Category Archives: Talk

Dinner Table Book Talks

“Never underestimate the power of a great book in the hands of a teacher who knows how to use it.”

This quote from Seven L. Layne in Igniting a Passion for Reading is one in which I often quote. I believe books have power and we, as teachers, have a great responsibility to transfer reading energy by what we do with them. But many times, our students hold that power too.

Many teachers give book talks in their classrooms, which are a fun way to get kids reading and buzzing about books. I have found that when teachers create a short presentation about a book they have read, students are more apt to pick that book up and read it themselves.

I like to eventually give students the opportunity to give book talks to their peers, but before I hand this responsibility off to them, preparation and teaching need to be done.

In the book, In the Middle by Nancie Atwell, she talks about a time she and her husband sat around the dining room table with some friends and “gossiped by candlelight” about a book.  She compares her dining room table to a literate environment where people around it talk about literacy.  She states “We don’t need assignments, lesson plans, lists, teacher’s manual, or handbooks.  We need only another literate person.”

After reading this, I began to wonder how I could bring that dining room table environment to my own classroom? How could I use the low-risk environment of sitting around a dinner table to encourage my kids to have these discussions about books?

Enter dinner table book talks.

plate 6

Students are given a paper plate (non-coated works best). Some years I have given them no instructions but to think about a book they have loved this year and create a prop to help them talk about the book. Other times, I have given them specific requirements such as title, author, passage, summary, or a blurb. No matter what the directions were, they have enjoyed being creative with their plates.

I tell them they will be doing book talks, but I do not tell them what this will entail. The room is set up like tables with tablecloths and some type of centerpiece. They take their plates and find a seat at a table. Each student uses their plate to help them give their first talk. After some time has passed, they get up and mingle, find a new table, and give another talk. We continue to mingle until they have given 3-4 talks.

These first book talks are unpolished and imperfect, but they get the conversations going in a low-risk environment of sitting around the dinner table with their friends. This space becomes a place where they can share the books they have read without the anxiety of talking in front of the whole class.

This activity is the perfect way to add a little “art” to English language arts, boost student confidence, and hand over the power to students while placing book talks at the head of the table!

Leigh Anne teaches 6th grade ELA in southern Indiana and gave this perfect-for-a-sub assignment while she attended NCTE in Baltimore.

Text Talk: Ink Knows No Borders

In American Literature this year, we are taking a “disrupted” look at the American Dream, noticing its failings and shortcomings through the literature we read as a class. 

After discussions over the summer reading titles and a gallery walk to generate our thinking around the American Dream, we watched an abbreviated version of Chimamanda Adichie’s TedTalk “The Danger of a Single Story” before identifying and discussing the “single stories” in our lives and our world.

We then dug into selections from Ink Knows No Borders: Poems of the Immigrant and Refugee Experience. The collection of poetry features a range of perspectives on adjusting to life as an immigrant as one tries to stay connected to their home culture while adapting to a new place. The poems are both heartbreaking and heartwarming tributes to the courage of the authors.

With a packet of assorted poems, students first processed one poem with their peers, spending time deciphering meaning and making connections.  We then created jigsawed groups where students taught and discussed their poems with a new set of peers. Together, the jigsawed groups began to track thematic connections across the differing, yet similar experiences of the authors.

The poetry offered alternative perspectives while being accessible and real. The poems about names and traditions resonated with my refugee students from Africa, while other students related to the burden of balancing two cultures, one at home and one at school. We Googled more information about the current situation at the Mexico-US border, and one student was brave enough to share his family’s story of obtaining citizenship while another student shared that she fears ICE will take away her parents every day. 

When we discussed the poetry as a full class, students came away with an understanding that often in our country, there is a single story told about immigrants. Students came to the insight that this was misguided and unfair because immigrants founded our country and the United States often promotes the promise that the dream is achievable to all. Students overwhelmingly agreed that we should be more understanding, welcoming, and helpful to people who want to make a better life because we all have stories and hardships.

This text worked well because students discovered new perspectives, connected to their lives and our world, and also gained low stakes poetry exposure, one of my goals for the year. Plus, our conversations made me so happy and hopeful to teach resilient, inclusive young people in this time of division.

Maggie Lopez is grateful for her digital colleagues and an incredibly rewarding profession.  You can find her on Twitter @meglopez0.

 

Listening & Speaking More and Better

Sometimes in the blur of teaching readers to read and write more — and better — we forget the importance of teaching them to listen and speak more effectively. At least I do. This is one of the reasons I love the workshop approach in my English class. Talk is a intregal part.

No doubt, I am an idealist. I tend to think if my students can orally communicate their speech-bubbles-303206_1280thinking and truly listen to one another, our society, and our country, have a chance. The bellowing from every side wears me down, and I think the classroom can be a tiny little microcosm of what communication in the world could be if we were all a little more well-versed in listening and speaking skills. Call me hopeful.

For this reason, my seniors and I are focusing on more talk than ever before. I am trying to remember to teach specific speaking and listening skills — not just telling my students to talk about issues. We worked up a list of norms for our discussions, and as a class, we are working to hold one another accountable. It’s becoming a group effort. It’s hard. And it’s challenging.

Every day we still talk about our reading. Right now, we are in our first round of book clubs. Most days we still talk about our writing. We just finished college application essays. Some days we talk about texts that help us be better at talking, listening, and having better conversations. There’s some interesting TED Talks here and here.

Every Friday we engage in whole class discussions around particularly “hot” topics, all with a focus on using the text to support and expand our thinking. So far, we’ve discussed racism, hacking, and the benefits, or not, of marijuana.

Soon, my students will be the ones choosing the texts and facilitating the discussions. They’ve already talked about issues that concern them, make them wonder, and ones they want to explore together. Here’s a few:  climate change, mental illness, vaping, teens and sleep schedules, cultural appropriation vs cultural appreciation, artificial intelligence and the workforce, biases in Hollywood, investing in the stock market, sex trafficking in the U.S., college and the expense of it, memes and what they say about the people who make them, four-day work weeks, Area 51, will Amazon control the world?

Young people are curious. I am curious. And I certainly do not want to do all the work in choosing texts and inviting students to talk about them. I just needed to get them started and model how to choose rich texts, how to write open-ended questions, and how to facilitate an engaging discussion. Now I just have to trust that they can do it.

I believe they can.

If you know of some interesting articles that would spark great discussions, I’d love it if you shared them in the comments. My students will be doing some flash research this week to locate texts for their turn leading our Friday discussions. We’d all appreciate the kick start.

Amy Rasmussen teaches senior English at a large suburban high school in North Texas. She’s excited to be back in the classroom after a year on hiatus. She thinks young people today are just the greatest. Follow Amy @amyrass

A Reverse Approach to Multiple Choice

I know–yuck.  Multiple choice?  On a blog about workshop?  This post may seem like the odd man out or the one that doesn’t belong here, but please keep reading!

While a multiple-choice assessment is certainly not a form I want to use in class, it is inevitable my students practice the format for the AP exams.  The challenge for us teachers is to make the practice meaningful without taking practice tests over and over again (No thank you, “Drill and Kill”). This year, instead of making these exercises something we do, I want students to see these as something we workshop.

First, my language has shifted from “Let’s complete this multiple-choice practice” or “Let’s working on our timing” to “Let’s dig into this passage and create meaning together.”  I am hoping students begin to see the passages as a challenge to unlock and discover as they inquire about meaning rather than a 15-minute task.

I am also shifting how we work through the passages, igniting the workshop mindset of reading, questioning, re-reading, and making connections.  Sometimes we will read the passage together out loud, look up unfamiliar terms, paraphrase, and annotate, creating meaning together before examining the questions.  Othertimes this close reading is done in pairs and students work the questions together. Another strategy, done in peer groups, is what I call “Reverse Multiple Choice.”

Although the process takes a bit of planning and sometimes typing on our end, I think it is worth it (there is a sample linked at the end to get you started, too!).  In summary, students are grouped and given each part of a multiple-choice selection–the passage, the question stems, and the answer sets–one at a time, then asked to answer the questions after a lot of process thinking.  

Students have enjoyed working together to break the monotony of practice selections as this becomes about thinking and talking with one another while still developing the thought-patterns necessary for working through passages on the exam.  Starting this practice early in the year, I notice students immediately learn to share any thinking or ideas surrounding the “gray areas” of a text and to not shy away because they aren’t sure of the correct answer (that is exactly where they should be in the fall!).

Here are the steps as you would implement them in your classroom (please note the time required will be determined by your students or your expectations of how quickly they are to work, the times provided are just suggestions and will differ with the text):

  1. Group students into clusters of 2-4 with their desks circled.
  2. Distribute a multiple-choice passage and ask students to independently read and annotate as they would on the exam (7-9 minutes).
  3. Once completed, ask students to chat about the gist of the passage in their groups, allowing time for questions and clarifications (2 minutes).
  4. Pass out the passage’s Question Stems, without answers, in random order.  Invite students to work through the questions as a group, referring back to the reading and writing what they believe the answer is as if they were open-ended questions.  Some questions may require students to think in reverse (i.e., students may list what elements are present if the question stem asks “Which is NOT present…” or a similar variation), but all questions will get students talking about their thinking (10-15 minutes).
  5. Once completed, pass out the Answer Selections, again in jumbled order, and ask students to pair the appropriate Question Stem and Answer Set together.  I like to use numbers for the Question Stems (step 4) and letters for the Answer Sets (step 5), so students know to pair a letter to a number (3-5 minutes). 
  6. If you’d like, you may check that student groups paired the Question Stems and Answer Sets correctly before distributing the full question set for the passage.  Students then, using all of their thinking and notes, work together to answer the multiple-choice questions (8-10 minutes).
  7. In whatever manner you’d like, reveal the correct answers.  I have found students want to understand questions they missed and other student groups can often explain the thinking that led their group to the correct answer.

I am hoping these varied, workshop-esqe approaches build student’s ability to process challenging texts through the processing of each component separately and build their confidence for making sense of the gray areas in challenging texts through the peer to peer talk.  This approach can be adapted for any test-prep we may be required to work in for state exams or standardized tests, too.

Here is a sample of the process using the 50 Essays Multiple Choice for  “Letters from a Birmingham Jail”

 

Maggie Lopez is:

A) Enjoying being back into the swing of the school year.

B) Currently reading How Soccer Explains the World by Franklin Foer.

C) On Twitter @meglopez0.

D) All of the above.

On Slow Stylists and Teaching Writers

My hair and North Texas humidity are not friends. I can fix my hair in the morning, take one tiny step outside, and floop — it’s like the photo next to the word frizz in a picture dictionary.

I need help with my hair.

Not long ago, I had to find a new stylist. I’d seen my hair pro for going on 20 years — through short and kinda long and short again and kids’ friends and schools and graduations. I didn’t even know I had attachment issues until I called to make an appointment and learned Vivian had moved to another salon. They would not tell me where.

You may know how hard it is to find a new stylist. Overwhelming and risky come to mind. I just couldn’t deal with it — so I went cheap. I saw a random ad on line for “models” and took a chance on a “stylist-in-training”.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

And it was good.

Well, it got good. First, I waited 35 minutes just to get in the chair. I learned why as Emily tentatively combed and cut in tiny snips. She was S.L.O.W. but cheerful, eager, and excited to put the skills she learned through lecture and video into hands-on real-hair practice. Emily’s “expert mentor” stood to the side, giving tips and clarifying process the whole time. Then, when Emily thought she was done with my cut, the mentor picked up the comb and scissors, checked each section for wayward hairs, and reviewed the moves Emily had just made to create my style.

Of course, this all reminded me of teaching writers.

Awhile back I wrote about slowing down and planning time for students to think and talk and question before we demand they get to drafting. I think planning time applies to other aspects of teaching writers as well.

Here’s three things I’m wondering–

  1. How can we plan time for more talk? Writers write well when they have a solid base of information from which to build their ideas. Purposeful talk can help our writers grow in knowledge, recognize bias, and engage in conversation that pushes thinking. Listening and speaking often receive short shrift in ELA classes. We can change that. We can help students get their hands and heads into real-life practice as they talk about issues, news, and attitudes that fuel their writing.
  2. How can we plan time for more questions? When writing, questions often lead to answers. I teach asking questions as a revision strategy:  Students read their peers’ writing and can only respond with questions that prompt the writer to add more detail, include examples, develop thoughts more fully, etc. This takes practice, but it’s the best approach I’ve found so far in helping students question their own writing. (See Start with a Question for more on how questions aid writers.) We can give tips and clarify process — and help students work together to improve their writing — when we spend a little time helping them ask good questions.
  3. How can we plan time for more conferring? A few years ago, I asked my students how best they wanted me to help them improve as writers. These high school juniors overwhelmingly asked for more one-on-one. I was kind of surprised: Teens wanted to talk to me moreSeriously, they did. These writers understood they were all at different places with their language skills and writing abilities, and they knew the value of our conferences. Undivided attention, sometimes just noticing, even for a brief few moments, can make a world of difference to a writer. Sometimes we instruct. Sometimes review. Most often we just listen.

I left the salon that day 2.5 hours later — the longest I’ve ever spent in a salon. Time didn’t matter to Emily. She wanted to do well, truly practice her new skills, and create a cut she’d be proud of. I know we feel rushed and crushed in our English classes, but there’s a lesson here:  How can we slow down in order to maximize the time our students need to grow as writers?

In case you’re wondering, I like my cut, but I’m still battling Texas weather.

 

Amy Rasmussen loves working with student writers and their teachers. She thanks her family and friends for their time: generating ideas, reading drafts, proofing, editing, encouraging. And she thanks you for all you do for readers and writers everywhere. Follow Amy on Twitter @amyrass

Planning Time for Thinking

One thing I know for sure:  Writing is hard. Lately, I’ve been reminded how hard as I’ve tried to keep up with Sarah Donovan’s challenge #verselove2019 to write a poem a day during the month of April.

It’s only day 9, and Oh, my!

It’s not even the poetry part I’m finding difficult, which is surprising. Deciding on an idea and then sticking to it has wrecked me for eight straight days. And now I’m wondering:

How often do I expect students to dive into drafting without giving them time to talk and question and change their minds about their ideas? Do they have enough time to play and mull and sit with their thoughts before they make a commitment–or before a draft is due?

I know what so many great writers say:  Just start writing; you’ll discover what you want to say. But what if that doesn’t work for everyone? Lately, it hasn’t worked for me.

So now I’m wondering:  How can I plan for enough time to give everyone the time they need to settle in to their ideas before I plan enough time for them to write?

Now, I’m not talking about timed writing — or state-mandated test writing. Those are different (and in my humble opinion) horrible inauthentic beasts. I’m talking about the process of thought. The thinking it takes to draft with intention.

I’m pretty sure I’ve rushed it.

And I want to slow it down.

#verselove2019

Amy Rasmussen lives and writes from her home in North Texas where the bluebonnets are blooming beautifully. She thinks about writing all the time and needs to get better at getting her thoughts on the page. Writing poetry, which is far out of her comfort zone, may help. You can follow her on Twitter @amyrass

No Accountability Book Clubs

Prior to starting a round of Book Clubs with my AP Lit students, I questioned what would be a “just right” accountability fit for my very different first and fourth periods.  Third quarter always hits juniors hard.  It is a reality check that changes are ahead.  It seems to be the time students are in full swing with clubs, theater, sports, and other projects.  My students are invested in their independent reading, with many switching between texts they can use on the exam and fun YA selections, and developing reading identities.  My students are also chatty and friendly–Book Clubs seemed like a perfect fit at this point in the year.

But how to keep students accountable in a non-punitive way when they’re already overbooked.  I thought about my goals for the Book Clubs, which extended far beyond adding another text of literary merit to their tool belts for question three.  I wanted them to read, to engage, to think.  For students to have fun meeting together to discuss books like adult readers do.

For some, a bit of accountability helps spur their reading and processing.  I have many students who like to document their thinking with annotations or dialectical journals and be rewarded for their visual thinking.  I understand that. For others, a bit of accountability becomes a chore that interferes with their engagement. Students have reflected that tasks associated with reading pull their focus away from the text and onto the assignment.  I get that, too.

I have been ruminating over my grading practices this year, taking notes on what is helpful and what can change next year as we progress, seeking practices which keep students accountable in non-intrusive, authentic ways.  Letter grades in the English classroom can be tricky. Our content lends to subjectivity when grading. Add in the pressure for college-acceptable GPAs and authentic learning can be lost in the quest for an “A.” It can be difficult to accurately measure understanding, as well as the more essential habits for success beyond our classrooms–effort, improvement, depth of thought and questioning–with five letters.  I am trying to shift from grades and points to accountability, effort, revision, second-laps, and reflection as tools for building skills and taking risks. I want anything I evaluate to have meaning and to be balanced by a lot of low stakes participation, effort, and reflection.

Book Clubs are like independent reading, just a bit more social.  Why grade it with check-listy parameters?  I wanted students to read, engage, and think with one another.  To come to the table with questions, thoughts, and connections, like a college student would.  To process challenging books together, like an adult book club would.

So I decided I would assign no accountability checks.  Nothing. I only asked students to be accountable to one another, as adults would be in a “real” book club each week, with the schedule they set.

Knowing they wouldn’t be receiving a tangible grade or reward, I was concerned students would see this as an invitation not to read deeply, or that some wouldn’t feel invested in the payoff. However, my hope that our months of community building and sharing in reading experiences as readers outweighed my tinges of fear.  Why not step aside and set them free?

I gave Thursday’s class period over to the Book Clubs and student-driven conversations with the ask that students use the class period to process together.

Students owned it.  

There wasn’t a lull in conversation on Thursdays.  Student groups chatted with each other while I circulated and enjoyed their voices and insights.  I wasn’t roaming the classroom with a clipboard or checking an assignment in while half listening. I was a floating member of each club (hence why there are no pictures accompanying this post!).

I noticed there were discussions about the gray areas of the books, like what is the Combine Chief Bromden references and what the heck happened to Nurse Ratched to make her the adult she is in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.  I noticed the crew reading Ceremony worked to make sense of the non-linear structure and researched the myths of the Laguna Pueblo people. Readers of Brave New World connected the text to Oryx and Crake, a summer read, as well as our world.  Readers of The Road hypothesized on the events before the book begins.  Many students annotated their books, kept a notecard of questions to ask one another, took notes during the meetings, and referenced the text throughout their discussions.

There was no need to dangle a carrot in front of their noses or keep track of data to issue a grade.  Students did the work because the elements were there:  choice, time, conversation.  They made meaning together, employing the habits developed throughout the year while practicing being adult readers–readers who read, engage, and think in a realm where there isn’t official accountability to turn in.

I’m not sure what my digital gradebook categories will look like next year, what practices and procedures I will put into place to promote authentic accountability, but I know I will challenge myself to step aside more often, to trust students will do the work if the environment is right.

 

Maggie Lopez is entering the fourth quarter in Salt Lake City upon returning from spring break.  She is currently reading Hitler’s Furies by Wendy Lower. You can find her at @meg_lopez0.

%d bloggers like this: