Tag Archives: Assessment

5 Non-Negotiables When Designing Writing Instruction


First draft of a unit plan in my notebook

I plan my units of instruction in three-week chunks, alternating between a reading-focused unit and a writing-focused unit.  In every unit, and in every class period, I keep some routines the same, much like Amy describes here.  While I do most of the big thinking about a unit up front, I do leave some holes in the plans to make space for mini-lessons that are responsive to what I discover students need during our conferences.  And every year, I design brand new units.

While each unit is unique, I was reminded while at the NCTE Annual Convention of five non-negotiables to keep in mind when designing writing instruction.

Writing should be low-stakes.  Students need to write a lot, and a lot of that writing should be ungraded, unread, or worth very few points.  I have felt liberated in terms of grading writing since I read Kelly Gallagher’s research-based statement that students should be reading and writing four times as much as a teacher could ever grade.

I think, since I embraced that philosophy, that my students also feel liberated.  Their notebooks are a “safe place for regular, ungraded practice,” as Penny Kittle described in her Ignite session.  While we write in our notebooks every day, and outside of class in one-pagers, I only collect notebooks every two weeks, and only carefully read and respond to one or two pieces my students have marked.  Indeed, 80% of the writing we do stays in our notebooks and never makes it to ‘published’ form.  This takes the pressure off writers to produce something perfect or error-free, because “our classrooms need to be a safe place to fail,” in the words of Taylor Mali.


The first two weeks of Kelly Gallagher’s unit plan–week three is filled with revision and getting to best draft #3 at the ‘deep end’

Teaching writing is complex, layered, and nuanced.  In her session on revision, Georgia Heard shared the five things all students need in order to make authentic revision happen:  “opportunities for students to write, mini-lessons on craft and revision, choice in topics, mentor texts, one-on-one conferences with both teachers and students.”  Kelly Gallagher’s unit plan he walked us through adhered to those rules remarkably well.  “Assigning writing and teaching writing are two different things.  Grading writing and assessing writing are two different things,” he reminded us.  It is impossible for students to produce great writing if it is merely assigned.  Thus, when I plan a unit of writing instruction, I leave ample time for craft mini-lessons, modeling my own writing, and talk amongst students and myself.

When teachers are writers ourselves, and experience the process of topic choice, revision, and studying craft moves beside our students, we can become the most effective teachers of writing.  We have to walk the talk.  “Great, effective teachers must be informed AND inspired,” Kwame Alexander asserted.  To be a truly informed teacher of writing, a teacher must be a writer herself. I learned more about writing a strong narrative while participating in NaNoWriMo alongside my students than I ever did just trying to teach fiction before I wrote fiction.  I loved the experience six years ago during my first attempt, and I’ve continued to complete all assignments beside my students ever since.  When we write with our students, inspiration will spread through “the contagion of passion,” in Penny Kittle’s words.

Writing should be personal.  While I love to write about reading, and find it valuable for students to do so often, most of the writing in my classroom is personalized, choice-driven, and often remains private.  When we do a nonfiction writing unit, like the rhetorical analysis we’re in the midst of right now, our written products are focused on the students’ relationships to the texts they’re analyzing–in this case, the misleading rhetoric often found in American politics.  Mostly we write narratives, even in the midst of nonfiction, telling the stories of our connections to the topics we discuss in informative or argumentative genres.

“You can write yourself out of dark places. How much of the writing we do in school nurtures that?” Gary Anderson wondered in his session on reflection.  We have to honor the fact that students are not inherently motivated to write for their futures–for college, job applications, or resumes–but rather they are motivated to write for the here and now, and for themselves.  This is why choice is, and will remain, at the center of my writing instruction.

How do you design writing instruction?  Share your process in the comments!

Fitting Self-Assessments into Competency Based Grading

fotolia-33988899-xs-photogalleryThis year my school shifted to competency based grading.  For those unfamiliar with this, grading is centered on students’ mastery of the Common Core competencies.  While I have found it differs from state to state, our school has integrated competency based grading by requiring all classes to follow a grading percentage of 80 percent summative assessments and 20 percent formative assessments.  In addition, students are allowed to retake summative assessments as many times as they would like assuming they initially approached the assessments having prepared with good effort.

For me, as an English teacher, this process of retakes and revisions isn’t new.  That being said, the idea of 80 percent of my students’ grades being summative assessments is most certainly a shift.  In the past, while their final product has always served as a large portion of their grade (over 50 percent), it hasn’t counted quite as much as it does now.

I value formative assessments; I cherish the time my students spend cracking apart texts, mimicking authors’ craft, and simply reading.  For many of us, high school was a formative experience.  The time we spent exploring who we were paid off long term, yet competency-based grading values the final product more than the process.

To a degree, I take fault with this.  I understand that once students enter the workplace they are assessed based on their final products.  In the same breath, I also believe that high school must provide a platform for students to explore their interests in a safe and supportive environment that values process.  My life has largely looked like the reverse of my gradebook—80 percent of my time is spent reading, writing, brainstorming, drafting, discussing, and working, while maybe 20 percent of it is actually publishing, sharing, or posting my work.  I learned this process in high school.

Because summative assessments count for so much this year, I hate (even more than usual) applying a specific number to my students’ work.  In turn, to compensate for this competency based grading, I ask my students to assess themselves.

Every time my students hand in a paper or summative assessment like a notebook check, they grade themselves, writing a brief “metacognition analysis” in which they explain their writing, thought process, and reasoning.  In turn, instead of being blind sided by my grades, they have a say in how and even whether or not they met the competencies of the assignment.  Typically, they’re spot on with their grading.

FullSizeRenderNicole wrote, “I think my essay deserves that grade because I worked really hard on it.  I ended up printing it 4 times because every time I printed it I would self edit and have someone else edit it so that it came out just how I wanted it.  Just like always, I put a lot of my personality and voice into this piece.  I wanted people to laugh when they read it.  I added lots of detail about tiny situations and background.”

Ryan, had a similar assessment, “I think I did well with my development of ideas/organization and cohesion, and my ending.  I was proud of all of my writing because I thought it was one of the best things I’ve written.”

Ultimately students are also willing to honestly discuss their shortcomings.  Maddie targeted areas she hoped to improve in future pieces: “I feel I did well but could’ve been better.  I struggled with creating sensory details, but I feel I wrote this piece pretty well.  I would like to try and make this story more vivid, putting the reader in my position.” 

While I’m still addressing these changes and gauging my own understanding of competency based grading, self-assessments are the single most important change I’ve made in my classroom this year.  After I’m done reading rubrics, circling boxes, and checking off competencies, their voice is the resounding voice I hear.

Do you have competency based grading in your school?  Have you shifted to the 80:20 grading system? What changes have you made to better meet the needs of your students?

Studying Vocabulary Through Choice Reading

IMG_2886“Reading increases one’s vocabulary,” I tell incoming freshmen every fall. But up until now, I have had little evidence to support this claim. It is true that reading exposes students to new words, but I never went out of my way to help students sort through these new words.

Instead, as a junior English teacher, I regularly taught SAT vocabulary as part of my Advanced Composition curriculum. Students completed chapters from the Sadlier-Oxford Vocabulary Workshop books and took quizzes every other week. While some students relished the challenge, many saw little relevance to their own lives, retaining few words by the end of the year.

In turn, this year I have turned from my well-worn Sadlier Oxford books and have instead had students reference their independent reading books for new words. Students develop their own lists of eight words every other week. My goal in doing this is not only to have students slow down their reading, but to also expose them to diction and complexity within their independent books. Once again, like many of the mini-lessons within the workshop classroom, this practice also turns into a lesson on craft and intention within a writer’s work.

Too often students skim over large words, failing to activate context clues and prior knowledge to help them draw out meaning. By creating vocabulary lists, students must practice these skills while also recording definitions, synonyms, passages, and parts of speech.

The benefit is twofold: students have a say in their vocabulary and immediately see both the relevance and payoff of understanding a new word. At the same time, having independent vocabulary lists eliminates cheating and encourages independence. Instead of worrying about students’ wandering eyes during quizzes, I spend time helping students understand the words they have picked. In addition, independent vocabulary lists provide insight into students’ reading levels and comprehension. I have learned more about my students’ reading lives simply by becoming aware of the words they find challenging.

Every other week, students complete a summative assessment that helps gauge their understanding of their eight vocabulary words. Two weeks ago I had students complete “Rock and Roll Vocabulary,” an activity that requires students to roll dice and answer questions about their vocabulary corresponding to specific numbers. This week students will complete a grid about various words.

While I am still new to this vocabulary approach, I feel confident in my students’ choices. Oftentimes I have seen the typical “SAT words” pop up in multiple lists, reinforcing that students will indeed choose challenging vocabulary. The process is far from perfect, and my students and I are still ironing out some of the flaws. Some students intentionally pick easy words, but the next assessment will require them to rank the difficulty of their words. In addition, I allow retakes of vocabulary summative assessments considering students made a “good faith effort” according to our school’s retake policy. Finally, not all independent books offer complex language, which can be a struggle for students who love the content yet can’t seem to find their eight or so words. In those instances, students may pull from in-class readings, articles, and textbooks. If they still struggle, I have books of SAT vocabulary they may choose from instead.

While this method of teaching is somewhat nontraditional, it provides students with continued say in their education. Not only are they empowered by their newfound words, but also by the end, I hope my students will see that reading truly does increase one’s vocabulary.

Mini-Lesson Monday: Self-Monitoring Reading Homework

It’s the fourth week of school, and some students are starting to panic as their weekly reading homework grades are showing up in our online gradebook.  When they come to me, concerned, I ask, “Have you been doing your reading homework?”

Sheepish grins, embarrassed blushes, and nervous giggles follow.  I know I need to give my students some tangible reminder of why they need to be reading two hours per week.

Objectives — Using the language of the Depth of Knowledge Levels:  Calculate how much you can read in two hours; Estimate how your reading rate will change over a two-hour time period; Assess your own reading fluency and growth.  Or, from the Common Core: Read and comprehend complex literary and informational texts independently and proficiently.


Shailyn, Justin, and Mrs. Karnes’ paint strip bookmarks

Lesson — We begin class, as always, with independent reading.  I ask students to pay attention to what page they’re starting on and start a timer for 15 minutes on the board.

At the end of the 15-minute reading period, I ask students to count the number of pages read and multiply that number by eight to calculate their reading rate.  They complete their calculations and jot down their reading rates as I pass out paint strips and Sharpies.

“Today I want to remind one another about the importance of frequent reading.  We can’t become better readers without lots of practice reading, which is why your weekly homework is to read for two hours.  So, we’re going to make some bookmarks reminding us why we read, and also reminding us how much we should be reading.”

I ask students to take out their phones and look up a quote about reading.  Once we all choose quotes, I model on the document camera, writing my chosen quote on my own paint strip.  Students grab some Sharpies and a paint strip in their favorite color and doodle their quotes on their paint strip bookmarks.


Students modify their reading rates in the Reading Rate column

“Once you’ve gotten your quote down, add your reading rate to your paint strip, nice and small.  You’ll want to change your reading rate whenever you switch books, and you’ll also want to note your new reading rates on the log sheet as it goes around each day.”

Then, I ask students to think about what might happen to their reading rates over time.  Jared predicts, “I think if I sit down for a solid two hours and read, I might read more than my reading rate.  When I really get going I can read pretty fast.”  Shailyn predicts, “My reading rate will increase…majorly!”

“What about if you read a harder book?” I ask.

“Um, I think I’d probably start out slow at the beginning, but as I get into the book, I’ll read it faster,” Shailyn adds.

“Awesome,” I say.  “We’ll have to see what happens.  So, as you use your bookmarks in the coming weeks, keep an eye on how your reading rate changes week to week, and how quickly or slowly you read your required number of pages.  I’ll check in with you in reading conferences soon.”

Follow-Up — Now that students have a tangible reminder of their reading homework to use as a bookmark, they can hold themselves more accountable.  The quotes give them a rationale for reading, and the written reading rates give them a reminder of their reading goals.  By self-monitoring both, students can assess their own reading progress far better than I can, and we’ll confer about that self-assessment during class for weeks to come.

Mini-lesson Monday: Student Writing as Our Mentors for Sentences

I read Learning by Teaching by Donald Murray this summer, and I finally understand the importance of using student writing as the main text in my writing class. While I’ve believed students can learn from

I lurked on this chat. Many positive examples of learning from student writing.

I lurked on this chat. Many positive examples of learning from student writing.

reading one another’s work, and I’ve often asked them to read and give feedback — on drafts and published pieces — I’ve never thought to actually use the text to teach a concept. I don’t know why. I supposed I’ve always relied on mentor texts by The Pros for that.

I am changing my tune. Here’s a bit of a lesson that worked better than I could have imagined.

Objectives:  Using the language of the Depth of Knowledge levels, students will write about their lives, and share their writing. They will recognize a wide variety of sentence structures. They will identify patterns, devices, and/or figurative language and discuss its effectiveness in creating meaning. They will revise their writing, formulate their own sentences, and apply their understanding to future writing assignments.

Lesson: Project the image, and ask students to write in their writer’s notebooks one sentence that answers the question. Remind them about what they know about various sentence structures and how punctuation works within a sentence.

“We can pack a sentence with a lot of information if we punctuate it correctly. Pay attention and see how you do. You can write any sentence, but try to not write a simple one.”

Give students about five minutes to write.

Next, ask for a couple of volunteers who are willing to write their sentences on the board. Be sure they understand that there is no judgment.

“We just want to talk about sentences.”

While two or three students write their sentences on the board, ask the other students in the class to read their sentences to each other.

one sentence

One at a time, read the student sentences on the board. Ask:  “What do you notice?”

Ethan sentenceTalk through the various comments students make, noting parallels, punctuation, clauses, word choice, etc.

Watch for teaching points. Ethan’s sentence on the left gave us a lot to talk about:  parallelism, use of semi-colons, colons, …

Next, ask students to return to their notebooks. “How can you make your sentence better?”

Allow time for revision (and time permitting, more sharing.)

Why this lesson works, especially for a writing lesson at the beginning of the year:  It’s just a sentence!

And sometimes we get a bonus gift like this one my class got from Edward:Edward C sentence

“I am the guy who picks people up when I, myself, am down; I am the guy who cares so much over things so little; I am the missing piece to a puzzle that has been forgotten; I am now by a sad and quiet shell of my former self; I am Edward Campos.”

The class hushed. All eyes turned to Edward.

“Wow,” I said, “Thank you for sharing this writing today. You’ve made yourself vulnerable, and we value that.

“First of all, we need to know that you are okay. Will you explain a little more what you mean here?”

Edward explained that he used to be fun and outgoing. He felt strong and powerful. Then at the end of last year and over the summer he learned his friends weren’t really his friends so much. Now, he feels alone and like he’s not the person he used to be.

“Hey, everyone, how many of you have ever felt like Edward?

“Look around, my friend, do you see all those hands? Everyone here has been where you are. We understand. You have new friends here.”

Two girls at Edward’s table leaned forward and touched his arm. “We’ll be your friends,” they said smiling.

And he smiled back.

Of course, because I am me — and I never leave a teaching moment untapped — we talked about the structure of Edward’s sentence. And we talked about the word choice:  “Why ‘forgotten’ instead of ‘lost’?”

When we watch for teaching moments in student writing, we will find them. Every single time.

Follow up:  In class the next day we did some free-writing in our notebooks in response to the spoken word poem “Hands” by Sarah Kay. Before we wrote I reminded students to pay attention to their sentences. Then instead of sharing the whole of what we wrote with the class, we only shared our favorite sentence. I consider this valuable formative assessment.

Now, I will hold students accountable for crafting their sentences with care in their upcoming writing assignment.

“The words of the world want to make sentences,” said Gaston Bachelard. I say, “We have to help them.”

Please share your best tips on getting students to pay attention to their sentences.


©Amy Rasmussen, 2011 – 2015


What I Didn’t Teach This Year

The end of the year is upon us (finally!), and I’ve been reflecting as I always do.  This year, though, I’m thinking about something I’ve rarely considered before–not just what I taught, what worked, or what I want to do next year.  I’m thinking about all the things I didn’t teach this year.

There are 180 precious days in a school year, and the way my school is structured means I spend 90 days with each set of students.  That seems so fast.  There was no time to waste, so here’s what I didn’t fill that time with:


As Sabra stepped up for her reading ladder picture, she said, “This is pretty good for someone who didn’t finish a book until your class!”

Whole class novels.  This was a controversial choice for me, given that I love so many authors of American literature–Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, Nathaniel Hawthorne, etc.  But, no matter what novels I’ve chosen in the past, there’s always a student that book isn’t right for.  Fahrenheit 451, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian, The Glass Castle, Maus–none of them is a perfect match for every child.  I’ve used a wide variety of strategies to get students to be able to read those books, and every ounce of passion I can muster to get them to want to read those books, but still–students have been conditioned to not read, to just get on SparkNotes, or ask an older sibling, or use Wikipedia.  When the stacks of matching novels come out, groans abound and engagement tangibly disappears.  I’ve seen this.  I’ve battled it.  No more.

So, I scratched whole class novels altogether.  Students worked in book club groups twice, and engaged in independent reading challenges two other times.  We read tons of short stories, articles, essays, and middle-length writings together.  But we didn’t read a single whole-class novel, and my readers still thrived.


“I found myself as a reader this year,” Jordan writes.

Did my students grow as readers this year?  Yes.  I watched students who hated reading come to love it.  I watched students who couldn’t read well at all increase their stamina, passion, and skills related to reading.  I watched students who were good readers but bored with books fall in love with nonfiction, poetry, graphic novels, or award winners as they discovered new genres.  I watched students who loved to read flourish and challenge themselves with complex texts and childhood favorites alike.  Most of all, I watched a community of real readers spring up in my classroom–students recommending books to one another, self-selecting books and keeping long to-read lists, telling me all about their finds at Barnes & Noble.  These readers have become truly independent.  “Now,” Taylor writes, “I think I can read anything that’s put in front of me…and enjoy it.”


Isaac performs a poem for Nathan on poem-in-your-pocket day.

A movie.  As I’ve walked the halls this last week or so, I hear the unmistakeable sounds of cinema from behind closed classroom doors and darkened rooms.  I have no doubt that students are watching relevant films–movie adaptations of Romeo and Juliet in English, Forrest Gump in History, etc.  But this year, I felt I had absolutely no extra time…there was SO MUCH I wanted to do!  I used to love showing O Brother Where Art Thou with The Odyssey, and my students really delved into the symbolism of both texts.  But this year, my SmartBoard was full of YouTube videos, slam poets, or the still, quiet images of a document camera showing some writing.

I didn’t have time to show a movie, but I also wasn’t pressured by the crush of hours of grading that usually prompted me to show films in the past.  I’ve taken Kelly Gallagher’s rule about student work to heart–students should be doing four times as much reading and writing as we could ever grade.  So, I’ve read and responded to about a quarter of my students’ work, and let self-evaluations, peer conferences, and notebook passes do the rest.

Most of what I taught last year.  Last year was great, don’t get me wrong–but this year, my students were a new batch.  They’re different kids than last year’s group, so the same things won’t work for them.  After seven years in teaching, I know that.  I didn’t waste time trying to figure that out…I just started fresh.  I know I’ll do the same thing next year…out with the old, and in with the new.


Shailyn read almost all of my YA fiction, and wrote reviews about nearly every book for our school newspaper.

Tests or formal essays.  Tom Romano likes to call the typical English essay a “five-paragraph you-know-what,” and it truly is a dirty little assignment.  At an NWP workshop I attended, each teacher was asked to bring some samples of student writing.  All around me emerged typed, double-spaced, Times New Roman, size 12, thesis-at-the-end-of-the-first-paragraph essays.  From my own bag came photocopies of messy scrawls in notebooks, multimedia This I Believes, strongly-voiced commentaries, poetic musings developed from quickwrites, and lengthy, involved, multigenre research papers.  No two pieces looked alike, and they certainly looked nothing like most other teachers’ samples.

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel a faint nostalgia for my own high school days, when I took pride in being able to punch out a perfectly formatted five paragraph essay in just under an hour, and which made absolutely no sense but looked great, and which constantly netted me As.  But I listened to my neighbors rant about poorly integrated in-text citations and incoherent thesis statements, I dismissed that nostalgia and read my own students’ work for what truly matters–good writing, heart and soul on a page, and authenticity at work.  As my husband said when he saw me dwarfed behind a pile of multigenre papers to grade, “I could read some of those for you.” “You wouldn’t know what to look for,” I said.

“Good writing is just good writing,” he replied, and he is right.  As the year ends, my students are good writers and good readers–not all of them are great, and there are kids I feel I could’ve pushed harder, but all are certainly better than they were when the year began.  I’ll look forward to our last day of class, when I’ll gift them each a new composition notebook and a pile of classroom library books to read over summer…and to months beyond, when I get to hear their stories of summer literacy in the fall.

Book Clubs in AP English: Just let them talk

Some of it was great. Some of it not so much. I’m talking about the book clubs in my classroom this Screen Shot 2015-05-02 at 5.42.03 PMyear. The great was actually my students reading and talking to one another about that reading. The not so much — the way I did assessment.

This is what I learned and what I will change for next year:

Book Clubs serve as a way to challenge my readers into the more complex books that many of my students would never choose for themselves. Book Clubs also allow my readers to talk about books in an authentic way without the strictures of guided reading questions or anything else that might lead to Readicide. (‘Read-i-cide: noun, the systematic killing of the love of reading, often exacerbated by the inane, mind-numbing practices found in schools” –Kelly Gallagher) I wrote about the importance of balance literacy and how book clubs fit into that in this post.

I provide a short list of titles that I know contain fantastic stories of resilience, survival, hope, courage, and any other trait that prods readers to relate to the human experience. I introduce the books, usually with book trailers or video interviews of the author’s, and I include either on paper or a projected slide the synopsis and ratings from Goodreads or Amazon.

Students select their books, often talking with one another and making selections together. I ask students to purchase their own books, so they can annotate anything “interesting, intriguing, puzzling, contradictory, or you just plain do not understand.” Since most of my students come from less affluent families, we talk about the importance of libraries and surrounding ourselves with texts that can inform and influence our thinking. Often, students will purchase more than one of the books I introduce for book clubs. I also have a few copies of the texts in my room that students may check out if they cannot purchase their own. I always think my copies will be used more than they are, but I’ve learned that my readers like to buy books. Most feel the sense of ownership that I want them to feel.

Our first book club this year, I gave students a choice of the following titles, all centered around themes of family and parents and how they influence our upbringing and our choices:

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safron Foer

Swamplandia by Karen Russell

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time by Mark Haddon

Girlchild by Tupelo Hassman

The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls (literary non-fiction)

More students read The Glass Castle than any of the others, but every book was represented in at least one book club of three to six students. Students loved The Glass Castle, and they told me that they could relate to much of Walls’ upbringing.

Screen Shot 2015-05-02 at 5.42.19 PMAssessment:  For this first book club, I asked students to read with an eye looking for theme. They would work with their book clubs to craft a mind map that included numerous quotes from the book that contributed to the theme, and they would analyze these quotes as part of the mind map. They could create the mind map as a paper poster or online. As they read the book, they were to mark the text like I had taught with the short passages of text we’d read together in class, and they were to also look for sentences and phrases and passage that pointed to theme.

My students did not have a clue how to do that. Most did not mark their books, so when the project time rolled around, they ended up scouring through the book or searching for quotes on Goodreads or elsewhere to find enough quotes that they could plop into their mind maps. I needed to provide more guidance in annotating, and in reading for beautiful sentences, and in making thematic connections, and so much more.

Also, I allowed students to work in groups to create their mind maps. This did not work because no one in the group would rise up and be the leader. They were new in the class and new in their friendships with one another. Group work is a topic for another post, really. This time it failed, and I’ll need to do a lot more prep work before I spend as much class time on this kind of project ever again (if I ever do).

Our second book club, students choice a title from this short list, all centered around themes of culture and how these cultures influence us:

The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri

Little Bee by Chris Cleeve

Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Klaled Hosseini

More readers chose Sarah’s Key than any of the others. Students find stories of the Holocaust fascinating, and that shelf is a popular one in my classroom library. (Erika’s, too.)  Many students read The Namesake, and at least one book club read each of the others.

Assessment:  This one was even more lame than the first. Sometimes I feel the pull to get back to a Screen Shot 2015-05-02 at 5.42.33 PMmore traditional pedagogy. I am the only one on my campus who fully implements readers and writers workshop, so I listen in often to what other teachers have their students do. If you teach AP English, at some point, you have probably had students write a hexagonal writing over a piece of literature. (Hexagonal because student write thinking about their knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation as it relates to the book. It sounds like a great assignment.)

It was the worst writing my students completed this year — if they completed it at all.

I know why. There was no authenticity in it. Follow the structure I gave you. Each paragraph should be about this… No wonder they didn’t care about writing well. I was their only audience, and I was making them write something worse than a book report.

We wasted a lot of time. (The grading policy in my district requires that I reassess major grades. Hey, let’s write this paper again since you cared so much about it the first time. Right.)

Screen Shot 2015-05-02 at 5.42.45 PMMy readers would have benefitted more from a gift of time to talk about the books more. Shana posted about the value of book clubs for talk earlier this year, and after two subpar experiences I began to agree:  “asking students to keep the conversation [about their books] going for 20 straight minutes provides valuable time for students to build relationships [around conversations about their reading.]”

I would just let them talk.

Our third book club students selected titles from this short list, all centered on war (or internal war) and its influences on individuals and humanity:

The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers

Room by Emma Donoghue

Where Men Win Glory by Jon Krakauer (literary non-fiction)

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien

The majority of my readers chose to read ROOM or The Bell Jar. They loved Room, and didn’t think The Bell Jar lived up to its hype.

I scheduled more opportunities for students to talk about their books. I wandered the room, sitting at Screen Shot 2015-05-02 at 5.42.57 PMgroups and listening in as conversations circled in and out and back again. Often, I placed a stack of TableTopic cards for book clubs in the center of their table, and students used these to guide their discussions. (Looks like the book clubs version of TableTopics is no longer available. Sad.)

Next year, I will do this again. I might ask students to look for significant passages so they can practice analysis on a page they select for themselves. Here’s a post that I’ll probably show them with a sample passage for craft study.

I might have them create a found poem or a black out poem.

Or I might just let them read and talk and read and talk some more.

That’s what I do in my own book club.


If you have your own suggestions for improvement, please share them in the comments.


©Amy Rasmussen, 2011 – 2015

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