Category Archives: Student Blogs

15 Reasons to Read as Written by High School Seniors

You, dear Three Teachers Talk reader, are about to enter another dimension. A dimension not only of Readers Writers Workshop, but of very strange Halloween happenings. A journey into a wondrous land of…a post returned from the dead. 

A few days back, Lauren Zucker, fellow educational blogger, reached out to ask about a post I had written back in 2017 detailing the insights of her awesome blogging seniors. The post, it seemed, had…DISAPPEARED. Diving into the bowels of Word Press, I too came up empty. It wasn’t until my husband took me to the eerie depths of the Way Back Machine that I found my deleted post, and can run it here for Lauren to link to, and hopefully for you to enjoy if you missed it the first time around. Happy Halloween to all! 


I was giving my thumb a workout last week on Twitter, scrolling past political fallacies and pundit reports, quips from Ellen about cats, and sad attempts by the Packers organization to distract themselves from their lack of big plans this Super Bowl Weekend (single tear running down my cheek) and I came across an irresistible link: 15 Reasons Why You Should Read.

Aaaaaaand, I’m hooked.
Click.
Scroll.

And what to my wondering eyes should appear, but 15 reasons to read, linked in individual blog posts (wait for it!), written by students for their Senior English Seminar class blog and inspired by Kelly Gallagher’s Reading Reasons: Motivational Mini-Lessons for Middle and High School.

A little investigation had me scrolling (no wonder my right eye has been twitching for two months…I may need an eyepatch soon) through the class blog of, English educator and doctoral candidate at Fordham University, Lauren Zucker’s third period students, whose sweet smiles look just like the seniors in my own classroom: five parts confidence, fifteen parts senioritis, three parts fear, two parts energy drink, and boundless potential.

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The possibilities with these blogs are endless:

  • Have your students read through them and reflect on one that stands out to investigate further.
  • Put just the rules up on the board and generate some discussion on initial impressions, connections, etc.
  • Comment on the student posts with personal experiences to connect student blogger to students in your classroom.
  • Have students write their own blog posts about the benefits of reading.
  • Challenge students to synthesize some of the logos from these blog posts into an oral defense of the endless beauty that is reading.

Below, brief explorations of each reason to read. I loved diving into this student thinking and connecting their ideas to my classroom.

  1. Reading Improves Your Social Understanding by Andrew Zayas 

    Andrew speaks to a common theme in high schools across America: We live and work in bubbles. As I suggest to my students, reading affords you the opportunity to live lives, solve problems, and meet people you may not have even considered before. Those experiences can provide, as Andrew suggests, “an unlimited source of social knowledge,” that is invaluable in a time when people need to understand one another better if we ever hope to overcome all that divides us.

  2. Reading Reduces Your Stress by Avery Semkow


    Avery explores a study by the University of Sussex in which test subjects were taken through several activities to elevate their stress levels. Reading silently for only six minutes slowed the subjects’ heart rate and relaxed muscles to a level of stress that was even lower than before they started. SIX MINUTES! When student sit in our classrooms and read for ten minutes, a veritable spa service with those four extra minutes, we are helping them to calm, focus, center. Namaste, fellow readers. Let’s do our hearts some good.

  3. Reading Helps You Sleep Better by Ben Tyler

    Similar to the study above, Ben’s piece suggests that reading, again for as few as six minutes, can help you fall asleep much faster. I’m not sure I love what this means for my classroom (at 7:20 a.m.), but I know it to be true in my own life. Or maybe that’s the full-time job and a preschooler at home. But seriously, our students need more and better sleep. According to the Sleep Foundation, only 15% of high school students get the recommended eight hours of sleep each night. If we can’t get them to bed sooner, at least we can help them fall asleep faster (and without glowing phones in their faces). Challenge your students to start small and commit to heading to bed with their books to read for even five minutes. It’s like a certain snack crisp that comes in a tube…bet you can’t read for just five minutes.

  4. Reading Develops Empathy by Skylar Giarusso

    If there is one thing our world needs right this very minute, it’s more empathy. Not sympathy, not apathy, but empathy. The words of Atticus Finch ring more and more true each time I read them. If we could all just “climb into someone’s skin and walk around in it,”  I think we could benefit from the shared perspectives that promote more patience, tolerance, and civil discourse.

  5. Audiobooks Are Another Great Option by Thomas Hamrah

    Let’s get this out of the way – I have never listened to an audiobook. Not because I don’t want to, but mostly because I haven’t broken my longstanding addiction to NPR, so most of my car time is either spent listening to Morning Edition or, if Ellie is in the car, “Let it Go” from Frozen. What’s interesting to me is that Thomas explores the idea that students think listening to an audiobook is cheating, but like most things, it’s only cheating if you don’t do the actual work. Attentive listening is a necessary life skill, one we promote in the classroom as it is often underdeveloped in our students (Let’s get real. Many adults need more work at listening too. Listen first. Think of a response and talk later). Stories are meant to be heard. Listening isn’t cheating.

  6. Reading Shapes Your Personality by Tori Murry

    Tory takes her self-described “fascination with psychology” and uses the same study as Skylar but moves her conclusions in another direction. The class discussed which parts of your personality are genetically linked to relatives and which parts you can craft. I know that adolescence finds our students at the prime point in their lives to become independent thinkers, and thereby, independent people. I’d like to believe that I’m equal parts Elizabeth Bennett, Mary Anne Spier, Jo March (though I’m probably more of a Meg, so room to grow in spirit there), Offred, and the Lorax. I think it would be a blast to have students help support elements of their personalities with book characters.

  7. Reading is Fun by John Miele

    I loved that John explored how reading can challenge you to solve a mystery, allow you to escape reality, and be a “part of something” all at the same time. I’ve seen it happen in my room. I gushed so long and hard about A Monster Calls, that I now have a group of about 25 students that want to meet on a Saturday at the movie theater to see it together. “We can go to the movie and then get coffee. You know…be collegiate and talk about whether or not the movie does the book justice.” Fun! In addition, that social element can be defining. “Everyone” read R.L. Stine when I was a kid. Our students “all” read Harry Potter. Books promote belonging and genuine belonging promotes positive feelings. This is at the heart of my classroom and I may be biased, but it is fun.

  8. Reading Will Make You Live Longer by Maeson Nolan

    I’m going to need extra years in my life to read all the books on my “next up” list, that’s for sure, so if a study from Yale is telling me that reading 3.5 hours per week will add two years to my life, I’ll dismiss my misgivings about sample size, variables, and math in general (never been my strong suit anyway). 730 days is a lot of reading. Now, I just need to get Yale to do a study on beach reading.

  9. Choice Encourages Reading by Nicole Kudelka

    Choice is nothing new to 3TT, but what struck me about this perspective was the way one of Nicole’s classmates phrased her insights on why choice matters: “Assigned books become more of an obstacle, and shortcuts are taken because the grade is more important than the actual book.” Amy’s post on choice yesterday, shared this same sentiment: When we “make kids read a book,” we might as well mandate that they enjoy it while we’re at it. My honors kids, by and large, didn’t read more when I assigned nine whole class novels, they just got better at convincing me they read nine books. Cultural literacy and choice can coexist, they need not be mutually exclusive, so we must work to increase choice to build volume and then push for complexities (classic or not). Penny Kittle says that we must first engage in order to build volume, then complexity can follow.

  10. Reading Doubles Your Vocabulary by Brian Sayre

    A voluminous lexicon can be procured through bibliophilic tendencies. Win.

  11. Reading Preserves Your Memory by Claire Blass

    If I am going to live two years longer, I’d like to remember those years, and all that came before. No surprise, that stimulating your brain with books can help sharpen brain function. In fact, I told my classes today before silent reading that I was presenting them with an opportunity to not only be smarter but think smarter. Seriously, will my benevolence ever cease?

  12. Just Ten Minutes of Reading Yields Better Reading by Griffen Klauser

    Griffen explores the idea that 10 minutes of reading per day (again, classes, you are welcome) is a stepping stone. In his own small experiment over Thanksgiving break, he challenged himself to read just ten minutes per day. By the end of the break, he read 90 minutes in one day because he was so “into” his book. As the brain is a muscle, it needs training. I’m never going to make it through a sixty-minute spin class if I haven’t exercised in months. I’m never going to finish 601 pages in East of Eden if I don’t keep after it in small chunks. And if I could give two hoots about what I’m reading, I’m not even going to make ten minutes a day for it. So, please see #9.

  13. More Reading = Better Writing by Nick Frasco

    “Reading molds your writing style.” Preach, Nick. Preach.

  14. Reading Changes Your Perspective by Noah Slakter

    I love that Noah’s insights run completely contrary to my piece Books Can’t Be Bullied. He argues that the text means nothing without a reader to understand it, and that understanding can vary from person to person (Transactional Theory), anyone?. I think back to my earliest days of teaching. Five sections of freshmen per day. Five days per week. It’s the year I developed my saying about supporting an opinion on a text with text evidence: “As long as you don’t tell me it’s about a giraffe (as I have never read something solely about a giraffe), you’re right.” Their opinions varied as widely as their converse shoe color, so we learned to synthesize those perspectives to get at meaning. Did opinions change? Certainly. Did students grow in hearing the varying perspectives of their classmates? Certainly.

  15. Reading Gives Your Brain a Workout by Samantha Bernstein

    Reading these 15 pieces certainly gave my brain a workout! I’m proof that it’s true. I also loved Samantha’s voice when she said, “The mental task of reading words on a page, processing them, hearing the voice in your head, creating a picture in your mind, and following a plot is not only a mouthful but a nice stretch for your noggin.” She encourages us all to show our brains “some love.” I love it.

If you’d like to read the student blogs in their entirety or pass along the readings to colleagues and students, take a look at each of the pieces here. And don’t forget to follow Lauren @LGZreader for more great ideas and insights. If you want to take a look at how she’s having her students promote their work on Twitter, take a look at #SESNH.


Lisa Dennis spends her school days teaching AP Language and Honors/Pre-AP Sophomores, while also leading the fearless English department at Franklin High School, just outside Milwaukee, Wisconsin where she lives with her husband Nick, daughter Ellie, and beagle Scout.  She is a firm believer that a youthful spirit, a kind heart, a big smile, and a good book can ease most of life’s more troublesome quarrels. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum.

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Will You Share Your AP Scores? Here We Go Again

I am not mean very often, but last week I was mean. Okay, not mean exactly, but certainly snarky.

I friend asked me about my AP scores. Innocent question. Struck a nerve.

I’ve written about AP English and AP test scores in the past, and I imagine as long as I teach AP English Language and Composition, I will continue to do so. I really do not mean to be snarky, but the more I talk with kids about their reading lives, the more I keep hoping more and more teachers Aim Higher — not just in AP classes, but in all English classes.

In the signature line of my school email, I include this quote by Emerson:  “We aim above the mark to hit the mark.”

I like that it helps me focus on what matters in my practice:  Teaching beyond a test. Always teaching beyond a test.

So what does this look like in my practice? Mostly, it looks like helping readers find their way back to a love of reading. After all, the best readers are usually the best writers, and the best readers and writers are usually the best test takers.

When Jessica asked me about my test scores last week, I know she was just working on building a case for choice books on her campus, a case for a workshop pedagogy. And while my scores did improve 50% the first year I moved to readers-writers workshop, no testing data captures the learning that happens in my classroom. No data shows an accurate picture of my students’ growth as readers and writers.

See for yourself:

For our midterm last week, my students wrote self-evaluations of their reading lives. Their words are much more valuable than mine when it comes to adding weight to the debate for time to read and choice of books in all English classes.

Leslie is a talker. She speaks with a beautiful Spanish accent and loves to use the new

LeslieandGiselle

Giselle and Leslie, Nicola Yoon fans, dying for the movie!

vocabulary words she’s studying. I often have to hush her table because these girls like to talk about what they are reading during reading time. The fuss over Everything Everything by Nicola Yoon is on-going. They LOVE that book! Leslie writes:

“My reading goal for next nine weeks is seven books, I want to reach my reading goal and I will make it happen by reading more and do it because I enjoy it not just because I have to do it. I can gladly say that I love reading now, back then I used to be allergic to books and never touch them to read the beautiful stories that they have inside their covers.  After I become the perfect reader I intend to become the perfect writer.”

Giselle’s list of books she’s read so far this year reads like a spine poem. When she writes about whole class novels, she means our book club titles. I use book clubs to push many students into reading more complex books.

Lissbeth has been in the U.S. for three years. She titled her post “No Excuses for Not Reading.” My favorite line: “One of the things that I have learn thanks to my English teachers, is that reading is not just something you do for entertainment, it can also become a lifestyle.” Of course!

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Audrey’s Currently Reading list

Already a reader when she entered my class, Audrey explains her reading experience since last August:

I have learned some about myself as a reader. I’ve learned that I like to stay in my reading comfort zone, but with a little nudge I’m able to read other genres and enjoy it. I’ve learned that I’m always growing as a reader. My reading rate can always improve. My vocabulary can always improve. As a reader I know that with due time, and with a lot of reading and determination, I can read ANYTHING!” [Note: If you read Audrey’s full post, when she mentions me giving the class a list, she’s referring to our book club choices. I do not have a list of all the books in my classroom library.]

 

Some students are in my block class, so I’ve only had them since mid January.

Cheyenne, who has read 14 books since the beginning of the semester, feels pretty strongly

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Cheyenne’s book stack

about the whole class novel. She writes: “I definitely have a deep dislike for class novels. This has more to do with the fact that I hate being forced to read certain books by certain deadlines, for me, it defeats the thrill, if you will, of reading the book in the first place.”

This year was the first time since middle school that I have been excited to read in class, and that was because we weren’t assigned a class book to read and we got to choose a book we wanted to read,” Rachel writes.

If you don’t believe some students lose a love of reading because of school, ask them. Ask them questions about what happened. Every kid I know was once an excited reader. Few are when they get to me in 11th grade.

Reghan confirms this in her post. She writes:

From elementary school through middle school, I read every kind of book, big or small. From nonfiction books about the unsinkable, sunken ship: the Titanic, to fantasy books about alternate universes and dystopian societies, I was a reader.

“Until my freshman year of high school.

“Ninth grade wasn’t easy for me. A lot went on that year with my family and personal life, causing me to be unfocused on school, my grades, and reading…and my transcript made that very obvious. I don’t think I read even one book in that entire year, summer included. This carried into my sophomore year, as well as part of my Junior year too. Zero books read, many to go.

“Being in AP English this semester and having to work hard to stay afloat has helped me tremendously and it wouldn’t be possible without my teachers . . . I’ve read four books this nine weeks including: Paper Towns by John Green, Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foerand Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn and I’m on my fifth: Columbine by Dave Cullen. That’s more than I’ve read in the last three years, combined. I’ve been introduced to books that I’ve never heard of and books that I never would’ve picked on my own. In fact, thanks to our assigned book clubs, I now have a new favorite book which is the aforementioned, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.

” I credit Mrs. Rasmussen with my progress because of her belief that we as students are more likely to read if we’re choosing books that we want, not that our chosen for us. In my experience, any book that has been chosen for me by a teacher, has been uninteresting and/or hard to finish. Being able to choose has only helped me and there’s proof in the numbers. Not only has this freedom improved my desire to read, but it has showed me who I am and what I like as a reader.”

And then there’s Ciara, who wrote “The Oprah Winfrey (with a little twist) Show.” Here’s a reader I am still working on, but oh, her writing voice. And her taste in TV shows! (We’ve bonded lately over quite a few.)


So in a post with AP test scores in the title, I give you a post about what students have to say about their reading lives.

That’s gonna be my answer every single time.

I happen to be assigned to teach AP English Language and Comp, but what I teach is how to love reading to students who miss it. Most of them miss it.

What are you doing about it?

 

Amy Rasmussen lives in north Texas and teaches AP English Language and English 3 to the Fighting Farmers at Lewisville High School. She also facilitates professional development for other teachers making the move into a workshop pedagogy. She adheres to the words of Emerson: “We aim above the mark to hit the mark,” and Jesus Christ: “Love one another.” Imagine a world if we all love more than we think we can. Follow Amy on Twitter @amyrass.

Part I. Blogging with My Writers and You Can, too.

“Mrs. Rasmussen, can we write on our blogs more than just for assignments for class?”

After we set up our personal blogs, I received a similar message from several of my students. Of course, I replied, “Yes.” (Inside I yelled “YAY!!” and danced around the room a few times.)

Students want to write other than when I assign it. Wow.

And we are off…

I doubt anyone would argue that digital writing is important. Most of our students do it anyway:  texting, tweeting, commenting on YouTube videos. We might as well help them do it well.

We might as well help them share their ideas, opinions, stories, and arguments in a way that allows them to show their learning — and build their credibility as citizen scholars. That’s what I want for my students anyway. I want them to know that their voices matter. Their writing matters.

They have to have an audience other than me to truly understand that. That’s why I blog with my students.

Every year I ask student to personalize an online writing space. I’ve blogged with students when we had to reserve the writing lab. I’ve blogged with students when I had 12 computers we shared in my classroom. Another year I had an ipad cart with 30 devices. Now I’m at a 1:1 ipad school. It is easier, but it is not necessary.

If you want students to blog, you can find a way to make it work. I urge you to not let the lack of technology prevent you from at least doing something with digital writing.

Every year I try something new to help students take ownership of their blogging.  I’ve learned a few things about setting up blogs and getting students to write on them.

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Here’s my blogging basics in a nutshell:

  • Build a case for blogging. I read “Blogging is the New Persuasive Essay” a few years back, and it helped me wrap my head around the how and why blogging works for the 21C student. I’ve even used this text as a reading piece with my students. They read, determine the author’s argument, and then have to defend, challenge, or qualify it. I can see pretty easily if a student is climbing on my blogging training willingly.

 

  • Conduct a little inventory of the blogsospere. Simply ask students to type “most popular blogs” into Google. Then ask them to do a bit of light reading. They might find “Top 15 Most Popular Blogs,” and they might recognize a few. They might find “The Top 10 Top Earning Bloggers in the World,” and you might see some jaws hit the floor. They might find “The 10 Most Inspirational Bloggers in the World,” and if we give them time to explore and read and think and play with the idea of become a blogger, we might get lucky, and our students might think: Hey, I can do this. This could be me!

 

  • Choose a platform. I’ve use Edublogs and WordPress in the past, and this year I am using Blogger because in my new district all students have google accounts. I’ve had no trouble learning blogger. It’s a Google product, so I figure if I cannot figure something out — or if kids can’t — we “Google it.” There’s a handy chart in this article that compares different blogging platforms used in education. You can decide for yourself which will work best for you and your students.

 

  • Take the time to get everyone set up. In year’s past I’ve expected students to know more than they do about using technology. Not every student is confident on a computer. Texting, yes. Applications, not so much. This year we took it slow. I created my own Blogger account and then modeled creating a new blog step-by-step in front of each of my six classes. I talked them through every step of their set up. Then I shared these instructions in writing, which include how they will be assessed for creating their blogs and their first blog post.

 

  • Show off students’ initial work. Besides asking students to follow each other, I think it is important to project their blogs and let everyone see what the class has created. Many students decide to change titles or themes or add different gadgets after they see the work of their peers. Here’s a few of my students’ blogs:  Jessica Ortiz, Mary SassamanDianna Sosa, Beatriz Vargas, Allie Tate.  (I do have male students; however, I have many more young women this year than young men. I just haven’t managed to follow all my writers’ blogs yet.)

 

Watch for Part 2 soon. I’ll write about how my students and I decide what we’ll blog about and what those choices look like in our AP English Language class.

Please share your questions about student blogging in the comments section. I’ll do my best to answer.

 

©Amy Rasmussen, 2011 – 2015

Good Writing Moves Us — THIS Writing Moves US

I want to include you in a celebration of the work of a student that represents several of my kids this year. If you teach, or have taught, ELL students, I know you will understand.

The last assignment was an intensive writing piece that we workshopped for about seven weeks. Writing in class almost daily, conferring regularly, and mini-lessons with mentor texts and modeling served as the routine. Students turned in their writing in three separate chunks, gave one another feedback at least three times, presented their final pieces (published on their personal blogs) as their semester exams. Formative assessments were student writing conferences and the checkpoints along the way. Summative assessments were a self-evaluation and a self-evaluation paired with my feedback from a rubric we crafted as a class.

Biak with the book she loved the most this year. She read 12.

Please read the writing of Biak Par. The poems are original, and the story is her own. Just before school was out, I had to call Biak to my desk and let her know that she failed the state English II EOC. Again. That was nothing short of heartbreaking — for both of us.

Take several minutes and read Biak’s story. You will read the words of an improving and authentic writer. These words are elegant, poignant, and powerful. Good writing moves us — this writing moves us. 

Now, take a look at Biak’s writing from the beginning of the year— her first blog post is here, and her second is here.

Now, think about her end-of-year piece of writing. I know it is narrative, but you will note what I do — improvement. So much improvement. Voice, coherence, organization.

I wish I had another year with Biak, and several of her friends. We’ve come so far, and this is the work she should be allowed to celebrate — not a test score.

I know — preaching to the choir.

©Amy Rasmussen, 2011 – 2015

6 Ways to Spend Your Snow Day

snow-day2So it’s your fifth snow day this winter…or your fifteenth.  Either way, you’ve done all of your spring cleaning, you can’t grade or lesson plan because you haven’t seen students for a week, and you’ve completely emptied your queues on Netflix and Hulu.  What’s a teacher to do?

1. Read a good book.  If you’re anything like the hundreds of English teachers I know, you love reading.  Use the time you’ve been cooped up to read something you’ve been wanting to but just haven’t had the time to start.  I haven’t stopped hearing about Jennifer Niven’s All the Bright Places, Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal, and Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot SeeI’ll think I’ll try to tackle the last two this week.

2. Write around a poem.  Penny Kittle shared once that she likes to tape poems into her notebook and write around them–it’s one way to move toward doing your own beautiful writing, she advised.  So, I signed up to receive the Poetry Foundation‘s daily poem via email, and when I read one I love, I print it and tape it into my writer’s notebook.  I’m amazed at the nuggets of written wisdom I arrive at after responding freely to a poem in writing.

3. Read a teaching book.  I’ve been wanting to finish Tom Romano’s Zigzag and Donalyn Miller’s Reading in the Wild for quite some time now, but with the day-to-day craze of the school year, it seems like the only time I find to read teaching books is over the summer.  This is the time of year, though, that I often need a little lift in my teaching spirit, so it’s always rewarding to explore some new thoughts from some of my old favorites.  Since I’m in the middle of a nonfiction book club and writing unit right now, I think I’ll settle down today with Georgia Heard’s Finding the Heart of Nonfiction.

4. Check out that dreaded State Test.  Dana Murphy at Two Writing Teachers reminded me that when our students are accustomed to writing in a choice-based, unit-driven workshop, they are not accustomed to writing to a prompt, and that while standardized tests do leave a bitter taste in our mouths, they are a reality our students must face.  If we want them to feel confident as writers in all environments, we must prepare them for all writing situations–especially the two or three standardized writing tests they may face each year.  Here in West Virginia, we’ve elected to go with SmarterBalanced as our Common Core-aligned assessment.  Today I’d like to spend some time looking at the writing portion of that test and brainstorming some lessons to help my students feel confident writing to those prompts.

5. Catch up with your tweeps. Twitter is a bottomless pit (seriously; you can get lost in it) of resources, ideas, and inspiration for teachers.  I could spend hours perusing the archives of #engchat, #titletalk, and #litlead, just to name a few.  I’d also love to look at the archives of some chats I missed recently–#mindsmadeforstories, for one.

6. Read incredible teacher blogs. I could browse the virtual thoughts of my colleagues forever!  We have so many brilliant and inspirational people in our profession, from the genius team at Nerdy Book Club to the marvelous ladies at Moving Writers; the steady wisdom of What’s Not Wrong to the joyful inspiration of the dirigible plum.  I’ve also been loving the thoughts of Hunting EnglishThe Reading Zone, and countless more…really.  I could never list all the great teacher blogs I’ve stumbled upon.  I feel so grateful to the many, many teacher-writers who have helped me fill my writer’s notebook with thoughts and ideas on dreary snow days like these.

What are your favorite ways to relieve the restlessness of several snow days?  Share in the comments!

Gifted and Talented Teacher Leaps off Cliff of Faith and Experimentation

Guest post by Tess Mueggenborg

Make no mistake about it: I’m a classical canon gal.  Always have been, always will be.  And when I say “classical,” I also mean “really old” – few things written after 1650 hold much interest for me.  Favorite work of literature? Milton’s Paradise Lost.  Favorite time period of literature? Early Roman Empire (Ovid & Virgil).  Favorite English Lit class from my undergrad days? Greek Tragedy.

But as much as I love the canon – and I’ve had surprising success with teaching the canon in the past – I’m also a pragmatist.  I know that what I love isn’t always what’s best for my students, and their learning should take priority over my passions (I know … radical idea, right?).  I also acknowledge that the real world in which I live and work is far from my ideal.  Would I like to devote all of my class time to discussing Beowulf and Canterbury Tales?  Of course.  But can I realistically get my students to read and engage with these texts, and develop a passion for them?  Not likely.  Some, of course, will – and I’m happy to guide them on their own paths of classical literature studies.  But I bet (I hope) that those students will wind up as English Majors, and they’ll get their fill of such works in college.  I must work with the students I have, not the students I wish I had.  And the students I have are awesome: bright, curious, hungry for meaningful learning and wisdom.  So this classical pragmatist has started to break her own mold.  Here’s how …

I teach a class known as World Experience; it’s for Gifted and Talented sophomore students, and it combines AP World History with literature.  The history drives the course – it sets the pace, scope, and sequence for the year.  It’s then pretty easy to match up literature with the corresponding time periods.  leap off cliffAncient River Valley civilizations at the start of the year? We read Gilgamesh and Horus the Hawk.  Classical civilizations come next – that mean Antigone and a few selections from Metamorphoses.  Next up is the Medieval period … and this has always been a struggle.  I love Medieval lit, I can read Middle English, and I can wax poetic on the virtues and merits of The Song of Roland and Sir Gawain and the Green Night ad nauseum.  And while the students usually enjoy these stories, they don’t usually get much out of this unit in terms of literature.  They don’t learn much about author’s craft, they can’t do much literary analysis, and they become so frustrated with the archaic language of the text that most of them give up … and it takes me another six weeks to pull them back into literature.  So this year, I’ve scrapped all this, and leapt off a cliff of faith and experimentation.  The results have been pleasantly surprising.

Our district head of English Language Arts was kind enough to buy $600 of books for my classroom library.  I got to choose every one of them: all award-winners (or by award-winning authors), all world literature, all contemporary, all high-level.  No softballs in this classroom library – these are, after all, GT students.  Each student got to pick a book (this was a time-consuming and sometimes contentious process, but it certainly got every student interested in the books and invested in their choice).  Once a week, they’ve been blogging about their novel, based on someone generic questions posed by me.  Some of the questions are just opinion (Do you like this book so far? Why or why not?); some of the questions are analytical (Who is the main protagonist of your novel? What problems do they encounter in the course of the novel? How do you predict they will resolve these problems … or not?); some relate back to the history half of the course (In what ways does your novel relate to the history we’ve studied so far this year?).  Some responses have been good.  Some have been profound, moving, passionate, and elegant.  None have been outright bad, and none have been missing.  That’s right: NONE have been missing.  Every student has been reading and blogging.  Even the student who earned a grade of 9 (yes, a single-digit 9) for the first 9-weeks is reading and blogging about her novel.  I’m calling this experiment a success.

To be fair, I should say: this hasn’t been easy, and it hasn’t been without challenges.  But they’re good challenges, and not insurmountable.  Some students read their novels in a week – and then wanted to borrow another book.  YES!  Many students didn’t devote enough time to reading their novel, and they’ve fallen behind.  But they haven’t given up: they’re still reading.  I haven’t had any complaints of “this book is boring,” though I’ve had many complaints of “this book is so sad/depressing/pessimistic/disheartening.”  Which has led to some great discussions about the point of literature, analysis of tone, and some hefty doses of maturation (I’m pretty sure the girl who read The Kite Runner in a weekend has been inwardly weeping for two weeks now).

We’re wrapping up this unit, and thus this great experiment.  And I think it bears repeating: I’m calling this experiment a success.  Enough of a success that I’ll be spending this weekend revamping the next unit (which starts Monday) to include more student choice and incorporate more of these novels, though in a slightly different fashion.  Stay tuned.

Am I still a classical canon gal? Heck yes. Always have been, always will be.  But my students don’t need to be classical canon fans – they just need to be readers, eager to engage with the world and its complexities.  I think they’re well on their way.

“Professor” Tess Mueggenborg teaches English (and anything else with which her students need help) at RL Turner High School.  Her academic passions lie in comparative language and literature.  The Professor lives in Dallas with her husband, Jeff. Tess’ on Twitter @profmueggenborg

Authenticity: Making it Real with Student Blogs

North Star of Texas Writing Project (NSTWP), in which I am a teacher consultant, asserts that authenticity is connecting student learning with significant audiences, tasks, and purposes.

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Blogging with my students is one way in which I make that connection happen. Writing posts and commenting on the work of our peers has become an integral part of my readers/writers workshop classroom.

photo: Petras Kudaras

During the second week of school, once schedule changes calm down a bit, I introduced the idea of blogging to my students. This year I wrote a post on my class blog and imbedded an article that made them see that blogging can have value to their futures. You can see that here.

I’ve had students use Edublogs as their blog platform in the past, and I know some teachers have their students use Kidblogs. I decided to go with WordPress this year. I thought using the “real world” blog platform would be a good idea. You know, just in case some students loved the idea and kept writing long after they leave my classroom. Finally, eight weeks into the school year, I am glad I went this route, but the set-up, especially with my 9th graders took a lot longer than I’ve had to spend in the past. (Most of my students are not as tech savvy as many technology advocates would like to believe. For more on that read this post:  Digital Novices vs Digital Natives.)

These are some ways I’m transforming my teaching by using student blogs this year (See this SAMR model for ideas on instructional transformation):

Timed Writing. I need students to be able to think quickly about a topic, organize their thoughts, and write effectively in a short period of time. Years ago I had students complete timed writings on paper with a pen, and I’d take the stack of essays home and laboriously grade them. By having students post to blogs, my classroom is getting close to being green. We do very little writing on paper anymore. I can read student posts with the swipe on my finger on my iPad, and I try to leave comments that inspire improvement in their writing. Sometimes I put the score from a rubric. Most times I say something I like about what students have written. They like that kind of feedback best, and it usually prompts some kind of improvement in their next post–something that rarely happened with the marks of my red pen.

For our first timed writing, students wrote about their reading lives. We spend 10 minutes at the beginning of each class period reading our self-selected books. I conference with each student, brief one-on-one chats. I learned more while reading student posts about their reading habits than I did in the prior eight weeks of school. I posted a reflection of my own reading life on my class blog with the actual assignment, and then students wrote on theirs. The response to our wide reading warmed my teacher heart. Read a few of these students’ posts, and you will see why: Helen–A Path Led by Wise Words; Gina–Lay Down the Bridges; Mian–A Passion for Books; Emilio–Reading Life

Our second timed writing, students wrote an argument in response to our in-class study of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “The American Scholar.” Some student posts were thoughtful and wise; most were ineffective and needed major revisions. All students wrote and showed what they’d learned from their reading and our class discussions.

Persuasive Practice. The AP Lang exam and the 10th grade STAAR test both require students to be effective persuasive writers. I like this blogger’s post:  Blogging is the New Persuasive Essay. As I teach my students how to use persuasive techniques, I also want them learning about their world. They have to know “stuff” to build their credibility after all. So every Monday my students write a post that they base upon something they read in the news. They scan headlines until they find a topic that interests them. Then they pull an idea from the article, and then they write an argument based on that idea. So far, we haven’t delved too deeply in the art of persuasion; we’ve talked mostly about form and structure and a few rhetorical devices, but some of my students have taken ownership of this weekly recurring assignment. Here’s a few to give you an idea:  Kathryn–Words Hurt; Ashley–Recycled Look or Recycled Lives; Jason–Smoking is Safer? Impossible; Adrian–Chemical Mistakes

Published Polished Pieces. As we move through different genres of writing, I need my students to fully immerse themselves in the process of creating effective and moving texts. We started the year with a focus on narrative. I know, it’s not on the AP exam or the STAAR test anymore. But story is so important. It’s what connects us as humans, and it’s story that has helped create a classroom community where students are not afraid to take risks and throw their hearts out on the page. While a few student narratives are not as polished as I would have liked prior to publication (grades being due always seems to interfere with authenticity), if you read just these three, you’ll see why story is important. I can be a better teacher to these PreAP students because of what I know from these posts. Esmeralda–Memories; Mercedes–What Do You Think About Moving? Bryanna–Why Batman?

I remember learning from Kelly Gallagher that students should write more than I can ever grade. Well, of all things in my teaching life, I’ve finally figured that one out the best. I cannot read every post my students write, but I can read a lot, and I can give a lot of feedback in a way that is meaningful so that students respond. We just started reading and leaving feedback for one another. I can already tell that this will be more valuable than just me giving feedback. After we spent two class days reading one another’s narrative posts, I had students tell me on their own narrative evaluations:  “I knew I could do better after I read other people’s.” For an example of our student feedback, read the comments on this one: Amy–Forever a Bye. The instruction I gave students was 1) Be polite but honest, 2) Bless something you think the writer did well, 3) Press a moment that needs more detail or description, 3) Address an issue of concern in regard to style, grammar, etc. For our first time, I’m proud of these students for the feedback they gave their friend.

Engaging student writers is often more than half the battle. So many times they have the attitutde “What’s in it for me?” By allowing students to choose their topics, and allowing them to express their true and authentic voices, I get better participation, and I get better writing, and I get to know the hearts and minds of my students.

That is all I ever really want.

photo: Dee Bamford

#NCTE13  Writing Teachers (Re)Inventing Literacy Instruction by Following the North Star

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