Tag Archives: Conferring

Writing When It’s Hard. Or School Should be Out Already.

Let me just say how cruel the school calendar is this year:  We have school through noon Wednesday. Kids are beyond crazy. Last Friday is typically the last school day before break, so it feels a bit like we are making up snow days for snow days that haven’t happened. It’s cold. And no one is going to want to be at school for the next three days. No one.

I’ve been toying with this post all morning. I don’t feel like writing. I just want to shop with my daughters who arrived in town over the weekend, and tend my five month old grandson who came to visit yesterday, and maybe bake some bread pudding in the crock pot. I do not want to write.

So what do I do to get myself to put words on the page? What do I do when I need students to want to put words on the page?

I look for inspiration. I help them find inspiration.

Lately, my students have been writing spoken word poems as arguments. They chose personal or social issues they care about, and they’ve crafted drafts that argue a position about their issues. Some are digging deep and writing with wondrous words. Others — not so much. But I’m not giving up.

I’ve learned that three things will help my writers when they sink low and cannot seem to rise back up. I must consistently —

Flood the room with beautiful language. In a spoken word poetry unit, this is easy. We watch a performance on YouTube most every day. “Spelling Father” by Marshall Davis-Jones is a new favorite. (I love the narrative frame and raw emotion in this piece.) If our goal is to help develop writers who intentionally craft meaning, we have to help students intentionally craft meaning. The more we recognize, analyze, and model the moves of writers, the easier writing with intention becomes.

Allow time for thinking. Waiting on students to think their way into writing can be hard. But I know that writing takes time, and when I rush students who haven’t had a chance to think about their ideas before they begin writing, the finished pieces rarely get the revision they need to be truly effective. Don Murray said, “Writing is self exposure.” It is. And the vulnerability can be immobilizing for some of us. Giving time and then waiting for students to make decisions about their writing pays off on the back end of the writing process. If we truly value student ideas, we have to give them the time to think of them.

Talk to students and keep them talking to one another. One-on-one conferences are a good idea any time, but during a writing unit, conferring time is essential. In large classes, we may have to stagger our live conferences with paper ones, and leave conferring questions, and “I wonders” on their pages. More than anything, students must know we are reading their drafts and offering feedback. I am working on getting faster at leaving quick notes. I find that when I zero in on one skill at a time students find my feedback a lot less intimidating (which is something I had to learn was even a thing.)

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Martina’s writing her poem about her culture. “I’m too white to be called Mexican, but I’m a Mexican.”

My plan for this week is to put these three things on a replay loop. We’ll start class with beautiful language, think and write and write and think — all the while talking to one another about our process and our craft.

We may just make it to Christmas break a little bit merry after all.

If you are still in school this week, what’s happening in your classrooms? Please share in the comments.

 

 

 

 

Better Teaching: Please tell me your story

I already knew they were hard workers. This group of girls spent a lot of time in my classroom after school. They huddled together at the far table, speaking in a language I did not understand. They asked questions occasionally, afraid of being wrong.  

“Is this right?” one would say, timidly showing me her iPad where she’d written a few sentences in the Docs app. Returning to her table, she’d share my response with her friends.

They held on in AP English by decimal points as each grading period ticked by. Lucky for them, I scored on improvement, not on the AP writing rubric.

In class we watched the documentary “A Place to Stand,” based on the book by the same name by Jimmy Santiago Baca who became a poet while serving time in prison. Baca’s story captivated my students. They identified and analyzed the argument: “Education matters. Fight for it. Words matter. Learn them. Write them. They empower you..”

Some students understood that more than others. These girls, for sure.

We read several of Baca’s poems. Although mine is primarily a non-fiction course by nature of AP Language and my syllabus, I know that it’s through poetry that my students more easily grasp the beauty and intention in an author’s craft.

The task was to re-read Baca’s poem “As Life Was Five” and to write a reflective piece in response to it.

These girls were struggling, so I finally joined them at their table.

“Tell me what’s going on,” I said.

“We just aren’t sure,” Biak said. She spoke more often than the others, although her English was only a little better.

“Can I see what you’ve written?” I asked, and she timidly passed me her writing, carefully penned on notebook paper.

She quickly broke into explanation:  “I wanted to write my own poem. I don’t know how, and I don’t know…” Words tumbled out, and she lowered her head, waiting for me to read the page.

I looked, and before I could read anything, the words “Burmese!! STUPID and CRAZY!” shouted at me.

“Wait,” I said, “I thought you were from Burma.”

Five voices rose in chorus:  “Yes, yes, we are from Burma, but we are not Burmese. We are Chin.”

I needed them to teach me. I’d never heard of Chin, and my knowledge of Burma was limited to the first few chapters of Saving Fish From Drowning by Amy Tan I’d tried to read and abandoned years ago.

“Will you tell me your story?” I asked, looking closely into the small faces of these beautiful young women, similar yet so different in features and personality.

Biak began to talk.

“We are from the state of Chin in Burma. The Chin are the mountain people. The Christians. The Burmese hate the Christians.”

And then they all talk and tell me their story:

They fled Burma with their families, leaving grandparents and loved ones behind. Sometimes not getting to say goodbye for fear the secret of their journey would be told. They traveled in groups, mostly at night, walking, walking, walking, they said. Often barely eating food, and even then, mostly rice balls or an egg stirred into water.

Bawi told of a Buddhist monk who acted as their guide. “He wouldn’t let us pray,” she said. “Every time we tried to pray, he would knock away our food. ‘Pray to me,’ he’d say, ‘I’m the one who gave you food, not God.’ He was so scary!”

“I lost my shoes,” Biak said, “I walked for miles and miles with no shoes, and the.. What are those things?” she turned to her friends, motioning with her hands like claws, “…those things that stuck to my feets?”

“Thorns,” they said.

“Yes, thorns stuck in my feets, but I had to walk. Walk and walk.”

“Walk quickly and don’t let go,” Kimi said.

“There was a pregnant woman with us. She could not keep up. When we reached the border of Malaysia, she could not run. I do not know what happened to her.”

“I remember we heard the POW POW POW. We had to run as fast as we can to cross the border. I was so little. My legs short. I was so scared.”

Biak begins to cry. She bows her head and covers her face with her hands, “I don’t like to think about it. I remember my grandmother’s face. We barely got to tell goodbye. She cried so much.”

I look around the table. Their eyes shine with memories.

“You all left family behind, didn’t you?”

They nod, and I see Van’s chocolate eyes pool with tears.

“Did you travel together?”

“No! But we all have same stories. All Chin students do,” Duh says.

“Wow,” I say, “Just wow.” My heart throbs in my chest, heavy with the weight of these stories. Resilience takes on new meaning.

“So you must think it’s pretty lame when your classmates whine about having to work a three hour shift and that’s the reason they cannot do their homework.”

The tension breaks, and they laugh.

“What an amazing gift you’ve given me,” I say, “You need to write your stories.”

“I wanted to write a book,” Kimi says, “but I don’t know how.”

I smile. “We can work on that.”

My heart changed after that chat with my girls from Chin. I also felt chagrin. I waited three months into the school year to extend the important invitation:  “Tell me your story.”

I can come up with fourteen different reasons why. None of them matter.

Throughout the fall, I struggled with my classes because I focused on the skills needed to be successful in AP English instead of focusing on the individuals who needed to learn the skills to be successful in life. I forgot why I wanted to teach teenagers in the first place.

Perspective matters.

The most important conversation is the one that invites our students to tell us their stories.

Those young women from the state of Chin grew to trust me because I asked, and I listened. They told me later that I was the first teacher who asked them to tell me their stories — they had all attended U.S. public schools for at least four years.

I am sure other teachers assumed they knew. I thought I knew until I saw the emotion in five pairs of eyes. “We all have same stories,” Duh had said, but that is not true. They all have similar experiences. Their stories are uniquely personal, and they serve as cardinal prerequisites to the identities of each individual.

Identity matters.

How our students see themselves — as teenagers, thinkers, readers, writers, friends, students — matters, and to instruct the individual we must know what she believes about her abilities and her capabilities, both of which have been shaped in one way or another before she ever steps through our door.

Peter Johnston helped me understand the importance of identity in his book Choice Words. He reminds us, “[Children] narrate their lives, identifying themselves and the circumstances, acting and explaining events in ways they see as consistent with the person they take themselves to be” (23).

 

 

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Trust and esteem are imperative to effective conferring. They are imperative to effective teaching. They are two cornerstones of conferences that allow for the relationships students need with their teachers, the relationships students need to learn.

If our goal is to help our students incorporate reader and writer into their identities, we must build foundations that allow them to take on the behaviors of those who read and write. Equity and autonomy create balance in this foundation and become the other cornerstones.

All students must feel that we meet with them fairly and without judgment. They must know our goal is to inspire independence as they become more effective readers and writers — and of course, literate citizens.

Really, it all begins with the invitation:  “Please, tell me your story.”

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Graduates Lewisville High School Class of 2016


THAT DAY  THAT DAY
by Biak Par
Far from my Home, my Family
When looking at the sky they seem so happy
But me,
Thinking about that day
Every word they speaks, every looks, every smiles, every laugh
They tear me apart, the soul sing Be Strong
That day
Every word they talk, it burn my ears like Hell
Its torture me every night, in intimidate me every day
When I see those similar faces
That day
Those word, those eyes         
Tear my heart into two pieces.
Those words are as sharp as a razor
They call me foolish, Yea, I don’t know them
Burmese!
That day
My body fills with wound and remorse.
It like drawing into the water, I could not breathe nor talk,
Walking to class
All eyes on me,
Looking down with hope that there is a place I can conceal
But the room seems so small
As I take a step to the room, the room seems colder
Like I was at Antarctica,
Very Cold
Looking at the room I was isolated for this people,
This entire people are strangers.
That day
Standing still
People examine me, like I am from the others planet
That day…
My tremble body, drum in my blood
Eyes fill with water,
That day
The word of Burmese, such as STUPID, CRAZY echoed through my ears
Stupid, crazy,
My mouth wants to shout, but my mouth feels numb
And makes my throat feels tight like I am being choked,
Almost tearful
Wanting to run away can’t bear the exposes of feeling being hunted.
That day
Eyeing for a place to seat
But none of them invites me or speak,
It like I am walking into a room full of a babies Dolls,
They do not talks
But their EYES,
Their evil eyes talk, its say get out of this room
That day
Head down, looking at the floors as I walk toward to the edge of the room,
Seat alone,
The room feels so dark, so lonely and scary
Even, I was surrounding by those people
That day
My silent cry, wishing I can revisit to where I’ll be safe
Because every second, every minute, every hours this place seems so hazardous
That day…
Hopes and dreams are fading away like the wave of the cloud fade, little by little.
From that day the world is never the same
That day, change my life
Made me feels like a woman, made me realize
That because I am different from them (Burmese) and I only speak
CHIN,
They destroy and killed my hopes, my thought, my believe,
The thought of what might come next. I am Scared.
But,
My soul sing to me, be strong. BE Strong Biak Par. Be STRONG.

 

What is Your Teaching Everest?

I’m standing on my desk.

It’s dangerous, but exhilarating, and I probably look like a loon, but I don’t care. (Please see my post where I embrace my dorkdom in an effort to really get to know my students and move on happily with passionate living and teaching.)

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High heels kicked off, channeling the spirit of Mr. John Keating and brazen pigeons everywhere, I’m perched on the edge of my desk during prep, looking around the room to try and gain gain a different perspective.

Oh, Captain, my Captain…Somebody call security. She’s lost it.

No, no. I’m all right. (Well, you know – Relatively speaking. Dear colleagues, if you hear a thud, please investigate.)

So, what caused this poetic exploration of my abandoned classroom? I was thinking about a quote I heard at NCTE 2016:

What is your Everest this year as a teacher?

No, my desk isn’t my Everest. I’m not that far gone. But, per Shana’s inspiration to start with a question, I was thinking about what needs my attention the most right now. With 86 minutes to plan, grade, create, and locate necessary motivation to do all of the roomaforementioned tasks, what should I start with?

There’s certainly a lot to chose from: stacks of papers, countless books to read, share, and sort, a department in need of collaborative time to plan, students flying under the radar.

Everything in front of me is important. I need to grade the narratives my sophomores wrote, to put some ending punctuation on that adventure. When She Woke by Hillary Jordan is calling to me too. That book is Hester Prynne meets Offred meets futuristic criminal justice system that injects offenders with a skin altering virus based on their crimes – I need several extra hours in the day to read. Truth be told, I should have started this post sooner too. Procrastination and exhaustion mix into a delightful little cocktail called Crippled Motivation. Bartender, I’ll take another when you have a minute.  

In all seriousness though, I return to my question (Yes, I’m off my desk, Mom), because answering it means I can get something done. I’m weird that way. Could I pick up a stack of papers and just start? Of course. But I have to mentally work up to it, know my plan, have a reward of some sort (read five papers, read When She Woke for five minutes). This time, the question, the task, the implication is much bigger.

What’s most important right now? When I could do a thousand things, what needs to be done right now because it will mean the most?  I know the answer. And not only because I was just standing on my desk :

My Everest this year is feedback.

Consistent, responsive, quick feedback that first encourages, and then focuses in on promoting growth. Remember the old saying about catching more flies with honey than vinegar? That’s the stuff right there.

I want to move my students forward. We all do. But now, more than ever,  I believe the way to do it is through sincere investment in the original thoughts and explorations of my students. Personal connections that, yes, take some time, but build relationships that have helped me to better recommend texts, suggest style moves students may need to make in their more formal writing, and encourage additional critical thinking beyond the classroom.

I used to stress about “finding something good” to include in my comments to my students. And I hate to say this, but it’s downright hard in some instances, isn’t it?

I really like what you did with the title there. 
Interesting transitional choice. 
Wow. So many words in that sentence.
Nice…font selection.

But now,  I’m thinking about feedback in new ways and delivering it in new ways too. To reach my Everest, I’m going to have to get creative and intentional. So, here’s what I did this afternoon:

  • Read through a section of one pager submissions from my AP students. Check them in with the quick rubric for a formative score, and email five students per class with reactions. Not corrections, but reactions. Students are encouraged to explore in these writings and the best means of moving them forward in this case is to share additional insights, question, and encourage. I highlighted the students’ names in my gradebook to know I’ve contacted them and I’ll do the same with several more students next week. Writing feedback…check.

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  • I made a plan for conferring during reading later this week. Without a plan, it’s feeling random and I’m not doing it enough (the thousand things on my desk keep capturing my attention). So, I have a list. I know who I want to talk with based on quick writes students did today. They reflected on their progress toward their weekly reading goals and some students are struggling. Just by having them take a quick photo with their phones and email me the page, I got a literal snapshot of how each and every one of my students is doing with their independent reading, and I didn’t have to collect notebooks. Now, I’ve emailed a few students congratulations and made this plan. In the picture below, Alexis refers to her current read as “a beautiful romance of adventure.” Love! Reading feedback…check. 

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  • Students will self-assess their latest practice AP argument essays. Feedback does not need to come from me to be beneficial. Using the AP rubric to help justify scores, students will take a sheet of paper, put a score and justification on the top, fold it over and hand it to the person next to them. Scoring will proceed in the same way around the table until everyone has his/her paper back. The table will then need to calibrate/norm and agree on a score. Self assessment and peer assessment…check
  • I am going to question and listen more. Long ago, I gave up on the idea that my imparting knowledge on others was the best way for them to learn. Everyone learns best when the are motivated to do so through personal connection to the work, interest in the material, and an understanding of how to improve. Workshop sets this up in a classroom, it’s now my job to remember to listen more and jump in less. During conferences, during book clubs, during discussion. Listen first, respond, encourage, and redirect/suggest later. This certainly doesn’t mean my presence in the room diminishes. It means I remember that my presence in the room is to guide my students, not steamroll them.

Gaining a new perspective feels like hitting the reset button to me. It provides clarity of mind and purpose. Skill development is my professional responsibility. Human development is my personal responsibility. They work hand in and hand and they are the Everest I will climb all year, every year, as I talk with, respond to, and gain insights alongside my students.

What is your teaching Everest this year? We’d love to hear from you! Please add your insights to the comments below! 

Try it Tuesday: Partnering Up for Reading Conferences

Sometimes inspiration strikes at the most opportune times.

One day last week I had the honor of hosting two small groups of teachers from a different high school as they observed my classroom, one class period in the morning and another in the afternoon. Many of the teachers on their campus have been exploring and practicing with the workshop model for a while now, and they wanted to see my workshop classroom in action.

After each lesson, we met to debrief and hold a kind of question and answer session. Talk about an awesome experience (except for the voice in my head that kept saying “When did you become the expert on workshop? Yikes.)

I think one of the best things we can do as teachers is invite others into our rooms to watch us teach. Talk about keeping on the A Game. That’s a Try it Tuesday suggestion all in itself.

Here’s another one:

During one of those debriefs, one teacher asked about the conferences I conducted as my students read for the first 15 minutes of class. “What questions did you ask?

I explained that it depends on the student.

If I go with “How’s it going?”

My students answer, “Fine.”

If I go with “What are you thinking?”

My students answer, “Nothing.”

So I usually lead with “Tell me a little something about …will ya?” And then I listen to see what direction the conference might take.

That’s pretty much the genesis of every conference with my readers.

Another teacher mentioned that she and a colleague had been thinking about asking students to bring a question, thought, or problem to their reading conferences. You know, kind of like we ask students to do when we meet with them about writing. I’d never thought about it for a quick reading conference though. She wanted to know if I thought it was a good idea.

The image of this book came into my head. I found this copy of The Fault in Our Stars at a thrift store. It looked just like this:  plastered with sticky notes that reflect the student’s thinking. Now, I have no idea why this book is tattooed with notes, but I can imagine a not-so-great idea.

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I hope a teacher didn’t assign this book and ask students to bring ideas to a reading conference. If that happened, I doubt this student got into reading flow. I doubt this student enjoyed this lovely, heart-wrenching book. I doubt she felt the beauty of the language and felt the loss of a beloved character. Maybe all that happened, but it wouldn’t have happened for me.

I want my students to love to read. I think we have to be careful with what we ask them to do with their independent reading books besides fall in love with the story and the language. Sure, they may recognize craft, they may recognize characterization. But the important thing is that they recognize that they are liking to read. That is so important to so many of my readers. They have to realize they like reading.

I do believe we can, and should, ask students to revisit passages — and maybe even the whole of a book — from time to time, even quite often. We can teach many important reading and writing skills that way, but we have to temper our desire to teach a book to death, even the books students choose to read themselves.

What I told my inquiring friend:  What if before independent reading time, on any given day, we ask students to read for a specific purpose.

Read to find interesting figurative language. Read to notice clever imagery. Read to discover how the writer shares an insight about a character. Read to find a beautiful or startling sentence. Or maybe a sentence that’s not really a sentence.

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Fabian before class sharing his awe at the writing style of Jonathan Safron Foer in Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

Isn’t this what readers do? I do. When I read a passage that strikes me in some way I want to share it. And let me tell you:  When my students start to do this on their own? That’s celebration time.

“What about the student who cannot find anything to share?” you might ask.

Well, that’s important information, isn’t it? I don’t know, maybe like the kind we might discover in a one-on-one reading conference.

Right?

I’d love to know your thoughts on this. What ideas do you have that work for your reading conferences? Please share in the comments.

Big thanks and shout out to @Sean_G_Hood and @mrs_friend and the inspiring teachers at Hebron High School!

 

How Conferring and a Book Solved the Tissue Issue, and Hopefully, Much More #FridayReads

You know the boys who cannot sit still? I’ve got a gaggle of them in my second period. Now, I’m not talking about elementary school kids, nor middle school. I’m talking about the juniors I teach in high school.

No sooner do I blink, and at least one of them is up walking to the tissue box. He’ll slowly take a tissue. Saunter on back to his seat (for about three minutes — I’ve timed it) and then waltz on over to the trash can to throw the tissue away and then mosey on back to his seat.

With eight of these guys, it’s constant motion. And I need Dramamine.

One class period. Five days. Two boxes of tissues. Gone.

At the end of that first very long week, I realized the reality. All kinds of memories flooded back from Tom Newkirk’s class “Boys, Literacy, and Popular Culture”at UNH Lit Institute the summer of 2015.  (If you haven’t read Tom’s book Misreading Masculinity:  Boys, Literacy, and Popular Culture, it’s insightful.)

My tissue-loving boys were posturing all over the place, and somehow I needed to stop the Tissue Issue.

It’s been easier than I thought. Really, it’s all about getting them into books they want to read.

On the first day of school, I’d prepped my room with stacks of colorful engaging books on every table. We did a book pass and wrote down titles we thought we’d like to read. I showed my passion for books and reading, and my students rolled their eyes at my request they read for three hours a week.

“No way,” I heard one young man mutter, “I ain’t reading.”

This attitude doesn’t deter me.

Even if they were faking it, after just a few days and lots of one-on-one mini-conferences, every kid in a class of 30 at least looked like they were reading. Except two.

I invited these two separately into the hall for private chats about their social PATT (party all the time) moves in the classroom.

“You know, they all follow your lead, right? I need you working with me to make this class work.”

Both agreed, and I asked them to shake my hand on it.

But old habits die hard.

Then, today — 13 days into the school year — gold.

Book gold.

“Hey, Mrs. Ras, can I talk to you in the hall?

“Do you think you could help me find a different book to read — one with music. You already know I like music.” I remembered his free verse rap at the end of class last Friday.

“So give me some ideas –”

“Well, something like that book JaBo’s reading…the long way one.”

A Long Way Gone?” (I’m trying to remember if there’s any music in this memoir about a child soldier.)

Both of my copies were checked out. I had to think fast. Crash Boom Love, a novel in verse by Juan Felipe Herrera, National Poet Laureate, flashed in the corner of my eye. (Thank you, poetry shelf just inside the door.)

We flipped through the pages, and I explained that it’s a book written in verse — all poems that make a complete story.

“You mean like one long poem?”

“Yep. Do you want to trade me this book for that one?” I said nodding at My Friend Dahmer, the graphic novel in his hand he’d been fake reading for 12 days. (I know he chose it for the pictures. “It’s weird” is all he could tell me in our first conference.)

Not six seconds after we’d entered the room, I saw Kameron flipping through the pages and showing his new book to JaBo.

That’s when you know you’ve got them — or at least got a chance at getting them to read — when they do a book talk to their friend before they’ve even read a page.

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Meet Kameron. He may be a famous rapper one day.

I love this work with adolescent readers. I know we can change lives as we help young people grow in literacy skills, as we help them recognize themselves in books, and help them see others so different from themselves in the books they read.

It might be the only hope we have as a nation. Empathy, compassion, tolerance, justice, mercy, and love all wait for discovery like healing treasure and hope in the pages of the books we share with our students.

And when that book gold finally glistens — well, that’s when I have to cross the room for a tissue.

 

 

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Try it Tuesday: Silent Sticky Conferences

A burning question I seem to repeat year after year is “How do I talk to more of my students one-on-one beginning on the first day of school?”

I know the value of making eye contact with the adolescents who enter my room. I know the importance of making them feel like they belong here — like they are in a place where they can be themselves, a place where they want to learn.

I confer regularly with my students — about their reading lives and their writing lives — but every year it seems to take me a while to get in the groove. You know, get all the procedures introduced and underway, get students interested in books (and sometimes reading itself), learn names, set up our writer’s notebooks and our blogs and all the different bits of technology we use regularly like Google Classroom and Twitter.

I know all of these things are important, but sometimes I feel like I miss valuable moments of just I-want-to-get-to-know-you in my rush to get everything set up so we can finally begin to learn.

I know myself well.

So this year — I’ve slowed the pace a bit. And my students and I are passing notes.

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On the first day of school, I asked students to write their names big and bold on one side of a notecard. (I use these throughout the year to select non-volunteers to speak up and share their notebook responses and to answer questions. You know, like the popsicle sticks with everyone’s name on them idea.) Then, on the other side of the card, I asked students to tell me what they think I need to know about them as a learner in relation to the reading and writing we will do in this English class.

Silent confer1Some of my students’ notes were telling:  Many of them lack confidence. Few of them like to read. A couple feel ready for the complex texts they will have to tackle. Some explained in very few words a need to feel validated and cared for and something personal and important to them as learners in my care.

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I responded to each student’s note with a personal note of my own, written on a sticky note that I returned the next day in class. One young man questioned as I walked the room passing them out:  “Miss, you wrote to all of us?”silentconfer2

“Yes,” I told him, ” and I need you to carefully read what I wrote. Let’s see if we can start a conversation about you and what you need from me as a reader and a writer.” His grin grew as golden.

Silent sticky-note conferences have been the norm in my class for quite some time. They bridge the gaps between face-to-face conferences, build relationships, show we care enough to pick up a pen and pen a few words of encouragement or instruction.

With class sizes of 30 (sometimes 30+) we have to find ways to talk to our students one-on-one often. This passing little notes method fulfills my need to touch base with students, and it fuels their need to be recognized, validated, and hopefully inspired.

If you haven’t invested in sticky notes this year, hurry to the store while they are still on the back-to-school sales. I’ve got a whole crate of them.

Next step:  We’ll eventually move into larger pieces of paper, so I want to teach my img_1845students to fold notes like I did way back in seventh grade before the advent of all this technology. Texting friends just cannot be as fun as all those little folded notes.

What are your ideas for more face-to-face and one-on-one conversations with students this year? Please share in the comments.

 

 

5 Reasons Reading Conferences Matter–Especially in High School English

return and talkThis summer, we’d like to return and talk about some of our most useful, engaging, or popular posts.  Today’s post, written by Amy in 2015, reminds us that conferences aren’t just for assessment–they’re for nurturing, too.

Please return to this topic and talk with us in the comments–how and why do you confer?


The Attention. Every child needs one-on-one conversations with an adult as often as possible.  Adolescents, by nature of their age, struggle with identity, fairness, stress, and a slew of other issues that contribute to all kinds of problems. The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University. reports that “9 out of 10 Americans who meet the medical criteria for addiction started smoking, drinking, or using other drugs before age 18.” This is not surprising since according to this study, “75% of all high school students have used addictive substances, including tobacco, alcohol, marijuana, or cocaine.”

I know there are many reasons for teenagers to partake in these substances. I also know that many students think that adults do not care, or will not notice, if they are in class, participating in class, or lucid in class. One way to show our adolescent students that we care is to talk with them. And face-to-face conversations about books and reading is a pretty safe way to do so, not to mention that we model authentic conversations about reading when we do.

Try questions like:

  • How’s it going? (Thanks, Carl Anderson)
  • Why did you choose this book?
  • Do you know anyone else who has read this book? What’d she think?
  • How’d you find the time to read this week?
  • What’s standing in the way of your reading time?

The Relationship. Once students know they can trust us, they will tell us things about their lives, their struggles, and their hopes beyond high school. According to the Zur Institute, teen internet and video game addictions, violence in the media, online bullying, and violence in the home top the charts as some of the major influencers of teen behavior. On the Zur website, there’s a section titled “What You Can Do.” We find language that mirrors the words and phrases that lead to the most effective reading conferences, like “learn what [it] means to your children by talking with them about it,” and “be genuinely curious about what draws them to [whatever it is],” and “discuss balance,” and “keep the conversation active.”

We hear so much talk in education circles about engagement. Engagement comes as a result of relationships. When we talk to our students about their lives and the things that matter to them, and we help them see that somewhere in some book a character has experienced similar situations, conflicts, and heartaches, we show our students that literature is a living breathing source of hope. This Psychology Today post explains it clearly:  “Books are friends we can choose without restriction,” believed John Ruskin, an English art critic of the 19 Century who influenced Marcel Proust “who developed the idea of a novel that was not just a friend, but a friend who enables us to become intimate both with other minds and with our own.” Proust called readers of his own work “a sort of magnifying glass … by which I could give them the means to read within themselves.”

My students and I talk about windows and mirrors. This is why we read literature:  to learn what it means to be human. How do you see yourself in the characters, conflicts, situations, and how do you see out into a world that is very different from your own? The more we grow in empathy, the better relationship we’ll have with our friends, our families and all other people we associate with — at least the idealist in me will cling to that hope as I continue to talk to students about books and reading.

Try questions like:

  • What character reminds you of yourself or someone you know?
  • What part of the story is the most similar/different to your life?
  • Why do you think the author makes that happen in the book?
  • What does he want us to learn about life?
  • How does this story/character/conflict/event make you think about life differently?

The Learning. There are times when I’ve done a mini-lesson, I feel like I’ve talked to myself. I see little application of a skill I know I’ve taught. Sometimes students completely miss the point of the lesson. However, when I take the time to talk to each student individually, and reinforce the skill in a quick chat, the application of that skill some how seeps into their brains much deeper. And you know those students who are super apprehensive — the ones who have to ask “Is this right?” and show us a teeny bit of work before they will really produce any work? Holding a regular reading conference has solved this problem.

Students know they will get a chance to talk with me about their progress, and they are more willing to take risks than when we talk infrequently. Time for reading conferences, and conferences timed to meet the needs of each one of our learners solves many at-risk behaviors and promotes deeper learning.

Try questions like:

  • Tell me about _____ that we learned in class today. How does that relate to your book/character?
  • Remember when we learned _____, tell me how/where you see that in your book.
  • Think about when we practiced ___, where does the author do that in your book?
  • You’ve improved with ___, how could you use that skill for _______?

The Literacy. Sometimes I think we forget that the purpose of our instruction must be to develop the literate lives of our students. We must provide opportunities for our students to grow into confident and competent readers and writers in order to handle the rigor and complexity of post high school education and beyond. We must remember to focus on literacy not on the literature — just like we must focus on the reader not just on the reading. We must validate our readers, ask questions that spark confidence, avoid questions that demean or make the student defensive, and at the same time challenge our readers into more complex texts. We can learn if a child has read a book, or the assigned pages, with a few quick questions. Then we must turn the conversations to the why, the what, and the how that will get students to choose to take a step up the ladder of complexity.

When students know that we care more about them as the person than we care about what or how much they have read, they will trust us. And it’s trust between the adolescent and the adult that creates the most movement as a reader, a writer, a student, a young person emerging into adulthood. Students will read the rich literature we bless because they know we are leading them into literature that will in turn bless their lives.

Try questions like:

  • On a scale of 1 to 10 how complex is this book for you? Why?
  • What do you do when the reading gets difficult?
  • Of all the books you’ve read this year, which was the most challenging? Why?
  • How’s it going finding vocabulary for your personal dictionary?
  • Tell me how you are keeping track of the parallel storyline?

The Reward. We can experience powerful rewards as we meet with our students in regular reading conferences. (I wrote about one here.) Every year, after students get to know me a bit, they tell me things like: “We were scared of you at first. You seemed so strict,” and “You intimidated me, and I was afraid to talk to you.” I get how students see me. I’m tall for one thing. For another, I get right to the point and state the learning that will happen in my classroom. Structure and routine are important for the work we do here, and I explain what that looks like within the first twenty minutes of day one. We work bell to bell with very little down time. I get that many students are not used to such habits, especially in our 85 minute classes.

My students experience breakthroughs regularly.  It’s during our reading conferences that they tell me my instruction works. “Miss, I only read two books in all of 10th grade. I was so behind. This year I’ve read SO many. I can’t count. You’ve helped me so much. I wish I could go back in time and read this much in 10th grade,” one girl tells me. Another says,  “I never thought I would like to read. Now, look at me,” as she shows me the copy of Anna Karenina she bought over the weekend. (We’d done a mini-lesson on beautiful sentences, and I talked about the books our mentor sentences came from — not really expecting anyone would want to read that one. Oh, they can surprise us!)

I ask students about their confidence levels in our little chats, and they tell me they know they have grown as a readers. This is the best kind of reward.

Try questions like:

  • How has your confidence grown as you’ve read this year?
  • What do you think is the one thing we’ve done in class that’s helped you improve so much as a reader?
  • How will the habits you’ve created in class help you in the reading you’ll have to do in college?
  • Why do you think you’ve grown so much as a reader the past few weeks?
  • What’s different for you now in the way you learn than how you learned before?
  • Describe for me the characteristics you have that make you a reader.

What kinds of questions work for you in your reading conferences?

©Amy Rasmussen, 2011 – 2015

Think Big and Grow Friends

My colleagues here at TTT and I met in a Google Hangout for a long long time last week. I love being surrounded by wise and witty people who make me feel more wise and witty.

When I was a teen my dad had me read How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie and Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill. I don’t remember Dad ever reading for pleasure*, but I know he got pleasure from reading self-help books, and he read to learn. Then he shared what he learned with anyone who would listen.

 

I was a willing listener, always seeking to please my father.

I learned from Carnegie powerful truths that improved my interactions with strangers, friends, peers, and colleagues. And when I began teaching, I put into action these truths as I interacted with students. I believe trusting relationships and conferring moments rest heavily on Carnegie’s principles.

I learned from Hill seemingly simple steps that gave me vision, taught me to set goals —Screen Shot 2016-06-28 at 1.54.04 PMand to surround myself with those who would help me see them through. I’ve followed his advice for several decades now — each time developing skills, gaining trust and gaining knowledge, more readily and passionately. And while I am not rich in terms of monetary wealth, I am rich in all the ways that matter.

My TTT colleagues and the readers of this blog add to that wealth.

Thank you for subscribing, reading, sharing, commenting. Thank you for giving me a focus, a place to sharpen my skills as a teacher and a writer, a place to think big and make friends.

For the next several weeks, Shana, Lisa, Jackie, and I will take a break from writing posts. Like you, we are tired. We’ll use July to refine some plans and rev up for fall and a brand new school year. Maybe one of us will get the urge to write and post, but in the meantime, we’ll schedule some repeats of our favorite topics so you will keep getting content about how to make readers and writers workshop even more effective in your classroom.

We’ve got some plans for TTT that we know you’ll like. Please like the Three Teachers Talk page on Facebook if you haven’t already, and follow us on Twitter @3TeachersTalk.

And if you want to get in on some practical tips we’ll be sending to our readers’ inboxes starting when school comes back around, be sure you follow this blog by clicking on the “follow” link and providing us with your email address.

If you have questions that just cannot wait, feel free to email me at amyprasmussen@yahoo.com.

Join us as we continue the conversation in August. Until then, happy summer!

#3TTWorkshop — Part Two Student and Teacher Buy In

This post is the continuation of a conversation from the previous post in response to an email we received from our friend an UNH colleague Betsy Dye.

How do we help students understand what we mean by choice, especially when they’ve been given ‘choice’ before in the form of ‘choose from this list of books or topics.’?

Shana:  Again, I think modeling is key here.  I show students my roller-coaster of reading, including the trashy romance novels I indulge in despite my Masters degree in literature.  I show them my pile of abandoned books, for “life’s too short to finish bad books.”  I show them classics that I sort of wish I’d read, but never have.  And then I show them my notebook pages of books I’m currently reading or want to read.

It also helps that I have students complete visual and written reading ladders each year, and I show new students the previous year’s ladders to illustrate individualized choice.  And again, here’s where the class reputation comes in handy as well.

Lisa:  ^This. Our stories as readers and writers are gold, especially to some kids who have no such models in their lives. My students laugh at my copy of Don Quixote on my desk. I started it in September. I am 200 pages in. I’ve read over a dozen books since I unintentionally stopped reading that tome, and I had to promise some of my juniors that I would finish it before they graduate next year, but I’ve covered a lot of ground by not allowing myself to get weighted down. Yes, we must press students to finish texts and not become kids that drop book after book without really pushing themselves, but we must also remember that when they do find the one, it can lead to the next one (especially with our gentle guidance) and hopefully many more to come.

In terms of writing, it’s more modeling and the application of the skill each and every day. Sometimes, it seems, it really comes down to endurance. Many kids only write when they have to, which causes them to sit in front of a screen, pound out the required pages, and move on. However, when they get into the habit of writing, when it becomes exploration instead of a narrowly focused task, it becomes less like completing your taxes and more like picking out what to wear. One you do not only do once a year with heavy sighs and confusion because you are basically out of practice and unwilling to do more than the required work. The other provides you with an opportunity to choose, express yourself, and build confidence.

Finally, the classroom library comes to mind. Variety here is key. Students need to see that they aren’t limited by the short list they might receive at the beginning of the year in other classes. If your library has options and you talk about those options often, they will believe. If you build it…they will come.

Amy:  I’ll repeat Shana:  Confer. Confer, Confer. The more we engage in conversations with our students about what we mean by choice and books and writer’s notebooks and everything else in the sphere of workshop, the more they will understand and take ownership of their choices. We must be willing to admit that choice is hard when they’ve never had it, or they’ve only had tiny tastes of it. So many students are afraid of being wrong, afraid of “the grade.” It’s through our conversations that we have the best chance of eliminating these fears and helping students trust themselves along the way.

How do we open the library shelves to our seniors and help them move beyond the four to six novels they’ve read each year for the three previous years?

Amy:  I’ll start with stating the somewhat controversial:  I doubt most of our seniors read

Screen Shot 2016-05-17 at 10.29.37 PM

Not my students’ actual conversation but still. 🙂

all the required novels teachers selected in those earlier years. Every year I ask my juniors how many books they read the year before. Some say they read only the required books. Some admit to starting but not finishing them. Some tell me they didn’t read those books at all. If we are going to make all the decisions about the books we choose for our students, we have to be okay knowing that not all of our students will read them.

Shana:  Ha–I know that kids don’t always read what’s assigned, because little goody-two-shoes me didn’t read what was assigned.  And I loved reading.  In fact, I read John Grisham under my desk while my teacher talked about Catcher in the Rye.  I tell students that story, and show them the many weather-beaten Grisham novels on my mystery shelf, and ask them about their guilty pleasure reads, or their life-changing reads, or their escape-from-reality reads.  [Amy:  or their Wattpad reads] All of those discussions start a conversation about the possibilities choice reading might offer, and we go from there.

Lisa:  I asked. They don’t read. They tell me sweetly, but still, they don’t read. Students I had as sophomores will gladly share with me as seniors all the ways they worked to convince me they read The Scarlet Letter, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. 

Amy:  Lisa, I had students publicly confess to not reading a thing in my class in a Facebook group I had several years ago. Stabbed me right in the eye because at the time I had no idea they could be so sneaky — and smart — and still make high grades in my class without reading the same American literature books you mention. It’s like they subconsciously deny the canon!

Lisa:  So…how do we open our shelves and help seniors move beyond the books they never read? By offering up a wealth of books they can read, telling them to look through the books at home they’ve always meant to read, sending them to book recommendation lists, talking with them about what they might want to do after high school and suggesting books in that vein, having them talk with peers who have kept up with reading and have recommendations to share.

I had a student who graduated in 2013 come back to observe some of my classes this week. He book talked Ishmael to my AP students today, and I just received an email from a student saying that he went to Half Price Books and picked up a copy tonight. 

The power of suggestion is strong. If I am surrounded by people working out, I might consider getting off my couch. If I am surrounded by people complaining all the time, I start to complain too. If I am surrounded by readers, I am going to see what all the fuss is about. Many of our students want to read, but they need time. We can provide it. Many of our students want to read but need suggestions. We can provide those. Many of our students want to read, but only what they want to read.

Bingo. Let’s start there and build on it.

How do we help our colleagues get started with workshop?

Lisa:  By inviting Three Teachers Talk to provide professional development! No, seriously. It’s how my team in Franklin saw all the possibility that workshop holds and how to actually make it work day to day. So that comes down to support. Comparatively speaking, curriculum in a textbook is easy. Curriculum you’ve taught for fifteen, twenty, twenty-five years, provides comfort. Running off packets of study-guide questions isn’t too terribly difficult either. Building meaningful lessons from scratch is really hard work. I’ve lived it, and I’ve seen it happen at Franklin as we work to move our 9th and 10th grade classes to workshop. If we didn’t work at it together, it would be infinitely more difficult.

Shana:  Support is essential.  Whether it’s the kind of support one finds in a workplace colleague, or connecting with a like-minded friend via Twitter or a blog, workshop teachers are part of a community just as nurturing as the ones we strive to create in our classrooms.  It warms my heart and fuels my spirit to think of Lisa and Amy working on this craft in their Wisconsin and Texas classrooms, and it invigorates me on days I think I’d rather just run copies of a worksheet.  We’re all trying our best to craft strong, student-centered classrooms, and whatever guidance and support we can provide one another is a non-negotiable.  Pedagogical reading recommendations, webinars, and Twitter chats can all help our colleagues dive into workshop, and be buoys when we need them, too.

Amy:  Yes, to all that, and I can think of two other little things we can do to share this work with our colleagues:

1) invite colleagues to visit our classrooms. I am such a visual learner. When I see a strategy taught, over reading about a strategy in a book, I am much more able to use it successfully with my students. The same holds true for how workshop works. I read Nancie Atwell’s book In the Middle. It is a great book! But I could not imagine how I could make what she described work in my 9th grade classroom with 33 students. It wasn’t until I experienced writing workshop myself via the North Star of TX Writing Project Summer Institute that I got a vision of what workshop looked like.

Too often we teach like castaways on tiny islands, cut off from everyone else. Invite other teachers to walk through, sit a spell, engage in the same routines the students are doing. I think that is the single most powerful way to share the workshop philosophy with other teachers.

2) share student work, excitement, and testimonies. More than our own testifying to the power of workshop, it’s our students’ voices that move teachers. Do you remember the first time you watched one of Penny Kittle’s videos where she interviewed her students? Shana, I think this is the video we watched the summer we met at UNH. I love these boys.

Student voices = the sometimes needed push to fall over the cliff into this exciting workshop way to teach and learn.

Do you have topic ideas you would like us to discuss? Please leave your requests here or in the comments. Thank you for joining the conversation.

#3TTWorkshop — Teaching Students How to Thrive in Workshop

#3TTWorkshop Meme

We received the following request from our UNH-loving friend and inspiring educator Betsy Dye who teaches in Illinois. She got us thinking.

Betsy’s email:

What advice do you have for a teacher about introducing workshop to classes who are unfamiliar with it?  What are some of the effective ways to explain to students what they’ll be doing if they’ve never experienced a workshop classroom before?

While of course I’ve had students who have taken to and embraced the idea of workshop immediately,  I’ve had others who often fall into one or more of the following categories:

–students who have become so apathetic to what they’re doing because of no choice that they now prefer to be told exactly what to do which doesn’t require a lot of effort on their part
or
ninth graders who used to be enthusiastic readers and writers until middle school when whole class novels replaced independent reading and when whole class prompts were assigned for all writing and who’ve consequently lost their passion for reading  and writing
or
students who have been told they will have choices … but then have been pigeonholed when an actual assignment was given (‘you can write about anything you want as long as it happened in the 1700s in England’; you can read anything  you want as long as it’s a fictional historical novel’); these students don’t really trust me when I say I’m all about choice
or
seniors who have spent three years stuck in the whole class read/whole class discuss/whole class write essays cycle, and who have read only about 4 to 6 novels a year

I’ve also had a few colleagues ask how to get started and while I’ve been able to provide a few suggestions, I’d sure love some other input.

Amy:  First of all, I think asking ourselves how we get students, no matter their predisposition, to engage in a workshop-inspired classroom is something we should revisit often. Every year and every new group of students deserves our focus and best efforts so they have the best year of learning possible.

I have to remind myself that just because one group of kids understood and engaged well one year does not mean the incoming group of kids will the next. This year is a perfect example. I’ve wracked my brain, but I must have missed a core piece of the buy-in pie at the beginning of the year because many of the things that have worked in prior years have produced constant push back in this one. I’ve already got two pages of notes with what I want to do differently, or better, next year.

What advice do you have for a teacher about introducing workshop to classes who are unfamiliar with it?

Shana:  My strongest piece of advice is to make sure students know what they’re doing and why they’re doing it during each lesson segment in a workshop structure.  At the beginning of last school year, I had a student named Robert who was constantly angry with me for what he saw as workshop “catching him off guard.”  He didn’t know how to predict what we might do next after ten years of whole-class novel sameness.  He felt afraid that choice amounted to a trick, and that he wouldn’t be able to be as successful as he’d been in previous English classes.  

Robert reminded me that for many of our students, the workshop is wildly unfamiliar, and that for many teens, change is scary.  I had to be deliberate in my language, in our routines, and in my classroom organization in order to constantly reinforce for students what we were doing and why we were doing it.  I made sure to always have an agenda on the board, including a “what’s next” segment that showed how the day’s lesson related to the next class, and also made sure to review and preview during each day’s mini-lesson.  I found that once I reiterated to students that a day’s lesson was going to be used in a specific way, they began to make the connections between lessons that I only saw in my lesson design.

Lisa: Our district has been utilizing workshop for several years in the K-8 realm, but high school workshop is relatively new to our department, and completely new as the prefered delivery method. That said, I think the most important element to stress with teachers is that the enthusiasm they project has a huge impact on student willingness to buy in. This is true with or without choice, but when I am suggesting to my students that they be readers and writers, I need to model, live it, breath it, and love it.

Amy:  One of my first exposures to workshop instruction came from Marsha Cawthon who teaches in Plano, TX. She invited me to visit her classroom. Wow. The walls were painted deep inviting colors, and she’d moved out the ‘school-looking’ furniture and brought in home furnishings. The room welcomed something different. At that time, Marsha told me that when the room is different than what they are accustomed to — desks in rows and stereotypical school posters, etc — students know that the class and the instruction will be different. I started painting my walls, grouping my desks into tables, throwing a rug on the floor, and bringing in cast off furniture and book shelves.

Lisa:  Amy speaks about the impact the physical classroom has on this process. I think that makes a huge difference, too. Our enthusiasm shows in our classroom design. We as teachers know that we are selling a product. That means if we convey our enthusiasm through the way our rooms look, the level of excitement we project about a text through a book talk, and/or our sincere line of inquiry during conferences, students know if we really practice what we preach and use what we are selling. Let your enthusiasm for literature and writing, and in this case they are broad terms because they afford so many options, set the foundation for the year. Ask students a lot of questions, invest in their answers, and moving forward with confidence in what you have to offer them can, and in many cases will, empower them and change them for the better.  

What are some effective ways to explain to students what they’ll be doing if they’ve never experienced a workshop classroom before?

Amy:  Of course, I tell students on day one that the teaching I do and by extension the learning they will do will be different in my classroom. I know they don’t believe me. I teach 11th grade. Talk about kids that are set in their ways. Some checked out of school a long while ago, and they are just going through the motions. Most hope to go to college though — that’s a plus for the AVID program in which all of my students are a part of. I have taught 9th, and 10th grade before though — often the students at these younger grades are even harder to convince that workshop instruction differs from a traditional approach where the teacher makes all the choices in reading and writing. Sometimes kids do not want to make choices. It’s sad, but they are way too jaded already. I know everyone who’s taught for even a little while already knows this. So what can we do?

Rituals and routines. I think that’s at least part of the answer. We set up rituals and routines that we stick through like super glue, and we do not waver or change plans if at all possible. We practice, practice, practice until the routines become the norm. We help students recognize the moments that work and work well. For example, my students read at the beginning of every class period. The routine is set:  walk in the door, get out your books, begin reading. When I am on my game at the beginning of the year, and I welcome students at the door and remind them to sit down and begin reading, I have a much easier time than the daily reminder I end up resorting to. We save valuable reading and instructional time when we get right into our books. Then, when students read, I confer. This routine is the spokes in the wheel that keep my workshop instruction thriving. The more I consistently confer, the more students read and write in abundance and at high levels.

Lisa: I will echo what Amy says with wild abandon. Routine. Use the precious minutes for, as Penny Kittle says, what matters. Again, with our students entering high school with a workshop background, I think the biggest challenge for our official move to workshop next year will be for teachers to learn/grow through experimentation and for students to see what the accelerated expectations are at the high school level. Though, I think for all students, whether they have workshop experience or not, the routine provides a normalcy that quickly unifies the classroom. When students know what to expect every day (time to read, book talk, mini lesson, etc.), expectations have already been set. Then those routines can be built on to encourage consistent reading, deep analysis, focused revision of work, collaboration, and ultimately, the community of readers and writers forms.

Shana:  Again, we are in accord.  Routines and rituals are essential to the workshop.  Once those student-centered practices are made normative, and students know that their risk-taking within a workshop community will not result in punitive actions like bad grades, it is then that we can encourage the freedom and autonomy essential to advancement in a workshop classroom.  In addition to all this, I’ll say that after a few years teaching at my high school, my class established a reputation, and students entered the room trusting my practice rather than questioning it.  Students talk to one another about workshop classes, and those who’ve heard about the concept come in willing to try it out because they know the gist of what it’s all about.

How do you help inspire learning and engage those students who seem to prefer to be told exactly what to do?

Amy:  Everyone on the planet loves to have choices. This includes students who seem to be so apathetic they wait until we make the choice for them. Of course, Don Murray said something like this “Choice without parameters is no choice at all.” Sometimes too much choice looms too large for students. Lighten the load. Lower the stakes. Instead of saying “Read anything you want,” say things like “Why don’t you try a book from these interesting titles?” (and set down a stack of five or six) or “Let’s talk some more one-on- one. I bet I can make a reader of you yet.” This puts the challenge on you instead of on the student. Interesting how many non-responders will respond. Sometimes it takes awhile, but we can almost always win the challenge of engagement.

Shana:  I agree–all choice is no choice.  That’s why I like to consistently model what choice in literacy looks like.  When students see my example–I know the kinds of books I like, and I choose from within those genres, or I know the kinds of writing topics I’m interested in and write within those topic frames–they begin to understand what choice might look like for them.  Lisa’s colleague Catherine wrote about intentional modeling here, and I think that’s an essential part of the workshop.  When students see my passion for creating my own path of literacy advancement, they begin to see what theirs might look like, too.  Oh–and never relenting when kids ask for the easy path helps, too.  🙂

Lisa: What comes to mind immediately is how ironic that teenagers would ever want to be told what to do! In so many areas of their lives, like all human beings, we desire to forge our own path if we are truly given the resources and support to do so. Students often want to be told what to do when they are too afraid to take a risk or too trained to let other people think for them. Shana’s point about being a model is my strategy here too. Never be afraid to be geeky about your love of reading and writing.

Where I think I may have gone a bit wrong in the past is that I would try to translate my love of reading and writing through the texts that only I chose. This will hook some students, but without the ability to take a passion for reading and apply it to what they want to read, I was only ever hitting a few kids with each text. It’s like mushrooms. My husband, sweet as he is, has been trying to get me to like mushrooms for over a decade. Now, I do enjoy food, and I will gladly eat all day long, but I am never going to like mushrooms. In fact, when they appear, I am basically done eating (and yes, mushrooms just appearing is a real, hard hitting issue). Mushroom rants aside, we can’t take what we like and expect kids to invest.

We need to show them that we read and write, that reading and writing connects us to what it means to be humans (all humans), and we can all grow from it. Sometimes it takes a long, long, long time, but with the wide expanse of choice, we have a much better chance of reaching each and every student. And…bribe them. 😉

How do we reinvigorate a student’s passion for reading and writing?

Amy: I hesitate to lay all the blame on middle school, but I do think something happens during these years that can often dampen a love of reading and writing in our students. I remember reading a text by Alfie Kohn wherein he said something like “Just when students are old enough to start making wise choices, we take the choices away from them.” I know some would argue that sixth graders are not very wise, but I’d argue right back. Sure, they are. They are wise to the things they like to read and the topics they like to explore in their writing.

My twin sons had a workshop teacher in middle school — the only two of my seven children who did — I think it was seventh grade. Both Zach and Chase learned to like reading, something that did not happen in middle school. They also learned to write. They chose topics like football and winning the state championship like their older brother. They wrote hero stories about saving their friends as they imagined themselves as soldiers surrounded by gunfire. My boys are now close to 22. Chase has spent his first full week at Basic Training with the Army, and Zach plans on joining the Navy when he returns in a year from his mission in Taiwan. They are both masterful writers and eclectic readers. I owe a lot of thanks to that middle school teacher.

Lisa: Show them you care about what they care about, and you care enough to push them to care about a wider and wider world.  That means meaningful conversations (conferring), opportunities to explore student interests (choice writing/reading), passionately sharing your own ideas and insights (book talks, selection of mentor texts), and subscribing to the motto that variety is the spice of life.

I’ve read a lot in the past few months that I would have thought was out of my comfort zone. For example, I read my first graphic novel, Persepolis. Ahhh-mazing. I’ll be honest. I was judgey about graphic novels before, but now, I am hooked! Once hooked, I book talked the text and shared with students the story of how wrong I was about graphic novels. We talked then about books, genres, and experiences with reading that surprise us. I think it’s good for students to be nudged (shoved) out of their own comfort zones sometimes. At the same time, they aren’t going to jump back in the game without those experiences that come from a place of pure passion and joy. So…we must really get to know our kids, make suggestions that speak to them as best we are able, and then give them time. Time is precious to all of us, but to teenagers, it would seem, they have little to no time to read. We must make time for them in class (give them a taste) and then work with them to make the time (even ten minutes at a time) to keep coming back for more.

Shana:  Confer, confer, confer.  When we talk to kids and find out what they are passionate about, we can help them see the connections between their passions and literacy.  Further, we can introduce them to important links between success in their interests and how reading and writing can put that success within reach–my vocation-driven West Virginia students aren’t interested in the literacy skills that college might require, but they do care about being able to read or write a technical manual.

We can also help students discover new passions through reading–after reading Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air in tenth grade, I fell in love with Mt. Everest, and I still read anything I can get my hands on about it.

We’ll continue with part two of this discussion tomorrow. In the meantime, please add your comments. How would you answer Betsy’s questions? What did we leave out?

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