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When Choice Becomes an Imperative

I’ve been fascinated with the language I hear in classrooms for a long while now.

My TTT friends and I like to use welcoming, inclusive phrases to describe what goes on in our classrooms–we practice offering choice, inviting learning. But many classrooms I visit use more permissive phrases that emphasize teacher control–“I make them;” “they have to;” “I let them.” Often, without ever stepping foot into a classroom, we can make inferences about what kinds of work students are doing just by hearing a teacher describe their learning. Is the learning situated as an invitation, a choice, a welcome pastime–or a mandate?

I worry that, for many critics of the readers-writers workshop, this language might be what convinces them that student choice lacks inherent rigor, as if choice is something to be offered on a menu. A luxury. A privilege.

This article details nicely the evolution of the readers-writers workshop in the last 40 years. Veteran teacher Lorrie McNeill, after visiting Nancie Atwell’s classroom, wiped away tears and described Atwell’s students as “so fortunate.” “It makes me sad that my students can’t have this every day,” McNeill said.

Student choice is depicted this way often–as a privilege a lucky few students are given. But in an era of increased measurement, standardization, and monologic thinking, I believe choice is not something that should merely be offered to students. Choice has become an imperative if we want our students to be successful, purpose-driven citizens.

We’ve all read Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken,” and are doubtless familiar with its final stanza–“I took the road less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” However, I find that the first stanza is far more descriptive of the students I’ve had in the past several years:

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“Sorry I could not travel both.” Our students, often unaccustomed to making meaningful choices, are paralyzed when they come to roads that diverge in their lives. Growing up in a culture that is saturated with meaningless choices–social media, Netflix, and smartphone games come to mind, combined with an academic and social culture that emphasizes standardization and sameness–is devastating a generation.

So many of our students lack the agency afforded to them by frequent, authentic opportunities to make choices and mistakes–both low-stakes and high-stakes–at a young age. Too often, kids are paralyzed by indecision, faced with the paradox that too many choices becomes similar to having no choice at all:

I’d been thinking about this concept for a while, but it was driven home for me by one of my students, Sara.

Sara was one of my favorite kids, a secondary English major with a penchant for words and a passion for education. She seemed an indomitable force, never bogged down by her workload, her multiple jobs, or the high expectations she put on herself.

Until a few Fridays ago, when she asked to meet privately, and told me that she wanted to drop out of our education program.

Four years into her schooling as an English Ed major, and she was just now realizing she didn’t want to be a teacher–and no less, a potentially really awesome teacher?!

That was my initial reaction…until we talked, and I realized that she was just now finding the courage to decide she didn’t want to be a teacher.

“I cried when I got my acceptance letter into the program,” she told me. “I was hoping I wouldn’t get in and the choice would be made for me.”

Sara is part of a generation of students who have been shepherded through their education without getting the opportunity to make important decisions about her future. Like many millennials I know, while Sara enjoyed learning and higher education in general, she didn’t really know what she wanted to be when she grew up. How do any of us, really? Still, she toed the line, went to college, and was a senior before she realized she was in too deep.

On a large scale, Sara is one of many “college-track” students who, while in high school, have very little say in if they’ll go to college–if they’re lucky, they get to choose their major. On a small scale, this looks like a school experience that prizes correctness, conformist thinking, compliance. It looks like a school culture that positions kids in a binary: college or career-ready. It looks like a nation of kids who grow up believing in a new, sinister American Dream: that college is the path to success, despite a growing trend in research that shows it’s really not.

To help kids like Sara–and all students–we need to make choice less of an offering  in schools, and more of a necessity. How can we graduate teens who have to ask to go to the restroom on Friday and expect them to make responsible decisions about where they might live or work on Monday?

Our students need to grow up, K-12, in a culture of choice. They need to not only self-select what to read, but should be guided toward choosing their own purposes, evaluations, and goals when it comes to that reading. The same is true for their study of writing, mathematics, and the social and natural sciences.

Students should make their own choices, early and often, so that when they no longer have a parent, a school, or an institution making those choices for them, they know what to do. Making good choices is a life skill that requires practice like any other. We get into dangerous territory when we ask students to make their first real decisions when the repercussions of poor financial, employment, or relationship choices are often irreversibly permanent.

For me, this makes my quest to spread the love of readers-writers workshop even more meaningful. I believe that the power of letting students choose what, how, and when to read and write empowers our students far beyond the ELA classroom.

Don’t you?


Shana Karnes is mom to 1.5 spunky little girls and wife to a hardworking surgical resident.  She teaches practicing and preservice English teachers at West Virginia University and is fueled by coffee, a pregnancy craving of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches (this week), and a real obsession with all things reading and writing.  Follow Shana on Twitter at @litreader and read more of her writing on the WVCTE Best Practices Blog.

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Blackout Poetry with a Twist

Early in the school year, I’m always on the lookout for new ways to gather diagnostic data on my students, without uttering the words diagnostic, data, quiz, baseline, or any other term that reduces my students to plot points on a spreadsheet or numbers in the gradebook.

We know the power of conferring in learning about our students in countless ways, but what to do when, say as an AP teacher, we need to know students’ understanding of analysis terms or their ability to apply those terms in order to really dig into authentic analysis through study of mentor texts?

The idea of a vocabulary quiz makes me shutter. Conferring long enough with each student to get a good understanding of his/her knowledge of syntax, imagery, figurative language, etc. would take weeks. Submitting annotations on our first go-around seems cruel to both students and to me.

So this year, my colleague Sarah and I decided to try something different. We wanted an understanding of how students would go about identifying the purpose of a piece and img_6137provide appropriate text evidence of the basic terminology of analysis: syntax, imagery, diction, figurative language, and detail. We wanted students to use their left and their right brains. We wanted to students to work together to solve a problem.

Enter, the blackout poem.

Traditionally, black out poetry makes meaning out of the words provided by a single page of text. Whether it be from a book, article, essay, etc., a poem is created from the words that live on the page by blacking out all other words and leaving just the ones that create meaning for your given purpose. Additional images are sometimes included.

We decided to turn this upside down a bit. Students would create their page of text from the text evidence they pulled from their reading (In this case, their choice of Mary Roach books from our summer homework assignment) and a poem to illustrate their claim of purpose from that reading.

And this, is some of what we got:

Below, are the steps we took in guiding students through this unique assignment. It could work for jut about any reading, and I would love to try it when students have read a variety of perspectives on a given topic.

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  1. Students read their choice of Mary Roach books over the summer and kept track of instances where they felt she purposefully utilized DIDLS (Detail, Imagery, etc.).
  2. We then partnered up or formed groups of three to discuss what we found and what we thought it meant. We were working toward specific purpose claims for each text.
  3. Students shared examples of the various instances of craft from Roach’s texts and as they did so, they typed those quotes onto a shared Google document. Their final task with that original quote document was to decide on a claim of purpose for the text(s) they read.
  4. Once finished, students printed that document of quotes so I could take a look. I’ll use it as a jumping off point for review that’s needed with specific elements of analysis.
  5. The kids then eliminated all of the formatting for their quote document, so they were left with a page full of quotes from their texts. Essentially, they created the page of text for their blackout poem, instead of using an existing one from the book.
  6. We then talked about how to communicate their claims of purpose poetically. Simply finding the words from their purpose was not going to be poetic, it was going to sound like a thesis. We brainstormed ways to convey the purpose through related ideas and involve more imagery, figurative language, etc. in our own work.
  7. Finally, we put the poems under the document camera and each group explained their claim for Roach’s purpose in the text, how it influenced their poem, and read their work to us. We snapped at the end of each reading.

I love that this work got students talking about a text, using text evidence, attacking an assignment with both sides of their brains, and enthusiastically supporting one another’s work by sharing with the class. Their creations went well beyond finding and explaining examples, to creation. Poetry from nonfiction for the win.


Lisa Dennis teaches English and leads a department of incredible English educators at Franklin High School near Milwaukee. Her favorite insight from Mary Roach (courtesy of the book Gulp) is that our mouths fill up with saliva before we vomit in order to protect our teeth. We have so much acid in our stomachs that our teeth would be irreparably damaged when we puke, if our saliva didn’t protect them. Science. Incredible. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum 

 

 

 

 

Shifting Control to Invite More Learning

569059I admit to liking control. I won’t go far as to say I’m a control freak, but I am freakishly close. As I age I realize I like more and more things in neat little rows, even my To-Do lists must be lined up perfectly, so I can make tiny check marks with my Precision pen.

I am ridiculous.

The hardest part of teaching for me is letting go. It’s also been the best thing for my teaching.

To be an effective workshop teacher, we step aside so our students can step in. They want to know their opinions, ideas, and choices matter. They’re hungry for it. We’ve written a lot about choice reading on this blog, and I know many of us advocate for self-selected independent reading, protecting sacred reading time like an O line protecting our quarterbacks.

I wonder what other choices we offer our students. How else do we invite them to own their learning?

Recently, I read this post “The Inspiration in Front of Your Eyes” by George Couros. He begins:

Often when working with educators, I try to give relevant examples of ideas that can be implemented into learning but get very specific to either a class or grade level.  My focus is not adding something to the plate of an educator but replacing something they currently do with something new and better than what they may have been doing before.  For example, instead of a teacher spending hours searching a video to explain a concept in math, or even creating it themselves, why not have the students find the concept and say why it is powerful, or having the students create some form of multimedia to explain the concept themselves? The flip is putting the learning into the student’s hands, which can lessen the work for the educator.

Deeper learning for the student, less work for the teacher.  Sounds good to me!

Couros goes on to explain the importance of being observant and connecting ideas we find in the world, and reshaping them to facilitate deeper learning for our students. Of course, this resonated. This is how we find mentor texts like author bios and user manuals. But Mr. Couros got me thinking about shifting the finding to my students.

Then before school a week ago Monday, I saw Kristen Ziemke‘s Padlet, Take a Knee. And I got another spark to shift my instruction.

I’d never used Padlet before, so while my students shuffled in to first period, I quickly made an account and created a board. I put one thing on it:  Kwame Alexander’s poem, Take a Knee, which I knew was the perfect quickwrite for the day after so many NFL players knelt in protest.

After we wrote and shared and talked in small groups and as a class about the issue. One student said, “I just don’t know enough about it to know what I believe.”

The perfect intro!

I suggested we make a text set that could help us understand the why’s and who’s and what’s of this hotbed of a topic, and I issued the challenge:  As a class of individuals with a wide variety of beliefs and backgrounds, we’d search for articles that would address all sides. We’d use Padlet as our storage space. Then we’d use the text set we build together for our learning in class.

With their phones and iPads, students went to work, and in the 10 minutes I gave them in class, they talked. Students talked about where to find information that “wasn’t biased,” “would tell them the truth,” “will help me want to know more.”

I leaned in to these conversations, teaching terms, suggesting sites, encouraging objectivity — and why it is important for our understanding of human needs and desires.

Our Padlet What’s the Argument is not complete. We haven’t had a chance to return to it yet, but we will. Maybe we’ll use it as we learn to ask better questions in preparation for whole class discussions. Maybe we’ll use it as we learn to synthesize information from a variety of sources. Maybe we’ll use it to spark ideas for the arguments we’ll post on our blogs. It doesn’t matter.

When we return to our Padlet, or even create another one that coincides with whatever peace-cannot-be-kept-by-force-it-can-only-be-achieved-by-understandinghotbed topic fires up the nation (sadly, there are so many), my students will know I value their input. They’ll know that helping them make sense of our world is as important to me as helping them love books and become good writers.

And maybe they’ll remember to look at all sides of the issues, to see into the hearts and minds of those we may disagree with so we can find a space for conversations.

If my giving up control makes space for that, I’ll take it every chance I get.

What ideas to do have to flip the learning into students’ hands, let go of control, and invite deeper learning? Please share in the comments.

Amy Rasmussen is a neat freak in her classroom but not her bedroom closet. She loves sharing books with student readers and reading students’ writing. She is the mother of six, grandmother to five, and wife to one very patient man. She teaches senior English and AP English Language at a huge and lovely senior high school in North Texas. Follow her on Twitter @amyrass

Snapshots from My Students’ Notebooks

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This weekend, I spent some time reading and responding to my students’ Teacher-Researcher Notebooks. These TRNs, my preservice teachers’ versions of the writer’s notebook, are where my college students’ thinking about their learning, teaching, students, and growth intersect.

Their notebooks inspired me–so much so that I began making a list in my own notebook of all the techniques and sketches and thoughts I saw so I could utilize them myself. I saw some ideas I’d given them, based on what’s in my own notebook, but I also saw some fresh genres that were new to me.

These five excerpts from my students’ notebooks illustrate that when given the choice afforded by workshop’s emphasis on frequent, low-stakes writing, balanced with the structure of routines, mentor texts, and feedback, the writer’s notebook is a powerful tool in any teacher’s arsenal. I’ll share them in the hopes that you and your students will try them out, too!

Orientation Pages. Making lists of writing territories, drawing heart maps, or tracing your hand like Penny Kittle often does are great ways to orient yourself in your notebook. I often ask students to do this both at the beginning of the semester, when our notebooks are fresh and empty, as well as periodically throughout the year to orient ourselves.

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These “orientation pages” center us, remind us who we are and what’s important to us, and double as a handy list of writing topics when we don’t know what to write. I love how Kourtney blended this technique with what she was noticing in her students.

Artifacts. Glue-ins not only serve to remind us of a particular time or place, but also act as inspiration for future writing. Many of my students glued in their name badges from their schools last year–a tangible marker of time’s passing that helped them see how much closer they were to becoming “real” teachers.

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I love that Megan glued in her Tutor badge–she’s graduated to a Participant this year, and will be an Intern next year–and how faded it is. She also glued in a final feedback note I gave her after she presented her end-of-semester research project last year. Her title “Things That Keep Me Going” is a handy thing to have around when the stress of teaching gets to be a little much.

Imitations of Mentor Texts. Like many of my Twitter friends, I am obsessed with the lovely and poetic Mari Andrew. Her art serves as a frequent mentor text for my students, and we studied this image about how we define our passions, and they don’t define us–then imitated it.

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I love Julie’s illustration, which shows not only how many “Julies” she is beyond just teacher Julie, but also serves as inspiration in the form of an orientation page and a source for high-interest lesson topics she might pull in when she’s searching for some imaginative planning ideas.

Quotes. We learn so much from studying others’ words, not just for their message, but for their craft. Gluing in quotes, poems, essays, emails, and other bits of writing inspires us, teaches us, and motivates us to put pen to paper in ways that are meaningful.

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This quote Cat glued into her notebook is a wonderful one that I copied down myself, the better to write around, be inspired by, and imitate. It’s an apt metaphor for both teachers and writers, and served for Cat as a reminder of her potential and power as a blossoming educator.

State of the Writer. I urge my students to pause every two weeks or so and create a “big-picture entry.” This could involve doing a little reflection about themselves, looking at the undercurrents of what’s going on in their teaching, synthesizing some of the learning they’re doing in their classes, or a combination of those.

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I love that Elizabeth chose to do a little sketch of herself surrounded by the myriad thought bubbles typical to a teacher’s brain. Lesson planning, fretting about money, digesting Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, and the black hole of Pinterest…I mean, how spot-on is this!? I’d love to use this as an alternative to a written quarterly reflection with high school students to illustrate the intersections between who we are and what we’re learning.

Will you share some of your students’ notebook wisdom with us? Tell us about what your students write in the comments, or using the hashtag #whatsinanotebook on Facebook and Twitter!

Shana Karnes is mom to 1.5 spunky little girls and wife to a hardworking surgical resident.  She teaches practicing and preservice English teachers at West Virginia University and is fueled by coffee, a pregnancy craving of Honeycrisp apples (this week), and a real obsession with all things reading and writing.  Follow Shana on Twitter at @litreader or read more of her writing on the WVCTE Best Practices Blog.

Teachers Are Awesome. Let’s Learn from Them.

i-love-my-students-bags-backpacks.pngToday, I’m reflecting on how much I love my students.

There are 52 of them, all pre-service teachers from a variety of content areas and grade level specializations. Despite all the ways we are misaligned pedagogically, we have fantastic discussions every Friday about the work of education–the broad strokes that define good teaching, no matter the topic, age level, or context.

My students and I have opened one another’s eyes to so many things during our time together. If there’s anything that they’ve taught me, it’s that we can all learn from each other.

I feel much more knowledgeable, passionate, and informed about teaching reading and writing now that I’ve studied with elementary literacy specialists for over a year. I’ve learned from my history teachers how to spin what seems an ageless interpretation of a text into something new and fresh. My math and science preservice teachers have shown me more about process-oriented teaching, learning, and feedback than all my disconnected reading on the subject.

In studying with these young teachers, I am reminded of how much we can learn from one another, if only we try.


I think the most frustrating thing for me about teaching is the isolation.

Not just the physical isolation of our classroom spaces–being the only one who seemingly holds our role in the room, alone as the adult–but also the way that we never get to see one another practice our craft.

We rarely get to see other teachers teach.

As a result, most of our information about what other teachers are doing comes from secondary sources–our students, their parents, our colleagues, or, more professionally, from books, articles, blogs, or journals.

What would education look like if we changed this?


In my many roles this semester, I’ve gotten to be in lots of West Virginia classrooms. As a supervisor of English Ed interns, I’ve gotten to visit 7th graders and their teachers. As a teacher of preservice teachers, I’ve gotten a glimpse inside the myriad classrooms they’ve been placed in. And as a substitute teacher, I’ve gotten to “be” ten different practitioners so far this year.

I love, love, love going into these other classrooms. From the first impression I get from the empty space, to the first students who walk in the doors, to the ways I see teachers and students interacting as I study them–I love all of it.

There is beauty in every single classroom.

Getting to see all of these learning environments supports, strongly, the idea that no two teachers will ever teach alike. There is value in that truth–if the instruction we value for our students involves choice, authenticity, rigor, and relevance, then the instruction we want our teachers making involves those things too. That means providing time and training and encouragement for teachers to design their own curricula, assessments, and and products.

Because we don’t live in a perfect world, many teachers don’t get to do those things–but what does become reality is the fact that no two classrooms are alike, nor should they be.

What we can do is embrace that reality and learn from each other. Collaboration is a goal for many of our students’ thinking; why not apply it to our teachers’ learning, too? Here are four ways you might do this with your colleagues soon.

Ask Questions. As you’re enjoying your school’s delicious lunch special in a tiny student desk with your teacher friends, don’t just talk about what happened last on The Walking Dead. Ask questions: what are you guys working on this week? How do you approach grading that? What struggles are your students having? Where do you wish you could improve?

These questions help not just the asker, but the answerer, too. How many times do we actually get to talk about the pedagogical aspects of our work? I know when I tell stories over the dinner table I don’t talk about my methodology or lesson planning. I talk about the kid who tooted incredibly loudly in the middle of an active shooter drill, causing the whole class to burst out laughing in the dark classroom (that happened yesterday). Asking questions helps us learn not just about one another, but about our own teaching, as well.

Observe One Other. It can be tough to fit everything a teacher has to do into 24 entire hours, let alone the free moments we get in a school day. But take some time, even if it’s just once a month, to pop into a friend’s classroom on your lunch, plan period, or PLC bell. Just see what they’re up to for 15 minutes and learn from them–the way they arrange their space, the precision of their language, how they have kids organizing materials, or who and what and how they’re teaching.

We can always learn from one another, even across content areas. Invite others into your room, too; you never know what good someone else’s eyes might see that yours have missed.

Share Resources. Standing in line at the copy machine? Have a glance at what your peers are xeroxing. And do steps one and two, too–ask questions about those questions, or mentor texts, or essay samples, or whatever it is you see. Get talking about the work we do on the most nuts-and-bolts level–how do you organize your planning? Are those copies for today or tomorrow or next week? How do kids turn them in? How do you grade them? Let your curiosity guide you.

Listen. The final step, of course, is to listen thoughtfully to what you learn during this process. We have to open our eyes, ears, and minds to what good we can see in one another’s practices. Don’t pre-judge the math teacher making a thick stack of copies of practice problems. Don’t assume the English teacher relying on the textbook comprehension questions has nothing for you to learn.

Every teacher does good work–young and old, new and veteran, AP and on-level, quiet worker or school-wide leader. We spend too much time assuming the worst of people in our world–we don’t need to make our jobs harder by doing this at school too. Look for the good. Teachers are awesome. All you have to do is remember that, look for it, and prepare to learn.

Imagine would education would look like if we did.

Shana Karnes is mom to 1.5 spunky little girls and wife to a hardworking surgical resident.  She teaches practicing and preservice English teachers at West Virginia University and is fueled by coffee, a pregnancy craving of orange jello (this week), and a real obsession with all things reading and writing.  Follow Shana on Twitter at @litreader or read more of her writing on the WVCTE Best Practices Blog, where a version of this post originally appeared.

Saying Something, Not Just Anything: Student Talk – A Guest Post by Margaret Lopez

Written in the spring of 2017, Margaret Lopez reflects on the value of purposeful communication and strategies to get kids to create questions that get at the heart of a topic and generate meaningful discussions. 

All year, my juniors and I have been workshopping writing and reading different texts for a range of purposes, pairing fiction and nonfiction for some whole class studies (Death of a Salesman and Outliers–a hit!  1984 and current events surrounding fake news and government–loved it!).  I realized a skill I hadn’t closely instructed, we had just “done,” was intentional classroom discussions.  As my juniors prepare to be seniors, Screen Shot 2017-05-01 at 8.44.22 PMcollege students, and individuals in the workplace, they need to speak purposefully and ask intentional questions.  I want them to be able to say something, not just anything  From this reflection, and students’ interest in recent protest movements and community issues in Chicago, a social justice unit based mainly on speaking and listening with low stakes writing was born.

I selected three books for students to chose from, and those choices became their lit circle groups.  Students could chose from Half the Sky which discusses female discrimination across the world, Ghettoside which examines policing in a predominately African American community outside of LA told by a reporter who spent years reporting on crimes in the area, or Hillbilly Elegy, a memoir about growing up in Appalachia.

Throughout the unit, we have followed the same routine:  

Mondays are for lit circles, Tuesdays are for extension activities with nonfiction, and on Wednesdays, we discuss all three texts together in a Socratic Seminar.  My goal was a lot of low stakes writing and fruitful discussion.

I think there is a reason that discussion is a central component of the English classroom, as it builds community, facilitates deeper or new thinking on a topic resulting from other perspectives, and is a college and job skill we have the duty to foster and refine in our students.  However, students need to speak, listen, and ask purposefully.  My students know how to talk–at my small school, where classes can be between 6 and 16 students, class stalls if they don’t have anything to say.  The awkward silence lingers.  Then someone says any random thought they have just to break the silence.  But there is difference between saying anything and saying something.  To elevate students to say something about the injustices across the texts, not just anything so that awkward silence doesn’t linger too long, I began with questioning skills.

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It is challenging students to take the idea they’re wondering about and want their peers to contemplate and thinking about it backwards, writing a question that doesn’t give away their opinion, lead peers right to the answer, or simply confuse others.  

We began by running through the list of essential questions from this school year and reviewing their quick writes on the topics from throughout the year.  I asked students what they noticed about the questions, many came to the conclusion that the questions are BIG, meaning they have more than one answer, but those answers aren’t definitive or “right.”  From there, we looked at a list of plot-based questions I made about the first chunk of their reading to compare the lists of questions.  They easily noticed these questions were the opposite of essential questions, meaning they had a limited scope of what response could be correct or on the right track.

Great, they can notice the difference.  Now to teach them to apply this to their own questions. Thank the teaching gods and goddesses for Jim Burke’s What’s the Big Idea?.  I used his entry points into teaching questioning around three types of questions:  Factual, Inductive, and Analytical, having students label their own questions as one of the three types.  Then, we worked on revising after I modeled some examples.   I challenged students to move beyond the factual so we could get to the big ideas and scale up Bloom’s Taxonomy.

Jacely revised her questions to get to the heart of her concern, which was why law enforcement doesn’t seem to care about women that are in trouble:

  • Factual:  On the very first page of chapter 2, what does Nick ask the Officer about regarding trafficked girls?  
  • Inductive:  Kristoff asks an Officer about what exactly they look for and then mentions if they look out for trafficked girls and the officer mentions there isn’t much to do about them. Why do you think these officers seem to not care about this huge issue?   
  • Analytical:  What implications does this have on the community?  Women’s futures?  Are there issues with law enforcement in the communities in your books?

Mishawn revised to include more perspective and connection:

  • Factual: Why is the crime rate so high in Watts?
  • Inductive:  What allure do gangs have for the young people in the community?  How does this create a cycle of violence and crime?
  • Analytical:  What factors, both historically and recently, have lead Watts to become a breeding ground for criminal activity?  In your opinion, which factor is/has been the most detrimental?

I also provided students with question stems as a guide and encouraged students to use these until they felt comfortable framing their questions.  By the end of the unit, student questions were synthesizing the three texts and major ideas.  I noticed students would lead with a question geared more towards their text, then extended the question to the other two text, thus inviting in more conversation and fluidly moving between inductive and analytical questioning.  The discussions moved from inner to outer, from focused on one book to all three books.

Jordan:  How does Leovy expect the reader to believe in the good homicide detectives while at the same time giving examples of racist and uncaring detectives?  What contradictions exist in your book’s community?  Do these lead to an imbalance of power or other injustices?

Ben: Isolation is discussed by Vance as one reason leading to a disconnected, stalled hillbilly society.  How are the people in your text isolated, whether by location, proximity, cultural norms, or otherwise?  Does this perpetuate the problem or is it a solution that hasn’t been capitalized on?

To springboard Wednesday’s seminars, we often pre-thought through the big ideas for that chunk of reading as a way to anchor thinking and create a common entry point into the seminar, and also, so students had something to say.

  • Google Doc Quick Collaboration:  I posted some initial questions on the google doc to get students thinking, then watched the entire class collaborate on 1 document–so cool!  I limited this pre-thinking to about 3 minutes so students didn’t type all of their discussion points.  I also left this projected during the seminar, serving as an anchor chart and inspiration for more questions.  So easy. Minimal prep.  Great results!
  • Discussion Tables:  I made three table tents at three different tables in my classroom, each with a common idea and thread that occurred during that chunk of reading.  I gave students two minutes to discuss how each topic related to their book.  After two minutes, they moved to a new table and could shuffle up their group.  Again, minimal prep and 6 quality minutes of pre-thinking.
  • Essay Highlights:  Students wrote for 20 minutes about the central injustice in their novel, justifying why that, out of all the intersected issues, is the most pressing for the community in the book.  I then typed the major argument from each student’s essay and used it as an entry point into a Wednesday seminar.  Students were able to see the something their peers had to say, understand how perspective and perception shade one’s reading, and make connections across the three texts.
  • Pass Around:  I asked students to write a line from their book that really just hit them in the gut and explain why.  Then, students passed them around the room, spending a few seconds reading what their peer had been most impacted by and why.  I actually couldn’t stop students from talking. Across the table, students were making “OMG” eyes at each other, whether it was a connection with their lit circle peer or shock over what a peer had written about from another text, the conversation was immediately started.

As I have listened to each small group discuss the same texts, it was amazing to hear how the conversation differs from class to class.  I wanted students to experience that, to give them a chance to expand each others’ thinking.  I assigned two digital seminars using our school’s digital platform, and while this is nothing crazy innovative, students posted and responded, I noted many benefits from this type of “discussion”:

  • Students experienced new perspectives and interpretations of the text from their peers in other classes, and I found more students sharing personal anecdotes–students were sharing their personal experiences with discrimination and inequalities.
  • Shy students or those that need more process time were the space to contemplate, revise their thinking, or deepen their response by not having to think on the spot as they would during an oral discussion.  I have many exchange students from around the world (China, Spain, Thailand, and Italy), who have the extra task of interpreting, decoding, and thinking in two languages  By writing, students had more time to think and contribute at their pace.
  • Students were more thoughtful in their responses and more likely to use text evidence to support their argument or open their classmates’ eyes because they aren’t so “on the spot.”  Students used evidence from the book, as well as other articles we had read, thus adding rich context to the discussion.
  • Students had another opportunity to practice practical writing for college.  Many college courses require blog post or digital contributions, and the reality is that most of my students will take an online course at some point in their academic or professional lives, too.  
  • Students received real time feedback on their questions.  If no one responded, maybe the question was unclear, too narrow, or too broad.  Student-led formative assessment–a new trend?
  • Students had a time and space to learn about digital etiquette and practice, something very important as Snapchat and Twitter become accepted means of communication.  As students move into their post-secondary endeavors, they may be communicating with bosses or professors via email and must communicate clearly, without a misinterpreted tone.  We discussed how to politely disagree and how to ask a follow up question instead of answering with bias, as well as the time and place for proper mechanics.
  • I made time to write beside them, contributing to the discussions, too.

Although these strategies were successful in moving my students beyond saying anything at all to fill the void, the best part was how moved my students were by the injustices that exist in our world.  They spoke with such compassion and concern for those suffering they no longer seemed to be kids, but young adults.


Maggie Lopez has six years of teaching experience at large public high schools in Louisville, Houston, and now Chicago.  A graduate of Miami University, she had the pleasure of learning from the workshop masters and is on a continual quest to challenge, inspire, and learn from her hilariously compassionate juniors and seniors. 


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How to Read the Room between Conferences

Constructive FeedbackReader’s and Writer’s Workshop hinges on providing choice.  However, as I am guiding my level this year in dipping their toes into the framework–I’m more of a full-immersion woman, myself–, some things have been made increasingly more clear to me.

Choice is a nice idea, but when it lacks support, it’s like using a map without a destination in mind.  It’s looking at something that holds value in direction and helping you see the world, and only noticing the colors and squiggles.

For this reason, I’ve really been stressing the value of conferring (conferencing?), and I’ve ventured back to the 3TT archives to guide me in this soapbox.  As I focus more on conferring in my own classroom, a question frequently pops into my mind.

Amy has discussed why conferring matters, and how we shouldn’t make reading conferences into an official assessment, for fear of losing readers altogether.  Our goal is to foster the growth of real readers and writers.

Seems simple, right?

Yet, we all know that our goals often get muddied with the business of everything ELSE we need to do as teachers.  Before we know it, a month or so may pass between individual conferences with a student.  What happens if they lose interest in a book, but are afraid to say so?  How do we deal with the in-between, cover the cracks, and all that cliche, but completely necessary work?

How can I read a whole room of readers, so that nobody falls off the rails in between our conferences?

When we first checked out books this year, I checked in with students after each silent reading episode.

I stated, “Okay, I need everybody to stand!”

Cue the groans

“Now, I need everyone who is enjoying their current book to stay standing.”

I immediately had a temperature gauge of students who sat down, and clearly were not happy with their book.  After that visual representation, I asked students who loved their books to go talk to someone who was not happy with their book.  I instructed them to sell that book to their classmate so that they could put some more titles on their list.

This worked really well in the first few weeks of school, and I’m attempting to gather more in-between checks of this nature.  Of course, I turned to my 3TT ladies, first.

Amy likes to use sticky note conferences in writer’s notebooks.

She also has students talk at their tables about their books at least once a week.

What are some ways you all keep up with students’ reading journeys in between one-on-one conferring?


Jessica Paxson is an English teacher English IV, AP Lang, and Creative Writing in Arlington, TX.  She runs on coffee and exaggeration.  Her husband keeps her sane with his good looks and even-keeled  nature.  She spends her time reading everything she can, writing about real life and all it’s messiness (Jessica Jordana), and attempting to inspire students to be the best version of themselves.  You can find her on Twitter and Instagram at @jessjordana to follow along with her many adventures!

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