Category Archives: Angela Faulhaber

It’s Okay to Not Know What to Do Next

Today feels weird. 

Weirder than a normal Friday the 13th, full moon, week after time change. 

If you live in Ohio like Angela, you might feel like the world is burning. If you live in WI like Shana, you might feel like, what is happening?

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No matter where you live, we want to remind you that it’s okay not to know the answers today. It’s okay to take a deep breath, close your eyes, and wait a while until you begin to try to figure out next steps. 

It’s okay to give kids an (air) hug and send them on their way with excitement in your voice. That’s what they need. 

It’s okay to keep up your usual lunchtime rant sessions alongside colleagues instead of maintaining “social distance.” It’s okay to worry about where we might send our own children if their districts close and ours remain open. It’s okay to continue to allow large gatherings of students to gather in our classrooms for lunch. Normalcy isn’t necessarily a bad thing right now.

I’m in a school today and hear teachers saying, “Have a great spring break!” And as soon as the kids leave, teachers are gathering work, finding chromebooks to send home, and collaborating on next steps, preparing for the worst.

Maybe we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Maybe it’s okay to wait until Monday to see what unfolds. 

We want to create space as a community of teachers here at Three Teachers Talk to support each other. How might we figure out ways to eventually deliver instruction to kids remotely? It’s not enough to just assign StoryWorks, or send links home, or hope our kids have access to Schoology or Flipgrid. How can we continue to create space for our student communities to support each other? How can we make those experiences meaningful…ish? 

But that’s a post for later. 

Today we just want to join together in a collective hug deep breath gesture of support that doesn’t involve droplet transmission of any kind. 

Because we’re teachers. And we got this. 

Angela Faulhaber is a literacy coach in Cincinnati, Ohio, and Shana Karnes teaches in Madison, Wisconsin. Together, they support one another’s practice, reassure each other about political, social, and healthcare upheavals, and keep each other motivated to write through the use of witty text messages and snarky GIFs. May you find an equally like-minded teacher friend to help you survive and succeed in these trying times. Connect with us on Twitter at @wordnerd and @litreader, respectively.

Three Reasons We Should Stop Teaching the 5-Paragraph Essay (and what we can do instead)

Wait! Before you get ticked off, hear me out.

I had never heard of a “5-Paragraph Essay” when I was a student. We wrote essays. Sometimes stories, sometimes research, sometimes about the books we read. In college, my professors wanted me to have a strong thesis, but never did they talk to me about how many paragraphs I should have.

When I became a teacher, though, I was inundated with this new (to me) way of thinking about writing. I had no clue how to teach kids how to write. I was just good at it, I thought. Therefore, this formulaic approach to writing clicked with me. I liked the directness, the accessibility. And frankly, I liked how it made it just a little easier for me to assess writing. “It’s like training wheels,” I told myself.

Here’s the thing, though. We never took the training wheels off. Kids were going to college, or into life, without knowing how to ride the bike.

So, why do I think we should abandon this idea of the “5-Paragraph-You-Know-What” (a term coined by my favorite writing teacher, Tom Romano)?

This writing doesn’t exist in the real world

I can’t remember the last time I clicked on a blog, or read a newspaper or a smart analysis of a film, and counted the paragraphs. I read to find the idea, to see how the writer leads me through their thinking. There are no editors anywhere telling writers, “Okay, this is a good start, but you don’t have five paragraphs.”

Because I want to develop students who see themselves as writers beyond my classroom, I have to ask myself why I continue to privilege a genre that seems to only live in school (if your answer is the test, keep reading). Can high quality writing be five paragraphs long? Sure! Does it have to be? Nope.

This writing privileges form over content

Screen Shot 2020-03-02 at 2.02.28 PMWhen students are overly concerned with how long their writing is, they lose sight of the important stuff, like content. They fill paragraphs with half-plagiarized evidence, or sprinkle in cumbersome transition words. They’re more concerned with adornment than substance.

Conversely, for many students, focusing on the number of paragraphs shuts them down. They see it as insurmountable, so they don’t even try. And before anyone accuses me of saying kids don’t have to know how to organize their writing, let’s just stop right there. Writers organize their writing. What writers don’t do, though, is say “This has to be a body paragraph with 5-7 sentences, and evidence.” No, instead writers focus on WHAT they want to say and then they figure out HOW to say it.

This writing doesn’t grow writers

About four years into teaching, I had an epiphany. Students weren’t getting better at writing 5-paragraph essays. Many of the kids I’d taught as 9th graders still needed the support when I had them again as juniors. Often kids ended up filling in a graphic organizer I created just so they had something to write about (and by graphic organizer, I mean fill-in-the-blanks dressed up like an outline. Cringe.)

I realized that this kind of writing wasn’t helping them to become better at thinking, at teasing out a train of thought, and developing it across a piece of writing. And if the thing I kept doing wasn’t working, than maybe… I should think about doing something else.

So what do we do instead?

  • Read Like Writers: I have a total teacher crush on The New York Times Writing Curriculum. When I read through one of the winner’s of last year’s Student Editorial Contest “Nothing Comes Between Me and My Sushi...Except Plastic” I notice a few things:Screen Shot 2020-03-02 at 1.27.53 PM When I model for my writers what it looks like to read like a writer, we start to notice thing we can do in our own writing, and more importantly, we can start to think about HOW we can do them in our own writing.

 

  • Focus on Content Before Form: When I look further into this piece of writing, I notice how the writer develops an idea. She’s doing all the things I hope for my own writers. In addition to what’s above (a thesis, a hook, incorporating research), she also anticipates the counter argument AND pushes back. She’s not dropping this counter-argument in because it’s what she has to do. She’s doing it because it makes sense. She has been building up to it.Screen Shot 2020-03-02 at 1.26.24 PM

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  • Teach test-writing… and LOTS of other kinds of writing too: If you feel you absolutely have to teach the 5-Paragraph Essay because they’ll need it on The Test, then I encourage you to spend most of the year immersed in the study of the craft of writing (start checking out The AV Club, Players Tribune. Follow #wildwriting or #beyondanalysis). Teach students about the moves writers make in writing. We still talk about transition words, thesis statements, adding reasoning, and writing effective conclusions. But now, it is within the context of the craft of writing. Then, a few weeks before the test, teach students how to transfer all those skills to the test. Remember that nowhere in our standards does it mention that students have to write five paragraphs. They have to write multi-paragraphs, sure. But that could be three, or seven, or five. Nowhere in the rubrics from the state (if you’re using Common Core or something like it) does it talk about how many paragraphs students should have. Instead, it looks at content development, ideas flowing. 

Still not convinced? That’s okay. I encourage you to read John Warner’s book Why They Can’t Write: Killing the 5-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities. Screen Shot 2020-03-02 at 2.02.12 PMIn here, Warner, who’s a college professor, talks about how limiting this kind of writing is, and explores other ways of teaching. For ways of thinking about literary analysis, check out Rebekah O’Dell and Allison Marchetti’s book Beyond Literary Analysis. And Kim Campbell and Kristi Latimer’s book Beyond the 5-Paragraph Essay is a great resource. Sign up for a class at your local National Writing Project site.

Whatever your next step is, I encourage you to help kids take the training wheels off, to ride the bike on their own. They might crash, and that’s okay. That’s when the learning is happening!

Angela Faulhaber is a literacy coach in Cincinnati, OH. She is blogging this month as part of the Slice of Life challenge at Two Writing Teachers, and thus, is seeing every interaction as a potential writing piece. Join her!

 

Crafting Compelling Claims: A Lesson With Loose Parts (inspired by Angela Stockman)

I first heard about “making” in a writing workshop a few years ago and to be honest, I was skeptical. It felt like busy work. Sure, it would be engaging, but weren’t we already doing the work of making in our writing workshop?

Then I discovered Angela Stockman. I started following Stockman a year or so ago and have been percolating on her ideas around Hacking the Writing Workshop for about that long. I thought it looked interesting, but I wasn’t quite sure how to incorporate the work into the secondary classrooms that I support as a literacy coach.

Then last month Stockman, who is one of the most generous educators online, started posting about how to use what she calls loose parts to support argument writing. The teachers I was working with were getting ready to enter a new round of argument writing, so I followed Stockman’s posts eagerly.

When Stockman shared images of students using loose parts to find their way into arguments, lightbulbs sparked. Partnering with a few willing teachers, we decided to see what would happen. I hit up the Dollar Tree, stocking my basket with bags of shells, rocks, toothpicks, and q-tips. I raided my son’s Lego collection, and pilfered the play-doh basket in our closet. I added beads and buttons. We were all set.

“Today we’re going to play with loose parts,” I explained to the sophomores that morning. I invited them to explore what was on the tray in front of them. They looked at us wide-eyed: “are we playing with play-doh?” Every kid who cracked open the can lifted the dough to their noses and breathed deeply. They let beads filter through their fingers. They began sorting buttons and shells. The joy on their faces as they explored was something we’ve gotten too far away from in high school.

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Each group of students received a tray of loose parts to begin their claim writing.

The students had already generated ideas around argument topics — they’d written beside Wislawa Szymborska’s poem “Possiblities.” They had made quicklists. They had mined their notebooks for patterns.

After letting them explore the loose parts, we gave them three post-it notes to pull out topics that were ripe for argument. They scribbled their topics down: global warming, school funding, screen time, recess for high schoolers, vacations. The topics were as varied as the students.

“Now,” I began, “we are going to use these loose parts to write a claim.” I had, as Stockman recommends, been walking around with my own fistful of playdoh. I shaped it into the shape of a phone. “Remember how I said I want to write about how much screen time I let my kids have? Well, I’m making this into a phone.” I held up my sculpture. “What could I add here to communicate my claim?” Students offered ideas.

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My claim developed from my topic about giving my kids too much screen time.

And they were off. These kids got it. They began to dig into the trays, shaping clay, piling buttons. Frankly, we hadn’t been sure what was going to happen. As they often do, the students blew us away.

We circulated the room, nudging students to add nuance to their creations. We asked probing questions. “What could you add here to communicate that idea?” We asked for clarity and students knew what to do.

I watched one freshman add details to her sculpture and then scribble more thinking onto her post-its. She had started with the idea that locally, too many new houses were being built. She used q-tips to create homes. She decided to add gray legos. She took a moment to look at the composition in front of her. Then she went back to her post-it, adding the layer about pollution. I was inspired.

We noticed that this lesson did something we didn’t expect. Over and over again, we noticed the students were developing sophisticated claims. This work helped us teach something that had been elusive about argument writing — how to develop a nuanced claim. Using learning from the National Writing Project’s work around argument writing, for years we’ve been teaching students that strong claims are debatable, defensible, and nuanced. The first two qualities were easy to teach. That third one had been trickier.

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This student started with a topic “The benefits of therapy” and ended up with the claim “Everyone needs a therapist to relieve stress, knowing you can count on someone, and being able to express themselves.” 

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This student started with the topic of “screen addiction” and worked his way towards a claim “People should enjoy the outdoors instead of being indoors on their phones.” 

The loose parts were key.  Suddenly students were digging deeper into their thinking. They were thinking through implications, making considerations, and adding layers.

After about 15 minutes, we asked students to start to put words to their compositions (see Shawna Coppola’s latest book Writing Redefined for more about honoring non-alphabetic ways of composing). Their claims were some of the strongest we’ve ever seen. They were debatable. They were defensible. They were nuanced.

“This is the most fun I’ve had in English class all year,” one student declared.

I am convinced that making has a place in the writing classroom. We writing teachers need to crack open what we mean by “writing” and honor all types of composition. We were validated when students at all levels were both engaged and successful.

Angela Faulhaber is a literacy coach in Cincinnati, OH. 

Writing, Redefined: A look at Shawna Coppola’s latest book

You know how there was always a girl a few years ahead of you in high school who was just the coolest? Maybe she had great hair, or drove a vintage VW bug, or was a master at rocking the thrift store finds while you just looked like you were wearing your grandpa’s clothes?

Shawna Coppola is my English teacher version of that girl. She is smart, funny, and insightful. She’s always a few steps ahead of me in my thinking, and I’m always up for the cognitive stretches. Her work makes me a better teacher of teachers and I’m thrilled to be able to share with you her latest book Writing, Redefined: Broadening Our Ideas of What It Means to Compose. (FREE SHIPPING from Stenhouse)

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I loved Coppola’s last book Renew: Becoming a Better and More Authentic Writing Teacher. In that text, she takes the reader through exercises to facilitate reflection around instructional practices and it shifted my thinking in so many ways.

This latest book does the same. In this one, Coppola does the same kind of shifting around composition. If you follow her on Twitter (@ShawnaCoppola) then you have seen the bones of this work evolving. Using her own compositional experiences as models, Coppola nudges us (then pushes) to think about what composition means, and who has access to it. Steeped both in research and her unique voice, she takes us through a journey of thinking about composition and why it needs to be redefined.

But the text isn’t just about theory (though there’s such a lovely blend of theory that I appreciate. I love seeing where ideas come from). Coppola also shares real-world examples of her ideas. In fact, authenticity drives much of what she means when she talks about redefining composition. From podcasts to infographics to ‘zines, Coppola illustrates (pun intended) the possibilities when we crack open the definition of composition.

The book is lovely too. It’s full of colorful pull quotes (this one from one of my favorite professors, Jason Palmieri). IMG_0378There are QR codes that take you to more examples, both from students and real-world texts. One of my favorite images comes on page 22 when Coppola uses a throwback image (anyone else have flashbacks to state assessments in the early 80s?) and addresses the yeah-buts (see Tweet below). She doesn’t want you to keep reading without first examining your beliefs and hesitations.

One of the most powerful parts of the text is when Coppola addresses what every nay-sayer says when you start inviting students to use different types of composition. How often do we hear “Yeah, they’re writing, but is it rigorous?” Coppola doesn’t roll her eyes at that question — well, knowing her, she probably does roll her eyes — but, she pushes back on this idea. She encourages us to dig deeper. This tweet from Angela Stockman (another one of my faves) illustrates the point.

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Coppola also cautions us, those of us so willing to dive right in with multi-modal writing, to avoid falling into the craftivities trap where it’s more crafts and less compositional craft. She goes on to outline what the differences between activities and composition are by using three guiding principles: authenticity, intentionality, and richness of learning.

Do yourself a favor and order this book. Read it with colleagues. Tweet Coppola (or me!) to engage in discussion. Grab your notebook and start experimenting with composition.

You will be a better teacher of writers once you redefine writing.

Angela Faulhaber is a literacy coach in Cincinnati, OH. She loves memes and gifs and blackout poetry, all of which are explored further in Writing Redefined

Workshop-izing Our Writing Instruction

“We didn’t have to spoon feed them!” The teacher beamed as we read the student writing hanging in the hallway.

Two months ago, the experience had been a little different. It was time for informational writing and students researched spiders. With class input, teachers wrote the spider report on chart paper. When it was time for students to write, 95% of them copied the report the teacher had written.

We realized that this kind of writing wasn’t honoring the students and all they know how to do.

Where we started

In my role as a literacy coach, I support teachers in lots of ways. This year one district is in the first year of implementing a writing workshop curriculum (after piloting and lots of teacher input, they decided on the Collaborative Classroom Being a Writer).

Some teachers, though, feel like this new curriculum takes away a chance to do “fun” writing that they enjoyed in the past. So we face the question of how to support students in transferring the rich skills they’re learning in workshop to other tasks. In other words, how could we take the things they’d done in the past and workshop-ize them?

We started by naming what students could do as writers, and then thinking about the implications:

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Workshop-izing

Teachers tried again with another informational writing unit. We began by showing students an image as a provocation:

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We used the See/Think/Wonder protocol to get the conversation going, a strategy I first learned from Tanny McGregor. First, we asked students to list the things they see in the image. After discussion, we then asked them to talk about what they think is happening in this image. This step encourages students to make inferences. After discussing our predictions, we then explained the origin of the image (this one is a photograph of monarchs migrating).

Then we moved to the Wonder step. Here we ask students to capture all the questions they have about this topic. From there, we might go in a few directions:

  • give students a set amount of time to find as many answers to as many questions (the shorter the better — we want students to see how much they can learn in a short time).
  • provide students with a shared text and ask them to annotate the text every time they find answers to their questions.
  • ask students to trade questions with a classmate and find the answers.

Once students built their schema around the topic, we stopped and talked about what they could do next as writers. We showed them several ways that writers write about information:

Students noticed that writers can use pictures and labels, or write a story, or even have a fact-based informational paragraph. And if writers did that, then they can too. Now students were ready to write. And they soared.

They wrote stories and poems and fact-based writing. One student wrote an opinion. Another wrote a story with characters. The best part was that we saw them transferring skills from other writing units to this one.

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This writer shows evidence of craft through repetition and using capitals to show emotion.

 

What does this have to do with secondary students?

You may have noticed by now that the writers I’ve been talking about are first graders. Why would I be sharing what first grade teachers are doing on a blog that’s meant for secondary teachers? Because, as I’ve written about before, I think secondary teachers have much to learn from what students are doing in elementary school.

Can our middle and high school students do this too? I’d argue that yes, those writers can make these same kinds of moves. What would happen if instead of giving our older writers graphic organizers and fill-in-the-blank essay templates, we instead give them a chance to write in ways that stretch them?

Let’s workshop-ize the writing that’s happening in all our classrooms. Let’s make space for all the writers to soar.

Angela Faulhaber is a literacy coach in Cincinnati, OH. You can follow her on Twitter @WordNerd

Book Club Kits

“The students are asking me if they’re going to get to do book clubs this year,” Julie told me last week. Her junior English students had participated in a few rounds of book clubs last year and it was encouraging to hear that the learning stuck. 

This was validating because last year, teachers worked hard to create experiences with book clubs that were engaging and meaningful (you can read more about that here or here). We noticed that, as Kate Roberts writes in her book A Novel Approach, “Book clubs, when done well, dance along the line of truly authentic student-driven reading and teacher-directed, curriculum-based literacy.” 

But, the fact remained that organizing book clubs was challenging. For many teachers, it felt like an insurmountable task. Even though we work with amazing librarians (shout out to Amanda and John!), if we wanted to use current, engaging titles, it was difficult to collect enough titles to give students choice and have enough copies for everyone. Teachers were hauling books in their trunk to school, then back to the library. The logistics became something that was holding teachers back from implementing a practice we knew was good for kids.

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Teachers Alex White and Kassidy Hammonds spend a few hours on a Friday sorting books for book clubs. Since nobody wants to do that, we had to find a better system.

So, this year, we decided to make book clubs more sustainable using Book Club Kits, an idea I first heard discussed while working with teachers at Anderson High School in Cincinnati, OH. 

What is a Book Club Kit? 

The idea is based off of book club kits at public libraries where librarians put together multiple copies of the same title along with questions and other resources. Put simply, a school Book Club Kit is a collection of multiple copies of multiple titles, along with a possible plan for implementation. 

How do we make a Book Club Kit?

Step one: Collect titles

Hopefully if you’re using book clubs, there’s a culture of literacy in place so students Screen Shot 2019-11-25 at 7.38.34 PMmight be able to help identify titles. If that is not yet part of the culture, there are lots of places you might go to look for ideas. You can visit websites like Nerdy Book Club and Pernille Ripp’s blog and the Disrupt Texts site and hashtag. NoveList Plus, a resource we can access through our public library, also has excellent recommendations. Additionally, there are lots of threads on Twitter where teachers and students share titles.

Identify what students might like. Conduct a survey. Do an inventory of your book room to see what you already have. Ask students for their recommendations. Scour the library. Talk to kids. 

Once we did this, I compiled titles into a document and sent to teachers for feedback. From there we were able to use department funds to purchase enough books for six kits (each kit has enough books for a class set). If you don’t have funds available, you might consider Donors Choose, or participate in the #clearthelist social media campaign.

It was also important that the titles could, as Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop outlines in her scholarly work, act as mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors for readers. Therefore, we were intentional about having a wide representation in both content and authors (to read more, read Amy’s post here).

Step Two: Cluster the texts

We didn’t want these books to just sit on shelves to be put into hodge-podge book club configurations. Instead, we decided to be intentional about the way we clustered the titles. For example, in freshman ELA, one of the kits is centered around the theme Coming of Age; 10th graders might participate in a book club around novels in verse, or maybe a genre study of mystery titles. In 11th grade, there’s a kit around memoir. A book club around literary non-fiction for 12th graders contains the most complex titles. You might think about these groupings in three main ways: 

  • Genre (novels in verse, mystery, literary non-fiction, etc)
  • Theme (coming of age, overcoming obstacles, etc.)
  • Author Study (Jason Reynolds, Nikki Grimes, K.A. Holt, Kwame Alexander, Sharon Draper are examples of authors whose writing is varied enough and would make great book club possibilities)

 

Step Three: 

Make it accessible. We put all the books in clear plastic bins. There’s a sign-out sheet to keep track of the kits. Each kit has a list of the titles and how many copies, along with a QR codes that link to a corresponding unit plan one might use with that set of titles. 

I finished organizing the kits last week and already two of them are out in classrooms. We’re getting ready to launch the Mystery Book Clubs once we get back from Thanksgiving and I’m excited to see the way a genre study will play out. 

Screen Shot 2019-11-25 at 7.33.04 PMNow that you have your Book Club Kits organized, I strongly encourage you to check out the book Breathing New Life Into Book Clubs by Sonja Cherry-Paul and Dana Johanssen (and if you use the code NCTE19 you get 30% off and free shipping!).

Angela Faulhaber works as a literacy coach in Cincinnati, OH, where she gets to work with the best book nerds in all the land. She just finished reading Beartown by Frederick Backman and is in that sad phase of book-mourning where the next book can never live up. She welcomes your suggestions.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Power of Wonder & Mentor Texts (a post inspired by Kwame Alexander)

Last week my 12-year-old son and I attended an event with Kwame Alexander at our local book store, Joseph-Beth Booksellers.

You have never heard someone read a book like Kwame Alexander reads a book. This man takes his time. He lets the words fill up the air. He chews on a pause, taking his time, stre-e-e-e-tching it out. He understands the power of pacing and performance.

I’ve seen Kwame perform before; he and his partner Randy Preston put on a show. Randy plays guitar beneath Kwame’s words, punctuating, pacing, elevating the performance. Sometimes they break into song, or rap, or they just riff.

Sharing this experience with my son was important. Reading Crossover broke him out of a reading rut a few years ago and he’s devoured so many of Alexander’s titles. I’m looking forward to sharing the graphic novel with my other children, who are big GN fans, and with the students I see, who I know will love it.

But what’s really staying with me about this experience is what I found while wandering around the bookstore. Tucked in a back corner, I stumbled across this collection of poems, Out of Wonder: Poems Celebrating Poets. Kwame Alexander, along with Chris Colderley and Marjory Wentworth, and illustrator by Ekua Holmes, have created a beautiful book and I can’t wait to share it. 

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I flipped through the collection and while I recognized many of the names —  Giovanni, Oliver, Hughes — I realized they weren’t the writers of the poems. Rather, they were the inspiration. The whole book is a celebration of poets, full of pieces written in the style of the poets themselves. I’d found a treasure trove of mentor texts!

For example, this one by Wentworth, “(Loving) The World and Everything In It”, inspired by Mary Oliver’s poem “My work is loving the world …”

 

The collection is broken into three sections:

  1. Got Style: where the poets imitate the style of a famous poet.
  2. In Your Shoes: poets imitate the tone and voice of other poets.
  3. Thank You: poets pay homage to their favorite poets, “sharing with the world how awesome we feel about the poet and the poem.”

I love thinking about being in conversation with poets and their poems in these ways. Wouldn’t it be powerful to give kids the opportunity to find a poet that resonates with them, or to explore different poems (maybe in a gallery walk like the one talked about here in Teach Living Poets). Then to let them choose a path to enter into dialogue.

Share with us the way you have students talk back to their favorite poems. (And we hope you have the chance to see Kwame Alexander on his upcoming tour.)Screen Shot 2019-09-29 at 9.20.36 PM

 

Angela Faulhaber is a literacy coach in Cincinnati, OH. She’s in the middle of having the honor of attending several amazing author events this fall: Angie Thomas and Kwame Alexander in September, and now Bryan Stevenson, Ruta Septys and Raina Tegelmeir in October. In her spare time she likes to ask her kids’ friends what they’re reading and making book suggestions to pretty much everyone. 

What Secondary Teachers Can Learn From Elementary Teachers: 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!

Angela’s post from 2018 is full of takeaways the secondary readership can glean from elementary practitioners. 


I sat outside my son’s first grade classroom helping students practice handwriting skills one day when a lightning bolt hit me.

Kids were in and out of the room, going to reading group, using the restroom as needed. When I finished with a student, they’d quietly walk in, tap the next person on the shoulder, and out they’d walk. As a high school teacher, I was enthralled by the bustle.

When I went into the classroom to touch base with the teacher, I continued to look around in amazement. Kids were everywhere. More importantly, they were working with purpose and focus. Some kids were lying on bean bag chairs reading. Others around a kidney table with the teacher. Another cluster of kids were sitting at their desks, working on bookmaking, tongues hanging out in determination. It felt like magic.

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I know it’s not magic, though. The teacher had made deliberate choices to nurture this environment. To be honest, though, it took me a moment to be open to this aha moment. At first, it felt like chaos. But when I took a step back, I realized that this wasn’t chaos I was seeing. It was productivity. It dawned on me that my high school classroom rarely had this kind of energy. I wondered, if these seven-year-olds could be taught how to work like this, could I create opportunities for older kids to do the same?

Some of my takeaways from spending time in elementary classrooms:

Classroom Set-up

Rocking chairs. Flip charts. Book bins. Cozy Rugs. Desks in clusters (rather than rows which Tom Murray recently referred to as “the cemetery effect”).

Elementary classrooms feel different. There’s an energy, a flow. The room often hums. When I’m in my colleague’s elementary classrooms, I’m struck by how different they look from my classroom setup. It’s not just the posters on the wall, or the rugs on the floor. It’s that the room feels like it belongs to students. Books students care about are on the shelves. The rooms are a welcoming space, which leads to students engaging with the content differently. They’re not just receptacles; rather, they see themselves as much a part of the space as the teacher. And everything in the space has a purpose.

I’ve been loving the ways that teachers are incorporating flexible seating and I think that even if you haven’t won a grant or launched a Donors Choose campaign, there’s a way to get creative about the space. I know I sometimes worry that kids will talk too much, or goof off. I remind myself, though, that when students are engaged in workshop practice, then I’m coaching them into independence. And if I can easily move around the room, I can cut off much of that behavior.

To read more about how we might set up our rooms, check out Kristine Mraz and Christine Herz’s book Kids First From Day One.

 

Routines

I notice that in elementary school, teachers spend a lot of time explicitly teaching routines for how to utilize the spaces. They build on what’s happened in year’s past, reminding students that they come ready with a whole skill set. They focus on those rituals as much as they focus on the content, especially in the beginning.

Sometimes, we teachers of older kids fall into a deficit thinking trap. I sometimes hear teachers say, “My students can’t do that [insert collaborative/independent work here].” I wonder, though. When they were seven and eight they were doing that work. How might we channel some of that muscle memory from their early learning years?

What would happen if we teach our older students explicit routines for work time. Teaching them explicitly what the room should look like and sound like when they are independently working. And of course, we know that older kids are different. Reinforcing the routines reground them.

Conferring

We know that conferring is one of the most powerful tools in our teacher tool box. Carl Anderson reminds me to ask kids, “how’s it going?” Kelly Gallagher & Penny Kittle show me how powerful conferencing is in their work. An effective conference can be the most impactful thing we do all day.

I also know that this is really really hard to do. Not only because of time constraints, but also because when I’m conferring, other students feel like it’s free time. Suddenly there’s whispering and laughing. While I’m chatting at my desk with a student during a conference, I often find myself saying, “Hey, everyone get back to work,” disrupting both my conference and the students who might have actually been working.

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What if instead I channeled the elementary teachers I know? I notice when I’m in their classrooms that their conferencing happens right where kids are sitting. They crouch next to students, leaning in, having whispered conversations.

This kind of conferring cuts down on transition time. Students aren’t walking across the room. Instead, they’re able to turn right back to their work and apply what they’ve talked about. And the teacher doesn’t have to wait on kids to gather materials and walk to the desk. Those minutes are precious, and I notice that when the teacher is where the work happens, more conferences can take place.

Small Group Instruction

Conferring isn’t the only way to have those smaller settings with students. Sometimes I forget that it’s not an either/or — we either work whole group instruction or 1:1 conferring. After having the same conversation three times in 1:1 conferences, I realized I needed to be more efficient with my time.

When I’m in an elementary classroom, I’m reminded of the power of small group instruction. I thought back to the way I saw my son’s teacher gather five students around her desk to teach them all the same skill. While the rest of the class was working independently, she was able to re-teach or extend the learning. I noticed too that she was able to target their needs in specific ways.

Whether it’s at a kidney table, or clustered around my teacher desk, I wonder if I could have students come to me in smaller groups.

Don’t get me wrong, I know that secondary students are different from elementary kids. They’re louder, bigger, and sometimes have checked out of school by the time they get to us. I try to remember, though, that they’re still kids. And when what I have been doing isn’t working with them, then I wonder if maybe it’s time to try something different. I think back to the students they once were, and I wonder if channeling some of those structures from their elementary days might make our days feel a little more magical.

Angela Faulhaber is a literacy coach in the Cincinnati area. She’s currently reading Greeting From Witness Protection by Jake Burt, based on the recommendation of her 11-year-old daughter. She’s also trying to figure out how it’s mid-October when it feels like school just started. 

Managing Feedback: A Tool for Teachers

Whenever I talk to a group of teachers about writing instruction, we talk about the core elements of writing workshop: choice, time, and teaching. We hone in on this idea of how much practice writers need. As Kelly Gallagher writes in his blog post “Moving Beyond the 4 x 4 Classroom,” volume is essential:

Screen Shot 2019-04-16 at 9.21.40 PMWithin 30 minutes assessment comes up. “How do we grade all this?” teachers ask.

I think what we mean when we say this is “How do we manage all this feedback?” We know that feedback is key to supporting our writers. If we want students to grow as writers, we must figure out ways to offer them feedback that is both actionable and timely (Wiggins, 2012). 

Enter ProWritingAid  (with thanks to Jennifer Gonzalez’s post). This online platform has been a game changer for me as a writer, and I think could be for our students too. There’s a free version, along with a paid subscription. I’ve only used the free version, but even with the limitations, it has impressed me.

How it works

Writers paste a piece of writing into the text box, then run a summary. Through the magic of algorithms, the site creates a report on the writing. And I have to say, it’s a good report. You get information about the general readability of your writing, along with more detailed feedback.

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The above report is from the first draft of this essay (yikes!).  As a writer, though, I find this report helpful. It gives me a goal to work towards — I want to get those yellow scores to green, and the red one to at least yellow. I’m not recommending that these numbers correlate to a grading scale. Rather, they tell me about areas that I can strengthen as a writer.

One of my favorite areas of the report is the section on Sentence Structure. I love how this section graphs out my sentence length. I can see if I’m using a variety of lengths, as well as where I need to focus my attention if I notice an overabundance of long (or short) sentences.

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Another part of the report addresses what they call Sticky Sentences. I love the way this tool talks about the elusive fluff. We all know writers who tend to be verbose, or who fill their writing with words that just kind of take up space (apparently, First Draft Angela is one of those people).

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This overall report is only part of what ProWritingAid analyzes. Using the toolbar at the top of the page, writers can drill down into specifics.

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Based on my initial report, my Style score was pretty low, so I start there. I click on the Style button and the screen below shows up. When I hover over the underlined areas, I’m given specific recommendations. Eliminate adverbs. Change “which is different from” to “differs from”. The recommendations don’t change the message of my writing; rather, they strengthen it.

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I love this tool. I’ve noticed that the feedback it gives me as a writer is similar (if not a little better) than what I would give students. And the best part is that it puts the ownership back on students. I love that I know what to do after looking at this report. I have specific, actionable steps. And honestly, it’s fun. I like revising and then running the scan again to see if it’s better.

After I’ve looked at the suggestions from the site, I choose which suggestions to accept and which to ignore. I own my writing. I notice that most of the feedback focuses on my use of adverbs. I need to, as Tom Romano says, weed the garden. After revision, my scores increase considerably.

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How I might use with students

Conferring: I can imagine asking students to run a report on their draft and to bring it to a conference. What a great place to start talking to students about their writing. The report summary would help us focus on areas students might want to ask me about, or it might help me know what a good teaching point would be for that writer.

Reflection: I have been thinking about asking students to print their full report and attach it to the final draft of a piece of writing (or to screenshot it and insert with their doc). I would love for students to highlight places where they’ve made revisions and then reflect on how their writing changed and what impact those changes had on the writing.

Peer feedback: I think this would be a great talking point for students to talk to each other in partnerships. I struggle with peer conferencing because students don’t always know what to say to each other. With this, though, they begin to internalize a vocabulary around writing that will elevate their conversation.

Independence & Transfer: My biggest hope for our student writers is that they leave our classrooms with tools they can use their whole life. This tool gives them a place to go when they need help with their writing. Because that’s what real writers do. They’re not always going to have us and our red (or purple) pen to tell them what to do next as writers. Instead, I want them to know they have some places to go.

Try it. Before you introduce to students, take a piece of your writing and run it through the algorithm. Better yet, do it in front of students. Show them how easy yet powerful it is to utilize this tool. And then, enjoy the gift of time you have. Use that time to confer with students, to talk about mentor texts, to increase the volume of writing that’s happening in your classroom. 

Angela Faulhaber is a literacy coach in the Cincinnati, OH area, where spring is showing off every day. Currently she and her three kids are fascinated by the robin’s nest in the tree out front. It’s up to four eggs today! You can find Angela on Twitter @WordNerd.

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