Tag Archives: Organization/Planning

Something’s Coming: Inviting Student Writers Into the World of West Side Story

by Elizabeth Oosterheert, contributing writer

Like director Steven Spielberg, I’ve loved West Side Story all my life. Impatiently, I waited for his new film  based on the 1957 Broadway musical with a screenplay written by the legendary Tony Kushner to come to theaters.

Spielberg’s first venture into directing a musical does not disappoint. 

Perhaps more relevant today than it was upon its initial release sixty years ago, West Side Story reminds us of how deep the divisions can be between unlike minded people, and that love can bridge any divide.  Leonard Bernstein’s score was and still is a masterpiece, and Spielberg was very intentional about casting all Latinx actors and actresses to play the Sharks. Gone is the dark makeup used on white actors in the 1961 film to make them appear Puerto Rican. Additionally, the new film incorporates Spanish dialogue without subtitles, in an effort to illustrate that English is not superior to other languages.

 The new West Side Story is an incredible visual text for writing workshop teachers, whether the goal is writing film analysis, or using the movie as an entry point for Romeo & Juliet. 

Recently, I invited my workshop students to view the film with me in class, with the following goals in mind:

  • Identify how the themes of bias, oppression and responsibility “play out” in West Side Story and later in Romeo & Juliet. Special thanks to Rebekah O’Dell for her insights on big picture thinking.
  • Consider these questions: Who is my neighbor? In a world that is rife with division, what is the appropriate way to treat people who see the world through a lens that differs from mine, or come from a different socio economic or ethnic background? 
  • Draw parallels between this visual text, The Outsiders, & Romeo & Juliet.
  • Write effectively in notebooks and on electronic platforms about theme, character, plot, etc.
  • Pose authentic questions.
  • Participate in large group discussions.

Getting Started & Keeping a Journal

As our entrance for West Side Story, I used this anticipation guide (though I call it an opinionnaire) to introduce students to thematic elements. Following our conversation in response to the opinionnaire, I shared these Google slides, inviting students to think further about the film’s origins and why it matters for us to study it today. Your students may not require that much visual “front loading,” but I have several students with unique learning needs, and having the visual texts definitely provided important background information and aided their comprehension going into the film viewing. When I revisit this study with future classes, I plan to add slides introducing specific characters for clarity.

So when did we start writing? Immediately! I gave each student one of these journals inviting them to think about different story elements daily, from 3D character traits (thank you to Susan Barber and Carlos Escobar for their brilliant ideas about looking at characters through varied lenses), to considering how music moves the narrative along, and finally to writing a thematic statement for the character that each student writer chose to “follow” throughout the film. I invited students to follow Tony, Maria, Riff, Bernardo or Anita, but you could also encourage students to follow secondary characters as there are many significant supporting players in West Side Story such as Chino and Valentina.

I loved the ongoing discussions we had about our writing, and the depth of students’ observations. Though some of them were initially skeptical about watching a musical, even the most reluctant eventually fell under the enchanting spell of the Bernstein score.

Summative Assessment Opportunities

David Alvarez (Bernardo) with some of the Sharks. All photo credits to Twentieth Century Studios.

Since we dedicated a significant portion of class time to viewing the film and it’s an invaluable doorway into Romeo and Juliet , and to reflecting on our own biases and what it means to love fiercely, I’ve offered my students two different ways to respond. The first, which we did last week, was to post questions for a large group discussion. Each student was invited to post questions connected to the following categories:

  • PLOT

Students are familiar with writing a variety of question types since we’ve done Socratic seminars throughout the year, so writing their questions was in that sense, a review.

In addition to participating in the discussion through writing and speaking, students will be composing individual responses in which they take our large group conversation a step further by responding to a question that remains unanswered for them. Finally, students will share some concluding thoughts about their thematic thinking, and embracing characters as three dimensional beings (physical, emotional, and psychological).

I’m excited to see how this immersion in an iconic musical will enrich our study of parallel text Romeo and Juliet.

What are your favorite ways to use visual texts in your reading and writing workshops? How is music part of your craft? Share your thoughts in the comments, or find me on Twitter @oosterheerte.  

Elizabeth Oosterheert is a middle school language arts teacher and theatre troupe director in central Iowa. She loves writing, and sharing the stage with seventh and eighth graders. Her favorite stories are Peter Pan, The Outsiders, West Side Story, and Our Town. Recently, she finished writing adaptations of Arabian Nights and The Three Musketeers.


Fostering Structured Discussions: Coffee Talk

Students in classroom Multi-ethnic group of students in classroom, working together on a project. middle school discussion stock pictures, royalty-free photos & images

This school year has been one of simplification for me. I’ve really been trying to embrace doing more with less. Can I reuse this mentor text? Are there ways to better scaffold this concept? I’m constantly having to evaluate my lesson plans. Trying to find the tenuous balance between student engagement, skills practice, and bridging gaps has been difficult.

You know what? That’s ok. I tell my students all the time that growth happens when we are pushed outside of our comfort zones. So this year, my teaching practice is growing and changing. Reading this post definitely encouraged me to be reflective about my goals and practice.   

Here was my issue: 

I’d give my students a speaking prompt in response to something we’d read, journaled, etc. Sure, they’d chat about non-academic topics with their friends, but when it came to something related to class- crickets. My simple side-bar turn and talk activities were falling flat. 

Logically, I know this often comes down to students lacking confidence in their own ability to discuss the topic well. But I also know how necessary it is for them to break through that.

As teachers of writing, we know that if our kids can talk about something, they can write about it. I repeat this ad nauseam for my students. Making space in our classrooms for our students to discuss ideas is imperative to their growth as writers, but what do we do when they won’t?

Here was my solution:

This, my friends, is where we employ structured speaking opportunities in our lessons. In true teacher fashion, I went digging through archives of activities to see what popped out. I like to use an activity called Coffee Talk. Why I forget to use it from year to year? I’ll never know. It was something used in a professional development I attended ages ago and genuinely enjoyed because I, too, am often one to avoid jumping into a conversation if I feel a little unsure about how my ideas might be received. 

In the way a Socratic Seminar is like an essay, Coffee Talk is kind of like pre-writing. It embraces unfiltered, messy thoughts and protects the speaking time of every person in the group while still providing structure to help move the conversation along. 

Coffee Talk is a discussion in three rounds, designed for small groups of 3-6, and is easily adjusted to your purpose. It goes like this:

Round 1: 90 seconds per person is set aside to discuss the topic, text, etc. Whatever is in their brain about it is fine. Stream of consciousness-type thoughts abound. They may repeat something they heard- totally fine. This is NOT an open discussion.

Round 2: 60 seconds per person is set aside to continue their previous train of thought, expand on something they heard, and so on. This is STILL not an open discussion. Students should be more clearly developing their ideas as this round progresses.

Round 3: 5 minutes is set aside for the entire group to discuss. This is the moment they’ve all been waiting for- NOW it’s an open discussion. Encourage your kids to ask questions, respond to one another, and dig deeper into the topic. 

The fully detailed instructions I use with students can be found here

The beauty of this protocol is that every person is guaranteed a chance to speak, it’s easy to customize, and the entire class participates. 

What are some of your favorite ways to foster structured discussions in your classroom?

Samantha is a wife, mom to three tiny humans, high school English teacher, perpetual student, Texas transplant, and lover of beautiful stories. She spends her days seeking levity in the chaos, sharing her passion for writing and storytelling with students, and searching for her constantly misplaced cup of reheated coffee. You can follow Samantha on Twitter @SimplySivils and on her blog http://simplySivils.wordpress.com/.

Unsung Heroes

“The soul of the brave warrior rising slowly with the smoke…” Taylor Mali

For the last several years, my first writing study in January with eighth graders has consisted of what I refer to as food narratives. Many thanks to Karla Hilliard for inspiring me with this idea originally!

Over time, I’ve learned that food writing is a love language of sorts for teenagers.

Students soon discover that in writing about food, though meals are significant, it’s the memories evoked that matter. We’re remembering not only the Christmas cheesy potatoes, but the person who made them and the conversations that we savored around the table. Meals are like lighthouses on the shorelines of our lives, and writing about food ignites the light and spreads it as we choose sensory details that give our writing color and meaning.

On Martin Luther King Jr., Day,  a day that memorializes a man who crossed racial and religious divides by speaking the common language of love, I’m reflecting on how often teenagers are marginalized, how frequently they are overlooked by a culture that tags them as unmotivated, relationally awkward, shackled to their phones, and the list goes on. I’ve been thinking about what it means to be an unsung hero. Webster’s definition of “unsung” is as follows:

unsung adjective

un·​sung |  \ ˌən-ˈsəŋ   \

Definition of unsung

1.not sung

2. not sung meaning not celebrated or praised (as in song or verse)

an unsung hero

Last week, I wrote the following narrative for my students about a season in my life when a high risk pregnancy required bed rest, and I found myself confined to a hospital room for months. On one level, it’s a story of struggling to consume the number of calories required to support multiple babies–but it’s also about the endurance of love, and what a difference a visit from my theatre students made. They were my unsung heroes, and my current students are also givers of courage and hope in a world that is often forbidding and constantly changing.

Unsung Heroes

March 29th, 2004

 9 AM: I wake up thinking: “Today is going to be awful.” Dr. Rightmeier invades my room, perfectly clinical in his long white coat, stethoscope hanging loosely around his neck like a lifeguard’s whistle. He’s pacing, frustrated. 

“You can’t possibly overindulge.”.

“Eat whatever you want. Eat THIS,” he says, holding up a supersized Hershey bar. “You should be taking in more calories.”

I CAN’T!  That’s what my mutinous mind is thinking. My doctors increased my dosage of magnesium sulfate, a drug intended to prevent early labor, causing constant nausea and dizziness. How could I eat when the room was turning like a carousel?

Twenty-four hours later, I’m propped up against a snowy mountain of pillows with a full breakfast tray. Waffles swimming in maple syrup, a covered bowl of oatmeal, two packets of brown sugar, a plate of toast that I hadn’t even ordered…

My stomach churns in protest. The babies, butterflies waiting to emerge, flutter under my hands. 

Tears hurry down my face as I contemplate the overloaded tray. Suzi, one of my nurses, sweeps into the room, smiling a good morning. “I’ve come to get your vitals,” she announces, wheeling the blood pressure cart up to my bed.

Her smile softens as her eyes read my tearstained face.

“Still feeling sick?” she asks.

I nod, embarrassed that I’m crying. 

“This is too much with your stomach doing somersaults, How about a protein shake instead?” she asks.

“Yes, please..” 

 She grabs my hand and holds it for a moment before disappearing with the tray. 

10 AM: I drink half of a vanilla protein shake. It isn’t nearly enough, but it’s a start.  My laptop is open. I’m trying to write my final paper for my last Masters Class at Calvin University.

My mind wanders from my blank screen to a conversation with my lead physician, Dr. Cook, the day before.
“This is such an important week, Elizabeth. The threshold of viability. If you can press on until Friday, everything looks brighter. Your babies’ chances of survival skyrocket.”

He prays with me, and writes Romans 12:12 on a notecard. “Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.”

Joyful. Patient. Faithful. Am I any of those?

Why am I writing about middle school theatre? Will I ever direct a play again? I’m only allowed out of bed to take a shower.

1 PM:  Saltine crackers. That’s all I’ve been able to eat since the protein shake. Loneliness lingers like an old friend, My mind seems as closed as the books scattered on the end of my bed.

 I  rewrite a paragraph for the fifth time, and then, I see familiar faces in the doorway.  It’s Steven, Paul, Josh, Shelley and Staci,  principal cast members from the production of Peter Pan that I directed before a doctor’s orders changed everything.

“Mrs. O.! It’s so good to see you…” Steven’s words fill the semi-dark room with light, and in his voice I’m reliving scenes from the play. I hear him saying, “To die will be an awfully big adventure!” All he needs is some glitter in his hair and an epee. In my mind, he’s soaring across the stage, flying over the audience throwing pixie dust like confetti.  Ageless. 

“The rumor is that you need to get outside,” said Paul.

“That sounds awesome, but you would have to get me past several nurses.”

“We already have permission,” Staci insists.  Shelley and Josh go into the hallway and return with a wheelchair-the chariot of 4th Floor.

Within minutes, I’m outside of my room for the first time in weeks. Steven, the Prince of the Never Land, gently pushes the chair into the elevator , while Paul and Josh complain about writing workshop without me. Piles of grammar worksheets. Homework overload.

Out in the hospital courtyard, we’re all tasting blue skies, savoring the flavor of hope.

In March, Michigan clouds rarely part, but that day, the sun glints through the trees like a cutlass. We talk about our shared memories of Peter Pan.  I ask them what I could have done better. I think about how often God works through teenagers, unsung heroes that the rest of the world overlooks.

“We’ll never forget it, Mrs. O. The flying rehearsals especially,” Steven muses.

“You need to be on stage again,” I said. “You still have stories to tell.”

“When will you be back?” asks Paul. After that, no one says anything for a while, because we don’t know when that will be.

4 PM: As the sun melts lower in the sky, I know it’s time for them to go, and for me to go back. I will forever remember them as I see them that day. Beams of spring sunlight. I don’t need to tell them how much I miss them, or that I don’t want the day to end. With the unique wisdom of eighth graders, they already know.

January 2022: Unsung Heroes Still Surround Me

I remember that visit as if it just happened, because those students were unsung heroes, givers of hope and courage. So are you. You are life giving in the same way.

Thank you for being a gift.

Reading Like Writers:

Always, I ask my students what they notice about a mentor text, whether it’s professionally written, a draft that I’m working on, or an eighth grade writer’s work. What ideas did they take away from my narrative?

  1. One way to write a food narrative is to approach it as a Day in the Life sort of food journal, with time stamps and short bursts of descriptive language.
  2. Dialogue helps to advance any piece of writing, whether it’s a food narrative or something else.
  3. Sometimes writers use intentional sentence fragments to emphasize words that they want their readers to notice.
  4. Writers may choose to use prologues or epilogues to set the stage for a composition OR to bring a piece to completion.

What Options Do Students Have During Our Food Writing Study?

Autonomy is a vital component of writing workshop, and I love to give students as many choices as possible around whatever our focal point–in this case food writing-is. 

Here are a few of the options that I give them, including links to the professional mentor texts that they may explore as they think about what they would like to write, and what the best path into that writing is:

  1. A Food Themed Letter of Recommendation–With Thanks to The New York Times. We read this article entitled “I Recommend Eating Chips” as a way to explore excellent descriptive writing. This piece also illustrates that a good writer can write about food while at the same time cleverly expressing commentary on different cultural elements. I invited my students to write imitations of passages they admired.
  2. A Widow Takes the Helm at Blackberry Farm: Once again, The New York Times provided an outstanding example of a food narrative that is about SO much more than food. This is a story of tragedy, grief and resilience. The narrative is filled with beautifully structured complex sentences for students to use as mentors in their own compositions, as well as breathtaking photos of one of the most exquisite resorts in the United States. 
  3. The Story of a Recipe: This idea came both from my own life experiences, since my great grandmother passed down incredible recipes to the next generations, and also from an NPR feature that I read about high school students sharing their recipe stories and compiling them in a cookbook. My students have the opportunity to record a recipe that they love and share why it’s important to them. The NPR feature is linked here

We also enjoyed watching this CBS News feature about a world famous chef who is revolutionizing school lunches. Earlier this year, we wrote menus filled with our ideal entrees, beverages, sides and desserts.

Happy Martin Luther King, Jr. Day! I hope that today is a day filled with celebrations of Dr. King’s life and legacy, and of the unsung heroes in your life, including those in your classrooms.

Elizabeth Oosterheert is a middle school language and theatre arts teacher in central Iowa. Her favorite stories are The Outsiders, Peter Pan and Our Town. Recently, she wrote a script for a production of Arabian Nights. Share your amazing ideas for writing workshop in the comments below, or email Elizabeth at oosterheerte@pellachristian.net.

Pixie Dust: Or Life Among Fairies

by Elizabeth Oosterheert

PETER: Wendy, get better quickly, and I will take you to see a mermaid. She is awfully anxious to see a mermaid…J.M Barrie–Peter Pan

“Mom, I’m so thirsty…” 

Those aren’t strange words to hear in July and August, are they? I didn’t think much of them in the lazy heat of late summer. I was more focused on soaking in every last drop of Michigan sunlight, and answering the call of the lake, a voice that is more insistent every year. “Join us…we are your memories. Don’t get too old to go back to your childhood…”

It seems fitting to me that every summer I bring my children to all of the places I loved as a child, hoping to awaken the same magic that captivated me. Wind, waves, and an unending shoreline.. I admit that I was preoccupied during our trip. I was writing a play called Crown of Roses and the words were criminals, trying to escape capture every night when I desperately wanted them to live on the pages. 

We had been home from our vacation for a few weeks when I began noticing how thirsty my daughter Summer was. A bottle of Gatorade or a glass of chocolate milk vanished in seconds, leaving her begging for more. At first I blamed the heat, but when August turned to September and the temperatures surrendered to fall, Fear’s cold fingers gripped my heart. I knew there were only a few things that would cause constant thirst, none of them good. “It’s nothing. She’s growing and eating more, too. Everything was fine at her checkup in June.” That was the voice in my head that I entertained when I dared to think about the situation at all.

Friday night football…a sure sign of autumn in countless cities across the country. Summer, a pixie who loves flying around the stands under those stadium lights, went to an Eagles game and returned home reporting that she had thrown up during the game. Again, I heard that voice in my head: “It’s the flu. A little rest, some fluids, and everything will be back to normal.” I offered her 7-Up,  Popsicles, Cookie Dough ice cream, anything to ignore the chill overtaking my heart. 

A few days passed. Summer was worse. Much worse. Wednesday, September 18th…


ME: How are you feeling? I think you should try to go to school today.

SUMMER: My stomach hurts. 

ME:  I’m starting to think you just don’t want to go to school. You need to try to eat something. Dry Cheerios. Toast. A banana. ANYTHING!


ME: I’ll call at noon to see how you’re doing. 



SEPTEMBER 18TH, 6PM: I arrived home from school to find Summer pale and unmoving on the couch. Immediately, I called our local hospital and was told to bring Summer to the ER. 

My husband carried her out to my Ford Excursion because she was too weak to walk. I could see every bone in her legs and wondered how she had gotten so thin in a matter of days. After she was safely in the back seat, I turned to my husband. “They’re going to tell me she’s a diabetic,” I said. 

9PM: Summer and I have been in the emergency room for three hours. A doctor confirmed what I suspected for weeks. My daughter’s sugar levels were six times the normal level, and she was diagnosed with Type One diabetes. I prayed Psalm 23: Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil…” 

When I wasn’t praying, I was worrying. Worrying about Summer’s future. Worrying about my other children. Worrying about the Crown of Roses rehearsal I was going to miss the next day, and how much work we still needed to do on choreography. I allowed myself the luxury of tears when Summer was sleeping, and then I decided to call Tyler, my student director. He was the only one who would be able to keep a rehearsal afloat if I couldn’t be at school.

A Late Night Cell Phone Conversation


Hey-Tyler. It’s Mrs. O. Sorry to call so late. I’m at the emergency room and I’m about to get in an ambulance with my daughter to go to Blank Children’s Hospital.

Wow. I’m sorry. Is she going to be okay?

I think so. She was diagnosed with Type One diabetes. There’s a team of specialists that is going to teach us how to take care of her. It would be so reassuring for me if you would run the rehearsal tomorrow. Could you be there? I know you weren’t planning to come.

Anything. I would be glad to. Those kids are heroes.

I know. They’re amazing…and so are you. Thanks, Tyler….

Don’t worry, Mrs. O. I’ll be there.

It is no accident that Tyler played the role of Richard the Lion-Hearted when he was an eighth grader. He is royalty.

The ambulance was dark and calming, if a vehicle that is usually a trauma center can be peaceful. Summer was given her first insulin injection, and started feeling more like her light-filled, fairy self. I held her hand, and watched her heart’s gentle rhythm on the monitor.

I thought it was only flowers that die…J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan

Lines from Peter Pan flooded my mind all night, and I was grateful for the comfort of the familiar words, and the story of the Boy Who Would Never Be Old in the midst of a situation that was far from the shores of Never Land. When we arrived at Blank Children’s Hospital, one of the first things I saw was a mural featuring Peter Pan. I recalled that on the night my four babies who are now sophomores were born, and I thought I might bleed to death, God gifted me with an extremely compassionate nurse whose name was WENDY. The holiness of story has surrounded me in so many seasons…

Summer spent the rest of that night on a brick-hard triage bed. She tried to sleep, and I sat next to her with my MacBook, praying and planning lessons for all of the classes I would miss the next day. I didn’t know what the morning would bring, but I knew that we were in the company of angels.

For this month’s post, I wanted to tell you the story of my daughter’s diagnosis with Type One diabetes (with her permission), a story that I shared with my eighth grade students as we work on writing tributes and Note to Self narratives. My writing turned out to be a tribute to both my daughter and to one of my favorite stories, Peter Pan. My students and I are inspired by the following mentor texts:

“Go to the Ice” by Dorothy Hamill

Note to Self by Yonder Alonso

The Life of Reilly by Rick Reilly

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

CBS News Note to Self Videos. One of our favorites is this one featuring Will Reeve.

We’ve watched a different mentor video each day at the beginning of our workshop time , and then conferred about what we noticed in that visual text. The template that we’re using for recording our observations is linked below.

Our list of craft moves for our Note to Self/Tribute pieces is linked here. We’ve discussed elements such as incorporating multiple genres in one piece, using intentional sentence fragments, playing with figurative language and repetition, the importance of meaningful titles, and more.

After making this list together and practicing sentence imitation based on sentences we chose from our mentor texts using @Wakelet, and watching a series of Note to Self videos courtesy of CBS News for inspiration, we’re ready to begin drafting.

As students write their drafts, they have opportunities to confer with me AND other writers in our workshop. One of the most beautiful things about this writing is that it’s an opportunity not only to reflect on their younger selves. It’s also an invitation to thank someone who has mentored them, or to celebrate a good friend, an effective coach, or a close sibling relationship. It is one of my favorite ways to invite students into reflection and growth.

How do you invite students into reflective writing? Start a conversation in the comments, or email me at oosterheerte@pellachristian.net.

Elizabeth Oosterheert is a middle school language arts teacher and theatre troupe director in central Iowa. She loves writing, and sharing the stage with seventh and eighth graders. Her favorite stories are Peter Pan, The Outsiders, & Our Town. She recently finished writing an adaptation of Arabian Nights for performance in November 2021.

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! 

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


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.


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.


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?




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