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Category Archives: Writing Workshop

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!

 

 

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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.

 

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.

Have you asked students what they need? It is not too late

I am great at taking notes. I am lousy at looking back at them (a lot like my students).

But my student teacher is done with his semester, and am back reading and writing with my students each day. We’ve done a little AP exam crunch — our exam is today — and we are all ready for that test to be over. I’ve got 14.5 days before the summer bell rings, and my students leave me. Fifteen days to solidify my students’ identities as readers and writers, not just students reading and writing for an English class.

It’s been a hard row with this group. This group, especially my brightest students who let grades motivate their every move. There’s a disconnect the size of the Mississippi when it comes to showing evidence of learning and whining about grades.

Maybe I notice it more because I haven’t been with them every class period for the past six weeks. But something’s got to give.

So I opened up my notebooks and read notes from the class Penny Kittle taught at the University of New Hampshire Literacy Institute in 2014. Don Murray leaped from the page:

“If you understand your own process, you stop fighting against it.”

“We have to respect the student, not for his product, but for the search for truth in which he is engaged.”

“If you don’t leave a conference wanting to write more, there’s a problem with the feedback.”

“We work with language in action. We share with our students the continual excitement of choosing one word instead of another, in choosing a true word.”

“Mule-like stubbornness is essential for every writer.”

“One teacher in one year can change a child’s view on reading.”

All reminders of what I love about teaching writers and what I hope for all my students. And I’ve got 14.5 days before the summer bell rings, and my students leave me.

Recently, I read a great post by Tricia Ebaria titled “One Important Thing I Can Learn from Students.” This part resonates:

Rather than join the chorus of end-of-the-year countdowns, instead of giving in to fatigue (or cynicism), what if we reframed our thinking and asked ourselves: What’s the one important thing I can still do with my students? After all, it’s never too late to do work that is meaningful and important to our students and to the world.

Or how about this question: What’s the one important thing I can still learn about my students? studentswriting

So today I asked two questions to help me focus on students’ needs, and to help students focus on our need to keep learning:

1. Have your grown as a reader and a writer this year? And we talked about if the answer is no then we’ve both failed.

2. What’s one thing you still want, or need, to learn regarding reading and writing before your senior year and beyond? And students wrote their responses at their tables.

Some responses gave me pause. Others made me crazy. Many gave me hope that we still have time so every student can answer question one with a resounding YES.

student want 5

“Because we’ve really done nothing in class this year” is my first thought, right? But I have to wonder: Why does this students still feel this way?

student want 6

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student want 3

I’m celebrating the word PLAY.

student want 1

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student want 4

Hmmm. 

We have to be willing to be vulnerable. We have to be willing to ask our students what they need from us as their teachers. If we don’t, we may miss the point of teaching them all together.

I learned valuable things about my students and how they feel about their growth. This lesson is enlightening and humbling. And frightening.

I am almost out of time.

So we started in our writer’s notebooks. Updating our currently reading lists and talking about the books we’ve read, we’ve started, abandoned, and we’ve finished. We updated our challenge cards and checked our progress.

I book talked Goodbye Days by Jeff Zentner, my new favorite (I wrote about it here), and American Street by Ibi Zoboi, and let students know I had a fourth copy of The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. All books I’d read when Joseph was teaching and was dying to share with kids. Students eagerly reached for them, even tussling over Zentner’s book. (TBH I shudder just a bit when I think about not getting these new books back with it being so close to the end of the year.)

Next, I showed them an idea for their end-of-year writing — a pretty monumental task for teens already dreaming of days out of the classroom. But I think I sold them on how it can answer my question #2.

Multi-genre. Thank you, Tom Romano, and Shana for showing me how a marvelous multi-genre project can light a fire within my writers and let them showcase their interest, their talents, and the learning they’ve acquired this year.

We looked at samples. We talked about topics and research and genres. We talked about how the topics we choose can potentially help us learn the things we still need and want to learn.

We got excited about writing. I think some even got excited about learning.

So with 14.5 days left in the school year, we committed to a pretty intensive end-of-year plan.

I have a mule-like stubbornness when it comes to teaching readers and writers. Certainly some of that will wear off on my students, and maybe someday they’ll look back on their notes and their writing from their junior year in high school and recognize they’ve learned and grown in their “search for truth” as a writer.

How are you utilizing your end-of-year time? Please share 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.

 

3 Ways Paper Built a Classroom Community

This year, I’ve gotten away from a focus on online reading, writing, and grading, and returned to paper.

I’ve always kept certain things hard-copy–the writer’s notebook, one-pagers, and book talks–but when I started working with college students, Google Drive became my best friend.  I used Slides to keep myself organized in class, Sheets to keep track of my grades, and Docs to collaborate with my students as we worked on their writing.

However, after a semester of forgotten deadlines, regrettably disconnected class sessions, and lackluster writing voices, I wanted to switch things up.

So, beginning in January, my students printed a one-pager about the week’s writing and brought it to class.  When they gave presentations or shared their thinking, I asked them to bring a tangible artifact to represent their work.  Any time we shared or offered up our thinking, we wrote notes to one another and signed them with our names.

These three practices, along with an emphasis on slowing down our thinking and being more deliberate in our work, language, reading, and interactions, made this semester one of my favorites in a ten-year career of teaching.

Sharing Hard-Copy Writing — I tried to build in class time weekly for us to pass one-pagers around and leave feedback.  While this didn’t happen every week, it allowed for students to hear each other’s writing voices, discover new modes for representing their thinking, and come to a more dialogic understanding of the week’s readings rather than a “right or wrong” frame of mind.  In her self-assessment for the course, Erin writes about the benefits of reading one another’s work:

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Paper as an Artifact of Thinking — “I began writing this by going back and re- reading my writing from the beginning of this course. I still believe in some of the statements I made in my first one pager related to the beauty in the simplicity of a child’s world,” img_8673Hanna began her self-assessment.  Her ability to look back at her earliest writings as an artifact of who she was as a thinker 16 weeks ago allowed to her to launch into a detailed reflection on her growth over the course.

In keeping with that theme, I asked my students to bring in an old-fashioned poster or trifold to share the thinking of their final projects.  While they’d be turning in a more formal paper or Prezi during finals week, I wanted everyone to get to share their process tangibly.  We engaged in a gallery walk during our last class period together, and the students enjoyed showing off their own thinking and comparing it to their fellow teachers’.

As they read, they jotted ideas in their own notebooks for how they might modify their own thinking before submitting it in final form.  This type of physical engagement with one another’s work yielded far more interaction in terms of thinking and feedback than last semester’s format, in which I requested students send me three Google Slides about their work that we’d all share.

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Keepsake Feedback — Keeping with the hard-copy theme, I devised a few new feedback protocols for students to give one another comments they could hang on to.  While sharing the fruits of our semester-long inquiries, I asked students to engage in a “push and pull” with the writer.  On one side of a piece of paper, they “pushed” the writer on some things they might take a little further or explain in more detail.  On the other side, they told the writer what they had “pulled” from their work to enhance their own thinking.

In this way, students received feedback on these informal “drafts” of their thinking from their peers and from me, three weeks before they needed to finalize their assignment.  When they turned in their notebooks at the end of the semester, I saw that many students had taped in their peers’ feedback to hang onto as both advice and encouragement.

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By making our thinking visible this semester in the form of hard-copy papers that represent our thinking, posters or 3D representations of our ideas, and written feedback we can hang onto, I noticed a marked growth in my students’ progress.  Their writing evolved throughout the semester to not only take on different forms, but also in its sophistication of content.  My students all got to know one another well, even those in my class of 30.  They learned about a diversity of perspectives and ideas beyond mine or their own that helped banish the idea of a “right or wrong” binary.

I really enjoyed my teaching, grading, and students this semester…and it was all thanks to paper.

How have you balanced integrating technology and keeping it old-school to help your students see one another’s thinking? Please share in the comments! I’d love some more ideas for next year.

Shana Karnes lives in West Virginia and 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.

Writers Workshop at the College Level

I have had so much fun reading student work this week.

There. I said it. I actually ENJOYED grading…for once!

Like Amy, I learned about the world, my students, and their funds of knowledge.  Grading has been going well for me this week.

Well, I wasn’t really grading so much as giving students feedback on their final papers, which are due on Monday.  We’ve been engaging in a virtual writing workshop, in which I start a dialogue with students about their writing via comments on their Google Docs, and they reply, revise, and we re-read.

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I taught a mini-lesson via email on what I noticed the whole class might need to know (shorter paragraphs, most recently, as well as the power of the single-sentence paragraph).

In class, I’ve taught mini-lessons on seamlessly weaving in references to outside texts, developing a writing voice, and crafting an “I believe” credo statement.  We’ve read each other’s writing, as well as our course readings, not just for content but for craft.

Students had choice in their topic, genre, and process.  They described their teaching philosophies, educational experiences, and literacy histories through cartoons, lists, stories, essays, pictures, and poems.

We worked for about six weeks this semester on this writing, all of which was ungraded.  It will eventually constitute 10% of their course grade, and when I calculate that number, I’ll factor in student growth, effort, and style–not just the final product.

With great success, my students engaged in writers workshop–at the college level.

I knew that this was a new experience for them for several reasons.  Many students emailed me to ask if they could send me extra drafts, or began their pleas with an apology for being a bother, or panicked when they first saw the sheer volume of my comments.

But when they realized my feedback was a balance of suggestions, praise, or exclamations of delight, they relaxed.

When they realized that I would read as many drafts of their writing as they wanted, and that we had built-in class time for peer review, they relaxed.

When they realized that questions were welcome, and not an indication of ignorance or a lack of preparedness, they relaxed.

They relaxed into becoming teacher-writers, which is something we all believe every teacher should make a part of her practice.

imgresWriting–at every level, from kindergarten to college and beyond–should be therapeutic, pleasurable, engaging, challenging, and every bit of the art form that it is.

Writing should not be painful, terrifying, or crippling.  It should serve as a way for our students to continue their learning, rather than as an end measure of what they know.

By keeping these values at the heart of my teaching, I’ve felt like I was back in my high school English classroom for the past few weeks.  There was fun, noise, creativity, debate, and even dance parties and craft supplies when we assembled portfolios, in my college classroom.  In addition to being enjoyable for everyone, this workshop mentality helped produce some outstanding writing that I’ll be so proud for my students to showcase in their final admission portfolios.

Shana Karnes lives in West Virginia and 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.

Goodbye Days: a Craft Study and a Gorgeous Grand Slam

I love language. I love sharing my love of language with students.

When I read a book, I often dog-ear the pages, thinking of how I might use a passage to help my writers. Sometimes a book just does me in — so many beautiful words I cannot keep up. It’s a bonus if the story does me in.

Like Goodbye Days by Jeff Zentner. 30649795

If you haven’t read this book, oh, you’ll want to. Zenter’s first book, The Serpent King, kissed my soul. Goodbye Days took a hammer to it.

In a good way.

I started marking passages at page 36. I think because I forgot to think about it. Just read the first line of this YA novel:  “Depending on who — sorry, whom — you ask, I may have killed my three best friends.”

Mini-lesson opportunity one (whom), two (parenthetical with the dash), three (participial phrase), and four (voice)– all in one sentence.

The first time I really thought about using language from YA novels to teach my writers was in a class at UNH Literacy Institute taught by Penny Kittle. She showed us mentors of sentences and passages, pulled from the books she introduced to her students. She talked about how these craft studies also could serve as quickwrite prompts and book talks. A triple play.

Since then, Shana (who sat with me in Penny’s class) and I upped the ante:  some of our favorite mentors are hard-hitting home runs. But the following passage from Goodbye Days –It’s a gorgeous Grand Slam.


Excerpt from Goodbye Days by Jeff Zentner (p36)

     I feel like I’m watching something heavy and fragile slide slowly off a high shelf. My mind swirls with mysteries. The eternities. Life. Death. I can’t stop it. It’s like staring in the mirror for too long or saying your name too many times and becoming disconnected from any sense of yourself. I begin to wonder if I’m even still alive; if I exist. Maybe I was in the car too.

     The room dims.

     I’m tingling.

     I’ve fallen through ice into frigid black water.

     I can’t breathe.

     My heart screams.

     This is not right. I’m not fine.

     My vision narrows, as if I’m standing deep in a cave, looking out. Spots form in front of my eyes. The walls are crushing me.

     I’m gasping. I need air. My heart.

     Gray, desolate dread descends on me — a cloud of ash blocking the sun. A complete absence of light or warmth. A tangible, mold-scented obscurity. A revelation:  I will never again experience happiness.

     Air. I need air. I need air. I need air. I need.

     I try to stand. The room pitches and tosses, heaving. I’m walking on a sheet of Jell-O. I try again to stand. I lose my balance and fall backward, over my chair, thudding on the hardwood floor.

     It’s one of those nightmares where you can’t run or scream. And it’s happening to me this moment in the dying light of this day of dying. AND I AM DYING TOO.


What writing mini-lessons could you teach with this passage?

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