Category Archives: Amy Estersohn

A Workshop Approach to Whole-Class Novels: A Return

Three Teachers TalkJoin us for a summer series revisiting our top posts from this school year, and please “turn and talk” with us in the comments section each week!

This 2017 post by Amy Estersohn details one answer to the age-old workshop question: how to balance choice and whole-class novels.


I spent my President’s Day-Week vacation (the one that New York teachers and students get- yes, a whole week off for President’s Day!) scrapping my whole-class unit on The Outsiders and rebuilding it to reflect the values of a reader’s workshop.  First, I had to define my values:

read and write in english class

  • Choice in what we read and what we read “for” (information, entertainment, character chemistry, therapy, etc.)
  • Diversity in opinions, experiences, and interpretations
  • Engagement in ideas.  I always like to tell students that you don’t need to read to think, but a book can make you think something you haven’t thought about yet

I also had to define my teacher non-negotiables:

  • Reading for ideas. Students will be able to read a scene from a book and connect it to an idea
  • Tracking how that idea changes over time.  Students will be able to see how ideas unfold and develop over the course of a story, either by using a chronological progression to explain how an idea unfolds (At the beginning of the story… in the middle….at the end) or a more conceptual approach (At first I thought…. Then I realized….)

Here’s how a typical lesson on a typical day looks like in this unit:

  1. A visual reminder of what we’re reading for when we’re reading The Outsiders
  2. A mini-lecture on the chapter.  After I summarize the chapter, I choose a passage and my readers help me write an entry.  I make sure my passages reflect “small moments” of the book instead of the plot-heavy moments of the story to show how careful reading leads to intellectual rewards.
  3. A group “crowdsourced” journal entry on my chosen passage. This requires a lot of fast, on-the-spot teacher thinking, as I will call on one student to begin the entry and another student to provide a follow-up sentence.  I like the idea of composing a paragraph in real time under real demands, because it allows me to ask the questions that writers should be asking when they write, like “What more can I say here?” and “Do I have any evidence to explain this idea?”  Later on, I post each class’s journal entry for other students to see and appreciate.  I emphasize that four different classes will have four different readings of the same scene.
  4. Time for individual journal entries on one of our four major ideas.  I invite students to post-it note possible scenes to write about as they read, through I don’t require it and I don’t encourage students to annotate as they read, either.  (Incidentally, my low-stakes approach to post-its has resulted in more student requests for more post-its than I ever thought possible.)  Most students have a scene or two that they want to take ownership of in their own notebooks.  Some students will continue the conversation we had as a whole class in their own notebooks, taking the scene I chose and adding something new to it.
  5. Time to share our thinking at the end of class.

I also post and tracking some of the “greatest hits” ideas, ideas that I know will inspire strong thesis statements once readers finish the book.  By the time students prepare to write an essay, they will have a menu of student-generated thesis statements along with their own thinking about the book to reflect on.

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Adapting this teaching to other books.

I was thinking about how I might teach other works using the same approach.  Here’s one thing I’ll say to high school teachers in particular: if you try this, you’ll find yourself making careful decisions about what you really want students to know and what you will let them figure out on their own.   It means letting some “juice” of the book drop and appreciating that you won’t have time to discuss the importance of every reference with every student.

For example, if I were teaching The Great Gatsby, I think I would let readers encounter and interpret the Valley of Ashes and Dr. T.J. Eckleburg on their own.  I would want to instead focus on Nick’s first description of Gatsby as a quasi-Moses figure and the fact that he dropped out of St. Olaf College — small details that lead to powerful and enduring interpretations and ideas.

Some suggested ideas and topics for popular high school books:

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

  • Civilization
  • Friendship
  • Trust
  • #ownvoices (if you aren’t familiar with this twitter hashtag, look it up!)

The Great Gatsby

  • Sin and Religious Iconography
  • Money

Macbeth

  • Greed
  • Lies/Lying
  • Power
  • Dreams/Reality

How are you using workshop methods and thinking to approach whole class novels?

Amy Estersohn is a middle school English teacher in New York.  When she was in middle school, her favorite authors were William Shakespeare and Meg Cabot.  Follow her on twitter @HMX_MSE

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Reading and Writing about TV

You’ve read before on TTT about how summer is that time for necessary rejuvenation, even if it comes with guilt.  

Summer is also the time for our best ideas to grow.  I just came back from the inspiring NCTE Summer Institute, where I made teacher friends from around the world and I maxed out my library holds in about twenty minutes of talking to fellow teachers.   And if that’s not enough to remind you that summers are important, I’ll remind you that Hamilton wouldn’t be a musical if it weren’t for summer.

LinManuel

One of the ways I am taking time for myself is by watching television.  Lots and lots and lots of television. And I’m not talking thoughtful, high-quality, content-rich TV: I’m talking vote-em-out reality shows where portmanteaus like “showmance” are frequently used.

swaleigh

Chris (Swaggy C) and Bayleigh found each other inside the Big Brother House this summer.   Will “Swaleigh” last or is one of them going home?  

I am not going to try to convince you that you should waste your time like me watch these TV shows.  However, I have noticed that I spend about as much time reading about TV shows and writing about TV shows as I actually spend watching the show.

Using myself as an example, I have some thoughts on how to bring this television into our classrooms for reading and writing.

 

Reading about TV — research and mentor texts:

  1. People, Entertainment Weekly, and Rolling Stone all have solid and consistent coverage of television shows with articles and interviews that are sufficiently detailed and not too sensational.
  2. For reality TV in particular: The New Yorker has this wild story about a failed reality TV concept.  Reality Blurred covers the underbelly of the TV shows and provides a glimpse into casting, productions, and trends.  My fellow Survivor friends would be disappointed if I didn’t include a link to Rob Has a Podcast.
  3. Medium is a good medium (ha!) between social media discussions about TV shows and something more professional.  You can do a search for specific shows or do a search by topic.

 

Writing about TV: prompts to get writers started in notebooks.

  1. What are five TV shows that other students/people should watch?  Why?
  2. If you’re a fan of a specific TV show, what’s the best/worst season?  Why?
  3. You are a producer of your favorite TV show.  What would you change/fix/add?
  4. What TV show was a big disappointment for you?  Why were you looking forward to it? Why didn’t it meet your expectations?
  5. How does where the TV show takes place influence what happens in an episode?
  6. What episodes do you rewatch?  Why?
  7. Who are some of your favorite characters?  Why?
  8. What’s a funny TV show for you?  What makes it so funny?
  9. How does this TV show portray race, class, gender, and relationships?  Does that portrayal line up with how you see your life?
  10. Reality television is often distorted by “the edit” – the snips and clips that make the final cut and represent a fraction of a percent of what a contestant does.  How might the edit differ from the real story?  Why?

 

Now that I’ve laid bare some of my passions — what are you up to this summer?  Do you think it will influence how you teach next year?

 

Amy Estersohn is an English teacher in New York. Her favorite season of Survivor for entertainment value, strong characterization, and sociological discussion is Marquesas (Season 4). 

 

What’s the right way to book club?

I belong to a lot of book clubs.  Probably too many, if I’m being perfectly honest.  This book club habit, though, allows me view a range of activities that can be considered “book club” and has opened up the way I teach book clubs in my classroom.

Book clubs are valuable experiences in and of themselves and there is no one right way to “book club.”   Book clubs enrich the lives of readers and allow students to see a thought about a book go somewhere new with a friend.

We’ve all had those moments where we think, “Sure, I could run this unit as a book club, but how do I know the students are really reading?”  As much as it pains me to write … we know the students aren’t reading regularly and consistently anyway.  Penny Kittle’s Book Love gives a detailed account of the various deceptions and misdirections that high school students regularly go through when they “fake read” assigned classics for English class.  The concern is most certainly worth raising, but we also shouldn’t assume we already have a perfect solution.

And book clubs are not a perfect solution, either.  They are messy, they take time, and sometimes the teaching we do in a book club unit is more the teaching of life and human relationships than of actual content and reading strategies.  But to hear students arguing the role of fate in one’s life?  To see a gaggle of girls attempt to stymie me with a version of The Trolley Problem that they developed based on a book club conversation?  To see students become obsessed with the Berlin Wall because of a book club?  To listen in on how students work out interpersonal conflicts when they think an adult isn’t listening?

I’m telling you, it’s all worth it.

While there are no right ways to book club, here are some things that have worked for me:

  • Give generous choice in partner selection.  I maintain final say over groups, but I encourage students to indicate the classmates they want to work with on a survey.  A colleague encouraged me to add a space for students to include a student that they haven’t worked with yet but would like to work with in order to encourage students to branch away from just indicating friends.  If students look forward to talking to their conversation partners, I find they are more likely to read and more likely to have better conversations about the book.
  • Steer students towards books they might not otherwise pick up.  One of the hidden beauties of book clubs is that I can steer groups towards books they might not otherwise pick up.  Groups of students are more likely to branch out of genre or try an author they hadn’t heard of before if they have a group to do it with.  I use this opportunity to introduce racially diverse authors and authors whose works are set in other countries.  It delights me to overhear students discuss the role of Choctaw culture in the magical realist tale How I Became a Ghost or mull over the levels of privilege in Piecing Me Together.
  • Provide activities to get conversation going and flowing.  One of my favorite activities from this past unit was having each student write down five significant events from the story, one event on each index card.  Then, in book club groups, students sorted their cards into piles and labeled their piles.  If you look at this picture, you’ll see that some of the piles from this student group are about setting (“orphanage”), others are about themes (“bravery,” “hope,” and “family”) and another is an observation about craft. This activity allows students to notice their noticings and realize they are not alone in their thoughts.
AmEOnceimage

Once by Morris Gleitzman is the first of an incredible series. Bonus to a book club choice!

If your school has a traditional canon-based curriculum in place, there are areas where I would see book clubs falling flat.  I would not assign Hamlet or Macbeth in book clubs.  (I might, however, think about assigning excerpts to small groups after some whole class teaching.)  I might instead start book clubs in a lower-stakes medium.  Maybe your book club reads poetry.  Maybe your club members are obsessed with the Dallas Cowboys and each member finds an article on the Cowboys to bring to the meeting.  Or maybe your book club loves superhero comics, and you read the new Superman comics together.

Wherever you are and whatever grade you teach, I encourage you to give book clubs a go.

What about you?  What are some of your favorite book club rules and routines? Or what are your book club roadblocks?

 

Amy Estersohn is a seventh grade English teacher in New York and is a halfway decent trivia team member.  She collects her book and graphic novel reviews at teachingtransition.wordpress.com

 

 

Students Who Write by Ear by Amy Estersohn– an #NCTE17 Preview

The following is a sample of what I’ll be presenting with Three Teachers Talk at #NCTE17, session C.26, Friday at 12:30, room 274.

Tom Newkirk’s book, Minds Made for Stories, encouraged me to think about students as natural storytellers.

So I dug through their writers’ notebooks to see storytelling in action. During my dig, I wasn’t looking for detail or dialogue or finished pieces.  I wasn’t reading for apostrophes or paragraphing or numbered and dated pages, either.  I instead wanted to know where writers were already practicing storytelling, and what tools and strategies they were already using.

One the ways I noticed that student writers tell stories is that they listen to their inner ear.  This emerged when I read half-baked, quarter-finished crime stories where a student could hear a bought cop addressing a group of criminals.  I noticed it when I heard a writer list the annoying sayings her mother used.  I noticed it again when writers took on a Ken Burns-ish important-sounding narrative voice to discuss an important world issue.

Some students can really hear when they write.

So the first thing I did was I turned that observation back to the students: did you notice how you hear the character in this section?  That observation then became an expectation.  In your writing, you should be able to hear your character or narrator speaking.  When you revise, ask yourself if you still hear your characters or your narrators.  If you don’t, mark the text for a future revision.

There are also ways that writers can practice hearing stories.  The easiest way is just to choose a good piece to read out loud to the class.  For middle school, I’d recommend the first few pages of a Kate DiCamillo’s Because of Winn Dixie or Jason Reynolds’ Ghost.   For high school, I’d probably choose a text like Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak or A.S. King’s Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future.  You can read the book in your voice or cue up the audiobook, and ask students to discuss what they noticed and then practice some imitations.

You can also invite students to imitate characters they already know.   It’s always fun to try to imitate a sibling’s voice or a young child’s voice.  I invited students to imitate boastful and outrageous LaVar Ball, a parent of an NBA player, after I provided examples of what he has said.  Students embraced the opportunity to play around with LaVar’s voice in their writers’ notebooks.

AmEstudent notebook

Another idea would be to collect some of the voices of nonfiction: this includes Deborah Heiligman’s Vincent and Theo, Candace Fleming’s Giant Squid, some Mary Roach, and whatever nearby textbook or magazine is in sight.  Work backward: what do these voices sound like?  Whom do I imagine is telling me this story?

I could even see students doing multimedia work with voice by tape recording themselves.

I’m going to assume for a moment that teaching voice is probably not new to you.  But what might be new is teaching voice and playing with voice as an element of storytelling instead of housing it within a certain genre or a certain unit.

Will you be at #NCTE17?

Sarah Raises Hand

I hope to see you there!

 

Amy Estersohn is a middle school English teacher in New York.  She writes book reviews at teachingtransition.wordpress.com and is deeeeeelighted to serve on the CYBILS book award committee for middle grade fiction.  

 

Using Poetry to Explore Current Events and Controversial Topics

I suffer from a constant urge to bring current events into the classroom.  I love talking about issues current or past  in conferences or small groups with students, whether it’s Tom Brady’s Deflategate or Professor Henry Louis Gates arrested for trying to break into his own home, or the U.S.’s relationship with Cuba.

 

Recently I’ve moved towards making current events more central to what and how I teach, by presenting issues, giving time for questions (of which there are many, most of them excellent, some of them unanswerable), and then providing a creative writing opportunity.  So there!  Writing workshop accomplished!

 

When Donald Trump first instituted a travel ban, I invited students to take on one of the following four characters in a poem:

  1. A Customs Agent at an airport who has to tell a passenger who recently arrived in the U.S. that she is no longer welcome into the country
  2. A business professional from Iran who had to cancel or change a trip
  3. A U.S. Citizen who is concerned about relaxed immigration policies
  4. One of the protesters who showed up at an airport with signs
Travel Ban

Google employees protest a travel ban.

I was amazed at how quickly students took to writing and sharing their character-poems.  Here’s what helped:

 

    1. This was an exercise in imagination, not a rehashing of politics and policy.   Certainly I want them to explore their own feelings about politics, but I want them to do so through the lens of another person.  This may be one of a few times when I tell students it’s not all about what they think!
    2. I presented a range of options with some ambiguous interpretations.  I wanted students to be able to go into a right-wing or left-wing comfort zone  by writing the protester point of view or the concern point of view, but I didn’t want to limit the interpretation.
    3. Students gravitated towards complexity.  Student poems about the Customs Agent often played with the tension between following orders and doing what seems right.  Student poems about the citizens afraid of terrorism considered the best approaches for addressing that fear.

 

 

 

 

I am sure I am not the only one out there who is struggling to think of ways that current events can shine a light into our classrooms and make our work even more productive.  

 

What are you doing to teach current events in Reading and Writing Workshop?

 

Amy Estersohn is a middle school English teacher in New York.  Her favorite section of the New York Times is the wedding announcements, though the national section is pretty good, too.

 

Stop Teaching. I’m reading.

SCENE: My classroom

 

AMY is holding onto a clipboard and attempting to drink from a thermos of coffee while still Looking Important.  She surveys the room of readers and stops at a student who has read an uncharacteristically large amount from the past day.  She stops at the student’s desk.

 

AMY: How’d you do that?

 

STUDENT looks up from book.

 

STUDENT: Do what?

 

AMY: You know, how did you read 50 pages since the last time I saw you?

 

STUDENT (shrugs): I don’t know.  I just did.

 

STUDENT returns to book.

 

Some teachers might find exchanges like these evidence of an unsuccessful conference with an uncommunicative student. Some teachers might want to go into further questioning: “Well, when did start reading?  How long did you read?  Where were you? Are you on your way to achieving a reading goal?” but it’s easy for that kind of reading conference to quickly turn into an episode of Law and Order: Minors After Midnight pretty quickly.

 

Instead, I tend to find conferences like these home run victories.  This student is looking to end this conversation so that he can get back into reading.  Isn’t that the best compliment of all?

When-do-we-need-to-stop

Granted, if every interaction with the student went like the above, I’d probe further.  However, I look for three key ingredients when I evaluate these kinds of exchanges:

  1. Is this student reading at an increased volume than he or she usually does?  
  2. What’s the student’s body language like before the conference?  Is it a “please don’t talk to me right now” vibe?
  3. Does the student act unsurprised by the idea that he or she read a lot?  

 

If the answer to the three above questions is “yes,” I score that conference as a major reading victory, because:

  1. I already de-incentivize book volume and page count.  Students gain no reward for claiming they have read 20 pages when really they have read 2.  This way, I trust when I see students reading more that that reading is their honest performance.
  2. Students should like reading more than they like talking to us.
  3. The student might not be able to accurately recall his or her extended reading period because he or she entered a state of flow.  I don’t know how I managed to watch three episodes back-to-back of Survivor over the weekend.   Students who don’t know how they managed to read a lot might not know because they entered a state of flow.

 

Okay, so where do you teach this reader in future conferences?  They can’t all be this non-verbal.

 

  1. Use this book as a benchmark of reading excellence for that student.  Ask that student in a few months, “How does the book you are in right now compare to your experience of reading book XYZ?”
  2. Help the student find more books like it using tools like Amazon.com, goodreads, or by talking to other readers. I am always amazed at how few students know how to look up another book by the same author.
  3. Ask the student what mattered to them most about the experience of reading the book.  Ask about the book, but ask about their feelings while reading, too.  Keep in mind that for some readers a distinctive literary pattern emerges across their reading — say, books about kids with cancer, books about troubled homes, books about the apocalypse, books with strong female characters battling high school drama.   For others, it might be about feelings — they liked or disliked a character, they enjoyed the world the author built for them, etc.

Amy Estersohn is a middle school English teacher in New York and a 2016 recipient of the NCTE Gallo Grant.  And she hates being interrupted in the middle of a good book.  Follow her on twitter @HMX_MsE.

Varying Paragraph and Sentence Length for Effect

The formula is simple.

 

Pair a simple, declarative sentence in its own paragraph with a longer, more detailed paragraph to follow.  The two paragraphs set against each other will balance the other’s flavors out nicely.

 

Practice it mercilessly in workshop and use sparingly in finished work.

 

As you can see from this blog post, an entire essay or article that’s filled with long-short paragraph variations is going to tire, frustrate, and bore readers easily.   It will also become predictable, just like predicting that LeBron James is going to score 20 points in a game.  The good news, however, is that once you introduce the trick, you can invite readers to look for it across their reading.

 

Mentor texts used: An article about Alec Baldwin’s Donald Trump impersonation from The New York Times and a chapter from The Nix by Nathan Hill (hardcover pgs. 482-492) Note:  read over these mentor texts before using to see if they are appropriate for your students.  

Teaching this technique – version A:

 

  1. Invite students to freewrite off of each of these starting sentences from these mentors: “It takes seven minutes” or “Today was the day he would quit Elfscape.”
  2. Have students share their work.
  3. Reveal first two paragraphs of the Times article and page 482 from The Nix.  (Note: the vocabulary on this page of The Nix is tough, so I would suggest using it as an example of the technique only.)  
  4. Identify ideal locations for this technique (leads, beginnings of chapters and sections.)
  5. Practice this technique in a freewrite or on a piece in progress.

 

Teaching this technique – version B:

 

  1. Have students read the New York Times article and flash-skim the chapter from The Nix.  Unless you want students to read a sentence that extends for ten pages…
  2. Ask students about how and why these two authors decided to begin paragraph 1 simply and laden paragraph 2 with all the details.  Why might an author decide to describe a character’s decision to stop playing an online role playing game with zero periods?  Why might the Times author give us excruciating detail about Alec Baldwin’s Trump makeup?  To what extent are these “characters” portrayed similar?  Or are the purposes here different?
  3. Invite students to “hack” their own writing or another expository piece (e.g. a history or science textbook) to mimic the long-short style.  Is this an improvement?  Is the writing worse?  Why or why not?

 

Amy Estersohn teaches middle school English in New York.  She has never played an online role playing game and only pretends to know how to play paper and dice role playing games, so reading The Nix wasn’t easy.  Follow her on Twitter at @HMX_MsE.

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