Friday Night Quickwrite

One thing I have learned by being a teacher of writers, is that I must write myself if I am going to be an effective teacher. When I write, I understand what my students go through when they are stuck or can’t come up with an idea. I understand the importance of organizing my random thoughts into something coherent and the power of a just-right word or perfectly structured sentence. I feel the joy of having written and sitting down with my students – writer to writer.

Today is the first Friday Night Quickwrite, a chance for you to grab a notebook and a favorite pen or open to a blank document on your computer. I invite you to take a a few minutes out of your weekend and write with me. I will share a poem or a text that has inspired me to write beside it. Sometimes I may share my notebook pages while other times I may share where the text led me in my thinking and my writing.

I invite you to share your own writing, your writing process, or your writing path in the comments section below. The importance doesn’t lie in the sharing; rather, it lies in the joy of writing.

For National Poetry Month, I wrote poems about quilts and shared them on my blog, A Day in the Life. I guess I still have quilts on my mind as that is the topic for this first quickwrite.

Tonight’s Prompt:

Quilts
Nikki Giovanni

Like a fading piece of cloth
I am a failure

No longer do I cover tables filled with food and laughter
My seams are frayed my hems falling my strength no longer able
To hold the hot and cold

I wish for those first days
When just woven I could keep water
From seeping through
Repelled stains with the tightness of my weave
Dazzled the sunlight with my
Reflection

To read the rest of the poem, please visit Poets.org

What does this poem remind you of? Where does it lead you? Is there a line that stood out for you?

When I read this poem, I immediately thought about elderly people, people who sometimes don’t feel wanted or needed. I taped the poem inside my notebook and wrote beside it. I wrote about my mother-in-law during the time I returned to college to become a teacher. She had Parkinson’s disease and was confined to a wheelchair, but she would help me write my papers. It was a special time between us, and I am glad I captured these moments in my notebook.

I would love for you to join me in this first Friday Night Quickwrite! Write anything that Nikki’s words bring to mind for you and share it in the comments. I look forward to reading your words.

Leigh Anne Eck is a 6th grade English Language Arts teacher in southern Indiana, and she has been teaching face-to-face this school year. Although this has been a great class, she will be glad to see this year come to close in ten days!

Using sorts to shake up the routine and move toward student-generated talk

So much of what happens in English class is internal. Students read and think, they think and write, and we work to help them make their thinking visible. When we aren’t reading and writing we’re often talking, which can still feel internal (or less hands-on) as we process what others say and ponder how to respond. Sometimes, especially at the end of the year, I feel the weight of this routine and want to shake things up so we can better enter into into those reading, thinking, and writing times.

One small strategy I’ve been relying on this year to add some hands-on moments in my junior English classes is a simple sort. Basically I gave each group a pile of examples (short texts, images, quotes, etc.), asked them to sort the examples on their tables, and asked them to defend their arrangements. The task is quick, collaborative, somewhat tactile, and it gives me a chance to engage each group with some on-the-spot feedback as groups tend to stand around their tables (you can see this in the second picture below) and try different sorting patterns. We often did this as a bell-ringer to review the previous lesson or as an extension activity. It can be as quick as five minutes or drawn out to fifteen if the discussion is rich and I spend time with each group. This year my room was organized in 7 groups of 4 and we tried the following types of sorts:

  • Spectrum sort: Students sorted these sources on a spectrum between “truthiness” and “factfulness” (our research unit focus was conspiracy theories) and then had to defend the placement. This gave me a chance to ask groups and individuals really specific sourcing questions: “Why is the Flat Earth tweet more factful than the Taylor Swift tweet? Why does your group have the article with a quote closer to truthiness than the NASA piece?” You could easily substitute any two traits on a spectrum to reframe the evaluation of examples.
  • Quadrant sort: Students map pictures of the characters (I usually do this with Of Mice and Men or Gatsby) into four quadrants using two traits like empathy and likability. For example, Curley’s wife may not be likable but we empathize with her. Tables can compare the four quadrants easily since it’s visual which extends the discussion. It also leads to great thinking about the two axis traits (for example, what do you notice about who we tend to empathize with? How does the Fitzgerald render Tom unlikable? Is likability or our ability to empathize with a character more important?). Students could easily re-map using two different traits. And really, after the sort and discussion they’re ready to write about these characters.  
  • Pattern sort: For this I usually tell students: “Choose a way to organize the examples you have.” I’ve used quotes, books, and editorial cartoons (I pull 5-6 from the current week). They usually struggle to think of how to do this, figure something out, explain their logic, and then I tell them, “Great. Now do it a different way.” It forces them to think about the relationships between the texts or ideas in different ways as they generate their own spectrums or quadrants. I like to do this after independent reading when people have a variety of books because the discussion becomes rich as they consider character, plot, structure, setting, and symbols without realizing that’s what they’re doing. When sorting quotes, it’s a good segway into thinking about the structure of an essay (considering the quotes like different examples you might organize).

This is a pre-Covid example of a pattern sort my students did with their summer reading novels.

  • Classification sort: This is a more straight-forward formative check. I can quickly tell if students have the right mode for this collection of short visual texts and coach them on-the-spot.

This is not a magical or earth-shattering strategy, but it’s easily adaptable and I like how it enables opportunities for me to shift from teacher-generated discussion to co-creation and student-generated discussion (see Kallack and Zmuda for more on this).

Teacher Generated

I specify the type of sort and the parameters

ex: create a quadrant sort for these Gatsby characters based on their likability and empathy

Teacher and Student Co-Created

I specify the type of sort and they set the parameter

ex: create a quadrant sort for these Gatsby characters by choosing two traits

Student Generated

Students specify the type of sort they will use and articulate their own parameters

ex: take these examples and organize them in some fashion; be ready to defend how and why they’re organized that way

The liveliness of the discussion makes me keep coming back to this simple strategy. Because it’s hands-on and visual students willingly engage and it adds energy to the room.  I’m able to talk more with students (instead of at them) as they work. By catching each group I can directly question or follow-up with nearly every student during a sort. This lets the lesson start with a conflict or problem to solve so it gives us momentum. Then we’re ready to dive into the next reading, thinking, or writing task, a little more awake, a little more ready to take on the world.

Nathan Coates teaches junior English at Mason High School, a large suburban district near Cincinnati, Ohio. He’d love to hear what books you’re excited about reading or adding to your class reading lists next year: coatesn@masonohioschools.com

My New Favorite Resource

I have been working on this blog post for almost a week now and each post I start ends before it really begins. I have lots of ideas spinning in my head, but can’t find the words to share them with you. Tonight as I was procrastating and really stuck with what to write, I came across Kylene Beer’s words of wisdom on Facebook – “Write that book, that poem, that blog post or song that is inside you. Stop delaying. Life is too short. Write it – if even only for yourself.”

So today, I give you something simple: my new favorite resource that we have used this year for mentor texts and the research paper. If you have never spent time on The Learning Network, I encourage you to take time this summer to check out this resource. It not only has activities for students to participate in, but also has lesson plan after lesson plan for teachers. There is even a seven unit writing curriculum for middle school and high school English classes to use.

My Favorite Parts of The Learning Network:

The article based prompts:

We gave our students choice from some of these prompts to use to guide their argumentative research this spring. Each prompt links to a short blurb giving background on the question that is posed to the students. The blurb also includes discussion questions to push the students to dig deeper and think more critically about the prompt from different perspectives. Within each blurb is a link to a longer NYT article that the students can read to start their research on the topic. (EX: Should There Still Be Snow Days?)

What is Going on in this Picture?

We have used these pictures to teach our students the difference between evidence and inferences. Students are asked to annotate the pictures and write down what they notice in the picture and then are asked to make inferences based on what they see. Then they create captions for the pictures based on their observations and inferences. Students can also comment on the pictures each week at TLN and on Thursdays they reveal the background of the photo, the article it comes from, and the original caption.

What’s Going on in this Graph?

Just like the above resource, The Learning Network posts graphs to use with students to teach them how to analyze evidence in chart/graph format and then make inferences about what they observe. These are short simple activities that lead to critical thinking and discussions about current events happening in our country.

Lesson of the Day

In this section you will find a lesson overview, a warm up activity, an article for the students to read, questions and writing prompts for students to respond to, and enrichment activities for students to dig deeper on the topic. If you are a fan of Kelly Gallagher’s Article of the Week, bookmark this link to add new articles to your list.


As you take time this summer to reflect and add new texts to your English class, bookmark The Learning Network as this one you will want to return to over and over again throughout the year. What resources have you found that must be shared with other English teachers? Please share in the comments.

Melissa Sethna lives and teaches with her husband in Mundelein, ILIn a normal school year, she is so busy coaching teachers and planning professional development (along with co-teaching her English class)This year she fell in love with Brene Brown podcastsStudio Sweat on Demand spin workouts, coaching high school diving, and watching her own sons swim and play high school waterpolo. You can follow her on Goodreads and Twitter @msethna23.

Advice Poems: A Way to Wrap-Up

I love giving people advice (my sisters tell me I like it a little too much). Some of my favorite social media posts involve creative ways of giving advice, like this one I saw just this morning.

I notice that students like giving advice too, so as the year starts rounding third base to home, I’ve been thinking about how students might leverage that love of advice to reflect on their learning this year.

Years ago I was in a class at Miami University with Tom Romano where he introduced us to Charles Webb’s poem “How to Live.” (Penny Kittle also writes about this poem in her book Write Beside Them.) I remember being captivated by the declarative nature of the poem. The directness in language, the specificity. I loved the way Webb broke the lines, almost like the white space was a deep breath as he pushed through to more advice. I loved the way verbs featured so prominently.

After spending a bit of time thinking about what we liked about the poem, Dr. Romano invited us to write in the style of the poem. This was before I had a grasp on mentor texts and for me, someone who didn’t identify as a poet, I felt empowered. I could tell people how to live! I’m a bossy person; it’s a natural fit.

I wrote several versions of the poem with different audiences in mind, but my favorite was the one I wrote to my children, twins who were 3 at the time. Over the years, I’ve revisited this poem and the same audience, tweaking my advice to Jacob and Emma at various stages of life.

I’ve found that students love writing in this way too. They also have so much to share. They know some things, and when we invite them to consider their audience, it helps them focus the kind of advice they share.

Over the years, I’ve been collecting advice poems, and I’m sure you have too. What would happen if we gave students the opportunity to write advice poems now? As they close another school year, one unlike any other, how might they give advice on how to live? Or how to learn? Or how to…

I was reminded of these advice poems today as I was reading through Rudy Francisco’s latest book I’ll Fly Away, I came across the poem “Instructions for black people,” and I was struck again by the declarative nature (an early version can be found here). The sentence variety, the space on the page. I’d like to bring this to students and put it next to Webb’s poem. Study the tone, analyze the way the theme of the poem contributes that tone.

More importantly, I’ll invite students to write their own advice poems, to offer instructions to someone.

Some of my favorite advice poems:

Entreaty” by Catherine Pierce

“Do You Have Any Advice For Those of Us Just Starting Out” by Ron Koertge

How to Play Night Baseball” by Jonathan Holden

Ten Things I’ve Been Meaning to Say to You” by Jason Reynolds (this is a list but I love the idea of advice in a list)

In the spirit of the assignment, here’s my version:

To Those of You Teaching Right Now

Share poems with students,

spend a day (or two or three) reveling in the language,

consider structure, craft, line breaks, tone.

Invite students storm their braints,

asking what they might be able to offer advice about.

Name an audience — who most needs to hear what you have to say?

Use one, 

or all, 

of the poems as a guide, 

as a road map, 

as a GPS.

Start writing.

Let the keys click-clack, the words creep across the page.

Write with them, in front of them, in their midst.

Trust the gush (as Dr. Romano says).

Let us know what other advice poems you love to share with students, or how you might use this with your writers. 

Angela Faulhaber is a literacy coach in the Cincinnati area. When she’s not running kids to baseball practices or trying to get her dog to relax, she enjoys reading (duh) and binge-watching her latest guilty pleasure Younger starring Sutton Foster.

Ode to Moving

The Beckers are on the move again, which means boxes. Lots of boxes.

I’m no stranger to moving boxes, having packed and unpacked thousands of them over my lifetime. I’ll never forget moving to Seattle, Washington, shortly after my college graduation. Seventeen boxes shipped via Greyhound Bus – yes, leave the driving to us Greyhound Bus – full of blazers with shoulder pads, photo albums, stuffed animals, and books. Lots of books.

It’s hard to believe now that my life fit into 17 boxes then. I’ve added a few more boxes of memories since that first big move to Seattle when boxy blazers were in. Very in.

According to my memory and Mapquest ®, the latter certainly more reliable than the former, I’ve made ten significant relocations, adding up to 20,083 miles moved. With each move comes the sober reminder that while our possessions can be put in boxes to arrive, hopefully unscathed, at our next destination, our memories fade over time, the photograph of what we left behind becoming a little less clear with each passing day, week, and year.

That’s where my writing finds me today – possessions in boxes and memories of the last 20,083 miles of my life still (thankfully) vivid and poignant.

Not calculated in my frequent mover statistics are the eleven miles I moved in Summer 2019 from Clear Creek to Clear Brook High School, and then a few months later, the seven miles I moved from high school teaching to an administrative position in the Learner Support Center of Clear Creek ISD.

When I left the classroom, I gave away most of my teaching books. But there’s a box labeled “Not ready to get rid of yet” still lurking in my garage, wondering if it will ever go back to a school, wondering why its owner can’t bear to get rid of the contents

Enter the brilliant, sweet, encouraging Amy Rasmussen.

When Amy Rasmussen approached me about writing regularly for Three Teachers Talk, I voiced some concern as to my relevancy, especially since I’m not in the classroom anymore. “Amy,” I emphasized, “I’m in the Assessment Office now.” As if that retort meant I wasn’t qualified to write about writing anymore. But that’s when I zeroed in on the boxes of my teaching life, the years and years of lessons that, even in a new paradigm of pandemic-era teaching, are tried and still true.

So that’s what I’m calling my segment: Tried and (Still) True. The first Monday of each month, I will recap a lesson from my teaching past that still has impact today, a timeless lesson available for teachers to adapt and make their own, much as I did many years ago with my own lessons.

Tried, and (Still) True, Monday, May 3, 2021

“When I Read, I Feel…” List Poem adapted from the brilliant mind of another mentor of mine, the late Shelly Childers.

When I taught Junior English at Deer Park High School – South Campus, many of my students rediscovered their love for reading. Some actually realized for the first time that they liked reading after dreading it throughout previous years of school. And, well, some still hated reading no matter how hard I tried. Regardless, at the end of the school year, instead of having students write a benign reflection paragraph, I had students compose a poem based off a list of adjectives describing their reading lives. Here’s a rough idea of how I paced the lesson:

I began by inviting students to list three (3) adjectives describing how they felt when they read. Of course, I modeled a few words of my own, but since we had previously done some writing with Ruth Gendler’s Book of Qualities, students already had a descriptive vocabulary. After waiting and conferring with students as they thought and wrote, I then invited students to think about the first word they recorded (we called it Word A) and then write three (3) statements that said more (I always referred to that step as say “s’more”) proving the range of their emotions, comparing their feelings to something else, and of course, modeling with my own example. I repeated the instruction for Word B and Word C. I next modeled how to take what we had just written and express it in poetic fashion. When I nudged students to do this next step on their own, the magic happened. Students had words to describe their feelings, and in the end, I got an honest, perhaps too honest, self-assessment of each student’s reading identity.

Teacher note: In most cases, students could generate some surface-level emotions for the first two describing words, Word A and Word B. It was when I asked students to come up with a third word, Word C, to describe their feelings for reading that I hit a core of emotions reflecting a student’s authentic experiences.

Teachers can easily adapt the “When I read, I feel _____” invitation to different tasks: reading, writing, researching,…even moving! Here’s my opening stanza from a work-in-progress:

When I move, I feel free.

I ride the bus in a foreign country,

            my new home,

            making new friends with my kind eyes and a smile.

            No language skills, just an open mind

            and open heart.

            Open to new adventures.

I bet you’d like to see some student samples, wouldn’t you? I have a few, but guess where I’ve kept them all these years?

You guessed it. They are in the box of things I just can’t bear to get rid of yet. If ever.

About the author, Dr. Helen Becker

Helen Becker currently serves the education community as a Research Data Analyst for Clear Creek ISD in the Houston, Texas area. Prior to being a numbers and stats girl, Dr. Becker taught all levels of high school English for Deer Park and Clear Creek ISDs. Maybe you’ve attended a workshop facilitated by Dr. Becker, or perhaps you’ve been in her Reading/Writing workshop sessions. Or maybe she was your high school English teacher. Regardless of your relationship, you probably know that Dr. Becker wants nothing more than for you to take her ideas, make them your own, and bring powerfully authentic writing experiences to your own classroom. If you want more information on this Tried and (Still) True lesson cycle, feel free to e-mail her at beckerhelenc@gmail.com. She hasn’t packed her computer yet, so it’s all good.

By the way, Dr. Becker really is on the move, this time to a house down the street more fitting for new grandparents!

If you enjoyed this post, read this one from Shana Karnes entitled Mini-Lesson Monday:  Imitating Poetry: https://threeteacherstalk.com/2015/10/26/mini-lesson-monday-imitating-poetry/

Returning to the Classroom – A Masked Year in Uncertain Times

When I found out late last summer that I’d be returning to the classroom in person, full time for the 2020/2021 school year, I was equal parts elated and terrified. Having basically not left my house in months, I couldn’t fathom how we’d manage to move back into the classroom with any sense of normalcy or how I’d keep myself, my family, my colleagues, and my students safe simultaneously. Pandemic teaching sounded to me like a mashup of dystopian proportions.

At the same time, teaching from home all last spring brought with it challenges I didn’t relish either (My husband and seven year old daughter were home working alongside me and there were times we were each/all ready to pack a bag and go…who knows where. Mostly elsewhere). I once again considered returning to my roots as a barista or possibly trying to sleep through the coming school year. Healthy, yes?

As news trickled in about navigating our return, it was clear we were building an airplane thirty-two thousand feet off the ground. A noble effort to be sure, but harrowing, dangerous, frightening, and quite possibly deadly. As educators have been time and again, we were being shoved to the front lines. Not as well-equipped or even trained first responders, but instead, as the humble servants who apparently swore oaths to serve and protect no matter the circumstances or cost. I was to be handed a mask and optional face shield, told to keep distance from the thirty students in my room, and do the job I had signed up to do. It did not sit well.

I raged – How could they ________ ?
(Fill in the above blank with four million questions about how it would all possibly work)

I feared for my safety – If I get sick what will happen to ________?
(Fill in the above blank with anyone I love and had been working so hard to protect in the previous months by staying home, masking, not hugging my own mother, etc.)

I cried – But what if _______?
(Fill in the above blank with an equal number of less rational and more emotionally charged wonders)

And while I’m not here to tell you it’s all gone perfectly, or that all of my initial concerns were or even could be addressed before we jumped in, or that the same will be true for you if you’ve yet to return – we have in fact done it. For eight months, I’ve taught in person and virtually at the same time (during the same class hour, in fact). 30 kids in my classroom. Masks all the day through. Suspicious eyes cast on every cough, sneeze, and inadvertently exposed nose.

We’ve shut down just once for two weeks last fall, but otherwise through a revolving door of exclusions for both students and teachers, staff turnover, extended class periods to allow time for cleaning each hour, and nervous moments spent supervising hundreds of unmasked students during lunch…we’ve supported one another through the uncertainty.

In some ways, things are no different than they ever were. My students read at the start of each period, write about what matters to them, and challenge themselves to discuss the weighty issues of our times both intelligently and diplomatically. The room looks much as it always has, but beneath the masks we wear each day, are fears and questions and uncertainties and trauma I could not have imagined last spring when I walked to my room in a haze on March 13th after a brief staff meeting suggesting our spring break would be extended by a week, gathered a few items to teach from home, and looked around at my empty classroom with a growing sense of dread.

Over a year later and as a mirror to live outside of my classroom, it all seems surreal. The longest school year of my life and the quickest. The most stressful, to be sure, but also the most challenging in ways that have caused me to grow in resilience, patience, and compassion.

A few days ago, Melissa asked if we were okay. My answer is yes, and no, and sort of, and I don’t even know. The layers of exhaustion wrought by worry, extra duties, student exclusions, positive Covid cases in my room, and teaching as I never have before (basically tethered to my desk so students at home can hear me while students in the room likely wonder whether my ankles are twisted or I’ve just grown lazy) are just too much. And yet, having kids in my classroom (and even teaching Virtual Film as Literature to 34 black Google Meet boxes), is the light in this dark time. Their curiosities and triumphs push me forward.

So, if you are staring down a return in fall, I cannot be the one to hug you (for obvious reasons) and say everything will be alright. But I can assure you through my example, that you are not alone in your fears, but likewise not alone in the overwhelming sense of joy you’ll feel by seeing your students in person and stretching in a thousand ways to inch back toward a new normal.

What I have learned in this past year (not related to making your own cleaning products, conserving toilet paper, or managing familial relations in close quarters for weeks on end) will forever change my teaching, but also solidify that nothing can shake the core principles that existed well before this pandemic …

  • Students and teachers are resilient, but still human:
    • If there was ever a circumstance to put patience and understanding at the forefront of our work, this pandemic is certainly a contender. It adds an ever present layer of uncertainty that is equal parts traumatic and debilitating. We’ve all experienced loss and change and fear and stress in ways we’ve collectively never experienced before. As ever, students need structure and support as they school in new and sometimes scary ways. Listen more/talk less. Write more/grade less. Read more/test less. Be there for your students, but also for yourself.
  • Reading and writing offer timeless benefits we know well, but choice is more important that ever:
    • I recall last spring, the push to have students write about their experiences in quarantine. And then the push back with the consideration that many students couldn’t/didn’t want to try and process this fresh trauma. It’s been my guide this year in offering students far more opportunities to process through SEL grounded prompts, but there’s always choice. Some students have written all year about the pandemic and what it’s meant to them, done to/for them, taken from them. Some students want to write about anything but. In the weeks and months ahead, our students will be on different timelines with their experiences and per the usual, it will be our job to be equal parts support system and challenger to process the world in which we live. Fall back always on choice – it provides for our students what our limiting circumstances often cannot.
  • Toxic positivity is not the answer, but active engagement in seeking positivity can be:
    • We cannot know how deep the cuts from our recent experiences truly are. We don’t know for ourselves or our students. Personally, the opportunity for deep and meaningful change that seems to have passed us by in hitting the pause button on traditional schooling is a deep cut. The standardized test slog is still in place (don’t get me started on the calls to measure “learning loss” with tests, tests, and more tests…though there are some reasonable voices out there), our hours/schedules/calendars are largely unchanged despite unprecedented additions of responsibilities and stress, and most importantly, to my mind, the opportunity to restructure in a meaningful way to address unconscionable achievement gaps often resulting from inequitable systems and misinformed priorities across education. This year has reminded me that I must continue to use my voice to advocate change in our work, but the moment to moment with kids demands that I give them as much positivity as I can muster. And when my store of smiles is low, I give myself the grace to take a step back, take a deep breath, and take time for myself, because in this circumstance we need to take a little to have anything left to give.

Above all, do what you need to do to balance the unending demands so that you and your family come first every single time. We are only as good for our students as we can be to ourselves, and we can be better each day when we prioritize our health, our loved ones, and our own sanity.

Lisa Dennis spends her school days teaching AP Language, English 9, and Virtual Film as Literature while also leading the fearless English Department at Franklin High School, just outside Milwaukee, Wisconsin where she lives with her husband Nick, daughter Ellie, and beagle Scout.  She now tries to live life based on the last pieces of advice her dad gave her –
Be kind. Read good books. Feed the birds. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum

Addressing Perfectionism in Student Writing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh. My. Stars. 

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

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

What does this look like in the classroom?

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

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

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

Are You Doing Okay?

This has been a year.

The last time I wrote a post for Three Teachers Talk was last May when I was in the midst of trying to get my students to finish a research paper on the the “Positives of the Pandemic.” At the time I would never have thought that we would be teaching all school year in a pandemic and I would be trying again to teach a new research paper to students remotely (and to those in person) at the same time.

Last year I thought that teaching was hard. This year, teaching remotely and then concurrently to students in person and at home at the same time nearly broke me. I ask if you are doing okay, because it is okay if you aren’t okay. I wasn’t okay for much of this year. What we have been asked to do during this ongoing pandemic takes teaching to a new level. I thought I was a techie before (HAHA!), but boy was I wrong. I have learned so much (Canvas, Zoom, Remind, Google Hangouts, Padlet, Nearpod, Google Jamboard, Google Sites, EdPuzzle, etc.) and yet still feel like a failure everytime I am teaching my class.

This week I led a training for our 1st and 2nd year teachers focusing on the topic of our mental health and work/life balance. We read the article, A New Way to Think About Work-Life Balance, which resonated with me because until this fall I did not know what work/life balance really meant to me. I spent the first six months of the pandemic working all hours of the day and night, answering text messages and phone calls, spending hours on Zoom with administration, and by August I was burnt out and exhausted. I was not mentally in a place where I was excited to start the school year with students. In all 23 years of my teaching career, I have never felt this way before. I thought I needed work/life balance. I was not okay.

In A New Way to Think About Work-Life Balance, elementary school principal, Joe Mullikin, offers a new perspective. In reality there is no such thing as work/life balance. The key word being balance. It is impossible to “balance” lesson planning, grading, observations, family, me time, coaching, etc. all at one time, so instead we need to learn how to juggle, and know that it is OKAY to drop some “plastic balls” (responsibilities) from time to time as long as we don’t drop the “glass cups” (the things that make us who we are or are most important to us). Problems arise when we confuse “ghosts” (self-imposed, deep-seated, but nonessential expectations) with “glass cups”. Ghosts are not real and we need to be reminded to let them go.

As I started to prioritize the “glass cups”, my family and my health, and realized it was okay to juggle school responsibilities and drop some plastic balls each day, I started to feel better. Saying “no” to gave me more time for what I needed to prioritize in my life and keeping my family and my health at the center of every decision I make has made my life happier and less stressful. I also have more energy to handle the things like lesson planning and student feedback that I dreaded when I was so burnt out this fall.

As you begin take time to reflect on the 2020-2021 school year, I ask you to think about the “glass cups” in your life. Were you able to prioritize those this year? If not, what were the plastic balls and ghosts that kept you from investing in yourself? What will you do this summer to recharge and take care of yourself? What will you change for next year?

In the beginning of my post, I asked if you are okay? Please know that your mental and physical health are just as important as the care your have for the students you teach everyday. #YouMatter

Melissa Sethna lives and teaches with her husband in Mundelein, ILIn a normal school year, she is so busy coaching teachers and planning professional development (along with co-teaching her English class)This year she fell in love with Brene Brown podcasts, Studio Sweat on Demand spin workouts, coaching high school diving, and watching her own sons swim and play high school waterpolo. You can follow her on Goodreads and Twitter @msethna23.

The Real-world Relevance of Rigorous Informational Reading (& Writing)

GUEST CONTRIBUTOR: Tosh McGaughy

Building background knowledge. Increasing academic vocabulary. Growing text analysis skills. All of these common goals of literacy teachers are readily and complexly taught with informational texts. As fundamental as we all know that rigorous informational reading is for our learning readers and writers, no other genre is quite so easy to push aside for the more glamorous and engaging texts of just about every other genre. With an academic focus on college and career readiness, state education agencies and universities across the country are also advocating for more informational reading. For example, my state is in the process of revising our state language arts tests to include reading passages that are aligned to science and social studies standards. And, the sophisticated reading passages on the current Reading SAT include two History/Social Studies passages, two Science passages, and only 1 literature passage while the text types in the Writing section of the SAT are argument, informational text, and nonfiction narrative.

Thinking about backwards design from what and how students are assessed on their reading comprehension skills, intentional and spiraled engagement with a variety of informational texts in our Readers Writers workshop classrooms (and in every other content area) must become a standard practice. Connecting the reading skill to the writing skill is how workshop teachers can anchor the informational reading skills to real-world relevance. Providing plentiful mentor texts and examples is crucial, but to keep the texts current and relevant, teachers have to be constantly searching out different informational texts to put in front of students.

Hindsight is 20/20. I was fortunate enough to teach ELAR to my own daughter in 7th grade. (If you know 7th grade girls, you probably can imagine some of the challenges that year posed for me, personally and professionally.) Charlotte and her classmates wrote prolifically in their journals and experimented with different writing styles. There was a lot of poetry writing and narratives and imaginative stories. As I reflect, I wish now that I had pushed her to read more complex informational texts because her ability to write a lovely sonnet did not help her at all when she tried to decipher her first apartment lease nor was it the type of writing she is required to do often in her degree or in her job search as a college senior. By focusing on the beauty of language and expression, I neglected the power and practicality of strong informational reading and writing skills.

I, like many other language arts teachers, overvalued and overemphasized the genres of fiction in the lessons I taught, and now I’m on a mission (crusade?) to help teachers connect students with interesting and complex informational texts that can broaden their knowledge of the world around them as well as model the writing they will have to do in that world. After a recent textbook adoption, I have been disappointed by the quality and number of these texts that the big publishers include in their traditional anthologies. I find myself searching for options to include in text sets for my teachers. Some of my “go-tos” resources are below, but I also encourage teachers to teach students to seek out their own informational texts for independent reading and as a support for their content area studies. Tapping into inquiry and research skills to find their own relevant, rich, and rigorous texts is as real-world as it gets.

A Few Resources

My state adopted new Language Arts standards recently, and I created some planning guides to help visualize how to interconnect the strands. This one starts with our inquiry & research strand as the purpose for the informational reading & writing. LINK.

lesson guide template

And, inspired by Kelly Gallagher’s work around writing purposes, I have this reference for teachers to remember the many different real-world purposes for effective informational writing that are as far-removed from the state-tested expository essays as they can be. LINK.

Informational Text Go-tos:

Text Sets from the Masters by Gretchen Bernabei, 2016

Finding the Heart of Nonfiction by Georgia Heard, 2013

The Quickwrite Handbook by Linda Reif, 2018

Texts & Lessons for Content Area Writing by Harvey Daniels and Nancy Steineke

TweenTribune by Smithsonian

Kelly Gallagher’s Article of the Week

NewsELA

The Culture Code and Writing Conferences: Part 1

I’m a sponge

“I love taking in so much new information that it just oozes out of me at the slightest provocation.” A friend recently described herself this way and, gross imagery aside, I get it. The feeling of having just read or heard or watched something new and being so INTO the idea that you can’t help but bring everything in every conversation back to that idea. We call this sponging. We’re very original.

She sponges…a lot. I sponge…less.

So when I do sponge, I stop and take notice. Last week I finished Daniel Coyle’s The Culture Code*,  which outlines ways to build effective, productive cultures by examining everything from the San Antonio Spurs to Zappos to a call center in India while sprinkling in a healthy amount of research to support his claims. I soaked it all up, finishing the book in a day – and then began oozing ideas about culture and long-term flourishing all over everyone and everything.

See, the book rests upon the idea that humans are constantly (consciously and unconsciously) asking themselves questions as they interact with others:  

  1. Are we connected? 
  2. Do we share a future? 
  3. Am I safe? 

If we can find ways to answer these questions for members in our groups, we can create robust cultures. Confronted with the powerful notion that our brains are trying to answer these three questions all the time even when we’re unaware, I couldn’t help but think of the implicit ways our writing conferences answer these questions and then began to think of ways to make the implicit explicit. So, over my next few blog posts, I’d like to discuss those three questions and how they relate to writing conferences, looking at strategies and routines we could implement to get more from this common practice.

Unpacking the Questions

Question 1: Are we connected? 

Coyle quotes MIT Professor Alex Pentland: “Modern society is an incredibly recent phenomenon. For hundreds of thousands of years, we needed ways to develop cohesion because we depended so much on each other. We used signals long before we used language, and our brains are incredibly attuned to certain types of behaviors.” In short, our brains are constantly and UNCONSCIOUSLY looking for clues that we are connecting to other individuals. It’s why we pay so much attention to facial expressions, why we maintain eye contact, why we turn our bodies to face the people we’re interested in. We’re looking to see that the energy we’re bringing to any given conversation is being matched, that we’re being treated as unique individuals. These often non-verbal cues speak loudly and help answer the second question humans are constantly (and again unconsciously) asking of each other. Part 2 of this series will look at the physical set up of writing conferences and routines I’ve built to answer the “are we connected” strategy. One such routine is my system of weekly feedbacks. You can read about them here

Question 2: Do we share a future?

The non-verbal cues from question one signal that the relationship will continue into the foreseeable future, letting us know that we are connected to others and, thus, are safe. In our social engagements, we have some choice about the kinds of relationships we engage in and the level to which we feel safe. For example, this question makes me think of a volleyball team I play on. With the end of the season nearing and none of us quite sure we want to continue to play together next season, that “do we share a future” question looms large. This uncertainty leads to awkwardness and doubt amongst the teammates, which, unsurprisingly, translates to the way we play on the court. We need a better culture. However, in the classroom, we can’t choose which kids sit in front of us day in and day out. So we might amend that question to “do we share a mutually respectful and productive future?” This safety question becomes even more important because those interactions are created non-voluntarily. Essentially, in our classrooms, our students might consistently be asking themselves (consciously or unconsciously), about the state of their relationship to us, checking in to see where we stand with each other. Answering that question often can put the brain at rest, prepping it to learn and grow more efficiently. Part 3 of this series will look at how we can answer this question through feedback routines and quick check ins with students AFTER the writing conference is over. 

Question 3: Am I safe? 

Maslow had it right – humans just want to know that they’re safe in any given situation. Granted, we’ve developed past the “is that a tiger in the bush” phase in our evolutionary cycle, so we’re less worried about getting actually eaten and more worried about getting metaphorically eaten. The combination of the physical cues (Q1)  that tell a student they belong and that we share a future together (Q2)  work to assure a student that she is safe in our room- safe to learn, to take risks, to grow.  Coyle writes, “They [the cues] seek to notify our ever-vigilant brains that they can stop worrying about dangers and shift into connection mode, a condition called psychological safety.” Part 4 of this series will look at how the one on one attention provided  by conferences allows students to calm the worrying part of their brain and focus more comfortably on the task at hand. I’ll also talk here about how I use writing conferences to navigate the move to a gradeless classroom inspired by Sarah Zerwin. You can read about fellow contributor Sarah Krajewski’s work in the gradeless classroom here

Where do we go from here?

As we begin to answer these questions for students we can work towards communicating our actual message: I care about you as a person and a student. I want you to learn and grow. From here, we can begin to say to students as Coyle writes: “You are part of this group. This group is special; we have high standards here. I believe you can reach those standards.”

*Affiliate link: If you purchase through this link, 3TT gets a little something.

Sarah Morris teaches AP English Language & Composition, AP Seminar  in Murfreesboro, Tn. She is currently rewatching The Good Place. She can’t help it. There’s something about this line from Chidi in Season 2 that gets her every time: “I argue that we choose to be good because of our bonds with other people and our innate desire to treat them with dignity. Simply put, we are not in this alone.” She tweets at @marahsorris_cms. 

%d bloggers like this: