Tag Archives: collaboration

Q & A: How do I do this on my own without other colleagues teaching this way? #3TTWorkshop

Questions Answered (1)

Believe me when I say I understand. Completely. I think many other teachers who took off the old shoes of making all the choices in their English classes and tiptoed, stomped, or danced into workshop instruction understand, too. Sometimes we are the only one hearing the music.

This was me most of the time.

Of course, working with colleagues in highly functioning PLC’s is advantageous. If we’re lucky, we’ve been in a few grade level teams, or even full departments with colleagues who embrace the choice and challenge readers-writers workshop offers and collaborate well. Other times we have to stick with our knowledge of what works best for growing readers and writers and make our own instructional choices, based on what we know is best for the students relying us in our own classrooms. It’s always our own students who matter most.

So how do I do workshop on my own without other colleagues teaching this way?

Here’s the advice I got when I asked a similar question to someone with a whole lot more experience than me in all things authentic reading and writing instruction:   Nod your head a lot, and then close your door.

That’s pretty much what I did for the first eight years when I was figuring out how to manage a classroom library, give students choice in the books they read, hold them accountable in some way for their reading, get them writing more (and better), using mentor texts, conferring semi-regularly, and trying not to lose my mind when I’d go to team meetings and hear “I’m teaching ________ (insert title from the canon) and making students do study questions, along with these specific annotations. Do you want a copy of my test over the book?” Thanks by no thanks.

We teach readers, not books. And maybe it’s just me, but when I hear teachers say “I make my students do ____”, I kind of cringe. Study questions, annotations for all (done with a teacher’s specific rules for notes instead of the reader’s own rules), and tests over books:  Sandpaper on teeth.

When I shifted my instruction to include choice, student engagement soared. I was converted, and I hungered for more ways to fully move into workshop instruction. But at the time, I was the only convert on my campus. I was lonely there.

However, I had company outside my school. Everyone who determines to make this shift does. You may just have to find it.

First off, there’s this blog. I started it with two brilliant teachers, Heather and Molly, I met at a summer institute of the North Star of TX National Writing Project, a site of National Writing Project. We wanted a place to write about how we applied our learning from our institute with our students, and we wanted a space that helped us stay connected. I was teaching at a Title I high school in a district just north of Dallas; Molly had just moved to a high school with a focus on project-based learning in Longview; Heather taught middle school in a district east of Ft. Worth. (If you know north TX, you know we spanned a distance geographically.) I tell you this history for a few reasons:

The National Writing Project advocates for authentic writing instruction, and it is one of the best networks of educators, willing to collaborate and share, I know. If you can link to a site near you, you will never do this work alone.

Three Teachers Talk has grown as my learning about workshop instruction has. Heather and Molly moved in exciting career directions different than mine, and at times this blog has really been one teacher talking as I tried to figure things out. (Note: Writing helps us figure things out.) Then, when I attended the University of New Hampshire Literacy Institute and took a two week class taught by Penny Kittle, and learned with Shana, Erica, and Emily, a similar blog-writing collaboration happened.

We started writing regular posts here called Our Compass Shifts because we were all working to shift our thinking about instruction and apply the learning from Penny’s class with our own readers and writers. Our teaching souls clicked. The Modern PLC. Emily and Erica wrote with us for awhile, but like Heather and Molly they moved on to other good things. We remain friends, but Shana — Shana remains as Diana exclaims of Anne in Anne of Green Gables, my “bossom friend. A bosom friend—an intimate friend, you know—a really kindred spirit to whom I can confide my innermost soul.”

To continue improving, growing, striving to do right by our students, I think we all need at least one bossom friend. I’ve got two in Shana and Lisa, two of the other admins on this blog. (Angela, you’re up-and-coming.)

I had to find them though. I couldn’t keep my classroom door shut and not step in to learning opportunities that helped me grow. Growing takes action.

So how do I do workshop on my own without other colleagues teaching this way?

Seek out connections with others who are making workshop work. All of the contributors on this blog have been where you are. Read their posts. Leave comments. Ask questions. Email me directly if you can’t find answers amy@threeteacherstalk.com. Like everyone else in the teaching world, I’m busy, but I will do my best to help. (And your questions may turn into blog posts. That’s how I met the amazing Lisa Dennis.)

Join a network of passionate educators on Twitter. There’s chats for you. #TeachWrite #DistruptTexts #buildyourstack #3TTworkshop #titletalk #NerdyBookClub #APLitchat #teachlivingpoets all come to mind. So many teachers moving the work of choice and challenge — and equity — forward. If you are new to Twitter and don’t know who to follow, follow us @3TeachersTalk; then, check out who we follow — educators like you.

Read books by those who’ve built a movement, and join in on discussions. Some of our favorite teacher-writers are active on Twitter, and they share brilliant ideas regularly. Thomas Newkirk, Tom Romano, Penny Kittle, Kelly Gallagher, Linda Rief, Cornelius Minor to name a few.

Also, Shana put together a fabulous resource page here. It’s not exhaustive, but it’s a good start.

I know joining chats, reading books, and connecting online does not replace collaboration on a campus, but it does work to help us grow in our practice.

Just like my daughter has online friends who are in the #houseplantclub, and my sister has online friends who play Pokemon Go, teachers — eager to make workshop work for their students — can find the support they need to make this ever-important pedagogy of engaging students as they grow in their identity as readers and writers work.

Press on, my friends, we are here for you.

Amy Rasmussen calls herself a literacy evangelist –among other things. Wife to a lovely man, and blessed to be the mother of six and grandmother of seven (five of which are boys), she loves to read and teach and share ideas that just might make the world a little brighter — for everyone! Follow her @amyrass — and join the conversation around workshop instruction on the Three Teachers Talk Facebook page. Go here see other Q & A posts about Secondary Readers-Writers Workshop.

#3TTWorkshop: End of the Year

Conversation Starter: What kinds of reflections do you have for your year? Let’s start with celebrations.

Amy:  Before I celebrate, let me say this:  I have two whole pages of notes written on the back covers of my writer’s notebooks with reminders of what to do new and differently next year. Why is it always easier to focus on the negatives that need improving versus the positives that worked well?

Lisa: This was a year of experimentation and excitement, and my celebrations come from student reflection and collegial collaboration. Our district has a clear vision that they want to move workshop from K-8 to K-12, so it was a year of exploration. Last year, workshop loomed. We had very little knowledge of what it would look like at the high school level, so I naturally…Googled. Having read Penny Kittle and talked with a few colleagues who were already embracing elements of workshop, I was excited. I loved the idea of choice and set about organizing some notes of “how to.” I knew, as department leader, I would be tasked with spearheading the shift with my colleagues, so I wanted to have some solid ideas of how best to proceed.

Original_5000If you Google “Readers workshop for high school English,” guess who comes up? Ta-da. I had found Three Teachers Talk. Specifically, Amy’s post with resources to make the move to workshop. I had struck gold. I read. And read, and read, and shared the blog with our literacy coach, and read, and started quoting sections of the blog and taking notes, and read some more. Real teachers, in real classrooms, with honest reflections on the work. I was elated.

Our district leaders moved forward, rolling out workshop with UBD training, visits to the middle school to see workshop in action, and reviews of Penny Kittle’s key principles. And while valuable and necessary for our progress as a department, it wasn’t until February when Amy and Shana came to Franklin, professionally developed us by teaching us in the workshop just as they would their own students, and let us experience workshop firsthand that workshop really took off. The department was excited. There was wild planning, replanning, reading, purchasing of books, collaborative meetings on the fly (five minute passing periods afford more than enough time for drive-by enthusiastim). And talk. So much talk. Though we weren’t expected to make the “official” move to workshop until next year, we were all trying new things (book talking, setting up writer’s notebooks, and shopping on thriftbooks.com), seeing incredible responses from students (readers spread out all over the building and students writing something, anything, every single day), and basically diving into the work to see what would help us float.

It hasn’t been easy, but as I wrote yesterday, the small (and for some of us BIG) moves we are making have us enthusiastic about what workshop will look like across our department. It’s been a great year to grow and see some incredible enthusiasm from students as choice changed their minds about the written word and its power.

The big takeaway from workshop this year? Do it. Now. You won’t regret it.

Shana:  This was a weird year for me, and I’m wistful.  I was just telling my mom that I feel like I barely taught this year, and I think I mostly feel that way because I didn’t have a firm end of the year (I was out on maternity leave from mid-April to the last day of school).  Instead of doing reflections alongside my students, studying their self-assessments and working with them on the year-end MGPs, learning from my own thinking and my reading of my students’ thoughts, I just…slowly drifted away from my classroom and saw most of my students for the last time at their graduation instead of for a celebratory last-day-of-school photo.  It made the end of my teaching career feel really nebulous.  I hated that.

But, there were lots of great things about this year.  I looped with my students, so I began the year knowing most of their likes and wants and needs already.  I was able to dive right back into helping some of my reluctant readers find new books, help my new students assimilate into a workshop culture more seamlessly, and leap into newer, more complex writing tasks with more confidence.  I loved that so many tenets of workshop were already norms in our classroom in September–book talks, conferences, notebooks, and just book love in general.  It was transformative to begin a school year without having to gain students’ trust with the workshop model, instead having the trust already established.

And my students did and wrote and created great things.  Carleen reassured me that workshop structures made her fall in love with reading again.  Jak showed me that having choice in reading helped him advance as a reader far further than any assigned text could have catapulted him.  Tyler showed me that even the most reluctant reader can fall in love with a complex classic.  And countless other kids helped me re-fall in love with reading and writing and teaching every day in my classroom, when they had miniature successes and failures and highs and lows.  I celebrate that act of falling in love with literacy all year long.

Amy: My biggest celebrations came in the form of one-on-one moments with students. I wrote about an experience with Diego previously. He ended up writing a well-constructed
and extremely personal multi-genre piece about his brother’s drug addiction. Our final conference was a powerful moment. Diego opened up about his love for music and showed me how to find his YouTube channel. He is a talented musician. His ability with poetic language suddenly made sense. I wish I had a do over with this talented young man.  I would have done things differently.

Another celebration came from a conference I had with Emerita in the spring. She was a Screen Shot 2016-06-07 at 9.10.40 PMtough student: smart, outgoing, talkative, eager — but she didn’t like that I wanted to
push her into writing even better, reading even better. We locked horns, and sometimes her silent attitude made me feel inept and out of sorts. (I know we shouldn’t take things personal, but I struggle with this. I want everyone to like me.) Finally, in a moment of
divine inspiration, I gave students to opportunity to do some extra credit. Anyone who wanted to improve their grade could research
the work of Carol Dweck on mindset and then write up an essay that answered specifics about the characteristics of Dweck’s work and how it relates to their attitudes in school. Emerita changed after that. She understood what I’d been trying to get her to see all along:  we can always work on our craft and improve. After our conference reviewing her extra credit essay, her work improved as did her attitude towards everything we did the rest of the year. I share a copy of her conferring notes here.

What are some things you know you want to do differently?

Amy:  Well, like I said, I have two pages of notes. Some of them relate to things I’ve done successfully in the past and just forgot to do this year like taking more time to allow students to decorate their writer’s notebooks. I’ve always allotted sufficient time for students to do this in class, but I didn’t this year, and as a result, I noticed quite early on that students did not have much attachment to their notebooks. They still represented “just another composition notebook for class” instead of a place to capture ideas and notes about themselves as writers. I’ve already got NOTEBOOKS clearly outlined on next year’s calendar.

I also need to be a better Reading Teacher. That might sound strange since I teach AP Lang, but many of my students struggle with reading, not to mention critical reading. I need to utilize strategies that will help them not only read more, which I already do quite well, but read better. I’m re-reading Cris Tovani’s books, and I will introduce Beers & Probst Notice and Note next year. I’ve used both in the past, but not with AP students. After two years in this position, I’ve learned that we’re going to need to practice some basic comprehension and some thematic work before we can go too far into rhetorical analysis.

Shana:  My hubby spilled an air freshener on my notebook yesterday, so from its ruined depths I’ve turned to my “teaching ideas galore” section for this question.  The first thing I’d like to shift into thinking about is ways to write or respond to reading nonlinguistically.  For years, much of my students’ writing was about reading.  Then I shifted away from that and toward making reading and writing activities independent and celebratory, while still asking what we could learn from one and apply to the other.  I’ve kind of gone back toward writing more about reading this year, but next year I’d like to see how we might tell stories through visuals, or write book reviews in doodles, or create collages to illustrate patterns in a text, or diagram similar story arcs across independent reading books.  I’ll be on the lookout for this theme during my summer reading of journals and books.

The obvious change I’ll be shifting to is toward working with preservice teachers rather than high school students.  Still, I’d like to keep many similar structures in place.  As Tom Romano began every class with two poems, I think it’d still be valuable to begin classes with two booktalks.  Writer’s notebooks are a must, as are things like book clubs, wide reading, and writing with an eye for mentor texts.  I’ll be asking myself, though, how to prepare a new generation of teachers for the wild world of high school learning.

Lisa: Give me a second, I need to gather the seven million post-it notes I have scattered across my existence and I can tell you the six million things I am ready to improve for next year (the other million notes are on books I want to read).  

One thing I am really looking forward to is the idea of total immersion. We’ve done a lot of standards based planning around this move to workshop, and I’m excited to blend the skills focus with the choice I’ve already dipped into.

I’m also excited about the creative aspect that Shana talked about above. While more and more skills based over the years, my instruction, up until recently, had really still focused on reading and then writing about that reading. Analysis is obviously important, but there are so many more authentic, thought-provoking, student-driven assessment tools and just plain exploratory modes of expression, that I really want to delve into. To think, I taught through a few years there where poetry was almost lost in my classroom. Thank goodness I rediscovered it for mentor work and had my students writing powerful verse over and over. What amazing modes discourse will I discover next year that I will eventually be appalled to have missed before? Geek alert. I am so excited to find out. 

Finally, better time management. A wonderful colleague of mine, Mrs. Leah Tindall (co-organizer of our high school’s incredible Literary Showcase) said of this year that we were stressing out because we were trying to balance new work with an old workload. This was so true. The work I need to be doing is talking with my students, reading with my students, getting organized enough to have conferences lead to more pointed minilesson work, and provide ongoing feedback that doesn’t require every extra minute of my existence to “grade.” Certainly, workshop is no easy way out in terms of time invested, but it’s time invested differently. Time invested with one-on-one feedback at the forefront and building our students up by our own examples as readers and writers. This certainly takes time, but it does so in a way that makes so much more of an impact than just red pen on paper. It’s honest communication. It’s investment. It’s caring.

I need to stop using reading time to take attendance, and get out there and confer with my students. I need to stop putting off the reorganization of my library, because really, how can I make solid recommendations if I can’t find the book I’m after? I need to stop providing the bulk of my feedback with a pen at all and start using my ears more – feedback after careful listening and reflection. That’s what I’m after next year. I want to hear my students talk from their hearts and their minds and on paper in ways my previous teaching didn’t account for. I can’t wait to hear all that they have to say.

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

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.

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?

#3TTWorkshop–Tackling the Challenges of Conferring

Three educators. Three states. Three demographics. All practicing Readers and Writers Workshop in our Secondary Classrooms. Read more about us here.

We are the Modern PLC, and every Wednesday, we share our behind-the-scenes collaboration as we talk about the most urgent moving parts of our classroom pedagogy.

This week’s conversation took root over a year ago in a hotel room at NCTE in Washington D.C.  As with many of our TTT get togethers, we threw out a question from our classrooms and began discussing our struggles, questions, and ideas.  This time it was Amy, asking about conferring.  The three of us mutually agreed that one of the greatest challenges we face as workshop teachers includes conferences, yet while they take time, practice, and diligence, they are one of the most necessary and rewarding components of the workshop classroom.

In this week’s conversation, Amy and Jackie discuss the the value of conferring within the reader’s writer’s workshop.  

Make sure to visit the first installment of our conversation, and please join the conversation in the comments!

How do you meet with every student when your class sizes have 30 or more students?13b04fad-66ef-4eca-83df-3f0c7412bd48

Amy:  I come back to that word — purposeful. If we plan to meet with students in conferences, and we craft lessons that allow for students to work independently for a time, we can meet with students one-on-one. Yes, when our classes are large, we may not get around to meeting with each of them as often as we like, but consider the alternative — never talking face-to-face with our students. The more I talk with my students about their needs and what would help them learn more in school the more they tell me they crave conversations with adults who will listen to the things they care about and believe in. They want adults to validate them.

Say we have a class of thirty students, and we only meet with each one of them three times in the semester — that is three times more one-on-one contact with a caring adult they would have had otherwise. Every bit of time matters.

I wrote a post with ideas for conferring with students when our class sizes are large here. My favorite is the bundle conference — no, I really like the one in the hallway. Really, any chance to talk to a reader about her reading is one I cherish.

Jackie: I am fortunate that I do not have classes over 30, but like Amy says, there are ways to reach such a large group of students.  It isn’t easy, but it’s possible.  I advise Writers Club and Government Club, so I know I can reach at least a couple students during that time.  I also have a handful of students who stay in my room during my prep, duty, lunch, or after school to work on homework and reading.  This means that I see anywhere between six to ten students in alternative settings where we can chat about books.  

I  also use workshop time to meet with table groups, which consist of four students each, just the right amount of students to chat about books while still gaining some more individualized attention.  Furthermore, as Amy mentioned, I rely on bundle conferences when discussing writing.  Just last week, I managed to conference with my twenty AP Literature students about their essays in just over an hour of workshop time.  Today, one of my students approached me after class, thanking me for the conferencing time and the additional one-on-one tutoring time during a study hall.  He said that he felt significantly more confident approaching his essay this past Friday after having such individualized feedback.

Amy:  I forgot to add — sometimes I schedule conferences with students. If I notice that I haven’t met with someone for a long time, or if I notice he’s stuck in the same book for too long a time, I’ll invite him to confer during lunch or after school. Personal invitations mean a lot to students who for whatever reason “I haven’t got a round to yet.”

Just last week I tapped Tony on the shoulder and asked that he meet with me during lunch. I’d noticed that he rarely checked out books from my classroom library, yet his record of his reading kept getting longer. I really thought this students was fake reading and calling it good, and since Tony has a lot of social capital I feared he was sending a negative message to his classmates. Tony sat with me for about five minutes during lunch tutorials. I asked about his reading, and he told me enough to know that he really was reading. He told me he thinks he needs to try harder books. So we talked about what books might interest him. I then asked if he knew how much of an example he is with his peers. His eyes started to glow and he smiled a little. “Yeah, I guess so,” he finally said. We talked about the kind of leader he wants to be, and when Tony left my room, we both felt better about what he is accomplishing in class this year. That is the kind of conference I love to have with students, and it provides the one-on-one attention often missing when students share classroom space and one teacher with twenty-nine other students.

What are your best conversation starters?

Jackie: Amy, I’m curious about your most successful conversation starters, particularly the ones you use with those tougher students who struggle to stay engaged.  I know that many of my struggling readers love learning from their reading.  They enjoy “getting something” out of their books, which means that I tend to talk to them about their hobbies and how it relates to their book.  One of my self-defined “non-readers” has been working on a hockey book since the beginning of the year.  I love hearing about what he has learned and why it is valuable to his only success as a hockey player.  I also enjoy hearing about why a student chose the book they did.  Their responses can be unexpected and even surprising.  It reinforces the fact that they have a choice in their education.

cdbf4b4e-bd86-48eb-8f05-004647b7396aAmy: I tried to keep track of what I say to start a conversation, thinking I’d realize I say something like Carl Anderson suggests in his book “How’s it Going?” Sure, sometimes I say that, but really, my conversation starter depends on the student. It changes all the time. The important thing to remember is to get our students talking about their reading experiences. Our role is to listen. If we do not listen, we do not have a chance to assess where our students might need help, where the gaps in comprehension are, or how we may encourage them to take risks and try something more challenging so they grow. We need to remember to let the student direct the conference. I still struggle with this sometimes.

Suppose I say: “Tell me what you’re thinking about this book.” Depending on the student, he’s likely to say “It’s good” or “It’s okay.” That just means I have to ask another question to get the student talking. But if I ask something specific about the student and/or the book, I can usually spark a conversation immediately. For example, I love to ask questions about book covers, especially if I can tell a student is about half way through the book.

I’ll say something like: “I can see you’re about halfway through. I wonder if you’ve thought about the book cover design at all. You know, most people judge a book by the cover. How well do you think the cover represents the book so far? Based on what you’ve read, why do you think that?” This lead works well for book titles, too. Of course, I want my students to talk about their books in a way that I know they are actually reading them, but more importantly, I want my students to be able to talk to me about what they are thinking about their books as they read. This is difficult for many students, but the more I encourage and validate and stay consistent with conferring, the easier it gets for them.

Jackie: You are right–there is no scripted answer to asking the right question, but as you said, some promote more discussion than others.  I also enjoy having students compare their current reading books to the ones they’ve read previously.  After picking up The Compound  at the urging of his friends, one student said, “I actually think Dopesick [by Walter Dean Myers] is better than this book.”  His willingness to state his opinion led the same friends who recommended The Compound to turn around and read Dopesick.

What do you do if you figure out a student isn’t reading during your conversation?

Amy:  I wish I didn’t have to answer this question. I wish I could say all my students read. Just isn’t true. I’ve written a few times already this year about how I still have non-readers. I mentioned it in my #FridayReads post last week. I’ve found the two major reasons my students tell me they do not want to read: 1. I’m too busy, 2. I don’t like reading. Not necessarily in that order.

When I discover in a conference that a student is stuck in his book — bored with it, or just flat out flipping pages — we talk. I try to get him talking about his passions.

Most of my boys love soccer. “Why do you love that sport?” I’ll ask, and usually, he will describe the friendships with the guys on the team, the love of being outdoors, the competition. I want him to show me emotion about something he loves.

Then, I’ll say something like:  “I don’t know much about soccer. I’ve never played. How can you help me love it?” And he’ll go off talking about exercise and health and having fun. I listen and nod.

Then, I’ll ask: “What do you suppose that has to do with reading?”

And sometimes he gets it, and he’ll say, “You mean like if I never read I may never know if I like it?”

Of course, then I pile him up with book choices and encourage him to try a book he thinks looks interesting. We talk about the importance of reading the first several pages, hopefully in one sitting, to give the author enough time to draw us into the story. And then I monitor this reader closely. I do not wait to talk with him in a week or two. I talk with him as soon as I see him again and ask what page he is on and if he likes the book. These are the students we tenderly nurse along until they can get up and run on their own.

Jackie: It’s funny that states away we use the same comparison.  I am constantly talking with my students about how reading is like exercising and how our brains are muscles that require nurturing as well.  I remind myself of this metaphor every time I go to the gym, everytime I try a new exercise class I loathe, and every time I look at the ridiculously jacked woman next to me who is jogging at my breakneck speed.  

Reading requires patience; we do not become readers overnight.  I think what shocks my students most though is my resilience to find a book they will enjoy.  I go through a similar process as you, Amy.  Asking what about the book is tedious or boring, helping them make time by offering my classroom before and after school.  I will stop at nothing to find a book that catches their interest, even if that means devoting shopping trips to that one kid who hasn’t read a whole book since the start of the year.  For those tougher kids, I know that one book can change them.  The trickiest and most exhilarating part is finding that book to transform their outlook.

Amy:  Tricky and exhilarating = absolutely. I love this work, and I know the value of students building stamina, growing in confidence, and challenging themselves into more complex texts. Of course, all those things happen as a result of regular and consistent conferring practices. Every time I feel like my reading workshop gets stuck, or kids are not reading like I think they should be, I pick up the notebook with my records and start conferring more. It might not work magic, but it’s close.

 

#3TTWorkshop — Conferring with Our Readers

Three educators. Three states. Three demographics. All practicing Readers and Writers Workshop in our Secondary Classrooms. Read more about us here.

We are the Modern PLC, and every Wednesday, we share our behind-the-scenes collaboration as we talk about the most urgent moving parts of our classroom pedagogy.

This week’s conversation took root over a year ago in a hotel room at NCTE in Washington D.C.  As with many of our TTT get togethers, we threw out a question from our classrooms and began discussing our struggles, questions, and ideas.  This time it was Amy, asking about conferring.  The three of us mutually agreed that one of the greatest challenges we face as workshop teachers includes conferences, yet while they take time, practice, and diligence, they are one of the most necessary and rewarding components of the workshop classroom.  

In this week’s conversation, Amy and Jackie discuss the the value of conferring within the reader’s writer’s workshop.  Part one of this conversation delves into why conferring matters and how we find time in our classrooms to sit down with each student one-on-one.

Please join the conversation in the comments and check back for the second installment tomorrow!

Conversation Starter:  Why must we confer with our readers?IMG_9734

Amy:  Conferring regularly is what makes a readers’ workshop classroom work. Simple as that. If a teacher says to me “I tried allowing students to read what they want, and it didn’t work — they still won’t read,” I know I have to ask something about how he confers with his students. How often? What do you talk about? How do you make them feel about reading?

I learned about the importance of conferring just like everyone else who makes reading workshop her pedagogy:  If I do not purposefully sit down and talk with students one-on-one and face-to-face on a regular basis, many of them will not read. They are too used to playing the game of high school English. They know how to flip the pages, move their eyes across the page, and lie to my face about how they liked, or did not like, a story. I teach 11th grade. Some students have done this for years.

The only way to create readers is to get them reading. The only way to get many students to even give reading a try is to talk with them in non-threatening conversations about their lives, about what they are interested in, and why this or that book might be something that matters to what they want to know or feel or do. Conferring is conversing about what matters to my students and talking to them as if they are already readers — until they begin to call themselves readers, too.

I also think this applies to every content area. If math teachers spoke to their students like mathematicians, and science teachers spoke to their students as if they were scientists, maybe we’d have many more students interested and invested in math and science. Every teacher should hold regular and consistent conferences with her students. Even if those students never come to like reading or math or science, they will become more engaged in the learning environment because the teacher has shown personal interest in the life of the learner. Face-to-face leader and learner conferences make for genuine and consistent engagement in the learning process. And teacher and student both benefit.

Jackie:  I love the process of conferring with students, particularly at the beginning of the year when students aren’t quite as used to having their teacher sit beside them just to chat.  Even now as I pull up my mini-folding-conferring chair, I enjoy the shift from awkward first interactions to excited chats about their reading.

Reading conferences aren’t just about accountability, although that is one of the many perks.  During these conferences I get a better sense of what books to recommend to students, how their past history affects their reading practices, what they’re coping with on a daily basis, and what they think about when they crack open a book.  As Don Graves writes about his most formative teachers in The Energy to Teach, “All of these teachers expected more of me and we had a strong personal connection that I did not want to disappoint them.”  Reading conferences allow me to connect with my students on a level that not only shows them that I am committed to their reading journey, but it that I am invested in their life and education.

Amy:  I love how you pull up a mini-folding-conferring chair! I used to have a single yellow chair that I invited students to come and sit in — the special chair. I had to leave it at my old school. I saw this nifty rolling stool at a thrift store and almost bought it. I could have rolled from table to table to confer. I talked myself out of it, but there are days a roll-about-the-room would be handy.

Jackie: It’s the best purchase I’ve made all year! Mine looks similar to this one.  What I love most about it though is I sit at the same height as my students, so I can easily set up next to their desk or join in group conversations.

When do you confer?

Amy:  I’d like to say I confer every day. In my heart I want to have a regular system, and on paper I do. In reality, so much administrivia gets in the way. When I am purposeful, I meet with one to three students every day during our independent reading time (usually 15 minutes.) I try to be consistent because I only see my students every other day. If I am not careful, weeks will go by without me talking to some of them.

I have a binder where I keep conferring notes, and I place sticky note reminders to help me remember to get back to certain students who need a quicker follow up time than me making it around the room again. I’ve also started charging my readers to be advocates of their follow up with me. It’s important that juniors in high school take ownership of their learning. If a reader and I discuss a certain skill, and she decides to complete X, I ask her to be the one to remember to come in and confer. Many of my readers remember, and they are the ones who are gain skills and mature as critical readers much faster. Sometimes these conferences happen between class periods or during lunch or at the end of class when students are working on their writing, and sometimes I let them slip into my normal conferring routine. I’ll never turn a reader down who wants to have a quick chat about her book or what she learned.

Jackie: I agree with Amy–my goal every year is to become better at conferring.  I want to make sure to meet with as  many students as possible, but as the year progresses I struggle with the administrative tasks.  That being said, I typically meet with two students within the ten minute reading time we have daily.  On block days when I allow for twenty minutes, I can get around to four.  

My freshmen enjoy the process of chatting about their books, their interests, and their reading.  They enjoy using new vocabulary we’ve learned in class, and I love picking their brain about writer’s craft.  I also try to focus on reflective questions with them so they look at their reading progress holistically.  With my AP Literature students, I focus more on their depth of analysis within their independent challenge books.  I also take this time to check their critical reading journals as well as to discuss whole class novels.

In terms of logistics, I have a cubby where I keep stacks of conferring forms paper-clipped together and sorted in alphabetical order by first name. At the beginning of every period during reading time, I pull out that class’ papers, clip them into my clipboard, and start with the last student I conferred with.  This allows me to quickly keep track of who I met with last and what we discussed.  

Sometimes I can’t keep track of everything and I will reflect back on my notes, jotting down conversations I know I had on Monday when I collected pages or during passing time.  Every minute offers a moment to conference, and while these conferences aren’t always formal, they show students that not only do I hear them but also I am interested in what they have to say.

Amy:  Most days I feel like I do more spontaneous conferences than planned ones. A students needs a new book, so we meet for a chat by the bookshelves. A student finished a book, so we chat for a few minutes in the halls. I almost wrote that these were my favorite kinds of conferences, but that’s not true — I like all conferences. I do like the joy I recognize so readily when my students start identifying themselves as readers though.

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

The Modern PLC

1. Send out a Doodle for easy scheduling.

2. Receive Doodle responses and confirm date/time that works for four educators in four different states in two time zones.

3. Wait a week or so.

4. Sign into Google and click on hangout.

5. Invite friends.

6. Wait for Jackie, who when she finally connects calls herself “the 90 year old collaborator” although she is the youngest of the group by close to a decade.

7. Catch up. Chat. Plan. Collaborate on this blog for a good three hours on a Saturday morning.

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Erika, where are you?

We shared struggles and successes. We laughed. And we planned how we can write and share and learn and grow — a lot of it right here at Three Teachers Talk.

This, my friends, is the Modern Professional Learning Community.

Not long ago I read Live From Small Town America: Teachers Who Blog to Stay in Touch.

Well, I can tell you — it’s not just teachers in small towns.

Erika in NYC and me in Dallas both make the nation’s Top 10 for largest cities. (Of course, I am in a suburb north of Dallas but still..)

Educators are making connections all over the world. Blogging, Twitter chats, Facebook Groups, and more. And most of the educators who make these connections will tell you that the professional development they engage in online gives them more engagement, more information, more ideas, more solutions than most of what they receive on their home campuses.

If you are reading this blog, you already know this.

So, I am wondering:  How do we get more of our colleagues to engage in online PD? How do we change the model of PD in our schools to reflect the kind of sharing and growth we experience online?

Maybe most importantly, how can we model the kind of collaborative work we do online for our own professional growth for our students, so they can do it, too? Is that even possible?

©Amy Rasmussen, 2011 – 2015

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