Category Archives: Writers

Finding a Book to Crawl Into

I’m feeling a bit chaotic lately. The holidays are fast approaching on the personal front, but seemingly retreating on the professional front (we have how many days left until break?!). My reunion tour with freshmen requires more planning and more patience than I fear I have capacity for. My only child status is rearing its ugly head as my Dad prepares to have surgery today for that emperor of all maladies, and my mind is flying to all sorts of outcomes I can’t imagine dealing with right now. Additionally, I’ve decided that with no time and little energy, I’m going to commit myself to the madness that is Orange Theory Fitness and complete workouts that leave my aging limbs in such agony I’m walking down the stairs sideways. I needed the elderly assistance bar in the restroom the other day, friends. It’s been quite a season.

Needless to say, I need some solace (and a full body heating pad). No surprise, I’ve found it recently in books. Here are a few texts that have me feeling beautifully nostalgic, contemplative, and remembering the joy of learning as I try and hold it together on the outside, but not so secretly disappear into books.


Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, Some Instructions on Writing and Life, an accessible text on turning your writing ambitions into a practice that will bring both joy and fulfillment, has me laughing out loud, recommitting to my own writing life (her recommendation to 3tt5remember the power of short writing assignments make it all seem so…doable!), and finding pearl after pearl to share with my students about moving their own writing forward, specifically memoir.

For example, I can picture several of my students benefiting from Lamott’s advice to remember that perfectionism, both in writing and in life,  “is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.” Sometimes we all have such struggles letting go, we can’t even get started. We must be willing to release not only the formulas, structures, and sentence starters of writing, but also give ourselves permission to write in a way that brings us joy and releases pain without judgement from inner critics that can crush our work before it begins.

I also can’t let go of what Lamott suggests in being brave enough to write about those experiences that carry weight in our lives. Those memories that crush us beneath the wheels of remembering and try to halt all progress we can make toward a path of personal growth. Far too many of our students have such experiences, and writing about them can help some to process and release.

With a nod to the fears and reluctance that students in her own classes have when it comes to writing about what really matters to them, Lamont suggests that we:

Remember that you own what happened to you. If your childhood was less than ideal, you may have been raised thinking that if you told the truth about what really went on in your family, a long bony white finger would emerge from a cloud and point to you, while a chilling voice thundered, “We *told* you not to tell.” But that was then. Just put down on paper everything you can remember now about your parents and siblings and relatives and neighbors, and we will deal with libel later on. (Lamott)

Lamott is witty, clever, and real. I plan to pull some sections from this book as mentors for both style and content. This text is a “warm, generous and hilarious guide through the writer’s world and its treacherous swamps,” said the Los Angeles Times. I could not agree more.


My love of Anne Shirley was actually born through Canadian actress, Megan Follows. 3tt3The 1985 mini series on the trials and triumphs of fiery tempered Anne was a favorite of my grandmother, and we watched her two tape VHS version together until it literary broke.

Fast forward to today (I couldn’t help myself) when at NCTE in Houston a few weeks back, I found a copy of Sarah McCoy’s recent publication Marilla of Green Gables. I love a good backstory, so to see McCoy’s ideas around how the sometimes prickly Marilla Cuthbert came to be, made me smile. The text takes it’s liberties, and expands on some character traits that reach a bit from who these classic characters were in my mind, but overall it was a nostalgically tender read that took me back to a story I’ve loved since I was a girl. Having found a few Anne fans in my own classes, this is a great text to recommend.


 

Ruth Sepetys Salt to the Sea had me researching the World War II civilian tragedy of the Wilhelm Gustloff and sharing with my students the power of stories we don’t often hear, because history is too often told only by the voices of the winners.

The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris has become an audiobook I can’t hit pause on.

Sold on a Monday by Kristina McMorris is where I’m heading next.

Which books are you escaping into these days? Please share in the comments below! 


Lisa Dennis spends her school days teaching AP Language and English 9, 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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3TT Talks Gifts: Besides BOOKS, what supplies make your workshops work?

“I think the greatest gift that anybody can give anybody else. . .As a matter of fact, the only unique gift that anybody can give is his or her honest self.”  Mr. Rogers

Teachers give of themselves uniquely all the time. We know this. We live this.

We plan, teach, reflect, carry tote bags of papers home to grade at night and on the weekends. Okay, that doesn’t sound too unique. It sounds like every other English teacher we know.

But — you are unique, and we know you give of yourself uniquely to your unique students. Daily. And since this is a time of year we often get a chance to pause, give thanks, recharge, and give and receive gifts, it seems like a good time to share some of our 3TT favorite things — just in case you need some ideas on gifts for colleagues or ways to spend that stack of gift cards coming your way. (Sometimes it happens.) And just so you know, if you buy through our link, we will get a little something.

I asked Three Teachers’ Talk contributors questions about their favorites. (I already posted a gift list for favorite YA books.) Maybe some of these workshop necessities are already your favorite, too. Maybe they’ll serve as good gift suggestions.

What type of notebook do you purchase for yourself? Any particular size, shape, brand?

 

Zequenz Classic 360 Softbound Journal

Mead Composition Notebooks

Paipur Notebook, softbound, 9.75″ x 7.25″

Moleskin Classic

Exceed Dotted Classic Notebook

Rocketbook Everlast Reusable Notebook

a regular spiral

 

 

What type of pen do you choose to write with most often?

 

 

 

What classroom supplies can you not live without?

 

Do you have any go-to games or activities you use with your readers/writers?

Bring Your Own Book. My juniors love this!

 

Taylor Mali’s Metaphor Dice

Story Cubes

The Autobiography Box

Quicktionary:  A Game of Lighting-fast Wordplay

Crazy Aaron’s Thinking Putty (I have this in lots of different colors. Great for fidgeters or serious thinking time.)

Beginnings and Endings

Regarding leads, or “introductions,” my usual advice to students as they draft is NOT to start with the beginning. Many have difficulty doing so, but it’s ok — our revision process always includes a reconsideration of the lead and, by turn, the conclusion, so that the two are stylistically and thematically connected. I’ve turned to many mentors for showing students how it’s done. For the purposes of most readers of this blog, Beyond Literary Analysis by Allison Marchetti and Rebekah O’Dell offers practical and student-friendly approaches to leads & conclusions for analytical writing. I used these lessons with my sophomores, who are writing media reviews.

Today, though, I want to offer an approach to beginnings and endings in writing that I used in my Advanced Writing class — specifically for short-story writing — but I like it because I think it is highly adaptable for writing experiences in many genres and at many levels.

I borrowed the content from articles in The Writer’s Notebook II: Craft Essays from Tin HouseAfter students had a draft of their short story (many of which were sans endings), I presented the content from articles by Ann Hood and Elissa Schappell about beginnings and endings, respectively. In these essays, these two writers examine beginnings and endings in the short story genre and present their findings to readers — who, given this publication, are also writers. Here’s the slide we discussed in class about “Beginnings:”

3TT_beginnings and endings - Google Sl_ - https___docs.google.com_presentatio

Many of these beginnings I’m sure you will recognize, and so did several students! For our purposes, I asked students to experiment with three alternate beginnings that were different than the way their story opened in their drafts. Students then shared their options at their writing tables to determine which worked best.

The “Endings” slide was a bit less specific in that it did not cite word-for-word examples. Still, as many (read: most) students hadn’t written any ending at all to their short story drafts, they found the suggestions useful. In a move that is contradictory to true workshop form, I required students to identify one of these approaches to the beginnings and endings of their short stories. And in keeping with the best paradoxes, these limitations have allowed their sense of choice to flourish rather than flounder among too many possibilities. (Mariana knows about my unapologetic “taking the ‘creative’ out of ‘creative writing’ approach this year). But in a school system that seldom allows choice, for many (read: most) students, I have found that “choice among several options” is more productive than choice that is infinite. And I’m more than ok with that.

3TT_beginnings and endings 2- Google Sl_ - https___docs.google.com_presentatio

So, I hope you find this framework useful.  You can find the Google Slides document here, if you would like to use my clumsy boxes and improve upon it for your own use. (I hope I did the sharing settings correctly — if you cannot access, let me know).  If I had it to do over again — which I will, because I plan to use this approach regularly — I might combine it with Marchetti and O’Dell’s sticky-note activity, in which students write several different beginnings and endings on sticky notes and stick them at the beginning and end of a printed essay. Then they can try out a few options next to each other, which even further reinforces the construction of a piece of writing as a series of conscious choices on the part of the writer.

3TT Talks Gifts: What books will you give this season?

If you know me, you know I live by lists. I make them. I collect them. Sometimes I even stick to them. I raised seven children, you know. I had to keep track of who needed to go here, there, and everywhere and who needed what and what and what just to survive and thrive in our robust and rowdy family. Christmas shopping, often on a bone of a budget, gave me hives.

Gift-giving has never been my strong suit. Perhaps my practicality, and my history of stretching dimes into dollars, gets in the way of thoughtfulness. (Not even kidding, my kids got socks and underwear wrapped in cute paper. To their credit, they never complained–at least not to me.) I know it is possible to be both practical and thoughtful, but I am still working on that balance.

So what does any of that have to do with a blog about teaching readers and writers? Not a lot — except, I asked my fellow writers to help me craft a list for literacy teachers. Maybe you’ll find something to gift yourself, a colleague, a friend, or a perfect stranger. (I like the idea of gift-wrapping a book and giving it to one of the Salvation Army bell-ringing volunteers and saying, “This is for you.”)

Part 1 of this literacy teachers’ list is below. I’ll post about professional books, and favorite writer’s notebooks, pens, and other clever things for literacy lovers over the next few days.

BOOKS. What are the top titles students love in your classroom library right now? (Remember, we work with a range of readers from middle grades to AP Lit. There’s old and new, non-fiction, YA, and just some really good recommendations here, in no particular order, that would make great gifts for any reader or want-to-be reader or you-want-them-to-be a reader in your life. )

The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo
Long Way Down Track Series (Ghost, Patina, Sunny, Lu) by Jason Reynolds
Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
The Hate You Give  by Angie Thomas
American Street by Ibi Zoboi
Graphic novels (Ghosts, Smile, Babysitters… by Raina Telgemeier
Love that Dog/Hate that Cat/Moo by Sharon Creech
The 57 Bus:  A True Story of Two Teens and a Crime that Changed Their Lives by Dashka Slater
Love, Hate, and Other Filters by Samira Ahmed

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Just Mercy  by Bryan Stevenson & the version adapted for YA
Lies My Teacher Told Me by James W. Loewen
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood & the graphic novel version by Nan A. Talise
The Last Black Unicorn by Tiffany Haddish
The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah
Ghost Boys By Jewell Parker Rhodes
The CrossoverBooked & Rebound by Kwame Alexander
Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi
The Greatest Stories Never Told:  100 Tales from History to Astonish, Bewilder, and Stupefy by Rick Beyer

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An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir & the whole trilogy
Looking for AlaskaTurtles All the Way Down by John Green
My Bloody Life: The Making of a Latin King by Reymundo Sanchez
Twisted by Laurie Halse Anderson
Dear Martin by Nic Stone
The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline

NOTE: Get this book free with a donation to Book Love Foundation

We Should Hang Out Sometime:  Embarrassingly, a True Story & Love and First Sight by Josh Sundquist
I am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sanchez
Because I was a Girl:  Trues Stories for Girls of All Ages by Melissa de la Cruz

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Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
The Martian by Andy Weir
1984 by George Orwell
The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
#NotYourPrincess: Voices of Native American Women by Charleyboy (editor)
All the Broken Pieces by Ann E. Burg
The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. Pan
Far from the Tree by Robin Benway

For more book-gifting ideas, check out the Goodreads Choice Awards for 2018; 15 Life-Changing Middle-grade Books; and here’s the School Library Journal list of best children and YA audiobooks of 2018.

Conferring and My Wish for a Time Machine

I am as guilty as the next guy. When I first started teaching, I didn’t have any idea how to get students to read more, write more, do more in my English class. I didn’t even know I would have to work so hard. Although I was in the middle of raising my own teenagers (and they all turned out great), I had no idea how to inspire other people’s teens to give books a long enough look to want to read them or to take the time needed to write something they would want others to want to read. I was all about my content, my lesson plans, my choices, my control. I did most of the talking. I did very little listening.

I remember the first day of my first year teaching. Students sat in assigned seats, alphabetically by last name. I asked each student, seat by seat, row by row, to tell everyone their name and one thing they hoped to learn in their freshman English class. I have no idea what they said — except for one.

“My name is Susie, and I hate white people.”

I am a white woman.

I might have felt stunned, hurt, appalled. I do remember thinking, “The audacity!” and shouldering an internal huff. I tried not to let these words sink me before I ever got afloat, and for the most part, I think I succeeded. Susie and I learned to work together that year, and she did fine in my class.

But my idea of success is much different than it was back then:  I no longer think fine is ever good enough.

I think about those young people from my first few years of teaching, and if time machines were a real thing, I’d set the dial to 2008. I would do things differently because I am different. I know better. I learned to be better.

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Last week I facilitated a day-long training on implementing the routines of readers-writers workshop in secondary classrooms — a shift in pedagogy so students sit at the center and learn through authentic reading and writing practices. These teachers are eager, and their district leadership is providing support to make this happen. Yet they struggle.

In table-group conversations, two topics came up again and again:  Our students lack discipline. We need more tips on conferring.

What’s obvious to me now, that wasn’t back when I first started teaching, is a clear connection between the two. Students need to be heard. Now, I am not saying that implementing a workshop pedagogy will fix all disruptive behaviors, but I do believe these behaviors are often evidence of a lack of conferring. Students need to be seen and heard. (See more on why here.)

We talk a lot about creating a positive culture in schools and cultivating learning communities where relationships thrive. These take intention, effort, and time. In ELAR classes, these take intentionally designing instruction that utilizes every square meter as we practice authentic literacy skills with authentic texts and model the effort it takes to build our identities as readers and writers. To do all of this well, we must meet our students where they are in their learning, or in their apathy, or their attitudes, or whatever we want to call it. Conferring, those one-on-one little talks with kids, is where we do it.

As with anything that deals with humans, it has to start with listening. Listening jumpstarts relationships. Relationships build community. Community shapes culture.

8 Tips for Talking to Adolescents

If I could relive day one of my first year teaching and my interaction with Susie, I’d make sure she knew I heard her. I’d pull up a chair at the beginning of our next class, and I’d listen. That would be the start of Susie doing more than just fine in her freshman English class. I am pretty sure of it.

 

Amy Rasmussen loves her life in North TX. She’s currently reading We Got This by Cornelius Minor, Embarrassment by Thomas Newkirk, and Braving the Wilderness by Brene Brown. She may be a completely different person come 2019. Find her on Twitter @amyrass

Whole Class Struggle (Novel)

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I could tell something was wrong.  I stood up from my seat like somehow that fruitless movement would clarify the mystery.  I could see my son, across the arena, furiously working the controller, yelling something to his team mates, feeling the frustration rise in him.

Three months, hundreds of hours, dozens of late nights, early Saturday morning stops at Shipley’s and his one chance to truly measure himself against the best robot drivers in the state, overwhelmingly high school students, the non-human factor reared its ugly head.

Later, as he told my wife and me the story and filled us in on the narrative, I realized how important this whole process had been. In the moment, when all that effort and energy drifted away, Colton (11 years old) reached back to the lessons he’d learned about keeping his cool from his robotics mentors, the thirty-two other students in that program, and the experiences along the way.

The interesting part for me was that, instead of being disappointing or feeling like he let his team down, he glowed with the confidence that he did all he could do to make the best of that situation and scored several hundred points with a broken robot.  This is the type of lesson I hope he learns from experiences like this one.

He knew, no matter the circumstance, that his peers and coaches would be there for him and that knowledge empowered his confidence, filled his spirit, and kept him grounded in the moment, grinding for the team.

img_4947This is the type of lesson we can teach when we bring whole class novels into our classrooms.  The “shared experience” of reading a text is a phrase that I’ve heard from and seen written by the smartest people I know.  It’s the same lesson that my son and his peers experienced with their robotics team this year.

Our students will need these lessons and, certainly, we can teach them through targeted mentor texts and the skills we ask them to explore.  At some point, though, a somewhat more difficult, shared, experience might be effective.

This is a lesson you can’t possibly learn in a “worksheet” class; one filled with blanks, multiple choices, and compliance.

That’s the idea that I started our whole class novel unit with last week.  The team I have the pleasure of learning from this year knows it all too well.  They know to start with the end in mind.  They showed me the importance of planning for “the struggle.”

I used to know how to “teach a novel” and every time I tried in the past, I failed. This failure, as I’ve learned, was due to me teaching the “novel” and not teaching kids. This team of teachers is showing me how to take those lessons students learn from being on teams, and move that into my classroom.

I’m still growing. And most importantly, so are my students.

It will be hard, on them, and on me.  We will all need preparedness and grit, but the growth goal is paramount.

Teachers, I want you to know how important your work is.  You hold the future in your hands.  Please listen to the brilliant teachers around you. Let yourself be the student and then take those lessons back to your classroom.

Charles Moore is excited to continue his work with freshmen, although their excitement might be harder to quantify.  He loves watching his son compete against his own inner expectations and he loves watching his daughter dance (compete) against her own inner expectations.  He hopes to his students can learn to dance and judge themselves against their own expectations.  He hopes those expectations are high, because his students are beautiful and brilliant.

Question Storming with Students

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Eighty percent of my teaching load is in the role of senior school teacher librarian and much of this aspect of my job is spent working on research skills with our middle years and graduation years students. One of the hardest tasks students face when starting with research is knowing where to start. Often times students will start with a topic that is significantly too broad and they lack the skills to narrow down their search focus, which leads to a frustrated student proclaiming they can’t find anything at all on their topic.

One technique I have used with my students to help them narrow their focus in their research and to guide them through the search process is a technique called question storming. Question storming is a technique I discovered in the educator section of The Right Question Institute website and I have used it with success in research lessons with Grade 6s all the way up to my Grade 10-12 AP students. Question storming is similar to brain storming, but instead of generating ideas or statements that come to mind, students are asked to generate questions. The following are the steps I take to guide my class through the question storming process.

Step One: I model the process of question storming by walking through the process with them. I love to use images as prompts to generate questions as I find students really become engaged with the images the more they ask questions about it. After I briefly explain what a question storm is, I project a thought provoking image on the screen. With my most recent question storming practice with my AP Capstone class, I used the viral image of the Palestinian protester in Gaza.

Step Two: After projecting the image, I ask students to generate as many questions as possible about the image. In my initial modelling with my students, I have them call the questions out and I record them on the board. I also remind my students that at this stage we are not trying to answer the questions and we are not judging the questions, we  are simply trying to generate as many questions as possible. The first questions generated are often rather surface level, things like why is the man holding a flag or where is he, but after the first few questions, I am always surprised at the depth that starts to emerge in the questions.

Step Three: After a few minutes of generating questions, we stop and review the difference between a closed question (one that can be answered simply) and an open question (one that is complex and has multiple possible perspectives) and we go through the list of generated questions and label each as being either an open question or a closed question. At this stage we talk about how it is the open questions we want to explore in our research, but the closed questions often help us in our research, as well because they help us explore what basic information we need to understand about the topic before we can delve into exploring the open ended questions.

Step Four: Once we have labelled our questions as being closed or open, we then select the one open question we want to explore as our main topic. Some of the open ended questions my students generated about the Palestinian protester photo included: To what extent are the Palestinian protests in Gaza affecting the conflict? How has the media coverage of the conflict in Gaza affected the conflict? To what extent has the media coverage of the conflict in Gaza affected the level of aid provided by other countries?

At this stage, students have a significantly more focused starting point for their research and have narrowed their focus with their open-ended questions. As well, they can use their close ended questions to help provide search terms to help narrow their research down even more.

When students start research or an inquiry with a powerful question they find the research process to be easier and more meaningful and question storming is a technique that helps make the challenge of coming up with the right question easier.

For some more practical teaching strategies, check out Shana’s post on some strategies she learned from the pre-service teachers she works with.

Pam McMartin is a Senior School Teacher Librarian, Senior English teacher and English department head at an independent school in Tsawwassen, British Columbia Canada. When she is not wading through storms of questions with her students, she is braving the perpetual winter stormy weather outside that comes with living in the Pacific Northwest. You can follow Pam on twitter @psmcmartin. 

 

 

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