Category Archives: Guest Post

Finding A Better Recommendation Letter Approach by Mark Nepper

To Whom It May Concern:

It gives me great pleasure to recommend Ethan for admission to your institution. Ethan enrolled in three of my classes through his high school career. He is a student who has achieved academic success and possesses great potential. He has inspired me and students in class with his work ethic, his writing ability and his thoughtful commentary. You will be pleased to admit him to your upcoming class.

Blah, Blah, Blah. That induces as much boredom reading it as it did writing it. But my college recommendation letters often read like that. What am I doing? I find myself wondering about the entire recommendation letter process.

By the time I let the computer cool down, I will have written 40+ recommendation letters this application season. Interestingly, it occurs that these letters actually represent a form of summative assessment. Though the students tend not to see them as such, these really afford the teacher the opportunity to give summative assessments of their students that are not in any way connected to points, grades and all the other elements of assessment.

I typically don’t share the letter with students. However, if I truly do value it as a summative assessment, then it seems I should share it with them. I should use it to provide teachable insights with the students and let them know this is how I see them not only as a students, but also as people. The comments and observations in the letters represent their strengths.

In the Greater Madison Writing Project we promote the C3WP (College Career Community Writers Program) protocols of argument writing to our project members. One of the elements that always stands out focuses on strengths in the students’ writing. So often in assessment we look at what doesn’t appear, or weaknesses. We get locked in to the deficit framework, sometimes to the neglect of the good. The National Writing Project rubric, though, suggests instead that teachers approach assessment from a point of strengths as opposed to weaknesses. We can learn and grow as much and likely more from emphasis on what we do well than a laser focus on what we have done less well.

When I write a letter of recommendation, I try to present insights into the ability of the student and important qualities of character. With thoughtful contemplation, this recommendation letter could become a clearer snapshot of the student’s abilities and work in my class than numbers on a page.

As I get excited about the possibilities of writing a letter not just for my students, but a letter to my students, I stop cold. I often have wondered about the actual, true importance of the letter in the student’s application.. And does it really matter? Many of my colleagues have come to believe it doesn’t. They put as little actual effort into the letter as possible. They believe admissions officers likely glance at the letter in search of red flags. So then I wonder if writing this kind of letter enhances admission chances. It may not. It will definitely take more time to write. If I choose to write a true reflection of the total student, I would want it to be more than just a writing exercise.

I like so much better the idea of writing a letter to my student, rather than a letter to some anonymous admissions officer, who is skimming through lines of type, eyes bleary, keeping a close count on their daily numbers of applications read and scored.

So Dear Ethan, or Dear Nana, Dear Shamyon, Dear Naia, Dear Eva, Dear Hannah, Dear Edwin, Dear All: This is my assessment of you. Let me tell you first of all, what a privilege it has been to teach you in this class and what a bright future you have ahead of you. Though I may not have taken the time to share these thoughts with you in class, I want you to know I always appreciated you and all that you did. Not only are you a thoughtful student, you are a fine and wonderful person. You should always know and believe that about yourself.

I would have loved to receive a letter like that from a teacher.

All right. I’m committed to the idea.

This is what my recommendation letters will look like:

To Whom It May Concern:

Dear Ethan,

While your friends socialized loudly before school, you leaned against a locker, studying a textbook on robotics. We don’t offer courses in Robotics, but you want to learn as much as possible to become a more effective leader of your robotics team. That is so you. You commit. Wholly. Completely. You stand out as one of those students who possesses this insatiable intellectual curiosity. You strive to constantly learn and grow, and what you want to learn crosses all spectrums of knowledge. You just want to know as much as possible. You have said you only get one opportunity to live your life. You might as well get as much out of it as you can. Everybody should adopt your philosophy on living. Interestingly, I wouldn’t classify you as a bookworm or a drudge, though. You possess a vast friend base. You thrive in social interactions with friends or teammates, whether they are swimming teammates or members of the robotics team. You draw people to you. Your laughter lights up a room. Your future looks so bright. It’s time for you to go out into the world and get after it.

Sincerely,

Mark Nepper

Mark Nepper teaches in Madison, Wisconsin and works with high schoolers as well as practicing teachers. While he has been teaching for over 30 years, he is not quite ready to retire.

Implementing Readers Workshop by Shelby Scoffield

Teaching high school English is a difficult job. In a world overrun with cell phones and gadgets, getting students to actually sit down and read a book seems like an impossible task.  Every year that I taught the classics, students would depend on outside sources to get them through the reading, and sometimes completely ignore the book. 

It was when a former student came back to me and proudly declared “Ms. Scoffield, I never read one book in your class!” that I decided to restructure my class and implement a Readers Workshop. While researching, I heavily relied on books by Nancie Atwell and even traveled to Maine to see her school first hand. 

After implementing the workshop in my classroom, I have eventually come to the conclusion that allowing students to pick their own books in the English classroom drastically increases student interest and allows them to take a more active role in their learning. 

During the introductory unit, I hold a book tasting in my classroom. I hold conversations with the students and direct them to genres they would be interested in.  Between my classroom and the library, they find their top three books. 

After finding their selections, I introduce them to Goodreads and have them read the reviews of their chosen books. Once they make a final decision, we are finally able to launch into the unit. The process of choosing books takes several days.

Topics that we cover in the unit are: 

  • How to read your book
  • Characters
  • Elements of a Plot
  • Analysis of major passages 

In my classroom, we use the Station Rotation model of Blended Learning. When a student walks into my classroom, they look at the board and decide what assignment they want to complete that day. They are required to come to “Table One” sometime throughout the week, because that is a teacher led and often the hardest assignment for the week. 

What do the assignments usually look like?

Book Talk: For this assignment, students are required to start a Twitter conversation with a classmate on Twitter. They have specific questions they answer and a hashtag we use for the class. Check out #mhhsfreshies for ideas! This is also a good way for the students to ask authors questions. You never know who might respond!

Journal: Using excerpts from a mentor text, we practice skills like analyzing passages or creating a character profile. Once the skill is practiced, they apply it to their own books.

Blog: Students work on a blog post once a week. The question focuses on what is currently being discussed that week in class. Students are required to respond to other classmates. This is also a great opportunity to connect with other classes across the globe. 

Supplemental activity: This can be an assignment that the teacher uses to help students learn the skill that is being discussed. I have used it as an opportunity to do Cornell notes, make videos, or create Buzzfeed character quizzes. 

Because I allow my students to choose their own books, a love of reading has been developed throughout the classroom. I have students zooming through books and talking about  them with their peers. I even have two students going through a book a week. 

As a class, we have a class goal of reading 70 books by the end of  the semester. Students are constantly checking the thermometer on the board to see our progress and they are excited to see the number go up.

One of the biggest concerns I hear about this way of teaching is students not being able to read a piece of text deeply and get an analytical experience with a piece of text. While this concern is valid, I would like to state that I have never had students read more deeply.

Give your students time to read and make their assignments worthwhile. Fewer and yet more meaningful assignments are more impactful. It also gives students more time to read in class and hold meaningful conversations with the teacher. 

I also believe that teachers need to remind themselves who their audiences are. Teaching kids in the 21st century is hard and it is vastly different from our own high school experiences. We need to think carefully about our students and what will help them be the most successful. For me, it means implementing a readers workshop.

Shelby Scoffield is a high school English teacher. She loves reading, writing, and playing with her nieces and nephews. You can find her on Twitter at @sscoffield.

Writing Workshops Modeled on Writing Center Theory

Image result for writing center

I was a writing center tutor when I was in graduate school, and my current school allows me to run a student-tutored writing lab for our population during the school day – a dream come true! 

Anyone who has worked as a writing tutor knows that it changes how you see yourself as an instructor. You see beautifully and poorly constructed writing assignments and equally helpful or unhelpful commentary on written work. Helping students navigate an instructor’s expectations makes you better at setting expectations for your own students. 

Perhaps the most powerful pedagogical contribution of writing center theory is the focus on the writer over the writing. A good tutor’s job is to improve the writer, not the paper, a concept described in Stephen North’s 1984 essay “The Idea of a Writing Center.” This is often done through questioning strategies that force the writer to think about her writing rather than commands of how to “fix” it. 

After training my tutors in writing center theory each year, it occurred to me that these ideas could transform writing workshops in my classroom. Now, before my first writing workshop each year, I make sure to teach all my students on a foundational writing center concept: HOCs and LOCs. 

Higher Order Concerns (HOCs) and Lower Order Concerns (LOCs) are how we set the agenda of a writing center appointment. In our writing lab, we have roughly 20 minutes for an appointment, so we need to quickly choose a focus. How do we decide? HOCs and LOCs are our guide. 

HOCs are typically big-picture questions related to revision. Does the paper actually fit the assignment? Is the author’s purpose clear? Does the author need better or more evidence? Has the author provided enough explanation? Would the ideas be better structured a different way? 

These ideas are higher order because, if they are not meant, nothing else really matters. The paper can have beautiful imagery and perfect grammar, but if the message is not communicated, who cares? 

LOCs are often editing issues. I prefer to call them “later” order concerns rather than lower. They are still important, but they should be addressed later in the writing process or at least after the HOCs. These include punctuation, spelling, correct citations, and word choice. Of course, any issue can become a HOC if it interferes with meaning too much. A student whose grammar is incomprehensible may need a lesson on basic sentence structure first. 

In my experience, left to their own devices, students focus first on LOCs, regardless of the goals of the workshop. It is so much easier to tell someone where to add a comma or that “effect” is misspelled than it is to find out what someone was actually trying to say. For my students to be able to have useful workshops, I need to push them beyond what is easy. 

To train my students, we first outline the HOCs and LOCs on the board. Then, together we read a sample paper out loud, and I have them determine what area should be worked on first and why. What are the most pressing issues in the paper? If you really want to challenge them, make sure the paper has some glaring grammatical problems but even bigger issues with argument. 

Then, we discuss our process and rules for writing workshop. 

  1. Start with the author’s concerns. Most authors know what they are having trouble with, so ask the author first. This also puts the author in control of her own paper. 
  2. Read each paper out loud with everyone in the group listening. Ideally, the author should read his own paper. This keeps busy hands from adding commas all over. Students are never allowed to simply pass papers around in my classroom. 
  3. Have a conversation about the paper. I encourage my students to ask questions, such as “What did you mean here?” or “I thought what you were trying to say was … Was that correct?” or “Why did you choose to put this example in this paragraph?” Questions force the writer to think about his own choices and be an active participant. 
  4. Brainstorm possible solutions to problems together and make sure that the author writes them down. 

Over the course of working on a paper, we will eventually get to those LOCs, but again, we do not just want good papers but better writers. Students discussing the decisions behind their writing will inevitably lead to more fluent writers. 

If you’re interested in reading more about writing center theory, a great place to start is The Allyn & Bacon Guide to Peer Tutoring

Sarah Esberger teaches AP Language and Composition and Sophomore English at Central Magnet School in Murfreesboro, TN where she lives with her second-grader, her husband, three furry friends, and a bearded dragon. She also runs her school’s student-tutored Writing Lab and is always seeking new ways to incorporate James Britton’s concept “reading and writing float on a sea of talk” into her teaching.

Not Averse to Verse: Using Novels in Verse to Engage English Learners #ILA2019

This is a guest post by Dr. Helen Becker, and I owe her a big apology. I had agreed to run this post before her presentation at ILA. I have a million excuses:  None will do. So I publicly I say, “I’m sorry for not following through,” and if you are reading 3TT today, know this:  Helen is one of the smartest educators I know.   ~Amy

To understand the instructional power of novels in verse in the high school English classroom, you must first know a bit about my former school. Clear Creek High School, a comprehensive high school in Clear Creek ISD in southeast Houston, serves 2500 students in grades 9-12. According to Texas Academic Performance Reports (TAPR) published by the Texas Education Agency (TEA), in the last five years, the campus has experienced a steady rise in the number of English Language students. Many of these students have come from Latin American countries.

What you must also know is that our district advocates student choice reading in a reader/writer workshop setting. Furthermore, to provide students greater choice in reading material, the district invested nearly a million dollars to flood classroom libraries with high-interest books. Self-selected independent reading has become a constant in the changing school landscape at Clear Creek High School.

Fast-forward to my fifth period Reading class two years ago: a group of thirteen boys and one girl who, despite the best of intentions and instruction, had still not passed both End of Course (STAAR) exams in English. Enrollment in a Reading course, coupled with co-enrollment in grade level English class, was meant to close the gaps in their reading and writing lives. This is where the workshop model and classroom libraries intersected with my fourteen EL students. When the District ELA coordinator brought a stack of newly released novels in verse to my fifth period Reading classroom, the students devoured the books. Thanks, Billy Eastman.

And so began my quest to know more about the power of using novels in verse in the EL classroom. I knew I had found a topic that I needed to know more about – for not only my use in my classroom but use in the classrooms of others as well. While researching the topic further, I encountered a noticeable lack of research-based information about using novels in verse with EL students.

In fact, the only direct source of data I located was from Farish (2013) who writes based on her first-hand work as a librarian at a school with a large population of EL students. Farish writes in School Library Journal that the poetic form of novels in verse mimics folksongs and tales that are part of many foreign cultures. As a result, EL students feel comfortable with the novel in verse genre because of this similarity.  Farish (2013) adds, “Many who work with English-language learners and others who struggle with reading seek novels that promote fluency and a sense of competence in readers.” Verse novels accomplish just that. They can move fast and offer readers at any level a feeling of completion.

I broadened my research scope to consider the transferrable skills all students, not just ELs, could practice with novels in verse as an instructional medium. The arrangement of words and a sheer abundance of white space on the page makes these books, well, friendly and approachable. EL students have fewer words to decode. Furthermore, Young Adult novels in verse often involve a protagonist with the same issues the EL students themselves are encountering. In short, novels in verse promote student agency (Garud, Hardy, & Maguire, 2007; Oakeshott & Fuller, 1989; Tran & Vu, 2017), and self-efficacy (Bandura, 1977).

But my experience with novels in verse really concerns one Fifth period Reading student in particular: Emerson. Emerson moved to our community from Guatemala five years ago and had difficulty finding books in English to read in my class. He experimented with books at a lower Lexile (I, for one, feel that Lexile level hinder rather than encourage literacy. This Literature Review from ALA provides data to support my stance on Lexile levels), but he was quick to abandon them, shrugging and saying, “They are boring, miss.” When I put Booked by Kwame Alexander in his hands, I totally mean it when I say that I didn’t see Emerson’s nose for a long time…it was in his book the entire time. In fact, I’m pretty sure Emerson read the book several times over. When I asked him about the book and why he liked it so much, Emerson said, “It speak to me.”

I cried those tears you cry when a student finally connects with a book.

As a result of my experience with ELs, I authored and co-presented a workshop at TCTELA on using novels in verse to engage English Learners in the high school classroom. In the session, fellow teacher and now Instructional Coach Megan Thompson and I delved into ways to leverage this popular genre to encourage reading comprehension and improve writing craft. I reworked the presentation for the International Literacy Association (ILA) conference this month in New Orleans, and Megan and I and invited our fellow teacher and TCTELA High School Section chair, Charles Moore, to join the presentation team. Both Megan and Charles brought their expertise as literacy leaders to the presentation.

Helen Charles Megan at ILA2019

If you were not able to attend the presentation but want more information on novels in verse in the EL classroom, reach out to me at hbecker@ccisd.net. I’d love to share my learning with you.

P.S. I gave my copy of Booked to Emerson as his graduation present.

For research citation see here.

Helen Becker has taught all levels of English Language Arts as well as AP Capstone Seminar in her seventeen years teaching secondary English. Today, Dr. Becker teaches Senior English at Clear Brook High School in Clear Creek ISD. Any day now, a suitable replacement for her will be found, so she can transition to her new job in the CCISD Office of Assessment and Evaluation. Until then, every day is a workshop day. Which means every day is a good day in Room 406.

Getting to Know You: Beginning of Year Conferences by Sarah Esberger

I know, it’s not the start of the school year anymore. We’re in, and there’s no going back. Still, I wanted to share how beginning of the year conferences went for me this year, so your next year can get off to a great start. Just tuck this idea away until then. 

We all know it’s important to build relationships with our new students. We also know that, in a writing classroom, it’s especially important to develop a classroom community. If students are going to share their writing and give and receive useful feedback, they have to feel comfortable. Like me, I’m sure your year often starts with get-to-know-you activities that introduce the students to each other, maybe help them problem-solve a little, and also introduce some low-stakes writing activities. 

This year, however, I knew I would be conferencing with my students on a regular basis about their writing and reading, so this process also needed an introductory activity. 

The Process

During the first full week of school, I asked the students to prepare to meet with me one-on-one. These were the directions I gave them: 

I would like to be intentional about conferencing regularly with all of you, usually about your reading and writing. While you work with your groups today and the next two days, I would like to also meet with each of you individually for about 3-4 minutes. I will not conference with the entire class, so if your group has a question about your project, please come see me. I will also come around and check on you.

Obviously, these will be short conversations. I would like you to come ready to tell me about any of the following:

  • What’s really important to you – in or out of school
  • How you feel about this class so far – concerns or worries/excitements
  • Anything you think I should know about you that might affect your performance in this class
  • Any questions you have for me 

Throughout the next couple of weeks (this took longer than the few days I imagined), any time students were working in groups or working individually, I held conferences with students at my desk. I keep a writer’s notebook throughout the year with my students, so I simply created a section for each class period and added each student’s name, leaving space for notes from future conferences.

When they came to speak to me, I set a timer on my phone for 3 minutes, letting them know that this would be a clue to wrap up our conversation, and then I just simply asked, “What should I know about you?” 

We would talk for a few minutes with me taking notes, and then I would move on to the next student. 

Thoughts

I had asked students to complete a Google form asking much of the same information I asked for these conferences, but students told me so much more when we talked in person. I learned who really loved English class and who had other passions. I was able to talk books with my readers and assure my science-minded students that there was a place for them in the research we do in AP Language and Composition, especially when it comes to choice reading. I learned who worked long hours at night and on weekends and who had little siblings to take care of after school. I could connect with them over favorite musicals, traveling, and video games. 

Perhaps most importantly, students revealed mental and emotional issues that they would not likely share in a survey. I learned how I could help my students with PTSD cope with feelings of distraction during class. I learned who may need to see the counselor for anxiety issues. I learned who was a cancer survivor and who had just started seeing a therapist. 

These were important discoveries that may have taken me the whole year to learn. Perhaps most importantly, I established that I cared about my students, their learning, and their lives in the first few weeks. I have noticed that my students have seemed more invested in my class this year. They are taking the assignments seriously, doing their best work, and communicating regularly about their progress even without my prompting. Perhaps this is all because I showed them that I was invested in them.

Sarah Esberger teaches AP Language and Composition and Sophomore English at Central Magnet School in Murfreesboro, TN where she lives with her second-grader, her husband, three furry friends, and a bearded dragon. She also runs her school’s student-tutored Writing Lab and is always seeking new ways to incorporate James Britton’s concept “reading and writing float on a sea of talk” into her teaching.

Becoming a Writer — Guest Post by Austin Darrow

On a late summer night, as the new school year looms on the horizon, my wife and I re-watch Heath Ledger’s comedic masterpiece A Knight’s Tale for the umpteenth time. As Ledger’s character William makes the decision to bravely follow his true calling and stand as a knight, knowing he will be arrested, Roland proclaims the old adage, “Well boys, all good things must come to an end.”

As all teachers oft do, I took this as a metaphor. It’s time for summer to come to an end, to don my armor, pursue my calling, boldly face the new year. In response, my wife said to stop being so melodramatic and watch the movie.

With her reminder, I did put an end to these flairs. Sure, summer–with its days of sleeping in, its weeks to simply and blissfully read for hours, catch up with old friends, its endless possibilities–would have to make way for something more structured. But I also felt a change this time around. The nervousness, the butterflies, the back-to-school nightmares (mostly) gave way to a new feeling: excitement. This would be a great year.

You see, last year, my second year in this profession, was a furnace for me.

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The Image by zephylwer0 from Pixabay

Conditions were just right: the heat was cranked up by my peer Charles Moore, who constantly challenged me to grow through conversations, mentor text wars, an anchor chart “hall of fame”, and an endless pursuit of authenticity in our shared love of teaching literacy; a mold was given to me by my mentor, Helen Becker, who showed me concrete strategies to make these things work while always reminding me to read, write, and cut out all the extra “stuff” that could allow impurities to ruin my work; Megan Thompson was the hand that guided the hammer, refining the techniques I tried, inviting me into her classroom and her thoughts, and modeling an unconditional love for students that requires a strong will; lastly, the students were the anvil, always giving me a sturdy base on which I could hone my edges and continue growing and shaping.

Without “further gilding the lily” as Chaucer would say in A Knight’s Tale, I learned and grew so much in this forge through the strong students, mentors, peers, colleagues, and I daresay friends that were willing to walk the walk with me.

Our North star–our central focus–at the heart of this growth was always learning how to make the literacy experiences for our students more authentic.

As I continue to reflect on these experiences, I realize that our greatest growth was in writing instruction. As our students walked in the door for the first time last year, we quickly realized many had gaps in their writing instruction. But perhaps a more alarming assessment was that most students, even those “proficient” by any state standards, had no love or purpose for writing.

And so our work began.

We tried many things–increasing the amount of formative data we would look at in team meetings to help guide our planning; shifting what and how we assessed and graded with rubrics and scales that would be more authentic; changing the pacing and length of our mini-lessons to get out of the way of these young writers; and so much more. Each of our adjustments were tried, refined, and often ditched and replaced, and I believe that each warrants further reflection. But one adjustment stood above the rest: when we as teachers became writers too.

In Kelly Gallagher’s Write Like This, he proclaims: “Of all the strategies I have learned over the years, there is one that stands far above the rest when it comes to improving my students’ writing: the teacher should model by writing–and think out loud while writing–in front of the class” (15).

Nearly all teachers of writing have heard something along these lines at some point in their career. Many have been brave and vulnerable enough to try it.

But this past year, I learned that there is a difference between writing in front of your students and becoming a writer.

A writer is a person who keeps journals and notebooks and endless Word documents, filled with ideas and drafts and revisions in a smorgasbord of conditions. A writer is an artist who pursues and experiments with their craft to get it just right. A writer is a dreamer filled with goals and purpose that can only be met through careful, meticulous, arduous effort.

With this working definition, I quickly realized that I was not a writer. Are you? I also questioned myself:  How could I authentically ask my students to become the writers that I have qualified here if I hadn’t become a writer yet myself? How could I expect them to give what I was not willing to give myself?

So I set out to become a writer. At first, I wrote the same essays and assignments that I tasked my students with. Then I said yes to sponsoring our school’s Poetry Corner and shared my own work at our weekly meetings. I wrote letters to family and friends, and love notes to my (at the time) fiancé. I wrote reviews of products I had purchased and services I had received, application letters to conferences I wished to attend, thank-you cards to wedding guests, and much more.

As I climbed each of these mountains of literacy, I shared my writing experiences with students. I wrote many of these pieces with them, inviting their feedback and giving mine in return. I became a writer and watched as my students became writers, too.

In a recent conversation with the aforementioned colleagues and friends, we created an anchor chart of reasons why everybody–students and teachers alike–benefit when the teacher becomes a writer:

  • Foresight to specific struggles students might have
  • Better understanding of what skills to teach in mini-lessons
  • Concrete conferring questions to ask student writers
  • Empathy for students struggling with the writing process
  • Equity in creating assessment scales and rubrics
  • Modeling vulnerability, struggle, and craft for the students
  • Modeling authenticity and purpose as a writer

I’m certain there is more to unpack here, but with these benefits alone, I am convinced: the most essential “tool” of writing instruction is when the teacher becomes a writer, too.

So as I glimpse into the year ahead, the usual back-to-school nerves have been replaced with sheer excitement. I am excited to step into the classroom, share my writing territories with students, and coach them as they create their own. I am excited to write alongside them, receive their feedback, and watch as they grow. I am excited for our next Poetry Corner meeting, where old students and new are so electrified by their literacy that they have to come and share. I have so much to learn still about writing instruction, and I am excited to step back into the furnace.

Austin Darrow has now begun his third year as a teacher and self-proclaimed literacy advocate. He teaches English I, AP Lit, and coaches the Academic Decathlon at Clear Creek High School. He is trying to grow and refine his voice of advocacy, so follow him on Twitter @darrowatcreek.

Guest Post: Dear New Teacher by Amy Menzel

My back-to-school rituals include: setting up my writer’s notebook, organizing a snazzy course calendar I’ll inevitably abandon, watching School of Rock, and feeling guilty that I haven’t checked in more with new teachers once the year is underway. Back in the day, I started my career mid-year and was briefly mentored by a well-intentioned educator who solemnly said, “Teaching is a very lonely profession.” Welcome!

Luckily, she was wrong. I worked with some wonderful and wonderfully supportive colleagues those first six years at Cudahy High School (shout out to my Packer peeps!) and throughout my career I have come to realize that teachers are some of my absolute favorite people. Still, teaching can feel lonely at times. And I don’t always think I do enough to ensure my colleagues feel supported in the same ways I have. I want to remedy that and I’m starting now with a brief (I know your time is valuable) letter to new teachers.

Eh hem…

Dear New Teacher,

Welcome! Isn’t this exciting? And slightly terrifying? Yeah, it’s the best.

Now, I know you’re busy, so I’m going to keep this brief. I just want to reach out and provide some insight and initial support. I’ve narrowed down my advice to four main points. Hopefully this helps. Feel free to reference back as necessary throughout the year–and, just maybe, throughout your career.

  • Brace yourself. Kidding! (Not kidding.) Teaching in hard. It will get easier, but it will always be hard. There are just too many variables beyond your control to ever make it even seem easy. But, whether you realize it or not, you already know this. In fact, it’s one of the reasons you chose this profession. You like–no, you love a challenge. So, in the words of Jeff Probst…

Again, I kid. (Sorta.) Know this: teaching is hard for all teachers. Don’t let the cool demeanor of veteran educators fool you. Some of them have spent years perfecting their duck faces.

No, not this duck face:

This duck face:

  • Find your people. NOTE: Your people should genuinely enjoy teaching. None of this, “Don’t smile until Christmas stuff.” (Or maybe that’s just me…)

These should be colleagues you feel you can turn to for feedback, advice, and/or to help you fix the copier when it’s broken (again). Do keep in mind that even the best of colleagues may seem frazzled at times, but we’re all in the business of helping people. So, if you have a question or few, ask away! If they’re “your people,” you generally won’t feel like you’re bothering them. 

  • Figure out what’s really important. Remember how I said teaching is hard? Well, the hardest part is that there will always be a bajillion things to do and they will all be important. Or, rather, deemed important. Of the utmost importance, really, because, in the field of education, there is no prioritizing. Everything is important and it all deserves your immediate and undivided attention. Good luck!

Just kidding. In all seriousness, determining what’s really important and prioritizing accordingly is the single most important teacher skill you can and should develop. It’s a survival skill, really. Trusted colleagues (i.e. “your people;” see #2) may be able to help you in this regard. Otherwise, and/or in addition, allow #4 to be your guide.

  • Remember that the individuals seated in front of you every period of every day are the most important. If what you’re doing doesn’t directly and positively affect their lives and their learning, it’s not all that important. Full stop.

Maybe I should have led with that last one. As another year starts, I’m definitely going to lead with it.

Have a great year, Teach! You’re going to do great things.

Sincerely,

An admiring and supportive colleague


Amy Menzel is excited to join her students and colleagues at Waukesha West (WI) for her 3,007 day of high school in just a couple of days. Until then, it’s more reading and writing on the back patio. Ahhh, summer…

Guest Post: I’ve been thinking about Ghosts or What I’ve learned about the power of mentors…and time by Elizabeth Oosterheert

“That version of the story–that version of my life without my husband in it–is a ghost I carry around with me. It’s always there, beneath the surface of my real life. I feel…so grateful that this big, messy, joyous life isn’t a ghost life, but mine…”
Kate Hope Day for The New York Times

Joe and Toby

Joe & Toby after a performance of the 2018 play, Merlin’s Fire

If you’re like me, when the end of the school year arrives, you entertain the ghosts of what might have been. These lingering ghosts are questions like:  What if I had spent more time conferencing with that student? What if I had found this mentor text a little sooner? What if I had done more mini-lessons about . . .

And the list goes on.

I learned a few lessons during this past year I hope will have a positive impact on EVERY facet of my readers’ and writers’ workshop for next year. My teacher’s soul already knew this, but I recognized more powerfully than ever before that the right mentor texts at the right time, combined with enough space to explore craft moves and to write about things that matter, makes all the difference.

My students love what I call food literature (thanks to @KarlaHilliard for this amazing idea!),  a writing study we do after Christmas composed entirely of reflections about food. This takes the form of food narratives, poetry, listicles, or critical reviews.

We study mentor texts, and then students choose a direction based on the ideas they’ve developed in both handwritten and digital notebooks.  After discussing many mentors, and highlighting craft observations, students list powerful descriptive words, make notes about the writer’s voice,  and practice composing complex sentences based on passages in the mentor pieces.

I encouraged my students to consider food in the context of specific flavors and seasons. 

Childhood and adolescence have unique tastes. December has a far different flavor than July. What we quickly noticed is that food literature is about so much more than what is on our plates. It’s about savoring cherished memories.

Another frame that worked well for food narrative that is also very effective for other kinds of autobiographical writing is an idea adapted from Penny Kittle that I call Then and Now:

Then I thought, but now I know. . .

When we write Then and Now snapshots, we admit that our understanding of everything from food, to sports, to relationships evolves as we age and learn how difficult it is to be a human being.

Three new mentor texts spoke powerfully to my students. One was “Carrying the Ghosts of Lives Unlived,” published in the Ties section of The New York Times, written by Kate Hope Day. While this piece is NOT about food, it is about how, in Day’s words, “There are hinge points in time when life could be one thing, or another.” My students applied  this mentor to our food study, writing about different life seasons, and how sometimes seemingly small decisions have a BIG impact.

Another New York Times piece that was very helpful to us  was “Christmas Fudge and Misremembered Snow Cream” by Rhiannon Giles.  I composed a piece for my students based on this mentor about the flavors of my childhood.  An excerpt is linked here.  Students then wrote about their own life flavors, recipes, or memorable meals.

Finally, we studied “Ode to Cheese Fries” by Jose Olivarez. What I love is that my discerning, sensitive, wondering students used that poem to create beautiful reflections on some of their fears about adolescence and daily pressures assailing them. In his poem, “Pack of Ranch Sunflower Seeds,” Toby, one of my eighth grade authors, wrote:

 

What if I’m the small seed

With a big shell

Waiting in the bag

Pleading not to be eaten up

By the mouth

Called life

And my inner seed gets revealed

And my outer shell is thrown out and trampled

By reality

 

Maybe I should chew more bubble gum

 

The rest of Toby’s poem is linked here. 

Our food study is a ghost that haunts me, because I hope that I can continue to make it more authentic. For now, though, I have to remember to be grateful for the time and the writing that was — and in the words of Mary Oliver, give thanks for my “one wild and precious life” and the students’ lives that intersect with mine every day.

 

Elizabeth Oosterheert is a middle school language arts teacher and theatre troupe director at Pella Christian Grade School in Pella, Iowa. She loves writing, and sharing the stage with seventh and eighth graders. Her favorite stories are Peter Pan, The Outsiders, & Our Town. You can find her on Twitter @oosterheerte

Guest Post: Ways I Can Encourage More Students to Love Reading by Holly Dottarar

“People don’t realize how a man’s whole life can be changed by one book.”  -Malcolm X

At the beginning of each year, I spend close to a week talking about independent reading with my students.  To me, it’s worth investing the time because independent choice reading is the heart of my class.

MSDottararBookshelves

How I frame choice reading during the first week:

  • discussing how to find a just-right book and how that is different for every reader, different genres and their definitions,
  • setting a weekly reading rate (from Penny Kittle’s book Book Love),
  • speed dating a variety of books to find potential novels to read,
  • going over My Top-15 Reading List (adapted from Kelly Gallagher’s book In the Best Interest of Students),
  • discussing how book conferencing works, and how to keep track of books read.

Even though I check in with each student monthly, share my Top 15 List with my classes, and book talk new books bi-monthly, there’s always a small percentage of students who refuse to read, or read very little.  My avid readers love the freedom to choose books, but my non-readers, emerging readers, and the reading-is-okay-but-currently-I-have-no-time readers need more of a nudge.  

How can I help all students be successful in creating and cultivating a reading habit? How can I help them look forward to diving into their book, to truly enjoy reading? How can I keep up the momentum for those who love to read?  

I whole-heartedly believe in the reader’s workshop model, but it is hard.  

Keeping track of 150 students all reading different books, and all at different places in their books, requires commitment and organization.  It is a daily, conscious decision to sit beside a student and recommend book after book, hoping something sparks an interest, or to try to find a new book for a student who has read 50 books in the last two months and isn’t sure what to read next.  (Yes, I have about 10 of these voracious readers each year.)  Up and moving around the classroom, talking with kids about books when sometimes all I want to do is sit at my desk and read my book too doesn’t help.  (And there are days that I just read alongside students, but it is few and far between.)

While there are times I want to throw in the towel, I am reminded that the hard work pays off.  Those tough days are just a bump in the road.  Students deserve to be confident readers.  They deserve to learn to think critically. They deserve a teacher who will not give up on them.   

As a reflective teacher, I’ve been thinking a lot about the reader’s workshop:  what worked in my classroom and what I want to make better.  These are ideas that I am going to incorporate this fall to build upon the love and joy of reading for all students.

 

1. Be consistent about my Book Talk Wall and teacher What-to-read-next list.

BookTalkWall

I have a wall in the back of the classroom where I post the book jacket of every book I book talk.  My goal this past year was at least one book a week, usually on a Monday, but I was not consistent.  This year I plan to continue book talking books I’ve done in the past, but really play on the books I just read and books that are new.  

Which leads to my What-to-Read-Next list.  Two years ago, I had on the board these titles MsDottararReadingListswith books:  What I just read, What I am currently reading, and What I plan to read next.  Next to each phrase I had an arrow and a copy of the book jacket so students could see my book list.  I didn’t do that this year because I didn’t have white board space.  

However, after reading students’ end of the year reflections and seeing if they met their book goals, my students two years ago read more than my students last year.  While I don’t think that each group of students should be compared, as each year we have different groups of students, I can’t help but think sharing what I read and talking often about it made a difference.  I’ll collect the data on that this year and then draw a conclusion.  

 

2. Student recommendation share outs

Book Recommendation SheetTwice a year, right before Christmas Break and right before school is out, I have students fill out a recommendation form on books they enjoyed and think others might like.  It goes in a binder organized by genre.  However, students do not share these recommendations prior to turning them in.  Why have I not done that? Not sure.  It was kind-of like checking something off my to-do list.  In this area, I plan to have students share out books they wrote down on that sheet of paper before turning in.Recommendations Binder

 

Even though this binder sits on top of one of the bookshelves, SO MANY students didn’t even know it was there.  I plan on referencing it often so if students need a book and don’t have one in mind, they can go to the binder and see what others have recommended.  (As that was the whole point of this activity anyway.)

3. Theme Topic Books

Penny Kittle has inspired me in so many ways.  Six years ago, over the summer, I took 42 composition notebooks (because that was the number of students in each class that upcoming year—yikes!), scrapbooked the covers, and wrote on 3×5 cards the theme topics.  (You can find more information about this in her book.) One of my goals was for students to write in them three to four times a year, thinking about how their book connects in some way to the theme topic.  And how cool is it for students to see what others have written years prior?  However, this past year, they only wrote in it once.  My goal is to incorporate this at least once a trimester.

Theme-Topic Notebooks

The other goal was if a student wanted to read a book about that theme topic, say compassion, they could look in the notebook and read what books others have read dealing with that topic.  However, these notebooks were filed in a cabinet with other supplies.  Not an easy way for students to find.  So, in this area, I am thinking about a good space to display these topic notebooks so more students can read what others have said.

4. Creation of Book Trailers

I am growing in the area of technology.  When I started teaching 16 years ago, I had an overhead projector and a chalkboard.  Phones were installed in December, and I couldn’t wait to pick up the phone to call the office instead of pressing the intercom button when I needed something.  When we went to white boards a few years later, I jumped up and down.  I no longer had chalk marks along the side of my right palm or somewhere on my back.  When our school installed projectors, I begged a friend in the history department—as they received a grant for document cameras shortly thereafter—to loan me an extra one so I could teach writing through a step-by-step process.  In terms of technology, this is the extent of my expertise.  A coworker had to show me how to use Google Classroom last year.  

With so many of our students interacting with technology, why not use that to our advantage? There have been some really good book trailers lately.  My favorite still is with the novel Salt to the Sea.  The music is haunting, which fits the book perfectly.  (You can check it out here.)

If I show professional book trailers for students on novels I think they’d like, why can’t they create their own and share on Classroom?  Something I plan to look into more and try this next year.

5. Virtual Book Stacks

Students keep track of books they’ve read on a sheet of paper titled My Top 15, but why not have a visual book stack at the end of the year to share and celebrate growth? I thought of a real book stack, as I’ve seen them all over Instagram, but to have students try to find each book they read and stack it up felt daunting to me, especially if students checked out books from the public library and not mine or the school’s library.  I plan to use Padlet for students to share their books and maybe even categorize it by their favorites.

 

 

 

 

If you are interested in more reading on this topic, I suggest the following books:

Nancy Atwell’s The Reading Zone

Carol Jago’s The Book in Question

Donalyn Miller’s The Book Whisperer

Lisa Donohue’s Independent Reading Inside the Box, 2nd Ed.

Penny Kittle’s Book Love

Teri Lesesne’s Reading Ladders

 
Holly Morningstar Dottarar is an 8th grade English teacher in the Pacific Northwest.  While she spent her adolescence as a reluctant reader, once she read The Hobbit—in college—she became hooked.  Now, she carries a book wherever she goes.  When she’s not reading, teaching, or spending time with her family, she can be found in her kitchen baking.  She blogs at www.hollybakes.com and www.hollyteaches.com.

Guest Post: Culturally Relevant Texts and Striving Readers By Lauren Nizol

screen-shot-2017-05-01-at-8-44-22-pmI’ve been thinking about culturally relevant texts and how they encourage striving readers to reach for increasingly complex texts. 

Gloria Ladson-Billings, a pioneer in the field of culturally relevant pedagogy, believes that students need opportunities to find themselves in the books they read and be held to “high expectations.” To build strong readers, we need to expose all students to complexity and nuance, not just those who we consider advanced. 

pexels-photo-1759524

Photo by Luis Quintero from Pexels

I work as a literacy interventionist in my district with teachers and students to close literacy gaps. This year, I had an eye-opening experience with a freshman who reads at an intermediate level and selected Born a Crime, by Trevor Noah, as his lit circle book. 

If you aren’t familiar with this book, it is often a summer read for some of our juniors going into AP Language. Noah, comedian and anchor of The Daily Show, masterfully recalls his childhood in apartheid South Africa, all while interspersing his trademark humor and rich historical details. Despite its levity, it’s a hard book, dense with context that even strong readers may find challenging in places. 

And yet, this freshman thrived with this book. Even though he didn’t grow up in South Africa, he grew up in an area that he describes as “the projects”.

After working with me one day to develop a text-response strategy, this young man excitedly ran back to his teacher and told her about “this sticky note annotation strategy” that both his teacher and I had been modeling all year for him. He had a great sense of pride and engagement in his reading that we had never seen before. And when the time came for discussion, he had a great deal to contribute to his group.

This book transformed him as a reader. 

This had me thinking… what if instead of assigning the “appropriate” leveled text to striving readers, we focus more on finding a text relevant to them?

Often reading intervention programs focus on simplistic texts. Overtime, students who read at a lower than grade levels may miss out on context-rich literacy experiences. 

Literacy is about building equity, and if we aren’t giving striving readers the same opportunities as thriving readers, then we are limiting their access to diverse and timely ideas. 

All readers, but especially those who are striving, need books that mirror their reality.

At the heart of a strong reading intervention lies a teacher’s ability to connect readers to texts that engage, excite, and encourage them as readers. It’s about the just-right-text, not the just-right-level. 

 

Lauren Nizol (@CoachNizol) is a literacy interventionist, ELA 9 teacher and co-director of the Wildcat Writing Den, a campus writing center in metro-Detroit. You can find her laughing easily with her husband and three sons while spending time in the great outdoors this summer. Visit her blog at www.learningonramps.org

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