Tag Archives: Conferring

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter: Creating Layered Narratives in Writing Workshop

by Elizabeth Oosterheert, Contributing Writer

Teacher writers often find their inspiration from other teachers, so special thanks to Xochitl Bentley, a teacher and contributing author for Moving Writers, whose work inspired me to try braided writing with my 8th graders. 

What is braided writing? I define it as a piece that has three distinct strands that are central to our practices in writing workshop:

  1. Excellent mentor texts for study and piracy (What can we “steal” from a professional writer that elevates our own craft?) 
  2. The power of lived experience: This has to do with relevance. The author incorporates elements from his or her life as a middle school student into the piece, such as the importance of participating in sports or theater. 
  3. Factual information that is important to the topic. For example, if a student is writing about showing horses, he or she might write about different types of bits or bridles that a competitor may use when exhibiting a horse.
Robin Williams in the classic Dead Poets’ Society

Invited Into Exploring Our Identities as Writers

How did writing braided pieces “work” in my classroom? I invited students to consider what message they wanted to convey to other writers in our workshop through their narratives. I asked them to think about questions such as these:

  • What have I learned about myself from playing middle school sports?
  • What am I looking forward to as I transition to high school?
  • What unique gifts and abilities do I have?
  • What is my greatest treasure?
  • What are my favorites (sports, seasons, songs, etc)?
  • What are my fears or weaknesses?

These questions helped students form a basis for writing a layered narrative. In addition to quick writing about these questions, we studied mentor texts together that are rich both in terms of content and craft moves.

It’s vital for students to see that essays needn’t be formulaic to be powerful. Bentley suggested reading “Joyas Voladoras” by Brian Doyle as a mentor text for poignant writing, and my students noted the following craft moves in this piece:

Repetition of Words & Phrases for Emphasis: Doyle, a beautiful essayist, captivates us with repetition that echoes in our hearts long after we finish reading. Note this example from the end of the essay:

So much held in a heart in a lifetime. So much held in a heart in a day, an hour, a moment. We are utterly open with no one in the end—not mother and father, not wife or husband, not lover, not child, not friend. 

Students also noted interesting punctuation such as serial commas and use of em dashes for emphasis.

A third craft move that resonated with us was Doyle’s knowledge of his subject. He knew a lot about all three hearts that he examined: hummingbird, whale, and human. I highly recommend checking out Doyle’s prodigious body of work in his many books available on Amazon or from independent booksellers.

Below are a few other mentor texts that we used to study nuance in writing before we embarked on our own drafting process:

The New Apartment by Phil Kaye

Excerpt from The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

Forest Fires by Sarah Kay

Students recognized the honesty in all three of these pieces, and noted the vulnerability of each writer. Throughout the process of mentor text study, we continued to discuss possible topics, and I also incorporated word study, a critical component of reading and writing workshop, into our braided narrative drafting steps. Students were invited to create slides showcasing five words that were significant to their topics. 

I shared my own slides with students, walking them through instructions, including writing an author bio, choosing topics and how I selected words that were active, descriptive, or perhaps simply words that I loved because of their sound or the way they danced with other words. I encouraged students to conclude with a story slide connected to their topics. 

Students embraced the idea of choosing words that moved them. An example of braided slides created by one of my eighth graders is linked here.

Moving from Slides to Rough Drafts

After sharing our slides in one of our weekly writing celebrations, we transitioned from word study to crafting our rough drafts. At this point, I invited students to read my rough draft with me and comment on how I incorporated the mentor texts we had studied and give me suggestions for moving words or making other changes to my draft. I’ve found that sharing my pieces with students is most effective if I give them specific elements that I would like their feedback on.

This past school year was one filled with devastating personal loss, so my topic was how loss expands the human heart and increases our capacity for empathy.

A rough draft of my piece, “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter” (thanks to Carson McCullers for the title) is linked here.

At the end of the draft, I noted a list of texts that inspired my writing, and concluded with a bulleted list of craft moves that students discussed after we read the draft together. 

After reading my draft and reviewing our mentor texts, students began to write their rough drafts. I was privileged to read about everything from grandparents to gourmet cooking, and students came away from the study more willing to be vulnerable with one another, and more invested in word choices and sharing drafts with others in small writing groups for the purpose of elevating their craft.

What moves do you use in workshop to encourage students to dig deeply into their writing process?

What mentor texts might you use to inspire students to write a braided narrative?

Share your thoughts in the comments below or find me on Twitter @oosterheerte.

Elizabeth Oosterheert is a middle school language and theatre arts teacher in Iowa. She loves inviting students into stories, on both the page and the stage. Currently, she is writing an adaptation of the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale Rapunzel for performance this fall.

A Beautiful Voyage: Winter Ventures in Writing Workshop

by Elizabeth Oosterheert, Contributing Writer

Construction begins on the Hispaniola.

This month, I’ve been thinking about how much writing has in common with building…

So much must be built for authentic writing to occur. Writing workshop teachers must be facilitators of choice, demonstrators of what risk looks like, and intentional collaborators who conference with students and illustrate the definition of community.  

Winter is bittersweet. The flavor of goodbye begins to linger on my tongue as in my school, I  only have one trimester left with students I love; yet at the same time I feel unspeakable joy as I consider all of the ways students have grown during the past months.

In addition to teaching readers’ and writers’ workshops, I direct our 8th Grade Theatre Troupe, and this winter, three of my students approached me with an idea that had never been proposed at our school before. They wanted to build the Hispaniola for our winter production of Treasure Island, and they assured me that they had the blueprint, the tools, and the experience to build a seaworthy vessel. Their only request? Could they bring their tools to school? I told them I would ask our principal and get back to them.

With his consent, the boys began their construction project. They were committed to working on their shipbuilding during any spare moment that arose during the school day, from study hall to staying after school with me for as long as I was willing to linger in the building.

As I watched the ship take shape,  I considered how much writing and construction have in common. 

  1. Both require the right tools–and what are the best “tools” that we can give our student writers? Excellent mentor texts, choice about how to approach their writing and sometimes what writing mode or discipline they are going to employ, AND the gifts of time in writing conferences and space for listening to them–in their conversations with us and with one another as they craft writing that is nothing short of extraordinary.
  2. Precision is important. For the Hispaniola to be seaworthy, its designers had to have the correct measurements so that every piece of lumber fit together like part of a puzzle. In the same way, good writers are exacting. They consider each word and how well it “fits” with its fellows. They wonder about the impact of elements such as point of view. Writers must revise, and the same can be true of builders to ensure that the final product is all that they dream that it can be.
  3. Both writing and building are, as Shakespeare famously said, the stuff that dreams are made of. In construction with lumber OR construction with words, the craftsman imagines what is possible, and dreams of what might be. This leads to beautiful homes, and breathtaking word pictures.
  4. Humility is a hero. Humility isn’t weak. Humility sees that there is always room for growth, and celebrates not only his accomplishments, but all of the ways that he can make the process better or more impactful next time. Humility is a lifelong learner, whether he’s building a staircase or a sentence.

So what were my student writers been building in workshop this winter as the Hispaniola prepared to set sail on stage? 

Message in a Bottle Narratives : Thanks to Xochitl Bentley and Ruta Sepetys for the idea of keeping our stories alive by choosing tiny but important moments to share with others. As mentor texts for this, I used excerpts from Sepetys’ Salt to the Sea and The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls. Students chose snapshots from their lives that they wanted to capture in writing (their messages in a bottle) and also engaged in word studies for their pieces by creating Google slides sharing five words that were important to their topics. I chose Peter Pan as my topic. My slides are linked here. 

Podcast Scripts: Ever since I experienced isolation from my students when our school was closed due to the pandemic, I’ve been grateful for the connection that arises from inviting students to shelter in podcasts. We begin our study of podcasts by listening to excerpts from professional podcasts on a variety of topics and we agree on elements that are non-negotiable such as  having an engaging introduction, including authentic body details, and designing an exit “strategy” for the podcast that works. I give students several choices for directions they can go with their podcasts, and invite them to record using Anchor.fm. The result? Student podcasts about everything from football to PBS Kids series. Podcast scripts provide students with a cool new mode of writing to experiment with, AND Anchor gives them the space to add “extras” like music and images for their podcasts in addition to selecting fitting titles and writing descriptions for each podcast episode. Our podcast notes template is linked here.

What happened with the construction of the Hispaniola? I assisted my boys with painting the ship once construction was complete, and the result was a proud and beautiful ship that we used for our annual theater trip to area schools AND that we will reuse as we have our Winter Showcase coming up in just a few days. It’s difficult to count all of the ways that I loved this project, but what I loved best was that an idea that was entirely conceived by students came to life, and that students were invited to use skills that aren’t typically connected with the traditional definition of school to create something that blessed and will continue to bless their classmates and our larger school community.

The Proud and Beautiful Hispaniola, with the PC Winter Theatre Troupe

What are you building in your workshops this winter? How are you sheltering in words with your students, and creating extraordinary things?

Share your thoughts in the comments, or send me an email at oosterheerte@pellachristian.net.

Elizabeth Oosterheert is a middle school language and theater arts teacher in central Iowa. She enjoys writing poetry and plays with her students, and recently completed a script for a November 2021 production of Arabian Nights.

Assessing Conferences Part 2: What We Can Learn When Teachers and Students Assess Writing Conferences

Wanting to affirm for myself that conferring really is a strength, wanting to determine ways I could continue growing this strength (that Harvard Business Review article “The Feedback Fallacy” keeps me thinking!!!), I decided to act on one of my steps from my last post about assessing conferences with student writers. 

Knowing that my AP students would be meeting with me for extended one-on-one conferences (it felt less disruptive to film since these occur outside of class time), I selected four on which to focus. When selecting the four, I chose two students with whom I felt confidence in the relationship (these two, in fact, typically sought extra time to confer over their writing) and two students with whom I felt less connected. I wondered: in what ways would my conferring look different?

Before filming, my instructional coach and I determined that I would examine number of questions asked and/or how questions were used, where I took steps to affirm or maintain that “love first” approach, and where I offered strategies. I chose these three lenses with the guidance of my instructional coach: I was worried about questioning my students to death, whether or not  I truly lived up to my love-first value, and the usefulness of the conference. 

Technical Aspects 

In terms of technical aspects, I filmed on my phone (I know, high-tech, right?! This means you can do it, too.). After each conference, my student scored it and I scored it; then I watched and transcribed it (imperfectly since it was mostly for me). Upon collecting each of the four videos, I shared them with my instructional coach so we could confer (ALL learners need conferring!!), and then I color- coded the transcript so I could look for patterns and other A-Ha’s (green for questions, pink for love-first/affirmation, orange for strategies). Of course, this is a limited data set; but it provided a manageable, pragmatic entry point.

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My Noticing’s

  • With each of my students, I maintained the love-first affirmation (phew!). With my student with whom I perceive having the weakest connection, affirmation proved the dominant strategy. Interactions with that student, in particular, seemed to suggest that she left with heightened confidence, ready to continue revising.
  • With my students with whom the relationship is more connected, questions dominated.
  • Strategies tended to arise from the student or me near the end of the conference.

Instructional Coach Noticing’s/Suggestions

  • He reinforced with me that conferring is a powerful way that teachers connect with students through content.
  • Beyond the areas I examined, he noted appropriate pause time during the conferring, suggesting that students had space to think and to ask questions.
  • He observed that ending the conferences with the rating of it positioned it more around how the student felt at the end of the conference rather than the last moment being about the “to-do list.”
  • He suggested that when I confer with students during class time that I audio record and skip the video; this is a simple shift to make it seem less distracting or intrusive.

Learning and Further Wondering

  1. Awareness of the level of connectedness with a student should help steer the conference. Wonder: What’s a quick question I can use to prompt myself toward this each time I sit with a student? How can I use body language to help infer level of connectedness and comfort?
  2. Understanding the student’s level of self-efficacy should also impact the moves I make while conferring. Wonder: Would student tracking of this be beneficial?
  3. With students whom I feel confident in our relationship, I can challenge more. I can ask more questions and prompt them to determine solutions or next steps. Wonder: How can I accelerate the level of connectedness and/or student self-efficacy so that more of my students arrive at this point sooner as writers? What do I need to do more deliberately here? (Note to self: study the giants–Kittle, Gallagher, Murray, Graves, Elbow, etc.)
  4. With those same students, they may also–because that confidence in problem-solving is there–initiate their own solutions. Wonder: What are ways to keep track of where students generate their own solutions versus when they use those offered through mini lessons and mentors? After all, this is what I want my writers to be able to do for themselves. 
  5. Individual conferences–no surprise here–are an effective way to redirect students to mini lesson strategies. Wonder: Do I need to more directly prompt my students to consider what strategy might work?

What’s Next?

With more time, I’d act on the suggestion of my instructional coach to audio record some of my in class conferring (those three minute regular conferences). I’m curious to see what patterns emerge with a greater constraint of time.  This experience also has me pondering what else I should be recording…mini lessons? 

Reflecting on conferring confirms the power of it in the classroom (see Amy’s #3). Reflection emphasizes that conferring truly is the best differentiation. That conferring promotes problem-solving.That conferring grows confidence. That conferring shows the ultimate flexibility, allowing for responsiveness to each learner’s needs.

Kristin Jeschke supports awesome learners at Waukee High School in Waukee, Iowa. Though nervous about directing and starring in these short films, she discovered that they were not all that painful. Follow her on Twitter @kajeschke.

Conferring and My Wish for a Time Machine

I am as guilty as the next guy. When I first started teaching, I didn’t have any idea how to get students to read more, write more, do more in my English class. I didn’t even know I would have to work so hard. Although I was in the middle of raising my own teenagers (and they all turned out great), I had no idea how to inspire other people’s teens to give books a long enough look to want to read them or to take the time needed to write something they would want others to want to read. I was all about my content, my lesson plans, my choices, my control. I did most of the talking. I did very little listening.

I remember the first day of my first year teaching. Students sat in assigned seats, alphabetically by last name. I asked each student, seat by seat, row by row, to tell everyone their name and one thing they hoped to learn in their freshman English class. I have no idea what they said — except for one.

“My name is Susie, and I hate white people.”

I am a white woman.

I might have felt stunned, hurt, appalled. I do remember thinking, “The audacity!” and shouldering an internal huff. I tried not to let these words sink me before I ever got afloat, and for the most part, I think I succeeded. Susie and I learned to work together that year, and she did fine in my class.

But my idea of success is much different than it was back then:  I no longer think fine is ever good enough.

I think about those young people from my first few years of teaching, and if time machines were a real thing, I’d set the dial to 2008. I would do things differently because I am different. I know better. I learned to be better.

1200-330446-relationship-quotes-and-sayings

Last week I facilitated a day-long training on implementing the routines of readers-writers workshop in secondary classrooms — a shift in pedagogy so students sit at the center and learn through authentic reading and writing practices. These teachers are eager, and their district leadership is providing support to make this happen. Yet they struggle.

In table-group conversations, two topics came up again and again:  Our students lack discipline. We need more tips on conferring.

What’s obvious to me now, that wasn’t back when I first started teaching, is a clear connection between the two. Students need to be heard. Now, I am not saying that implementing a workshop pedagogy will fix all disruptive behaviors, but I do believe these behaviors are often evidence of a lack of conferring. Students need to be seen and heard. (See more on why here.)

We talk a lot about creating a positive culture in schools and cultivating learning communities where relationships thrive. These take intention, effort, and time. In ELAR classes, these take intentionally designing instruction that utilizes every square meter as we practice authentic literacy skills with authentic texts and model the effort it takes to build our identities as readers and writers. To do all of this well, we must meet our students where they are in their learning, or in their apathy, or their attitudes, or whatever we want to call it. Conferring, those one-on-one little talks with kids, is where we do it.

As with anything that deals with humans, it has to start with listening. Listening jumpstarts relationships. Relationships build community. Community shapes culture.

8 Tips for Talking to Adolescents

If I could relive day one of my first year teaching and my interaction with Susie, I’d make sure she knew I heard her. I’d pull up a chair at the beginning of our next class, and I’d listen. That would be the start of Susie doing more than just fine in her freshman English class. I am pretty sure of it.

 

Amy Rasmussen loves her life in North TX. She’s currently reading We Got This by Cornelius Minor, Embarrassment by Thomas Newkirk, and Braving the Wilderness by Brene Brown. She may be a completely different person come 2019. Find her on Twitter @amyrass

A scaffold is a scaffold…

As a curriculum coordinator this time of the year gets blurry. I have begun to mold what our summer curriculum work will look like, so naturally I forget that it’s still the current school year and start thinking and feeling like we’ve already moved into next year. A question that I’m going to pose to our grade level curriculum writers is this: what are we going to do differently next year than we did this year? How are we going to continue moving down our path of becoming a workshop district? It’s hard. What do teachers need? Support? Resources? A scaffold? A scaffold!

When we teach our students complex or multi-step skills we break them down, right? Make it more digestible. Isn’t it the same when it comes to teachers implementing workshop in a classroom? Scaffolding workshop implementation expectations make implementation manageable and sustainable.

Maybe this is the time you flag this post and come back to it in May or June when your school year actually ends. Or, ask yourself what went well this year, and what you can do next year to make it even better for your students.

Best advice I received and try to share is this: be okay with organic or grass-roots growth. Just let it happen. Not everything needs to happen at once, or even in one semester, or in one year. I know that’s difficult to hear, especially for English teachers, but take a deep breath and repeat after me…it’s okay to go slow.

So, how do you add one more layer of workshop into your English classroom?

1.What “workshoppy” things do you already do? 

As a district team, we began with a list of “workshop” things. Teachers circled what they were already doing in their classroom and then chose ONE thing to commit to trying in the upcoming semester.

Our list included: Independent Reading, Independent Writing, Conferring, Mini-Lesson, Grammar Instruction, Vocabulary, Structure, Classroom Library, Balanced Literacy Model, Small Group Instruction, Notebooks, Share Time, Collaboration, Mentor Texts, Classroom Culture/Community, Goal Setting, Assessment

What I saw and heard is that our English teachers are already doing a lot. So when it comes to being a workshop teacher give yourself slack, give yourself grace, and give yourself credit. YOU are already doing great things for your students.

2. Where do you start?

I think you have to start by asking yourself what you believe and why you believe that. Shana wrote about some must reads for teachers considering workshop and for me personally this was a great place to start. I bought and read the books she shared. Amy shared a post: Citing the Research That Drives Your Practice. I read it and nodded, a lot. Then I dove in to what I thought my district could do.

⇒ Two key things: the first is independent reading

Our district was able to bring Amy Rasmussen and Lisa Dennis in for two days last summer (repeating this summer) where they shared and defined workshop with about 50 teachers. It was magical to say the least. My big takeaway was how important independent reading is within a workshop classroom. Because of that, we began asking teachers to incorporate 50 minutes of in class reading per week (break it up however you want/however it fits your classroom routine/structure).

I recently went to a PD led by Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher where they shared their new book 180 Days which reinforced the work we’ve been doing. No surprise, I immediately bought the book and cannot WAIT to finish it and talk to all the people about it. In the book they share a chart regarding independent reading which shows that if students add basically no outside reading to their routine, but add 10 minutes per day in class (or 50 minutes per school week) they are able to increase their word exposure by 556%! Is there an easier way to increase word exposure than this? <– that’s rhetorical, of course. 😉

⇒ The second key is conferring. 

Same training with Penny and Kelly; I’m immersed in taking notes when Kelly begins to talk about why they sit down beside kids to talk with them about their reading and writing. At this point, I was so engaged that I stopped taking notes mid-sentence and just soaked it all in. So, please no judgement on this sure to be mis-quote. Kelly said something to the effect of conferencing doing more and telling you more than anything else can: it’s 1:1 teaching, it’s a response to intervention, it building relationships, and above all it tells you what kids know and what they don’t know. Wow! No program or worksheet or multiple choice test can give you all of those things.

3.Where do you go next?

If you’re not a part of a campus or district where workshop is an expectation or recommendation, start with your campus and/or district vision. What does your campus/district want the student learning experience to look like, and how does workshop instruction fit into that description? Keep digging into the Three Teachers Talk blog posts. There are so many different perspectives from all over the United States (and outside, too!).

And now, I leave this last nugget from the 180 Days PD with Penny and Kelly…

responsive teaching

If we are responsive to student’s needs they will be engaged in the work that we’re asking them to do. Maybe that means you start by incorporating choice in independent reading, or bring in relevant articles when studying nonfiction versus pulling out the same ‘ole file folder with the same ‘ole speech you do every year, or maybe it meanssitting beside students to talk about what they think.

With the end of the year rapidly approaching now is the time to really reflect on how this year went and what can be done better or different next year. What “workshoppy” thing do you want to try?

 

 

 

Accountability Through Conversation

In Shana’s post “Conversation is our Most Powerful Teaching Tool” she mentions an article by researcher John Goodland. He states that only 1% of instructional time is given to conversation…insert wide eyed emoji…what?!

That statistic has really stuck with me. I’m not sure if it was more than a subconscious thought until the power of conversation became very clear to me.

In a nutshell, I am a content coordinator who works to support (6th-12th grade ELAR) teachers as they hone their craft. Since I began working in this position, I’ve been trying to figure out what exactly teachers need to be and feel successful.

As a district team, we have agreed to implement independent choice reading into our daily routine, as a step toward implementing a workshop model. Teachers are on board and have done some AMAZING things with choice reading in their classrooms, but, regardless of what grade level I am with, or what campus I am on I keep hearing the same question, “how do we know that they’re reading?” We talked about logs, reading responses, summaries, notes, and we’ve shared resources and ideas, but there was still something missing…

Then I had it! A light bulb moment in its truest sense. In classrooms where students TALK about what they are reading, they are accountable. In Amy’s post about shifting control she talks about “find[ing] a space for conversations…” and that if her giving “up control makes space for that, I’ll take it every chance I get.”

lightbulb

For me, that answers the how do we know question. During some learning walks I saw three examples of conversation from three different rooms…

First example: In a 12th grade academic/on level classroom the students began their class period reading for 10 minutes in a book of their choice. Once the timer went off, the students were asked to talk to a partner (or two) about their book. The teacher specifically asked the students to “sell it”. Sell their book to their partner(s). The teacher roamed around the room while the students were talking and then let two volunteer share their “pitch” to the whole group. It was very clear that the teacher knew what their students were reading, IF they were reading, and how the felt about their books.

Second example: In a 7th grade PreAP class students began their class period by reading for 5 minutes, then when the timer went off they got a 1 minute break. Students were asked to talk to their elbow partner during their break about their book’s protagonist. The teacher provided a sentence stem to probe the conversation. Then after the minute was up, they read for 5 more minutes. The teacher roamed and jotted notes as a “status of the class” during that 11 minutes. The students have been talking about the structure and elements of fiction and how protagonists can shape a story. At the end of the minute, the teacher had a pretty good idea about what her students knew and didn’t know about protagonists, including how to pronounce, or mispronounce, the word. 😛

Third example: In an 11th grade AP class the students began their class period by reading for 15 minutes. While they were reading the teacher met with every student in the class. Her questions were simple; she asked, “what’s the title of your book?” and “what page are you on?” The teacher was able to meet with 26 students in 15 minutes. She was able to see who is meeting their reading goal, who is abandoning books, and who isn’t reading.

When students know they’re going to be held accountable to explain their book, connect it to what they’re learning through mini-lessons, or just track their progress to their teacher, they respond. It becomes the culture…

This isn’t anything new, and it’s been talked about before in multiple posts on Three Teachers Talk, but what was a game changer for me was seeing it in action. I was able to create a concrete model that I could then replicate. I learned three different strategies or approaches to talking with students/letting them talk to each other by watching someone else in action. Talk about self-embedded professional learning! I mean, can it get any better than that?!

When I visit campuses my first question to teachers is going to be: how are you getting students to talk? Then we shall see where our conversations lead us. 🙂

I’d love to hear from you! How do you get and promote your students to talk? Are you able to visit other teachers classrooms on your team/campus? If so, do you feel like it’s beneficial?

“Did you know Gucci has a book?” I do now.

“Hey, Miss, did you know Gucci has a book? I want to read it.”

“Really? You are telling me you actually want to read book?”

“Yeah, but only that one.”

I go to my computer, click on Amazon, and look for a new book by Gucci. I find:

Screen Shot 2017-12-04 at 4.28.59 PM

These cannot be the books Daniel is talking about. I know this kid. He was in my junior English class last year — part of the class with the tissue issue, and now I had him as a senior.

“How do you know Gucci has a book?” I asked.

“I saw it on his Instagram,” Daniel said, showing me his phone.

Dear Reader, you are ahead of me on this, aren’t you?

I admit to being on the edge of old. I had no idea before this conversation with this student that his Gucci was not handbags and luxury leather goods. Because Daniel tends to mumble, it took me a while to figure out he was referring to Gucci Mane.

Daniel’s favorite rapper had a new book.

So I bought it.

When I first met Daniel, we had trouble. He sat in the back of the room, fake reading, sleeping, tossing pencils, goofing off so others laughed. I moved him to the front, and he slid low in his chair and sulked. Every day. And every day when I conferred with readers, I leaned over Daniel’s shoulder and asked what I could do to help him want to be a part of my class.

Eventually, he responded. He told me he’d read Gary Soto’s books in 10th grade. I wasn’t sure I could believe him, fake-reading tough guy and all, but I passed him the two Soto books I have in my library. He read them both.

Then, he started reading Matt de la Pena’s books. Ball Don’t Lie took Daniel a long time to get through, but he finished it and started Mexican Whiteboy. I’m pretty sure he read four books that semester — more than he’d ever read in his 16 years.

In conferences I asked Daniel about his life outside of school. He told me he wanted to work on cars like his brother and that he took the bus to the career center after my class every day, so he could take courses in auto mechanics. Based on our conversations, I do not think another general ed teacher had ever talked to this young man about what mattered to him:  cars.

hattie-teacher-student-relationships

Source: Hattie, J. (2009). Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses On Achievement. Routledge.

In education, we hear about the importance of building relationships a lot, and my experience with Daniel is a testament to the power of taking the time to get to know a student. Because he knew I cared, Daniel started to care about his English class. He began asking for help and coming to tutorials. He started showing up in spirit and not just as a warm body slumped in a chair. He felt like he belonged.

Did Daniel excel? Not exactly. But he passed, which was something a bit surprising to both of us after his I’m-too-cool-for-school-to-do-anything rocky start.

Flash forward to this year. I moved to senior English, and Daniel got his original schedule changed so he could be in my class. He walked in my room the first day with the same too-cool attitude. (Appearances are everything, and I know this game.) Again, I gently started conversations.

When Daniel scored an A on his first essay, he pretty much called me a liar. On his

Reading Boot Camp by Todd Strasser

Reading Boot Camp by Todd Strasser

next essay, he told me he stayed up all night so his brother could help him, so he wouldn’t show up to class empty handed. When we did a project on careers, and he presented to the class, Daniel spoke with confidence and detail about the field of auto mechanics. He’s read at least two books this fall and a lot of articles in The Wall Street Journal. This past Friday he came to tutorials for an hour, so I could review what he needed to do to pass his last state exam so he can graduate this spring. I don’t know if he will, but I sure hope so.

 

There are thousands of young men like Daniel in our schools. I wonder if teachers have the time, resources, and energy to give them the attention they need. There are 28 students in Daniel’s class this year. There were 32 in his class last fall.

There is one of me.

I cannot help but think of the famous starfish story. You know the one that ends with “I made a difference to that one.” I know I’ve made a difference to Daniel. I still call him a punk. He still mumbles when he talks to me. But he knows I like him. I really like him. And he even let me interview him, so you can like him, too. (The smile at the end is the best part.)

Choice matters! If you are reading this post, you probably already believe that as much as I do. I hope you do. Daniel’s story is not unique. We make a difference to many young people just like him when we open spaces for talk, engage in real conversations about what matters to them, and allow for self-selected reading in our instruction.

I would love to hear the stories of your Daniels. Please share in the comments.

Amy Rasmussen teaches English IV and AP English Language at a large senior high school in North Texas. She spends a ton of money on books with the hope of helping every child develop as a reader. And while she does not listen to rap, she does learn a lot from those who do. Follow her @amyrass 

After the Hurricane, a Crusade for my Readers — Guest Post by Charles Moore

Lightning woke me at 4:30 this morning. Friday is my “sleeping late day.” I usually roust Clear Creek ISD June 2017 (1)myself around 5:30 and head to the bus barn to pick up a bus for the varsity football game. The much needed rest was not coming today. Please forgive my anxiety with storms these days. It doesn’t seem to abate. Nor do my thoughts of teaching and coaching and facilitating our Student Council.

Last week was Homecoming Week in Charger Nation. This means dress-up days, a
parade and a carnival. Throw in a day of PSAT testing for fun. It was the end of the first nine weeks grading period; a grading period interrupted by something called Harvey. Heck, we can talk about my son’s soccer practice and robotics meetings. My daughter missed her dance class to be a member of the Homecoming Court. You’ve never seen a girl smile so big as when she rode in the back of that convertible holding a tiara on her lap for dear life.

There is a hurricane metaphor in here somewhere, but I can’t find it. The best word for last week is: chaos.

Chopra chaos quote

And yet…I never stop thinking, just like this morning, about my job. Really, I can’t stop thinking about how I do my job and how I can get better at it.

I can’t stop thinking about how I’ve changed as a teacher these last couple of years. Specifically, I’m thinking about how learning about workshop has made me a better teacher, coach, and Student Council Sponsor. My whole approach to this teaching life changed. I ask the kids to take more stake in their learning. I demand that they explore and discover and use me as a resource. It works.

This initial nine weeks was crazy. What with our natural disaster and the recovery and the fact that it was going to only be eight weeks long to begin with. Somehow we made it.

Workshop did that.

What workshop didn’t do was make my students readers. Most of them just didn’t read the first nine weeks of school and their teacher didn’t do a good job engaging them in their self-selected books.

I vowed to change that in the second nine weeks. I sat down with each class roster and noted the progress of every single student in each of my classes. I studied them. I conferred with them about their reading lives. Data emerged. I found that my students fell into one of two categories: Reader or Non-reader. Now that’s an earth shattering breakthrough, I know. The important thing about it is that I knew which one each student was.

So I went to work moving kids out of the books that bogged them down and into books that could engage them. To move them, though, I had to get into their heads and learn about their thinking. What interested them? Not just cars and cliques or dragons and swords, but what themes and what sorts of characters grabbed their attention.

I looked at their college essays and talked to them about what was happening in their lives. I engaged them in talk of who they thought they were. I assigned quick writes about their life as a reader and asked what appealed to their thinking. I checked the progress of my non-readers every day.

Constant Conferring was crucial. Every. Single. Day.

Coach Moore Book Talk List

Keeping a visible record of book talks

Also, I committed to book talks. Every single day.

This is hard for someone who doesn’t have a lot of time to read during this time of year. But I found ways to get books in front of them. I might talk about a book on Monday and then read a short selection from it on Tuesday. Rinse and repeat.

I went down to the school library and checked out books that I’ve read that aren’t in my classroom library. They love it. I tell students over and over, “I need you to finish that one quickly because its on my ‘Next to Read’ list.” I have at least 30 books on that list.

Our results vary. Some kids jumped straight into a new book and took off while others still struggle to find time outside of class. Some students tell me how they find time to read on the bus to their cross country meet or at work at the tanning salon. Most of them are trying and I think that’s really the most I can ask of them. It’s not, however, all I can demand of myself.

I crusade to make them life-long readers and writers. I will not relent. I want them to find the joy in reading that I know is there and if we have to do the hard work together, then I’m all in.

Charles Moore is a senior English teacher at Clear Springs High School in League City, TX. He enjoys leisure swimming, reading, and coaching linebackers. Follow Charles on Twitter @ctcoach and read Charles’ other posts here and here.

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.

Why Conferring Matters

Conferring is the interaction missing from many of our students lives.

Consider this:  the current generation thrives on one-on-one attention. They do not remember a time before social media, and many live much of their lives online via their smartphones. They turn to instantaneous interactions that have a direct impact on how they feel about themselves:  Snapchat, Vine, and Instagram over Facebook, which they are abandoning in droves because “it’s for old people.”

Our students crave immediate feedback. They seek personal communication — and they need it.

Think of the implications of this virtual-reality world on long-term relationships and problem-solving. We have already seen how it impacts our students in the classroom: short attention spans, skimming versus sustained reading to name a couple, not to mention the addiction to notifications.

Our students need to experience and understand the importance of eye contact, facial expressions, and body language, and how these physical features create non-verbal communication. They need to interpret and explicate tone.

The students in our classrooms today are different from Millenials. Anyone born after 1995 earns the new title of Generation Z, also called iGen, Centennials, Founders, and my favorite title: Gen Edgers.

As a whole, these students use technology as their primary source of communication — to validate, and to feel validated.

They also value genuine relationships, loyalty, and honesty and are increasingly more careful than the previous generation with the friendships they form online. They want to know their voices matter and that they are okay just being themselves instead of being the perfectly-phrased word count they must craft online.

Our students need opportunities to share thoughts, feelings, ideas, and knowledge in non-threatening situations through real face-to-face conversations.

Conferring opens opportunities to meet the needs of our students at the core of their longing.

When we invite students to talk and affective filters lower. Students relax. They respond.

When teachers confer with genuine interest in the well-being of the child, we grant students permission to be their genuine selves. Research on the brain shows that “positive comments and positive conversations cause a chemical “high,”” and with less pretense and stress, students experience more learning.

Conferring gives students the chance to share their stories; and besides creating trusting relationships, conferring allows us to meet them where they are and help them advance in knowledge and skills from there.

On-going regular conferences ensure that every student receives the one-on-one interaction and instruction they deserve. Peter Johnston reminds us that every student has a personal history that affects our ability to help them advance in their literacy skills.

Through conferring we learn the cultural and personal backgrounds that shape our learners, along with the experiences that shaped them in the past as readers. Both are important factors. By asking questions that invite students to recall their learning histories, we initiate future learning.

Conferring also sparks critical thinking, creativity, and curiosity.

No matter the teaching style — be it an English class where the teacher makes the choices about books and writing topics, or a workshop inspired classroom where students choose what they read and write, or even a classroom of another content area — when conferring becomes a norm, students proactively engage in learning, which results in more growth, independence, and mastery of content and concepts.

Our students learn to ask questions, ponder responses, and seek for interesting ways to show they are learning. Differentiation happens naturally.

Imagine the opportunities students may create and the innovative energy they will have in the future if they experience this kind of learning in their secondary schools.

The children in our classrooms are part of the fastest growing force in the workplace and the marketplace. Their influence is changing companies, marketing styles, and consumer habits.

This generation wants to make a difference in the world. They are pragmatic, self-aware, goal-oriented, and self-taught via YouTube. They’ve grown up “dealing with too much vs. too little information their entire lives.”

They will soon become our peers standing in voting lines, our colleagues standing near the copy machines, maybe even our bosses, or perhaps the officials that govern our cities and our states.

As adults we must provide each child with the education that prepares them for the future they are moving into.

We cannot keep teaching the way we have always taught with one-size-fits-all lesson plans and instructional models. We cannot keep making all the choices about books and reading or essay topics.

We must talk to our students one-on-one about what matters to them personally. Our future, and theirs, depends on it.

And for the teacher who worries about time, conferring provides a means of easy and accurate formative assessment, which saves valuable time spent grading:  time teachers may spend planning effective lessons or conferring with more students.

When done with fidelity, conferring improves the effectiveness of our teaching. I don’t know one teacher who doesn’t want that.

Please share your thoughts on conferring in the comments. What are your conferring routines?

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 were to all aim higher to love our fellow man. Follow Amy on Twitter @amyrass.

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