Category Archives: Amy Rasmussen

Five Ideas That Beat the Dread: A Return

Three Teachers TalkThank you for joining us for a summer series revisiting our top posts from this school year! Don’t forget to please “turn and talk” with us in the comments section one last time.

Amy Rasmussen’s back-to-school post from 2018 will help you frame your school year positively and “beat the dread.”


A few years ago I stopped reviewing class rules and smacking down my syllabus on the first day of school. I had been doing some research on chronic stress (mostly my own) and read extensively about the fight, flight, freeze response. One description glared at me and gave me pause:  “You have a sense of dread.”

I remembered what I had been taught as a first year teacher:  Set yourself up as the authority figure. Be kind but firm. Establish norms quickly so students know what you will and will not tolerate in your classroom.

Then, almost in the same breathe, I was told:  Develop relationships. Learn students’ names. Let them help develop class rules.

And I muddled through doing a combination of both the best I knew how. Those first few days of my first few years were rocky to say the least. And in hindsight, it’s clear:  there was dread. Lots of dread.

So when I read up on the fight, flight, and freeze response, I realized a big part of my problem:  With my seemingly simple attempt at outlining classroom expectations and detailing how ‘my class would run, chemicals danced a jig in students’ brains: fight, flight, or freeze. Now, I know my syllabus is not on the scale of major life trauma most often associated with this fff response theory, but many of my juniors and seniors didn’t want to be in school anyway. Why was I compounding it?

I learned a better way.

Wait.

Let every other teacher lay down the law. Lay out their plans. Run through the rules.

On the first day of school — maybe even the first five days of school — just write. And talk. Let students drive the discussion. Let them ask questions. Give them a chance to be seen and heard and welcomed.

“Community before curriculum” Angela wrote in her last post, and I love her thinking there. I also think we can merge the two on the first day of school and lay a firm foundation for thinking and talking every day thereafter. We can jump start community and begin our curriculum as we put pen to the page and write.

Here’s my top five sources that beg a response and invite students to write on the first day of school (or at least the first week or so):

  1. To This Day by Shane Koyczan.

Give every student a notecard and ask them to watch and listen and then respond to the poem as a whole or to a line they particularly like or relate to. (I’ve learned some pretty heavy stuff from students over the years. So many of them can relate to the themes in this poem.)

  1. How poetry can help kids turn a fear of literature into love by Jason Reynolds on PBS.

Give every student a sticky note and ask them to think about their reading lives. Then after they listen to Mr. Reynolds talk about reading, ask students to rate themselves. Are they readers eager for the pit bulls or for the puppies? Why? (I quickly find who my readers are and with whom I need to take on the challenge of helping them want to read.) Then for a little more of a challenge, on the flip side of the sticky, ask them to describe in poetic form their feelings about poetry. (You’ll learn even more.)

  1. Possibilities by Wislawa Szymborska. Or the version here where Amanda Palmer reads the poem.

Give every student a copy of the poem. Then read the poem aloud and ask students to write their own list of possibilities. Their list can be straightforward, funny, or interesting things they want the class to know. (I wrote about how I used this poem to practice imitation a couple of years ago. It’s a great lesson and a great poem to revisit.)

  1. Three poems:

“My Name Is,” an excerpt from Jason Reynolds’ book Long Way Down. (If you haven’t read this book, oh, my goodness. It’s amazing!)

My Name Is by Jason Reynolds

“Instructions” by Rudy Francisco.

Instructions by Rudy Francisco

“Like You” by Roque Dalton, translated by Jack Hirschman

Give students copies of all three poems and a notecard or piece of paper. Read them aloud. Ask students to read them again and then to write a response. They can respond to just one of the poems, a line from a poem, or anything the poems make them think or feel. There is no right or wrong. Just write your thinking. (This is always an interesting response, and it tells me a lot about how to help my students. Many of them will begin to write an analysis of one of the poems — or all three. Others understand that I am asking for a different kind of thinking, one that leads them into ideas for their own poems, stories, or essays.)

  1. Author Bios!

Give students access to books that have clever, witty, or interesting author bios. YA authors like Julie Murphy, Jeff Zentner, Chris Crutcher, Libba Bray, and Gina Damico are great ones, but there are many with a bit of quirk that will draw students in and spark their interest in reading these author’s books. Ask students to explore the author bios and then make a list of the books they think they’d like to explore this semester. Have them write the author’s names on sticky notes for you to put in your conferring notes.

If you want to take this author bio idea further — (this is my favorite):

Read several professional author bios aloud. Ask students what information is shared and make a T-chart that lists the what on the left, e.g., name, personal hobbies, awards won, where the author lives, who the author lives with, etc. Then, ask students to describe how this information is shared and add these craft moves to the right. This is the how. For example, short and sometimes incomplete sentences, lists, 3rd person, the author’s name is first, witty word choice, etc. Finally, ask students to write their own author bio while you write yours as a model. Encourage them to try to craft their bio to include ideas from both the what and the how side of the T-chart. Below are two of my students’ bios from this past year.

Stephany author bio

Tomias author bio

(The author bio idea is Lisa’s baby, and she wrote about it here after I wrote about it here. It’s still the best idea I have ever heard to begin students on their journey into developing their identities as readers and as writers. I’ve used this idea in a model lesson for every workshop I’ve facilitated this summer, so if you were there, feel free to share the author bio you wrote this summer in the comments. My newest one is below.)

I wish you happy reading and writing with your students this year. Please share your go-to ideas for inviting students to write and build your community.

Amy Rasmussen loves books, pretending to garden, adolescents, and coconut cream pie — not necessarily in that order. She lives in North Texas with her dashing husband of 33 years, their twin-terror Shelties Mac and Des, and a not so loving love bird named Colonel Brandon. Amy spent the summer leading professional development in several districts across Texas and has grown especially fond of the Houston area. If only she could move… Follow her on Twitter @amyrass — and if you are not already, please follow this blog.

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Q & A: What are the essentials to making Readers-Writers Workshop work? #3TTWorkshop

Questions Answered

It can be overwhelming. We attend training sessions and conferences, read professional books and journal articles, search online and join Facebook groups, and try to figure out this thing called Readers-Writers Workshop. I did all of that for years. I still do. I suppose that’s one of the things I love best about this blog:  I get to share all my trial-and-error-years-of-learning-and-ongoing-ideas with all of you.

If I said I’ve got it all figured out, I’d be lying.

I think that’s the beauty of this model of instruction. While the routines might be the same: independent self-selected reading, quickwrites, craft study, time to talk and write, conferring… the texts we use to meet the needs of our students and the amount of time we spend on those routines vary, depending on the individuals learning with us in our classrooms.

So I’ve been giving a lot of thought to this question:  What are the essentials to making readers-writers workshop work? and while my answer might be different tomorrow or next week, here’s what I think the essentials are today:

  • We have to build and nurture a community of readers and writers who identify as such and who respect one another’s right to explore, express, and develop in their literacy skills.
  • We have to believe that it’s more important to teach readers and writers, speaking to them as such, than it is to teach books — even if they are books we love.
  • We have to push back at standardized tests that crush authenticity in reading and writing tasks — and give our students choice. Lots of choice!
  • We must be confident in our skills as literacy teachers. We need to walk our talk and continually work to grow our expertise. If we don’t know YA books and other literature our students will want to read, we need to read more. If we don’t know how to teach writers, instead of assigning writing, we need to learn what writers do to craft meaning — and model those things for our students.
  • And perhaps more than anything, we have to dedicate the precious time we have with students to the things that help them grow confident in their own literacy skills. Time to think, read, write, talk, listen, and celebrate. Everyday!

There is no one way to do all this. However, if we’ll keep these essentials in our focus, we will find the one way that works for us — and for our students.

 

Note:  This post is a part of a series. It’s based primarily on the most frequent questions about readers-writers workshop asked at our workshop trainings. For more see here.

Amy Rasmussen loves to learn. She reads a lot and writes a lot to figure things out. She loves her husband of 34 years and adores her kids and grandkids. Amy will be teaching senior English when school starts in just a few short days. Follow her @amyrass

Q & A: What are some good poems to write beside? #3TTWorkshop

Questions Answered (1)

I think I’ve mentioned before that I used to avoid poetry. Now, I’m really not pointing fingers at anyone — okay, yeah I am — but I blame it on my teachers. Not one of them shared poetry just for the love of poetry — of rhythm and words and images often cloaked in color and emotion. Not one. Not one used poetry as inspiration for other writing. It was always analyze this and write a paper on it. Bleh. My least favorite kind of writing.

Good poems have the potential to be great teaching tools. Sure, analysis but so much more. If we want students to love language or even play with it in their writing, we have to expose them to language worth loving — and encourage them to make paper swords and sequin-shiny shoes with it. Inviting students to write beside poems with us is one good starting place.

This month Shana and I attended the Poetry Foundation Conference for teachers in Chicago. We read, talked, listened to, and explored poems for a week. (And slept on the worst dorm beds possible.)

The thing about immersing yourself in poetry for a week is this:  You start seeing poetry

GiordanoPizza

Giordano’s Pizza — so good!

everywhere. Billboards, names on shops, menus in restaurants, bikers on the path along Lake Michigan, ceramic swans cuddling on the other side of a pane glass window, and pizza!!

Poetry is like an English teacher with a brand new set of 36 Flair pens. Color everywhere!

In my workshop classroom, we share a lot of poetry. Sometimes just for the love of it. Sometimes to talk about. Sometimes to inspire us to write.

PoetryFoundationpresHere’s a few poems (and a lesson plan) my group and I collected for our project at the poetry conference. We titled our presentation Boundaries & Borders:  Exploring Poetry Beyond our Front Yard (That’s a shout out to Gwendolyn Brook’s “a song in the front yard.”) I’ll tell ya, we hashed around a topic for a long time and finally decided that reading poems that help us explore our personal and societal boundaries might make an interesting backdoor into exploring identity, which is a topic many of us develop out thematically using a variety of other texts in our courses. If nothing else, the images we collected (all found at Unsplash) might be interesting to use to prompt student thinking.

If you’re looking for other topics, take a look at the Poetry Foundation. There’s so much there! And if you like podcasts, you might like this one:  the Slowdown with Tracy K. Smith. It’s my first-ever podcast listen, and I’m hooked.

So, what are some good poems to write beside? You decide. And please share some of the poems you love in the comments!

 

Note:  This post is a part of a series. It’s based primarily on the most frequent questions about readers-writers workshop asked at our workshop trainings. For more see here.

Amy Rasmussen is a teacher, writer, artist, and house-plant enthusiast. She lives near Dallas, TX and is a believer in all things that make us better humans. Follow her @amyrass

 

Q & A: How do book clubs work in a Readers-Writers Workshop classroom?

Questions Answered

Book clubs, or literature circles as some like to call them, can be a real bonus when it comes to not only getting some students to read, but in helping students talk about books in meaningful ways and learn about literature through discussion.

I like to think of Book Clubs as discovery:  Students lead the learning. They choose the books they’ll read (often within parameters I give them) set their reading schedules, generate questions about their books, and engage in small group discussions. Each group discovers something, or a series of somethings, that strikes them as readers. Book Clubs by nature are collaborative, yet they can be powerfully personal.

“I really liked being able to just read the book and discuss it like a real book club would, not with any assignment. It gave me the freedom to enjoy the book and not have to focus on finding anything specific.”  Emily, 11 grade

When I first started doing Book Clubs with my students many years ago, I didn’t have a clear purpose or direction, and that often created a bit of chaos for me and my students. Although most students did the reading, I didn’t have a plan on how to teach into the reading or any notion of how to authentically assess learning.  I knew I didn’t want to teach books but to teach readers, and I knew what that meant when it came to self-selected independent reading — but not for book clubs.

I’ve learned that to have success with the negotiated choice of book clubs, I must do some heavy thinking before I ever choose the book titles. (My hope this coming year is that my students will choose the titles. I’ve never trusted myself enough to try trusting them to choose. I’m learning.)

Here’s a little list of questions I try to answer in order to clarify my purpose and to make a plan for accelerating learning within student book clubs:

  • What are my goals for my readers? What are my goals for my writers?
  • How can I help my readers and writers set their own goals?
  • What books can I offer as choices that will help students meet these goals? Do I include a variety of books that will meet the various reading levels of my students?
  • How will I help students set expectations for their reading and discussions?
  • How will I know if students are really reading? How can I help my students hold one another accountable?
  • What whole-class, skills-based mini-lessons might I teach when students are engaged in book clubs?
  • How might my students collaborate with other students who may be reading different books?
  • How might my students collaborate with other students, perhaps on a different campus, who may be reading the same books?
  • How will I assess student learning, based on the instructional goals I set for book clubs?

The answers to these questions guide my planning. Many of the answers look the same when applied to self-selected independent reading and student choice in writing. The routines of workshop remain the same:  We read, talk, write, and talk — every day. And I do a whole lot of listening.

There’s so much to say about book clubs, and I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all way to make them work. We have to know our students. We have know their needs and align those needs with instructional goals and practices that best meet them. I think book clubs are one good option for doing so, and I can’t wait to get them started in the fall with my seniors. I’m thinking we’ll do at least two rounds: memoirs and something social sciences, but fiction with multiple or unique perspectives could be interesting.

I’m still thinking.

Amy Rasmussen just spent a week in Chicago at a conference on poetry, hosted by The Poetry Foundation. Her notebook now sings with melodic musings and personal poems. In a few weeks, Amy will start a new position, teaching senior English at Hebron High School in Lewisville, TX. She’s excited about learning with young people again everyday. Follow her @amyrass

Q & A: How do you confer with readers without causing a distraction?

Questions Answered

Recently, I facilitated a readers-writers workshop training with a small team of brilliant teachers in Minneapolis. We shared an inspiring two days together, exploring and discussing how to shift instructional practices to allow for choice, challenge, and the authentic moves readers and writers make as they mature in their craft. In these trainings, I tend to talk a lot about conferring. I think it’s the linchpin that makes all the essential parts of a workshop pedagogy work. (It’s also the thing I still struggle with the most.) Towards the end of our time together, one young teacher said, “Have you tried everything? It sounds like you’ve tried everything.”

Pretty much.

At least it feels like it. I’ve pretty much tried anything and everything I think will help my students want to read and write — and want to improve as readers and writers. (I am still learning. Send me ideas!) And when it comes to conferring with my readers, I’ve tried a lot of things.

One thing I know for sure:  The expectations we set matter — a lot.

When I work with teachers, I get this question often:  How do you confer with readers without causing a distraction?

I don’t. I want to cause a distraction, especially for the one student I’m conferring with at that moment, perhaps for the couple of students sitting near enough to listen into our conversation, maybe for the student across the aisle who needs to know it’s not as scary as she may think to talk to a teacher about a book.

Besides — I may only distract a reader for a moment before I move on to the next reader. Right? And with a class of thirty students, it may take several days to loop back around to distract that reader again.

Sure, I could ask students to come to me — maybe at my desk or at the side of the room or just a step outside the door (I’ve tried all these locations), but scooting up in my rolling chair, or kneeling beside them, at their space seems much more authentic to me — less threatening, more inclusive. In my experience, our conversations are richer when my readers share their space with me.

I know it can be hard to concentrate and read when someone is talking, even in whispers, to someone else a couple of feet away. (I tried reading on a plane yesterday, but the couple next to me kept talking, talking, talking, and I finally took a nap.)

Expectations matter. If we build a culture of reading within our learning communities, where all students know we expect them to read during sacred reading time, and all students expect us to talk to them about their reading lives, every student will come to expect our conferences. It’s part of the overall workshop routine. It’s a huge part of what makes self-selected independent reading work on the daily.

The weight of the distraction just doesn’t come close to the impact of regular one-on-one conversations with our readers.

 

Note:  This post is a part of a series. It’s based primarily on the most frequent questions about readers-writers workshop asked at our workshop trainings. For more see here.

Amy Rasmussen lives, loves, and teaches in North Texas. She will be at a new-to-her high school in the fall — teaching seniors! This week she is in Chicago at a conference sponsored by The Poetry Foundation. So cool! If you have questions about Secondary Readers-Writers Workshop, shoot her an email amy@threeteacherstalk.com. While she doesn’t claim to be an expert, Amy’s been imperfectly practicing the routines of workshop for a long time. Maybe she can help.

 

Q & A: How do I know what mini-lessons to teach? #3TTWorkshop

Questions Answered

When I first started trying to implement readers-writers workshop, I was the master of the quickwrite and pretty much nothing else. It wasn’t until after a lot of volume writing that didn’t go far in helping students improve in style or structure that I knew my instruction was missing something. I had to teach into these quickwrites. Ohhh.

Over time, I’ve learned how to develop lesson plans that not only engage students in the non-negotiables of workshop instruction, but to actually feel confident that I am teaching the ELAR standards.

We all have standards, right? These might be Common Core —  or determined by whichever state we teach. Texas has their own standards (Of course, it does).

The beauty of workshop instruction is that we can practice independent reading and writing — and teach into students’ skills development independently. We just have to plan accordingly. . . and leave space, knowing we will do more on the fly.

Take a look at this —

Minlessons

So how do we know what mini-lessons to teach?

When planning, I start with my state standards. In Texas we have Student Expectations, SE’s. Each one of those can be a mini-lesson. I introduce the SE to students, model what it looks like in a text or task. We discuss, question, and practice it by applying it to our own independent reading or writing.

Then, I pay attention. Sometimes, based on formative assessment or conferring, I may need to teach the mini-lesson again to the whole class, or sometimes small student groups or specific individuals.

These are the mini-lessons I plan in advance. However– and this is a big however — just because I know I must “teach” the standards, does not mean readers and writers must “master” them. (Don’t even get me started on standardized testing.) When it comes to writing, especially, student writers may choose not to apply specific moves in their own writing. That’s the beauty of teaching writers instead of teaching to rubrics or a specific format (Ugh, five-paragraph essay). Real writers makes choices depending on their intent for meaning and their audience. I love how Linda Rief explains more about this here.

So what do responsive mini-lessons look like?

These are the pop ups — the ones I know I’ll need to teach on the fly — based on what I see in students’ learning and growth. Maybe students are struggling with strong thesis statements or putting punctuation in places that actually aid the meaning of their sentences. I respond to their needs, and I teach specific mini-lessons, using mentor texts, to help students see how language works to craft meaning.

There is no list of mini-lessons we may teach in any given year. Your students’ needs are different than mine, and probably different than the teacher next door. Lean in, listen, identify their needs as readers and writers, that’s the best way I know how to know what mini-lessons my students need me to teach them.

 

Amy Rasmussen has taught all levels of high school English, except AP Lit, which is still on her teaching bucket list. She lives in North Texas and will be at a new-to-her high school in the fall. Alas, all gap years must come to an end. Follow Amy on Twitter @amyrass — and if you have questions about Secondary Readers-Writers Workshop, shoot her an email amy@threeteacherstalk.com. While she doesn’t claim to be an expert, Amy’s been imperfectly practicing the routines of workshop for a long time. Maybe she can help.

Q & A: How do I do this on my own without other colleagues teaching this way? #3TTWorkshop

Questions Answered (1)

Believe me when I say I understand. Completely. I think many other teachers who took off the old shoes of making all the choices in their English classes and tiptoed, stomped, or danced into workshop instruction understand, too. Sometimes we are the only one hearing the music.

This was me most of the time.

Of course, working with colleagues in highly functioning PLC’s is advantageous. If we’re lucky, we’ve been in a few grade level teams, or even full departments with colleagues who embrace the choice and challenge readers-writers workshop offers and collaborate well. Other times we have to stick with our knowledge of what works best for growing readers and writers and make our own instructional choices, based on what we know is best for the students relying us in our own classrooms. It’s always our own students who matter most.

So how do I do workshop on my own without other colleagues teaching this way?

Here’s the advice I got when I asked a similar question to someone with a whole lot more experience than me in all things authentic reading and writing instruction:   Nod your head a lot, and then close your door.

That’s pretty much what I did for the first eight years when I was figuring out how to manage a classroom library, give students choice in the books they read, hold them accountable in some way for their reading, get them writing more (and better), using mentor texts, conferring semi-regularly, and trying not to lose my mind when I’d go to team meetings and hear “I’m teaching ________ (insert title from the canon) and making students do study questions, along with these specific annotations. Do you want a copy of my test over the book?” Thanks by no thanks.

We teach readers, not books. And maybe it’s just me, but when I hear teachers say “I make my students do ____”, I kind of cringe. Study questions, annotations for all (done with a teacher’s specific rules for notes instead of the reader’s own rules), and tests over books:  Sandpaper on teeth.

When I shifted my instruction to include choice, student engagement soared. I was converted, and I hungered for more ways to fully move into workshop instruction. But at the time, I was the only convert on my campus. I was lonely there.

However, I had company outside my school. Everyone who determines to make this shift does. You may just have to find it.

First off, there’s this blog. I started it with two brilliant teachers, Heather and Molly, I met at a summer institute of the North Star of TX National Writing Project, a site of National Writing Project. We wanted a place to write about how we applied our learning from our institute with our students, and we wanted a space that helped us stay connected. I was teaching at a Title I high school in a district just north of Dallas; Molly had just moved to a high school with a focus on project-based learning in Longview; Heather taught middle school in a district east of Ft. Worth. (If you know north TX, you know we spanned a distance geographically.) I tell you this history for a few reasons:

The National Writing Project advocates for authentic writing instruction, and it is one of the best networks of educators, willing to collaborate and share, I know. If you can link to a site near you, you will never do this work alone.

Three Teachers Talk has grown as my learning about workshop instruction has. Heather and Molly moved in exciting career directions different than mine, and at times this blog has really been one teacher talking as I tried to figure things out. (Note: Writing helps us figure things out.) Then, when I attended the University of New Hampshire Literacy Institute and took a two week class taught by Penny Kittle, and learned with Shana, Erica, and Emily, a similar blog-writing collaboration happened.

We started writing regular posts here called Our Compass Shifts because we were all working to shift our thinking about instruction and apply the learning from Penny’s class with our own readers and writers. Our teaching souls clicked. The Modern PLC. Emily and Erica wrote with us for awhile, but like Heather and Molly they moved on to other good things. We remain friends, but Shana — Shana remains as Diana exclaims of Anne in Anne of Green Gables, my “bossom friend. A bosom friend—an intimate friend, you know—a really kindred spirit to whom I can confide my innermost soul.”

To continue improving, growing, striving to do right by our students, I think we all need at least one bossom friend. I’ve got two in Shana and Lisa, two of the other admins on this blog. (Angela, you’re up-and-coming.)

I had to find them though. I couldn’t keep my classroom door shut and not step in to learning opportunities that helped me grow. Growing takes action.

So how do I do workshop on my own without other colleagues teaching this way?

Seek out connections with others who are making workshop work. All of the contributors on this blog have been where you are. Read their posts. Leave comments. Ask questions. Email me directly if you can’t find answers amy@threeteacherstalk.com. Like everyone else in the teaching world, I’m busy, but I will do my best to help. (And your questions may turn into blog posts. That’s how I met the amazing Lisa Dennis.)

Join a network of passionate educators on Twitter. There’s chats for you. #TeachWrite #DistruptTexts #buildyourstack #3TTworkshop #titletalk #NerdyBookClub #APLitchat #teachlivingpoets all come to mind. So many teachers moving the work of choice and challenge — and equity — forward. If you are new to Twitter and don’t know who to follow, follow us @3TeachersTalk; then, check out who we follow — educators like you.

Read books by those who’ve built a movement, and join in on discussions. Some of our favorite teacher-writers are active on Twitter, and they share brilliant ideas regularly. Thomas Newkirk, Tom Romano, Penny Kittle, Kelly Gallagher, Linda Rief, Cornelius Minor to name a few.

Also, Shana put together a fabulous resource page here. It’s not exhaustive, but it’s a good start.

I know joining chats, reading books, and connecting online does not replace collaboration on a campus, but it does work to help us grow in our practice.

Just like my daughter has online friends who are in the #houseplantclub, and my sister has online friends who play Pokemon Go, teachers — eager to make workshop work for their students — can find the support they need to make this ever-important pedagogy of engaging students as they grow in their identity as readers and writers work.

Press on, my friends, we are here for you.

Amy Rasmussen calls herself a literacy evangelist –among other things. Wife to a lovely man, and blessed to be the mother of six and grandmother of seven (five of which are boys), she loves to read and teach and share ideas that just might make the world a little brighter — for everyone! Follow her @amyrass — and join the conversation around workshop instruction on the Three Teachers Talk Facebook page. Go here see other Q & A posts about Secondary Readers-Writers Workshop.

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