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Fostering Structured Discussions: Coffee Talk

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This school year has been one of simplification for me. I’ve really been trying to embrace doing more with less. Can I reuse this mentor text? Are there ways to better scaffold this concept? I’m constantly having to evaluate my lesson plans. Trying to find the tenuous balance between student engagement, skills practice, and bridging gaps has been difficult.

You know what? That’s ok. I tell my students all the time that growth happens when we are pushed outside of our comfort zones. So this year, my teaching practice is growing and changing. Reading this post definitely encouraged me to be reflective about my goals and practice.   

Here was my issue: 

I’d give my students a speaking prompt in response to something we’d read, journaled, etc. Sure, they’d chat about non-academic topics with their friends, but when it came to something related to class- crickets. My simple side-bar turn and talk activities were falling flat. 

Logically, I know this often comes down to students lacking confidence in their own ability to discuss the topic well. But I also know how necessary it is for them to break through that.

As teachers of writing, we know that if our kids can talk about something, they can write about it. I repeat this ad nauseam for my students. Making space in our classrooms for our students to discuss ideas is imperative to their growth as writers, but what do we do when they won’t?

Here was my solution:

This, my friends, is where we employ structured speaking opportunities in our lessons. In true teacher fashion, I went digging through archives of activities to see what popped out. I like to use an activity called Coffee Talk. Why I forget to use it from year to year? I’ll never know. It was something used in a professional development I attended ages ago and genuinely enjoyed because I, too, am often one to avoid jumping into a conversation if I feel a little unsure about how my ideas might be received. 

In the way a Socratic Seminar is like an essay, Coffee Talk is kind of like pre-writing. It embraces unfiltered, messy thoughts and protects the speaking time of every person in the group while still providing structure to help move the conversation along. 

Coffee Talk is a discussion in three rounds, designed for small groups of 3-6, and is easily adjusted to your purpose. It goes like this:

Round 1: 90 seconds per person is set aside to discuss the topic, text, etc. Whatever is in their brain about it is fine. Stream of consciousness-type thoughts abound. They may repeat something they heard- totally fine. This is NOT an open discussion.

Round 2: 60 seconds per person is set aside to continue their previous train of thought, expand on something they heard, and so on. This is STILL not an open discussion. Students should be more clearly developing their ideas as this round progresses.

Round 3: 5 minutes is set aside for the entire group to discuss. This is the moment they’ve all been waiting for- NOW it’s an open discussion. Encourage your kids to ask questions, respond to one another, and dig deeper into the topic. 

The fully detailed instructions I use with students can be found here

The beauty of this protocol is that every person is guaranteed a chance to speak, it’s easy to customize, and the entire class participates. 

What are some of your favorite ways to foster structured discussions in your classroom?

Samantha is a wife, mom to three tiny humans, high school English teacher, perpetual student, Texas transplant, and lover of beautiful stories. She spends her days seeking levity in the chaos, sharing her passion for writing and storytelling with students, and searching for her constantly misplaced cup of reheated coffee. You can follow Samantha on Twitter @SimplySivils and on her blog http://simplySivils.wordpress.com/.

5 Tips for Writer’s Notebook Setup

In the early days of my teaching practice, I struggled with wanting my students to keep a portfolio that would house writing practice, quick writes, pre-writing, formal writings, and even some interactive notes. All the things! I went down a rabbit hole of research and found binder organization or the typical “interactive notebooks” which were a bit too elementary for my high school classroom needs. They had some great qualities I wanted to incorporate, but didn’t quite check all of the boxes. In the process, I stumbled onto a more grown up Writer’s Notebook. 

When researching Writer’s Notebooks and seeing the innovative ways teachers were using them in their classrooms, I found wonderful ideas for activities to put in them, but wasn’t finding guidance that would help me shift from a hodgepodge notebook of miscellaneous writings and notes that students don’t revisit easily to the tool I was imagining for my students. Over the course of several years (and tons of trial and error), I honed in on a few basic “rules” for notebook setup in my classroom. 

If you are new to using Writer’s Notebooks and desperately seeking some guidance on where to begin or an experienced notebook Rock Star just looking for some new ideas, here are my setup basics: 

  1.  Use a Table of Contents

Anyone who knows me will tell you I’m a big fan of the bullet journal. I absolutely love the flexibility it provides me as a “pen and paper” type of person who loves to keep different types of lists, but doesn’t want to keep multiple planners or notebooks. As long as I utilize the Table of Contents, everything is easily found. 

This seems like such an obvious thing to incorporate, but none of the online resources I viewed talked about using one. After all, I wanted my students to use their notebooks as a writing tool, to revisit resources we’ve glued in, review previous writings, annotate short texts, etc. It’s so much easier when the kids can flip straight to the page they are looking for instead of making ostentatiously dramatic page turns to locate something. (If you know, you know). 

Because I couldn’t find an example of what I wanted to use, I pulled from my bullet journal and added some additional information I wanted students to have to create my own print out. On Day 1 of notebook setup, each student receives two copies to glue into their notebooks (front and back) on the first page. It has space for them to include the date, page number, name of the entry, and even a space to enter grades. 

Click here if you’d like to make a copy of the Table of Contents I created. You can customize it to your needs. 

This is an example of my teacher notebook’s Table of Contents.

Pro-Tip for printed notebook resources: Knock down the sizing of any full page copies to 85% and they will fit perfectly on the pages of a composition notebook.

  1. Number ALL Pages

Again, this may seem obvious, but I make my students number the pages of their notebooks after they’ve glued in their table of contents. Every. Single. Page. I used to let students number as they go, but my experience has proven that, more often than not, kiddos will forget. When their pages aren’t numbered, that information doesn’t make it to the table of contents, and then the whole logic of having the organization starts to crumble. I promise it’ll only take about 5 extra minutes during your setup, but the payoff is priceless. 

  1. Everything Is Written in Ink

I love a freshly sharpened Dixon Ticonderoga pencil as much as the next teacher, but follow me around the room on this one. How many times have you seen a student take a pencil and begin to write only to pause, panic, and frantically erase whatever they’ve just written? Write. Erase. Write. Erase. Eventually, that student has erased a hole straight through their paper. 

My students hear my spiel every year: Write with conviction. Mistakes will happen. Writing is a process. Put a line through it and keep going. 

I know it may seem odd and I’m not saying that this is the hill I’m going to die on if a kiddo starts writing in pencil, but it does serve a purpose in writing instruction. It may take some time and some cajoling, but even my most tentative kiddos eventually come around to writing confidently in ink. After a week or so, I don’t even have to remind my kids to use a pen. This leads to my next guideline.  

  1. Whiteout or Removing Pages is Outlawed

The explanation for this links to the guideline above- writing is a process and mistakes will happen. We all know that as we draft, we change bits and pieces along the way. It helps me coach students when I can see the evolution of their writing. Part of my practice is to teach students to review their own pre-writing and “ugly” drafts to look for parts that may work better during a later revision. Being able to see where they’ve been can help them figure out where they’re going more times than not. If a kiddo has erased, used whiteout, or torn out pages, we no longer have that roadmap. 

The end result of not allowing erasures or removals of student writing from their notebooks means that it becomes a living timeline of their growth as writers.  

  1. Decorate and Make it Yours! 

This is not so much a hard and fast “rule” as it is a solid nudge for students to really take ownership of their notebooks. I give students permission to decorate the outside (and interior) of their notebooks with anything that sparks joy for them. Enjoy the creativity they bring to their notebook decorations! I have so much fun decorating my notebook alongside my students and it gives me a chance to get to know them in those early days together. Win-win! 

When students take the time to fully complete their notebook setup, it’s unlikely they will lose it because they don’t want to repeat the process and attempt to recreate all of their hard work. BONUS! 

At the heart of it, a Writer’s Notebook is intended to be a space for students to build fluency, play with language, explore the writing process, and own their voice as a writer. The beauty of this basic setup is that you can build in space for as much or as little structure as your students need. 

What are your best tips for setting up Writer’s Notebooks in your classroom? Share in the comments


Samantha is a wife, mom to three tiny humans, high school English teacher, perpetual student, Texas transplant, and lover of beautiful stories. She spends her days seeking levity in the chaos, sharing her passion for writing and storytelling with students, and searching for her constantly misplaced cup of reheated coffee. You can follow Samantha on Twitter @SimplySivils and on her blog http://simplySivils.wordpress.com/.

Addressing Perfectionism in Student Writing

A few weeks ago I was scrolling through social media and I read an excerpt from Fear and Art by David Bayles and Ted Orland that resonated with me and made me reflect on my teaching practices. In the section titled “Perfection”, Bayles writes:

The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pounds of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot — albeit a perfect one — to get an “A”. Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work-and learning from their mistakes — the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.”

― David Bayles, Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking

So often we are taught that we should focus on quality over quantity making it easy to overlook the simple fact that, sometimes, we need quantity to get to quality. It makes complete sense to shift away from the idea of perfection and just start making things- or in the case of our ELA classrooms, writing things. The skill will grow with practice. Unfortunately, it isn’t always so easy to convince our students. 

The fear of a blank page can be crippling for any writer. It stares back at the best of us with a terrifying mix of expectation and possibility. I see it in my students all the time- that quest for a flawless piece of work. They want reassurance that their writing is “good” or “perfect” before submitting it for a grade. Others become so stressed about failing, they never even start. 

How do we help our students work through their perfectionism and just start writing? Enter the Writer’s Notebook.

I’ve always been on a bit of a mission to find ways for my students to create a sort of writing portfolio, but I also wanted them to have a place to keep quick writes, notes, and other short pieces of writing. A few years ago, I started utilizing Writer’s Notebooks in my class and noticed how easy it was for students to flip around to different pieces they’ve written. 

My students have the space to make multiple attempts at writing in a low stakes manner. They explore their voices as writers, play with language, journal, finish pieces, scrap pieces, start over, revisit previous pieces to examine and evaluate their progress. I absolutely love this tool in my classroom. 

My goal for Writer’s Notebooks with my students, in addition to helping them keep up with notes, handouts, and their writing, was to help my students gain confidence in their ability.

I was in the middle of transitioning my students into more choice reading and the idea struck me- if my students are self-selecting texts to read, why can’t they also choose the writing that I grade? So, I flipped the script a bit and opted to let my students select which of their writings I would grade. 

Oh. My. Stars. 

When I say that this was a total game-changer in my teaching practice, I am not exaggerating. It eliminates so much of the emotional roller coaster that is grading. It gives students agency to choose the best example of their work which provides the opportunity for focused feedback on areas of improvement instead of feeling like I need to help them correct basic errors. 

I observed this simple change help many of my struggling writers ask specific questions as they were working or in our writing conferences. Once they knew they’d be able to select the piece I’d be grading, their fear of writing badly lessened enough that they’d actually begin. I definitely count that as a win.

What does this look like in the classroom?

Limit the choices to showcase a skill and not a specific prompt without making it overwhelming. This will vary depending on the lessons and skills, but I always make sure to build in multiple opportunities for a student to practice so their choice comes down to piece A, B, or C. 

How will you help address perfectionism in your students and get them writing?

Samantha is a wife, mom to three tiny humans, high school English teacher, perpetual student, Texas transplant, and lover of beautiful stories. She spends her days seeking levity in the chaos, sharing her passion for writing and storytelling with students, and searching for her constantly misplaced cup of reheated coffee. You can follow Samantha on Twitter @SimplySivils and on her blog http://simplySivils.wordpress.com/.

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