Category Archives: Samantha Sivils

Embracing Silliness in Skills Practice

As teachers of writing, it can be tempting to jump straight into a big, meaty composition or class discussion to get a feel for where our students’ skill levels are at the beginning of the year. High expectations, planned scaffolds, but somewhere it takes a left turn in a very different direction because the students do not feel confident enough to fully participate. 

When I was a brand new baby teacher, I had no idea there was another way to gauge my students’ skills. So we jumped in the deep end, feet-first, and had a collective sink or swim moment. They sank. I sank. Life preservers all around.

In a previous post, I wrote about ways to address perfectionism in student writing. We write daily in my classroom because quantity leads to quality. Sometimes the prompts are in response to quotes. Other times, I have my students respond to something completely bonkers. Oftentimes, these prompts are used to prime a lesson that builds the skills they need for something bigger. 

One of the best ways to build skills and confidence in the classroom is to embrace silliness. Here are some tips and perks.

1. Plan Backward

This isn’t new and I’m sure we’ve all heard this at some point, but the reminder doesn’t hurt. Work backward from your end goal as you plan.  

My seniors have been working on social commentary and I knew that I wanted them to craft an original piece of social commentary in addition to being able to engage in academic discussions about their topics. 

By the end of their time with me, they will have one of my catch-phrases permanently embedded in their brains- if you can talk about it, you can write about it. Unfortunately, they weren’t ready to talk about such intense and heavy topics in a way that was constructive. 

2. Back to Basics

Don’t get me wrong. I love a good, well-crafted student composition. But I like to walk it back and work on the skills needed to complete that task so students have the confidence to actually begin. By “walk it back”, I mean waaaaay back. Sometimes, taking baby steps early in the year means major leaps and bounds later. 

This is where you ditch the worksheets and other skills practice that robs the joy from your practice. Gamify it. Be ridiculous. Have no fear. 

For my purposes, a silly writing prompt. 

Students came in at the beginning of the unit to the following prompt: Is a hotdog a sandwich? Craft an argument to convince someone else. 

They gave me All. The. Side-Eye. They wrote. They giggled. But they wrote. 

It took me a little while to come around to the understanding that extremely low-stakes practice is often the best way to reinforce old skills and to introduce new skills. If we make it fun and create a positive association, that skill is going to stick. 

3. Chunk It 

When fully embracing silliness in skills practice, be prepared for a slow release. The goal is for content mastery, not speed. You can adjust your pacing to your students’ needs. 

My aim is to find that balance between skill-building in a low-stakes environment and making it a positive experience. Laughter is a bonus. 

The path from silly writing prompt to final class discussions and original social commentary took several class periods, but oh my stars was it worth every additional, hysterical second.

4. Facilitates Easy Modeling

If the practice is goofy but engaging, it gives you the opportunity to model the skills or behaviors you are attempting to have students master. In my case, it was academic discussion and reinforcing the use of evidence to support a viewpoint. 

I gave my students a set of sentence stems to help foster civil discourse in an academic discussion. So far, so good. Then, I paired them up and tasked them with using the stems to discuss their responses. Easy peasy. I simply had to float around the room while these awesome humans carried out their discussions. 

When I tell you that I did not expect the levels of investment from students over a discussion about hotdogs, I am not kidding. Did you know that the US Department of Agriculture has an official definition of a sandwich? I didn’t either, but I do now. 

5. Tie It All Together

As with any new skill, we want our kiddos to own it and use it well. This is the moment we’ve been coaching them for. This is where you shift from low-stakes practice to linking the skills back to your end goal. 

My kids researched and wrote and crafted some fabulous original pieces of social commentary. Then, they engaged in discussions in groups of 8 to 10 students. I was absolutely blown away with how well, even the most timid, students were able to share their thoughts about some pretty heavy topics. 

These kids were able to disagree, ask clarifying questions, and offer different opinions better than many adults I’ve seen. No raised voices. No tears. No ad hominem fallacies. 

**BONUS TIP**

In the spirit of adding a little laughter and some extra eye-rolling to break up the seriousness that is a group of high school students in English class, consider a silly song for a transition or brain break. A personal favorite is “It’s Raining Tacos” by Parry Gripp. 

Dance parties are highly encouraged.

How can you bring some silliness into your skills practice?

Samantha is a wife, mom to three tiny humans, high school English teacher, perpetual student, Texas transplant, and lover of beautiful stories. She spends her days seeking levity in the chaos, sharing her passion for writing and storytelling with students, and searching for her constantly misplaced cup of reheated coffee. You can follow Samantha on Instagram and Twitter @SimplySivils or on her terribly neglected blog http://simplySivils.wordpress.com/.

5 Tips for Writer’s Notebook Setup

In the early days of my teaching practice, I struggled with wanting my students to keep a portfolio that would house writing practice, quick writes, pre-writing, formal writings, and even some interactive notes. All the things! I went down a rabbit hole of research and found binder organization or the typical “interactive notebooks” which were a bit too elementary for my high school classroom needs. They had some great qualities I wanted to incorporate, but didn’t quite check all of the boxes. In the process, I stumbled onto a more grown up Writer’s Notebook. 

When researching Writer’s Notebooks and seeing the innovative ways teachers were using them in their classrooms, I found wonderful ideas for activities to put in them, but wasn’t finding guidance that would help me shift from a hodgepodge notebook of miscellaneous writings and notes that students don’t revisit easily to the tool I was imagining for my students. Over the course of several years (and tons of trial and error), I honed in on a few basic “rules” for notebook setup in my classroom. 

If you are new to using Writer’s Notebooks and desperately seeking some guidance on where to begin or an experienced notebook Rock Star just looking for some new ideas, here are my setup basics: 

  1.  Use a Table of Contents

Anyone who knows me will tell you I’m a big fan of the bullet journal. I absolutely love the flexibility it provides me as a “pen and paper” type of person who loves to keep different types of lists, but doesn’t want to keep multiple planners or notebooks. As long as I utilize the Table of Contents, everything is easily found. 

This seems like such an obvious thing to incorporate, but none of the online resources I viewed talked about using one. After all, I wanted my students to use their notebooks as a writing tool, to revisit resources we’ve glued in, review previous writings, annotate short texts, etc. It’s so much easier when the kids can flip straight to the page they are looking for instead of making ostentatiously dramatic page turns to locate something. (If you know, you know). 

Because I couldn’t find an example of what I wanted to use, I pulled from my bullet journal and added some additional information I wanted students to have to create my own print out. On Day 1 of notebook setup, each student receives two copies to glue into their notebooks (front and back) on the first page. It has space for them to include the date, page number, name of the entry, and even a space to enter grades. 

Click here if you’d like to make a copy of the Table of Contents I created. You can customize it to your needs. 

This is an example of my teacher notebook’s Table of Contents.

Pro-Tip for printed notebook resources: Knock down the sizing of any full page copies to 85% and they will fit perfectly on the pages of a composition notebook.

  1. Number ALL Pages

Again, this may seem obvious, but I make my students number the pages of their notebooks after they’ve glued in their table of contents. Every. Single. Page. I used to let students number as they go, but my experience has proven that, more often than not, kiddos will forget. When their pages aren’t numbered, that information doesn’t make it to the table of contents, and then the whole logic of having the organization starts to crumble. I promise it’ll only take about 5 extra minutes during your setup, but the payoff is priceless. 

  1. Everything Is Written in Ink

I love a freshly sharpened Dixon Ticonderoga pencil as much as the next teacher, but follow me around the room on this one. How many times have you seen a student take a pencil and begin to write only to pause, panic, and frantically erase whatever they’ve just written? Write. Erase. Write. Erase. Eventually, that student has erased a hole straight through their paper. 

My students hear my spiel every year: Write with conviction. Mistakes will happen. Writing is a process. Put a line through it and keep going. 

I know it may seem odd and I’m not saying that this is the hill I’m going to die on if a kiddo starts writing in pencil, but it does serve a purpose in writing instruction. It may take some time and some cajoling, but even my most tentative kiddos eventually come around to writing confidently in ink. After a week or so, I don’t even have to remind my kids to use a pen. This leads to my next guideline.  

  1. Whiteout or Removing Pages is Outlawed

The explanation for this links to the guideline above- writing is a process and mistakes will happen. We all know that as we draft, we change bits and pieces along the way. It helps me coach students when I can see the evolution of their writing. Part of my practice is to teach students to review their own pre-writing and “ugly” drafts to look for parts that may work better during a later revision. Being able to see where they’ve been can help them figure out where they’re going more times than not. If a kiddo has erased, used whiteout, or torn out pages, we no longer have that roadmap. 

The end result of not allowing erasures or removals of student writing from their notebooks means that it becomes a living timeline of their growth as writers.  

  1. Decorate and Make it Yours! 

This is not so much a hard and fast “rule” as it is a solid nudge for students to really take ownership of their notebooks. I give students permission to decorate the outside (and interior) of their notebooks with anything that sparks joy for them. Enjoy the creativity they bring to their notebook decorations! I have so much fun decorating my notebook alongside my students and it gives me a chance to get to know them in those early days together. Win-win! 

When students take the time to fully complete their notebook setup, it’s unlikely they will lose it because they don’t want to repeat the process and attempt to recreate all of their hard work. BONUS! 

At the heart of it, a Writer’s Notebook is intended to be a space for students to build fluency, play with language, explore the writing process, and own their voice as a writer. The beauty of this basic setup is that you can build in space for as much or as little structure as your students need. 

What are your best tips for setting up Writer’s Notebooks in your classroom? Share in the comments


Samantha is a wife, mom to three tiny humans, high school English teacher, perpetual student, Texas transplant, and lover of beautiful stories. She spends her days seeking levity in the chaos, sharing her passion for writing and storytelling with students, and searching for her constantly misplaced cup of reheated coffee. You can follow Samantha on Twitter @SimplySivils and on her blog http://simplySivils.wordpress.com/.

Addressing Perfectionism in Student Writing

A few weeks ago I was scrolling through social media and I read an excerpt from Fear and Art by David Bayles and Ted Orland that resonated with me and made me reflect on my teaching practices. In the section titled “Perfection”, Bayles writes:

The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pounds of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot — albeit a perfect one — to get an “A”. Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work-and learning from their mistakes — the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.”

― David Bayles, Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking

So often we are taught that we should focus on quality over quantity making it easy to overlook the simple fact that, sometimes, we need quantity to get to quality. It makes complete sense to shift away from the idea of perfection and just start making things- or in the case of our ELA classrooms, writing things. The skill will grow with practice. Unfortunately, it isn’t always so easy to convince our students. 

The fear of a blank page can be crippling for any writer. It stares back at the best of us with a terrifying mix of expectation and possibility. I see it in my students all the time- that quest for a flawless piece of work. They want reassurance that their writing is “good” or “perfect” before submitting it for a grade. Others become so stressed about failing, they never even start. 

How do we help our students work through their perfectionism and just start writing? Enter the Writer’s Notebook.

I’ve always been on a bit of a mission to find ways for my students to create a sort of writing portfolio, but I also wanted them to have a place to keep quick writes, notes, and other short pieces of writing. A few years ago, I started utilizing Writer’s Notebooks in my class and noticed how easy it was for students to flip around to different pieces they’ve written. 

My students have the space to make multiple attempts at writing in a low stakes manner. They explore their voices as writers, play with language, journal, finish pieces, scrap pieces, start over, revisit previous pieces to examine and evaluate their progress. I absolutely love this tool in my classroom. 

My goal for Writer’s Notebooks with my students, in addition to helping them keep up with notes, handouts, and their writing, was to help my students gain confidence in their ability.

I was in the middle of transitioning my students into more choice reading and the idea struck me- if my students are self-selecting texts to read, why can’t they also choose the writing that I grade? So, I flipped the script a bit and opted to let my students select which of their writings I would grade. 

Oh. My. Stars. 

When I say that this was a total game-changer in my teaching practice, I am not exaggerating. It eliminates so much of the emotional roller coaster that is grading. It gives students agency to choose the best example of their work which provides the opportunity for focused feedback on areas of improvement instead of feeling like I need to help them correct basic errors. 

I observed this simple change help many of my struggling writers ask specific questions as they were working or in our writing conferences. Once they knew they’d be able to select the piece I’d be grading, their fear of writing badly lessened enough that they’d actually begin. I definitely count that as a win.

What does this look like in the classroom?

Limit the choices to showcase a skill and not a specific prompt without making it overwhelming. This will vary depending on the lessons and skills, but I always make sure to build in multiple opportunities for a student to practice so their choice comes down to piece A, B, or C. 

How will you help address perfectionism in your students and get them writing?

Samantha is a wife, mom to three tiny humans, high school English teacher, perpetual student, Texas transplant, and lover of beautiful stories. She spends her days seeking levity in the chaos, sharing her passion for writing and storytelling with students, and searching for her constantly misplaced cup of reheated coffee. You can follow Samantha on Twitter @SimplySivils and on her blog http://simplySivils.wordpress.com/.

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