Tag Archives: AP English Writers workshop

#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?

The Best Lesson Series: What Makes a Work of Literature?

NTCE Affiliate Breakfast with Shanna Peeples, 2015 National Teacher of the Year

A few weeks ago I read this post by Shanna Peebles, the 2015 National Teacher of the Year, “Building Bridges with Visual Literacy.” She writes about her lesson in the book The Best Lesson Series, a book in which I also contributed a favorite lesson. Shana includes the background of her lesson, an experience and a realization she had when she began working with refugee students many years ago.

Reading Shana’s blog, I reflected on my own refugee students. Mine come from Myanmar, most having walked through Thailand at night holding the hands of younger siblings while moving toward their fathers who left their villages months before to secure passage for their families. These children grew up fast and they hope for much. They study hard because they know the value of education.

They represent the reason that I teach literacy: It is through literacy that we gain power.

The way to grow as literate individuals is to read. I’ve heard my mentors say it again and again: “The only way to develop readers is to get them reading” and “The only way to learn to read is to, well, read.”

Of course, the same holds true for writing.

The lesson I contributed to The Best Lesson Series pertains to both. Here’s the background of my lesson:

I am not one of those readers who jumps to the last few pages to read how a book ends before I have ever started it. I do not understand those people. At all. I like to savor a good book, take it slow — sip the beauty as I breathe in the language, sigh with pleasure as I see how the words work to shape meaning. Or, I like to devour a book in one sitting, curled up on the couch, holding my breath and gasping for more. So, it’s a little surprising that I pulled the last paragraph of a book to use as a craft study.

I promise it gives nothing away. I also promise:  You may just shudder at the loveliness of the language like I do. Or not. Seems some critics panned The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt while others raved about its uniqueness and style (See the Vanity Fair article “It’s Tartt, But Is It Art?. Of course, critics cannot seem to agree on what makes a text literature either. (See the Harper’s Magazine article “What Is Literature? In Defense of the Canon”.)

The author of the article about Tartt’s work poses the same question I ask my students to ponder each year:  What makes a work of literature, and who gets to decide?

Since mine is a workshop classroom where our primary focus is writing, students choose the books they read. That is not to say we do not read high-quality complex literature or read literature as a whole class. We read many passages together and learn skills that students then apply to their independent reading and the novels they discuss in book clubs four times a year.

My goal with books is to develop readers, and too many of my students did not read when I made all the decisions about their reading. However, many of my students do not know how to choose books they might enjoy or books with enough complexity to challenge their thinking. The drive to fulfill my goal to develop readers becomes multifaceted. Allowing choice means I must constantly be on the lookout for richly written passages that we can study, and I must read volumes of high-quality literature, YA and adult alike, so that I may match my adolescent readers with good books.

I love the last paragraph of The Goldfinch because I can use it for several learning opportunities. This short passage can teach us much about what makes a work of literature. I agree with researcher and reading theorist Louise Rosenblatt:  “Students need to be helped to have personally satisfying and personally meaningful transactions with literature. Then they will develop the habit of turning to literature for the pleasures and insights it offers.”

And that’s the whole point, isn’t it?  We help our students love literature so they learn from it as we do.

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It’s an honor to be a part of this work. I am surrounded by inspiring educators with intriguing and thought-provoking ideas, and I hope you will consider adding this title to your professional library so you will be surrounded, too.

Teachers sharing with teachers what works. That’s the best pd I know.

benefits of best lesson series

 

 

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