Tag Archives: Modeling

Vulnerable Learning by Janet Neyer

My Writing Project colleague, Sharon Murchie, wrote about taking a risk in sharing her writing with her students on the CRWP Teachers as Writers Blog. Her post got me thinking about how I do the same in my own classroom.

guest post iconI am feeling nervous, insecure, and uncertain as my ninth graders start to file into class today. We just started the new trimester a week ago, and about half of my students are still new to me — having come from a different English teacher first term. I remind myself that I am the adult; I am the teacher. Nothing to worry about, right? What’s the worst that can happen?

You see, I am about to give a book talk and admit to my students that I have no clue what the book I am reading is about. Truly. I just don’t get it. The book is a title I was eager to read — The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro — but I am 30 pages from the end of the novel and I don’t know what the real story is. In fact, all I really know is that an elderly couple, Axl and Beatrice, have undertaken a journey to reunite with their son. As Axl and Beatrice travel across the countryside, they meet knights, Saxons, river boatmen, and frightened citizens, but all have one thing in common: they cannot seem to remember much. Axl and Beatrice worry that the loss of their memories will be their undoing: “But then again I wonder if what we feel in our hearts today isn’t like these raindrops still falling on us from the soaked leaves above, even though the sky itself long stopped raining. I’m wondering if, without our memories, there’s nothing for it but our love to fade and die.” The mist of this memory loss has the effect on me as a reader of clouding the truth in the story. In short, I find myself uncertain about what is real for the characters and what is fantasy.

I am about to reveal to these students that I don’t understand this book.

I don’t have the answers.

I don’t have a profound interpretation.

I am lost.

How will they respond?

The room settles in as I grab the book from my desk and turn to face them.

71yaTpRiJgL“I want to tell you about this book I’m reading…”

This is what I have been working on for the past several years in my practice as an English teacher: vulnerability. Through a great deal of reflection, professional reading, conversation with colleagues, and intention, I have been trying to practice what Antero Garcia and Cindy O’Donnell-Allen in Pose, Wobble, Flow: A Culturally Proactive Approach to Literacy Instruction, call “vulnerable learning: an inquiry-driven process that engages both intellect and emotion…” (34).  Garcia and O’Donnell-Allen explain that “Teachers who foster vulnerable learning create classrooms where “not-knowing” (Barthelme, 1997) is the norm…they create conditions in which students can claim and exercise their own power as learners, primarily because these teachers are vulnerable learners themselves” (36). I am trying to model for my students what a First Attempt In Learning (FAIL) means for me. I want to take a risk in front of them by acknowledging that I don’t have all of the answers, and, in fact, on any given day, I have many more questions than answers.

Every day when students enter my classroom, I want them to ask questions, to push back, and to wonder. I want to grow literate citizens who question what is happening in their communities and in the world. Students, however, often see school as a place where there is one correct answer, and in most cases, it is the teacher who has it. In addition, in most classrooms — despite teachers’ encouragement to the contrary — everyone knows that asking questions makes you look foolish. I understand this mindset, as I remember being one of those students as well. Though I wish I had, I did not take intellectual risks in my high school days. I let the teacher tell me how I might improve upon my writing or what meaning I should take from the novel. I wish something different for my students, though. I wish for them to acquire the tools needed to be independent learners — deep learners who are willing to take on challenges and see them through.

I recognize that I ask students every day to take risks and to be vulnerable in their learning. If they are to write something powerful and meaningful, they will have to risk putting it out there for their classmates and for me. If I am to find them the right book to appeal to them, they’ll have to risk telling me something about what matters to them.  If they are to grow as readers, writers, and thinkers, they will need to struggle and persevere. The reality, however, is that many of my students would prefer I just tell them the answer.  How can I expect them to be vulnerable if I am unwilling to take that risk?

It’s that simple…

And that scary.

In her short story “Eleven,” Sandra Cisneros writes in the voice of eleven-year-old Rachel, “…what they never tell you is that when you’re eleven, you’re also ten, and nine, and eight, and seven, and six, and five, and four, and three, and two, and one.” And even though I am well past eleven, today I still feel all of those layers. As I stand in front of my ninth graders, I am feeling 14. I am the vulnerable one, hesitating to reveal that I don’t understand. This is an uncomfortable feeling, but one that is so valuable for me to remember as a teacher of 14-year-olds.

“I want to tell you about this book I’m reading because I am only 30-pages from the end, but I do not know what this story is about.” I show the students the book and the place where my sticky note holds my spot. I explain that I have read other books by this author and that I have sometimes had to hang on for a while before I understood what was happening, but never for this long.

“This is an author I trust, so I want to keep going, but I’m frustrated.”

A student in the front blurts out, “What’s it about?”

“Well,” I say, “There’s an elderly couple on a search for their son. And there’s a knight and a dragon and a lot of battles. The story takes place in ancient England, but no one seems able to remember anything very clearly. I feel like nothing in this book is as it seems, like there is something else going on here.”

“Why don’t you look it up on the Internet?”

I admit that I had thought about that, but reading this book for me has become like solving a puzzle. I really want to figure it out on my own. I have the chance today to talk with them about perseverance, about my willingness to stick with a text even if I’m unsure about the pay-off, about my tolerance for uncertainty. Essentially, I have the opportunity to remind even my most reluctant readers of The Rights of the Reader (Pennac). Yes, I have the right to leave this book unfinished, but I won’t; in fact, I might even exercise my right to read the book again after I finish it.

When one student asks, “Why would you want to do that?” I have the opportunity to explain what I gain from a second reading of a text.

When another asks if he can borrow a copy so he can help me, I have to tell him that this is my only copy, but I promise he can have it when I finish. I know he is excited to meet this challenge — to help the teacher understand a book. What better boost for a ninth grader?

This is one of the best book talks I’ll give all year — mostly because it’s a reminder that my students need to see me struggle with books, just as they might. They need to know I am willing to be vulnerable in my learning, just as I ask them to be.

In fact, tomorrow, I think I’ll share a piece of writing I’m working on — a blog post about being a vulnerable learner.

Post Script: If you haven’t read The Buried Giant, I recommend it. In fact, I gave it five stars on GoodReads. It was absolutely worth the persistence. After I finished the novel, I did turn to the Internet, and was comforted to find this New York Times review from Neil Gaiman in which he says, “Not until the final chapter does Ishiguro unravel the mysteries and resolve the riddles.” Whew. I’m glad to know I wasn’t alone in my puzzlement.

Profile PhotoJanet Neyer (@janetneyer) teaches English and psychology at Cadillac High School in Cadillac, Michigan, where she is passionate about incorporating authentic reading, writing, and research experiences into all of her classes. She serves as a teacher consultant for the Chippewa River Writing Project in mid-Michigan, and she is a Google for Education Certified Trainer.  You can find Janet’s Google Apps resources as well as her thoughts about teaching at


Garcia, Antero, and Cindy O’Donnell-Allen. Pose, Wobble, Flow: A Culturally Proactive Approach to Literacy Instruction. New York: Teachers College Press, 2015. Print.

Ishiguro, Kazuo. The Buried Giant. New York: Knopf, 2015. Print.

Pennac, Daniel, Quentin Blake, and Sarah Adams. The Rights of the Reader. Cambridge, Mass: Candlewick Press, 2008. Print.


A Yearlong Community

The sense of camaraderie and fellowship in our workshop classroom has ebbed and flowed this year.  Some days, I watch with pride as the readers and writers in the room help guide each other to a higher level of understanding, appreciation, or excitement.  Other days, I see disengaged students annoyed with one another’s antics.

Getting this community established at the beginning of the year takes time, but once the foundation is laid, it’s easy to keep it in place.

…Until you have 15 snow days in a row.

Or a student teacher.

Or a six-day block of testing.

Or 75-degree weather with sunshine, just out the window.

All of those common interruptions can derail a classroom community.  This year, though, I feel as close to my students as ever, and they are as tight-knit a group as can be.  Here are four reasons why.

Passion.  I’ve written before about how fangirling helps create a community of readers.  But it’s not just being excited about books that helps a classroom community develop–it’s passion about the work we do here as a whole.

Jordan, a student who joined our class in September, told me yesterday, “I still remember the first time I came to this school.  Yours was the first class I came into.  You were yelling and all excited and stuff.  I thought, ‘Wow, is this how this school is?’  Then I went to the rest of my classes and I was like, awww, where’s the excitement at?”

The passion I brought to teaching stuck with Jordan for nine months, especially when he contrasted it to his other teachers’. Communicating our genuine excitement to our students models for them the lasting value of our content.  Without that enthusiasm, a classroom community may not seem worth building.  With it, students come to class ready to learn, which creates the first condition for a strong community.

Vulnerability.  Around my birthday in early September of each year, I share with my students a song my friend Joey wrote and recorded for me.  About a month after he gave it to me, he passed away.  I play the song for the students and we write, then, the soundtrack of our lives–which song it would be and why.  I write about Joey, my guilt and sadness over his suicide, how I slept with the lights on for months after his death.

Chelsea recently told me that at first, she wasn’t quite sure about me.  “Then you wrote that piece with us about your friend Joey, and that’s when I started to think differently about you.”  Modeling my vulnerability with my students encouraged them to do the same–they began to write about topics they once considered very private, and to share their writing in small groups, which I rotate monthly.

Sharing this story with my students, crafting and refining it alongside them, modeled for them not just vulnerability, but the writing process when it relates to a difficult subject.  I became, in their eyes, not just a model writer–but a model thinker, with emotions and difficult memories just like them.  Shifting from not just an English geek to a real human is the second condition for a strong community.

Guts.  This spring, I had a student teacher for eight weeks.  When she left, state testing began almost immediately.  After those two lengthy periods of disruption to our established routine, my students were sluggish and disinterested–frequently unprepared for class, slacking off on their reading, unenthused about their final multigenre projects.

Then, I shared with them my own multigenre piece for this year, about the miscarriage I suffered on Mother’s Day.  As I showed them my writing, the classroom became eerily quiet.  The stillness and silence was deafening.  After lots of hugging and passing around of tissues, the students worked with energy and reverence on their own writing once again.  Their enthusiasm was back.

“I thought it was cool that you would put that out there for the students to know,” Madison told me the next morning. “I was shocked that you wrote about it.”  The fact that I not only shared such a tough subject with them, but had the guts to write about it, was powerful.  This gave many students the boost of confidence they needed to confront a difficult issue and create beautiful writing about it–the third condition for keeping that sense of community strong right up to June.


Two of my funniest students, Troy and Logan, smirk at me over lunch.

Humor.  We’re not morose all the time–we have lots of fun.  Whether it’s a humorous booktalk, a funny poem, or just a celebration of a student’s silliness, there is lots of laughter in our classroom.

A small whiteboard on one wall of our classroom is full of quotes that have made us laugh.  A word like “clementime” can crack us all up, remembering when Troy bemoaned the book Columbine‘s length but accidentally said, “Oh boy, Clementine, here we go.”  Or “overalls,” which calls to mind Kristen’s claim that “I woke up, put on my overalls, and everything just got really weird.”  These simple one-word phrases memorialized on the whiteboard can bring a smile to our faces when we need a lift, and remind me that my students aren’t just learners–they’re people, and pretty darn cool ones, too.

Talk.  Talk is such a foundation of workshop, but it’s important to talk outside of conferences, small groups, or minilessons.  Isaac, a student who has struggled with academic success in the past, has been sitting in my room during his lunch period all this month, working on his multigenre paper.  He chats at me as he writes, asking whatever questions come to mind, writing-related or not.  As a result, he is soaring.

“This is probably the first project in school I’ve ever worked this hard on,” Isaac keeps telling me. “This project is so awesome.”  I told our principal how hard he’d been working lately, and he complimented Isaac when he saw him in the hall.

“Oh my god, I can’t believe teachers talk about students outside of class!” Isaac exclaimed later.  I could tell by his little smile that he was secretly pleased that we had said nice things about him.  Talk has an impact far beyond its transient initial utterance.

Passion, vulnerability, guts, humor, and talk–all year long–make for a beautiful classroom community I’ll enjoy ending this year with.  What do you do to keep your learners unified?

An Invitation: Are You Walking the Talk in Your Content?

Now, that is the way to walk the talk.

I attended a Vocal Majority concert Saturday. This is one awesome men’s chorus. When the emcee introduced a quartet, I sat up a bit. There, singing with The Essentials was the choir director from my high school. Wow, what a voice.

As he sang, I kept thinking: There is a teacher who walks the walk. His presence on the stage, singing first in a group, then in a quartet, and later even as a soloist, shows that he knows exactly what his students must do — and feel — when they engage in activities and performances in the LHS choir.

Credibility is huge.

I think about this as I talk with other English teachers. I should stop being surprised when I learn that they do not read — “unless it’s a book I’m about to teach, of course.”

I’ve heard that more than once.

Perhaps even a bigger concern than not reading:  many English teachers are not writers.

The thing that has helped me be a better writing instructor — not attending conferences or classes, not reading pedagogy books — the single most thing that’s improved my ability to teach writing:  Becoming a writer myself.

I understand the struggle to think of ideas, the headache of revision, the joy of finally getting something right. My students need to know that I know what all of this feels like.

Like my colleague the choir teacher, I try to walk the walk of my content. I am an individual intent on improving my literacy skills, just like I want my students to be. I talk about my reading life, and I share my writing life with my students, regularly.

I think they trust me more because they know I read as much as I ask them to read. I write as much as I ask them to write, and every major assignment I give to them I write myself (plus this blog and a book I’ve been working on for awhile now.) I even write blog posts about improving my writing: 5 Ways to Meet Your Writing Goals.

It is not hard to have credibility. But it does take commitment.

The Best Writing Teachers are Writers Themselves.

A couple of weeks ago, i joined in a #litlead chat. The topic turned to teacher-bloggers and why and how to become one. A few participants in that discussion spoke out and said they were nervous about starting their own blogs, but they know it is a good idea. I’m sure their reasons for wanting to blog are varied, but there are three possible truths:

Teachers who blog are more likely to 1) reflect on their practices, 2) seek out new ideas for topics to write about, 3) show their students that they practice the craft of writing — like they hope their students will do.

I offered to let those nervous about blogging to wade it a little and publish a piece here at Three Teachers Talk. One stipulation: You have to be an advocate for readers and writers workshop. (That is the main topic of this blog after all.)

So think about it:  Do you walk the talk and walk the walk? Do your students see you as an adult with passion for your content outside the classroom walls?

Would you like to write a guest post? Send me an email with your idea, and I’ll respond and set up a date. (

I’d like to help you walk a better walk.

©Amy Rasmussen, 2011 – 2015

We are in Process, and that is Beautiful

A follow up to a comment on the post Not the Same ‘Ole AP Writing Teacher

Wow. Thanks for following my blog. I’m grateful. I appreciate your inquiry into our Snowfall writing project. It’s made me do some thinking, and you’ve inspired me to turn my response into a follow up post. Thanks for that.

Here’s my best shot at answering your questions:

1. Do you have any completed student assignment that you would be willing to share? and 2. What vehicle/medium did you use for to students to publish their work?

No student samples yet — this is the first year I’ve had students complete something quite so extensive. In regard to publishing their work, we aim high, so students will do a bit of research to see if they can submit their articles somewhere for publication. When they were first selecting topics, we discussed audience, and students had to justify what kind of magazines would run a piece about their topics. For sure, students will publish their finished articles on their blogs. They each have their own blog in which they write weekly.

3. What were your specific requirements for the assignment?

Since I am pushing toward authenticity, I intentionally did not start with a rubric. I’m sure John Branch didn’t have a rubric when he started writing “Snowfall: Avalanche at Tunnel Creek” either. I want students to take ownership of this work, so I want them to think through the parts and pieces that will make their work turn out the best.

Students and I read five pages of Branch’s piece together, and I encouraged students to read the rest of the article online in their own time. All I really told them was that we were each going to write a full-length feature article, and this Pulitzer Prize winner was our model. I am trying to break habits of skating through writing assignments with weak ideas and weaker research. Many of my student are used to getting A’s without having to actually learn anything. This bothers me. That is partly why, although they got to choose their topics, I had to approve them and be sure there was some depth to what students were thinking in terms of what they could discover in their research.

While it may sound strange, I do not have specific requirements other than–

1. show me that you have learned several different modes of writing, including how to embed and cite research,

2. include several different images, including photos, video clips, info graphics, charts, etc that make your article multi-media and convincing,

3. prove that you take pride in your work by revising, evaluating, improving, and learning as you move toward publishing your best work.

I do keep tick marks in my records of students who submit their work to me for review on time and who use their time wisely in class, but those benchmarks become daily grades and will not influence a student’s final grade on the piece he finally publishes. Most likely I will allow students to give themselves a grade when all is said and done. Without question they always grade themselves harder than I ever do, and I have to score them up a bit.

4. Any other information that you could share with us would be greatly appreciated.

Every week we work on some aspect of this writing. Last week we read some descriptive writing, and students finished up their narrative intros. I read aloud the prologue of The Emperor of All Maladies–a Biography of Cancer (also a Pulitzer), a non-fiction text that begins with a narrative intro, similar to the narrative at the beginning of Snowfall, although different at the same time. We connected our thinking back to Snowfall, and students moved their “remember it” paragraph to the top of their page and revised to make emotional stories that would draw their readers into their articles. They read and evaluated the writing of their peers– aiming for the WOW factor (our way to gut-read a text), and they revised to make better.

Later we talked about definition as a mode, and students began writing a paragraph that defines their topics and includes a position statement. (We are including a persuasive slant more than Snowfall because of the argumentative focus of AP Lang.)

I showed students how to use google forms to conduct surveys, so they could gather their own data instead of relying on whatever they found on the internet, and they took a survey I created that I will use in my own feature article I am writing beside them. Every step I ask students to take, I take as well. They can see my piece develop and change and grow as theirs does. Soon I will introduce info-graphics with the hope some students will include those in their full-length article. I think info-graphics are so cool.

So, that’s about where we’re at with this huge and engaging writing project. I wish we could stop everything else and only work on this piece– we had a district checkpoint, and we have an AP mock exam looming, so we have to move back and forth into the genre of test taking. But … maybe, this slow process is for the best: I am able to show how the skills needed to write on demand are the same as developing a long process piece–only s.l.o.w.e.r.

We are in process, and that is exactly what I want. Kids are learning and growing as writers, and that is so much more important than rushing into a finished product.

I hope this helps. Please ask if you have other questions. I am happy to share and share and share. I am thrilled that others are doing this same kind of exciting and engaging work with students. We are teaching the writer and not the writing, and that is beautiful.

Warmest regards,


Writing Workshop: Assessment and Hope

Students should write more than teachers can ever grade. I heard this first from Kelly Gallagher, author of the book Readicide, a book, among others, that helped me frame my curriculum around Workshop. If I remember correctly, he said that his students write four times more than he grades. Really?

I pondered this for a long while, and I still struggle, but I think I have some of it figured out. I thought for a long time that my students would not write unless I graded what they wrote. Every assignment:  “Is this for a grade?” Every answer: “Yes, everything is for a grade.” The refrain got old.

Then I tried something new: I began writing with my students on the first day of school, and I had some kind of writing activity every single day. I don’t remember where I read it, but when I was researching the work of the reading writing workshop gurus a couple of years ago, I know I read:  if you struggle with time and have to choose between reading or writing, choose writing.

It’s the complete opposite of what I thought:  My students are struggling readers. How do I give up reading when I know they need it? I thought about it more and realized: If I teach writing well, students will be reading. And they will be reading a lot.

So let me explain how this works for me. Remember, I teach AP English Language and Composition (that’s the top 11th graders) and English I (that’s on-level freshmen)–two extremes.

Writing Every Day

There are many ways to get students to write every day. Of course, some ways will get them to take their writing more seriously than others. I find that when I give them an audience, students will put a lot more effort into what comes out their pens. Audience matters!

Topic Journals. Following the advice of Penny Kittle, author of Write Beside Them, I created “topic journals” that students write in once a week the first semester. I bought composition notebooks and printed labels, using various fonts, of the topics: love, conflict, man vs. man, man vs. self, man vs. nature, war, death, gender, hope, redemption, family, romance, hate, promise, temptation, evil, compromise, self-reliance, education, friendship, guilt, doubt, expectation, admiration, ambition, courage, power, patience, fate, temperance, desire, etc. I created 36 notebooks; one for each student in my largest class.

I introduced the topic journals to my AP students first. I set up the scenario:  “I will be teaching 9th grade. I need your help. Do you remember what it was like to be new to high school? nervous, anxious, a little bit obnoxious? I created these notebooks so you could write and give advice to my younger, less advanced students.”

The first task was to turn to the first page in the journal and define the topic. Many looked up the terms in the dictionary or online. They wrote a quickwrite explaining what the topic meant. Then on the next page they wrote about anything they liked as long as their writing fit the topic. I had them sign their posts with their initials and the class period. I told them that they could choose their form (a letter, a narrative, an advice column) as long as they remembered that their audience was 9th graders, and whatever they wrote had to be school appropriate. “If you write about bombs or offing yourself or anyone else, you’re off to see the counselor or the police.” These are good kids, most of them in National Honor Society. They took my charge to help my younger students seriously. This exercise often worked as a lead into our critical reading or class discussion that day, and sometimes students chose a piece they’d started in a topic journal to continue exploring for a process piece.

You can imagine how I introduced the journals to my freshmen. I began by saying, “You know I teach AP English, right? That’s the college-level English class. Well, those students would like to offer you advice about high school, life, and whatever else you might have to deal with the next few years. They are going to write to you in these topic journals. Your job when you see these notebooks on the tables is to choose the one that “calls” to you. First, you will read the messages the older students wrote for you, and then you will respond. Remember to use your best writing.” I then set the timer and had students read and write for 10-15 minutes, depending on the lesson I planned that day. Sometimes I had students share out what they wrote; most often we tucked the notebooks away for another week.

Students constantly fought over a couple of the topics:  love, death, and evil were their favorites. I am certain that is telling (and it did help me when selecting titles for book talks.)

While students wrote in topic journals, I read what students had previously written in the notebooks kids did not select. I’d write a quick line or two in response to something in that notebook. I always used a bright orange or green pen, so students could tell I’d had my eyes in that journal. They knew I was reading them, but they never knew when or what entry. This helped hold them accountable for not only the content of what they were writing but also the mechanics of how they were writing it.

Assessment? Formative. Students have to think quickly and write about a topic on a timed test for the AP exam (11th grade) and STAAR (9th grade).


At first I only set up a class blog, and I had students write in response to posts I put on the front page and in response to an article I put on an article of the week page (another Gallagher idea). It didn’t take me long to realize that students would write more and take more ownership of their craft if they created their own blogs. The first year I had students set up blogs I taught gifted and talented sophomores, and I was nervous. Nervous that something would happen:  they’d post inappropriate things, they’d do something to get themselves and me in trouble, they’d be accosted by trolls out to hurt children through internet contact. I chose as the platform because I could be an administrator on the student blogs, and I had my kids use pseudonyms. This was overkill. Yes, I did have to change two things that year:  one student called his blog Mrs. Rasmussen. I told him my husband didn’t appreciate that much. Another kid used a picture of a bomb as his avatar. Not funny. All-in-all my students did great, and they wrote a lot more (and better) than they ever did for me on paper. I was a stickler for errors and created this cruel scoring guide that said something like: A=only one minor error, B=two minor error, C=three minor errors, F=four or more errors. Students that had never gotten a C in their lives were freaking out over F’s. “Sorry, kiddo, that’s a comma splice. That’s a run-on.” I had more opportunities to teach grammar mini-lessons than I ever had in my career. But see, these kids cared about their grades.

My 9th graders now–not so much. They care about a lot of things, but if I punish them for comma errors or the like, they shut down and stop writing. I learned to be much more careful. Now, I work on building relationships so they trust me to teach them how to fix the errors themselves. It takes a lot more time, but in the end, student writing improves, and students feel more confident in their abilities. I am still working on getting my 9th graders to be effective writers. So far, I have not accomplished that too well, as is evidence of their EOC scores this year.

This past year my AP English students posted on their blogs once a week. I told them that I would read as many of their posts as I could, but I would only grade about every three. I wouldn’t tell them which ones I’d be grading. I let students choose their topics, but since I had to teach them specific skills to master for the AP exam, I instilled parameters. They had to choose a news article that they found interesting, and then they had to formulate an argument that stemmed from that article. The deadline was 10 pm on Monday–every week. This assignment accomplished two of my objectives:  students will become familiar with the world around them, and students will create pieces that incorporate the skills that we learn in class. When I turned to social media to promote student blogs, I got even more ownership from my students.

Assessment? Formative or Summative. Students apply the skills they learned in class regarding grammar, structure, style, devices, etc. Scored using the AP Writing Rubric for the persuasive open-ended question.

Twitter in the Classroom

One of these days I will write a post about the many ways I used Twitter in class this year. For now, let me just tell you:  Twitter was the BEST thing I added to my arsenal of student engagement tools. Ever.

When I began asking students to tweet their blog url’s after they wrote on Mondays, I started leaving quick and easy feedback via Twitter. It was so easy! Kids would tweet their posts; I’d read them; re-tweet with a pithy comment. Within minutes of the first couple of tweet exchanges, students were posting and tweeting more. They were getting feedback from me, and they were giving feedback to one another. They began building a readership, and that’s what matters if students blog. Just because they are posting to the world wide web does not mean anyone is reading what they write. But, a readership, especially one that will leave comments, that’s a whole new story.

Assessment? Formative. Students share their writing and make comments about their peers’ writing. Critical thinking is involved because students only have 140 characters to express their views.

Student Choice. Sometimes.

In a perfect writing class, I am sure students get to choose what they write about every time. This does not work in an AP English class where I am trying to prepare students for that difficult exam. Once a week my students complete a timed writing where they respond to an AP prompt. The guidelines for AP clearly state that the essays are scored as drafts; minor errors are expected. My students must practice on-demand writing. There is no time for conferencing or for taking these essays through the writing process. Unless–we revisit. And sometimes we do. Students are allowed to re-assess per our district grading policy if they score below an 85. 85 is difficult for many of my students, so lots of them re-assess. To do so, students must come in and conference with me about their timed writing. I am usually able to pick out the trouble spots quite easily, and it’s through these brief conversations that I get the most improvement from student writing. Often, instead of conferencing with me, students will evaluate their essays with one another.

I show several student models of higher scoring essays and teach students how to read the AP Writing Rubric. Then, in round robin style, students assess their own essays and at least three of their peers. I remind students not to be “nice” to their friends and give a score that’s undeserved. This will not help anyone master the skills necessary for the AP exam. Rarely do students give themselves or their peers scores higher than I would.

My students also write process papers. For AP reading workshop students choose a book from my short list. After reading and discussing the books with their Book Clubs, students have to write an essay that argues some topic from the book. I model how to structure an essay. I model how to write an engaging introduction. I model how to imbed quotes and how to write direct and indirect citations. I model everything I want to see in this type of writing.

I allow several weeks in my agenda to take these papers through the writing process, and students do most of the work outside of class (not so with my 9th graders).

  • Day one students generate thesis statements, and we critique, re-write, and re-critique.
  • Day two students bring drafts that we read and evaluate in small groups. (I have to teach them that a draft is a finished piece that they are ready to get feedback on–not a quickwrite. So many students type up their rough draft and call in good. This makes me crazy! And I tell them that I will not read their first draft unless they come before or after school or during lunch. They must work on their craft before I will spend my time reading it.)
  • Day three students bring another draft that we read and evaluate again. Sometimes, depending on where my kids are in terms of producing a good piece, I will take these up and provide editing on the first page. Never more than the first page!
  • Day four students turn in their polished papers. I score them holistically on a rubric that aligns with the AP Writing one, or if it’s my 9th graders, I score them on the appropriate STAAR writing rubric.

My freshmen students need a much more hand holding, and we do a lot of writing on lined yellow paper. Most often, especially at the first of the year, they get to choose their own topics. However, I have to give them a lot more structure because on the new Texas state test. 9th graders have to write two essays (about 300 words each): a literary essay, which is an engaging story, and an expository essay, which explains their thinking about a given prompt. Students use the yellow paper to draft during class. I wander the room, answering questions and keeping kids on task. I also try to write an essay every time I ask students to do so. I use these essays as mentor texts in addition to mentor texts I find by professional authors.

Usually I begin class with some kind of mini-lesson if students are in the middle of drafting. I might show students a paragraph with a description that uses sensory imagery and instruct them to add some description in their own writing. Or, I might teach introductory clauses and have students revise a sentence to include one or two or three. This way I am able to get authentic instruction that my students need right there in the middle of their writing time. When I score these student papers, I specifically look for the skills I’ve explicitly taught. If I do it right, I will have read my students papers one or two times during their writing process, prior to them ever turning in their final draft.

Notice I said “if I do it right.” I rarely do it right. I am still learning to budget my time and get to every kid. I am still learning to get every kid to write. I am writing English I curriculum this summer, which I will use in the fall. I hope to get some of my challenges with my struggling students worked out as I focus more purposefully on the standards. I realized this year that while I am teaching writing as a process all the time, I am not necessarily targeting the standards that fit into the process. I am thinking about this a lot lately.

This is still my burning question:  how can I get kids who hate to read and write to participate in writing workshop so their writing improves and their voices are heard?

I am turning to the gurus as I research and think this summer. Jeff Anderson’s book 10 Things Every Writer Should Know has been an excellent start.

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