Category Archives: Lisa

Survival Strategy: Return to Structure

The Google calendar that the Three Teachers share has us on a rotating schedule. Fixed days with suggested ideas around types of posts and the three of us cycle through clock_stockeach week. Today, my friends, the suggestion is “strategy,” and boy do I need one.

After this lovely break from school, my daughter’s sleep schedule is a mess, I think I’ve put on five-ish pounds of cookie related belly weight, and the house is an unmitigated disaster zone of new toys without homes, student papers I’m placing around the house in an effort to combat “out of sight, out of mind,” and the organized chaos that comes with putting away all the holiday decorations while my daughter yells, “But we CAN’T put the tree outside! It will be lonely!”

So, what I guess I’m suggesting with all of that is that, although it has been legitimately lovely, I need to return to some structure or I’m going to lose it. I can’t watch The Grinch one more time, or I might pop Cindy Lou Woo in her tiny little nose. Bah! Humbug!

Was it really only a little over a week ago that I sprinkled unbridled joy across the blog in my Holiday Poem? My…how the Merry has fallen.

handsPlease don’t get me wrong. I’ve had an amazing break from work. Many aren’t able to share in the blessing of having such a richly restorative holiday from their employment, and I am grateful. I spent time watching my three-year-old revel in the magic of the holidays. We shared time with family and friends, laughing, toasting, and just generally enjoying one another’s company. I stayed up late reading. I rediscovered the thrill of flying down a sledding hill, shrieking like a teenager and giggling with my daughter. I even had one day where everyone was out of the house. I napped. On my own couch. Without having to block out Dory telling me to “just keep swimming” for the six millionth time.

However, while summer affords one the opportunity to release from the stresses of work and still find plenty of time to get on a schedule of chosen activities, winter break is a whirlwind, from which, many feel they need a vacation.

So, here is my strategy. A strategy to shake off the crazies and get back to some workshop non negotiables to send us back to school with a renewed enthusiasm around structure:

Step 1. Get back to school. Easier said than done, I’m sure. That alarm is going to go off tomorrow at 5:15 a.m. and I am not going to be happy, but this past week has reminded me that without consistency, I start to lose it. I need more purpose than Netflix programming selection. Much like workshop, I need consistent components of purpose in my everyday. They give me a roadmap to achieve goals. Goal one, get out of bed for work tomorrow.

Step 2. Read with my kids and then talk with them about what they read over break. I’m guilty of getting away from reading/conferring with my kids in the past few weeks. In the flurry of planning, preparing for exams when we return, fifty meetings after school, PD time to plan for, and countless other distractions, I started to let the few precious minutes at the start of class slip back to menial task time. Check email, organize papers, finalize workshop activity, etc. Our first day back, I’m going to read with my students at the start of each class (Warning! Shameless plug for #3TTBookClub to follow: Perhaps I’ll choose East of Eden by John Steinbeck, Between the World and Me by Tah-Nehisi Coates, or  Assessing Writing, Teaching Writers: Putting the Analytic Writing Continuum to Work in Your Classroom by Mary Ann Smith and Sherry Seale Swain. All fantastic choices for the month of January). The next class period, and those that follow, I need to talk with my kids at the beginning of the hour. Their only homework was to read over break. I want to hear about it.

Step 3. Set reading rate goals with my kids (another practice I slipped away from over the weeks between Thanksgiving and Winter Break…talk about a need for resolutions. If the past paragraph didn’t indicate my own failings at upholding a major tenant of workshop, this one sure will. I never slip on giving my kids time to read. We have 82,793 things to work through in a class period, but I don’t take their reading time. It’s just that important. However, holding them accountable for their reading outside of class? That’s a never ending battle. I’m going to get back to students setting goals in their notebooks, then I’m going to employ my newly favorite technique: Have students snap a picture of the page and email it to me. Stacks and stacks of notebooks are occasionally necessary, but they also give me hives. An inbox full of messages is somehow a challenge, as opposed to a stack of notebooks which is somewhat of a burden, meaning I end up collecting them far less than I would really like to.

Step 4. Get back to writing. We religiously write in class each day. Over the weekend, I wrote thank-you cards and last Wednesday, I wrote down my Jimmy John’s order for a friend. On the drive home from my in-laws tonight, I looked out at the last of the Christmas lights on passing houses and smiled at the memory of the big, old fashioned lights on the bushes outside the house where I grew up. The memory was quickly followed by an ache to write about it. I miss writing when I let myself feel “too busy” to do it, so I need to take William Wordsworth’s advice: “Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart.” Tomorrow, we will write about what makes us ache.

Step 5. Reconnect with kids. In one of the many moments I allowed myself to be distracted from work today, I saw a Tweet from literacy specialist Shawna Coppola, who said, “Relationships with students are more important than any curriculum.” Please see step 2 above and repeat that daily during workshop, drafting, small group work, experimentation, last 30 seconds of class, time.

——————–

The New Year is a time to move forward with renewed vigor. My final exams this semester will ask students to reflect on their growth as thinkers over the course of the first half of the school year and discuss specific takeaways from our work. They will then be asked to make suggestions as to how they will apply that learning during second semester.

In much the same way, I’m reflecting on how a lack of structure makes me more tired than teaching, parenting, and living combined. I was certainly ready for a break, but I’m also ready to get back at it.

The strategy is simple: Get back into workshop WITH your kids, and refresh that commitment to do what works each and every day.

Happy New Year, All. Welcome back!

Lisa Dennis spends her school days teaching AP Language and Honors/Pre-AP Sophomores, while also leading the fearless English department at Franklin High School, just outside Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Though loathe to discuss herself in the third person, she does delight in hearing her daughter ask for ‘just one more chapter,’ dreaming about European vacations ala Rick Steves, and sitting in the snugs of authentic Irish pubs. She is a firm believer that a youthful spirit, a kind heart, a big smile, and a good book can ease most of life’s more troublesome quarrels.
Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum.

disclosure

‘Tis the Three Teachers Talk Holiday Poem

My dad was an 8th grade Social Studies and English teacher for well over 30 years, and his joy (and frustration) as it relates to education, inspired me to work in the classroom as well. I grew up on stories of my dad’s intelligence, humor, creativity, and passion in the classroom. This and other tales of how I’m pretty sure my dad was incorporating elements of workshop in his classroom in 1968, in a future post.

But it’s not only my choice in profession that was influenced by my dad, it’s the writing you are reading right this very moment. Dad has a gift with words. People are still talking about how clever and touching his speech was at my wedding…almost nine years ago. He has a way of turning phrases to make them as sharp as his wit and as beautifully deep as his heart. I’ve always wanted to write as powerfully as my dad.dad

So, early on, my writing filled with passive voice and right-clicked thesaurus words (the nuances of which I was not skilled enough to use correctly), I wrote. And I often wrote utter crap.

When I would ask my dad to read it,  an old school sea of red comments would flood the page. Arrows, strike-outs, question marks. It was harsh, but fair. And though I was often too stubborn at the time to admit it (a trait I certainly, thankfully, and ironically in this case, inherited from him directly), his insights pushed me to add clarity, depth, and insight to my craft.

Earlier this week, Amy wrote about writing when it’s hard. She spoke of filling the room with beautiful language, getting kids to keep talking with one another, and allowing time to think.

I humbly add to Amy’s list the idea of helping students to find what or who inspires them to write. With the mutual understanding that my “brilliant” quick write ideas aren’t always going to cut it and not everyone is lucky enough to have a writing mentor at home to inspire them, we need to help our students find inspiration. In essence, as their teacher, I need to be that writing mentor by sharing brilliant published writing, encouraging students to share their writing with one another, and in (sometimes with a knotted stomach) sharing my own.

I’m inspired today by both the last day of school and, again, by my dad. For years, Dad would take traditional poems and rewrite the lines to match the happenings at his school. Christmas, the end of the year, retirements…Dad would craft witty quips about teacher’s lounge antics, administrative frustrations, student silliness, and more. He has a gift for playing with the written word.

snow

So, dear readers, Dad, and Robert Frost, forgive me as I try my hand at a holiday poem to warm your workshop hearts. It’s all in the name of holiday cheer.

Stopping By a Workshop Classroom…

Three Teachers write here, I think you know. 
Ideas of workshop and reading to sow;
We read and write each day without stopping
To keep our students’ brains and pens hopping.

Some colleagues certainly must think it strange
To bring to our classrooms such a great change.
A room full of books and pages of scratch;
Such delight when a book with a student we match.

They may even, with concern, their heads firmly shake
To suggest that there must be some grave mistake.
But lives as readers and writers we give
For choice and challenge in our classrooms do live.

This workshop gig can inspire, uplift, and “readicide” it can mend,
But break is here my old dear friend.
So go on and with your family some happy time spend,
Because this week of school is finally (blessedly) at an end.

Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and a very Happy New Year to all, and to all, a great break. I’m hoping to settle in for a long winter’s nap.

Who or what inspires your writing? How will you be spending your well-deserved break?
Please share in the comments below!

2 Ways to Prioritize Student Talk in the Classroom

Workshop affords so many opportunities to explore with the students in front of me as opposed to present a set curriculum to whomever happens to be seated in my classroom. It’s teaching through interaction, and in this case, it’s teaching straight from the kids themselves.

We see it in workshop all the time. Students given the tools to explore the world as readers and writers, and encouraged through personalized learning, quite often take their learning to places our old lesson plan books didn’t always accommodate.

One of the best opportunities for this classroom growth is having students do more and more of the talking. With the right modeling and specific expectations around that student talk, the classroom becomes a place students lead through inquiry, as opposed to follow through completion of teacher set tasks.

discussion-2

Morgan quotes Judy Brady’s “I Want a Wife” to analyze how the repetition supports the sarcastic tone and proves the point that since they do SO much, everyone should want a wife. LOL!

It happened yesterday morning, in fact. My AP students were participating in small group graded discussions. Just reading the last sentence makes me cringe (yes we use a rubric, no, the conversations don’t have to be formulaic as a result), but with choice in which readings from our unit they wanted to discuss and some guiding questions throughout the discussion, our conversation about gender and the implications of historical stereotypes on a modern world (their direction for the discussion, not mine) took an interesting turn.

“Mrs. Dennis…you’re smiling weird. What did I say?”

I stop furiously typing comments and look up. “I’m sorry?”

“You had a look. Did I say something wrong?”

“Sarah, you said nothing wrong,” I smile and glance around the table. Seven intrigued faces look back at me. “In the last few minutes this group has, largely unprompted, connected several essays through the lens of analysis, used terminology we’ve not discussed since September, Trinity uttered the words, ‘I don’t believe gender pronouns are even really necessary anymore,’ and then supported her opinion with specific text evidence, and several of you actually just murmured sentiments of excitement to shift the discussion to Judy Brady’s satirical 1971 piece ‘I Want a Wife.’ I’m smiling because I was just thinking about how I used to give short answer reading comprehension quizzes on these pieces.”

“Oh,” said Sarah, “This is way better.”

Yup.  This was a discussion they wanted to have. This was a discussion I wanted to hear. They took the lead, in fact one of our rubric bands demands that, and they came to the

discussion

Part of a small group discussing racial stereotyping colliding with gender stereotyping in the Brent Staples piece “Just Walk On By”

discussion prepared to drive conversation from the perspectives of authors like Brent Staples, Deborah Tannen, John and Abigail Adams, and Judith Ortiz. Perspectives that regard gender through stereotype, race, satire, narrative, an exchange of letters almost 250 years ago, and visual texts.

Did I just sit back and let them talk, free-for-all style? No. This conversation took practice, feedback, and correction over the past few months. Today, it took redirection on some occasions and additionally it took specific intervention for those students reluctant to participate. Additionally, had it been a lower-level class, I would have been a bit more actively involved to start. But as you well know, students at any level are capable of, and actually far more likely, to get actively involved if their efforts for comprehension are supported and their exploration of the text is encouraged. We work specifically on ways to communicate both agreement and polite disagreement, so students can help clarify the text as well as analyze it.

Like any solid workshop component, it involves careful teacher planning and modeling, but equal parts careful student leading as we gradually release them to own their own education. 

We assess students on their preparation for the discussion with visible notes and use of specific text to support their points and their leadership within the group. That leadership can be exhibited through meaningfully involving others to bring them into the discussion with a question, synthesizing ideas they have heard so far, and/or including insights from additional research on a particular topic to extend discussion beyond the reading.

I spend a whole class period for discussions, breaking the class into groups of 7-10 students so all voices have more opportunity to be heard. Students not in the discussion have specific work to complete, sometimes by the end of the hour. For feedback, I type comments and insights while the students are speaking, so I can quickly copy/paste them into the comment section of my feedback form (A Google form emailed directly to students with 2 Common Core based rubric bands as dropdown tabs so I can just click the score for each band, include specific typed feedback, and often get that feedback out to kids the same day).

Another opportunity for seriously impactful student talk, is handing over the daily book talk to the class.

One of the many benefits of this scenario is that I can tap into growing student enthusiasm about books and have my kids spread the book love directly with each other. Don’t get me wrong, my book talks are something to behold. Part forensics piece, part reader’s theater, and part screentest for the literary loony bin, I sell books much like I would envision the traveling vacuum salesmen of yore putting food on the table with a pitch of salvation not just for the home, but the soul. It’s not just going to clean your carpets, it’s going to change you life, Ma’am. Your life. 

But, let’s be real. Though I sprinkle my classroom with good will, good cheer, and good books, I’m not the best salesperson in the room. If you’re going to sell the vacuum with radial root cyclone technology (I Googled that), or the book with 389 scary looking pages on dystopian fantasy rooted in a chromed society, you need to know your audience. You need to relate to your audience. You need to be one with your audience.

There are plenty of reasons to get kids doing your book book talks, not the least of which is I can’t read fast enough these days to keep up with the need for the type of really passionate and informed book talks that come from having read the whole text (Books do sell themselves sometimes, just by reading the back cover and a page or two at the start, but I love to hook kids with a section from the middle to show the impact of the rising action or depth of character development).

book-talk

Priyanka book talking Stitches, a graphic novel by David Small, under the document camera.

  • Students trust one another’s opinions. Yes, often more than mine. I sell hard, but at the end of the day, I’m usually still the biggest book nerd in the room, and therefore I think I am occasionally regarded in much the same way  as the Dancing Grannies in a holiday parade: Enthusiastically adorkable, but a bit of an anomaly to be trusted only at a distance.
  • They find titles, authors, and series that aren’t yet on my radar. Despite my best efforts, I can’t read fast enough or comb enough best of lists to meet the recommendation needs of over 120 kids. But when the classroom experiences a new student perspective on reading each class, additional book talks at their tables after reading, speed dating with books,  and an invitation to help grow our classroom library with tax free, gluten free, guilt free donations of gently used books, everyone wins and the depth of our classroom repertoire grows.
  • Their enthusiasm is relatable and often focused on books that don’t speak to my own bibliophilic tendencies, but can ignite the reading sensibilities of their adolescent peers. For example, I took several YA Lit books home at the start of last summer. Two days in, I was already struggling with the voice. It grated on me (no offense scholars) after hearing it all day in person for 180 days. So when a student book talks The New Guy (and Other Senior Year Distractions) by Amy Spalding, and two sophomores in my class (who have struggled to meet reading goals week after week) add it to their “I Want to Read List”s, that’s another win, because we can’t push kids to deepen their reading if they aren’t reading. First hook them, then book them with more challenging pieces.
  • I offer up the option to produce their book talks digitally and for some students, this is what makes the entire experience meaningful. Students sell their books through book trailers, compilations of related imagery and voice over to meet the same requirements of a live book talk. I’ve had kids include clips of author interviews, live action fight scenes with voiced over dialogue directly from the text, and this year, I have a student who wants to read over the top of a mannequin challenge he plans to shoot to represent some of the major action in the text.

What results is growing book lists, renewed enthusiasm as students go back to books they’ve read and revisit their love for the text, and involving each and every single student as a valued reader in our classroom community.

We’d love to hear from you! What tips and tricks for student talk make their way into your daily workshop practice? Please comment below! 

Teaching Humans and Other Daily Adventures

A few posts back, I quoted several brilliant speakers from NCTE in The Joy and Power of Reading session I attended with Amy and Shana. I hadn’t ever had the opportunity to hear such well known and powerful educators and writers speak in person before, and I sat (once I got over my fangirl fawning) in awe at their brilliance and passion.

oneKwame Alexander stuck with me very specifically.

I recognized his name from his popular book The Crossover, but it was his quick smile (that goes all the way to his eyes – a sign of sincerity of character, I’ve been told) that kept my eyes sliding back over to watch him think and wait for him to slip in another insight that should be immediately printed on an inspirational poster for every classroom and dentist’s waiting room in America.

In his cozy green scarf and olive colored jacket, he just looked like poetry personified. A man whose worldly experiences are outshone only by his worldly ambitions. A man you want to have a cup of coffee with, just to sit and sip and feel smarter by proximity. A man who, in his own words, knows the value of helping students to “become more human.”

So, in the weeks since the conference, I’ve been working that “more human” perspective over in my mind. It’s led me to some pretty serious reflection about what I used to “do to” kids.

Never in my career have I strayed from the answer that I teach “because of the kids.” They are the reason I can’t comprehend ever leaving the classroom. They are the reason I stayed in the profession, when early on, I wasn’t sure it was where or who I really wanted to be.

Yet, I too have gone through years, weeks, units, lessons, where I got down on myself for not “getting through.” Whether it be through the content or through to their long term memories. In both cases I ended up feeling constantly behind. Chasing my lesson plan book across each week, racing toward an assessment or final exam time. (To be honest, I don’t know why I was in such a hurry…the scantron machine used to give me nightmares. Listen to all those beeps! They haven’t learned ANYTH…Oh. Wait. I messed up the key. Great.) 

And, while that stress is still very real in some necessary instances (not the scantron stress, thankfully…I’ve moved well beyond that special form of educational torture), for the most part, I save my energy. My colleagues and I are working to provide opportunities each and every day for our students to grow as learners and skill-wielding consumers of information. Each class period is like a buffet of literacy with reading, writing, speaking, listening, collaborating, self-reflecting, and problem solving on the menu almost daily. We, as teachers, are working hard to root all of our foundational work in the standards, and therefore the assessment of those standards, but if that were our only focus, we could (and for some, probably would) easily teach the way that we used to.

But workshop returns students to that foundational level too and makes them co-planners. Choice puts students back in on that ground floor in order to let their voices speak their discovered truths instead of only those of their teachers. We’re not just sending students to the bookshelves and waiting for the class to start collectively singing kumbaya, but we are encouraging them to reinvest in their own learning through some much needed validation of their interests.

Basically the divide between the traditional of what I used to plan and the recent effort to balance it with workshop, stems from the question:

How can I focus on helping my students become more human, if I’m wrapped up in only my own plans for their education?

It’s a delicate balance, for sure. We have mandated tests, the necessity for a well-versed and inquisitive electorate, our desire to just get students actually reading, and countless other seemingly contradictory notions that fly around our profession. But when faced with the uncertainty that is every single day in our classrooms, the undeniable need to encourage, model for, and then trust our students as readers and writers is the only way to make real progress, in my opinion.

Yes, we (the teachers) are learning too. The accountability piece is occasionally far too optimistic to be effective. The right ways and times and books to help our students challenge themselves aren’t always readily obvious or available. Reading goals are made and consistently broken in the name of “I had other stuff to do,” and if I could get in an extra four hours or so of prep everyday, I might feel prepared…ever. But this is the way of it. This is what growth looks like it’s messy and scary and stressful and totally, completely, unquestionably, worth it. Our students depend on us to facilitate learning. That doesn’t mean we need to or get to dictate every facet of that learning at their expense.  two

In that regard, Alexander also said that day that, “we [educators] have to be the manufacturers and purveyors of hope.” In my opinion, the way we do that is to work not only for our students, but more closely with them as well. That means exploring mentor texts and connecting the author’s craft moves to students’ independent novels. It means taking time to conference with students both during reading and workshop time, and also providing feedback on low stakes writing throughout a unit. It means encouraging kids to talk, and reminding ourselves to listen. It has to also mean providing materials for students to see themselves in the written and printed word, because students are more human when we recognize the many facets of their humanity.

I want to give my students hope by handing them mirrors and pens at the same time. I want to manufacture hope through encouragement of students’ growing talents and fuel that development with repeated exposure to challenging and engaging prose, poems, arguments, and drama.

In an interview with NPR back in April, Alexander also said, “I don’t spend a whole lot of time trying to worry or wonder or hope that things are going to get better. I spend a lot of time making things better.”

Our students live in a scary, dangerous, often depressing world. Our classrooms can be, and arguably need to be, safe places where our kids feel secure enough to explore, question, challenge, and deepen their thinking, not just to answer the questions I ask, but answer the questions they have.

We work everyday, as Alexander says, to “make things better.” As I said last week, skill development is my professional responsibility and human development is my personal responsibility. We’re all in the business of developing humans, Ladies and Gentlemen. It’s an exciting and daunting task. It’s also an impressive responsibility. I love knowing I’m not alone in embracing that responsibility. You’re all right there with me.

Mr. Alexander, I’d like to hug you if you’re up for it. You are truly an incredibly inspiring human.

Which thoughts of great educators are guiding you right now? What’s making you reflect on our practice? Please comment below! 

What is Your Teaching Everest?

I’m standing on my desk.

It’s dangerous, but exhilarating, and I probably look like a loon, but I don’t care. (Please see my post where I embrace my dorkdom in an effort to really get to know my students and move on happily with passionate living and teaching.)

oh-captain

High heels kicked off, channeling the spirit of Mr. John Keating and brazen pigeons everywhere, I’m perched on the edge of my desk during prep, looking around the room to try and gain gain a different perspective.

Oh, Captain, my Captain…Somebody call security. She’s lost it.

No, no. I’m all right. (Well, you know – Relatively speaking. Dear colleagues, if you hear a thud, please investigate.)

So, what caused this poetic exploration of my abandoned classroom? I was thinking about a quote I heard at NCTE 2016:

What is your Everest this year as a teacher?

No, my desk isn’t my Everest. I’m not that far gone. But, per Shana’s inspiration to start with a question, I was thinking about what needs my attention the most right now. With 86 minutes to plan, grade, create, and locate necessary motivation to do all of the roomaforementioned tasks, what should I start with?

There’s certainly a lot to chose from: stacks of papers, countless books to read, share, and sort, a department in need of collaborative time to plan, students flying under the radar.

Everything in front of me is important. I need to grade the narratives my sophomores wrote, to put some ending punctuation on that adventure. When She Woke by Hillary Jordan is calling to me too. That book is Hester Prynne meets Offred meets futuristic criminal justice system that injects offenders with a skin altering virus based on their crimes – I need several extra hours in the day to read. Truth be told, I should have started this post sooner too. Procrastination and exhaustion mix into a delightful little cocktail called Crippled Motivation. Bartender, I’ll take another when you have a minute.  

In all seriousness though, I return to my question (Yes, I’m off my desk, Mom), because answering it means I can get something done. I’m weird that way. Could I pick up a stack of papers and just start? Of course. But I have to mentally work up to it, know my plan, have a reward of some sort (read five papers, read When She Woke for five minutes). This time, the question, the task, the implication is much bigger.

What’s most important right now? When I could do a thousand things, what needs to be done right now because it will mean the most?  I know the answer. And not only because I was just standing on my desk :

My Everest this year is feedback.

Consistent, responsive, quick feedback that first encourages, and then focuses in on promoting growth. Remember the old saying about catching more flies with honey than vinegar? That’s the stuff right there.

I want to move my students forward. We all do. But now, more than ever,  I believe the way to do it is through sincere investment in the original thoughts and explorations of my students. Personal connections that, yes, take some time, but build relationships that have helped me to better recommend texts, suggest style moves students may need to make in their more formal writing, and encourage additional critical thinking beyond the classroom.

I used to stress about “finding something good” to include in my comments to my students. And I hate to say this, but it’s downright hard in some instances, isn’t it?

I really like what you did with the title there. 
Interesting transitional choice. 
Wow. So many words in that sentence.
Nice…font selection.

But now,  I’m thinking about feedback in new ways and delivering it in new ways too. To reach my Everest, I’m going to have to get creative and intentional. So, here’s what I did this afternoon:

  • Read through a section of one pager submissions from my AP students. Check them in with the quick rubric for a formative score, and email five students per class with reactions. Not corrections, but reactions. Students are encouraged to explore in these writings and the best means of moving them forward in this case is to share additional insights, question, and encourage. I highlighted the students’ names in my gradebook to know I’ve contacted them and I’ll do the same with several more students next week. Writing feedback…check.

fran

  • I made a plan for conferring during reading later this week. Without a plan, it’s feeling random and I’m not doing it enough (the thousand things on my desk keep capturing my attention). So, I have a list. I know who I want to talk with based on quick writes students did today. They reflected on their progress toward their weekly reading goals and some students are struggling. Just by having them take a quick photo with their phones and email me the page, I got a literal snapshot of how each and every one of my students is doing with their independent reading, and I didn’t have to collect notebooks. Now, I’ve emailed a few students congratulations and made this plan. In the picture below, Alexis refers to her current read as “a beautiful romance of adventure.” Love! Reading feedback…check. 

    img_1012

  • Students will self-assess their latest practice AP argument essays. Feedback does not need to come from me to be beneficial. Using the AP rubric to help justify scores, students will take a sheet of paper, put a score and justification on the top, fold it over and hand it to the person next to them. Scoring will proceed in the same way around the table until everyone has his/her paper back. The table will then need to calibrate/norm and agree on a score. Self assessment and peer assessment…check
  • I am going to question and listen more. Long ago, I gave up on the idea that my imparting knowledge on others was the best way for them to learn. Everyone learns best when the are motivated to do so through personal connection to the work, interest in the material, and an understanding of how to improve. Workshop sets this up in a classroom, it’s now my job to remember to listen more and jump in less. During conferences, during book clubs, during discussion. Listen first, respond, encourage, and redirect/suggest later. This certainly doesn’t mean my presence in the room diminishes. It means I remember that my presence in the room is to guide my students, not steamroll them.

Gaining a new perspective feels like hitting the reset button to me. It provides clarity of mind and purpose. Skill development is my professional responsibility. Human development is my personal responsibility. They work hand in and hand and they are the Everest I will climb all year, every year, as I talk with, respond to, and gain insights alongside my students.

What is your teaching Everest this year? We’d love to hear from you! Please add your insights to the comments below! 

Giving Thanks: NCTE 2016 and a Plate Full of Passion

The season is upon us, boys and girls. A time for calls to the Butterball Hotline (1-800-BUTTERBALL if you need it). A time to smile at Grandpa’s snoring after dinner. A time for gifts and giving and  possibly some figgy pudding.

After my first trip to the Annual NCTE conference, it’s also a time to be thankful.

It’s difficult for me to put into words how thankful I am for the opportunity to meet with and learn from so many amazing educators.

Amy, Shana, and Jackie, presenting with you was an incredible experience. Your passion and expertise around workshop is a gift that I will take back to my department as we continue our own workshop journey. Your believe in the power of choice, challenge, reading, writing, and speaking makes this shift in delivery easier and more rewarding each day.  ncte-1

Beyond our own presentation, the sessions we attended have my heart and mind bursting with enthusiasm for the work we do with kids. I am watching some of them read right now (I promise to confer in a moment) and the promise that they hold is the reason for all of this. NCTE 2016 refocused my attention on the core of my purpose in the classroom…to inspire connections. Connections to one another, to great texts, to authors, to the written word, to what they believe in.

As if that weren’t enough, the past few days has me thankful for:

Spending time with like-minded professionals.

My girl Shana Karnes introduced me to this phrasing over the weekend. Spending time with people who are pursuing a common goal is enriching, invigorating, and downright fun.

ncte-8My weekend started when I met Winifred as we were in line to pick up registration materials. One of the Coordinators for Special Education Services in Georgia, Winifred and I got to talking about her garden. She pulled out her phone and showed me a video of her abundant harvest and we talked about trips planned around picking your own food right off the tree/vine/stalk. She showed me pictures of her fiance, as she is getting married after being widowed for years, pictures of her grandchildren, and her salmon on the grill.

And then we talked about hope for the future (left turn). Using the opportunity of the weekend to fuel our hope around the power of education. Well, if Winifred’s passionate character is any indication of even half the educators this country employs, I have renewed hope too.

Then, this fangirl met some of the biggest names in education. Amy and Shana introduced me to Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher.

I sat between them at a table and had a cocktail. 

I repeat.

I casually chatted with Penny and Kelly (Can I say that? It feels weird), like I belonged there. Like I had anything of value to contribute to conversation.

And yet…once I got over my shock and awe at where I was sitting and who I was sitting with, Penny and I talked about the work I’m helping to lead in moving the Franklin High School English department to workshop. Kelly and I talked about the power of promoting educational philosophy and policy while still in the classroom, working each and every day with students in order to refine our own craft and reinforce our philosophies for the betterment of our kids.

When thought that benefits the advancement of students becomes purposeful practice, magical things can happen.

Maybe it was the Moscow Mule I was sipping, or maybe it was the fangirl phenomenon, but sitting with those great thinkers and discussing what’s best for kids, may be the professional development highlight of my career so far.

The Opportunity to Hear from Passionate Voices Who Support Our Work 

Over the course of the past several months, we have all dealt with division on a daily basis in a ways that feel intensified and frankly, frightening. Understandably, this is something many of our students have intensely felt too, some for a very long time.

During a session on Equality in Education, Cornelius Minor (who proclaimed himself a black nerd, but I think he might be one of the most powerfully tolerant and inspiring voices of our time – in fact, I hugged him after his session) suggested that it’s our job as educators to teach children how to “maintain partnerships” in order to “define our culture.” Among countless other profound and inspiring quotes from that session, this stuck with me.

My job as a teacher can be defined in countless ways: facilitator, psychologist, content specialist, reader, writer, engineer, surrogate mom, cheerleader, conflict resolution specialist, event coordinator, nurse, lesson planner, assessor, tour guide, bookkeeper, data systems specialist, actor, career counselor, bailiff.

But, at the moment, advocate is my personal goal. In my humble opinion, as teachers, we are charged with shaping the future (no small task), so the partnerships we build with students and the partnerships we help them create with one another, might be some of the very best work we can do to promote social change and unity.

I’ve long advocated for students to be readers and writers. In the workshop model, I’ve learned that choice and challenge are additional areas of advocacy I can promote.

However, teaching my students to advocate for themselves, as informed, collaborative, and responsible citizens is my most important task right now, and it starts with building partnerships that bring us together to work toward common goals of kindness, respect, and the respectful promotion of educated opinions.

The insights of incredible thinkers

Can I name drop, for a minute? Before I left for NCTE 2016, my best friend on the planet, and teaching neighbor Erin, congratulated me on Facebook for my upcoming speaking engagement at what she coined as the “Super Bowl of English teachers.”

It made me chuckle when I wrote it, because I think she might have been implying I’m super, but as it pertains to those that I heard speak at the convention, it was spot on.

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I have a notebook filled with quotes from the likes of Jason Reynolds, Pam Allyn, Donalyn Miller, Kylene Beers, Kwame Alexander, Ernest Morrell, Tom Romano, Cornelius Minor, Penny Kittle, Kelly Gallagher, Amy Rasmussen, Shana Karnes, Jackie Catcher, and many, many more.

I will have to write more on these quotes. Dig into them. Flood my classroom with them. But here is a taste:

On issues with equality in education Cornelius Minor said,”It’s not the students that are disabled, it’s the curriculum.”

Speaking to our current national focus on division and divisiveness, Kwame Alexander said, “We [educators] have to be the manufacturers and purveyors of hope.”

Pam Allyn added, “Be vigilant and aware and active in defense of words that heal, not words that wound.”

Ernest Morrell incited that we must have students consider how they “speak back to the book.”

And one of my favorites, was Kyleen Beers suggesting that if your inclination is to test students knowledge on the content of a book. she would “prefer you didn’t give them the damn book” (Beers).

Food for thought. Food for fuel. Ideas to motivate and captivate. I love my job…

Free books

Have you ever seen the videos of The Running of the Brides? Matrimonially incensed women trampling each other to secure the dress of their dreams in a wedding dress-laden warehouse turned streets of Pamplona? A place where otherwise calm, rational, respectable people turn into Black Friday bargain hunters with cutthroat tactics  and pitiless elbowing skills?

Now, swap out the brides for savings-fueled educators, who are not only passionate about saving money on books, but particularly prideful of stacking those free treasures into towers of savings that stand taller than the students they teach.

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Add Curious George, countless authors signing their books (Matt De La Pena?  Neal Shusterman? Ann M. Martin?!), a hot dog stand, and free book totes, and you’ll see English teachers practically stab one another to get free texts.

It made me smile to see so many teachers literally fighting (friendly competition fighting, not literally throw a punch to grab a copy of  The Association of Small Bombs fighting) to support their classroom libraries and their commitment to putting books in the hands of teachers. ncte-3

So, Happy Thanksgiving everyone. I have enough notes, inspiration, and red hot passion for this profession right now to fuel another dozen or so posts on the incredible opportunity that was NCTE 2016. I’m so very thankful I could attend. So very thankful to my district for supporting this work. Thankful to my department members who are working their tails off to support our students as growing readers and writers. Thankful to my students for exploring their ncte-2deeper thoughts though books. Thankful that the Heros and Villains Fan Fest was starting, so we briefly shared the convention hall with roaming bands of beautifully costumed characters. Hey, we all have passion for different things. I find Thor’s passion to be particularly commanding.

I emailed Penny Kittle to thank her for talking with me and for sharing her insights on this powerful, albeit extremely challenging move to workshop, and I want to leave you with a quote that I think we can all give a little thanks for as we walk down this workshop path and learn how to do what’s best for our kids. The message is…workshop is simple.

We just need to, as Penny said, “be sure that students have time to read every day so [we] can confer, write every day to build volume, and study texts that help them learn the craft.”

Amen.
Let’s eat.

If you attended NCTE, what are you thankful for? If you couldn’t join us, which of the quotes above speaks to your practice? We LOVE to hear from you. Please join the conversation in the comments below. 

 

Workshop Routines and Some Leopard Print Pajamas

Amy and Shana posted earlier this week about our upcoming presentation with Jackie Catcher at the NCTE Annual Convention in Atlanta. ncte

Amy is going to discuss perspective and assessment, Shana will share insights on unit
planning
, Jackie is focusing on mini lessons, and I’m going to try not to pass out from sheer terror/excitement/nerves/exhaustion/adrenaline.

If I can meet Penny Kittle without
incoherently mumbling some nonsense (Oh my goodness. I love Book Love. I mean love. Did I say love already ?), I’ll consider that a win too.

Or, perhaps most importantly, I’ll be speaking about workshop routines.

Establishing routines to support the non-negotiable components of workshop was one of the first considerations of my district when the high school ELA team started our move to workshop last year. We run on an A/B block schedule with 86 minute classes, and structure
is key to make sure all workshop components get their due time.

I was thinking about it tonight when I was putting my three year old daughter Ellie to bed (which, by the way has been going on now for over an hour because she’s needed several “one more” hugs). Every night, without fail, my husband and I work Ellie through the process of pajamas, books, teeth brushing, more books, several kisses (for Ellie and all nearby stuffed animals), one last story, several more kisses, and a hug.

I’d be lying if I said it went perfectly each night.

Case in point, Ellie just came out and asked what I was doing. I seized the opportunity and asked if she had a message for you all.

She’d like you to know that she is wearing leopard pajamas.

So…how to segue past that one?
I give up. That kid’s good. Yes, I gave her another hug too. Anyway…

Workshop routine. What’s its purpose?

In my opinion, it’s to provide comfort, consistency, and (hopefully) somewhat predictable outcomes.

When Nick and I take Ellie through her bedtime routine each night, she knows what’s coming. She knows we’ll be there with her, whether she’s cooperative or…spirited. She knows that each component of the routine has a purpose, because we make them clear. She knows, or at least experiences, the consistency that leads to that predictable outcome which is a warm bed and sweet dreams.

Yes, she fights it sometimes. Yes, she enjoys some parts more than others. Yes, it’s occasionally exhausting. But we know the net benefit. Our darling daughter is sent to dreamland with a positive experience, consistent expectations, and security.

Workshop routines are established for and run with the same outcomes in mind.

Students need daily practices, without fail, that strive to build capacity for critical thinking, community with peers, and rapport with instructors. They need a classroom structure that promotes a gradual release of responsibility so they can study craft in order to emulate that craft. They need time to practice. Time to explore. Time to be in control of their own learning. Time to be readers and writers.

In our district, that’s a pretty structured 86 minute class period, per Penny Kittle’s suggested breakdown of daily activities:

  • 10 minutes silent reading/conferring
  • 5 minutes attendance/agenda/book talk
  • 15 minute quick write
  • 15 minute skills based mini lesson
  • 38 minutes workshop time
  • 3 minute wrap up/sharing/homework

In my opinion, it’s the components that matter. The timing, especially in an even shorter class period (See Amy’s post on workshop in a 45 minute class period or Shana’s post with her ideas for workshop in a short class– it CAN be done!), are necessarily brief to allow for work in all areas, provide time for students to put into practice what they are learning, and maintain momentum around specific skills by linking components in a class period. For IMG_0684example, have students look for specific craft moves in their independent reading, write about them in a quick write, see them reflected in the mini lesson, and work to incorporate them into their own writing during workshop time. I’m even organized enough sometimes to tie my book talk directly to the craft move we’re discussing. Sometimes.

My students know what to expect each day. They know they can count on time to read, make choices in their learning, have guided instruction on college and career readiness skills, and workshop time to put those skills into practice.

Well, I know they have those things. Their perception of the class structure is often described as “fast.” As in, “Wow. That class period really went fast.” And it does. There’s always a lot to do. There’s always a lot to talk about, write about, read about, think about.

There’s, of course, always room to grow too.

Routines to add around writing fluency (weekly one pagers), mini lesson variety (demonstration, explanation/example, guided practice, etc.), use of writer’s notebooks, conferring, providing formative feedback, and the list goes on.

Workshop aims to empower students, teachers, and entire learning communities through a shared love of reading and writing to promote literacy.

Leopard pajamas or no, the routine of workshop provides a consistent safe place for all stakeholders to learn and grow. Sweet dreams.

I’ll be sharing more about moving to the workshop model and workshop routines in more depth on Sunday afternoon, from 1:30-2:45, in room B211.

Will you be at NCTE?  Please let us know in the comments.  We would love to meet you!

If you can’t make it to Atlanta, you won’t be missing out–tune in to Twitter using the hashtag #NCTE16 during our session times to join the conversation.

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Heinemann

Mentors with Insights, Ideas, and Resources for Secondary Readers & Writers Workshop

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