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Category Archives: Lisa

Where Dioramas Go to Die

I picked up my first pedagogy book of the year this week and I can’t put it down. Disrupting Thinking by Kylene Beers and Robert Probst is living up to its name. It’s 1950’s Louise Rosenblatt Reader Response Theory meets a desperate modern need to educate kids to be responsible consumers of information in order to compassionately embrace the viewpoints of others.

The first few chapters have felt like the perfect “Now what?” for someone that has recently made the move to workshop.

My kids are choosing what they read. Now what? 

I’m devoting class time for students to build this habit. Now what? 

My students are reading more and more. Now what? 

The “now what” is to really think about the how and why we read. The text details insights on building responsive, responsible, and compassionate readers who will interact with a text, rather than just extract from it, question the text, and open themselves up to the text in order to see other points of view.

Cue the angelic choir and parting clouds. I’m ready.

But, I am also guilty of not always facilitating this type of reader response. Not on purpose, of course, but just out of difficulty in dealing with the daily grind.

We read. We talk. We mini lesson. We write. We rearrange the order. We repeat.

However, somewhere in there, we also lose a lot of readers. The once enthusiastic elementary kids, with their literal cartwheels about books, often come to us as vacant vessels of readicide. How does this happen? Beers and Probst suggest that “we have made reading a painful exercise for kids. High-stakes tests, Lexile levels, searches for evidence, dialogic notes, and sticky notes galore – we have demanded of readers many things we would never do ourselves while reading. We have sticky-noted reading to death” (46).

Now, ironically, I’ve written quite a few sticky notes around the insights in this book…postitI like to organize my thoughts this way. And, in no way am I suggesting that pulling ideas from a text is malpractice. At the end of the day, of course we need students to think deeply about their reading and demonstrate that thought through talk, written reflection, and/or analysis of some kind.

But what is appropriate? What is too much? What kills a desire to read as opposed to igniting it?

In search of some renewed inspiration, Disrupting Thinking had me laughing out loud as it got me thinking about why and how I interact with texts:

Seriously, as you finished the book you most recently enjoyed, did you pause, hold the book gently in your hands and say to yourself, ‘This time, this time, I think I’ll make a diorama’?…Do you write summaries of what you read, make new book jackets, rewrite the ending, take tests over every text? Any text? Do you want your reading level put on a bulletin board for all to see. Do you even know your damn reading level? (Beers & Probst 46)

So, how do we balance professional responsibility, a love of content, a desire to build up students as readers and writers, and the knowledge that a lot of what we’ve done (or still do) in our classrooms actually exhausts, irritates, and/or alienates our students from reading?

Unfortunately, I don’t have all the answers. This is a reflective process in action.

What I do know, is that Disrupting Thinking has me…thinking about it. A lot. It also has me vowing to put a few things into practice and promote a few others in my classroom:

  1. Promote Responsive Readers through more and more opportunities to talk about choice books. I’m guilty of still trying to “make sure kids are reading,” when in fact, most often, they are cutting corners in that reading if we are trying to “catch” them. Book clubs, conferring, and talk through reflective notebook writing promote low stakes opportunities to share insights on texts.  With mentor texts to support skill instruction, the thinking can be applied to choice reading, but doesn’t necessarily mean that I should be looking to choice reading as a summative data point.
  2. Promote Responsible Readers by working to find a balance between supporting/celebrating reading and “holding students accountable.” This is an imperfect science to be sure. I find that the more I talk with students one on one, the more they have to say, and the more I can directly intervene to move them forward to more challenging books, deepen their understanding of why I want them to keep reading in the first place, and celebrate their successes as independent readers. Save the evaluation for skills based cold reads when the curriculum demands the assessment we as teachers need, while keeping in mind that many students don’t see those assessments as their responsibility to reading, and I would argue, nor should they.
  3. Promote Compassionate Readers, again, through talk. When I read something that is changing my perspective on the world, myself, or life in general, I want to share that with someone. I want to share that with many someones. I also know, that to grow in my reading life, I need to read a wide variety of books…books that challenge my long held beliefs and understandings (or misunderstandings) of the world. Again, this is where helping students to diversify their reading lives is so very important.
  4. Talk, Talk, Talk! I’ve been asking my students two questions this week to drive their book club discussions: How is this changing me? How is this changing my view of the world? These two questions invite personal connection and reflection. I can’t wait to hear my AP students’ book club discussions!

Lisa Dennis teaches English and leads a department of incredible English educators at Franklin High School near Milwaukee. Her thinking has been disrupted and she’s loving it. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum 

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Learning from One Another – Professional Development is Everywhere

As high school cliques go, I was never a part of the “cool kids” group. I loitered around the exterior, occasionally granted access to view what went on behind the curtain, but knowing people who know people didn’t really make much of a difference in terms of obtaining a season pass to all things elite.

I was a somewhat lovable dork, voted most compassionate of my high school class (please read this amazing post about being nice vs. being kind, because I was far too nice in high school), content to spend time laughing with my band geek friends and the ever flexible crowd made up of people who really tried not to care what went on at the “totally awesome” parties thrown by people too important to acknowledge the existence of 92% of their graduating class.

Now, in retrospect, I was saved from many things:  painful experiences that would have blown my sheltered innocence far before I could handle it, drama related to pecking order and perceived slights over social class, Gatsby-esque flaps fueled by alcohol and beautiful shirts.

These days, in the professional world, having a collaborative group that functions supportively, creatively, cohesively, also has many benefits reminiscent of those true friends from years past who helped get me through, helped raise me up, helped make me better. The teachers in my department are simply amazing, and I am lucky to have a season pass to be a part of their cool.

Across the profession, some of us meet weekly (or more often) in PLC meetings. Some of us meet in spare moments after school, chance encounters in the hallway, and Google hangout planning sessions. Some of us befriend the teacher next door and talk shop at all hours. It’s about growing as professionals, even when it’s sometimes just about what we’re all “doing tomorrow.”

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However, growing as a professional, these days, can also mean connections that are far from the traditional and learning that comes from very surprising places. In these trying professional times, to be a teacher requires hits of rejuvenation whenever and wherever we can get them.

Take, for example, Shana’s post from last week on her professional development enthusiasm and the message she shared with 3TT. I listened to her message and hurriedly wrote down two ideas I wanted to try right away.

That is the magic of connecting with other professionals: learning (or reviewing) what can bring back (or sustain) the spark that every classroom teacher needs in order to weather the slings and arrows of our craft.

Those sessions where you fill up page after page of quotes, insights, lesson ideas, tips, and tricks. Where you are the cool kid, not because you’ve adjusted who you are in any way, but because you have built up who you are and what you do.

Over the course of this year, I have come to see professional development as something that is happening every surprising moment, from all possible angles. pd2

Below, some reminders (that I myself needed this year) of how empowering learning is. If we forget about, resist, or otherwise close ourselves off to new ideas, review of what works, or even the very basics of our craft (Let me hear you : teachers must be readers and writers or we are in the business of false advertising) what unfortunate hypocrisy we make of what we purport to do each and every day.

Embracing PD Opportunities Based on Your Needs

Whether it’s to pursue an advanced degree, get continuing education credits, fulfill a district initiative, or to explore a topic of interest, professional development can be hugely invigorating to daily practice (It can also be a flop and/or downright insulting, but that’s for another post).

For example, I am typing this blog post today, because I was in need. I needed support to help make the move to workshop and to lead my department through that move. I Google searched “readers and writers workshop,” started reading the 3TT blog, emailed Amy to ask her a million questions, and then insisted to my district that 3TT needed to come for professional development in Franklin. It was some of the most authentic PD I’ve received in fourteen years of teaching.

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Sometimes, it can feel like professional development gets overwhelming. We have professional development opportunities at staff meetings, during mandatory extra hours outside of the school day, and in order to fulfill countless professional expectations of record keeping, curriculum development, and reflection.

However, through professional development organized by and for teachers, we learn from those who know best and know now because they are in the trenches. Seek out professional development for yourself that speaks to the needs you feel need to be met in your classroom.

Creating a PLC with Students 

Sheridan lingered after class yesterday. She’s actually the inspiration for this entire post.

Shyly, she asked if it would be alright to share an article with me. “I ran across this article yesterday while I was looking for something else and it intrigued me so much that I read it.”

With a smile on my face I said, “What were you looking for?”

She laughed, “I don’t even know. I never found it! But I think you’ll like this, so I’ll send it to you.”

What arrived was a link to a Washington Post article from a few years back. Alexis Wiggins, the daughter of Grant Wiggins (of Understanding By Design fame), is also an educator and had shadowed a student for several days. Her takeaways in this article about what students experience every day hit home with me in a big way.
Not because her insights were new or because they would change everything I do on a daily basis, but for two reasons.

The ideas were a reminder of a perspective that often falls away in the face of daily routine and that reminder was shared with me by a student of my own.

Sheridan in no way was looking to make me feel bad, but she did exactly what I tell my kids that reading, sharing, and reflecting should do : remind us of what we need to make a priority each day.

Wiggins research on students needing to feel valued, engaged, and physically and mentally present isn’t new to me, but the article was the best kind of professional development: Kid centered, kid inspired, immediately applicable to my classroom.

Look for, solicit, or otherwise beg students to share with you what is making them think. Direct them to places like Austin Kleon’s newsletter or Arts and Letters Daily, so they can study new and unique ideas, talk about those insights in class, connect them to current learning, and expand your repertoire of resources, insights, and enthusiasm.

 

Hanging with the Cool Kids

Expanding our definitions of professional develop can also be hugely beneficial.

You’re doing it already, you know. Reading this blog. Reading other blogs, following educational news, getting active in political topics that weigh on our schools, our kids, and our jobs.

Go even further:

  • Follow the English rockstars on social media– Kittle, Gallagher, Newkirk, Morrell, Miller, Anderson, just to name a few.
  • Like the Facebook pages of authors your students love – I’ve had Angie Thomas and Matthew Quick like posts my students and I wrote just in the past few weeks.
  • Tag big names in your posts – Opening your insights or questions up to a wider pd3audience.
  • Jump on Twitter chats –  You don’t ever even need to comment, if you don’t want to. You can just read, click on links to other great articles/insights/lessons, and remain anonymous. You can watch a chat as it’s happening, or follow a hashtag back to a conversation that’s already happened and read through what was said. Here is a link to scheduled Twitter chats that educators might find value in.

Keep learning intentionally.

Not only will you open yourself to an even wider world of resources, insights, opinions, and discussion, but sometimes, you’ll hear personally from these teaching megastars, and let this fangirl tell you, that discipleship can take you all the way back to that thrilling peek behind the curtain of the cool kids.

What professional development opportunities have you found most beneficial to your career? Whether it be attendance at a national conference or stalking a Twitter chat, we’d love to have you join the conversation in the comments below! 


Lisa Dennis teaches English and leads a department of incredible English educators at Franklin High School near Milwaukee. Her favorite pens for note taking during professional development are Paper Mate Flair pens in a variety of colors. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum 

None of the Above: A Bubble-Free Final Exam

Remember Scantrons tests? The filling in of bubbles at semester’s end in order to prove your worth as a scholar? Many of my anxiety-cloaked memories of high school involve those hideous little forms, a No. 2 pencil, and hours spent hurriedly filling in bubbles to demonstrate my multiple choice understanding of the world.

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Once upon a time, I took this type of test. Early in my career, I gave them. Currently, I hate them. Or rather, as this is a company name I certainly wouldn’t dream of defaming, I hate the concept of a test format that negates creativity, deep thinking, or conveyance of personal connection to learning. While admittedly easy to grade, I don’t recall the last multiple choice test that left me satisfied with the assessment in any way.

Now, before I get myself in hot water, both with Scantron and my fellow teachers, there are realities associated with multiple choice testing that are inescapable, and if we want students to be prepared for the high stakes testing they will certainly encounter as a means to pass AP tests, seek admission to college, and succeed on many college campuses, then we must do our part in preparing students for this type of assessment and thinking. Applied Practice tests, for example, challenge students to dig into a passage and deeply analyze the author’s craft and style. That skill development and demonstration is a wonderful tool.

However, this post is about the opportunities presented to us as educators as we look to the end of a grading term and search for ways to have students think critically about their cumulative learning, their growth as readers and writers, and the

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Bailey’s reading insight.

connections they’ve made throughout our time together that will move them forward as educated citizens.

Many of these thoughts started well before my work with workshop when several years ago, our administrative team organized a committee to discuss our practices around final exams. Scheduling, format, exemptions, and weighting were all on the table. My biggest takeaway from those reflections?

I wanted my final exams to be reflective of student thought, synthesis, growth, and accomplishment to this point. In other words, I didn’t want any part of our “final” exam to be final in any way except that it would happen to be our last assessment together.

In other words, a final exam should showcase rather than stifle.

It should be an opportunity.

In years past, a multiple choice test showed a student’s regurgitated knowledge of the texts we had read and the literary movements we had studied. A written portion challeneged skills in supporting claims, sometimes providing text evidence, and timed writing.

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Amelia’s reading takeaway.

Again, these are valid and necessary skills to prepare students for future academic endeavors. Personally, however, I have grown to believe that if a paper isn’t going to receive some feedback, it’s power and purpose are lessened, or even negated.

 

We want students to grow as readers and writers throughout the year. This should include their final assessment opportunities as well.

exam 1With that in mind, my colleagues and I have worked hard over the years to provide more authentic assessment opportunities for students to demonstrate their growth during final exams.

Portfolios have replaced timed papers. Graded discussions have replaced short answer questions. Reflective speeches, projects, and writing have replaced bubble tests. And, with the advent of workshop, choice reading reflection has become my go-to.

In January, the teachers in my Honors English 10 collaborative group, organized an opportunity for our students to share the insights gleaned from an entire semester of choice reading. I was so excited by the project that I added some additional symbolic and reflective elements to it and used it with my AP Language students as well.

Students reflect on the texts

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A reflection from Josh.

they have read throughout the course of the term, select meaningful passages from that reading (many had been marking key quotes in their notebooks throughout the year), and give a talk about how the reading changed, moved, and/or developed their thinking with the support of visual cues and quotes to provide context for their ideas.

Illustrations of such deep thought include:

  • Abby learned that “we all struggle, but it’s how we handle those struggles that truly defines our character.” 
  • Errin suggested that “our world is only as vast as our perspectives allow it to be.” 
  • Tahseen claimed that “books help me solve the problems in my life.” 
  • Bailey, in his infinite wisdom buoyed by the most sincere character, pled with the class to not “let ignorance blind you. Knowing ignorance is necessary to keep creating and learning.”
  •  Rachel said we must “know yourself and use that knowledge to go out and know the world.” 

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Some student samples from Amelia and Josh

As the time for final exam planning in at hand once again, here is a link to the project. Use it as a springboard for your own great reflective projects and encourage kids to once again see the value of the choice reading they have completed this year.

How have your finals evolved? What will your students be doing to wrap up the year? Please share in the comments. 


Lisa Dennis teaches English and leads a department of incredible English educators at Franklin High School near Milwaukee. She fondly remembers dabbing chapstick on her Scantron to try and fool the machine. This was during her rebellious streak, which lasted about four days. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum 

Want to Be a Better Teacher? Pick up a Book.

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Confession time. Who is with me?

Not long ago, only a few years I’m ashamed to say, I was not the reader I once had been.

I was not really a reader at all.

In that respect, I think I was much like many of our students. A formerly voracious reader with vague intentions of spending more time with good books, but I never quite found that time. I found excuses instead.

I didn’t want to read because “I read all day. All I do is read. Paper after paper after paper. I don’t want to read one more word.” 

I didn’t want to read because “There are far more important things I need to do now. Plan, grade, have a life. If I get half a second to myself, reading isn’t top on my list.” 

I didn’t want to read because “I have plenty of time to read over the summer.” 

I was burned out by work. I was betrayed by years of being told what was important for me to read. I was shackled to loving the books I was teaching.

I had become a reluctant reader.

In this way, it would seem, I was also a complete fraud.

Every day, I would walk into my classroom with genuine passion for my role as an educator. I wanted my students to learn. I wanted them to be inspired by great stories and turns of phrase. If only they would connect with language in the way that made my heart flutter, they too would see the great romantic quest that is English. 

A noble pursuit, to be sure…if one is aiming to enlist 200 some students per year into the ranks of English teachers, the chances of which are as dismal as they are ridiculous.

It wasn’t until I pulled my head out of my well meaning behind that I looked around and really saw what I was creating:

A classroom set to run on my love of a select number of texts. A failing endeavor for countless kids in my classroom.

Trust me. If enthusiasm and/or passion for certain texts was capable of making life long lovers of the written word, I humbly submit that I would have been able to do it.

Daisy’s love of Gatsby’s beautiful shirts, pales in comparison to my love of the irony presented in Nick’s claims not to judge.

Pip’s love of Estella pales in comparison to my love of the tragedy that is Miss Havisham’s crushed soul and engulfed bridal gown.

Two roads diverging in a yellow wood present endless possibilities…to me.

The Lady of Shallot is my patroness.

But which kids does this really hook? The students who are likewise entertained and thereby worthy of my continued energy? The students who will “become something” because they “get it”? The students who are compliant? The students who can successfully fake compliance?

love the books I taught, year in and year out, but you can’t make someone love you, I mean the books you teach (flashback to college there, please excuse me), you can only share your love and encourage your passion for the texts. My passion for the whole class novels we worked with was legitimate, palpable, and just not enough to reach all of my students.

Not unless I helped them see themselves as readers first.

I was far too narrowly focused on the texts I had been told were important and had set about making it my job to make students believed in the importance of those texts too.

And along the way, I stopped reading everything else. Well, not completely. Of course, I still read, but I was no longer a reader. I talked with my students about the difference in those two terms, but I was no longer living it.

I wasn’t until workshop and choice became a big part of my daily practice, that I really returned to my life as a reader. Students would need recommendations for books, which meant I needed to have a lot more under my belt that The Scarlet Letter.

However, this is only part of what it means to improve your teaching by reading.

Our students deserve teachers who understand and live the belief that teaching students to read is vitally important, but so is living the life of a reader and being that model of just how many books, genres, conflicts, poems, and symbolic representations of universal themes (sometimes old school dies hard) can be found beyond the canon.

And that making time to read changes who you are in so many powerful and meaningful ways.

These days, the books I know, love, and share are still classic, in some respects, but they are far more broad than that as well.

I’ve learned the following:

Taking time to read is not cheating

If you are grading so many papers that you can’t imagine picking up a book in your freetime, you are grading far too many papers. Small changes in practice can lift that burden and provide much needed time to connect with texts that you can then share with students.

The tried and true are a springboard

Workshop does not mean abandoning all of the texts you’ve worked with over the years. It means making pointed decisions about your belief in the value of whole class novel work, selecting authors to study for craft through mentor text work instead of reading the whole text together, and moving students to some of the more challenging and classic pieces when they are ready. Build readers and then lay the likes of Bronte, Tennyson, and Plath on them. As options. As texts to achieve, rather than endure.

Without a book(s) in your hand and heart, you are cheating

You are cheating yourself and you are cheating your students. I get so excited to book talk new texts, share audiobook snippets with my students, sit down and read next to them, and even to tell them their summative essays will be returned one day later, because I couldn’t put down The Underground Railroad. Students get excited to then share their own reading, in a way that is only really ever achieved because it’s their reading.

When we share our vast and varied reading life, as opposed to saying these are the few books that matter, we are giving students the opportunity to build the love of reading that captures their hearts and minds with high interest material. Yes, we English teachers find Keats to be a master. Many students, with little reading background, find him infuriating and a reason to suggest that “reading is stupid.”

We must give our students time to read every day.

We must talk about books every day.

We must talk with our students about books everyday.

We must read alongside our students.

We must be readers…otherwise, we are in the business of false advertising.


Lisa Dennis teaches English and leads a department of incredible English educators at Franklin High School near Milwaukee. She is currently reading A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backmanlistening to At the Water’s Edge by Sara Gruen, and regretting never having read 13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher. She’ll be taking care of that later this week. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum 

Keep Talking! Discussion with a Twist, a Tweet, and a Terrifically Fast Pace

While we’re on the topic of talk (please see Jessica’s fantastic insights on discussion techniques that build confidence and community), I humbly piggyback off of yesterday’s post to bring you a few more talk ideas.

Some fresh.
Some fun.
Some follow-up.

Rotating Symbol Discussion:

On Wednesday, I made reference to helping prepare my AP students for their test, by keeping our discussions focused on the real world. So…test prep as a natural byproduct to authentic discussion.

We were wrapping up our unit on Community, and I borrowed a discussion technique from my bestie Erin, that I have now fallen in love with. It was fast paced, kept kids engaged (as they not only participated in the moment, but had to be ready to get called into the conversation at any time), and really honed skills of building dialogue, as opposed to just reporting an idea around a circle.

Here’s how it goes:

Students enter the room and randomly receive a card with a symbol on it. I explained that the symbol would determine their small groups (4-5 people). Throughout the course talk3of the class period, we used our essential question (What is the individual’s responsibility to the community?) to guide a discussion. I used PowerPoint slides to project a symbol and that group went to the front of the room to start talking. Other groups made notes on where they would take the conversation when they were called into the discussion.

On the next PowerPoint slide, I might add a group or switch out groups completely. Students spoke for 5-6 minutes at a time for single groups and 7-8 minutes if I had two groups up there.

Students reported that they liked hearing the ideas of the entire class. Often we do graded small group discussion one group at a time; this however, involved everyone.

From this discussion I heard some beautifully insightful comments:

  • As the discussion expanded from one group, who was discussing the binding forces of similarity in communities, to include a new group of thinkers, Priyanka said, “Maybe a community shouldn’t only be about similarities. Similarities cause us to be more isolated than differences do.
  • Later, along that same theme of isolation, Dani shared that “social media makes it easy to isolate ourselves” as we discussed the communities we partake it through our phones. The group decided that social media lets users hide in a way that is detrimental to civil discourse.
  • Alexis, in response to the idea that communities can be strengthened by tragedy, said that community is vital as it allows us to “come together for a common idea that can heal us.” 
  • Directly relating to the essential question, JJ suggested that when “all individuals put effort in, community succeeds.”
  • Francesca was quiet until she raised her hand at the very end to say: “This unit was hard. In other units [education and gender] you could easily point the finger at other people. The problem is there’s. The problem is because of them. With community you had to speak to yourself. You had to realize that any problem within communities you belong to requires that you turn the finger around and point at yourself.

Twitter Talk

Conversations can go online, as well. I asked my sophomores to extend our Transcendental Experience speeches (take two weeks and embrace a Transcendental tenant in their lives, then tell us about what they learned/liked/loathed by live tweeting after each speech and then responding to some of the insightful ideas from the speeches of their peers. Students reported that they loved seeing their ideas quoted and/or reframed as inspirational by their classmates. It gave me time to write down comments, which was helpful. We then had a phones down policy during the actual speeches.

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My AP students will start their #langbreak experiences today as well. Their excitement to see each other’s tweets was palpable yesterday and one student even said, “Can I post something each day?”

Wait. Can you actively engage with experiences that promote self actualization and growth more than once over a break from school? Amen, Lisa says from her knees.

Amen.

Speed Dating (again and again and again)

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The last day before spring break, I had my students speed date the new books in the room. As Jessica mentioned yesterday, I LOVE conversations and the enthusiasm that occur with speed dating.

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Alexis responds to JJ’s speed date selection, imploring him to read the book in his hands, I’m Thinking of Ending Things 

Students get to judge books by their covers or pick up titles they have heard about but never had in their hands.

They get to spend just a few minutes “getting to know” the book and then share their insights with their tablemates.

We then share out by having students raise up the books they are intrigued by. We chat around what hooked them and students write furiously on their “I Want to Read” lists.

The only danger of speed dating? Hook-ups. Students meet and fall in love with books they
want to take with them right away. It makes it hard to keep the pool of fresh titles, well, fresh. I LOVE having this problem.

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JJ challenges back, that if he is going to read her selection, she must read Small Great Things by Jody Picoult 


Lisa Dennis teaches English and leads a department of incredible English educators at Franklin High School near Milwaukee. Her favorite student talk is the variety that keeps students talking long after the bell rings. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum and follow her students’ AP Spring Break adventures on Twitter #langbreak. 

5 Ways to Avoid the Trap of Test Prep

The AP Language test is a month away. Only 14 school days (Spring Break, y’all. Woot!), which means 7 class periods with each of my AP classes between now and the big day.

This imparts in me equal parts excitement, dread, and crippling panic. I’m not sure what my problem is. I’m not the one taking the test, but my test anxiety runs high.

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Now, Amy has written beautifully in the past about the test scores and how little they really mean. How AP and workshop can be beautiful partners.  I applaud her conviction. I need to learn from her resolve. Because all year, I can workshop and weave in test prep (in other words, my priorities are straight – I’m building readers and writers, not test takers), but when the test draws near, I start thinking in numbers. Always dangerous.

When this happens, I feel my brows furrow. I’m suddenly focused on the wrong thing.

I can FEEL it.

Experimenting with workshop during semester two of the 2014-2015 school, I very purposefully placed reading and writing experience above test prep. My scores went up. Last year, I was all in. Lots of student choice. More focus on why and how, instead of what. My scores went up.

Do students need practice with the multiple choice format? Yes.

Should they write several AP practice essays over the course of the year with self scoring, student sample analysis, peer and teacher feedback? Certainly.

Will students be prepared for the test if test prep is secondary to building authentic readers and writers all year. Unequivocally, yes.

Just a few days ago, Donalyn Miller beautifully stated that the best way to improve test scores naturally is to “provide access to books, encourage free choice, give children time to read, and actively support their reading development at school and home.” Her piece for the Nerdy Book Club furthered my determination to remain focused on my students as readers, not as test takers. This is what workshop does. Focuses on readers, writers, and the humans who are so much more than test scores.

Here are a few suggestions to keep focused on what really matters (in my humble opinion), even as AP tests draw nigh, and frankly, in the face of any “big” test.

1. Focus on Experience

I tell my students every year, that living life and being aware of humanity in general is the best argument preparation there is. So, when I saw Elizabeth Matheny‘s spring break Twitter challenge, I immediately asked if I could adopt the idea. Matheny provides her students with a hashtag to document their adventures and several suggestions of ways to really live it up over break as a way to not only build community, but provide inspiration for narratives her students will write in the coming weeks.

I’ve got some ideas brewing to have my students write their own author bios (like the quippy book jacket variety) after break to celebrate themselves as writers. Documenting new experiences may be just the thing to provide focused attention to new passions  and open eyes to the wider world.

My students will start Friday using #langbreak. Follow our adventures and feel free to add your own if you’ve been waiting all this time for break like we have!

2. Write from the Heart First

I used to have students write endless practice essays. Knowing the format seemed important to scoring well, so I had students write in class, take prompts home over the weekend for homework, and churn out essay after essay of (no offense former students) formulaic crap that I dreaded grading.

These days, I’ve embraced a new philosophy. My students need to write more, but practice essays aren’t the thing. Quick writes in class are the thing. Weekly one pagers building their fluency and skills of expression about quotes that stick with them from readings are the thing. Poems about community are the thing. Book reviews on texts that make them feel smart are the thing.

The thing is, students build their writing skills in writing what they care about. They can then apply that to the essay at hand, regardless of the essay type. I spend a small amount of time going through the specifics of the argument and analysis essays, and then we look at countless mentors, we read as writers, and we learn how to effectively break the “rules.” The College Board suggests that effective essays are built from developing a “personal style.” No mention of five paragraph essays to be found.

3. Talk

  • Speed date prompts for the sake of brainstorming (not more and more writing – do that elsewhere)
  • Discuss current events
  • Share insights on readings (assigned and independent) through the lens of analysis (or argument, or synthesis)
  • Reflect on multiple choice passages without the questions
  • Solicit feedback on writing and make connections to specific skills to move that writing forward

discussion

4. Review Your Reading Lives

At least one class period each year, right before the test, is reserved for a trip down memory lane. Students get into small groups and list common themes they have seen in argument prompts we’ve discussed over the course of the year (good vs. evil, power struggles, individuality, etc.). They then make lists of everything they’ve read, studied, reflected on that might be good evidence for arguments related to those ideas.

We fill posters upon posters of ideas to put around the room and remind ourselves how incredibly smart we all are. No one need fear “not knowing what to write.” Students have been preparing for this test since they learned to read, just by reading and living. Little review required.

5. Make Class Time Count

This is a “to each their own” example. Many classes do very little after the AP test. Students relate that they “worked really hard to get to the test” and the class periods up until the end of the year are free time as a reward.

I reward my students after the AP exam too. We have another book club (students are choosing this year from this extensive list of nonfiction titles, to which I just added the Pulitzer Prize winner Evicted) and they complete a multigenre project on an area of study we’ve not explicitly studied together (sports, politics, language, pop culture, etc.).

My class is about reading, writing, speaking, listening, and investigating life. That doesn’t stop because students took a three hour test.


Lisa Dennis teaches English and leads a department of incredible English educators at Franklin High School near Milwaukee. Her spring break will include finishing Sabaa Tahir’s A Torch Against the Night, spending time tiptoeing through the tulips with her daughter Ellie, and taking her own advice to live a little and try something new (curling, anyone?).  Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum and follow her students’ AP Spring Break adventures on Twitter #langbreak. 

10 Things Worth Sharing Right Now

I love the little ripple of a thrill that runs through to my fingertips when I find something that I want to share with my students. That borderline codependent excitement that comes with wanting to share a book, an article, a statistic…immediately.

“They NEED to see this,” I think, fumbling around on my phone to figure out how and where to save it.

“They NEED to read this,” I say to my husband, as I make him pause his own life to listen to yet another passage of my latest read.

“They NEED to know about this,” I mutter, linking wildly to our syllabus (just another in a long line of moments where I’m grateful that life happens and we share it in class).

So today, I’m taking a page from one of my newest obsessions, the newsletter put together weekly by the brilliant, inspiring, and wildly creative, Austin Kleon. Each week, delivered to your inbox, arrives a list of “10 things [he thinks are] worth sharing.” Simple. Intriguing. Very, very useful in the classroom.

I’m honestly not sure how I stumbled on this one, but in the month since subscribing, I’ve used three of his images to inspire quick writes, and book talked (loosely) the newsletter itself, suggesting to students that they should subscribe in order to broaden their horizons to current happenings, inspiring visuals, and commentary on books, shows, and cultural phenomenon. In other words, link up to something that delivers items to keep you reading texts other than social media updates (“Made a sandwich guys…bet you’re all jelly. Get it? Jealous, but jelly instead.? God, I am such a genius”).

  1. Austin Kleon’s Weekly Newsletter
    Kleon reflects on a central image each week, along with linking to intriguing articles, a poem of the week, ear candy audio, eye candy visuals, and other noteworthy insights from across the vast expanse of the internet. If someone comes up to you and says, “Hey, did you see…?” chances are Kleon will have it linked on his list for the week.
  2. The Power of Exemplars
    A few weeks back, I was bemoaning to my fellow Three Teachers Ladies, how disappointed I was in a recent project my sophomores had completed. My vision for a poster that brilliantly illustrated their insights on their latest reading, was met with large sheets of paper with haphazard cutouts of text, crudely taped across the page, accompanied by printed book covers in black and white, and the occasional hurried pencil addition to the project (last minute insight for forgotten components). Needless to say, I was frustrated AND without any way to hold students accountable for the quality of the visual they submitted (not the central point, for sure, but a consideration certainly). Take pride in your product, and all that, had fallen short. In my irritation, I searched in vain for something in the Common Core that might suggest students consider carefully how they convey their ideas.

    Then, I took a deep breath. I realized I had what I needed, I just hadn’t used it. See below the power of exemplars. My AP students were completing their community visuals (which I wrote about last year in a reflection on the use of essential questions), and I had no rubric for this work either. However, the power of suggestion, in showing them some of the brilliant work from the year before, was more than enough. They knew the expectation, saw what I thought was praiseworthy when it comes to presenting their insights, and we enjoyed some brilliant symbolism in the presentation of these visuals. Amen.
    img_1163

  3. Musical Genius
    One of my groups took a creative leap for their community unit visual and put together a musical. Franklin’s production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat opened this past weekend. Several members of the cast in my first period class asked if they could complete the project in a slightly different way. Their project would still include analysis, present their ideas to the class, and involve audience feedback after the presentation, but…there would be singing.

    img_1092

    Francesca, Joe, and Parker

    Since I always joke with my kids about presenting their ideas through interpretative dance, this musical idea intrigued me. Their mini musical included several skits that detailed life within the community of a musical cast/crew. Watching students sing their way through a summative, I was reminded that my vision for a project is rarely as broad and brilliant as what students can come up with on their own. My exemplar pool had just expanded in verse.
    img_1095

  4. Bag o’ Books
    Remember to beg for books. Want to build that classroom library? Get down on your knees and remind your students of how good it feels to give back…to you.Maija recommend the book Dangerous Minds a few weeks back. When a fellow student was at the bookshelf looking for it the other day, I asked Maija if she’d be willing to bring it so, AJ could borrow it. I even turned on a sweet smile and said, “If you don’t need it anymore, I’d be happy to take it off your hands.”

    The book was outside my door the next day, in a bag with a sweet note and several other books. Score.

  5. Amy Poehler on Writing
    I’m training for a half marathon. Without audiobooks, I might not make it. Seriously. I need to get lost in a story to pound out the miles. So, when I started 10 miles on Sunday and realized my Overdrive audiobook had expired, I had to quick download something new. Ugh.Enter, Amy Poehler’s Yes, PleaseI smiled for nine miles (it takes awhile to download when you’re actively running down the street). Poehler’s voice is sincere, relatable, and funny as all get out. Easy to book talk.

    Here’s the golden ticket: The Preface. I heard it and knew I needed to play it for my students. Poehler writes with undeniable voice about writing. She says of her text and the writing process that she “had no business agreeing to write this book” and wrote it “ugly and in pieces,” because “everyone lies about writing…they lie about how easy it is or how hard it was.” She says, and students really related to the idea, that “writing is hard and boring and occasionally great, but usually not.” In reflection afterward, students also noted her use of stream of consciousness, aside, and self deprecating banter to tell her story, not just inform her audience about what the book would be about. Classes agreed that they could really get behind her idea that, “Great people do things before they are ready.” Amen, Ms. Poehler. Let’s all put pen to paper.

  6. langchat#17
    I recently started following the brilliant Elizabeth Matheny on Twitter. Her AP insights and resources have helped fuel my work recently and her AP Language slow chat last week was a great opportunity to have my kids practicing analysis with students across the country. I’m thinking of several things to extend this activity:
    – Have students organize a slow chat for peers
    – Get students to live tweet peer feedback during speeches or discussion
    – See #7 below
  7. Tweeting Authors
    I tweeted Angie Thomas to tell her that her book The Hate You Give is stunning and I’d be getting into the hands of as many students as possible.She liked my tweet.Fangirl moment.img_1024
    Have your students reach out to authors. They often reach back.
  8. Creativity Visual
    I love what this suggests to students about the power they possess.
    img_1157
  9. Get it to the Big (or small) Screen
    My students often buy into the idea that great books are made into (sometimes great) movies. The Underground Railroad is being made into a series with the director from Moonlight. Having just finished this intriguing read myself, I book talked the text this week and shared the movie plans.
  10. Quick Write – Psychopath
    This came across my Facebook feed the other day, and I tossed it on my PowerPoint. As is the way in educator, my students surprised in noticing it, and we ended up doing a quick, quick write about changing social norms. AP Language test prep comes in many , many forms.
    img_1122
    What would make your list of 10 things we need to see and share this week? Add your ideas in the comments below! 

Lisa Dennis teaches English and leads a department of English educating gods and goddesses at Franklin High School near Milwaukee. She loves lists, especially lists with links to beautiful thoughts and ideas. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum 

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