Tag Archives: Organization/Planning

Teaching Humans and Other Daily Adventures

A few posts back, I quoted several brilliant speakers from NCTE in The Joy and Power of Reading session I attended with Amy and Shana. I hadn’t ever had the opportunity to hear such well known and powerful educators and writers speak in person before, and I sat (once I got over my fangirl fawning) in awe at their brilliance and passion.

oneKwame Alexander stuck with me very specifically.

I recognized his name from his popular book The Crossover, but it was his quick smile (that goes all the way to his eyes – a sign of sincerity of character, I’ve been told) that kept my eyes sliding back over to watch him think and wait for him to slip in another insight that should be immediately printed on an inspirational poster for every classroom and dentist’s waiting room in America.

In his cozy green scarf and olive colored jacket, he just looked like poetry personified. A man whose worldly experiences are outshone only by his worldly ambitions. A man you want to have a cup of coffee with, just to sit and sip and feel smarter by proximity. A man who, in his own words, knows the value of helping students to “become more human.”

So, in the weeks since the conference, I’ve been working that “more human” perspective over in my mind. It’s led me to some pretty serious reflection about what I used to “do to” kids.

Never in my career have I strayed from the answer that I teach “because of the kids.” They are the reason I can’t comprehend ever leaving the classroom. They are the reason I stayed in the profession, when early on, I wasn’t sure it was where or who I really wanted to be.

Yet, I too have gone through years, weeks, units, lessons, where I got down on myself for not “getting through.” Whether it be through the content or through to their long term memories. In both cases I ended up feeling constantly behind. Chasing my lesson plan book across each week, racing toward an assessment or final exam time. (To be honest, I don’t know why I was in such a hurry…the scantron machine used to give me nightmares. Listen to all those beeps! They haven’t learned ANYTH…Oh. Wait. I messed up the key. Great.) 

And, while that stress is still very real in some necessary instances (not the scantron stress, thankfully…I’ve moved well beyond that special form of educational torture), for the most part, I save my energy. My colleagues and I are working to provide opportunities each and every day for our students to grow as learners and skill-wielding consumers of information. Each class period is like a buffet of literacy with reading, writing, speaking, listening, collaborating, self-reflecting, and problem solving on the menu almost daily. We, as teachers, are working hard to root all of our foundational work in the standards, and therefore the assessment of those standards, but if that were our only focus, we could (and for some, probably would) easily teach the way that we used to.

But workshop returns students to that foundational level too and makes them co-planners. Choice puts students back in on that ground floor in order to let their voices speak their discovered truths instead of only those of their teachers. We’re not just sending students to the bookshelves and waiting for the class to start collectively singing kumbaya, but we are encouraging them to reinvest in their own learning through some much needed validation of their interests.

Basically the divide between the traditional of what I used to plan and the recent effort to balance it with workshop, stems from the question:

How can I focus on helping my students become more human, if I’m wrapped up in only my own plans for their education?

It’s a delicate balance, for sure. We have mandated tests, the necessity for a well-versed and inquisitive electorate, our desire to just get students actually reading, and countless other seemingly contradictory notions that fly around our profession. But when faced with the uncertainty that is every single day in our classrooms, the undeniable need to encourage, model for, and then trust our students as readers and writers is the only way to make real progress, in my opinion.

Yes, we (the teachers) are learning too. The accountability piece is occasionally far too optimistic to be effective. The right ways and times and books to help our students challenge themselves aren’t always readily obvious or available. Reading goals are made and consistently broken in the name of “I had other stuff to do,” and if I could get in an extra four hours or so of prep everyday, I might feel prepared…ever. But this is the way of it. This is what growth looks like it’s messy and scary and stressful and totally, completely, unquestionably, worth it. Our students depend on us to facilitate learning. That doesn’t mean we need to or get to dictate every facet of that learning at their expense.  two

In that regard, Alexander also said that day that, “we [educators] have to be the manufacturers and purveyors of hope.” In my opinion, the way we do that is to work not only for our students, but more closely with them as well. That means exploring mentor texts and connecting the author’s craft moves to students’ independent novels. It means taking time to conference with students both during reading and workshop time, and also providing feedback on low stakes writing throughout a unit. It means encouraging kids to talk, and reminding ourselves to listen. It has to also mean providing materials for students to see themselves in the written and printed word, because students are more human when we recognize the many facets of their humanity.

I want to give my students hope by handing them mirrors and pens at the same time. I want to manufacture hope through encouragement of students’ growing talents and fuel that development with repeated exposure to challenging and engaging prose, poems, arguments, and drama.

In an interview with NPR back in April, Alexander also said, “I don’t spend a whole lot of time trying to worry or wonder or hope that things are going to get better. I spend a lot of time making things better.”

Our students live in a scary, dangerous, often depressing world. Our classrooms can be, and arguably need to be, safe places where our kids feel secure enough to explore, question, challenge, and deepen their thinking, not just to answer the questions I ask, but answer the questions they have.

We work everyday, as Alexander says, to “make things better.” As I said last week, skill development is my professional responsibility and human development is my personal responsibility. We’re all in the business of developing humans, Ladies and Gentlemen. It’s an exciting and daunting task. It’s also an impressive responsibility. I love knowing I’m not alone in embracing that responsibility. You’re all right there with me.

Mr. Alexander, I’d like to hug you if you’re up for it. You are truly an incredibly inspiring human.

Which thoughts of great educators are guiding you right now? What’s making you reflect on our practice? Please comment below! 

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Designing a Unit in Workshop: Just Try It

The NCTE Annual Convention begins this week, and as always, its onset has prompted me to try and synthesize a year’s worth of thinking around one pressing topic.  What I’ve been considering this year is the value of units of study within a workshop classroom–the hows and whys and what ifs of planning for complex, themed units.

So, we know that teachers who engage in a workshop classroom often have many of the same routines in their schedules:  time to read, time to write, time to talk.  They often have many of the same components:  mini-lessons, booktalks, mentor texts, conferring.

These are all good things.

They are all engaging practices on their own, but to take on real power, they need to be strung together, applied again and again, over the course of units of study and throughout the year.

When I work with teachers who are diving into the workshop model for the first time, I model as many of these components as I can.  Teachers are engaged–they write, they read, they look at the craft of poetry, they analyze articles.  They are energized and enthused to try these strategies with their students.

But every time, I see one smart teacher, her brow furrowed, her face concerned, in the back of the room.  She tells me, either in person or on her evaluation card:  I don’t see the rigor in this model.

And she is right.  In one day’s work, students are only advancing incrementally.  If we just have fun every day playing with words in our notebooks, listening to podcasts to study their craft, or doing book passes ’til the cows come home, our students are not growing by leaps and bounds as readers or writers.

And that’s where designing strong units of instruction comes in.

Whether it’s reading or writing instruction, harnessing the daily moves of a workshop routine to build toward an authentic product is where rigor lives.

I like Kelly Gallagher’s words to sum up the idea of starting at the end when designing a unit:

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Begin by thinking about what you’d like your students to achieve.  Did you just hear an amazing commentary on NPR?  Wow, what a great writer that guy is–I want my students writing like that.

Start with your vision.  That’s where you begin.  Then you ask yourself:  what do my students need to know in order to write like that?

That’s where the workshop routines come in:  booktalk examples of strong nonfiction writing.  Teach mini-lessons that get at the craft of strong commentary writing.  Flood your students with mentor texts, both published pieces and each other’s work, so they can see both the process and the product.  Let them experiment with drafts in their writer’s notebooks–lots of ungraded, low-stakes practice should live there.

At the end of the unit, don’t destroy all of your hard work by trying to “grade” everything objectively with a rubric.  Our beautiful mentor Penny Kittle sums that up nicely:

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When best drafts land on your desk, ask:  how do I know students achieved what I wanted them to?  Utilize self-assessments, celebrate the writing, respond authentically.  Consider how each student advanced individually.

Our students deserve high quality instruction that offers them choice, volume, and authenticity.  They deserve units that will allow them to continue to build on their constantly-increasing mastery of their reading and writing skills.

I’ll be sharing more about planning units in an Ignite Session on Saturday morning, from 9:30-10:45, in room A412.  

And I’ll discuss how and why to build rigor into your workshop units in more depth on Sunday afternoon, from 1:30-2:45, in room B211.

Will you be at NCTE?  Please let us know in the comments.  We would love to meet you!

If you can’t make it to Atlanta, you won’t be missing out–tune in to Twitter using the hashtag #NCTE16 during our session times to join the conversation.

 

Making Workshop Work in 45 Minutes

Kerry wrote:

“One of the seemingly overwhelming hurdles I feel I have is to engage my students with only 45 minutes each day! Do you have any tips or tricks for me to do this?”

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Amy’s diagram of all the moving parts of workshop

So many teachers ask this question.  When one considers all of the moving parts of workshop instruction–reading, conferring, mini-lessons, booktalks, quickwrites, workshop time, choice–it’s tough to conceptualize how to fit it all in to any duration of class time.

 

What’s important to consider is what Penny Kittle referred to as the “currency of time”–what you spend your time on, and what will give you your biggest return for the investment of that time, is equally as important as what you DON’T spend your time on.  You can make workshop work in any time period, with or without all of these elements in one class period, if you invest your time wisely.

What’s most important for our students?  What is the most valuable use of our time?

Time to read.

Time to confer.

Time to write.

That’s it.  If I have those three elements in every single day of workshop, I feel our _Time_-_is_money_095207_.jpgtime has been well spent.  Every workshop classroom will–and should!–look a bit different.  That’s one of the most valuable things about workshop:  not only does it provide for student choice, it gives teachers autonomy, too.

Here’s what I responded to Kerry:

“What I did when I taught those shorter classes was essentially break up my typical workshop into two days, plus I had lots of activities that I always did on certain days of the week.  Fridays, for example, were free-write Fridays in writer’s notebooks, and every Monday always had a sentence study lesson to learn grammar.  We always started with 10 minutes of independent reading, then moved into EITHER a mini-lesson or a quickwrite, then had either a reading or writing workshop.  We had a long workshop every few days or so applying the previous day’s mini-lesson, which they only had a short time to practice the day before.
So, let’s say I’m teaching Macbeth:
Monday: 10 min Independent Reading, 10 min sentence study (using a mentor sentence from the text or a related thematic text like a poem), 15 min mini-lesson on some aspect of whatever part of the play we might be reading that day, 20 min of reading the text with a directed reading activity (close reading type of stuff)
Tuesday:  10 min IR, 15 min mini-lesson or quickwrite (maybe a journal prompt on the nature of evil or something), 20 min reading of the play
Wednesday:  10 min IR, 5 min reminder of yesterday and Monday’s mini-lessons, 30 min reading of the play
Thursday:  10 min IR, 15 min vocab activity, 20 min directed reading activity (discussion, etc.)
Friday:  10 min IR, 10 min free write, 25 min reading of the play
I’d do that for about 3 weeks until the unit was done. (I try not to let a unit go longer than 3 weeks.)
Let’s say I’m teaching narrative writing:
Monday:  10 min IR, 10 min sentence study (using a mentor sentence from a model narrative), 15 min mini-lesson on a writing skill, 20 min writing time (content creation day)
Tuesday:  10 min IR, 10 min mini-lesson follow up, 25 min writing time (lots of revision or tweaking here)
Wednesday:  10 min IR, 5 min reminder, 30 min writing workshop (lots of one-on-one conferring with a combo of content creation and revision)
Thursday:  10 min IR, 10 min vocab activity in notebooks, 10 min writing mini-lesson based on previous day’s workshop, 15 min tinkering workshop
Friday:  10 min IR, 10 min free write, 25 min writing time (straight content creation)
Those days were PACKED.  There was really no free time, so kids who were absent, kids who had questions beyond workshop or conference time, etc. really had to come and see me outside of class (after school, lunch, etc.).  And, there was a lot more homework…we just didn’t have time for everything during 45 minutes.”
How do you make workshop work in any duration of time?  Share with us in the comments a brief outline your daily schedule, please!!  It will be invaluable to see the variety.

Writing With Mentors: A Nonnegotiable of Writers Workshop

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WRITING WITH MENTORS by Allison Marchetti & Rebekah O’Dell

Reading Allison Marchetti and Rebekah O’Dell‘s Writing With Mentors is reminding me of the summer, three years ago, that I committed to making the move to readers and writers workshop.  Like my new friends in Franklin, Wisconsin, I already had many of the structures of workshop in place–I just didn’t know how to fit them all together.

As I read and wrote and thought beside the likes of Penny Kittle, Amy, Jackie, Erika, and my other UNH friends, I learned quickly which parts of my instruction to keep and tweak, and which parts to flat-out jettison.  While I felt like my reading workshop practices were solid, I knew I needed to completely rethink the way I designed writing instruction.

I wish I’d had Writing With Mentors that summer.

That summer, I learned that I shouldn’t be designing lessons around a staid form like a persuasive essay or a literary analysis.  I needed to begin thinking about having my students write authentic, interesting pieces on topics of their choice–but I didn’t know how.

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I immediately saw Gregory Pardlo’s DIGEST, full of prose poems, as a mentor text.

I learned how to read like a writer, how to look at the craft and structure of my favorite authors’ works.  I began to see mentor texts everywhere, and in fact too many places–I was exhausted by trying to keep track of everything I wanted to share with my students, and even resolved to read less as a teacher.  I wanted to offer a variety of rich mentor texts to my students without losing my mind–but I didn’t know how.

I learned that my writing process was as unique as my handwriting, and that process has value just as much as a written product does.  I wanted to restructure my unit planning, my gradebook, and my classroom routines to reflect that–but again, I didn’t know how.

Over three years, through trial and error, I’ve figured out how to reckon with a lot of those issues, but I would have known instantly had I read Writing With Mentors then.  This book succinctly showed me great writing units and products, how to plan for them, and how to select and organize current, engaging mentor texts.

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Books are at the center of my writing instruction–literally.

It reminded me that when we read–even to study the craft moves of a mentor author–we must read as readers first, for the “pleasures of story time” and to “hear the rhythms of good writing” (65).

It affirmed my habit of designing new units each year, complete with brand new mentor texts, to meet the needs of my current students and the sociopolitical climate in which we live and read and write.

It helped me cement mentor texts, alongside the writer’s notebook, conferring, and authenticity, as nonnegotiables of a successful writers workshop–because, in Allison and Rebekah’s words, “mentor texts enable complete creativity and individuality to emerge in student writing and writing instruction” (3).

And it reminded me that when students leave our classrooms, “mentor texts will always be present” (167).  When we teach students to write with mentors, they remain capable of reading like writers as they engage with print and media and other real-world texts.   Since getting my students to become lifelong readers and writers is my ultimate goal, this book is now an important mentor to me.

Writing With Mentors is the book to pick up when you put the textbook down, toss out your binders of writing rubrics, or throw up your hands when you read your 94th crappy plagiarized paper in a row.  If you’re seeking to rejuvenate, organize, and revamp your writing instruction, don’t undergo three years of trial and error like I did…let Allison and Rebekah help you write, more happily, successfully, and authentically, with mentors.

Have you read Writing With Mentors?  Share your feedback in the comments!

 

10 Pedagogical Must-Reads for Workshop Teachers

IMG_0650I met with my new student teacher a few weeks ago, and he asked me to borrow any books that might help him get going on the readers-writers workshop–the “theory” version of Jackie’s starter kit.  He’s been in my classroom before, so he knows the general routine and character of our work, but he wanted to know the ins and outs of how I thought and planned and conceptualized the whole thing.

I sat at my desk and looked at all of the titles I had on hand, remembering how influential reading them for the first time had been.  As a result, it was hard not to just dump my entire professional bookshelf onto a cart for him, but I managed to pick out a few titles that have guided me most adeptly in one aspect or another of my current classroom practice.

  1. Book Love by Penny Kittle – This was the book that helped to solidify my vision of an ideal classroom.  Before I read it, I had already been doing many of the best practices Penny mentions–writer’s notebooks, choice reading, personalized writing.  But I didn’t know how to bring it all together until Book Love.  As such, this is my #1 recommendation for any teacher looking to jump-start their individualized workshop curriculum.
  2. Write Beside Them by Penny Kittle – This book introduced me to the concepts of mentor texts, reading like a writer, and best draft/publication of writing.  I learned about quickwrites, constant revision, writing conferences, and a great deal more of what are now standard routines in my classroom.  This is the book for anyone curious about the big picture of writing instruction.
  3. Finding the Heart of Nonfiction by Georgia Heard – I was raised in the tradition of literature as containing mostly fiction and poetry, but Penny’s books helped me see the great value of nonfiction.  I wanted to know how to integrate it well into my thematic units, and this book helped me do that.  Georgia’s book is full of wisdom about finding the soul of good nonfiction writing and matching it to your students’ needs.
  4. Choice Words by Peter Johnston – This book taught me how to talk to students.  It is my #1 recommendation for anyone looking to address those pesky Speaking and Listening standards in the Common Core–this book teaches you about the delicate, volatile power of a few choice words between you and your students.  I re-read it every year, and it might be the most important book in this stack.
  5. Holding On to Good Ideas in a Time of Bad Ones by Tom Newkirk – This book is subtitled “Six Literacy Principles Worth Fighting For,” and Tom Newkirk certainly made me want to engage some of my former teachers in fisticuffs when I finished it.  This text is full of common-sense brilliance that will transform the way you think about why we teach reading and what kinds of texts we teach.
  6. Boy Writers by Ralph Fletcher – Why do my students keep writing about violent gun battles?  Why do they always ask if they can swear in their writing?  What’s up with the complete unwillingness of my boys to be vulnerable?  If you’ve asked yourself these questions…this book is for you.  Ralph writes about everything you ever wondered about boy writers and how to move them forward in their writing.
  7. Readicide by Kelly Gallagher – Schools have been killing reading for many years, Kelly argues, and then presents ways you can stop the slaughter.  He fires away at pop quizzes, assigned chapters, multiple-choice tests, and all the practices that steer our students toward SparkNotes.  Then he reveals ways to get students authentically engaging in literature in a way that doesn’t kill their love of reading.
  8. Falling in Love with Close Reading by Chris Lehman and Kate Roberts – After finishing Readicide and wanting to abandon the eight or so whole-class novels I once felt chained to, I wasn’t sure how to teach close reading skills.  This book answered that question for me, and more.  Chris and Kate reveal how to use poems, articles, short stories, and selections from novels to get kids interacting with the beauty and power of language in all kinds of texts.
  9. Reading Ladders by Teri Lesesne – When all of your students have finally found a book they will actually read–then what?  Teri Lesesne taught me how to help students climb a reading ladder of text complexity with this book.  It’s a tough battle to get all kids reading, but it’s even tougher to get them to all challenge themselves once they are.  Reading ladders are the solution to the increasing complexity question–now they’re a consistent part of my instruction.
  10. Revision Decisions by Jeff Anderson and Deborah Dean – After reading the first nine books on this list, I still wasn’t sure where grammar instruction fit in.  I knew to have students read like writers and learn from language and sentence structures that way, but I wasn’t sure how to structure my mini-lessons, until I read this book.  Jeff and Deborah helped me find strong craft study lessons and bring them into the classroom in a way that appealed to students and also benefited them immediately in their writing.

This is by no means an exhaustive list–That Workshop Book by Stephanie Harvey, Read Write Teach by Linda Rief, The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller, and many other integral titles were simply not on my shelf when I gave this stack to Mike.  But these top ten are ones I wouldn’t be the same teacher without.

What other titles are essential to your practice?  Please share in the comments!

Update:  Here are must-read folks that readers have suggested via Twitter and Facebook, as well as in the comments:

  1. Lucy Calkins
  2. Nancie Atwell
  3. Linda Rief
  4. Katie Wood Ray
  5. Donalyn Miller
  6. Don Graves
  7. Donald Murray
  8. Peter Elbow
  9. Ariel Sacks
  10. James Moffett
  11. Louise Rosenblatt

#FridayReads: 8 Stocking Stuffers That Will Change Your Classroom

While I love the beautiful handmade gifts of my students the most, there are a couple untraditional stocking stuffers that I’m putting on my Christmas wish list this year.  These are the tried and true tools that somehow keep my classroom just a bit more sane during those hectic moments (like the days leading up to holiday break).  So in the last eight days before Christmas, here are eight stocking stuffers for a colleague, teaching friend, or even yourself!

  1. Headphones: This was the greatest gift my cooperating teacher gave me. His secret was to always keep extra sets of ear buds handy.  To this day, I stock up on cheap headphones from Marshalls (and alcohol wipes to clean them) at the beginning of the school year. Oftentimes it helps some of my antsier students tune out their surroundings and dial into their writing.
  1. Crazy Aaron’s Thinking Putty: Amy bought this for me this past candy-cane-9summer, and it is a miracle worker.  I initially brought it in for a student who has severe ADHD.  He was oftentimes overstimulated by his peers.  Playing with the thinking putty changed his behavior drastically.  What I love most is the thicker viscosity of the putty keeps students more engaged…and it comes in holiday colors, including white christmas, gelt, and candy cane.
  1. Conferring Chair: I wrote about my conferring chair here, but I cannot stress enough what an impact having this chair has had on accessing my students within the classroom. Last year I spent time kneeling next to students or awkwardly standing over them as they sat at their desks. Purchasing a conferring chair that was lightweight, foldable, and small allowed me to discreetly enter conversations, conference with students, and set up mini workshop areas throughout the classroom.
  1. Awesome Citations: I love giving my students small pick-me-ups, 12098_Awesome_1which include these quirky “awesome citations” I found at a novelty shop. I enjoy filling them out, leaving a small note at the bottom, and either tucking them into writer’s notebooks or dropping them off at unexpected times.
  1. Writing Prompt Books: As the advisor of Writer’s Club, I can’t get enough of writing prompt books like The Writer’s Block: 786 Ideas to Jump-Start Your Imagination by Jason Rekulak, 642 Things to Write About by the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto, and 100 Quickwrites by Linda Rief. Not only do I pull them out during club meetings, but I use them as inspiration for class quick-writes, or to begin brainstorming for independent writing pieces.
  1. Magnets: Magnets might not be on the top of your wish list, but they are exceptionally convenient when it comes to students’ presentations of writing, artwork, or posters. Odd, yes, but I love when my students can present hands-free without the awkwardness of holding large posters or pictures for other group members.
  1. Coloring Meditation Books: I love keeping photocopied pages from coloring meditation books on hand for spare moments. Not only are they calming for many students, particularly those with anxiety, but 51N8TdfrZ6L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_they are also great for extra time during club meetings and advisory or homeroom periods…or, as one of my students said, “My mom loves doing those when she drinks wine.” That is always an option for tired teachers too.
  1. My True Love Gave to Me: High school English teachers (and their students) will love this anthology of Christmas stories from top YA authors including some of my favorites, Rainbow Rowell, David Levithan, and Matt De La Pena!

 

What is on your teaching wish list or gift list this season?

 

 

 

Writing My Wrongs: How I’m Learning From My Mistakes

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A student caught sneaking his independent reading book into his lit circle novel…this is a first.

Every year I arrive at the second quarter with a new approach, idea, or plan.  This will be the solution! I think.  This will sustain momentum.  This will help us make it through the slump.  This will be the difference between dreading quarter two and praying for quarter three, but year after year, I am wrong.  For the past three years I’ve convinced myself it is the book—Lord of the Flies is too boring; they can’t appreciate Bradbury’s language in Fahrenheit 451.

The problem isn’t with my students though—it’s with me.  I am doing it wrong, and while I am ashamed to admit the honest truth, I realize now the error of my ways.

I “gave up” traditional teaching three years ago, when I transitioned to a workshop model of education.  I carved out time for reading, instated notebooks, poured over workshop guides, and asked countless questions of my mentors and colleagues.  The bare bones were in place, and I was convinced that I had the structure necessary to shift from a teacher-centered classroom to a student-centered classroom built on choice.  In many cases I did; every start of the school year began smoothly with excited readers and passionate writers.  We told stories, read poetry, shared quick writes, and analyzed craft, but I dreaded quarter two, the quarter when together, we would read our first of three required whole class novels.

Quarter two was when I lost their voices, their attention, and their passion.  With whole class novels, our focus shifted from “who are you and what are you thinking?” to “who is your author and what is he thinking?” 

Under the weight of scaffolding, curriculum standards, core competencies, and competency based rubrics, my mini-lessons focused on literary terminology instead of literary exploration.  To me, reading mini-lessons meant teaching the same terms I’d grown up with: symbolism, Freytag’s pyramid, direct and indirect characterization, round and flat characters, etc.  This meant my lessons shifted from writing-centered lessons that started with the question, “What do you notice about the author’s craft?” to terminology-centered lessons, that started with, “Apply your understanding of (fill in the blank) to the book.”  The latter produced significantly less empowering results.

So, I asked and probed my students.  I peppered them with questions during study halls and extra help; I snuck in questions with the straggling Writer’s Club members after meetings, gave out surveys, and chatted at lunch with colleagues.  And while I was convinced that it was because I was “forcing” them to read unrelatable classics, I couldn’t shake the fact that I was missing something bigger.

By the time I sat down with my living mentor Linda Rief at a coffee shop in Exeter, I realized I was doing it wrong in quarter two.  The pieces gradually added up—I knew the three reading options I had given them for literature circles weren’t choices at all.  I was hoping they would read the books in their entirety, but I knew that this year would lend itself to additional groans, frustration, and abandonment.  At the end of the day, I was a workshop teacher defaulting to a traditional methodology or worse, was I a traditional teacher pretending to run a workshop?

The two greatest pieces of advice came first via my special educator mother, who asked, “Why not just teach them good writing?  Isn’t that what classics are?” And second through Linda Rief, who pointblank asked me why I needed to teach plot triangles anyways.

Were there successes in my literature circle unit? Most definitely.  Sure, the vast majority didn’t fall in love with Golding, and it breaks my heart that they couldn’t revel in the beauty of Bradbury’s language, but in final surveys, nearly every student appreciated the time they had to discuss the novels in small groups.  They enjoyed talking about the stories with peers, and while not all of them loved the books, many pointed out that this was the first time they engaged in authentic conversations about literature without a teacher moderating the discussions.  They learned; they just didn’t learn the way I had hoped.

Part of me feels like I lost four weeks that we could have spent more effectively growing together as readers and writers while looking at the beauty of craft in book clubs centered on young adult lit of their choosing.  The other part of me feels like I failed my students in providing this idealized version of what I hoped our class would be and then slamming them back to reality with the same sort of stock analysis I question.

I am impatient when it comes to growth, particularly when it comes to my teaching.  While I understand my students’ needs as developing readers and writers, I am quick to judge my own struggles.  Even as an intern, one of my personal goals was “to be at the level of a second year teacher.”  I repeated this mantra knowing full well that the only way to be at the level of a second year teacher was to be a second year teacher.

All I can promise my students is that I will continue to reflect, move forward, and become the teacher they deserve.  But alas, growth takes time, trial, and error.  It requires me to unravel years of traditional education, analyze what works, what doesn’t, what I should carry with me, and what I can discard.  It will take time for me to unwind my own brain just as I ask my students to unwind theirs.  I am still learning to be a writer, a reader, a student, a teacher, and that takes time, time that sometimes feels all too precious when I only have one year with my kids.  Fortunately, teaching is like writing.  Every day, I begin the process of drafting a new story, and every year, I get the chance to revise my work.

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