Category Archives: Talk

Micro-writing for the Win

Sometimes it takes a lot of patience. That was my first thought when I read Sarah’s post last month The Hits Will Come. She shares how baseball and writing have a lot in common–both require a lot of practice. And sometimes the “hits” come quickly for student writers. Sometimes they don’t. Sometimes we have to help students want to even try to write a hit.

My thoughts turned to a student I taught last year. I’ll call him Dan. The very first day of class as I made the rounds, trying to speak to each students individually for just a moment, Dan said to me, “Miss, I know you just said we were gonna write a lot in this class, but I gotta tell you, I can’t write. I mean, really, not even a decent sentence.”

theofficeofficequotes.com

Of course, I appreciated the honesty, and that Dan thought enough about how I started the class to tell me straight up how he felt, but inside I was thinking, “Dude, you are a senior about to graduate high school in a couple of months, what do you mean you can’t write a sentence?” Of course, I didn’t say that. Instead I asked him why he thought he couldn’t write. His answer still makes me angry.

“My teacher last year told me,” he said. “I failed every essay. I just couldn’t seem to write what she wanted me to write.”

So many thoughts.

Over the course of the first several days of class, I made sure to find the time to talk with Dan. I learned that he had plans to go into the military as soon as he graduated. I learned that the only book he’d read all the way through in his 11 years of school was American Sniper by Chris Kyle.

And during the next few weeks, I learned that Dan could write–when he chose what he wanted to write about, and when his peers and I gave him feedback that made him feel like he was a writer. This took a lot of time and patience.

First, Dan had to want to write. He had to know that I wasn’t going to judge whatever he put on the page. He had to trust that I was sincere in 1) wanting to know what he thought, 2) helping him string sentences together so they said what he wanted them to say.

Reading helped. Since Dan liked Chris Kyle’s book, I helped him find other books written by those who had served in the Armed Forces. Lone Survivor by Marcus Luttrell and No Easy Day by Mark Owen were ones my own soldier son had read. Then, I found the list “Best Modern Military Accounts” on Goodreads.com and the article The 13 Best Books the Military Wants Its Leaders to Read. Dan didn’t read any of these books (not for my lack of trying to get him to choose a book), but during independent reading time, he did read about them–and this was enough to give me talking points to help him understand why growing in his confidence as a writer might be in his best interest– and topics for him to write about that semester.

Relationships helped. Since Dan had been so forthright with me about his experience with writing, I asked if he’d share his thoughts about writing with the peers who shared his table. He was all too eager! I’m pretty sure he thought his peers would share his writing woes. But like a miracle from heaven, Dan happened to have chosen to sit with two confident and capable writers. These students did not know one another before my class, but they grew to trust each other as we followed the daily routines of self-selected independent reading, talking about our reading, writing about our reading (or something else personal or thematically related to the lesson), and sharing our writing with our table groups.

Prior to independent notebook writing time, sometimes I’d say, “Today as you share your writing in your groups, let’s listen for just one phrase or sentence that you think holds a punch. Talk about why you like what they wrote.” This instruction gave students a heads up. Oh, I need to be sure to write at least one pretty good sentence.

One pretty good sentence was a good starting place for Dan. This micro writing gave Dan his first “hits.” And once he started to gain some confidence, he started to write more. Once Dan started to write more, he started asking for help to make his writing better. I think that is what it means to be a writer–wanting to improve your writing.

I think sometimes we get rushed. We expect more than some students are able to give. When I first started teaching, I assigned writing instead of teaching writers. Thank God I learned a better way. I would have missed out on a lot of joy in my teaching career.

I don’t know that Dan will ever have to write in his career in the military. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that he can write, and he knows he can. Even if it’s just a pretty good sentence and another and another.

Amy Rasmussen lives in a small but about to burst small town in North Texas with her husband of 35 years, her poison dart frogs Napoleon and Lafayette, her Shelties Des and Mac, and her extensive and time-consuming rare tropical plant collection. She believes educators should Do Nothing all summer. (Affiliate link, so you buy, 3TT gets a little something.) You can find Amy on Twitter @amyrass, although she rarely tweets anymore, or on IG @amyleigh_arts1, where she posts about grandkids and grand plants.

Getting Smarter about Informative Texts

I’ve been thinking about how we use informational texts in our classrooms–if we use them and how often–since Tosh wrote about this topic about a month ago. Her statement is so me:

“I, like many other language arts teachers, overvalued and overemphasized the genres of fiction in the lessons I taught, and now I’m on a mission (crusade?) to help teachers connect students with interesting and complex informational texts that can broaden their knowledge of the world around them as well as model the writing they will have to do in that world.”

Like Tosh, I have my own 20/20 hindsight. And while I never taught my own children in an ELAR class, I did facilitate years of workshops where students “wrote prolifically in their journals and experimented with different writing styles. . . [and] a lot of poetry writing and narratives and imaginative stories” and little focus on reading “more complex informational texts.” Like Tosh, I felt “by focusing on the beauty of language and expression, I neglected the power and practicality of strong informational reading and writing skills.”

And then I got smarter.

It wasn’t that I needed to do away with the the reading and writing practices I had been doing. This kind of reading and writing works magic in developing relationships and beginning the habits of mind of authentic readers and writers–engagement soars when students feel the emotional tug of a beautifully written story or poem, and we invite them to write beside it and then share their writing with their peers. What I needed to do was use these practices as a springboard into an exploration of the more complex informational texts I knew my students needed.

I also knew that to keep students engaged, the spring in my board needed just a little bounce not a 10 foot one. Instead of a sharp shift from one type of reading and writing into another, we took a slow curve. We started mining our own expressive writing for topics we could research, read, and write about in other forms.

For example, since our first major writing piece was narrative, we’d packed our writer’s notebooks with multiple quick writes that sparked reflections about personal events in our lives. Imbedded in these events were topics–topics that could lead to a search for information.

Take my student Jordan (name has been changed for privacy) as an example. He wrote a touching narrative about his first memory after arriving in the United States from Mexico with his parents. He was five. A few of the topics Jordan identified in his piece included: immigration, parent/child relationships, parental responsibilities, financial hardships, mental health, physical health, citizenship both in home and new country. Jordan had a lot of ideas to work with as he chose a topic for our next major writing piece, an informative essay.

Topic mining like this can take time. Many students had a difficult time putting a name to the topics they had written about in their narratives. They also had difficulty in narrowing down those topics. But this is the beauty of talk in a workshop classroom–students talked about their writing. They reflected on it more. They shared their ideas–and they gave one another, writer to writer, authentic feedback.

Photo by Bruna Fiscuk on Unsplash. Narrowing topics is often like this quarry: stair step it down until the topic is small enough yet rich enough to write enough. Photo by Bruna Fiscuk on Unsplash.

Of course, as my writers moved into thinking about their informational writing, I started sharing informational texts we used as mentors. This is when we challenged ourselves with text complexity. We read and studied structure and language use. We discussed objective and subjective views and determined if we read any bias. We delved into how writers use data and statistics or why they might choose not to. And more.

And the bounce from narrative into informational writing worked. And it worked again later as we moved from informative writing into argument and later into spoken-word poetry.

Topic mining like this saves time. More often than not, students stuck with the same topic throughout the school year they wrote about during the first three weeks of school. And with each deep dive into form, students practiced layering skills, be it a variety of sentence structures, precise diction, or good grammar. (Skills all learned and practiced via mini-lessons.)

Informational reading and writing is vital to the success of our students beyond high school. We know this. (Think contracts, lease agreements, college textbooks.) I think we also know that some informational texts are downright boring (contracts, lease agreements, college textbooks.) And if your students are like mine, any text over one page–no matter what the writing style–is not likely to get much more than a quick skim without some pretty intense pleading.

When students choose their topics, our chances of engagement–pivotal for learning–grow exponentially. And the student who chooses to write a narrative about her family getting evicted after her father’s illness just might end up being the adult who writes that complex lease agreement.

While not your typical complex informational texts, here’s two I’ve used with high school students with great success: Joyas Voladores and How to Change a Diaper both by Brian Doyle. (P.S. If you are not familiar with The American Scholar, it’s a gold mine of fine writing.)

I’d love to know your favorite informational texts you use to teach your readers and writers. Please list them in the comments.

Amy Rasmussen reads voraciously, writes daily, and chooses texts to use with students wisely. She’s an advocate for student choice in every teaching practice. She lives and works in N. Texas. You can find her on Twitter @amyrass, although these days she’s mostly a lurker.

Using sorts to shake up the routine and move toward student-generated talk

So much of what happens in English class is internal. Students read and think, they think and write, and we work to help them make their thinking visible. When we aren’t reading and writing we’re often talking, which can still feel internal (or less hands-on) as we process what others say and ponder how to respond. Sometimes, especially at the end of the year, I feel the weight of this routine and want to shake things up so we can better enter into into those reading, thinking, and writing times.

One small strategy I’ve been relying on this year to add some hands-on moments in my junior English classes is a simple sort. Basically I gave each group a pile of examples (short texts, images, quotes, etc.), asked them to sort the examples on their tables, and asked them to defend their arrangements. The task is quick, collaborative, somewhat tactile, and it gives me a chance to engage each group with some on-the-spot feedback as groups tend to stand around their tables (you can see this in the second picture below) and try different sorting patterns. We often did this as a bell-ringer to review the previous lesson or as an extension activity. It can be as quick as five minutes or drawn out to fifteen if the discussion is rich and I spend time with each group. This year my room was organized in 7 groups of 4 and we tried the following types of sorts:

  • Spectrum sort: Students sorted these sources on a spectrum between “truthiness” and “factfulness” (our research unit focus was conspiracy theories) and then had to defend the placement. This gave me a chance to ask groups and individuals really specific sourcing questions: “Why is the Flat Earth tweet more factful than the Taylor Swift tweet? Why does your group have the article with a quote closer to truthiness than the NASA piece?” You could easily substitute any two traits on a spectrum to reframe the evaluation of examples.
  • Quadrant sort: Students map pictures of the characters (I usually do this with Of Mice and Men or Gatsby) into four quadrants using two traits like empathy and likability. For example, Curley’s wife may not be likable but we empathize with her. Tables can compare the four quadrants easily since it’s visual which extends the discussion. It also leads to great thinking about the two axis traits (for example, what do you notice about who we tend to empathize with? How does the Fitzgerald render Tom unlikable? Is likability or our ability to empathize with a character more important?). Students could easily re-map using two different traits. And really, after the sort and discussion they’re ready to write about these characters.  
  • Pattern sort: For this I usually tell students: “Choose a way to organize the examples you have.” I’ve used quotes, books, and editorial cartoons (I pull 5-6 from the current week). They usually struggle to think of how to do this, figure something out, explain their logic, and then I tell them, “Great. Now do it a different way.” It forces them to think about the relationships between the texts or ideas in different ways as they generate their own spectrums or quadrants. I like to do this after independent reading when people have a variety of books because the discussion becomes rich as they consider character, plot, structure, setting, and symbols without realizing that’s what they’re doing. When sorting quotes, it’s a good segway into thinking about the structure of an essay (considering the quotes like different examples you might organize).

This is a pre-Covid example of a pattern sort my students did with their summer reading novels.

  • Classification sort: This is a more straight-forward formative check. I can quickly tell if students have the right mode for this collection of short visual texts and coach them on-the-spot.

This is not a magical or earth-shattering strategy, but it’s easily adaptable and I like how it enables opportunities for me to shift from teacher-generated discussion to co-creation and student-generated discussion (see Kallack and Zmuda for more on this).

Teacher Generated

I specify the type of sort and the parameters

ex: create a quadrant sort for these Gatsby characters based on their likability and empathy

Teacher and Student Co-Created

I specify the type of sort and they set the parameter

ex: create a quadrant sort for these Gatsby characters by choosing two traits

Student Generated

Students specify the type of sort they will use and articulate their own parameters

ex: take these examples and organize them in some fashion; be ready to defend how and why they’re organized that way

The liveliness of the discussion makes me keep coming back to this simple strategy. Because it’s hands-on and visual students willingly engage and it adds energy to the room.  I’m able to talk more with students (instead of at them) as they work. By catching each group I can directly question or follow-up with nearly every student during a sort. This lets the lesson start with a conflict or problem to solve so it gives us momentum. Then we’re ready to dive into the next reading, thinking, or writing task, a little more awake, a little more ready to take on the world.

Nathan Coates teaches junior English at Mason High School, a large suburban district near Cincinnati, Ohio. He’d love to hear what books you’re excited about reading or adding to your class reading lists next year: coatesn@masonohioschools.com

Walk and Confer: Another Way Back

The eleven year old (11 yo) and I–and sometimes the 8 yo–have been going on a lot of walks. Usually initiated by me, he readily (and sometimes the 8 yo but usually if we scooter) accepts. On these walks, I mostly listen. I’ve learned much about Star Wars, the Percy Jackson series, the Harry Potter series, LEGOS, Minecraft, the history of baseball, birds… and whatever else he’s been reading and viewing and creating. As we walk, shoulder to shoulder (he’s getting taller!), looking at the trees and for birds, we connect. But I’ve also discovered that I can ask questions. Yesterday 11 yo offered his opinion that books are really preferable to movies because the movies always leave out or change key details (yep, full on book nerds in this house). So I asked him why he thought the movie makers would choose to leave out details. He launched into an animated explanation involving the Harry Potter books versus the movies. Our walking and talking, at times it seems, has been connecting and conferring. We’ve been moving together toward shared meaning. 

This kind of meaningful movement may be just what we need when school resumes. When my 8 yo learned about her first class meeting over Google Meet, she was delighted to learn that she too would get to be the little box on the screen. I laughed, but it’s heart-wrenching. We’ve all become little boxes on the screen. And the limited dimensionality of that is an effect of this shared trauma. When school resumes, then, how do we move together toward shared meaning with the now larger than life persons gathered between our four walls?

We move. We listen. We talk. We engage our learners in the walking reading or writing conference. Instead of pulling up the stool alongside the desk or sitting across the table from one another, business-as-usual acts that might now evoke anxiety and fear after months of social distancing, we walk. Walking will allow us to fall into rapport (body mirroring), to find an easiness with our body language that will make it easier to talk and to connect. Feeling scared or anxious can make it difficult to look someone in the eye, and walking removes that pressure. And knowing that learners will not only need to re-learn how to share a physical space with our bodies and with our words, everyone in the room can walk with a partner as we walk and confer with individual students or pairs of students. We can use questions or prompts (on cards to flip through) or post around the building; here and here are a few resources around walking and talking. Our typical conferring prompts remain valuable, too. Moving and conferring is another way back. Not just to each other. But to meaning and creativity and possibility and hope.

In my head, I keep hearing the words of Virginia Wolff: “Better than these walks…”. These walks with my 11 yo and 8 yo may be what I remember most about this time in quarantine. Better than these walks as learners will be when we can be shoulder to shoulder, connecting, moving together toward renewal. 

Kristin Jeschke likes to move (unless her nose is in a book). She serves an active and caring staff as an instructional coach at Waukee High School in Waukee, Iowa. Follow her on Twitter @kajeschke. 

 

The Humble Pause and Its Possibilities

In my last post, I wrote about the power of one word–how one word might anchor us in meaning and also make steadfast our mission. I decided on pause. 

Truly pausing requires a certain degree of humility–the kind of humility that requires seeking the unique expression of another’s thoughts or ideas, the kind of humility that elevates those expressions, the kind of humility that necessitates low self-preoccupation. I’ve got much to learn about pausing, especially that part about not focusing on my own thoughts and ideas (workin’ on that whole humility thing!). 

Professionally, choosing pause will help me show up better in some collaborative spaces. I can ask myself whether or not my emerging ideas are really that urgent and instead give space for others’ thinking to surface. It will also help improve my one-to-one coaching. Making intentional efforts to pause my mind and my body will signal my dedication to the person whom I’m coaching.  In either kind of moment, I’ve begun saying to myself, “Pause. Wait. Lean back. Look away.” Wait is a necessary reminder because although I sang a wait-time song in my head in the classroom, engaging in dialogue pressures me into continuous contribution. Hence the reminder. Lean back and look away compel me to check the intensity of my body (am I leaning in, ready to pounce on the next idea?) and signal subtly an openness to what comes next. Interestingly enough, in the moments when I’ve actually adhered to this mantra, I feel peaceful, my own thoughts quieted. And then, neat things happen. 

This occurred most recently as I supported a teacher and his College Prep English students. They were working on interviewing one another to uncover a story that would humanize them to each other, using Humans of New York pieces as mentor texts. I relish my involvement in this, both because for a few years I led my College Prep seniors through this and because I had the opportunity to practice pausing.  When my teaching partner and I first began engaging our students in this, we knew that to uncover a meaningful story, our students needed modeling of strong questioning and intentional listening if their interactions were to be meaningful. We engaged our instructional coaches and other district leaders in this intentional modeling.

So, this time I interviewed my colleague while students observed and made notes. They noticed the pausing, observing that I took a few seconds after my colleague spoke, inferring that this seemed to give him space to say all he needed to say. Another student reflected how this differed from other interviews: as the interviewer, I didn’t interrupt when I thought I had enough information. Again–that whole low self-preoccupation thing afforded another person the space to truly think and reflect. Through the dialogue, my colleague’s thinking was amplified, and his self-awareness increased.  Pausing provided the space for this. 

Engaging students in work like creating their own Humans of the Classroom stories prioritizes the importance of listening with their minds and bodies (Charles wrote about the process he follows here). Our students spend ten plus minutes with a partner; one partner interviews the other, asking questions, using follow up questions, paraphrasing, mirroring body language. We urge them to record the interview so that note taking doesn’t interfere with whole self listening. It’s a moment of profound connections in the classroom. It’s a moment that first as a teacher facilitating and now as an instructional coach observing where I can pause, look around, and  revel in its power and beauty.

Microlab protocol is another way to intentionally honor all voices and cultivate the depth of thought that culminates from the humble pause. It is a thinking routine depicted in Making Thinking Visible (and found elsewhere). Here are the steps.

  1. Students begin first by spending five to ten minutes on their own engaging with whatever material, prompts, or questions they need to grapple with. 
  2. Then, students form small groups and number off. 
  3. With teacher acting as timekeeper, the first student shares their thinking, speaking for the entire time while the other students listen and take notes if they feel they will help. No one else speaks. 
  4. When the student’s time is up, the teacher mandates twenty to thirty seconds of silence. The teacher urges the students to mentally review what they heard. IT’S A BUILT IN PAUSE!!!!
  5. Each student in the group has their turn, following the same procedure. 
  6. Finally, an open discussion ensues. 

Using the protocol helps students learn that productive dialogue is just as much about listening as it is about speaking, that a person’s ideas as an expression of that person are worthy and deserve air time, that expression of them allows for pathways to connection, and that fostering those connections elevates all. The pause in the protocol is integral to this. 

As I write this, I find that I’m pausing here to wonder.

What is possible when we teach students about the power of pausing and its role in listening?

What happens if we anchor their classroom interactions in strong listening skills, using activities and tools like these to help them?

What happens, if in this world where some people shout and stomp to suppress the voices of others, we prioritize the pause to inspire just interactions?    

What is possible when we as educators prioritize the pause?

Kristin Jeschke is an Instructional Coach at Waukee High School in Waukee, Iowa. She’s working in all parts of her life to pause more. Having just spent time with her toddler niece and nephew, the voice in her head reminds her to wait, wait. 

 

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

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