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Category Archives: Writing

What’s in a Notebook?

It’s that magical time of year when my writer’s notebook is almost full, and I get to start a new one.  I love setting up my notebook, personalizing it, giving it value.  But I love, nearly as much, to look back at a full notebook–and today I want to share mine with you.

I’ll preface this overload of snapshots with a caveat that my sharing is unusual in terms of the writer’s notebook.  Whether we ask our students to use these tools as playgrounds, workshops, or repositories, notebooks belong to students.  Ownership is key if our students are to take on the identities of writers.  This means that for some, a notebook is private, while for others, sharing is essential.

So, with that said, let’s take a walk through my notebook–and, so we can see many other examples, please share what your notebook is full of on Twitter with #whatsinanotebook!

First, personalization and inspiration are key.

The first few pages of my notebook always contain photos, a tracing of my hand with some goals, a heart map, or some other kind of writing territory or prompt.  Whenever I’m stumped about what to write, I return to these first few pages to remind myself of the topics I need to mine.

From there, the variety begins.

I always write beside my students, so my notebook is generally peppered with quickwrites or “write into the days” from NWP.

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These are often the roughest drafts of posts that land on TTT, like this page, which morphed into this post.  For my students, quickwrites are often seed prompts that lead to longer compositions.  Just as often, though, they remain untouched:  an essential part of building fluency and stamina and the identity of a writer with many starts and stops.

My notebook is also full of poetry that I write beside or around.

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I get my poems every day via email from the Writer’s Almanac.  In addition to just being inspiring and enjoyable to do, this active reading of poetry makes me more aware of wordplay, themes in literature and in my life, and a new perspective.

I also write in response to quotes from books, TED talks, poems, or anywhere.

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This helps me to unpack a quote that strikes me for its craft, content, or both–students, too.

Gluing in artifacts to write beside is also powerful for me.


These serve not just as reminders of who and what is important to me, but a lovely time capsule to show me what was happening in my life at the time when I return to look at my notebook in future years.

There are also things I’m attempting to make connections between, but perhaps never do…

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(This might go under “things I abandon.”)

Rants that should probably be left in the dark…

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(You can tell by my handwriting that I was ticked, here.)

Things I abandon

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Sometimes I mean to write a bit more, and never do, so I add some squiggles and doodles to fill up the white space.

It’s important to remind students that it’s okay to abandon pieces of writing…we abandon books, don’t we?

…and random doodles, drawings, and in-the-moment jots and notes.

The last spread of my notebook is always my what-to-read page…

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(I keep my lengthy read, currently reading, and TBR list on GoodReads, so this page functions more as a ThriftBooks shopping list.)

…and the very last page is always my list of words and phrases that strike me as unusual.

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I jot these as I find them in books, poetry, or conversation.  Sometimes I look up definitions of these words; sometimes I already know what they mean, but just like them.  I ask students to keep this page, and twice monthly we visit it and do something with our lists.


As you can see, there’s really no “order” to my notebook–no sections other than those crucial first and last pages–but that’s just what works for me.  I taught seniors most recently, and found that they didn’t require the structure of a multi-sectioned writer’s notebook, but when I worked with 8th graders, they most definitely needed a little guidance.

This is just a guide, an inspiration, and an invitation–to not judge me for my wonders about the woes of motherhood, my consternation about teaching topics, or my completely unhealthy obsession with expensive writing utensils (Precise V5 pens…thanks, Amy…and PaperMate Flair markers are my top picks).

Please use this to help you craft a vision for the possibilities notebooks afford in helping us build fluency, gain confidence, and take on the identity of WRITER, and feel free to reach out to any of us with questions or wonders you have about the magic of writer’s notebooks.

Share with us, please, what your notebook looks like on Twitter using #whatsinanotebook!

Shana Karnes teaches sophomore, junior, and senior preservice teachers at West Virginia University.  She finds joy in all things learning, love, and literature as she teaches, mothers, and sings her way through life.  Follow Shana on Twitter at @litreader or read more of her writing on the WVCTE Best Practices blog.

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Rewriting Our Definition of Writing

9780874216424I really don’t think there’s anything more invigorating than learning with other teachers, and this week, I’m doing just that.

I’m feeling lucky to be encamped in the mountains of southern West Virginia at Pipestem State Park, working with National Writing Project teachers on the College Ready Writers Program.  This isn’t my first NWP workshop, but it’s my first time leading one, and the thinking and planning and writing that have surrounded our work has been absolutely energizing.

(“You’re like a wind-up toy,” my co-leader remarked yesterday as we planned over dinner.  “You just never stop!”)

It’s true–all week, I haven’t stopped thinking, connecting, writing, reading, and wondering about our course topic, which is argument writing.  One of our central reads, Joseph Harris’ Rewriting: How to do Things with Texts, has been inspiring and informative.  Harris has gotten me to revise how I think of writing and its purpose in a classroom.

Writing, in my experience, is a process of discovery.  We write to learn, to help us grow into ways of thinking.

When we frame writing this way for our students, the entire writing process as we usually approach it must be revised.  There can be no more, “brainstorm an idea, then write a draft, then revise it, then turn in a final draft.

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Make sure you show me you can do ______ throughout.”

Instead, the process needs to become one of starts and stops, of constant learning and revision of thinking, and a process that is never completely independent of other learning.  What I mean by this is that we can never just write for writing’s sake–we will always be writing to learn about our topic: the reading we’re writing about, the questions we’re asking, or the craft moves we’re making.

Writing is never separate from its subject.  It is always both art and craft, both structure and content, both phrasing and approach.  When we rewrite our notions of what writing is, we see that the way we approach, assess, and value the writing process must reflect those beliefs.

Harris asserts that students are often asked to assume the roles of disciples as they write, adopting the moves and beliefs of another thinker (often the teacher or the author of whatever text they’re studying) rather than adapting them.  “Little new knowledge is created.  Instead the disciple simply shows that the master is correct,” (74) in this type of teaching.  I’ve seen, and experienced, this kind of writing in classrooms.

How many of our students’ writing experiences have stifled their voices?

Just one is too many.  Our students do enough of this posturing.  They’re teens, for crying out loud, constantly adopting the moves and beliefs of others.  We need to help them find their voices, and not just their writing voices–a voice in which to sing a song of themselves.

All this thinking only reaffirms my belief in a writers workshop approach:  one in which a community of students can safely take risks, engage in high volumes of low-stakes, choice-driven, mentor-text-rich, craft-study-laden writing, confer with a practiced writer about their growth, and take on the identity of a writer themselves.

If you’re interested in working toward a classroom that values this kind of writing, I highly recommend reading Joseph Harris’ Rewriting, and continuing along with us on our readers-writers workshop journey here at Three Teachers Talk.

How might your classroom look this fall if you rewrite your definition of writing to match Harris’?  Please leave us a comment and share!

Shana Karnes teaches sophomore, junior, and senior preservice teachers at West Virginia University.  She finds joy in all things learning, love, and literature as she teaches, mothers, and sings her way through life.  Follow Shana on Twitter at @litreader or read more of her writing on the WVCTE Best Practices blog.

Want to RENEW! Get the book by @ShawnaCoppola

I have never written a book review. (Okay, maybe that’s not true. I think I remember writing one in 4th grade over a biography of Marie Curie, the first biography I ever read.)

I have never written a review of a teaching book. But I am going to try.

I am a teaching book junkie. I have stacks of them, but I rarely read the whole of them. I cannot even tell you why, and I admit there is great irony here because as I write this, I am also trying to write my own book for teachers (I have been for four years, sigh.) If I ever get it written, I hope you’ll read it.

In the mean time, I have to tell you about Shawna Coppola’s new book RENEW!

I read the whole of this book in one afternoon! Thank you, Shawna, for writing so much of my own thinking about “Becoming a Better — and More Authentic — Writing Teacher.”

Shawna’s voice sings with passion and positivity. She paints the pages with possibilities! I know, I am gushing (and that’s probably too many p’s.) But here’s the thing —

I know so many ELA teachers who do know know how to teach writing. I know many more who are not confident teaching writing. I know even more who are not writers themselves, so it’s no wonder that teaching writing is difficult. Teaching writing is hard. A book like RENEW! not only gives us a starting place, it gives us desire.

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I am doing a lot of thinking lately around the idea of transcending. How do we go beyond our limits into something more, something better, something real and sustaining?

Let me share with you some of the passages I marked in RENEW!. I think you’ll see why this book is a must read for any teacher who needs a bit, or a lot, of renewal when it comes to teaching students to write.

“. . . if we are truly willing to honor the individuality of our student writers, the RENEW!uniqueness of each community of learners, and the ever-changing nature of our global landscape, we must continually rethink, revise, and renew our practice. Otherwise — to paraphrase Dewey — we rob “today’s students of the tomorrow today’s students deserve” (10).

“Broadening our ideas about what writing “is” can be scary, as if we are opening up a Pandora’s box. But in all reality, continuing to teach our student writers through a narrow, outdated lens — one that, in overvaluing written composition, does not accurately tell a story about the world of writing beyond most schools and classrooms — harms their development as writers by limiting the kinds of composing they are exposed to and encouraged to practice” (51).

“Teaching our writers how to develop their own tools is infinitely more sustainable than using preexisting tools. Quick survey:  How many of you use the graphic organizer your sixth-grade teacher taught you to use to write a persuasive piece? That graphic organizer may have been helpful to you then (although I doubt it was helpful to 100 percent of your classmates), but how useful is it you now?” (62).

“What message or “story” are we sending our student writers with a single overall score? Not only does it imply that their worth as a writer can be whittled down to one letter or number (which itself can mean different things for different teachers and even within different units of study), but that the worth of writing itself can be whittled down this way” (73).

“. . . readers of writing are human, an done person’s response to a composition may not perfectly align with another’s (If it did, what a drab, boring world we’d be living in!)” (79).

“Which is more likely to help students learn:  offering them specific feedback about their work, behavior, or performance, or slapping a score on a piece of paper?” (82).

“. . .when we engage in a semi-regular habit of writing, we can much more genuinely speak to those incredibly fantastic moments that writers experience on occasion, like the amazing feeling of completing a particularly difficult draft or writing something that makes a reader spontaneously laugh out loud. Anyone who’s ever taught a group of students of any age knows that when we are faking our way through something, or at the very least “phoning it in” by only engaging on a superficial level with what we are purporting to teach, students can smell our lack of authenticity a mile away. They know, even subconsciously, that they are being sold a decidedly moldy bill of goods” (92).

That’s all well and good, right? But here’s the beauty of Shawna Coppola’s book — she gives us the research that supports each of her positions AND she gives charts and graphs and resources to help us rethink, revise, and renew our approach, instruction, and practice as we become better teachers of writing. This book is chock full of everything good when it comes to writing instruction. It is a book I will return to again and again.

I hope you’ll read it. I hope you’ll share it with every ELA teacher you know. Really, it is just that good.

 

Amy Rasmussen lives in north Texas and teaches AP English Language and English 4 (new prep in ’17.) She loves talking books, daughters’ weddings (two this year), and grandbabies (five). She also loves facilitating PD for other teachers making the move into a workshop pedagogy. Amy adheres to the words of Emerson: “We aim above the mark to hit the mark,” and Jesus: “Love one another.” Imagine a world if we all aim higher. Follow Amy on Twitter @amyrass. And she really hopes you will follow this blog!

Defining Readers-Writers Workshop

“I need a visual of a ‘workshop.’ That word confuses me still.”

This is not the first time I’ve been part way through facilitating professional development and a participant has made a similar request. There’s a lot for me to learn here.

Before we can begin really sharing the excitement and benefits of a readers-writers workshop model of instruction, we must get on the same page as to what we mean by Workshop. I’ll try to do that here.

Let’s start with the dictionary definition of workshop and zero in on #2.

workshop definition

Based on this definition, let’s consider this essential question:

How do we create open spaces where the children we teach can grow as readers and writers?

To me “open spaces” equates to “workshop.” Open spaces means teachers let go of control, remove themselves from center stage as the holders of the knowledge, and invite students into a space of curiosity and discovery. It’s a space where students thrive in a community of trust and sharing, where they talk about their identities and experiences as readers and writers, where they play with language and take risks as they explore what it means to develop their comprehension and analysis skills — and their craft as writers.

Opening spaces requires planning. It is not willy-nilly choice in books or topics, or stations without specific guidelines and instructions, or seats moved from rows into small groups without modeling the thinking that makes it possible to “engage in intensive discussion and activity” around our content. Teachers must model what this looks like. And we must trust that our students will engage and learn in this model.

They will — if we let them.

Readers-writers workshop is a method of instruction that often requires a paradigm shift, a shift from the teacher making all the choices and telling students what to learn within a text, to students making choices, and through practice and application of skills-based lessons, learning as they read and write.

I’ll return to some definitions found online to help clarify:

“The Reading Workshop is a teaching method in which the goal is to teach students strategies for reading and comprehension. The workshop model allows teachers to differentiate and meet the needs of all their students.”

For our readers, we open the space for students to choose the books they read. By doing so, we meet students where they are in terms of their interests and abilities. The teacher becomes a coach, teaching skills specific to the needs of each learner. This requires time. We must reserve time for students to read when they are with us in class, and we must confer with students about what they are reading — and how they are reading it. This is reading instruction in a workshop model. We teach the reader, not the book. Readers must predict, visualize, infer, comprehend, analyze, and evaluate. These are all skills we model and teach in readers’ workshop.

What about writer’s workshop?

“As in a professional writer’s workshop, each student in the class is a working author. The teacher is a writing professional and peer coach, guiding authors as they explore their craft. … Teachers write with their students and share their own work as well.”

To teach our writers, we must be writers ourselves. We must model the moves writers make as they use language to craft meaning. We must validate our writers and help them recognize what professional writers do to think of ideas, organize those ideas, and convey those ideas in a way comprehensible to readers. In a workshop classroom, we use mentor texts:  sentences, paragraphs, passages, essays, poems, stories to teach writing skills that students apply to their own writing. We teach the writer, not the writing.

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So, what do I mean when I say “workshop”? I mean students doing the work of readers and writers, “engaged in intensive discussion and activity on a particular subject” — specifically related to growing as readers and writers. This work happens because teachers open the spaces in their classrooms which allow for it.

Questions about your move to a workshop model of instruction? Please ask in the comments.

Amy Rasmussen lives in north Texas and teaches AP English Language and English 4 (new prep in ’17. She loves talking books, daughters’ weddings (two this year), and grandbabies (five). She also loves facilitating PD for other teachers making the move into a workshop pedagogy. Amy adheres to the words of Emerson: “We aim above the mark to hit the mark,” and Jesus: “Love one another.” Imagine a world if we all aim higher. Follow Amy on Twitter @amyrass. And she really hopes you will follow this blog!

 

 

Every Teacher a Reader. Every Teacher a Writer.

Do any of you follow the Middle and High School Secondary ELA group on Facebook?

Now, I am not trying to pick any fights, but I’m just going to say it:  Some of the comments drive me straight over a rocky cliff. Honestly, I tend to get a little snarky if I spend too much time there. (Sorry, not sorry.)

Today an ELA teacher posted “Writing sucks.” What?! I sure hope a student never hears her say that. Yesterday a teacher posted this question:

“Silent reading…have you built it into your routine? For how long? Do you find your struggling readers or non-readers (at home) love this time? I currently have built it in for the first 15 minutes since I know many of my 6th grade sts do not read at home. I think it works, but just brainstorming other ways to do things for next year. Just curious what you all do! I would be curious if HS teachers still give time to silent read, too.”

I had a hard time reading the thread with comments like “They won’t read, or forget their books… It turns into wasted time.”

Of course it does, if teachers do not establish the all out importance of reading, the benefits of reading, the time commitment to grow as readers; if teachers do not walk the talk of readers, share their reading lives, promote books and match books to kids and beat the drum of reading. Every. Single Day. We have to help students value reading.

The same holds true for writing. We have to help students value writing. We have to help students value the struggle of writing well.

Are we teacher-writers who model the difficult task of writing? Do we share the struggle of getting thoughtful ideas on the page and revising and revising and revising to convey the meaning we intend to the audience we intend? Writing well means we make intentional choices and we develop the habits of writers. Read Donald Murray’s “Habits of Writing,” and then internalize his last line: “Consider my habits of writing, but develop your own by studying what you did when the writing went well, and make what you discover your own writing habits.” (If you really want to build your writer-mojo, I suggest Murray’s books, The Essential Don Murray:  Lessons from America’s Greatest Writing Teacher, and Learning by Teaching.)

We can learn to write well. We can learn to teach writing well as we discover our own writing habits and guide students into developing their own. But this will never happen if we do not write.

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I’ve written about walking our talk before — and I believe it more every day. I think we owe it to our students to be actively engaged in the learning process the same way we ask them to be actively engaged. I can never be a good enough reader. I can never be a good enough writer.

So, this summer I commit to keep working on my craft. I will read. I will write.

If you are reading this post, I know I am preaching to the choir. I know you already share at least some of my beliefs about reading and writing. Thank you for that!

I invite you to share your reading and your writing, to amplify our collective voices as teachers who read and write, and walk our talk — even during the summer. Shana posted our summer posting plans yesterday. I hope you’ll join us on our Facebook page, our Instagram feed, and on Twitter. And as Austin Kleon famously asserts:  Show your Work!

Let’s spread it far and wide!

Amy Rasmussen lives in north Texas and teaches AP English Language and English 4 (new prep in ’17. She loves talking books, daughters’ weddings (two this year), and grandbabies (five). She also loves facilitating PD for other teachers making the move into a workshop pedagogy. Amy adheres to the words of Emerson: “We aim above the mark to hit the mark,” and Jesus: “Love one another.” Imagine a world if we all aim higher. Follow Amy on Twitter @amyrass. And she really hopes you will follow this blog!

Stay Gold, Ponyboy. Authentic Literary Analysis: Poetry in Two Voices – Guest Post by Elizabeth Oosterheert

Over the past several months, social media has been a buzzing hive of Tweets, articles, and teaching resources for The Outsiders, as S.E. oosterHinton’s beloved classic celebrated fifty years of resonating with readers of all ages around the globe.

In using The Outsiders as a whole class text this spring with a seventh grade class composed of nearly all boys, I began to explore juxtaposing the beauty and power of poetry during National Poetry Month, and authentic literary analysis. How could I use poetry as an analytical catalyst?

The answer came in an approach that I love because it promotes several of the pillars of writing workshop:

  • Student agency/ownership of the writing process
  • Collaborative writing and thinking
  • Mentor texts as models for writing craft moves
  • Opportunities for teachers to participate in workshop as writers

Poems in Two Voices are an excellent way to invite creative literary analysis, since by definition, they challenge student writers to take on the personas of fictional characters and to look at a literary work through the lens of their chosen character’s perspective.


As an invitation into learning about Poems in Two Voices, I shared a poem that I wrote from Johnny and Pony’s point-of-view during our workshop time, as well as poems written by former students.

Seventh Grade Literature
The Outsiders
“The End of Innocence: A Poem in Two Voices” by Mrs. O.

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Ponyboy Curtis Johnny Cade
Nature’s first green is gold, her hardest hue to hold. Nature’s first green is gold, her hardest hue to hold.
Gold was my mother. She was beautiful. Nothing gold can ever stay. My life has been black.
Gold is my brother Soda. Movie star handsome. He kind of radiates. I pulled a silver switchblade, thinking it was for the best. Disaster from then on.
Beauty was the sunrise in Windrixville. There was a silent moment when everything held its breath. I did, too. I remember Pony’s voice as he read Gone With the Wind. Dallas is gallant, going into battle like those Southern gentlemen.
I thought things could only get better, but we went from ice cream sundaes at Dairy Queen to the red Hell of the church on fire. We started it with our cigarettes. I was a hero for a moment. Instead of being beaten down, I was giving life. Pony said Jerry thought we were sent from Heaven.
Johnny never thought of himself. We can’t live without him. The gang needs him. I don’t want to die now. Sixteen years ain’t long enough.
Sixteen years on the street, and you can learn a lot. But all the wrong things, not the things you want to learn. Sixteen years on the street, and you can see a lot.  But all the wrong sights, not the sights you want to see.

 

Then leaf subsides to leaf… Then leaf subsides to leaf…
We had a rumble, but in the midst of the fight I realized, I don’t hate the Socs anymore…None of us should have been there, throwing punches with a gang of future convicts. Useless…fighting’s no good. I tried to tell Pony that. I have to get the words out while I still have a pulse.
Johnny was so quiet, I thought Dallas and I were too late. I thought Johnny was already dead. “We’re all proud of you, buddy.” That’s what Dallas said. I loved Dallas. I wanted to die with his words in my ears.
Johnny was trying to talk to me. I leaned in,  close to his burns, his closed eyes. “Stay gold, Ponyboy. Stay gold.”
The pillow sank a little, and Johnny died. I see something on the horizon. Light.
So Eden sank to grief,

So dawn goes down to day.

Nothing gold can stay.

So Eden sank to grief,

So dawn goes down to day.

Nothing gold can stay.

After sharing my poem, and giving students the opportunity to read several student written poems aloud, we wrote the following list of writing craft moves:

Writers of Poems in Two Voices…

  • Look back at passages in the text where the characters they’ve chosen are actually speaking, or where they can “hear” their thoughts.
  • Base their poems on a specific passage in the book, or make their writing a more general reflection of everything that they’ve read so far.
  • Might give a voice to a character who doesn’t speak often or is silent. This allows creative license as a writer. For example, what would Bob say if he could speak to Johnny or Pony about what happened in the park? What would Johnny say to the children he rescued from the church in Windrixville?
  • “Steal” lines or word choices from the book such as a favorite Again and Again, or golden line
  • Sound like the character being represented
  • Decide which lines will be read in unison, and which ones will be read individually
  • Include important details from the novel to illustrate close reading
  • Practice reading poems ALOUD with coauthors to work on timing and inflection

 


Two voice poetry allows students to powerfully express how a text has changed their thinking about the world, gives them the opportunity to write with a coauthor, and to present their poetry to others.  It works beautifully with any book. My students loved revisiting favorite scenes in The Outsiders, and we’ve also written narrative poetry, found poetry, and whipstitch poetry together.

The end of the year is the perfect time to utilize poetry as an analytical tool.

How do you use poetry with your students? Please add your ideas and questions to the comments below!


Elizabeth Oosterheert teaches middle school language arts and directs the 8th Grade Theatre Troupe at Pella Christian Grade School in Pella, Iowa.

She loves reading and writing with middle schoolers.


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Care to join the conversation? We’d love to add your voice! Please email guest post ideas to Lisadennibaum@gmail.com.

Using Poetry to Explore Current Events and Controversial Topics

I suffer from a constant urge to bring current events into the classroom.  I love talking about issues current or past  in conferences or small groups with students, whether it’s Tom Brady’s Deflategate or Professor Henry Louis Gates arrested for trying to break into his own home, or the U.S.’s relationship with Cuba.

 

Recently I’ve moved towards making current events more central to what and how I teach, by presenting issues, giving time for questions (of which there are many, most of them excellent, some of them unanswerable), and then providing a creative writing opportunity.  So there!  Writing workshop accomplished!

 

When Donald Trump first instituted a travel ban, I invited students to take on one of the following four characters in a poem:

  1. A Customs Agent at an airport who has to tell a passenger who recently arrived in the U.S. that she is no longer welcome into the country
  2. A business professional from Iran who had to cancel or change a trip
  3. A U.S. Citizen who is concerned about relaxed immigration policies
  4. One of the protesters who showed up at an airport with signs
Travel Ban

Google employees protest a travel ban.

I was amazed at how quickly students took to writing and sharing their character-poems.  Here’s what helped:

 

    1. This was an exercise in imagination, not a rehashing of politics and policy.   Certainly I want them to explore their own feelings about politics, but I want them to do so through the lens of another person.  This may be one of a few times when I tell students it’s not all about what they think!
    2. I presented a range of options with some ambiguous interpretations.  I wanted students to be able to go into a right-wing or left-wing comfort zone  by writing the protester point of view or the concern point of view, but I didn’t want to limit the interpretation.
    3. Students gravitated towards complexity.  Student poems about the Customs Agent often played with the tension between following orders and doing what seems right.  Student poems about the citizens afraid of terrorism considered the best approaches for addressing that fear.

 

 

 

 

I am sure I am not the only one out there who is struggling to think of ways that current events can shine a light into our classrooms and make our work even more productive.  

 

What are you doing to teach current events in Reading and Writing Workshop?

 

Amy Estersohn is a middle school English teacher in New York.  Her favorite section of the New York Times is the wedding announcements, though the national section is pretty good, too.

 

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