Tag Archives: classroom culture

Co-creating Workshop-Based Units to Personalize Them

As my school district began to anchor itself in the world of personalized learning, I quickly realized that this was a nice fit for the workshop model since both valued voice and choice and both operated on a student-driven framework. One of the aspects of personalized learning that really appealed to me was the idea of students actually generating the learning topics, tasks, and assessments. It seemed like it was helping accomplish a key workshop goal, which is ownership. So as this school year began I resolved to give it a shot–I wanted to build the year in such a way that it was workshop-based but so that it also allowed for personalization through the co-creation of our units.

Getting started

To do that, I used a resource our district provided called “Orchestrating the Move to Personalized Learning” in which Allison Zmuda and Bena Kallick outline 7 areas that teachers can begin the shift to student ownership. They give practical examples of what co-creating looks like at different stages with the goal of moving from teacher-driven to student-driven learning. At a workshop this summer Zmuda pointed us to a couple of other practical co-creating resources, like this play-by-play for co-creating curriculum with students by Sam Nelson (video version here). In short, the progression through the standards stays the same (this is my background work) while there is flexibility in the content or how students access the standards.

How we’re trying to do it

This is a rough outline of the process we have followed in my junior level English III classes this semester to build our workshop units together:

  • Select the semester’s topics: At the beginning of the year we took a day as a class to give input and feedback about potential topics for the school year. I narrowed our list to 10 and students voted on three first semester units. They chose Friday night lights, school shootings, and perfectionism. Below left is what they saw; below right is part of the results.
  • Build the unit’s essential questions: We began each unit by generating the essential questions–what we would study.  I used a resource from Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe to help students understand the traits of good essential questions, then we used the PEM (philosophical, ethical, and moral) framework to build questions. Students did this in teams, then submitted their questions to me. I organized by combining like questions and eliminating stray or non-essential questions. We used these questions to guide our reading and writing times and to design the final tasks and discussions (including the Unit 2 Socratic seminar, comprised entirely of their questions). You can see what they built for Unit 2 and Unit 3
  • Choose a reading pathway: For the violence unit (Unit 3) I gave them a list comprised of my recs and their recs. They could choose beyond the list with prior approval. Having many reading pathways allows the unit to be personalized and allows reading workshop to keep the class discussions centered on skills rather than plot events. I also like that they can have choice but still participate in ongoing thematic discussions. Some chose books based on the unit’s essential questions, and some chose the book and then worked to determine which questions matched up to their book. Some chose academic non-fiction and some chose young adult novels. Students also set their own reading schedules based on a series of 3-4 deadlines.
  • Define the learning goals/outcomes: At this point in the year I am still doing most of this work. I envisioned students designing ways to demonstrate their learning and understanding, but there are so many moving pieces right now that I decided to find ways to give them some managed choice. They have set some independent goals for reading and writing, but I have controlled the end tasks (informal reading check-ins, design challenges, and seminars) with a goal of finding ways to bring their workshop reading into some meaningful collaborative discussion.
Unit 3 seminar discussions

Takeaway

As we are beginning the final push to finish this semester, I’ve been really encouraged by the learning experiences we’ve had and I think it’s because of the investment in personalizing the course’s structure. In the past my focus was on helping students to read tough material (Emerson, Thoreau, etc.) that I had selected or to discuss open-ended questions I had designed. Now, students are digging into the nuances of research on gun violence in a much more organic way. Because they had generated the topic, chosen the book, and generated the questions, our Socratic seminar was really authentic and full of meaningful dialogue. It’s far from perfect, but I’m excited about the effects of the small shifts in ownership that we’re making.

Nathan Coates teaches junior English at Mason High School, a large suburban district near Cincinnati, Ohio. He’s currently learning to be a good passenger while his baby girl learns to drive. Follow Nathan @MHSCoates

Guest Post: A Houston Teacher’s Heart

What do you do when a hurricane slams you in the face after four days of school?Clear Creek ISD June 2017 (1)

This was the best first 4 days of school I’d ever had. Tuesday saw us independent reading with self-selected books for the first 10 minutes of class. A habit we will cherish through June. We were moving in and out of our notebooks by Wednesday. Groups were discussing and reporting their thoughts back to the whole class. A community was rising in all four of my senior English classes. My inclusion para-professional and I had worked through the mountain of paperwork and conferred about this student and that one. I had plans to video a class for a whole week to use for who knows what. Who could believe that senior English students could move so far so fast. Our potential was limitless.

My district sent out a message Thursday evening that school would be cancelled on Friday. Some coaches met up at school that evening to stow away hurdles, high jump mats, and benches. We lamented our missed football scrimmage and wondered when we would resume school.

The hurricane projections said it would hit hundreds of miles away and would only be a category 3. We knew the “dirty side” of a hurricane was not a fun place to live, but a few days of rain and maybe a little wind was all I mentally prepared for.

Friday, I went to school to grab my laptop and a couple of teacher books so I could finish my lesson plans, review the game plan for next week’s game against Pearland, and whatever else needed attention. Having been through hurricanes and heavy rain before, I thought maybe we would go back to school on Tuesday at the latest.

Our football staff has a group text that is mostly silly memes and rude jokes. Now it reads like a timeline of the storm.

As I look back on the text threads, there is a definite change in tone on Friday evening when the rain started. We went from making fun of each other to being seriously concerned for one another. The rain fell Friday night but none of us had water in our houses or were flooded in. I even got out of the house to drive around on Saturday. I went to the grocery store for eggs and drove around a bit to see what was what. We spent the day planning for our week one football game and watched the news as the storm worked its way closer.

Saturday night was when it started getting scary. A flood, a deluge of water fell on our city. My wife and I didn’t sleep. It was one of the scariest most nerve wracking nights of my life. 15 inches of rain fell in 3 hours and we were constantly up and down watching the water levels in the street rise and making sure our flooded pool wasn’t about to merge with our kitchen. The coaches’ group chat filled with pictures of rising water and reports from all over south and west Houston. I’m sure we are all too macho to admit it, but we felt that fear collectively and it was a relief for us to know that we weren’t alone in this storm.

When the sun rose on Sunday, my house was still dry and the electricity was on. Others weren’t so lucky. Neighborhoods within a quarter mile of my house were completely flooded out and many of our students don’t have a home to go back to anymore. I’m sure you saw reports on TV of water rescues happening in League City. Those are our kids. I see those families at parent night and sub varsity football games. We shop at the same grocery store and order pizza from the same place. My twitter feed filled with images from our community of families who were rescued in boats and won’t see their houses for weeks.flood

Despite the destruction we endured this weekend, I can’t help but think toward the future. It will take some time, but the flood waters will abate and the roads will clear. At some point, we will reopen our schools. We will ask the students and teachers to come back and the process of building will resume.

Even those whose houses didn’t flood will bear the scars of this terrifying natural disaster. And those whose houses did flood will be consumed by it.

Where will that process even begin? What will I say to them? What can I reasonably expect them to produce?

I have no idea how to answer most of these questions. All I know is that I’m going to tell them that I love them over and over. My classroom will be a refuge from the aftermath of the storms. We can be safe together. We can write about our pain and share our fears. My Student Council class will work to bring some normalcy back to people’s lives whether through food drives, donations, or lending a hand to those who need it. I’m going to give my linebackers the biggest hugs they’ve ever gotten and I’m going to tell those boys, who think they are men, that I love them.

Harvey’s footprint will always be seen on this school year for these students and teachers.

Maybe we can learn about survival and community and love. I think my classroom is the perfect place for those lessons. I hope I’m up to it.

Charles Moore is the senior English team lead at Clear Springs High School in League City, TX. He enjoys leisure swimming, reading, and coaching linebackers. Follow Charles on Twitter @ctcoach

Our Day One Writing: Personal User Manuals

I’ll be honest. I’ve started this post three times. At first bemoaning why I can’t believe summer is over. Then whining that I didn’t get enough done, and finally, justifying why I can’t seem to get in a writing groove. None of it matters. I started back to school yesterday. Kids come next Monday.

I will be ready. And I’ll love it.

I’ve spent hours working on my new room. It’s almost done (I’ll post photos soon), and I classroom culturefigure if I can get my room perfect, everything else will fall into place. Misplaced priorities? Maybe, but that’s how I roll. The aesthetics in my classroom matter to me, and if you’ve visited (and many teachers and admin from around TX did last year), you know what I mean. Book shelves just right. Colors and furnishings that invite. Places to chart skills taught and showcase students’ thinking. All of this matters to the culture I work hard to cultivate in my classroom.

And while I’ve worked, I’ve thought about the students whose names rest on my rosters. Who are they as readers and writers? Who are they as individuals with needs and wants and passions? How can I help them know of their potential and of the possibilities that await them not just this year but beyond?

I’m teaching seniors for the first time this fall. Since my school is on an accelerated block schedule, I will have these students for one semester. Just one. One semester at the end of their high school experience. One semester to create a community, build a culture, bridge gaps, shape literacy identities as individuals about to face the big wide world — hopefully as citizens unafraid to face their fears, and the frightening things in our society.

One semester to read and write and think — together. One semester with a dream for a lifetime.

I’ve read a lot about the importance of building community lately, and I’ve talked a lot about the first day of school in most of the pd I’ve facilitated. I used to think, especially with my AP Lang classes, I had to knock ’em dead with my syllabus the first day, list my expectations, explain my grading policy, discuss my plan for how and what they would learn. Scare them into understanding the complexities of my AP class. I blew a lot of opportunities over the years. That “my” got in the way a lot.

How can it be “our” learning community if I am the one laying out all the learning plans? If I am the only one talking about what the learning must look like?

I wrote this post Talking about the First Day of School in 2015. Funny because I’m in the same canoe this year, wondering about how I will welcome students on Day One. The last thing I want is to ignite the fear, flight, freeze response, which so often happens with that same ole same ole flood of student expectations. Students are already experiencing high levels of stress the first day of school. I do not want to accelerate it

I’ve thought about reading the poem “Possibilities” by Wislawa Szymorzska. I wrote about how my students and I used this poem to begin our understanding of rhetorical analysis last year. I’ll do that again, but it’s probably better as a week two activity.

TeacherAuthorBio

author bio, Linda Sanchez, Wylie ISD

I’ve thought about reading author bios and asking students to write their own. Lisa and I wrote about our successes with students writing author bios last year and even modeled writing author bios with our teacher friends during pd this summer. So many talented teacher writers! Author bios are a new favorite, but they’re probably not for day one.

I’ve thought about jumping right in and setting up our writer’s notebooks. I stocked up

composition notebooks

I bought 170. The cashier at Walmart scanned them one by one.

and have one for each student ready at the bell. Now, I’m wondering if setting the notebook up is as important as just writing down some thinking on the first day of school.

Susan Barber wrote about her First Day of Class activity, and the idea of beginning with reflection resonates with me. I just don’t know about a trek to the football field — our students graduate at the UNT Coliseum miles away, and TX weather means it’s still hot hot hot. I can already hear whining. I love Susan’s idea though and want to think about this more.

I keep coming back to community. And culture.

My instruction works because of the community we build as readers, writers, listeners, and speakers. Or is it a culture we create as readers, writers, listeners, and speakers? Is it possible to have one without the other?

When Lisa was in town, we sat in my car in a parking lot and talked about this very thing. Lisa shared her wisdom: “Community is the classroom. It’s more immediate.” Mentioning her teaching before her move to workshop, she said,  “I built community to help us get through the things students didn’t like — like Huck Finn.”

Interesting. So community is good — sharing likes, dislikes, working toward a common goal, getting along, respecting one another.

We talked about get-to-know you games, icebreakers, we’ve all used on the first day of school. Many of them good ideas for building community. Then Lisa asked: “Do we get-to-know for the get-to-know — or the value of learning who are students are as readers and writers?”

Ah, the beginnings of building a culture.

“Culture is more pervasive,” Lisa said, “A culture of learning in an English class values reading, writing, talking, and thinking that goes on — that has demands beyond the classroom.”

And now I’m wondering:  On the first day of school, how do I build a community that begins creating a culture, a culture that validates, shapes, and inspires my students’ identities as thinkers, readers, writers, citizens, and humans that goes beyond the classroom?

Not an easy feat. But maybe there’s an easy start.

I don’t know why I clicked on this headline, but I think I’ve found my first day of school: “Completing this 30 minutes exercise makes teams less anxious and more productive.”

I think we will write personal user manuals. It’s a task business leaders are using to help

user_guide

I’d like a better name than “user.” Any ideas?

their teams work better. Why not try it in the classroom?

The article states, “The user manual aims to help people learn to adapt to one another by offering an explicit description of one’s personal values and how one works best with others. This shortens the learning curve for new employees, and helps everyone avoid misunderstandings.” Since student talk and collaboration is central to my instruction, I think writing one-page user manuals about ourselves might put us on the fast track to better communication and the culture that fosters better learning.

Abby Falik, founder and CEO of Global Citizen Year, states: “My User Manual is one of the ways I practice leading out loud. It’s a living document that describes my innate wiring and my growing edge, while putting it out to the world that I know I am – and aim to always be — a work-in-progress.” And the article includes the structure Abby used to write her manual and a link to the manual itself. Mentor text, y’all!

Abby’s user manual centers around these six topics:

  1. My style
  2. What I value
  3. What I don’t have patience for
  4. How to best communicate with me
  5. How to help me
  6. What people misunderstand about me

I’m thinking of including prompts that probe other topics more specific to what I need to know about my students literacy histories — kind of like a reading/writing territory — and topics that can jump start connections and trust between students. Maybe things like:

Describe yourself as a reader.

What is your favorite book? Who is your favorite author?

Write a simile about your writing life. 

When it comes to English class, where do you feel you want to grow the most?

List ten things you like to do in your spare time.

Of all your memories, which three are the most indelible?

What five adjectives describe your disposition?

I also like these questions I read regarding building trust in Adolescents on the Edge by Jimmy Santiago Baca and ReLeah Cossett Lent, a book I just started and am already loving for content, stories, and ideas:

Have you experienced fair treatment, either by family or by the system?

How do you express appreciation? Do you often receive appreciation for your acts?

How important is it for promises to be kept, either those made to you or those you make to others?

Do you feel that you are a part of decision making that affects your life?

Are you dependable? Do you feel others are dependable?

How do you generally resolve conflicts?

How important is truthfulness to you?

Too much? Maybe. But students will have choice in what they answer — and how. And like any time we write like this, we will talk first. Talk matters in a writing classroom.

Of course, I will write my own user manual. If I get my act together, I’ll have it ready on Day One as a way to introduce myself to my students. Hopefully, I can write it in a way that lets them know that while I am intense, passionate, and purposeful in helping them grow as readers and writers, I am also pretty vulnerable, and an introvert on a stage cast in the role of extrovert.

I’m thinking we will use our user manuals a lot. I’ll include a copy of each students’ in my conferring notebook for easy access and review when I meet with them. We’ll share with our table mates. We’ll share in our book clubs and in our writing groups. We’ll share when we do group projects or collaborate on writing.

We will use our manuals like leaders in business do because “the ability to share your thoughts and ideas openly, honestly, and without fear of judgment—has been repeatedly proven the key to innovative, happy teams. Whether you’re a manager or young employee, writing and sharing a user manual has a clear business payoff. The better a team knows one other, the easier it will be for them to navigate conflict, empathize with one another, and feel comfortable sharing, critiquing, and building upon one another’s ideas.”

What do you think? How will you (or did you, if you’ve already gone back) start building your classroom culture?

 

Amy Rasmussen is the mother of six amazing young adults, grandmother of five smart and sassy little people, and wife to a brilliant marketer, sales exec, life coach, and dog lover. She teaches readers and writers in AP Language and English IV in North TX and facilitates professional development on the workshop model of instruction at every opportunity. She loves God, her family, the U.S.A., and all humans everywhere. Follow Amy on Twitter @amyrass

 

8 Ways Listening Leads to Learning

not-listeningWe teachers often talk too much. Research on listening suggests that adults spend an average of 70% of their time engaged in some sort of communication; of this average, 45% is spent listening compared to 30% speaking, 16% reading and 9% writing. I would argue that this data does not represent teachers in the classroom. We tend to talk more than we listen.

I wonder how many of us have thought of teaching as communication.

Think about this definition of communication: “Two-way process of reaching mutual understanding, in which participants not only exchange information, news, and ideas and feelings but also create and share meaning. In general, communication is a means of connecting people or places.”

Now, think about how much richer our classroom environments could be if we planned, prepared, and presented our lessons through this lens of communication — with the goal of reaching mutual understanding, exchanging information, ideas and feelings, and creating and sharing meaning. To do so, we must listen more than we speak.

What about the time, we may ask, what about the content knowledge we must impart?

When we exchange our need to talk with our students’ vital need to have us listen, we

  1. transform our teaching by looking for ways to invite students into conversations
  2. better utilize the time we have with our students, meeting their needs in one-on-one and small group discussions
  3. deliver information in new ways, other than students listening to lectures or taking notes from slide presentations, or completing worksheets
  4. break down walls many adolescents have built against school and against authority — they know we see them as the unique individuals they are, and they respond
  5. provide opportunities for students to learn from one another so we may listen as they share with one another
  6. help students discover and take ownership of their needs, both personally and academically — talk often works as a lead into deeper thinking
  7. facilitate communication that leads students to take on the characteristics and behaviors of readers and writers — or in a biology class as scientists, or in a history class as historians.

Fostering room for more listening is the first move into creating a culture of conferring.

Does it make us vulnerable? Yes! and facing our vulnerability is where our growth as teachers takes root, taps into strategies that nurture our learners, and eventually blossoms into the instruction and learning experiences we want for all students.

How do you make room for listening in your classroom? Please share in the comments.

Amy Rasmussen lives in north Texas and teaches AP English Language and English 3 to the Fighting Farmers at Lewisville High School. She adheres to the words of Emerson: “We aim above the mark to hit the mark,” and Jesus Christ: “Love one another.” Imagine a world if we all love more than we think we can. Follow Amy on Twitter @amyrass.

Mini-lesson Monday: A Matter of Perspective

I am thinking about the importance of perspective. Mine and others.

To truly understand how the world works, why decisions are made, what issues matter to individuals, when things do not go our way, we have to be willing to peer into the thinking of those who think differently than we do.

Sometimes — no, most of the time, this is hard.

It is especially hard for the sixteen year olds I teach. They wear their bias like badges, and they often silence those who disagree with them with blatant disregard. I fight against this every day, but last Friday we took a few steps forward. I want us to keep moving.

Objective: Students will formulate ideas while writing from a perspective other than their own: Who? What? Where? When? Why?; draw conclusions based on observations and interactions with peers.

Lesson: First, we’ll write. Students will take out their phones and take a photo of the person sitting across from them. They will then write for ten minutes, trying to convey that person’s point of view about their future. What do they want to do after high school? Where do they see themselves in five years?

We will then share our writing and discuss how difficult it is to know another’s thinking without ever having a conversation. We will tie this thinking into the conversations we had last week about stereotypes and making judgements.

Next, we will do the Crossing the Line activity as outlined here by Vanderbilt University. Of course, I will have to change some of the questions:  Coke vs Pepsi? Pshaw. This is Texas! I will have to say Coke vs Dr. Pepper.

This activity will inspire discussions about our similarities and our differences, and the poem will allow for even more discussion, analysis, and critical thinking around a text.

Follow up:  As we move into choosing topics for our Poetic Rhetoric unit, I will remind students of the importance of investigating all sides of a topic and the importance of considering alternate points of view as they compose their poems. I did not do this last year, and this will add a critical element to their arguments. Too many of the spoken word poems I’ve listened to seem like rants against some issue instead of including a shift or two that lead toward solutions.

In times like these, we definitely need solutions.

NOTE:  Shana, Lisa, Jackie and I are presenting at #NCTE16 this week. If you will be with us in Atlanta, we’d love it if you attend our session on Sunday, Nov. 20 at 1:30 pm. Room B211 of the GA World Congress Center. I will start our presentation with more on the value of perspective and how it relates to Advancing All Students in Readers-Writers Workshop.

screen-shot-2016-11-13-at-8-48-43-pm

Talking about the First Day of School

I keep changing my mind. Students begin next Monday, and I cannot decide what we should do first.

In years past, I copied the syllabus and various other “need-to-knows,” and students sat with blank stares and asked a few meager questions as we read through them together.

“Let them know on day one how difficult AP English is,” a colleague advised me several years ago. “That’s what I do. I let them know what they are in for.”

Before I knew better, I thought that was a good idea. Be firm. Be serious. Let them know that an advanced English class would take a lot out of them. Leave ’em shaking in their Converse.

How dumb. Imagine attending a professional development session where the instructor put on this show. We’d laugh — or leave — wouldn’t we? (I would. My friends already know how difficult a time I have sitting still.)

Shouldn’t our first day of school be inviting?

Think about elementary school, how kind the teachers were, how much they wanted us to feel welcome and special, beginning on Day One. I remember Mrs. McBee (1st grade), Mrs. Nelson (2nd), Mrs. Smallwood (3rd), Miss Dallas (4th), Mrs. Holland (5th) — every one of them smiled and laughed and made me feel important on the first day of school. They set a precedent for every day to come.

I want to be that kind of warm.

One year I thought I had less chill. I prepared my room by piling high-interest books on each table, and after a brief introduction, I told students my plan to help them love reading. I explained my expectations for their reading lives. They chose a book and read for two minutes, chose another and read, chose another and read. They did this reading carousel for several rounds, and I asked them to choose their first independent reading book. They did. I thought Day One a success because 7/8 of students left with a book that day.

They also thought I was crazy. Distant. Cold. Unapproachable. They told me this much later.

I realized my mistake. If you look at that paragraph above, you’ll see it:  all those “I’s” and “they’s”. Everything my students did on the first day of school had to do with what I wanted for them. I did not invite them to think, to explore, to discover, to talk to me about how they learned, or how they need to be taught.

Shana refers to “the language of control prevalent in teaching narratives” in her post Just Let Them Write: Boys and Autonomy.

I eat the language of control for breakfast, and rely on it for power all the way to dinner time. How dumb.

If I want my students to feel welcome, invited, inspired, to want to engage in the complex learning in our classroom, I must create the atmosphere and culture that welcomes, invites, inspires, and engages the moment they walk in the door. And I think it starts with conversation.

The first day of school — I think we are just going to talk. conversation bubbles various

We’ll probably read a poem, or two, and talk.

In the introduction to Dawn Potter’s new book The Conversation: Learning to Be a Poet, she reminds us of the value of talk:

“[Conversation] combines so many different kinds of reactions — wonder, worry, curiosity, opinion, delight, memory — and all work to expand confidence, emotional connection, intellectual growth, and civil engagement.”

Isn’t that the kind of community we want for our students this year — one that builds and sustains confidence, emotional connection, intellectual growth, and civil engagement?

I do.

©Amy Rasmussen, 2011 – 2015

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