Weddings and Workshop

love rings wedding bible

Photo by Caio Resende on Pexels.com

Workshop matters. Others have written about this topic here and here. I know this is true because I have lived this idea in my classroom since my first ISI with the Middle Tennessee Writers Project. Conferences, mentor texts, sharing ideas with others- all of these make for better writing and better writers. I have drunk the Kool-Aid, and I am fully convinced of these truths.

And I know I’m probably preaching to the choir, to be honest. But, I wanted to share something… well, something kind of weird that happened to me over the last week or so.

I’m used to taking everything that I read and discuss and watch and applying it to me classroom. The “oh, that would be good for a lesson on____” thought is never far from me. I’m not used to applying my teaching practice to my life though.

The power of workshop was made crystal clear to me this last week or so. You see, I’m getting married in a few days, and we’re not doing anything traditionally. My future brother-in-law is our officiant who is writing his own speech; we’re writing our own vows, our gifts to our bridal party are books that have been central to our relationship with something heartfelt written in the inside cover.

So. Much. Writing.

So. Much. PUBLICLY SHARED. Writing.

This realization led to a little bit of panic, but then a sense of calm. I knew what to do – the same thing we do every day in class, Pinky. We workshopped.

We sought out mentor texts. My fiance and I watched videos of other peoples vows and made lists of what worked and what didn’t work and why. As we worked through this process, I was reminded of the lists that my students make in their writers notebooks when we’re studying a mentor text: “If I want to write like this…, Then I should…”

We sought out conferences. We each wrote the bare bones of our messages to our friends and family before sharing them with each other and asking questions about development. This development and honing activity reminded me of my “like a toddler activity” for my AP students – we find our claims and then ask why, why, why until we can’t think of anything new to say. I call this going full toddler.

We read our writing out loud to each other, and I was reminded about how vulnerable and sharing your riding with another person can be – even when you’ve decided to share your life with that person. Apparently, we weren’t alone in this venture either. My 6’4” future brother-in-law – soon to be a Major in the Army brother-in-law – can’t make it through his officiant’s speech without tearing up. His writing is honest and open and vulnerable. I couldn’t make it through reading vows out loud to just myself without tearing up just a little. This exercise reminds me that even our academic writing can still be a vulnerable moment for students and that moment deserves to be treated with respect and dignity. I need to remember that I’m helping/guiding/teaching not just the writing but the writer.

We’re on Fall Break this week. Given this glimpse of the writer’s workshop from the inside, being reminded of how it feels to be the student writer makes me excited to get back to the classroom as a more empathetic fellow workshopper.

I guess this is just one more example of that teacher phenomenon: everything we do we we link  back to our classrooms. Apparently, even wedding vows.

Workshop on!

Sarah Morris teaches AP English Language & Composition and Film as Literature in Murfreesboro, Tn. She is rereading Beartown – can’t recommend it highly enough. She tweets at @marahsorris_cms.

Nothing New Under the Sun?

So many thoughts came up as I read Maggie’s post last week, the same day the American people, indeed the whole world, had a chance to witness our judicial process unfold in TheCrucible_940x470-678x381real time. My very first thought was, “I’m going to read The Crucible aloud with my AP students, too.” Miller’s play is one of the core texts of the junior English curriculum. Having promised myself that this year, I intended to provide my AP students with as much of the RWW as I could while still “covering” everything, this idea was perfect.

the-crucible-3360718-59ac57cf0d327a0011aa0fe9My next thought … politics. In the play, Reverend Hale is one of the few characters who exhibits any change in thinking. He observes. He listens. He struggles to negotiate his worldview when what he sees and hears doesn’t fit. Reverend Hale — indeed the whole village — experiences the crucible of accusation, doubt, and disintegration.

By definition, a crucible is “a situation of severe trial, or in which different elements interact, leading to the creation of something new.” The “something new” in Salem? Miller concludes, “To all intents and purposes, the power of theocracy in Massachusetts was broken.”

My hope is that our study of this play will evoke conversation about our current democracy, about whose voices are heard, about whose voices are (at the risk of further mixing david-butow-brett-kavanaugh-senate-vote-friday-1literary allusions) a little more “equal” than others. And how can this “interaction of elements,” lead to the creation of something new, perhaps some power structures that need to be broken? 

So, what to do with this as teachers of writing, and to glean something practical from our own real-time crucible? My students will write an “Open Letter” essay as we study The Crucible to explore concepts of voice and audience. (McSweeney’s is a great source for open letter examples of all kinds. I want to provide an opportunity for them to give voice — their own — to what matters to them, directed to the audience that most needs to listen.

Writing Conferences: Stories, Schemes, and Strategies

Conferring is hard brain work. When do I listen? How do I listen? When do I talk? How much? How do I anticipate what a student needs? When do I step back and let them problem solve? Am I even conferring right? (Maybe not. So put your Judge-y McJudgers pants away while you read this.). As Shana explained in this post back in January, there’s so much value in talk, in engaging our students in conversation, in encouraging them–as Amy framed here— to tell the story of how their writing is going.

Because (as Tom Newkirk suggests) we have minds made for stories, over the years I’ve begun to recognize some common schemes while conferring. Recognizing these patterns frees me to listen and to respond. Perhaps you’ll recognize the stories of your own students in the stories I share. Perhaps you’ll pick up a strategy or two. 

The What-Did-I-Do-to-Myself Conference

This conference may typically begin from a position of fear–mine because my student’s eyes have suddenly become two daggers, piercing my helpful, loving heart. This occurred in a recent conference, where my student who chose ice cream as her multi genre research project topic hurled at me these words: “I don’t know how I’m supposed to write an argument about ice cream.” Was she complaining about lack of direction? Instruction? I took a deep breath to let go of any defensiveness I felt. Then I reflected on her question. Oh. Oh! The fear was not mine to have.

My student needed:

  1. to hear that to write about this is, indeed, possible.
  2. to understand the possibilities for executing the writing.

Conference next steps:

  1. I confirmed the correctness of my reflection by paraphrasing (So, what I think you’re saying is that you’re feeling pretty uncertain if you can, and if you can, what it looks like?).
  2. Once confirmed, I chose another seemingly tiny and narrow topic like tacos and verbally processed some options for how I could craft an argument for an audience on tacos. I did not do any written modeling or reach for any mentors at this point. My role in this early phase conference was to dispel fear, to affirm possibility, and to confirm faith in my student’s ability.

Student next steps:

Following this verbal modeling, my student disarmed with affirmation and a smile, she continued working in her notebook, mapping her argument and the rest of the multi genre.

The I-Need-to-Change-My-Topic Conference

This conference may typically begin from a declarative statement: “Just so you know, I’m changing my topic.” I’m being put on notice here.  But I delight in these William Carlos Williams “this is just to say” moments almost as much as ripe-n-ready plums. So, curious now, I say, “Tell me about why you abandoned the old topic” (I’m always thinking we can learn something from discarding topics) and “Tell me about the new topic.” That’s when my student in this case explains that the topic is music but that’s all he has. Hmm.

My student needed:

  1. To narrow his topic by sinking his teeth into the best tidbits of it.
  2. To get moving. And fast. IMG_2711.JPG

Conference next steps:

  1. With the topic so broad, I asked the student to tell me a story that shows his relationship with music.
  2. Once the student shared his story–one that involved him writing his own music and performing several songs at a local concert venue (Our students do amazing things!)–we mapped out a plan for the different parts of his multi genre text.

Student next steps:

With a story in his head (and probably a song) and a general plan mapped out, this student left for the day, ready to focus on more specific planning.

The So-Can-I? Conference

This conference may typically begin and end within a very short burst of time; a meteor shower during the Perseids, this conference starts with a short burst of light from the student, a recognition of how to apply a resource. In a recent case, the student examined a resource on possible argument structures I shared with the class, and ingenuity bursting forth, queried, “So, I can use the pro/con structure? And, can I make this modification to it?”

My student needed:

  1. To know that he has more freedom than he’s using.
  2. To have the affirmation necessary to keep burning bright.

Conference next steps:

  1. I replied,” Tell me a little more about that” and followed that with paraphrasing, “So, what you want to do is . . .?”
  2. Then I simply said, “Yes.” 

Student next steps:

Following this all-of-sixty-seconds-conference, the student returned to mapping out writing, synthesizing his own ideas with the resource. And, I spent five minutes with the next person instead of three.

The I-Know-I-Need-to ______ , But . . . Conference

This conference may typically begin with candor from the student. Like the first sip of lemonade on a hot summer’s day, it’s so refreshing to hear in response to my opening questions (How’s the writing going? What roadblocks are you running into?), “I know I need to _______, but I’m having a little trouble.” Ah. This can become an opportunity to model for the student or offer a micro-lesson; sometimes–like in a recent conference where my student wanted to build a more humorous tone–I help the student find or use mentors. **Note to self–I should probably start asking my students to tell me about mentor texts they’ve turned to when they’re tackling challenges. 

My student needed:

  1. To resolve gaps in skill level (impressively, one’s the student recognized).
  2. To access additional resources  for strategies.

Conference next steps:

  1. For this student working on narrative writing, I pulled David Sedaris’ “Let It Snow” and a couple of others.
  2. Then we talked through typical strategies a writer uses to develop humor.

Student next steps:  

Time well-spent, smiling now, my student worked on reading and studying the mentors.

 
The I’m-Avoiding-Letting-You-Read-My-Writing Conference. May also sometimes appear as the I-Don’t Have-Any-Writing-to-Show-You-Yet Conference

This conference may typically begin, well, haltingly–like a first time driver slowly circling around the empty high school parking lot. I’ll ask, “How is the writing going? What roadblocks are you hitting?” “Doin’ fine. No roadblocks.” Okay. Next approach. “Why don’t we look at a section together? Show me a section you feel really good about. Let’s celebrate what’s working!” Sometimes that gets us turned in the right direction (a smile and an oh, sure and we’re underway); sometimes we skid (uh, so, um, I don’t really have much yet. Uh-oh.). When I most recently tried this approach, my student offered, “Well, I really like this paragraph; but I’m not sure about how to develop it more.” 

My student needed:

  1. to feel safe enough–safe enough to embrace the opportunity or safe enough to admit to lack of progress.
  2. to have re-direction for what conferring might look and sound like. Sometimes they just don’t have the mechanisms down.

Conference next steps:

  1. In the first situation, I generally point out the parts that are really working in the section the student chose to share. I thank them. Then I ask if there’s anything else they want to share or questions they have. And, sometimes I get to look at more writing. I did in this particular case. And, had I not pressed gently, I don’t think I would have (I was kind of impressed that it actually worked!).
  2. In the second situation, I paraphrase what they might be feeling. I might say, “I imagine you might be feeling ___________ (stressed for not having more done; frustrated by how to begin; confused about the direction of your writing; etc.). They typically correct me if I’m wrong and we work together to plan next steps, even if it’s breaking down the process further.

Student next steps:

In the first situation, the student began applying feedback; in situation two, the student typically articulates what’s getting in the way and what resources are needed and then begins tackling a small goal (drafting a paragraph versus drafting the whole thing).

When I’m conferring, I’m listening, paraphrasing, questioning, re-teaching, modeling, affirming, finding resources, building possibility, and showing my students that what they write matters. No wonder my brain hurts.

Kristin Jeschke remembers with fondness the many teachers that encouraged her writing but especially Greg Leitner who always listened more than talked. And who always inspired her to keep writing. Now as an AP Language and Composition teacher and senior English teacher, Kristin appreciates the gift of moments spent conferring. Follow Kristin on Twitter @kajeschke.  

 

 

Taking a chance on reading aloud

One of the most prevalent memories I have from my childhood is being read to.  Every week, my mom would load my sister and I in the van and head downtown to the library where we would practice returning, renewing, and selecting new books.  I can still see the orange carpet in the children’s library, the shelves that stood only as tall as a seven year old, and hear the crinkle of the plastic covers that protected each precious story like shrink wrap.  During the week, my sister and I vied for places on her lap as she read aloud each book. I wouldn’t say she was a theatrical reader, I don’t recall her trying on different voices or even pausing to ask us what we thought, but it was her voice telling a story.  Isn’t that the magic of being read to?

Read alouds in K-12 classrooms have immense benefits, although their usage and popularity have ebbed and flowed overtime, as discussed by Steven L. Layne’s book In Defense of Read-Aloud which Amy writes about along with practical strategies for implementation.  This summer, I began to notice much discussion around reading aloud in the adolescent classroom and my interest was piqued.  My challenge to myself this summer was to try implementing read alouds, not just think alouds, in my classroom.

Admittedly, I got a little scared.  Then I chickened out. 

Having just hours to submit a book list to the department chair and having never visited the school I was about to teach at, I was unsure how a read aloud would be perceived by my new students and new colleagues.  So, I played it safe and opted to start the year with a full class read aloud using one of the required texts, The Crucible (I work with a curriculum that includes highly suggested texts for English 3, American Literature in the state of Utah, which has led me to a balance the requirements while choice).  I put students at the center of the read aloud, hoping they would embrace and take ownership of hearing a story versus reading it.

Did I fear a lack of student buy in?  Yep. Did I wonder if my pedagogical reasoning would be questioned?  At some points. Am I planning for a class-selected read aloud in the coming weeks?  Sure am!

Students loved it.  

I loved it.

We laughed, we questioned, we build community, and we worked on critical reading skills. We also enjoyed the story–there is power in students hearing a story, even when they’re 16 or 17 years old.

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6th period was so into reading, they literally begged me to read the deleted scene between John Proctor and Abigail Williams once they discovered it at the end of the play–how could I say no?  While we were all entertained with Sam and Noa’s reading, we were able to discuss how the scene adds to and takes away from the text as a whole, in addition to making inferences about Miller’s choices.

Building upon Layne’s research, here are the benefits I noticed in my classroom:

  • Students received a foundation of reading strategies to start the school year.  As a play is essentially a “think aloud,” with the narrator teaching students to make inferences about characters, conflict, and the social setting. Prior to starting, we discussed our reading voices, what Chris Tovani has labeled as “Interacting” and “Distracting” voices in Do I Really Have to Teach Reading?.  The interacting voice is what makes connections and predictions, asks questions, develops an opinion, and identifies confusion as we are decoding words.  The distracting voice is what pulls a reader’s attention away from the text (Tovani 63). For struggling readers, the narrated parts and asides modeled this “interacting voice” and we implemented “Fix Up Strategies,” as defined by Tovani, when our distracting voice overpowered our interacting voice, leading to muddled comprehension. We paused to recap the plot, ask questions, and make predictions during our full class reading.  Students had permission to pause the read aloud and we implemented these strategies together and practice themselves.
  • Students made connections between the false accusations and lies of Salem and our current world.  I never had to answer the age-old English question of “Why are we reading this?”  Big win when students understand the relevance of a common text to their world.
  • Students became comfortable reading and sharing–many began taking on the person of the accused, answering using “I,” demonstrating they were engaged in the text and thinking like the characters. This has created an environment where their voice and opinions matter.
  • Students dug into their choice reads in their own time because much our class time, aside from writers notebook time, was dominated by The Crucible.  Without realizing, students began to develop the habit of reading daily on their own time. Sa-weet!
  • I gained incredible insight into my students’ preferences, personalities, and habits.  I immediately learned who participates in the theater program and who only volunteers when the role is small.  I learned who needs to be engaged fully to keep on task and whose brain wanders thus requires reminders to “enter” the scene.  I learned who likes to lead, taking charge in the scene as the main character, or play the mother hen and keep everyone “on task” as a narrator. You learn who always brings their book and who always forgets, who annotates and who ponders.  It was like watching a collaborative group unfold.
  • We built rapport.  I believe beginning with a play set the tone that our classroom environment is one where we work together and discuss literature–what we love, what resonates with us, what we can connect to.  Our classroom is one where reading is an enjoyable experience.

“One key benefit of a consistent read-aloud is that kids enjoy being with text; this affects attitude, and attitude precedes action. Kids don’t take books home and read if they never have any pleasant experiences w.jpg

I also wonder if their reading was deepened because we read together as a community, bringing 20+ backgrounds and ideas together to create a collective understanding.  Maybe the struggling students thought “I can do this” for the first time. Maybe the advanced student thought “Now I more time to read what I want at home” for the first time in a long time. Maybe other students simply thought “Huh, this wasn’t so bad.”

Part of a read aloud’s magic is its power to change student perceptions around books.  My goal, OUR goal, is to create and encourage readers. I encourage you to bring oral reading into your classroom.  I am going to be braver in the coming weeks and embrace a full class read aloud, so students can simply enjoy hearing a story for a few minutes each day.

Maggie Lopez has made the move west to Utah where the mountains are a gorgeous golden purple every day and ski season is around the corner.  She is indulging in promoting banned books this week with students and currently reading a student rec, Brain on Fire.  Follow her on Twitter at @meg_lopez0.

Better Feedback Better Me

When I first attended Penny Kittle’s class at the University of New Hampshire Literacy Institute, and really learned what authentic writing instruction looked like, I thought I had to do everything like she did. I remember even saying to her at one point, “I want to be you when I grow up.” She quickly said, “No, you want to be you.” What I heard was –“You want to be the best you.” I know that’s what she meant.

My biggest failure in trying to be Penny instead of myself was reading and giving feedback on students’ writing in their writer’s notebooks. I just could not keep up with the volume of it all. And the volume of writing was important. I knew that.

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Photo by Dmitry Ratushny on Unsplash

I also knew that volume serves its own purpose, and coaching writers to improve required a different focus that just getting students to write more. (When I first started workshop, I was really good at getting students to write more. I was lousy at helping them improve as writers.)  When I made the conscious effort to provide better and more continual feedback, I started to see a change in myself as writing coach — and a change in my students’ writing ability and confidence.

I started a better rotation system of collecting student notebooks, and I worked on planning student activities that allowed for me to read and comment on at least part of a class stack during a class period while students worked on something independently or in small groups, so I wasn’t doing it during planning time or after school. And I limited my comments to this simple method:

  • Two things that struck me about the writing (validating ideas, language, images…)
  • One suggestion for taking the thinking further or some aspect of improvement.

This feedback method has worked for me for a long while now, and I use it on pretty much every draft of writing I read. Lately, I’ve been working on giving more feedforward than feedback, which I think will make an even better impact. For more on that, read this. (And maybe buy this book.)

I’d love to know how you manage giving feedback on your students’ writing. Please share in the comments.

 

Amy Rasmussen lives in North Texas where she’s been enjoying lots of rain. Lately, she’s spent a lot of time reading about becoming a better writer (See this and this) and trying to break through the wall of her writer’s block. Follow Amy on Twitter @amyrass

 

Good books — and a teacher’s expertise in using them — can do it all

On Sunday, my friend and extraordinary literacy-leader, Billy Eastman, and I got to giveBookTweet away books. We presented at the Coalition of Reading and English Supervisors of Texas (CREST) fall conference, and Follett Learning gave us 30 books, six signed by the authors, to raffle off to our audience. It was kind of an Oprah moment: “You get a book, and you get a book.” Oh, the thrill of book giving.

But giving books is just part of the thrill. We know this. We ‘give’ books to readers and students we hope will become readers often. We model our reading lives. We read aloud. We line whiteboard rails with new titles. We do book tastings and speed dating with books. We celebrate our readers and exhaust our arsenal of book-loving ideas.

And some would-be readers still don’t read. What’s a teacher to do?

Here’s three ideas that have worked for me:

1. Never give up. When we set high expectations, when our students know we are serious about Book Love, when we practice keep-on-keeping-on with all the things I listed above– and we relentlessly share our joy, passion, and commitment to their reading lives– even if we never get a student, or a handful of them, to read a book, we have succeeded.

2. Believe in #1. Often we focus on the one student who just won’t budge. She chooses books, flips a few pages, fakes reading a chapter, bluffs her way through a conference, and we get discouraged. Keep trying — but do not let her be a black hole. So often we find ourselves gravitating to the one over and over again when we need the energy to keep encouraging, moving, and celebrating the many.

3. Make it okay to not read novels (yet). Anthologies are awesome. Sometimes

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“… this anthology empowers the nation’s youth to listen, learn, and build a better tomorrow.”

students who don’t like reading just need to enjoy a good piece of writing. Many will then want to read more by a particular author. One title many of my students dabbled in, and often read in its entirety, is Flying Lessons & Other Stories with authors Kwame Alexander, Jacqueline Woodson, Matt de la Pena, and more. I’ve recently purchased Fresh Ink, which is similar and looks equally engaging. It’s got authors Nicola Yoon, Jason Reynolds, and more! And I just read about this one this morning:  We Rise, We Resist, We Raise Our Voices. It’s now in my shopping cart.


In our session at CREST, Billy and I discussed implementing the new ELAR standards for Texas (We both served on the teacher committee that wrote them), and we shared the transformative role investing in teacher expertise and authentic resources has made in his district (We wrote about some of it in this English Journal article.). Access to engaging books like the ones we gave away in our session is just part of it. Knowing how to use them to teach thinking, reading, writing, speaking, and listening skills is the other.

Good books — and a teacher’s expertise in using them — can do it all.

Billy Eastman at CREST

We know the real thrill isn’t in getting a new book but in the knowledge, the empathy, or the know-how that books gives to us. This is the thrill we want for our readers. It’s the reason we do what we do.

 

Amy Rasmussen is a mother, grandmother, reader, writer, and wannabe sleeper. She spends a lot of nights thinking about growing readers, encouraging writers, and talking to her writer’s block. She’s back to working on that book she started five years ago, so if you’ve got any extra luck hanging around, please send it her way. Follow Amy on Twitter @amyrass 

Choice Reading Shouldn’t be a Choice Not to Read

I love that silence that permeates our reading time. A certain peace settles over the room as thirty souls lose themselves in the pages of their books, the only sounds: rustling pages, tapping feet, or contented sighs.  I also love that groan they emit when, after ten minutes, an eternity of silence, I implore them to mark their page and pause their reading for now.  That’s exactly what I say to them, “Alright kiddos, lets pause our reading and get out our reader’s/writer’s notebook.”

While we’ve practiced that transition dozens of times, they still plead begrudgingly, “Can we just have more reading time!!!”  “You can,” I tell them, “on your time.”  Some of them, the truly committed, make time for their self-selected independent reading, but most, for now, do not.  This reality, jarringly disturbing to committed readers like you or me, is something that keeps me up at night.  It prompts old teacher/football coach friends to text me on Sunday morning, asking for some kernel of knowledge that might help them move readers.  For this problem, though, there is only one short and fast answer: Hard Work.

I wrote about the difficult task of moving seniors into reading lives last year: here and here. The results, transformative for some, middling at best, and woeful for many, read like a Picasso.

I promise you this: We can’t afford not to give them everything we’ve got.  That thought spurred this tweet from me earlier in the week:

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We know reading and writing dovetail to form literacy.  If we instruct using whole class novels, we run the risk of alienating many who can’t engage with something in which they have no interest and as a result, we get nothing. If we encourage choice reading and we allow the kids to choose not to read, we get nothing.

We must engage in their self-selected reading lives and I believe that I can’t do that if I’m reading while they read.  While they read, I’m moving around the room, tracking pages read, asking the reluctant about their reluctance, asking the readers when, where, and why they are reading on their own, simultaneously serving both ends of the reading spectrum.  You won’t ever find me sitting behind a desk, because my desk is shoved up against the wall, relegated to table status, as a place where papers pile.

It’s hard work, like everything about our roles as literacy advocates.  It takes planning,  reflection, and intention to match every kid to the perfect reading conference question.

That’s part of it too.  One question does not fit all.  If a student isn’t reading, they can’t reach into their reading experience to share with me their opinion on the effectiveness of setting, for instance, in their selection.

Also, I have to give them the sobering news that this lack of reading life may hinder their writing life as well, and while I don’t take grades for self-selected reading, I do take grades for writing and their engagement from one directly affects their success in the other.  I need to tell them that, before their grades do.

Charles Moore loves conferring with readers, even struggling ones.  He loves concerts with his wife and when his son texts during the concert, he texts back, “We are having fun without you.”  He’s loving the new adventure with Pre-AP students and his freshman are growing on him; they are adorable.  Check out his book review blog at www.mooreliteracy1.wordpress.com and his far too frequent twitter rants at @ctcoach.

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