Category Archives: Jackie Catcher

Mini-Lesson Monday: Plot Pyramids in Reading and Writing

2000px-Freytags_pyramid.svgThis year I experimented with literature circles to not only explore four of the popular whole class reads associated with our ninth grade curriculum but to also inject some choice into the required reading.  This was my first time attempting literature circles and while I recognized the potential struggles, my hope was to inspire open conversations about these complex and challenging texts.  In the past, class conversations with my students were dead and lackluster.  They were oftentimes reduced to leading plot-based questions. This year though, I couldn’t take a second quarter of policing reading, empty conversations, and painful silences, which meant I opened class time to small group conversation and taught reading skills through mini-lessons.  My classroom shifted from teacher-centered lessons on books to student-centered conversations on reading.

Objectives: Using the language of the Depth of Knowledge Levels, students will draw, identify, and label the multiple components of Freytag’s Pyramid.  They will construct a plot pyramid using class notes and apply the concepts learned within the mini-lesson to construct their own plot pyramid based on their literature circle’s chosen book.  Students will summarize the moments within the book that coordinate with the various points on the plot pyramid, citing evidence from their book to support their analysis.  Finally, using guiding questions, students will discuss and critique the author’s use of plot to move the story forward.

 Lesson:  I began class with a recap on Freytag’s Pyramid.  Many of my students had seen this traditional plot triangle in sixth grade but hadn’t revisited the concept since then.    They understood that plot provides the backbone of the story, yet to them, plots looked rather one-dimensional, rising perfectly at a 45-degree angle, peaking smack in the center of the story through one climax, then cleanly declining at the same 45-degree angle.

Avid readers know this is far from the case: if every book had the stereotypical plot-triangle-shape, there’d be no sense in reading.  It would be as perfectly predictable as Hallmark’s line of holiday movies (although I admit I love them just the same).  Good readers understand that plots are messy; they jut out at multiple angles, taking longer to rise in some cases or providing a false climax only to plateau and eventually rise farther.

IMG_1288I typically like to use novels I am currently reading and/or studying to model my analysis of plot.  This year I discussed Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison as an episodic novel since I am studying it with my AP Literature students.  Other options include previously studied short stories, whole class reads, or popular novels-turned-films.

I then provide students with time and guiding questions to draw and create their own plot triangle that they will then present to the class.  As they chart their plots providing explanations and evidence, they must also answer the following: What makes your plot shape distinctive? How might it differ from other books you’ve read?  What is the climax? How did your group decide on the climax? Why do you think the author decided to place the climax where they did?  How did the structure impact your personal reading of the piece?  Did the structure create suspense or the did the rising action last too long?

The conversation part of this is key; my students’ success derived directly from their ability to sit with their peers and draw out the plot’s structure.  In the end, many students struggled with distinctly placing the climax.  This gave me time to sit with groups and help guide their understanding.  They had deep conversations over the artistic choices of their authors, arguing that Golding could have decreased his rising action in Lord of the Flies or that Steinbeck’s decision to place Lennie’s death at the end of Of Mice and Men had the greatest impact.

Some students claimed that there were multiple climaxes in their novels while others were adamant that only one existed.  These discussions culminated in consensus, which students then shared with their peers. In the end, each group arrived with a firmer understanding of how plot can guide readers through suspense, excitement, and tragedy.

Follow-Up: This mini-lesson is two-fold.  It serves as a basis for deeper literary analysis, but it also provides a starting point for my next free writing unit.  Over the next couple weeks, students will harvest an idea from their writer’s notebooks, workshop the pieces, and finalize them prior to the holiday.

Using their knowledge of plot from our literature circles, they will apply these concepts to their own stories, completing exercises from The Plot Whisperer Workbook by Martha Alderson to help structure their narratives, fiction, and poetry.  I’m hoping that this recycled mini-lesson and common concepts will reinforce the interconnectedness of reading, writing, and craft.

How do you approach plot with your students? What mini-lessons do you make a point of revisiting throughout your year?

#3TT Workshop: Assessing Writer’s Notebooks and Sparking Engagement

Three educators. Three states. Three demographics. All practicing Readers and Writers Workshop in our Secondary Classrooms. Read more about us here.

We are the Modern PLC, and every Wednesday, we share our behind-the-scenes collaboration as we talk about the most urgent moving parts of our classroom pedagogy.

Recently Three Teachers Talk received an inquiry regarding our use of Writer’s Notebooks.  Naturally, this question got us talking–what do notebooks look like between New Hampshire and Texas, Freshman English and AP Language and Composition?

We all agree that Writer’s Notebooks are one of the essential tools to a successful classroom, but integrating and sustaining them can prove challenging.  This week’s conversation between Jackie and Amy seeks to explore some of the ins and outs of writer’s notebooks by discussing what we, as teachers, consciously choose to include in our students’ notebooks and what we decide to leave out.

Make sure to visit the first installment of our conversation, and please join the conversation in the comments!

As the year progresses, how do you keep students engaged in their writer’s notebooks?  How do you help students to recognize their inherent value?

Screen Shot 2015-12-01 at 3.34.55 PMAmy:  Well, we do use our notebooks every day. Of course, this helps with keeping students invested in their use. This year I wish I had taken more time to have students decorate their notebooks, really take ownership of them. I love how Jackie setup collage stations and took the time for this with her students. Students care more about their notebooks when they have taken the time to personalize them.

My students also come to value their notebooks more during our conferences. For example, today I met with a student to talk about her reading life. I asked her how she felt she was progressing. She told me that she was stumped because “I keep abandoning books. I’ve started 10 this year, but I’ve only completed four.” I asked to see her Currently Reading List in her writer’s notebook. She did not have it updated. First, we took some time to write all her titles down, and then we marked ‘finished’ or ‘abandoned’ like I’d hoped she would do all along (my fault for not checking notebooks with more fidelity.) Once we had a complete list of the books this students had tried, I was able to talk her through why she might have needed to let them go. We zeroed in on the narrators. The books she has finished have unique narrators:  a dog, a voice in verse, an 11 year old boy, an autistic 16-year-old. We then talked about the narrators of the other books — all third person omniscient, which she did not know, so I taught her the term in a mini mini-lesson. Together we learned that when the narrator “goes off into some other character’s part of the story, I get confused.” This was a powerful learning experience for my student, and a great reminder to me. There is power in the IMG_0163writer’s notebook. It can be our primary teaching resource.

Jackie: Sustaining interest in writer’s notebooks throughout the year can be a difficult task; students must be invested in and committed to their notebooks to understand their full value.  I believe sustained investment comes with consistent use.  As Amy mentioned, the collages at the beginning of the year helped students connect to their notebooks.  Even now I have students adding to their collages or entirely recovering their notebooks.  

Using notebooks everyday also reinforces the value of these tools.  I talk about them constantly, conduct notebook checks throughout the year, and ask to see them during reading conferences.  I display example pages in a giant writer’s notebook, and I typically ask students to write their drafts by hand.

How (and how often) do you assess writer’s notebooks?

Jackie: Writer’s Notebooks provide a safe space for play within the writing process.  To become confident and secure writers, students must have a low stakes area to both visualize and enjoy the process of putting pencil to paper.  That being said, notebooks are also valuable because they provide me with insight into a student’s thought process, progress, and personal exploration.  

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Students’ notebook pages are displayed in a giant writer’s notebook.

My grading process is relatively simple.  I keep a list of notebook contents on a board in my classroom, adding to the board every day.  Notebook checks take place every two-to-three weeks depend on the class content and units.  A week before we have a notebook check, I provide students with a checklist, with which they self-grade and return upon notebook submission.  On notebook check day, students use mini-sticky notes to mark two pages, one page they want me to respond to, and another page they want to display for their peers in our class’ giant writer’s notebook.  This process reinforces that students are writing for a wider audience than myself, while also embracing the messiness and imperfection that comes with writing.  I value the scribbled drafts full of doodles for the sole reason that they model the realness of writing, the fact that these pieces, while fun and entertaining still require molding and modeling to become a polished final piece.

While my grading is low stakes, I file writer’s notebooks under summative assessments for a few different reasons: it helps me assess student’s executive functioning skills, which is particularly important for my freshmen and struggling learners.  In my school, it allows students to “retake” the assessment, requiring them to revisit, revise, and refashion.  The more they return to the contents of their notebook and develop its structure, the more invested they become in the final product.  Finally, notebooks align with the common core, which is essential in my competency-based grading school.  They help “students develop and strengthen writing” (W.9-10.5), “write routinely over extended…and shorter time frames” (W.9-10.10), and “determine the meaning of words and phrases [in their dictionary section]” (RL.9-10.4).

Amy:  I’ve tried scoring the whole of the notebook. I even have a glue in for how I would if I did. I am not disciplined enough. I find short chunks much easier to manage, and I can zip around the room and look at everyone’s personal dictionary to see if it is up-to-date in the first 15 minutes of class while students are reading. Or I can collect notebooks and look at just the skill we practiced that day. These always equate to completion grades. Sometimes I’ll pass out sticky notes and ask students to mark whatever writing they’d like me to read. I learn important information about my students this way. When students share their hearts with me, I value it in a way that is so much more important than a grade. How would I ever grade that anyway?

How do you keep your students excited about their writer’s notebooks throughout the year?  How do you assess notebooks without stifling creativity?

 

#3TT Workshop: The Ins and Outs of Writer’s Notebooks

Three educators. Three states. Three demographics. All practicing Readers and Writers Workshop in our Secondary Classrooms. Read more about us here.

We are the Modern PLC, and every Wednesday, we share our behind-the-scenes collaboration as we talk about the most urgent moving parts of our classroom pedagogy.

Recently Three Teachers Talk received an inquiry regarding our use of Writer’s Notebooks.  Naturally, this question got us talking–what do notebooks look like between New Hampshire and Texas, Freshman English and AP Language and Composition?

We all agree that writer’s notebooks are one of the essential tools to a successful classroom, but integrating and sustaining them can prove challenging.  This week’s conversation between Jackie and Amy seeks to explore some of the ins and outs of writer’s notebooks by discussing what we, as teachers, consciously choose to include in our students’ notebooks and what we decide to leave out.

Please join the conversation in the comments and check back for the second installment tomorrow!

Why are writer’s notebooks important in your classroom?  What value do they hold?

IMG_1485Jackie: Notebooks are the lifeblood of my writing curriculum.  My students need a safe space to practice low stakes writing.  Too often they’ve been forced to write formally, slogging through rough and final drafts of disconnected, five-paragraph essays.  The formality of it all removes the artistry, pleasure, and process of writing.  

I enjoy the controlled messiness of notebooks and the voices I rarely heard as a first year teacher.  Honestly, writing brings me closer to my students.  It connects my classes, makes students recognize their peers are indeed human, and at the end of the day, gives many of my kids, as Ralph Fletcher says, “A room of [their] own.”

Amy:  I am all about organization. Often, my students have a difficult time keeping up with everything they need to practice, track, monitor, and evaluate their reading and writing lives. Our writer’s notebooks make all of this easier. The value of a daily writer’s notebook rises with each use of it.

How do you integrate writer’s notebooks into your classroom? How are they set up?

Jackie: We start using our Writer’s Notebooks the second day of school, when I help students establish the various sections in their composition books.  

My sections, which are all pulled from Linda Rief’s Inside the Writer’s-Reader’s Notebook, include the following: 1. Books Read (a log of the books they read throughout the year), 2. Inspiration Page (where students keep story ideas, photos, images, etc), 3. Graffiti Wall (For beautifully crafted sentences from their independent reading or inspiring quotes), 4. Notes and Entries (the bulk of the notebook), 5. Wondrous Words Dictionary (where they keep their vocabulary from their independent reading), and 6. Books to Read (a list of books they want to read).  

Our notebooks are our single most important tool within the classroom, which means that this is where we store all of our quick writes, writing, rough drafts, notes, minilessons, mentor texts, and thinking.  

When we aren’t writing in class, students independently write three pages outside of class per week.  This independent writing allows them to develop quick writes, explore various writing prompts, or jot down potential ideas.  As author Janet Burroway says, “The best place for permission is a private place, and for that reason a writer’s journal is an essential, likely to be the source of originality, ideas, experimentation, and growth.”  The act of writing helps students not only develop their voice, but it also serves as a safe space to explore various writing styles.

Screen Shot 2015-12-01 at 3.33.19 PM (1)Amy:  My students and I set up notebooks with similarities to Jackie’s. Ours look like this:  We’ve got our main reading goal written right smack dab on the front page. Then we’ve got the “currently reading list” on the next. We’ve got a “to read next list” on the very back page, so as I do book talks — or students talk about books with each other, they are able to keep a running list of titles that sound interesting. (This is a time saver in helping students who just finished a book find another one to read relatively quickly.) In the very middle of our notebooks, we’ve got our “personal dictionaries.” These are the words students find and define from their independent reading (five words a week). We also have a poetry section where we respond to poetry, or glue in poems and write around them. There’s a “write my life” section where students write an entry a week about anything they please. And we have a “reader’s response” section that we write our thinking about our books, articles, etc — pretty much any other kind of text other than poems.

I did something new this year and created notebook glue-ins. I thought this would be helpful to remind students of what went where and the expectations for learning and growth I have for each section. Honestly, I do a poor job of checking notebooks with any kind of regularity — although I do check parts of them at least every other week — so I don’t know if the glue-ins are valuable yet or not.

Jackie: I agree about the glue-ins, Amy.  While I haven’t gone that far, I have students trim down mentor examples, checklists, and typed rough drafts and tape them into their notebooks.  It keeps them better organized and makes it easy to return to previous craft lessons.

Why do you value writer’s notebooks, and how do you integrate them into your classrooms?  What successes have you had with your notebooks this year? What challenges might you still face?  

Mini-Lesson Monday: Introducing Thematic Units through Poetry

d284bf40a1804c66d4fff674f59b350eSince the Freshman English curriculum is set up thematically, I like to introduce quarter themes through poetry.  While I love the quarter’s discussion of larger themes, students oftentimes lose the goal, purpose, or relevance of these themes as the quarter progresses.

In turn, I make it a point to introduce the quarter’s themes independently as a pre-reading exercise.  Instead of asking questions specifically about lit circle or whole class novels, I lead in with poetry that will help students begin teasing out the bigger ideas from the beginning.

Objectives: Using the language of the Depth of Knowledge Levels, students will identify the central theme of the poem “Trolls” by Shane Koyczan, stating its message, and quoting from the text.  They will interpret the meaning through individual quick writes and group discussions, and they will apply the concepts learned from their discussions to the books they are currently reading in literature circles.

Lesson: The Freshman Team’s Quarter two theme is “darkness of man’s heart,” which I introduced this year through Shane Koyczan’s poem “Trolls.”  The purpose of this quick write is threefold: it introduces students to denotation and connotation; it allows us to discuss second person point of view, and it provides a smooth transition into our quarter theme.

First I hand out the printed copy of “Trolls” and I play the video for students.  Students then perform a five-minute quick write to the poem by either pulling an idea or a quote from the poem and using it as a sentence starter or by responding to the poem as a whole.  Regardless of their method, their goal is to connect pencil to paper for a full five minutes until I tell them to finish up their line.  During this time I model my own writing on my document projector.  Our quick write time is followed by two minutes of Kelly Gallagher’s “RADaR marks” in which students return to their writing, colored pencils in hand, to quickly review and revise their work.

I love the immediate reaction and rawness of their writing in these moments, which makes it the perfect time to turn and talk within our groups.  I first model my writing then ask students to share theirs, urging them to read at least one line from their responses.  These quick writes provide the necessary steps to build a writer’s community.  The more students share these tidbits, the more willingly the engage in the writing process with each other at every step.

It is these individual discussions that lead to greater questions about Koyczan’s use of denotation and connotation to describe both mythical trolls and Internet trolls.  We talk about his intentions in starting the poem with the fairytale line of “Once upon a time” as well as his reliance on second person to not only garner solidarity with his audience but to attack cyberbullies.

Once we’re done discussing the intricacies of the language, I send them back to their groups to contemplate what Koyczan has to say about the darkness of man’s heart.  Starting with poetry allows them to grapple with major themes in a small burst.  Spoken word poetry plants these ideas before they even begin to delve into more complex novels.

Follow Up: This quarter is the first time I have done literature circles.  My students chose from Lord of the Flies, Fahrenheit 451, or a combination between Of Mice and Men and Animal Farm.  I used Koyczan’s poem to practice our literature circle roles and then to use our roles as a basis for discussion in the literature circle groups.

Because “Trolls” was short, accessible piece, students were able to discuss the theme before we even began our reading of our exploration of our lit circle books.  That being said, this process of discussion, while simple, allows students to explore themes, thus building the necessary foundation for them to further examine these themes within their novels.

Here are some additional poems to pair with literature themes:

Theme: Loss of Innocence—Poem: “Jellyfish” by Sarah Kay

Theme: Individual and Society—Poem: “To This Day” by Shane Koyczan

Theme: Identity—Poem: “Names” by Rachel Rostad or “We Wear the Mask” by Paul Laurence Dunbar paired with “Masks”  by Shel Silverstein,

Theme: Love—Poem: “How Falling Love is Like Owning a Dog” by Taylor Mali

Theme: Coming of Age—Poem: “On Turning Ten” by Billy Collins

Theme: Invasion of Technology—Poem: “Look Up” by Gary Turk

What theme-poem pairings do you use in your classroom?  What suggestions would you add to this list?

#FridayReads: 6 Ways to Stir Up Your Daily Book Talk

I’m not sure if it is because we are on the cusp of cold weather or that we just ended quarter one, but my students are dragging.  They rub their eyes more in the morning, carry in larger cups of coffee, and stoop a little lower in their chairs.

This lethargy seeps into even my strongest classes, which is why I like to change up my approach to book talks from time to time to re-energize students before they dive into their independent reading books.  Here are five ways I stir up my book talks.

  1. Musical Chairs: Music is naturally energizing and I love getting books in students’ hands FullSizeRenderquickly. This is “played” like typical musical chairs, the main difference is that students who sit in a chair also get to look at the book that has been placed on the desk behind them (I have separated desks and chairs so I face the chairs outwards).  The student left without a chair writes a “mini-book talk” on the board, which includes the title of the book they have read this year, the author, how many stars it would receive out of five, and a quick sentence to get readers interested.
  2. Group Book Talks: Getting students chatting about books is one way to ramp up energy at the start of class. My desks are grouped into fours, so students turn to their group members and book talk their current book (or a book they read prior).  Oftentimes there are repeat book talks from books I previously shared, but I reiterate the value of multiple perspectives and opinions.  What others notice as readers might be something I never thought to share.
  3. Guest Book Talks: I’ve spent years chatting with my favorite library staff about new YA books,FullSizeRender-3 but sadly it didn’t dawn on me to tap into their brilliance until this year.  Our phenomenal librarian Kathy Vetter book talked Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates to my AP Literature students, and our AV and computer lab guru, Melissa Ciotti, book talked Little Brother by Cory Doctorow to my freshman classes.  By the end of their visits, all copies had been checked out of both the classroom and school libraries.  Next up, I have a PE teacher…and hopefully our principal! Students need positive reading role models in all of their educators.
  4. Speed Dating: I have mentioned speed dating with books multiple times before, but it is one of my favorite ways to get books off my shelves and into my students’ hands. I typically put the desks in a circle and have students rotate the books every minute or so, but I love Amy’s approach as well.
  5. Book Talk Puzzle: This is a longer project, but I love the final product.
    Students piece together their final book talk puzzle.

    Students piece together their final book talk puzzle.

    Students write out book talks on large puzzle pieces.  I have students discuss their favorite parts of the book and to whom they might recommend it.  Finally they draw their favorite scene, symbols, or images from the book.  Once the puzzle pieces are complete, we share our final products, build the puzzle, and put it on display for our peers.

  6. Book Trailers: I had my Advanced Composition students complete book trailers last year. The final films were phenomenal and provided excellent material for this year’s book talks.  I oftentimes play the film for my students then read an excerpt to expose them to the language.  There are some brilliant book trailers here and sprinkled across the Internet and TTT.

What do you do to change up your book talk schedule during the year? What are some unique ways you introduce your students to various titles?

#3TTWorkshop–Individualizing our Students’ Study of Vocabulary

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Students in Jackie’s class write their vocabulary words on the board.

Three educators. Three states. Three demographics. All practicing Readers and Writers Workshop in our Secondary Classrooms. Read more about us here.

We are the Modern PLC, and every Wednesday and Thursday, we share our behind-the-scenes collaboration as we talk about the most urgent moving parts of our classroom pedagogy.

Today is the second and last installment of this week’s conversation between Jackie and Shana on vocabulary instruction.  Please join the conversation in the comments!

What are your best vocabulary activities?

Shana: For me, best practices surrounding vocabulary all happen in the writer’s notebook.  Curating a personal dictionary in that particular section, sharing those words with friends, and doing fun, in-class follow-up activities with those words seem to work best to get my kids authentically reading to find new or interesting words in their books.  We do things like write a poem using ten of our words, create a pass-it-along story in which your sentence has to contain a word used contextually, or create an illustration of a particular word and hang it up.  The more play there is involved in our study of words, the more my students actually begin to pay attention to vocabulary in both their reading and writing.

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A list of vocabulary words students found in their independent reading books.

Jackie:  For the past couple of years I have wanted to integrate vocabulary instruction into my curriculum, but it wasn’t until this year that I moved forward with the process of carving out a specific section of students’ writer’s notebooks.  As Linda Rief says in Inside the Writers Readers Notebook, “We also need to ask them to pay attention to words in their own reading and their own listening, to notice words that they don’t quite have a grip on as writers and speakers but which they come across fairly often” (Rief 23).  As Linda Rief suggests, my students collect four words from their independent reading book or whole class reads per week.  They record these words as well as the parts of speech, synonyms, and the sentence in which they found the word under a separate dictionary section in their Writer’s Notebook.  

At the beginning of the year I was worried about summative assessments and meeting the needs of my students through our new competency-based grading system.  I “assessed” my students on their vocabulary by having them first memorize the words and then complete whatever the task-at-hand was for that day.  I’ll admit that a quarter into the school year I have already abandoned this method after growing frustrated with the results.  Naturally, students chose easier words when there were higher stakes assessments at hand.  They sacrificed learning for grades and in turn, asked fewer questions, instead focusing more on grades and less on word acquisition.

This is where you helped me most, Shana.  After tossing aside the summative assessments, I had students compile a dictionary of their words on the board, and we spent 15 minutes simply playing with the words and writing stories and poetry.  These biweekly activities breathed life into an otherwise stressful vocabulary lesson.  Soon my students were asking questions about how to use the words through context clues, and I was giving minilessons on integrating words into sentences based on the parts of speech.  For the first time, students began playing with vocabulary instead of trying to find shortcuts around the system.
Do you use independent vocabulary instruction? What activities do you use to help familiarize students with new vocabulary?

#3TTWorkshop–Teaching Vocabulary Through Independent Exploration

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Students in Jackie’s classroom write vocabulary words on the board.

Three educators. Three states. Three demographics. All practicing Readers and Writers Workshop here.

We are the Modern PLC, and every Wednesday, we share our behind-the-scenes collaboration as we talk about the most urgent moving parts of our classroom pedagogy.  This week’s conversation between Jackie and Shana explores the value of shifting away from the more traditional modes of rote memorization and more toward wordplay.

1. Why do you integrate vocabulary study into your classroom, and how do you approach it?

Jackie:  This is my first year integrating vocabulary into my freshman classes.  Previously I had taken a traditional approach, relying on the Oxford-Sadler books in my junior/senior Advanced Composition classes.  The problem was that by the end of the year, many of my students would forget the twenty or so words we had memorized every other week.  I knew something had to change, so I returned to the words of my mentors, Penny Kittle and Linda Rief, to gain a better understanding of how they approached vocabulary.  Now instead of having my students memorize lists of prescribed vocabulary, they find four words per week and store them in the dictionary section of their writer’s notebooks.

Shana: I love the study of words, so one of the things I always find myself noticing about an author is the type of vocabulary he or she employs.  Diction makes up a great deal of a writer’s style, so I think it’s important to study it.  I am fortunately not required to adhere to a certain program or set list of words, so I tend to approach the study of vocabulary more along the lines of noticing words that are in our reading and writing.  I don’t have a formula or routine for vocabulary study, although as a general rule I try to set aside mini-lesson or quick-write time about every two weeks.

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Ryan’s words for this week include “nebulous,” “jettison,” “inchoate,” “unnerving”, and “aphorism,” all of which he found from his independent reading book Little Brother by Cory Doctorow.

2. What is the inherent value of vocabulary study?

Shana: Something I’ve been thinking a lot about is the inherent value of vocabulary study.  Vocabulary acquisition is just one little piece of the puzzle that makes up literacy, but it seems to get so much attention from the powers that be.  For example, last year our school had two schoolwide goals–one of them was “vocabulary.”  What does that even mean?  Do we want our teachers teaching more “vocabulary words?”  Do we want our students memorizing more “vocabulary words?”  What is the difference between academic and non-”academic vocabulary?”  I’m just not sure that vocabulary acquisition is as big a piece of the literacy puzzle as our testing/curriculum planners believe.

Jackie: I agree wholeheartedly with you, Shana.  I am not required to teach vocabulary, but every year I tell my students that reading helps build one’s vocabulary.  The more I thought about it though, the more I wondered how these skills translated, how my students would develop their own lexicons if they never actually stopped to think about the words they were reading.

Unlike your school, though, my school’s major initiative has been towards Common Core-based instruction.  Fortunately, part of the College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Language requires students to “also have extensive vocabularies, built through reading and study, enabling them to comprehend complex texts and engage in purposeful writing about and conversations around content.”  I believe vocabulary study shouldn’t be about isolated memorization; instead, it should allow students the freedom for wordplay.  When students are given the freedom to not only pick their own vocabulary words but also share them with their peers, they are more likely to explore definitions, find connections, and play with usage.  I receive more questions about context clues, Latin roots, and parts of speech during bi-weekly vocab lessons than I have at any other point in my career.

Fitting Self-Assessments into Competency Based Grading

fotolia-33988899-xs-photogalleryThis year my school shifted to competency based grading.  For those unfamiliar with this, grading is centered on students’ mastery of the Common Core competencies.  While I have found it differs from state to state, our school has integrated competency based grading by requiring all classes to follow a grading percentage of 80 percent summative assessments and 20 percent formative assessments.  In addition, students are allowed to retake summative assessments as many times as they would like assuming they initially approached the assessments having prepared with good effort.

For me, as an English teacher, this process of retakes and revisions isn’t new.  That being said, the idea of 80 percent of my students’ grades being summative assessments is most certainly a shift.  In the past, while their final product has always served as a large portion of their grade (over 50 percent), it hasn’t counted quite as much as it does now.

I value formative assessments; I cherish the time my students spend cracking apart texts, mimicking authors’ craft, and simply reading.  For many of us, high school was a formative experience.  The time we spent exploring who we were paid off long term, yet competency-based grading values the final product more than the process.

To a degree, I take fault with this.  I understand that once students enter the workplace they are assessed based on their final products.  In the same breath, I also believe that high school must provide a platform for students to explore their interests in a safe and supportive environment that values process.  My life has largely looked like the reverse of my gradebook—80 percent of my time is spent reading, writing, brainstorming, drafting, discussing, and working, while maybe 20 percent of it is actually publishing, sharing, or posting my work.  I learned this process in high school.

Because summative assessments count for so much this year, I hate (even more than usual) applying a specific number to my students’ work.  In turn, to compensate for this competency based grading, I ask my students to assess themselves.

Every time my students hand in a paper or summative assessment like a notebook check, they grade themselves, writing a brief “metacognition analysis” in which they explain their writing, thought process, and reasoning.  In turn, instead of being blind sided by my grades, they have a say in how and even whether or not they met the competencies of the assignment.  Typically, they’re spot on with their grading.

FullSizeRenderNicole wrote, “I think my essay deserves that grade because I worked really hard on it.  I ended up printing it 4 times because every time I printed it I would self edit and have someone else edit it so that it came out just how I wanted it.  Just like always, I put a lot of my personality and voice into this piece.  I wanted people to laugh when they read it.  I added lots of detail about tiny situations and background.”

Ryan, had a similar assessment, “I think I did well with my development of ideas/organization and cohesion, and my ending.  I was proud of all of my writing because I thought it was one of the best things I’ve written.”

Ultimately students are also willing to honestly discuss their shortcomings.  Maddie targeted areas she hoped to improve in future pieces: “I feel I did well but could’ve been better.  I struggled with creating sensory details, but I feel I wrote this piece pretty well.  I would like to try and make this story more vivid, putting the reader in my position.” 

While I’m still addressing these changes and gauging my own understanding of competency based grading, self-assessments are the single most important change I’ve made in my classroom this year.  After I’m done reading rubrics, circling boxes, and checking off competencies, their voice is the resounding voice I hear.

Do you have competency based grading in your school?  Have you shifted to the 80:20 grading system? What changes have you made to better meet the needs of your students?

Mini-Lesson Monday: This lesson stinks, literally.  Teaching Sensory Details in Narrative Writing.

FullSizeRender-1I, like many of my students, am a kinesthetic learner.  Not only do I learn by doing, but for many tasks, I require a hands-on approach to fully grasp the complexity of a concept.  Yet as a teacher, applying kinesthetic techniques to English concepts can be somewhat challenging.  While we write and read and physically play with words, I try to create simulations and activities that allow my students to experiment with writing in unique ways.  This activity, which is one of my favorites of the year, uses students’ olfactory sense to stimulate sensory detail writing within their personal narratives.

Objectives:  Using the language of the Depth of Knowledge levels, students will identify personal memories associated with unidentified scents.  Recalling prior and newly acquired knowledge, they will translate their observations into descriptive writing by constructing sentences that rely on sensory details.  Finally, students will apply their understanding of descriptive writing to their own personal narratives.

Lesson:  This mini-lesson takes preparation, but students’ responses are worth the extra time.  First, collect the following supplies: Plastic cups (I use blue Solo cups), a permanent marker, tinfoil, a toothpick, rubber bands (optional), and a variety of objects that have a scent.  This year I used lime juice, perfume, scented wax blocks from Walmart, BBQ sauce, apple cider vinegar, garlic, mint extract, crayons, and Play-Doh.  Every year is different though and I typically rely on what I have around my home.

I put the scented sauces, liquids, and objects in each of the cups, cover the cups with tin-foil, and wrap a rubber band around the top to secure the foil.  I label each cup with a number and poke holes in the tin-foil with a toothpick.  Next I place the cups around the room. After taking some notes on the concept of “show don’t tell,” students walk around the room smelling the contents of each cup.  They must not peek (believe me they will try)!

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My students were convinced I had a tiny Abercrombie and Fitch model in this cup. In reality, it was a block of scented wax from Walmart.

I provide each student with a grid in which they fill in the cup number, adjectives to describe the scent, and personal memories the scent conjures.  They must then write a two-to-three-line story or scenario in which they describe the scent without identifying what the scent is.  By the end of the activity, when we come back together as a group, students excitedly volunteer to read their sentences in order to reveal the contents of the cup.

Follow Up:  Following this activity, we identify sensory details within our independent reading books and take turns discussing these details within our groups.  Finally, during workshop time, students add sensory details to their personal narrative rough drafts, in turn “showing” images rather than “telling” them.  The process of digging into their narratives and writing in the margins reinforces the messy, step-by-step process of revision that many of my students struggle to grasp.  If time allows, students partake in a whip share in which we each share one line from our narratives that includes sensory details.

What are some untraditional writing activities you use? How do you get your students moving around the classroom?

#FridayReads: Whole-Class Novels to Teach, and How to Frame Them

This past summer Shana and Jackie found that we’d both taken on a unique experiment within some of our classes–we had decided to strip them of whole class novels and instead focus on independent reading, book clubs, and smaller whole-class texts.  As workshop teachers confident in the power of choice reading, we each felt that this shift would be both empowering and inspiring within our classrooms.  After our year of experimentation, we both left our classrooms with unique perspectives on the power of whole-class novels as well as how we would incorporate them moving forward.

Today is the third and final installment of our week-long discussion using Google Docs.  Please, join the conversation in the comments!

41Cx8mY2UNL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Question 6: How is it different to be forced to teach a certain novel versus to be able to choose the ones you teach?

Jackie: I will readily admit that I am “forced” to teach To Kill A Mockingbird and Macbeth at the freshman level.  That being said, I love teaching both of them and am fortunate that my students respond well to both pieces.  The challenges are certainly different though.  I must create student buy-in or else my students will drag through the next four to six weeks of our unit.  I frame each lesson to fit their needs and I make sure to fit the book into a workshop structure the best I can to create consistency.

I do believe that teachers must have a choice in what they teach, though.  We must be allowed to tailor our lessons to fit the needs of our students.  Independent reading allows us to understand our students as readers and individuals, which in turn, allows us to further assess what books our students might connect with best.  Fortunately for me, the freshman team I work on is progressive and forward-thinking.  They’re always willing to try new things, which oftentimes involves integrating contemporary works.

Shana:  This summer in Tom Newkirk’s class, he innocently posed this question to our class:  “Why is the defining novel about race in our country written by a white woman?”  He was referring to To Kill a Mockingbird, of course, as many of us were discussing its lately-released sequel.  That question, so casually tossed into our midst, made me think about why the canonized novels taught in schools are often so heavily prescripted.  Why does Harper Lee have a voice of authority about being black in America?  Why do my rural students need to read a particular story about race?  I know why it’s important to read stories about people different than us–I would argue that it’s essential to building empathy and a broader worldview to read widely–but why does Harper Lee hold the monopoly on that topic, and not someone like Toni Morrison or Zora Neale Hurston?

As usual, I have raised more questions than I’ve even attempted to answer, but I’m still not sure of the correct solutions.  I think it’s preposterous to have a rote schedule of “books to teach” for all teachers in a school when it’s blatantly obvious that the community of every classroom is different, which means the culture of its students is always unique, which means that no child ever needs the same book at the same time.

Jackie: It’s funny that you bring up Tom Newkirk’s question.  As I was sitting next to you, I had one of those hide-your-face-moments when I thought, “Oh geez, I teach To Kill A Mockingbird!”  As I said earlier, I am required to teach this book, and while I love it, it does not meet the needs of all of my students.  Teaching in New Hampshire, I have a predominantly white population.  This means that their understanding of race relations and their exposure to diverse literature is rather whitewashed.  We desperately need new, diverse voices to help our students understand and empathize with a variety of individuals.  The precious few books we read together should be based on the needs and interests of our students instead of being dictated by a one-size-fits-all approach.

Question 4: What is the most effective way to frame a whole-class novel and create student buy-in?

Jackie: At the beginning of the school year I discuss the different types of reading we encounter as lifelong students.  I explain that, as a reader, I read for pleasure as well as for knowledge.  Oftentimes those two paths can and may cross, but typically my personal reading life looks drastically different from my professional reading life.  I love pouring through popular YA lit, but in the same breath, I can’t get enough of dissecting poetry with my AP Literature class.

This same pattern applies to my students’ reading within our classroom.  As a class we must learn to maintain a fruitful and engaging personal reading life that allows us to not only learn from our literature but to also explore our own interests and passions.  That being said, we mustn’t overlook the power of dissecting and discussing language and craft as a class.  Reading whole class novels reinforces the fact that no two people read a book the same way.

Shana:  If choice is the golden guide to teaching of reading, then I think the culture of a classroom must dictate the novel we read.  While A Raisin in the Sun was immensely popular in my inner-city Cincinnati classroom, it completely flopped here in West Virginia when I tried to teach it.  The inverse is true of Huck Finn; wildly successful in WV, but a total fail in Ohio.  Thus, I seek to hear the themes my students return to again and in again in their writing and conversations–this year, we are engaged in many discussions about political rhetoric, the origin of power, and the struggle that class/social/financial/ethnic differences create.  Thus, I’ll seek out novels that explore those themes to help us engage with them more fully.

In closing, we leave you with a list of the most successful whole class novels we have taught as well as a list of the books we would teach our current students if given the opportunity.

Most successful novels I taught, from Shana:28c4d1f2e8d048f702c3dbf0990aca8c

A Separate Peace by John Knowles

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

Macbeth by William Shakespeare

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

What I’d love to teach, based on my current students, from Shana:

Peace Like a River by Leif Enger

Boy21 by Matthew Quick

Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer

Most successful novels I taught, from Jackie…(you’ll notice some repeats):51BWES5VL2L

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck (read aloud and performed as a play)

On Writing by Stephen King

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

Macbeth by William Shakespeare

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

What I’d love to teach, based on my current students, from Jackie:

Sold by Patricia McCormick

Here, Bullet by Brian Turner

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

Be sure to join the conversation today in the comments! We would love to hear your perspective on whole class novels and how you incorporate them into your classroom.

Click here to read day two of our conversation.

Click here to read day one of our conversation.

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