Category Archives: Writers

Book Talks, Choice Reading, and Fast Food Drive-Thrus by Amy Menzel

I can’t put my book down. I’m (finally) reading Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and I am loving it. I book talked it a week ago and I’m 75 or so pages from finishing. I’m not sure why I didn’t read it before! I’ve book talked it before, so I assume I was so engrossed in another title that this one had to wait. Anyway, I’m already anticipating a serious book hangover upon finishing.

As I crawled into bed and turned on my reading light last night, I had two lightbulb moments. In addition to the obvious one, there was the realization that I am not rereading a book for the eleventy-seventh time this year. In fact, I haven’t reread an entire book for the past two years. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But there may be something misguided about an English teacher focusing all her efforts on teaching the same few books year after year.

I spent nearly the first decade of my high school teaching career doing just that. I could still deliver a solid lesson on To Kill a Mockingbird, Fahrenheit 451, The Great Gatsby, or The Kite Runner at a moment’s notice. Give me an hour or so to prep and I could review layers upon layers of annotations in my personal copies of each and make a solid lesson a good one. But I’ve been there and done that. Sure, I found new insight with each reread, but I don’t think enough to warrant the time it took. I’m not convinced my lessons got that much better from year to year, despite my thoughtful (and time-consuming) planning and preparation. And, really, that shouldn’t surprise me.

Writer Haruki Murakami once tweeted, “If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.” And, there I was, only reading the books that I had read, and only thinking what I had thought. I mean, I added related readings to ever-expanding text sets and used new pedagogical practices, but I was basically the academic equivalent of a Taco Bell drive-thru. It was all the same stuff just packaged differently.

That’s no way to live. It’s no way to grow.

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I see my job as an English teacher much differently now than I did as an eager newbie. I’m still eager, alright, but I also have this sense of urgency. Part of it is that I teach seniors now. And second semester Senior English is basically the pressure cooker of secondary education.* I have 90 days to help students identify as readers. Let me tell you, it’s not going to happen with a traditional approach. At best, a traditional approach might convince them that reading is “not that bad” as they grind their way through a couple assigned books (or the SparkNotes of a couple assigned books) that they may or may not find all that engaging. I’m striving for more than that.

I don’t have a lot of time with these young scholars and there’s no time to waste. It’s time they find books that intrigue them, inspire them, and challenge them. It’s time they find books they actually want and will read. And it’s really important that we shift to students finding their own texts. “Real world” readers don’t read because some lady named Mrs. Menzel tells them they should. They read because they find books that speak to them. Of course, I’m here to help. I book talk a new title every single day. I make it my job to play nerdy cupid and match the right title with the right reader. It all takes a lot of time. But not more time. I’ve simply reallocated my time. I don’t spend hours rereading the same books and turning last year’s burritos into this year’s enchiladas. Instead, I read. For real. I read a lot. I read books I want to read and books recommended by librarians and students. I read novels and nonfiction and graphic memoirs and collections of poetry. I read magazine and newspaper articles and blog posts and lyrics and scripts and transcripts. And I share what I read. And I ask students to share what they read. And we talk about it and we write about it.

amy 2my book board, featuring all the title’s I’ve book talked this year so far

And I’m finally living a reading life I want my students to follow.

(And look at them follow!)


*I’m pretty certain this analogy checks out. It sounds good. Truth be told, I’m much more Taco Bell than I am pressure cooker kinda person in the nonliterary, culinary sense.


Amy Menzel finished Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close nearly seven books ago. She just got around to revising and submitting this guest post because teaching. She knows you understand. You might also understand why she’s contemplating spending $20 on this “SAVE THE WORD TACOS” t-shirt. She hopes you have a great end of year and a fantastic, restful summer filled with great reads.

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One Pagers as End of Year Reading Reflections

Ending the year should be a ton of fun. Once the standardized testing season is over, it’s not time to let the days drag. It’s time to continue the learning, the fun, and the reflecting. As Angela wrote, it’s important to end the year strong, and on a positive note!

I think one-pagers are a great answer to some of the end-of-year-dilemmas we teachers face.

The possibilities for one-pagers seems to be endless. They are fun, they are hands-on, reflective, and what student doesn’t want to use markers and crayons in the classroom?

I’ve shared some of my experiences with one-pagers before, and I thought I’d share another idea or two here now.

At the end of the first semester, I asked my AP Lang students to reflect on their reading habits and experiences. This was our last assignment of the semester, and it was so fun and positive to grade. What a way to wrap up!

The requirements for the reading reflection one-pager were as follows:

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I modified this assignment from one a colleague shared with me. It originally focused on one book that a student would read for independent reading, so when I modified it into a semester reading reflection for AP Lang, I was unsure, yet hopeful, about how it would turn out.

One of the big differences between doing a one-pager for a book vs a semester reading reflection is the idea of What’s Your Number? I told students they could use any unit of measurement they wanted: pages, hours, books, chapters, inches, pounds, it didn’t matter. It just needed to represent their reading for the semester, as it acknowledges the accomplishments!

I was so happy with the results.

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I plan to ask my AP Lang students to do this again in a couple of weeks, but to focus on either second semester or the entire year, whichever they like.

It’s a positive way to end the year. It’s a celebration of learning and reading and growing, and it puts a smile on all of our faces.

How else have you used one-pagers in your classroom? I’d love to read all about it!

 

Julie has been teaching secondary language arts for twenty years, spending the first fifteen in rural Central Oregon, and the last four in Amman, Jordan. She’s thrilled to report that she and her family moved across the world to Managua, Nicaragua this year, and are loving their new adventure.

Follow her on twitter @SwinehartJulie

 

 

A “Quality” Mentor Text

We all know the value of a really effective mentor text: media reviews from A/V Club, The Player’s Tribune for authentic narrative, The Ethicist (credit Penny & Kelly) for opinion or argument, TED Talks (ala Moving Writers) for writing that “speaks” to an audience, Humans of New York for whatever you want it to be. And in a workday that allows little time for “browsing” of any kind, the more adaptable the mentor text, the better.

Shana has written about the use of Ruth Gendler’s Book of Qualities for QuickWrites. I wrote about this mentor text as part of a multi-genre project. (Like most good ideas used in my classroom, this one was bestowed upon me by my teaching partner, Mariana). And we’re using it again with seniors as part of their author study in Advanced Writing. Students are tasked with identifying themes and abstract concepts that feature in their author’s work and personifying one of these in a prose poem after Ruth Gendler’s qualitiescover“Qualities.” This year, I’m also using this mentor text to “assess” independent reading in RWW for sophomores.

First, I give them a copy of the Table of Contents and samples from Gendler’s Book of Qualities and ask them to choose one that connects to their book. Now if I were more efficient (ha!), I would have a copy of each page available, but no. So, that afternoon, I scan the pages necessary for each student to have a hard copy of Gendler’s take on the quality they matched with their own book. In theory, I’ll eventually have all of them scanned and organized in a properly labeled folder, right? Again, ha!

Anyway, the next day or so, they get a copy of Gendler’s prose-poem personification of the quality they identified. Their writing task is to revise Gendler’s piece to make it macbeth's robesspecific to their author’s work. Scaffolding is kind of built in: less confident writers can make more extensive use of Gendler’s structure; stronger writers can even start from scratch. Either way, this task requires VERY explicit modeling, so I model with a quality that links to a text we all read together. This year, the model quality is power, arising out of our film-and-soliloquy study of Macbeth (although I think it would work with any shared text, even a poem or short story or article). Essentially, I build in specific details that are specifically text-related. For example, Macbeth’s power is “dressed in borrowed robes,” at least at first. It doesn’t walk but rather “vaults” across an entire continent with a dagger in its hand. Power’s hands never get clean, so why not just drench them in more blood? Even students who persisted in their claim that they just don’t “get” Shakespeare had their “Aha!” moment in this discussion.

albatrossGendler’s clothing motif in her discussion of power is convenient, as clothing is a motif in the play as well. I just got lucky there. But students are still doing a version of literary analysis of theme and turning to the text for evidence. And it’s way more fun than that albatross of high school English classrooms, the Literary Analysis Essay.

What I love about this mentor text is its adaptability. It would work with any text, and students certainly don’t have to be limited to the “qualities” Gendler explores. They can CHOOSE to invent their own. Depending on how this goes with my sophomores, I might collect them and bind them into a class booklet, our own version of The Book of Qualities. 

Assessing Conferences Part 2: What We Can Learn When Teachers and Students Assess Writing Conferences

Wanting to affirm for myself that conferring really is a strength, wanting to determine ways I could continue growing this strength (that Harvard Business Review article “The Feedback Fallacy” keeps me thinking!!!), I decided to act on one of my steps from my last post about assessing conferences with student writers. 

Knowing that my AP students would be meeting with me for extended one-on-one conferences (it felt less disruptive to film since these occur outside of class time), I selected four on which to focus. When selecting the four, I chose two students with whom I felt confidence in the relationship (these two, in fact, typically sought extra time to confer over their writing) and two students with whom I felt less connected. I wondered: in what ways would my conferring look different?

Before filming, my instructional coach and I determined that I would examine number of questions asked and/or how questions were used, where I took steps to affirm or maintain that “love first” approach, and where I offered strategies. I chose these three lenses with the guidance of my instructional coach: I was worried about questioning my students to death, whether or not  I truly lived up to my love-first value, and the usefulness of the conference. 

Technical Aspects 

In terms of technical aspects, I filmed on my phone (I know, high-tech, right?! This means you can do it, too.). After each conference, my student scored it and I scored it; then I watched and transcribed it (imperfectly since it was mostly for me). Upon collecting each of the four videos, I shared them with my instructional coach so we could confer (ALL learners need conferring!!), and then I color- coded the transcript so I could look for patterns and other A-Ha’s (green for questions, pink for love-first/affirmation, orange for strategies). Of course, this is a limited data set; but it provided a manageable, pragmatic entry point.

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My Noticing’s

  • With each of my students, I maintained the love-first affirmation (phew!). With my student with whom I perceive having the weakest connection, affirmation proved the dominant strategy. Interactions with that student, in particular, seemed to suggest that she left with heightened confidence, ready to continue revising.
  • With my students with whom the relationship is more connected, questions dominated.
  • Strategies tended to arise from the student or me near the end of the conference.

Instructional Coach Noticing’s/Suggestions

  • He reinforced with me that conferring is a powerful way that teachers connect with students through content.
  • Beyond the areas I examined, he noted appropriate pause time during the conferring, suggesting that students had space to think and to ask questions.
  • He observed that ending the conferences with the rating of it positioned it more around how the student felt at the end of the conference rather than the last moment being about the “to-do list.”
  • He suggested that when I confer with students during class time that I audio record and skip the video; this is a simple shift to make it seem less distracting or intrusive.

Learning and Further Wondering

  1. Awareness of the level of connectedness with a student should help steer the conference. Wonder: What’s a quick question I can use to prompt myself toward this each time I sit with a student? How can I use body language to help infer level of connectedness and comfort?
  2. Understanding the student’s level of self-efficacy should also impact the moves I make while conferring. Wonder: Would student tracking of this be beneficial?
  3. With students whom I feel confident in our relationship, I can challenge more. I can ask more questions and prompt them to determine solutions or next steps. Wonder: How can I accelerate the level of connectedness and/or student self-efficacy so that more of my students arrive at this point sooner as writers? What do I need to do more deliberately here? (Note to self: study the giants–Kittle, Gallagher, Murray, Graves, Elbow, etc.)
  4. With those same students, they may also–because that confidence in problem-solving is there–initiate their own solutions. Wonder: What are ways to keep track of where students generate their own solutions versus when they use those offered through mini lessons and mentors? After all, this is what I want my writers to be able to do for themselves. 
  5. Individual conferences–no surprise here–are an effective way to redirect students to mini lesson strategies. Wonder: Do I need to more directly prompt my students to consider what strategy might work?

What’s Next?

With more time, I’d act on the suggestion of my instructional coach to audio record some of my in class conferring (those three minute regular conferences). I’m curious to see what patterns emerge with a greater constraint of time.  This experience also has me pondering what else I should be recording…mini lessons? 

Reflecting on conferring confirms the power of it in the classroom (see Amy’s #3). Reflection emphasizes that conferring truly is the best differentiation. That conferring promotes problem-solving.That conferring grows confidence. That conferring shows the ultimate flexibility, allowing for responsiveness to each learner’s needs.

Kristin Jeschke supports awesome learners at Waukee High School in Waukee, Iowa. Though nervous about directing and starring in these short films, she discovered that they were not all that painful. Follow her on Twitter @kajeschke.

The Great Debate: Summer Reading

While there is still snow resting on the peaks of the mountains and skiers claiming they’ll ski until the Fourth of July, summer in SLC is approaching rapidly.  The sun is hanging around later and later, the trees are blossoming, and students are ansty. The end of the school year always comes with bittersweet excitement, reflection over what was accomplished and what was not, tons of hastily written ideas on post-it notes, and summer reading.

Summer reading was both an authentic and assigned part of my summer growing up, as I was always reading and read what was asked of me for the upcoming year.  Assigning summer reading has been a part of my teaching career, too. I understand the intention for students to fend off the “summer slide” by practicing reading skills that, perhaps when a text isn’t assigned, may dwindle.  Shared books also provide an entry point into learning at the start of the school year and the beginning of collective knowledge among classes.

But this year I am questioning it all.  

After nine months of promoting choice reading and working with individual students to develop reading identities, giving my students their summer reading requirement for next year’s class feels like a step back from work we’ve done.  Likewise, assigning books to the upcoming juniors feels out of step with the work we’ll do together next year.

Assigned summer reading titles doesn’t put the individual at the center.  Students are reading texts I curated before I have even met them. Who knows if they’ll enjoy one of the books? I wonder if I’m turning them further off from reading before we have begun or if they have the reading skills and stamina to be challenged, but also be successful.  

Additionally, students are reading texts meant to be discussed and shared in isolation.  This vacuum creates an independent literacy endeavor versus one shared within a community like the one we will strive to build all year.  If a student doesn’t read, for whatever reason, they start the year a little further outside that community. Learning should be inclusive, not the catalyst for creating an exclusive group.  On the flip side, I don’t want to bog student readers down with a task or assignment because authentic readers engage without assessment.

Within a school year, week, or day, we are familiar with student schedules.  I have an idea of what students are involved in academically and after school.  I don’t know these students, let alone their summer schedules. What is my place in dictating their three-month break?

The issues with required summer reading are evident when your classroom adapts the workshop model.  The solution takes work. We have to be so driven during the school year to create authentic readers, that the summer is viewed by students as a time to read more of what they want, a time to check books off their “to read” lists versus their “must read” list.  

 

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American Literature Summer Reading Selections:  We will all read Into the Wild as a study of independence and freedom, then students will select either Homegoing, The Book of Unknown Americans, or Behold the Dreams to read as inquiry into the changing American Dream.

 

I haven’t dismantled the system (yet).   My incoming juniors do have summer reading.  I hope one of the offered choices is THAT unique book that hooks a reader or makes them curious to come to class in August.

I hope my outgoing juniors have developed enough of a sense of who they are as readers and will engage with books of their choice this summer.  Before the year is out, we will complete our reading ladder reflections, share our favorite books of the school year, book talk, add to our “To Read” lists, compile a list of “must have” titles for my library, and during our final conferences, I will ask students what they plan to read this summer.  I will continue to invest in individual readers next school year so we can re-think and re-configure summer reading assignments.

From my Three Teachers Talk Community, I’d love to know how does your school or department handle summer reading?  What strategies do you have for making summer reading authentic and engaging?  What has been the result of your school doesn’t require summer reading?  What successful changes or modifications have you made recently to support authentic reading?

 

Maggie Lopez has a full summer reading schedule of sought after titles planned, like On the Come Up and Internment, as well as vegan cookbooks, travel books, and whatever else she can get her hands on.  You can follow her on Twitter @meg_lopez0.

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

Four Things I Wish I’d Known When I Became an English Teacher

I’ve got a lot to learn. Even after decades of reading, writing, and learning to be a teacher, I often feel the sinking feeling of inadequate. Every spring she floats to the surface, and sends a garbled message that makes me question:  Did I do enough to help my students?

Help them with what?

When I first started teaching high school English, I thought it was all about the books. I loved literature. I wanted them to love literature. How can they love it if I don’t help them see the complex beauty of well-crafted sentences and heart-achingly human plot lines? I was that teacher:  I taught books instead of readers. (Many of you have heard me speak about my Dickens’ debacle. Believe me, it was the worst of times.) Like many new teachers, I taught like I had been taught. I did not focus on the learner and her needs. I did not focus on the reader and his interest, ability, or anything that matters to growing readers. My focus squared fully on what I thought a high school English class should be:  classic lit (chosen by me), study questions (written by me), analysis essays (prompts by me), and me helping my students “understand” what they had just read. (Not even considering that they may not have read the assigned pages at all.)

Last week I celebrated with family as my daughter and her husband graduated from

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Jenna and Ryan Anderson

Utah State University. We watched close to 2,000 graduates in two different college commencement ceremonies walk the stage and into the next part of their life’s journey. Many of those graduates intend to be teachers. It’s a beautiful thing, really. New blood, new energy, new passion in a very demanding career. I hope it doesn’t eat them alive.

It won’t — if they are better prepared than I was.

That’s what kept hopping through my head as I watched so many young people shake hands and clasp diploma covers — evidence of their academic accomplishment:  Has their education prepared them for the realities of teaching? Will those going into ELA classrooms teach books or teach readers? It’s a lot of years later, do they know more than I did? Of course, I know next to nothing about USU’s College of Education, although according to the Dean, they are highly ranked. That’s not the point.

So what is the point?

I’ve still got a lot to learn. But if I can help speed dial the learning for other English teachers, I’ll do it. Here’s four things I know for sure:

We must–

  1. be literacy teachers — not just literature teachers. (I first heard Kelly Gallagher say this at a conference years ago. This shift in perspective changed me. Readicide is still a go to resource.)
  2. be purposeful in developing readers and writers, and let that be our guide as we plan, prepare, and present lessons. (I thank God for Penny Kittle. Write Beside Them sparked my move into authentic writing instruction. It’s the only professional book I’ve read more than once. Also, Book Love.)
  3. be inclusive in all aspects of our teaching from the resources we choose to the attitudes we take and how we talk and act and advocate, and how we work to create relationships, break down barriers, fight injustice. (In the past couple of years, I’ve learned a lot from Cornelius Minor about having an inclusive mindset. His book We Got This would be a good gift for new teachers, for every teacher.)
  4. be reflective, yes, but more vital to meeting the needs of all learners, be responsive. (That’s the intricate simplicity of the workshop model of instruction:  We meet the needs of individual students in the moment of their struggles and their strengths.)

You and I both know there’s so much more. The whole teaching gig can be so overwhelming. (Thus, one reason I’ve relished in my gap year.) If nothing else, I hope all ELA teachers, new and not-so-new, will focus on themselves this summer: Read a lot. Write a lot. Think a lot. That’s really all it takes to master #1.)

 

Amy Rasmussen lives, writes, paints, and gardens in North Texas. She’s taught all levels of high school English, except AP Lit, and now she’s seriously thinking about middle school — or college. She facilitates readers-writers workshop training wherever she’s invited and loves to see ideas percolate and passions ignite as teachers sit in the seats as learners, internalizing the philosophies and routines of RWW. For more info on trainings, check out the 3TT PD page.

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