Tag Archives: pedagogy

Want to RENEW! Get the book by @ShawnaCoppola

I have never written a book review. (Okay, maybe that’s not true. I think I remember writing one in 4th grade over a biography of Marie Curie, the first biography I ever read.)

I have never written a review of a teaching book. But I am going to try.

I am a teaching book junkie. I have stacks of them, but I rarely read the whole of them. I cannot even tell you why, and I admit there is great irony here because as I write this, I am also trying to write my own book for teachers (I have been for four years, sigh.) If I ever get it written, I hope you’ll read it.

In the mean time, I have to tell you about Shawna Coppola’s new book RENEW!

I read the whole of this book in one afternoon! Thank you, Shawna, for writing so much of my own thinking about “Becoming a Better — and More Authentic — Writing Teacher.”

Shawna’s voice sings with passion and positivity. She paints the pages with possibilities! I know, I am gushing (and that’s probably too many p’s.) But here’s the thing —

I know so many ELA teachers who do know know how to teach writing. I know many more who are not confident teaching writing. I know even more who are not writers themselves, so it’s no wonder that teaching writing is difficult. Teaching writing is hard. A book like RENEW! not only gives us a starting place, it gives us desire.

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I am doing a lot of thinking lately around the idea of transcending. How do we go beyond our limits into something more, something better, something real and sustaining?

Let me share with you some of the passages I marked in RENEW!. I think you’ll see why this book is a must read for any teacher who needs a bit, or a lot, of renewal when it comes to teaching students to write.

“. . . if we are truly willing to honor the individuality of our student writers, the RENEW!uniqueness of each community of learners, and the ever-changing nature of our global landscape, we must continually rethink, revise, and renew our practice. Otherwise — to paraphrase Dewey — we rob “today’s students of the tomorrow today’s students deserve” (10).

“Broadening our ideas about what writing “is” can be scary, as if we are opening up a Pandora’s box. But in all reality, continuing to teach our student writers through a narrow, outdated lens — one that, in overvaluing written composition, does not accurately tell a story about the world of writing beyond most schools and classrooms — harms their development as writers by limiting the kinds of composing they are exposed to and encouraged to practice” (51).

“Teaching our writers how to develop their own tools is infinitely more sustainable than using preexisting tools. Quick survey:  How many of you use the graphic organizer your sixth-grade teacher taught you to use to write a persuasive piece? That graphic organizer may have been helpful to you then (although I doubt it was helpful to 100 percent of your classmates), but how useful is it you now?” (62).

“What message or “story” are we sending our student writers with a single overall score? Not only does it imply that their worth as a writer can be whittled down to one letter or number (which itself can mean different things for different teachers and even within different units of study), but that the worth of writing itself can be whittled down this way” (73).

“. . . readers of writing are human, an done person’s response to a composition may not perfectly align with another’s (If it did, what a drab, boring world we’d be living in!)” (79).

“Which is more likely to help students learn:  offering them specific feedback about their work, behavior, or performance, or slapping a score on a piece of paper?” (82).

“. . .when we engage in a semi-regular habit of writing, we can much more genuinely speak to those incredibly fantastic moments that writers experience on occasion, like the amazing feeling of completing a particularly difficult draft or writing something that makes a reader spontaneously laugh out loud. Anyone who’s ever taught a group of students of any age knows that when we are faking our way through something, or at the very least “phoning it in” by only engaging on a superficial level with what we are purporting to teach, students can smell our lack of authenticity a mile away. They know, even subconsciously, that they are being sold a decidedly moldy bill of goods” (92).

That’s all well and good, right? But here’s the beauty of Shawna Coppola’s book — she gives us the research that supports each of her positions AND she gives charts and graphs and resources to help us rethink, revise, and renew our approach, instruction, and practice as we become better teachers of writing. This book is chock full of everything good when it comes to writing instruction. It is a book I will return to again and again.

I hope you’ll read it. I hope you’ll share it with every ELA teacher you know. Really, it is just that good.

 

Amy Rasmussen lives in north Texas and teaches AP English Language and English 4 (new prep in ’17.) She loves talking books, daughters’ weddings (two this year), and grandbabies (five). She also loves facilitating PD for other teachers making the move into a workshop pedagogy. Amy adheres to the words of Emerson: “We aim above the mark to hit the mark,” and Jesus: “Love one another.” Imagine a world if we all aim higher. Follow Amy on Twitter @amyrass. And she really hopes you will follow this blog!

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Try It Tuesday: Cite the Research that Drives Your Practice

In a session at the NTCTELA Conference a couple of weeks ago, Cris Tovani began her session asking us to reflect on this statement:  I can site the research that supports the beliefs that drive my practice. This got me thinking — not just about Cris’ inspiring session but about how we make decisions regarding the best practices we bring into our classrooms.

Do we have research that supports the moves we make as we teach our students to become better readers and writers?

It’s an important question. And for those of us who instruct via  readers and writers workshop, the research can be a powerful motivator to keep doing what we know works for our kids.

My favorite go-to research? The article by Richard Allington and Rachael Gabriel: Every Child, Every Day. They outline six easy-to-implement essentials to effective reading instruction — and learning to teach reading is not something I got much of in my education classes to become a high school English teacher. But many high school students still need help learning how to read, especially my ELL population. Every English teacher can implement these six essentials.

If you’ve never read Every Child, Every Day, I challenge you to read it. If you haven’t read it in awhile, I challenge you to read it again. Then, give yourself a quiz:  Does this research support the moves you make as you teach your students to become better readers and writers? If not, what will you do about it?

The resources at the end of the article can lead us down a rabbit hole but not take us on a goose chase. These researchers provide us with important information:  We can read about effective practices and then bring those practices into our classrooms. We can share these articles with colleagues and administrators with the hope of garnering more support for instructional practices that our best for our students — and proven to work.

If you’ve ever wondered why student reading engagement and success begin to wane as kids begin to enter middle school, read You Can’t Learn Much from Books You Can’t Read, another text by Allington.

If you teach in a low SES school like I do, you may find “The Early Catastrophe: the 30 Million Word Gap by Age 3” by Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley interesting. It’s a popular read. It might spark some thinking as to why so many of our students read far below grade level — and give you a poke in the gut to do more about child poverty.

Then, because the validity of that article sparked lots of commentary by other educators who wrote other research articles, spend some time reading “Debunking the Word Gap.” (Aha and Aha. And lots of validation for my practice. Choice and voice matter!)

If you don’t follow the blog of Paul Thomas, The Becoming Radical, you may want to. Thomas gets me thinking with everything he writes. I especially appreciate his post of yesterday: “To High School English Teachers (And All Teachers).” (Where I found the Debunking article and so much more and had to update this original post.)

Remember that rabbit hole?  I read every link Thomas shares and added to my research storehouse, tweeting links to colleagues, and I found a text by Ralph Ellison I’ll use with my AP Lang class in the fall. Bonus.

Of course, if you really want to explore and extrapolate, look up the articles Penny Kittle cites in Book Love or Donalyn Miller cites in The Book Whisperer or any other of your favorite teacher-leaders cite in their books.

It’s summer. Time to enjoy a little (not so light) reading. I promise, the research is worth it!

Please leave your suggestions for other insightful research articles in the comments.

Finding Solace in our Students

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End of the year pics with friends and books.

The shooting in Orlando this weekend has weighed heavily on my mind for the past few days; it has settled into the back of my brain, penetrating my thoughts whenever I get a moment to rest between the hectic last days of school.  While I only know victims through six degrees of separation, I can’t help but see the images of friends, family, and students in the 49 faces of those murdered.

I’m not sure if it is the lockdown drills at school that make these tragedies feel all the more chilling and real, or if it’s the targeting of LGBTQ+ populations when I, oftentimes for the first time, watch young people finding their true identities in my classroom, but this time I feel nauseous and weak and powerless.

To think that this is the world my students are graduating into and growing up in, is frightening.

But as I scrolled through the profiles of the deceased, I found a statement from the father of victim Mercedez Flores.  He wrote, “We must all come together, we must all be at peace, we must all love each other, because this hatred cannot continue for the rest of our lives.”  That is what the workshop classroom allows me to share with my students—a corner of this peace and love.  It opens a door for me to connect with them on a personal level, allowing them to find not only acceptance but also stories, understanding, and success in their books.  Allowing them to open up to new literature and explore themselves as a reader sends the message that I not only value them as learners, but I value them as diverse people with a wide variety of needs, curiosities, and interests.  This avenue may only be minor, but in the wake of all the hatred and fear, I hope my classroom is a respite from the world.  A place where students can learn to at least respect one another’s differences without judgment or condescension, a place where we can explore the difficult themes and navigate challenging conversations in safety.

IMG_2693Everyday gives me a little more hope that this next generation has begun thinking about the innumerable struggles they will have to face.  As one of my students wrote about the universality of To Kill A Mockingbird, “For an innocent man to be found guilty is a miscarriage of justice, but for an innocent man to be found guilty for being black is a result of bigotry and prejudice, and shouldn’t happen…Sadly, as seen with Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, and others, racism still does exist in this country. To Kill A Mockingbird is a constant reminder of how far we have come and how far left we still have to go when it comes to overcoming racism.”  Charlie’s words remind us that stories show us both the fallibility and overwhelming strength of the human condition.

Yesterday morning, as I prepared for my last day of classes (we still have three more days of exams), I reminded myself that teaching allows me to model a life of acceptance and love, of caring and compassion, of concern and advocacy.  It may not be much in the general scheme of things, but it is the most productive way I can handle the tragedies our country continues to face.  Between cramming in grading and pulling together final assessments, I spent invaluable time writing notes to my classes, collecting ice cream toppings for our last day parties and signing the backs of photos of my students with the books they read this year.

The best part is that the love is returned as graduating seniors from years prior show

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Ice cream parties to finish up our yearlong adventure together.

up at my door to hug me good bye and have me sign their yearbooks.  College students visit to update me on their lives, current students voluntarily help me pack up my room, and former students spend their first summer afternoon organizing my bookshelves for future students.  For all the hate that exists in this world, there is far more kindness, far more compassion, and far more love.  I know because my students remind me of this every day.

 

#3TTWorkshop: End of the Year

Conversation Starter: What kinds of reflections do you have for your year? Let’s start with celebrations.

Amy:  Before I celebrate, let me say this:  I have two whole pages of notes written on the back covers of my writer’s notebooks with reminders of what to do new and differently next year. Why is it always easier to focus on the negatives that need improving versus the positives that worked well?

Lisa: This was a year of experimentation and excitement, and my celebrations come from student reflection and collegial collaboration. Our district has a clear vision that they want to move workshop from K-8 to K-12, so it was a year of exploration. Last year, workshop loomed. We had very little knowledge of what it would look like at the high school level, so I naturally…Googled. Having read Penny Kittle and talked with a few colleagues who were already embracing elements of workshop, I was excited. I loved the idea of choice and set about organizing some notes of “how to.” I knew, as department leader, I would be tasked with spearheading the shift with my colleagues, so I wanted to have some solid ideas of how best to proceed.

Original_5000If you Google “Readers workshop for high school English,” guess who comes up? Ta-da. I had found Three Teachers Talk. Specifically, Amy’s post with resources to make the move to workshop. I had struck gold. I read. And read, and read, and shared the blog with our literacy coach, and read, and started quoting sections of the blog and taking notes, and read some more. Real teachers, in real classrooms, with honest reflections on the work. I was elated.

Our district leaders moved forward, rolling out workshop with UBD training, visits to the middle school to see workshop in action, and reviews of Penny Kittle’s key principles. And while valuable and necessary for our progress as a department, it wasn’t until February when Amy and Shana came to Franklin, professionally developed us by teaching us in the workshop just as they would their own students, and let us experience workshop firsthand that workshop really took off. The department was excited. There was wild planning, replanning, reading, purchasing of books, collaborative meetings on the fly (five minute passing periods afford more than enough time for drive-by enthusiastim). And talk. So much talk. Though we weren’t expected to make the “official” move to workshop until next year, we were all trying new things (book talking, setting up writer’s notebooks, and shopping on thriftbooks.com), seeing incredible responses from students (readers spread out all over the building and students writing something, anything, every single day), and basically diving into the work to see what would help us float.

It hasn’t been easy, but as I wrote yesterday, the small (and for some of us BIG) moves we are making have us enthusiastic about what workshop will look like across our department. It’s been a great year to grow and see some incredible enthusiasm from students as choice changed their minds about the written word and its power.

The big takeaway from workshop this year? Do it. Now. You won’t regret it.

Shana:  This was a weird year for me, and I’m wistful.  I was just telling my mom that I feel like I barely taught this year, and I think I mostly feel that way because I didn’t have a firm end of the year (I was out on maternity leave from mid-April to the last day of school).  Instead of doing reflections alongside my students, studying their self-assessments and working with them on the year-end MGPs, learning from my own thinking and my reading of my students’ thoughts, I just…slowly drifted away from my classroom and saw most of my students for the last time at their graduation instead of for a celebratory last-day-of-school photo.  It made the end of my teaching career feel really nebulous.  I hated that.

But, there were lots of great things about this year.  I looped with my students, so I began the year knowing most of their likes and wants and needs already.  I was able to dive right back into helping some of my reluctant readers find new books, help my new students assimilate into a workshop culture more seamlessly, and leap into newer, more complex writing tasks with more confidence.  I loved that so many tenets of workshop were already norms in our classroom in September–book talks, conferences, notebooks, and just book love in general.  It was transformative to begin a school year without having to gain students’ trust with the workshop model, instead having the trust already established.

And my students did and wrote and created great things.  Carleen reassured me that workshop structures made her fall in love with reading again.  Jak showed me that having choice in reading helped him advance as a reader far further than any assigned text could have catapulted him.  Tyler showed me that even the most reluctant reader can fall in love with a complex classic.  And countless other kids helped me re-fall in love with reading and writing and teaching every day in my classroom, when they had miniature successes and failures and highs and lows.  I celebrate that act of falling in love with literacy all year long.

Amy: My biggest celebrations came in the form of one-on-one moments with students. I wrote about an experience with Diego previously. He ended up writing a well-constructed
and extremely personal multi-genre piece about his brother’s drug addiction. Our final conference was a powerful moment. Diego opened up about his love for music and showed me how to find his YouTube channel. He is a talented musician. His ability with poetic language suddenly made sense. I wish I had a do over with this talented young man.  I would have done things differently.

Another celebration came from a conference I had with Emerita in the spring. She was a Screen Shot 2016-06-07 at 9.10.40 PMtough student: smart, outgoing, talkative, eager — but she didn’t like that I wanted to
push her into writing even better, reading even better. We locked horns, and sometimes her silent attitude made me feel inept and out of sorts. (I know we shouldn’t take things personal, but I struggle with this. I want everyone to like me.) Finally, in a moment of
divine inspiration, I gave students to opportunity to do some extra credit. Anyone who wanted to improve their grade could research
the work of Carol Dweck on mindset and then write up an essay that answered specifics about the characteristics of Dweck’s work and how it relates to their attitudes in school. Emerita changed after that. She understood what I’d been trying to get her to see all along:  we can always work on our craft and improve. After our conference reviewing her extra credit essay, her work improved as did her attitude towards everything we did the rest of the year. I share a copy of her conferring notes here.

What are some things you know you want to do differently?

Amy:  Well, like I said, I have two pages of notes. Some of them relate to things I’ve done successfully in the past and just forgot to do this year like taking more time to allow students to decorate their writer’s notebooks. I’ve always allotted sufficient time for students to do this in class, but I didn’t this year, and as a result, I noticed quite early on that students did not have much attachment to their notebooks. They still represented “just another composition notebook for class” instead of a place to capture ideas and notes about themselves as writers. I’ve already got NOTEBOOKS clearly outlined on next year’s calendar.

I also need to be a better Reading Teacher. That might sound strange since I teach AP Lang, but many of my students struggle with reading, not to mention critical reading. I need to utilize strategies that will help them not only read more, which I already do quite well, but read better. I’m re-reading Cris Tovani’s books, and I will introduce Beers & Probst Notice and Note next year. I’ve used both in the past, but not with AP students. After two years in this position, I’ve learned that we’re going to need to practice some basic comprehension and some thematic work before we can go too far into rhetorical analysis.

Shana:  My hubby spilled an air freshener on my notebook yesterday, so from its ruined depths I’ve turned to my “teaching ideas galore” section for this question.  The first thing I’d like to shift into thinking about is ways to write or respond to reading nonlinguistically.  For years, much of my students’ writing was about reading.  Then I shifted away from that and toward making reading and writing activities independent and celebratory, while still asking what we could learn from one and apply to the other.  I’ve kind of gone back toward writing more about reading this year, but next year I’d like to see how we might tell stories through visuals, or write book reviews in doodles, or create collages to illustrate patterns in a text, or diagram similar story arcs across independent reading books.  I’ll be on the lookout for this theme during my summer reading of journals and books.

The obvious change I’ll be shifting to is toward working with preservice teachers rather than high school students.  Still, I’d like to keep many similar structures in place.  As Tom Romano began every class with two poems, I think it’d still be valuable to begin classes with two booktalks.  Writer’s notebooks are a must, as are things like book clubs, wide reading, and writing with an eye for mentor texts.  I’ll be asking myself, though, how to prepare a new generation of teachers for the wild world of high school learning.

Lisa: Give me a second, I need to gather the seven million post-it notes I have scattered across my existence and I can tell you the six million things I am ready to improve for next year (the other million notes are on books I want to read).  

One thing I am really looking forward to is the idea of total immersion. We’ve done a lot of standards based planning around this move to workshop, and I’m excited to blend the skills focus with the choice I’ve already dipped into.

I’m also excited about the creative aspect that Shana talked about above. While more and more skills based over the years, my instruction, up until recently, had really still focused on reading and then writing about that reading. Analysis is obviously important, but there are so many more authentic, thought-provoking, student-driven assessment tools and just plain exploratory modes of expression, that I really want to delve into. To think, I taught through a few years there where poetry was almost lost in my classroom. Thank goodness I rediscovered it for mentor work and had my students writing powerful verse over and over. What amazing modes discourse will I discover next year that I will eventually be appalled to have missed before? Geek alert. I am so excited to find out. 

Finally, better time management. A wonderful colleague of mine, Mrs. Leah Tindall (co-organizer of our high school’s incredible Literary Showcase) said of this year that we were stressing out because we were trying to balance new work with an old workload. This was so true. The work I need to be doing is talking with my students, reading with my students, getting organized enough to have conferences lead to more pointed minilesson work, and provide ongoing feedback that doesn’t require every extra minute of my existence to “grade.” Certainly, workshop is no easy way out in terms of time invested, but it’s time invested differently. Time invested with one-on-one feedback at the forefront and building our students up by our own examples as readers and writers. This certainly takes time, but it does so in a way that makes so much more of an impact than just red pen on paper. It’s honest communication. It’s investment. It’s caring.

I need to stop using reading time to take attendance, and get out there and confer with my students. I need to stop putting off the reorganization of my library, because really, how can I make solid recommendations if I can’t find the book I’m after? I need to stop providing the bulk of my feedback with a pen at all and start using my ears more – feedback after careful listening and reflection. That’s what I’m after next year. I want to hear my students talk from their hearts and their minds and on paper in ways my previous teaching didn’t account for. I can’t wait to hear all that they have to say.

Do you have topic ideas you would like us to discuss? Please leave your requests here

#3TTWorkshop — Assessing Student Work in a Workshop Classroom

What does assessment look like in a workshop classroom?  #3TTWorkshop Meme

Amy:  Interestingly, I just saw a tweet by @triciabarvia yesterday that said “Growth, when ss do something better than they did before (as a result of assignment/lesson, that’s success.” In away that’s really what assessment should be, right? We should be noting growth and improvement, and celebrating successes. I think we forget this sometimes, especially in regard to what we view as assessments and students call grades. Too often we overlook the learning and focus on the 78 or the C+. (That is all most of my students focus on.)

Assessment in my classroom drives my students crazy. I think they feel like I am that elusive balloon they cannot pin down and pop. Poor darlings. I refuse to give in to the grades routine. I want to see improvement. I want to see them take the skill I know I’ve taught and then apply it — better yet, go beyond and do something clever with it. So to answer the question, “What does assessment look like?” is kind of tricky. I think too often teachers spend time assessing student work in ways that is not meaningful. We can waste a lot of time.

But if we’d plan a little differently and make assessment a natural and moving part of our learning journey, we would save time scoring work and enjoy talking to our students more. At least that is always my goal.

In my classroom, assessment takes the shape of written work:  play in notebooks or on notecards, exit slip quickwrites, and sticky note conferences, plus, of course, major writing tasks with formal and informal conferences and oral and written feedback. Assessment also shapes itself into lots of student self-evaluation: “Look at the instructions, the model, the expectations, did you meet them, why or why not?”

If I didn’t have to take grades I wouldn’t, but I assess everything all the time.

Shana:  I go back and forth when it comes to how I value process vs. product vs. what Tom Romano always called “good faith effort.”  There are students who have mastered skills important for reading and writing, but who haven’t fully committed in terms of being vulnerable and trying to advance their skills.  Then there are those students who explore powerful themes and show amazing growth in their abilities, but still can’t spell or use commas to save their lives.

Because I wrestle so frequently with this dilemma, I end up grading not on where each student is at in relationship to our academic content standards, nor on where each student is at in relation to their peers, but rather how far they’ve come since the start of the unit/school year/week.  And I do this by doing what Kelly Gallagher does– “a lot of fake grades.”  🙂

Amy: Me, too!

How do you design assessments?

Shana:  I used a lot of scantrons my first year of teaching.  Those kinds of assessments were pretty easy to make, if time consuming–long, multiple-choice tasks that were topped off by a few essays.  After a year or two of fighting with the scantron machine and my conscience when I noticed that oftentimes a kid’s essay was much stronger than his multiple choice section (or vice versa), I threw tests out the window.  I haven’t given a test in five years.

Now, I focus on designing assessments that are as unique as the units we work through.  A unit of study revolving around the exploration of complex themes cannot be assessed, well enough, in my opinion, using a multiple choice test.  So instead of trying to gauge a student’s interaction with Macbeth that way, I use Socratic Seminars.  Or projects.  Or reflections.  Or presentations.

Amy:  Yeah, I tossed out the multiple choice tests at the same time I introduced choice-independent reading. Even the shorter texts we read together as a class are worthy of much more than a scan tran. Harkness discussions and writing about our thinking allow students room to stretch a bit and show us what they really know.

I design assessments by thinking through my end game. Of course, teaching AP Lang means I must prepare my students for that exam each spring. I know my students have to write convincing arguments, synthesize sources into their arguments, deconstruction other writer’s arguments, and read critically — sometimes some pretty old texts. To design assessments means to start there and then work backwards into the instruction.

For example, I know my students must be able to synthesize sources into their arguments. So I may decide on a couple assessments — say a Socratic Seminar where students discuss three related texts. They must come to the discussion armed with questions, annotated texts, and join the conversation. Then, I may challenge students to find three more texts related somehow to the first three. Now, we move into writing an argument in which they must synthesize at least three of the texts. That essay becomes another important assessment because all along the way I’ve taught mini-lessons:  academic research via databases, proper citation, embedding quotes, transitions between paragraphs, interesting leads, combining sentences, etc.

Everything I teach as a mini-lessons gets a matching mini-assessment somewhere along the line to learning. By the time I read those synthesis essays I have a pretty good idea of which of my students understands and can apply each of those skills. I’ve conferred with them and retaught as necessary, and when I read that final paper I rarely have any surprises.

I think maybe one of the reasons I love a workshop pedagogy so much is because of the grading. It is just not the same as it was when I taught in a traditional model — it is better!

 

Do you have topic ideas you would like us to discuss? Please leave your requests here.

 

Book Talks & How To Do Them–#3TTWorkshop

 

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Amy booktalks during our visit to Franklin High School

Conversation Starter:  What’s a book talk and why do you do them?

Shana:  Booktalks are a structured way to fangirl about my favorite things in the world: books.  I do two booktalks per class, right after independent reading wraps up.  They’re a great way to transition from the relaxed reading mood of the classroom and move into the fast-paced work of critical reading and writing, but they’re also the number one change I’ve made to my teaching that has influenced how much I can get my kids reading.  Three years ago, I only did booktalks whenever the mood struck or whenever I got new books into my library, but now I do two a day, every day, no matter what–and it’s made an incredible difference.

Amy: You are an inspiration in consistency, Shana. I’ve done better at doing book talks this year than I have in the past. I try to do two a day as well — one non-fiction book and one fiction. I always seem to fall off the wagon at some point though. The demon, impending testing, pulls me to the dark side every year. I’m putting up a good fight this time around, and I have a plan to reinvigorate, not just my book talks, but the reading that’s happening in my room. Curiosity and intrigue: my goal for better book talks.

Is there a set protocol for a book talk — like length, reading a passage, etc?

Shana:  Just talking books is the biggest nonnegotiable for me.  While most days I do follow a protocol–one fiction, one nonfiction; 2-3 minutes per book; always share a passage, a brief plot teaser, and my own reading experience; try to mention a student who’s read the book–some days I just have to gush over a book that’s been recently returned, or a book I am reminded of during conference time, or some new items I’ve purchased.  Either way, I talk books every day, no matter what, which helps students become accustomed to exposure to new titles, adding books to their what-to-read lists, and hearing about trends in authors, genres, or topics.

Amy:  Remember at Penny Kittle’s Book Love class at UNH two years ago how she had everyone model a book talk? She set no guidelines other than modeling a few for us. After just a few turns, it became clear:  The best book talks are short, energetic, and introduce the book in some insightful or clever way. I try to do that.

When I read the books in my library, I look for passages for craft studies or beautiful sentences we can use as mentors. Sometimes I share those in book talks without doing the study — we just enjoy the language or listen to the voice of the narrator. I’ve started asking questions and trying to get my students to think about the topics the writers might address in the books. Just another way to get my readers to make a connection with writing.

The hardest books to book talk are the ones I haven’t read yet, but even those are doable when we show genuine excitement about the book. Why would I have a book in my library if I am not excited about students reading it? That’s a pretty easy sell in and of itself. It’s fun to get students to ask questions about the cover and to read the comments.

41drZBnWSzL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_How do you decide which books to talk about within each unit?

Shana:  This is pretty easy for me since most of my units of instruction are themed.  For reading units themed around a topic, I find lots of books about that topic, or that contribute an alternate perspective to whatever central text we might be reading.  (Example:  While reading Siddhartha and thinking about coming of age and going on journeys, Outliers, Marcelo in the Real World, The Other Wes Moore, Paper Towns, and Their Eyes Were Watching God fit right into our unit.)  While in the  midst of a writing unit, I think about books that might serve as mentor texts in terms of topic or structure, or that are written by authors who serve as good mentors in general.  Other times, I have no rhyme or reason to my booktalks, because I simply MUST talk about a new book (like Dumplin’, which I just read and LOVED and had to booktalk randomly.)

Amy:  I structure my units more around genre than theme, so my book talks are more random than yours. Hey, maybe that’s the problem with my consistency!

My students and I talk a lot about aesthetic and efferent reading. I want them to understand the importance of making connections with the books they choose to read, and lately, I’ve seen that there is a real disconnect. Just because students choose books does not mean they are making personal connections to them. This is in part why so many of my students this year are having a hard time sticking with the books they choose. Because I know many are abandoning books so quickly, I’ve been working on getting students to talk a lot more about topics and how writers approach these topics. My hope is that my non-readers will find interest in learning about things, even if they are not interested in reading for the pleasure of it.

I’ve done several book talks this year around a topic; for example, depression, which is one of my 11th graders’ favorite topics to write about this year. Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock, Every Last Word, My Heart and Other Black Holes all flew out of my hands, and I had to get more copies.

Do you ever have students conduct book talks?

Shana:  Very occasionally, I do, when it’s really authentic.  When a student finishes a book and just raves about it during a conference, I ask them to share that enthusiasm with the class.  Last quarter, I asked all students to read a challenge book and then complete their choice of follow-up activities with the book–one choice was a booktalk, and the students who shared about the titles they loved did spark some interest in their peers.  However, those booktalks didn’t go over as well as the ones that arose from sheer exhilaration, so I think my future goal will be to limit student booktalks to spontaneous ones only.

Amy:  Like you, I rarely have students conduct book talks — at least the way I do. I’ve tried, but you are right, without the spontaneous excitement about the book, the other students just do not respond the same as they do when I conduct the book talks.

However, I do have students talk about books with one another. Most of the time it’s pretty informal:  Talk to your table mates about what you are reading. Sometimes it’s a little more formal:  Speed dating with a book, which is one of our favorite ways to share books.

What are some other ways you talk about books with your students?

Shana:  Basically, I bombard them with talk about books all the time.  When I see current or former students in the halls, I ask them what they’re reading.  When they come to visit me, I urge them to leave the room with a new book.  I make lots of segues in conversations from all topics to all books (mostly because this is just what I do in real life…ask anyone who knows me).  I also share with students all the time what I’m reading, and why they might like a given book.

Amy:  We are so much alike! I love to have former students borrow books, and I talk about books with every person who will listen — and some who don’t. I also try to get students to engage with me on Twitter, using the hashtag #FridayReads to share what they are reading each week. A few students set up accounts and we follow each other on Goodreads. I love those kids! I’ve also started a favorite quotes wall, and I’ve asked students to pull significant lines that lead to theme and/or beautiful sentences that show author’s craft. Getting students to pay attention as they read, noticing how writers use language to create meaning, leads to significant improvements in their own writing. Without fail, it’s my best readers who are also my best writers. If only more students would get that.

Do you have topic ideas you would like us to discuss? Please leave your requests here.

4 Questions We Answer about Exams #3TTWorkshop

We read this tweet, and first of all, let me just say how honored we are to be included with the likes of Screen Shot 2015-12-22 at 10.44.35 AMPenny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher. The link took us to this post:  Reading (R)evolution post where we read about three high school English teachers much like us who are committed to independent reading and working hard to do right by their students. They asked about semester exams, and since Shana and I recently had a conversation that answered many of their questions, we jumped on the opportunity to share that discussion. We think our friends at Mamaroneck High School will find it helpful– maybe you will, too.

#3TTWorkshop Meme

Do you have topic ideas you would like us to discuss? Please leave your requests here.


 

What are your thoughts on mid-terms/finals and what should be on them?

Shana:  By their very nature, a lengthy exam of any sort measures a student’s fluency with reading and writing, and that’s one of the reasons I like them.  I’ve been thinking a lot this year about sustaining length of thought and what that looks like–not just thinking about one subject for a long period of time, but continuing to read and write and experiment with that subject for a long period of time.  Thus, I’ve tried to create routines that foster fluency, and a lengthy exam is one way to measure whether or not I’ve been successful with that goal.

As for the exam itself, I believe the format matters most.  If we never do worksheets with multiple-choice answers during class time, why start now?  I try to make my exam mirror our daily routines in class–there is a section for independent reading, for sustained writing, for critical reflection, and for goal setting.

Amy:  Like you, I like the idea of measuring fluency with a lengthy exam — and while I do not think one exam on any one day can give an accurate measure of a student’s knowledge, I do think that sometimes it can give us a clear picture of a student’s growth. The exam itself is only one part though. Really, it all comes down to our alignment. How tightly do we align our standards and the skills we need students to master to our lessons and to our assessments, both formative and summative, within our unit cycle? Our semester and final exams should be another extension of that alignment. Too often, it is not.

 

What does a 2-hour exam look like?

Shana:  My written exams all start with a message from me to my students–a missive that this is not an exam one can or should study for, but rather one where students have the opportunity to demonstrate growth, effort, risk-taking, and clear thinking.

From there, I separate the exam into options by subject, and for each subject, I give students a choice of three tasks to complete.  For example, subject one is independent reading, and option one is creating a video booktalk, option two is creating a themed top ten list, and option three is creating a book trailer.

Amy:  When I first moved to a workshop pedagogy, the thing I had to learn is the idea of skills-based instruction and helping students form habits of mind that relate directly to improving as readers and writers. I was no longer teaching a book. Thinking about the skills helped me choose mentor texts and design mini-lessons that would move my readers and writers. Since my instruction changed, I knew my exams had to change as well. And my exams never look the same from year to year.

In my previous district, and especially for grades 9th and 10th, which take the Texas state assessment, half of the semester exam was a common assessment created by the district. It mirrored the state assessment and could be used as a diagnostic tool to measure student growth as they prepared for the end-of-course exam. The other half of the assessment we created in grade-level teams. The second half was difficult because I was the only workshop teacher devoting time to independent reading and writing on my campus. I was able to convince my team to assess skills rather books, but even then, it was difficult to craft an assessment that reflected the practices in my classroom instruction when I was the only teacher with those practices.

A two-hour exam needs to give students the opportunity to show what they have learned about reading and writing, and I absolutely agree:   it needs to mirror the practices we do in our daily instruction, but I also think it needs to give students the opportunity to show how their mastery of those practices help them tackle the kinds of critical reading and writing they must do in their lives beyond my classroom. For example, my students read independently and for sustained periods of time throughout the semester because I want them to learn to appreciate both the efferent and aesthetic value of books –we discuss this a lot as I conduct book talks, and they discuss books with each other. We read to enjoy but we also read to learn. My students write arguments on their blogs weekly, so one option for at least part of their semester exam is to write an argument about their reading. They marry what they’ve gleaned from their independent reading with the skills they’ve learned about writing. (I often give this portion of the exam in advance since it takes time for me to read and assess, but I’ve also given it as a timed writing on exam days. Students know the specifics of what I am looking for in their writing — this ties directly to the AP writing rubric I use to assess their blog posts — so I am able to score these holistically. And quickly.)

 

What should major assessments like an exam measure?

Shana:  What makes a good reader or writer is not necessarily comprehensively covered in any set of curricular standards that I know about.  Instead of feeling obligated to adhere strictly to the Common Core standards, or our WV Next Generation standards.  Because what we value in our classroom is the process of becoming a strong reader and writer, my exam highlights process as well as product.

In addition, some things I really value, like students’ ability to talk to me and one another about their learning using specific academic vocabulary and evidence-based claims, are not measurable by a written exam.  Thus, I assess those things at other times, like during conferences, rather than during exam week.  I don’t feel obligated to try to assess “everything” on one exam–it’s simply impossible to do so.

Amy:  Ideally, an exam should allow students the opportunity to show they have learned the material, right? If our exams are cumulative, and test the acquisition of skills, students should be able to earn credit by showing mastery — or at least growth — as indicated by their exam scores. This goes back to what I said before about alignment. It also represents a big problem in what I see with “grades.” Too often students receive scores on tasks that have more to do with their responsibility (or lack thereof) than on what they have actually learned. Take this scenario:  say a student does not complete x, y, and z assignments for whatever reason. By nature of many grading policies, she receives zeroes for not doing the work instead of not being capable of doing the work. A major assessment should be an assessment that evaluates a student’s ability as it relates to what we have taught, and if she didn’t do x, y, and z, the final assessment should be a last stop measure to show she’s learned what we needed her to learn that semester.

Shana:  I completely agree with the gap between grades and ability.  The whole grade-feedback-evaluation-assessment-ability conundrum has been frustrating us for a while, I know.  Some of my students did not finish the exam by the end of the week, but I won’t hold that against them–they will take it home over break and return it to me in the New Year.  I’m not sure, really, if I ever feel confident “grading” an exam item by item.  Instead, I consider the urging I give at the beginning of my exam–deep thought, strong effort, and time spent–and give a letter grade based on how well it is apparent that the student did those things well.

 

What would your ideal semester-ending assignment look like?

Shana:  I usually end the first semester with a series of activities like I described above, but I always end the second semester with a multigenre project of some sort.

For my first semester exam, Amy and I brainstormed together how to preserve student choice, our values of having students create products rather than just complete tasks, and how to allow for the showcasing of learned skills rather than a “gotcha” mentality with new material.  In our notebooks, we jotted down ideas and I wrote this up.  I made it available to students the Monday before finals week, so they’d have about a week and a half to work on it.  I think what’s important is that the last activity is reflection and goal-setting–looking back on 2015, and looking forward to 2016.

For this year’s end-of-course assignment, I’m excited to do a spin on Tom Romano’s literature relationship paper, in which students create a multigenre series of writings focusing on their relationship with and reading of a text.  I hope to have students re-read a favorite independent reading novel and write in many genres that include reflection, craft analysis, narrative, poetry, and more.  With that end goal in mind, I have designed more written product assignments that deal with narrative and analysis than I usually do.

Amy: My midterm exam is much different than my end-of-course exam. I loved how we talked through what our exams would look like when we were together at NCTE. As you know, what you wrote up will work well for me. Thanks for sharing that and saving me the time of having to write my own. I did a few revisions, and mine looks like yours, except with one less choice of options — and it is only for 50% of the test. Students will work on it in class the week or so leading up to the end of the semester. We have a week and a half after winter break.

The other 50% will be practice for the critical reading part of the AP exam. The 90 minute block will be enough time to take a full-length practice test, important for stamina, and then talk through a few of the passages. Of course, the second portion of the exam will be more diagnostic for me than anything — although we have analyzed texts in much the same way the exam asks students to do.  I haven’t decided how, or if, I’ll take a grade on it yet — my students are all over the place in terms of their critical reading abilities, so no doubt there will be a curve somewhere. I thought about taking a grade on the level of thinking I see in their annotations, but that isn’t fair. Not everyone needs to annotate the same way to truly think about a text. What I may do is have students write a one page reflection about that critical reading test after they take it, maybe set some goals for how they want to continue to grow as a reader during the spring semester. If they are honest with themselves, this reflection would be more specific about tackling complex texts than the reflection they write about their independent reading for the first portion of the exam. (And now I am just thinking as I write.)

Like yours, my students do a complex writing piece at the end of the year, which combines several different genres of writing. For the past few years, we’ve studied multi-modal feature articles and then written our own. On exam day we present our favorite parts to the class. Here’s a few examples of students’ published work from last year. Anthony wrote “Current and Future Sources of Energy,” Maribel wrote “Beauty Unlimited and Undefined,” Bryan wrote his immigration story. These types of assessments are my favorite.

Students take ownership of their writing and take pride in their finished products. They also evaluate their writing process and give themselves their own grade. After all, they do all the work:  thinking, planning, researching, drafting, revising. They are the ones who know if they’ve accomplished what they set out to do.

Please join the conversation:  What are your thoughts on exams in a workshop classroom?

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