Check Yes for a Writer’s Checklist

It’s been a hot minute since I used a checklist in my practice as an educator. I’d largely abandoned the checklist because it felt too simple, too bossy, too uninspired. But, as part of learning the in’s and out’s of being an instructional coach, I’ve confronted these assumptions–in theory and am starting to in practice. In fact, for a recent professional development, I created three different checklists about formative assessment from which my colleagues could choose to mediate their reflection. Watching them interact with these checklists rekindled my interest in the checklist as a tool promoting growth. So, I began to reimagine my writing classroom through that lens.

A writer’s checklist …. 
Reinforces the process or its parts 
Insures nothing is overlooked (curse of knowledge!)
Encourages reflection 
Provides direction
Allows for agency 

Reinforces the Process or Its Parts 

When I taught ninth and tenth grade English (early in my career), I created checklists for some of the writing students created: for the more formalized research paper, for instance, a checklist for folding in sources or for how to begin and end.  Though more prescriptive in some ways than I care to remember (see Allows for Agency), for some of my students this correlated more directly with the student samples, modeling, and mini lessons we explored. And, the concision of the checklist provided clarity and accessibility. 

Insures Nothing Is Overlooked 

Beyond providing clarity and direction, the checklist may also ensure writers employ the strategies proven to best impact their audiences. The checklist items can help users of the checklist confront that whole curse of knowledge thing.  When my colleagues used the checklists in our recent professional development, the checklist items grounded us back in the qualities of formative assessments. Of those I directly supported, I observed them grappling with a particular element of assessments and considering what adjustments they might make. They also engaged in this with a partner, an approach I used with my students (back in those early days) as well. This not only insures the quality but also promotes the dialogue that leads to reflection.

Encourages Reflection 

The checklist acts as a third point, a neutral document with a set of qualities that partners or small groups can reference or as the neutral point of comparison when placed adjacent to work. For students, it helped guide their peer revision and editing processes. For my colleagues, it prompted them to consider whether or not certain elements were present or what it might look like if they made adjustments to their assessment. In fact, these kinds of reflections help point learners in a direction when otherwise there may be too many ways to go. 

Provides Direction 

For learners, the checklist may break revision (or reimagining or retooling or relearning) into actionable steps so that they are not overwhelmed, directionless. For my colleagues , the checklist helped them zero in on one direction they may take to adjust their assessments and the necessary steps. Any no’s my students received from their peers on their checklists allowed them to seek additional feedback, ideas, and resources during our conferences. The precision of the checklist can incite more precise action. And the learner gets to choose what adjustment and how to adjust it, fostering more ownership.
Allows for Agency 

This is perhaps the most critical function of the checklist, and it’s the function I didn’t recognize in the classroom and have underemployed as a coach. With my more novice ninth and tenth grade writers, I got by with those prescriptive checklists. But with my AP Language and Composition writers and my College Prep senior writers, I didn’t use checklists (all too often). My colleague and I–in determining whether or not to use checklists–ultimately decided that checklists would do little to foster the kind of autonomy we hoped to nurture in our students. We felt it might be telling them what to do in a time where they needed (developmentally) to drive their own processes. And we weren’t wrong in that. Using that same prescriptive approach with seniors as I used with freshman would not have been productive. But we shouldn’t have wholly abandoned the checklist. We could have used checklists to elevate their autonomy. Maybe students could have built their own checklists based on a mentor text set. Maybe students modify a checklist–adding or subtracting qualities– based on the needs of their audience. Maybe students create a checklist of all the strengths they possess as writers they want to make evident in their writing. There are possibilities here. There were possibilities for my colleagues, too: why didn’t I invite them to adjust the checklist they selected in ways that made sense for their students and for them? Clearly, I needed to use the checklist on checklists!

A checklist should not stifle. A checklist should not reject. A checklist should not merely confirm or affirm. A checklist should elevate (my other word for 2020). Yes!

Kristin Jeschke is watching the Cubs’ manager David Ross closely to see how he shifts from player and teammate to coach. She’s begun a mental checklist of his moves so far but most appreciates his intentionality. Follow Kristin on Twitter @kajeschke.

Discomfort Leads to Learning

I recently started working with a delightfully sadistic personal trainer named Carol.

Carol has five children, is in her late fifties, and can literally bench press me if I’m not doing squats or pull-ups to her satisfaction. The first time Carol pushed me through a workout, I couldn’t even lift up my two-year-old after our session ended. I groaned in discomfort basically every time I moved for 24 hours afterward and cursed Carol’s name from afar.

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But over the past few weeks, the challenging workout has become gradually easier. I can finish the routine without my legs turning to jelly and grimacing in pain every time I try to climb stairs the next day. What was once incredibly difficult is now the just-right amount of challenging, and the success I feel in surviving one of these workouts motivates me to attempt another one.

As I’ve limped around our high school on the days after my training sessions, I’ve noticed a connection between challenge and growth. My students are keen to avoid discomfort of any kind–social, emotional, and academic. They have a multitude of coping mechanisms that help them disengage from challenge, and it’s impacting their learning negatively, to say the least.

It’s only natural to want to avoid challenge. Recently, a colleague gently pointed out the implicit bias in some of the talk teachers engaged in when discussing students. Her attention to deficit-based language made me blush in embarrassment at first, but a day after thinking over her (fair and accurate) critique, I was grateful for her challenge.

Without feeling uncomfortable, I never would’ve realized that there was a lesson to be learned. Fortunately, this colleague framed her noticings as a call-in to action and revision, rather than a call-out of mistakes made that are unfixable.

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This attitude toward challenge is what Zaretta Hammond refers to as a “warm demander pedagogy” in her work on culturally responsive teaching. Warm demanders encourage students toward growth by forming a “therapeutic alliance between the person in need of change and the person there to help support the change process” (92).

Being warm demanders and encouraging our students to live in the zone of proximal development is difficult, but I believe inviting our students into a place of challenge and discomfort is the most valuable component of the learning process. As teachers, it’s our job to match our students to the challenges and resources that they need to grow as individuals. Indeed, Hammond urges teachers to position learners “so that they will take the intellectual risk and stretch into the zone of proximal development. That’s the point of rapport” (82).

In our classroom, normalizing and valuing intellectual risk–urging students to dwell in discomfort as we learn–is something my learners and I prioritize. This can look like valuing process over product, rewarding choice and challenge rather than compliance and conformity, or offering frequent opportunities to revise thinking and assignments. Within our professional learning communities, this can also look like inviting others to challenge themselves via call-ins and alliances as co-conspirators.

And so I urge you, first and foremost, to read Hammond’s excellent book, Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain. And then I invite you to challenge your students, your colleagues, and yourselves to spend some time dwelling in discomfort: the place where we can most genuinely measure ourselves.

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Shana Karnes lives and teaches in Madison, Wisconsin and enjoys working with her 9th graders and amazing teaching team. She continues to challenge herself as a learner alongside colleagues at the Greater Madison Writing Project. Connect with Shana on Twitter at @litreader.

Lift Off: This One’s for You, Teachers

“For generations we have known of knowledge’s infinite power.”

I’ve been so fortunate throughout my teaching career to work within true professional learning communities. My colleagues have been passionate, informed, and welcoming, and as a result, those dreaded professional development days have never, in fact, been days that I have dreaded.

“But I’ve always been a thorn in the side of injustice. Disruptive. talkative. A distraction.”

Today is one of those days for our team, as we meet to discuss planning concerns, student successes, and vertical alignment. To frame the day, we began by reading the transcript of a truly beautiful spoken word poem: “Lift Off” by Donovan Livingston.

This poem was performed originally at the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s 2016 convocation ceremony, and on reading the transcript multiple times, I only find more layers to unpack.

“She told me that our stories are ladders that make it easier for us to touch the stars.”

As a learning community, we kicked off our day by standing and reading lines from the poem that struck us powerfully–lines I’ve italicized and woven into this post. Beginning a day with a whipshare of Livingston’s words was a centering way to frame discussions around our work with attention to equity and justice.

“Beneath their masks and mischief, exists an authentic frustration.”

I highly recommend sharing this poem with your teaching team, students, or anyone else who might benefit from rich language around learning. If nothing else, watch it just for yourself–it will help you lift off as you begin your day.

“Together, we can inspire galaxies of greatness for generations to come.”


Shana Karnes is fortunate to live and work this year in Madison, Wisconsin alongside many professional colleagues both in the Madison Metropolitan School District, as well as the Greater Madison Writing Project. Connect with Shana on Twitter at @litreader.

Simple Annotation Strategies to Help Students Comprehend Informational Text

Students across all levels and in all content areas are expected to read and comprehend difficult informational texts. As an instructional coach, I work with our English teachers and other content area teachers to give students simple strategies to help them break down difficult texts and make them more manageable to read and understand.

Step One: Give students a purpose for reading the text. Students need to know WHY they’re doing the reading in the first place and what they’re going to do with the reading AFTER they’re done.

Step Two: Teach students how to preview the text and use to predict what they think the text will be about. Strategies that I have found easy for students to use:

  • Look at headnotes, abstracts, graphics, etc.
  • Check author’s credentials.  Is he/she credible?
  • Look at the type of text (news article, textbook, research abstract, etc)
  • Pay attention to the layout of the text (subtopics, sections, chunks of text, etc)

Step Three: Teach students how to chunk the text into smaller parts to help them break up the information. Sometimes there are subheadings to make it easier and sometimes they will have to do this on their own.

Step Four: Model and practice annotation strategies. The ones I have found most helpful for students to improve comprehension are:

  • Respond to the three “big” questions from Reading Nonfiction (Beers & Probst) in the margins:
    • “What surprised me in this text?”
    • “What did the author think I already knew?
    • “What challenged, changed, or confirmed what I already knew?”
  • Circle repeated words and phrases in each chunk and look for common ideas.
  • Star* ideas that clarify, explain, describe, and illustrate the main idea (examples, quoted words, reasons, numbers and statistics, etc.) and ask themselves if these support the main idea or are just minor details.
  • Note of the techniques/”moves” the author makes in the margins. Write down why they think the author used that in the text?
  • Annotate the 5Ws and use those to figure out the main ideas.
  • Underline the author’s claim and subclaims. Note the evidence he/she uses to support those claims.
  • Look at your annotations.  Summarize after each chunk.
    • What is this chunk about?
    • Write a one-sentence summary.

My one bit of advice is to pick and choose which annotation strategies will work best for your students. I teach my students different strategies depending on my purpose and the text they are reading. Don’t give them all of these at once – I have learned this the hard way. Start with one strategy at a time and as they get confident, add additional ones as needed.

Step Five: Have students revisit the purpose for reading and respond to the text using their annotations. Students can:

  • Summarize the article.
  • Respond to a prompt, using evidence from the text
  • Use evidence from the article in a class discussion.
  • Synthesize evidence from multiple documents to answer an essential question.

When my students are active readers, critically thinking about the words and their meaning, their understanding of the text improves. What are the strategies you have used with your students to improve comprehension of nonfiction texts?

Melissa Sethna is co-teaching a freshman English class this year in addition to her full time job as an instructional coach at Mundelein High School in Mundelein, IL. Her favorite part of coaching teachers is sharing strategies with colleagues and then watching the light bulbs go on in the students’ minds as they see how helpful the strategies are in their learning.

Six Truths About My Technology Driven Classroom By Shelby Scoffield

The other day I ran into my old high school English teacher. We caught up and I told him about my career and classes I taught. 

He frankly told me: “Shelby, I have been teaching for over 30 years and I have never struggled with teaching more than I do now. I don’t know how to teach kids today.”

He was referencing the fact that kids “today” are addicted to cell phones and social media. They would much rather watch Netflix than read a book. 

Frankly, students today have so many distractions that it is very difficult for them to become invested in Romeo and Juliet or To Kill a Mockingbird. 

I was lucky to begin my teaching career at a school that encourages innovation. Because of this, I have learned six “truths” of teaching Secondary English in my technology driven classroom. 

While seemingly radical, these ideas and strategies have helped me adapt to individual student needs and ultimately “teach kids today.”

  1. I don’t get caught up in the fact that students don’t read.  When I have to teach a whole class novel or text I front load the students with the storyline before we launch into the unit. That way, they know enough about the story to start doing assignments. As we progress throughout the book, I am constantly exposing students to the text. This station rotation model in my classroom allows students to focus on excerpts, important passages, and significant quotes in the book.   
  2. I embrace Spark Notes and Enotes. If used strategically, these study guides can further enhance student understanding of the text. These ideas are further explored in an article by Jeraldine R. Kraver who talks about the importance of pushing students towards “meaning making.” Furthering the importance of these study guides, Kelly Gallagher talks about his process of using Cliff Notes to help his students understand Hamlet in a blog post. 
  3. I try to embrace cell phones and the many tools they offer. While I have classroom etiquette for cell phone use, I do not waste a lot of energy making sure the phones are tucked away in backpacks. Instead, my students use cell phones as a way to take notes, make videos, and use classroom sanctioned social media sites. The picture below is of my students using Rocketbook Beacons to take notes of a Romeo and Juliet assignment. The picture will go straight to the Rocketbook  app. 
  1. I use social media in my classroom. The use of Twitter has helped my students develop an interest in reading. Using my personalized classroom hashtags, #scoieaplang and #mhhsfreshies, I hold book chats with my classrooms. We also reach out to students across the globe and try to connect with authors. One year, John Green liked one of my classroom tweets and my students were thrilled. I have also used Tik-tok and Snap-Chat in the classroom with positive results. 
  1. I make sure I know my audience. My first year of teaching I quickly learned that I have a total of 3-5 minutes of lecture time with my students. Because of this short time frame, I learned to transition into a facilitator role in the classroom. My time is better spent one on one with small groups or individual students. 
  2.  I encourage students to choose their own books. This form of readers workshop is something that I am constantly doing in my classroom. I have developed my classroom library and am constantly bringing in more books.

As teachers, I think we have an obligation to change and adapt to our audiences based on our students’  present needs. This requires getting out of our comfort zones and trying new things. 

The above ideas might not work for everyone. But I think that as long as we are experimenting and trying new things– we can be satisfied that we are doing our job. 

Shelby Scoffield is a high school English teacher at Mountain House High School in Mountain House, CA. She loves to read, write, and watch movies. She loves experimenting with different teaching strategies and techniques in her classroom. You can follow her on Twitter at @sscoffield1. 

“Give Jack he jacket”: Teaching Student Writers How & Why to Give Credit by Tosh McGaughy

Before a recent literacy conference in my state, an educator I follow, Lois Marshall Barker (@Lit_Bark), tweeted a popular phrase from Grenada, “Give Jack he jacket.” She was reminding everyone to cite their sources in presentations, and I fell in love with the phrase. Though ethical and academic standards for copyright, plagiarism, and citation have been a part of our literary world for centuries, the instantaneous access to seemingly infinite resources and information of the internet generation has changed the conversation. While formatting those citations in my youth required purchasing the latest edition of the required style guide, now students can easily use digital sites or add-ons to do the formatting in just a click. What have become the more crucial skills to teach are discerning the credibility of the sources that are being cited and avoiding plagiarizing the ideas of others.

Teachers and librarians are teaching critical inquiry lessons to help students learn to evaluate the deluge of information available to them in simple browser searches. A quick Google search will yield many excellent #fakenews lessons. Both Common Core and other state standards include evaluating sources, avoiding plagiarism, and citing properly. While many educators consider these to be College and Career Readiness standards, given the meteoric rise of social media as a news source, these standards actually deserve to be labeled “the most essential standards”.

As “the most essential standards”, the ideas of evaluating a source or author and then giving accurate credit (Give Jack he jacket) must be taught explicitly and modeled with every different piece of text that students are invited to interact with in the classroom. Teaching these standards only when students are doing a research project or paper isolates or compartmentalizes these fundamental skills when they are truly skills that all literate adults must master in order to navigate the inundation of digital information that is at our fingertips or in our feeds.  

With the open access to information that technology provides, plagiarism now can be a simple act of “cut and paste”, so understanding the ethical reasons for avoiding plagiarism and giving credit to authors must be an on-going, face-to-face, teacher-student conversation. Writing conferences provide teachers with many quick opportunities to check-in with students throughout the writing process, and these conversations can grow ethical student writers in deeper ways than simply paying for an expensive on-line plagiarism checker and rarely talking about or modeling how to avoid plagiarism. If only for this one reason, secondary language arts teachers have to find creative ways to make a routine of writing conferences.

As a parent of teens, I have had many conversations about “right and wrong” with my own children who have grown up in a very different world (technologically speaking) than I did just 25 years ago. Heated debates about finding and downloading “free” movies and books on-line has helped me understand how crucial (and frequent) these discussions must be in classrooms, too. The teen default response,“Everyone else does it”, really does seem to apply in this instance, but I firmly believe that teaching “right from wrong” does work when done repeatedly, systematically, and relevantly. And, I think these “most essential standards” must be taught by one writer to another writer and not simply relegated to a digital algorithm that “checks” for less-than-ethical choices. 

Please share (in the comments below) your best lessons and resources for teaching how and why to avoid plagiarism. 

A few resources:

Commonsense Media CultofPedagogy AMLElesson

PBS Learning Media NYTimes Anti-Fakenews Apps

Allsides.com The Flipside Snopes.com

Crafting Compelling Claims: A Lesson With Loose Parts (inspired by Angela Stockman)

I first heard about “making” in a writing workshop a few years ago and to be honest, I was skeptical. It felt like busy work. Sure, it would be engaging, but weren’t we already doing the work of making in our writing workshop?

Then I discovered Angela Stockman. I started following Stockman a year or so ago and have been percolating on her ideas around Hacking the Writing Workshop for about that long. I thought it looked interesting, but I wasn’t quite sure how to incorporate the work into the secondary classrooms that I support as a literacy coach.

Then last month Stockman, who is one of the most generous educators online, started posting about how to use what she calls loose parts to support argument writing. The teachers I was working with were getting ready to enter a new round of argument writing, so I followed Stockman’s posts eagerly.

When Stockman shared images of students using loose parts to find their way into arguments, lightbulbs sparked. Partnering with a few willing teachers, we decided to see what would happen. I hit up the Dollar Tree, stocking my basket with bags of shells, rocks, toothpicks, and q-tips. I raided my son’s Lego collection, and pilfered the play-doh basket in our closet. I added beads and buttons. We were all set.

“Today we’re going to play with loose parts,” I explained to the sophomores that morning. I invited them to explore what was on the tray in front of them. They looked at us wide-eyed: “are we playing with play-doh?” Every kid who cracked open the can lifted the dough to their noses and breathed deeply. They let beads filter through their fingers. They began sorting buttons and shells. The joy on their faces as they explored was something we’ve gotten too far away from in high school.

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Each group of students received a tray of loose parts to begin their claim writing.

The students had already generated ideas around argument topics — they’d written beside Wislawa Szymborska’s poem “Possiblities.” They had made quicklists. They had mined their notebooks for patterns.

After letting them explore the loose parts, we gave them three post-it notes to pull out topics that were ripe for argument. They scribbled their topics down: global warming, school funding, screen time, recess for high schoolers, vacations. The topics were as varied as the students.

“Now,” I began, “we are going to use these loose parts to write a claim.” I had, as Stockman recommends, been walking around with my own fistful of playdoh. I shaped it into the shape of a phone. “Remember how I said I want to write about how much screen time I let my kids have? Well, I’m making this into a phone.” I held up my sculpture. “What could I add here to communicate my claim?” Students offered ideas.

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My claim developed from my topic about giving my kids too much screen time.

And they were off. These kids got it. They began to dig into the trays, shaping clay, piling buttons. Frankly, we hadn’t been sure what was going to happen. As they often do, the students blew us away.

We circulated the room, nudging students to add nuance to their creations. We asked probing questions. “What could you add here to communicate that idea?” We asked for clarity and students knew what to do.

I watched one freshman add details to her sculpture and then scribble more thinking onto her post-its. She had started with the idea that locally, too many new houses were being built. She used q-tips to create homes. She decided to add gray legos. She took a moment to look at the composition in front of her. Then she went back to her post-it, adding the layer about pollution. I was inspired.

We noticed that this lesson did something we didn’t expect. Over and over again, we noticed the students were developing sophisticated claims. This work helped us teach something that had been elusive about argument writing — how to develop a nuanced claim. Using learning from the National Writing Project’s work around argument writing, for years we’ve been teaching students that strong claims are debatable, defensible, and nuanced. The first two qualities were easy to teach. That third one had been trickier.

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This student started with a topic “The benefits of therapy” and ended up with the claim “Everyone needs a therapist to relieve stress, knowing you can count on someone, and being able to express themselves.” 

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This student started with the topic of “screen addiction” and worked his way towards a claim “People should enjoy the outdoors instead of being indoors on their phones.” 

The loose parts were key.  Suddenly students were digging deeper into their thinking. They were thinking through implications, making considerations, and adding layers.

After about 15 minutes, we asked students to start to put words to their compositions (see Shawna Coppola’s latest book Writing Redefined for more about honoring non-alphabetic ways of composing). Their claims were some of the strongest we’ve ever seen. They were debatable. They were defensible. They were nuanced.

“This is the most fun I’ve had in English class all year,” one student declared.

I am convinced that making has a place in the writing classroom. We writing teachers need to crack open what we mean by “writing” and honor all types of composition. We were validated when students at all levels were both engaged and successful.

Angela Faulhaber is a literacy coach in Cincinnati, OH. 

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