way to not only build community, but provide inspiration for narratives her students will write in the coming weeks.

I’ve got some ideas brewing to have my students write their own author bios (like the quippy book jacket variety) after break to celebrate themselves as writers. Documenting new experiences may be just the thing to provide focused attention to new passions  and open eyes to the wider world.

My students will start Friday using #langbreak. Follow our adventures and feel free to add your own if you’ve been waiting all this time for break like we have!

2. Write from the Heart First

I used to have students write endless practice essays. Knowing the format seemed important to scoring well, so I had students write in class, take prompts home over the weekend for homework, and churn out essay after essay of (no offense former students) formulaic crap that I dreaded grading.

These days, I’ve embraced a new philosophy. My students need to write more, but practice essays aren’t the thing. Quick writes in class are the thing. Weekly one pagers building their fluency and skills of expression about quotes that stick with them from readings are the thing. Poems about community are the thing. Book reviews on texts that make them feel smart are the thing.

The thing is, students build their writing skills in writing what they care about. They can then apply that to the essay at hand, regardless of the essay type. I spend a small amount of time going through the specifics of the argument and analysis essays, and then we look at countless mentors, we read as writers, and we learn how to effectively break the “rules.” The College Board suggests that effective essays are built from developing a “personal style.” No mention of five paragraph essays to be found.

3. Talk

  • Speed date prompts for the sake of brainstorming (not more and more writing – do that elsewhere)
  • Discuss current events
  • Share insights on readings (assigned and independent) through the lens of analysis (or argument, or synthesis)
  • Reflect on multiple choice passages without the questions
  • Solicit feedback on writing and make connections to specific skills to move that writing forward

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4. Review Your Reading Lives

At least one class period each year, right before the test, is reserved for a trip down memory lane. Students get into small groups and list common themes they have seen in argument prompts we’ve discussed over the course of the year (good vs. evil, power struggles, individuality, etc.). They then make lists of everything they’ve read, studied, reflected on that might be good evidence for arguments related to those ideas.

We fill posters upon posters of ideas to put around the room and remind ourselves how incredibly smart we all are. No one need fear “not knowing what to write.” Students have been preparing for this test since they learned to read, just by reading and living. Little review required.

5. Make Class Time Count

This is a “to each their own” example. Many classes do very little after the AP test. Students relate that they “worked really hard to get to the test” and the class periods up until the end of the year are free time as a reward.

I reward my students after the AP exam too. We have another book club (students are choosing this year from this extensive list of nonfiction titles, to which I just added the Pulitzer Prize winner Evicted) and they complete a multigenre project on an area of study we’ve not explicitly studied together (sports, politics, language, pop culture, etc.).

My class is about reading, writing, speaking, listening, and investigating life. That doesn’t stop because students took a three hour test.


Lisa Dennis teaches English and leads a department of incredible English educators at Franklin High School near Milwaukee. Her spring break will include finishing Sabaa Tahir’s A Torch Against the Night, spending time tiptoeing through the tulips with her daughter Ellie, and taking her own advice to live a little and try something new (curling, anyone?).  Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum and follow her students’ AP Spring Break adventures on Twitter #langbreak. 

10 Things Worth Sharing Right Now

I love the little ripple of a thrill that runs through to my fingertips when I find something that I want to share with my students. That borderline codependent excitement that comes with wanting to share a book, an article, a statistic…immediately.

“They NEED to see this,” I think, fumbling around on my phone to figure out how and where to save it.

“They NEED to read this,” I say to my husband, as I make him pause his own life to listen to yet another passage of my latest read.

“They NEED to know about this,” I mutter, linking wildly to our syllabus (just another in a long line of moments where I’m grateful that life happens and we share it in class).

So today, I’m taking a page from one of my newest obsessions, the newsletter put together weekly by the brilliant, inspiring, and wildly creative, Austin Kleon. Each week, delivered to your inbox, arrives a list of “10 things [he thinks are] worth sharing.” Simple. Intriguing. Very, very useful in the classroom.

I’m honestly not sure how I stumbled on this one, but in the month since subscribing, I’ve used three of his images to inspire quick writes, and book talked (loosely) the newsletter itself, suggesting to students that they should subscribe in order to broaden their horizons to current happenings, inspiring visuals, and commentary on books, shows, and cultural phenomenon. In other words, link up to something that delivers items to keep you reading texts other than social media updates (“Made a sandwich guys…bet you’re all jelly. Get it? Jealous, but jelly instead.? God, I am such a genius”).

  1. Austin Kleon’s Weekly Newsletter
    Kleon reflects on a central image each week, along with linking to intriguing articles, a poem of the week, ear candy audio, eye candy visuals, and other noteworthy insights from across the vast expanse of the internet. If someone comes up to you and says, “Hey, did you see…?” chances are Kleon will have it linked on his list for the week.
  2. The Power of Exemplars
    A few weeks back, I was bemoaning to my fellow Three Teachers Ladies, how disappointed I was in a recent project my sophomores had completed. My vision for a poster that brilliantly illustrated their insights on their latest reading, was met with large sheets of paper with haphazard cutouts of text, crudely taped across the page, accompanied by printed book covers in black and white, and the occasional hurried pencil addition to the project (last minute insight for forgotten components). Needless to say, I was frustrated AND without any way to hold students accountable for the quality of the visual they submitted (not the central point, for sure, but a consideration certainly). Take pride in your product, and all that, had fallen short. In my irritation, I searched in vain for something in the Common Core that might suggest students consider carefully how they convey their ideas.

    Then, I took a deep breath. I realized I had what I needed, I just hadn’t used it. See below the power of exemplars. My AP students were completing their community visuals (which I wrote about last year in a reflection on the use of essential questions), and I had no rubric for this work either. However, the power of suggestion, in showing them some of the brilliant work from the year before, was more than enough. They knew the expectation, saw what I thought was praiseworthy when it comes to presenting their insights, and we enjoyed some brilliant symbolism in the presentation of these visuals. Amen.
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  3. Musical Genius
    One of my groups took a creative leap for their community unit visual and put together a musical. Franklin’s production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat opened this past weekend. Several members of the cast in my first period class asked if they could complete the project in a slightly different way. Their project would still include analysis, present their ideas to the class, and involve audience feedback after the presentation, but…there would be singing.

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    Francesca, Joe, and Parker

    Since I always joke with my kids about presenting their ideas through interpretative dance, this musical idea intrigued me. Their mini musical included several skits that detailed life within the community of a musical cast/crew. Watching students sing their way through a summative, I was reminded that my vision for a project is rarely as broad and brilliant as what students can come up with on their own. My exemplar pool had just expanded in verse.
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  4. Bag o’ Books
    Remember to beg for books. Want to build that classroom library? Get down on your knees and remind your students of how good it feels to give back…to you.Maija recommend the book Dangerous Minds a few weeks back. When a fellow student was at the bookshelf looking for it the other day, I asked Maija if she’d be willing to bring it so, AJ could borrow it. I even turned on a sweet smile and said, “If you don’t need it anymore, I’d be happy to take it off your hands.”

    The book was outside my door the next day, in a bag with a sweet note and several other books. Score.

  5. Amy Poehler on Writing
    I’m training for a half marathon. Without audiobooks, I might not make it. Seriously. I need to get lost in a story to pound out the miles. So, when I started 10 miles on Sunday and realized my Overdrive audiobook had expired, I had to quick download something new. Ugh.Enter, Amy Poehler’s Yes, PleaseI smiled for nine miles (it takes awhile to download when you’re actively running down the street). Poehler’s voice is sincere, relatable, and funny as all get out. Easy to book talk.

    Here’s the golden ticket: The Preface. I heard it and knew I needed to play it for my students. Poehler writes with undeniable voice about writing. She says of her text and the writing process that she “had no business agreeing to write this book” and wrote it “ugly and in pieces,” because “everyone lies about writing…they lie about how easy it is or how hard it was.” She says, and students really related to the idea, that “writing is hard and boring and occasionally great, but usually not.” In reflection afterward, students also noted her use of stream of consciousness, aside, and self deprecating banter to tell her story, not just inform her audience about what the book would be about. Classes agreed that they could really get behind her idea that, “Great people do things before they are ready.” Amen, Ms. Poehler. Let’s all put pen to paper.

  6. langchat#17
    I recently started following the brilliant Elizabeth Matheny on Twitter. Her AP insights and resources have helped fuel my work recently and her AP Language slow chat last week was a great opportunity to have my kids practicing analysis with students across the country. I’m thinking of several things to extend this activity:
    – Have students organize a slow chat for peers
    – Get students to live tweet peer feedback during speeches or discussion
    – See #7 below
  7. Tweeting Authors
    I tweeted Angie Thomas to tell her that her book The Hate You Give is stunning and I’d be getting into the hands of as many students as possible.She liked my tweet.Fangirl moment.img_1024
    Have your students reach out to authors. They often reach back.
  8. Creativity Visual
    I love what this suggests to students about the power they possess.
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  9. Get it to the Big (or small) Screen
    My students often buy into the idea that great books are made into (sometimes great) movies. The Underground Railroad is being made into a series with the director from Moonlight. Having just finished this intriguing read myself, I book talked the text this week and shared the movie plans.
  10. Quick Write – Psychopath
    This came across my Facebook feed the other day, and I tossed it on my PowerPoint. As is the way in educator, my students surprised in noticing it, and we ended up doing a quick, quick write about changing social norms. AP Language test prep comes in many , many forms.
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    What would make your list of 10 things we need to see and share this week? Add your ideas in the comments below! 

Lisa Dennis teaches English and leads a department of English educating gods and goddesses at Franklin High School near Milwaukee. She loves lists, especially lists with links to beautiful thoughts and ideas. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum 

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