Category Archives: Writers

Shifting our Middle School Reading List to Include Authentic Voices

British Columbia, where I teach, has recently gone through a large shift in educational philosophy and has introduced an entirely new curriculum. The introduction of this new curriculum has required us to reflect on our current curriculum in our Grades 6-12 classes and make changes to reflect the changes required by the province. As well, this has afforded us the opportunity to reflect on our current reading lists and to refresh some of the novels we have our students read.

One of the first areas we focused on was our literature circle unit in our Grade 6 English classes. The unit was one that connected with the Social Studies curriculum our Grade 6 students were also studying and focused on immigration and migration stories. While we still liked the theme of this unit, it became quickly apparent that we needed to refresh our literature circle novels. While each of the novels we used to teach in the unit focused on immigration or migration stories from different parts of the world, not a single novel was written by an authentic voice. Instead, they were all written by caucasian and North American authors. While there are many amazing caucasian and North American authors we want to share with our students, in a unit about the immigrant experience it seemed a little strange that we had no immigrant voices. Many of our students are first generation Canadians whose parents immigrated from many different places in the world and we wanted our students to hear stories from immigrant voices or voices from the cultures being presented in the novels.

This started us on a quest to find new books for this unit. Below are the results of our English team reading as many novels we could find that would suit our criteria and the books we decided to replace our old reading list with:

Inside Out and Back Again: By Thanhha Lai: This beautiful novel in verse tells the story of Hà and her family. Hà has only known life in Saigon and the streets of her neighbourhood. When the Vietnam war starts, however, she and her family are forced to flee Saigon and end up in Alabama where she and her family experience the culture shock of living in a world completely foreign to the one they fled from.

Escape from Aleppo: By N.H. Sendai: This novel is set in the very current events happening in Syria. After the events of the Arab Spring and the war in Syria, 12 year old Nadia and her family are forced to flee their home in Aleppo, Syria. This harrowing and heartbreaking novel tells of what it is like to leave everything you know behind to make the dangerous trek to the unknown as Nadia and her family make their way through their war torn country to seek refuge in Turkey.

The Night Diary: By: Veera Hiranandani: In this novel we are transported to 1947 India where India has just won independence from British rule and the British held Indian territory has been divided into two separate countries: Pakistan and India. Our 12 year old protagonist Nisha is half Muslim and half Hindu and finds that she doesn’t know where she belongs anymore as the Hindu part of her extended family is moved to India and the Muslim part of her family is moved to Pakistan. Nisha and her family are originally resettled in Pakistan, but her father decides it is too dangerous for them to stay there. The story follows their family as they make the dangerous trek to attempt to leave what is now Pakistan to find a safer place to live.

The Only Road: By: Alexandra Diaz: This novel is the first in a series. When Jaime’s cousin Miguel is killed by the Alphas gang in the small town in Guatemala his family has called home for centuries, he knows it is no longer safe. The gang violence that surrounds him every day is so extreme and Jamie is worried he will be the next victim, so he flees with his other cousin Ángela to try and make their way to New Mexico to live with his older brother. This novel follows the dangerous journey they make largely on foot to get from Guatemala to the United States.

With these novel choices we are hoping to revitalize our Grade 6 literature circles and to provide our students with authentic voices sharing important stories of the risks people will take for the safety of their families.

Pam McMartin is English Department Head and Senior School Teacher Librarian at an independent school in Tsawwassen, British Columbia. She is thankfully enjoying her midterm break from school this week and has been working on repainting her bathroom and catching up on her reading (not at the same time) before heading back into the madness of end of the term teaching and marking. You can follow her on Twitter @psmcmartin.

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The Power of Authentic Literacy

Let me tell you about my fall, y’all. It’s been a doozy. 

Depending on which list of the top life stressors you look at, I’ve managed to hit two, maybe three, right on the head. And mine is spinning.

I moved last week. If you’ve ever packed and moved during the school year, you know how stupid I planned the timing. The Rockstars and Tylenol PM have kept me functioning. Some.

Sometimes life gets in the way. Sometimes life gets away from us.

new books in honor of my father

My English department surprised me with this gift of books in honor of my father — one of the sweetest things colleagues have ever done for me. My classroom library is growing!

My father passed away the first part of September. And while he was old, and his health had been fading for a while, his death hit me hard. I used to call him when I drove long distances alone to present workshops. I miss our talks. My dad was a quintessential optimist:  wise, encouraging, smart — and he believed in me.

We all need people who believe in us. 

Everyday I try to show my students I believe in them. They’ve been so great with all my spinning. Compassionate, kind, studious. Mostly.

I started at a new school this year, and I’ve remembered how much I love working with young people. I also remember how much I detest the distractions: the drills, the mandatory To-Do’s, the paperwork. But that’s a post for another day.

Most days I fake my way — I’ve yet to find a rhythm.

But that’s okay. I believe in the power of authentic literacy instruction. I know those who read and write and communicate well have a better chance at navigating life than those who don’t. 

So everyday we read. Everyday we write. Everyday we talk about our reading and writing. Every Friday we discuss important issues. I believe these things trump any other use of instructional time. The routines work. But for many students it is hard.

A few students fake their way — they’ve yet to find their reason.

That’s not okay. I will keep trying. Trying to get books in hands that spark joy in reading, trying to develop writers who believe in the power of words and the beauty of language, trying to get the quiet ones to share their thinking with their peers. They often have the greatest insights.

My evaluator visited my class last week. We were analyzing essays, discussing the writer’s craft –noticing the moves and their effect on meaning– and preparing to write our own Op-Eds. As the administrator left the room he whispered, “It’s hard to get them thinking.” 

Yesterday in our writing workshop, right after a little skills-based lesson on making intentional moves as writers, a young man said, “You mean everything I write has to mean something?”

What do you do with that?

I think we have a hard row to hoe, my friends. Gardener, or not, helping our students understand the role of critical thinking in their lives is what may save them. It may save us. It’s saved me for the past few months.

In a Forbes’ article published a year ago, titled “What Great Problem-solvers Do Differently,” we learn five skills that enable people to be great problem solvers:  deep technical expertise and experience; the ability to challenge, change, innovate, and push boundaries; a broad strategic focus rather than a narrow focus; drive/push; and excellent interpersonal skills.

I can’t help wondering how I can help students develop more of these skills while in my English class. I know it’s possible. Possibilities mentor hope.

This week a small group of my students — seniors who are eager yet terrified (their words not mine) to face the world after high school — and I chatted a bit about the responsibilities of adulting. I’m afraid I didn’t quell their fears. I might have quickened them. 

The stress that comes with independence sometimes sends us spinning. 

My students are my witnesses, and while I’d wish it otherwise, perhaps this fall is the most authentic I’ve ever been as a teacher.

 

Amy Rasmussen teaches senior English in a large suburban high school in North Texas. She tries to write beside her students and wrote this piece as a practice for their Op-Eds. She’s currently trying to unpack and get used to her new commute. Dallas traffic can be a doozy.

 

Implementing Readers Workshop by Shelby Scoffield

Teaching high school English is a difficult job. In a world overrun with cell phones and gadgets, getting students to actually sit down and read a book seems like an impossible task.  Every year that I taught the classics, students would depend on outside sources to get them through the reading, and sometimes completely ignore the book. 

It was when a former student came back to me and proudly declared “Ms. Scoffield, I never read one book in your class!” that I decided to restructure my class and implement a Readers Workshop. While researching, I heavily relied on books by Nancie Atwell and even traveled to Maine to see her school first hand. 

After implementing the workshop in my classroom, I have eventually come to the conclusion that allowing students to pick their own books in the English classroom drastically increases student interest and allows them to take a more active role in their learning. 

During the introductory unit, I hold a book tasting in my classroom. I hold conversations with the students and direct them to genres they would be interested in.  Between my classroom and the library, they find their top three books. 

After finding their selections, I introduce them to Goodreads and have them read the reviews of their chosen books. Once they make a final decision, we are finally able to launch into the unit. The process of choosing books takes several days.

Topics that we cover in the unit are: 

  • How to read your book
  • Characters
  • Elements of a Plot
  • Analysis of major passages 

In my classroom, we use the Station Rotation model of Blended Learning. When a student walks into my classroom, they look at the board and decide what assignment they want to complete that day. They are required to come to “Table One” sometime throughout the week, because that is a teacher led and often the hardest assignment for the week. 

What do the assignments usually look like?

Book Talk: For this assignment, students are required to start a Twitter conversation with a classmate on Twitter. They have specific questions they answer and a hashtag we use for the class. Check out #mhhsfreshies for ideas! This is also a good way for the students to ask authors questions. You never know who might respond!

Journal: Using excerpts from a mentor text, we practice skills like analyzing passages or creating a character profile. Once the skill is practiced, they apply it to their own books.

Blog: Students work on a blog post once a week. The question focuses on what is currently being discussed that week in class. Students are required to respond to other classmates. This is also a great opportunity to connect with other classes across the globe. 

Supplemental activity: This can be an assignment that the teacher uses to help students learn the skill that is being discussed. I have used it as an opportunity to do Cornell notes, make videos, or create Buzzfeed character quizzes. 

Because I allow my students to choose their own books, a love of reading has been developed throughout the classroom. I have students zooming through books and talking about  them with their peers. I even have two students going through a book a week. 

As a class, we have a class goal of reading 70 books by the end of  the semester. Students are constantly checking the thermometer on the board to see our progress and they are excited to see the number go up.

One of the biggest concerns I hear about this way of teaching is students not being able to read a piece of text deeply and get an analytical experience with a piece of text. While this concern is valid, I would like to state that I have never had students read more deeply.

Give your students time to read and make their assignments worthwhile. Fewer and yet more meaningful assignments are more impactful. It also gives students more time to read in class and hold meaningful conversations with the teacher. 

I also believe that teachers need to remind themselves who their audiences are. Teaching kids in the 21st century is hard and it is vastly different from our own high school experiences. We need to think carefully about our students and what will help them be the most successful. For me, it means implementing a readers workshop.

Shelby Scoffield is a high school English teacher. She loves reading, writing, and playing with her nieces and nephews. You can find her on Twitter at @sscoffield.

If You’ve Ever Been Coached, Then You Know: Why You Should Consider Using Your Coach (Part 1)

My teaching career (former English teacher) and my career coaching teachers (now Instructional Coach) seem to be converging lately. Of course, this must be: they’re narratives, intertwined, leading me to learning. Keep learning was the theme of the Teaching Learning Conference I attended in October, facilitated by Jim Knight and the Instructional Coaching Group.  I used theme intentionally; in Knight’s Keynote opener, he spoke to the power of story. Knight anchored this in words from Barry Lopez: “The stories people tell have a way of taking care of them. If stories come to you, care for them. And learn to give them away where they are needed. Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive. That is why we put these stories in each other’s memories. This is how people care for themselves.” With these words,  I realized I am still helping others to write their stories and to learn from them.  And, it’s why I believe teachers–in all stages of their careers–should share their stories with their instructional coach (or literacy coach or data coach, etc.). This is a powerful way to stay alive in the classroom, full of possibility.

The most recent intersection of story and coaching occurred as I shared stories with a former student; I cared for the stories he shared but a question he asked of me about my new coaching role caused me to pause and reflect. He asked, simply, “How many of the teachers have been coached (in sports, or music, or something else) at some point?” He followed this with “Because if they’ve ever been coached, then they know.” Yes, teachers would likely know–they would know that coaches see what can be and guide toward that possibility. And, if teachers didn’t know, then there’s opportunity to learn all the ways a coach can act with the compassion necessary to differentiate according to teacher needs, ultimately helping to shape the story. 

Coaches can ….

  1. Help teachers imagine new realities. Coaches (in many places) aren’t there to tell you what to do. In fact, some coaches would love to collaborate on co-writing a new story for your classroom. Recently, I spent time working with a teacher to shift classroom practices so that play anchors the work and intentional grouping will lead to enhanced collaboration. Together, we imagined a reality where her students took the kinds of risks as learners that lead to rich learning.  
  2. Help teachers see the story of their classroom from different perspectives. In working with a world language teacher, I tried to, in Jim Knight’s words, “whisper a different narrative.” For this veteran teacher with perfectionistic tendencies, articulating and affirming where the teacher was already successfully making the moves she desired encouraged her to step back, reflect, and start to shift the story she was telling herself. 
  3. Help teachers determine which story is most important AND help them own a story. Just as when I was in the classroom, I find myself taking note of what I hear or using visuals to help provide structure to thought. As I listened to a teacher share her story of a particularly difficult class, I took note of every strategy she tried, categorized them, and then used this to help her prioritize her challenges. We not only uncovered which challenge mattered most to her to address but also referenced that long list of strategies as a story that shows her strengths of persistence and problem solving. 
  4. Help teachers continually revise and edit the story–even of students. Sometimes this means working together to problem-solve for one student. When working with a teacher whose student struggled to write an argument research paper, we imagined a different approach for this student, improving the likelihood the student could complete the writing.  

This is not an exhaustive list. I’m still uncovering all the possibilities, but I do know that I’m learning to listen better for the story as I work to support teachers. And, as words always have, this keeps me alive in learning.

Kristin Jeschke is a former high school English teacher turned Instructional Coach in Waukee, Iowa. Follow her on Twitter @kajeschke. 

Writing Workshops Modeled on Writing Center Theory

Image result for writing center

I was a writing center tutor when I was in graduate school, and my current school allows me to run a student-tutored writing lab for our population during the school day – a dream come true! 

Anyone who has worked as a writing tutor knows that it changes how you see yourself as an instructor. You see beautifully and poorly constructed writing assignments and equally helpful or unhelpful commentary on written work. Helping students navigate an instructor’s expectations makes you better at setting expectations for your own students. 

Perhaps the most powerful pedagogical contribution of writing center theory is the focus on the writer over the writing. A good tutor’s job is to improve the writer, not the paper, a concept described in Stephen North’s 1984 essay “The Idea of a Writing Center.” This is often done through questioning strategies that force the writer to think about her writing rather than commands of how to “fix” it. 

After training my tutors in writing center theory each year, it occurred to me that these ideas could transform writing workshops in my classroom. Now, before my first writing workshop each year, I make sure to teach all my students on a foundational writing center concept: HOCs and LOCs. 

Higher Order Concerns (HOCs) and Lower Order Concerns (LOCs) are how we set the agenda of a writing center appointment. In our writing lab, we have roughly 20 minutes for an appointment, so we need to quickly choose a focus. How do we decide? HOCs and LOCs are our guide. 

HOCs are typically big-picture questions related to revision. Does the paper actually fit the assignment? Is the author’s purpose clear? Does the author need better or more evidence? Has the author provided enough explanation? Would the ideas be better structured a different way? 

These ideas are higher order because, if they are not meant, nothing else really matters. The paper can have beautiful imagery and perfect grammar, but if the message is not communicated, who cares? 

LOCs are often editing issues. I prefer to call them “later” order concerns rather than lower. They are still important, but they should be addressed later in the writing process or at least after the HOCs. These include punctuation, spelling, correct citations, and word choice. Of course, any issue can become a HOC if it interferes with meaning too much. A student whose grammar is incomprehensible may need a lesson on basic sentence structure first. 

In my experience, left to their own devices, students focus first on LOCs, regardless of the goals of the workshop. It is so much easier to tell someone where to add a comma or that “effect” is misspelled than it is to find out what someone was actually trying to say. For my students to be able to have useful workshops, I need to push them beyond what is easy. 

To train my students, we first outline the HOCs and LOCs on the board. Then, together we read a sample paper out loud, and I have them determine what area should be worked on first and why. What are the most pressing issues in the paper? If you really want to challenge them, make sure the paper has some glaring grammatical problems but even bigger issues with argument. 

Then, we discuss our process and rules for writing workshop. 

  1. Start with the author’s concerns. Most authors know what they are having trouble with, so ask the author first. This also puts the author in control of her own paper. 
  2. Read each paper out loud with everyone in the group listening. Ideally, the author should read his own paper. This keeps busy hands from adding commas all over. Students are never allowed to simply pass papers around in my classroom. 
  3. Have a conversation about the paper. I encourage my students to ask questions, such as “What did you mean here?” or “I thought what you were trying to say was … Was that correct?” or “Why did you choose to put this example in this paragraph?” Questions force the writer to think about his own choices and be an active participant. 
  4. Brainstorm possible solutions to problems together and make sure that the author writes them down. 

Over the course of working on a paper, we will eventually get to those LOCs, but again, we do not just want good papers but better writers. Students discussing the decisions behind their writing will inevitably lead to more fluent writers. 

If you’re interested in reading more about writing center theory, a great place to start is The Allyn & Bacon Guide to Peer Tutoring

Sarah Esberger teaches AP Language and Composition and Sophomore English at Central Magnet School in Murfreesboro, TN where she lives with her second-grader, her husband, three furry friends, and a bearded dragon. She also runs her school’s student-tutored Writing Lab and is always seeking new ways to incorporate James Britton’s concept “reading and writing float on a sea of talk” into her teaching.

Real World Writing: A mini-unit using Chipotle as a mentor

I’m in Chipotle, munching the chips and reading the bag. I loved the essays from Aziz Ansari and Sarah Silverman over the past months. Today I notice something different. This essay was written by a high school student.

“Excuse me,” I approach the counter at Chipotle. “Can I have some bags?” I explain to the clerk that I work with teachers and want to use these bags in class. The teenager handed over a stack. I feel my heartbeat quicken, the way it does when a teaching idea starts forming. As a literacy coach, I couldn’t wait to share these with the teachers whom I was working. One of our favorite units of writing was born.

I’ve been training myself to read like a writer my whole life. I just didn’t always know it. I loved reading cereal boxes when I was a kid. I’d pour my milk and then pore over every word, reading riddles and puzzles, then on to the nutrition information. At doctor’s offices, I read Highlights. At the grocery store, I’d speed read Tiger Beat. I read everything.

It wasn’t until I was older that I realized how much all that reading impacted me as a writer. And it wasn’t until I was a Fellow in Ohio Writing Project’s Summer Institute that I had a name for it: “Reading Like a Writer,” a term I learned when reading Wondrous Words by Katie Wood Ray.

As we began to think about how to use these Chipotle bag essays with students, I came back to what I know is true about writing instruction, a rhythm gleaned from countless professional texts (Penny Kittle, Ralph Fletcher, Allison Marchetti & Rebekah O’Dell, to name a few). My OWP colleague Beth Rimer succinctly captures this rhythm when she talks about the ideal conditions for writing:

  • Modeling: writers need to see the possibilities for their own writing by looking at lots of examples. And as often as possible, I want those mentor texts to also exist in the real world (See Writing With Mentors for support around this).
  • Ideas: writers need support to find an idea. As Don Graves said, “Unlimited choice is no choice at all.” Instead, writers need strategies to find the ideas they might explore (My favorite way to nudge writers is with Linda Rief’s Quickwrites books).
  • Drafting: writers need time to write, to mess around, and to get feedback (Write Beside Them by Penny Kittle changed my teaching life).
  • Revision: writers need explicit instruction about ways they might make their writing better (I love Revision Decisions by Jeff Anderson as a way to focus my lessons).
  • Feedback: writers need feedback in lots of ways — from themselves, from each other, from an “expert” (Jenn Serravallo’s book about Writing Conferences is a great place to start rethinking how we give feedback).

Every single time I find a piece of writing in the world that I want to share with students, I come back to this. I use it to build our mini-lessons, to decide on instructional days, and to remind me of what writers need. It might look like this:

Day One – Notice. Gallery walk the Chipotle bags. Talk about what we notice the writers doing. Make a list of possibilities for our own writing.

Day Two – Generate ideas. Once we notice that these essays are all about small moments connected to food memories, we might create a moment map, or a quicklist, or a sketchnote.

Day Three – Start writing. Mess around. Get dirty. Know that this doesn’t have to be perfect. Resist the temptation to give students a template and instead remember that writers need time to let a draft take shape. Confer with the writers in the room, nudge and get to know what they’re working on.

Day Four-Five – Teach. Look at what writers have been struggling with and teach more. Look at what writers have been doing well and put that up on the document camera.

Day Six(ish) – Publish. Sometimes we just turn it in. Sometimes kids can print their essays on paper bags and then have a gallery walk, leaving post-it notes of feedback.

This isn’t always what writing looks like in our classrooms, but we try to build in these moments of authentic writing so that students have a chance to stretch important muscles. They build fluency and confidence. They have the chance to work through the writing process quickly, therefore getting to do it more often. They have an authentic audience and see that writing is all around them.

I recently worked with a 7th grade teacher whose students wrote Two Minutes On essays as one of their first experiences. The products were amazing. Students took risks, they wrote from the heart, and they stretched themselves.

If you’d like to try this mini-unit, you can find the mentor texts here. What real-world writing has inspired you and your students? Share in the comments!

Angela Faulhaber is a literacy coach in Cincinnati, Ohio. She loves burrito bowls and is happiest when eating tortilla chips with her kiddos and husband. She works with teachers and students from grades K-12 and the scariest day this year was when she taught a group of adorable kindergartners a writing lesson.

Layering Notice and Note Signposts over the Plot Triangle

Teaching seventh grade is both a challenge and a joy. Students are inquisitive, silly, maturing . . . and in the seventh grade. Until last year, I hadn’t taught this grade for about eighteen years, and I wasn’t expecting to. But, life can be unpredictable, and in a strange and wonderful turn of events, I have found myself teaching seventh grade students.

I couldn’t be happier.

Recently, because of some standardized testing they were involved in, the concept of the plot triangle was raised. My students, for the most part, stared at me blankly, not understanding what it was. I realized that the plot triangle is a simple diagram, but can be a difficult concept.

It was really perfect timing because we were starting to read some short stories together as a class, and we needed some common language for when we discuss and write about them.

I created a chart I and posted it on our classroom wall.

plot triangle

As the students digested the ideas in the plot diagram, I was peppered with eager questions.

Why is the climax so close to the resolution? 

What is the falling action? 

How many events belong in the rising action? 

We talked it through, and students started to feel more comfortable with the ideas, but the next question was one that made me smile. Why does the plot triangle matter?

Fair question. Why? is always a fair question in my classroom, and I had a proud teacher moment.

In trying to explain why the plot triangle matters, I tried to share that a visual representation of a story helps us to understand more deeply.

We made the connection that the fiction signposts also help us to more deeply understand a story. Since we’ve been studying the signposts as we study short stories and narratives, it was a great connection to make.

IMG_6285

So, after class I annotated our wall chart with the fiction signposts. It took some thinking, and I’m hoping I got it right.

I didn’t want to limit anyone’s thinking by suggesting that a signpost might only be found in one part of the story, but I did want to let them know where they might start noticing them.

They started to create plot triangles with some of the stories we had recently read together, and then layering some of the signposts into the plot triangle.

  1. Charles by Shirley Jackson
  2. Thank You, M’am by Langston Hughes
  3. The Medicine Bag by Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve
  4. Fourteen by Alice Gerstenberg

Here are some examples of what they did right at first:

 

My students aren’t done creating their plot triangles, and they aren’t done thinking about how the layering of the plot diagram and the signposts complement one another, but so far their thinking is going in the right direction.

They are asking questions and making connections. They are talking to each other and challenging each others’ thinking. They care more deeply about the stories and the characters they are reading about.

I’ll call it a win.

Update: I had another “aha moment” and asked my husband to help add another layer to the wall chart. What do you think?

plot triangle w tape

Julie has been teaching secondary language arts for twenty years, spending the first fifteen in rural Central Oregon,  four in Amman, Jordan, and the most recent school year in Managua, Nicaragua. 

Follow her on twitter @SwinehartJulie

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