Category Archives: Strategies to Add Some Zip

Research In Search of a Claim

Why do high schools feel compelled to create their own “headings” for how students should format their papers, in spite of an English curriculum that calls for teaching MLA style? Oh, never mind. Put like that, I can see that this contradiction is in line with what we are tasked with every day in our classrooms: to machete through convoluted curriculum standards so we can lead our students to some real learning. This particular contradiction usually preempts any teaching energy I might have at the beginning of “The Research Unit.” As I plan, I am haunted by images of students typing their research questions word-for-word into Google, scrolling aimlessly through search results based on what they are most likely to click through to infinity, and finally just quoting from Wikipedia or that first Google blurb (attributed to “Google” and a 400-character URL in a triple-spaced Works Cited page presented in a hodgepodge of fonts from the cutting and pasting). Sigh.

It’s not their fault. This work can be rather uninspiring. Last year I tried to shake things up by offering another option to the traditional research argument: Students could compose a “research narrative” by using story form to trace their process of developing a claim. I spent hours developing model texts and elaborate instructions, devoted precious class time to comparing the two forms and creating anchor charts. Students dutifully complied with this. They complied again by completing a traditional research paper filled with information they mostly already knew or will have quickly forgotten. I dutifully (and wearily) returned papers filled with equally uninspired feedback they may or may not read and a grade that left me feeling morally compromised. Sigh.

So … no. How can we get away from Google as a first-resort and turn instead to our own minds — and each other — as we develop topics? And how can we make use of all the writing work we have already done and blend it with the research “unit” so that it feels less like a “unit” at all? Where can we look for topics that might inspire some meaningful, lasting learning?

Instead of starting from scratch, I had students turn back to their “Writing Territories,” the areas in their lives and in the world they identified earlier this year as potential writing topics. (Nancie Atwell is a continued inspiration–“Writing Territories” comes from Lessons that Change Writers). I modeled using my own territories to extract 1-2 potential research topics, and students did the same. I wanted to develop a sense of community and investment in each other’s topics, so I adapted an activity from Kelly Gallagher’s Teaching Adolescent Writers: 

  1. Students write their topics at the top of a piece of lined paper and pass the paper to the person on their left.
  2. This person reads the topic and writes one open-ended question about it.
  3. Papers continue around the room until each student receives their own paper back.

Even just this movement was energizing. After some initial fumbling, papers began moving through the room (almost) smoothly. Even better, students began talking to each other about whose topic was whose, and competing to write obscure and original questions to “stump” each other. Students took their own papers home, and were tasked with thinking through the questions and deciding on a few focus points within their topic in order to move forward.

So, this was fun and students had a bunch of interesting questions to explore. But that vision of students typing those interesting questions into Google still loomed large. I felt they still needed more of their own entryways into their topics, entryways into authentic thinking beyond search engine results. And as usual, I borrowed. This time, I adapted a poetry exercise from Georgia Heard: the 9-Room poem. I asked students to move through “9 rooms” of preliminary research that I hoped would lead them to consider their topic in terms of themselves and their own worlds.


My intention was for students to move through the rooms to establish a basic foundation of information (rooms 1, 3, 5, 7) and to explore their topic through a more creative lens (rooms 2, 4, 6, 8). As with the question swaps, perhaps the most valuable outcome of this exercise was the conversation it generated around the room. Students are talking about their topics with each other, even excited about being quoted in each other’s work!

So, here’s where we landed for now. Stay tuned for student examples as we move through this process toward formulating a claim. And, of course, proper MLA format.


Five Ways to Publicly Celebrate Student Reading

Once our students start reading, start setting personalized goals, and start to develop healthy reading lives, it’s important to acknowledge their progress. Big, culminating classroom celebrations are a fun way to do it, but there are also ways to celebrate that don’t take a ton of precious class time, and can mark the smaller moments worth celebrating along the way.

1. Penny Kittle encourages the book stack. Students gather the books they’ve read over the last semester, quarter, or other period of time that they’ve been reading. They stack the books up, which gives a visual representation of what they’ve accomplished with their reading. My ninth grade students recently did the book stack, and their smiles and pride were inspiring.

  1. While some students loved the book stacks, I had a couple of students who had done much of their reading on e-readers, so the book stack wasn’t such a great option for them. Our solution was the digital collage. Students gathered images of their book covers and collected them on a document, creating a digital quilt or collage. They then printed them on our color printer, and we made a patchwork mural in the hall with them.

This visual representation celebrates not only what individual students have been reading, but also serves as a hallway meeting place and inspiration for conversation about books. It’s a great way to build a reading community.

  1. Our learning support teacher encourages her readers with a creative, ongoing visual representation. She has a paper “tree” on a wall in her classroom, and as students read books, they add “leaves” to the tree. On each “leaf” the students write the title and author of the books, and it serves as both a reminder and inspiration for future reading. IMG_61004. That same teacher also keeps a quote wall on her white board. The words we read can reach us in beautiful ways, and when students experience that kind of moment, they are encouraged to share those lines on the white board. It’s another public display of a healthy reading life. It’s a conversation starter, and it helps build a sense of community within the classroom.


quote-wall.png5. Another teacher in our department keeps poster paper on her walls. Students add titles to the lists as they complete their books. Because names are attached, students can reach out to one another with questions or when they want to talk to each other about a book that they read, too. It’s another public acknowledgment and conversation starter, which is part of what we need when we build reading communities.

Books Read room 225

The common thread with all of these ideas is that they are public, they are deliberate conversation starters, and they help to build our precious reading communities.


I think it’s important to create opportunities for students to celebrate their reading accomplishments in a risk-free, nonthreatening way. Time is precious, so creating these opportunities in a relatively quick way within our classroom communities can be found time. Our classroom walls should reflect the needs and values of our classroom communities, and I find that these five strategies help move students forward with the development of their healthy reading lives.

How do you enable and encourage your students to publicly celebrate their reading lives and reading communities? I’d love to hear about it in the comments below.

Julie has been teaching secondary language arts for nineteen years, spending the first fifteen in rural Central Oregon, and the last four in Amman, Jordan. She’s thrilled to report that she and her family will be moving across the agua to Managua, Nicaragua next year, where a new adventure will begin.

Follow her on twitter @SwinehartJulie

Follow her blog


3 Ways to Utilize Audio and Visual Recording with our Readers and Writers

There is much debate regarding the use of digital technology in the classroom. For teachers, cell phones and other technology are both frustrating helpful when it comes to student use. They have the potential to be distracting and disruptive, as we all know, but tech is useful when it comes to some classroom activities, such as keeping a next reads list, or looking up word gaps. I love the idea of using them for the powers of good, so recently, I tried asking my students to use their mobile phones just for the purpose of recording, and to try to ignore the notifications that might come across as they used them.

I’m always looking for new strategies to help the readers and writers in my classroom, and in the past few weeks I’ve tried a couple of different applications. Using cell phones and iPads is simple, and it meets one of the simple rules I am trying to follow when it comes to working with students: meet them where they are.

Recently, while my grade nine students were in the thick of drafting informational essays, I asked them to read their essays aloud, and listen to the flow, the choppiness, the parts that sound great, and the parts that “just don’t sound right.” While I’ve asked students to read their own work aloud before, this time I asked them to record themselves, and then after, to listen to their voices while reading, keeping a pencil in their hands, pausing the audio and editing and revising as they go.

My students were reluctant at first, but once they got over the initial awkwardness of listening to their own voices, they indicated that it was a simple and useful strategy for revision. It’s one that can be used in other classes, and doesn’t require any other tools or even other people for help.

Another strategy we employed using recording technology was focused on the use of video recording. Before my students had started writing informational essays, we studied informational texts, using the Nonfiction Notice and Note signposts, along with the Book Head Heart strategy found in the works of Kylene Beers and Robert Probst.


When students learn reading strategies and skills, it’s important to be able to see just where they are in the learning process, but it takes time to thoroughly check in with each and every one of them. So with this unit, our ninth grade English teacher team decided that it would be great if students could demonstrate their learning through a think-aloud. Doing this in class would take a lot of one-on-one time, so we asked students to demonstrate their thinking and reading skills on their own, and to use the video recording capabilities on their iPads and cell phones.


A screen shot from a video-think-aloud

Because we, as teachers, had modeled the think-aloud strategy in our classes many times, students knew exactly what we meant, and were able to demonstrate their understanding of the strategies and skills necessary when reading magazine articles. They annotated, exposed their initial confusion, shared their process of finding understanding, and demonstrated a multi-draft reading of the articles they had chosen. It was a successful method of assessment, and I plan to utilize it again. Students had a chance to showcase their thinking and understanding, and it wasn’t a one-off opportunity. They had the chance to try multiple takes with their recordings, so the pressure was off and they could easily share their thinking.

Our most current rationale for the utilization of video in class is with our new short novel unit, in which we formed book clubs. We are squeezing in a shared text at the beginning of second semester with Of Mice and Men. While all of my students are reading the same text, they are split up into groups of three and four so they can form their book clubs. One of the summative assessments with this unit is a small group discussion that they will record. They will need to demonstrate some academic, sustained, literary discussion in their videos, and are practicing in class, leading up to the recorded discussion. I’ll be able to have five small-group discussions going on at the same time in my class, which means precious class time isn’t frittered away with transition times between discussions, for example. Students will be thinking, reading, and discussing, and I’ll be able to watch the video later, when the pressure is off, and I can truly assess the conversation. I’ll try to remove the guess-work because I can slow down the speaking and listening assessment portion of it all.

annotation OMAM

One student has heavily annotated in preparation for the recorded small group discussion.

These are just a few ways to allow students to use the simple technology that is available to them. Kids know how to make movies and to splice audio, so there is little need to instruct regarding the technical details. They can use the audio and video to showcase their skills.

It’s also a timesaver as far as the classroom goes, and it takes some of the stress off of students who have test anxiety or who struggle when it comes to on-demand assessments.

While it’s not a student-recording, I will share one last recent use of video in class. I played the video in this NPR article about a murmuration of starlings as an inspiration for a quick write this week. I played it without sound, and hit replay several times. My students were fascinated and wrote some fun responses. One was even moved to write music: img_5972.jpg

I love how my students are constantly surprising and impressing me. They are unexpected and wonderful.

I’d love to hear more about how teachers and students are using laptops and cell phones for the power of good in the comments below!

Julie has been teaching secondary language arts for nineteen years, spending the first fifteen in rural Central Oregon, and the last four in Amman, Jordan. She’s thrilled to report that she and her family will be moving across the agua to Managua, Nicaragua next year, where a new adventure will begin.

Follow her on twitter @SwinehartJulie

Follow her blog


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.

AmEstudent notebook

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 and is deeeeeelighted to serve on the CYBILS book award committee for middle grade fiction.  



Saying Something, Not Just Anything: Student Talk – A Guest Post by Margaret Lopez

Written in the spring of 2017, Margaret Lopez reflects on the value of purposeful communication and strategies to get kids to create questions that get at the heart of a topic and generate meaningful discussions. 

All year, my juniors and I have been workshopping writing and reading different texts for a range of purposes, pairing fiction and nonfiction for some whole class studies (Death of a Salesman and Outliers–a hit!  1984 and current events surrounding fake news and government–loved it!).  I realized a skill I hadn’t closely instructed, we had just “done,” was intentional classroom discussions.  As my juniors prepare to be seniors, Screen Shot 2017-05-01 at 8.44.22 PMcollege students, and individuals in the workplace, they need to speak purposefully and ask intentional questions.  I want them to be able to say something, not just anything  From this reflection, and students’ interest in recent protest movements and community issues in Chicago, a social justice unit based mainly on speaking and listening with low stakes writing was born.

I selected three books for students to chose from, and those choices became their lit circle groups.  Students could chose from Half the Sky which discusses female discrimination across the world, Ghettoside which examines policing in a predominately African American community outside of LA told by a reporter who spent years reporting on crimes in the area, or Hillbilly Elegy, a memoir about growing up in Appalachia.

Throughout the unit, we have followed the same routine:  

Mondays are for lit circles, Tuesdays are for extension activities with nonfiction, and on Wednesdays, we discuss all three texts together in a Socratic Seminar.  My goal was a lot of low stakes writing and fruitful discussion.

I think there is a reason that discussion is a central component of the English classroom, as it builds community, facilitates deeper or new thinking on a topic resulting from other perspectives, and is a college and job skill we have the duty to foster and refine in our students.  However, students need to speak, listen, and ask purposefully.  My students know how to talk–at my small school, where classes can be between 6 and 16 students, class stalls if they don’t have anything to say.  The awkward silence lingers.  Then someone says any random thought they have just to break the silence.  But there is difference between saying anything and saying something.  To elevate students to say something about the injustices across the texts, not just anything so that awkward silence doesn’t linger too long, I began with questioning skills.

Magnifying Glass - Questions

It is challenging students to take the idea they’re wondering about and want their peers to contemplate and thinking about it backwards, writing a question that doesn’t give away their opinion, lead peers right to the answer, or simply confuse others.  

We began by running through the list of essential questions from this school year and reviewing their quick writes on the topics from throughout the year.  I asked students what they noticed about the questions, many came to the conclusion that the questions are BIG, meaning they have more than one answer, but those answers aren’t definitive or “right.”  From there, we looked at a list of plot-based questions I made about the first chunk of their reading to compare the lists of questions.  They easily noticed these questions were the opposite of essential questions, meaning they had a limited scope of what response could be correct or on the right track.

Great, they can notice the difference.  Now to teach them to apply this to their own questions. Thank the teaching gods and goddesses for Jim Burke’s What’s the Big Idea?.  I used his entry points into teaching questioning around three types of questions:  Factual, Inductive, and Analytical, having students label their own questions as one of the three types.  Then, we worked on revising after I modeled some examples.   I challenged students to move beyond the factual so we could get to the big ideas and scale up Bloom’s Taxonomy.

Jacely revised her questions to get to the heart of her concern, which was why law enforcement doesn’t seem to care about women that are in trouble:

  • Factual:  On the very first page of chapter 2, what does Nick ask the Officer about regarding trafficked girls?  
  • Inductive:  Kristoff asks an Officer about what exactly they look for and then mentions if they look out for trafficked girls and the officer mentions there isn’t much to do about them. Why do you think these officers seem to not care about this huge issue?   
  • Analytical:  What implications does this have on the community?  Women’s futures?  Are there issues with law enforcement in the communities in your books?

Mishawn revised to include more perspective and connection:

  • Factual: Why is the crime rate so high in Watts?
  • Inductive:  What allure do gangs have for the young people in the community?  How does this create a cycle of violence and crime?
  • Analytical:  What factors, both historically and recently, have lead Watts to become a breeding ground for criminal activity?  In your opinion, which factor is/has been the most detrimental?

I also provided students with question stems as a guide and encouraged students to use these until they felt comfortable framing their questions.  By the end of the unit, student questions were synthesizing the three texts and major ideas.  I noticed students would lead with a question geared more towards their text, then extended the question to the other two text, thus inviting in more conversation and fluidly moving between inductive and analytical questioning.  The discussions moved from inner to outer, from focused on one book to all three books.

Jordan:  How does Leovy expect the reader to believe in the good homicide detectives while at the same time giving examples of racist and uncaring detectives?  What contradictions exist in your book’s community?  Do these lead to an imbalance of power or other injustices?

Ben: Isolation is discussed by Vance as one reason leading to a disconnected, stalled hillbilly society.  How are the people in your text isolated, whether by location, proximity, cultural norms, or otherwise?  Does this perpetuate the problem or is it a solution that hasn’t been capitalized on?

To springboard Wednesday’s seminars, we often pre-thought through the big ideas for that chunk of reading as a way to anchor thinking and create a common entry point into the seminar, and also, so students had something to say.

  • Google Doc Quick Collaboration:  I posted some initial questions on the google doc to get students thinking, then watched the entire class collaborate on 1 document–so cool!  I limited this pre-thinking to about 3 minutes so students didn’t type all of their discussion points.  I also left this projected during the seminar, serving as an anchor chart and inspiration for more questions.  So easy. Minimal prep.  Great results!
  • Discussion Tables:  I made three table tents at three different tables in my classroom, each with a common idea and thread that occurred during that chunk of reading.  I gave students two minutes to discuss how each topic related to their book.  After two minutes, they moved to a new table and could shuffle up their group.  Again, minimal prep and 6 quality minutes of pre-thinking.
  • Essay Highlights:  Students wrote for 20 minutes about the central injustice in their novel, justifying why that, out of all the intersected issues, is the most pressing for the community in the book.  I then typed the major argument from each student’s essay and used it as an entry point into a Wednesday seminar.  Students were able to see the something their peers had to say, understand how perspective and perception shade one’s reading, and make connections across the three texts.
  • Pass Around:  I asked students to write a line from their book that really just hit them in the gut and explain why.  Then, students passed them around the room, spending a few seconds reading what their peer had been most impacted by and why.  I actually couldn’t stop students from talking. Across the table, students were making “OMG” eyes at each other, whether it was a connection with their lit circle peer or shock over what a peer had written about from another text, the conversation was immediately started.

As I have listened to each small group discuss the same texts, it was amazing to hear how the conversation differs from class to class.  I wanted students to experience that, to give them a chance to expand each others’ thinking.  I assigned two digital seminars using our school’s digital platform, and while this is nothing crazy innovative, students posted and responded, I noted many benefits from this type of “discussion”:

  • Students experienced new perspectives and interpretations of the text from their peers in other classes, and I found more students sharing personal anecdotes–students were sharing their personal experiences with discrimination and inequalities.
  • Shy students or those that need more process time were the space to contemplate, revise their thinking, or deepen their response by not having to think on the spot as they would during an oral discussion.  I have many exchange students from around the world (China, Spain, Thailand, and Italy), who have the extra task of interpreting, decoding, and thinking in two languages  By writing, students had more time to think and contribute at their pace.
  • Students were more thoughtful in their responses and more likely to use text evidence to support their argument or open their classmates’ eyes because they aren’t so “on the spot.”  Students used evidence from the book, as well as other articles we had read, thus adding rich context to the discussion.
  • Students had another opportunity to practice practical writing for college.  Many college courses require blog post or digital contributions, and the reality is that most of my students will take an online course at some point in their academic or professional lives, too.  
  • Students received real time feedback on their questions.  If no one responded, maybe the question was unclear, too narrow, or too broad.  Student-led formative assessment–a new trend?
  • Students had a time and space to learn about digital etiquette and practice, something very important as Snapchat and Twitter become accepted means of communication.  As students move into their post-secondary endeavors, they may be communicating with bosses or professors via email and must communicate clearly, without a misinterpreted tone.  We discussed how to politely disagree and how to ask a follow up question instead of answering with bias, as well as the time and place for proper mechanics.
  • I made time to write beside them, contributing to the discussions, too.

Although these strategies were successful in moving my students beyond saying anything at all to fill the void, the best part was how moved my students were by the injustices that exist in our world.  They spoke with such compassion and concern for those suffering they no longer seemed to be kids, but young adults.

Maggie Lopez has six years of teaching experience at large public high schools in Louisville, Houston, and now Chicago.  A graduate of Miami University, she had the pleasure of learning from the workshop masters and is on a continual quest to challenge, inspire, and learn from her hilariously compassionate juniors and seniors. 

Screen Shot 2017-05-01 at 8.44.22 PM

Care to join the conversation? We’d love to add your voice! Please email guest post ideas to


Learning from One Another – Professional Development is Everywhere

As high school cliques go, I was never a part of the “cool kids” group. I loitered around the exterior, occasionally granted access to view what went on behind the curtain, but knowing people who know people didn’t really make much of a difference in terms of obtaining a season pass to all things elite.

I was a somewhat lovable dork, voted most compassionate of my high school class (please read this amazing post about being nice vs. being kind, because I was far too nice in high school), content to spend time laughing with my band geek friends and the ever flexible crowd made up of people who really tried not to care what went on at the “totally awesome” parties thrown by people too important to acknowledge the existence of 92% of their graduating class.

Now, in retrospect, I was saved from many things:  painful experiences that would have blown my sheltered innocence far before I could handle it, drama related to pecking order and perceived slights over social class, Gatsby-esque flaps fueled by alcohol and beautiful shirts.

These days, in the professional world, having a collaborative group that functions supportively, creatively, cohesively, also has many benefits reminiscent of those true friends from years past who helped get me through, helped raise me up, helped make me better. The teachers in my department are simply amazing, and I am lucky to have a season pass to be a part of their cool.

Across the profession, some of us meet weekly (or more often) in PLC meetings. Some of us meet in spare moments after school, chance encounters in the hallway, and Google hangout planning sessions. Some of us befriend the teacher next door and talk shop at all hours. It’s about growing as professionals, even when it’s sometimes just about what we’re all “doing tomorrow.”


However, growing as a professional, these days, can also mean connections that are far from the traditional and learning that comes from very surprising places. In these trying professional times, to be a teacher requires hits of rejuvenation whenever and wherever we can get them.

Take, for example, Shana’s post from last week on her professional development enthusiasm and the message she shared with 3TT. I listened to her message and hurriedly wrote down two ideas I wanted to try right away.

That is the magic of connecting with other professionals: learning (or reviewing) what can bring back (or sustain) the spark that every classroom teacher needs in order to weather the slings and arrows of our craft.

Those sessions where you fill up page after page of quotes, insights, lesson ideas, tips, and tricks. Where you are the cool kid, not because you’ve adjusted who you are in any way, but because you have built up who you are and what you do.

Over the course of this year, I have come to see professional development as something that is happening every surprising moment, from all possible angles. pd2

Below, some reminders (that I myself needed this year) of how empowering learning is. If we forget about, resist, or otherwise close ourselves off to new ideas, review of what works, or even the very basics of our craft (Let me hear you : teachers must be readers and writers or we are in the business of false advertising) what unfortunate hypocrisy we make of what we purport to do each and every day.

Embracing PD Opportunities Based on Your Needs

Whether it’s to pursue an advanced degree, get continuing education credits, fulfill a district initiative, or to explore a topic of interest, professional development can be hugely invigorating to daily practice (It can also be a flop and/or downright insulting, but that’s for another post).

For example, I am typing this blog post today, because I was in need. I needed support to help make the move to workshop and to lead my department through that move. I Google searched “readers and writers workshop,” started reading the 3TT blog, emailed Amy to ask her a million questions, and then insisted to my district that 3TT needed to come for professional development in Franklin. It was some of the most authentic PD I’ve received in fourteen years of teaching.


Sometimes, it can feel like professional development gets overwhelming. We have professional development opportunities at staff meetings, during mandatory extra hours outside of the school day, and in order to fulfill countless professional expectations of record keeping, curriculum development, and reflection.

However, through professional development organized by and for teachers, we learn from those who know best and know now because they are in the trenches. Seek out professional development for yourself that speaks to the needs you feel need to be met in your classroom.

Creating a PLC with Students 

Sheridan lingered after class yesterday. She’s actually the inspiration for this entire post.

Shyly, she asked if it would be alright to share an article with me. “I ran across this article yesterday while I was looking for something else and it intrigued me so much that I read it.”

With a smile on my face I said, “What were you looking for?”

She laughed, “I don’t even know. I never found it! But I think you’ll like this, so I’ll send it to you.”

What arrived was a link to a Washington Post article from a few years back. Alexis Wiggins, the daughter of Grant Wiggins (of Understanding By Design fame), is also an educator and had shadowed a student for several days. Her takeaways in this article about what students experience every day hit home with me in a big way.
Not because her insights were new or because they would change everything I do on a daily basis, but for two reasons.

The ideas were a reminder of a perspective that often falls away in the face of daily routine and that reminder was shared with me by a student of my own.

Sheridan in no way was looking to make me feel bad, but she did exactly what I tell my kids that reading, sharing, and reflecting should do : remind us of what we need to make a priority each day.

Wiggins research on students needing to feel valued, engaged, and physically and mentally present isn’t new to me, but the article was the best kind of professional development: Kid centered, kid inspired, immediately applicable to my classroom.

Look for, solicit, or otherwise beg students to share with you what is making them think. Direct them to places like Austin Kleon’s newsletter or Arts and Letters Daily, so they can study new and unique ideas, talk about those insights in class, connect them to current learning, and expand your repertoire of resources, insights, and enthusiasm.


Hanging with the Cool Kids

Expanding our definitions of professional develop can also be hugely beneficial.

You’re doing it already, you know. Reading this blog. Reading other blogs, following educational news, getting active in political topics that weigh on our schools, our kids, and our jobs.

Go even further:

  • Follow the English rockstars on social media– Kittle, Gallagher, Newkirk, Morrell, Miller, Anderson, just to name a few.
  • Like the Facebook pages of authors your students love – I’ve had Angie Thomas and Matthew Quick like posts my students and I wrote just in the past few weeks.
  • Tag big names in your posts – Opening your insights or questions up to a wider pd3audience.
  • Jump on Twitter chats –  You don’t ever even need to comment, if you don’t want to. You can just read, click on links to other great articles/insights/lessons, and remain anonymous. You can watch a chat as it’s happening, or follow a hashtag back to a conversation that’s already happened and read through what was said. Here is a link to scheduled Twitter chats that educators might find value in.

Keep learning intentionally.

Not only will you open yourself to an even wider world of resources, insights, opinions, and discussion, but sometimes, you’ll hear personally from these teaching megastars, and let this fangirl tell you, that discipleship can take you all the way back to that thrilling peek behind the curtain of the cool kids.

What professional development opportunities have you found most beneficial to your career? Whether it be attendance at a national conference or stalking a Twitter chat, we’d love to have you join the conversation in the comments below! 

Lisa Dennis teaches English and leads a department of incredible English educators at Franklin High School near Milwaukee. Her favorite pens for note taking during professional development are Paper Mate Flair pens in a variety of colors. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum 


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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