A Return to Flexible Seating

After introducing flexible seating into my junior/senior English classroom last year, I reflected in July about what I liked and didn’t like about the classroom arrangement.  After implementing some changes of my own and many reader suggestions (thank you!), I wanted to reflect over another semester of flexible seating.

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What I changed this fall:

  • Furniture Arrangement:  This year, I made smaller pods of seating. I got rid of the large round tables that ate up a lot of the room and actually moved in more traditional desks (partially due to larger classes).  With the additional space, I was able to fit two smaller tables and a set of chairs for students to work, providing more options for spaces. The room has a nearly-equal balance of seats that require students to use clipboards for writing and desktops or tables.
  • Expectations:  We had a discussion about the purpose and role of flexible seating in the classroom at the end of the second week of school and set guidelines together versus rules.  Students were granted permission to move the furniture to better facilitate group work or sight of the whiteboard, with the stipulation the room comes back to order when the bell rang.  We also discussed the importance of creating a single classroom environment, not one of multiple little pods, and facilitating that through direct eye contact.  I also shared my goal that the classroom feels more like a home than a place of rigid learning, but that homes are to be respected.  
  • Ownership:  While I still reserve the right to ask a student to make a better seating choice, I started the year by asking students to change seating areas each day for the first two weeks.  I believe this established that no one has a “spot,” but we share the space based on need and how we are feeling each day. Additionally, students are required to select a seating new area of the classroom every six weeks or so, which coincides with our school’s midterms and quarters.

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With larger classes this year, the room is more crowded, but feels more, well, flexible.  Removing the large, cumbersome tables also makes re-arranging the desks and chairs for a Socratic Seminar much easier.  I also have enough desks to facilitate an inner circle of desks and an outer circle of chairs. With smaller tables, groups are naturally formed which is a time saver and I can check in with one area at a time for conferences or work checks. Additionally, with less traditional seating available than with last year’s set up, my students and I have utilized the luxury of the cafeteria tables right outside my door.  While one class period a day may not be able to access these additional workspaces because of the lunch schedule, the cafeteria tables have become an extension of our classroom and great for spreading out groups or when we need more table space.

With very few reminders, students have been respectful and able to flow between small group learning and whole-class learning.  I notice students craning their necks to look at their peers or myself when talking and students.  While some classes are more open to moving daily than others, I find more students are switching around where they sit every few days, are moving based on what we are doing in class, and voluntarily switching seats to accommodate peers.  Students this year take responsibility for their seating choice for the day and have not “claimed” a seat as students did last fall, sitting there through the spring. Sometimes, I confess, the classroom does feel disjointed, like when students are working independently and chatting with those close to them, but I remind myself that at least they’re in a community, not isolated desks of individuals.

While the set-up and general facilitation of non-traditional seating is not always easy and I’d love to make my own place in the classroom just as flexible, students unanimously responded across six classes that they prefer the arrangement and choice to rows of desks, especially for reading time.  So if it works for them, I will make it work for me!

Maggie Lopez wishes everyone a happy, productive 2020 full of excellent books!  She is currently reading “The Lost City of Z” by David Grann after thoroughly enjoying “Killers of the Flower Moon.” You can connect with her @meglopez0.

Novels in Verse in the Senior English Classroom

I have always had a bit of a love/hate relationship with poetry. I know as an English teacher I shouldn’t admit this, but poetry has always been my least favourite genre to teach. While I loved to read poetry as a teenager, I loathed when we had to study it in class as I felt that all the analyzing destroyed it. Unfortunately, some of this mindset has followed me into my teaching career and I have often struggled to really love teaching poetry and I have found that this translated into the way my students have engaged with poetry, as well.

While trying to find a new connection with poetry in my classroom, I have found a few things that have helped. The first was spoken word poetry – the powerful performances of these talented poets sparked some of that old love I used to have for poetry in me and I found that it was easy to translate this excitement into my classes.

The second is what I want to talk about here – my discovery of the novel in verse. The first novel in verse I picked up was Kwame Alexander’s The Crossover when I was trying to find a book to recommend for a sports obsessed reluctant reader. I didn’t realize it was a novel in verse when I first opened it up, but from the moment I started to read it I was hooked. The combination of poetry with a narrative arc spoke to me and I realized that novels in verse could be an accessible pathway to poetry for not just myself, but for my students as well. Since then, I have integrated novels in verse into my classroom in many ways. Sometimes I have held book clubs where all of the novels students can choose to read are novels in verse where other times I have chosen to integrate just one or two titles along with prose novels and graphic novels.

Some of my favourite novels in verse I have used recently in my classes are the following. Some of these books deal with heavy topics (in particular October Mourning), so I would recommend reviewing them before using them with younger students.

Death Coming Up the Hill By Chris Crowe: I stumbled upon this one almost by accident and I am glad I did. It was in the bargain bin at a bookstore I was at and I am glad I discovered it. Death Coming Up the Hill is set during the Vietnam War and follows the story of 17 year old Ashe who is dealing with family issues during the backdrop of the war. The story follows Ashe as he tries to avoid being drafted for a war he does not believe in. This powerful novel in verse is even more impressive as it is written entirely in Haiku with every syllable in the novel representing a fallen solider who actually died during the war.

Enchanted Air: Two Cultures, Two Wings by Margarita Engle: The poetry in this novel is completely compelling. Besides being a novel in verse, it is also a memoir of the author’s experiences growing up between two cultures. Set during the Cold War, we follow Margarita’s childhood as she struggles to reconcile her Cuban heritage with the American world she is growing up in.

October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard by Lesléa Newman: This is a hard read, but a powerful and important one. It may, however, be too much for some students. This novel in verse takes us to October 6, 1998 to tell the true story of when 21 year old Matthew Shepard is lured from a bar and beaten to death simply because he was gay. This novel in verse is tragic and powerful at the same time. 

If you had asked me several years ago if I would ever read a novel in verse, I am not sure that I would have said yes. These three novels in verse, along with several others have changed my opinion and have helped me become a more passionate poetry teacher.

If you want more recommended reads, check out my previous post on integrating authentic voices into our middle years classes.

Pam McMartin teaches Senior English and is the Senior Teacher Librarian at an independent school in Tsawwassen, British Columbia, Canada. She is reluctantly becoming more of a poetry fan the more she exposes herself to powerful, modern works. You can follow her on Twitter @psmcmartin

Using Workshop as an Opportunity to Listen, Connect, and Grow

My daily schedule, which is based off of an example in Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher’s book, 180 Days.

I know the importance of listening, mainly because I know what it feels like to be ignored. To share an idea, only for someone else in a group to quickly move on to something else. What happens next? Silence. This is exactly what I don’t want in my classroom. I want my students to feel comfortable enough to speak up and write about topics that matter to them. I want them to see that I care, and I am listening.

This is where the freedom of the workshop model comes in handy.

Two recent book talks.

For book talks, I choose titles that are written by authors that students love, or need to be introduced to. (I have students complete a survey at the beginning of the year so I know what they like and dislike right away.) I choose excerpts that they can connect with, and others that will shock them. Their to-read lists grow longer and longer.

During independent reading, I can confer with students. Sure, it’s often about the titles they are reading, but sometimes it’s my way of letting them know that I see something is different, and possibly wrong. I can check in and see what I can do to ease a worried mind. Or, maybe it’s my chance to applaud them on a job well done.

Quickwrites can incorporate poems, video clips, and excerpts that connect to topics students long to discuss. School should be a place where students can speak freely about topics like anxiety, current events, racism, the difficulties of growing up, and so much more. The possibilities are endless.

Mini-lessons may be brief, but I can work in some of my own writing here. This is where I put myself on display, and students can see I am a struggling writer just like them. Comfort and ease are added to our classroom.

Independent work time provides another opportunity for sharing ideas, whether it be through talk or writing. Students can write a piece with a peer, or one that’s all their own. Students can share their passions and frustrations in small-group or whole-class discussions. I can check in with them. I ask questions, if they need assistance, and what’s something they are proud of.

Finally, we share. Students share a new idea, a line they are proud of, or a word they’ve never used. We applaud one another. We build our community.

In today’s world, I am proud that I can give my students a classroom that is safe and inviting. Workshop makes that possible.

Sarah Krajewski teaches 9th and 12th grade English and Journalism.  She is currently in her 18th year of teaching, and is always looking for new, creative ways to help her students enjoy learning, reading, and writing. At school, she is known for dedicating her time to helping students become lifelong readers and writers. At home, she is a proud wife and mother to three readers. You can follow Sarah on Twitter @shkrajewski and her blog can be viewed at http://skrajewski.wordpress.com/.

When Your Teaching Life Throws You a Curve…

Hit a home run.

Or at least make contact, get on base, and rely on your teammates and experience to get you across home plate.

This new year, the new decade, reminds me that teachers often face new challenges and situations. Think about that student who transfers into your school nine days before the semester ends or the joy and then horror that flashes through your mind when you see that new copiers have been installed.

Sometimes though, we face new adventures that even vast swaths of experience cannot prepare us to handle the way we parry and deflect most of what’s throw at us. For me, a move away from athletics pushed me toward new classes that revealed just how comfortable I had become in my almost decade working with seniors. Last year freshman English and freshman Pre-AP English classes taught me about patience and pacing. This year sophomores and AP juniors force me to flex muscles I never knew I had and push me to explore the boundaries of my workshop pedagogy.

For those of us who face the anxiety of teaching a totally new class, a new unit of study, or even a new lesson, consider this advice:

  1. Lean on the pillars of experience around you.
  2. Trust the reading and writing workshop process.
  3. Build a team.
  4. Explore your literacy.

I’ve been blessed to leap into these last two years, and the change they promised, with groups of teachers who had been there before and knew what to expect.  Their knowledge and willingness to support me allowed for less time learning new content and more time planning effective lesson delivery.  While I have many questions, they seem to always have an answer that guides me back on the pathway to success.

Lean into the workshop that supports reading and writing because it invites literacy learners to feel safe within the routines and community that literacy learners need. New learning happens much easier then the teacher and the students feel comfortable and safe with each other.

Growing your support system beyond your teaching team is important. Living on front street with your students about your inexperience can be a scary proposition, but it can also invite them into the type of relationship where they understand that you will all grow together and that they are not the only ones being asked to shoulder a growth mindset. As for the adults in the building, instructional coaches are there to help you and support you, looking for clues to the type of help you need, listening when you struggle, celebrating your successes because they own a piece of your potential. Lastly, but no less importantly, build relationships with your administration. Extend the invitation for them to be in your room and learn about the students that pass through your life on a daily basis.  Admin isn’t there solely to handle disruptions or crisis. Rather, they, like every other educator in the building, have a vested interest in the success of your students and deserve the opportunity to experience your greatness.

Never forget the value of reading and writing beside your students. When you aren’t sure how to fairly and authentically assess the writing tasks you ask your students to perform, write your own response.  When you ask them to revise their writing, invite them into your process to help you explore your ideas.  They will jump at the chance to support your writing the way you support theirs. Share your reading life too.  Your reading life will engage them just as deeply, and as they learn more about what you like to read, they will learn more about you and, perhaps, about their own compassion.

Most importantly, trust the process. Believe in yourself in the face of new experiences. You owe it to the students and to yourself.


Charles Moore recently returned from a 2025 mile road trip vacation where he learned about new people and places and loved every minute of it. He encourages everyone to try to visit the Martin Luther King Jr. Historical Park and The King Center. Bring some tissues just in case a high school band spontaneously shows up to play for Dr. King.

#100DaysofNotebooking

Happy New Year!

As we ring in 2020, many of us begin to reflect on the previous year and to think about new starts and new beginnings. Some create resolutions or goals while others choose a one little word to guide them along the way.

My one little word for 2020 is commit, and I have created my own set of “10 Commitments.” One of my commitments involves writing, specifically notebook writing.

Notebooks are essential in a workshop classroom, but I have to admit that I lack commitment when it comes to using them regularly with my students. Using notebooks more in my classroom is always a goal of mine, but it is also a personal goal in 2020. It is important for teachers to model the writing process and to write with their students, including using writer’s notebooks.

So, when I saw the #100daysofnotebooking challenge by Michelle Haseltine, I had to check it out.

Michelle’s goal for starting this challenge was to help others develop a meaningful habit of writing and to discover the power of writing and the joy it can bring. I decided that if I want my students to become more committed to using their notebooks and if I wanted to be more committed as a teacher, then I needed to be more committed as a notebooker myself.

Looking at the pages in my current notebook, I found I typically write about my reading through the collection of quotes and snippets of writing that I can use as mentor texts for my students.

At the beginning of each year, I start a “books read” list. Although I have a Goodreads account, I like having easy access to a list of books I have read.

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I also play with words and do some initial drafting and explore for potential blog posts.

But here’s the thing…I am not consistent. These pages are actually weeks and sometimes months apart. This is why I have accepted Michelle’s #100daysofnotebooking challenge. I believe that teachers who write make better writing teachers and keeping a writer’s notebook is an important part of that development.

For more notebook inspiration, follow the #100DaysofNotebooking on Twitter or check out the Facebook group. You may also want to take a peek inside Shana’s notebook here and here or see how Amy reflected on an entry in her notebooks here. Seeing notebook pages from other writers always gives me new ideas and loads of inspiration.

If you want to create a better notebook writing habit, why don’t you consider joining me in the challenge? It is not too late to start, and you can find all of the information on Michelle’s website.

Happy New Year and Happy Notebooking!

Leigh Anne teaches 6th grade ELA in southern Indiana, is a notebooker-wannabe, and is ready to commit to a daily notebook habit.

One Word: Goals and Other Possibilities

Happy New Year! 

I always appreciate the expanse of winter break. After the joyful rush of the holidays (and sometimes the excess–so many cookies), I find myself with the time and space and never ending mugs of coffee needed. To think. To properly think and reflect. During this deliberate withdrawal from the world, I recenter and refocus. Usually, I develop new visions for my classroom, my students, and myself (professionally and personally). Last year, discovering #OneWord via my PLN energized my thinking. Jon Gordon describes it here as choosing the one word that will give “meaning, mission, passion, and purpose.” Beyond the fun of ruminating over possible words (always the nerd for words, here), I loved the intentionality of choosing the words that would anchor me for the year. I chose two: outside and feed. 

Outside moored me personally and professionally. I knew I wanted to spend more time literally outdoors, and so, I sought ways to do so: walking, running, hiking, scootering, skating, floating, fishing…even working outside. In fact, this one word led me to my best outside adventures of the year–hiking and running in Norway and enjoying a fjord cruise. This particular journey also fit my other interpretation of outside–seeking ways to go beyond or outside my comfort zone. The trip was the first long trip with my husband away from my children. Anchoring to outside helped me take risks professionally, too, which is why I write this now as an instructional coach. 

Feed became a mainstay in my classroom. I thought of feed as the ways in which I provided, maintained, or sparked the energy of the classroom and my students. So, I worked on delivering feedback that fed forward. I managed pace, working to stay brisk and lively. I altered mini lessons so that they stayed consumable. Feed nurtured my students and me. 

Reflecting now, I wish I had engaged my students in this kind of reflective anchoring. It’s a different way of goal setting, certainly. Here and here are some resources for getting started with students. But the possibilities for use during workshop make it worth further consideration. These extend beyond the variation of the New Year’s Resolution. 

Use OneWord to…

  1.  Set purpose each week for your class or for workshop time. Tethering to a carefully selected word might help students move more intentionally through the week and allows a reflection point at the end of the week. Class this week is brought to you by the word ___________. 
  2. Craft one word summaries of how their writing is going prior to conferring with you or their peers. Perhaps these one words are more about their affective states (build emotional intelligence further by providing them with a list); perhaps they indicate progress; perhaps they demonstrate the most valuable word of the piece. 
  3. Employ in quick writes. Encourage students to apply one word from independent reading into multiple quick writes from the week. That word might take on different meaning for that student. 
  4. Shape perspective. Instead of or in addition to essential questions, these one words become the essential ways for filtering reading and writing in the classroom. Maybe students use a blend of whole class (community perspective and individual one words (identity driven) through which to view reading and writing.
  5. Create a Words to Watch list of your own as a class. Consider using this list as a mentor text of sorts. Maybe students tie in Article of the Week and develop a word list based on their explorations of contemporary issues.
  6. Identify the developmental arc of a character. Students could choose one word to describe a character at each stage of transformation. 
  7. Craft one word summaries of their reading. This isn’t a new idea but maybe a reminder of how students might use words as mainstays–perhaps starting with what’s accessible before  
  8. Ground in reflection. Invite students to choose one word (provide them with a list if necessary) to depict their progress as readers, writers, or thinkers over the course of the week. They could use Flipgrid or SeeSaw or a Jamboard or just their notebooks or post it or notecard to present the word and reflect on it as their choice. 

And what else? I’m certain there are other ways to adapt the one word perspective. And I’m also certain that as we encourage students to ruminate over words–whether for the purpose of goal setting, reflecting, or creating–that we give them ways to anchor their thinking. 

I’m still ruminating over my word for this year. Pause is a strong possibility. So is perspective. And leap, dive, explore, and elevate.  I think I’ll pour another cup of coffee. 

Kristin Jeschke taught high school English for nineteen years, twelve in Waukee, Iowa at Waukee High School. She now serves as Instructional Coach (20 years in education in 2020!) and is as big a word nerd as ever. Follow her on Twitter @kajeschke. 

“It’s Beautiful” – A Simple Reminder

Happy Holidays!

I’ll keep this post short and sweet.

I hope you are finding your holiday break restful and rejuvenating, filled with warmth and time with family. I know I am enjoying spending time with both mine and my husband’s extended families. Both of our families are large and loud and full of children under the age of ten. It’s chaotic and joyful and, honestly, one of my favorite gatherings of the year – on both sides.

While sitting in church on Christmas Sunday, my three year old niece brought me a coloring page and began to use my lap as a table. The last one to grab crayons, she was stuck with a really drab brown. She enthusiastically scribbled and scrabbled and scratched her ugly brown crayon all over that coloring page with – seemingly – no rhyme or reason. Breathing heavily, she gave it her all for five frantic minutes.

Then she stopped, held up her art, and sighed. “It’s beautiful.”

My heart melted. Of course it was. She saw beauty where I only saw a mess.

It reminded me of conferencing with my students. There’s always something worth praising, something beautiful in their writing. I don’t know about you but my first instinct is to start with what we can fix, where I can teach by showing what the student can do better. When I start conferencing after the break, I want to remember my niece and ask my students: What do you LIKE about this piece? What’s beautiful?

I think that reframing will make for a good moment in our conferences.

Sarah Morris teaches AP English Language and Composition, AP Seminar, and Film as Literature in Murfreesboro, TN. She is currently reading and loving Mo Willems’s picture books. She tweets @marahsorris_cms.

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