Tag Archives: National Writing Project

Mini-Lesson Monday: Low-Stakes Community Building With Post-It Blessings

I am always searching for low-risk ways to build community in my classroom during the first weeks of school.  In order to build norms of sharing our writing, responding to one another’s writing, and writing a whole lot in general, I like to combine some low-stakes activities like imitation writing and positive feedback protocols so students become confident members of a community of real writers.

Objectives — Create your own version of Langston Hughes’ “I, Too, Sing America,” Critique your peers’ poems positively.


Lesson — I recently read Nancy P. Gallavan’s article “I, Too, Am an American: Preservice Teachers Reflect Upon National Identity” with my students.  The article includes a sample of students’ imitation poems of Hughes’ classic poem, which they wrote in the weeks after 9/11.  The poems sought to make students aware of the stereotypes each one faced, and to defy those stereotypes.

I asked students to read the article before coming to class, to write their own version of the poem, and to bring a copy to class because we’d be sharing it.

(It’s important to disclose to students before they write that a poem will be shared in order to build the norm of openness with their peers.)

With a pile of post-its waiting on each desk, I asked students to take out their poems.

“We’re going to share our writing today, and we’re going to practice giving each other positive, specific feedback.  To begin, pass your poem to the left, and then grab a post-it note.

img_4840“The feedback we’re going to give today is part of the Bless, Press, Address protocol by the NWP. Blessing the writing means to give specific feedback on what you like about the poem. Pressing the writer means pushing him or her to strengthen their piece in some way. Addressing an issue the writer asks you for help on means giving responsive feedback in order to help the writer achieve his or her goals. Today we’re just going to bless one another, since it’s the first time we’re sharing our writing.”

(I think it’s important to begin with positive feedback because it removes the stigma of “peer editing,” which is often vague or negative if not structured properly.)

“So, take a post-it and write a response to a line, or give a compliment about word choice, or discuss something you agree with.  When you finish, pass your poem on to give your neighbor a subtle nudge to keep things moving.”

The room hums with rustling paper and murmured conversation, and I have the students pass the poem five times.

Follow-Up — After giving feedback, students receive their original poems back and read their peers’ comments.  I ask them how it felt to receive this type of feedback, how this activity helps build community, and what other assignments they could use this feedback protocol with.  Their responses to the last question were so creative–DBQs, lab reports, narratives, essays, published works of literature, math activities, thesis statements, and more.

After our discussion, I ask the students to put their poems and post-its into their notebooks to remain a permanent artifact of their peer feedback.

How will you use the Bless, Press, Address protocol with your students? Please share in the comments?

Reflection, Rejuvenation, Rebirth

May and June always bring sunnier skies, feistier students, and more hopeful days.  Like Amy, I enjoy the last weeks of school, and often spend many of them feeling proud of my students, making big plans for the next year, and reading a ton in order to ramp up my booktalks.  This time of year is my time for reflection, rejuvenation, and rebirth.


This spring, I’m excited that I have the opportunity to participate in a National Writing Project course, which is uniting me with other English teachers from my area.  Talking with them has helped to energize me even more so than usual at this time of the year, and some of their words have really helped me reflect.

First, my notebook musings during our first class led me to a powerful play on words–listening is at the heart of our teaching.  I’ve written before about the value of talk, but I’m thinking long and hard now about the power of listening…truly hearing our students’ hopes and strengths and worries and wonders.  I’ve paid special attention to emphasizing listening in my lessons these past few weeks, because I know I won’t get to hear these wonderful students’ words after the year ends.

Later in the NWP class, while assessing some of our students’ written products, we were asked to identify the skill we had been aiming to teach, and then evaluate how well our students internalized that lesson.  Claire, an elementary teacher, said that it was impossible to look for just one thing–“Writing is so…big,” she said.  I couldn’t agree with her more.  As I read my own students’ work, I saw themes of my own pedagogical beliefs running through their writing.  They were using beautiful language, inspired by our daily poem or craft-study quickwrites, in all of their writing–nonfiction too.  They were writing strong pieces thanks to the risks they felt safe taking in their choice of topic, genre, and style.  They were producing prolifically, writing long, short, funny, serious, sad, exciting, fiction, nonfiction, poetry, prose–everything.  Their portfolios are thick with creation.  Writing is big, indeed.


It’s Teacher Appreciation Week, and with that came some delightful thank-you notes from my students.  One student made a list of things he was thankful I did, and he repeated how thankful he was for my “cool passionate thing for teaching…like seriously, the passion thing.”  I recently read an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education that claimed the four properties of powerful teachers were personality, presence, preparation, and passion.  I like to think of passion as fangirling, which I do on a daily basis about books, student writing, authors, and all things bookish.  I’m never sure how much of that passion reaches students, but since this one specifically noted the “mega good booktalks,” I think it gets through to at least some kids.  This thank-you note really rejuvenated me, and now that I know my booktalks are working, I’ll keep at them with new gusto until June 12.


Continuing to revise and change my curriculum doesn’t stop because the year is nearly over.  I’m still wildly out of control on Amazon, buying titles as I get ideas for new units, themes, or genres (like the huge list of novels in verse I jotted down during our #poetrychat Monday night).  A new focus on science fiction, poetry, and nonfiction has been what I’ve noticed in my cart of late.  I am changing as a reader and a teacher, valuing those genres more than I once did, making a strong effort to transfer that new passion to my students.

My teaching philosophy is constantly shifting, evolving, being reborn.  Its biggest shift this year, I think, can be best summed up with a quote from another NWPer from my class last week.  While talking about meeting and learning from great teachers at NCTE, he said he felt like they were “the Wizards of Oz, but they were inviting me to peek behind the curtain.”  I love this analogy, because while great teaching may seem like unattainable magic, I now feel like I understand how to be effective.  I’ve studied living, breathing mentor texts like Penny Kittle, Tom Romano, Amy Rasmussen, Jackie Catcher, and Erika Bogdany, and am looking forward to learning from Tom Newkirk at UNH this summer.  In the past two years, I’ve been reborn as a teacher, whose confidence has grown as I’ve continued to strengthen my practice by dissecting and imitating the successes of others, just like my students do when we analyze mentor texts in class.

Springtime is a time for reflection, rejuvenation, and rebirth.  Nature is no different from my teaching as I think about this year and next, and about the beauty of its constant blossoming and change.  I know our last six weeks will fly by, so I’ll enjoy every moment of them before the luxurious summer begins!

What are you reflecting on this spring?  What has rejuvenated you as the year comes to a close?  What elements of your teaching will be reborn this year or next?  Share in the comments!

Are you Part of a Writing Project?

My friends and colleagues Whitney and Amber started the Summer Institute with North Star of TX Writing Project this morning. The school year just ended last Friday, and here these two educators sit ready for a daily and almost month-long professional development event.

I couldn’t be more proud.

Amber was my student teacher a few years ago, and Whitney was my all-time favorite ‘coachee’ the one year I tried off-campus instructional coaching. Both are dedicated, engaging, inspiring educators.

I’ve learned so much from them–definitely more than they ever learned from me.

When I attended my own SI, my teaching style turned on its head. I learned about readers/writers workshop and authentic writing instruction. I sat next to Mrs. Cato, a digital native in the truest sense, and learned about transforming instruction through the infusion of technology. I wrote. I shared what I wrote. I cried.

I changed — personally and professionally.

“Thank God,” so many of my students would say, if they only knew they should.

I am grateful for National Writing Project and especially for my own site — North Star of Texas. What a blessing to be a part of such a powerful group of educators who know what it means to be teachers as writers who teach writing.

Here’s a link to Whitney’s first blog post. She reflects beautifully on writing with her students this year.

Building Trust in the Classroom.

Friends, who read this blog:  How many of you are part of a writing project? Tell me more.

Writing Instruction that Follows the North Star

writing notebookCan you remember when you learned to write? I can’t. Not really. I remember the lined paper and the fat pencils. I remember trying to have the very best penmanship because I wanted my name listed on the chart that covered the side of my teacher’s desk. I remember that writing came pretty easily. I was one of those students. My teachers loved me because I was well-behaved, listened, learned, and made all A’s.

I do not teach those students. Well, maybe a few, but most of them would be my antonym if my student-self were a word.

When I began teaching, I had no idea that my students would not be like me. I know, funny, right? I thought I could teach them comma rules, show them where the commas went, and I would see beautifully crafted commas in all the right places. (Don’t even get me started on the period.)

I had to learn to be a writing teacher.

Thank God for the North Star of Texas Writing Project. Fortunately, for me and the hundreds of students I’ve instructed since, I’ve learned how to create a community that fosters a love (or at least some days, a tolerance) of the written word.

A couple of weeks ago, the leadership team of NSTWP met and crafted the tenets of our site. We decided that community encompasses and interweaves itself throughout our work, and authenticity, inquiry, modeling, dialogue, and re-visioning make it shine.

A few of us jumped on a Google doc yesterday to craft our proposal for NCTE 2013 where we defined our points and described how we would share them at the conference. This got me thinking about my own practice:  do I walk the walk as well as I talk the talk?

Here’s a glimpse into our thinking, plus a little of my own:

Community— Trust, communication, sharing, feedback, and transparency all lead to a safe place for learning. Community is the core of a workshop classroom, so it must be a constant focus. (National Writing Project, Gomez, 2010) Read-alouds, and classroom and school-wide book clubs, among other relationship-building activities, can all help build community.

Authenticity— How do we make learning real? By allowing for real life connections and experiences. When we expose students to real-life situations and allow them choice in topics, we can engage them more effectively, stimulate more critical thinking, and get them to read more abundantly. At the end of 2011 only three young people in ten now read daily in their own time, down from five out of ten in 2005 (Secondary Annual Literacy Survey, 2011). How do we change lives? We allow students choice. Just as in reading, students must have choice in writing; teachers must allow students to choose topics that interest and intrigue them, and they must allow students to publish in mediums and to audiences that students believe matter, i.e., student created blogs, ebooks, and portfolios.

Inquiry— An inquiry stance goes beyond the use of essential questioning and places the creative thought process into the hands of students, inviting them to questions in every aspect of literacy from responding to texts, engaging in research, to broadening their horizons as writers.  An effective response protocol that fosters inquiry can be adapted and applied to a myriad of literacy experiences.

Dialogue— Authentic conversation transforms classroom community. Learners take ownership of their craft and develop a sense of agency in a student-centered approach to dialogue.  In Choice Words (2004), Peter H. Johnston explains that language “creates realities and invites identities.” Thus, dialogue in our classroom becomes an essential part of student growth.

Modeling— An integral part of literacy instruction, modeling as reader and writer is essential to an effective workshop classroom. Mentor texts that engage students and provide for in-depth study of craft allow for authentic reading and writing experiences.

Re-visioning– NSTWP invented this word to describe the complexity involved in revising our instruction and engaging students in revision of their work. Adaptive Action, “the iterative process we use to leverage unpredictable change for individuals” is crucial to making workshop work. (Adaptive Action, 2013). Conferences, written feedback, and portfolios can all be managed and used to revise our classrooms.

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Yes, You Can Do Workshop in an AP English Class

I sat listening to Donalyn Miller the author of The Book Whisperer talk about how she gets her students to read an average of 60 books a year. She talked about student choice in selecting books. She talked about reading herself in order to match books with kids. She talked about creating readers and not just teaching reading. I thought:  “Cool, but how do I do that with MY students?”

I’d just been assigned to teach AP English Language and Composition the next fall, and I was trying to get my thoughts aligned with the expectations from the College Board. At the same time I was in the middle of my three weeks National Writing Project summer institute, and I kept hearing that I must give students time, and more time, to read and write. My head swam.

At one point, I asked Donalyn: “This is all great, but how does student choice and all this reading work in an AP English class when the focus is on students passing the exam?” Honestly, I was put off by her response:  “It’s not all about the test. Is it?” Yes. Yes it is.

Or so I thought at the time.

It took me three years to figure out how to use Workshop in my AP English class, but I have. Mostly.

My Definition of Reading Writing Workshop:  Students do more work than me!

Weekly Schedule

Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday
Flex Instruction/ Writing Workshop: Timed Writing Debrief

HW: blog post due

Reading Workshop:

Multiple Choice/Critical Reading

Direct Instruction/ Reading or Writing Workshop as needed Writing Workshop: Timed Writing


HW: blog comment due

Alternate Weeks:

Topic & Theme Flood/Vocab & Current Events

The table shows a typical week in my AP workshop classroom. Of course, there are always interruptions to my well-planned schedule.

Blogs:  Student Own and Class

One of the best instructional practices I have is mandating that my students create and post to blogs. Some kids truly take ownership and write more than I assign; some do the absolute minimum. Some refuse to blog at all. Those are the kids who miss out on the practice it takes to become an effective writer, and most of those do not get qualifying scores on the AP exam. My class blog is Citizen Scholars. You can see how I post prompts that students respond to either in the comments or on their own blogs. To see student sample blogs scroll down my blogroll and click on a few. Some are better than others: Joseph, Sarosh, and Simina’s are quite good. When I give students choice about what they write on their own blogs, I consistently get better writing.

In the fall of this past year, I had students find and read current events of their choice. On their blogs they had to write a response to something within the article they read. I scored their writing based on whatever skill we worked on in class that week, using a generic version of the AP writing rubric. Spring semester I tried something new: students were to move through the modes of writing. They got to choose their topics; one week they were to write a description, another week a compare/contrast, etc.

My students write more than I can ever grade. I might grade one in three blog posts, but the more feedback I give, the better the writing. Using Google Reader and the Flipboard app on my iPad is a simple way to read student blogs. I give feedback on sticky notes. Or, if you get your students using Twitter, they can tweet their blog urls every time they post. Again, using my iPad, I can read their blogs and leave feedback quickly via my own tweets and re-tweets of student blog posts.

Multiple Choice Practice/ Critical Reading

Historically, the part of the AP exam that my students do the worst is on the multiple choice section.  As a result, I’ve tried to include more targeted practice with critical reading. My goal is for students to complete 30 multiple choice practices per year. This is difficult (I think I got through 24 last year) but is proving to be worth it as students’ scores improve. Some variations on multiple choice practice (all can be done in small groups or with partners) include:

  • Students read and discuss the passage, finding rhetorical devices and explaining the effect they have on the piece
  • Students use question stems to write their own questions and/or answers for the passage
  • Students receive the multiple choice questions without the answer choices and must answer the questions in short essay format
  • Students receive only the answer choices and must compose the questions that go with them

When students engage in the “work” of reading, they are absorbed in what I called Workshop. The challenge for me was learning to trust that my students would find everything important within a passage. They surprise me every single time!

Direct Instruction/ Reading or Writing Workshop

I learned from Penny Kittle the value of using professional authors like Leonard Pitts, Jr. and Rick Reilly as mentors. Craig Wilson, USA Today columnist, and Mitch Albom are also favorites. These authors write about high interest, contemporary topics, and their writing is chalk full of the rhetorical devices I want my students to include in their own writing. Some weeks we read like readers–reading articles as we focus on content and comprehension. Some weeks we read like writers–analyzing articles as we identify and discuss the effects of the language the authors use to create their messages. Like Kittle, with students I create anchor charts that hang in the room, which detail the different techniques authors use in the majority of their pieces. In years past I’ve had students write process papers on topics of their choice, modeling the writing of one of our mentors. These are often students’ favorite pieces of writing.

Since time is so limited, students write their drafts outside of class. (Of course, I have to teach them the difference between a draft that they are ready to get feedback on from peers and their pre-writing that they quickly sketch during the period prior to mine. Drives me crazy.) In class, students read, evaluate, and give feedback on one another’s writing as I wander the room and conference with as many students as possible.

Conferencing is the key to creating better writers.

During my larger classes, it is difficult to conference with each student. I often post a sign up sheet with time slots for before or after school. Students may choose to meet with me for a more in-depth discussion about their writing. Depending on the student’s needs, I might make this additional conference time mandatory.

Book Clubs

Since I want my students to become lifelong readers, I try to introduce them to books that they will be compelled to read. The AP English Language exam, unlike the Literature exam, does not require students to be well-versed in any specific pieces of literature. It would be easy to delete full-length books from my syllabus, but in my heart I am still a literature teacher, so I want my students to read good books. I also agree with Penny Kittle:  students must be prepared for the rigorous reading they will have to do in college. If I can get students to spend time reading books they enjoy, perhaps they will be better prepared for the time demand of college reading.

I got the idea of student book clubs from a colleague in a neighboring district. She introduced me to the novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safron Foer (before the movie) and told me that once I read that book and felt the need to talk about it–because I would, I would understand how Book Clubs could work with my students. She was right. When students read something that is interesting and requires discussion, they will read (instead of Spark Note), and they will be more likely to read more.

My students read a minimum of four books outside of class (not enough, I know.) They choose titles from my short list. While this does not allow for complete student choice, it does allow for a little. I try to select books that have complex themes or subject matter yet are engaging enough that teenagers will find them interesting. Students meet in Book Clubs during class once a week for about three weeks to discuss their books. Then, our focus changes from reading to writing. Students continue to meet with their Book Clubs, but now the clubs become writing groups. Once the books are read, students must write process papers in which they address some aspect of the book they read and write an argument about it, using evidence from the books as their support. Many students find these essays difficult; they are very college-like in that students must “read the book and write a paper about it.”

I conduct many mini-lessons while students are writing these essays, i.e., structure of an essay, semi-colon and/or colon use, periodic sentences, embedding quotes, etc. Students know if I teach a mini-lesson, I expect to see evidence of mastery of that skill within their essays.

Topic & Theme Flood/ Vocab & Current Events

The topic & theme flood is something my team is going to try this year. We got the idea from a trainer from AP Strategies we’ve been working with for the past year. She suggested that since most students know so little about the world in which they live, we need to bring the world inside our classrooms more. Every other Friday students will engage in a discussion about a specific topic, e.g., integrity, belief, power, success. They will read a short passage that focuses on the topic, identify the theme, and then have to “hunt” via the web for current events that relate to that topic and/or theme. Then they will engage in some kind of activity wherein they share the articles that they find. We hope this will help build student background knowledge for the variety of passages that might appear on the exam, and build their knowledge of the events happening in the world around them. We plan to include vocabulary instruction that corresponds to our topics, but that is still a work in progress. Most recently we used a vocabulary list of SAT words, but we feel that focusing on words that would describe tone might be more beneficial–not sure how that will look yet.


While I do not have Workshop at an AP level all figured out yet, I love the challenge of trying. I know that students like to think, and they like to be busy in class in a way that forces them to figure things out. Workshop is the best avenue I have found for getting there. The best comment I heard all year came from Daniel, a genius of a kid with a knack for cutting up and getting under my skin. He said, “Mrs. Rasmussen, this is so hard. You make us think so much.”

Yep. Something is working.

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