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Category Archives: Writing

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.

workshopquestion

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!

 

 

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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.

readerswriters

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.

ooster2

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.

 

Author Bios – A Follow-up

I collected these papers 20 minutes ago, and I am smiling so hard that my second period class coming in asked me what was going on.

A few days ago, Amy wrote a post about students writing their own author bios. It was an idea that snuck up on me a few weeks back when Amy Poehler’s author bio made me laugh out loud.

Following much the same format that Amy detailed earlier this week, I introduced the idea to my students of writing our own author bios by reminding them of what they have heard from me one thousand times before over the course of this year:

“We are readers and writers.”

To reflect this persona, I shared with my AP Language students a quick writing prompt that is turning out to be one of the best writing assignments of the whole year.

When Brianna turned her piece in this morning, she had a huge smile on her face. “I had SO much fun doing this.” Brianna, as studious, driven, brilliant, and stressed out as they come, was beaming ear to ear. What a testament to the power of writing with self reflective purpose.

To facilitate this assignment we:

  1. Looked over several sample bios from our book club books, some texts off my shelves, and a few internet suggestions.
  2. Students talked at their tables and came up with a list of “look fors” in this type of writing. I was impressed by not only the length of the list, in terms of what they noticed, but some of the insight. “If you are going to write a funny book, be funny. If you’re writing about the Nazi’s, that’s not a good idea.” True, true. Style and form must match purpose. I love it.
  3. Students then drafted both a current and a future author bio. The future bios were far and away the best. Students really embraced how wildly accomplished they will be as readers and writers after college. Additionally, this group is apparently going to rule the world.
  4. Peer feedback came next, with an inclusion of Shana’s “Push and Pull” feedback strategy. It was wonderful to see the details and voice emerge from their pieces. Celina had a line about winning the Nobel Prize, an Oscar, and a Grammy. I suggested she tell us what she won the Nobel for, who she co-starred with for her Oscar win, and how many albums she sold for the Grammy. “Oooo! I helped kids in the Sudan by supplying them with books (Mrs. Dennis swoons), Brad Pitt came out of retirement to play my dad in the movie, and I sold a record to every high school student in America, Spain, and the Ukraine.” Yes, yes, yes!
  5. Students took the peer and teacher feedback, went off to polish one of their bios, get an author picture, and turn in a final draft.
  6. These are HOT off the presses and I am so proud of their voice and creativity.

If you only look at one example, check out this first one. Brianna had me laughing out loud. No wonder she was beaming ear to ear.

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From line one, this piece had me laughing out loud. Brianna could not be a more serious student, but this work let her voice shine. I LOVE it from start to finish. 

Connor is a pretty quiet kid in class. His writing fluency has improved A LOT this year. And look at that smile! 

Charlie just won the most prestigious scholarship Franklin offers, because of his service, incredible heart, academic achievements, and being an all-around amazing person. He really opened up in his one pagers this year. I could not be more proud of this young man. 

Tahseen is a very serious young woman, but the little quips in here brought out her true voice. 

JJ too had a ways to go with his writing fluency and voice development. I’m seeing it now! 

Errin is a young woman whose name you will know someday. I am SURE of it. She had this shirt on in class this morning. The picture was taken before 7:00am. 

Lisa Dennis teaches English and leads a department of incredible English educators at Franklin High School near Milwaukee. She delights in writing in the third person, claiming it’s akin to an existence in parallel universes. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum 

An Idea: Author Bios and Some Focus, Wit, & Polish

I stole this idea from Lisa. She said it was okay that I write about it first. Bless her.

I finally feel like I’m getting a little of my writing mojo back. If you’ve been following my posts lately, you know I’ve had a hard time. I loved my student teacher, but I missed my students and how they inspire me to want to write and share.

It hasn’t been easy taking back my classroom. I am much more intense than Mr. G, and this translates to mean for some of my students. It’s true I grade hard, expect a lot, teach bell to bell. It’s not that he didn’t — maybe it’s just that I’m 50+, and he’s close to half my age. Whatever the reason, reinvigorating relationships hasn’t been easy.

Kind of casually one day, Lisa suggested she wanted to write author bios with her students next year. She said she’d read a few she wanted to use as mentor texts, thinking this little writing task would be a way to help her students develop their identities as writers. What a fantastic idea!

So last week for our writer’s notebook time, we wrote author bios, short, little, quippy, quirky writing that states who we are and why we write. (We still need work on the why we write part.)

booksforauthorbiosI prepared first by reading the inside back covers of some of my hardback YA literature. I chose four bios with similar elements:  Andrew Smith, Winger; Julie Murphy, Dumplin‘; Heather Demetrios, I’ll Meet You There; and Jason Reynolds, All American Boys. {Bonus: four book talks, along with the author intros. Boom.]

I explained the task:  We’re going to read four short author bios and then write our own. Listen to each one carefully, so we can pull out the similarities within each one.

We charted the elements of the bios on the board and then drafted our own.

authorbio

We spent five minutes on the writing, two minutes on revision, and six minutes sharing with our peers. We laughed. We wondered if the authors wrote their own book cover bios. We discussed our writing process.

“It would have been easier writing about someone else,” one student said.

“I need more time to think of how to say things,” said another.

“This would be fun to do at the beginning of the year,”

“I don’t do anything!”

“I’ve never won anything!”

“I cannot write that I am interesting when I am not interesting.”

“Can we write about what we want to do in the future instead?”

Oh, yeah, we stirred the pot, and ideas bubbled out. Throughout their questioning, my response remained:  Be creative.

One of the best books I’ve read on writing is How to Write Short: Word Craft for Fast Times by Roy Peter Clark. I marked it up with lesson ideas:  “the whole chapter would make a great lead in rhetorical analysis” and “on annotating: read before starting 1st book club” and “use b/f narrative –teaches analysis with song lyrics” and “parallel structure & compound sentences!”

This paragraph from the introduction is a great reminder for all types of writing — and writing instruction:

How to Write Short

Focus, wit, and polish. My students and I talked about our identities as writers. We talked about the time it takes to develop our voice, our craft, our meaning.

As they read their author bios to one another, the cough of community clamored just a bit, and in a few minutes the whole classroom caught it.

MariaLauthorbio

MariaCSkyauthorbioMicaelaauthorbioTreyauthorbioI reminded students as they write over the next few days — finishing their multi-genre projects, their last major grade — to write with intention, to write in a way that shows the answer to the last question I’ll write on the board this year:  How have you grown as a reader and a writer?

In the fall, I will do this exercise again. We will write our author bios at the beginning of the year, on day one, maybe. We will spent a good deal more time on them, and we’ll return to them again and again as we practice the moves all writers make to produce effective, convincing, creative writing. We will publish our writing with our bios. Hopefully, this will help us keep our sights on Focus, Wit, and Polish in all aspects of our writing.

How might you use this author bio writing activity? What tasks do your writers do that help them take on the identities of writers? Please leave your ideas in the comments.

Amy Rasmussen lives in north Texas and teaches AP English Language and English 3 at Lewisville High School. She loves talking books, daughters’ weddings (two this year), and grandbabies. Facilitating PD for other teachers making the move into a workshop pedagogy delights her. 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.

Varying Paragraph and Sentence Length for Effect

The formula is simple.

 

Pair a simple, declarative sentence in its own paragraph with a longer, more detailed paragraph to follow.  The two paragraphs set against each other will balance the other’s flavors out nicely.

 

Practice it mercilessly in workshop and use sparingly in finished work.

 

As you can see from this blog post, an entire essay or article that’s filled with long-short paragraph variations is going to tire, frustrate, and bore readers easily.   It will also become predictable, just like predicting that LeBron James is going to score 20 points in a game.  The good news, however, is that once you introduce the trick, you can invite readers to look for it across their reading.

 

Mentor texts used: An article about Alec Baldwin’s Donald Trump impersonation from The New York Times and a chapter from The Nix by Nathan Hill (hardcover pgs. 482-492) Note:  read over these mentor texts before using to see if they are appropriate for your students.  

Teaching this technique – version A:

 

  1. Invite students to freewrite off of each of these starting sentences from these mentors: “It takes seven minutes” or “Today was the day he would quit Elfscape.”
  2. Have students share their work.
  3. Reveal first two paragraphs of the Times article and page 482 from The Nix.  (Note: the vocabulary on this page of The Nix is tough, so I would suggest using it as an example of the technique only.)  
  4. Identify ideal locations for this technique (leads, beginnings of chapters and sections.)
  5. Practice this technique in a freewrite or on a piece in progress.

 

Teaching this technique – version B:

 

  1. Have students read the New York Times article and flash-skim the chapter from The Nix.  Unless you want students to read a sentence that extends for ten pages…
  2. Ask students about how and why these two authors decided to begin paragraph 1 simply and laden paragraph 2 with all the details.  Why might an author decide to describe a character’s decision to stop playing an online role playing game with zero periods?  Why might the Times author give us excruciating detail about Alec Baldwin’s Trump makeup?  To what extent are these “characters” portrayed similar?  Or are the purposes here different?
  3. Invite students to “hack” their own writing or another expository piece (e.g. a history or science textbook) to mimic the long-short style.  Is this an improvement?  Is the writing worse?  Why or why not?

 

Amy Estersohn teaches middle school English in New York.  She has never played an online role playing game and only pretends to know how to play paper and dice role playing games, so reading The Nix wasn’t easy.  Follow her on Twitter at @HMX_MsE.

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