Workshop: Going Sane Feels Like Going Crazy

Three Teachers Talk

My life altered in many ways last summer.

I attended an Abydos (formerly, New Jersey Writing Project) training for writing workshop.

One of my incredible mentors, Valerie, suggested Book Love as I searched and pleaded that there MUST BE a better way than the way I taught my first year.

My work bestie, Michelle, encouraged me to rekindle my creative life with The Artist’s Way, by Julia Cameron.

In August, I jumped headfirst into creating a classroom environment entirely different than the one I felt as though I clumsily stumbled into the year prior.  As I reveled in the joy of matching kids with books, watched as they surpassed what even they thought they could do, held firmly to my principles when questioned by many-a-colleague or administrator, I found myself stuck on Julia’s words one weekend.

“It’s important to remember that, at first flush, going sane feels just like going crazy.”

-Julia Cameron

I have to admit, I’ve felt much more CRAZY than SANE in this adventure in teaching and learning.  Anyone with me?

A few weeks ago, I sat in the only true workshop (though many claimed to be so) session in my AP Summer Institute training.  It was a fantastic event with many incredible educators.  As we know from Amy’s many rants, advanced educators have a hard time wrapping their minds around workshop.  I couldn’t help but chuckle as the presenter, Jacqueline Stallworth, fielded the question of many steam-eared AP teachers:

But do you have a list for them to choose from?  How do you know they’ll choose right?

How do you know they read if you haven’t read the book?

And Amy’s favorite: They won’t ever read these books if we don’t make them!

Well, I was “made to read them,” and I didn’t.  Neither did Shana–at least not in high school.

We know the vast majority of students are not reading. So what if you could get them to read?

As we at Three Teachers Talk always say, it’s about teaching the reader, not the reading.  It’s about teaching the writer, not the writing.  Why does that seem so crazy?

I’m increasingly convinced that workshop–while backed by reputable, extensive research and proven time and again to advance the WHOLE student, not just the test-taker–is still new to many educators.

In true summer fashion, I’ve binge-watched episodes of Quantico.  In season one, Alex says, “You are willing to blow yourself up for people to see your truth instead of helping them find it for themselves.”

I’m hoping that this year, I can step back and realize it won’t work for teachers until they find it of their own accord, try it themselves, ask questions and realize there is not always an answer.

I’m hoping that I can do less of the “blowing up,” and more of the “helping [teachers and students] find their own truth” rather than simply taking on mine.

What makes you feel crazy as a workshop teacher?  Let us know in the comments!  We are here for you, reading/writing warriors!

Jessica Paxson teaches AP Language and Composition, English IV, and Creative Writing in Arlington, TX.  She is currently pursuing her Masters in Educational Psychology and GT education, and dreaming of a home free of construction materials and boxed-up books.  If you are a fan of candid vulnerability, you can catch more of that over at Follow her on Twitter or Instagram @jessjordana.


Want to RENEW! Get the book by @ShawnaCoppola

I have never written a book review. (Okay, maybe that’s not true. I think I remember writing one in 4th grade over a biography of Marie Curie, the first biography I ever read.)

I have never written a review of a teaching book. But I am going to try.

I am a teaching book junkie. I have stacks of them, but I rarely read the whole of them. I cannot even tell you why, and I admit there is great irony here because as I write this, I am also trying to write my own book for teachers (I have been for four years, sigh.) If I ever get it written, I hope you’ll read it.

In the mean time, I have to tell you about Shawna Coppola’s new book RENEW!

I read the whole of this book in one afternoon! Thank you, Shawna, for writing so much of my own thinking about “Becoming a Better — and More Authentic — Writing Teacher.”

Shawna’s voice sings with passion and positivity. She paints the pages with possibilities! I know, I am gushing (and that’s probably too many p’s.) But here’s the thing —

I know so many ELA teachers who do know know how to teach writing. I know many more who are not confident teaching writing. I know even more who are not writers themselves, so it’s no wonder that teaching writing is difficult. Teaching writing is hard. A book like RENEW! not only gives us a starting place, it gives us desire.


I am doing a lot of thinking lately around the idea of transcending. How do we go beyond our limits into something more, something better, something real and sustaining?

Let me share with you some of the passages I marked in RENEW!. I think you’ll see why this book is a must read for any teacher who needs a bit, or a lot, of renewal when it comes to teaching students to write.

“. . . if we are truly willing to honor the individuality of our student writers, the RENEW!uniqueness of each community of learners, and the ever-changing nature of our global landscape, we must continually rethink, revise, and renew our practice. Otherwise — to paraphrase Dewey — we rob “today’s students of the tomorrow today’s students deserve” (10).

“Broadening our ideas about what writing “is” can be scary, as if we are opening up a Pandora’s box. But in all reality, continuing to teach our student writers through a narrow, outdated lens — one that, in overvaluing written composition, does not accurately tell a story about the world of writing beyond most schools and classrooms — harms their development as writers by limiting the kinds of composing they are exposed to and encouraged to practice” (51).

“Teaching our writers how to develop their own tools is infinitely more sustainable than using preexisting tools. Quick survey:  How many of you use the graphic organizer your sixth-grade teacher taught you to use to write a persuasive piece? That graphic organizer may have been helpful to you then (although I doubt it was helpful to 100 percent of your classmates), but how useful is it you now?” (62).

“What message or “story” are we sending our student writers with a single overall score? Not only does it imply that their worth as a writer can be whittled down to one letter or number (which itself can mean different things for different teachers and even within different units of study), but that the worth of writing itself can be whittled down this way” (73).

“. . . readers of writing are human, an done person’s response to a composition may not perfectly align with another’s (If it did, what a drab, boring world we’d be living in!)” (79).

“Which is more likely to help students learn:  offering them specific feedback about their work, behavior, or performance, or slapping a score on a piece of paper?” (82).

“. . .when we engage in a semi-regular habit of writing, we can much more genuinely speak to those incredibly fantastic moments that writers experience on occasion, like the amazing feeling of completing a particularly difficult draft or writing something that makes a reader spontaneously laugh out loud. Anyone who’s ever taught a group of students of any age knows that when we are faking our way through something, or at the very least “phoning it in” by only engaging on a superficial level with what we are purporting to teach, students can smell our lack of authenticity a mile away. They know, even subconsciously, that they are being sold a decidedly moldy bill of goods” (92).

That’s all well and good, right? But here’s the beauty of Shawna Coppola’s book — she gives us the research that supports each of her positions AND she gives charts and graphs and resources to help us rethink, revise, and renew our approach, instruction, and practice as we become better teachers of writing. This book is chock full of everything good when it comes to writing instruction. It is a book I will return to again and again.

I hope you’ll read it. I hope you’ll share it with every ELA teacher you know. Really, it is just that good.


Amy Rasmussen lives in north Texas and teaches AP English Language and English 4 (new prep in ’17.) She loves talking books, daughters’ weddings (two this year), and grandbabies (five). She also loves facilitating PD for other teachers making the move into a workshop pedagogy. Amy adheres to the words of Emerson: “We aim above the mark to hit the mark,” and Jesus: “Love one another.” Imagine a world if we all aim higher. Follow Amy on Twitter @amyrass. And she really hopes you will follow this blog!

Summer Alert! Educators, Remain Calm!

I was speaking with a friend yesterday about summer anxiety some teachers experience. How the “endless” expanse of summer gets eaten up by, well…work.

We agreed that “teachers have the summer off” is a dangerous myth, both politicallyimg_4296 (which I’d need 289 pages to dig into, so I’ll avoid that angle) and emotionally (which I will explore, but just a bit. My daughter and I are heading to the park, because I’ve been working on prioritizing). It’s a myth that was making me downright twitchy, because I thought I was “doing summer wrong.”

Summers of my youth were eternal. Swimming, biking, The Sandlot viewed from sleeping bags, vacations to Gettysburg and Colonial Williamsburg (my Dad was a history teacher), and reading countless books. Reading in my swing set fort, unless I saw a spider. Reading on my trampoline as I liked to imagine I was multitasking, because I was also tanning. Reading in the car, until I felt like puking – such a bummer for a bibliophile to get carsick from reading. Reading as a cliche, under the covers with a flashlight.

Stress was not a part of the equation. Various foods on a stick, mud up to my knees, and bicycle trips to pay for candy with a bag full of pennies, yes. Stress, not so much.

These days, summer days years later, I was finding myself legitimately nervous. Such anxieties include:

  • It’s already the Fourth of July! What have I done with the past four weeks?!
  • Each week of the summer has had at least one day (more likely two or three) on which I either went to school for a meeting/to work, or I worked several hours from home.
  • I’m reading, but not enough.
  • I’m writing, but never enough.
  • I’m spending time with my daughter, but…is that enough?
  • My list of to-do projects is largely unchecked.
  • I’ve burned once, but returned quickly to sickly Wisconsin pale.

In short, I’m doing a lot. However, I think my big mistake so far is that I’m still trying to balance being a teacher and taking time off. In other words, I haven’t actually allowed myself any vacation.

Today, the AP scores come out for the great state of Wisconsin. Awesome. No stress there.

Kelly Gallagher shared a tweet this morning, linking to a post from Diane Ravitch about research into AP courses and their impact on our school system. Basically, the courses are important. Rigor is important. However, what we’ve done with the courses (high stakes for class rank, stress on students who overload, etc.) is far from ideal. On extra stressful days like these, I am reminded each year of Amy’s post about what really matters in AP courses: creating readers and writers out of our students. Not hyper-focusing on the test and the scores.

In the same way, I need to stop hyper-focusing on school during the summer and remember what’s really important. If I don’t take some time to recharge, I am going to burn out by October.

There are ways to let go. There are ways to really embrace a little bit of summer.

And for those of you who are like me and aren’t so good at it, here is a list off the top of my head:

  • Read. Read under the covers with a flashlight if you are feeling nostalgic. Read exactly what you want, when you want. This one should be easy…it’s a part of being a workshop teacher.
  • Take the time you can. Maybe it’s a weekend or maybe it’s two/three weeks in a row, but no matter how much time, intentionally set it aside for you and for your family. No meetings, no planning, no curriculum work, no searching Twitter for ideas (save your Three Teachers Talk blog post from that time as something to look forward to later!).
  • Practice some mindfulness. I was introduced to this concept by a friend. As a teacher, I’ve lost a bit of “in the moment” thinking in favor of planning ahead and reflecting back. Resetting myself to return again and again to the moment I am in brings grounding and appreciation for what is right in front of me.
  • Grab some of your summers past youthful innocence back. My daughter just said from the other room that Belle and the Beast are finally loving each other now. I took a break. I went in to watch Belle throw snowballs at the Beast. Tale as old as time: you need to play more than you work sometimes.
  • Let yourself take a break. Good heavens…you know you deserve one.

How are you capturing summer? Please leave your comments below!

Lisa Dennis teaches English and leads a department of incredible English educators at Franklin High School near Milwaukee. She loves to count fireflies in her backyard, sip root beer floats through striped straws, and get so lost in a book that she loses all track of time. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum 


Please respond: What do our students really need?

Dear Readers, would you help with something? I’d like to collect some informal data. All you need to do is read below, take the survey, and maybe leave a comment. Thanks in advance! (I #amwriting)

Sometimes when I conduct PD, we start with a discussion of the characteristics of the students we teach. I introduce this topic by discussing the differences between Millennials and Post-Millennials, also known as Generation Z. 

Of course, they are also called other names:  Homeland Generation, iGeneration, Gen Tech, Neo-Digital Natives, etc. (Wikipedia provides a good starting place for a bit of research with an impressive list of citations.)

What I think is even more interesting than the names marketers and researching are calling these young people are some of the descriptors used to define them:  cynical, private, entrepreneurial, multi-tasking, hyper aware, technology reliant; and the terms in which they self-identify: loyal, compassionate, thoughtful, open-minded, responsible, resourceful, determined.

What I really wonder though — based on our experiences with our students day in and day out — plus what we know about their tech savvy selves — what do our students really need from us as their educators?

Please take this poll and share it widely. I’d like to know what other educators, (actually all adults really) think. 

Also, if you have the time, I’d love to know you thoughts on the best ways to give our students what they need within our ELA classrooms. Please leave your thinking in the comments. (Maybe you’ll make it into this elusive book I’m trying to write.)

Thank you!



Are You a Reader, Darlin’? 

A few weeks back, I was on a flight home from Dallas to Milwaukee, my thumbs clicking away at my phone. Working to stifle my usual chatter in a effort to be a good fellow traveler to the woman I was sitting next to, I had been reflecting on the past few days of learning with fellow educators. However, it hadn’t taken me long to realize that I might be sitting next to an archetype wrapped in pink. My curiosity was piqued.

She was an older woman with white hair cut into a sassy pixie style, a pink shawl wrapped around her tanned shoulders and a pink Bible in her lap. I was Honey, Darlin’, and Sugar in the first 20 minutes I knew her, and she had even put her hand on my knee Are You A Reader, Darlin'- (1)to ask me to reach up and adjust the air vent for her, replying to my action on her behalf with a long and drawn out, “Bless you.”

Her slow, sweet drawl suggested that she was the one on a trip North, not headed home as I was, and when we ended up chatting, she confirmed she was headed to Milwaukee to visit a friend she met on a cruise almost 30 years ago.

After awhile, my new friend reached over with a long, manicured finger (you guessed it, pink nails) and tapped the book on my lap.

“Now, isn’t that an intriguing cover. The Nest,” she said, emphasizing the E with a smile and turning the word to Nast. “Do you like it?”

I smiled back, “I haven’t had a chance to get very far yet. Do you like your book?” I took a chance at a small joke.

She chuckled. “Darlin, I’ve read this one several times. It’s a bit different each time. Never read it in pink before though.”

We laughed and I asked if she read often.

“Oh, yes, (I love how E’s are A’s in the south) always been. How about you? Are you a reader, Darlin?”

I smiled inwardly at the revelation that the North needs to use more pet names and told her a bit about workshop.

“Then you are a reader,” she said, leaning over a bit and pausing. With a dropped voice she whispered, “Go make a lot more of ’em.”

I smiled broadly at 40,000 feet. Yes, Darlin. I’m a reader. 

An educational leader capable of professionally developing peers? Of that, I’m still not sure…

But a day earlier I had been in Dallas, sharing a two day workshop with Amy for about 40 educators. To say I was nervous would be a gross understatement. 3 years ago, I didn’t really know what workshop was. Now, I was walking into a library, full of expectant educators, to professionally develop them, like I had the necessary social capital (thanks for that new one, Amy!) to pull it off. 

As the training got underway, I felt like it was the first day of school. Ever. The very first day of my very first year, when my smile didn’t quite reach my eyes because I was actively trying not to vomit. However, as I think back on my first professional development experience, from the other side (and vomit free), I feel blessed.

I’m blessed because I was afforded the opportunity to teach other teachers about something I am truly passionate about. I am blessed because their questions and concerns not only helped clarify my own beliefs, but strengthened them. I am blessed because I was able to teach beside one of my workshop mentors, Amy Rasmussen. I’m blessed because I got to see the excitement and possibility that light up the eyes of fellow educators when they see how empowering choice and talk can be in their classrooms.

Then, this past week, our fellow writer Jessica asked a few questions in our ongoing Three Teachers WhatsApp conversation that took me right back to McKinney:

How do we prove workshop to our colleagues? How do we prove that it works? That we are doing the right thing? How do we prove that it can help make all the difference for our students and their futures as readers and writers?

The short answer? We do it.

We jump in and try it. Just as Amy and I asked the teachers in McKinney to do, you try it. You hold on to the core values of workshop (choice, student talk, time to read, mini lessons, conferring, writing with mentors) and you begin. A comment made by a veteran teacher during our McKinney training sums up this ironically simple, and yet seismic, shift quite pointedly. This rather stoic, obviously brilliant, and totally skeptical educator, leaned back in his chair on our final day of training and said to the group, “What the hell have I been doing all this time?” 

This gentleman’s astonishment at how limiting teaching English can be if we are trying to teach students to be English teachers, was moving. It does nothing to negate all of the amazing work he (all of us!) has done in his career to move students forward. The practices he implemented in good faith and with good reason were to benefit students.   But now, he was seeing that something could be added to benefit the young people in front of him, not only as students, but as people. Something could shift. Something meaningful needed to change if his ultimate goal was now different too . No longer was the fight to make students read a particular text (or to read/write at all), but to build a support system to show students all of the opportunity, benefit, and enjoyment that come from reading and writing, and the lasting impact if can have on their lives.

Ambition (1)

It’s not easy.  It will not be easy, but the right work rarely is. My move to workshop and my recent training work has reminded me that this is the good, hard work that I need to be doing. In order to do it, I need to remember the following:

  • Be vulnerable. This is hard. No kidding. But it’s about effort to be real with your students. They need to know you are a human writer, not some enlightened literary god/goddess who is there with the right answers and a perfect draft each time you put pen to paper. Write with your students. Share your work. Share your revisions. As Shana suggested earlier this week, share your writer’s notebook. Also, keep in mind, that vulnerability doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Students don’t need to know every little detail about you in order for you to share. Not comfortable detailing the deep dark secrets you only share with your therapist and your murky, tortured soul? Good! Being vulnerable means sharing your writing about dogs, because you love them, not your poetry about the loss of your innocence. Open up a little and you’ll get back a lot.


  • Be honest. There is little room in my classroom to connect with students on the level I need to in order to know them well enough to build them individually as readers and writers, if I am anything but myself. If we as teachers are not raw ambition, pure desire for student success, and the occasional humble failure, then we are not really what our need.  Tell your students which books you’ve loved, which you’ve abandoned, and which classics you haven’t read. I keep Don Quixote, with 258 pages read, on my desk for that very reason. I thought I should read it. I struggled so long, I grew to dislike it. I moved on. I haven’t read all of the classics. Who has? And who determines the classics?! Share the pieces that mean something to you in an effort to help students find pieces that mean something to and move them.


  • Be a reader and a writer (Darlin’). If we truly want to build readers and writers in our classrooms, we must be readers and writers ourselves. Listen, a few short years ago, I wasn’t a reader. I had always loved reading, but in the first few years of my career, I had allowed myself to read less, because I claimed to have no taste for it after reading so many student papers. This just can’t be. Of course we can share our love of books through the pieces that have touched us over a life of reading. But, how can we claim a life and love of reading, if we aren’t doing so voraciously now? The same with writing. It’s malpractice in my mind to promote reading and writing as transformative if we, the teachers, are not taking the chances and the time to transform ourselves in the same way. I want my doctor to love and practice medicine. I want my mentor to truly believe in the power of education and promote best practice through his own leadership. I want my students to know they can trust what I’m selling them, because I’ve bought in.

I’m a reader and a writer, Darlin’. Won’t you join me?

Lisa Dennis teaches English and leads a department of incredible English educators at Franklin High School near Milwaukee. As this summer rolls on, she looks forward to sharing more of the wonders of workshop next week with the awesome educators in Wiley, Texas. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum. 


Thank You, Thoughtful Teachers

I’ve been really delighted this summer to see a great deal of teacher engagement in a variety of places.  From the participants in my National Writing Project summer institute, to the enthusiastic readers in the Book Love Summer Book Club, to the still-hashtagging tweeters on various ed chats, I love seeing so many teachers interested in refining their practice outside the school year.

I’m especially thankful for you, our thoughtful readers, for continuing to read and comment and engage with us in the summertime.  I love that you’re on this journey with us as teacher-writers, constantly reflecting on our practice, striving to improve it.

You deserve a thank-you gift!  How about some free books?


Yes, those are Eric Carle pajamas…

Ruthie and I are excited to give away another big box (or two or three!) of books to add to your classroom library.  You all helped me reduce my shelf load last year with a big book giveaway, but there’s still some more #booklove to dole out.

To enter to win, please help us engage more thoughtful teachers by spreading the word about the community we’re working to build here at Three Teachers Talk.  First, make sure you’ve subscribed to receive emails from us by signing up on the home page:

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Just click on the “Give Me More Posts Like This” button to get signed up.

Next, make sure you’ve liked our Facebook page, which you can do directly through Facebook or on the TTT home page as well:

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Next, follow us on Twitter at our official TTT account, @3teacherstalk, and consider finding us on our individual accounts, too:

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If you’ve already subscribed, liked, and followed, please invite others to do the same.  You can do this through a tweet, a Facebook post, or however you want.  Just help us grow this amazing community of thoughtful, engaged teachers!

Once you’ve done so, please leave a comment on this post that tells why you’re thankful for teachers, plus one way for me to contact you to get your mailing address if you win!

Best of luck winning books, and happy sharing!


The books I’ll give away, with Ruthie for scale, of course

Happy Summer,


Defining Readers-Writers Workshop

“I need a visual of a ‘workshop.’ That word confuses me still.”

This is not the first time I’ve been part way through facilitating professional development and a participant has made a similar request. There’s a lot for me to learn here.

Before we can begin really sharing the excitement and benefits of a readers-writers workshop model of instruction, we must get on the same page as to what we mean by Workshop. I’ll try to do that here.

Let’s start with the dictionary definition of workshop and zero in on #2.

workshop definition

Based on this definition, let’s consider this essential question:

How do we create open spaces where the children we teach can grow as readers and writers?

To me “open spaces” equates to “workshop.” Open spaces means teachers let go of control, remove themselves from center stage as the holders of the knowledge, and invite students into a space of curiosity and discovery. It’s a space where students thrive in a community of trust and sharing, where they talk about their identities and experiences as readers and writers, where they play with language and take risks as they explore what it means to develop their comprehension and analysis skills — and their craft as writers.

Opening spaces requires planning. It is not willy-nilly choice in books or topics, or stations without specific guidelines and instructions, or seats moved from rows into small groups without modeling the thinking that makes it possible to “engage in intensive discussion and activity” around our content. Teachers must model what this looks like. And we must trust that our students will engage and learn in this model.

They will — if we let them.

Readers-writers workshop is a method of instruction that often requires a paradigm shift, a shift from the teacher making all the choices and telling students what to learn within a text, to students making choices, and through practice and application of skills-based lessons, learning as they read and write.

I’ll return to some definitions found online to help clarify:

“The Reading Workshop is a teaching method in which the goal is to teach students strategies for reading and comprehension. The workshop model allows teachers to differentiate and meet the needs of all their students.”

For our readers, we open the space for students to choose the books they read. By doing so, we meet students where they are in terms of their interests and abilities. The teacher becomes a coach, teaching skills specific to the needs of each learner. This requires time. We must reserve time for students to read when they are with us in class, and we must confer with students about what they are reading — and how they are reading it. This is reading instruction in a workshop model. We teach the reader, not the book. Readers must predict, visualize, infer, comprehend, analyze, and evaluate. These are all skills we model and teach in readers’ workshop.

What about writer’s workshop?

“As in a professional writer’s workshop, each student in the class is a working author. The teacher is a writing professional and peer coach, guiding authors as they explore their craft. … Teachers write with their students and share their own work as well.”

To teach our writers, we must be writers ourselves. We must model the moves writers make as they use language to craft meaning. We must validate our writers and help them recognize what professional writers do to think of ideas, organize those ideas, and convey those ideas in a way comprehensible to readers. In a workshop classroom, we use mentor texts:  sentences, paragraphs, passages, essays, poems, stories to teach writing skills that students apply to their own writing. We teach the writer, not the writing.


So, what do I mean when I say “workshop”? I mean students doing the work of readers and writers, “engaged in intensive discussion and activity on a particular subject” — specifically related to growing as readers and writers. This work happens because teachers open the spaces in their classrooms which allow for it.

Questions about your move to a workshop model of instruction? Please ask in the comments.

Amy Rasmussen lives in north Texas and teaches AP English Language and English 4 (new prep in ’17. She loves talking books, daughters’ weddings (two this year), and grandbabies (five). She also loves facilitating PD for other teachers making the move into a workshop pedagogy. Amy adheres to the words of Emerson: “We aim above the mark to hit the mark,” and Jesus: “Love one another.” Imagine a world if we all aim higher. Follow Amy on Twitter @amyrass. And she really hopes you will follow this blog!

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