Category Archives: Writing Workshop

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.

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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?

Quick Writes That Work

QUICK WRITE

It appears daily on my agenda and often sparks great writing, discussion, and even revision. My bestie Erin said it beautifully: “Quick writes produce pure honesty and they’re a good place for me to “talk” with my students.” The writing is low stakes, the creativity can be high, and we can “talk” with our kids and provide feedback on issues and ideas, over syntax and conventions. Plus, it helps with the endless struggle for volume, volume, volume.

But sometimes, quick writes can end up feeling a bit routine, which is not cool as I am trying to keep writers excited about their writing and producing more and more of it.

writers-block

So, because I’m sometimes known to Google my life (Last weekend my foot hurt after a run and the Mayo Clinic suggested I might have cancer, so there’s that.) I often head to the internet for curricular inspiration.

There are countless sources online that will lead you to quick write topics, if that’s what you are in the market for, and I am often in the market for someone’s fresh thinking to get my students writing when I haven’t left enough time to plan or the same old quick write feels bland.

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Quick writes are just the start! 

For example, I was inspired to write this post after I saw our friend Gary Anderson tweeting a journal topic of the day on Twitter. I’ve used several, and loved writing along with my students on his thought provoking prompts.

Here are a few reflections I have on quick writes. The process, their power, and providing writing opportunities to our kids every day.

  1. Link your quick write to what you’re work on in class that day, an essential question you’re studying, or relevant topic to your study. Or don’t! Quick writes can lead naturally into a mini lesson. They can also put that mini lesson on hold as students take off into small group and then passionate/uproarious/contentious whole class discussion. I’ll often have my students go back into their notebooks after discussion to add to their thinking, so even if they didn’t share, they are working with the ideas that class is chewing on and writing more.
  2. Let students write about what inspires them. At the beginning of the year, many students balk at the “opportunity” to write about whatever they like, but by the time you’ve established a rapport and let your students know that they belong to a community of writers, many are excited to be given time to get their thoughts on paper. And when you have them take some time to revise at the end of the writing and share their ideas or powerfully written lines with others, they take more seriously the production of that work.
  3. Give limited choice to guide writing toward a necessary discussion for that day’s mini lesson or topic of discussion. When I do want the quick write to lead into the mini lesson, I try not to lead too much. I want kids to write and discover. I don’t want to slip back into old habits of guiding students to a fixed answer. They feel duped, I feel cheap, the whole thing is a mess. So, when I am heading in a specific direction, I really try to give choice in these instances. Our mini lesson in American Literature the other day was on bias for our argument writing unit. I could have had them write about where they see bias and how it impacts an argument’s credibility. Totally fine. Instead, I asked them to choose:
    • Write on any topic from the perspective of someone who is heavily biased toward a particular outcome. Then, write the same appeal from the opposing viewpoint.
    • Consider the bias of an author you’ve read or a story you know well. How did the bias serve the author? How did the bias impact the story?
    • Defend, challenge, or qualify the idea that media bias is detrimental to a functioning democracy.
  4. Early on, I stole something I heard Amy say during the professional development she and Shana ran at Franklin last year. I always remind my students to “write as much as you can, as fast as you can, as well as you can.”Amy taught me that kids need to outwrite their inner critics, and I’ve coupled that with the discovery that, often times, a student’s inner critic sounds an awful lot like…a teacher. We need to help retrain kids to see the first quick draft of anything as just that, a quick draft. I scrap half of what I write when I consider it for revision. This is something new to most kids, who train themselves to pour writing out on a page and see that as the first, last, and only draft. We work to write quickly, revise in the moment, and later, choose some pieces for further expansion, refinement, and polishing. But in the six or seven minutes I am giving them to write, their job is to write in that moment and to keep moving.
  5. Remind students to write and respond as they see fit. Students can write, jot, draw, change colors, compose a poem…Students often limit themselves unconsciously by the “rules” they have been taught over the years. Quick writes are a place to explore, not fit in the lines or a box. Unless you want to write in boxes.

  6. Have students respond to quotes, images, poems, videos, their own writing (we are doing this today!), the writing of other students, current events, lists, song lyrics, letters to the editor, overhead conversations…You get the idea. Students can creatively explore just about anything and should. Their opportunities for creative expression are often too few and far between. We can be the place where questions, emotions, fears, innovations, and discoveries find a safe place to take root.

Some of my recent favorite topics are below. These are quick writes that generated some fantastic discussion in small groups and whole class debriefs.


From Gary Anderson a few weeks back, I had students choose one and write:

Today…
I am concerned about…
I am upset about…
I do not understand…
I wish I could change…
I am grateful for…


From Austin Kleon’s blog that I started following last week, students took this image in a thousand directions and one class even had a collegiate level discussion on the implications these suggestions (directives? nudgings?) could have for society:

goethe


I will sometimes choose several images and have my students respond to one, or try to tie them together, or imagine they are the photographer, or…whatever best suits our purpose for that day. The exploration of the human condition is reason enough to put pen to paper. “Tell this story” is a great search term to yield a wide variety of results.

tell-this-story-2


Quick writes can even be 2-3 minute reflections on the simplest of reading adventures. At the start of the new calendar year, I had my kids search for what their lives would hold in 2017, according to their independent novels.

quick-write

Have a favorite quick write topic that gets the pens moving in your classroom? Please share your ideas and insights in the comments below! 

Lisa Dennis teaches English and leads a department of English educating gods and goddesses at Franklin High School near Milwaukee. She has no fewer than six quick write journals going at once, mostly due to her inability to settle on spiral vs. bound. She added to Goethe’s list that we should smile at the thought of someone each and every day. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum 

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. 

 

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.

writing-heals-quote

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.

billygoal

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.

 

 

 

 

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