Category Archives: Lisa Dennis

#NCTE17 – A Story I’m Thankful For

Like Amy, my NCTE experience this year was a blur of the most magnificent proportions. I was able to share the experience with an amazing group of colleagues, survived flying on standby in a peculiar route from Milwaukee to Detroit to St. Louis, and wrapped up my planning about 72 minutes before 3TT spoke to a wonderfully supportive and inquisitive audience on Friday.

I have 7 pages of notes, in 5 colors, saw so many English Gods and Goddesses speak I lost count, sat down three inches from Cornelius Minor to plan a forthcoming 3TT Twitter chat (Ekkkk! Fangirl moment), got to room for three nights with my bestie like college roommates watching Hallmark Christmas movies, secured over two dozen books for students in the exhibit hall, spent time with my amazing co-bloggers from Three Teachers Talk, and deliciously foreshadowed Thanksgiving with a calzone of turkey, cranberries, pecans, stuffing, mashed potatoes, and gravy dipping sauce.

thanks1So, when we flew home on Sunday night, I got to bed at about 11:30 pm. Up at 5:00 am, Franklin had school through a half day on Wednesday. I then hosted Thanksgiving for 11 people on Thursday, managed a Black Friday marathon shop with my daughter Ellie (She’s four and up at 6 am anyway – might as well take advantage), cut down a Christmas tree on Saturday, and tried to be a teacher again on Sunday in order to tackle 70ish AP Language responses and plan for the coming week. Next week (I am so excited), we fly to Arizona to visit family for a long weekend.

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Spoiler Alert: I ended up at the chiropractor this past Tuesday. She said she was surprised I could turn my neck at all. “Do you encounter a lot of stress on a daily basis?” she asked. I almost choked and laughed in her face.

Needless to say, my notes from NCTE have waited patiently for me.

NCTE last year was such an incredible experience, I came back to my district and raved about the opportunities our department could reap if a group was able to go and fan out across the convention to sample the wealth of presentations that take place. I am so lucky to teach with such amazing English teachers and even luckier to get to travel with them to this event.

We plan to debrief with administration and our department in a few weeks. I promise to share some of the information and inspiration they gathered. We attended sessions from Writing MultiGenre Papers, to Having a Life as an English Teacher, to Arab Voices in the Classroom, to Using Self Assessment with Students, to “let’s listen to Linda Rief, Penny Kittle, Kylene Beers, and Robert Probst all from the same stage and try not to faint with the fatigue of trying to write down all of their brilliance.”

So, until I find a few minutes to sift through those notes and take in the depth of learning we all did, I humbly share with you the slides from my portion of the Three Teachers Talk presentation on reclaiming our voices as teachers and students through narrative writing.

In it, you will find:

  • Some embarrassing personal photos I used to open our presentation with an illustration of  my own story and how it illustrates the power of narrative to define me: who I am, what I do, and why that might be.
  • Supporting information on how narrative defines the human experience. 
  • Explanation of the Visual Biography assignment I used to have students tell their own stories to start the year.
  • A quick write to get students thinking and telling their stories “outside the box” with a reading from Hillary Jordan’s When She Woke. 
  • A final plea to see the value of student story in narrative writing as a way to know students, value their humanity, and give narrative a proper place next to argument and expository writing in our classrooms.

Amy wished us a happy December in her post earlier this week and shared her slides as well. We hope that December really does come soon. Tomorrow, maybe?  May it bring a few moments to breathe and reflect. When we do, we will be sure to shower you with all the #NCTE17 insights you could ask for.


Lisa Dennis teaches English and leads a department of incredible English educators at Franklin High School near Milwaukee. Last year her NCTE notebook pen of choice was the PaperMate Flair, this year she highly recommends the PaperMate Ink Joy pens.  Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum 

3 Sparks to Shift Thinking and Practice

What gives you pause as an educator? Not politically speaking. Not shake your head and think of simpler times speaking. Not even “Yes, death is the narrator in The Book Thief. You’re on which page?!” speaking.

I’m talking about the changemaker moments. The moments that make you stop in this crazy profession, take a breath, and think about how you do what you do, why you do it that way, how you got to where you are, and how to move forward in the best interest of kids.

You know. A Tuesday, for example.

If you frequent Three Teachers Talk, chances are you’re quite familiar with the benefits of reflective practice. You’re already on the lookout for motivation and inspiration to move your professional work forward. You’re interested in change. You’re not afraid to wear stripes with polka dots.

Three Teachers Talk

But often, the moments that change us the most are the ones that sneak up on us. We don’t go looking for them, but there they are, in the blink of an eye, demanding, “So, now what are you going to do?”

I started this workshop journey over two years ago. And while I’m sad to say that the move wasn’t so much motivated as mandated,  I was ready for a challenge and always in pursuit of positive change. Or, so I thought.

When I found Three Teachers Talk, I had naively come looking for a way to ‘deal with endless annotations to assess assigned reading’ in the workshop model. Yikes. wisdomJust typing that feels like malpractice. I had an open heart and and open mind, but past practice and a limited knowledge of varying philosophies afforded me a narrow scope of imagination on the subject. My mind heard choice, voice, student talk, and for the most part, I believed I was already “doing all that.”

And to some extent, I was.

But, in many cases is was how I was doing it that kept me in control and my students in a cycle of compliant work completion vs. curious exploration as readers and writers. I’m happy to say that I’m growing, but like most things in my life, I have plenty of growing left to do.

So, because I work best with snippets of inspiration, the kind that I can digest, reflect on, and work to put into practice without feeling paralyzed by the scope of change before me, here are three shifts in my thinking and practice this week, and where they came from, where they took me (or took me back to), and the great minds that inspired them:

  1. Shana got me thinking hard earlier this week. Her post “What Will You Teach Into?”, stirred so many feelings that had been resting heavy on my heart the past few months. The world we live in, raise children in, guide students through, and try to navigate ourselves (because really, who among us can consistently stomach everything that’s been crashing down upon the nightly news lately?), is no longer just frightening, it’s often demoralizing.

    In response, Shana wrote, “This week and every week, I hope teachers are having difficult conversations with our students. I hope we are not shying away from the ease of ignoring our nation’s pain in favor of teaching about comma splices or symbolism or character development. I hope our time with students is deliberately geared toward talk about these incredibly complex, nuanced topics.”

    In an nation so politically polarized, it may seem uniquely difficult to have these conversations, but it’s precisely for this reason that the conversations are all the more important. Our students need to see, and in some cases learn, what civil discourse looks like.

    Our classrooms are certainly not the place to promote our own political opinions, but they must be a place to explore nuanced topics with students. My step this week was to have students look at the statement Senator Chris Murphy made after the mass shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas this weekend. We’d recently talked about the debate over guns in our country, sadly after the previous mass shooting in Las Vegas just a few weeks before, with Kelly Gallagher’s article of the week that presented opinions on both sides of this debate, and Senator Murphy’s statement brought us back to this discussion with an exploration of not only the topic, but writer’s craft, bias, and argument.

    Students quickly latched on to word choice (“That word, ‘slaughter,’ it’s heartbreaking.”), the use of context, and possible bias from a senator from the Democratic party. What mattered the most in the course of our 15 or so minute exploration, was that we devoted the time to do it at all. Students referenced the article of the week pieces we had read previously and marveled at the fact that we were having to talk about this. Again. So…we focused on “again” and students vented some of their fears and frustrations about what this all means for their daily lives.

    We didn’t change policy. We didn’t write to legislators. We didn’t protest. We talked. We talked carefully and candidly. It was the best spent 15 minutes of the week so far.

    These conversations are not easy. They shouldn’t be. But they must happen. Reading Shana’s piece reminded me that the time is now. Have a conversation, let students write, invite them to read, today.

  2. Students in our AP Language classes have been writing one pagers weekly since the first few weeks of school. With 76 students, the feedback on these pieces has been relatively minimal. I had been thinking the task of providing consistent feedback on this writing was well beyond my capacity, so I filed this work away as the writing students need to do, even when it’s not assessed.

    However, as I sat scrolling through the weekly work on Monday, it struck me that I had my feet in two worlds. Students still receive a formative grade for this work. Often, when I fail to record consistent scores, their work falters. So, I take a look, put a formative score in the gradebook and try to email five students from each class with feedback each week, which happens…sometimes.

    Noble, I guess, but straight up stupid on my part too.

    It’s disingenuous to record a score to make students compliant in writing these explorations of their independent reading, when growing as writers (which requires more consistent feedback!) is the goal.

    So, I’m getting out from behind my desk and moving those feet, previously in the two worlds of old school and real school, to more purposefully make moves as a workshop teacher.

    On Monday, I recorded reflections on the one pagers for my fourth period class. Just for five students. During reading time, I went to briefly speak with these students about what they had reflected on in their one pager. Since they write these pieces from the books they are currently reading, we just had more to guide the conference. I asked a follow-up question from the one pager and students talked about their writing process in relation to the book in their hands. Heart. Warmed. Goals. Clarified.

  3. Lastly, and probably most impactful, was a reminder from Carol Jago that I nearly scrolled past on Twitter. I’m so glad I didn’t. It’s catapulted my thinking back to a place I’ve known, but sometimes forget. It’s sparked some wonderful conversation with my dear friend Alejandra. It’s made an immediate impact on the feedback I’m giving:

    carol
    There are huge implications here. Enough for a whole separate post. But, I will say this – My shift here had less to do with philosophical agreement, because I’m already there, and everything to do with mindset. It was a simple reminder to encourage and instruct more, and correct less.

    My pledge to my students this week was a return to the type of feedback that has everything to do with their next paper. If I do my job and confer with students during the writing process, in an effort to improve the current work, my focus can and should remain on the writer and his/her next paper when I give summative feedback.

The power of wonder moves us forward. The curiosity that surrounds our work is not only necessary to foster in students, but critical to keep our own work fresh, functional, and full of meaning for everyone in the classroom.

What has sparked moves in your thinking or practice this week? Please comment below and share the love through snippet PD. 


Lisa Dennis teaches English and leads a department of incredible English educators at Franklin High School near Milwaukee. Her desire to grow as an educator is only inhibited by the number of classes she can conceivably afford to take, the number of times her daughter wants to re-watch Mary Poppins, and the number of hours in the day. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum 

 

 

News You Can Use

I find most of what’s reported on the news today to be either deeply disturbing, horribly demoralizing, or downright exhausting. It almost feels like the past few months have been less of an end to summer/start of fall and more of an obstacle course of the absurd, obscene, and disappointing.

However, in the unending quest to inform our future electorate, we forge on. Articles of the week, hot topic debates, impassioned student speeches on the criminality of injustice, and an endless stream of quick writes to vent some of the hot, hurt feelings.  Then there are the daily discussions on the struggles we face, the struggles of those we need to know more about, and the struggles to balance it all when sometimes we just want things to feel whatever definition of “better” might help us through.

In the face of all of this, here is a recent success I had that championed choice and voice (coupled with a bit of creative reflection) around some of the news that might get overlooked in the whirlwind of our current news cycle.

News You Can Use

  1. Students selected an article from several that I had re-tweeted in recent weeks with our class hashtag –#fhslanglife. Topics varied widely and I simply went through and briefly highlighted the focus of each article in an effort to pique interest. Here are a few I included. Student response was awesome. We could have easily talked about these articles for the full 86 minute class period:

Are my students reading pieces on the economy, info-graphics, and authors (even authors they love) on their own? Not often. Are they talking with gusto about the relativity of these pieces, sharing insights on author craft, and talking about topics that impact them in the here and now when they are offered up as choice? You bet.

  1. Then, inspired by the Three Teachers Talk Twitter chat earlier this week with Tom Newkirk (#3ttchat), I stole a quick idea (the very foundation of Twitter chats,yes?). I love the quick and dirty nature of professional educators hurling greatness at one another in rapid succession and a maximum of 140 characters. For this week, I was immediately able to implement the single line, or as I told my students, “THAT line. You know the one” craft analysis. Based on the awesome insights of my fellow chatmates, I asked my students to do their reading and zero in on THE sentence that made the piece.

  2. Students read for 10-15 minutes, jotting down reflections and searching for “the one.” Once they were finished, I challenged them to respond in their notebooks in a creative approach they didn’t usually use. A dialogue, letter, poem, etc.

  3. After sitting silently for roughly 30 minutes, I had students get up and connect with someone from the other side of the room. Get the blood flowing a bit. They were to connect with someone who read the same piece and debrief. Ideas flew around the room.

  4. We then came together to share and here is a sampling of what I heard throughout the day:

  • From Ward’s piece on raising her son, Kaitlin pulled out: ” I hope I love him enough in the time I have with him, that while he can be a child, I give him the gifts of a childhood: that I bake chocolate chip cookies and whisper stories to him at bedtime and let him jump in muddy puddles after heavy rains, so he can know what it is to burst with joy. “
  • The info-graphics brought Nhan’s attention to: “We can trace the US story through stereotypes.”
  • After looking over the maps detailing climate change, Karan wrote a dialogue between President Trump and an environmentalist.
  • Several students brought up questions about college vs. career after reading about the jobs of their future.
  • Jerry Khang (who told me to publish his last name so you all know who he is even before he’s famous) read the John Green piece and wrote the following poem in about 4 minutes flat:

Books are a closer look into a person’s soul. 
We find ourselves deteriorating, gloomy, and so dull. 
But when we are able to read, to relate, to medicate our minds, 
We’re temporarily fixated on happiness in a short burst of time. 


When we provide students with relevant, yet challenging reading material, choice, time to write, time to think, and time to talk, 30 seemingly innocent minutes reading an article and writing about it can be beautifully rich, engaging, and rewarding.

And beautiful is something I think we could all desperately use right now.

Lisa Dennis teaches English and leads a department of incredible English educators at Franklin High School near Milwaukee. Her social media scrolling is driven largely by searching for class related articles and pumpkin soup recipes. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum 

Narrative Writing: Giving Voice to the Stories that Matter Most

I’m a fan of literary mic drops. It’s often those last lines of text that make me smile, sigh, or chuck a book across the room. In conjunction with my unending impatience, I often find myself paging ahead to the conclusion of a text to see how the author and I will part ways. What profound bit of wisdom will end the conversation we’ve been having? How will we part? Do I get to hug this book tighter as I read because I know the beautiful place we’re heading together? Have I glimpsed a future I can’t stomach? Do I need to consider ending the relationship early?

Often, I am rewarded:

“Isn’t it pretty to think so?”
“Go, my book, and help destroy the world as it is.” 
“He loved Big Brother.” 
“In a place far away from anyone or anywhere, I drifted off for a moment.”
“All was well.”
“Are there any questions?”
“I wish I felt confident that I have the best words, but I’m glad I wonder whether they’re worth saying” 
“And he was feeling not-unique in the very best possible way.” 

“I don’t know where there is, but I know it’s somewhere, and hope it’s beautiful.” 

haunted

So it goes with my journey alongside Tom Newkirk in his Minds Made for Stories. Spoiler alert, I paged ahead. Spoiler alert, Mr. Newkirk did not disappoint.

In a text deliciously layered with reminders that narrative is the very foundation of our understanding of the world and our place in it, not merely a cute exercise for the early grades, Newkirk ends with:

“But as humans, as time-bound mortals, we must tell stories” (146).

Yes. Humans must tell stories. We must tell stories to explain how we got here, why we need one another, what we’ve suffered and celebrated here. We must tell stories to share who we are, what we need, and where we should never go again.

Creation stories. Quest stories. Comedic stories. Sob your eyes out stories. Monster stories. Our stories. And if our classrooms aren’t the place where these stories are born, or shared, or honored, or revered, where will they gain footing? Where will they take flight? So often, students already feel their ideas aren’t worth much. If we don’t support their experiences, wonderings, and desires to connect to their own humanity (or encourage them to have such desires), who will?

If we are in the business of promoting the beautiful stories of creative thinkers , how can we look at our students and say that their beautiful stories must fit within the constructs of our unit-based curriculum? The stories of our students, their questions, their pain, their searching, must find a home in our classrooms before these same students are convinced that their stories don’t matter. Likewise, if our students are convinced that they must fit their stories into the structural mold that we give them or that the grammatical difficulties therein supersede the story’s worth, our students will continue to be finishers rather than learners, with passions dulled and attention diverted to less complicated or messy endeavors.

In a world of Everything is an Argument a mantra I readily subscribed to when I took over the AP Language and Composition classes at our school almost a decade ago, I needed to read Minds Made for Stories. I needed to remember, as Newkirk says, that narrative is a “property of mind, an innate and indispensable form of understanding, as instinctive as our fear of falling, as our need for human company.” It is “a foundational mode of understanding” (34) that demands so much more attention than it’s afforded as a unit of study or structured paper our students pump out once a year.

In fact, narrative is at the very core of every significant argument and every engaging expository text I’ve ever taught, read, witnessed, or created. Without the drama of human experience, argument falls short and exposition falls flat.

Not long ago, I was listening to a podcast recommended to me by my husband. We were driving home from Lambeau Field, in the pouring rain, after the Packers had lost their first game of the season without Aaron Rodgers, whose broken collarbone will haunt the state of Wisconsin for at least the next nine weeks (See? Narrative).

Anyway, the podcast, Under the Skin, is produced by Russell Brand (stick with me here, I promise we’ll get through this together), who will not be everyone’s cup of tea, but whose brilliance (it was a surprise to me too) extends far beyond raunchy comedy. In this episode, Brand is interviewing Yuval Noah Harari, author of Sapiens: A Brief History Of sapiensHumankind. Throughout this conversation, Harari and Brand explore the idea that life is built on fictional stories that create our nonfiction existence, and if deeply examined provide the cooperative construction for all of civilization as we know it.

Harari hypothesizes that fiction, or in our case narrative, helps determine what the shared goals and values are of a specific group, and thereby their role in or purpose as it relates to society. All of our shared fictions (corporations, money, countries), in other words, are the bedrock of large scale human cooperation.

So if story, whether it be fiction or nonfiction,  is at the very core of who we are, how we interact, what we seek, and what unites or divides us, how can we limit it to a six week unit, the focus of which is a hook to capture the audience, transitions to move seamlessly between chronological points of interest, and the use of narrative techniques as scored on a rubric?

We can’t. It’s unconscionable.

However…we need grades. I get it. I live that too. Gah.

But what Newkirk has awakened within me, with his reminder that narrative is “not simply a structure or plan or outline,” but rather a “deeply embodied invitation to movement” (50), is that narrative needs to be a part of my daily practice and needs to be freed from our check-listed systems of construction. If I am to stroll about my classroom and pontificate on the value of our lives as writers, then I need to provide more opportunity for and reminder of the importance of story within that work. Narrative as a part of all writing, not just a stand alone.

In other words, I can’t on the one hand see the inescapable connection between human experience and our desire to share it, and then tell my students that their narrative writing needs to live neatly in the confines of an MLA formatted page that shall not exceed x number of pages.

Narrative writing needs to weave it’s way into everything we create.

Our students need to be given opportunity to tell stories, their stories and the stories of fellow humans, in a way that connects us to our past, highlights the questions that matter to us in the present, and hopefully provide answers to the issues that will impact our futures.

It can all start with a quick write. In the low stakes freedom that is a blank page in one’s writers notebook. Let students give voice to their stories without the pressure of our expectations and rules. If we value these stories (fiction, nonfiction, fantasy, political opinion, context for expository poetry, and the like), and give them a place to grow, our students will value them too.

-Three Teachers Talk (1)

We as “time-bound humans” must allow narrative to run boundless through our classrooms. If it defines our lives; it must not be relegated to a neatly packaged composition assignment dictated by the Common Core. Rather, it must be woven into our talk, our choice, our writing.

Narrative gives voice to the parts of us that make us human. Let’s give it a more powerful, empathetic, educated, diplomatic, and beautifully crafted voice.


Lisa Dennis teaches English and leads a department of incredible English educators at Franklin High School near Milwaukee. She can’t wait to meet Tom Newkirk in St. Louis at NCTE and have a truly embarrassing fangirl moment. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum 

What Are You Reading?

I don’t know about you, but I have a few things on my plate right now. If the number of tearful, fretted, “I can’t do ALL of this” conversations I’ve had in the last few weeks are any indication, your plates are pretty full too.

Teaching does not look kindly on a work/life balance, and I’ve spent 15 years trying. And while minimizing these very real demands on our time doesn’t make any of them go away, take less time, or command less of our attention, I personally could use a little check-in on my reading life.

The first few weeks of school, when establishing a workshop routine in my classroom, I teach students about the brain benefits of reading, the academic benefits of reading, the stress reduction associated with reading, and then…I find myself struggling to find time to read. Well, that’s not true. I find the time, and then I fall asleep. No book is to blame. It’s me. I’m tired. I also feel that I can confidently speak for most of you, in that you’re tired too.

What we need, in my humble opinion is a little book club-esque support. I often have my students quickly share with each other what they are reading in order to promote expanding community around a reading life, provide opportunities to grow our classroom libraries through bankruptcy inducing book purchases, and just talk about books to build excitement around books. It’s fast, it’s easy, and for bibliophiles like you and me, it’s exciting.

Now it’s our turn.

I’ll start:

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I’m reading Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, and it is SO good. Dystopian in a fresh way (ironic when related to a worldwide flu pandemic!), this story weaves together the lives of several intriguing characters across decades, miles, before the fall of world civilization, and after.

I’m loving the author’s style as she reveals details to start a chapter, but jumps back in time to provide the context. This book is uplifting, soul-crushing, page-turning literature. Seriously…it makes me realize that my full plates might  not be so bad after all, if the alternative is the Georgia flu which arrives on a plane from Moscow and wipes out 99% of the world’s population.

Your turn! Let’s talk about books! #3TTReads

  1. You can comment below

  2. Post a comment on our Facebook page

  3. Tweet your current read and/or a photo of your own shelfie on Twitter, @3TeachersTalk with #3TTReads

Can’t wait to catch a glimpse of your reading lives!


Lisa Dennis teaches English and leads a department of incredible English educators at Franklin High School near Milwaukee. Along with Station Eleven, Lisa is finally reading Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. It is her sincere belief that we become better readers two books at a time. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum 

If These Walls Could Talk

We spend eight hours a day (Ha! Nine? Ten? Should I just sleep here?) in our classrooms.

Four walls, seating for 30 (Ha! 3img_66735? 78? Does flexible seating come in bunk style these days?), and an endless array of inquisitive minds, needs, and beliefs.

At Three Teachers, we speak with full hearts and buzzing minds about the opportunities that Readers and Writers workshop afford. From choice to challenge, talk to Twitter, and many, many elements in between, we explore, question, wrestle with, and embrace the opportunities that come with relinquishing control over a classroom to instead move together with our students as readers and writers.

As I look around my classroom this year, full of some familiar components (budget-busting classroom library, inspirational posters touting the beauty of words and books, and my space age rolling furniture), I also see evidence of my growth as a workshop teacher.

So, in much the same way that one might suggest that it’s what’s on the inside that counts, the following suggests some of the ideas I’ve collected from great workshop teachers, Twitter searches, fellow colleagues, and my professional reading over the summer to reflect the beliefs of our community and what we value as readers and writers:

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I’ve completely abandoned any traditional rules in the classroom. On the first day of school, I joke with kids about their vast knowledge of how to “play the game of school.” As long as we can, as high school students, keep from putting gum in each other’s hair, we can focus on the more important “rules” that will guide our philosophy of learning and engagement. These rules from Amy Fast, are referenced each and every day. Mostly rule #2. We need a LOT of work there. 

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I am NOT an artist, by any means. In the past, I’ve let this limit what I try to do when it comes to anchor charts in my room. NO MORE! With a projector and pencil, I am tracing my way to borderline copyright infringement (Don’t worry, I promise not to try and sell them). This beauty comes from the Disrupting Thinking by Kylene Beers and Robert Probst, which rocked my world over the summer. I wanted my students to have a solid reminder of what their books, brains, and hearts mean to their reading. We refer to this chart that I found through Google Images almost daily. 

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Giving students a place to share what moves them in their reading means we have a constant reminder of the power of words, and motivation to write as we reflect on the great beauty we find through the published word. This reading graffiti poster illustrates the baby steps my students are taking to feel comfortable in sharing what speaks to their hearts and minds while reading. Once I finally broke the seal and put a quote up myself (Thank you, as ever, Patrick Ness), students have added insights such as “When you tell a lie, you steal a man’s right to the truth” and “You can’t take it with you, right?!”I love the brave souls who are sharing their reading lives with us without even being asked. 

The back wall is a revolving homage to mentor text study. Early in the year, my sophomores started their study of narrative by emulating Kelly Norman Ellis’s poem Raised by Women.” These days, creations from my AP Language students grace the walls. They utilized authentic informative writing in the creation of biographies modeled after the work of James Gulliver Hancock in Artists, Writers, Thinkers, Dreamers.

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In the space behind my desk, I have inspirational words that help frame my work each day, provided by people that I love and respect. I have pictures of my family, notes of gratitude from students, and art from my daughter Ellie. I am a firm believer that as a reader and a writer in the room, my story matters too. I love to share with students how the belief that we can always improve, grow in reflection, and benefit from a positive attitude, can shape their experience in English class each day. 


Our classrooms, both full of students, and basically empty, suggest who we are as teachers. I love what mine says about the work we do everyday in the workshop.

What does your classroom say about your workshop journey? Please share in the comments below!

 


Lisa Dennis teaches English and leads a department of incredible English educators at Franklin High School near Milwaukee. One of her classroom walls is painted in a burnt orange color. It’s fall all year. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum 

Blackout Poetry with a Twist

Early in the school year, I’m always on the lookout for new ways to gather diagnostic data on my students, without uttering the words diagnostic, data, quiz, baseline, or any other term that reduces my students to plot points on a spreadsheet or numbers in the gradebook.

We know the power of conferring in learning about our students in countless ways, but what to do when, say as an AP teacher, we need to know students’ understanding of analysis terms or their ability to apply those terms in order to really dig into authentic analysis through study of mentor texts?

The idea of a vocabulary quiz makes me shutter. Conferring long enough with each student to get a good understanding of his/her knowledge of syntax, imagery, figurative language, etc. would take weeks. Submitting annotations on our first go-around seems cruel to both students and to me.

So this year, my colleague Sarah and I decided to try something different. We wanted an understanding of how students would go about identifying the purpose of a piece and img_6137provide appropriate text evidence of the basic terminology of analysis: syntax, imagery, diction, figurative language, and detail. We wanted students to use their left and their right brains. We wanted to students to work together to solve a problem.

Enter, the blackout poem.

Traditionally, black out poetry makes meaning out of the words provided by a single page of text. Whether it be from a book, article, essay, etc., a poem is created from the words that live on the page by blacking out all other words and leaving just the ones that create meaning for your given purpose. Additional images are sometimes included.

We decided to turn this upside down a bit. Students would create their page of text from the text evidence they pulled from their reading (In this case, their choice of Mary Roach books from our summer homework assignment) and a poem to illustrate their claim of purpose from that reading.

And this, is some of what we got:

Below, are the steps we took in guiding students through this unique assignment. It could work for jut about any reading, and I would love to try it when students have read a variety of perspectives on a given topic.

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  1. Students read their choice of Mary Roach books over the summer and kept track of instances where they felt she purposefully utilized DIDLS (Detail, Imagery, etc.).
  2. We then partnered up or formed groups of three to discuss what we found and what we thought it meant. We were working toward specific purpose claims for each text.
  3. Students shared examples of the various instances of craft from Roach’s texts and as they did so, they typed those quotes onto a shared Google document. Their final task with that original quote document was to decide on a claim of purpose for the text(s) they read.
  4. Once finished, students printed that document of quotes so I could take a look. I’ll use it as a jumping off point for review that’s needed with specific elements of analysis.
  5. The kids then eliminated all of the formatting for their quote document, so they were left with a page full of quotes from their texts. Essentially, they created the page of text for their blackout poem, instead of using an existing one from the book.
  6. We then talked about how to communicate their claims of purpose poetically. Simply finding the words from their purpose was not going to be poetic, it was going to sound like a thesis. We brainstormed ways to convey the purpose through related ideas and involve more imagery, figurative language, etc. in our own work.
  7. Finally, we put the poems under the document camera and each group explained their claim for Roach’s purpose in the text, how it influenced their poem, and read their work to us. We snapped at the end of each reading.

I love that this work got students talking about a text, using text evidence, attacking an assignment with both sides of their brains, and enthusiastically supporting one another’s work by sharing with the class. Their creations went well beyond finding and explaining examples, to creation. Poetry from nonfiction for the win.


Lisa Dennis teaches English and leads a department of incredible English educators at Franklin High School near Milwaukee. Her favorite insight from Mary Roach (courtesy of the book Gulp) is that our mouths fill up with saliva before we vomit in order to protect our teeth. We have so much acid in our stomachs that our teeth would be irreparably damaged when we puke, if our saliva didn’t protect them. Science. Incredible. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum 

 

 

 

 

#TwitterTeacher

I’m late to the party. This I know. But my enthusiasm for this soirée is genuine, and it fueled some of my first day success.

In an effort to build community as quickly as possible this school year, and to get to know our students a bit over the summer, my colleague Sarah Sterbin and I decided to add some technological play to our AP Language summer homework. Using the hashtag #fhslanglife, students were asked to share their reading life twitter4throughout the summer.

They could snap photos of their trips to the bookstore, their feet in the sand and a book in their hands, and their smiling faces reading the summer away.

They could quip about quotes from required and choice reading, make suggestions to peers on what to read next, comment on the insights of others, follow my reading adventures, and the list goes on.

As often happens with open ended assignments, we got a wide variety of participation. Tweets ebbed and flowed throughout the summer, but each time a student posted, I made it a priority to comment, retweet, like, and/or tag an author to promote connections across the world of reading. When Ishmael Beah, Allen Eskens, and Matthew Desmond interact with your students over the summer, I call that a solid win for starting to build readers and a community with enthusiasm around reading.

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On the very first day of school, and in the few days that followed, as we quickly collected summer work, set down to work with a quick writes, set up writers’ notebooks, organized editorial speeches for our first speaking opportunity, and took in the surroundings of our room, I asked students to use our hashtag to share their excitement about the work ahead. I love what they chose to share.

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Tweeting is a quick and easy way to build community. I sometimes display current tweets our daily PowerPoint/Syllabus to keep the movement afoot, and I love to hear students’ reactions as they come in the room to see their humor, insights, and recommendations on the big screen.

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How do you use social media to promote reading and writing lives? Please leave your brilliant ideas in the comments below!


Lisa Dennis teaches English and leads a department of incredible English educators at Franklin High School near Milwaukee. Her latest tweet suggests that she thinks about reading 24/7. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum 

Build It Brick by Brick

In a sea of back-to-school positivity (well-founded) and hoopla (well-intentioned), I often feel overwhelmed and ill-prepared.

Blame a jam-packed teacher preparation week, a summer of mindfulness that limited a deep dive into my lesson plan book, procrastination, denial, or crippling avoidance in the face of too many awesome options. I’m stressed out. Already. And tired.

Honestly, most of it is that last option. I do pretty constantly think about teaching. Ways to improve my content base, opportunities to more deeply understand my students, and countless resources to pour through in order to refine lessons all populate my summer.foolish How then does it all seem to come crashing down so quickly? Where does that raw enthusiasm for “the new” become wide-eyed, survival-mode, toss-me-a-life-jacket exhaustion?

It reminds me of those early days of parenthood. When you are “supposed” to feel overwhelming joy and revel in the breathless beauty that is a new and precious life, but few (if any) people prepare you for just how emotionally and psychologically challenging the change can be. When compounded with minimal sleep, mounds of self-applied pressure to be brilliant, and the feeling that every decision is make or break, you’re never very far from the edge.

So, just as parents want little more in those early days than to do right by their kids, teachers want to start the year by forging relationships, making connections, and presenting students with opportunities to learn that they can’t refuse. We want to learn their names, find them the best books, spark their enthusiasm with the perfect discussion question, change a life with the first kind smile. I’m a bit tired just typing it. However, stop someone on the street and say, “This new school year has me exhausted already,” and I would imagine they would be tempted to remind you of June, July, and August. But, the struggle is real.

I’m here this morning with a quick reminder. A reminder that I too need to hear as I furiously capture moments of a student bio gallery walk to share on Twitter, check in scads of summer homework, collaborate on new curriculum with multiple colleagues, adjust to a new schedule, less sleep, and more stress:

Rome wasn’t build in a day, but they were laying bricks every hour. 

Our work at the start of the year is certainly important. It’s foundational. That said, it doesn’t matter if it’s year one or year thirty-seven, remember to breath, remember to rest, and remember that our students are overwhelmed at the start of the year too. They need a bit of ease, understanding, and comforting as much as we might.

Epictetus once said, “If you want to improve, be content to be thought foolish and stupid.” I might add that one should be content to be exhausted as well, but loving students is exhausting. Most things that we truly value demand much more from us and are thereby far more valuable in the end.

Hang in there, friends. We’re in this together, and the mission is worth every ounce of weary we might be feeling.


Lisa Dennis teaches English and leads a department of incredible English educators at Franklin High School near Milwaukee. She currently misses long afternoon naps, but squeezes in catnaps here and there, on her couch, under a book, and with her eyes open during stoplight stops. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum 

Get Your Story on the Page

Get Your Story on The Page (1)

Once upon a time, in a land of equality and compassion…

Attention! Do not open! Live snakes inside…

To the Love of My Life, It is with regret that I must inform you…

The power of the written word to change our perspectives, alter our actions, stir our hearts, and change our lives are just some of the reasons we all work to teach authentic writing with such passion, urgency, and unwavering commitment.

We reach out to our students with mentors, craft study, low-stakes writing, and the call to put their hearts on the page, because we firmly believe that writing can empower, enlighten, and embolden their lives as it has ours.

I am so proud to hold up as evidence, the guest posts on this blog from the past two days. If you’ve not had “beginning of the year, crazy teacher-presession days, I’m trying to learn 172 names, you’ll find me in a corner weeping” time to read those two posts, I cannot recommend that you take the time more highly.

Charles Moore and Megan Thompson, both teachers from flood-ravaged Houston, tell their stories of the start of a school year that will alter their lives and the lives of their students forever. The posts are honest, raw, vulnerable, and everything we ask out students to put on the page from day one. They are informative, persuasive, and narrative at its best, because they come from a place of true connection between content and humanity.

Often, especially at the beginning of the year, I will hear students say, “I just don’t know what to write.” And I hear that. In the face of powerful mentor texts about tragedy, inequality, injustice, and the raw realities of life, it can sometimes feel like my words on the page are very, very small in comparison.

However, this is where our students need the most support. They need to know that their words put on paper are uniquely theirs and that they are important. They fulfill the timeless desire of humanity to express, convince, and connect.

As we get to know our students this year, I think it’s equally important to get to know them well enough to intelligently hand them books to move their reading lives forward AND to get to know them well enough to coax out of them the true stories they have to tell.

We’ll work all year to fine tune the telling of those stories (mini lessons, craft study, feedback galore), but my goal very early in this school year is going to be to help my students get to know themselves right along with me as I get to know them and to help them see that the desire to communicate has always been within them. Regardless of their live experiences, the wonderings of their minds and the musings of their hearts are great voices we need to help students tune back into.

When I got home this past Tuesday, after a twelve hour day of pre-session and open house, my daughter Ellie (age four) was just getting tucked into bed. As I sat down next to her bed and soaked up her barrage of hugs, she smiled broadly and told me she had left something under my pillow that I needed to go get right away.

When I returned to Ellie’s room with the slip of paper below, my four-year old read me a story of about two minutes in length that explained all the markings on the page. It detailed her day img_5459while I was away, her desires to have me stay home so she could hug me whenever she wanted, several additional expressions of love, and a suggestion that we get ice cream this weekend with gummy bears on top. Signed with her name, it was one of the first pieces of evidence I have of her desire to tell her story on the page.

We learn first how to write our names. And when we learn this skill it’s to take ownership of our ideas. To take pride in the sharing of what we’ve created. We can’t let our students lose this. As their skills grow, and they learn all the additional letters to organize into words that tell what they feel, what they need, and what they want others to know, we must validate that exploratory writing in order to encourage it to continue.

It starts so early, this need to share ourselves with ideas and feelings that can’t always be said, and it is up to us as the teachers of these darling children coming of age, to remind them of the power that a page of their ideas with their name at the top can hold, if only they take the time to make those ideas deeply felt and deeply honest.

This school year, as we teach the particulars of the craft of writing, let us remember to encourage our students to share what they need to. Let us encourage them to share what they might not even know/remember is in their hearts and minds, and that it’s important.

We owe it to ourselves and to our students to make our writing instruction about more than answering the prompt, getting it over with, and/or filling a page requirement. Remember the deep desire humans have in expressing ourselves, putting our unique voices in print, and (should we chose) sharing that tiny piece of ourselves with others.

Students may hesitate, but their stories matter. Let’s get them on paper.


Lisa Dennis teaches English and leads a department of incredible English educators at Franklin High School near Milwaukee.  Follow her developing story on Twitter @LDennibaum 

 

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