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A Return to Flexible Seating

After introducing flexible seating into my junior/senior English classroom last year, I reflected in July about what I liked and didn’t like about the classroom arrangement.  After implementing some changes of my own and many reader suggestions (thank you!), I wanted to reflect over another semester of flexible seating.

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What I changed this fall:

  • Furniture Arrangement:  This year, I made smaller pods of seating. I got rid of the large round tables that ate up a lot of the room and actually moved in more traditional desks (partially due to larger classes).  With the additional space, I was able to fit two smaller tables and a set of chairs for students to work, providing more options for spaces. The room has a nearly-equal balance of seats that require students to use clipboards for writing and desktops or tables.
  • Expectations:  We had a discussion about the purpose and role of flexible seating in the classroom at the end of the second week of school and set guidelines together versus rules.  Students were granted permission to move the furniture to better facilitate group work or sight of the whiteboard, with the stipulation the room comes back to order when the bell rang.  We also discussed the importance of creating a single classroom environment, not one of multiple little pods, and facilitating that through direct eye contact.  I also shared my goal that the classroom feels more like a home than a place of rigid learning, but that homes are to be respected.  
  • Ownership:  While I still reserve the right to ask a student to make a better seating choice, I started the year by asking students to change seating areas each day for the first two weeks.  I believe this established that no one has a “spot,” but we share the space based on need and how we are feeling each day. Additionally, students are required to select a seating new area of the classroom every six weeks or so, which coincides with our school’s midterms and quarters.

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With larger classes this year, the room is more crowded, but feels more, well, flexible.  Removing the large, cumbersome tables also makes re-arranging the desks and chairs for a Socratic Seminar much easier.  I also have enough desks to facilitate an inner circle of desks and an outer circle of chairs. With smaller tables, groups are naturally formed which is a time saver and I can check in with one area at a time for conferences or work checks. Additionally, with less traditional seating available than with last year’s set up, my students and I have utilized the luxury of the cafeteria tables right outside my door.  While one class period a day may not be able to access these additional workspaces because of the lunch schedule, the cafeteria tables have become an extension of our classroom and great for spreading out groups or when we need more table space.

With very few reminders, students have been respectful and able to flow between small group learning and whole-class learning.  I notice students craning their necks to look at their peers or myself when talking and students.  While some classes are more open to moving daily than others, I find more students are switching around where they sit every few days, are moving based on what we are doing in class, and voluntarily switching seats to accommodate peers.  Students this year take responsibility for their seating choice for the day and have not “claimed” a seat as students did last fall, sitting there through the spring. Sometimes, I confess, the classroom does feel disjointed, like when students are working independently and chatting with those close to them, but I remind myself that at least they’re in a community, not isolated desks of individuals.

While the set-up and general facilitation of non-traditional seating is not always easy and I’d love to make my own place in the classroom just as flexible, students unanimously responded across six classes that they prefer the arrangement and choice to rows of desks, especially for reading time.  So if it works for them, I will make it work for me!

Maggie Lopez wishes everyone a happy, productive 2020 full of excellent books!  She is currently reading “The Lost City of Z” by David Grann after thoroughly enjoying “Killers of the Flower Moon.” You can connect with her @meglopez0.

Text Talk: Ink Knows No Borders

In American Literature this year, we are taking a “disrupted” look at the American Dream, noticing its failings and shortcomings through the literature we read as a class. 

After discussions over the summer reading titles and a gallery walk to generate our thinking around the American Dream, we watched an abbreviated version of Chimamanda Adichie’s TedTalk “The Danger of a Single Story” before identifying and discussing the “single stories” in our lives and our world.

We then dug into selections from Ink Knows No Borders: Poems of the Immigrant and Refugee Experience. The collection of poetry features a range of perspectives on adjusting to life as an immigrant as one tries to stay connected to their home culture while adapting to a new place. The poems are both heartbreaking and heartwarming tributes to the courage of the authors.

With a packet of assorted poems, students first processed one poem with their peers, spending time deciphering meaning and making connections.  We then created jigsawed groups where students taught and discussed their poems with a new set of peers. Together, the jigsawed groups began to track thematic connections across the differing, yet similar experiences of the authors.

The poetry offered alternative perspectives while being accessible and real. The poems about names and traditions resonated with my refugee students from Africa, while other students related to the burden of balancing two cultures, one at home and one at school. We Googled more information about the current situation at the Mexico-US border, and one student was brave enough to share his family’s story of obtaining citizenship while another student shared that she fears ICE will take away her parents every day. 

When we discussed the poetry as a full class, students came away with an understanding that often in our country, there is a single story told about immigrants. Students came to the insight that this was misguided and unfair because immigrants founded our country and the United States often promotes the promise that the dream is achievable to all. Students overwhelmingly agreed that we should be more understanding, welcoming, and helpful to people who want to make a better life because we all have stories and hardships.

This text worked well because students discovered new perspectives, connected to their lives and our world, and also gained low stakes poetry exposure, one of my goals for the year. Plus, our conversations made me so happy and hopeful to teach resilient, inclusive young people in this time of division.

Maggie Lopez is grateful for her digital colleagues and an incredibly rewarding profession.  You can find her on Twitter @meglopez0.

 

Book Snapchats

While I’m a little bummed I’m not attending NCTE in Baltimore this year, NCTE 2018 in Houston was awesome–I’m still going through my notes nearly a year later!  Not only did I get to meet a handful of Three Teachers Talk contributors in person, snag new books, fangirl favorite authors, and catch up with former colleagues from Lousiville and Houston, I headed home challenged by new ideas and armed with new activities to implement in my workshop.  NCTE is truly a magical event for educators–enjoy if you’re heading to Baltimore next month!

Like many of us, I am always seeking different, engaging ways students can interact with and analyze a text.  One such activity from Charles Youngs (@Charles_Youngs), an educator and instructional coach in Pennsylvania, was Book Snaps.  Students are tasked with finding a significant page in a text, then creating an analytical “snap” via Snapchat.  While we work on annotating and sketchnotes throughout the year, Snapchat opens the arsenal of analysis tools students can access to create meaning.  There are stickers, filters, animated gifs, color tools, stamps, and other features I don’t even know about which students can use to digitally annotate.  Last year, I used the activity to study the minor characters and themes in The Bluest Eye in small groups.  This past week, my students created a snap about their independent reading book as the quarter comes to a close.

As students spent time finding the page that would “sell” their book, the discussion surrounding gifs and stickers turned analytical.  Students asked one another for advice on the features and, in the process, discussed the characters, conflicts, and themes with one another.  I didn’t expect to hear such thoughtful commentary while students were creating.

If students did not have Snapchat, I offered the opportunity to take a picture of the page then edit it on Google Slides.   Once students completed and downloaded their Snap, we compiled them on one Google Slide deck.  Don’t worry if you’re not Snapchat savvy–your students definitely are!

Maggie Lopez only sends snaps of her dog Bounder to her husband and is currently reading The Spy and the Traitor by Ben MacIntyre.  You can find her on Twitter @meglopez0.

A Reverse Approach to Multiple Choice

I know–yuck.  Multiple choice?  On a blog about workshop?  This post may seem like the odd man out or the one that doesn’t belong here, but please keep reading!

While a multiple-choice assessment is certainly not a form I want to use in class, it is inevitable my students practice the format for the AP exams.  The challenge for us teachers is to make the practice meaningful without taking practice tests over and over again (No thank you, “Drill and Kill”). This year, instead of making these exercises something we do, I want students to see these as something we workshop.

First, my language has shifted from “Let’s complete this multiple-choice practice” or “Let’s working on our timing” to “Let’s dig into this passage and create meaning together.”  I am hoping students begin to see the passages as a challenge to unlock and discover as they inquire about meaning rather than a 15-minute task.

I am also shifting how we work through the passages, igniting the workshop mindset of reading, questioning, re-reading, and making connections.  Sometimes we will read the passage together out loud, look up unfamiliar terms, paraphrase, and annotate, creating meaning together before examining the questions.  Othertimes this close reading is done in pairs and students work the questions together. Another strategy, done in peer groups, is what I call “Reverse Multiple Choice.”

Although the process takes a bit of planning and sometimes typing on our end, I think it is worth it (there is a sample linked at the end to get you started, too!).  In summary, students are grouped and given each part of a multiple-choice selection–the passage, the question stems, and the answer sets–one at a time, then asked to answer the questions after a lot of process thinking.  

Students have enjoyed working together to break the monotony of practice selections as this becomes about thinking and talking with one another while still developing the thought-patterns necessary for working through passages on the exam.  Starting this practice early in the year, I notice students immediately learn to share any thinking or ideas surrounding the “gray areas” of a text and to not shy away because they aren’t sure of the correct answer (that is exactly where they should be in the fall!).

Here are the steps as you would implement them in your classroom (please note the time required will be determined by your students or your expectations of how quickly they are to work, the times provided are just suggestions and will differ with the text):

  1. Group students into clusters of 2-4 with their desks circled.
  2. Distribute a multiple-choice passage and ask students to independently read and annotate as they would on the exam (7-9 minutes).
  3. Once completed, ask students to chat about the gist of the passage in their groups, allowing time for questions and clarifications (2 minutes).
  4. Pass out the passage’s Question Stems, without answers, in random order.  Invite students to work through the questions as a group, referring back to the reading and writing what they believe the answer is as if they were open-ended questions.  Some questions may require students to think in reverse (i.e., students may list what elements are present if the question stem asks “Which is NOT present…” or a similar variation), but all questions will get students talking about their thinking (10-15 minutes).
  5. Once completed, pass out the Answer Selections, again in jumbled order, and ask students to pair the appropriate Question Stem and Answer Set together.  I like to use numbers for the Question Stems (step 4) and letters for the Answer Sets (step 5), so students know to pair a letter to a number (3-5 minutes). 
  6. If you’d like, you may check that student groups paired the Question Stems and Answer Sets correctly before distributing the full question set for the passage.  Students then, using all of their thinking and notes, work together to answer the multiple-choice questions (8-10 minutes).
  7. In whatever manner you’d like, reveal the correct answers.  I have found students want to understand questions they missed and other student groups can often explain the thinking that led their group to the correct answer.

I am hoping these varied, workshop-esqe approaches build student’s ability to process challenging texts through the processing of each component separately and build their confidence for making sense of the gray areas in challenging texts through the peer to peer talk.  This approach can be adapted for any test-prep we may be required to work in for state exams or standardized tests, too.

Here is a sample of the process using the 50 Essays Multiple Choice for  “Letters from a Birmingham Jail”

 

Maggie Lopez is:

A) Enjoying being back into the swing of the school year.

B) Currently reading How Soccer Explains the World by Franklin Foer.

C) On Twitter @meglopez0.

D) All of the above.

I’ve been thinking…my classroom needs more poetry.

Alright, I will finally admit it.

No judgement, please.

Poetry is not my favorite.

Sometimes it scares me, sometimes it frustrates me, sometimes I am moved by it, sometimes I push it aside for my own comfort in the classroom.  That stops this year.  Just because poetry may be my weakness, doesn’t mean my classroom shouldn’t be filled with it.   More poetry is a goal of mine this year–more sharing of a poem just because, more independent reading selections of poetry, more writing beside and around, just…more.

In effort to ease myself and students back into the school groove and make good on my commitment, I will began this year where I left off last year, with Book Spine Poetry.  Perfect as a summative piece, an introduction to poetry, an introduction to more titles, or a one class period creation, Book Spine Poetry is a fun, low-prep activity that calls upon student’s critical thinking and creativity.  Book Spine Poetry requires students to use the titles of books to create an original piece of unique poetry, similar to Blackout or Found Poetry.

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Emily analyzed Sethe’s killing of the crawling already? girl as an act of resistance against the cycle of slavery and the love between mother and child in Beloved.

My AP Literature students created original spine poems after their exam in May as a fun, creative way to close out the year.  Students were asked to create a poem of at least eight lines (eight spines) relating to a character, big idea, conflict, etc of a text they read in AP Lit this year, take a picture, then write a 1 pager that explains the connections and deeper meaning (Note:  I did allow students to add “filler” words, like pronouns or prepositions, so their Spine Poem was more clear and fluid). Spine Poetry also lends itself to teachers moving out of the way and letting students create, connect, and analyze due to the range of choice.  Additionally, Spine Poetry feels like an easy entry for students who, like me, may not enjoy poetry or consider themselves a poet (although these samples definitely scream “poet” to me!).

Largely, students created poems for the novel or poem that resonated with them the most that year, whether it was The Handmaid’s Tale in a Book Club or our study of Beloved, which turned into a fun reflection of the year.  When we shared our poems as a class, it was interesting to listen to different students who wrote about different aspects of the same text.

Above:  Elliot and Alysa’s different interpretations of Crake from Margaret Atwood’s novel Oryx and Crake.

Amaia reflected when sharing with her peers: “It would have been easy to write an original poem and then connect the poem to a character or whatever because I could control the words.  Having to find titles that made sense was more challenging, but made it fun.”  Amaia dropped knowledge on me all year in AP Lit, so I will trust this kernel of wisdom:  Poetry as fun.

This style of poem creation has the potential to be so much:  a fun activity when you have a bonus day or two, a sub-plan, an assessment, an assignment, a spark to discussions or conferences, even as a means to connect multiple texts.  Book Spine Poetry literally puts more books in students’ hands as they search for poem lines, too! You could plan this writing activity to introduce students to a genre during book shopping or as a means to add more “To Read” titles from your classroom library (just be prepared for some re-stocking and organizing).

Above left:  Aria wrote about Gatsby’s quest for Daisy in three stanzas (note the spines turned around to create stanzas).  Above right:  Sandra, who selected Frankenstein as a challenge choice read and read “King Lear’ in class, created a poem that connected both texts’ discussions of revenge and madness.

I will keep you posted through my intentional poetry endeavors.  I already have new titles for the poetry section of my classroom library, a poem to start the new school year, bookmarked poems to write around, and quick writes to spark poetic responses.  Any advice, suggestions, wisdom, favorite poets or poems?  Let me know.

Maggie Lopez is spending the last few weeks of summer traveling to see her sister, savoring the long days of sunshine and mornings without rush or routine.  She wishes all of her digital colleagues a wonder end to summer and start of the year.  You can find her on Twitter @meglopez0.

Pop Up Peer Editing Lab

I am always striving to have students meet the standard for writing volume Kelly Gallagher challenges teachers to assign students.  Gallagher argues that students should be writing FOUR TIMES the amount that teachers are grading.  Between quick writes, timed essays for AP, work-shopped poems, creatives pieces, blog posts, reflections, and topic journals, you’d think we would all come pretty close to that ratio.  And I bet most of us are.

A colleague who teaches history has been striving to also be a teacher of literacy (YES!) which has lead to great conversations and collaboration.   In the fall, as his students were drafting research papers, he said, “How do you do it? I can’t give them all the feedback they need.”

I chuckled to myself, thinking of all the paper-management survival tactics we English teachers have.  Then it dawned on me–I have classes of talented, capable writers, why not allow my junior and senior students give feedback to lower classmen?  Wouldn’t that be another form of workshop writing?

Thus the Pop Up Peer Editing Lab was born in Room 20.

Thankfully my school is service-minded, so students readily agreed to be the outsourced editors for teachers.  I let teachers know that we, the English students in Room 20, would be happy to help revise and suggest edits on any writing as a way to improve our skills as writers and give back to our school community.  All we requested from teachers was a bit of turnaround time and paper copies (I know–paper! Who knew that is what these digital natives would prefer!  When asked, many students echoed the belief I likely share with many of you:  paper feedback is more authentic and creates connections).  To date, my students have edited lab reports, history research, art analysis, even middle school writing, in addition to what we do during our time together.

And you know what, it is actually easier DONE than said.  Yep, you read that right!

I think of the Pop Up Peer Editing Lab like a pop up restaurant or store around Chicago, opening when demand is high before closing to move on to a new location, during which demand increases again.  To make this happen, I frame 10-20 minutes, depending on the writing type and how many drafts we have, where I can in our workshop schedule.  Some days this counts for our writing mini-lesson or writing time if we are between class drafts.

As a community of writers, we begin by reviewing the actual assignment students received and the rubric which leads to us generating a list of essential “look fors” and suggestions we are likely all going to make.  To workshop writers, this is like a reverse-mentor text where students are thinking of what an exemplary draft would look like and contain based on the rubric.  After students edit, I merely give the annotated drafts back to the teacher. Voila! As a colleague, I am helping my peers become literacy teachers while my students are helping their peers become better writers.

Peer editing, as we know, helps student writers to develop writing and revision skills through a different lens, taking on the role of an editor and teacher of writing.  The Pop Up Lab has been a useful formative assessment of writing skills for my students because they need to understand the content to teach it through feedback.

 

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A Lab Editor’s suggestion to an ESL student which includes a notice of passive voice, something the Lab Editor Kelsey has been working on in her own writing.

Additionally, the Pop Up Lab edits have given me formative data about what students are noticing and the moves they’re making in their own writing to elevate it.  I often circulate multiple copies of the same draft, then compare the edits and note trends.  The trends help me determine mini lessons or concepts to review, as well as what is sticking with students from modeling and practicing in our notebooks.

We have played around with revision and editing using discipline-specific teacher rubrics, Kelly Gallagher’s RADaR model of revision from Write Like This, Bless-Press-Address from the NWP, Push & Pull, but many times students edit and suggest revisions based on our initial list and their own knowledge.  You could, of course, always ask teachers precisely what they want to get out of the outsourced feedback.  To build this community of peer editing, my upcoming goal is to collaborate on scheduling so my students and their peer writers can hold a conference, supporting talk around writing and revision while strengthening our writing community.

Would outsourced editing and revision suggestions work in your school?  How would you adapt this “pop up” college-style writing lab to suit the needs of your colleagues while challenging your students?

Maggie Lopez is almost done editing her English III, English IV, and AP Language & Composition students’ essays for the year, and just when she finally mastered reading each students’ timed essay handwriting.  Follow her as she moves to Salt Lake City to start a new adventure @meglopez0.

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