Tag Archives: AP English Language

Authenticity: Making it Real with Student Blogs

North Star of Texas Writing Project (NSTWP), in which I am a teacher consultant, asserts that authenticity is connecting student learning with significant audiences, tasks, and purposes.


Blogging with my students is one way in which I make that connection happen. Writing posts and commenting on the work of our peers has become an integral part of my readers/writers workshop classroom.

photo: Petras Kudaras

During the second week of school, once schedule changes calm down a bit, I introduced the idea of blogging to my students. This year I wrote a post on my class blog and imbedded an article that made them see that blogging can have value to their futures. You can see that here.

I’ve had students use Edublogs as their blog platform in the past, and I know some teachers have their students use Kidblogs. I decided to go with WordPress this year. I thought using the “real world” blog platform would be a good idea. You know, just in case some students loved the idea and kept writing long after they leave my classroom. Finally, eight weeks into the school year, I am glad I went this route, but the set-up, especially with my 9th graders took a lot longer than I’ve had to spend in the past. (Most of my students are not as tech savvy as many technology advocates would like to believe. For more on that read this post:  Digital Novices vs Digital Natives.)

These are some ways I’m transforming my teaching by using student blogs this year (See this SAMR model for ideas on instructional transformation):

Timed Writing. I need students to be able to think quickly about a topic, organize their thoughts, and write effectively in a short period of time. Years ago I had students complete timed writings on paper with a pen, and I’d take the stack of essays home and laboriously grade them. By having students post to blogs, my classroom is getting close to being green. We do very little writing on paper anymore. I can read student posts with the swipe on my finger on my iPad, and I try to leave comments that inspire improvement in their writing. Sometimes I put the score from a rubric. Most times I say something I like about what students have written. They like that kind of feedback best, and it usually prompts some kind of improvement in their next post–something that rarely happened with the marks of my red pen.

For our first timed writing, students wrote about their reading lives. We spend 10 minutes at the beginning of each class period reading our self-selected books. I conference with each student, brief one-on-one chats. I learned more while reading student posts about their reading habits than I did in the prior eight weeks of school. I posted a reflection of my own reading life on my class blog with the actual assignment, and then students wrote on theirs. The response to our wide reading warmed my teacher heart. Read a few of these students’ posts, and you will see why: Helen–A Path Led by Wise Words; Gina–Lay Down the Bridges; Mian–A Passion for Books; Emilio–Reading Life

Our second timed writing, students wrote an argument in response to our in-class study of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “The American Scholar.” Some student posts were thoughtful and wise; most were ineffective and needed major revisions. All students wrote and showed what they’d learned from their reading and our class discussions.

Persuasive Practice. The AP Lang exam and the 10th grade STAAR test both require students to be effective persuasive writers. I like this blogger’s post:  Blogging is the New Persuasive Essay. As I teach my students how to use persuasive techniques, I also want them learning about their world. They have to know “stuff” to build their credibility after all. So every Monday my students write a post that they base upon something they read in the news. They scan headlines until they find a topic that interests them. Then they pull an idea from the article, and then they write an argument based on that idea. So far, we haven’t delved too deeply in the art of persuasion; we’ve talked mostly about form and structure and a few rhetorical devices, but some of my students have taken ownership of this weekly recurring assignment. Here’s a few to give you an idea:  Kathryn–Words Hurt; Ashley–Recycled Look or Recycled Lives; Jason–Smoking is Safer? Impossible; Adrian–Chemical Mistakes

Published Polished Pieces. As we move through different genres of writing, I need my students to fully immerse themselves in the process of creating effective and moving texts. We started the year with a focus on narrative. I know, it’s not on the AP exam or the STAAR test anymore. But story is so important. It’s what connects us as humans, and it’s story that has helped create a classroom community where students are not afraid to take risks and throw their hearts out on the page. While a few student narratives are not as polished as I would have liked prior to publication (grades being due always seems to interfere with authenticity), if you read just these three, you’ll see why story is important. I can be a better teacher to these PreAP students because of what I know from these posts. Esmeralda–Memories; Mercedes–What Do You Think About Moving? Bryanna–Why Batman?

I remember learning from Kelly Gallagher that students should write more than I can ever grade. Well, of all things in my teaching life, I’ve finally figured that one out the best. I cannot read every post my students write, but I can read a lot, and I can give a lot of feedback in a way that is meaningful so that students respond. We just started reading and leaving feedback for one another. I can already tell that this will be more valuable than just me giving feedback. After we spent two class days reading one another’s narrative posts, I had students tell me on their own narrative evaluations:  “I knew I could do better after I read other people’s.” For an example of our student feedback, read the comments on this one: Amy–Forever a Bye. The instruction I gave students was 1) Be polite but honest, 2) Bless something you think the writer did well, 3) Press a moment that needs more detail or description, 3) Address an issue of concern in regard to style, grammar, etc. For our first time, I’m proud of these students for the feedback they gave their friend.

Engaging student writers is often more than half the battle. So many times they have the attitutde “What’s in it for me?” By allowing students to choose their topics, and allowing them to express their true and authentic voices, I get better participation, and I get better writing, and I get to know the hearts and minds of my students.

That is all I ever really want.

photo: Dee Bamford

#NCTE13  Writing Teachers (Re)Inventing Literacy Instruction by Following the North Star

My Workshop is Kind of Like Goldilocks and the Three Bears

ocsWhen I first got my teaching assignment for this year, I was a little overwhelmed, although I probably shouldn’t have been:  I chose to have three preps. Yes, I chose three preps. Crazy, right?

I’ve never had the exact same assignment two years in a row, which definitely has its pros and cons. (I was recently diagnosed with ADHD–at 48–I know, right?–so the changes have worked pretty well for me.) I don’t mind the planning. I don’t mind the difference in student maturity. I do mind not feeling like I’ve ever done anything really really well.

It’s not like you can get everything perfect in every lesson in every class throughout a whole year. So I keep notes of what worked and what didn’t, and I make plans to bend and stretch, tweak and toss things the following year. I am rarely satisfied and always looking for improvement  I’ve just never had the chance to practice my new and improved plans.

Until now.

But it’s not what you are thinking.

It’s a bit daring, and I appreciate my administrators for trusting that it will work, but I am teaching all three of my preps the same lessons in the same way–almost every day. My Pre-AP English I class gets the same instruction and the same assignments as my Pre-AP English 2 classes and my AP Language and Comp classes. See, I have my own built in vertical alignment, and I can teach the same skills–sometimes a little slower, and usually with a different expected outcome–to all of my students at all three levels.

“What about the differences in the standards?” you might say.

Well, look at them. They really aren’t that different. The real differences are in the depth and the complexity of how our students show us mastery of a skill. Reading and writing is still reading and writing at any level, advanced or otherwise.

Mine is a readers/writers workshop, and students lead with choice. They choose what they want to read, and they choose what they want to write about in their assignments. I facilitate discussions around mentor texts, and they model the professionals in their writing. I talk about books that beg to be read, and they open the pages and read them.

Take for example their first major writing assignment. We’ve been studying narrative. (Please do not say, “But there is no longer a literary essay on the STAAR test.” Yes, I know.) Think about the power of story. It’s the thread that wraps us all together, the binding that prevents our civility from turning to chaos. And, oh, the relationship builder our stories become as we share our souls in our learning community! We learn to relate and empathize with people who might be vastly different than we are. We grow as individuals and as peers. Not to mention the feelings of accomplishment students have when they produce a piece from the heart and are successful at it at the beginning of the year. Every literary device we want students to know, understand, and use can be modeled in narrative mentors. Every literary device we want students to be able to produce and analyze for AP English exams can be taught in a narrative unit. Why would we jump right into rhetorical or literary analysis, when we can get so much growth from passionate personal essays?

I know it’s early in the year, and I haven’t been trying this approach out for too long. I get that my high hopes might deflate and plop right on my desktop. But right now, my students are engaged. They are reaching to meet my expectations. They are thinking. And that’s what I really want.

If I can get my students to think–well, that is my personal definition of rigor. And isn’t that what an advanced class is supposed to be?

So about practicing and improving my plans? This year I get to do that every single day while the learning is happening instead of my reflection afterward. It’s kind of like Goldilocks and the Three Bears, except better. My students get to taste a rich and authentic approach to learning, and I get to differentiate depending on their individual needs: too hot or too cold until I get it just right.

Websofsubstance.com by Harry Webb

I spoke to a good friend this morning. She, too, has three preps, and she’s trying to streamline. She and I share the same perfectionist tendencies, and planning and planning and planning to come up with the “just right” instruction for all three levels is exhausting. There has to be a better way.

I’m pretty sure I’ve found it.

What do you think of using the readers/writers workshop model to teach all levels the same skills in the same way at pretty much the same pace?

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