Tag Archives: high school readers and writers workshop

Choice as the Keystone in Secondary English Classes

Shana and I were privileged to present a session during #TheEdCollabGathering on Saturday. If you joined us live, thank you! If you’d like to see our session, here it is. If you have questions we did not answer, leave them in the comments. We’ll do our best to answer.

Choice as the Keystone in Secondary English Classes

A big thank you to @iChrisLehman and the EdCollab Community.

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#FridayReads: Required Reading “Our Students Want to Write”

Confession:  I buy a ton of pedagogy books. I rarely read them all the way through. I blame it on my blossoming OCD. I can only take in so many ideas before I run out of space in my head to hold them all long enough to use them.

412bcpby4iol-_sx326_bo1204203200_That is not the case with this classic, suggested to me by my friend and mentor Penny Kittle, Learning by Teaching by Donald Murray.

I remember when Penny recommended it. She was in the DFW metroplex teaching a workshop, and I’d asked if we could meet up and talk about my writing. She graciously agreed, and we met at a Starbucks inside a Target. As always, Penny radiated positive energy. She told me about the work she was doing with Kelly Gallagher. I told her about my struggle trying to write a book, a book I am still trying to write.

I still cannot believe I had a writing conference — yet again — with Penny Kittle! (My first was during her class at The University of New Hampshire Literacy Institute the summer of 2013.)

At one point in our conversation, Penny paused and asked if I had read Don Murray’s book Learning by Teaching. I said no. At the time I hadn’t read any of his books, but I’d heard Penny talk about Murray with such affection, quoting him often. I knew this was a book I need to not just purchase, but one I needed to read. I’ve read and re-read and marked page after page.

Don Murray validates the moves I make in my workshop classroom, the moves I make

pageinMurraybook

My thinking while reading the essay “The Process of Writing” by Donald M. Murray

 

when planning instruction for my AP Language and Composition course. I have learned from those who learned from Murray, and his work reminds me again and again why teaching with student choice in mind works. Every time I feel like I fail, every time I get frustrated with the way an assignment flopped, or I didn’t reach a certain student what I’d hope to teach him, I turn back to this book of essays by Murray. (I did this recently after most of my students bombed an assignment, which was mostly my fault.)

Here’s an excerpt from Murray’s essay titled “Our Students Will Write –If We Let Them” published in North Carolin English Teacher, Fall, 1977. I probably break a copyright law by sharing, but I’ll risk it if it means freeing more writers. (See more about freeing writers in Penny Kittle’s piece “What We Learn When We Free Writers.”)

Our students want to write — but not what we want them to write.

Our students want to write of death and love and hate and fear and loyalty and disloyalty; they want to write the themes of literature in those forms — poetry, narrative, drama — which have survived the centuries. They want to write literature, and we assign them papers of literary analysis, comparison and contrast, argumentation based on subjects on which they are not informed and for which they have no concern.

We should see that their desire to write proves the vitality and importance of literature and literature-making in each generation, that language is central to the human experience, not just as a communications skill but as the best way to recall and understand experience. We tell our students the unexamined life is not worth living, yet we seldom allow those students to examine their lives firsthand through what is termed creative writing.

It is time that we, as a profession, not only support the reading of literature but the making of literature; that we encourage our students to write what they want to write and realize that what they want to write is more intellectually demanding, more linguistically challenging, more rhetorically difficult than the writing we usually require in the English class.

The biggest problem in the teaching of writing is ourselves. We do not encourage, allow, or respond to our students’ desire to write. We do not believe that our students can write anything worth reading, and they prove our prediction. Conditions will not improve until we realize that what we face is a teacher problem, not a student problem.

There are many important reasons to consider taking what is usually tolerated, at best, in the elective creative writing course and placing it at the center of the writing curriculum. Some of them are:

  • Writing about individual human experience motivates both the gifted and those we often consider disadvantaged. In fact, we may find that the disadvantaged aren’t in terms of experiences which can be explored through writing. Students who are not motivated by our lectures on the need for writing skills–they know the need does not exist in the lives they expect to live–still share the human hunger to record and examine experience. Students who are bored with papers of literary analysis or even incapable of writing such a paper at this state in their development may be able to write extraordinary papers based on first-person experience.
  • Students discover…that they have a voice, they have a way of looking at their own life through their own language. They discover and learn to respect their own individuality.
  • Through writing, the student increases his or her awareness of the world, and then works to order that awareness.
  • As students follow language towards meaning they extend and stretch their linguistic skills.
  • The experience-centered, doing nature of the writing curriculum will reach many students who are not comfortable with the analytical passive-receptive nature of the typical academic curriculum.
  • Creative writing gives students a new insight to literature. The study of literature is no longer entirely a spectator sport, but an activity which they can experience and appreciate.
  • The creative writing class may be the place where some students learn to read. Test results in many community colleges and other colleges of the second chance show that many students who test as not being able to read are also the best writers. They are able to read their own words and to perform the complex, evaluative techniques essential to revision. They learn to read by writing.
  • Students and teachers of creative writing rediscover the fun of writing. Art is, at the center, play, and perhaps that is the reason it is so little tolerated in the school. If it is fun can it be learning? Yes.
  • Finally, we should teach creative writing because it is more intellectually demanding than the study of literature or language as they are usually taught in the English class. This runs directly counter to the stereotype believe by most English teachers. IT is easier to complete a workbook on grammar, easier to tell the teacher what the teacher wants to know about a story than it is to use language to make meaning out of experience. The writing course is a thinking course, and it should be central to the curriculum in any school.

There is more. I believe Murray’s writing, like Penny’s books Write Beside Them and Book Love, should be required reading for every English teacher. I wish they would have been required reading in my education classes. For the first few years of my career, I struggled like many teachers I know with student engagement and learning while I taught literature instead of readers and writers. (Someday I’ll write about the Dickens I subjected my 9th graders to. It’s a sad sad tale of student, and teacher, woe.)

And someday I’ll finish this book I’m trying to write. I think Don Murray would want me to.

What books do you think should be required reading for all English teachers? I’d love to read your suggestion in the comments.

 

A Question about Equity

I have this idea stuck in my head, and it keeps spinning like the record player my sister broke when I was 11.

When we think about equity in an English class, what comes to mind?

I hope fairness, impartiality, “justice in the way people are treated,” says Webster.

But what does equity look like? What does it look like every day in an English class?

Too many days I spend too much time with my students who do not do the assignments than those who do. Is that equitable?

Too many days I find the time to talk to the talkative students about their lives outside of class, but I rarely take the time to talk to the quiet kids who have a gentle grace, pay attention, complete assignments. Is that equitable?

A week or so ago I conducted a training, and one of the teachers asked something like this:  “Do you still have students who do not read, or do not move forward, in your workshop pedagogy?”

Yes.

Will I keep encouraging, pushing, pulling, doing everything I — and my extensive network of workshop teachers –can possibly think of to help that student want to read and grow in her literacy skills?

Of course.

But let’s be real. I offer choice reading in my classroom. I offer choice of writing topics on every writing assignment (except timed writings when we specifically practice for the AP English exam.)

I’m going to have to allow the student choice when it comes to actually reading.

I can tell you this though:  More students read and grow and become avid readers than ever did when I chose all the books, all the prompts, all the everything.

And this brings me to the real question spinning in my head:  What does equity look like when it comes to instruction in an English class?

Choose one:

a. A teacher chooses six books for her students to read in a given school year, all books shining with literary merit. She teaches in a school where the majority of her students live in poverty. The children come from diverse homes where they face some struggles, but they seem eager to learn. She believes that since the more affluent school across town requires its students to read these six lofty books, she must require her students to read them. (Maybe her administrator even told her she has to teach these books– she’s just doing what she’s told.) This teacher wants her students to have the same rich literary experiences with these books she had in high school. She wants them to think about literature and analyze the language. She want them to grow in cultural literacy. All good goals. But probably, more than anything, she wants them to be on equal footing with the students across town. She wants them to have the same advantages and the same knowledge about the world’s great books.

b. A teacher allows her students to self-select the books they read. She models the moves of a reader. She talks about rich literature, what makes a compelling story, hboys readingow characters and plot lines develop and how they mirror their lives. She challenges students to consume pages, develop stamina, and grow in fluency. She gives them opportunities to read more and read harder because she knows the value of reading in building confidence and competency. She introduces different genres, authors, themes. She surrounds them with shelves weighed down by high-interest books and gives them time to read in class. To this teacher, it is not about the book — or the six books of lofty literary merit — it is about the reader. Readers who read 12 books in a year instead of just six. This teacher knows if she makes a reader she can make a life.  And the skills gained through reading extensively transfer to their writing and permeate like energetic friends into the reading they must do in other classes.

I am going to go with b.

Equity is not in the books we require students to read in English classes. Equity is in the skills and the fluency and the stamina students need to read those books if they chooses to read them.

Too many students in high school read below grade level. The only way to help them read better is to read more. Six books (and I’ll question if he really reads them) is not enough. So much research helps us understand this. Donalyn Miller collected a lot of it for easy access here. And Penny Kittle cites scores of it in the bibliography of Book Love.

I met with a reader today. I asked her about the reading she did as a sophomore in her Pre-AP class. “Did you read last year?” I asked.

“Uh, no, not really,” she said. “I only read two books last year. But I only remember one.”

Two books.

 

And before you jump all over me, I know there is option c. Yes, we can have a mix of both, but I will hold my ground:  If we are not advancing readers and writers, we are doing it wrong.

 

Mini-lesson Monday: Thinking about Complexity

Many of my writers seem stuck in simple sentences. I think this has something to do with their reading fluency. When I ask them to read me a few lines out loud, they read in monotone with faltering phrases and seemingly little knowledge of the workings of punctuation. One of the best assessment tools I have for knowing what my readers need to help them become better writers is these few moments of one-on-one read alouds– them to me — in conferences. These conferences also remind me how closely my reading and writing instruction must be aligned. If my students cannot read well, I cannot really expect them to write well. (And it shows the huge variance of abilities in my AP Language classes.)

In an effort to move my readers and writers into more complexity, and to get them to start paying more attention to sentence structure in their independent reading, I know I must expect them to take action with what they learn. But I do not want to mandate anything I cannot keep up with, nor anything that will make students not want to read. So I decide to start a new challenge with our “quotes board” — the one that’s remained largely empty for most of this year.

Objective:  Using the language of the Depth of Knowledge Levels students will recognize and identify interesting and complex sentence structures; they will then copy the sentence into their writer’s notebooks and/or onto a notecard to use it as a mentor; then in their weekly blog posts, they will write and practice their craft, including at least one beautifully constructed sentence in their post. (If they choose to share their mentor sentence, they will pin it to our “quotes board” to display it for the week.)

Lesson:  First, I remind students that we’ve talked about sentence boundaries and sentence structure since the beginning of the year. I tell them that today we’re going to learn two different types of sentences:  periodic, and loose or cumulative, and look at how writers link details and ideas within sentences that create description and often rhythm.

I say, “We are going to study sentences from the 2015 Pulitzer Prize Winner All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. Doerr is our writing coach for the week. Let’s see what we can learn about writing more interesting sentences.”

I project the loose sentence, and we talk about where the independent clause lies within it. “How do all the details trailing off of the main idea make the sentence more interesting? What do you notice?”

loose sentence 1

After we’ve discussed the loose sentence, and I feel like students understand what makes it loose and how to identify this type of sentence, we move to the periodic sentence.

I project the following periodic sentence, and we talk about where the independent clause lies within it. “Why put the main idea of the sentence at the end?” I ask.

periodic sentence 1

We discuss why the author might have chosen to craft the sentence this way. “What does putting the main clause of the sentence at the end do for the meaning?” I ask.

Next, we study a few other beautifully crafted sentences I pulled from the novel. (There are so many!) Each time encouraging students to talk with one another to first identify the independent clause and then determine if the sentence is loose or periodic or an interesting combination. I remind them to discuss the meaning of the sentence and why the structure might matter.

We study.

beautiful sentence

and

beautiful sentence 2

And before we move into searching for loose and/or periodic sentences in our own independent reading books, I ask students to practice reading these four sentences aloud to one another.

“Pay attention to the rhythm of the sentence and what the punctuation does to create that rhythm,” I say. I give them a few moments to read sentences to one another at their tables. Low stakes. They know one another well, and there is no pressure. They help each other read, which is exactly what I want in my community of learners.

Follow up: I ask students to pay attention to the sentences in their independent reading books. “Watch for loose or periodic sentences,” I say, “and here’s the challenge:   When you find one, write it out on a notecard, and post it on the quotes board. Let’s see how many of these beautiful sentences we can collect this week.”

And remember to write at least one loose or periodic sentence in your blog post this week. Let’s work on crafting beautiful sentences like Doerr in our own works.

The Best Lesson Series: What Makes a Work of Literature?

NTCE Affiliate Breakfast with Shanna Peeples, 2015 National Teacher of the Year

A few weeks ago I read this post by Shanna Peebles, the 2015 National Teacher of the Year, “Building Bridges with Visual Literacy.” She writes about her lesson in the book The Best Lesson Series, a book in which I also contributed a favorite lesson. Shana includes the background of her lesson, an experience and a realization she had when she began working with refugee students many years ago.

Reading Shana’s blog, I reflected on my own refugee students. Mine come from Myanmar, most having walked through Thailand at night holding the hands of younger siblings while moving toward their fathers who left their villages months before to secure passage for their families. These children grew up fast and they hope for much. They study hard because they know the value of education.

They represent the reason that I teach literacy: It is through literacy that we gain power.

The way to grow as literate individuals is to read. I’ve heard my mentors say it again and again: “The only way to develop readers is to get them reading” and “The only way to learn to read is to, well, read.”

Of course, the same holds true for writing.

The lesson I contributed to The Best Lesson Series pertains to both. Here’s the background of my lesson:

I am not one of those readers who jumps to the last few pages to read how a book ends before I have ever started it. I do not understand those people. At all. I like to savor a good book, take it slow — sip the beauty as I breathe in the language, sigh with pleasure as I see how the words work to shape meaning. Or, I like to devour a book in one sitting, curled up on the couch, holding my breath and gasping for more. So, it’s a little surprising that I pulled the last paragraph of a book to use as a craft study.

I promise it gives nothing away. I also promise:  You may just shudder at the loveliness of the language like I do. Or not. Seems some critics panned The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt while others raved about its uniqueness and style (See the Vanity Fair article “It’s Tartt, But Is It Art?. Of course, critics cannot seem to agree on what makes a text literature either. (See the Harper’s Magazine article “What Is Literature? In Defense of the Canon”.)

The author of the article about Tartt’s work poses the same question I ask my students to ponder each year:  What makes a work of literature, and who gets to decide?

Since mine is a workshop classroom where our primary focus is writing, students choose the books they read. That is not to say we do not read high-quality complex literature or read literature as a whole class. We read many passages together and learn skills that students then apply to their independent reading and the novels they discuss in book clubs four times a year.

My goal with books is to develop readers, and too many of my students did not read when I made all the decisions about their reading. However, many of my students do not know how to choose books they might enjoy or books with enough complexity to challenge their thinking. The drive to fulfill my goal to develop readers becomes multifaceted. Allowing choice means I must constantly be on the lookout for richly written passages that we can study, and I must read volumes of high-quality literature, YA and adult alike, so that I may match my adolescent readers with good books.

I love the last paragraph of The Goldfinch because I can use it for several learning opportunities. This short passage can teach us much about what makes a work of literature. I agree with researcher and reading theorist Louise Rosenblatt:  “Students need to be helped to have personally satisfying and personally meaningful transactions with literature. Then they will develop the habit of turning to literature for the pleasures and insights it offers.”

And that’s the whole point, isn’t it?  We help our students love literature so they learn from it as we do.

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It’s an honor to be a part of this work. I am surrounded by inspiring educators with intriguing and thought-provoking ideas, and I hope you will consider adding this title to your professional library so you will be surrounded, too.

Teachers sharing with teachers what works. That’s the best pd I know.

benefits of best lesson series

 

 

#FridayReads: Investments, Books, and the Need to Read

I am addicted to books. No question. I am a bibliophile.

And I am proud of it.

I have this not-so-secret hope that my students will be bibliophiles, too. I work very hard to make them so.

This year I’ve had a bit of trouble getting students to read. Okay, I’ve had a lot of trouble getting students to read. It’s been the hardest year for me in the years since I turned to a workshop and choice pedagogy.

I am at fault for not conferring enough, not talking about books enough, not introducing enough books that I know my students will love.  I’ve reflected enough on my practice to get that.

Finally, the light dawned:  Get them investing in the books, not just invested in the reading. But get students making the choices about what books I need in my classroom library.

Fortunately, I’ve been blessed with some kind grant benefactors and have some money to invest in books. (Shana is an expert at grant writing, and I’ve highlighted her post in the past. I do it again here.) It takes some time to write grant proposals, and then once awarded, it takes some time completing books orders — I should have done all this sooner in the year.

In class this week, I gave students an assignment:

  • Search and find a book about social issues you want to read with at least one other person in class. (I’m working on getting multiples of great titles in my classroom library.)
  • Find an award-winning book, or at least a book written by an award-winning author. (At NCTE Penny Kittle said something like “…the more you read of the best literature, the more you’ll recognize it.) I know this is true. Students begin to see it too when they read books that reflect rich and meaningful author’s craft.

So, today for #FridayReads I share with you the list of books my students came up with. I’m pretty sure they will be fantastic reads.

The Martian Andy Weir
Everything I Never Told You Celeste Ng
Challenger Deep Neal Shusterman
Love and Other Ways of Dying Michael Paterniti
Did You Ever Have a Familly Bill Clegg
Fate and Furies Lauren Groff
All the Light We Cannot See Anthony Doer
The Goldfinch Donna Tartt
The Road of Lost Innocence Somaly Mam
Between the World and Me Ta-Nehisi Coates
Inside a Hollow Tree Kevin White
Behind the Beautiful Forevers Katherine Boo
Symphony for the City of the Dead M.T. Anderson
A Little Life Hanya Yanagilhara
Refund: Stories Karen E. Bender
Sickened: the True Story of a Lost Childhood Julie Gregory
The Invisible Girls Sarah Thebarge
Pretty Little Killers Daleen Berry
Columbine Dave Cullen
Redeployment Phil Klay
My Story Elizabeth Smart
Hope: A Memoir of Survival in Cleveland Amanda Berry
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