Tag Archives: #3TTWorkshop

Book Talks & How To Do Them–#3TTWorkshop

 

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Amy booktalks during our visit to Franklin High School

Conversation Starter:  What’s a book talk and why do you do them?

Shana:  Booktalks are a structured way to fangirl about my favorite things in the world: books.  I do two booktalks per class, right after independent reading wraps up.  They’re a great way to transition from the relaxed reading mood of the classroom and move into the fast-paced work of critical reading and writing, but they’re also the number one change I’ve made to my teaching that has influenced how much I can get my kids reading.  Three years ago, I only did booktalks whenever the mood struck or whenever I got new books into my library, but now I do two a day, every day, no matter what–and it’s made an incredible difference.

Amy: You are an inspiration in consistency, Shana. I’ve done better at doing book talks this year than I have in the past. I try to do two a day as well — one non-fiction book and one fiction. I always seem to fall off the wagon at some point though. The demon, impending testing, pulls me to the dark side every year. I’m putting up a good fight this time around, and I have a plan to reinvigorate, not just my book talks, but the reading that’s happening in my room. Curiosity and intrigue: my goal for better book talks.

Is there a set protocol for a book talk — like length, reading a passage, etc?

Shana:  Just talking books is the biggest nonnegotiable for me.  While most days I do follow a protocol–one fiction, one nonfiction; 2-3 minutes per book; always share a passage, a brief plot teaser, and my own reading experience; try to mention a student who’s read the book–some days I just have to gush over a book that’s been recently returned, or a book I am reminded of during conference time, or some new items I’ve purchased.  Either way, I talk books every day, no matter what, which helps students become accustomed to exposure to new titles, adding books to their what-to-read lists, and hearing about trends in authors, genres, or topics.

Amy:  Remember at Penny Kittle’s Book Love class at UNH two years ago how she had everyone model a book talk? She set no guidelines other than modeling a few for us. After just a few turns, it became clear:  The best book talks are short, energetic, and introduce the book in some insightful or clever way. I try to do that.

When I read the books in my library, I look for passages for craft studies or beautiful sentences we can use as mentors. Sometimes I share those in book talks without doing the study — we just enjoy the language or listen to the voice of the narrator. I’ve started asking questions and trying to get my students to think about the topics the writers might address in the books. Just another way to get my readers to make a connection with writing.

The hardest books to book talk are the ones I haven’t read yet, but even those are doable when we show genuine excitement about the book. Why would I have a book in my library if I am not excited about students reading it? That’s a pretty easy sell in and of itself. It’s fun to get students to ask questions about the cover and to read the comments.

41drZBnWSzL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_How do you decide which books to talk about within each unit?

Shana:  This is pretty easy for me since most of my units of instruction are themed.  For reading units themed around a topic, I find lots of books about that topic, or that contribute an alternate perspective to whatever central text we might be reading.  (Example:  While reading Siddhartha and thinking about coming of age and going on journeys, Outliers, Marcelo in the Real World, The Other Wes Moore, Paper Towns, and Their Eyes Were Watching God fit right into our unit.)  While in the  midst of a writing unit, I think about books that might serve as mentor texts in terms of topic or structure, or that are written by authors who serve as good mentors in general.  Other times, I have no rhyme or reason to my booktalks, because I simply MUST talk about a new book (like Dumplin’, which I just read and LOVED and had to booktalk randomly.)

Amy:  I structure my units more around genre than theme, so my book talks are more random than yours. Hey, maybe that’s the problem with my consistency!

My students and I talk a lot about aesthetic and efferent reading. I want them to understand the importance of making connections with the books they choose to read, and lately, I’ve seen that there is a real disconnect. Just because students choose books does not mean they are making personal connections to them. This is in part why so many of my students this year are having a hard time sticking with the books they choose. Because I know many are abandoning books so quickly, I’ve been working on getting students to talk a lot more about topics and how writers approach these topics. My hope is that my non-readers will find interest in learning about things, even if they are not interested in reading for the pleasure of it.

I’ve done several book talks this year around a topic; for example, depression, which is one of my 11th graders’ favorite topics to write about this year. Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock, Every Last Word, My Heart and Other Black Holes all flew out of my hands, and I had to get more copies.

Do you ever have students conduct book talks?

Shana:  Very occasionally, I do, when it’s really authentic.  When a student finishes a book and just raves about it during a conference, I ask them to share that enthusiasm with the class.  Last quarter, I asked all students to read a challenge book and then complete their choice of follow-up activities with the book–one choice was a booktalk, and the students who shared about the titles they loved did spark some interest in their peers.  However, those booktalks didn’t go over as well as the ones that arose from sheer exhilaration, so I think my future goal will be to limit student booktalks to spontaneous ones only.

Amy:  Like you, I rarely have students conduct book talks — at least the way I do. I’ve tried, but you are right, without the spontaneous excitement about the book, the other students just do not respond the same as they do when I conduct the book talks.

However, I do have students talk about books with one another. Most of the time it’s pretty informal:  Talk to your table mates about what you are reading. Sometimes it’s a little more formal:  Speed dating with a book, which is one of our favorite ways to share books.

What are some other ways you talk about books with your students?

Shana:  Basically, I bombard them with talk about books all the time.  When I see current or former students in the halls, I ask them what they’re reading.  When they come to visit me, I urge them to leave the room with a new book.  I make lots of segues in conversations from all topics to all books (mostly because this is just what I do in real life…ask anyone who knows me).  I also share with students all the time what I’m reading, and why they might like a given book.

Amy:  We are so much alike! I love to have former students borrow books, and I talk about books with every person who will listen — and some who don’t. I also try to get students to engage with me on Twitter, using the hashtag #FridayReads to share what they are reading each week. A few students set up accounts and we follow each other on Goodreads. I love those kids! I’ve also started a favorite quotes wall, and I’ve asked students to pull significant lines that lead to theme and/or beautiful sentences that show author’s craft. Getting students to pay attention as they read, noticing how writers use language to create meaning, leads to significant improvements in their own writing. Without fail, it’s my best readers who are also my best writers. If only more students would get that.

Do you have topic ideas you would like us to discuss? Please leave your requests here.

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#3TTWorkshop: Asking Good Questions When Making the Move into Workshop

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Book talks about NF like Columbine by Dave Cullen and talking about the writer’s research process capture many readers

Shana and I recently conducted a two-day professional development workshop in Franklin, WI — such inspiring teachers in Franklin!

Franklin administrators asked that we help their teachers move into a workshop pedagogy, which is, of course, a favorite topic at Three Teachers Talk. We shared the background of workshop, which stems from the work of Don Murray and Don Graves, and from the work of our mentor Penny Kittle, whose ears had to be ringing and ringing since we said her name a million times throughout those two days.

Franklin teachers caught the vision and the value of letting loose the reins and opening their hearts to choice reading and writing. They just needed to experience it themselves from the seats of their students.

The discussion covers five of the pressing questions teachers asked during our pd.

They:  Where are some great places where I can get resources for books and materials for my classroom library?

Us:  The good news for Franklin teachers is the buy-in from their insightful administrators who have reserved funds to begin building classroom libraries. Not all teachers who catch the vision for choice independent reading, and the need for engaging, well-curated classroom libraries, are so fortunate. We weren’t. But finding resources and is certainly possible. Shana wrote this great post awhile back about grants she’s been awarded and the many businesses that give funds to buy books. Amy’s had great success with Donor’s Choose, one of the options Shana mentions. Three grant projects funded there so far! Lewisville Education Foundation has also been a great resource for Amy’s students and the books they love. Be sure you check out the grants offered through your own EF.

Other resources besides books are important, too. We spent time watching and responding to spoken word poetry with our new friends, modeling quickwrites, and studying the craft moves of these poets. Some of our favorite spoken word poets are Shane Koyczan, Sarah Kay, Phil Kaye, Marshall Jones, and Amy’s new favorite Harry Baker. Search online, and you’ll find YouTube videos and posts with the texts.

Engaging non-fiction articles are an essential in workshop instruction. Mentor texts, craft studies, and pairings with literature all make for authentic engagement with thought-provoking non-fiction. Find interesting articles at NewsELA, Izzit.org, Essay5W, and The Learning Network at the NY TImes. And, of course, the excellent mentors curated by our friends at Moving Writers.

They:  How can I design units that foster inquiry-based outcomes for my students?

Us:  We lead teachers in a gallery walk activity where they explored ideas of what authenticity, modeling, dialogue, inquiry, and other workshop essentials look like from both a teacher and the students’ points of view. It was interesting for us to see the many iterations of inquiry these teachers listed and how closely they overlapped with authenticity. Yes, they should.

However, getting students curious about learning does not always happen instinctively — especially when they come to us hardened by years of sit ‘n git classroom instruction. We must provoke inquiry, pique imaginations, inspire curiosity.  Of course, the move to choice opens doors to many of these needs. Providing, introducing, and talking about highly engaging literature helps. But so does allowing students to decide how they want to read it and what they want to do with it to show they are learning from reading it.

Teachers have to let go of control. We have to trust that students want to learn. We have to stop doing all the hard thinking for them. What if we let them find the mentor texts that best suit their needs as writers? What if we give them chances to determine themes they want to study, and then let them take those themes into other genres and ideas?

Let’s invite students into authentic and on-going research, so we move far far away from the one-unit-one-major-research-paper. Shana’s multi-genre project and my students’ engaging in our multi-modal feature article unit are good examples of how we apply this thinking in our own classrooms.

They:  I write every day for my job, but I have never written a “persuasive essay” for my job. How do I design authentic instruction that mirrors what my students might have to write in the future?

Us:  Read like a writer. Look for mentors everywhere. And know your kids. 

We know, if the answer was really that easy, everyone would do it. Although we do believe every teacher could. One way we’ve found to incorporate authentic instruction is to conduct regular craft studies of a variety of texts. We read a lot, and we look for texts in which we can discuss with our students topics like structure, literary and rhetorical devices, tone, etc. We call this reading like writers.

Shana and I agree, we first learned the value of reading like writers from Katie Wood Ray in her book Wondrous Words. Here’s a great Pinterest board to get you started. Shana and I will post the craft studies we find and use with our students more often. You’ll find several we previously posted when you search the “craft study” category.

They:  How do we hold students truly accountable?

Us:  In a word, conferring. We must talk to our students often and with purpose. 

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Modeling Silent Reading Conferences

Amy remembers when she first started moving students into self-selected texts how her conferences revolved around the books students read. Eventually, she realized that if she wanted to truly move readers, she needed to talk more to the student — as a reader — than about the book she was reading. This is an important shift in mindset and practice.

If we only encourage students to talk about the plot, summarizing this or that, maybe describing the characters, we miss out on valuable opportunities to help the reader stretch and grow in the skills she needs to mature as an independent reader. Identity matters.

Teachers foster a love of reading not by focusing on the books but by focusing on the reader of those books and helping those students identify themselves as readers. If you need ideas on conferring, Amy and Jackie discussed conferring in this #3TTWorkshop post, Amy wrote about conferring in a crowded classroom here, and Shana wrote about a what to read conference here.

Another important thing to remember about accountability:  We can ask students to write about their independent reading. Shana and I both ask students to evaluate their reading lives — several times a year. We consider these summative assessments, and students provide thoughtful commentary on how they struggle, grow, and succeed as readers. Amy quotes many of her students’ evaluations here. They are honest and insightful.

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Speed dating with books increases student talk about books, which increases students reading good books

When we ask students to write about their reading, it must be a task they see as worthwhile — and one we see as a support to our ultimate goal:  developing life-long readers. Too often, we read about teachers who punitively assign tasks to “catch their students not reading.” If this is you, please stop.

They:  How do I create engagement not compliance due to grades?

Us:  Choice. Choice leads to engagement. Engagement leads to autonomy. Autonomy leads to independence. Independence is engagement.

Trust the process, and see for yourself.

 

Integrating Reading & Writing Instruction: Craft Studies & Mentor Texts

This is a continuation of our post from yesterday.

#3TTWorkshopWhat are you reading now, and/or what are your latest finds that could be strong mentor texts?  

Jackie:  For fun, I am currently reading Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, and for AP Literature, I am currently reading Othello.  I read Ready Player One as a departure from my typical YA reads.  I was never a gamer or 80s enthusiast, so I wanted to “challenge” myself by choosing a new genre.  Ernest Cline brilliantly writes action pieces.  Somehow he manages to translate the video game structure into a novel AND make it interesting for non-gamers like me; I am planning to use an excerpt to discuss movement of time either when we work on our multi-genre project this year or our fictional writing next year.  

Most recently, my CP freshmen read the picture book The Promise by Nicola Davies as a mentor for our narrative fiction unit.  In my academic freshman classes, we recently completed process papers based on The Compound by S.A. Bodeen.  Mentors for these included “What you will need in class today” by Matthew Foley and “Instructions for a bad day” by Shane Koyczan.  Students used each as a mentor text by which to craft their own poems and then eventually built them into unique survival guides ranging from “How to survive a zombie apocalypse” to “How to survive a friend’s breakup.”  As Shana said yesterday, I like pairing professional work with my own to show them the messy process of writing, so prior to class I get a head start on my own piece and then I continue developing it while projecting my writer’s notebook on the board at the beginning of workshop time.    

img_1056-1Shana:  I just finished the beautiful Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon.  I love it as a mentor text because it’s a bit multigenre, and it’s an engaging YA love story, AND it’s gorgeously written.  With tons of parallel structure and a short-chapter format, it’s a quick read but one that lends itself to lots of frequent re-reading.  I’ll use this text for craft studies at the sentence and paragraph level to teach things like repetition, parallel structure, and varied sentence structure.

Another book I just read was Caitlin Doughty’s memoir Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, and Other Lessons from the Crematory, which I usually booktalk with Mary Roach’s Stiff.  This tale of Caitlin’s experiences working in a crematory will be useful for my students to analyze at the chapter level, during which she employs narrative to blend her adult experiences in the crematory with the formative experiences of her youth in order to make a claim about the nature of human life and death.  It’s a powerful example of the use of narrative within nonfiction.

I also recently read Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac by Gabrielle Zevin, which tells the story of a high school senior who falls and loses all memory of everything after sixth grade.  As a result, most of her life story is revealed through dialogue with other characters, so this will be a fantastic mentor text at the whole-text level–how can we craft a short story that uses dialogue to reveal movement through time, a character’s background, or a character’s personality traits–all without that dialogue being spoken by that character?

 

How will you integrate your current reads into your practice?

Shana:  I like to share this article about noticing beautiful writing with my students.  We use it as the basis for two sections in our notebook–“Quotes & Craft Study” and “Wondrous Words.”  I like to break down with my students why a particular line or paragraph or chapter in a piece of writing is so powerful–at the word level, the structural level, the punctuation level.  When we read like writers, we can notice all of those details and begin to imitate them in our own writing.  

img_1057My students asked for more craft study and grammar instruction in their midterm exams.  With our new notebook setups, I’m hoping to create a routine for the wordplay we’ll need to constantly return to in order to strengthen our use of punctuation, specific diction, sentence structures, and other craft moves.  I want to employ more “triple-plays,” as Penny Kittle calls them–books that act as a booktalk, a quickwrite, and a craft study mini-lesson.  For example, I’ll take the chunk of Everything, Everything pictured at right and make copies of it for my students to glue into their notebooks.  Beneath it, we’ll imitate the parallel structure of the sentences, and the exercise will serve to teach parallelism, talk up the book itself, and be a quickwrite we’ll call “it could be.”

Jackie:  Inspired by a course we took this summer with Tom Newkirk, my colleague and I are putting together a superhero unit for our academic Freshman English classes.  The unit will involve both a persuasive essay and a comic strip students make about a hero in their life.  In turn, I’ve been skimming comics and graphic novels to find inspiration for students.  

In this unit, students will practice storyboarding their own comics while studying the use of craft like onomatopoeia, movement of time, and internal and external dialogue.  My hope is that these building blocks will provide a foundation for us to further discuss the use of colors to portray goodness and evil within a comic (or novel) as well as the use of framing or perspective in the pieces as well.

Please join the conversation–how do you approach the study of craft with your student writers?

Finding Mentor Texts & Craft Studies

#3TTWorkshop MemeWhat prompted you to begin the process of noticing examples of mentor texts or craft study?

Jackie:  When I first started teaching, finding mentor texts proved to be difficult.  While I knew what made writing strong or well-crafted, I didn’t always know what I was looking for.  Instead, I would eat up a plot line, soaking in word choice (I have always loved words), but rarely did I stop to think about how an author sculpted a line or page or chapter.  Finally, after struggling with structuring a piece of fiction writing, I referred back to To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee.  Intrigued by her ability to create a scenes that showed the progression of time, I read and re-read the novel, observing her intentional moves as a writer.  Gradually, I began understanding the value of mentor texts to my own writing.  

The skill is not easy, and I have learned more about myself as a reader in the time I have taught than I ever did during my schooling.  While reading like a writer does slow down the reading process, it also makes me appreciate the artistry of writing.  It makes me aware of my own moves as a writer and how writing, like any other form of art, is about discipline, awareness, and interpretation.

Shana:  I didn’t know about the concept of mentor texts, or craft studies, or imitating great writers, or even reading like a writer…until I took Penny Kittle’s UNHLit class in 2013.  Everything that summer blew my mind, and I was hungry to begin looking for strong examples of real writing for my students to study, imitate, and craft.  I learned about lots of authors, nonfiction writers, poets, journalists, and more while I was at UNH, and in the year following I learned to think back to my own favorites and ask my students for their recommendations when I needed more mentor texts.

Once I began thinking about writing instruction in terms of products I wanted my students to create, I learned to start searching for examples of those strong products.  Sometimes I seek out a specific genre of mentor text if I want to teach a unit about narrative fiction.  Other times, I find an amazing mentor text and design a unit around getting kids to create that specific genre.

 

Describe your process as you search for examples of mentor texts and craft studies.

Shana:  I read much more slowly now.  Almost all of my reading is of texts that could be used for craft study in my classroom, or books that might go well on the shelves of my classroom library.  I think about writing and reading in such new ways now that I almost unconsciously note a good page for a booktalk, a beautiful line for craft study, or an interesting segment of writing for a mentor text.  

To build an arsenal of texts for use in my classroom, I began to scour the award lists for the National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize, the Man Booker Prize, and lists of recommendations by groups like ALA, Kirkus, and more.  I also value the recommendations of literacy greats in our field like Donalyn Miller, Carol Jago, and Penny Kittle.  I want strong, complex writing to hand my students, so that they can absorb the craft of good writing through constant, diverse exposure.

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The page I’ll booktalk from Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon

Now, most of the mentor texts I discover are incidental–I stumble upon a lovely sentence in a book I’m reading, or I see someone tweet a link to a good article, or I’m struck by a student’s craft as I’m reading their writing.  I try to give a published example, a student example, and my own example as an “in-progress” mentor text, in keeping with the recommendations of Katie Wood Ray in Wondrous Words.

Jackie:  Now that I have begun practicing reading as a writer, I am more aware of the mentor texts that surround me every day.  It took about a year of intentionally slowing down my reading, contemplating the craft, and thinking about where to file the piece within my units for me to develop this practice.  

From Pinterest finds to articles to book excerpts to poems, I am constantly searching for pieces that will inspire and engage my students.  Most of my finds feed into mini-lessons that tackle current skills with which my students struggle.  For example, Many of my students grapple with the use of second person point of view and use it as a default instead of intentionally employing it to reach out to and connect with their audience.  After the November Paris attacks, I found a piece that brilliantly uses second person point of view to help students develop empathy with Syrian refugees.  This piece serves to not only guide them but also make them think about the intentional moves needed to connect with one’s readers.

I also look for mentor texts in classic literature and young adult reads.  These short excerpts teach my students phenomenal craft while dually serving as a mini-book talk.  The writing sells itself.  I always have students request The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls after I use the first chapter as a mentor text for multi-scene narratives as well as a craft study for opening lines.  The same goes for when I use The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt when I use a short explosion scene to discuss snapshot narratives.

Tomorrow we’ll discuss how we employ found mentor texts in our classrooms.  Join the conversation in the comments–how and why do you seek out mentor texts?

 

#3TTWorkshop — Making Workshop Work in AP English Part 2

This is a continuation of yesterday’s post — a conversation between Amy, AP Language teacher, and Jackie, new AP Literature teacher

Do you think it’s important that students read classic literature in an AP class?

Amy:  In an AP Literature class, yes. In classes leading up to AP Literature, yes, in sound bites and shorter texts. However, balance is key. Do we give students some say in what they read for our classes — not just what they may choose to read on their own? Are our students reading and growing as readers? Do we approach the text with the goal to help them do so, or do we approach the text and teach the book instead of the reader?

In a conversation the other day, one teacher said she likes to use classic literature because the conversations around the complexity help even her struggling students learn. Of course, that is probably true, but learn what? Those conversations will not help those students become better readers. The only way to become a better read is to read. If students are not reading the books we choose, we have to be okay with that. We have to admit that perhaps our goals for that specific unit, and that novel, are different than choosing the book because we know all students will read it. We have to decide we are okay will students not reading. I wrote a pretty long post about this whole debate here.

Jackie:  In AP Literature, yes, my students must read classic literature.  Because the AP Literature test Jackieclassroomboysis centered on the canon of “higher literary merit” books, I do teach set texts like Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison and Othello, but I stress from the beginning that in this course we are continuing to develop our reading lives as both academics and hobbyists.  Fortunately, many of my students arrive at my door with a passion for reading, but as I saw at the beginning of the year, far too many of them haven’t read a book for enjoyment since their freshman year.  Their lives become too busy and the first thing that seems to go is reading.

In turn, while I teach multiple whole class texts to fulfill the needs of the test, I also make space for independent reading.  The vast majority of my AP Literature students are seniors, and I know that this is their last English class before they move onto college.  In turn, my greatest goal beyond providing them with the necessary skills for deep critical thinking, is to reinvigorate their passion for literature and love of books.  

Where does teaching writing fit into your AP curriculum?

Amy:  I tell my students:  Ours is primarily a writing class. Before we even get settled in, students know they will write a lot — in all kinds of different modes and to a vast audience they build themselves. When I first changed my approach to teaching, I began with writer’s workshop. I’d heard Penny Kittle present, giving ideas from Write Beside Them, and that book became my curriculum guide. Today, I urge teachers who are thinking of shaking up their teaching, to take the first wobbly step into writer’s workshop. Depending on your book shelves and your library, it might be easier. Of course, it depends on your own confidence, too. If a teacher isn’t comfortable teaching writing, it’s probably because she hasn’t practiced being a writer herself. That has to be step number one. Write. Write beside your students so they see you struggle. Read articles and books on writing by writers. I’ve been reading the works of Donald Murray, a suggestion given to me personally by Penny Kittle. Murray’s books have enriched so many aspects of my writing life — and my teaching life. Try Learning by Teaching, and you will know exactly what I mean.

Jackie: It’s funny that you say your class is primarily a writing class; for me, AP Literature is primarily a reading class.  At the beginning of the year, I challenged my students to read 25 books…and I don’t just mean books of higher literary merit.  I wanted students to fall in love with reading again, which can be quite tricky when it comes to a class centered on analyzing books.  Even today during a mid-year progress presentation, a student talked about how he initially felt guilty picking up a YA book, but how this book helped him fall in love with reading again.  As you said, I too practice my craft alongside my students, only this year, it’s all about reading beside my students, which I do every year, but it’s fun to analyze many of the pieces for the first time with my students.  I don’t hold back when it comes to admitting my own questions about a text.  Learning beside my students makes the social process of the workshop model that much more authentic.  

Amy: Besides teaching my students to write arguments, since that is what the AP exam is all about, I also teach my students to write everything. We start with narrative, move into information, determine the difference between persuasive and argument, and practice research and synthesis as we go. My students write on their blog, usually about topics they read about in the news, although I’m going to try to mix this up in the spring and open their topics up to ones they find in their independent reading.

Diego and Tia deep into discussion around revisions.

Diego and Tia deep into discussion around revisions.

Blog writing is practice writing. I read as many posts as I can get to, and I try to leave feedback that helps the writer grown. The whole process starts out rough. Students think they they can pour out their thoughts on the page and then publish without doing much revision. We talk about this. We talk about audience, purpose, form. We even explore what Bloggers do to appeal to their audiences, and we try to build a readership (although I need to do a better job and take more time on this.) The whole point is to expand the classroom — to give my readers a reason to write that is other than Mrs. Rasmussen said so. Does every student buy in? No, but I get many more students to buy in to becoming writers, and many of them ask me if they can write on their blogs more than I require.

Of course, we also move through process papers, using mentor texts, studying the moves of writer’s, mirroring and modeling his or her craft, practicing revision and revision and revision before finally publishing. This year we’re writing about four of these essays a 9 weeks, which isn’t as much as I would like, but it’s a good amount for my writer’s this year.

Jackie: I am building from the bottom up this year.  With the help of a phenomenal mentor, Sheridan Steelman, I am learning how to marry the workshop classroom with the traditional AP Literature curriculum.  AP Lit is all about recognizing the beauty of language and the craft moves an author makes as they frame an idea or concept.  I’m that weird teacher that is so moved and excited by my students recognition of beauty in a piece that I jump out of my chair and cheer.  It’s okay though, I’m surrounded by word nerds!

During the first half of the year has involved analyzing writers’ craft to gain a better sense of the author’s goals and purpose.  We do write plenty of analysis essays, some being short timed pieces while others are lengthy explorations of deeper themes.  We also co-write papers in small groups, which forces students to rely on one another as they tackle the writing process.  Next semester I look forward to exploring more creative writing outlets as students mirror some of the craft within their independent novels.

Above all, my favorite writing my students do is the writing in their critical reading notebooks.  I love thumbing through the raw reactions to students’ YA literature and personal reading novels as well as the the pages of scribbled notes on characters and connections from their novels of higher literary merit.  
Join the conversation. What ideas do you have for a balance of choice and required in an AP English class? How do you manage the writing?

#3TTWorkshop — Making Workshop Work in AP English

#3TTWorkshop Meme

 

 

How do you balance teaching the workshop model with also teaching to a test?

Amy:  First of all, teaching to a test is not good practice. We know that. I know we want to prepare students to take and pass the AP exam, but if we structure our classes around test prep, we are doing a disservice to our students. We provide the only 11th or 12th grade English classes our students will take — we have a responsibility to help them understand how language (and literature) works, how it moves the world, how it relates to our lives. And we have a responsibility to help every student advance as readers and writers — no matter where they are in their abilities when they come to us. If we do these things we are doing our jobs, if not, we are not. Test prep does not help with either of these responsibilities. As a matter of fact, it can inhibit it.

Jackie: I am a first year AP Literature teacher, so I still have the underlying anxiety that comes with teaching my first class of AP students.  I love these students–they are kind, passionate, mature, and motivated.  They work tirelessly to succeed and they have a passion for literature and thirst for knowledge unmatched by any of the students I’ve taught in the past.  In turn, I want to do everything in my power to provide them with the steps to succeed, but I have found, as the year goes on, that I cannot simply focus on the test.  In the beginning, I felt like every assignment I designed began with the thought, how will this help them on the exam?! Once I shoved aside my anxieties and found my stride, I focused less on their testing success and more on what I truly wanted them to walk away with at the end of the year.  I am blessed with the gift of teaching students the individual pleasure of reading paired with the social process of dissecting intricate texts.  

Created by Jackie's student. Doesn't it embody the essence of AP Lit?

Created by Jackie’s student. Doesn’t it embody the essence of AP Lit?

How do you balance whole class novels with independent reading in AP classes?

Amy:  My students and I do not read any whole class novels. It’s not that I am against them. It is that I have not found a book that I think will work to move all of my students. Wait, that’s not quite true. When I read David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell, I thought “Here is a book that would make for a whole class read.” The book is an argument, and within each chapter is an argument that supports the overall one. That would be a good book for all AP Language students. Have I used it as a whole class read yet? No, but if I can find the funds to buy enough copies, someday I will.

Jackie: Unlike Amy, I do teach whole class novels.  Last year I experimented with teaching no whole class novels in my junior-level Advanced Composition course.  The experience had its pros and cons, but I found that I missed the common experience of reading a sustained text together.  It wasn’t something I wanted to do everyday in my classes, but one of the reasons I loved studying English in graduate school was to gain the communal opportunity of cracking apart texts and sharing perspectives.  In AP Literature I reinforce the concept that literary analysis isn’t a competition; it is instead a social experience that requires us to open up to our peers in pursuit of greater knowledge and understanding.

While I teach whole class novels, I do not believe AP Literature classrooms must revolve around them. Instead, AP Lit classes should have a smattering of diverse novels and plays with a large focus on poetry, short stories, and even excerpts.

My AP students just finished Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, a 580 page episodic novel that is the most used novel on the test.  It is brilliant in so many ways, relevant and valuable.  It discusses issues of race and police brutality that eerily parallel issues we face today.  For many, it is also the first whole class novel on race my students read that was actually written by a black man (they read To Kill A Mockingbird their freshman year and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn their sophomore year).  I choose the novel because it is invaluable, but I also acknowledge that it is LONG.  If I taught lengthy canonical texts constantly, my students would hate me.  I would hate me.

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Fabian reading to his table mates. He’s so involved in the story of Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close he could not wait for our book club discussions.

Amy: We read a ton of short text together; discuss them, analyze them, write about them. We enjoy many rich reading experiences together — all centered around short texts. I’ve heard a lot of noise lately around the argument for a literary canon so students enjoy shared experiences versus independent reading and the lack thereof, and I think the dichotomy is wrong. Can we only have shared experiences around whole class reading? No. It’s not that those of us who advocate for choice reading do not facilitate rich reading experiences and discussions with our students as whole classes, it’s that we choose to do so with shorter texts rather than full-length novels — or we choose to do so with themes instead of one book.

My experiences with too many students not reading longer texts I pulled from the canon — and the length of time it took to complete a unit — made me choose to let the novel go. Too many students faked their way through the classic literature I forced them to read my first few years teaching. (They brag about it later on Facebook.) And by offering choice, whether it be self-selected reading or book clubs, I have better chances of advancing all of my readers, not just the few who commit to doing all the reading.

We have a lot to say, so join us tomorrow for part two of this discussion. And as always, please join the conversation in the comments.

4 Questions We Answer about Exams #3TTWorkshop

We read this tweet, and first of all, let me just say how honored we are to be included with the likes of Screen Shot 2015-12-22 at 10.44.35 AMPenny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher. The link took us to this post:  Reading (R)evolution post where we read about three high school English teachers much like us who are committed to independent reading and working hard to do right by their students. They asked about semester exams, and since Shana and I recently had a conversation that answered many of their questions, we jumped on the opportunity to share that discussion. We think our friends at Mamaroneck High School will find it helpful– maybe you will, too.

#3TTWorkshop Meme

Do you have topic ideas you would like us to discuss? Please leave your requests here.


 

What are your thoughts on mid-terms/finals and what should be on them?

Shana:  By their very nature, a lengthy exam of any sort measures a student’s fluency with reading and writing, and that’s one of the reasons I like them.  I’ve been thinking a lot this year about sustaining length of thought and what that looks like–not just thinking about one subject for a long period of time, but continuing to read and write and experiment with that subject for a long period of time.  Thus, I’ve tried to create routines that foster fluency, and a lengthy exam is one way to measure whether or not I’ve been successful with that goal.

As for the exam itself, I believe the format matters most.  If we never do worksheets with multiple-choice answers during class time, why start now?  I try to make my exam mirror our daily routines in class–there is a section for independent reading, for sustained writing, for critical reflection, and for goal setting.

Amy:  Like you, I like the idea of measuring fluency with a lengthy exam — and while I do not think one exam on any one day can give an accurate measure of a student’s knowledge, I do think that sometimes it can give us a clear picture of a student’s growth. The exam itself is only one part though. Really, it all comes down to our alignment. How tightly do we align our standards and the skills we need students to master to our lessons and to our assessments, both formative and summative, within our unit cycle? Our semester and final exams should be another extension of that alignment. Too often, it is not.

 

What does a 2-hour exam look like?

Shana:  My written exams all start with a message from me to my students–a missive that this is not an exam one can or should study for, but rather one where students have the opportunity to demonstrate growth, effort, risk-taking, and clear thinking.

From there, I separate the exam into options by subject, and for each subject, I give students a choice of three tasks to complete.  For example, subject one is independent reading, and option one is creating a video booktalk, option two is creating a themed top ten list, and option three is creating a book trailer.

Amy:  When I first moved to a workshop pedagogy, the thing I had to learn is the idea of skills-based instruction and helping students form habits of mind that relate directly to improving as readers and writers. I was no longer teaching a book. Thinking about the skills helped me choose mentor texts and design mini-lessons that would move my readers and writers. Since my instruction changed, I knew my exams had to change as well. And my exams never look the same from year to year.

In my previous district, and especially for grades 9th and 10th, which take the Texas state assessment, half of the semester exam was a common assessment created by the district. It mirrored the state assessment and could be used as a diagnostic tool to measure student growth as they prepared for the end-of-course exam. The other half of the assessment we created in grade-level teams. The second half was difficult because I was the only workshop teacher devoting time to independent reading and writing on my campus. I was able to convince my team to assess skills rather books, but even then, it was difficult to craft an assessment that reflected the practices in my classroom instruction when I was the only teacher with those practices.

A two-hour exam needs to give students the opportunity to show what they have learned about reading and writing, and I absolutely agree:   it needs to mirror the practices we do in our daily instruction, but I also think it needs to give students the opportunity to show how their mastery of those practices help them tackle the kinds of critical reading and writing they must do in their lives beyond my classroom. For example, my students read independently and for sustained periods of time throughout the semester because I want them to learn to appreciate both the efferent and aesthetic value of books –we discuss this a lot as I conduct book talks, and they discuss books with each other. We read to enjoy but we also read to learn. My students write arguments on their blogs weekly, so one option for at least part of their semester exam is to write an argument about their reading. They marry what they’ve gleaned from their independent reading with the skills they’ve learned about writing. (I often give this portion of the exam in advance since it takes time for me to read and assess, but I’ve also given it as a timed writing on exam days. Students know the specifics of what I am looking for in their writing — this ties directly to the AP writing rubric I use to assess their blog posts — so I am able to score these holistically. And quickly.)

 

What should major assessments like an exam measure?

Shana:  What makes a good reader or writer is not necessarily comprehensively covered in any set of curricular standards that I know about.  Instead of feeling obligated to adhere strictly to the Common Core standards, or our WV Next Generation standards.  Because what we value in our classroom is the process of becoming a strong reader and writer, my exam highlights process as well as product.

In addition, some things I really value, like students’ ability to talk to me and one another about their learning using specific academic vocabulary and evidence-based claims, are not measurable by a written exam.  Thus, I assess those things at other times, like during conferences, rather than during exam week.  I don’t feel obligated to try to assess “everything” on one exam–it’s simply impossible to do so.

Amy:  Ideally, an exam should allow students the opportunity to show they have learned the material, right? If our exams are cumulative, and test the acquisition of skills, students should be able to earn credit by showing mastery — or at least growth — as indicated by their exam scores. This goes back to what I said before about alignment. It also represents a big problem in what I see with “grades.” Too often students receive scores on tasks that have more to do with their responsibility (or lack thereof) than on what they have actually learned. Take this scenario:  say a student does not complete x, y, and z assignments for whatever reason. By nature of many grading policies, she receives zeroes for not doing the work instead of not being capable of doing the work. A major assessment should be an assessment that evaluates a student’s ability as it relates to what we have taught, and if she didn’t do x, y, and z, the final assessment should be a last stop measure to show she’s learned what we needed her to learn that semester.

Shana:  I completely agree with the gap between grades and ability.  The whole grade-feedback-evaluation-assessment-ability conundrum has been frustrating us for a while, I know.  Some of my students did not finish the exam by the end of the week, but I won’t hold that against them–they will take it home over break and return it to me in the New Year.  I’m not sure, really, if I ever feel confident “grading” an exam item by item.  Instead, I consider the urging I give at the beginning of my exam–deep thought, strong effort, and time spent–and give a letter grade based on how well it is apparent that the student did those things well.

 

What would your ideal semester-ending assignment look like?

Shana:  I usually end the first semester with a series of activities like I described above, but I always end the second semester with a multigenre project of some sort.

For my first semester exam, Amy and I brainstormed together how to preserve student choice, our values of having students create products rather than just complete tasks, and how to allow for the showcasing of learned skills rather than a “gotcha” mentality with new material.  In our notebooks, we jotted down ideas and I wrote this up.  I made it available to students the Monday before finals week, so they’d have about a week and a half to work on it.  I think what’s important is that the last activity is reflection and goal-setting–looking back on 2015, and looking forward to 2016.

For this year’s end-of-course assignment, I’m excited to do a spin on Tom Romano’s literature relationship paper, in which students create a multigenre series of writings focusing on their relationship with and reading of a text.  I hope to have students re-read a favorite independent reading novel and write in many genres that include reflection, craft analysis, narrative, poetry, and more.  With that end goal in mind, I have designed more written product assignments that deal with narrative and analysis than I usually do.

Amy: My midterm exam is much different than my end-of-course exam. I loved how we talked through what our exams would look like when we were together at NCTE. As you know, what you wrote up will work well for me. Thanks for sharing that and saving me the time of having to write my own. I did a few revisions, and mine looks like yours, except with one less choice of options — and it is only for 50% of the test. Students will work on it in class the week or so leading up to the end of the semester. We have a week and a half after winter break.

The other 50% will be practice for the critical reading part of the AP exam. The 90 minute block will be enough time to take a full-length practice test, important for stamina, and then talk through a few of the passages. Of course, the second portion of the exam will be more diagnostic for me than anything — although we have analyzed texts in much the same way the exam asks students to do.  I haven’t decided how, or if, I’ll take a grade on it yet — my students are all over the place in terms of their critical reading abilities, so no doubt there will be a curve somewhere. I thought about taking a grade on the level of thinking I see in their annotations, but that isn’t fair. Not everyone needs to annotate the same way to truly think about a text. What I may do is have students write a one page reflection about that critical reading test after they take it, maybe set some goals for how they want to continue to grow as a reader during the spring semester. If they are honest with themselves, this reflection would be more specific about tackling complex texts than the reflection they write about their independent reading for the first portion of the exam. (And now I am just thinking as I write.)

Like yours, my students do a complex writing piece at the end of the year, which combines several different genres of writing. For the past few years, we’ve studied multi-modal feature articles and then written our own. On exam day we present our favorite parts to the class. Here’s a few examples of students’ published work from last year. Anthony wrote “Current and Future Sources of Energy,” Maribel wrote “Beauty Unlimited and Undefined,” Bryan wrote his immigration story. These types of assessments are my favorite.

Students take ownership of their writing and take pride in their finished products. They also evaluate their writing process and give themselves their own grade. After all, they do all the work:  thinking, planning, researching, drafting, revising. They are the ones who know if they’ve accomplished what they set out to do.

Please join the conversation:  What are your thoughts on exams in a workshop classroom?

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