Category Archives: Writing Workshop

How to Make 28 Teens Feel Special Immediately and Simultaneously: Or How I Manage Conference Notes

One of the most difficult parts of setting up a workshop was figuring out how to use and organize notes.  Those videos that show elementary school teachers walking around at leisure, seeming to write a paragraph on each child?  Not even possible, not even under the best circumstances.

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Wall space can also be temporary storage for conference notes and for giving you a “status of the class” picture of student progress.

What follows is a step-by-step guide to How I Workshop.

  • Figure out what you, as a teacher, are out to accomplish.  Are you trying to do a quick check in with each student, or are you going to do extensive work with 2-3 kids?  You need both kinds of conferring styles, I’d argue, but you also know which mode you are using, when, and why.
  • Write down 1-2 words in conference, add notes later if you need to.  When I sweep and chat to each student, as I did today, I’ll scribble in a few more notes after class if I need to.  
  • Notice patterns.  I like using my post-it notes to “snapshot” where students as a whole are and where I need to teach something the following day, especially if I find myself repeating myself over and over again in conferences.
  • Diagnose and select students for extended follow up.  If I notice that a student is working on an issue that involves more conversation, I’ll prioritize them for the next day.
  • Save and document information.  I can pop these post-it notes into a plan book.

How do you manage your conference notes?

Amy Estersohn is a middle school English teacher in New York.  She never met a Post-It Note she didn’t like. 

 

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Writing Heals. Writing Assignments Do Not

Last week I learned a valuable truth:  Even when we think they are not listening, sometimes students get it.

Let me back up.

The week before last I attended a department meeting where our district ELA coordinator shared the National Writing Project’s Case for Good Instruction, information I learned at my National Writing Project Summer Institute in ’09. It details the differences between When Writing is Assigned and When Writing is Taught. The discussion around me was interesting and peppered with excuses. I left wondering how teachers would answer these questions if they were on a quiz. How would you?

In your ELA class, do students:

  • have opportunities to create topics that matter to them?
  • understand audience and purpose for papers because they are specifically identified in assignments?
  • see you spending time teaching writing skills and strategies?
  • get writing models, assignments, and strategies to guide each of the different writing tasks?
  • reflect on significant growth — or lack of it — in specific writing skills?
  • hear words of encouragement cheering them on to revise, edit, and improve — and to correct drafts and then resubmit?
  • think about what they write through brainstorming, free writing, role-playing, discussion, or other prewriting activities?
  • celebrate what they, and you, write and make efforts to display and publish it?

I think the biggest excuse we give for leaning on assignments rather than acting on instruction is TIME.

“I can’t let students choose topics because they don’t know what to choose.”

“I can’t teach this novel if it takes so long to write a paper.”

“I can’t do my research paper if I give them time to resubmit. It already takes so long to grade the finished product.”

Maybe you are right. Maybe we have to give up things that we think are best practices for things that are better practices.

Student choice in writing topics is better practice.

Writing instruction with effective models, strategies, time to talk, and time to write are better practices.

Helping students revise, edit, and improve their writing during the writing process with a keen sense of audience and purpose are better practices.

conferringwithjulyssaOur students need time. They need our time. They need our attention and our careful consideration about the things that matter to them. We may have to let some things go in order to give our students what they need.

We learn valuable truths when we do. Last week my students performed (or presented) their poetic arguments. We spent weeks choosing topics, watching video performances, analyzing lyrics for structure and craft, thinking, drafting, talking, revising, studying models, reading each other’s writing, giving feedback, practicing mini-lessons on concrete details and using abstract language to create jaw-dropping imagery.

We were a community of writers, united in a task uniquely our own.

And that is the difference between When Writing is Assigned and When Writing is Taught.

During all that time, I didn’t think Stephanie was listening. She sat at her table, barely talking, sometimes writing, always sad. Then right before Christmas break I sat down and we talked. She showed me her draft, and it scared me. I knew she’d been depressed — her grandmother died at the beginning of the year, and the light left Stephanie’s eyes. I listened to her share her sorrow, her anxiety, the weight of her world , and I gave her my cell phone number with the promise she would call if her boots got too heavy. Thankfully, they didn’t.

Every one of my students who presented their poems sparkled with pride as they faced their classmates, even the ones whose knees knocked in fear. They wrote from their hearts about issues that matter to them personally. They wrote the most important arguments about mistaken perceptionholding grudges, self-hate and self-love, parental control and uncontrolled parents, lying and how we’re programmed to labelBlack Lives Matter and dying white privilege. They wrote about better education and the stress of getting educated, absent fathers, loving fathers, and parentless children and alcoholics who should have put down that drink at 21.

They wrote about sticking together.

And they wrote about self-destruction and depression and monsters. So many of them wore grooves in the floor with the spikes that hold them in place until the sadness drags them down under. They broke my heart.

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Writing to heal is better practice.

Please enjoy Stephanie’s poem. She calls it “Smile.”

 

Many students chose video presentations over live performances. I published several this morning on the 3TT Facebook page. Take a look.

Please share your thoughts on teaching writing. Leave a comment.

 

 

Amy Rasmussen lives in north Texas and teaches AP English Language and English 3 to the Fighting Farmers at Lewisville High School. She adheres to the words of Emerson: “We aim above the mark to hit the mark,” and Jesus Christ: “Love one another.” Imagine a world if we all love higher and harder than we think we can. Follow Amy on Twitter @amyrass.

 

What’s the most important thing you think you’ll ever write?

I am good at setting reading goals. Good at helping students set them, too.

But I never really thought about the importance of setting writing goals until I decided I wanted to write a book and struggled to get words on the page each day. (I still struggle.)

Even with this blog, my writing goals seem fuzzy. Sure, we have a 3TT posting schedule, and more often than not, I make my mostly self-imposed deadlines. But I haven’t really considered these deadlines writing goals.

Today I am wondering why not.

And I’m thinking that this is probably similar to how my students view the writing tasks I ask them to complete. They look at the calendar I provide. They consider the writing workshop dates, the revision workshop dates, the writing group dates. Maybe they pay attention to the learning goals I write on the board and review each day — all valuable parts of our writing class routines, but I doubt they actually set any goals. (Okay, maybe they set the goal to actually complete the assignment. Maybe.)

But I want them to set writing goals. I want to set writing goals for myself this year.

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a gem of a goal by my friend Billy

So today as we go back to school and get back into our routines, we will talk about writing goals, not just writing assignments. We will talk about the reasons we write and how practicing our craft can help us accomplish those reasons.

I think we’ll start with this poem:  The Writer by Richard Wilbur. And then read “The Daily Routines of 12 Famous Writers” and maybe “9 Weird Habits That Famous Writers Formed to Write Better.”

Then, maybe I’ll ask this question:

What’s the most important thing you think you’ll ever write? Why?

I don’t know where the conversation will go, but I am okay with that. I’ll let my students know how I feel about setting some personal writing goals. I’ll let them know how I think this may change, or challenge, my ability as a writer.

I’ll write my goals as they write theirs, and we’ll share.

If you need personal writing inspiration — or just want to find some excellent short mentors to use as you write with you students — read this: “Ten Texts That Will Get Teachers Writing.” And, of course, we share lots of writing inspiration on this blog.

I’d love to know your writing goals for the year. Please share them in the comments. (P.S. I hope one of them is to write a guest post here in 2017.)

Amy Rasmussen lives in north Texas and teaches AP English Language and English 3 to the Fighting Farmers at Lewisville High School. She adheres to the words of Emerson: “We aim above the mark to hit the mark,” and Jesus Christ: “Love one another.” Imagine a world if we all love more than we think we can. Follow Amy on Twitter @amyrass.

Writing When It’s Hard. Or School Should be Out Already.

Let me just say how cruel the school calendar is this year:  We have school through noon Wednesday. Kids are beyond crazy. Last Friday is typically the last school day before break, so it feels a bit like we are making up snow days for snow days that haven’t happened. It’s cold. And no one is going to want to be at school for the next three days. No one.

I’ve been toying with this post all morning. I don’t feel like writing. I just want to shop with my daughters who arrived in town over the weekend, and tend my five month old grandson who came to visit yesterday, and maybe bake some bread pudding in the crock pot. I do not want to write.

So what do I do to get myself to put words on the page? What do I do when I need students to want to put words on the page?

I look for inspiration. I help them find inspiration.

Lately, my students have been writing spoken word poems as arguments. They chose personal or social issues they care about, and they’ve crafted drafts that argue a position about their issues. Some are digging deep and writing with wondrous words. Others — not so much. But I’m not giving up.

I’ve learned that three things will help my writers when they sink low and cannot seem to rise back up. I must consistently —

Flood the room with beautiful language. In a spoken word poetry unit, this is easy. We watch a performance on YouTube most every day. “Spelling Father” by Marshall Davis-Jones is a new favorite. (I love the narrative frame and raw emotion in this piece.) If our goal is to help develop writers who intentionally craft meaning, we have to help students intentionally craft meaning. The more we recognize, analyze, and model the moves of writers, the easier writing with intention becomes.

Allow time for thinking. Waiting on students to think their way into writing can be hard. But I know that writing takes time, and when I rush students who haven’t had a chance to think about their ideas before they begin writing, the finished pieces rarely get the revision they need to be truly effective. Don Murray said, “Writing is self exposure.” It is. And the vulnerability can be immobilizing for some of us. Giving time and then waiting for students to make decisions about their writing pays off on the back end of the writing process. If we truly value student ideas, we have to give them the time to think of them.

Talk to students and keep them talking to one another. One-on-one conferences are a good idea any time, but during a writing unit, conferring time is essential. In large classes, we may have to stagger our live conferences with paper ones, and leave conferring questions, and “I wonders” on their pages. More than anything, students must know we are reading their drafts and offering feedback. I am working on getting faster at leaving quick notes. I find that when I zero in on one skill at a time students find my feedback a lot less intimidating (which is something I had to learn was even a thing.)

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Martina’s writing her poem about her culture. “I’m too white to be called Mexican, but I’m a Mexican.”

My plan for this week is to put these three things on a replay loop. We’ll start class with beautiful language, think and write and write and think — all the while talking to one another about our process and our craft.

We may just make it to Christmas break a little bit merry after all.

If you are still in school this week, what’s happening in your classrooms? Please share in the comments.

 

 

 

 

Opening a Space to Help Others and the Spirit to “Lean in”

I sat at the Heinemann breakfast at NCTE listening to those who knew and learned from him honor the legacy of Donald Graves. Penny Kittle began. She spoke of Don’s ever mindful mission to “open the space to help others” and how he had a “lean in” spirit. Everyone he spoke to knew he listened, knew he truly cared about who they were as people as well as who they were as teachers. Penny said Don had a “settle the soul” effect on those he encountered, even strangers in an airport on the way to NCTE after 9/11. In a time of turmoil, Don publicly read poetry.

Every individual who spoke that morning shared a credo, rooted in the influence of Donald Graves.

We listened, enthralled in the passion and purpose that bound us together as educators — all attending a conference intent on improving our practices to better instruct the children we teach.

I have only felt this kind of community two other times in my career:  once at the University of New Hampshire (UNH) Literacy Institute, the other at the North Star of TX Writing Project Invitational Summer Institute in 2009.

In class this week, my students and I read a poem that lead to a discussion about indelible moments, not just the ones that mark us with memories we cannot shake, but the ones that infuse us with new found understanding, new purpose, new hope. They change us for the better.

My experience with North Star changed me for the better. I owe a lot to this writing project.

I had only been in the classroom three years, and I was newly assigned to teach AP English Language and Composition. I didn’t have much of a clue. That summer I met other educators, who like Don Graves, had that “lean in” spirit. They knew how to “settle the soul.”

Dr. Carol Wickstrom lead with wisdom and wit and listened as I expressed frustration about my lack of preparation to teach an advanced writing class. Kip Nettles demonstrated daily routines of writing workshop instruction and modeled how these moves could have lasting effects on writers.

I grew to love the other teachers who attended that ISI with me that summer. We wrote. We shared. We worked hard to learn the meaning of authenticity in writing instruction. We cried as we read our writing, and we cried as we listened to the heartfelt writing of one another.

Heather Cato showed me how to “play” with technology and taught me how to effectively use it for instruction. She became my dear friend, thinking partner, and first writing collaborator, and along with Molly Adams, we started the blog Three Teachers Talk.

Few people know the history of Three Teachers Talk, but I tell it when I lead professional development, which thanks to an ever growing move to Secondary Readers and Writers Workshop has been quite a lot.  In that history are the roots of what Don Graves modeled so ardently:  How do we open the space to help others?

We started writing at Three Teachers Talk as a way to share how we internalized what we learned through our National Writing Project (NWP) experience. We wanted to help others welcome authentic choice writing practices into their instruction. We wanted to stay connected as friends and collaborators.

Molly and Heather have since moved to other great spaces in their careers. I am sure they write other places now:  Molly at her high school and with NWP and Heather as a curriculum and instruction leader in her district. I follow (stalk) them and celebrate their successes. I will be forever grateful for their listening hearts and “lean in” attitudes, especially Heather who shouldered me along at a time when I wore heavy boots to work each day.

It’s belonging to a community that brings out the best in who we want to become. When we surround ourselves with those with the same passion to learn and grow and share, we learn and grow and share passionately — or at least we learn how to open the spaces to do so.

Another North Star TC Amanda Goss opened a space for me when she told me about the UNH Literacy Institute and that I could take a class from Penny Kittle. I did, and my world shifted. My teaching took on new meaning as did my writing, and I met the friends who now write with me at Three Teachers Talk.

So many North Star TC’s have opened spaces for me that have helped me grow as an educator and as a human:  Audrey Wilson-Youngblood, Carol Revelle, Dr. Leslie Patterson, Marla Robertson, Juanita Ramirez-Robertson, and Holly Genova, Whitney Kelley, and Amber Counts.

Thank you for “leaning in,” “settling my soul,” and walking with me on my journey to become who I want to become.

In the summer of 2013, I sat in a class at UNH and listened to Penny Kittle and Thomas Newkirk talk about the influence of Donald Graves on writing instruction. They co-edited the book Children Want to Write, compiling his writing, research videos, and presentations to teachers and spoke warmly of their mentor, Don. In chapter one, they write:

“We used to joke that after a talk, a line of teachers would wait to speak to Don. And each one would say some version of, “I thought that you were speaking just to me.” That was his gift, an uncanny sense of empathy and understanding for the situation of teachers…Before the advent of No Child Left Behind, he saw the negative effects of mass testing — testing is not teaching, as he claimed in one of his book titles.

“But more significantly, he could articulate, and even dramatize, the reasons we all went into teaching in the first place — the challenge of monitoring the progress of students; respect for the decision making and reflection (even improvisation) of thoughtful practice; the rock-solid belief that student learning is tied to teacher learning; the need for focus on the key goals of learning (cutting through the curricular clutter); and his belief that no system or program — even those drawn from his own work — could predetermine the decisions a teacher must make. He stood like a rock in the face of anything that diminished this form of learning. It is a message more critical now than when he was presenting three decades ago.”

Ten years into my teaching career now, I embrace Don Graves message. I thank those of you who have helped me get here. I can only hope I can emulate his “sense of empathy and understanding for the situation of teachers” and stand “like a rock” as I teach my own students through the lens of Don Graves teachings:

“Teaching…[is] a form of research; it [is] real intellectual work” (6).

“…create the “conditions” for writing to occur and for students to become invested in their work” (11).

“Children want to write” (15).

“People want to write” (20).

“…when students cannot write, they are robbed not only of a valuable tool for expression but of an important means of developing thinking and reading power as well” (20).

“A democracy relies heavily on each individual’s sense of voice, authority, and ability to communicate desires and information” (20).

“Good teaching does produce good writing” (21).

“Writing is most important not as etiquette, not even as a tool, but as a contribution to the development of a person, no matter what that person’s background and talents” (21).

“Writing contributes to intelligence” (21).

“Writing develops courage” (22).

“Inane and apathetic writing is often the writer’s only means of self-protection” (22).

“Writing also contributes to reading because writing is the making of reading” (22).

“Auditory, visual, and kinesthetic systems are all at work when the child writes, and all contribute to greater skill in reading” (23).

“The ability to revise writing for greater power and economy is one of the higher forms of reading” (23).

“Children want to write before they want to read” (23).

“Neglect of a child’s expression in writing limits the understanding the child gains from reading” (24).

“…if writing is taken seriously, three months should produce at least seventy-five pages of drafts by students in the high school years” (26).

“Seldom do people teach well what they do not practice themselves” (27).

“Children may see adults read and certainly hear them speak, but rarely do they see adults write” (27).

“A single completed paper may require six or more conferences of from one to five minutes each” (29).

“Without information a student has nothing to write about” (31).

“Writing is the basic stuff of education” (35).

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Try It Tuesday: Notebook Write-Arounds

Tom Romano calls writer’s notebooks “playgrounds, workshops, repositories” in Write What Matters.  As such, the writer’s notebook employed in a workshop classroom is much more than a place to store drafts, brainstorm ideas, or take notes.  It becomes a sacred space that is personal, meaningful, and enjoyable.  To fill it with writing and wordplay that spurs a love of language, I like to write around various artifacts in my notebooks, and urge my students to do so too.

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I cheated and wrote around a poem and a picture here

Write around a poem – In this lesson, inspired by advice from Penny Kittle (she told me her writing got more beautiful when she read poems more intentionally), I ask students to cut out a poem and glue it into their notebooks.  This activity can change with its purpose–sometimes students can respond to the language in a poem, sometimes they can write from a line, and sometimes they can work to analyze the text for literary devices and figurative elements.  The act, though, of gluing a poem into our notebooks keeps beautiful language at the center of our work, made visible when we flip backwards through our pages.

Write around a picture – Like Amy, I like to see my students’ notebooks full of pictures.  I ask students to bring in or print photos of any sort, then write descriptions, craft imagined dialogue, or narrate a memory the photo evokes.  In addition to being personal and meaningful, these quickwrite activities often serve as jumping off points for longer pieces of writing.

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Lisa sent me flowers, and I wrote around her note

Write around a note – My friends and I are big note-writers, and I’ve always had the compulsion to write “thank you for your thank you note” notes (maybe that’s just me, but Lisa is a dork so she might do it too!).  Because that’s socially awkward, I like to glue notes into my notebook and respond to them that way.  I also have students glue in their Bless, Press, Address responses from other students, or my own written feedback (like Amy’s Silent Sticky Notes), and respond to it in their notebooks.

Write around an object – Whenever I unearth something meaningful from the depths of my glove box, I like to glue it into my notebook and write around it.  I have Starbucks

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I’ve memorized my library card number, so I no longer need to carry it in my wallet…

sleeves, library cards, ticket stubs, and even an old necklace glued into my notebook, surrounded by writing.  In this era of electronic communication, I think it’s important for students to put physical objects into their notebooks–I still have shoeboxes full of notes from my friends in high school, and I like their tangible power more than just a series of saved text messages.

Write around an idea – A written version of the Four Corners activity, students write down a statement in the center of a page and then exercise some critical thinking around the statement.  The top left corner represents the “strongly agree” perspective, the top right is “agree,” bottom left is “disagree,” and bottom right is “strongly disagree.”  I’ve also experimented with just having students respond to the statement in general, but I like the Four Corners because it forces them to consider multiple perspectives.  Mostly recently, I asked my preservice teachers to respond to the idea that “Teachers are responsible for 100% of their students’ learning” using the Four Corners method–I can’t wait to see their responses when I collect notebooks next week.

What ideas or artifacts might you have your students write around? Please share in the comments!

Try it Tuesday: Thesis Statement Dissection

Buttering someone up is an idiom that has long made me smile. Perhaps it is my deeply rooted devotion to butter (the dairy state doesn’t play…you can’t live here if you dislike butter) or the visual of someone taking a stick of butter and applying it like deodorant, but either way, I buttered up my students the other day and it worked deliciously.

Basically, I slathered it on like this:

  • Remind students of how awesome they are at writing thesis statements because they have been doing it for years.
  • Have students apply their reviewed knowledge of quality thesis statements to their own papers in order to double check their awesomeness at this skill.
  • Elevate them to the role of “expert” in the area of thesis writing in order to have them make suggestions to their peers about clarity and depth of their awesome thesis statements. 

Underlying all of this was my firm knowledge, butter in hand, that many of their thesis statements were currently far from awesome. However, this certainly wasn’t because my students lacked the skills to clearly convey their ideas, it was most likely because they had procrastinated in writing their drafts, checked out to the warmer temperatures and sunshine, or hadn’t taken the time to really carefully reflect on what they had written in favor of working on something for just about any other class.

So basically, the issues of every paper written by a high school student in May.

In order to encourage some honest reflection and move their work forward, I employed the following strategy:

1. First, I shared with students a thesis statement I wrote to accompany an informative paper I was writing along with them. We talked about the different elements present in my sample and how they matched up with what students knew of writing complex thesis statements. One area we worked through together was my struggle with a negatively connotated word that was pushing my informative thesis statement in the direction of argument. Having students help me change the word, demonstrated what I was going to ask them to do in small groups shortly. (Much praise here and reminders of how awesome they already are at writing thesis statements.)

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Students work on their thesis statements in small groups, under the projection of the sample paper I wrote along with them

2.  Next, we reviewed the non-negotiable elements of effective thesis statements. I asked students to highlight their inclusion of those elements and/or comment on their papers with what was missing so they could return and revise. We included that an informative thesis statement needed to present non-debatable facts, organization of those facts into a logical roadmap for the paper, and inclusion of a “so what?” element to clarify purpose for their audience on the specific elements of the topic the paper would cover.  At this point, we circled back to my thesis statement and looked one more time with theses specific elements in mind. (Again, more buttering up in the form of high praise to their identification skills and encouragement to now apply that thinking to their own work)

3. I then asked students to spend ten minutes or so, writing their thesis statements on our mini whiteboards, revising as they went. They were to write notes on the side to indicate areas they needed help on or questions they had about the effectiveness of their statements.

4. With markers in hand, students then gathered in small groups, “presented” their thesis statements to their group members by reading aloud and asking questions, and then worked collaboratively to strengthen their sentences. (Before they got to work, I reminded them of how highly qualified they all were to assist others and how as a classroom of writers, each student could provide insight to his/her peers on improving the work)

Honest conversations around the room included such statements as:

“I see what you mean. That part made sense in my head, but it needs to move over here.”

“I like it, but I’m still asking ‘so what?’ Like, what’s your point about stereotypes?”

And my personal favorite, “Dude. That thesis is awesome. Can I steal that idea to have a dependent clause first? My audience needs to think about historical examples of Congressional corruption before they can really understand how bad it’s gotten.”

Dude. Did you just reference syntactical choices to more appropriately orient your audience for your paper? Mic drop.

 

While students worked in small groups, I was able to conference with several members of the class one-on-one. In addition, I noted a few kids I would need to pull into a small group during the following class period to continue guiding their work on these statements.

With the messiest looking whiteboards I have seen in quite some time, students returned to their seats and kept working on both their thesis statements and the necessary adjustments to their papers to reflect their revisions.

I could have easily reviewed the parts of an effective thesis statement and walked around to take a look at what kids had already written. But by helping students see each other and themselves as resources, most of the class improved their clarity and complexity significantly and my involvement was minimal.

In a community of writers, everyone is a resource. Sometimes it just takes a little grease, er butter, to get the parts moving and the collaboration started.

What are your ideas for helping students see themselves as writing resources in the classroom? Please leave your comments below! And, Happy Teacher’s Day! 

 

 

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